Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Daily Nugget #12: Washed Out, "Feel It All Around"

I saw Washed Out play live a while back after being introduced to the Life Of Leisure EP by my friend Jean. Well, the live show was a dud (hey Washed Out dude: watching you sing to your iPod is not very entertaining). But the EP is echoey and bouncy and sounds like waking up at the beach in a hammock, curled up next to your favorite synth. I look forward to future recordings.

Washed Out, "Feel It All Around":

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Daily Nugget #11: Janelle Monáe, "Wondaland"

I only occasionally leave the sound cave for sustenance and/or diversion, so bumping into new music the old-fashioned way, i.e., hearing it on the radio, happens somewhat infrequently. But in one of those too few serendipitous moments, I heard this track and immediately needed to know whodunnit. I have been reading about Janelle Monáe's The ArchAndroid (Suites II and III) and was planning on checking out her music; well, I think I may have found my Summer Jam '10. It's relentlessly catchy and fun, and the lyrics mention droids, secret Santas, fairygods, and underpants. In other words, resistance is futile.

Janelle Monáe, "Wondaland":

Monday, June 28, 2010

Daily Nugget #10: The Velvet Underground, "The Gift" (mono instrumental)

The Velvet Underground were a jam band. Not, perhaps, in the same category as your Phishes or String Cheeses, but they jammed and jammed—anyone who loves the 1969 Live album or the even jammier Quine Tapes (featuring several half-hour versions of "Sister Ray") already knows this. So in addition to inventing alternative rock, goth, industrial, dream pop, and so many other sub-niche genres, they also proved that New York noise, applied to simple r'n'b chord changes, could create the same sort of hypnotic grooves their hippy contemporaries were tripping to in the psychedelic ballrooms of San Francisco.

The Velvets' second record, White Light/White Heat (1968), is their darkest, noisiest, ugliest record, with sludgy jams, drugged out and creepy lyrics. There's beauty in the ugly, though, and for proof I submit today's daily nugget. The second track of the record, "The Gift", featured a novel experiment: One channel features John Cale narrating the tragic tale of Waldo Jeffers (a short story written by Mr. Sunshine, Lou Reed); the other channel is a groovy instrumental (originally entitled "Booker T" after the Memphis r'n'b great) with slash-and-burn guitars dueling it out. If you got tired of the story (and, to be honest, most will only need to hear it a few times), you could pan your speakers hard right and just hear the instrumental, but only through one speaker. I've always hoped that the original track of the band working their magic in stereo would surface, but until then, here's the instrumental track converted to mono (with special thanks to Google and Audacity).

Hint: Go ahead and turn this one all the way up. Also, The Quine Tapes are about to be reissued on vinyl by the good people at Sundazed.

The Velvet Underground, "The Gift" [mono instrumental]:

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Daily Nugget #9: Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti, "Can't Hear My Eyes"

Some of my earliest memories of music were born in the back of a maroon 1968 Volkswagen bus. I can recall looking out the window at the dry Idaho landscape in the late 70s and early 80s, while soft adult contemporary pop gently streamed out of the tiny AM radio: "Africa", "Chariots Of Fire", "We Just Disagree", "Cool Night", "Sailing", "Making Love Out Of Nothing At All", "Forever In Blue Jeans", "I'm Not In Love"...the list goes on and on, and while my pesky inner critic has been conditioned to mock and dismiss such margarine glop, the fact of the matter is that these soft hits are burned into my cerebral cortex. They are my nursery rhymes; I have given up on even calling them guilty pleasures. Like hearing the Johnny Carson theme song and instinctively knowing it's bedtime, exposure to adult contemporary smooth jams circa '77-'83 lulls me into the back of my parents' VW like a hazy childhood daydream.

