Wednesday, September 28, 2011

regarding the passage of time.

Picasso Blue is on hiatus. I want to call it a sabbatical because I think that word sounds better, but I won't be away for that long. Turns out my house is ready to go, so my fiancee and I will be signing the lease tomorrow and thus begin the horrible experience of moving. I'll be back once I have Internet and everything is unpacked. I've got a special announcement to make too.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Red Bull Riot Fest East at the Festival Pier

In theory, Red Bull’s Riot Fest East Sept. 24 at Philadelphia’s Festival Pier should have been a perfect punk festival. Acts spanning punk’s origins (X, Descendents) up through the latest up-and-comers (Menzingers, Larry and His Flask) shared two stages, with the set times designed to allow concertgoers to catch at least part of every performance. In application, Riot Fest East was more like Warped Tour for grown-ups, replete with dubious sound, overpriced food, and corporate sponsors galore. That’s not to say the day was a bore – there were some mighty fine sets performed throughout – but it wasn’t exactly a perfect day either.

While the pier offered two stages to cut down on set-up times, they were not equal. West Stage, which really was the main stage of the day, was outdoors. The sound quality got worse the closer you got to the stage, as the sound guy really wanted to make sure people could hear the low end in the back. East Stage was located inside a hot ‘n’ sweaty tent, which cut down on crowd capacity, meaning every band from Menzingers (3:40 p.m.) through X (9:10 p.m.) kind of got the shaft. If you weren’t within the first, say, 20 rows of bodies to catch Hot Water Music or Samiam, you did not see a good show, as the speakers and acoustics were crap. Getting closer meant getting a whole lot more guitar noise in the ears, but at least the energy came through.

But the line-up was still great. No offense to festival openers the Heels, but my day didn’t start until the Holy Mess took to the East Stage at 2:40 p.m. The group ripped through a funny, sloppy set of feel-good punk tunes in the vein of Lawrence Arms and Lifetime. All the hits from their recently released EP compilation cropped up (“I Think Corduroy is Making a Comeback,” “A Soulful Punk Tune About a Working Class Dreamer”), as well as a couple of new tunes from a forthcoming full-length. The new material has a heavier sound to it, especially the unreleased track the band closed with. It’s a great direction for the band to pursue all the same. While the Holy Mess sometimes got a little too sloppy, even by punk standards, they still certainly entertained. I know the kid with the shiny new THM ice cream tattoo was stoked.

The Holy Mess essentially kicked off a string of sweet, coveted sets. The Menzingers generally stuck to their most excellent sophomore effort, Chamberlain Waits, although older tunes like “Sunday Drive” and “A Lesson in the Abuse of Information Technology” made appearances. Right now, the Menzingers are the best band in Philadelphia and, next to maybe Banner Pilot and the Flatliners, the most promising punk band in the freaking world. Their cover of the Clash’s “Straight to Hell” used to just sound cool; now it sounds prophetic. The crowd sang along with every word, and watching the members dance and writhe on stage left me ecstatic.

Meanwhile, on the West Stage, some reunited bands from yesteryear were flubbing it up. Weston, Excitebike and Naked Raygun played limp sets while Samiam, 7 Seconds and Suicide Machines wrecked crowds in that stupid tiny tent. Simply put, the organizers should have swapped out this entire chunk of the show; they would have gotten better results. Nobody puts Hot Water Music in a corner.

The first truly revelatory band to take to the West Stage was the reunited Plow United, and I didn’t even know anything about them before they played. PU dropped three apparently crucial underground records in the ’90s, avidly fought major label support systems and then broke up in 1998. Thirteen years later, the group reunited specifically to play Riot Fest East, which apparently got the ball rolling on their complete discography getting remastered and a new album being written. Bands like Excitebike belong to their era and should be left there; Plow United chose a pretty darn good time to come back and teach the masses about punk rock. Their tunes were short and sweet, crammed with all sorts of spastic movements. The banter was witty (and even, in a truly controversial move, critical of venue sponsors Miller Light!). They even brought out Exene Cervenka from X to play a country song, because why not. Plow United clearly appreciated the big turnout, and I immediately picked up Sleepwalk: A Retrospective soon after.

The lone downside to catching Plow United’s set, encore and all, was that I pretty much forfeited any chance of seeing Hot Water Music from a reasonable distance. I’m sorry, America. But they played “Trusty Chords” and “Wayfarer.” It sounded OK from 100 yards away.

After HWM ended, I skipped out on Dead Milkmen (never meant that much to me) and camped out for X. The oldest band on the bill, X pretty much wrecked all comers. The crowd loved it too, going off completely while X played through its debut record Los Angeles in its entirety. While guitarist Billy Zoom had some technical issues (cut out during “Johnny Hit and Run Paulene,” then way too loud for the rest of the show), X as a whole was still incredibly tight and aggressive.

