Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Look Both Ways #4: New Times, Guided by Noise

Guided by Voices’ milestone record, Bee Thousand, might make you think that Pete Townshend had a crazy idea one day. It sounds like he put Sonic Youth, Dire Straits, the Modern Lovers and Neutral Milk Hotel in a room with one guitar amp, a bass amp and a drum set and told them all to plug in and start playing without much attention to planning songs or testing levels.

Take that sound; put a heavy emphasis on Sonic Youth; add a bunch of My Bloody Valentine’s hauntingly atmospheric, pounding noise; and tell a pouty girl to shout something infectious over and over into a painfully distorted microphone. Now you have something like Times New Viking.

Sounds terrible, right? To a lot of people, I’m sure it is. But those who can put up with the distortion – better yet, those who can appreciate the scratchy depth that the veneer adds to TNV’s sound – will fall in love. The group recently released a critically acclaimed EP, but TNV novitiates would do well to listen to the trio’s latest full-length, Rip It Off.

Fifteen years ago, Guided shook indie rock with the cage-rattling Bee Thousand, and the parallels between this album and Rip It Off are inescapable. Both bands hail from Ohio. Guided’s seventh record, Bee Thousand was their first to be distributed by Matador Records, and Rip It Off is TNV’s first release on Matador. Each band has a contempt for high-tech recording, rendering their albums unsurpassably visceral—grating in a gratifying way. And in the tradition of punk rock – a categorization both bands consistently sidestep as soon as any critic thinks of conferring it – more than half of the songs on both albums are less than two minutes long; they’re short, fuzzy, hyperactive earworms.

Robert Pollard, Guided’s frontman and only consistent member, had been the victim of feeble success for 10 years. He had tried the high-fidelity studio thing, but he was frustrated with what he described as “sterile” results, not to mention the costliness. The lo-fi sound of a tape recorder became a defining element of the band. But it’s too easy to get hung up on the “noise.” Far from being some elitist, alt-obsessed Luddite, Pollard was a lifelong devotee of the Who with rock-star dreams. (After Bee Thousand launched him into the spotlight, Pollard became renowned for onstage leg kicks and microphone twirls à la Roger Daltrey.) Pollard’s tunes are sing-songy pop, and they whirl around in catchy circles with centripetal motion centered on savvy hooks.

Pollard’s verses hopscotch from opaque metaphor to soaring rock romanticism, often landing somewhere in between. Think of Bob Dylan’s blend of sly-witted metaphor and enamored entreaty on “Queen Jane Approximately,” and throw in some of the epic lyrical simplicity from the Who’s Who’s Next. But they are also surrealist, and often sci-fi-centric. He sings songs called “Hardcore UFOs,” “You’re not an Airplane” and “Kicker of Elves.”

On Rip It Off, TNV takes the Guided paradigm a few steps further in the noise direction. They don’t use a bassist, eschewing their forefathers’ deep, propelling current for a blurrier and more impressionistic sound. TNV create more of an atmosphere than a sum of parts. They also rarely sing harmonies, which are so often part of Guided’s hooks; instead, male and female lead singers often sing in unison or in octaves, and they slather a scraping, trebly distortion onto their voices.

This distortion, another obvious embrace of a “noisy” sound, makes listening to the lyrics a near impossibility, which is a shame because they’re often weighty and contemplative enough to paint gray clouds all over the bright, pop melodies. On opening track “Teen Drama,” TNV warn, “Stop staring at things that are just standing still / Get in line, pretty people, we are coming in for the kill.” Whether you’re following their advice or finding it too difficult to stop dancing, TNV are worth your attention.

A version of this piece first appeared as a column in the Feb. 23 issue of the Tufts Daily.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Live Review: Islands 2.20.09

“Saturday night in Bologna!” Nick Thorburn declared, trying out his rock-star shout with at least a tinge of sheepishness. A slight cheer came up from the crowd, packed in beneath his feet. Then the needle met the arena-rock balloon: “It’s Friday,” an audience member called back. Psssst, the air came out.


But Thorburn was not to be discouraged. The singer is usually saddled with a six-string, but during a song with no rhythm guitar near the end of Islands’ set last night, he decided to do some prancing on the tiny stage. He snatched the microphone from its clip, and with a toss that was just a touch too consciously irreverent to work, he shoved the mic stand off the stage and onto the head of a plump, unenthusiastic photographer. She wasn’t there to hear the band, and she definitely wasn’t there to get strafed with hardware. Thorburn anxiously grabbed the stand and apologized by patting her frowning head.


