Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Running Off at the Mouth

So many new records, so few updates.  Here are my thoughts:

Wild Flag - S/T (Merge)

Glad I stuck with this for a few spins.  The hooks aren't immediately apparent cuz this ain't a pop record, it is a ROCK record and a decidedly excellent one at that.  I could do without out all the affectation in Carrie Brownstein's vocals (the blame can be traced squarely back to Patti Smith), but this is a bracing set of songs from a band committed to energizing, powerful rock'n'roll.  There isn't enough of them and it should be encouraged at all costs.

Girls - Father, Son, Holy Ghost (True Panther Sounds)

Don't judge a band by their promo photos is the lesson to be learned here.  Based on all the buzz floating around Christopher Owens I expected something twee, precious and just a little shy of an outright shambles.  Instead, this is a clear, focused rock record with a purpose.  It draws you in with great riffs and assured playing (drumming is uniformally excellent) and the first half climaxes with "Vomit," which deserves all the comparisons it's been getting to Pink Floyd, Rolling Stones, etc.  And if the second half seems anti-climactic at first I prefer to think of it as the calm after the storm as the sun rises and our protagonist starts to see the world more clearly after a dark, dark night.  Yeah, it's that kind of record.  I had no idea they had it in them.

Butch Walker and the Black Widows - Spade (Dangerbird Records)

Some kinda weirdo this Butch Walker is.  He writes unabashed little teenage symphonies with on-the-nose hooks and detail-specific lyrics that remind me of nothing less than the expert craftsmen who litter the Country Top 40 stations, not the Pop ones.  This is type of stuff you feel silly for singing along with until you realize there's no reason to feel silly at all.  The big drawback - a little goes a long way and it gets exhausting after awhile.  He's that really smart and clever life of the party who just just doesn't get the hint that everyone else has left and you really want to get some sleep.

Boston Spaceships - Let It Beard (Guided by Voices Records)

I so enjoyed Pollard's Lifeguards collaboration with Doug Gillard earlier this year that I decided to check out this, his latest from yet another project that's been floating around the GBV universe for the last few years.  Much more straight-up rock than his often meandering solo records, you still have to mine through a lot of half-baked ideas to get to the gold.  One day he'll distill all his best instincts and put out another perfect record, or maybe that's besides the point.  Maybe you just need to go along for the ride and cherry pick the stuff  you want to keep.  I mean, he's not obligated to do anything but follow his muse and I'm not obligated to love it all.  I doubt even he does.  But can't begrudge the man making a living, right?

Jonathan Wilson - Gentle Spirit (Bella Union)

Trying to painfully recreate a scene that hasn't existed in 40 years is no way for a young man to spend his time.  And you thought his buddy Jackson Browne was a drip.

Male Bonding - Endless Now (Sub Pop)

When did Weezer cross over into the realm of Classic Rock?  Dinosaur Jr.?  Does it matter?  This record pushes my particular buttons.  Can't tell you what any of it is about, but they make a powerful guitar/bass/drums racket.  More memorable than the first, always a good sign.  Hope that they swing for the fences  on the next one.

Tommy Stinson - One Man Mutiny (Done to Death Music)

Like a terrific character actor who's never made it as a leading man, I want to root for Mr. Stinson.  A recent live show convinced me that after 20 years of post-Replacements music making, he's got about an hour's worth of excellent Stones-infected tuneage.  One Man Mutiny adds the requisite song or two to that list (my votes go to "It's a Drag" and "Seize the Moment").  In another 5 years he may add one or two more.  That's more than most people ever do.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Come Back Fleet Foxes, All is Forgiven

I spent a beautiful late spring morning walking around Philadelphia listening to the new Fleet Foxes album, Helplessness Blues, on my iPod. At its conclusion I decided that it was a really terrific record filled with beautiful singing and compelling melodies. Robin Pecknold's voice is as pretty as Graham Nash's and his lyrics are...well, they're no dopier than Nash's and that has to count for something. Arrangements are clever without calling untoward attention to their cleverness. A simple, supremely pleasant listen.

