Monday, May 31, 2010

Beyond Barbecue

Is it wrong to wish people a Happy Memorial Day?

It's easy to forget the reasons for holidays.

Beyond the three-day weekends. Beyond burgers and barbecues. Beyond the unofficial start of summer and the promise of longer days and the freedom of warmer weather and school being out.

Memorial Day is about something else. It's a chance to remember and honor sacrifice.

I didn't understand that as a kid; probably no kids really do.

But the past several years, I've been rediscovering the real meaning of holidays like Memorial Day and Labor Day (which bookend summers in the U.S.).

Which brings me to what inexplicably is my favorite XTC song. (Which is far from their catchiest song or their best-known song or even their best-written song.)

The first time I heard this, it resonated with something deep inside me. The evocation that happens with the best music? Some kind of trapped intergenerational memory of another lifetime? I don't know.

But I knew the first time I heard this that it was profoundly meaningful to me. So on Memorial Day, there's only one song I want to hear:

Saturday, May 29, 2010

RIP Dennis Hopper

Looking for adventure... and whatever comes our way

When I was a kid, it wasn't cool to like the music from the 60s. (Well, except maybe the Beatles; the Beatles were somehow beyond categorization.)

The flower-power movement quickly gave way to self-indulgence (which quickly and unintentionally became comedic). The psychedelia and experimentation turned darker and gave way to the realities of addiction and death.

The working-class rebels became the establishment, hiding out in castles that the common people could only dream about.

And when punk came around, it resonated and reflected the initial rebellion that formed rock and roll.

I loved punk because it always reminded me of the music of the 60s (but generally played a lot faster).

But for most of my friends, the word "hippie" was a high insult. And so when classic 60s movies would play in our local arthouse, I'd go. And usually there would only be 4 or 5 people there.

Yes, 60s movies (especially 60s rock movies) were often sprawling, incoherent, and self-indulgent. Yes, the stories often made no sense.

But there was something vital and vibrant about those movies. Even if the plots didn't make sense, the tone was usually clear. And that tone crackled and rang true in the same way that punk rock did.

RIP, Dennis Hopper. And thanks for helping me connect the dots between James Dean and the Ramones.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

One more from Farrah

Seriously, how can you resist this?

One more thing to make you wish MTV still played music videos:

Nearly 10,000 still photographs combined to make this video:

On a more serious note, what kind of world do we live in where two days ago I somehow knew who Justin Bieber is and had never heard of Farrah?

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Farrah in 6 Clicks

Power Pop Through A Series of Tubes

I like to imagine that there's a country somewhere where everyone loves power pop, where melodic guitars and great harmonies thrive like flowers in the sun. But whenever I try to book travel to that country, I can't find the nearest airport. So maybe it's not a country, maybe it's a city. Or a valley, nestled between mountains. And maybe I don't get there by plane, but by pontoon boat. Or through a few clicks on the internet.

I was reading Peter's Power Pop blog today and he posted a couple of songs by the Wellingtons (as he frequently does). It's hard not to like the Wellingtons and I was going to write about them. And while clicking through their YouTube videos, I found one where they talked about playing with the band Farah. And that band name sounded familiar, but I couldn't think of why.

But there on the "related videos" box of the Wellingtons video I was watching was this video by Farah:

You may want to listen to that song five or six times. Go ahead; I'll wait.

Click. One of the guys from Farrah produced a Wellingtons album. Click. Critics compare them to Squeeze and XTC and Fountains of Wayne. Click. Several Wellingtons appear in this cool video, which (like the Nines) channels the best of Paul McCartney, XTC, ELO, Fountains of Wayne, Marshall Crenshaw, Ben Folds, and just about every band I love:

Listening to Farrah, I had no idea where they were from. England? Australia? Sweden? Brooklyn? In the end it doesn't really matter. They live in that place where power pop thrives in the wild... and you don't even need a pontoon boat to get there.

The new Farrah album is out now in England and will be out in the U.S. in a couple weeks. In the meantime, visit their site or listen to the whole thing here on their super-cool widget thing:

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Two From the North

Two Nordic ear-worms, briefly noted.

Flamboyant Swedish pop-rock sound? Check.
Absurd 80s key-tar? Check.
Amazing sky and partially frozen sea? Check.
Band seemingly floating away on a chunk of ice soon to be eaten by a polar bear? Check.

Nom de Guerre's "Run Run Run"
(h/t Swedesplease):

You want more? Need some charming tinkly keyboards and little-girl vocals? And maybe some zombies? And death imagery in a remote church? Lára Rúnarsdóttir's got what you need:

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

That's Im Poss

I guess it's just someone who looked a lot like I remember you do

Gretchen lived in a castle. Behind a moat. Fortified by alligators.

