Friday, December 18, 2009

Concert review: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band

Max Weinberg. All you need.

So I saw Bruce Springsteen live over a month ago and I immediately wrote a review of it. Because I'm a lazy bastard, I'm only posting it here now. I wrote the article in The Observer office though, meaning that I don't have the original, unedited article on hand, and copy had to cut a bit of it due to length issues. So, this is the version that ran, verbatim, in the paper, not the UNCUT, UNCENSORED version that I would normally post here (really I think there was an extra sentence about how great Clarence Clemons is that got cut and that's probably it). Long live Broos. Etc.

Bruce Springsteen may have turned 60 years old less than two months ago, but as soon as he and his "mighty" E-Street Band launched into a performance of the entire Born to Run album last Tuesday night at the Quicken Loans Arena, the reckless, romantic, eighteen-year-old spirit that drove the seminal record into the hearts of millions took hold and did not let up. This was a spirit that spread quickly through the sold out crowd and ultimately showed proof of Springsteen's relentless showmanship and passion.

As the crowd still kept piling in at the concert's proposed starting time of 7:30 p.m., tensions began to mount while an increasing number of people restlessly awaited the band's performance. One particularly cruel move had the arena shut its lights off, only to light up again. Nearly 45 minutes after the band was slated to perform, though, Springsteen and the E Street Band finally took the stage.The ensuing performance was well worth the wait.

Springsteen surprisingly enough started the show not with a bang, but with the mere strumming of his guitar, slowly but surely building up speed and energy on his new track, "Wrecking Ball," about the demolition of Giants Stadium earlier this year. Opening a show with a brand-new, non-album track was a welcome, yet odd decision on his part, but following it up with classics "Prove It All Night" and "Hungry Heart" was an even better decision. Springsteen crowd surfed back to the stage during the latter song and never sang a word of the chorus, letting the audience take over.

From there, he moved on to his new staple, "Working on a Dream," a song whose homecoming to Cleveland was truly significant, as just over a year ago, Springsteen premiered the song during his performance at the Cleveland campaign rally for then-presidential candidate Barack Obama.

In the first break since starting the show, Springsteen had a brief talk with his thousands-strong audience, mentioning how in recent shows, he had performed entire albums from front to back. Cleveland lucked out with a full performance of what many argue is Springsteen's high-water mark, 1975's Born to Run. The album, which features such epochal tracks as "Thunder Road," "Jungleland" and the wall-of-sound-affected title track, translated almost perfectly live. For an album performed by most of the same people who initially recorded it over thirty years ago, its songs still managed to retain the same vitality they possessed when Born to Run first hit shelves.

The rest of the concert continued along as a revue through Springsteen's extensive catalog and displayed the man's versatility, able to crunch out gospel covers with the same energy that he put into his ballads. There were also plenty of moments where the show transitioned from being a mere concert into a full-blown spectacle. During one song, he collected a considerable amount of posters made by adoring fans, and displaying certain song-specific ones as he played the respective songs throughout the night. Toward the end of "Waitin' on a Sunny Day," he pulled three young girls out of the front row to make their arena show debut and lead the crowd in two choruses.

Springsteen's enormous persona filled up the arena as much as the band's sound did. He played the roles of bandleader, preacher, Good Samaritan, and marriage counselor through the course of the three-hour long performance. The latter occupation was exemplified during a heart-wrenching performance of "Back in Your Arms," which featured him dropping to his knees and urging his crowd to "fight and beg" for whatever romance in their lives they had let go.

There were a few minor missteps throughout the night, the greatest of which was the crew's decision to turn the house lights on for several entire numbers, an effect that killed some of the mood in several key songs. Additionally, Springsteen's choice to nearly conclude the show with covers and folk songs, while serving well to showcase different facets of his music, could have been bettered with perhaps something from Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. Thankfully, he had the good sense to end the show with a blistering performance of "Rosalita," a perfect concert-closer.

Few artists have managed to maintain vitality over the great length of time that Bruce Springsteen has. Early on in the show, he demanded that his audience "build a house out of Cleveland spirit" and it's likely that house still stands on the court in the Q.


Wrecking Ball
Prove it All Night
Hungry Heart
Working on a Dream
Thunder Road
Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out
Born to Run
She's the One
Meeting Across the River
Waiting on a Sunny Day
Raise Your Hand
Red Headed Woman
Pink Cadillac
Back in Your Arms
Radio Nowhere
Lonesome Day
The Rising
No Surrender
Bobby Jean
American Land
Dancing in the Dark
Can't Help Falling in Love
Higher and Higher
Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)

Here are a few videos I found on youtube from the evening...

