Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Turn Up Your Stereo

One problem is that I'm old enough to remember when "alternative" bands bothered to have good singers. I use the word "alternative" here only to refer to music that has been variously referred to over the years as indie, college rock, underground, etc., etc., etc. Indeed, I'm old enough to have bought U2 records when they were just such an "alternative" band.

Another problem is that I've heard too many good - okay - "indie" bands with crap lead singers. Of course, there are plenty of good bands with crap lead singers that I really like. So what am I saying? Well, there's been a run of nasally, whiny singers that I tend to have a hard time coming around to, although it's certainly not impossible. Nevertheless, I have a tendency to shy away from even a whiff this lately.

Let me get to the point. Admittedly unfamiliar with the band (which is part of the Elephant 6 collective), I had been tuning out all the buzz generated around the release of the new The Apples In Stereo record, New Magnetic Wonder. This avoidance was based on some snippets I'd heard that suggested to me that Robert Schneider's lead vocals might be, well, somewhat on the wimpy side. But try as I might, the buzz eventually became too much for me to ignore, so I decided to dive in. Mea Culpa. I was wrong to avoid this record. Now I don't know how it doesn't wind up near the top of everybody's year-end lists.

In contrast to the recent "growers" I've written about (e.g., Of Montreal, Deerhoof), New Magnetic Wonder is an immediate visceral blast of pop sugar. Song after song hits you right in the sweet spot, with enough production sparkles to stuff a Christmas stocking (or choke Brian Wilson -- I couldn't decide on a metaphor), including Beach Boy harmonies and liberal use of the vocoder. And you know what? The vocals serve the songs well. The whole thing is sort of everything that's good about '60s pop and modern indie rock.

The first song on the record, "Can You Feel It," sets the tone, urging listeners to take the directive that forms the title of this post and to "tune out the bullshit on the FM radio." You don't have to ask me twice. The song "Energy" is pure '60s pop bliss, and it's a crying shame that radio probably won't be playing "Same Old Drag" this summer. "Play Tough" has an incredibly infectious melody and warns "You better play tough, my love, when you play me for a fool" against gorgeous background harmonies and a bouncy pop beat. "Sun Is Out" begins like a homemade demo, but transforms itself into a Beatlesque singalong that has all the potential to make your freakin' day.

The biggest standouts (among the many) for me though are "7 Stars," which really is just about as good as pop gets, "Open Eyes," which bears a slightly trippy riff that I dare you keep out of your head, and "Beautiful Machine Parts 3-4," which is linked below. An added bonus is that the record is chock full of between-song interludes that help make the album even more than the sum of its (great) individual parts. The long and short of it is that this is a great record by a great band, and a cohesive whole on top of that. New Magnetic Wonder lies somewhere near the intersection of The Beatles and Pavement, and that ain't a bad neighborhood to be in. Color me converted.

MP3: The Apples In Stereo - "Beautiful Machine Parts 3-4" from New Magnetic Wonder

Keep The Car Running

I probably won't be able to post much (or at all) until this weekend, due to work pressures and a trip to lovely Newark, NJ. In the meantime, enjoy the two songs that Arcade Fire slayed on Saturday Night Live the other night. You can't see Win breaking several strings on "Intervention" and then smashing his guitar Townshend-style at the end, but since NBC has removed all the video from YouTube, this will have to do. In case you've been living under a rock, Neon Bible is out next Tuesday.

MP3: Arcade Fire - "Intervention" (live on SNL - February 24, 2007)

MP3: Arcade Fire - "Keep The Car Running" (live on SNL - February 24, 2007)

Saturday, February 24, 2007

I Just Want To Be Where You Are

The Autumn Defense is John Stiratt and Pat Sansone, who spend the bulk of their time playing, respectively, bass and utility infielder (guitars, keys, percussion) in Wilco. Still, to call the group a side-project doesn't feel quite right -- they've been together since 2000 (well before Sansone was added to the Wilco line-up), they tour as regularly as their other band's schedule allows, and their new, self-titled record is their third full-length release.

