Thursday, December 30, 2010

My Most Played Albums of 2010

This humble website is a diary, the place where I document the music that gets under my skin and leaves a lasting impression in my heart and mind. Therefore, as 2010 comes to a close, I feel compelled to discuss the albums that got the most play this year at Casa de AZ. This is not a compilation of the best albums released this year, but you will find plenty of those from various music magazines and bloggers.

This is not a "Best Of" list because I do not enjoy reviewing albums; the critical dissection of an album's components tends to take the fun out of the listening experience. But also, I do not believe that an album must be perfectly written or flawlessly produced to become a meaningful soundtrack to a time and place in your life. Rather, an album can become special to the listener for a various subjective reasons; perhaps it plays background to joyful times spent with people you love, or offers comfort during anxious or troubled times. So, with that, I give you the albums that made up my 2010 soundtrack. Some I consider near perfection, others… let’s just say were perfectly imperfect. Each of them found a place in my mind, some a place in my heart, and a few will still stay with me for many years to come.

Two albums this year stood apart from the rest, and it comes as no surprise that those two albums are popping up on all the rock critics’ year-end lists. One album offered the ideal blues-rock soundtrack to a sunny day barbecue and drinks with friends, and turned a long-established-but-little-known working band an instant household name (The Black Keys). The other highly acclaimed album once again verified that the world’s biggest indie band continues to bleed out thought-provoking themes with passion and integrity (Arcade Fire). Those albums were a cut above the rest.

Most of the albums I enjoyed this year were met with lukewarm reception by critics and have not been featured prominently on year-end lists. To be perfectly honest, despite keeping them in heavy rotation throughout the year, I admit to my own less-than-totally-awestruck reaction to a few of them. But love and loyalty – to a voice or to a style – kept me playing them again and again. One near and dear band produced the soundtrack to my Summer 2010 road trips (The Gaslight Anthem), while another album was a highly anticipated solo effort to which I was sentimentally attached before the very first play (Brandon Flowers). One album, a sophomore effort, did not stack up to the artist’s debut, but her talent and wordsmith ability kept me listening anyway (Laura Marling).

Fortunately, the year introduced me to a number of new bands that caught my attention and made me excited for future releases. A couple of newcomers produced catchy “retro” albums that put a refreshing spin on decades-old music genres by including brass and organs to their sound, one in the style of 1940’s big-band (April Smith and the Last Picture Show) and the other channeling a 1960’s Motown sound (Fitz and the Tantrums). Another new favorite dealt out gritty blues-garage rock with catchy hooks and harmony (TAB the Band). A criminally harsh rating from Pitchfork - the most cynical online publication in the music world - piqued my interest in one new band (Mumford & Sons). As I anticipated, that album’s greatest crime was its overtly romantic themes and overuse of the words “soul,” “love,” “heart,” and meteorological metaphors. I, however, found those flaws to be endearing and beautiful. Lastly, came the “dark horse” album, swooping up my attention in this final month of the year and dominating my holiday playlist with it’s grabbing intro song and surprisingly coherent mix of post-punk, indie, folk, and soul genres throughout the album (Transfer).

A year ago, I had never heard of half of the bands that turned out my most played new album releases. Therefore, 2010 was year of discovery, and I hope that many of the bands that made up my year’s soundtrack have the staying power to continue to produce great new music in the future. It is exciting to think of the new talent that 2011 may bring; as with the start of each new year, I eagerly await to be sonically amazed.

My 2010 Most Played Albums:

1. Brothers, The Black Keys
2. The Suburbs, Arcade Fire
3. American Slang, Gaslight Anthem
4. Songs for a Sinking Ship, April Smith and the Last Picture Show
5. Zoo Noises, TAB the Band
6. Sigh No More, Mumford & Sons
7. Flamingo, Brandon Flowers
8. I Speak Because I Can, Laura Marling
9. Pickin’ Up the Pieces, Fitz and the Tantrums
10. Future Selves, Transfer

-AZ

Monday, November 29, 2010

Looking For Love… In a Music Subscription

It’s been a long time since I fell in love, since I found that heart-fluttering infatuation that leaves you awe-struck, inspired, and feigning for more. In its absence, the landscape seems a little more drab and colorless. And so, with the fear that discovery of my greatest loves are but a thing of the past, I put my 20th century notions of courtship behind me and embraced the modern ways of cyber-searching for love. I go online, create a personal profile, and begin my quest. Wait, I am talking about music… right? YES! Yes I am! I signed up for my first online music subscription with Rdio, and so it begins, a renewed commitment to search for new musical love affairs.

I don’t know what took me so long to get a music subscription, but it might be the best $5 I spend each month. I jokingly compare the search for good music to frustrations of dating, the latter I admit to knowing nothing about. But the fact is that there is a lot of very bad music out there, and sometimes you have to kiss many frogs, so to speak, before you find a prince. Not only that; music is so subjective that even your most trusted tastemakers – friends, bloggers, etc. – will highly recommend music that will not please your personal palette. Therefore, a music subscription offers commitment-free access to explore new music to your hearts content! It is the ultimate tool for the music populist – don’t take other peoples word on what good music is, just look it up using your preferred music subscription service and decide for yourself.

Only a few weeks in to my subscription, I have not yet found any new favorites. However, I have enjoyed getting to know a few of this year’s new releases without shelling out the dough. Here are some of the albums that I have been playing, via my shiny new music subscription.


Pickin’ Up the Pieces, Fitz and the Tantrums
A funkified, modernized Motown sound. Great male and female vocals, vibrant horns, and a lead singer that sounds a bit like Daryl Hall (not that I’m holding that against him). In fact, this album is my favorite find so far, and I will purchase it for my library.


The Lady Killer, Cee-Lo Green
One-half of Gnarls Barkley, Cee-Lo was the vocalist on the catchy Gnarls tune “Crazy.” What is not to like about a whole album containing that soulful vocal? Also, he managed to turn a song called “Fuck You” into a benevolent-sounding and very catchy pop song.


My Beautiful Dark Twisted, Fantasy, Kanye West
This is the most hyped album of the year and ridiculously praised by the music community. Kanye’s inability to pen lyrics that are not a self-indulgent pity party about how misunderstood he is reminds me why I will never understand the allure of hip-hop. But hey, I tried.


Mt. Desolation, Mt. Desolation
Very listenable, country-tinged rock; complete with delicate guitar play, pleasant vocal, and folk storytelling. I can’t say this album blows me away, but I do continue to play it.



Out of Our Minds, Melissa Auf der Maur
The best thing to come out of 90’s alt-rock bands Hole and Smashing Pumpkins is multi-instrumentalist Auf der Maur. Out of Our Minds is a concept album that plays like a graphic novel fantasy. Sounds nerdy, right? The music and production is beautiful, grandiose, and feels destined to be the score for a dark, off-Broadway musical.

With the end of the year rapidly approaching, “Best Of 2010” and “Top 10 Album” lists are popping up all over the web. A music subscription from one of the various providers – Rdio, MOG, Spotify, Ping – is a great alternative to buying artists’ albums you’ve never heard based on recommendations.

-AZ

Monday, October 11, 2010

Why Arcade Fire Is Worthy of All That Praise

I finally saw for myself, and all I had heard was true; Arcade Fire is indeed extraordinary. They deserve every accolade that each new album, each breathtaking live performance, yields. Whatever one may feel about their sound, they are, irrefutably, a band that stands head and shoulders above contemporaries in quality of artistic expression and the pure joy that radiates from their stage performance. While their songs document the angst of a generation, their live performance reminds us that life happens in this exhilarating moment, as we sing and dance with friends and strangers.

Sometimes blatantly, sometimes inadvertently, rock and pop music provide a cultural account of a given time and place. Some popular music serves only for entertainment, providing escape and frivolity, while offering clues about the collective mindset of a particular time (think Disco). But, it is the music that is purposeful in its social documentation that we typically consider “art.” Artists survey the cultural landscape, challenge us to face what we may instinctively turn from, and create beautiful and poetic starting points for discussion. Remarkably, Arcade Fire does not sacrifice any of the entertainment value of their music by filling it with provocative themes. They successfully marry the frivolous and the somber, the whimsical and the weighty, becoming this generation’s most socially conscience “art” band in which people actually want to listen.