Never the quitter, Thorburn came back out to the front of the stage later in the song, leaned over, stuck out his butt, and kissed foreheads for about fifteen seconds with the tallest, most bearded, most indifferent man standing in the front row, shouting lyrics into the microphone and into his new friend's face.


While Islands have a long way to go before they reach the stadium stardom to which they might aspire, they’ve got one thing going for them: they can play. This is a band of experts, and their live show is as tight as Thorburn’s black jeans (skin-sucking, to be exact). Onstage at the Covo Club in Bologna, Italy, Islands made it clear that this is how they should be appreciated—in concert. For a dancy indie-pop band, that’s pretty remarkable.


With precision where necessary and volatile abandon elsewhere, the quintet mixed ripping, distorted guitar lines with escalating violin riffs and tropical-island (lowercase) drum beats. (Xylophonist/second violinist Sebastian Chow sat out last night; maybe they couldn’t fit a sixth member on the stage.) Lay Thorburn’s haunting, veneered voice on top of these instrumentals and you come away with the reason “Creeper” and “The Arm,” dance-happy tunes from last year’s lukewarmly received sophomore effort, stole the show.

Blend the Killers and Michael Jackson and you get Maroon 5. But throw Grizzly Bear’s mystery and Elvis Costello’s swagger into the mix, and you’ve got a stellar show.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Neko Case agitates for animal rights—and gives away free song

Anti- is putting its money where Neko Case’s mouth is. And after her latest album sold a whopping 200,000 copies, they probably owe it to her.

Last month, the label mounted a fundraising drive for Best Friends Animal Society, pledging to donate $5 each time a blogger posted a link to the single from her forthcoming album, Middle Cyclone. Looks like I missed the boat on this one (the promotion ended on Feb. 3), but I can still offer you a free download of the tune, “People Got a Lotta Nerve.” And while I’m at it I’ll help Case plug her cause (check out the video above).

Case’s new, 15-track album is due out March 3, and if the single is any indication it will prove a very logical next step in her career. The animal-rights anthem “People Got a Lotta Nerve” shows off her signature, slick but beefy guitar sound – electric, slide, and acoustic all pitch in – and her vocals are as whirling and dynamic as her head of bright-red hair—or (forgive me) a cyclone.

One listen to either of her last two albums is indication enough of Case’s passion for animal rights. Titled The Tigers Have Spoken and Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, respectively, these records are replete with zoomorphic imagery and Case’s perfected blend of mysticism and naturalism.

What this fey concoction boils down to is stirringly existential and emotionally accessible. When Case sings about animals, her voice’s stern force and intermittent vulnerability make us see ourselves in the characters. Tigers’ title track, a condemnation of the practice of keeping animals in captivity, is especially arresting because if you take a few lines out it could pertain to the human condition. “In a field behind the cages / He walked in circles ’til he was crazy / And he lived that way forever / Just as long as he could remember / If he’d wanted to remember.”

To flop into the psychiatrist’s chair for a minute, Case’s personal history might account somewhat for her commiseration with subjugated animals—more specifically, her affinity for helping abandoned ones. After a childhood of splitting time between her divorced mother and father, both of whom she has described as ill prepared for parenthood, she lit off on her own at 15 for a drifting adolescence of drug use and playing in punk bands. But no matter what's behind it, this new album is sure to be worth our attention.

  • NPR recorded an hour-and-a-half-long Neko Case concert on April 9, 2006 at Washington, D.C.'s 9:30 Club. Click here to play the concert with a Real Media player, or click here to play it with a Windows Media player.

There will be no "Look Both Ways" installment this week; the newspaper that usually publishes it as a column at the beginning of each week did not print on Monday.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Look Both Ways #3: Fleet Foxes Give CSNY Déjà Vu

With glowing four-part harmonies and bandying baroque counterpoint, the flannel-clad quintet Fleet Foxes invoke blissful summers, Baptist hymnal singalongs, toasty winter fires and cross-country car rides. And their self-titled debut album, released last summer to deafening praise, happens to sound a lot like the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young classic Déjà Vu.

Fleet Foxes and CSNY differ in that while the latter was a supergroup comprised of already-famous ’60s rock stars, Fleet Foxes are as green as the pastures their music conjures—a troupe of young friends, some of whom met in high school. While the spectrum of sounds and styles on Déjà Vu reflects the dispersive passions of its four geniuses, Fleet Foxes is clearly the brainchild of lead singer and songwriter Robin Pecknold; it sticks together like kneaded dough, even as it sags and soars from song to song.