While I prefer the more uptempo power-pop sound that characterized their 2001 debut, The Green Hour (a gem of a record, now sadly out of print), this album is another really nice collection of the sun-dappled acoustic pop that has characterized their sound ever since, rich with pretty melodies, lush harmonies and unwavering romanticism. Highlights include Sansone's "Where You Are," a ridiculously sexy number that recalls the 70s SoCal sound so much that you half expect Joni Mitchell or David Crosby to turn up singing harmony, and Stiratt's "We Would Never Die," which features an unmistakable solo from guitar virtuoso and Wilco bandmate Nels Cline. Just pretty, romantic tunes throughout. If you're looking to woo someone with music, this record could be a potent weapon in your arsenal (or provide a nice backdrop once you succeed).

MP3: The Autumn Defense - "Where You Are," from The Autumn Defense

MP3: The Autumn Defense - "We Would Never Die," from The Autumn Defense

Note to fellow ATLiens: The Autumn Defense plays The EARL on March 13. Tickets available here.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Shut Up And Sing

I can name a lot of reasons why every Dixie Chicks fan should make a point of seeing Shut Up And Sing, the exceptional documentary by Oscar-winner Barbara Kopple and Cecelia Peck that was released on DVD this week. In fact, I can name a lot of reasons why every American should see this film, whatever their political persuasion, because of the questions it asks about what freedom of speech really means in this country, and how people should conduct themselves when simply standing by a sincerely-held belief threatens to destroy everything they've ever worked for, the lives they've constructed with and for their loved ones, and in fact their very perceptions of themselves. And I can't recall an instance in which public figures have given more complete and unfettered access to a filmmaker than the Chicks did here. Seemingly nothing, no matter how intimate or sensitive or potentially unflattering, was off limits. The result is a shockingly candid look behind the scenes of one of the most absurd -- and, when the protests and boycotts become credible death threats, disturbing -- public episodes in recent memory.

But this is a music blog. So here some of the reasons why anyone interested in music should see this movie:

> The fascinating insights that it provides into the machinations of mounting, promoting and pulling off a big arena tour.

> Chicks manager Simon Renshaw, a bemused Brit caught in a uniquely American shit-storm, who supports, consoles, cheerleads, strategizes, berates, cajoles, testifies (before a Senate committee), mollifies and charms his way from one crisis to the next. Has any manager of a band, even a multi-platinum superstar act, ever had to work his ass off like this guy did?

> The in-studio conversation that Natalie Maines and Martie Maguire have with Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith about how band members share writing credit, and the resentment and tensions those issues can create.

> The scene in which the Chicks play demos of their new songs for uber-producer Rick Rubin (sitting before them, in all his sublime weirdness, like an emperor perched on his throne). Rubin provides specific, on-the-spot feedback but then never appears in any of the numerous segments of the Chicks recording the Taking The Long Way album in the studio. So, other than bringing certain collaborators, musicians and sound engineers into the sessions, just what did Rubin's "production" of that record entail?

> Finally, quite a few great performances by the Chicks, on the plagued 2003 tour, on British TV, in the studio and in rehearsals for their tour last year. And a surprising (and amazingly unreported) ending -- I won't give it away -- when they returned to "the scene of the crime," the stage of the Shepherd's Bush Empire in London, last spring.

Just fascinating, even inspiring, stuff all around. In short, Netflix that baby, and pronto.

MP3: Dixie Chicks - "Everybody Knows" from Taking The Long Way

VIDEO: Shut Up And Sing trailer:

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Not Too Late

Urban indie hipsters -- even, ahem, aging ones - are not supposed to care much about Norah Jones, but the fact is that a lot of them do, and those that don't really should. Whatever edginess you may think is lacking from her output thus far, there's no denying her immense talent and charm, she's the child of musical royalty, she acknowledges some true greats (The Band, Tom Waits, Willie Nelson, Hank Williams) as her chief influences, she disguises herself and plays in an East Village punk band, and yes, she's no slouch in the looks department either.