With the release of Arcade Fire’s third album, The Suburbs, they have solidified themselves as the rock and roll documentarians of this era. The band has packed more meaningful commentary into a single album than most artists convey in a lifetime of work. It is stunning, honest, and heartbreakingly pinpoints the collective anxiety of a generation that is economically unsettled and missing a sense of community in the midst of a hyper-connected digital age.

As someone who came into social and political awareness before social media networks became our communication, before the 24-hour news cycle became our information, and before reality television became our entertainment, I understand the sentiment conveyed by lyricist Win Butler on this album. He indirectly asks these questions: Have we lost our attention span for thoughtful discourse (“We Used to Wait”)? Have computers stripped us of meaningful human connection with one another (“Deep Blue”)? Is a cultural gap between the “modern kids” and older cohorts widening (“Rococo”)?

I use to write. I used to write letters. I used to sign my name. I used to sleep at night before the flashing lights settled deep in my brain. –“We Used To Wait”

Often presented as a foreboding dream - the word “dream” occurs consistently throughout the album - songs follow themes of lonely detachment in the modern age, environmental doom, the decay of the middle class suburbs, and a longing for a simpler era. Even though the album alludes to profound concerns about the direction we are heading, it is written from a personal voice and an inclusive viewpoint. Therefore, it does not come off in the least bit preachy or self-righteous. It is observational, even confessional, and the sadness and longing in the songs precludes it from feeling activist or political.

Can you understand why I want a daughter while I’m still young? I want to hold her hand and show her some beauty before this damage is done.
–“The Suburbs”

The shift in tone from the Neon Bible album to The Suburbs, with respect the theme of capitalist greed, is notable. Released in 2007 to a climate of mounting frustration with Bush-era politics, Neon Bible was a call to arms for the citizenry to wise up to, among other things, the dangerous marriage of government and big business. I would not label Arcade Fire an activist band, but there was unmistakable anger and frustration in Neon Bible, with traces of finger pointing. However, the introspective nature of the new album suggests that Win Butler no longer relates to the problems he sees from the outsider perspective he took on Neon Bible. It would seem that maturity and a few years of self-reflection between albums has led him to take ownership of the problems around him, even if they are not his alone to bear. Ultimately, this makes the message more relatable.

You never trust a millionaire quoting the Sermon on the Mount. I used to think I was not like them but I'm beginning to have my doubts. –“City With No Children”

For all the seriousness embedded in Arcade Fire songs, their live show is the most joyful outpouring of energy I have witnessed, both by the band and from the audience. Looking down at the stage, it seemed like the band members were bright and colorful wind-up dolls, dancing and playing with exaggerated whole-body movements. Each owned all parts of the stage as they switched instruments and remained dynamic throughout the entire set. Regine Chassagne is particularly magnetic in stage presence, as too is Will Butler; both showing amazing energy as they played a multitude of instruments and danced around the stage (or in Will’s case, ran through the audience with his drum).

From the opening song until the unbelievable closer, “Wake Up,” the audience was on its feet chanting the words and clapping the beats. I had heard for years that an Arcade Fire show was a truly unique experience; what made it special was the feeling that those musicians wanted nothing more in that moment than to be playing for us. Arcade Fire is a band that clearly loves making music together, and they would be giving the same enthusiasm playing to a house full of guests as to a stadium full of concertgoers. It is not often that you walk away from a show feeling honored to have bared witness to a performance, but that is how I felt leaving the show that night.

I’ll leave you with links to a fantastic BBC Culture Show documentary on Arcade Fire, which includes live clips and an interview. It is a couple of years old, from the release of the Neon Bible album, but it is well made and really captures the spirit of the band. I hope you enjoy these watching this short documentary, and also hope you have the opportunity to catch their phenomenal live show!

-AZ

BBC The Culture Show Documentary: Part 1



Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 (Thanks @jennyhaze!)

Friday, September 24, 2010

Latest Earworm: Band of Skulls

Any name recognition that the English trio Band of Skulls has in the United States likely came last year when one of their songs was selected for the most recent Twilight movie soundtrack. Since I continue to ignore all things Twilight-related, I arrived late to discover this great rock and roll band. Instead, it was a 30 second sound bite for the new Ford Mustang commercial that piqued my interest and led me to Band of Skulls. Although the band name implies dark, gothic death metal, the likes of which only 15 year old misfits would enjoy, they actually have a classic guitar sound that ranges in genre from garage to blues rock, with nice variations in tempo throughout their debut album, Baby Darling Dollface Honey.

Band of Skulls is made up of Russell Marsden (guitar and vocals), Emma Richardson (bass and vocals), and Matt Hayward (drums). Marsden and Richardson share vocal responsibilities, both convincingly delivering hard-edged vocals on the faster songs and creating lush harmonies on the more tranquil songs. From start to finish, listeners will hear a mix of classic blues rock (Led Zeppelin, Hendrix, Rolling Stones) and contemporary garage rock (White Stripes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs) influences; songs range from drum and bass-heavy guitar riff tunes to sweet acoustic ballads. The vocal blend of male and female add rich depth, and even an eerie quality, to each song. Marsden and Richardson trade verses on the stompy “I Know What I Am” and meld harmonies tightly in “Fires.” “Honest” is a beautiful song that resembles some of Led Zeppelin’s delicate tunes, like “The Battle of Evermore.”

Band of Skulls are not stylistically reinventing the wheel, nor are their songs lyrically profound. Many of the lines are catchy but repetitive, and their sound is fairly derivative of the bands I mentioned earlier. But their arrangements, though familiar, still sound fresh and interesting, and the bottom line is that they are fun to listen to. Check out their website to hear a few of their songs. They just may become your next favorite band to pop in the car stereo, roll down the windows, crank up the volume, and drive a little bit faster than you should.

-AZ

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Brandon Flowers Live at The Troubadour

When I didn’t get a ticket to the Brandon Flowers show at the Troubadour in Los Angeles during the regular sale, I had come to terms with the fact that I would not be attending one of the five intimate shows he was playing in the U.S. to kick off his new solo album. The regular ticket sale sold out in minutes, and strict box office regulations enforcing that the purchaser of tickets must be present for entry, put a heavy damper on resale purchase options. So, when 5 hours prior to show time, a generous offer came my way – someone I’d never met had an extra ticket and was offering it to me at face value – I jumped at the chance to take it. Even though it meant I would drive two hours to Los Angeles with hopes that the too-good-to-be-true stranger was not flaky, creepy, crazy, or dangerous.

As I stood in line at the venue, with a surprising number of people in the same boat (waiting to see if tickets promised by strangers would actually come through), I realized that my practical, sensible self was at complete odds with the personality traits needed to make this experience enjoyable. All around me, bidding wars were happening . . . a ticket sold for $160, offers for $250, online price of $400, then came word that someone was asking $600 for one ticket on Craigslist. THIS WAS CRAZY!!! Was a total stranger really going to sell me my ticket at face value when the person in line right next to me was offering hundreds of dollars? The answer is YES, he did!!! Although he had been offered ten times the amount of face value, he showed up and honored our original agreement. I only detail my experience of getting inside the venue because, while some people thrive on this kind of hassle and anxiety about whether they will get into a show, I genuinely hate it. Had it not been a Killers/Flowers gig, I would not have been motivated to go under the circumstances.

Once inside the venue, I wondered why we had all gone to the trouble of waiting in line for doors to open. There was not a bad view in the house. While a painful, but mercifully short, opening comedy act was on stage the crowd was distracted by the knowledge that Flowers and his band were hanging out in the windowed room above us. He approached the window briefly and stepped away, causing the crowd to anxiously look up for him to appear again throughout the rest of the opening act. It was only a matter of minutes after the comedy act finished that Flowers, four musicians, and two back-up vocalists hit the small stage. They launched into a 10-song set that featured eight new songs, one Killers song, and a cover of “Bette Davis Eyes.”

Many of you reading this are Brandon Flowers fans, have been following coverage of his first shows, and probably seen videos. I can’t put into words anything that you have not seen for yourself on You Tube. You know that Flowers makes nervous and jittery comments between songs, and that he often clutches his heart and closes his eyes as if pleading that you believe every word he sings. You know that, as a slow burning song reaches a climactic end, he rocks aggressively forward and back on his feet. All of the quirks and characteristics of his performing style were magnified in a venue where furthest view was no more than 50 feet away. Perhaps because of that intimacy, the show had a mellower feel than a typical Killers show. Also, the new collection of songs are introspective and contemplative in theme, and that they were unfamiliar to the audience probably also contributed to a more reserved reception.

