Tuesday, May 29, 2007

To Whom It May Interest #8:
Struggling to Understand The Smiths – Part 4: “Strangeways, Here We Come”

”I touched you at soundcheck/you had no way of knowing/in my heart I begged ‘ please, take me with you…I don’t care where you’re going...’”

To Whom It May Interest,

Tap, tap, tapping away at the keys, I’m only thinking of the word “transition.” Bands do it all the time: “transitioning” that is. A band will change their sound, incorporate classical instruments, work with Timbaland or Bono, fuel their bloodstreams with chemicals and “transition” from sober to wasted for the sake of art. Other bands, well…”transition” means “call it quits,” allowing each respective member to “transition” somewhere else in some other way.

But, before the “transition” occurs, there’s always that one final album to consider: the “Swan Song.” ”Strangeways, Here We Come” is not only The Smiths’ last chapter, but also the mark of a band that was trying to go somewhere else musically. Morrissey was still prosaically bummed out, as he should’ve been, (every band needs a distinguishing characteristic, especially when they want to try something else), but the rest of the band feels like they were trying to change what they were. It’s like they were shooting to become less of an 80s alternative, and more of an 80s rock band. When you hear a track like “I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish,” a song prominently rocking its high-end brass and plastic drum pad, you do consider the possibility.

“A Rush And A Push And The Land Is Ours” is a song I’ve probably listened to twenty times. As an opener it’s great, announcing an evolved sound that incorporates some harpsichord keyboards and xylophone, but assuring you, you diehard-SMITHS-head you, that Morrissey is sticking to his guns. Then “I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish” follows sounding more INXS than Smiths, prompting visions of Morrissey and Marr, clad in heavily-buckled leather jackets with checkered straps wrapped around the shoulders, doing George Michael two-steps in frosted jeans and Keds.

But, they weren’t going to completely abandon the characteristics with which they were so well known. “Death Of A Disco Dancer” definitely earns points in the fey category, but the bassline is tight and I really like the erratic guitar picking that Marr employs. The riff he ultimately throws in is really nice on the ears. “Girlfriend In A Coma” offers up the familiar juxtaposition of upbeat rhythms built around not-so-upbeat context and “Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before” could’ve been a B-side from The Queen Is Dead. “Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me” opens very theatrically with a piano solo and the noise of townspeople distanced in the background, then breaks into orchestrated strings, bringing back the movie element that was fairly prominent in Meat Is Murder.

So, The Smiths didn’t necessarily vacate what they’d established as “them” in terms of sound, but even within the songs mentioned above, you can hear how they were experimenting with time signatures and production.

“Unhappy Birthday” sort of makes me wish Morrissey would just get angry like the rest of us. I’d like to hear him unleash a barrage of “fuck”s and “shit”s and hear him describe in full detail what it was like to break the wrists of his enemy. Sometimes it’s okay to be legitimately pissed off and willing to beat the shit out of something or someone. I highly doubt the object of Morrissey’s lesser opinions cared that he was wished an “unhappy birthday.” Or, maybe an “unhappy birthday” is all it takes.

“Paint A Vulgar Picture” does just that in terms of record label greed. I can only imagine that record companies probably had a lot to do with why The Smiths “transitioned” in the first place, so this song is significant to the mix.

”Re-issue! Re-package! Re-package! Re-evaluate the songs/double-pack with a photograph/extra track (and a tacky badge)/A-list, playlist/’Please them, please them!’/’Please them, please them!’/(sadly, THIS was your life)”

Nothing bitter being said here at all.

“Death At One’s Elbow” brings the tempo back with some fast rockabilly before the album closes with “I Won’t Share You,” a folk track bearing the Smiths brand. These last two tracks seem to fly by.

The eternal “what if” for any music fan always involves the dead musician or the broken up band. And the question always revolves around what they could’ve done if they’d stayed alive/together. It would’ve been interesting to hear how The Smiths might’ve followed ”Strangeways”. On the other hand, their next record could’ve sucked and THEN they could’ve broken up, bumming out lots of already-depressed fans and ruining their string of otherwise successful releases. It’s a dangerous “what if.”

