Sunday, December 13, 2009
An erstwhile member of the seminal alt-country group Uncle Tupelo, Mr. Farrar has become somewhat forgotten in many circles, as he’s been eclipsed in popularity by his old bandmate, Jeff Tweedy. “Eclipsed” maybe is not a fair word, as Tweedy and Farrar have always been going for different things with their music. But it’s fair to say that while a new Wilco album is met with cover stories and magazine spreads and a barrage of interviews and the like, Farrar is operating under the radar, playing to his strengths as a straight-ahead rock-country veteran and churning out solid, but untrendy songs album after album. “Voodoo Candle” is one of his tunes that does push his Uncle Tupelo template in another direction and while it’s not something that will garner the same critical praise, as say, Wilco’s “Spiders (Kidsmoke)”, it is definitely a great tune that deserves some attention, or at least a listen.
Songs: Ohia was the name of Jason Molina’s band when they released the Magnolia Electric Company LP. It’s a truly fantastic record, with a few great tunes (one of them being “Just be Simple”) but it also marked a bit of a departure in sound for Molina. As such, after this record, Molina changed the band’s name to Magnolia Electric Company, and kept intact his Neil Young-inspired countrified folk rock sound. This was pretty confusing for some period of time, but it has resolved itself as Molina has released tons of great stuff under that new moniker. If you like the aforementioned Neil Young or My Morning Jacket or anything resembling countrified folk rock via the rust belt, you will love Molina’s songs. Check out “Just Be Simple” here.
This tune is sad and incredibly soulful, oozing with a detached disappointment that seems to fit perfectly with the lyrics. It’s a winner because it so perfectly captures a specific feeling with both the vocal delivery and the bending and sighing of the lead guitar. “Drive All Night” by The Boss has this same sort of feeling, Spike Jonze’s Where The Wild Things Are captures a feeling and gets it on screen. It’s not easy to do, but Lizzy nailed this one. Check it out the studio version and the live version.
It wasn’t until I saw these guys at The Bowery on the Chutes Too Narrow tour that I realized that this was basically a solo project for James Mercer. The band itself was fine, but it was very clear that these were his songs and this was his sound and -- though I am sure I overstating this -- it felt like the band was just there to support him, not necessarily to collaborate with him. They released one more album, Wincing The Night Away, on which “Phantom Linb appears, after Chutes Too Narrow and then Mercer called it a day and now is working on a new album with -- who else? – Dangermouse.
The “breakup” of The Shins has been memorialized in a long, rambling, and very interesting interview with the drummer, Jesse Sandoval, which you can read here.
Anyway, Mercer is master pop craftsman and clearly one of the best in the business at what he does. His albums are all perfectly conceived and sequenced, filled with awesome nuggets and not a song or even a part of a song is wasted. For what he’s doing, his albums are close to perfect. They might not change your life, but The Shins are / were a tremendous studio band in their day. Check it out.
Yo La and I go back 20 years now (Fakebook was one of the first CDs I ever purchased) and it’s not hard to believe what these guys have done over the years, but it is hard to believe that they are still around doing it. Perhaps we’ve been overly effusive in our praise for Hoboken’s Finest, but when seeing them open for Wilco this summer, it was hard not to think of these guys as some sort of Godfathers of modern “indie” rock. Part of that has to do with the fact that their recordings are so eclectic, from indie pop to noise rock to everything in between. Yo La seems at once limited by Ira and Georgia’s soft voices and emboldened by the idea that they can play any style of music.
In a different way, cult favorites like Ween are doing similar genre-hopping exercises, but what makes Yo La so damn awesome is that none of it is done with without sincerity. It’s trite to say these guys are the Velvet Underground redux, but it’s obviously an apt comparison simply because they strike that balance between noise and pop, challenging and accessible, so well. At some point, you’re just preaching to converted with all this Yo La talk, but it’s hard to understate how far-reaching this band’s influence really is.
With all of that having been said, how do you choose just one Yo La Tengo song? It’s obviously not easy, but “Beanbag Chair” stands out to me as a perfect, peppy Yo La pop song. If I were to go in a different direction, it would have to be “The Story of Yo La Tengo”, a mind-exploding piece of noise rock that never loses track of the melody.
