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The recently formed Divine Fitshas been widely touted as an “indie supergroup” because of the pedigrees of its members: Spoon’s Britt Daniel, Dan Boeckner (formerly of Wolf Parade and Handsome Furs) and drummer Sam Brown (the New Bomb Turks). There’s … Continue reading

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A year ago this week,as I was finishing up my list of 2010 favorite albums, I finally got around todigging into the Black Keys ’ Brothers ,and—after kicking myself for having underestimated the band for so long—addedthe record to my Top 10 at the very last minute. Now, I’m making similaradjustments in order to accommodate the Keys’ new El Camino , an instant grabber, and wondering where it’ll wind upamong my ’11 faves once the novelty has worn off. Don’t know yet how this yearstacks up against other recent years in terms of quality, but with the additionof El Camino , I’ve got a rock-solid Top10—and I have yet to uncork Tom Waits ’ Bad as Me . Continue reading

2010 ROCK: THE SUBURBS AT SUNDOWN

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For me, this was the best year for music since 2007, thanks in part to several of the same bands and individuals who came up big three years ago. And though the follow-up to Radiohead ’s In Rainbows failed to appear, Arcade Fire made up for the absence of another game-changer from the Kings of Art Rock with one of their own. Ditto for Kings of Leon , who made their second great album, following ’07’s Because of the Night . And so, for that matter, did Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band , though they cut their monumental work 33 years ago. The bands I’ve come to count on in recent years— Spoon , Kings of Leon , Los Lobos and Guster— came through yet again, as did some other standbys in new combinations and settings: Danger Mouse working with The Shins ’ James Mercer , while his Gnarls Barkley partner Cee Lo managed just fine with a revolving cast of producers; Robert Plant forging onward without T Bone Burnett ; Neil Young finding a viable collaborator in Daniel Lanois . It was a year when a number of artists who emerged back in the 1960s further burnished their legacies four decades later; concurrently, the best young bands and artists continued to make music that honored their forebears while also advancing their own identities. Members of both generational extremes convincingly demonstrated both the durability and the seemingly unlimited thematic elasticity of the rock medium. It was also gratifying to belatedly make the connection with some bands I’d heard a lot about but hadn’t much listened to before, resulting in some new faves— Band of Horses , Beach House and the Black Keys —my killer Bs of 2010. Finally, I feel fortunate to have stumbled across a pair of captivating songs from Delta Spirit and Shawn Mullins that seemingly nobody else noticed, reminding me that there’s no kick like turning people on to something new and different and watching them fall in love with it too. TOP 20 ALBUMS IN CONTEXT TOWERING ACHIEVEMENT Arcade Fire, The Suburbs (Merge): A sprawling, thematically rich opus that’s also jam-packed with unforgettable, hook-laden stand-alone songs like “We Used to Wait,” “Ready to Start,” “The Suburbs,” “Sprawl II,””Wasted Hours” and the two killer cuts in my 2010 ultimate playlist below. I expect to be listening to this masterpiece for the rest of my life. Kings of Leon, Come Around Sundown (RCA) : Can’t understand why the Followills ’ fifth album isn’t getting the same degree of critical love as The Suburbs . It’s every bit as ambitious and inventive, though KOL’s emphasis is on the ecstatic, hyper-rhythmic performances, every one of them scintillating. Each track has its own vibe, from “Mary,”an astounding melange of doo-wop, Sun -era rock & roll and early Beatles that may be the album’s most bizarro and thrilling piece of work , to the closing vignette “Pickup Truck,” in which Caleb ’s now-familiar blue-collar dude gets choked up trying to get the girl of his dreams to forgive him, or just give him the time of day, in a shimmering slice of down-home magical realism. But no matter whether they’re capturing the zeitgeist on “No Money” or dropping by Big Pink in “Mi Amigo,” their unique character always shines through. CONSISTENCY AWARD Spoon, Transference (Merge): “I wanted it to be a more angular, new wave, weirder record,” Britt Daniel told me about his fully realized intentions for Spoon’s seventh longplayer. Daniel and partner/drummer Jim Eno worked without a producer for the first time in search of what Britt referred to as “pure Spoon,” and this is the challenging, take-no-prisoners result, an audacious fusion of the reliable and the experimental—a record that got the new decade off to an audacious start in January. BEST ONE-OFF SUPERGROUP Broken Bells, Broken Bells (Columbia): Wildly original merger of two distinctive sensibilities, as the acrobatic tenor of The Shins ’ James Mercer swoops and soars over Danger Mouse ’s intricate architectural arrangements. BEST NEW OLD ALBUM Bruce Springsteen, The Promise (Columbia) : This is a musical time capsule sealed in 1978 and ripped open in 2010, revealing a lost masterpiece. The Promise would have fit perfectly between Born To Run and Darkness , as Bruce points out. Had it come out then, it surely would have been regarded not just as a classic, but one that provides a fully realized bridge between the two landmark albums that sandwich it. At long last seeing the light of day 32 years hence, The Promise improbably yet emphatically enriches the history of a supreme artist and a storied era. The Rolling Stones, Exile on Main Street rarities (UMe): One of the greatest rock & roll albums ever made just got even greater, thanks to a sorely needed remastering job and 10 additional tracks that are far more listenable than the bonus tracks on most reissues. BEST “OLD” NEW ALBUM Band of Horses, Infinite Arms (Fat Possum/Columbia) : From the very first notes of their primarily self-produced third album, it’s dramatically apparent that Ben Bridwell and company have upped the ante big time, creating a musical statement that manages to consistently hit and frequently surpass the peak moments on their previous recordings. Having relocated from Seattle to his native South Carolina, Bridwell has surrounded himself with four talented and like-minded players in drummer Creighton Barrett , keyboard player Ryan Monroe , lead guitarist Tyler Ramsey and bassist Bill Reynolds . The stabilization of BOH’s long-shifting lineup is one of the reasons the new album is so cohesive, so accomplished and so timeless. Guster, Easy Wonderful (Aware/Universal Republic): Like fellow formalists Fountains of Wayne and Nada Surf , Guster has s pent the last decade and a half crafting pure pop for those relatively few “now people” who respond to the pleasures of layer-cake harmonies, Beatles que guitars and cascading hooks. Multi-instrumentalist Joe Pisapia , who joined the Boston band for 2006’s delectable Ganging Up on the Sun , yielding the modern-day pop classic “Satellite,” produced much of Easy Wonderful , which is distinguished by impeccably crafted contours, sharp lyrics, buoyant grooves and swelling choruses. These punched-up classic moves enliven big-hearted, irony-free anthems like “Do You Love Me”, “Bad Bad World”, “On the Ocean” and “Architects and Engineers”, bringing a hi-def freshness to ’70s-style power pop. Cee Lo Green, The Lady Killer (Elektra): While the audacious “Fuck You,” on which Bruno Mars ’ Smeezingtons production team balanced one fat hook on top of another, received all the attention, the third solo album from the Atlanta throwback soulman is crammed with impeccably crafted retro R&B gems, over which Cee Lo unleashes his revved-up vocals, a potent blend of grit and velvet. Dude can croon too—check out the elegant, uptown “Old Fashioned,” which sounds like some lost classic from the Billy Strayhorn – Duke Ellingon songbook. Bryan Ferry, Olympia (Astralwerks): Sleek, atmospheric and erotic, Ferry’s most satisfying album in decades coulda been titled Avalon II . A sort of Roxy Music reunion-plus, with virtuosos from David Gilmour to Jonny Greenwood contributing alongside erstwhile Ferry bandmates Phil Manzanera , Andy Mackay and Brian Eno , Olympia ’s myriad pleasures range from the sophisto-funk of “Alphaville” and “BF Bass” to a Homeric rendition of Tim Buckley ’s “Song for the Siren” (which, of course, also references Roxy’s fifth album). The Black Keys, Brothers (Nonesuch): The mic used for Dan Auerbach ’s vocals sounds like it was salvaged from a junkyard, the trashed, rusted-out sonics a perfect fit for the defiantly vintage songs and performances on the year’s most improbable rock hit. BEST ALBUM BY A BAND TOGETHER AT LEAST 30 YEARS Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Mojo (Reprise): Undeniably a late-career classic for this Great American Band, with Petty writing specifically for the occasion and the rest of the crew taking it from there. Los Lobos, Tin Can Trust (Shout! Factory): The Heartbreakers’ crosstown rivals have been doing the drill so long and so fruitfully that they’ve achieved their own hard-earned status as a Great American Band. Tin Can Trust can be viewed as a companion piece to Mojo : both are essentially blues-based, both draw authoritatively on American roots styles and both feature a remarkably fluent guitarist— Mike Campbell on Mojo and the humbly hell-raising David Hidalgo on Tin Can Trust . BEST ALBUM BY AN ARTIST ELIGIBLE FOR SOCIAL SECURITY Neil Young, Le Noise (Reprise): What we have here is the result of Young’s most intensive collaboration since the death of his longtime producer David Briggs shortly after the completion of 1994’s Sleeps With Angels . This new partnership has resulted in a sonic breakthrough for Young, who broke out his iconic Gretsch White Falcon guitar for the occasion. “ I’ve made a lot of records, and this is one of the records that will stand up over time as a unique piece of work ,” Young told me during a September interview for Uncut . “ The last thing my old producer, David, told me, ‘If you can just reduce everything to just you , that’s how people would like to hear you: they want to hear you .’ So that’s what this is. It just turned out that not only is it a solo record, but it’s a solo record where pieces of me have been reconstituted, remanufactured, kind of restructured and tossed back into the mix. It’s like something moving through space and shit’s falling off of it, but it’s being gathered up and placed back on as it goes along. It’s very interesting. Sonically, it’s a big explosion. ” Robert Plant, Band of Joy (Rounder): Advancing the captivating vibe of Raising Sand rather than trying to repeat it, the canny old-timer (once again mining the soulful core of his vocal persona) locates another pair of musical soulmates in Nashville-based producer/guitarist Buddy Miller and singing partner Patti Griffin , and continues his journey into mystic Americana. Among the surprises: a pair of haunted songs from Minnesota slocore purveyors Low —“Silver Rider” and “Monkey”—that could’ve been written specifically for this captivating record. Tom Jones, Praise & Blame (Lost Highway): In which the brilliant and defiantly analog producer Ethan Johns ( Ryan Adams , Kings of Leon , Ray LaMontagne ) finds the sweet spot of the Welsh belter in gospel songs and Sun Records -style arrangements. This album has been criminally overlooked; if T Bone Burnett or Rick Rubin had done something as unexpected and satisfying, I suspect we would’ve heard about it. Elton John and Leon Russell, The Union (Decca) : A number of the freshly minted tunes on John’s heartfelt, T Bone Burnett -curated attempt to give his acknowledged primary inspiration his due would have fit comfortably onto Tumbleweed Connection or Russell’s self-titled 1971 debut album, while the culminating “Never Too Old (To Hold Somebody)” and “The Hand of Angels” reflect back on those days with a mix of “been there, done that” satisfaction and valedictory nostalgia. More often than not, The Union sounds like an Elton John album, thanks to his signature melodies enwrapping Bernie Taupin ’s image-filled lyrics, his still-powerful voice and undiminished presence. Only through repeated listenings does Russell’s Hoagy Carmichael -like lazy drawl assert itself, as he sings with disarming poignancy and tenderness, his always-grainy voice now as rutted as a dirt road. BEST COVERS ALBUM The Bird & the Bee, Interpreting the Masters Volume 1: A Tribute to Daryl Hall and John Oates (Blue Note): When you hear that Inara George and Greg Kirsten cut an entire album of Hall & Oates covers, you’d be excused for going, “What?!” But when you hear what they do with the likes of “Kiss on My List,” “Sara Smile” and “One on One,” you go “Wow.” George’s gorgeous alto nestles into the intricate folds of Kirsten’s arrangements, which honor the stylishness of the originals while somehow sounding fresh and new. Nada Surf, If I Had a Hi-Fi (Mardev): On this unorthodox, inventive covers collection, the veteran New York trio draws from synth-pop ( Depeche Mode ’s “Enjoy The Silence”), pomp rock (the Moody Blues ’ “Question”), college rock ( Bill Fox ’s “Electrocution”), indie rock ( Spoon ’s “The Agony Of Laffitte”) and more. And yet, the band somehow turns the wildly disparate source material into a sonically coherent album that doubles as a tribute to their own roots in the Byrds and Big Star circa #1 Record . This flavor comes through loud and clear on choices as obvious as Dwight Twilley ’s “You Were So Warm” and as unlikely as Kate Bush ’s “Love and Anger”, transforming the latter into a shimmering display of pealing guitars and regal harmonies. MOODS FOR MODERNS Beach House, Teen Dream (Sub Pop): Emphasis on Dream —languorous, intimate and gently enveloping. Works beautifully in tandem with a roaring fireplace. PRODUCER OF THE YEAR Danger Mouse Jacquire King T Bone Burnett LABEL OF THE YEAR Merge Columbia ANGEL DANCE , A 2010 PLAYLIST Since I assembled a midyear 40-track playlist for the Fourth of July weekend, which you can access here, I don’t want to repeat myself any more than is necessary for this ultimate year-end batch, but there are some tracks I couldn’t possibly leave off. I’m not saying these are the best 30 tracks of 2010—just that I can’t get enough of them. Here’s my personal soundtrack to the year: 1. “Month of May,” Arcade Fire: This is a zero-to-60-in-five-seconds blast of adrenalized rock & roll—a Funeral -style explosive climax stretched over the track’s entire four-minute length. It’s like T-Rex on speed and steroids. 2. “Birthday,” Kings of Leon”: A reggae-fied groove from Nathan and Jared and sparkling guitar arpeggios from cousin Matthew swirl around Caleb , who’s at his tough-and-tender best both vocally and lyrically, as he expresses his ardor for his girl in a series of vivid and oddly moving details: “It’s in the way she always calls me out/It’s in the cut of your pretty gown/Your come-on legs and your panty hose/You look so precious in your bloody nose.” The track hardly registered at first, but lately it’s been grabbing me a little bit more every time I play it. 3. “White Table,” Delta Spirit: My sleeper of the year comes from a Long Beach band whose rootsy, acoustic-based material gets force-of-nature forward momentum from monster drummer Brandon Young —and this track is his showcase. Delta Spirit’s secret weapon, Young supercharges the largely acoustic arrangements with his ferociously propulsive stick work, bringing assertiveness and uplift everywhere. 4. “I Saw the Light,” Spoon: If “I Turn My Camera On” from the modern-day landmark Gimme Fiction was Britt Daniel and Jim Eno ’s “Emotional Rescue,” this one’s their “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’.” The track opens as a jacked-up, White Album-style shuffle with a lemon-tart melodic progression, but at the midway point, everything suddenly falls away as a robot drum stomp takes over, signaling the transition into a mesmerizing extended instrumental section, as a buoyant piano vamp gives way a sheet-metal guitar solo hammering away on a single chord. Awesome spinning song—but that’s generally the case with Spoon. 5. “Howlin’ for You,” The Black Keys: The most rousing stadium stomper since “Seven Nation Army,” with the caveat that Patrick Carney swiped the brutally concussive drum pattern from the ultimate stadium rouser, Gary Glitter ’s “Rock and Roll.” 6. “California,” Shawn Mullins: Returning to the setting of his 1998 hit “Lullaby,” the Atlanta-based writer/artist tells the story of a country boy from Mississippi and a hippie chick from the Pacific Northwest who first catch sight of each other in a SoCal freeway traffic jam. “Her stereo was blaring Dylan / The Bootleg Sessions /And ‘Oh the Times They Are A-Changin’’/Made a pretty good impression/She looked over and caught him smiling/Under the California setting sun/They fell in love on the 101.” From there, the lyric follows the descent of the young lovers into the dark underside of what began as their shared California idyll in what amounts to a contemporary fable about the soul-killing temptations of the material world. A real find, “California” instantly takes its place alongside such Cali classics as Tom Petty ’s “Free Fallin’” and David & David ’s “Welcome to the Boomtown.” 7. “Do You Love Me,” Guster: Ryan Miller is a true romantic, and this unabashed expression of belief in the power of love is a worthy sequel to the mesmerizing “Satellite” from 2006’s Ganging Up on the Sun . The song’s life-embracing message is driven home by the cantilevered hooks, piled on top of each other like the gang tackling in an SEC game, Miller’s vocal lifting off to power full-voiced through the title refrain, as if to say that only wimps slide into falsetto. 8. “Laredo,” Band of Horses: A midtempo anthem as gorgeous as a sunrise over Ben Bridwell ’s beloved Outer Banks, “Laredo” may be the most full-bodied appropriation of the Byrds sound since “The Ugly Truth” from Matthew Sweet ’s milestone 1993 LP Altered Beast . 9. “Pyro,” Kings of Leon: On this anthem, the other side of the emotional coin from “Use Somebody,” Caleb elbows his way through the hammering dual-guitar riffage to bray out a righteously old-school Stax -style vocal under clouds of dirty-faced choirboy harmonies, in an inversion of the Exile female-gospel template. Sports the year’s most gut-wrenching bridge, on which Caleb stakes his claim for being rock & roll’s most wildly original young voice. 10. “Gotta Get the Feeling,” Bruce Springsteen: A kitchen-sink opus that seems to contain the entire contents of a mid-’60s jukebox, from Ben E. King to Jay & the Americans , in its 3:20 duration. The track has everything: hyperactive drum rolls, gleaming Latin horns, greasy sax solo, call-and-response backing vocals, all of it topped off by a breathtaking modulation into the final chorus. 11. “Burn It Down,” Los Lobos: The performance here is pushed along by the thick plunks of Conrad Lozano ’s fingers on a stand-up bass (he’s the American equivalent of Fleetwood Mac ’s rock-steady John McVie ), and culminates with the assaultive skronk of David Hidalgo ’s guitar fireworks. 12. “Angel Dance,” Robert Plant: Here, with the impeccable taste he’s been exhibiting since this teabag revealed his deep affinity for relocated his spirit in mythopoetic America—“ some deep, dark place in the mud,” as T Bone Burnett put it—Plant dusts off a virtually undiscovered gem from Dave Hidalgo and Louie Perez from Lobos’ 1990 album The Neighborhood (the one before Kiko ) and locates its electrifying essence. 13. “You Can Dance,” Bryan Ferry: The first sound we hear on Olympia ’s opener is Phil Manzanera quoting his indelible foghorn guitar riff from the title track of Avalon —and when the groove kicks in, the song becomes the haute cuisine equivalent of comfort food. Elegant, elegiac and lascivious, all at once. 14. “The Ghost Inside,” Broken Bells: Here, James Mercer communes with his inner falsetto soul man over Danger Mouse ’s lustrous groove as the duo treads on Gnarls Barkley turf. 15. “Crystalised,” The xx: What’s cool and unusual about this song from XX is the way these soulful kids pump the groove into the spaces between the notes—the arrangement is so spare that silence could be seen as the lead instrument on the track. 16. “Zebra,” Beach House: Victoria LeGrand ’s voice, somewhere between an alto and a baritone, sounds like that of a disembodied spirit one moment, Mother Earth the next, in this extraordinary soundscape, as it wraps areound partner Alex Scally ’s opulent soundscape like the tendrils of a vine, arching heavenward in the metaphysical B-section. 17. “Kandi,” One eskimO: Young English group makes brilliant use of a sample from a vintage single from soul singer Candi Staton , audaciously employing it the setup for a sexy call-and-response chorus hook with frontman Kristian Leontiou . 18. “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do),” The Bird and the Bee: What a wonderfully nuanced vocal from Inara George —her dad Lowell , the Little Feat auteur, would be proud. Which reminds me—why isn’t Little Feat in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ? Don’t get me started… 19. “Round and Round,” Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti: Can’t say I expected the shambolic Silver Lake iconoclast to come up with the most engaging evocation of Todd Rundgren ’s pop/soul recipe circa A Wizard, a True Star since New Radicals ’ “You Get What You Give” back in 1998. 20. “Wildflower,” Cee Lo Green: Wonderfully recaptured, deeply felt evocation of the ’70s Philly Soul of Gamble & Huff and Gene Page , right down to the springy groove, burnished strings and regal piano. 21. “The Mystery Zone,” Spoon: The title song of my early-2010 playlist, this one’s a tension builder with a springy groove and lysergic, “Eleanor Rigby”-quoting string-synth billows. It follows the band’s leitmotif on Transference , its ending sheared off like a Marine recruit’s hair. 22. “Agony of Laffitte,” Nada Surf: In which one stellar smart-pop band not only covers another one but also brings something of its own stylishness to the party—check out the gorgeous contrapuntal harmonies, which serve to illuminate the beauty of Britt Daniel’s melody. Interestingly, Nada’s elegant treatment takes the song from acid putdown to fluttering rhapsody. 23. “Dilly,” Band of Horses: Here’s vivid proof that Band of Horses are no longer just a front for Ben Bridwell —this infectious power-pop song is one of lead guitarist Tyler Ramsey ’s strong contributions, as he puts himself into a featured role alongside the frontman. 24. “Modern Man,” Arcade Fire: As with “Dilly,” this wicked-cool cut is streamlined and syncopated in the manner of the Cars sublime debut album. The track’s cruising momentum is offset by an oddball rhythmic pattern—completely throwing off crowds that try to clap along with it during the band’s live performances. Here’s a musical explanation from veteran bass player Dennis Parker : “The intro and the verses each have a 5/4 bar that turns around the placement of the snare hits. it’s not really that difficult—just one extra beat for every line of lyric.” And there you have it. 25. “Back Down South,” Kings of Leon: Here, Caleb breaks out his most corn-pone drawl and Matthew plays a Marshall Tucker -like fiddle jig on a slide guitar, in tandem with an actual fiddle, while the DNA-powered rhythm section of Jared and oldest brother Nathan , who’s a monster drummer, bang out a vintage Allmans groove. Here, finally, is a cut that can be readily embraced by rednecks and Boomers alike without alienating KOL’s younger base. 26. “Down by the Water,” The Decemberists: Offered up as a freebie on the band’s site, the first taste of the The King Is Dead (hitting in January) confirms and engagingly animates Colin Meloy ’s description of the album as an double-barreled homage to Neil Young and R.E.M. Gillian Welch handles Nicolette Larson ’s duet-partner role on Comes a Time , while the role of Peter Buck is played by Peter Buck, though here he’s on mandolin (the R.E.M. guitarist breaks out his signature 12-string jangle on his other two album appearances). As sturdy, straightforward and wood-grained as the Oregon barn in which the album was recorded. 27. “Neil Young,” Love and War: One of two acoustic numbers on Le Noize , this captivating contemplation crams ol’ Neil’s entire career into a tidy (for him, anyway) 5:37. This is as good as he gets, and so’s the LP’s other acoustic epic, “Peaceful Valley Boulevard.” 28. “Holiday,” Vampire Weekend: A burst of sheer ebullience, this cut from the wicked-clever Contra assumes its rightful status as a modern-day seasonal standard through its constant hammering in the year-end TV campaigns of both Honda and Tommy Hilfinger , further fattening the wallets of Ezra Koenig and his cerebral, well-heeled bandmates. 29. “Getting Ready for Christmas Day,” Paul Simon: This persuasive preview of So Beautiful or So What , the master’s first LP for Concord , juxtaposes seasonal jollity with sobering reality, accurately capturing the mood of Christmas 2010. A belated (by 45 years) but fitting bookend to “7 O’Clock News/Silent Night” from Simon & Garfunkel ’s Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme . 30. “When the Sun Breaks,” The Mommyheads: This smart, musically sophisticated indie band that generated a modest but fervent cult following in the ’90s has just reappeared, featured in a ubiquitous spot for Time Warner Cable and self-releasing the career retrospective Finest Specimens ( Dromedary ). This lovely, newly recorded piece, barely over two minutes in length, contains little more than a crystalline piano and glee club harmonies, echoing as if recorded in a cathedral, sublimely capturing the mood suggested by the title. Can’t think of a better coda for this playlist. Continue reading

