Monday, November 5, 2007

Interview: The Black Lips (July 20, 2007 @ Silent Barn)

The first time I saw the Black Lips was at the Bowery Ballroom on March 26 where they opened for the Ponys. I didn’t get around to hearing Let it Bloom until December of the past year and although I enjoyed it, for some reason it did not stick with me until I saw the Black Lips live. As I look back on past posts over the course of the year, I’ve come to realize this is a trend for me. Naturally, my first impression of these Atlanta natives was that they literally crawled out from some backwater swamp, found instruments lying on the side of the road and began to tinker with them. Considering that their wild stage antics ranged from vomiting, bleeding, kissing each other, voluntary nudity and fireworks being lit off as well as stories coming from their soon to be legendary performance in Tijuana, it is understandable how I would come to that conclusion. That was the legend I created for myself and it made the performance all the more enjoyable. Not to say that I wanted to reduce these guys to the role of court jester disposable for my personal enjoyment. They are too good of songwriters and performers for that to be the case and their recent performance at the Silent Barn on July 20th and Sirenfest at Coney Island on July 21st were proof of that.

I caught up first with Ian of the Black Lips after the show and then managed to scrounge up the remaining three after Ian left to chase a ladyfriend. The Lips talked openly about their dirty stage antics, drug habits, musical influences, and whether they will be playing as long as the New York Dolls have.

Black Lips Interview Part I: Ian St. Pe

Culture Vulture:
How’d you feel about the crowd tonight?

Ian St. Pe: I thought the crowd was amazing. What I really loved about it was the intimacy of how short the stage was and the interaction between the band and the crowd and what the crowd goes back to the band. Cause the problem with a lot of venues, not even a lot of venues, not that we are that big or anything, but we are playing stages that suck the life out of music. It’s not about just the music it’s about the interaction between the band and the crowd. When you have a high ass stage it doesn’t matter how good the crowd is or how good the band is. There’s no connection. There can’t be. With a crowd like tonight, with a stage like tonight, and with a band like tonight, it was all one. So, yeah, tonight was amazing man.

CV: Yeah I prefer smaller venues exactly for that reason. Is that a common sight at your shows?

Not to be boastful…but yeah.

I thought so.

Ian: (laughing) Yeah. I love what I do.

What’s the difference between “flower-punk,” as you guys have coined it, and “regular” punk? Why are you guys flower punk?

Ian: What I would think the difference between the two is that we are to punk to be hippie, but man, we’re too hippie to be punk.

Why is that?

Because we love people. We hug. We kiss. We like drugs. We’re not so pissed off at the world. Everyone has been dealt a losing hand. That’s just life. You have to take that losing hand and turn it into something. And you can either be just pissed off, and I think that’s regular punk. Or, just deal with it and have a good fucking time. And that’s what we do. We fucking hate everything. But at the same time we love everything. So we’re too wimpy to be punk but too punk to be wimpy.

CV: You hate society. You love people.

Yeah, there we are. That’s good.

What are you listening to right now?

Ian: At the very moment I’m listening to Porter Wagoner’s Rubber Room. He’s actually opening up for the White Stripes on Tuesday. I’m tempted to go. But, I listen to a lot of country and a lot of blues. I mean…you always hear that’s the root of rock and roll. I don’t care if it is. I think it is. And because I think it is, that’s what I listen to.

I noticed that you guys were a little more country tonight. Are you going in that direction for the new album?

Ian: Ah, I don’t think that the new album necessarily is more country, but, it’s something that we love and I definitely think you’ll see more of it in our future. On our new record we actually went out to the sticks of Georgia and we found this old country bar room and we became friends with this country band called the Joe Tucker Band and we befriended the pedal steel player. He actually plays on our new album. Just one song. It’s called “How Do You a Child That Someone Has Died?” We played it tonight but on the record it’s more country with a pedal steel. So, yeah country is definitely something we will always do or get more into. When people say, “what kind of music are you into?” I say I’m into good music. Of course, that’s for the interpreter to decipher but I’m into good music and yes, country is one of those things so yeah we will play country in our future.

CV: How do you feel about the New York scene as compared the Atlanta scene? Especially with bands like Deerhunter and tonight, the Coathangers…

(enthusiastic) Yeah, yeah…

Fellow Atlantians, “Hot”lantians if you will. What are your feelings on the scene and why is different than New York?

Are you asking me “why do I think Atlanta is a new hotbed for creativity?”

CV: Yeah.

Ian: Well one reason I think is that people are in search for something when they come to New York. They are trying to make that deal. They are trying to make that connection. In Atlanta, we’re just living. We’re living cheap. We’re living large. It’s Hotlanta. It’s cool you know? Sure, there’s aspirations out of the ass, but there’s no preconceived notions. You know? We’re in the Southern town living our Southern laid back ways. Doing our thing. I think that shows. It happened in rap and now it’s happening in rock right now. I think it’s creeping up because people are trying so hard elsewhere but we’re just laid back down in the South. And it’s just happening and people are like “oh shit!” and it’s fresh because we’re just doing it and not trying.

CV: So, the South shall rise again?

Ian: I would say so. I would like to say so.

You guys are known for your stage antics. What are the dirtiest things you’ve guys done on stage? I’m thinking of the Tijuana show that got out of hand.

To say what the dirtiest thing we has done I can’t say. On any given night, I’m fair game. I’m fair game for anything.

How do you feel about Sirenfest tomorrow?

Ian: You know, I don’t know to much about it and it seems to be an important thing to happen in New York and I only say that because that is what people have told me but I only say that because that is what people have told me. I really have no idea. It’s at Coney Island and more importantly I heard Coney Island is shutting down. So, I’m very excited that we get to play the last Sirenfest as Coney Island. I’m going to ride the Cyclone. So yeah, I’m excited. And I’m excited to see M.I.A. and you know, the New York Dolls. I love them. There are only two original members left but god damn man, if I was last original band of some band, yeah man, I would do it too. So good for them.

Do you think the Black Lips will end up thirty years from now still playing?

Ian: Uh, not to sound clichéd, but, if we can keep it together…I mean, I’m sure we’ll go through our breakups and problems but as long as we don’t die I guess we will be there in thirty years. But I mean, then again the New York Dolls. If one of us is still alive we’ll keep it going.

CV: My final question, when’s the new album coming out?

I’m glad you asked me that. The new album is dropping September 11. It’s called Good Bad Not Evil on Vice Records.

Ian, thank you very much.

Thank you.

Part II: Cole Alexander, Jared Swilley and Joe Bradley

CV: Good show tonight guys. What did you think about the crowd tonight?

Jared: Uh they were awesome. I mean it was difficult to play but they were in stellar form.

I noticed the guy jumping on your back tonight. That’s a common occurrence I take?

Was that OJ?

It’s OJ.

(laughing) Yeah he did that like a year ago. It’s like “damn it man, you already done this shit!”

Yeah, he likes it.

But, yeah he played in the first band [Golden Triangle] tonight and I thought they were really good. We’ve known them for a while.
[Drug dealer comes up to the band]

We trying to get that dime?

Yeah man, some good shit. We’re trying to get sold some drugs during the interview.

(laughter) Oh, alright don’t mind me.

We’re straight though.

Drug dealer: From Bushwick son. Fuckin’ hood.

Cole: You want to give a shout out? You know what, let him give a shout out.


Drug dealer:
I give a shout out man to all my people from Brooklyn. We in Bushwick right now. Shit goes down man. We shoot at the cops over here. You already know.

See, we play where all the motherfuckers shoot at the cops and shit.
Drug dealer: We got that bud. That purple haze.

Black Lips:
(break into laughter)

Ok, you guys are self-proclaimed flower punk. I asked Ian this already. What’s the difference between flower punk as opposed to regular punk?

