Friday, July 20, 2007
The sky was anything but blue and, er, sky in Atlanta on a Tuesday night in June, but that didn’t prevent fans from pouring into Chastain Park Amphitheater to see Wilco at work. Ponchos sold for five bucks, beer sold for six, and frontman Jeff Tweedy focused on the non-stop rain to punctuate his between-song banter. “You guys all right?” he asked as the downpour hit an apex. “You’re gonna be just fine,” he answered.
If Sky Blue Sky, Wilco’s sixth album, is any indication, feeling just fine is a theme Tweedy knows well. He’s chilled out both sonically and medicinally from the handshake drugs of 2004 album A Ghost Is Born, now ready to look up, lean back and take a breath. In a way, Sky Blue Sky is a return to form, combining the folkier aspects of 1995 debut A.M. with a couple new guitar tricks (or new guitarists: Nels Cline, Pat Sansone).
The Chicago sextet began the hour-and-a-half set with the first four tracks from Sky in sequential order, and the lyrical elements fit the mood just right. “Maybe the sun will shine today,” Tweedy sang on the sublime “Either Way.” “The clouds will blow away.” Tweedy paused after four songs to further comment on the weather. “You’re no longer the real fans,” he said, referring to the crowd in the two front rows, which happened to be covered by the stage’s overhang. “Stand in the rain to prove your love to Wilco.” Tweedy then vowed to play until the rain stopped before remarking, “I’m gonna stop talking now to maximize the rock.”
The band moved into the familiar, subtle opening notes and drum strikes of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’s “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart.” Other than a fair amount of applause during the guitar jamming outro of Sky’s “Impossible Germany” (the third song of the set), it seemed the crowd was waiting all along to hear the older material. Before Wilco hit the synthesized keyboard intro of “Jesus, Etc.”, Tweedy delivered a shout-out. “This song is dedicated to you,” he paused. “Actually, all of the songs so far have been dedicated to you.” If his statement had been completely accurate, the set might have contained a few more Wilco classics, as the crowd’s enthusiasm appeared to ebb and flow between new and old songs. Percussionist Glenn Kotche’s kick drum sported Sky Blue Sky’s flock-of-birds cover art, and the band played eight of the 12 tracks on the album.
Though it’s unfair to criticize Wilco for showcasing its new tracks, a miscue at the end of the set exemplified the separation between band and audience. Tweedy mentioned “coming right back” after visiting the “libation station,” which didn’t register as a signal to applaud for an encore. Wilco left the stage and quickly returned. “I ruined the encore,” he laughed. The band members made up for it as they plowed through favorites “Via Chicago” and an extended version of the already 10-minute “Spiders (Kidsmoke).” The crowd finally caught on as the band left the stage once again and were welcomed back with synchronized handclaps. Wilco finished up with “Heavy Metal Drummer” and “Outta Mind, Outta Sight,” two more beloved back-catalog songs. As Tweedy promised, the show ended and the rain ceased.
Sunday, April 01, 2007
In an age when studio magicians manipulate pubescent voices into platinum-selling sex purrs, sometimes the Luddites prosper. And sometimes they need just a little more juice. That’s why Philadelphia five-piece Dr. Dog traded in its trusty eight-track—used to record the group’s three previous albums—for a relatively fancier 24-track, two-inch tape machine. As should be the case with any Beach Boys-influenced band, more tracks equal more harmonies, and We All Belong has them in droves. But Brian Wilson isn’t the only force at work here, as the record’s opening piano glissando shoots straight from Big Pink. Songwriting duo Scott McMicken (guitar, vocals) and Toby Leaman (bass, vocals) have been friends since childhood, and We All Belong’s feel-good design makes it easy to imagine joint ventures into parents’ liquor cabinets and record collections. “Don’t Pretend” exhibits a slow-dance Motown sensuality, “Ain’t It Strange” recalls Neil Young’s plight-of-man attitude (“Ain’t it strange how a man who lives for nothing can change/’Cause if he stays the same, he’ll die a million days”), while the title track’s guitars conjure an octopus’ garden in the shade.
Dr. Dog met with MAGNET a few days before the band played Clap Your Hands Say Yeah frontman Alec Ounsworth’s wedding.
How often are you asked about your band name?
McMicken: Just about any time anyone asks us anything about the band. All the time.
The first two tracks on We All Belong are called “Old News” and “My Old Ways.” Would you consider yourself nostalgic?
