April 8, 2010
New York has a lot of bands. I doubt that’s much of a surprise. Some of them churn out superb albums every couple of years or so, to little fanfare. Here are four albums by New York artists from the past few years that you probably need to catch up on.
The Nightrats | The Nightrats
Moody, with a tendency to throw in French lyrics, The Nightrats have a sound which draws on the same Old World, Gypsy, and cabaret influences as ‘80s-era Tom Waits and Nick Cave, but they synthesize these influences into an atypically non-theatrical end product. This isn’t gimmicky bullshit, this is top-notch rock music. Add to this sound stoic vocals that seem transported from the ‘20s, and the band manages to create a first album that sounds like it exists out-of-time but isn’t an anachronistic throwback. This has the flavor of a dozen things you’ve heard before, but it also sounds shockingly original and awfully good.
Dream Bitches | Coke-and-Spiriters
Sounding like an ‘00s answer to the Breeders or Juliana Hatfield at her rockingest, Dream Bitches’ second album Coke-and-Spiriters is garage pop bliss. Fronted by vocalists Yoko Kikuchi and Ann Zakaluk, the band pulls off a giddy set of 10 songs without a clunker in the bunch. While a lot of the lyrics are about how dealing with boys can be a massive bummer, the words are married to memorably upbeat melodies. The opener “Bad Luck Bill” has such a tasty guitar crunch and temptingly singable “doo doo doo” hook, that you might want to stick it on repeat and leave it playing for an hour or two. Resist the temptation, though (at least, on first listen): the rest of the album is just as awesome.
March 20, 2010
Pop music has offered dozens of story-songs, from the funny (“A Boy Named Sue”) to the tragic (“El Paso”) to the sorta nonsensical (“Hotel California”) and beyond. The following four story-songs are all pretty good… but they’re pretty darn strange, too.
The Royal Guardsmen | “Snoopy Vs. The Red Baron”
A fairly weird attempt to cash in on the popularity of the Peanuts comic strip, this novelty single by The Royal Guardsmen recreates the fantasies of Charlie Brown’s dog. Manfred von Richtofen, aka The Red Baron, is wreaking havoc on dozens of good-guy fighter pilots (the song specifies 80 men, which is apparently his legit war record). And while history would have us believe that the Red Baron succumbed to injuries he sustained during a firefight with Brit flying ace Donald Cunnell, the Guardsmen know it was actually “a funny-looking dog with a big black nose” who brought the Baron down. In the song, the Baron shoots down Snoopy easily at first, but Snoopy consults the Great Pumpkin and comes back bigger and better than ever, to knock the Baron from the skies. He doesn’t kill him though, because the Baron returns to face Snoopy in two more very similar-sounding (but not quite as fun) novelty singles, “Return of the Red Baron” and “Snoopy’s Christmas.”
Genesis | “Domino”
Frankly, I could have filled this entire column with weird-ass story-songs by Genesis, but this is a notable late-era example, hiding between hit singles on the band’s ubiquitous pop album Invisible Touch. “Domino” is a two-parter that begins with the sedate but creepy section “In The Glow Of The Night,” where the lead character yearns for a lost love, bemoans his solitude, and mutters, “Do you know what you have done? Do you know what you’ve begun?” Then we are sent hurtling into the second part, “The Last Domino” which sounds like an ‘80s sci-fi/action movie apocalypse, as the (anti?) hero describes “a beautiful river of blood” that drowns him while nearby children are playing with boats. Is it all in his mind? Did he murder his lover? Did he set off a cataclysm that will kill us all? What is going on!?! The song insinuates more than it answers, which is part of why it is so unsettlingly memorable, like a well-made artsy horror movie.
March 7, 2010
Here’s 4 songs you may or may not know well, re-done by four of the best acts in Country music.
Dolly Parton | “Stairway to Heaven”
Great: it’s a bluegrass version of Led Zeppelin’s inescapable, nonsensical anthem about buying heavenly stairways and bustling hedgerows. Did the world really need this? Well, actually, I’d be inclined to argue yes. Dolly Parton is in good voice (frequently multi-tracked) on this cover version, from her 2002 album Halos & Horns, and she delivers one of her most passionate performances. Plus, it helps that she is backed by an intricate band arrangement that never explodes into Zep-ish bombast, but builds and climaxes satisfyingly, with a choir providing the intensity previously provided by loud rock guitar. And, as this track makes clear, Dolly’s high notes beat Robert Plant’s any day.
Rosanne Cash | “I’m Movin’ On”
For her newest album, Rosanne Cash has done a covers record that comes with an interesting backstory. Her father, Johnny Cash, made up a list of 100 Essential Country Songs for her in the ‘70s, to make up for gaps in her music education, and she has taken 12 of those songs and re-done them on the album, titled appropriately The List. There’s a lot of good tracks on The List, but her cover of Hank Snow’s “I’m Movin’ On” stands out for its atmosphere. Sounding like a less-clanky Tom Waits ballad, the band shuffles casually, while the slide-y lead guitar part evokes movie images of desolate highways and diner jukeboxes. Cash sounds laid back, sometimes breathy, and full of swagger in her vocal delivery, a chanteuse-y approach that folds nicely into the recording.
February 24, 2010
From wholly original soundtracks like Curtis Mayfield’s work for Super Fly to iconic oldies compilations like American Grafitti, the 1970s was the first golden age for the movie soundtrack.
After a glut of ’80s crap, the art form of the movie soundtrack bounced back in the ’90s. Pulp Fiction is the key example of a soundtrack that was not only essential to the movie it supported, but became essential listening on its own (although the soundtrack to Tarantino’s follow-up, Jackie Brown, gets my vote for soundtrack of the decade). Other soundtracks were so popular (Lost Highway, Empire Records) that more people had them in their CD collections than had ever bought a ticket to see the movie. The following 4 selections were not so popular, but they remain worthwhile listening experiences whether you’ve seen the movie or not.
