Wednesday, October 24, 2007

“Everything Is Average Nowadays” – Killing (And Maiming) Your Indie Idols

The above title references an unintentionally average song by the Kaiser Chiefs and perfectly summarizes the following indie observations about the following indie albums:

Kaiser Chiefs
Your Truly, Angry Mob
UMVD Labels
Released: 3.27.2007

Rating: 5 out of 10



The Kaiser Chiefs, displaying their own overwrought brand of epic new wave extremism, (see Bloc Party), hit occasionally and miss more often with Yours Truly, Angry Mob. The Chiefs work capably, taking template after template and applying them to every song like a paint-by-numbers. The opening track, “Ruby,” provides a decent enough lead into the album before “Angry Mob,” trying to take it up a notch, fails to really make any impression about the so-called crowd of malcontents that are addressing themselves as if they’re anything special. “My Kind Of Guy,” which at least shows some kind of head for creative songwriting, and piano-to-rockabilly, “Learnt My Lesson Well,” both try and improve the monotony of the album but ultimately fail to supply any passion. Yours Truly, Angry Mob feels more like an exercise: a “how-to” with Brit Rock For Dummies adorning its hard-cover.

Andrew Bird
Armchair Apocrypha
Fat Possum
Released: 3.20.07

Rating 5.75 out of 10



Andrew Bird is indie’s Christopher Cross. Bird may have a leg-up in the lyrics department, but Armchair Apocrypha is the perfect candidate for soft-rock rotation that’ll keep its admirers’ ears sated as they inevitably careen with their 40s. With the inclusion of “Imitosis” and “Simple X,” Bird manages to avoid being completely dull but, for the most part, album closer, “Yawny at the Apocolypse,” says it all.

Modest Mouse
We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank
Sony
Released: 3.20.07

Rating 6.75 out of 10



Probably one of the hardest working bands in Indiebiz, Modest Mouse’s fifth album, and first with Smiths-alum Johnny Marr, We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank hits a lot of high points but suffers severely in instances where the energy wanes. The pronounced strike of “March Into The Sea” and the gloomy seasickness of “Parting With The Sensory” are engaging while filler tracks like “Fire It Up” and Duran Duran-wannabe “We’ve Got Everything” fall flat. At times sounding like students of Eno, (Talking Heads rhythm-lines and Bowie inflections), Modest Mouse have no lack of ingenuity but don’t function well when they lighten things up. “Steam Engenius” kicks ass.

Peter, Björn & John
Writer’s Block
Almost Gold
Released: 2.6.07

Rating 7 out of 10



Writer’s Block, latest album by Swedish trio, Peter, Björn & John, could very well be an ode to the whistle. Presented amongst maracas, sporadic drum machine-percussion and a singing voice that could only exist under constant nut-kicking duress, PB&J do for the whistle what E.E. Cummings did for the lowercase alphabet: they turn it into something distinct. This is most notable in their very popular single, “Young Folks,” and beat-popper “Amsterdam.” Overall, the album is catchy as hell, though it doesn’t stand up to repeat listening. I’ll admit though that I overdosed on Writer’s Block to come to that conclusion. Vocally, PB&J do prove to be over-bearing, especially with the sentimental “Paris 2004,” acoustic rut “Roll The Credits” and the somewhat annoying “Poor Cow.” It’s worth checking out just don’t overdo it.

Interpol
Our Love To Admire
Capitol
Released: 7.10.07

Rating 7.25 out of 10



There is something genuinely striking about Interpol’s Our Love To Admire, though at times it comes off like it follows a template. Though initially entranced by the somber tone of “Pioneer To The Falls,” that sort of faded when “Pace Is The Trick,” 5 songs later, seemed to carry the same structure. That’s not to say that Interpol overtly rip themselves off song after song, but there aren’t many elements that make their songs stand apart. For one, lead vocalist Paul Banks is like a singing Kevin Costner, refusing to really emote though he does turn that to his advantage at points. It is rather amusing to hear a guy be so seemingly unexcited about proposing ménage a trois like he does in “There’s No I In Threesome.” He also makes that work in “Rest My Chemistry,” probably the best song in the album. It falters however in “All Fired Up” where Banks’s refrain of ”I’ll take you on/I’ll take you on” rings with zombie-like complacency. Not buying it.

