Rants + Raves

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…


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


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?


[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.

Danger Mouse’s Cinematic Mish-mash Somehow Works

Danger Mouse & Daniele Luppi | Rome
Capitol Records | May 2011

Upon first listen, there is no denying the influence of the spaghetti-western on Rome, the latest work from super-producer Danger Mouse (Danger/Doom, Gnarls Barkley, Broken Bells…the list goes on) and composer Daniele Luppi. But if you go further, the album reveals a film score connection with classic James Bond films; maybe more John Barry then Sergio Leone.

To continue it’s cinematic theme, Rome “casts” singers Jack White and Norah Jones in the lead roles; where White serves as an adequate male voice (think Johnny Depp replacing Clint Eastwood), this album really is more a coming out party for the talented, but heretofore reserved, Norah Jones. Ms. Jones is more than able to serve as the glue between Bond-esque tunes (“Season’s  Trees”, “Black”) and the Ennio Morricone-referencing “The Rose With the Broken Neck”, a tasteful duet with White.

Reportedly recorded in a church, this album has an airiness that sometimes runs the risk of floating away on its influences. There’s a little bit of everything here, and for those familiar with Danger Mouse’s varied and impressive catalog of work, some of this is (intentionally or not) self-referential. String work reminiscent of his work with Beck, vocal arrangements (“The World”) which James Mercer would be happy with in Broken Bells, soulful tempos Cee Lo could have wrapped his pipes around with Gnarls Barkley. Luppi’s contributions seem to give the work a more cosmopolitan, European flair – only adding to its widescreen, epic feel – despite its brevity (clocking in at a little over ½ an hour).

And yet, it still holds together – more so than another Mouse project, Dark Was the Night, his collaboration with director David Lynch and the late Mark Linkous (Sparklehorse). A short film, Rome is a flick that I enjoy hearing; perhaps White and Jones could even capture on the screen what seems to work in the studio – we’ll probably never know, and that’s ok.

Smells Like: 

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.

Smells Like:

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.

Smells Like:

Iron and Wine | Kiss Each Other Clean
Warner Brothers | January 2011

It’s easy to look at Iron and Wine musical development in terms of the listening to a radio on a farm.

Sam Beam now lives outside of Austin, but his roots are firmly in the South (born and raised in South Carolina), his early music reflecting Nick Drake-via-Appalachia on songs like “Southern Anthem” (from his first album, The Creek Drank the Cradle). Churches, crosses, the countryside and cattle – his low-fi, stripped-down songs like AM-radio lullabies to a rustic life.

But with each subsequent record, Iron and Wine continues to distance itself from Beam’s folk troubadour roots; on 2007’s The Shepherd’s Dog, they’d become more of a band, Beam’s trust in other musicians pushing their recordings into new territory – his radio had added the FM band.

Where Shepherd’s Dog was more sonically ambitious than its predecessors – Kiss Each Other Clean takes this ambition more than a step further – metaphorically embracing XM radio. This provides for interesting, if not always cohesive, results. It’s like a lot of strange new folks have come to visit the farm – providing funky bass lines (“Me and Lazarus”, “Monkeys Uptown”), and Fleetwood Mac-esque vocals and guitar (“Tree by the River”, “Half Moon”), and about as close to Radiohead as Beam will get (on the mini-epic “Your Fake Name is Good Enough for Me”).

And like The Shepherd’s Dog, the instrumentation continues to become more diverse. Though Beam isn’t quite the genre hopper that, say, Ariel Pink is, it seems as if track is intentionally imbued with a different feel, and a unique instrument to convey it.

There is still some of Beam’s seductive vocal whisper that introduced many to the band (the ubiquitous cover of The Postal Services’ “Such Great Heights”); but this is frequently replaced by the stronger, more confident delivery exhibited on Shepherd’s Dog – and even occasionally a growl (the somewhat out-of-place “Big Burned Hand”).

The record may not have the accessibility of earlier work, or of its new-folk contemporaries (say, The Decemberists’ The King is Dead), but – upon repeated listens, it is a far more cohesive than it initially seems. Its ramshackle held together by solid, if sometimes obscured melodies (and signature occasional F-bomb),  Clean is Beam’s “dirtiest”, if not funnest, record to date.

Smells Like:

Destroyer – Kaputt
Merge Records | 2011

When I was a kid, I remember seeing Barry White on a daytime talk show – curious to know what this bearded, unglamorous looking guy had to offer the entertainment world.

Then I heard him perform something from “Sheet Music” – one of the best album titles of all time, considering the “activities” White worked to stimulate. He was the “Maestro of Love”, and my burgeoning libido – on a primitive level – yearned to emulate him, as well as Marvin Gaye.

Well, apparently I wasn’t the only one. Dan Bejar had been the indie world’s Oscar Wilde until now (providing obtuse, abstract, satirical lyrics not only for his band Destroyer, but the New Pornographers as well), his sound sometimes glam, sometimes folk. That is until Kaputt, his band’s latest.

