Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Perfect Songs: The Big Country - Talking Heads

I sang out loud tonight during the drive home. I sang every word of "The Big Country" by the Talking Heads after a long night of bad news. I put the song on repeat and just let it fill the air in my slowly disintegrating car. It was perfect.

And so is this song from the Heads' 1978 album More Songs About Buildings and Food. It's the album's closer and something that only somewhat resembles everything that came before it. It's a ramble, a mean but very calculated one that skewers suburbia.

It starts with the country twang of a pedal steel guitar before a hustling beat that seems to get faster and madder takes over. David Byrne's disdain-filled voice sings about maps, restaurants, parking lots, farmlands, kitchens and food in between a chorus that rejects them all.

"I wouldn't live there if you paid me.
I couldn't live like that, no siree!
I couldn't do the things the way those people do.
I couldn't live there if you paid me to."

It's a controlled anger, tempered by the desire to escape the claustrophobic sameness in suburban and city life and the will to make it a reality. Byrne looks down on domesticity, the song's point of view is from an airplane, though he acknowledges the need to belong to something, to be static ... "I want to be somewhere." The song rejects the homogenization of our big country and yearns for a place that's not like the others, a place that's real, not a copy.

The song finds this place in a nonsense ending with Byrne scatting "Goo Goo, Ga Ga Ga" as the driving beat goes off the rails and a bouncy guitar riff closes it out. After a day of work or daily drudgery this song is like a mental breakdown that shakes you back to life. It's a perfect song.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Let England Shake - PJ Harvey

PJ Harvey was my introduction to women who rock. Before her, my music collection was filled with angry young men but I found her after the sudden realization that there was a whole side of rock music that I was missing out on.

Growing up in a small town meant ridiculously generic radio; the only female voices it featured were on the oldies stations or the R&B, Pop formats. So one day I asked myself why don't I listen more music by women? The question led me to the used section of my town's only record store, now closed - of course, where I found the gateway drug to women's rock. PJ Harvey's 1993 album Rid of Me.

It was different than anything I had listened to before. Her voice is nothing like those cookie-cutter tones you hear in popular music: sometimes it's piercing, abrasive and others it's just a beautiful melody. Then there's her tone: there's anger, lust, and fear. The music, produced by Shellac's Steve Albini, is raw and works perfectly around Harvey's vocal gymnastics.

It took me sometime to warm up to it and even then I couldn't really understand it, which is why - in one of my many musical regrets - I sold it a few years later. I miss the newness of it everytime I listened to it and how shaken I felt after each track. Sadly, I never really kept up with PJ Harvey anymore after that. I guess I was drawn to other artists at the time but that album left deep impression.

Now almost ten years since I listened to Rid of Me, I was drawn back to Harvey. Her critically acclaimed album Let England Shake was one of the few new vinyl releases in a used music store in Cape Coral, Rainbow Records. The place mainly sells used CDs and vinyl but every once in a while the owner gets new releases in. I curious about it so I had to pick it up. I'm glad I did.

Kicking off with a rollicking xylophone beat, something like an out-of-control carousel, the album is a diverse run through England's war history, from World War I through Iraq. The first song though is pure joy and Harvey's haunting voice howls amid an amusement park atmosphere. It's the jolly war campaign song though the lyrics are far from cheery.

A bugle horn is heard through out the third song "The Glorious Land" a propaganda song that could have fit just as well as in the Third Reich. It's followed by the soldier's song, a catchy number titled "The Words That Maketh Murder" filled with devastating war images dressed in a light little rock song that will have you singing the title soon after the needle stops. This juxtaposition between lyrics detailing the deadly ramifications of war and music that never sounds dour or oppressive continues throughout the album, with wonderful results, except for one heart-rending cut.

"England" is a simple yet devastating. The song is mainly Harvey's voice and a guitar with a few other acoustic instruments. In the background, and this is an example of how great the use of samples is in the album, is the voice of Arabic singer Said El Kurdi joining Harvey's voice, which sounds like it's coming from the beyond the grave. It's one of the most affecting moments in the album, as post-battle images emerge and a chilling voice says "England, is all, to which I cling."

One of the year's best.

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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

New music Monday

Spent the day listening to albums released this year, finding one that is just what one expected and another that surprised me.

Beirut - The Rip Tide

I know it won't be release until Aug. 30 but it's been out in the ether for a few weeks now. The good news, it sounds like great Beirut; the bad news, there's not much change from their previous full-lengths. At first listen, you can hear how the Mexican horns and electronica in 2009's March of the Zapotec/Holland EPs combined to form the basis of The Rip Tide, but unfortunately (or fortunately for those who want Beirut to remain the same) it merely sounds like their previous two albums.

Whereas the EPs surprised by distancing itself from The Flying Cub Cup and Gulag Orkestra, The Rip Tide sounds like a return to form, which in it self it's a mixed blessing. The album is a perfectly enjoyable Beirut long player but one that rarely takes any chances.

The Civil Wars - Barton Hollow

Here's the surprise I was talking about earlier. An alt-country male and female due with slow burning songs that sound like they were made in the 1860s.