So I started to think about my prior response to these guys which was filled with such righteous anger you'd think they were the Embodiment of Everything Wrong With Rock Music Today. Why did I hate them so much when, in fact, this was the first time I had every spent more than a cursory minute or two listening to their music? I've come to the conclusion that it had nothing to do with their music and everything to do with other people's responses to said music. I find nothing inherently awful about folk music as a concept or in practice. Some of my favorite artists are deeply indebted to folk traditions and others are just as strongly influenced by folk-based ideas. But I took the hosannas directed towards Fleet Foxes as an affront to everything I loved about rock'n'roll.

But in reality it is not everything I love about rock'n'roll.  Further, it has precious little to do with rock'n'roll period and I am fine with that.  It was as if I saw every Fleet Foxes album purchased as one less Figgs album going out the door, or Matthew Sweet or Ted Leo or Superchunk get the picture. And that's silly. It's like being mad at a banana for not being an orange because while you like bananas a lot, you like oranges even more. And how dare people prefer bananas to oranges?  Can't they see that no matter how good bananas are, oranges are even better (if I may be allowed to carry this tortured analogy to it's final resting place)?!

So enjoy your bananas.  This is a particularly good one.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Helena from the Wedding

Initially Published Here

The Film Movement series is an interesting concept. The company collects independent films from all over the world and makes them available on DVD primarily by means of a monthly subscription. You get to feel a little like a patron of the arts and each month a little gift shows up in your mailbox. Alas, I have to hope that the majority of the films are better than this simplistic marital drama.

A newly married couple invite a small group of friends to celebrate New Year’s Eve in a secluded rustic cabin. Everyone has their own unique strife to contend with -- there’s the passionate couple who only stop fighting long enough to have noisy sex (comedy here consists of their friends looking into the distance awkwardly while listening to them get it on). Then there’s the Type-A lawyer whose wife is about to have a baby and is questioning her husband’s fidelity. And of course the newly divorced friend who puts the moves on Helena, the only other single person at the party. They break off into pairs or small groups, reveal their doubts to one another and move on to the next earnest conversation. But first-time writer/director Joseph Infantolino has nothing new or interesting to say and while the actors are all pleasant (and recognizable as supporting TV players), they don’t have much to do here. The film aims for low-key and winds up just being dull.

The disc itself is relatively bare bones. A few cast interviews and trailers for other available films in the series. There’s no subtitle option (English or otherwise) which is a shame for such a talky little film. As a nice touch the disc also includes an unrelated short film, this one from Sweden (Awaiting Examination). Sadly, it is also fairly ho-hum.

Yi Yi

Initially Published Here

The last film completed by Edward Yang before he passed away in 2007, Yi Yi is also, arguably, his best. An intimate epic, it moves at a leisurely pace but is packed with so much detail and so many finely drawn characters that its almost 3 hour running time flies past like time spent with great friends. Like Altman at his best, Yang trusts his audience to put together the connections between people and places. The film has plenty of laughs and drama, but Yang’s camera moves with such subtle grace that these moments seem to come out of nowhere and hit all the harder for it. And the film features one of the most eloquent metaphors for the power of film I have ever encountered -- an 8 year old boy, played by Jonathan Chang in one of the great child performances ever, takes to photographing the back of people’s heads in order to show them something they have never seen before. “You can’t see it yourself, so I’m helping you,” is how he puts it and that moment has stuck with me in the decade since I first saw the film.

Criterion have upgraded their already excellent DVD package to Blu-Ray. Presentation is much more film-like than any previous home video version. Most of the extras are carried over from the prior Criterion release and include a commentary track by Yang and critic Tony Rayns, a video interview with Rayns about the New Taiwan Cinema movement and an insightful essay by film writer Kent Jones which focuses on Yang’s empathetic depiction of modern life in Taipei.

Monday, March 7, 2011


Sorry to have neglected the blog for awhile, but my family and I just returned from 9 days on the island of Hawaii (The Big Island). It was as remarkable a trip as most people who visit Hawaii claim it to be -- beautiful weather, amazing sights, great friends to share it all with. On our last full day we drove the 100 or so miles from our resort to the Hawaiian Volcanoes National Park. I had doubts as to whether it would be worth the 2+ hours each way in a car with our 5 year old, but I quickly found myself in awe of the various lunar-like landscapes.  To say I felt like I was walking around in a Hipgnosis album cover come to life is to damn it with faint praise. Or maybe I just had pictures in my head of me wandering around with Nico.