Flowers told Spin magazine this week that embarking on this solo effort has renewed his admiration for his band mates in the Killers. While watching the show (prior to the Spin article), I actually wondered if that was the case. A longtime Killers fan will not hear live versions of these songs without questioning how much stronger they would be with the full force of the Killers rhythm section behind them. After only two shows on the road, I realize that it is unfair to compare Flowers’ touring musicians to the eight years of experience the Killers have playing with each other. During the band hiatus, Flowers wanted to keep making music, and so he is starting from scratch after having years of phenomenal chemistry and live energy with the Killers. It can’t be easy for a self-proclaimed perfectionist.

One thing I have come to look forward to in a album release involving Brandon Flowers is the “what the F*CK?” reaction that I inevitably have toward one of the new songs, when I think “this song is either very good or very bad, and I can’t tell which it is.” I never discount any of his songs outright because 9 out of 10 times, a song I disliked at first listen becomes likable, or even a favorite. This was the case for me with “Bones,” “Tidal Wave,” “Joyride,” and several other songs that I now adore. Flowers is a songwriter that experiments with the styles of his predecessors. Doing such does not always seem natural or fitting, but he nonetheless challenges fans to expand their musical palate and to expand their notion of the type of songwriter he is. So far, a song called “Swallow It” is the frontrunner for the “what the F*CK?” award this time around, and not only because of the title. It’s a bizarre Lou Reed-style song with an unusual cadence to the vocal. Perhaps 6 months from now it will be my favorite? It’s happened before.

In the meantime, there are many other songs on the upcoming album that are becoming fast favorites. “Jilted Lovers and Broken Hearts” is a classic Killers-style dance rock song with a great, catchy hook, and “Magdalena” is an upbeat tune with a hopeful and inspiring lyrical theme. “Hard Enough,” the beautiful, real-life love song, speaks to the challenges of keeping a long-term (and maybe long-distance) relationship in balance. It had stunning background vocals during the live show, and I am looking forward to the studio version of the song featuring Jenny Lewis on vocals. From Flamingo, I think we can expect a balance of both familiar and experimental styles.

Flowers remains one of my favorite live performers because he is earnest, heartfelt, and palpably vulnerable on stage. I am very grateful that I got to see him up close at the Troubadour, and want to again thank the good guy (@Jerko) who offered me his ticket. Here is video (not taken by me) of Flowers performing “Losing Touch.” It’s not one of his new songs but it is some of the best video of the night, not only because of the quality, but because Flowers is infinitely more relaxed and happy for this song in the knowledge that the crowd knows it and it is enthusiastically received.

-AZ

Monday, July 26, 2010

Nico Vega’s Live Show Still Haunts Me

It has been more than a week since I paid a $10 door charge, walked into a largely empty venue, and became utterly captivated by Nico Vega’s amazing live show. The fury and intensity of the performance I witnessed that night left a lasting impression on me. The trio from LA made up of Dan Epand on drums, Rich Koehler on guitar, and Aja Volkman as lead vocalist, packs an astonishing amount of unbridled power. The on-stage chemistry between band members is a provocative mix of familial interaction and palpable sexuality. The fact that the crowd was small and subdued seemed not to matter. The band interacted with the crowd, with Aja talking, making eye contact, and grabbing hands of people in the front row. Yet it felt as if Nico Vega was performing for their own entertainment as much as for ours, and had they been in a living room alone, they would play with the same raw intensity.

As I watched Nico Vega perform, my sense of time and place dissolved. I felt transported by the occult-like nature of the stage theatrics. Aja’s eyes, wild and darting, arms flailing and pointing at the audience as she wailed in narration of their songs. She stomped and danced around stage barefoot in circles, as if participating in an ancient pagan ritual summoning the gods. The audience might feel the howling wrath of a woman possessed in one moment, and in the very next be enveloped by tender vocals and the welcoming smile of a maternal figure. All eyes transfixed on the captivating front woman to see what form she would take next. Watching the primal nature of Nico Vega’s performance left me feeling like I had fallen in a time portal and landed in an unknown past or future.

For as much intensity that was generated on the stage that night, the band looked like they were having a great time playing together. Aja would lean against Rich, dance around him, or sing to him, as he played his guitar. She also went behind the drum kit and picked up some sticks to play along with Dan. They were smiling throughout the show and visibly enjoying their time on stage.

It is pretty rare to come across a stage performance that is as compelling as what Nico Vega offers. I don’t own Nico Vega albums, and I am not greatly compelled to listen to the recorded versions of their songs. They are a band whose energy, sexuality, and guttural emotion come through in performance, with the visual aesthetics adding tremendously to their songs. I cannot understate the intensity of their live show; when they come back to perform to my town, I’ll be there.

It was difficult to find a video clip that even comes close to capturing the energy of a live show, but the one below will give you an idea. Even if their music is not what you typically enjoy, I recommend catching their show if they come through your town. They will haunt you, in a very good way.

-AZ

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Catch 'Em on the Rise: TAB the Band

A couple of months ago, while wading through the muck of new band mediocrity in search of some good old raucous rock and roll, I finally stumbled on a goldmine: TAB the Band. The tip came from the Twitter music community, where I become introduced to many of the young bands that fly under the radar of major music publications but have talent that far surpasses most household-name acts. The tagline of TAB’s Twitter account reads “Rock is back… in the form of us.” Yes it is.

One of my favorite things about rock and roll is that is connects fans of different ages by a common love for the music. On many occasions, my enthusiasm for older bands has served as my connection to other rock enthusiasts from generations not my own. No matter how many decades separate two rock fans, you can always find a hardy debate over the merits of one Beatles album over another. My initial thought upon first hearing TAB the Band (besides “damn, these guys rock!”) was that they have great potential for multi-generational appeal. Their music has a distinctively bluesy, classic rock sound but feels fresh in its arrangements and delivery. I was instantly hooked - and because TAB’s sound is reminiscent of 60’s and 70’s blues-rock bands like the Yardbirds and the Rolling Stones, I knew my parents would enjoy their music too. (Which they do.)

TAB the Band can probably most closely be compared to early Rolling Stones. It has the same dirty, bluesy garage sound that is pretty equally guitar and drum-driven. The vocal similarity of Adrian Perry to Mick Jagger, is also a factor in the similarity in sound. However, it is evident that their influences are broad. Songs with heavier bass and percussive tones hint at some punk influence, while other songs are a bit more folk-rooted, with a strong emphasis on vocal harmonies.

The band is made up of Adrian Perry on vocals and bass, Tony Perry and Lou Jannetty on guitars, and Ben Tileston on drums. Not only do they make great music, TAB is admirably navigating their career under “double edged sword” circumstances: brothers Adrian and Tony Perry are sons of Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry. While having a famous rock father has undoubtedly offered guidance in pursuing a career in the music industry (and likely instructional cautionary tales), TAB seems to be diligently paying their dues and staying clear from all coattails. In addition to working day jobs (Adrian is an Intellectual Property lawyer in NYC), the band is financing their summer tour through Pledge Music, a platform for fan donations to fund the making of an album or support touring with portions of the proceeds going to a charity. Depending on the amount fans pledge, they receive audio recordings or band merchandise. I think it says a lot about a band that probably could take advantage of family fortune or personal ties but chooses instead to carve its own path toward success. But why shouldn’t they? The music speaks for itself.

I hope that TAB the Band gets the exposure needed to introduce them to new music fans, young and old, because I think their sound has universal appeal. One thing is certain; they will come into success well deserved and on their own terms.

-AZ


Here is the band's Pledge Music site and check out the video below for their latest single “She Said No (I Love You)”

Friday, June 18, 2010

Gaslight Anthem: The Everyfan's Band

I have debated this philosophical question about music: does all music - and all art forms for that matter - have heart? I would like to believe that all music comes from a personal and authentic place and, whether or not emotion resonates, is in the ear of the each beholder. While this is a nice thought - and all artists may have the best intentions - not all music is equal in this department. Some songwriters write more personally and bare more soul. Some musicians play like their lives depend on winning over every last audience member. Some bands are driven to uphold a standard set by the rock heroes who inspired their path. Some music has more heart - much more heart - and that is what I think of every time I listen to the Gaslight Anthem.

