Semi-New Music: Metric – “Help, I’m Alive”

June 29, 2009

I received a text message from my friend Mike in LA the other night.  It was short, sweet, and to the point:

My new favorite song: “Help, I’m Alive” by Metric.

I have a slightly rocky history with Metric.  I have frequently been told that they are the next big thing, and it was this sentiment that caused me to finally check them out right after the release of 2005′s Live It Out.  It was an okay album, but the overwhelming feeling I got from Live It Out was that it was very mechanical.  The cold precision of the music, the weird tinny production, and something in lead singer Emily Haines’s voice (despite the fact that I love her work with Broken Social Scene) gave me the inescapable impression of a bunch of 80′s era robots hopelessly stuck on the New Wave setting.   In all, despite a couple of bright moments here and there, I was largely unimpressed, and I had no motivation to check out any of their earlier albums or to anticipate any future releases.

So then comes this text message.  I generally but not always agree with Mike’s taste in music, so unless his text message was dripping with sarcasm not easily conveyed through the written word, I believe this was a pretty glowing review.  Also, I’m never one to completely count a band out, even after a pretty decisive first impression, so I figured I would give them a second chance and Youtube “Help, I’m Alive.”

After some predictably robotic percussion leading things off, Haines’s echo-effect voice breaks in along with some low synths in the background.  The somewhat familiar New Wave vibe is still there, but there’s a new life in Haines’s voice and **gasp** something resembling emotion!  I was a bit concerned after the swelling synths come in at about 0:35, but the second time around,  the synths break completely and make way for some crunchy guitar chords, and Haines goes up an octave or so to create an instantly hooky chorus.  Less than halfway through the song, I notice my foot tapping, and I realize that this is by far the best Metric song I’ve ever heard, and I think I may be inspired to check out their latest record, Fantasies.

Thanks for the text, Mike!

Metric – “Help, I’m Alive”

Skyward: Sky Saxon of the Seeds, RIP

June 27, 2009

A second highly-influential musician left us on June 25th, 2009. That musician was Sky Saxon, frontman of the legendary ’60s garage band, the Seeds.

Three chords and the truth? Hell, Sky and the Seeds didn’t even need that many, as they demonstrated on their best-known song, the almighty “Pushin’ Too Hard.” Keyboards? “[Keyboardist Daryl Hooper's] idea of a creative solo was to play the same riff over and over at varying octaves.”* That was also the general concept behind many of the lead guitar lines.

I own a lot of Nuggets and Pebbles type stuff (for those not familiar, those are compilations of ’60s garage-rock songs). It’s happened several times to me where I hear a song that’s just awesome, and spend some money, sometimes a lot, to find more of the band’s work. Almost inevitably, I just wasted my money, because everything else the band did was completely horrible.

Not so with the Seeds. I don’t own everything they did, and I won’t, but they put out five albums (one under the moniker “The Sky Saxon Blues Band”) and I have their first two. There is a lot of bad stuff on them, but loads of good stuff too.

Probably the best way to go is a compilation. There are several out there, and I can’t tell you which is the best, but the one I have is called Evil Hoodoo and it’s well worth your time and your money. It contains such classics as:

  • “The March of the Flower Children” (“Somewhere, the children are out there playing, so happy, in their own flower garden.”)
  • “Mr. Farmer” (“Mr. Farmer, let me watch your crops. Mr. Farmer, let me water your crops. Mr. Farmer, let me harvest your crops.”)
  • “Rollin’ Machine” (“Everybody, do you hear me out there? Wanna take you ridin’ on my rollin’ machine.”)
  • “Can’t Seem to Make You Mine” (“You fly around like a bee, hurtin’ everything you see.”)

Shit, maybe I do need the rest of their albums.

My sad postscript to this piece: Sky Saxon played a gig at Red’s Scoot Inn here in Austin just a few weeks ago. I wanted to go but for one reason or another I didn’t end up making it. See the artists you love when you can, because you never know.

Rest in peace, Sky Saxon.

The Seeds – “Pushin’ Too Hard”

The Seeds – “Can’t Seem to Make You Mine” (Sound quality is not the best, but I couldn’t resist this great American Bandstand archival footage, and sound quality isn’t so important with garage rock anyway. You can hear the studio version here.)

The Seeds – “The March of the Flower Children”

*The New Rolling Stone Record Guide, which also notes that “Sky Saxon’s world view was limited to two subjects–sex and drugs.” Based on his music, that’s only a slight exaggeration.

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Michael Jackson’s musical legacy, or, what if Thriller hadn’t sold?

June 26, 2009

What if Thriller had only sold moderately? And what if Michael Jackson had then retired?

