Tuesday, December 13, 2011

2011 in 3000: André Benjamin's Year In Guest Verses

2011 was André 3000's most active year since 2006--not that he ever disappeared completely. In this extra-stank Critical Beatdown, your hosts take you through 2011 in 3000

"Dedication To My Ex (Miss That)," Lloyd feat. Lil Wayne and André 3000

NS: I love the exuberant buoyancy of this jam in full, and Andre's verse is just the virtuosic icing on the cake. There are some rappers--Kurupt and Styles P come to mind--who are uniquely capable of going hard on an extended metaphor for bar after bar, and Dre demonstrates that same type of focused dynamism here, wedding Lloyd's basic thesis (hint--he says it in the chorus) to some amusingly lucid car metaphors. Favorite line: "What, why so quiet?/Hate that all our memories happen in a Hyatt?" I think that's what the kids today call an "epic burn." 5/5

AM: Lloyd's retro-soul joint features negligible ad-libs from Weezy, along with a lead vocal that you will likely regard has either humorously pained or horrifyingly sexist. The tune is colorful edging on chintzy. André's verse stands out, of course. But his rap, ostensibly about the same lady Lloyd's worked up over, is minor André--this ex isn't as vivid as Sasha Thumper or Ms. Jackson. 4/5

"I Do," Young Jeezy feat Jay-Z and André 3000
NS: How many rappers out there can follow Jay-Z with reliably superior wordplay? Whereas Jay's verbiage rarely ventures outside the confines of normative hip-hop posturing, Dre breaks into an almost expressionistic sing-rap, more a tangle of feelings and associations than straightahead storytelling, in the best imagistic tradition. Surreal stuff, and I am fascinated by how he keeps talking into the outro about his hypothetically "nerdy" future daughter. 4/5

AM: This one first made the rounds pre-2011 as an uncompleted André track. The subject matter--and soul-soaked beat--inspires comparisons to a certain earth-shatteringly good Dre guest verse, but so be it: 3000 is at that level here. Insane technical control, with the vocal and lyrical flights of fancy that make him so compelling. That he clearly did this all in one take--listen for his breathing--makes "I Do" even more amazing. 5/5

"The Real Her," Drake feat. Lil Wayne and André 3000
NS: Take Care put me to sleep, and the mottled non-beat of "The Real Her" is fairly indicative of that album's lugubrious tendencies. Even Lil Wayne fails to rise above the material, which makes the transition to the Andre verse at 4:14 all the more unexpected. The drab tonelessness of Drake's autotuned meanderings gives way to a 3000's day-glo nightmare of insomniac thrillseekers and backstabbing strippers, tinged with a David Lynch sense of creeping, formless dread. Odd modifiers like "quote-on-quote bad bitches" stick to the mind, emblematic of the throwaway rhetorical flourishes that make a 3000 verse so distinctive. For a closer lyrical analysis, I highly recommend this article. 5/5

AM: Rapping in stop-start bursts that mimic the beat's pitch bending, Dre runs laps around the competition. Wayne is lazy but engaging, but that's 2011 Model Weezy F for you. And Drake makes us suffer through not one but two of his verses. Though it ends on an uncharacteristically venomous note, 3000 is the reason I've made it through this overlong track so many times. 4.5/5

"Interlude," Lil Wayne feat. Tech N9ne and André 3000
NS: 3 Stacks and Tech N9Ne make a not-surprisingly good tag team. This highlight of Tha Carter IV doesn't even feature Lil Wayne, but with such regal musings from messrs. 3000 and N9ne, who even needs "the greatest rapper alive"? Beautiful bits of elevated wordplay worm their way through 3 Stacks' short verse--"Today I feel electric gray, I hope tomorrow neon black," he begins, like a fashion terrorist from the future, going on to condense everything from the stars in Cairo "like marbles" to another classic 3000 trope--philosophic musings in "wild party" settings. No one else in rap writes with such sensitivity to the depth and evocative flexibility of language than Andre 3000, and this is another verse that proves it. 5/5

AM: A Carter IV track that features no contribution from Lil Wayne, and a fierce verse from Tech N9ne. 3000 rarely raps on beats as abrasive as this one, but his brief contribution is ace--hard, but weird too. 4/5

"Party," Beyoncé feat. André 3000
NS: Though he doesn't always care to show it, Andre 3000 can be a blisteringly fast rapper, making him well-suited to the high-BPM party stylings of Beyonce's 4 (I assume--haven't actually heard the album in full). Note on this verse how Dre manages to pull the trick of sounding subdued and frenzied at the same time--I imagine it takes years for a rapper to develop such a careful modulation of pitch and tone. In this case the content is secondary to the rhythms, although "in the food court, eatin' our gyro" sticks out for some reason. 4/5

AM: This song pulses like an MJ/Quincy Jones track, albeit at a BPM that's far too slow. At least for Beyoncé, who sounds like she's holding back. André, on the other hand, spends half his verse in an effortless doubletime. In his minute, he tries on flows like he does garish outfits, each one fitting him impeccably. 5/5

"Sleazy Remix 2.0 (Get Sleazier)," Ke$ha feat. Wiz Khalifa, André 3000, T.I. and Lil Wayne
NS: The Andre verse here is identical to Ke$ha's last "Sleazy (Remix)" released in January (for those masochists at home keeping track of Dre/Ke$ha collabs). It doesn't have the rhapsodic emotional buildup of his other 2011 verses, particularly once Dre starts repping "this crazy lady named Kesha," but the first part of the verse is a vivid, if brief exploration of one of 3000's most senescent themes--childhood fascination with adult marital discontent. Fascinating stuff, but Ke$ha is still the worst. 2.5/5

AM: Dre's verse appears on a couple remixes of Ke$ha's song. His verse is alright--he imagines rolling around in his Benz with Ke$ha, after mining more heartfelt territory--but less inspired than most of this list. On the December remix, Lil Wayne crosses paths with André for the fourth time, upstaging him for the first. 3.5/5

"Play The Guitar," B.O.B. feat. André 3000
NS: The beat (produced by 3000 himself) lacks impact, and B.o.B. gets everything off to a slow start, but 3 Stacks' tribute to his own six-string travails is touching and relatable for anyone who has ever been a novice guitarist. Dre may have come to the six-string as an adult, but he clearly understands the instrument's elemental force with lines like "if you're mad at dad or mum/you can grab an instrum." 3.5/5

AM: Well, it’s no “Gasoline Dreams.” B.O.B., who is apparently still a working musician, helms this cartoonish joint. He cedes much of the track to Dré, who spits a goofy verse about playing guitar on top of a Church’s Chicken, and respecting your parents (not the fist time he’s sounded that note in 2011). Not a career highlight by any means, but even when 3000 isn’t great, he’s never on autopilot. 3.5/5

Expect some more OutKast-related writing on this blog in the near future. Until then, savor this evidence, from 1994, of Dre's prodigious freestyling skills.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Quality Decline Records

I’ve been thinking about the recently departed R.E.M. lately, and listening to New Adventures In Hi-Fi in particular. It’s not their best work, and my younger self didn’t even have time for “E-Bow The Letter.” For me, it bore the mark of following Monster, a record I once despised. But I like New Adventures, quite a bit actually.

It’s not a record that’s played a part in the R.E.M. obits. It was well-received at the time, though not the commercial success the past three albums had been (all quadruple platinum). It’s been overshadowed because it’s the best album of R.E.M.’s protracted decline—a good album, but certainly a slip in quality from the amazing 1982-1992 period.

In puzzling over New Adventures, I think I’ve identified a new species of album: the Quality Decline Record. I offer this concept to the world of rock writing, to join the taxonomy of Difficult Second Albums, Stripped Down/Back To Basics Records, Sophomore Slumps and so on. What defines a Quality Decline Record?
  • Obviously, the QDR comes amid a decline in an artists' output. It's better than what follows, but it's not what the group's reputation is staked on.
    • In other words, the album is less critically respected than a group's earlier work, or has been reappraised to this status. It might be fingered out--unfairly--but it's not as cred-sapping as other decline-era works.
  • The decline must be protracted. Albums like Speakerboxx/The Love Below or Brighten The Corners aren't followed by long enough declines.
  • The QDR is overshadowed by earlier, more respected albums, and by more commercially successful ones. It's probably not well known to non-fans.
  • It stands out from other, worse decline-period albums.
  • The QDR doesn't spark a rally, or second golden era.
  • A QDR gains extra points for manifesting the qualities that become the band's downfall.
These are general principles, many QDRs may deviate.

For example, I'd peg The Rolling Stones' Black And Blue as a QDR. It follows the 68-72 classic period, is the third consecutive record to fall below that standard, and sees the Stones lazily remaining in their comfort zone (except to chase a trend on the lead single). Yet it's complicated by 1978's Some Girls, a better record, on which the band's reputation is partly staked. Still, Black And Blue isn't critically beloved, is unknown to non-fans, is worse than the groups best, and manifests the qualities that would be the Stones' downfall (allow me to throw Ron Wood into the mix here). It's an overlooked, pretty awesome record. A Quality Decline Record has to be quality, after all.

New Adventures In Hi-Fi is a classic QDR. So are Sly and the Family Stone's Fresh and Michael Jackson's Bad, which in those cases inaugurates each artists' decline. Other QDRs might be more contentious. Does Public Enemy have a QDR? Does Jay-Z? What about Springsteen, New Order or Black Sabbath? I would personally point to Physical Grafitti as a Quality Decline Record, but I think I'm in the minority there. Any number of late eighties and early nineties Prince albums might be considered QDRs.

Artists who had short careers aren't really eligible for this honor. And artists who have had intermittent or near-constant successes frustrate this concept--Neil Young or PJ Harvey, say. Still, I think it's a mildly helpful way of considering certain albums and bodies of work. The albums themselves are also good listens--quality records, without the baggage of classic status. They often feel like discoveries. Favorite QDRs?

