Rants + Raves

The daytime MusicFest NW shows broadcast live on KEXP have been great so far, and since I had my kids with me and the shows are all ages, I decided to bring ’em along. My son’s opening soccer game took precedence in the afternoon, so unfortunately we missed the Antlers noon-time set. Avi Buffalo was playing next, so after some cajoling, arm twisting and watching a couple of videos of the band, we hit the Doug Fir. I have to admit it was kind of fun showing the kids around the venue that I normally only visit late at night. We got some ice waters and settled into the lounge in back for the 30 minute set.

Avi Buffalo as a band are young, and really just kids themselves, but the songs written by Avi Zahner-Isenberg (many recorded in his home studio) have  traces and seedlings of many older artists carried within – musicians like Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and even the Pixies (Avi was wearing a Pixies t-shirt). The “pop” songs were all very pleasant and sometimes more complex as both time and chord changes borrowed from jazz crept into the mix, especially on their final song.

All in all, the kids liked the show – my son even a little more than my daughter. I think she saw through my clumsy attempts at getting her to start music lessons again by pointing out the cool drummer and bassist, both girls. Not the kids first concert (that was X/Knitters when they were just wee-nippers) but a fun afternoon of music. Afterwards we walked across the driveway to the MFNW Poster Show where poster artists from all over were selling limited edition concert posters – groovy stuff, though some might have been rated PG-13.

Avi Buffalo’s debut, self-titled  album is out now on SubPop.

Actually, there was nothing horrible about the 30 minute mid-morning set by UK goth-synth-shoegaze-pop phenom, The Horrors. Except that it could have been a little longer and the drums could have been a little softer. The Horrors wear their myriad influences proudly on their stylish sleeves, often times sounding (add looking) like the more up-beat cousins of the Brian Jonestown Massacre. They combine vintage synths, throbbing bass and fuzzed-out wall-of-guitar in a style all their own, while still feeling like the latest band in an evolutionary progression of british rock. See them tonight at Midnight at Dante’s. Really. Go see them–they’re great live.

Smells Like Pop hit the sweltering hot (literally) scene at Branx on Thursday Night for the Suuns, Talkdemonic and Handsome Furs shows, and then raced over to the practically empty midnight performance by EMA at Holocene. Suuns played a loud and revved-up set that was all over the place (good thing) sounding at times like Clinic, Can, Stereolab and more (good thing, too). We’re looking forward to hearing how their sound may get distilled into something immediately identifiable as Suuns. But, just as happy if they keep going as they are now.

Talkdemonic played a nice set of experimental noise pop, but suffered from the laptop disease that many bands today are infected with–I kept thinking how much better they’d sound with a couple more musicians on stage instead of having everything pre-recorded on a computer. But, hooray for the Macbook–it played a great set! Handsome Furs came on last like the Tasmanian Devil couple from Looney Tunes. To say they were wound-up is an understatement. In other words, “I want what they’re having.” The crazy energy of husband and wife, Dan Boeckner (Vocals & Guitar) and Alexei Perry (Synths & Beats) was almost unbelievable at the start, but their attitude and live sound quickly grew on me–it was a fun, danceable show! Go see them if you can…

I think we were expecting a lot from EMA–there’s been a lot of hype swirling around Erika M. Anderson for her recent solo record. Elements of the show were great, some good and some (like the sound and tuning of the drums) were a little flat. Her backing band looked like they felt a bit awkward which clashed with Anderson’s seeming comfort on stage. Late shows can be great or tough-going–let’s call this one somewhere in the middle.

Little Dragon played a short, but sweet 30 minute set at Doug Fir this morning for the KEXP live broadcast shows from MusicFest NW. With all of the schedule conflicts of the ‘Fest, it was nice to get a chance to see this band (my first time). Morning is a bit of strange time to head into the dark subterranean lair that is Doug Fir, and the time slot seemed like it might have had an effect on the band who experienced a couple of false-starts and timing issues. These were quickly shrugged-off and they sounded great otherwise – the smallish audience was very enthusiastic throughout. I just wish they would have played my favorite song of theirs, Looking Glass. If you want to hear them, you still have a chance tonight at 11:00pm at the Hawthorne Theater.

EMA – Past Life Martyred Saints
Souterrain Transmissions | May 2011

I admit that I checked out the EMA album because Pitchfork told me to (on their list of best-reviewed records). I didn’t know anything about them/her when I first listened to this noisy and dirge-like set of pop songs. Feedback and melodrama meet in equal parts to create a sound-space that could easily be at home in the late 80s, early 90s or even now. More likely “now” for an album recorded solo by a woman (gasp!) that seems inspired by Nirvana* (Anteroom), NIN (Milkman), and even Prince at his chattiest (California almost seems like a response to Purple Rain).

