Friday, September 24, 2010

Cover Your Tracks: Ray Charles and Toots and The Maytals Cover John Denver

In 1975, the fabulous Charlie Rich, country singer and former Sun Records labelmate to Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, and Jerry Lee Lewis, walked onstage at the Country Music Awards, visibly intoxicated, and instead of handing an Entertainer Of The Year award to John Denver (which was what he was there to do in the first place), took out his lighter, and burned the envelope. Whether out of envy of John Denver (who was having a successful run in the early seventies, while Rich himself was languishing despite his immense talent), or as an affront to the country music industry for rewarding the not-very-authentically country Denver, the point was made. Indeed, Denver was more of a folky—Peter, Paul, and Mary covered his "Leaving On A Jet Plane", after all, and despite "Thank God I'm A Country Boy" and "Take Me Home, Country Roads", Denver's output will always have a seat in the corny 70s pop department.

I've always liked John Denver, if only for the sentimental memories of hearing his music daily on AM radio when I was a kid in Idaho in the 70s and 80s. But if his regular Muppet Show appearances put him in a league with Paul Williams (with whom he shares both AM radio songwriting and a regular Muppet Show gig), few can deny that the man could write a song. Exhibit A: In 1972, Ray Charles—no stranger to covering country songs, or any other genre, for that matter, slipped an amazing cover of "Take Me Home, Country Roads" on his 1972 album A Message From The People, taking Denver's gentle, folksy original and turning into a joyously funky country hoedown.

Here's Ray Charles covering "Take Me Home, Country Roads":

As good as Ray Charles' version is, this next version might even be better. Toots & The Maytals, one of the greatest reggae groups ever, may have been John Denver fans, and have recorded several other unexpected covers (you should hear their "Louie, Louie"). This track, originally from their 1974 LP "In The Dark", takes Ray Charles' version (likely the version they heard first) and somehow makes it even more sentimental and exhuberant, substituting "West Jamaica" for "West Virginia". Enjoy!

Toots & The Maytals covering "Take Me Home, Country Roads":

Broadcast: Study Series 04: Familiar Shapes and Noises [2010]

Whoa...I mean, whoa. I think Broadcast have gone on a lysergic holiday. After releasing a decade's worth of good-to-excellent dreamily melodic, slightly distorted keyboard pop which often sounded like Stereolab's younger, goth cousin, they seem to be taking a sonic detour into more abstract sculptures of spooky noise. I saw them play live at the Troubadour in November 2009, when they were touring in support of Broadcast & The Focus Group Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Age, a collection of soundtracky noise fragments interspersed with a few actual songs. The record, as experimental as it was (at least in terms of its detour from more familiar Broadcast music), was no preparation for the live show, which began with a very long, intense instrumental (imagine a particular loud, unhinged, electronic, backwards Interstellar Overdrive) performed in front of a very aggressively trippy, black-and-white visual barrage of a video installation. The record's mention of "witch cults" perhaps explains what coven Broadcast had joined. Their path into electric horror movie acid trip soundtracks continues with their most recent release, the single Study Series 04: Familiar Shapes and Noises. This title is rather inaccurate, as the three songs' shapes and noises are more of the witch cult madness—it's odd that this unfocused music is going under the formal group name Broadcast & The Focus Group. I hope that they apply their passion for fragmentary noise to their songwriting; they have always have a good ear for squeezing weird noises out of keyboards. But this single, like the last record, has more weird soundscapes than weird songs, and while I do like the exploratory sonics, I feel like Broadcast could be casting better spells than this eye of newt, tongue of bat stuff. If you like Animal Collective's ODDSAC, you will probably like this; if you'd rather have a cup of tea with Tender Buttons, you might want to wait for them to come down out of their tree.

Here's "Inside Out" from Broadcast's Study Series 04: Familiar Shapes and Noises [2010]:

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Washed Out: High Times EP [2009]

Washed Out, the stage name of Ernest Greene, seems to be a pretty well-chosen moniker for an artist who songs radiate an echoey, spacey aura, full of home-studio fuzz and (presumably) deliberately low-fidelity sonics. Washed Out has been labeled "chillwave", a nebulous and generally unhelpful term which seems to denote young artists working at home on their laptops who produce low budget, ambient pop with 80s electropop melodies and rhythms. Despite the silly label, there is certainly an aspect of Washed Out's sound that lends itself to chilling out: there is nothing violent or antagonistic in Greene's music, to be sure.

His most recent effort is a brief EP released, appropriately enough, only on cassette. The cassette, with its limited sonic range, is suited to Greene's hazy sound, not to mention his apparently modest ambitions. While the nine tracks on this EP are largely brief and instrumental, they have the lo-fi glow of the 80s all over them, and sound like demos and experiments, which they probably are. If you liked the highly enjoyable Life Of Leisure EP (which I wrote about here), you'll probably enjoy this one too. Get it here.

From Washed Out's High Times EP, here's "Belong":

Note: Also look for Washed Out's beautiful Adult Swim Singles Project track "You And I".

Idling & Moving: Jeff Lynne Pre-E.L.O.

The Electric Light Orchestra were responsible for some of the best radio hits of the 70s: "Evil Woman", "Strange Magic", "Livin' Thing", and a host of others which combined Beatles melodicism with smooth 70s strings and over-the-top production which vied with the Bee Gees, Queen, ABBA, and Supertramp for decadently-produced-yet-accessible pop. But ELO always came off as a unit, a pop orchestra rather than a star showcase, and so for many, ELO leader Jeff Lynne was the guy in the Traveling Wilburys who wasn't immediately recognizable. But while it's hard to call him an equal of Roy Orbison or Bob Dylan or George Harrison, he certainly has made his mark on popular music. Before ELO, he was in two celebrated though little-known (in the U.S.) groups, both of which anticipate his later ELO glory, and which are the subject of this post.

