Saturday, December 24, 2005

Here today...

(This is one of those entries I started weeks ago and put aside for paying work; haven't had time to flesh it out, but if I don't post it soon, most of its contents will go away.)

A celebration of ephemeral things. Seek these out soon, or they will be gone (if they're not already):

1. Discovered a couple of iTunes radio stations in the “holiday” channel that are worth a listen if you go for that kind of thing—and I realize many, many people do not.

“A Capella Hoiday” is exactly what it sounds like—not too cheesy, a few curveballs. (Warning: “It’s a Small World” was played at one point, which was my cue to head to...)

“Xmas in Frisco” -- the real find. A couple of nice traditional songs done in nice straightforward manner, but also LOTS of parodies, weird versions, Hannukah & Kwanzaa carols, even anti-holiday songs. Punk and old school rap coexist next to soundbites from Bob Newhart and various Simpsons characters. “Christmas in Hell,” sung to the tune of that song the Whos sing after the Grinch is captured and re-educated, was an instant fave, along with a hilarious ditty about gift exchanges sung to the tune of “Do You Hear What I Hear” in which the title line becomes “Didn’t I Get This Last Year?” I also enjoyed a medley of a calypso hanukkah song and a reggae version of "I have a little dreidel" attributed to "Konecky, Wilde," which sounds like a law firm to me. Oh, and a beautiful Durutti Column oldie, "Snowflakes," and a "Teddy, the Red-Nosed Senator" which was so exquisitely performed that I could overlook the right wing slant. Warning: unlike your average holiday station, this one sometimes merits an NC-17 rating--and if that ain't enough to get you to tune in, I don't know what is.

If you don't want to access it via iTunes, you can go straight to the Soma FM site, which is worth a trip any time of year, since their regular stations are also supercool. (Mostly electronic stuff in various subgenres--IDM, ambient, etc.)

2. The very enjoyable MP3 blog "Locust St." has already run a series of posts saluting certain years. Now it's moved on to a compendium of songs about alcoholic beverages. Here's a long, detailed one on wine and another on coffee, for instance, but there are others on beer; additional spirits to come. The eloquent words will remain, of course, but the song samples will disappear shortly (if they haven't already).

3. I sure hope David Byrne's entire radio station does not disappear! This rant regarding the RIAA's response when he devoted a month to the songs of Missy Elliot could be a scary sign of things to come--not just for him but for everybody else who is making creative use of the internet to promote music. Grrrrrr. (Now playing on RadioDavidByrne: "Rednecks, Racists and Reactionaries: Country Classics"--although I'm sure that particular playlist's days are numbered as of this writing.)

I've got more to say on other gone-in-a-flash online offerings, but I'm way late for a Christmas Eve get-together, so let me just wish you all a merry whatever and a jolly fill-in-the-blank. See you real soon.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

The year in song

(This wrapup entry has been sitting in draft mode for weeks now, along with mental notes about several concerts I meant to write about over the last couple of months. Time to wrap it all up in ONE EXTREMELY LONG ENTRY and move on with my life.)

Thanksgiving weekend means three things around these parts, beyond the obvious:
1. Happy birthday to my friend Matt.
2. Christmas music can now enter the home rotation. (More on this later, but let me just put in another plug for that new Brian Wilson album one more time.)
3. Time to name the winners of the Ehmke(e) Awards for the past year.

I will spare you the long explanation of what the awards are all about since you can read it in my 2004 post if you really care. Suffice to say that these tremendous honors are not about what I think is the "best" work of the year (I really, truly don't believe in ranking stuff that way, particularly since I like a huge range of stuff all over the musical map that can't easily be compared). No, they're about the music that affected me the most during a given 330-or-so -day period: songs and albums I, er, can't get out of my head. The stuff I will look back on in later years as defining this particular moment in time. Doesn't even have to have been released during the calendar year in question. Got it? Here goes:

SONG OF THE YEAR: a tie... (okay, they're ALL ties this year)
Feist, "Mushaboom"
Animal Collective, "Leaf House"
Matt Pond PA, "Snow Day"

The first has got to be the catchiest, happiest ditty I have heard in a long time. I've never listened closely to the lyrics but I gather it has something to do with domestic bliss in a small town in Canada. Musically, it has everything to do with waking up on a cold but sunny day and being totally okay with whatever it is you have to do, even embracing it. At least that's what I get out of it, and I love it.

The second song is the first one I heard from Animal Collective after hearing about them from Arto Lindsay, and it may still be my favorite. (Although their new album, feels, like Sung Tongs before it, is full of beauts.) No idea what this is "about"--the MP3 blog where I originally found it mentioned something about a cat--but from the opening blast of distortion to the lovely strummed guitar that follows, into the meowing part, it's just genius.

Song number three I heard on the local college radio station and then raced off to the local indie record store to purchase. I felt so ... 1989! It is a perfect gem and I want to write more about the EP it's from at some future date. Just promise me you will devote a portion of your life to Matt Pond until then, okay?

Feist, Let It Die

Words cannot express how much I love this recording and marvel at its diversity. I've heard two different friends say they couldn't make it through the whole thing because "it all sounded the same," and while I normally trust at least one of these people, I think they both need to get their hearing checked. Frankly, if everything here sounded like a variant on the aforementioned "Mushaboom," I could still die a happy man--but my god, you get a nearly a capella murder ballad (with creepy electric guitar), a little Bacharach homage, a radically revamped BeeGees cover, a brilliant Ron Sexsmith tune, a campy French chanson, it's soft pop, it's hard rock, it's multiple shades in between--what the hell do you people want?

Honorable mention: Andrew Bird, The Mysterious Production of Eggs

This only gets "honorable mention" because I was tangentially involved in writing publicity stuff for the album, and that fact may lead you to distrust whatever I have to say about it. As well you should. But try and take my word for it: I would be gushing about this thing even if I didn't get a dime from it. (And a dime is about what I made, since I forgot to invoice anyone, as is my wont.) I'd probably gush even more, in fact. This time I will let the music speak for itself, because I just realized that you can listen to a stream of the whole album right here.

Animal Collective @ Soundlab
Feist/Magic Numbers @ UB's Center for the Arts

I've already raved about two of these artists above, but lemme just say that their live shows managed to transcend their wonderful albums. That Feist murder ballad I mentioned? Lifted to an entirely different level of the stratosphere when performed onstage with an effects pedal and percussion. (One of the references I neglected to drop when trying to describe her up there was the divine Mary Margaret O'Hara, probably because it didn't really sink in until I saw the concert. Feist doesn't quite walk the same tightwire of near-chaos, but like MMOH she has a great voice and a phenomenal band and makes brilliant use of both.) The Animal Collective show was just jaw-droppingly brilliant. I started to write about it here shortly after I saw it back in April, but never managed to finish the entry without frothing at the mouth. Watching these four guys create such unclassifiable music, balancing the bizarre and the irresistible, inspired me more than just about anything else I did all year.

As for the Magic Numbers, what a pleasant, pleasant surprise! I'd heard one passing mention of them somewhere or other that sounded intriguing, but from the very first notes they played, I was sold. And each song was as good as the last, if not better. I have a major soft spot for soft rock of the sixties and seventies, and these guys (two thoroughly charming brother-sister pairs who are way too young to have lived through the era) have got it nailed. But their compositions aren't just easy pastiches; they tend to shift gears midsong, in that grand "Day in the Life"/"Good Vibrations" tradition--which isn't something I normally like--and they pulled it off beautifully.

I feel obliged to point out that the Feist/Magic Numbers show was not supposed to be the main attraction that night; no, the headliner was Bright Eyes, an entity which continues to baffle me and everyone over 25 with whom I have ever discussed him/them. I DON'T GET IT! I could go on and on about this, but today's post is a happy one, so let us not linger on such sour matters. To reward you for reading this far, here is one of my signature crappy cellphone photos of Mr. Eyes and various of his bandmates joining Ms. Feist and her band for a spirited rendition of the Song of the Year:

This was The Year of the Opening Act, if you ask me. Shortly before the BE/F/MN show, I went to a Liz Phair concert at the same venue--not to see Ms. Phair, whose latest incarnation is another mysterious and unpleasant phenomenon about which I could go on and on--but for Matt Pond PA. The Pond boys and girl were in the unpleasant situation of playing to a "crowd" of maybe 50 in a venue that holds a couple thousand, but they totally rose to the occasion, even inviting all of us to join them for a beer after the show. I've got three or four of their albums (though not the latest), love almost every song of theirs I've ever heard, and still I did not know the majority of their setlist, so I was treated to one new find after another. More on them later, as promised.

