New post.

I haven't been writing in here nearly to the level I'd like to be, of late. I'm sure I've made some mention in the infrequent posts I've made over the last week and a half or so of my downturn in mood and corresponding lack of motivation. That continues to be a problem, but another part of the problem is that I haven't been listening to much that's crying out to be written about. Worse, what is calling out to be discussed is a bunch of stuff that I got from bands I saw live over the last few weeks, which makes me feel like I'd be repeating myself to write about them again, so soon after reviewing their live shows. However, I want to write, so I've decided that I need to at least make the attempt to find something new to say about these bands. Let's see what I can come up with.

Stop It!!'s album, "Self-Made Maps," has probably gotten more play from me than anything else over the two weeks since I saw them. As with their live show, something I hadn't expected to have much of an opinion about has completely blown me away. As far as I'm concerned, any discussion of this album has to begin with the album's centerpiece, "Remove Your Teeth". This song encapsulates everything about "Self-Made Maps" that I love, distilled into one four-minute anthem. It seems that Stop It!! (hereafter to be written without exclamation points) themselves understood that this was their strongest song. From its position in the exact middle of the album, it anchors the entire affair, and the song before it, the short instrumental "A Clever Play On Words", seems placed before "Remove Your Teeth" just in order to set the stage for that song. As the final notes of "A Clever Play On Words" fade into an echoing instrumental coda, "Remove Your Teeth" explodes into action, beginning with a furious dual-snare drum roll that is topped by frantic dueling guitars. The lack of bass on this section of the song indicates that bassist Adam Juresko is playing the second snare drum, as he often did live when I saw them. After a few repetitions of the opening riff, the drums drop out, coming back in a few seconds later with a trick I can't help but associate with Fugazi: as the guitars continue their frenetic strumming, the bass and drums drop into a much slower riff. Stop It don't use it the same way Fugazi did, though; instead of creating a mellower groove than the listener initially expected, they use this technique to build an even greater tension than the guitars and snares had already created at the beginning of the song.

When the vocals come in, though, everything changes. Adam's screaming technique is pretty standard in hardcore, but when combined with the more melodically oriented voice of guitarist Brendan Trache, a different texture is created. This is especially true when the two trade lines, with Brendan's voice giving a more mournful feel to Adam's urgent screams. This is somewhat of a surprise after the song's ferocious opening, but it's nothing compared to the shock that comes soon after, when drummer Jeff Grant takes his only vocal turn in Stop It's entire discography. Jeff isn't screaming at all, but full-on singing, and the emotion in his voice touches me every time I listen to the song, even though I don't know what he's singing about. The music slowly grows quieter as he sings, until by the end of his verse, his voice is the only thing left. Then on the last word, the whole band kicks back in full force, and it's enough to knock me on my ass right there.

There are other powerful moments on the album, especially in "Captain Roboto" and the closing "Beethoven's Funeral", and they often come from the same epic approach that "Remove Your Teeth" takes. Beginning as it does with more standard hardcore and moving away from that sound as it progresses, "Self-Made Maps" works well as an entire album and not just a collection of songs. City of Caterpillar brought the concept of longer, more dynamic songwriting into hardcore a few years ago, and bands like Stop It have picked up well on the possibilities that this approach presents. In the wrong hands, this approach could quickly have led to wankery, so it's good to see that, at least in some cases, that hasn't happened.

The Brainworms demo is an interesting and, in my experience, unique document. Not only is the entire thing recorded live in the studio with no overdubs, but the band even invited some of their friends into the studio to watch, so that it sounds more like a live album than anything else. The fact that Brainworms did this only adds to the initial impression I got of their band. It reminds me of the Deathreat project that members of His Hero Is Gone and From Ashes Rise did a few years ago: formed quickly amongst a group of friends who mostly had other bands they were involved in, Brainworms wrote a set of songs and began playing shows knowing that most of the members would be moving out of town at the end of the summer. The spontaneity and adventurous spirit in which the band was begun shows through in this recording, with members talking to the crowd between songs and at one point asking for more heckling, since the set was being recorded. In the midst of all that, though, some serious emotions are shared, in particular on the song "Sunrise Dudes", which has the best lyrics I've read in a long time. In part, they go: "I'm sorry I haven't called, there are just so many ways I can't explain this empty space in my soul. It's not because I don't want in anymore. Will you answer me truthfully: do I suck? Do you not want to be around me? Maybe I'm the dark sky on your fucking parade. Would you put me off until my happier days?" This is a sentiment that I myself feel a lot of the time when I think about my friends, and sometimes it leads to me not calling, not going out, sitting at home alone because I figure no one wants me around anyway. I was moved to tears the first time I read those lyrics, just because I feel so often like I'm alone in my feelings, that no one else knows what I'm going through. Sometimes it really helps to have someone else share in the struggles that you're afraid to admit.

It doesn't hurt that the music is brilliant as well. Knowing the heavy ex-member factor that Brainworms feature (Are You Fucking Serious?!?, The Ultra Dolphins, Stop It!!, Municipal Waste, etc etc), one could be forgiven for assuming that they'd play loud, heavy hardcore. This is just not the case--instead the songs are constructed around fundamentally melodic rock n' roll riffs that are equal parts mid-80s emocore and the late 80s post-hardcore stuff that my friend Eric always calls "proto-grunge". "Sunrise Dudes" in particular has a chorus that could have been on a Rites of Spring or One Last Wish record, while "Gnar Gnar" evokes a more melodic take on Swiz, maybe mixed with a bit of "Flip Your Wig" era Husker Du. It's not a sound that I expect when I go to check out a new hardcore band in this day and age, but I think that might be a lot of the reason it works so well. Bands who can do a modern update on styles that no one plays anymore can succeed at creating a fresh sound where a lot of other bands who just fall into the lines of whatever's current would end up boring and mediocre. It's something that more musicians should attempt.

Finally, I have to mention Meth and Goats, and their album "Attack From Meth and Goats Mountain". The album is on Electric Human Project, and it's good to see a band who have been laboring away in obscurity for over half a decade finally get some recognition from higher profile labels. Their album has a bit of a different feel than their live performance that I reviewed a few weeks ago did; rather than primarily reminding me of 80s indie rock as it did live, on record their music is most evocative of the strange, dark, chaotic hardcore that was coming out of southern California in the early 90s. In fact, the bands who were most interesting in those days almost always ended up being the ones who recorded for southern California labels, but were coming from relative isolation, such as Cupertino, CA's Mohinder or Boulder, CO's Angel Hair. Meth and Goats aren't similar to either of those bands in sound, but they definitely have that similar dark, chaotic vibe, as well as emerging from complete isolation with a sound unlike that of any of their contemporaries. If they remind me of anyone on record, it's the early VSS, the band that came after Angel Hair and moved away from hardcore, simultaneously incorporating far more influence from both math-rock and goth spheres. I don't think there's anything directly goth about Meth and Goats, but I wouldn't be surprised to find that the members are familiar with Joy Division or Bauhaus. They create more of a groove in their music than either of those bands, owing primarily to the masterful drumming of Ray Malone, as well as the way guitarist Dennis Hockaday and bassist Talbot Borders interact with the rhythms Ray lays down. Meth and Goats often invert the standard structure of a rock band, with Dennis's guitar hewing most closely to the rhythm of the song through repeated chords and staccato strumming. Talbot's sinuous bass lines weave their way around and through what Dennis is playing, taking more liberties with rhythm structure and interjecting both melody and funk groove into the songs. Underneath all of this, Ray is mostly left free to improvise, following his instincts like a jazz drummer and in many places on the album getting as far away from the standard beat as he can go before reeling it all back in.

Meth and Goats's music is interesting to listen to from a technical standpoint for these reasons, but it wouldn't be worth anything if it didn't keep things exciting. Fortunately, it does this quite well, especially on songs like "Tell Me I'm Powerful", which features steadily increasing tension until a point midsong when the entire band hits chords, then chokes them off for seconds at a time. The effect is that of several false endings in a row, which pulls the rug right out from under the listener before going into a completely different riff that takes the whole song in a new direction, eventually culminating in a transition to "God's Got Money" that sounds less like a change in songs and more like a midsong pause. They're messing with us, but in fine fashion. An even better indication of this fact is that 5/4 time signatures sound perfectly normal here, while "Psychic Car Crashes," the entirety of which is in 4/4, sounds woozy and fucked up, as if it's constantly adding and dropping beats. It all rocks, but it's a strange kind of rock. Sometimes that's what's needed, though.


Something to keep me occupied.

I haven't written in a couple days, and I'm sorry about that, but it's mainly because nothing was catching my interest. I had a pretty good playlist going on my mp3 player earlier, but after hearing it through three or so times I started to get bored, and I couldn't find anything that I was really all that interested in. I just wanted something fresh, something that would give me a bit of an emotional jolt without being the same jolt I'd already gotten from it 100 times. So I went digging around on my computer. I have a 40 gig hard drive, and it's always full. I delete stuff, maybe get two or three gigs free, but then I immediately fill the whole thing back up with music, until I'm in danger of getting a "low disc space" warning. Recently I discovered that you can download comic books, in the form of zipped, scanned image archives, off the internet too, so now those are fighting with the albums for space. In fact, I've been considering adding an auxiliary blog that I would update once a week with reviews of whatever comics I've been reading. I'll keep you guys posted if I do that, because I'm just sure you're all on the edge of your seats at the prospect.

Anyway, I was looking through my files earlier, and poked pretty extensively around the folder where all the new downloads get dumped. Once I play an album through one time and ascertain that it doesn't have any bad files, it gets moved out of that folder, but I download so much more than I can listen to that that folder is always the one that's most full. Anyway, nothing seemed to strike the note I was looking for, so eventually I got all the way to the end of the alphabet and decided to put on "Meadowlands" by The Wrens. I didn't really know what to expect, but a lot of people had been raving about it lately, and I figured it couldn't be bad or I wouldn't have gotten so many recommendations. So I put it on, but didn't really pay attention; I'm trying to catch up on the "Gotham Central" comic book series (for those who are unfamiliar, imagine if the TV show "Homicide" took place in the city where Batman, Catwoman, The Huntress, and all of their villains lived... and then imagine a police department that can't stand it when Batman always solves the town's major crimes before they ever get a chance. It's a fucking incredible series), and am in the middle of reading all the back issues that I've downloaded, so I went back to that and let the music fade into the background.

