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Thursday, September 27, 2007

Indictment

From what I've seen, rock music fans can be incredibly unforgiving when a band seems to change its tune. So unforgiving that they can forever hate a band because they put out a record on a major label, used a certain producer or heavily tinkered with their sound in the process. Maybe I'm just looking at the wrong people, but I'm just in the dark as to why people are this way.

There's the angle about taking music incredibly personal and not being willing to share with others. I understand that because I've felt that way about a number of bands over the years. But I would never go so far and completely disown a band I love because they put out something I didn't like or became really popular.

It's as if people don't allow bands to grow. It's like they want them to be around forever and be forever great. They don't want them to ever change. To which I wonder: is this just wishful thinking?

I think about all the negativity Jawbreaker encountered when they signed with DGC back in 1994. People who held close to Unfun, Bivouac and 24 Hour Revenge Therapy automatically hated Dear You because it was on a major label. Most hated the idea before actually listening to the record. Yet the record appeared to be an attempt at the brass ring and I know there are people who still haven't forgiven the band for this. To which I reply: grow up, dude.

The situation the members of Jawbreaker were in when they formed was not the same situation they were in when they signed with DGC. Originally a band of college friends recording and touring on school breaks, they had done the band full-time for a few years by the time major labels showed interest. They were very vocal about their anti-major label views when asked by interviewers, so it seemed rather odd when they signed with one. But when I learned signing with a major label was a last-ditch effort to keep the band alive after years of tension and in-fighting, I had a much better understanding. The deal is, there are people who claim to not care about knowing that stuff. I beg to differ.

This kind of backlash seems like a crime has been committed. But when has growing up and taking your situation into consideration ever been illegal?

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Silent Bob Speaks

With yesterday's release of the book, My Boring-Ass Life: The Uncomfortably Candid Diary of Kevin Smith, I have a question: would you ever buy a book primarily made up of writings previously put online for free? I ask because I wonder if this could become a new trend in book publishing. Or am I seeing just another product coming out under the Kevin Smith brand name?

I have yet to go through a copy of this book, but from what I've heard, most of the material can be found online here. On this site, beyond talking up his upcoming promotional appearances, Kevin often delves into his personal daily life -- from checking e-mail to taking poops to hanging out with friends to working on films to watching DVDs and having sex with his wife. All this activity hardly constitutes a "boring-ass life" (the title's a reference to a line in Chasing Amy in case you've forgotten), but it's a glimpse into his life that isn't found anywhere else.

As a regular reader of his site, I enjoy reading about what goes on in his life, but I really have no interest in buying a collection of these posts in paperback form. Here's some more background as to why:

I'm often reminded of Silent Bob Speaks, a collection of Kevin's writings mostly culled from articles previously published in a British magazine. I had read those articles online and haven't had a desire to read them again in book form. Not even the couple articles done exclusively for the book make me want to lay down the cash for it. And frankly, looking at the book's large font and wide margins, I often wonder if this was a padded cash-in. Since there are people who are willing to buy almost everything related to Kevin, this seemed like another thing to add to the merchandising pile.

As much as I am a fan of Kevin's movies, his website, behind-the-scenes documentaries on DVD, commentary tracks and a number of his articles, I'm just not that inclined to buy books filled with his rants and descriptions of his daily life. So I think an answer to my question is based on the nature of the book and quality of what's in the book. It doesn't matter if the material is available online or not, if it's worth worth reading again and again in a book, then by all means yes. If his excellent Rolling Stone article on Darth Vader was to be reprinted in book filled with other great articles, I'd buy it right away. There's a difference.

So I'd like to get your thoughts on this. Would you ever want to read a collection of blog posts that I or anybody else did in book form? Is it really a matter of quality to generate interest in buying it in a book?

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

C-A-D-I-L-L-A-C

First, it was Led Zeppelin. Then it was Explosions in the Sky. Now, the music of the mighty Hum is being used in commercials for Cadillac. Here's the video for the song they're using and it's probably their best known song.

I'm not knocking the band here. I'm sure they were nicely compensated and I find no fault in this. However, I'm still not a big fan of songs not originally written for commercials be used in commercials. As I've said before, as long as I remember the ad's usage of the song, my fond memories of the song now come with a sales pitch. And that's creepy.

Now I wonder if Quicksand's "Dine Alone" will be used in McDonald's ad. For now, enjoy its video with no sales pitch added.

Monday, September 24, 2007

The Mechanicals

If you've been tracking the progress of Richard Kelly's long-in-development Southland Tales, you've probably heard about a certain screening it had at the Cannes Film Festival. There were walkouts throughout its near-three-hour running time and a few movie critics ripped the movie (and Kelly's talents) to shreds in their reviews.

Well, as its theatrical release date looms and last week's debut of its trailer, I'm already getting ticked with how writers are writing about this movie. Why? They make walkouts and harsh reviews seem rare for a movie. Folks, this stuff happens all the time with all kinds of movies. I'm just puzzled why people are using this as a copy point. Maybe it's in hopes this builds up a underdog motif for Kelly. At this point, buzz is building by the day and I think it's working in favor of the film.

In the case of Southland Tales' screening at Cannes, Kelly has said that it wasn't the kind of film for the Cannes audience. It probably would've played better at a comic book convention and I agree. But I think it's worth noting about a certain film that got an overwhelmingly positive response from an advance screening at a comic book convention: Mallrats.

Yes, it seems ages ago when Mallrats came out theatrically and was a box office dud, leaving execs to wonder if that was the best way to roll out the film. But that was 1995 and a lot of things are much different today with releasing movies like these. So maybe it was good for Southland Tales to screen at Cannes. You can only go up from there, right?

Well, I think this will do OK in a theatrical run, but it will really find its audience on DVD. And that's not meant to be a slam against it.

From the reviews I've read online, this film sounds quite polarizing with people that were really looking forward to it. This is definitely not a mass appeal movie even though there are some big stars in it. The movie contains a lot of information in its now two hour and twenty-four minute cut. Chances are good you're not going to understand it in one sitting. So, the eventual DVD release will be a great way of processing the information. Besides, this is how I still go about with Kelly's first film, Donnie Darko. I still have questions about that movie, but I gain more insight with repeat viewings. This said, I've always enjoyed that film as a whole. I hope this is also the case with Southland Tales.

I'm not trying to psyche myself out or go in with low hopes here. This is the kind of movie I'd like to see on a big screen -- and as longtime readers know, seeing something in its theatrical run is a rarity for me. It seems like the kind of picture worth seeing on the big screen and again on DVD. And no amount of good or bad reviews -- and same copy points -- are really going to stop that.