Jared: Well we love punk rock but we also love like pop, flowers, rainbows and ice cream. You know, wimpy stuff.

Joe: And mares.

So it’s like a melding between tough guy shit, which we don’t really like all too much but we kinda do and like wimpy, sappy shit, which we also don’t really like too much but kinda do so we form a middle ground. You know, it’s like when the Germs covered “Sugar Sugar” by the Archies. Something like that.

From what I gathered from Ian, you guys hate society but you sure love people.

Jared: Yeah that actually sums it up. We love people. We hate the shit that goes on.

Joe: (skeptical) I mean, I dunno. It goes both ways. There are good parts to society.

Yeah, of course. One thing we learned about traveling across the world is that everyone is the same and that everyone can get along.

Tonight I noticed you guys were heading towards more of a country sound. Is that on the new album?

Some of that yeah. We’ve always played country, you know, we’re from Georgia and New Orleans respectively, so yeah it’s always been a core influence.

We like to keep it versatile as well.

CV: One song I particular like from you guys on the last album [Let it Bloom] is “Empassant” because it reminds me of the Southern Gothic. I’m sure you’re familiar with that term.

Jared: Yeah I am.

CV: Well, it’s a dark song and the references ranging from Tammy Faye, abortion, Iraq…etc have this sinister feel. Care to elaborate?

Jared: Actually, Tammy Faye is a good friend of my family. I knew her when I was a kid and when her husband went to jail her son had to move in with my family. The whole Southern heritage thing definitely runs deep with us. That comes out a lot. A lot of our songs are a little morose but we try to do them in a positive way. We like happy sad stuff. We like mixing extremes.

Joe and Cole:
(in agreement) Yeah.

What do you think the difference is between the New York scene and the Atlanta scene?

Well the New York scene is a lot bigger. The Atlanta scene is more small and closed. And like, it’s a lot more integrated in Atlanta because so it’s so little and people have to integrate just to make one cohesive show. So, yeah it’s just a lot smaller really.

People in New York dress up a lot more (laughing.) It’s fun though.

Oh yeah? Well, it’s hotter down south.
Black Lips: (in agreement) Oh yeah, yeah, yeah.

How are you guys feeling about Sirenfest tomorrow?

Jared: I’m excited. We’ve played very few of those big outdoor festivals so this is like our third or something.

Yeah I’ll probably get to go to Coney Island before they rip it down.

Yeah, me too.

Are you going to ride the Cyclone?

Jared: We have an unlimited pass ride so I think I will ride it about 42 times. It’ll be cool to see New York Dolls too. And, I want to see M.I.A.

Speaking of, New York Dolls are still around. Will the Black Lips be around thirty years from now?


Uhh, I dunno (laughing looking at Jared and Cole)


(laughing) Possibly. It depends on the money situation.

Yeah. We’ll see about that cash.

Here we have a clip of "Katrina" live at Silent Barn

And here we have them playing the same song on Conan

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Happy Halloween from the Misfits

Here we have the Danzig era lineup. This was probably sometime in 1982 because ex-Black Flag drummer Robo is said to have just joined. Alas, when will he and Jerry Only swallow their pride? I remember Halloween...

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Off to Hear the Wizzah...

I was just saying the other day how uninterested I am in albums these days. The album to me is a relic of the big 70s rock era. "Oh, you have to appreciate this song within the context of the album." Yeah, I guess. If a band can produce 3-5 good songs every few years, and I mean 3-5 really really good songs and amass a collection of them, I am way more satisfied with that prospect than buying or downloading a collection or 12 tracks. And let's not forget the bonus tracks that are anything but. This is why I am so excited about Black Kids. Their 4 track EP, The Wizzah of Ahhhs is sufficient for me. They wear their influences well ranging from Motown to My Bloody Valentine which is most apparent on a phenomenal track like "Hit the Heartbrakes." Please check them out.

To my fans out there, all three of you, fear not. Culture Vulture is back! After 3 months of delay, personal issues, soul searching, and mainly, sheer laziness, I have emerged from my self imposed exile because I miss being loud and opinionated about pop music. Don't worry, I've had my pulse on what's been buzzing on the scene lately. We got some interviews from Black Lips and Le Rug, the new Springsteen and Radiohead, and a look at the Ian Curtis biopic Control to name a few things. Expect the updates soon.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Song of the Day: "This is the Day" by The The

Ah, the power of advertising. A new show on AMC called Mad Men examines the cunning nature of the ad man during the Eisenhower/Kennedy years. If you are like me, you have been oddly attracted to that M & M commercial where all the M & M's are "rebelling" and finding their true selves. For instance, one M & M gets a mohawk. This is all set, mind you, to a damn catchy song. Recently, I discovered the title of the song, "This is the Day" by English post-punk band The The off their 1983 album, Soul Mining. As the main chorus hits and attracts, the tagline of the commercial is "what M & M are you?" Suddenly, it's clear. These are not M & M's with arms and legs. These were once people transformed into giant M & M's. "That is the day, their life surely changed" as found in the lyrics (slightly altered) of The The's candy floss pop song. Marx warned us about this. The term is reification where objects are transformed into subjects and subjects transformed into objects. Marx would say, these M & M's are not rebelling. They are victims of their hyper-capitalist appetite. It's commodity fetishism at its worst. Product and consumer fused together. What was that Karl? Sorry, wasn't listening. Too caught up in this delightful tune. I can't say I want M & M's right now, but I did end up downloading the song. You win Mars Incorporated. Enjoy.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Art Buffa

Look at them! They formed a band. And, a damn good one. I didn't really get Art Brut the first time I heard them. It began to come together at last year's Sirenfest where they were for me the highlight. Last week, I became a full believer. Bang Bang Rock and Roll has become one of my favorite albums of the decade. The Brut's tactics are deceptively simple serving as both a deconstruction of rock and roll clichés and unabashed celebration of them.

"Art Brut are you ready?" asked frontman Eddie Argos. Actually, it was more like an order. There is no question that Argos is the ringleader of the circus that is Art Brut. Armed with British witticisms and boyish energy, Argos, along with the National's Matt Berniger, has restored the lost art of the frontman. But, without a solid band backing him, he would just be a clown. On record, the band is mid-tempo Britpop. Live, they are fast paced punk all the way recalling the campier moments of the Damned. You can thank the twin guitar work of Duran Duran hairstyled Ian Catskilkin (lead guitar) and the ascot wearing Jasper Future (rhythm guitar, backing vocals.) Although not quite the dualing guitar work of Television's Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd, Catsklkin & Future have more in common with the the MC5's Wayne Kramer and Fred "Sonic" Smith. This is certainly the case live. Don't forget the rhythm section, the multi-colored Freddy Feedback (bass guitar) and Mikey Breyer (drums.) With Argos's one man standup routine, the dual guitar attack of Catskilkin and Future, Feedback as anchor and Breyer playing his drums like a dancing chimpanzee they are formidable. I mean that literally. During "St. Pauli," off the new album, Argos, spinning like a whirling Dervish bumrushed the crowd with the intention of keeping us on our toes. "Lousy defence (British spelling)" he quipped. After all, this is a band that believes in the power of rock and roll as much as they enjoy deconstructing its conventions and excess.

For Argos, some rock conventions are sacred. A recent trip to a supposedly small and independently owned record store in NYC annoyed Argos after seeing racks of DVD's and video games alongside albums. He expected that sort of thing at Virgin Megastore, but not the Village. "I don't want DVD's or video games sold in my record stores!" he bellowed to the sound of applause. If the vanishing record shop has alarmed the Brut, so have the complacent crowds at rock shows. There is room for the polite spectator just enjoying an evening at the opera. The crowd is a part of the whole experience. Perhaps not so much a religious experience, instead a musical circus. "Art Brut, Top of the Pops" the kids shouted after their first set. After fifteen minutes of foots pounding the Highline Ballroom's shiny new floor, chants, beer cans flying, the Brut came out. "Art Brut are you ready?" Argos again commanded. In this regard, the Brut are reactionaries longing for a day when rock stars did not have to take themselves so seriously and could be rich, famous and only that. Think A Hard Day's Night reved up at punk speed.