NoJo's new record, Not Too Late, has been touted pretty prominently as the first on which she wrote or co-wrote every song, and it does represent something of a departure from the easy approachability and slick veneer of her first two records. The songs, while melodic and "pretty" as always, are more thoughtful, personal and pointed, they contain some subtle topicality and protest, the production is more organic (much of the record was recorded in her New York apartment with bassist/beau Lee Alexander), and the listener has to work just a little bit harder to appreciate fully what she's trying to convey. It is, once again, a very nice listen, and while not exactly adventurous, is plainly more a record that Norah was moved to make, and even pour herself into, than either of her first two outings. Hopefully, this marks the beginning of a trend. I'd love to see her step even further out on the wire next time, and emulate her heroes a little more. If anyone has the commercial clout to do that these days, it's Norah Jones.

But amidst all the hype surrounding the release of the new record, including a series of performances broadcast in the UK and Europe a few weeks back, the thing that has impressed me the most is a new version of one of Norah's oldest and biggest hits, "Come Away With Me," that she now plays on guitar instead of piano, and with only the sparsest of accompaniment from her crack band. The fact that her guitar playing is pretty rudimentary at this point actually gives this new rendition of the song a fragility and vulnerability that I never heard in the original. It's less an assured invitation to a lover now, more a humble plea. I like it a lot more that way.

MP3: Norah Jones - "Come Away With Me" (live at Studio 104, Maison de Radio-France, Paris, January 20, 2007)

MP3: Norah Jones - "Wish I Could" from Not Too Late

Monday, February 19, 2007

Throw Me Something, Mister!

Laissez Le Bon Temps Roulet! Happy Mardi Gras! I'm sad to report that I am not in New Orleans this morning, but neither do I currently have a hangover. It's been a while since I've been able to make it to Mardi Gras in NOLA, or even to a parade on my beloved Mississippi Gulf Coast for that matter, but that doesn't mean I'm not going to celebrate. Mardi Gras means Fat Tuesday -- the day to blow it all out before we hunker down for lent, which begins on Ash Wednesday. So, grab a piece of king cake, don some beads, pour yourself a stiff one, and let's do this. Here's a collection of Mardi Gras songs to put you in the mood. Can't you just taste the Dixie beer and crawfish étouffée?

MP3: Professor Longhair - "Mardi Gras in New Orleans" (Thanks to Home of the Groove)
MP3: Fat Stewsday - "Mardi Gras Mambo"
MP3: Huey & Curley - "At The Mardi Gras" (Thanks to Home of the Groove)
MP3: Joe Lutcher & His Orchestra - "Mardi Gras" (Thanks to Home of the Groove)
MP3: Magnificent 7ths Brass Band - "We Danced At The Mardi Gras"
MP3: New Orleans Own Dukes of Dixieland - "All On A Mardi Gras Day"
MP3: The Meters - "They All Asked For You" (Live at the Bottom Line, NYC, 1977) (Thanks to Aquarium Drunkard)
MP3: Preservation Hall Jazz Band - "When The Saints Go Marching In"

Odds and Sods

Arcade Fire ended their run of five sold-out shows in NYC on Saturday night, and by all accounts each night's performance was better than the one before, as Win Butler steadily recovered from an illness that had him really struggling early in the week. Recordings of the last two shows are online and ripe for the downloading. The show on Friday night was fantastic, and was recorded from the audience by a guy who's known in the taping community for getting consistently exceptional sound. His pull that night sounds almost as good as a soundboard tape, and Hearsay has mp3s posted today. As previously reported, too, NPR did a webcast of Saturday night's show that is now available to stream, with a downloadable mp3 version promised to be up by Tuesday. (If you can't wait one more day and want an mp3 rip of the NPR stream -- sticklers for sound quality beware -- you can grab that right here, right now.) I haven't listened to the Saturday show yet, but reports everywhere yesterday were that it was the finest of the bunch -- one of the best bands in the world right now, firing on all cylinders.