In the case of The Smiths, the business side of music and their prolific output definitely took its toll, causing them to “transition” in more ways than one. After a couple weeks of listening to little else though, their short but significant contribution to indie and pop music is undeniable so…any fan should find enough consolation with that. I do.

Letters From A Tapehead

P.S. — Special thanks to Chris L. for the countless discussions and the generous donation of the albums reviewed herein for this series. And thanks to everyone for reading it.

Friday, May 25, 2007

We Interrupt This Program...

...to bring you a couple things I'm really looking forward to in June.

The Beastie Boys will be releasing an all-instrumental album called, The Mix Up. Below is a video for one of the tracks featured. Smooth grooves, lots of promise. This will be out June 26th.

While we're on the topic of The Beastie Boys, Adam Yauch has produced the latest release by the mighty Bad Brains. Build A Nation is their first release in over 10 years, (since 1995's God Of Love as far as I know), and it's supposed to be somewhat of a return to their old school, hardcore roots. I heard a couple tracks and, if they're any indication, it should be an awesome album. And, like The Beastie Boys, expect this to hit the shelves on June 26th.

And last, but certainly not least, I'm most looking forward to Era Vulgaris by the incredible Queens of the Stone Age. This will be out on June 12th and I will undoubtedly be rocking the fuck out of this one all summer long.

June should be a damn good month.

Letters From A Tapehead

Sunday, May 20, 2007

To Whom It May Interest #8:
Struggling To Understand The Smiths – Part 3: The Queen Is Dead

To Whom It May Interest,

”Oh, I didn’t realize you wrote poetry/I didn’t realize you wrote such bloody awful poetry…”

The Queen Is Dead. It’s been difficult to think of anything to write about this album, mostly because there aren’t many all-encompassing adjectives that I can apply to it. It’s not a simple record to consider, though if there be one characteristic that seems to spread throughout, that would probably be “discontent.” It wouldn’t be implausible to consider that The Queen Is Dead’s unsettling nature might owe more to the band’s then-tumultuous relationship (Apparently, a label dispute and exhausting tour schedule, not to mention the significantly large amount of music the band was writing in such a short time span, was beginning to have a negative impact on the band and would eventually lead to their break-up.) and less to their often smart-assed and critical views on society and politics, despite the overtly anti-monarchal album title and opening track. Morrissey’s reference to The Queen as ”her very Lowness,” sort of speaks volumes on its own, but doesn’t really add it all up into one easily obtained sum.

This is considered to be their best album and I would probably agree. With Meat Is Murder, I largely considered Johnny Marr’s guitar work and Morrissey’s words and very little else. This album seems to showcase bassist, Andy Rourke, and drummer, Mike Joyce, a bit more, as Marr’s riffs seem better integrated into the music. It might just be something my ears are picking up, but The Smiths do feel like they’re all on the same page. Well, musically they’re on the same page. Morrissey’s harmonies are really the superstar this time around.

Really strong and determined on the album’s opener, “The Queen Is Dead,” very sophistically insulting on “Frankly, Mr. Shankly,” and somewhat typically dreary on “I Know It’s Over,” Morrissey fills emotional shoes like a method actor and knows how to build his characters. Was Morrissey really such an enemy of The Queen, or was he just playing a roll, seeing the world through imagined eyes and exploring how someone else feels? The reason I don’t believe that he speaks from his own point of view is that he writes differently for every song: sometimes with biting sarcasm, sometimes with over-wrought sorrow, sometimes with a subversive’s passion. Despite that, he always carries a brooder’s inflections, which I think is his a simultaneous strength and weakness. But, his approach is that of a New Wave-Sinatra and that really makes him standout.

To get back to the songs herein, “Frankly, Mr. Shankly” is the type of song that could dwell in the grey matter for days. It hits below the belt against upbeat notes. “I Know It’s Over” is one song I keep coming back to. Yeah, it’s a dirge but it’s the type of song that softrockers have been trying to duplicate for years and have failed miserably, mostly because it’s really good lyrically. I particularly like ”It’s so easy to laugh/It’s so easy to hate/It takes strength to be gentle and kind”. I just like its honesty. Honestly.

