The MP3s available here are for sampling purposes. Please support the artists by buying their albums and going to their shows. If you are the artist or label rep and don't want an MP3 featured, let me know. Links will otherwise stay live for about two weeks before they vanish into the ether.
If you'd like to send music, art, writing
or promo material for consideration,
email me at nerdlitter[at]yahoo[dot]com.
This site is designed in Firefox and may
not look optimal in other browsers. You can get
On My Headphones
On My Screen
On My Shelf
Thursday, August 31, 2006
Contrast Podcast 22 is up!
Good news, litterers! There's no need to keep punching your radio, because Contrast Podcast 22 is up for your listening satisfaction. It's week number three for me and since the keeper of the Contrast, Tim Young, is away on holiday (that's British for vacation evidently), the theme this week is Poolside. Charged with providing Tim with a soundtrack for his poolside lounging, I selected Smog's "Drinking at the Dam." As I've noted earlier, I'm currently obsessed with A River Ain't Too Much To Love and this cut from the album is no exception. Also noteworthy about my contribution this week is that I use the word "revelations" in my intro. My friend Sarah specifically requested that I throw around "revelations" more often in my reviews, and obviously, when discussing Smog, it's all too easy to oblige. Enjoy. *MP3:"Drinking At The Dam" - Smog from A River Ain't Too Much To Love [Buy it]
One of the best things about being a blogger while also attempting to write a book is the constant kicks in the ass I receive. Every day, my inbox fills with news of bands from Ottawa or Glasgow or Kyoto I've never heard of. So I'll do some research on them (read: browse their MySpace profile) and instantly get that onset of a quarterlife crisis. So many of them are younger than me (at twenty-four) and already have their shit together. They're putting out albums, touring, getting the word out, making a go at it. Meanwhile, I'm waking up post-noon and hoping the lights stay on. After about five of these profiles, I suddenly summon up the will to edit another chapter, envisioning the gold sheen of a Pulitzer medal around my neck again.
Aaron Schroeder, currently based in Kennewick, Washington, is one such inspiration. At twenty-three, he's already produced a nine song LP, Southern Heart In Western Skin, that's worth taking note of. It's a album that blends country, folk and pop and accomplished instrumentation that encompasses everything from lap-steel guitars to harmonicas to accordions. His lyrics are smart, his music is winning, and his talent is all too apparent. The songs almost seem designed for a dive bar jukebox, where the fun, laidback mood could complement his sunny melodies.
Schroeder counts many impressive musicians and writers among his influences (Leadbelly, Belle and Sebastian, Minor Threat, Haruki Marukami, Henry Miller), but the closest parallel I hear in his sound is Lifted-era Bright Eyes. There's that same willingness to branch out and modernize the possibilities of folk, the same pretty female background vocals, the same focus on songcraft. And like Conor Oberst, he's got a whole lot of time to show us all that he's capable of. So if you're in need of inspiration, look no further than Aaron Schroeder. It should do the trick whether or not you're surrounded by strewn-about pages with full paragraphs furiously crossed out. *MP3:"Antlers" - Aaron Schroeder from Southern Heart In Western Skin *MP3:"A Movin' Movin' Train" - Aaron Schroeder from Southern Heart In Western Skin *MP3:"The Real World" - Aaron Schroeder from Southern Heart In Western Skin[Buy it] *Artist MySpace:Aaron Schroeder
1) "Ingrid Bergman" - Billy Bragg and Wilco from Mermaid Avenue[Buy it] 2) "Leif Erikson" - Interpol from Turn On The Bright Lights[Buy it] 3) "Pablo Picasso" - The Modern Lovers from The Modern Lovers[Buy it] 4) "Abraham Lincoln" - Holopawfrom Holopaw[Buy it] 5) "Rod Stewart" - The Lovely Feathers from Hind Hind Legs [Buy it] 6) "Paris Hilton" - Mu from Out of Breach[Buy it] 7) "Paul Simon" - The Russian Futuristsfrom Our Thickness[Buy it] 8) "Ariel Ramirez" - Richard Buckner from Since[Buy it] 9) "Josephine Baker" - No Dynamics from No Dynamics EP [Buy it] 10) "John Wayne Gacy Jr." - Sufjan Stevensfrom Illinois[Buy it] 11) "Karl Blau" - The Microphones from It Was Hot, We Stayed In The Water[Buy it] 12) "Yitzhak Rabin" - Alpha Blondy from Yitzhak Rabin[Buy it] 13) "Stanley Kubrick" - Mogwai from Mogwai EP[Buy it]
"George Bush doesn't care about black people": A look back at Katrina
A damaged house in the Lower Ninth Ward
I was in Valencia, Spain when the newspapers started screaming. The headlines, published in a ominously large font, included words like "DESTRUIDO" and "TRAGEDIA." There were charts and a few photos of damaged houses too, but I did my best to brush them off. It was hurricane season after all and the tailend of August, with the news cycle at its slowest. Maybe there just wasn't much to report and the international press was hyperbolizing a bad storm. But the next day, browsing my hotel's newspaper selections, I found the story only worsening. The reports of casualties were growing. The few statistics were frightening.
