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    Friday, June 27, 2008

    The best songs of 2008 so far

    Photo from Corey Meredith

    Another half-year is through, and I'm feeling pretty hopeful. Thus far, it's been a promising six months with lots of great music originating from all sorts of sources. If you've been willing to put in the effort and diversify your tastes, rich rewards lurk in just about every niche. As this list of song list attests, my ear has been largely tuned to electronic and hip-hop in 2008, both of which are showing encouraging signs of life. Hip-hop in particular is on track to have its best year in a while, with great work coming from all over the map. Since I usually find the second half of the year even stronger, there's good reason to believe 2008 will go down as an excellent and far-flung chapter in the annals.

    15) “Golpe de Estado” – Immortal Technique ft. Temperamento and Veneno
    When Felipe Coronel trills his r's, you can almost feel the venom flecking off his tongue. His rage is so immense, it practically pounds out of the speakers. There's nothing subtle about his delivery or his topics, no room for misunderstanding. This is hip-hop at its most nakedly didactic. It's a protest speech delivered through a megaphone, a punch simultaneously directed to the gut and the brain. Though political rap has largely languished during Immortal Technique's long absence, with "Golpe de Estado," Coronel makes up for lost time. He pronounces every word like it's the last he'll ever get. He doesn't spit fire, he exhales it, incinerating any motherfucker dumb enough to stand in his way.
    * MP3: "Golpe de Estado" - Immortal Technique ft. Temperamento and Veneno from The 3rd World [Buy it]

    14) "Philly Codes" - Nico the Beast ft. Zilla Rocca and 2ew Gunn Ciz
    Although I recently devoted five fat paragraphs to it, that still wasn't enough to point out everything I like about Nico the Beast's "Philly Codes." For one, I didn't get to mention Alex Wood's limber, spirited production, which gives the track a lot of its momentum. It's a full-bodied beat, loaded up with stirring claps and flourishes, but one that never distracts from the three able rappers. Another feature I didn't mention enough is the chorus, which finds Nico tough and territorial as ever but also allowing a nice touch of sentimentality to peek through. If I had more room, I'd also reiterate in greater depth how powerfully Zilla and 2ew Gunn Ciz rock their verses, but once again, "Philly Codes"'s positives just can't be contained in the space allotted.
    * MP3: "Philly Codes" - Nico the Beast ft. Zilla Rocca and 2ew Gunn Ciz from No Beast So Fierce [Buy it]
    * Previously: Home of the cheesesteak, the beef piled sky high

    13) "Back It Up" - Feadz ft. Spank Rock
    * MP3: "Back It Up" - Feadz ft. Spank Rock from Ed Rec Vol. III [Buy it]
    * Previously: And do that stuff that your mama calls smut

    12) "Dirty and Hard" - Djedtronic ft. Spoek
    Just above everything you need to know about French DJ Djedjotronic's "Dirty and Hard" is right there in the title. It's steered by a messy, grubby groove, the aural equivalent of hangover bedhead. And it bangs reliably under your feet, full of deep bass and slip-and-slide electronics. Add in South African MC Spoek's flow, which is essentially just one long, satisfying hook, and "Dirty and Hard" feels like a dancefloor dream. Because this song's designed to get you grinding and sweating, it'll definitely get you dirty. As for the second part, well, I guess that's up to you.
    * MP3: "Dirty and Hard" - Djedjtronic ft. Spoek [Visit Djedjtronic] [Visit Spoek]

    11) "Hoobity Blah" - El-P
    "Settle down, skipper, that's so September tenth of you," sneers El-P on the opening track of his tour-only mixtape. He's clearly mocking the fat-headed politicians and pundits who offer similar lines with straight faces, who try sparking culture wars with jihadist zeal. But it's also a middle finger to the rappers who act oblivious and don't speak to their times. In contrast, El-P rhymes like he hasn't slept a wink since that dark morning. He's become our bleary-eyed prophet, our sign-waving James Cole, presaging hell around every corner. It's clear he's been irreparably affected by current events, after seven years still bravely voicing a damage so monstrous and fantastic.
    * MP3: "Hoobity Blah" - El-P from Weareallgoingtoburninhellmegamixx2 [Buy other El-P]
    * Previously: Get it poppin' like epileptics on bubble wrap

    10) "Wrestlers" - Hot Chip
    Although IDM (intelligent dance music) typically refers to such acts as Orbital and Aphex Twin, I think the genre label would fit Hot Chip more aptly. After all, the London quintet is as smart as they are smart-alecky, thumbing their noses and grinning madly through much of Made in the Dark. Their song "Bendable Poseable" is as much about their malleable aesthetic as anything else, and "Wrestlers" is even more on the nose. "Hit you in the sweet spot," Alexis Taylor sings right before the music obliges with a viscerally pleasing riff. Like its subject, "Wrestlers" is all about theatricality, agility, and bouncing goofily from corner to corner. Sure, it's mostly one colossal joke, but under all that showmanship, there's also serious technique on display and even some glimpses of real pain.

