Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Gene And Dean Seen Between…

La Cucaracha
Released 10.23.07

Rating: 6.75 out of 10

Philistines, it’s as if I’m one of you.

It pains me to scribe words of discontent regarding a band that has been cited more than once as “genius,” especially since I finally get it. I’ll admit it: Ween’s bus was one that I avoided many, many times. And why? “Push The Little Daisies” put me off my food. I was probably fifteen or sixteen when that rather unpleasant little ditty broke through into then alterna-heavy MTV and it wasn’t something I wanted any part of. Consequently, I missed out on Chocolate And Cheese, The Mollusk, White Pepper…eee tee see. And now after taking a month or so to absorb the back catalog, I see the error of my ways and admit that I should’ve been a little more open to what they were doing. However, it’s too bad that La Cucaracha, Ween’s latest foray into cross-genre copycatting, is almost making me revert to past opinions. This time of course, I’m better informed.

It’s not that the album itself is bad. It just feels remarkably uneven and not as inspired as past efforts. The craftsmanship with which Ween have built their overwhelmingly creative catalog makes some very bold attempts at rising to the surface within the grooves of La Cucaracha, but its inconsistency makes the record feel like it just is…and that that’s all there is to it.

With opening instrumental, “Fiesta,” one gains a sense of relief that goofball antics will be abound and driven by the craziest of the crazy and the weirdest of the weird in terms of music-scaped varieties of shapes, colors and sizes. Saxophonist David Sanborn, best known for his association within the smooth jazz circles of headphone atrocity, sounds like he’s having a blast here and he probably is. When the smooth guitar picking and abrupt synth effects of “Blue Balloon” kick in, the album feels like it’ll hit past creative heights or even surpass them. And then the Cher-iffic “Friends” enters the line-up and it’s hit or miss from that point on.

I get irony and I figure “Friends” is present only as a techno-hyuk hyuk, but it feels like a lazy joke. This isn’t the first time the brothers Ween have voyaged into dance/techno/industrial hodge-podges, (The Mollusk’s “Jonny On The Spot” comes to mind), but they’ve done so with a seeming awareness of how far they could go with being goofy as fuck. Lyrically, it’s just too humorless to fully carry out its likely intention of garnering a few chuckles.

One of the more stand-out, and disturbing, tracks on La Cucaracha is “Object,” which is sort of a Canned Heat meets James Taylor testimony from what might be either a serial killer or a sicko with a homicidally-charged penchant for displaying his affections. Mood-wise it’s topnotch and spectacularly cold. It’s definitely the album’s masterpiece and the yardstick by which all other songs wind up based, which is also where the album falls short.

From here we have the catchy and well-meaning “Learnin’ To Love” and “My Own Bare Hands” which only exists to score the record a Parental Advisory. I did enjoy the line about ”She’s gonna be my cock professah/studyin’ my dick!/she’s gonna get a master’s degree in fuckin’ me!” That made me laugh like the juvenile I am, or pretend to be.

Reggae track, “The Fruit Man,” fails to inspire, as does “Spirit Walker” which also ventures into Cher territory with the wiggling robot effect applied to the vocal. The midway duck chants don’t do much to improve it.

“Shamemaker” breaks up the monotony of the previous tracks with its purposeful silliness and ample snot while “Sweetheart In The Summer” adds a check mark in the plus column. Philly cellist, Larry Gold, provides some beautifully arranged strings over this well-executed soft rocker that showcases some nice guitar work and a genuine vocal a la Dean Ween. Even overly sentimental “Lullaby” works well to convey the talents of the band, though the track itself is sort of a throwaway.

“Woman And Man” combines arena rock savvy with jam-based cock rockiness, providing eleven minutes of much needed rock powah to preemptively close the album. Final track, “Your Party,” boldly goes smooth jazz, stressing that quintessential clean sax and muted guitar riff that typically announces “parent friendly.”

As I said before, the album itself isn’t bad, but it seems beneath Ween. With the addition of some unnecessary tracks, Gene, Dean and producer, Rollins Band alumni and Ween compatriot, Andrew Weiss, miss the mark. The things they do well, they do REALLY well, but that only attracts more attention to their missteps. It seems that when anyone else does something decent, it’s okay. But, decency didn’t get Ween anywhere and La Cucaracha proves it.

Letters From A Tapehead

Monday, December 24, 2007

Baby's First Mixtape — Part 2

So, the finishing touches are such:

Radiohead – “Backdrifts (Honeymoon Is Over)”
From Hail To The Thief. Aside from the fact that this is just a very pretty piece of music, it’s fitting that the track is subtitled, "Honeymoon Is Over.”