This week, the Gaslight Anthem released “American Slang.” With this third album, the band retains all of the passion and heart of the previous albums but demonstrates a more mature and controlled delivery. The earlier Gaslight songs, from the “Sink or Swim” album, were firmly planted in the punk rock genre. Brian Fallon’s raw vocal on that album fit well with the aggressive drum-driven instrumentation. Since that album, they have added elements of post-punk, American folk, and classic rock, while largely retaining their punk sound. Beginning with “The ’59 Sound” album, and now with “American Slang,” the band has become much more skilled at crafting melodies that compliment the lyrical weight of the songs. On every album Brian Fallon has written thoughtful and poetic lyrics, and it now feels like the instrumentation has eased up ever so slightly, from the aggressive punk rock of the earlier days, to allow the songs the breathing room they deserve.

The new album does not disappoint. It solidifies what I have come to believe is the soul of the Gaslight Anthem and what gives their music so much heart: they, and Fallon in particular as the band lyricist, view the world through a rock and roll kaleidoscope, reflecting in each album shades of tribute and admiration for rock and roll’s intimate and powerful grip on each of us. Their love and passion as devoted music fans radiates through each song, suggesting the belief that rock and roll is our teacher, philosopher, and our constant companion through sorrowed or joyful times. The authenticity of their albums comes from the highest level of respect for the impact that rock and roll has in our lives.

You took it all gracefully on the chin, knowing that the beatings had to someday end / You found the bandages inside the band and the stitches on the radio
-Boxer

“The ’59 Sound,” the Gaslight Anthem’s sophomore album, was my first exposure to the band a couple of years ago. I was hooked by the very first listen because I felt that I was hearing a musical manifestation of my own fandom. That album was a treasure trove of clues and references to Dylan, Springsteen, Petty, and many kings of Motown, some very obvious and others less so. Not only is that album musically outstanding, the lasting impression it made for me is that this is a band that understood what it is to be humbled by the emotion that a single song is capable of triggering. Like me, they seemingly found escapism in lyrics and comfort in melody.

Did you grow up lonesome and one of a kind? / Were your records all you had to pass the time?
-The Queen of Lower Chelsea

With “American Slang,” the band brings all elements of instrumentation in balance with the vocal in a way that lends more emotion to the delivery of the songs. The rhythm section, made up of drummer Ben Horowitz and bassist Alex Levine, has found a much broader tempo range on this album, and comparing the tempo on songs like “The Queen of Lower Chelsea” and “Orphans” demonstrate that variation. Alex Rosamilia delivers excellent guitar lines throughout the album, but in particular on “Stay Lucky” and “Old Haunts.” In fact, “Old Haunts” is pretty close to perfection in my book with (relatively) delicate guitar work and lyrics like God help the man who says “If you’d have known me when…”/old haunts are for forgotten ghosts.

Much has been made about the similarities in sound of the Gaslight Anthem to Bruce Springsteen, with good reason. Like Springsteen, the Gaslight Anthem is a blue-collar band from New Jersey. They write poetically versed, energetic rock songs about simpler times, and the hopes and broken dreams of the everyman. I think the most important similarity is more elusive, and has to do with the silver lining the listener is able to take from a Gaslight song. More than how they sound, or where they are from, the comparison with Springsteen may have more to do with how the music makes us feel. Like Springsteen, the Gaslight Anthem reminds us that restlessness, forsaken dreams, and loneliness are all fundamental experiences of the human condition; we are not alone in feeling them, and there is something better yet off in the horizon. And in the meantime, find your escapism in music - just throw on some Miles Davis and let “The Cool” wash over you; you’ll feel better.

We were orphans before we were ever the sons of your songs
. –Orphans

The new album is not homage to the Gaslight Anthem’s influences, as was “The ’59 Sound.” Really, you can only make an album so boldly in tribute once in a career. Nonetheless, the clues are there. With greater subtlety, “American Slang” still reveals the Gaslight Anthem as a band of die-hardest of music fans that will continue to churn out the heartfelt soundtrack of our own music fandom.

-AZ


Related Post: The Gaslight Anthem: Bands Paying Homage

Friday, June 4, 2010

Post-Punk Style Bassists

I’ve come to accept that anytime I see a “Top Bass Players” countdown, it probably won’t have any of my favorite players listed there. I understand why, too. Many of the players that end up on countdown lists are impressively fast, often slap-style, and worthy of a 2 minute mid-song solos. Funk, progressive, and metal or hard rock genres do serve to highlight the speed and range of a talented and aggressive bass player, and that is why such greats as Flea and Les Claypool, deservedly, always make the lists.

My preferences in bass players are those who play the post-punk genre of rock and roll. I love those warm, melodic bass lines that are the backbone for songs by Joy Division, the Smiths, the Cure, similar bands that emerged in the late 70’s and early 80’s, and the revisionist bands that popped up in just the last decade. I realize why they are not included in “best” lists- they are not the fastest, or have the most range, and they certainly do not “shred.”

Still, it always surprises me a little that the bass players of the post-punk style of play never get much love; I (admittedly, a bass whore) hear the bass guitar as the primary sound within this fantastic genre of music. I have yet to find a very clear definition of what characterizes the post-punk genre of rock music; some descriptions seem to merge every genre under the sun that occurred in England within a specific period of time, which - as the name suggests - followed the punk explosion of the late 70’s. I may have a narrow view of what is the post-punk sound: heavy and prominent bass and drum, punctuated by lighter and intricate guitar work, and sometimes accompanied by synthesizer sounds. Some might say that darker lyrical themes are also a signature of the genre, but I think that both light and dark lyrical themes run through all genres, post-punk included.

What I hear more than anything, and feel is the signature style of the post-punk genre, is the bass playing. The bass guitar does not play a supporting role to the drumming; it plays a starring role in the overall sound. It independently drives the melody as a rhythm guitar would in other genres, creating the rhythmic pattern that serves as the song’s foundation. Post-punk playing rests in the middle between percussionist-supporting bass playing and lead-guitar style bass playing. The players that end up on “Greatest Player” lists tend to play in a more prominent lead-guitar style. However, one ambassador for the post-punk style should be on more “Greatest Bass Player” lists, and that ambassador is Peter Hook. As the pioneer of post-punk bass playing, he launched a unique and much imitated sound in rock and roll.

Every now and then I like to share my overall appreciation of bass players and, although they may not be considered the best, the post-punkers are my sentimental favorites. Below are a few songs with awesome bass lines from some fantastic post-punk and post-punk revisionist players.


Peter Hook (Joy Division) – “Disorder”
I could pick any song in the Joy Division catalog to highlight Hook’s playing. I love how his playing brings levity to Ian Curtis' dark lyrical and vocal style. What else can I say? He is the man.


Andy Rourke (The Smiths) - “This Charming Man”
The Smiths were a tough sell for me because of Morrissey’s voice. I listen because of the guitar work of Rourke and Johnny Marr.


Simon Gallop (The Cure) – “Just Like Heaven”
As a kid, I didn’t know who the Cure was, but I knew it was fun to dance around to this song. I now realize the bass is the reason why.


Mark Stoermer (The Killers) – “Jenny Was a Friend of Mine” Live
Stoermer is a versatile player. He, along with the rest of his band drifts in and out of genres. “Jenny” feels like a post-punk style song to me, and it is one of my favorite of his bass lines.


Carlos Dengler (Interpol) – “Evil”
This is a great, thought-provoking song that I probably would not have paid much attention to if not for that bass intro. It is speculated that the song is about serial killers Rosemary and Fred West, hence the title.


Alright, that’s enough of the post-punk genre for a while. I’m going to go listen to some Charles Mingus.

-AZ

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

In Defense of Stevie and Lyrical Obscurity

This week Stevie Nicks turns 62 years old, and this means two things for me. First, by acknowledging her birthday, I will undoubtedly be reminded by a loved one of the South Park episode where Stevie is impersonated by a goat, kidnapped by the Taliban, and does a stage performance (in goat-form with a chiffon skirt) singing “bah, bah, bahh.” Damn you, South Park. But second, and more importantly, her birthday gives me license to unabashedly praise her in all her fairytale-telling, gossamer-wearing, la-la-land living glory.

Stevie has long been an easy target for mocking and parody by the cynics of the rock and roll world. Last night I read through every album review that Rolling Stone magazine ever gave Stevie’s solo work. I don’t recommend it for other Stevie fans. It is harsh criticism, and it is the primary reason I soured to the magazine years ago. To appreciate Stevie’s words and her image, one must be willing to suspend reality, embrace the fantasy world she lives in, and come to terms with the notion that great lyrics can sometimes be nonsensical as long as they convey a mood or a feeling. This is something that rock critics have never accepted in Stevie’s songs, and as a result, she has not been taken seriously for her fantastic songwriting.