Fleet Foxes don’t really do the electric-guitar-so-dirty-it’s-gonna-singe-your-trousers thing, as CSNY do on David Crosby’s nasty “Almost Cut My Hair,” the third track on Déjà Vu. (“Your Protector,” Fleet Foxes' most My Morning Jacket-indebted song, amps up the intensity to a comparable degree, but it does so without the guitar pedals.) Instead, think of the soothing warmth from Déjà Vu’s classic country twanger, “Teach Your Children,” plus the pulsating energy from “Woodstock” and “Country Girl.” What you end up with is music more akin to the CSNY album’s opening track, “Carry On/Questions.” It’s all resonant acoustic guitars, often with an electric tracing out a memorable melody over it; ethereal organ and piano; lush but articulate vocals; drums and bass that, while robust, are so delicately woven into the fold that they’re often felt, not heard.

The similarities between CSNY and Fleet Foxes aren’t only musical: Both groups are cited as leaders of their respective Americana movements, classic rock’s and indie pop’s ambassadors (respectively) to the roots music contingents of Appalachia and the western United States. But both bands are actually more mimickers than mountaineers. CSNY were multinational all-stars—Graham Nash hails from Britain; Neil Young is Canadian; Stephen Stills was a military brat born in Dallas, Texas; and Crosby was raised in Los Angeles by a cinematographer and his wife. When Fleet Foxes sing “Blue Ridge Mountains,” meanwhile, it’s as expert channelers of the Kentucky spirit, perhaps, but not as true Appalachians: this quintet hails from Seattle.

“Ragged Wood” might be the Fleet Foxes song that most resembles Déjà Vu, and it’s a strong candidate for the album’s best track. Like “Carry On/Questions” and “Country Girl” from Déjà Vu, this song has distinct movements—and each one relies heavily on thick vocal harmony. “Ragged Wood”’s first section is a folk-rock shuffle with a simple verse-hook format. The second starts at the end of minute three, after everyone but bassist Christian Wargo has dropped out. Building from just the bass, then some tom-toms, then a repeating electric guitar line, then sustained octaves on the organ, the second movement glides higher and higher on the wings of four cooing voices (“Lie to me if you will / At the top of Beringer Hill / Tell me anything you want / Any old lie will do / Call me back to / Back to you”). It evaporates altogether upon the striking of one collective beat—voices die out, organ fades and a cymbal rattles into silence. Where did the song go? Probably to the same distant world where Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young are forever asking those big “Questions” during the harmony-laden climax of their famous song: “Where are you going now, my love? / Where will you be tomorrow? / Will you bring me happiness? / Will you bring me sorrow?” If CSNY’s “love” is their music, Fleet Foxes have the answers.

A version of this piece first appeared as a column in the Feb. 9 issue of the Tufts Daily.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Live Review: Oxford Collapse 2.5.09

Talking with Oxford Collapse after an incendiary show last night at the Locomotiv Club in Bologna, Italy, a funny thing came to light: This band doesn’t really like new music.

Obviously, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. But as drummer Dan Fetherston told me, “Yeah, we heard the new Fleet Foxes album. We listened to the first half ’cause somebody gave it to us, but we got bored. I’d rather listen to Crosby, Stills and Nash, you know?” After a thirty-minute discussion of R.E.M., Bruce Springsteen, and Mike Watt, I, perfectly pleased if a bit incredulous, asked, “So do you guys listen to any current bands?” The three-piece scrounged out a laconic list of albums, almost all by bands they have toured with. But it’s Appetite for Destruction that Fetherston “could talk for a day about.” Arcade Fire, meanwhile, is “a perfect example of a band that Oxford Collapse couldn’t care less about.” Bassist Adam Rizer said with a wistful laugh, "You can't control when you're born." (The encasing on their time capsule isn’t entirely sound, though: I did catch Fetherston singing, “You don’t have to go to collllllege,” to himself on the dressing room couch.)

This all made a lot of sense in light of the evening’s concert, a brimming show that painted last year’s BITS in a flattering new light. Onstage, the post-punk thrash and deliberately off-key vocals took on a sense of true abandon. There was none of that feeling of art for art’s sake that can be infuriating about this band, so often the subject of crude comparisons to groups like Liars and Animal Collective but unequipped to handle them. Last night was 1981, it was hot with the rhapsodic harmonies of Rizer and guitarist Michael Pace, it was the snare pounds of “The Birthday Wars” that threw at least the four Americans standing just beneath the stage into a whipping, whirling furor (the rest of the crowd proved dishearteningly reserved).

If this band is more concerned with Nebraska than Illinois, so be it. And if they’re in town, go see them—despite how you may feel about the records.