Why do I ask these questions? Because one thing that has disappointed me about the coverage of Michael Jackson’s death to date is that I haven’t heard anyone seriously discuss his musical legacy as music. The undercurrent (and often the overcurrent) of the coverage is that the grief is because of Michael Jackson’s huge cultural impact. That’s no doubt true, but people are also mourning the loss of a brilliant artist.

In this piece, I hope to demonstrate that Michael Jackson’s music was respected as much more than just catchy pop songs before Michael Jackson, the kid from the Jackson 5 gone solo, became Michael Jackson, the cultural icon. In doing so, I want to show that he would have had a significant legacy among music lovers even without all the trappings.

To make my case, I draw on some outside sources from before Thriller became the biggest-selling album of all time. My sources are The New Rolling Stone Record Guide from 1983 (Thriller was released at the tail end of 1982), and critic Robert Christgau of the Village Voice, who has most of his original reviews posted at his website.

The Jackson 5

The Jackson 5 were on Motown records, and, with few exceptions, Motown albums were made with a hits-and-filler approach, so the anthologies are what are important here.

Rolling Stone gives both anthologies available in 1983 five stars, its highest rating. Robert Christgau isn’t quite as impressed, grading one, Anthology, a B+, and the other, Greatest Hits, an A-. Nevertheless, he singles out “I Want You Back,” “ABC,” and “The Love You Save,” as “three of the greatest radio ups ever,” and calls “Never Can Say Goodbye” and “I’ll Be There” “good ones [ballads].”

Five stars? Three of the greatest ever? A pretty good start, there.

The Jacksons

After leaving Motown, the Jackson 5 (minus Jermaine) moved to Epic Records as the Jacksons. After a shaky start, the Jacksons released two critically-acclaimed albums, Destiny (1978) and Triumph (1980), which bookended MJ’s Off the Wall (1979).

Rolling Stone gives both albums four stars. Robert Christgau grades Destiny a B+ and Triumph an A-.

Not bad for a transitional stage.

Michael Jackson

About Off the Wall, critic Dave Marsh (Rolling Stone’s reviewer) writes:

Nothing, not even his groundbreaking work with his family, quite prepared the world for Off the Wall, a masterpiece of modern record making. Jackson’s voice–adolescent breathiness crowding maturity–was the perfect vehicle for music that broke down stylistic and conceptual barriers with casual cool. Off the Wall features disco beat and rock guitar, soul intensity and good-time jive, a triumphant merger of the mechanical and the spiritual…Off the Wall is unquestionably one of the most important records of the past decade.

Robert Christgau grades Off the Wall an A, and calls it “the dance groove of the year.”

Well, what about Thriller? Rolling Stone again rates it five stars, and Dave Marsh writes, “Jackson topped himself–or came close–with Thriller,” and remarks that it is “compulsively listenable and seems destined to be as popular and influential as Off the Wall.” Well, you were close on that last one!

And to top it all off? “[Michael Jackson] is now in the very top rank of rock artists measured from the beginning.”

(Christgau’s review of Thriller was written after the album was already huge, so it doesn’t count for the purposes of this piece. For the record, he also grades it an A.)

So there you have it–a journey back in time, and a look at what Michael Jackson’s musical legacy would have been had Thriller sold moderately and MJ then retired. To wit:

  • Many classic singles with the Jackson 5.
  • Two respected transitional albums with the Jacksons.
  • Two solo albums hailed as classics not in retrospect but upon release.

A fine legacy indeed, even without superstardom.

The groundbreaking videos, smashing MTV’s color barrier, the dance moves, the posters, the hysteria induced among fans, the stage shows–these are all important elements of Michael Jackson’s legacy, and I share in them to some degree.

But to me, Michael Jackson’s legacy is his music. And it would have been a brilliant and beautiful legacy even if the rest had never happened.

The Jacksons – “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)”

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Michael Jackson – “Ben”

June 26, 2009

I’m really glad I found this video on Youtube.  Someone has posted the vocal track only of a young Michael Jackson performing “Ben,” a touching song about a boy and his pet rat.  Without the music, it becomes incredibly apparent how vocally gifted Jackson was even as a boy.  If you can listen to this today without getting a tear in your eye (especially right around the two minute mark), you just may have no soul. 

Michael Jackson – “Smooth Criminal”

June 26, 2009

I will argue that this song is the absolute best post-Thriller song that Michael Jackson ever wrote.  Discuss.

