Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Right Song at the Right Time

It's been over three weeks since I last posted a feature. In that time I haven't really listened to much music, let alone written about it. Work, family, and everything between have combined so that although there hasn't been any catastrophe I can point to and say it's made my life impossible, I still feel like I have been treading water lately. We've had a lot of issues with the house we are renting (MOLD-- ended up not being the bad kind, although it looked pretty scary), work's been kicking my butt with paper grading and syllabus crafting, my son recently had pneumonia, for the second time, and might now have Lyme disease (although, again, seems to be doing fine). The stress level has been high.

Like everything, though, the last month has had its ups as well as its downs. A couple weeks ago I went to see party-rocker Andrew W.K. (the link goes to the song where I crowd-surfed for the first time), which was the first show I've gone to since I saw Bon Iver last August. Also, my brother was just here and it was great to talk to him and hang out (and listen to music, of course). And everyday my son surprises me with the stuff he can do: catching bugs, pretending to cook us pizza, learning how to play hide-and-seek.

What happened over the past week was the music seemed to be exactly what I needed at all times. Sometimes when I am depressed, I want to listen to something depressing: Beck's Sea Change and Elliot Smith's self-titled album are favorites. Other times I want to listen to something to cheer me up; Paul Simon's Graceland is a good example. Madonna's Ray of Light falls into neither camp, so I had to be in the right frame of mind to spin it.

Artist: Madonna
Album: Ray of Light
Recording #538
Stream album here

I took over a week to listen to this: I saw it was up next, and I couldn't bring myself to put it on. Finally, one night after dinner, I stepped up and powered through. It wasn't so bad: it sounded exactly as I thought late '90s Madonna would sound. Cheery beats, reedy voice... I'm still a bit surprised at this selection, as I don't see it having more merit than her Immaculate Collection. "Little Star" was a surprisingly good track, and I actually listened to it twice. The thing was, I was in a good mood that night, and slogging through a mediocre pop record wasn't too tough.

Artist: Madredeus
Album: O Espirito da Paz
Recording #539

The next night I was dragging. I pulled up the next recording on the list, Portuguese group Madredeus. From the soothing opening track, the music was trance-inducing, worthy of a religious experience. The music is closely related to the Portuguese fado, which I discovered earlier in the book and love. The sound is melancholy, but in a way that it wouldn't be out of place in the lounge of a spa. It was just what I needed.

Artist: Magic Sam
Album: West Side Soul
Recording #540
Stream album here

Later in the week, again after a rough day, I put on Magic Sam's West Side Soul. I had never heard of this guy. but but by the opening track's guitar solo I felt my clenched jaw relax. The rough blues, reminiscent of George Thorogood, transformed my mindset. The troubles of my day seemed to fade as I sank into the wicked guitar work.

Artist: The Magnetic Fields
Album: 69 Love Songs
Recording #541
Stream album here

Finally, I came to the Magnetic Fields. It was a weekend, and I was in a great mood for the first time in a long time, so I was prepared for the three discs of inconsistency that make up 69 Love Songs. The first time I heard the Magnetic Fields was in 2008 while I was in Japan. I had a Paste Magazine sampler with a song on it called "California Girls." I hated it the first time I heard it. I popped the CD in my alarm clock, and as I lay in bed in the morning, slowly waking up, the song grew on me. I didn't particularly like the production, wasn't impressed with the lyrics, and pretty much hated the voice (I'm prejudiced against baritones, I will admit. It took a long time for me to appreciate Cincinnati natives, the National). But the melody became a worm in my brain.

I'm not sure how to keep any "indie cred" when I say this, but I just am not a fan of 69 Love Songs. As you can see by my infographic above, it seems like every time lead singer Stephin Merritt hits upon a great hook, he fills the song with inane lyrics. "Time Enough for Rocking When We're Old" is a great example. The song is cruising along for the first few verses, and then he throws in the line "There'll be time enough for sex and drugs in heaven/ when our pheromones are turned up to 11." What? What are you talking about, dude? You couldn't find a better way to rhyme with "heaven"? "The Book of Love" is one of his most famous, and the first time I heard it, it was as a cover done by former-Soul Coughing singer Mike Doughty. Not knowing it was a cover, in my review of Doughty's album I called the song out as some of the worst lyrics he had ever written. "Fido, Your Leash is Too Long" has a cool jittery, off-kilter beat, and the song is unlistenable due to the lyrics. More often, though, he writes killer lyrics and then covers them with jarringly bad music. "Love is Like Jazz," "The Things We Did and Didn't Do," and "Sweet-Lovin' Man" should be hits, but I can't listen to them more than once.