Friday, September 21, 2007

The Popular Music

As I looked back over my Complete Idiot's Guides this week, along with reading two AV Club pieces about great albums from the late Nineties, I thought about the context in which these records originally came out. Since I remember this time very well, I figured I'd share some thoughts. Mostly, how music history seems bigger, more magical and to a degree, innocent, when looking back.

1997 was the year I graduated high school and started college. I found myself falling out with a couple of friends who were my best friends through high school and found myself hanging out with people who I still consider best friends today. Music was a topic we often discussed and we raved about the great records of the day. Records like OK Computer, Brighten the Corners and Whatever and Ever Amen were just some of the ones we talked about. The deal was, most of this stuff was not getting heavy rotation on MTV or VH1 or on our big local radio station. The Internet was mostly used for e-mailing and the idea of high-speed Internet was a few years off.

Now I'm not going to spin things and say life was tougher or more optimistic then, but for me, life in general was different. I had yet to have the "college experience" because I was taking classes at a community college. Plus, I had yet to live on my own. In other words, these were experiences that greatly altered my life. With those experiences and new experiences happening here and there, my taste in music slowly branched out.

The interesting thing is, looking at the main AV Club piece, a lot of these records were not given the most amount of coverage in mainstream publications or channels. With the exception of the hip-hop records and OK Computer, most of this stuff was relegated to a few airings on 120 Minutes and M2, along with short articles in Spin, Alternative Press and Rolling Stone. I think I heard more about how grunge is dead and electronica is the next big thing. Ska was huge, as was big-band style swing. Pop-punk had been played out for many. Outside of what my friends and I raved about, I heard more about what sucked compared to what was great.

But what still gets talked about all these years later is the stuff that sticks. And there's nothing wrong with that. I just find it misleading for people who weren't clued into these records back in the day to think things were better back then. I just don't believe in the idea that the quality of modern music dies when your jaded elders lose interest in it.

I'm of the opinion that great modern music is always out there. It just requires some digging around to find. There will always be crap out there as well. It's very much a yin and yang sort of flow. Thankfully, memory tends to favor the better stuff over the crappy stuff. And that's good to know.

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Ash

Originally posted on Tuesday, April 3rd, 2007

Bio help from Walking Barefoot

There’s a long list of bands that were huge in England and the U.K. but never gained more than a small following in the United States. You’ve heard quite a bit about bands in the Seventies and Eighties, but what about bands that gained prominence in the Nineties? The coverage is scant, leaving a number of truly intriguing bands out of the picture. I’m talking Manic Street Preachers, Therapy?, Skunk Anansie, Supergrass and plenty of others. But Ash is a special case. How could a band be so heavily influenced by American music, only to never receive widespread acclaim in the U.S.?

Bassist Mark Hamilton and vocalist/guitarist Tim Wheeler were born in 1977 in the Northern Ireland town of Downpatrick. They started playing together in a band called Vietnam in 1989, but they broke up in 1992 when their drummer left. Playing with new drummer Rick McMurray, they christened the new band Ash. They were influenced by the kind of rock music not just invading American airwaves at the time, but Top of the Pops and the NME as well. Since this was the year of grunge’s peak in popularity, English bands like Suede and Blur were exceptions as Nirvana, Soundgarden, Smashing Pumpkins, and Pearl Jam ruled the pack. So it’s understandable how grunge’s influence is all over Ash’s first proper release.

Trailer (1994)

Released as a 7-song mini-album (and an 11-song full-length in America a year later), Trailer is a really dodgy and dated effort. The simplicity of grunge’s power chords and a distortion pedal lend themselves well to some really gruff songs with some semi-likeable melodies. But the saving grace comes in the form of two standout singles, “Jack Names the Planets” and “Petrol.” “Jack” has a superb chorus while “Petrol” has this ringing guitar line that easily gets stuck in your head.

Though Hamilton and McMurray were major parts of the band, Wheeler is definitely the strongest component here. With a voice that moves easily from warm and friendly to snide and bratty, Wheeler made for a very distinct frontman even this early in the game.

None of Trailer’s singles made it very high on the charts, but when two new singles were released in '95, Ash’s popularity quickly rose. “Kung Fu” and “Girl from Mars” showed remarkable improvement in the songwriting department. Snappier and even more tuneful than anything on Trailer, Ash was now out of grunge’s doldrums. Working with Owen Morris, the same producer who helmed Oasis’s second album (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?, their first proper album was a critical turning point.

1977 (1996)

As a tribute to the year Wheeler and Hamilton were born (as well as the first Star Wars film appearing in theaters), 1977 is essential listening for anyone hoping to understand Ash. Making good on the promise found on “Kung Fu” and “Girl from Mars,” the album shows a band coming into its own. Not only could they rock, but they could do so much more. It proved the band members had more records in their collection than certain titles from the Sub Pop, DGC and Caroline catalogs.

The band effortlessly walks through barn-burners that could send a small audience into a moshing frenzy as well as ballads that could unite an entire stadium in arms. “Lose Control” makes ample use of Wheeler’s wah-wah pedal as well as McMurray’s tight snare rolls.

The same applies to “Angel Interceptor” and “Darkside Lightside.” “Goldfinger” has shades of Oasis-styled rock complete with stops and starts between the verses and choruses. “I’d Give You Anything” is a bluesy glitter rock tune, but it’s followed by a subdued string-laced tune called “Gone the Dream.” “Lost in You” pinches its melody from Frank Sinatra’s “Strangers in the Night” while “Oh Yeah” has a feel perfect for waving a cigarette lighter in the air.

Every song here is a winner, and the album could easily be mistaken for a singles collection. In one of those planets-aligning moments, the band crafted a fine album, but one which would also cast a large shadow over future efforts. Reaching number one on the U.K. album charts, the band received some significant coverage in America as well. “Kung Fu” was featured on the soundtracks for Rumble in the Bronx and Angus and the videos for “Goldfinger” and “Girl from Mars” aired prominently on MTV’s 120 Minutes.

Playing all around the world, including U.S. dates with Stabbing Westward and Weezer, the band were certified superstars in their homeland. A live album recorded in Australia, Live at the Wireless, was even released. But a frequent conundrum is where to go after you’ve seen the top.

1997 began with the band expanding its lineup to a quartet. Former Nightnurse guitarist Charlotte Hatherley officially joined on second guitar and some of her first shows were the V97 festival and opening for U2 on the PopMart tour. Hatherley gave some major help to the band’s live sound since Wheeler’s guitar parts had long since morphed from just power chord changes.

A new track, “A Life Less Ordinary,” was released that year along with the film of the same name. Not a drastic departure from 1977’s style, but an ace track no less. Featuring Hatherley’s sweet backing vocals, along with guitars and keyboards, things looked promising for the band’s next album.

