Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Woman King

Band: Iron & Wine
Album: Woman King
Best song: The title track is gorgeous.
Worst song: It's only, like, six songs.

I wrote a little bit on this before, but my first impressions of certain albums and/or bands are often really wrong. In the case of Iron & Wine, I thought Sam Beam's first album -- 2002's The Creek Drank the Cradle -- to be cheap, lo-fi singer/songwriter fare with a geographical placement I couldn't understand.


In my defense, I did see potential in Beam's work, if I remember correctly. I loved his voice, but the first album felt (and still feels, sometimes) half-done, with tape hiss and poorly-recorded guitars. Our Endless Numbered Days added a few instruments later and Beam's melodies, references and arrangement sounded much better.

Of course, I&W's third album was a revelation. It remains one of my favorite albums of this decade (screw you, Pitchfork, for leaving "The Boy With The Coin" off your stupid list.).

Not to retread the point, but The Shepherd's Dog is an extension of an EP he recorded a few years before, the subject of this review. Woman King begins with a thumping, clapping singalong and ends with a circling, muted kaleidoscope of a song. In all points between, Beam mostly sings of the fairer sex with a biblical tinge, one of his strengths. Passionate while still intimate, it is a wonderful prelude to Beam's best work.

Indeed, Lilith is a figure in mysticism, supposedly Adam's first wife. She wasn't too down with being the lesser sex. As written in The Alphabet of Ben Sira:

After God created Adam, who was alone, He said, 'It is not good for man to be alone.' He then created a woman for Adam, from the earth, as He had created Adam himself, and called her Lilith. Adam and Lilith immediately began to fight. She said, 'I will not lie below,' and he said, 'I will not lie beneath you, but only on top. For you are fit only to be in the bottom position, while I am to be the superior one.' Lilith responded, 'We are equal to each other inasmuch as we were both created from the earth.' But they would not listen to one another. When Lilith saw this, she pronounced the Ineffable Name and flew away into the air.

You can imagine how that went down.

Nevertheless, the song's lyric backs up this reading:

Garden wall of eden, full of spiderbites and all your lovers.
We were born to fuck each other, one way or another
But I'll only lie, down by the waterside at night

The song's circular guitar line is gorgeous over Beam's hushed vocals. In it, he sounds like he's singing directly at the listener, an intimate vocal as ever.

"Jezebel" similarly exalts a biblical villianness. While the titular character has become a synonymn for "evil woman" in modern culture, Beam empathizes with her:

Who's seen Jezebel?
She was born to be the woman we could blame
Make me a beast half as brave
I'd be the same


I have a friend who is a similar fan of Iron & Wine. She was in town recently and we discussed my love -- and her not-love -- of The Shepherd's Dog. Her reasoning is the earlier I&W stuff is better.

And while I disagree with the sentiment, I can understand it. Let's say I loved The Creek Drank the Cradle and found some comfort in it.

Like any relationship, shit changes. Sometimes, it's mutual -- Death Cab for Cutie and I will always have We Have the Facts, but those days are over -- and sometimes, it's not.

I fell in love with I&W and grew with the band. I&W and I went through a lot; there was college and post-college. There was a Postal Service cover. There was stuff happening. I think I did my part as a fan.

And then shit changed. I&W did something different. The relationship changed.

Woman King is a different thing. There are pieces of familiarity, but it's different. Just as going to dinner at a familiar diner with an ex feels like a rerun, "Jezebel" sounds like something from earlier records. It's watching TV with a head on a shoulder. It's the accidental use of a pet name.

But, ultimately, "Freedom Hands Like Heaven" or the title track or "Evening on the Ground (Lilith's Song)" are different. I&W has a new boyfriend or doesn't want you or is in a different place. Familiarity, while easy and comfortable, is not what you think it is. It's different.

Maybe you cry and maybe you yearn for the past. Maybe you pout and search for signs of the past in the new. Maybe you convince yourself of clues that really mean nothing. Maybe you think you're happy that things are different. Maybe you convince yourself that you love the new sound. And maybe you do.