The night before MPPA/LP, Kathleen Edwards was headlining the Town Ballroom, and I was at least as excited, if not more so, about seeing The Old Sweethearts, whom I'd just witnessed playing a killer set at my friends Susan and Marty's wedding. Alas, we arrived just in time to catch their final chord and the words, "Thank you, goodnight." However, surprise of surprises, there was another opener--Luke Doucet--who blew my socks off. Pressed for time, I'm simply going to describe him as School of Tom Waits (complete with a bitchin' Waits cover) and quite reminiscent of Andrew Bird as well, although he doesn't seem to know the latter. OK, that does NOT do justice to this guy (nor do his studio recordings, from what I've heard of them), so maybe I'll try to say more some other time. I should also note that Ms. Edwards herself was actually quite fine, although I wasn't quite as enamored of her as most of my colleagues in attendance. Here, allow me to share another unfortunate photo:

The real purpose of this particular picture, FYI, was to document the cuteness of the band member standing to her left. (Better pictorial evidence of the entire ensemble can be found in the "photos" section of Edwards' website.) At one point, Edwards explained that she and the boys were in the middle of a tour opening for My Morning Jacket. (In fact, we were the ONLY city where they didn't play together, dammit, and I am punishing MMJ for the slight by omitting their transcendent performance with Wilco in the parking lot of the Albright-Knox this summer from my Concert of the Year list. THAT ought to teach them a lesson they won't soon forget!) The MMJ guys are a hirsute bunch, so Edwards' band decided not to shave for the remainder of the tour, which led to some lovely facial hair displays I enjoyed even more than the show itself. (Sorry, a fetish of mine; we'll get back to music in a minute.) The cutie in the photo was voted Most Likely to Be a Hit with Gay Men, if I remember correctly. Mission accomplished!

One more award, and we're done...

Okay, I know what you're expecting for this one, but I'm gonna pull a fast one and go with...
Death Cab for Cutie
Shocking, isn't it? But this was the band whose many albums (and one well-known side project) occupied the most hours of my listening life this past year, I think. I picked up used copies of 3 early CDs sometime last spring, and have been playing the hell out of Plans for months, too. The voice, the sound, the songs: it's all of a piece. And it's the sound of 2005 for me.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Welcome to the working week

I'm in the middle of a pretty action-packed week for music here in Buffalo--and, alas, a pretty action-packed one on the work front, which means I haven't had time to write much about any of it here, let alone the many albums I've acquired lately. A few quick notes must suffice:

1. Last Thursday was the annual John Lennon tribute show at Nietzsche's. I didn't see much of the actual concert since I was busy elsewhere in the room with the Real Dream Cabaret's re-enactment of John and Yoko's Montreal Bed-In for Peace. (Celia White has posted some images of the entire night on Flickr, and if all goes well we should be adding some to the Cabaret site soon, too.) Anyway, I could hear the main show over the PA, and there were many fine moments (along with the usual straightforward cover-band versions that never do much for me). Too sleepy now to be able to name names.

2. Last Saturday the same venue sounded completely different during a late show programmed by Pam Swarts. When we arrived, the front stage (site of the Bed-In two days earlier) was the setting for some nicely minimal glitchcore stuff by GregGreg, who'd rigged up something thereminlike on his keyboard which multiplied the effects he was able to get with a wave of his hand. (Sorry I lack the vocabulary to describe this accurately, but it was pretty impressive to watch.)

Next on the bill was Dimetrodon, who have played in Cabaret shows a couple of times over the years, although they've definitely evolved (in a really good way) since then. The flyer described their sound as "honest-to-goodness surf klezmer," and that seems about right to me. It's all-instrumental dance music, and they packed the floor. (The only cover I recognized was Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet's theme to Kids in the Hall, which I always liked more than the actual series.) I think my friends who loved the music in the film version of Everything is Illuminated would enjoy these guys. I also hope they tour someday, because I want more people to hear what they're up to. As always, pardon the super-crappy cell phone snapshot:

Pam herself ended the evening with her latest band, Weather Machine, a trio on the more accessible side of her aesthetic. I've always appreciated Pam's comfort with both weirdass experimentation and fairly straightforward rock--that's something you don't see very often, and she's got both the musicianship and the voice to pull it off. "Hey, Ron," you now ask, "Didja happen to take a crappy cell phone picture of Weather Machine?" Ah, but of course:

3. Earlier tonight, an outstanding triple bill at the UB Center for the Arts: the Magic Numbers, Feist, and Bright Eyes. I hope to say more about this one later, so let's plunge boldly into the future:

4. This coming Wednesday--Thanksgiving Eve--two of the most highly praised new(ish) Buffalo bands will be playing at Mohawk Place: the Old Sweethearts and Sleeping Kings of Iona. (The first people to arrive evidently get a newly minted CD of rareties, which is pretty exciting, given how great the two Sweethearts albums are.) Of the two, I've only seen the Sweethearts, though I continue to hear great stuff about the Sleeping Kings, and this one is high on my list. Alas, I missed the Sweethearts when they opened for Kathleen Edwards a month back, since they played way earlier than I expected--but, again, that's another evening I plan to write more about sometime when things calm down.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Monday, November 14, 2005

Ten Cents a Dance

One good thing--probably the only good thing--about the current phase of endless changes in playback technology is the fact that stuff in outmoded formats gets remaindered at rock-bottom prices. I made out like a bandit when record stores got rid of all their vinyl in the late eighties, and the buck cassette has been a mainstay in my car for years. So imagine my delight upon discovering a bin of ten cent--yes, ten cent--cassettes at my local Media Play this past weekend. There wasn't a whole lot to choose from: lots of cassingles (I just love that word), British rap of the 80s, generic punk, etc. But for two dimes I walked home with a couple of interesting wild cards.

One was Angelus, a 1994 album by Milton Nascimento.

I haven't really heard that much of Nascimento's music, but based on my limited exposure I tend to agree (as almost always) with Joe Sixpack's assessment of the guy in his Brazilian Music Guide, and his mini-review of this album is right on the mark: Plenty of Milton's trademark falsetto ululations, framed by predictably lite fusion-pop. Several big name guest stars, including jazzcats Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny, Wayne Shorter (and others) as well as Peter Gabriel, James Taylor, etc. Some interesting arrangements, but nothing that he hadn't done before. Most pretty cheesy.

There's an offbeat cover of the Beatles' "Hello Goodbye," and the song that J.T. guests on ("Only a Dream in Rio") at least starts off pretty nicely. (I was heavily into Mr. Taylor in my youth, but lost interest around the time he and Carly Simon split up and I discovered punk rock.) Several of the songs on side one of the tape are pretty okay, and I'm sure I'll listen to them again, but the longer the album goes on, the more grating it becomes. Maybe it will grow on me. My friend Heather is a big Milton fan, along with much of the music world and the entire nation of Brazil, so I'm willing to keep an open mind, but so far I don't get it.

More appealing by far was/is Byron Lee and the Dragonaires & Friends, Vol. 1. (There seem to be three volumes in all.) This one's part of a series called "Jamaica's Golden Hits: The Best of Ska" on the Jamaican Gold label, focusing on the transition period between 50s R&B and early-60s ska.

I was pretty sure I recognized Lee's name from various compilations, and the cover art looked promising. Turns out, according to the All Music Guide entry on Lee, he was once the best-known Jamaican musician in the world, even making an appearance in the first James Bond movie, Dr. No. When the first-wave ska craze died down, he fell out of favor (and probably never had that much street cred to begin with) and spent the rest of his career doing covers of popular tunes of the day, from ska to rocksteady to soca.

The compilation I picked up is slightly weird, in that it's a mix of originals, covers, and selections where the original instrumental track has been paired with a new recording of a soundalike vocalist. This explains the opening selection, a cover of Millie Small's "My Boy Lollipop" in which Small has been replaced by what sounds like the Chipmunks. But the oddness is not too distracting; in fact, it's part of the charm. I love the lo-fi quality of the recordings, the energy level is great (and I say this as a man with little or no interest in the great Ska Revival Revival of the mid90s), and it's packed with catchy tunes. Can't wait to take a road trip with this on the car stereo. I was not familiar with the song "Oh Carolina," but fell in love with it immediately, thanks to the innovative use of an aerosol spray can as a percussion instrument (at least that's what I think is going on). There's also an instrumental version of "Ring of Fire" with a different name (actually, only the chorus was "Ring of Fire;" the verses might have been something entirely new). This was particularly intriguing since I first heard it on the way home from watching Walk the Line--a movie I intend to write about here, and soon. But I digress.

All in all, the best expenditure of twenty cents since ... well, I can't really think of anything else that cost that little in years. (A comic book circa 1967? A call from a pay phone in 1979?) Every time I buy a pre-recorded cassette, I figure it may be the last. If that turns out to be the case, I'll have gone out on one high note and one falsetto ululation. Not bad, not bad.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Brother Love's Travelin' Salvation Show

(I just posted two fairly long entries, so here's a shortish one--timely info included.)