It was disorienting to be in a foreign country reading about an American disaster. I had to get by with my high school-level Spanish, translating the stories word by dutiful word. I still wasn't sure how much to believe, how singular of a hurricane this Katrina was. So I started spending more and more time in Internet cafes. I trolled news sites for any scrap of information. I followed blogs and message boards. But that only made me feel even more at a remove, even more frustrated and helpless, even further than an ocean away. I still remember one commenter writing, "New Orleans is gone. It's just gone."
Survivors in New Orleans geting supplies and being sent to shelters in the aftermath of Katrina
My frustration grew as the body count rose, but as the storm passed, my anger took over. I seethed when I finally saw that image of Bush simply flying over affected areas. The more I learned of FEMA's incompetence and the lack of funding to fix the levees, the more I hated our unqualified administration. But of course, inability didn't stop at party lines, as local and state Democrats were just as pointless. The entire response was so surreal it almost felt like a joke: our government was content to start wars abroad, but couldn't help protect some of its most poor and vulnerable people domestically. This was the image we were sending an already skeptical world.
A Red Cross shelter in the Astrodome for 18,000 people
Half a year later, I was home editing a book about Katrina evacuees and the people that offered them housing. Reading their accounts brought the incident back into sharp relief, revealing how much had gone untold. One woman stranded in the Superdome relayed how women were raped in the stadium because the National Guard couldn't protect them. And since no one had warned her about the water supply, she brushed her teeth once and became violently ill. One man described the twenty-car-long lines at gas stations with no gas, effectively trapping people in town. Another talked about how cops automatically assumed he was looting because he was black. And person after person detailed their maddening experiences trying to get information and assistance from FEMA.
Looking back, the prevailing sense I get from the chaos of Katrina is that this should never have happened in 2005. It feels like some historical anomaly, something with a half-century's remove, something you learn about in History class and marvel at how a government was ever so unprepared. Obviously, tragedies occur and fatalities are inherent in life, but the level of ignorance and apathy shown by the people at the top for people in dire need in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana makes the tragic feel criminal.
A garage of a flooded house in New Orleans
* * *
There've been many songs written about New Orleans generally and Hurricane Katrina specifically. One of my favorites among the former category is Tom Waits' "I Wish I Was In New Orleans (In The Ninth Ward)." As with so much of his work, Waits makes an extraordinary place seem even more extraordinary, romanticizing and celebrating it in lush detail. Very different is The Legendary KO's post-Katrina indictment, "George Bush Doesn't Care About Black People." Starting with Kanye West's famous seven words and his Ray Charles sample, the Houston-based group produces an incredible protest track for the ages, nailing more salient points than a thousand talking heads. It still brings back my anger and frustration when I hear it. And one year later, there's still a lot to be angry about and a lot of work to be done.
*MP3:"George Bush Doesn't Care About Black People" - The Legendary KO *MP3:"I Wish I Was In New Orleans (In The Ninth Ward)" - Tom Waits from Small Change[Buy it]
The body is a fragile beast. One day, it’s just another thing to take for granted, the next, it’s breaking down like a battered car. Hair is shedding into your hands or your back can’t bend without darts of pain or time is inscribing its sloppy signature all over your face. Or much, much worse. Kurt Wagner, Lambchop frontman and indie iconoclast, had a piece of his jaw excised due to a malignant cyst. Doctors had to graft part of his hipbone in its place to lessen the damage. Then after getting through that, he had a major cancer scare. Where do you turn when even your cells conspire against you?
Back to the studio to memorialize the pain, apparently. On Damaged, Wagner and his ever-expanding Nashville collective (between fourteen and seventeen musicians at last count) have returned in top form and graver than ever. On this ninth album, the follow-up to 2004’s Aw C’mon/ No, You C’mon, Wagner sings as if he’s weighted down. Some of his lines spill out like late-night confessions, truths he couldn’t bear admitting in the blue of daylight. The music helps to sustain the mood too, swirling, rich, and more layered than a quick listen would suggest. But it’s not the alt-country or country-soul labels that Lambchop's still saddled with. Not unlike Wilco, they’ve been so adamant in nudging the limits of the genre for over a decade that they’ve simply outgrown them.
