Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Twelve Hour Turn - The Victory of Flight

★★★★★ Tracks:

New Snake
Second Story
For Want of a Real Whole
A Mouth of Suitable Size
Little One

Anyone who grew up in Florida in the mid-to-late 90's familiar with its underground music scene knows there was a huge post-hardcore movement. Bands like Strikeforce Diablo, I Hate Myself, Omega Man, Poison the Well, (early) Hot Water Music are all examples but The Victory of Flight by Twelve Hour Turn best represents the sub-genre I really dig, screamo. Yeah yeah, laugh it up. It has a ridiculous name, and being directly associated with emo has allowed it to be completely overlooked. But that doesn’t mean it’s inconsequential. While there are plenty of clear paths from influential 90’s rockers like Radiohead and Pavement to current-day indie rock, there are also a lot of great bands who took notes by listening to Fugazi. Instead of following in the footprints of the birth of pop by creating verse-chorus-verse songs using almost exclusively major chords, Fugazi was interested in gathering ideas from reggae and jazz while incorporating the punk rock sound of groups like Wire, Joy Division or Gang of Four; sonic tones that, to this day, are still ripe for exploring. And in creating these distorted, diminished, discord-like guitars and abrasively shouted vocals, a slew of new bands followed ready to push those sounds further. Enter Twelve Hour Turn.

Twelve Hour Turn’s first record is certainly not for everyone, and has probably never been heard by most anyone, but completely fucking phenomenal nonetheless. I’d go through the record’s highlights but there’s no point. If you like this kind of thing, the raw emotion in both singer’s voices as they scream their way through a half hour’s worth of blistering 2-minute long post-punk tracks, every song included is a highlight. The unconventional instrumentation is spectacular as well; two guitars (always separated by L/R speakers) staccato picking off key-notes, made-up chords and diminished key progressions, bass patterns that border on avant-garde, and effortless transitions between 4/4 and ¾ (waltz) timings. I’m not sure this is applied music theory or just four guys fucking around until they hit something that clicks, but what is obvious is Twelve Hour Turn was throwing the rock’n’roll rulebook out the window: This is a garage band created by guys who were tired of the same old garage bands.

2010 was another great year for music, but most of the stuff you'd find populating critics' "best of" lists borrows from the same sounds and chord progressions that have been recycled for the past 60 years. Creative, good hard rock has all but vanished. Rooted in the already polarizing genre of punk rock, Twelve Hour Turn’s brand is a bit too harsh for most, but there's still plenty to explore and experiment with here. Music tends to be cyclical, so here's hoping 2011 brings us a few bands willing to break the mold and rock the fuck out again.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

U2 - The Joshua Tree

Release Date: March 9, 1987

★★★★★ Tracks:

With or Without You

I want to try and avoid as much negativity as possible, and it’s that very reason I wasn’t looking forward to this entry. I mean, I’m not necessarily reviewing artists and albums as much as I’m simply shooting the shit here. And after all, most anything I cover in my music library should be music I enjoy, or it wouldn’t be there in the first place. But anytime U2 comes up, I can’t help but think of one of the most overrated bands of all time. Every few years I end up grabbing a few songs or an album in an attempt to get in to them. Not much time passes before disappointment settles, and eventually U2 gets the boot. I'm turned off by the intentional grandiosity of everything. Am I the one being pretentious or does Bono sound pretentious as hell every time he sings or speaks? Why do I have to refer to their guitarist as “The Edge?” With such simple chord progressions, must every song be so damn lengthy? And why oh why is the vastly overrated “One” played at every wedding imaginable (even prompting Bono to exclaim, “Are you mad? It’s about splitting up!”). Even getting past all of this and focusing on the songs, well, they just aren’t very good. There’s nothing relatable to me in Bono’s lyrics. The music doesn’t excite me. My mom had Achtung Baby and played it quite a bit. I began to loathe it. One day in college, for not wanting to leave empty handed, I grabbed the newly released, All That You Can Leave Behind. Full disclosure, I actually love “Beautiful Day,” but the rest of the album was, at best, unsatisfactory. Since then all I remember of U2 is that Bono has become a knight and the band released some annoying single which begins with Bono incoherently exclaiming, “Uno, dos, tres, catorce!” (1, 2, 3, ...14!?)

The one U2 album I do keep in my library is The Joshua Tree. I rarely visit it as a whole, but the slow building “With or Without You” is a fantastic track. It’s one of the few U2 songs (that I’ve heard) that sounds intimate, and not something intended to pack an arena. After repeated listens this week I’ve realized I enjoy the first two tracks, “Where the Streets Have No Name” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” in all their grandiose glory as well. But the album quickly loses life after those three highlights. I know I am being a bit unfair considering my lack of familiarity with U2’s earlier work. Perhaps if I were to delve in to U2’s pre-Joshua Tree discography I would find some tunes I enjoy. Apparently they were a post-punk outfit at one point. However the U2 I know and hear fits the very definition of impersonal arena rock. They sound like they’re trying too hard; not only to tackle sociopolitical and spiritual issues within their music, but in keeping up with marketable modern pop music. Every single they write sounds like some space-aged glam rock track you wouldn’t hear in any lesser venue than Madison Square Garden. I can dig some of the bigger rock groups out there, but I prefer my brand of music to be a bit more personal. The only time I get that feeling from U2 is when I skip to track three on The Joshua Tree, and the slow, quiet build of “With or Without You” begins.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Urge Overkill via Pulp Fiction - "Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon"

Release Dates: September 27, 1994

When Did I Download This? Just two nights ago, actually. Over Thanksgiving Weekend, between stuffing my face with stuffing and turkey and hanging with friends and family, I’ve been reading a series of excellent articles at the AV Club covering music from the 1990’s entitled Whatever Happened to Alternative Nation? So far it’s done a fantastic job of not only portraying rock’s grunge period and what it meant to us as teenagers growing up, but also how different alternative music was before the internet. Hyden says, “underground music was really underground; you had to venture out and look for it, and only after somebody let you in on the secret that it was actually there.” In a line he succinctly writes what I spent a lot of my time talking about in my Vampire Weekend and Violent Femmes posts. As a teenager, hours were devoted to scouring liner notes and indie magazines (sometimes unavailable in small town stores), talking to friends, catching small-time opening acts, and most importantly watching MTV. Another platform was movie soundtracks; The Crow, Juice, Reality Bites, Trainspotting, and one of the more classic R&B and rock inclined, Pulp Fiction, and they would all act as points to expand our musical boundaries.