I like lyrical obscurity in songwriting, and I don’t think a songwriter should be discounted because their lyrics lack clarity. The songs that do not reveal all of the writer’s truths are the songs that stay with you over the course of time and take on different meanings as you grow and change. Stevie writes almost entirely about relationships, but she leaves her words open to interpretation by the listener and their own relationships. “Landslide,” “Has Anyone Ever Written Anything For You,” “Silver Springs,” “Storms,” “Sara,” and the list goes on… are songs that the listener can apply to any number of relationships in their life: to a lover, a child, a parent, a friend. Landslide will comfort the teenager struggling to get over the break-up of a first love, but then take on a whole different meaning to that same person when, 20 years down the road, they look into their child’s eyes. And the song’s meaning likely had many incarnations in between.

Stevie also is a master at putting words together in a way that conveys mood through imagery:

You could be my Silver Spring / Blue-green colors flashing / I would be your only dream / Your shining autumn, ocean crashing (Silver Springs)

And a black widow spider makes more sound than she / Black moons in those eyes of hers made more sense to me (Sister of the Moon)

The ones you dream of / The ones who walk away / With their capes pulled ‘round them tight / Crying for the night / Cry for the Nightbird (Nightbird)

She out in the distance sees him against the sky / A pale and violent rider / A dream begun in wine (The Highwayman)

Track a ghost through the fog / A charmed hour and a haunted song (Angel)


What does it all mean?!?! It doesn’t matter if her words are puzzling. As fragmented and obscure as her lyrics can be, they paint a pictures in the mind. You may not know what she was writing about in some songs; nonetheless, you know what she was feeling. Not all of Stevie’s songs are crafted in the style of a medieval fairytale. She has written many straightforward country-style tunes, and is quite talented in writing for that genre. “That’s Alright,” “Rose Garden,” “Enchanted,” and “Leather and Lace” are a few examples of her country-style songs. At the request of country singer Waylon Jennings, Stevie originally wrote “Leather and Lace” for Jennings to duet with his wife Jessi Colter. Jennings also produced very convincing country versions of “Rhiannon” and “Gold Dust Woman.”

I do understand some criticism of her albums. Although I think Stevie has consistently written great lyrics throughout the years, the overall quality of her finished music has depended on who was producing her albums. She fell prey in the late 80’s to some unfortunate instrumentation, as many artists did. I also understand that her lyrical style, as well as her vocal style, is not palatable to everyone.

Despite never being the critics’ darling, Stevie is intensely beloved by her fans, respected and admired by the countless artists she has shared the stage with, and continues to reach out and mentor young songwriters. For all of the fanciful tales she has told through song, she is as authentic a writer and a performer as they come. Her songs, her audience, and performing with her peers are the great loves of her life, and we are lucky recipients of that passion and dedication.

Don't listen to her, listen through her...

-AZ

Monday, May 3, 2010

The Brandon Flowers Solo Project

I have now had a few days to process the announcement last week that Brandon Flowers would be branching out from his fellow Killers bandmates to embark on his own solo project. I couldn’t believe how shocked I felt to hear news that was not in the least bit shocking. A solo album comes as no surprise; fans and journalists have been speculating this move for months. I recall a fantastic interview Flowers gave Jonathon Ross last year when the Killers performed on his show. The lone awkward moment of the interview came when Ross questioned Flowers about the Killers songwriting process. Following Flowers reply (that he writes all of the lyrics and all band members write the music), Ross said “So, you really could go it alone quite easily.” It was a fairly lighthearted moment, but an uncomfortable shrug from Flowers and a camera shot of the rest of the band sitting backstage was all the foreshadowing I needed to tell me that a solo announcement was in the near future.

What threw me for a loop was the anticipation and build up to the announcement. Following a 4-day countdown clock on the Killers’ website- during which time the fan community hoped and speculated on the possible release of Killers B-sides, rarities, live recordings, or cover songs- the news of a solo project seemed bittersweet to those who recognize a delicate balance that all four members strike together. But what fans were hoping for was another taste of what we have already had, and knew we loved – perhaps outtakes from the Day & Age album or more live recordings from that tour. For me, the shock came because my mindset was stuck in the past, but as I should well know by now, the Killers don’t do the past. They embrace change with each new project and they always move forward. The hiatus announcement that came months ago should have officially closed the most recent chapter in the Killers book, but really, it took the Flowers solo announcement to bring that reality home.

Any apprehension I have about a Flowers solo project goes back to the band member balance I mentioned. Although guitarist Dave Keuning seems (almost) on par with Flowers in terms of flamboyance and ambition, I’ve always had the feeling that Killers drummer Ronnie Vannucci and bassist Mark Stoermer are musically, and possibly also in band promotion, a grounding force for Flowers. They not only provide a masculine balance to the gold-lame-feather-wearing faction of the band, I would not be surprised if they are also the force that reins the band in when the threat of overexposure looms. Musically speaking, Vannucci and Stoermer keep Flowers firmly planted in the rock and roll genre. Without the weight of the Killers heavy rhythm section to ground him, I suspect that his solo style will float off into synth-y Pet Shop Boys land.

As much as I will miss not hearing the other band members on this project, I really am excited about any new material that Brandon Flowers gives us. The thing I find most endearing about him as an artist is his earnest, ongoing effort to be excellent at the two things that do not seem inherently easy for him: writing lyrics and stage performing. From the very first album, he has shown flashes of genius in his ability to write great lyrics, and over the years he has demonstrated increasing consistency in doing such. Flowers is a student of the game, both as a songwriter and a performer, taking cues from the greats and styling them to be uniquely his own. His continuous evolution at both tasks gets to the heart of the tremendous devotion of his fans. The conviction and vulnerability he brings to his music makes him wholly relatable. With each album we watch him become more skilled and comfortable in his songwriting and performing roles, fans feel invested in his journey, and we root for his success.

When I first heard the name of Flowers solo album - “Flamingo” – I questioned, not for the first time, his heterosexuality. It turns out that Las Vegan mythology may have lent itself to the name of the album. An insightful blog post by a Killers acquaintance and fellow Las Vegan Rodney Pardey (aka Michael Valentine), explains the significance of the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas mythical history and provides a theory for the album title. To summarize (really, you should check out the whole article), the Flamingo was the first Hollywood-style glitz and glam hotel in Vegas. It was a break from the modest, dusty establishments of Wild West Vegas, meant to attract glamour and money from Los Angeles visitors. If within Brandon Flowers resides dichotomous Vegas personalities, then Sam’s Town (the Killers sophomore album) and Flamingo may just be the artistic representations of those personalities. Sam’s Town is the working class, dust under the fingernails Vegas, and Flamingo is the spare-no-expense, extravagant sequined personality. Pardey’s article also points out that the Flamingo was built miles from the Downtown center on a stretch of a lonely highway- possibly significant to the album name as representing the lone break for Flowers from the rest of the band on this project.

Everything that Brandon Flowers creates is well crafted with attention to detail, hometown sentimentality, and purposeful rock and roll myth building. It is exciting that fans will soon see the next phase in a fascinating music career. Flamingo does not yet have a release date, but with any luck, we’ll have a Killer back on tour by summer!

-AZ

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Childhood Nostalgia and Two Country Legends

There is no voice that evokes childhood nostalgia for me more than Willie Nelson. When I play his music, I am instantly transported to the contented security of my youth. My dad played the Red Headed Stranger album frequently, and the songs from that album are the earliest recollection I have of lyrical storytelling. Willie’s rich, heartfelt vocal triggers memories of dinner parties winding down in the late night hours as a young child, falling asleep on the couch to sound of laughter from my parents and their friends from the other room. I associate his voice with the grin on my father’s face as he and Willie serenaded to me “Blue Eyes Crying In the Rain” and I associate his storytelling with the “Red Headed Stranger” lyric quoted many times to me over the years:

The Yellow-haired lady was buried at sunset
The stranger went free, of course
For you can’t hang a man for killin’ a woman
Who’s trying to steal your horse


The appreciation for Willie Nelson’s singing that I learned as a child has, indeed, grown into the great respect and admiration that I have for him as a songwriter and a storyteller now; I still listen to him frequently. I was raised on a mix of classic rock, folk rock, and old country music, but with the exception of Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash, none of the country music stuck with me into adulthood.

