Thursday, May 31, 2007

Raise Our Heavenly Glasses To The Heavens

In 2005, The National's Alligator snuck up on me quickly -- to quote Robyn Hitchcock, "exactly like a crocodile, in search of a mirage across the undulating sand" -- and chewed its way squarely into the top slot of my "best of the year" list. Alligator delivered on a promise prior albums had only hinted at, and revealed the band as near, if not full, equals with the very best of their impressive influences.

As the release date (prior to the leak, anyway) for that record's follow-up approached, fans began nervously debating whether The National could possibly repeat their previous success. Boxer leaves no doubt, however, that any such worry was for naught.

When The National recently opened for Arcade Fire in Atlanta, they played to a crowd that seemed relatively unfamiliar with their work and on a stage poorly configured for their presentation. Only those who paid close attention would have been able to manage a glimpse of the bands' true power; power which is on ample display on the new record.

Boxer is a study in melancholia, set against lush and richly produced acoustic and electric guitar, piano, subtle orchestration, and some of the best drumming in recent memory. (Remember how good the drums sounded on October? The drums on Boxer are reminiscent of that). Lead singer Matt Berninger's boozy baritone swaggers through late night cityscapes and conjures the sound of a defeated contender. The songs are haunted by dreams unrealized, effortlessly rendered in downbeat poetry. Simply put, The National's lyrics may be about the best around these days: "Underline everything/I'm a professional in my beloved white shirt/I'm going down among the saints."

Although Boxer may lack the immediate catchiness of some of Alligator's standout tunes like "Mr. November," it is more consistent in the dark mood created across the course of the record, and more expertly played and produced. I expect some may be turned off by the depressive chord Boxer strikes, but those folks will be missing out. This record is something close to a masterpiece.

MP3: The National - "Mistaken For Strangers" from Boxer
YouTube: "Mistaken For Strangers"

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

You Are My Face

I know I said I'd give the Wilco a rest for a while, but during their recent run of shows in Britain, the band taped an episode of Later With Jools Holland that aired in the UK on Friday night, and the performance of "You Are My Face," my favorite track from Sky Blue Sky, is just too gorgeous not to share:

Monday, May 28, 2007

How Her Heart Behaves

When I reviewed her latest record back in February, I mentioned that I wish Norah Jones, with all that talent and allure at her command, would take more risks and attempt some edgier, more interesting material. But I guess it's okay to let Norah be Norah, as long as Leslie Feist is around.

On her spectacular new record, The Reminder, Feist (as she prefers to be known) easily outshines her more famous, multi-platinum contemporary as a purveyor of delicate, jazz-inflected pop. But while Norah's music has a certain, stately sameness to it, Feist flits -- and not just comfortably but commandingly -- from her own brand of dusky, late-night swing ("So Sorry" and "The Water"), to rambunctious indie rock ("I Feel It All"), to quiet Americana ("The Park"), to traditional, orchestrated pop ("My Moon My Man" and "1234") and soul ("The Limit To Your Love") without ever breaking a sweat. In lesser hands, such audacious genre-hopping could come across as gimmicky. But Feist either wrote or co-wrote every track on this record, so the overall impression here is of a supremely gifted artist at a creative peak, stretching her wings and reveling in the many types of music she and her talented friends are capable of producing together. (The record winds down with "Brandy Alexander," co-written with the incomparable Ron Sexsmith, and "How My Heart Behaves," a lovely duet with Eirik Glambek Boe of Kings of Convenience.)

In the end, though, what The Reminder showcases most plainly is that Leslie Feist has quietly developed one of the most gorgeous singing voices in modern pop music, recalling both Cat Power and, at moments, early 70s Joni Mitchell (two comparisons I do not throw around casually), but capable of summoning more power and stylistic range than either of those greats. It's a thrilling instrument to behold, plain and simple, and there seems to be nothing she can't tackle with it. That extraordinary quality, not to mention the 13 impeccably crafted and beautifully performed songs here, make this another early candidate for record of the year.