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Taking Souvenirs: R.E.M.'s 10 Best Albums

R.E.M. recently called it quits. I can't think of another band who had a decade as incredible as R.E.M.'s first, save for the Beatles (whose decade was only eight years). R.E.M. are one of my favorites, one of the greats. Listening to these records again has been my way of saying goodbye.

1. Murmur (1983)
Peter Buck’s shiny, ringing Rickenbacker paints in faded yellows, buoyed by the most melodic and modest of rhythm sections. The singer doesn't mumble, just pieces together syllables. Murmur exudes aura, and the band's gift was letting us live in it.

2. Life’s Rich Pageant (1986)
A louder, angrier, more engaged and more decipherable band. At least at first—as Pageant unfolds, it wades into sublime waters. Only a handful of records from the 80’s Amerindie scene rival Murmur, but this is one of them.

3. Reckoning (1984)
Murmur's sidelong attack, trained on exuberant and melancholy Americana. A record that traffics in undercurrents--Finster's art captures it well, with titles to match.

4. Chronic Town (1981)
Toss in the Hib-Tone single here. R.E.M. arrived with these urgent, glancingly melodic oddities. They kick off their debut 7” and first EP with their very first pop moves.

5. Out Of Time (1991)
Guitar-pop that doesn’t sound huge, although the band was getting there. R.E.M. went several directions, surveying baroque harmonies, jangle-goof and devastating mandolin.

6. Automatic For The People (1992)
An elegiac procession of tunes, stately even. Stipe commits to each line with fervor, with a range that's surprisingly varied. This is the music you hear when you're lost in thought.

7. Fables Of The Reconstruction (1985)
You have to tear off the kudzu to unearth the brilliant songwriting on Fables, but it’s there. Darker and folksier, still a series of bread-crumbs.

8. Green (1988)
An uneasy mix of straight pop and dirgey folk-rock, of which the band were newly fond. No noticeable concessions to the major label—another fun, frightening colleciton.

9. Document (1987)
Featuring the worst production on a classic R.E.M. record, which neuters Bill Berry's drums. Thankfully, the band's sound had never been this strident before, playing with an ancient bite.

10. New Adventures In Hi-Fi (1996)
Expansive and rarely melodic, these sixty-six minutes of arena alternative sketch a new landscape for the band. R.E.M.’s record for the American West.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Heavy, Man

In the age of 'everyone's a critic,' the vast majority of people are still not critics, and have no pretensions to criticism. No one studies these things, but I imagine most people have little exposure to arts criticism on a daily basis. The most widely-read form of criticism, movie reviews, rarely seem to influence people's behavior. It seems people would rather listen to music than read about it.

This is understandable, but it might help if high-profile criticism was engaging or thoughtful. Things like newspaper and TV arts coverage rarely rise to either of criteria, though. In fact, just this morning I opened the paper to find this interview with (who else) SuperHeavy. It is really, really awful.

So, in order to demonstrate the vapidity of our celebrity press corps, here are some favorites from the SuperHeavy piece. Celebrity interviews aren't the same thing as criticism, but this piece got a lot more space in today's paper than any music reviews, essays or thinkpieces (it was the only music coverage, unless Dancing With The Stars counts). Lest I be accused of picking on Jagger, I'll note that he really did say all these things. Italics are mine.
They had no idea if all the group's members, which include soulful singer-songwriter Joss Stone [?], Oscar-winning composer A.R. Rahman and reggae singer Damian Marley, would even have chemistry.

Dave Stewart: "We just did it because we wanted to do an experiment, and that got developed and more and more developed until in the end, this record appeared." 
Jagger's legend was formed with the Rolling Stones and other successful musical collaborations, but he says none of that can be compared to his experience with SuperHeavy [this is an astounding statement]
Jagger: "Every time you get into a room even with the same people, it is different because people come up with different things."

Jagger: One thing serious [sic] that we did think about, we didn't want people with loads of entourages and that would have too big of egos 
Jagger: I went toasting, we call it, but it is the same thing (as rap). Damian was doing this really good toasting, West Indian rapping, so I thought, "I could do that. It can't be that difficult." It actually was quite difficult. With a bit of practice, it is all right. It is a laugh. 
Jagger: Dave created this whole raison d'etre why we didn't have songs. The raison d'etre for why we didn't have songs was because if we had songs ... people would feel that it wasn't their project as much [contrast with above statement about egos]
Jagger: This is quite conventional so we followed those 
Q: All these musicians working together -- was there sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll?
Jagger: For Joss there was lots of sex (laughs). She is the only woman so she has her pick. That is the sex part.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

R&B Listening Journal, Volume Two

Part one is here.

"Go To Hell," Raphael Saadiq
Saadiq is a production maven--this year's Stone Rollin' sounds brilliant, even when the songs are mediocre--and nowhere is that more apparent than this track. One might expect "Go To Hell" to be dominated by bass, like Curtis Mayfield's dubby "If There's A Hell Below (We're All Going To Go)." And there is some wonderful, rolling bass here. But the treble dominates--"Hell" lifts off as soon as it starts, with its dreamy synths, and continues on an upward trajectory, fueled by strings, horns and backing vocals. Your usual palette, but especially vivid. Nothing invokes hellfire at all, and Saadiq's song soars higher and higher--this is a song that earns the lyric "we need more love in the world today"--until it enters the psychedelic promised land. Norman Whitfield would be proud.

"Muah," Electrik Red
Tricky and The-Dream's girl group project, released around the time of Love Vs. Money, bears the marks of their best work. "Muah" glides along, masking the dozen or so interlocking parts. It's complex, atmospheric music, one of the best productions on How To Be A Lady, Volume 1. And it turns out that female vocals make a lovely accompaniment to this sound, at least as good as Dream's own. The rub's in the lyrics, though. They closely resemble--how to say this--a certain male R&B auteur's idea of female empowerment. If I never hear Binkie spit her verse ("I'm not a freak, I'm not a ho/well I'm lying/but I'm classy though") again, that's fine here.

"Don't Let The Green Grass Fool You," Wilson Pickett
Wilson Pickett was a shouter with a knack for recording in the right places (the Wicked Pickett cut material at golden-era Stax and Muscle Shoals). This 1970 track found him in Philadelphia, working with Gamble and Huff just before their sound got huge. It's one of his sweeter numbers, and Pickett carries it with unusual restraint. The lyrics are a resigned plea, a mature missive from a man whose signature songs typically concern fucking. Pickett sells it though, his vocals a little more nuanced than on "Mustang Sally," even working in a few shouts where he can.

"Last Night Pt. 2," Diddy-Dirty Money
Diddy's Last Train To Paris was totally eclipsed by My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, to the point that critics deemed it only the 153rd best album of 2010. But Sean Combs' latest is quite good--star-studded and grandiose, much like Kanye's opus. Last Train is never so instantly pleasurable as on this bonus track, which Diddy mostly cedes to Dirty Money and co-writer James Fauntleroy (I think). It's a fairly straightforward Prince rip, recalling the drum programming and sparseness of "When Doves Cry" and "If I Was Your Girlfriend." Like those songs, "Last Night," peppers a lover with questions, although the questions aren't as weird in Diddy's song. To amend, "Last Night" drops a chiming, Prince-worthy melody. It's dope.

"I Got Love," Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band
These guys are like Pavement's soul predecessors. Wright and his group jam on some of the loosest grooves ever laid down, forever sounding about to fall apart, behind the beat, and uncertain of what direction to go next. "I Got Love" is no exception to their formula, but this stoned soul number breezes by in a haze of melody and decomposing J.B.'s riffs. "I got the sun, the moon, the stars and the sky," Wright sings, "you're the only thing that can ruin my high." Maybe, maybe, but Wright sounds deeply in love, and soul this sweet has never harshed anyone's buzz.

"Shit, Damn, Motherfucker," D'Angelo
In just 45 words, D'Angelo paints an expressionistic portrait of love, rage and violence. It's delivered in the sultriest, most damaged voice--D'Angelo wasn't yet the sex symbol he became, but he sounded like one. And the slow groove, suggestive of the smoky backroom our narrator waded into, transmits the lyrics in slow-motion, stretching out each question, then flashing forward to find our man still uncertain of what's happened, even after his terrible mistake.

"Love Uprising," The Chi-Lites
The Chi-Lites do a pretty mean synthesis of The Impressions with solo Curits Mayfield. It's not a vast palette, but I mean this as a great compliment when I say that "Love Uprising" sounds like a song Mayfield could have made. "Love Uprising" works the same vibe as Superfly's "No Thing On Me (Cocaine Song)"--Eugene Record's lead resembles Mayfield's delicate vocal, and the strings summon a similar aura. Both songs are eminently hopeful. Wonderful things are possible, they say, with a little effort on our part. The 70's proved that things aren't that simple, but it saps none of these songs' power. Change starts with belief, and "Love Uprising" believes.

"Bob George," Prince
Prince didn't wan't you to buy The Black Album. Which means he doesn't want you to hear "Bob George," one of his sickest jams. Rocking a beat extremely similar to the previous year's "Housequake," it's an entire song of Prince spewing out hate. He plays a violent, vile pimp on a tear. His voice is pitched way down, and if the monologue hewed a little closer to the beat, this would be gangsta rap. It probably is anyway--the narrator unleashes gunfire, no small degree of hatred towards women and even slams the Purple One as "that skinny motherfucker with the high voice." Because you don't fuck with this dude. Who does he look like, baby? Yesterday's fool? For someone who can't stand them TV dinners, you sure eat enough of them motherfuckers.

