Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Johansson Plays the Waits-ing Game...

Singers are a dime-a-dozen: I’m aware of this. At times, usually when I’m in some sort of self-flagellating mood, I’ll watch MTV and see how low the bar is set. And I’ll know, when I see Lindsay Lohan pouring her heart out, that everyone thinks they’re a fucking singer. And, it seems like it’s mostly actresses.

Without boring you, because it really is a long list, and you know who most of them are anyway, these “singers,” and in a lot of instances, “actresses,” are so bad, so trite, so thoroughly laughable…

Scarlett Johansson decided that she was going to add herself to this immense list. But, and I don’t know if this was a strategic move on her part, HER album is a standout: A collection of Tom Waits covers called, Anywhere I Lay My Head. I’ve heard some the tracks and I find her efforts largely unnecessary. However, interest in this album is going to cancel out its quality because, and ultimately this is really all that matters, she benefits from esoteric tastes. Aside from the bulletproof source material that she’s adapted, she got Dave Sitek from TV On The Radio to produce the album and managed to wrangle David Bowie into providing some background vocals, which seems insulting. Bowie backing Johansson? Really?

Anyway, a video for “Falling Down” has surfaced.

Very “Every Rose Has Its Thorn,” don’tcha think? Maybe a little “Nothing Compares 2 U?”

“No one knows the real Scarlett.” Right.

It’s likely that anyone who spent $10 to see The Nanny Diaries isn’t going to know that Anywhere I Lay My Head owes its existence to Tom Waits. It’s even possible that “Falling Down” is being unknowingly touted as a Scarlett original. I really hope not. It would be in Scarlett’s best interest to let her public know that Tom Waits is more than just her songwriter.

I don’t know: maybe I should cut her some slack. I just can’t help but think that this album is going to add some more layers to Scarlett’s public persona. For Waits, I don’t see this earning him any fresh ears. He’s been spending most of his career avoiding commercial success, so what happens now that a commercial actress has commandeered his work?

Tom Waits has starred in a couple movies, so I guess he deserves to be treated like this.

Letters From A Tapehead

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Cambodians Don't Surf...

Dengue Fever
Venus On Earth
Released: 1.22.08

Rating: 8 out of 10

Years ago, when American and British radio was pervading the war-torn landscapes of Vietnam, Cambodia was also on the receiving end of these broadcasts. Hearing the sounds of surf and psychedelic rock n’ roll, some inspired Cambodian musicians incorporated this Western influence into their own traditional music, creating a new form of Cambodian pop.

When Pol Pot came to power in the mid-70s, the Western influence was eradicated and a lot of these musicians were killed. Luckily, some of the recordings survived.

Los Angeles sextet, Dengue Fever, rises from these ashes. Venus On Earth is their 3rd LP.

Listening to Venus On Earth, you realize that some of its credit is undeniably owed to the historic events from which this music is born. It doesn’t stray too far from an established rhythm at any time, nor does it seem to offer any fresh ideas to contemporize itself (aside from mentioning “Ambien” and “e-mail” during the he said/she said love song “Tiger Phone Card.”) Some of the music herein reminds me of what the Beastie Boys were experimenting with on the Hello Nasty record, (refresh your aural memory with “Sneakin’ Out The Hospital” and “Picture This.”) Without the great back-story, do we really have a band worth discussing?

The answer? Yes. Despite a possible over-reliance on their source material, Dengue Fever do take a well-researched risk by bringing this oppressed and obliterated music back into some kind of limelight. And they do it well. There are at least four or five songs in Venus On Earth that almost seem destined to be re-sequenced amongst a plethora of other anonymous tracks for the next Tarantino soundtrack. And, yes, that was meant as a compliment.

Beginning with the ultra-sleek, “Seeing Hands,” lead vocalist, Chhom Nimol is the Khmer-equivalent of Nancy Sinatra, exuding the same sort of sex kitten cuteness that calls for slink dresses and go-go boots, but not at the expense of her voice, which is what really draws attention. Most of the songs are sung in Khmer (Cambodian language), so the instrumentation winds up setting the tone, which ranges anywhere from sultry and laid back (“Clipped Wings”) to determined and passionate (“Laugh Track.”)

That being said, these actually wind up being the album’s highpoints as the English language tracks lack the poetry to match the music. It’s as if the group dumbs themselves down, opting for the overdubbed version of the foreign film because they hate to read movies. The aforementioned “Tiger Phone Card” for instance, pairs Nimol with guitarist, Zac Holtzman, as two long-distance lovers exchanging POV observations about their upcoming reunion. This dynamic is repeated for the “Drive My Car”-like, “Sober Driver,” where Nimol calls Holtzman for a ride ‘cause she’s had one too many. Hearing the two voices together…it’s as if someone thought David Schwimmer at his MOST whimpy and castrated could have a meaningful relationship with Sarah Conner at her MOST badass. Nimol seems the stronger of the two, the one with less drama. It’s possible that this is an attempt at modernizing the 60s gender-archetype by flipping the script on traditional roles presented in the common romance, but…I’m not buying it. I'm probably over-thinking it as it is.

