Friday, August 31, 2007

[078] Kill The Moonlight

Album: Kill The Moonlight
Artist: Spoon
Release Date: August 2002
Label: Merge
Producers: Britt Daniel, Jim Eno, & Mike McCarthy

"Small stakes give you blues
But you don't feel taken, don't think you've been used
Cuz it's alright Friday night to Sunday
It feels alright, keeps your mind on the page"
- from "Small Stakes"

Some of these albums are easier to write about than others. I thought Spoon’s Kill The Moonlight was gonna be tough because, even though they’re probably my favorite band at the moment and I’ve listened to this album a couple hundred times, the songs are so…skeletal, just some choppy guitar or ghostly piano or whatever; at first I was worried there wouldn’t be enough to sink my teeth into. But I was wrong. It turns out that Britt Daniel has a very specific lyrical theme running throughout these songs, and as is usually the case with Spoon, it’s yet another sly element of his songwriting that contributes to the band making universal Pop music that doesn’t talk down to its listeners. I could've taken the stance that because the relationship between integrity and Pop music has been virtually non-existent for the last decade that this album was on the list to represent that Pop music could still be great and offer something new. But I didn't do that, because that would be too easy and no fun. The fun for this entry was in finding Daniel's theme, his reasons that made up my answers, looking for something new in an album I thought I was as familiar with as I was going to get.

Whenever I sit down to figure out my approach to an album, I always go for the ‘why’. The ‘who’, ‘what’, and ‘where’ are almost always too easy, and the ‘how’ is good only so far. ‘Why’ will tell you everything you need to know. In this way, I felt like Spoon; I was breaking down my writing the way they break down their music. But I didn’t want to do another Spoon write-up that talked all about their deconstruction of Pop, even if this album is their most deconstructed (though why that is, surrounded by lush pop records like Girls Can Tell and Gimme Fiction, would also be an excellent question to try and answer, as would why this album became their most beloved by fans). So I start as I always do – Why is Kill The Moonlight on this list? My initial answer was because its songs are such perfect little morsels, but I can’t stretch that to 700+ words. Why are the songs so perfect? Well, because they’re fun. They feel good. They say fun things. But that’s what I feel; that doesn’t mean that you’d feel the same. But it’s possible. Like I said, the best thing about Spoon, their biggest selling point, is they’re as universal an music artist as you’re likely to find nowadays, and these songs may be their most so. Why is that?

Well, what in an adult’s life is universal? Universal is the presence/absence of love. It’s the challenge of employment and personal finance. It’s movement of all kinds, whether it’s physical travel or figurative change of station in life. All the songs on Kill The Moonlight are about these things. “Small Stakes” mentions minimum wage against Morse code organ. “Paper Tiger” covers devotion under a starry night. “Something To Look Forward To” tackles breaking up with lurching guitar, while “Someone Something” prepares for domestic life with a backing of robust horns. Virtually every song talks about going somewhere; Over and over, Daniel sings about going, “Stay don’t go” or “When I get there”. “It’s only got to go just as far as we let it go" or “All the pretty girls go to the city”. Even on the new wave thump of "Jonathan Fisk", he admits it's just “how the story goes”. Also, he’s constantly trying to “get back” to something or someplace or someone, like “Go back to the life” and “We’ll go back tonight the way we came”. It’s incredible how this pops up in every song; he tosses it off like he doesn’t even realize he’s doing it. In "The Way We Get By", the band's best song to date, Daniel starts with visions of backseats and mobile homes. He sings of the “long way home” in two songs, even on the 90-second “You Gotta Feel It”, managing “You’ll wind up where you don’t want to get.”

Pretty much anything in your life relates directly to these things, and the one thing that can relate to all three of these things at the same time for pretty much everyone is The Weekend. Today’s Friday – how bad do you want it to be 5 o’clock?? Kill The Moonlight is a Pop album for the working class, an album to hold you over, to keep you smiling until that Friday whistle blows, and that applies to anytime during the work week. It’s a commuter’s album; I realized this, of course, while listening to it on the way to work yesterday morning. “Small Stakes” says it all – First, “It’s alright from Friday night to Sunday”, then it's “Small time danger in your midsize car”. The album is 35 minutes long; the Census Bureau average commute time for my county is 34 minutes, but for me personally, my commute is half that, so the album lasts me to and from work. For Spoon, in Austin, TX, the average is a little more than half, but they could probably still make it to the recording studio and back in time. Spoon have given us a soundtrack for our lives that’s about our everyday experiences. It’s about actions. It’s about verbs. Universal Pop hinges on action, going and doing, from “Baby, Let’s Play House” to “I Want to Hold Your Hand”, from “You Really Got Me” to “You Shook Me All Night Long”, shit, even “Working For The Weekend”. So, if you ask why Kill The Moonlight is on the list, this Spoon album over the others, it’s not just because it's a lesson in deconstructive minimalism or because it's substantive Pop, it's because these songs can speak to everyone, and make those weekdays easier to get through.

01. "Small Stakes"
02. "The Way We Get By"
03. "Something To Look Forward To"
04. "Stay Don't Go"
05. "Jonathan Fisk"
06. "Paper Tiger"
07. "Someone Something"
08. "Don't Let It Get You Down"
09. "All The Pretty Girls Go To The City"
10. "You Gotta Feel It"
11. "Back To The Life"
12. "Vittorio E."

"The Way We Get By" [video]

- BONUS: "Small Stakes" [video]
- BONUS: "Jonathan Fisk" [video]
- BONUS: "Paper Tiger" [live at Bowery Ballroom, NYC, 09.02]
- BONUS: "Small Stakes" [live at the Paradiso, Amsterdam, 11.02]
- BONUS: "Someone Something" [live in Austin, TX, 03.02]
- BONUS: "Stay Don't Go" [live at the Bumbershoot Festival]

Thursday, August 30, 2007

[079] Funeral

Album: Funeral
Artist: Arcade Fire
Release Date: September 2004
Label: Merge
Producers: Arcade Fire

"And the power's out in the heart of man,
Take it from your heart put it in your hand."
- from "Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)"

When people try and tell the story of Funeral, Arcade Fire’s debut album, they usually focus on the fact that it was made while the core band members - Win and Will Butler, Win’s new wife Régine Chassagne, and guitarist Richard Reed Parry - were in mourning for various relatives, and the lyrics and tone of the music reflects that. But after listening to it again over the last few days, and thinking about the impact it had, I think it’s not about death. It’s about family and in a larger sense it is about how people bind together; it's about connection. The liner notes, which look like a funeral program, not only mention the connection in grieving together, but the connection of marriage, and the connection in taking shelter from nature. Every song on the album is in someway about the creation or dissolution of connections between people. But again, Arcade Fire don't wallow in their pain; there are plenty of moments of musical joy and abandon on Funeral to remind you that such a ceremony is also a celebration. For an album about death, it sure has a lot of life. Before I continue, I want you to watch this…

"Rebellion (Lies)" [live at the 2005 Coachella Festival]
from the documentary Coachella

What you just watched was the moment Arcade Fire went from a rumor to a legend; I don’t mean legend like Muhammad Ali, but more like “Oh man, I saw this amazing new band called Arcade Fire at Coachella!!” It’s legend as a cycle of word of mouth; a connection has been made. As far as I’m concerned, that performance ranks up there with Hendrix at Monterey Pop or Nirvana at Reading; the first time a large audience (in this case, 15,000) got to witness this thing that had been whispered about for so long. It took me a long time to figure out what that meant to the breakthrough of the band and the lasting appeal of this album. In the end, I found that the connection that was made, that crowd reaction, and the sequence of events prior and following that make up the band’s career arc, are a testament to the human ability to make art. One of the things that separates us from animals is, well not just the ability to create something, anything, but to create this object that we call “art” and has only one use: to provoke an emotional response. Art is like an open-ended gift, and like any gift, there is surely emotion attached to the giving as well as the receiving. There’s so much emotion that influenced how Arcade Fire made this piece of art, this gift, and that continued on once they put the album out. It becomes the word of mouth, and as the word of mouth grows, the audience develops a connection, a community; with the first half of Funeral referencing neighborhoods, you begin to wonder if Arcade Fire had this all planned.

At this point I must mention that I would not be writing this entry without the glowing Pitchfork review which started all the whispering. It is such an easy thing to say to a friend – oh yeah, I heard about it wherever – but never have I seen a piece of criticism impact art like this. After that review was published, Merge Records almost immediately sold out of their inventory, and the album went on to be the label’s best seller. The band had to re-book tour dates in larger clubs to deal with demand. The Canadian edition of Time Magazine said Arcade Fire "helped put Canadian music on the world map", as if Neil Young and Joni Mitchell never existed (never mind Alanis). All of a sudden the artists that they loved, that gave them gifts of great art, from David Bowie to David Byrne, were praising them, keeping the cycle of word of mouth going.