Full performance of "Jungleland." Clarence's sax solo was one of the most transcendent concert-going experiences of my life:

Full performance of "Thunder Road." Video is shaky but audio is good:

Bruce doing his thing in the middle of "Hungry Heart." Whadda guy:

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Ultra-belated mini-reviews!

In a sad attempt to defibrillate this nearly dead blog, I will post a couple Observer articles I've had sitting on the back-burner for a little while now. The first of these is a little set of mini-reviews I wrote a few months just for the hell of it. Look out, peoples! I get scathing and negative for once! Whoahhhhhh. And on top of that, the very day this article hit the racks, Pitchfork gave Girls' Album a 9.1 comparable to my 4 and a half stars. Not that anyone really gives a shit, but maybe I can be a tastemaker too! Look out, Chicago and/or Williamsburg!

Be glad they didn't use anything from the "Lust for Life" video...

Girls – Album

Any hype-driven band is subsequently met with its fair share of skeptics, and more often than not, the skeptics win and the hype flutters from group to group. Every now and then, a young band manages to live past the hype, and judging from the strengths of this debut, the androgynously named Girls (a band consisting of two guys who start the album by singing, “I wish I had a boyfriend”) should be sticking around for a while.

The album is easily one of the best works of modern indie pop released this year, and its range of emotion and relentless attention to pop hooks should endear it to an audience far beyond the hipster set. Songs like “Morning Light” and “Big Bad Mean Motherfucker” are up-tempo bursts of fuzzy rock while “Laura” and “Darling” admirably channel sunshiny, infectious ‘60s pop. The album’s centerpiece, however, the lofty “Hellhole Ratrace,” is an affecting torch song for the wistful pop geek inside all (or at least most) of us.

I have nothing to say about this album cover.

Times New Viking – Born Again Revisited

For what it’s worth, the current resurgence of scuzzy, no-budget garage rock has become a reputable force in the current independent rock scene, and Columbus trio Times New Viking have been one of this aesthetic’s most visible bands. Regrettably, the band hardly moves beyond this aesthetic, producing a sound that amounts to little more than all-style, no-substance, and Born Again Revisited barely follows through on the band’s promise of 25% higher fidelity than their first Matador release, Rip It Off.

Even so, there are glimpses of true songwriting talent hidden underneath the feedback, and tracks like the relatively understated “Those Days” and the powerful rushes of “No Time, No Hope” and “Hustler, Psycho, Son” justify much of the hype that persistently surrounds the band. It’s a shame then that the rest of the album uses an avoidable lo-fi sound to bury these song snippets and prevent whatever hooks (which may or may not actually exist) from flourishing. That may be part of the point, but even the experimental, filler tracks on Guided By Voices’ best albums were catchy.


Lou Barlow – Goodnight Unknown

Lou Barlow is one of the most unquestionably prolific songwriters in independent music history, having released massive albums of material under several different monikers. Apart from his contributions to the Dinosaur Jr. reunion, he’s been working steadily under his own name, casting off much of the rough, lo-fi sounds that he helped revolutionize and showing proof of graceful aging.

It is impressive that after so much material, Barlow is still able to craft unique melodies, and strong tracks like opener “Sharing,” “Don’t Apologize” and “One Machine, One Long Flight” bolster a collection of fine tunes. Perhaps even more notable is the manner in which Barlow, one-third of one of the loudest bands in alternative music history and one of the men most responsible for the noisy lo-fi movement, is able to pen songs like the Elliott Smith-esque “Thinking…” and love song “The One I Call” and still come out sounding more earnest than most balladeers.

Okay, that's all for now. Hopefully soon I'll post another old article and then put together a final list of the top albums and songs of the year! Hopefully...

Monday, October 5, 2009

Free to Be Evil, Free to Believe: The Flaming Lips' "Embryonic"

...The fuck?

Over the last twenty-five years, Oklahoma City prodigal sons The Flaming Lips have developed a completely symbiotic relationship with alternative rock music. They’ve had an uncanny ability to both adapt to whatever modern styles were being popularized and in turn, set trends themselves. The band’s breakthrough 2002 release Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, in particular, despite its major label, was still able to help define the “indie” sound that would overtake much of this last decade. This isn’t to pigeonhole the band into a genre; from sloppy Replacements-meets-Syd Barrett garage punk to the capital-“A” Alternative rock of the early ‘90s to the Brian Wilson-esque Soft Bulletin through the dream pop of the last decade, The Flaming Lips have a compelling, versatile and rewarding back catalogue. It is all the more impressive that at the peak of their popularity, the group has managed to practically sum up their entire career in their latest release, Embryonic, an enthralling, invigorating and even challenging work that immediately manifests itself among the band’s best music.