“Never Had No One Ever” is dramatic but sincere. Luckily it doesn’t last ”20 years, 7 months and 27 days.”

“Cemetry Gates” is a witty rant against the so-called classics. At least it seems that way. Having myself fallen victim to excessive pandering by “experts,” (I haven’t been able to appreciate any Matisse paintings because of one ass-kissing tour guide at the Philly Art Museum) I can appreciate the song’s iconoclastic and somewhat condescending attitude. ”…Keats and Yates are on your side/but you lose/because Wilde is on mine.”

“Bigmouth Strikes Again” is probably the hardest rocker in the whole album, featuring some chipmunk-high backing vocals. Apparently, the vocals belong to Morrissey; the results of a sped up harmony he had recorded previously. “The Boy With The Thorn In His Side” and “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” are both similarly constructed little ditties, both featuring acoustic guitar and mellow tempos. In between, rockabilly track, “Vicar In A Tutu,” wisely breaks them up.

If I had to pick one track that I could’ve done without, it’s “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others,” a song that not only contains one of the dumbest hooks I’ve heard, but also comes off as half-assed. A really unimaginative riff from Marr layers the simplest of bass and drum lines. There were better songs to end the album but, alas, they chose this one. Luckily, the album’s strong enough that its climax doesn’t ruin it.

Though I don’t want to take anything away from Marr’s songwriting, a lot of The Queen Is Dead owes its success to Morrissey. His words and harmonies give the album its intelligence and emotional depth, despite the band being undeniably tight. The album’s production, courtesy of Marr and Morrissey, keeps all the instrumentation even. Weirdly enough, I thought Marr’s talent and songwriting chops were better presented in Meat Is Murder, as the atmosphere stemmed more from Marr’s guitar and less from the album’s content. Really solid album. Once again, I hate that I like it.

So, The Queen Is Dead; long live The Queen.

Letters From A Tapehead

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

To Whom It May Interest #8:
Struggling to Understand The Smiths – Part 2: Meat Is Murder

To Whom It May Interest,

”We don’t need no…education…We don’t need no…thought control…”

It’s all I can think while listening to “The Headmaster Ritual,” Morrissey sorrowfully calling out the educators of Manchester as “belligerent ghouls” that “thwacks you on the knees/knees you in the groin.” Is it feasible that corporal punishment be brought back into the American school system? I know from listening to Morrissey that the Manchester headmaster seems to produce a surplus of miserable lads, but at least they’re educated. Here the kids are miserable AND stupid. So what if the kids are a little sore so long as they know something? Just a thought. Probably not what Morrissey was trying to get across but I guess I’m just being difficult.

To Morrissey’s credit, I like the line about the administrators that are “jealous of youth/same old jokes since 1902.” The guy’s got a sense of humor hiding under that dramatically blue tone.

Anyway, to listen to Meat Is Murder is to understand why guitarist Johnny Marr is so highly regarded by the indie crowd. A lot of these riffs have been recycled by a shitload of bands since this album came into being and I’m sure I’m going to hear more of that with every Smiths album I listen to. It seems fitting that Marr’s playing with Modest Mouse these days, seeing as he’s probably inadvertently written a sizable block of their best material. Pitchfork would not exist in this dojo, would it?

“Rusholme Ruffians” is the most upbeat song I’ve ever heard that involved people getting stabbed and robbed. More upbeat even than most rap songs these days, though the song is more of a tongue-in-cheek look at town-folk during those big community events. Catchy as hell. I hate that I like it.

Interestingly, this record isn’t really the depressing mess you’d expect unless you read the lyrics. “I Want The One I Can’t Have,” (obligatory pre-pubescent growing pains type stuff), and “What She Said,” (obligatory “Eleanor Rigby” meets Souxsie Soux type stuff), both carry a high tempo and rather catchy riffs. Up until this point, “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore” is the obvious downer with it’s emotionally charged repetition: ”I’ve seen this happen in other people’s lives/and now it’s happening in mine.” To keep from being a little overwrought, the song fades in and out like “Strawberry Fields Forever.”

