Monday, June 28, 2010

I'll Keep You Posted Part 1

I picked up the new Gaslight Anthem, American Slang, over the weekend and have given it a few spins. So far my first impression is that I’m a bit underwhelmed. As much as 2008’s The 59 Sound totally took me by surprise by completely blowing me out of the water, American Slang almost sinks me by seaming to take me nowhere at all. And that’s a shame ‘cos there’s a lot of high energy and passion behind these ten songs.

I’m not sure what the problem is, ‘cos I was not highly anticipating this album and so couldn’t be let down from that, and I even sorta bought it on a whim. Heck, I can even see that it’s a good album, with everything you’d expect from the Gaslight Anthem: great hooks, catchy leads, a full octane back beat and sing-a-long vocals to get the crowd going. Yet perhaps that’s the problem, it’s more of the same, which is good stuff, and yet ultimately, well, samey. Honestly though, I wouldn’t want anything different from these guys, ‘cos their Springsteen meets Morrissey approach to rock is one of the best things I’ve heard in a good five years. But when it all boils down, American Slang has no stand out tracks. There’s no Great Expectations, High Lonesome, Casanova Baby, Here’s Looking at You Kid or even a barnstorming title track that shakes the roof loose. I’ve heard this album a good ten times and not one song has stuck with me, and that’s not from lack of trying on both my part and that of the boys. Meanwhile, the line “dance upon the architecture” from Casanova Baby has been stuck in my head all night.

So what to do when you recognize a great album but can’t get a line? Well, you just set it aside for awhile, come back in a few weeks and play it again in a different setting. I’ve learned over the years that this is how I can awaken myself to an album that essentially needs a bit more time to digest, which is a good thing, ‘cos those usually stand the test of time. Basically what I’m saying is that the Gaslight Anthem may have created their masterpiece (so far) with American Slang, but I’m just too cotton eared to hear it.

I’ll keep you posted.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

New Favorite Video

Hey everyone. My avid reader(s) will know that I'm not really much for videos these days, but I currently have a new all time favorite, which has toppled (if ever so sweetly) Billy Bragg's Greetings to the New Brunette. It's the Mary Onettes' The Night Before the Funeral, so check it out.

I'll be back with more on these guys.

Seriously, Sweden rules. RULES!!!

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Performance Review: Ocelots of Rock

Tonight the fam went out for the CD release of Ocelot’s latest e.p., Satan’s Darts, at an in-store performance at Grimey’s (who are pretending to be the new Lucy’s…just kidding). As always, the boys did not fail to impress.

Not to brag, but I’ve known these guys for years (we all went to college together back in the…er, day), and have played with them off and on in various and sundry projects, as well as sharing the stage with them in unrelated acts. Chatting with Paul the other day, he said they lined it all up and have been together about nine years now, playing their first show at a coffee shop in Bowling Green, KY down from the WKU campus. It was an intimate affair, but one of the best nights of rock to be had within hundreds of miles. That tradition continues.

What’s great about Ocelots is that their “Pavement meets Minutemen” approach to pop has really outgrown said moniker and they’ve developed a style and a sound that, while naturally nodding to their inherent influences, has become a style and a sound all its own, with new ideas and directions logically building off previous incarnations. I’ve said this to all the boys repeatedly on various occasions, but they simply get better with each new set of songs and subsequent release, and this batch of five is plain proof in the pudding.

The shame of Ocelots is really the shame of Nashville and the indie world in general. These boys have worked hard to get their music out there, playing shows at times and places with little to no attention from the local scenesters, which is fine on the road, but a scandal in your home town. To be fair, the bands they play with and certain folks within the press, etc certainly give them their due, but the “kids” in the crowd more often than not have turned a deaf and indifferent ear. On more occasions than not I’ve seen them clear a somewhat filled room within the first thirty seconds of a song with the pure and undeniable power of their rock. It’s further proof that people in general are idiots and that the scene is more of a social medium than a musical one, where everyone comes to see and be seen and not to enjoy a night of good music. But that’s a rant for another time.

Having said that, it does seem that Ocelots’ time spent is finally starting to pay off. This evening’s show was well attended, and not just by friends and family, but faces that I did not recognize and folks that none of the guys seemed to know - all attentive, all enjoying a spirited set that reached way back to their earliest release, The Truth About Ocelots from 2002, and it was especially nice to see One Eyed King and The Truth About Baker Hill (along with the song's explanation, an admitted rarity, which I had forgotten) get a nice kicking around. Even a technical issue or two did nothing to hamper the momentum, ‘cos as Greg mentioned, it wouldn’t be an Ocelots show without a few problems thrown in. At the end of the set I was inspired to reignite the rock myself, while simultaneously shaking my head and wondering yet again why they didn’t make a bigger splash years ago. Such is the loss of the musical world.

