Thursday, July 30, 2009

Son Volt's Long, Slow Trip

The new Son Volt effort, American Central Dust, has me thinking about driving across Nebraska in the summer time (and I don't mean the short way, I mean east-to-west or west-to-east). Here's the deal.

I have driven across Nebraska in the summer, both directions, a few times. There is no way to get around the fact that it is a long drive and as you make your way, you can't help but be amazed at the sameness as you pass mile after mile. There are wonderments along the way, like the moments when the Platte drops down and winds around the highway and you can't imagine how that water keeps moving through this flat plain and isn't it wonderful how it connects the mountain water from the east of the continental divide with the big ole' Miss. Or when you hit the western end of the state as you start climbing into Wyoming and the outcroppings of rock begin to appear and the fields of sunflowers bending to the slanting sunset stretch for miles. But ultimately, when you are driving through Nebraska, you are generally pretty much just looking forward to being in Wyoming or Iowa and, well, that is saying something isn't it?
And that is how I feel about the new album. There are a few interesting moments here and there, but the sameness comes across less as a well thought-out consistent collection and more as a somewhat unimaginative routine effort. I have put this album on a lot in the last few weeks since I got it along with the new Wilco album (couldn't help it), but I continue to find myself losing attention and then wondering where I am--what song I am currently listening to as it sounds a lot like the other songs?
The album opens just fine, but then never really goes anywhere. There are moments when you say that is a nice waltz, or nice low-key growly guitar, or etc. But there are just as many times that it is unremarkable at best. I could kind of dig the long, slow musical dirge as I watch the miles past theme if the lyrics were stronger, but they end up being somewhere between overstated to bad poetry for the most part.
Now, I am over-doing it a bit here--I am still hoping for another Son Volt album that I can really dig, but for now, I am going to always choose Trace or The Search from the spectrum of SV albums before this one.
So before this post starts to feel like dirving across Nebraska, here are a couple tunes to give you a sample. It was hard to choose given the sameness of the album, but here is the opener and one of the few electric guitar tunes on the album.

Son Volt (Buy Album)

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Mike Clark: It's About the Jazz

Summertime isn't necessarily a heavy jazz-listening season for me, but I have had Mike Clark's 2008 effort stacked up in my potential blog posts for a while, so I thought we would switch gears for a minute here and talk a little jazz.

So first off, I am going to bet that the name Mike Clark is not all that familiar even to jazz listeners--at least it wasn't to me until this album. That is probably for two reasons. One, I am hopeless about attending to who plays on what album in supporting roles. Two, I am not a big fusion fan and so don't have a lot of Herbie Hancock coming through the Headhunter phase. And it is there that Mike Clark got his real recognition, playing with Hancock on several albums though the mid-70s.
But with this album, which is part of a series intended to focus on "some of jazz music's eminently worthy but less widely known innovators," Clark, according to the liner notes, is out to
defy the stereotype of my identity as a funk or fusion drummer. I have devoted my entire life to playing jazz--the music I love the most--both before and after my successful association with Herbie Hancock's Headhunters. While I made a name of myself during the early years with Hancock, specifically on the Thrust album, and I love that music, has has always been where my strongests talent lies and my devotion begins.
Many seem to believe he succeeded as this album was clearly well received, getting solid reviews including making Downbeat's Best of 2008 list.

This is definitely a strong album--with Christian McBride on bass, Patrice Rushen on piano, Christian Scott on trumpet, Donald Harrison on alto (who many think steals the show) and Jed Levy on tenor (see that is me attending to the cast of characters)--but you have definitely got to be into the bop and still a little bit into the funk for this one--don't be hanging around waiting for the slow-swinger here.
Now, I have to say that I am not a huge follower of bands led by drummers with the notable exception of Art Blakey. The reason is that I am not real keen on either drum solos (which in my estimation should be left to live performances as they are in part visual spectacle) or, quite frankly, the drums being way out in front musically. Don't get me wrong, I love a strong drummer in the rhythm section who drives the beat and a well-done drum fill is a thing of beauty, but I am too hooked on melody to have the drums leading the song. And in some cases, that is a problem on this album for me, but only a little.
The tunes have a certain quality that is reminiscent of some great 50's Blue Note bop with the theme laid down and the band, which is definitely tight, passing the improvs around but with the theme re-emerging throughout. From a musical performance standpoint, you can see why the album received high marks. Most of the songs are straight jazz and even when they do veer into a funky attitude, it fits. Clark's drumming is quick and light, although very omnipresent in these songs--space is not really the goal here.
Ultimately, you gotta like the bop and you gotta like the drums and a lot of sound to dig this album. Here are three tracks to give you a taste. First up is the opener "In The House" which is a really solid opening track but a perfect example of a drum solo that is more an interruption to me than a highlight. Next up is Tim Ouinette's fine composition, "10th Ave. 1957" which brings some fine New Orleans swagger to the album. And last up is "Loft Funk" which brings the bop/funk sound fully together.
See what you think.
Blueprints of Jazz, Volume I (Buy Album)