Leaman: We’re definitely nostalgic. We’re not aspiring to be people we respect, but we’re definitely nostalgic for music. We listen to all that shit: doo wop, Motown, old rock ‘n’ roll, old country blues. We listen to everything.
McMicken: It’s just so much easier to find that good feeling for whatever reason. When I first got into listening to music and finding good songwriters, they all seemed to be 30 years older than me, and I was fine with that.
Did your earlier bands have a similar sound?
Leaman: We were both in punk bands, bluegrass bands. We were in a rock band called Raccoon until a few years ago. We’ve never really sounded like Dr. Dog. We’ve always aspired to get to the point we’re at, but it just didn’t happen for a while. We just weren’t good enough.
My Morning Jacket asked you to open for them after Scott handed Jim James a copy of (2002’s) Toothbrush.
Leaman: We owe that dude a billion dollars. If we ever have a billion dollars, we’re gonna give it to Jim.
McMicken: I bought him breakfast at Denny’s. I was like, “Listen man, we don’t owe you anything. The omelette’s on me.”
Speaking of touring, what is your typical audience like?
Leaman: There are a lot of guys our age that come to the show and say, “My dad told me to come see you.” It’s great when you’re in some town where you don’t know anyone and some guy who’s as old as your dad comes up and says, “Great job, man. I love you guys!”
Wednesday, February 07, 2007
Watching Lost is like befriending the new girl in school. It all began so well.
When Lost moved into the neighborhood in the fall of '04, you were the first to get to know her. Unlike other shows you'd seen before, she was willing to delve into her past with endless detail—via flashback, of course. She talked openly about her problems with dad (Jack), the trouble with boys (Kate) and how she loved to get high (Charlie). There were episodes when seemingly nothing happened, but that was good, right? When you were with Lost, time stood still.
And then that got old. The boar begat the mysterious smoke, which begat the polar bear, which begat the French lady, which begat the “Others,” which begat the hatch, which begat the numbers, which got boring. Or frustrating, at least. So what went wrong?
Like the new girl in school, Lost was bound to make friends. As her popularity and ratings soared, she made friends who had money (advertisers) and friends who wanted to make more of it (ABC, presumably). Any time we got close to an answer, lost teased and turned. It extended without explaining. Were Hurley and Libby both in the same mental institution? Bam! She's shot by Michael. Was Shannon really seeing Walt? Bam! Shot by Ana-Lucia. Did Mr. Eko know more than he was letting on? Bam! Killed by a monster.
Which brings us to today, the return of the third season after a scant six episodes last fall. Jack holds the fate of Ben's life in his surgical hands while Kate and Sawyer plan their escape to and from an island.
It's taboo to reveal too much of what'll happen, but the wait is worthwhile. Maybe the expectation of learning nothing new has altered the viewing experience, but the plot moves. People make decisions. We see the results. In a moment of levity we learn the name of that guy with the fake beard.
But this could all be a ruse. Next week we could be treated to an expose on Locke's sudoku obsession. Or maybe the tide is shifting. It's possible Lost's producers began to feel a bit too Keyser Söze-like in all the misdirection and deceit. It's possible they've been watching 24. And it's possible that if and when the show jumps the shark, it will involve an actual shark.
Monday, January 01, 2007
For one reason or another, the few French rock groups that manage to trickle over the Atlantic and into the American undercurrent share a similar pedigree. Phoenix and Air, for example, both sing in that slightly-slurred, mostly charming Frenglish (if they choose to sing at all). Not to mention their obsession with glitzy, Jamiroquai-esque pop. Tahiti 80 doesn't attempt to brak away from the pack, but that’s more of an observation than a complaint. The Paris group's third album is a midnight rave. Anyone familiar with the Neptunes’ patented production will find warmth in Fosbury's crisp, clanging songs. Not coincidentally, vocalist Xavier Boyer and bassist Pedro Resende, who formed Tahiti 80 in 1993, hired Neptunes’ colleagues Neal Pouge and Serban Ghenea for production and mixing. “Here Comes…” steals the hook from Snoop Dogg’s “Beautiful,” keeping the bodies moving while Boyer meditates on redemption and regret. “Changes” covers the same lyrical terrain ("Changes are happening, it's too late to turn back"), burying the emotion in a frantic, Indian-inspired beat. Call it a gift or a curse, but it's difficult to uncover Boyer's demons when the party won't stop.
Thom Moran feels like a born-again musician. After recovering from a near-fatal stab wound suffered during a mugging in Boston seven years ago, he began to grasp his life’s ambition.
