Friday, February 6, 2009

hipster bullshit that i love

So I was checking out Pitchfork Media today, which I, to be honest, read every day, and they reviewed a CD by a band from Brooklyn called The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart. I wasn't expecting much, but after a second listen to the song "Everything With You," I was really just, totally captured. It's absolutely simple, beautiful, fleeting, happy pop music that is absolutely fucking irresistible! They sound a lot like Ride, Mojave Three, Titus Andronicus, and other lo-fi shoegaze pop. Their music would go perfectly on The Adventures Of Pete & Pete or in Sixteen Candles. You have to try pretty hard not to like this music.

As I get older, I find more and more that I mostly enjoy music with a sense of mass appeal and pop sensibilities to it. I don't know what it is. Maybe it comes from a greater need for empathy in my music.

These folks really don't have a bad song at all! They're playing at the Black Cat on Monday night and I think I'm going, but I'm a little nervous about going because I don't want to be disappointed by it. We'll just have to see. These days I've also been making plans to go to a lot of shows that I don't end up going to, because I can't find anyone to go with. When I was in college I wanted more space, more room to be a loner, I was sick of seeing the same people all the time. As the old saying goes, "Be careful what you wish for..."

Listen to The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart at their myspace.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

been so lonesome, shakin' that morning chill

The winter has obviously long since come to Maryland, and will be gone within the next 8 weeks, hopefully, and as to be expected, it has come to me with the usual accompaniment of a case of the blues, and as any music lover would know, no prescription for a cure for blues can be written without a few key records to help you through. This is not necessarily any different from any other season. For me, each season tends to come along with its set of challenges and changes, and therefore, new blues. For example, I always heavy anticipate the summer until I find myself in the depths of its inescapable, delirious heat waves, feeling as though I’m burning alive.

Along with its blues, each season seems to have its particular set of music. Summertime has its sound of fleeting youth, perfectly captured in the pop punk of New Found Glory or the late night, open roads, dying-to-get-out sounds of Bruce Springsteen. The Fall has its transitional, hot tea and cider, comforting down home earthiness in artists such as Gillian Welch. The spring and its new promises and melting snow bring uplifting, epic music that seem fit to fill the next few Ipod commercials, music like Sigur Ros or Explosions In The Sky. The winter, however demands a soundtrack unlike any other season does.

Maybe it has to do with the hibernal nature of the wintertime. It’s cold as fuck outside and you don’t feel like leaving your bed most of the time. And if you’re like me and you’ve just moved back in with your parents after graduating from college, far away from many of your friends and no longer having peer company accessible at a moment’s notice, you spend a lot of time feeling isolated and lonely. There’s little to do but think about the past and all of the things you took for granted while you contemplate all of the terrifying life decisions you are going to have to make in the next couple years, and how you would rather just not make any of them. Music allows you to suspend this contemplation for the time that you are listening. A dear friend once explained to me in a letter that he wrote, that in unfamiliar places, you cling to the art and music you have in your possession for dear life, as an anchor in a raging sea where nothing is certain. They take on new meaning. You can escape for a little while, perhaps to another time, or another place, and instead of the fears of the future spinning the pistons in your brain, you can allow the sounds of your stereo to move them.

My particular choices have been a combination of things: some oldies but goodies, as well as some brand new favorites. The biggest surprise has been the resurgence of my love for Death Cab For Cutie- particularly their album We Have The Facts And Are Voting Yes. Released in 2000, the album is decidedly lo-fi, and they actually sound like the indie pop band from a small town in Washington State that they were before they were headling Coachella and Lollapalooza. Songs like “The Employment Pages,” “405” and “Title Track” hit me hard. Whether you have a special, previous attachment to Death Cab, these songs seem to drum up instant nostalgia. In the midst of winter, when memories of better times might be all you have to keep you going, these songs take on a new meaning. In addition to their inherent sense of nostalgia, I also listened to this record a ton in my dorm room freshman year of college, particularly in the fall not long after I had first arrived at school. That fall I dated and became very close with a girl who also shared a real love for this band, before they were that popular, which I suppose made our connection a little deeper, as love for music often does for people. Even though we don’t talk anymore, and likely never will again, she meant a lot to me for a while, and in times of isolation like these, you begin to think about connections and relationships where you didn’t realize what you had. I suppose listening to these songs is a way of calling up those emotions, those simpler times, perhaps to relive the past, perhaps to learn from it, perhaps to avoid the present and the future. Likely, all of them.