And while Wagner doesn’t address his recent experiences explicitly, they do linger over the lyrics. On "Short," he laments, "And our life hangs on a string/ And today we start to learn just what that means/ And somehow we’re faced with the fact/ That you won’t ever get this back." On "A Day Without Glasses," he tries to convert mortality into a positive: "But tonight we’ll have this whole place to ourselves/ And tomorrow will not have the chance to speak/ Come closer now so these words lay soft and low in your ear/ I’ve never had a moment of regret." But he comes closest to painfully honest with his blend of anger and humor in the closer, "A Decline of Country and Western Civilization," singing, "Soon I can do just what I please/ But I still hold my hip each time I sneeze."
For all of its pathos and tough-won grace, Damaged is certainly not an easy album. It takes a very active ear and doesn’t begin to reveal its subtleties until about the tenth listen. But life isn’t easy and it never gets easier. We’re not any more removed or insured from the damage than Wagner. The difference is while all of our bodies eventually break down, Lambchop’s body of work only continues to grow stronger.
*MP3:"I Would Have Waited Here All Day" - Lambchop from Damaged *MP3:"The Decline of Country and Western Civilization" - Lambchop from Damaged[Buy it]
The hardest thing to predict about albums is their staying power. There are some I've loved thoroughly and expected to listen to actively for years. But after a few weeks of constant spins, with the love by no means diminished, I'd become ready to move on. Whatever I was getting from that collection of songs I'd gotten and besides, there are always eight million other possibilities on deck. It's still a much more humane fate than what usually happens: I'll listen to a new album three or four times, try my best to appreciate it, feel bored or disappointed by its mediocrity and move back to the growing pile. Oh well.
But then there are those other blissfully enigmatic albums to consider. Those shadowy, inexplicable albums that sneak up to you in the midst of a train ride, while you're careening a shopping cart down aisle three, while you're watching the girls at the bar fix their hair in the mirror. A lyric will suddenly stalk you, a melody will contort your lips into making its sounds. While you were listening to the album in question, you were enjoying it well enough. Maybe not Album of the Year material, but solid and pleasant. And yet it keeps coming back to you, while the train car packs, while you're browsing tabloid headlines on the checkout line, while you trying out a new pickup line. It becomes a craving, later a daily obsession. There's some mystery, abstraction, or open-endedness in the music, some elemental element that won't let you forget it.
I call it the Alligator effect and the closest I came to experiencing it in 2006 was with Sunset Rubdown's Shut Up I Am Dreaming. But then, with Bill Callahan releasing an EP of "Rock Bottom Riser" in June, I decided to revisit 2005's A River Ain't Too Much To Love one night. I enjoyed it a lot last year, but somehow its muted melodies never demanded my full attention then. The story's changed since. I'm gone now and there's no turning back. I've been listening to River at least once a day for a few weeks, and usually more. I'm singing key phrases to myself--"I'm a Southern bird who stayed north too long," "Bury me in fire and I'm gonna phoenix," "oh my foolish heart had to go diving diving diving into the murk"-- at any inopportune time. I'm hearing Callahan's deep baritone and his folky guitar plucks insinuate themselves on any occasion.
This is music that never announces itself or tries to show off; it just eases back and lets you discover it. It reveals a few additional nuances every time, a few extra delicate layers or pithy lyrics that suddenly seize you out of nowhere. The gentle piano ascensions on "Rock Bottom Riser" may unexpectedly devastate you one day. You may be struck with what a perfect closer "Let Me See The Colts" is or what a perfect opener "Palimpsest" is. You may be undone by completely different things that I haven't even encountered yet. But whatever you do, don't be fooled by A River Ain't Too Much To Love's simplicity or its placidity like I was. It may not be the first album in your collection you reach to hear, but once it hits your ear, it's likely never to leave you. *MP3:"Say Valley Maker" - Smog from A River Ain't Too Much To Love *MP3:"I Feel Like The Mother of The World" - Smog from A River Ain't Too Much To Love [Buy it]
American Hardcore A film by Paul Rachman Opens Sept. 22 (limited) Shortbus A film by John Cameron Mitchell Opens Oct. 13 (limited) The Pusher Trilogy Three films by Nicolas Winding Refn Now playing in limited release
The Last American A film by Audie Harrison Available for purchase atIndieFlix
Even today, in our supposedly global world, little letters at the bottom of a screen spell doom. Subtitles or even accents still pretty much guarantee a film's banishment to arthouse obscurity. For every year's few breakthroughs, its Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Life Is Beautiful, smaller films keep sneaking through the sieve. They quietly earn their money via a plugged-in audience, keep critics from killing themselves in the summer, and get out of the way by December when the Oscar bait invades. But with DVDs a near-given now, it's nothing to stress about, even if you live hours from an independent theater or video store. Here are some of my recommendations for films you might've missed and really shouldn't.
