Thursday, January 28, 2010

Music Humane Society Thursday: "Something to Remember Me By" by Ben Lee

It is quite possible that Ben Lee made a deal with the devil.  The only question is whether his one wish was to make this one truly great album or to date Claire Danes for a few years.  Better question?  Which one did he accomplish without making the deal and which was therefore the greater accomplishment?

Album: Something to Remember Me By
Artist: Ben Lee
Year of Release: 1997
For Fans of: folk rock, pop rock, and clever lyrics with plenty of pop culture and literary references.  And heart wrenching love songs that remind you how it felt as a teenager when YES, it REALLY was that important to you for reasons you can no longer recall.  For those that remember this one, you get it.  For those that don't, this one probably gets you.

In last week's excellent, life-changing year end music blog covering 2009, I wondered aloud if Dirty Projectors could ever repeat the greatness of this year's excellent Bitte Orca.  While that remains to be seen, I already have the answer for one Ben Lee.  A resounding "NO".  Like hell no.  But beneath that seemingly insulting conclusion is the absolute greatness of 1997's Something to Remember Me By.  Written and recorded between the ages of 17 and 18, Lee sounds every bit of it.  And that's OK.  Yes, the lyrics are smart, clever, literate, and at times extremely reflective for someone of his age.  But the passion, angst (but never in an annoying way), and vulnerability are all "teenaged".  The songs range from surviving heartbreak (the aptly titled "How to Survive a Broken Heart") to surviving self-loathing ("Ketchum") to surviving post adolescent stardom as a child actor (the brilliant and funny as hell "Household Name").  Lee touches on the awkward romanticism of childhood love and the beautiful feeling when you run into that person again by chance ("Eight Years Old").  Lee even touches on the origins of his relationship with Danes at the time and the feeling that this was tragically destined to end all too soon in the gorgeous "Daisy".  And "End of the World" is a hilarious and strangely touching song about what happens when you find out the world is about to blow up.

As much as I will always hold certain artists close to my heart who have proven themselves over and over again with a tremendous body of work, I have learned over the years that sometimes a great album can truly stand alone without having its greatness in any way compromised by the artist's future efforts that never quite measure up.  Such is the case with Something to Remember Me By.  Unlike almost any other great album I have where I can recall the specifics regarding how I first came to discover it, I can't for the life of me tell you how I learned of Ben Lee or this record.  It's like it just appeared in my life, my memory, my history in some mysterious yet vital fashion.  All I knew is that he and I were about the same age and he played the guitar and sang and put to music the words that I totally knew I'd sing if I had the chance or the gifts or the blood and guts to do so.  Even now at age 30, this album still affects me as some sort of audio snapshot of every feeling and urge and sense of immediacy that I felt back then and honestly don't feel now.  Those days were messy and confusing and not enough and too much.  Ben Lee got that for me.  This is the summary of that existence that lives on in perpetuity.  And of course, something to remember that "me" by.

MP3 Link: Cannot find one.  Not on iTunes, Amazon, or lala.  Ask me and I'd be happy to burn it for you.  Though you CAN listen to audio samples on Amazon here.  The CD is out of print because the original label, Grand Royal, is now defunct.  You can pay too much for a copy or you can scour used CD stores.  Or just ask me and maybe we can work something out.

Rob's Favorite Song: "Daisy" (lyrics linked)

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Manos Paradigm Shift: The Year in Music 2009

For some, the epitome of professional success is having a comic book sea creature villain version of yourself going after a hot, scantily clad girl used as the premise for the cover art to your new rock 'n' roll record.  For others, it's attaining frequent flier elite status.  This is why music rules.