My friend Ed has a strict rule about not playing any Christmas music until the day after Thanksgiving, and I try to honor that, too. Lord knows the season will be here before we know it--but I just wrote a review of Brian Wilson's brand-new Christmas album, which is a beaut, and I feel compelled to pass along two hot BW tips to those of you who might appreciate them:

1. There's a really swell nineteen-minute making-of-the-album promo video available on Brian's site. Here's a link to the high-speed Quicktime version, and you can find several other high-and-low-speed configurations on the site if that one doesn't work for you. I'm pleased to say that Brian's touring band, one of the best live outfits I've ever heard, is prominently featured on the album and the video. (Confession: I have the hots for guitarist Jeffrey Foskett. But honest: the whole band is incredibly good, and they're such a perfect match for Wilson's talents that it's great to see them continuing to work together for a period of years.)

2. The always-handy and entertaining e-mail newsletter put out by my pals at New World Record here in Buffalo informs me that Brian and Neil Diamond will be joining forces on Jay Leno's show this Monday night, November 14. This seems like the kind of thing that could either be really, really good, or really, really not, but I'm watching either way.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Head Games

So there I was, a few days ago, raking leaves and listening on my Walkman to Gal Costa's 1969 album (one of two eponymous releases from that year, confusingly enough). Now, if you're not familiar with Ms. Costa, you need to know that she was one of the major forces in the Tropicalia movement (and has continued to release music of varying styles and quality ever since--as always, Joe Sixpack's Slipcue site has a great intro/discography). I've heard her described as the Janis Joplin of Brazil, which is only useful, as far as I can tell, as an indicator of her energy level and perhaps her standing in her home country during the sixties. But trust me, Janis never recorded anything anywhere near as wild as this album. I doubt that many people on any continent have: the songs shift from pop-py Burt Bacharach-style arrangements to ear-shattering screaming, guitar feedback, distortion, reverb, you name it, usually in midsong. I'd say the album art does a fairly good job of conveying the general atmosphere:

Take Zeppelin, Hendrix, and Yoko Ono, lock them in a room with a large amount of hallucinogens, and then soak the resulting master tapes in acid, and you've got the basic idea. You sort of have to be in the right mood to listen to this thing (and when you are, it's the perfect thing). Needless to say, I haven't been in that mood very often lately, but leaf-raking--a task I hate--felt like a good time to listen again. Plus I've been on a real Brazilian psychedelia kick, spurred on by my recent discovery of Secos & Molhados (more on them later), which also led to a closer listen to Os Mutantes (ditto), and Gal seemed like just the ticket.

I got to song three on the album, "Meu Nome É Gal" ("My Name is Gal"), and witnessed the moment where she starts wailing in this totally gutteral, Diamandas Galas-style voice over a fairly accessible pop-funk string and horn section; from there, it was on to track four, "Com Médo, Com Pedro," which brings in the echo chamber and more crazy shrieks. Then things started to get really bizarre--even farther out there than I remembered. Dear lord, I thought, she's doing all this amazing stuff with dub effects and changing the speed of the tape, even slowing it down to total inaudibility--it's incredible! And it just kept going and going and going, getting more metallic, almost painful even, as time went on.

After about fifteen minutes of this, it dawned on me that maybe there was something wrong with the Walkman. Lo and behold, that was exactly the case; even a Debbie Boone album would have sounded like Lee "Scratch" Perry had gotten his corrosive mitts on it under these conditions.

The scenario reminded me of the night I played a new Radiohead 45 (a bonus with my copy of Hail to the Thief) for the first time and marvelled at the utterly outrageous experimentation those boys were up to: the melody buried under layers of sonic fuzz, the pitch distorted wildly, and so on. A brilliant assault on bourgeois convention! It took me at least five minutes to realize that
a) there really was a layer of actual fuzz on the needle, and
b) I was playing the 45 at 33 rpm.
When I heard it the way it was recorded, it was a real letdown. I mean, how conventional can you get?

On another occasion, I walked into a hipster coworker's office to find out what cool underground noise band he was playing, only to find out he was vacuuming the carpet. (Even so, I would love to have a copy of that sound--it was fantastic!)

So, yes, it is possible that I have been ever so slightly damaged by art, and maybe I take John Cage just a wee bit too literally with that whole anything-goes aesthetic. If it's any consolation, I get misty when I think about Seals & Crofts and Loggins & Messina, and even though we all know John was the best Beatle, I have always had a soft spot in my heart for Wings. So please, please, do not write me off as a total avant-garde aesthete. I just appreciate a well-tuned vacuum cleaner and/or broken tape player every now and then; what right-thinking person doesn't?

Thursday, November 10, 2005

To the teeth

I've been going to the dentist a lot lately--I'm up to my ninth visit for the same tooth. This time, it was a root canal (which will ultimately account for the final three trips, god willing). Needless to say, out came the MP3 player.

I can't conceive of dental work without music--and my choice of music, too, not the piped-in stuff. My dentist subscribes to some kind of muzak offshoot that changes genre every half hour, which explains how you can be listening to Billie Holiday one minute and "Kung Fu Fighting" the next. Evidently the idea is that everyone in the office will be happy some of the time and not-happy some of the time. Now, I can appreciate either of the two options I've just named, but the abrupt juxtaposition does sort of kill any sort of vibe one might be building in one's head. I say they need actual DJs on staff to rectify this situation. But in the meantime, I bring my own tunes.

For several years, all my dentistry was accompanied by a cassette of Everything But the Girl--their early, pre-dance-music-phase albums, which are perfect for calming the nerves without numbing the brain. But then the inevitable happened, and I began to associate EBTG with going to the dentist, which pretty much killed my fondness for this wonderful duo. (Well, that and the aforementioned dance-music phase, which is not so bad but just so much less interesting than what they used to do.)

Now that I can play MP3s on my superduperphone, a whole new world has opened up to me. I can't fit as many songs on it as you could an iPod, but then I don't actually need 4000 selections for a simple cleaning. I haven't reached the point of actually programming a dentistry-specific playlist; it's purely a matter of what's already on there, which is typically whatever odds and ends I've assembled in advance of a cross-country flight several months earlier. This tends to be a mix of stuff I already know I like and completely random songs off albums I haven't really listened to in much detail, plus podcasts of Coverville and On the Media (so far I have not turned to those in the dentist's office).

And I must say I've ended up with a pretty good root-canal-worthy mix this time: Bebel Gilberto, Vinicius Cantuaria, and the latest American Music Club all have a lush, languid quality perfectly suited to long periods of squirming while someone sticks a drill in your mouth. (Less effective: The Decemberists, whom I normally like a lot--the sound is just too thin and angular, both vocally and instrumentally, to do the trick.)

I also had a minor epiphany while listening to a track from Petra Haden's amazing a capella cover of the entire Who Sell Out album. I'd always assumed the song "I Can See for Miles" was your basic acid trip reference, or at least some variety of drug talk a la Puff, Lucy, and "Eight Miles High." But the root canal gave me a nice opportunity to focus on the lyrics--as a distraction from the drill, y'know--and I realized for the first time ever that the narrator (Mr. Townsend/Ms. Haden) is addressing a lover who has been cheating; it's basically a variation on the "Every breath you take, I"ll be watching you" threat. Whodathunkit?

It's not always a wise idea to pay attention to lyrics in the dentist's chair, however, as I discovered when a very gentle, soothing, otherwise ideal-for-dentistry song by Deadman popped up in the queue. I don't remember how I first heard of this band, several months ago; must have been through eMusic, or maybe some internet radio station. Anyway, I really like the one EP I've heard, In the Heart of Mankind. The band name might lead you to think goth or hardcore, but nothing could be farther from the truth; the general tone is very School of Daniel Lanois, and if you go for his dreamy, float-y sound, you should check these guys out.

But not under the influence of novocaine. I'm sitting there, trying not to think about what's going on inside my mouth, when I start listening to what singer/songwriter Steven Collins is singing over the mellowest of musical beds:

I try, but I can't move forward
My arms and legs are sticking down
I wanna scream, but I cannot use my voice
Just when I think I can't go on
All this blood
Moves within me
All this blood
Moves inside of me...

Pain can't last forever
And rivers always run to the sea
And just like a river
I can't hold
All this blood
That moves inside of me...

Now, I can't stress enough how gorgeous the song ("Blood Moves") sounds--or how little I want to be visualizing rivers of blood (the phrase is repeated about seventy times) while Dr. B is discovering a fourth root and reporting on a larger than usual amount of bleeding. I begin to find the irony perversely hilarious and start to giggle; later, when I try to explain what's so funny, I get that weird look you too will get should you ever report that you're listening to a band called Deadman.

Just a warning. Okay, anyone else care to name some favorite tunes for unpleasant situations?

Thursday, November 03, 2005

I Found That Essence Rare

With all due respect to my indie-store-owning/label-running friends, I confess that I have been known to duck into chain stores from time to time. If I'm jonesing for a little record shoppin' and there's a Barnes & Noble or Media Play in the vicinity, you'll find me there. It's not pretty, but it's true. And, much as I hate to say it, the Brazilian bins at some of these joints are actually bigger and/or more interestingly stocked than the ones at the hipper/cooler shops in my neck of the woods.