When the band first announced plans for a double-album, it only seemed to be a logical progression for a band undaunted by ambition. Using the studio as an instrument, spending thousands of dollars on confetti per live show and releasing a quadraphonic album meant to be played on four stereos at once are all fair game for the Flaming Lips, so the thought a double album seems almost pedestrian in comparison. That of course, still means that there’s a lot of space to fill over two discs, and the lukewarm reception to 2006’s whimsical At War With the Mystics, coupled with the frightening lucidity of their 2008 feature film, Christmas on Mars indicated that the Lips were bound to look backward to their youthful weirdness for inspiration for the new record. The prospects for a retrospective, off-kilter collection of new Flaming Lips music was thoroughly enticing, but it also immediately seemed difficult for a group who earned their pedigree through the great sonic disparities of their lengthy career to pull off a summarizing record that would play as a solid, cohesive whole.

Embryonic wisely takes cues from the Lips’ current high-watermark, the decade-old masterpiece The Soft Bulletin, weaving together an assortment of lyrical songs around various instrumental interludes, and deviating little from the Lips’ proclivity to add layers and layers of dense, rich sound. There are key differences in Embryonic’s approach in that the songs are less traditionally formed, the interludes are more numerous and less structured, and the sound is more often than not designed to assault rather than ease. On The Soft Bulletin, harp glissandos would add texture to a particularly calm passage, whereas on Embryonic, they rush in and rapidly build to an in-the-red assault of turbulent percussion, courtesy of the ever-impressive Kilph Scurlock, who arguably gives the best performance on the record.

Lyrically, the album isn’t too far removed from the ruminations on man’s nature and ideas of free will that have cropped up on the last couple of albums, but the statements are far darker, and they lack the immediate, sugarcoated optimism of songs like At War…’s “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song.” Lyrical ideas often combat themselves within the album, just as apt at one person’s own indecisiveness on human nature. Frontman Wayne Coyne sings on slow-burner, “Evil,” “Those people are evil / And they’ll hurt you if they can / I never understand,” only to be countered by multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd, who, after clearing his throat, sings on the calming “If,” “People are evil, it’s true / But on the other side / They can be gentle too / If they decide.” The concepts are simple, but charming and affecting, and the otherworldly rush of the music would render the normal incomprehensible musings associated with this sort of progressive rock to be useless and overwhelming.

The album plays out as one steady whole, with recurring musical and lyrical themes holding the diverse mass together. It ebbs and flows from massive, bombastic centerpieces, like “Worm Mountain” and “The Sparrow Looks Up at the Machine” to tempered interludes like “Sagittarius Silver Announcement” and the vocoder-laden “The Impulse,” which augment the album with welcome, subtle breaths. Embryonic is also an album full of highs. The disarmingly seductive rhythms of “Convinced of the Hex,” the dark, vibrant pulse of “Silver Trembling Hands” and the climactic chants of “Watching the Planets,” all rank with some of the Lips’ greatest songs. Additionally, “See the Leaves” with its violent groove and sepulchral coda is arguably the most menacing song the band has written since “Jesus Shootin’ Heroin.”

So, for the umpteenth time, the Flaming Lips have risen to meet and surpass the challenges they’ve devised for themselves. Here was a band with a canon of excellent albums, a few of which could easily hold their own among the best of the last twenty years. In fusing together nearly every one of their strengths, with Embryonic, they may very well have outdone themselves, and it’s difficult to imagine them being able to top this. And even in the somewhat unlikely situation that this is, as Coyne declares, “The ego’s last stand,” they’ll have gone out in a brilliant way most bands can only dream of.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

WRUW's 28th Studio-A-Rama and Mission of Burma

Alt-rock legends, Mission of Burma.

So, this is some old news. The event itself happened on September 5th and it went to print on the 11th, but I wrote so much about the event that I had to cut out about 1,000 words from the article. So, here's the whole thing, as it was originally written, augmented with wonderful photos courtesy of my friend and colleague, Adam Wisniewski. Enjoy!

Since its first inception in 1981, 91.1-FM WRUW’s annual Studio-A-Rama music festival has been an exciting yet humble event full of free local music, usually bolstered by a headlining act that is moderately well known in the independent music community.

Since their reunion in 2002, alternative rockers Mission of Burma have released more material than they did in their original run, and have had difficulty comprehending their status as independent music legends.

On Saturday, September 5, these two entities met for what may have been the most intense, enjoyable and well attended Studio-A-Rama in history, and a further assertion of Mission of Burma’s importance in rock and roll.

This, the 28th Annual Studio-A-Rama, was organized primarily by Neal “Dare Waves” and Steven Barrett, and was under the direction of current Station Manager and CWRU student Daniel Hill. The event, like every year preceding it, was held in the Mather Memorial courtyard and spanned ten hours worth of live music.