I suppose that art is truly great art when, to paraphrase something that Lester Bangs once said, you revisit it long after you’ve even thought of it, when it has been sitting still all this time in the vault of your musical collection, untouched, and the second you press play, it moves again. It moves the energy around you and most importantly it moves you. Now that I’m a bit older and a bit wiser, I can understand the context and meaning of the lyrics in new ways. These songs allow me to integrate a past version of myself with the person I am now. It is the glue for the personal sense of self-integration that I have been longing for these days. Whether it's “The Employment Pages,” a song about trying to find meaning and connection in a lonely landscape of apathy, unemployment and alcohol, or maybe “Title Track,” a song about getting involved with someone where things are moving a bit too fast for it to possibly last, but maybe it only began in the first place out of your collective loneliness and desire to push the passing time to the back of your brain, these songs hit home and they hit hard.

The other major band for me this winter has been another group that rose out of obscurity into the upper eschelons of rock stardom, filling stadiums around the world with their epic as fuck rock n roll. Most of my readers and friends will hate on me for this, but damned if U2 aren’t one of the best rock bands of all time. This is another case of nostalgia: U2 were a very popular band at the summer camp I went to as a kid in New Mexico, the same camp I worked at last summer and will again at some point in the future. It makes perfect sense when you consider the thematic content, sound and scope of their 1987 masterpiece The Joshua Tree. It is epic, inspiring, uplifting music intended to fill vast empty spaces, ones like the American desert.

I recently picked up the remastered double LP of this album, and for the last week have been listening to it almost exclusively. There’s something about the opening keyboards in the first track, “Where The Streets Have No Name” that will simply never get old. The deep, unbelievably low chords that have so little treble you barely even notice the song has begun, until The Edge’s famous opening guitar line comes in, skipping around in circles like circling a drain, thanks to his delay pedal. The song sets the stage for the themes of self-liberation and rebirth that are present throughout this terrific album, particularly with the line “I wanna tear down the walls that hold me inside.” Believe me, I hate Bono as much as the next guy, but I’ll still always get chills up my spine when I hear him cry out “we’re beaten and blown by the wind.”

With songs such as “With Or Without You,” “Red Hill Mining Town,” “In God’s Country,” (The Edge at his finest guitar work) “Exit,” the album is a testimony to longing, the desperate hope that there’s an answer out there somewhere. The actual Joshua Tree itself is the only kind of plant that can grow in the harsh, dry, suntorched climate of the deserts of Southern California. I suppose their depiction of the desert is a very romanticized one, their perspective of it not quite that of the bleak, godless landscapes that other artists have attempted to portray it as. The desert has featured some of the bleaker sides of American history. Native American genocide, drought, the dust bowl, lost hopes, lost dreams, for settlers moving west and immigrants moving north. I suppose it makes sense that it would be four Irishmen making this album.

There’s a mythic depiction of the American landscape that is present here, one that is at odds with the facts of everyday life in America, and at odds with the profound political and social consequences that ripple around the world that stem from our power and influence. This duality, the sharp contrast between the hopes and dreams that are thrown around with American ideals and the serious damage that our government has done to the world and its own people, is driven home even more on the songs that are not overtly political: “Where The Streets Have No Name” is the perfect example of this mythic depiction, only made more desperate and emotional when one considers the impossibility and perhaps non-existence of what Bono is looking for. Their political songs largely fall flat, and perhaps I am biased because I can’t stand what has become of Bono’s spineless, neutral, liberal celebrity politics.