GOOD OLD BOYS

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KINGS OF LEON Come Around Sundown RCA When the Followill brothers and their cousin Matthew first busted out of Tennessee in 2003 with the colorfully titled EP Holy Roller Novocaine , they were as green as a sapling—especially kid brother Jared, who’d been handed a bass only months previously by band mentor Angelo Petraglia and told to learn by playing along with Led Zeppelin CDs. But even then, it was obvious that these kids had something special. Still, who knows whether Kings of Leon would have survived, let alone prospered, had they not been readily embraced in the UK, perhaps as much for their floppy coifs, skin-tight trousers and amusing accents as for their rough-and-tumble sound. That the four fledgling musicians turned out to such be improbably quick studies can now be seen as one of the most significant phenomena to pop up in recent rock history. If the debut LP Youth & Young Manhood (2003) was viewed as disarmingly quirky by some reviewers (though dismissed by doubters as a premeditated case of image over substance), the follow-up Aha Shake Heartbreak (2005), revealed a scrappy young band already confident enough in their individual and collective abilities to take risks. Indeed, the Kings of Leon sound is fundamentally built on audacity: Caleb’s preternatural yelp, at once wounded and defiant, was as far from rock indie-rock cool as one could get; oldest brother Nathan attacked his drum kit with the brutal aggressiveness of an extreme fighter; Jared’s basslines were so hyperactive you’d have thought he needed a Ritalin prescription; and Matthew squeezed as much tonal variety out of the effects pedals at his feet as Jonny Greenwood. Caleb’s songs weren’t like anything else out there either; what the hell did he mean by “He’s so the purity, a shaven and a mourning/and standing on a pigeon toe, in his disarray” in “King of the Rodeo,” or “18, balding, star, Golden, fallen, heart” in “The Bucket”? In 2007, just after the band made another exponential leap with one of the last decade’s most invigorating albums in Because of the Times , English producer Ethan Johns, who’d helmed all their records to that point, went out on a limb. “This is gonna sound a little absurd,” he told me, “but I do think that they’re the best rock & roll band playing at the moment. I don’t think there’s anyone out there that holds a torch to these guys. They’re gonna be around for a long time, those boys. There’s no doubt.” And on the eve of the release of their worldwide breakthrough Only by the Night in 2008, Caleb didn’t hesitate in answering my question about what current band impressed him the most: “Definitely Radiohead,” he said. “They get it right every time. That’s something we’ve always tried to do—mix things up a little bit.” Two years (and nearly 7 million albums) later, those words speak volumes, because, with Come Around Sundown , Kings of Leon have made a musical statement whose boldness rivals that of the envelope-pushing Kings of Art Rock—though it also manages to come off as companionably down-to-earth. Despite its success, Only by the Night was the work of a band still growing into their hard-earned status as arena headliners—while also adapting to a radically different studio dynamic resulting from their decision not to continue working with the strong-willed Johns. The new album, by contrast, finds these chronically restless and supremely self-assured musicians applying their rarefied skills to a super-tasty recipe in which familiar sounds and motifs—their own and those of their ever-expanding source material—are treated in unexpected and frequently unprecedented ways. What enables the new record to stand apart from its predecessors is that it brings the soulful swagger of 2007’s Because of the Times and the arena-rock scale of Only by the Night to bear on classic rock styles in a dramatic display of how much these eager youngsters have absorbed from their continuing studies in rock history, and how boldly they’ve integrated classic moves into their own singular style. Now, finally, we can hear KOL’s link to the great southern bands that came before them. Nathan and Jared share a rhythmic pulse that emanates from their DNA, and they form an absolute monster rhythm section. The grooves they churn out are so sturdy and springy that Caleb and Matthew are free to launch into whatever melodic and textural acrobatics they can imagine. Pushed to the max by engineer/co-producer Jacquire King, the earth-shaking bottom and the fireworks on top come together to form such immense soundscapes that my computer speakers could hardly handle them (and make no mistake, reviews of high-profile releases these days are often written in response to streams of middling bit rates played through desktop speakers). The album unfolds like a parade of anthems out of some parallel universe. It starts, interestingly, where Because of the Night left off, with “The End,” a majestic piece featuring orchestral flourishes from Matthew’s overbubbed, reverb-drenched guitars, echoing the panoramic third-album closer “Arizona.” Following this widescreen scene-setter, they dive into their takes on the sounds of old records as if they’d just discovered the motherlode, which indeed they have. “Radioactive,” the first single, is transitional by design. It’s a thrusting horizontal rocker, a la “Sex on Fire,” on which drums, bass and guitar engage in a breathless sprint from end to end, but in the final choruses, gospel voices rise up behind Caleb’s lead vocal, signaling what’s to come. On “Pyro,” Caleb elbows his way through the hammering dual-guitar riffage to bray out a righteously old-school Stax-style vocal under clouds of dirty-faced choirboy harmonies, in an inversion of the Exile female-gospel template. Nathan and Caleb plausibly claim their Pentecostal upbringing prevented them from hearing much popular music until Petraglia took them under his wing, and as a result, they dive into their takes on the sounds of old records as if they were brand new. This child-like sense of novelty permeates “Mary,” an astounding melange of doo-wop, Sun-era rock & roll and early Beatles that may be the album’s most bizarro and thrilling piece of work. Their mutated interpretation of the early days continues with “The Face,” with its echo-chamber melodrama—it’s like a Roy Orbison ballad on steroids. The band keeps the pedal to the metal with “The Immortals,” a massive slab of steaming rock with a funky groove in the transitions leading into a stately cadence under the mushroom-cloud choruses, Caleb quaking with hellfire like some demented, Elmer Gantry-style evangelist. By the time it hits its midpoint, the album has become almost unbearably intense, which no doubt explains the placement right here of the Allmans-meet-The Band stomper “Back Down South,” on which Caleb breaks out his most corn-pone drawl while Matthew plays a fiddle jig on a slide guitar, in tandem with an actual fiddle. The relative calm extends into the following “Beach Side,” a summery but propulsive track in which Matthew’s left hand keeps threatening to slide into dissonance, a la Beach House’s “Norway,” on the way to a “My Sweet Lord”-like payoff. The fusillade resumes with the raging “No Money,” which reintroduces the rebel protagonist of Because of the Night ’s epic “Knocked Up,” before easing into a relatively mellowed-out final third. The cowbell-accented “Pony Up,” another twist on early rock & roll, with a sparkling guitar riff right out of Mickey & Sylvia’s “Love Is Strange,” boogaloos into “Birthday,” with its souped-up, reggae-fied bass groove, sparkling guitar arpeggios and vivid imagery, Caleb sounding like a snockered stranger perched on the next barstool sharing a story over beers and chasers. True to its title, “Mi Amigo” cruises south of the border on a swaying tempo, fingerpicked guitar embroidery and faux-mariachi horns. Come Around Sundown ends with the blue-collar rhapsody “Pickup Truck,” in which Caleb’s now-familiar desperate dude gets choked up trying to get the girl of his dreams to forgive him, or just give him the time of day, in a shimmering slice of down-home magical realism. Somewhere, Gram Parsons is smiling. This time out, KoL want you to have an experience , and that’s what you get, on a record that’s over the top, wildly inventive and satisfying in the ever-deepening way of landmark longplayers from the last century, as they honor their elders while remaining utterly true to themselves. Come Around Sundown is that magical. (This is the long-form version of a review that appears in the November issue of Uncut .) Continue reading

