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"

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Hey Hey You You! I Don't Like Your Sound! Think You Need a New One!

I was taken aback this week when I was browsing through new releases, one of them being self-proclaimed "brat" Avril Lavigne's latest album, The Best Damn Thing and saw a GLOWING review of 4 1/2 stars from Allmusic.com critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine. STE (that is how I will refer to him from now on) has been a critic I have always been fond of and respect. There is no question that the man has a soft side for pop and as of late a reaaaaaal soft spot. Just a year ago he was validating Paris Hilton's seriously misguided foray into music by giving her album 4 1/2 stars as well. Turns out that STE is way more postmodern than usual suspects Pitchfork Media. In the realm of popular music, STE believes in no absolute truths, only local ones. The local truth here is specifically shiny, glossy, teeny boppy pop music. Within that context, Avril, as well as Paris, work incredibly well. Or so he says.

I've been accused of being overly critical and cynical concerning matters of taste but that's simply not true...at least all of the time. I like plenty of garbage. It's my right as a consumer of popular music to have my fair share of guilty pleasures. The difference is, I recognize them for what they are. That's not saying fluff can't have some cultural significance either. And, I do believe that context is everything. Just ask STE:

"The Best Damn Thing: it's as exuberant, irreverent, and exciting as any other bubblegum pop, defiantly silly and shallow, but also deliriously hooky. If Lavigne didn't have the hooks -- if neither "Girlfriend" nor the title track weren't driven by cheerleader chants, if "Everything Back But You" didn't snarl like prime Green Day, if "I Can Do Better" didn't soar on its chorus -- her snotty attitude would be unbearable, but these are terrific, addictive pop songs that are harder and tougher yet feel fresher and lighter than her big hits from Let Go

Sure. Except I think she lacks these hooks and songwriting skills. When watching Avril perform this past weekend on Saturday Night Live, I attempted to go with the flow and just accept her for what she was. "Girlfriend", the supposed saving grace of her "punky" & "bratty" reputation from the cheap sentiments of her last album and major hit "I'm With You," did the exact opposite that I've hearing it should do for me. It's probably one of the most annoying songs I've heard in a long time and I can anticipate it being played at every school dance, wedding, car, and American bar over the next few months until it is exhausted by big radio. Certainly an early candidate overplayed song of the year, last year's being the overrated and grating "Crazy" by Gnarls Barkley. I'm not going there tonight, but, I really hate that song. I don't know if I necessarily hate "Girlfriend" as much as "Crazy," only time will tell.

Judging pop music is all a matter of opinion, many different opinions released every week in the form of singles and all of them vying for the top position on the charts with the hopes of making some cultural impact, shallow or deep. I hear a lot about how Avril is, in fact, subverting the pop genre and turning it upside down on its head by playing the game only by her rules. This, of course, reinforces her controversial punk image, one that she now wisely denies. By no means am I a member of the ultra-orthodox punk clique that dictates what punk is and should only be. In some ways, that goes against the very essence of what the entire movement was about. But, as I was watching Avril perform her second song (I couldn't tell you the name of it) I could not help but be a little skeptical watching her and her "punk" backing band that the record label most likely helped pull together with all the proper punk trimmings. We have the obligatory mohawked drummer, leather jacket and safety pin wearing guitarist and vintage t-shirt female back up singers. It's all in good fun I'm sure but there is no doubt the intention was to project that they weren't the same "teeny bopper" crap that Avril claims to despise. That is exactly what irks me about her. She is a teen queen in denial. Avril loves to rip on Britney and Christina and state that she is not them and that her music even with its pop conventions her music should mean more than their music. Not buying it. She is just like Britney Spears, which again doesn't have to be a bad thing if you're judging within the realm of teen pop. Expecting high art from Avril Lavigne would be foolish and I wouldn't want her to get serious but, Avril's claim to not care about what people think is contradicted with her desperate desire for credibility. This only makes her and her music appear vapid and hollow.