Somehow in October of 1994, as a 14-year old kid, a couple of friends and I were able to sneak in to a theater to see the violent, profane, no-doubt-about-it ‘R’-rated Pulp Fiction. While I vaguely remember liking it, probably more for all the f-bombs being thrown around than grasping how great of a movie it truly was, it wouldn’t forever hold a place in my conscious until a friend bought the VHS sometime later. I remember him playing it incessantly, sometimes simply acting as background noise while we took turns playing guitar or Gameboy. I could tell he dug the music just as much as the movie, which, being as he was two years my senior and I looked up to him, made me really dig it as well. There was the surf tune from Dick Dale, Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher’s Man, and Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.” But my favorite was from the scene immediately following the twist contest. There’s something both sexy and hip about the moment when Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) begins that old music reel, strums the opening chord to “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” on her air guitar, and breaks in to a frenzied dance when the song crescendos. Though it's very unhip when she ultimately overdoses on Vince’s (John Travolta) heroin.

Every time I came across Pulp Fiction on TV, or the film came up in discussion, I tried to remind myself I needed to grab the soundtrack. But I always forgot. In fact, I didn’t even know the song from my favorite scene is a cover of Neil Young performed by Urge Overkill up until this past Sunday, while I was reading the fourth entry of Whatever Happened to Alternative Nation? I like the limited amount of Neil Young’s discography I’ve collected, and I had heard of Urge Overkill, but I didn’t have wiki or youtube as an immediate reference point back then to look up where the song originated. I've never remembered to look at the back of a Pulp Fiction soundtrack in all those years since. Two nights ago, I went over to my computer, clicked the mouse button a few times, and “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” was loaded in to my music library. I’ve already played it a few times. It’s a good song, but after all these years I think I like it better in the context of an unknown classic from an unforgettable scene in that great 1994 film.

(Note: I know this should have preceded Ugly Casanova, but being as I just downloaded Urge Overkill two nights ago, that would've been impossible. I felt it wouldn’t hurt to go backwards (or forwards) one entry.)

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Ugly Casanova - Sharpen Your Teeth

Release Dates: May 21, 2002

★★★★★ Tracks:


Things I Don’t Remember

It got old. Flipping through this particular girlfriend’s CD travel case and seeing page after page of Modest Mouse. Proper releases, EPs, mixes of best songs, bootlegs, she had it all. Just from simply knowing someone for so long so well, it was one of those insignificant obsessions that became very significant to me. I couldn’t get myself to like Isaac Brock’s strange lisp and even stranger blend of rock and folksy psychedelia, but more than anything, I didn’t like that she had found her new favorite band after she moved out west. Modest Mouse was directly associated with our drifting apart. However on her frequent return visits, she force fed my Plymouth Sundance those countless records. And the more I heard them the more I realized resisting was futile; Modest Mouse, with their eccentric music and powerful lyricism, was in fact much more entertaining than most the crap I was listening to at the time.

Shuffling through said girlfriend’s trapper keeper of music would net you the occasional alternative. Ugly Casanova is one that comes to mind, but being as this particular band was Isaac Brock’s side project, where he got to explore outside the boundaries of his primary group, I’m not sure it counts. Modest Mouse has always skirted the fine line between the elitist indie crowd and the self-loathing emo kids, but Sharpen Your Teeth tilts more towards the latter. Brock is rarely one to write an upbeat pop song you’d put on at a summer pool party, but the tracks contained within are incredibly mellow and often down right depressing. On “Hotcha Girls” he sings, “smells like autumn / smells like leaves / You don’t know that you’ll rust / And not belong so much / And then get left alone.” In “Parasites” Brock says in his usual deadpan voice, “the parasites are excited when you’re dead / Eyes bulging, entering your head / All your thoughts, they rot,” while victorious horns sound in the background.

But Brock has become one of my favorite lyricists, taking thoughts of self-reflection and greater universal questions and turning them in to clever pieces of wordplay. There are a few gems here, none of them any better than on the opening track, “Barnacles,” when he sings, “I don’t know me / And you don’t know you / So we fit so good together because I knew you like I knew myself / We clung on like barnacles on a boat / Even though the ship sinks you know you can’t let go.” Most everything here is backed by subtle acoustic guitars, occasional percussion, and some complimentary instruments; electric guitar, bass, and horns, which all lends itself to an isolated and contemplative batch of songs. There’s a lot to like here for die-hard fans, some of it acts as a bridge to the more mainstream sounds Modest Mouse would develop down the road. But it won’t convert any skeptics. Even for a modest fan like myself, Sharpen Your Teeth is a rare journey I take. It always brings me back to a universal personal experience all of us try to forget, or as Brock says, it “marks the path back to the point of departure.”

Friday, November 19, 2010

Vampire Weekend - Contra

Release Dates: January 11, 2010

★★★★★ Tracks:



I always get a kick out of indie rock outfits vying for position on the Billboard charts with mainstay mainstream artists like the Black Eyed Peas and Taylor Swift. It makes me proud of the greater American public for seeking out music other than the hits they’re force fed through...wherever the masses hear new music these days. The second single released, but the first song I heard from the new album was “Cousins.” Sounding similar to “A-Punk” or “Mansard Roof,” it had me thinking a repeat of Vampire Weekend was likely. However the rest of Contra is much more electronic and uses a wider array of instrumentation. The opening track incorporates a harmonium, a Kalimba thumb piano (the steel drum sound), synths, both electronic and classic-style drums and a few other foreign sounds. Strings and horns are much more common, and dominate tracks like “White Sky” and “Run.” Samples are used in “Dimplomat’s Son,” and vocals are used more as tonal compliments this time around. While all of this can be intriguing, I also think it detracts a little from what Vampire Weekend did so well in the first place; the skill at which they played their primary instruments and the knack they had for complex songwriting. Ezra Koenig’s voice is still the focal point, but he is more abrasive here than ever. He rhymes “Horchata” with balaclava, aranciata, and masada, he hoop and hollers on “Cousins,” and nothing released this year tests my patience more than the falsetto squeals of “White Sky.”

