June 19, 2010
I had another topic ready for this week’s Hidden Gems, but then Devo went and released their first studio album in 20 years on Tuesday. I haven’t been able to concentrate on much that’s not Devo-related since. So here’s four less-than-obvious Devo songs you should check out.
“The Day My Baby Gave Me A Surprize” (from Duty Now For The Future)
Devo’s second album Duty Now For The Future is often characterized as suffering from the sophomore slump. This is understandable, since the album’s strongest songs are backloaded onto what would have been side two and lazy rock writers probably didn’t have the patience to flip the album in search of the kind of giddy thrills the band’s debut offered upfront. “The Day My Baby Gave Me A Surprize” is one of the album’s shoulda-been hits. It features an oblique tale about a young man’s joy at his sweetheart recovering from some sort of debilitating accident. It also has an unbelievably catchy chorus that is simply the exclamation “Wa-hoooo!”
“It Takes A Worried Man” (available on the Pioneers Who Got Scalped anthology)
In 1982, Neil Young had the crazy-ass notion to co-direct an apocalyptic comedy film with the actor Dean Stockwell, called Human Highway. He cast Devo as nuclear garbagemen. In the film, they sing an upbeat, poppy version of the folk-festival classic “Worried Man Blues” (here slightly retitled) while they cart around barrels of nuclear waste. (The band has also been known to perform the song when they pretended to be Dove – a Christian, leisure suit-wearing opening act for many ‘80s-era Devo shows. Here’s a video of Dove in action.) The movie made it to VHS, but then faded into obscurity. Inspired somewhat by Devo, Neil Young released the synthesizer-driven album Trans… and eventually got sued for it. Apparently, everyone doesn’t appreciate devolved music.
June 17, 2010
Last week, we talked about a brief resurgence in popularity of 30s and 40s big band music, aka “Swing.” Swing was wildly popular for a hot minute, the bands critically accepted (if not always acclaimed), and lots of hip people dumped lots of money into zoot suits, dance lessons and the various other accoutrement’s of the genre. A few bands made some big dollars, got to perform on Leno, and then that was it. Nobody bought Big Bad Voodoo Daddy’s second album, because nobody cared about swing, once popular culture had deemed the movement passé, and labels stopped pumping money into them. Eighteen months after the 90s became the 40s, it was over. Britney Spears came around. Things got dark for a long time.
Most fads (for swing was truly a fad-no one gets dressed up like that every Friday night forever) happen just like this. The 90s were chock full of them: Tamagotchi, sour gumballs, punk-ska (which lasted longer than swing, but still died a lonely death), etc. I’ve begun to realize that part of the reason there was no great guitar hero in the 90s-note that Jimmy Page, The Edge and Jack White weren’t joined by a 90s counterpart in It Might Get Loud-is that the 90s; even more so than the 2000s; were all about style over substance. Even in the wake of Nirvana, the radio was inundated with cut-rate imitation groups, bands that copied the sound but never approached the heart. It’s amazing to me, now, that the Goo Goo Dolls are experiencing a resurgence in popularity, trucking out the familiar old hits on a culture that never (non-ironically) asked for them. I imagine it’s the same feeling folks who grew up in the 80s felt when I was laughing and screaming Eddie Money songs in 1996.
There’s one group, however, that gets lumped in with all the other ridiculous fads of the 1990s that deserves a hell of a lot more credit than they get. This is a group who have weathered a declining music industry and universal ridicule by all the world except their fans. Despite zero support from radio or MTV, they’ve sold millions of records over the last twenty years. That group is the Insane Clown Posse.
June 11, 2010
Over the past five years or so, the Chicago-based Numero Group label has established itself as one of the best reissue labels on the market. Numbering each release in a manner similar to the DVD giants at the Criterion Collection, the label’s crate-digging efforts have revived the excellent work of a few has-beens and a lot of never-weres. I am an unabashed fan of this label’s work, and I prize so many of their releases that it was hard to pick just four to feature, but here goes…
Eccentric Soul | The Capsoul Label
The first-ever Numero release introduces their most popular series, Eccentric Soul. The idea is simple: the folks at Numero find out about a creative soul-music record label off the beaten path (in the case of this collection, it was located in Columbus, Ohio) and they try to obtain as many master tapes (or, failing that, playable records) from the key figures at the label as they can. They also do their best to piece together the history of each label, which they retell in generous and picture-filled liner notes. This collection from the ‘70s highlights, among others, the supergroup-that-never-was Johnson, Hawkins, Tatum & Durr, the Sam-and-Dave-like Kool Blues, and deep-voiced ballad crooner Marion Black. By focusing on the best of each artist instead of going for completism, the album comes off sounding like a hits compilation of songs you just didn’t happen to hear before. That said, the vocal group The Four Mints from this collection inspired Numero’s first full-album reissue (of the Mints’ Gently Down Your Stream) on their Asterisk imprint.