Then after four or five songs, it suddenly hit me that I was really enjoying the music I was listening to. In fact, I dug it so much I quit reading scans of comic books, opened a web browser, and started typing this. I'll read the last 8 issues I need to get to in a little while, but right now let me tell you about this Wrens record. It's catchy power-pop that isn't too far from what guys like John Vanderslice do, but I certainly like it a lot better than I liked that guy's music. In fact, this is one of the better pop records I've heard this year. At times the rocked-out qualities of the songs remind me of artists like Matthew Sweet or Teenage Fanclub, but they never crank the distortion the way those groups do, instead mixing in a more garage-pop sound that is more reminiscent of the more rock-oriented Elephant 6 bands (think later-period Apples In Stereo). Remember a few days ago when I was talking about Babyshambles, and I mentioned the way that both they and their predecessors The Libertines were able to generate rockin' intensity without using distortion on their guitars? I may have phrased it slightly differently, but that's close to what I meant, and The Wrens do it too. They use more a sunshine pop-based instrumental pallette on a regular basis, though, which might also help contribute to the Elephant 6 feel of the album. I can't imagine Brian Wilson would have a problem with a lot of the songs on this record, though I don't want to make it sound like The Wrens are too wimpy to rock--far from it. They actually straddle the line between rock and pop quite effectively.

And there seems to be real emotion in their songs. I've only listened to the album once, and I haven't picked up on much of anything from the words; what I've heard seems to be standard indie-boy love song fare, but that's not really the point, as far as I'm concerned. It's more about what a band makes the listener feel, and I'm definitely getting a sincere feeling from this album. I can understand why so many people keep coming back to it, and telling everyone they know about it. It's that kind of album; the kind that grabs you on the first listen and refuses to let go, the kind of album that you know is going to be a big hit for the next couple of months by the time you've heard the first four songs. All of you should obtain a copy somehow or other--you won't be disappointed.

I wouldn't be surprised if the next thing I get really excited about is very different, though. Right now I'm downloading the new Look What I Did album. I really liked the one song that was available on their label's website before the album came out, and I'm looking forward to hearing the rest. It's a lot heavier than The Wrens, but I think they will probably be sharing time on my playlist in the near future.

OK, I'm gonna go read more "Gotham Central" back issues now. Take care, everyone.


Show review: Stop It!!, Wow Owls, Brainworms, Liza Kate, Josh Small.

I'm a bit late posting this, but... Saturday night I went to see the Stop It!! reunion show at the Nanci Raygun. Stop It!! were a Richmond-based band from 2001-2004 who broke up after their first European tour, having had various interpersonal conflicts around that time. Their reunion was done as a benefit for survivors of Hurricane Katrina, and the show was originally going to feature reunions by former Richmond hardcore bands Wheelbite and James River Scratch as well, but Stop It!! ended up being the only one who could do it.

Josh Small played first, doing a shorter set than he played at the Catalyst/Mass Movement of the Moth show I reviewed earlier this month. His set was every bit as good as it was before, though he didn't end up playing any songs I remembered from last time. I bought his CD afterward, and it didn't have any songs I really recognized on it either. Evidently he's got a lot of songs in his repertoire. In fact, he even played a Randy Newman cover, though I don't remember which one.

Liza Kate followed him, and while I remember her as an acoustic artist, she was playing an electric guitar at this show. She too was unaccompanied, which made me think of Jeff Buckley. But then she started playing, and I realized that what I should have been thinking of was Cat Power. Perhaps it was the switch from acoustic to electric instrumentation that changed the feel of her music, or maybe I just don't remember what the stuff I've heard her do before sounded like as accurately as I thought I did; after all, it's been a long time since I saw her play. But I don't remember her sounding much like Cat Power before. Now, she sounds exactly like Cat Power. Truth to tell, it kind of left me cold. It's not that I dislike what she was doing, per se, though I typically find actually listening to Cat Power's music underwhelming compared to what I usually go in expecting. It was more that what she was doing seemed to be contrived. I felt like she was making moves in her guitar playing, her vocals, her stage presence, her lyrics... everything, moves that were designed to evoke a similar response in her audience to the response she's seen someone else get from the same moves. It was the opposite of sincere. I felt like I was supposed to react to her as if she was some dark, mysterious, vaguely emotionally damaged singer who was onstage to exorcise demons. I didn't react that way, though. I felt like a puppet who suddenly sees the strings that were being pulled, and realizes that he doesn't have to respond to the pulling if he doesn't want to. This very realization made me not want to. I guess on a strictly technical level, what Liza Kate is doing is good. I can see why a lot of my friends really like it. But to me it just seems insincere.

Brainworms were next, the first full band performance of the evening. They were far more up my alley. My friend Brendan plays guitar for this band, and he's an incredibly talented musician, so I'd really hoped to catch them eventually. However, every time they'd play I'd hear that it was their last show, and every time they'd play I'd have someplace else to be. After the first time it happened, I figured I'd missed them. But by the third time I'd heard of them playing their "last show", I was starting to smell a rat. I ended up skipping that show because I'd bought tickets to see a different show two hours away, but I figured I'd end up catching Brainworms eventually anyway. Sure enough, they were on the Stop It!! reunion show, the fourth straight time that I'd heard of them playing their "last show". Brendan had recently moved to Charlottesville, but I figured that since he'd also been in Stop It!! and would therefore be in town no matter what, this was why Brainworms had decided to play again. However, the singer put to rest this entire line of speculation before they started their set. "We've been jerking your chain a bit," he explained. "This is not our last show. We're never gonna play a last show." With that, Brainworms launched into their first song. The band has an all-star lineup, at least within the Richmond city limits. Brendan's well-known for playing in Stop It!!, as well as having been in The Flesheating Creeps, Municipal Waste, El-ahrairah, and many other bands. Tim, the other guitarist, plays bass in The Ultra Dolphins. The drummer, Joe, sings (or plays guitar? I think he sings) in Are You Fucking Serious?!?, and Jay, the bassist, used to play guitar in John Wilkes Youth (who are honestly better forgotten). I'm not sure where the singer, Greg, comes from, or what bands he may have been in, but hey, close enough, right?

Anyway, Brainworms' music is not nearly as heavy as I'd expected, given the loud, noisy hardcore backgrounds of its musicians. Instead, they incorporate the more melodic end of mid-90s chaotic hardcore bands with the more straightforward sound of the mid-80s DC emocore renaissance. The fact that they cover Rites of Spring's song "For Want Of" is a good indicator of the place where they're coming from. The guitar riffs are melodic, yet pack a punch, and the tempos, while never being all that fast, are driving in a fundamentally upbeat rock n' roll manner. Joe, who plays a minimalist drum kit (snare, kick drum, floor tom, rack tom, hi-hat, ride cymbal), set up in front of the drum riser, on the same level as the rest of the band, while Greg stood on the floor in front of the stage to sing. The band played their songs nearly perfectly, sounding tight and well-practiced, and Greg put a lot of emotion into his vocals. I was glad I'd finally gotten to see them--they blew me away.

Wow Owls were up next, and they're a band I've seen a lot of in the eight or so months since I started going to shows again. I may even have written about them in this space (though that may actually have been before these show reviews were running in my blog, back when they were merely posts on the forums at lastplanetojakarta.com). Since I can't remember, I'll keep this relatively short.

Wow Owls play in a similar style to that of Brainworms, though I get less of a feel of sounds from past decades and more of a modern approach from their music. They aren't too different from the typical emocore bands of today, really (and by emocore, I mean the stuff that people sometimes call "screamo". If you don't understand why I don't want to use that word, read this), but their songwriting tends to rely more on powerful midtempo riffs that give the songs a powerful sense of forward motion and separate them from the pack of typical bands playing in this style. Just as essential to the effectiveness of their music is frontman Jeff Byers, who goes absolutely nuts when they play and is obviously putting his all into every word, an unfortunately rare quality in singers these days. I've seen Wow Owls have off nights, especially when the members drink too much before their sets, but they were firing on all cylinders this night and played a killer set, featuring a lot of the best songs from their CD, "Pick Your Patterns", as well as some new ones that I don't know yet, two of which turned out to be on a new split 7" they have out with fellow Richmonders The Setup. Even though I was pretty low on cash, I ended up buying that record, along with the Josh Small and Brainworms CDs, before the show was over.

After being blown away by both Wow Owls and Brainworms, I wasn't expecting much from Stop It!! I'd never really heard much by them, only a song off their demo, and I hadn't thought that much of it. This made their set even more surprising in its greatness than it would have been otherwise. It quickly became obvious to me that great leaps had been made in their sound by the time they broke up. I didn't know any of the songs they played, but I've since hunted down their full-length album, "Self-Made Maps", and have been listening to it constantly. Stop It!! weren't too far from what Brainworms were doing either, though I could actually see how Brainworms were picking up on what Brendan had been doing with his guitar playing in Stop It!! and taking it in a completely different direction. Rather than sounding like older emocore bands, as Brainworms do, Stop It!! incorporated Brendan's melodically based yet off-kilter rhythm guitar lines into a band more based on post-Fugazi heavy grooves. The other guitarist, Tyler, was more often the one who's playing anchored the song, and a lot of times he played arpeggios that provided a counterpoint to Brendan's staccato chord strumming instead of locking in with them. Sometimes the rhythm section followed Tyler, but a lot of the time it seemed like bassist Adam Juresko and drummer Jeff Grant were doing something completely different from what either guitarist was playing. This could translate into the commonly used Fugazi trick of the rhythm section playing slow grooves under fast guitar lines, or into far stranger rhythmic patterns that seemed to have no clear antecedent. Overall, what the divergent patterns of the different instruments created was a feel of space within the songs, space that was stretched out even further by the longer, more epic arrangements of a lot of the songs. This kind of arrangement technique has become far more popular in hardcore over the last few years than it ever was before, and it probably comes from the band City of Caterpillar, who were based in Richmond as well. But if it's done well, I don't care if it's easy to tell where a band is getting its ideas from--better to use new techniques from which to build a style than to reach back to the same themes that have been beaten into the ground for 20-odd years.

Stop It!!'s set had a pretty constant flow, and you would never guess from watching them that night that they'd been broken up for a year. There were a couple of drums set up on the stage separate from Jeff's kit, between Brendan and Adam, and sometimes one or the other of them would let go of their guitars and play these drums during particularly dramatic moments. At one point, Josh Small joined them onstage to play the second drum kit, while at another a couple of kids with whistles stormed Brendan's microphone and blew whistles along with the rhythm of the song. This seemed pretty weird to me, but after listening to "Self-Made Maps", I learned that the whistles are on the album. I was a bit surprised to realize that Brendan was the main vocalist in the band--I'd always thought of Adam as their singer, because he sang most often on the one song I'd heard. I found that I liked Brendan's vocals better--instead of the standard emocore scream that Adam sang in, Brendan managed to temper his screams with some semblance of singing that hit actual notes and was far more expressive of emotion. In fact, that was an overall theme of the set--extreme emotion, as expressed through music. I had no idea that Stop It!! were that powerful of a band, both live and in the studio. It made me wish I hadn't waited until a year after they broke up to finally give their music a listen.


"Says a prayer as she's kissed by ocean air..."