Although past Studio-A-Ramas have hosted such notable headlining acts as Guided By Voices and Naked Raygun, Mission of Burma, despite still being relatively unknown in the vast world of popular music, are arguably the biggest band the event has ever hosted.

Certainly, the headliner’s notability earned the festival more press coverage and hype than usual in the weeks preceding it, even making the front page of alternative Cleveland weekly Scene. Still, this is not to downplay the importance of the event’s eight local opening acts, who made up the bulk of the festival’s music and provided a continuous vitality that Burma could not have created on their own.

The Kyle Sowashes play as the courtyard starts to fill.

These eight Ohio-based acts ranged in style from heavy, bass-driven punk to experimental solo vocal improvisations. Each performance brought something new to the persistently amassing crowd and there wasn’t an act throughout the ten hours of music that failed to energize and captivate the audience.

Opening with a faint whimper that slowly developed into a sweeping, cinematic stomp, the festival began with the multi-layered sounds of Cleveland’s Chief Bromide. The six-piece band, which features dual keyboard players and slide guitar used for experimental effect, covered much stylistic ground, from loud, brash punk to dense, moody progressive rock. As an opening act, Chief Bromide provided welcome insight into the variety of sounds that would surface throughout the rest of the evening’s performances.

Consisting of young men not unfamiliar with Case Western Reserve University, garage punks the Neon Tongues took cues from the hazy, ramshackle sounds of bands like the Black Lips and NODZZZ and brought spastic, youthful aggression to the Mather stage. Fronted by current CWRU student Dylan Baldi and former CWRU student Adam Upp, the band was a recent collaboration between the two and despite the positive reception after a three song demo CD and only a few shows, the band’s state might be jeopardized by inconvenience.

“We were originally all going to meet up here at Case this year while everyone was still back home,” explained Upp. “Now they’re all here and I’m at Baldwin-Wallace, so it’s kind of problematic.”

Despite this issue, the Neon Tongues are still set to open for the Antlers when they perform at the Spot on Wednesday, September 23, 2009. (Edit: This already happened.)

The uncouth noise of the Neon Tongues was followed by the more systematic, shoegaze and gothic influenced noise of Flowers in Flames, who sound like the possible musical offspring of Sonic Youth and Bauhaus. The band, which has been receiving positive press from locations as far as France and Russia, gave a tight, energetic performance worthy of such distant praise.

Guitarist and vocalist Dave Chavez, who has performed with Flowers in Flames at Studio-A-Rama prior and who has appeared on WRUW’s “Dare Waves” show as a guest, offered an explanation for the European appeal. “They’re just really far more into the post-punk gothic thing,” he said, “And while bands like Interpol and The Editors have made it big in America, there’s far more of a niche for that sort of music abroad.”

Keyboardist, guitarist and singer Cynthia Dimitroff confirmed this notion. “They have a festival over there, the Drop Dead Festival, which is basically a Glatsonbury for gothic rock,” she said. “We’re hoping we can gain a following in Europe and have that travel back over here.”

Changing gears completely, the next act, Uno Lady, featured no more than a woman, her own voice and an effects/loop console. Her compositions, initially improvised and since composed, lyric-less and melismatic, are ethereal, haunting and compelling.

“The whole thing was a happy mistake,” said Christa Ebert, the Uno Lady herself. “I really wanted to create music in some way so I just sat down at a computer and started singing to it and it all just happened right there.”

Mike St. Jude and our giant banner.

After the experimental vocal aerobics of Uno Lady came a triad of punky power-pop bands, who together performed three hours worth of high-energy, fast-paced, irresistible rock and roll. The Columbus-based Kyle Sowashes played early 90s alt-rock in the vein of early indie heroes Superchunk and went so far as to close their set with a cover of Guided By Voices’ “Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory.” Kyle Sowash, the band’s titular frontman, at one point expressed an ironic surprise when the audience was clapping, although the band’s hooky sensibilities rendered his own shock shocking.

Having recently had the distinction of being the band to initiate this year’s Spot Nights at CWRU, Mike St. Jude and the Valentines followed up with a more modern take on power-pop, reminiscent of bands like the New Pornographers and the Apples in Stereo. The songs had a straightforward, danceable, good-times aesthetic with occasional ‘60s pop and surf influences thrown into the mix. St. Jude gave a heartfelt performance, having sung himself hoarse by the end of the set, and drenched himself in his own sweat.