As its name could suggest, Contra has two opposing sides. The first half of the record is mellow, more experimental and atmospheric, while the latter songs quicken the pace and refocus on some of the band's original strengths. We get the album’s highlight in “Run,” which breaks down in to a frenzy of horns and percussion, “Cousins” is incredibly fast and quirky with a slick bass line, their most accessible song on the album in “Giving Up the Gun,” and the M.I.A. sampled “Diplomat’s Son” is a great reggae-infused piece. Were they able to repeat the energy of the second half throughout Contra, it would have had a lot more force. Regardless, the departure from their earlier sound has given Vampire Weekend much more room to work with in preparing for a third album. I see why Vampire Weekend would want to expand their sound. Nearly a decade ago indie rock to pop star icons, the Strokes, made a second album that sounded exactly like their first, and although it was fucking great, they ran out of ideas when they moved on to their third. Vampire Weekend might have set themselves up for longevity, but their first two records don’t match the soul or the hooks of their predecessors. In fact Contra isn’t much different than its neighbors atop the charts; good pop with a couple of great moments, but largely forgettable.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend

Release Dates: January 29, 2008

★★★★★ Tracks:

Oxford Comma

I Stand Corrected

Vampire Weekend is a household name now. Shit, even my mom has heard of them. Ever since we were introduced to their self-titled release in early 2008 the band has been a part of the collective musical conscience. Those who deem music essential in the age of iTunes and torrents, basically Pitchfork and anyone who frequents Brooklyn’s L train, have been touting them since the first single, “Mansard Roof,” hit in 2007. In my opinion, the point in time in which Vampire Weekend was released was also when Pitchfork really broke in to the mainstream, and it was their appraisal that catapulted the band to pop star status. The groupthink and culture Pitchfork has helped to create combined with the exponential popularity of both the website and the band has naturally led to a lot of criticism. Not only were many turned off by Vampire Weekend’s Columbia college degrees and Cape Cod vacation references, they were growing tired of the hipster hype machine championing bands that sing things like “who gives a fuck about an oxford comma?” There are now entire websites dedicated to mocking the Pitchfork culture; a music publication site has its very own Weird Al Yankovic.

While I understand the cynical sentiment towards the whole process, it doesn’t necessarily make Pitchfork any less important to the current music industry, or less knowledgeable than they were when it was still cool to talk about them. As of now, they're probably the most important agent in determining a band’s success. In a piece by Time (little behind to be putting that piece out in 2010, don’t you think, Time?) Big Boi’s manager discusses how huge it was that his new album received a positive review from the website. Just as Rolling Stone was a barometer for music in the 60’s and 70’s, Pitchfork has become the de facto voice during the digital era. And it’s not just because it was deemed cool by the kids in Brooklyn, it has more to do with the fact that, regardless of their sometimes elitist writing and snarky attitudes, they recommend some really good music. So Vampire Weekend and Pitchfork share an intertwining narrative, both piggybacking off of each other to represent the mainstreaming of a new generation of independent music, while acting as contentious pivotal forces on pop culture. It becomes all the more interesting with nearly every entry Pitchfork writes on the band; they continually bring up the divisiveness Vampire Weekend causes without ever really getting down to one of the core elements that fuels the dissension -- themselves.

So getting back down to it, is Vampire Weekend deserving of the appraisal? Sorta. Their first record is an interesting mix of Caribbean pop and indie rock combined with the clever, if sometimes abrasive, vocals of Ezra Koenig. There are a few great songs here; the organ-driven “Oxford Comma” was one of the better singles of 2008, “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” has a charming eccentricity to it, but “I Stand Corrected” is my favorite, a beautifully restrained piece that works almost exclusively off of keys and a simple bass line. As for the album as a whole, it’s a pretty damn good, sophisticated pop record actually, but it’s just not something I find myself coming back to often. Now is this more indicative of my personal tastes, or will the rest of the crowd determine this is a disposable piece of pop as well? Your guess is as good as mine. But with fourteen million hits on their biggest youtube single and counting, Radio City Music Hall sell-outs, and two chart-seeking albums, it looks like I’m in the minority.

Part of the digital era I find so depressing is how disposable music has become. The sheer velocity of a band’s rising popularity can blow things out of proportion. The time (and money) invested in the music we consume isn’t anything close to what it used to be when we had to go to record stores to find albums, or read liner notes for band influences, or go to shows and actually catch the opening acts. We had no other option but to familiarize ourselves with a record we purchased because, among other reasons, it might be a while before we got our hands on another. Now that people can simply click a couple of buttons before the next buzz band is uploaded to their iPods, band’s shelf lives are growing incredibly short. Compounded by the mass frenzy to find those buzz bands before everyone else does, Vampire Weekend might still become an afterthought eventually. But chances are diminishing. And while it seems most either love or hate the group, I stand somewhere in the middle. I hear the charm in the music they create; it’s fun, it’s breezy, and although polarizing, they do appeal to a wide array of music lovers. It’s just not something I find essential to my collection. Pitchfork might be over-zealous in declaring the next big thing from time to time, but this record’s popularity is proof they have a firm grip on the music industry. With another Billboard charting record under their belts in Contra released just this year, Vampire Weekend will hold on for at least a little while longer as well.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Velvet Underground - Loaded

Release Dates: September 1970

★★★★★ Tracks:
Nearly All of Them

It’s been well documented that Velvet Underground’s fourth album was pandering to the billboard charts. Lou Reed and Co. had three of the most influential records of the 60’s under their belts and still didn't have a pot to piss in. With them now signed to mega-label Atlantic, the name Loaded was chosen for the title stemming from the notion it should be loaded with hits. And even with commercialism and mainstream success a driving force to the creation of this record, Lou Reed simply couldn’t find a way to fuck it up, Loaded is in fact completely loaded with hit after fantastic hit.