And ultimately, you move on. You see the old records for what they are and you lament the change. But, you move on. Because you can't make a band be something it is not anymore.

You don't really have a choice.


I love Woman King. My relationship with the band is such that we evolved in a lovely way. Some of that is an evolution in my character. With so many bands -- Elliott Smith, Death Cab, Cat Power, etc. -- I thought the previous efforts to be the only ones worth my time. I didn't grow with the band.

Woman King, to me, is I&W's second-best release (after The Shepherd's Dog, of course). It's a short bit, but a great one.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Stand Ins

Band: Okkervil River
Album: The Stand Ins
Best song: "Lost Coastlines" is one of the best songs of recent vintage.
Worst song: "Blue Tulip" isn't great.

God, I love language. I love the intricacies in the way we use language. I love the way we describe certain things. I got into this fray on my old RS project when I criticized bands for being derivative, while saying others showed their roots or whatever. A commentor took issue:

To recap: The Chili Peppers suck because they're derivative, repetitive, non-intellectual and populist. That goes double for CCR. Paradoxically, ZZ Top is great for all the same reasons.

This Benner character is absolutely right. The nuances of that stuff are hard to explain, but I love the idea that language can be manipulated in that way.

Anyway, "pretentious" and "hipster" are two of the dirtier words around. In reality, both have more pleasant synonyms ("literate" and "edgy," respectively, though both miss the stereotypes). Calling someone "pretentious" -- especially in regards to music taste -- is a kiss of death. Being a hipster is a more of an aesthetic situation.

I've been called a hipster thrice in my life, all within the span of two months. I would welcome this, were I an actual hipster. For one, I've never tried cocaine and I take no illicit drugs. Moreover, I'm not vain enough to be a hipster (though I am vain). Third, I'm too old. Hipsters stop being hip, I think, around age 25 or 26. I'm 28 and most of my friends are my age or a little older. Fourth, I'm not very smart or well-read. I have two journalism degrees, for Christ's sake. I took two English classes and read -- in my free time -- short story compilations or (as I am currently reading) 600-page histories of the white nationalist movement. Fifth, I hate NPR. Sixth, my favorite bands, while sorta indie, are either mostly instrumental hard rock (Mogwai), a defunct progressive rock band that is nearly synonymous with stoners (Pink Floyd) or Tortoise.

Also, I'm too bulky to be a hipster. I've got a gut and I lift weights as part of my fitness routine.

Look, I understand the hipster accusations. I like mass transit, I eschew action movies and blockbusters. I enjoy irony. I like indie rock, microbrews and Mad Men. I wear Chuck Taylors and buy organic. I am trying to better myself by reading. Again, I'd gladly be a hipster in the same way I'd gladly be handsome.

I am neither.


Okkervil River is a pretentious band. You could even call them hipsters. The band is named after a short story by Tatyana Tolstaya and Will Sheff (the brains behind the operation) was an accomplished rock critic. He has a whole song on The Stand Ins ("Singer Songwriter")accusing someone else of being kind of pretentious and in doing so, cites a list of references that only an English lit major would know. I mean, Sheff is the guy who, in a 2007 interview, said this:

At the beginning of last year, I had just returned from a long tour and I was sort of feeling a little bit like music didn't really have any more surprises for me.

(Emphasis is mine)

Does that make The Stand Ins, Sheff or the band pretentious? Yeah, it probably is. Sheff's idea of a double album about popular culture and show business turned into this and the band' previous album. The Stand Ins is darker than The Stage Names, hitting the suicide of porn star Savannah ("Starry Stairs") with softly sung vocals and a low end guitar line. Augmented by a powerful organ, Sheff asks "what do you think this world is made of?" early in the song, echoing the woman's desperation.