SCOPPA’S 2010 MIDYEAR PLAYLIST

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The first half of 2010 has brought with it a boatload of memorable music, thanks to an tsunami of killer cuts from the usual suspects and recently overlooked veterans, as well as definitive tracks from a healthy number of rookies and formerly below-the-radar (my radar, at least) bands and artists. On top of that, several albums that work from start to finish have come along, demonstrating the continuing viability of the extended listening experience in an era ruled by the single and perpetuated by the public’s ever-shortening attention span. I’m referring to the instant classic Broken Bells , Spoon’s latest triumph Transference , Band of Horses’ coming-of-age opus Infinite Arms and, coming up strong on the outside, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ authoritative roots romp Mojo . There were also not one but three irresistible covers albums in Nada Surf’s If I Had a Hi-Fi , Peter Gabriel’s Scratch My Back and The Bird and the Bee’s love letter to Hall and Oates, Guiltless Pleasures, Vol. 1 . This, I think, is a promising trend. Before I get down to the track-by-track rollout, let me also put in a good word for some of the other gripping experiences of the year so far: the intense drama and black comedy of Nurse Jackie , the impossibly dense 30 Rock , the sensory overload of Treme , the unbearable tension of the NBA Finals, Thom Yorke and Flea’s riff on So You Think You Can Dance on stage at the Santa Barbara County Bowl, and the characteristically offbeat final act of Alex Chilton. On this playlist, I’ve rounded up and sequenced 40 tracks, a handful of which I stumbled upon in just the last few d ays and threw in because they struck me as promising and suitably summery—this is, after all, the Fourth of July weekend. Overall, I think this batch suggests that the first year of the decade could be one to remember—and we have yet to hear Kings of Leon, Fleet Foxes or most of Arcade Fire. OCEAN / MIDYEAR 2010 PLAYLIST 1. “Vaporize,” Broken Bells: Nobody’s made a better longplayer so far in 2010 than the perfectly matched team of James Mercer and Danger Mouse, and the latter’s arrangement on this cut, climaxing with a trumpet solo right out of the Tijuana Brass, is sublime in its detail and subtle wit, balancing the innate emotiveness of Mercer’s melodically untethered voice. Bravo, boys. 2. “I Saw the Light,” Spoon: If “I Turn My Camera On” was the Daniel and Eno’s “Emotional Rescue,” this one’s their “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’.” Here’s my pick for the coolest groove of the half-year…if not the two coolest grooves. The track opens as a jacked-up, White Album-style shuffle with a lemon-tart melodic progression, but at the midway point, everything suddenly falls away as a robot drum stomp takes over, signaling the transition into a mesmerizing extended instrumental section, as a buoyant piano vamp gives way a sheet-metal guitar solo hammering away on a single chord. Awesome spinning song—but that’s generally the case with Spoon. 3. “Pass the Wine (Sophia Loren),” The Rolling Stones: Speaking of the Stones, a number of reviewers (including our own Roy Trakin) have speculated that the Exile Rarities disc is the geezers’ best chance to place an album in the year end critics’ Top 10 since, oh, 1981 or so, thanks to killer cuts like this one, with its fat-bottomed bump (sounds like Bill Wyman to me), Keith’s woozy riffage and Mick’s pimpin’ harp solo, ornamented by horn riffs that would morph into the bleats you hear on the official “Soul Survivor” (a wonderfully wobbly Keith-sung version of that one can be found here as well). 4. “Laredo,” Band of Horses: This one’s totally up my Byrds/Neil Young & Crazy Horse/Big Star alley—meaning, I suppose, that it’s essentially boy music. On this shimmering folk rock anthem, the band deftly fuses the buoyancy of “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better” with the jutting-jawed physicality of “Cinnamon Girl” around a twisting riff from lead guitarist Tyler Ramsey right out of Creedence’s “Up Around the Bend.” A midtempo anthem as gorgeous as a sunrise over Ben Bridwell’s beloved Outer Banks, “Laredo” may be the most masterful appropriation of the Byrds sound since “The Ugly Truth” from Matthew Sweet’s milestone 1993 LP Altered Beast —although it has some competition from… 5. “Electrocution,” Nada Surf: …the overdriven jangle of these skillful veterans’ take on an obscure 1998 song from cult artist Bill Fox. It’s one of three tracks on the band’s engaging covers album, If I Had a Hi-Fi , that vividly reflects their roots in the chiming guitars and soaring harmonies of 1960s folk-rock; the others are Nada’s glorious re-creation of the Dwight Twilley Band’s “You Were So Warm,” cleverly suggested to them by Hits ’ Karen Glauber, and, less obviously, Kate Bush’s “Love and Anger,” which they transform into a shimmering aerial ballet of pealing guitars and regal harmonies. 6. “Ocean,” The 22-20s: This track from the previously blues-rocking English trio is here because (A) it carries along the Byrds-y vibe of the two preceding tracks and (B) it provides both a title and a theme for this midyear playlist. The early-summer compilation is a decades-old tradition for me, starting in 1980 with a cassette comp (also quaintly known as a “mixtape” here in the Digital Age) I made for a Catalina vacation titled Where’s My Sandy Beach after a line in the Pretenders’ “Mystery Achievement.” I still have that tape… 7. “Candy,” Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Still digesting this 15-track, 65-minute record, but I can say right now with complete confidence that it’s undeniably a late-career classic for this Great American Band, with Petty writing specifically for the occasion and the rest of the crew taking it from there. For proof, check out their recent performance on SNL . This below-the-belt blues-rocker isn’t one of the two songs they played on the show, but the playfulness of its formal perfection makes me laugh every time Petty sings the opening stanza: “I sure like dat candy/I don’t go for dem turnip greens.” One obvious reference point is the Standells’ “Dirty Water,” but there’s a ton more. 8. “Burn It Down,” Los Lobos: Like the Heartbreakers’ crosstown rivals have been doing the drill so long and so fruitfully that they’ve achieved the hard-earned status of Great American Band, right alongside Petty, Campbell and company. Lobos’ upcoming Tin Can Trust can be viewed as a companion piece to Mojo : both are essentially blues-based, both draw authoritatively on American roots styles and both feature a remarkably fluent guitarist—Mike Campbell on Mojo and the humbly hell-raising David Hidalgo on Tin Can Trust . The performance here is pushed along by the thick plunks of Conrad Lozano’s fingers on a stand-up bass (he’s the American equivalent of Fleetwood Mac’s rock-steady John McVie), and culminates with the assaultive skronk of Hidalgo’s guitar fireworks. 9. “White Table,” Delta Spirit: My sleeper of the half year comes from a Long Beach band whose rootsy, acoustic-based material gets force-of-nature forward momentum from monster drummer Brandon Young —and this track is his showcase. Delta Spirit’s secret weapon, Young supercharges the largely acoustic arrangements with his ferociously propulsive stick work, bringing assertiveness and uplift everywhere. Everyone I’ve turned on to “White Table” has instantly fallen in love with it, much like two years ago when I introduced friends to Luke Reynolds’ criminally obscure Pictures and Sound… 10. “Floating in Space,” Luke Reynolds: On his eight-song mini-album Maps , Reynolds uses the same awesome rhythm section that enlivened Pictures and Sound cuts like “100 Directions” and “the Last Ocean,” but on this outing the trio is in a mellower mood, set here by the buoyant, life-embracing opener, which conveys both his depth and his disarming dudeness. 11. “Ready to Start,” Arcade Fire: Woke up this morning with the hook of this tease from The Suburbs circulating though my subconscious, which leads me to believe it could be a radio single. One of Win Butler’s more understated, lower-register vocals, which mysteriously makes the emotionality of the performance seem that much more intense, amid the pummeling drums and skyrocket sequencer oscillations. 12. “Crystalised,” The xx: What’s cool and unusual about this song from XX , the half year’s second best debut album next to Broken Bells , is the way these soulful kids pump the groove into the spaces between the notes—the arrangement is so spare that silence could be seen as the lead instrument on the track. 13. “Saturday Sun,” Crowded House: The first sound you hear on the reformed band’s brand new Intriguer is the syncopated thunder of L.A. native Matt Sherrod’s drums, the earth to Neil Finn’s air as he gives flight to another elegant melody—further proof that Finn and Nick Seymour picked the right guy to fill the empty drum stool left by their fallen comrade Paul Hester. With guitarist/keyboardist Mark Hart completing the lineup, Crowded House Mk. 2 is a formidable unit, especially on stage, where they take off on extended forays behind Finn’s guitar explorations. But after this bracing start, you’ll need to have patience, because it takes several spins for the songs to sink in—which is what I’m in the middle of right now… 14. “Why Does the Wind,” Tracey Thorne: Like Intriguer , the Everything but the Girl singer’s Love and Its Opposite is an emotionally taut but musically restrained set out of which pops one dynamic exception—in this case a sensuous, Sade-style groove over which Thorn’s emphatic, no-nonsense voice glides with its trademark effortlessness—she’s a modern-day cross between Julie London and Peggy Lee. Deepening our theme, the track sounds just like a seaside summer sunset looks . 15. “Kandi,” One eskimO: Young English group makes brilliant use of a sample from a vintage single from soul singer Candi Staton, audaciously employing it the setup for a sexy call-and-response chorus hook with frontman Kristian Leontiou. 16. “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do),” The Bird and the Bee: When you hear that Inara George and Greg Kirsten cut an entire album of Hall & Oates covers, you’d be excused for going, “What?!” But as soon as you hear the first song, you go “Wow.” Love Hall & Oates, btw. What a wonderfully nuanced vocal from Inara—her dad would be proud. 17. “That’s Not My Name,” The Ting Tings: Yup, this track is from 2008’s We Started Nothing , but it deserves the ecstatic response male/female duo Sleigh Bells are getting right now, and it makes the playlist because Katie White and Jules De Martino absolutely killed it on SNL back in January . This’ll hold me till the follow-up—reportedly titled Massage Kunst —hits later this summer. 18. “Looking East,” Jackson Browne and David Lindley: Their memorable shared history makes the former collaborators’ reunion on a 2006 tour of Spain auspicious, casual as the presentation may have been. What’s more, most of the songs Browne chose for the first disc of this two-CD set are from records on which Lindley didn’t appear, enabling the erstwhile partners to see what they could do with the material in an only slightly expanded configuration from their two-man shows in the ’70s. On the double album’s most audacious performance, Lindley picks up and pummels an oud, providing a Kaleidoscope-like exotic spin on the still timely 1996 message song. 19. “Taxi Cab,” Vampire Weekend: The brainy band’s sophomore album is so of a piece that it demands being heard as a whole—with the exception of this understated gem, which rolls along as weightlessly as a fogbank. 20. “Pow Pow,” LCD Soundsystem: Dunno what I was expecting from James Murphy after the 2007 landmark Sound of Silver , and I’m still trying to figure out what’s ticking behind This Is Happening , right down to settling on a particular cut to pull from it. For now I’m going with this homage to the Talking Heads’ Eno period, which sound intoxicating the first time I heard it, driving through Santa Barbara under starry skies after Thom Yorke’s Atoms for Peace show at the Bowl. 21. “Take It In,” Hot Chip: My fondness for their fanboy groove-a-rama increases with each album, and although the latest, One Life Stand , went for consistency over a roller-coaster ride, it did yield some progressively involving winners, including this poppy set piece, which they chose to use for the closer. 22. “Flume,” Peter Gabriel: Another striking covers album yielded this hushed, gorgeous ballad from Bon Iver’s 2008 stunner For Emma, Forever Ago , as Gabriel hits that oosebump-inducing leap into the first chorus without the celestial stacked harmonies of Justin Vernon’s original. 23. “Goodbye Girl,” The Shins: Mercer’s crew (whoever they are these days) covering Squeeze—how perfect is that? A wistful yet propulsive reimagining, the track is just one of several winners from the freebie online grab bag Levi’s Pioneer Sessions . While you’re on the site, you’ll also wanna download She & Him covering Rick Nelson’s “Fools Rush In,” Raphael Saadiq doing the Spinners’ “It’s a Shame” and Jason Mraz power-chording through Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky.” 24. “Shot of Love,” Robert Randolph & the Family Band: T Bone Burnett combines his deep understanding of American roots music with Randolph’s grounding in gospel on the sacred steel virtuoso’s third studio album, resulting in a set of fervently funky performances steeped in authenticity and powered (like all of the producer’s sonically detailed recordings) by grooves as deep as trenches. Randolph and his rock-steady crew share space with some well chosen Burnett ringers; this song from Bob Dylan’s foray into Christianity Slow Train Comin’ gets the devil beat out of it the great by Jim Keltner, while Randolph’s buddy Ben Harper handles the lead vocal. 25. “How Do You Like Me Now,” The Heavy: This 2009 horn-powered neo-soul workout thrust its way onto the playlist after its appearance on the Kia spot that debuted during the Super Bowl. Wilson Pickett would surely approve. 26. “Heart of Steel,” Galactic featuring Irma Thomas: Gives me a chance to plug the offbeat and mesmerizing HBO series Treme , which just concluded its delectable first season, with Irma reprising her original version of “Time Is on My Side,” soon thereafter made famous by the Stones. 27. “Medicine,” Grace Potter & the Nocturnals: I’ve been friends with Grace since writing her first Hollywood Records bio back in 2005, and I’m impressed not just by her own growth but by that of her band, featuring the terrific lead guitarist Scott Tournet. Here, they crank out a steaming slab of riff rock that sounds to like the belated sequel to Heart’s “Barracuda.” 28. “Month of May,” Arcade Fire: This is a zero-to-60-in-five-seconds blast of adrenalized rock & roll—a Funeral -style explosive climax stretched over the track’s entire four-minute length. It’s like T-Rex on speed and steroids. 29. “On Main Street,” Los Lobos: As I played this cut last night, Peggy riffed on two points of reference for David Hidalgo’s vocal, both right on the money—Richard Manuel and Stevie Winwood. Think of this as Lobos’ own “Summer in the City.” And check out my review of Tin Can Trust in the upcoming Uncut . 30. “Free Love,” Cornershop: When Nick Lowe went country (so to speak) back in the ’90s, he left the job of purveying pure pop for now people in the capable hands of Tjinder Singh, who proceeded to stake his claim with the classic “Brimful of Asha,” and has subsequently spun out some of the wittiest rock & roll of the last two decades. Judy Sucks a Lemon for Breakfast , Singh and partner Ben Ayres seem (among other things) to be riffing on the Beatles’ fascination with Indian music, breaking out the sitars and tablas and mixing them in with their standard Western instruments…or have they come up with their own twisted version of A.R. Rahmann’s Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack? Quite possibly both. But I can state with confidence that this mesmerizing soundscape is Judy ’s “Tomorrow Never Knows.” It came on as four of us were pulling into the driveway after dinner at Ammo, and none of us got out of the car until it was over. 31. “Running Man’s Bible,” Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: The groove reminds me of “Breakdown”; Petty’s lyric reminds me of all the years that have passed since then. And the band plays on… 32. “The Mystery Zone,” Spoon: The title song of my early-2010 playlist, this one’s a tension builder with a springy groove and Revolver­ -like lysergic string-synth billows. It follow’ the band’s leitmotif on Transference, it’s ending sheared off like a Marine recruit’s hair. 33. “Agony of Laffitte,” Nada Surf: In which one stellar smart-pop band not only covers another one but also brings something of its own stylishness to the party—check out the gorgeous contrapuntal harmonies, which serve to illuminate the beauty of Britt Daniel’s melody. Interestingly, Nada’s elegant treatment takes the song from acid putdown to fluttering rhapsody. 34. “The Ghost Inside,” Broken Bells: Here, Mercer communes with his inner falsetto soul man over DM’s lustrous groove as the duo treads on Gnarls Barkley turf. 35. “Dilly,” Band of Horses: Here’s vivid proof that Band of Horses are no longer just a front for Ben Bridwell—this infectious power-pop song is one of lead guitarist Tyler Ramsey’s strong contributions, as he puts himself into a featured role alongside the frontman. 36. “The River,” Audra Mae: The lyrical precision of Leonard Cohen converges with the dangerous undertow of Amy Winehouse on this dreamscape, awash in water symbolism. 37. “The Shores,” The Sea of Cortez: I was initially trying to keep the playlist to 25, then 30—but when I grabbed this download of a brand new song because of the band name and title, I figured, what the heck, it’s a holiday. It turns out to be an indie-rock update of one of those Beach Boys coastal panoramas from early ’70s LPs like Sunflower and Holland —meaning it’ll fit right in alongside Fleet Foxes when their much-anticipate follow-up hits. 38. “Waves,” Holly Miranda: Extending the aural sea foam is this enigmatic indie singer/songwriter (if Kristen Stewart hasn’t heard her yet, it’s essentially that she do so immediately), who doesn’t forget about putting a groove underneath her mood, which was the most important lesson of Portishead’s now-iconic Dummy . 39. “The Suburbs,” Arcade Fire: I promised myself I wouldn’t throw in three tracks from any one act, but c’mon, this new Arcade Fire stuff is epic. People who have grabbed the blithely floated links to four tracks are mostly gaga over “Ready to Start,” myself included, but don’t overlook this one—widescreen, poignant and seductively detailed, like a Todd Haynes movie. 40. “Heaven and Earth,” Blitzen Trapper: If John Ford were still around, he’d use this band for the score of his next western. Cue the orchestra… Continue reading