The Idle Race (who were from Birmingham) issued only a few albums in the late 60s, but never had any success in the U.S., possibly due to their unmistakable Englishness, which often limits otherwise excellent UK-based bands from catching on in the States, where British pop has often been the stuff of cultists. Their first record, The Birthday Party, was released in 1968 and, with its brief, witty, catchy songs, comes highly recommended to fans of mid-period Beatles and the Kinks' Village Green Preservation Society.

Here's "Lucky Man" by the Idle Race:

Lynne left the Idle Race in 1970 to join fellow Birmingham group The Move, which was led by eccentric guitar wizard Roy Wood and had had a string of zippy hits in the UK. Unfortunately, the Move failed to deliver on the promise of their early power-Mod hits, and followed their excellent self-titled 1968 debut with a couple of loud, prog-ish, and ultimately unfocused LPs. Lynne and Wood started to plot a new group, to be called the Electric Light Orchestra, which would expand the sound of rock to include classical motifs and instrumentation, not unlike some the Beatles' more elaborate creations. In the meantime, though, they still owed their record company some Move product. The final Move LP, Message From The Country, from 1971, is something of a stylistic mish-mash, but has many excellent moments, the best of which look forward to the best work of ELO. Lynne and Wood would only make one ELO album together, after which Wood departed to start his own group. But the ELO ball was rolling, and Lynne would go on to pop Xanadu.

From Message From The Country, here's the gorgeous, sweet-and-sour "No Time":

Monday, August 23, 2010

Preview: Destroyer, "Archer On The Beach EP" [due 11-2-10]

For the second year in a row, the inimitable Destroyer will release a vinyl-only ambient techno EP, this time in collaboration with Tim Hecker and Loscil. What it will sound like is uncertain, but if last year's astounding Bay Of Pigs is any index, then we are in for another wonky, interstellar ride with cryptic lyrics. Ever since featuring a 23-minute ambient remix (by the same Loscil) on side four of the vinyl edition of Rubies (my favorite favorite record, ever), Destroyer overlord Dan Bejar has proven his willingness to escape from any stylistic foxholes. He has recorded extremely low-fidelity bedroom pop, neo-glam rock overtures, fake symphonic torch ballads, folky reveries, and now seems to be heading further into the realm of synthetic soundscapes with half-sung poetic manifestos. His lyrics are so far away from what you would expect from ambient music, so unabashedly non-techno, that their presence in the electronic wash of sound is akin to slapping mustard and ketchup on a glossy sphere of translucent gelatin (example: the lyrics to the 14-minute track "Bay Of Pigs", the backing track of which could pass for a futuristic movie soundtrack, begin "Listen, I've been drinking..."). I hope Bejar will still make full-length LPs in the future; until then, I'll happily take these ambient postcards from the edge. Preorder here from the good folks at Merge, and do it fast—only 1,000 will be pressed up.

For those who missed it, here's "Bay Of Pigs" from 2009:

Friday, August 20, 2010

Battle of the Bobs: Seger Does Dylan

My brother and I have a small obsession with Bob Seger. More specifically, with the track "Night Moves", a phrase tatooed on at least one Portland, Oregon bartender, whom we were naturally forced to nickname Night Moves. When or why Night Moves got his ink is unknown, but I imagine there's a pretty kickass and utterly rock-n'roll explanation behind it. I am guessing that Michigan is somehow involved. For us, growing up in Ohio in the 80s, Seger (not to mention his heartland demographic peers John Cougar, Bruce Springsteen, Eddie Money, and the hapless Michael Stanley) was a huge presence on the radio, the Voice of the Rust Belt, always ready with a wistful mid-tempo stroll down memory lane. Unfortunately, the midtempo Seger eclipsed the younger, Detroit rock city Seger of rock'n'roll lore. Before he was crooning "Main Street", "Still The Same", "Like A Rock", or "Against The Wind", Bob Seger was a fiery rock'n'roller, a peer of Detroit legends like the MC5 and the Amboy Dukes. His mid-to-late 70s rock songs ("Katmandu", "Rock And Roll Never Forgets", "Hollywood Nights", the cranky "Old Time Rock And Roll") always seemed strained to me. A famous bootleg called Michigan Nuggets sets the record straight, featuring several of Seger's hard-to-find late 60s shredders. Here's "Persecution Smith", a 1966 single by Bob Seger & The Last Heard. It's a pretty blatant ripoff, both sonically and lyrically, of Bringing It All Back Home/Highway 61 Revisited-era Dylan, but it rocks hard (especially the guitar), and serves as a dose of real old time rock'n'roll.

Bob Seger & The Last Heard, "Persecution Smith":

The Drone Zone: Them, "Square Room"

Most people who have heard of the band Them at all know it as Van Morrison's early band, which he left in 1966 to pursue a solo career. As one of rock's all-time great vocalists, Van Morrison would go on to much greater success, leaving behind his early garage punk days (with Them hits like the timeless "Gloria", "Here Come The Night", and "Mystic Eyes"). The rest of the band, though, soldiered on, and while they did not find commercial success, Them cut five more records before throwing in the towel in 1972. Losing a singer as distinctive as Morrison may have set them back in terms of sales, but there was still plenty of talent in the band, and their post-Morrison records are full of garage rock energy. Moving to the US, they embraced the West Coast psychedelic sound, and in 1968 released the excellent Now And Them album, which sounds sort of like an Irish version of the Doors' first album. Coincidentally, Them had once shared a stage with the Doors, who opened for them during a residence at the famed Whisky-A-Go-Go in 1966. The Doors must have made an impression, as the track "Square Room" shows—it's very similar in tone and length to the infamous Doors epic "The End", with creepy, snaking guitars, but minus Jimbo's Oedipal outbursts. For those who like the music of "The End" but can do without the "poetry", this track will be most welcome. [For the record, I do love the Doors, but sometimes Jim Morrison can grate. Exhibit A: "Horse Latitudes"—'nuff said.]