The wonder of art is in some ways a connection to nature. It represents the ability to craft something out of nothing. The organic and traditional (read: old) instrumentation on the album plays directly into that feeling. Moving past basic guitar-bass-drums, the mix of accordion, strings, french horn, recorders, glockenspiels, harps, upright bass and xylophones make the music feel more timeless, closer to the Earth. This is augmented by nods to music of days past, from Modern Rock back through Post-Punk ("Neighborhood #2"), Disco (the finale of "Crown of Love"), Motown (the finale of "Wake Up"), Girl Group ballads ("Crown of Love"), French torch songs (Chassagne's "Haïti", a tribute to her childhood home), American Folk music ("Neighborhood #4"), all the way back to church hymns ("Une année sans lumière", "Wake Up"). The choir of "Wake Up" lays it out for the audience: Arcade Fire are a family, a community, a neighborhood in and of themselves. The audience needs to see that they are those things as well. The hands create the art. The art is given and received with new hands, hands that clap to its rhythm as the mouth whispers a rumor. A connection has been made. The rumor becomes legend. The cycle continues.

01. "Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)"
02. "Neighborhood #2 (Laïka)"
03. "Une année sans lumière"
04. "Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)"
05. "Neighborhood #4 (7 Kettles)"
06. "Crown Of Love"
07. "Wake Up"
08. "Haïti"
09. "Rebellion (Lies)"
10. "In The Backseat"

"Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)" [video]

- BONUS: "Neighborhood #2 (Laïka)" [video]
- BONUS: "Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)" [video]
- BONUS: "Wake Up" [video]
- BONUS: "Haïti" [live in France, 2005]
- BONUS: "Wake Up" [with David Bowie; live at Fashion Rocks]
- BONUS: "Rebellion (Lies)" [live on Letterman]
- BONUS: "Rebellion (Lies)" [video]

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

[080] Ritual de lo Habitual

Album: Ritual de lo Habitual
Artist: Jane's Addiction
Release Date: August 1990
Label: Warner Bros.
Producers: Dave Jerden & Perry Farrell

"Ladies and gentlemen,
We have more influence over your children than you do,
But we love them.
Born and raised in Los Angeles,
Jane's Addiction!"
- loose translation of the intro to "Stop!"

Jane’s Addiction were the Anti-Guns N’ Roses. Both pulled from the sonic template of Led Zeppelin, but where Axl’s crew augmented their sound with the outward overacting of the Sex Pistols, Aerosmith, and Elton John, Jane’s pulled in the mystery and strung-out haze of The Velvet Underground and The Cure to create a maelstrom of post-Goth hard rock. They came together as part of the L.A. underground that included the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Fishbone, and had grown out of the early area hardcore, but was trying to circumvent the Sunset Boulevard hairspray scene. Obviously, these bands were much more interesting than the second-string hair teasers that GNR had to hang around, but while they dove head-first into the psychedelic sex and erotic drugs, Jane’s wisely never went for the same P-Funk necrophilia that their L.A. counterparts were known for. Plus, Perry Farrell knew the difference between being misogynistic and sexy; his eroticism seemed to be more on an instinctual animal level. He was the Jim Morrison of the late 80’s, but he had learned just as much from Lou Reed, and that surreal hybrid always informed his druggy narratives. The band complemented that: guitarist Dave Navarro and bassist Eric Avery always played what felt natural to the song instead of forcing it in an obtuse direction, and that lent their playing a sexy hip-shake. Working on an even more subconscious level, drummer Stephen Perkins’ percussive patterns were always closer to an African tribesman than an alcoholic caveman on the other side of town; after hearing him play, I wasn’t surprised to hear he once said his biggest influence was the rhythms of his washing machine.

If Perkins was listening to his household appliances, Dave Navarro’s guitar frequently sounds like a junkyard, metal scraping on metal. Of course, electric guitar strings are metal, but I’d attribute this to the copious amounts of narcotics the band was taking affecting their hearing (They even sneak methadone onto the album art). From a non-guitarist, my best guess is that he was jumping on his distortion and wah-wah pedals at the same time. No matter - he uses this sound to create moments of frenzy, of ugliness, and of beauty, and at no time in his career has he ever done it better than on the 11-minute epic “Three Days”. If Farrell was Jim Morrison, then this song was “The End”, complete with virtually impenetrable poetic lyrics – something about Perry's deceased friend Xiola. Navarro snatches the song right out from under Perry’s lyric sheet and Avery’s iconic, rolling bassline, and burns it with his breathtaking playing. He drops not one, but two of the greatest solos of all time, singeing your eyebrows and sending shards of sound to tear your eardrums. When Perry clears the runway and shouts “Go” or “1 2 3 4”, Navarro takes off to heights that some of the greatest guitarists have never reached – maybe only Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page have ever been this transcendent on record. Perry, in turn, shines on the gorgeous "Classic Girl" and the 8-minute ballad “Then She Did…”, turning in his most genuinely emotional vocal performance; when he offers memories of his mother, your heart breaks with every line.

Despite their musical debts to the past, Jane’s Addiction were the definition of the “Alternative Nation”, mostly because Perry was the first one to propose such a union. He promoted the freedom of creativity in the face of what he saw as an oppressive government; the cover of Ritual de lo Habitual - a sculpture of Perry in a threesome with two women, all three with halos of flames – got the album banned in some stores, so the band put the First Amendment on the cover of the copies for Wal-Mart. In the album’s liner notes, he speaks of the equality and respect due for women and blacks, and then warns of the destruction of our planet. His inclusive liberalism continues on the first side of the album; it boasts a thread of being proud of bucking the norm and standing up for the right to be different. The blazing “Stop” predicts the crumbling of cultural prejudices, “No One’s Leaving” promotes interracial harmony, and “Obvious” bubbles over with the frustration of Hendrix’s “If 6 Was 9”. Even when the songs don’t have a higher message, as on the Moroccan-flavored “Of Course”, the metallic punk of “Ain’t No Right”, and the monster single “Been Caught Stealing”, the band delivers the songs with unquestionable fire and a unique dynamic that only Jane’s Addiction had. It’s no accident that none of the high profile projects that Farrell and Navarro tackled after Jane’s never measured up. Like Zeppelin before them, they were a singular unit, more than the sum of their parts.

Perry Farrell knew his dream was possible. Any glance at the tight-knit punk underground of the mid 80’s and you could see that it was ready to blow up to a larger audience. Jane’s Addiction were a leader in the wave of bands invading MTV in the late 80’s, marching along side everyone from R.E.M. to the Pixies, from Faith No More to Nine Inch Nails, but none of them decided to step up like Perry. Lollapalooza was a genius move, and less of a gamble than anyone could have predicted. Nirvana happened because of Lollapalooza, and the travelling festival happened because of Jane’s Addiction's success with Ritual; they broke up because they couldn't top it, and not only did they break up and make room at the table, but Lollapalooza served the deserts. Jane's success had tested the waters so that Grunge, and all the alternative music that followed, could cannonball in the pool.

01. "Stop!"
02. "No One's Leaving"
03. "Ain't No Right"
04. "Obvious"
05. "Been Caught Stealing"
06. "Three Days"
07. "Then She Did..."
08. "Of Course"
09. "Classic Girl"

"Three Days" [audio]

- BONUS: "Stop!" [video]
- BONUS: "Been Caught Stealing" [video]
- BONUS: "Ain't No Right" [video]
- BONUS: "Classic Girl" [video]

Tuesday, August 28, 2007


You can probably see this on any hipster blog right now, but I gotta believe we can all agree that this song is just...well, it uplifts the soul. Oh yeah, and it's another example of a point I make constantly about music - a community of friends getting together to make music will trump almost anything, from The Roots/The Soulquarians to Queens of the Stone Age/Desert Sessions to Bright Eyes & the Saddle Creek roster.

Feist: "1-2-3-4" [live on Letterman]
featuring members of Broken Social Scene, The New Pornographers, The National, Grizzly Bear, and Mates of State.

[081] LIFTED or The Story Is In The Soil,
Keep Your Ear To The Ground

Album: LIFTED or The Story Is In The Soil, Keep Your Ear To The Ground
Artist: Bright Eyes
Release Date: August 2002
Label: Saddle Creek
Producer: Mike Mogis

“…Because I don’t know what tomorrow brings. It’s alive with such possibilities.
All I know is I feel better when I sing. Burdens are lifted from me,
That’s my voice rising!
So, Michael, please keep the tape rolling. Boys, keep strumming those guitars.
We need a record of our failures. Yes, we must document our love…”
- from “Method Acting”

In preparing to write this entry, I pulled LIFTED off the shelf about 10 days ago. It had been a while since I visited Conor Oberst’s breakthrough album. I had forgotten how big it is. It manages to be a punk record and a jam record, a protest album and a heartache album, but more than anything it’s a verbose collection of observations and questions. There’s so much to take in, at some points I had to listen to it in bursts of 2 or 3 songs for fear of missing or forgetting something. I can tell you – I knew I was going to have trouble writing this. But then I thought about the fact that this was his moment to be found, and critics soaked paper in ink for this album. They wrote about it, so what is my problem? I decided that I didn’t want to feel obligated to throw Oberst into “The Next Dylan” waiting room, which I think is the easy-way-out that many music writers took. But it’s a difficult dilemma, because for all your Springsteens, Costellos, Mellencamps, Ryan Adamses, and countless others who’ve gotten that tag but didn’t really sound like Mr. Zimmerman, Conor Oberst, on this album, does truly recall Bob Dylan; and not just popular mid-60’s heyday Dylan, but almost all of Dylan. He pulls equally from the early protest songs (“Don’t Know When…”, “The Big Picture”), the weird pop hits (“You Will…”, “Bowl Of Oranges”), the old Country & Western (“Make War”, “Laura Laurent”), the surreal introspection (“Waste Of Paint”, “From A Balance Beam”), the broken-hearted ballads (“Lover I Don’t Have To Love”, “Nothing Gets Crossed Out”), and the epics (“Let’s Not Shit Ourselves”), but all in his own voice. Oberst is more like Dylan when he just sounds like himself. And when you realize how young he was in 2002 (21 years old during recording), it places the entire landscape of post-emo youth music in proper perspective; Fall Out Boy quite obviously become The New Monkees, and you wonder why they don’t already have their own show on Fuse.