Kontroll - Released here in the cruelest month of 2005, Kontroll deserved to make a much larger splash. Sure, it's as existentially bleak as a rainstorm in London and almost the entire film is set underground, but it's fun as hell too. It focuses on a team of misfit ticket inspectors in the Budapest subway system who are just trying to do their jobs. Along the way, they encounter everything from surly passengers to a surly rival team to a serial murderer pushing people onto the tracks. Throw in some romance, a narcoleptic, and a ticking clock and you have a funnier, more compelling thriller than Hollywood has produced in years. The Holy Girl- This Argentinian movie by rising star Lucrecia Martel doesn't turn the tables, it flips them over. Another small story that ends up resonating largely, The Holy Girl is about the titular character, Amalia, discovering her sexuality. That seems normal enough for a teenager, but her process is more complex than most. After a man rubs up against her one day, Amalia decides it's her mission to save him. Conflating her religious instruction and her confused desires, she tries to win him over even as her unaware mother becomes interested in him too. Martel's deft script keeps the action from turning sensational or lurid, leaving us with a film that is unsettling but always honest and powerful too.
Games of Love and Chance - Okay, so Games of Love and Chance isn't exactly unknown, especially under its original title, L'esquive. It swept up four major Césars, the French equivalent of the Oscar, in 2003, including Best Film. Still, when I mention the movie to friends, they act as if I'm speaking a foreign language. (Pause for chuckles.) It's a small, seemingly simple film about a boy who likes a girl and tries to co-star in a play with her to win her over. But it's surprisingly relevant because it focuses on the underclass kids on the city outskirts. They use slang specific to their culture and interact in ways you'll never see in some crusty costume drama. Most importantly, an event near the end uproots everything else we've seen, giving the film a sudden gravity, revealing the kids who thought they were in the spotlight to just be bit players in a much larger drama. All About Lily Chou-Chou - Of all the recommendations on this list, this film is easily the most difficult and experimental. It tilts toward the three-hour mark and relies on storytelling through disjointed portraits. For stretches of it, I was lost and frustrated. It rewards your attention though, interspersing moments of loveliness with scenes of disturbing brutality. Reveling in portraying a rapidly changing Japan, All About Lily Chou-Chou is about growing up saturated in pop culture and pop music. It's about the terrors that come with that territory, and even at its most disorienting, it's never less than stunning to look at.
Together - Lukas Moodysson is one of my all-time favorite directors, his first three films on par with Lars Von Trier's Heart of Gold trilogy in my mind. I can (and do) spend hours debating which Moodysson film is the best, and though it depends on my mood,Together usually wins. Like a kinder, more humanistic companion to The Idiots, Together portrays the daily life of a Socialist commune in Sweden. It has all of the personalities you'd expect, but every character is sketched out in full, loving detail. Like good Socialists, they let us share their arguments and inner workings, all the complications and contradictions of the real world intruding. And even when their philosophy fails, their stubborn humanity comes sparkling through.
1) "Warsaw" - Joy Division from Substance[Buy it] 2) "New Amsterdam" - Elvis Costello and the Attractions from Get Happy!![Buy it] 3) "Chicago" - Portugal. The Man. from Waiter: "You Vultures!"[Buy it] 4) "Barcelona" - The Rentals from Seven More Minutes[Buy it] 5) "Anchorage" - Michelle Shocked from Short Sharp Shocked[Buy it] 6) "Paris" - Patrick Wolf from Lycanthropy[Buy it] 7) "Omaha" - Tapes 'n Tapes from The Loon[Buy it] 8) "Vancouver" - Jeff Buckley from Sketches For My Sweetheart, The Drunk[Buy it] 9) "Duluth" - Mason Jennings from Birds Flying Away[Buy it] 10) "Montreal" - Ariane Moffatt from Le Coeur Dans La Tête[Buy it] 11) "White Plains" - John Vanderslice from Cellar Door[Buy it] 12) "Los Angeles" - Frank Black from Frank Black[Buy it] 13) "Jackson" - Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash from Ring of Fire: The Best of June Carter Cash[Buy it]
Get excited, kiss a stranger, shout mild obscenties. That's right: Contrast Podcast 21 is up and running. It's my second week at the mic and this time, the theme is books ("There's more to life than books"). Contributors were supposed to select a book and pair it with a related song. I got the honor of the closing slot this week and can be heard starting at 1:04:13. This time around, my music pick was "Came So Far For Beauty" by Leonard Cohen. Head on over to the Podcast to find out how it relates to one of my favorite books and learn who I consider to be my hero. Along the way, you'll be sure to hear a lot of other great picks and contributions too. When you're done shouting those obscenities anyway. *MP3:"Came So Far For Beauty" - Leonard Cohen from Recent Songs [Buy it]
I don't think there are too many better ways to spend twenty-eight minutes than listening to The Thermal's Fuckin A. (Okay, I just thought of a couple...) It's punk rock as it should be. Hutch Harris sounds congested, the chords are brash and basic, it's alternately confident and defiant, and plus, it fuckin rocks. The whole time, you can pretty much picture the garage they're thrashing away in. The album doesn't get as sociopolitical as, say, early Bad Religion, but it doesn't fire blanks when it takes aim at targets. In "God and Country," Harris protests, "it's my flag/ it's my flag" and then follows up with "pray for a new state/pray for assassination." I'm guessing The Thermals didn't field too many White House invites circa 2004.
