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Archive for April, 2008

SOUNDTRACK: VAMPIRE WEEKEND-Vampire Weekend (2008).

There’s some hype surrounding this record. And of course, I wouldn’t have heard about it without the hype. But I have to say this is my favorite record in a long, long time. It has everything! It’s got really tight, fun catchy songs…some as short as 2 minutes. It has wonderfully pretentious lyrics, and outrageous instruments, like the mellotron and harpsichord. And yet somehow, it manages to avoid all manner of pretension. Rather, it’s just catchy as all get out.

I can’t even pick a favorite song, as they are all great in their own way. I’ve heard that this album is compared to Paul Simon and that it’s being described as AfroPop. I only see the Simon comparison on one song, and I’m not sure what AfroPop is exactly, so I can’t address that. But I will say that it reminds me of many different genres as the record speeds by. There’s even a retro ska feel to a couple of songs, and I do loves me some ska! No song overstays its welcome, and it all seems so effortless and joyful. I finally got to listen to it in the car on a warm night and it was absolutely perfect.

Yet despite all the simplicity and brevity, the album has a lot going on underneath it. The rhythms are fairly complex, the basslines are fantastic–not show offy, just busy–and yet they perfectly propel the songs along. And, since I love smart lyrics, I love these guys for their great couplets. The songs are smart, without being cute and even though they do boil down to basic love/lost love themes, the words within are original and wonderful.

I absolutely love this album.

[READ: April 10, 2008] The Lunatic at Large

This book is from 1899 and was reissued by McSweeney’s in 2007. I bought this book without knowing…anything about it. I’d certainly never heard of it before. I had put it aside with low expectations.

The introduction indicated that this book is a missing link between the humor of Oscar Wilde and P.G. Wodehouse. That was a promising idea, and I’m delighted to say that it is quite true.

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I noticed that as of right now my number of views is 7,344…and that’s Numberwang!

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SOUNDTRACK: NEIL YOUNG-Chrome Dreams II (2007).

I reviewed some live Neil Young releases a little while back, and now I’ve come to this, Neil’s latest release. Since he stopped making his grunge records in the nineties, he’s been releasing a lot of records that are more mellow (aside from Living with War which was clearly a cathartic outburst for him). Silver and Gold (2000) is a very pretty collection of songs, and Greendale (2003) is a fun, meandering story with some rather good songs on it. So, Chrome Dreams II is a really nice change of pace for the man of so many genres.

There’s some back story about why it’s called Chrome Dreams II, and you can read about it here if you want. But I just want to talk about the songs. The record starts off with another fantastic country-tinged ballad “Beautiful Bluebird” as heartwarming a song as Neil writes. But it’s really song three that is the standout track. At over 18 minutes long, “Ordinary People” is a weird piece of music for Neil. It’s a very simple song: verse, chorus, bridge, solos. It rocks pretty hard, almost like the grunge days of yore, but the horns make it seem less grungey and more classic rocky. The verses are little slices of life, the chorus is about how the folks in the choruses are all ordinary people, and the bridge moves to the solos. What is pretty impressive about the song is that it never gets tedious, even for 18 minutes. The solos are pretty interesting, and they get more frenetic as the song goes on, but there’s also solos from the horn section (yup, the song has horns, too). My favorite part of the song is the seemingly tossed off feeling of it. The backing vocals don’t really keep up with the lead vocals, sometimes they’re lazily behind, there’s even some improvs from them. It just sounds like they’re having a lot of fun. And that’s good. Normally I like my 18 minute songs to have multiple parts and time changes, but this one manages to pass by on charm.

The rest of the album contains a mix of pretty ballads and unusual rockers. “Shining Light” is another strong ballad that hearkens back to the seventies for me. And then there’s “Dirty Old Man,” a totally silly song about being, well, a dirty old man. It rocks pretty hard in the way many of Neil’s classic songs do. The album then winds down with a 14 minute song that’s not quite a thrilling as “Ordinary People,” as it’s a lot more soloing. The album ends with a pretty song sung with what seems like a children’s choir, “The Way,” which is cute and never descends into mawkishness.