“The Big Picture” is Oberst stripping himself of his 4-track bedroom past; arranged to sound like an acoustic home recording on a cassette given to friends as a gift, it plays in the car stereo of Blake from Rilo Kiley as bandmate Jenny Lewis gives directions & sings along in the passenger seat. But as the song progresses, the driver and passenger fade, then the muffled tape becomes clear, until you’re left with just the voice and guitar, as to say “Welcome. Enjoy the ride”. LIFTED then explodes with the grand “Method Acting”, riding a military march, the closest thing on the album to Conor’s side project Desaparecidos, before the new model Bright Eyes emerges with the swinging classicism of “False Advertising”; it’s the sound of a young man with a wealth of ideas, and he needed a couple dozen friends to make them work. The loose community at work here gives the album a remarkable depth. From the screw-up in “False Advertising” to the drunken rodeo bar sing-alongs of “Make War” and “Laura Laurent”, to the all-together-now finale of “Let’s Not Shit Ourselves”, there is the laidback feel of a D.I.Y. aesthetic and childlike experimentation that can only come by filling a room with not only your peers but also your friends. The Bright Eyes “choir” is mostly drunk and sound as if they were recorded in the local High School assembly hall. But no matter how much arranging, wrangling, and conducting Oberst does, the songs are his because of the words.

Conor Oberst has a lot to say here, but the question is constantly what exactly is he saying? A song like “Waste Of Paint”, which in some ways is the centerpiece of the album, digresses so many times it comes full circle; you’re left to wonder if it is indeed artistic self-examination as it seems, or is it just random observations? It becomes clear very early on that not only does Oberst have a lot of things to talk about, but more importantly he has a lot of questions to ask, of lovers, of government, of religion, and he’s brimming with excitement or frustration or both. His questions aren’t rhetorical either; he asks because he doesn’t know the answers. His observations and ideas and calls for notice never have solutions or conclusions. He revels in punctuating them with to-be-continued’s. This is punk stretched to its very limits, punk in the same way that Dylan or Marvin Gaye or Public Enemy were punk, when the artist just can’t take anymore keeping quiet so they lash out, and the rebellion originates on a base level, from how they talk to the listener.

That’s a huge part of this record; it’s not who Conor Oberst is talking about (himself or his girl or his country), but who Conor Oberst is talking to. His voice is like an itchy trigger finger throughout; you never know when he may suddenly go off, grabbing the listener by the shoulders, screaming at the top of his lungs to be heard, shredding his vocal chords in the process. But it’s not just to be heard, it’s to hear; Oberst is still waiting for answers, and the majority of the record is about his feeling that he hasn’t gotten any that are satisfactory. He doesn’t want to know, he needs to know, and the ones that came before – teachers, parents, the various powers that be – appear to have fallen short. No matter the sound of the music, the root of punk is dissatisfaction with the shackles of society and with the information you’ve been fed up to that point; it’s the moment you decide that important knowledge is being neglected, ignored, or pushed aside, and secrets are being kept. With the world the way it is today, the next generation is going to get dissatisfied very quickly, and they’re going to need music of their own, to tell them they’re not alone. Dylan was it for one generation; Neil Young, The Clash, R.E.M., and Pearl Jam (among many others) have followed. Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst will be that for this generation, and LIFTED will be the album that they play for their kids, the rumor they cling to, the old friend they return to.

01. "The Big Picture"
02. "Method Acting"
03. "False Advertising"
04. "You Will. You? Will. You? Will. You? Will."
05. "Lover I Don't Have To Love"
06. "Bowl Of Oranges"
07. "Don't Know When But A Day Is Gonna Come"
08. "Nothing Gets Crossed Out"
09. "Make War"
10. "Waste Of Paint"
11. "From A Balance Beam"
12. "Laura Laurent"
13. "Let's Not Shit Ourselves (To Love And To Be Loved)"

"Let's Not Shit Ourselves..." [audio]

- BONUS: "Waste Of Paint" [live in Seattle]
This is the best clip, but embedding is unfortunately disabled.
- BONUS: "Bowl Of Oranges" [video]
- BONUS: "Lover I Don't Have To Love" [video]
Karaoke with Conor (yes, this is the real video)
- BONUS: "Don't Know When But A Day Is Gonna Come" [audio]
Set to a scene from the 2006 film, Children Of Men.

Monday, August 27, 2007

[082] Mezzanine

Album: Mezzanine
Artist: Massive Attack
Release Date: April 1998
Label: Virgin
Producers: Massive Attack & Neil Davidge

"Recollect me darling raise me to your lips
Two undernourished egos four rotating hips"
- from "Inertia Creeps"

I wouldn’t have wanted to be Massive Attack in 1997. Looking back, despite being hailed as groundbreaking artists in the UK and all over the world, any way which they tried to break into America failed. They were a warm-blooded band making organic Soul music getting grouped in with faceless Electronica. They do a high-profile duet with Madonna (a cover of Marvin Gaye’s “I Want You”), but the diva gets all the attention. They could fall in with the “Cool Britannia”, but if it doesn’t have guitars and/or a white guy with a Beatles haircut out front, then you’re not hearing about it. The second Tricky struck out on his own, he’s all over American music mags. So Massive Attack did what anyone would do to get noticed – they tried to sound like whatever was popular. I’m sure what they were going for was a hybrid of the gritty, claustrophobic street-hop of Wu-Tang Clan and the industrial-glam-grunge of Nine Inch Nails, mixed in with the dub sound they’re known for. They only problem is that Massive Attack is too talented and unique for that to work. So instead the result was Mezzanine, one of the best albums of the late 90’s.

If you’re looking for insight into the sound of the album from the title, don’t bother. They should have called it “The Black Album”, but Metallica probably had it copyrighted and trademarked by then. They could have named it after the song “Inertia Creeps” or just left it self-titled, because they finally made an album that lives up to their name. For instance, the -ahem- massive first single “Risingson” is the perfect aural representation of a smoky, blacklit underground club, with 3D and Daddy G rumbling sexy half-narratives, conjuring elegantly wasted models littering the wrap-around loveseats while the DJ’s spinning cavernous dub. Despite a lyric of a sweet little love song, “Angel” is heavy, thick as molasses, sinister to the core; it is no accident that it's been covered by heavy bands as diverse as Sepultura and Dillenger Escape Plan. Not only is it among the finest album openers ever, it’s ranks among the greatest songs ever, an epic movement of sound that mimics the frenzied feeling that comes with a rush of adrenalin. It lumbers, but builds speed, like a very large man running downhill who knows he can’t stop himself. Reggae great Horace Andy’s quivering vocals try to soothe the savage beast, but he cannot contain it, and it explodes in one of the greatest rages in music history. Its greatness is reflected in the fact that it keeps getting used in film and TV, as does a lot of this album.

The equally menacing “Dissolved Girl” was used in The Matrix but didn’t make its hit soundtrack album, while Victoria’s Secret used the eastern-tinged
“Inertia Creeps” in a line of commercials. The gorgeous “Teardrop”, starring the Cocteau Twins’ Liz Fraser, has become Massive’s signature tune, popping up not only as the theme to House and on Prison Break, but also on all those faceless Trip-Hop compilations in the corner of your local Best Buy under Electronica. But while the four singles that open the album are among the best of the decade, the rest of the album holds songs just as strong. Andy’s cover of Johnny Holt’s Trojan Records classic “Man Next Door” is haunting and spectacular, while Fraser owns, classing up “Black Milk” with her atmospheric coos, and later lighting up the darker-than-black “Group Four”, playing foil to 3D’s opaque tale of relay cameras, training in martial arts, and putting keys to locks.

This album is so good, it temporarily killed the band (Daddy G & Mushroom left 3D alone before the next album, though Daddy returned later), and murdered Trip-Hop, leaving the used-up wreckage for Moby to pimp on Play. Actually, I think it bears mentioning that once you’ve heard Mezzanine, you cannot live without it. While I understand that you might be thinking this praise should put it higher on the list, it doesn't change how immensely great it is. Driving during the day with Mezzanine will make you feel like fucking Steve McQueen driving a tank; Driving with it at night will make you feel like Batman. Drinking water while listening is like a reward after days in a desert. Drinking alcohol to it is just fucking wise, as you will all of a sudden be the coolest person in the room, and if you’re already the coolest person in the room, you will now be either James Brown or Miles Davis (your choice), and if you happen to be James or Miles, you are now a god, and will be able to make every human own a copy of this album. Fucking to Mezzanine is also extremely advisable and recommended; almost any sex you have from then on without it as the soundtrack will be forever cheapened and forgettable. Let me assure you – Life is better when you explore the dark corners of Mezzanine.

