Thursday, March 31, 2011

For a Quarter - Part 3

I’ve been revisiting my stack of $.25 Great Escape purchases and, for the most part, it’s been a fun ride. This time around The Wrens’ third album, The Meadowlands, has been the one catching my repeat listen ear. Here’s a bit as to why…

I’m not really sure how I first heard (of) the Wrens, but they’re not one of your more well known indie rock bands (at least not in my “circles”), yet they’ve been around for more than twenty years and have a whopping three albums (plus a scattering of singles) to show for it. In fact, a bit of a joke on their official site seems to point to this with the motto: Keeping folks waiting…since 1989.

In my opinion, everything I’ve heard has been well worth the wait and it is surprising that these guys aren’t better known on a broader circuit, though my understanding is that they do tour somewhat frequently and are supposed to be an amazing live show.

Could you do this jump? I didn't think so...

Anyway, the point is…The Meadowlands is a really great album. To sum it all up, even though this album came out in 2003, this is old school 90s indie rock the way we all love to remember it. To broaden that out a bit, this is sort of a loose, lo-fi blend between Archers of Loaf and some random, faceless band you might hear on the OC (you know, those emotionally "uplifting" songs that get you caught up in the moment of the show but you can't like it 'cos you know that band isn't "legit"), with a bit of California mellow and the obligatory (for the past 10 or so years) Death Cab for Cutie thrown in for good measure. So basically it’s catchy, but with an unconventional raw quality that gives these 13 songs a bit of extra grit.

There’s actually quite a bit going on here, and each song is a unique adventure in and of itself. The magic is found in layers, with multiple guitar, keyboard and vocal parts creating a canopy of sound that can be enjoyed as a whole or dissected directly for that more personal listening experience. There are false starts, cryptic, off key intros, tempo and time signature changes, sonic waves, bleeps, faux equipment malfunctions and even crickets thrown in to further enhance the music, which makes the entire album that much more exciting, bringing cohesiveness to a rather diverse set of tunes.

However, the real key here is the performance delivery, which is more than the casual precision or the overall sum of the many parts, but the absolute joy that these guys receive in making their music in their way and in their time. Ultimately, it’s this joy that makes the Wrens and specifically The Meadowlands such a pleasing and infectious success. Don’t believe me? Check out their live take on Hopeless, and let the music do the talkin’.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Small Doses - Part 1

Let’s cut right to the chase – I love EPs. In many cases I prefer them to full albums. Maybe not full albums as they were 25 years ago, but as they are now. With 15 songs and nearly an hour's worth of music…who has time? Not me. But an EP, which to me should have between five and seven songs and be about 20 minutes tops, provides just enough gravy to give you a proper taste of what an artist has to offer, but leaves you wanting a bit more. Plus, they’re cheaper, so if the band sucks, you shouldn’t be out too much cash.

Here are three faves:

Archers of Loaf - Vs the Greatest of All Time (1994): I’m fairly confident when I say that Archers of Loaf’s debut album, Icky Mettle, is pretty much the handbook for 90s indie rock. And if that is the case, then the Vs the Greatest of All Time EP is easily a supplemental CliffsNotes. Essentially, to define one is to define the other, as both releases are cut from the same raw rock energy that formed so many great bands in the 90s; bands that sparked, flared and burned with an unprecedented brilliance, only to sputter out a couple of years before the end of the decade. Of these, Archers of Loaf was easily one of the best. Gritty, irreverent, quirky and unapologetically real, they approached rock n roll with an agenda to kick convention to the side, yet retained an undeniable pop sensibility that made their music extremely accessible once you got through the top layer of fuzzy grime. Archers of Loaf were all about the drama of dynamics, and Vs the Greatest of All Time doesn’t start off with a bang but with a grouchy whisper, if you can even call it that. Audiowhore begins with a full 25 seconds of tape noise and miscellaneous sounds before a lone guitar starts to noodle about with random notes (another 40 seconds) forming a melody you’ll never hear again, and then the opening riff chimes in, casual and unobtrusive, amongst string twanging and feedback squeals, so that a full minute and a half plus in, the song properly explodes like an unexpected and self righteous bomb blast. The root notes carry an easy, almost sweet melody, but the guitars are so dissonant, played with such ferocity, and the vocals are so full of disdain, that there’s nothing you can really do but comply and bounce your head to the wave of the music, hoping for a pocket of air. And so it goes for the next four songs, with Audiowhore bleeding straight into the slam dance, yell along fury of Lowest Part is Free! and from there a languid guitar leads into Freezing Point, full of slacker venom, and in many ways a banner song for Archers of Loaf. If you’ve got the vinyl, flipping to side two brings another longwinded intro; over two minutes of solo angular guitar creating a pre-melody segueing into the gruff anger of Revenge, before an abrupt end bangs half out of control into the jarring first chord of All Hail the Black Market, a low key number that induces heart string tugging with nothing short of a lovely melody (and guitar counter melody), and even harbors a touch of sensitivity as it simultaneously oozes with bitterness and retribution. Honestly, you don’t get too many lines like this anywhere else in rock n roll: Bought off and sold, making use of your enemies, line ‘em up single file and gouge out all their eyes… These guys, or at least singer/guitarist Eric Bachmann, did seem to have an axe to grind, yet they did so with poetic rage and graceful contempt. The key to Archers of Loaf is power, which is sometimes harnessed and coerced into beautiful but dangerous swaths of sonic sound, but often as not unleashed with a glorious fury that can (or could) only be surpassed by seeing them perform these songs live. If you had to sum it all up in 20 minutes or less, Vs the Greatest of All Time would get you where you needed to be with oomph to spare.