"Pop Lie" has the acoustic guitar/Cars-esque keyboard juxtaposition found on so many indie rock songs of recent vintage. An easy trick, yes, but an effective one. The cynicism of the lyric belies the pop standard of Sheff's croon. The chorus is standard pop fare, albeit done better and smarter than most.

Like the Decemberists, Okkervil River uses references to its advantages, though without the hassle of annoying vocals. As mentioned, "Singer Songwriter" is a call out of hypocrisy (while being hypocritical), referencing The Kinks, some French playwright, some German silent movie, the bible and Angkor Wat. "Bruce Wayne Campbell Interviewed on the Roof of the Chelsea Hotel, 1979" makes reference to the glam rock artist turned lounge singer, with reverence to Campbell (a friend of the band).

Much of the album deals with the life of a musician, always hairy territory. "On Tour with Zykos" is a straightforward song about, well, touring. Moreover, the best song on the album is one that makes metaphor of the sea, "Lost Coastlines." The song's use of "boat trip as band relationship" can easily be misread into a romantic relationship metaphor, as Sheff intones about "that light that you love might not shine."

The song is about 45 seconds too long, with the las taking over the final minute. Nevertheless, it's a wonderful dual vocal between Sheff and Jonathan Meiburg's wonderful baritone. The interplay is fantastic and the song's midtempo romp is about as enjoyable as music is.

Pretentious or not, it's a great record.


As part of the album's release, the band had friends cover songs from the record. One of those covers has the New Pornographers' A.C. Newman pairing with Sheff to do "Lost Coastlines."

Sheff can't totally nail Meiburg's low register, but, still. Awesome.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Marry Me

Band: St. Vincent
Album: Marry Me
Best song: "Now Now" is the best song of 2007.
Worst song: The album trails off at the end, actually.

Here's an idea I've recently had, being that I have some friends getting married/just married in recent weeks. Though I am currently single, let's assume I'm dating a woman from Irkutsk, Siberia who now lives in the DC area. Let's say we met in college. And we got engaged.

So, let's say I proposed. Here are the five normal options, wedding-wise:

  1. Have the ceremony thing where the couple currently resides. No decision, really. Either neither family is pissed off or both families are pissed off.

  2. A destination wedding. I have a family friend who got married at Disneyworld. Seriously. This happens a lot. My sister, I believe, thought about doing it.
  3. Have the ceremony thing where the bride and groom met. With all due respect to Columbia, I don't know that I'd want to be married there.

  4. Have the ceremony thing where the bride or the groom were raised. I'm not really interested in going to Siberia. Chicago is sort of an option.

  5. No ceremony. This is my preferred option, though with the knowledge that I will probably never get married.

So, all of those make some sense, but here's my idea. Why not pick a random city on the map? Like, if my bride and I decided we were going to get married in Islamabad, why not? Or Davenport, Iowa?

This is related to the old idea of a woman changing her name when she gets married. I have a real problem with that -- your name is your identity and she shouldn't subliminate herself, etc. -- but I do understand the need to create unity should the couple want to create a family. This resides in the theory of combining names (Johnson and Ferrarri becomes "Johnnarri" or something) or hyphenating them.

So, my theory would be to just pick a name totally outside the couple's nationality or ethnic heritage. So, for myself and my Siberian bride, we could be the, like, Perezes. Why not?


Anyway, about the album. Marry Me is a great record, if only for the labum opener, "Now Now," probably the best song of 2007. It is here:

Also, the album is named after Maeby saying "Marry me!" on Arrested Development, arguably the best TV show of all time.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

You Forgot it in People

(Original cover)

(Reissue cover)
Band: Broken Social Scene
Album: You Forgot it in People
Best song: "Stars and Sons" is great. "Anthems for a Seventeen Year-Old Girl" is popular.
Worst song: Not really. The album is all pretty great.

I've spent the better part of two weeks exploring the range of Judd Apatow's film and TV work, spurred by his latest film, Funny People (see friend of the site Brad's take here).