Wayfaring Strangers | Lonesome Heroes
One of the other main types of music Numero also tends to feature apart from soul is obscure work by ‘70s singer-songwriters, more often as full-album reissues, although the Wayfaring Strangers series skims the cream off of assorted other releases. To be honest, even as a folk fan, the first two entries in this series – focusing on female folkies and on acoustic guitar soloists – were pleasant, but kind of a snooze. This third entry, Lonesome Heroes, features male folkies, and successfully cherry-picks a bunch of occasionally oddball, emotionally direct, and affecting songs. As a frequenter of New York open mic nights, I can tell you the success of this compilation is quite a feat, because no one can be more annoying than a belly-aching male singer-songwriter. Despite that, this album works both as a sampler of different artists’ work and as a top-notch folk mixtape with a sustained melancholic mood.
JezebelMusic.com @ Glasslands
May 28, 2010 | Twin Sister, Lost Boy, Data Dog
By the time the doors opened for Twin Sister‘s record release party at Glasslands on Friday at nine, there was already a line of several dozen young folks snaking down Kent Street (Note to bands: want people to show up early? Have an open bar), including an underage kid who’d already been turned away once and to whom I definitely did not explain how to sneak in, because that would have been immoral. As the club filled up, the line stayed at a steady 30 people or so all the way through ten, at which point I heard a Lost Boy fan remark “I guess Twin Sister is a popular band or something.” Indeed. Twin Sister has been setting the internet on fire for months now, and I was extremely curious to see how their sleek and subtle pop songs came through in a room packed full of inebriated youth. For the occasion, Glasslands had been decked out with all sorts of fun video projections including slow motion footage of people jumping into a glittering lake, which seemed kind of cruel, considering that Glasslands is a god damned sauna on even the coolest summer nights. Throughout the show I would marvel at the fact that no one seemed willing to shed their flannel shirts.
By the time the opening act went on, I was already huddled in a rear corner of the packed room, trying to avoid the constant stream of sweaty bar-bound traffic. Data Dog is a young, intriguing experimental pop trio, combining tasteful live drums with electronics and featuring dueling lead singers, each of whom possesses an astonishingly high, nasal voice, which I imagine will not be everyone’s cup of tea. The sound onstage was uneven, with vocals sometimes disappearing and other times rising way too high above the band (and one ear-piercing melodica solo), but Data Dog picked up confidence as the set progressed, and by the end they seemed to have found their stride. They have an ear for shape and form that keeps their songs interesting, even if their attempts at anthemic melodies never quite take off.
JezebelMusic.com @ The Studio at Webster Hall
May 20, 2010 | Atomic Tom, New Politics
You know those neighborhood bands that rehearse in garages and there’s always that one cool mom who doesn’t mind the noise and just wants them to play music whenever they want? And once in a while she pops her head in with lemonade and cookies and tries to sneak a listen but they aren’t really ready to be heard and they kind of just want to eat their cookies and have her go away until they’re ready to perform? And then suddenly they’ve gone and gotten signed to Universal Republic and have a single out on iTunes and are playing some of the most respected venues in New York City?
That’s the best way I know to describe my relationship with Atomic Tom.
I’ve been following this band for four years, partially because I liked their music when I first heard them, and very much because their bassist, Phil Galitzine, is one of my closest friends. Three years ago going to an Atomic Tom show meant going to support him, not necessarily going for “the show.” That’s all behind me now. For the past year, I’ve watched Atomic Tom transform from a group of guys who really liked playing rock shows to a band that knows how to play rock shows. So when I asked if I could write a review for last night’s headlining set on Webster Hall’s Studio, I didn’t do it for my friends. I did it to see a rock show.
Cut to the last Thursday.
May 23, 2010
In an age where fewer and fewer people are buying new music, it helps to have your record housed in a distinct package. Everyone can do jewel cases, and frankly, what’s the point of them? If you’re anything like me, you live in a small apartment in Brooklyn, and if you buy a new compact disc, you disassemble the jewel case and throw it out, first thing. The jewel case is passe, not to mention horrible for the environment.
And it’s not like one can’t afford to do better these days, either. When I released my first album, Metal and Wood, in 2003, one thousand compact discs, in shrink-wrapped jewel cases, cost around $1,200. In 2009, I released my fourth album, A Brighter Light, in shrink-wrapped, full color eco-wallets (they’re the cardboard ones, where the CD slips into it like a record, rather than sit on a plastic tray). Due to increased economic downturn and ever-waning public interest in CDs, this run of a thousand cost pretty much the same as my first album (basically half what they cost in 2003). Today, one can release a CD that sounds good, lasts a long time, and looks cool, for a fraction of what it used to cost.