Nu-Clear Sounds (1998)

Once again produced by Owen Morris, Nu-Clear Sounds got a bum rap immediately upon its release. A commercial disappointment, the album was panned largely due to its rough production, abundance of dissonance and rather somber feel. Though it’s not the best Ash record to introduce someone to the band, I find it incredibly underrated.

Making this record wasn’t easy for the band. Wheeler had writer’s block and there was plenty of infighting going on. They cooked up a large amount of songs, from 1977-styled gems to noisier jams to spare ballads. The songs that made the final cut were indeed rougher, but no less captivating. “Wild Surf” is a happy little bopper, but there are spots where it sounds like they wanted to play “wrong” notes on purpose. Seventeen seconds in, the guitar lead hits some notes that just don’t sound right. This approach would be very evident on a couple of other tracks.

“Numbskull” and “Death Trip 21″ completely jettison the sugar and go for the abrasive. Augmented by a DJ scratching here and there, the songs befuddled those steeped in the ways of “Jack Names the Planets” and “Girl from Mars.” Though these were only two songs on an 11-track album, they left a bad taste in the mouths of people who seemingly overlooked the classic Ash rockers “Fortune Teller” and “Projects,” along with the pretty ballads “Folk Song,” “I’m Gonna Fall,” and “Aphrodite.” Nu-Clear Sounds is the band’s dark horse album.

Ash’s popularity was still strong in the band’s homeland and Japan, but exposure in Europe and the U.S. was scant. They switched U.S. labels, from Reprise to DreamWorks, then a privately-owned label catered towards career-minded artists like Elliott Smith and Rollins Band. Other than some airings of the “Jesus Says” video, the American version of Nu-Clear Sounds (with different artwork, a reordered tracklisting, four songs remixed by Butch Vig and “A Life Less Ordinary” as a bonus track) went virtually unnoticed outside of college radio and Sunday night specialty shows.

The band regrouped in 2000 to work on new songs at Wheeler’s parents’ home in Downpatrick. They played some new material live at one-off dates and even released a download-only single, “Warmer than Fire.” As a taste of their third album with Owen Morris, the song has a nice midtempo groove with no dissonance. But skepticism remained with people wondering what the hell happened to Ash. Once the new single “Shining Light” was released, more fans started coming around. Anticipation for the next Ash album grew from “meh” to “hell yeah!”

Free All Angels (2001)

Not to discredit Free All Angels (it’s the record I’d suggest checking out after 1977 for introductory purposes), but it’s like a cross between 1977 and Nu-Clear Sounds. The songs are much more polished and many of the tunes are sunny and happy.

“Burn Baby Burn” is in the pantheon of songs like “Girl from Mars” and “Petrol,” complete with a turbo-charged guitar solo by Hatherley. The experimentation the band tried out on Nu-Clear Sounds is further explored on tracks like “Candy” and “Submission.” “Submission” is a tad dodgy and annoying, but “Candy” successfully fuses a sample of the Walker Brothers’ rendition of “Make It Easy on Yourself” with a funky ballad groove.

There are some punky numbers here, like “Pacific Palisades,” “World Domination,” and “Nicole,” but there are some beautiful ballads as well. “Someday” and “Sometimes” are nice, but it’s the power ballad “There’s a Star” that helps the record’s second half stay afloat. Echoing the kind of instrumentation you hear in James Bond flicks like You Only Live Twice, the orchestra makes the song sound large. Luckily, the song is really good at the core as well.

With yet another U.S. label taking the reins, Free All Angels found Kinetic packaging the album with a bonus track and DVD to boot. Even at its $5.99 sale price for its first week, the record did even less business than Nu-Clear Sounds. Still, plenty of American fans who had followed the band since 1977 gave the record a thumbs-up. But the chances of a larger U.S. audience getting ahold of them were decreasing, and Kinetic would fold a few years later.

Intergalactic Sonic 7"s (2002)

Fitting for Ash’s tenth anniversary as a band, Infectious issued Intergalactic Sonic 7″s in 2002. The usual suspects are here along with a new track, “Envy.” But it’s “Cosmic Debris,” the bonus second disc that came with the first pressing, that makes for a really compelling listen.

Compiled of b-sides fans chose online, a number of these tracks are absolutely stellar. The band who said around 1977 that their b-sides were mere afterthoughts, but this collection says otherwise. Their exclusion from the proper albums is understandable, but some tracks make you wonder. “No Place to Hide” originally appeared as a b-side to “There’s a Star” and gets the CD off to a great start. This is classic pop-punk Ash and one of their best songs to date. It was recorded after the completion of Free All Angels, and that’s why it’s here and not on the album.

“Stormy Waters” originally appeared as a b-side to “Wild Surf” and could have livened the mood on Nu-Clear Sounds, but alas, it was not meant to be. “Nocturne” comes from the Free All Angels sessions and would have been a little too soft for the album. Its main melody has shades of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” along with a gorgeous string accompaniment. Other tracks include the Hatherley-sung “Taken Out,” a cover of Mudhoney’s “Who You Drivin’ Now?” and a cover of the Cantina Band song in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.

Meltdown (2004)

Meltdown found the band working with producer Nick Raskulinecz, the same producer behind the Foo Fighters’ One by One, and the results were very Foo-ish. In other words, Meltdown is a very polished and rockin’ affair. But it feels a little too rockin’ at times.

Tracks like “Orpheus” and “Evil Eye” are pretty solid rockers, but even the ballad “Starcrossed” is a rockin’ affair. I really like “Clones,” but I can understand others not liking it for being a little heavy on the guitar riffin’. A couple of tracks are friendlier like “Out of the Blue,” “Renegade Cavalcade” and “Won’t Be Saved,” but make no mistake, this is the band’s big rock record.

While recording Meltdown, Hatherley completed a solo album, Grey Will Fade, with producer Eric Drew Feldman. More critically acclaimed in some spots than Meltdown, it was also well-received on the U.K. charts. The album was only available as an import in the U.S. and Meltdown’s chances of a stateside release were also up in the air at the time.

Luckily, Record Collection, a Warner Bros. imprint, came to the rescue, releasing Meltdown with three bonus tracks and a bonus DVD; it looks like the band has found a steady U.S. label for now. Along with some nice exposure in the film Shaun of the Dead (which used demo versions of “Orpheus” and “Meltdown” as well as their cover of the Buzzcocks’ “Everybody’s Happy Nowadays” with Chris Martin of Coldplay), the band still has a loyal following in the U.S.