EMA or Erika M. Anderson is a former member of Los Angeles bands Amps For Christ, and Gowns, and this is her debut solo release. She uses her fragile and sometimes raspy/husky voice well as she sings and chants softly (sometimes loudly) over her songs of sadness, regret and maybe even hope? The lyrics seem purposely oblique and are for the most part mixed to work around and within the trance-like music and noise, adding to the overall sound instead of being framed by it.

The nine songs on the album at first seem quite long with their slow, churning builds (I’m a sucker for the beautiful and sad slow-build). Some are long, like the trance-inducing “The Grey Ship” at over seven minutes, but the pretty and brittle “Breakfast” is just over 3 minutes in length but seems much longer. The entire album clocks in at just 39 minutes which feels right – anything more would be exhausting. Coda is a stand-out track – an acapella Appalachian-esqe ditty than flows into echoing noisy guitar scrapes and drones that would be right at home on a Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs record. My apologies for referencing so many bands when trying to describe the sound of EMA. I think the comparisons are somewhat valid (and not just lazy writing), though I’m looking forward to future releases from EMA as she grows and expands as a songwriter, further developing her unique voice. Anderson was named an Artist to Watch by Rolling Stone and New Band of the Day by The Guardian among other accolades.

EMA will be performing live with a backing band at MusicFest NW. I’m excited to hear how her songs might fill-out or be expanded upon in a live setting versus the studio layering that created this very lovely album.

Smells Like:

*EMA recorded Nirvana’s Endless Nameless for Spin Magazine’s recent Nevermind Tribute Album. It’s a noisy, shambling caterwaul – nice!

I really like Steely Dan.[1] Over the past ten or fifteen years they have served a welcomed role as a recurring interest that unexpectedly returns every other year or so, always bringing new lyrics to unpack, unusually crafty musical phrases to discover, a previously buried yet thoroughly riveting guitar solo or even an entire song[2] that, for some reason, chose to remain hidden on previous listens.

Liking Steely Dan is not as divisive as it was a ten or fifteen years ago. Through the 80s and 90s, most everyone I knew dismissively grouped Steely Dan with the soft rock excess of the 70s (Fleetwood Mac, Seals and Crofts, etc.). Superficially, this is understandable. Steely Dan’s songs rely heavily on one or another of lilting sing-song choruses, ubiquitous 70s Rhodes piano (truly the paragon of offensive inoffensiveness), stiff white funk and, at times, even the slightly fey use of pseudo-exotic textures (bongos, light bossa nova rhythms, fake sitar, etc.). Somewhat surprisingly, however, time slowly rehabilitated Steely Dan and they are now regarded primarily in contrast to their inoffensive contemporaries and, as such, enjoy a general respect across the spectrum of outspoken music fans and critics.

But such rehabilitation inevitably resulted in a compromise that reduced Steely Dan to two fairly anemic signifiers: (1) an academic pursuit in the immaculate performance of complex song structures; and (2) a needling, biting sarcasm.[3] In other words, Steely Dan was welcomed back to the club of “serious” pop music so long as it assumed the role of the sardonic, pot-smoking prodigy in band camp who never lets you forget that he has a cooler record collection than you.

The musical aspect you have to appreciate (or not) for yourself. I am not sufficiently versed in music theory to do more than pretend to understand the true extent of their infamous unorthodox time signatures, what is really meant by “jazz chord progressions” or even how odd the elusive “mu chord”[4] really is. That said, a disproportionate number of my favorite guitar solos can be found in Steely Dan songs.[5]

Though easier to access, I posit that the true nature of their lyrics and, by extension, their twisted gestalt, is equally hard to put your finger on. Suffice to say that, dismissing Steely Dan as simple peddlers of “dark sarcasm” oversimplifies and soft sells what are, at heart, truly deranged songs.

Consider the following:

1. Their Name

Trivia time!  What do the bands Steely Dan, Soft Machine and Thin White Rope all have in common? That’s right!  They were all named in homage to beat writer William Burroughs.

“Steely Dan” was the name of a dildo that made a brief appearance in Burroughs’s “Naked Lunch.”[6] For a long time that was all I knew about Steely Dan the dildo and my hunch is that there a lot of people that know this piece of trivia that have never actually read “Naked Lunch.”  That is not intended as a slight — the book is simply hard to read.  It is a defiantly nonlinear shock piece with blatant button-pushing that can seem almost quaint in its dated and singular pursuit in alarming straight America.  Still, the book’s overall impact is impressively squalid, and it has a drug addict-as-nocturnal-amphibian motif that is uniquely unsettling.

But what of Steely Dan the dildo?

I don’t know if it is due to the slow normalization of pornography into the mainstream, but, to the extent that I thought about it, I think that I assumed that said dildo was relatively innocuous, perhaps repurposed as a non-sexual MacGuffin, neatly distanced from its lurid origin – perhaps filled with cash, state secrets or jewels.