You won’t find a record with three stronger tracks in succession than Loaded's “Sweet Jane,” “Rock & Roll,” and “Cool It Down.” “Sweet Jane” is up there with “I’m Waiting For the Man” as the best Velvet Underground song ever. Scratch that, best song ever. Some might not recognize it by song title alone, but it becomes as familiar as an old Beatles hit once the melody begins. It'll always get some FM airplay, but its familiarity is most likely due to the fact that this song shaped a blueprint so many would eventually build upon. The four-chord progression, to the awesome solos, to the “Sweeeeeeet Jane!” anthems, to the cocky confidence Lou has in his vocals, this is what every guitar-driven indie rock’n’roll band wants to sound like. Just about every other song here is a gem as well; “Rock & Roll” has some slick guitar work, there’s a throwback to Lou’s doo-wop days in “I Found a Reason,” a Beatles-esque jam in “Who Loves the Sun,” and another bluesy New York number in “Train Round the Bend.”

I might go with The Velvet Underground & Nico album as my overall favorite from the group, but Loaded is the one I play the most. A great record is a great record, and I could give two shits if they were considered by some to be selling out, or that this is considered their least essential, or experimental record. The fact is this is the VU at their most listenable and accessible, and there isn’t anything wrong with a great record everyone can get on board with. And while the three previous records might have been more influential to VU followers, Loaded is the record that represents a strong counterpoint to the argument that an attempt at mainstream success voids artistic merit -- the two can exist harmoniously. Although Warhol’s presence had long been absent from the Velvet Underground, this album is a testament to everything Lou Reed learned from the eccentric artist, Loaded is a fully realized artistic masterpiece, but with a keen eye for and the willingness to adapt to the pulse of pop culture.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Velvet Underground - The Velvet Underground

Release Dates: March 1969

★★★★★ Tracks:

Candy Says
What Goes On
Pale Blue Eyes
That's the Story of My Life
After Hours

While the first two records could be the bombastic, drug induced Friday and Saturday nights that made up the The Velvet Underground’s lives for many years, the third album would be the quiet, reflective Sunday Morning that followed. It’s folksy, hushed, and finds Lou Reed at his most introspective. He and the band appeared to grow tired of the partying, the New York social life, the drugs, Warhol, and were ready to move on. With John Cale booted from the band and a focus on new musical direction, move on the Velvet Underground did. This was now a vehicle where Reed drove his masterful songwriting unilaterally. They added Doug Yule to flesh out the bass, keyboard, and additional vocals, and he does a fantastic job.

While I prefer the louder, livelier version of the Velvet Underground to the quieter brand, you can’t argue with the great songs that are included here. “Pale Blue Eyes” might just be the prettiest damn Reed song ever recorded, and “After Hours,” sung by drummer Maureen Tucker, is so innocent and sugary sweet you can’t help but grin like a kid for the entirety of its two minute length. “What Goes On” gives us a little taste of the rock’n’roll we loved so much from the first record and we get the experimental edge of the second in "The Murder Mystery," another long, spoken word jam.

For those of us who are not religious and prefer it be left out of the music we consume, the middle part of The Velvet Underground can be a bit challenging. Lou Reed, tired of his lifestyle choices over the majority of the 60’s, was turning to Jesus when he began the songwriting. While the instrumentation to “Jesus,” “Beginning to See the Light,” and “I’m Set Free,” are up there with the best of the Velvet Underground tracks, I have a hard time stomaching some of the lyricism. However a man as interesting and innovative as Lou Reed requires me to keep an open mind, and the honest and forthright lyrics about where his journeys through life take him make it worthwhile. Religious differences aside, The Velvet Underground is another spectacular record from one of my favorite bands of all time.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Velvet Underground - White Light/White Heat

Release Dates: January 30, 1968

★★★★★ Tracks:

White Light / White Heat

Here She Comes Now

White Light/White Heat takes all those noisy and abrasive moments from Velvet Underground’s first record and turns them in to six completely chaotic, experimental, amphetamine fuled songs. “The Gift” is an eight minute long spoken-word track (first ever?) written by Lou Reed and told by John Cale. It’s an incredibly odd, frightening yet interesting tale about a young man who dotes over his girlfriend who took off for college so much so, he decides to ship himself to her as a surprise, but something goes awfully wrong. The story is told through the left speaker, while an instrumental is played on the right side. “Sister Ray” is an improvisational, one take, 17-minute long bender, full of feedback, avant-jazz solos, and broken lyrics focusing on drugs, violence and sex. The other four tracks are shorter offerings, but the amplifiers are turned up to 11 on all but one, and they were specifically focused on “anti-beauty.” Sterling Morrison said, "We were all pulling in the same direction. We may have been dragging each other off a cliff, but we were all definitely going in the same direction. In the White Light/White Heat era, our lives were chaos. That’s what’s reflected in the record."

Admittedly I don’t visit White Light/White Heat as much as a self-proclaimed Velvet Underground fan should. Sure this is the Velvet Underground at their most primal and possibly most influential state; the noisiest band of the 60’s managed to get noisier, and they don’t hold back in pushing pop and rock to entirely new boundaries, but the album as a whole isn’t as listenable as their other three proper full lengths. With Andy Warhol and Nico out of the picture the Velvet Underground seemed to lose their pop sensibilities, and all the changes within the band; the drugs, the tireless touring, the internal struggles between Cale and Reed seemingly culminated in to the six destructive, wayward, interesting but challenging songs contained within. But the Velvet Underground's weakest offering is better than most other band's highlights. The title track is what happens when you take a piano-driven saloon song and mix it with a fuzzy garage band. Lou Reed’s story in “The Gift” is pretty damned interesting, and we get a preview of what’s to come on their next album in the quiet “Here She Comes Now."

