Thursday, July 31, 2008

Open Thread: You Spin Me Right Round

Okay, so we have veered into this topic a couple of times already in the comment threads here at The TR, but lets see if anyone is around enough to engage this open thread.

Is vinyl making a comeback?

Payton has more details, but I am cynical/futuristic on this topic and hope for a new medium where we get the benefits of digital music and the quality of vinyl. I also think this is more generational than anything--says the older guy with the vinyl bias.

What do you all think or hope or argue?

Oh to be 16 again!

How is anyone to get anything done now that I have discovered that 1) Howard Stern is going to remake Rock n' Roll High School; and, 2) Rick Springfield has a new album out! May you now spend your day trying to get one of two songs out of your head.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Second Thoughts on Death: The Felice Brothers

Talk about identifying too much with an album! The morning after I finished writing about John Mellencamp’s long reflection on death (which of course I was listening to while I was writing), I woke up feeling like death warmed over. Speaking of death, astute TR readers will have noticed that the Felice Brothers was removed from my Shopping & Reader Rec List because, well, it has been acquired.

What does that have to do with death? Well, let’s just say that most of the Brothers’ tunes are like little operas where someone (or everyone) dies or contemplates killing someone.

Here is the album's body count as far as I can tell (and cause of death):

  • The Deputy (shot dead in a Mercury)
  • Frankie's Partner (Frankie's Gun of course)
  • Our Only Boy (winter's cold)
  • Tracy (the needle)
  • St. Stephen (stoned--and not metaphorically)
  • Crowd of Ten (crazed circus elephant)
  • The Elephant (revengeful townspeople . . .you saw that coming, right?)
  • Edith Cavill (firing squad)
  • St. Peter (if you don’t know, shame on you!)
  • Ruby Mae (stalker)
  • Eleanor (three rounds from a .44)

Forgive me if I missed some passings in my listening--and I should note that this doesn’t take into account the threats, beatings, cuttings and other abuses that are recounted on this disc.

All of which is not to say this isn’t a “fun” disc. I doubt it is going to make the year end “top-album lists” or become some great classic, but it is one that I am sure will get many a listen to around here at the TR (we have a dark side you know).

The tunes all feel like they are set in the 1930s either in some small mill town honky-tonk or occasionally in the working class neighborhood of the big city (I'm going with Chicago since crime and graft are common themes including the album ending guide about how to “tip your way into heaven”). The stride piano and frequent use of growling trumpet and trombone add to that feel—and got to say the differing vocals and accordion get a positive review from me (I am so easy, I know).

Bottom line, if you are a fan of folk music, early jazz, and gritty lyrics/stories, check it out.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Growing Up with Joe and John: Part II

So as I pointed out in Part I, I grew up (for part of my life) with Joe Jackson--that is, I bought album after album as they came out at different moments in my high school and college years (they went on for a while), but now I seem to have lost a bit of my enthusiasm for JJ. It is as if my attachment to his music seems to have been completely bound by the time that I was experiencing and loving his music. And I wonder about whether or not that has to do with the fact that while his music has shifted some over time, it has always been a kind of art school, cultural criticism of a sort rather than developing with him/me through time.

This question really came to me, not just because of JJ's new release, but because I got it at the same time as I got John Mellencamp's new disc: Life, Death, Love and Freedom. Here is the deal. Unlike JJ, I have not owned many Mellencamp albums, but the ones I do own seem to match my attitude and place in life. Let's look at my bookend albums as examples.

The first album I owned, was the silly-covered 1983 release Uh-Huh which, of course, included the smash hit, "Pink Houses" as well as "The Authority Song." But it was "Play Guitar" on the B-side that I was attracted to as a just graduated from high-school, guitar-playing wanna be singer-songwriter (I also loved how it followed "Jackie-O"). What 18-year old (insecure skinny white guy) wouldn't be attracted to lyrics like these (with some rockin' guitar of course)?

All women around the world want a phony rock star
Who plays guitar
You can pump your iron and shine your shoes
And wear your hair just right
You go down out on cruisin' street
'Cause you want to score tonight
Ra da ra da ra da
And you really want to show your scars
Forget all about that macho shit
And learn how to play guitar

Fast forward 25 years (yes, people, 25 years!) and we find Mellencamp releasing this T-Bone Burnett produced reflection on life that sounds more like John Prine than Johnny Cougar. The album opens with this uplifting verse:

It seems like once upon a time ago
I was where I was supposed to be
My vision was true and my heart was too
There was no end to what I could dream
I walked like a hero into the setting sun
Everyone called out my name
Death to me was just a mystery
I was too busy raisin up Cain

Now I am not saying that I am currently obsessing about death or having some mid-life angst (been there done that), but Cougar's reflection on life on this album does speak to me--in ways I suspect it would not have so many years ago--but in that same way that Uh-huh did when I was 18. It makes me want to go back and buy random Mellencamp albums and see if they reflect my attitudes at those times, but I doubt that would work. Still, it is interesting to me that Mellencamp's music has developed pretty much over the time that I was a serious music-listener. There aren't many artists that hang on that long in any relevant way and fit so neatly into this period of my life. So I am pretty sure I will be revisiting and exploring a few more of his offerings that I don't have--and recommendations are welcome.