Sincerely,
Letters From A Tapehead

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Attempt #4

Morning,

Far be it from me to make excuse after excuse about my lack of posting, but fucking COMCAST is driving me nuts! Tomorrow is the day. After tomorrow, I should be able to get online and update this blog with more regularity. After gaining a little recognition, the last thing I'd want to do is lose any new fans. So, once again, please be patient. I'm working simultaneously on about 4 or 5 reviews so...it's not for lack of effort, just lack of Internet.

Sincerely,
Letters From A Tapehead

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

What’s It Worth To You?


Radiohead
In Rainbows

Released:
Download — 10.10.07
Discbox (Double LP set) — 12.3.07
CD — Possibly January 2008

Rating: 8.25 out of 10

So, what is it really worth to you?

Presenting an option to the people who desperately needed it and possibly cutting down on instances of bootlegged audio, Radiohead’s latest album, In Rainbows, was available for digital download as of October 10th. Aside from one transfer fee, the fans were able to make their own price and then enjoy the immediate gratification of an official download. In the meantime, for those that want it, a double-LP will be mailed out in early December, boasting extra tracks and a free download. The actual CD release of In Rainbows will happen in early 2008.

Since the years of the “evil” Napster, significant trends where albums are leaked onto the Internet and then virally shared have become more than commonplace. In such instances, historically speaking, release dates have been pushed up to try and dissuade temptation and record companies have released limited edition versions of CDs with free DVD extras. Any gimmick or purchase benefit that the record companies can offer will pervade the market just to ensure that money is being handed out for the purchase of their assets.

Radiohead’s latest move in these times of Internet piracy is a new one. They haven’t necessarily ensured that leaking or file-sharing won’t happen, but they have made the most fan-friendly decision I’ve seen thus far, certainly less alienating than Metallica’s self-righteous posturing when file-sharing was at its earliest incarnation with Napster. Radiohead have given their fans a potentially cheap way to get the album quickly before its actual release date, they have appealed to purists with a hankering for vinyl and then followed the usual steps for CD release. It’s a pioneer move that could possibly dictate how certain albums will be released in the future and it’s been earning a lot of headlines over the past few weeks.

I threw down some money for the download a couple days ago, figuring that I’d pay a better than average price. Keeping in mind that there were probably people out there that ONLY paid the transfer fee, I wanted to aid in the band’s faith that their public wouldn’t rob them. Not being a huge fan of downloading, it was a rather dissatisfying purchase. There’s nothing personal or worthwhile about downloading, other than quick retrieval. So, for Radiohead’s album, I followed the crowd.

In 2000 with Kid A, Radiohead gave way to the Orwellian paranoia of OK Computer and opened themselves up to the possibilities of electronically generated sounds. Since being bitten by that bug, the presence of electronic beats and effects has been a characteristic on every album they’ve put out this decade, though it’s been toned down since Kid A. With 2003’s Hail To The Thief, Radiohead returned to the instrumentation that had distinguished them in the latter half of the 90s but managed to integrate this new identity into the mix. Some critics found the combination of both elements to be unfocused, but I personally felt that the direction was a fresh turn for the group and that it managed to keep them relevant and innovative. Despite the creative strides they’ve made, Radiohead have thrived both artistically and commercially in a rather superficial marketplace, hence the anticipation that’s followed In Rainbows.

Following the product of Yorke’s own electronic fascinations, The Eraser, In Rainbows is characteristically introspective and mellow, but experiments less with modern effects. With the exception of the album’s opener, “15 Step,” Radiohead stick with conventional instruments and a “less is more” aesthetic. Not to say that the album isn’t layered or complex, but there is something remarkably minimal about their approach. Every instrument shines with a stunning clarity and isn’t weighed down by ultra-thick, symphonic consonance or multi-tracked harmonizing.

It’s clean. It’s so clean that, at points, the instruments feel cold or isolated from each other, musically clad in autonomy until the bass-line unites them. Such is the case in the aforementioned “15 Step,” where Colin Greenwood’s bass sound shifts at the 2-minute mark and thickens its presence. It’s also notable with the echoing drum and lonely guitar that introduce, “Reckoner.” But this isn’t really a criticism. On both songs, this seeming isolation allows Jonny Greenwood to shine, crafting some beautiful melodies around Phil Selway’s percussion and the prevalent bass-line.

Even though the prime elements that drive the album are so easily discernible, the band still crafts a considerable amount of atmosphere. “Bodysnatchers,” probably the most rock n’ roll song on the album, is rather simplistic but radiates with high-register hums that sort of glide behind the main attraction. Follow up, “Nude,” and acoustic guitar piece, “Faust Arp,” both feature string sections that bolster the songs’ tone or mood. Building up from a basic coupling of guitar and rhythm section, “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” evolves into a highly dissonant field of aural sound waves, Jonny Greenwood and Ed O’Brien ably fusing their guitar strings together like Lego blocks.