    9) "Home Life" - Shearwater
    * Previously: Desert shores and the forest green and a limitless life

    8) "Wedding Ring" - J-Direct
    A delicious slice of hip-hop cheese, "Wedding Ring" finds J-Direct MC Fitzgerald in full loverman mode. "I don't lack lust, that's a cute brunette,/ I'm all over that thing with my wet palate," he croons at a bar like a last-call lothario. But what could be a simple tale of a one-night-stand grows into a terrific dialogue full of intimate details and real-life desires. It gets better and better with every line, reminding me of other great give-and-takes like "I Got A Man" and "You Got Me." It culminates with the perfect chorus, in which Fitzgerald proclaims the cause of his lust: "Your wedding ring keeps turning me on, ah-ah-on ah-ah-on." Paired with Jason Griffin's clever sample of The Flaming Lips' "All You Need Is Now," the song is hilarious, sexy, honest, and most surprisingly, oddly poignant.
    * MP3: "Wedding Ring" - J-Direct [Buy other J-Direct]

    7) "Mecca and the Ox" - Vast Aire ft. Vordul Mega
    Dueces Wild's main accomplishment is making The Cold Vein look even better by comparison. The first way it does this is by being a mostly mediocre album with mostly mediocre production. But the other way is having "Mecca and the Ox" as its high point, a song that sets up a mini-reunion of heyday Can Ox. Reunited, the pair complements each other with strong back-to-back verses and some sharp rhymes. It's not so much yin and yang, as yang piled on top of more yang, which sounds even better to me. Now if only someone could tell Vast how to spell "deuces."
    * MP3: "Mecca and the Ox" - Vast Aire ft. Vordul Mega from Dueces Wild [Buy it]

    6) "20K Money Making Brothers on the Corner" - Re-Up Gang
    * MP3: "20K Money Making Brothers on the Corner" - Re-Up Gang from We Got It For Cheap, Vol. 3 [Buy it]

    5) "Get Busy" - The Roots ft. Dice Raw, Peedi Crack and DJ Jazzy Jeff
    Outgunning Jay-Z's "99 Problems," "Get Busy" is the best song Rick Rubin never produced. It's got his trademark boombox thump, that hard rock vibe with the hip-hop attitude. Or as Black Thought puts it, "part Melle Mel, part Van Halen." But The Roots don't stop at mere homage and even with masterful production. Like the overachievers they are, we also get Black Thought and Dice Raw at their most ferocious, some old-school scratch samples from Jazzy Jeff, and best of all, a brilliant verse from Peedi Crack. He's freewheeling and light-hearted where the other two rappers are heavy, proving there's more than one way to kill a killer beat.

    4) "Driving Down The Block" (Remix ft. Bun B, Pusha T, and the Cool Kids) - Kidz in the Hall
    * MP3: "Driving Down The Block" (Remix ft. Bun B, Pusha T, and the Cool Kids) - Kidz in the Hall from The In Crowd [Buy it]
    * Previously: Crank up my alpine, and my bass crazy kickin' it

    3) "Swang on 'Em" - Bun B ft. Lupe Fiasco
    If the "Drivin' Down The Block" remix is my go-to jam for suburban joyrides, "Swang on 'Em" is my essential song for walking down the street. I know, I know, most people don't need a soundtrack to cross a sidewalk, but it's really their loss. With my oversized headphones draped like earmuffs and my Ray-Bans on, nothing gets my heart rate revving like this pop-rap stunner. From the brassy drumline beat to its bouncy meter, from Bun B's blustery confidence to Lupe Fiasco's stealth-genius guest spot, "Swang on 'Em" has loads of energy to spare. Every time I put it on repeat, it ensures I'll wind up miles from home.
    * MP3: "Swang on 'Em" - Bun B ft. Lupe Fiasco from II Trill [Buy it]

    2) "We're Looking For A Lot of Love" - Hot Chip
    Hot Chip's always been about modulation, but Made In the Dark finds them slowing their pace more than ever. Four full songs feature their weird take on pop-soul ballads, with "We're Looking For A Lot of Love" being the marvel of the lot. "You see me everywhere," Alexis Taylor sings, somewhere between the Four Tops and Flight of the Conchords. "I see you in my boots and in my hair." That's a bizarre admission for a love song, but the ache in Taylor's voice sells it as eerily true. Lately, it even has me revising my policy on Hot Chip's slower tracks. Whereas I once skipped past them to get to the dance songs, "We're Looking For A Lot of Love" has become the destination I'm racing to reach.
    * MP3: "We're Looking For A Lot of Love" - Hot Chip from Made In The Dark [Buy it]

    1) "Vanished" - Crystal Castles
    I used to be one of the cynical masses, sneering at remixes as lazy cash-grabs. Tinker slightly with the beat or slap on a few extra verses, and you can stick it on a fifteen-dollar import single. But if I've learned anything from doing this blog (dubious but possible), it's that remixing is just as delicate and vital an art as songwriting. "Vanished" is the perfect example, transforming a decent Van She song into sonic gold. Just by altering the beat and expanding the musical sections, Crystal Castles makes "Vanished" exponentially more gorgeous. Compared to the original, it glitters and swaggers with whole new life. I can't imagine any song sounding better in 2008, but just in case, I'm going to wait for the remix.
    * MP3: "Vanished" - Crystal Castles from Crystal Castles [Buy it]
    * Previously: Come see the city with me

