Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Top 50 Albums of the 00s - #16: Andrew Bird - Armchair Apocrypha

Yep, we're counting down the top 50. Click here for overview and criteria.

Of all the albums I've "first blushed" here, this is the only one that ended up in the Top 50. Others were very close, but couldn't quite make the cut. When I did the full digestion, I said the album is "easily Bird's most complete," and that statement still rings true. My appreciation of this record has only deepened since it was released. There is no mediocre track on it.

After removing most of his collaborators in favor of percussionist extraordinaire Martin Dosh, Andrew Bird uses Armchair Apocrypha as a chance to evolve yet again. It's not quite as dramatic as the shift seen a few albums earlier when he left behind the rustic, gypsy-inspired folk in favor of rustic avant-garde indie folk, but there's a shift in tone. From the album's opener, "Fiery Crash," it's clear that he's gunning for atmosphere instead of highlighting again his earlier flair for solos and winking irony. I'm still into his previous records. That's not a dig - just an observation of his evolution. At the same time, once we get deeper into the record, he shows a level of enthusiasm that he hasn't displayed before or since. While in other releases, he seems to approach the peaks just to take a quick look at the view, on this one, he's not afraid to linger in the dynamism.

Also at the same time, Bird delves deeply into harmonies with only himself. Songs that would have previously needed to play in layered tones with the vocals of Nora O'Connor now live in triplicate overdubs on their own. Hence we continue with the dynamism. And the other aspect he has added is some open space. His earlier records skipped from song to song, with each one eager to make its point. But a song like "Cataracts" leaves the listener filling in the gaps on his own, making the peaks all the more significant.

I could go on and on here, but don't want to bore you. My favorite tracks have changed many times, a sign of the strength of the record. But the three that always seem to be floating near the top are "Armchairs," "Dark Matter," and "Spare-ohs." I highly recommend purchasing this record. I still sounds new to me almost four years after its release.

And because everyone has come to this site a million times looking for the definition of "imitosis," let me give it my best shot. First of all, let's look at the background. It is clear that Bird is making a play on words, combining three of them together: I, Imitation, and Mitosis. Why did I include I? Because he is covering his old song by that name. Hence the concept of imitation in the first place.

In the new version, the point of view of the song has changed completely. The original has very few lyrics, but they are in the first-person plural. Now we are in third-person singular, talking about Poor Professor Pension, who is busy studying why so many things in nature are set in opposition to one another. Yet the overall theme is the same. Every person on the planet is so busy trying to figure everything out, we never come to the conclusion that we are inherently "alone."

But where does mitosis come into it? Mitosis refers to cell division starting in the nucleus of a cell. Its result is two cells that may be very similar but not necessarily identical. And this phenomenon is crucial to how all living things grow. So one could rightfully say that Bird is taking the nucleus of his old song and creating a new, similar song as he grows his very oeuvre. Bird's lyrics in the song seem to indicate that mitosis doesn't necessarily mean these "copied" cells have any reason to get along with one another and therefore we remain "all basically alone." Given that Bird is known for becoming tired of his own music, it is safe to assume that Imitosis has completely replaced I in his on-stage repertoire, further indication of these "split cells" not hanging out with each other.

So, in sum, the definition of Imitosis, as I can best approximate it is as follows: a process by which one personal output is built directly upon a previous work by the same entity, thus rendering the previous work less integral to the creator's overall body of work while, at the same time, improving said body.

Please feel free to comment on how this can be improved...

Previous Entries:
#17 - Jens Lekman - Oh You're So Silent, Jens
#18 - Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes
#19 - Band of Horses - Everything All the Time
#20 - The Lawrence Arms - Oh! Calcutta!
#21 - Amy Winehouse - Back to Black
#22 - Mission of Burma - The Obliterati
#23 - Don Caballero - World Class Listening Problem
#24 - The Flaming Lips - Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots
#25 - Tapes 'n Tapes - The Loon
#26 - Kings of Leon - Aha Shake Heartbreak

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Merry Christmas from Fighting The Youth

Some nostalgic Christmas cheer. Kinda.

A new song from The Futureheads released just for your holiday enjoyment.

The Daily Show Ten Years Ago

Ten years ago this past Sunday:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Headlines - Transition Impossible
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogThe Daily Show on Facebook

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Top 50 Albums of the 00s - #17: Jens Lekman - Oh You're So Silent, Jens

Yep, we're counting down the top 50. Click here for overview and criteria.

Well, I must admit I made a mistake. It's not the first one I've made in this process, but underestimating albums on this list is a very reconcilable problem. I just bump them up and get to them later. Overestimating, on the other hand, leaves you no outs. We're all the way up to #17, so I can't just grab some replacement album that didn't make it. And it's not like this album deserves the boot, either. Let me explain what happened.

There are a few albums that merit placement on this list based on one song alone, though the rest of the album can't be garbage. Hence Hard-Fi doesn't get in on the strength of "Cash Machine." When I put my overall list together, I was very torn between Jens Lekman's second and third releases, knowing I loved them both for various reasons. Well I should have committed right at the beginning. Between their best tracks is one amazing record and then another one that would be so-so. Individually, I must admit that Oh You're So Silent Jens should be slightly lower on our list. But we're still talking Top 30 for sure. I'm being too hard on myself. Enough with the apologies, let's get to the praise.

When I saw Jens Lekman perform he mentioned that he has a problem telling stores. When he recounts sad tales, they come out funny, and when he tries to tell a humorous anectode, it comes out sad. I don't know on which side of this quandary the album opener, "At the Department of Forgotten Songs" is supposed to reside. It's clearly meant to be sad, but so calm it's comforting. Either way, it's not exactly a way to burst out of the gates on a record. But our patience will pay off.

Things proceed peacefully until we get to "Pocketful of Money." This is the song that brought Jens to my attention. I can't remember where or when or how it was that I came across it. The song seems overly simple at first, but then, out of nowhere a brilliantly placed sample of Beat Happening's Calvin Johnson crashes in, and the song has our complete attention. Suddenly you are moving to the beat and what seemed like a light pop tune reveals a bedrock of real soul. The song exemplifies how one arrives at Lekman's music on the whole. At first, there's no real reason to be interested. But quite quickly, Jens wins you over completely. Listening to his records, there's no way you can't like this guy. Seeing him live will only cement your attention.