Them, "Square Room":

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Preview: Stereolab, Not Music [due 11/16/10]

Stereolab are officially on hiatus, but this November will bring an album of tracks recorded (but not used) for 2008's Chemical Chords. Apparently the band had some 30 tracks ready, but decided to save the leftovers for another day, and now they are appearing as Not Music (or, as the album artwork seems to suggest, Snot Music). Annoyingly, the tracklist does not seem to include the six tracks which trickled out either as 2008 tour singles or as hated Japan-only Chemical Chords bonus tracks (the tracks in question are "The Nth Degree", "Magne-Music", "Spool Of Collusion", "Forensic Itch", "Explosante Fixe" and "L' Exotisme Intérieur"). Stereolab fans are used to these shenanigans—few bands seem to spend so much effort creating music which does not seem to be designed for actual consumption by their fans. [Grievance digression: to be a Stereolab completist, one would need about $4,000 to track down and acquire the dozens and dozens of tour-only singles, split singles, vinyl-only limited edition records, compilation cuts, tribute album cuts, collaborations, remixes, and other impossible-to-find sonic detritus. I have about six hours of hard-to-find Stereolab, and that's not even all of it!] Anyway, this record will probably sound more or less like Chemical Chords, which was a pretty good, though not top-notch Stereolab record. As a preview (even though it will not appear on Not Music), here is "Forensic Itch", from a 2008 tour-only single.

Stereolab, "Forensic Itch":

The Drone Zone: Thurston Moore, "Elegy For All The Dead Rock Stars"

Like Sonic Youth? In the mood for frazzled, repetitive guitar noise? Got twenty minutes? Well, you're in for a treat. Thurston Moore's 1995 solo album Psychic Hearts came as a surprise—not because it's a solo effort; all the SYers are busy with various side projects. But most of Thurston's (and Lee's) extraband projects have been experimental free noise workouts. This, though, is a song album, with brief, punkish tracks about Yoko Ono and Patti Smith, and despite Thurston's singing and guitar, it doesn't really sound much like Sonic Youth. Until, that is, the last track, this 20-minute instrumental, which starts off with a simple, repeated strum that lasts for several minutes before gently reaching higher and higher and finally cascading down into a sonic abyss and back out to the stratosphere. It's tempting to see it as Thurston's tribute to Kurt Cobain, much like Neil Young's similarly elegiac and epic "Change Your Mind" from 1994, but nevermind. The track remains a gloriously spiritual use of the electric guitar, and is one of my very favorite pieces of music.

Thurston Moore, "Elegy For All The Dead Rock Stars":

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Jason Lytle: Music Meant To Accompany The Art Of Ron Cameron [2010]

It's been a very busy year for Jason Lytle, and consequently for fans of his music. Besides offering tons of home recording to benefit his ailing sister, and releasing a record with his new band Admiral Radley (discussed here), here comes, out of nowhere and without fanfare, a whole new album called Music Meant To Accompany The Art Of Ron Cameron. Available on his website, the album is described as a sort of companion to the visual art of his old friend and skateboard buddy Ron Cameron. Judging from the music and cover art, both Cameron and Lytle share an obsession with the decaying stripmall world of modern-day California, an obsession which Grandaddy fans will find quite familiar. In fact, this is the most Grandaddyesque music Lytle has yet made since that band's demise—a very casual and largely instrumental affair, the songs have titles like "Liquid Hyper Tweeker Energy Drinks", "Lose Weight By Crying! Ask Me How!", and "Waiting For My Phone To Dry", and some of the tracks are basically discarded, depressing, weirdo Grandaddy b-sides, with sardonic comedy and tuneful synthesizers picking apart the follies of California's Central Valley (e.g., the hilarious "D.U.I. BBQ Checkpoint"). Lytle himself is dismissive of these tracks, and on his website describes it as "a bunch of shit". While it's not a major work, fans of Lytle will want to snatch this up soon; Lytle warns, "I don't intend on printing up any more ...and I plan on burning the hard drive that holds the material in a campfire in Zion National park while Mormon Hawks fly above on 100 degree air currents and look on in relief."

1. Waiting For My Phone To Dry 3:46
2. Birds Build Nests In Letters 3:55
3. Liquid Hyper Tweeker Energy Drinks 3:48
4. Lose Weight By Crying! Ask Me How! 2:31
5. At The Mall In Klamath Falls 3:30
6. My Phone Is Still Wet 4:30
7. I Love CA (Intersection Vendor Ending) 6:21
8. D.U.I. BBQ Checkpoint 2:43
9. Dismantle/Rebuild 2:34
10. Indie Rock Freestyle 2:55
11. The Town Where I'm Livin' Now 4:42
12. Still Waiting For My Phone To Dry... 4:13

This is no longer available on Lytle's website, so get it here.