MP3: Feist - "I Feel It All" from The Reminder

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Now You Don't Talk So Loud

Today is International Talk Like Bob Dylan Day, so pinch your nostrils together, imitate those odd cadences, draw out those vowel sounds and get your inner Bob on today. Here, practice your talkin' with these:

MP3: Bob Dylan - "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues" from The Freewheelin' Session Outtakes (bootleg), studio outtake, recorded 1962

MP3: Bob Dylan - "Talkin' World War III Blues" from Now Ain't The Time For Your Tears (bootleg), recorded May 7, 1965, Free Trade Hall, Manchester, UK

MP3: Bob Dylan - Message to Columbia Records Sales Meeting in Miami, from Thin Wild Mercury Music (bootleg), recorded May 12, 1965

Oh, and a Happy 66th Birthday to the great man himself, born on this day in 1941. But of course, he was so much older then, he's younger than that now.

RELATED: Today's edition of Slate features a collection of Dylan photos from the 60s and 70s, most of them by the wonderful Elliott Landy.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Classic Bootleg Series Vol. 11: Neko Case & Her Boyfriends - John Peel Session 2000

I usually like to jump around chronologically, which -- after Wilco's YHF demos, circa 2000-2001 -- would've meant something either really old or really recent. But since securing my ticket yesterday to see her show with Rufus Wainwright in August, I've had Neko Case on the brain. (Truth is, I frequently have Neko on the brain -- but that's another story.)

Some things are so sublime that they don't require a lot of explanation. Here's Neko at the top of her game, with her crack band (which means you get steel guitar god Jon Rauhouse and our lovely homegirl Kelly Hogan in the bargain), in the UK to support her second album, Furnace Room Lullaby. Several songs from that record get a workout, as do a few country, soul and gospel covers, including a goosebump-inducing take on Aretha Franklin's "Runnin' Out of Fools". This was Neko's only live appearance on the late John Peel's radio program, recorded in September of 2000 in front of an audience at the BBC studios in Maida Vale, London. In a matter of 35 minutes, she has them eating out of her hand. Lucky them.

Front cover
Disc (if you're so inclined)

NEKO CASE & HER BOYFRIENDS - BBC Studios, Maida Vale, September 13, 2000

(Sound is a little trebly, but the genius shines through.)

01 Set Out Running
02 Make Your Bed
03 Stinging Velvet
04 Favorite
05 Twist The Knife
06 Bought and Sold
07 Furnace Room Lullaby
08 Look For Me (I'll Be Around)
09 Runnin' Out of Fools
10 Lord, Don't Move That Mountain
11 Bowling Green

RELATED: Buy Neko's corset! (The one in the cover art.)

Monday, May 21, 2007

Talking With Fireworks

I suppose I shouldn't be so surprised at how quickly and how deeply the debut record from Scotland's The Twilight Sad, Fourteen Autumns, Fifteen Winters, seeped into my consciousness. After all, this record contains a lot of the ingredients that I cut my own musical teeth on back in the 80s: soaring melodies, swirling guitars, grand emotions worn proudly on the sleeve, and an almost religious passion for the music. For those of you who, like me, grew up on early U2, the Alarm, the Waterboys, Simple Minds, and Big Country, this is so in your wheelhouse. That said, The Twilight Sad have a fair amount of 90s shoegaze thrown in for good measure, but the upfront baritone of lead singer James Graham cuts through the facelessness of that genre like a knife.

As if by second nature, The Twilight Sad churn out what Mike Scott once called "The Big Music," and Graham's thick Scottish brogue only adds to the drama. And to return to the Big Country comparison, Fifteen Autumns also serves up some of the best e-bowed guitar that you will have heard since The Crossing. The difference between then and now, however, is that on top of the long arcs that the band's guitars send heavenward, there is enough noise to evoke My Bloody Valentine and its progeny. The result is a tension, perhaps, between the sacred and the profane, between prayer and walls of noise.

This is a record that is satisfying on so many levels. It's emotionally exhilarating and anthemic. It bridges the space between quiet internal longing and expressionistic bombast. All of which is pretty impressive for a debut record from a few Scottish youngsters who sound wise beyond their years.