Ariel Pink is particularly talented at channeling the soft warmth of 70s smooth pop, recreating not just the rolling melodies, but, more importantly, the fuzzy aural glow of a tiny AM transistor radio. The fact that much of his output has been recorded at home on cheap equipment is part of it, but conceptually, the fuzz is crucial to the aesthetic; listening to Air Supply at high volume on an expensive stereo is preposterous—it's not meant to overwhelm, but rather to seduce softly. When Ariel Pink signed to an actual record label (4AD—a good choice, given that label's fondness for mystic pop like the Cocteau Twins), I wondered whether he would go hi-fidelity on us. Luckily, he didn't. While the new record, Before Today (note the explanatory title), is the work of a band in (presumably) a studio, it remains a sharp collection of the soft sounds he does best. If you like the idea of a sincere geek doing karaoke to lost Journey ballads (I do), then twist your AM dial accordingly.

Here's "Can't Hear My Eyes":

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Daily Nugget #8: Destroyer, "The Music Lovers"

Given that this blog gets its name from a Destroyer lyric, it is appropriate and necessary to throw the spotlight on a Destroyer track. Everyone who knows me knows my obsessive affection for the music of Dan Bejar's Destroyer. I first heard Destroyer in February of 2002—I remember it quite clearly, driving over Seattle's Capitol Hill as the sun broke through the ever-present clouds (I was on a mission to acquire some tamales) during the glorious outro of "The Bad Arts"—and was shocked, horrified even, that a) I hadn't heard of this band previously; and b) that Destroyer wasn't making headlines and money. In retrospect, Destroyer's music, which (if you'll pardon the reference) sounds something like Wallace Stevens fronting the Spiders From Mars, is probably too wilfully obscure lyrically for mass consumption. But in 2002 I was serving time in grad school, and was delighted to find myself a new Dylan (I will argue, to the point of annoyance, that his City Of Daughters/Thief/Streethawk/This Night/Your Blues/Rubies string of albums is the Another Side/Bringing It All Back Home/Highway 61 Revisited/Blonde On Blonde/John Wesley Harding of the modern age). My friend and fellow cultist Brandon and I immediately started what we believe was the first Destroyer fan website (the long-gone to preach the gospel. I am still a believer, and Bejar is still throwing daggers in the dark—check out his latest opus, the weirdo ambient techno (!) Bay Of Pigs EP.

This is the best version of "The Music Lovers", from the SubPop Singles Club (2001). It is quite possibly my favorite piece of recorded sound of all time:

Friday, June 25, 2010

Cover Your Tracks: Taj Mahal, "Take A Giant Step"

Originally written by famed 60s hitwriters Gerry Goffin and Carol King (the same team known for such immortals as "Up On The Roof", "Will You Love Me Tomorrow", "One Fine Day", and many many others), this track was first recorded by the Monkees in 1966. Their version is upbeat but pretty slight (and I say this as a Monkees fan), a chipper throwaway. Blues handyman Taj Mahal recorded it first with his little-known band Rising Sons (which also featured Ry Cooder), but that version, while gruffer and bluesier than the Monkees', still sounded a little off. The third time was the charm: rerecorded for Taj's 1969 Giant Steps, it became a gentle stroll, an invitation to better days. This was on almost every mixtape I made in college.

Taj Mahal covers The Monkees' "Take A Giant Step":

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Daily Nugget #7: Admiral Radley, "I Heart California"

In the late 90s I was pretty obsessed with Grandaddy, a band that sounded like a mellow, funny chocolate/peanut butter combination of Pavement and Radiohead. They made pastoral low-fi epics about crying drunken robots and other conflicts between nature and technology, and while their last couple records sacrificed invention for a more streamlined sound, their best work was always melodic and usually funny or sad (or both). Filtering classic rock song forms through glitchy synthesizers and hissing tapes, their music sounded old and new at the same time. Lack of success broke up the band in 2006, but it wasn't a surprise when frontman Jason Lytle announced a solo career and moved from his native Modesto to Montana. The change of scenery seems to have done him good; his first release, Yours Truly, The Commuter maintained Grandaddy's sonics and lyrical concerns, but with noticeably more energy than the latter's later work. Now Lytle has teamed up with one of his former bandmates and members of Earlimart as Admiral Radley, and they have a new album coming out in July entitled I Heart California. As a preview, here's the title track. It's a funny mock-tribute to the Golden State, one of Lytle's most enduring themes (for more brilliant California-bashing, cf. Grandaddy's 2005 EP Excerpts From The Diary Of Todd Zilla).