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Velvet Underground - The Velvet Underground & Nico

Release Dates: March 12, 1967

★★★★★ Tracks:

Almost all of them.

What’s your favorite song of all time? Tough right? A friend and I were discussing a date she was on recently where they would eventually exchange each other’s favorites. As a pop/rock fan my brain scans the last 50 years of music and comes up with far too wide of a selection to choose just one. Even on a date for the sake of conversation I’m afraid I wouldn’t have an honest answer. A “Top 5” might be do-able, but it'd be a stretch. But if this hypothetical date held a gun to my head and insisted on five songs, I have little doubt “I’m Waiting For the Man” would be included on that list.

I first got hooked on “I’m Waiting For the Man” about ten years ago, when I really sat down and listened to the lyrics. Although I’ve never gotten in to the hard stuff, there’s something I dig about the rebellious nature of drug references in music. When Velvet Underground & Nico was released in 1967, mega-groups the Beach Boys and the Beatles were just beginning to hint to psychedelics influencing their music, but “I’m Waiting For the Man” was overtly about drugs. And not that happy hippie psychedelic shit that was sweeping the nation, this was about Heroin, the hardest drug you can get your hands on. Because of its controversial subject matter the song was banned from airplay on most radio stations. As the percussion bangs persistently and the bluesy music shuffles along to Reed's descriptive lyrics I could see why people were up in arms; it all sounds so fucking cool he's inadvertently inviting you to try the stuff.

Over four years ago I made the monumental move to New York City. Since then, the song speaks to me in new and more interesting ways. Reed paints such a vivid picture of the city; heading up the Lexington subway line to 125th Street, where, once in Harlem, he’s told he’s chasing all their women around as he approaches the brownstone where he obtains his fix, I can’t help but be proud I know exactly what and where he is talking about. Another great New York track is “Run Run Run,” where city references are abundant. A character named Teenage Mary exclaims, “Gonna take a walk down to Union Square! You never know who you're gonna find there!” Although these days she would find little distinction from the regulars frequenting the area; women shopping for shoes at DSW and tourists. A character named Beardless Harry takes a trolley to 47th Street in the same song, where most likely not by coincidence, Andy Warhol’s famous studio, The Factory, was located during most of the 60’s.

“I’m Waiting For the Man” and “Run Run Run” aren’t the only thing going for the The Velvet Underground & Nico. It’s not considered one of the best albums of all time without reason. The harsh and controversial content sped up the process of uncensored lyricism in music. Lou Reed’s multifaceted guitar skills, with his meandering solos, beautiful guitar plucks, and experimental alternate tunings (he invented the Ostrich tuning) point to a very underrated musician. John Cale’s feedback laced viola is still something that hasn’t been replicated in modern music. Nico's inclusion on this record gives the Velvet Underground a variety they were unable to replicate, and her unique German voice suits a band from a city rooted in European immigration. New York artist Andy Warhol’s involvement adds intrigue, and it was at his request that Nico was added to the group (the band wasn't fond of the idea, hence the title of the record). After some time spent with the Velvet Underground it becomes apparent that they are not only the quintessential New York rock’n’roll band, they are one of the most important and influential bands in pop history.

The video below features Edie Sedgwick, one of Andy Warhol "superstars," that he requested a song be written about. Lou Reed agreed to it and came up with “Femme Fatale.” Nico sings the lead vocals.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Vermont - Living Together

Release Dates: September 28, 1999

★★★★★ Tracks:

Living Together

Often grouped in with divisive late 90’s emo-rock acts Texas Is the Reason, Jimmy Eat World, Get Up Kids, Saves the Day, and countless others, The Promise Ring are sort of misunderstood -- they are first and foremost a pop band. Davey van Bohlen is even on record as saying that they had no idea 30° Everywhere was going to come out so ...emo, so they came in to the recording of Nothing Feels Good with the intentions of making one of the poppiest records ever in order to change that perception. It definitely succeeded in being more upbeat, but it wasn’t quite enough for Davey, and a few years later they recorded quite possibly one of the poppiest records on the planet in Very Emergency.

It might have been pop-overkill, because there’s no getting around the obvious emo-core intentions of Vermont; a side project created by van Bohlen soon after Very Emergency’s release in the fall of ‘99. All those indulgent lyrics on troubled relationship Davey van Bohlen had bottled up for the aesthetic purposes of the Promise Ring are unleashed here on Living Together in all their self-loathing glory. They’re accompanied by sappy acoustic guitars, weepy arpeggio guitar leads, and the occasional software string instrument via keyboards.

Living Together has survived in my collection for over a decade, moving from apartment to apartment and city to city. However it’s showing its age, no longer holding up all that well. I’ll always have an affinity for Davey’s music, but Vermont is an example of both emo’s immaturity, and my immature tastes in music as I was approaching my twenties. It’s a good thing van Bohlen kept the Promise Ring churning in the right direction, by doing so he was able to use his little known side project as a means for indulgent escapism. The title track will continue to travel with me however; sure it has all the qualities listed above, and I’m pretty sure the drums are probably produced by some generic Yamaha keyboard, but the melody is too damn good to ignore.

“You look so happy now
It’s true, you really do
You look so happy now
I would hate to be compared to you”

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Vetiver - Tight Knit

Release Date: February 17, 2009

★★★★★ Tracks:

Through the Front Door

Gone are the woodsy, fall sounds of Vetiver. The cellos and violins are silent. The guest collaborations from Banhart, Newsom and others are missing. This time around Andy Cabric elicits the warm tones of summer to try and craft a more inviting album. They add percussion to nearly every track, and experiment with electric guitars. The songwriting is more pop-oriented, as songs like “Sister” and “More of This” will leave you forgetting you are listening to a folk outfit. And while Tight Knit succeeds in being much more accessible than their debut, it’s also more generic. There isn’t much variance between what's here and what most alternative-folk enthusiasts already have in their libraries: “Rolling Sea” brings early Ryan Adams to mind, “Everyday” should appeal to Badly Drawn Boy fans, and “On the Other Side” sounds like a song produced by the plethora of current Calexico-style country rockers you've already heard. There is one song I’ll be sure to keep however, and although “Through the Front Door” could fit snugly on Beck’s Sea Change, I just can’t get past how damn gorgeous it is.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Vetiver - Vetiver

Release Dates: May 18, 2004

★★★★★ Tracks:

Los Pajaros del Rio


Another artist in my library I hadn’t ever given a chance, Vetiver produce the sort of lonely, intimate folk that brings those early lo-fi records from Elliott Smith and Iron & Wine to mind. I enjoy and own nearly every Elliott Smith album ever made but I’m easily bored by most percussion-less records. At first Vetiver was no different. However after a couple of times listening to beautifully crafted tracks “Amerilie” and “Aboretum,” and tuning in to the poetic lyrics of “Luna Sea,” the album has begun to resonate.