MP3: The Twilight Sad - "Cold Days From The Birdhouse" from Fourteen Autumns, Fifteen Winters
MP3: The Twilight Sad - "Walking For Two Hours" from Fourteen Autumns, Fifteen Winters

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Can't Hardly Wait

Before we become That Wilco Thing, let's switch gears. Here are tracks from a couple of releases we're looking for to:

RYAN ADAMS - "Everybody Knows" from Easy Tiger, out on June 26

CROWDED HOUSE - "Don't Stop Now" (webrip) from Time On Earth, out on July 10

SPOON - "The Ghost Of You Lingers" from Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, out on July 10

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Maybe You Still Love Me, Maybe You Don't

If it isn't clear enough already that Sky Blue Sky is the most polarizing record of Wilco's career, this cinches it for me -- welcome to our first-ever joint post. More than any other band, Wilco brought us together as friends and cemented our music-geek bond. We've seen the band together numerous times over the last few years, in Atlanta and on roads trips across the South, and it's fair to say that we're both tithing members of the Church of Tweedy. But we've had very different reactions to Sky Blue Sky (as have a lot of folks -- witness Pitchfork vs. PopMatters). So welcome to our own little version of Point/Counterpoint:

Frank's Take:

Unlike the three records that preceded it, Sky Blue Sky is not a grand artistic statement. It has no art-rock pretense or 60s pop pastiche, no bursts of feedback or radio interference, no ominous foreshadowing of disastrous events, no "American aquarium drinkers" who "assassin down the avenue." In a recent Billboard interview, Jeff Tweedy said that when the band set out to record its latest batch of songs, he asked himself, what record do I want to hear right now? And the answer was, "I want to hear somebody just sing me some songs."

That's precisely what Tweedy and Co. do on Sky Blue Sky. And as much as this delights the legions of fans who have aways preferred the early "alt country" Wilco of A.M. and Being There, it frustrates the hell out of newer fans who expect every Wilco record to top the last in sonic "experimentation." As Tweedy said in another recent interview, when Yankee Hotel Foxtrot came out, everyone asked him, "Where's the pedal steel?" Now the pedal steel is back, and everyone's asking, "Where's the noise?"

Well there's plenty of gorgeous noise on Sky Blue Sky. No, it's not their most complex or adventurous work -- and okay, it might even have one bum track -- but with that single (and arguable) exception, the record is never less than hugely enjoyable, and when it's good, it's as fine as just about anything this exceptional band -- and this one-in-a-million songwriter -- have ever produced.

The record is bookended, both musically and thematically, by two lovely Tweedy ballads, "Either Way" (which we previewed back in April) and "On & On & On." The former floats in on Tweedy's fingerpicked acoustic and a bed of shimmering Hammond organ, then peaks with swelling strings and a beautifully understated solo by new, virtuoso lead guitarist Nels Cline. But on the second track, "You Are My Face" (currently my favorite on the record), it's Tweedy who supplies the guitar pyrotechnics with a gutting, Neil Young-inspired solo that transforms this gentle folk song, with its airy, double-tracked vocal, into an adrenaline-fuelled plea. (It's at moments like this when I just can't comprehend the complaint that Sky Blue Sky "doesn't rock.") Elsewhere, "Impossible Germany," a live favorite since last summer, peaks with a three-guitar duel in which Tweedy and Cline are joined by multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone. And anyone waiting for Cline to step out and really show his stuff has to be wowed by the blistering solo he turns in on the soulful "Side With The Seeds." "Walken" is not the most profound piece of music Jeff Tweedy has ever created, but the charms of its Southern fried, Little Feat vibe are awfully tough to resist. And the delicate "Please Be Patient With Me" is both unspeakably pretty and the most intensely personal tune Tweedy has ever released -- almost like eavesdropping on one of the conversations he and his wife must have had during his struggle with addiction a few years ago.

In short, and despite the fact that it's a relatively subdued ride from start to finish, I really love this record, and think it has given us at least eight new songs that deserve their place in the Wilco canon. (Of course, the very fact that I speak in terms of a "canon" when I talk about Jeff Tweedy and Wilco reveals my admitted bias.)