It was only when I finally read Naked Lunch, that I realized both that this was my expectation, and just how wrong it was.  Steely Dan is a dildo.  Plain and simple.

As it turns out, we know a fair amount about “Steely Dan III from Yokohama.” For starters, we know the untimely fate of Steely Dan I (the victim of vaginal dentate) and Steely Dan II (chewed to bits by famished Candiru[7]). We also know that Steely Dan is rubber and, from context, we know that it is a strap on.

There is more.

It may give some readers comfort to know that Steely Dan III was used for heterosexual sex, somewhat of an anomaly in the cross-section of Burroughs’s writing that I am familiar with. “Whoosh!” I hear you exclaim. “I am certainly not homophobic, but I am glad that I can continue imaging Steely Dan as a traditional, innocuous suburban marital aid.”

Not so fast! In addition to squirting milk (huh?) in the brief time we know it, we see that Steely Dan III was used for….

…wait for it…

…wait for it…

pegging.

Not that there is anything wrong with that.

2. No One Is Ever In Love in Steely Dan Songs

I once read that Steely Dan has never written a love song. This is true, but simple. In my estimation, no Steely Dan song from their classic period utilizes love or desire as the motivating engine to the song or the characters housed within. Instead, Steely Dan songs tend to frame moments or narrative long after love and/or desire have given way to diseased obsession.

Take, for example, “Everyone’s Gone to the Movies,” in which middle-aged man in a suburban neighborhood invites the children to his den to watch 8mm pornographic film loops.[8] Or consider “Everything You Did,” which recounts (in the first person) a howling boyfriend’s rage towards a woman he suspects of cheating, uttered as he animalistically prowls about the apartment hunting down the scent of her potential lover. Consider “Dirty Work,” which chronicles an affair (or series of affairs?) in which the narrator appears so disinterested in the whole ordeal, that, despite the fact that he “foresees terrible trouble,” he simply “stays there just the same.”  No effort is exerted to end or preserve the illicit affair.

Even “Hey Nineteen,” which appears on its surface to be a quaint May-September romance between a man in his mid-30s and the titular subject, upon closer inspection reveals a creepy guy in a bar propositioning a parade of uninterested, unnamed younger women, trying in vain to ply them with promises of cocaine and tequila.[9]

Somewhat paradoxically, something resembling love can cruelly stir in the ashes once it is too late to be of any use.  Take “Charlie Freak” in which a homeless junkie is starving to death.  The narrator, a friend, buys Charlie’s gold ring – his sole prized possession – for “chicken feed.”  This leaves Charlie with sufficient money to score drugs.  Greedily, Charlie overdoses. Guilt-ridden, the remorseful narrator rushes to the scene in a belated attempt to right his wrong:

When I heard I grabbed a cab to where he lay
‘Round his arm the plastic tag read D.O.A.
Yes Jack, I gave it back
The ring I could not own
Now come my friend I’ll take your hand
And lead you home[10]

In the Steely Dan universe, there is no romantic love or even friendship – at best, just affection that belatedly manifests itself through remorse.

3. Their Lyrics Are Oddly Specific

Part and parcel of listening to Steely Dan is sorting through the incredible litany of proper references running the gamut from the mundane to the arcane. Far from being exhaustive, following is a modest first pass at a collection of Steely Dan oddities:

  • Locations. Camarillo (“Parker’s Band”); Barrytown (“Barrytown”); Guadalajara (“My Old School”); Hackensack and Lhasa (“Time out of Mind”); Muswellbrook (“Black Friday”); Scarsdale (“Hey 19”); Barbados (“Glamour Profession”)
  • Drinks. Black Cow (“Black Cow”); Cuervo Gold (“Hey 19”); kirschwasser (“Babylon Sisters”); retsina (“Home at Last”); scotch whisky (“Deacon Blues”); zombie (“Haitian Divorce”); grapefruit and cherry wine (“FM” and “Time Out of Mind,” respectively).
  • People.  Cathy Berberian (“Your Gold Teeth”); Jungle Jim (“Glamour Profession”); Mr. Parker (“Parker’s Band”); The Eagles (“Tell Me Everything”); Dr. Wu (“Dr Wu”).
  • Arcane slang.  Cheaters (glasses) (“Everyone’s Gone to the Movies”); chasing the dragon (smoking heroin) (“Time out of Mind”)
  • Cars.  Lark (“I Got the news”); El Dorado (“Daddy Don’t Live in that City No More”) Crystler (“Glamour Profession”);
  • Miscellaneous.  Luger (type of gun) (“With a Gun”); Fez; (“The Fez”); and Banyan Trees (“Aja”).[11]

And so on.