“How Soon Is Now?” is actually one track that I’ve always SECRETLY liked. The substantial guitar whine that gives the song its distinction is certainly a draw, but I even like the vocal approach here. I can definitely listen to this track more than once, even with lyrics like ”There's a club if you'd like to go/you could meet somebody who really loves you/so you go, and you stand on your own/and you leave on your own/and you go home, and you cry/and you want to die.” This might be my favorite track on the album. Actually, it probably is.

“Nowhere Fast” sounds like a Gun Club track. I wonder if Jeffrey Lee Pierce ever borrowed anything from The Smiths. Or, vice versa. It’s poetic in its disgust with self, small town sheltering and complacency. Another great line: ”Each household appliance/Is like a new science in my town.” I can actually relate to that.

“Well I Wonder”’s rainy climax is a little dramatic, don’t you think? I understand that The Smiths pay a lot of attention to theatrics but…I think Morrissey’s perpetually bummed disposition communicates that enough by itself. At moments like this, I feel a little justified in my original opinion of The Smiths and their “whoa is me” ways. But, not completely.

Why do the songs that involve violence sound so upbeat? “Barbarism Begins At Home” is a straight up disco track about child abuse. Or, maybe excessively employed disciplinary principles. Either way, kids get hit, but you can dance to it. Maybe that’s meant to be ironic. I found it perplexing.

The most dramatic song on the album is the title track. The use of echoing cows as a precursor to this song’s obvious stance against carnivorous consumption reminds me of the distant helicopter static and gunfire that opens up Metallica’s “One.” It has this “run for your life, oh sacred and endangered cows” vibe to it that actually makes the song a little corny. The song’s not bad lyrically or musically; it unfortunately fucks up its message by being, once again, a little too dramatic. It’s a sullen closer, but it gets the job done.

I hate to say it, but Meat Is Murder is a good album. And, something I REALLY hate to admit, Morrissey actually does have an interesting point-of-view and a solid knack for poetic sarcasm and humor. But, as far as my ears can tell thus far, The Smith sound really belongs to Johnny Marr. I would attribute the band’s iconic and seminal reputation mostly to him. But, I have a couple more albums to listen to, so that conclusion may change. I guess we’ll see.

Letters From A Tapehead

Sunday, May 13, 2007

To Whom It May Interest #8:
Struggling To Understand The Smiths – Part 1: An Introduction

To Whom It May Interest,

The Smiths: consider this a big step for me…because it is.

As long as I’ve been aware of Morrissey, (most notably as long as I’ve remembered watching his lame, asexual ass posing Christ-like with his shirt blowing open in the wind to reveal a Band-Aid affixed over his fucking nipple), I’ve wished him ill. I’ve wished him very ill as a matter of fact. For me, Morrissey has lived as an example of what happens when you neuter rock music. His very being completely hikes the sack up before snipping it off with a pair of dull scissors, hence the pain that always seems to exude from his “oh so sad” exterior. Even his pompa-dou weeps.

If you’re me, your reaction is “fuck that guy!”

I will admit that this blinding hatred (okay, serious dislike) has probably led to some unfair perceptions regarding Mr. Morrissey. Most notably, I never really gave The Smiths a chance. I’ve heard some of their songs over the years and completely dismissed them as wimpy swill to spoon-feed to all the pussies in Pussyville. It’s a bitter and probably prejudiced conclusion, but there are some reasons for that. First off, a lot of this stuff at first listen really DOES sound like wimpy swill to spoon-feed to all the pussies in Pussyville. (Yeah, I know I’m refraining; shut up.) Secondly, admitting that you like The Smiths automatically requires that give up all your Sabbath and Rollins Band records. Anything loud and obnoxious that got you through every horrible part of your life and made you flip off your parents no longer belongs to you. The Clash? No. Dead Kennedys? Forget it: it’s gone–all gone–and all because you let The Smiths take up residence in your otherwise testosterone-soaked and violently furious music collection. For this alone, I didn’t want to ever, EVER, consider that I might like The Smiths. So, admittedly, I kept myself shut off from the experience.

