Sunday, May 30, 2010

April Young

The 3rd entry from the nearly-orgasmic One Kiss Leads to Another box set is April Young's "Steady Boyfriend." Like Alder Ray, we don't know much about April, just that she was probably another record label casualty, or someone with big enough dreams but barely enough money for studio time to record more than a single and a b-side. Relative to the dozens of gems on the box set, this one isn't anything too special. Which is to say, it's still a pretty good representation of what the girl group sound is.

Here is a embarassingly poorly-edited video of the song. The American Bandstand kids are clearly dancing to a different song.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Who - ...Sells Out, Tommy, Who's Next

The Who Sells Out Release Date:
December 15, 1967

Tommy Release Date:
May 23, 1969

Who's Next Release Date:
July 31, 1971

Who Fan: "You like the Who?"

Me: "Sure. They're great. Sick drummer!..."

Who Fan: "I know, fucking awesome! Who's Next is epic, right?"

Me: "Mhm." *Please let this conversation be over.*

The truth is I could only name a few songs songs by the Who: "Pinball Wizard," "My Generation," "Baba O'Riley,"... All enjoyable tracks, but nothing I find essential. So what gives me the urge to say I like the Who? Who cares, really? I dunno. I guess I feel like the Who are one of those monumental bands that everyone should know about. I don't want to be the odd man out. After all, I have a copy of The Who Sells Out on my mp3 player, and I own Who's Next and Tommy on vinyl, stolen from my parents when they thought the turntable became obsolete. (funny how things have come back around full circle with CDs, and vinyl still retains it's value). Still, I never find the urge to play them.

The Who Sells Out, released in 1967, is the earliest of the three records I have, and also the most interesting. Sort of a concept album with faux-radio commercials and interludes dispersed between tracks, it gives the impression you're listening to a UK radio station. The concept is intriguing, and most the songs aren't half bad either. But in the end it all sounds like stuff I've heard before, and already have too much of in my collection: mid-60's Beatles or Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd psych-rock.

Tommy and Who's Next are where the Who really began to craft their own unique sound. It's been said and written everywhere but there's simply no better way to put it: this is rock-opera. Huge sounding guitars accompanied by frequent solos, anthemic vocals, lengthy instrumental interludes, and mammoth drums with incredible fills. The drummer, Keith Moon, really is something else to hear, and was the only saving grace for me when listening back to these two records. But the sound that the Who have created -- that big, arena-style rock'n'roll that became so prevalent in the 80's and onward -- has never been something I enjoy. Obviously the Who are a big part of rock's overall development, and influencing the likes of more overrated arena rockers like Rush, Queen, Black Sabbath, and all that 80's hair (and make-up) metal. All of which had they been wiped from the annals of rock history I would have no qualms with.

The Who have added some good to the world. Who's Next is probably the first rock album to include the synthesizer, a groundbreaking instrument that would eventually be adapted by nearly every genre imaginable, and it's a staple in most any rock'n'roll bands today. The percussion is phenomenal, helping to revolutionize how rockers can use a drum kit to be more creative. And while I think "Baba O'Riley" is an overrated track (a great intro, but no one else gets bored half way through like me?), there's usually good times and good beers going on around me when I hear it.

I know I am in the minority here. The Who, to most, are one of those monumental bands everyone should know about. I know enough about them now to admit I don't really like them next time that conversation comes up. My propensity to listen to them will directly coincide with how often I can fake a Keith Moon impersonation when playing a track of theirs on Rock Band 2, which is to say, not that often.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Wilco - Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

Release Date: April 23, 2002

★★★★★ Tracks:


War on War

Jesus, etc.

Ashes of American Flags

Most of us dreamed of doing something great when we grew up: fireman, astronaut, scientist, teacher, hooker, etc. Me? I dreamed of being in a rock'n'roll band. And I got to live that dream while I attended college, albeit briefly, and on a very small scale. My version looked nothing like it does in the movies. The creation of art, the camaraderie, the fame, the girls, the money, the drugs, the touring -- we romanticize the idea of a band to complete unbelievability. Are those things really attainable, or even something musicians should be striving for? Regardless, I do miss it dearly, and given the opportunity I would start a band up all over again, if only for the realistic goals of artistic expression and camaraderie.

Jeff Tweedy has been living the dream for quite some time now, and on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, he lets us know it's not all it's cracked up to be. Our loved ones know all about the stories of the road, and Tweedy is having a hard time balancing his marriage and his career. There's tension within the band, a newborn child at home, trust issues, loneliness, addiction, exhaustion, and a problem with chronic migraines I can relate to; most subjects hardly new to the annals of rock'n'roll singers. But Tweedy approaches the topic with unparalleled prose, and the lyrics contained within YHF could easily be ripped from a book of poetry.

"Radio Cure:"

"Oh, distance has no way of making love understandable"

"Ashes of American Flags:"

"I'm down on my hands and knees
Every time the doorbell rings
I shake like a toothache
When I hear myself sing

All my lies are only wishes
I know I would die if I could come back new"

"Poor Places"

"There's bourbon on the breath
Of the singer you love so much
He takes all his words from the books
That you don't read anyway"

"Jesus, etc."