Record execs have been feeding off the carcass of punk for over thirty years now. The commercialization of punk first came in the form of new wave, then with grunge, and now with the emergence of emo/pop punk. True, on first glance some of punk's first superstars were far from high art themselves. The Ramones had an unabashed love affair for Phil Spector produced girl groups, the Sex Pistols were essentially a fabricated band, and the Damned might have well been cartoon characters. Yet, there was something very genuine about these bands and their approach. The Ramones combined catchy 60s garage rock and girl pop with chainsaw guitars never going past a minute, the Sex Pistols manipulated their manipulator, Malcom McLaren, a lot more than he would like to admit, and the Damned, even with their transformation from explosive punks to ghoulish goths, never lost their sense of humor. They wanted people to enjoy their music, and hell, they wanted hit singles! But, it was on their own terms. Those attributes are what made those bands great and what make Avril's poser antics lame. There is no way I can state that Avril Lavigne is not 100% genuine in what she does, but, when I see the choreographed dance numbers in the above music video for "Girlfriend," well, you be the judge. Criticizing Avril Lavigne is probably futile. Still, I can't resist the urge to do so. That's my guilty pleasure.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

You're Gonna Miss Him When He's Gone: Roky Erickson

While everyone was wisely staying indoors on Sunday and keeping dry, I chose to do the opposite and brave the elements. If you had non-refundable tickets to go see a one of rock's most famous outsider artists, Roky Erickson, you'd take what Mother Nature was dishing out too. Roky Erickson began his signing career with the Texan garage/psychedelic (and electric jug pioneering) band, the 13th Floor Elevators. Roky soon emerged as the group's leader and penned both the group's (and what has become Roky's own) signature song, "You're Gonna Miss Me." Released in 1966, the song was only a modest hit and quickly faded into what seemed to be obscurity. That of course is never entirely true. Someone was listening and thank goodness for it. "You're Gonna Miss Me" was resurrected on the 1972 garage rock compilation, Nuggets, and has now become an underground garage rock classic. The song has also prophetically established Roky's sporadic, but nonetheless brilliant, solo career.

Life after the Elevators started rough. The group disbanded in early 1968 and Roky found himself a victim of the free wheeling drug culture of the era. He took too many LSD tabs and it soon caught up with him. In 1969, Roky was arrested for possession of a joint of marijuana and faced up to 10 years in prison. Roky pleaded insanity and was instead sent to a home for the criminally insane. Prison, in retrospect, may have been a wiser choice as he was exposed to electro-shock therapy and repeated doses of Thorazine for about three years. Upon his release, Roky's mental health had been severely damaged. A lifelong battle with mental illness would follow.

Still, Roky's desire to create new music did not fade. Releasing the single "Two-Headed Dog / Starry Eyes" in 1975, Roky's new music eschewed the psychedelic beast that were the 13th Floor Elevators with a more straightforward harder rock, apparent on "Two-Headed Dog" and an 50's rock nostalgia ("Starry Eyes") that made him sound like the second coming of Buddy Holly. Both songs are personal favorites of mine and they kicked off a career of songs about aliens, demons, ghost, the Bermuda Triangle, zombies, the occult, and the Evil One himself (Satan). To give you an idea, some sample lyrics from "Two-Headed Dog" (Two-Headed Dog, two-headed dog / I've been working for the Kremlin for a two-headed dog.) No clue what it means. Knowing Roky its probably meant to be taken literally. That was the case in 1982 when Roky signed a written statement that he no longer had control over his body as now a Martian had taken over it and was the Martian's property. And so began another relapse into insanity. Throughout this time, Roky never made a cent off his music even while his cult and legend grew. Today, Roky's situation has improved and has been taken into custody by his brother, Sumner, who is also a musician.

So how is he today musically? I'm not sure if he plays any new material. He might have played some Sunday, I am not sure considering I have not heard the entire Roky Erickson catalogue. Overall, I was very pleased. He played everything I wanted to hear, all his "hits," all his wonderful songs about aliens, zombies, two-headed dogs and Satan. The Explosives, his backing band, are pretty solid as well. Roky and his lead guitarist traded solos which ranged from awesome to pointless noodling. Some of the material leaned a little too heavy on the blues and I dunno, these days I'm not feeling that. But when he returned to his garage rock days, Roky was on point. I was expecting to see a bearded man with leaves and food stuck to his long flowing beard. That had been the image of Roky in previous years. Instead, when he came on stage at about a little after 10:00 PM, I saw a thinner man, still with long hair, but completely clean shaven and rocking a Hawaiian shirt with slacks. Well, he does turn 60 this year so why not? His voice also is still surprisingly strong and when he closed his first set with, appropriately, "You're Gonna Miss Me," Roky could still hit the primal yelps and screams that made the song an instant stand out to begin with. I admit I was also expecting to see a crazy man on stage say and do crazy things. Roky seems to have improved a whole lot. His guitarist and brother did a lot of the talking for him, but Roky looked in better spirits and when his lead guitarist said that Roky was going to sign autographs after the show, something that I've never seen happen at the Bowery or many other shows, I was compelled to stick around with friends and meet him face to face.