Friday, July 24, 2009

Forbidden love; or, Wherein wobs has his posting privileges summarily revoked

Craig had some awful nice things to say about me in his introductory post. I do like to think that I have a good ear for music and that my understanding of it has evolved past the Beavis & Butthead binary of "this rocks/this sucks." I think it's fair to say that my appreciation of music mirrors my appreciation for beer - I have a palate for all of the various incarnations, I have an understanding of the processes that go into producing each type, I can intelligently discuss the subtleties, and, of course, I can spend hours enjoying it.

And with music, as with beer, there is some (what some might term "sub-standard") b(r)and that led me down the path to a broader appreciation, a b(r)and to which I continually return - shamelessly - for reasons of nostalgia and because, quite frankly, I still like it. Ladies and gentlemen, David Lee Roth-era Van Halen is my PBR of music.

So what if the lyrical content never veers beyond your standard "beers & broads" hair band fare? I defy you to name a band that did it as well, or who did it in a way that withstands decades of listening. Over 30 years after its initial release, Van Halen still possess in its rawness and aggressiveness, in Roth's smirking delivery, in Eddie's pyrotechnic genius, and in Michael and Alex's unremarkable but competent rhythms, an undefinable joy that still draws me back years later. Their whole Diamond Dave-era output is worth revisiting, but honestly, there is one reason I will always return to this band: the opening drum solo and guitar licks of 1984's "Hot For Teacher" played at speaker-blowing volume. It's the equivalent of an ice-cold tall boy of PBR on a hot summer day.

Our musical tastes had to start somewhere. Mine started here with a band that never sucked (at least until Sammy Hagar showed up).

Sprucing Up the Room with a Little Birdie

For all you little birdies down on Jaybird Street who love to hear that tweet, tweet, tweet, we are trying a little experiment here at The Room. We have added a Twitter feed (really, look over there on the right). The idea is that since there might be days between posts (we are busy people after all), that doesn't mean we aren't listening and checking in on music, artists and other music bloggers. So this will be a way for us to keep a little stream of interesting tidbits about music flowing here (and occasional bad musical references in relation to other world events).
So check in with us for updates, or just follow us over at Twitter. If you got some interesting music news, tweet us for a retweet. And please, if you are following interesting music tweeters, please share with us so we can too!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Hosapple and Stamey: Memories and Ambivalence

So here is an ongoing internal question I have. Since this blog is intended to be about the love of music and sharing that music, should we include reviews of albums with which we are, let's say, less than impressed. My first reaction is to stay focused on the positive, but then I realized that that might make me write reviews that were a bit misleadingly positive (this one comes to mind) in my effort to be supportive. And then, I keep imaging this discussion between me and a good friend.