"I'll be around
You were right about the stars
Each one is a setting sun

Tall buildings shake
Voices escape singing sad, sad songs
Tuned to chords
Strung down your cheek
Bitter melodies
Turning your orbit around"

Wilco continues their descent through the rabbit hole of studio experimentation with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. And it continues to pay off. They add track splicing, delay and multi-layered guitar effects, bringing the Beatles' studio era to mind. Radiohead-like blips and beeps and atmospheric background noise are ever-present. Synths abound throughout, as well as voice and percussive sound manipulation. They also involved more people in the production of the record. Replacing Ken Coomer on drums is Glenn Kotche, who's versatility the band preferred. And one of Jeff Tweedy's favorite musicians, Jim O'Rourke, is responsible for a large portion of the experimental mixing. While all of the changes and studio magic may sound overbearing, the added touches are subtle, culminating in small but very effective nuances to what is a simple yet astonishing and unique folk record.

I have't bothered with any Wilco albums following Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. I know I shouldn't assume I wouldn't like them, but the dismissal of Jay Bennett from the band has left me less interested. And it probably had to happen; there is a point in the Wilco documentary, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, where Tweety literally becomes sick to his stomach following a very uncomfortable argument with Jay Bennett on how a track should be edited (which I'll include below, skip to 4:00 if you don't want to wait). Sometimes cohesiveness and morale is more important than creativity. But that tension and competition between the two of them is partly responsible for bringing Wilco to its creative heights, and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is a testament to that.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Wilco - Summerteeth

Release Date: March 9, 1999

★★★★★ Tracks:

Can't Stand It

A Shot in the Arm

How to Fight Loneliness

Things get a lot more interesting with Summerteeth, as Wilco further expands on their experimentation with traditional country music and pop-rock. They spend more time in the studio here; incorporating intriguing studio techniques and effects, ditching the steel guitar but adding more captivating instrumentation in the process, and further distancing themselves from Americana. It all culminates in to a unique album that sounds like something they've authored themselves, as opposed to a collection of songs mostly mimicking their country-rock heroes.

I imagine Jeff Tweedy is responsible for most, if not all, the lyrics and basic acoustic compositions for Wilco, and he writes some damn good songs. But Jay Bennett, Wilco guitarist and all-around-instrumentalist, is much more involved with the writing and production on Summerteeth. And while he appeared to be a difficult individual to work with (based off of the interesting documentary I am Trying to Break Your Heart), it's Bennett's ear for tweaks to the band's arrangements and compositions, and his increasing confidence in studio production and manipulation that really catapult Wilco from imitators to innovators.

I think one of the best examples of Wilco's growth is the catchy bright piano driven track, "A Shot in the Arm." Synthesizers, frequency shifts, buzzing "wah" effects and flanger guitars are always present, and only increase in multitude and volume as the song progresses, while strings and the occasional orchestral bass drum add subtle touches to the composition. The effect is a song sounding very progressive, but still having all the driving forces of a radio-friendly pop tune.

(Note: the live version doesn't include all the bells and whistles that the album song features. But the energy from the performance here makes it the best clip available. For the studio version, click here.)

Other great tracks like "Can't Stand It," "How to Fight Loneliness," and "Nothing'severgonnastandinmyway (again)" really exemplify Summerteeth's strengths: great folksy pop-songs which include unique arrangements and experimental studio techniques. At 52:50 and 17 tracks the album runs a bit too long for my tastes, and there are a few songs I find to be filler, like "Candy Floss" and "ELT," but Summerteeth is a massive upgrade over Being There, and a record I'm very happy to have stumbled upon.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Wilco - Being There

Release Date: October 29, 1996

★★★★★ Tracks:

Sunken Treasure

My introduction to Wilco was through Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and it's become one of those rare records that never gets old. Being as I liked it so much, I did what I always do when discovering new artists and worked my way backwards, downloading both Being There and Summerteeth. I never got around to listening to much of either one of them until now, but Being There, a double-album spanning 19 songs, is just not keeping my interest like YHF did.

I think Wilco's second album would be considered Americana. I don't really even know what that means, but according to Wikipedia, "Americana is popularly referred to, especially in print, as alternative country, alt-country or sometimes" And I think that's a pretty good fit. This is Good ol' Country-pop for the kids. Country was never my thing, but I can still listen to and enjoy an album from the genre should it include some catchy tunes and a touch of originality. Being There has a bit of both, but most of these tracks sound more like homages to their influences. "Far, Far Away," "Forget the Flowers," and "Why Would You Wanna Live?" are all nice acoustic, bluesy-country songs, with steel guitar, and the occasional banjo added for good measure. But the big-sounding, electric rock'n'roll songs like "Monday," "Outtasite," and especially "I Got You," with it's anthemed vocals, "I got you and it's all I need!" are just downright corny. If I'm ever in the mood for country rock, I'll most likely stick to my Neil Young and Bob Dylan records. I could do without Being There.

I did find one gem however, fittingly entitled "Sunken Treasure." A great line is repeated throughout the song, and Wilco adds a touch of experimentalism -- untuned guitars, out-of-key chords, and trippy vocal effects -- that helps to compliment the subject matter.

"I am so out of tune.
With you."