Hint: Track down as many Grandaddy b-sides as you can.

"I Heart California":

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Daily Nugget #6: Pop Levi, "Blue Honey"

I first found this track on the amazing and highly recommended compilation A Monstrous Psychedelic Bubble Exploding in Your Mind: Volume 1 by The Amorphous Androgynous. A punchy riff rocker, it recalls the best T. Rex (especially the lyrics), but what really knocks me out is the unique rhythm: check out the stuttering, shifting drums. Apparently blue honey is some sort of psychedelic mushroom concoction; the swooping string arrangements and acid guitar certainly have that psilocybin tinge. I once played this about fifteen times in a row while driving around. I still need to check out Pop Levi's albums (The Return to Form Black Magick Party from 2007 and Never Never Love from 2008), but in the meantime I think I'll throw this one on a few more times.

"Blue Honey":

Requiem For The 80s: The Cure's Disintegration [reissue]

The opening track of 1989's hallowed Disintegration, "Plainsong" is a stately dirge that makes you feel like you're entering a cathedral. Of course, it's a gothic cathedral. But instead of a vicar in vestments, the celebrant is Robert Smith, with his ratty hair and eternally smudged lipstick, and the next seventy minutes is a high mass, a wedding and a funeral, the Cure's biggest album and their most stylistically uniform piece. It has some light touches (e.g., the delicate and weird "Lullaby", the sad love song "Lovesong"), but overall, Smith's gloomiest church is drenched in echoing organs and always-flanged guitars. Disintegration is not my favorite Cure album (I prefer the wild variety and more adventurous music of Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me), but holy shit, if you were a teenager in the 80s (or, if you were ever a teenager), then this album's overwhelming mope captures, more than almost any album I can think of, the helpless unrequited yearning of young angst. The religious devotion with which this album is adored by fans was perhaps already implicit when it was released: the 1989 tour was called The Prayer Tour. I dread listening to it, almost, since it summons a time and place, an age, of existential sadness; "Pictures Of You" had me crying in my car yesterday.

This reissue sounds pretty good, though the new mastering doesn't reveal any major surprises. The bonus material ranges from good to excellent; I particular enjoy the live disc (from 1989 gigs) which redoes the whole album in order in versions similar to the album versions but still interesting, as Smith's vocals are well recorded. The demos and outtakes are almost all instrumental, but if you're a Cure fan(atic), you can maintain the mood for an extra hour plus. There must be much more in the vaults, as the Cure's website recently posted another whole disc's worth of outtakes annoyingly not on this reissue, called Alternative Rarities, which is easy enough to find if you are so inclined.

Two quibbles: first, the liner notes are a bit skimpy, as they have been during this whole reissue campaign, AND ARE PRINTED IN ALL-CAPS, WHICH IS SUPER ANNOYING (doesn't Johnny Black know that sensitive Cure fans don't like being yelled at??); second, even though the Join The Dots box collected all of the band's b-sides (a majority of which are quite good), in my opinion expanded reissues should include all contemporaneous material, and songs like the beautiful "To The Sky", "Babble", "Out Of Mind", "2 Late" and "Fear Of Ghosts" belong here.

Here's "2 Late", which would have been out of place on Disintegration (too chipper), but remains one of my favorite Cure b-sides:

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

DNA Sequence: From Coltrane to Flying Lotus

Los Angeles-based laptop beat producer Flying Lotus has been getting a lot of press lately, thank to his excellent new record Cosmogramma. The record's rubbery, quick tempos and jazzy layers strongly recall, for me, the orchestral sweep of DJ Shadow's immortal 1996 opus ...Endtroducing, but updated sonically (it's grimier and hence less melodramatic), rhythmically (the beats here skid and careen and flutter rather than lope), and the presence of real (i.e., non-sampled) singing and instrumentation by some pretty big names show how Flying Lotus, also known as Steven Ellison, is taking his laptop out of the house.