The listeners’ natural inclination to substitute themselves in the narrator’s dominating role is obviated by this stream of specificities, ultimately forcing the listener to into a role as pure spectator. In this way the documentary realism that is conjured by such specificities dissolves the escapism that forms a large part of the promise of popular music.[12]

In fact, out of the murk of the blatantly fictional tales of lowlifes and double crossers come some actual documentaries. Dr. Wu is an ode to Doctor Jing Nuan Wu, the doctor that eased Fagen and Becker from years of drug addiction.  “Kid Charlemagne” is a not-so-thinly disguised tale of 1960s Bay Area drug chemist Owsley Stanley who brewed and supplied the LSD that backdropped the Bay Area Summer of Love. Naturally, Stanly supplied to, among others, the Merry Pranksters in their “Technicolor mobile home,” the Grateful Dead[13] and the Jefferson Airplane.[14]

More documentary realism? Consider the following lyrics:

Clean this mess up else we’ll all end up in jail
Those test tubes and the scale
Just get them all out of here
Is there gas in the car
Yes, there’s gas in the car[15]
I think the people down the hall
Know who you are

In 1967, Stanley’s Orinda lab was raided and he was arrested after his car ran out of gas during a high-speed pursuit. Seriously.

4.  Their Songs Switch Time and Perspective Without Warning.

True to their beat-inspired name (see above), many Steely Dan songs appear inspired by a Burroughs-esq “cut-up and fold in” technique whereby essential portions of the narrative are dropped, narrative perspective is switched and time is unexpectedly collapsed. In an attempt to assimilate this narrative discordance, the listener fabricates a false narrative that attempts to string together these disparate parts in a logical fashion. It is for this reason that close listens to Steely Dan songs often reveal a much darker narrative, if not one counter to first impressions.

For example, the verses to “Everyone’s Gone to the Movies” are issued by a barker that is encouraging neighborhood kids into Mr. LaPage’s den to view pornographic movies. After the kids arrive, he swears them to silence:

Kids if you want some fun
Mr. LaPage is your man
He’s always laughing, having fun
Showing his films in the den
Come on, come on
Soon you will be eighteen
I think you know what I mean
Don’t tell your mama
Your daddy or mama
They’ll never know where you been

Once sworn to silence, the narrative abruptly switches to the point of view of the parents of the missing children, who perversely celebrate being temporarily relieved of their children:

Everyone’s gone to the movies
Now we’re alone at last

Conversely, “Kid Charlemange” starts with an all-knowing narrator addressing Oswald Stanley’s and recapping his rise and fall. After the stellar guitar solo, it switches to what is either an urgent first person discourse with an unnamed cohort up through, or a deranged and slightly psychotic internal dialogue.[16] Either way, the effect is unsettling.

At times the dropped lyrics add an awful sense of urgency, as with the domestic abuse saga of “Everything You Did.” The first time we hear the pseudo-chorus (“I never knew you/You were a roller skater/You gonna show me later”) it is followed by the infamous “Turn up the Eagles the neighbors are listening.” Why turn up the radio?  Likely because of some thing that is about to happen, likely a rape or a beating. It is unclear, but, through context, we know that whatever happens while the Eagles were blaring actually happens. How do we know this? Because that line is dropped in the next chorus. The negative space where that lyric was tells us that event is over.

The song is not a meditation on an idea, but rather an event in progress.

5. They Throw Themselves Into The Mix

Many Steely Dan songs are written with the immediacy of the first person, which can be disconcerting when the narrator is the gun-waiving domestic abuser in “Everything You Did,” or the sexually desperate thirty-something in “Hey Nineteen” or the probable child-abuser in “Everyone’s Gone to the Movie.” But hey, this is Art.  No one really thinks that Nabokov was an monomaniacal pedophile, or that Nick Cave aspired to be the merciless killers strung throughout “Muder Ballads.” Similarly, we give artistic license to Donald Fagen to sing in the first person and generally do him the courtesy of not assuming that his tales are autobiographical or, for that matter, wish-fulfillment.

Except for sometimes they are.

Fact: Donald Fagen and Walter Becker attended school at Bard College at Annandale on the Hudson, New York.  They played together in several rock combos on campus, including some early shows with Chevy Chase playing drums.  In 1969 there was a drug raid at Bard, in which some fifty-odd students were arrested for possession of marijuana, including Walter Becker, Donald Fagen’s visiting girlfriend, and, depending on the report you read, Donald Fagen himself. The arrestees were booked, had their heads traumatically shaved and, for the most part, were released shortly thereafter when bail was met by Bard college.

That is, except for Fagen’s then-girlfriend, who was not a Bard student and was thus not bailed by the college. It was also rumored on campus that Bard administration was complicit in the raid, even going so far as to assist in the police with the discrete placement of undercover police officers amongst its students.