So there I was, browsing my local Borders outlet, when I came across

this bargain-priced 3-disc Essential Guide to Brazil on the British budget label Union Square Music. Normally I'm wary of cheapie compilations like this, but the lineup of artists looked really promising--a mix of some I know and like (Getz, Veloso, Gil, Celso Fonseca, Zuco 103, Trio Mocotó), a couple I've been wanting to check out in more detail (Chico Buarque, Seu Jorge), and a bunch I've never heard of (Grupo Cabana, Zeca Pagodinho, Bob Azzam, and many more). There are several familiar songs, mostly by Jobim (the obligatory "Girl from Ipanema" is done by Paula Santoro), but plenty that I've never heard of. Of those, a super-catchy cover of "16 Tons" by Funk Como Le Gusta ("16 Toneladas") jumped out right away, along with a 50s-sounding novelty called "Crickets Sing for Ana Maria" by Marcos Valle, and Monica Vasconcelos' electronica-influenced take on "Bananeira" (Bebel Gilberto also does a version of this, and I'm pretty sure lots of other people do, too, since the melody is one I'm certain I heard long before I started listening to all this Brazilian stuff). Come to think of it, other than a pretty straightforward jazz piece ("Dado" by Bruno E) and some slightly muzak-y bits on Disc 1, there's not much on here that I don't like. For the price of a single CD, you get three albums that serve as a handy little guide to a lot of interesting artists worthy of further investigation.

I wouldn't really call this an "Essential Guide," mind you. I don't get the sense that there's a strong curatorial voice here. Each disc has a scholarly-looking theme--"Bossa Nova: The 60s Revolution," "Samba and the Samba Legacy," and "New Routes, Old Roots: Brazil 2K"--but these seem a little contrived, especially since the packaging is otherwise so astonishingly minimal. The image you see above appears on each of the slender cases, and there's nothing else to distinguish them--not even a disc number. Liner notes? Dream on.

Actually, notes for each song do exist online, at the label's website. They're short, but informative. Again, if you want to get your feet wet in the music of the region, this seems like a good, low-cost place to start. (FYI, at the same site you'll find a list of the other albums and sets on their roster, many of which also have online liner notes. I'm guessing the volumes devotes to Arabic and African music demonstrate the same strengths and weaknesses as the Brazilian one. Maybe the next time I find myself at Borders, I'll seek 'em out.)

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Hello in There

This blogging business can be a lonely affair, and then not. Sometimes you feel like you're writing in a vacuum--and then out of the blue a stranger writes with some exciting bit of information or feedback. So if you missed Alberto Forero's addendum to my post about David Byrne (and other subjects), you should check out his own blog, Audium--particularly if you're an Os Mutantes fan (or think you exhibit tendencies in that direction). As promised, he's posted MP3's from TV appearances by O.M. and an even more obscure early 70s Brazilian psychedelic band I'd never heard of called Secos e Molhados, whose lead singer, Ney Matogrosso, is indeed as Alberto describes him: "a fascinating mix of Perry Farrell, Iggy Pop, David Bowie, a shaman, and a cabaret singer." I'd throw in Hedwig, (all of) the New York Dolls, and lord knows what else. Falsetto, face paint, glam--it's all here, and I want to hear more, pronto.

Naturally, in full obsessive mode, I had to check out the entire blog from its inception, and I'm totally enthralled. Tne subject matter is aptly summarized as "Music, illustration, graphic design, and other interesting things," and it's all good. I love the mix, and I am eager to hear ...

... his online album (under the name Audioosports) of mashups, audio collages, and such, which is posted on the site. If it's anywhere near as impressive as the design work he posts, I'm gonna be a happy blogger. The album art above is a sample of his work. (I actually like it more than the image I think he ultimately went with for the cover.)

Speaking of album graphics, another thing I found tonight via Audiosport is this "Massive Gallery of New Wave Single Sleeves" from Endless Groove (an online record collectors' mag which also looks like something I can spend many an hour poring over some day). Here's one representative example, from a wonderful performer who never ever got the attention she deserves:

Let me just say that trying to find just one image to post here to represent the entire gallery was no easy task, given that there are FORTY pages of them (4-6 covers to a page) to choose from, and it's impossible to visit without tripping down memory lane, bigtime.

Can't seem to find permalinks on Audium, which is a shame cuz I want a way to bookmark stuff I want to examine in greater detail later on, like Audiosports' mini-manifesto/how-to on making mashups that transcend easy pop-culture juxtapositions (Nov 18, 2004) and his reprint of a 2002 speech by Milton Glaser called "10 Things I Have Learned" (posted Mar 8, 2005). Discovering goodies like these and Alberto's own work made me feel energized and inspired this evening. Hope it'll do the same for you.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Gonna Love You in My Chevy, Van

I thought sure I'd already obsessed somewhere around here about Van Morrison, but according to the "search this blog" feature in the toolbar above, I haven't. Sadly, time does not permit me to do so now, either, but suffice it to say I've been a fan since that night known so well to college kids the world round, when someone breaks out a bottle of wine and Moondance and you listen to that foghorn blow for the very first time and sail into the mystic.

That was my introduction, 25 years ago or so, to the romantic/poetic side of Van. But there are so very many more: the spiritual seeker, the blues revivalist, the Irish icon, the guy who gave the oldies stations of the world "Brown-Eyed Girl," and so on and so on. But my favorite Vancarnation (other than the maker of a string of breathlessly beautiful albums in the mid-to-late 70s) is The Eccentric Coot: the guy who's put out a number of 15-20-minute-long compositions built around endlessly repeated nonsense phrases and syllables, the one who gives really scary interviews, and, best of all, the man who recorded the legendary 1967 sessions which are now archived on WFMU's blog. They're all right there on the blog waiting for you to sample them: "Twist and Shake," "Shake and Roll," "Stomp and Scream" (and mucho additional variations); a similar batch titled "Blowin' Your Nose," "Nose in Your Blow," and the like; the only known blues lament to "Ringworm;" "You Say France and I Whistle" (that's pretty much the complete lyrics, as I recall); a bunch of possible "Madam George" precursors, including "Dum Dum George" (which might not be such a bad song to revive for the current presidential administration, come to think of it); and the self-reflexive "Freaky If You Got This Far," congratulating the listener for making it through all of the above. Best of all: "Big Fat Royalty Check," in which our hero is waiting for exactly that.

I think of this stuff (which I've got on a low-cost Charly boxed set called Payin' Dues) as a precursor to both Jonathan Richman and Public Image, Ltd., if you can imagine that unholy marriage. It's all just Van and an acoustic guitar, and it was never meant to be heard by the likes of you or I, and yet here it is. Freaky!

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

TV Eye

Let us now praise PBS--which is not a phrase I utter very often, by the way:

1. Has anyone else noticed how remarkably good Austin City Limits has been this year? The first show I caught this season was a full hour of Elvis Costello--easily one of the best televised concerts I think I've seen. Then came an excellent (also hourlong) Pixies reunion; a great, slightly scary Polyphonic Spree set; the Joss Stone performance that first brought her to my attention; a Wilco/Bright Eyes double bill (the latter featuring a guest spot by Jim James and M. Ward); even a perfectly fine if innocuous set by Jack Johnston, whom I find way more fun to look at than to listen to. And I have yet to see Katlheen Edwards, Gillian Welch, the Jayhawks, the Original Five Blind Boys of [one of those two states that has Original Blind Boys], Roseanne Cash, Modest Mouse, John Prine, Etta James, Robert Randolph & the Family Band, Guided By Voices, Ryan Adams, Neko Case, and surely some other names I'm forgetting to drop. At first I thought this was some phenomenally great programming (in seasons past I'd typically find only 3 or 4 artists interesting at most, and most shows balanced one name act with one not-so-hot local up-and-comer), but when the Flaming Lips showed up twice in one season, I realized that this was actually some sort of 30th anniversary greatest-hits season consisting of highlights from the last several years all rolled into one, and the copyright dates on the episodes confirmed that hunch. The show seems to have veered pretty damned far from its original emphasis on Texas-based music with a countryish vibe--a description that doesn't quite seem to cover Franz Ferdinand, for instance--but I'm hardly complaining.

Speaking of the Flaming Lips, I gotta say I've never been a huge fan, but they were excellent, trotting out all the stuffed animal-people, crazy effects, and other oddnesses of their recent stage shows for their half-hour set. Then they reappeared later in the "season" (actually a few years earlier or later) as Beck's backing band. Beck, by the way, is another one of those people that all my friends love that I've never quite been that excited about, and his (hour-long) colaboration with them was another major highlight. Somehow the combo of two acts I'm not crazy about led to something greater than the sum of their parts.

2. I thought I'd missed the recent Independent Lens documentary on Parliament-Funkadelic, but my pal Richard brought a rebroadcast to my attention and I caught it after all. Great archival footage, some nice interviews with band members and later musicians influenced by George Clinton & co. (from De La Soul, Digital Undergound, etc.). I could've done without the annoying intro by Edie Falco, but I don't hold it against anyone. (Note to PBS: I know, I know, we all miss Alistaire Cooke, but it's truly not necessary to employ TV personalities to introduce your programs, particularly since they all do it in the identical, tooth-numbingly bland way.) Hearing all the accounts of how, er, altered the band was when they performed in their heavy acid days, I started thinking of them as a kind of musical parallel to the Cockettes, a comparison that never occured to me earlier but one that now makes a lot of sense.