Surf-tracks “Oceans Of Venus” and “Mr. Orange” change up the pace, but not till the album’s just about over, which does little to enhance the opening half.

As revival acts go, Dengue Fever has the most unique take. As opposed to the usual regurgitation of the Nuggets boxset that modern-day psych acts continually commit to tape, there’s actual history to follow in this instance and a chance to actually understand a different political climate. The problem with 60s rehashers is that they think the music only revolves around vintage instruments and paisley shirts with beads. The air back then is what made that music as powerful as it was. The Nuggets boxset, for instance, isn’t so much a collection of one-hit wonders as it is a documentation of a very turbulent era of social enlightenment and societal dismay. If you can capture that, then you capture the music. Dengue Fever seems to understand this. It’s not perfect, but at least they’re thinking.

Letters From A Tapehead

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Shopping For Records #5: Sic Alps & Rollins Band

Just a couple things I’m pretty excited about.

Sic Alps:

Last year, I offered a little ink to the wonderful, but under promoted, Sic Alps. Their album, Pleasures & Treasures, offered a very real and raw interpretation of the muddily-amped garage band; an image that has been sort of misrepresented by “garage”-labeled acts like The Strokes or The White Stripes. Very distorted, very loud and VERY close to something as primal as Fun House or White Light/White Heat. At least, this is the case in my often-misinformed opinion.

In the spirit of under-financed music of the past, Sic Alps’ Mike Donovan and Matthew Hartman seem to put out records left and right that often go out-of-print very quickly. I managed to procure myself a copy of the Semi-Streets 7,” (a white-label record that so lovingly reeks of yesteryear DIY), but found myself at a loss with the following Description of the Harbor 12” and Strawberry Guillotine 7.” Thankfully, Animal Disguise Records is putting out A Long Way Round To A Shortcut, a compilation of all their past 7s and 12s.

In addition, they’re also putting out a cassette-only release through Folding, (Donovan’s very own cassettes-only music label), and a one-sided 7” on Important Records, both of which will undoubtedly be out-of-print soon. I think it’s worth checking out.

Rollins Band:

This is a big one for me.

In a recent newsletter, Henry Rollins mentioned that he was thinking about possibly re-releasing a two-disc version of Rollins Band’s criminally underrated, Hard Volume. Originally released in 1989 on Texas Hotel Records, Hard Volume was the band’s last independent studio release before The End Of Silence broke them out to a newly-interested mass of alternayouth that were mainlining Lollapolooza and Nevermind. Broke, tired, hungry and angry as hell, Hard Volume more or less captures a struggling band at probably its most candid and, in some cases, most creative.

Presently, I own two versions of this album: The original Texas Hotel version on CD, and an import copy on vinyl. I will gladly own a third.

This seven-song firebomb received the reissue treatment in 1999, along with its amazing predecessor, Life Time, by Buddha Records. The purists however were largely unhappy with the new treatment due to the exclusion of a track from the original called, “Joy Riding With Frank.” This is a 32-minute live jam that expands on the band’s version of The Velvet Underground’s “Move Right In,” and it’s a fantastic listen. I’m not really sure what the thinking was behind the track’s removal, but it was a bad decision and the Buddha reissue consequently doesn’t do the album justice. I’m hoping, with two discs to work with, that “Joy Riding With Frank” works its way into this new version.

Otherwise, do yourselves a favor and please, please, please, add this is to your MUST HAVE list. Hard Volume deserves ears. More importantly, it deserves MUSIC FAN ears: ears that will appreciate its penchant for free jazz, heavy-as-fuck blues jams and sonic assault. Rage rarely sounds this unfiltered.

Letters From A Tapehead

Friday, April 11, 2008

Diva Says: “Checkmate…” — Carey Surpasses The King

So, I had a couple thoughts on the latest revelation that Mariah Carey, probably the figurehead for all that I hate about pop music-diva-“Far & B it from the real thing” bullshit, passed by Elvis Presley in terms of total career hits. Following this news, I saw her on a commercial with Carlos Santana where they were pitching perfume and stiletto heels and I was wishing that the American public hadn’t forgotten Glitter and hadn’t been so easily fooled. Do you all REALLY think she makes good music? Evidently, you do.

Ultimately, I think my reaction could be summed up in one small sentence: ”I hate America.”