Some examples, throughout the years:
1. Spiritualized-Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating in Space (12×3″ CD “blister pack” edition)
Spritualized‘s 1997 crowning achievement, the spacey, drone-y Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating in Space, sonically, earns its’ place among the canon of psychedelic music. The album was available on traditional compact disc and vinyl, but was also released in an ultra-limited form that included each of the album’s twelve songs on a 3″ CD. The mini-CDs were then packed into a “blister pack”-basically the cellophane and plastic contraption that Claritin comes in. Though I hadn’t heard the record when I saw it in January 1999-and I have only a passing familiarity with it today-that CD box was the ultimate drool-inducing fetish object for a guy like me. It sat on the shelf of Radio Kilroy-where I was employed and, because my boss thought I was stealing anyway, could easily have stolen it-until it went out of business a few months later. The blister pack edition of Ladies and Gentlemen was the coolest record by far in a store full of cool records-so modern and somehow so reminiscent of Huxley’s Brave New World. The boss wanted $180 for his copy at the time; today, the same album goes on eBay for eight times that.
2. The Velvet Underground-Peel Slowly and See (5 CD boxed-set)
The Velvets’ four, commercially stillborn but unprecedentedly influential albums were collected (and expanded with dubious bonus tracks) for the first time in 1995. Having all of their classics, many omissions that ranged in quality from essential to horrid, and a pre-Velvet Underground and Nico CD of Lou Reed, John Cale and Sterling Morrison rehearsing their earliest material was reason enough to shell out forty five bucks for the five CD package. That the package aped the cover of the group’s debut album-a banana with the words, “Peel Slowly and See” next to the stem-only with a Colorforms-style banana logo that actually peeled away, once again made the package an absolute necessity for nerds. Nevermind the fact that the CDs don’t begin and end one bit like their source material (and indeed the entire third album is presented in a weird alternate mix), the banana on the cover is cool as shit. I already had all the groups albums when my girlfriend’s roommate was hard up for cash and offered me the box for thirty bucks. Maybe not the coolest thirty bucks I ever spent, but certainly in the running.
May 18, 2010
2010 | Mom + Pop/N.E.E.T. Recordings
The internet hype-cycle can be a fickle thing. Either you live up to the acclaim like The Strokes did back in 2001, or you don’t and get completely screwed over like the Black Kids a few years ago, or you just find yourself perpetually trapped in the blogosphere like, well, most bands. It’s been less than a year since Brooklyn duo Sleigh Bells found themselves in this world after playing a handful of breakout shows at last year’s CMJ and releasing a five-song demo that seemed to make its way to every corner of the internet. Throw in two national tours opening for Major Lazer and then Yeasayer, and signing to M.I.A.’s N.E.E.T. Recordings, and the buzz surrounding the group’s debut, Treats, grew to a fever pitch—not to mention the fact that before it’s online release on May 11, the album had miraculously not even leaked.
Treats is loud and relentless—thirty-two minutes of non-stop, in-your-face, cranked-to-11, ear-drum-shattering noise pop. Derek Miller’s guitar screams wildly over hammering 808 beats and claps, creating a hurricane of sound that provides the perfect foil for Alexis Krauss’ blissed-out voice that’s still got just the right amount of bite. And while much of the charm on Sleigh Bells’ demo was the bedroom-production values, getting into a studio has been far from detrimental. As producer, Miller has given the re-recordings of demo songs new life: “Kids” (formerly “Beach Girls”) is tighter and more powerful, its once drawn-out synths now staccato punches; and “Infinity Guitars” retains its Spartan, lo-fi glory until the last forty-seconds when the volume gets kicked up a few notches more, ending in a pounding whirlwind of noise and distortion.
May 13, 2010
At Echo Lake
2010 | Woodsist
It’s been a little over a year since Woods released their last album, 2009’s well-received Songs of Shame, a record of lo-fi folk that garnered the group some pretty significant attention and made them standouts among the rest of the fuzz-heavy Woodsist family (e.g. Wavves, Vivian Girls, et al.). Still, Woods has wasted no time following up Songs of Shame. Their fifth record, At Echo Lake, bears many similarities to the group’s previous releases (not that that’s necessarily a bad thing), but also finds them toying with their rustic-Brooklyn sound.