Deutsche Elektronische Musik [Soul Jazz compilation, 2010]

Soul Jazz Records is one of the premier reissue labels. Since the 90s, they have released dozens of excellent compilations of primarily reggae and rare groove music from around the world. Their reissues always feature excellent design and graphics, extensive liner notes, great sound, and value for money, despite the fact that their collections are usually pretty expensive. I only have a handful of them, but the ones I have are all terrific (a favorite being Studio One Soul, an amazing compilation of reggae covers of American soul—thanks, Nancy).

This collection, then, joins the other happy Soul Jazz compilations on my shelf as a well-informed selection of the wilder music being made in Germany in the 70s and 80s. The biggest name in German rock is missing, but you've probably already heard of Kraftwerk, and the lesser-known artists are worth a closer look. One caveat: the title, Deutsche Elektronische Musik, makes it sound like you're going to be spending time inside a Teutonic electrofunk robot, being barked at in German through a vocoder. Sadly, this is not the case, and the collection's subtitle, "Experimental German Rock and Electronic Musik 1972-83", is a bit more accurate, as there is a pretty equal mix of electric rock and electronic synthesizer music here. So, be ready for medieval prog chanting ("Devotion" by Between), lengthy autobahn jams replete with guitar and flute solos ("Hallogallo" by Neu!; "High Life" by Ibliss), and movie soundtrack synthscapes (the aptly named "Filmmusik" by E.M.A.K.); there are even some contemplative folky moments (e.g., "Morgengruss" by Popul Vuh). But other than Kraftwerk, the big names of experimental German rock are here, and you get representative tracks by the immortal Can, Neu!, Faust, Amon Düül II, and others. As an introduction to German 70s rock, it's wonderful, and follows the Soul Jazz tradition of unearthing wild and crazy musics from around the world.

Here's "Auf Dem Schwarzen Canal" by Conrad Schnitzler:

And by Can, here's "I Want More":

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Drone Zone: Stereolab, "Blue Milk [vinyl version]"

"Blue Milk" was always my favorite track off Stereolab's 1999 long-player Cobra and Phases Play Voltage in the Milky Night. At nearly twelve minutes, it take a simple two-chord keyboard figure and rides it into a distorted Milky Way of placid droning, getting increasingly noisier and more beautiful, the soundtrack to interstellar travel or meditative hypnosis. Until recently, I had no idea that the vinyl version was longer by a full five minutes. Those who do not like to get caught in droning astral noise-ruts will run for the hills, but I can attest that this really is more of a good thing, and I thank Deerhunter/Atlas Sound head honcho Bradford Cox for bringing this to our attention and into the light (here). Play it loud, and kiss the sky.

Stereolab, "Blue Milk [vinyl version]":

Cover Your Tracks: The Concretes, "Miss You"

The Rolling Stones' 1978 disco smash "Miss You" does not really give off any sense of longing or pining for a loved one: it's a randy booty call, with cases of wine and Puerto Rican girls. This cover by the Swedish indie-pop band The Concretes, from a 2003 tribute album, showcases that band's mastery of 60s-inspired arrangements and delicate, homespun melancholy. Taking Mick and Keith's afterhours party vibe and focusing on the "missing" in the song title, singer Victoria Bergsman uses her wounded voice and makes the song's "wait so long..." the new chewy center. Bergsman left the band and now records as Taken By Trees; pretty much everything by the Concretes (other than their tepid debut album, 2000's Boyoubetterunow) is excellent, and is highly recommended to fans of Camera Obscura, the Cardigans, Belle & Sebastian, the Radio Dept., and Peter Bjorn & John. The Concretes have a new album coming out in November.

The Concretes cover the Rolling Stones' "Miss You":

Monday, August 9, 2010

Oldies Homework: The Everly Brothers

I feel bad for people who didn't grow up listening to oldies; there are at least a few hundred songs which I would consider as important for the development of the young soul as To Kill A Mockingbird or Macbeth. As the repositories of folk wisdom, the patchwork brilliance of the common parlance, and our very national character, oldies should be protected like our national parks.

The Everly Brothers are among rock's early titans, not perhaps worthy of Rock's Mt. Rushmore (which would, I suppose, have to include Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Little Richard's hair, Buddy Holly, and Elvis), but nevertheless they belong somewhere near the top. The Everlys did their most famous and best work between 1957 and 1960 for Cadence Records. They then signed with Warner Brothers, but record company politics and the British Invasion soon kept them off the charts in the US (they remained big in the UK), even though they recorded for the rest of the 60s. One of the outcomes of this move was that their Warners records are less well known now, as record labels don't like to cross-license hits. A shame, since they cut some excellent material there. Here's a few of my personal favorites.

From 1960, here's one of their very best songs, the rhythmically stuttering, immortal "Cathy's Clown":

From 1967, here's "Bowling Green", a tribute to their home state of Kentucky:

And from 1968, here's the haunting "I Wonder If I Care As Much", from their excellent concept album Roots:

The Drone Zone: Wooden Shjips and Moon Duo

Breathing. Blinking. Heartbeats. Sleep. Eating. Day. Night. Seasons. Tides. Years. From the micro- to the macrocosm, life is measured in increments of repeated, repeating, and repetitious natural phenomena. What seems linear is actually cyclical, only we cannot always see the horizon. The calm and inevitability of basic, natural repetitions are echoed (another repetition!) in music, where rhythms pound out and underline the boom-boom-boom-boom of life, as if our heavy protons and neutrons, like infinitesimally small DJs, spin electrons to keep up the cosmic groove. Okay, so I have been watching a lot of late-night science programming, but I do think there is something innate in the human love of rhythmic sound; there may be some wild souls out there who listen exclusively to atonal and arrhythmic free jazz, but such persistent, dogged contrarianism is itself pretty rhythmic, theoretically speaking.