Even if you didn't see the show, the accompanying website is plenty swell on its own. (And, hey, I scored 9 out of 10 on the P-Funk trivia quiz, thereby earning myself a "Doctor of Funkology" degree. Move over, Edie Falco! Doctor Ron is on the case.)

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Things I Found While Looking for Something Else, #2

So I'm online trying to find some important fact or other, and suddenly I decide to check out what's up with the CBC. (This can only mean there was something far more important on my to-do list, mind you.) I'd vaguely heard about a walkout a while back, but I'd sort of lost touch with the whole thing.

Turns out the official site is a bonanza of time-wasting diversions, starting with this not particularly revelatory "Protest Music Mixtape," which is really just a slide show with lengthy captions concerning the usual suspects.

I would not be wasting your time (only mine) with this information if that were the only thing I found. Nope, the real treasure trove came when I stumbled upon "the Alternative Canadian Walk of Fame" (or is it "the Canadian Alternative Walk of Fame"? the website lists both options--now, that's Canadian! And alternative, too...). The thirteen inductees include Tommy Chong, the Bob & Doug McKenzie movie, John "Plunderphonics" Oswald, and Chris Dedrick, founder of soft rock sensation The Free Design (originally from Western New York, by the bye, not our neighbor to the north, but so be it).

But two names on the list outshine all the others as far as I'm concerned. First and foremost is Mary Margaret O'Hara, whose lone full-length album, Miss America, is one of my all-time faves. I was lucky enough to see a concert of hers in NYC several years ago that was one of the most amazing things I've ever witnessed: an incredible balancing act between precision musicianship and a complete plunge off the deep end.

And speaking of the deep end, it is my great pleasure to introduce you to the second all-star on the Alternative Canadian/Canadian Alternative list: Nardwuar, the Human Serviette.

I first came across this singularly talented individual 6 or 7 years ago in the pages of Chart magazine, a Canadian (natch) music publication that I used to read as part of my record-label job. (I guess it wasn't technically part of my job to read the magazine, but I can assure you it helped me in ways I cannot begin to describe.) In every issue, Nardwuar would interview some unsuspecting musician or pop culture figure, asking a bizarre mix of incredibly stupid questions and incredibly well-informed ones. Sort of a precursor of Ali G, I guess (with a big touch of Tom Green, it occurs to me now that I've heard his voice)--only you frequently feared for the interviewer's safety. One month he's offering Henry Rollins a Powerbar at the end of a conversation, next month he's getting kicked out of a room by Courtney Love.

Now that I've found,or maybe re-found, his official website, containing not only written transcripts of the interviews but audio and sometimes video documentation of them, I may never be able to leave my computer again. There are years of these things to catch up on. Naturally I started with a 2005 interview with Dave Allen of Gang of Four, but the list of subjects/victims in the archives includes Geddy Lee, Gene Simmons, Gerald Ford (!), and Glenn Danzig--and that's only the letter "G." Enter this madness at your own risk. I cannot be responsible for the hours you are about to waste.

Oh, and that walkout?

Guess it's over now, but I completely forgot to look into it on the CBC site.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Qu'est-ce que c'est?

Many thanks to my pal Broady for passing along this recent news item about a new David Byrne installation in Stockholm, in which he's transformed an abandoned factory into an enormous, audience-activated musical instrument.

That in itself was pretty interesting, although I'm mostly excited because the story inspired me to revisit Byrne's own site, which now features a really interesting radio station he's programming/curating. The streaming content changes every month; as I write, it's all Missy Elliott, all the time, which is A-OK in my book. (I missed last month's all-Dylan program, alas.)

From the main site I also found this Oct. 2004 New York Times article about the past and present of Nonesuch Records, the label which is of course home not only to Mr. Byrne's recent solo albums but Smile, many of Caetano Veloso's 80s/90s/00s U.S. releases, Steve Reich, the last few Wilco albums, a whole cool Explorers series that was my intro to non-western music back in high school and college, and so much more stuff that I really like.

I still have my beefs about Byrne (not that excited about the solo albums, perpetually annoyed by his self-appointed Cultural Arbiter role, etc.), but I have to admit once again, as I have ever since the late 1970s, that in terms of personal significance, Talking Heads was pretty much my Beatles, so I guess a part of me will always pay attention to whatever he's doing next, whether it moves me or not. (To continue the analogy, the Clash were my Stones, Costello my Dylan, and, uh, I guess that's as far as it goes.) And, face it, few of us in the States would have heard much post-bossa Brazilian music if it weren't for his Luaka Bop compilations, Tom Zé and Os Mutantes re-releases, and so on. There's something about his curatorial stance that just plain bugs me (a big part of it is probably plain old jealousy, I confess), but at the same time I can't deny that I really like a lot of the stuff he's promoted, and you can bet I'll probably be checking out that online radio station every month from now on.

Monday, October 10, 2005

You say it's your birthday

Wow, so John Lennon would have been 65 yesterday. Or perhaps I should say: it's been 65 years since JL was born. (What's the etiquette here?) I'm celebrating by listening to this remarkably disappointing radio special. I guess it's supposed to be "impressionistic" or something: just a scattered batch of familiar and unfamiliar sound bites, no chronological order, no logic of any kind. (Part One is a completely free-form collage, while Part Two focuses on people's memories of the day Lennon died.)

By chance, I almost watched Imagine, the video assemblage from a decade or so ago that I pseudo-TIVO'ed several months back, last night, unaware of this latest opportunity for mass reflection. Maybe I'll catch it tonight instead.

But something tells me I'll get more out of visiting The Johnny Bacardi Show in search of a tribute, and sure enough, he does not disappoint. Okay, so it's just a list of favorite songs, but that seems appropriate.

Between this, the Dylan documentary, a PBS quickie history of the sixties, a 2004 video biography of Howard Zinn, and some other stuff, I've been spending quite a bit of time revisiting the sixties for the last week or so. Lots of the same footage and same songs over and over again, which is to be expected, but I think I'm seeing a lot of it differently. I was too young to be directly involved in that legendary decade in any significant way beyond learning to read, avoiding neighborhood bullies, and watching The Beverly Hillbillies. In the late Seventies, I took a "History of the Sixties" course in college (the overriding theme of which was "the death of liberalism," a concept that was ongoing at the time of the class, though I couldn't quite grasp that at the time), which introduced me to the political issues beyond the music, the clothes, and the TV series of my childhood. In both cases, the major players were all older than me. Now, as a guy in my mid-40s watching all this on TV again, it dawns on me that I am 20 years older than the various rock stars, hippies, activists, and college students waving peace signs on my television screen. It's a weird form of time travel. I look at the faces onscreen and wonder, why did you people let go of all this? You thought you were making the world a better place, and you were. And for about 20 years now--since around the time Lennon was shot, come to think of it--we've been backsliding like mad. And I look at current-day college students (and rock stars, for that matter) and wonder what the hell is wrong with you people? And of course I ask the same of myself, stuck in the middle between two generations. The sixties provided a template--good points and bad points alike--for the massive grassroots anti-war movement we desperately need right now, but something's just not clicking. I'm definitely NOT saying we should or can attempt to rehash what happened in those hazy crazy bygone days; I'm just suggesting that there is precedent, and no shortage of documentation of what happened then, and analysis of what worked and what didn't. (Some of it is a matter of framing, of course: after all, 100,000 people took to the streets of DC a few weeks ago and it didn't seem to register as more than a blip on the 24-hour news channels.) As the Zinn doc in particular makes clear, we have history as a guide when writing the future, and we owe it to ourselves and our predecessors to at least do a little retrospective investigation in the process.

If we really want to honor Lennon's legacy, then we might all want to commit our own lives to putting his best ideas back into action. Instead of playing "Imagine" for the umpteen millionth time, we might want to actually carry out what he's imagining in those oft-quoted lyrics.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

I was so much older then...

Some will surely call it a midlife crisis, this recent behavior of mine,but not me. Still, let us consider the symptoms: There is my fondness for the young, barefoot Joss Stone, which, for the record, in my case is not that of a middle-aged heterosexual man lusting after a nubile nymphet more than half his age but rather a middle-aged gay guy respecting her taste in cover songs and her ability to deliver them well. Then there is the whole thing with Death Cab for Cutie, a band I like every bit as much as the pimply college kids in their target demographic. (More on them sometime later.) And the whole Adult Swim business...

Those are not the behaviors of a 45-year-old. Neither is buying albums on their release date, something I have never cared about in my entire life. I was not even aware of the significance of Tuesdays in the music-lover's universe until I worked at a record label and somebody told me that was the day new albums come out. To me, release dates are about the commodity side of music/movies/books--and every release date implies an accompanying expiration date.

