Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Hold Steady - Heaven is Whenever

The Hold Steady are a rock band with two main strengths: they are America's current reigning bar band and they are lead by Craig Finn, our premiere lyrical mythologizer. His lyrics can often be as blunt as they are poignant, but accepting Finn at face value leaves one appreciating that he is one of the most ambitious lyricists working today. The irony is his ambitious undertaking has been to create a fully-realized universe of characters that drunkenly stumble through a haze of partying, hooking up, searching for religion, and summarizing what they've learned on hungover Sunday afternoons. Or, as Finn might call it, a "unified scene." (Not for nothing is that phrase the band's Twitter handle.)

Their second album, Separation Sunday, was a loose concept album about lapsing drug-addled Catholics starring characters that continued to pop up in their next two albums. Boys and Girls in America opened up the stories to include less religious partying, more heartbreak, and rebirth; it remains the band's most impressive work. Stay Positive varied the band's sonic textures a bit and hit and missed in equal portions. Now, without keyboardist Franz Nicolay (who left the band prior to this album), the Hold Steady turn their eyes to the skies, declare that Heaven is Whenever and keep on rockin' their way through a world of starry-eyed innocents and glassy-eyed veterans.

Unlike their previous albums, Heaven is Whenever doesn't start with a rock-radio-ready lead single. Instead, it opens with a mid-tempo number, "The Sweet Part of the City," replete with steel guitar and sounding more southern rock than bar band. It's an unexpected introduction, but indicative of the continually-brightening mood in the Hold Steady discography to date. Whereas before his characters slumped into an alcoholic Hell and barely survived to rehabilitate in the morning ("How a Resurrection Really Feels,") lately they've been more reflective and spending more time thinking about Heaven than sliding into Hell, no less introspective, but more content and less catastrophic in their social lives. Perhaps it's the inevitable maturation as Finn grows older and wiser with each album while the oft-referenced "kids of today" continually stay the same age. Finn isn't telling the stories of jaded youths anymore; they've survived to grow up, learned their lessons, and now he's overflowing with advice to the next generations on how to make it out alive themselves.

So "The Sweet Part of the City" is nostalgic instead of exuberant. It's followed by what would have been an excellent lead-off rocker, "Soft in the Center," where Finn repeatedly asserts, "I'm just trying to tell the truth, kid." One of those outstanding Hold Steady sing-along choruses follows, with the backup singers warmly chanting in full harmony, "You can't love every girl. / You'll get the ones you love the best. / You can't get every girl. / You'll love the ones you get the best." This is where the Hold Steady transcends the potential clunkiness of the bar-band sound and reach for the euphoric joy of a man who's learned just enough to finally be happy with his life and not drown his potential with sorrows.

This is where the Hold Steady, and Craig Finn, are at in the world these days. "We Can Get Together" proves to be the de facto title track, floating over a blissed-out and peaceful light rock track that almost sounds like Counting Crows. It's a track that references Cheap Trick, Hüsker Dü, Meat Loaf, Todd Rundgren & Utopia in the lyrics, eventually concluding that, "Heaven is whenever we can get together." In the sex, drugs, rock 'n roll, and not-necessarily-in-that-order history of the Hold Steady, it's a surprisingly affecting sentiment.

Those still looking for the familiar Hold Steady rock will find it on tracks like "Rock Problems," "Hurricane J," and "Our Whole Lives." Heaven is Whenever was recorded without Nicolay, whose often epic piano was central to many of the Hold Steady's anthemic highlights, so the guitars do take center stage more often, especially when they're rocking. He is certainly missed, however, as none of the rockers quite ascends the heights of previous standouts like "Chill Out Tent," which positively rippled with Nicolay's ecstatic piano. The album isn't without the occasional keyboards, however, showing up to accentuate the dramatic moments. "A Slight Discomfort" is this album's entry in the band's tradition of down-tempo, high-drama balladry that usually is the highlight of any given Hold Steady album. If it suffers from the absence of Nicolay's transcendant piano dramatics, substitute pianist Dan Neustadt (who, like Nicolay, is an alum of the World/Inferno Friendship Society) to find his own brand of theatrics by track's end.

Heaven is Whenever is another successful entry from America's reigning bar band, while also representing an intriguing new step in their career. The band is evolving. Finn is maturing as a philosophical beat poet, continuing his development as a paternal influence for the kids of tomorrow. The grand tradition of rock and roll lives to see another day, Wherever this band goes next, they seem sure to share a little slice of their own heaven whenever they get there.

(Note: this review originally ran on BlogCritics, but I never copied it over to this blog. I figure it works as an effective stop-gap until I write more new reviews. Patience, dear Reader, they are coming, and you can treat this post as a pledge to that effect!)<

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Burning Down the House

The Vagabond regrets to inform his surely rapt audience that the much-threatened return to the Journey will be delayed, unfortunately, as last week a fire destroyed much of the apartment from which the Journey was proceeding. I am ok, my love of music is ok, so the Journey will continue at a later date... and in many ways may be more important now than ever before, but I beg your patience, and your best wishes.

Friday, June 11, 2010

...Radio Silence...

The Vagabond has been rather silent lately, for which I humbly apologize, but as it so happens, I haven't listened to many new albums as a whole lately. In all honesty, the initial flurry of listening activity that started this music blog was inevitably going to be unsustainable, and I expect to gravitate towards a happy medium here eventually. I do have albums to listen to in my queue, including Jónsi's solo debut, Go; the Penguin Café Orchestra's first abum, Music from the Penguin Cafe; the Decemberists' rock opera from last year, The Hazards of Love; and I anticipate I'll be eager to review the new Stars record, The Five Ghosts, when it comes out next month along with other new releases as I hear them.

The Journey isn't over, it never is, but it comes and goes sometimes with the tide. Stay tuned...

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Lala update

So, as some of you undoubtedly have heard, Lala is shutting down come the end of May. I don't know if I'll update the old entries to with new widgets for listening, it may depend on how much attention this little blog garners.

More importantly, I've begun using Grooveshark, another online streaming service that allows for custom playlist widget embedding (imagine that phrase five years ago!) The main appeal, on your end, is that now my blog is no longer America-centric as Grooveshark is available (to my knowledge) worldwide, without memberships required. Plus, the widgets are color-customizable, which is fun on my end. So expect to see Grooveshark from now on, as you hopefully have been enjoying!

And look for more reviews in May, and as the summer goes along get ready for the long-awaited new albums by The Hold Steady and Stars!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Creedence Clearwater Revival - Bayou Country

Now, this is the Creedence Clearwater Revival I was looking for! CCR's second album, Bayou Country, opens with the droning organ of "Born on the Bayou" emerging from the blankness of silence like a cloaked figure stepping out the thick swamp fog and into the sharp focus of morning light. That figure then proceeds to play a cyclical, deep-fried electric guitar riff calling out from the past like all timeless classic rock riffs. A vibrant mix of hand and kit percussion joins the bass to form the rhythm section as CCR chug-a-chugs into its laid-back, hazy groove. Then comes the casual shout of John Fogerty's voice, riding the groove and calmly belting out one of those immortal opening lines from the blues lineage: "Now when I was just a little boy, / standin' to my daddy's knee..." It has the grand sound of a moment of heraldry, signifying the arrival of a great band discovering its eternal sound, while somehow also sounding paradoxically like he's just continuing a story that he's been telling all his life.

That's the appeal of Creedence Clearwater Revival in a nutshell. They didn't create a sound so much as tap into something already extant and primal. That they were based out of the Bay Area is of no mind; CCR stand tall as an early titan of Southern Rock. Departing from the psychedelia of the late '60s and taking their cues from their British blues-rock peers, they simplified rock 'n roll to it's barest elements and, in doing so, found something universal. It had only been 11 years since "Good Golly Miss Molly" first hit the charts, but the music world of 1969 was changing so rapidly that CCR's cover of Little Richard's signature rave-up feels like an entire generation had passed before they breathed new life into the classic. That is, of course, probably a ridiculous statement to make, but part of the CCR mystique is this mythology about them.

They existed as a rock band for less than half a decade. As I flesh out my knowledge of them by listening to their discography, I find myself actually hearing the songs that I had supposed existed. I knew about a dozen of CCR's more famous tracks before diving into their catalog. For Bayou Country, that means "Born On the Bayou" and "Proud Mary." I imagine most of you know those two songs, too. They are the easy peaks of this album, and they deserve their legacy. So listening to the lengthy blues workouts "Graveyard Train" and "Keep On Chooglin'" or the electric-acoustic rock hybrid "Bootleg" is like opening a wrapped present whose contents I'd correctly predicted. I knew the CCR sound more than I knew their actual songs. I imagine it's why I was thrown in reviewing their first album. I was expecting this when I heard that. Now that I'm hearing what I was looking for, it's a more comfortable fit.