There is a particular type of droning music which has risen from (I posit) the resounding echoes of the Big Bang, a type of music which focuses on mid-range frequencies that envelop the chest cavity and viscera. It's not really dance music, as dance musics have other bullseyes: the basslines of funk and disco aim for feet and booty, and the high pitch frequencies of house/trance/techno aim for the ears, to drown out sorrow and distract the drugged. Drone music employs simple, repetitive rhythms and fuzzy noise, the combination of which is more likely to inspire contemplation and reflection than fist-pumping. It can be quite boring, if you're not in the mood, or need short-form entertainment. But if you feel like plunging into a meditative river of sound, certain bands have been trying to recapture this elemental rhythm, to harness its energy, and to renew, reuse, and recycle sound (sound is energy, after all, and hence recyclable).

San Francisco's Wooden Shjips combine the tools of the 60s psychedelic garage band (loud distorted guitars, spooky organ, vocals slurred and rhythm section low in the mix) with the past four decades of drone science. So while their name nods at the spirits of David Crosby and Paul Kantner, their music just as often evokes the innovations of 70s European space-rock like Neu! and New York electronic pioneers like Silver Apples and Suicide, and they excel at what they do.

From their second album, 2009's Dos, here's "For So Long":

Ripley Johnson, the guitarist for Wooden Shjips, also has a side project with Sanae Yamada called Moon Duo, which is sort of a lunar sister band to the noisier, louder more solar Wooden Shjips. Moon Duo is slightly quieter and darker—more goth, basically—though utilizing the same patterns of repetitive guitar patterns, keyboards, and from-the-grave vocals; imagine a Jesus & Mary Chain minus drum machines, or the Stooges' 1st album played by the German electropop band Trio. Excellent drones for heart and soul.

From the 2010 Woodsist Records compilation Welcome Home: Diggin' The Universe, here's "A Little Way Different":

Sun Kil Moon: Admiral Fell Promises [2010]

While it's long been a custom for performers to take stage names, trading names like Robert Zimmerman or Anna Mae Bullock for more mainstream-sounding monikers like Bob Dylan or Tina Turner still seems an attempt to create a memorable persona that still remains an actual person. At some point (and I really have no idea when, the late 80s maybe?) singer-songwriters began to use band names. Loner murk-smiths like Sterling Smith recorded as Jandek, Lou Barlow hid as Sebadoh (and Sentridoh), Will Oldham became Palace, Palace Music, and countless others, and Dan Bejar declared himself Destroyer. Singer-songwriters have never been hard to find, and so these name games do help differentiate their product. Occasionally, band nomenclature gets dropped, with Smog finally morphing into the more prosaic-sounding and real-life Bill Callahan. Half marketing, half conceptual game, artist naming remains important, as it determines how long you have to twiddle your iPod rolodex to get to the good stuff.

I am honestly a bit confused about the newest record from Mark Kozelek, an artist who began recording in 1992 with a band called Red House Painters. They broke up in the late 90s, and Kozelek then released a couple records under his own name before getting some of his former bandmates together under a new banner, Sun Kil Moon. He has since released numerous live albums (usually solo), several wild and controversial covers albums (reinventing AC/DC and Modest Mouse as acoustic folk), as well as a couple more Sun Kil Moon albums (usually with a band). The newest record, Admiral Fell Promises, breaks his habit of releasing solo work under his own name—this album is entirely solo acoustic, all on nylon-stringed guitar. Ultimately, I guess it doesn't matter whose name is on the sleeve, and anyone who has followed his career can attest that the man rarely strays far from what he does best, which is hushed, plaintive acoustic folk. The fact that virtually every album he has put out has featured as its cover art a monochromatic (usually sepia-tone) photograph, typically a room or a window or other abstract space, reminds his listeners that they are getting what they paying for: a dreamy, hazy hour of sparkling guitars and Weltschmertz. In terms of making cover art a reflection of the aural contents, only Jandek matches Kozelek (although sound-wise, Jandek is an anti-Kozelek, from another universe where ugly is beautiful).

This is not Kozelek's best album. I prefer his band work; 2003's epic Ghosts of the Great Highway is the best album he'll ever write, a well-rounded song cycle with elegiac tales about doomed boxers and barn-burning Crazy Horse guitar workouts. It remains my most-listened-to album of the entire 2000s. I hope that Kozelek plugs in again, but in the meantime, Admiral Fell Promises is a very sold effort, with the guitar work a joy, as usual. And taking a look at the cover, another sepia daydream, at the very least you know what you're in for.

Note: Orders directly from Kozelek's label, Caldo Verde, receive a four-song EP featuring more wild covers, this time Stereolab and The Jackson Five (!).

From Admiral Fell Promises, here's "Third And Seneca":

Friday, July 23, 2010

Admiral Radley, "I Heart California" [2010]

I've been playing a lot of Jason Lytle's music lately, partly because of the release of I Heart California by his new project Admiral Radley, formed with Aaron Burtch of his brilliant earlier band, Grandaddy, and two members of Earlimart. The other reason is that Lytle's sister Anna has been suffering from some pretty serious medical ailments, and in order to raise money to help pay the bills, Lytle has opened up his Grandaddy vaults and given fans and supporters the opportunity to download a ton (literally, many many hours) of demos, live tracks, and even entire early self-released Grandaddy albums, all in return for a donation of $30. For Grandaddy fans, it's a goldmine, not to mention a worthy cause; for more details, go here.