Technically this isn't an album. It's a collection of songs that Lekman had available to make an album-length release. But you wouldn't really know it. The tracks flow into one another and seem to have been recorded in the same session. Some are better than others, but they work together to occupy a unique space in music today. There's nobody else in the Top 50 that I could compare to Lekman. His style is his own, or at least he does it much better than anybody else.

I mentioned that sometimes one fantastic song is enough to consecrate an album, and that's absolutely the case here. "Black Cab" is one of those songs. The lyrics are inherently dejected, but instead of being goofy or funny, Jens has turned his misery in to pure sweetness. Like an adorable puppy that just needs a good home, you can't help but take the tune with you. It is perhaps the most perfectly crafted pop song I know. Check the video below and tell me you don't adore it. I know I'll be keeping it with me for the rest of my life. You know what? This song is so damn good that Jens deserves #17. Besides, the rest of the record is really solid. I rescind all previous apologies. Give these a spin and tell me I'm right...

Previous Entries:
#18 - Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes
#19 - Band of Horses - Everything All the Time
#20 - The Lawrence Arms - Oh! Calcutta!
#21 - Amy Winehouse - Back to Black
#22 - Mission of Burma - The Obliterati
#23 - Don Caballero - World Class Listening Problem
#24 - The Flaming Lips - Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots
#25 - Tapes 'n Tapes - The Loon
#26 - Kings of Leon - Aha Shake Heartbreak
#27 - Idlewild - 100 Broken Windows

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Alternative 90s: The AV Club's Retrospective: 1994

Here we continue to react to the Steven Hyden's take on the Alternative 90s. Click over yonder to review Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.

Without a doubt, the biggest event in the Alternative Rock movement in 1994 was the suicide of Kurt Cobain. In the latest update of his retrospective, Hyden devotes the majority of his time to this event, starting off with a candid and self-deprecating explanation of how it went down for him. I hadn't realized it, but Cobain's demise certainly was a "where were you when" moment. We don't have so many of those our generation, and this one is easily more trivial than the Challenger explosion, Columbine High School, or 9/11. But I suppose I will always remember riding around in a girl's car on North Campus while my buddy Ken announced on the college radio station, "Kurt Cobian blew his brains to Brooklyn," before spinning "Rape Me." We turned up the volume and drove along. At that moment, Cobain's death clearly wasn't all that important to any of us. We weren't Nirvana fans. Beyond noting the significant newsworthiness of the event, we were unaffected. Or maybe it was Ken's fault for joking about it in the first place.

The only Nirvana album I've ever really cared about was Incesticide, which isn't an album. But it is easily the most interesting collection of songs they released. A recent review of their discography only confirmed this notion. Our flippant reaction perhaps wasn't warranted, but we were 18 years old and to us it was just another news item that had little bearing on our lives. All we knew was that Nirvana was about to see a spike in record sales. Sometimes, when you're in college, you can be surprising isolated from the rest of the world. Even Lewinskygate a few years later was not big news compared to things we were actually busy with. While this may have been an international event, to us, it was just one day's news, driving around.

Hyden took it far more personally, as did almost everybody else. He delivers an excellent piece of research, laying out all kinds of details and interpretation surrounding Cobain's tragic demise. Perhaps the most interesting (but also the most heavy-handed) is his interpretation of the band's famous Unplugged set as a self-thrown funeral for Cobain.
In light of Cobain’s suicide, MTV Unplugged In New York was commonly heard as the work of a man committed to the idea of being dead as soon as possible. I know I’m not the only one that hears Kurt Cobain performing his own burial rites whenever the record plays. It’s not just a matter of the music’s close proximity to Cobain’s death; the suicide simply brought what was already there into greater focus.
To be sure, his suicide was not a surprise at the time. Hence our lack of drama in hearing the news. And maybe Cobain planned the Unplugged performance that way, but only he really knows and he's not around to tell us. To me it's more of a Rorschach test. I see a guy in a lot of anguish, Hyden sees a guy who was deliberately tell us he was going to kill himself through song.

Hyden then steers the direction to Soundgarden's breakthrough album, "Superunknown." Had Chris Cornell died at the time, then I would have been a lot more affected. As they hit the big-time, I went through many of the same conflicts as I had with Smashing Pumpkins earlier, though with a few differences. At least with Smashing Pumpkins, the hit songs were good. Soundgarden's most successful tracks were also their worst. The first time I heard Black Hole Sun, I was overwhelmed by its banality. I couldn't believe this was the same band that had created Jesus Christ Pose on their previous record. That said, there were plenty of good songs on Superunknown, even if the band had backed away from the heaviness that had made their Badmotorfinger so successful (for me).

And with all this important news, there is no room for the other tragedy involving a Georgia band called Collective Soul. A band of mediocre talent and lesser songwriting was packaged as alternative and went platinum. Seriously, this was their hit single. It pointed alternative music in a new direction that soon became a tailspin from which the genre would never recover. At least Cobain wasn't around to see it.

In the end, Hyden's narrow take on the year leads him to make some conflicting conclusions:
Kurt Cobain was not a martyr, and I’m not going to dehumanize him by turning his life and death into a crushed velvet painting. But I’m also not going to let Nirvana be reduced to a load of hype signifying nothing. Yes, I was one of the mourners. Kurt Cobain's music made my life better, opening me up to new worlds that enriched my existence immensely. I’m extremely grateful that Nevermind came into my life when it did, because I was a lonely kid that really needed something to connect with. Just because I’m fortunate enough to no longer be 13 years old doesn’t mean I’ll ever set aside my gratitude for what Cobain once gave me, or my grief for where he ended up. I can only speak for; maybe you didn’t give a shit. But to me, you’re goddamn right Kurt Cobain fucking mattered.
In Nick Hornby's "About a Boy," he uses Cobain's impending suicide as a clumsy plot vehicle. It was wisely removed from the movie. I guess I feel similarly about Hyden's latest article. Of course he can't possibly have ignored Cobain's death. As I said, it was the biggest event that year. But in the end, did it really do anything to music? Nirvana would have had more albums, and so that's a loss. But the way things were moving, with the onslaught of more and more crappy, knockoff alternabands, what Nirvana stood for was doomed either way. Cobain could have been a dead martyr or a living one. He chose the way he had to. And we can have whatever opinion we want about it, but those opinions don't matter.