That doesn't mean this is a stellar, amazing album. It's very good, but not a stone-cold classic. For one, it's too short. There's only seven songs, and I know this is a problem that will recur as I continue through the Creedence catalog. They preferred two or even three short albums a year, instead of larger releases less often. It does mean there's more CCR to digest from their incredibly short period of productivity. It also means there's less margin for error or, in relative terms, less room for mediocre. Besides the two aforementioned classic hits, much of Bayou Country is exactly what I'd expected. No bad songs on here, but not any hidden classics either. Here's the thing, though: with CCR, they hit on something so wonderful that mediocrity is still worth seeking out. It's why I've decided to acquire their full back catalog. Bayou Country is the first real link in a chain of classic albums that, altogether, are greater than the sum of their parts. It's what I find romantic about listening to a full discography, throwing light into all the back corners of a band's work. It allows greater context both to respect their hits more fully and also to illuminate their legacy in rock history. I look forward to the next one.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Darkness - Permission to Land

Remember the Darkness? "I Believe in a Thing Called Love" was a smash hit not so long ago. Actually, it was seven years ago. Time flies when you're a one-hit wonder with really energetic falsetto-driven pop-metal. That song was a breath of fresh air and it seemed like even those who couldn't shake it's irony-free rendition of glam rock as filtered through heavy metal guitars still fell under it's blisteringly whimsical spell. Sitting squarely at the intersection of AC/DC, Queen and Boston, the Darkness nailed their one-hit moment for all its' three-and-a-half minutes' worth of glory and kept on rockin' as the world's attention boogied on elsewhere. What the world missed out on was a surprisingly good album resting beneath the one-hit surface.

The Darkness are unabashedly a fun rock band. They play with aggressive guitars and pulsing drums, but their songs aren't of the against-the-world antagonism cloth most of the post-grunge rock sound is cut from. That isn't to say they're a straight up revival of the '80s hair metal they visually most recall, because their songwriting most recalls the late '70s pop/classic rock melding of Boston and The Cars. These are rock songs with pop structures and occasionally soaring melodies. If I keep referring to the same bands over and over again, it's because the Darkness wears their influences on their sleeves. There's the AC/DC routine, with big open guitar riffs kicking off songs that pound forward with metronomic drums mercilessly thumping onwards. There's the Boston sound, with a falsetto vocal melody trading verses for cacophonous overdubbed guitar solos that ascend to heaven. Then there's the Queen influence. (It should be said, along with the Boston references, that the Darkness are aping from the early work of these bands, before the '80s convinced them that synthesizer pop was where it's at. Not to take anything away from those bands' '80s sound, but the Darkness are squarely in the late '70s on this count.) The Queen numbers take a threatening guitar riff and subvert it with a danceable backbeat and falsetto exclamations few this side of Freddie Mercury would even attempt.

Where the Darkness succeed is in effortlessly combining their influences. For much of the album, it's a game of match-the-sounds. "Givin' Up," starts off in the AC/DC mode before the Boston-esque guitar solo rises to take it away. "Stuck in a Rut" could have been a Queen song cut off of Sheer Heart Attack that AC/DC oddly decided to cover. "Friday Night" is the Boston tribute the Cars never wrote. "Growing On Me" drops a lost Bon Jovi call-and-response chorus on top of a thundering AC/DC groove. For good measure, the Darkness aren't above coralling multiple reference points from the same artist. "Black Shuck" sounds a bit like an all-AC/DC mashup, with "T.N.T" and "For Those About to Rock (We Salute You)" swapping choruses with the guitar stylings of "Thunderstruck."

The cynic could say this game belies a fundamental problem with Permission to Land: pointing out the sounds of all the bands mentioned above goes to prove that the Darkness have no sound of their own. They are a personality-less entity, shuffling and recycling their favorite songs until they emerge from a bubbling rock cauldron as new. There's a certain accuracy to the cynic's point. One's mental map of these songs tends to place them closer to their ancestral parentage than to the band that actually is credited as writing and playing them on this album. Lyrically, the band treads heavily through re-treaded territory (quick, name the other hit rock song about that "Thing Called Love!") The cynic would then argue that Permission to Land amounts to nothing but nostalgia specialty; a poorer recreation of great bands gone by.

The cynic would be wrong there, however. Yes, at their worst, the Darkness seem like a credible cover band blessed with an inescapable chart-topping hit. If these songs were to be written out mathematically as formulas of their influences, they inevitably end up equalling less than the sum of their parts. But Permission to Land is a celebration of a style of rock music that is, on it's own terms, larger than life. This isn't music for the music snob. It's arena rock, and there aren't enough snobs to fill arenas. Sky-high guitar hooks and epic chord progressions are easy to mock because they come off as either simplistic or bombastic. In a time when arena rock is dying, however, there's no need to scoff at its new blood. Yesterday's arena rock gods are too old to be hip, and the hip kids are too cool to be arena rockers. They may not ever ascend the Billboard heights again, but Permission to Land is a welcome addition to any listener's catalog because they infuse a genre being left behind with a breath of new life. Who cares if its unoriginal? It still rocks, doesn't it?

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Bettye LaVette - The Scene of the Crime

I've written previously about the inspiring trends of music in the 21st century. My reviews of albums by Rodrigo y Gabriela and Vampire Weekend have touched on the global-is-local quality of music being made today that's free of previous geographic constraints. My review of She & Him's latest touched on the loving re-construction of earlier generation's sounds. My review today hits on a similarly inspiring trend to that of re-creating genres of the past; the resurrection of forgotten stars.

The mainstream music industry has been doing this for a while now, probably since Elvis' big "comeback." We saw Johnny Cash's career resurrected by Rick Rubin's American series, and Santana unexpectedly crashed both the Billboard charts and the Grammys a decade back under Clive Davis' management. While those were major label projects, smaller labels have been doing their fair share of reclamations, also. Chief among them is ANTI- Records.

The ANTI- label has been attracting some major talent. In addition to a growing roster of contemporary acts like Neko Case, Jason Lytle and Islands, ANTI- has also signed a spate of music veterans that go back decades, regardless of their genres. Tom Waits, Merle Haggard, Marianne Faithfull, Solomon Burke, Os Mutantes, Booker T. and Mavis Staples all call ANTI- their current home. What these artists share in common is a lifetime of acclaimed music without regard to mainstream popularity. They bring a veterans' grizzled wisdom to their contemporary work that often puts up-and-comers to shame. It's a quality that Bettye LaVette's The Scene of the Crime has in spades.

LaVette's recording career has been long and filled with many more downs than ups. I'll leave it to her own biography to fill in those interested in her personal trials and travails, because what I want to focus on here is this album. Assisted by the Drive-By Truckers, one of the best southern rock bands out there today, she assembles a terrific collection of covers [with the pointed exception of the rip-roarin' original "Before the Money Came (The Battle of Bettye LaVette)", which is biographical self-aggrandizing of the best kind.] She effortlessly bounces back and forth between bluesy rockers (letting the Truckers run wild) like the opening track and then quietly soulful ballads. Her voice, aged by both years and pain, is tough. It evokes heartbreak, anger, pride and eventually ecstasy over the course of the album.

LaVette's profile has been raised significantly in the last decade. From the incredibly unlikely resurrection of her unheard full-length album Child of the Seventies after 30 years to her recent appearances at the Kennedy Center Honors (singing the crap out of the Who's "Love, Reign O'er Me") and the Inauguration of President Barack Obama, LaVette is now poised as a soul veteran with a life's worth of lessons to teach today's younger musicians. It's a good thing, too, because the soul revival has been another exciting genre revival among the many going on right now. It's a good time to be listening to music, and for LaVette, it's high time we listened to hers.

Monday, April 5, 2010

New Classic Examiner

My apologies for not updating this blog lately, but the journey is an unpredictable one! I've been accepted as a writer for and the writing for that covers much of the same territory as this blog does, albeit with greater latitude as I'm not holding myself there solely to music like I am here. I will keep both going as opportunity sees fit, but I won't be posting with the regularity I had going here for the last month.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Barenaked Ladies - All in Good Time

Taken as a double-disc release, BNL's last album Barenaked Ladies Are Me was one of the best (and most underappreciated) record of the '00s. Part of that problem was that they released the album independently and it had little-to-no mainstream impact. That shame was compounded by co-lead singer Steven Page's cocaine-related arrest and his subsequent departure from the band two years later. So now, continuing as a four-piece band without half of their traditional singing/songwriting team, BNL strikes back with All in Good Time. If this good album isn't the should-be-classic that its predecessor Are Me was, that can be chalked up to a very good band being caught in transition.