Lytle's post-Grandaddy offerings, including 2009's solo Your Truly, The Commuter, have continued his earlier band's obsession with regret, nature's losing battle to technology, and suburban dystopia, and while the topics sound overwhelmingly gloomy, his lyrics are often darkly comical (example: "I Heart California" mentions drugs falling out of diaper bags, long walks on Interstate 5, fake tits and the symphony). Admiral Radley, as a collaborative effort, occasionally suffers from the too-many-cooks-in-the-kitchen effect, as tracks sung by Earlimart's Aaron Espinoza and Ariana Murray feel somewhat out of place, not because the songs are bad, but because they don't match Lytle's slightly better offerings. The only weak tracks are the uptempo numbers "Sunburn Kids" and "I'm Fucked On Beer"—neither Grandaddy nor Earlimart were ever convincing rockers, instead doing their finest work at the slower end of the metronome. Fans of Lytle and Earlimart will be on board regardless, but the only major song here is "GNDN", a sad, six-minute meditation on failure in the music industry which is hard not to read as a statement about the go-nowhere-do-nothing fizzling out of Grandaddy. But sad six-minute meditations are one of the things Lytle has always done best, and whether it's soldiering on in music or helping out his sister, Lytle can be counted on to valiantly fight glum with glum.

From I Heart California, here's "GNDN":

And from Lytle's cache of rare material, here's "Call Girl Call" from Grandaddy's 1994 self-released Complex Party Come Along Theories:

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Psychedelic Fruitbasket, Pt. 2: Tangerines

Few individual tracks, as far as I can tell, have been so thoroughly mined for imagery and sounds as John Lennon's utterly unique and epoch-making "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds". One of my very favorite moments in all the world of LPs is the brief moment of silence which separates the end of "With A Little Help From My Friends" and the eerie, otherworldly sound of the Lowrey organ which begins the journey into John's hazy dream-world. Virtually every noun in the song has begotten sonic children: tangerine trees, marmalade skies, kaleidoscope eyes, cellophane flowers, marshmallow pies—this is the vocabulary of acid rock. Even though the Beatles initially denied that the title acronym was a drug reference, there is no doubt that the song's colorful imagery, swirling sounds, and references to floating with one's head in the clouds were at the very least inspired by something more psychotropic than British ale. For this edition of The Psychedelic Fruitbasket, I want to focus on this legendary's track's first fruit, the tangerine.

First, here's the mono version of "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds":

When the pop world started going psychedelic, more commercial artists quickly followed suit. Tommy James & The Shondells started off as a brilliant garage rock singles act, with huge hits like "Hanky Panky" and "I Think We're Alone Now". Their transition to psych pop was made in 1968, when they released the huge smash "Crimson and Clover", which in my opinion is a brilliant extrapolation of Lennon's "Strawberry Fields Forever" (strawberry : crimson :: fields : clover). Their 1968 album Crimson and Clover contains, besides the title hit and the groovy "Crystal Blue Persuasion", one of my favorite attempts to copy "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds", the absurdly silly but fun "I Am A Tangerine". Check out the lyrics!

Tommy James & The Shondells, "I Am A Tangerine" (1968):

Americans weren't the only ones smitten with Lucy in the sky. The little-known UK band Kaleidoscope (note their trippy name, shared with at least two other psychedelic bands) named their first album Tangerine Dream, as good a description of Lennon's song as can be made in two words. Their 1967 album may or may not have given the more famous German electronic band its name, but this rare album is a gem of melodic, Beatlesy psychedelic pop.

From 1967's Tangerine Dream, here's Kaleidoscope's "Flight From Ashiya", replete with Lennonesque lyrics (e.g., "Puffs of white cotton passing the window", "One minute high, the next minute low":

MGMT Know Where Syd Barrett Lives

Last week I saw MGMT live at L.A.'s beautiful outdoor Greek Theatre, and it's taken a week for my synapses to recover. I didn't expect to get refried by a band like MGMT—along with the audience, I was expecting most of album one with a smattering of album two. Instead, we got the opposite, the band launching into extended, buzzing, pulsating versions of their most complex songs. While it's true that the audience hollered loudest to their three most popular songs, I was genuinely impressed with their fearless mission to convert the Greek Theatre into a psychedelic ballroom. Their second album, Congratulations, takes a bit of work, and their songwriting has sacrificed the clean lines of their first hits for more fractal melodies, but I find this album a far more rewarding experience. The song titles pay tribute to the well-known Brian Eno and the less well-known Dan Treacy (of the 80s cult neo-psych Television Personalities), but the songs themselves pay even closer tribute to Love's Arthur Lee and the ultimate psych hero, The Pink Floyd's sainted Syd Barrett (the latter of whom was also the subject of a 1981 Television Personalities track). Rock history continues to eat itself—today's bands no longer distinguish between hero-worship and hero-worshipper-worship. In what direction MGMT will point their spacecraft next is up to them, but they deserve congratulations for transforming their hero-worshipper-worship into a work of art.

Here's the amazing, six-course feast that is "Siberian Breaks":

Endless Boogie: Full House Head [2010]

I love this band. After spending most of last summer obsessed with their last full-length, Focus Level, I am happy to report that Endless Boogie have returned with no changes or modifications to their approach, which is basically bulletproof groove rock. On their Myspace page, they call themselves "Blues / Rock / Psychedelic", and while these are somewhat descriptive, their true genre, if you need to put a label on it, is chooglin'. The term, which I suppose is onomatopoetic, comes from one of the preeminent chooglin' bands, Creedence Clearwater Revival, who have a self-explanatory track called "Keep On Chooglin'" on their 1969 platter Bayou Country. So what is chooglin'? To choogle is to take basic, simple blues-based chord changes, simmer until you have reached a low boil, and proceed to cook the hell out of the song. There may be some soloing, but no self-indulgent wankarama, no spotlights, no histrionics—just purified hot smoking rhythm. Endless Boogie are masters of the choogle, and pledge allegiance to the almighty boogie. They have a singer (who goes by the nom de choogle Top Dollar), but he mostly growls like a Captain Beefheart trapped and enslaved by ZZ Top, and with song titles like "Mighty Fine Pie" and "New Pair Of Shoes", it's clear that they value form over content. Play loud, and preferably in the car on a highway, and choogle your way to transcendence.