01. "Angel" [feat. Horace Andy]
02. "Risingson"
03. "Teardrop" [feat. Liz Fraser]
04. "Inertia Creeps"
05. "Exchange"
06. "Dissolved Girl" [feat. Sara Jay]
07. "Man Next Door" [feat. Horace Andy]
08. "Black Milk" [feat. Liz Fraser]
09. "Mezzanine"
10. "Group Four" [feat. Liz Fraser]
11. "(Exchange)" [feat. Horace Andy]

"Angel" [video]

- BONUS: "Risingson" [video]
- BONUS: "Teardrop" [video]
- BONUS: "Inertia Creeps" [video]
- BONUS: "Mezzanine" [live on Sundance Channel's Live From Abbey Road]
- BONUS: "Angel" in Guy Ritchie's Snatch
Starring Jason Statham & Brad Pitt. Brilliant use of the song.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Heads Up: The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford

Apparently the production has been troubled - it was supposed to be out at the end of September...2006! - but now Brad Pitt is supposedly overseeing the final editting. Still looks cool to me though, and with 3:10 To Yuma and PT Anderson's There Will Be Blood also coming out before the end of the year, the dark & gritty Western is looking at a major comeback, a possible fulfillment of Unforgiven's promise 15 years ago.

The cast is great; you only get to really see Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, and Sam Rockwell in the trailer, but they're joined by Mary-Louise Parker and Zooey Deschanel, as well as great character actors like Sam Shepard, Ted Levine, Michael Parks, Jeremy Renner & Garret Dillahunt.

Friday, August 24, 2007

[083] Ágætis Byrjun

Album: Ágætis Byrjun ["An Alright Start"]
Artist: Sigur Rós
Release Date: June 1999 [Iceland], 2000 [UK], 2001 [US]
Label: Bad Taste [Iceland], FatCat [UK], FatCat/Pias America [US]
Producer: Ken Thomas

- from "Svefn-g-englar"

I had a friend named Vinny. Well, honestly he wasn’t really my friend in that we hung out all the time. He was a friendly acquaintance, a friend of a friend, and a co-worker. We acted like friends though; when you worked at Tower Records, it was so comfortable there that you’d be hanging out even when you weren’t on the schedule. A whole group of us that worked at Tower went to the first Joey Ramone birthday bash at Hammerstein Ballroom; Vinny dug Cheap Trick that night. When Cheap Trick played their first three albums live, and I couldn’t go because I was sick as a dog, Vinny went and bought the classic black & white Cheap Trick tee for me. In turn, I turned him on to all the new music that was coming out at the time. He asked me one day, “What’s up with this Icelandic band Sigur Rós? What do they sound like?” I said they sounded like the music in your dreams. For some reason that was enough; Vinny loved this album. Remember the midget in Twin Peaks, how he talked backwards? A lot of creative people have proposed that language is reversed in deep sleep dream world; it seems like a pretty cool fantasy storytelling guideline, like any kind of Lightsaber-type weapon can cut through any material. The “Intro” to Sigur Rós’ second album is all reversed. Maybe I was right about the dream thing.

Over the years, the album has been grouped in with the “Post-Rock” sub-genre of the Alternative massive. To me though, there’s something very different going on; you can draw a line between bands like Slint, Mogwai, and Godspeed You Black Emperor. Sigur Rós doesn’t really sound like them though. Those bands are hard, Sigur Rós is soft. They are cold, Sigur Rós is warm. Their structures are straight lines, Sigur Rós’ structures are round. Where most Post-Rock bands attack their music, like the tensing and release of a muscle, Sigur Rós is content to float, relaxed, more akin to an electronic ambient artist looking to rock out every once in a while. Within that dream world, their music moves like an amalgam of other art forms joining in unison. The string arrangements lay flat like a canvas before being stretched, while the piano and synths and organs flow like paint, brushed and splattered and dropped like a work by Jackson Pollack. The drums are like the tip of the pencil, sketching and stippling out a rhythm. The guitar is strummed and massaged and tweeked and bowed, the wall of distortion and effects sculpted like clay and baked into shape. The foreign words perform interpretive dance, twisting and undulating contorting themselves over the airy soundscapes.

The one way that Sigur Rós and those other Post-Rock bands do intersect, however, is that they both do a great job of approximating the tone and movements of movie scores. Director Wes Anderson wisely used “Staralfur” in the climactic scene of his Life Aquatic, not just because it fit the sadness of the scene, but also the playfulness of the overall film. The jazzy horns and synth that open “Ny Batteri” have Film Noir written all over them, and five minutes in, when the levee-breaking beat drops, you would know it’s time for that scruffy private dick and temptress with red tresses and heart of gold to run for their lives. Singer Jón Þór Birgisson has an almost alien presence which goes a far way to lending the band's music its otherworldy, Sci-Fi quality. He caresses his guitar with a cello bow, tickling massive whale songs out of it that make love to his ear-splitting helium falsetto. Singing in Icelandic or Hopelandic, a sort of singer's gibberish, his foreign words could just as easily be a lost Martian tongue.

With music providing the sountrack to our lives, certain songs and albums will always be associated with fleeting moments; for example, Jimi Hendrix's "Manic Depression" represents one specific traffic intersection to me. I didn't know Vinny that well, but this album was part of his soundtrack, and it will always remind me of him. Vinny passed away in July 2001; he was young, like only 26 or 27. But, he died peacefully, in his sleep, with the music of his dreams. And this music of his dreams is now his music of forever.

Tracklist [with translation]:
01. "Intro"
02. "Svefn-g-englar" ["Sleepwalkers"]
03. "Starálfur" ["Staring Elf"]
04. "Flugufrelsarinn" ["The Fly's Saviour"]
05. "Ný Batterí" ["New Batteries"]
06. "Hjartað Hamast (Bamm Bamm Bamm)" ["The Heart Pounds (Boom Boom Boom)"]
07. "Viðrar Vel Til Loftárása" ["Good Weather for Airstrikes"]
08. "Olsen Olsen"
09. "Ágætis Byrjun" ["An Alright Start"]
10. "Avalon"

"Svefn-g-englar" [from HBO's Reverb; live in Philly 09.01]

- BONUS: "Ný Batterí" [from HBO's Reverb; live in Philly 09.01]
- BONUS: "Viðrar Vel Til Loftárása" [video]
- BONUS: "Svefn-g-englar" [video]

Thursday, August 23, 2007

[084] Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

Album: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
Artist: Wilco
Release Date: September 2001 [internet]//April 2002 [retail]
Label: Nonesuch
Producers: Wilco

"There's bourbon on the breath of the singer you love so much
He takes all his words from the books that you don't read anyway"
- from "Poor Places"

Oh, what a glorious mess!! Proclaimed to be one of the greatest albums of the new millennium by everyone and their mother, Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is the Goodfellas of Avant junkyard AM Gold jazzy Alt-Country Rock. Which is to say it's simultaneously fucking amazing and supremely overrated. But hey, with the drummer getting canned right off the bat, keyboardist Jay Bennett and guest engineer/studio rat Jim O'Rourke at each others' throats throughout recording, and bandleader Jeff Tweedy deciding to fire Bennett after the album was done, you'd have to expect a masterpiece based around chaos and conflict. Did I mention there was documentary film crew filming the whole thing?? Yeah, and how about how, as much as it's worshipped by your Indie-Hippie next door, it's actually not as good as its predecessor, 1999's Summerteeth. I know, I know, the album's a masterpiece, and how dare I, right? Sorry, but if I worked for their record label, and they couldn't sell a pop wonderland like Summerteeth (in the era of Oops, I Did it Again, duh!), I had my bosses over my shoulder whispering about the budgets in the red, and I heard a song like "Radio Cure" at track three, I probably would've dropped them too. Can't have the music without the business, unfortunately.

But look at the gift to the world: YHF is ground zero for artist-controlled internet marketing. They made a weird album, Reprise hated it, but at least they had the decency to give the band the rights to their own music. When the songs started popping up on the file-sharing sites of the time (hey, AudioGalaxy!), Wilco posted the whole album on their website, all while they shopped for a new label to put it out, ya know, the proper way. And whaddyaknow, they got signed by Nonesuch, who's also owned by AOL Time Warner just like Reprise. Good going, suits, paying for the same album twice. Of course, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the commercial disaster with no singles, was a hit, debuting in the top 20 after being available for free for seven months on the internet, and going on to sell 600,000 copies.

But enough of my smack-talking. What about the music?? Well, like I said, it sounds like conflict...smooth, 70's radio rock conflict, raped by an avant-noise loving engineer. Jim O'Rourke hooked up with Jeff Tweedy and had some big ideas for Tweedy's band. First, let's get rid of drummer Ken Coomer in favor of O'Rourke's drummer of choice, a guy named Glenn Kotche that you do not want to mess with, musically. Dude's got a Bachelor's degree in Performance! In Performance! WHAT??!!? Suck on that, really. And he backs it up, banging on anything he can find; there's clanging metal, and water pipes, and woodblocks, and chimes, and xylophones, and damn near everything used as percussion. Kotche, O'Rourke & Tweedy jammed on the side as Loose Fur, and the chemistry of that trio sabotaged the eventual outcome of YHF, especially from where co-songwriter and producer Bennett was concerned. He had plenty of ideas, but Tweedy was now siding with O'Rouke. Jim O famously cut up "Poor Places" until the only sounds left were made by the Loose Fur 3. Yeah, not gonna fly too well around Wilco HQ.