It's easy to find references to Page throughout the album, since the band addresses his departure (not so subtly) right away with the first song on the album, "You Run Away." It's a somber pop ballad that tempers its melancholic melody with some almost acrimonious lyrics in the chorus ("I'll give you something you can cry about.") The words are the story of a close friendship deteriorating, and they cast shadows across the rest of the album. So, when Robertson sings, "Can you forgive me for what I had to do? I'd use a metaphor but I'm done with you," on the hard-rocking, "I Have Learned," it's hard not to think about Page, even if the song isn't overtly about him. The little lyrical flourishes of anger and betrayal abound, but so do notes of forgiveness and acceptance. The album gets its title from an upbeat iTunes bonus song, which goes "In time the pain heals at least, all in good time." It's sung by Kevin Hearn, whose fragile voice is usually accompanied by folksier instrumentation on the songs he sings, and it goes a long way towards indicating that All in Good Time might just hold the necessary lashing out in anger that the band needed to unload hand-in-hand with the notes of reconciliation and growth they need to move forward.

The emotions of its backstory also color the album's sonic palette, which in places is more aggressive than anything this traditionally pop band have ever done. "Summertime," which follows "You Run Away," sets this tone by wrapping an otherwise charming song about surviving the winter and hoping for summer inside positively Zeppelin-esque riffs played jarringly on chunky, fuzzy guitar. More straight-forward rock can be heard in the simmering "I Have Learned" and "How Long," which builds towards a ripping guitar solo in the classic rock tradition. True, this is rock music through the BNL prism, which is admittedly brighter than just about any rock band in history, but for BNL they recall little before them except "Wind It Up" from Are Me.

Most of the album, however, is good ol' BNL pop, continuing their ongoing maturing process that's been developing over the decades. For those who only know BNL as "One Week," "Another Postcard," and "If I Had $1,000,000," the level of maturity and (yes) artistry in their back catalog may be surprising. While All in Good Time doesn't have any stone-cold classics on first listen, it is a solid entry in their discography. It's a less "fun" album, more akin to Maroon in that sense, with a few other moments worth mentioning. "Four Seconds" has to be written about. It's a concoction that sounds like Beck sampled Django Reinhardt, and then Ed Robertson throws some of his "One Week" freestyling flow over it. It's endlessly listenable, somehow. "Watching the Northern Lights" deserves praise, too. Another Kevin Hearn song, it's a ballad winsomely sung over echoing guitar that slowly morph into looping synths. It's a subtle effect that elevates a lovely tune. It's also the kind of trick BNL should be known for, instead of their unfortunate reputation as a band singing sophomoric songs about monkeys and other novelty ephemera.

BNL isn't just a band in transition within themselves; they're a band that's lost their place in the culture. Novelty humor pop has moved on to the Lonely Island and Flight of the Conchords, but that's never the genre BNL was comfortable in. Their brand of genuine alternapop is perhaps usurped by fellow Canadians, Stars (also due to release an album this year.) None of the songs on All in Good Time will likely crack the top 40 and BNL is probably too old and with too much perceived baggage to be accepted by the indie pop community. They are, however, back with major label distribution, so there is hope. If there's one thing that can be learned, it's that the Barenaked Ladies aren't going to be calling it quits. It just remains to be seen if they have any more hits in them.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Robert Downey, Jr. - The Futurist

Yes, you read correctly: the actor Robert Downey, Jr. released an album. Not a gimmicky novelty album, either. Released in 2004, Downey wrote (or co-wrote) eight of the ten songs on his debut. His covers are also very well chosen: "Your Move" (the first half of Yes' "I've Seen All Good People") features Yes singer Jon Anderson singing backup harmonies (and slipping in strains of John Lennon's "Give Peace a Chance" as a surprising coda), while album closer "Smile" was written by Charlie Chaplin whom Downey played in his biopic. More than anything, on this set Downey proves that this album is the opposite of a typical actor-releasing-an-album gimmick. He is a talented singer/songwriter who easily carries a full album.

The first two tracks (which are sadly the only two tracks available on Lala), "Man Like Me" and "Broken," are an excellent sample of what follows. Opening with pensive yet authoritative piano, "Man Like Me" reveals a lovely melody as strings calmly appear to carry the song along. Prehaps given his filmography, you were expecting rock music? This is a piano-dominated album and one closer to Joni Mitchell than Billy Joel. Actually, given his vocal style, The Futurist most recalls Peter Gabriel's solo albums of late. With a soft, chalky voice that he doesn't push much (but doesn't break when he does), Downey comes across as comfortable not just playing piano but also singing his songs. And, as a songwriter, Downey's sense of melody isn't the only surprise; lines like, "the mirror takes a look at my face," show a deft touch at wordplay.

With "Broken," the album takes on its second sonic shade, as lightly-plucked guitar leads into a poppier-sounding track with synthesized chords and organic percussion. With its bittersweet refrain, "you fell in love with a broken heart," Downey sings the part of an open-hearted romantic who's made bad decisions but can't believe his good fortune to find the redemption of an accepting love. How autobiographical it is is besides the point; it's the best song on the album because of both its lyrics and its delicate melody. The Futurist's producer, Mark Hudson, co-wrote this song and another stand-out track, the title song, and deserves a lot of the credit for the album's success. Not only does Downey sound great but the whole album does, with a crystal-clear production giving Downey gorgeous soundscapes to sing over.

That title track, which is another poppier production but without the emotional tug of "Broken," does reveal one of the weaknesses of the album, however. The lyrics are occasionally a little obtuse. When he sings about, "our furious, curious, fantasist code" Downey falls prey to the temptation of letting clever words supplant meaning in importance. There is also little variation in tone between the songs. You can count on each song to be a mid-tempo piano-pop ballad with more than a little gravitas. There are little individualities in each song ("5:30", for example, has a jazzier undercurrent and a more active instrumental bed than most of the modest and plaintive music found elsewhere) but besides the standouts the rest do tend to fade into each other in retrospect.

Nonetheless, from the perspective of an Academy Award-nominated actor releasing an album that could be considered a vanity project, this is an exceptional release. The Futurist comfortably resists being labeled a novelty because of its plentiful strengths. Downey's songs and consistently able singing coupled with Hudson's production yield a surprisingly pleasing ten-song output. By the time Downey finishes tackling Chaplin's oft-covered, "Smile," it's actually revealing that it feels the most out-of-place song on the album. The jazz standard feels different than the rest of the album, which illuminates the impressive feat that Downey and Hudson have created an album that has a strong aesthetic feel about it against which "Smile" can seem out-of-place.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Four on the Floor is now Forecast

Housekeeping note: I've changed the "Four on the Floor" Lala widget to one of their standard "Forecast" widgets, which allows me greater variability. The "Forecast" widget will be continuously updated as I see fit, so keep an eye out down there for what's new and give 'em all a listen.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

She & Him - Volume Two

She & Him are the pair of indie songsmith M. Ward and actress/singer Zooey Deschanel. Their first record, Volume One, came from out of nowhere in the spring of 2008 to sweep the indie pop landscape off its feet with bittersweet, swooning pop songs tinged with hints of country and folk balladry. Volume Two now comes around to pick up where the duo left off, and there isn't a hitch in its step.

The opening track, "Thieves," recalls Roy Orbison not just lyrically but also in the musical build to its triumphant close. As strings swirl around her, Deschanel's delicate and imperfect voice rises to the songs' climax. The Orbison comparisons are only furthered by the incidental fact that she's singing about one of the legend's favorite topics: crying. It's followed by the lead single, "In the Sun," which glides on a sturdier rock beat and winds up with Ward letting loose some of the most rapid-fire guitar She & Him have featured yet. The contemporariness of "In the Sun" is an exception to the rule, however. She & Him are excellent nostalgists and they return to the '60s sunshine pop with the next tune, appropriately titled, "Don't Look Back." (Even its title recalls the '60s, though it's not a cover of the Temptations' hit of the same name.)

They do cover a few songs on Volume Two, the first of which is a lovely reading of NRBQ's "Ridin' in My Car," which in their hands works as a sweet little duet and fits right into the She & Him aesthetic. The guitar jangle and comforting melody of the original are a perfect choice for She & Him's light, warm brand of comfort-food pop. The other cover is of Skeeter Davis' version of "Gonna Get Along Without You Now," and is equally as successful a reincarnation as its cover-song companion on the album. Where Davis' version covers the heartbreak of the lyric with a mask of nonchalance, She & Him take the opportunity to cover both of their preferred territories, melancholy and jubilance, simultaneously.

