Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Police & Thieves

I had a rough day yesterday, friends. Burglars broke into my house while I was at work and pretty well cleaned me out -- my computer, stereo equipment, my camera and iPod, my kids' Xbox 360, games and DVDs. Not to mention tons of personal information -- e-mails, passwords, tax returns, electronic receipts, web bookmarks, etc. -- that I pray isn't going to come back to bite me in the ass down the road. But the toughest loss of all, the one I'm still struggling to stomach 14 hours later? That would be the little 300GB Seagate external harddrive that contained every picture I've taken over the last 5 years -- every vacation, every kid's birthday, every concert, everything worth remembering -- not to mention every piece of music I've ever digitized, including literally hundreds of bootlegs. All of it, gone, just like that. The electronics they took is just stuff. But the contents of that harddrive, in very large measure, are irreplaceable.

So it seems that I'll be out of commission for a while, as any sort of music blogger anyway. (That whole "no computer, no music" thing does present a bit of an obstacle.) There are insurance companies to deal with, an iMac to replace, and then a mammoth music collection to start rebuilding from scratch. But I'll be back as soon as I can -- there are new releases to talk about, which I haven't been doing enough anyway, and hey, those sorry, thieving bastards didn't get everything, so the Classic Bootleg Series will be back as well. And I know Rich will continue to post when he can. So please hang with us, be patient if the content doesn't come as frequently as it has been for a little while, and give us a week or two to get back on our feet. As our patron saints, The Clash, once said, "I've been beat up, and I've been thrown out, but I'm not down, no I'm not down."

Friday, August 24, 2007

I Like Fish And Mango Pickles

M.I.A. can probably be classified in countless genres, including rap, electronic, and dancehall (just to name a few of the more recognizable ones), but her attitude is straight-up punk rock. Born in London, but mostly raised in Sri Lanka, Mathangi "Maya" Arulpragasam, a.k.a. M.I.A., combines third world patois and British street slang into a grimy hip-hop bouillabaisse that sounds like nothing else -- nothing else on these western shores, anyway. I imagine that M.I.A. is the distilled embodiment of the archetype that Malcolm McLaren was trying to create with his Adam and the Ants double drummers and his Bow Wow Wow Burmese lead singer, Annabella Lwin. Only McLaren wasn't close, and M.I.A. gets there without even trying.

M.I.A.'s outstanding new record, Kala (named after her sister), is one of the most exciting and subversive albums I've heard in a while -- maybe since her last one, Arular (named after her Sri Lankan militant father). Kala (the record) was born in countries all over the world, including India, Jamaica, Japan, and Australia, and as a result, the international influences come fast and furious. From the aboriginal Australian children (the "Wilcannia Mob") featured in "Mango Pickle Down River" to guest "Afrikan Boy" who tears up "Hussel" (to the ultimately unnecessary appearance of American rapper/producer Timbaland in "Come Around"), this record feels like Around The World In Twelve Tracks.

Right from the get-go, she lets us know -- on "Bamboo Banga" -- that "M.I.A.'s coming back with power, POWER!", perhaps in answer to critics (see Pitchfork) who have wrongly suggested that she may be more the product of good producers than individual talent. Other highlights include the otherwordly "20 Dollar," which is based ambiguously on the bass line of New Order's "Blue Monday" and refers to the cost of AK-47s in Africa, where "stains," rather than chains, hang low on shirts. Also of note (especially to a blog so named as this one) is the excellent "Paper Planes," which is unambiguously based on the intro of The Clash's "Straight To Hell" and features a chorus of children singing "All I wanna do is . . . [insert the sound of gunshots and a cash register] take your mon-ey."

Kala, which is an unintended testament to Tom Friedman's The World Is Flat, is a must for the adventurous, or even the curious. Joe Strummer would be proud.