"Poor Places" is a golden ballad though, emerging from the fog sounding like Wings covering Vince Guaraldi's Charlie Brown theme, before it's devoured by radio static. The smoothed-out beyond recognition "Jesus, etc." predicts the band's 2007 snooze-fest Sky Blue Sky, but it's kept afloat by hummingbird strings and delicate pedal steel guitar. "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart" is a sleepyhead classic, hungover with alarm clocks and bells and piano, raining down on you like the coffee tumbling down your esophagus. And I really don't see the problem for the label finding singles; maybe it's the running order. But between "Kamera",
"War On War", "Heavy Metal Drummer" & "Pot Kettle Black", any one of those songs would have been at home on VH-1 or the sort of radio stations that played Beck, Sheryl Crow, and R.E.M. Where would Rock radio's problem lie with "I'm The Man That Loves You", which bounces between Neil Young, The Band & The Rolling Stones??

The album almost seems like Siamese twins trying to tear themselves apart; the 70's pop-loving half not wanting anything to do with the crackpot genius half, but that's where the best stuff is. Despite all the crap and legend I've spewed, this album represents a culmination of the post-Nirvana alternative explosion. Think about it: you had Lo-fi guitar pop like Pavement, Guided By Voices & Sebadoh. You had rootsy junk pop like Beck through Neutral Milk Hotel to a band like Grandaddy. You had new takes on classic models, like Built To Spill, Radiohead or Flaming Lips. And you had classic singer-songwriter stuff like Matthew Sweet or Ben Folds. All those genre threads converge at this album. Wilco blended it all into a towering achievement, one that the fans knew they had in them, and that's what mattered in the end.

01. "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart"
02. "Kamera"
03. "Radio Cure"
04. "War On War"
05. "Jesus, etc."
06. "Ashes Of American Flags"
07. "Heavy Metal Drummer"
08. "I'm The Man Who Loves You"
09. "Pot Kettle Black"
10. "Poor Places"
11. "Reservations"

So, all this black & white footage is taken from Sam Jones' documentary on the making of the album, called I Am Trying To Break Your Heart. I haven't gotten around to seeing it yet, but it's supposed to be the bomb diggity.

"Heavy Metal Drummer" [video/from the documentary]

- BONUS: "War On War" [live on Letterman]
- BONUS: The making of "Poor Places" [from the documentary]
- BONUS: The making of "Reservations" [from the documentary]
- BONUS: documentary opening credits, featuring the acoustic version of "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart"
- BONUS: "Pot Kettle Black" [live - from the documentary]
- BONUS: "Radio Cure" [live - from the documentary]

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

[085] Criminal Minded

Album: Criminal Minded
Artist: Boogie Down Productions
Release Date: March 1987
Label: B-Boy Records
Producers: DJ Scott La Rock & Blastmaster KRS-One

"Party people in the place to be, KRS-One attacks
You got dropped off MCA cuz the rhymes you wrote was wack
So you think that Hip-Hop had its start out in Queensbridge
If you pop that junk up in the Bronx you might not live"
- from "South Bronx"

If I organized this list in chronological order (which I almost did), then B.D.P.'s debut album, Criminal Minded, would be first. This is significant in that it is the singular moment when Hip-Hop ceased to be a fad or gimmick, and started becoming a major creative force in music. It followed the commercial breakthroughs of Run-DMC's Raising Hell and the Beastie Boys' Licensed To Ill, and stuck fairly close to their sonic templates, but what changed was that B.D.P. revelled in being the new guard. They swaggered in with talk of brutal gun violence (this was the first major Rap album to feature guns on the cover) and new-fangled James Brown samples - the two major things that would define the next few years as the second wave of Hip-Hop began. KRS-One talks constantly about his "new style"; he knew he could brag big, because he had the best beats from DJ Scott La Rock, not to mention production help from the pioneering Ced Gee of Ultramagnetic MC's (whose 1988 classic Critical Beatdown just missed this list). And in some cases, he talked really big - Hip-Hop was always based on braggadocio, but who did Blastmaster KRS-One think he was trying to knock down the mighty Run-DMC?? Talking all about fallen kings, on multiple songs no less! But B.D.P. was the next generation; for them, Hip-Hop was the only music. There was no doubt in their hearts. KRS-One surely had the rhymes to back his boasts up, never with a frenzied or over-complicated flow - and definitely not yelling, like Run-DMC - but with an even and clear delivery. And Run-DMC wasn't even their biggest target.

If you don't know that "South Bronx" and "The Bridge Is Over" are the two most important tracks in the history of Hip-Hop beef, then, well I don't know what to do with you. I'd tell you to get out, but (a) I need the audience, and (b) I forgive you due to the fact that this album has a hard time staying in print due to label legal woes (The 2001 B.D.P. compilation, The Best of B-Boy Records, is essentially Criminal Minded plus b-sides, so buy that). Going up against Queens DJ/producer Marley Marl and MC Shan of the Juice Crew, B.D.P. took offense that they would claim that Hip-Hop started out in Queens. KRS immediately grabs the mic, threatening death on the two (see the quote above), then dropping a thorough history of the music's early days. Oh, but he's not done, cuz he returns on "The Bridge Is Over", dropping ridiculous disses in virtually every line; Juice Crew stars Biz Markie and Big Daddy Kane never got involved, probably because they knew KRS was slaughtering their crew. On "Bridge", KRS has gone from "you might not live" to "you know them can't live". He's passing judgement on human lives! It seems like nothing now, but this was a huge deal back then. No MC ever had the balls to do this, especially not on an album!! Even though KRS had done a conscious turnaround by their second album (due to the murder of Scott La Rock after the release of this one), Criminal Minded was the beginning of "Gangsta Rap".

But wait, there's more. The album is full of advances. Like how about the first detailed crime narratives in Hip-Hop. Nas, Biggie, Jay-Z, hell, all of them, wouldn't have a career if it wasn't for "9mm Goes Bang", not to mention the tale of the crackhead whore on "The P Is Free" (included here in its superior remix form). Or how about the first use of Jamaican toasting being interwoven into Hip-Hop; KRS had that too, what with his brother being a Rasta. "9mm" and "Bridge Is Over" were the first time Hip-Hop fans heard anyone yell "Bo! Bo! Bo!" Sean Paul sleeps with this album under his pillow. And it might sound like I say all this like these artists have a dirty little secret, but I think they'd be the first ones to hold this album up. I found scary proof while doing research for my theory that this album is the specific starting point of Hip-Hop's so-called "Golden Age": missing the 10th anniversary of the album's release date (March 3rd, 1987) by only a few days, The Notorious B.I.G. was murdered (on March 9th, 1997), sending Hip-Hop into a dark tailspin and creative drought from which it has never fully recovered. The dates are cosmic happenstance - it's not just a Golden Age, it's a Golden Decade - but it only serves to highlight the wide-open new beginning this album signified.

01. “Poetry”
02. “South Bronx”
03. “9mm Goes Bang”
04. “Word From Our Sponsor”
05. “Elementary”
06. “Dope Beat”
07. “Remix for P Is Free”
08. “The Bridge Is Over”
09. “Super-Hoe”
10. “Criminal Minded”

"South Bronx" [audio]

- BONUS: KRS-One tells the story of "South Bronx" [go 58 seconds in]
- BONUS: "The Bridge Is Over" [video]
This is the original, super low-budget video. It's the best quality I could find.
- BONUS: "9mm Goes Bang" [audio]
- BONUS: "The Bridge Is Over" live on In Living Colour

Heads Up: I'm Not There

YES!!!! FINALLY!!!!!

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

[086] Dig Your Own Hole

Album: Dig Your Own Hole
Artist: The Chemical Brothers
Release Date: April 1997
Label: Astralwerks
Producers: The Chemical Brothers

We all know the Grammy’s aren’t really the standard for good taste in music, but in 1998, they made a very telling choice: they awarded The Chemical Brothers, a duo of electronic dance DJ’s, the Grammy for Best Instrumental Rock Performance for their song “Block Rockin’ Beats”. That says pretty much all you need to know about the music of The Chemical Brothers, at least at the time. Everything was meant to be big, and in that way, The Chemical Brothers were the electronic Led Zeppelin. Released in April 1997, The Brothers’ second album, Dig Your Own Hole, was the first major shot in the summer of “Big Beat”; debuting in the top 20, and setting the stage for Prodigy’s #1 debut that July, it was the commercial height of the dance sub-genre in the US. But because America was so behind in cutting edge “Electronica” at the time, and because club culture prefers to stay on the margins of the mainstream, no one realized that all this dance music that they were falling in love with was crumbling down, only to be built up again as something wholly different. This album wasn’t the beginning of something new; it was the end of everything before it. Down came all the advances of early Prodigy, Underworld, and Moby, the merging of all the rave culture, the acid house bands like The Stone Roses and The Happy Mondays and the UK dance club’s relationship with “Cool Britannia” (who needs a remix of a Manic Street Preachers song anyway?), DJ’s appetite for Hip-Hop breakbeats and the cacophony of Dust Brothers and Public Enemy productions, slamming head on into the new psychedelia found in the soupy aurora borealis of Trance. No more movies like Hackers or soundtracks like The Saint. Anything after this tasted like leftovers. It was all done, because Dig Your Own Hole summarized it all, often whole corners of the genre in one song; it was the best you could get if you wanted this type of music.