I remember people being really excited about Weezer’s Green Album when it came out. And though a segment of the fanbase seemed unhappy about Rivers Cuomo leaving the confessional songs from Pinkerton behind him, The Green Album truly kicked ass. Since then, Rivers had released tons of albums, both with Weezer and solo, but none of them compare to their first three records. In a way, The Green Album seemed to bridge the old 90s Weezer with what would become the absurd aughts Weezer, but taking everything for what it is, I think we should all just be happy that Weezer is still around, doing what they do.
Kweller’s got a few things going for him outside of his very underrated musical talent: he’s seriously impressed / humbled by things like selling out Irving Plaza and opening for Jeff Tweedy. It’s not an act – the dude has this hilarious knack for making you understand that he loves rocking out a few thousand people. And it shows – his live shows are just fantastic pop rock concoctions. His band is great, he can play any instrument really well and he’s happy to be there. His music seems simple, his sentimentality borderline cheesy, but ultimately it all works very well -- his songs never get old and he really knows how to craft a hook. His haircut is also included in our Pantheon of Awesome, and yes, points have been awarded to Sinore Kweller for the crazy red curls.
Spencer Krug of Sunset Rubdown and Wolf Parade was a busy man in the latter half of the decade, so ‘twas a bit difficult to choose a song from either one of these outfits. Although Sunset Rubdown is seen as his more adventurous side project, I think this is probably the best song he’s released. That’s not to say that there are not a bunch of others that could have been considered though.
Incidentally, Wolf Parade was a band whose first record really impressed me, despite the Modest Mouse comparisons. Luckily, Krug has proven to be much more than a rip off artist as Wolf Parade’s second release went in a different awesome direction and the Sunset Rubdown albums are obviously quite good in their own right.
Wolf Parade is also the source of amusement for me, since I was amped to check them out live at one point after that first LP came out and was then reminded by one of my friends that I did see them live -- opening for Modest Mouse at the Bowery at one of those free Rolling Stone shows. No wonder I left my phone in a cab outside of Piano’s that night. I’ve no idea how good they are live, but people inform me that I seemed to really be rocking out during their set.
Enough about Wolf Parade though, check out the Sunset track here.
Due to the timing of this Top 100 of The Decade project, perhaps it was inevitable that 2009 would be under-represented. But even given the fact that it’s hard to have much perspective on the stuff that you like for a month compared to the stuff that sticks and ends up being part of your music rotation for years to come, it was impossible not to include one of the jams from Phoenix’s 2009 LP Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, an album filled with what used to be called “modern rock” hits. By now, you’ve probably seen the 80s brat pack mash-up video for “Litzomania” and heard “1901” on a Cadillac commercial and heard “Fences” while getting your coffee in the morning. There’s a reason for this – Phoenix really did make a great album of singles that are held together by interludes and other strong supporting tracks. It’s really poppy and catchy and the sound is super tight and stylish, which is another word for…French. No matter though, these songs are winners and “Lasso” is the one that I have heard 100 times and never gotten sick of.
“You used to get it in your fishnets
Now you only get it in your night dress
Discarded all the naughty nights for niceness
Landed in a very common crisis
Everything's in order in a black hole
Nothing seems as pretty as the past though
That Bloody Mary's lacking a Tabasco”
This band is clearly for real, but it was hard to not think that after their debut album blasted through the British charts that they might just end being a flash in the pan. Then I heard “Florescent Adolescent” from the follow-up album and ‘twas clear that that were here to stay. The odd thing about the debut is how damn tight this band was at that time -- I think they were only 21 or 22 when this tune came out. They don’t seem to be breaking any new ground at all, but that Alex Turner shaw is witty and they play their asses off. Check it out.
The less I knew about these guys, the better it was. I swear I have no issue with these cats being heartthrobs, getting huge mainstream exposure, playing arenas and being on the cover of bad magazines. I do have an issue with teased hair, cheesy songs about sex that is on fire (Ok, it’s a guilty pleasure, I have to admit), shitty live shows at huge London arenas and shitty performances on Austin City Limits. I’m not about to waste this space with some sort of proclamation that this is just a boy band that happens to play rock n roll. At least half of this band, including the lead singer heartthrob guy (Caleb), is very talented and has a knack for crafting a kick ass song. We’ve been through this before but, in short, they are too damn perty for their own good.