All of this is to say, I am really moved by this album, it is timeless, it is perfect for wanting to break free of whatever chains are holding you down. It is epic, it has mass appeal, it is instantly relate-able, and that’s what I love about it, as much as my friends with more obscure taste, or a simple disdain for Bono, would believe.

This isn’t even the half of perfect winter music, it’s just what I’ve been jamming. So what are your favorite winter jams?

Saturday, January 31, 2009

heartworn highways

Not too long ago, my friend and singer/songwriter extroardinaire Allen Thompson sent me two new songs he just recorded, one original called "Sick Of Me," and a cover of the Grateful Dead's classic song "Mission In The Rain." With two full length albums already under his belt, and a third one on the way, if these songs are any indication of how his new album will turn out, we are all in for a treat.

Growing up in the town of Roanoke, VA, Allen has spent most of his life living and breathing country music. He once told me a story about driving around with his daddy at age five while Guitar Town, Steve Earle's legendary debut album, was blaring through the tape deck. Probably not long after the opening title track ended, Allen pointed to the stereo and declared "that's what I'm gonna do." He's spent the rest of his life trying to make this dream come true, and with these two songs as examples, I think he's well on his way.

"Sick Of Me" is as sad a country song as they come. As beautiful as it is brief, this three minute track flows through your ears as soothing as the breeze might flow through your hair while driving down an open, nameless highway somewhere in the heartland, with this song blaring through the speakers. Allen’s songwriting really lends itself to the open road, as any great country music should. While most Myspace music profiles boast about the intricacy of the artist’s work in an attempt to make them as unique as possible, the “sounds like” section on Allen’s profile simply states: “going out for a pack of cigarettes and never coming back.” There is a great sense of desperation, yearning, and heartbreak present in this song, the kind that might help a listener realize that their life and circumstances have become pure shit and they’ve been in the depths of despair longer than they could remember. It feels normal by this point. This would be an appropriate first song to put on the stereo when you finally decide to leave, with no hopes and no idea where it is you’re going.

Taking cues from Steve Earle, Gram Parsons and Townes Van Zandt, this is pure whiskey-drenched Americana done the way it should be, with an ethical sense of dedication and appreciation to its forefathers that is nearly unparalleled.

I’ve never been the biggest Grateful Dead fan, but realize now I may have been wrong all along after hearing his cover of “Mission In The Rain.” Allen makes it sound like he could have written it, particularly when he belts out the line “all the things I planned to do, I only did halfway.” This classic song permeates the kind of dissatisfaction and discontent that an artist often finds his or herself consumed by when they realize that reality falls fall short of their dreams. The lines come from his heart even though he didn’t write them, as the best covers always sound.

Expect another update soon when I work my way through his newest full length which I just received in the mail today! I am not totally done with it yet, but I can already say that each song on here is the best thing he’s ever written, and it just sounds fucking amazing.

I’ll be back soon with more on Allen, an update on my friends in Red Collar, and thoughts on the best music for the wintertime blues!!

Monday, January 26, 2009

#3: No Age-Nouns

This Los Angeles band made waves and waves of buzz last year, and rightly, perhaps strangely so. No Age, along with bands like Mika Miko, are a centerpiece of a strong DIY punk scene that has blossomed in Los Angelees, revolving aroun based the all ages, volunteer run music venue The Smell. The band is only made up of two people, a guitarist and a drummer, and for those of you who would view them as simply a "duo" or a somehow incomplete band, just a couple of lame guys who couldn't find a bassist but wanted to bang out noise nonetheless, y'all are sorely mistaken. They blow apart and in many ways redefine the limitations that a band's size can have on the music they put out. They've been described as a perfect blend of Husker Du and My Bloody Valentine and I guess that's about right. With a number of tunes that make for immediately re-playable short punk songs, and a few songs of beautiful ambient interlude, this is an easy one to play from beginning to end. Their live performances are ones to remember. With the instantly relate-able, i'm-sure-i've-heard-this-before, positive and inspiring nature of their songs, the crowd at their shows plays an equal part in creating the boundless energy in the room.