It's another solid output from Hyden, but one that I'm afraid doesn't move me quite as much. But his next post should be up tomorrow!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Top 50 Albums of the 00s - #18: Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes

Yep, we're counting down the top 50. Click here for overview and criteria.

Of course it starts off a capella. Anything else would simply be wrong. But it's the most rustic thing you've ever heard. Like a moment from the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack that didn't make the cut because it sounded a generation too early. That initial tease only lasts 20 seconds, and as we really get into that first track, the band patiently adds layers throughout its three minutes. At this point, they are simply a bird showing its plumage - a display of capabilities. If the rest of the songs were to continue this way, we would say "this is a group of extremely talented singers who harmonize as well as anyone in the history of music" and leave it at that. But by the time we get just one minute into "White Winter Hymnal" it's clear that we're here for something amazing.

Fleet Foxes certainly fit into the neo-folk movement that became a fixture of the indie circuit in the second half of the decade. Bands like Grizzly Bear, Beach House, and The Shins each put out their version of modern harmonized beauty, and though they came close, weren't quite compelling enough make the Top 50 list here. Fleet Foxes' take is not as revolutionary, and maybe it's because they stayed more true to their roots that they achieved so much in their debut self-titled album. Or maybe they're just that freaking talented.

"Ragged Wood" is perfectly named, a light, rambling piece of music that builds on what the first two tracks started. It may not be conceptually profound, but the sonic teamwork calmly soars above the slight guitar notes. "Tell me anything you want. Any old lie will do. Call me back to, back to you." It's the way they say it. Despite all the praise I've doled out, the second half of the record is even better. "He Doesn't Know Why" (video here) has all the potential energy of a building tilting ever closer to the ground but never quite collapsing.

"Your Protector" uses a driving rhythm and vocals peaking to set up the bombastic harmonies in the chorus: "You ruuuuuun with the devil." The record climaxes with the absolutely shimmering brilliance of "Blue Ridge Mountains," a song befitting the landscape it deals with. Listening to the record as a whole, I can't help be struck by two things. The first is just how incredibly together the band is, and everyone who saw them at 2008's Pitchfork Music Festival witnessed how well they can pull it off in concert. The second is that the band (and production team) clearly put in a ton of attention and effort in making this record. This is not garage rock. Each note seems cared for like a child.

I have no idea where the band will go from here. If they put out the same kind of record again, I will not be upset, but it seems hard to imagine they can outdo themselves while keeping the exact same style. All I know is that every time I play this album I find myself singing its songs out loud for about two weeks, especially in any place with a decent echo. I suppose it's not for everyone, but I wouldn't have thought it was for me, either. The music is too good not to adore it. But you can judge for yourself.

Previous Entries:
#19 - Band of Horses - Everything All the Time
#20 - The Lawrence Arms - Oh! Calcutta!
#21 - Amy Winehouse - Back to Black
#22 - Mission of Burma - The Obliterati
#23 - Don Caballero - World Class Listening Problem
#24 - The Flaming Lips - Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots
#25 - Tapes 'n Tapes - The Loon
#26 - Kings of Leon - Aha Shake Heartbreak
#27 - Idlewild - 100 Broken Windows
#28 - Common - Be

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Alternative 90s: The AV Club's Retrospective: 1993

Here we continue to react to the Steven Hyden's take on the Alternative 90s. Click over yonder to review Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

Hyden ventures away from Seattle in his review of 1993, focusing on the acts that made it big from his closest metropolis as a teenager and my hometown: Chicago.

My expectations for this segment were far too lofty. But that's understandable. Of all my musical passions in life, this "moment" was the most inextricable from my own existence. I graduated high school and found the profound liberation that is college life. Those events were inextricably linked with the development of my passion as a music fan. Plus, it certainly didn't hurt that 18-and-over shows were suddenly events available to me. It was the first real awakening of my life; the music couldn't have mattered more. And the Smashing Pumpkins' Siamese Dream was the album that it all centered around. It was the first record I truly connected with. I even believed with great certainty that Billy Corgan and I had nearly everything in common. Perish the thought...

But I had very little to do with the other two albums Hyden covers. Liz Phair was undoubtedly important, giving an indie voice to women that hadn't existed. If mainstream trends are founded on grassroots movements that comprise the initial foundation, then Phair opened the door for Tori Amos, Fiona Apple, and every Lilith Fair. Hyden's take on the album is awfully cogent:

"I found Guyville titillating and unnerving, which is essentially how I felt at the time about every girl I had ever met. In my world, women had all of the power, which created a not-quite-healthy mix of worship and resentment of femininity that’s common to a lot of boys that age."
That's my soul up there, man. Or at least it definitely was in 1993.

He then gets into Urge Overkill, a band that held my interest for all of twelve minutes or so. The rock world didn't stick around a whole lot longer. This is all backdrop to tackle the concept of "selling out" - tremendously important in 1993. And Hyden provides great context here, quoting the gleefully dickish Steve Albini. Albini raised the torch of the true underground.
"To Albini, indie-ness was both a science and an evangelical religion; he could be persuasively pragmatic about how bands were better off personally and creatively treating music as a pastime rather than a job, and then land patently insulting roundhouse blows against anyone dumb, silly, or unlucky enough to disagree with his fiercely held views."
It never struck me that there were so many levels to the notion of selling out to the mainstream and being true underground. Without a doubt, I would have been declared a poseur by many. I must admit that in my life, I used people's taste in music to judge them. But this was never more true than in 1993. Let's put it into context. Despite the success of Nirvana and Pearl Jam, most people were still into some pretty terrible music and pop culture in general. Zubaz pants were only one year past their peak, for instance. Most of my high school class was into the Grateful Dead or classic rock. To be with the kids that gravitated toward something new was to refute the status quo.

It took me years and years to stop judging people based on their personal tastes. Today it is totally irrelevant to me, but perhaps at the time taste was a clearer indicator of character than anything. There was, for those brief couple of years, a difference between people who liked Pegboy and those who liked The Beatles. There was something reliable about each group. So while Albini may have been tilting at windmills, he at least did so with a worthy point.