MP3: M.IA. - "Bamboo Banga" from Kala

YouTube: M.I.A. - "Birdflu" from Kala

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Don't Call It A Comeback

"The revolution will not be televised . . ." said Chuck D of Public Enemy, the voice of a generation of rap, once upon a time. Turns out, the revolution whereby rock was replaced by rap music -- at least as the music designed to keep the generation gap alive -- was highly televised, with ubiquitous gangsta videos brought to you by everyone from N.W.A. to Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre to Tupac to Jay-Z to 50 Cent and shoved down the throats of the youth of America. This is not what Chuck D had in mind.

That point is made, loud and clear, on the new offering from Public Enemy, who are celebrating their 20th anniversary with the release of How You Sell Soul To A Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul? Chuck D once accurately called rap "the CNN of the streets." (Personally, I always loved PE because I saw them as rap's version of The Clash). But things have changed over the last 20 years, and PE were not able to sustain the incredible level of scorched earth creativity they established on the classics It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back and Fear Of A Black Planet. And, like the rest of the news, rap has gone from reporting from the streets to highly predictable sensationalism.

On How You Sell Soul, Chuck D expresses his frustration and disappointment that rap's message went from "Fight The Power" and "Don't Believe The Hype" to "Gin And Juice" and "Big Pimpin'". Fortunately, that frustration has been poured into a new mix that allows Chuck D to capture a little bit of the old magic. Not surprisingly, PE's got plenty to say about the current administration, but most of the shots are fired back at the community.

Gone is Chuck D as the slick MC. He's been replaced by an older, angrier Prophet of Rage whose voice is a little more ragged and lot more in your face. Flavor Flav returns from the embarrassing reality shows to provide comic relief that's somewhat less novel after watching him swoon over a garish Brigitte Nielsen on The Surreal Life. Terminator X's blips, beeps, and sirens have been replaced by more traditional grooves, and the typical plethora of sound bites from Malcolm X, etc., have given way to self-referential samples from PE's rich history.

No matter. For my money, nobody does it better than Chuck D, and while How You Sell Soul may not quite reach the heights that PE attained years ago, it's still way better than 99% of the shite that rap has become. Bring the Noise indeed.

MP3: Public Enemy - "Harder Than You Think" from How You Sell Soul To A Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul?

Monday, August 20, 2007

Classic Bootleg Series Vol. 19: Jeff Buckley - Glastonbury Festival 1995

Although many of my musical heroes died much too soon, only two of them threaten to choke me up whenever I think of them. One is Elliott Smith, who I'm sure we'll get to at some point in this series. The other is Jeff Buckley.

Grace was nothing less than a revelation to me in 1994. Suddenly, and seemingly out of nowhere, there was this guy who wrote exquisite songs, could rock like Zeppelin, could melt even the steeliest resolve with a romantic ballad, and had the sweetest, most angelic voice I had ever heard. It was a stunning, near-perfect debut by an immense talent, it positively blew me away, and it was exciting to consider the prospect of watching Jeff grow and evolve, and to imagine the decades of great music that were surely in front of him. Then came that horrible week in May of '97 when he disappeared while swimming in Memphis, then turned up dead a few days later. I remember precisely where I was when I got the news, and again, I get rattled just thinking about it.

But less talk, more Jeff. Here's his tremendous turn at the Glastonbury Festival in June of '95, as recorded by the BBC. It's an exceptional tape, and the setlist is heavy on songs from Grace (which means it's great), with a then-unreleased song ("What Will You Say") and an MC5 cover tossed in for good measure. If only I had dozens or hundreds more Jeff Buckley shows, recorded over all the years since, to have to weed through and choose from. But even if I did, I bet this one would still be tough to top.

JEFF BUCKLEY - Live at Glastonbury, June 24, 1995

Front cover
Back insert

01 intro
02 Dream Brother
03 Lover, You Should Have Come Over
04 So Real
05 Last Goodbye
06 What Will You Say
07 Mojo Pin
08 Eternal Life
09 Kick Out The Jams
10 Grace

Friday, August 17, 2007

The Night Starts Here

Montreal's Stars walk a fine line between the cinematic and the melodramatic, quite often (intentionally, one might suspect) blurring that line along their way in search of perfect chamber pop bliss. The band's new record, In Our Bedroom After The War, is certainly no exception. (As an aside, the record, set to be released next month, was made available via paid download only four days after it was mastered in an effort to thwart those nasty internet traders -- you know who you are).