So after health delays, writers block, holiday blues, a few stints in rehab, and general consternation of the concept of rankings, I am here to announce that your day has finally come.  A great deal of the reason for the delay was because of the immense difficulty I was having in "ranking" my best albums of the year.  I mean, it's important, the reason many of you get up each day, the reason I have a music blog that at least 3 people read--in other words, it's not something to be taken lightly.  But recently, I had a revelation that I shall call the "Manos Paradigm Shift".  The concept's origin can be traced to one of my best friends who initially bonded with me years ago over our love of music, our love of discussing music, trading music, and even occasionally singing modern American classics in unison like "Regulator" by Nate Dogg and Warren G.  However in the last year through a combination of circumstances, this dynamic of our friendship changed drastically.  Suddenly, she didn't want to talk about music, new albums, anything with me.  One day I asked what had happened to "us" with ideas of Platonic couples therapy in my head.  She told me that the way that I and many of my other friends now discussed music had made her sour on the whole thing.  The idea of ranking albums, bashing certain bands in that oh so High Fidelity sort of way, and generally kicking each other in the nuts over music had really turned her off to all of it.  Being confronted with all of these things and generally being forced to confront the ways in which I had taken some of the fun and greatness of music out of it by essentially trying to "quantify" my favorite art form was sobering.

Thus, the advent of the Manos Paradigm Shift.  While I could not and would not want to ever completely eliminate my freedom to bash certain bands (I mean, Owl City exists for a reason, right?) or to metaphorically kick some friends in the nuts about their taste, I do think it's important that I cut back on certain activities that rob the joy of music from both myself and friends like Ms. Manos (I spoke of this philosophical shift before if you'll remember.).  The most important change I've made is attempts to extensively "rank" my year end list.  Instead, I've taken a slightly different approach.  And it goes a little like this:

Honorable Mentioningz
My Favorite 10 Albums That Weren't My Favorite Album (in no particular order)
The Rob Album of the Year

All killer, no filler.  Same number of albums you're accustomed to without all the headache of figuring out what the real difference is between number 6 and number 5.  We understand each other?  Good.  Good.  Let's go, punks.

Honorable Mentioningz

Speech Therapy by Speech Debelle (Big Dada)

The Quick Take: In a musical landscape where so much of rap and R&B has become a cliche and a joke that isn't funny anymore, British rapper Speech Debelle's debut kinda blew me away.  With a tone similar to the brilliant Original Pirate Material by The Streets, Debelle tells hypnotic stories of finding paths through troublesome relationships, finding salvation in just "finishing this album", and accepting the inevitability of being let down by all those who aren't yourself.  There's an anger and desperation tempered by a vulnerability that transforms the listener into someone rooting hard for Speech Debelle to overcome.  A rap album that uses almost exclusively true instrumentation as opposed to excessive sampling, there's a gorgeous jazz foundation that makes it a compelling, stylish listen that easily distinguishes itself from the genre's status quo.

The Non-Rob Review: Here

Alice and Friends by The Box Elders (Goner)

The Quick Take: A truly fun, lo-fidelity/high quality, at times ridiculously lyrically clever album.  The Nebraska 3-piece isn't re-inventing garage rock, but the harmonies, hooks, and humor in this album make it worth the listen and ultimately a purchase.  And this album contains one of my favorite tracks of 2009, "Necro"--the greatest song about being in love with a dead girl you've ever heard--sweet, earnest, catchy, and funny as fuck.

The Non-Rob Review: Here

Noble Beast by Andrew Bird (Fat Possum)

The Quick Take: Listening to Andrew Bird, I'm sometimes convinced that he and The Decemberists' Colin Meloy are conducting some sort of SAT word/obscure historical reference staring contest when it comes to writing lyrics.  Andrew Bird is a wordsmith in the class of a Nick Cave or Stephen Malkmus.  He may also be simply the most talented musician working today.  With a beautiful voice and an instrumental prowess to behold (the guy makes great pop records with a violin and the ability to whistle a la Axl Rose circa "Patience").  Noble Beast is a beautiful, sweeping album whose quality shines through in its poetry, its production, and Bird's challenging lyrics and melodies.  If you're a great musician, Andrew Bird's probably greater--but he never makes you feel bad about it.

The Non-Rob Review: Here

My Favorite 10 Albums That Weren't My Favorite Album (in no particular order!)

Primary Colours by The Horrors (XL)

The Quick Take: In all the years I've listened to music, I'm not sure I can recall a band who shifted so dramatically from their first album to their second album in such a positive way.  The Horrors first album, Strange House was a campy, zombie-themed album that seemed much more concerned about pandering to the sensationalistic British music press than it did about being good.  But Primary Colours is a focused, dark, powerful, passionate album that evokes inevitable, yet somewhat accurate comparisons to the tone of Joy Division.  Gone is the spastic joke of their first album and in its place is a serious, artful collection of songs.  It is dark, to be sure.  But it's epic and British and cloudy and cold and hard to turn away from and a reminder that bands can still surprise you when you least expect it.