I waited online for the cheapest thing they were selling and bought a poster, one with Roky's mug on the front and electrical sockets on his forehead and electrical prods going in it with him smiling. I instantly liked it. The waiting did not take long and it was then that I noticed that the fan base was a relatively good mix of older and younger fans, although the older weighed out a little more. And, in fact, during the show, I would have the say the older fans, you know the ones who probably saw the 13th Floor Elevators during their glory years (for both the band and Baby Boomer fans), got into it pretty well. It's quite a sight to see a man pushing 60 jumping like a little school girl and another man, probably in his 50s, making devil horns and howling at Roky's guitar. Eh, so what, they were having fun.

When it was my turn to meet Roky, his brother was there talking with Roky and various fans. I soon recognized one of them. Rolling Stone veteran columnist David Fricke also braved the rain and stuck around to chat it up with Roky and his band. I knew it was Fricke because a.) he's a very tall man and b.) I recognized that shit eating grin on his face, the same one I see plastered next to reviews I am violently disagreeing with. Although, I have to honestly say I don't really mind Fricke. He's one of the better ones at Rolling Stone. Finally, I got up, handed my poster to Roky, and watched him sign it. There was something fragile about him on closer look, and he looked pretty spaced out. "Roky, you're a class act," I said, "Thanks." I shook his hand and he said "No man, thank you!" Quite a firm handshake he had there. I hope Roky is around for a long time and I hope that he puts out new music. Baby steps I suppose. My favorite part of the evening was during his encore when he played "I Walked with a Zombie." Derivative of the 50s rock Roky revived throughout a good part of his solo career, the song adds a doo wop element to it alongside the wonderfully surreal chorus "I walked with a Zombie / I walked with a Zombie last night." Only Roky Erickson could get away with writing a song about having a pleasant evening stroll with the undead. That's something to be thankful for from a truly American original.

Below you have two performances of "You're Gonna Miss Me." The first one is with the 13th Floor Elevators with the date unknown. The second features Roky as of 2007. Enjoy.

Roky Erickson...



Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Even Mike Watt Likes the Go! Team. Do You?

It's true. Uncle Mike digs these kids and their fresh new sound. Well, if its good enough for Mike Watt, it's good enough for me! You should have listened to to the Go! Team by now. You may have already. "Huddle Formation," one of the singles off their first full length player, Thunder, Lighting, Strike has been featured in a car commercial. I'm not sure whether its Toyota or Honda but if you have not heard them, the car companies and Mike Watt know something you don't. I'm still listening to this album well after 2004 and anxiously awaiting the next one. Rumor has it that My Bloody Valentine's very own Kevin Shields has been requested by the band to produce their second album. Will he or won't he? Don't fret because even if he doesn't, I have all the faith in these six youths from Brighton, England to make lighting strike twice on their own! Wacka wacka, like my pun? Scoff if you must but its fitting when discussing the Go! Team's music. It's so wild, loud and energetic, swirling out of control with 60s Herb Alpert-like horns, 70s funky beats, hip hop, Sonic Youth derived guitar, children playground chants, and 80s TV action themes all coming together to create a wall of sound that could even make Phil Spector jealous and do something rash! (What? Too soon?) Their sound screams decadence and it's almost too much, but I'm not complaining. Stand out tracks: "Ladyflash," "Junior Kickstart," "the Power is On", & "Everyone's a VIP." I could go on, but I think I'm going to let the Go! Team tell you in their own words what they're all about. Enjoy this 10 minute mini-documentary I found online.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Honorable Mention: The National