I know women (“female-identified” if you please) in pits have sparked a lot of debate in the punk community (They should know what they’re getting into! But they shouldn’t have to fear for their lives at a communal event! But my version of punk rock is superior to your version of punk rock!), and I’m not going to pretend that I can encapsulate the entire conversation in this article, but I will say this: The chicks who came out to see X are really fucking tough, and I have the bruises to prove it. One girl punched me in the head just because she loved “Nausea” that much. Even though I was wearing glasses!

This instance of gender equality suited X’s co-ed lineup. A good crowd bore witness to good music. This is where the night should have ended.

But wait, the Descendents were headlining. After getting my heart and my ass handed to me by X’s bleak urban character studies and menacing music, Descendents came off a little tame. Blame it on the fart jokes. Or when frontman Milo Aukerman’s voice started to give out. Maybe even blame his kids for coming out to sing on an extended version of “All-O-Gistics.” But the ’dents’ were too dull. And I think the crowd agreed to an extent. Plow United came out for an encore because the fans demanded it; few people cheered for Descendents to play one until they were already back on stage. Still, I got to hear “Suburban Home” and “I’m the One” live.

Riot Fest East lacked intimacy. It also lacked a decent sound system. But it brought together a ton of bands from punk rock’s history. Some, like Naked Raygun, need to break up again. But then you get the Holy Mess, Menzingers, Plow United and X. Now there’s a solid bill. Just spare me the $7 pizza.

Friday, September 23, 2011

How Do We Jump This High? - 'Funny/Not Funny'

With a melodic punk bent akin to Bridge and Tunnel and Latterman, How Do We Jump This High? packs four pretty darn fun songs into their new seven-inch Funny/Not Funny despite some bummer lyrics. While the musicians add in the occasional post-hardcore flourish, for the most part, this is catchy not-quite-pop-punk bordering on ’90s emo.

“En Route” kicks off the seven-inch with a rousing round of regret. Turns out the narrator misses somebody something fierce, but the chorus begs for some gang vox live. So hey, take it easy guy. “Potential” is more sad sackery, this time reflecting on a town that’s slowly dying near the end of a year. It gets a little maudlin at times – “I’m indicted for everything I gave up on” – but there’s still a driving drum beat and throaty vox to carry the song along.

The B-side offers two more songs in a similar fashion. “The Greats” is about missing someone (again) and “Migraines” is about being disappointed in oneself (again). Clearly, Funny/Not Funny is the feel-good hit of the year. But then, the name should let you know that. How Do We Jump This High? The answer is moon shoes.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Patton Oswalt - 'Finest Hour'

Once at the forefront of what could be called nerd rage-style comedy, stand-up Patton Oswalt has gradually shed his pop cultural ironies in favor of studying human nature. Where he used to greet the world with cynicism, now he just laughs at all the little idiosyncrasies that make us human. Part of that transition has come with age; Oswalt also recently became a parent. But while these factors hampered Oswalt’s 2009 record My Weakness is Strong, they boost his latest effort, Finest Hour.

Oswalt is the comedian who made me view stand-up as an art form. He’s not the first comic I’ve ever loved (Dana Carvey) and he didn’t release my first comedy CD (“Weird” Al Yankovic’s Bad Hair Day), but his influence has set a benchmark for what I seek from joke tellers. Yes, I look for laughs just like everyone else, but following Oswalt through the random segues of his storytelling are just as fun as the punchlines. He is a bizarre sort of anecdotal comedian, and Finest Hour nearly lives up to its title.

For the most part, Finest Hour is hilarious. I thought for sure Louis C.K. had best comedy record of 2011 wrapped up, but I’m not sure anymore. On top of that, the differences between C.K. and Oswalt are narrowing. Both are sarcastic dads chronicling the ridiculous little events of existence. C.K. is just a lot darker, and that’s what might give Oswalt an edge.

Here, Oswalt drops tale after tale with warmth, whether extolling the virtues of sweatpants once you have kids or breaking down romantic comedies (“Every movie should just be called Trying to Fuck). Even when he drops the occasional critical evaluation, it’s less a move towards anger than it is a plea for sanity. When Oswalt returns to/finishes his years-long condemnation of fast food in general and KFC in particular, he argues for a return to logic while still pointing out his own shortcomings. Finest Hour doesn’t single anyone out, and in doing so pokes fun at humanity in general.

While Finest Hour is Oswalt’s most mature record yet, it does sag in spots. Some of the stand-up is an exercise in squeezing out every last riff on a topic. Sometimes it pays off (an extended bit about singing to oneself in the car goes from funny to strange to funny), but sometimes it just goes to weird places for weirdness’ sake without a real ending (“The Ham Incident”). Some bits get more applause than laughter (Every comic’s worst fear). But at 75 minutes, the set could be forgiven for dipping occasionally in quality. After all, this is Oswalt. The dude has been outshining other comics for years, partially because he takes chances on his jokes. After the somewhat middling results of Big Fan and Zombie Spaceship Wasteland, it’s great to hear Oswalt get back to his strength: stand-up.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

regarding R.E.M.

