First, Jeff Buckley (and Bob Dylan)
It’s unusual that Buckley covered Dylan as much as he did, because in a key way the two were polar opposites. Dylan doesn’t, really, give a shit about the music (i mean, yeah, he went electric and country and all that, but mostly, dude cared about the words he was singing, not the guitar he was haphazardly strumming). Buckley was so much more about how he was singing than what he was singing. You could be charitable and call “This is our last goodbye /I hate to feel the love between us die/But it’s over” naturalistic and compelling, but then you’re being charitable and not actually paying attention to the average-quality lyrics. While neither could survive without some attention paid to their chosen neglected element, for Buckley the point was the music, and for Dylan it was the lyrics. So then the way Buckley does Dylan is to turn the performance into a sort of talent show cover; he starts with something familiar and then uses that base to establish himself as a unique entity.
There are three Dylan covers on the expanded version of Buckley’s first release- Live at Sin-e. The story is that Buckley played show after show after show at the small East Village club before going into the studio to record his first (and only completed) studio album, Grace. If you’ve got a 2-hour set and only one hour of original material, you’re not going to fill the rest with banter, so covers it is. What he does on all three of the Dylan covers featured on …Sin-e is blow them up. “I Shall be Released” gets an extra 2+ minutes tacked onto The Band’s studio version. “Just Like a Woman” gets 3 minutes extra. And “If You See Her, Say Hello” goes from Dylan’s somewhat compact 4:49 to a panoramic 8 minutes, 18 seconds- nearly double its original length.
Buckley tells a story with his guitar in that extra space. The lyrics, as Buckley sings them, are more moments in between the musical acts which, for Buckley, really make up the song. Look at how he speeds through two verses of the song between 5:14 and 5:50 just so he can have fun with the blocky, mimicked solo that follows. Then look at how he slows down the last verse to fill the holes in his spiderweb guitar playing. He even repeats the last line because he’s not done sustaining the final chord. Dylan almost never repeats lines! Sacrilege! But also great.
The interesting thing about Orcas is they go in the opposite direction you’d think they would. Thomas Meluch, who normally records under the name Benoit Pioulard carves away from pop music like sea mist, hazily and heavy with wet. His partner in Orcas is ambient composer Rafael Anton Irisarri who plays slow drones under his own name and slow drones hooked up to a large hadron collider under the name The Sight Below. You would expect this band to double up on the figurative. You would expect their recently-released album Yearling to drive you through the cloud forest at 5 am before the sun breaks through, if it even will today. Here’s why you’d expect that-
But nope. This album as much in the clouds as it is breaking through them. For every abstract moment like “Petrichor” there’s a slanted, rushing song like “An Absolute.” For the first time in the history of Meluch’s music, the lyrics here are crystalline, discernible, and seemingly very personal.
I don’t doubt the combined songwriting skills of the two principals of Orcas, but substantial credit has to go to the band(/the album)’s drummer, Michael Lerner. Lerner normally plays drums in the wonderful, rigid power-pop band Telekinesis, and he brings a promptness and collectedness to Orcas that prevents things from ethering too much. It’s a welcome addition which pulls some of the more abstract moments back to the woofer.
Next, The Menzingers
Speaking of drumming (which probably happens more than it should on this blog), here’s a band who have released a great album this year which, the drumming will tell you, owes an Atlantic-sized debt to 90s indie rock. The Menzingers are part of a new(ish), small(ish) group of punk bands (including personal favorites like Cheap Girls, as well as bands like Swearin’ and Fireworks) who borrow elements from the crunchy, loud ’90s rock without sounding derivative or out-of-ideas.
One of the easiest ways you can spot the ’90s on Rented Room,The Menzingers’ most recent album, is the backbeat. Unlike, for example, The Strokes/Interpol-style drumming that became popular in the early 2000s where rhythms were skeletal and austere, the 90s was a time when drumbeats were fun, ornamented, and, in their own over-the-top way, pretty emo. There’s an overflowing of sounds coming from the drum set. These songs had more that what was essential.