  • Click here to see the music video for "The Birthday Wars." Actually, just see it live.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Look Both Ways #2: Raphael Saadiq Bares His Soul

Old school is back—and not one Brian McKnight record too soon. Soul music is back in style thanks to artists like Amy Winehouse and Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings. They’re making music with real drum sets and punchy horn sections rather than the turntables and drum pads of contemporary R&B and neo-soul. Hey, even Seal has a new album of ’60s and ’70s covers, simply titled Soul.

Raphael Saadiq, a longtime neo-soul singer with strong, versatile pipes, released an album this fall that will fly out of your computer speakers like it’s coming off vinyl. At its best, The Way I See It can feel like a condensation of soul music’s greatest moments, while retaining a welcome freshness.

Saadiq draws on so many influences that it’s really impossible to find a particular album by one artist that is appropriate for direct comparison. (I tried, first with James Brown’s Live at the Apollo Theater – the one from 1963 – but Saadiq sings with elegance, not Brown’s down-on-your-knees abandon. Then I went for Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions’ The Anthology; that was closer, but too of-a-piece to account for all the influences on The Way I See It.) This album draws on almost the entire Motown sound in its various incarnations over the years, so the best “parent” that I could find for this installment of “Look Both Ways” was Motown 1’s, a tastefully selected collection of hits from the Detroit label that helped craft the soul genre.

On this compilation, you’ll trip over the roots of Saadiq’s vocal sound everywhere: Stevie Wonder’s high-climbing, rapturous voice, audible on “Uptight (Everything’s Alright);” Smokey Robinson’s silky alto, featured twice on 1’s; and Marvin Gaye’s sexiness, most apparent, of course, on “Let’s Get It On.”

The instrumentals on The Way I See It essentially run the gamut of the Motown collection, taking as many cues from the saxophone-driven, fast strut of Martha Reeves and the Vandellas’ “Heat Wave” as from and the guitar-and-strings sweetness of “I Want You Back” by the Jackson 5. But Saadiq adds something – sometimes subtly, sometimes plainly – to the retro sound. He’s clearly a neo-soul artist, and the drums sound owes as much to ?uestlove as to the Funk Brothers. Unapologetic throwbacks “Sure Hope You Mean It” and “100 Yard Dash” don’t make it back to the ‘60s without getting a scrap of Macy Gray’s (mostly overlooked) neo-soul gem, On How Life Is, caught in the time machine with them.

The songs on Saadiq’s latest are brief, but, hey, that’s how they did it in the old days. He doesn’t really bother with bridges or huge dynamic changes, but the album makes up by proving surprisingly heterogeneous from song to song.

Calls for social change, one critical aspect of classic soul, make a brief appearance on Saadiq’s record, on tracks three and four. They are the swinging “Keep Marchin’” and the bayou-shuffling “Big Easy,” an ode to a lover swept up in Katrina’s waters. A greater showing would have been welcome from Saadiq, especially at a time when a wake-up call is necessary; after all, one election doesn’t signal the end to racial divisions in this country, and it’s surely not the ultimate realization of one leader’s famous dream, as many have claimed.

Both 1’s and The Way I See It serve as excellent gateways into soul music fanhood—Saadiq’s because it bridges yesterday and today explicitly yet gracefully, and 1’s because it’s simply a strikingly comprehensive compilation of the best number-one hits Motown Records ever produced.

  • To see the video for The Way I See It's debut single, "Love That Girl," click here. If the music was about to make you forget this is the 21st century, don't worry: in this video, Saadiq sings lines like "Cuz you're so sweet, I could never imagine somebody like you"--to three different girls.

A version of this piece first appeared as a column in the Feb. 2 issue of the Tufts Daily.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

A Super Bowl Watcher's Guide to Bruce's Best

Tonight, the Boss does the big one. Since 2004, the NFL has been frantic for a Super Bowl singer whose nipple won’t malfunction its way out of its wardrobe. (Why else would they have consecutively tapped Tom Petty, the Rolling Stones, and Paul McCartney?) And now Bruce Springsteen, long at the top of the league’s list, has agreed to play.

He’s proud of his new album and he wants people to hear it, although it’s far from his best (more on that coming in the days ahead). I say, if his “12-minute party” turns you on to the Boss, don’t waste your time on the latest chapter in the anthology. It’s die-hards-only. But Springsteen has been seeing a resurgence in popularity and relevance lately, so here’s a digest of his most worthwhile records for the 2009 listener. (Sorry, Mr. President, Born in the U.S.A. didn’t make the list, so that means no “I’m on Fire.”)