Monday, August 8, 2011

"David Comes To Life" By The Numbers

I caved yesterday and bought Fucked Up's David Comes To Life (my listening priorities have been elsewhere). I loved Fucked Up, and I love this beast of a record, perhaps as much as I did the last one.

I haven't necessarily loved the reviews, many of which seem pro forma. I set about determining how standardized reviews of DCTL have been, by picking out commonalities among the 28 reviews available online through Metacritic. If I had to spend another afternoon doing this, I might track occurrences of the phrases "arena," "pop," "American Idiot" and "ambitious." Extra demerits to Rolling Stone for describing Pink Eyes' vocals as a "barf-yowl." Here's the data, with the number of reviews out of 28 noting:
  • That David Comes To Life has 18 songs: 13 (46%)
  • That David Comes To Life is nearly 80 minutes: 19 (68%)
  • That David Comes To Life is a concept album: 24 (86%)
    • With a plot that is difficult to follow: 16 (57%)
  • That quote lyrics: 3 (11%)
  • That the album has a companion release, David's Town: 2 (7%)
  • That Pink Eyes' real name is Damian Abraham: 16 (57%)
    • That Abraham is physically a large man: 3 (11%)
    • That Pink Eyes shouts/growls/barks etc.: 22 (79%)
  • That Fucked Up have 3 guitarists: 12 (43%)
  • That Fucked Up have 2 guitarists: 1 (4%)
  • That Fucked Up's band name is explicit: 6 (21%)
  • That David Comes To Life is a magnum opus: 5 (18%)
  • That The Chemistry Of Common Life was the previous LP: 11 (39%)
  • Similarities to Tommy, Quadrophenia or The Who: 9 (32%)
  • Similarities to Zen Arcade or Husker Du: 8 (29%)
  • Similarities to the Hold Steady: 3 (11%)
  • That the album deserves four stars or equivalent: 17 out of 33 (52%)
Obviously, the craft comes in choosing which of these datum belong in a review, and how to describe a band's sound. Of course, listening to a record six times and reading the EPK lends itself to similar reviews, and a solid majority of the 28 reviews that I read were basically indistinguishable. I think the next step is a David Comes To Life review generator.

An album like this should inspire strange, intense writing--as I imagine it will in coming months and years--rather than the narrow range of responses that greeted it.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Critical Beatdown: Round 13

Blitzen Trapper, "American Goldwing"
AM: Eric Earley doesn't have the hard living in his voice to sell a song like this. But as Cosmic American Muzak goes, this is pretty good. 3.5/5

NS: There's something about "American Goldwing" that makes me actively recall the sound of the first few Grateful Dead records--the overall sound, not any song in particular. Maybe it's just that homey West Coast atmosphere wedded to pedal steel guitars. With Blitzen Trapper, even their most obvious classic rock pastiches are irresistible. 4.5/5

St. Vincent, "Surgeon"
AM: A buzzing, pulsing piece of art-pop. The opening synth-brew is wonderful on its own, but as the song gradually starts to race forward it becomes something truly special. I wasn't a convert before "Surgeon," but Annie Clark has my attention now. 5/5

NS: What makes Annie Clark's music so immediately striking? It's all about the instrumental development of songs like "Surgeon," which begins with a wash of a synth choirs and builds itself into a micro bass-funk symphony. Confounding songwriting and guitar playing throughout--this is progressive music in the best sense. 5/5

Jay-Z & Kanye West, "Otis"
AM: Yes, Jay, it does sound soulful. But juxtaposing yourself with an extended Otis Redding excerpt--that's setting yourself up to fail, though you both do well enough. Tag-teaming needs some work though. 3/5

NS: Not that there's much to complain about with "Try a Little Tenderness," but normally, I expect more subtle classic soul samplings from Mr. West. Meanwhile, Jay and Ye fire off the most rote capitalist cliches of the hip-hop leisure class, as is their wont these days. I prefer the Game's version. 2/5

Yes, "We Can Fly"
AM: I'm having trouble reviewing this one--every time I turn it on, my attention immediately turns to something else. There's actually quite a bit going on in "Fly," but it all drifts by in the airy flow. 2.5/5

NS: In the annals of Yes, this song is actually pretty exciting. Like the St. Vincent track, it builds around a panoply of noodly guitar and synth parts, which wouldn't go anywhere save for the galloping bass and new singer Benoit David's earnest delivery. Go ahead and hate, but there's not a lot of music like this anymore. 4/5

Mastodon, "Black Tongue"
AM: Mastodon hammer away at several ferocious grooves here--on this alone I can recommend "Black Tongue"--but none quite approaches world-immolating intensity. Maybe the next single? 4/5

NS: Tricky time signatures, double-tracked guitar lines, an embedded sense of dread--everything about this song is classic Mastodon. At the same time, there's also a lot of humor in this music, and the band deserves more credit than it gets for avoiding the histrionics of so much defanged mook-metal. 4/5

SuperHeavy, "Miracle Worker"
AM: Lot of cooks in the kitchen with this group, as this absurd photograph demonstrates. I have no idea how SuperHeavy came together, or what their raison d'etre is. "Miracle Worker" doesn't give any indication about either, though it is serviceable reggae. 2/5

NS: Surprising no one, this limp noodle of a mid-tempo shuffle is significantly less than the sum of its parts. If you really like generic, repetitive reggae with no bounce, with British vocals on top, grab a UB40 album instead. 1/5

Monday, July 25, 2011

Inspiration Information: My Music Library As Data

Last week, I woke up and turned my computer on. These are typically the first two things I do on a given day, and I was doing them especially early on this day, thanks to oppressive heat. But my computer wasn't turning on. It would start to boot up, then I'd hear a click and it would shut off. Every time. I was thinking "fuck, it's the hard drive."

I took it in that afternoon, and was told to expect the worst. My first thought was that I had lost my music files. I've spent years collecting them, listening to them, and ensuring the tags are correct. To lose my mp3s would be--and I'm not exaggerating--a tremendous blow to my well-being.

Thankfully, I don't keep most of my music on my computer's hard drive. I have an external drive for that, which I had forgotten about in my panic (aside from music, most of my life is on that hard drive). But it's a pretty precarious situation. My music is on there, and nowhere else, in many cases. I back up things I don't physically own once a year, in August. If my external hard drive stopped working tomorrow, I'd lose everything I've been listening to in the past year. I'm sure I'd remember to replace the Destroyer and Four Tops that have dominated my listening. But I probably wouldn't seek out the Vibrators' excellent first album, which I borrowed from Nathan--I doubt I'd ever hear that again.

If my library disappeared, I'd lose considerably more than files. This is why I still prefer CDs to buying music digitally. To pay for an mp3--that seems like paying for air. It's a strange experience, purchasing something you can't touch. And I never really learned that mp3s had any value. I spent a lot of time on mp3 blogs a few years ago, and was never asked for a fee. When I did college radio, labels just sent mp3s for free. When I do buy an mp3, I'm cognizant of the fact that it could disappear tomorrow.

But anyways, the reason these files are more than just data--that people would consider buying them at all--is that they're music, and they're really important to people. Losing these files is to lose the locus of every memory and connection you felt to them. To me, it's important to have the music I listened to in 2006 because that is one of few tangible connections I have to my life then. It's not that I fire up iTunes and listen to The Hold Steady all the time. But it's meaningful that I can access this music (and its personal context) when I choose to. It's even more significant with the music I wouldn't remember to seek out again--hearing the marginalia of my old listening on shuffle is one reason I love that feature so much.

So, count me as skeptical of the new cloud services. The concept itself--there's a lot to recommend it. But the idea that I would put my entire library in the hands of these companies (and pay fees that will rise once one of them corners the market)--that's crazy.* Apple, Amazon and Google don't really have my interests at heart. Trusting them to manage my music, without backing it up, is a terrible idea. Already, their services charge extra if you have a large library, or want to store music you didn't buy from their store.

I'll be holding off on the cloud, purchasing instead a second external hard drive. As for my computer--the hard drive was actually fine. It was the logic board, an even more expensive piece of equipment. But the other issue here--the precariousness of our information--has no easy fix. I have a lot invested in my data. If we're living in a time where information is easy to access, but more complicated to collect and maintain...that's a devil's bargain.

Clearly this is worse with things you've created yourself--music, writing, photos or whatever. And it's surely a bad system for archiving things. If the movie studios of the early 20th century couldn't keep tabs on their physical products, it seems unlikely  that a music industry in freefall is carefully guarding its digital files for the long haul. I guess if there's a point here--been a while since I wrote a rambler like this--it's that archiving is essential. Both for a culture that respects its past, and for people who have a personal connection with their data. Because if we're going to sacrifice sound quality and physical product, surely we should get something out of it? Aside from a compromised convenience, that is.

*I don't trust YouTube to store my music either--things get yanked off there all the time.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Anti-Snark: Five Reasons Why the Lou Reed/Metallica Collab Could Be Good

Our Cynical Music Press has treated the news of a potential Lou Reed/Metallica collaboration with the sort of derision usually reserved for fictional Park Slope racists and nefarious mp3 bloggers. This isn't surprising: few bands who makes millions of dollars are as resolutely unloved as Metallica, and given their recent track record, fans and haters alike have good reason to be skeptical. Reed's recent track record, it should be pointed out, is no less compromised by duds like his 2004 album adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's The Raven. On the blog Metal Sucks, Anso DF writes that the album will bring out the worst in both performers:
Let’s decode the situation: A once-provocative songwriter now separated by thirty years from his good ideas (who demonstrated this fact with a 2003 album based on Edgar Allen [sic] Poe works — puh-leez) teams with flabby, out-of-touch hacks whose crazed ambition has led them to target Rolling Stone-type rockist wankers with daddy issues for their next demographic conquest. Like Lady Gaga’s attempts to woo metal people with her flimsy lip service, only in reverse.
To be fair, Anso DF also has the mistaken opinion that the Velvet Underground's music is "tuneless, boring, and ear-nasty," and he seems to hate all of Reed's solo work, so maybe we should look elsewhere for an opinion. But he is right to say that Metallica hasn't released a good album in years, whether due to unwise levels of bandwagon-hopping (St. Anger) or past-mining (Death Magnetic). Why should we expect anything different from this release?