Past songs like "Bang Bang Rock and Roll" reduced rock to its primal origins eschewing pretension"I can't stand the sound of the Velvet Underground!" as sang in the title song or "We're going to write the song that makes Israel and Palestine get along" in "Formed a Band." Away with Lou Reed and Bono. Or so they say. Being deconstructionists, Art Brut never give us a straight answer. It's a Big Complicated is not just the title of their sophomore effort, it's the mantra. Songs like "Pump Up the Volume" and dance club ode "Direct Hit" further examine Argos's obsession with the purity of pop music. Being 27 years old, however, complicates his seemingly eternal adolescence as evident on tracks like "Nag Nag Nag Nag" and ("not a cover" Argos said to the audience) "I Will Survive." "Jealous Guy" (also not a cover) examines the fear of a declining male sex drive building on the impotence drama of "Rusted Guns of Milan" from their debut. The theme of this older and wiser Art Brut is that getting older is a bitch, but then again, it's a bit more complicated than that isn't it? Named after the term for "outsider art" of the insane as credited to art critic Roger Cardinal, Art Brut are indeed outsiders in the pop game. The genius of their art, however, is their focus on the comedy that is life. They are too lighthearted to take themselves seriously. And when they are serious, it's only for their genuine love of pop music. Sometimes, that is enough. Kind of think of it, maybe it's not so complicated after all.

"Direct Hit"

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Song of the Day: "Bittersweet Symphony" by the Verve

When asked whether the Verve would reunite anytime soon, Richard Ashcroft responded "you'll have an easier time getting all four Beatles back on stage." Yesterday it was announced the Verve would be reuniting with an album planned for the late summer and a tour beginning November. How do those words taste Ritchie? I'm not surprised. Ashcroft's solo career, while racking up some hit singles in the UK, has been second rate when compared to the Verve's body of work. And I could not be more happier. While everyone was listening to Third Eye Blind and Matchbox Twenty, I had Urban Hymns in my CD player. It was a long summer of '98. Everyone called them "one hit wonders." False. That is, only if you count what Billboard determines a "hit." Worse, they were thieves sampling the Rolling Stones song "The Last Time." Half true. The song's main hook did sample a Jagger/Richards original but not the original song, rather a symphonic version of the song off an obscure album of Rolling Stones covers as interpreted by an orchestra. "Bittersweet Symphony" deserves better recognition. So does the excellent album that produced it, Urban Hymns. More importantly, the Verve deserve better treatment. They were one of the more interesting acts of the whole 90s Britpop movement. If the new album bombs, I'll always have Urban Hymns.

Trailer: Control

Who would have thought that a film about a tortured, budding rock star dying too young shot all in black and white would have cleaned up at Cannes? Wait a minute...but seriously, Anton Corbijn's biopic about Joy Division lead singer Ian Curtis is admittingly the only biopic that I am interested in seeing. The obvious reason me being a fan of Joy Division, but also Corbijn actually knew Curtis on a personal basis. Joy Division were one of the first acts he photographed. Moving on from the music video format, the band, specifically Curtis, are the subject of his first feature film, Control. A fitting title, control is something Curtis obsessed about: his lyrics, women, and tortured artist role. He struggled to maintain his hidden persona against his everyday, mundane life against the backdrop of post-industrial Manchester. Below is a first look at Control.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Review: Rip It Up and Start Again

Sympathy for the Devil. It's not just a lionized Rolling Stones song or cultural artifact of the growing influence of rock as recognized by filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard in his 1968 short film of the same name. It is what Classic "Rawk"-heads would accuse veteran NME writer Simon Reynolds giving to the much maligned period of music, the 1980s. I believe the scientific term is "post-punk." In Rip It Up and Start Again: Post-Punk 1978-1984, taken from the song by Scottish group Orange Juice, Reynolds essentially poses the question, "why is it that only the first wave, first golden era of rock and roll (1960s Motown, British Invasion etc) hog all the respect and "credibility" and the second golden era (as Reynolds calls it) of rock and roll (post-punk, synthpop, goth, no wave, new wave, oh it goes on...) is virtually ignored and worse, disdained?

An old truism of history is that it is often written by the winners. Reynolds, more or less, comes to that conclusion and offers us an unabashed revisionist history of the post-punk era beginning with John Lydon shedding his Rotten skin and forming Public Image Ltd. in 1978 to the ultimate manifestation of post-punk's deconstructionist mission, the puzzling and proudly über-gay Frankie Goes to Hollywood in 1984. In between Reynolds gives generous profiles of well known acts like Gang of Four, Joy Division, the Fall, Talking Heads, and Devo, as well as lesser known acts like the Raincoats, Scritti Politti, the Pop Group, Josef K and Throbbing Gristle to name a few. Reynolds gives an amazingly objective overview of the period chronicling the dark, futurist spirit of the post-punk bands and their eventual transformation to the sunny, fluffy new pop. It is no easy task but Reynolds achieves his goal which is to rehabilitate an unfairly dismissed era.

So, who dismisses the post-punk era? The winners of rock history: baby boomer music critics, Rolling Stone, classic rock radio, guys who play air guitar. Reynolds, unlike most critics, does not play the blame game. Rather, he just wants you to listen. There is a tone of underlying criticism on his part, however. Even the most revered bands from this era, with the clear exception of Talking Heads, do not get anywhere near the same amount of press time as say, the Beatles, Stones, Zepplin, Hendrix, or Jim Morrison. For every one article on Pere Ubu, there must be at least 100 on Jimmy Page being the greatest guitar player alive. Joy Division may be getting their own biopic but who knows if it will be as loved by the Academy as say Ray or Walk the Line was. Ray Charles and Johnny Cash have mass appeal. Ian Curtis? His name more familiar among a select few of music hipsters and campus rebels. Can I verify this accurately? Probably not. Although, open up your next copy of Rolling Stone and try to prove me wrong. A criticism leveled at Reynolds that I have noticed is that he looks at the era with "rose colored lenses" and notes that because he was a teen and young adult during the era, his view on the music is obviously biased. I wonder how old Greil Marcus was when he started worshiping Dylan? Granted, Human League and Frankie Goes to Hollywood are perhaps not the most solid of acts, and the dinky nature of synthpop and new romanticism don't look as cool or masculine as a wild guitar hero, but those are easy targets. Frankie says: "Relax!" The backlash campaign launched by Rolling Stone and MTV's overkill hype propaganda (who helped make A Flock of Seagulls into a fashion trend) forged a formidable alliance that helped margianilize instruments other than authentic guitars, bass and drums. "Roots" rock became the rage by 85. Ironically enough, some of the decades most respected and popular acts, Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jackson, as well as old timers like Eric Clapton and Paul Simon, all began tinkering with synthesizers.