Sometimes I make hasty decisions. I instantly disliked the National when I first heard them 2 years ago. The album I was listening to was their second album, Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers. As of 2007, I'm still not too crazy about that album, some exceptions being the strong opener "Cardinal Song" & the lovely closer "Lucky You," but, honestly, everything in the middle of that to me is still kinda dull. Last year I was given Alligator and I pretty much had the same reaction that I did for the previous album, this time, however, with one major exception:"Mr. November." It was the only song of theirs I listened to more than one last year and it's still a gem due to its kick and strong rhythm which is something that I felt was lacking with the National prior to this. Yes, yes I know. It's "sadcore." It's not supposed to be fast or rock out very hard. Taking a lesson from post-punk legends Joy Division or math rock pioneers Slint, the so-called "sadcore" movement turned their angst inward and repressed their rage, everything Mr. Freud told us not to do. Joy Division and Slint were two bands that excelled at contrasting their moments of quiet with their moments of unexpected rage in which both the IDs of both bands erupted with deafening sound, only to quiet themselves as quickly as they began leaving the listener anticipating the passing of the eye of the storm.

The National did not do this for me on their 2nd album which left me disappointed. With Alligator, they changed my mind and made me eat my words after a second listen. "Mr. November" being a great example, but also on songs like "Abel" which is probably the hardest song on the album. Even the ballads, "Karen" & "Secret Meeting," despite their seemingly gentle sound, have an underlying tense mood which comes through far stronger than before. Admittedly, I have not heard their debut, which is supposed to be a strong one, but after warming up to Alligator and listening to the new album, Boxer, I'm now very curious. Boxer already has some worthy repeat listens. The opener (these guys are always good at opening an album) "Fake Empire" beckons the listener with its morose, but not cold, piano lick and singer and lyricist Matt Berniger's delivery. Especially on a track like "Fake Empire," do we further see the National only getting better at building up their quiet storm and this time we are given something more uplifting made evident by the song's marvelous use of horns. In addition to "Fake Empire," "Mistaken for Strangers," "Slow Show," and "Apartment Story" are all instant stand outs.

The National have gotten comparisons to many bands, Joy Division being one of them, but also U2, Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen. If they have to emulate someone, for God's sake, I hope they go along the Waits/Cohen path. Coldplay and the Killers may have made a career copying U2 with their passionate and sensitive anthems and Chris Martin and Brandon Flowers look like they are having fun playing make believe as Bono. Well, that seems to be the way the indie rock wind is blowing these days. Even my beloved Arcade Fire look like they have ambitions to say "big things" with a "big sound." Not surprising, the Arcade Fire opened for U2 toward the later half of their 2005 tour. Don't get me wrong. I enjoy U2...up to 1991. After that, it gets spotty, real spotty ("Discotechque" warrants as a criminal act.) My annoyance comes from the fact that I don't really like how guitars are tuned these days. So many bands have chosen to sound like U2 which might make them fans of the arena circuit but, in this critic's opinion, squander any originality they had to begin with (I'm looking in your direction Bloc Party. This is your final warning!) Please, let U2 be U2, and for that matter, let U2 continue their frustrating descent into adult contemporary on their own. Frankly, I hear the Waits/Cohen influence more with the National. Matt Berniger's voice is low enough to make him sound like Cohen's bastard son and his lyrics echo Waits affinity for losers and other dregs of society; not to mention that the actual performance is sung with enough self-deprecation reminiscent only of Warren Zevon. I am now a lot more excited to see them on Memorial Day than before. Keep it up, lads.