FIRST DRAFT: BAND OF HORSES’ INFINITE ARMS

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A revised version of the following review appears in the June issue of Uncut. BAND OF HORSES Infinite Arms Fat Possum/Columbia Five stars Ben Bridwell’s promise is fulfilled, as the budding auteur and his handpicked band fashion a thrilling artistic breakthrough After living with the lush melodies, breathtaking harmonies and taut instrumental performances that distinguish Infinite Arms , I no longer think of Band of Horses as another promising Amerindie band. From the very first notes of their primarily self-produced third album, it’s dramatically apparent that Ben Bridwell and company have upped the ante big time, creating a musical statement that manages to consistently hit and frequently surpass the peak moments on their previous recordings. Having relocated from Seattle to his native South Carolina , Bridwell has surrounded himself with four talented and like-minded players in drummer Creighton Barrett, keyboard player Ryan Monroe, lead guitarist Tyler Ramsey and bassist Bill Reynolds. The stabilization of BOH’s long-shifting lineup is one of the reasons the new album is so cohesive, so accomplished and so timeless. On the stunning “ Laredo ,” the band deftly fuses the buoyancy of the Byrds “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better” with the jutting-jawed physicality of Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s “Cinnamon Girl” around a twisting riff from Ramsey right out of Creedence’s “Up Around the Bend.” First single “Compliments” features the harmonies of Ramsey and Monroe over a “London Calling” strut, and their three-part blend with Bridwell recalls the Jayhawks of Hollywood Town Hall . These rich group harmonies make several memorable reappearances, turning up in close-miked intimacy on Ramsey’s candlelit ballad “Evening Kitchen” accompanied by just a single acoustic, and in full-throated splendor on the Morgan-penned, pedal-steel-adorned country-rocker “Older.” All of the above tracks were cut live off the floor, lending them a glorious immediacy. They co-exist with shimmering monuments of aural architecture, painstakingly assembled, their intricacies illuminated by Dave Sardy’s 3-D mix. There’s an intriguing further development in Bridwell’s songwriting approach, as he interweaves the elliptical verbiage of his past records with concrete detail of an intensely visual nature, these observations of everyday life hinting at storylines whose specifics are left to the listener to piece together. First track “Factory” opens in a hotel lobby, leading to brief eye contact with a stranger in the elevator, a stop at the snack machine and other mundane details that take on an air of mystery through the musical context, conjuring up the sort of hyper-reality found in William Eggleston’s photographs. The pumping strings and horns riding atop the band’s massive slow-motion groove bring an overlay of grandeur to the implied narrative – the pomp-plus-push of the arrangement redolent of the Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony,” while Bridwell’s layered vocals pause to inhale before delivering the astral lift of Bon Iver’s “Flume.” These musical and visual juxtapositions permeate the album, taking centerstage on “Northwest Apartment,” a nostalgic, atypically straightforward series of aural snapshots picturing various places where Bridwell crashed while living in Seattle and touring the region; they’re paired with pile-driving drums and bludgeoning guitars, ending with the hum of an amp hanging in the air like a receding memory. One of the album’s defining aspects is its vivid sense of the American expanse, from the close quarters of city life to the wide-open spaces. With its Pet Sounds-like contrapuntal harmonies and reverb-drenched sonics, “On My Way Home” resonates with SoCal buoyancy even as it yearns for Dixie . It segues into the title track, a dreamscape that inhabits the woodsy Northwestern terrain of Fleet Foxes, with Bridwell’s stacked harmonies stretching heavenward through the orchestral bowers of a Memotron (a digitized version of the Mellotron). The tender “For Annabelle,” written in Minnesota just before the birth of Bridwell’s daughter, poetically suggests a sun-dappled spring day in the upper Midwest . The high, lonesome group harmonies that open the culminating, thematically unifying “Neighbor” are a dead ringer for the Eagles of “Peaceful, Easy Feeling,” but at the 3:30 mark the track erupts like Mt. St. Helen ’s, ending the record on a note of flat-out majesty. Infinite Arms feels like it has two halves, the first six songs serving to expand the panoramic sound and style Bridwell introduced on songs like “The Great Salt Lake” from BOH’s 2006 debut, Everything All the Time , the second half-dozen, led off by the aerodynamic power pop of Ramsey and Bridwell’s “Dilly,” is laden with wholly and co-written songs from the other players, reinforcing the sense that this is a fully interactive band. But its symmetry is just one of the reasons you’ll want to get this neoclassic landmark on vinyl. Another is that it begs to be flipped over and played again. Q&A: Ben Bridwell You’ve said that in many ways this is the first Band of Horses album. How so? It’s the first time the lineup hasn’t been this revolving door. I feel like the band has really solidified itself for the first time. When I started the band and Matt [Brooke] was in it, I had some songwriting input from him. With this record it’s like a real band, no one’s goin’ anywhere and everyone’s contributing to the songwriting process. This is a band that I’m a part of now and not just leading, and this is our coming-out party to show people everybody in the band, not just my sad songs. Your harmonies with Tyler and Ryan are really classic. There are times when you can hear that maybe it’s not perfect, and because we were doing it live and didn’t really have anyone to judge us, I tended to feel like that was its strength and not try to make it perfect like we’ve done in the past. Like maybe those little frailties are actually the strength of the record, where it sounds like people are actually singing around a microphone. What inspired the orchestrations of “Factory”? I was listening to a lot of Nick Drake, for the first time really got Nick Drake. I had to hear every song, watch every bit of footage. There are such dramatic string arrangements in those songs. But I’ve also been a huge fan of Spiritualized, and I did want to go for that kind of dramatic effect in “Bittersweet Symphony.” It was very intentional, most because I was thinkin’ this might be one that people in the U.K. could latch onto. Your lyrics this time are loaded with everyday detail. In the past my lyrics were more abstract. I didn’t mean to be more to the point in these songs; they just kinda came out that way. I guess the song was askin’ for it, and that’s what I had and could speak from those experiences, so I didn’t shy away from it. But I don’t write lyrics deliberately, ever – they just kinda come. And usually I’ll edit them to death so that people have absolutely no idea what I’m talkin’ about. Maybe I decided to unmask them a little bit more. This feels very much like an old-fashioned two-sided record. When I approved the vinyl master the other day, I got to hear it, finally, as a piece of music, and it flows so much better as two sides. There really are two phases of the record, and the second side really does showcase the rest of the band. You get Tyler ’s songs and Ryan’s song in there – it’s almost like a hint of the future of what we might be able to accomplish. Continue reading

THOM YORKE’S RHAPSODY IN RHYTHM

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Although nobody thinks of Radiohead as a dance band, Thom Yorke and his mates have spent the last decade developing an intoxicating rhythmic feel. Unveiled spectacularly on 200’s Kid A , the group’s embrace of the groove in all its heady and visceral nuances reached a sublime level of refinement on the tracks “15 Step,” “Bodysnatchers,” “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi,” “The Reckoner” and “Jigsaw Falling Into place” from the 2007 masterpiece In Rainbows . And those grooves have been physically manifested onstage by Yorke’s spastic bobblehead moves at the mic, along with the pugilistic body language of Colin Greenwood as he relentlessly stalks the groove, putting his full weight behind each punching bassline. In general, latter-day Radiohead’s infectious rhythms pose a life-embracing counterpoint to its zeitgeist-capturing themes of anxiety, alienation and information overload. These seductive rhythmic foundations, combined with the melodic aeronautics carried by Yorke’s fallen angel’s voice, render even the darkest of the band’s songs—which might be unbearably oppressive otherwise—deeply spiritual and downright inspiring. The Eraser , Yorke’s 2006 boy-with-his-laptop album, served to isolate his innate feel for rhythm, subtly but emphatically revealing the source of Radiohead’s unique rhythmic character. Little did we—or he—know that four years later, these intensely solitary tracks would serve as the blueprint for a “jungle dance party,” as Live Music Blog’s Justin wrote of the April 16 Oakland performance on Atoms for Peace’s eight-date mini-tour, culminating in a Sunday night set at Coachella. The performances were fueled by high-octane rhythms that “didn’t pound so much as undulate, complementing Yorke’s airy vocal melodies,” according to the Chicago Tribune’s Greg Kot , getting to the jist of the experience. That he put together a carefully selected crew of players to explore this set of songs, as well as some new material and a handful of Radiohead staples, turns out to have been yet another stroke of genius on the part of the cerebral frontman. I caught Saturday night’s show, which went down in the sylvan hillside setting of the Santa Barbara County Bowl, a venue that seems to bring out the best in the acts that play there. It was Yorke’s third experience at the Bowl, following 2001 and 2008 Radiohead shows, and I strongly suspect he purposely chose it, having experienced its unmatched vibe potential. On the drive up the 101 from L.A., I played The Eraser from start to finish, and, moody as it may be, my wife Peggy found the music “comforting”—but she’s a huge fan. We’re both quite familiar with “Black Swan,” “Clocks” and the extended version of “Harrowdown Hill,” having pedaled along to these pulsing beauties in countless spinning sessions at the gym, and hearing them again ramped up our anticipation. We were not disappointed. The band—with Flea acting as co-frontman, while producer Nigel Godrich provided the color on electronic keys and guitar, on top of the primally sophisticated percussion laid down by Beck drummer (and son of Lenny) Joey Waronker and Brazilian percussionist Mauro Refosco of Forro in the Dark—was on fire from the first notes of “The Eraser,” as Yorke revisited the nine-track album in sequence. But what cinched the deal for us was the dancing of Yorke, as the grooves he’d dreamed up got him moving in controlled abandon, transforming him into the alt-rock equivalent of Michael Jackson, while on the other side of the stage, Flea jerked around as if being jolted by a syncopated series of electric shocks. Both were dancing machines—we couldn’t take our eyes off of them. The first half of the set reached its delirious climax with “Harrowdown Hill,” punctuated by its delectable bassline, played with calibrated ferocity by Flea, while Yorke swayed along, singing the irresistible chorus, which Peggy and I have come to think of as an expression of a romantic oneness, despite the sobering premise of the lyric: “I’m coming home/I’m coming home/to make it all right/so dry your eyes/We think the same things at the same time/We just can’t do anything about it.” The solo section that followed, which changed from night to night, began with the gorgeous new ballad “Give Up the Ghost,” nicely described by Steve Appleton in his review for Rollingstone.com : “He tapped the microphone to create a steady beat, looped it, added vocal parts and looped that, then played a melancholic riff with a Neil Young twang. “I’ve had my fill, in your arms, in your arms,” he sang in a quiet, almost spooked state.” Yorke then slid behind the upright piano at stage left for a dusky take on In Rainbows closer “Videotape,” followed by a haunting performance of Kid A ’s “Everything in Its Right Place,” its crystalline beauty italicized by the intimate purity of the presentation. It was during this mini-set that Yorke’s vocal brilliance was showcased, but it was dramatically evident throughout the night. As the San Jose Mercury News’ Jim Harrington insightfully noted in his review of the previous night’s Oakland show, “He focused on delivering moods, not messages, and mumbled through his lyrics in a fashion that made his voice translate like another instrument onstage. His understanding of rhythm and cadence challenged that of a veteran jazz scat singer.” The band returned to blissfully wrap up the evening with the eerie Hail to the Thief B-side “Paperbag Writer,” bleeding into the intense new song “Judge, Jury & Executioner.” The 90-minute show came to a close with “The Hollow Earth” and “Feeling Pulled Apart by Horses,” both of which left a far deeper impression in the masterful hands of the band than they did in their original versions, released as two sides of a single last fall, inspiring a shimmying, limbs-akimbo freakout from Yorke. As we walked down the hill, Peggy gave a spot-on assessment of the performance. “You know that I get bored easily at shows, but I wasn’t bored for one second tonight. They were just incredible.” Great minds think alike. Continue reading

THOM YORKE’S RHAPSODY IN RHYTHM

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Although nobody thinks of Radiohead as a dance band, Thom Yorke and his mates have spent the last decade developing an intoxicating rhythmic feel. Unveiled spectacularly on 200’s Kid A , the group’s embrace of the groove in all its heady and visceral nuances reached a sublime level of refinement on the tracks “15 Step,” “Bodysnatchers,” “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi,” “The Reckoner” and “Jigsaw Falling Into place” from the 2007 masterpiece In Rainbows . And those grooves have been physically manifested onstage by Yorke’s spastic bobblehead moves at the mic, along with the pugilistic body language of Colin Greenwood as he relentlessly stalks the groove, putting his full weight behind each punching bassline. In general, latter-day Radiohead’s infectious rhythms pose a life-embracing counterpoint to its zeitgeist-capturing themes of anxiety, alienation and information overload. These seductive rhythmic foundations, combined with the melodic aeronautics carried by Yorke’s fallen angel’s voice, render even the darkest of the band’s songs—which might be unbearably oppressive otherwise—deeply spiritual and downright inspiring. The Eraser , Yorke’s 2006 boy-with-his-laptop album, served to isolate his innate feel for rhythm, subtly but emphatically revealing the source of Radiohead’s unique rhythmic character. Little did we—or he—know that four years later, these intensely solitary tracks would serve as the blueprint for a “jungle dance party,” as Live Music Blog’s Justin wrote of the April 16 Oakland performance on Atoms for Peace’s eight-date mini-tour, culminating in a Sunday night set at Coachella. The performances were fueled by high-octane rhythms that “didn’t pound so much as undulate, complementing Yorke’s airy vocal melodies,” according to the Chicago Tribune’s Greg Kot , getting to the jist of the experience. That he put together a carefully selected crew of players to explore this set of songs, as well as some new material and a handful of Radiohead staples, turns out to have been yet another stroke of genius on the part of the cerebral frontman. I caught Saturday night’s show, which went down in the sylvan hillside setting of the Santa Barbara County Bowl, a venue that seems to bring out the best in the acts that play there. It was Yorke’s third experience at the Bowl, following 2001 and 2008 Radiohead shows, and I strongly suspect he purposely chose it, having experienced its unmatched vibe potential. On the drive up the 101 from L.A., I played The Eraser from start to finish, and, moody as it may be, my wife Peggy found the music “comforting”—but she’s a huge fan. We’re both quite familiar with “Black Swan,” “Clocks” and the extended version of “Harrowdown Hill,” having pedaled along to these pulsing beauties in countless spinning sessions at the gym, and hearing them again ramped up our anticipation. We were not disappointed. The band—with Flea acting as co-frontman, while producer Nigel Godrich provided the color on electronic keys and guitar, on top of the primally sophisticated percussion laid down by Beck drummer (and son of Lenny) Joey Waronker and Brazilian percussionist Mauro Refresco of Forro in the Dark—was on fire from the first notes of “The Eraser,” as Yorke revisited the nine-track album in sequence. But what cinched the deal for us was the dancing of Yorke, as the grooves he’d dreamed up got him moving in controlled abandon, transforming him into the alt-rock equivalent of Michael Jackson, while on the other side of the stage, Flea jerked around as if being jolted by a syncopated series of electric shocks. Both were dancing machines—we couldn’t take our eyes off of them. The first half of the set reached its delirious climax with “Harrowdown Hill,” punctuated by its delectable bassline, played with calibrated ferocity by Flea, while Yorke swayed along, singing the irresistible chorus, which Peggy and I have come to think of as an expression of a romantic oneness, despite the sobering premise of the lyric: “I’m coming home/I’m coming home/to make it all right/so dry your eyes/We think the same things at the same time/We just can’t do anything about it.” The solo section that followed, which changed from night to night, began with the gorgeous new ballad “Give Up the Ghost,” nicely described by Steve Appleton in his review for Rollingstone.com : “He tapped the microphone to create a steady beat, looped it, added vocal parts and looped that, then played a melancholic riff with a Neil Young twang. “I’ve had my fill, in your arms, in your arms,” he sang in a quiet, almost spooked state.” Yorke then slid behind the upright piano at stage left for a dusky take on In Rainbows closer “Videotape,” followed by a haunting performance of Kid A ’s “Everything in Its Right Place,” its crystalline beauty italicized by the intimate purity of the presentation. It was during this mini-set that Yorke’s vocal brilliance was showcased, but it was dramatically evident throughout the night. As the San Jose Mercury News’ Jim Harrington insightfully noted in his review of the previous night’s Oakland show, “He focused on delivering moods, not messages, and mumbled through his lyrics in a fashion that made his voice translate like another instrument onstage. His understanding of rhythm and cadence challenged that of a veteran jazz scat singer.” The band returned to blissfully wrap up the evening with the eerie Hail to the Thief B-side “Paperbag Writer,” bleeding into the intense new song “Judge, Jury & Executioner.” The 90-minute show came to a close with “The Hollow Earth” and “Feeling Pulled Apart by Horses,” both of which left a far deeper impression in the masterful hands of the band than they did in their original versions, released as two sides of a single last fall, inspiring a shimmying, limbs-akimbo freakout from Yorke. As we walked down the hill, Peggy gave a spot-on assessment of the performance. “You know that I get bored easily at shows, but I wasn’t bored for one second tonight. They were just incredible.” (photo by Paul Wellman, Santa Barbara Independent ) Continue reading