Apatow is a guy with an eye for talent, no question, and I find much of his work to be entertaining, though I wouldn't say he's the genius others find him to be. Funny People is my favorite of his work and I did not find it to be some great work.

Relationships are the core of Apatow's work and there's something to be said for that. When you're in a relationship, you don't notice all the entertainment that is based around the various parts of relationships. Everything seems to have a relationship conflict portion of it. It's just part of the game in TV, movies, etc. Music is a little easier to deal with, but, nonetheless, if you want to think about something other than relationships, good luck.

Often, it's comforting. Other times, not as much.


I'm still friends with two of my three ex-girlfriends from high school. One, in fact, is probably my closest friend in the world (non-canine division, of course). The other is someone I've turned to for support and is a close friend.

This information is just to contrast with what follows and makes me wonder if it is, indeed, impossible to be friends with someone you date after the age of 18. Or maybe it's just me.


This has little, if anything to do with You Forgot it in People or Broken Social Scene. I'm not going to go over the band's gestation/history/lineage here, but rather will direct you to our good friend Wikipedia to see the contributions of Emily Haines, Feist, et. al. Needless to say, "collective" is a great word for the 15-piece band.

Nevertheless, I think about BSS for a couple of reasons; it occupies some places in my mind. One of those reasons is that I saw the band in 2004 in support of this album. I saw it with a girl who eventually became my girlfriend; a girl I dated for a few months, actually.

This particular girl is now engaged and, I think, will be married pretty soon. I say "I think" because I don't know. We do not communicate in any way. This is someone with whom I spent a lot of time for a period of almost three months. This is someone who, theoretically, cared for me a bit.

I do not speak to this girl. She doesn't speak to me. I imagine I did something to her in the post-breakup that made her unhappy; that seems to be my M.O. Nevertheless, we're no longer friends on Facebook, she's out of my Google Talk friends list, etc. (All steps she took, by the way, seemingly all at once.) I don't care enough to contact her to ask why this all happened, so we remain out of communication.

That case is less strange (Tragic? Sad? Weird? I really don't know how to describe it...) than the case of the girl with whom I've had the most serious relationship in my life. She and I dated in college, then for a bit after college. She stayed with me here in D.C. for a few months after she graduated college. I visited her abroad during our senior year. In India.

This is someone to whom I professed my love often; indeed, she's someone I truly loved. She's someone I referred for a while as "the one that got away." Though our relationship didn't end in a fireball as others of mine have, she is the person that I've put the most of myself out for. She's someone for whom I thought about the most after we broke up and the person for whom I thought the most about while we were dating. In describing our relationship -- both while it was going on and afterward -- I always used the words "magical" and "spark" and "chemistry."


We all grow and -- to quote my favorite songwriter -- "situations get fucked up" and nothing lasts forever and whatever. For a great many reasons (many Ross-based, I'm sure), that relationship ended.

We don't have an incordial relationship. When my closest friend passed away, I e-mailed her to tell her. She called me to see how I was. I e-mailed her in the winter and she sent me a very nice e-mail back. We're not enemies. I can't speak for her, but I have no animosity toward her (though, there were some hurt feelings in the immediate breakup). We're just not in one another's lives. She's in a serious relationship. I've been in a few relationships, both serious and not, since we broke up.

I have not seen her, physically, since before we broke up.

I want to say that distance means a lot in this case. She lives a few hundred miles away. But, really, I have friends from HS who live in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles... And I keep in contact with them, albeit more sparingly as each year passes. E-mail is effective for that sort of thing, not to mention cell phones.

(I'll say this in both of our defenses. I don't talk to my closest friends more than once every few weeks. I talk to my mom once every 7-10 days and she carried me in her womb for nine months, then cared for me throughout my childhood. So, outside of my coworkers, I don't keep in that close contact with anyone. No one does.)

I don't see the need to include her in my life. She doesn't see the need to include me in her life. I could make more (as in "any") effort. She could do the same. It seems to be an unspoken agreement, not of unpleasantness or of anything other than the busy life that comes for a 28-year-old.