This made the youthful Donald Fagen very angry. He refused to graduate[17] with his class and publicly stated that he never return to the campus

He also wrote a song called “My Old School.”

California tumbles into the sea
That’ll be the day I go
Back to Annandale

And

Oleanders growing outside her door
Soon they’re gonna be in bloom
Up in Annandale
I can’t stand her
Doing what she did before
Living like a gypsy queen
In a fairy tale

Harsh words.

Of course he didn’t hate everyone at Bard. In fact, the young wife of one of his instructors was apparently the subject of an unrequited offering. He awkwardly asked her to call him and gave her his phone number. She, pregnant and decidedly non-foolish, declined to do so.

Shortly thereafter, Donald Fagen left Bard to become a star while Rikki Ducornet stayed at Bard unwittingly passing the moments until she would be forever enshrined in song.

* * *

Mr. Fagen, let me get this straight. You named your band after a dildo. You focus on squalor, singing about lowlifes one second then yourself the next. Then you sing about people you actually know, rendering them all but indistinguishable from the losers in your songs. Then, in the end, you actually identify them by name.

Look. I am not going to petition for revocation your artistic license yet. But I am keeping an eye on you.

Keep it clean, okay?

[hr]

[1] This article focuses on Steely Dan’s seven albums between 1972’s “Can’t Buy A thrill” and 1980’s “Gaucho.”  While I do like what I have heard of the few studio albums they have thus far recorded in their second wave (2000 to the present), it is the work of a band with different obsessions.  As such, analysis of these later albums demands a different interpretive lens.

[2] For example, how had I heard “Pretzel Logic” dozens of times but never before appreciated the near-perfect gem “Charlie Freak”?

[3] For example, All Music Guide introduces Steely Dan as purveyors of “ironic humor and cryptic lyrics” with “a sophisticated, distinctive sound with accessible melodic hooks, complex harmonies and time signatures.”  Wikipedia’s introductory paragraph pairs their “complex jazz-influenced structures and harmonies” and their “cerebral, wry and eccentric” lyrics.  In the Yacht Rock episode “FM” Steve Huey describes Steely Dan as equally famous for their “studio perfectionism” and “dark sarcastic” lyrics.  (For those not in the know, “Yacht Rock” is a series of five-minute internet film clips mythologizing the rise and popularity of Los Angeles soft rock in the mid to late seventies.  The episodes are uniformly hilarious and, while the details and interactions are fictionalized, the core facts are not.  “FM,” the final episode of the first run, lovingly details a mock-feud between Steely Dan and The Eagles.

[4] Could I make that up?

[5] Yes, I really do keep such a list.  And on that list is “Reelin’ in the Years,” “Kid Charlemange,” “Kings,” and just about anything off of “Countdown to Ecstasy” (maybe the best guitar album ever), most notably the solo that accompanies the piano-based instrumental mid-section of “The Boston Rag.” Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, wherever you are, you are awesome.

[6] “The Soft Machine” is the name of one of Burroughs’ books, a name for the human body, and “thin white rope” is a clever name for ejaculate taken from “Naked Lunch.”

[7] Candiru are terrible, terrible Amazonian fish that are infamous for seeking warmth in streams of urine and, on occasion, irretrievably lodging themselves in the urethra of hapless men. I am pleased to report that this is largely rumor, though there is a single documented case of exactly this terrible, terrible thing happening. (Click through for pictures!)

[8] Mercifully, the song eliminates any real indication as to whether or not Mr. LaPage is molesting these children. Though the fact that the narrator sounds like a barker recruited to bringing in the kids combined though the line “to teach you a new game to play” isn’t very promising.

[9] My father disputes my interpretation of this song, sticking to the notion that it is a wry recount of wholly pleasant relationship that is simply doomed by an insurmountable age gap. While there is no true answer, I challenge anyone to find a concrete indication in the song that there is an actual relationship between a specific woman and the narrator, rather than what is most likely a series of increasingly desperate and unsuccessful propositions. On the other hand, such a relationship could be the subject of “Almost Gothic,” from the later, more mature, Steely Dan. (Comparing “Hey Nineteen” and “Almost Gothic” reveals the differences between Steely Dan pre and post break up – where the former completely substitutes desperation for desire, the latter practically crackles.  And shamelessly contains the following line: “This house of desire is built foursquare (The city – the cleanest kitten in the city).”)

[10] In what might be Steely Dan’s most cynical gesture, this verse is underscored by sleigh bells.  Sigh.

[11] Thanks to “The Steely Dan Dictionary.” Great site!