As for the most recent album, if you have got the implication in this post, it gets a hardy thumbs-up from me, but you need to be in a mood to listen. It is dark (I think Rolling Stone referred to it as "American Gothic"). Mellencamp considers death from many an angle, laments the lack of freedom in this country as much as celebrates it, and, as usual, paints important landscapes of his America. I think there is always a temptation to think of Mellencamp's songs as simplistic (made for Republican presidential campaigns and Chevy commercials), but I am going to bet that many will go down as important reflections on our culture and country. And finally, while I am starting to wonder if T Bone Burnett is working to get his picture in the dictionary next to the word "ubiquitous," the music and production on this album are wonderful and set a perfect context for the lyrics.

Here is a slightly more upbeat live version of "If I Die Sudden."

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Stop Your Sobbing

The Pretenders.
First album in six years.
Free track a week until the album release on their website.
What are you waiting for?

Oh and feel free to share your thoughts on the band while you are here as I happen to love them! In fact, just because you have been so good lately, I give you this.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Late Adopter (Really Late)

There was a time in my life when I felt pretty computer literate--and there are definitely times when I realize I am waaaayyy more literate than many in my life. But I must confess that this whole music sharing, downloading environment is a total confusion to me. There are plenty of sites that I visit that have tunes loaded up for playing and downloading--in some cases whole playlists and mixes (you know who you are!). Site seem to use an endless array of software to share tunes--many of which are on fairly recently released discs.

Obviously here at the TR, providing music clips, playlists, etc. would be a nice feature at times, but I just don't even know where to start, good software, legal options (yes, I confess that perhaps my real obstacle here might be old-fashioned notions of property and a strange aversion to breaking the this law).

So who of you can help me out here with a good platform and some guidance about what we are allowed to do and not . . . I promise to not hold you responsible for your answers (unless they get me in trouble!).

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Your Call is Very Important to Us!

So there I was in the bookstore about to pick up the new Downbeat when my eyes were drawn to a "jazz" magazine I was not familiar with called JAZZIZ. It came in a tempting plastic wrapper with the promise of a sampler disc of "cool summer jazz." Who could resist?

Well, the cover should have been the first clue. I mean really, it is just too cool for words isn't it? But I thought--hey, the Playboy jazz festival has had some great players grace its stage right? And alas, I wasn't able to ascertain what tunes were on the sampler, but I had my hopes. And so I plucked it and abandoned the old standby.

I didn't actually get to throw that sampler in until the next morning in the car. This fine morning happened to involve Neats and the boys taking me to the train. So what could be more soothing on a trip through the morning rush than some "cool jazz." I think we made it through about four or five tracks (with skipping ahead involved). Neats kept making jokes about elevators and I kept feeling like I was on hold, waiting to speak to some corporate customer representative who was going to give me no satisfaction and so they were trying to soothe me with this music.

Of course a quick tour through the JAZZIZ site reveals that while they might talk to a variety of artists, the sampler disc is really selling "teh jazz" that you hear on radio stations with handles like "The Breeze" and "The Wave." I could be wrong here, so fans of JAZZIZ should let me know if I am. But what, you might ask, was I hoping for?

Well, when it comes to summer jazz, I hope for one of two things--deep south, hot New Orleans influenced jazz and blues, or, what I would think of as hip, cool jazz. Since it is the latter that got me suckered in here, let me suggest a few discs that exemplify that and you can add your own.

