What I’ve Been Spinning

Dusting off an ancient feature today for nostalgia’s sake. Enjoy! Discuss! Rejoice!

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Bob Dylan – When He Returns

Bob Dylan’s “born-again” era is the most forgotten, least-treaded or too generalized of his entire catalog. It’s the inkstain on his mythos. No one really wants to talk about it, and Dylan himself is often vague of the period. But one thing’s certain: 1979’s Slow Train Coming is some of his most inspired, frighteningly honest material since his heyday as a young singer-songwriter living in the West Village. Most of the album is wrought with conviction and praise is framed beautifully by the guitar of Dire Straights axman Mark Knopfler by the album’s final track is a propulsive, powerful ballad that is nothing more than Dylan and piano accompaniment. “How long can you falsify and deny what is real?,’ he questions, before rounding the killer couplet: “How long can you hate yourself for the weakness you conceal?”

Frank Turner – I Still Believe

Frank Turner is Billy Bragg for post-millenial hardcore kids. His songs straddle a fine line of folk music with punk rock energy. So much of his work is hook-heavy, songs seem to eclipse their albums, much like Bragg’s work. That’s frustrating a lot of the time, but not in this case. “I Still Believe” is the lead track from Turner’s stopgap “Rock & RollEP. Characteristic lilting vocals, call and response choruses, and shout outs to “Jerry Lee and Johnny and all the greats” make it a fun four minutes. There’s no real message here, and that’s okay. It’s a good example of why EP’s exist.

tUnE-yArDs – Gangsta

What’s great about Merrill Garbus is the deliberate incongruence of her songs. Rarely anything she does sounds natural. It’s cut up, shuffled and reconstituted with the strength of a glue stick, and that’s what makes it so exhilarating. There’s no better example than this song, layered vocals, caddywompus horns and a prowling beat keeping it together. At first listen, her latest album W H O K I L L sounds like several loose ends, but with repeated listens, the songs weave a pretty brilliant tapestry.

Fleetwood Mac – Little Lies

I love this song exactly for what it is: A killer pop single. Sonically, nothing seems to connect it to the same five people that made classics like Rumours and Tusk. Stevie Nicks often is the face for this band, but Fleetwood Mac have always seemed to be far more democratic when it comes to lead vocals on their singles. For this particular song, Christine McVie is up front, Nicks in the back, and Lindsey Buckingham is relegated to an echo. The hook is monstrous, and anyone growing up listening to pop radio in the late 80’s and early 90’s has that chorus imprinted on their consciousness. Girl Talk even appropriated it for “Overtime” from Night Ripper. To put it into Cheap Trick terms, it’s “The Flame” to their “Surrender”.

Up “All Night” with Houses

Imagine losing your job without any idea of what to do next. Well, other than looking for another job. There’s also that romantic idea of moving somewhere tropical, living off the grid and enjoying what’s around you. It’s fun, but not something that’s easy to do with bills and responsibilities in the way. Not for Houses. They just took off.

It’s an admirable, albeit unsustainable idea. I’ve always dreamed of doing what they did, but never had the guts to see it through. It seemed on the whim, and one enormous leap of faith. Not much later, they were working and living in Papaikou, Hawaii, learning the basics of sustainable living.

More often than not, this lifestyle does not work out for most people. But Houses are not most people. After finally running out of cash several months later, they returned to Chicago, but not empty handed.. With them, they had a gorgeous snapshot of their time on the island, All Night, their debut on Lefse, due next month.

Rarely do I hear a record so elemental and effortless. Its title track is the sound of those first few moments of waking up on a spring morning while rays of sunshine bleed through the blinds.  Other moments are dewey eyed and bleary, like taking a long nap in the grass. Perhaps the freshness of these moments is best exemplified with “Endless Spring,” a glistening pearl where frontman Dexter Tortoriello’s vocals mesh beautifully with the sounds alongside them. The same goes for the harmonies provided by Houses’ other half, Megan Messina. This is consistent throughout: never once on the disc do their vocals feel put-upon. They’re just as organic as the field recordings they made in Hawaii.

