Thursday, April 26, 2012

Catching Up With…Best Coast

I’ve probably said this before, but in the past I’ve been notorious for completely shunning new music, that is to say new artists. But around 2005 I made a conscious effort to drop some of the prejudices I had and start seeing what all was out there. I have to say that I’m still pretty choosy, but I’ve also made some wonderful discoveries in the likes of up and coming bands like The Subways, Gaslight Anthem and Tokyo Police Club.

Still, with a full time job and family, it’s hard to keep up with what’s going on with artists I’ve been following for years, much less whatever new is making a positive ripple on the musical ocean, so I often find myself lagging behind on some new groups that are doing something I would completely enjoy.

One such band is the LA-based duo Best Coast, which is mainly the vehicle of singer/songwriter Bethany Cosentino, along with multi-instrumentalist pal Bobb Bruno. After a couple of promising singles, the band released their full-length debut, Crazy for You, in July 2010, and the world was an infinitely better place for it.

The first song I heard from Best Coast was the opening number and lead single from the album, Boyfriend, a ridiculously catchy and equally melancholy tune about longing for a friend to be that much more. Lovelorn like only teenage romance can be, this song aches with a bitterness that’s so sweet, so sincere, it absolutely requires repeat listens. Why I didn’t drop everything I was doing and run out to buy this album is beyond me, but a full 18 months went by before I got around to picking it up, and I guess it’s true, kids - some things are worth waiting for.

Crazy for you has been on heavy and sometimes constant rotation for several months now. The rest of the album follows suit with Boyfriend, lyrically dealing with the joy and pain of relationships, crushes, break ups and just hanging around being a twenty-something in today’s world. No, this is not earth shattering subject matter, and it’s not even approached in an overly creative or poetic manner; but Cosentino’s straight-from-the-diary lyrics are so honest, so dripping with heartbreak and hopelessness, that they’re believable and worthwhile because they deal with emotional desperation in the common, every-heart language that we’ve all expressed, without the unnecessary tropes and pretentions of heavy metaphors and subtext. She sings how she feels, and so we feel it too.

She sings a lot about weed too. 

Musically, we are treated to an odd on paper but excellent to the ears blend of retro-slacker-garage-bubble gum pop rock, dripping with reverb and jangly guitars, insistent drumming and melodic hooks that literally raise the hair on the back of your neck. For me this music is so super nostalgic in a 90s indie sort of way, that it almost makes me cry when I’m just the right amount of tired and the sun is all but lost over the horizon. There are no flashy tricks, nothing we all couldn’t pull off with a few months of practice, and this is completely unnecessary, because these songs could just as easily carry themselves on a half-tuned acoustic guitar, and sung into a tape recorder (provided Cosentino is doing the singing). And yet I have to give a super shout out to her boy Bobb B, because he believes in these songs just as much as she does, and as any good accompanist should, knows when to hold back, raise the subtlety and just let it all cut loose. And it’s this sensitivity to the song that takes something already great and propels it to the next level of darn near classic (though of course we’ll have to wait a few years before we see how that plays out).

The exciting part about coming in late to this gem is that I don’t have to wait long for a follow up, as Best Coast’s sophomore effort, The Only Place, will be dropping in the coming weeks/months on Mexican Summer.

Needless to say, I won’t be lagging behind this go around.

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Quarterly JT - Part 1, 1982

JT and I are at it again. This one is his brainchild. Basically, each quarter we’re covering our personal five favorite albums of a given year and then the next quarter we’ll tackle the top five of ten years later. For example, we’re starting with 1982 for Q1, which has passed, so Q2 and 1992 will come hard on, followed by Q3 and 2002 and then the top 5 picks of 2012 sometime in December. In January, we start all over with 1983. See how it goes? Pretty cool, right? And it’s all JT’s idea!!

Needless to say, 1982 was an amazing year for music, and we both had close to ten albums right off the bat without having to do much digging. With the likes of Springsteen (Nebraska), Prince (1999) and X (Under the Big Black Sun) putting out seminal efforts; not to mention some strong nods from Captain Beefheart (Ice Cream for Crow would be his last release), John Cougar Mellencamp (American Fool was his first of several huge as well as meaningful albums) and REM (Chronic Town, while only an EP, changed everything about music), 1982 had a lot to offer within many genres and generations (or for anyone who just loves all kinds of music). And with so much to choose from in such a wide variety, we both had to go with what we felt were personal and long lasting, maybe even obvious, favorites, and it’s quite possible that (most) any of our picks could drop down a notch and be replaced by one that is arguably no lesser, just not hitting our sweet spot at this given moment.

So, let’s dive in, with JT, per usual, going first…

Oh wait, I can’t remember if these were supposed to be ranked or not, but mine are in random order. 