Meanwhile, at the very same time, something was starting in alternative music that would never be stopped. That something was perfectly embodied by the Spin Doctors. A crappy band with a crappy name and crappy songs packaged to appeal to the Alternative generation. Perhaps Hyden is leaving them alone for now to lump them in with Candlebox and Collective Soul when we get to 1994. But the hijacking of the movement had already begun. I mention this now because it is central to the issue. If someone said they were a fan of "alternative music", yet hit the town wearing a Spin Doctors t-shirt, you could immediately tell that they weren't part of any scene.

Back to the band at hand - Smashing Pumpkins. As I said, at 18 this album was one of the most important things I'd ever owned. I went to two of their warm-up gigs at Metro, assuming the next time they came through Chicago it would be at the Aragon, then the UIC Pavilion, then Soldier Field. In a way, those were the last shows I saw as an impressionable youth. Just a couple months later, the band was taking the world by storm, and I had to play up the fact that I had the EPs, not just the albums. I was still trying to show how cool I was by talking up a band everybody already knew.

We all know what Billy Corgan became. And I was one of the last people to acknowledge it. Hyden sums up what happened to the band thusly:
"Like Klaus Kinski in Werner Herzog’s masterpiece of megalomania, Aguirre, The Wrath Of God, Corgan kept the band together to satisfy his maniacal pursuit of endless power and riches. In Aguirre, Kinski ends up adrift on a lonely stretch of the Amazon with a raft full of corpses and wild monkeys; Corgan had better transportation, riding the stainless steel perfection of Siamese Dream’s impeccably conceived guitar-rock hymns straight to the promised land."
The point here is that he was selling out from day one. Whether Corgan was always a nutty egomaniacal asshole could probably be easily determined. But I don't care to make that determination. For me, 1993 will always be the year that I broke out and it wouldn't have happened without this music. By the next year, the alternative scene ship had wrecked. At the very least, I had to start choosing friends on a more substantive basis. All part of growing up.

But let's make sure we end on a high note. 18-year-old me is somewhere in this mosh pit. See if you can find me. I'm the one going crazy...

Part 5 was posted today, which means I'm behind (as usual). Feel free to dig into that one here.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

It will make you shake a turkey

Overheard this track on EdWord's latest podcast. It was far too compelling not to share with the rest of you. Play it loud.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Top 50 Albums of the 00s - #19: Band of Horses - Everything All The Time

Yep, we're counting down the top 50. Click here for overview and criteria.

The album sets out floating on dreamy waves that have no real business on a rock record. Ben Bridwell's vocals are so high pitched they border on whining. But the track is really just there to set the scene. It's by contrasting with the opener that the record finds its groove. Hell, they couldn't even think of a good name, calling it "The First Song." Might as well have just used "Amuse-bouche." When "Wicked Gil" kicks in with its pulsing riffs, it sounds like Swervedriver by comparison.

Band of Horses
was founded by Bridwell and Mat Brooke in Seattle when their previous group, Carissa's Wierd fell apart. I knew very little about that band, but must say I'm not sad to hear that they are no more. The obvious highlight on the record is the catchy single, "The Funeral." The song did so well on the indie circuit that the band had problems dealing with the success. Leveraging off the rampup of the first three tracks, "The Funeral" is meant to be ironically positive, and the music is downright triumphant. You can't ignore this song. It would have been fine if they had made that the record's centerpiece and left it at that. But every tune that follows brings its own importance. These are songs with some weight. Despite the ambiguous lyrics, they somehow matter. Well, maybe not "Weed Party" but it's fun enough that you can forgive its levity.

The ebbs and flows of the album pass quickly (it's only 36 minutes long) and we arrive at the end way before we're ready to be done listening. I have always been a sucker for harmonies, perhaps because I can sing along with my mediocre voice. In quiet moments, the vocals resemble echoes of one another. It's a unique sound that gets deep into my head every time I hear it. "St. Augustine" in particular will stay with me for days on end. Unfortunately after this release, Brooke left the band and even though the subsequent records are solid in their own ways, they haven't captured that subtle soul since. Everything All The Time remains both a testament to their collaboration and in heavy rotation on my stereo. I don't expect that to change anytime soon.

Please enjoy some lo-fi videos...

The Funeral

I Go To the Barn Because I Like The


Previous Entries:
#20 - The Lawrence Arms - Oh! Calcutta!
#21 - Amy Winehouse - Back to Black
#22 - Mission of Burma - The Obliterati
#23 - Don Caballero - World Class Listening Problem
#24 - The Flaming Lips - Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots
#25 - Tapes 'n Tapes - The Loon
#26 - Kings of Leon - Aha Shake Heartbreak
#27 - Idlewild - 100 Broken Windows
#28 - Common - Be
#29 - The Futureheads - News and Tributes

The Alternative 90s: The AV Club's Retrospective: 1992

Here we continue to react to the Steven Hyden's take on the Alternative 90s. We started with Part 1 here.

In covering 1992, Hyden focuses almost exclusively on Pearl Jam, using them to highlight the double-edged sword that is massive mainstream popularity. Hyden does excellent research here and has penned what is so far the best column in the series. The backstory on Pearl Jam is far more fascinating than I realized.

Honestly, the band never interested me that much. By the end of my freshman year of college, they were by far the most popular band in the world (of college freshmen) to the point where there had to be a painstaking explanation prepared for every guy wearing a dirty white baseball cap that couldn't understand where I was coming from. And this is really the whole point of Hyden's latest. How could a band that seemingly had no desire to be universally liked end up being the most popular band of its era? And what the hell are they supposed to do once they find themselves in that situation?

But first the setup. Hyden talks about how they arrived:

"I hated that the chorus didn’t tell you what 'even flow' was supposed to be, and the line about thoughts arriving like butterflies sounded like a bad Natalie Merchant lyric. Still, the video for 'Even Flow' succeeded in doing for Pearl Jam what the 'Pour Some Sugar On Me' video had done for Def Leppard four summers earlier: It made you wish really hard that Pearl Jam would come somewhere near your town very soon."
And that sounds about right. All of Ten is basically a series of riffs lifted from one Jimi Hendrix song - Voodoo Chile (Slight Return). That happens to be one of the greatest songs in the history of everything, so they certainly could have chosen worse. (Incidentally, hearing Even Flow can't help but remind me of Adam Sandler's caricature of Eddie Veder. That happen to you?)