After 31 years together, venerable alternative act R.E.M. is breaking up. In a way, the dissolution makes sense; the band is going out after reclaiming their critical glory on Accelerate and Collapse Into Now. Before those albums, the band was on a decade-long creative slide. On a more personal note, the band had also become just a tad irrelevant to me. Call it the curse of being an early favorite; I absorbed and progressed from R.E.M. early in my music collecting. Yet I still mourn the band’s passing all the same.

Let’s be clear, R.E.M.’s break-up is a solid move. They’ve been together a long-ass time, and as far as I’m concerned, their last good album was 1994’s Monster. But there’s still that feeling of finality. Because it’s one thing to think a band should call it a day and another for them to actually retire. And R.E.M. is arguably one of the biggest cult bands of all time. They’re one of the pillars of indie rock. You can hate all of their songs, but your life would be emptier without their influence.

My R.E.M. fandom falls into a weird space. Like many a youth in the ’90s, I knew the band for a handful of singles (“Losing My Religion,” “Orange Crush”) before I actually comprehended the band as a whole. When I got to high school in the early ’00s, I began investigating the group, along with other indie acts that made bank like Nirvana and Sonic Youth. But I was never keen on their underground early successes. Yeah, I dug “Radio Free Europe,” but I was, and remain, only kind of interested in Murmur. The hippest of the hip will tell you to get the first three records, but my trilogy is a different, more commercial one: Green, Out of Time, Automatic For the People. It’s not cool to prefer those records, but they sold huge numbers for a reason, got-dammit.

While Monster and Accelerate tried to be harder, Green is actually R.E.M.’s best strictly rock record. You get hits like “Pop Song 89,” “Stand,” and “Orange Crush.” They’re a little left of the dial, but not so much that it kept the album from going double-platinum. Out of Time is more of a hodgepodge. It’s pop-minded (“Shiny Happy People,” and ya know what, I like “Radio Song” with KRS-One), but it also mines these intense emotional depths (“Losing My Religion,” “Texarkana.” Automatic For the People would take that even further, committing its entirety to a rumination of health and innocence. Yeah, “Everybody Hurts” is thoroughly cheesy, but did you write “Nightswimming?” No you fucking didn’t, so shut your fucking mouth.

Automatic is R.E.M.’s finest moment, and that’s perhaps the only thing Rolling Stone and I have ever agreed on. But from there, the band struggled to find a new direction. Monster tried to take on the already fading grunge movement. New Adventures in Hi-Fi just kind of existed. It wasn’t until 2004’s Around the Sun that the band started to show life again, dropping another soft-rocker akin to Automatic. I think I’m the only person who liked that record, but from the wistfulness of “Leaving New York” and “Last Straw.” Yeah, the band has since disowned the record, but sometimes artists aren’t the best at judging their own work.

For me, Sun should have been the last R.E.M. album. Partially because I couldn’t get behind the retreads of Accelarate or Collapse, but also because 2004 is the last time I truly cared about R.E.M. I was a freshman in college, and yet that’s when I stopped listening to college rock. All of R.E.M.’s supposed strengths – the cryptic, mumbled lyrics, the jangly guitar – started to fade from view. Instead, I found artists who really spoke to me on an emotional level: I started to really pay attention to artists like The Cure and The Mountain Goats, whom I had loved but not truly explored. I got back into punk rock. I went through an ill-advised hip-hop phase. Seven years later, I find that I rarely listen to R.E.M.

But I still have a stack of their albums. And I intend to listen to every last one of them in memoriam.

Vinyl Vednesday 9/21/2011

[Vinyl Vednesday is a weekly feature about three favorite vinyl finds. It’s not meant to be a dick-measuring contest, but it usually turns out that way. This week’s edition is in anticipation of the punk rock festival Riot Fest East. As always, e-mail with your own big finds!]

The Holy Mess’ Benefit Sesh seven-inch (2010) on white, The Menzingers’ Chamberlain Waits (2010) on clear blue, and X’s Wild Gift (1981) on black.

Place of Purchase: Benefit Sesh was sent to me for review. Chamberlain Waits didn’t actually come out on vinyl until 2011 for Record Store Day, at which point I picked it up at Repo Records in Philadelphia. Wild Gift came from Hideaway Music in Chestnut Hill.

Thoughts: I’m pretty darn stoked for Riot Fest East. The Chicago festival finally added an East Coast variant, one that covers punk rock from the ’70s (X, even though they didn’t get to release a studio album until 1980), ’80s (Descendents, Naked Raygun), ’90s (Hot Water Music, Weston), and today (The Menzingers). I’m pretty darn excited to see The Holy Mess live again. Dudes are hilarious, and they write some pretty catchy punk rock jamz. Curiously, my love all began with a two-song seven-inch their publicist sent me. I was intrigued by those tracks, and a year later consummated my romance with the group’s self-titled Red Scare debut. Now that Riot Fest East has announced set times, I’m going to begin my day at the concert with The Holy Mess (after hitting up Blackbird for lunch).