That said, “Fans” is a great song that has nothing to do with teenie screams or Motley Crue hair styles. I believe Dr. Midnight claimed that Scott Muni would have approved of this jam and I could envision hearing this one on a drive-at-five rock block on 102.7 WNEW, circa 1987, with Muni’s raspy, Lucky Strike-damaged voice saying, “Yyyyes, the KINGS…getting it done for you on this drive…at five…out of Nashville…in Tennessee. Another tasty biscuit on N-E-W, New York.”
Thursday, December 10, 2009
The demise of Lucinda Williams as an artist that is releasing relevant, enjoyable records has been made much easier because of the existence of Ms. Edwards, who channels Williams’ countrified twang and knack for storytelling, as well as some of her dark themes, but seems to be able to create music that is a little more peppy and nice on the ears than what Williams has been known to release.
Instead of swampy Louisiana blues, Edwards brings a more modern countrified indie rock sound that still sounds “authentic”, but isn’t dragged down by the sad drawl in Lucinda’s aging voice. This is not meant as a knock on Lucinda – she’s given us enough to enjoy already. It’s meant to provide some context – Edwards has taken the template that Williams pioneered and blended it with rock, indie pop and country very nicely to create a bunch of albums filled with kick ass songs like “In State”. Check it out.
Ever since Dig! was released in 2004, any discussion of The Dandy Warhols seems to be coupled with The Brian Jonestown Massacre. They were friends and then rivals and now I don’t know what they are, but the movie takes you through the insane world of BJM’s Anton Newcombe and leaves us with the impression that he is some sort of misunderstood genius, while the Dandys were a bunch of relatively responsible rock n rollers looking to package their polished, major-label subsidized, psychedelic rock to make the big bucks.
It seems like they got the Dandys right, though time has not really shown Newcombe to be much of a genius. As I have written here ad nauseum, I am a sucker for bands that rip off previously awesome sounds of the VU, The Beatles and The Stones (not to mention Joy Division, Echo and The Bunnymen and Talking Heads), so while I have tons of BJM’s music and while I like a lot of it and while I appreciated his druggy, hazy live show at Maxwell’s in 2005 (and the fact that he was yelling at our very own Dr. Midnight from the stage) it’s hard to say that Newcombe is anything but a guy channeling those things that were already done. He does this really well, but “genius” is not the word I’d use to describe him. “Insane drug addict” is more accurate, methinks.
As for the Dandys, there are probably 100 other bands not on this top 100 list that I like more than them, but this is the age of the iTunes single and this list is about great songs, not bands or albums. I always thought this was a great opening song to a record and while the Dandys never did much else for me beyond this one tune, it still stands alone as a very good rock n roll song.
“I got my heebie jeebies in a hidden bag”
Most of what Oasis does is quite amusing, but their decade-ending breakup has been particularly fun the follow. The tirades, finger pointing, guitar smashing, all of it has kept me entertained. It’s as if they are playing out the rock cliché, tongue firmly placed in cheek, except when you realize that these two guys actually don’t really like each other, Davies Brothers style.
With all of that having been said, it is easy to not be upset about their breakup because it seems like they gave us more than we’d have ever expected. Sure, things this decade were very hit and miss for this band, but the last two records they released were better-than-solid and between them they basically produced ten or more vintage Oasis classics. Their most recent album – the swan song, I guess you could call it -- Dig Out Your Soul, seemed to garner very positive critical reviews, despite the absence of strong hooks, something that is obviously the Oasis trademark. Unlike its predecessor, 2005’s Don’t Believe The Truth, which packed in some new, fresh Oasis-style melodies, Dig Out Your Soul was bluesy and dark. I think the album as a whole was kind of overrated, but it did have some standouts and this song is by far the best thing they have done since the 1990s -- and it probably stands out as one of the better songs they have ever written. Unfortunately, YouTube has pulled the audio to clips of this song, so I can only attach the Rhapsody clip.
Lastly, when I said that The Doves do the whole BritPop thing better than Oasis, I don’t think I really meant it.
Did I say I was not going to include covers? I don’t remember, but this was definitely one of the top 100 recorded songs of this decade, so I decided to include it. Even so, “I’ve Found a Reason” is not so much a cover as it is a deconstruction and reinvention of an excellent Velvet Underground song. She tried to do this same thing 30 or more times this decade, releasing tons of covers, some great, some good and many bad, but this one really transcends your traditional “cover” song. Check it out for yourself.