Since I'm not in the band, or David Fricke, I haven't heard any of these new tunes yet, but they're reportedly super-long, loopy and improvisational. Good signs. So is the fact that they seem to enjoy performing with each other, which, if you've watched Some Kind Of Monster, you know must be some kind of miracle. There are other reasons why I would encourage fans not to be cynical, just yet. For starters, it's time to tone down the reflexive Metallica hate: that Napster hoopla was more than a decade ago and it's not like people haven't figured out ways to download music for free since. The guys in Metallica are all gifted players with a history of great tunes behind them--no amount of Lars Ulrich douchiness can change that. And Reed is still, we can hope, capable of writing songs that will do the band justice.

Now is the time to Rage Against the Snark. Here are five reasons why I think this album might end up being among the best of the year, contra y'all haters.

1. The album is reportedly 90% done, and was completed in only a few months
Why is this a good sign? Consider both Reed and Metallica's recent track record. Each Metallica album since 1991 has taken more time to record than the last, to the point that, as most fans know, the band had to hire their own therapist during the recording of St. Anger--the process of making the album was that depressing. Death Magnetic more or less came about after Rick Rubin browbeat the band into producing music as similar to Master of Puppets as they were capable of mustering; again, the labor showed, but not in a good way. By contrast, consider that their first album, Kill 'Em All, was recorded and mastered in May 1983, sans therapists. Fricke mentions that one of the songs on the new album, "Pumping Blood," was cut live in one take--this is certainly not how Metallica normally works. The problem with Metallica's music lately is that it often sounds overdone and needlessly orchestrated, but apparently with Reed there has been a looser atmosphere, suggesting at least that some of the tracks won't be as ponderous, despite uniformly epic length.

Reed, meanwhile, used to churn out an album a year or so in the 1970s and 80s. Even something like Berlin was recorded in a slapdash fashion, with an odd assortment of musicians. Speaking of which...

2. Reed performs better with collaborators; Metallica performs better with a specific direction
This isn't an absolute given, of course, but there is evidence to suggest that both parties play better with others. Reed obviously has a working history with many musicians, whether with the Velvet Underground, then with David Bowie and Mick Ronson, all the way down to Antony Hegarty and Gorillaz. Berlin, for some reason, had Jack Bruce playing bass and Steve Winwood on organ, among others. Reed could hardly swing his guitar in the 1970s and not hit a gifted collaborator--Robert Quine, John Cale, Michael Fonfara, etc. Of course, other collaborations with the likes of Merce Cunningham are less worth exploring...

Metallica, meanwhile, have offered a guest spot or two to Marianne Faithfull, but mostly they've depended on producers Bob Rock and Rick Rubin to shepherd their material. This has clearly resulted in a downtick of usable music, with the band too beholden to the most narrow of creative processes. With someone else calling the shots, Metallica can stop concentrating on whether or not their music is radio-ready or "classic-sounding" enough, and more progressive sounds may bubble to the surface.

3. Reed tapped Metallica for this project because of their instrumental skillz
Definitely a good sign. Surely I'm not the only one who remembers that awful moment in Some Kind Of Monster when gentle Kirk Hammett is ordered by Ulrich to stop playing guitar solos. People forget what dynamic performers these guys once were: Hammett, the virtuoso who invested Van Halen's noodly theatrics with Hendrix's depth of feeling; Ulrich, earth's mightiest double bass drum pounder; Hetfield, who could play just as well as his peers but was relegated to rhythm guitar by elimination (also, Robert Trujillo, the new bassist, who seems like a nice guy). These guys could blaze through multiple time signatures, operatic instrumental breakdowns, dazzling scalar runs and moments of pure noise better than any of their peers--they made the excess of 80s metal painful and personal to a generation of misanthropes. Reed hasn't really worked with instrumentalists on this level in the past, but it appears he is utilizing them to test the boundaries of his own playing style, which suggests this may be more Metal Machine Music than Load.

4. Reed is writing the lyrics
Lou Reed may be a published poet, but he's had his share of lyrical clunkers; With Metallica, on the other hand, one would be wise to ignore the lyrics altogether. Hammett and Ulrich hopefully are no longer part of any sort of lyrical braintrust like they were on St. Anger (the band collaborated on lyrics for that album, so we will never know who to properly blame for "My lifestyle/determines my deathstyle"). Reed's songwriting hand is no guarantee the lyrics or the music will be quality, but bad Lou Reed lyrics at least tend to be weird and striking.

It's funny, but I bet if I were to randomly throw out some lyrics from Berlin and lyrics from ...And Justice For All, a lot of fans wouldn't be able to correctly identify what came from which.

5. Reed calls it "maybe the best thing done by anyone, ever"
Lou Reed has plenty of faults, both as a musician and as a notable curmudgeon, but I don't think excessive hyperbole is usually considered one of them. In fact, I seldom remember Reed expressing excitement and enthusiasm for any of his work, let alone his new material. If nothing else, it sounds from interviews as if Reed and members of Metallica are convinced they have hit upon an entirely new sound, and whether or not it proves to be terrible, it's liable by those standards to be at least more exciting than the derivative work each has done lately. Hammett says it best in that Rolling Stone piece: "It feels like we're in a different band." For any fan of Metallica, this should be exciting enough news in itself.

On the other hand, this is a pretty weak foundation for an album (and it appears they were going for a Rock N Roll Animal vibe, big mistake).

Our Concert Could Be Your Life: The Review

[Ed. Note: I apologize to readers who have been waiting on this for more than a month...for reasons that are not worth going into here, I thought this had been posted a long time ago, and I can no longer find a copy of the original article; what follows is a new draft, reconstructed somewhat from memory. Thanks to all the listeners and commenters who pointed this out and I hope you enjoy the review]

May 22nd's tribute concert for Michael Azerrad's famous book Our Band Could Be Your Life (now officially titled, I think, "Our Concert Could Be Your Life") was a slicker and shorter affair than I feared, although conversely that meant many of the sets had to be cut off after two or three songs. While the show was certainly worth way more than I paid for, one couldn't help leaving feeling whether perhaps five hours of this wasn't enough to do any of the bands justice. The large majority of sets were extremely solid and stuffed with crowd-pleasing numbers; there were also, yes, a few bands who couldn't live up to the transcendent expectations of their source material, but this wasn't really a type of event to nitpick such things. I'll try to recount some of what I witnessed, starting with a set I missed and ending with an all-star jam cover of...a major label radio hit?

Set #1: Dirty Projectors play Black Flag
I missed this first set, to my eternal consternation, because my weekly radio show was finishing up at around the same time the concert was about to start (you can hear audio of that particular show, which features telling moments of me and pal/"Save Live Music On Broadway" activist Andrew Hartwell clearly anxious to get out of there and me fumbling microphones settings as a result). After leaving a bit late and sprinting to the Bowery Ballroom, the Projectors had already ended their five-song set, and I had no idea they had played until I asked someone. I listened to the Projectors online after the fact (and you can too, at NPR!), and as expected, their set sounded restive, and faithful to the primordial rage of "Rise Above," "Thirsty and Miserable" and "Gimmie, Gimmie, Gimmie!," while fitfully making short work of "Police Story" and "Spray Paint." All these tracks are from Damaged, which disappointed this Slip It In fan, but since I wasn't there it wouldn't have mattered anyway.

Set #2: Delicate Steve plays The Minutemen
Andrew and I showed up with plenty of time to see the next band, Delicate Steve, and for a minute we were fooled into thinking we had wandered into an 80s indie rock version of The Last Waltz. Like Dirty Projectors, DS' set was heavy on the short songs, mostly instrumental at first, as is Steve's wont (and again, check out Wondervisions if you haven't). Also like the previous band, they focused on one album only, and guess which album that was? However, they concentrated on some of the weirder stuff: main player Steve Marion started out the set (I think it was him at least), with D. Boon's solo guitar instrumental "Cohesion," before moving on to amazing note-for-note versions of George Hurley's drum piece "You Need the Glory," and then Mike Watt's collage "Take 5, D." Playing those three songs straight through was a great way of paying tribute to the men behind the Minutemen, both as a cohesive, airtight unit and as individually creative musicians. To end their set, the band first brought out Les Savy Fav singer Tim Harrington to sing "This Ain't No Picnic," which (though no one noticed) he fucked up, singing each beat at half the tempo it was supposed to be at (audio for proof, at about 5 minutes in). The band adapted almost perfectly, though, to the different delivery style. After that, Lee Ranaldo came on and sang two songs: "History Lesson, Pt. II" (Replacing all the "me" pronouns with "D. Boon), and then "Jesus and Tequila," both of which first moved and then riled the crowd. Afterward, Janeane Garofalo was on stage and said that D. Boon would be proud of this concert, and one couldn't help but feel that the ghost of Boon was imbuing the room with friendly vibes.

Citay plays Mission Of Burma
Citay, a San Francisco garage act unfamiliar to me, began the trend of playing fewer, longer songs after the eleven-tune blitz of the last two acts. With a large cast of musicians that included what looked to be a hippie chick on tambourine, Citay seemed at first an odd choice to play the legendary Boston band. I can honestly report, though, that even at two songs, Citay's set was one of the highlights of the evening--even the hippie chick got in the act. Their first cover, of "Trem Two" from Vs., ably utilized multiple guitar arrangements of the famously oscillating tune, and while that song doesn't necessarily rock as hard as other Burma tunes, it was still conveyed energetically and with a great feel for the song's bewildering dynamics. This was followed by a cover of one of Burma's mightiest tunes (one of the mightiest tunes ever, really), "Peking Spring," which can be heard here and is definitely one of the two or three best performances of the night. "Peking Spring" never showed up on a Mission of Burma album proper, which is sort of a crime, but Citay may have provided a clue to why a song like this is best played live. Just an enormous, resonant sound, especially on that chorus and the "woos" at the ending. The main dude's stage banter was awful, though.