But perhaps my favorite part of the trip was that drive on Highway 11 to the park.  From sea level up to 4,000 feet and back down, hugging the edge of the island for most of it with a breathtaking view of the Pacific dropping off on my right. I had my iPod on shuffle and I swear that the thing became sentient somewhere along that road. From Thelonious Monk pop classic to David Bowie piano ballad to the prettiest Superchunk song ever, I was moved by it all. And then this one came on - my favorite recording of a favorite Bob Dylan song. About 30 seconds in my wife turned and asked if it was the Clash playing. My first thought was to chuckle. But then I continued to listen with that thought in mind and it was like hearing the song for the first time. And it occurred to me that one of the greatest joys in life was getting to experience something familiar from a new perspective. I hope that never stops happening.

Monday, February 21, 2011

New Stuff 2011 - Pt. 4

As usual, music purchases were made at Long in the Tooth

 The Disciplines - Virgins of Menace (Spark & Shine CD) Second full-length from this Scandinavian band fronted by Ken Stringfellow (Posies). Much more assured and aggressive than their wishy-washy debut. Sure, it's garage-y at times, but it also recalls everything from AC/DC to T-Rex in it's monster size riffs.  And Stringfellow's voice is powerful and clean and just balls-out the entire time. A huge improvement and very pleasant surprise.   

 Lifeguards - Waving at Astronauts (Ernest Jenning Record Co. CD)  Bob Pollard in Arena Rock mode, and that's just how I like my Pollard, thank you very much.  Nothing lo-fi about the music or instrumentation (courtesy of Doug Gillard) or recording.  Maybe my fave Pollard project since GBV's demise.

 The Measure (SA) - Notes (No Idea CD) The last release from this soon-to-be-no-more Jersey punk band and arguably their best. Towards the end it gets a little too generic pop-punk, but it is front-loaded with great tunes and some pleasantly assured vocals from Lauren Measure. 

 Mind Spiders - S/T (Dirtnap LP)  Marked Men side project not dissimilar in it's mixture of rapid tempos and brittle hooks.  Perhaps a little more experimental in its instrumentation and arrangements, but fans of MM will dig it much. Brainy, forward looking punk teetering on the edge of new-wave.  

 The Parting Gifts - Strychnine Dandelion (In th Red LP)  Another side project, this time Greg Cartwright (Reigning Sound) and Coco Hames (The Ettes) fashion an album of solid '60s girl-group influenced rock'n'roll. Nothing radically different from either artists respective catalogs, but a heck of a lot more fun than the last Reigning Sound record.  All comes down to the tunes and this one has 'em in spades.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Kings Go Forth : Live at Johnny Brenda's

Initially Published Here


Given the preponderance of auto-tuned cyborgs passing themselves off as pop stars at the top of the R&B charts (Black Eyed Peas, I am looking in your general direction) , it may be hard to remember there was a time when heavyweight funk and soul acts were capable of delivering the goods live. It’s as if they’ve forfeited the visceral power of great live music in favor of distracting theatrics and an over the top carnival-esque atmosphere.

No, if you want to see great live funk and soul you’ve got to search somewhat off-the-grid. Like Johnny Brenda’s where Milwaukee’s Kings Go Forth brought their powerhouse live show to Philadelphia for the first time. We’re talking about nine pieces crammed onto JB’s tiny stage - guitar, bass, drums, keyboards, two horn players, a percussionist and two singers pumping out a well-oiled set of classic-sounding soul. The twist is that these guys operate at an intensity level to rival the best rock show you’ve ever seen. Bass player/band leader Andy Noble isn’t joking when he says his band’s live show is closer to The Who than ______ (fill in your favorite “Neo-Soul Revival” act). Their were moments during an extended “Don’t Take My Shadow” with guitarist Dan Flynn hunched over his effects pedals and drummer Jeremy Kuzniar exploding behind his kit when the band achieved a kind of lift-off very few bands ever achieve, rock, soul or otherwise.

And floating on top of this righteous noise are the sweet harmonies of Black Wolf and Dan Fernandez. They are a perfectly matched team -- Dan providing a smooth base for Mr. Wolf to soar over. But Kings Go Forth are not a ‘vocal band’ by any stretch. There is serious muscle to their sound that is only going to get stronger as they continue to tour (touring has been sporadic since their debut, The Outsiders Are Back was released last spring). Let’s hope we get to see them here in Philly again soon.