Following up on another old post, the trailer for the DVD portion of Neil Young's forthcoming Live at Massey Hall 1971 release can be seen here, and looks (and sounds) just too damned good to be true. (Via Chromewaves)

Whatevs.org finally re-launched last week, with a brand new look and feel, unleashing six weeks of Grambo's signature, slang-filled commentary on music, movies, TV, sports, advertising, journalism, bloggers and young starlets all at once. It's good to have him back, obvs.

Slate addresses the burning question, "How could a Geordie twat like Sting have fronted a band as great as the Police?"

The only two providers of satellite radio service in the U.S., XM and Sirius, are merging. Wonder what Dylan and Howard Stern will talk about at the water cooler.

And yet another sign that the apocalypse is near.

Classic Bootleg Series Vol. 1: Bob Dylan - Thin Wild Mercury Music

TTT readers who know me -- and at this point, let's face it, that's most of you -- are probably aware that I'm an obsessive collector of bootleg recordings. Over the years, I have amassed a tremendous collection. As in hundreds upon hundreds. Basically, I have so many boots, I don't know how many I have. So when thinking about regular features that we might run on this blog, it's occurred to me lately that the most natural thing for me to do is share some of my musical wealth. (And if you don't already know, sharing and trading, free of charge, is how most of this material gets passed around in the Internet age -- gone are the days when I had to steal off to Greenwich Village on business trips to NYC and drop $100 on a handful of records.) Because while a lot of stuff that never gets officially released certainly deserves that fate, there are other unreleased recordings that are among the finest and/or most historically significant performances ever caught on tape. So this is the first installment in what I intend to make a regular feature here at TTT. Check back often and hopefully I can introduce you to some of the most amazing music you've (n)ever heard.

And where better to start than with one of the more legendary boots of all time. Thin Wild Mercury Music is arguably the best collection of early run-throughs, alternate takes and unreleased tracks from Bob Dylan's sessions for Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde in 1965 and 1966. In other words, some of the best music ever made. Artwork for a CD case is included. Enjoy, and again, there is much more to come.


Original Spank Records artwork:
Front cover
Back insert

01 If You Gotta Go, Go Now
02 She Belongs To Me
03 Visions Of Johanna (Seems Like A Freezeout)
04 From A Buick 6
05 It's All Over Now, Baby Blue
06 Medicine Sunday (Temporary Like Achilles)
07 I Wanna Be Your Lover
08 I'll Keep It With Mine (instrumental)
09 Love Minus Zero/No Limit
10 Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?
11 Number One (instrumental)
12 She's Your Lover Now (Glass Of Water)
13 Jet Pilot
14 Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?
15 Visions Of Johanna (Seems Like A Freezeout)
16 She's Your Lover Now (Glass Of Water)
17 Miami sales convention message
18 If You Gotta Go, Go Now

Saturday, February 17, 2007

I Was Thinking Last Night About Elvis

It's a treat when you get to see a favorite artist play live for the very first time, and that much more special when the performance exceeds even your highest expectations. So it was for me last night when Gillian Welch and David Rawlings hit the Variety Playhouse. They don't have a new record to support -- in fact, they haven't released once since Soul Journey in 2003, and if a new one is in the works, they didn't mention it. So last night's show was just a troll through their spendid back catalog (with a few choice covers thrown in), and a chance for the crowd to sit back and marvel at their stunning musicianship.

From her musical aesthetic (which she calls "primitive American") to her lovely, plaintive voice, and even to her physical features and the way she dresses, Gillian is a performer who seems to have been transported to the 21st Century from the days of the Dust Bowl and old-time radio hours. And Dave Rawlings is, quite simply, one of the most jaw-dropping guitar players I've ever witnessed. His intricate acoustic picking -- over, around and through the relatively simple country, folk, blues and gospel melodies that are their stock in trade -- literally had members of the crowd shaking their heads in amazement. What I didn't expect was the level of energy, enthusiasm and outright joy that emanated from the stage and truly electrified the sold-out house. For years I'd heard that a Gillian Welch show could be a lot like going to a recital -- you'd hear those great songs and see some spectacular playing, but in a hushed, almost overly-reverent environment. Last night's show, though, was more like a tent revival. In fact, the only concession to the "seriousness" of the occasion that I noticed was that the bartenders poured beers out of the bottles that they usually hand over, and into plastic cups. I suppose those do make a lot less noise when the spirit of the music sweeps you up and you drop your drink on the floor, which no doubt happened to more than a few folks last night.