The Beatles – “Blackbird”
I always considered this song to be more of a lullaby than anything else. It seems fitting.

Talking Heads – “Stay Up Late”
David Byrne's little ditty about keeping the cute little baby "up all night" isn't necessarily conducive to what I see as the perfect situation, which would probably involve a baby that sleeps more than I do. But, seeing as my wife and I are going to be up 5 times a night for months, awoken from dead sleep by loud cries of "change my diaper" or "feed me," we may as well try and convince ourselves that “yeah, we WANT this kid to be awake all the time.”

The Monkees – “Porpoise Song (Theme From Head)”
The Monkees were my first favorite band, my first concert experience and the first subject of my then budding record obsession. Seeing as the "pre-fab four" were essentially my gateway drug into this life of record fixation, "Porpoise Song," probably the best song The Monkees ever sung, is my most personal contribution.

The Beach Boys - Wouldn't It Be Nice?
More of a song about the parents, but it's joyful, pleasant and beautifully sung.

Johnny Cash - Before My Time
It's not that I want to exhaust all the possibilities of the world before the baby's had a chance to even make a decision, but I do think it's sort of important to have perspective. Johnny Cash wonderfully illustrates that, despite your world beginning with you, the world’s been here for a long time. All its treasures are awaiting you when you arrive.

Letters From A Tapehead

Friday, December 21, 2007

Happy Birthday, Frank

“Rock journalism is people who can't write interviewing people who can't talk for people who can't read.”

You would have been 67 today. Despite what you thought about those that write ABOUT music as opposed to WRITING music, you are part of the reason that I am as passionate as I am about music. The first time I heard Joe's Garage, it was for me an epiphany of the most epic proportions, altering my narrow perception of things and allowing me to find those lines that I'm supposed to read between.

Thanks for blowing minds, namely mine.

Letters From A Tapehead

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Om's Holy Mountain...

Southern Lord
Released 10.2.07

Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Some people take their meditation really fucking seriously.

As the rhythm section for stoner metal band, Sleep, bassist Al Cisneros and drummer Chris Hakius updated Sabbath, providing their own take on the Ward/Butler juggernaut and bringing an air of “huh, wha…?” back into sludgy rock n’ roll. You can hear it within the first five seconds of Sleep’s Holy Mountain, that drowsy blues riff that starts off “Dragonaut.” The influence is evident, as is the scent of the secondhand air swirling around that studio.

As Om, Cisneros and Hakius’s entrancing bass/drum combo, they take the simplest and most repetitious song structures and turn them into these highly evolved and lengthy sound odysseys that simultaneously crush you underneath swells of thick bass and cymbal accentuation while setting you mentally adrift. Quite a feat. Think of it as Gregorian bass chant for Coltrane fans.

Pilgrimage, Om’s third LP, (and their most generous with 4 tracks, though one is a reprise), manages to be their most diverse though cleanest record. When I say clean, I mean that the distortion crawls through less murk to reach your eardrums. With 2006’s Conference of the Birds, especially with opener, “At Giza,” atmosphere was the main device. It didn’t quite eclipse the music, but the album itself had this feeling of a blue dawn or an isolated plain, which I found compelling. But hearing Pilgrimage, well-known iconoclast engineer Steve Albini’s focus on crunch and lessening of reverberating air, one can appreciate the weight with which Om throws down, even if it is for 11 minutes at a time.

With the title track, Cisneros reaches tribal proportions while he solemnly whispers his flatline vocal and fingerpicks something Middle Eastern, exploring a more refined and rhythmic sound. This track is the album’s bookend, with the reprise closing it off.

The chapters within are the tracks “Unitive Knowledge of the Godhead” and “Bhima’s Theme,” both of which kick the coma out of your system. “Unitive Knowledge of the Godhead,” being the shorter of the two, is sludgy and loud its entire length, while “Bhima’s Theme,” sort of a longer variation on “Godhead,” fades into a midway chant before the distortion comes back with a vengeance.

This band fascinates me. With only the most barebones of concepts, and very little as far as actual song variation, bridge or time signature, (not even choruses really), Om express a certain spirituality and manage to engage their audience when it would be so easy to alienate them. This is not an easy sell. To an extent, Om may even require a certain amount of fortitude to really get into, but they seem to be pulling it off. It’s either the music’s good, or they just really know how to induce a waking coma.