The Jackson 5 – “I’ll Be There”

June 25, 2009

The first in what will be a series of posts (assuming the record companies allow these videos to stay up) in tribute to the biggest celebrity that this world has ever known, the late Michael Jackson.  He’s one of the very few artists in the world whose musical legacy will always outshine any of the sad, horrible, and insane aspects of his much-discussed private life.  The man, and the boy, was a musical god who changed the landscape of popular music forever, and nothing will ever erase that.  RIP, Michael.  Your music will live on forever.

Fellow On Deaf Ears bloggers:  Please feel free to contribute your favorite Jackson songs.

Michael Jackson is Dead

June 25, 2009

After a few sketchy reports within the last 45 minutes. It’s being confirmed by multiple reports that Michael Jackson, The King of Pop is dead at age 50 after being rushed to UCLA Medical Center in a deep coma as a result of sudden cardiac arrest. As of right now, the most extensive information is being updated by the LA Times.

Update (GW): We have an in-person report from the memorial service here. We also have a look back at MJ’s musical legacy.

Album Review: The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart

June 24, 2009

It seems like the biggest buzz phrase in indie rock right now is “lo-fi noise pop.”  Bands from all over the globe are incorporating feedback and fuzz in ways not seen since the heyday of groups like My Bloody Valentine and The Jesus and Mary Chain.  What I find most interesting about this trend is the way that different bands choose to employ this technique.  Some, such as No Age, A Place To Bury Strangers, and Wavves, take the noise to extreme levels, at times seriously obscuring the songs that lay underneath.  Others, like Glasvegas and the Vivian Girls, use a lighter touch when peppering their songs with noise, choosing to use the sound as window dressing rather than an all out assault on the senses.  Somewhere in between these two extremes lay New York band The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart.

Right from the beginning of their self-titled debut album, TPOBPAH (abbreviated for the sake of carpal tunnel) greet the listener with a brief and light squall of feedback before launching into opening number “Contender.”  The fuzz persists throughout the song, but not so much that it overpowers the surprisingly sweet pop melody underneath  It’s a pretty little song, and a perfect introduction to what TPOBPAH do.  TPOBPAH frequently combine upbeat, jangly guitar pop with depressing lyrics, creating simple, tight power pop in the vein of the great alternative acts of the late 80′s.  At times reminiscent of The Cure, the Smiths, or Echo and The Bunnymen, TPOBPAH can also recall some heavier acts like the aforementioned MBV and J&MC, especially towards the end of the album on tracks like the rollicking stomp of “Hey Paul” and the anthemic grandiosity of album closer “Gentle Sons.”  Interestingly, some of the songs, like “Young Adult Friction” and “This Love Is Fucking Right!”, could also pass for fuzzed out emo hits by more recent bands like Death Cab For Cutie or Bright Eyes.

After having trotted out the myriad influences that TPOBPAH wear on their sleeves with no shame, I would not be surprised if anyone reading this review thinks that this band must be incredibly derivative and unoriginal.  In the hands of a lesser band, this may be true, but what allows TPOBPAH to overcome being tagged as a just another knock off band is their consistently strong songwriting and gift for melody.  There is not a clunker of a song on this album.  The only misstep I can think of is the admittedly awkward lyrics found in the chorus of “A Teenager In Love”:  “You don’t need a friend when you’re/a teenager in love with Christ and heroin.”  Yikes.  Also at issue is the slightly affected faux-British vocals of lead singer Kip Berman, but it works well enough in context considering the source material from which the band is drawing.

Noise pop is all the rage right now, and sifting through all of the bands saddled with that label can be a daunting task.  Often bands can hit or miss in this genre as each wrestles with using too much noise or not enough.  The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart have found what feels like the perfect balance of upbeat rhythms, melancholy lyrics, and background fuzz to not only pay proper respect the the bands that pioneered the sound in the 80′s, but also to establish an identity for themselves as a great pop act with an ear for melody.  This is a fun album from a talented young band.

The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart – “Stay Alive”

It Might Get Loud

June 21, 2009

I really, really, really need to see this movie.  I have always had a fascination with the guitar as an instrument.  I bought an acoustic from a pawn shop in Beaumont, Texas back in 2002, and I just recently bought my very first electric.  I love music on so many different levels, and I had a burning need to step away from the sidelines and create something of my own.  I have no designs on becoming a rock star or even being in a band.  I just want to make music.  Some people want to paint, some want to knit, I just want to rock.

I had never heard about the movie It Might Get Loud before stumbling upon the trailer on the intarwebbernets, but even the very limited glimpse that is given in the trailer makes me infinitely curious and excited about what these three musicians will create when they get together.  Jimmy Page, The Edge, and Jack White getting together in one room with their guitars sounds pretty close to heaven, and I’m stoked to see the result.  I hope that this comes to the Alamo Draft House so that I can drink some beers while I sit back and soak in the awesomeness.  Bring it!