We've moved on.


But, then again, do you realize how very fucked up that is? Forgetting the sexual stuff (no small thing, considering I only appear shirtless for doctors and girls I date), I cared so much for these people (the latter far more than the former, but, nevertheless). I spent a lot of time with these women and now? Nothing.

I have friends I hung out with in HS, friends I hung out with in college and I don't talk to them. They're out of my life. But, I never told them I loved them. I never made out with them. I never talked to them multiple times a day, slept in the same bed, talked about the various vulnerabilities I had. I didn't cry in front of my college friends. They weren't there when my parents split up. I didn't visit them across the globe.

Look, I understand the nature of these situations -- this is growing up. But that doesn't make it any less strange and less tragic.


Facebook makes for some strange connections, no question. A HS ex-girlfriend (the one I am not close friends with) found me there and she's married with a kid! I'm still friends with my serious college ex and -- assuming she updates it, though I don't know if she will -- I imagine I'll find out about her engagement/marriage/life/etc. through Facebook.

Nevertheless, it seems odd to me that I'm not friends with exes anymore. I've had enough navel gazing for a bit (yeah, right.), so I'm not going to write it out here as to why I'm like this. But, nevertheless, it's sad.


Maybe the memory of these people is more effective than actually keeping contact with those people. I'd rather my exes remember me as I was during the relationship -- hopefully in the initial getting-to-know-you and "falling for you" stages rather than the all-too-inevitable "Ross is creepy" stages. In the case of my ex from college, I'm not much of anything right now as compared to when I was in college (for reasons, see this).

Maybe I'd just rather have memories.

And maybe that's the single saddest sentence laid down on this site.


The ability for music to be stapled to a person, place or experience is its greatest addition to life. It can evoke a feeling more than speech or the written word. It's why movies use popular songs to back up scenes. It's why "Needle in the Hay" plays as Richie Tenenbaum opens up his wrists.

There are plenty of songs that bring back memories -- happy, sad, etc. -- simply by hearing them. Beck's "End of the Day" makes me cry whenever I hear it (reason sorta here) and Miles Davis' Bitches' Brew. I'll always think of certain KCOU people when I hear Superchunk. A specific face appears in my head whenever I hear "Revolver," and, actually, You Forgot it in People.


Again, this all has little to do with Broken Social Scene's second record. It could apply to any record. You Forgot it in People is one of the most critically acclaimed record to have been released in the early century, with nearly every critic agreeing that it is a masterpiece. Kevin Drew, Brendan Canning and seemingly half of Toronto made a record that Pitchfork gave a 9.2 rating. Pitchfork has described the band as having "grand instrumental swells, mumbly singing, and all things guitar-y and heart-wrenching and heart-on-sleeve."

Similarly, BBC described the album as such:

Imagine Godspeed You! Black Emperor actually writing coherent pop songs or if Sebadoh decided to jam with about 20 other musicians from labels such as Sub Pop, Kranky and Thrill Jockey on some prog rock covers. But...you can imagine this almost on Top 40 radio. It's that good.

The hooks on You Forgot it in People are undeniable. "Pacific Theme" oozes along with a short guitar melody, eventually turning to a horn to lead the way into a fully arranged band. "Looks Just Like the Sun" has a hangdog guitar line, minimal lyrics and a chorus to die for. "Almost Crimes ((Radio Kills Remix) / Broken Social Scene)" is a cacophony of voices, guitars and a pounding Keith Moon-esque drum bit. "Cause=Time" is a guitar churn that evokes the best of 1980s post-punk. "I'm Still Your Fag" is decidedly sedate, as easy vocals abound and a picking guitar slips into the background.

Looking at iTunes, the most popular song from the record is "Anthems for a Seventeen Year-Old Girl," not a surprise at all. The record features Haines (Metric's driving force) seething sarcasm and youth as a violin drones, echoing her beautiful alto. While repetitive, it builds on itself, showing an emotion that fills the entire record.