The big names are just about as big as they get. It's one thing to get Thom Yorke to contribute vocals to your record. It's another entirely different and much bigger deal if you have blood relatives with the last name Coltrane. As a nephew of the jazz deities John and Alice Coltrane, Ellison has some pretty great stories (cf. just about any interview, which inevitably brings this connection up), and it's hard to imagine what it's like to get to play one of John Coltrane's saxophones. His music isn't really jazz, technically anyway, but he does make discernible connections between his family's jazz past and his own musical present (for instance his cousin Ravi Coltrane, a notable jazz artist in his own right, plays on the record as well). But the Coltrane I hear the most in this record is not John or Ravi, but Alice. After the death of her husband in 1967, Alice Coltrane began a solo career which would take the late saxophonist's later, free spiritual work into beautiful, exotic world-jazz territory. She played the harp and piano primarily, and her albums are suffused with her light, shimmering, almost hymnlike solos. I especially recommend Ptah, the El Daoud and Journey in Satchidananda, though she made a ton of records, and I have a lot more homework to do.

For comparison, here is the lovely "Blue Nile" from Ptah, the El Daoud (1970):

Artists like Flying Lotus and Four Tet (who has also recorded with a jazz great, the late Steve Reid) are showing what new forms emerge when the laptop is played with a jazz perspective. In this Flying Lotus track, "MmmHmm", I think one can hear a natural extension of Alice Coltrane's harp textures and rhythms, and I bet his dear departed aunt approves.

Flying Lotus, "MmmHmm":

Daily Nugget #5: Wimple Winch, "Marmalade Hair"

One of the best things about the Beatles is that they had, and continue to have, thousands and thousands of copycats. Unfortunately only the Beatles can be the Beatles, but that has never stopped people from coming up with Beatles-esque songs, some of which are blessed with genius, even if it's only parrot-genius. Writing, playing, and singing an efficient, economic three-minute pop song which has memorable melodic and/or rhythmic energy remains the musical equivalent of Mt. Everest—you can get there, but it ain't easy.

Wimple Winch were a beat group from Liverpool who recorded a handful of singles in the mid-60s. I have to say that I find their choice of moniker pretty bad (by today's standards, at least—in the 60s, people seemed to have a greater tolerance for "zany"), but that's the only bad thing I can say about these guys, since they wrote some real gems.

This track, "Marmalade Hair", pledges sonic allegiance to the Beatles, but has an identity all its own (check out that sunny chorus), and it's been swirling in my ears for the last month. Remarkably, this brilliant track is a demo—it wasn't even released until the 90s.

"Marmalade Hair":

Monday, June 14, 2010

10 Universal Truths Revealed in James Brown Song Titles

1. People Get Up And Drive Your Funky Soul

2. Papa Don’t Take No Mess

3. Get Up I Feel Like Being A Sex Machine

4. Let A Man Come In And Do The Popcorn

5. Nothing Beats A Try But A Fail

6. Don't Tell A Lie About Me And I Won't Tell The Truth About You

7. I Don't Want Nobody To Give Me Nothing (Open Up The Door I'll Get It Myself)

8. For Goodness Sakes, Take A Look At Those Cakes

9. Everybody's Doin' the Hustle and Dead on the Double Bump

10. I Got Ants In My Pants (And I Need To Dance)

Heroic Guitarists, Part 1: Pete Cosey

The popularity of video games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero reveal our culture's ultimate secret fantasy: to be greatest musician ever to thoroughly rock Jeremy's mom's rec room. Most wannabes, though, will never pass into the stratocastosphere through speedy button-pressing; guitars are easy to play (sort of, with practice), but hard to play very well. The great guitar heroes are knighted for their speed, dexterity, riffage, soloing, and other sonic tricks, but the list of incredible guitarists who also happen to incredible singers or songwriters is pretty small. So the most famous guitarists are generally ones who sing or write as well. But some of my very favorite guitarists are sidemen, content to sit at the sidelines squeezing beautiful noise out of their guitars.