What made the post-punk era a fascinating and exciting period for music was its deconstructive attitude towards rock and its tired conventions. The roaring buzz chords of the Sex Pistols ended up offering an empty promise by the end of 1977. Most post-punk acts looked to Trans-Europe Express than Nevermind the Bullocks as the future of music. That's including John Lydon. Public Image Ltd. incorporated Can, Captain Beefheart and Peter Hamill, bands verbotten to Lydon when under the rule of McLaren. Joy Division's angry, inward half-dirges painted a bleak portrait of Manchester's post-industrial ruin. Wire rejected red blooded American guitar solos for calculating European and hypnotic timbres. Talking Heads incorporated African polyrhythms into their avant-garde tendencies. Devo embraced absurdist satire. Siousxie Sioux became the high priestess of Goth. Gang of Four deconstructed sex, leisure and the cult of the rock star with their dissonant funk-punk. I could go on because I absolutely love the post-punk era due to the encouragement for experimentation and overall mission to create something new, not "shitty amped up Chuck Berry music" as the always modest Lydia Lunch states. Alas, this opportunity seems lost these days. With punk revival came the inevitable post-punk revival period of the 2000s. Reynolds is more optimistic about the post-punk revival seeing it as glimpse of the future of the music. Sure, it's nice to see these bands get their due but, many of these newer acts are not fulfilling the post-punk generations prophecy. Rehash is rehash, even if it is a good start. Time to rip it up and start allover...again.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Welcome to Wham City

The whole glasses and nerdy demeanor and obsession with electronics should have made him a dead ringer for Mark Mothersbaugh, a one man Devo. And the name of his official breakthrough album, Spiderman of the Rings, boldly strives for Phillip Glass. Wham City's mayor, Dan Deacon revels in his electro-theater of the absurd. The Wham City collective (originally populated by a wildly inventive bunch of SUNY Purchase art school grads colonizing Baltimore) has served as a venue for upcoming electro-clashers, it is Dan Deacon who has been the theater's brightest star. In fact, Deacon came up with the entire name deeming a dormitory at Purchase, Wham City. Just listen to a song like "Wooody Wooodpecker" and you'll understand that Dan Deacon is on an astral plane. The first few seconds are simply a loop of "ha ha ha" machine gun laugh of America's favorite cartoon woodpecker. Harmless and innocent at its start, the "ha ha ha's" eventually warp into some nightmarish version of Woody. And it just goes. I dare you to turn it off. Deacon's theater of the absurd, however, is not dark or nilhistic. On the contrary, he wants everyone to join in, except "no jerks" (a Wham City slogan.) Spiderman of the Rings is bizarre, but its strangely accessible. Tracks like "Pink Batman," "Okie Dokie," and the epic tribute to Wham City (guess the name of the song) although layered with experimental touches of but there is no question that this is a pop album. Meet Dan Deacon, the mayor of Wham City. No jerks allowed.

Dan Deacon on an early morning cable access show

"The Crystal Cat"

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Easy Ryan

Every generation needs (or more like wants) their very own singer-songwriter. You know, the voice of a generation, the type that elegantly puts into verse every young person's hopes, fears, hang ups, distrust of thirty somethings and joy of being a lost twenty something. Essentially, their very own Dylan. Is Ryan Adams our Bob Dylan? No sir, he is not. Just as well, the only thing he has in common with Dylan is his prolific output. The Dylan comparison was always an incorrect one. Adams has much more in common with his hero, alt-country pioneer, Gram Parsons. Both share a skill at blending honky tonk, country and rock, as Parsons referred to it, "cosmic American music." One minute they could break out in a riotous bar song, the next, lay out an elegiac ballad capable of moving their audience. In the case of Parsons, I'll use the past tense. He's dead. Years of hard living caught up with him and he died of a drug overdose on September 19, 1973. He was only 26. Adams himself has had a death wish, proclaiming himself a "self-described asshole" and downing large quantities of booze, drugs and celebrity women, this two does Adams share with Parsons. They also share a birthday, November 5. Parsons died leading, Adams born to follow. Not all have agreed, naturally. Ex-Village Voice nit picker, Robert Christgau, disagreed ("I asked for Gram Parsons, I got Billy Joel.") Ever since he ditched Whiskeytown and broke out with Heartbreaker seven years ago, Adams has been hailed as alt-country's wunderkind. "Oh Great One" as Elton John referred to him. These divergent opinions of Adams have essentially summed his struggle for commercial and critical success with the former often eluding him and the latter splitting opinion. As of 2007, Ryan Adams has yet to have an official hit single and a #1 album. A prophecy unfulfilled?

Not necessarily. Ryan Adams has a loyal fan base and generally has garnered favorable reviews for most of his albums (Heartbreaker, Cold Roses, Jacksonville City Nights.) But often, he is not taken seriously. Because critics tend to pigeonhold him as an alt-country artist, Adams has branched out and experimented (Rock and Roll, Love is Hell, 29), often with mixed results. Personally, I think some of his most interesting stuff has appeared on those albums. I'm especially a fan of Love is Hell pt. 1. More often, though, Ryan Adams shines best when he is building upon what Parsons started. That is why his latest album, Easy Tiger, succeeds. Early reviews hail this album to be "his best since Heartbreaker. After seven years, Adams has come around full circle. Easy Tiger mines the same territory as Heartbreaker and its lesser, but still good follow up, Gold. Honestly, Easy Tiger is really nothing new. After veering off the easy path as Gram Parson's successor and diving into self-indulgence, it is refreshing to hear one of Ryan Adam's most focused albums. There are the rockers (the boozy, bluesy "Goodnight Rose," the car crash that is "Halloweenhead,") the soft spoken strummers ("Oh My God, Whatever, Etc," the morose "I Taught Myself How to Grow Old",) and the ballads ("Two" featuring backing vocals from Sheryl Crow, "Rip Off.") I hope Ryan Adams continues to experiment and expand into uncharted sonic territory. Still, what makes Easy Tiger succeed is Adams' mastering of the familiar. He's taking it easy these days...easy like Sunday morning. Most of the songs are laid back and gentler than previous efforts. Gone is the cocky 25 year old genius. At 32, Adams is sober and perhaps more mature. After seeing him live in December, I cannot say that the arrogance has subsided, but there has been growth which backs up his confidence. Considering that he has been making music since he was 16, it is a growth that has allowed for a worthy career to have been carved out all these years. It is a growth that understandably attaches the Dylan moniker, if that's your thing. Ryan Adams is not Dylan. Ryan Adams is not Gram Parsons. Ryan Adams is Ryan Adams.

Ryan Adams on the Henry Rollins Show

Ryan Adams and the Cardinals performing "Oh My God, Whatever, Etc" off the new album, Easy Tiger due out June 26th.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Song of the Day: "Immigrant Punk" by Gogol Bordello

Whole lotta talk about immigration these days. Of course there is. We've got a presidential election just round the corner and from now till November 2008 will we be bombarded with candidates positions on immigration ranging from "Knock on the front door because the back door's closed!" to "Come on in!" from various politicians. I for one want to know what Gogol Bordello frontman and mastermind, Eugene Hütz has to say about the issue. An immigrant himself (from the "Old Country," Ukraine to be exact) Hütz's band is perhaps one of the more original and wild Brooklyn based bands. Self-described "gypsy punks," Gogol Bordello is the bastard son of Eastern European folk music of the Roma (the term we should probably use as opposed to "gypsy"), dark cabaret, and Pogues, Clash and Stooges influenced punk rock.