MP3: Gillian Welch & David Rawlings - "I Want To Sing That Rock And Roll" (live at Merlefest, Wilkesboro, NC - April 26, 2002)

Thursday, February 15, 2007

All Things Considered

My favorite media outlets (other than Sports Illustrated, that is) are turning out some serious music goodness this week.

On NPR, Terry Gross' Fresh Air chat with director John Waters on Wednesday was one of the more entertaining interviews I've heard in a long while. Waters has just released a CD, A Date With John Waters, that compiles some of his favorite love songs, and his selections are interesting to say the least. (And don't get me wrong, some of them are wonderful.) Waters also guest-hosted NPR's All Songs Considered program on the 8th, and you can hear some selections from the CD there as well.

This Saturday night, NPR will also webcast the final night of Arcade Fire's run of five sold-out shows at Judson Memorial Church in NYC, the first U.S. dates of the tour in support of their forthcoming record, Neon Bible. Although there have been complaints all week about the acoustics in the old church, the band's new songs are magnificent, they literally are among the best live bands I've ever seen, and hopefully a feed from the soundboard will sound fantastic.

Also well worth your time is this week's New Yorker piece on Arcade Fire by chief music writer (and seasoned blogger) Sasha Frere-Jones. The print version of the article features a portrait of the band by music photographer extraordinaire Anton Corbijn. When the man responsible for artwork on The Joshua Tree and Automatic For The People is taking your picture, you know things are going well for your band.

The Music Issue

Hey, we don't make the music news around here, we just report it.

More breaking music news here.

UPDATE: Marisa Miller models the iPod bikini:

Because it's a device that plays music. Too much of a stretch?

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me

Big love to all of our readers on this Valentine's Day, and if you need some music to set the mood, three great bloggers have posted downloadable mixes for your enjoyment. Start with Heather's at I Am Fuel . . ., which includes great stuff by Otis Redding, The Postal Service, Matthew Sweet, M. Ward (his lovely cover of Pete Townshend's "Let My Love Open The Door") and The Replacements, and then link from there to the VD mixes from Some Velvet Blog and The Late Greats. A little Barry White is good for the soul today, and if you're lucky, good for something else.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Flaming Red

I first stumbled across Patty Griffin just after she'd released her second record, Flaming Red, and made an appearance on PBS's great, but short-lived series, Sessions at West 54th. At the time, I was struck by several things. One, she has an unbelievable voice, as pure and clear as an angel, and as soulful and expressive as a late-night juke joint diva. Two, she writes great songs - in fact, she was better known then (and maybe now) as a songwriter's songwriter (a number of her songs have been covered by other performers, including no less than three by the Dixie Chicks). And three, although she's been pegged as a country singer, she has way too much depth to be limited by any preconceived notions of genre.

Her first record, Living With Ghosts, was essentially her first demo released as is -- basically just her and her guitar and her little folk masterpieces (e.g., "Moses" and "I'm Gonna Let Him Fly"). The phenomenal follow-up, Flaming Red, was all over the place, serving up pure pop, folk, country, and flat-out rockers.

Her subsequent albums, 1000 Kisses and Impossible Dream are also studies in high quality songwriting and performance, but on her new record, Children Running Through, she really seems to come into her own. This record has the sound of a big-time mainstream release that should be devoured whole by the NPR and coffee shop crowd, and I will not be a bit surprised to hear it mentioned when the Grammy talk starts up again next year. Children is an excellent record, if significantly more polished than Ghosts or Flaming Red.