“Blood Dries Darker” kicks off the record with a sunny guitar lick and a distant tom-and-snare beat that’s right out of 1960’s San Francisco, before floating into an acoustic melody that would make Crosby, Stills, & Nash jealous. “Suffering Season,” one of the record’s highlights, sways effortlessly and cheerily, balancing James Earl’s fuzzed-out vocals and an overdriven electric guitar with steady acoustic strumming and crisp background chimes. “Who knows what tomorrow might bring?” Earl sings, his Neil Young-like falsetto still strong under the heavy bedroom production.
It’s songs like these that show Woods undoubtedly growing as musicians and songwriters. The melodies on At Echo Lake are infectious and never hard to distinguish amidst the wide range of instruments and noises that fade in and out of every song throughout the album. “Time Fading Lines” is, for the most part, hauntingly clean and open, but sporadically the song swells with clatter —“As the hours let go / Time fading lines creep into control” sings Earl, his voice stoic, as the drums grow and a wail of feedback crawls out of nowhere.
May 9, 2010
Souls on Lockdown
2010 | Self-released
Even though most music performers are referred to as “artists,” M. Lamar really earns the title. Lamar seems interested less in conventional songcraft and more with creating, for lack of a better word, “pieces.” His work engages the audience in a way that is unlike the standard consumption of pop entertainment. This is not to say that Lamar’s new full-length album, Souls on Lockdown, is no fun. In fact, though Lamar repeatedly explores the issues of race and sexuality in an intensely analytical way throughout the album, it’s not like an undergrad lecture. Souls is stuffed to the gills with potent melodrama.
Lamar’s work is often confrontational. Before this full-length, he released a 7-inch EP that included songs called “White Pussy” and “Dirty Dirty Nigga.” They’re actually great songs, but they have the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Similarly, Lamar’s mode of performance is often very direct. He sings in a soaring countertenor which, when listened to blindly, could be easily mistaken for the voice of a female opera diva. He accompanies himself with simple, pounding chords on a keyboard. I’ve seen a few live performances by M. Lamar, and the uncomfortable squirms of the uninitiated and unappreciative were quite obvious.
Well, screw those people. M. Lamar is not only an incredibly interesting musical performer – following ably in the footsteps of the likes of Klaus Nomi and Diamanda Galas – but he’s a hell of a writer too.
The opener, “The Conquest,” is a new (and improved) version of the third track from his previously released 7-inch record. This new version alters Lamar’s keyboard sound so that it more closely resembles a heavily-reverbed electric guitar. It’s a wonderful contribution to the ominous atmosphere of the piece, which depicts seduction and sexual domination in an era of imperialist warfare. As Lamar put its, “Defeat is not an option / My weapon is yours to fear.”
Lamar returns again and again to the imagery of slavery. The CD cover features an illustration of an 1863 lynching of a black man, hanged from a tree. It’s an image which Lamar states in the liner notes that he hopes can stand as “a symbol of hope, possibility, and faith for blacks, queers, trans persons, and all who turn away from white supremacy and identification with domination and power,” in the way that Christians use the crucifix as such a symbol. This theme is key to the song, “The Tree,” which sounds distinctly like a Negro Spiritual and features the lyrics, “Renew my soul / With your violent hand… hang me from the tree.” It also pops up in slightly mutated form in the provocative “Get Down,” where the narrator (presumably a white john looking for a black hustler) orders, “Get down from that tree / And give me that nigga dick.” Lamar interjects with a description from a sex ad (“I’m a top / Outcalls only”) and talks to the potential john, who is looking for a black man to dominate and humiliate him. “You say I’m the superior race,” Lamar comments. The lyrics, as with most of the songs, are very sparse, but Lamar knows how to pick the right words to create a vivid picture – and not always one the listener is prepared to understand.
While “Get Down” is cut from a similar cloth as the tracks I mentioned above from Lamar’s 7-inch record, it is actually in the minority on the album, as far as in-your-face provocations go. It comes late in the album, at a point at which Souls on Lockdown has established a mood of both ecstasy and melancholy. While Lamar never abandons his directness, the first two-thirds of the album have a surprising tastefulness. Lamar’s voice throughout the album shows a vulnerability that makes the work accessible, allowing the listener to get swept up in the songs no matter how elliptical or fragmented the lyrics. Lamar’s performance fills in all the details we might be missing from the text.
Souls on Lockdown is an album that, despite its lack of lush arrangements, is fairly dense. It reveals more with each additional listen. Certain technical concerns (sometimes it sounds like Lamar sings an “off-key” note) melt away over time (now I’m convinced that at least some of those notes are not merely out of tune but are intentionally dissonant), and the power of the album grows stronger. It would be easy to spew a “not suited to all tastes” disclaimer when discussing Souls on Lockdown, but that’s a cop out. Really, your potential enjoyment comes down to this: Are you man (or woman or trans) enough to handle this album?
by Justin Remer