That said, I do have a strong affinity for Merle Haggard, and although I rarely listen to him now, his voice is also strongly evocative of childhood memories. My earliest recollection of listening to Merle Haggard was driving through the Sierra Mountains with my father and brother for an annual backpacking trip. I was probably about ten years old. I had no notion of what an Okie from Muskogee was, but I had spend enough time in San Francisco to know that Merle Haggard was insulting the Californian in me (although, he too is Californian). But, if my dad - a reformed shaggy-haired hippie like the ones Haggard was singing about - was OK with singing along, then I guess I could too. Merle has the quintessential country-singer voice, confessing tales of regret for past wrong doings.

And so thanks to my father, the two richest voices in country music are forever seared in my mind as the soundtrack to a stable and happy childhood. For years, I had heard Willie albums and I had heard Merle albums, but I don’t recall hearing them sing together until I was 23 years old, 3,000 miles from home, and homesick as hell. That’s when I heard “Pancho and Lefty” for the first time. I played it into the ground that year, drawing every ounce of comfortable familiarity from Willie’s vibrato and Merle’s deep baritone. It’s ironic that a song about betrayal and ill-fated endings can provide such consolation; perhaps it is the undertone of solitude in the song that made me feel less lonely and homesick at the time. Nah, I give all of the credit to the character and integrity of those voices and the happy memories I associate with them.

Thanks Dad.
-AZ

Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard Live “Pancho and Lefty”

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Interview: The Builders and The Butchers

As a tourist in New Orleans, I happened to be exploring one of the city’s famed above-ground cemeteries when I received word from The Builders and The Butchers that they would meet me for an interview before their show later that evening. Wandering between the cement and stone tombs, beneath moss covered trees, set an eerie tone that was an appropriate prequel to the unique Southern gothic style of music I would hear that evening.

The Builders and The Butchers hail from Portland, Oregon but their sound is a distinct mix of the American roots styles - including folk rock, blues, and a bit of bluegrass – that we typically associate with the American South. The banjo, mandolin, melodica, and basically any object that can serve as a percussive or vocal distortion instrument are all part of their musical arsenal. The lyrical themes of their songs are dark and conjure imagery of forsaken places, corruption and injustice, and death and haunting spirits – seemingly channeling the checkered past and tormented ghosts of the South.

Before The Builders and The Butchers took the stage at the House of Blues New Orleans, I sat down with lead vocalist and guitar player, Ryan Sollee, and bass player Alex Ellis. We chatted about the songwriting process, their upcoming album, and life on the road as touring musicians.

AZ: Hey guys! It’s a pleasure to meet you. I want to start off with asking about your story as a band. I know that you are all from Alaska. Did you grow up together?

Alex Ellis: Some of us did. I didn’t really know any of the guys. It was kind of a fluke that we all met up.
Ryan Sollee: Portland seems like a city where a lot of Alaskans migrate. Of all the people I know who have left Alaska, I would say 60-70% ended up in Portland. It’s just a place where Alaskans come because of networks of friends or family that are already there.

AZ: How does the songwriting process happen for this band?
RS: Well, I’ll bring a basic song structure to the band of a verse and chorus, but try to keep it pretty malleable. The record we just finished recording is the first time we had really long, intense practice sessions, where we buckled down and focused on perfecting a live-style recording of an album. Every album we’ve done has used a different recording process.

AZ: There is a real authenticity to your sound; there didn’t seem to be a lot of studio production magic going on. The Salvation album is polished, but it maintains a feel that you were all just in a room playing together.
AE: Well the last record [Salvation is a Deep Dark Well] did for us, I think, have some “studio magic.” Our first album [self-titled] was basically just a few mics in a room, and the album we just finished was basically recorded live.

AZ: And so you have finished recording your third album?

RS: Yeah, a couple of the songs are already mixed, most are unmixed. When we get back to Portland after this tour, we will put the finishing touches on it.
AE: It is the same basic instrumentation that we’ve used before, and the [lyrical] themes are expanded on, so it will be familiar, but not at all an attempt to recreate a previous album. I’m really proud of it.
RS: There is keyboard on this album, more organ and piano sounds, and also more intricate guitar work. We used less string and trumpet sounds than on the previous album. I think the result is less grandiose and more down-home. We didn’t have a lot of outside influence with this one.

AZ: Do you have an estimated release date for the next album?
AE: (turns to Ryan) I was just going to ask you that. Now I’m interviewing you. (laughs)
RS: Probably the fall. But I don’t know. The last time around it took a year to find a label that was interested, and the industry climate seems worse now that it was then. But we are shooting for a fall release.

AZ: Ryan, I read that Johnny Cash and Tom Waits are two of your influences. What about the rest of the band? Does everyone draw from similar musical inspiration?

RS: No, not at all.
AE: We’re all across the board.
RS: I actually am the only one that really, really likes Tom Waits. I think everyone likes Johnny Cash. But the kind of music that everyone listens to is vastly different.
AE: I’m really into Motown right now, and we’ve got a guy that likes electronic music, we’ve got a metal-head, one that likes jammy stuff. We can never agree on road music so everyone just wears earphones.

AZ: How is the current tour treating you?
RS: Well, we had a car wreck just before Austin and had to replace our van, so that of course was not fun. But now we have a better van, so that is the silver lining. And then we played Austin and the show was really great, so we are ready for the rest of the tour to go well. The group of people we are on tour with [headlining band Rx Bandits] is great.
AE: We tend to do tours where we are matched up with different sounding bands [Rx Bandits are a ska-punk band], and that’s OK because there is some crossover between audiences.
RS: Playing for different audiences help with word-of-mouth and getting your music to people who wouldn’t hear it otherwise.

AZ: And you have embraced social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter?

RS: Yeah, somewhat. I still feel a little lukewarm about it. (laughs)

AZ: When you were in Austin, was your show part of South by Southwest?
RS: We were there a few days before the music part really started so, no; we just played a single show. We played SXSW a couple of years ago. It was nice this time to come and play to Austin, and not the flood of outsiders that come for the weekend. It’s almost become like Spring Break.

AZ: I’m interested in the life of a touring musician. What is a typical day like on the road?
AE: It’s hard to set blocks of time aside for yourself. Fortunately, I was able to visit a friend for the whole day yesterday because I wasn’t needed to help out with any stuff with the band, but having that kind of time to yourself is rare. Driving takes up so much time and the club situation is like “hurry up, then wait” – get there early to set up and then wait around until the show starts. So you are a little tethered to the location. You don’t have much choice in food. The only entertainment is beer, but that makes you feel worse the next day. I don’t mean to talk down on it- because it is really fun and this is the choice that we have made, to live this life – but it is not as glamorous as people may think.
RS: I think people may assume, when they see you on stage at a nice venue, that you have hotels and that you may live a lavish lifestyle. But really, nearly every single night on tour we sleep on the floor. We can afford to get a hotel room just one night of the week. That is a luxury, and that’s like a Motel 6.

AZ: What does your summer schedule look like? More tours? Festivals?

RS: It is still up in the air. We are thinking about going to Europe. It depends on whether we can release the last record over in Europe, and if we can, we will tour over there to support it.

AZ: Well, you are set to take the stage in just a little while now. Thank you so much for sitting down and talking to me.
AE: Are you staying to catch the show?
AZ: Yes! Of course! My first Builders show, so I’m looking forward to it!
RS: Thanks, it was nice meeting you. I’m gonna go grab some jambalaya!
__________

The Builders' Live Performance


The Builders and the Butchers play with uncompromising fury and enthusiasm. Throughout the course of their set, I saw band members stomping, clapping, and all participating in back-up vocals. While you could say that the quintet includes a vocalist/guitarist, lead guitarist, bassist, and two percussionists, such categorization would be inaccurate because they all play various instruments. Individuals switched instruments for songs, from banjo to keyboard, or from percussion to mandolin, all demonstrating their versatility as musicians. Sollee has a unique vocal style that may be an acquired taste for some, but his passion and delivery is a perfect match for the lyrical themes of the songs.

I thoroughly enjoyed the set. The only negative that I walked away with was the feeling that – contrary to the enthusiasm Ryan and Alex expressed for being on tour with the Rx Bandits – it might not be a sound strategy to tour with a band that draws such a different audience. Perhaps unique to the show I attended, and the fact that it was an all-ages show, the young crowd did not demonstrate the enthusiasm and attention span that felt the performance deserved. Or perhaps it was the asshole next to me that kept shouting “bring on the metal!” (which was weird because metal was not on the menu that night) that soured my view of the crowd. Still, it was a good turnout, and I do hope that some audience crossover is happening for the Builders on this tour.