Set #4: Ted Leo plays Minor Threat
I previously wondered whether a Ted Leo solo set meant acoustic renditions of Ian MacKaye and co.'s early 80s repertoire; instead, the 40-year old Leo walked onstage alone, sans guitar, and sputtered his way through a five-song set while a prerecorded electric guitar track played behind him (according to NPR, it was a reel-to-reel tape recording by Leo, although at the time I was unsure if someone might be playing guitar live, offstage or elsewhere). Throughout the Our Concert Could Be Your Life show, I could tell that many singers needed cheat sheets to remember some of the lyrics, but this obviously wasn't a problem for Leo, who is demonstrably so steeped in hardcore that singing Minor Threat tunes is second nature. As for Leo's performance, he strutted around onstage expertly, he sang and screamed with expert timing, he made the audience part of the act, and he was appropriately forceful and respectful when winding his way through the final salute to hardcore that is "Salad Days." The song "Minor Threat," meanwhile, was treated as the anthem it is, and Leo took virtually no break between that and "Stand Up," "Filler" and "Look Back At Laugh." As expected, "Guilty Of Being White" was not played.

Set #5: Grooms play Hüsker Dü
Grooms didn't perform exactly faithful versions of Dü numbers (astonishingly, two Grant Hart tracks to one Bob Mould track!), and none of the band members seemed keen on exactly replicating the instrumental parts of Hart, Mould or Norton. Unfortunately, none of these rejiggered versions stood up to the originals. The hushed, whispered version of "Diane," for instance, was guilty of a type of dirge-y repetitiveness that was never present in the original, and while "Pink Turns To Blue" rocked somewhat, it lacked that delicious Bob Mould distorted arpeggio that provided that song's first and best hook. That was replaced with some lesser, more chimey guitar parts, but at least the soul of the song was still there. Their final cover, of "Something I Learned Today," from Zen Arcade, was even weirder, again adding some lesser, unnecessary hooks and basically breaking from that album opener's ringing intensity in favor of something stranger, maybe more Grooms-sounding. All in all, not bad, just not Hüsker Dü.

Set #6: Titus Andronicus plays the Replacements
I'm not a very big Hold Steady fan, but that didn't stop me from being amused to see Craig Finn in a police uniform, stepping on stage as Titus Andronicus finishing setting up, reciting the opening cop rant from "Kids Don't Follow" to the word, astonishingly (and the audience answering with all the right catcalls, even more astonishingly). So began Titus Andronicus' set, which leaned heavily on pre-Let It Be tunes, and no one could be more happier about that than I. Lead singer Patrick Stickles was, of course, a perfect belter of Paul Westerberg lines, and with his skinny frame and unkempt beard his look was perfectly in keeping with the 'Mats' old aesthetic. Even better was when a crowd-surfing Craig Finn climbed up onstage just in time to sing the last notes of "Kids Don't Follow" with Stickles, which led directly into Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out the Trash ender "Raised in the City." Stickles picked up an acoustic guitar and another guitarist brought out a violin for the last cover, of "Treatment Bound," and boy, I can't tell you how happy I was to see those first three Replacements releases honored in such a fashion. Titus Andronicus was wise to stick with some deeper cuts, and while it might have been great to see them do, say, "Bastards of Young," they proved themselves just fine without it.

Set #7: tUnE-yArDs plays Sonic Youth
Sonic Youth songs, with their odd guitar tunings and tricky melodies, are already hard to cover, and certainly doing the job without a guitar in hand makes the job even tougher. As predicted, Azzerad split the difference on Sonic Youth by hiring two bands to cover them, as it clearly took a lot out of Merrill Garbus to do even her one cover, of "Burning Spear" from Sonic Youth. That one performance seemed to be enough for the audience, and indeed it was a grin-inducing performance, even if it took a while for me to figure out what song was being played. Though the loops took a long time to build up intensity, when Garbus started singing proper she nearly brought the house down. Buoyed by the sound of a single floor tom, the song became a kind of chant, entirely appropriate for 1982-era Sonic Youth, and there was no better measure of that performance's success than witnessing Lee Ranaldo look upon her performance from backstage with approval. Of course, that wasn't the end for Da Youf accolades...

Set #8: Callers perform Sonic Youth
Callers were a late and somewhat confusing addition to this set; I had never heard them before, although my Rockaliser colleague saw them earlier open for Wye Oak, and described them as "not worth your time." That seemed to be my prevailing impression as well, even with the strong songs they covered. The most remarkable thing about Callers was their lead singer, who seemed less like Jeff Buckley to me and more like Tiny Tim, or a particularly chirpy bird. That isn't necessarily a bad thing, but the lead singer's vocal ululations during something meant to be as monotone as "Shadow of a Doubt" somehow made the song even more scary and exploitative, as if we had veered suddenly from Hitchcock into Final Destination or Saw. One of the coolest components of Sonic Youth's early sound was how Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore's guitar parts interlocked and alternated rhythm and lead parts, but with Callers it was all a mish-mash of woozy noodling and Norah Jones torch-singing. Unfortunately, the Callers set was probably the low point of the night, although at least the tempo picked up somewhat with "The World Looks Red."

Set #9: Dan Deacon plays the Butthole Surfers
Dan Deacon's set was when things started getting really crazy. Deacon is known for his energetic live shows, and the Buttholes are themselves no slouches in the crazy visuals department, and I knew things were going to get really good the moment someone brought out a fog machine. Deacon was flanked at all sides by a large collection of pedals, his band, and a background projection alternating pictures of Woody Harrelson, sandwiches, and other inexplicable images. Deacon's "all-star band" (a really, really strong group) started out with "Human Cannonball," and immediately the room started going nuts. Deacon handled all the Gibbytronics tricks like he had memorized them, and added a few new ideas to the proceedings as well, and the band played as if they didn't even need the vocals to back them up. This was followed, shortly, by "The Shah Sleeps In Lee Harvey's Grave," in which all the crazy lighting and fog effects were utilized in full force, as the band started flipping out and audience members started jumping on stage. After blasting through those first two songs, the band ended with the Black Sabbath-biting number "Sweet Loaf," which was seriously one of the heaviest live experiences of my life. The Surfers never get as much respect in the book for their songs as some of the other bands, but Dan Deacon's set, a true highlight, proves there's a lot more to Locust Abortion Technician and Rembrandt Pussyhorse than other people think. I would pay a lot to hear Dan Deacon yell "If you see see your mother, be sure and tell her...Satan!" again. This set was so good it was scary.

Set #10: St. Vincent plays Big Black
A lot of people seemed to be at the show specifically for St. Vincent's performance, which was evidenced by the large number of people who bailed after her performance. Annie Clark truly did Albini proud, though, even with time to only play two songs. Backed by members of Dirty Projectors and spitting through a microphone with a weird distortion effect that made her bark as menacing as Albini's, Clark immediately kicked into high-gear with "Bad Penny," holding her own on guitar against the Projectors, bending the strings with stomach-lurching precision, and somehow she sounded too perfect for her material. Of all the guitar players throughout the night, Clark was truly the one to watch, especially to someone like me who has always been curious about the opening notes of "Kerosene." That song, by the way, truly clinched her performance in that rare category of "inspirational." Props to Projectors drummer Brian McOmber, by the way, for nailing those drum machine parts live on "Kerosene."

Set #11: Wye Oak plays Dinosaur Jr.
NPR informs me that Wye Oak actually played two songs, though to me their set seemed unusually short. If there was any musician who could give Annie Clark a challenge for the title of guitar MVP, it was Wye Oak's Jenn Wazner, who shredded perfectly, note-for-note, through "Sludgefeast." Wazner so expertly replicated Mascis' parts, in fact, that I was inclined until now to forget about the extraordinary playing of drummer Andy Stack, who played with one hand while punching out bass parts on a keyboard--esentially, playing Murph and Lou Barlow simultaneously. I didn't even notice that they eventually segued into "Tarpit," albeit without a break, but before I knew it they were already gone. "Sludgefeast" and "Tarpit" are already songs that sound like each other, I guess. All in all, a predictably perfect blast of noise, if ablated.

Set #12: Buke and Gass play Fugazi
The crowd really started thinning by the time Buke and Gass (pronounced "Gase," as I found out at the show) went onstage, and while I have previously exalted this band and their album Riposte, I was somewhat disappointed by this set and the band's choice of covers. Aron Sanchez and Arone Dyer came onstage rocking all sorts of marvelous-looking homemade instruments (including their "buke" and "gass") and looked ready to tear into a mighty set before Dyer played the opening riff of "Long Division" (never Fugazi's most amazing song in my opinion) and the band settled into a groove that was somewhat propulsive, but never really picked up speed. The other cover, "Guilford Fall," had the exact same problem--this wasn't Fugazi at its most energetic, these were the later, more contemplative songs. I'll admit to nursing a crush on Arone Dyer now, and I like the band overall, but maybe they should have seen what they could have done with songs like "Public Witness Program" or "Bulldog Front." Something to shout along with, I guess.