What the covers serve to illustrate is the strength of Deschanel's writing. As on Volume One, she is the songwriter of record here and the quality of her writing hasn't been as commented on as her lazy, dreamy voice. Ward certainly does yeoman's work fleshing out the arrangements, and does a great job of music anthropology not unlike T-Bone Burnett's work reconstructing the sounds of old for films like O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Walk the Line. Ward's music wouldn't be in service of anything if it weren't for Deschanel's lilting melodies that sound like they've unearthed standards all this time. Tracks like, "Home," "Lingering Still" and "Over It Over Again," break down the cynic's defenses and bask in the sunshine of a radio station endlessly playing new songs as yet unheard from the '60s and '70s. Their first album's cover was entirely apropos for, if they keep going like this, they may come to represent a star forever radiating golden rays of countrified sunshine pop.

She & Him are clearly a throwback act. Their songs ring with the joy and innocence of pop gone by and, for some, the lack of irony in their presentation makes such unfiltered doses a hard pill to swallow. Its understandable. Pop music is always evolving, and there are always nostalgia acts keeping the past alive. From the swing of Brian Setzer to the crooning of Michael Bublé, there's always a market for contemporary resurrection in music. She & Him represent an indie group making the nostalgia trip accessible for another market. As with any nostalgia group, any success they have will be considered novelty or guilty pleasure by some, but for those who do the enjoying, it's bliss.

Monday, March 22, 2010

DJ Shadow - Endtroducing.....

In the last decade, the production technique of sampling has become an artform all to itself. Sampling has its roots in hip hop as creative DJs cobbled together instrumental tracks to lay a foundation for a rapper without employing a full band behind him. The necessity bred creativity as sampling took off in the '80s and into the '90s. In the '00s, sampling itself emerged from being just a production style to being the entire basis for songs (mashups) or even full albums. The 2000 release by Australian DJ duo The Avalanches, Since I Left You, is composed purely of samples from over 3,000 sources and was widely praised for its creativity, if not its legality. Danger Mouse made a name for himself with The Grey Album, his controversial album-length mashup of The Beatles' white album with Jay-Z's Black Album. At the end of the decade Girl Talk wowed college kids across the nation with his infectious albums of mashups, scavenging hundreds of pop, rock and rap songs for samples, using between 20-40 on each "song" of his own. All of these artists used others' materials as their canvas, creating works of art without actually contributing any recording besides an ear and crafting hand.

Before any of those artists, however, there was DJ Shadow (aka Josh Davis.) Working solely with a 12-bit sampling drum machine he created Endtroducing....., his debut album. It was certified by the Guinness Book of World Records as the "First Completely Sampled Album" and it landed on Time Magazine's All-TIME 100 best albums list in 2006. It stands as a landmark album both in terms of sampling as an art and also in hip hop, as the genre was overcome with gangsta rap in the mid-'90s and Endtroducing..... is just about as opposite to that genre as possible.

Endtroducing..... is a hip hop meditation album. The standout tracks, like "Building Steam with a Grain of Salt" and "Stem/Long Stem", are built around beautiful looping samples of piano and organ. The beats, samples of vocals and strings and other accoutrements serve to accent those loops, not unlike how classical minimalism evolves over the course of repetition. The vocal samples are typically introspective, in either calm placid tones or frantic with intellectual anguish. It's really more closely related to trip hop than hip hop in terms of genre. This isn't an album about sex and violence. It's an album about life and philosophy, which is sort of remarkable to say considering it's also an instrumental album.

There is a gravitas to Endtroducing....., and I suspect that's where its sense of import is derived from. The looping samples are almost universally melancholy in tone, although DJ Shadow usually employs either upbeat tempos on top of them or his sly sense of humor to work against that tone. ("Why Hip Hop Sucks in '96" has only one vocal sample: a cautionary voice simply stating, "It's the money..." and "Organ Donor" is, appropriately, a fascinating escalation of solo organ samples.) The sonic bed often sounds like a rainy day, combining immersive ambience with steady pulses of disconnected rhythms. Where there are breaks in the action, as in "Stem/Long Stem" when after three minutes a string sample loops up as high as it can go and cuts out into silence, they grab the listeners' attention and, like the best minimalism, can affect the listener when they are accustomed to the slow-motion development.

Endtroducing..... is viewed in its best light when it's cast against what it isn't. As hip hop, it isn't shallow or morally bankrupt much hip hop can be. As trip hop, it's more rooted in humanity and organic samples of voices and jazzier horns than the often cold and distant standard. As jazz, it's more sonically expansive and varied. As itself, however, it doesn't inspire. It's a groundbreaking album and I believe its praise is well-deserved but mainly to that end. As a listening experience, Endtroducing..... is long and usually fades into the background. It's soundtrack more than songcraft. That's not a critique, however, that indicates DJ Shadow's efforts result in failure. His mission statement is right up top, in "Building Steam" which concludes on a repeated vocal sample saying, "the music passes through me." That's exactly what happens here. The music passes through DJ Shadow and it passes through the listener. Don't come expecting party music; this album is food for thought and a soundtrack to meditation. It lets your mind wander, and if there isn't much substance within itself, at least it's an instigation to examine the substance within yourself. Therein lies its praiseworthiness.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Big Star - #1 Record

This week, Alex Chilton passed away. The lead singer of the Box Tops, in music circles Chilton was more remembered and more influential for his work leading the band Big Star. In one of those wonderful American second acts Fitzgerald said never happened, Big Star was becoming more and more recognized of late for its pioneering work in creating the power pop genre.

As the rock scene was splitting into what became "classic rock", "prog rock", "light rock" and disco, Big Star's music was a straight line from the earlier pop of the '50s and '60s. Bright chords and simple progressions played with energy and sweet harmonies on the vocals. While they never achieved great commercial success (despite the ambitious title of this, their debut album), they were consistently namechecked as a huge influence on the wave of bands to emerge as "college rock" in the early '80s like R.E.M. and The Replacements. The Replacements even named a song after Chilton, so I've known his name long before I'd actually known his music. The only song from this album that I knew coming in was "In the Street" (later covered by Cheap Trick for That '70s Show, which I hadn't known was a cover in my ignorance.) Knowing much of what came in their wake, and saddened by the sudden death of their leader, I turn the journey this weekend to Big Star's first album.

What impressed me initially is the variety. Despite knowing the trappings of the power popgenre they are said to have created, and #1 Record does kick off in that fashion with, "Feel", it moves immediately into a more understated number, "The Ballad of El Goodo." I don't suppose I was expecting a dozen songs in the same mode, but I wasn't expecting to get much variety for some reason. So I was already pleasantly surprised.

By the time #1 Record gets down to "When My Baby's Beside Me" and "My Life Is Right," I had settled into the groove of the album. When Big Star is feeling it, they're playing songs of pure joy in the everyday setting. By that I mean, these aren't symphonies of pop grandeur celebrating the ecstatic moments of life. These are songs that revel in the simplicity of a single good day. Even "Give Me Another Chance," the pre-emptive pre-break up strike, has a sweetness to it that gives one a smile (like, hopefully, the girl in question would be forced into upon hearing it.) It's a truth in writing that the specifics are universal, and when Chilton writes songs about this slice of life moments and surrounds them with just the right accompaniment from the band, his specificity evokes the universal truth. Just imagine the warmth of watching the sunrise after a long night with the one you love, and then listen to Big Star's "Watch the Sunrise." It captures that feeling, even if you don't know it from experience.

Walking away from Big Star's debut album, I have a greater respect for Chilton and Big Star's lasting impact on the genre. What they were doing isn't as fundamentally drastic as perhaps I'd expected (so much "creating a genre" praise can lead to a significant expectation.) These songs are just good. Well crafted pop is an art form, and while some of the songs didn't do much for me, I never was displeased with any of them. That's a big part of the Big Star sound, I think: pleasure. These songs will get you feeling good, even the ones that emerge from pain, because this is a band (and Chilton was a writer) that knew good times were ahead. It's a shame I only got here after his tragic death, but it's better late than never.

(Note: #1 Record was re-issued in tandem with its' follow-up Radio City, which contains the only other Big Star song I knew coming in, "September Gurls." It's in the Lala embed and be sure to check it out, as it's a sweeping power pop masterpiece.)

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Four on the Floor: 3/17

1. Peter Gabriel - "Here Comes the Flood" (1990 Re-recording)

All the rain this week caused flooding in my grandparents' town. Fortunately, everyone is alright, although from what I've seen there is obviously property damage. This, combined with Genesis' HOF induction, calls to mind this haunting ballad from his first solo album. He re-recorded it for his 1990 Greatest Hits album Shaking the Tree, and I much prefer this simpler, sparer version. Just a piano, a gorgeous melody, elegiac lyrics and a pained vocal.