Kid Tested doubtlessly leaned far more toward the punkish end of popular music, although their songs were still catchy and tuneful enough so as not to mark a significant change of pace from the prior two bands. These three Clevelanders wear their influences well on their sleeves, performing songs with titles like “Between the Devil and Daniel Johnston” and “Hüsker Don’t.” Although they don’t meet the nearly impossible challenge of living up to such artists, they did manage to deliver a thoroughly infectious and enjoyable set.


Certainly the most intense and abrasive of the local openers, Megachurch, consisting of two bassists and a drummer and using tape loops of found sound instead of vocals, pummeled the now-massive audience with glorious and gratuitous amounts of low end. The band played with a post-hardcore and math rock nuance at blazing punk speeds, only pausing to let the bizarre tapes of religious sermons enrapture the audience further.

By the time Megachurch finished, everyone was ready for the headlining act, a band which had earned its legendary status through an assimilation of the sounds heard throughout the eight prior acts – deft experimentalism, pop songcraft and acerbic punk.

Regardless of all of this, the humble men behind Mission of Burma were still baffled by the effect they’ve had on underground music.

“The whole thing has just been mysterious from start to end,” said Burma bassist and vocalist Clint Conley, “I just know I’m in a very lucky position right now.”

Burma guitarist Roger Miller, entertainin' for the now-massive crowd

Mission of Burma formed in 1979 out of the ashes of the Moving Parts, a Roxy Music-influenced art-rock band that featured Conley as well as guitarist and vocalist Roger Miller. Burma drummer and vocalist Peter Prescott went through three tryouts to be involved in a new guitar-oriented project that Conley and Miller were putting together.

“The new sound that they wanted was going to be much more of a response to the band they really were, with much more feedback,” said Prescott. “I mean, their old frontman played the bassoon and looked like Fidel Castro.”

After recruiting Prescott, the band finalized their sound with the experimentation of friend Martin Swope, who during performances, would record the band playing, manipulate the sound and play the loops back live. This experimentation carried into the band’s first EP and LP, Signals, Calls and Marches and Vs., respectively.

“On the first round, well, we certainly toured enough,” said Miller, “But nothing was well organized.”

“We were very worried on the first go-around,” said Conley.

The worry and lack of success combined with Miller’s developing tinnitus caused the band to break up in 1983. In the twenty years that followed, however, the band’s influence began to burgeon in ways the members of Burma could have never predicted. Their post-punk anthems, “Academy Fight Song” and “That’s When I Reach for My Revolver,” were covered by R.E.M. and Moby respectively and they were featured with twelve other independent bands in Michael Azerrad’s seminal book on American independent music, Our Band Could Be Your Life.

“People say that we’re the first American post-punk band,” said Miller, “But that’s just what we’ve been told. The legend has completely exploded.”

In 2002, after years of relative inactivity, either in smaller groups or abstaining from the industry altogether, the band was asked to reunite for a one-off show in New York City, with Shellac bassist and recording engineer Bob Weston taking Swope’s place as tape manipulator.

“It was terrifying,” said Miller. “I asked Clint about it and I was hoping he wouldn’t want to do it, but he said, ‘Sure, absolutely.’ And then I talked to Pete thinking, ‘Oh, he’s not going to want to do this,’ but he was in.”

Burma drummer Peter Prescott, probably swearin' up a storm.

Since their reunion, they released two acclaimed LPs on Matador records, 2004’s ONoffON and 2006’s The Obliterati. Their third post-reunion LP, The Sound, The Speed, The Light arrives in stores on October 6, making Mission of Burma one of the few bands in existence to be more productive since its reunion than it was in its initial run. The band was characteristically ambiguous about their upcoming release.

“Everything is unpremeditated and unstructured and there’s no guiding approach when we go in and record a new album,” said Conley. “I guess it might be a bit more melodic than what we normally do.”

“Not too much has changed since the early days,” said Prescott, “We approach everything the same way we used to.”

“It’s extremely difficult for me to gauge how an album is going to sound until I receive feedback on it,” said Miller. “I thought The Obliterati was just not going to work and that would be the end of our run. Then it came out and started getting all these great reviews and I was shocked.”

The band ran through several new tracks from the new record, including the single “1, 2, 3, Partyy!” which, according to Prescott, “…Is just made up of a bunch of crap Clint’s dad used to tell people.” The new songs blended in well with other post-reunion tracks as well as the pre-reunion classics.

Despite initial technical difficulties that required Miller to make a last minute amplifier switch, the show was an hour and a half long stream of post-punk aggression, off-kilter rhythms, frenetic, energetic tempos and anthemic, fist-pumping singalongs. Highlights included fan favorites “Academy Fight Song,” “That’s When I Reach for My Revolver” and “That’s How I Escaped My Certain Fate,” as well as newer highlights, “2wice” and “Donna Sumeria” and diehard fan favorites “Heart of Darkness” and “Peking Spring.” At this point, the Mather Courtyard was full of concertgoers, likely the largest crowd any Studio-A-Rama has ever seen.