GF: So I just picked up the new album by "random artist" and boy was that a let down.
Me: Yeah, I know.
GF: What?!
Me: I mean I thought it was pretty unimpressive too.
GF: You have that album?
Me: Yeah, I got it a couple weeks ago.
GF: What the hell?
Me: Huh?
GF: You didn't write anything about that on the blog--you could have saved me the trouble!
Me: Sorry, didn't know that was my responsibility.
GF: You stink!
Me: YOU stink.
Me: Like poop.
GF: I am never reading your stupid blog again.
Me: Fine.
GF: Fine.
Okay, so that is a bit of an exaggeration (other than the fact that I do now argue like my children) but it does strike me that perhaps it would be fair to at least mention albums that have met with my ambivalence in case that might matter to anyone. But I will try to keep such posts short rather than long Pitchfork-like tear-ups.
So, a while back I read that Peter Hosapple and Chris Stamey, formally of the dBs were about to release a new album. This news caught my attention because I had such fine memories of their last effort Mavericks from way back in 1990. I hadn't heard that album in forever as I had it on a long-gone cassette. So I ordered up the recently re-released disc version which includes a few extra tracks as well as the new album Here and Now.
You can see what is coming right? Disappointment.
Now these guys still know how to craft a pop song and they still have really solid harmonies, but the problem (for me) is that most of the songs are, well, corny. Now you have to realize that "Mavericks" was basically a whole set of love songs (true and broken), so nothing all that fancy. On H&N they take on a variety of topics including one of my favorite these days--growing older--but they end up coming across as more silly than reflective. So we get songs about "just wanting to hang out with you" and how it's okay that now they "get up early in the morning."
Then there is seeming obsession with self-refernce to the reunion itself which is the text of the title track. As PopMatters notes in their review:
Indeed, Holsapple and Stamey reference their new connection so often that even songs on a different subject begin to feel like more steps along the same path. For example, once you’ve heard “Here and Now” and “Broken Record”, “Begin Again” (Holsapple’s ode to his fragile New Orleans home) seems like a reunion reference. And after hearing “Long Time Coming” and “Tape Op Blues” (a tune about being in the studio), it’s hard to wonder if even “Santa Monica”, with its chorus of “I want to hang around with you… until my life is through”, should be interpreted not as an ode to a lover, but to a treasured bandmate.
There are some great sounding pop tunes more reminiscent of the dBs, which are wonderfully boppy background music, but lyrically just don't make it for me. Then there is some odd use of saxophone on a couple tracks which I joked was probably added in because they had some friend who plays sax that they wanted to give a shot. Turns out it is Branford--oops!
Of course, once I started deciding to write through my disappointment in the album, I kept listening and started to feel like perhaps I was being too hard, but I don't think so.
Now that said, if you don't have Mavericks, I would still recommend grabbing a copy of that. It still holds together well despite the 80's sounding production and the somewhat heavy use of reverb or chorus (or whatever you call that somewhat echo-y sound with techno sounding drums). So let me serve up a couple tunes from that album as well as the opening track from H&N, a cover of My Friend the Sun, which had me hopeful the first time I listened to it. And if you want to hear more from the new album--they have much of it streaming over at their site.

Mavericks (Buy Album)

Here and Now (Buy Album)

Monday, July 20, 2009

Country Music, Monsters of Folk and a Frontier Ruckus

I have a stack of music to write about, but I haven't quite settled in enough with any of it to actually compose a coherent post. On top of that I am in a crabby mood and I figure it isn't fair to write about a disc in that state, so let's see if we can look at a few random items designed to lift the spirits a little.
  • First up, if you hadn't noticed the new little badge down there on the right side, we are now subscribed to Review Shine, which is a neat new site designed to connect artists and music bloggers. Artists can upload their tunes (please do!), and bloggers then get the right to review and share that music. In the first week, we have already had several albums offered up to us for review which is cool, but I can't help but notice that most of what has ended up in the ole Tuning Room inbox is very country oriented and a lot of tunes have to do with drinking. Hmmmm. Is this some commentary on the content here? I will let you be the judge.
  • Then there is all the commotion going on about the upcoming album from Connor Oberst, Jim James, and M. Ward known as the Monsters of Folk. And today, we find out that the first single is being offered up for free download over at their site. Just say "please" and the tune is yours.
  • And lastly, I was recently surfing around and ran into this great video of Frontier Ruckus live in the Paste studios which made me explore the band a bit more. That exploration taught me that these guys are from Michigan (bonus!) and that there a bunch of videos of them popping up all over the Great Lakes State and playing tunes. Here is one of my favs shot on the side of the road in northern Michigan which made my boys wonder if we will see them on our vacation--that would be too cool. You can count on some further exploration of this band's music in future posts.

Wow. I feel better already!