It’s so big, it has so much going on, you could get lost in this album, and its music had no problems rocking an arena or festival campgrounds. The album’s flawless first half is so in your face you might miss the intricacies. Although finding a source for my figure now, a decade later, is probably impossible, I seem to remember The Brothers mentioning that over 600 samples were used on the record, but they were so mangled and warped that most of them are unidentifiable. When “Beats” is let out of the cage, you immediately hear the debt to PE’s Bomb Squad, and while Chuck D no doubt rhymed over tracks this layered back in the day, it’s easy to hear why MC’s weren’t brave enough to approach The Brothers to produce some tracks until years later, after they’d streamlined their sound – with a song this complete, who could add to it? The hard-charging title track turns the energy up even higher, riding multiple rubber-band basslines to the electronic Valhalla, the 8-minute funk Godzilla that is “Elektrobank”. This song is so maniacally propulsive that it would be impossible to not dance, or shake, or move, or react. The Brothers know their history – they know that the relationship between dancing and Hip-Hop hinges on the Latinos; if they didn’t start breaking in the late 70’s, the music would’ve disappeared from clubs before it even got on record. It’s through this knowledge that the beat for “Elektrobank” builds to a Puerto Rican Day Parade level of excitement and anarchy, congas and shakers beating your gray matter into submission, before it’s bombed into a musical demilitarized zone of Black Sabbath proportions. The bar is somehow raised again, with the stuttering “Piku” constantly turning back over on itself, keeping up with the turntablists of the time. These opening four tracks attack with no mercy, leaving you wasted and ill-prepared for the classic “Setting Sun”; it’s called “Big Beat” for a reason, and there are plenty in this song. To try and explain what this song sounds like is near impossible. What are all those noises? What instruments are they? Are they samples or did The Brothers play them? The line drawn from The Beatles’
“Tomorrow Never Knows” through My Bloody Valentine to “Setting Sun” was so effective that the Beatles’ lawyers sued, claiming theft where there was none. It was just a hell of a tribute; note to the remaining Fab duo: you don’t sue your children when they shower you with respect and flattery.

At the time of release, the album seemed front-loaded because of the outward power of those first five songs, but with the way that dance music has traveled in the decade since, the second half stands up nicely. Because its tracks hold closer to House and Techno’s basic dancefloor fillers, they have an easier time being timeless. You may not be able to throw on “Setting Sun” at a club now, but you could surely rock “It Doesn’t Matter” because, not only does the disembodied voice predict, say, Prefuse 73, but beyond that it’s little more than a masterful groove for asses to shake to. “Don’t Stop The Rock” and “Lost In The K-Hole” are still in line with what Daft Punk’s been pushing since Homework, and while “Get Up On It Like This” freaks Funk, Old School Hip-Hop, and Latin Freestyle, the elements are subtle and never overpower the rhythm to try and make it more than it is. Sunday morning ballad “Where Do I Begin” butters its toast with the creamy Beth Orton, setting the table for pretty much every song Dido will ever record, but it ends with a progressively decaying beat that she could never handle.

Finally, there’s the epic 9½-minute “Private Psychedelic Reel”, which stands as one of the towering achievements of modern dance music. Few songs ever approach the death-defying, mind-altering heights that this song so effortlessly climbs to. It’s that special kind of song, the kind that can make you thank the heavens for being alive at a moment when it exists. Ever since The Beatles put sitar on “Norwegian Wood”, it’s been cliché to speak this way, of enlightenment, of transcendence, of reaching spiritual nirvana, when talking about psychedelic music that pulls from Eastern music. But this song does transcend, at least, any other music The Chemical Brothers have ever made, before or since. It justifies their existence and the moment in musical history that Dig Your Own Hole represents. For that, no matter if it was a beginning or an end, it should be cherished and remembered.

01. "Block Rockin' Beats"
02. "Dig Your Own Hole"
03. "Elektrobank"
04. "Piku"
05. "Setting Sun' [feat. Noel Gallagher]
06. "It Doesn't Matter"
07. "Don't Stop The Rock"
08. "Get Up On It Like This"
09. "Lost In The K-Hole"
10. "Where Do I Begin" [feat. Beth Orton]
11. "The Private Psychedelic Reel"

"The Private Psychedelic Reel" [live video]

- BONUS: "Setting Sun" [single edit feat. Noel Gallagher - video]
- BONUS: "Block Rockin' Beats" [single edit - video]
- BONUS: "Elektrobank" [single edit - video]

Monday, August 20, 2007

[087] Automatic For The People

Album: Automatic For The People
Artist: R.E.M.
Release Date: October 1992
Label: Warner Bros.
Producers: Scott Litt & R.E.M.

"Sometimes everything is wrong. Now it's time to sing along."
- from "Everybody Hurts"

Let's get this out of the way - despite being, I think we can all agree, R.E.M.'s "biggest" album, most of the world, no wait, most of the people who bought it consider it to be totally depressing, and probably never listen to it anymore because of that fact. All the college-aged fans from the time have spouses and kids now; they don't want to get all bummed out while Dora The Explorer is on in the other room. All this is probably mostly due to the inclusion of "Everybody Hurts", a song that is not inspiring sing-alongs in pubs anytime soon. I know I rarely listen to it. And of course, if you dig deeper for even 2 seconds, you learn that most of the lyrics for the whole album are about mortality. Oh yeah, AND apparently this disc was in Kurt Cobain's CD player when he picked up that shotgun. I think we can guess what song he was listening to. But wait - what's the point of "Everybody Hurts"? It's to "Hold on"; does nobody get that far into the song anymore, that they can't get past the pain to get to the salvation? I know it's a sad song to us, but to R.E.M., that's a fucking happy song. It doesn't even try to be specific in any kind of way; it's fully, truly, perfectly universal, and we as a world are not confident or strong enough to embrace its gift. What does that say about us, wanting to be down on ourselves all the time?

At the very optimistic least, it means we're a species that's constantly searching for more. I don't really mean greed per se, but more whatever that thing inside us that's the source of selfishness; the thing that makes every human being a slave to the "grass is greener" reflex, that which is the crux of every big decision you ever made. Is this the right job for me? Is he/she the One? Is this person a true friend? Should I leave? What should I do for me? Am I afraid of death? Therein lies the power of post-breakthrough major label R.E.M., and specifically this album. Automatic For The People is a classic of brutally honest introspection.

It's about questions. "Drive" is almost entirely questions, broad ones that can be applied to anything: "What if you did?" Did what?? "What if you walk?" Away from what?? "What if you tried to get off?" Sexually or legally? With who, and at who's expense?? "Where are you?" What business is it of yours?? Michael Stipe grew out of his early impenetrable dark poetry into the psychoanalyst of Pop. He's handing you a blank pad to write the answers for yourself, and in doing that, he releases himself from his own hang-ups. For Stipe to become the voice of the people, he had to unchain his own pain and let it all go. It's on this album that he unleashes the full power of his voice, as pure and vivid as any emotion you've ever felt. Michael Stipe's vocal chords are a gift from whatever god you choose to worship, sent down/up/through to show you the way to an open heart. I know for me, just the sound of his voice can crush me and reduce me to tears. He could be singing the phone book. But we're in luck - he's singing "Nightswimming" instead.

This album is also about pleas, proclamations, and demands. The heart-wrenching "Try Not To Breathe" is an elderly stand for proper remembrance and respect when gone. It's an often overlooked beauty in the band's discography, and would've been a masterful choice for a single if only because the video medium that the band was employing so effectively at the time could've been molded to amplify the message. "Ignoreland" is a political rant that would be just as appropriate now as it was then; while U2 were off exploring love, guitar pedals, and the dancefloor on Acthung Baby, R.E.M. picked up some of their slack, laying down the gauntlet over a sonic approximation of what Led Zeppelin might have evolved into if they survived into the 90's. It's an odd nod to an unexpected influence, even though they were joined on the album by former Led Zep bassist John Paul Jones, who did string arrangements for four tracks here.

Maybe R.E.M. was just one album behind their Irish contemporaries though, because the wonderfully erotic "Star Me Kitten" points directly at their next album, 1994's much-maligned Monster, which is to say where they made a sharp left turn into the guitar store and more adult examinations of relationships. "Kitten" raises all the guitar and organs up to a level where they bleed together, leaving Stipe to mumble his lovers quarrel so low that you'd need to read along to get the story (I did). The song is filled with more open-ended questions, but in hindsight knowing where the band went next, and with this song so murky where the rest of the album is crisp and clear, you're left to wonder if the questions were the band's own. Who's to say the album wasn't just for our introspection, our answers, but for the band too, to answer their own questions? "What is there for me inside?" "Have I misplaced you?" "Have we lost our minds?" "Will this never end?" These aren't just questions of mortality and answers of 'hold on'. These are signposts to where one of our greatest bands would travel in the future, and I think the grass is greener over there (always is, isn't it?). So join me in getting off the fence.