Letters From A Tapehead

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Pagan Hippie With A Borrowed Guitar

Iron & Wine
The Shepherd's Dog
Sub Pop
Released 9.25.07

Rating: 8.25 out of 10

So, here was the conversation I had with my wife toward the end of a drive one evening, probably after hitting a restaurant. As I was parking, “Pagan Angel and a Borrowed Car,” the first song from Iron & Wine’s The Shepherd’s Dog, was randomly selected by my iPod. Curious, my wife inquired, “Umm…who’s this?”

“Iron & Wine.”

Shocked. “You’re listening to a Garden State band>?”

It’s true. Zach Braff, if you’re reading this, I hope you realize that The Shins weren’t the only casualties involved in your little independent advert/film. Yes, my wife, the one that usually nails me for crimes of shameless snobbery as I keep my nose firmly stuck in the air when it comes to all things music, yes, she was suddenly flipping the script and acting the snob. And, I really couldn’t say anything. In fact, I was almost offended, asking myself, “Is this really what I sound like when I talk music?”

That aside, neo-hippie folkster Sam Beam appeals to Zach Braff and I guess he appeals to me, too. The Shepherd’s Dog is pretty, unlike that fucked-up looking Excorcist mutt that’s crudely splattered on the album’s face, (which is just false advertising,) and very keenly aware of how pretty it is. This being Beam’s first real recorded foray into the group dynamic, Beam’s presence is never lost in the rich and layered music behind him. Iron & Wine is all about Beam’s lush guitar work and that gentle voice of his. And let’s not forget his cast of characters that include boys with coins, men with pristine veneers and birds (ironic, but symbolic) that can’t fly.

Honestly, Iron & Wine is too harsh a name. How ‘bout Gladiolas & Wheat Beer?

Throwback personified, Beam is a folk-based storyteller. His almost Dylan-esque gift for prose is captivating in that it feels like streams of consciousness. You’re never quite sure about what’s going on in a lot of the songs but the imagery is vivid enough that it’s excusable: ”Every morning there were planes, the shiny blades, of pagan angels in our father’s sky/Every evening I would watch her hold the pillow tight against her hollows, her unholy child.” No, I don’t necessarily know what it means, but I like how it flows. Besides, in an altered state, maybe I’d get it.

The album itself is heavily woven with slide guitar and bongo percussion. Other elements poke through the folk afghan as well: saloon-styled piano, sitar and banjo to name a few. The aforementioned “Pagan Angel And A Borrowed Guitar” opens the album up, perfectly summarizing the country/folk/psychedelia that’s explored herein and allows the tempo to slow up a bit for “White Tooth Man,” which further expands on the more psychedelic aspects of the album.

With sometimes light and fluffy (“Lovesong of the Buzzard”) compositions going into the altogether atmospheric and maybe sad (“Carousel,” “House By The Sea”), Beam takes a cue from David Essex (“Rock On”) and dub reggae maestros for “Wolves (The Shepherd’s Dog).” One of the more exploratory, yet simplistic, tracks on the album, Beam manages to adjust his stilo enough to incorporate Jamaican rhythms and dub effects, but maintains the prevalent elements in his sound. As far as adaptability, it’s smooth. It took me a while to realize that this song was a reggae track, as it blended so well with everything else Beam pulled together.

Album single, “Boy With A Coin,” is an earnest and captivating track. Taking a break from the album’s reliance on bongo percussion, Beam switches to claps and (possibly?) hand drum, layering a wonderful acoustic sound on lightly distorted electric strings. It’s one of the more accessible songs on the album, but also one of the more heartfelt.

“The Devil Never Sleeps” is one of the few instances where the tempo is sped up and the piano plays more of a roll in the songs development. In relation to everything else, Beam’s declarative ”Everybody bitchin’ there’s nothin’ on the radio” doesn’t do much to heighten the album’s mood. In fact, this song sticks out like a sore thumb, not really exhibiting the genre jigsaw skill that Beam employed with ”Wolves”

Otherwise, Iron & Wine’s The Shepherd’s Dog is told like quintessential folklore, based in 60s era folk, but modernized. It doesn’t feel old, but it borrows a lot from blues masters, Dylan-era beat acoustic musings and psychedelic noise-ology (invented a term for lack of better one came to mind.) Beam has a distinctive and genuine voice and The Shepherd’s Dog has basically turned Iron & Wine into a certifiable band…Excorcist mutt and all.

Letters From A Tapehead

Wednesday, December 12, 2007


Sometimes our actions overshadow our accomplishments. Hard lesson to learn.

Letters From A Tapehead

Reunited/Led Zep & Wu/World Excited...?