Set #13: White Hills play Mudhoney
One of the weirder moments of the concert was witnessing the band White Hills, its singer a dead ringer for Alice Cooper and bedecked in spangled cock-rock tights, playing tunes from the resolutely anti-glamour grunge stalwarts Mudhoney. The band, to their credit, played their coverse faithfully, albeit filtered through a somewhat generic hard rock sheen. Time seemed to be running out by the time they played, and while their performance of "In 'N Out Of Grace" was certainly welcome, it did seem rushed, as if the band picked the easiest Mudhoney song they could find. The next song "When Tomorrow Hits" was less effective, but I found White Hills overall a strong trio (and one of the concert's few actual trios) with a healthy respect for the original Mudhoney material, and they hit many of the right notes.

Set #14: Yellow Ostrich plays Beat Happening
Poor Yellow Ostrich were asked to play last, per the chapter order of the book, meaning that no matter who played before, the gentle, simple melodies of Calvin Johnson would be absolutely steamrolled by Mudhoney. The band was also playing in front of a smaller audience that by this point was starting to feel concert fatigue, and unfortunately Beat Happening probably isn't the best way to bring audiences out of that stupor. The singer did "Left Behind" and "Indian Summer," each at an octave higher than the original, and the rest of the band provided mostly workmanlike instrumentation, so it's not like Yellow Ostrich ended things on a bad note. It just seemed that, after performances as explosive as "Sweet Loaf" or "Sludgefeast," everything else seems anti-climactic. Fortunately for those who stayed, this wasn't the end.

Set #15: All-Star Nirvana Jam
Remember how I said I thought I had wandered into an indie version of The Last Waltz? For the most part, there weren't that many special guests (and Mould was a no-show, despite what I predicted), but after Azerrad gave a short speech thanking the bands and the audience (during which he was commanded, by Dan Deacon, to crowd-surf), a supergroup comprised of the Dirty Projectors' rhythm section, Jenn Wazner, and Deacon tore into a cover of Nirvana's "Negative Creep," from Bleach. A more positive and supportive crowd reaction I cannot imagine; I even broke my long moratorium on moshing to get into the action, it was that exciting to witness. The most amazing song was saved for last, however: "Lithium," this time featuring Merrill Garbus on vocals. That Garbus forgot some of the lyrics towards the end mattered to no one; the Bowery Ballroom had transformed into a shrine for Kurt and all the other musicians who held this music close to their heart. It was as much a tribute to music fandom as it was to any individual musician. And so Our Concert Could Be Your Life finally ended five hours in, not with a deep Beat Happenign cut, but with a major radio hit from a multi-platinum selling major label album. It was as if the circle of influence had closed in on itself, twice. And then it was over, and that was all right, too.

Overall, Our Concert Could Be Your Life was a richly enjoyable tribute to the book and the bands profiled, and it was nice to hear people like Deacon talk about their own experiences with the book--though Azerrad would probably claim no credit, he created his own DIY community of voracious readers and fans. The show's hosts Janeane Garofalo and Eugene Mirman didn't add much in the way of comedy (other than Garofalo's odd admission that she had a crush on Bob Mould, of all people), but the show was organized so well and the bands were so willing to cooperate that no one really minded the constant breaks between sets. I think more events like Our Concert Could Be Your Life can and should be attempted; maybe, with the right time and venue, even expanded. Only a crazy person would think this wasn't worth the money, if not for any of the bands, then for the opportunity to help Azerrad crowdsurf through an audience full of fans and supporters, people who like like me who were inspired by his writing and reportage. For a second, I felt an emotion that might have been akin to that sense of shared community experience that inspired Azerrad to write his book. Moments like this in life are too great and rare to even attempt to describe in total. It was a good show.

My personal favorite performances were:

1. Dan Deacon, "Sweet Loaf"
2. St. Vincent, "Kerosene"
3. Citay, "Peking Spring"
4. Dan Deacon, "Human Cannonball"
5. tUne-YaRDs, "Burning Spear"

Again, I think you can still listen to all the performances online at NPR. If you are interested in other articles we have written on the book, check out:

-A "where-are-they-now" summary of what the OBCBYL class has been up to since the publication of the book.
-An article profiling the bands playing at Our Concert Could Be Your Life, including predictions of what might be played. Also, an addendum to that article.

If you are interested in hearing my May radio shows, in which I discuss other aspects of the book in some detail, you can stream them all here:

-Week One (The Covers)
-Week Two (The Cover-ers)
-Week Three (The Labels)
-Week Four (13 Songs)

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

R&B Listening Journal, Volume One

I'm currently hard at work, researching a book about R&B. It's for middle schoolers, the sort of thing you see in school libraries. The book isn't especially long, but I've been throwing myself into the research, taking it on as my summer project, as well as a second job (it's also a weak excuse for my recent absence here).

This means that I've listened to R&B and little else for the past month. In recent years, my exposure to the genre has grown considerably, but it's still selective--I dig the cinematic soul of the 70's, and love the Minneapolis Sound of the 80's. But New Jack Swing or Philadelphia Soul?--these are blind spots. I've made a few steps to rectify that, and to fill some embarrassing holes in my knowledge. It's been rewarding, but a little frustrating, since the book isn't really a work of criticism. That's the impetus for this possibly ongoing Listening Journal, which will highlight some of the most incredible or otherwise remarkable music I come across.

"Escapade," Janet Jackson
The opening bars of "Escapade" give the same insane rush as The-Dream's "Rockin' That Shit"--synth programming aimed straight at the pleasure centers. The chiming keyboard figure, which resurfaces for the chorus, gets even better when Janet harmonizes with it: "Don't hold back/Just have a good time." The production, by Jam and Lewis (the ex-Time maestros with seventeen number ones to their credit) is drunk on sound, mashing together the swooshing, chiming and thumping noises that their technology produces. Prince, especially "1999" and Sign 'O' The Times, is a reference point, but the song's deployment of several units of Jackson vocals gives it a unique texture. It's unusually dense for a summer jam, but that's what "Escapade" is--an invitation to get lost, to fucking enjoy yourself.

"7 Rooms Of Gloom," The Four Tops
The Four Tops were responsible for plenty of vintage Motown--"Bernadette" is staggering--but this song intrigues me because it's such an aberration. The group apparently hated it, unsurprising for a song that sounds so un-Motown. What "7 Rooms" does resemble is 60's garage--I swear this could be a lost Nuggets classic. Levi Stubbs belts with a shout-y frustration about his girl problems. And the track has a crude crunch, hitting its aggrivated groove and just staying there. The gothic backing vocals are the only embellishment. You don't hear this much anger or psychdelica in 60's Motown; "7 Rooms" outdoes plenty of 60's garage too.

"Sadie," R. Kelly
R. spends most of his solo debut dwelling on the carnal--this is a record whose centerpiece is the 10-minute jam "Sex Me". And, you know, he does that pretty well. It just makes "Sadie" that much more arresting. Part celebration, part remembrance, "Sadie" is Kelly's tribute to his dead mother. The organ places the song squarely in church, and the chorus rises high on Kelly's conviction and simple backing vocals. But a single detail about Sunday mornings helps fill in the portrait. 12 Play's least lascivious moment (and least hip-hop informed) is also one of its best.

"Heaven Is Ten Zillion Light Years Away," Stevie Wonder
Stevie Wonder's clavinet is responsible for his funkiest turns, but the instrument also informs the serene explorations of Music Of My Mind and Fulfillingness' First Finale. It lends this cut a quiet, naturalistic feel. Yet the vocals come from a place of pain--how is it that heaven seems so far away when hate and racism are so immediate? The short answer is that you don't believe in God enough. "Heaven" is pure gospel: ultimately, salvation is there, and here. Wonder's voice is joined by a small choir as the song moves towards its celestial finale. His conviction is so powerful, his talent so unique that, for these five minutes, he will make you believe.

"What'd I Say," Ray Charles
An epochal song in American music. I'd thought of Ray Charles as music for parents: well-performed, tastefully arranged, too safe. But the Genius' early Atlantic recordings are gritty, sweaty stuff, of which nothing tops "What'd I Say." For seven minutes, Charles' fingers dance across his keyboard, pounding out the electrified boogie as clattering cymbals drive the thing into further frenzy. By the time you reach Part Two, with its grunted give-and-take between Charles and the Raelettes, you realize: this still sounds dangerous.

"Me & Mrs. Jones," Billy Paul
Certifiably smooth--Paul's jazzy vocals and the drifting strings will take you there. But like all good smooth music, the quiet storm of the surface masks a fraught interior. In this case, the narrator is having an affair with the married Mrs. Jones. The tension is present in the verses, but really comes out when Paul lets loose right before the chorus. He's back to smoothness ten seconds later, but his outbursts--stretching words to the breaking point, belting with a deeper intonation--color the entire song. This is considerably slower than most of the 70's Philadelphia International hits, and the scene's maestros, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff (who wrote this song together), made a rare commercial miscalculation in following up "Me & Mrs. Jones" with a song called "Am I Black Enough For You?"

"We Need A Resolution," Aaliyah
Aaliyah's tracks are blocky, shifting things that, on first listen, don't make sense rhythmically. On "Resolution," Static Major and Timbaland's production explores the friction produced by abutting plates of sound, while Eastern-sounding flourishes fill the center of the space. Timbo shows up at the end, spitting with admirable attitude, but only Aaliyah holds her own--her vocals are wispy, but forcefully so. Of course, Aaliyah's career never reached a state of resolution: she died shortly after Aaliyah was released. Static Major too passed before his time, a few years later, literally days before his frigid work on "Lollipop" bum rushed the charts.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Confiscated Dreams: Robyn Hitchcock's Ten Best Albums

This June marks the thirty-first anniversary of The Soft Boys' Underwater Moonlight. It's as good an occasion as any to celebrate the work of Soft Boy and solo artist Robyn Hitchcock, whose vast and confusing body of work is, with several exceptions, a treasure. I can't find a list of Hitchcock's best best albums online, so I'll observe the birthday of one of my very favorite albums with this career-spanning Robyn Hitchcock Top Ten.