And yet. And yet. Three times in recent years I have made a point to go to a record store on a certain day to purchase a certain fresh new commodity at its very freshest and newest, starting with a midnight sale, of all things, to get Hail to the Thief the moment it was available. (Okay, so that wasn't so recent, but at the pace I move it could have been only yesterday.) I looked around the crowd and realized I was old enough to have given birth to most of them. Then came Smile--but how could any right-thinking person NOT want this the second it hit the atmosphere, after almost 40 years of mystery? I mean, really now!

And then today, the new My Morning Jacket album, Z. I figure, okay, if they're my official Favorite Rock Band of the Present Moment, I might as well behave like an obsessive fan. Listened to it three times in a row at work, just like I once did with new Talking Heads albums, and my initial response was:

Oh. Okay.

Do you hear the disappointment in those words, or must I amplify it with some sort of emoticon? After the glories of It Still Moves, the live show earlier this summer, and the various odds and ends from miscellaneous EPs and compilations (confession: there are still at least two earlier full-length albums I haven't heard yet), my expectations were sky high, and I felt less than blown away. Some high points, to be sure (first stand-out: "Knot Comes Loose"), but the melodies didn't seem as catchy, the production not as swoony, that sort of thing. The band has always had a silly/oddball side, and they seemed to be indulging that one a bit more than their more majestic side this time around--or so I thought.

Then came Listen #4, motivated by the need to fill a couple of paragraphs in the magazine I work for with an album review of some sort. It dawned on me that, hey, I had an album right on me that I could write about, especially since I was planning to do so here anyway. And holy smokes, suddenly the damn thing kicked in. Strike everything I just said: Z rocks! (Note ingenious pun, which also quotes an early Hamell on Trial song title. Smooth, huh?)

To be more precise, it rocks on occasion ("What a Wonderful Man"), but it does plenty of other things, too, like abandon lyrics for sheer soaring loveliness (the aptly named "Wordless Chorus"); deconstruct and rebuild the theme from "Hawaii 5-0" ("Off the Record," the only new song I remember from the show in the Albright-Knox parking lot a few months ago); and so on. I'm pretty sure it will grow on me with the passing of time--and since only about four hours have passed by this point, I'll cut them some slack. To return to that Radiohead reference for a sec (and musically it's not so far off base this time, BTW), I remember my initial disappointment over Amnesiac, whose subtleties I now prefer to Kid A, the album that first got me interested in the band.

Ah, band talk! You don't find much of that here, given that I've pretty much lost interest in a lot of the new-fangled rock, and also the roll, since around the time that Cobain kid sprung up. But I can still haul it out when need be. And MMJ is a band I can get excited about, no matter how old I am or they are or anybody is. No expiration date on this one, I'm predicting.

Friday, September 30, 2005

Don't Look Back

If this were 1966, this street sign would probably last as long as the "Abbey Road" one:

(You've heard of Bob Dylan, haven't you? They say he's the Caetano Veloso of the U.S.!)

Yes, yes, of course I watched the PBS broadcast of Martin Scorsese's Dylan bio. How could I not?

And of course I loved it. How could I not? Admittedly, I thought the whole structure was a little wacky (everything's a flashback from the 1966 concerts where the audience was nearly booing him off the stage), and I was very sad that it stopped so abruptly with the motorcycle accident, effectively omitting the next, oh, FORTY YEARS of the man's career (not Scorcese's idea, we learned in the post-show interview with Charlie Rose). But holy smokes, that was some amazing footage. Suzie Rotolo! The '66 British tour! Crazy press-conference sequences with reporters asking Bob to suck his sunglasses! Bob and Joan B, right here in Buffalo, NY! (Bonus low point: ill-advised duet between these 2 on "With God on Our Side" at Newport.) And so on, and so on. Need I say more, when you can read the thoughts of poet Ron Silliman (thanks, Comrade Lampkin, for bringing that to my attention) and the one and only Right-Wing Bob? (I thought I had posted a link to RWB here right after I discovered the site, which is exactly what it sounds like, but maybe I only did that in my mind.)

I had a whole entry planned around the two recent archival releases, Bootleg Vol. 7 and Live at the Gaslight, but I never quite wrote it. Then I was gonna post my actual review of those discs to my website, but I haven't quite done that, either. And I was gonna encourage fellow Dylanologists to pick up the September issue of Mojo, which contains such treasures as a completely random list of the 100 best Dylan songs of his career, a recent interview with the man himself, a review of the aforementioned sort-of-soundtrack-album, and so on, as well as a bonus CD of 15 Dylan covers both sublime (Andrew Bird and Nora O'Connor's "Oh Sister"!) and ridiculous (Nancy Sinatra doing "It Ain't Me,Babe"!) (Also: the Driscoll/Auger version of "This Wheel's on Fire" that served as the title song for AbFab, a typically raw Chris Whitley take on "Spanish Harlem Incident," and a not-great-but-interesting "Girl from the North Country" by Conor Oberst/Bright Eyes, M. Ward, and Jim James of My Morning Jacket.) Good points, bad points--an even mix of both. Perhaps you can still find it somewhere. If not, feel free to blame me for missing out. It's what I'm here for.

Monday, September 26, 2005

I want to wake up

I know the party line on Hurricane Rita is that it wasn't as bad as Katrina, it spared the major cities in its predicted path, etc. But I'm here to say that two of the places it most affected--Beaumont, TX and Lake Charles, LA--happen to be the two places where most of my remaining family lives. My sister, her family, and my father are all up by Dallas now, biding their time until they can go home, which is not possible at the moment given the absence of electricity, drinkable water, drivable streets, workable sewage systems, and other little luxuries like that. It's not entirely clear yet whether they'll even have homes to return to or not, particularly my sister, since hers was a mobile home, and we all know those don't fare too well under hurricane conditions.

I mention all this as context for the talk I attended tonight, which was part of the consistently excellent UB Art Department Speakers Series every Monday night through early December. Every week a mopey-looking assortment of undergrads struggles to stay awake while one wonderful guest after another delivers yet another outstanding presentation on visual art, performance, activist media, you name it. These kids have no idea how lucky they are, evidently; for them it's just an easy "A" (all they have to do is sign in and sit still for a semester to get one credit hour; no papers, no exams, no nothing but listening--though many of the talks float right over the heads of their intended audiences, I suspect).

Anyway, tonight's guest speaker was James Currie, who's on the faculty of UB's Music Department. Two of my friends highly recommended the talk; his name didn't ring a bell until I saw him and realized I'd met him a while back through mutual friends. Here's one of my characteristically unimpressive cell phone snapshots of his talk; maybe you'll recognize him, too:

The lecture was a brilliant pastiche of the personal and the theoretical, touching on 9/11, a parable about the Tower of Babel, voguing, the shortcomings of identity politics, totalitarianism, the rain outside, Cornel West, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and the depoliticization of the gay community, and much, much more, punctuated with full-length song interludes. Given his home department, I was expecting something difficult and atonal and academic, but, surprise, surprise, the actual selections turned out to be Caetano Veloso's "Cucurucucu Paloma," a bit of improvised flamenco, and something I first thought was a boy's choir chanting something semi-Gregorian, which I soon realized was an a capella song by Virginia Rodriguez. These were not identified, not discussed, just presented in their entirety, and then passed over in silence.

I can't possibly paraphrase what Currie talked about, partly because I took only about five lines of notes, and partly because he'd make some witty or provocative or poetic comment and it would send my mind off on some internal journey for five minutes or so, and I'd have to work to find my way back onto the main road. But I guess I'd call it a defense of hysteria--sometimes the hysterical voice is the only way to effect change--in the face of our collective desire to sleep through the scary stuff of life, whether that be the rise of fascism in Walter Benjamin's day or the dance of terrorism and "patriotism" in our own. (I repeat: this is NOT a paraphrase; these words are mine, not his.)

Song comes in, he said at one point (and in a moment I really will be quoting, albeit three or four words at a time), in the balance between "where we are" and "where we want to be." Music, among other forms of art, sometimes provides us with moments of transcendence, of community, of somthing bigger than our individual lives--like on a dance floor, or at a rally--but how do we sustain that, or (okay, now I'm down to a two-word quote) "cash in" on these isolated moments?

See, my fragments of memory are even more fragmentary than his flashes of insight; you're lucky you're getting even this much out of me. But sitting in that classroom, listening to Caetano's voice and hearing someone speak so eloquently about the desperate need to wake ourselves out of our slumbers, thinking about my displaced family and their uncertain futures, everything started to come together for me, if only for a second or two.

LATE-BREAKING UPDATE (10/3/05) : For those of you keeping track, my family is okay. Still living the evacuee lifestyle up near Dallas, but my brother-in-law headed down to Beaumont and Lake Charles last Thursday and found out that, miraculously, his trailer is intact, my niece's new house is okay, and my dad's place is all right. Huge mess at each, and still no water/power/etc., but no major damage. Hooray! And now back to music talk...