In 2006, it was a bit of a shock when the announcement came down that Hatherley was leaving the band. Whether or not it was totally mutual, Ash continued work on a new album as a trio while Hatherley worked on a second solo album, The Deep Blue. The band released a new single, “I Started a Fire” in early 2007 with hopes of releasing their new album this year*.

*UPDATE: Ash's final album, Twilight of the Innocents, was released in July 2007. The band plans on sticking together, but will only release singles.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Fugazi

Originally posted: Tuesday, January 9th, 2007

For a lot of people, Fugazi’s essential stuff consists of 13 Songs and Repeater. I’m not going to argue with that assessment, but I will argue with the idea that the rest of their catalog is a weird, frustrating puzzle.

Originally formed as a trio in 1986 with Ian MacKaye on vocals and guitar, Joe Lally on bass and Colin Sears on drums, Fugazi was hotly anticipated before they ever played a show. Sears was from the lauded Dag Nasty and MacKaye was already a legend not just in Washington D.C., but the whole country.

MacKaye helped form and run Dischord Records, the label that put D.C. on the map in the hardcore scene. Putting out releases by Minor Threat, Scream and the Faith, Dischord was a way to document a local music scene. With no interest in devaluing music for the sake of consumerism, Dischord has remained one of the most iconic independent labels in the world. For some, it’s the label. But how did it go from a hardcore punk imprint to what it is now? Though plenty of other bands on the label deserve credit, Fugazi was a big part of the broadening Dischord’s appeal beyond the hardcore world.

Taking its name from a slang word for “fucked up situation,” Fugazi had an approach nobody could have ever predicted. Instead of the fast and furious ways of Minor Threat or the wiry, moodier material of Embrace, MacKaye wrote songs that had a quasi funk and reggae feel and a nod to Seventies hard rock to boot. Definitely not resting on laurels, Fugazi was incredibly advanced even at the beginning.

Before their first show in September '87, Sears left the band to rejoin Dag Nasty. Replacing him was former Rites of Spring drummer Brendan Canty, whose approach to the groove was essential in creating the loose-but-driving mood that Fugazi would forever be known for. Adding Canty’s former Rites of Spring bandmate Guy Picciotto to the fold on lead and backing vocals, the band was definitely a D.C. supergroup. However, MacKaye made sure that flyers for their shows did not advertise their ex-member ties. Instead, they wanted to start from scratch. It would prove to be a very smart move — the material found on the band’s first two EPs formed the measuring stick for all things considered post-hardcore in years to come.

13 Songs (1989)

Joining the seven songs found on the Fugazi EP and the six songs on the Margin Walker EP, 13 Songs is a pretty intense introduction. It kicks off with the arguably best-known Fugazi song — and “Waiting Room” is a stellar debut track. But it’s the two following songs that give a better glimpse as far as what Fugazi was at the time — and what it would become. The Picciotto-sung “Bulldog Front” offers a restrained verse only to be knocked aside by a jamming chorus. The MacKaye-led “Bad Mouth” features a double-time guitar line over a cut-time drum pattern. The song’s arrangement teases with a build-up towards a grand chorus, something the band would use to great effect in its live show.

Already, you can hear the differences between Picciotto and MacKaye’s voices. Picciotto’s strained tenor and MacKaye’s shouted barks sound nothing alike, but they complement each other in their own beautifully disjointed ways. This would definitely make for a key ingredient in making their first proper album a treasure.

Repeater (1990)

Yes, this record is a post-hardcore masterpiece. I think it’s the best Fugazi record in terms of flow and mood, but it isn’t the only great record they made. I don’t mean to take Repeater’s thunder away; it’s hard to find a bad moment on the album. I just feel that people who begin and end with here are missing out on some crucial stuff post-Repeater. For now, let’s look at why Repeater is probably the record to start with.

With Picciotto now playing guitar, the interplay between he and MacKaye would bulk up their already ferocious guitar attack. Lally and Canty perfectly lock in underneath, as evidenced in tracks like “Sieve-Fisted Find,” “Merchandise,” “Brendan #1″ and the title track. Yet it’s the slower material that shows how much the band had grown.

“Blueprint” and “Shut the Door” take the pace down, but don’t kill the vibe. Appearing in the middle and at the end, these songs elevate the band out of the “Stooges meets reggae” approach perfected on 13 Songs.

Fugazi was already a powerhouse touring machine by now. Their concerts were events more than mere shows. The abrupt starts and stops and quiet-loud dynamics were even more pronounced live. Though the band would be taunted by requests for Minor Threat songs during their first few years together, people were really clicking into what Fugazi had to offer by Repeater. The band never used a setlist, so you never knew which songs you’d hear. More often than not, you came away seeing probably one of the best shows of your life.

With the mainstream interest in anything considered alternative growing as 1991 loomed, plenty of bands, including Fugazi, would eventually benefit from increased exposure. However, Fugazi weren’t about to bow down to major label machinations in order to sell a few more albums. This was especially evident on Repeater’s follow-up.

Steady Diet of Nothing (1991)

While Steady Diet of Nothing is not a letdown per se, it does leave a lot to be desired after Repeater. A number of riffs sound like they were cribbed from a Seventies guitar tablature book, and overall the record feels a little plodding. There’s nothing like “Radar Love” or “Stranglehold” here, but compared to what Fugazi had already done, the riffs feel a little stilted and too straightforward.

That said, Steady Diet of Nothing features some key tracks in the band’s canon. “Reclamation,” with its overdriven guitars and cut-time drumbeats, would be a live staple from here on out. Closer “KYEO” would also be a live favorite, but there was plenty of better stuff coming as soon as the next album.

Despite Steady Diet of Nothing’s flaws, I should point out how magnetic this band was at the time: They called out crowdsurfers by stopping their shows, played only all-ages concerts, didn’t sell T-shirts, didn’t make videos, and their CDs (along with all other Dischord CDs) cost only $8. At a time when major labels were lurching on the underground to make it their new bread and butter, Fugazi stuck to their ideals and never let go. Though their albums would never have that major-label polished gloss that smoothes all the rough edges away, Fugazi wasn’t hindered. On the contrary, they thrived.

In On the Kill Taker (1993)

Definitely a great rebound record, In On the Kill Taker was actually recorded twice. Their first attempt was with famed engineer Steve Albini. While those sessions would be great experience, everyone involved with the project (including Albini) was unsatisfied with the results, so the band did it again, this time with Ted Niceley at Inner Ear Studios (where almost every Dischord act had already recorded). The second time was the charm, delivering probably one of band’s most ferocious records.

In On the Kill Taker feels like a bunch of people banging on your doors and knocking your windows out. MacKaye and Picciotto are even more relentless in their vocal delivery. For those still pining for something in the vein of Minor Threat, “Great Cop” is probably the closest that Fugazi ever got. Coupled with other fist-pumpers like “Facet Squared” and “Smallpox Champion,” the record is pretty stellar in the rockin’ and ravin’ department.