There's no denying that Pearl Jam was the right place at the right time. No reasonable fan would consider them virtuosos in any respect. But to this day Eddie Vedder makes for a compelling frontman, the most accessible of the Alternative movement.
"As Vedder and his increasingly marginalized supporting cast distanced themselves from the record’s gauche chest-thumping by churning out progressively restrained, more 'mature,' and less expressive music, Ten was dusted off by other bands and recycled again and again. Today, Pearl Jam is a popular touring band and intermittently successful on the charts; Ten, meanwhile, is still all over modern-rock radio, though only a handful of the songs are actually by Pearl Jam."
The point is, it's nearly impossible to stay on top while doing something in earnest. I would add that it doesn't help if you're not a very talented band to begin with. As much as I am ragging on the band here, you have to give them credit. They could have gone the route that nearly every popular band from the 90s went. To "Jonas Brothers" it up. But they took another path.
"Pearl Jam isn’t the first veteran rock band to see a decrease in fans as it got older. But it’s the best example of a band deliberately expediting the process."

Hyden finishes by noting that with 20/20 hindsight we can easily identify that the band (and therefore the year 1992) represented a fulcrum for the direction of Alternative music.
"For three years, Vedder occupied a unique and important place in mainstream rock; that he allowed it to be taken over by people like Scott Stapp isn’t unforgivable, just unfortunate."
It's impossible to argue with that statement.

Part of me will forever associate Seattle with the early 90s grunge scene. My brother lived there for several years. I've visited twice. I've made many friends from that city. But even though it should have, my impression hasn't changed. Maybe because of the age I was and the way a person forms perspective. It's 2010, and I still view the Emerald City through flannel-colored glasses. That's not just unfair but ridiculous. And yet I'm sure that millions of people around the country think the same way.

Back to the topic at hand. Pearl Jam never meant very much to me, even as they were capturing all the hearts and minds surrounding me. Hence, I don't find myself caring that much about their story. In fact, I often forget they even exist. Futhermore, I forget that they were not only a part of the movement, but one of the two or three most important bands in it. But like I said, it's a fascinating story. This is a superb piece and you can tell Hyden is building to something even better. I can't wait for the next one. Good thing it comes out today.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Daily Show Ten Years ago

Been a while since we've done one of these, but since there's an election around the corner, let's reminisce a bit about, well, other problems we used to have...

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Indecision 2000 - Undecided
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorRally to Restore Sanity

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Alternative 90s: The AV Club's Retrospective: 1991

We kicked off by reaction to Part One earlier this week. Start there for background. Now we'll catch up with Part 2: 1991: What's so civil about war, anyway?.

Hyden devotes the majority of his 1991 column to the intense, public feud between Kurt Cobain and Axl Rose. It's an interesting place to move forward. Our collective memory doesn't recall a time when Hair Bands and Grunge Bands shared the same stage. We forget that Use Your Illusions I and II came out just a few months before Nevermind. For most people, these bands occupy times separated by years conceptually. Yet there was this tumultuous overlap. Hyden rightfully identifies the incongruity between reality and perception, and does some really solid research in providing key details. As Hyden points out, this was no mere battle of egos:

"Rose signified old-guard, cock-rock superstardom, and Cobain was never more deliberate in his desire to dismantle that institution than in his outspoken criticism of Guns N’ Roses."
That said, Hyden gives proper credit to GnR for transcending the other Hair Metal at the time (highlighting the Welcome to the Jungle video). There was a major difference between Guns n Roses and the rest of the Hair acts out there. They weren't singing "She's only seventeen" or about "Cherry Pie."

Hyden's main point is that there is a lot in more in common between these two iconic figures than people think. And he turns the column to the personal and how he interpreted all that was going on.
"In 'One In A Million,' Rose sings, 'It’s been such a long time since I knew right from wrong / It’s all a means to an end, I keep it movin’ along.' By the end of 1991, I chose Kurt Cobain over Axl Rose because I wanted someone who did know the difference between right and wrong."
For Hyden, this is the balancing point in his life as a music fan. And it was for many.

He touches on it briefly, but devotes so much time to the details that he misses what I believe is the interesting part about this moment in history. Nobody remembers that these were the two most popular American rock bands at the same time. And many people liked both. The stories he recants are crucial but don't really address the movement until that last line about knowing the difference. Not to go all Wesley Willis, but I saw Smashing Pumpkins open for Guns N Roses at the Rosemont Horizon in early 1992. Maybe such a bill didn't make any sense, but it happened. Some people booed and threw things during the Pumpkins set. Others appreciated the shredding taking place onstage. The booers would surely become enamored with Smashing Pumpkins two years later, and tell all their friends that they saw them when they were "nobody."

The thing is, both bands kicked ass on stage that night. And I didn't have to choose between them. In the moment it didn't feel like the end of anything. Only years later can we say that Grunge eliminated Hair Metal. I suppose that was Cobain's crusade and he was in tune with that goal. If that was a key objective for Cobain, he surely failed. Not because Axl's still here, but because of what became of Alternative Rock in the years to come (from Collective Soul to Matchbox 20 to Nickelback). In the end he didn't want Axl's throne, or really any more time in the spotlight. If this integrity issue was so important to him, then maybe it's for the best he didn't live past 1994. Then again, we only knew the glory days would be so short after the fact. But that's a topic yet to come.

Other comments:

Hyden says, "The dual release of the Use Your Illusion albums was an act of hubris so brazen in its arrogance and yet strangely admirable in its artistic stubbornness that nobody had been fucking crazy enough to try anything like it before, or attempt to copy it in the nearly two decades since." Perhaps it's not a perfect comparison because it's not like he's a huge star, but Tom Waits released both Blood Money and Alice on May 7, 2002.