I haven’t seen The Menzingers live in a long time. Before they blew up – relatively speaking – the Clash enthusiasts played through my stupid little piece of Pennsylvania plenty of times. I saw them play all over Doylestown on the strength of hot shit debut A Lesson in the Abuse of Information Technology. But it’s been years since I caught them – I still haven’t even heard the Hold On Dodge material live yet. Menzingers, then, are the band I’m most excited to see live. Since the halcyon days of playing Siren Records, the group has gone on to write one of my favorite albums of, well, ever, Chamberlain Waits. I made copies of that record when I received it digitally for review on CD-R AND cassette. I spent more hours on the road with Chamberlain Waits than any other album in 2010. And it still gets me pumped up a year later. Yeah, I’m excited to hear Lesson live again, but I’m just so dang excited to hear Waits in a live setting. I need the crowd to be a good one for my boys in the Manslingers.

A close second in anticipation is X. Arguably the best West Coast punk band of all time, I saw the legends live a few years ago, and they were still amazing. I hope that, health problems aside, the band can still deliver the same energy. They’re going to play Los Angeles live in its entirety, which should go over well with the crowd. But I’m just as excited to hear later material. I’d love to hear some See How We Are cuts, but that’s doubtful. Wild Gift might make an appearance, though. Songs like “The Once Over Twice,” “When Our Love Passed Out on the Couch,” and even the comedic “Back 2 the Base” have a haunting anger to them. Steeped in a kind of rock ‘n’ roll that was retro even for ’81, Wild Gift is better than most records, punk or otherwise. Yeah, people are probably going to leave early to catchy Descendents’ set, but fuck ’em.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Wild Flag - 'Wild Flag'

While I still miss Sleater-Kinney’s fiery punk passion, the former members’ follow-up projects have made one thing clear: Everyone is a winner. Singer/guitarist Corin Tucker released a mighty fine solo album, 1,000 Years, in 2010. Drummer Janet Weiss has been playing drums in about 95 percent of the world’s indie rock bands since SK split, but this year sees her recorded reunion with SK guitarist/vocalist Carrie Brownstein under the moniker Wild Flag. Mary Timony (ex-Helium) and Rebecca Cole (ex-The Minders) join on guitarv/vox and keyboards/vox, respectively, and the result is surprisingly classic rock-leaning.

I don’t mean that as an insult, either. Wild Flag ain’t Aerosmith, but it does recall acts like The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Mott the Hoople, and Ziggy-era David Bowie. After their debut seven-inch, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Then and now, Wild Flag has embraced a retro-leaning sound. But they’re not robbing graves; just writing really catchy tunes.

Album opener and single “Romance” is the “hit” of the bunch, a rumbling, tumbling ode to the power of music. The drums push the song through a series of propulsive movements. Despite a first class chorus, the song’s best moment is actually the pre-chorus after the second verse, as the group collectively shouts out “Hey, you’ve got me crawling / You’ve got me spinning / Shake shimmy shake / First you wreck me / Then resurrect me / It’s too much,” over a bout of handclaps.

Track two, “Something Came Over Me,” is less immediate, but deceptively so. While it lacks the energy of “Romance,” the hooks are just as strong, carrying a ’60s girl group series of “la la las” along the way. Brownstein and Timony are the lead songwriters in the group, and while they’ve created a cohesive album overall, there are still clear indicators who’s better suited for what. Brownstein fronts rockers like “Boom” and “Future Crimes.” She goes big. Timony is more subtle. Listen to a tune like “Glass Tambourine.” It opens with a big Hendrix style guitar ‘n’ drums introduction before Timony starts switching between psychedelic interludes and plaintive vox. Brownstein brings attitude; Timony creates atmosphere.

Basically, Wild Flag achieves a nice balance. At 10 tracks, this record is fun without dragging, and Brownstein and Timony’s sensibilities differ from yet complement each other in all the right ways. Sleater-Kinney comparisons are still going to follow the group (especially since Wild Flag kind of picks up where The Woods left off), but hopefully that just means more people will tune in for more good music. Like I said, everyone’s a winner.

Friday, September 16, 2011

St. Vincent - 'Strange Mercy'

Tons of comparisons run through my mind when I listen to St. Vincent (a.k.a. Annie Clark), and they’re in terms of aesthetic instead of sound. She’s a fearless pop experimentalist, like Bjork or Peter Gabriel. She’s a fiery fret player who can downplay her skills in favor of a song, like Prince. She has a beautiful singing voice and employs swelling, dreamy strings, like a Disney movie, but she’s also pretty fucking dark at times, like a Disney movie. Strange Mercy, her third full-length, showcases it all.

Previous album Actor hangs heavily over Strange Mercy, and I tend to think of the two as part of a bigger whole. Vincent’s debut, Marry Me, was a pretty straightforward indie pop record, but Actor was a real artistic breakthrough, a nearly gothic album in its longing, desolation, and discordant textures. But it still had some pop tendencies, something that Strange Mercy obscures. Sure, there’s some big singles in the mix, like “Cruel,” but this is also Vincent’s most difficult album to date.