But, for atmosphere, the beautiful “All I Need” wins out, Yorke’s desperation enhanced by blocks of sporadic static, fuzz-synth low end and reverberating piano notes. When first listening to In Rainbows, “All I Need” was the track that grabbed my attention most of all.

“House Of Cards,” probably the weakest track of the album, plays with pea-soup fog sections of distant wails while doing very little with the song’s main elements. “Jigsaw Falling Into Place” heightens the album’s pace before “Videotape” somberly closes the album.

Whereas a lot of the hoopla circling Radiohead’s latest album owes a lot to the uniqueness of its multi-formatted release, In Rainbows still stands on its own as a solid addition to the band’s legacy. As much as experimentation and creative growth have aided them in their climb, Radiohead haven’t betrayed the sincerity and expressiveness that distinguish them from the herd. Let’s just hope that they haven’t run out of places to go, or that the rainbow ends here.

Sincerely,
Letters From A Tapehead

Monday, October 15, 2007

Letters From A Tapehead has groupies...



I'm thrilled to announce that PC Magazine has named Letters From A Tapehead one of their favorite 100 blogs for 2007.

This is quite an honor and I'm very thankful to have been recognized.

As always, thank you for reading,
Letters From A Tapehead

PS--Special thanks to Alan Henry for his nomination and generously positive write-up.

Next on the list...



I should have this up over the next couple days.

Sincerely,
Letters From A Tapehead

Trapped In The Pet Sounds


It’s difficult to reconsider the classics. Forty years after damaging the pop music paradigm, The Beach BoysPet Sounds has been dissected, bisected and trisected every which way by musicians and critics alike only so that they could all come to one conclusion:

It’s important.

Brian Wilson, after hearing The BeatlesRubber Soul, caught a whiff of change and decided that he wanted to do more than sing about surfing. So, while the rest of The Beach Boys were touring, Wilson slaved away at his piano, borrowed some ideas and musicians from Phil Specter (yeah, the weirdo that just got away with murder) and then put his group through hell while getting the notes just right. After the album’s release, it inspired The Beatles to come up with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and thus the 60s REALLY began.

Probably more remarkable than the fact that a “teenage”-friendly pop act like The Beach Boys managed to deepen their relevance is that Wilson, then 23, knew how to make a record that would matter. Cultural shifts in social consciousness and thinking were altering the perceptions of pop music and how it was represented back then. Groups that at one point had been relished with schmaltz or suffocated by their press-friendly allure were in sudden need to be taken seriously and, as a result, LPs were growing into conceptual masterpieces as opposed to DJ-ready hit collections. To The Beach Boys’ advantage, it was luck that they had a genius like Wilson to help them bridge the gap between where they were and where Pet Sounds ultimately took them. It’s the same luck that allowed The Beatles to make influential advancements as the Lennon/McCartney/Martin powerhouse took hold of the vine that would pull them out of the Beatlemania quicksand.



In terms of the album itself, the rather joyous tonality of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and the balladry of “God Only Knows” don’t necessarily coincide with the social awareness vibe of the decade. It’s interesting then that this vibe DIDN’T affect the album’s lyrical content (at least in terms of mood) and only the steps Pet Sounds took musically. It’s like The Beach Boys were trying to capture “Fun Fun Fun,” but on terms that the mind-expansion crowd could possibly relate to or “expand” with. That being the case, when Brian Wilson sings “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times,” it’s a statement that we can take to heart.

Pop groups trying to grow, commercial stars transitioning into artists. It’s not an odd concept and it’s been done time and time again as genres evolve and perceptions grow or falter. Pet Sounds is interesting though in that, as it relates today, it’s technologically ahead of its time and truly a testament to commercial viability giving way to love of music. So, let’s look at it not for the music’s sake, but for its producer, its technique and the group that put it together.

The Beach Boys and The Beatles did not have the means to replicate albums like Pet Sounds or Sgt. Pepper on stage, so the studio became an important place for them to grow artistically. As the concept of the studio has grown, ANY producer now can come up with something like Pet Sounds, though not because of any innate musical sensibility. All it takes these days is equipment, some kind of know-how and maybe an ear. Granted the use of musicians isn’t completely obsolete at this point, but the days of analog are more or less over and producers, in every quote unquote sense of the word, seem to be the music-makers these days.