Some observations:

1.  Does Jack White belong in this group?   Sure, he’s a mean player, but I’m not sure.  I guess the filmmakers are trying to pull together three different generations of guitarists, so it makes sense, but I don’t know that I would put Jack quite up there with Page and The Edge.

2.  On a similar note, does The Edge belong here?  He has a very distinctive sound that’s all his own, but how insane would it have been to see Eddie Van Halen take his place?

3.  Wow, Jimmy Page is looking old.

4.  All criticisms aside, this movie is still going to be incredible, and it just might change the way I look at the guitar.

Happy Father’s Day! “The Last Farewell” by Roger Whittaker

June 21, 2009

My father is not much of a music listener, and the music he does listen to reflects his love of history more than anything else (he’s a history professor).

This means that the music I heard on childhood road trips was a bit…odd. I know more Civil War ballads than people double or even triple my age have any right to know. I knew all of Johnny Horton’s historical songs, but didn’t hear most of his country and rockabilly material until I sought it out myself at a later age. And I heard a lot of Roger Whittaker.

This number popped into my head today, probably because I was thinking of my father. Prior to digging it up, I hadn’t heard it for around twenty-five years.

Listening to it again, it’s a great song, utterly undermined by over-the-top production and a vocal that can be charitably described as corny. Someone ought to do a minimalist interpretation. Why does Johnny Cash have to be dead?

The King also did a version of this song. It’s better, but still overproduced.

Anyway, here ya go.

Roger Whittaker – “The Last Farewell”

Love you, Pops. Happy Father’s Day.

Happy Blogiversary to Us!

June 19, 2009

One year today!

Thanks to all of our readers.

Album Review: Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest

June 18, 2009

It’s been a busy year for me so far, and as a result, my music blogging has regrettably fallen by the wayside.  Planning for and finally getting married, family health problems, home maintenance and various “honey-do” tasks that go along with that, etc.  All this has led up to not only the neglect of writing about new music, but also taking the time to seek out and listen to it.  It also hasn’t helped that, of the small number of albums that I was able to squeeze in over the last six months, not many have really impressed me enough to get back into the swing of blogging.  I have a big backlog now that I am committing myself to slogging through, and not all of it is great.  However, there have been a slew of recent releases that have finally given me that familiar tingly feeling again, and sharing the joy of these records is renewing my spark for listening to and writing about music.

Of the few records of 2009 that I have been able to digest, by far the best is Grizzly Bear’s Veckatimest.  Their 2006 effort Yellow House was a great record, but there were moments of that album that felt like a lot of work just to appreciate.  As a result, Yellow House was a difficult but rewarding album that took a very long time to earn the massive praise that I am able to give it now.  Veckatimest, on the other hand, is an immediately listenable, enjoyable, and impressive feat, stuffed full of pop hooks and creative exploration in sound.  Right from the get go with album opener “Southern Point,” Grizzly Bear begin their slightly skewed exploration of pop music.  The acoustic guitar strums are matched by shuffling drums and the occasional exclamatory timpani, and the soaring background vocals bring to mind an AM radio classic with a modern twist.  Up next is “Two Weeks,” one of the standout tracks on the album and evidence of Grizzly Bear’s amazing pop sensibilities.  The bouncy piano stabs oddly recall Jay-Z’s “Hard Knock Life” (good luck finding anyone else who would draw that comparison!), but the swelling chorus buoyed by ethereal backing vocals is where the song truly comes alive.  Great moments abound on this record, such as the build and eventual synth and guitar dream pop release of “Ready, Able” or the choir vocals of “I Live With You.”  But Grizzly Bear haven’t lost the quirks that made Yellow House such a challenging listen.  “Dory” is an engaging experiment in underwater songwriting, and “Hold Still” is a meandering trip that also recalls some of Yellow House‘s more difficult moments.  In reality, there is so much to hear on this record, and each listen seems to reveal new twists and turns, not unlike Yellow House, but much more easily digestible.

One of the more noticable things about Veckatimest is the trade off between Ed Droste and Daniel Rossen, who share almost equal vocal duties on the album.  It becomes clear that, while Grizzly Bear began as Droste’s band, they have evolved into a more cohesive group, and this has only increased their ability to craft meticulously gorgeous songs.  I realize that I still have a whole pile of albums to sort through, but I’m glad I chose this one as one of my first forays back into new music.  Veckatimest has made me excited about the music of 2009, and I am fully recharged and ready for the rest.  My only fear is that none of the records awaiting my critical ear will be able to top what Grizzly Bear have created with this fine album.  Will this be my top album of 2009?  We shall see.

Grizzly Bear – “Two Weeks”


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