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.”