As the title perhaps suggests, In Our Bedroom plays like a song cycle about battles, more often of the between-the-sheets variety than the in-the-streets kind. The songs are quite theatrical in nature, and could easily provide the soundtrack to some hip Off-Broadway show. As such, they are artfully constructed and arranged, with a primary basis in keyboard and piano structures, and peopled with interesting characters. Amy Millan and Torquil Campbell ably provide the thespian-inspired lead vocals, most often in tandem and neatly juxtaposed against each other, both within songs (e.g., her pleading desperation, his icy heartlessness in "Personal") and between songs (e.g., his defeated pessimist in "Life 2: The Unhappy Ending," her hopeful optimism in "Today Will Be Better, I Swear").

Stars seem to march to the beat of their own drummer, so to speak, although the influences are there. The chorus of the great "The Ghost of Genova Heights" would be at home in an '80s hit by someone like Level 42, while the title track and the aforementioned "Life 2" have Prefab Sprout written all over them. And one of the record's highlights, "Take Me To The Riot," is possibly the best Morrissey song I've heard in years. (I highly recommend that you Moz-heads seek it out).

Most of all, the record, in its entirety, feels like a cohesive set piece, served best by listening all the way through. It is sophisticated music, though treacly in some places ("Barricade"), charming in others ("My Favorite Book"), but ultimately, solid pop fare. Although technically "indie" I suppose, Stars come off more like a night at the theater than the stuff of college radio. Much more than a lovely diversion, In Our Bedroom After The War is among the most original and interesting records of the year.

MP3: Stars - "The Night Starts Here" from In Our Bedroom After The War

Stars' previous album, Set Yourself On Fire, comes highly recommended as well.

MP3: Stars - "Your Ex-Lover Is Dead" from Set Yourself On Fire

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Red-Headed Woman

I'll admit it -- I have a problem. I'm a hopeless sucker for a beautiful woman with a great singing voice. And for some reason, if that woman also happens to be a redhead, well, then I'm really in trouble. Neko Case, Jenny Lewis, Allison Moorer -- I am putty in their hands. (Or I wish I was, anyway.) So you'll have to pardon me for being a little rattled since Monday night, when I went to see Neko and Rufus Wainwright at The Tabernacle. I figured I'd be safe and sound at least through the opening act, A Fine Frenzy, which I knew nothing about. But on the stroke of 8PM, the lights went down, and out strode one Alison Sudol. I'll let the photos above and at that link speak for themselves, except to say that, if anything, they don't even do her justice. And then -- accompanied by herself on piano, with a bass player and drummer -- she started to sing, with a stunning, ethereal voice. Within 30 seconds, I was done. Toast. History. This girl (she's 22) has got the goods. Her songs are strong, too -- melodic and pretty, but with a hypnotic quality that recalls early Radiohead and Sigur Ros. The debut record is called One Cell In the Sea. So I know at least one thing I'll be picking up at Criminal this weekend. And, like kryptonite to Superman, I guess there's another red-headed singer before whom I am powerless.

MP3: A Fine Frenzy - "Rangers" from One Cell In The Sea

Monday, August 13, 2007

It's Business Time

Rich has already mentioned what huge fans we are of the brilliant Flight of the Conchords series on HBO. As the cult of the Conchords continues to spread, I've been frustrated that so little of their music is available (crappy TV rips notwithstanding), and wondering why Sub Pop didn't get a CD out in time to coincide with all the buzz from the show. Word from Sub Pop now is that a full-length Conchords record won't be out until early 2008. But last Tuesday they did finally release an EP, The Distant Future, featuring three studio tracks (a teaser for the long-player to come) and two more songs recorded live. Still no studio version of "The Most Beautiful Girl In The Room" (a/k/a "Part-Time Model"), but for now, I guess it'll have to do.