But, while scouring the Interweb for some likeminded assault and battery with which I could violently hurl toward little Ms. “ME ME” in the hopes that she would GOOGLE her name and find my vicious and relentless rant about how fucking stupid people are for giving her lame ass a lot of undue cash and attention, I found a perspective piece by a gentleman at The Los Angeles Times. And, to be honest, it actually made me feel better. It was as if I had lit a candle at church.

But, it did get me thinking: In this day and age of posthumous marketability and nostalgic appeal, had Elvis been Biggie’d or Tupac’d, for lack of a better descriptor, I think Carey would’ve had a much more difficult time breaking his record. Don’tcha think that Carey's chart advances were aided by the fact that Presley’s output halted as soon as his heartbeat did? Obviously his catalogue’s been dissected for every greatest hits and rockabilly compilation known to mankind since ’77, but there haven’t been any ACTUAL Elvis releases, records that we could hold up as “The Final Testament From The King Of Rock N’ Roll.” And, since hip-hop has seemingly turned postmortem exploitation into a solid moneymaker, isn’t it about time Lisa Marie and Priscilla jumped on the bandwagon? I’m sure they can dig up some old B-sides that have been put out a million times before but refashion them with some new production that makes them sound like never-before-heard tracks that were just found on some anonymous shelf at Sun Studios. People fall for that shit all the time; right, George Lucas? Even Courtney Love managed to sweeten up a middle-of-the-road Nirvana greatest hits record with the inclusion of Kurt Cobain’s final piece of recorded angst and solitude. I even fell for that one.

Or, maybe the rehashed, remastered, reconceived Elvis route is too littered with potholes from being so heavily traveled. As another option, since Lisa Marie is a “rock star” (chuckle), maybe she could start a group with a “Tribute To Daddy” bent that has the connotation of familial respect. She could call it Lisa Marie & The Family. They could release meaningful, but lucrative, albums out of respect, and potential monetary gain, for The King that feature some original material with Elvis spliced in to keep his memory alive. Yeah, I like it. Album titles, album titles... No Way Out… Of Graceland, Life After Death Of The King or Presley: Resurrection. The possibilities are endless and all of them could maybe lead to more number one hits for Elvis Presley. This is the type of marketing and music industry genius that could’ve had Mariah Carey suffocating under the weight of a truckload of new and improved Elvis. Forget impersonators or velvet: THIS IS THE REBIRTH!!!!

But, then again, maybe the dead are best left to lay with dignity. Despite his drop in the charts, we can at least be thankful that Presley’s visage isn’t spray-painted on any denim jackets or car hoods, shamelessly flashed for the camera as the music by some lesser-than barely registers in the collective ear of the world at large for more than a month. Mariah Carey should maybe get some credit for her accomplishment, though I attribute most of her success to a public with no taste and no recollection of when R&B really HAD a soul. And not the same soul Santana speaks of after taking a whiff of Mariah’s perfume.

Letters From A Tapehead

Wednesday, April 09, 2008


This morning the counter read "5150." An album of the same name brought Van Hagar to a populace that didn’t deserve the abuse.

This is like totaling $6.66 at the cash register.

Letters From A Tapehead


Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Indie Daytrips to the Land of “Eh”

The Magnetic Fields
Released: 1.15.08

Rating: 5.75 out of 10

The Evening Descends
Dead Oceans
Released: 1.22.08

Rating: 6 out of 10

I know that I have a tendency to call out Indie music on the grounds that it’s by and large the product of an unevolved sect of musicians that wishes for the glory days of the 80s underground, but it’s not as if I’m given any reason to think otherwise. Granted, there were a few Indie-categorized groups last year that blew me away, but those bands succeeded in bringing their sound past the New Wave croon and passed the same twenty year old riffs that should be earning enough royalty-wise to keep The Cure’s nursing home payments up-to-date. Please, for the last time, gargle with vinegar and sandpaper, plug your guitars into rugged, fucked-up amps, stop crying at sunsets, get pissed off and start fucking shit up. Trust me: you’ll get just as much pussy being badass as you will playing weepy and sympathetic.

Which leads to me to the following observations about these two records:

I’ve been putting a lot of effort, difficult as it’s been, into having faith in new bands, Indie or otherwise. So, intrigued, I shelled out a couple bucks for The Magnetic FieldsDistortion and The Evening Descends by the Evangelicals. And, within the first minute or so of hearing both, I couldn’t help but get the feeling that I’d heard these records before, or at least felt that they more or less summed up the last twenty years of everything good or bad in terms of Indie rock. Either way, “familiar” is what I took from these listens. And there have been many.