“There’s something to the stereotype of near-death experiences really putting into focus how short life is,” says the 30-year-old Bon Savants singer/guitarist. “You can either do a lot of things OK or a few number of things really well. I finished school and decided I’m gonna play music.”
Moran and Bon Savants co-founder/guitarist Kevin Haley met as teenagers in Frankfurt, Germany. A stint in the Air Force had Moran stationed abroad, while Haley was a military brat looking to start a band. The two bonded over Pavement and Pulp, then formed a post-punk group called W.H.Y.
“Most rehearsals,” laughs Moran, “we just tried to see how close we could get to being Fugazi.”
Fast forward to 2003: Moran is coordinating sub-orbital rocket tests at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Haley is bouncing around Texas and Colorado until Moran convinces him to move to Boston. A Craigslist post corrals bassist Dave Wessel, and the trio recruits Berklee-educated drummer Andrew Dole by way of another Internet post, reading: “Need a drummer to play Middle East (a Cambridge, Mass., venue) covering Pulp. I can’t believe we haven’t found somebody to do this already.”
Bon Savants are born shortly thereafter, recording Post Rock Defends The Nation on ProTools and sending the disc to Bill Racine (Rogue Wave, Mercury Rev) for mixing. The self-released debut embodies Moran’s second-chance sentiments. On album opener “What We Need,” Moran laments the one who got away in his best Stephin Merritt baritone. He revisits his brush with the Reaper on the title track, proclaiming, “I bled to death on a neighbor’s lawn.” Little else on Post Rock Defends The Nation is as morbid, but there’s a level of obliqueness heightened by peculiar phrases (“Oh, you kiss like a Russian,” “I am the atom bomb”) coupled with images drawn from Moran’s scientific background (“Feel a charge in your matter like an electrical storm”).
The band members’ Pulp fascination figures into Post Rock Defends The Nation, as does Haley’s resounding, Interpol-esque guitar work. As fate would have it, Haley—responsible for co-writing many of the album's 11 tracks—recently left the band under amicable terms. (He was replaced temporarily by guitarist Bek Zaganjori; guitarist Craig Hendrix and keyboardist Brian Hamilton have since joined Bon Savants.)
“You don’t want to try what you did before,” says Moran concerning Haley’s departure. “It’s never gonna be as good as it was that way, but maybe better in a different way.”
Tuesday, September 19, 2006
If at first you don’t succeed, try again every seven days. In 1999, Michael Zapruder began writing, recording and posting a new song online each week for a year. The results can be found at www.52songs.org, but the rewards are vast and varied. Listening to the Oakland, Calif., musician’s sophomore album, New Ways Of Letting Go (Howells Transmitter), is akin to hearing Rufus Wainwright croon over Andrew Bird’s simmering string arrangements. But Zapruder wasn’t always blessed with perfect pipes.
“Well, it’s funny,” he says. “I didn’t make my school chorus when I was a kid, and I was the guitar player for bands for a while. I remember I started to sing songs and people would come up to me and be like, ‘Hey man, you know your guitar playing is really good, but the singing is just … You know, don’t sing.’”
A bit of practice was all Zapruder needed, and by the end of his 52-song project, he had developed his smooth, silky delivery. People soon took notice. Nate Query (the Decemberists), Jonathan Segel (Camper Van Beethoven), Scott Solter (John Vanderslice) and more than a dozen other musicians make up the Rain Of Frogs, Zapruder’s carefully chosen backing band.
Zapruder’s orchestral compositions are complex but not overbearing (he studied music at Oakland’s Laney College), allowing for each Frog to hold its own without disrupting the balance of strings, piano and the occasional triangle or shaker. Surprisingly, the Rain Of Frogs network has no roots in Laney College, sprouting instead from various connections Zapruder made through friends or Pandora.com, where he’s the music curator.
“I think I’m surrounded by talented friends,” he says. “I thought it would be interesting and fun and would make a better record to open the door and say, ‘Anybody I know might be in this band.’ I mean, if you play anything and have good ideas, you might … you know. [Laughs] I’m totally serious. It’s a lot more fun to work like this.”
Michael Zapruder - The Alchemist.mp3
It's true what they say about German engineering. So when Steve Webster, the sole Brit behind the Black Neon, wanted to get truly motorik on his new album, he motored straight to Berlin. There, he honed his handiwork with members of krautrock progenitors Amon Düül and Ash Ra Tempel. Arts & Crafts is an eclectic set of party starters that's best likened to a few other westerners looking east: "Cast That Light" is Anton Newcombe breathing smoke into Air's mellower moments, and "TX81Z" is Beck covering New Order's "Blue Monday."