2. Tom Waits - "Train Song"

While we're in the elegiac mood, this weeper of a ballad has been on my mind as well lately. I love Tom Waits both as a songwriter and as a singer, although for different reasons. As a songwriter, he is a master at evoking setting and extracting emotion from the least likely places. "Train Song" shouldn't be as devastating as it is. As a singer, he sounds atrocious, but to me that's the point. His broken voice can't be beautiful, but it still sings the beauty it sees anyway. He's turned himself into a one-man crusade for the hidden beauty within, and "Train Song" is a gorgeous example of it.

3. Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears - "Sugarfoot"

Turning away from the gloom and doom, let's pick things up a bit. SXSW is this week and I always wish I could be there (one year, I'm gonna go. I promise myself.) For those who don't already know, SXSW is a multi-disciplinary arts festival and the music end is a three-day party that starts tonight. Thousands of musicians are in Austin, Texas this week and music will be coming out of every window of every building all night long. This band is one of the bands I discovered after the coverage of last year's festival, and I love their retro-soul/funk groove. They performed this on Letterman last year for anyone interested enough to find it on YouTube.

4. Steve Reich - "Music for 18 Musicians: Section IX"

Lastly, Steve Reich has been back in my rotation after I heard a lovely piece on NPR examining minimalism. I think Music for 18 Musicians is one of the most blissfully transportive and meditative compositions I've ever heard. It's 45 minutes of unending, pulsating music that, true to the minimalist form, evolves slowly like a glacier moving through icy waters. It washes over me every time I listen and soothes my soul. Picking just one Section was an absurd task, but I chose IX because it starts with a great bouncing string rhythm that gives it a little bit of individuality. From the amazing Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble recording from 2007.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Genesis - The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway

Concept albums are usually, by their nature, overwhelmed by grandiosity. Rare is the concept album that tells a poignant story without any extraneous material. Then again, serving the story is rarely the entire purpose of a concept album. It's usually much vaguer than that. More accurately, the story is really serving a mood or a theme. So if the story of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway is inscrutable (and it often is), it's beside the point. The plot, characters, settings, all serve to further the feeling of listening to their story. Or, as in the case of The Lamb, listening to and watching the story, as this album is really impossible to separate from the stage show Genesis toured with after its release.

Reading through the libretto of The Lamb, and a very handy track-by-track analysis of the album on, it becomes apparent that its accompanying stage show was planned hand-in-hand with the album it supported. Instrumentals toward the end of the double LP were added just to facilitate changes in Peter Gabriel's elaborate costumes for the tour. So, absent being able to see the show (except for clips and images of the costumes, which really are bizarre), one is left to judge the album knowing it's part of a whole.

Listening to The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway is quite an experience. The music is expansive, complex, and often impressive. The shortfalls particular to concept albums are present here, but this album tends to succeed more often than not because it mitigates the shortfalls by shifting its strengths over its course. Like a lot of prog rock, much of the album's music can devolve into frantic, high-speed instrumentalism. In those moments it's usually the story or the melody that rescue the listener from the chaos. At the album's conclusion, the instrumental fury serves to represent the rushing rapids the protagonist is swimming against to rescue his brother (don't ask.) Likewise, the performances by the band are uniformly excellent throughout the album, rescuing tracks where either the story or the melody could have lost interest. Most impressive are Tony Banks' keyboards, which can be counted on to reliably arpeggiate the hell out of whatever song they're playing.

Though the story never resonates on a deep enough level to inspire truly emotional response to the music, it doesn't mean individual moments aren't triumphant. "The Carpet Crawlers" is probably Genesis' finest song in my opinion. A subtle and subdued song (again, arpeggiated the crap out of by Banks), Gabriel's melody builds to places of real beauty. His repeated Broadway motif also stands out, when performed in both the opening title track and the late semi-reprise that recalls it, "The Light Dies Down on Broadway." "The Chamber of 32 Doors" is another stand-out track largely because it eschews the overactive prog rock sound. It favors a grander, open sound. Representing a moment in the story when the protagonist, Rael, is trapped in a crowded room tasked with finding the one door that leads out, Genesis plays counter to the claustrophobia with big chords and spare simplicity as Gabriel sings through his predicament. It's a real highlight, and closes the first disc with a great "to be continued..." moment.

Where the story gets incoherent, it's right about where Rael gets trapped in a ritualistic cycle involving sacrificial snake-woman hybrids and the only escape from it is castration, which he agrees to but has his removed organ (preserved in a yellow tube for him to wear around his neck in case he needs it again) stolen by a raven and dropped over a cliff into raging waters below. Why Peter Gabriel found these flights of fancy to be evocative (or precisely what they are intended to evoke), I don't know. I imagine drugs would help elucidate my confusions. It's The Lamb's unrelatable story that prevents it from scoring higher marks, but I suppose it wouldn't be prog rock if it wasn't indecipherable to the masses. As a story, The Lamb is more odd than good.

As an album, however, the combination of Gabriel's evocative poetry and the music the band crafted manages to succeed as greater than the sum of its parts. The two impulses in play, the bizarre storytelling and the impressive instrumentals, work hand in hand to save each other from overexposure. For all its failures and missed opportunities along the way, The Lamb still represents remarkable ambition, the likes of which are rarely seen in popular music. That's the appeal of the album, at it's core. This, the concept album, prog rock; it's ambition that rescues and preserves them. It may not be my favorite album of all-time, but damned if I don't think it's trying harder than just about any album I can think of. For that, I'm grateful.

(Note: The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway is unavailable for streaming through Lala. However, some of its tracks have been featured on anthologies and can be found by searching Lala for them by name.)

Monday, March 15, 2010

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame: Class of 2010

Tonight, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame enshrined their Class of 2010: ABBA, Jimmy Cliff, Genesis, The Hollies and Iggy & the Stooges. I happen to fascinated with the politics of the Rock Hall, usually in a cynical fashion, but I still find it a useful guide to identifying important artists of the past. In terms of this class, I'm somewhat familiar with all the artists.

I (like everyone on Earth) am aware of ABBA's hits, though I don't actually have any of them save "Dancing Queen" in my library. I knew Cliff's "Many Rivers to Cross" (a stunning soul hymnal with a gorgeous vocal) well before I grabbed the soundtrack to The Harder They Come, which he contributed to and seems to be a seminal moment in his career, shortly before starting this blog. For the Stooges, I also know a handful of their more important singles. "1969" is a great track, but I'm not really one to enjoy the all-out aggression of their sonic assault (if ever a band's sound necessitated the term, "assault", to describe it, it's the Stooges.) I respect that sound, and the Stooges' role in pushing it to the max, more than I enjoy listening to it. And I have to plead ignorance on the Hollies except knowing Graham Nash (of CSNY) was one of them, though the videos I found on YouTube don't do much to dissuade my notion that they were just a '60s pop band with some sort of lasting influence that others who care more than I could trace.

Then there's Genesis. I have scattered tracks from throughout their career, from their 22-minute opus/something, "Supper's Ready" through to their snappy '80s & '90s hits like "Invisible Touch" & "I Can't Dance." I'm really interested in the band and their transformation after Peter Gabriel left and Phil Collins took over. What I've heard from both ends of their spectrum I've liked, though generally not loved. When I look for '70s prog rock I tend to prefer Yes, and for '80s synth pop they're just one of dozens of bands with hit singles I'm fine with.

That's why I've finally gotten my hands on The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway and worked up the determination to dive into it. In all their catalog, it's clearly the hulking mammoth waiting to be tackled. So here's a rare sneak peak at my itinerary: I expect to have a review up of it this week, hopefully tomorrow if I can digest it all fast enough. I'm sure tonight's ceremony will add a little to my enjoyment of the album as well, and so I must be off to catch it. 'Cause there's really nothing I like more than talented people praising other talented people. (That sentence, and this one, are produced without irony. I really do love watching all these praisefests, so help me.)

Creedence Clearwater Revival - Creedence Clearwater Revival

Nowadays, Creedence Clearwater Revival is known for the iconic brand of swamp rock they perfected. A mix of electric blues, knife-concise songcraft and fuzzy guitar tones that somehow evoked hot summers in the wetlands of the American south to a near-perfect degree. Perfect evocation wouldn't have fit, either; CCR was a natural creature, with rough-hewn recordings showing warts and all.

It's strange, then, knowing the archetypal sonic image of CCR, to encounter their self-titled debut album for the first time. The band, making their first recording under their soon-to-be-legendary moniker after years as the Golliwogs, appears to be circling their signature sound without finding it yet. Here, CCR is unrefined (ironic, given how raw their later hits sound, but in retrospect there is tremendous refinement in evidence in their greatest songs.)