  1. Violent Femmes- S/T  Releasing arguably the greatest debut album of all time, the Femmes came out swinging and recorded some of the best folk/indie rock songs ever. From the guitar/drum intro of ‘Blister in the Sun’ to the melancholy closer ‘Good Feeling’ there isn’t a single misstep on this album, which for the Femmes proved to be both a blessing and a curse as they would never reach this level of perfection again…but then again, not many bands could.
  2. Michael Jackson- Thriller This album has sold so many copies that they lost count, as the estimates range anywhere from 65 to 110 million sold and this didn’t happen on accident. MJ was in the perfect groove on this album…coming off of the stellar Off the Wall, which would’ve made my list for best albums of 1979 had we done it. All that you can say about Thriller, and this is by no stretch an overstatement, is that it is absolute pop perfection. Seven of the nine tracks were released as singles with every last one of them becoming pop standards. Unbelievable.
  3. XTC- English Settlement I’m a huge fan of pop music in all of its forms and while Michael Jackson was releasing one of the best mainstream pop albums of all time, XTC were quietly perfecting their own brand of angular, quirky pop rock. This album contains some of their best ‘singles’ but also their most consistent album tracks as well.  
  4. Prince- 1999 I love Prince and while this isn’t Purple Rain, Sign O’ The Times or Dirty Mind, it is still a pretty perfect album and contains some of Prince’s best singles (1999, Purple Rain, Let’s Pretend We’re Married and Delirious)...1999 serves as a reminder of just how amazing of a run of albums Prince released from the late 70s into the early 90s.
  5. The Cure- Pornography William and I have discussed this album ad nauseam so let’s just say that this is the best ‘goth’ album of all time and probably why, despite the fact, that Robert and co. haven’t recorded anything as dark or ominous in 30 years they are still thought of as a Goth band in many circles. 

And now me...ME! ME! ME!

The Church – Blurred Crusade – The Church’s sophomore effort was in some ways a bit of a 180 from their shimmering debut, the personal top 3 favorite, Of Skins and Heart. Chucking half an album’s worth of three minute psyche-jangle-pop tunes and replacing them with broader, more ambitious and drawn out mini-epics, that would become their preferred forte in another decade, The Blurred Crusade sounds like a band searching not for who they are, but where they want to be, and finding many worthwhile avenues to explore. And yet even as they push the boundaries a bit, they don’t lose the post-punk edge or chiming melody that made the debut so infectious. This is the same band, only covering new ground, doing more with a sound that was more obviously borrowed before (though heightened by some of the most excellent songwriting of the genre) and taking it to new limits. Not that the three songs that take on this vein (When You Were Mine, Field of Mars, You Took) are all that’s worthwhile. The more familiar sound of the debut gets a nice reworking as well, from the medieval croon of Almost With You, to the laid back “la, la” of To Be in Your Eyes, to the brief, haunting desperation of Secret Corners, there is much that loves to stick in your head and beg for a repeat listen. It would be another ten years and six albums before the Church really picked up on this vibe again, and when they did they threw away the manual and wrote their own. But the Blurred Crusade is a fantastic collection of cultivated pop immediacy and embryonic epic that is at once varied and cohesive, and a must listen for anyone interested in this band beyond “Under the Milky Way.”

The Cure – Pornography – Likely one of the few JT and I will both choose, and of course we’ve rather recently gone over this one, but it can’t be stressed enough the importance of this album as a cornerstone/place marker of where the Cure really went dark and fully embraced the “goth” image they were already flirting with over the past couple of albums – and has of course shrouded them ever sense, even when it really shouldn’t have. But, like most great albums, there are only hints of what was to come from previous efforts, with no logical follow up after the fact. Just as with Disintegration seven years later, it takes an aerial view to fit some of the pieces together and say “Yes, I should have been prepared...” Of course 30 years later this is all hindsight, and the fact of the matter remains that Pornography is a testament of how far you can push the limits of your angst via vision, create something that nearly tips you over the brink, and yet still manages to hold it all together. While on some levels this album may sound like one man’s post punk/pre industrial diatribe of emotional vitriol, it’s actually a well-crafted, articulate, often hauntingly lovely and surprisingly accessible collection of overdriven pop tunes, with everything turned up to 11 and all the stops thrown wide open. The drums hammer, the guitars drill, the bass throbs and Mad Bob wails like a banshee going through a bad break up. In short, it’s everything a Cure fan could hope for. And having said that, it’s not for the casual fan or first time listener, but it does represent what in many ways is quintessential Cure, while taking a snapshot of a specific moment, sound and attitude in their career that they never fully attained (or really even attempted) again.