To make a broad overstatement, the 90s were when indie(/emo) band were unassuming and the drummers for these bands learned from suburban teachers who used to talk about things like “the pocket” “the grove” and “ghost notes.” The students only half-understood, but they tried hard to replicate these things, because this was what being a good drummer was. Yeah, it’s weird to think of 90s indie rock as grooving, but it did.
This was drumming which existed more independently from the rest of the song than, say the backbeats of modern bands like DIIV or Lower Dens or Chvrches do. Likewise, the drumming on Rented Room is a bit showy and dense, but it is so of the 90s era that it single-highhandedly makes the band in dialog with forebears like Superchunk and Velocity Girl. It makes the album more than just an update or a throwback- it’s a conversation.
and for comparison’s sake
Next, Wet Nurse, The Ponys
i mean, sometimes you need to beat the shit out of a bus shelter.
Now back to our regularly scheduled lack of a schedule.
When people hear someone mention experimental pop music, they oftentimes groan like a root canal is in order, if they even know what the phrase means. To many, “experimental pop” is about taking music that is catchy and fun and making it less catchy and less fun. You can guess those people have been listening to the wrong experimental pop music and that they are years away from high school. Remember chemistry class where your magnesium flared up when you dropped it in a liquid which looked like water and smelled like water but, miraculously, was not water? Experiments can be awesome. And experiments, regardless of their goal, are trying to accomplish something, to tell you something. Same thing with experimental pop music. For example, experimental pop music, for the rest of this post, is trying to tell you that its house is burning down.
Some strains would get across the fire and the emergency. They would even get across the panic and the lost master tapes and love letters and non-fire-proof safety deposit box. But they would do it with an accent, maybe one that feels a bit put on. ‘Ey guv’nor. Looks like some cheeky arsehole set my flat on fire. Quit being shirty and help me out. It’ll be easy peasy.” If you weren’t prone to helping them before, the accent, their commitment to it, the way even their eyes seem tired from all the cockney phrasing, would make you do it. Maps & Atlases are from Chicago, and every one of their members secretly wishes he was the drummer.
Some strains would get across the fire but in a way where you weren’t sure you wanted to help them. They would come running up to you with a singed sheet wrapped around them and something you can’t place tied to one leg. You can tell they hadn’t showered for a week or two before the fire even started. They start screaming “Fire! Over there! Fire! Over there!” There’s a point getting made, the communication is there, but it’s not the kind that connects in the desired way. Maybe you help them, maybe you toss them the change in your pocket, maybe you cross to the other side of the street. Evangelicals are a band from Oklahoma who are lying through their teeth when they tell you they’re doing alright these days.
Some strains would get across that there is a message and there is urgency, but the message and the medium would both be obscured. Their house would be burning down and they would run up to you and deck you in the face. As you grabbed at your jaw and felt the searing pain, you’d look at the aggressor and see a look of panicked shock on their face; somehow the message hadn’t gotten across. So they would punch you again. I’m not even sure if I like the new Micachu and the Shapes album. I’m not even sure whether “like” is the point as much as “listen to and try not to run away from.” I’m not sure I can listen to Never without wanting to run away from it. Remember that sentence I started with about people hating experimental music? This is closer to what they’re hating. When people praise songs like these they do it in abstract words like “admirable” and “uncompromising,” but I’d suggest as my praise that this is a song that would punch you in the face.
PS- summer jamz, part whatever
“Gone all Summer” is from the Cheap Girls album Bright Orange (BTW- Can we talk about how end-to-end good the new Cheap Girls album is? The new Cheap Girls album is really, really good, end-to-end. I have more to say than that, so I will at a later date.)
Fashion yourself a fan of New Jersey and Indie Rock and perhaps their wonderful junction?Well, Yo La Tengo’s got a new one coming out early next year.
And, one more, because I’m leaving Chicago on Sunday. And moving across the country. To San Diego. Here’s a beautiful song about leaving.