Out of Sight | Music From the Motion Picture
1998 was the moment when DJs were making their biggest impact as solo artists in mainstream music, thanks partially to Fatboy Slim’s “Rockafeller Skank.” One DJ who got a leg up in this climate was David Holmes, whose first 2 albums were more often groovy than glitchy. Hired to do the music for Steven Soderbergh’s French New Wave-style take on an Elmore Leonard novel, Out of Sight, Holmes delivered a super-cool score that’s funky without being hectic and is ambient without being somnambulant. The soundtrack album seamlessly blends Holmes’s music cues with dialogue from the film and classic hits by The Isley Brothers, Dean Martin, and more. Twelve years later, it still sounds fresh and unembarassing in a way that those Fatboy Slim records sadly don’t.
February 21, 2010
No, you won’t find anything about Sufjan Stevens here.
Loudon Wainwright III | High Wide & Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project
Maybe this gem isn’t quite so hidden—it did just win the Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album—but I doubt you’ve heard it yet. Loudon Wainwright and some of his famous family (son Rufus, daughters Martha and Lucy, plus the ex-wife’s kin, The Roches) create an odd sort of tribute album to Charlie Poole, who was an old-time banjo player from the 1920s. You see, Poole wasn’t a songwriter, so Wainwright and Co. instead perform old-timey-sounding original songs inspired by Poole’s life, along with various other songs that Poole made famous with his recordings. The tales of boozing and hard living contained within wouldn’t seem out of place on an average Loudon Wainwright album, making the resemblance between the old-time picker and the modern-day musician who is paying him tribute a bit uncanny..
February 7, 2010
Sometimes musicians return to the studio after big hit albums by trying to top that album commercially. However, here are 4 albums where the artists instead went in a memorably weirder, less-commercial direction.
Todd Rundgren | A Wizard, A True Star
After the seeming fluke success of his 1972 double-album Something/Anything? — which was full of soft-rock staples you’re sure to hear now and again in your friendly neighborhood grocery or at the dentist’s office — Todd Rundgren responded by making his weirdest, least accessible album to that point. To call this album “schizo” is an understatement. The first half is dominated by oddball 60-to-90-second songs, typified by the track “Dogfight Giggle,” where the sounds of dogs barking and someone giggling are sped-up and played over and over. Even when the album relaxes into more conventional songs, the choices are odd: Rundgren (who, it should be pointed out, is one of the whitest people in the world) does a 10-minute medley of R&B hits including “Ooh Baby Baby” and “La La Means I Love You.” If you have the right sense of humor or sense of adventure, you will find this album greatly rewarding.
January 14, 2010
Orchestre Stukas | L’Afrique Danse Presents Orchestre Stukas
Yesterday was a sad day in the music world, and devastating for the world at large. I was once the wallowing type, but I’m instating a rule for myself this winter: NO DOWNER MUSIC. So I’m glad that I just found Orchestre Stukas, (also sometimes known as The Stukas Boys?), a 1970s soukous/rumba-esque band from the former Zaire. The Stukas Boys were fronted by Lita Bembo, the Congolese version of James Brown, who you can see in action here. Fast-paced, with a psych guitar and fun, deft rhythm, this four-song record is a good way to keep your mood afloat for around forty minutes. Then just watch some more of their videos, I guess. Well, I guess the rest of the week is going to be Orchestre Stukas and Jay Reatard on repeat for me. Try to feel better, world.
by Erin Sheehy
Willie Nelson | Willie Nelson Sings Kristofferson
Willie Nelson always seems to be putting out a new album, whether he’s taken the time to get good material together (2006’s Songbird, 2009′s American Classic) or not (the other twelve albums he’s made in the past decade). This album, one of three that Willie put out in 1979, is a gold nugget with a modest concept that seems to have gotten lost in the expanse of Willie’s discography. It doesn’t get much simpler than this: find a good country-rock backing band and cover a bunch of top-notch songs written by Kris Kristofferson, including “Me and Bobby McGee” (a prior hit for Janis Joplin), “Sunday Morning Coming Down” (a hit for Johnny Cash), and “Help Me Make It Through The Night” (an unjustly forgotten hit for Sammi Smith). The resulting album is a low-key pleasure.
by Justin Remer
January 7, 2010
Dan Melchior’s Broke Revue | Heavy Dirt
Billy Childish is known for his millions of side-projects almost as much as his work influencing garage punk as we know it. But what about the people HE works with? Holly Golightly’s had her White Stripes fun (“It’s True That We Love One Another”), but what of Dan Melchior, longtime collaborator with both? He’s had his Stripe-y touch too, with Dan Melchior’s Broke Revue opening for the band, but this is about Heavy Dirt, released on garage mainstays In the Red Records, during the now excellently vintage year of 2001. With the right dash of blues, and Melchior’s ever-so-slightly British touch, this is a strong album that offers a familiar The Headcoats-esque sound.
by allison levin
Various Artists | Skulls Without Borders
I was listening to Dan Melchior when allison sent me her writeup of Heavy Dirt, so I decided it was fate and that I had to tell you about Skulls Without Borders, Siltbreeze’s new limited-edition compilation that features a menacing, aloof track from Melchior, along with other gnarlies from Kurt Vile, Sic Alps and more. All in all, this little comp is the auditory version of something you find growing under a dumpster – grimy, fuzzy, and fascinating. Siltbreeze has sold out of their 10”, but digital copies abound in the blog world, and if you prefer not to freeload from awesome artists and labels (insert finger-wag here), Siltbreeze should have a digital edition available to buy soon. Listen here.
by Erin Sheehy
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