The brash intensity doesn’t really let up until the final tracks. “Instrument” is slower, but rather melodic (Fugazi-wise), while “Last Chance for a Slow Dance” closes out the album with a gentle, art-damaged piece.

In On the Kill Taker’s followup would not arrive for two years; in the meantime, the band’s sound would be undertaking some sonic adventures — much to some people’s chagrin — but this kept them from treading water.

Red Medicine (1995)

On the whole, Red Medicine sounds like the band using the studio itself as an instrument. Jams and ideas are included in glimpses and in full songs (see “Combination Lock” and “Version”). While they are a tad distracting, the songs themselves are not.

Red Medicine is tamer compared to In On the Kill Taker, yet this isn’t a cop-out. “Do You Like Me” thrusts around with a boogie-like groove. “Bed for the Scraping” and “Downed City” are in the vein of In On the Kill Taker’s rave-ups complete with siren-like guitar squeals. “Forensic Scene” has an open, cut-up guitar riff that leads to a tangled chorus. “Target” is a grooving song that arrives near “Smallpox Champion” by way of the Jimi Hendrix Experience.

Lally makes his lead vocal debut on “By You,” delivering a low-key approach over a tripped-out, noisy affair. Final track “Long Distance Runner” sounds like it was a quiet ballad in its early stages only to be amplified by the full studio treatment.

The changes in the band’s sound would turn off people steeped in the ways of 13 Songs and Repeater. With the Alternative Nation moving into scattered packs, Fugazi would continue to challenge themselves whether they gained or lost fans along the way. Red Medicine was not a polarizing record per se, but it definitely drew some lines in the sand.

End Hits (1997)

In response to rumors that the band was breaking up, Fugazi humorously titled its fifth proper album End Hits. Far from it — though the band’s last few records hadn’t sold as much its first few releases, End Hits and its follow-up show that the group wasn’t running out of fuel. However, End Hits does suffer from being a little too disjointed.

After a moody start, the peppy “Five Corporations” and “Caustic Acrostic” make for a proper kick in the pants. Both are head-boppers, especially “Caustic Acrostic.” A nice open guitar lead is punched forward by Canty’s fluid-but-twisted drumbeat. “Closed Captioned” really switches gears to amazing effect. Augmented by a drum machine, the song’s dripping guitar lines give the song a dreary, eerie feel. “Arpeggiator” is another highlight because of its main guitar riff. Taking the often-used technique for tuning a guitar and turning it into a riff is pretty darn cool if you ask me.

Overall, End Hits is similar in tone to Steady Diet of Nothing, but it doesn’t feel stifled like Steady Diet. As a matter of fact, the band sounds very loose and relaxed (check out “Floating Boy” for proof). All kidding with the title aside, it’s good that Fugazi didn’t end here.

The Argument (2001)

Between End Hits and The Argument, Instrument, a Fugazi documentary was released. A fascinating collage of the band over the years, Instrument is essential viewing. Showing the band from various sides (calling out crowd roughhousers, showing tension while making Red Medicine, goofing around at a gas station, discussing certain myths about the band), director Jem Cohen offers a portrait of the band that you can’t get from its records.

Fugazi supplied the Instrument soundtrack with demos of songs both released and unreleased. Many of the tracks are instrumental and aren’t really that engaging on their own out of context, which is why it’s not getting a spotlight here.

Now, The Argument. End Hits flies a little off the handle into esoteric avant-garde, but The Argument reels things back in a good way. Following an untitled instrumental, “Cashout” gets a funky groove going. “Full Disclosure” and “Epic Problem” crank the energy up tenfold. “Full Disclosure” features a wailing Picciotto vocal over a sliding guitar line that’s met by a melodic, falsetto-spiced chorus.

“Epic Problem” drives a charging beat and guitar line to great effect, especially in the bridge. The song also features a second drummer, named Jerry Busher. Busher was a part of the band’s road crew and had been adding auxiliary drumparts live for awhile. A number of tracks on The Argument feature Busher, and make crafty use of two drummers without tying up the sound in knots. Check out “Ex-Spectator” for more proof.

The Argument works so well because it feels like a more song-oriented album rather than a jazzy, off-the-cuff record. I don’t want to slag the band for its sonic experiments on Red Medicine and End Hits, but The Argument feels stronger because of its focus.

Since completing a touring cycle in 2002, Fugazi has listed itself as “on hiatus.” Though the band refuses to say it’s finished, this hiatus is not about to end anytime soon. MacKaye has cut two records with the Evens, Lally released a solo album earlier this year, Picciotto recently produced the newest Blood Brothers record and Canty has drummed for Bob Mould and has been a part of the Burn to Shine DVD series.

A few years ago, the Fugazi Live Series an official online store featuring a number of Fugazi’s live shows, debuted. Currently, thirty complete shows are available for purchase (including the band’s first show in '87) individually or in sets.

Not much unreleased material has surfaced, except for two tracks found on the 20 Years of Dischord box set. Along with a live version of “Burning,” “The Word” was a Margin Walker outtake. This recording was the last time the band ever played the song.

In closing, Fugazi was one of the most defiant bands not just in the Alternative Nation or the world of punk rock, but the world, period. In fifteen years, they toured every state in the US and played all over the planet many times. They never made commercial concessions for the sake of gaining new fans. They always wanted to make seeing them play and hearing their music accommodating within reason. Combined sales of their catalog are well beyond the 2 million mark now. However, considering Fugazi’s longtime creed, that’s really just an afterthought.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Catherine Wheel

Originally posted: Tuesday, August 29th, 2006

Despite managing to release five proper albums, Catherine Wheel was one of those bands that always seemed to slip past the mainstream rock crowd. Yes, they got some nice airplay in their day, but people seem to have forgotten about them. You may hear “Black Metallic” or “Waydown” on a “classic alternative” show on Sirius or XM or maybe even on terrestrial radio, but that’s about it. For me, they were one of most consistent rock bands of the ’90s, meandering through shoegazer, hard rock, space rock and pop rock, all while eluding mainstream pigeonholing.

Led by the smooth, warm pipes of vocalist/guitarist Rob Dickinson (cousin of Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson), Catherine Wheel featured Brian Futter on lead guitar, Dave Hawes on bass and Neil Sims on drums. They weren’t a pretty-boy guitar band, but they weren’t a scuzzy bunch of ragamuffins either.

Though the band hailed from England, Catherine Wheel found itself more welcome on American airwaves for many years. Coming out at a time when shoegaze was at its peak and Britpop was just beginning to sprout, Catherine Wheel was more rocking than its fellow countrymen.