These moments are bountiful on All Night. There’s “Soak It Up,” sounding devastatingly like a late Arthur Russell composition, “Wash,” with its deliberate rhythm would make David Byrne proud, and of course, the sweeping, resplendent surge of “Sleeping” and “Sun Fills”.

With that final fade, we’re back to the beginning again, if you see it that way. I don’t. It lacks a beginning and end point. It just simply exists. It was always there, just captured and put to tape at the right moment. That’s doesn’t happen too often in music, and when it does, like All Night, it’s something incredible.

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Houses – Endless Spring (mp3)

Houses – Soak It Up (mp3)

Tumblr: http://housesmusic.tumblr.com

(Taking Back) Taking Back Sunday

Is it too early to get nostalgic about emo?

Mentioning the album Tell All Your Friends to anyone who had a semi-serious interest in early 2000’s pop punk is sure to elicit a response that’s dually earnest and self-mocking.

Emo bands of this era are rock and roll’s feral children. Taking Back Sunday, who released the album in question, are part of a larger group of bands like Brand New and Thursday who shared the same reliance on angular riffs, obsessively wordy hooks and a penchant for inter-band and inter-scene drama that makes the Beatles breakup seem lazy. (For a more thorough history lesson, this explains the controversy surrounding the split and feuds the band had better than I could condense in a few sentences.)

The ‘classic lineup’ of TBS fractured only a year after the disc was released, and they’ve gone through a ‘Spinal Tap’ number of musicians since. For some reason, they reformed for a short tour and a forthcoming album this year. Fickle babies.

A confession: I’ve never listened to it. Until now. I don’t know why I missed it the first time around. I liked Brand New’s Your Favorite Weapon and Thursday’s Full Collapse, so it seemed like a logical move. It just never happened. I assume it was indifference or the fact I was way too caught up listening to Incubus and Dave Matthews Band and didn’t want to be bothered.

Times have changed. For the past few weeks, I’ve finally given a few hard listens to this totem. Let’s discuss.

“We were such magnificent liars,” sings Adam Lazzara. “So crush me baby, I’m all ears/ so obviously desperate/so desperately obvious.” That’s the sound of my sophomore year of high school, watching those girls – long haired waifs who wore Abercrombie and Fitch threads – transform overnight into thrift store junkies with choppy haircuts. Obvious. Desperate. Like them, it seems. There’s something uncomfortable about that notion. Like this song. Like those lyrics.

The layered, overlapping vocal style in use here has become a genre hallmark. A propulsive opener, but not exactly memorable. That shows up a few songs later, with “Cute Without the ‘E’ (Cut From The Team)”.

It’s my favorite cut on the record, with a late-80’s college rock jangle recalling faint memories of the Smiths. The sharp notes punctuate and break away to an anomalous chorus: ‘And will you tell all your friends/you’ve got your gun to my head?’. Silly, but it works. Lazzara and guitarist John Nolan exchange heroic vocal interplay, and it conjures a memory I never had: driving to Steak and Shake late at night in Lake in the Hills with the windows down on my red 1996 Ford Taurus. My friends and I would be shouting the lyrics at the top of our lungs before our milkshakes. When we were done, we’d go home and post snippets of lyrics on our LiveJournals among photos of Jordan Pundik.

There’s more of the same with “Timberwolves at New Jersey,” which, to my disappointment, was not about basketball, nor was “Great Romances of the 20th Century” about love. Well, a healthy love, at least.

Of course, these lead up to one unforgettable moment. One lyric to define an entire genre of music, and it’s right in “You’re So Last Summer”.