“Chloe in the Afternoon” opens the record with a beguiling mix. It starts off just like another Vincent track in pixie mode before her guitar snarls through the mix. But it’s not quite a rocker either; rather, it’s a slinking, menacing tune about infidelity. It is not a feel good summer hit, something that “Cruel” would be if it wasn’t about feeling ruined. And that’s the kind of album Strange Mercy is, a weird dichotomy of beauty and despair (Just look to the song titles: “Neutered Fruit,” “Hysterical Strength”).

In interviews, Vincent has declared Strange Mercy a more guitar-driven record, but I don’t quite agree. I’d say synthesizers have just as strong of an impact. Sometimes they just add more atmosphere, but they especially stand out on tracks like “Surgeon.” Vincent lays down a feathery guitar pattern while Bobby Sparks makes his Moog scream out in a section that can only be described as pretty darn prog rock.

As far as difficult third records go, Strange Mercy is still mighty appealing, even if it shies away from big choruses. It’s still plenty dark like Actor, but it doesn’t try to cut that darkness quite as much with hooks. Rather, it just leaves it all out on display. We debate which album is better, as long as we agree that this is another artistic triumph.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Vinyl Vednesday 9/14/2011

[Vinyl Vednesday is a weekly feature about three favorite vinyl finds. It’s not meant to be a dick-measuring contest, but it usually turns out that way. As always, e-mail with your own big finds!]

Records: Baroness’ First and Second (2008) on red, Black Tusk’s The Fallen Kingdom (2007) on mustard yellow, and Tool’s Opiate (1992) on black.

Place of Purchase:
eBay. Interpunk. Hot Topic.

Thoughts: Baroness is the band that sucked me into metal, specifically the metal coming out of Savannah, Ga. First and Second collects the band’s first two EPs, forming a makeshift full-length not unlike Fugazi’s 13 Songs in structure; that is to say, these songs rule and I don’t care when they were recorded. That said, First and Second sounds a little different from the Baroness of breakthrough Blue Record. The vocals are more abrasive, and the tunes are generally faster. Over time, Baroness evolved into something a little jammier. I don’t have a preference for either sound, as both styles are great, but there is something to be said for the unabashed aggression of the group’s early material.

Speaking of “unabashed aggression,” I love Black Tusk. Other Savannah acts like Baroness and Kylesa have been experimenting more and more with their metal, but Black Tusk just keeps kicking ass. I am so stoked for Set the Dial next month. I’m also stoked on The Fallen Kingdom. Black Tusk recently saw their discography reissued on vinyl. Thanks to Interpunk, I now know that Black Tusk was pretty much always awesome. These guys specialize in writing wicked fast metal jams that border on hardcore. Isn’t that what thrash metal was supposed to be?

Closing out this installment of Vinyl Vednesday, I’d like to talk about Tool. I like Tool. I loved them in high school, and I don’t listen to them nearly as much as I used to. That makes me sad, because for the longest time, Tool made it difficult for me to like other metal bands. They wrote angry songs about Christianity and feelings and hookers with penises! That shit mattered to me! Opiate is a taste of what Tool would go on to achieve over the course of their first three full-lengths. An EP, the band hadn’t quite developed into an artistic powerhouse, but there’s still plenty of aggression and humor to be had. Granted, the lyrics lack Maynard James Keenan’s usual sophistication (“WHY DON’T YOU JUST FUCK YOURSELF?!” goes one memorable chorus). That title track is still one of my favorite Tool tunes, though, distilling all the rage I used to hold against organized religion.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

myPod: Fo

[myPod is a biweekly attempt to edit down my CD collection as I import my music on to my brand new 160 GB iPod.]

Ben Folds

While I’m sure he’s gotten this comparison constantly over his career, it wasn’t until his third divorce that Ben Folds truly became the alt-rock Billy Joel. The angry piano man has written some beautiful tunes (“Brick,” “The Luckiest”) and some funny ones (“Rockin’ the Suburbs,” “Underground”) just like Joel, but it took leaving his third wife, Frally Hynes, just a year after thanking her profusely in 2005’s Songs For Silverman, for their yoga instructor that he became like Joel – a pop genius that consistently fails his loved ones.

I have a hard time listening to musicians I don’t like as people. Once they pull some shenanigans, it’s harder for me to break through (My Who fandom never recovered after Pete Townsend got busted for child pornography, for example). But Folds has written a lot of great songs (some of them were with his ex-wives!). He rose to prominence on the strength of Ben Folds Five’s first two records, which combined wiseacre humor with freewheeling jazz, funk, and rock bursts. They’re the most fun Folds has ever been. The final Five album, The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, marks a sharp turn towards the somber songwriting that has since dominated Folds’ solo discography, but I like it overall.

Folds’ solo career has been patchy, but I generally enjoy everything he did up through Silverman. Rockin’ the Suburbs got a bad rap because of the novelty of the eponymous track, but “Zak and Sara” and “Annie Waits” are catchy as heck. Folds released a trio of EPs in between Suburbs and Silverman, and they’re most notable for the quality of their covers (“In Between Days” by The Cure, “Get Your Hands Off My Woman” by The Darkness. There’s a name I haven’t heard in a while). Silverman is consistently adequate throughout. I have no major complaints about it, but it pales compared to Folds’ previous work. I think I’m gonna sell this one. Way to Normal, the 2008 follow-up, sounds like a stilted “fuck you” to the wife he abandoned, so I don’t like that one much.