The record opens with the quiet "You'll Remember," a prelude that would have been the last song on anyone else's record. With its sparse accompaniment and lush melody, it sets the tone that this record is going to be a showcase for her spectacular voice. Things kicks of properly with "Stay On The Ride," a bluesy romp that is probably a high point in her live show. But next, there comes "Trapeze," a haunting country song featuring everyone's favorite background singer, the great Emmylou Harris. By the end of the song, these two great singers take things to a sublime level, with a chorus of resounding "Hallelujahs" that cast a long shadow over the rest of the record. The balance varies between folk ("No Bad News"), Americana rock ("I'm Getting Ready"), and sweet, quiet ballads ("Burgundy Shoes" and "Railroad Wings"), with an emphasis decidedly on the latter.

Children is a fairly "mature" record, meaning that it would probably sound good as background music at your next dinner party, but that would be a waste. This record deserves to have your complete attention. Check out the incredible duet with Emmylou below.

MP3: Patty Griffin (with Emmylou Harris) - "Trapeze" from Children Running Through.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Here's Luck

One of the finest bands in America is one you've never heard of. They are The Honeydogs, they hail from Minneapolis, they are led by a brilliant singer-songwriter-guitarist named Adam Levy, and since 1995 they have released one smart, lush, hook-filled pop-rock record after another, each one as criminally overlooked as the last.

Although they've yet to have an outing that wasn't terrific, their absolute masterpiece was 2001's Here's Luck, a pop record that was as achingly close to perfect as it was completely ignored. It should have won them worldwide acclaim; what it got them instead was dropped by their major label. They rebounded in 2004 with the fantastic 10,000 Years, something of a concept album, and a bit hard to follow as a narrative, but packed, once again, with Levy's intricate, enigmatic, glorious pop tunes. Only their fellow artists, critics and a few die-hard fans even seemed to notice.

Well enough of that, dammit. The Honeydogs are back in 2007 with a new record, Amygdala, named for the part of the brain that regulates emotion. And while it's unlikely to reverse the pattern that has dogged them commercially -- the simple fact is that this music is just too baroque and intelligent to appeal to the masses -- it's another stunner of an album, not least because it takes Levy's impeccably crafted melodies and dense lyrical wordplay into some striking new directions, with elements of prog, punk, jazz and even the big band sound turning up here and there. "Invertebrate" and the dreamy title track, "Amygdala," showcase Levy's characteristic way with a pretty, unconventional tune and his facility with language, while "Rattling My Tin Cup" recalls Costello circa Trust, "Ms. Ketchup and the Arsonist" (on which Aimee Mann sings back-up) would have pulled your grandparents onto the dance floor at the USO hall, and "The Firing Squad Reloads" is sunny, acoustic Americana, tinged with pretty strings, but punctuated by sax breaks that sound like Ornette Coleman. And that's not even half the record. In fact, the primary thing that keeps Amygdala from reaching the heights of Here's Luck is the extent to which it comes off as more an assemblage of individual tracks than a cohesive album. But when the tracks are this consistently good, an aggressive bit of genre-hopping can be forgiven. The Honeydogs never fail to impress, and this is another worthy addition to their undeniably excellent, if largely ignored, body of work.

MP3: The Honeydogs - "Amygdala," from Amygdala

MP3: The Honeydogs (with Michael Penn) - "Test Tube Kid," from 10,000 Years

MP3: The Honeydogs - "Sour Grapes," from Here's Luck

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Put On The Red Light

So, what'd ya think? (Leave your impressions in the comments.)

UPDATE: If you missed it live, here's how it went down:

Didn't get enough? Webcast of the tour kick-off press conference and a live "rehearsal" will be here at 2:00 PM Eastern on Monday.

MP3: The Police - "Roxanne"

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Odds and Sods

The New Yorker reviews Lucinda Williams' forthcoming record, West, and it's not pretty.

Congrats to the Aquarium Drunkard on his new domain and swanky new design. If you're not familiar with one of the best music bloggers in the business, go check out his rustic new look. You can grab a cool (and rare) Ryan Adams solo show from 1998 -- pre-Whiskeytown break-up -- for your trouble.

Slate's Explainer column, um, explains why Prince didn't get electrocuted while he played (slayed, killed, rocked the house, showed the kiddies how it's done, bizarrely covered the Foo Fighters, etc.) in that downpour at the Super Bowl last Sunday.