R.E.M. – Chronic Town (1982): This is the release that changed everything for R.E.M. and me - as a relationship. I don’t think it was the first time I’d heard it, but it’s the first time I remember hearing it; at my friend Steev’s house, in the kitchen, on some cheap, worn out boom box…cassette of course. I can still remember taking the tape out of the case and having to decipher the song titles on each side ‘cos it had been listened to so much the lettering had worn off. (That tells you something right there.) The house was off a bayou, moss hanging from the live oaks, sun setting across the water, but still enough light to see what was going, which wasn’t much… and it couldn’t have been more perfect, with muses invoked, inspirations set afire and nothing for it but to sit and watch Steev smoke a cigarette and wonder if our little trio would ever amount to much. (It didn’t.) I was sixteen and fairly stupid, but I knew a good thing when I heard it, and even with my limited knowledge of music could tell from the opening jingle of Wolves, Lower that there wasn’t any other music on the planet like this, and that these four guys were doing things no one else could, even if they’d tried. From that point on, I was committed. So, the beauty and curse of being a musician is that you want to dissect songs, pick out the licks and fills and slight fluctuations of voice that make a great song a little extra special, trying to figure out what and how they are pulling that off…which sometimes spoils the magic, but other times just gives you fresh ideas. But with R.E.M. it’s always hard to tell, and the Chronic Town EP pretty much set that standard out of the gate. The parts just don’t add up. How can Mike Mills’ bass walk so languidly over Bill Berry’s frantic drumming while Peter Buck’s guitar makes noises that sound vaguely familiar and yet come from the other side of some distant planet? And then there’s Stipe, Michael, the great mumbler, who says everything by saying nothing, including brilliantly cryptic lines like, “Suspicion yourself, suspicion yourself, let us out…,” and “Gentlemen don’t get caught, cages under cage…,” and “We will stumble through the A-P-T…,” oh, and let’s not forget the beginning of 1,000,000 where he laughingly enunciates, “Teeth.” At least I think he does…on all of that. And it doesn’t really matter because, at this point in their journey, Stipe’s voice was just another instrument, a counter melody to the melodies countered and re-counter-countered on bass and guitar. Yes, there’s a lot going on in these songs, and yet they’re not jumbled or stifled, but jump and jiggle and flail about; though paradoxically they’re a bit restrained by the lo-fi production, and yet this in itself is another instrument, another mysterious layer upon the rhythm bed patchwork, a mask to the answer of the question: What’s happening here? At the time I found it surprising that this music came from the South, and not from Europe or NYC or maybe even LA. And yet it makes total sense, because Europe would have made the notes too glossy chic, and NYC turn the vocals overly cynical and the west coast make the whole package just pointlessly ironic (and yes, I know Peter and Mike are originally from CA). Only the Southern US had the bitter bite with something to prove to the rest of the planet, with a lash that changed the face of music – the way musicians approached it and the way fans listened to it – and it all started right here, four guys, five songs and 20 minutes of rock perfection.