"Stars and Sons" -- featured in Ryan Fleck's excellent Half Nelson, a film for which the band curated the soundtrack -- is a one-tempo jaunt with dual vocals singing of an uncertain future ("This way we'll know, how far to live on"). The song is the album's highlight, with the increasingly arranged keys, vocals, guitar churns and clapping hands all pushing the song along.

There is a reason You Forgot it in People is so popular. It's great.

Friday, August 7, 2009

No One's First and You're Next

Band: Modest Mouse
Album: No One's First and You're Next
Best song: "Autumn Beds" is great. "Perpetual Motion Machine" and "Satellite Skin" are probably the best songs on the EP.
Worst song: "History Sticks To Your Feet" isn't great.

I should like Modest Mouse a lot more than I do. The band used to do a certain type of music really well; angular guitars, intricate drum lines and quirky lyrics dotted Modest Mouse records. Always compared to Built To Spill (a favorite), the band plays music I should enjoy. Since the band's maturation and move to a major label, Isaac Brock and Co. have gained more genre work and now use banjos and brass to augment Brock's songwriting.

I never got into Modest Mouse (as much as I should, I guess) because of a bunch of different things. Brock had a reputation among my college radio station friends as being something of a prickly individual with little use for our little Midwestern burg. Similarly, his vocal delivery always seemed like a bad cop of Stephen Malkmus crossed with Bob Dylan (neither a good vocalist). So, I've never really struck with Modest Mouse.

Still, I have a few of the band's records and I certainly fancy Brock a good songwriter. Despite his vocal problems -- "Float On" would be one of my favorite songs if not for Brock's singing -- Brock has a knack for putting together interesting guitar lines and mind-bending lyrics.

The band has gone through several changes since I last really looked into it (college). The drummer left and came back (the band now has two drummers). Johnny Marr of the Smiths somehow is now a member. The band has collaborated with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and had a number one album. They were up for some MTV Awards a few years back. It's all very strange.

No One's First and You're Next is another EP of the band's b-sides and rarities from the last two albums, 2007's We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank and 2004's Good News for People Who Love Bad News. It's a fine group of songs that continues the band's streak of music I should like. Only this time, I like it more than I probably should.


AV Club's Josh Modell brought up a good point in his review of thise record: Modest Mouse's (arguably) best song came from a Modest Mouse rarity compilation. "Never Ending Math Equation" is the band's greatest work.

And so goes No One's First and You're Next. The songs on the record are decidedly Modest Mouse-ish, with Brock attempting to lullaby listeners on "Autumn Beds," while wailing on them on other songs. Indeed, "Autumn Beds" is one of Brock's best melodies and a ton of wonderful soft(ish) arrangement. "The Whale Song" is one of Brock's most epic pieces, spanning six minutes and a few changes.

"Perpetual Motion Machine" features the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and their contribution gives the song a circus feel that the band has moved toward. Lyrically, it's a creepy look at mortality that brings up the "Is Ike Brock really crazy?" question that seems haunt him whenever the band plays a show. The midtempo stomp of the song never lifts off, but it remains a wonderful move into a different genre.

The album opener and highlight, "Satellite Skin," has a has his growling lyrics played over a xylophone, all leading into a Built To Spill-ish guitar lead line. The lyrics ("Was it easier to say than was actually done?") reflect Brock's distrust and his vocals provide an easy spark for said distrust. The guitar work is among his best and the song. The video's bizarre stop-motion animation (here, directed by the guy who used to do Tool videos) provides an eery image party for the song.


"King Rat" is sorta famous for having a video directed by Heath Ledger (well, partially. He died before it was finished.). It's a fun song, the type of song wherein Brock's shouting overpowers the normally great guitar work. Banjos begin and trumpets flare, the song rolls like a gunshot and it continues to build throughout the 5:30 of the song. The violin line is somber and evocative.