Well, it's two years later and the national landscape isn't looking any more promising. It's post-Terry Schiavo and stem cells vetoes. Suspects are still locked up without trials or formal charges. Scary old men are still listening in to our phone calls, checking our bank records, and patrolling our Web searches. Pleasing the evangelical right still trumps any other interest. So while all the MTV-groomed punks are applying their mascara, The Thermals are back and ready to fire.
Produced by Fugazi's Brendan Canty, The Body, The Blood, The Machine has been one of my most anticipated albums of the year. It only moved further up that list when I read its description: "The lyrics envision a United States governed by a fascist Christian state, and focus on the need (and means) to escape. While hardly a concept album, there is definitely a story told in the songs: a story about getting the fuck OUT while you still can." Not too many bands can pull off injecting politics and religion in their music without sounding didactic, but The Thermals have done it. And they haven't lost their signature sound in the process. In a year with so much anger and so few great angry records, The Thermals are a godsend. Maybe even a small miracle.
*MP3:"A Pillar of Salt" - The Thermals from The Body, The Blood, The Machine *MP3:"An Ear For Baby" - The Thermals from The Body, The Blood, The Machine [Buy it] *Band Website:The Thermals
I knew something was up when the man in front of me started crying. He was in his early fifties with a lumberjack beard and glasses like bulletproof windows. He looked like a computer programmer or a crossing guard. His kids had probably already graduated from college. And yet halfway through the audience singalong for "How It Ends," the distinct tracks of tears started striping his cheeks. I turned to my friend Anna to mention it. "I'm about to cry too," she said. At other moments through DeVotchKa's set, she'd shake me or fall against me. "It's too beautiful. I can't take it," she'd protest a la Ricky Fitts.
But then just as quickly, the band would switch instruments and electrify the room. Tom Hagerman would trade in the violin for the accordion; Shawn King laid down drumsticks for the trumpet. Jeanie Schroder's sousaphone lit up with Christmas lights while singer Nick Urata, he of the porn-squiggle moustache, guzzled wine. They'd veer from a mournful cabaret-tinged tune to a spry mariachi number, exchanging their emoting for Ennio Morricone. The criers instantly turned to clappers. Anna kept rocking against me, but now it was out of sheer excitement.
Mariachi was only one more sound in DeVotchKa's arsenal of influences, which dabbled in everything from Beirut-ish gypsy beats to jazz to indie pop. Showing off the range of their latest EP, Curse Your Little Heart, they offered up both Siouxsie and The Banshees' "The Last Beat of My Heart" and Sinatra's "Somethin' Stupid." Whatever style they ventured into though, they remained impressive throughout. With a talent show enthusiasm and an orchestra's refinement, they tackled more instruments than some bands twice their size. They played every song with apparent joy, a smile perpetually creeping onto Schroder's lips when she was on bass. And the crowd responded, as devoted and receptive as almost any band's I've seen.
DeVotchKa returned for two encores, with Urata constantly thanking the audience. He still seemed startled by his band's popularity, telling us about their not-too-distant days of playing parties and coffeehouses. Then as if to justify their newfound standing, they jammed with even greater intensity, Hagerman's staccato violin nearly approaching Rimsky-Korsakov territory. They didn't do any more of those six-tissue numbers however, which was just fine. DeVotchKa showed last night that they could wring as much emotion and excitement out of rocking out as they could from a heartfelt ballad. And that, it turns out, is how it ends.
* MP3: "How It Ends" - DeVotchKa from Little Miss Sunshine Soundtrack [Buy it] * MP3: "Curse Your Little Heart" - DeVotchKa from Curse Your Little Heart[Buy it] * MP3: "El Zopilote Mojado" - DeVotchKa from Curse Your Little Heart [Buy it] * MP3: "We're Leaving" - DeVotchKa from How It Ends[Buy it] * Band Website:DeVotchKa
1) "Flame" - Sebadoh from The Sebadoh[Buy it] 2) "Factory" - Martha Wainwright from Martha Wainwright[Buy it] 3) "Frantic" - The Lovely Featherss from Hind Hind Legs[Buy it] 4) "Flower" - Deerhoof from Apple O'[Buy it] 5) "Forward" - The Thermals from Fuckin A[Buy it] 6) "Fool" - Giant Sand from Is All Over The Map[Buy it] 7) "Flash" - The Sadiesfrom Tremendous Efforts[Buy it] 8) "Fumble" - Architecture In Helsinki from Fingers Crossed[Buy it] 9) "Frisbee" - Super Furry Animals from Fuzzy Logic[Buy it] 10) "Fire" - Ladytron from Light and Magic[Buy it] 11) "Fight" - Art Brut from Bang Bang Rock & Roll[Buy it] 12) "Favorite" - Neko Case from Canadian Amp EP [Buy it] 13) "Flim" - Aphex Twin from Come To Daddy EP [Buy it]
I won't lie. I've felt bored and uninspired all day. For no real reason, I found myself ambling down streets all day in a daze. I barely noticed the in-season plums coloring the the fruit market or the punch of soy sauce outside the dim sum joints like I usually do. I didn't feel like studying anyone's face as they passed or hypothesizing how that homeless teenager on Park Presidio ended up that way or even going running. And the very last thing I felt like doing was listening to music. I didn't want to devote that energy to being awed or awakened or excited. All I really wanted to do was go back to sleep and start the day over. Call it a loss and move on.