Barton Hollow is a slow-burning album of almost menacing folk songs driven by acoustic instruments and the glorious vocal harmonies of Joy Williams and John Paul White. What I like the most about the album on first listen is the mood it so eloquently evoked, placing you in the middle a southern rainstorm, longing for someone after a bout of loneliness.

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Thursday, July 7, 2011

Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues and youth

I've had the Helplessness Blues all day, listening to the fine second album by Fleet Foxes while painting my house. The swelling vocal harmonies, acoustic guitars and songs about growing, being young and the indecision that comes with boundless possibilities ran through my head as a menial task was done. I worked 'till I was sore.

I loved their first album but there's real growth to this follow-up. While their debut had songs that were rarely personal and that seemed more like folk-bred traditionals, Helplesslessness Blues is more introspective, a fact beautifully characterised by the "mind map" featured in the album cover.

Those folk songs still have a place and they sound great even if their meaning is hard to decipher ("Wide eyed walker" Anyone?) Just like Fleet Foxes, the phrasing may not really mean anything, but the effect remains powerfull.

What has knocked me over is the title cut, a song in the first person in which Robin Pecknold's singular voice starts singing about being a "cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me" but having no idea what that would be. He goes on to ask what he should do, what cog should he serve while decrying those that he belives he should rally against. These passages conclude with the refrain "I'll get back to you someday soon you will see." possibly implying that there's no time for that now or that that decision doesn't have to be made yet.

That sentiment of someday soon you will see is an echo of the first song on the album, Montezuma, which begins:

So now I am older than my mother and father
when they had their daughter
now what does that say about me

Oh how could I dream of such a selfless and true love
could I wash my hands of
just looking out for me?

Another introspective lyric about time and not quite doing what it's expected, be the daddy cog in a family machine, and why should he, considering that he still in a selfish phase, something we should all confront when growing up.

Bedoin Dress picks up theme of selfishness and helplessness with it's first lines:

If to borrow is to take and not return
I have borrowed all my lonesome life
And I can't, no I can't get through
The borrower's debt is the only regret of my youth

That last line could easily mean student loans, however, it's more than that. Being young sometimes means dependence or owing a debt to "the men who move only in dimly-lit halls and determine my future for me." Moreover, it also implies that one is only taking and not giving, here again we return to "Helplessness Blues" and the idea of serving a purpose, manning a station, doing something.

And here's where I ask myself, what purpose do I serve. I work for a newspaper, supposedly serving the public. I have a wife, I gladly serve her. I believe in fair wages, immigration rights, taxing the rich, choice, gay marriage and a ton of other "liberal" things that don't really make me unique. Boundless possibilities just seem to narrow the actual decisions we make, the effort we put into all these causes- reduced to like them on Facebook or a 140-character response.

Then again, there's life to live. Green apples to enjoy, dreams, questions and if you have an orchard, or a house, work 'till you're raw.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Bon Iver - Bon Iver

You know when you listen to an album for the first time and you immediately fall in love with it. When you find a song within it that you have to hear again and again and again. Even better is when the album mirrors your life in the moment that you first listen to it. It doesn't happen all the time with a new album but sometimes, after several listens, it does and a verse, a track or even the whole thing becomes the best thing you've heard all year.

None of these things have happened since I began listening to Bon Iver's new self-titled album.

I tried to fully enjoy it when I first got it, about a month ago, devoting my ears to it without any distractions but the first few listens left me cold. A few songs stuck out — "Calgary," "Towers," "Holocene" — but nothing that I felt compelled to repeat after each listen. In fact, there was only one song on which I could have a definite opinion on — the much maligned "Beth/Rest" — while everything else sounded the same to me.

It's not that I don't appreciate Justin Vernon's fearlessness on Bon Iver, a completely original and beautiful album, but I wish I could connect with it. I like the orchestration on songs like "Calgary" and "Towers," both songs offer something different to the moodier and somewhat repetitive pieces like "Hinnon" and "Michicant." Other songs like "Minnesota, WI" sound like an exercise in genre-bending, mixing the banjo with a bit of an R&B groove, it doesn't quite work along with the synth-heavy "Beth/Rest," which sounds like a bad Badalamenti score touched up with jazzy horns.

"Wash." and "Hinnon, TX" are both beautiful melodies that go nowhere. They're impressive for their instrumentation and the use of found sounds but they sound a bit lethargic and are hardly memorable.

"Holocene" has grown on me. Its slow-burning rhythm, building drums and actually audible lyrics create a tension-filled listening experience. "Towers" though is my favorite song on the album, starting with the strum of a guitar and Vernon's voice, the synthesizer is restrained as drums kick off a momentum that sounds joyous.

Hardly the album of the year but definitely a keeper.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

John Grant - Queen of Denmark

Today is spin the iPod click wheel day and this is what turned up, John Grant's Queen of Denmark. Acquired after reading about it in countless 2010 best album end of the year lists. Six months later, I'm finally listening to the complete album.

It starts perfectly safe with an acoustic guitar riff meandering through the first song but it's track 2, the piano-led "Marz" that takes you to uncharted territory. It kind of sounds like "Mad World" by Tears For Fears but it's more lively, with Grant listing several sweetings and leading up to magnificent chorus.