Verdict: Keep, aside from Silverman.

Foo Fighters

No one ever seems to mention that Foo Fighters is essentially the most successful super group of the last 20 years. Instead, everyone mentions that frontman/guitarist Dave Grohl played drums in Nirvana. But if Nirvana had been just a little less popular, it would be easier to lump that group in with Sunny Day Real Estate, The Germs, No Use For a Name, Me First and The Gimme Gimmes, Coheed and Cambria, and Alanis Morissette (Ya know what, I’m gonna throw Dennis Wilson from The Beach Boys in there too. Drummer Taylor Hawkins did great work on his Pacific Ocean Blue reissue). Foo Fighters are a solid alt-rock band made up of diehard music fans.

But they’re also possibly the most popular/derided second act bands of all time. Not since maybe Wings has a group sold so many records only to still be held captive by previous successes. Part of that problem is legacy; part of it is that Foo Fighters have always been a little more vanilla than Nirvana or SDRE.

But things started off great. Foo Fighters was an agreeable slice of indie rock. While none of the tracks sparkle like its follow-up, The Colour and The Shape, the album contains no duds. I realized recently that it might actually be my favorite Foo release at the moment, as it’s consistent throughout and none of the tracks are overplayed. Colour is still a mighty fine album, and it contains most of the band’s best songs (“Everlong,” “Monkey Wrench,” “Walking After You,” etc.). It’s a big fun rock record, but it’s also the album the band has spent the most time reacting against (There is Nothing Left to Lose) or trying to recreate (In Your Honor, Wasting Light). Thanks to failures like Wasting Light, it’s harder for me to distinguish what makes Colour so great.

Still, the Foos’ later years were solid. Lose is a little too bogged down by ineffectual pop rock (“Learn to Fly,” “Breakout”), but One By One is a great set of slinking, grooving rock ‘n’ roll. In Your Honor, a double album meant to deliver an electric and acoustic set in the hopes of encompassing everything the Foos do well, is a little bloated but still solid. “Best of You” might be better than “Everlong.” “In Your Honor” has one of Grohl’s rawest vocal takes. The acoustic set is good too; there’s breezy fare like “Cold Day in the Sun” and “Virginia Moon,” as well as the contemplative “Razor.” “Friend of a Friend,” about Kurt Cobain is powerfully intimate. As far as I know, it’s the song Grohl has released that comments on his time in Nirvana, and it’s a doozy. But after Honor, the band stumbled. Skin and Bones is a neat acoustic set, but Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace and Wasting Light floundered in loud, dumb rock hell.

Verdict: The essentials, then, are Foo Fighters and Colour. There is Nothing Left to Lose can split, but One By One and In Your Honor can stay, even though my copy of Honor has this stupid copyright protection that won’t let me play it on my computer. Skin and Bones is neat but a little dull in the middle. I bought Greatest Hits because I like the Tom Petty-ish original track “Wheels;” it’s something of a guilty pleasure, but I wish the set picked better songs. I like “Stacked Actors” a lot, but it’s one of the few highlights on Lose. I’m sad to pass it on, but not so sad that I’m going to stop myself.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall Original Soundtrack

Given that Forgetting Sarah Marshall is one of my favorite movies, obviously I picked up the soundtrack not long after seeing the film for the first time. It’s got some choice cuts from acts like Cake and Belle & Sebastian, but the real winners are the original tunes, performed by stars Jason Segel and Russell Brand. Segel’s lonesome piano ballad “Dracula’s Lament,” in which Dracula longs for love, has the perfect blend of silly and sappy, but “Taste for Blood” is pretty good too. Brand’s faux-band, Infant Sorrow, gets in some choice songs that manage to parody every rock band from the last 30 years.

Verdict: Keep.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

regarding 9/11.

In case you forgot, my fellow Americans, the tenth anniversary of 9/11 is coming up. I wish I could reflect on just how I felt on that single day, but I can’t. I have an English degree; I’m a context guy. But, I doubt my feelings vary much from those held by others, then or since.

Sep. 11 coincided with my political awakening. I was 15 when the Towers fell. Up to that point, I had vague notions of becoming a Democrat when I was old enough because that was my parents’ political affiliation. But that event became a catalyst for everything. Like a lot of people, I think of 9/11 as a loss of innocence. When terrorists plunged those planes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and Pennsylvania, it shook my confidence. I was scared about my safety and my country’s wellbeing. So, of course I backed the government’s decision to invade Afghanistan in search of the Taliban and al-Qaeda. They did this! We must stop them from ever doing this again!