Not listening to music lasted for about half an hour. I tried putting on some Joanna Newsom, which was predictably lovely but couldn't break my spell. She kept trying to make balloons, peaches and clams seem fantastical, which made me feel even more ordinary by comparison. I threw on Sonic Youth's Goo next to no avail. Eventually, I gave up and put my MP3 directory on shuffle. Skip. Skip. Skip. Skip. Skip. Skip.... Skip... Skip... I started enjoying the five second snippets of intros I let play more than the songs. And then I finally heard something that got my head bobbing. My heel tentatively joined in for the chorus. It was Malajube's "Montréal -40˚C," a track I'd downloaded a while ago but never really given its due. But here it was, fun, hooky, energetic, loud, French-Canadian! And generous enough to lament the freezing northern winters while pumping out the sunshine.
Glad the lyrics were in French, I didn't have to worry about associations or meanings. I denied the urge to immediately dissect the band down to their influences. And since I hadn't heard much about them (and hadn't even sought out the song), I didn't approach it with any expectations. This was all about sound--simple, primal, smart, rocking pop that demanded my ear. I'm sure I could've turned to similar bands for that shot of adrenaline pop (Enon, The Unicorns, The New Pornographers), but Malajube was all it took. Tomorrow, I'm going to wake up listening to their sophomore album Trompe L'oeil. Not because I think I'll have any unexplained spells to break after tonight. It's just that I'm hopelessly hooked now. *MP3:"Montréal -40˚C" - Malajube from Trompe L'oeil *MP3:"Fille À Plumes" - Malajube from Trompe L'oeil [Buy it] *Band Website:Malajube
Contrast Podcast has to be one of my favorite websites around. Every week, the estimable Tim Young invites all the bloggers out there to contribute a song to his mix. Ever since I found out about it, there hasn't been a silent moment in my apartment. It's like some radio utopia. Well, I finally caved and decided to step up to the mic myself. The theme this week is dedications ("This next one goes out to...") and I elected to sap it up. To hear me get all poignant and sentimental, check out Contrast Podcast 20 at 47:59. More importantly, stop by to hear my pick, Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros' "Ramshackle Day Parade" and all the other fine bloggers' contributions too. *MP3:"Ramshackle Day Parade" - Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros from Streetcore [Buy it]
The party lulls into gradual silence; the guests start to converge around a ring of empties. "What's their sound like?" someone asks about the band setting up. The standup bassist, Nick, is dressed as a pirate with a treasure map Sharpied across his chest and striped burgundy socks running up his shins. "Well, they're kind of rock and kind of folk and kind of Americana..." another voice struggles to answer. "They're kind of everything." As guitarist Simon and mandolinist Cary set up, I try to pitch in. "It's kind of like... Imagine if Ralph Stanley, Calexico and The Reverend Horton Heat got into a bar fight and they were all pretty drunk..." The band isn't any more definitive, sometimes referring to its all-acoustic sound as "punkgrass" or "modern-day campire songs."
But then they launch into the opening chords of "My Girlfriend's In The FBI" and conversation ends again. The regulars that recognize the song give an appreciative holler; the new faces start to nod to the rhythm. A few people are dancing now too, twirling their partners in the doorway. The party has officially become a party.
As the trio strum out the last manic notes, the applause lingers longer than expected. It's as if to say, I didn't expect them to be that good. Nick claps back at the crowd, making seal noises. His map is already starting to blur a little from the sweat on his belly. Continuing to pound out song after song, Kemo Sabe keep up the same frantic energy level throughout their set. For the finale, the ukelele makes an appearance. When that's followed by the tip cup, bills fly out of pockets like a highroller's bachelor party. I turn back to the girl who was asking about their sound. "I think I'm going to start calling it 'scampfire,'" I tell her.