It's been raining here every day for almost a week now, with the temperatures finally dropping in preparation for winter, and even when there's not rain falling from the sky at that exact moment, it's overcast and grey and just cold enough outside to feel uncomfortable in whatever you thought would be appropriate. I work in a shopping district that is based around foot traffic, and no one wants to go outside and walk around in weather like this, so it's been really slow at my work ever since the weather started to change. On Friday, as I was leaving my house to come to work, I grabbed my copy of Red House Painters's album "Ocean Beach" while I was walking out the door. It turned out to be a good choice. I've been playing it in the late afternoons a lot, which is a time when it jibes perfectly with the outside environment.

There's something about mixing a truly depressing, downbeat album with dreary weather and a gloomy mindset that can make it, if not cheering, at least comforting in some strange way. That's the role "Ocean Beach" has been playing for me during these lonely late-afternoon work shifts lately. Around the same time that the weather changed, I started feeling a lot worse than I had been for the past few months. Normally I'm totally ready to leave my house, be around friends, and have fun, but over the past week or so it's been murder trying to make myself do those things, and sometimes I can't manage at all, and end up sitting at home all night by myself. And of course, when I do that, I'm miserable, but sometimes when I go out I feel just as bad. The tendency is to blame the whole thing on the change in weather; perhaps an attack of undiagnosed seasonal affective disorder, or just a combination of environmental influences and already diagnosed bipolar manic depressive disorder. I don't know, really, but in the end it doesn't matter. What matters is that things have been harder lately, and I'm far more likely to retreat into solitude than I had been a few weeks ago. Then again, when I do so, I feel incredibly lonely. What I end up feeling is a desire to be around people and yet to tell them all to go away at the same time.

Nothing is worse during times like this than forced solitude, and forced solitude is exactly what I'm having to endure on these long, dreary afternoons. No one comes into my work, and I can't leave no matter how dead we are (at least, not if I want to keep my job), so I sit here by myself and deal with the crappy way I feel. Listening to Red House Painters is one of the only things helping me get through it. Mark Kozelek's dry, soothing voice is almost like a warm blanket I can pull around myself, sheltering me from the cold world. In particular, the song "Summer Dress" is a comfort, with its spare, acoustic arrangement for a single guitar and vocals. Even at their most uproarious, Red House Painters are never a loud rock n' roll band, but this song is about as far from that idea that anyone could get. Kozelek's words touch on familiar concepts too, even though he's singing about a girl. "Spends her life inside, she thinks she isn't blessed," he sings, and I know that this is me too--the kid who always assumes the worst, who figures no one cares, no matter how far from the truth that may be.

This theme returns a few songs later, in "Shadows", which features another minimal arrangement (though this one is for piano and organ, rather than acoustic guitar). "You ain't doing nothing that I don't already know when you hide your sorry head in pillows," Kozelek repeats several times during the song. The lyrics seem to be about a slowly, torturously dissolving relationship in which one partner would rather hide and forestall the inevitable. The other partner, from whose point of view the song's lyrics are sung, knows that things would be much easier to handle if they both would just face them head on. But that's easier said than done, and through his identification with the significant other who'd rather continue to hide, you can tell that he's done the hiding himself plenty of times.

There are concepts like these presenting themselves in several places in my life right now. I'm still working through heartbreak over the dissolution of my last relationship, even though that was over half a year ago, and since the shift in my mood that I detailed earlier, I've been fighting with my friends a lot. Little things that I could normally laugh off are suddenly too irritating to pass over, and instead, I cause arguments that lead to me saying hurtful things to people I care about. By the time 15 minutes have passed, I'm horrified at the situation I've created, but smoothing things over later is never as easy as it would have been to avoid the argument in the first place. And then, realizing this, I start to feel hopeless, like the only way I could have avoided the problem occurring was to stay home and not have contact with anyone. Surely Mark Kozelek would tell me that staying home never solved anything, only forestalled the inevitable, and he'd be right. Later on, when my shift is over, I'll go and find some people to hang out with (no matter how hard it may be to make myself do that), and I'll try and get along with them better than I have been over the past few days. Right now, I'll stare out the window at the rain, and hope for the next few hours to pass quickly.


Show review: Meth and Goats, A Roman Holiday, Cough.

Last night was yet another show at Eric's basement, the only sorts of shows I've been able to afford lately. Meth and Goats, from Iowa, played with locals A Roman Holiday and Cough.

Cough played first, with their second show in as many weeks, and at the same venue. Their set this night was a noticeable improvement--David had cut his guitar rig down to one full-stack, and that plus a louder PA allowed for equal volume from all instruments and vocals. Also, it was obvious that they'd had more practice between the two shows, as Joey knew the Melvins cover a lot better and the set was tighter and more together in general. Chris didn't get nearly as wasted, either; I guess he's getting used to singing. The original songs grabbed me a lot more than they had the first time now that these improvements were made, and I really enjoyed their set, even more than I had last week.

Meth and Goats were supposed to play second, so that they'd get the biggest crowd, but at the end of Cough's set (which had itself gotten started over an hour late), they still weren't there, so A Roman Holiday went ahead and played. Their music is more indie-rock than what a lot of bands in Richmond are playing, mixing the danceable energy of bands like Q and Not U with a more rock n' roll sound that harks back to alternative rock bands of the mid-90s. Last time I saw them, they played a cover of "Two States" by Pavement, and this time they played "Sliver" by Nirvana. They did that song second in their set, but for some reason the guitarist decided that this would be an appropriate moment to trash his guitar, and threw it into the drums. Unfortunately, his rock n' roll excess led to his strap breaking, and he had to find another strap to borrow to continue the set. This killed the momentum of the set, and from that point on it became obvious that the members of Roman Holiday had been doing quite a bit of drinking before they played. Their songs aren't really the type of songs that work all that well when they're played sloppily, and though I know they can play them well, this wasn't that sort of night. I ended up going outside before their set was over.

Meth and Goats finally arrived at the show during A Roman Holiday's set, so they were still able to play. There was some worry that people would leave, but nothing of the sort ended up happening, and Meth and Goats played to as many people as the first two bands had. And they blew me away. It was not much like anything I'd really heard before. First of all, their drummer was incredibly talented and was all over the kit throughout every song. This made his rhythms complex, but it didn't make the songs hard to follow at all, just really interesting. The singer did do the standard hardcore scream at times, but their music was far enough removed from hardcore that it wasn't appropriate to scream a lot of the time, and so the lion's share of his vocals were sung in a balls out rock n' roll manner that reminded me of Rob Tyner from the MC5 mixed with Mark Arm of Green River/Mudhoney. The guitarist and bassist usually played parts that were completely different from each other, with the bassist doing more melodic stuff while the guitarist played a lot of repeating bar chords high up on the neck. The overall effect was complex, technical rock n' roll that at times made me think of bands like Hoover or Drive Like Jehu at their most driving moments, and at other times reminded me of 80s alternative rock bands like Husker Du. There were a lot of math-rock tendencies in their songwriting style, and the most interesting thing about them was the way that their drummer tended to be the soloist, with the bassist and singer laying down melodies and the guitarist keeping the rhythm of the songs. Like I said, different from almost anything I'd ever heard before.

I had a blast for the first few songs of their set, but then some weird drama started. There was some new kid at the show who had moved into town from Boston only a couple weeks before. He seemed like some strange cross between a raver/nu-metal kid, a fashion punk, and a crusty. He was into Meth and Goats's music, which I found understandable, but when he started dancing, instead of doing any kind of dancing people tend to do here, he did these strange dances that were a mix of rap-style "raise the roof" stuff and toughguy moshing. He'd be waving his arms all funky-like, then start swinging his fists and smashing into the people standing near him. Of course, everyone in the place found this weird, and the kids standing around him found it both absurd and annoying, but the real problem started when some of the kids standing near him started making fun of him by imitating his form of dancing. This kid was not the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree, so rather than figuring out that he was being made fun of, which could have been a problem on its own, he thought that they were into the music too, and so he started dancing even harder. Everything came to a head halfway through Meth and Goats' set, when the kid slammed into and knocked down a girl standing near him who was just watching the band. Kyle and Jamie, both of whom lived at the house, started trying to tell the kid to calm down. Meanwhile, the kids who'd been making fun of him tried to egg him on, and the kid himself started getting angry that he was "being told not to dance". I was already pretty annoyed with the way the kid had been dancing, and also with the way other kids had been egging him on. It was killing my buzz, so to speak. Coincidentally, right as this happened, the guitarist for Meth and Goats broke a string, so during the five minute lull while he was changing strings, I found myself jumping into the argument, first telling the dancer kid that he could dance if he could avoid swinging fists and running into people, then yelling at a couple of the kids who kept encouraging the guy. And of course, those kids didn't want to hear about how they were making a bad situation worse, so they gave me a bunch of half-assed excuses, and then one of them started telling me to shut up. At that point, I snapped and got in the guy's face, which led to me being dragged away from him by two other roommates from the house. Then while one of them was trying to talk me down, I yelled at some other kid who had nothing to do with it because I saw him looking at me, and at that point I was basically spitting fire, looking for an excuse. So yeah, after a few minutes I calmed down, apologized to the random kid I'd yelled at, and Meth and Goats finished their set, but on the whole the drama sucked and took a lot of the fun out of it for me. It's stuff like this that led me to get annoyed with going to shows back when I used to do it all the time a few years ago, and I'd really like to keep it from ruining things for me now. This was why I went outside after seeing Your Fellow Rebels play one song last week--so that I wouldn't get all pissed off over people acting stupid (the silly string is still stuck to the ceiling in a few places, by the way). But I really wanted to watch Meth and Goats, because they were great, so I ended up putting myself in a bad situation. I really need to try not to lose my temper in circumstances like that. Lesson learned, I suppose.

This whole thing didn't ruin the show for me completely, and I want to stress that Meth and Goats were outstanding and that you should all go see them if you ever get the chance. But man, people being drunken dumbasses at shows, and the drama this inevitably causes... the whole thing is lame. I hope I never have to deal with it again, but I can't imagine that that will come to pass.


What became of Pete Doherty.