At the same time, the latest Wilco record is precisely that -- just the latest record by Wilco, until they make another one. Jeff Tweedy is not even 40 years old. Like Dylan or Neil Young, he's a career artist, and a love of his music is a relationship for life. (Maybe Sky Blue Sky is his Nashville Skyline, or his Harvest.) And I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that he's given me more music to enjoy, and to be thrilled and fascinated and moved by, than any other artist over the past decade. So, as another blogger so aptly put it earlier this week, if he wants to kick back and be mellow right now, I'll happily kick back with him.

Rich's Take:

"Be careful what you wish for," should probably be the theme of my post. Don't get me wrong. Of course I loved Yankee Hotel Foxtrot every single bit as much as any other self-respecting Wilco disciple, but by the time A Ghost Is Born revealed how the band had -- "ruined" is too strong a word -- changed "Spiders (Kidsmoke)" from the alt-country version they'd been playing live into a celebration of Krautrock, and inexplicably added about 12 minutes of machine hum to the end of "Less Than You Think," I was calling for Wilco to end the weird-for-weird's-sake and just play the damn songs. The beautiful, supremely melodic songs of one this generation's most gifted songwriters.

I have to admit that Sky Blue Sky has me apologetically asking if I could change my order. Now, Wilco has never really been overwhelmingly challenging, but there has long been something of an edge present in the band's music, an uneasy undercurrent that manifested itself in limited Sonic Youth outbursts of noise and disjointed, impressionistic lyrics that are often deeply evocative for reasons superficially unexplainable. Most reviewers will probably highlight that Sky Blue Sky represents a kind of maturity in the evolution of Wilco, but it's a maturity that comes at the expense of that "edge."

This is a most curious development. When Wilco signed the great avant garde guitarist Nels Cline to the lineup, I was excited about the sonic possibilities that this presented. And having seen him shred on Wilco standards several times in the last few years (and hearing him on the live album Kicking Television), I felt the Nels Cline version of the band portended a new dimension of artistic creativity. But Nels' guitar work on this record is, for the most part, decidedly subtle and disappointingly understated. It would say that it's the equivalent of signing A-Rod to play third base, only that metaphor doesn't hold up because A-Rod still gets to hit every once in a while, and these particular songs don't offer much for Mr. Cline to swing at.

I certainly don't mean to pan the record. Some of the songs on Sky Blue Sky are probably as good as anything Wilco has ever done. "Impossible Germany" would've been at home on either of the last couple of records, and "What Light," a new classic in the Wilco songbook, is probably that song that I intended to order up in my prior exhortation. It's still a Wilco record, which makes it way better than the vast majority of anything else that's out there.

Nevertheless, this record probably also has some of Wilco's least effective material. "Shake It Off," a herky-jerky jam that never really goes anywhere but does go on for far longer than is necessary, is probably my least favorite song that the band has ever recorded. A close second is Tweedy's hymn to sad domesticity, "Hate It Here," which dresses up in ill-fitting 70s soul that sounds either like something off of an unheard comeback attempt by Peter Frampton or an early Don Henley B-side. For the first time in my life, I'm routinely skipping over Wilco songs.

That 70s soul/soft-rock thing permeates the record. Songs like "Leave Me Like You Found Me" and "Walken" aren't bad, they're just not particularly interesting. And unlike previous Wilco records -- which routinely had me studying the lyrics, trying to decipher what Jeff was getting at, or simply admiring their inherent poetry -- here, the straightforward, earnest lyrics on Sky Blue Sky have me drifting off, thinking about that project at work or whether I'll have time to get my oil changed this weekend. I begin to recall that scene in I Am Trying To Break Your Heart when Jay Bennett sort of condescendingly explains that he needs to junk up Tweedy's songs with a bunch of noise and found sounds in order to keep them from sounding "like little folk songs," or words to that effect. I still don't believe that's entirely true, but a few of these may have benefited from some measure of sonic tinkering.