But, after years of Smiths/Morrissey hatred, you start to question the validity of your previous assessment, especially when confronted with a rather massive legion of fans that swear The Smiths are the best thing that ever happened to music. My wife, a member of that crowd, has been preaching the Smith gospel to me for years and I never backed down. I would not be swayed. However, over the past week or so, I wondered if it would benefit me to reexamine my stance.

So, with as open a mind as I can possibly muster, risking of course the worthiness to own Damaged or Seasons In The Abyss, I am letting my ears be host to a couple Smiths records. During the week, I will be analyzing and describing the process as I struggle to realize what many seem to understand already.

Hope you enjoy.

Letters From A Tapehead

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Shopping for records #2...

To Whom It May Interest,

Yet another exciting account of records bought. Enjoy.

Amazon Purchases:

Prayer Of Death
Tee Pee Records
Released 11.14.06

There is something amazing about the song, “Silence On A Crowded Train.” When I first caught this song, I was more or less transfixed and unable to concentrate on anything else. High intensity bass line blues and wah guitar are driven into the heavens with Paz Lenchantin’s (A Perfect Circle, Zwan, Queens Of The Stone Age) violin and Guy Blakeslee’s vocals. From start to finish, Prayer Of Death, is a sonic acid soaked dream, dripping with psychedelic strings and pensive meditations about our mortality. Amazing record. Please run out and find a copy.

Various Artists
Nuggets: Original Artyfacts From The First Psychedelic Era 1965-1968
4 CD Boxed Set
Re-mastered, reassembled & re-released 9.15.98

You find that certain people painstakingly do what they can to preserve history. One such individual is Lenny Kaye who made his name as Patti Smith’s guitarist in the classic, Horses. But, before that, he was responsible for compiling a double-LP’s worth of mid-60s psychedelic hits referred to as, Nuggets: Original Artyfacts From The First Psychedelic Era 1965-1968.

Eventually, the LP fell out of print but Rhino and Lenny sought to reassemble the collection and added about three CDs worth of music to it. It’s a great collection. Featured here you’ll find Count Five, Strawberry Alarm Clock, The Amboy Dukes, The Seeds, The Blues Magoos, The 13th Floor Elevators and so much more. I haven’t even finished listening to this set yet, there’s so much music.

There’s a second Nuggets set devoted to the British Invasion and also Children of Nuggets, a set covering modern bands that span the late 70s to the mid-90s.

Gemm.com Purchase:

Beauty Pill
The Cigarette Girl From The Future
EP (Out of Print)
Released 3.01

For those that don’t know, GEMM.com is where you go to find rare music when all other music avenues have turned up zilch. It’s essentially a worldwide network on the web, frequented by dorks like us and record storeowners that may have something you’re looking for. Unfortunately, Cigarette Girl From The Future is out of print so such avenues had to be taken in order to find a copy. Even on GEMM, it was a bitch securing one. If I remember correctly, my copy was sent from some record store in Vienna, Austria, so it may not be easy to find, but you should try anyway because…well, it’s really good.

The Cigarette Girl From The Future has been sort of an obsession of mine since it arrived at work a couple months ago, mostly for the title track which is something I’ve had to listen to at least once a day. Beauty Pill is brilliant in their subtlety, sneaking in a rather heavy barrage of instruments without the listener noticing. All I hear is this wonderful clapped beat, really catchy bass line and the softly spoken vocals, echoed by a lovely female voice. In the meantime, there are also trumpets and some remarkably dissonant guitar work that kind of capitalizes on U2’s The Edge, but creates more atmosphere than he’s been able to generate since maybe War. I was also drawn to a particular lyric: ”How much strychnine was in the ecstasy you gave me an hour ago?”

The EP’s other four tracks are also worthy of mass consumption, most notably “Rideshare” and “Here Lies Rachel Wallace.” Seriously, if you can find a copy, grab it immediately. Also check out their other EP, You Are Right To Be Afraid. I still haven’t picked up the LP yet, but I’m sure I’ll acquire it soon.