Since a video reveals more than I ever could in a few short sentences, I will leave you with this live performance of my personal favorite “Down In This Hole” (not from the New Orleans show). You can purchase their newly released live album, Where the Roots All Grow, on their website from the link below. Thanks again to Ryan and Alex for graciously answering my questions!

-AZ



Link to purchase studio or live albums by The Builders and The Butchers.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

My Loathe Affair with Ambient Dream-Pop

So far, I have not used this forum to talk about the music that I don’t like. The creation of Audio Zealot was inspired by my passionate enthusiasm for the music I love, and I would much rather write from a place of admiration. But frankly, it’s a rock and roll dry spell out there, and I am feeling under whelmed and uninspired by the majority of music that I have come across in recent months. As I await new album releases from trusted favorites, which may not come for a while– I have listened to countless new bands in search of music that excites me. What I have found is a musical climate that is oversaturated with spacey, ethereal dreamy pop music. While the genre is not new, it seems that the last few years have produced a steady increase in bands making music suitable for sleep-induced hypnotherapy.

It’s not that the music is bad or the bands are not talented, it’s just that it is an all-out assault on my rock and roll sensibilities. Why don’t these songs have choruses? What’s with all of the monk-style chanting? Why are the lyrics so boring and repetitive? Is this band trying to Clockwork Orange me? There has got to be subliminal brainwashing going on here!

My irrational aversion for this genre of music that is only exasperated by the fact that dream-pop is the darling of indie music right now. Dream-pop, electro-pop, shoegaze - whatever label people call it – is everywhere: in every hybrid car commercial, in hip boutique stores, at your local coffee shop. I have spent countless hours listening to highly acclaimed albums that fall under the dream-pop or electro-pop category, trying to adjust my ears to enjoy it, or at least trying to understand the hype. While advertisements and coffee shops are perfectly acceptable places for ambient music, I can’t understand why rock music publications are promoting the hell out of albums from this genre.

Remember when Brian Eno, Moby, and Bjork were quirky anomalies? It now seems like every other band out there is creating chaotic ambient sound and calling it music, and this music is wholeheartedly validated by many rock music critics. Because dream-pop has virtually no appeal to me, I want to make sense of why this trend has taken off. Why are so many bands making dream-pop, and why do people want to listen to it?

I think what bothers me most is the nagging notion that if music is an artistic reflection of social and cultural trends, what does this spacey, synthetic sound say about us right now? Generally speaking, what I hear in this musical trend is coldness, emotional detachment, and technologically produced sounds that feel wholly inorganic. Sonically, it feels dispassionate and soulless, and lyrically it reveals little insight, poeticism, or storytelling. If this genre were a map for youthful social or cultural trends, I would say that we exist in environment that puts little value on narrative means of expression, and that we are emotionally numb and disconnected.

I purposely did not single out any bands here for a couple of reasons. I don’t want to specifically direct any negativity because I do respect the vulnerability of an artist to share their creative passions with the masses. Also, it is really the genre of music that I don’t enjoy, and plenty of fans and critics indicate that any bands I would name here are, in fact, talented and worthy of accolades. Lastly, I’ve never been to a live show for my non-mentioned artists. Perhaps the cold and artificial feel may come from too much studio production, and it melts away when these bands perform live. I suspect, to some degree, that is the case.

Nonetheless, I don’t envision much staying power with artists who create the purest forms of ambient dream-pop music, lest they find a way to broaden their sound to incorporate other genres. Then again, that’s what people said 25 years ago about hip-hop and look how that turned out.

-AZ

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

New Artist: April Smith and The Great Picture Show

The release of April Smith’s new album, “Songs For a Sinking Ship,” comes on the heels of a fantastic live performance that I was lucky enough to witness a couple of weeks ago when she and her band came through my town. You get the feeling that April Smith is on the cusp of bona-fide success; or at least, she would be, in a world where fan-funded talent, independent of a major record labels, won Grammys. But I digress. April is getting a lot of love from the music press these days and she deserves it. And to those accolades, she can now add the full endorsement of this little known Zealot.

I learned about the New Jersey-native April Smith several months ago when I stumbled upon video of one of her live performances. I was intrigued by her stage presence, the ease with which she traded banter with the band and her audience and, most importantly, THAT VOICE! I was not disappointed when I saw their performance in person. A talented and entertaining band supports April’s great songwriting and powerful voice. Watching them play together was a pleasure because they appeared to be having a fantastic time. They have a big band feel at times - using an upright bass, an accordion, and even April’s mouth-made horn sounds – but they also switch out instruments for a more guitar rock sound for some songs.

April radiates good ol’ spitfire sass, and that is one of the reasons she is so much fun to watch and to listen to. Her songs have a nostalgic feel to them, but also an acerbic edge: for example, in answering whether or not she still thinks of that past lover: “Bitch, please . . . I’ve got better things to do” (Stop Wondering), or the love song written from the point of view of being committed to an asylum (Bright White Jackets). Throughout album, the dichotomy between the sweeter love songs (Movie Loves a Screen, Colors) and the darker, defiant songs (Terrible Things, Dixie Boy) offer the listener a wide range of emotions with which to relate. Overall, nothing on the album gets either too sweet or too dark; it is all lighthearted, tongue-in-cheek, good fun.

It is also worth noting that April’s new album is entirely fan supported through Kickstarter, a website in which artists identify the amount of money needed to fund a project and fans and friends pledge money to meet that goal. The result is 100% artistic ownership of the finished product. I love this concept, for many reasons. First, I appreciate any trend toward greater populism in the music industry; it breads more creativity and greater diversity. Second, listeners can be assured that they are getting a finished product that is creatively controlled by the artist, and not the result of cutting room compromises between an artist and their management. And third, in theory at least, this method of funding and production elevates the role that music fans play - from just a consumer of music to active participant in the process - and to some degree makes the band-fan relationship more of a two-way street than it has ever been before.

“Songs For a Sinking Ship” is a great album with the heart of a community of friends, fans, and very talented musicians behind it. I wish April Smith and the Great Picture Show the best of luck as they make their way around the country touring the release of the album. Stop by her website to check out her videos and see if she and the band are playing a city near you. She’ll hook ya!

-AZ


April Smith Music Site

Performance of "Stop Wondering"

Friday, February 5, 2010

Bands Paying Homage: Eddie Vedder to Tom Petty

A couple of months back, I wrote a post about how the Gaslight Anthem honored Joe Strummer with a great song about the first time Brian Fallon heard the Clash, and the profound effect that discovering their sound had on him. As I mentioned in that post, I find it so heartwarming to hear famous musicians pay homage to the artists who inspired them. They have sold records, become famous, toured the world, and perhaps become jaded in certain respects; yet, when they hear a well-loved song they are humbled by the impact that song initially had on them. It is a reminder that no matter what paths we take in this life - successes we have, failures we endure, lessons we learn – we can play an old song and become instantly transported to an innocent, more naive, place and time.

All great songwriters were once inspired by artists who came before them: Dylan had Guthrie, Van had Lead Belly, Petty has Elvis, and so on. In the Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers documentary, “Running Down a Dream,” Eddie Vedder talks about hearing “The Waiting” for the first time as an adolescent. The best part of this clip, and one of my favorite parts of the whole documentary, comes at the very end when Vedder says the following:

I don’t know if an artist completely understands, or needs to be reminded sometimes, how deeply these songs affect people . . . in such a way, that when you hear the song, you know where you were - and even the feeling in your gut - when you were 14 hearing that song. And the artist - if they can accept that, that’s a potent thing. What a gracious situation.

It doesn’t translate in text as powerfully are watching the interview, so check it out! The clip also includes a portion of the live performance of “The Waiting” where Vedder joins Petty and the Heartbreakers on stage. Vedder is a perfect vocal match for this song, and I have to say, I think I actually prefer him to Tom in this case. Below the clip, you can also find the link to the entire performance of the “The Waiting.”

-AZ



Full performance of "The Waiting"

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Hiatus Aside, I Believe In The Killers

The Killers’ fans are a little nervous lately. The band recently confirmed that they would be taking a well-deserved hiatus following six years of non-stop recording and touring. Naturally, the rumor mill is working overtime with unsubstantiated speculation of solo projects or band break-up. While solo projects are a plausible option for a band that may desire different things from a period of hiatus, any talk of a break-up by journalists, bloggers, fans, or otherwise cannot be supported by any messages given by individual band members or people close to them.