I saw them for the first time at the Bowery Ballroom last fall during CMJ, playing alongside Dan Deacon, Deerhunter, White Williams and Ponytail, and they seriously tore the roof off that place. After seeing them three more times during the week of SXSW, all before Nouns even came out, I was hooked. My memories of seeing their set at the Sub Pop showcase will keep me warm when I am old and cold. After a long and exhausting day walking around the streets of Austin, my friends Tim an Liz and I decided to give it our all during their set. There weren't that many people there for some reason, so after a good number of gin and tonics, we started dancing our asses off with no apology while the rest of the crowd stood around, likely burnt out and jaded after having already seen dozens and dozens of other bands that week (SXSW will do that to you). We looked across the room and saw a couple other people dancing, and lo and behold it was Dan from Wolf Parade and his wife, who make up The Handsome Furs, who had just played earlier that night. I ran over to them and asked if they wanted to come dance with us, since we were the only other people dancing there. They eagerly joined us and we spent the rest of the set jumping around, making the metal hand signs during the sweet guitar feedback, heckling No Age to play Vampire Weekend covers (to which the drummer responded "this song is by Vampire Weekend, it's called "I'm a college dick!," and then immediately refuted his statement so as to perhaps avoid drama in the blogosphere), and all around having a great time. I took off my shirt cause I was so sweaty and then their drummer said on the mic "dude, where's your shirt?" Then the guitarist shook our hands after the show and we gave the Handsome Furs hugs and Tim, in a high pitched shrieking voice just yelled "I LOVE YOU!"

It's pretty cool to see an all ages scene like the one in L.A. blowing up and making serious waves around the country and the world. In my mind, the success of No Age is a reflection of the powerful inertia that the DIY punk community can create. Throughout their brushes with success, they have brought their ethics and their sense of where they came from every step along the way. I hope they continue to make powerful statements like Nouns for years to come. Below is a sweet video of them playing in Baltimore.

"Teen Creeps" off of Nouns

Saturday, January 24, 2009

it's been a while...

So I clearly lost steam in my year-end countdown, as I only got down to #5 before I quite altogether. I had grandiose plans for my year in review updates but I suppose I got so sick of narrativizing a year that wasn't even over yet that I just had to stop. Now with a little bit of distance, I am happy to move on into a 2009 that, with the Inauguration of a new president less than a week behind us, feels like it just began. We had beautiful weather in Washington D.C. on friday and it came with hints of springtime. There's a lot to be excited about, so I will quickly close out my year end list with a few tidbits about my final choices!

# 4: Pygmy Lush- Mount Hope

There are only positive things that I can say about this album, and not only because I am currently volunteering at Lovitt Records, the fantastic Virginia based label that put out this fine record. I first picked it up when I visiting friends and my then-girlfriend in Berkeley, CA this past August. We started dating over the summer and had a quick and intense relationship, and before I knew it I was saying goodbye to her as she took off with her friends to go to the Burning Man festival in Nevada. I know, I know, sounds like some vomit-worthy hippie version of American Graffiti, but true nonetheless. I went to my friend emily's house immediately following this sad goodbye and, staring face to face with a suddenly blank and unpredictable future, put this album on and floated deeply into the sounds that were consuming me. Coming from Sterling, VA, this acoustic album is gorgeous and hits the melancholy spot. I highly recommend checking this out, it may be the best album you would never have heard of other than by word of mouth.

i've gotta run so more later!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

# 5

The number five choice is the best punk album of the year, or at least the most popular, The Chemistry of Common Life by Toronto's Fucked Up. This six piece has three guitars, an exciting and confrontational lead singer, and one of the more hilarious, eventful, energizing live shows in the country, usually ended with lead singer Pink Eyes half naked and covered in his own blood. They take a lot of influence from Husker Du, Negative Approach, The Ramones, and occasionally bands like Pink Floyd. A lot has changed for the band, who moved from Jade Tree Records (Kid Dynamite, Lifetime, Breather Resist) to indie giant Matador Records (Interpol, Yo La Tengo, Pavement) to release this album. Apparently they all hate each other and never hang out, in an interview i've read the lead singer says "being friends just gets in the way of making good music." I guess that's one way to look at it...