Vetiver is at its best and most compelling when principal songwriter, Andy Cabric, allows his acoustic guitar to take a backseat to the other instrumentalists included: Joanna Newsom lends her whimsical harp on “Amerilie,” Devendra Banhart provides some stellar finger-picking guitar leads throughout the album, and co-wrote the Spanish, “Los Pajaros del Rio,” but the most interesting dynamic comes from the dual layers of cello and violin frequenting the majority of the tracks. There are a couple of misfires; I find “Amour Fou’s” vocals to be overkill, and a few songs like “Without a Song” and “Belles” linger on too long, leaving me impatient, but overall Vetiver has surprised me. This isn’t a record you are going to put on to start a weekend to, but it’s the type of restrained, woodsy folk that's damn near perfect for a lazy Sunday afternoon or a sleepy-eyed commute to work.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Violent Femmes - S/T and Add It Up

Release Dates: 11/13/82 & 09/14/93

★★★★★ Tracks:

Blister in the Sun

Kiss Off

Please Do Not Go

Gone Daddy Gone

Mike was one of those kids in middle school who did things a little differently. He had those white and black checkered Vans. He always wore that yellow Charlie Brown shirt with the black stripe. He shopped at the thrift store for plaid trousers and bright colored suspenders. He watched Kids in the Hall and Mr. Bean, and rented movies like Dead Alive and CB4. There wasn't a sport he cared for, instead he spent time practicing and playing his father's guitars and banjos. All of this intrigued me about my new best friend. Weirded me out a bit as well. But regardless of how strange I thought he was, I really looked up to my new buddy when I began to dig through his music collection. I had just gotten in to Nirvana and Helmet via a couple of great MTV videos and thought I was ahead of the curve. Mike proved to me I wasn't. Sure, he liked the Nirvanas and Helmets of the world that, in ‘92-93, were beginning to circulate heavily, but he also dug much deeper: Dead Kennedys, Butthole Surfers, Sonic Youth, Afghan Whigs, Dinosaur Jr., about 40 other bands I could name drop here. How did he ever hear of all this stuff? Where did it come from? And where could I find the latest & greatest before he did? -- a fruitless battle I would soon realize, but Mike got me hooked to the underground rock scene of the early ‘90’s.

Add It Up by the Violent Femmes was one of the other albums he had, and after hearing it a few times I made sure to ask my mom for a ride to the mall so I could grab a copy. As your typical suburban punk-ass teenager, not only was I looking for good music, I wanted the shit that would make my folks cringe. Lucky for me there weren't many more cringe-worthy lyrics for a parent than, “Why can’t I get just one fuck?” Similarly horrifying was the masturbatory “Blister in the Sun,” and the hilarious pleadings to dad in “Gimme the Car;” a song where Gordon Gano explains he is going to pick a girl up and "touch her all over her body." While all of this might sound incredibly juvenile (it is), the Femmes wrote some very innovative, fast rock'n'roll teetering on punk rock. They used acoustic instruments for the most part, a novelty for the genre (they very well could have inspired the term "folk punk"), and gave an uncensored voice to countless adolescent males of early 80's suburbia who had a hard time getting laid.

(epic mullet!)

I picked up a copy of Violent Femmes much later, and was rewarded with a killer record. The compilation really isn’t necessary when you have this one; in fact “Please Do Not Go” and “Prove My Love” are stand-out tracks that Add It Up completely left off. The strongest Femmes track ever recorded is here: “Kiss Off” is a perfectly crafted punk-rock anthem executed with nothing more than a small drum kit and an acoustic guitar and bass. Other stand outs include “Add It Up,” which would be re-popularized for my generation by "Hey, That's My Bike," Ethan Hawke’s fictional band in the movie, Reality Bites. And twelve years later we were reminded of the them all over again when Gnarls Barkley did an excellent cover of the classic "Gone Daddy Gone." By now it's obvious the Violent Femmes have left a permanent mark on rock'n'roll.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010


Another Pitchfork flavor-of-the-week, Battles is something of an indie rock supergroup made up of dudes from Don Caballero, Storm & Stress and Helmet. I downloaded this song from who-knows-where, and I was tempted to just pass on this entry, but rules are rules. I've never heard anything else by them, and this track is so unremarkable that if it's not representative of the band's other songs, then I don't know why this track was chosen as the sample.

I went through a post-rock phase once upon a time and I adored Don Caballero at one point, but I'm just not feeling this. As far as instrumental bands with short songs, I much prefer Ratatat or Lightning Bolt. You can check it out for yourself.

Bat for Lashes

The hype machine was pretty fervid when Natasha Khan's Bats for Lashes dropped Two Suns early last year. But like most Next Big Things in the ipod era, it quickly quieted when the Next Big Thing came along the following week. I downloaded a bunch of Bats for Lashes tracks during her 15 minutes of Pitchfork fame, gave them a few listens and while I certainly dug it, I never really went back to it. It's not that it's not bad; there's some terrific stuff here. She reminds me of a cross between the chamber pop of Portishead and the likable weirdness of Cat Power. You could probably also throw Tori Amos and Kate Bush in that melting pot as well, or basically any other female artist that ever seemed as too eccentric for the mainstream.