Letters From A Tapehead

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Don’t cover your ears, don’t cover your eyes, don’t cover your mouth…

Friend And Foe
Barsuk Records
Released 1.23.07

Rating: 10 out of 10

Throughout one’s musical explorations, one will figure out a few things. The first thing is that your favorite bands will fuck up somewhere down the line and release a shitty album. The second is that you’ll rarely hear an album you could label as perfect: there are always a couple tracks you could do without. Lastly, if you hear a perfect album, you better tell everyone about it.

So, here I am, telling you with all certainty: Friend And Foe is a perfect album.

Portland-based trio, Menomena, have done the unthinkable and injected a much-needed dose of credibility to “alternative” music by reviving what it originally stood for: the antithesis of everything MTV and everything radio. From its brilliantly conceived and executed packaging (thank you, Craig Thompson), to its musical inventiveness and confident experimentation, Friend And Foe willingly challenges the notion that it’s all been done before. Yeah, you can hear moments throughout Friend And Foe that may recall some 60s pop and garage nuance, or maybe some vocal inflection that evokes some 80s new wave hook, but the treatment of the material is so fragmented anyway that you wind up struggling to understand where it all came from. They’ve almost taken sampling to a higher level, lifting inspiration in jigsaw-shaped bits and peppering them through every song: small sax blasts, momentary guitar riffs, glockenspiel taps…all with adept musicianship. The only all-encompassing aspects of Friend And Foe are its penchant for heavy-hitting drums and lush piano. And, even better, they can recreate this effect live.

Beginning with the upbeat fuzz-guitar of “Muscle N’ Flo,” this song introduces the band and all the instruments herein, ending the track in a flurry of piano, sax and cymbals. “The Penguin,” a track that had me mesmerized the first time I’d heard it, is a basic piano/drum/guitar jam that truly throws down, Justin Harris’s voice possibly hitting Peter Gabriel territory. The keys are hit with as much severity as the drums here, ably taking the album up a notch before calming everything down with “Wet And Rusting,” which exhibits some beautifully played piano and provides a backdrop for interesting observations like “it’s hard to take risks with a pessimist.”

“Air Aid,” another favorite, adds a different mood to the album. It’s ponderous in tone, starting off light and then evolving into a hand-clapped collage of keys, sax and bass. It’s one of the more atmospheric tracks on the album, ending in an almost slower variation on the “everybody-ho-hah, everybody-ho-hah” climactic chant. “Weird” speeds everything up with an off-kilter beat and ever-present fuzztone in the background. High-whine guitar strings follow Harris’s hook and baritone sax. The song ends with unexpected mandolin strums.

“Rotten Hell” is really the only song on the album that sounds even close to being categorically “indie.” It’s steady piano and melancholy vocalizations tug at the Death Cab heartstrings a little closely, but the song saves itself by having just enough balls behind it to not completely wimp out. “Running” comes off like an involved intermission, clocking in at a mere 1:52, but still containing enough interesting ideas to hold up with the strongest tracks on the album. Following that is the emotionally charged “My My,” providing keyboardist Brent Knopf some time behind the microphone.

“Boyscout’n” and “Evil Bee” both could’ve been album closers, the former having a whistle-fused, “all together now” hook and the latter ending in some truly epic drum work and close-to-orchestral soundscapes. “Ghostship” sort of plays like “Running,” simplistically, but interestingly, providing a bridge to the next song without coming off lightweight. “West” ends the album perfectly with a thickly bass-laden slow jam which erupts into a wonderful musical upheaval that is paused momentarily before carrying on in a minute-long piano outro.

Admittedly, I’m not sure if this review even comes close to capturing exactly how good Friend And Foe is. It’s one of those things that you’re going to have to hear for yourself, keeping in mind that your ears will pick up something new the more you listen. Undoubtedly, Friend And Foe has the potential to become an alternative classic, confidently listing itself among the long list of albums that have made a difference. It’ll get its due. I only hope that Menomena can keep it up.

Letters From A Tapehead

New Selections — Emma Ruth Rundle, Tropical Fuck Storm, Primitive Man, Private Life, Uniform, Erika Wennerstrom, Djrum, Windhand

Starting August off with some new singles. Emma Ruth Rundle:  " Darkhorse " (via Rarely Unable /  Sargent House  / YouTub...