Duran Duran – Rio – Another I’ve gushed about previously, but again, the importance of this album is that it illustrates the best of what New Wave had to offer, and why it was worth the hype, and how it made sense that it was as popular as it was innovative. Yeah, Duran Duran were the poster boys of everything chic and trendy in the early on 80s, but this was one of the rare times when that was a good thing. Sure, those dos and threads are a bit dated now (despite the retro wave comeback amongst the kids), but the music and the look, slick, sexy and sensational, all make sense when put within the same context. Yet removing the glitter and glam around the music still leaves the listener with a batch of songs that are brilliant, showcasing a lush, sophisticated but non-self-important style that is dance-worthy, thrilling and (especially on side two) emotionally stirring. Few albums could properly encompass the free for all abandon of monster hits like the title track or Hungry like the Wolf, the sinister undercurrents of Lonely in Your Nightmare or New Religion, or the ethereal pulse of the Chauffer, which I often think is the greatest song DD ever composed, and is easily one of the most compelling listens of all time. As with all these albums, it was a moment in production, skill and songwriting when every planet and star was exactly where it should be, creating a musical statement that was perfect for that time and yet transcends where it was for everywhere else it could and should be…which is in your player right now.  

Roxy Music – Avalon – The final album before Roxy Music’s second and lengthier hiatus, Avalon is the culmination of the sleek, refined and more lounge-centric approach that began well enough with 1979’s Manifesto, but got a little out of control with Flesh and Blood. The difference here is a reincorporation of some of the artier vibes from their initial run, though not in the visceral, angular way of standouts like Country Life or Siren, but in the more atmospheric, even cerebral moments that were highlights on For Your Pleasure and Stranded. But again, the “attack” is gone, and Avalon rarely rises above a mid-tempo croon as it slips and slides along silky textures of liquid bass, amoebic keys, slithering guitars and spiraling sax/oboe. This is of course the perfect luxurious backdrop for Bryan Ferry, the ultimate front man in both elegance and machismo, to swoon his way through tales of love’s losses and regrets. Avalon is an aural treat, a dream landscape evoking exotic settings, romantic interludes and a sensation of complete abandon. This is wonderful sunny day driving music with the windows down and your arm hanging out, or a backdrop for a cool night with a nice drink and the lights low while you let go of the day’s cares. As do all these albums, it stands on its own within the Roxy Music catalog and has no obvious successor amongst the countless artists/albums it has influenced; plus it’s the obvious example of what happens when the glam movement grows up and begins approaching music from a more mature point of view.

Violent Femmes – Violent Femmes – I know I said these weren’t ranked, but in many ways this may be the most important album of the year, decade and, in many ways, of all time. For 30 years the Violent Femmes’ self-titled debut has been passed down like a mantle, from older to younger sibling, from hip uncle to shy nephew, from cool and aloof senior to geeky but promising freshman, as a gateway into the world of “alternative” music. The first four tracks alone are the bullhorn for awkward teen angst and repressed, unrequited love, and the rest of the album is just as good in the exact same way. And yet despite the incredible shadow this album casts over the entire network of cult status music, not to mention the Violent Femmes themselves, it has never even been close to duplicated in style or attitude, from the folk-punk whine-along of Blister in the Sun to the truly heartbreaking strains of Good Feeling. Honestly, I can’t even think of a band or album where I can say, “Yeah, they’ve got an early Femmes feel to them,” which is part of the mysterious chemistry, not to mention brilliant set of songs (thank you, Mr. Gano), these three guys had at the time these ten tracks were recorded. It’s a classic among masterpieces, a moment when everything that was wrong made something exactly right, and I have no doubt will be expressing the complaints of the hopeless for the next 30 years and more.

Oh, and apparently these are in alphabetical order, so…

Monday, April 9, 2012

Performance Review: Dave Bazan

On Monday, March 5, 2012, Dave Bazan played a house show in East Nashville, and I was there…

Typically I try and write my performance reviews within a day or so, even hours, of the show, for all the obvious reasons. Unfortunately that wasn’t the case this go around. As I have alluded to once or twice in previous posts, some big changes have been coming my way, namely the relocation of my family from Nashville, where I’ve spent most of the past twenty years, back to my hometown of Panama City, FL. That was a process to say the least, and so trivial things like this blog were boxed up with my life of the past two decades and put on hold until time allowed.

But here we are a month plus after the fact, and the Bazan show is still on my mind. There are lots of reasons for this, not the least of which is the fact that this was my last Nashville show (as a resident at least) and that I attended it as a guest of a very dear friend, Paul the Spivey.

Most house shows I’ve attended, and bulk of these a good ten plus years ago, were hot, loud, crowded affairs, people there as much for the keg as the band and, because these were mostly punk shows, riotous to the point that the cops were called before the entire bill had played, with the audience sent scattering in any direction.