There's an interesting cover of Kings of Leon's "Use Somebody" among these tracks and it led me to a thought. While the nicest thing I can say about Kings of Leon is that it's not really my thing, I admired the relative bravery in her covering a popular and contemporary song. It seems when a band covers a song, it's either a classic that they end up butchering, or a pissing contest to show off how obscure their cover choices are. So why don't bands cover more recent stuff? Dylan got covered all the time in his own time, and the Motown groups covered each other so often sometimes it's hard to know who recorded the song first. It seems blasphemous to cover Belle & Sebastian but couldn't a punk band go wild on "Get Me Away From Here, I'm Dying?" And why oh why hasn't a great rock-n-roll band tricked out "Hey Ya?" You would think it'd be ripe for interpretation. If this was 1969, every half-assed band in half the world would've recorded their own version by now.

And for the sake of duplicity, the Bat for Lashes songs in my ipod:

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Volcano Choir - Unmap

Release Date: September 22, 2009

I didn't realize I had Unmap until I stumbled upon it in my library last week. The play count registered “1” for each song and they were all unchecked -- I must've not cared much for it the first 'go-round. However I was intrigued being that I knew absolutely nothing about Volcano Choir, and so I reloaded it on the mp3 player and gave it another shot. “Husks and Shells” starts with trance-like acoustic guitars and computer blips, paving way for unmistakable falsetto vocals those of us who love Bon Iver know so well. For Emma, Forever Ago is already a modern folk classic, and Vernon’s vocals mesh beautifully with this ambient sort of electronic/alternative rock that Collections of Colonies of Bees create so well. It’s the sort of thing you might put on after a long, hallucinogenic-fueled night to come down to; Moby’s Play for the modern day hipster. But those days are long gone for me, and I don’t think I could ever find another time when I would spin a record such as this one. For those of you who still get to indulge: “Cool Knowledge” has a tight drum beat with some very interesting acapella-styled vocals and “Island, Is” is their most accessible and most enjoyable track.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Walkmen - Lisbon

Release Date: September 14, 2010

★★★★★ Tracks:

Angela Surf City

Blue As Your Blood

Woe is Me

Now on their 5th proper full length, with a variety of additional songs and a cover of Nilsson's Pussy Cats record in between, the longevity of the Walkmen in the era of digital music is truly phenomenal. Often grouped in with garage rock revivalists the Strokes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the Walkmen have outlasted and outproduced their Brooklyn brethren by a large margin. Sure, the Walkmen might not have a record as influential as Is This It or a personality as big as Karen O’s, but their entire body of work far surpasses that of either of those bands.

On Lisbon the Walkmen continue to tinker, drawing influences from 60’s surf rock while revisiting the sound they produced on A Hundred Miles Off. Paul Maroon’s guitar leads the charge, and he expertly invokes a hazy, lazy, summery feel to most the record with a heavy dosage of clean-tone electric guitar, adding a lot of chorus and reverb effects, and often plucking his notes at a slight delay to the pace of the rest of the music.

Songs “Angela Surf City” and “Woe is Me” are surf rock stand-outs, and there is a great do-wop throwback in “Torch Song," but the theatrical “Blue As Your Blood” is the most impressive track here; the Latin-tinged instrumentation gallops alongside Hamilton Leithauser’s lyrics of a Spanish lover in perfect unison.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Barbara Lewis

Barbara Lewis is a relatively little-known soul singer who had a few charted hits in the sixties. Lack of commercial success led to her dropping from the music scene entirely but some eventual covers and inclusions on soundtracks gave her a little more pocket money in the decades to come. The Arctic Monkeys even released a cover of "Baby I'm Yours" as the b-side to "Leave Before the Lights Come On."

Her take on the Gerry Goffin/Carole King song "Don't Forget About Me" is my latest entry from the amazing One Kiss Leads to Another box set (which I can't say enough good things about) and I daresay it's a better, more soulful rendition than the version included on Dusty Springfield's fantastic Dusty in Memphis. Since I have the entire box set on my ipod and there's scores of songs I've yet to fully absorb, the play count only stood at one before I listened to this to write this post, and I like it better than Dusty's, whose classic album I've spun at least a couple dozen times.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Band

I feel like I should be a lot more into The Band than I am. My mother always names Music from the Big Pink as her favorite album and many a friend have told me they got into The Band via Martin Scorsese's supposedly phenomenal The Last Waltz. As is, all I have is their 1969 self-titled second album. A couple of the songs have come up on random shuffle when I uploaded this onto my ipod years ago, but judging from the dates in my itunes, I haven't heard the album since 2008. I guess the thing is, I'm just not into Americana roots music influenced by folk and bluegrass. Neil Young, Grateful Dead, Buffalo Springfield are nowhere near the top of my list of favorite bands. The more recent bands like Calexico and Golden Smog aren't my cup of tea, either. There are a handful of songs in the Wilco discography I really like (if not downright love), but I can take or leave the former bands of their members. What bands I do like that could be classified in this category (like Creedence Clearwater Revival or Drive-By Truckers) have to much rock-n-roll elements in their songs for me to not press repeat.

So why don't I like this kind of stuff? I guess I prefer my rock-n-roll loud, with bombastic guitar solos and feedback and squeals, and vocalists who throw themselves into their words as if nothing in the world matters more than the song they're singing. I don't get that with The Band. I see a group of talented multi-instrumentalists who incorporate their vast experience into their music, but I hear very little of the early rock-n-roll and Motown that supposedly influences their songs. "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" is the key track on this record, and easily one of their most beloved songs. Maybe I'm too ignorant about Southern history and the peculiarities of the Civil War but the sadness that's supposed to be so apparent in this song is just lost on me.