These concerts are from street fairs in Michigan and bookstores in New York City, porches overlooking downtown Detroit, and shanty-stages in Chicago. They’re from old firebrands playing what might have been their last tour, and bands who nearly imploded halfway through their set and broke up on the spot. They’re from earstraining quiet and earbusting noise.
Vic Chesnutt (featuring Guy Picotto, A Silver Mt Zion and Godspeed) (October 27th @ Music Hall Of Williamsburg)
Vic Chesnutt feels wise. The guy is a smart ass, lewd, and pessimistic, but the feeling he emanates is wisdom. So to say Chesnutt played the show he played to a half full crowd in Brooklyn like a baby might seem an insult to him. Quite the opposite; when someone has the lyrical brilliance and musical versatility of Chesnutt, the worst thing that could happen is that the lyrics are great, the songs are great, and the whole thing sounds glazed over. Chesnutt’s set that night tantrumed and bubbled and then got so quiet it seemed to be content whispering syllables to the ceiling. 20+ years into his career Chesnutt is still playing to extremes. Thank god for that.
X (June 17th @ Magic Stick, Detroit)
A day or two before this show, Exene Cervenka announced to the world that she had Multiple Sclerosis. This was X’s 30th anniversary tour; each member of the band is an essential element, and one of the four members announced she had a pretty extreme debillitating illness. And then, Cervenka came on stage and blew every fear and every expectation and every offered hand or look of sympathy away. She was clearly in pain for much of this show, but she barreled on, voice sounding just as good and just as wrecked as I’m sure it did in ’79. The other members of the band played deserve credit too. Billy Zoom balanced super sonic guitar playing with flirting with the rockabilly girls who kept taking his picture. John Doe’s sung steadily and playing the shit out of the same bass he’s used since Adult Books, and DJ Bonebreak still stands as one of my favorite drummers ever. Still, this was Exene’s night. This was so much more than soldering on; this was furiously ricocheting off the stage lights.
Chris Bathgate/ Lightning Love/Frontier Ruckus (October 22nd @ Spike Hill, Brooklyn)
I thought that seeing Chris Bathgate perform outside of the great state of Michigan would be akin to reading a Faulkner novel set in Connecticut. As I’ve said on this site before, the man is so connected to that place for me, and not being able to see him live once or so a month in Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti or Detroit is one of the things I miss most about not living in Michigan any more. When Bathgate came to Brooklyn to play a CMJ set, he did something different than the myriad of times I had seen him in Michigan, he played almost entirely new material, with nothing from his 2007 album A Cork Tale Wake or his ’08 EP Wait, Skeleton. The new songs, play with a bagillion part band, were loud and confident, like finally making it through the winter straightjacket that Bathgate’s last two albums so beautifully described. Perhaps because free of all the expectations and weight of a hometown show, Bathgate tried something new. Nostalgia bloomed fresh with every new song.
Nomo (June 16th @ Top of the Park, Ann Arbor)
Even though Nomo no longer call Ann Arbor home, their concert opening up the wonderful Top Of The Park series of free summer events in the city has become a yearly tradition. A huge energetic tournout mirrored the energy pouring off the state. Whether they played this well because it feels like a homecoming show for the band, or whether it was the confidence that comes from releasing a great new album, the show was brassy, beat heavy, and one of the biggest dance parties i went to this year. The band’s set would have blown the ceiling off any venue that could have held them.
Frightened Rabbit (January 25th @ Blind Pig, Ann Arbor)
This show thawed me when I was neck-deep in Michigan winter. Sometimes it’s nice to see a young passionate band play no-nonsense rock songs to a sweaty beer-y packed crowd. This was one of those.