All of the members of Gogol Bordello are pretty much Eastern European immigrants themselves and this creates a crucial dynamic to their sound. Outcasts in their own country, "punk mafia" in this country, Gogol Bordello lay in the darkest corners of the margins. So does the unnamed immigrant in the song "Immigrant Punk" of their sophomore album, Gypsy Punks Underdog World Strike, lamenting:

"Upon arriving to the melting pot
I get penciled in as a goodamn white
Now that I am categorized
Officer gets me naturalized
Now that I'm living up in God knows where
Sometime it gets hard without a friend"

It's tough out there. But then, with rejection comes acceptance and outright defiance:

"Despite the living up in USA
I'm still holding up in all my ways
I gotta friends, we gotta band
We still make sound you can't stand"

Not an easy assimilation as one may imagine. Hütz's advice, "Legalize Me! Realize Me! Party!" Not a bad party slogan. An even better song. Boasting a rollicking dance hall reggae groove, "Immigrant Punk" is a direct invitation from the Bordello to come dance and sing-a-long with them on the margins. Globalization will destroy rigid national identity, and the amorphous blob of clashing cultures that is Gogol Bordello couldn't be happier.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Electro-Clash of the Titans

New Order pioneered it, LCD Soundsystem is taking it to dangerous new levels...sound levels that is. Rock & roll and dance music can co-exist. Their love child is known as "dance-punk," and it appeals to both ends of the music spectrum. To the right of me was the dance raver, to the left of me, the hip, bespectacled indie chick nodding her head, and to the back of me, the rock stoners who kept yelling "play Freebird!" every god damn chance they could. It was a union of varied music tastes that few bands like LCD Soundsystem could only bring together. My ears are shot and I'm tired from elecro-groovin'. Last night's show at Webster Hall was well worth the admission price and so far has been one of the best live shows of the year. "Daft Punk Playing at My House," "Watch the Tapes" and "Movement" were in danger of destroying the venue with LCD's sonic assault causing extreme vibration, and not just the dancing kind. I think I felt everything from the follicles on my head to the nails on my toes vibrate. Even ballads like "Someone Great" which turned up softer on record were performed with a more primal and dissonant execution. "Turn up the bass! I can't hear the bass!" the one rock stoner behind me yelled to his other stoner pal. "What?" the other stoner asked. "I said they need to turn up the bass!" he yelled once more.

Perhaps one the more challenging moments of the night came from the final song for the final show of the tour, according to the band, "New York, I Love You But You're Bringing Me Down." Sounding more like a straight up Broadway number than raucous dance-punk, the song reminds any of the band's detractors that their is still songwriting behind LCD's never ending dance party. James Murphy both celebrates New Yorkers and their sense of entitlement as well as mocking it. I must admit I still don't really care for the song too much, but, I understood it better live and within the context of seeing the show in NYC, it worked. After all, LCD Soundsystem brilliantly melds Lower East Side punk and Manhattan underground beats, two NYC homegrown musical movements.

Word of advice, don't insult LCD Soundsystem's opener, Yacht. My friends and I apparently missed the "visionary genius" that was so carefully layered in Yacht's music which is basically one scraggly haired, Alf t-shirt wearing, cardigan donned lad jumping on stage to pre-recorded beats. Meh. Nothing special, and frankly, very annoying by the third song. Many a heckle were heard, especially when Yacht took time to tell everyone in the crowd that he would be taking questions. "Why are you awful?" one inpatient audience member asked. "What's that? Why am I awesome? 'Cause dude, your positive energy reflects onto me" beamed Yacht turning lemons into lemonade. Soon after Yacht's set, apparently someone called the scene police, or as my friend referred to them, the Gestapo, because before we knew it, two tattooed and tight shirted hooligans from Brooklyn confronted us and proceeded to get in the faces of several of my friends. "He's putting himself out there!" scowled the Ralph Macchio look-a-like. His friend, the bearded Grizzly Adams, was far more aggressive and told my friend that they would be having "problems" if he heard one more jeer coming from us. "You're going to fight me over this?" my friend asked confused. Grizzly Adams sneered, "if it comes to it." True, Yacht was doing "his own thing" and you can give credit for that. But, when you're paying good money to go see a show, it's my right to make glib remarks like, "Yacht's set went over like the Titanic!" wacka wacka! Or, "Yacht's all wet!" Hoo ha! Several insults were traded before the situation was diffused from both sides. No one wanted to throw down and miss a good show. Yacht made us foes, LCD soon made us friends. No doubt, a testament to LCD Soundsystem's mass appeal.

"North American Scum"

Friday, May 4, 2007

Scandinavian Showcase: "Young Folks" by Peter Bjorn & John ft. Victoria Bergsman of the Concretes

Think that whistling in a pop song is pretty much dead? Think again. Peter Bjorn and John have made pursing your lips together hip and relevant once more. These Swedish pop smiths are coming after hand claps and "sha-la-la's" next. "Young Folks" is by far one of the prettiest and catchiest singles to have been released within the past few years and it gained further distinction as being the unofficial summer song of 2006, at least in the indie world. "Young Folks" has my vote over "Crazy" by Gnarls Barkley any day. That brings me to my next point. There is no reason why "Young Folks" could not be a massive worldwide hit, although it "Young Folks" has already been snatched up by the corporate movers and shakers (it has been featured in commercials for AT&T, Banana Republic, and will be used to help relaunch Napster.) Fine. But, why isn't it being played on the radio? Why do I need "Young Folks" to persuade me to change my phone service? I want it on the radio and I want it now! Their third album, Writer's Block, in fact, has several candidates for international smash singles: the whistle dance groove of "Amsterdam" and ringing guitar heavy "Detects on my Affection," to name a few, with the latter also being featured in a car commercial.

Peter Bjorn and John began life as power popsters but since their last two albums, have now chosen to swap Alex Chilton and Nick Lowe for Phil Spector and Burt Bacharach as a source of divine inspiration. The arrangements on "Young Folks," as well as Writer's Block, result in some of the most impressive usage of Spector's "wall of sound" during the album's louder moments and the tales of heartbroken star crossed lovers balanced with the uplifting portraits of dreamers are worthy of comparison to any Bacharach/David collaboration during the album's quiet moments. Make no mistake, Peter Bjorn and John are no rehashers. They take their influences rooted in 60s baroque pop and 70s power pop and push forward with a modern sound that belongs to today as well as the future. "Young Folks" already proves its timeless factor. The "so-into-you" lovers from the song affirm that they simply don't care about the "young folks talking about the young style." They would also like to add that they "don't care about the old folks talking about the old style too." "All we care about is talking, only me and you" they conclude. These sunny, carefree lines are sung so convincingly by Peter (or is it Bjorn?) and guest vocalist Victoria Bergsman of fellow Swedish band, the Concretes, that I'm ready to make it my summer song for 2007 and the summers yet to come.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Dawn of the Century: It's Still the Ramones

Give them credit. The Ramones gave us 20 years of "Gabba Gabba Hey" without ever really changing a damn thing. First punk band? Yes. Of course. I can hear it now "[H]old on a second! What about the MC5? What about the Stooges, man? No wait, you're forgetting the Velvet Underground and the New York Dolls! How can you leave out the Dolls? Jeez!" Did I hear the Sonics thrown in there somewhere? All viable candidates. In fact, without any of those bands the Ramones may have never existed. The New York Dolls, Stooges and MC5 harnessed the raw power of rock and roll and helped create punk before there was even a term for it. Yet, the Ramones took these elements and perfected the template, the blueprint for what would become the textbook definition (if their is such a thing) of punk rock: 3-4 chords, fast speed, silly lyrics, celebration of camp and kitsch, and lots of bratty attitude. You can hear a love of bubblegum pop, girl groups, Phil Spector, and the early days of rock and roll layered within all that simplicity.

"Hey! Ho! Let's Go!" were not just the first words off their 1976 self-titled debut, they were a rallying cry. Them words were fightin' words. The enemy? Bloated 70s rock, dinosaur rock, prog-rock, easy listening feel-so-good singer-songwriters...take your pick. One of my favorite parts in the 2004 documentary, End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones, is a video of Keith Emerson stabbing his keyboard like a madman and flinging it against the giant speakers surrounding him. Smoke begins to arise. And as if once was not enough, he attacks the keyboard again. Cut to now Johnny Ramone's head shaking, disapprovingly, "that's not rock and roll." For the sake of this post and the Ramones, I'll agree to that. Rock and roll, at least in the eyes of the Ramones, was supposed to be short, fun and fast. Whatever Keith Emerson was doing, that's not what rock and roll should be. Now, I realize that virtuosos don't have to be the villains these days. Playing your instrument well should be a virtue, ideally. That said, I really fucking hate Emerson, Lake and Palmer. The dividing lines were drawn. On one camp, you had Seventies "Rawk." The yeah, the musical "other" that would be known as punk. This is an oversimplification naturally, but I would like to bet that is how the Ramones viewed it.