Stephin Merritt’s Magnetic Fields benefit from a long existence, but only in terms of credibility. Distortion, their 9th album, resembles its title: murky reverb sticks to its every element, sounding more like the live recording captured by a My First Sony microphone than a professional mix. And man does it tap the Jesus and Mary Vein.

Merritt’s deep and ponderous vocals, especially in the too-slow-to-keep-from-drowning “Mr. Mistletoe” and “Old Fools,” sound preposterously old hat. Merritt has a little fun with “Too Drunk To Dream,” opening with a “compare & contrast” series of observations:

”Sober: life is a prison/Shitfaced: it is a blessing/Sober: nobody wants you/Shitfaced: they’re all undressing…”

And I have to admit that, despite my initial dislike of the track, “Zombie Boy” has grown on me considerably. You really can’t get it out of your head once it sets in.

The album’s real achievements are “California Girls” and “The Nun’s Litany,” both of which amusingly mask their somewhat subversive sentiments with cuteness. In these times of America’s obsession with rich bimbs, (The Hills, The Girls Next Door and The Real Housewives of Orange County come to mind), “California Girls” is a more than appropriate indictment of these vapid objects of our attention and a perfect counterpoint to The Beach Boys song of the same name. “The Nun’s Litany” reads like a wishlist for the unhappy virgin, unable to do all those impure and grotesque things that hold so much mystery:

”I want to be a topless waitress/I want my mother to shed one tear/I'd throw away this old sedate dress/slip into something a tad more sheer…I want to be an artists' model/An odalisque, au naturel/I should be good at spin-the-bottle/while I've still got something left to sell…”

But, overall, the music itself remains rather uninspired and regurgitated. You’ve heard it all before.

To contrast Distortion’s simplistic mud bath, The Evening Descends, an album that’s been earning some decent press in the alt circles since its January release, is of a thicker variety. While crafting itself an epic niche into its Indie pigeonhole, the Evangelicals’ hocus-opus makes every effort to showcase the talents of its perpetrators but fails to differentiate itself from its predecessors or peers. Despite its efforts, it sounds like an overdone, though competently built facsimile.

Josh Jones, a man committed to begging for cheese with his whine, should’ve called this album The Testicles Descend. His voice, a testament to what Thom Yorke might’ve sounded like as an adolescent with a nitrous habit, is so distracting it actually does his music a disservice. Not that the band has a firm grasp on what they should or shouldn’t be doing, but there are some very nice musical moments herein that can’t hold up to Jones or his sometimes corny moments of trite, spoken passion. (Note for instance his cry of “Holy Shit!” during a relatively quiet section of “How Do You Sleep?” and try not to piss your pants laughing, or the cheesy and gratuitous hospital dialogue in “Party Crashin’” where Jones emphatically declares “I don’t think he’s going to make it” like he mainlines estrogen and misses his teddy bear.)

Pushing the prog/psych envelope for all its worth, the Evangelicals fly through the swirling guitar licks, odd and abundant sampling and really sound like they’re trying too hard. Opening with the title track, an admittedly inventive piece of conceptual engagement, the band sets up the album as “thematic.” “Midnight Vignette” keeps the pace relatively interesting and then, once “Skeleton Man” hits the ears, The Evening Descends suddenly sounds like the second or third or forth coming of…whatever overwrought Indie record came before it. Never mind the fact that “Snowflakes” could’ve been lifted directly off of ANY Radiohead album, I couldn’t help feeling, despite many, many intent listens, that there were no surprises left.

However, there are a couple highpoints: “Stoned Again,” a fairly straight-ahead light rocker, pleasantly showcases some decent guitar work and utilizes its harmonic shift flawlessly toward the end. Purposely over-the-top “Bellawood,” fast and Theremin-laced, takes the context of age-old matinee horror movies and affords the band a breather from their efforts to be taken seriously. “Here In The Deadlights,” using the Flock Of Seagulls “I Ran” riff pretty well, finds Jones in a lower octave, displaying a pretty decent singing voice. Too bad that it’s so late in the game.

I know that I’m repeating myself, but can the Indie genre please branch out? It’s been either 60s Psych revivals or 80s New Wave rip-offs for the last twenty years and it’s no longer sounding fresh, deep, dramatic or original. Or, can the Indie genre grow a pair and stop with the pity party? I’d take either; scorching hot with no cream or sugar in a BIG GULP cup with the remnants of an ashtray and a shot of something alcoholically demolishing added for effect and NOTHING to take the edge off. We need a lot of edge these days.

Letters From A Tapehead

The Mon: "Doppelleben"

Acting somewhat contrary to his normal work with the doom metal colossus Ufomammut , vocalist/bassist Urlo performs as The Mon , whose new...