I didn't want to like Babyshambles. Those of you who are unfamiliar with the trials and tribulations that marked the short, illustrious career of The Libertines may not understand why I say this. In fact, I've been surprised to discover quite a few times that a decent amount of Libertines fans don't get it. I suppose it's a case of my being less able than some to separate a person's music from their character. I'm specifically referring here to Pete Doherty, who was one of two vocalists/guitarists in The Libertines, along with Carl Barat. After the success, at least in their home country of the United Kingdom, of their first album, "Up the Bracket", Pete got a bit carried away with the rockstar lifestyle. This didn't come out in any typical form of rock n' roll debauched behavior, either. Soon after sabotaging their promotional tour that was intended to bring "Up the Bracket" to American audiences, Pete, who'd developed quite the crack habit, broke into Carl's apartment, stole one of his guitars (among other things), and sold it for drug money. The burglary was soon solved, and Pete ended up in jail for a few months. You might expect The Libertines to have dissolved in bouts of furious acrimony over this, but instead Carl, who'd known Pete since long before their band or Pete's drug addiction, forgave his friend, and reunited with him upon his release from jail in order to make another Libertines album. The self-titled result of this collaboration was even better than "Up the Bracket", and began with a song called "Can't Stand Me Now," which featured Pete and Carl trading lines back and forth about finding ways to deal with someone you care about who messes you up time and time again. If you didn't know the history between the two, you'd think it was told from the point of view of two halves of a dysfunctional couple who couldn't stand the thought of being apart. But if you knew the true story, it was obvious that they were singing lines about their own real-life relationship.

This could have been the happy ending if the story stopped here, but it's been a couple of years and time has marched on. Pete quickly returned to his old ways, falling apart onstage and ruining gigs so many times that Carl hired a "temporary replacement" touring guitarist and did what few American dates The Libertines finally managed to make it to without Pete. This decision was apparently the straw that broke the crackhead camel's back, and The Libertines officially broke up a few months later, before Pete ever had a chance to rejoin the fold. His side project, Babyshambles, became a full-time affair, but a more Doherty-centric one, giving Pete the chance to burn through sidemen the way a chain-smoker goes through cigarettes without having to worry about accidentally breaking up the band. This method might be working better for his mercurial personality, but thus far it's been almost two years and Doherty and company have come up with nothing official except for a couple of EPs. There've been plenty of bootlegs leaked on the internet, consisting of sloppy acoustic takes of half-finished songs and plenty of drug-fueled wankery, but they are far more effective at documenting the trainwreck of a talented young musician squandering his potential than they are at delivering the sort of musical shot in the arm that the best Libertines material provided without even working up a sweat.

And as I said, I want to hate all of it. Hearing about the whole sordid affair of The Libertines' breakup, my heart went out to Carl Barat, the standup guy who tried to stick by his friend even while he was getting robbed. He took all he could take and when his patience finally wore thin, he lost his friend and his band over it. It made me want to punch Pete Doherty in the face. But on the other hand, it couldn't be denied that he was releasing product, and considering how much I enjoyed the music of The Libertines, I guess it was only a matter of time before I checked it out.

When I did, I went hunting for the official material. I figured that if there was anything worthwhile to extract from the detritus of bootlegs like "Acoustic Lullaby" and "Shaken and Withdrawn", it would show up on the EPs. But what's really worth hearing here are the A-sides. "Kilamangiro" is the best, a catchy, uptempo track with the undistorted yet strident guitar strumming that was always a Libertines trademark, and Pete's signature just-rolled-out-of-bed singing style that carries a perfect air of nonchalance without being loose enough for him to risk missing any notes. Its B-side, "The Man Who Came To Stay", is a bit slower, but still carries the same spark of early punk-rock energy that came through in all of The Libertines' material. It's this hard-to-define element that garnered comparisons with seminal punk acts like The Jam and The Clash, and you can hear similar antecedents in Babyshambles' music. The Clash in particular show up on the internet-only track "Gang of Gin", which incorporates reggae guitar upstrokes on the verses. By the way, the lyrics to this song are apparently Pete complaining about the manner by which The Libertines broke up, and for the life of me I can't figure out how the fuck he justifies this attitude, considering their breakup is entirely his fault. Anyway, "Babyshambles", the A-side of their first EP, is not as outstanding as both songs on the "Kilamangiro" EP, but fits well with them, and certainly shows up its two acoustic B-sides. In particular, the version of The Libertines' "What Katie Did" that appears on the B-side of the "Babyshambles" EP is notable only for the handclaps at the beginning of the track, which are irresistible when placed under the retro-50s "shoop shoop" chorus. Aside from this, though, The Libertines' version is far better.

"Fuck Forever", the third Babyshambles EP, is longer, with more B-sides, and this gives it enough time to demonstrate the inconsistency that I figured would show up eventually. The slightly faster rerecording of "Babyshambles" is not bad, but the guitar sound is more distorted and therefore loses some of its unique qualities. The original sounds more like The Libertines, and while Pete Doherty may have rerecorded it in order to distance himself from that band's sound, all he's really done is taken some of the spark out of it. "Fuck Forever", the A-side here, is also a bit lackluster. The tempo is slowed down a bit from earlier singles, and again the frenetic jangling of the guitars has been more distorted, which is less Libertines but also less exciting. I wouldn't normally say something like this, but I'm also a bit unsure as to why the song has such a provocative title and chorus. The lyrics don't really seem to justify it, and in fact I'm a bit happier with the clean version that's tacked onto the end of the EP, because I can at least play it at work without cringing.

I don't want anyone to think that I'm taking a "third EP and they've already jumped the shark" stance on Babyshambles, though. The new B-sides here are mostly really good, "Monkey Casino" being particularly excellent. Doherty's backing band, particularly the drummer, shine here, pounding hard and propelling the song forward in a way that seems to drag Doherty along with it, hollering all the way. This may be the best Babyshambles song so far. "Black Boy Lane" is almost as good, mixing "Gang of Gin"'s subtle reggae-isms with "Fuck Forever"'s slowed-down tempo, then adding an element of street-tough menace that takes the song to a higher level and makes it more than the sum of its parts. "East of Eden" is primarily acoustic, and sounds jazzy, almost like swing. It's little more than a toss-off, more what you'd expect from a B-side than the two songs it follows, but with "Monkey Casino", "Black Boy Lane", and to a lesser extent the clean version of "Fuck Forever" justifying the price of admission, everything else is gravy.

Word has it that Babyshambles are recording a full-length album with Mick Jones of The Clash producing called "Down In Albion," and in fact some websites I've found while Googling them list a release date of a month from now. But considering the footage released from the sessions that ruined Kate Moss on British television last month (if you don't know what I'm talking about click here), I have to wonder how much work is actually being done. Time will tell, I suppose, and I certainly don't want anyone to think that I've let Pete Doherty off the hook. He's still a scumbag, and I still think he deserves a punch in the face for how he treated Carl Barat. But I have to admit... the guy writes some pretty great songs, even now. Let's hope he cleans up soon. Maybe then he'll be more consistent about it.


Death Cab For Cutie let me down.

I've been meaning to write about the new Death Cab album for a little while now, have had an idea of what I wanted to say about it and everything for a few weeks. But I keep on not having time to write or having time, but having something else that feels more urgent, so it hasn't happened. Now, today, I feel like writing about it, but I don't have that much time. So this may not be nearly as formal or as well thought out as I'd have liked it to be, but I want to get it down now, while I'm thinking about it, especially since I've been so bad so far this week about sticking to my new one-update-per-day pledge.

So yeah, there's a new Death Cab For Cutie album, called "Plans", and it's their major label debut (on Atlantic, to be exact). I'm sure Seth Cohen from that TV show "The OC" is suitably stoked, and will be mentioning it at least once during the new season. That's great for Death Cab, it really is. But the problem for me and for the other longtime listeners is that they seem to have dropped the ball where actual songwriting is concerned. "Plans", to me, sounds like what would have happened if Death Cab were too busy with other commitments to bother writing their new album themselves and farmed the job out to their favorite Death Cab tribute act. What's more, it's a Death Cab tribute act that misses the point of all of the elements of Death Cab For Cutie's music that separated them from the pack, that I loved when I started listening to them, and neglects all of them.

Instead, they emphasize all the stereotypical pop elements of their music, to the exclusion of almost everything else. The lyrics that used to present a three-dimensional picture of actual persons, situations, and feelings now describe the most hackneyed cliches with the same sort of wide-eyed lack of delicacy that makes listening to Dashboard Confessional so painful for anyone over 17. In fact, speaking of Dashboard Confessional, I feel like the blame for the worst song here could be laid mostly at their feet. "I Will Follow You Into the Dark", which features Ben Gibbard doing a solo turn on acoustic guitar and vocal, features the sort of lyrics that teenagers write in love notes to their 10th grade significant others and cringe over when remembering those moments a decade later. There's nothing romantic about the concept of death, especially once you start getting a little older and having friends and relatives die on you. But for teenagers, the romantic possibilities of the subject seem to be endless, which as far as I've always thought comes from a misplaced desire to get laid more than anything else. For Ben Gibbard, a guy who has always seemed to have the talent and originality necessary to rise above cliche lyrical approaches, to spit out a song like this, and on his sixth album with Death Cab For Cutie of all times, speaks to me less of inspiration and more of a desire for a crossover hit. It's pretty pathetic.

The only song that really works for me on this album is "What Sarah Said", which is not so coincidentally the only song that continues with the experimentation with pop song form that Death Cab have done in the past. Here they follow in the footsteps of "Transatlanticism"'s "We Looked Like Giants" and its title track into an exploration of repetition. The ending of the song is drawn out for several minutes of the band playing the same riff over and over as it slowly grows fainter and the instruments drop out one by one. By the end of the song, all that can be heard is a quiet piano. This section of the song, mixed with the obvious emotion of the song's lyrics (which are perhaps the best on the album), about watching a loved one die, does a lot to pull the band's and the listener's heart into the moment.

But this is just about the only place that happens. Some of the other songs have potential, especially lyrically. "Soul Meets Body" has some good riffs, but both it and "Marching Bands of Manhattan" are damaged by the fact that their big payoff choruses are unforgivably cliche. "Crooked Teeth" and "Brothers On A Hotel Bed" show some inspiration lyrically, and even "I Will Follow You Into the Dark" has one decent verse out of four, but overall the songs on "Plans" just don't do what Death Cab used to be able to do. In particular, the ambient textures that always sat just under the surface of the music in their early days are gone, destroyed by a combination of more conventional songwriting and more conventional production. I can't help but think that part of what drew me into early albums like "We Have The Facts And We're Voting Yes" (still my favorite record of theirs) and "Something About Airplanes" was the slightly unpolished feel of the production, which placed a thin layer that wasn't quite static but wasn't quite silence either overtop of all of the songs. Having to hear Death Cab's pop hooks through the tiniest bit of recorder grot kept them interesting, even exciting, but now, with everything polished and clearly heard, they just seem bland. This isn't to say that the production is the whole problem--I'm pretty sure "We Have The Facts" would have sounded just as good with this kind of high dollar production sheen as it did in its original form. What really hurts Death Cab For Cutie here is a lack of inspiration. This album's epitaph is best taken from an earlier Death Cab lyric: "I rushed this. We moved too fast." Hopefully they'll learn from this misstep and do a better job next time.


Show review: John Vanderslice, Portastatic, Brandon Butler.