1. Born to Run, 1975. The still-young beach bum took some time off from playing grungy Jersey Shore bars and trying his hand at surfing to kick back, watch some cult movies, and ruminate on what’s next. He came away with a decidedly heavier, less funky sound, and he pared down his lighthearted, mile-a-minute storytelling to deal with young people whose lives had dimensions beyond the beach at greasy lake or looking for trouble in "the City." These eight tales are adrift after high-school graduation, they are discontentedly working-class, they are groping for sex or crime or music or any means to stamp out that stubbornly smoldering “ordinary” in their lives. They were enough to save Springsteen’s career, and with them the singer left all the lame Bob Dylan comparisons in the dirt (he was never equipped to live up to them) to become just Bruce.

2. Darkness on the Edge of Town, 1978. What happens to Born to Run's day-job workers and late-night-salvation seekers when they age three years, settle for settling down, slip into that loathed quotidian existence? Whereas Springsteen’s young characters inherently retain hope on Born to Run, even as promises are broken, on Darkness on the Edge of Town, a chorus’s triumphant declarations (“I believe in a promised land”) will old dreams to live on even as they vanish out the exhaust pipe on “that dusty road from Monroe to Angeline.” Musically, Darkness strips down the mounds of electric guitars and harpsichord and saxophone that gave its predecessor that epic whop, coming out more organic and, in parts, more poignant.

3. The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle, 1973. A discombobulated horn section mumbles out a jocular eight-bar (sort of) introduction to this LP’s opening track, then Springsteen glides in with a crisp funk part on the rhythm guitar. “Sparks fly on E Street when the boy prophets walk it handsome and hot / All the little girls’ souls go weak when the man child gives them a double shot,” he raps, and we’re right back where we left off on debut effort Greetings from Asbury Park--same cast of loony beach bums; same fast-talking vocals, perhaps telling us nothing at all; same dance-happy funk. Right? Nope. Springsteen's second album is deeper musically: drummer Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez earns his nickname by paying in kind with syncopation, the beefy horn section gives Springsteen a funk troupe worthy of any competition, and keyboardist David Sancious lays an intractable foundation (check his solo on “Kitty’s Back”). Equally important, while the A side is more or less a much-improved Greetings, Side B opens a new chapter in the annals of Springsteen. Each of its three songs are 7-minute-plus epics, his deepest dive yet into grandiose, romantic storytelling. “Good night, it’s all tight Jane / I’ll meet you tomorrow night on Lover’s Lane / We may find it out on the street tonight baby / Or we may walk until the daylight maybe,” he sings on “Incident on 57th Street." He was still learning to craft the multi-dimensional characters that would make Born to Run an American classic, but the excitement and musicianship on this record get behind Allmusic’s claim that this is “one of the greatest albums in the history of rock & roll.”

4. The Rising, 2002. After their first tour together since the 1980s (1999-2000), the E Street Band were ready to make another record. They were as unprepared as the rest of the nation was, however, for the tragedy that struck on September 11, 2001. Taking on such a calamity with art, especially one so accessible and accessed as pop music, is a dangerous task. The songs that an aging Springsteen came up with proved as sensitive and savvy as they were moving. And the Boss’s new alliance with producer Brendan O’Brien was the perfect recipe for an up-to-date, multifaceted sonic landscape that did justice to the tangled emotions packed into each song: he drew on accordions, organs, synthesizers, samplers, mandolins, electric guitar pedals, drum machines, horn sections, choirs, and – above all – the signature E Street sound. Springsteen stepped effortlessly into the skin of a grieving spouse on “Lonesome Day” (I still get shivers of sadness when he sings, “That taste don’t easily slip away”); an ill-fated New York City firefighter who, diving into the rubble, finds salvation in his duty on “The Rising” (“Lost track of how far I've gone / How far I've gone, how high I've climbed / On my back's a sixty pound stone / On my shoulder a half mile of line”); and a Muslim in love with a non-believer on “Worlds Apart” (“Down from the mountain road where the highway rolls to dark / 'Neath Allah's blessed rain we remain worlds apart”).

5. Nebraska, 1982. By far his best record without the E Street Band, Nebraska was made mostly at home, on a four-track tape recorder. The recordings were meant to be demos for a full-band album, but the bitter desolation in these songs lent itself to stripped-down presentation; the rough analog tapes bear only acoustic guitar, harmonica, and vocals. After a light-hearted detour on the rockabilly pop of The River, Springsteen has returned full-on to the characters of Darkness. By now they are desperate, having grappled for years with the Carter/Reagan recession. The album provides some of Springsteen’s most shaking work, as the realization that that “promised land” was just an illusion has become abundantly clear: “Well I’m tired of coming out on this losing end / So honey last night I met this guy and I’m gonna do a little favor for him,” Springsteen admits.