Monday, September 28, 2009

Tropics and Meridians

Band: June of 44
Album: Tropics and Meridians
Best song: "Anisette." Hands down.
Worst song: Nope.

Maybe this is foolish, but I sometimes wonder if Wikipedia is the real measure of something (anything, really) and its q rating. If something or someone has a Wikipedia page, it truly exists in the world. If said Wikipedia page is of some substance, it is truly popular and is (or has been) on a lot of people's radar.

Maybe that's common sense, but Pink Floyd, for example, has a really big Wikipedia page. And the Floyd page is considerably more detailed than, say, that of Camera Obscura.

This can be somewhat troubling to me. Tortoise's page isn't anything to write home about. And today's subject, June of 44, hardly has a Wikipedia page at all.

It's like one of my favorite bands never existed. That's upsetting.


I've seen two bands twice in one week. Calexico was one, though the second show was a CMJ showcase show, so the band only played a short set in the second show of the week.

A few years earlier, though, I had seen June of 44 twice in one week. It was my freshman year of college and June of 44 was one of my favorite bands. The band had released the sublime Anahata -- a record I'd reviewed for a local zine as a high schooler -- the previous spring and was touring it across the United States.

So, a sophomore friend of mine asked if I wanted to see June of 44 in St. Louis on a Monday. Though I had a fair amount of work to do -- really, not a hurdle for me as I was never a good student -- I said I'd do it. So, we drove the two hours each way to the Side Door, a little club in a shitty neighborhood in St. Louis and June of 44 fucking rocked.

Cut to Thursday and the same guy asked if I wanted to see the band again. I remember thinking that this was a very odd thing to do; we would be driving 150 miles the other direction to see a very similar show in another town.

I'm not sure why I did it. It might have been the freshman mindset, that anything was possible now that I was a college man (not boy. Man.). Maybe it was the fact that I knew I wasn't going to drive. Maybe it was my wanting to impress someone with some pull at the radio station -- he would become Program Director the next year -- by being up for seeing a band I'd just seen. Maybe I knew that I wasn't going to drive and could sleep on the way back from the show.

The sets were similar and I don't remember much in the way of greatness. June of 44 was a methodical band live. They rode their steady music like the force that it was. Anahata isn't the record it should be -- after all, June of 44 liked to branch out -- but those shows were worth it. What an experience.


I came to Tropics and Meridians in a way that I really dove into independent music. My junior year of high school, I took over the music director position at our station. Fueled by WNUR and a love of Chicago's scene, I borrowed and taped everything that was on Touch and Go's distributed labels (Merge, Quarterstick, Thrill Jockey, T&G itself, Atavistic and Drag City).

Tropics and Meridians was selected solely because it was on Quarterstick Records. Full of nautical references -- the whole band seemed to be based on such references -- T&M is stilted and amazing. It has hard-charging drums, crazed vocals and angular guitars.

Indeed, the "single" was "Lusitania," a song named after a famous downed ship. Whispered vocals turn into screaming, taking a Slint-esque approach to a crescendo as the guitars dance around one another to a climax. Dynamics rule the song.

"June Leaf" shuffles, but breaks into two guitars using harmonics to create a lead guitar line, while the quick drum line edges. The dual vocals bring the song up and down. Shifting rhythms mean math rock on this record.

"Sanctioned in a Birdcage" is crazy, with a yelled/spoken lyric over guitars that fall between harmonics and angular riffs. Rhythmically, it dances around the drumset with a steady backbeat.

The album's highlight, though, is its opener, "Anisette." Nine minutes of a looping, hummable bass line ends up with the band shifting time signatures and loudness. The band starts and stops around a riffing guitar and a screaming Jeff Mueller. It's intense, to say the least.


God, did I listen to a lot of T&M in high school. I love Four Great Points, the band's follow up. But, man, you'll never forget your first. T&M was my first exposure to June of 44 and one of my first entries into indie rock.

I had two June of 44 t-shirts, one I bought at a show and the other I bought through Touch and Go's mail order catalog.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Fleet Foxes

Band: Fleet Foxes
Album: Fleet Foxes
Best song: "Ragged Wood" is fun. "Sun it Rises" is a great opener.
Worst song: "Meadowlarks" isn't particularly good.