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Carolina in My Mind 3: On the beach

Quick quiz: Which city between Buffalo, NY and Tarboro, NC is pictured here:

Answer: Every damn one of 'em.

Well, that particular picture was actually taken somewhere in Pennsylvania, but Don and I could have taken a similar one every 30 miles along our journey into the New New South. These days, the term "blue highway" refers to the blue Wal-Mart sign at either end of town. Of course, that's unfair to the rainbow of colors in the Starbucks, Target, Circuit City, Best Buy, and Applebees logos, and we wouldn't want to omit any of them from the picture, would we?

This probably shouldn't have come as a shock to us, but it's been a while since we've taken a multi-state road trip, and the situation is way worse than ever. One thing I do remember from a mid-eighties driving trip to Seattle was the death of local radio. Even two decades ago, it was no longer possible to note much difference between the stations from one area to the next: AM was all (stupid) talk, commercial FM all the same hits. I hate to say it, but even the college stations on the low end of the dial all pretty much follow the same formula. (At least there, DJs actually open their mouths every now and then, and acknowledge what's going on around town.)

So it came as a real jolt when we left the college towns of North Carolina and headed east to Tarboro in the more rural middle of the state to visit transplanted Buffalonian friends. Fiddling around with the radio dial on the way into town, I happened upon FM 107.9, an oldies station apparently out of Goldsboro, NC.

From almost the very first song, it was clear this was no generic oldies station; the selections were too obscure, the sound too idiosyncratic. And when DJ Jerry Wayne (aka Big Daddy) announced we were listening to "Sundays on the Beach," I knew I'd hit pay dirt.

I said in my last entry that I have long associated North Carolina with No Depression and alt country. One of the other things I think about in terms of the Carolinas is that strange phenomenon known as "Beach Music." I've heard dribs and drabs of information about the genre over the years and never quite understood exactly what it was all about, even after picking up a fun little 99 cent compilation a year or two ago.

But after an hour or so with Big Daddy, and another couple with "Steve Hardy's Beach Party" on the way out of Tarboro, I think I've got the basic idea by now (and if I"m wrong, please, please correct or further enlighten me, because this has been one of the longest lasting musical mysteries of my life). Compared to other regional genres I can think of (polka and cajun come to mind), this one is pretty eclectic, embracing a lot of R&B and soul, a little blues, a little country, even a little disco. Most of the acts are names I don't know, other than the Chairmen of the Board (whose mid70s greatest hits album in my collection is fantastic). In the mainstream oldies universe, these guys are mainly known for "Gimme Just a Little More Time" (a sentiment that hits deep for a master procrastinator such as I)--but on the beach music planet, they're superstars. I got to hear two of their beach classics, "Gone Fishin'" and "Bless Your Heart," and several more references to them throughout the evening. I wish I'd caught the name of and artist behind the extremely catchy novelty song with nonsense lyrics that is evidently a more recent smash, but I missed it. I did make out the title "I Ain't Drunk, I've Just Been Drinkin'," but the smutty country song by that name on iTunes doesn't sound like the bluesier one I heard on 107.9.

Guess my biggest misconception was that beach music mainly dates from the sixties and is thus a dead genre. Untrue: judging from the DJs' patter, there seem to be a mighty large number of bands cranking it out nowadays (after a lull sometime in the eighties or so). And I can't overstress how broad the aesthetic is; at one point I heard some obscure disco-era BeeGees song, and the "Blues Groove Salute" of the night was Van Morrison's "Goin' Down Geneva," of all things.

Do I need to point out just how bizarre it is to hear a Van deep cut (or anything of his recorded after "Brown Eyed Girl," for that matter) on a commercial station? And this was a completely mainstream, right-end-of-the-dial station, not some college station (which is where most cajun and polka music seems to reside nowadays, even in their native lands). Between every song the DJ plugged somebody's farm supply store or local business, along with lots of barbecue talk--the kind of downhome chitchat that used to be the lifeblood of AM in my misbegotten youth. It annoyed me then, but as Joni says, you don't know what you got till it's gone. Give me a motormouth DJ with some personality and an accent over mass-produced commercials (or Howard/Rush/etc) any day.

In a trip paved with interchangeable shopping plazas, this side journey into a parallel universe was the one sign that regional differences still exist, that crossing a state line still means something. (Well, there's Christian Exodus, but let's not go there. Literally.)

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Carolina in My Mind 2: Cat's in the cradle, and the silver spoon...

The main catalyst for our trip to North Carolina was the wedding of friends in Carrboro. Just down the street from the ceremony and reception (itself a merry affair, complete with mariachi and salsa bands) was the Cat's Cradle, one of those classic clubs that balances a great lineup of acts with a pleasantly dumpy environment. You know the type: the (Rock) Island in Houston (at least when I lived there in the 70s), the 9:30 Club in DC (at least when I visited in the early 80s), the Continental and Mohawk Place in Buffalo, and on and on. Every livable/visitable city of a certain size since at least the heyday of punk has one, or should. These are the joints that make America great, if you ask me, and I would be perfectly happy making a road trip across the land checking them all out, particularly if it were, say, 15 years ago and gas wasn't outrageous and I wasn't a middle-aged guy who prefers sitting down all the time.

Lo and behold, the night we were in Carrboro, there was a 10th Anniversary party for No Depression at the Cradle, featuring four acts from the area. This was almost too convenient for words, since one of the main things I associate with that famous triangle of NC college towns is that glorious magazine. It would be sort of like going to Hawaii and finding, oh, Don Ho playing at your hotel's swimming pool (which happened to us about ten years ago, but that's another story) (well, that's the whole story, so let's get out of these parentheses and back to Carrboro). We missed the first two acts on the bill (maybe next time, Chris Stamey) but arrived just in time for the second or third song in Tres Chicas's set.

I didn't know them, but I was hooked from the first note I heard: three strong lead singer/songwriters, unbelievably tight band and harmonies, nice songs in that time-honored Gram Parsons tradition (where the lyrics actually venture out of the easy tropes of drinkin' and lovin' and into the deep waters of shame and salvation), the works. Don loved 'em, too, and he's not a particular fan of alt (or any other)-country. Bought the CD, but I can't offer an opinion on it since I immediately loaned it to my friend and fellow wedding guest Cheryl, who was the first friend I wanted to tell about them. (They're one of those bands you just want to tell all your friends about, pronto.)

The next and final act of the evening was $2 Pistols.

They seemed perfectly fine but a little generic (absolutely not Don's cup of country tea), and we were dead tired and both felt perfectly satisfied by the Chicas, so we headed out after a song or two, walked up and down the street a bit, then hit the hay.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Carolina in My Mind 1: Wish I was in the land of Dixie...

Let's just pretend these next few entries from a recent trip to North Carolina and environs were actually posted on the days they occurred--that was my intention, but Blogger didn't seem to want to play along.

New Orleans haunts me. Even here, in Fredericksburg, VA (the eleventh most misspelled city in the US), we find a quaint-looking restaurant called Cafe New Orleans:

Standing outside, we hear an impressively loud noise, sounding something like Sonic Youth circa 1985 or so. Where's it coming from? And how can we get closer? Don, his brother Dave (a new Fredericksburger, as of 2 weeks ago), and I circle the building, looking for clues. Eventually we figure out that there's a club on the second floor of the Cafe, and we make our way upstairs, where we find...

... a very, VERY loud band called (I think--it was hard to hear the bartender over the racket) the Offering. Vintage goth/synth/noise in the high 80s mode. Squint real hard and maybe you can make them out in the picture. Vocals impossible to decipher, and they seem beside the point--the wall of sound is the whole point, and it's a great soundtrack for such chaotic times. Don and I both like them a lot, Dave not so much. I count eight people in the club (two of whom are playing pool) and four more onstage. The bar itself actually looks very French Quarter-y, which is to say it's a bit of a dive, but in a good way, with a nice colorful mural on the wall and air conditioning and lots of darkness. The actual Quarter is closed for the time being, but its spirit lives on.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Storms of Life

I'm rarin' to go with another entry or two or seven, but there doesn't seem to be enough time in the next few days to lay any finely tuned prose on ya. Plus, to be honest, the whole Katrina disaster (natural and manmade alike) has me so bummed out that it's been hard to do much of anything for the last week.

So instead I will steer you to this new page I set up on my main website which is devoted to accounts of what's going on in New Orleans right now plus lots of links I find interesting or useful or just plain odd. As should be painfully clear by now, I know next to nothing about HTML or web design, but I just wanted to get this stuff out to more people, particularly those who don't know the city and what makes it so very special.

Quite a few links are music-related, including this one from Fresh Air: an entire episode devoted to the likes of Dr. John, Allen Toussaint, and Harry Connick, Jr. Archival interviews, plus new material from folklorist Nick Spitzer. (I've only heard one snippet of one segment of his American Routes public radio show, but it was enough to make me once again curse both my local affiliates for depriving us of so many great music programs.)