The Band is one of those bands that I respect more than I like, and I can't imagining myself revisiting this record anytime soon. I wonder if at this stage in my life, my listening habits are too set for me to get into something that deviates from the type of music I normally listen to. I'd like to consider myself open-minded enough to find things to enjoy in every genre, but I'm not sure about my relationship with roots-tinged Americana, and I'm not sure if that will ever change.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Backbeat Band

It is my opinion that a great many bands, even a great many great bands, peak very very early, in some cases, even before their first album. Pavement's Watery, Domestic, R.E.M.'s Chronic Town, the first Arcade Fire EP, Nirvana's Incesticide-era stuff, all represent those bands at their freshest and most idealistic, and in these cases, I'll take the blueprint of their future sound over the actual building of their eventual songs. At the risk of sounding one of those pretentious instigating hipsters who say such things just to provoke outrage, I think The Beatles peaked with “Twist and Shout.” You can have your Abbey Road and Rubber Soul and Sgt. Pepper but I prefer The Beatles at this stage of the game, when their brand of rock-n-roll was in its purest form. The soundtrack to Backbeat is representative of this ideal; when there was nothing more exciting and innocent as being in a garage band with your best friends. No drugs, no money, no fame, no ego. No pretensions of changing the world and no delusions behind the meaning of what you're doing; just rock-n-roll for nothing more than the sake and the spirit of rock-n-roll.

The 1994 album is a veritable supergroup of the era's alt-rock stars, with Greg Dulli, Dave Grohl, Mike Mills, Thurston Moore and Don Fleming (with Dave Pirner chipping in), covering some of the best rock-n-roll songs ever recorded before The Beatles came along and changed everything. Twelve tracks of the best singer in rock-n-roll with a dream team behind him throwing themselves with reckless abandon on “Twist and Shout,” “Good Golly Miss Molly,” “Rock 'N Roll Music,” “Please Mr. Postman,” and eight more glorious tracks that capture the purity of rock-n-roll at its most primitive in the days of Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry.

Over the past couple years, this has been my go-to album when I can't decide what I want to listen to or when I don't feel like paying the attention a more sophisticated record may deserve. Clocking in at just under a half-hour, this is perfect record to play when you don't want (or need) anything more than delirious instant-gratification. And I'm so disappointed in the audience who were lucky and privileged enough to see the band live. How the fuck can they just sit there?


Pete Doherty is one of the more underrated songwriters of his generation, and it's a bit unfair to refer The Libertines as Britain's answer to The Strokes. Despite devoting a lot of time to shooting heroin and banging supermodels, Doherty has been a bit more prolific than Casablancas and Hammond, and the debut album from his post-Libertines output Babyshambles displays much of the songwriting chops that made Up the Bracket something of a modern classic.

Down in Albion has its share of duds and filler (“Sticks and Stones,” “Up in the Morning,” “Merry Go Round”) but for the most part it's a very solid, listenable record, with the sort of rambunctious rock-n-roll The Libertines were known for. Produced by The Clash's Mick Jones, it even shows flashes of London Calling-esque infusions of reggae. The standout tracks show off the kind of glorious songwriting that Doherty does best; songs that seem sloppy on the surface but are actually well-crafted anthems underneath the drunkenly disjointed structures. It's a rather surprisingly re-playable record, as I was a bit shocked to see that I've played all the songs at least 13 times, and the best songs on Down in Albion stand up to the best songs in The Libertines discography.

“Fuck Forever” is the clear gem of this record, though. Pete Doherty may be a fuck-up, but with a line like “I'm so clever / But clever ain't wise,” he's showing off a degree of self-awareness lacking in rock-n-roll stars with similar egos. I'm not completely caught up on Doherty's output since this record; 2007's Shotter's Nation and his 2009 solo record are unheard by me, but I'm in no rush to hear them, since for the most part, I can't stop playing all the great songs from his first three albums.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Walkmen - You and Me

Release Date: August 19, 2008

★★★★★ Tracks:

Dónde está la playa

On the Water

In the New Year

Canadian Girl

The Walkmen have put out three incredible records and the fourth (proper full length) is no different. You & Me is their best yet, a beautifully realized masterpiece revolving around love, loss and travel. The instrumentation builds upon the ideas they set in place with Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me is Gone, but the scale is much grander. Violas, horns, and organs are all used to compliment that eerie Walkmen blend of classic rock’n’roll and current indie rock.

The sound on its own can conjure vivid images and location, while Hamilton’s raspy voice narrates us though his personal contemplations while in those places. On "Donde Esta La Playa," the drums and guitar combine to transport us to a moonlit beach, where we’re told a story of bitter lost love. “Canadian Girl” invokes 1950’s and ‘60’s do-wop without the actual ‘do-wop’ backing vocals, but when Leithauser croons, “and only I still call you mine,” you can hear the throw-back to old soul in his voice.

Although not old himself by any stretch, Hamilton was approaching that 30 year milestone during the production of You & Me, and he seems more distraught than ever over the direction of his life. Even the more optimistic tracks contain melancholy undertones: in “Red Moon” Hamilton longs for his lover while on the road, but “In the New Year” he is uncertain there is a future for them at all. The latter has a cynical tone to it, with a lovely waltz time, triumphant guitars and vocals, and lyrics of enthusiasm for the new year, but when combined with the organ and Hamilton’s last few lines it hints at impending doom:

"So it’s all over
It’s all over, anyhow
You took our sweet time
And finally I opened my eyes
My friends and my family
They are asking of me
How long will you ramble
How long will you still repeat
The snow is still falling
And I’m almost home
I’ll see you…"

“On the Water” is the strongest track here. The instrumentation sounds like the driving force to a gritty crime-noir, setting us up for lyrics focusing on a poor soul who has lost someone very close to him/her, perhaps in some tragic accident. The video’s premise only enforces the image.

You & Me is an album that lives in those fleeting moments right before the sun comes up, when one goes through those late-night ( and often drunken) reflections on life; intimate moments that feel powerful but difficult to put in to words. Well, difficult unless you are Hamilton Leithauser. Life can get more confusing as age and mounting responsibilities add up, but the experiences can become more exciting and rewarding. The Walkmen perfectly capture those feelings on You & Me, and in doing so they created the best record released in 2008.

Here’s a short clip of "Canadian Girl" from a show the Walkmen played at the Bell House in Brooklyn, courtesy of a friend I was with that night. Check out her awesome bathroom blog, Courtesy Flush, where there's a post from the Bell House up now.