But then again, what do I know? Jeff Tweedy has made a career of giving his fans musical food that their palates aren't ready for, so it may just be that this record needs further digestion so that it continues to grow and insert itself in ways that aren't yet understood. If so, I'll be the first to circle back and admit that I was short-sighted. But at this point, and at the risk of damning it with faint praise, Sky Blue Sky can be summed up by referencing a line in the title track: "its good enough for now." It may not be my favorite Wilco outing so far, but it's still Wilco, and that's good enough for me.

MP3: Wilco - "You Are My Face" from Sky Blue Sky

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Radio Cure

Sky Blue Sky is out today, and we continue our Wilco release week coverage with the band's appearance on A Prairie Home Companion last Saturday night, from the State Theatre in Minneapolis. (We'll review SBS later in the week.)

01 Sky Blue Sky
02 Garrison Keillor chats with Tweedy > Muzzle of Bees > chat continued > What Light
03 When The Roses Bloom Again
04 Hesitating Beauty

(Webrip by DawgSong at the Via Chicago message board -- his turned out a bit better than mine.)

UPDATE: Greg Kot, author of definitive Wilco bio Learning How To Die, interviews the band in today's issue of PopMatters.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Classic Bootleg Series Vol. 10: Wilco - The Yankee Hotel Foxtrot Demos

With Wilco's new record, Sky Blue Sky, set for release this week, selecting the next entry in our series was (for once) a no-brainer.

The sessions that produced Wilco's pivotal Yankee Hotel Foxtrot album -- as infamously documented in Sam Jones' 2002 film, I Am Trying To Break Your Heart -- were a perfect storm of dysfunction. After delivering the brilliant dose of infectious, sun-dappled pop that was 1999's Summerteeth, the band embarked in a new and far more challenging direction that involved not just the writing of great songs, but an almost maniacal process of tearing down and reconstructing each one, sometimes over and over again, until -- after literally hundreds of hours in the studio -- some elusive, alchemic result finally revealed itself. Even a band in the best of mental health would have been stretched to its limits by this routine. And at the time, Wilco was anything but. Jay Bennett, a supremely gifted musician and songwriter with an equally pompous and irritating personality, had tired of playing second fiddle to Jeff Tweedy and was making a calculated power grab, alienating not just Tweedy but the rest of his bandmates in the process. Tweedy, meanwhile, already pathologically averse to confrontation, was at his absolute personal low point, firmly in the clutches of an anxiety disorder, chronic migraine headaches and an attendent addiction to prescription painkillers that had him struggling to maintain some semblance of control, and not just over his band.

What's most astonishing about the YHF sessions, then, is not that they were so fractious, but that they produced, in the midst of all that simmering acrimony and discomfort, such a wealth of gorgeous and stunningly inspired music. There is evidence enough of that in the record itself, which I consider to be Wilco's masterpiece and among the finest releases of the last 20 years. But what casual fans may not know is that the tracks that ended up on YHF represent only a small fraction of what the band recorded in this period.

The so-called "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot Demos" -- actually consisting of both true demos and completed-but-discarded studio tracks from the YHF sessions -- have been called "the great lost Wilco album." In fact, it sometimes seems that these recordings have inspired as much fawning praise from critics as the officially-released album.

The tracks fall into two basic categories. First, there are early, sometimes radically different versions of songs that ended up on the record. Indeed, fans who aren't wild about the sonic experimentation on YHF can find more straightforward renditions of some of the songs here.

Second, and even more stunning, are the songs that didn't make the cut at all, a number of them as good as just about anything in the Wilco catalog. It's not hard to guess why pop gems like "Magazine Called Sunset," "Alone" and "Nothing Up My Sleeve," all of which would have been right at home on Summerteeth, didn't fit in with what Tweedy was trying to accomplish with YHF, but that doesn't make them any less wonderful. "Not For The Season" is terrific, too, and was a longtime staple of Wilco's live set (they still bust it out on occasion), but it didn't make the grade either, perhaps because Tweedy had other plans for the song. (It ended up, sapped of most of its passion, as "Laminated Cat" on the first album by Tweedy's Loose Fur side project.) And "Will Not Let You Down" sounds like Wilco brought Exile-era Keith Richards in as a ringer one day -- it's rollicking fun, even if it had no natural place on YHF.