    Up next: The best singles of 2008 so far

    Thursday, June 26, 2008

    Let their kingdom come tonight

    Shearwater @ Club Lambi, 6-22-08

    "Leviathan, Bound"

    "Century Eyes"

    * MP3: "Rooks" (Live) - Shearwater from Live on University of Minnesota's Radio K
    * MP3: "Leviathan, Bound" (Live) - Shearwater from Live from University of Minnesota's Radio K [Buy
    Rook] (MP3s via The Torture Garden)

    Listening booth #38

    Photo by opobs

    * MP3: "No Love" - SoKo [Visit her]
    * MP3: "Mi Viejo" - Ratatat from LP3 [Preorder it]
    * MP3: "A Cause Des Garçons" (TEPR Remix) - Yelle [Buy other Yelle]

    You can check out more of Mike's photography here.

    Tuesday, June 24, 2008

    Behind the blog: The Torture Garden

    Like many of you, I first stumbled upon The Torture Garden while in search of hardcore fetish photography. When my disappointment finally subsided, I realized the website I'd found might be even better. Despite its blatant lack of wooden pony torture, here was a MP3 blog that combined lovely music with lyrical writing, captivating imagery, and a clear commitment to quality. You can sense the enthusiasm and passion its author Shane invests into every post. You can hear the evidence of a well-defined aesthetic in his song selections. And you can witness the creativity and thought that so eloquently separate his site from the multitudes of others--both pornographic and otherwise. Here's my conversation with the man behind the blog:

    Nerd Litter:

    The Torture Garden: Hey.

    So to kick things off, why did you originally start your blog?

    Well, I knew I liked writing, and I thought it might be an interesting outlet (though it took months before I actually started writing properly on it). I was also a fan of several MP3 blogs, and I knew I liked the idea. It was pretty much on a whim.

    Which ones were you reading when you started out?

    TTG: Most of them are defunct now. I read a lot of You Ain’t No Picasso and Take Your Medicine, the old Nothing But Green Lights, and Gorilla Vs. Bear. Stereogum too, I think. But also lots of little ones that are gone now.

    When I started out, I thought there was, like, five music blogs and decided, oh, well I can be the sixth. I really had no idea what I was doing.

    Same here. There was a pretty nice sense of community between ten or so of us, before we realised how many there really were.

    What's interesting though is your early posts champion music I could still see you liking today. Do you think your tastes have changed as a result of writing The Torture Garden?

    I'd say so. A bit. I'm definitely more discriminating. There are bands I would have had more time for back then, whereas now I sometimes neglect bands that I feel I've heard before. That isn't always the best move, but I'm happy with the ways my taste has changed.

    NL: What would be the best way for a band to get your attention today? What would guarantee a post on your blog?

    It varies. A band that writes an interesting email, has some links or a MySpace page I can check out. It really all depends on the first music I hear from them. Sometimes I know immediately and sometimes I get a feeling I'll like the band before I hear them, based on what they say. They have to be self-deprecatingly witty obviously.

    NL: Are there particular genres or styles you find yourself gravitating toward posting? Is there a characteristic sound?

    TTG: I think there is. I definitely like slightly Romantic stuff. Emotional without being pompous or overdramatic. The band that comes to mind right now is The Luyas—I loved them the first time I heard them. They’re earnest but fun at the same time and original.

    NL: How did you find out about them? And where do you find out about most of your bands?

    TTG: I think I downloaded a bunch of music one day, from blogs and emails, and played it all at once at night. Then I searched my inbox to see if The Luyas had written to me, and as I was searching, I got an email from them. That was very nice. I find out about bands I like from friends first—online and off—and blogs.

    What blogs are you reading today that you really like?

    Well, Said the Gramophone is probably my favourite in lots of ways—their writing is always interesting and sometimes beautiful—and my taste overlaps with theirs very often. Perhaps suspiciously often. That Luyas MP3 I first heard was from there incidentally. I like blogs that can convince me with good writing to download a song by a band I've never heard. Gorilla vs. Bear can do that and Mike at NBGL and Lost In Your Inbox too.

    "It's a real kick in the pants from God."

    How has your blogging changed over the last three years? How has your approach to it changed?

    I've gotten both better and lazier. As in, I often try to put more effort into the writing and the music I pick, but I don't seem to post as often.

    Well, your house was on fire, right?

    Yeah, that was this week. That's exactly the kind of thing that hinders blogging, man.

    Can you elaborate on what happened a little?

    Last Halloween, some kids threw fireworks into my parents' backyard, and the heating system exploded. Three rooms were destroyed. So we tidied up, and renovated the house, and moved a lot of things into the attic. And this last week, some electrical fault in the entirely new attic went wrong and the whole attic went on fire. The smell of smoke here is pretty awful.

    Is it possible your mother is really just a pyromaniac?

    I had considered it, but all her matches and fireworks were lost in the last fire, so she's in the clear on this one.