The concert’s only disappointment came in the encore when the band charged through a verse of classic “Max Ernst” only to stop and change their minds. Prescott kept the crowd amused by joking, “Sometimes we stop songs in the middle for conversation, what the f***?!”

Burma Bassist Clint Conley, shouting out one of his many anthems.

Such abrasiveness is completely essential to Mission of Burma’s aesthetic and is the sort of thing the band wishes were far more prevalent in today’s music.

“There have been lots of bands since we first broke up who’ve really impressed me,” said Prescott, “The Jesus Lizard, Andrew W.K. and most recently, F****d Up. But it really lets me down just how many bands out there lack that sort of confrontation. For me, there’s just a need to grab the audience by the neck.”

“There’s a lot of music around whose popularity just baffles me completely,” said Conley. “It’s just very bland music that gets a lot of attention for some reason.”

Even so, despite their own drive for intensity, their newfound success still shocks them.

“The most telling moment,” said Miller, “Was when I was looking through a reissues section in Rolling Stone, and they had music from Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, Van Morrison and us. It just freaked me out and I’m still not used to it.”

“Having our songs covered by big names is still shocking and there have been many more shocks along the way,” said Conley

Prescott, however, felt differently about the ordeal.

“Nothing’s really shocked me at all,” he said. “I don’t see it in any sort of historical context. I’m just living in the here and now, which is really the only place to be.” He then paused and laughed, “Until it no longer makes sense. That’s when we’ll quit.”

For a band whose parts are generally absurd – the tape loops, the twenty-year hiatus, the songs about surrealist painters – seeing Mission of Burma live, the final whole, assures that it all makes perfect sense.

The 29th Annual Studio-A-Rama has a lot to live up to.

Your faithful blogger, after babbling incoherently to a poor, confused Clint Conley

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Hand in Hand: Yo La Tengo's "Popular Songs"

I am curious to hear a song called "Hippies and a Oujia Board," quite honestly.

Wrote this one for The Observer a few weeks ago, only getting around to posting it now. I'll try and be better about this folks, if anyone's reading.

Anyway, this album... remember that post I did a while back about albums that shaped my life? Well, add this one to the mix. No doubts about that at all. Here we go:

Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley, who make up two-thirds of legendary indie stalwarts Yo La Tengo, are married. This is an important fact to have in mind when listening to their music, as so much of it sounds like the work of two people, long married and still deeply in love. The hushed, nuanced vocals, the subtle, yet passionate performances and the endearing lyrics are all indicative of their marital status and essential components of Yo La Tengo’s sound. Still, with a lengthy catalog boasting such heartwarming indie staples as “Autumn Sweater,” “Sugarcube” and “Our Way to Fall,” with Popular Songs, Yo La Tengo may have released their most overtly romantic album yet, and in addition to (or perhaps because of) this, it is also one of their best.

Immediately, the band makes this romantic disposition clear with “Here to Fall,” a career highlight that pits Kaplan’s vow to nosedive into devotion against all odds over an unusually seductive rhythm and string punctuations and flourishes straight out of a Paul Buckmaster arrangement. Unashamedly bombastic, the song helps push the band into new sonic territory while still looking backwards to the band’s beloved 1960’s for inspiration. Similarly retroactive is “If It’s True,” which bases its opening lick around that of the Four Tops’ Motown classic “I Can’t Help Myself” and builds an infectious new pop song from there. The group also drags the Farfisa organ out of the garage for the catchy retro groove of “Periodically Triple or Double.”

Still, Yo La Tengo have never been the sort of band to exclusively look backward (they cheerfully let off a lot of steam while masquerading earlier this year as the Condo Fucks on the sloppy, yet infectious cover album, Fuckbook) and the rest of the album hosts several tracks archetypal of their own unique style that rank with their best work. “Nothing to Hide,” in particular, is the most perfect slab of fuzzy power pop Yo La Tengo have released since 1997’s “Sugarcube.” Perhaps most representative of the band’s true sound is “Avalon or Someone Very Similar,” a hazy, jangly Hubley-lead track that sounds like an exceptional outtake from 2000’s delightfully low-key And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out. Closing the album, “And the Glitter is Gone” envelops listeners in swirls of feedback and holds tight for nearly sixteen minutes, continuing a tradition of lengthy, trancelike tracks that have emerged on many of the band’s albums.