01. “Drive”
02. “Try Not To Breathe”
03. “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite”
04. “Everybody Hurts”
05. “New Orleans Instrumental No. 1”
06. “Sweetness Follows”
07. “Monty Got A Raw Deal”
08. “Ignoreland”
09. “Star Me Kitten”
10. “Man On The Moon”
11. “Nightswimming”
12. “Find The River”

"Everybody Hurts" [video]

- BONUS: "Drive" [video]
- BONUS: "Nightswimming" [video - UK version]
- BONUS: "Find The River" [video]
- BONUS: "Man On The Moon" with Eddie Vedder
at R.E.M.'s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction

Friday, August 17, 2007

[088] Straight Outta Compton

Album: Straight Outta Compton
Artist: N.W.A.
Release Date: August 1988
Label: Ruthless/Priority
Producers: Dr. Dre & DJ Yella

"Fuck the police, comin’ straight from the underground
A young nigga got it bad cause I'm brown
And not the other color so police think
They have the authority to kill a minority
Fuck that shit, cause I ain't the one
For a punk muthafucker with a badge and a gun
To be beatin’ on, and thrown in jail
We could go toe to toe in the middle of a cell
Fuckin with me cause I'm a teenager
With a little bit of gold and a pager
Searching my car, looking for the product
Thinking every nigga is selling narcotics
You'd rather see me in the pen
Then me and Lorenzo rolling in the Benzo
Beat the police outta shape
And when I'm finished, bring the yellow tape
To tape off the scene of the slaughter
Still can't swallow bread and water
I don't know if they're fags or what
Search a nigga down and grabbing his nuts
And on the other hand, without a gun they can't get none
But don't let it be a black and a white one
'Cause they slam ya down to the street top
Black police showing out for the white cop
Ice Cube will swarm
On any muthafucker in a blue uniform
Just cause I'm from the CPT
Punk police are afraid of me
A young nigga on a war path
And when I'm finished, it's gonna be a bloodbath
Of cops, dying in LA
Yo Dre, I got something to say"
- Ice Cube's opening verse from "Fuck Tha Police"

One thing that was necessary when compiling this list was to listen to each of these albums again to get a fresh perspective on them. The last time I listened to N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton, about a year ago, I was struck by how dated it is, and how much filler there is on the second side. But after listening to it the other day, and considering it within its era, it’s positively mindblowing. Sure, a track like “Something 2 Dance 2” is a complete throw away, but Dr. Dre’s production was still ahead of the pack as far as sample selection. On “Dance 2”, he jacks Sly & The Family Stone, while he cuts up Steve Miller Band on the spectacular MC Ren solo joint “Quiet On Tha Set” (Hearing Ren tear up the mic on “Set”, “Fuck Tha Police” and “If It Ain’t Ruff” makes you wonder how Ice Cube left him so far in the rearview). Since the coastal wars hadn’t yet broken out, Dre and his production partner DJ Yella had no problem sampling Boogie Down Productions on “Gangsta Gangsta”, or chopping up the Beastie Boys on “8 Ball”; in fact a lot of the album rides the East’s jock as far as the post-Criminal Minded/Raising Hell/Licensed To Ill formula of boom bap and power chords. And though he had started digging in the crates for 70’s funk and soul (see the groove of “Ruff” and the radio-friendly “Express Yourself”), Dre hadn’t yet gone whole-hog into P-Funk worship; his taste in squealing Moog keyboards just starts to rear its head as Ice Cube relinquishes the spotlight to Eazy-E in the third verse of “Gangsta Gangsta”.

Beyond Dre's production, Straight Outta Compton is really all about the debut of Ice Cube, surely one of the ten greatest MC’s to ever bless a mic. There are two things you need to know about Ice Cube on this album: (1) He was only 19 when he composed some of the hardest, most revolutionary verses in Hip-Hop's entire history, and (2) No one has used the word "muthafucker" better than Ice Cube did here, as in the history of the Earth, EVER. He is the irrepressible engine behind the opening onslaught of the title track, “Fuck Tha Police” and “Gangsta Gangsta”, not to mention “I Ain’t The 1”, an early predecessor to Kanye’s “Gold Digger”. Even twenty years on, he still sounds vicious, roaring out of the gates with “Straight outta Compton, crazy muthafucker named Ice Cube, from the gang called Niggaz With Attitudes!” You can pick any former street corner hustler posing as a rapper today, and they’d all get slaughtered by vintage Cube. Oh yeah, and Ice Cube wrote pretty much all of Dr. Dre & Eazy-E’s rhymes, especially Eazy's wasted anthem “8 Ball” and frightening “Compton” intro, “Straight outta Compton is a brother that’ll smother your mother, and make your sister think I love her!” Cube’s storytelling is effortlessly detailed, and laid over a completely identifiable flow; you can hear Cube a mile away because no one else sounds like him. If you go back and listen the first couple 2Pac albums, Pac was totally on Cube's dick, trying to jack his flow. On the posse cut “Parental Discretion Iz Advised”, Cube proves why he’s the one who climbed to Hip-Hop’s upper echelon; his lyrics and flow are so far ahead of even the rest of his group, they can’t hope to catch up. As for the controversy N.W.A. courted, they never cared if you don’t want to hear words like the verse at the top. They’re gonna speak their peace so the world knows what’s going on in Compton, CA - Word to the muthafucker.

01. "Straight Outta Compton"
02. "Fuck Tha Police"
03. "Gangsta Gangsta"
04. "If It Ain't Ruff"
05. "Parental Discretion Iz Advised" [feat. The D.O.C.]
06. "8 Ball [Remix]"
07. "Something Like That"
08. "Express Yourself"
09. "Compton's N The House [Remix]"
10. "I Ain't The 1"
11. "Dopeman [Remix]"
12. "Quiet On Tha Set"
13. "Something 2 Dance 2" [feat. Arabian Prince]

"Straight Outta Compton" [video]

- BONUS: Despite the kids movies, Ice Cube can still rip into the oldies

Thursday, August 16, 2007

It looks funny, but...

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story is a parody of Walk The Line starring John C. Reilly, and co-written & produced by Judd Apatow...

So let me get this straight - I like Reilly, I adore Jenna Fischer (especially since she left a comment on my Myspace page), and Knocked Up and 40 Year Old Virgin are two of my favorite comedies of all time. Add Jack White as Elvis, Jack Black as Paul McCartney and Paul Rudd as John Lennon, and what's not to love?? Right??

Then why does this just feel like a Will Ferrell movie that Will didn't want, and he threw his "Magic Man" a bone?

[089] I See A Darkness

Album: I See A Darkness
Artist: Bonnie 'Prince' Billy
Release Date: January 1999
Label: Palace Records
Producers: Will Oldham, I presume

“Well I hope that someday, buddy, we'll have peace in our lives
Together or apart, alone or with our wives
And we can stop our whoring, and pull the smiles inside
And light it up forever, and never go to sleep
My best unbeaten brother, this isn’t all I see…
…I know I see a darkness…”
- from the title track

Everyday, when I sit down to write the next entry for the list, I look at the complete 100, and decide how I feel about it. Sometimes I move albums’ positions. Sometimes I remove one and replace it with an album I overlooked or undersold, though this album seems like the final piece to the puzzle. So far, this album has been my second best discovery of this project (The best won’t come for a while). Its spot on the list originally belonged to Slint’s 1991 album Spiderland, an album of cult classic stature, at least in the Indie Rock world; I sat down with my headphones on, ready to bang out my entry for the Louisville, KY quartet’s post-rock platter, but you know what? Spiderland isn’t good enough to be on this list. I left a lot of better discs off, so I couldn’t justify including it, and I went looking for a suitable replacement. It was right under my nose, literally. Will Oldham, a small time actor at the time, took the iconic cover photo of Slint taking a swim, and after the band called it quits, some of the members joined Oldham in starting his Palace music series. I See A Darkness, Oldham’s first album under the Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy name, has become his most well-known and dearly beloved; I figured, I had a copy a friend had burned me, I never really listened to it, and others were of the opinion that it was The Shit – I have an open spot, why not give it a shot? It won me over.

When I was young, my parents had friends that would visit from Sweden that were folk musicians. They had this word, "stämma", which has two translations: "voice" and "meeting or assembly"; it's no wonder that's what they called their jam sessions. Just a bunch of friends hanging out in someone's living room or porch or yard, drinking and playing music and dancing. Will Oldham had a "stämma", and he recorded it. Now, I See A Darkness is a tremendouly dour album. In many ways, the somber tone of the songs and the emotional conveyance in Oldham’s vocals, unhampered by studio magic, result in a distant relative to Portishead’s downbeat classic Dummy, a pen pal letter of rural melancholy sent in response to those chronicles of painful urban landscapes. But I feel like the depression never overtakes the songs because of the joy in the friends playing together. That's what folk music and the punk Do-It-Yourself ethic is about; just picking up an instrument and making sound, and there's a natural human release in that. There's such a ramshackle grandeur to this album, not so much of the Tom Waits variety (though "Song For The New Breed" could be his jazzy shuffle), but more along the lines of Bob Dylan's work with The Band up at Big Pink, captured on The Basement Tapes.