MP3: Flight of the Conchords - "Business Time" from The Distant Future EP

Friday, August 10, 2007

Classic Bootleg Series Vol. 18: The Band - King Biscuit Flower Hour 1976

Of the groups that are indisputably among the greatest of all time, the most criminally underappreciated has to be The Band, due reverence for which still seems to come only from critics and a devoted group of obsessives (like me). As The Hawks, they backed Ronnie Hawkins in the early 60s, and then Bob Dylan on Blonde on Blonde and his incendiary 1966 tour. Retiring to a house called "Big Pink" near Woodstock, New York, they recorded the "Basement Tapes" with Dylan, and then, striking out on their own and rechristened The Band, more or less invented the music we now call Americana (even though psychedelia was the order of the day and all but one bandmember -- drummer/vocalist/Arkansan Levon Helm -- was Canadian). In the process, they gave us some of the finest, most timeless music of the last 50 years (including two literally perfect albums, Music From Big Pink and The Band) and graced us with three of the greatest singers in rock history: my main man Levon (whose memoir, This Wheel's On Fire, is a fascinating read, by the way), and the late, great Rick Danko and Richard Manuel (gone way too soon, bless both their hearts). I wish I had time to write more in the way of introduction. Damn, I do love The Band.

This is probably by favorite Band boot, a show recorded in July of '76, only four months before "The Last Waltz," for the old King Biscuit Flower Hour radio broadcast. The performance is tight, the recording is terrific, and the setlist looks an awful lot like a greatest hits collection (if only Danko had done "Stage Fright" that night). It just doesn't get much better than this.

THE BAND - King Biscuit Flower Hour (Live at the Carter Baron Amphitheatre, Washington, D.C. - July 17, 1976*)

[Sorry, all, but we got a complaint and had to take this boot down.]

Front cover
Back insert

01 intro
02 Baby Don't You Do It
03 The Shape I'm In
04 It Makes No Difference
05 The Weight
06 King Harvest (Has Surely Come)
07 Twilight
08 Ophelia
09 Tears of Rage
10 Forbidden Fruit
11 This Wheel's On Fire
12 The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down
13 The Genetic Method
14 Chest Fever
15 Up On Cripple Creek
16 W.S. Walcott Medicine Show

*The August date on the artwork is incorrect.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Not Too Long Ago

Nick Lowe has been referred to as the "Headmaster of British Rock." On his graceful new album, At My Age, this Headmaster gives a master class on how to age gracefully in the music business. Not too long ago, or so it seems to me, Mr. Lowe helped form the cutting edge of pop music, penning the classic "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding," and teaching us that one has to be "Cruel To Be Kind" -- well, in the right measure, anyway. At this point in his career, At My Age represents not so much a victory lap as a comfortable stroll down memory lane.

Not to say that the songs on At My Age make any effort to reconstruct Lowe's Rockpile past. Instead, they settle into a more mature groove that, for lack of a better term, I'll call "country lounge." In many ways, this set is pleasantly reminiscent of some of the music that I remember my parents listening to when I was young, which was a sort of "citified" country, with touches of rock, jazz, and soul, and perhaps best exemplified in some of the music played by Charlie Rich ("Behind Closed Doors"), Ray Charles ("I Can't Stop Loving You"), and even Dean Martin ("Houston").

While the songs on At My Age sound like they were written, and even recorded, contemporaneously with the foregoing, that's not the sum of their charm. They're damn good songs, well-constructed and replete with the requisite hooks, both melodic and lyrical. Each one tells a story, often intertwined with the theme of looking back over a life fully-lived. Whether singing about turning a corner late in life ("A Better Man" and "Hope For Us All") or ruminating on past pain and loss ("The Club"), the songs paint deeply personal pictures.