When he does get it together, the songs are shockingly good. Out of 69 songs, I loved three: "Wi' Nae Wee Bairn Ye'll Me Beget," and "Yeah! Oh, Yeah!" are standouts on the third disc, and "Papa Was a Rodeo" is on the short list for songs I'd love to perform at an open-mic night. The stark and shocking tale shows what Merritt can do at his best, describing a life that sounds all too real and harsh. Was it worth slogging through almost three hours for 10 minutes of great music? Well, on that particular day, yes. But that's the importance of mood when you're listening to music. Sometimes it's just the right combination.

Read Moon's entries here: Madonna, Madredeus, Magic Sam

Friday, April 20, 2012

NEWS: Levon Helm, Drummer for the Band, Dies at 71

Yesterday, Levon Helm, drummer and co-founder of 1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die artists the Band, died yesterday of complications from throat cancer. He sang some of the Band's most famous songs, including "Up on Cripple Creek" and "The Weight." I honestly didn't know anything about the Band or Helm until I picked up his 2007 album Dirt Farmer, his first release since 1982, at the library. I was floored: this guy was basically told he would never sing again after his cancer treatment, and here he was just laying it down. My coworker lent me his copy of the DVD The Last Waltz and again I was amazed to see the Band in action. And then finally I heard the book entry, The Band, and I loved it. In conducting my interview with the Beau Brummels' Sal Valentino we discussed Helm's solo work and how much we loved his voice and songwriting (I preferred Dirt Farmer whereas Mr. Valentino was a fan of Electric Dirt).

I often hear about famous celebrities dying, and I feel unaffected. Yes, I feel for their families, I mourn the loss of their art, but today I feel a pit in my stomach hearing about the loss of Helm. His singing was so down to earth, the songs he sang ringing so true with their hard-luck stories (check out "Growing Trade" from his Electric Dirt), that I feel his loss on a more personal level than I ever have for someone I never knew. Counting Crows' song "Richard Manuel is Dead," about the keyboardist for the Band, sums up the dumbstruck feeling I have now. My thoughts and prayers go out to Mr. Helm's family, and my thanks to him for all the wonderful music he's left us with.

Listen to The Band here.
Buy Dirt Farmer here and The Band here.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

NEWS: 2Pac is Back

When it rains it pours. I hate going weeks without updating the blog and then doing multiple updates all in a row, but this is just too.... weird/good/really freaking weird to pass up. 1000 Recordings artist Dr. Dre closed out the Coachella music festival on Sunday night, and he evidently had a slew of guest stars (including 1000RTHBYD artist Eminem) but the most surprising was late rapper (and 1KRTHBYD included artist) 2Pac. Folks have been recording with 2Pac for years now since his untimely death in 1996 (a fact Dave Chapelle and 1KRTHBYD artist ?uestlove riff on here and that I wrote about on this Pink Floyd cover), but this has to be the first time he showed up in 3D for a gig. In fact, is this the first time anyone has come back from the grave as a hologram? Is this awesome, creepy, or just sad? You have to tell me, because I can't make heads or tails of this. It's certainly groundbreaking. Watch "2Pac" do his thing in the video below.

Listen to 2Pac's All Eyez on Me here.
Listen to Dr. Dre's The Chronic here (an album that helped launch Snoop Dogg's career). 

Monday, April 16, 2012

COVER: Counting Crows Rock Out on Gram Parsons

I am actually still alive, despite my two week absence from the blog. I'll cover some of the reasons for the delay in my next feature post, which I am working on, but in the interim, I wanted to drop a cover on here and mention that my "Stream Recordings" list just hit 500 albums linked (halfway for all you non-math types).

Counting Crows (my favorite band) released a new album of covers this week. Part of me was disappointed that it was a covers album because they hadn't released a studio album since 2008, but I still couldn't help but be excited. Lead singer Adam Duritz and his band sure know how to do a great cover. Based on their tracklist and the songs they have been playing live forever, the band loves to listen to music. In fact, in the liner notes, Duritz says "As much as I love our band, and I DO love our band, we were just one of a thousand bands, in one city among a thousand cities, and a lot of those bands were great or amazing in one way or another... I've never stopped being a fan." Really, one of their best skills is song selection, and they picked one of the 1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die on the tracklist for this one.

"Return of the Grievous Angel" by Gram Parsons is one I discovered through Moon's book, and I can't claim that it really left much of an impression. I am way more into Parsons' work with the Byrds than his solo stuff. The Crows version was much more memorable to me, as they pick up the pace and get pretty rowdy on this one. The great lyrics are highlighted by the immediacy of the arrangement, the live energy of the band, and a couple kickass solos (one mandolin and one guitar).

Listen to the song here, then buy the whole album here.
Buy Gram Parson's GP/Grievous Angel here.