One of my favorite relatively unknown guitarists is an intergalactic supergenius known as Pete Cosey. His recorded output is pretty small—he is mostly known for backing Miles Davis from 1973 until Miles semi-retired from music in 1975. If you like classic jazz (and you should), you might have some trouble digesting this particular musical feast, as it bears little resemblance to Kind Of Blue or even A Love Supreme. This is noisy, dark funk, with long elastic tempos, knotty distorted solos, and lots of wah-wah. Miles' inspirations around this time were Sly Stone, Jimi Hendrix, and James Brown, all of whom haunt this era: you can hear their militant rhythms and the oceans of noise made possible by amplified instruments. Cosey was just one of Miles' guitarists—sometimes he had as many as three onstage—but he was the best. Photos from the era show a man in dark glasses with a long beard, usually seated and looking like some kind of wizard musician in elaborate robes (cf. Rick Rubin). His role was, apparently, to fight dragons and control the weather with his guitar, and he does. Jimi Hendrix is the closest comparison, but where Hendrix was a massive continent of sound, a magma sculptor, Cosey is lighter and more ethereal, though still very noisy; his guitar sounds like what I imagine purified electricity would sound like.

You can find his work on most of the albums Miles Davis recorded between 1973 and 1975. So head on down to Get Up with It, Dark Magus, Agharta and Pangaea (the latter three being live albums), or the box set The Complete On the Corner Sessions, and kiss the sky.

Here's "Turnaroundphrase", recorded live in Tokyo in 1975; at around 1:55, Cosey seems to plug his guitar into a lightning bolt:

Cover Your Tracks: "All About Our Love" by The Radio Dept.

It's probably going to turn out to be true that there really is a time and place for everything. I happen to have a soft spot for soft rock, especially anything on adult contemporary AM radio between 1976 and 1983. I do not, however, have a soft spot for smooth jazz, though can I imagine it has its uses, at least in dentists' waiting rooms. Smooth soul I can usually do without; I've never really gotten Roberta Flack, and most 80s smoove soul leaves me cold. But it's hard not to like the soothing sounds of Sade. I'm not a huge fan (are there huge Sade fans?), but her best tracks summon a willowy, calm mellowness that somehow takes the elevator (music) to the rooftop patio. She has other uses, too: 1992's Love Deluxe is one of the all-time great makeout records, even if at times you feel like you're making out at The Limited.

This cover of Sade's "All About Our Love" is why good covers make life better, why b-sides rule, and why collectors (sometimes) have more fun. The Radio Dept. are a Swedish indie pop band whom I only recently discovered (thanks to my girlfriend and her excellent taste). Their cover takes Sade's sweet, gentle original out for a cup of tea with the Pet Shop Boys. Their new record, Clinging To A Scheme, is as excellent as their others, Pet Grief and Lesser Matters, but to be honest, they have yet to release a dud track, and their singles and EPs are all terrific. If you like New Order, or any band from Scotland, you will love them.

"All About Our Love":

Daily Nugget #4: Animal Collective, "What Would I Want? Sky"

Animal Collective have turned out to be one of the best bands of the last decade. Their earliest records are noisy and a little diffuse, but their soundcraft and writing have gotten catchier while continuing to be pretty wildly experimental. Some of their stuff sounds a little too woolly and woozy, but their basic ingredients (loops, layers, distorted samples, yipping and yelping, hootenanny tribalism, post-drum-circle rhythms), while potentially annoying when pried out of context, contribute to a whole greater than the sum of the individual parts. I recently saw their weirdo music video/art installation/acid horror flick ODDSAC, and it messed with my cerebral cortex. In a good way.

This track, from their Fall Be Kind EP, samples the Dead's "Unbroken Chain" (Who samples the Grateful Dead?!? Seriously?!). The sample features the voice of Phil Lesh, my musical god-uncle (we share the same birthday). This was my favorite song of 2009.

Hint: Hunt down the lyrics.

