RIP, Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse

March 7, 2010

Mark Linkous, prolific recording artist and main force behind the band Sparklehorse, has died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at the age of 47.  Details can be found here.

Here’s “Please Don’t Take My Sunshine Away” from Sparklehorse’s great 2006 album Dreamt For Light Years In The Belly Of A Mountain.

Sparklehorse – “Please Don’t Take My Sunshine Away”

Album Review: Surfer Blood – Astro Coast

February 25, 2010

The debut album of Florida band Surfer Blood absolutely rocks my shit.  There, it’s been said.  If you don’t wanna hang around for the rest of this review, that’s probably for the best, and unless you suffer from poor reading comprehension skills, that first sentence tells you that you should have immediately abandoned this review after reading said sentence, knocking over your crusty computer chair in a mad dash to grab your car keys and fly to your nearest record store to purchase Astro Coast.  Barring that, if you are one of them digital-type persons, you should have at least furiously aggravated your carpal tunnel in the rush to download this album from your nearest legal purveyor of digital music.  Seriously, are you still reading this?  Go on, you can come back later to have your feelings validated about how kick ass of a record this is.  Don’t worry, I’ll be here.

Oh, back so soon?  Well, at this point, you may have given this record one or two spins, and maybe you’re thinking, “That Jason guy from the computer is wack!  This album has yet to change my life in any profound manner.  What a dick!”  Well, stick with it, friend.  I myself had to give this record several spins before I realized what a jewel I had on my hands, and it took me even longer to realize just what Surfer Blood had created:  a perfect pastiche of all of the good things that have happened in indie rock since the late 80’s.

With every spin of Astro Coast, I hear a new glorious influence from some titan of indie rock.  Here’s a list of influences that I have spotted so far:  Pavement, Dinosaur Jr., Built To Spill, the Shins, early Weezer, the Pixies, Vampire Weekend (although Surfer Blood derives their influence from the Tropicalia sound moreso than West African rhythms), Modest Mouse, Sonic Youth, Secaucus-era Wrens, Fugazi, etc.  Oh yeah, and throw a little Beach Boys in there, too.  If that list looks as awesome to you as it does to me, then please purchase this record.  Personally, it almost seems to me like someone interviewed me about what my favorite indie rock bands were, and then they proceeded to make an album based on those suggestions.

In addition to the bands mentioned above, Surfer Blood shares a lot sonically with now defunct Austin band Sound Team.  But while Sound Team were criticized (most notably by Pitchfork) for being pretentious, there is not an ounce of pretension to be found on Astro Coast.  This is guitar pop, pure and simple, and there is a simple little lead guitar run at the end of late album track “Anchorage” that summarizes everything I love about this album and good indie rock in general.  Put it on, nod your head, and have a blast with this great new album.

Surfer Blood – “Twin Peaks”

Surfer Blood – “Swim”

RIP Jimmy Lee Lindsey Jr., aka Jay Reatard (May 1, 1980 – January 13, 2010)

January 13, 2010

News came down today that Jay Reatard has passed away at the tender age of 29.  Reatard was a controversial figure in rock, not just because of his name, but also his on and offstage antics, which involved picking fights with his audiences and firing his whole band at will, among others.  However, Jay was a truly prolific artist who released tons of material, whether as a solo artist or member of tons of other bands.  And it all just kept getting better and better.  The man was surely in the prime of his artistic life, releasing killer song after song (many later released as singles compilations) and two brilliant solo albums (2006’s Blood Visions and 2009’s Watch Me Fall).  It’s a shame to lose such a promising talent so young, and many rock fans will be left to wonder what greatness they have missed out on with his passing.

I only dedicated one short blog post to Jay Reatard back in 2008, but I aim to correct that soon.  Watch this space for posthumous reviews of each of his solo albums as well as his singles compilations.  RIP, Jay.  To quote one of your song titles, “Oh, it’s such a shame.”