As for the e.p., Satan’s Darts is a close cousin to their last album, The Cellar & the Ghost Have Let Us Down, which was their first release to really and truly and fully capture what these boys are capable and willing to provide. What you get is well-written and well-executed indie rock the way they used to deliver it back in the 90s, only with an ears-open-to-today twist that keeps everything relevant. Lyrically poignant and personal, these narratives may not be stories you know, but are ones you can certainly relate to, and Greg’s up close and personal delivery demands attention to the details. Musically it’s a well-fitted pastiche of running bass lines, chunky guitar work (sometimes acting as a second low end or even a percussive devise) and calculated drumming that builds upon and accents the development of each song to their fullest potential. Simply put, this is honest music, both uniquely familiar and universally accessible to anyone with their head turned away from the carbon copy drivel that the mainstream has to offer (and quite frankly 90% of the indie rock output as well).

If you’re a local, I want you to go down to Grimey’s and pick up a copy of Satan’s Darts. You have five fun colors to choose from. If you’re not, then I want you to go to iTunes or Amazon (maybe both) and download it. But since it is all about the music, and if you’re on a budget, you can check out the music (plus a lot more) and download it for free here on their site. And if they ever come to your town, go out and tell ‘em Wil sent ya. You won’t get anything special for it, but it will make my ego feel awesome.

Also, I noticed M-Sullivan-X was videoing the show, so maybe I can link that up at some point in the near to distant future.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

One Hit Wonders: That was my shtick back then…

So it’s 1994, I’m a junior at DLU and I’m walking through the basement bowels of the Burton Bible Building on my way to some history class or other, and I can’t remember if someone else was singing it or if it was just stuck in my head, but the refrain of “Oo-ee-oo” keeps following me around and I’m wondering why anybody would write, much less like, a song about Buddy Holly that has absolutely nothing to do with him. As I’m walking, I can admit it’s a catchy tune, but I know that I hate it, even if I rather like the video, ‘cos it’s un-American to not like Happy Days no matter how indie cool you think you are.

In those days it seemed like everybody had Weezer fever and I wanted nothing to do with it, which was my shtick back then. They basically lost me from the get go with that stupid name and even Ric Ocasic producing wasn’t doing too much to endear me to the cause. Not that they needed me.

As other songs started to pop up as singles or in a friend’s car, I couldn’t help but toe-tap a bit, maybe even sing along as mindless familiarity took control…but I was still staunchly anti-Weezer. (That was my shtick back then.) It wasn’t until this DGC rarities compilation came out with the song Jamie on it that I really took a step back and said, “Well, maybe….” To cut a long and pointless story short, I next found myself recording Matt Hardin’s copy of Weezer’s self-titled debut, aka “The Blue Album,” from cassette to cassette (remember those days?) in Michael Andrew’s room ‘cos he had a dual tape deck. (FYI, the other side had Electronic’s s/t debut, but that is neither here nor there.)

I’m gonna go ahead and say right now that “The Blue Album” is one of the best albums of the 90s, possibly even ever. In the sickening wave of post-grunge, Weezer was creating a sound that borrowed heavily from every kind of power pop available, and yet was so unique in its construction that its sources were nearly impossible to trace. The fact that anything sounds like it now is because it existed in the first place. The 1-2-3 punch of My Name is Jonas, No One Else and The World Has Turned and Left Me Here is pretty much worth the price of admission alone, but the “ha ha” fun of Surf Wax America, self-deprecating-dork-bravado of In the Garage and heart on sleeve, pre-emo infection of Only in Dreams, make side two just as vital as side one. If you haven’t noticed, this is an album where I think the non-singles are the best of the batch, with the possible exception of the fabulous Say It Ain’t So, which has one of the greatest middle eight, pre-solo, angst ridden build ups in the history of pop music.

I listened to that tape front to back and back to front so many times that it finally snapped. However, I still wasn’t a Weezer fan, ‘cos (you guessed it) that was my shtick back then. Only my hatred for everything they’ve done since (hush up, I’ll get to Pinkerton in a minute) made me put off rectifying that situation. After the Deluxe Edition came out, I knew I could pick up the original cheap, and so I did (‘cos that’s how I roll). It had been a few years since I'd heard any of those songs, and it was like falling in love all over again - only this time without the biases and brick walls of being 22 and stupid (‘cos that was…oh, skip it). Finally I was able to embrace this fuzzy nugget of rock candy and truly feel the super sweet adrenaline rush I should have fully allowed myself years before. Oh indie credibility, you’re such a fickle and elusive mistress…how I love to hate you!

I pulled the disc out a couple of days ago (not sure why) and ran through it a couple of times to find that my feelings have not changed in the slightest, only enhanced with years and aging. There’s not a song on here that isn’t good to great or vital to the seamless flow of the album as a whole. In my opinion it’s one of the few perfect albums out there. Yes, I realize that this album set the foundations for emo, but I don’t think it meant to. And I also recognize the fact that its quirky, tongue in cheek awkwardness is a bit trite and overdone, yet the fact that these guys were basically a bunch of nerds who knew how to rock gives it a sincerity that makes non-coolness truly hip…if only for one brief and shining moment.