Yet, the omission of two of these songs from YHF defies explanation. "Cars Can't Escape" is one of Wilco's loveliest ballads, and although the band gave it away online to anyone who purchased YHF, and even toss it into their live setlist every now and then, they have never treated it as much more than a throw-away. I don't care -- it's among my all-time favorite Wilco songs.

But if these recordings do comprise some sort of alternate-universe classic, then "Venus Stop The Train" is THE great lost Wilco track. Achingly beautiful and hauntingly produced, it would have been an absolute highlight of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and consistent in every way with the sound and ethos of that classic record. Instead, it has never been released, or performed live. Not even once. Until that far-off day when a career-spanning Wilco box set sees the light of day, this is the only way you'll ever hear this positively gorgeous song.


Artwork (low resolution -- if you have better, please send it along):

01 I Am Trying To Break Your Heart
02 Ashes of American Flags
03 I'm The Man Who Loves You
04 Magazine Called Sunset
05 Reservations
06 Kamera
07 Not For The Season
08 Alone
09 Nothing Up My Sleeve
10 Venus Stop The Train
11 Car's Can't Escape (piano demo)
12 Poor Places
13 Will Not Let You Down
14 Heavy Metal Drummer
15 Instrumental No. 1
16 Instrumental No. 2
17 Instrumental No. 2 (take 2)
18 Kamera (alternate version)
19 Magazine Called Sunset (alternate version)
20 Alone (alternate version)
21 Not For The Season (alternate version)

And a bonus track, because the collection is simply incomplete without it:

22 Cars Can't Escape (finished studio version)

Finally, this isn't even all of it. Other tracks recorded during the YHF sessions but never released -- some of which circulate on a separate bootleg called The YHF Engineer Demos -- include "Corduroy Cutoff Girl" ("Instrumental No. 2" above, with lyrics added), an early version of "Handshake Drugs" (later re-worked and released on the follow-up to YHF, 2004's A Ghost Is Born), "The Good Part" (which returned to the Wilco setlist in 2006 and briefly looked like it was headed for Sky Blue Sky) and still other, entirely different versions of many of the YHF tracks. Perhaps a worthwhile subject for another day.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Odds and Sods

Scottish band Mogwai provide the soundtrack for Zidane, a documentary portrait of the iconic French footballer (and head-butter) by Scottish film director Douglas Gordon, and we have a track to share. I am praying that this film gets a DVD release, at least, in the U.S. Vive Zizou!

MP3: Mogwai - "The Black Spider" from Zidane original soundtrack

The official site for The Future Is Unwritten, Julien Temple's documentary on TTT patron saint Joe Strummer, is up and running. The film was huge at Sundance this year, and opens in select cities on May 18. If the trailer is any indication, this will be a favorite music flick of all time.

In a move sure to draw a snide comment from Rich about their forthcoming record, Wilco will play A Prairie Home Companion this Saturday evening. U.S. readers can tune in to their local public radio stations between 6:00 and 8:00 PM Eastern to catch the performance, live from legendary Lake Wobegon. Sky Blue Sky is out next Tuesday, May 15, and if you purchase your copy at an independent record store you'll get some bonus goodies, as Jeff Tweedy will tell you himself.

The weekly Take-Away Shows at La Blogoteque feature videos of some of the finest indie artists around (Arcade Fire, Cold War Kids, Andrew Bird, The National, The Shins, Guillemots, My Brightest Diamond, Grizzly Bear) performing, busker-style, in public spaces in and around France. Bonus footage of six bands is also up this week to mark the first anniversary of the project.

And our Classic Bootleg Series will continue by no later than the end of this weekend. Promise. The next one's a must-have, kids, so don't miss it.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Get It On!!!

Nick Cave's new side project (with current Bad Seeds members), Grinderman, is a testosterone-infused punk rock/blues mash-up extraordinaire. An early press release accurately described Grinderman as "fouled-mouthed, noisy, hairy, and damned-well old enough to know better." The band might also be described as Id Gone Wild. And, as Martha Stewart says, "that's a good thing."