As it’s come to be known throughout the last 15 to 20 years of electronic audio advancement, and the onset of digitization, it’s easy to regurgitate the same bile and splash it on the most disposable of artists. It’s how the industry stays alive, even as the tangibility of records slowly gives way to the impersonal MP3. Pop acts trying to make artistic strides, are easily led to believe in a NAME as opposed to a TECHNIQUE or QUALITY because THAT’S what makes all the difference. THAT’S what adds the air of “breaking the mold” or “expanding a sound.”

Case in point, Justin Timberlake’s work with Timbaland has brought some artistic cred to his otherwise bubblegum-stuck reputation. Granted it’s a step or two above N’Sync, but Timberlake’s move wouldn’t necessarily qualify as risky and it certainly hasn’t had any effect on his record sales. Kanye West, for all his self-admiration and crybaby outbursts, is widely considered to be top-notch despite being really only “able.” By and large, Kanye’s peers consist of wannabe beat-makers that pro-tool Casio percussion into something seemingly professional, so naturally he stands out. There’s no denying that Kanye can make a hit record, but would he be up to arranging something as complex as Pet Sounds with the ample technology available to him that wasn’t even considerable forty years ago?

And, like I said, this isn’t to say that pop music has failed over the last forty years to make an impact, or that mainstream groups haven’t put out amazing records since Pet Sounds. I’m sticking very closely to the MTV hit-machines to make my point but only because The Beach Boys probably would’ve been considered an MTV band. “Surfin’ USA” would’ve been a hit for the small screen had video television been as dominant in the 60s and the idea that something “artistic” could emerge from such a group seems ridiculous these days. Green Day sold American Idiot as this enlightening concept record, but every song I heard sounded very “Green Day” to me. They didn’t expand on their sound or try anything new aside from shifting their focus from pot to politics. R Kelly’s “Trapped In The Closet” was an embarrassingly conceived and executed bunch of bullshit that was billed as this revolutionary R&B concept, but it was the same song he puts on every album, complete with unimaginative backdrop and unnecessary storyline.

For the sake of the mainstream, I would like to hear an artist say, “It’s a new sound” and mean what they say. As much as I wreck on the mainstream, it’s important. As much as I wreck on pop music, it’s important. It’s indicative of our world. It essentially dictates how we feel and where we are. It makes us ask ourselves, “Are we going anywhere?” And if pop music is making creative advancements, then there’s a possibility that our lives are being enriched somehow and that maybe we’re thinking differently.

Brian Wilson presented ears with possibilities and imagination. Pet Sounds remains a monument to artistic growth and how social climate affects vision. That’s why it’s important and that’s why it still means something. Technology will never replace talent. Leave music to the visionaries and stop wasting our time.

Sincerely,
Letters From A Tapehead

Friday, October 12, 2007

Still On Pause (Thank You, Comcast)

Two weeks in the new digs and we still have no Internet. I'm really trying to keep Letters From A Tapehead up and running, but obviously it's been difficult to keep up without being online.

Hopefully soon. In the meantime, thanks for your patience. I'm in the middle of a good amount of reviews, so please hang in there.

Thanks and hope to be back on real soon.

Sincerely,
Letters From A Tapehead

Friday, October 05, 2007

“Everybody knows you dance like you fuck” — Vultures of Culture at the Electric Factory


Dax Riggs
Howlin’ Rain
Queens of the Stone Age
Electric Factory
Philadelphia, PA
9.29.07

After finding my way to the Electric Factory, it was narrow streets and pedestrians until I thankfully parked my car. Around every corner, excitable men with orange flags will wave you into their grasp: “SHOW PARKING! EIGHT DOLLARS!” I wound up spending ten when all was said and done, avoiding the extra gratuity suggested by the toothless crack addict that loudly waved me into my parking spot. My brother and I quickly walked a block or two and made it into the club after a thorough pat-down and a couple ink stamps were applied to the back of our hands, assuring the meathead with the flashlight upstairs that we were both legal to drink.

We were ten minutes late for the opening act, a fellow by the name of Dax Riggs. While ordering two expensive Dixie cups of inexpensive beer (Pabst, by the way), we wound up standing in an area where we had no view of the stage. A projection on the wall across from us gave us an idea of what was going on, but it was a little too obscure to make anything out. All we could hear was a guy that sounded like Mark Lanegan Part II, shooting for that Brillo-throated croon that says “I been through it, maaaaan. Me and life? Pffftttt…we’re like on the same level and shit. Hack, cough.”