The video (click here because I can't embed it) is pretty grizzly, with whales commanding a, uh, whaling ship that spears humans to be ground up for seal food. Proceeds from the single go to an anti-whaling organization (which, by the way, is needed. That shit is horrifying and whales are going to go extinct if we don't do something.).


I'd actually say that No One's First and You're Next is better than Modest Mouse's last effort, We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank. It's fuller, with better melodies. Brock's singing takes it down a notch, but as a songwriter, he remains strong.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Deltron 3030

Band: Deltron 3030
Album: Deltron 3030
Best song: "Virus" is great. The Sean Lennon-assisted "Memory Loss" is exquisite. The title track is great.
Worst song: "Time Keeps On Slipping" isn't strong.

Despite their being mostly just pains in the ass, I consider myself a fan of the concept album, up to and including rock operas. I love an artist that has the stones to try and tell a cohesive story -- or group of stories or whatever -- through rock music. It almost always fails -- for every Tommy or Animals, there are 100 Operation: Mindcrimes and American Idiots. Nevertheless, the heyday of the rock opera -- the mid-70s era that gave us Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, Ziggy Stardust and Quadrophenia -- is a pretty fun period.

Hip hop is, by nature, a storytelling genre. The genre experienced its greatest developments during late 1980s/early 1990s when gangsta rap painted pictures of inner city life. Evolving since, the genre has branched out to different places.


Cousin to Ice Cube, Del tha Funkee Homosapien is a peripheral star in "backpack" hip hop. Unlike the subgenre's darlings, Del doesn't normally do much in the way of social commentary, but rather rhyme about daily routines, housing situations or dudes with bad hygene. Del's records are smart, but in an everyman, stoner-seeing-things way. As part of the Hieroglyphics clique, he did interesting records about everyday life, smoking weed and traveling.

In short, he's talented and very likable.

Similarly, Dan the Automator is a bit of an oddball himself. Though he's fallen off the map a little, his work in the late 1990s/early 2000s is a portrait of a master. His Handsome Boy Modeling School collaborations with Prince Paul are fantastic and the first Dr. Octagon record is, far and away, Kool Keith's best work. The Gorillaz record, though overplayed, is wildly fun and the Lovage record is smooth.

Automator's signature is a beat structure that moves somewhere between smooth (Lovage, some of the Handsome Boy stuff) to creepy and doomy (Deltron, Dr. Octagon). Augmented on Deltron 3030 by Kid Koala's amazing turntable work, Automator's beats shine.


Of course, being a concept album/rap opera, Deltron 3030's story isn't really clear. It seems to mostly be a futurologist study in a totalitarian/corporate government in place in the 31st century, with Deltron Zero as the hero of the future. Deltron Zero battles against institutions on "Upgrade (A Brymar College Course)," tries to recruit the young (and battle apathy) on "Things You Can Do" and fight technology on "Memory Loss." Like Terry Gilliam's dystopian futures, Deltron 3030 gives us a bleak picture.

The title track sets the scene:

I used to be a mech soldier but I didn't respect orders
I had to step forward, tell them this ain't for us
Living in a post-apocalyptic world morbid and horrid
The secrets of the past they hoarded
Now we just boarded on a futuristic spacecraft
No mistakes black it's our music we must take back

Seven minutes later, we learn that "half the world's a desert" and ""Cannibals eat human brains for dessert." Indeed, it's The Road with better writing.

The album's narrative is loose, but Del's charisms and Automator's beats make it entertaining. "Virus" is infectious, despite its calls to bring the United States back to a technophobia utopia wherein all records are "converted to papyrus." "Positive Contact" has a dance beat and a stutter-step chorus. "Mastermind" has Del touting his ability to save humanity and "Madness" takes Dark Side's notion of insanity via technology and puts it over a breakdown beat.

The album drags -- sixty minutes is probably too long for this concept -- and the skits seem to be solely there for the purpose of getting friends on the record (the singer from Crash Test Dummies, Damon Albarn, Money Mark, etc.). But, the album is probably Del's best and second to Dr. Octagonecologyst in the Automator catalog.