The Non-Rob Review: Here 

Embryonic by The Flaming Lips (Warner Bros.)

The Quick Take: Speaking of paradigm shifts...After the sonic sugar sheen of Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots and At War With the Mystics came a Flaming Lips I neither expected nor was sure I wanted in the form of Embryonic.  After hearing "Convinced of the Hex" performed live on The Colbert Report, I feared that this would be album full of distortion and noise lazily labeled as brilliant art.  But I could not have been more wrong.  What Embryonic evolved into with a complete listen and repeated listens was the sonic sketch pad of a band that simply has no peers--there is no band that sounds, thinks, or creates like this band and this album was in many ways a view into their psyche in the same way that Kid A was for Radiohead.  There may be "better" albums by this band, but this album may be the best representation of the unique musical arsenal that they and only they possess; they paint with colors unavailable at any store and that's just how it is.

The Non-Rob Review: Here

Winchester Mystery House by The Hex Dispensers (Douchemaster)

The Quick Take: Love is violent.  And bloody.  And messy.  But that doesn't mean it ain't romantic!  Austin/Denton, Texas' the Hex Dispensers get that.  And have turned it into punk rock music theatre--the sound of the Ramones only with lyrics and titles so audacious you're already kind of impressed just reading the liner notes alone.  "My love is a bat.  And your heart is a hemophiliac.  And I'm a glutton for your sugar, no I can't get enough," from "My Love is a Bat".  "Doomsday Romantic".  "I've Got My Doppelganger On".  Yeah, just trust me.  Get this album.  Fun like Ramones.  Written like a 19th century poet who will walk to hell and back and bleed for love  Sorta.

The Non-Rob Review: Here  

Years of Refusal by Morrissey (Lost Highway)

The Quick Take: "I was driving my car.  I crashed and broke my spine.  So yes there are things worse in life than never being someone's sweetie."  Lines like that are why Morrissey is Morrissey and why he has the unique ability to take the dark, dour themes of life and somehow make them inspiring in a perspective-bending manner.  Years of Refusal is a fine edition to his classic catalog and is characterized by quality from beginning to end.  With heavier guitars that harken back to the days of Your Arsenal (Damn, he knows how to title an album!), this is a Morrissey album you can really, really rock out to.  So if you need the thoughtful lyrics while still breaking shit in your apartment all by yourself because it just had to be broken because love ain't ever gonna find it's way to your doorstep and that's fine and people need to stop asking you about it because it's fine.  Fine.  Well here lies your soundtrack.

The Non-Rob Review: Here

Real Estate by Real Estate (Woodsist)

The Quick Take: Much like last year's Primary Colours by Eddy Current Suppression Ring was an album that was about primal guts, tone, and rock 'n' roll feeling, Real Estate's self-titled debut is the exact same.  Except in a completely different way.  The story here is the music, the instrumentation, the tone, more than the lyrics.  Real Estate is a band that creates hazy, dreamy little songs that evoke sunny days at the beach and just a touch of the sadness that comes with the realization that they don't last forever.  A little Shins-y, a little Walkmen-y in their janglier moments, there's just something about this album.  It was the latest addition to this list, but I listen and have as much trouble describing why I am so drawn to it as I do turning it off.  A small gem.

The Non-Rob Review: Here

Bitte Orca by Dirty Projectors (Domino)

The Quick Take:  This album was my introduction to the unique grooves of Dirty Projectors and quite possibly my introduction to an entire sound.  With variable and seemingly ill-fitting and variable time signatures, classical instruments mixed with sampling, male and female lead vocalists, and a mixture of styles that range from pop to R&B to an almost tribal aesthetic, Bitte Orca is a myriad, beautiful house of cards that feels like it could collapse at any moment under the weight of its ingredients but yet never does.  Simply one of the most unique, melodic, brilliant albums I've heard in years.  I'm not sure Dirty Projectors can ever do this again, but I look forward to them trying.