Jay Reatard – “Always Wanting More”

That Ain’t Country: “Sara Smile” by Jimmy Wayne

January 11, 2010

The sad state of what is now considered to be popular country music is a topic of much ire for me, a subject which I have touched upon a few times on this blog, most notably here.  The girlfriend/fiancee mentioned in that particular post and others is now my wife, and she still holds the same baffling predilection for country radio.  Therefore I hear modern country radio on a daily basis, whether I like it or not (definitely not).  There have been a few gems encountered amongst the soul-crushing crap, such as this still respected song by the Randy Rogers Band, but for the most part, it’s all hideous pop masquerading as country music (I’m looking at you, Taylor Swift/Lady Antebellum!).  Dress up any old pop tune with a  drop of fiddle here, a pinch of mandolin there, maybe a dash of banjo, and you now have the recipe for what passes as country music.

So I was sitting at the breakfast table a few weeks back, trying as hard as possible to block out the stream of Country Top 40 crap blaring out at me at way too early in the morning for such things, when I noticed that what I was listening to at that particular moment was even less country than usual!  In fact, it almost sounded like… R&B?  “Wait,” I thought to myself, “Why in the hell are they playing Hall and Oates on a country station?”  I would soon come to find out that I was not in fact listening to Hall and Oates (although they apparently assisted with this version), but instead to a “country” artist named Jimmy Wayne.

Now, I have been somewhat shocked to hear in recent years that Hall and Oates somehow have the respect and admiration of the current hipster community.  Not the most expected fanbase for them, I would think, but what do I know?  I myself have never been much of a fan of any of their music outside of “She’s Gone,” which admittedly is a great tune. Some of their other 70’s material is listenable, and their 80’s material is downright lame, but “Sara Smile” has always been such a non-entity of a song to me.  It’s got a similar blue-eyed Philly soul template to “She’s Gone,”  but it has always seemed to have such a watered down flavor, lacking in that authenticity that “She’s Gone” captures so well.  No shocker that it was the song that put the group on the map.  Watered-down-whiteboy-AM-soul music in the 70’s?  “Yes, please!” screamed audiences.

“Sara Smile” by Hall and Oates

Then there’s this cover by Jimmy Wayne.  What is added to this cover?  What distinguishes it from the original?  The smattering of banjo and fiddle is just barely even there, just enough to give someone the opportunity to justify its place on country radio.  Admittedly, Jimmy Wayne sings this song well, perhaps even better than Daryl Hall, but who cares?  This song bores the crap out of me, and the cover is even more unecessary than the original.

“Sara Smile” by Jimmy Wayne (featuring Daryl Hall and John Oates)

If you have never heard Mr. Wayne’s cover of this song before and this is your first listen, please explain to me how this song fits on modern country radio?  It’s not as insipid or blatantly ridiculous as Taylor Swift’s Avril-Lavigne-with-a-fiddle act, but do we really want our country stations to move in the AM Gold direction after already losing the country airwaves to tweener pop?  I guess at this point, it doesn’t matter.  Country and pop have become one, and there’s no stopping it, especially since this stuff is vastly outselling the other musical genres.

However, in regards to this Jimmy Wayne song, I will paraphrase David Allen Coe and say, “If that’s country, I’ll kiss your ass.”

Jeff Mangum (Neutral Milk Hotel) live clips

November 20, 2009

Merge Records has unearthed and posted a couple of video clips to Youtube of reclusive Neutral Milk Hotel frontman Jeff Mangum performing a couple of songs in NYC in 1998, presumably before he reportedly had a mental breakdown and (more or less) completely withdrew from the music world.  He looks a little crazy in the videos, especially the one for “Two-Headed Boy,” but they are both great performances. 

If you happen to have never heard their 1998 album In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, do yourself a favor and find it.   It’s one of those records that was so incredibly ahead of its time that it still sounds surprising and incredibly fresh today.  I’ve had it for years, and I still notice new things practically every time I listen.  Cheers!