Okay, maybe not.

But Gretchen lived in the urban equivalent -- an art-deco apartment building whose penthouse had stained-glass windows. Up a steep winding hill. With no on-street parking.

And she knew all the local restaurants. Owners would greet her by name when she came in. Chefs would prepare her off-menu sampling menus.

The owner of the convenience store would give her flowers from the day before and she'd stick them in her hair.

She owned that city. But she didn't know it.

Everyone she was with knew it. But God help you if you mentioned it -- she hated talking about it, hated thinking about it.

She drove a 40-year-old European convertible that her mechanic had rebuilt nearly from scratch. She knew nothing about cars but everything about obscure tropical fruit.

And she'd sit up in the castle (okay, her second-story apartment in the art-deco building far below the penthouse) and sketch street scenes in half-filled sketch pads.

Everyone who spent time with her thought she was amazing. Because when you were around her, anything was possible.

Then she'd vanish. For weeks on end.

The restaurant owners would ask me about her because they'd seen us together once. And I didn't know anything, so I had nothing to say.

Then she'd come back -- convertible overflowing with exotic souvenirs from somewhere I could never spell that she'd pronounce perfectly. And the neighborhood would swell and flow back towards her. And for a while, everything seemed fine.

For a while, everything was possible again.

Until Gretchen vanished one last time. And took the convertible with her.

The chefs looked downcast whenever I'd see them. The mechanic sighed loudly and turned back to the brake job on the '88 Saab. And the convenience-store flowers turned brown and wilted out in the dumpster.

The castle was eventually torn down. But she never came back.

I moved across town. To an area whose streets weren't pulsing with memories of when she'd walked on them. To a street where some things were definitely impossible. To a place where the chefs didn't know her... and didn't know what they were missing.

I'd still sometimes think I saw Gretchen -- but she never reappeared. Eventually I left the city. Years later, she still appears every once in a while in the corner of my eye. And I still sometimes sense she's been here. But whenever I look around, she's gone.

Almost, but not quite, without a trace.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Cover Me

You Know I Know When It's a Dream...

Brandon Schott, whom I first wrote about here, has a new single coming out next week on iTunes: "God Only Knows" b/w "Strawberry Fields Forever." And he's performing this week to celebrate the release.

More on that in a minute. But first:


As listeners, we hear covers in a very different way than the way we hear original songs.

This is more pronounced when the songs are well known. Many "classic rock" songs from the 60s and 70s are so deeply imprinted after decades of radio play (not to mention hours spent listening to these songs on vinyl, cassette, CD, and MP3) that they're nearly a part of our DNA.

For songs that are well-known, we carry our memory of the original with us as we hear the cover. That makes Slavishly Faithful covers purely an exercise in nostalgia. It makes Radically Rearranged covers more interesting for how they differ from the originals than in how they are similar. And it makes Slapped Together covers something best enjoyed in the moment during a live show (where hopefully there's enough else happening to distract us from how crappy and poorly executed the cover is).

For most musicians, covering really well-known songs is just asking for trouble.

Because, really, does the world ever need another version of "God Only Knows" or "Strawberry Fields Forever"?


Which loops me back around to Brandon Schott.

These two songs aren't your typical covers. The arrangements are neither radically different nor slavishly faithful.

Instead, Brandon's versions tunnel inside the songs, letting us rediscover essential truths we might have forgotten, combining the very familiar with the revelatory and peeling back layers of songs we thought we knew everything about.

Brandon's "God Only Knows" opens with Indian tabla marking out percussion, infusing the track instantly with a 1966 vibe. Bells and organ echo the original, but veer off from the Beach Boys arrangement. Harmonies are understated here, sneaking up on you instead of hitting you over the head Beach Boys-style. The song builds and builds as it moves along, confidently gaining momentum, and power. And then there's the ending.

Holy ****.

Brandon's son Tyler sings a boy-soprano counter-melody at the end of the song that completely takes my breath away. (And if you don't get goose bumps from it, you either don't like music or you're a robot passing for human -- and in either case I wonder what you're doing reading this.) Close your eyes when you listen to this and you'll swear for 3 minutes and 50 seconds that Brian Wilson really could write teenage symphonies to God -- at least for a few months in 1966.