The album is loosest when they're reinterpreting others' songs, as they do on three tracks here. They unleash an eight-minute cover of "Susie Q" that would fit at home in a Quicksilver Messenger Service album, fitting considering the San Francisco scene they shared. Their cover of Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put a Spell on You" takes the manic energy Hawkins erupted through his maniacal vocal and transport it to writhing guitars. Lastly, Wilson Pickett's "Ninety-Nine and a Half" rocks out to a groovin' bluesy boogie. The covers don't really relate to a common sound except for a generic classic rock tone, where the guitar solos sound clarion clear in the higher registers but chunky and thick in the chords.

That sound is also where they're writing the originals, like Fogerty's straight-up blues "Get Down Woman." It's a good track, but its just like any other electric blues record from the '60s, there's nothing exceptional about it. The same could be said for "The Working Man" except that would be short-shrifting its lyrics, which move the typical blues lyrics closer to the common-man voice Fogerty would develop for later CCR hits.

The first track on Creedence Clearwater Revival to carve out a unique sound is, "Porterville." It's got the bass surging deep underground on the track, beneath a wiry-thin guitar that snakes behind and around Fogerty's passionate vocals and bright, clear hand percussion. The sound isn't the trademark CCR sound, but it's closer and it's still a great sound. Following it comes a slice of psychedelic rock, appropriately titled "Gloomy," replete with backwards guitars and sound effects. It's a sound they can manage well, but without depth.

Maybe knowing where they were headed colors my judgment of where they were before, but much of Creedence Clearwater Revival is a by-the-numbers classic rock album circa 1968. It's easy, in hindsight, to call this the sound of a band looking for its hook. The truth is it's a good album, but it's also not the band I came looking for at the beginning of their chronology. By the time "Walking on the Water" brings things to a close with Jefferson Airplane-like militance, it strikes me that this album is more reflective of 1968 than Creedence. So it'll likely stay as a document of the sound of a time in my mind, instead of the sound of a unique band. There's nothing wrong with that; I'll just have to go on to the next album.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Low Anthem - Oh My God, Charlie Darwin

New York City has been struck by a massive thunderstorm this weekend, and it has turned my listening rotation towards the more pensive and melancholy numbers in my library. Fitting, then, that I finally turn my ears to The Low Anthem's breakthrough album from last year. In a time of clouds of rain Oh My God, Charlie Darwin is like a warm fire offering you a blanket and a prime spot in front of it to cozy up and dry off. Hushed voices harmonizing over a bed of soft pump organ and plucked acoustic instruments, the Low Anthem makes wonderfully delicate folk music which occasionally veers towards a roots rock stomp explosion.

I first heard the Low Anthem through NPR's All Songs Considered, when host Bob Boilen played the exquisite de facto title track, "Charlie Darwin." Opening with gentle guitar and a truly gorgeous falsetto voice, the track slowly expands to include quiet harmonies and the soft pump organ that plays under so much of this band's woodsy folk. Lyrically following Charles Darwin as he sets sail on the Beagle, the melody gently recalls a sea shanty but as played like an elegiac hymn. The song sings Darwin's praises with a combination of beatific worship and hushed humility. Somehow it toes that line. This is transcendent beauty, and if it's a peak the band never re-summits on this album, well, who bloody well cares? It's here and it's remarkable.

The album continues, as it must, by landing on Earth from its divine launching port. "To Ohio" and "Ticket Takers" are a pair of lovely folk numbers that cover more mundane stories with more typical instrumentation. Contemplative and reflective, they shepherd the listener through to the next passage of the album, where the Low Anthem light their campfire and rock out to the rhythms of life. "The Horizon is a Beltway" is a raucous blues rocker with distorted vocals shouting, "the skyline's on fire!" in the kind of way that makes you want to jump up and celebrate the combustion. It's followed by another rocker, a cover of Tom Waits' setting of Jack Kerouac's words to music, "Home I'll Never Be." Complete with Waitsian anvil strikes and a wailing harmonica, it pairs with its predecessor to form a high-steppin' rave-up duo.

The Low Anthem settles down from there, with the following songs returning to the folksy aesthetic with only slight embellishments. "Cage the Songbird" has some lovely percussive shakers and "(Don't) Tremble" is overdubbed with field recordings of bird calls to give it a rustic feel. "Music Box", the album's only serious misstep, is an interminable ambience with (duh) a music box playing over it. Thankfully, it's a short interlude, less than two minutes, and it's followed by the longest cut on Charlie Darwin, the welcome return of the Low Anthem's plugged-in brand of roots rock with "Champion Angel." This one's the closest they get to straightforward rock, and while they aren't a great rock band they still have the chops to let it all hang out.

The final stretch of Oh My God, Charlie Darwin just brings us home. "To the Ghosts Who Write History Books" happens to boast one of the better song titles I've come across lately, and then we have two songs recalling predecessors. "Omgcd" is little campfire singalong, sort of the morning-after awakening chant after the overnight party represented by the album's rockers. Lastly, we have a reprise of "To Ohio" which isn't a reprise so much as a continuation. This version gives the song a definitive underlying pulse, moving with oscillating frequencies and a chugging beat. If the first version landed us on the earthly terrain of the album to follow it, this conclusive version packs up our bags and puts us on the leaving train. Charlie Darwin is a neat little album, and one I'm both glad to have met and intrigued to see what comes after it for the Low Anthem. They're a rustic folk operation that can work on many facets, and this album's stunning open shows they can climb lofty peaks. I want them to aspire for more of it, but I hope they don't lose the charming humility they somehow manage to maintain.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Eva Cassidy - Songbird

A few years back a friend of mine sent me a song by Eva Cassidy as part of a birthday mix CD. I selectively listened to the songs I thought I'd like and, having judged by her name that Eva Cassidy was probably some horrid R&B singer my friend liked ironically, I never listened to the track. Now, years later, I've come around to realize the grievous injustice of that ignorance. The story of Eva Cassidy is one of the more remarkable and tragic ones in recent music, and I'm glad to do my part to share her voice with the world.

Cassidy died of cancer at the age of 33 after only releasing a few albums, one of which was a live one. Songbird is a posthumously released compilation of songs recorded by this incredibly talented vocalist, mixing the live tracks in with studio recordings. She was well known in the D.C.-area music scene, where she emerged and swept the area's local music awards in 1996. When I say "swept", I mean it perhaps more than any other situation would merit; in addition to Artist and Album of the Year, she won Female Vocalist of the Year in four different genres. After her passing, she was featured on the BBC and her fame slowly grew before Songbird was put together as a de facto definitive "Greatest Hits" record, summarizing her short career.

Songbird consists of ten covers, mostly jazz standards but also a few pop songs like Sting's "Fields of Gold," which opens the album. The first sounds of the album are Cassidy's delicate crooning voice over a gently plucked guitar, a sublime combination, as she turns Sting's modern standard into a pained reminiscence. It's one of those covers that completely and wholly transfers ownership of the song from its writer to the new interpreter; her rendition is just superb.

For "Wade in the Water," the next track, Cassidy moves to her jazzy side and gives the gospel standard a swingin' boogie that feels not only appropriate but downright groovy. At this point, I need to praise her band. Cassidy's solo guitar and voice are remarkable on the tracks baring only them, but the album breathes with the variety of life because her talent is equally vibrant in front of her band. As the album unfolds back-and-forth between solo renditions and smoky nightclub sizzlers it shines all the brighter for the juxtapositions.

It's not all jazz and folk, either. Her cover of Fleetwood Mac's "Songbird" (the appropriated title track) breathes with a synthesized pop beat and gorgeously overdubbed harmonies. "Time is a Healer" lets Cassidy slowly build to a wail over a Whitney Houston-esque gospel/pop accompaniment. "Wayfaring Stranger" leads her jazz inclinations over towards a bluesier territory.

There simply isn't a bad track on here. Maybe it's the benefit of being a compilation, but there isn't any filler; it's all remarkable, soulful and beautiful. The Impressions' "People Get Ready," originally a civil rights protest hymn, sounds just right in this collection with Cassidy's soulful interpretation. "Oh, Had I a Golden Thread" pulses with that same gospel soul. Lastly, her "Over the Rainbow" takes us home the way we started, just her voice and her guitar lifting us to the skies.

More posthumous compilations of Cassidy's recordings have since been released and I look forward to finding them because this is one of the more remarkable albums I've heard in a long time. Remarkable not just because of the heart-tugging tragic story of Cassidy's talent, death, and posthumous fame but also because the album simply is consistently good. It is, and she was, incredible.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Rodrigo y Gabriela - Rodrigo y Gabriela

Listening to old entries in KEXP's Song of the Day podcast, most of which are good if unexceptional, I came across the name Rodrigo y Gabriela and remembered that they recently had an album that was high on the iTunes downloads chart last year. I hadn't known anything about them other than that. So I downloaded the free song and was floored.