Mice Parade (May 3rd @ Pike Room, Pontiac)
There were so many reasons this show could have been terrible. Mice Parade played with a mediocre local band supporting them. The room was packed for the openers, and empty by the time Mice Parade started. This would have been demoralizing enough, but the band was also missing their drummer. A perfect recipe for a disastrous show, a good excuse to half ass it and blame it on mitigating circumstances. But from the moment they came on, the band the band were all smiles, almost treating the evening like a joke they were in on. When an audience member shouted “get behind the drum kit” to lead singer Adam Pierce, he obliged. When the band announced they were going to play one more song and I had really gone there to hear them play “The Last Ten Homes,” and so I shouted out “play ‘The Last Ten Homes,'” of course they did. I’ve said it before, post rock, music this delicate, intelligent, and technically brilliant, is not supposed to be fun. I’m happy to report that Mice Parade continue to buck that trend.
Greg Cartwright (June 28th @ Alley Deck, Detroit)
Talk about the perfect hangover cure. The Alley Deck, the porch on the side of the Magic stick was transformed into an outdoor venue, bar and sightseeing booth sundays this summer. The audience for Cartwright’s rare solo appearence felt as light as the breeze, slowly roasting in the Michigan summer. And, despite warning that his voice was worn out from the previous night’s Oblivians reunion show, Cartwright sounded great, playing two varied sets like he was sitting on a porch in the company of close friends. Which, I suppose, he was.
Magnolia Electric Company/Sally Timms/Elephant Micah (July 12th @ The Hideout, Chicago)
Jason Molina’s not a talker. He probably spoke 10 words over the course of Magnolia Electric Company’s set at the hideout. I don’t think this is due to stage fright, as much as a firm desire to let the music speak for itself. Which is bullshit, if you ask me. Molina has a strong, recognizable voice and personality. His lyrical conceits are original this side of 1940s Oklahoma or Nashville, and to say you’re just a vessel for the music or something seems pretty much like nonsense to me. But maybe it wasn’t that, it was that he didn’t want to take away from what, at this point has become a very solid and very democratic band. Guitar player Jason Groth and drummer Mark Rice both fleshed out every song and were able to make their presences known when the occasion called for it. Upon second thought, maybe Molina’s lack of stage banter was appropriate and better fitted the band than a thousand bad jokes and boring stories would have.
Elvis Perkins (September 2nd @ Housingworks, New York)
Roadside Graves/Parson Redheads (October 10th @ Lit Lounge, New York)
Two young bands start sprinting from the same starting line labeled “country.” The Parson Red Heads head off towards the driving kind, with voices spreading out like lane dividers and melodies blurring together like nighttime scenery. The Roadside Graves head towards the kitchen and start throwing things in a pot, then start throwing things on the floor just to hear the sounds they’ll make. Their common ground came in their half cocky excitement. Both bands played like they had something to prove to the tiny space they were filling that night. Both bands proved it.
Yo La Tengo (September 25th @ Roseland, New York)
It would be easy for a band like Yo La Tengo to get too humble, to get too used to playing a few nights at Maxwell’s and the occasional big free summer show. Sometimes both to reassure and to push themselves, they’ve got to try something big. Seeing Yo La Tengo at Roseland, probably one of the biggest non-free concerts they’ve ever played in New York, felt validating and important. Through a magical light show, a shockingly long and energetic set, and a touching romantic skeletal encore (including one of my favorite of their songs, “The Whole of the Law”) they showed they were as good as every member of the sold out crowd showed them they were. Whether they were proving it to themselves, to the critics or to their fans doesn’t matter, what matters is how seamlessly and entirely they proved it.
Yo La Tengo were exceptional when I saw them at Roseland last Friday night. Roseland is a tough venue to play, because it’s just so big (maximum occupancy somewhere in the range of 3500). That hugeness has ruined shows by punk bands who couldn’t command the cavernous ballroom, and has been wonderful when I went to see arena rock bands like Kings of Leon, who found the coziest arena they could.
But Yo La Tengo, neither punk nor arena rock, filled the space. They played it like a spectacle, with a lineup stuffed with band favorites (openers Susquehana Tool and Die), young rapscallions (The Black Lips) and mostly-famous comedians (John Oliver. You know, the British guy from the Daily Show), not to mention one of the most beautiful and appropriate visual shows I could’ve imagined. There was always a disconnect between the grandness of Yo La Tengo’s more epic music and the small spaces they played and light, crisp production on their albums. But seeing them, up on a big stage, with a wonderful sound system, surrounded by thousands of people, it felt good and, somehow, it felt validating.