The podcast at Salon's Audiofile this week is a chat with Yoko Ono about her new record, Yes, I'm A Witch, which I'm considering checking out only because she duets with Cat Power on one track and, as my mom used to say, I'd listen to Cat Power sing the telephone book.

And finally, I can't believe I just provided a link for people to buy a record by Yoko Ono.

Monday, February 05, 2007


I've always had this theory (which is probably not especially original) that Zen Buddhism has the ability to reorganize one's neural pathways, which are, let's face it, established by one's experiences in life. It would seem that challenging one's understanding of those experiences and perhaps coming at them from a new angle would by definition require the formation of new branches in one's neural network. Of course, I could be totally wrong about this.

The experimental San Francisco band Deerhoof in some strange way remind me of a Zen koan -- a statement used by zen practitioners that superficially makes no sense, but that is designed to shock the mind into awareness. I won't lie to you -- Deerhoof is not for everybody. If Deerhoof were an item on a sushi menu, it would have a little asterisk out to the side indicating that it is "challenging." And while avant garde is probably not the proper technical term for their music, this band definitely pushes the boundaries of conventional rock music.

Deerhoof's new album Friend Opportunity finds the band paired down to a trio and somewhat leaner and meaner than on its critically-acclaimed 2005 breakthrough The Runners Four. Friend is also unquestionably more accessible, interposing the band's signature dissonance and schizophrenic song structures with irresistible melodies. Japanese (ahem, to continue the zen and sushi theme) singer Satomi Matsuzaki's childlike and heavily accented vocals are still something of an acquired taste, and her lyrics can be decidedly fairy-tale, that is when you can understand what she's singing about. Nevertheless, this band works together like seasoned veterans of jazz improvisation, segueing from classically-inspired orchestration to flat-out rawk, often on a dime.

The record opens with what I consider to be a prototypical Deerhoof number, "The Perfect Me," in which the boys in the band rip the place to shreds while Satomi dances through a dainty little melody straight out of some magic garden. Another highlight is "Believe E.S.P.," in which the band settles into a nasty little blues groove that would make Los Lobos proud, before jettisoning into artsy improvisation. "The Galaxist" begins like a little Japanese lullaby and, after a quick heavy rock riff straight out of Ritchie Blackmore's playbook, hits its stride on a beautiful pop melody and guitar work in the chorus, which Satomi resolves by accurately suggesting that we "could be in a different galaxy." Indeed. Near the album's close, we get "Matchbook Seeks Maniac," which is easily one of Deerhoof's most conventional songs, and maybe one of the best indie-rock melodies of this young year.

Again, this is probably not for everyone, but if you're feeling adventurous, Friend Opportunity definitely rewards those who stick with it. In fact, Deerhoof just might change the way you think about popular music.

Check out "The Perfect Me" and "Matchbook Seeks Maniac."

Westway To The World

The Good, The Bad & The Queen is the latest project from Damon Albarn, leader of Brit-pop standard-bearers Blur and, more recently, mastermind behind cartoon hitmakers Gorillaz. Albarn's deft and absurdly catchy portrayals of life among the posh kids of East London, most notably on Blur's landmark Parklife album in 1994, have drawn repeated comparisons to the great Ray Davies and cemented his reputation as a songwriter of uncommon intelligence, wit and melodic ability.

With this project, however, Albarn has the other, more down-at-the-heels side of the great city in his sights, and has surrounded himself with a skilled and eclectic group of musicians: former Verve guitarist Simon Tong, Afro-beat drummer Tony Allen and -- coolest of all -- The Clash's Paul Simonon on bass, rumpled black suit, porkpie hat and bad-ass West London iconography. The results are never less than fascinating, and frequently brilliant. Flamenco guitar, Simonon's plodding bass and Albarn's sleepy vocal carry the dub-influenced "History Song," which would have been right at home on Sandinista!. Elsewhere, strings swoon and electronic elements bubble to the surface as Albarn chronicles the seamier side of London in all its early 21st century color and decay. For all the moody atmospherics that he's clearly after, though, Albarn just can't help but write great melodies. "Kingdom of Doom" is dark and menacing in the verses, but takes a delicious Kinksian turn at the chorus that belies Albarn's undeniable gifts as a pop songwriter. Both "Behind The Sun" and "A Soldier's Tale" sport flat-out lovely tunes, reminiscent of late Blur stunners like "Sweet Song." Meanwhile, "Herculean," the record's centerpiece, is just an fantastic track in every way -- a wonderful song and arrangement wedded to daring, inventive production, courtesy of Albarn's Gorillaz cohort (and one-half of Gnarls Barkley), Brian "Danger Mouse" Burton.