[12] I have heard it suggested that Donald Fagen was a bookish miscreant who was conspicuously writing his way into a premature and unearned worldliness. On the other hand, perhaps each reference its own kind of slight against a spiritually bereft materialism (as the reference to the Eagles in “Tell me Everything” almost certainly was). In any event, their relative silence outside the studio served them well for years.  Unfortunately, in 2006 they penned an open letter to Owen Wilson claiming that his movie “You, Me and Dupree” ripped off their song “Cousin Dupree.”  In my opinion, the letter is absurd – full of juvenile sarcasm and pointless insults. (Here is my open letter to pop stars: Unless you are Keith Richards, don’t write open letters.”)

[13] Far from just a drug chef, Stanley was innovative in creating the booming and full sound that played an integral part in creating the live Grateful Dead empire in the late 60s.  Purportedly, it was also Stanley that brainstormed the invention of a mic-splitter that fed directly into both the PA and record inputs with no loss of quality.  Ron Wickersham went on to invent such a mic-splitter which is credited, in part, with providing the sparkling clear sound of “Live/Dead,” one of the best sounding live albums of the psychedelic era.

[14] The Airplane’s “Bear Melt” was purportedly named in tribute to Stanley, commemorating his imposing stance (attributable in part to his pure carnivore diet). Frank Zappa’s “Who Needs the Peace Corps” also name-checks Stanley, though, unsurprisingly, with a bit more derision (“I’ll go to Frisco, buy a wig and sleep on Owsley’s floor”).

[15] The singing of this couplet is my favorite single moment in all of popular music.

[16] On second thought, are these verses in the second person? I am still guessing not – there is evidence that Owsley himself had a passenger when he was arrested, presumably the person the “gas in the car” conversation is with.  Still, I like the thought that it is an internal narrative rather than an external.

[17] Though apparently he attended graduation, and sat out in the audience with his father. I assume that was just to be sure that everyone knew it was a boycott, and not that he was unable to graduate for some reason.

Beastie Boys | Hot Sauce Committee Part Two
Capitol Records | May 2011

I have to admit that I haven’t listened to the previous Beastie Boys’ album, “To the Five Boroughs” so my last exposure to their mix of hip-hop, punk and lounge (yes, lounge!) was with “Hello Nasty” from the late 90s and 2007’s somehwat less satisfying collection of grooving jams, “The Mix Up.”

But, the Beasties are back, and on the surface it’s like they never left. The album’s tracks may at first sound familiar, full of snark and witty word-play, but the textures are more sophisticated and the grooves more indelible than past albums. “Make Some Noise” starts with some noodling 80s sounding keyboard lines then breaks into a perky Super Mario-worthy synth riff with some old school raps that only Ad-rock, Mike D and MCA can deliver – Ad-rock often sounding like an amphetimine-riddled Dana Carvey doing his best George W. Bush and Ross Perot (Hello SEO!)

the robotic vocoded chorus comes in and demands that you play this song really, really loud on your car stereo speakers.

“OK” starts with some chugging synth riffs and then slowly builds with all three Beaties adding their voices to the mix until the robotic vocoded chorus comes in and demands that you play this song really, really loud on your car stereo speakers. “Yeh, yeh, right, right, OK!” It’s this year’s “Intergalactic”. But then it stops short at just under three minutes and moves right into “Too Many Rappers”, a boasting rap heavy on the flange filter that sounds at once serious and toungue in cheek, “Grandpa been wrapping since Eighty-thre-e-ee!” Oy, that old boy is me! Being roughly the same age as the Beastie Boys, I think I must be squarely in their target audience, having just the right perspective of hearing them since their first singles on college radio to their current more rounded sound, and having travelled (maybe) the same expanding musical path.

I can hear hints of TV on the Radio and other contemporary Brooklynites in their more rocking songs like “Lee Majors Come Again” with its fuzzed-out bass, bits and pieces of 70s exploitation soundtracks, and even Parliament on “Funky Donkey” which sounds like a George Clinton outake – it just needs Bootsy on bass to complete the picture. “Don’t Play No Game That I Can’t Win” featuring Santogold is a great Summer party song with an infectious melting-pot groove that will appeal to both party boyz and party girlz. Of course, there’s plenty of silly to offset the serious grooves, “Crazy Ass Shit,” and “The Larry Routine” among others.

I could explain how this album is “reportedly” from 2009 and should be called Part One and that Part Two was also recorded but never released, but…you can read all that somewhere else. And you can also read that it was postponed because of Adam Yaunch’s battle with cancer, but let’s just say that he’s beat the big C and we’re very glad. I’m also glad that the Beastie Boys are back with a more nuanced and mature weave to their silly space-age hip-hop fabric.

Smells Like 

Radiohead | The King of Limbs
TBD Records | March 29, 2011

As I’m sitting here listening to a copy of Radiohead’s latest outing, The King of Limbs and getting ready to make some sort of commentary about it, I wanted to bring up two quick points:

A) Writing a review of a Radiohead album is like asking to be used as a human piñata in every hip neighborhood in the known world, and

B) I have been known for many years as The Guy Who Doesn’t Like Radiohead!