Traveled last night to DC to see John Vanderslice, Portastatic, and Brandon Butler at the Black Cat. I wasn't but so familiar with any of the acts, though I've certainly heard Mac McCaughan's work in Superchunk and Brandon Butler's work in Boys Life and Canyon. I really just went because some new friends of mine were going, and I wanted to hang out with them more.

The drive up was kind of rough. I sat in the back and had the worst attack of the motion sickness that's plagued me all my life that I've had anytime since becoming an adult. I didn't get sick, but I definitely had moments where all I could do was hang onto the door handle, close my eyes, and sit very still. I never feel sick if I'm in the front seat, but I'd been too nice to demand it on the way up. Whoops. I made sure in advance that I could sit shotgun on the way home.

We got to the show right as Brandon Butler was starting. He played an acoustic guitar and sang, and was backed up by a bassist and a cellist. No percussion of any kind. I liked what I heard of his music, though it's far from what he did in his early days on the scene, in Boys Life and The Farewell Bend, a couple of pioneering midwestern-based emo bands. It was a lot closer to what he did in Canyon, an alt-country band he played in a few years ago, but was made rootsier merely by virtue of the instrumentation he was using. Canyon was a pretty large band, and had rock elements to their sound despite country-styled songwriting just because of the louder, electric instruments they used. Butler's solo stuff, by being stripped down as it was, lost a lot of the rock feel that Canyon had and was basically country. It was good, but nothing outstanding. I think I'd like it better with a full band backing him up.

Portastatic was next, and I wasn't completely unfamiliar with them, but I hadn't heard anything they'd done in a long time. I was used to thinking of them as Mac McCaughan's acoustic, experimental project, where he got out all the ideas he had that didn't fit Superchunk. I'm not sure what's up with Superchunk these days--I've gotten the idea at times that they're over, only to have them release another record. Either way, at this point in their career Portastatic is far closer to the territory Superchunk normally covers than I'd expected. Mac played electric guitar and was backed up by his brother Matthew on drums, fellow Superchunk guitarist Jim Wilbur on bass, and multi-instrumentalist Margaret White, who most often played keyboards or violin, though she also played acoustic guitar and various percussion instruments. The songs were catchy pop-rock, and with Mac's signature high, nasal vocals added on top, they could have been new Superchunk songs, but for one crucial difference. I always felt like Superchunk were a melodic punk rock band, and a very good one at that, but Portastatic has no punk elements to their sound. Where Superchunk sounds at least influenced by punk at all times, Portastatic is straight-up rock music. Superchunk always had guitar solos, but they were punk rock guitar solos--short, to the point, not very flashy. Mac's solos in Portastatic are an entirely different beast, at times approaching J Mascis-style length and pyrotechnics.

So did I like it? Well, after 24 hours, I'm still not quite sure. At the time the songs were catchy and enjoyable, though I wasn't as galvanized and blown away as I was the first time I saw Superchunk in 1992, by any stretch of the imagination. However, most of the people I was there with weren't that excited by Portastatic, and upon reflection I can understand why. They're not doing anything all that special, and while they're good at what they do they're certainly not head and shoulders above the sizable pack that do the same thing. There are plenty of bands playing alternative/indie-oriented pop-rock music, and quite a few who do it better than Portastatic. You could do a lot worse than what they're doing, but they're not something I'd go out of my way to see again. I think they could be improved if they quit with the pretense towards earlier experimentalism and just gave Margaret White a second electric guitar and cranked it up. If they're going to play pop-rock, I personally would prefer that they go for it full-on and not monkey around with needless instrumental layers. That's just one reporter's opinion, though.

John Vanderslice came out onstage after a notably short instrument changeover, which was refreshing after my last experience at the Black Cat when I had to wait way longer for Dungen to take the stage than they had any excuse taking. He had a similar instrumental setup to Portastatic; himself on vocals and electric guitar, plus a bassist, a drummer, and a keyboard/synth player. Now, I wasn't too familiar with Mr. Vanderslice before deciding to go to this show. I had heard three of his albums by the time the day of the show came around, but I'd acquired them all within the previous week, and didn't know many of his songs. I spent a significant portion of the set talking to a couple of different friends that I ran into at the show, and by the end of his set I was glad I had done so, because even if I'd loved the guy I'd probably have felt that his set went on for too long. As it was, I didn't know the majority of the songs he played, and I would have been bored as hell by the end of the set if I hadn't had people to talk to. The music was good, featuring tautly crafted pop hooks played proficiently by a practiced combo of musicians who worked well together. They even did a good job adapting songs from older albums to the instrumental lineup of the current band, when a lot of them were written for far different setups. But in the end, I think I felt like it was good as opposed to great precisely because of how well-mannered and tame the whole thing was.

John Vanderslice's vocals are clearly enunciated to the point that sometimes he seems to be singing in a fake British accent, and his guitar lines never get too crazy, his sound never too overdriven. This is not what I look for in music that I love. I'm a raw nerve of a person, emotionally-centered and driven by passion to an extent that often separates me from the majority of society, makes me an obvious weirdo in the eyes of most people. This is a lot of why I gravitated to the indie-rock/punk/hardcore/metal scene in the first place. I can certainly concede that John Vanderslice's music is well-crafted, well-played, and catchy. It's clever, especially in the way that he often combines upbeat pop melodies with lyrics that tell harsh, biting tales of drug abuse, emotional imbalance, and general malfeasance. Hell, I'll even go ahead and say that I like it ok. It just is never going to blow me away as it stands right now, precisely because of how emotional a person I am. I don't get a feeling of emotion in John Vanderslice's music. It seems restrained, sober, contained, to an extent that I don't like. It's not the style he's playing in, either--I can certainly see easy comparisons between his and Morrissey's work, both with The Smiths and solo. But it doesn't knock me on my ass the way those records do, and that's because Morrissey never let his mannered vocal style get in the way of expressed emotion. Vanderslice's lyrics may all be true stories taken from his own life, and Morrissey may have fabricated every story he ever told. But I'm never going to believe in Vanderslice the way I believe in Morrissey. And this is a major stumbling block in my ability to enjoy his music. I may yet find it growing on me over time, but as it is right now I think John Vanderslice will always be the sort of artist I damn with faint praise. He's a nice guy, that's obvious from his stage presence even if I hadn't heard it a million times from people who've met him, but I doubt I'll ever go out of my way to see him play again. If he ever replaces his keyboardist with a second guitarist and cranks the distortion on both of their guitars, if he ever drops the mannered vocal style and fucking wails, this may change. We'll see, I suppose.


Show review: Your Fellow Rebels, Stifling, Cough.

Last night, once again at Eric's basement, I saw three stoner rock bands in a row. Seemed like a cool idea in theory, but got rather monotonous and boring in execution.

First was Cough, playing their first show. This is kind of a local Richmond supergroup, though naming the members probably won't mean anything to people from anywhere else. I'm gonna do it anyway though: David Cisco plays guitar and Chris Kirby sings. Both of them play guitar and sing in The Setup, and Chris used to play guitar in Light the Fuse and Run. Parker [whose last name I don't know] plays bass--he sings in local drum-machine grind act The Tenth Key. And finally, Joey Arcaro plays drums, something he also does for Sword, another local stoner rock band. In fact, I made a joke immediately after the set that Joey must be the only stoner rock drummer in town, which was heard by everyone in the room and greeted with a chorus of "oooooh"s. Oops. Cough were similar to Sword in some ways, playing slow, swampy stoner rock with a noticeable groove to it, but where Sword seem to take more inspiration from modern bands like Electric Wizard, Cough drew straight from the boogie bands of the 70s with a sound that I feel comfortable calling retro. It was their first show, so they only played three originals, plus a cover of The Melvins' "Night Goat" that Joey was obviously a bit unsure about. Their songs were so long that the set still lasted a half-hour, which I guess is a nice bonus to playing stoner rock. My new band is playing our first show in a month, and if we continue writing at our current pace, we'll be lucky to have 10 minutes of material. Anyway, Cough were incredibly loud, with David playing through two half-stacks and Parker playing through two bass amps hooked together and powering two 8x10 cabinets. As a result of this, Chris's vocals were all but inaudible, especially from where I was standing. Eric is on tour right now, and should be bringing some PA speakers back from a friend's house in Delaware after the tour. This will be good, because the PA at the house right now is not loud enough. Chris was probably not too bothered by his vocals being inaudible, though--he'd had to get quite drunk just to deal with his nerves about singing (something that I've found is far scarier when you don't have a guitar in your hands), and continued drinking like a fish throughout the set, even pulling out a flask and chugging some sort of liquor at one point.

Though Cough were nothing outstanding, I enjoyed their set, and thought it went quite well for a first show. However, the evening went downhill from this point.

Up next were the out-of-town band, Stifling, from somewhere in the Southwestern area of Virginia, which is like a different state from the rest of it. For that matter, so is the part of Virginia immediately outside of DC, which everyone calls NoVa these days. Anyway, Stifling were yet another two-piece band featuring bass and drums with no guitar. This lineup has become so common in recent years that it may actually be losing its gimmicky status in the eyes of some, but if that's the case for others it's not the case for me. I still find it to be an idea with limited potential that requires harder work in order to achieve success. Of course, with all the trouble I've had finding bandmates over the years, I can see an appeal to this sort of lineup, so I can't really begrudge it to anyone. That said, I didn't find Stifling to be, specifically, too good. They had some good riffs at points, especially the rare moments in which they'd play at a more uptempo pace. Most of the time, though, they were grinding out the sort of slow, sludgy riffs that can be done well but quite often are just boring and seem to go nowhere. Stifling's riffs were mostly the latter, and I specifically noticed a lack of songwriting chops. They seemed to not know how to write transitions from one section of a song to another, and would continually break up the flow with repetitive sections that served only to build up to the next section of their song. If I were in the band, I would have wanted all of those parts cut. It would have helped with song length too, as most of the songs they played seemed about two minutes longer than they could justify being. On the whole, I'd say that they are not without potential to be good, but it's the songwriting that needs to improve before this will ever happen, and that's often the hardest thing to change in a band.

Last up were Your Fellow Rebels, a reasonably new local band that are gathering a following rather quickly. I realized as they started playing that I'd seen them once before and forgotten about it. The last time, they'd been too drunk to play their music, but this time they didn't have that problem. The problem they did have was being the third band in a row to be playing slowed-down stoner rock. I heard a lot of people leaving the show later in the night talking about how awesome it was that it had been an all-stoner show, but I personally can't agree with that train of thought. For me stoner rock gets boring after a while. I can't just sit around listening to stoner rock album after stoner rock album; I have to vary it up to keep it interesting, and this show could really have used some variation. That said, Your Fellow Rebels were probably the best band of the night, musically, adding a lot more blues than most bands of that style incorporate, and mixing their stoner-rock sound with sung vocals that helped move things more into the territory of dark, melodic alternative rock.