  1. Let's start with Brazilian influenced jazz which is definitely a summer orientation for me. How about some Luciana Souza who is a fabulous vocalist. I might suggest Duos II which has her paired with a variety of different guitarists.
  2. Not into vocals and have heard enough versions of "Girl from Ipanema" to last you forever? Then check out Joe Henderson's Double Rainbow featuring music of Carlos Jobim first with some great Brazilian players and then with a tight quartet on the jazz side including Herbie Hancock, Jack DeJohnette and Christian McBride.
  3. More upbeat but still with that dancing beat? How about Charlie Hunter's Ready . . . Set . . . Shango! with some great guitar work along with sax and drums--and, well, killer beats.
  4. And when you get done with that surfin', dance party, you can also cool out with some fine west coast jazz on Chet Baker's and Art Pepper's joint effort, The Route, which benefits form Pete Jolly on piano and Leroy Vinegar on bass among others.
  5. And finally, when you awake and are enjoying that first cup of java while the cool night air still lingers, throw on Frank Morgan's Easy Living with the fabulous Cedar Walton on piano.
Now that would be cool jazz.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Let's Talk Mr. Louris and The Jayhawks

The new Gary Louris disc Vagabonds is wonderful, as many critics point out. Great acoustic album with a church-like feel thanks to the "choir" of sorts behind him. Thoughtful quiet lyrics on many tunes but not sappy. Lots of comparisons made to CSN&Y in the reviews, although I am not so sure that is what it makes me think of--although I don't have a better one to offer up . . .oh, just go buy it.

But first let's hear what you all have to say about those Jayhawks from whence Mr. Louris comes. What ya'll think--best effort? favorite effort? duds to avoid? And is this just one more reason we should all really just go get some Golden Smog?

And while you ponder, here is a title-track-treat from Vagabonds.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Growing Up with Joe and John: Part I

As I indicated earlier, College Roomy sent me the new Joe Jackson album Rain along with a few cuts from Summer in the City and my first listen was to say that I think I am done with Joe. What?! CR reminded me that I was once the "I will own everything by Joe Jackson guy" leading me to own everything from his big band album to the Pretty in Pink soundtrack (it has a cool JJ song with Suzanne Vega on it) to Joe's first modern classical recording Will Power. My reaction made us think a bit about bands/artists that were important to us at certain points in our lives but somehow haven't translated beyond nostalgic memories (and occasional listens to after a couple drinks and a few "remember when we used to" conversations). And I think that Joe might now, in fact, be one of those artists for me which is pretty amazing to say (as you will see).

Now, this is not to say that I don't like this offering by JJ--but I suspect most of that has to do with a very soft spot I have from spending so much time earlier in my life with his music. The songs are, as always, carefully crafted. They have a cool jazz feel--think late Steely Dan with lots of open space in them and wonderful piano being the central element as it is primarily Joe's preferred trio line-up, all of which is quite nice. I could do without all the falsetto here, but even that fits the mood and in many ways it is a nice summer sound. However, I am not sure I would recommend anyone but serious JJ fans go out and buy this one.

I would still refer folks who don't have any JJ to go back to earlier periods in his work. If you are looking for punky, loud, fun stuff, there is the early efforts, Look Sharp or I'm the Man. Add a little reggae influence and you get perhaps my favorite album: Beat Crazy (also best artwork award goes to this one). And then there is the more jazzy and polished era that gave us Night and Day, Body and Soul (another contender for my fav), and then that little played, but wonderful 1986 three-sided album, Big World which was the precursor to the 60 minute CD (the perfect length for a disc I believe). And the last disc that I was really into as a JJ fan, Blaze of Glory, a thematic disc of sorts about, well, what do you think, lost youth.

Side story: I saw Joe live twice and the second time was the Blaze of Glory tour when Neats and I and friends saw him live at the State Theater in Cleveland which was a perfect venue. So he and the band open up with a few songs all with different arrangements which is part of what makes his live stuff fun (oh and by the way, if you don't have anything live by Joe, the NYC album does sound like it is really nice as is the earlier double live album). So they are just about to start a version of "Hometown" and the usher brings a couple down and seats them in the near front. Joe stops the band in disgust and asks the couple how much they paid for those seats. Answer: a decent amount of money. Joe excoriates them for having no manners and interrupting the show (expletives included followed by much applause). He then turns back to the band to start over, but first pauses, turns back to the couple and says, "Oh and we already played 'Is She Really Going Out With Him?' so don't be calling for that later!" And well, that kind of sums Joe up, now doesn't it.

Okay, so where am I going with this ramble. Well, two places. One, if you are looking for some fairly mellow JJ, you could give the new disc a try, but if you have none of his stuff I would recommend you start with one of the others I note above depending on your mood.

Two, and the real point, is that I find the whole idea of what artists stay with you or "grow up" with you to be interesting. And like the discussion about seasons, the reasoning for why certain bands stay with us seems a bit random. One logical guess would be that we mellow with age, but I am not sure that is really it. I suspect it has to be about who speaks to us at the place we are in our lives, although it might be that some artists can transcend all of that--not sure.