Endless Boogie, "Empty Eye":

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Psychedelic Fruitbasket: Strawberries

As a devotee (cultist, even) of the 1966-1969 era of rock music, I have spent eons wading through the woolly discographies of obscure psychedelic bands searching for scrumptious nuggets of psych-pop. There is a widespread, though small, cottage industry interested in this time period, when it seems that half of the teenage population in the UK and US tried to start a band and be the next Beatles—for every new Beatles sound innovation, fifty bands sprung up out of nowhere, trying to tap into the magic. While much of the time period's distinctive and characteristic sounds are attributed, not without reason, to drug use, acid and marijuana are only part of the picture. Inspired by the distortion of time and space induced by psychoactive and hallucinogenic drugs, musicians like John Lennon tried to translate their experiences into musical terms, in the process reworking the rules and parameters of the pop song: now the drones of classical Indian music, heavily distorted and swirling guitar sounds, surreal Dada-influenced lyrics, weird codas, abrupt shifts in style and tempo, and increasingly lengthy and complex arrangements became part of the musical vocabulary. None of these innovations was new, to be sure—but their application to popular song was shocking, and the leap from "Love Me Do" to "Tomorrow Never Knows", for instance, remains a marvel.

One small area in which the Beatles characteristically took the lead was their peculiar affinity for using fruit as a theme in their songs. While Donovan's "Mellow Yellow" (with its infamous "electrical banana") predated "Strawberry Fields Forever" by several months (it came out in the US in October '66 and in the UK in February '67, at the same time as the Beatles smash), Lennon's classic meditation on childhood and reality seems to have opened the floodgates: soon, psychedelic songs with fruit-related titles (not to mention bands named after fruit) would abound. From the nonsense "cranberry sauce" uttered in the song's breakdown to the band's Apple record label, fruit would become a byword for psychedelic song form.

Further posts will cover the best fruit-psych songs I've managed to track down. As a nod to John Lennon, today's serving will contain strawberries. First up is a cover of the song that started it all by the short-lived group Tomorrow, whose excellent (and lone) 1968 album features Steve Howe (later famous in Yes), the Nuggets II classic "My White Bicycle", and a song called "Revolution" which supposedly provoked Lennon's song of the same title.

Tomorrow cover "Strawberry Fields Forever":

Next up is another cover, this time by Balsara & His Singing Sitars. I know nothing about this band, other than that they seem to follow the trend of doing exploito-covers of Beatles tracks. This instrumental cover is pretty good, in my opinion. I found it on Volume 8 of the wondrous series Electric Psychedelic Sitar Headswirlers.

Balsara & His Singing Sitars cover "Strawberry Fields Forever":

Finally, a cut by the Apples In Stereo, a modern retro act whose Beatles-worship extends from their band name to their close attention to late-60s production techniques. This track, "Strawberryfire", is from their excellent 1999 mini-album Her Wallpaper Reverie.

The Apples In Stereo, "Strawberryfire":

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Cover Your Tracks: Iron & Wine, "Peng! 33"

Stereolab's music, since they plugged in the early 90s, has covered a lot of sonic territory. A sound experiment (hence their name) more than a song or singing or lyrics band, they have amassed a huge body of noisy but melodic drones, spacy vintage keyboard pop, and electric hipster elevator music, all with a consistently high level of quality. Critics may complain that all their songs all sound alike, but it's a great sound that bears repeating. Lyrically, they eschew the personal or narrative; with lots of la-la-la cooing vocals, as often as not sung in French (and discussing Marxism), their songs seem to employ the human voice more as another instrument than as a conveyor of thoughts, and so it's rare to have an emotional connection to Stereolab's cool robotic heart.

This Stereolab cover, then, is remarkable for the way it strips away the bouncy, nonchalant veneer of the original and transforms the tone of the lyrics into a sentimental and tender song of hope. Iron & Wine's Sam Beam writes songs which are pretty much the opposite of Stereolab: full of cinematic narratives and characters painted in lyrical detail, they tell stories and pull heartstrings. Beam, though, has recorded a number of unexpected and, in my opinion, wildly original covers, especially the Four Tops' "It's The Same Old Song", New Order's "Love Vigilantes", and the Postal Service's "Such Great Heights"—apparently this dude can squeeze the sentimental juice out of just about anything. Maybe Stereolab aren't robots after all..

Iron & Wine cover Stereolab's "Peng! 33":

Lee is free!

I have often argued, usually unsuccessfully, that Sonic Youth are the Beatles. Despite the facts that they, like the Beatles, have three strong songwriters (all of whom also sing), a redoubtable drummer, a White(y) Album, and a consistently awesome catalogue glittering with sparkly gems, no one seems to ever fall for my argument. But if I can make one Beatles-y point about SY, it's that Lee Ranaldo is the George of the group—according to their song database here, Lee sings on only 27 SY tracks, typically only one track per album, which makes his showcases rare. In lengthy and circuitous discussions with various Sonic Youth lovers I know, one opinion rises up from the din and confusion: the Lee Ranaldo tracks are the fan favorites, with "Wish Fulfillment" (from Dirty), "Hoarfrost" (from A Thousand Leaves), and the unflippingbelievable "Karen Revisited" (from Murray Street) being especially set apart for devotion. So, compare his infrequent but excellent contributions to George's finest, like "Taxman" or "Here Comes The Sun", and you can see my point. Maybe. (For the record, my favorite George tracks are "The Inner Light" and "Long, Long, Long".)