-The National performing "Mr. November" March 30, 2006

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Song of the Day: "No More Heroes" by the Stranglers

The Stranglers were the kind of band that made a career of latching onto trends and exploiting the hell out of them; quite often with varied results. Although their dangerous lunkhead image often suggested otherwise, the Stranglers were, in fact, accomplished musicians with backgrounds ranging from jazz, classical guitar and blues. In addition to having legit music talent, the Stranglers were great at displaying a wonderful understanding of the absurd with an off color (and often misinterpreted) sense of humor found in their lyrics. On stage, however, they reinvented themselves as rough and tough pub rockers oozing British working class sentiment. Both critics and fans knew better. So did the record producers as the Stranglers were later chosen to open for the Ramones first show in London. As a result, the Stranglers were swept up in the UK punk explosion of the late '70s. Their peers, and interestingly enough the Stranglers themselves , did not consider their music to be punk per se. But, their raw sound characterized by Jean Jacques Burnel's driving and, dare I say it, strangling bass, David Greenfield's eerie organ solos, Hugh Cornwell's nervous guitar and Jet Black's jazzy drumming fit in just fine with the punk rock ethos despite the fact that the band was also considerably older in age than most of the early punk rockers (Jet Black was pushing 40 at the time of the release of their first album.)

Recently, I combed through one the band's many greatest hits volumes and was appalled at how many awful songs they recorded after 1979. These guys embraced the New Romantic scene and never let go. Their later recordings boasted a softer approach with clean guitars, synthesizers and on key harmonies. So what's the problem? It's not what the Stranglers were about! This is a band that often refused to continue playing at their live shows unless girls from the audience got on stage and took their tops off, thus earning the ire and wrath of feminist groups. Contrast that now to their later work sounding like yuppie make-out music.*

At their finest, the Stranglers worked best with their first three albums (Rattus Norvegicus, No More Heroes & Black and White) and early singles. The song of the day goes to "No More Heroes" off the 1977 album of the same name. "Whatever happened to Leon Trotsky? He got an ice pick that made his ears burn," and so begins one of the Stranglers best songs. Comedian/free speech martyr Lenny Bruce, art forger Elmyr de Hory, and Don Quixote sidekick Sancho Panza are also name dropped as an unlikely batch of heroes. "Whatever happened to all the heroes? / All the Shakespearos?/ They watched their Rome burn" so says Hugh Cornwell. All of the best elements that made the Stranglers great: a driving melody, quirky bass and keyboards, and lyrics tinged with a black sense of humor are in full force. "No more heroes anymore / No more heroes anymore!" becomes the rallying cry. The song gained further relevance as it was released at the height of the first wave of punk, thumbing its nose at decadent, aging rock stars. After all, Joe Strummer said in 1977 "No Elvis, Beatles, or Rolling Stones!" No more heroes indeed.

*"Yuppie make-out music" is how Allmusic.com's Stephen Thomas Erlewine described Roxy Music's 1982 album, Avalon. I have shamelessly knicked it because I think it also applies to the Strangler's mid-80s work.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Obey & Listen!

Culture Vulture will be your ears at the following live shows:

- Roky Erickson & the Explosives @ the Bowery, 4/15
- Modest Mouse @ United Palace Theater, 4/30
- LCD Soundsystem @ Webster Hall, 5/14
- Daniel Johnston/Bang on a Can/Legendary Stardust Cowboy @ Highline Theater, 5/16
- The National @ the Bowery, 5/28
- Dinosaur Jr. @ Irving Plaza, 6/7

Culture Vulture will let you know how they are. Culture Vulture commands you to listen these acts if you have not already! Culture Vulture only has your best interests in mind.

Monday, April 2, 2007

Song of the Day: "The American in Me"-The Avengers

Often associated with the Sex Pistols (their EP was produced by Steve Jones and they opened for the band at their last show at the Winterland), the Avengers, while only existing very briefly released some great songs. While they did not really stray from the basic punk format, their politically tinged tirades helped give their fast paced numbers, "We Are the Ones," "The American in Me," and "White Nigger" a greater kick and were more idealistic than anything the Sex Pistols recorded. Sadly, they never really got too involved in the recording process. Their debut album was released in 1983, four years after they broke up. Penelope Houston, the bleached blonde singer/songwriter of the band went on becoming exactly that, a folky singer-songwriter and abandoned her punk roots. But what little this band left behind is great enough for me. With its allusions to the Kennedy era (and mainly assassination), Vietnam, the SLA, and other radical 60s events and icons, "The American in Me" survives in today's era not as a recap of the Kennedy assassination, but rather as a both a critique and celebration of America's fascination with violence, "It's the American in me that makes the watch the blood running out of the bullet hole in his head/"It's the American in me that says its an honor to die in war that's just a politician's lie." Hey, at least she's honest.