Grinderman's self-titled debut album opens with two white-hot shots to the gut: "Get It On," and "No Pussy Blues." The former, which is linked below, is a raw, in-your-face exposition in rock and roll decadence, which, among other things, extols the virtues of "those who gave their lives so that we could Get It On." The latter, which is about exactly what you think it's about ("I petted her revolting little chihuahua and still she just didn't want to . . ."), and screams it from the rooftops in a hilarious, blue-balled celebration as straightforward and visceral as anything in blues or rock music.

Songs like "Depth Charge Ethel" and "Honey Bee (Let's Fly To Mars)" keep up the fat bass lines and dirty grind, but there are a few songs that vary the pace considerably, such as the Tom Waits-ish "Electric Alice," the artsy spoken-word "Go Tell The Women," and the title track, on which Nick channels Jim Morrison over a post-modern dirge. The record rounds out with the teeming menace of "When My Love Comes Down" and "Love Bomb," the latter of which sounds like what Talking Heads might have sounded like had they been leather-clad bikers instead geeky art school students. Grinderman is a real winner for that dirty rocker that's lurking deep down inside of you.

MP3: Grinderman - "Get It On" from Grinderman
MP3: Grinderman - "Love Bomb" from Grinderman

Also, check out the video for "No Pussy Blues" (parental discretion advised)

And as an added bonus, for a little historical perspective:

MP3: John Lee Hooker - "Grinder Man" from Everybody's Blues

Monday, May 07, 2007

Time Of No Reply

I never thought I'd be announcing the arrival of "new" recordings by revered British singer-songwriter Nick Drake, but that's just what will happen on June 19, when the Drake estate will release Family Tree, a collection of acoustic demos, covers and other unreleased recordings that Drake made at home in the late 60s, before he secured a record deal and released his debut album, Five Leaves Left, in 1969.

Before his death from an overdose of antidepressants in 1974, Drake released three records of fragile, sublimely beautiful acoustic pop, but he died -- at age 26 -- in almost complete obscurity. Although his music was adored and his tremendous talent (as a songwriter, guitarist and singer) was appreciated by a small cult of hardcore fans, Drake's music didn't obtain any measure of mainstream awareness until the title track of his final album, Pink Moon, was used to wonderful effect in a Volkswagen commercial in 2000. That widespread exposure, coupled with the release of the outstanding Fruit Tree box set (comprised of his three studio albums, plus an extra disc of unreleased outtakes and rarities) cemented Drake's reputation, almost 30 years after his death, and revealed the tremendous influence that he has on singer-songwriters to this day. He was, more or less, the Sufjan Stevens of his day.

Many of Drake's early home recordings have been widely bootlegged for years, most famously on a release called Tanworth in Arden that is a staple of any good boot collection. But the sound quality on Family Tree promises to be noticeably better than the hissy, high-generation tapes that collectors have long passed around. This new release will also feature some uncirculated material -- namely, collaborations between Drake and members of his family -- that very few people have ever heard before.

Thanks to the good folks at The MuseBox, we've received a preview track from Family Tree, an early (and discarded) Drake original called "They're Leaving Me Behind". While it's not in a league with his classic studio material, it's an interesting peek at a brilliant artist still struggling to find his voice, and we're pleased to be able to share it.

MP3: Nick Drake - "They're Leaving Me Behind" from Family Tree

Friday, May 04, 2007

Living For The Future

Cover albums, it seems to me, are often the refuge of artists with nothing left to say, or of those who are playing out a contractual string. There are some notable exceptions to that, but when I read that Patti Smith's first post-Hall of Fame record, Twelve, is a covers album, I didn't begrudge her that victory lap, but I did lower my expectations a little.

Twelve, while perhaps not a revelation, is still a very pleasant surprise. On it, Professor Smith gives a fairly straightforward tutorial on rock history, covering an eclectic range of artists from the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s. The songs are well-chosen and well-played. Both the production and her voice are warm and intimate, and the effect is killer; evocative of a late night private show to which you are incredibly lucky to have scored tickets.