If you disagree with this choice, there are a few other Cat Power songs that could have made the cut:
Actually, anything on The Greatest could have been included in here, and how could it not with that title?
Thursday, December 3, 2009
If I remember correctly, and I could be wrong on this, Of Montreal is one of the bands at the forefront of the idea of whoring their music away to terrible commercials with the sole purpose of taking that money and sinking it into ever-expanding albums and live shows. Of course the hipster whose Daddy pays the rent on his Williamsburg loft saw this as a disgusting travesty -- sellout! -- but even those who had no issue with it could not help but to be turned off by the final product: “Let’s go OUTBACK tonight, life will still be here tomorrow!” It seems truly awful for a seminal band of the Elephant 6 collective to have this happen to their song, until you realize that…they have to pay their rent.
But right around this same time, Of Montreal also started expanding their live shows with increasingly insane theatrics (think Ziggy Stardust for the aughts) and live animals. And all of this was seemingly made possible by the proceeds they received from Outback and other corporations. Or that’s what Kevin Barnes said, at least. And even if Barnes himself thinks it is impossible to sellout in a capitalist world we live in, the fact remains that this whole silly thing had nothing but a positive effect on their music and live shows. In short, if the final product is in no way affected negatively by these terrible ads, does it really matter? Isn’t Barnes dead-on about this?
Like Gwar, I have been wanting to see the Of Montreal live production for a long time, but I always feared that excessive amounts of real bodily fluids might makes their way onto my impeccably pressed oxford, so I passed. Unlike Gwar, this band makes some excellent and unique dance rock that has essentially carved its own niche in the music world. Nowhere is this more apparent than on Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer, one of this decade’s best records. There are a handful of fantastic songs to choose from that album, but this one was my initial favorite and so it shall remain.
Bloc Party made two really excellent albums before getting too caught up in the block-rockin’-beats of their third release, Intimacy. Despite that fact, Intimacy did have a few songs that seemed to take their earlier sound and marry it with big beats and big volume and “Ion Squared” is the end result – Bloc Party’s signature sad rock married with fractured drumming, great Brit Pop melodies and Johnny Marr style lead guitars.
Haters seem to dislike the Fiona Apple-meets-Cat Power aspect of Ms. Spektor’s sound, but that’s actually what I like about Regina Spektor. What I like even more is the fact that she expanded on that template that she popularized on 2004’s Soviet Kitsch, the album that “Us” appears on, and made it into full-blown, radio-friendly pop sound of 2006’s breakthrough, Begin To Hope and, later, 2009’s Far. She’s huge now – instead of opening for The Strokes and Kings of Leon, she is headlining her own shows at Radio City. And good for her. There’s a place in this world for Joanna Newsome, but there’s also a place for Regina Spektor and I am glad she’s cashing in and people are digging her music.
Take a listen to “Us” here and see if you agree.
Tuesday, December 1, 2009
The Faint’s Blank-Wave Arcade from 1999, was a genre-buster, as it was one of the first real hardcore synth pop records to break through and bring back that 80s synth-dance-pop sound. Long before the Killers dumbed this sound down, The Faint were collectively kicking ass with great records and tremendous live dance-rock-light shows. Their second record, Dance Macabre, was a little more of the same, with a few more tweaks, and “Agenda Suicide” is the best example of this.
In effect, this song is the antithesis of Animal Collective’s ode to domesticity, “My Girls”. The Faint not only don’t want four walls and adobe slats, they don’t want any “pretty homes” and they don’t want to be “drones” who “work hard before they die”. Message received, lads.
Jenny Lewis has carved out a nice little Laurel Canyon-style solo career in the latter half of the decade, but in the earlier half, she and her band, Rilo Kiley, released three very good albums. The best of these, The Execution Of All Things, was released by Saddle Creek Records and it contains off of the stamps of Mike Mogis-produced indie pop records, in a good way. It’s catchy, quirky and it has something that Jenny’s solo stuff does not – the driving lead guitars of Blake Sennett. On “My Slumbering Heart”, it’s not just Lewis’s voice and slacker lyrics that carries the tune, it’s the whole band. I like her solo stuff well enough, but nothing has come close to the excitement generated by some of the best Rilo tracks, like this one.