Requested by a friend, my opinions on this record are far too late. Fleet Foxes was the most critically acclaimed album (non-Tha Carter III division, of course) of 2008. Pitchfork named it the top album of 2008. It's one of the records that has kept Sub Pop relevant, critically and financially. The band has appeared in festivals and on Saturday Night Live. Almost everyone agrees, this album is amazing.

It's not to say that I disagree; Fleet Foxes is a great, great record. Meticulously produced and arranged, the record is lofty and pretty. It's full of appegiated guitars and layered vocals and...

Well, that's it. The vocals are the driving force in the record. For all the band's skill at constructing Love-esque soundscapes, the vocal style is what sets Fleet Foxes apart.

This is not always a good thing. The band's harmonies get very old by the end of the record, but in each individual song sound lovely and moving. Vocals, all too often, are meant to convey message, whereas the Fleet Foxes use vocals as an additional intrument.


Maybe I'm just promoting my own time to important status, but it seems like the postmodern world is becoming increasingly obsessed with nostalgia. We seem to be so tired of modernity that anything echoing something old is seen as attractive.

There are scores of Web sites -- run by women -- promoting Mad Men's protaginist Don Draper as the perfect man, largely because he's uncommunicative, philandering and tortured. There's no question that the modern man is not perfect and the 2009 idea of masculinity is no great thing, but the 1950s man was, um, not great. But, it's old and therefore, must have been better.

Indeed, Fleet Foxes and Mad Men are good analogues. Each is considered the best of its medium and are so overhyped that actual interaction left me disappointed. In another, less-hyped world, I probably would've loved this record and that show. But, instead, I find myself thinking "well, it wasn't as good as I was told."

Fleet Foxes has tinges of Summer of Love sounds in it. The folk of "Ragged Wood" is pleasant, but hardly forward-thinking. It could easily double as something from the back end of the Nuggets box or a Zombies record.

That's not to say it's bad; it isn't. "Ragged Wood" is amazing and the best song on the album. But, it's not super interesting. Just because Fleet Foxes' influences are 40 years old doesn't make them so much better than, say, Band of Horses (influenced by bands from 10 years ago). Fleet Foxes likes the better Grateful Dead records, Phish likes the crappy ones. I could go on.

Nevertheless, Fleet Foxes remains an excellent collection of music. The album opener builds as well as any record. For a folk band, it drives strongly and showcases that vocal style. "Quiet Houses" has an almost circular guitar line that builds into another vocal breakdown/acoustic guitar thing. The single, "White Winter Hymnal" keeps a pretty boring midtempo beat the entire song, borrowing a the shuffle from the Shins' "New Slang." "Blue Ridge Mountains" has the band working a more subdued place, with sparse drums eventually building to a timpani-sounding expanse by the end of the song.

There are colors of the past everywhere. The album artwork reminds one of a renaissance painting. The original Pitchfork review -- mistakenly, I'd say -- mentions that one song " could be a field recording sung by a small-town congregation 50 years ago." That's not attractive to me, but the stilted drums on "He Doesn't Know Why" move the song along as well as a record with more modern influences.

Like Mad Men, the hype is mostly deserved. It's a lovely record, but best taken in small doses.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


I mentioned it this last week, but I've started a -- very poorly recorded -- podcast. The URL for the podcast site is There, you can listen to the first two episodes -- one of me introducing myself and the other with an actual live human guest. Of course, you can also e-mail me (rjgianfortune at gmail dot com) if you'd like to be a guest. You could talk to the Internet about anything you'd like.

This week's guest is Tony Bowman, who is a lovely human being who runs D.C. Live Tracks, a Web site featuring, uh, live music recorded in our great city.

Again, I cannot stress this enough: If you'd like to be a guest, I would love to talk to you. Please e-mail me and we can figure out the details.


I use Podbean to do the podcast. It automatically generates the feed and whatever. It's not perfect and, like, Blogger, has some weird constraints. The way I'm doing it is not free, but it's got the features I need. Including embed.

I haven't figure out the art -- I don't think I can do that yet. The site's design sucks, but so does this one. If you care about that, I apologize.