"What Would I Want? Sky":

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Long-Suffering Completist: Neil Young, Part 1

I have reached a sort of milestone on the long, lost highway to music-related insanity: I am exactly one title away from owning Every Neil Young Album. This may sound noble, folks, but my malady, the dread completism, comes at a price. There are some artists whose work I so admire that I cannot bring myself not to buy each and every song they release, and Neil Young is one of them. For a few immortal artists, completism is a no-brainer—every Beatles record is great and worth owning, and even their lesser tracks accrue aesthetic value simply by virtue of the company they keep (example: try listening to Abbey Road without "Maxwell's Silver Hammer"; you'll miss it. Or at least you'll miss the familiar sensation of being vaguely irritated for three minutes and twenty-eight seconds).

But Neil Young is known for having somewhat more 'eccentric' quality control than artists such as the Beatles, and while his highs are indeed high, for every After The Gold Rush, there's a Landing On Water or Are You Passionate? lurking in the nooks and crannies of the discography. So, picture your humble narrator lurking in Amoeba, staring at a used (but M-, for good reason) copy of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's dire American Dream from 1988, thinking, "Hey you. You have a few Neil songs unavailable elsewhere. I bet they suck. Alas, I must buy you anyway." The $3.99 price tag doesn't sting anywhere near as much as being seen carrying around a copy of this abomination, and facing the hip Amoeba record store clerk with a tidy stack of completist embarrassments feels more like an arraignment than a simple exchange of money for product.

My one missing title is Everybody's Rockin', Neil's so-called 'rockabilly' album from 1983, allegedly made to annoy his record company, which had asked him to make a rock'n'roll record after his odd foray into Devo-inspired vocoder robot funk on 1982's Trans. I am not looking forward to buying this record, since it has a lousy reputation (for which reason I've held it off for last). But if there's one thing I've learned from Neil's recorded output, it's that there's a certain continuity amid all the chaos. In fact, after hearing his very first recordings from the early 60s on Archives, I am beginning to think that Neil may have had more than company-politics and revenge on his mind for this record, and that the cynical interpretation is just that: cynical. There are many mediocre Neil Young Albums, but even these have some moments on them that are hard to deny. Neil may need a better editor, but the journey through the far corners of his discography holds its share of gems. To prove my point are two tracks, one rather hard-to-find, another hiding in plain sight.

"Interstate" was available only on the vinyl version of 1996's lukewarm Broken Arrow. I kinda like the album now, but at the time I criticized it for the three long, meandering jams in a row that kick off the album and bog it down for 25 minutes (for a while I nicknamed it Everybody Knows This Goes Nowhere). This spooky, low-key acoustic number is the sort of track which would fit easily on Zuma or side two of On The Beach:

Those who thought the sloppy r'n'b grooves of 2002's Are You Passionate? earned the response "No" to the title question should keep in mind that Neil was not exactly a stranger to rhythm and blues or soul. 1988's This Note's For You had him playing with a full horn section, and he even had a small hit with the title track. But Neil had been in an r'n'b combo in the 60s, The Mynah Birds, who had a contract with Motown (!). They only released one single, and now this long-forgotten band is mentioned more for the fact that one of Neil's fellow Mynah Birds was none other than Rick James. Yes, that one (!!). But Neil's failed experiments are never complete disasters. Here is "Coupe de Ville", in my opinion one of the oddest songs in his catalogue, a jazzy blues with sad horns in the background. It's uncharacteristic, but it still sounds like Neil, and it's great. The completist, toiling alone, usually late at night, occasionally finds a diamond in the dirt.

"Coupe de Ville":

Daily Nugget #3: Gold Panda, "Quitter's Raga"

I don't really know anything at all about Gold Panda, except that this track has an awesome title and sitars, and if there's anything we can't get enough of here at Medium Rotation, it's sitars. A meditative groove for a sunny Sunday. Enjoy!