Forming in 1990 and debuting on record in 1991 with two singles, “She’s My Friend” and “Painful Thing,” there was considerable buzz by the time Catherine Wheel’s debut album appeared in stores in February 1992.

Ferment (1992)

Once the drums kick in on the opener, “Texture,” the rush begins. Featuring open chords over a wash of distortion, the instant, easy comparison is to shoegazer rock — but with all due respect to bands like Slowdive and My Bloody Valentine, Catherine Wheel weren’t about creating a waterfall of melody and distortion; instead, they were about breaking through with sweet melodies and aggression.

Ferment would spawn two singles, both receiving plenty of airplay in the US: “Black Metallic” and “I Want to Touch You.” In a day when alternative rock was really making an impression in the mainstream as a viable format, chances were good that you heard these songs on a regular basis. While both singles are great, probably the dark horse of the album is nestled in the middle. “Flower to Hide” has this curling guitar melody that weaves over an ultra-melodic harmony. Plus, its chorus is a gem.

That said, I would not recommend starting with Ferment. Too much of the album is same-songy, leaving you with the notion that if you like the singles, that’s what you’re gonna get with the rest of the album. There isn’t a sense of adventure on this album. For that, I highly suggest checking out Ferment’s follow-up.

Chrome (1993)

Gil Norton produced the second album, beginning an era that is often considered classic Catherine Wheel by many hardcore fans. Singles “Crank” and “Show Me Mary” add some fun to the mix, as well as a sense of general loosening from the material found on Ferment. Chrome feels clearer and more powerful, especially evidenced on “Broken Head.” Its opening atonal riff tears itself apart, only to be beautifully augmented by a catchy guitar line underneath.

Probably the quietest, yet most epic moment comes with “Fripp.” Starting off with a guitar line that recalls Blade Runner-era Vangelis, the song builds to a pretty satisfying payoff. This kind of soft and moody vibe would be heard again on future records.

Also of note is the album cover. Storm Thorgerson, the man behind so many classic album covers, including a number of Pink Floyd’s, designed the Chrome sleeve. Featuring cool blue underwater shots of two women and a man, the cover recalls a time when album artwork really meant something iconic and artistic, not just unimaginative advertising meant to get kids to empty their pockets. Catherine Wheel would work with Thorgerson from here on out, creating some of most eye-catching album sleeves of the ’90s.

Happy Days (1995)

Having toured with Smashing Pumpkins and scored a minor hit with “Waydown,” Catherine Wheel received even more notoriety in the press and on MTV with Happy Days. The band’s sound is even tougher, as noted with near-punk songs like “Kill My Soul” and “Little Muscle.” On the opposite side of the spectrum, there is the absolutely chilled-out vibe of “Eat My Dust You Insensitive Fuck.” Even after all these years, that title still rules.

Happy Days shows the band at some of its most prettiest of moments too, building a strong case for Happy Days as one of their best albums. “Shocking” may nick its chorus from the Mindbenders’ “Groovy Kind of Love,” but its strings and peppy guitar lines make it a great original track. “Heal” displays the amazing width of Dickinson’s vocal range, along with his penchant for writing simple, but incredibly dense lyrics.

Another standout is the single, “Judy Staring at the Sun.” Tanya Donnelly, of Throwing Muses and Belly fame, duets with Dickinson throughout the track and it’s an added bonus. “Judy” is a fun little love song, and Donnelly’s candy-covered vocals only make it even better. Worth tracking down is an alternate version featuring Donnelly singing lead on the second verse.

Like Cats and Dogs (1996)

Even at this point in the band’s career, Catherine Wheel had enough material for at least one full album of non-LP material. Though the covers of Scott Walker’s “30 Century Man,” Hüsker Dü’s “Don’t Want to Know if You’re Lonely” and Mission of Burma’s “That’s When I Reach for My Revolver” didn’t make the cut, their covers of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” and Rush’s “Spirit of the Radio” did. While “Radio” is a tad on the sloppy and goofy side, their “Wish You Were Here” is one of the best covers of the song I’ve ever heard.

I’ve heard plenty of people argue that Catherine Wheel’s b-sides are as good as their a-sides, but I mildly disagree with what’s on Like Cats and Dogs. Songs like “Backwards Guitar,” “Tongue Twisted,” “La La Lala La” and “These Four Walls” show the same kind of spark found on their proper albums, but they just didn’t fit in elsewhere. That’s the beauty of b-side albums; the songs don’t fit anywhere else, but they work on a collection like this.

Adam and Eve (1997)

Happy Days' proper follow-up, with its nudes-in-compartments sleeve, is the band’s dark horse album. Lead single “Delicious” did receive some airplay and actually did very well in England, but more eyes were on other British acts like the Verve at the time. A portion of the band’s thunder was taken away; thus, a lot of people missed out on another great Catherine Wheel record.

The Pink Floyd influence is very evident on Adam and Eve, but that’s not the holdback. The main problem is that the album feels too labored over; that being said, songs like “Ma Solituda,” “Goodbye,” “Here Comes the Fat Controller” and “Broken Nose” are prime cuts. The band wasn’t at its rocking self on Adam and Eve, but in an evolution of sorts. Little did we all know that they were winding down to a stop.

Wishville (2000)

On a new label and billed to The Catherine Wheel (word is they always wanted this), Wishville sounds like an attempt at a new start. Dave Hawes was out, and the band recorded the album as a trio with Futter and Dickinson recording the bass. Talk Talk member/Ferment producer/frequent guest keyboardist Tim Friese-Greene was back behind the producer’s chair, so why does Wishville just…not…work?

Opener “Sparks Are Gonna Fly” is mildly infectious, but it feels too calculated and mechanical. “What We Want to Believe In” is a lightweight pop-rock song, but after this, things feel even more disjointed. The album sounds like the band has straightjackets on and sadly, this would be its final release.

Though Catherine Wheel never officially broke up following Wishville, they’ve been on an indefinite hiatus ever since. Dickinson released a solo album, Fresh Wine for the Horses, in 2005 and toured quite extensively behind it. In addition to solo tracks, fans were treated to stripped-down acoustic renditions of Catherine Wheel classics. Futter and Sims are currently in a band called 50ft. Monster.