That said … I have always respected Radiohead. I find their melding of Rock and Pop with heavy experimental to be note-worthy and enviable. Their pioneering, along with Einsturzende Neubauten, of new paradigms for distribution and listener involvement in the album making and releasing process is work that might actually save the world, or at least the musical part of it… I mean, I even own a clear vinyl, limited edition 7″ of Creep. Everything about Radiohead screams my name is several different languages. But honestly, and sadly, since Kid A, I have just never actually been able to get into the music itself.

Honestly, The King of Limbs has changed all of that. Sure, some of the elements that have always turned me off are still here: The skittering, distorted jungle/dubstep influenced beats that should have been laid to rest in 1998 are still there, but have been toned back and mixed in to be more just a chaotic element of the overall sound picture rather than a statement in themselves, and are honestly in rather short supply; a good thing in my book. Thom Yorke is still taking everything in a falsetto, but sounds more inside his voice than in some previous releases.

About that falsetto. Yorke, unfortunately, is in the difficult position of having to sing over what are basically soundscapes. Melodically, there is nothing for a singer to hold onto, and it forces the singer to stretch the vocal melodies and lyrics into long, oblique phrases that are hard to get your head around as being ‘vocals’. The voice simply becomes another instrument in the overall sound picture. On the King of Limbs, Yorke not only fills this difficult position with aplomb and taste, but manages to actually make it sound effortless and good. On other Radiohead albums, it sounded like a lot of work. Here, it just comes across as a natural extension of everything else around it, and quite strikingly beautiful actually.

The musical background is fantastic and approaches the best of Eno’s ambient work in it’s simultaneous depth, simplicity, and utter lack of ego. There are no big solos here, no ‘look at what a fantastic Guitarist/Singer I am’. All of the instrumentation, including the voice, works together flawlessly to create a unified sound picture. Radiohead is working together here to create and evolve a definition of what Radiohead is as a unit, and to do justice to their collective concept of sound and music, not to push a collection of amplified personalities. It works beautifully. Guitars, synths, bass and processing fade in and out of each other and you stop listening for distinct parts and just listen to the music as a whole.

OK. As  for the stars. I don’t often give anything a perfect rating. To me, a perfect rating means an album that is not only good, but somehow changes my perception of music, how it’s made, and at best inspires me not only as a listener but as a composer. The King of Limbs did just this for me. While longtime Radiohead fans might disagree, holding up OK Computer or Amnesiac as better albums, King of Limbs for me is a defining moment; the moment where I finally ‘got’ Radiohead. I might actually delve into some of their older releases I have ignored for years.

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Just over a year ago, I learned about Vic Chesnutt’s suicide on the radio:  “Those of us who work on Fresh Air were upset and shocked…” The usually unflappable Terry Gross sounded shaken by the news, having interviewed the enigmatic singer just a month prior. He had told her the story of his southern childhood and its sudden about-face when he was partially paralyzed in a one-car accident. He had played “Flirted With You All My Life,” explaining that the intensely personal and bittersweet tune was a “break-up song with death.” He had even told her about his past attempts at suicide, joking, “it didn’t take.” Vic’s ability to craft stories with quirky wordsmithing and self-deprecating humor came through just as much in his interview as in his songwriting, and Terry Gross, like so many fans he left behind, was clearly charmed.

I first came across Vic Chesnutt in 1993’s Drunk, a carousing album that showcases Vic’s style in full-blown fury. An acquired taste for some listeners, for me his strained vocals over minimalist guitar chording (both aspects were due to the physical consequences of his accident) created a mesmerizing effect. This album swings from eccentric musings to raucous outbursts, and it brought to mind what would happen if David Sedaris were locked in a room too long with Tom Waits and Shane McGowan of The Pogues. Witness the fucked-up glorious spectacle in “Gluefoot”:  “Cross my heart/ Cross my eyes/ Stick a needle in my thigh/ Drop kicked my unscrewed lid and fiddled fiddled fiddled with what’s inside/ A rusty mass of mechinations….” The title track that follows is what might result if that same crew crashed an AA meeting. Denial it ain’t.

I was lucky to see Vic in concert several years later, sharing the stage with his friend Kristen Hersh (of Throwing Muses and 50foot Wave). They took turns playing acoustic songs, one building on a theme from the other.  Both were remarkable, but even Hersh would acknowledge that her poetic mania seemed dim alongside Vic’s scintillating wit, as he joked with the audience and sketched stark images with his lyrics. It is perhaps this latter quality that has attracted the most attention over the years—some have likened his songs to classic southern novels. Whether this is apt or not, he certainly was able to evoke a sense of time and place as so few of his contemporaries can (my favorite example is 2009’s “Sewing Machine,” recalling a childhood in a simpler time).  His songs are sometimes melancholy testaments to decay (as in “Degenerate”), at other times veering toward the downright goofy (“…we were laughing at Dapper Dan/ We were happy as giant clams…We were bumping our birth-marks/ we were happy as lilting larks” –“Society Sue”). As Michael Stipe pointed out, it is the unusual turns of phrase at the core of his songs that make them so oddly compelling.