I've been listening to this record a lot for a few reasons. For one, I have a friend who has an almost Luddite view of economies and is a big supporter of a move back to tribal situations for humanity.

Moreover, I have been reading Slate's excellent pieces on the possible end of America (home page here). A lot of the notions perpetuated Deltron 303 are possible scenarios. Seriously.

Now, I won't live to see most of this stuff, but the prospects are fucking scary. I'm not in the same camp as my friend -- localism is great, globalism is great, some combination is best -- but, damn, this shit is scary. The example that dovetails with the record (specifically, the song "Virus") is the Live Free or Die Hard scenario: What the hell happens if a computer virus wiped out the entire finance sector?

(I can't even function when I lose network service for my iPhone. My cable went out last week for, like, an hour and I was going to have a nervous breakdown.)

The Slate series really brings up some scary possibilities. Global warming, no question, is going to fuck with us royally. One scenario has the Great Plains becoming a giant desert. Another has New York swallowed up by the Atlantic. God knows what'll happen to my digs of DC.

My point is this: Humanity is pretty well fucked. Awesome.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Shake the Sheets

Band: Ted Leo and the Pharmacists
Album: Shake the Sheets
Best song: "Me and Mia" and "Little Dawn" are the two best songs on the album.
Worst song: "Criminal Piece" isn't perfect, but still pretty good.

Punk rock isn't a genre I adore. There's a certain immaturity inherent in even the most mature Green Day record that turns me off.

That's not to say I listen to incredibly mature, thoughtful music. I don't. I listen to a lot of mostly immature music. I listen to a lot of immature, silly music. But, for whatever reason, punk rock doesn't appeal to me.

Ted Leo's version of punk rock is more mature, more nuanced and more interesting than most. It's not musically complex, though not as simple as the Sex Pistols or Ramones of the world. Leo's guitar work is cutting and sharp, with minimal silly riffing and even less power chording punk nonsense. Instead, he uses small riffs and trills to melodize. The rhythm section is easy and tight. "Me and Mia" is a drumming shock, with starts and stops aplenty, while "Heart Problems" has the drumline of a Rush song on mood stabilizers.

The main attraction, though is Leo himself. His slightly nasal, certainly distinctive voice runs through all the songs. Sustaining longer than normal, he cracks live and hits pleasant high notes as well as anyone of his gender (see his Kelly Clarkson cover here for an example). His shouts on "Heart Problems" contrast only with his falsetto optimism. "The Angels' Share" has a nice guitar line and a jazzy rhythm.

"Walking to Do" is a sweet lyric, sung with Leo's charm. The album's title track shows off Leo's politics fully, a skill he's acquired later in his career. Leo also noodles on his guitar fully, approaching Superchunk status.

"Me and Mia," though veiled, is a song about eating disorders, palpable and sarcastic. "Do you believe in something beautiful" bites, despite Leo's affable drone. The guitar line is fast and fun. It's probably the album's best song, if not for "Little Dawn." "Little Dawn" is sunny and pretty, with a driving guitar riff. The coda has Leo repeating "it's all right" over a full band repeat of the riff. Catchy and fun, it's Leo's best work.


The basis of this particulary site is for me to write about albums I enjoy. I've mentioned the concept of "driving albums" a little here, but my full feeling on it is that there are few albums that I can enjoy, front to back. Driving albums are the ones I am always in the mood for. They're the ones that can make a drive seem shorter. They're the ones I don't need to skip around on.

(When I moved out here, this turned into "Metro albums." The first Metro album, Pinback's Blue Screen Life, was the one I enjoyed while taking the Metro from the Washington Post to the end of the line in Gaithersburg. It's about an hourlong ride. Blue Screen Life remains a favorite because it was my companion through that time of my life.)

Shake the Sheets is a driving album. It's an easy album to get lost in. The songs flow from one to another.