The Non-Rob Review: Here

Creaturesque by Throw Me the Statue (Secretly Canadian)

The Quick Take: In a crowded "indie-pop" field seemingly dominated by talk surrounding Animal Collective and Grizzly Bear, Throw Me the Statue's second full-length quietly shined for me.  Where Merriweather Post Pavilion is high art and Veckatimest is beautiful with moments of genius (though painfully slow and boring in parts), Creaturesque is simpler, more direct, and as hooky as indie pop gets.  Yet its layers of synth, drum machine beats, and the addictive vocals of front man Scott Reitherman never alienate the listener or fall flat.  Creaturesque is one of the sleepers of the year and more and more rewarding with each listen.

The Non-Rob Review: Here

Invisible Girl by The King Khan & BBQ Show (In the Red)

The Quick Take:  Everytime I see these two in a music video or hear them perform, I think of the greatness of The Lonely Island's "Just 2 Guyz" (We're just two guys who are having a good time, having a good time, having a good time).  Full of inside jokes, perverse references, and a complete disregard for much that's serious, Invisible Girl feels like the long overdue reunion of two buddies who happen to also be gifted performers in their own right (King Khan and the Shrines and BBQ's--aka, Mark Sultan--emerging solo career).  But past all the bits and the often sophomoric wordplay are two men who make highly entertaining rock 'n' roll music in a way that almost no one does anymore.  Sultan's voice alone has always been straight out of a time capsule and is one of the best in all of music today.  King Khan has a charm and mischievous style that often belies his passion for every note he sings or shreds on his wicked guitar.  These men want to rock you, freak you, blow your mind to smithereens.  But this is fun for them and is therefore fun for you.  It's rock 'n' roll science.

The Non-Rob Review: Here

Watch Me Fall by Jay Reatard (Matador)

The Quick Take: All that I can say about the recent passing of Jay Reatard was said in this post.  His final full-length from 2009 was a tremendous display of how far he'd come in terms of adding musical depth and how far he appeared to be going.  All the super-channeled anger, anguish, and passion are still there.  But the musical layers continue to grow and grow and you just get the feeling that Jay Reatard was on to something and figuring some other things out.  As I've stated several times, he is not for everyone.  But there's something there worth hearing and Jay Reatard would do anything to put it on tape.  If there truly is "a light that never goes out", his is an inferno that may burn quickly--but will almost certainly leave noticeable damage behind.  But probably in a good way.

The Non-Rob Review: Here

Goodbye Cruel World, Hello Crueler World by Spider Bags (Birdman)

The Quick Take: A lyrical sampling: "Anything that starts fucked up is bound to end up that way." Yeah, the title almost says it all and there's no way of getting around it and Spider Bags aren't suggesting you can or should try to.  But as humans and consumers of music we've always found ourselves inexplicably drawn to downer records when we're sad.  Why do we do it?  Who knows?  But this is the soundtrack of your world falling apart with a foundation of country distortion haze, angry acoustic guitars and equally drunken electric ones.  Some songs are bar-friendly stompers, others are evening-only, lights out quiet little masterpieces of despair begging for hope.  But beneath all this is a beauty that forces us to pay attention and ask the tough questions we only ask of ourselves when we're by ourselves.  A cruel, gorgeous, raw, unclean mess of an album.  And one I can't shake.

The Non-Rob Review: Here

The Rob Album of the Year

Tonight by Franz Ferdinand (Domino)

The Quick Take:  Why Tonight?  Why Franz Ferdinand?  I would never have predicted an album by Franz Ferdinand could ever be my favorite for a year (though I've always really liked them), yet here we are, children.  But this album represents everything I truly love and value about music.  You can rock (rawk) to it, you can dance to it.  You can laugh to it, you can cry to it.  It is artistically stylish while accessible and fun at nearly every turn.  It is recorded by talented musicians unafraid to experiment but not foolish enough to muddy the waters with unnecessary pretense.  There are added sonic layers found in this work that suggest touches of New Order, but this is undoubtedly a Franz Ferdinand record.  Based around the loose concept of the story of a single night out, it brilliantly captures the restlessness, the desperation, the hunger, the thirst of finding something in youth--anything that makes getting dressed and going out worth something already.  Front man Alex Kapranos is tired of her shit but he has got to fuck her.  He is stir crazy and needs to find the next drug, the next club, the next thing that can help him avoid having to think about whatever it is anymore.  He's tired of being told he shouldn't be alone.  He is at once fine alone, but can't help but crave those moments where love or some related magic is a possibility (note the gorgeous album closer, "Katherine Kiss Me").  The album is full of themes of regret, defiance, hedonism, anger, humor, sex, sex, and a little bit of hope that something can validate why we repeat the same practices centering around socializing at night.