ROUGH DRAFT: SPOON’S TRANSFERENCE

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When I was doing A&R late in the previous century, a musician in one of my bands—it might have been Jolene guitarist Dave Burris—expressed a then-popular theory about when to stop working on a piece. There’s an inherent danger in the act of refining a track, he asserted, because its initial vitality is frequently lost in the quest for perfection. The same danger exists in critical writing, he added; we were talking about a review I was working on at the time. I’ve thought of this notion often over the ensuing years while polishing reviews and features, especially when pruning copy to get it down to the called-for word count… Continue reading

ROUGH DRAFT: SPOON’S TRANSFERENCE

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When I was doing A&R late in the previous century, a musician in one of my bands—it might have been Jolene guitarist Dave Burris—expressed a then-popular theory about when to stop working on a piece. There’s an inherent danger in the act of refining a track, he asserted, because its initial vitality is frequently lost in the quest for perfection. The same danger exists in critical writing, he added; we were talking about a review I was working on at the time. I’ve thought of this notion often over the ensuing years while polishing reviews and features, especially when pruning copy to get it down to the called-for word count. I was most recently reminded of it just the other day while rereading my 650-word Uncut review of Spoon’s latest LP after playing the record more obsessively than anything I’ve fallen in love with since Radiohead’s In Rainbows , an album that I kept unpeeling like an onion, just as I’m doing now with Transference. And watching footage on YouTube of Spoon’s withering KCRW mini-set has only served to deepen the feeling that there was so much more I could’ve said about the band and the record. Then I remembered that I had said quite a bit more in the first draft of the review, which was roughly twice the length of the published version. Reading over the first draft just minutes ago, I was gratified to find I’d nailed what now seems to me to be special about the album during my initial listening experience back in early November – despite the fact that all I had to go on was a 128 kbps stream. Which goes to show you that a great record is gonna sound great no matter the degree of accuracy in which it’s delivered or what kind of speakers you’re hearing it through. So here’s the undoctored draft. It seems fitting that I put it out there in this non-tweaked form considering so much of Transference is built on Britt’s original demos. Spoon Transference (Merge U.S., Anti- U.K.) “This one is pure Spoon,” offered Britt Daniel, auteur of the veteran indie band, describing his seventh album on spoontheband.com. “For better and worse and all of it.” Taking Daniel at his word, we have no choice but to examine Transference, while comparing the LP to its predecessors, in order to locate its quintessential Spoon-ness. Temple, Texas, native Daniel formed the band in Austin with drummer Jim Eno in 1994, scuffling along for six years and releasing a pair of unexceptional albums before the partners hit upon the sound that would carry them through the decade, generating one of the noughties’ most distinctive bodies of work, while drawing a loyal constituency as ready for anything as Wilco’s. “The only epiphany I ever had was between A Series of Sneaks and Girls Can Tell ,” Daniel told me during a 2005 interview for a Paste feature. “I realized there were no rules that I should play by. I felt like we no longer had to limit ourselves to being guitar, bass and drums kind of band. I started thinking to myself, ‘Do my favorite records play by those rules? Does What’s Going On play by those rules? There are all these great styles of music that I appreciate, and I don’t feel like I’m really taking advantage of everything I could—every instrument or arrangement idea—by sticking to just guitar/bass/drums rock songs.’ That opened the door to a lot of things.” The eureka moment occurred on “Everything Hits At Once,” the opening track of 2000’s Girls Can Tell , instantly drawing up the blueprint for the mature Spoon sound: spare, propulsive, brainy, obsessively detailed, self-effacing and progressively insinuating. They eliminated anything not essential to the movement and character of a track, doing so with a conceptual purposefulness as rigorous as Radiohead’s. Daniel and Eno perfected that sound two years later on the masterfully distilled Kill the Moonlight , with its stripped-down, amped-up Beatle-isms, following it in 2005 with the more expansive Gimme Fiction , paced by the Prince-meets-“Emotional Rescue” refracted soul of “I Turn My Camera On” and the intimated grandeur of “My Mathematical Mind.” Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga , the band’s U.S. commercial breakthrough, was Spoon’s most unremittingly infectious set, powered by three of the band’s most immediately accessible tunes: the Jon Brion-produced single “The Underdog,” the hooky “You Got Yr Cherry Bomb” and the finger-snapping “Don’t You Evah.” The basis of Spoon’s blueprint is the groove, set down by Eno’s massive, Bonham-like snare hits and Charlie Watts-style behind-the-beat momentum, the feel ineffably human yet so utterly precise that you’d think it must be machine-made. It isn’t just the drums—there’s no part on any Spoon record without some essential rhythmic component, notably, Daniel’s staccato guitar riffage, percussive piano runs and in-your-face tambourine and handclap accents. On top of all this bounce, Daniel unreels lyrics littered with Dylanesque non-sequiturs and sly humor, delivered with a deadpan offhandedness punctuated by bursts of overt emotion, as he speaks for the fucked-over in life and in love, the disenfranchised, the underdogs. Spartan in its sparseness, impeccably crafted, monochromatic, desert-dry in both tone and attitude, Transference eschews conventional verse/chorus/bridge song structure altogether; instead, the band establishes a musical premise and rides it for all it’s worth, like a souped-up roadster racing along an arrow-straight ribbon of highway toward the horizon. The songs seem to blaze past, like the two-minute eruptions of Please Please Me , but only two of the 11 tracks are under three minutes, though only one exceeds five. There’s not a wasted note anywhere—something the band’s rabid fans have some to expect as a given—as Spoon spits out analog sonics with binary efficiency. True to form, the opening “Before Destruction” functions as both a palate cleanser and a preview of what is about to transpire. It seems as if we’re eavesdropping on Daniel, sitting alone in a room, singing as if to himself and strumming an acoustic, but the arrangement soon turns exotic as a chorale of overdubbed and treated voices floats in, with an ambient electronic drone lurking in the background. “Is Love Forever?,” which follows, turns on Spoon’s signature rhythmic starkness, the spaces between sounds as palpable as the sounds themselves, but here the drums are chopped and channeled. Spoon’s go-to percussion instrument, the tambourine, enters, but only for a few bars. From there it’s just a naked chord progression with another electric keyboard barely there, as Daniel asks, perched uncertainly between guilelessness and cynicism, “Is love forever?/Are you quite certain, love?” The textural and thematic building blocks having been laid out, the band begins to stack them up with “The Mystery Zone,” a tension builder with Revolver­ -like lysergic keyboard/string accents and a percolating beat. Now, this is quintessential Spoon: Beatles + Prince. The eerie “Who Makes Your Money” features burbling keyboard chords over a drum loop; hooking you when it kicks into double time in mid-song behind a staccato rhythm guitar run through Euro-synth bleats. That sets up “Written in Reverse,” the band’s biggest-scaled track since “My Mathematical Mind,” as a brief lounge piano intro opens into squalling guitar, tinkling piano, cable-thick bassline and the anxious repeated line, “It’s all I know/it’s all I know.” The track ratchets up to unbearable intensity behind a ferocious one-note solo that recalls Dr. Feelgood’s Wilko Johnson. They keep things heated up with the epic “I Saw the Light,” an epic with a lemon-tart melodic progression. An abrupt shift into a robot drum stomp signals the transition into a lengthy instrumental section that is one of the album’s most captivating segments, as a gorgeous piano passage is assaulted by a sheet-metal guitar solo, only to drop away into what sounds like a cue from a French movie score. The album’s fiercely sustained tension, a relentless push/pull between Eno’s pummeling back-beats and Daniel’s forward-leaning guitar lines and vocal spurts, suddenly dissipates two-thirds of the way through, as the clatter of “Trouble Comes Running,” boasting trash-can cymbals and guitar overtones that will slice the top of your head off, cedes the foreground to the drum-less, muted piano ballad “Goodnight Laura,” its apparent antecedent “I’m in Love With a Girl” from Big Star’s Radio City. Here, without warning, Daniel turns unexpectedly unguarded, nary a trace of irony or distance in his vocal—it’s the biggest surprise on the record. The sense of tenderness continues with “Out Go the Lights,” its tone ghostly and panoramic, like Captain Beefheart’s “My Head Is My Only House Unless It Rains,” Daniel’s voice Lennon-esque in its clutched understatement, achieving a lump-in-the-throat poignancy without descending into mere sentiment. The dry heat returns with “Got Nuffin,” a dusky, percussive rocker about darkness and shadows with a trampolining Leslie guitar riff nagged by the incessant plink-plink of a piano. If U2 did something like this, they’d restore their cred in the space of four minutes. Finally, on the closing “Nobody Gets Me but You,” super-compressed drums reference “I Turn My Camera On,” while Daniel bites off a lyric that could serve as a love letter to the band’s fans. “Nobody gets me but you,” he sings in that unmistakable rasp, “No one gets what I’m doin’.” Over string-like accents, the tone turns urgent, and Daniel lands a few well-timed jabs before the groove takes over, as they end the album perched between 1966 and 2012. Daniel and Eno worked without a producer for the first time in search of the aforementioned “pure Spoon,” and this is the challenging, take-no-prisoners result, an audacious fusion of the reliable and the experimental – a record that gets the new decade off to an audacious start. Q&A: Britt Daniel Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga was loaded with relatively conventional, overtly hooky pop songs, whereas this album is stripped to the bone. With each record you react to the one before, and the songs on this record are constructed in a different way. For instance, “The Underdog” has a zillion chords and a ton of different parts; same thing for “Don’t Make Me a Target.” A lot of songs on this record ended up having very few chords; it was more about setting something up, getting in a mood and sticking with it. There’s something real hardcore about playing one chord or one riff for four minutes. It’s just a different kind of good, and I wanted to see if we could do that kind of good. But why mess with a winning formula? More than anything, I just wanted to push myself. This is our seventh record, and at some point you’ve gotta stop thinking about topping yourself and go in a different direction. If you keep trying to make the same record and topping yourself, you’ll lose your mind. That kind of thinking is why Brian Wilson lost his mind. In that sense, was the idea of you and Jim working without a producer another way of reshuffling the cards? It was also a way of staying absolutely hardcore to what feels right first to us. Good things come from working with a producer too, because you’ve got two different aesthetics that you’re trying to please, and when you’re both happy, that’s what ends up being on the record. That’s a great way to work, but I wanted to try it where we’re pleasing only ourselves, not having to think about anybody else in considering the fidelity, structure, production style, what kind of instruments are used. Just hardcore what we want – hardcore Spoon. You’ve gone away from the piano, which has been big part of your sound since Kill the Moonlight . This album is full of angular, Wire-y guitar. What was behind that? I wanted it to be a more angular, new wave, weirder record. Continue reading