Since Kemo Sabe don't have a record deal or an album proper, the best way to check them out firsthand is to visit San Francisco and catch them live. Or better yet, if you're a record exec looking for the new hotness, hurry up and sign the kings of scampfire now. *MP3:"Dirty Boy" - Kemo Sabe *MP3:"Snows On Friday" - Kemo Sabe *Band MySpace:That Band Kemo Sabe *Upcoming Tourdates:
August 24 San Francisco, CA, Make-Out Room (w/ The Meat Purveyors) 27 San Francisco, CA, Cafe du Nord (w/ The Burning Embers and The Whoreshoes)
Oakley Hall has to have one of the most perfect band names around. First, you have the real source of their namesake, San Franciscan writer Oakley Hall. He's a cult hero known for penning Westerns that defy the typical Western cliches, subverting but also building on the genre's boundaries. Sound at all familiar? Then you also have what I long assumed to the band's inspiration: the two Annies. Annie Hall and Annie Oakley. You have the instantly charming, slightly offbeat New Yorker and the Western woman with the surprisingly killer aim. You have the urban and the rural, the modern and the traditional, the personal and the mythic all in one. And that is, in case you couldn't tell where I was heading, is a pretty apt description of Oakley Hall.
And believe me, Oakley Hall are hard to describe. They're a six-person band based in Brooklyn whose members come from everywhere from New England to Mississippi. Pat Sullivan (AKA Papa Crazee) used to be in Oneida, and like his former group, every song is its own experience. One will rock hard, another will be silk-delicate, yet another will delve into proggy psychedelia. Some songs will incorporate a few of those elements. Also, with four singers--Sullivan, guitarist Rachel Cox, violinist Claudia Mogel and bassist Jesse Barnes--and almost as many harmonies as a '60s girl group, the permutations of vocals are unlikely to be exhausted anytime soon.
This year has been a big one for the band, who've managed to release two great full-lengths within months of each other. They've also recently opened for The Constantines and Calexico with some pretty memorable sets. It shouldn't be too long before a lot more people know their name, especially when it's a name as cool as theirs. *MP3:"Living In Sin In The USA" - Oakley Hall from Gypsum Strings [Buy it] *MP3:"Landlord" - Oakley Hall from Second Guessing [Buy it] *Band Website:Oakley Hall
Let's face facts: for better or worse, we live in a hybridized world. Borders are wearing down, the lines between races and genders and nationalities are eroding. Strange genes are being spliced into fruits and vegetables. Electric battery-gas engine cars are starting to show up more and more.
It's no wonder that music is reflecting these changes, freely hybridizing sounds with a big assist from technology. From the east-west beats of M.I.A. to the reggae-hip hop-Latin fusion of reggaeton, the hybrid is grabbing a lot of ears. A different but no less noteworthy example of the hybrid is Talkdemonic. Uniting the electronic with the acoustic, pulling influence from folk, classical, hip hop and lappop at the least, the band makes instrumental music they call "folktronic hop."
With Kevin O'Connor tackling "drums, synths, pianos, programming beats, bass, accordion, banjo, guitar, rhodes, wurlitzer and everything else sounds" and Lisa Molinaro "on viola and synths," Talkdemonic's hybrid is an astonishing one. No one element overwhelms any other; all of the units fuse together organically. The music is obviously intricate, but it also seems to have a charming simplicity. It's experimental but it's also pop. It's the sound of now, but also of a hundred years ago and tomorrow.
*MP3:"Mountaintops In Caves" - Talkdemonic from Beat Romantic *MP3:"Manhattan '81" - Talkdemonic from Beat Romantic [Buy it] *Band Website:talkdemonic
Growing up in New York City, my upbringing didn't include any county fairs. I'm not even completely sure what goes on at a county fair. Is it pie eating contests? Face painting booths? Horse rides perhaps? Because it's remained a mystery all these years, county fairs have also gained a kind of weird mystique for me. I think of them as quintessentially American. I imagine them full of communal goodwill and small town spirit and lots of miniature flags on display. You know, basically a Congressman's reelection ad where everyone is smiling and shaking hands with him.
Leave it to Earth Oliver, of Earth's World, to disabuse me of those ideas. Oliver travels to county fairs and rodeos all over Oregon and documents the people there. Suffice it to say that no one in attendance looks like June Cleaver, with a set of pearls and a sky blue dress. But thank God for that. The people in her lens are so much more captivating and expressive. They're the real faces of America: fat and wrinkled and gorgeous and heavily made-up and strange and wondrous. They also immediately make me regret all my years of missing out on county fairs. Here is a small sample:
"Shadow, you got some nuts for this one," David Banner declares at the start of track seven. Of course, it won’t take you that long to figure that out. Anyone who’s heard the hyphy-heavy "3 Freaks" or sampled the outrage dominating the message boards or even glanced at the tracklisting knows that this isn’t your usual cratedigger territory. The early reaction got so loud that DJ Shadow felt need to issue a defense on his website:
The new album is diverse. Probably one of the most diverse records ever made. And I’m not talking about the now-played-out concept (which we at Mo’ Wax helped invent 13 years ago) of mixing a bunch of genres together on every track, but rather rap songs that are rap songs. CREDIBLE rap songs. Rock songs that are rock songs. CREDIBLE rock songs. Folk songs that are folk songs, etc. And I believe that in this iTunes, mixtape world, people can handle the diversity.