Perhaps the greatest measure of Vic Chesnutt’s artistry was the company he kept. He became a core member of the Athens, Georgia music scene, accompanied by locals Widespread Panic, and more recently, Elf Power. In 1996, the tribute album Sweet Relief 2 was released, featuring Chesnutt covers by artists ranging from Garbage to Smashing Pumpkins to Madonna (!). The fact that so many musicians wanted to pay tribute and collaborate with him, usually in the role of back-up to his idiosyncratic vocals, reveals the level to which he was in reality an artist’s artist. His commercial success was always limited, and he was dogged by financial troubles from past-due medical bills for the remainder of his life. Yet he continued to crank out albums, eighteen in all, and collaborations with The Cowboy Junkies (who just released a tribute album of their own this month) and the ageless Jonathan Richman were in the works. If anything, Vic’s creative energies were on the rise toward end of his life, having released three albums in a year’s stretch. “He was on such a burn,” Fugazi’s Guy Piccioto said to Terri Gross, that he instructed his fellow musicians to not let him have his guitar at night, because he needed rest.  “The music was pouring out of him.”

To me, it is incredibly sad that in such musical genius as Vic Chesnutt’s were also the seeds of his self-annihilation. Apparently, his friends were trying to get him the help he needed, having recognized worrying signs in his escalating behavior, but it arrived too late. He left a community of musicians and fans deeply appreciative of his contributions and long in mourning.

PJ Harvey – Let England Shake
Vagrant Records | February 2011

Polly Jean Harvey has never been an artist cautious in her approach, or particularly concerned with what her listeners might think of her sound. She’s been making her own path in the music world since her debut album, Dry for which Rolling Stone called the then-22-year-old Harvey the year’s Best Songwriter and Best New Female Singer. Raw, emotionally-bare, experimental, shocking, but always beautiful, even when the guitars are shredding and the drums are blasting like cannons. Her follow-up, Rid of Me took the back-and-forth of sober beauty and rock bombast to new heights – loud-soft-loud-soft was the sound of the 90s.

Since 1993, PJ Harvey has been recording as a solo artist (without her original trio) but often with songwriting partner, John Parrish and producer Flood. Her latest album is no exception, but instead of a recording in a studio, it was recorded live in a medieval church in Dorset, England. The location adds a haunting spaciousness to the album.

The other addition to the mix is multi-instrumentalist, Mick Harvey (no relation) a founding member of The Birthday Party, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Crime and the City Solution and his own solo band. He has an incredible ability to play just the right sounds in just the right spots, loud or quiet. When I look through my album collection, seeing his name in the credits is almost always a guarantee of quality music. Of course, I can say the same thing about PJ Harvey, and I sometimes think of her as the female Nick Cave, another artist who can straddle genres and make timeless works that often explores the dark side of the human soul. Of course, PJ Harvey has worked with both Nick Cave and Mick Harvey numerous times before.

There’s been much spoken in the media about the themes of this album being war, inhumanity and murder, and the way they are sung about in a sometimes girlish sing-song voice with melodies and instrumentation to match. Harvey herself has said that she had done a great deal of research into war, particularly the campaign in Galipoli, but not all of the lyrics are strictly about England’s participation in global conflicts. At times the album sounds like an elegy for the entire modern world. On “The Last Living Rose,” her high, restrained voice seems to rise above the now and become timeless, almost like someone looking back at our society from a bleak and burned-out future. Many of the songs unfurl with a fiery impassioned wail from Harvey that speaks of pain and loss, and maybe thoughts of what could have been.

While many of the songs seem simple at first, they slowly reveal a depth and clarity that can only have been brought forth from an artist in complete control of her craft, having perfected it over the last 20 years. When PJ Harvey and John Parish sing the call-and-response of, “What is the glorious fruit of our land? The fruit is England’s children” it sounds at once like a gospel chant, a lament, a nursery rhyme, and a hymn. Or maybe a workingman’s folk-song from a by-gone time.

Polly Jean Harvey has created a sad, yet beautiful album, wherein she pushes her voice bravely in a way that sounds neither false nor pretentious, even when at its emotional rawest, or at its most conceptually constrained. I was listening to the album for the third time while watching an online slideshow of the massive protests in Egypt that removed Mubarek, and it created a perfect emotional pairing that brought a bit of a tear to my eyes. Different geographical settings, but very similar emotions.

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