A SHUFFLE THROUGH THE DECADE

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For the last month or so, I’ve been building a working list of my fave tracks from the last 10 years. And because this has been the iTunes/iPod/a la carte decade in terms of both the way we listen to music and the way we organize it, I’ve decided to make this an interactive playlist. Specifically, I chose the “year” tab as the means of sequencing these 257 tracks, so that they descend in order from 2000 through 2009. As I drag tracks into the playlist, iTunes (A) maintains the chronology while alphabetizing by (B) artist’s first name and (C) song title. With everything now in place, I just choose “shuffle,” click on the “play” arrow and let iTunes decide the order. Because I started using the iTunes software in 2003, my ability to reference my favorite songs from each year has increased exponentially since then. That also means I had far less to work with in recalling my faves from 2000-2002; for that reason, I’m sure I’ve forgotten about some stuff that enthralled me at the time. On the other hand, I’m fully loaded with 2007 music—I chose 43 tracks, the most of any year in the decade, and I could’ve easily thrown in at least 25 more. In terms of productivity, I’m high on Radiohead (15 tracks, seven from In Rainbows alone), Wilco (16), Beck (12), Spoon (11), Kings of Leon (10), the White Stripes/Raconteurs (eight) and Phoenix (six)—all of whom did their parts to keep the album a viable medium during a singles decade. They did it in the most surefire way—with batches of songs that fit together like peas in a pod. To my mind, Amy Winehouse (five) and Robert Plant & Alison Krauss (five) are right there with the above-mentioned acts and would likely be better represented if they’d released more material. There are some modern-day classics in this playlist I’ve heard so many times that I’m nearly burned out on them—OutKast’s “Hey Ya!” and Gorillaz’s “Feel Good Inc,” for example. And yet there are others I’ve heard just as much that continue to hook me every time—like Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy.” And Danger Mouse produced all three. Go figure… A word about bit rate: I’ve settled on 320 kbps—the highest rate that can be selected using the AAC encoder—as a utilitarian compromise. Tracks imported from CD at 320 sound virtually identical to the source (the oft-repeated “near CD quality”) but can still be loaded into the flash-based iPod Shuffle, which won’t take higher quality WAV or Apple lossless files. If I didn’t use the Shuffle for working out, I’d probably import tracks at one of the higher rates—especially with storage space no longer an issue now that 500-750 GB hard drives are pretty much standard for desktop PCs. As it is, I’ve spent hours reloading CDs from earlier in the decade that I’d originally imported at 128 kbps—because I didn’t know any better at the time. I gotta tell you, having some friends over, pouring some wine and playing my soundtrack of the noughties in shuffle mode (running it through the stereo and out my mid-’80s KEF floor-standing speakers for maximum sonic oomph) makes for a can’t-miss evening. I suggest you put together a playlist of your own ’00s faves and shuffle away. Send me your comments and suggestions at bs7777@aol.com. Note: I’ve boldfaced the tracks that have become spinning and workout staples at my gym, The Sports Center at Toluca Lake Tennis Club. 2000 “Red Vines,” Aimee Mann “Things Have Changed,” Bob Dylan “Don’t Panic,” Coldplay “Trouble,” Coldplay “Yellow,” Coldplay “Bohemian Like You,” The Dandy Warhols “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me,” The Jayhawks “Smile,” The Jayhawks “In the Sun,” Joseph Arthur “Directions,” Josh Rouse “Everything in Its Right Place,” Radiohead “How to Disappear Completely,” Radiohead “Idioteque,” Radiohead “The National Anthem,” Radiohead “Amy,” Ryan Adams “Thought It Would Be Easier,” Shelby Lynne “Everything Hits at Once,” Spoon “What a Shame,” Steely Dan “Beautiful Day,” U2 “Walk On,” U2 “Any Major Dude Will Tell You,” Wilco 2001 “High Water,” Bob Dylan “To Joy (Revolution of the Innocent) ,” Chris Whitley “Why Georgia,” John Mayer “3×5,” John Mayer “Working Girls (Sunlight Shines) ,” Pernice Brothers “Our Time Has Passed,” Pernice Brothers “For Nancy,” Pete Yorn “I Might Be Wrong,” Radiohead “La Cienega Just Smiled,” Ryan Adams “Caring Is Creepy,” The Shins “New Slang,” The Shins “Sister Surround,” The Soundtrack of Our Lives “Last Nite,” The Strokes “Island in the Sun,” Weezer “Hash Pipe,” Weezer “Fell in Love With a Girl,” The White Stripes “We’re Going to Be Friends,” The White Stripes 2002 “The Golden Age,” Beck “Lost Cause,” Beck “I’ll Be Your Man,” The Black Keys “Tiny Spark,” Brendan Benson “The Rising,” Bruce Springsteen “The Scientist,” Coldplay “Clocks,” Coldplay “Daylight,” Coldplay “Lose Yourself,” Eminem “Do You Realize??,” The Flaming Lips “Times Like These,” Foo Fighters “The Seed (2.0),” The Roots “Jonathon Fisk,” Spoon “Small Stakes,” Spoon “The Way We Get By,” Spoon “Heavy Metal Drummer,” Wilco “Jesus Etc.,” Wilco “Kamera,” Wilco “War on War,” Wilco 2003 “The Way You Move,” Big Boi featuring Sleepy Brown “Quattro (World Drifts In (remix edit),” Calexico “The Last High,” The Dandy Warhols “Transatlanticism,” Death Cab For Cutie “Valley Winter Song,” Fountains of Wayne “All Kinds of Time,” Fountains of Wayne “Are You Gonna Be My Girl,” Jet “Molly’s Chambers,” Kings of Leon “Hey Ya!,” OutKast “Such Great Heights,” The Postal Service “There There,” Radiohead “Vicious World,” Rufus Wainwright “Things I Miss the Most,” Steely Dan “I Can’t Remember,” The Thorns “Seven Nation Army,” The White Stripes “The Hardest Button to Button,” The White Stripes 2004 “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels),” Arcade Fire “Rebellion (Lies),” Arcade Fire “Wake Up!,” Arcade Fire “Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime,” Beck “Catch My Disease,” Ben Lee “Our Prayer / Gee,” Brian Wilson “Surf’s Up,” Brian Wilson “When the Sun Goes Down,” Charlie Mars “Take Me Out,” Franz Ferdinand “American Idiot,” Green Day “The Bucket,” Kings of Leon “Slow Night, So Long,” Kings of Leon “Float On,” Modest Mouse “Manhattan Avenue,” Nellie McKay “Musicology,” Prince “Shelter,” Ray LaMontagne “How Come,” Ray LaMontagne “Whatever It Takes,” Ron Sexsmith “Vertigo,” U2 “Muzzle of Bees,” Wilco “Theologians,” Wilco 2005 “Cold Wind,” Arcade Fire “E-Pro,” Beck “Black Tambourine,” Beck “Earthquake Weather,” Beck “Scarecrow,” Beck “The Greatest,” Cat Power “Since K Got Over Me,” The Clientele “Talk,” Coldplay “Speed of Sound,” Coldplay “Soul Meets Body,” Death Cab for Cutie “I Will Follow You into the Dark,” Death Cab for Cutie “Here Comes a City,” The Go-Betweens “Feel Good Inc. ,” Gorillaz “Daft Punk Is Playing at My House,” LCD Soundsystem “It Beats 4 U,” My Morning Jacket “Off the Record,” My Morning Jacket “Wordless Chorus,” My Morning Jacket “The Painter,” Neil Young “Everything Is Everything,” Phoenix “Rough Justice,” The Rolling Stones “Rain Fall Down,” The Rolling Stones “I Turn My Camera On,” Spoon “My Mathematical Mind,” Spoon “Chicago,” Sufjan Stevens “My Doorbell,” The White Stripes “Spiders (Kidsmoke) ,” Wilco (live) 2006 “Think I’m in Love,” Beck “Cellphone’s Dead,” Beck “Someday Baby,” Bob Dylan “The Perfect Crime #2,” The Decemberists “Mary Shut the Garden Door,” Donald Fagen “Crazy,” Gnarls Barkley “How We Operate,” Gomez “Satellite,” Guster “The Warning,” Hot Chip “Black Lexus,” Joseph Arthur “Get Innocuous!,” LCD Soundsystem “Time to Get Away,” LCD Soundsystem “North American Scum,” LCD Soundsystem “Show You How,” Lindsey Buckingham “This Is Us,” Mark Knopfler & Emmylou Harris “Chinese Translation,” M. Ward “Dance Like a Monkey,” New York Dolls “New Shoes,” Paolo Nutini “Young Folks,” Peter Bjorn & John “Undercover,” Pete Yorn “One Time Too Many,” Phoenix “Steady, As She Goes,” The Raconteurs “The Book I Write,” Spoon “You Only Live Once,” The Strokes “Black Swan,” Thom Yorke “Harrowdown Hill,” Thom Yorke “Saving Grace,” Tom Petty “Square One,” Tom Petty 2007 “Rehab,” Amy Winehouse “You Know I’m No Good,” Amy Winehouse “Back to Black,” Amy Winehouse “Tears Dry On Their Own,” Amy Winehouse “Keep the Car Running,” Arcade Fire “Timebomb,” Beck “Girls in Their Summer Clothes,” Bruce Springsteen “Bookshop Casanova,” The Clientele “Nobody Wants To,” Crowded House “Sugar,” Dan Wilson “Fast Company,” The Eagles “Business Time,” Flight of the Conchords “Someone to Love,” Fountains of Wayne “Strapped for Cash,” Fountains of Wayne “Ah Mary,” Grace Potter & the Nocturnals “Knocked Up,” Kings of Leon “My Party,” Kings of Leon “Fans,” Kings of Leon “Arizona,” Kings of Leon “Valerie,” Mark Ronson Feat. Amy Winehouse “15 Step,” Radiohead “All I Need,” Radiohead “Bodysnatchers,” Radiohead “Faust Arp,” Radiohead “House of Cards,” Radiohead “Reckoner,” Radiohead “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi,” Radiohead “Dreamworld,” Rilo Kiley “Fortune Teller,” Robert Plant & Alison Krauss “Gone Gone Gone (Done Moved On),” Robert Plant & Alison Krauss “Killing the Blues,” Robert Plant & Alison Krauss “Please Read the Letter,” Robert Plant & Alison Krauss “Through the Morning, Through the Night,” Robert Plant & Alison Krauss “Winter Windows,” Sea Wolf “Phantom Limb,” The Shins “Sleeping Lessons,” The Shins “Sea Legs,” The Shins “You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb,” Spoon “Don’t You Evah,” Spoon “The Underdog,” Spoon “Satellite Radio,” Steve Earle “Either Way,” Wilco “Hate It Here,” Wilco “Impossible Germany,” Wilco “Side With the Seeds,” Wilco 2008 “Freeway,” Aimee Mann “Wishing Well,” The Airborne Toxic Event “Flume,” Bon Iver “Strawberry Swing,” Coldplay “I Will Possess Your Heart,” Death Cab For Cutie “Mercy,” Duffy “The Bones of You,” Elbow “Grounds for Divorce,” Elbow “Forever,” The Explorers Club “White Winter Hymnal,” Fleet Foxes “Ragged Wood,” Fleet Foxes “Inner City Pressure,” Flight of the Conchords “Ready for the Floor,” Hot Chip “Troubled Land,” John Mellencamp “Time to Pretend,” MGMT “Crawl,” Kings of Leon “Notion,” Kings of Leon “Use Somebody,” Kings of Leon “Scare Easy,” Mudcrutch “The Last Ocean,” Pictures and Sound “It’s You,” Pictures and Sound “100 Directions,” Pictures and Sound “Old Enough,” The Raconteurs “Salute Your Solution,” The Raconteurs “Sarah,” Ray LaMontagne “Yell,” Robin Danar featuring Jesca Hoop “Halfway Home,” TV on the Radio “A-Punk,” Vampire Weekend “Oxford Comma,” Vampire Weekend 2009 “My Girls,” Animal Collective “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat,” Beck “It’s All Good,” Bob Dylan “That Western Skyline,” Dawes “When My Time Comes,” Dawes “The Rake’s Song,” The Decemberists “Southern Point,” Grizzly Bear “Two Weeks,” Grizzly Bear “While You Wait for the Others,” Grizzly Bear featuring Michael McDonald “Never Had Nobody Like You,” M. Ward “Couldn’t I Just Tell You,” Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs “Go All the Way,” Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs “Dear God,” Monsters of Folk “Say Please,” Monsters of Folk “Nobody Got No Bizness,” New York Dolls “Don’t Wanna Cry,” Pete Yorn “Lisztomania,” Phoenix “1901,” Phoenix “Lasso,” Phoenix “Rome,” Phoenix “These Are My Twisted Words,” Radiohead “Got Nuffin,” Spoon “All For the Best,” Thom Yorke “Magnificent,” U2 “Moment of Surrender,” U2 “Unknown Caller,” U2 “Get On Your Boots,” U2 “Exit Music (For a Film),” Vampire Weekend “Bull Black Nova,” Wilco “You and I,” Wilco “You Never Know,” Wilco Continue reading

IT’S BEST OF THE DECADE TIME

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Here’s my initial (but far from final) attempt at coming up with a list of the 25 best albums of the ’00s: Radiohead, In Rainbows (2007) Beck, Guero (2005) Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, Raising Sand (2007) Kings of Leon, Because of the Times (2007) Spoon, Gimme Fiction (2005) Arcade Fire, Funeral (2004) Wilco, A Ghost Is Born (2004) Beck, Sea Change (2002) Amy Winehouse, Back to Black (2007) Bob Dylan, Modern Times (2006) Brian Wilson, SMiLE (2004) Radiohead, Kid A (2000) Wilco, Sky Blue Sky (2007) Ryan Adams, Gold (2001) Spoon, Kill the Moonlight (2002) Shins, Wincing the Night Away (2007) Sufjan Stevens, Illinois (2005) White Stripes, Elephant (2003) Coldplay, A Rush of Blood to the Head (2002) Aimee Man, Bachelor No. 2 (2000) Ray LaMontagne, Trouble (2004) U2, All That You Can’t Leave Behind (2000) Bob Dylan, Love and Theft (2001) My Morning Jacket, Z (2005) LCD Soundsystem, Sound of Silver (2007) Continue reading

BEATLEMANIA 2009

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This is the day The Beatles reclaim their legacy (as if they were ever remotely in danger of losing it) via the release of the remastered catalog on Apple/Capitol and the unveiling of the much-ballyhooed MTV/Harmonix game The Beatles: Rock Band . If you’re actually (gasp) paying for updating your Beatles collection from the wretched 1987 CDs and want to get the most bang for the buck, start with the absolute essentials (in chronological order): A Hard Day’s Night , Rubber Soul, Revolver , The Beatles (a.k.a. the White Album) and Abbey Road . At Christmastime, ask Santa for Beatles for Sale , Help! , Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Past Masters . Then fill in the holes with Please Please Me , With the Beatles , Magical Mystery Tour and Let It Be . The primary lure of the Yellow Submarine soundtrack, which contains six Beatles songs and seven pieces of George Martin ’s score, is the scalding John Lennon rocker “Hey Bulldog.” For full immersion, I humbly suggest you run, don’t walk, to the nearest retailer (preferably an honest-to-God record store) and peel for the superb, ultra-cool box set The Beatles in Mono , plus the stereo-only Let It Be and Abbey Road . You’ll then own the mixes as personally overseen by the Fabs and producer Martin. (The mono Past Masters includes “Hey Bulldog” and the other Yellow Submarine entries, which weren’t originally album cuts.) That said, you can’t go wrong with Big Black—the stereo box set in its eye-catching, glossy monolith of a container. If you still need persuading as to why you need this music, allow me to cherry-pick from some of the early reviews I enjoyed. There are persuasive arguments for both mono and stereo versions, as you’ll see by scrolling down to the last two quotes… Peter Aspden in the Financial Times : “The important thing is that it doesn’t disappoint. There is greater clarity, warmth and balance on these versions than has ever been possible before. To listen to them is to rediscover a canon of work that will also, once more, find fresh disciples… By paying proper respect to pop’s greatest opus—the packaging, which includes mini-documentaries on computer files, is exemplary—we have nowhere left to go: this is the end of the record collection era… Buy and listen to any of these CDs, and then try watching The X Factor or American Idol . You will realize that the Beatles remasters are the requiem for an art form. And that their final song—‘The End’—was meant to be taken literally, after all.” Allan Kozinn in the N.Y. Times : “The most striking and consistent improvements are a heftier, rounded, three-dimensional bass sound, and drums that now sound like drums, rather than something in the distance being hit… Probably the most revelatory of the new transfers is the stereo White Album. From the opening jet engine effects on ‘Back in the USSR ’ to the final orchestral chord on ‘Good Night,’ this album now leaps from the speakers. Gentler songs like ‘Julia’ and ‘I Will’ have a lovely transparency, and hard rockers like ‘Yer Blues’ and ‘Helter Skelter’—as well as John Lennon’s quirky vision of dystopia, ‘Revolution 9’ — have a power and fullness unheard until now. “ Abbey Road also benefits considerably. The clearer instrumental profiles serve this rich-textured album beautifully: ‘Sun King’ and ‘Here Comes the Sun’ are unusually supple; the vocal on ‘You Never Give Me Your Money’ no longer has a shrill edge, and Lennon’s proto-Minimalist ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’ has never sounded more mesmerizing. Nor has the group’s valedictory jam in ‘The End.’ “And if you are cherry-picking among these reissues, the two-CD singles compilation Past Masters should be near the top of your list. The stereo mixes of these songs are often less hard hitting than the mono singles were, but the remastered versions, with their enriched bass, palpable drum sound and improved sense of vocal presence, no longer sound anemic. You find yourself discovering textural details (the percussion overlay in ‘She’s a Woman’ is one such surprise) that show how imaginative the Beatles’ arrangements are.” Mark Edwards in The Times of London : “Time and again, on album after album, I felt as if I were listening to music I’d never heard before… I expected to be thinking things like: ‘Well, they’ve really brought some crispness to the hi-hat on this one.’ What I didn’t expect was to be blown away by the music all over again.” Chris Riemenschneider in the Mpls-St. Paul Star Tribune : There’s simply a lot more oomph in the discs now. Rockers such as ‘Yer Blues’ and ‘I’ve Got a Feeling’ sound as if they come bleeding out of the speakers. More tender fare such as ‘Here, There and Everywhere’ and ‘Norwegian Wood’ also have more of a crisp, warm sonic panache. Extra geek-out value can be had by the mini-documentaries included with each album about its making, plus expanded liner notes and photos. Listening to the more experimental (read: more drug-influenced) albums such as Yellow Submarine and Magical Mystery Tour —which are hardly among their best collections songwriting-wise—is especially more gratifying, boosting them back to the wild aural experience associated with modern recording innovators such as Grizzly Bear or TV on the Radio .” Randy Lewis in the L.A. Times : “In general, the music sounds like an aural scrim has been lifted. Everything has become cleaner, fuller, the dynamic range—the difference between the loudest and softest sounds—has been expanded, vocals sound more immediate. The old ‘Twist and Shout’ sounded almost tinny next to the opened-up sound on the remastered version. The sound of McCartney ‘s fingers plucking the strings of his acoustic guitar as he sang ‘Yesterday’ become more tangibly percussive, the tone of his voice and the guitar more open. George Harrison ‘s ‘Taxman’ benefits from more visceral punch from Ringo ‘s drums.” Anthony DeCurtis in Rolling Stone : “One tip for deep-pocketed fans: The 12-CD The Beatles in Mono box set is more than a collector’s indulgence. The warmth and punch of early albums With the Beatles and Beatles for Sale evoke the experience of first hearing songs like ‘All My Loving’ on the original vinyl. But in stereo or mono, these albums have finally received the treatment they deserve.” Rob Harvilla in the Village Voice : “Speaking personally, I would rather this transaction take place in stereo. The argument for its opposite as The Way They Intended You to Hear It is a valid one: As the dominant format of the time, way more attention was paid to the mono mixes all the way up until Abbey Road , whereupon they were dumped entirely… But through headphones especially, the warmth, fullness, clarity, grit, etc. of those first four records (on CD in stereo for the first time!) is startling. Yes, John had a cold while recording Please Please Me ; yes, the phlegm is almost audible, or you can almost convince yourself it is. (And yes, that’s a selling point.) “Not to say the unearthliness of those early highlights—the hymnlike elegance of ‘If I Fell’ (Paul’s voice doesn’t even crack in mono!), the sweet Motown worship evident in With the Beatles ‘ gorgeous cover of ‘You Really Got a Hold on Me’—suffers much in either format. On the later, weirder records, that’s less true: The mono version of the White Album is immediately disqualified, as ‘Helter Skelter’ doesn’t have the part at the end where Ringo screams, ‘I GOT BLISTERS ON MY FINGERS!!’ Doing extensive, deep-concentration, track-by-track, side-by-side comparisons of the two Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band iterations is a particularly hallucinatory way to spend an afternoon, but you can only listen to ‘She’s Leaving Home’ so many times before your heart breaks. “Hardcore audiophiles with money to burn are not begrudged the impulse to own both boxes—the Beatles are basically a one-band justification for being a hardcore audiophile in the first place. But Ringo’s blisters aside, it comes down to personal preference, headphones vs. speakers, being bowled over vs. being surrounded, so on and so forth. Choose a side. We’re in a recession.” Continue reading