    NL: Ha right. Well, I’m sorry to hear about the damage. Did you lose anything irreplaceable?

    Yeah, pretty much everything personal that my parents own. It was their bedroom. The worst bit is that this new room had just been finished the day before. It's a real kick in the pants from God.

    NL: That's pretty terrible. I would consider an igloo next.

    TTG: Good advice, apart from that whole global warming thing. On the plus side at least, the fire brigade knew their way around the house, and went out of their way to minimise water damage.

    NL: I suppose that's a plus.

    Yeah, we’ll be okay.

    NL: I hope so. While we're talking about home, tell me a little about Berlin and Ireland. What brought you to Berlin first of all?

    Well, the course I'm just finishing at university here required a year spent at a uni abroad and my girlfriend lives in Berlin, so I got to live there for a year while studying. That was until last summer. It was such a great year, I'm planning on moving back there in October or so.

    NL: What about it attracts you?

    TTG: It's very far away from Ireland. That can be pretty attractive. My girlfriend lives there. And I get to do so many more things: go to concerts every week, stay in pubs as late as I like, speak German which I can actually do these days.

    Why can't you do those things in Ireland? Other than the speaking German.

    TTG: Well, I go/went to college in the second biggest city here, Cork, which is really great but just can't compete. Bands on tour very, very rarely stop there, though it has a pretty fine music scene for its size.

    Oh, I see. Yeah, I guess that's the advantage of New York. Although the amount of choice can be pretty stultifying sometimes.

    That's what I miss about Berlin. Stultification.

    This band I went to see was telling me this rule that bad towns make for great shows. Because the kids are just so happy to have them there. Whereas in a big city, everyone’s too busy to care.

    TTG: That sounds very familiar. Cork is a lot like that. Sometimes I would go see a band I half-knew just because a good gig was rare, whereas in Berlin I would get lazy. “Meh, Low will come around again.” And I still haven't seen Low.

    NL: What are you studying at uni?

    Language and Cultural Studies, which basically means German and History with the emphasis on German. I quite like it. Liked it.

    Are you ready for school to be over?

    That's a tough question really. I'm definitely going to miss it, but I’m looking forward to seeing what happens. Whatever that is.

    NL: Plus, God is telling you to leave home. That's a pretty strong endorsement.

    Yeah, he's getting ever less subtle.

    NL: What’s something you think your readers would be surprised to learn about you?

    TTG: That's a good question actually. I don't really know. Umm… fuck. I swear a lot, but maybe that's not a surprise.

    I had a sense.

    Shit, really?

    Yeah, I’ve always imagined you foul-mouthed, but maybe that's because I picture every Irishman that way.

    TTG: It's a fairly accurate stereotype, I must admit.

    And I never did before, but I've just decided you look like Conan O'Brien.

    Ha. Way off. Only in the way that all slightly Irish men look distinctly rough. Rough diamonds. Hmm… I have a beard.

    NL: That’s somewhat surprising.

    TTG: Although, considering the Nietzsche and Mirbeau thing, maybe not.

    NL: I have a moustache. It started out ironic, but now I can't even tell anymore. Maybe it's the most sincere part of me at this point.

    TTG: Wow, irony can get really confusing sometimes. I honestly don't know why I have a beard. I've had it for years. Maybe I couldn't afford a razor.

    NL: Is it a Nietzsche-esque affair? I kind of want a Nietzsche moustache, but my follicles won’t oblige.

    TTG: Good god, no. Well, it depends what I've been up to. There was a moment mid-studies where I looked pretty haggard. I get called different names depending where I am. In Berlin, I'm told I resemble the young Marx. Here, it's Jesus or Bobby Sands. I'm not convinced.

    NL: Okay, I've Googled Bobby Sands and I now know what that means. You have to keep in mind I’m an ignorant American.

    TTG: They're all dead, hated, and followed by weirdos. I mistakenly turned up to a fancy-dress party one night. I got a bit of a speech from a drunken nationalist. Oh, Ireland. Drink and nationalism don't mix very well. Maybe that's why I like Berlin. Much easier.

    "Yeah, I'm nostalgic for a country
    that can't exist anymore."

    Tell me about some of your favorite albums this year.

    TTG: One CD I just bought is Samamidon's album. It's a fine CD. Actually, it's brilliant. And I love Michael Knight's new record. Samamidon plays new arrangements of old folk songs. A lot of immigrant songs. They're amazing. Michael Knight is an Irish musician living in Berlin. His album is pretty spectacular. It's a little epic in a pop brokenhearted way.

    NL: Let's talk about Shearwater for a minute.

    TTG: Let's.

    NL: Holy shit, it's good. Okay, now you say something.

    TTG: It really, really is. I hadn't even heard the last record.

    NL: I wasn't that into Palo Santo. I loved the first few songs, but then it trailed off for me at the tail-end. Whereas this one, I can't break its hold on me.

    TTG: I know. It just keeps turning up in my head. Various bits of different songs on the album.

    Now that I think about it, Rook fits pretty neatly into your description of The Torture Garden's sound. How did your interview with them come about?