I feel like Hyden missed an opportunity here. If this is really a retrospective look at the entire alternative movement, 1991 is the year where everything started to pivot. Obviously any movement takes years of gradual shifting to set up, but 1991 is the year everyone circles, and for good reason. Lollapalooza began that year. And all these are just some of the albums that were released:
Pearl Jam - Ten
Red Hot Chili Peppers - Blood Sugar Sex Magik
Smashing Pumpkins - Gish
Soundgarden - Badmotorfinger
Fishbone - The Reality of My Surroundings
Primus - Sailing the Seas of Cheese
Dinosaur Jr. - Green Mind

So he focused on a key story - a very important one, but I worry that we are losing the thread a bit. Still, another worthwhile read. Looking forward to 1992 which should be out tomorrow.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

RIP Greg Giraldo

A long time ago Comedy Central aired a half-hour stand-up special by Greg Giraldo. I'd never head of him, but his act absolutely killed me. I think I watched it about 37 times. I could recite the whole thing for you right now. Over the years his routine progressed, becoming angrier, more incisive and manic. Hypocrisy was his most frequent target, but no conventional wisdom was safe. I caught his act at Zanies in Chicago a few years back, and he was so torqued up that even unexpected laughter from the audience threw him off his game a bit. But you got the feeling that he enjoyed those moments even more.

Giraldo graduated from Harvard Law School, but gave up on that career to try his hand at comedy. It's obviously one of the most challenging professions to attempt, and even harder to find true success. In the end, stand up comedy is a matter of taste. There are people who think Andrew Dice Clay was the best ever, and they have a right to their opinion. There are people who find Dane Cook better than tolerable. And they can be right, too. If you think it's funny, you laugh. I can say that there was never a comedian who fit my specific tastes better than Giraldo. If a scientist went into a lab to create a one just for me, he'd have a hell of a time doing any better than Mr. and Mrs. Giraldo already did. I'm really going to miss whatever he would have had to say about the news and our culture as they unfold in the future. I don't think we'll find another quite like him...

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Alternative 90s. The AV Club's Restrospective: 1990

In reviewing the Top 50 Albums of the 00's, even though I have clearly enjoyed the journey through the decade's best, I have found myself longing for a more prolific time. I turned 14 in 1989, the perfect age to receive the gift that was the ascension of Alternative Rock. My rock and roll formative years began right then. It was a tremendous time to care about music, and thanks to my own impulses and a series of friends who helped me connect to everything I was hearing, everything that happened during the entire decade had a profound effect on me. I wasn't a hipster savant who found the greatest unknown rawk discoveries way before anyone else. But I kind of felt like it anyway. Growing up just outside Chicago, we had unfettered access to some of the world's greatest record stores, random independent and college radio stations, and even some all-ages shows. In some ways, it was the first time I truly cared about something.

Over at the AV Club, Steven Hyden is reviewing the 1990s Grunge movement year by year. I happen to find this a totally worthy endeavor for the reasons above and many more. Much of what happened in those halcyon days has been lost because there was no internet to document them, or because nobody's made an iconic movie yet, or simply because we've all moved on.

What Hyden is doing is more important than it seems at first glance. If you're in your 30s, then I urge you to read the feature and find your own reaction. If you're younger, well, as Hyden says, I shouldn't say something like "you missed out!" But really, you did. And if you want to know why mainstream music sucks ass the way it does today, it's important to understand that it once sucked even more ass, and somehow that got fixed, but only for a couple of years before it rapidly eased its way back to sucking ass.

Because I have my own ideas and experience (and blog), I'm going to post my reaction to each of Hyden's ten segments. Up first, Part 1: 1990.

Hyden sets the table well. He gives his background, calling himself an "awkward adolescent from Appleton, Wisconsin." The context is important here. He doesn't completely explain quite how bad the music scene had been. He mentions some of the atrocities, but it's important to remember that by the end of 1989 we're only a year removed from New Kids on the Block. We were at the apex of Richard Marx, Bobby Brown, Paula Abdul, Milli Vanilli. "Rock" music offered Poison, Great White, Mike and the Mechanics, White Lion, and a duet between Cher and Peter Cetera. Vanilla Ice was yet to come. Hyden chooses to play a bit loose with the timeline here as the majority of the column deals with the mainstream arrival of Nirvana's "Nevermind," something that didn't really start happening until 1992 (the album was released at the end of September in 1991). Just so we're clear about the context, here are the top 12 singles from 1990:
1. Hold On, Wilson Phillips
2. It Must Have Been Love, Roxette
3. Nothing Compares 2 U, Sinead O'Connor
4. Poison, Bell Biv Devoe
5. Vogue, Madonna
6. Vision of Love, Mariah Carey
7. Another Day In Paradise, Phil Collins
8. Hold On, En Vogue
9. Cradle of Love, Billy Idol
10. Blaze of Glory, Jon Bon Jovi
11. Do Me!, Bell Biv Devoe
12. How Am I Supposed to Live Without You, Michael Bolton

So yes, apart from Billy Idol's death rattle, those were dark days indeed, especially in Appleton, Wisconsin.

But given that we're here to celebrate the past, perhaps it doesn't make sense to dwell too much on the bleak state of pop music entering the decade. Hyden jumps forward because if you're going to talk about rock in the 90s, the discussion must begin with Nevermind. And he couldn't be more on-point with the key issues:

"Kurt Cobain turned himself into a radio star at a time when somebody like him becoming a radio star seemed unfathomable."
"These guys were not supposed to be here, on MTV, sandwiched between Jane Child and Lisa Stanfield videos at 1 p.m. on a Tuesday."
The truly amazing thing that happened in the 1990s is that for a brief period of time, the inmates ran the asylum. Or at least that's the way it seemed. Bands that had no business becoming rock stars became the biggest rock stars in the world. And like any revolution, it happened seemingly without warning. After controlling which bands made it big throughout the 80s, the industry was caught by surprise. This never happens in mainstream music. I hope that we get into the details in the entries regarding subsequent years.

Eventually, Hyden steers away from the musical implications and arrives at the social ones, saying:
"I honestly wonder if the rise of grunge and alternative rock in the early ’90s will be the last time that a musical movement has that kind of impact on youth culture."
That topic, only touched upon, leaves a lot of room for exploration. Did youth culture actually change in ways it wouldn't have otherwise? Was the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" video the reason tattoos became mainstream? (I had always attributed this to Alan Iverson, but I now question that theory.) Did young Americans really start to think a different way? Is The Big Bang Theory in the here and now because of Nevermind? These questions deserve their own posting, and perhaps Hyden will go into more detail later. As someone who lived through it, it's impossible to answer. There's no "control sample" me.