A song called Sigourney Weaver is next and it features the lines:

And I feel just like Sigourney Weaver
When she had to kill those aliens
And one guy tried to get them back to the earth
And she couldn't believe her ears

Which is so ballsy, just using a scene from a movie to explain how one feels in a song. We do it in real life all the time and here John Grant finally puts it in a song and it totally works.

The Silver Platter Club is a fun little jaunty tune about those raised with a silver platter. Kind of reminds me of the Kinks.

JC Hates Faggots is one hell of an It Gets Better message aiming at those hurt by bigotry against gays, as well as those who hurt them. It's followed by Caramel, a piano-led love song about another man. The title track is a heavy rant, roughed up by electric guitars and a menacing tone.

I like the album, it's definitely something I haven't heard before. Grant's lyrics are fearless, honest and inventive. The music, performed by folk rock band Midlake, is great - an earthy and subtle kind of pop accompaniment. I'm only sorry I didn't listen to this earlier this year.

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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Bruce Springsteen's The Wild, The Innocent and The E Street Shuffle

I know it looks beaten and heavily worn but somehow it suits the cover better. It adds to the close-up shot of Bruce Springsteen, now sitting deep in thought surrounded by an almost ghostly halo of scuff marks. The simple individualistic cover shot betraying the grand scope of the album's title and the band collaborations that, for me, make this the best album Springsteen and the E Street band ever made (sorry Born to Run.)

I know it looks rough but the vinyl sounds glorious, in fact it was one of the albums that convinced me of how much better vinyl can sound. I found this copy of Bruce Springsteen's The Wild, The Innocent and The E Street Shuffle at the same place where I found a used CD copy, which I only listen to in the car, at the now closed and sorely missed Silver Platter record store in Fort Myers.

That store was the source for many of my earliest vinyl finds and some of the most surprising. I know this looks rough and if I find a similar looking copy now I probably wouldn't buy it. When I found it in July 2007, I was still new to the world of Springsteen and vinyl. I was eager to get into both and the cheap price was temptation enough.

I had heard Springsteen's hits; I loved songs like Born to Run and Brilliant Disguise, but this was completely different. Each song is a perfect little story, soundtracked with funky horns, adventurous keyboards and subtle guitar playing. Springsteen's sings and talks throughout in a gritty voice that sounds like he's always been your best friend. It all sounds much better on wax, where you can almost hear every instrument individually as it mixes with one another in your deliriously happy ear.

This is only his second album and it already sounds like he's grown so much musically since Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., both released in 1973. That growth still doesn't compare to the commercial and musical leap he would take in his next album, 1975's Born To Run. I like that album but to me the production is very different, you have the whole Spectoresque Wall of Sound there which can, at times, hide sole instrumental flourishes.

I decided to spin this today after hearing the news of Clarence Clemons's stroke and because it's summer, and this is a perfect summer album. My thoughts and prayers are with him, his family and friends.

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Sunday, June 12, 2011

Afrocubism or what is the best music for a hangover

Had a rough night last night, drank a little more than I should have and of course I had to work this morning. So I went to bed at around 2 a.m. and woke up at 6, ahead of my 7 a.m. alarm.

I tried to listen to the new Bon Iver on the ride to work but it didn't really help to use my headphones with a throbbing headache, so I turned to Afrocubism.

If it was a religion, I would follow it blindly. It could be a philosophy but it's vaguer that all the others. At most, it can be the beginning of a whole new genre. Of course as the liner notes on this album say, the mixing of Cuban and African rhythms aren't something new, however, the collaborations in this album turn those cross-cultural influences into something that has really never been heard before.

It was the perfect Sunday morning cure for a hangover, listening to an instrumental version of Guantanamera that traded the repetitive rhythms into a slow-burning guitar-driven African blues song. I had it on repeat as a I made my way across Fort Myers on a nearly empty U.S. 41.

On my way home from work, I succumbed to the rest of the album and it's vibrant melding of the Cuban Son and Toumani Diabaté's Malian guitar while Buena Vista Social Club member Eliades Ochoa's weathered voice echoed the ailments of fool who should have know when to quit.

I felt much better.

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Thursday, June 9, 2011

Album of the day: Dave Edmunds - From Small Things: Best of

A Welshman who can sing like a good ol' boy, Dave Edmunds is best known for killer rockabilly covers of songs by Bruce Springsteen, Graham Parker, Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello as well as being Lowe's equal in the supergroup Rockpile.

This compilation includes those as well a Southern swamp-rock gem like "I Hear You Knocking," and the Spectoresque sound of "Born To Be With You," and the sweetness of Let it Be Me, which sounds like the Everly Brothers.

Sequenced cronogically, you can really hear the difference between his early albums, featuring all of the above within the first 9 songs, and His later albums (in the '80s of course) which fail to captivate back them and don't really do much better now.

My only gripe with this compilation is that it features a live version of the Elvis Costello cover "Girl Talk" which is ok but can't compare with the manic-feel of the studio version.

Look it up on iTunes, you're bound to find something you like. "I Hear You Knocking" and "Girl Talk" are a must.