    TTG: I was lucky enough to get help with some answers to the questions from a very nice woman at Matador. Not a very romantic answer, I'm afraid… I did send the questions by carrier pigeon to the Falklands though. The carrier pigeon was named John. I think that's important.

    NL: It will be noted. I hope Jonathan Meiburg sent back a parrot that squawked all his responses.

    TTG: Nah, he sent a fuckin’ albatross with a CD strapped to its back. It looked kind of painful.

    NL: He sounds like a supervillain. An indie version of the Penguin.

    TTG: He does have a song about the fall of mankind due to birds. Unless “Rooks” isn't about avian flu.

    NL: It only confirms what I’ve suspected all along. All birds are evil and want to peck out our souls.

    TTG: Wow, this interview really went off track.

    NL: Not really. I had all these observations written in advance. Tell me about some of the books you've been reading lately.

    TTG: I've been catching up on reading since I finished college, though I am going through the last of Victor Klemperer's diaries. He was a German Jew living in Dresden during the Third Reich. His books are phenomenal. His best one is called LTI. It's about the Nazi abuse of the German language. I did my history dissertation on it. I also just finished The Gathering by Anne Enright. She won the Booker this year. It's really great. Very bleak but very good and reassuringly Irish. I also recently read The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien, which is brilliant.

    What does reassuringly Irish mean?

    TTG: Sometimes when I was reading it, whatever little detail she mentioned reminded me of something I had always seen but never noticed. Especially stuff from my childhood that no one sees anymore. A lot of it is set in the past. The country has changed quite a bit. My friends and I get pretty nostalgic sometimes. I think it's a lot more like that than it was twenty years ago.

    Sounds like America. Except I'm not nostalgic for Reagan either. I’m probably nostalgic for an America that never existed.

    TTG: Yeah, I'm nostalgic for a country that can't exist anymore.

    NL: Have you been to the US?

    TTG: I have. A super tourist holiday about seven years ago to Florida. It was weird. It was November and Disney World was pretty quiet and the airports were very surreal. The atmosphere was odd somehow, but I really liked it. I'd love to go back, especially to New York. Never seen it.

    NL: Yeah, Orlando is probably not the best encapsulation of America. Though I'm not sure what the hell would be.

    TTG: I think I'd like New York. It's probably the most like Berlin anyway. Maybe more conservative.

    NL: There are few places on this planet less conservative than Berlin.

    TTG: Yeah, I really loved that aspect of it.

    NL: But New York and San Francisco are certainly our great liberal bastions. We’re like Europe’s ears taped to America’s face. What is Cork like, other than unexciting?

    TTG: It's not that bad. It suffers from being just a bit too far from Dublin. I had some great times there, and there is a lot of fun to be had. It's spectacularly multicultural, more so than most Irish towns or cities, Dublin aside. And it's beautiful in a lot of places. Apart from the lack of gigs, and the general issues with Irish cities, it's great. I guess I just often compare it to Berlin.

    "I just think that song is great enough
    to conceivably shake all your opinions
    about music. Or at least this music."

    Right. Speaking of Berlin attitudes, the first Google result for "torture garden" is something that bills itself as "the world's largest fetish club."

    TTG: Yep. Sometimes, I worry. Living in the small town I am in right now for the summer, where my parents live, I worry the people in the post office will start Googling it, and form a bad opinion of me.

    NL: I imagine a lot of people get misdirected trying to find you.

    TTG: Oh, they do. The search terms can be brilliant sometimes. I now know what wooden pony torture means. I don't think I'm any better off for it though.

    NL: In that case, I'm not going to ask.

    TTG: Please don't.

    What are some of the most gratifying responses you've gotten from musicians or readers?

    Well, whenever anyone writes to let me know they liked something, that's really great. And when I posted about Samamidon, I made some pun like “the unbearable lightness of being apart,” which is kind of awful but also kind of nice. And sometimes he draws cartoons on his site, so he drew one about the unbearable lightness of being a duck and left the link in the comments. That was pretty cool.

    Didn't Grizzly Bear also put up your girlfriend's artwork on their MySpace photos?

    Yes, they did! Ed really liked it. Her artwork is a big hit on various MySpace pages. Timothy Dick loved the one she did for “Florence." That was his MySpace image for a while.

    NL: That's impressive. I like creative people approaching other creativity. It’s like one big Kumbaya circle at an artist’s retreat.

    TTG: Quite like what MP3 blogging can be about.

    NL: Yep, it’s one big circle-jerk of back-pats. What do you think The Torture Garden has in store for the future?

    TTG: I'm looking forward to having more time for it. Much more time. And more stories maybe. I had my 600th post recently and kinda forgot about it. I've just been so busy.

    NL: Congrats on the milestone. What got you this far?

    TTG: I guess I just like writing. That's why I post less: I try to keep the writing interesting, which isn't as easy as just talking about some song and how you found it.

    NL: I can relate. Not to sound like an old man, but blogging's current state is getting depressing. Blogs should be about isolating what's special, but with the twenty thousand out there, there's less selectivity and more noise than ever.

    TTG: It's probably as easy to get people to read a blog that's basically just an aggregator, or an echo of what people like than one that could stand without the music if it had to.