To sum up, an excellent start to the series for Hyden, and I greatly look forward to the subsequent entries. 1991 is already up, and we'll take a look at it here as soon as possible.

Please share your thoughts. Where were you when your face first melted to something other than Hendrix or Hazel? And what do you think of Hyden's premises?

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Some Sunday Rock

Back up with some more "real" postings soon. But for now, some old-school Minny rawk is delivering the bounce in my step today. Play it LOUD!

Monday, August 16, 2010

Top 50 Albums of the 00s - #20: The Lawrence arms - Oh! Calcutta!

Yep, we're counting down the top 50. Click here for overview and criteria.

The formula is not overly complex. This is not ground-breaking music. When I first heard Chicago's The Lawrence Arms, I said, "Yep, this sounds good," and left it at that. But then the cravings took over. There is something inherently crack-like in the construction of these songs. I can't quite put my finger on it (if I could I would start my own band). After a lot of thinking, I arrived at my quandary. How can something that is obviously intended to be angry and shouty be so damn gleeful at the same time?

Each song leaps out of the starting blocks on fire and builds upon itself until it inevitably arrives at a series of triumphant crescendos. In sluggish moments, there is nothing better to yank me out of a funk. A quick spin of Oh! Calcutta! and I am ready for whatever the world throws at me the rest of the day. And the songs stick in my head for days and days. That's the crack-like thing. If I don't have access to the actual songs, I'm going to sing them to the great annoyance of those around me.

I really don't know what most of the lyrics are and I certainly don't pay any attention to what they may mean. I really don't even know what the theme is. "Count all your fingers tonighight!" makes sense enough for me. I could really pick any album by these guys (none are very different), but this one has the most energy and the one where they play most to their strengths - the aforementioned angry glee.

By the early 00s, the mainstream had already gobbled up the vanilla offerings of Blink 182 and Green Day, which essentially washed away any remaining edge left in the genre. Tweens that didn't follow those bands to bouncy, brainless pop-punk got lost in the Emo wilderness, swaying and braying to the tugging of heartstrings. So it is to their credit that The Lawrence Arms persevered in the face of such an overwhelming tidal shift. Then again, I can't imagine them shifting gears. This is what they do best. Oh! Calcutta! is the last album they've released, and probably the record in this Top 50 that points back to the 90s the most. The band is still around, having put out an EP last year. I eagerly await the next full-length, but thanks to the strength of this record, I can get my fix anytime I want.

These are short, so you get three today. Play 'em all. LOUD!

Previous Entries:
#21 - Amy Winehouse - Back to Black
#22 - Mission of Burma - The Obliterati
#23 - Don Caballero - World Class Listening Problem
#24 - The Flaming Lips - Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots
#25 - Tapes 'n Tapes - The Loon
#26 - Kings of Leon - Aha Shake Heartbreak
#27 - Idlewild - 100 Broken Windows
#28 - Common - Be
#29 - The Futureheads - News and Tributes
#30 - The Black Keys - Rubber Factory

Monday, August 9, 2010

Friday, August 6, 2010

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Top 50 Albums of the 00s - #21: Amy Winehouse - Back to Black

Yep, we're counting down the top 50. Click here for overview and criteria.

I was burdened with horrendous pop music during my formative years. Popular music had swung all over the place in the 1980s, eventually settling in with two genres: Mullet-Metal and dance-beat R&B. The year I turned 14, the top four selling albums were Bobby Brown, New Kids on the Block, Paula Abdul, and Bon Jovi. And things were trending worse with MC Hammer and Mr. Big lurking around the corner. What's a boy to do when pop radio gives you nothing but absolute crap and the internet has yet to be invented? I went with the only feasible options: Classic Rock and Oldies. I've lauded Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder in this space before, but it's important to note that my adoration for real R&B was founded in those preteen days, as framed by Dick Biondi and Magic 104.3.

Contrary to what you may believe, pop music hasn't always been terrible, and I have always known it with those FM radio years serving as evidence. Since that time, I have been forever longing for an R&B singer who "gets it." If someone with pipes like R Kelly could only find the resolve to rediscover the roots of the genre, I knew I could be won back over in a New York minute. It's the reason I dug Ryan Shaw so much when he played Lollapalooza a few years go.

But the only place we tend to see even remote reverence for those pre-autotune days is American Idol (and let's not get into that subject). And then suddenly, along comes Amy Winehouse.

After hearing the first two tracks on her breakthrough album, Back to Black, I dismissed her as a Shirley Bassey wannabe. It took me several months to dig in farther, and I still regret the time lost. In that third song, "Me and Mr. Jones," with its bold language and scene-setting directness, we learn that Amy Winehouse doesn't merely have pipes, but reservoirs of soul we haven't heard in decades. And the more I learned the more I liked. Winehouse not only reveres the classic R&B records that meant so much to so many, she's trying to bring them back. Heck, she even covers Toots and the Maytals at her live shows.

This reverence is never more apparent than in the album's high point, "The Tears Dry on Their Own." It's certainly a new song, but is supported by the bedrock that is Marvin and Tami's "Ain't No Mountain High Enough." I can't imagine anything that would make James Jamerson more proud. Sure, these are new tunes, but they're founded in classic themes. Amy's voice has it all, and the whole album has a heart that is so rare these days in R&B. So far the trend hasn't set in with anyone else, but if she puts out another hit record, perhaps more will get on the real retro bandwagon.

In sum, Amy, you had me at "fuckery."

Previous Entries:
#22 - Mission of Burma - The Obliterati
#23 - Don Caballero - World Class Listening Problem
#24 - The Flaming Lips - Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots
#25 - Tapes 'n Tapes - The Loon
#26 - Kings of Leon - Aha Shake Heartbreak
#27 - Idlewild - 100 Broken Windows
#28 - Common - Be
#29 - The Futureheads - News and Tributes
#30 - The Black Keys - Rubber Factory
#31 - Wolfmother - Wolfmother

One Word Review: White Noise

28: Garbled

Monday, August 2, 2010

Fishbone @ Teatro Colegiales

After two years of living in Argentina, I have made it to scant few concerts. There's a local scene, but it's hardly thriving these days. We're so far away, and the peso is worth so little that only the most popular of bands bother to make the trip. Rather than sit through The Killers or Coldplay, I've chosen to simply wait for better options. I couldn't have been more surprised when I saw that Fishbone was coming to town. I wasn't sure if I should be excited or concerned. Does touring the world mean that their popularity has finally dried up in the US? Seriously, Stryper is going to be here in August.