Like their contemporaries Ride and Swervedriver, the door’s still not completely shut for Catherine Wheel. Modern bands like Secret Machines and Dirty on Purpose are great reminders of how this kind of rock is just as powerful today as it was back in the ’90s. No, they never enjoyed the record sales to show how “important” they are to a mass audience, but that’s not a reason to dismiss the music. Even though Catherine Wheel went out with a rather tepid album, they had a full cycle and explored all they could do over a handful of albums. That’s the goal of so many bands; Catherine Wheel actually did it.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Elliott Smith

Originally posted June 20th, 2006:

With bio help by Sweet Adeline

The music of Elliott Smith is too often overshadowed by his short life. Just like Nick Drake’s and Jeff Buckley’s lives and music, people tend to paint all of these supposed mopes into a corner of super-sad music. The deal is, there wasn’t just sadness in their songs and lives: there was beauty, happiness and hope too. The main comparison that I would make with these artists is the music they made is timeless because it was inspired by the timeless records they grew up on.

Born Steven Paul Smith in 1969 in Omaha, Nebraska, Smith grew up with his mother in Duncanville, Texas (a town near Dallas), but spent most of his high school years living with his father in Portland, Oregon. Growing up on a standard diet of the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Hank Williams, Motown, KISS, punk rock and new wave, he started writing his own songs at a very young age. A gifted musician, he first learned piano, then clarinet, then guitar and went from there. Smith had the kind of knack that makes many people envious: he could do something musical with almost any instrument.

Smith, who did not like his first and last name having the same first letter, would go by Elliott from high school on. Playing in bands throughout high school and college, Heatmiser was the first band he was in that gained some national recognition. Debuting in early 1992 with its original lineup, Smith sang and played guitar alongside singer/guitarist Neil Gust, bassist Brandt Peterson and drummer Tony Lash.

Following a self-released tape, The Music of Heatmiser, Frontier Records released Dead Air in 1993. Michael Azerrad compared the band’s sound to Fugazi, Hüsker Dü and Helmet in Trouser Press and I agree. Taking the guitar and drum sound of Helmet with the melodicism of Hüsker Dü and the tightness of Fugazi, Heatmiser could have very well been lost in the grunge pile given the time they were around.

In 1994, Heatmiser would show some strong improvement with the release of a second record (Cop and Speeder) and an EP (Yellow No. 5), but Smith’s first solo release almost completely eclipsed his band’s entire output.

Roman Candle (1994)

A collection of songs recorded at home on a four-track recorder, Roman Candle is better than an ordinary demo. But compared with what Smith would go on to do, this is definitely not the artist at the top of his game.

Released on Portland-based Cavity Search, the album’s nine tracks show a much quieter side of a guy who played loud rock most of the time. Comparing his work with Heatmiser and solo, think of Cop and Speeder as the stuff you’d put on for the ride into the city for the night and Roman Candle as the soundtrack for the late-night ride home.

Heatmiser manager J.J. Gonson co-wrote "No Name #1" but Roman Candle is undeniably a collection of solo Smith compositions. The strong but vulnerable whisper-like approach to singing, busy-but-melodic guitar picking, and spare instrumentation would become Smith’s solo earmarks. Though recorded on four-track with a lot of tape hiss, the songs rise above the sound quality. “No Name #3,” along with “No Name #2″ and “No Name #1,” are some of the highlights.

Elliott Smith (1995)

Smith’s second solo record, released on Olympia, Washington’s Kill Rock Stars, marks a substantial improvement over Roman Candle — not necessarily a vast improvement, but an improvement nonetheless.

Opening with “Needle in the Hay,” which sets the mood for a full album filled with spare acoustic-based songs, Smith boasts improved sound quality and songwriting. The walking, descending melody of “Southern Belle” shows off his acoustic guitar chops, while “The White Lady Loves You More” is like Roman Candle with more atmosphere. Other songs, including “The Biggest Lie” and “Clementine,” present further proof that Smith was onto something special.

Heatmiser released its final album, Mic City Sons, in 1996, but for Smith, it proved to be the beginning of a really interesting part of his solo career. No longer tied to a band, Smith produced some of his finest and fullest work, and in the process, found a larger audience.

Either/Or (1997)

Released in early 1997, Either/Or showcases an expanded side of Smith’s solo material. While still soft, moody and often melancholy, songs like “Ballad of Big Nothing” and “Pictures of Me” show a more upbeat and catchier Elliott. Certain songs featured more instrumentation (from keyboards, electric guitar and drums — all played by Smith) and they are the better for it. Though recorded in a number of houses, Either/Or sounds better than any of his previously home-recorded material.

The influences of alcohol and drugs were a part of Smith’s life for many years, yet he never came across as a spokesman — pro or con. Songs like Either/Or’s “Between the Bars” and “Needle in the Hay” or Roman Candle’s “Last Call” are just a few examples, but they were no invitations to pity parties. Despite the gloom in most of his work before and after, Smith wasn’t swallowed by a world of loneliness, depression and desperation.

A perfect example comes in the form of Either/Or’s closer, “Say Yes” Seeing the world in a more optimistic way following a break-up, Smith comes across as sincere observer of life’s shades of gray. By the end of 1997, more people would get to know the music of this observer, thanks to a certain movie soundtrack.

Good Will Hunting: Music from the Miramax Motion Picture (1997)

Despite what its lead actors and director would go on to do in the years following its release, Good Will Hunting is a powerful film based on sheer merits. Directed by Gus Van Sant, starring Matt Damon and Ben Affleck (who co-wrote the script), along with Robin Williams and Minnie Driver, the movie is more than just a tale of an at-risk guy who is also a mathematical genius — it’s also tender and heartfelt tale about understanding the scars of youth in hopes of a better adulthood. Good Will Hunting is not lovey-dovey schmaltz.

Van Sant was a friend of Elliott’s and a fan of his work, and wanted to use some of Elliott’s songs in the film. Featuring a soundtrack with six Smith songs, along with tracks by Al Green, the Dandy Warhols and Gerry Rafferty and a score by Danny Elfman, you could say this was Smith’s star-making performance. New song “Miss Misery” and a re-recording of “Between the Bars” with strings were accompanied by “No Name #3″ and the original Either/Or version of “Between the Bars,” plus “Angeles” and “Say Yes.”

The film was a major box office success and many audience members took note of Smith’s material. Either/Or was already gaining momentum with college radio listeners before the soundtrack was released, and this only opened more doors. “Miss Misery” was one of several Good Will Hunting-derived Oscar nominations; though Oscars were awarded for Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor (for Robin Williams), “Miss Misery” lost out to Celine Dion’s inescapable theme from Titantic, “My Heart Will Go On.” No loss: Smith’s solo performance of his song at the Oscars caught even more attention.

XO (1998)

With the wider recognition that came with the Good Will Hunting soundtrack, Smith graduated from being just another singer/songwriting troubadour to a league of his own. Signed by DreamWorks, an imprint under the Geffen Records umbrella, he delivered on the promise of his earlier work — in spades. XO, recorded with producers Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf in full-fledged studios, is pure magic.