“Two-Headed Boy”

“April 8th”

Free Live Pixies EP in Honor of The 20th Anniversary of Doolittle!

November 9, 2009

The Pixies have a link on their website where, if you enter a valid email address, you will be sent a link to download a free live four song EP of the Pixies performing cuts from Doolittle in honor of that album’s 20th anniversary.  The recording quality is actually pretty excellent.  The songs included are “Dancing The Manta Ray”, “Monkey Gone To Heaven”, “Crackity Jones”, and “Gouge Away.”  Click the link below and then click “DOWNLOAD FREE LIVE EP” if interested.

RIP , Mary Travers, Jim Carroll, and Patrick Swayze

September 17, 2009

The summer of 2009 has seen an unusual amount of high-profile celebrity deaths.

Mary Travers of Peter, Paul, and Mary passed away yesterday at 72 after a long battle with leukemia. 

Peter, Paul, and Mary – “Blowin’ in the Wind”

Jim Carroll, poet, musician, and author of The Basketball Diaries, passed away last Friday of a heart attack.  He was 59.

Jim Carroll Band – “People Who Died”

Actor, dancer, heartthrob, and occasional singer Patrick Swayze succumbed to pancreatic cancer at the age of 57.

Patrick Swayze – “She’s Like the Wind”

Album Review: fun. – Aim and Ignite

September 13, 2009

New York-based band fun. have released their debut record, Aim and Ignite, and I am an unabashed fan (thanks, Kirsten, for the heads up!).  Formed by Nate Ruess, previously the lead singer of The Format, fun. shares some of the unabashed pop sensibilities of that band.  However, as opposed to the straight up guitar power pop of The Format, fun. takes things in an outlandish direction of magnified sugar and, well, fun.  Pulling out all the stops, Ruess channels Freddie Mercury at almost every turn, and the arrangements of the songs at times veer from A Night at the Opera on speed to Caribbean-tinged bounce to sweet, symphonic strings liberally garnished with Sgt. Pepper-style horns.  The most obvious comparison that will inevitably be made here is with The Darkness, as fun. shares the same tongue in cheek throwback style, but none of it really ever comes off as an act like The Darkness often did for me. 

Opening track “Be Calm” is anything but what the title suggests, and it’s one of the better lead-off tracks I’ve heard on an album in quite some time.  The song begins with a quite beautiful string and accordion intro before Ruess breaks in with his faux-classical vocals.  What follows is a wild four minute ride of shifting tempos and some pretty incredible vocal turns from Ruess, as well as the aforementioned horn.  When the electric guitar kicks in, the song really takes flight, taking the listener on a manic ride as Ruess sings about paranoia (The beggars near bodegas grin at me/I think they want something/I close my eyes, I tell myself to breathe).   “All The Pretty Girls” is the most straight forward rock song here, and the Queen comparisons here are apt (in no way is that meant as a negative; I love Queen!).  The heavily overdubbed backing vocals are reminiscent of “Killer Queen” and “Bohemian Rhapsody”, but the melody itself is also reminiscent of the underrated early 90’s band Jellyfish.  Another obvious standout is “At Least I’m Not As Sad (As I Used To Be)”, an incredibly catchy and childlike song that copies the melody of a playground taunt as Ruess sings about abandoning friends and lovers in his relentless pursuit of the rock (I don’t keep friends,I keep acquainted).

I can absolutely see fun. as a love them or hate them kind of band, just as The Darkness were before them.  It’s difficult for a band to make such unapologetically bombastic pop songs without experiencing at least some measure of backlash.  However, there is a depth to fun.’s songs, a sincerity and underlying emotion in their lyrics, that belies a band with more than just a gimmick behind their sound.  This is further demonstrated on some of Aim and Ignite‘s quieter tracks, such as “The Gambler” and “Light A Roman Candle With Me.”  These tracks are driven by not much more than Ruess’s vocals and a piano, and they manage to convey both playfulness and maturity at the same moment, indicating that there just might be more to fun. than their band name implies.