1. Underwater Moonlight, The Soft Boys (1980)
A record whose punkish energy is so warped by the Soft Boys' surreal touch as to render it a phenomenon unto itself. Very unlike anything Hitchcock, his bandmates, contemporaries, or followers would ever produce. A twisted, shimmering jewel of an album, one of the best ever made.

2. Olé! Tarantula, Robyn Hitchcock & The Venus 3 (2006)
Achieving the long-sought synthesis of Syd Barrett with Reckoning-era, R.E.M. Robyn and his new group--which happens to include Peter Buck--play it loose and jangly, fitting accompaniment for a vocalist who has abandoned his lower register.

3. I Often Dream Of Trains, Robyn Hitchcock (1984)
The wintry Trains is the finest among Hitchcock's (many) folk-leaning efforts. It also contains some of his darkest material, circling back to schizophrenia and nostalgia even in its lighter moments.

4. A Can Of Bees, The Soft Boys (1979)
A wry, post-punk take on blues rock, sounding like a terrible nightmare that the dinosaurs and the punks could both disavow. But the Soft Boys were too good to completely obscure the heavenly melodies of their "human music."

5. Gotta Let This Hen Out!, Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians (1985)
Hitchcock is no virtuoso, but his taste in collaborators has been superb (Soft Boys/Egyptians bassist Andy Metcalfe deserves special mention). This live set bears witness to the prowess of the Egyptians, featuring definitive versions of several Hitchcock tunes.

6. Queen Elvis, Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians (1989)
Hitchcock and the Egyptians at their most majestic, with several moments of Beatlesque clarity amongst the tangled guitar figures.

7. Invisible Hits, The Soft Boys (1983)
More invisible than ever, after Yep Roc phased it out (the same is true of #9). Fuck that, these sixteen songs--scrappy oddities heavy on the low-end--are a main course, even if they are scattered footnotes.

8. Element of Light, Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians (1986)
Then-current production gets in the way now--not the only 80's record here to bear that distinction--but the diversity and quality of the songwriting shines through. Element's brightest moments soar, or are at least hilarious.

9. Invisible Hitchcock, Robyn Hitchcock (1986)
A ravishing hodgepodge, covering 1981-85, and featuring several stone cold classics. Askance folk and labyrinthine grooves dominate.

10. Fegmania!, Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians (1985)
"You've got arms and you've got legs and you've got heaven," Robyn sings in an especially distinctive Hitchcock moment. It's also telling that this is the third entrant with an exclamation point in its title. Fegmania's colorful baubles are distintively Hitchcockian--accounting for its fan-favorite status--if not always top shelf.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Our Concert Could Be Your Life: Who's Playing Who? [Amended]

I should do a better job of googling pertinent press releases while blogging--though I observed in my last post that a mere nine bands were set to show at the renamed Our Concert Could Be Your Life (four shy of the thirteen profiled in the book), little did I know that Azerrad had posted the final billing on his blog at around the same time. Turns out there are now fourteen bands on the bill, meaning one notable double-booking, and now everyone, even Mudhoney, will have their chance to shine.

Color me excited, but slightly concerned that this concert may have been overstuffed as is. I'd never heard of any of the newly-added bands, so I won't be able to add much in the way of prognosticatin'. But in the interest of completeness, here they are.

Callers play Sonic Youth
Callers play what now? Turns out that Sonic Youth is either so monumentally important or so hard to cover that tUnE-yaRDs is getting it/herself a helping hand. Could it be that Merrill Garbus alone can't handle the Youth's 16-string wall of melodies, as I predicted? I'd never heard of Callers before, but they were recently described by my esteemed colleague as "an irritating three-piece" with "a female vocalist who sounds like Jeff Buckley," and given what I have heard on their Myspace, I basically concur. Most of Callers' tunes barely transcend their repetitive lite-shuffle rhythms, and while there are good instrumental ideas here and there, not many of them cohere into anything impressionable. Callers seem more well-suited to cover the Sonic Youth of Washing Machine and A Thousand Leaves than Daydream Nation or their other megaclassics. Maybe Garbus will aid them in injecting some soul into the proceedings.

Citay plays Mission Of Burma
I implored Azerrad to consider the amazing OBCBYL throwback band Yuck for the role of Burma on Twitter, but he obviously didn't like my idea, probably because Yuck is British. Instead, we have Citay, a collective of San Francisco psychedelic/garage players, meaning of course that they have a million members. Surely four or five guitarists can recreate the singular fury of one Roger Miller, right? If any of you know much more about Citay, let me know--nothing I've heard is as hard as vintage Burma, but they got the tunefulness part down, if not the noise. This song, for instance, sounds more to me like the Allman Brothers than Burma, with a bit of Feelies thrown in. As long as they keep in the overdriven bass, I'm good with whatever they choose to cover.

Grooms play Hüsker Dü
I can scarcely find anything about Grooms on their Internet--they describe their music on their Myspace page as J-POP/Nu-Jazz/Religious, which obviously isn't true. In fact, it appears that Azerrad has once again chosen a female-fronted band (or more accurately, co-fronted--there's a dude who sings on certain songs as well) whose recorded output rocks about half as hard as the Dü. Again, there's nothing wrong with that--it will just make it that more difficult to distinguish Grooms-on-Dü from Wye Oak-on-Dino Jr., and I hope they're up to the challenge. I still maintain that we'll see a cameo from Bob Mould at some point, so don't be afraid to collaborate where you can, Grooms (and I promise I will listen to more of your tunes later, once I can find them on the Internet). Meanwhile, check out this interview some members of Grooms did with Azerrad.

White Hills play Mudhoney
Aaaah...here we go. Check out the opening intensity of this track. I have no worries that White Hills will settle into anything approaching mid-tempo. The heavy riffs therein could have been dropped straight out of the 80s, and it looks like Azerrad has found the perfect group to cover Mudhoney, a band that in my experience gets a lot less respect than other OBCBYL artists. Though they were grunge pioneers, Mark Arm and co. also made far more experimental and radically-rocking tunes than most of their peers, and hopefully White Hills does a good job of demonstrating the depth of Mudhoney's repertoire beyond "Touch Me I'm Sick" (which, despite my reservations, I still think they should do). Of course a band called "White Hills" would immediately conjure the dirty stoner vibe of Superfuzz Bigmuff and the garage-psych melodic jewels of Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge. Reach for the deep cuts, White Hills!

Yellow Ostrich plays Beat Happening
I have no idea what to make of Yellow Ostrich, which again probably bodes well when covering what is inarguably OBCBYL's least-rocking subject. Lead singer Alex Schaaf's voice is about two octaves higher than Calvin Johnson's on average (in other words, normal), but his minimal approach to songwriting will probably suit most Beat Happening arrangements. Yellow Ostrich probably has more leeway than most to cover his band however he pleases...might I suggest super-fast and intensely? Just in case, you know, not enough of these other bands get the picture. Weirdly, I can't think of any particular Beat Happening song I especially want to hear covered right now.

That's the bill as it stands, a day or so before the concert is set to take place. Be sure to check out this recent Paris Review interview with Azerrad about the book--I found it intriguing and enlightening, as usual. If you want even more OBCBYL-related material, you can stream or download my latest radio show (featuring lesser-known artists signed to labels like SST, Twin/Tone, Touch and Go, etc.), and here are links to two other recent shows, as well. I'll be broadcasting tomorrow at 7 PM ET, one hour earlier than usual, so I can get to the Bowery Ballroom in time for the doors to open at 8:30. I'll probably be too wrapped up in the spectacle to live-tweet anything, but if some sort of newsworthy reunion happens, I'll find a way to notify readers.

Also, the hosts for tomorrow's tribute are apparently Eugene Mirman and Janeane Garofalo. I remember seeing Mirman many years ago at the M-Shop in Ames, IA, stumping for John Kerry with Yo La Tengo. This will be my first opportunity to see Garofalo in the flesh; here's a clip of her "covering" Dirty-era Sonic Youth.

Expect to see a comprehensive review (hopefully with a vetted set list!) by Sunday night or Monday morning. And a special thanks to Azerrad himself for letting me know about the augmented line-up.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Our Band Could Be Your Life Concert: Who's Playing Who?

In advance of the upcoming "Our Band Could Be Your Life: The Concert" show at the Bowery Ballroom, we at Rockaliser wish to continue paying tribute to one of the greatest rock books ever written. Last week, I wrote a detailed "Where Are They Now" guide to the artists featured in Michael Azerrad's book, focusing mostly on band activity after the book was published in 2001. This week, I hope to similarly guide you through the list of bands performing OBCBYL standards at the Bowery Ballroom on May 22. It's an incredibly strong list of up-and-coming American groups, most of whom are already well-known, but a question still remains: can they all pull it off? And which performances are likely to be the most interesting? My thoughts, below.

Nat Baldwin, David Longstreth and Brian McOmber play Black Flag
You may not recognize the names, but this group is, for all intents and purposes, the instrumental backbone of Brooklyn favorites the Dirty Projectors, sans the two additional singing females. With the Projectors stripped to a power trio, the band's instrumental capabilities will be more at the fore than ever, which will be especially challenging when playing Black Flag's later, stranger work. Longstreth in particular is a major guitar talent, a guy who can noodle with the best of them, and while Bitte Orca certainly isn't very much like Damaged, Longstreth seems like a logical choice to appropriate Greg Ginn's strangled, atonal leads. Among all the bands playing on the 22nd, the Dirty Projectors are the only ones with a history of covering their chosen artist, though I'm not sure I'd recommend the band's 2007 tribute-by-memory collection Rise Above (if you're curious, check out this song, which is amusingly different from its source material). The issue for Longstreth and co. is whether they will work off the arrangements of that album, or try more streamlined, faithful covers. I sort of hope it's the latter, not only because I've already listened to Rise Above but because it would be nice to see the Brooklyn stalwarts rock really hard, for once. In my world, the prospect of seeing the Dirty Projectors play Black Flag live is hundreds of times more newsworthy than that time their biggest hit was covered by Beyonce's sister.