Would anyone here even know who the heck they are? And would they understand what to do? Sadly, I couldn't even get anyone to go with me to check 'em out. The last time I saw Fishbone was at Subterranean in Chicago under similar circumstances when they were trying out a new lineup. Norwood got drunk and the show was a complete disaster. But that didn't deter me at all. Were I to miss this show, I would consider my time here a failure, or at least consider myself a failure.

When the curtain went up, the band tore into "Unyielding Conditioning." My overwhelming first reaction was to note that Dirty Walt was back (and skinny as hell). The band has been through nothing but turmoil over its 25+ year history, and seeing Walt onstage at least helps regain some continuity. After the first song, they tried talking to the crowd. This did not work. Perhaps their accents were hard to understand. Three songs in, I was really worried that I would be the only person jumping around, and furthermore that the band would simply give up.

How foolish of me. Angelo Moore dove headlong into the audience and it changed the entire room. A real pit erupted and churned for the rest of the evening, and those who remained outside jumped up and down, singing along as best they could. Later this year, Angelo will turn 45 years old. Watching him perform, it seems impossible. He's easily the best frontman I've witnessed, bringing wild energy, comedy, and all manner of entertainment to each night's show. I can't help but believe that behind his often clownish exterior he takes himself extremely seriously. Even in a half-full smallish club in a country where nobody is buying their records, he's six times the entertainer Mick Jagger could ever hope to be. Of course, that stage dive would hardly be his last of the evening.

Furthermore, I swear his voice has more velvety soul than ever. Crooning on "Forever Moore," it's clear he really means every note. And aside from Dirty Walt, who seemed disinterested in the entire event, the rest of the band gave it their best, too. My only complaint was that I wanted to hear more songs, but when your catalogue features 8 superb albums, that's to be expected. No band can be all things to all people, but Fishbone is clearly all things to me. They play every kind of music I love, and always play it red hot.

I came away with the same mixed feelings I always do after seeing them... Awed: How lucky I am to have been here for this! Torqued up: I can't wait to see them again! Sad: Why is this band not bigger? They should be superstars!

But this time there was a new profundity - how this band has persevered. Their first record came out in 1985. They have nearly broken up countless times. Their namesake left the band. Their guitarist joined a cult. Their major label dropped them, leaving them close to broke. After that embarrassing display in Chicago, I was sure they were done. But here they are, still one of the best live bands in the world.

In the middle of "Alcoholic," the band riffed Sabbath's "Iron Man" as Moore and keyboardist Dre Gipson raced each other to the back of the main floor on the heads and hands of just enough Porteños to get them there. I couldn't think of a more fitting jam for them to appropriate. They are survivors. I will see them again, maybe even back here in Buenos Aires. As the curtain fell and the Argentines changed "Ole, ole ole ole, Feeshbooone, Feeshboooooone," I came away certain that nobody from the crowd will miss another opportunity if the band does us the favor of returning. Maybe I can even convince some of my friends to come next time. I know the experience would serve them well, and that the band will sound as young as ever.

Show setlist:
Unyielding Conditioning
Everyday Sunshine
A Selection
Ma and Pa
Date Rape
Give It Up
Bonin' in the Boneyard
Behind Closed Doors
I Wish I Had a Date
Forever Moore
Skankin to the Beat
Lyin Ass Bitch
Party at Ground Zero

Simon Says The Kingpin
Let Dem Ho's Fight
Freddy's Dead

PS - Fishbone is the subject of a new documentary currently touring the festival circuit. Link to the website here. Below you will find a brief taste...

One Word Review: Open Water

54: Bleak

Friday, July 23, 2010

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Monday, July 19, 2010

Top 50 Albums of the 00s - #22: Mission of Burma - The Obliterati

Yep, we're counting down the top 50. Click here for overview and criteria.

Well this sure as hell never should have happened. Or at least we never expected it. First the backstory. We don't have time for the long version. Allmusic sums it up this way: "Of all the punk-inspired bands that came out of Boston in the early '80s, none were better than Mission of Burma." Then in 1983 Roger Miller developed a severe case of tinnitus from being in a band that played so fucking loud, and Mission of Burma was no more. But nearly twenty years later, by chance or luck or perhaps modern technology, they got the band back together.

For me Mission of Burma was always more of a legend than anything tangible. I knew the songs, but they were before my time. The news of the band reuniting sparked my interest, and after seeing them at the Double Door, I was in awe. I realized what I had been missing, only this time I was at least on point for their new material.

It's important to understand that this brand of intentional dissonance is not for everyone. I think I probably said something similar to that last time when presenting Don Caballero, but at least on that record, you can sense the jazz influence. Here you need to be prepared for a rugged, dirty approach to rawking until you feel your ears leaking blood. And even if you're ready, it's going to take a while to get the feel for where each song is going.

I could have easily chosen their comeback album, Onoffon, which obviously must score higher on the significance factor and features many winning tracks such (my personal favorite: "The Enthusiast"). But The Obliterati is even stronger top to bottom. There's not a dud on the record, and I find myself going back to it more often. Tracks like "13," "1001 Pleasant Dreams," and "Donna Sumeria" simply don't get old. And besides, any classic band can have a successful comeback record. But there are scant few who can actually build the reunion into something not only worthwhile, but lasting.

Youtube didn't have much for us this time around. But enjoy the album closer for now!

Previous Entries:
#23 - Don Caballero - World Class Listening Problem
#24 - The Flaming Lips - Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots
#25 - Tapes 'n Tapes - The Loon
#26 - Kings of Leon - Aha Shake Heartbreak
#27 - Idlewild - 100 Broken Windows
#28 - Common - Be
#29 - The Futureheads - News and Tributes
#30 - The Black Keys - Rubber Factory
#31 - Wolfmother - Wolfmother