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.