So, if you want to listen to the podcast, you can do so here. You can also do so on the podcast site, where you can also comment, e-mail me, read the links and e-mail me. Take a look.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Let's Get Out of This Country

Band: Camera Obscura
Album: Let's Get Out of This Country
Best song: "Tears for Affairs" is brilliant.
Worst song: "If Looks Could Kill" isn't great.

It's of no surprise that Camera Obscura's first album was recorded by Stuart Murdoch of Belle and Sebastian. Seemingly, every writeup of the band has a reference to the shared Glasgow hometown and similar sound of the bands.

However, on the band's third album, Camera Obscura somehow became a more interesting band. Removing male vocalist John Henderson from the mix made for a great record. Wrapped in Swedish production and a more widely spun worldview, 2005's Let's Get Out of This Country is a brilliant collection of indie pop music.


Just an aside here, and one often repeated on this site. I fell ass backwards into listening to this record. I was a subscriber to eMusic for a few years -- and no, they don't pay me to extoll their virtues, especially considering I'm no longer a custome -- and one of the grand joys of eMusic was the ability to take a flyer on an album.

I'm not the world's biggest B+S fan -- I've seen them live, but talk more shit on them than anything else -- but Let's Get Out Of This Country was so wildly praised in the music press, I took a flyer on it. When you have 90 downloads a month, spending 10 on some Glasgow indie pop band is no big thing.

And, like many of my non-Mogwai eMusic downloads, I barely listened to the record for almost two years. Certainly, my Rolling Stone project was a factor in this; I was listening to so little new music that I tabled most everything not on that confounded list.

Cut to last fall.

I had started dating a girl; I was totally enraptured in her in that way that only the "getting to know you" way can bring. In those initial stages, I promised her a slew of mixtapes and found myself searching my collection for stuff she'd not heard.

One of the finds was Let's Get Out of This Country, specifically the romp that is "Lloyd, I'm Ready to Be Heartbroken." Written as a reply to 1980s Glasgow band Lloyd and the Commotions' hit "Are You Ready to Be Heartbroken?," the song dances around a sweet guitar riff. In it, Tracyanne Campbell -- no relation to Isobel Campbell, formerly of B+S -- begins the song with a flourish:

He said “I’ll protect you like you are the crown jewels” yet
Said he’s feeling sorrier for me the more I behave badly I can bet.

Like the rest of the record, "Lloyd, I'm Ready to Be Heartbroken" is a song about failed love and misery. In the case of the title track, this misery is directed at one's lot in life. Feeling restless, Campbell's lyric speaks of a wonderful love in need of a relocation. She repeatedly asks, in her sugary sweety voice, "What does this city have to offer me?

Built around swirling strings and a lead guitar line that takes as much from chamber pop as it does from Dick Dale, "Let's Get Out of This Country" is a hummable, lovely track.

Exploring the band's different influence seems to be a pasttime on the album. The album closer, "Razzle Dazzle Rose" works a horn and jangly guitar into the mix, while a skiffle drumbeat moves the song along. "Dory Previn" is a hurt love song set against a hopalong-on-quaaludes beat.

The highlight of the record, is similarly, gorgeous. "Tears for Affairs" is led by an organ line so catchy it should be illegal. Campbell's more accessible lyric -- "you had to drive, look me in the eye" -- falls over said organ and some background harmonies as the song builds. An accordion falls in and out, while Campbell cries into her beer over a lost love. Taking a competitive -- read: male -- look at the breakup, her anger belies the record's tender-while-still-upbeat arrangement.

It's a song -- and an album -- that doesn't drive into new lyrical terriroty, but uses the band's strengths in a different way. Interesting and new, Let's Get Out of This Country is Camera Obscura's best record.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out

A note: The Albums That I Own podcast has started, sort of. I've posted a two-minute intro podcast. In it, I just recount what I do, what the podcast will be, etc. The podcast site is here. If you would like to be a guest on the podcast or have a topic suggestion for it, please e-mail me (rjgianfortune at gmail dot com).

Anyway, back to the reviews.

Band: Yo La Tengo
Album: And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out
Best song: "Cherry Chapstick," "You Can Have It All" and "Let's Save Tony Orlando's House" are among the band's best songs.
Worst song: "Night Falls on Hoboken" is about 10 minutes too long.

There are new bands to be discovered. There are bands that recreate themselves a million times. There are bands that engender passion and those that spawn a million other bands.