It’s All Good: Scoppa’s Midyear Playlist

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In my mind, the ’00s didn’t really kick in until 2007. By this time that year, I could not believe the number of terrific records that kept coming one after another. By Oct. 1, when Radiohead’s fully godhead In Rainbows appeared online, the decade’s most artistically supremo top 10 was complete. It topped off a batch comprising Kings of Leon’s Because of the Times , the Shins’ Wincing the Night Away , Spoon’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga , Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black , Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky , Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible , Robert Plant & Alison Krauss’ Raising Sand , LCD Soundsystem’s Sound of Silver and Fountains of Wayne’s Traffic and Weather . Those records were so loaded with killers that I filled three CDs putting together my year-end comps of fave tracks, using a mere handful of other cuts like Rilo Kiley’s “Dreamworld,” Springsteen’s “Girls in Their Summer Clothes” and Steve Earle’s “Satellite Radio.” We haven’t seen anything quite like that explosion of creativity since, which makes the midyear arrival of the utterly sublime Wilco (the album) a major event in my house. This record has everything I love about the band (and rock in general): dynamics, smarts, heart, tunefulness and the players’ ability to seamlessly juxtapose the timeless and the adventurous so that every passage sounds instantly familiar and endlessly thrilling at the same time. I can think of no modern band that does a better job of honoring the past without being limited by it than Wilco—and that is precisely the challenge facing any contemporary artist with a sense of context and the ambition to stake a claim in the rock pantheon. We could conceivably get new albums from the Shins and Arcade Fire before the end of the year, and I’m definitely looking forward to the upcoming LP from the reconstituted Crowded House, working with Wilco (the album) coproducer/engineer/mixer Jim Scott. But here’s my personal soundtrack to the half-year. This is a playlist, meaning that it’s meant to be played , in this order (transitions are important in the post-album era), and I’ve road-tested it both in the car and the spinning room at the gym. The following takes are meant to accompany the listening experience, which is the real point of this exercise. 1. Wilco, “You Never Know”: Delectable Beatlesque pop-rocker that appropriates the groove from Sly’s “Everyday People” and the slide lick from George’s “My Sweet Lord” in the service of a generational anthem with the irresistible singalong refrain, “I don’t care anymore.” Not just Jeff Tweedy’s catchiest song yet, but the catchiest track anybody has released this year. 2. Matthew Sweet & Susanna Hoffs, “Go All the Way”: Sue sexes up Eric Carmen’s lead vocal part while Matthew cranks out Wally Bryson’s lusty guitar riff, nailing the distortion and overtones in all their serrated glory. The rock & roll equivalent of a bravura interpretation of a key piece from the classical canon. 3. Beck, “Leopard Skin Pill-Box Hat”: In contrast to the above track, Beck takes radical liberties with the familiar source material from Blonde on Blonde but still captures the sarcastic snarl of the original via his brutally distorted guitar riffage and howling harp over an earthmoving industrial beat. 4. The Decemberists, “The Rake’s Song”: The last album contained “The Perfect Crime #2,” a pumping rocker that picked up where “Life During Wartime” left off, and The Hazards of Love sports this similarly seductive cut, powered by a springy single-note acoustic riff and thunderclap drumming. The lyric, which concerns the black deeds of a cold-blooded killer, would be tasteless and horrific if set in the modern world and described in straightforward language, but in Colin Meloy’s deft hands it comes off like a newly discovered chapter of The Canterbury Tales . That’s not why it’s batting cleanup in this playlist, however; it’s here because it rocks like crazy. 5. Doves, “The Outsiders”: After a sequencer-sparked opening that looms like gathering storm clouds, the Brit trio unleashes a gale-force rocker that never flags, the mix burying Jimi Goodwin’s defiant vocal in a sonic maelstrom of guitars and synths. As with chunks of the U2 record, I’m picking up the influence of Elbow’s brilliant 2008 opus The Seldom Seen Kid in the band’s delectable use of dynamic contrast. 6. Kings of Leon, “Use Somebody”: Yes, this cut is from a 2008 album, but the Kings are breaking big right now behind it, and this arena anthem, with its Arcade Fire-like full-throated chorale, is a lot closer to what makes them the best young rock & roll band to come along in this century than “Sex on Fire,” their improbable (if slyly seductive) ticket to the big time. KOL’s rise parallels that of Spoon in the sense that the band’s artistic coming of age, Because of the Times , preceded the commercial breakthrough of Only by the Night in the same way that Gimme Fiction preceded the irresistible but not quite as mind-blowing Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga . That said, all four are essential pieces in any contempo collection. 7. U2, “Magnificent”: At any previous point since the early ’80s, this signature U2 epic would’ve been a colossal hit; the fact that times have changed doesn’t diminish the awesomeness of the work, with the requisite 16th-note flurries from Edge, lots of billowing, Eno-manipulated effects, Bono barely keeping a lid on his overarching tendencies, the struggle further ramping up the sense of urgency, and, best of all, Adam Clayton’s burrowing bassline, on which he seems to be quoting “Billie Jean,” of all things. This is as good as they get—it would’ve worked just as well on The Joshua Tree or Achtung Baby . 8. Wilco, “Bull Black Nova”: The jittery one-note sequencer pattern—actually mimicked by an electric keyboard—is straight out of A Ghost Is Born ’s “Spiders/Kidsmoke,” and the curlicue guitar riffage is a hopped-up variation on Sky Blue Sky ’s gossamer “Impossible Germany,” but the end result has a soft/LOUD, tension/release excitement quotient all its own, one further distinguished by a twist of Steely Dan-like pretzel logic. It’s right here that the band opens up the hood of the deceptively serene Wilco (the album) to show off the massive horsepower lurking in its purring power plant. 9. Sam Roberts, “Them Kids”: For a half decade now it’s been the same story for Roberts, who’s Springsteen big in Canada and can’t get arrested in the States (assuming he doesn’t attempt to get through customs with a bag of weed in his road case). This burner turns on a wicked-clever premise: Sam is bummed that “the kids don’t know how to dance to rock & roll,” and he’s worked up a backbeat-powered stomp in hopes they’ll snap shut their cellphones and come around. Otherwise, “If nobody listens, will we disappear?” But the best lines get right to the heart of being the keeper of a flickering flame: “We’re under pressure to reconcile/our point of view with contemporary style.” You said it, Sam. 10. Harlem Shakes, “Strictly Game”: These smart-ass post-collegians may not have gotten the lavish attention bestowed on Vampire Weekend last year, but they’re similarly charming in that shambling, playful way. Mixing harsh reality and life-embracing optimism, “Strictly Game” slaps together organic and robotic rhythmic elements, intercut with hints of world beat and glee-club ingenuousness, en route to as refrain that sounds like a communal singalong. “This will be a better year,” they sing in unison, their voices as reassuring as their message. 11. Franz Ferdinand, “Ulysses”: Franz puts across this paean to the conjoined pleasures of sex and drugs with the arch, swaggering irony of early Roxy Music. Alex Kapranos manages to slide upward to a fey falsetto while keeping his tongue jammed into his cheek, while Bob Hardy plucks out a bassline as thick and flexible as Monster cable, uncoiling a tantalizing groove that’s laid-back and lascivious at the same time. Note: these Scots will get some competition in the archly swaggering department from England’s Wild Beasts when Domino puts out their Two Dancers in September. 12. Phoenix, “1901”: I keep reading that “Lisztomania,” the opening track of Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix , is a contender for track of the summer, but I’m partial to this spikier cut, which follows, as super-compressed power chords sandblast the balmy soundscape. 13. Empire of the Sun, “Walking on a Dream”: We now arrive at the prime MGMT moment of the last six months, courtesy of Aussie eccentric Luke Steele . He lost me on the second Sleepy Jackson album, but he’s lured me back with this sparkling bit of sunny pop, studio-tweaked so that it seems to be wafting out of a radio in some parallel universe. 14. The Bird and the Bee, “My Love”: Who woulda thunk that Lowell George’s daughter Inara would grow up to be an alterna-diva, flitting from an orchestral LP with Dad’s pal Van Dyke Parks to a synth-pop workout with Greg Kurstin that sports this luminous neo-new wave romantic ditty? 15. Brendan Benson, “Eyes on the Horizon”: This piano-powered midtempo gem from the upcoming My Old, Familiar Friend evokes Runt-era Todd Rundgren, from the surging bass notes on the ivories to the cascading melody. I hope Benson meant to make that lift, cuz Todd is quite possibly the most important artist to be shunned by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (although I could—and have—named a bunch more on my rocksbackpages.com blog). Benson has been building up to his big moment since the mid-’90s; could this LP be the one that does it. And if it is, will anybody notice? Let’s hope the Raconteurs connection makes a difference this time out. 16. Sweet/Hoffs: “Couldn’t I Just Tell You”: Rundgren was the only artist to get covered twice by Matthew and Sue on Under the Covers Vol. 2 , and both selections come from Something/Anything? I adore their take on “Hello It’s Me,” with Matthew handling the lead vocal while his longtime cohort Greg Leisz plays lead with characteristic silkiness, but listening to this perfectly rendered performance of Todd’s power-pop classic, with its chiming guitars, layer-cake harmonies and eruptive bridge raises goosebumps as big as the ones that popped up every time I blasted the original on my KLH stereo back in the day. 17. New York Dolls: “Nobody Got No Bizness”: Todd produced the Dolls for the first time since their hugely influential debut album in 1973, and this winking chunk of strutting old-school R&B hews close to the spirit of their early days. David Jo’s dee-lite-ful spoken shtick also recalls “Loosen Up” from Todd’s teenage group the Nazz, itself a goof on Archie Bell & the Drells’ “Tighten Up.” 18. Derek Trucks Band, “Down in the Flood”: Another Dylan cover that honors the original without worshiping it. No longer locked into purist live-off-the-floor recording, Trucks layers the track with overdubbed parts over a groove as taut as military corners, interweaving an acoustic rhythm pattern, a keening slide part that sounds like a siren-like female voice and a shimmering dobro lick plucked right out of old weird America. 19. Bob Dylan, “It’s All Good”: Here’s the Bard himself, capturing the zeitgeist as only he can on a bluesy basher that finds him ferociously playing off the most obnoxious phrase in the current American vernacular. Dylan’s sensational combo, augmented by David Hidalgo’s Tex-ex accordion runs, powers through a deep-gut groove cut from the same rugged cloth as Modern Times ’ “Someday Baby.” 20. Wilco, “I’ll Fight”: Here, over a ’50s-style acoustic rock & roll arrangement accented by Del Shannon-style carnival organ and hillbilly lap steel, Tweedy unleashes a lyric composed almost entirely of one-syllable words, hitting like a flurry of quick jabs and generating a sense of desperate earnestness as he works himself up to the ultimate vow: “I’ll die, I’ll die, I’ll die for you I will, I will, I will.” 21. Pete Yorn, “Don’t Wanna Cry”: Just heard this track in a promo for an upcoming movie (wish I could remember which one), and I expect music supes to jump all over it in the coming months, because it is the kind . A brokenhearted ballad sung with tattered intensity by Pete, as he goes from muted to unhinged, “Cry” splits the difference between Tom Petty circa Wildflowers and Sufjan Stevens circa Nebraska . Kidding—Sufjan hasn’t gotten around to that state yet, but Yorn cut this album in Omaha with Conor Oberst producer Mike Mogis and arranger Nate Walcott, who’ve crafted a stirring outro using a one-off orchestra of local horn players. Like “You Never Know” and “Magnificent,” this track sounds like it’s been around forever. 22. U2, “Unknown Caller”: The U2 of No Line on the Horizon is a six-piece that includes musician/cowriters Eno and Daniel Lanois, and the expanded lineup delivers the goods on this intoxicating slab of sonic bliss climaxing charting the course of a long night’s journey into day with a rare solo from the Edge that seems to part the clouds and let the sunshine in. 23. Sweet/Hoffs: “Back of a Car”: The most knowing proponent of the Big Star school, Sweet gets every nuance right as he burrows deep inside the stoned hormonal bliss of this Radio City cornerstone. Where other pop groups strive for perfect circles, Big Star worked with oblong shapes, and Matthew, more than any Chilton-Bell acolyte, understands how compelling the results of drawing outside the lines can be. If Picasso had been a rocker, he might’ve sounded like this. 24. Wilco, “You and I”: The perfectly imperfect coupling of Tweedy and Feist’s voices on this unabashedly tender duet ineffably captures the sense of wonder of a guy and a girl in a long-term relationship who are still discovering things about each other while keeping certain parts of their respective psyches private. “You don’t have to tell me . . . everything,” they harmonize at one key moment. It’s a way of saying that one and one makes three—lovely notion. 25. M. Ward, “Outro”: The Portland-based singer/songwriter has a way with words, spooling them into modern-day folk songs armed with metaphysical payloads, but I’m going with the instrumental closer of Hold Time —mainly because it’s so durn purdy. For what it’s worth, this shimmering nocturne, in which Ward’s tremolo guitar curls like smoke rings around the hovering strings, encapsulates the album’s collective contemplations with wordless eloquence, though it holds up beautifully on its own . . . or at the end of this playlist. Continue reading

BIG STARS IN THEIR EYES

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Note: I was assigned this piece the spring of 2000 by Revolver , but the mag was recast as a metal monthly while I was working on it. So it s been languishing in my computer ever since. In the early ’70s, four youngsters from Memphis, the birthplace of rock and soul, put together a pop band (of all things) and proceeded to make music that merged the architectural majesty of the original Byrds with the charged mystery of Revolver -era Beatles, adding to this rich brew an element of anxiety that gave it a dark undercurrent not usually associated with guitar-pop music. In retrospect, the fact that Big Star remained improbably obscure during and after its brief existence only added to its appeal for subsequent generations of musicians, who turned each other on to this music as if it were a secret religion or a new drug. For Big Star acolytes like Dan Wilson, now of Semisonic, the band s obscurity rendered its music extra-beautiful. “I think the way Alex Chilton wrote songs actually might have put up a wall that most people couldn t get over, so the few of us who made it over the wall got the music plus the treat of feeling special.” “One of the coolest things about the whole Big Star legend is that they’ve always been such an enigma,” says Ric Menck, co-leader of the Velvet Crush and longtime drummer in Matthew Sweet s band. “Big Star are right up there with the Velvet Underground as perhaps the greatest cult group of all time. The only other groups working in a similar style at the time were Badfinger and the Raspberries, both of whom had hits and therefore weren’t as mysterious as Big Star, who, of course, didn’t. This only adds to Big Star’s allure, and Chilton has been very good at perpetuating that mystery over the years by being incredibly idiosyncratic about his career and his regard for his former rock combo.” But what about the music itself? Where does Big Star fit in? Mitch Easter, the former leader of Let s Active and R.E.M. s first producer, tosses out some reference points via e-mail: “Obviously, there’s that slippery soul guitar thing heard on ‘O My Soul,’ ‘September Gurls,’ etc., that’s related to Steve Cropper, Joe South, etc., the George Harrison/other Brits Beautiful-Descending-Chords deal, like ‘Back of a Car.’ Generally [they purveyed] ’60s-style writing, with some late-’60s/early-’70s guitar playing and flash drumming, which a lot of people were (sort of) doing, although only Big Star put it together at that time from that place. Sort of English-style prettiness, but with soul elements. People who make comparisons to, say, the Raspberries are right, except they’re completely wrong, y know? I just think Big Star was a real band, like the Beatles, and the Raspberries were formalist fans, like a tribute band to their record collections. I guess it was the words, and the soul and taste of the musicianship. And the fact that Big Star evolved (devolved?) pretty quickly (like the Truly Heavy bands) so that eventually, one has to look to, oh, Skip Spence s Oar for comparisons in the last days! But I think there are usually some legit comparisons, keeping them in sort of the mainstream of songwriting.” The original Big Star cultist may well have been North Carolinian Chris Stamey, who played bass in Chilton s New York band in ’77 and the next year formed the Big Star-infatuated dB s as well as releasing Chris Bell’s “I Am the Cosmos” b/w “You and Your Sister” as a single on his Car label. Following Stamey s kick-start, the myth grew through the ’80s, aided by R.E.M. and the Replacements (although Easter, who should know, doesn t buy the much-cited Big Star-R.E.M. connection), until, by the early ’90s, Big Star s influence could be heard everywhere, although only the initiated realized it. The whole thing reached its crescendo in 1993. From where I sat at the time–the A&R chair at Zoo Records–I didn t have to look far for evidence, as Matthew Sweet made the dark epic Altered Beast , labelmates and recent Big Star converts the Odds released the tormented but melodious Bed Bugs , and Chilton agreed to play a Big Star reunion show with Jody Stephens and the Posies Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow, which we happily recorded and released under the title Columbia (after the Missouri college town where the performance took place). The Posies’ own Frosting on the Beater came out the same month, April, the reunion took place, while the worshipful Gigolo Aunts (whom I kept running into at Big Star shows from San Francisco to London) came with their own covert tribute, Flippin’ Out . Teenage Fanclub borrowed the title of one of Chilton s most memorable Big Star songs for its album, Thirteen . More prominently, Starophiles the Gin Blossoms and Counting Crows (who anonymously opened a Big Star show as “the Shatners” ) ruled the airwaves with albums made at hallowed Ardent Studios in Memphis, where Big Star had recorded. That year also marked the commercial apogee and psychological flashpoint of another artist Ric Menck sees as being emotionally connected to Big Star and its leader as no other. “Back when Nirvana were big, everyone was constantly comparing Kurt Cobain to John Lennon, but to me he always seemed more like Chilton in that he was flawed and real and couldn’t portray himself in any other light,” Menck pointed out to me in an e-mail. I m not certain whether Cobain ever listened to too much Big Star, but more than any of the groups on your list, I think Nirvana had both the sense of melody and pathos that Big Star had.” But most of the bands that aspired to pick up where their heroes had left off possessed neither the insight nor the talent for the job, according to Easter. “Nobody got the lyrical thing that the best Big Star songs had (I mean as in the lyrics ), which is why I’ve always cringed at every record I’ve heard that’s described as being like Big Star. To most people, that seemed to mean some kind of pop formalism that really missed the boat as far as I could tell. I mean, I find myself thinking, Those guys don’t even qualify for polishing Big Star’s platform shoes.” While I don’t dispute that the bulk of the Big Star-influenced bands and artists fell far short of the lofty heights of their avatars, a handful did capture the elusive spirit of the source music–its juxtaposition of beauty and danger, the uneasy romance of angels and demons, or the seductive pressure of unexpected chords and oblong grooves against lithe melodies. Here s a subjective top 10 in this admittedly ambiguous category. Matthew Sweet: Altered Beast (Zoo, 1993): If his classic Girlfriend (Zoo, 1991) reflected #1 Record s fusion of pop richness, smarts and heart, this gutsy follow-up paralleled the unlikely juxtaposition of troubling themes and lovely melodies of Third/Sisterlovers . Altered Beast shudders with anxiety, paranoia and mortal dread, as a young man anticipates the loss of all that is dear to him as he goes through his allotted years. Heavy and very real, this album is especially dear to Sweet’s diehard fans. Jayhawks: Sound of Lies (American/Columbia, 2000) Posies : On its second album since the departure of founding member Mark Olson, the veteran heartland band completes its seamless transition from alt-country avatars to pop-rock masters in the Big Star tradition, with the expert help of storied producer Bob Ezrin (Pink Floyd, Alice Cooper, KISS). The unlikely pairing results in a thrilling widescreen opus that merges ’70s-style rockisms (screaming guitars, lush orchestrations, massive chorales), modern loop-aided grooves and the dlectable hooks that current bandleader Gary Louris is so adept at concocting. The life-affirming Smile is a compelling companion piece to 1997 s dark classic, Sound of Lies (American/Reprise, 1997). Frosting on the Beater (DGC, 1993): Says Jody Stephens, who handpicked the Posies to fill in the holes for the reunited Big Star: ” Frosting on the Beater does to me what all my favorite albums do: They surprise me with a sense of wonder much like the kids in ET must have felt when all their bikes took to the air.” Also The Best of–Dream All Day (Geffen, 2000) for Auer’s touching rendition of Bell’s “I Am the Cosmos.” Matt Wilson: Burnt, White and Blue (Planetmaker, 1998): Says Dan Wilson, who once worked with his brother in avant-pop group Trip Shakespeare, “The melancholy of Burnt , along with chimy guitars and built-in downward-spiraling vibe, does make it the perfect reincarnation of Big Star.” Velvet Crush: Teenage Symphonies to God (Sony 550/Creation, 1994): “Although people are constantly comparing us to them, I m not sure anything the Velvet Crush has ever done is very much like Big Star,” says Menck. Also Free Expression (Bobsled, 1999), recorded and produced by Matthew Sweet in his home studio, Lolina Lane. R.E.M.: Murmur (IRS, 1983) Also Lifes Rich Pageant (IRS, 1986) dB’s: Stands for Decibels (I.R.S., 1981) Teenage Fanclub: Bandwagonesque (DGC/Creation, 1993) Also Songs From Northern Britain (Creation/Columbia, 1997) Aimee Mann: I’m With Stupid (DGC, 1995) Also Bachelor No. 2 (SuperEgo, 2000) Wilco: Being There (Reprise, 1996) Continue reading