The Non-Rob Review: Here

And so the lesson is concluded, Kids.  As always, I encourage and crave feedback (mostly). And if you're interested in getting any of this music or have questions about any artists and the internet alone is not enough--well I'll be here.  Loving you.  Rooting for you.  Open up those ear holes and keep fighting the good fight for good strong hard great music.

Friday, January 15, 2010

R.I.P. Jay Reatard

Always burning at both ends.

Just a quick note to acknowledge and appropriately mourn the passing of one of my favorite rock and roll musicians, Jay Reatard.  Reatard, whose real name was Jimmy Lee Linsdsey, died in his sleep at his Memphis home on Wednesday.  He was just 29.

It goes without saying (especially with a name like Jay Reatard), that his music wasn't for everyone, though it was much, much more accessible than he was given credit for at times.  Jay Reatard was angry.  Like most of his life.  But instead of allowing it to hinder him, he channeled it into some of the most impassioned, unique rock music I've ever had the pleasure of hearing.  His 2006 full length Blood Visions is a modern classic to me and a record I still listen to when I need to feel the cathartic release of a lifetime's worth of anger and insecurity.  Reatard, like much of his music, moved with a machine-gun-like pace that it may not have been realistic to believe could be maintained over a long period of time.  He had a temper, held grudges (check out his final tweet), and wasn't always a peach to perform with (his entire touring band quit on him during a recent tour, though they later made up).  But it is important to note that his music also came with machine gun like precision and an eloquence that may not be fully appreciated for several years into the future.  It is clear that he was just beginning to scrape his potential as established artists like the Pixies and Beck sought to collaborate with him.  His more recent work--most notably this past year's excellent Watch Me Fall--showed an artist whose musical and sonic capabilities and ambition were only growing. He was clearly finding a way to merge punk with power pop in a completely new and unique way and the results hint at what was coming.  Having said that, what WAS and IS left behind is pretty amazing.

Again, Jay Reatard wasn't and isn't for everyone.  And I have no doubt he'd want it that way.  But he will be missed and I'd encourage those of you in need for something different, a sound that appeals to your primal emotions for no other reason than you just sometimes have got to have it, to check out his work.  When raw power meets wreckless intellect and a guitar, you will find Jay Reatard.

"There is no sun for me."

Jay Reatard on Amazon
Jay Reatard on eMusic

*On a slightly happier note, my long overdue 2009 music recap will be posted by 5 PM tomorrow.  I can't keep denying the lovely Karen K.  What she wants, she gets.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Music Humane Society Thursday: "Cracker" by Cracker

An album called "Cracker" by a band called Cracker and no crackers to be found on the cover.  Discuss.

Well everyone, I escaped Cincinnati last night just before God unleashed His wintry vengeance of doom upon southern Ohio.  Luckily for you, I'm alive to write my first installment of Music Humane Society Thursday.  Now for those of you who don't remember, the idea behind this is to highlight "old and new, classic and unknown, that you should just get because I said so and I don't ask you for much."  For the first time out, I've decided to lean more to the "unknown" category with what I think is a long forgotten, possibly unheard of album for many of you that in the age of the internet is easy to find and download.  So if I can sweep the cobwebs out of my brain that resulted from that loud Mexican (I mention this because they sang in Spanish and I heard them talking about home) family with the baby that they allowed to freely shit in his diaper for the entire two hour flight from Cincinnati to Memphis even though we were on a small regional jet and they had little or no regard for anyone else on the plane especially those of us who just wanted to listen to their music and fall asleep peacefully but no, that fucking smelly kid just kept shitting and crying and they did nothing about it except for sing and laugh louder and suddenly my liberal principles about immigration were suddenly challenged by the smell and sound alone all while my resolve regarding whether babies should even be allowed on planes was strengthened, then I can go ahead and start.  Yeah.