Delicate Steve plays The Minutemen
One of the lesser-known artists on the bill, I actually first heard of this enterprising New Jersey guitarist through Azerrad's blog. Delicate Steve is one guy, Stephen Wong, who plays all the instruments on his recordings and tours with a small band live, mainly on the East Coast. So far, he has only one album, Wondervisions, which came out earlier this year. That LP's MO is chirpy, bright guitar instrumentals, with songs like "The Ballad of Speck and Pebble" and "Don't Get Stuck (Proud Elephants)," each perfectly evocative of its respective title. Most of DS' tunes are brief and punchy, and one listen to Wondervisions will disprove any reservation that Wong is unworthy of channeling D. Boon. As for the rest of his band, I can't speak to their quality--collectively, Mike Watt and George Hurley are four massive, massive shoes to fill for any musician, especially rent-a-musicians, and their ability to play fast and loose depends highly on which era of Minutemen songs they focus on: there's the barely one-minute punk yelps of their early EPs, the funk-fueled maximalism of Double Nickels on the Dime, and the later era of placid, overdubbed classic rock homages. If forced to guess, I'd say Delicate Steve seems best suited for 3-Way Tie For Last-era material, but maybe there's a dormant punk shredder waiting to cut loose on the 22nd--I hope so. By the way, I recommend Wondervisions, although it isn't perfect (some tracks are negligible, the last track sounds more like a scale exercise than a legit song), but I concur with Azerrad's lovely description, that this is "strongly major key and unabashedly imbued with what can only be called a sense of joy and wonder that speaks louder than words."

Ted Leo plays Minor Threat
The eternally youthful-looking Leo, who has (shocking!) been in this business for two decades now, is, by my calculation, the closest thing this show has to an indie veteran. Mr. Leo is of course mostly known for his work with the Pharmacists, a band that has helped produce a mostly-consistent run of great records, most recently The Brutalist Bricks. Mr. Leo is also known for his musical populism, his high punk ideals and veganism, and his occasional acting roles in Tom Scharpling productions. He's so gregarious, he invites fans to play covers with his band. Leo is clearly qualified to do Minor Threat, although note that it is merely "Ted Leo" playing Minor Threat, sans Pharmacists. Does this mean that he is performing solo, or with a different backing band? What if he did an entirely acoustic cover set? Minor Threat is one of the key hardcore bands of any era, but their total musical output barely peaks over an hour--I don't think Leo has that much choice about what to play, although let's guess he skips "Guilty Of Being White."

Titus Andronicus plays The Replacements
Another worthy cover band: in fact, this might be a bit too obvious a comparison. Despite their stupid name, Titus Andronicus is one of the most notable punk bands operating today in the United States, and also one of the most progressive. Their last album, The Monitor, was a punk "statement" album about the Civil War, rife with 5+ minute songs, epic riff breakdowns, and pontifications on the nature of nineteenth century combat. It made a lot of critics' top ten lists last year, and while it didn't make mine, I know there aren't exactly a lot of punk bands left in America that can claim a similar level of authenticity and respect. The major boon here is singer Patrick Stickles' voice, which possesses a plaintive tear redolent of a young Paul Westerberg. No idea if they have a guitarist of Bob Stinson's caliber, though I know they lean heavily on auxiliary musicians these days (in that sense, they are almost Canadian). Replacements songs are hard to nail live, so my suggestion would be to keep the instrumental setup simple, and maybe not concentrate too heavily on Let It Be, if possible.

tUnE-YarDs plays Sonic Youth
One minor complaint some had about Our Band Could Be Your Life was that it was almost entirely dominated by male musicians. It appears Azerrad hopes to rectify this by handing the reins of these overwhelmingly macho groups to some of the best female musicians working today. This isn't to say, though, that the annoyingly-capitalized tUnE-YarDs, aka New England musician Merrill Garbus, isn't still a weird choice to cover Sonic Youth. Da Youf combined dissonant, experimental guitar-playing with punk miasma, but at their core they were a traditional rock & roll band, whereas Garbus is one lady who sings over drum loops for the most part. I don't expect her versions to hew exactly to the originals, but one wonders how she can repurpose Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo's droney six-string interlockings without resorting to a closet full of alternately-tuned guitars herself. Her album w h o k i l l is highly recommended, by the way, although again I find her punctuation infuriating. She has a lot of potential material to choose from (even if she deigns to stick with the pre-major label albums, which is a rule I assume), so hopefully she doesn't get overwhelmed, and hopefully her strategy isn't just to turn guitar fuzz into corresponding bleeps and bloops.

Dan Deacon plays The Butthole Surfers
I may be the only person I know who hasn't yet seen Dan Deacon in concert; apparently his live shows are usually killer dance fests, which doesn't entirely make sense if you only know him from his albums. Lately his stuff has been more lush and freakish, and less about party atmospherics, which works for the Butthole Surfers. Whether or not he can do justice to the Surfers remains to be seen, although signs point toward him at least doing a relatively faithful job. With the increasing availability of home recording technology, Gibbytronics is not the impressive tape-loop feat it once was, and I would be disappointed to see Deacon trying similar tricks from a prerecorded laptop. Hopefully he sticks with the oldest and strangest material, but a few more straightforward rock numbers like "Human Cannonball" and "Fast" would be welcomed as well. Deacon may have the most daunting night ahead of him if he hopes to conjure the anarchic spirit of classic Surfers shows; I don't really care if he forgoes a lot of the additional multimedia stuff, but he has to really go crazy. The measure of his success will be in how bewildered people are after his set. If no one ends up being offended, something went wrong.

St. Vincent plays Big Black
I have little doubt, however, that St. Vincent can pull off a great Big Black set--of all the bands on the list, people seem to be most excited for the prospect of a brilliant lady musician barking her way through Albini's misogynist industrial rattle. St. Vincent's music is difficult to pigeonhole: most of it is more subtle and less aggressive than your average Big Black number, but there are certain tonal and dynamic similarities endemic to what they do, and one thing they both do incredibly well is veer off into scary and unpredictable bits of noise. I assume Clark will be playing the Albini guitar parts, which she is certainly capable of, though she may have less luck trying to recreate the attack from that drum machine. If Clark was born to do anything, she was born to cover "Big Money." I predict she will play that, as well as "Racer X" and "Kerosene." If all goes well, hopefully Albini will hate it, which is as good a sign as any that St. Vincent is approaching this music in the correct, most irritating manner.

Wye Oak plays Dinosaur Jr.
This will be the first time I see my colleague's beloved Wye Oak, playing the tunes of my colleague's beloved Dino Jr., no less. The chances of me bringing this up constantly over the next few months are high, FYI. Wye Oak started as a sort of slow, chimy, blandish duo that has gotten a lot more muscular and focused in the years since, especially on their latest Civilian. They're also another female-fronted group tasked with covering some of the most intense and powerful dude music ever committed to record. Recently I peeped their cover of Danzig's "Mother" to see if I could uncover any clues as to how they might go about covering this mighty trio--I'm not sure I was able to infer much, other than that Danzig cover is a whopper. It's also about half as fast as the original, though, and I wonder if that will be Jenn Wazner's strategy throughout. That wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing (the average Dinosaur Jr. song is, by my calculations, about twice as fast as an average Wye Oak song), but I really want to see Wazner's take on a J. Mascis guitar solo, and I fear that she won't even try to measure up. With no bassist to fill Barlow's role, can the band generate a comparable cacophony of rock bombast? I hope they make the effort.

Buke & Gass play Fugazi
I'd never heard of Buke & Gass until word of this concert got out; now I'm convinced they're the best thing to come out of Brooklyn in ten years. Apart from the expert songwriting, their instrumental setup is a wonder to behold. Buke & Gass are two individuals, neither of whom are named "Buke" or "Gass"--the names actually refer to the homemade hybrid instruments they sling, which include some sort of bass-ukulele ("Buke"), a guitar-bass hybrid ("Gass"), and lots of foot percussion devices makeshifted into an authentic, almost bluesy battery of noise. Meanwhile, lead singer Arone Dyer has a major talent for bellowing, and the band's tunes are smart, exciting, melody-driven, and full of unexpected hooks. Not unlike Fugazi, actually, although they don't sound similar at all. However they choose to approach the daunting task of covering America's Most Principled Rock Band, chances are it will sound more limber and energetic than any of us expect.

You'll note that there are nine bands being represented at the show, whereas thirteen bands are profiled in Our Band Could Be Your Life; to date, there is no one yet ready to take on Hüsker Dü, Mudhoney, Beat Happening, or Mission Of Burma. Given that Azerrad has been working on this Bob Mould autobiography, I am hopeful that we get a Mould cameo at some point (in which case the chances of Grant Hart showing drop to absolute zero). Who knows: maybe Burma will drop by for a song or two. Even if that doesn't happen, the deck is already overstacked with major talents, and hopefully each band is given time to cover several of their favorite songs, and it doesn't become a round robin of two or three covers each. Basically, any of these bands could cover just about anything and I would be satisfied. If you're a fan of the book, or if you're a fan of any of these bands, I expect it to be a life highlight/endless party.

PLUG ONE: Be sure to check out my radio show, which is currently in the midst of its own month-long Our Band Could Be Your Life tribute. If you listen tonight at 8 ET, 7 Central, I will bedoing a show on notable OBCBYL record labels (such as SST, Touch and Go, Twin/Tone, etc.). You can also stream or download the last two episodes here and here.