Oldham’s music has featured prominently in the development of American roots music in a post-punk world since the mid-90’s, and this album, surely a classic of New Americana, appeared at just the right time, closely following Dylan’s career recalibration with Time Out Of Mind, and the kaleidoscopic bombshell that was Neutral Milk Hotel’s In The Aeroplane Over The Sea. I See A Darkness was a Folk album for the coming millennium, looking back at a century of homemade music; "A Minor Place" draws from simple church hymns while "Nomadic Revery" and "Knockturne" dig into Appalachia. But in summarizing the past, he unknowingly set the stage for the rise of artists such as Sufjan Stevens, Devendra Banhart, and Feist, to name just a few. Listen harder, and you can even hear the sleepy Stax balladry of recent Cat Power in "Today I Was An Evil One", and the brooding post-grunge of latter day Pearl Jam in "Death To Everyone". You can hear why Johnny Cash covered the title track. At the time though, it was just a collection of songs made by friends, and that's what folk music should be.

01. "A Minor Place"
02. "Nomadic Revery (All Around)"
03. "I See A Darkness"
04. "Another Day Full Of Dread"
05. "Death To Everyone"
06. "Knockturne"
07. "Madeleine-Mary"
08. "Song For The New Breed"
09. "Today I Was An Evil One"
10. "Black"
11. "Raining In Darling"

"I See A Darkness" [live in Copenhagen, March 2007]

- BONUS: "Nomadic Revery (All Around)" [in-store performance, 08.06]
- BONUS: "Another Day Full Of Dread" [home video]

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Come hang out on Friday...or be square

I'm not totally sold on The National yet, but that's probably cuz I haven't listened to their new album, Boxer, yet. So, I'm getting there slowly but surely. I dig that they're kinda working the negative space between The Walkmen and Interpol. They're playing the South Street Seaport Music Festival in NYC this Friday, with The Forms and Takka Takka opening. Oh yeah, and it's FREE. So come hang out, and if you see me, say 'what's up', give me a pound, whatever.
Lineup: Takka [6pm], Forms [7pm], National [8pm]

"Fake Empire" [live on Letterman]

- BONUS: "Mistaken For Strangers" [video]

Heads Up: The Return of The Hives

The Black and White Album out October 9th

- The Hives Broadcasting Service
- Remember why you love The Hives so much

Aw, he's got his own Courtney.

Should I be afraid for my favorite musician?


I consider myself pretty on top of things, but maybe I have to spend a few more lowbrow minutes on YouTube each day so I don't miss this kind of thing again. You may have already seen him, dancing to Spoon's "I Turn My Camera On". He's got 1.3 million views on YouTube. In case you haven't, meet Keepon, the dancing robot.

"Keepon is designed to perform emotional and attention exchange with human interactants (especially, children) in the simplest and most comprehensive way." His eyes are wide-angle cameras and his nose is a microphone. Read more here.

- Keepon's rhythm skills
- ...And he pays attention too

Today comes news that Keepon will (re)unite with Spoon at the Wired NextFest in LA on September 10th. No one knows what will transpire, but I'm going to guess that Keepon will dance to Spoon's music. Just a hunch. Check out the FUCKING AWESOME promo video that is giving Kanye & Zach a run for their money. Watch for Spoon's Jim Eno (at the vending machine) and Britt Daniel (on the escalator).

[090] Strictly Business

Album: Strictly Business
Artist: EPMD
Release Date: June 1988
Label: Sleeping Bag; reissued on Priority
Producers: EPMD (Erick Sermon & Parrish Smith)

"Catch every word I'm sayin', no there's no delayin'
Don't hestitate to motivate the crowd, I'm not playin'
Seeing is believing, you catch my drift?
Don't try to adapt because I'm just too swift
(How swift?) I'm so swift and that's an natural fact
I'm like Zorro, I'll mark a E on your back
I don't swing on no ropes or no iron cords
The only weapon is my rappin' sword"
- Erick Sermon, from "You Gots To Chill"

If you’re a bit younger than me, let’s say born in the 80’s, then you’ve probably never heard of EPMD. But it’s not your fault; they rarely get mentioned with the greats of Hip-Hop despite their longevity and consistency. Over four albums from 1988 to 1992, they were always at the forefront of the genre, only breaking up right as they were having their biggest commercial breakthrough (They reunited for two more albums in 1997 and 1999). Erick Sermon remains one of the greatest producers in the music’s history, one of the first men to break from James Brown beats and sample late 70’s funk to great effect – he’s basically the east coast’s Dr. Dre, and The Chronic owes more to Strictly Business than Straight Outta Compton. Throughout EPMD’s classic debut, Sermon and his partner Parrish Smith sample enough Zapp, P-Funk, and Kool & The Gang to fill a Snoop Dogg album, and still have a few tracks left over for a Tarantino soundtrack. The brutally funky “I’m Housin’” is based on one of Aretha Franklin’s best hits, the frequently overlooked “Rock Steady”, while “Let The Funk Flow” is cruising, perfectly laidback with its golden horns. Sermon also had no problem sampling Rock records, bragging, “Listen to Heavy Metal, hardcore Rock & Roll”; it wasn’t such a stretch to hear Steve Miller’s funky pop sampled, but Sermon opens the album by constructing the title track over Eric Clapton’s cover of “I Shot The Sheriff”, chopping it to pieces and pasting it back together as a slick funk loop. At the other end, he closes the album by building the classic diss track “Jane” over the absolutely killer piano riff from Cream’s “Politician”. As with most late 80’s Hip-Hop albums, there’s also a DJ cut, but the eponymous “DJ K La Boss” goes much further than just some scatches over a beat; La Boss creates an actual song, with verse/chorus/verse structure, and in the process predicts DJ Shadow and Prefuse 73 as much as Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit” did.

If the duo and their DJ had made this an instrumental record it would still be a contender for the list, but it’s the lyrics that make it really worthy. EPMD (“Erick & Parrish Making Dollars”) were one of the first Hip-Hop acts to move past just talking about their thick gold ropes and four-finger rings, and instead turned flossing into a way of being; you know the endless succession of fly and jiggy and crunk and pimpin’ and whatever it is now – that all goes back to EPMD. They coupled that chest-out swagger with a hard stance, but still kept focus on making your head nod. In that way, they were the bridge from the pop-friendly Sugarhill Gang to the cartoon thugs in G-Unit; they influenced every rapper in the two decades to follow who wanted to stay tough but also hit the pop charts. Jay-Z may think he’s a child of Slick Rick’s storytelling, and 50 Cent may think he was born on the grimy corners Biggie talked about, but it’s really EPMD whose coattails they’ve been riding; Erick Sermon came strong with a mush-mouth delivery long before 50 got bullets in the jaw, and even Jay’s breakthrough hit, “Ain’t No Nigga”, was laid over EPMD’s debut single “It’s My Thing” wholesale (Nas also got in on the act, snatching “Let The Funk Flow” for his “Nastradamus” single). Strictly Business is filled to the brim with classic boasts, one-liners that slay with such ease, but also with deeper detail than most, and that’s why they’ve been sampled for hooks countless times.

This album is in danger of slowly getting lost to time, beneath the crowded crop of new classics of the mid 90's, the Illmatic's to The Infamous to the Cuban Linx, but what keeps this album alive is that it still kills at parties. The first six songs are flawless good-time Hip-Hop, and only “The Steve Martin”, a ridiculous attempt to spawn a dance craze based on The Jerk, feels dated. Of special note is “You Gots To Chill”, one of the greatest singles in Hip-Hop history, an apocalyptic funk bomb that breaks ankles cuz people can’t dance hard enough. I’ve seen young girls go berserk and rush to the dancfloor when it comes on, girls who weren’t even born when the song came out. And maybe that’s a hint at why this is a classic – its grooves are universal.

01. “Strictly Business”
02. “I’m Housin’”
03. “Let The Funk Flow”
04. “You Gots To Chill”
05. “It’s My Thing”
06. “You’re A Customer”
07. “The Steve Martin”
08. “Get Off The Bandwagon”
09. “DJ K La Boss”
10. “Jane”

"You Gots To Chill" [video]

- BONUS: "It's My Thing" [audio]
- BONUS: "Strictly Business" [video]
- BONUS: Maybe they won't be forgotten...
EPMD opening with "It's My Thing" at the Rock The Bells festival - 07.27.07 at Randall's Island, NYC

Just a little update...

- Some friends I've talked to have had problems with the site loading because of all the embedded videos, so over each weekend, I'm going to edit each album's entry to feature just one video, and convert the rest to links.

- I think there might be a Labor Day post after all, but it won't be one of The 100; I've got a special spotlight I'm concocting...

- I attended the amazing Ted Leo/Thermals show in Brooklyn over the weekend and got some pretty sweet pictures and even some video. As soon as I can get YouTube to upload it, I'll be making a post.