However, I have just been listening to the new John Mellencamp album and while I never had the same connection with him as I did with JJ, I find myself more drawn to where he is at now and also remembering how much I liked his stuff at each turn as I grew up with him. But alas that is all for Part II which if I am lucky is more coherent than Part I!

Until then, I leave you with this nice live version of Wasted Time from the new album so you can decide for yourself.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Tuning Room Model

The Engineer got this shirt for his 6th birthday from Little Sis while I was busy starting the TR and working on the header photo. Coincidence? I think not. Tuning Room store soon to open!

Of course if this is the official shirt, then I am thinking that Where It's At will have to be our theme song which will be appropriate, cuz The Engineer just happens to have some mean dance moves as well!

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

What a Long and Uninspired Trip

Finally back from the Chicago trip. I am sure you have all been desperate for some new content here in the TR--ha! Of course if one of you good friends would come out of the comment section and become a "player" there wouldn't be these long stretches without any musical thoughts!

So despite insisting that I was going to get out and take in some music while in Chicago, it never happened. The closest musical experience I had was lunch with Wobs while taking in these funky high-rise buildings across the river that appeared on a Wilco cover. In fact, as I thought about it, traveling often is a music-less adventure for me with the exception being traveling by train where I love watching the scene pass by while listening to the iPod which has the effect of watching a music video of sorts. But planes and hotel rooms seem to kill the spirit to listen in me and I am not sure why. I think it is primarily because traveling (for work I mean here which I do far too much for my liking) is a pretty joyless activity all around and I generally spend most of my time unproductively wishing I were home which makes it hard to enjoy music--or anything for that matter . . . whoa, best get off the couch here.

Luckily, College Roomy sent a rescue package that arrived today including goodies including the new Joe Jackson, an oldie but goodie from the late GW McLennan and the new solo effort from Gary Louris. So I will get to dip into those for the next few days which I imagine will get me back in the saddle--not to mention working on returning the favor.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The 50 Best (and Worst?)

I am off to the big work gig in the Windy City (link for Dave) and won’t return for what will feel like an eternity, but, in fact, will be only five days. So for your entertainment, I give you the (Boston) Phoenix’s July 4th list of Best Band Ever/Best Solo Artist/Best New Band by state.

Please agree with, argue about, and append.

Taking on such an enterprise is bound to lead to disagreements—I mean really, can you pick Prince or Dylan for Minnesota? An apple and an orange, no? And since you don’t have to, why do it? Cuz it is a fun exercise people! So let’s hear what you think they got right and what they got wrong.

And for an alternative extra credit assignment, I would like to challenge folks to come up with the worst band and worst artist for a state (perhaps yours?)—now that is fun!

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Son Volt: First Impressions

Well here I am again playing catch up and approaching a band with a pretty long history through their most recent album--in this case Son Volt's The Search--but so goes it.

I have always been a bit mystified by the term alt-country (as apparently many are), so I guess I can't really weigh in on where this fits within the genre. Had I never heard that term I would have simply thought of this as a solid acoustic rock album and if I had to compare it to another artist, I think that comparison would be to Bruce Cockburn. Jay Farrar's voice and the guitar work, particularly on the more rockin and political pieces really remind me of Cockburn--although I take it that tracks like "The Picture" are a bit of new terrain for Farrar musically.

At other moments, comparisons to REM seem apt, particularly the middle parts of the disc on tracks like "Satellite" (does everyone have a song with that title?) and "Automatic Society." And then there really are what feel much more like straight up acoustic country tunes. All of which is to say that it is a really nice mix and sequencing of music. I should also mention that while used sparingly, the organ work adds a nice tone on a few of the tracks.

Now that said, the general mood and lyrics of the album are definitely not what you would call upbeat. The one-line opening track "Slow Hearse" sets the mood. I know that a number of critics reviewed the disc as Farrar "searching" (get it) for hope among despair, but I think the best description I read was "bittersweet." You hear lyrics like those on "Adrenaline and Heresy" and the lines about leaving a lover and entering the "absence pit" and I never quite buy that the slightly upbeat ending is anywhere as sincere as the struggle with separation that dominates the song. Same on "Methamphetamine" where Farrar hopes for better, earlier days, but ultimately you are left feeling the weight of a life ruined by addiction.

Ultimately the mix of music and the searching lyrics (sorry) come together to make a really solid album. And while Farrar ends the album trying to convince us that "it can only get better from here" because as he sings earlier, he "can't stand any more indecision"--indecision, the muddle of life, and the "daily drag" ultimately seem like the only thing of which he is sure. That actually makes for a better album I think.