Friday, July 17, 2009

The Tuning Room Welcomes Wobs

Some big news here at The Room. As of today, The Room officially has a new contributor. For all of those of you who fondly remember The Medulla Noodle with its regular PRM installments or were fans of Organizing Grievances, then you will know that we are lucky to have Wobblie join us here at The Room.

Personally, I am excited, because it is in no small part because of Wobs joining me as a colleague at work that I got refocused on music. I had a period of life where I really lost track of new and hip music and Wobs caught me up on several important groups from that period. Just to name a few: Wilco, Flaming Lips, Phish and The Walkmen. There are others, but that is a pretty impressive list right there, ain't it?
I think we can expect a few changes here in The Room which will definitely expand our focus. I am going to forecast that The Room will now be a bit more funky, punky and groovy. And won't that be fun?
So I hope everyone who checks in here regularly, will welcome Wobs. Likewise, we also welcome all those who will surely now check in with us because Wobs is "in The Room!" (sorry, couldn't resist)
And now back to our regularly scheduled blogging about the tunes.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Wilco Offers Up Its Big Sonic Shoulder

I know that while Wilco (The Album) has already been reviewed about a gazillion times in the first two weeks it has been out, everyone is waiting for The Room to weigh in. And for good reason. I am not a "true Wilco fan." The evidence:
  • I didn't own any Wilco or even really know about the whole Uncle Tupelo/Wilco/Son Volt complex until only about a year ago. We will wait while you take that in (and hope it doesn't mean you will never return).
  • I would take Sky Blue Sky or Being There over Yankee Hotel Foxtrot any day, which is to say I like them the best when they aren't in their edgy, experimental mode.
  • I also like Son Volt very much which any true Wilco fan would probably consider at least a venial, if not a mortal, sin.
All of which gives me my particular perspective on Wilco. I don't have piles of expectations to heap upon this album (or any of their offerings), which also probably means I am not in a position to be hugely or even mildly disappointed. And that results in this incredibly insightful assessment of their new album.
I like it. Actually quite a bit. And like it more, the more I listen to it.
It is definitely more cool, groove Sky Blue Sky than dissonant Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, but still there is something for everyone here I think. Of course, that might also mean that the album is not consistent enough in one direction to please anybody--I note that while those gazillion reviews are generally favorable they are all a bit tepid. Ultimately, though I think the All Music review has it down.
If Wilco (The Album) as a whole is considerably less ambitious than its predecessors, it compensates with its easy confidence and craft: it's the work of a band that knows their strengths and knows what they're all about, and it's ready to settle into an agreeably comfortable groove.
I am going to go out on the self-projection limb here and say that it is possible that this has a bit to do with age as well. Tweedy seems much more interested in relationships, reflection and adjustments than angst and being misunderstood.
But enough meta, let's look at "The Album" a bit shall we and let's start right at the beginning with "Wilco (The Song)" which is simply a fabulous Wilco pop romp to open up with and I can imagine it being a favorite show opener as well. This song got me thinking that someone should write about great first songs (someones, are you listening?) and this would be one of my choices.
For me a great first song immediately makes you know you want to listen to that album, right then--it is the right choice for your mood. It sets the tone and gives you a positive emotional feeling (not necessarily happy, but more at satisfaction). Now this opening song does, in fact, make me happy. After all, who can resist the charming refrain of having Tweedy tell you that "Wilco will love you baby?" And it is as they say a "big sonic shoulder" that you can cry on, but more than that. It is Wilco putting their arm around you and letting you know everything is okay--really, they understand. And somehow, that actually conveys and works with this song.
There are several other very Wilco pop/rock tunes mixing both Beatles sounding harmonies and music with a certain level of dissonance and feedback. "Sonny Feeling" offered up below is a good example. The only real edgy tune musically is "Bull Black Nova" which is the most Yankee sounding tune with guitars vs. techno sounds creating a certain repetitive discord with feedback and high volume lyrics resolving the tune.
Then there are the slower and mid-tempo tunes which form the majority of the album--although scattered so as not to feel like the album is dominated by them. Most have interesting musical identities from the Nick Drake sounding "Solitaire" to the 70's groove thing that is "Country Disappeared" which you can sample below. Then there is the "You and I" duet with Feist which is not quite Neil Diamond and Barbara Streisand, but is, well, as close to that as you want Tweedy to get. Then again, it seems to work as the antithesis to "Bull Black Nova" which it follows.
And so all and all, this might just be a solid, but unremarkable album for Wilco, but I suspect that the more folks listen to it, the more they are going to find themselves wanting to listen to it more. And goodness knows if this were their first album, people would probably be thinking they were geniuses!
So check it out. Here is the opening "shoulder" along with two others to give you a sample.
Wilco (The Album) Buy the Album