Yo La Tengo isn't really any of those bands. Having produced top-quality Independent Rock for going on 25, the trio's various rock sounds have been the backbone of intelligent college radio people since the mid-late 1980s.

The husband-and-wife-plus-fat-friend formula is not one that's been copied, but it remains classic. Using atmospherics, dual vocals and quirky flair, Yo La Tengo remains one of the genre's stalwarts.


As is a constant on this site -- especially lately -- I want to get into my own personal experiences with this band.


My freshman year of college (hell, just about my entire college experience), the station was my life and indie rock soundtracked said life. So, when I found out that Yo La Tengo was coming to Columbia during my spring break, I had to see the show.

There is something of import to remember here: non-frat freshman almost always live in the dorms during their freshman year.

A friend (also a freshman who lived across the hall) and I drove down from Chicago to Columbia a few days before the weeklong break ended. However, we didn't realize that the dorms were locked and inaccessible during the spring break. The show was Friday night. Drew (my friend) and I had nowhere to stay Friday and Saturday night.

The first night, we saw a friend with an open couch and a roommate's bed to sleep on; I remember it being the most uncomfortable couch on which I've ever slept. But, it was somewhere to sleep. His roommates were back for Saturday night, so we had no idea where to stay.

One of the things about college radio is that there are often open shifts during breaks. So, geniuses that were were, we decided to sleep in shifts at the station -- KCOU had a horrifyingly uncomfortable couch-- and the other would work the board, play music, etc.

It was a fun time and one I'm really glad I had. That's college, you know? It's doing stupid shit and enjoying it.


Yo La Tengo's ninth album is considered by many -- as in our good friend Wikipedia -- to be a change in musical direciton, but I'd more consider it an expansion of their previous album, I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One.

That album's "Sugarcube" is one of the band's best songs, with an uptempo craziness. Indeed, And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out's similar song is moreso. "Cherry Chapstick" is longer, more insane and better, with Ira Kaplan's guitar sounding like Ken Vandermark's sax. "Tired Hippo" uses a little drum machine and a tropical bass line to much surprise. "Tears Are In Your Eyes" is slow and lovely, with a Georgia Hubley vocal to die for.

Outside of "Chery Chapstick," the album's two highlights are decidedly different. "You Can Have it All" -- a cover, originally written by the guy from KC & the Sunshine Band -- is a background-y arranged track with an ABBA-esque vocal. Kaplan's "bum bum bum bum ba bums" fill the track as Hubley intones the sweet disco lyric.

The other great song is one of the reasons I love this band. "Let's Save Tony Orlando's House" is a song, but is also a line from one of the three best television comedies ever (it was a Troy McClure-hosted telethon). That there is a band out there willing to name a song after a line in the Simpsons? And a good band, not some crappy emo band from my high school that made it big after naming itself from a character?

Anyway, "Let's Save Tony Orlando's House" has a driving keyboard lead line and another of Hubley's best vocal tracks. Hubley's voice is one of YLT's best aspects; it's slightly powerful while very soft. An easy drumline and a great lyric ("We proudly welcome/Tony Orlando") make for one of the band's best songs.


OK, one more thing about this record from my musical biography or whatever.

I applied and was accepted admission to the University of Missouri without every visiting the campus. All I wanted to do was get the hell out of my parents' house in any way I could. So, the second MU gave me the go-ahead, I said "let's do this."

Anyway, as mentioned before, I was raised -- musically, that is -- by my high school mentors' tastes and WNUR. Missouri, as a state, seemed to me to be a backwoods nowhere state, but it was more important to me to get out of Dodge than actually care about what eventually became my passion. In short, I had no idea if MU had a college radio station.

To make a long-story somewhat short, I did a registartion weekend thing there during the summer (the famed "Summer Welcome" many MU students will remember) and there was a KCOU booth at the activities fair. I was heartened to know that this Southern -- anything south of Peoria is the South to a Chicagoan -- outpost had some people interested in Thrill Jockey, Matador and Sub Pop.

Fast forward to the winter.