What sucked was that the fans they'd drawn to the show were drunken, obnoxious idiots. Kids were blowing whistles and spraying silly string everywhere even before they started their set, and by a minute and a half into the first song, someone was crowd-riding, which made no sense in light of the fact that the basement has a 7-foot ceiling with pipes running along it. When I saw one of the crowd-rider kids hanging onto a couple of the pipes above his head, visions of said pipes bursting and flooding the basement immediately popped into my mind. I don't live at Eric's house, but I'm there a lot and everyone who lives there is someone I'd consider a friend, so I am about as territorial with it as the people who do live there. I didn't want to flip out on anyone for being idiots and taking risks with a house that wasn't theirs, and I knew I would if i stayed in the basement, so I went upstairs and sat on the back porch for the rest of Your Fellow Rebels' set. I could hear their music coming up through the floor pretty well, but when you're not in the same room as a band, it's easy to tune them out, which for the most part is what I did. I'd like to see them again, though they played for a bit too long (they did this last time I saw them too), but hopefully next time it will be at a club or some other place I don't care about.


Don't think twice, it's all right.

Back when I was a kid, Bob Dylan's songs used to scare the fucking shit out of me. I could never really explain why, but when that guy's music would come on the classic rock stations that my dad played, and were my own introduction into music fandom when I got a little older, I'd always get profoundly creeped out. It took me a long time before I realized that I liked his music, because I couldn't listen to it for very long until I was probably 16 years old.

It took even longer for me to figure out what it was about Dylan's music that had scared me as a child, but these days I'm pretty sure I know what it is. Dylan first got famous as a result of obviously political folk songs like "Blowin' In the Wind" and "The Times They Are A-Changin'", but stuff like that never gets played on classic rock radio, probably because of its minimalist instrumentation. I had heard those songs as a kid, but the ones that really stuck out for me were songs like "The Ballad of a Thin Man", "Subterranean Homesick Blues," and above all others, "Like a Rolling Stone." People made out like Dylan was a political protest guy, but all I got out of his music when I listened to him was surreal and ominous imagery that I didn't understand. Nonetheless, lines like "You ask, 'Is this where it is?'/And somebody points to you and says, 'it's his'/And you say, 'what's mine?', and someone else says, 'Well, what is?'" made me want to hide under my bed in terror.

I'm thinking about this now after so much time has passed because I've been reading "Chronicles Volume One", Dylan's recently released memoir, which has inspired me to pull out a lot of his music and listen to it. I was surprised to learn that I have almost everything he released between the beginning of his career and 1975's "Blood On the Tracks", most of it on cassette. I had no idea I owned that many Dylan albums, but I guess he's always been one of those artists whose work I couldn't turn down if I found it for a good price. This is undoubtedly why I bought "The Times They Are A'Changin", "Another Side of Bob Dylan", and "Basement Tapes"--they were in Tower Records's 3 for $10 bin. The first two I mentioned, along with his self-titled debut and "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan", have been the ones I've played the most during this recent Dylan binge, probably due to the fact that they've all been played maybe twice or three times (except "Freewheelin'", I've had that one for a lot longer than the rest, and I played it a lot when I first got it).

My relative unfamiliarity with those albums has led me to discover a lot of stuff I've never really heard before. "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" and "Only A Pawn In Their Game", both from "Times", have gotten stuck in my head lately, and led me to read up on William Zantzinger and Medgar Evers. Meanwhile, "All I Really Want To Do", off "Another Side", will undoubtedly make the next mix tape I make for some girl I like. There's some of that later scary surrealism here too, especially on "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall," from "Freewheelin'." I can't tell you why the line "I met a white man who walked a black dog" gives me chills, but it does.

Really, though, this all just goes back to what I talked about with the early rock n' roll stuff I wrote about last week, the way it's really cool to hear things that are obviously from another era, that couldn't be created now without having a completely different feel. It's true, the early pre-electric Dylan stuff is probably the last music I can think of in the history of music leading up until now that came from a different place than where our society is now. Dylan came along at the tail end of the 50s/early 60s folk movement, and was pretty much responsible for bridging the gap between that stuff and the psychedelic/garage rock scene. This paved the way for the entire late 60s protest rock movement, by which time Dylan was disgusted with it all and hiding out in the countryside of upstate New York. To this day I bet he'd hate getting credit for leading anything, but it happened.

The early records predate all of that, though, and speak of the roots and history of the idiom in which Dylan was working at the time. His simple guitar playing and debatably musical vocals, alone and unaccompanied in an empty room, could be coming from a spot next to a train track 50 years before. And of course, plenty of people had done it plenty of times before, but the reason Dylan's contributions still matter is that you can hear him, on these early records, striving to find something new to say, some new ways to work with the form. Even on his first record, mostly filled with covers and old standards as it is, "Song To Woody" speaks of the direction in which he'd progress, and this direction is magnified ten times by the epochal "Blowin' In the Wind", from "Freewheelin'," which came less than a year later. It's really obvious why everyone saw these records as so great back then.


Armor For Sleep.

I wrote about the most recent Armor For Sleep album, "What To Do When You Are Dead", in a larger "Emo Roundup" article a few months ago. At the time, I'd never heard their earlier album, "Dream To Make Believe", and in fact I'd been dissuaded from checking it out by a friend who had, and said it wasn't anything that great. However, last week I heard an opposing viewpoint from another friend. He'd just been through a bad breakup, and informed me that "Dream to Make Believe" was nearly the only thing keeping him sane (along with Lifetime's "Hello Bastards", an album I've long known to be of superlative caliber). This was enough to get me to check it out, and I've learned that my suffering friend was right about the quality of this album. It's not as close to that modern radio-friendly emo/pop-punk sound that's so big right now as "What To Do When You Are Dead" is, and while "Dream To Make Believe" doesn't have the powerful and gripping lyrical content that helped to set that album apart from the pack, I would argue that it is musically superior to its follow-up. A spaced-out guitar sound that descends from bands like Hum and Failure is used frequently here, while elements of the emo/pop-punk sound that were used heavily in the songwriting structures on "What To Do When You Are Dead" are almost entirely absent. This album mixes echoing guitars and melodic vocal hooks into something almost like power-pop, but with a palpable sense of loneliness that doesn't come through so much in the words as in the sound of the music itself. It's something about the ambient texture, provided by the amount of reverb used on the guitar and voice, that makes you feel like you're floating in space, all alone. In the end, this is an incredibly sad album that creates a feeling of sincere emotion, while never resorting to the sort of heart-on-sleeve confessional style that powers the music of a lot of Armor For Sleep's contemporaries. This is good, too, because that sort of style can fail horribly if it's not done well, and for every Taking Back Sunday who pull it off perfectly, there are at least half a dozen Dashboard Confessional ripoffs who nearly drown the listener in cloying sentimentality. Armor For Sleep achieve what they've set out to create with their music, and do it subtly, without overplaying their hand, which makes "Dream To Make Believe" that much more remarkable of an album.


Show review: The Catalyst (again), Mass Movement of the Moth, Josh Small.

Last night I saw The Catalyst in their basement again, which I think makes two shows in a row. This time they played with Mass Movement of the Moth and Josh Small.

Josh Small played first, and since the show started on time and everyone always shows up to shows late, he played to a rather small crowd of only 25 or so. His music was pretty awesome--on most of the songs he played a (knock-off) National steel guitar, and on the rest he played banjo. Whether the steel guitar was a fake National or not, it had a really loud sound to it, as well as that buzzing, ringing sound that I associate a lot with prewar blues. However, rather than playing in that style, Josh played songs that reminded me of the more rocked-out alt-country stuff that i really dig, such as Lucero and Uncle Tupelo, at their most maudlin. This could have been bad, but I thought it was awesome. He has a really good singing voice, and writes really interesting and heartfelt lyrics, certainly not cliched. On the banjo songs, he played the style that I think is called "clawhammer", which gave the songs an old-timey feel, but he still used a lot of the minor-chord dynamics that he used on the steel guitar songs. This continued to remind me of the whole alt-country thing I'd gotten from the steel guitar songs, and kept an emotional vibe to the music no matter how far it went into folk or old-time country territory. On a personal note, one of the songs had a chorus that went "New York City's all you need... you don't need me," which reminded me so strongly of my last breakup (which I'm still far from over) that I nearly started crying right there. This guy's definitely an emotionally affecting performer, and I hope he plays the basement again soon.

Next up were Mass Movement of the Moth, a DC hardcore band who incorporate keyboards into their sound. This is the kind of thing that can get very self-consciously quirky very quickly, but luckily Moth don't take it in that direction. In fact, they incorporate a lot of unorthodox styles of music (ska and salsa come to mind) into their songwriting as well, and yet it all fits together well into a unified sound that never seems jarring and always rocks. I'd heard their records a few times before, but the guys in The Catalyst, who have been playing shows with Moth for years now, were always telling me that their live shows far surpassed the records. They had a whole bunch of equipment problems: the PA amp wasn't loud enough for vocals to be heard over the music, Ashley's guitar amp started losing volume (evidently due to a failing tube that needed to be replaced) towards the end of the set, and during the second song in the set, a power strip that was connecting the bass amp and keyboard amp blew out, so that half of the music disappeared while they were playing. In fact, the power strip ended up blowing its built-in circuit twice during the same song before they finally just got a different power strip. Despite all of the trouble, though, they played really well and had the whole place dancing. People wanted to hear more at the end of the set, but with Ashley's amp acting up, they decided not to play any longer.

Moth had played to a good bit more people than Josh Small did, but they finished their set at about 9 pm, and a good many more people showed up to the house right as they did. So when The Catalyst came on, the basement was packed, with at least 70 and maybe as many as 100 kids down there for their set. The Catalyst played well last time I saw them, but this time was even better. For some reason, they were just on fire with their musical performance, and blew everyone away. Eric had noticed just how poorly the PA had done with Moth's vocals, so he wasn't using it almost at all during the set (apparently it had been shocking him too, which I didn't find out til later in the night). I was standing right next to him watching the set, and after their first song, I told him that if he was just going to ignore the microphone, I was going to steal it and sing their song "Just Like the Last Scene In 'The Karate Kid'," which I've threatened to do at past shows but never did. He just shrugged and started the next song, but as soon as that song was over, he yelled for the band to play "Karate Kid". I took it as a challenge, that he was calling my bluff, and decided to take him up on it (despite some nervousness). I stole the mic halfway through the first verse and sang the rest of the song, even though I realized 10 seconds into doing it that I only know about 60% of the words to the song. I can't comment on how well my vocals sounded, but it sure was fun to do, especially since the basement was so packed that the band could barely move. There was really no room for me to jump out and be a frontman, but I did it anyway, slamming into kids in the front row and into Jamie and Nate while they played their guitars. Then a huge circle pit started, despite the fact that there was no room for one. It was great.