Rodrigo y Gabriela are part of what I think is the most exciting trend in music going forward into the 21st century: the international melting pot of popular music. They are two Mexican guitarists who met in a thrash metal band but left to pursue their own brand of acoustic latin folk rock in Ireland. Sentences like that give me hope for the future of music. Their international breakthrough came from this, their self-titled studio album. I picked it up instead of their most recent effort, 11:11, for a few reasons; I prefer preserving chronology when I can, the YouTube videos of them I found included performances mostly of this album's opener, "Tamacun", and it has two covers that I was extremely curious about - Metallica's "Orion" and Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven."

Before I get to those covers, we have to talk about the music this duo makes first. NPR's Bob Boilen calls it "heavy metal flamenco." I call it remarkable. The first (and apparently common) reaction I had upon listening: "How are just two people making all this music?" The answer was gleaned from watching those YouTube videos (and I highly recommending looking them up or watching their Tiny Desk Concert on NPR's website.) Rodrigo plays the melodies, picking delicate notes in fast succession on his acoustic guitar, while Gabriela furiously bangs out the rhythm, using her guitar like a weapon. She hits the hardtop like a drum while strumming chords like a banshee. Watching her hand fly around the guitar strings is like witnessing a great mystery in life: how the hell does she bang her fingers percussively while strumming these ridiculously rapid chords?

With their background in metal bands, it's no surprise that music influences their style. "Ixtapa", for example, features a riff right out of Metallica's "One" before floating away on a guest violin appearance. Most of their songs take the heavy metal structure: bouncing energetically back and forth between a steady-driving groove with melody layered on top and interruptive bursts of thrashing chords strummed with fury on both guitars. Typically, there are also drum breaks, although here it's just Rodrigo y Gabriela plunking away rhythmically on their guitars like bongos. They make a compelling argument for the lack of necessity in having a whole band; if you can make all the music with just two guitars, and wow these two can, then why shouldn't you?

So here is an album with just two guitarists playing live, and yet you hear a full rock band. Rodrigo's guitar sings and Gabriela is a one-woman rhythm section. These two incredible musicians have a fuller and richer sound than some whole bands do. The cover of "Stairway" is a re-interpretation of a classic rock landmark into a virtuosic classical guitar composition. There is little strumming, save for the classic introduction to Jimmy Page's solo, which Rodrigo tackles faithfully as Gabriela plays the rest of Led Zeppelin underneath. "Orion" has all the swagger of Metallica when they run with the riff but the beauty of this cover is when Rodrigo gets to fly off into the ethereal skies of Metallica's more plaintive moments. I wouldn't be surprised if I was told there were studio effects filtering Gabriela's rhythm in parts of "Orion" ("Vikingman", for example, has a moment of fuzz and static serving as a break in lieu of a typical strum flourish and "Juan Loco" has a rushing reverse echo heading into its final stretch), but then again I woudn't be surprised if I was told she made all those sounds live.

Watching Rodrigo y Gabriela I get that magical sense that there isn't anything they can't do. It's a feeling that's rare in music not just today but any time. Rodrigo y Gabriela is an incomplete document of their genius; it's not that the record has failings but you just have to see them play to believe them. Their music pulsates with the vibrant energy of life that makes music enjoyable on a fundamental level. They are inspiring and wonderful, and I look forward to exploring their next album and all that comes after it.

See their Tiny Desk Concert at NPR Music here

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Four on the Floor: 3/10

(Note: I'm hoping to make Four on the Floor a weekly feature, and Wednesdays seem as good a day as any to start.)

1. It's a Beautiful Day - "White Bird"

We got beautiful weather in New York City this week and sometimes there just isn't more pleasant music to listen to than idealistic '60s dreamy folk-pop. It's a Beautiful Day was a one-hit wonder from the '60s, but "White Bird" has managed to stay alive as both a nostalgia piece and a pretty good example of the best of the hippie moment in music.

2. Return to Forever - "Spain"

As I've been exploring fusion jazz, the best hook for me to get into the genre has been exemplary tunes. "Spain" is definitely one of those and I haven't been able to get it out of my head this week. Chick Corea and the gang bust a groove for nine minutes, and it's just a joy to listen to, but the key for me isn't the solos but the outstanding (and funky) breakdown. There's just no replacement for great melodic writing.

3. Michael Giacchino - "Up with End Credits"

Michael Giacchino won the Oscar for Best Score this week for Disney/Pixar's Up, and deservedly so. This track, the end credits suite, takes his absolutely beautiful waltz theme for Ellie and transforms it with endless invention for seven minutes. Some of the most divine movie music of the decade, in my opinion.

4. Mishka - "3rd Eye Vision"

This song was in a free sampler iTunes gave out and, I'll admit, I don't know much about Mishka except that this song rocks. I don't follow much contemporary reggae (yet) but if it's as warm and comfortable as this song is, I want in.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Pearl Jam - Backspacer

Recently, Pearl Jam has become more of a straightforward rock band than perhaps they've ever been. Even their breakthrough in the first wave of grunge, Ten, had stretches of ambient dissonance marking them as a distinct entity emerging from the Seattle fog. As they tore down their own fame throughout the '90s, they dabbled in world music. After coming back to a major label with 2006's Pearl Jam (the eponymous title surely signifying an attempted return to the mainstream), their latest album seems to be the next step in their later-stage evolution. Like R.E.M. on their last album, now they are simply rocking out and (gasp!) even having fun.

Take "The Fixer", the lead single from Backspacer. It's an energetic rock song reminiscent of the band's last lead single, "World Wide Suicide." The difference here is that, where "Suicide" (and most the last album as a whole) was preoccupied with the political doom-and-gloom of the Bush era's nadir, here Pearl Jam is freed from that burden and this song feels brighter (and better) as a result. The chords ring with more colors and the drums bang away with more pep in the beat; though it never lets its poppier infusions overwhelm the rock song at its choir, this is as friendly and optimistic a song as Pearl Jam has been known for. Even the lyrics ("When something's broke, I wanna put a bit of fixin' on it") are hopeful.

The optimism lets Pearl Jam examine different angles of the lyrical themes from their past. One of the highlights of Ten, "Black", dealt with the heartbreaking anguish of wondering why your love is with someone else. "Johnny Guitar" on this album covers the same topic, but it's a more upbeat take on the same anguish. This isn't a ballad: the drums and guitars are in a steady groove throughout. When the song hits the bridge, Eddie Vedder's protagonist lets the hope shine in ("And I sleep with the light on, in case she comes...") and even though the song doesn't have a happy ending, the song is light years away from the apocalyptic wailing of "Black." (That's not to say "Black" is too bleak. For the record, it's one of my favorite Pearl Jam songs of all-time.)

The most interesting songs on any Pearl Jam album are always the down-tempo numbers. Backspacer is no exception, and the most popular song on the new album is the album's lightest moment: "Just Breathe." A tender acoustic ballad, accompanied by light percussion and bright strings in the best tradition of the soft-song-on-the-rock-album, "Just Breathe" is a gently-strummed lullaby. I imagine it's the closest Vedder would ever come to the Jack Johnson/John Mayer family of acoustic folk-pop. Pearl Jam has been known for their acoustic ballads, but not ones this warm and comfortable.

The rest of the album carries this tone, and the effect is like seeing an old friend through a new prism. The changes aren't so drastic as I've made them out to be, but they are also so consistently in evidence on the album that they are ever-apparent. Whether it's the anthemic "Unthought Known" opening with a Cars-like guitar lick before featuring an almost Coldplay-esque piano anchoring the chorus or "Speed of Sound" approaching Dave Matthews' pop ballad stylings from earlier in the decade, the album puts a different spin on the Pearl Jam of old and the results are enjoyable. Pearl Jam have long been the kings of longevity of all the bands from their grunge scene. They're still going strong and, like the best bands do when they're 20 years in, they're still growing and exploring. And when Backspacer closes with another acoustic ballad, "The End," I sincerely hope it isn't.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Frames - The Cost

Like many, I was first introduced to the Frames' lead singer Glen Hansard through the wonderful movie musical Once. Hansard starred in and co-wrote new songs for the movie with co-star Markéta Irglová. The film also featured old songs of his from his work with the Frames, and ever since I saw the movie the Frames have been on my list for future exploration.

Released as Once began its long road to cultural breakthrough, The Cost features two re-recorded songs from the movie: the Oscar-winner for Best Song, "Falling Slowly," and the film's climactic number, "When Your Mind's Made Up." Both songs are recast from their film versions, re-arranged for the full-band treatment by the Frames. While "Mind" just adds an appropriate layer of electric guitar picking, "Slowly" gets electric guitar, violins, drums and what sounds like a choir. The special thing about the Frames, however, is that simply listing that potentially overwhelming arsenal of additional instruments betrays the simplicity and subtlety with which this band adorns the original arrangement. The Frames, like the best Irish pop/rock bands, are a band that plays music that openly yearns from the heart yet never goes over the top. Simple, delicate moments á la Van Morrison and Damien Rice build to the expansive release of the most anthemic U2 songs. The Cost is a quietly epic album. The opening of this album's "Falling Slowly," is a perfect example of this dynamic: Hansard moans over roaring guitars as the song opens, yet as soon as the intro ends everything cuts out except for his voice singing the first verse and a bass drum barely keeping time. The Frames earn their moments of majesty by setting them amongst a field of delicate beauty.