I applaud Matador for taking a risk on this one. Fucked Up are not the most marketable of bands, with their name, their notoriously destructive behavior, their abrasive music...But then again, subversive counterculture is easily co-opted and commodified into the dominant, indie hipster sphere. The haters will accuse Fucked Up of selling out, but in reality, with no less than 15 guitar tracks per song, they've made one of the highest quality of punk albums of the decade. Driving, propulsive rhythms and constant guitar attack, with throat shredding vocals contemplating and attacking religion, christianity, and conformity, This record is more concise, shorter, and to the point than their last record Hidden World, though apparently this is due to greater attention to songcraft. Many of the songs on that record were over six minutes long, which is particularly long for a punk band. This seems to be a positive change for the band though, as lead singer Pink Eyes has said that album was about twenty minutes too long.

I've seen a lot of people comparing this to Refused's landmark hardcore masterpiece The Shape Of Punk To Come, and though the sound is different, the approach and idea behind it seem to be quite similar. Their impact is in how they rip a lot of preconceived notions of what punk music can sound like to pieces, the notion of which was previewed in their 18 minute, piano-centered single "Year Of The Pig." The songs on here just sound fucking huge, with not a single second of empty space.

Fucked Up seem to be the modern day torchbearers of all punk rock, having broken many barriers, turned a lot of heads, caused a lot of wounds and heavy bleeding, attracted celebrity fans (i've seen both Davey Havok of AFI and J. Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. at shows of their's), all the while maintaining a seemingly uncompromising integrity about their work. It's one of those rare albums that seems to redefine a genre, a new point on a map in which you can organize all punk albums into new before and after categories.

Here's a video I took of them at South By Southwest last march. I liked them so much that I saw them play twice in one night.


Saturday, December 20, 2008

Overlooked Albums 2008

In this entry, I'll talk a little bit about albums I caught onto a little too late in the year., or albums that I underappreciated and am now finally coming around to. They may have made the top ten if I had heard them a little bit earlier, but that's the way it goes. Seriously give these a listen!!

Grouper-Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill

With a collection of songs that sound as though they're coming at you from beyond the grave, maybe a deep, underwater grave, Portland Oregon's Grouper, aka Liz Harris, has created one of the year's most gorgeous, reflective works of art, one that I will be listening to well into the winter and through the spring. Drenched in reverb, ethereal and ambient noise, memories, stories and regret, this is more comparable to the sound of waves crashing onto an empty beach the night of a full moon than it is to Tara Jane O'Neill, Mirah, or any of her Portland contemporaries. Perhaps if Darren Aronofsky had directed "Titanic," he would have gotten Grouper to do the soundtrack instead of Celine Dion. That only makes sense once you listen to this.

Lemuria-Get Better

I saw this band play three summers ago with Rachel Jacobs and Karmella's Game, and I did not find them particularly memorable at the time. Little did I know that Lemuria would make one of the best punk albums of 2008! Get Better takes pretty clear influence from Dear You era Jawbreaker, Superchunk, and some Husker Du. The leadoff track "Pants" ended up on my streaming playlist sometime during my friday while at my dayjob, doing data entry at the AFL-CIO downtown, and it put an instant smile on my face. I felt like I had heard the song before, even though I hadn't, and I soon discovered that's how the rest of this album is. Instantly recognizable, instantly relate-able, as if you've been listening to and loving this band for years. Maybe you could have dreamt it up out of some longing for that perfect summery pop punk record, cause you've been stuck on Through Being Cool and Jersey's Best Dancer's for years and you want something new. Whatever your reason, this is pretty undeniable and irresistable for the young at heart, great pop punk/emo/power pop out of Buffalo, NY. Not to be missed!!