The cops came 5 songs into The Catalyst's set, and Nate had to put his bass down and go talk to them, since pretty much everyone who lived at the house was either playing in the band or trapped in the tightly packed crowd (ever thought about how much house shows must violate fire code restrictions? Man...). When he came back he announced that he'd told the cops they were on tour from Canada, and the cop had said they could play one more song. So they played their song "Chronic the Hedgehog", which is about 5 minutes long on record and has been known to run twice to three times that length live. Halfway through the song, Jamie did his customary switch from guitar to drums, and a bunch of people grabbed extra drumsticks and started playing on Kevin and Jamie's drumsets along with them. Ashley from Mass Movement of the Moth even grabbed a floor tom from their equipment and started playing along as well. The drum-based jam section of the song went on for over 10 minutes, and got pretty free-form by the end. It was a pretty incredible rendition of the song, and a great set on the whole. Probably the best I've seen them play, and I could tell that a lot of kids at the show who hadn't seen them before were blown away.

In closing, I love basement shows. They are the best.


Rock n' roll, baby.

Today I had the opportunity to read the long out-of-print collection of interviews with Stephen King, "Bare Bones". My boss (I work at a bookstore) brought it back from a recent vacation she took to this town in Wales, Hay-On-Wye, where they have something like 40 used bookstores even though the town only has about a thousand residents. For people like my boss (and me, if I had the necessary cash), that kind of shit is the ultimate tourist trap. She bought so many books she had to ship them back in boxes from England while she was there. She had all of the boxes shipped to the store, and I dug through one of them yesterday and found "Bare Bones." Without further ado, I set aside my copy of Bob Dylan's "Chronicles Vol. 1" (something about that book/his music is probably coming soon, but then again, I never have gotten around to that Death Cab For Cutie review I want to do...) and started to read, finishing in about one and a half shifts on the job.

Stephen King may not be my favorite writer anymore, like he was when i was 14, but he's still in at least the top 20 and I'll always have a soft spot for his stuff, because it was the first writing I ever read that made me think, "I could do this. I'd like to do this (maybe without all the monsters though)." I particularly love to read his non-fiction, whether it be essays on popular culture, autobiographical material, introductions to his books, or interviews. So I had a lot of fun reading "Bare Bones", even though most of the material is 25 to 30 years old and as such quite outdated.

I'm sure you're thinking, but what's all this got to do with music? Nothing directly, but on the other hand, it directly inspired today's post. See, Stephen King's writing has a childlike sense of frantic inspiration to it, which has always reminded me of balls-out rock n' roll. This can include bands like AC/DC, The Ramones, and Neil Young (all of whom he has plugged in various books over the years), but generally in my mind means the real wild stuff from back in the 50s. This was the first music I ever really fell in love with as a child, when I discovered my dad's half-dozen or so old LPs collecting hits of the day in one place, and there's something about it that appeals to me to this day. So, after reading all that Stephen King stuff, I came home and queued the "Loud, Fast, and Out of Control" 4-disc box set from Rhino records. I just happened to have downloaded it a few weeks ago on a random whim, inspired by a Rolling Stone article about Bo Diddley. I still hadn't listened to it all the way through until today.

It's funny; I listen to some of the fastest music ever recorded, on a regular basis. Agoraphobic Nosebleed's machine-generated 360-bpm blast beats are a good example. Old school rock n' roll, no matter how frenetically played, is never going to reach speeds anywhere near a lot of stuff I've heard. However, in spite of whatever numerical evidence anyone can produce, it always feels to me when I listen to this stuff that it's the fastest fucking music I've ever heard in my life. It's something about the raw abandon with which it's performed, the way primitive recording techniques of the time forced bands to all record in the same room together, in real time. There are other interesting elements that come to light when you really pay attention to these old recordings, which are caused by the same factors. For instance, in its infancy, the instrumentation of rock n' roll was far from being nailed down. While some bands relied on guitars, bass and drums, just like the modern bands do now, other bands gave far greater roles to saxophone, piano, and especially nonstandard forms of percussion, than any bands have done since those years. The way those random bits of percussion had to be miked creates the most interesting effect, pulling handclaps or maracas out of the mix and pushing them to the forefront. It's not necessarily an awesome effect, but if nothing else, it adds to the originality, the way this stuff is obviously from another time.

There's a lot of elements like that though, and the main one I find myself going back to over and over is the frantic, explosive performances a lot of these groups give when they finally managed to get into a studio. I continue to return to the freshness, the sincerity that seems to come through in these performances. There's no way things like this could have existed in modern times, now that we're all so unfortunately familiar with concepts of irony and theatrical representation. Plenty of bands play the role these days, but these groups, most of whom were little more than kids when these recordings were made, were just being themselves. There was no role to play. Reverend Horton Heat might be able to imitate the songwriting style that was common then, but really, the music he creates is 180 degrees from anything on this box set.

Don't believe me? There's plenty of evidence here, including a lot of songs I'd never even heard before. Ike Turner's original band, Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats (who, according to some article I read, were actually called something completely different--Brenston's band was some rival group who mistakenly got credit for the session. Man, no wonder royalties were a nightmare for 50s groups), are here with "Rocket 88", which legend has it is the first rock n' roll record ever. It's primitive, but it sure does wail. Then there's Kid Thomas's "Rockin This Joint", on which the Kid howls and screams but keeps it all together, like Screamin' Jay Hawkins took his meds for once. The music pounds too, as does Gene Vincent's backing band, The Blue Caps, on "B-I-Bickey-Bi, Bo Bo Bo", which indicates a whole different side to Gene Vincent than I'd ever gotten from "Be-Bop-a-Lula", his only song that I'd heard before this (dude sure was into gibberish song titles, wasn't he?). Listening to the band scream and howl during the instrumental breaks on this song makes me want to get up and dance, though I can't do the jitterbug, as these songs demand. My dad can, I should get him to teach me.

One last thing--I've always heard a ton about how rock n' roll comes from the combination of blues and country/hillbilly music, but listening to this set makes it obvious that a big portion of what led to this music's existence came from jazz, specifically the swing/jump bands of the 40s. You can hear it in the way the electric guitar fits with the stuttering rhythm on Joe Clay's "Duck Tails", despite the fact that the vocal is harking forward to Roky Erickson's work with the 13th Floor Elevators with a prescience I didn't realize was possible. In fact, there's even a straight-up jazzman on here: Louis Prima, doing "Jump, Jive and Wail", a song most members of my generation would only know from the Brian Setzer Orchestra version of maybe 8 years ago. This version makes it obvious just how cleaned-up and slicked-down, how tame that version was, compared to the original. There are plenty of other songs on this box that I only know through covers (Bo Diddley's "Who Do You Love," Vince Taylor's "Brand New Cadillac," and Larry Williams's "Slow Down" are but a few), and all of them have a lot more venom to them than you might expect. Listening to the stuff from this era that still gets played on oldies radio can fool you into thinking the early rock n' roll was boring and mellow, but this box set proves otherwise. The only question I'm left with is: do we get this impression because our parents don't want us to know how wild they were when they were our age, or is it themselves that they're trying to fool?


It's raining...

...and things are dead here at work. I've got two and a half hours before I can go home and they are crawling by. I'm reading a collection of Stephen King interviews and trying not to fall asleep behind the cash register. I'm continuing the trend that's manifested over the past couple of weeks and listening to a lot of Jeff Buckley, and it's in his music that I've found the perfect song for this rainy afternoon.

The last song on the posthumous compilation "Sketches For 'My Sweetheart the Drunk'" is the only song on that two-disc set that was not a demo Jeff had recorded in preparation for his second album. Instead, that song is from a session Jeff did on a radio show in 1992, before he even had a record deal, and it's a cover of the old Porter Wagoner song "Satisfied Mind." This is one of those rare recordings you hear that really captures the sound of the room in which the song was originally played. No matter what volume at which it's played back, you get a crystal clear sense of the points during the song in which Jeff was strumming his guitar quietly or loudly, belting out the lyrics or dropping down to a hushed near-whisper. You can't help but feel like he's right there in the room with you, reacting to the rainy, dreary day with his melancholy rendering of one of the more powerful songs America has ever produced. It's the perfect thing to listen to on a day like this, and nothing else I've got with me is even coming close to the feeling it generates.

That's all I've got for you today; take care.


Fiona Apple - Extraordinary Machine

I’m cursed with the inability to be content not to have an opinion on a piece of music. If someone brings up a musician or a new album, I hate having nothing to contribute to the conversation. That’s why I downloaded both versions of the new Fiona Apple album, “Extraordinary Machine.” I needed to be able to comment on whether the scrapped, Jon Brion-produced version or the released, Mike Elizondo-produced version was more to my liking, whether I thought Fiona was justified in throwing away a completed album in order to get it right or whether I thought she was being a self-indulgent prima donna, and that the original version was pretty good.

It’s honestly the first time I’ve paid that much attention to Fiona Apple. I heard the single off her first album, “Tidal,” and immediately wrote her off as a slightly edgier version of every piano playing rock chick that was coming out in the mid-90s, something for the Lilith Fair crowd when they were in a rare angry mood, and nothing more. The lyrics were interesting, but that was the most I’d give her. I never heard the rest of the album, I rolled my eyes at her “this world is bullshit” diatribe on whatever awards show that was, and I forgot about her around the time her second album was released to widespread indifference. I was a bit surprised to hear people bringing up how it had been such a long time since she did a record; I was surprised anyone still gave a shit.

Which is why listening to “Extraordinary Machine” has been a surprising and enlightening experience. From the evidence presented, the people who cared about a new Fiona Apple album were right, and I have been missing out. I’ve only played it a few times, but the big surprise so far for me has been how much better I like the released version than the scrapped Jon Brion version. I expected to feel the opposite, to find the redone version superfluous and unnecessary, especially since I generally love anything Jon Brion touches. In fact, on a lot of the rerecorded versions, there are crucial differences, and these differences often push the songs over the top from enjoyable but nothing special to brilliant and, er, extraordinary.

The Lilith Fair categorization I used to throw Fiona Apple into has nothing to do with how she actually sounds here. There are elements of blues and jazzy torch singing here, but they are incorporated into a sound which takes its greatest part from the intelligent yet off-kilter school of singer-songwriter music that began with guys like Leonard Cohen and is best exemplified currently by Rufus Wainwright. Fiona Apple may not sound all that much like either of those guys at any particular moment, but I can’t help but think of them as I listen to this album. There is an obvious kinship there, even when it doesn’t manifest itself overtly.