As far as I see it, two kinds of noise groups came outta 80’s indie rock, those who wanted to have fun, and those who wanted to stab fun squarely in the throat. The latter group included Mission of Burma, The Jesus Lizard, Sonic Youth, Husker Du, Fugazi, and Jawbox. I like those bands and some of them are really important to me. The former group, the ones who, as far as I can tell, had a sense of humor about the whole thing were bands like The Replacements, Superchunk, Drive Like Jehu (more so in spirit than in music), The Pixies, and Yo La Tengo. I love those bands. I think that’s because the noise was put to a different purpose in the groups who were having fun versus those who weren’t; the group who were having fun were using it to show us joy, excitement, and youth that the lyrics couldn’t; the group who were not having fun used the noise to take a nihilist axe to pop music; they were deconstructing, whereas the first group was building.
So you’ve got a whole section of loud groups who wanted to have fun, all of whom (at least the ones I listed up there) I love, but Yo La Tengo are different, because they’re the only one’s who are, well, in love. It helps that two of the band members, Ira Kaplan who sings sometimes and coaxes pterodactyl sounds out of his guitar, and Georgia Hubley who sings sometimes and plays the drums much better than I do, are married and have been for most of the band’s existence. James Mcnew, who also sings sometimes and plays bass and keyboards, I picture, as the couple’s best friend.
Yo La Tengo use the first person plural a whole lot in their lyrics. Whether the “we” and the “us” refer to the Ira and Georgia, or the band, or just young/eventually not so young people, its an effective lyrical turn. And their lyrics are simple but sweet, well thought out and genuine; cautiously excited. The band’s music brims over, while the three voices singing it hold back a bit.
The three tracks I’m giving you are, I think, a pretty good summary/ mission statement for the band.
“Big Day Coming” appears twice on the band’s 1992 album Painful. The version I’m giving you is the album’s first track, and the way it’s simple, slow ingredients (a repeated organ riff, a distorted guitar, and a voice) build to the anticipation of the title is extraordinary. There’s words of the song’s second verse, where Ira sings “Let’s wake up the neighbors, Let’s turn up our amps” and then “We can play a Stones song, “Sittin’ on a Fence”/and it’ll sound pretty good/’till I forget how it ends,” are both self effacing and exuberant. The song’s last image has two people walking down the street before sunrise, not talking, just holding hands, as the distortion slowly ivy’s out. The second version, louder and faster, suggests the day is closer than ever. I like the first version better, though, so you get that.
“Deeper Into Movies” is from the band’s best know, and possibly best album, I can Hear The Heart Beating As One. It’s the perfect example of Yo La Tengo use of noise, largely atonal guitar skronking, to create a feeling of beauty and closeness.
and “The Story of Yo La Tango” off their second-most recent album, I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Kick Your Ass is 11 minutes of pure payoff. The song is one of the band’s most coherent songs, despite it’s massive length. When Ira sings “We tried with all our might,” the word’s don’t sounds apologetic, they sound triumphant.
And hey, everyone, this is my 100 post on this thing. I know I’m not mr. consistency by way of updating in a timely manner (or even when I promise I’m going to), and I know I’m CERTAINLY not mr. consistency by way of spell-checking/grammar checking my posts. But yesterday, about half of the view to this site were not from links or redirects. That means at least a few of you are actually checking the blog, without the help of the hype machine or skeemr or anything like that. As a person who spends a lot of time writing this thing, that means a lot. So thanks to anyone who’s read or commented on a post, who’s gone out and bought an album they heard a song or two from on the site, or who’s doing the same thing as me on their own site. Hopefully, at 250 posts, i’ll be rich enough to buy you all cupcakes and basset hounds in celebration.
Oh yeah, and tomorrow I both start my new job and move to Brooklyn so…probably no updates ’till this weekend.