The music was decent though and the crowd was really into him. In fact, the place was pretty packed for an opening act. I guess it pays to have a MYSPACE page these days.

Soon after Riggs finished his set, some incoherently loud rambling from a DJ filled the noise gap while my brother and I found higher ground from which to actually SEE the stage. It doesn’t pay to be short, and every seat was filled. So, we found an empty spot at the top of a high stairwell that offered us a decent view of the stage and figured that that was where we were going to spend the next couple hours, so long as the bouncers didn’t have a problem. The next act was Howlin’ Rain.

Now, it’s fairly often that you find a band that’s trying REAL hard to come across like some long lost gem from some bygone era. That’s their thing: they want you to think that they’re from years and years ago even though they’re twentysomething and trip heavily on their revivalist tip.

Howlin’ Rain, out of all of those bands, have REALLY been asleep for the last thirty years. Revival? Fuck no. They are the quintessential 70s arena rock act, wearing thick beards and long hair, widow’s peaks cutting significant gaps into their foreheads, plaid shirts tucked into khaki slacks. They even play their instruments like they’re from the 70s and there was zero irony. They kicked ass, too. But, that didn’t prevent us from having a field day with their appearance:

“Dude, they look like they’re all related to Jeff Daniels.”

“Do you think they’ll play ‘Kokomo’?”

“You got the Grand Funk…yeh, yeh I got the Grand Funk!”

“Allman Brothers?”

“Oh, yeh…got lots o’ that Allman Brothers! Got lots o’ Tull!”

They really threw down. One song in particular, (they really didn’t spit any titles out), rocked this sludgy riff that effected my heartbeat. They had a great time on stage and the crowd seemed to love them. The fact that they looked and sounded like a babyboomer band didn’t sway the overall approval.

Queens of the Stone Age hit the stage about fifteen minutes after Howlin’ Rain called it quits. Claps, cheers...Josh Homme picked up his guitar and immediately went into “You Think I Ain't Worth A Dollar But I Feel Like A Millionaire,” much to the slam dancing delight of the sea of heads beneath us. Cutting in with a jam version of “Feel Good Hit of the Summer,” Homme preempted his improv with “Everybody knows you dance like you fuck, dance like you fuck, dance like you fuck...” and, at one point, asked for audience participation.

“Nicotine, valium, vicotin, marijuana, ecstacy and alcohol…SEX IN THE PARKING LOT!”

The crowd roared. They would continue to do that well into the set.

The Era Vulgaris material was the focal point of the show, but they didn’t shy away from playing some oldies and even threw in some unexpected material. The underplayed “Do It Again” from Songs For The Deaf made an excellent appearance, as well as Mark Lanegan beauty “In The Fade,” a song I never thought I’d get to hear live.

Without really taking into consideration that the crowd might have A.D.D., Homme didn’t spare any jam or extended song sequences. “Walkin’ On The Sidewalks,” from the first Queens album, came with the long ending and “You Can’t Quit Me, Baby” was jammed heavily, winding up one of the show’s biggest and longest highlights. It was incredible to hear and see live. Also ranking high in the jam category was “The Fun Machine Took A Shit And Died,” hilariously epic and infectiously catchy.

The big favorites of the night were “Little Sister,” “Monsters In The Parasol,” and “Sick, Sick, Sick” and “3’s & 7’s” from the new album. The encores, “Burn The Witch” and an ultra-fast version of “Songs For The Dead” closed the show on a buzzing as many aural frequencies were shed that evening. I felt like I was speaking under water by the time we emerged from the venue, but what a show. QOTSA had a blast up there and the crowd had a great time. My head didn’t stop moving the entire set.

I was home by around midnight, buzz buzz buzzing away well into the next morning.

The next day, I noticed someone had hit my car. Chances are, the crack addled traffic controller directed a car right into mine.

Just say “no,” kids. Just say “no.”

Sincerely,
Letters From A Tapehead

Monday, October 01, 2007

On Pause...

Morning,

As of yesterday evening, I'm completely moved into my home. Unfortunately, I'm without internet access for the next week or so, IF everything goes according to plan. In the meantime, I'm hoping that I can get some updating done through my work access. Otherwise, it's going to be a little bit before I can update regularly.

So, be patient and I'll be back soon.

Sincerely,
Letters From A Tapehead

Notes from the Record Room: Bring on the Kill Taker

I was in Ocean City, New Jersey with a friend, sitting outside on a deck with a boombox resting between us. It was 1993. On this particu...