In "Long Limbed Girl," the narrator comes across a long lost photograph of an all but forgotten girlfriend and wonders what became of her and whether her dreams ever came true. "I Trained Her To Love Me" is sung from the point of view of an aging misogynist whose agenda is to gain retribution for the perceived sins of the fairer sex by seducing them for the sole purpose of breaking their hearts ("Do you see the way she lights up, when I walk in the room? / That's good.") -- in essence, Cruel To Be Cruel.

Chrissie Hynde provides backing vocals on the glass-half-empty warning shot, "People Change," which suggests early 60s British pop. On the jazzy "The Other Side Of The Coin," it's not too hard to picture the Headmaster in the spotlight of a smoky lounge, simply requesting that any judgment of one who may have chosen to do it "My Way" be carefully measured. The sparkling "Love's Got A Lot To Answer For" is simply a timeless classic.

Clocking in at barely over half an hour, At My Age may wind up going to bed early, but it certainly leaves one wanting more. And while it may be that Nick Lowe has grown too old to rock and roll, he's not too old to show everyone else how to play the perfect encore.

MP3: Nick Lowe: "Long Limbed Girl" - from At My Age
MP3: Nick Lowe: "Love's Got A Lot To Answer For" - from At My Age

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Classic Bootleg Series Vol. 17: The Replacements - Putting On The Ritz (Live in NYC - 1987)

With Rich already incommunicado on the left coast and myself headed to Chicago tomorrow morning for three days of beer, baseball and God-knows-what-else, I thought I'd better toss up another classic boot to keep you kids happy 'til next week. This one will have to do with relatively little introduction, but somehow I think it will, just fine.

In the 80s, The Replacements were the great little band that couldn't. Brimming with originality and passion, and armed to the teeth with Paul Westerberg's consistently brilliant songs, the band never achieved the levels of acclaim and adoration that their material deserved. In the early days, with the ferocious Bob Stinson on lead guitar, this was largely because they rarely played a show even remotely sober. (Of the three 'Mats shows I saw in college, one was absolute genius, and the other two were total disasters, with scarcely a single song played well, or even all the way through, before one or more bandmembers -- and Bob almost always -- passed out.) After Bob's tragic but seemingly inevitable death, Slim Dunlap ably took over on lead guitar, and while the shows thereafter lacked some of the early passion and reckless charm, they at least became more coherent and professional.

This tape comes from that later era, recorded at The Ritz in New York in July of '87 on the Pleased To Meet Me tour. With its excellent sound, the band's quality performance and an absolutely killer setlist that nicely balances songs from the band's entire career to that point (and in rapid-fire fashion -- the 25 songs fit on a single CD), this is among the best live recordings of this legendary band, which remains in my personal pantheon to this day. Westerberg was simply The Man, able to pen a punk anthem like "Favorite Thing" one day and then a perfect, romantic little pop song like "Kiss Me On The Bus" the next. If you're old enough to have been there, you know what I mean. If you aren't, you've got some catching up to do. (And, all you youngsters who've wondered why we call our periodic posts of leaked and advance tracks "Can't Hardly Wait," well, now you know.) Crank it up loud and enjoy.

THE REPLACEMENTS - Putting On The Ritz (live at The Ritz, NYC - July 27, 1987)

Cover insert - front
Cover insert - back
Back insert

01 I.O.U.
02 Nevermind
03 Hold My Life
04 I Will Dare
05 Lovelines
06 Can't Hardly Wait
07 Little Mascara
08 Swingin' Party
09 Bastards of Young
10 Within Your Reach
11 The Ledge
12 Waitress In The Sky
13 Sweet Home Chicago
14 Favorite Thing
15 Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out
16 Unsatisfied
17 Go
18 Nightclub Jitters
19 California Sun
20 Another Girl, Another Planet
21 Kiss Me On The Bus
22 Skyway
23 If Only You Were Lonely
24 Color Me Impressed
25 Takin' A Ride