Sonny Feeling

Saturday, July 11, 2009

While I Was Away: Samantha Crain and the Midnight Shivers

Here is another artist/band that got some heavy listening to (thanks to Payton) while I was temporarily off-line. Samantha Crain and her band, the Midnight Shivers, have put together a very solid first album, Songs in the Night, released earlier this year.

The first thing to comment on is Crain's voice which is as unique as any out there these days. It is also hard to describe. Yes, she is from Oklahoma so it has a certain drawl to it, but it is more than that. Most of the songs have her in a full, alto mode, but she also clearly has range and control allowing her to sing beautifully in higher ranges and on softer pieces with more delicate vocals. I think Rolling Stone's description is as good as any I have read.
Her voice is gorgeously odd — all fulsome, shape-shifting vowels that do indeed billow like fog.
And that voice is at its best when it is fully integrated into the rest of the band--which it is on most songs.
The tunes range from country to mid-temp rock to haunting dirges that make you feel like you now understand where the band thought up its name. They all have a bit of a dark sound given both Crain's voice and the fact that most of the songs seem to be set in keys (minor, I assume) that have that darker, blues feel. A few tunes don't seem as well constructed as others musically, but that is typically temporary and followed with an even nicer musical move to erase any criticism. For instance, the third track "Long Division" has a guitar line that seems a bit simplistic and separate from the tune (to me), but then the song recovers with some nice horns that really fill out the tune--and then the next tune, "Get the Fever Out" hits it just great right from the opening.
In the end, I have to say that I am a bit curious as to why this album has not gained more attention, although they did get some nice attention from the Times--in that Times kind of way.
As I have listened to them, I keep thinking, this is what would happen if The Pretenders came out of Oklahoma with an alt-country feel. No they don't sound like the P's, but they have the same make-up--strong and unique female vocalist out front with a guitar, with three strong guy musicians behind. A certain moodiness to songs, but with a swagger that makes them rock through the darkness. And the unique sound of Crain's voice.
You can be the judge--here are three. First up is "You Never Know" which is the second to last song and shows off their solid rock chops and song structure--nothing overly adventuresome, just a really good straight-forward tune. Next up is the last song on the album which might be my favorite. "The Dam Song" shows off some of Crain's best singing and is a wonderful end to the album. Lastly, I give you the first tune on the album, which is a fine opening, but is all the better on the all-important disc-replay rollover. Hope you enjoy.

Songs in the Night (buy album)

You Never Know
The Dam Song
Rising Sun

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Madness, Vivaldi and Other Conundrums

So lately I have been noticing more than a few music bloggers posting "random notes" about music as a way to fill in for a lack of more substantial posts. I recognize the strategy to keep some fresh content up without quite as much effort as I often do this on my work blog, but haven't really resorted to it here. Not sure why, since, even though it might be just a filler strategy, I often find these posts as informational as any in the long run--so here is one of my own.
  • I was totally surprised today to learn that Madness has a new album out. Madness I say! I was totally a fan of the whole ska thing in the 80's (and the more recent resurgence) and had lots of albums (vinyl that is) of Madness, The Specials, The Beat, etc.--although very little on disc. Here is the question. Check out the new album? Pick up favorite ska albums on disc or download mp3s? Get one of these? Just wait, this will pass? Do tell.

  • Switching gears, the Allmusic Blog asserts that the best classical album of 2009 (so far) is Lara St. John's pairing of Vivaldi's The Four Seasons and Piazzolla's The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires. The conundrum is that while I love Vivaldi's Four Seasons, despite its insane popularity and overuse, I already have two versions--neither of which I bought myself (and one which I am pretty sure Neats gave me just to get the poster of Josh Bell)--but I don't have the Piazzolla. Get another version of Vivaldi to get the other? Not worth it? Is there some other version of the Piazzolla I should have? If so, which one?