It’s an album that’s all over the place, and yet those differences really make the set versatile and interesting. It’s a really enjoyable collection. It seems that with every new release, people always talk about how Neil is washed up. It must be hard to live up to the glory days of the classic period. And yet, I find his newer releases to be very enjoyable, too. I can’t help but wonder, if you’re Neil Young, you pretty much have to recognize that your all time classic songs are behind you. I mean, he has songs that people still love that are over 30 years old. So, it’s probably okay to sit on your laurels a bit. He still turns out good solid records every couple of years. So, is it possible he’s saving up another “Like a Hurricane” or “Ohio?” I was delighted with the passionate outpouring of Living with War, and am delighted with Chrome Dreams II. I just can’t help but wonder if it’s even possible to write a song now that lasts 30 years.

[READ: March 14, 2008] The Book of General Ignorance

Why is it that UK covers (the one on the right at the top of the post) are so much more interesting than US covers?

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SOUNDTRACK: TEENAGE FANCLUB-Bandwagonesque (1991).

In honor of this post about an author I went to college with (go class of ’91) I’m going to mention this album from ’91.  According to the movie, 1991 was the year that punk broke.  And, with all of the grungey/alternative bands that got onto major labels at the time, you;d think it was true.  Or, you can read it like it was the year that punk broke, meaning fell apart, which may not be far from the truth either.

But enough of that.  This album was the breakthrough for Teenage Fanclub who then went on to release several even better records that nobody bought. This record has a great hit call “The Concept.”  It had a great chorus, fabulous harmony vocals and a seering guitar solo.  And that actually sums up much of Teenage Fanclub.  They knew how to write some great songs.  Their later records all grew increasingly poppy, but they always maintained an alternative edge.  In fact, you really can’t go wrong with any Teenage Fanclub record.  This one always holds aplace in my heart though, as the one I first heard.  “What You Do to Me” will stay in your head for decades (as it has done in mine!)

In Spin magazine, readers voted Bandwagonesque album of the year, beating out Nirvana’s Nevermind.   I guess they never got the memo about that though, as DGC dropped them pretty much right after the record was released.  Oops.

[READ: March 2008] Fresh Kills

The opening sentence of this story was, for me, not auspicious. It starts with a gun and a naked woman. Uh oh, I thought, another “hard boiled crime story.” But after the setting and plot premise had been established, this story showed really impressive depth. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: JOSE GONZALEZ-In Our Nature (2007).

I first heard Jose Gonzalez, as pretty much everyone did, in the Sony commercial. The one where thousands of superballs are dropped down a San Francisco street to the accompaniment of Gonzalez’ “Heartbeats”. It was a beautiful piece of video. And the song was really perfectly suited. A mellow ballad, which happened to be a cover of a song by a band called The Knife.

The rest of the album was similar: soft, beautifully played acoustic songs, hushed vocals, just very pretty.

Gonzales’ follow up doesn’t mess with the formula too much. He adds another player or two, to include some harmonies, and he does another cover (Cocteau Twins’ “Teardrops”) but overall the feeling is much the same. The Cocteau Twins cover is interesting for me because I have mentioned another Cocteau Twins cover in a review (by the Deftones) and this is yet another take on what I always assumed was an uncoverable band. This version strips the song down to its bare essentials but keeps the gorgeous melody intact. It’s quite striking.

There’s nothing especially fancy about Gonzalez’ guitar playing…he’s not trying to wow anyone with his virtuosity, which is nice. However, he is a very accomplished classical guitarist. He uses the classical techniques in his pop songs, and he tends to play certain notes harder than others bringing a natural percussion to his otherwise mellow fingerpicking. So, while I say there’s nothing fancy about his playing, it is still quite beautiful. His voice hasn’t changed either, it still retains that peaceful, serene feeling.