Thankfully this was in no way the case to see Bazan.

I wish I could remember the name of the extremely nice couple who hosted, she was a good 8.5 months pregnant and he had a beard that was wearing him, but they were gracious and accommodating and I want to give them a shout out.

So, there we were on a bit of a chilly March evening in the hippest area Music City has to offer, standing on the front porch chatting with some guy, when a mini van pulls up and Bazan gets out carrying a guitar case and a small amp. He nodded to us as he entered the house and we took that as the queue to follow and stake a claim in the audience.

I’m going to back up a bit here and give a quick review of my standing with Pedro the Lion/David Bazan. I first heard of Pedro about 12 or 13 years ago when my friend Jason would put two or three songs on compilations of new bands he was discovering. I enjoyed a lot of those tunes immensely in their miniature and mixed setting, but when I listened to an entire Pedro album I found it sorta samey and boring, with a handful of highlight songs scattered here and there, yet not enough to keep me coming back. But having said that, I appreciated the band’s aesthetic, and especially Bazan’s open approach of a) his fervent Christianity and b) his struggle with heroin abuse (seriously kids, Jesus came for the broken, not the “righteous”).

Going into the show, I had at least heard and/or was familiar with all the main Pedro efforts, especially their last album, Achilles Heal, which I think is fantastic; while having heard next to nothing of Bazan’s two releases under his own name, though I knew that the first one was a “break up” with God. I also knew that he did a Q&A session with the audience, which I was warned by Paul bugged some people, but that he enjoyed.

In total there were about 50-60 people in a small living room adjoined to a dining room, the latter of which I took residence standing up against a back wall, while the rest of the folks took to the floor or some of the minimal seating scattered about. I don’t think Dave said anything at first, just launched into song and didn’t stop for at least two or three numbers.

As I’ve mentioned in previous performance reviews, I seem to enjoy myself more at a show of an artist I’m more aware of than familiar with, and this was certainly the case with David Bazan. From the start I found his presence warm and approachable, and his voice and subdued electric guitar playing perfect for the small setting, which allowed us to really hear the emotion in the lyrics, while the music crafted a vessel for the melody to take shape and move outward. I’ve more than once complained about the confessional tone of Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, which for me often comes off as whiney and mealy mouthed, as he dumps his emotional baggage all over the captivated listener. Bazan, more than being just confessional, is telling it like it is – just the facts, ma’am – and instead of singing to anyone who will listen, is taking the heart of the matter directly to the subject in question, and simply allowing us to listen in if we care to know what’s up. The difference is staggering to the point where Bazan isn’t just letting you in on what happened at some random point in his life, but the active part he took, the outcome and how he felt (feels) about it, letting us know more about the man behind these songs, which is always a fascinating aspect of music. More often than not he portrays himself as the antagonist instead of the victim and he has, as he admitted at some point during the set, a pretty low self opinion, not so much as an artist but as a fallible guy going through life.

It’s this sort of stark frankness that makes his songs believable and ultimately profound, as you realize you can remove the characters in his musical situation and replace them with folks from your own life who have played out these scenarios in much the same way, with a bottom line recognition that we’re all in fact human, even indie rock stars.

This was most evident in the Q&A banter, as about every three songs he would either launch into a story (which were often hilarious and a bit bawdy) and/or simply ask, “Any questions at this point?” There always were, ranging anywhere from rumors of who/what he was currently working on, to who/what certain songs or lyrics were about, to how his parents felt about the current abandonment of his faith.

It was during these discussions that I figured out how he pretty much views himself, at this point anyway, as a folk artist. I found this especially fascinating when one guy pointed out that many of the songs he was playing that night had different arrangements than those found on the albums, to which he explained, to summarize, that at the time of recording, these songs were still new to him and it took time playing them out on the road to get to know them better, and therefore more how to play them. That struck me as very folky, very artistic and very true to a medium that must be in constant flux to remain relevant and enjoyable, for both artist and audience. And while Bazan is not necessarily trying to keep up with today’s musical trends, he’s certainly trying to keep himself in a constant state of dynamic awareness, presenting a product that is familiar (aka marketable, which as a working musician is a conscious effort) and yet unique unto itself, which (as I’ve said a bazillion times) is what makes a great artist truly great.

When it was all said and done, I didn’t get to hear the one song I’d have really liked to (The Fleecing from Achilles Heel), but I walked away enlightened and touched. It was a fitting end to two decades worth of great shows, as quiet and somber as the first back in September of 1992 was noisy and joyous, with the sobriety of age and experience providing an entirely different perspective on the performance, and taking away something that would have never been possible in my teens.

So thanks for the memories Dave, Nashville and of course, Paul the Spivey.