Here's George's contemplative "Within You, Without You" (with Lee on vocals), from a 1988 compilation called Sgt. Pepper Knew My Father and now available on the Daydream Nation reissue.

Sonic Youth covering the Beatles' "Within You, Without You":

And here's a dream tracklist for a Lee Ranaldo mix:
Pipeline/Kill Time 4:35
Saucer-Like 4:25
Eric’s Trip 3:48
Paper Cup Exit 5:57
Rain King 4:39
Karen Koltrane 9:20
Genetic 3:35
Hey Joni 4:23
Mote 7:37
Hoarfrost 5:01
Wish Fulfillment 3:26
Skip Tracer 3:48
Nyc Ghosts & Flowers 7:52
Karen Revisited 11:10

Friday, July 16, 2010

Daily Nugget #19: Sparklehorse + Fennesz, "Mark's Guitar Piece"

The release, this week, of the long-delayed Dark Night Of The Soul collaboration between Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse and Brian Burton, a.k.a. Danger Mouse, should have been an afterthought—anyone could download it last summer, despite record company drama. But: Linkous and contributing vocalist Vic Chestnutt committed suicide in the interim. The record remains an excellent example of collaboration. Other than two duds (sung by Iggy Pop and Frank Black), the record's dark and claustrophobic tones are matched with generally great vocals and lyrics, and fans of the contributing vocalists will find plenty to chew on. The loss of Mark Linkous is particularly sad. While his records as Sparklehorse were sometimes uneven (other than the majestic, elegiac It's A Wonderful Life), in retrospect his crunchy, distorted sonics, ambiguously surreal lyrics, and dark pall of depression make him basically a Southern Gothic one-man Radiohead. In his memory, I present here a beautiful, sad instrumental released in 2009 as a collaboration with Christian Fennesz, his last official release as Sparklehorse. It's a wonderful life...

Sparklehorse + Fennesz, "Mark's Guitar Piece":

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Metal Healthcare: Mammatus, s/t [2006]

For most people music is a hobby, or a source of entertainment—unless you're a metalhead, in which case it's more likely to be a religion. Metal assaults and envelops the listener with volume and a visceral, bodily heaviness which can, I think, be likened to a state of religious, spiritual rapture. I'm not much of a metalhead, but then again I'm not very religious. At the same time, I do find that I need communion with the metal gods on a semi-regular basis, if only to placate their dark powers. My personal history with metal is actually connected with religion: to get out of going to church as a teenager, I deliberately got a job Sunday mornings, and when told I still had to go to Mass on my own, I would just get in the Ford Taurus wagon and drive around listening to Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin cassettes (it turns out that Houses Of The Holy is about the length of a Catholic Mass). For a 16 year-old Led Zep fanatic, this was actually pretty close to heaven.

I don't usually buy albums based solely on their album art, but one look at Mammatus' self-titled 2006 effort and I had to heed the piper's call. Featuring artwork by the brilliant Arik Moonhawk Roper, the album lives up to the band's MySpace self-description as “The final war between amps and sea creatures” (note to metalheads: Mammatus seem to have anticipated Metalocalypse's "Dethwater" episode). With churning sludge-riffs, epic fantasy titles, and distant echoed chant-singing, they sound like four Dungeons and Dragons fans who decided to trade their 12-sided dice for down-tuned guitars and combine Yes' 1974 opus "The Gates Of Delirium" with the stoner-rock monolith Holy Mountain by the legendary Sleep. (Religious side-note: Holy Mountain, their record label, is named after the indescribable 1973 Jodorowsky film.)

Mammatus (who take their moniker from a rare and freakish cloud formation) are from the Santa Cruz area and have recorded two albums (the second, The Coast Explodes (2007), is not as heavy as the first, but still good). They are said to be working on a third album, and I hope they come down from their wizards' tower.

Mammatus, "The Righteous Path Through The Forest Of Old":

Daily Nugget #18: MGMT, "Metanoia"

In anticipation of seeing MGMT live this week, I have been revisiting their small catalogue of hedonistic bounce-pop. On a recent visit to a record store, I notice several copies of their latest record, the awesome Congratulations, in the used bins, a sure sign that those who loved their relatively straightforward, catchy synth-driven Oracular Spectacular were not ready for the band's "difficult" second record. There were signs that they were heading down a weird path though, and I here present exhibit A, 2008's "Metanoia", a nearly 14-minute pastiche which I cannot decide whether to call a single or an EP (can one song be an EP?). It's art rock, I suppose, inasmuch as it contains several movements/passages/sections, but before you accuse them of going Yes or Tull or Mars Volta, keep in mind that they are probably aiming closer to the melodic epics of Pink Floyd and Paul McCartney; think "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey", "Band On The Run", side two of Abbey Road, side two of Meddle (whose guitar sound they summon here), and even maybe a contemplative take on "Bohemian Rhapsody". Those wanting a repeat of "Time To Pretend" might not have the patience, but I think "Metanoia" (Greek for "changing one's mind") and the similarly epic and brilliant "Siberian Breaks" on Congratulations are expansive and kaleidoscopic, tune-worlds you can get lost in, at least for 15 minutes.

MGMT, "Metanoia":