"Quitter's Raga":

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Cover Your Tracks: "Pop Life" by Dump

A bad cover song makes you miss the original; a terrible cover can make you wish the original had never been written (Michael Bolton, hang your head in shame). The best covers always seem to end up sounding like originals, forcing you to choose between the old and the new. A truly great cover is a usurper, eclipsing the original version altogether, as Hendrix did with Dylan's "All Along The Watchtower". But regardless of how drastically a cover reinvents an original, the one thing that makes good covers work is the artist's ability to take up ownership of the song, if only for a few fleeting moments. And if you can wrest a great song from a great artist, there's a cubbyhole in Valhalla with your name on it.

Imagine, then, trying to steal a song from Prince. Prince owned the 80s. Madonna and Michael were more iconic, but Prince had the songs, hit songs, so many he could even give some away (and even his castaways became hits). Forget that he can sing, play two bands' worth of instruments, or perform circles around everyone: just look at his 80s songbook—even his B-sides glow in the dark. Rock, catchy pop, steamy ballads, hard dance funk, whatever weirdo genre "If I Was Your Girlfriend" happens to be: he could do it all. Oddly, there aren't that many great Prince covers out there. Maybe it's that Prince and his persona are so impossible to inhabit that covering his songs is as hard as trying to pronounce his old name, O(+>.

This cover, by Dump (a.k.a. the side project of James McNew of Yo La Tengo), was originally on That Skinny Motherfucker With The High Voice?, a 1998 cassette-only collection of Prince covers. Dump transforms the downtempo groove of this minor Prince hit into a sad, beautiful, lo-fi meditation on life and pop.

Dump covers Prince's "Pop Life":

Daily Nugget #2: Tommy James & The Shondells, "Crimson And Clover" (album version)

Today's track you already know, unless you've been living in a cave, and if that's the case, then it's a pretty sad cave, since this is one of those songs basically everyone likes. This version, though, is less well-known, because the radio version is unimpeachably perfect. But faced with making a trippy album version, Tommy James and the Shondells went into the studio after the song was already a hit and added a fuzzy psychedelic guitar solo, which in my book is the equivalent of adding that extra dollop of sweet creamy butter. The record where this version is available, Crimson & Clover [1968] is pretty great too, featuring "Crystal Blue Persuasion", "Sugar On Sunday", and the glorious Beatles rip "I Am A Tangerine". Pick up the newly reissued twofer (with 1969's also-good Cellophane Symphony) on Rev-Ola.

"Crimson And Clover" (album version):

Caribou: Swim [2010]

I'm pretty sure the first time I saw a laptop on stage at a rock show, I rolled my eyes. Along with the flute, triangle, and keytar, the laptop is hard to 'play' without looking like a nonmusical nerd (visualize playing "air laptop"). I have tended to avoid seeing computer-based music live, since on several occasions I have stood there, bored, watching the star of the show stare blankly into a computer; I might as well have stayed at home and blasted the record. Over the last decade, though, the quality of computer-generated music has made me rethink the new songcraft. The best electronic artists, in transcending the physical dexterity necessary to play, for instance, a saxophone, have proved that one can build a song from scratch on a computer, not unlike a composer drafting a classical opus on a sheet of paper. This is not to say that laptoppers aren't dextrous, of course—what impresses me about the best computer music is its writing. The real innovation lies in the limitless access to every possible sound. Rather than choosing a guitar and a rack of effects pedals, the laptop artist can take a sound and manipulate it into tones and textures not possible with standard instruments.

Dan Snaith has been recording electronic music since 2000, and in his many fine records he has explored many types of musics, with his earliest records sounding like fairly typical late-90s electronica (a loathsome term, but here it applies). Each successive record, though, has sounded less and less "laptop-y", and his devotion to songs rather than just textured beats sets him apart. All of his records are, in my opinion, worthy of close study (and try and track down his excellent tour-only mix CDs), but the new one, Swim, is simply amazing. This time, the beats are basically disco, but the watery, fluid production (echoed in the aquatic title; in interviews, Snaith said he'd recently learned to swim) and gentle, plaintive melodies undercut the rhythmic propulsion. Some have compared the sound to Arthur Russell, and the comparison is fitting: both make disco, but it's an arty, headphone disco. On Swim, intricate (and odd) sampled beats are occasionally frazzled by honking or looping free-jazz horns, while the quiet, emotive vocals give the record the human resonance missing from so much computer music. Fans of Four Tet, Arthur Russell, Erlend Øye, Animal Collective, LCD Soundsystem, or Flying Lotus will definitely dig.