**UPDATE** - Apparently Roger Joseph Manning, Jr., the former keyboardist for Jellyfish, is responsible for the arrangements on Aim and Ignite, so I guess my Jellyfish comparison was apt.  The Jellyfish influence can be heard throughout the album.

fun. – “Be Calm”

fun. – “At Least I’m Not As Sad (As I Used To Be)”

Album Review: hyperstory – hyperstory

September 10, 2009

hyperstory-coverhyperstory is the moniker adopted by L.A. musician C. Scott Blevins for his self-titled debut album.  The album was recorded over two years in multiple locations and includes guest performances by many musicians.  Blevins himself performs guitar on the album and is responsible for the arrangements and sampling work.

The album has a promising beginning, with the too brief instrumental intro “Prelude” adopting a dusty western theme with a lonesome whistler and a hazy desert vibe.   Unfortunately, this Calexico-like track only lasts for less than a minute and is not fully explored.  The first proper song on the record is the single “A Happening,” an engaging and fairly simple pop tune with a few nice ideas, such as the childlike “la la la la” call and response midway through.  It has a kind of Fastball/Spoon feel that is always appealing to this Austinite.  The major misstep in this song occurs when Blevins appends a repetitive, almost two minute coda that stretches what should be a three minute pop song past the five minute mark.  The same problem is repeated later on “”Will It Ever Change”, but this track stumbles even further with its verse melody that almost outright copies “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.”  Only two other tracks on the album, “Something Good” and”A Reckoning”, contain vocals, and none match up to the catchiness of “A Happening”, although “A Reckoning” does have an admittedly hooky chorus. 

At first, I felt that this release would perhaps have worked better as an EP, since only four of the nine songs contain vocals, but since Blevins isn’t a singer, I had to re-examine it as a release from a musician.  Even from this standpoint, I feel the same way since the instrumental tracks add nothing to the record.  “Ascension” is basically a throwback theme to a 70’s cop show without any hint of an updated take on the material.  The instrumentation and arrangement are fine, but what is it doing on this album?  The same goes for the closing track, the appropriately titled “End Story”, which is an ambient whistling chillout that at least seems less out of place than “Ascension”, but still doesn’t add any value to the album as a whole.  There are also two inexplicable tracks that contain no music at all.  One is a rant from an apparent street preacher, and the other is literally a person walking up a flight of stairs, then unlocking and opening an apartment door.  So upon further review, even without removing the instrumentals, there are only six full tracks.  Should have been an EP.

hyperstory will be released on November 10, 2009.

hyperstory – “A Happening”

Album Review: Throw Me the Statue – Creaturesque

September 4, 2009

Seattle band Throw Me the Statue are a difficult band to classify.  Sure, there’s the catch-all “indie pop” label that could easily be applied, but that’s not the classification I am talking about.  This band is a chameleon, and their latest effort, Creaturesque, is one hell of a shapeshifter of a record.  Opening track “Waving At The Shore,” with its bouncy melody and horns, immediately recalls The Cure’s “Close To Me.”  The shuffling psychedelia of “Tag” and the bouncy pop of “Dizzy From The Fall” are dead ringers for The Shins.  “Ancestors” is a great (if slightly out of fashion) imitation of a Joy Division/Interpol song, with lead singer Scott Reitherman sounding eerily like Ian Curtis at points.  Deliciously sugary guitar tune “Hi-Fi Goon” unabashedly copies the style of fellow northwesterners Built to Spill, throwing in a bit of Blur and Pavement for good measure.  Before the album’s close, we also have what sound like dead-on imitations of Beck in his Mutations/Sea Change acoustic mode (“Baby, You’re Bored”) and Neil Young (“Shade For A Shadow”).  These are all pretty impeccable influences to have, and it’s understandable when a band makes obvious reference to the groups that inspired them.  However, Throw Me the Statue haven’t yet found a way to blend together the elements of their influences into a cohesive or defining sound of their own.  The result is a collection of songs that sound like individual tributes to other bands rather than ones that build an identity for their creators.