I’m still not a Weezer fan in any way, shape or form (not that they need me), I just like this album and a handful of stray tracks that surround this era. On my 23rd birthday Pinkerton was released and that evening JT and a few other friends came over to my apartment and he played it. That’s the only time I’ve ever heard it – I wasn’t fazed or affected in any way, and I have no interest in becoming more familiar with it, even though I understand from people whose opinions I respect that it’s a fantastic album even if it’s nothing like the debut (“except for the first two songs”) and half the band disowns it now. Everything I’ve heard from Weezer since then just sounds like a parody of what they were originally doing, an inside joke that only Rivers Cuomo gets and that thousands, maybe millions of fans are all the butt of. That’s fine, ‘cos he and his boys gave me an album that I think is pretty much timeless and yet reminds me of a time when I said no when I should have said yes and was glad when I finally did, ‘cos that was my shtick back then…and still is.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Lost But Not (Quite) Forgotten

I’ve often mused that for every great band out there that we love and listen to, there are probably three of equal value we’ve never heard and never will, but would certainly enjoy if we ever did. And I don’t mean the groups that never get signed or never make it out of a certain region, etc. I’m talking about those artists who put out records, get some exposure, maybe make a splash or two, but are still widely overlooked not only by mainstream attention, but the knowing “underground” scene as a whole. I mean lets face it, there’s only so much time to listen to so much music, everybody is going to overlook somebody and some of those somebodies seem to get overlooked by most everybody.

With that said, I give you the Harvest Ministers. Who? Exactly. So obscure are these guys that, while they have a website of their own, they don’t even have a little one line Wiki blurb. Sad, right? And yet at one time they toured with Everything but the Girl and Edwyn Collins, performed on high profile television spots, made records with hit making producers and received no small amount of critical praise – but outside of Ireland they’re pretty much unknown.

All I can tell you about this friendly little pop collective from Dublin is that they’re helmed by guitarist/vocalist William Merriman, they’ve been putting out quality music for around two decades and at one time they were part of the Sarah Records roster (which is how I stumbled on them). Yet despite having a radio smooth, adult contemporary appeal (or maybe because of this), they were overshadowed by more prominent label mates like Heavenly, the Wake and the ever-adored Field Mice. More polished rock than heart-on-the-sleeve twee pop, their subject matter, though similar, often as not dealt with the more mature, sobering aspects of their boy-meets-girl-loses-girl-so-writes-a-song-about-girl contemporaries, touching a darker, more socio-political realism. Basically, they feel like the older guys in the room, “saying been there, done that” to the self-indulging self-pity (and I say that with much love) of youth’s angst, to deal more with the life-long consequences of heartbreak, flashes of joy and the basic steps of getting along in a troubled world.

And while the Harvest Ministers might not be quite as immediate - though there are certainly exceptions - they benefit greatly from a touch of patience and repeat listens that subsequently bring about a rewarding and multi-layered experience, which in many cases can be more fulfilling and ultimately timeless. There are few songs to beat the “woe is me humor” of If It Kills Me, and It Will or the quirky yet poignant That Won’t Wash, and albums like Little Dark Mansion and A Feeling Mission provide a darkish to whimsical approach to the fears and expectations of life that we all face on a daily basis.

Merriman’s voice is warm and friendly. He does not preach or dictate, simply lays out how he’s feeling (sometimes with a female accompaniment or even lead) over a pleasant backdrop of pop-strummed and jangling guitars or more jazz-tinged piano-bass workouts or picked out, lightly orchestrated balladry or simple, gospel-bent harmonizing. Each single is an exercise in a new musical adventure, and each album dabbles in just enough genre-mixing to keep things active, while never losing familiarity or cohesiveness through over indulgence.

What’s great, and yet at the same time a bit disappointing, is that you can satiate your curiosity over whatever I’m driveling about here for a very low price, as many of their albums – A Feeling Mission, Orbit – can be picked up on Amazon for a mere penny (plus shipping of course) and everything else available is below the $5.00 mark. So really, why not? Get your credit cards ready!

Meanwhile, here are a few tunes (you can even hear the vinyl crackling!)… Petticoats, The First Star, Railroaded

Friday, June 4, 2010

Where have all the good balladeers gone?

Sweden. It’s that simple. I’ve mentioned my sometimes unhealthy infatuation/affair with the Swedes and I won’t dissect that any further here, but I will tell you about a somewhat recent import from that cold country - The Tallest Man on Earth, aka Kristian Matsson, a one-man folk act influenced heavily by American folk, Americana in general and especially pre-electric Dylan.

This is a good thing. A very good thing. It’s not that he’s picked up where Uncle Bob left off, but simply acts as if the Thin Wild Mercury Sound never actually happened and all we have is Dylan between 1962 and 1964. Well, that’s not entirely true, but in many cases this is Matsson’s blueprint, ‘cos the nod is obvious and the results are fantastic. TMoE’s imagery is deep and his vision broad. He paints pictures with words using a voice that is plaintive, primitive and 100% plausible. Never has a single man and a guitar sounded more vibrant or exciting, with the power of a dozen musicians and ten thousand watts at his fingertips. And yet within a moment he can become as whisper-delicate as a morning flower.

Anyone into folk music should already know what I’m talking about. Anyone halfway interested should check it out. Anyone who’s not a fan will become converted…or at least as far as these two albums and one e.p. will take you.

Check out this NPR showcase. The camerawork is a bit wonky, but the sound is perfect.