But the Bush Administration lost its focus, and the war in Afghanistan became so confused that it hardly even gets discussed in the media anymore. But it did spin off into the Iraq War, even though the government led by Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with al-Qaeda or 9/11. By the time the Bush Administration declared war on Iraq, I had become politically aware enough to the point that I knew it was a mistake. I doubted the reports about Iraq having nuclear arms, let alone that they were giving those materials to terrorists. And I protested as best I could, not that it did much.

Iraq turned the international perception of America. We had a lot of sympathy after 9/11, and we squandered it within a few years. We embarrassed ourselves with our cocky “Bring ’em on” public image. Almost every time I’ve traveled abroad, I’ve had to answer for my government.

So when I think of 9/11, I think of a loss of innocence, just like everyone else, but for different reasons. I see 9/11 as a prelude to failure and pain. Three thousand people died in the attacks, but the effects of our decisions in response those deaths rippled out, hurting far more people. Sure, al-Qaeda had reasons for attacking us which need to be considered (We backed Israel, abused our power in the Middle East, and just generally represented bloated excess), but I still think of it as a beginning of something worse. I’m not afraid anymore, but I’m still plenty angry – at my own country.

When I think of 9/11, I think of three artists – System of a Down, Bruce Springsteen, and Joe Strummer. SoaD’s Toxicity came out a week before the attacks; an indictment of America, it retroactively became about 9/11. Springsteen, meanwhile, sought to sooth the damaged American psyche with his Rising album, although he eventually took the government to task on a trio of records, Devils & Dust, We Shall Overcome, and Magic. But Strummer is the one that weighs heavily on me right now. While he supported U.S. involvement in Afghanistan (and I can’t blame him, because I felt the same way and neither one of us could have known how badly botched the job would be), he died before the Iraqi invasion. I always wondered if Strummer would have gotten more conservative as he aged, but then, I have to believe he would have reacted pretty strongly when Bush’s warmongering became apparent.

I cannot and will not watch movies about 9/11. They never get the anger and the fear right. I’m not necessarily against the sloganeering that’s going on in my country – it was still a terrible event – but the real tragedy is what we did afterward, and that’s the real lesson. Remember that too.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Vinyl Vednesday 9/7/2011

[Vinyl Vednesday is a weekly feature about three favorite vinyl finds. It’s not meant to be a dick-measuring contest, but it usually turns out that way. As always, e-mail with your own big finds!]

Records: Black Flag’s My War (1983) on black, The Cure’s Disintegration (1989) on black, and Galaxie 500’s On Fire (1989) on, again, black.

Place of Purchase: Philadelphia’s Repo Records across the board.

Thoughts: Full disclosure: I’m wearing a My War T-shirt right now. There’s just something so satisfyingly primal in early Black Flag that I cannot deny. Even though the second half of My War goes off the rails a little bit. Even though I now see the lyrics as juvenile. Even though I should probably be listening to Fugazi or Strike Anywhere instead. My War’s title track is the penultimate “me against the world” fight song, a song so full of rage that you can hear Henry Rollins blowing out his voice and forcing the vocal track anyway.

Operating at the opposite spectrum of Black Flag, howsabout The Cure? I’ve been listening to Disintegration a lot lately. It’s just this monolithic, swirling haze of melancholy that’s ideal for autumn. Sure, it’s got one of my favorite love songs, “Lovesong,” but the tune I’ve been really gravitating towards lately is the title track. The Cure is pretty closely associated with keyboards, and the lines on that track play off of the driving drumbeat so well. It’s a little goth pop symphony in my head. Of course, hits like “Pictures of You,” “Lullaby,” and “Fascination Street” help as well. This is one of those records I can play anywhere – at work, on the road, in my bedroom – and it always carries me off.

Thanks to Venice is Sinking, I have fallen in love with Galaxie 500. I first got into the group via “Tugboat,” a Today cut which ViS covered, but it’s 1989’s On Fire that really set me off. That record frequently flits between shoegaze and dreamy indie rock. It definitely reminds me of acts like ViS, Nada Surf, and Mazzy Star. Fire is a little more rock-oriented than Today which suits me fine, opting for surreal slice of psychedelia. The band even throws in a great cover of George Harrison’s “Isn’t It a Pity,” from All Things Must Pass. The trio jams out the tune, turning such a sad song into an epic chorus rolled over and over. On Fire is a record that I can connect to a ton of indie rock material released in the ’90s and ’00s, but it outshines them all.

Friday, September 2, 2011

myPod: Fl

[myPod is a biweekly attempt to edit down my CD collection as I import my music on to my brand new 160 GB iPod.]

Flaming Lips

While they spent the ’80s playing goofy psych-punk (like The Meat Puppets but weirder and louder), it wasn’t until the ’90s that The Flaming Lips entered my worldview. Specifically, with the Batman Forever soundtrack tune “Bad Days,” from Clouds Taste Metallic. It’s a funny, quirky, catchy tune about hating life. For a while, the Lips burned with songs like these, which combined humor and loud, searing rockitude. I’m a big proponent of Transmissions From the Satellite Heart for its thunderous low ends. You can tell these guys love Black Sabbath.