Still, it is in the three tracks which precede that closing behemoth where Yo La Tengo present some of the most emotionally resonant, breathtaking and ethereal work of their career. “All My Secrets” boasts one of the album’s most gorgeous and captivating melodies, over which Kaplan meditates about honesty and love as Hubley harmonizes in the background. The warmth generated by the following track, “More Stars Than There Are in Heaven” is nearly unparalleled in popular music. Layers and layers of sound are added over the course of the song’s ten minutes, and the subdued yet omnipresent chorus echoes repeatedly, “We’ll walk hand in hand.” With a discography full of meditative moments, few come close to matching the serenity of “The Fireside,” an exercise in post-rock minimalism without all the pretention the genre is burdened with. Concluding with the sentiment, “Sometime/Please think of me,” these three songs culminate Yo La Tengo’s vast exploration of beauty and romance in their music and distinguish themselves as clear highlights on an album full of them.

Popular Songs finds Yo La Tengo at the top of a game they mastered years ago, continuing to refine their unique mix of subtlety and grandiosity, of past and present and of passion and detachment. So long as the chemistry between Kaplan and Hubley never dies out, listeners can expect the group to continue to refine this sound for years to come, and judging by the devotion that lies inherently behind this record alone, it seems like they’ll be together for a long, long time.

And hey hey! There are a bunch of wacky promo clips for these tunez. And the "Nothing to Hide" one features Times New Viking, a band I'm not even all that crazy about!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Written As I Listen: The Mars Volta’s “Octahedron”

For once, the artwork of a Mars Volta makes far less sense than the music within

Before I begin, I would like to thank my good friend, Paul Grigas for inspiring me to do this, based on a short write-up on the Mars Volta’s Amputechture, where he wrote down what he heard as he heard it.  Normally, this method of reviewing would yield a disjointed and likely boring result, but when it comes to writing about the sounds on a Mars Volta record, hopefully I’ll wind with something a little more interesting.


My disposition on The Mars Volta is currently mixed.  I still enjoy most of Deloused in the Comatorium and enough of Frances the Mute to consider me a fan, partly out of nostalgia and partly that I think the music on those two records is interesting and at times, even hooky.  By the time Amputechture and Bedlam in Goliath came around, however, the band’s sheer preposterousness – the nonsense lyrics that try their darndest to be cryptic, Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s inhumanely high vocals and ridiculous hairdo, and just how similar so many of the songs began to sound – all caught up with me.  Still, I find a certain charm among it all, that the whole act is so outrageous that it’s impossible for me not to like this band.  I even wound up seeing them live a year and a half ago (the one thing about the concert I remember most was how no one in the audience was smiling).  So, I would feel just slightly incomplete if I didn’t listen to a new record of theirs.


Octahedron seems, without listening to a single second of it, like a slight departure for the band.  It is only the second Volta album that isn’t unified by some overarching theme about dead band members and Israeli Ouiji boards (the other being Amputechture), it’s the shortest album the band has released yet, clocking in at a mere fifty minutes in length, and it’s the second album of theirs to feature no songs over ten minutes in length (the other being The Bedlam in Goliath).  Most of the songs still fall between five and eight and a half minutes in length, but there are only eight of them total.  Also, many of the song titles are somewhat discernable!  Looks like we’ve got songs on here about death, bad decisions, Satan, astronomers, non-stick kitchen spray and a best-selling young adult novel about vampires.  Wowee!


So what does this mean?  Have these guys gone pop?  Are they abandoning the coqui frog solos?  Will they still sing about ocular anatomy?  We shall find out now!


Pushing play…


Track 1: Since We’ve Been Wrong

Silence.  Complete silence.  Now a single drone fading in 30 seconds into the album.  45 seconds.  One minute.  1:15.  1:30.  And at 1:37 we get finally get something!  A bit of arty, proggy acoustic arpeggiation.  And here’s Cedric, mentioning “eyelids” as the second line in the album.  Knew he wouldn’t let me down!  Now his vocals are double tracked.  It’s very pretty, but at the same time, I don’t think he’s ever sounded more feminine than he does here.  I guess it’s kinda Houses-of-the-Holy-Led-Zep influenced, and I can’t really tell if this is a good thing or not.  Okay, five minutes in and I’m starting to seriously doubt the song’s single potential… oh there we go.  Drums come in at 5:15.  Still, they picked this as the single?!  It’s so damn slow!  Ah, well.  The lyrics are pretty linear: “You will never ever know me”?  Makes me miss the days of “transmark amoeba lanscraft.”