    NL: That’d be an interesting experiment. If MP3 blogs couldn't post MP3s. Which ones would still be worth reading? I’d still read yours for instance. I've been migrating away from those genres more lately, but I still often enjoy the stuff you post.

    TTG: I'm glad. I like the fact that I never necessarily know what I might download from yours.

    NL: Right, although I wonder if that’s detrimental to readership. Sometimes, I think I should just cover one thing very narrowly. Like, say, all Bryan Adams all the time.

    TTG: That would get you a very dedicated readership. And it would take the pressure off with regard to writing clever stuff.

    NL: I really have an urge to post that Three Musketeers song with Sting and Rod Stewart: “All For One, All for Love.”

    TTG: God, I think that was #1 here for half the year.

    NL: If that is not the greatest song of the ’90s, I will eat my hat. I’ll eat my moustache. On that note, do people in Ireland generally like good music? Or is the radio complete shite like it is here?

    TTG: It's pretty shite here too, I'm afraid. Probably mostly the same stuff. There are a lot of good Irish bands, though we also have a pretty shameful tradition of hugely successful manufactured bands to excise. I'm hopeful.

    NL: Who are some of the good ones?

    TTG: Cathy Davey, for one. Her album is phenomenal.

    NL: I knew you were going to say that! And next, you’re going to make a case that Arcade Fire is somehow Irish.

    TTG: Well, Richard Reed Parry does have quite a lot of red hair. You can't argue with science. Also, they’re freakishly popular here, like more than anywhere else possibly.

    NL: One day, you'll have to explain to me why Neon Bible isn’t crappy.

    TTG: Three words: “Ocean of Noise.”

    NL: So you concede the rest of the album is crappy?

    TTG: I do not. That song is just spectacular.

    NL: Hold on, let me listen to it right now.

    TTG: I just think that song is great enough to conceivably shake all your opinions about music. Or at least this music.

    NL: The other day, I listened to Funeral, because I'm currently in Montreal. I wanted to see if it made more sense out here.

    TTG: And?

    NL: Surprisingly underwhelming. The hype has somewhat destroyed it for me, although I was never that wowed to begin with. Some albums that everyone loves, I just feel strangely little for.

    TTG: I can't listen to it that much anymore, because when I first had it, I played it for about six months straight before getting sick of it.

    NL: Okay, after refreshing my memory, I’m reluctant to tell you what I think of this song. But I’ll also give you three words, one of which is hyphenated: late-era Springsteen Xerox.

    TTG: God.

    NL: I know, I'm sorry. I mean, they did make their Springsteen adulation pretty explicit and maybe that’s colored my impression of the album.

    TTG: I don't hear it on this song really. It's the brass that gets me.

    NL: No, I will say the music isn’t bad. It’s the lyrics and vocals that make it tough for me. Maybe we shouldn’t have gone down this road.

    TTG: Maybe not. It could end badly.

    NL: At heart, I just hate whatever's popular, so you can take solace in that. Ask my roommate how sad I was when The National started getting glowing reviews for Boxer.

    TTG: But man, I can't bash Boxer or even Alligator.

    NL: Yeah, it’s best not touch Alligator in my presence.

    TTG: Their new DVD did leave a bit to be desired, though I love La Blogothèque. It was just too much of nothing going on.

    NL: Agreed on both counts. As for Vincent Moon, I like when two things I really like also like each other. Like the fact that the guys in Menomena and The National are friends also makes me happy. And I’m sure this Nerd Litter/Torture Garden crossover will send some hearts aflutter. So one more question, Shane: what's the best part of doing what you do? What still makes it worthwhile?

    TTG: Well, I really, really, really like it when I do it well. When I write something good, something I would read again. There are about ten posts I’m quite very fond of (1, 2, 3), just because I think I wrote something nice. When that happens, the feeling I get is exactly why I enjoy it so much.

    * MP3: "Saro" - Samamidon from All is Well [Buy it]
    * MP3: "Dumb Blood" - The Luyas from Faker Blood [Buy it]
    * MP3: "And The Party Was My Suggestion" - Michael Knight from I'm Not Entirely Clear How I Ended Up Like This [Buy it]
    * Previously: Behind the blog: Blogs are for Dogs
    * Previously: Behind the blog: Shake Your Fist
    * Previously: Behind the blog: The Passion of the Weiss

    The writing on the wall #35

    Montreal edition #9

    Monday, June 23, 2008

    The writing on the wall #34

    Montreal edition #8

    Sunday, June 22, 2008

    Underground legend

    A few weeks ago, I was walking around my neighborhood photographing graffiti. In front of the mural I'd planned to shoot, I found a unicyclist doing tricks. He was pulling off some pretty amazing maneuvers, and after I stood there gawking in admiration for a while, we struck up a conversation. Turns out his name is Sam Haber, and he has numerous videos documenting his unicycle acrobatics. Impressively, the movies are almost as good as the moves themselves, sharply filmed, well-edited and exciting to watch. With talent like this, I think it's fair to say Sam Haber isn't just a unique athlete--he's singlehandedly reinventing the wheel.

    You can check out more of Sam Haber's work at Uneed Films and his Vimeo channel here. 