The songs from Once, however, only represent 20% of this album. There's plenty more to be had here, and it mostly lives up to the promise of those two songs while branching in different directions. "People Get Ready" (not a cover of the Impressions' classic), is a beautifully slow-building anthem, taking its time to travel from a voice-and-guitar duet through the addition of a tumbling drum backbeat towards an inspirational chorus with Hansard's voice arcing through its upper range as the band combusts beneath him. Sort of a U2-Sigur Rós hybrid in structure, but perfectly unique and beautiful.

"Rise" is a quiet little number that suddenly unfolds into a sea shanty with a churning fiddle solo. "Sad Songs" is a straightforward pop/rock song, with an R.E.M.-style guitar jangle that turns into a sweeping slide guitar straight out of the best country and folk balladry, before strings arrive on the bridge to take us home. The title track brings the heavy guitars to a downbeat bluesy dirge, sounding like Neil Young's band Crazy Horse, especially when violinist Colm Mac Con Iomaire unleashes a solo reminiscent of one of Young's guitar freakouts. That it's the hardest-rocking song on the album might actually make it one of the weaker ones, but this is an album that excels when the volume leaps up out of a softer bed of sound.

As the album goes on, the rhythms of the Frames settle into familiar patterns. "True" trades a slow guitar lick for piano in another slow-burning ballad, followed by another upbeat number in "The Side You Never Get to See." The Cost has a very defined mood and feel and it sticks to it while individual tracks explore different expressions of it. It also just so happens to be a mood and feel that I dig; pensive and expansive, quietly epic. The second half peters out a little bit, but it's still a worthy adventure to explore that big Irish soundscape with the Frames. Those looking for more of what Once offered will find it here, where Hansard takes his guitar and voice and is joined by a game band taking off with him as his music takes wing.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Ray Charles - Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music

Just perusing over the Wikipedia entry for this album before listening to it, one gets a sense that there simply isn't a more influential album in the history of music than Modern Sounds. This is the album where Ray Charles, a black man, sang country, white man's music. In doing so, this album also elevated country music to levels of popularity, amongst both blacks and whites, that it had never achieved. So there's two groundbreaking impacts, but we're not done yet; not only did Charles bring black people (and more white people) to country music, he also brought white people to his (soul) music. Then besides the racial impact, there's also the musical impact; Charles reinterpreted country standards into his soulful style. Perhaps the entire genre cross-breeding bonanza of the late '60s that forever changed popular music as we know it owes a huge debt to Modern Sounds, too. Still, there's more. This brave album is a result of Ray Charles' assuming complete creative control over his material, reaching an individual liberty no popular musician had ever assumed before. And part of that complete control was this format: a thematically constructed album at a time when albums existed to collect singles and b-sides and re-sell them. While not the first cohesive album in this way, it certainly was the most popular to that time and, as the decade continued, the album slowly would supplant the single as the dominant musical art form. So Modern Sounds broke barriers in race relations, music business, and the artistry of pop music as well. How many other single albums can claim that kind of impact?

After all that mythologizing, it's almost easy to forget to actually listen to the songs that make up the album. Doing so, however, doesn't disappoint. This album isn't just influential; it's also pretty darn good, too.

Opening with a kick, "Bye Bye Love" introduces us to an album that may be constructed of country standards but doesn't sound like it. With horns blaring, Ray gets off to a jumping start. There's a reason its one of the better known songs from this set; it's a quick burst of musical glory that grabs the listeners' attention. Settling down from there into the warm groove of the album, "You Don't Know Me" is the next standard. Soulful, breezy, and yet draped with an aching sadness, it switches gears for the rest of the album as Charles tells us his big jazz band can saunter as well as it can hop.

From there, the album is pretty invincible to criticism. Charles' interpretive skill really shows no bounds as even the saddest, most string-laden schmaltz like "I Love You So Much it Hurts" still rings true. Going back-and-forth between Sinatra-esque orchestral balladry ("Worried Mind") and his own upbeat soulful swing ("Just a Little Lovin'"), nothing misses its mark. As each song comes and goes, the subtle infusions of genre experimentation elevate even the more average number into worthy listens. "It Makes No Difference Now" and "Careless Love", two down-tempo jazzy numbers, move like New Orleans brass band marches. Some of the ballads, including the hit single "I Can't Stop Loving You," feature an angelic-yet-ghostly choir singing under and opposite Charles' solo, providing effective counterpoint and variety.

Bringing it all to a close is the second Hank Williams cover, the rollicking standard, "Hey, Good Lookin'." As a fun, upbeat soul stomp, it pairs with "Bye Bye Love" to bookend the album. Compared to the other Williams cover (the lonesome-cowboy ballad of submission, "You Win Again") it's a handy synopsis of Modern Sounds as a whole: two disparate threads of music connected by a singular talent. Ray Charles was nicknamed the Genius for a pretty good reason, and for all the influence this album has had on the music of the last 50 years it's a testament to that nickname that it still sounds good on a first listen after all this time.

(Note: The Lala widget combines the album with it's sequel, Modern Sounds, Vol. 2. I haven't listened to it, save for the almost unrecognizable yet still cool cover of "You Are My Sunshine." The sequel starts with that one, as "Hey, Good Lookin'" is the last song on Vol. 1 proper.)

Monday, March 1, 2010

Spoon - Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga

Prior to listening to Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga (which, admittedly, is very fun to type), I only knew Spoon by two songs, which I liked: "The Way We Get By" was used in a film I love, Stranger Than Fiction, and this album's "You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb" was hyped as one of the better songs of 2007 by a lot of critics. This album, too, was hyped in 2007 but I never got around to it until now. I dove in to Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga after discovering that another of its' songs, "The Underdog", has appeared in two more of my personal pop culture loves (How I Met Your Mother and I Love You, Man.) Since TV shows and movies have become a better source for good music than radio in the last decade, and people doing work I love like this band, the time came to make the plunge, and Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga seemed the natural first step.

It turns out the two songs I'd heard coming in spoiled the party a little bit. "Cherry Bomb" and "Underdog" are the clear highlights here. The other songs on Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga barely raise above "filler" at their best, though to their credit few of them are ever bad either. The problem seems to be anonymity; few of the remaining songs carve out an identity for themselves. Instead, they lie flat but charmingly over a relatively consistent sonic landscape that sounds like John Mellencamp's steely acoustic guitar wandered over to Elvis Costello's rhythm section and threw in Wilco's piano and dissonant production for good measure.

I didn't have a hard time picking out other influences on the tracks that are more idiosyncratic, either. "Eddie's Ragga" is a nice bit of alterna-ska, and would have made a good outtake from The Clash's London Calling. "The Ghost of You Lingers" is the other sonically unique number here, with piano taking lead in a bizarre, LCD Soundsystem-covering-"Maniac"-from-Flashdance sort of way with vocal overdubbing and odd sonic pulses folding it into a claustrophobic paranoia. When I first listened to it, I panned it. On second listen, I give it more credit; it's at least more daring than the rest of the album.

If Spoon is a great band, this isn't their strongest album, but I see the potential. That lies pretty exclusively in the two songs I knew coming in. Both songs are the sort of tuneful, pop-tinged indie rock songs that gives the genre hope. Most indie rockers forget the importance of melody, instead relying on wit and a good riff. "Cherry Bomb" and "Underdog" give singer Britt Daniel the best two vocal lines on the album to sing with his charmingly limited pipes. He's got a raspy voice without much power, so he'd either be best suited for a punk band (which he isn't in, at least here) or a melodic rock band lifting his voice with good tunes. "Cherry Bomb" and "Underdog" are united by their great melodies. Fortunately, Spoon also had the good taste to bring in a horn section for both songs, accentuating the positive and lifting them higher into the pop stratosphere. These are two excellent songs, standing as twin towers over which the rest of the album is hung limply.

I don't have much else to add about Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, except to emphasize that I don't think it's a bad album. I don't think it's a great album, but these "filler" songs strewn across the few highlights aren't bad. They are solid, well-executed songs that aren't very memorable. Even great albums have anonymous songs. It's just that, on a greater album, there'd be less of them. Here they are the standard and the exceptions are the better songs. That doesn't make it a bad album, just an average one.