Hint: listen with headphones!



Friday, June 11, 2010

Daily Nugget #1: The Grateful Dead, "Ripple"

The 'Daily Nugget' is a section of this blog devoted to individual tracks, sort of a song du jour.

My Uncle Phil passed away today after a long battle with cancer. Ironically, he was not only a doctor, but as far I could tell, by far the most active and healthy member of my entire extended family—cycling, skiing, wind-surfing, he did it all. He was also a Deadhead, and owned a beautifully restored VW microbus. I dedicate this life-affirming song to his memory.

The Grateful Dead, "Ripple" (outtake):

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Fall: Your Future Our Clutter [2010]

Glancing briefly at my music library, it is clear that I have more music by The Fall than by any other artist—some 80-odd titles, with more, no doubt, on the way. The sheer quantity of Fall music is matched only by the overall high level of quality. What other band has bashed out an album-a-year for the better part of thirty years? At a certain point in any review of Fall music, one almost inevitably turns to Fall review clichés, as it is difficult to discuss The Fall without using words like umpteenth or caustic or curmudgeon. But the clichés can be useful shorthand: Mark E. Smith yearly corrals young, often non-professional musicians into studios and has them lock into very simple, loud riffs while he growls and spits, slurring abstract detective poetry to the thudding backbeat. It is not a surprise that MES routinely cites Philip K. Dick as a favorite. If any musician is worthy of the title of metaphysical detective, then it is MES. His trademark vocal tics have mutated over the years: the amphetamine squeals and nagging declamations of the 80s have morphed into coughs and wheezes, but the lyric fragments—when you can decipher them—retain their puzzling aura, and recent records have even shown a softer sense of retrospection which is almost, well, autumnal (sorry). This most recent record will not perhaps make it to anyone's top ten Fall albums (there are too many, anyway), but it sits nicely on the shelf with the others from the 2000s, topping (in my opinion) Imperial Wax Solvent and Reformation Post TLC, though not the decade-best The Real New Fall LP or the erratic but occasionally brilliant Fall Heads Roll. As Neil Young once said to a fan complaining that all the songs sound the same, "It's all one song!" In the case of The Fall, this too is true, as the 80-odd titles crowding the shelf function best as a monolithic unit, a life's commitment to words, repetition and noise.

To annoy the discographically-inclined, recent Fall albums have come out in slightly differing US and UK versions. But this time, the vinyl version is the offender, offering two tracks not on the CD, presumably because vinyl has become hip again. Some day, this music lover sighs quietly, the concept of the 'bonus-track-as-bait' will die a deserved death and the most important thing, the music, will be available to all who want to purchase it. Someday..

For your sampling pleasure, here is "986 Generator":

"Get A Summer Song Goin'":

And from this year's glorious Record Store Day 7", "Bury 2 + 4" (in a different version from the LP) and "Cowboy Gregori" (no relation to the LP's "Cowboy George"):

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Welcome to Medium Rotation

This blog is devoted to the songs, artists, and albums I love. After countless trips to record stores, countless hours of thumbing through stacks of CDs and LPs, countless speedy drives home with new tunes and filthy fingers, countless hours debating the merits of album X or song Y, and countless dollars emptied into the cash registers of noble purveyors of plastic and vinyl, I decided to start this blog as a forum for discussing the music I know and love the best. In an earlier era, this blog would have been a carefully pruned, hand-crafted mixtape; in our present era, technology has made the dissemination of mixtapes easier, but sadly less personal. What I hope to achieve is to share things I love with those who are hungry for new music. That said, I am not a pirate, and this blog is most assuredly not a truckstop for mp3 hooligans. Making music costs money, money which the artists richly deserve. If you like the song and it's for sale, track it down and buy it!