Death Cab for Cutie – Forbidden Love (2000): As I’ve alluded to a couple of times on these pages, I’m a casual to begrudging Death Cab for Cutie fan at best. I continue to check out each release because I’m still waiting to catch the big fire that a lot of folks have already. And I continue to purchase each release because my wife already has. (Also, the “u” key is not working well on my laptop, which is highly annoying.) If there’s a band I like in small doses, it’s Death Cab for Cutie, and, as each album proves, I only enjoy about an EP’s worth with every release. So a few minutes ago I texted JT, “Best DCFC release…go!” Of course he sent back some obvious blah, blah like We’ve Got the Facts… and/or Plans and made a point to say NOT the “Photobooth” EP as he called it because, knowing me better than I sometimes realize, he knew where I was going. Of course I told him he was wrong with his choices (and he came back with some more blah, blah), but he was right in his assumption, only it’s the Forbidden Love EP (duh, JT). This was the first Death Cab release I picked up during a lunch break at Borders in Brentwood back in 2000 or so because it was inexpensive, I liked the cover art and, as you now know, I like EPs. (Side note, this was not the first Death Cab for Cutie I heard, which was Something About Airplanes when it first came out…so for once I was on top of the game, thank you Jason Smith.) This is possibly one of the most aptly titled releases in music history because all the songs, like many to most of Ben Gibbard’s tunes, are about relationships, and usually the darker, seedier, less la, la roses and rainbows side of them. As I’ve said before, for me this is both an endearing quality and a major flaw with Death Cab. However, in small doses, this band really rings true, and opener Photobooth (ok, JT was sorta “right” after all) really hits the hopeless romantic chord just left of center in my chest. Listening to it now immediately conjures memories and feelings of jogging in the Belmont area, specifically down Belmont Blvd, and composing my own songs in my head as I projected them upon tons of hopes and dreams that, well…now I write a music blog. But from the pure pangs of childhood fantasy to the harsh facts of life, B-Gibbard pretty much nails it all, with gossip and conjecture and cigarette smoke and long drives down the freeway. One of Death Cab for Cutie’s brightest moments comes from a spritely, scaled down rendition of 405, which in its lilting beauty crushes the album version from We Have the Facts… like a grape. In addition, an alternate take of Company Calls Epilogue from the same album, while not quite as powerful as that version, contains a reverb-laden creepiness that brings the song new meaning. Admittedly, it’s doubtful that any other fan of Death Cab for Cutie will choose this release over any of their six albums (wow, that many? Time flies…), but for a starter kit, the Forbidden Love EP will pretty much give you a fair rundown both thematically and musically. Good luck!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

In appreciation...

I’ll tell you straight off that I appreciate everyone who reads my blog - whether you comment or not, I know you’re out there. But it is nice to get some feedback now and then, and luckily all of mine has been positive, so enough to keep me going (when work/kids/life give me the time…). But I really love it when someone gives me a little something back, as with Seattle-based pal Benji, who after reading my November 11 “There’s Only One" post featuring Leonard Cohen’s debut, had this to say about his fourth release, New Skin for the Old Ceremony.

For your (and for JT's) pleasure, I'd like to suggest a second look at Cohen's 4th Album "New Skin for the Old Ceremony." Cohen is one of the seminal singer-songwriters to me because his life echoes in his songs. From an autobiographical standpoint, his first album introduces us to themes that continue in his later work: hedonism vs religion.

Cohen slowly gives in more and more to the flesh and this album is the last one where those themes really battle. In his 5th and 6th albums he's a wholly carnal being. Then the pendulum swings the other way while he becomes a monk before his return to music with an album of religious songs.

Career arc aside, the diversity of the arrangements on the album sets it apart. In the raucous "Is This What You Wanted (To Live In A House That Is Haunted)" to "Chelsea Hotel" - the Janis Joplin affair inspired ballad that may be the best example of his resigned, confessional style - to moody mysteries like "Who by Fire" and emotional appeals like "Take This Longing," we see the already eclectic Cohen pushing himself as a songwriter.

I could go on, but for JT (who hadn't heard much Cohen) and for your readers, I wanted to make a case for revisting "New Skin For The Old Ceremony."

I had admittedly never heard this album at the time of my initial post, but after reading Benji’s well spoken praise, and knowing Benji knows his know, I decided I needed to pick up a copy. That actually proved more trying than one would think, and after a month when I finally got it, I was in the midst of new baby madness, so it was after the dawning of 2011 when I finally got to sit down and, to put it simply, really enjoy this record.

Honestly, I can’t really add, embellish or improve upon what Benji himself has already said. But I will say that despite the rather heavy themes mentioned above, New Skin for the Old Ceremony is quite an easy, even endearing listen. I won’t say it’s a stab at pop accessibility, songs like Why Don’t You Try are closer to Tin Pan Alley…hmmmm, which I guess 30-40 years earlier WAS pop, but you get what I’m saying. Basically by this point Cohen had progressed as a songwriter, not just a man putting music and melody to poems, but writing with the idea of song as a principle part of the process. Not that the poetry is any way lost, for nothing here is trite, cliché or tongue in cheek, but as raw and exposed as the dramatic opening moments of Suzanne.

So thank you Benji, and again to all my readers. I’m always open for your thoughts and comments. I know I’ve been a bit slow with these lately, but hopefully I’ll be churning them out a bit more in the coming weeks.