It’s funny then to read the words to his songs many of which come across as protest songs. Not about anything in particular but about human nature, and the animals that we can often be. The record is a really string collection of songs. It’s also quite short, about 35 minutes, which also seems fitting somehow: get in, say what you want, and get out.

Of the two records, I prefer the first one, possibly because I know it better, but I think it’s because in the follow up, the extra players detract somewhat from Gonzalez’ singular nature. Not that they do great harm, and surely he needs to evolve his sound, but I feel like with the addition of others, something is lost. Despite that, this one easily gets a 4.5 out of 5 where as Veneer got a 5 out of 5.

[READ: March 2008]: McSweeney’s #26

This was a great “issue.” I enjoyed all three parts of it. (more…)

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born.jpgSOUNDTRACK: LOUDON WAINWRIGHT III-Career Moves (1993).

I first discovered Loudon Wainwright III through the great short-lived TV series Undeclared. Wainwright was the main character’s dad, an unlikable lout who, over the course of the show, became a really funny, interesting character.

Wainwright has become something of a staple in the Judd Apatow world, and he did the soundtrack for Apatow and Seth Rogen’s film, Knocked Up. And, as synchronicty happens, I thought I’d check out his music as well. I’ve gotten some records from various points in his career. This live collection, Career Moves, is a definite highlight. Wainwright writes poignant songs that are often, inexplicably, funny. He’s not a “funny” songwriter or a “novelty” singer (although his first big hit “Dead Skunk” is pretty close) but he writes in a wry tone that often brings a really funny couplet into a moving song.

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sonmob.jpgSOUNDTRACK: GORDON LIGHTFOOT-The Complete Greatest Hits (2002).

gordon.jpgIn keeping with the Gordon theme of this post, I’m going to mention Gordon Lightfoot. He is an iconic Canadian folk singer that I was sure I must have heard in the past. He seemed to be mentioned a lot recently, so I decided to get a hits collection and see what’s up. I was somewhat surprised to see that I knew only one song by him (“The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”) and one other one “For Lovin’ Me” because it was covered by Peter, Paul and Mary.

So, after a few listens, I find that Lightfoot’s melodies are really strong, and I found myself singing along to most of the catchy choruses. It’s interesting to see his career evolve over the years: from the 2 minute folkie to some longer, more complex songs, to the 70s AM radio songwriter, to the very unfortunate 80s period, and finally back to basics in the 90s.

I know I won’t need any other records by him, but he’s a great addition to my folk collection. This album seems to cover a track or two from most of his records (although he was quite prolific). I prefer the earliest, most spare folk tracks, especially the “Canadian Railroad Trilogy,” but some of his later songs, while more produced, are even catchier: “Summer Side of Life” “Sundown.” And, even though some of these later songs are a little cheesey (in a 70s AM radio way), they’re still pretty good: “Cotton Jenny” and “Daylight Katy.” But still, the highlight is “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” what a great great song. And what a great great mustache too!

[DIGRESSION]: There’s a song on Moxy Fruvous’ b record called “Gord’s Gold” which I never understood. It was only after investigating Gordon Lightfoot that i realized he has two greatest hits records called “Gord’s Gold.” The Moxy song must be some kind of light footed parody of Mr Gordon. Also, Barenaked Ladies’ first record is called Gordon, and in the back of the liner notes they list all kinds of famous people named Gordon.

We figure that Gordon must be the quintessential Canadian name. I was surprised to find out that Gordon Korman is from New York.

[READ: March 2008] Son of the Mob

This is the YA book that Sarah has talked to me about the most. When we were first dating she used this book in her booktalks to the local teens in school. A booktalk is a compelling introduction to a book, designed to whet your appetite for more. Her booktalk for this title stuck with me, even if I didn’t remember the whole thing. But I knew I’d be checking this one out. (more…)

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