While I’ve never bothered with Zaireeka – an album consisting of four discs meant to be played simultaneously – The Soft Bulletin marks the true departure for the band, as their sound became refined to a spacey pop orientation. This was further cultivated on the sci-fi leanings of Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots and its associated EPs (Dig that B-side “Thank You Jack White (For the Fiber Optic Jesus That You Gave Me)”). While I haven’t been that impressed with the band’s post-Yoshimi output, I’m a big, big fan of Christmas on Mars. Watching it has become an annual tradition around the holidays, and the screaming, psychedelic, quasi-orchestral score suits me fine.

Verdict: Keep.

The Flatliners

As excited as I was by Cavalcade last year, I still feel like I underrated The Flatliners at the time. That record dishes out raw punk rock with the occasional dub influence. I felt then and now that it was a record tailor-made for me, so much so that The Flatliners have become the new standard by which I judge contemporary punk bands. While I may not love them as much as, say, Jawbreaker or The Clash, they still get me so dang excited. Cavalcade remains a go-to-get-stoked record, although The Great Awake has my favorite Flatliners’ tune, “Eulogy.” Yeah, it’s so clearly meant to be a single for everyone to get behind, but c’mon. That tune reminds me so explicitly of Michael and how I feel about how he ended up that it’s almost ridiculous in its catharsis. I hope these guys stick around for a while.

Verdict: Keep.


Once upon a time, I was an otaku, an anime fan. One of my favorite animes in high school was FlCl, commonly called “Fooly Cooly.” It’s about a kid and aliens, typical anime stuff, but it was way weirder and funnier, with superior animation to what was coming out of Japan at the time. Like the best anime (Cowboy Bebop, Akira), the music was great too. Japanese alt-rock group The Pillows provided most of the tunes, with some help from composer Shinkichi Mitsumune. While the group’s English is dubious at times (Sample lyric: “Could it be? / Could it be hybrid rainbow?”), the band still wrote some top notch pop rock tunes for the soundtracks. Tunes like “Last Dinosaur” and “Little Busters” are super catchy and hold up all these years later. I might not watch much anime these days [Side note: They just put out a Trigun movie? Anybody interested?], but I still love the music.

Verdict: Keep.

Flight of the Conchords

For a while there, Flight of the Conchords were simultaneously one of the best bands and funniest comedy acts out there. They wrote joke songs in a variety of genres that were also legitimately catchy/good. By season/album two, the group hit a creative wall, in that they ran out of stuff to write about and genres to explore. But on The Distant Future and Flight of the Conchords, the duo dished out amazing tunes ranging from hip-hop (“Hiphopopotamus Vs. Rhymenoceros,” “Mutha’uckas”) to electronic (“Inner City Pressure”) to glam rock (the immortal David Bowie tribute/parody “Bowie”). I took a break from listening to the band after their disappointing second album, but revisiting these early triumphs has me falling in love all over again.

Verdict: Keep.

Flogging Molly

While I never considered myself a superfan, I sure do love Flogging Molly. Those first four records are righteous bursts of Irish folk-punk that surpasses even The Pogues. I first fell in love with the group circa Drunken Lullabies in 2002, although Swagger quickly became my favorite. From there, I kept up with the group, and each release amazed me, for a while. Within a Mile of Home is a few songs too long, but it’s still got some of my all-time favorite Molly tunes, such as “The Seven Deadly Sins” and the title track. Flogging Molly is really, really good at writing breakneck-paced punk tunes while occasionally slipping in the occasional somber emotional touchstone, and Mile is a great example of these talents, even if I perpetually underrate it. Still, the only reason why I don’t spin Mile as much as Swagger, Lullabies, or the superb Float is that it’s among such great company. Also of interest is the rarities/documentary combo Whiskey on a Sunday. The documentary is a little repetitive but overall offers a neat glimpse into how the band works and came to be. The music portion offers acoustic reinterpretations of the band’s best-loved tunes, as well as a studio version of “Laura,” which was previously only available on the live album Alive Behind the Green Door.

Alive is one of two Flogging Molly albums I’ve chosen to sell back. The recording quality isn’t that great, even if half of the tunes never appeared on a proper studio album. It’s not bad, it’s just not something I put on often. The other record I’m parting with is 2011’s Speed of Darkness, which just does not do anything for me.

Verdict: Keep most.

+ The Machine

Every year, a handful of indie records break through to the mainstream (I like to call them iPod rock) and convince me that other people don’t have stupid taste in music. Phoenix is a good example; Florence + The Machine is another. I ignored her when Lungs came out in 2009, but at my fiancee’s insistence, I gave the record a shot and found it to be a moving piece of orchestral indie rock existing somewhere between Arcade Fire and Bjork. Plus, hearing “Kiss With a Fist” is probably the only good thing to happen to me in August 2010.

Verdict: Keep.

Floyd: Squawk Among Us

This one’s a Fat Wreck sampler that got passed around at Warped Tour 2002. I should probably throw it out, but it introduced me to The Lawrence Arms, Dillinger Four, and Nerf Herder’s “Welcome to My World.”

Verdict: Keep.