Life gets in the way of music sometimes, so forgive me for being a little late with a review. I'm working on a couple as I type this out, but have yet to finish them up so, in the meantime, I thought maybe I'd throw out some possible points of interest:

As has been well-publicized since it's happening Monday night, an incarnation of Led Zeppelin (the late and legendary John Bonham's son, Jason, filling drum duties) performed Monday night at a tribute show for Ahmet Ertegun, the late and great co-founder of Atlantic Records. I'm hoping that, despite an overall positive consensus regarding Zep's show, this doesn't turn into a tour. I'm sure that Jimmy Page would be all about it, seeing as his contract with the devil expired once Zep took a powder, but a reunion of this magnitude would only really say one thing: Yeah, we're Led Zeppelin! Get out'cho Led wallets and throw up some o' that Led monay and watch us get the Led owwwt! And, though I'm sure Jason did a great job, there's really no Zeppelin without John Bonham. Page provided precision, but Bonham delivered the power.

Fortunately, a reunion doesn't seem too likely: Robert Plant committed to touring with Alison Krauss in support of their collaborative effort, Raising Sand.

And then Wu-Tang Clan's, The 8 Diagrams, hit record store shelves yesterday. It's the first album they've released since Ol' Dirty Bastard bit the dust, despite the fact that he was almost completely missing from their last two albums. The RZA is returning to his proper roll as group producer and this has apparently caused ANOTHER rift within the Clan in terms of creative freedom. It was never certain that the magic was going to last and this could possibly be their last hurrah. Hopefully, if it is the Clan's "Swan Song," it's a decent release. Gotta love that awful fucking cover.

And while we're on the topic of hip-hop, Baltimore-based Food For Animals just released their first LP, Belly, on December 6th. For a couple samples, just click the links:

"Swampy (Summer Jam)"


Reviews coming up soon.

Letters From A Tapehead

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

“Tis The Season, or What I Would Pick Up If I Had A Little More Loot...

What would you like wrapped up in a box and stuck under a tree?

I like to sometimes entertain the notion that I might just sneak by and shell out some dough on something for me, in a strictly hypothetical sense of course. December being the month of giving and all that shit, I’ve been scouring the web in search of goodies. Music goodies. Might be a few things here to consider:

Miles Davis
The Complete On The Corner Sessions
6 CD Boxed Set
Released 9.25.07

Okay, before I say anything else, let me warn you about two things:

1). They want an obscene amount of money for this 6 CD set, as high as $140 through some stores, which is criminal. Just about every Davis box set that Epic/Legacy has released up until this point has ranged from $35 to $40, so if you want it, try and find an alternative to mainstream music sources. I did see that someone had this set available for $55 on EBAY and that’s the best price I’ve seen thus far. Otherwise, used or discounted copies are going for about $80 to $110.

2). If you’re unfamiliar with Davis’s fusion era, you may want to acquaint yourself with the actual albums before you delve into this monster. On The Corner was, for its time, shocking and offensive to Davis fans and critics alike and just about ruined his reputation. To hear the sessions that led to what wound up on the controversial On The Corner is going to require some preparation, even for seasoned Davis aficionados.

This set also features unreleased material from the Big Fun and Get Up With It recording sessions. Get Up With It is one of my all time favorite records, so for that, I’m looking to get a copy. But, not for $140. Ridiculous.

Queens of the Stone Age
Era Vulgaris
Limited Edition 3-10” LP Boxed Set
Released 12.4.07

A triple 10” LP presented for you Queens-heads in a gatefold sleeve. Not quite Public Image Ltd. style, but pretty close and definitely more affordable.

If you liked this album, this may be an interesting way to enjoy it. Plus, there is a rather grand novelty factor to go along with such an oddly conceived format. If you’re going to pick it up though, you better get cracking. It was released yesterday and it’s already disappearing.

Joy Division
Joy Division: Box Set
Limited Edition 4 LP Boxed Set
Released 9.18.07

Yeah, it’s pricey, but it may be worthwhile for SOME of you to get your mittens around these vinyl reissues of Unknown Pleasures, Closer and Still. Rhino usually does a great job of restoring, packing and putting ‘em out there for public consumption. I’ve seen these at record stores, so you can buy them separately.

Or, pick up the CDs: Double-disc 30th anniversary editions of all three albums were put out as well.

Letters From A Tapehead

New Selections — DEAFKIDS, Marisa Anderson, Circuit des Yeux, Moaning, Here Lies Man

Some new and not-so-new selections for June.  DEAFKIDS: " Espiral da Loucura " (via Rarely Unable /  Bandcamp ) Via Ra...