As fans of Blur cling to the hope that the band will re-group and make another pop-rock record, it seems that Damon Albarn continues to have more eclectic pursuits in mind. But when the work he's focused on is as good as this, it's hard to complain. TBTB&TQ are currently playing rapturously-received shows in the UK and Europe, and are slated to hit the States in March, including dates at the South By Southwest and Coachella festivals, with a full-blown U.S. tour a possibility this summer.

MP3: The Good, The Bad & The Queen - "Kingdom of Doom"

Saturday, February 03, 2007

That's Me In The Corner

In my post about Glenn Tilbrook a couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that the documentary film of his 2001 solo tour, One For The Road, had finally been released on DVD in the U.S., and that I had attended the Atlanta show that year where Glenn led the audience (and the film crew) out of the theatre, several blocks up the street and into a fan's living room to finish his set. Well, I finally got my hands on a copy of the DVD, and sure enough, I'm in the movie, grooving to "Tempted" and clearly a few beers into the evening (I blame my buddy Kenny Howes, who accompanied me that night -- sadly, his dream-come-true jam with Glenn that night didn't make the film).

Thus far my appearance in this cinematic tour de force has only served to wound my ego and send my kids into fits of hysterical laughter. Nonetheless, witness my film debut below. IMDB, here I come:

MP3: Squeeze (with Elvis Costello) - "Tempted (alternate version)"

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Odds and Sods

I recently discovered that live show taper extraordinaire Sloan Simpson has a blog, Southern Shelter, where he posts mp3 versions of his recordings (some video too). If there's a show of any consequence in Athens, GA, you can bet that Sloan is there with his rig, and he's garnered a reputation in the trading community for making some of the cleanest, warmest and best-sounding recordings around. Check out his blog for live shows by Athens stalwarts like Drive-By Truckers, Of Montreal, Elf Power, Vic Chesnutt and my old pal David Barbe, as well as sets by up-and-comers like The Summer Hymns and Now It's Overhead. My personal favorite: an October 5, 2006 show at the 40 Watt by Dave Marr that amounted more or less to a reunion of the late, great Star Room Boys. That is pure country bliss, friends.

The podcast at Salon's Audiofile this week is an interesting chat with too-nice-and-adorable-for-her-own-good Norah Jones, whose brand new record, Not Too Late, is the first one on which had a hand in writing every song. She's not offended by the term "background music," she'll have you know, because she listens to Tom Waits while she putters around the house.

UPDATE: Norah talks to Jon Pareles of the New York Times as well.

The hugely-anticipated record by a certain 6-member band from Canada that a lot of the kids seem to be fond of has leaked onto the Internets, in its entirety, 2 months before it's release date. I'm just sayin'.

The new show streaming this week at Wolfgang's Vault -- which is still going strong notwithstanding a massive lawsuit filed by Led Zeppelin, The Doors and some other classic rock acts -- is Blondie at The Paradise Theatre in Boston on November 4, 1978. Decent enough, I guess, but not nearly as good as this one.

Finally, who can possibly resist pimping their iTunes set-up with a free plug-in, iConcertCalendar, that scans the artists in your library and generates a calendar of their upcoming shows in your area, complete with links to venue and opening act info. Works on both the Mac OSX and Windows versions of iTunes. How sweet is that? And did I mention it's FREE? (Via Stereogum)

All that, and not a single mention of Wilco or Jeff Twee-- ah, crap.