Track 2: Teflon

Alright, this is a bit more like the Volta I’ve grown used to.  Pretty neat drumming actually… it’s a 4/4 rhythm but it sure doesn’t feel like it!  “Stack the tires to the neck with a body inside.”  Alright.  Some pretty cool reverbed slide guitar work on here.  Lyrics about shooting hostages in the Oval Office.  Pretty cryptic, but still too linear for my Volta tastes.  Well the song just ended and there’s still 30 seconds left.  Color me surprised.  I quite liked that song though.


Track 3: Halo of Nembutals

What the Christ is a Nembutal?  It must be pretty morose cause this is a moody intro.  Man, the way he says “Dee-vee-ate” is pretty funny.  Eh, I’m not feeling this.  Another kinda sluggish tempo on our hands.  “Cables of ringworms have hung themselves.”  “They sent in the necrophiliacs.”  At least the lyrics are getting more absurd.  And there’s a bizarre piano outro.  Meh.


Track 4: With Twilight as My Guide

Here’s the one we’ve all been waiting for, the song about our generation’s Hamlet.  Over one minute in though and the only vaguely vampiric lyric we’ve got so far is “By the longest tusk of corridors numb below the neck.”  Where are the werewolves?!  Forks, WA?!  Vampire baseball?!  Glitter?!  Musically we just have more acoustic picking and moody atmospherics.  Four and a half minutes in and we still don’t get a backbeat.  Gah, what happened to the frenetic tempos of “Cygnus, Visimund Cygnus” or however the hell you spell it?  Or “Eriatarka”?  And furthermore, the only Twilight-y thing about this damn song is that I could see it fitting in nicely with one of those boring-ass scenes in the movie where Edward blankly stares at Bella and they discuss how much they want to die.  Disappointment of the year.


Track 5:  Cotopaxi

This song, at 3:39 is the fifth-shortest song in the Mars Volta discography and finally, we get some energy!  Even if it does kinda sound like dumb funk-metal, at least the rhythms are broken-up enough to maintain a good amount of integrity.  Whoah, where did this breakdown come from?  Sounds almost Tull-ish.  “That’s when I’ll magnify a hole in your abdomen.”  Ho ho ho.


Track 6: Desperate Graves

Alright, this may be the single most straightforward vocal melody that the band has put together in its career (maybe discounting “The Widow,” although so far this is much more interesting than that track.)  “Dressed in the slurs of bovine engines/To feast upon the carcass of your mother.”  I dunno if they’ll be able to top that one on this album.  This might also be the best song on the album; at the very least, it should have been the single, hands down.


Track 7: Copernicus

Another slow one.  A minute and a half in and it’s got the same exact feel as “Since We’ve Been Wrong” and “With Twilight as my Guide.”  Still, it just feels like it’s waiting to explode.  I’m just gonna prepare myself and hold out for it.  Okay, here comes another verse.  Alright, verse two ended.  Here we go… EXPLODE!       Goddamnit, all we get is some light programmed percussion for the bridge.  4:30 in and now the programmed percussion has even gone away.  I mean, to be fair, I guess it’s kinda pretty at best, but really, this slow, unenergetic balladry just isn’t cutting it, especially when it lasts for seven and a half minutes at a time.  Don’t get me wrong, I love lengthy ballads.  “Ambulance Blues,” “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” etc.  But I don’t think I need to explain how the Mars Volta aren’t Neil Young or Bob Dylan, do I?


Track 8: Luciforms

Okay, here’s the final, and longest track, clocking in at 8:22.  Let’s see how they bow out this time around.  Alright, well, they’ve spent a minute of it letting nothing happen.  Alright, over a minute and a half in, we finally get some phased vocals over a slow, but swinging beat.  And two minutes in we get some pounding drums!  Yes!  The song is pretty bluesy, which is neat although not particularly exciting.  Pleasant piano tones in the bridge.  Bridge.  Man, I’m writing about bridges in Mars Volta songs as if they’ve always stuck to standard song structures.  A blistering guitar solo five minutes in, the only one I’ve really noticed on the entire album.  I suppose that’s a good thing, which is nothing against Omar Rodriguez-Lopez’s playing so much as it is against his prior artistic decisions.  But aww hell, I can’t blame em for being a modern prog band, and the only one I can tolerate, never mind enjoy.  And it looks like we’re ending with a weird piano solo outro and some weird noises.  Actually, this ending reminds me of the last minute or so of “Starless” by King Crimson, except obviously not as good.


Okay, well I think 1,500 words on the Mars Volta is enough, and now you don’t even have to listen to the album if you don’t want to!  Although hey, if you’re a fan, you’ll probably enjoy it, and if you’re not, it definitely won’t convert you.  It’s a lot slower and more plodding than their other albums, but it’s also mercifully short, never dwelling the jam-band, masturbatory excess of plenty of their prior work.  Okay, I’m done.  Time to go secrete a monument with my hands.