A few of us go-getters implored the dudes we worshipped at the station -- Tony, John, John and Ryan -- to let us on the music staff. The new Yo La Tengo record, And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out, had been sent to the station and instead of handing it out to one or another senior music staff member to review -- SOP for even huge albums -- the PD (one of the Johns) decided to have a listening party thing at the house he rented. We got a bunch of beer, listened to the record and passed a legal pad around. The next week, he would type it up and those notes would be the official review.

I probably had one sentence in the thing; I didn't feel like I had any particular insight on the record. But, I'll say this, it was one of the three best moments of my freshman year of college (the other two being the first kiss with my then-girlfriend and the time she sorted through all the Chex I like out of the Chex mix and gave it to me as something to eat on the drive home to Chicago).

At the onset, I was constantly worried about my place within the station. I initially felt like I didn't belong a little and I felt like I wasn't pretentious enough because I only listened to big indie stuff (YLT, Pavement, etc.) and stuff from Chicago (Thrill Jockey, Touch & Go, etc.).

But, sitting at that little gathering, I felt like I belonged. Forget the fact that it's the band's best record, And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out is tremendously important to me simply for that.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009


Band: Ryan Adams
Album: Heartbreaker
Best song: "Come Pick Me Up" is a great song. "To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High)" is a nice little song. "Winding Wheel" is gorgeous.
Worst song: It's all pretty good.

As mentioned many times before, I am not a fan of twang. While I enjoy my fair share of No Depression stuff, I was raised on classic rock (specifically, the Beatles), so I don't migrate to it immediately.

Indeed, when I'd heard about the record in college, I was not too into the idea of it. I wasn't a Whiskeytown fan, but the other DJs at our station -- KCOU may be a college station, but it was one of the first stations to embrace Uncle Tupelo, so this type of music has always been in KCOU's DNA -- fell in absolute love with the record. At the same time, a close friend of mine decided she was totally into the album.


Heartbreaker is Adams' first solo record and it's the best thing he's ever recorded. Outside of a few songs ("To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High)" being the operative one), it's a mostly slower-tempo record full of scarred love songs. "Damn, Sam (I Love a Woman That Rains)" is sparse and pretty, with a minimalist arrangement. "Oh My Sweet Carolina" features a lovely Emmylou Harris vocal. "My Winding Wheel," like the best love metaphors, was supposedly inspired by a breakup.

It's a lovestruck record, one forged in Adams' home of North Carolina. Like his beloved south, Adams is slow, classic and deliberate. He doesn't swirl strings around like Wilco or try to go back to a place that never existed. Indeed, he simply writes some pretty fucking sad songs.

Adams has a strong voice and an equally strong band. He rocks out("To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High)"), he tries to be Dylan ("Why Do They Leave?") and he strips it all away to don his Neil Young hat ("To Be The One"). It's a striking dance between influences and it makes for a great record.


And then, there's "Come Pick Me Up."

Recently named as the 285th best song of the decade (for whatever that's worth) by Pitchfork, the song is a soft-tempo dirge with an undeniable hook. I've been thinking recently that all great songs have one or two simple arrangement things. It's the simple revolving keyboard on "Tin Cans and Twine." It's the bells of Jens Lekman's "Postcard to Nina."

"Come Pick Me Up" has a simple banjo line that boxes in the chorus. It gives the song character, but backs up Adams' tortured vocal and an easy drum line. It then works with the harmonica driving the post chorus flood. Working a Pixies dynamic, the banjo goes silent for the verse, only to pick up again when the chorus arrives.

And that's all leaving out the exquisitely simply lyric.

Adams begins the song asking questions about the keepsakes we've all put in a box in a cabinet, only to pull out a week later with tears in your eyes. Adams encapsulates it well, singing of a "favorite sweater/with an old lover letter."

Or the pleading questions of "Do you wish I was there? /Do you wish it was me?" Or the notion that a walk downtown is one that would remind the girl of him. Sarcasm drips and he finally asks her to sleep in his bed in the bridge, singing "I wish I could," reminding the listener of the recent breakup and the sleepless night.

The chorus' hook is undeniable to a rock snob, as Adams recounts the High Fidelity idea of a breakup:

Come pick me up.
Take me out.
Fuck me up.
Steal my records.
Screw all my friends.
They're all full of shit.
With a smile on your face.
And then do it again.
I wish you would.

Desperate and gorgeous, it's not complicated. Like the rest of the record, it's raw and emotional, but beautiful.