I only got to see these guys once and it just so happened to be one of their last shows before calling it quits, in 2004. ‘Twas quite an experience, with nerdy GBV fans jumping on stage all night, singing along, throwing beers and rocking the fuck out. I knew I was in for this when I got the tix to see them, but the whole thing far exceeded my expectations as they ripped through 60 songs over the course of 3-4 hours. That’s right, SIXTY songs.
So it’s safe to say that GBV fans are nuts about their GBV and I am sure each one has a different take on their best song of the decade. For all I know, one of the 300 songs that Robert Pollard’s released as a solo artist might be “better” than this one. I mulled over many songs by GBV and I kept coming back to this one, which happens to be another of example of a song that R.E.M. might have recorded had they not lost the plot 15 years ago.
Not long after this album’s release, I was up late with some friends in my Queens apartment and this song came on at a volume that would be unacceptable in most party tents. The walls were shaking with its spooky groove and it was not long before my neighbor, who resembled a large frog, was outside my window, gesticulating wildly, cursing and telling me he’s coming for me. The next day he confronted me again, but this time good ol’ Dr. Midnight was by my side and up for challenge. Twas not long before Midnight and I put Froggy back in his place, somehow taking our wrong from the previous night and flipping it on him, making him feel as if he was the one who’d make the mistake by being so confrontational. I got an apology the next day. All of this done with our eyes half closed. Impressive? I think so.
It’d be silly to start a missive about Bobby Zimmerman, so I’ll just leave it like this: I’ve heard many versions of this song and all of them are great, because it’s a great song.
Wednesday, November 25, 2009
Everyone loves a back story and the one behind Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago seems to have driven a lot of the critical praise for the album. Real quick: Justin Vernon lived in North Carolina but when he broke up with his girlfriend, he decided to also break up his band and move back to the frozen tundra of Wisconsin. It was there that he spent a winter in a freezing cabin, adopting the name Bon Iver (French for “good winter”) and unintentionally writing the songs that would make him an overnight darling. The tastemakers and music blogs loved the thing long before it was even released, of course, and that led to tons of buzz, which in turn led to Letterman appearances, ABC News specials and Town Hall-headlining shows.
The thing is, Vernon deserved it. For Emma is a mini-classic in my mind, an album with real depth and soul, and something that seems to be timeless and of one particular time and place (in a freezing cabin in Wisconsin, after breaking up with a girlfriend in North Carolina). Whether the back story matters of not is hardly the point. The songs stand on their own – the mix of folk and gospel is perfect and Vernon’s falsetto carries the day throughout. All nine songs are great in their own way, but this one seemed like the most obvious pick.
I’ve never been much into the silly tags attached to music genres, but even with that said, the one that most mystifies me is the “emo” tag. From what I can gather, Bleed American is something of an emo classic and Jimmy Eat World seems to be one of the Godfathers of the emo genre. Is it because they emote a lot? Is it because they play punk-influenced pop rock that is palatable to suburban teens? I don’t know. What I do know is that Bleed American has 4 or 5 fantastic tunes on it, and this one stands out among them. It’s an ode to rock n roll, for sure, but it’s also about getting out there and making it happen, something only a 25 year old guy can write. This is Jimmy Eat World’s version of “Cigarettes and Alcohol” or “Born To Run” – exciting, catchy, energetic and…inspiring? See for yourself.
Will my pony recognize my voice in hell?
Will he still be blind, or do they go by smell?
Will you promise not to rest me out at sea
But on a fiery river boat that's rickety?
In the late 90s, Mark Linkous had a near-death experience in London when he took too many pills and ended up in a coma. He ultimately survived and the artistic result of that was one of my favorite albums of all time, 1998’s Good Morning Spider. It’s truly incredible to listen to because it sounds and feels like something that was made from a hospital bed, with the morphine drip on.
In 2003, he followed Spider up with It’s a Wonderful Life, something equally spooky, but also equally fantastic. Linkous’ skill as a producer alone is something to marvel at, as the sound -- the overall feeling and level of intimacy -- he gets out of his songs is hard to find anywhere else.
“More Yellow Birds” is vintage Sparklehorse – a half-sedated glimpse of the sun shining through the late autumn trees with a slight chill in the air. Contemplative, unique, sad and absolutely beautiful.