Album: Cracker
Artist: Cracker
Year of Release: 1992
For Fans of: Rock with a little country mixed in, strange but clever lyrics that aren't quite as enigmatic as Pavement or early Beck but still cause you to to admire the poetry, lovers of odd but beautiful songs

Cracker is a band that almost all of you have heard but that almost all of you don't know the name of.  Their most commercially successful album was the brilliant Kerosene Hat which contained the lead single "Low" (To be with you girl, is like being low.  Hey, hey, hey, like bein' stoned!)  That may or may not jog your memory, but I have faith you can find it online.  You're smart kids.  Anyway, just as I was getting into what I refer to as my "good music phase" at the age of thirteen, Cracker was one of the first bands post-Nirvana/Seattle that I was introduced to by my best friend's older brother (who I referred to in a previous entry as the "cool older brother").  Cracker is in some ways just great rock music, but the band distinguished themselves with a little tinge of country thrown in (at the time I didn't know that rock and country co-existed) and most importantly by the SONGWRITING.  The group's frontman, Dave Lowery (formerly of Camper Van Beethoven) knew how to say clever fucking things using strange references to things I had no clue about--which for a teenager discovering new music was a huge plus.  With song titles like "Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now)", "Can I Take My Gun to Heaven?" and "Don't Fuck Me Up (With Peace and Love)", Cracker always knew how to be weird and artsy and cool--all while still ROCKING.  A random sampling of lyrics from this album alone to give you an idea of what I mean:

"On a hot desert night, the caravan stops at the oasis next to your heart..."
"What the world needs now is a new Frank Sinatra so I can get you in bed..."
"Sometimes, I wish I were Catholic.  But I don't know why..."
"Now here I am, I am the game warden of love.  'til someone took away my gin and tonic..."

So do yourself a favor and take a peek into the world of Robert at 13 (without the uncomfortable puberty and angst) and give Cracker a try.  There's rock, beautiful ballads, and just enough of that something ensures that no matter how you feel about the record, you won't forget it.  With moments of beauty and odd magic, I don't think you'll regret the warm, drunk, brainy feeling that follows.

Non iTunes MP3 link (though it's definitely on there): Amazon
Rob's Favorite Song: "Dr. Bernice"

Monday, January 4, 2010

Playlist of the Week: Airport Commuter

Since I don't get laid as much as this guy while traveling, great airport music is a must.

I can feel your collective sigh of relief as your musical guiding light returns to shine rays of ecstasy and justice all over your ass!  Since I type these revelatory words while sitting at the gate at OKC waiting for the 1230 to CVG, what better way to start off a new year's worth of playlists than with an airport commuter playlist.  Now make no mistake, I'm using the term "commute" here to refer to time spent at the gate, time spent walking between gates, etc.  Over the last year or so, I've walked dozens of miles in airports all across this great land.  And I've figured out a few things:

1.  Get to your gate!!  No matter how much or how little time you have between connections, get to your gate first.  This requires you to be both agile and attentive all while being singularly focused on navigating through a maze of elderly people, slow bastard walkers, strollers, etc.  Either way, get to your gate first, make sure your shit is taken care of, and then go have that drink or find this month's copy of US Weekly-er I mean, The Economist.

2.  The sounds of the airport SUCK.  There's nothing you can do about some of the smells (see aforementioned children in strollers), but you can drown out the deafening sounds of dozens of people talking on cell phones, gate attendants making assorted announcements, and those dicks working at the booths trying to get you to sign up for another credit card.  A great playlist can ease some of this pain and allow you to be focused on accomplishing the objective outlined in #1.

3.  Finally, you don't really want to talk to anyone in the airport unless they can give you relevant information about your flight.  Trust me, the "single serving friend" concept outlined in Fight Club can certainly ring true, but I've found you make yourself vulnerable to getting caught in a long drawn out conversation that makes you want to put a revolver to your temple.  Well guess what, Cheech?  They don't allow guns in the airport last time I checked, so put on those earphones!  People with earphones in typically look distant and off-putting and are thus typically overlooked by those targeting a random ear or shoulder to bitch on.  Music can truly be your savior.

So in that spirit of kindness and rad, here's my first of what are sure to be many airport commuter playlists.  I've got to board soon.  Leave me some feedback to read.  Even travel bitches like me need love and validation.