On the one hand, it’s refreshing to see an artist of Shadow’s stature reinvent himself. Actually, forget refreshing. It’s cool and impressive and exciting to imagine how the man who gave us the landmark Endtroducing... and the surprisingly underrated The Private Press could reset the paradigm this time. And I’m glad that he’s consciously ignoring the fans’ demands to set his own path. If serious artists subjected themselves to popular decree, Radiohead would currently be touring behind The Bends, Vol. 6: Even Bendier.
On the other hand—and what I’m about to say, as a hardcore Josh Davis fan, pains me deeply—The Outsider is a straight-up disaster. Even in the days of blurred genres, shuffle functions, MP3 blogs and Girl Talk-esque ADHD, the album sounds like a mess. It’s as if Shadow recorded a hundred tracks and randomly chose seventeen of them. The songs don’t speak to each other at all and it’s full of WTF transitions. If the music were better, The Outsider could try to pass as a badly sequenced greatest hits collection.
The elephant in the MP3 player is obviously Shadow's embrace of hyphy, so I’ll start from there. Featured on four tracks including the lead single and closer, the Bay Area phenomenon has left most people weighing in either confused or turned off. But here in the Yay, hyphy is all too prominent, the only quasi-interesting sound to crack our very boring airwaves. Like any subgenre, it has its share of good songs ("Sizzlin'") and a lot of annoying ones ("Muscle Cars," "Ghost Ride It"), and I was eager to see what Shadow could add to the Federation or Keak da Sneak sound. As it turns out, not much. Maybe I should congratulate him for not mainstreaming the underground or putting too much of a personal stamp on the music, but either way, his presence is as covert as his name. Any producer could’ve given us these beats.
Shadow fares a lot better when he pairs up with the aforementioned David Banner on "Seein' Thangs." It follows up on the crunk foreshadowing of Funky Skunk and ends up as the best, most complete track on The Outsider. As Mississippi-bred Banner unleashes his fury over the Hurricane Katrina response, Shadow matches the message with a dark, malevolent beat. The ghostly voice wailing and soundbites of desperate survivors set the song apart even further.
The two other rap tracks, "Backstage Girl" and "Enuff," also feature thoughtful guest spots. The former has Phonte Coleman of North Carolina’s Little Brother rapping about groupie affections. It’s a fun, silly song that succeeds in getting your head bobbing, but it does get old on multiple listens at seven-minutes-plus. "Enuff" is more concerned with moving your feet than your neck, a radio-ready crossover with an actual pop chorus. An uncharacteristic direction for Q-Tip and Lateef The Truth Speaker, it plays out better than expected. It doesn't help though that "Enuff" doesn't even remotely flow with the songs around it.
That's because, as Shadow warned us, he’s diving into genres without discrimination. Sometimes, it works, but too often doesn’t. "Triplicate/Something Happened That Day" is the clearest throwback to older Shadow atmospherics and a nice consolation prize for the faithful. Another instrumental, the frantic punk-spiked "Artifact," is another winner. There's also "The Tiger," the promised "CREDIBLE rock" with Kasabian's Sergio Pizzorno and ex-member Christopher Karloff. It sounds like a lost song from Psyence Fiction, which at this point is good enough for me.
On the downside, Shadow enlists Stateless singer Chris James to whine over/sabotage two tracks. James is a dead-ringer for Chris Martin (get ready to hear this comparison in every single review from now on), and one Chris Martin is more than enough. The beats are great, but try to focus on them over the oh-so-spacy whine of a Thom Yorke-wannabe-wannabe. Christina Carter of Charalambides' fame also talks and sings through "What Have I Done," but that’s a question that's better not to answer. In a similar vein, there are still two other songs, an intro and a brief skit I haven’t addressed, but there’s not much there I particularly feel compelled to say.
All in all, I wish the news were better. I wish the album had any semblance of cohesion, purpose or instinct or that I could imagine wanting to listen to it in a few years. In truth though, I can’t even picture listening to it again in a few weeks. Just hearing it enough to form an opinion became a frustrating chore. What ultimately proved so maddening about it isn’t the hyphy hoopla or the heavy reliance on vocals. What hurts the most is that The Outsider does have potential and it could have been incredible. Instead, we’re left with what is sure to be the biggest disappointment of 2006.4.4/10[Buy it]