  • After restarting The Room, I have already received an email from someone clearly wanting me to review/promote a band. The band is Englishman which I have listened to a few times on their MySpace page. The music is intriguing--the next Iron and Wine perhaps? But what is one to do with these kinds of inquiries? Review regardless of what I think, good or bad? Just the good? Ignore because, really, who am I to judge?

  • Today I noticed that Nelson was celebrating his blog anniversary (belatedly I think) which made me realize that I started this blog over a year ago and so I missed my own blog anniversary. Or did I? Does it count if you stopped the blog midway and then restarted? When is this blog's anniversary? Hard to say.
Any and all suggestions welcome. Until then, I give you Madness!

Monday, July 6, 2009

Out of Season: Grizzly Bear

Some one who knows me well told me recently that I was "so moody" about music. His comment referred to my seasonal (music) affect disorder which basically means that I randomly think of certain music belonging to certain seasons. This tends to mean that if I get an album at a certain time of year that I might otherwise like, my reaction might be a bit cool if it is "out of season" so to speak.
This was clearly the case with the Fleet Foxes, for example. While everyone was going gaga last year over them, I just couldn't get into the album (but wisely noted that I should put it away for a bit). Sure enough, earlier this year during a few months when the Capital City basically turned into Portland, I returned to the Foxes and fell in love with the album. In that spirit, I am going to start a new category of post for albums that I recognize as having a lot of quality or potential, but that I fear might not be getting my full appreciation for the simple and random reason that it is just not the right season in my brain.
First up in that category is the new album by Grizzly Bear--and you thought this post was about hunting didn't you?! Veckatimest (apparently named after a small Massachusetts island) is getting really consistently solid reviews from all over the place and only a few listens will tell you why. It is both complex and interesting and definitely a unique blend of sounds and styles which is a bit of a challenge to describe. Imagine starting with the Beach Boys of Pet Sounds, throw in some pensive Walkmen guitar work, perhaps a bit of Flaming Lips synth and bass work here and there, a certain 70's vibe, a touch (just a touch) of Gabriel era Genesis, then add some glam-rock like vocals (although I can't real pin down one vocal comparison) and a choir, and maybe, just maybe, you get a sense of it all.
The tunes are mostly mid-tempo with lots of layers of both music and vocals and most with many different mini-movements to them. The front end of the disc is a wonderful set of five tunes that if I had this on vinyl might mean that the flip side might not see the needle very often. The back half have some strong pieces, but Pitchfork nails it in their review of the middle of the album.
Save "Cheerleader" and the lilting "Ready, Able", the stretch between "Fine for Now" and "While You Wait" wanders a bit; certain moments, like Rossen's "swim around like two dories" line and the wispy, wheezing "About Face", hit harder than others. But you'll be looking for a while to find anybody who thinks the center of Veckatimest is as strong as the stuff surrounding it.
That said, this is still obviously going to be one of those albums that a whole lot of folks talk about this year and I suspect at the end of the year when those inevitable lists get made.
So, wait, wasn't this supposed to be about my ambivalence or something? Well, the truth is that as much as I appreciate the album (and as some in my household might point out, I have listened to it "a lot") it is going into the wait for Fall pile because ultimately it makes me think of the kind of album you listened to as a hip new college band. Not a bar band--no, no--but rather one of those albums that is always on at some one's party, in a dorm room or college apartment, cuz, well, it is hip. I don't mean this in a superficial, hipster way--but rather to say that this album is, in fact, very cool--like an autumn weekend afternoon hanging with friends.
For those of you who don't suffer from my version of SMAD and think you might want to pick up some cool, hip Brooklyn-based tunes now, here are some samples which I think cover the range from the poppy beginning to the slower-tempo tunes and on to some more jangly guitar pieces.

Veckatimest (Buy Album)

Two Weeks
Fine for Now
While You Wait for the Others
Update: Had to take the mp3's down as they were getting pulled from Box, so I am trying to avoid my first Google take down since returning. Check out GB music here instead.