    Wednesday, June 18, 2008

    Desert shores and the forest green and a limitless life

    Art by SkyShaper

    Last year, I wrote about the decline of mystery. It led off a discussion of one of my favorite albums, Van Morrison's Veedon Fleece, but it's also a topic I've been thinking about generally ever since. In this era of accessibility, so few albums are willing to risk being just a little inscrutable. Whatever they have to offer is laid bare on the first few listens, and repeat spins rarely yield anything new. There's no slow bloom of songs unveiling their layers. There's no sense of something lurking beyond the horizon line, just out of reach.

    That's why I'm so thankful for Shearwater's recently released Rook. In just over thirty-eight minutes, it's an album that feels refreshingly epic. It's not just a collection of songs, but a genuine song-cycle with overarching themes, recurring images, and an arc of moods. It eludes as much as it evokes, often venturing into the realm of myth and allegory. The music is beautifully impressionistic too, rising and ebbing like symphony suites. Lush strings swell into the action, the woodwind sections flutter up weightlessly, and Thor Harris' drumming alternates between urgency and omen.

    In fact, in spite of the oft-repeated (and deserved) comparisons to Talk Talk's Spirit of Eden, the album Rook reminds me most of is Veedon Fleece itself. Like Van Morrison, lead singer Jonathan Meiburg knows how to wring the most out of his voice's upper range. Like his predecessor, the bulk of his lyrics address the strange, often transformative overlaps between nature and human nature. Both write vividly about anti-heroes, dreamers, and wayfarers, one part Romantic poet for every two parts rock musician. And most significantly of all, both inject serious doses of mysticism and mystery into their works. In a telling tip-off, Meiburg acknowledges the debt by starting "Home Life" with the opening line from Veedon Fleece's "You Don't Pull No Punches, But You Don't Push The River": "When you were a child, you were a tomboy."

    "Home Life," like Morrison's song, is the longest track and one of the album's key centerpieces. The song opens with a girl looking out of her window, conjuring up the world's possibilities. "You were tracing the lines of the globe with your fingers--/ Cool rivers, white waste, desert shores, and the forest green/ And a limitless life/ In the breath of each tide and the bright mountains rising," Meiburg sings at the threshold of revelation. His voice swims up like plumes of smoke; a gentle dulcimer and shy piano sound perfectly matched together.

    With every verse, Meiburg expands his scope as the music follows suit. The girl comes of age, witnessing how destructive humanity can be. But in a turn toward the fantastic, she also receives her destiny at a river's edge: "'You are bound to your life like a mother and child,/ You will cling to your life like a suckering vine,/ And like the rest of our kind, you will increase/ And increase past all of our dreaming.'" It sounds hopeful at first, full of bounty and prosperity. But the more I hear it, the more it also takes on sinister connotations--confinement, overgrowth, and, with the vine imagery, expanse at the expense of other life. Even after my fortieth listen, the lines still haven't become any less beguiling or revealing. The only greater mystery is how Shearwater managed to produce songs this thrillingly limitless.

    * MP3: "Home Life" - Shearwater from Rook [Buy it]
    * Website: Shearwater

    Tuesday, June 17, 2008

    Video Tuesday #54

    "Hit and Red"
    Ghislain Poirier

    "Tell Me"
    Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings

    "Hey Ladies"
    Beastie Boys


    "Another Day"
    Jamie Lidell

    "Ladies of the World"
    Flight of the Conchords

    The writing on the wall #33

    Montreal edition #7

    * Previously: The writing on the wall #22
    * Previously: The writing on the wall #21
    * Previously: The writing on the wall #20
    * Previously: The writing on the wall #19
    * Previously: The writing on the wall #18
    * Previously: The writing on the wall #17

    Monday, June 16, 2008

    Still I walk in darkness

    Photo by Emiliano Stefanelli

    The first thing you'll probably notice about Daniel Clay is his voice. Crisp and smoky, it has a richness reminiscent of other folk singers like Danny Schmidt or Horse Feathers' Justin Ringle. Throughout The Protestant, it also sounds assured and unwavering, a transmission of the faithful. But on Clay's collection of railyard ballads and backroad hymns, all kinds of doubts sneak in even as his register rises. In the most startling example, he sings, "Though I claim your name, I curse it every day." Though that should sound like blasphemy, Clay's earthy timbre somehow still sells it as devotional.

    Those lines comes from "You Prepare My Way," the best example of Clay's mission. It treats religion not as some paint-by-numbers salvation, but a path equally fraught with challenge and reward. Casting himself as a wayward follower, Clay thoughtfully explores the many contradictions embedded in modern belief. But like his choir-boy delivery, the structure he uses to do this is both surprisingly traditional and thematically ingenious. Guided by a simple guitar strum and a recurring melody, every lyric connects to the next like a psalm or a scripture. His opening verse, "Though I walk in darkness, I will fear no evil.../ Though I fear no evil, I still cry and tremble.../ Though I cry and tremble, I refuse your comfort.../ Though I refuse your comfort, still I claim your name," is an especially poignant look at the contours of faith.