The title track and opening song on the album is one of the most interesting things here; it has no real elements of rock music to it, and sounds like it could have been performed as a sex-kitten type number by one of the pre-rock female vocalists of the early 50s (think Eartha Kitt singing “Santa Baby”). But the lyrics strike a bitter contrast to the sound of the music, as Fiona tells her detractors to kiss off through a matter-of-fact acknowledgement of her flaws and problems, and a subtle yet biting assurance that she doesn’t need anyone’s help in dealing with them, thank you very much. Sample lyric: “I seem to you to seek a new disaster every day; You deem me due to clean my view and be at peace and lay. I mean to prove I mean to move in my own way and say: I've been getting along for long before you came into the play.” In the end, she says, she doesn’t care what you think of her. “Be kind to me, or treat me mean: I’ll make the most of it, I’m an extraordinary machine.” The fact that the released version of the album opens with this track immediately sets it above the Jon Brion-produced version, which places the song tenth out of 11. It’s a perfect opening track, setting the tone and acting as a manifesto for the entire album.

The rest of the 12 tracks here (including one that didn’t appear on the Jon Brion version of the album) are more conventionally rock-based, structuring themselves around Fiona’s powerful voice and bluesy piano playing. And the lyrics… the lyrics are brilliant. Good lyrics aren’t enough to keep me around if the music sucks (see Ani DiFranco), but they can definitely make a good song better, and they do that here, on almost every song. I’m not too into the synthetic-sounding instrumentation on “Tymps”, though Fiona’s voice always sounds right and therefore makes it at least bearable. But the real star here, the song that’s been getting the most of my attention, is “Oh Well.” It’s a song about loving someone who is really just interested in controlling, getting what can be gotten and then moving on. This song is the reaction of an intelligent girl who seems more sad to see things turn out this way than angry; she knows she set herself up for it, but it’s still disheartening, because in the end the thing that hurt her the most was her willingness to trust and be vulnerable. She wants to believe in love, and she does, but what’s the point when the other person doesn’t? There is maturity in the song’s resolution, though; instead of giving up completely on love, and proclaiming dramatically how she will never expose her heart this way again, she shrugs and prepares to move on. Oh well.


It's never over.

I just finished reading Daphne A. Brooks's contribution to Continuum Books' 33 1/3 series, a 150-page exploration of Jeff Buckley's "Grace", and it has brought me to a whole new appreciation of an already well-loved favorite. I've thought a million different things and had a million different ideas about this album over the past 6 or 7 years since buying it, but after reading Ms. Brooks' book, I find myself returning not only to the album but to B-sides, live tracks, and previously unreleased songs that were unearthed for the bonus disc of last year's expanded Legacy Edition of the album (more on that in a while) with new ears, hearing things that I've never heard before in all of these places.

For me the appeal, the magic, of Jeff Buckley has always been incredibly hard to sum up. Most of my friends don't really get my fascination with him, why I, a vocalist for several hardcore bands, have claimed his music as one of my main influences. I've never really been able to put my finger on it either, but Daphne Brooks has done a lot to help me get closer to a real understanding with some of her words and phrases in this book.

That's not the only thing that's helped. I doubt that a lot of the descriptive passages analyzing Jeff Buckley's lyrical content would have meant nearly as much to me if it weren't for the romantic relationship I was in for the last half of 2004, a relationship that was in the midst of disintegration at the time when I started this blog (I'm sure that's nakedly obvious to anyone who goes back and reads the first 3 or 4 posts). That relationship, though it was not as long as a lot of others I've been in, was for me inspired by a love that I felt which was deeper and more intense than any I'd ever felt before. Over half a year after the entire thing ended, I'm still unable to forget the feelings I felt during that time, nor to successfully move on and engage in other romantic relationships, even of the least serious nature (I'm sure of this; I've tried).

A lot of those memories are inextricably linked with Jeff Buckley. That particular girl was the one who gave me the Legacy Edition of "Grace" back when it came out last fall. I can remember driving in her car after dark, me sitting in the passenger seat with my hand on her leg, singing "Mojo Pin" to her as it played on the stereo. I'd owned the album long before I ever met her, and yet now I can't hear Jeff Buckley's voice without thinking of that girl.

What Daphne Brooks points out that I had never noticed before is the fact that many of the original songs on "Grace" revolve lyrically around concepts of romantic love lost. Furthermore, they focus on the idea that there is a beauty in continuing to feel that love after the expression of it is lost to you, and after the person you feel it for is no longer in your life. "Grace," "Lover You Should Have Come Over," "So Real," and especially "Last Goodbye" all work with concepts of this nature, all approaching them in a different way but all ultimately embodying the same idea--that love is always beautiful, and always a thing to be cherished, even at a time when all of the ineffable glory of the initial feeling, of the shared intensity of desire, has gone from your life, and all that is still felt in the present is the absence of something that once felt like it was everything that mattered.

There is a line from "Last Goodbye" that Brooks quotes in her book that I had never been able to understand before which suddenly became clear upon reading her transcription. What's more, it hit me like a ton of bricks. In that song, Jeff is singing about a breakup as it's happening, and he sings, "Kiss me, please kiss me..." which I always understood. But what I missed was that the next line is "Kiss me out of desire, baby, not consolation." In other words, don't kiss me because you're trying to make me feel better, kiss me because even though we agree that we have to part, you still love me the same as I love you. So let's not hide it.

There was a moment much like that in the ending of my last relationship, after she had driven down from her parents' house 90 minutes north of where I live to tell me that she was moving to New York instead of here, that things couldn't continue the way they were between us. After she'd gathered up the things of hers that were still in my bedroom and was about to leave to drive back home, we kissed in a manner that I assumed was going to be quick and passionless, a kiss goodbye. It wasn't; there was obviously still love there, for both of us, still an intense desire for each other despite all of the logical reasons why we couldn't be together. It's moments like that that Jeff Buckley evokes in his songs, moments where you feel like love should be gone, and yet there it still is.

All of this would be words on paper (or a screen, either way), with no real meaning to them, if it weren't for the music that backs it all up. It's amazing to me, listening to "Grace" now, that it was first released over 10 years ago, that Jeff Buckley has been dead for 8 years. On this album, he sounds so alive that you literally can't fathom the concept of this man ever dying, which makes it all the more tragic that this is the only album he ever finished. "Grace" is not the sound of any time past, but instead a vital present, or even a future. It wasn't all that successful at the time of its release, but these days it sells better than it did then, and who can really be surprised at that, considering just how many of today's popular musicians are just finally catching up with where Jeff Buckley was a decade ago? Listen, if you've never heard it, to "So Real", a late-recorded track that ended up being the highlight of the album. The way Jeff's guitar mixes with that of rhythm guitarist Michael Tighe to create a chiming, melodic verse evokes a feeling of building tension that only increases throughout the first two verse/chorus alternations, until finally exploding into a solo that is primarily 30 seconds of roaring feedback. The real star of the show, of course, is Jeff's voice, which, unlike a lot of other places on the album, is restrained through most of "So Real", only really cutting loose on the long coda after the final chorus. But restraint works well for him too, especially after that huge feedback blast, when everything trails away to nothing, and you might be fooled for a second into thinking that the song is over. But then Jeff's voice appears in the midst of the silence, speaking so softly he's almost whispering. "I love you," he says, and the band comes back in all at once, back to the tense, haunting melody of the verse. Jeff continues, "...but I'm afraid to love you," and that is the entirety of "So Real"'s final verse: a bold, impossible-to-misunderstand statement about the most difficult, complicated human emotion. Then they move into the final chorus, and Jeff wails in his trademark 5-plus octave range overtop of his own backing vocals repeating the chorus over and over again: "that was so real."

It's being real, and being real about complicated and important emotions, that matters here, not just on "So Real" but all of "Grace". This was a bold place to come from in approaching music at the time that "Grace" was recorded, and is only moreso now: straightforward, honest emotion in the midst of alt-rock's bitter whining about childhood injustices surpassed only in boldness by direct defiance to a constant ironic distance that has become the face of post-milennial underground rock, something in the midst of which Jeff Buckley would probably have felt even more out of place. But he didn't really care, at the end of the day, as long as he could make his music, so really, why should I? Why should any of us? Better to just pay attention to the ways he used his gift of translating raw emotion into words and music and forget everything that might have been considered context, at the time or now. This album exists completely outside the passage of time.

Nowhere is that more obvious than on opening track "Mojo Pin." The first song I ever heard by Jeff Buckley, I actually encountered the solo version from his "Live at Sin-E" EP, and couldn't imagine how a full band would ever do that version of the song justice. I needn't have worried; if anything, they improved it. The song begins quietly, with Jeff crooning over soft fingerpicking on his guitar, and the band doesn't even reveal itself until after he's completed the first verse. Then they move in softly, picking up on the witchy, ethereal vibe of the song and taking their cues from Jeff's voice. And such a voice it is--if restraint was the key for most of "So Real", "Mojo Pin" is the opposite, deriving power and intensity from Jeff's constant octave hopping and volume shifts. This could seem like histrionic showboating from a lesser vocalist, but Jeff knew what he was doing, managing to strike the perfect balance of influence from jazz singer Nina Simone and Pakistan qawwali legend Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. One thing's for sure--it sounds nothing like you'd expect a twentysomething white boy to create in the mid-1990s. The strangely tuned guitar chords and constantly building song arrangement mixes perfectly with his voice, eventually culminating in a howling crescendo that carries with it the swampy depths of a left-behind lover's despair and the eternal beauty and life that comes with that feeling of at least being left with something real.

My ex-girlfriend was a drama major in college, and she favored tragedy, especially those of the ancient Greeks. I don't want to put any words in her mouth, so I hasten to point out that these words only reflect my understanding at the time we had these conversations of what she was telling me, which could have been flawed and may not actually reflect how she felt. But I always felt that her love of tragedy was somewhat unhealthy, not in and of itself but because of how she saw the tragedy. To her, as I understood it, the depiction of tragedy was a beautiful thing because it reflected life as it actually was. It allowed catharsis for the audience through the recognition that all life was essentially composed of tragedy, that we all dealt with suffering on a daily basis, no matter how good things were actually going in any given area of our lives. I understand this way of looking at things, but I'd rather look at it another way; for me, the tragedy of life is unavoidable, so I don't ever want to try and receive catharsis through focusing on it or even a metaphorical substitute for it. Nothing is going to make it suck any less. I'd rather find the beauty in the worst moments, the life and love in the midst of loss and loneliness that helps make it seem worthwhile to make it through to the next day, the next year, however long one has to slog through until one feels whole again.

This, to me, is what "Grace" is all about--watching a love more intense than any other you've felt in your life end, and pass out of your experience forever, and yet knowing that it goes on, that it's always there deep in your heart, and may someday rise again from the ashes when you least expect it. And if nothing else, on cold dark nights when you feel like the only one alive in the world, the memories and the lingering feelings can combine to help get you through until the sun can rise again. I listen to Jeff Buckley a lot on nights like that. I wonder if she does too.

Take care, wherever you are.