That said, you may be shocked to read that I really enjoy this album.  Reitherman sure as hell knows how to write a hook.  Each of these songs stands on its own in terms of songwriting, and the result is akin to a really great mix tape.  Reitherman’s lyrics are fragmentary and not easily decipherable, but most of the songs and Reitherman’s vocal delivery have a laid-back, hippie vibe, giving the record a great summer feel.  Aside from the aforementioned “Hi-Fi Goon,” the other stand out track on Creaturesque comes when Throw Me the Statue take a step away from their influences and create something entirely their own on closing track “The Outer Folds.”  The song kicks off with a soft, walking drum beat, which is then greeted with a lazy but engaging keyboard hook before giving way to Reitherman’s chill out vocals and a dreamy chorus.  The resulting product is perfect for a lazy summer day floating on the river or lounging in the sun.  With Creaturesque, Throw Me the Statue have remained a bit too chained to their myriad influences, but even the obvious imitations are put together with enough talent and intelligence to still make up a highly enjoyable summer album.  It won’t change your life, but so what?  What is this, a Zach Braff movie?

Throw Me the Statue will be playing with Brunettes at the Mohawk in Austin on 9/11/09.  If you don’t go to this show, the terrorists have won.

Throw Me the Statue – “Hi-Fi Goon”

Throw Me the Statue – “Ancestors”

The Greatest KISS song ever!

September 3, 2009

This is without a doubt the best KISS song I have ever heard.  Hands down!

I promise another real post tomorrow.  Sorry for slacking!

Album Review: Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix

August 17, 2009

I really don’t know very much about French pop music outside of Serge Gainsbourg/Brigitte Bardot and Alizée (the latter for hotness factor alone; I couldn’t even hum one of her songs).  But a prerequisite in French pop is not necessary to listen to and enjoy the latest record by French band Phoenix, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix.  Indeed, if their press didn’t constantly mention their Frenchiness, I would have never known they were French at all.  French.

In their album title and in the title of the lead-off track (“Lisztomania”), Phoenix reference an 18th and 19th century composer, respectively, one considerably more famous than the other.  However, Franz Liszt was one of the first pop stars of his time, greeted at concerts by squealing women in an age where such things were uncommon.  So, what do these two composers have to do with this record?  That’s a difficult question to answer.  While the lyrics of all of the songs are in English, their brief, fragmented statements do not easily reveal an underlying meaning apart from some common themes of past, present, and future.  Looking to the music may be the best way to discern the meaning behind the references.  Mozart was a rigid perfectionist, and some of that comes out in the meticulously produced pop of Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix.  Phoenix have crafted obsessively arranged little pop tunes in which each stacatto piano or synth piece weaves intricately into the accompanying guitar stabs, bouncy drum rhythms, and vocal yelps of frontman Thomas Mars.  It’s those same yelps that seem to point towards the Liszt reference.  Liszt was known in particular for his fiery interpretations of Mozart’s songs, among others, consciously adding his own emotions and disregarding classicist formality to make an impact with his audience.  Viewed in that respect, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix comes off as a philosophical exercise in striking the balance between tradition and growth, reason and emotion, respect and fame.  Phoenix themselves have evolved through several different identities since their 2000 debut.  This record appears to be their approximation of making music that remains respectable to purists while still making an effort to break into the mainstream.  Of course, I could be wrong about all of that.

Overall, this is a good record, and it contains many enjoyable songs, with “Lisztomania”, “1901”, and “Lasso” being the standouts.  However, it seems to me that the meticulous structure of the songs wins out a little bit over the emotion, making for fun but slightly mechanical pop that is easy to respect and enjoy, but not quite as easy to fall in love with.

Phoenix – “1901”


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