If you have read my essays before, you know that I am a big fan of the Killers. But not only do I enjoy their music, in observing the choices they have made in the past several years, I have a lot of respect for them as a unit. I think they make smart decisions and I have confidence in the band’s future; here are a few reasons why you should too:

THEY DON’T PUBLICALLY AIR THE DIRTY LAUNDRY.
The Killers have taken the hometown mantra to heart – “What happens between us, stays between us.” Chalk it up to loyalty, maturity, strict band policy, or just old-fashioned class – they keep it all in the family. When you fight in privacy you can say things that cannot be taken back, but when you make even the slightest disparaging comment publically, not only can you not take it back, you can also be assured that journalist after journalist will raise the issue again. A public feud will elevate band resentment and cause irreparable damage to internal relationships. Even when Flowers made the comment that Sam’s Town was one of the best albums in 20 years, causing a shit-storm of backlash against the album, none of the other members dwelled on that mistake or publically assigned blame for making the comment.

THEY HAVE A KILLER WORK ETHIC.
I get the feeling that a Killers hiatus will be measured in months, not years. This band has been extremely prolific since their debut, and they often credit their working class background with their drive to push themselves harder. Whether together in the studio or working on side projects, I believe that - creatively, at least - they won’t be on hiatus. Further, it was reported that the band members worked alone in the early stages of the Day & Age album and then electronically shared ideas for the other members to work off of. They have already developed a system to make music together while they are apart. Not to mention, they own their own recording studio in Las Vegas.

THEY CONTINUE TO EXPLORE NEW GENRES.
This is a band that seems to have a collectively open mind about sound exploration. Each album the Killers release has been uniquely different and has demonstrated a willingness to branch out in a different direction. If Dave Keuning said to the rest of the band “Hey guys, I’m trading in my Strat for a Dobro”– well, it is not hard to imagine that we would be treated to one hell of a Killers blues album. Like any relationship, the key to longevity is to grow together and to foster individual interests. If the Killers are, in fact, as open-minded in the studio as their resulting products seem to suggest, then band members have a judgment-free environment to pursue various creative outlets. Further, because their sound changes, they can’t really be pigeonholed as “electro-pop,” “Americana rock,” or any other label. I think this serves them well as they continue to evolve.

THEY HAVE A SKY’S-THE-LIMIT PHILOSOPHY.
Ask Lou Reed or Elton John to join us in the studio? Sure! See if Tim Burton wants to direct our video? Why not? The Killers make things happen because, from the very beginning, the word “can’t” is not in their vocabulary. Not only do they aim high, they are not afraid to do things that may seem uncool to the indier-than-thou crowd. But no matter how high their ambition is, the Killers are grounded by their authenticity. This is a band where everything – the music, the videos, clothing, stage design – is creatively homegrown.

THEY WALK A FINE LINE, AND HAVE EXCELLENT BALANCE.
Compared to past decades, it is so hard now for bands to retain the mystique that is critical to keep fans interested. Overexposure may get you well-known fast, but it isn’t the key to longevity. The Killers are selective about TV appearances and interviews and generally don’t seek out publicity that does not involve stage performance. They have a Twitter account and keep fans informed and interested without sharing too much. Further, the discretion and loyalty of the band’s touring musicians and crew is admirable; many also have Twitter accounts and they give fans a taste of the touring life without revealing anything about the inner-circle.

THEY SEEM TO GENUINELY APPRECIATE THAT WHAT THEY DO IS BIGGER THAN THEM.
The ability to make music that connects deeply with people is a powerful gift and the Killers have revealed a true humility and realization of this fact. I am not a member of any fan communities, yet I find myself envious of members of the Killers fan community, the Victims. Even as an outsider, I have witnessed the unbelievable bond that fans have formed with one another over their common love for the music. When you wade through the public declarations of love for Brandon Flowers, you see fans connecting over the issues we all face: career dissatisfaction, family obligations, and the day-to-day grind. I recently watched a video tribute that the Victims made in honor of the death of a fellow Victim. It’s quite remarkable.

There are probably several bands that demonstrate some of the qualities mentioned, the Killers just happen to be my favorite example. Who knows how close to the mark I am with these observations; no one knows what goes on within a band’s inner circle until someone comes out with a tell-all exclusive. I sincerely hope that never happens. What I do hope is that the Killers enjoy their time off the road with friends and family, find fresh inspiration during their hiatus, and surprise us all with a fantastic new album before too long. Hey, at the very least - come December - we can always count on a new Killers Christmas tune!

-AZ

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

“Insider” 1985: The Live Recording I Can’t Do Without

Growing up, I think I had a negative view of duets. Not that I gave them much thought, but something about them harkened visions of Sonny and Cher, Donny and Marie, the Carpenters, or other saccharine-sweet musical duos. Duets were something that variety show acts did, maybe country singers (Kenny and Dolly), but not rock and rollers. Then I heard the live recording of “Insider” from Tom Petty’s Pack Up the Plantation album, featuring Stevie Nicks; it not only changed my view of how two voices can come together and compliment one another so perfectly, it became one of my all-time favorite live recordings.

Stevie has often said in interviews that one of her great joys in making music is singing with other people and trying to replicate Everly Brothers-type harmonies. Outside of her work with Fleetwood Mac, she has collaborated with many artists in duets or singing background harmonies. Have you ever heard John Stewart’s “Gold” or Walter Egan’s “Magnet and Steel”? Both have awesome Stevie background vocals. Tom Petty does not share the microphone as often, but he also is capable of singing a tight harmony vocal. Among the superpowers that made up the Traveling Wilburys, his voice is often most prominent in many of the choruses of Wilburys song. Of all the people Tom Petty and Stevie Nicks have sung with separately, they most frequently have collaborated with one another. It is interesting that two unusual, unconventional voices can come together so beautifully.

I have listened to this live recording of “Insider” hundreds of times over the years. The opening notes of the song evoke the same involuntary reaction in me every time – my eyes close and I inhale deeply - as if I am preparing myself for the flood of emotion the song will bring. Then come the goosebumps when, several seconds into the song, you can hear a surge of applause from the audience as Stevie joins Tom on stage.

Tom originally wrote “Insider” for Stevie to record for a solo album, but then decided he did not want to give it up to her. It is the most beautifully bitter song he’s written; it’s about heartache, about being left behind by someone because you didn’t measure up. The kind of insecurity and inadequacy one feels from being on the losing end of a breakup is so evident in Tom and Stevie’s voices here. Stevie’s vocal is especially heartbreaking. This live version reaches a level of emotion that was not captured in the studio recording of the song. What I would give to have video of this performance . . . but for now, the audio will have to do. Click the play button below.

-AZ



Friday, January 8, 2010

Classic Clips: Peter Tosh Performs "Johnny B. Goode," 1983

I have mixed feelings about reggae music. It was one of the first styles of music that I fell in love with as a kid, and I associate it with sunny, carefree days. However, reggae has a fairly simplistic formula and, if not complemented with decent lyrics, great vocals, and blending with other genres, it can be extremely stale. In Southern California particularly, there is an over-proliferation of uninspired reggae acts. It has been a long time since I have heard a new act that did not sound like a carbon copy of every other reggae band. Is it possible that reggae is a genre of music that had a short-lived creative pinnacle? Will anyone ever do it as well, or better, than Bob Marley or Peter Tosh?

My appreciation of Peter Tosh had a rocky beginning. Many a night I would awake from peaceful sleep to hear his music blaring through the living room wall, to which I would curse his name. That said, the joys of cohabitation are a topic for a different essay, by a different writer. Despite the residual negativity I still feel when I hear the opening notes to his “Captured Live” DVD, I think Peter Tosh was an intriguing and dynamic performer.

Tosh, in many ways, was the anti-Marley: militant, provocative, and divisive. He did not inspire warm fuzzy feelings of “one love” and “give thanks and praise.” He had his own messages to promote, but they were not of unity. In comparing Tosh and Marley’s stage presence, it is clear that Peter Tosh had a king-sized ego. The “Captured Live” concert has him prowling the stage in his finest sultan garb and preaching Tosh-wisdom between songs. Fortunately, he can back that ego up with a rich, baritone voice that I happen to love. If any voice is going to wake me in the dead if night, I suppose his will do just fine.

Here is Tosh performing Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” from the 1983 “Captured Live” concert.

-AZ