Speaking of music, here's some thoughts on the whole affair from my Buffalo-based musician friend Kilissa.

And I hope everyone will take a look at this first-person account of the first few days of the storm and its aftermath, written by my friend Donna from the motel room in Austin where she is currently biding her time in exile.

More to come, so stay tuned.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

When the Levee Breaks

I don't mean to be facetious in choosing a LedZep(/Memphis Minnie) title for a post written in the midst of the current catastrophe in New Orleans, but let's face it: songs provide a soundtrack for just about every facet of human experience, somber as well as ecstatic.

Ever since I got off the phone yesterday with my friend Donna (pictured in this blog entry from just last month) who's still down there, I've been glued to the TV (I generally hate almost all TV coverage of global events these days) and far more informative websites like this one trying to get a coherent picture of what's going on down there. (BTW, my family lives on the other side of the state and in East Texas, and they're all high and dry. But I have at least a dozen or more friends in the affected area, and other than Donna I don't know what's up with any of them at all, since communication is pretty much impossible at the moment, and I imagine they all have their hands full with mere survival.)

There's nothing I can say in a music-related blog like this, written from the comfort and safety of my air conditioned, fully powered, dry little home thousands of miles away, that will shed any light on the situation or help anyone out. (Well, I guess I could put in the obligatory link to the Red Cross site, but surely you don't need me to suggest that.)

I just wanted to report that my initial musical impulse--one I still haven't acted on, because I fear it will just be too sad--is to listen to Randy Newman's great song "Louisiana 1927" from his immaculate Louisiana-centric 1974 album Good Old Boys (complete lyrics here).

The song is a sober, matter-of-fact account of the great nameless flood which nearly decimated Louisiana in the late twenties, back before we adopted the quaint, almost primitive habit of attributing human monikers and personalities to storms. The lyrics are disturbingly close to what's going on this very minute ("six feet of water in the streets..."), culminating in the chorus, "They're trying to wash us away." I think about that song any time my home state is inundated with water, which happens pretty often. The current devastation may be unprecedented, but it does exist within a historical context. (It's also not particularly shocking, I must remind folks; everybody knew this was going to happen sooner or later. That doesn't make it any less awful, of course, but it would be silly to suggest that the Big One took anyone by surprise.)

While I'm at it, allow me to put in a plug for Newman's entire album, which I'd say is his masterpiece. I first heard it almost by accident around the time it came out, pre-"Short People," and from the opening song "Rednecks" to the very end it struck me as one of the richest portrayals of Louisiana life I'd ever experienced. Still does. And it has nothing to do with southern belles or ragin' cajuns or Streetcars Named Desire or any of those other stereotypes of the state: just a collection of eccentric characters from the late 1920s through the 1970s (a period bracketed by two economic depressions) struggling to make a place for themselves in the world.

Speaking of songs and storms, my friend Scott (a one-time resident of N.O.) turned to the city's resident Queen of Soul, Irma Thomas, for "It's Raining," a lovely sad song whose raindrops weren't originally intended to be taken so literally. And according to this poignant but positive valentine to the cultural legacy and resilience of the Crescent City in the Washington Post, a piano player at the Royal Sonesta Hotel has been serenading stranded guests with "Stormy Weather." Maybe "I Will Survive" would be a wise choice, too.

What about you? Any songs for the storms of life? Good tunes for bad times?

Thursday, August 25, 2005

The Way We Were

It's been a real trip down Punk Rock Memory Lane for me the last few days. I just watched We Jam Econo: The Story of the Minutemen, a 2005 documentary about my Second Favorite Band of All Time. At least that's what I used to call them, back in the early 80s, with tongue in cheek and hyperbole in full effect.

And a few days ago, this item I stumbled across at the info-packed music site Tiny Mix Tapes indirectly led me to a half-hour BBC radio documentary on my FAVORITE Band of All Time, Gang of Four. I'm still kicking myself for missing the Toronto stop on their current reunion tour last spring, and it doesn't look like there are any shows anywhere closer to me than Philadelphia in the fall. Perhaps I can ease the pain by listening to this US radio broadcast of a recent live show sooner or later.

(While I'm at it, here's...
the band's skimpy official UK site
a much more informative fan-run site,
Dave Allen's label/site/blog, and
Andy Gill's site, which includes info on his other production work, his studio, and other solo endeavors in addition to G4 content.)

I can't possibly overstate the importance of these two bands in my own life, particularly when I (like their members) was in my early twenties. They--along with the Clash (my Rolling Stones) and the Talking Heads (my Beatles)--showed me and like-minded folks my age around the country/world that radical art and radical music and radical politics could intersect and inform each other in all sorts of amazing ways. That you could combine danceable rhythms, complicated lyrics, and sheer noise to reach the body and the mind at the same time, albeit in different ways. That the most exciting music of the moment was not on commercial radio. That songs could be about something other than love, though they could also make room for the most romantic of notions.

I still remember standing in some indie record store on some road trip in December of 1985 learning that D. Boon had died the day before, and feeling heartbroken. That sadness came back as I watched the Minutemen movie (and damn if they didn't follow up the section on his death with an acoustic version of "History Lesson Part Two," the band's best and saddest song, just to rip me to pieces). The film isn't particularly impressive on a technical level (it combines long-lost, ultra lo-fi footage and new, student-level interview sequences shot on a shoestring budget), but I can't imagine any fan of the band minding very much. In fact, anything more high-quality would probably not feel true to the group's, and the era's, DIY spirit. I hope that younger people, and older folks who missed this music the first time around (like my partner, who was more of a Rush/Floyd/Sting fan than a punk rocker), can at least get the basic idea from the movie. (For their sake, it's kind of unfortunate that 95% of the music is live footage with crappy audio and intense performances that don't entirely translate on tape. It's definitely an exciting document of the times, but most of the band's recordings, while raw, were not nearly as crude sounding as the concert videos.)

I'm honestly not sure I'd still call the Minutemen my Second Favorite Band of All Time anymore. I really need to pull those old albums out again, but after hearing vast numbers of their songs for the first time in almost 20 years, I have a sneaking suspicion that they were the right music for a very particular moment in rock and in my own life, and that that moment is long gone. Which is fine; most of the band's songs, as various friends and colleagues note in the documentary, were designed to express a short, simple thought and then move aside for the next one, or ten, or twenty. They were like journal entries, or beat poetry, or improvised theater: here for one glorious instant, then gone.

As for the Gang, hey, I've got no problem permanently enshrining them at the top of my personal pantheon even today. It's sort of funny to see them become the influence du jour for a whole bunch of buzz bands (none of whom, I predict, will be so fondly remembered 20 years down their own road). They always did sound ahead of their time, and now that their time is here, I say, cash in, guys, you deserve it. Do the reunion tour, put out the remix album (even if it doesn't sound like a good idea to me), do whatever the hell you want. Let a hundred flowers bloom!

You may have noticed that this entry is probably the first time I've mentioned anything in this blog about punk (okay, postpunk), and one of the few in which I've said much about rock at all. And I gotta say, the older I've gotten, the less interested I've been in that whole world--not because I'm older, necessarily, but because I don't really think that that kind of music has evolved in very interesting ways in the last couple of decades. The Minutemen and Gang of Four (and, yes, some other bands of that era) blazed trails and suggested possibilities that most of their successors in rock haven't really picked up on yet (other than imitating their overall guitar sound and marketing it to a larger audience, which is not what I had in mind). I know that, at least for a few years in the late 90s, I heard some of that radical spark in electronic music, particularly in stuff by Autechre and Aphex Twin. But they're primarily instrumental, which means the political content is less overt. (By the way, there's an interesting moment in We Jam Econo where someone notes that the band's approach to music itself--scratchy, angular guitar, kept distinct from the bass--was a conscious political act.)

For large chunks of the movie, Mike Watt drives around his old stomping grounds in San Pedro, CA, pointing out the former sites of long-gone landmarks, retelling the band's story, and reflecting on its legacy. At one point he talks about how, in the 70s, musical options were far more limited than they are today: there were great big arena-rock bands, and tiny garage bands, and not much in between. Punk changed that, of course, and bands like the Minutemen pushed it even farther, suggesting connections between rock and a whole other universe of music: bebop, free jazz, c&w, reggae, psychedelia, you name it. That got me thinking about how punk became a jumping-off point for so many different things in the years that followed: one path led to 20 more years of generic hardcore, another path led to alt country, another to experimental/electronic stuff, and so on. I know for a fact that just about everything I've listened to obsessively since the days when punk really mattered to me--old-time country, 50s R&B, the Beach Boys, electronic(a), Brazilian stuff--is tied in one way or another to the noise I listened to when in various college dorm rooms and smoky clubs in 1979, even if the links aren't immediately apparent.

Punk gave American kids of the Ford/Carter era permission and encouragement to listen outside the box. Granted, for some of them, it quickly became a new, rigidly constructed box of its own. But for artists like the Minutemen--and those of us lucky enough to find out about them through the most haphazard of means--the world became a much bigger, more interesting place overnight.