This decade found Pearl Jam settling comfortably into themselves, churning out solid album after solid album, solid tour after solid tour – not breaking new ground for them, but releasing tons of good tunes and doing what they do and doing it really well. Some people see this negatively as the same old Pearl Jam, but I actually appreciate exactly where they are at this point. Twenty years after releasing their first record, The Stones officially announced their decline when they sharted out Emotional Rescue and went on to become a touring novelty act (though I still think Tatoo You is a solid album).
Amazingly, PJ is almost twenty years in and they still seem to be releasing enjoyable, relevant records. I was not a fan of these guys when they first blasted onto the scene, but over the years I have really come to appreciate them for what they are – a solid straight ahead rock band with tons of great tunes.
“Light Years”, to me, is the best embodiment of everything they did well early in their career, filtered through their post-Versus need to avoid a simple, catchy song. At times, this has been to their detriment – are good pop hooks really something to avoid? – but it’s hard to argue with their output.
Sunday, November 22, 2009
With Calexico, it’s easy to get lost in the mariachi horns and pedal steel and incredible musicianship while sometimes ignoring the fact that some of their most simple songs are actually their best. “Convict Pool” is a tremendous song that fits in this category. “Sunken Wealth” is in the same boat.
Washed my face in the rivers of empire,
Made my bed from a cardboard crate,
Down in the city of quartz.
No news, no new regrets,
Tossed a Susan B. over my shoulder,
And prayed it would rain and rain,
Submerge the whole western states,
Call it a last fair deal
With an American seal
And corporate hand shake.
That’s not to say that I don’t love me some epic tex mex jams like “Crystal Frontier”, which, in the live setting is taken to new heights -- a fact that seems to be no secret to anyone these days, as they seem to be the house band for every live tribute and every collaboration. They are the Booker T’s of southmex aughts indie rock, some might say. Their split EP with Iron and Wine, for example, seems to have brought Sam Beam out of homespun shell and launched him into a more percussive, swinging world that Calexico sometimes inhabits.
Anyway, this is a really great live band and their recordings don’t seem to do them much justice, but “Sunken Wealth” still stands alone as a great tune. Check it out.
“A peacock died to cover my lips, so I dyed my hair in all its sweat. But now I’m haunted by these visions of me.”
Eef Barzelay And Clem Snide are criminally underrated. Who rates him, you ask? Well, I’m not sure, but I saw him play a solo gig in 2006 at the Mercury Lounge and there were literally less than 100 people there. On one level, I love being able to move freely, get a brew, get to the commode, break dance, whatever. But on another, it struck me as ridiculous that more people don’t come out to hear this guy’s songs. I would hope that Senor Barzelay could make a decent living doing what he does, because he does it pretty damn well.
Clem Snide was a very good live band that put out two great albums (“Your Favorite Music” and “The Ghost of Fashion”) and few other very good (“The End Of Love”) to good ones (“Soft Spot”), all of them filled with songs that I could have included on this list. Songs about Ryan Adams not being as “weird as you’d like me to think”, about having a kid (“never have I been made to feel less doubtful, never have I been made less cynical”) and songs about…explosions.
“And I don’t want to live forever, when the sky is full of little holes exploding as they take my picture. Let’s explode!”
I chose “Let’s Explode”, because it always seemed to define these guys to me, both on their albums and at their shows. I saw them once at one of those free South Street Seaport shows and when it became obvious that the rain was going to cut the show off after a few songs, he opened with this and blew it out, singing, “I don’t want to know me better”, over and over until we got to Jeremy’s Ale Haus.
These guys have a great ear for a catchy tune, but their real allure is Eef’s lyrics and his quirky, crackling vocal delivery. I saw shows that were really too slow to get you going, but he always kept you engaged with his songs. One example is “Made For TV Movie”, a sad song about Lucille Ball and how, in life, the chocolates always seem to move too fast. My favorite example -- the one that reminds me of the dawn as seen from the roof of my old, big yellow house in Queens -- is “Joan Jett of Arc”, which documents the first time a teenage boy got to know his lady friend. The lyrics are fantastic, but the production, the overall feel of the song, so perfectly captures the summer night, the innocence ending, the fact that the cicadas and crickets had gone silent.