If you are as behind as me, you can sample some here.

So that is my first impressions of Son Volt--will be curious to find out how this album stands up against earlier stuff.

Christmas in July

I know a few people who will be excited to get their hands on the trippy holiday DVD from The Flaming Lips.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Three to Consider

Recently picked up the July 2008 copy of UNCUT which comes with one of those fun sampler discs and this one was particularly nice--like just arriving in a college town and hearing a good local rock station. Three tunes off of it definitely caught my attention and made me add to my Potential Acquisitions list (okay, they made me start it--down there on the right yo).

First up is Fleet Foxes. The sample is "Mykonos" from the Sun Giant EP, although they have also just released their self-titled debut album which also earns a very positive review in the mag. The minute you hear them, you think CSN&Y. Think acoustic guitars and layered harmony. UNCUT's reviewer talks about the hymnal quality of their music evoking the American wilderness, which if this track is any indication is a very apt description. Sounds like a perfect pick up before we head up into the cool woods of Michigan later this summer.
Update: Review of Fleet Foxes show here in DC.

Second up is the self-titled second album from The Felice Brothers. The tune is "Frankie's Gun" which judging from the YouTube traffic is getting a lot of attention. They also did a set at Bonnaroo this year, so expect to hear more from these three brothers and their friend "Christmas" from the Catskills. Neats' first reaction when she heard it was "Dylan." That is a good call both in terms of the vocals and the basic storytelling, but they are a bit more clanky, carnivalesque (probably the accordion that makes me say that), and seedier sounding to me--more Tom Waits-like in approach.

Third (or saving the best for last) is Bon Iver--otherwise known as Justin Vernon. The song is "Skinny Love" which you can find all over the place out there on the nets. Good review of the album and a download of the tune is over at IndieMuse. Lots of comparisons to Iron and Wine out there, but he also reminds me of late Chris Whitley in his Dirt Floor acoustic mode. What I like is the simplicity and clarity of the recording and the bareness of the guitar and his lyrics--it really does sound like something just laid down in a room in a cabin in the woods.

That is it. They are all new to me so we will see what we think when we get full discs.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Hot Summer Nights

Billie Holiday is one of those artists I can listen to in just about any mood, place or setting and the music seems right although a slow, hot summer night seems perfect for listening to Lady Day. That is even more so the case with with Etta James' 1994 Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday which is perfect hot summer night kind of music. Hat tip goes to James' biographer David Ritz who according to liner notes gets credit for the album idea, but it is Cedar Walton's slow, bluesy arrangements and James' deep, sultry voice that makes this a must have.

Sure there is all kinds of history here about James' and her mother (who loved Holiday) but the real bottom line here is sex. This disc is dripping with it. Okay, there is plenty of sadness, remorse and tragedy as well--she is a blues singer after all--but it is truly one seductive album. James takes songs like "Lover Man" and sings those lyrics in a way that, well, makes uptight, Protestant boys feel like they have sinned just listening to her . . . . but it is so worth it.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Straight Talkin' Son of a Gun

According to Rolling Stone:
Earlier this year, John McCain used John Mellencamp's hits "Our Country" and "Pink Houses" during stump speeches, until the Democratic singer asked him to stop.
Uh, yeah. I mean, really, who would want to have their music used in that train wreck of a campaign? Hmmm . . . .

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Incredible Shrinking Music Stores

I had to stop at the neighborhood Borders to pick up a couple copies of that new Dan Zanes kid disc for a couple upcoming birthdays, so I perused the bins a bit and came out with:

Al Green: Lay It Down
Ryan Adams and The Cardinals: Cold Roses
Son Volt: The Search

The Al Green I have obviously been toying with and the Ryan Adams, well that is a whole other post (still!), but the Son Volt is another story. I first looked for some Uncle Tupelo--Anodyne specifically on the recs of the good readers here. The only UT was an Anthology. Always a bit suspicious of "best of" albums I passed. So over to Son Volt although I had no real plan here. Not to worry there was one choice and I mean one--so into the collection it went.

That was the successful part of the exploring as next I would go over to the jazz section--and I use the term "section" loosely. This particular Borders is pretty new and for a while had a pretty good selection of music including jazz and classical. However about a month ago they "consolidated" and the music section went to about half its size and you can imagine what is going to suffer in that equation. It is little wonder given the options out there for getting music, and so that is where I end this, with a question.

Where do you get your tunes? Best shopping options including downloading (I guess)--although it was hard enough for me to go from albums to discs--I am not sure I can ever make the complete switch to not having a case, liner notes, etc. to fondle while listening to a new disc for the first time.