More than a few comparisons will be made to late-era Roxy Music and Steely Dan – which is definitely here. But that influence was more than hinted at on 2009’s Bay of Pigs EP (which is included on Kaputt – the 11:18 epic is a journey through Bejar’s influences).

But the bigger surprise to me is what sounds like the R & B singers of the same era. In the same way that Steely Dan (with their often underappreciated risqué references overlooked) referenced fusion-era jazz sonically while nodding slyly to drug-and-hooker nightlife in their lyrics – Kaputt wears Lou Rawls’ white suit and carries white powder, hangs with sexy backup singers, luring the listener with cocaine-dusted existential angst.

His band’s newest, Kaputt, still showcases his clever wordplay – but he’s a bit more laconic, his words now framed by saxophones, trumpets, synths, and bass lines (oh, the bass lines!) much more suited for late 70’s discotheques then hipster cafes.

And it all somehow works, fantastically. Bejar’s confidence convinces the listener that he – like Barry White – is the guy that the listener should spend the evening with. Bejar’s social criticism – repeating the theme of writing a “Song for America” – is still there. But he’s more suave than sarcastic – Destroyer making love to your mind.

Smells Like

Wire – Red Barked Tree
Pink Flag | January 2011

It’s no irony – Wire stopped being ironic with their inception – that the track “Two Minutes”, on their newest album Red Barked Tree, clocks in at 2:01. As the band’s website declares, they’ve been “confounding expectations” since the release of their debut, 1977’s Pink Flag.

“Two Minutes” is a career-defining moment: one that acknowledges the past (and Pink Flag’s 21 tracks, some under a minute long, were a harbinger for the age of Attention Deficit Disorder, sound bites, channel surfing) – but provides a “welcome to the age of fragmentation” – all while employing one of their signature sounds, industrial punk.

As a fan of the band (not just their debut), it always amused me when someone would declare their affection and appreciation for Pink Flag – as if that’s when Wire stopped defining what would come. Their second incarnation (in the 80’s) would signal the approaching industrial influence in pop music (culminating in records like My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless). The yin-yang braintrust of Colin Newman and Graham Lewis have always been ahead of the curve – their music career, to me, an infinite jest at the music industry’s expense.

Their present –and what could be considered third – incarnation (minus founding member/guitarist Bruce Gilbert) addresses, among other things, the aforementioned “fragmentation” (some say fracturization) of society, environmental issues – all very contemporary concerns.

But none of this would matter, really, if the songcraft wasn’t solid. And it is. Sonically, this might be one of Wire’s – dare I say – most listenable and accessible albums, with nods to their prior incarnations, but also some truly epic moments (“Adapt”, with treated piano and horn flourishes, is a thing of beauty), as well as more of the expected-unexpected (acoustic guitar!- on the title track).

Paradoxically, on Red Barked Tree, Wire continues to confound expectations by not confounding their potential audience – and that’s a good thing.

Smells Like:

The Decemberists Make a Prince of a Record

The Decemberists – The King is Dead
Capitol | Released January 18, 2011

Let’s face it – the Decemberists aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. They’ve fallen into the good graces of literary fans, literate celebrities (oxymoronic as that may be) and people who like pirate AND Victorian references delivered by the bar band that will forego the complimentary drinks until AFTER they’ve played. They’ve created the most clever lyrics this side of Stephen Merritt, and can still threaten to create a children’s book.

Well, I’m part of their target audience (an English teacher who loves Victorian literature!); but, as a long time fan (their debut, Castaways and Cutouts, is still one of my favorite albums), I have to admit to becoming less enthusiastic upon each successive release. Where their sound was still hyper-literate, their fragility was beginning to lose its appeal to me.

So it is with a welcome relief that The King is Dead features a band more comfortable showcasing its musical chops, rather than relegating them to frame Meloy’s wordplay.

Their sound isn’t heavy – like the more aggressive sound of their last release, The Hazards of Love – but simply fuller. Meloy’s often twee, and affected, vocal stylings (its distinctness being a sometimes blessing, sometime curse) have been somewhat tempered here – which might bother some longtime fans…but endear those who weren’t. Though Jenny Conlee has always provided perfectly capable female accompaniment (along with her solid work on keys and organ), there’s no denying that Gillian Welch’s presence brings an air of maturity that Meloy seems to be stepping up to. Their solid chemistry is apparent right off, with opening track “Don’t Carry it All”.

Rumor has it that this record was recorded in (near?) a barn – and that would explain many things, including the overall “twangi-ness” of this their 6th long player. This shows up in “Calamity Song” – where it’s impossible not to hear Peter Buck’s signature guitar sound (recalling Reckoning-era REM), and a more than healthy nod to the Southern roots of Americana. This trend continues with “Rise to Me” – lap steel (Mr. Chris Funk’s handiwork is subtly apparent throughout) carries this tune, with harmonica bookends.

“January Hymn” might be one of the prettiest songs they’ve created – no mean feat, a poetic way to signal the most contemplative season – and the creation of one of their richest records.

In the eyes of this fan, it’s good that the king is dead; long live the Decemberists.

Smells Like:


DBD Website Design