Here's a taste of Brandon's take on the Beach Boys:


"Strawberry Fields Forever" is a song most people know backwards and forwards. Originally recorded to be a cornerstone of the Sgt. Pepper album (whose loose concept had something to do with childhood... and nostalgia... and LSD), it was rushed out as a single (a double-A side with "Penny Lane") in early 1967 when EMI realized that Sgt. Pepper would take many more months to finish.

Brandon's take on "Strawberry Fields" is simple and stark, mostly just a piano and voice. All through the song, you'll wait for familiar instruments to come in -- starting with Paul McCartney's mellotron that opens the Beatle version. But for the most part, things are kept austere here, with ghostly reverb and faint glimmers of instruments substituting for the full psychedelic orchestration of the original. Time and again, I find myself waiting for Ringo's familiar drum fills, then feel thrown off-balance when they don't appear. Instead, backing vocals emphasize the ethereal nature of the song, underscored by a piano that sometimes sounds like it was stored in a damp basement for several decades. The overall effect is mesmerizing -- and wallops you with the full force of something long-forgotten but vitally important.

Here's a taste of "Strawberry Fields":


For those of you in or around Los Angeles, Brandon will be doing a special release party for his "God Only Knows" single on May 20 (this coming Thursday) at the Renaissance Hotel and Spa in Hollywood. Admission is free (my favorite price) and open to all ages. Great music and maybe a few surprise special guests. 25 people will also win a special limited-edition CD single of the songs.

Then, a week from Tuesday (May 25th), you can buy the single from iTunes. For more info, go here.

Very highly recommended.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Craigslist Ads and the New Wave Songs That Love Them #2

The Oneders don't care -- they don't give a damn

Guitarist Wanted -- Hollywood

We want you to be part of our crappy band.

If you're obsessed with being "in tune," playing the "right notes," and having everyone play in the "same key," don't waste our time. We may technically suck, but our vibe trumps the suckage and results in an awesomely great band. Which is why you're reading this ad.

Prepare to be judged, buddy. We will judge you by your ringtone, your shoes, your playlists, and where you live.

Playing songs is good, matching our vibe is awesome, but having a van might be the most important thing of all.

(Link for Gmail subscribers.)

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Paying it Forward

Send it Everywhere.

For the past few years, Jane Siberry, whom I've written about here and here, has made her music available on a "pay-what-you-want" basis on her website.

This week, she announced she's discontinuing that practice because of frustrations with PayPal.

"My music is now free," she announced. "Please download with great enthusiasm. Take good care of the music. Fill your ipods. Send it everywhere."

(If you're not sure where to start, I'd recommend Jane Siberry for stark folk with huge vocals, No Borders Here for great songwriting and tentative electronica, The Speckless Sky for gorgeous synth-based pop songs, The Walking for haunting melodies and longer cinematic songs, Bound by the Beauty for the pure exuberance of not-quite-folk/not-quite-country, and everything for great songwriting and amazing harmonies.)

Go here to get the music. And don't forget to pay it forward.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Craigslist Ads and the New Wave Songs That Love Them

#1 in an Occasional Series

Missed Connections -- Corner of **** and *** 5/7

Our eyes met and you smiled at me. I could almost have died happy right then and there.

You -- Christie Brinkley blonde in silver Mercedes convertible with wind billowing your hair, your eyes twinkling as you laughed over bluetooth. Me -- JoBro face with scraggly beard. I was pushing shopping cart containing exactly 981 bottles and cans. Just enough to buy us both dinner as long as you don't drink.

Please tell me you don't drink. I'd hate to ruin my idea of what you'd be like on a date (and might need another week to gather the necessary bottles and cans).

(Link for Gmail subscribers.)

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Music for the Crash Years

The cause and cure are calling.


The official unemployment rate in California is over 12% (around 10% around the U.S.). Workers are being asked to take pay cuts, benefit cuts, and demotions to keep their jobs.

And the stock market fell 1,000 points in 15 minutes on Thursday.

Oh, and there's a quarter million gallons of oil leaking out every day from an offshore drilling well built by a company that chose not to obey stricter safety procedures because, well... isn't everything better if we let industry make its own rules?

We need some good news. And we need some great music. We need indie rock to reclaim the cello once and for all. And we need ninja karate performers harnessing the power of the dojo.

Yeah, it's time for a new New Pornographers album.

Remember -- we're all in this Together.

Bonus: My favorite track from the new album, which tells you everything you need to know to survive through the Crash Years:

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Shilling for the Fellow Who Brings the Sheep In

With windows cracking and a roof held together by holes...

One band, two songs, same subject.