Armed now with a vision and all clad in leather, Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee, Tommy (and let's not forget Marky, Ritchie and CJ) set out to "Blitzkrieg Bop" their way out of CBGB's and onto the open road. Along with fellow New York punk rockers like Patti Smith, Richard Hell and Television, the Ramones helped lead the vanguard of the first wave of punk. Often they played to indifferent crowds. Their detractors threw bottles. Their admirers formed bands. Within time, the seeds of punk germinated outside of New York City with bands forming in Los Angeles (Black Flag, X, the Germs,) San Francisco (Dead Kennedys, the Avengers,) Minneapolis (Hüsker Dü, the Replacements,) DC (Bad Brains, Minor Threat) New Jersey (Misfits), and across the pond, London (Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Damned,) all bands that owed some debt to the Ramones simple power chord formula. When the dust cleared and sonic onslaught was over, the Ramones rose as heroes. They came, they saw, they conquered.

Unfortunately, for most of their career they were unsung heroes, due to indifference of of the mainstream press, radio stations and audiences. They were most unappreciated in the US where often they were reduced to played small clubs. Elsewhere, they could cause mass hysteria among the disenfranchised youth of the world. This is an all too common tale with many revolutionaries. Too make matters worse, like most revolutions, punk devoured itself and became self-parody by 1978. Seems that some in the record companies were listening and thinking up fun ideas on how to capitalize on the new music scene. Enter new wave. Among their own kind, frustrated punks broke ranks and experimented beyond the 3 chord format. Enter post-punk. A second wave of punks burst in the US but they had very little in common with the leather jackets, mohawks, safety pins and bands from the first wave of punk. Their music was much harder, faster and violent verging on pure noise. Enter hardcore. Internal squabbling would hit the Ramones themselves. Tommy would quit playing the drums and decide to focus as a producer. And then there was the whole "KKK took my baby away" thing. Johnny stole Joey's girl or was it that she was never Joey's girl to begin with? Depends on whose side of the story you believed. The thin facade of unity, so present on all of their album covers, cracked. You could swear that they were all the same and related somehow. Not entirely true. Contrast Joey's left-wing feel goodisms with Johnny's right-wing glower power, Dee Dee's lunkhead charm vs. Tommy's calm, collective manner (again, let's not forget Marky, Ritchie and CJ.) What they had in common was that they were social misfits with a similar love of the same music that brought them together in the first place. But, even that had to end. They finally called it quits in 1996 after famously promising to disband if their last album, Adios Amigos, did not become a hit. It was a flop. Although this was not a total surprise, the commercial tidal of wave of grunge and alternative rock of the 90s, also owing a debt to the Ramones, should have allowed them to finally score an official hit album.

Time heals all wounds. In 2002, the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame minus Joey (who died a year earlier of lymphoma.) On that stage, the Ramones were briefly reunited, finally validated by the establishment. How very un-punk. Still, it was a very much deserved praise that was long overdue. A couple of months later, Dee Dee died of a drug overdose. Two years after that, Johnny succumbed to cancer. Only Tommy remains from the original line up (once more, let's not forget Marky, Ritchie, and CJ.) The Ramones now show up on all sorts of "greatest" lists in magazines and TV specials concerning rock and punk. "Blitzkrieg Bop," "Beat on the Brat," "Judy is a Punk," "Rockaway Beach," "Sheena is a Punk Rocker," "I Want to be Sedated" have been recently admitted into the great American songbook as classics. I'm a fan of the later singles as well, "The KKK Took My Baby Away," "Rock and Roll High School," the Reagan baiting "Bonzo Goes to Bitburg," "Warthog," "Somebody Put Something in My Drink," "Pet Sementary," and the fun Tom Waits cover "I Don't Want to Grow Up." Whatever your favorite, the Ramones influence cannot be denied. I realize I am being very formalist, but within the realm of punk and popular music, this is a truth that must be recognized. After recently viewing End of the Century, I realized how it easy it is and was to take the Ramones for granted. Certainly early heroes of mine, the Ramones disbanded before I could really grasp their influence and see them live. Part of their appeal was their familiarity. There was something very refreshing to know that as music trends came and went, there was always the Ramones. Familiarity was their weapon of choice. Future bands will continue to be influenced or steal from them. This is only fitting considering our own disposable pop culture. After all, the Ramones celebrated that, at least on the surface. The Ramones, however, really aren't disposable. Their music is what we should be sending to the aliens. I'd like to think at some point, as the new century stretches out, the opening strands of "Blitzkrieg Bop" will continue to blast through the infinity of space and along the course, influence anyone or anything out there willing to listen.

Below is a video of the Ramones performing "Rockaway Beach" on MusikLaden, a German music TV show. Marky Ramone is on drums by this point.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Being for the Benefit of Willie Mae

There is a little place I'd like to tell you all about, a slice of hipster heaven known as "the Silent Barn" aka "Raven's Den." The name of the place keeps changing but that doesn't matter. All you have to do is take the L train to Halsey St., take a left on Wykoff until you see a giant gray door next to a Spanish bar/restaurant and there you are. Once inside, you will be treated (or subjected) to some of Brooklyn's unknown musicians as well as non-Brooklyn and non-NYC bands/artists. If you're lucky, you may bump into some of well known faces in indiedom like Karen O of Yeah Yeah Yeah's, Greg Norton of Hüsker Dü, members of And You Will Know Us by the Trail of the Dead, and self-proclaimed "party guerrilla" and 8th wonder of the world, Andrew W.K. Mind you, I have not seen any of those hip cats when I've been there but, that is what I've been told. If rubbing elbows with the stars ain't your thing, stay for the music. Well known and hyped bands like Black Lips and most recently, Deerhunter, have chosen this extremely small, former office or residence (your guess is good as mine) to rock and/or roll at.

This past Saturday a friend and I decided to check out the evenings festivities. Apparently we stumbled in on a benefit show. Not exactly Live Aid, the benefit for Willie Mae Rock and Roll Summer Camp for Girls Benefit still radiated some of the same philanthropic zeal at heart. Most of the proceeds for the evening went to help fund the summer camp. I'll get more into the actual camp in a moment. First, the bands (all of these bands can be accessed on myspace.)

Remember the MC/clown your parents hired to entertain you and your friends for your 6th birthday party? Not me. I got a Krang (from TMNT) pinata instead. But, walking into the ultra-positive party dance punk of Totally Michael made me think of what I perhaps missed as a youth. There were dance offs, balloon games (one where the crowd had to pop as many as possible) and cheer leading disses set to original music programmed by this aspiring short shorts clad MC. Naturally, that is the charm of Totally Michael's act. "The best experience I've had is when a crowd of nearly 900 were with me and wholeheartedly participating" Totally Michael told me. "And the worst?" I asked. "Well, I once got ice thrown at me. But, honestly, that wasn't too bad because I was pretty hot and it cooled me off." Way to put a positive spin on everything! And after hearing his synth happy party music, you can't blame him. His genuine good nature and humor saves this dance party from being too ironic, a popular medium these days. I can't help thinking what's next though. A Totally Michael petting zoo? How about a Totally Michael moonwalk? Sky's the limit. Check out "Death Hill Over and Over" on his EP, For You.

Rasa Radiata followed. The post-punk influences were all there, XTC, Orange Juice to name a few, tinged with reggae. At points, however, the energy did not compliment the herky jerkiness of XTC and Orange Juice. Still, I am a sucker for that late 70s/early 80s sound. "Minutes Shine" could have very well been on Zenyatta Mondatta. It's no a swipe. I like the Police and Rasa Radiata have potential.