BIG STARS IN THEIR EYES

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In the early ’70s, four youngsters from Memphis, the birthplace of rock and soul, put together a pop band (of all things) and proceeded to make music that merged the architectural majesty of the original Byrds with the charged mystery of Revolver-era Beatles, adding to this rich brew an element of anxiety that gave it a dark undercurrent not usually associated with guitar-pop music. Continue reading

MY OWN R&R HALL OF FAME

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I’ve been wanting to do this for years (as one of my inductees famously ad-libbed), and was reminded of this long-intended mission by reading Barney Hoskyns’ RBP blog entitled “The Perennial Joys of “Godd” Rundgren, wherein he writ, “I think … Continue reading

ANOTHER ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAME

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I’ve been wanting to do this for years (as one of my inductees famously ad-libbed), and was reminded of this long-intended mission by reading Barney Hoskyns’ RBP blog entitled “ The Perennial Joys of “Godd” Rundgren , wherein he writ, “I think I’m more loyal to Todd than to any other single artist; I just keep coming back for more and more. Please discover the rabbit-toothed magus of rock if you haven’t already done so.” I second that emotion, big time, and extend it to the following loves of my life (inductees to the “real” R&RHOF excluded; 25-year rule ignored): Todd Rundgren Procol Harum Gram Parsons Little Feat Big Star Mott the Hoople The Tubes Roxy Music Robert Palmer New York Dolls Fairport Convention Crowded House Lindsey Buckingham Matthew Sweet The Odds The Jayhawks Beck Radiohead Wilco Spoon Kings of Leon Continue reading

THE DECEMBERISTS, THE HAZARDS OF LOVE (CAPITOL)

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Uncut , April issue Whip-smart concept album twists the esoteric into arresting new shapes, makes a compelling case for the album as enduring art form. Since relocating from his hometown of Missoula, Montana, to Portland, Oregon, and forming the Decemberists in 2000, Colin Meloy has been embedding archaic verbiage into songs that draw on the British electric-folk movement—particularly Fairport Convention—and prog-rock fantasias. Along the way, the lyrics of this former creative writing major have hewn to a rigorous style that evokes the rollicking seafaring yarns of Patrick O’Brian and the fabulist fiction of Steven Millhauser, with whom Meloy shares a piquant sense of irony. These aspects are readily apparent in the song titles themselves: “The Legionnaire’s Lament” from 2002’s Castaways and Cutouts , “The Gymnast, High Above the Ground” from 2003’s Her Majesty , “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” from 2005’s Picaresque and “The Shankhill Butchers” from The Crane Wife . This penchant for tongue-in-cheek arcana (I suspect he’d spell his lyrics in Middle English just for laughs if he could get away with it) is accompanied by a thematic ambition that manifests itself in extended pieces like The Tain , a five-part, nearly 19-minute piece based on the ancient Irish epic poem of the same title) that takes up an entire EP, and the three-part title song of The Crane Wife , which spans 15 minutes-plus. Both are laden with orchestral motifs and movements crisply executed with standard rock instrumentation. Given all of the above, it’s a good thing that Meloy possesses a wicked sense of humor, and that his band plays with such visceral intensity. The Hazards of Love , then, stands as a culmination of all these tendencies. Set in an enchanted forest, it’s a 17-track suite (I hesitate to call it a rock opera, but the term wouldn’t be far off) of striking musical and verbal intricacy that unfolds over the course of nearly an hour. This thumbnail description makes the album sound stultifying, but this is far from the case, thanks to a steady stream of surprises and a depth of detail that reveals itself incrementally, like the layers of an onion. But it takes just one listen for the key melodies, refrains and riffs to ingrain themselves, because they keep leaping out of the fabric. The title song gets no less than four parallel treatments over 18 minutes, the deliriously melodic “The Wanting Comes in Waves” comes up twice and the twinkling guitar figure from Chris Funk (who’s a cross between Richard Thompson and Wilco’s Nels Cline) that first appears in “A Bower Scene” and recurs in “The Abduction of Margaret.” As always, Meloy sings with the accent of an American actor imitating an Englishman in a 1930s film, and one might expect that this stylized approach might get tiresome over time, but that’s a non-issue on The Hazards of Love . He shares the lead vocal duties with Lavender Diamond’s Becky Sharp, presumably chosen to play the part of the imperiled heroine Margaret because she’s the closest approximation of Sandy Denny Meloy could find, and My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Worden, who attacks her part as the forest queen with the confrontational eroticism of Heart’s Ann Wilson tearing into “Barracuda”. Additionally, the album is bedecked with stacked harmonies, with My Morning Jacket’s Jim James and the Spinanes’ Rebecca Gates joining in here and there. The guest list is completed by Robyn Hitchcock, who plays electric on a mid-album instrumental interlude – and whose “My Wife and My Dead Wife” would have fit right into this plot. The Decemberists are now on their second major label album (having timed the jump perfectly, as did Death Cab For Cutie), and their following has grown to the extent that they filled the 18,000-seat Hollywood Bowl in a 2007 concert with the L.A. Philharmonic. In short, they know exactly what they’re doing, and that includes making sure their concept albums contain at least one hooky stand-alone track for airplay and encores. The last album contained “The Perfect Crime #2,” a pumping rocker that picked up where “Life During Wartime” left off, and The Hazards of Love sports “The Rake’s Song,” powered by a springy single-note acoustic riff from Meloy and savage drumming from John Moen, who plays with the relentless precision of Radiohead’s Phil Selway. The lyric concerns another cold-blooded killer, who systematically offs his children, celebrates when his wife dies in childbirth and, once he’s finally free, expresses relief rather than remorse. The tale would be horrific and tasteless if set in the modern world and described in straightforward language, but in Meloy’s deft hands it comes off like a newly discovered chapter of The Canterbury Tales . If there’s a movie version, the Coen Brothers need to get the first call. EMAIL Q&A WITH COLIN MELOY First things first, Colin: How do you follow what is essentially a Chaucerian rock opera? Pete Townshend followed Tommy with Quadrophenia; a scary precedent. Wait. . .who?. . . what? Who wrote a Chaucerian rock opera? Did I? Hmmmm. You mention a connection between Fairport and Black Sabbath, and I’m picking up a bit of Jethro Tull and even Heart. Specifically, what did you draw on musically from British electric folk and classic rock? I was listening to the Smiths and Hüsker Dü during what should’ve been my teenage metal-stoner phase. I’m belatedly living it out now. I dress exclusively in nicotine-soaked denim and stand across the street from my house at lunch time, smoking cigarettes and hitting a 3′ bong named “Schindler’s Twist.” My wife and child are understandably concerned. I imagine you prowling used-book stores in search of source material. What are your primary literary reference points? Anything contemporary to go with the antique? You do? What else do you imagine me doing? I’m thrilled that I seem to live a parallel life in your imagination. I wonder if you wouldn’t mind imagining me lying in some quiet hammocked tropical veranda, drinking a mai-thai and being fanned by a modestly dressed “Breathless”-era Jean Seberg. Thanks. Perhaps you=2 0could imagine me reading some Dave Eggers, Gary Shteyngart or George Saunders — they are three of my favorite contemporary writers. Following this line, what do traditional idioms and classic literature tell us about modern-day issues? As far as I can tell, the Brit folk revivalist were by and large drawn to songs that involved drinking, murder and rape. Anne Briggs’ first record, the namesake of ours, “The Hazards of Love,” included 4 songs that warned of just that — the apparent hazards of being an amorous person in the auld days. I believe there were relatively more dangers that could befall your typical Spenserian teenager. A lack of prophylactic being a major contributor to this. But I a lot of those dangers remain the same. It’s of the “don’t talk to strangers” cloth. Did the narrative lead you toward any particular themes, or vice versa? I suppose so. I was just following the example of a bunch of old folk songs I was into at the time. They supplied the themes mostly. Like “Perfect Crime” before it, “The Rake’s Song” doubles as a supremely catchy single, and another homicidal one as well. It’s intriguing how this corrosive and disturbing subject matter is acceptable when couched in archaic rather than modern language. Yeah. I think that’s one of the things that the folk revivalists were into. A lot of women singers of that era were arranging songs in which misogyny and rape figured kind of largely. I think they discovered it was safer to explore those sorts of themes in older songs — it also gives an interesting perspective into sex relations in the 16th century. With its seamlessness, this is emphatically an ALBUM in a singles era. Were you consciously doing your part to preserve or advance the form? I don’t know, not really. It just worked, I guess. I’ve always been a fan of ostentatious narrative records. This is our contribution to that form. Hypothetically, if this story were to be made into a movie, what directors would be on your short list to bring it to life? I’m thinking Coen brothers… Guy Maddin. Full stop. Continue reading

M. WARD, HOLD TIME (Merge)

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Uncut , March issue Lo-fi tinkerer completes his transfiguration into major artist. When Matt Ward released his first solo album, Duet For Guitars #2 , in 1999, he appeared to be yet another hermit in his bedroom with a 4-track recorder, inhabiting his private universe at the margins of the bustling indie scene. But through the course of the ’00s, the Portland, Oregon, native has progressively shown himself to be a multitalented art monster, popping up all over the map and establishing himself as a go-to guy musician. Continue reading

FIRST 2009 PLAYLIST: BREATHE

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1. “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat,” Beck , War Child Presents Heroes 2. “Get On Your Boots,” U2 , No Line on the Horizon 3. “No You Girls,” Franz Ferdinand , Tonight: Franz Ferdinand 4. “The Rake’s Song,” The Decemberists , The Haazards of Love 5. “The Bones Of You,” Elbow , The Seldom Seen Kid (2008) 6. “Magnificent,” U2, No Line on the Horizon 7. “My Love,” The Bird and the Bee , Ray Guns Are Not the Future 8. “Don’t Wanna Cry,” Pete Yorn , Back and Forth (June release) 9. “No Line on the Horizon,” U2, No Line on the Horizon 10. ” Eyes on the Horizon,” Brendan Benson , unreleased 11. “Love at the End of the World,” Sam Roberts, Love at the End of the World 12. “Ulysses,” Franz Ferdinand, Tonight: Franz Ferdinand 13. “Down in the Flood,” Derek Trucks Band , Already Free 14. “Never Had Nobody Like You,” M. Ward , Hold Time 15. “Fixed to Ruin,” Sam Roberts, Love at the End of the World 16. “Breathe,” U2, No Line on the Horizon 17. “You Belong to Me,” The Like , War Child Presents Heroes 18. “Move You (SSSPII),” Anya Marina , Slow & Steady Seduction: Phase II 19. “My Girls,” Animal Collective , Merriweather Post Pavilion 20. “Unknown Caller,” U2, No Line on the Horizon Continue reading

BEST of 2008, ONE MORE TIME

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ALBUMS Pictures and Sound, Pictures and Sound (Vanguard) Randy Newman, Harps and Angels (Nonesuch) TV on the Radio, Dear Science (Interscope) Kings of Leon, Only by the Night (RCA) Mudcrutch, Mudcrutch (Reprise) My Morning Jacket, Evil Urges (ATO) Beck, Modern Guilt (DGC) Teddy Thompson, A Piece of What You Need (Decca) Explorers Club, Freedom Wind (Dead Oceans) Fleet Foxes, Fleet Foxes ( Sub Pop) Lindsey Buckingham, Gift of Screws (Reprise) Ray LaMontagne, Gossip in the Grain (RCA) Vampire Weekend, Vampire Weekend (XL) Elbow, The Seldom Seen Kid (Fiction/Geffen) Matthew Sweet, Sunshine Lies (Shout! Factory) Death Cab for Cutie, Narrow Stairs (Atlantic) The Raconteurs, Consolers of the Lonely (Third Man/Warner Bros.) Robin Danar, Altered States (Shanachie) Boz Scaggs, Speak Low (Decca) Lucinda Williams, Little Honey (Lost Highway) Coldplay, Viva La Vida… (Capitol) Brian Wilson, That Lucky Old Sun (Capitol) John Mellencamp, Life Death Love and Freedom (Hear Music) Willie Nelson/Wynton Marsalis, Two Men With the Blues (Blue Note) Shelby Lynne, Just a Little Lovin’ (Lost Highway) THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY Bon Iver, For Emma, Forever Ago (Jagjaguwar) ESSENTIAL ARCHIVAL RELEASES Neil Young, Sugar Mountain – Live at Canterbury House 1968 (Reprise) Bob Dylan, Tell Tale Signs: Bootleg Series Vol. 8 (Columbia Legacy) Nick Lowe, Jesus of Cool (Yep Roc) Dennis Wilson, Pacific Ocean Blue (Caribou/Epic Legacy) Blue Ash, No More, No Less (Collectors Choice/UMe) CONCERTS Radiohead (@ Hollywood Bowl) gets the godhead award. Kings of Leon (@ Nokia Theatre) is rapidly growing into the best rock & roll band on the planet, period. Continue reading