The truth is you could slit my throat
And with my one last gasping breath
I’d apologize for bleeding on your shirt

This is the moment you hit the water after being thrown into a pool with all of your clothes on. It’s shocking, uncomfortable and really wet, like the audience this song panders to. Also, it’s totally hilarious. At the time, the lyric was relevant to many disilliusioned teenagers, but as they’ve grown up, gotten over and moved on, the song has morphed from an anthem to weighty, melodramatic trash. If emo karaoke ever catches on, this is it’s “We Are The World” – well, that or any U2 song.

I suppose it’s this, really: Tell All Your Friends isn’t a bad record, but it’s not a good one either. Many mediocre genre records somehow transform into well loved classics simply because they refined the formula before others could. This is the case for Taking Back Sunday. They set the template for so many copycat bands to follow. Some are still chasing that dream too long after it can be taken seriously.

I can see why some may find that last statement unfair. I’m twenty-four. I’ve got close to ten years of music listening and analysis behind me. I’ve fallen in and out of love with many bands. Maybe I’m too old, and my moment with this record is eight years too late. If Taking Back Sunday were the first to the dance, then I arrived right in the middle of the last song, when I probably should have stayed home in the first place.

Don’t call it that

I hate “The O.C.” I make no attempt to claim otherwise, and at the urgings of several friends of mine have repeatedly tried to give the show second chances. I just absolutely detest every aspect of that program, and would quite frankly rather watch “Days Of Our Lives,” because at least that show makes no effort to hide that it’s a soap opera.

But what I hate most about “The O.C.” is the effect it has on music. I love that it provided an outlet for good bands to gain some exposure, pick up some popularity, finally make some real money. But I hate that as soon as a band appeared on “The O.C.,” everyone loved them, even if they didn’t know anything about them. I went to go see Death Cab For Cutie open for the Psychedelic Furs. The place was packed for Death Cab, but because all the little O.C. kids didn’t know a damn thing about the band they were there to see, it was an utterly unpleasant experience. In fact, several people assumed that Death Cab would be headlining the show, and when they went on before the actual headliner (the Furs), I heard people asking why the band was opening with a Death Cab cover. I heard other people asking when Death Cab was going to go on, because that band sucks.

“That band” was Death Cab, and they were opening the show with “The New Year,” the first song from their “Transatlanticism” album, which was the album featured on “The O.C.”

I’m not saying people should memorize all the details of a band’s repertoire before seeing that band live. But if all you’re going on is the music that was featured on a TV show, at least buy the album and have a vague idea of what (if no one else) the singer looks like before you go to the show.

The other thing I hate, beyond tons of bands being endowed with ignorant, obnoxious fans, is the conception by people like me–who hate “The O.C.”–is that a band, once featured on the program, is somehow ruined. The Shins, Rooney, Ben Gibbard projects, Frou Frou/Imogen Heap, I still listen to them. Even Phantom Planet, who had the fucking theme song, find themselves in frequent rotation on my iTunes. The music they make was made before they were on the show, and you’re allowed to like bands who have been on a TV show you hate, and you’re allowed to hate bands who have been on a TV show you like.

This is more or less an incoherent rant written on a 7:1 waking to sleeping ratio, and I suppose the bottom line is, I’m really glad “The O.C.” is no more, and I’m really, phenomenally impressed with the new Phantom Planet record. I know I took my sweet time getting here. But that’s really all I wanted to say.

What I’ve Been Spinning… 4/24/08

My Morning Jacket – Highly Suspicious – The most warped, twisted, Prince-aping funk jam off of Evil Urges by My Morning Jacket. Jim James sings in an impossibly high falsetto, and you think that during psycho-giggling pre solo, some P.Y.T. may be playing with that scruffy beard of his.

Billy Bragg – A New England – At this point in time, I’ve only heard about a dozen Billy Bragg songs. I can safely say I like all of them. This one, however, is particularly poignant: “I was twenty one years when I wrote this song/I’m twenty two now, but I wont be for long/People ask when will you grow up to be a man..”..Yeah.

Tom Waits – Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis – Everyone says it, mainly because it’s true. You can’t really go wrong with Tom Waits, and this one – a plaintive piano ballad is a good choice for today.