I was particularly fond of this next band. "No, it's Taigaa! With two "A's" G-Wolf, the singer for the band Taigaa! huffed while correcting my spelling. "It means 'Arctic Forrest' in Russian" added K.O.K.O, the band's multi-instrumentalist (violin & keyboard). Upon hearing their music, my friend and I thought of the eerie music from Castlevania. The composer(s) of the music for the wonderful video game series are the Ennio Morricone (s) of the video game world. Taigaa! mixes Old World sorrow (G-Wolf told me that their music stems from pre-WWII Korean pop music,) and self-described space punk with the goal to connect you to nature and "serenade" you with the past, as they put it. It's not all art-school whimsy. Get out of the way when G-Wolf blazes through the audience shaking her maracas and dancing wildly to Dusty Gold, the band's drummer, thwacking away on the skins.

San Francisco's Boyskout certainly take a cue from Patti Smith. The lead singer even kinda looks like her. Considering she spouts verbose lyrics similar to the punk legend's, it's not that hard to make such a distinction. I'm not alone. Mark Jenkins of the Washington Post agrees with me, only he throws in Blondie into the mix as well. So, do they do anything with these influences? "Spotlight" works well after hearing it on their myspace page. I don't remember them playing it live but they may well have. I did like their little violin ditty that they did but I'll be damned if I can remember the name. On record the guitars sound more angular. Live, some songs were distorted and indebted to grunge. I could be wrong. Major praise for the drummer. Fastest hands in the West.

And finally, High Places. This was the act my friend was waiting for. We all turned our attention from the center stage to left side of the room. Standing there were a duo, a guy and girl, a microphone stand and a turntable concoction. I have no clue exactly what Robert Barber, the guy, was playing except he beat his drum sticks to primitive beats while the singer, the girl, Mary Pearson, sang amidst some deafening loud feedback and a fleeting calypso rhythm that would disappear just as you began to make out the melody. The music High Places is no doubt reveling in all that is tribal and primitive, but they make no cultural absolutes in their lyrics or music. No celebration of the "noble savage" if you will. In fact, I really couldn't tell you exactly Mary Pearson was singing about since her vocals quickly melded with the tribal beats. Just as well. Who needs words when you have sticks?

So, what's the deal with the Willie Mae Rock Camp? That only depends on if you know who Willie Mae is. Question: Who invented Rock and Roll? Answer: "Willie Mae" is what Dusty Gold from Taigaa! told me. "What about Robert Johnson?" I asked. "No. Willie Mae" she insisted. I heard the name before but, I needed to be reminded who the original singer of "Hound Dog" was. Sorry, it wasn't Elvis Presley. Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thorton took the song to # 1 on the R & B charts three years before Elvis's version created a cultural sensation. Robert Johnson pre-dates both Willie Mae and Elvis by twenty something years but, that really isn't the point. The goal of the summer camp is to teach girls ages 8-18 how to rock. It should be noted also that half of the campers come from underprivileged backgrounds. The camp is a non-profit group and its more serious goal is helping young girls attain self-esteem through music as well as challenging gender stereotypes in music. As Mary Pearson, singer from High Places, griped before her set, too often she's heard people comment to her band mate that he made a wise move "hiring a female singer" to perform his songs. Perhaps the question that should have been asked, "How do you feel about the term 'all-girl' band?" Some perhaps would embrace the term and celebrate their so-called musical "otherness" in a traditionally male dominated genre. Other female artists might be indifferent to the term noting why doesn't a four-piece all guy band receive a similar label? And of course, other female artists might show complete disdain towards the term and perhaps even object to me using "female" as an adjective before the word "artist" or "band." They are artists. Simple.

Totally Michael

Rasa Radiata



High Places

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Scandinavian Showcase: "Earth Intruders" by Bjork

Tonight is the premiere of a little feature that I like to call the "Scandinavian Showcase." The land of fjords, smörgåsbord, trolls, IKEA, Bergman and that jerky chef from the Muppet Show has been a hot spot of interesting music as of late. This region, no stranger to the pop world, produced arguably the biggest group of the 1970s, ABBA. Love them or hate them, they existed and sold a gajillion records. In the 1990s, there was Ace of Base who were soon hailed as the biggest group since...well, since ABBA. Meh. Not even close and their Eurodance hits soon faded quick as did the groups stature. I've been following many groups over the years from Scandinavia, a region that includes Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland, Denmark and the Faroe Islands (Most of my stereotypes and both pop groups mentioned are, in fact, from Sweden.) I have amassed some of my favorites and will share with you kind readers throughout the ensuing days.

We begin with Iceland's Queen of Bizarre, Bjork. Below is her April 21 performance of her new song "Earth Intruders" on Saturday Night Live. "We are the earth intruders/ We are the earth intruders" something, something "AHHHHH" she eerily moans. More in common here with Robert Plant and another song about invaders, viking invaders to be specific, "Earth Intruders" has a detached, birds eye view of imminent destruction. Inspired by a dream Bjork had about the 2004 great tsunami, the primal drum beat, her colorful Valkyre choir/French horn section, her deadpan and bespectacled celesta player and menacing synth noises dying to escape from inside of those Macs create a swirling collage of noise appropriate for such a nightmare. Seemingly chaotic and reminiscient of veteran "no wavers" Suicide, this chaos, however, is under control suggesting the cold, mechanical rhythms of Kraftwerk. Those influences, however dark, are slighted as they are buried by svengali hip hop producer Timbaland's upbeat 80s chic production. Bjork's hypnotic siren-like voice and caged lioness strut have me convinced that people could dance to this. Maybe even having a good time while doing so. Who would have thought?

Monday, April 23, 2007

Song of the Day: "Making Time" by the Creation

The sun might have set on Britain after the Second World War, but it quickly rose again between 1963-67 when Britain's youth culture strove to reconquer the world not with guns or soap ("cleanliness is next to godliness") but with ringing power chords, mop top hair cuts, mini skirts and mini beetles, and suave secret agents. All these were the hallmarks of "Cool Britannia" which would reach its apex in 1966. "Swingin'" London was riding high with musical stylings of rock acts like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, the Yardbirds and the Who, as well as lighter acts like Dusty Springfield, Herman's Hermits, Petula Clark, Tom Jones and Lulu, all of these groups making some dent on the American market (not so much the Who yet but they would a year later with "Happy Jack.") Yes, it sure was good to be John Lennon or Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger or Keith Richards (don't forget Brian Jones!) or Ray Davies, or Peter Noonan. The bubble would burst for many of these acts a year later with the advent of psychedelia, hard rock and the "Summer of Love" forced the sunny, fun mod pop or Neo-Edwardian crooning of many of Britain's acts to conform or become irrelevant. Lesser known acts had no chance. Many, of course, would achieve greater fame. (I don't really have to tell you who do I?) But, if you were a band named the Creation, success never really got to you to begin with and you were already left out in the cold.

Perhaps no other British Invasion era band were so criminally overlooked as the Creation. Even other overlooked groups like the Zombies and Troggs had American hits. Big ones too! The Zombies boasted three: "She's Not There," "Tell Her No" and the posthumous hit in the wake of group's dissolution, "Time of the Season." The latter hit became popular enough to use it to sell tampons for Tampex commercial. I'm not sure that's what the Zombies had in mind with the lyrics, but hey, catchiest tampon commercial I've seen. The Troggs did better and scored a #1 single in 1966 with a cover of "Wild Thing" that is only rivaled by Hendrix's version (I like the Troggs version better) featuring, of all things, an Ocarina during the solo. In addition to "Wild Thing," they scored a top ten American hit two years later in early 1968 with the hippie dippie but still lovely "Love is All Around." The song has been bastardized by the terrible covers that have come since and the awful film, Love Actually. With its sour string orchestrations, the original version features a jagged guitar and metronomic rhythm absent from the lame adult contemporary versions that have followed. The Creation...oh yeah....they had no American hits. Why not? I have no idea. Don't feel guilty America, even their own countrymen ignored them as their only "hit" single "Making Time" peaked at a dismal #49. Pity.