Even as a punk-poet, Patti has never been a stranger to classic rock covers -- like Van Morrison's "Gloria" and Hendrix's "Hey Joe" -- and the classic crowd is represented here as well, with songs from Dylan ("Changing Of The Guard"), the Doors ("Soul Kitchen"), Jefferson Airplane (a spooky "White Rabbit"), and Neil Young (a lovely version of "Helpless"). Other older songs include a faithful cover of the Stones' "Gimme Shelter," and a somewhat surprising version of the Allman Brother's southern rock classic, "Midnight Rider." And even though "Within You Without You" is probably my least favorite Beatles song (which still places it way above most things), here it is set to a swinging 6/8 cadence that is most appealing.

The album also boasts some unexpected choices of more recent vintage, including a warm, stripped-down version of Tears for Fears' "Everybody Wants To Rule The World," and Paul Simon's 80s world-beat hit, "Boy In The Bubble." Patti and her band take the most liberties with their gorgeous version of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," the record's centerpiece. It's a virtual photographic negative of the original, played acoustically as a folk song, prominently featuring banjo and mandolin. I know, it sounds like some Hayseed Dixie parody, but in this bands' hands it's pure poetry (even inspiring Patti to interject some of her own) and illustrates the genius of Kurt Cobain, even without the distorted guitars and punk rock nihilism.

The record is rounded out with a smooth version of Stevie Wonder's "Pastime Paradise," which doesn't sound like typical Patti Smith territory, but serves as the perfect closer. I can't say that I've lived with it long enough to discern any overt theme in her selections, but the timelessness of all these songs render each of them, in its own way, immediately applicable to the present day, and beyond. And so too is Patti Smith.

MP3: Patti Smith - "Everybody Wants To Rule The World" from Twelve (Tears For Fears cover)
MP3: Patti Smith - "Smells Like Teen Spirit" from Twelve (Nirvana cover)

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Chelsea Dagger

Scottish trio The Fratellis have been dismissed by some as major label Arctic Monkeys clones or, worse yet, just another soon-to-be-forgotten act that was briefly lucky enough to have a catchy track ("Flathead") featured in an iPod ad. But after living with their debut, Costello Music, for a few weeks now, I have to give them more credit than that. Sure, they seem to have nicked the early Arctics template a bit -- tight, distinctly British pub rock brimming with killer riffs and big, sing-along choruses -- but it's not like that's a bad thing, and on more than a few tracks, they distinguish themselves nicely, with skillful songwriting and some great musicianship. "Henrietta" has enough hooks for three songs, single "Chelsea Dagger" is a rollicking good time, with a Gary Glitter drumbeat, T-Rex guitars and a chorus made to be chanted in unison by drunk lads in bars, and "Creepin' Up The Back Stairs" alternates between modern thrash and harmonies that would have been at home at the Cavern Club in early 60s Liverpool. Best of all, though, is the one true ballad, "Whistle For The Choir," which will surely have a place on any "favorite songs of the year" mix I may be putting together in 7 months or so.

MP3: The Fratellis - "Whistle For The Choir" from Costello Music

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Every Time You Close Your Eyes

The Arcade Fire were in town last night, and of course we were front and center -- we're fans, if you haven't noticed -- for what turned out to be a revelatory set. Even with the ludicrously high expectations I had after seeing them in 2005, I was blown away. I'm simply not articulate enough to convey the heart, passion and effort that they seem to pour into every song, putting not just their voices but also (in the case of Will Butler, who at one point tightrope-walked the ramped balcony support at the Atlanta Civic Center until he was perched a good 30 feet above the crowd, teetering precariously and maniacally pounding on a drum the entire time) their bodies on the line to ensure that the performance is nothing less than epic, and no one leaves disappointed. After seeing this show, one thing is certain in my mind: In addition to releasing two of the finest records of the past decade, the Arcade Fire join the likes of Radiohead, Wilco and My Morning Jacket as among the very best live bands on the planet.