Brotherhood and Weeds
I didn’t have cable television until college. When my friends used to complain about the newest MTV VJ, I smiled and nodded. When they argued over whether Jenny McCarthy or Carmen Electra was a better/hotter Singled Out host, I shrugged. When I Google image these women today, I question my friends’ tastes. Now that I have more than five fuzzy channels, I mainly watch sports and Project Runway. But there’s also Showtime’s Sunday/Monday one-two punch. Brotherhood is tense and shocking, and it’s been described as an Irish version of The Sopranos. (To be honest, I’ve only seen a handful of episodes of that show, but I hear it’s great and I’ll agree with the comparison.) On Brotherhood, one brother is a rising Rhode Island politician, the other is a crook. Mom loves them both! On Monday nights, there’s a mom I love: Weeds’ Mary-Louise Parker. Her husband dies of a heart attack, so she deals pot to rich neighbors in order to provide for her two sons. The soundtrack kicks ass (Rogue Wave, Sufjan Stevens, New Pornographers, Mountain Goats), and Parker’s sarcastic, cool-mom delivery is priceless. I Google image her, too.
Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin Broom (Polyvinyl)
What with all the clapping of the hands while saying yeah and the question of what made Milwaukee famous, band nomenclature has lost some of its restraint. But that’s no reason to dismiss Springfield, Mo.’s Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin. In fact, the four-piece is worth its weight in syllables. Much has already been made of the band’s overt Shins similarities, and it’s a good starting point; “I Am Warm & Powerful” will certainly hold you over until January, when the Shins’ third record is finally released. Two-thirds of the Unicorns might have gone on to form Islands, but the former band lives on in the playful, morose nature of “Anna Lee.” The elephant in the room would be labelmate Of Montreal, whose giddy stylings drive the opening track “Pangea.” Oh, and speaking of that Athens band, its “Wraith Pinned To The Mist And Other Games” just happened to close out an episode of Weeds.
SSLYBY - Oregon Girl
Monday, September 18, 2006
When it comes to categorizing, Antlerand has critics reaching for hyphens and modifiers. "Emo-core," "psychedelic rock" and "atmospheric trance" are just a few of the genre tags tossed at the Portland, Ore., trio since its formation four years ago, but Antlerand finds little solace in locating a musical niche.
"Those lines of demarcation aren't always useful, helpful or accurate," says multi-instrumentalist Zach Okun. "Doesn't the average listener listen to a wide variety of sounds? The point being, why is it weird that bands are all over the map?"
Appropriately, Antlerand was conceived at different points on the geographic map, starting as a long-distance collaboration between Oregon and Arizona. Okun was studying sound recording in Phoenix when a mutual friend connected him with Chris Larson, a Portland guitarist/vocalist who was busy incorporating visual projections into live performance. The duo debuted as Invisible, releasing The Invisible EP in 2004. By that time, Okun had moved to Portland, and the pair picked up drummer Delaney Kelly after spotting him perform alongside his girlfriend's modern-dance routine.
Invisible morphed into Antlerand after Kelly's inclusion, but the group is far from putting on its last picture show. When played live, each song is carefully synchronized with screen images consisting of lines, geometric shapes, people and places. All this might seem like an art-school vanity project, but it did draw the attention of Sleater-Kinney/Quasi drummer Janet Weiss, whom Okum met shortly after moving to Portland. How she came to guest on Antlerand's recent Branches (Sound Family) is a case of life imitating art.
"We would joke about how that last part of the song ("Now It's A Year") was kinda like a Quasi song," says Okun. "And it just seemed fitting that we'd have Janet come sing on that one."
Weiss' contribution is more cameo than showcase, as her singing almost falls through the mix. This is common for Antlerand, which sometimes employs vocals as a texture instead of a soapbox. "Now It's A Year" opens with Larson's lucid voice over heavy-handed piano chords, followed by Postal Service-esque clicking and Kelly's potent, sparse drumming. Larson and Weiss would sound like Mates Of State at the chorus if not for the droning instrumentation behind them. Branches brims with subtlety, whether it's the slight graces of glockenspiel, accordion and bells, or the discordant Modest Mouse horns at the climax of "Brighter Rays."
"I really like the fact that some songs, although they're primarily rock-based instrumentation, all of a sudden a banjo comes out of left field," says Larson. "I really like that kind of unexpectedness; kinda trying to wiggle out of being easily defined."