    It's important to remember the second meaning of "protestant" when listening to this album: one who protests. Before Protestantism became the dominant Christian body, it was an alternative, a reformation to the bloat and corruption of Catholicism. Today, in the age of megachurches and million-dollar televangelists, Clay seems to again be advocating a return to deeper, more meaningful purpose. On his most overt confession, the closer "Zion," he sings, "I can see no difference between Christians and consumers,/ I can tell no difference between the preachers and public officials,/ I can see no difference the Bibles and billboards.../ I can tell no difference between my neighborhood and the kingdom." Even at his most critical, he sounds reverent and hopeful that things will change for the better. Whether or not we ascend to heaven, he seems to say, the meek have a lot of work to take up here and now.

    * MP3: "You Prepare My Way" - Daniel Clay from The Protestant
    * MP3: "Zion" - Daniel Clay from The Protestant [Buy it]
    * Website: Daniel Clay
    * MySpace: Daniel Clay

    Friday, June 13, 2008

    Home of the cheesesteak, the beef piled sky high

    Photo by pwbaker

    Rap is about place, pure and simple. More than any other musical genre I can think of--more than blues, more than jazz, more than country--it absorbs and documents the world around it. You can find that geography in sound, from the manic loopiness of Yay Area hyphy to the languid drawl of Houston's Chopped and Screwed to the hybrid house-thump of Baltimore's club scene. Even more likely though, you'll hear rappers flaunting their hometowns in their lyrics like they were sitting members of the Chamber of Commerce. It's not just a point of pride however; because rap is so often rooted in autobiographical nostalgia, the cities aren't just settings for stories but become full-on characters themselves.

    Think how impossible it would be to disassociate Nas from "coming outta Queensbridge," the Roots and their Illadelph half-lives, or Lil Wayne and his "lost city of New Or-leans." Kanye West even literally personalizes his city's streets on "Homecoming," rapping: "I met this girl when I was three years old/ And what I love most, she had so much soul/ She said, 'Excuse me little homie, I know you don't know me,/ But my name is Windy, and I like to blow trees.'/ And from that point, I never blow her off." But more often, you discover the smells, sounds and sights in the sharp details rappers convey, such as Talib Kweli's iconic offering on Black Star's "Definition": "Brooklyn, New York City, where they paint murals of Biggie/ In cash we trust 'cause it's ghetto-fabulous, life look pretty/ What a pity, blunts is still fifty cents, it's intense/ Tree scents is dominant, can't be covered with incense."

    "Philly Codes," off of Nico the Beast's new solo album, No Beast So Fierce, is another potent example of civic boasting at its best. In keeping with the brotherly love theme, Clean Guns' Nico gets assists from fellow residents 2ew Gunn Ciz and Zilla Rocca, to rep his South Philly stomping grounds. 2ew Gunn Ciz wastes no time on his guest spot, laying out his intentions with this really smart pronoucement: "If it ain't the P on the fitted, you get it in the flow/ I paint my city's pictures like I'm Vincent Van Gogh/ So I don't make albums, I create a art show." Zilla also rocks his time on the mic, delivering one of his very best efforts to date. It's hard to isolate just a few good lines, but his observation, "City sleepin', row homes, phone lines squeezin',/ After twelve, you'll find a parking spot the same time you find Jesus" is especially precise and terrific.

    Lines like that also help reveal just why hometown hip-hop is so often so well-done. Because rap can veer too abstract, vague or general, speaking about specific streets and specific eras forces rappers to get particular. It enables them to tell vivid, memorable stories using all the information they intimately know. Consider this part of Nico's verse, where the toughness he generally brags about in the chorus gets a closer look: "Men will respect you here/ Eventual death is here/ Sent to the resting plot, what you expect to hear?/ The mayor is crooked too/ And he does a look at you, like, 'Where the fuck you from?'/ Maybe they'll take your jewels." With just that brief section, he provides a pretty deep characterization of Philly--everyone, it seems, from the underclass to the top officials, has to hustle to get by here.

    That weird complexity is another reason that hometown hip-hop is worth hearing. In one breath, a rapper indicts his city for its shortcomings and failings, while in the very next, pledges his proud allegiance. But it also rings true, capturing the uneasy process of coming-of-age and staying alive in some of America's roughest urban centers. When Nico observes, "Heart of the city: strong,/ Dark and it's shitty, y'all/ The projects here are pretty raw./ The jungle is hot and waiting/ And tenants are not complacent/ Our menace an occupation/ Awaiting the population," he's evoking all the tough experiences that have brought him this far. You can hear the weight of knowledge but also the profound admiration in every line he spits. That South Philly has shaped so much of his character is clear, but the fact that he, along with Zilla Rocca and 2ew Gunn Ciz, imbues Philly with so much character is the real tribute.

    * MP3: "Philly Codes" - Nico the Beast ft. Zilla Rocca and 2ew Gunn Ciz from No Beast So Fierce [Buy it]
    * MySpace: Nico the Beast
    * Previously: 2-1-5, prepare for glory
    * Previously: Regarded as great: Clean Guns MP3s
    * Previously: Good, clean fun: Clean Guns MP3s