I don't get it. "Making Time" had all the makings of a British Invasion era hit. Eddie Phillip's guitar was jagged and feedback heavy as anything Ray Davies or Pete Townshend came up with, perhaps even heavier. The songwriting was at its core, Beatlesesque, and singer Kenny Picket's voice was as rough as that of a young Mick Jagger. Well, the Germans loved them and the song peaked at #5 there. The Creation would get much love zee Germans as many of their other singles also did well there. Other potential candidates for hit songs included: the misanthrope's plight for understanding in "Through My Eyes," covers of Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" and "Hey Joe" (I like Hendrix's better,) the Mersey beat of "Try & Stop Me," the Batman theme influenced "Biff Bang Pow," the blue eyed soul of "If I Stay Too Long," and the art school frustrations of "Painter Man" featured Eddie Phillips playing his guitar like a cello way before Jimmy Page did. The different versions of the UK and US single for " How Does It Feel to Feel?" had their own unique character paving the way for the future of hard rock. The British version introduced a harder, metallic sound and the American version (slightly longer) saved room for some psychedelic freak outs for all those hippies out there. And still nothing! Not a crack in the charts on both sides. By the 1968, the band called it quits and its member working with more "who's who" in the rock scene (Pete Townshend asked Eddie Phillips to join the group as a second guitarist but Phillips declined.) Alas! The sun set on these noble contenders well before it did for the British Invasion. Not tragic enough for you all? Should I quote the final act of Hamlet to express this sorrow further?

"Making Time" is the closest they ever came to a hit on both sides of the pond and is is the song for the day. Wes Anderson, the savior of all things obscure, found it fitting to serve as the theme for the hit 1998 film, Rushmore. Anderson cited his reason for choosing the song because he believed it fit his maverick protagonist, Max Fischer's teenage angst very well. The Creation may have never conquered America or their homeland, but the songs blazing "out my way" attitude invaded the ears of a younger generation and the seeds were sown for another revolution awaiting to spring forth a decade later. Starts with a "P."

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Happy Birthday Iggy!

Iggy Pop, often referred to as the "Godfather of Punk," turned 60 years old yesterday. And he doesn't look that bad (I say that somewhat cautiously) considering years of drug abuse, slicing open his body with broken glass, countless stage dives, smearing his chest with peanut butter and surviving David Bowie's ego. He celebrated knowing the only way he knew how, by playing balls to the wall rock and roll and crowd surfing. The reunited Stooges and special new member, Mike Watt (him again?) still sound great live judging from the Live in Detroit DVD. Can't say the same about the new album though. It's alright. The Stooges songbook alone is enough. Iggy, I would have been there with you a few weeks ago but my friends and I didn't like your ticket prices. But then again, I can't stay mad. While many adolescent boys were entrusting Limp Bizkit, Papa Roach, and Korn with making the soundtrack of their lives, I was hitting the replay button everytime "I Want to Be Your Dog" was finished. Retro Inc. has snatched up Iggy's life story and will turn it into a major motion picture, The Passenger, starring everyone's favorite hobbit Elijiah Wood. That already sounds like a terrible, terrible mistake. Sure, they both have blue eyes and both are carbon based life forms. That is where the similarities end. No doubt, Hollywood and big radio will pretend that they loved him all along. Oh well, this does not change the fact that I'm glad Iggy Pop still walks the earth. Happy Birthday and many more.

Praise for the Minutemen

Beginning over the summer and stretching over in the fall of last year, I developed a fascination with the 33 1/3 music series. These pocket size books take on one seminal album after the other and have been for the most part have been excellent. There have been some occasional flops but overall the series is worth checking out. Considering I was constantly interviewing for jobs over the summer, they were also welcome subway reading. It had been a while before I read one but I just recently finished one on the Minutemen's classic double album, Double Nickels on the Dime. The task of shrinking down the massive album down to 106 pages was taken by Michael T. Fournier, a free lance writer (Pitchfork Media, Chunklet, Perfect Sounds Forever) and professor at Tufts University where he teaches a class on the history of punk rock, who did a masterful job of placing the Minutemen's music within context of their time, their influences, their influence on others then and now, and illustrating what truly talented individuals the late D. Boon, Mike Watt, and George Hurley were.

Watt, who has been the band's keeper of the flame, graciously provided much insight to the book's author as well as the 2005 documentary on the group, We Jam Econo. In fact, Watt will pretty much talk to anyone who will listen. The guy loves to talk. Not only about himself or the Minutemen, but about just about anything which has cemented his image as en elder statesmen of indie rock. Hurley seems to have taken a more low profile. D. Boon died on December 22, 1985 in a van accident which ended an already impressive career. Questions of "what if?" always arise when someone in their prime is cut down short. It was said that the Minutemen were on the verge of breaking out onto the mainstream. Many of their indie contemporaries, R.E.M., Sonic Youth, Hüsker Dü, and the Replacements, to name a few, found major label success. Fournier's portrait of the Minutemen is far more complicated than that. Here we see a group both incredibly distrustful of major record labels but also unafraid to do covers of mainstream rock acts like Creedence Clearwater Revival or Van Halen, a HUGE taboo in the world of hardcore punk. If anything, Fournier reminds us that the Minutemen may have started off under the guise of hardcore, but quickly evolved into something far different and remarkable.

As hardcore revealed to be a cultural cul-de-sac by the mid 80s, the Minutemen, along with Hüsker Dü & the Replacments (two other bands that used hardcore as a springboard) experimented with their sound and were unafraid to veer off the 3 chord path. Hüsker Dü retained the speed of hardcore but mixed it with a droning sonic wall of sound, sometimes poppy, sometimes dark, but always captivating. The Replacements ditched alcohol fueled hardcore rants for alcohol fueled power pop in the vein of Paul Westerberg hero, Alex Chilton. The Minutemen also retained the speed of hardcore but instead of wall of noise sonic textures, melded a sound that owed more to jazz as well as British post-punk bands like Gang of Four, Wire and the Pop Group. Certainly, the group's left-leaning, populist beliefs prominent in their lyrics owed a huge debt to these groups, but the Minutemen's sound favored a mixture of Marxist doctrine with a down to earth and common sense approach. Their socialism had a "human face" if you will. This was somewhat different to the consumer/product alienation expressed by Gang of Four, the ironic situationalism of Wire or the violent class warfare waged by the Pop Group. Simply put, the Minutemen, paid little attention the all the "isms" found on the political left and focused more on the actual meaning.

Fournier argues that if ever one wanted to see a perfect working example of socialism, you need not look further than the Minutemen. D. Boon's angular guitar never overshadowed Watt's driving bass just as Hurley's formidable drumming never looked to steal the show, rather all three musicians worked as a cohesive unit to "jam econo", as they liked to refer to it. The result perhaps did for punk what Sergei Eisenstein did for film in the name of socialist realism. But like all self-proclaimed socialist realists, the Minutemen were simply more interesting and smarter than the average Joe to pretend they were entirely of the people (as much as D. Boon liked to deny this). Nonetheless, their music very well could have brought a tear to Karl Marx's eye. Politics aside, the Minutemen's belief that anyone could make great art served as an ultimate testament of the DIY era and inspiration to musicians regardless of their political affiliations. "Our Band Could Be Your Life" they reminded us. Check out the Minutemen and if they grab you, read both the 33 1/3 on Double Nickels on the Dime and the documentary We Jam Econo. I leave you with two videos. First, of the Minutemen doing an acoustic version of "Corona" a tribute to the people of Latin America brutalized by right-wing regimes that has now found new life as the theme song to Jackass, a show that has nothing to do with revolutionary politics but everything to do with sadomasochism, and second, the SST official video for working man's anthem "This Ain't No Picnic." Enjoy.


"This Ain't No Picnic"