Antlerand - Now It's A Year.mp3
Antlerand - Brighter Rays.mp3
Not even Michael Stipe’s endorsement could make Now It’s Overhead the next R.E.M. (Stipe contributed vocals to NIO’s 2004 album Fall Back Open.) But since both groups sprouted out of Athens, Ga., it’s fitting that the up-and-coming quartet’s fuzzy college rock would suit nightswimmers and daytrippers alike. On Dark Light Daybreak, the group’s third record for Saddle Creek, Now It’s Overheard cuts back on its former haze to graze in cleaner pastures. For most of the album, lead singer Andy LeMaster sounds like a blend of Stipe and Richard Ashcroft, and his syrupy voice is one of the few factors driving the tick-tocking “Night Vision.” On “Walls,” he evokes Tim Kasher of labelmate Cursive, sing-yelling his way out of thick, constricting layers of guitar and a sliding bass line. Opener “Let The Sirens Rest” basks in those vibrant, echoing U2 riffs that fill stadiums with sound and people. Still, LeMaster often opposes the pop world’s strict separation of verse and chorus—not that there’s anything wrong with that—keeping Now It’s Overhead above the heads of the masses. If he wanted to heed pop formulas, he could turn his artist-approved band into more than a name overheard.
Now It's Overhead - Walls.mp3
Lightning can strike twice, even in a vacuum. Or at least that's the rationale behind the National's return to Bridgeport, Conn., where the Brooklyn quintet recorded parts of last year's critically acclaimed beast Alligator with producer Peter Katis (Mercury Rev, Interpol).
"The town we're in, there isn't a lot," says frontman Matt Berninger. "It's good to work in this cocoon way and kind of go crazy and be in that zone to find interesting things." Not only does the band rarely leave the porch of Katis' Tarquin Studios, the members work separately within the Victorian-style home before piecing together individual ideas at the end of the day.
"The band doesn't have a specific songwriter, and nobody claims any kind of ownership over the songs," says Berninger. "Sometimes it's for the worst, but we will usually find the song. We are right in the middle of the mess of finding the center of the song and the magical stuff."
Still, the National's lovelorn lyrics come from Berninger's brain, and he insists the new record, due in March on Beggars Banquet, won't have him dwelling on the depressed.
"I was obsessed with romantic awkward situations, and I still am to a certain extent," he says. "I feel like I don't need to write a song about that so much. But to be honest, there are a few songs going into that territory."
Southern-bred folkmaster Jim White is also in Connecticut, working with producers Joe Pernice and Michael Deming (Beachwood Sparks, Silver Jews) at the latter's CharterOak Studios. White is backed by members of New York City roots-rock collective Ollabelle, and the record should be ready for a March release on V2.
The National - Slipping Husband.mp3
Saturday, September 02, 2006
My obvious opposition to monopolies aside (is there any other sunflower seed company?), David sunflower seeds might be the best snack on the planet. No, I’m no baseball player, nor am I a “seeder,” as the company’s ad campaign deems the so-called in-crowd. Nor will you find my cheeks packed like a chipmunk stowing goods in anticipation of the winter dearth. What I am is addicted, and what you will find in each roasty, toasty shell is a little taste of earth’s goodness. Overeating can result in a sore tongue (much like after chewing on a few of those pesky, amazing Sour Patch Kids), but it’s just nature’s way of reminding you to check yourself before you wreck yourself. If David wasn’t already the Goliath of the seed business, these snacks would bring the warrior down.
It’s disturbing—not to mention illegal—for grown men to be interested in 12- and 14-year-old girls. So slap the cuffs on me, because Smoosh has cultivated a crop of forbidden pop fruit typically reserved for bands that have at least attended and dropped out of high school. But this Seattle drum/keys duo of sisters Chloe and Asya (last name wisely withheld) hasn’t done it alone. Death Cab For Cutie’s Jason McGerr is Chloe’s drum teacher and the band’s mentor, guiding the youngsters through tours with Jimmy Eat World and Mates Of State and opening slots for Pearl Jam, Sleater-Kinney and Death Cab itself. Asya’s voice occasionally thins to reveal her age, but it’s nothing worth having a sixth-life crisis over. Her kooky, often distorted keyboard riffs easily and gleefully complement Chloe’s refined, rattling drum strikes. If the sisters were 10 years older, their music would probably be marketed with hipster-approved twee terms such as “youthful exuberance,” “unbridled enthusiasm” and “childhood innocence.” In 10 years, let’s hope the duo can still showcase these traits without a smidgen of irony.
Smoosh - Find A Way.mp3