XTC's "Love on a Farmboy's Wages" it the rural one -- in which a man who works on the farm (and, sadly, is really great at what he does) prepares to marry his beloved. He wonders how he can provide for his new family, but is ultimately willing to give it a shot. It's a wonderful acoustic song (although a strange and unfortunate choice for a single).

Three years later, XTC was paired with producer Todd Rundgren for Skylarking. Andy Partridge and Todd didn't get along. When the album came out, it sounded odd -- like it was designed to be played in a car going 80 with all the windows open. (And, famously, the oddball hit single "Dear God" wasn't even on the album -- it was a B-side that got all the radio play and forced the record company to pull the album and rerelease it with "Dear God" on Side 2 because there was no room on Side 1, which contained a "suite" of songs about the seasons -- one of Todd's pet ideas.)

Another song from Skylarking that got plenty of radio play was "Earn Enough for Us," seemingly the urban version of "Love on a Farmboy's Wages." But this time, the couple is married and the husband goes off to work every day on a bus, puts up with hurtful comments from his boss, and vows to get another job at night when he learns he's going to be a father. (Link for Gmail subscribers.)

Back when this record first came out, I thought the two songs told the exact same story.

It wasn't until I listened carefully to Skylarking a few days ago that I realized what "Earn Enough for Us" really is. If anything, it's a sequel. The Farmboy gave up what he was good at to earn more money in the big city, only to discover himself struggling and his wife expecting. But he's still hopeful, he's still willing to do whatever it takes. Unlike Major Tom (who apparently was really just a junkie), the Farmboy has matured and grown into a man who takes his responsibilities seriously -- he's even willing to be in a more radio-friendly song if that's what it takes.

I'm older now and I can see the heroism in the husband's struggle. He's harnessed the hope from the farm, tempered it with realism, and hunkered down to provide for his loved ones. But the Farmboy is never really gone -- and I like to think he's planting a small garden behind that little house, caring for it with love, and knowing it will grow and prosper.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Kinda Blue

My brain hurt like a warehouse, it had no room to spare

A while back, I read the story on a blog (and I wish I could remember which one so I could link to it) Kinky Paprika's Shhh/Peaceful blog about Trevor Bolder, bassist for David Bowie's Spiders From Mars band.

According to the story, Bolder had his face painted blue for a performance, but accidentally used permanent paint. Reportedly, Bolder had to go to a specialist in Switzerland for an expensive medical procedure to remove the paint. In fact, the procedure was so expensive, Bolder had to sell his car to pay for it. It mostly worked, but not completely. And that's why, to this day Bolder still has traces of blue paint behind his ear.

I love this story.

And as I said then, it should be repeated over and over.

It's weird and exotic -- involving Bowie, glam rock, and the idea that rockers would risk life and limb to paint their faces for performances. It's truly a glimpse into another world.

But more important, it's completely absurd.

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars is arguably Bowie's masterpiece. The songs are almost all classics (and almost all have been radio staples for more than 35 years). More importantly, the album as a whole tells a somewhat coherent story (although, in best rock fashion, it's vague enough that every listener can project themselves into it).

Bowie would hopskotch from style to style, persona to persona, for years, before slipping into the role of rock elder. But it was the Spiders -- Mick Ronson's mighty guitar playing and arranging (and some say uncredited songwriting), Trevor Bolder's bass playing, and Mick Woodmansey's understated drums (and Be-Rock-Always name) -- that pushed Bowie to his heights he'd never hit again.

Which brings me back to the paint.

The best part of the story is how it builds on the plausible (face painting, getting the type of paint wrong), layers in exotic details (an exclusive private doctor! in Switzerland!) with the hyperbolic (a procedure so expensive he had to sell his car) before delivering the amazing and oddly detailed fact that puts the ribbon on the story (to this day, he still has blue paint behind his ear).

It's a story of rarified air and rock and roll decadence. A story with a moral. A story that's falls apart almost immediately if you look closely.

Skin peels and chafes and regrows. At about the same rate that Bowie changed his persona in the 1970s.

Hell, if you've ever gotten "permanent" marker or paint on yourself, you know this. Even if you can't wash it off, it comes off with the skin in a matter of days, weeks, or months.

It's doubtful the paint would have lasted five weeks, let alone five months or five years. It's still there more than 30 years? Just not possible.

But still, to this day, we've got a great story of rock & roll excess.

And ultimately maybe that's more important than the facts. Isn't rock and roll all about believing these stories we all know can't be true? When the power chords thunder and the downbeat hits, don't we all willingly throw logical thinking out the window because, deep down, we want to live in a world of myths and legends?