XO shows an artist growing organically into a major-label budget, not blowing it all for an attempt at the brass ring. Though opener “Sweet Adeline” starts off hushed and quiet, when the chorus kicks in with drums, keyboards, chamberlain, electric guitar and bass, you realize this is not Smith’s lo-fi sparseness of the past.

I argue that XO features some of Smith’s best songs. There’s the “Penny Lane”-ish feel of “Baby Britain” and the melancholy beauty of “Pitseleh” and “Waltz #1″ for starters. Often sounding like a full band playing together, Smith played most of the instruments himself with some notable guests: Session drummer Joey Waronker plays on “Bled White” and “Bottle Up and Explode!” while ace producer/orchestrator Jon Brion, Rothrock and Schnapf add little touches here and there. “Bled White” in particular, with its ragtime-like piano, walking bass harmony, chiming guitar and popping drumbeat, is one of the biggest highlights.

Smith would tour behind XO with a full band to large crowds across the states. At the time, DreamWorks was an artist-centric label with a very diverse roster. Smith wasn’t somebody that would appeal to the suburban SUV-driving crowd, but he was definitely a draw in the college radio-and-older crowd. Smith’s popularity at the time was bigger than that of a typical indie artist, but not big enough for mainstream visibility, so DreamWorks was a perfect fit. The label’s resources helped even more with XO’s follow-up.

Figure 8 (2000)

While XO boasts some of Smith’s finest songs, I argue that Figure 8 is his best album from start to finish. The Beatles’ later period provides a major comparison point with Smith’s DreamWorks material, especially this album. Sixteen tracks might be a little overboard, but this is Smith’s Abbey Road.

Songs like “Son of Sam,” “Happiness,” and “Junk Bond Trader” are cut from the same cloth as XO, but aren’t lame retreads. “Somebody That I Used to Know” and “Everything Reminds Me of Her” are more in the vein of his earlier albums, but this helps balance the whole record out. These songs are strong on their own, but Figure 8’s sheer diversity is its biggest highlight.

“Everything Means Nothing to Me” is a simple poem set to a tinkling piano later met by echoey drum fills. “In the Lost and Found (Honky Bach)” boasts a barroom salon piano sounding like it’s being played after the place has closed for the night. Strings show up on a number of tunes, probably most effectively on the epic “Stupidity Tries.” Again featuring Joey Waronker on drums, “Stupidity” has one of those repeating ascending melodies that you can keep listening to over and over again. Attractions drummer Pete Thomas plays on three tracks (including the straight rocker, “Wouldn’t Mama Be Proud?”), Quasi member and Smith live band member (and good friend) Sam Coomes plays bass on four tracks, and Jon Brion lends backing vocals to “Happiness.”

More tours with a full band would follow Figure 8. Welcomed with a warm embrace from his longtime fans, Smith had really hit his stride. New songs popped up in sets, heightening anticipation for his next move. Figure 8’s follow-up would be a long time in the making with the recording of many songs in various studios. Rumors hinted at a double album to be called From a Basement on the Hill. During all this, Smith’s relationship with DreamWorks ended, and he set about finding a new deal. He played a number of solo acoustic shows, debuting many other new songs, and the anticipation grew.

Very sadly, Smith’s life ended in October of 2003. Whether he died of a suicide, or by accident, or something else, many people placed Smith on a list of singer/songwriters that played relatively melancholy material and died young (like Tim and Jeff Buckley and Nick Drake). Yet to those who knew them personally or looked a little closer than the popular stereotype, there was way more to matters than black and white.

When he was alive, Smith was often described as a laid-back and cheerful guy. He wasn’t a flamboyant rock star; he was relatable and wasn’t a contrived image cut out of a magazine. When people looked at his sad-leaning songs and his years of alcohol and substance abuse, they felt Smith’s was a life destined to end prematurely. I argue that this was not the case, and the news of his death being ruled a suicide made me feel very betrayed. I found listening to his records very tough for the next year and matters weren’t really helped with the eventual release of From a Basement on the Hill in late 2004.

From a Basement on the Hill (2004)

After the record was finished by his friends and family, Epitaph Records’ Anti- imprint released From a Basement on the Hill almost a year following Smith’s death. Slimmed down to a single disc with fifteen tracks, the album is some of Smith’s most somber work. However, this record is not a downer at all.

Smith had made a record that evoked the spacious spook of Dark Side of the Moon while also utilizing a dominant vibe of forward motion (a la All Things Must Pass). More psychedelic and brooding than anything he’d done before, Basement is an artistic evolution. Opener “Coast to Coast” features two drummers (one of them Steven Drozd of the Flaming Lips) over a bendy guitar riff.

Notwithstanding “Pretty (Ugly Before)” (an upbeat little tune with some of Smith’s most “up” lyrics), a number of the album’s songs seem to focus on endings. Looking at “A Fond Farewell,” “Twilight” and “The Last Hour,” along with titles of “Strung Out Again” and “A Distorted Reality is Now a Necessity to Be Free,” one could write Basement off as a relapse record. Yet listening to “A Fond Farewell” one can’t help but think that a line like “This is not my life/It’s just a fond farewell to a friend” was not meant to be ironic or doomy.

So far, From a Basement on the Hill is the only posthumous release from the Smith estate*. I hope someday a box set of outtakes, b-sides, live tracks and demos surfaces, because there is plenty of good stuff out there that’s worth hearing. He did a number of covers of Beatles tunes (like “Long Long Long” and “Because”), solo Beatles tracks (like “Jealous Guy”), and assorted covers including Jackson Browne’s “These Days.”

A whole treasure trove of unreleased and hard-to-find tracks can be found on http://www.elliottsmithbsides.com/.

*UPDATE: Since this appeared online, Kill Rock Stars released New Moon, a fantastic 2-disc set of unreleased material recorded before Elliott signed with DreamWorks.

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Ben Folds and Ben Folds Five

Originally posted on Tuesday, April 11th, 2006:

For some, Ben Folds Five was merely a one hit wonder. For others, the trio was a life-changer. Myself, I’m one of the latter.

Being formally introduced with the “Battle of Who Could Care Less” video on 120 Minutes, I was very intrigued to know more about this piano-bass-drums combo. Once I heard Whatever and Ever Amen, I was hooked. As a matter of fact, out of all of my favorite bands, Ben Folds Five is one of the few that I liked right away and I have held the same kind of admiration ever since. Their three proper albums (and one b-sides collection) are staples in my record collection and they may very well be (or soon be) staples in your collection too.

For a band that was once described as “punk rock for sissies,” you may realize how effortlessly these guys walked between fun, semi-goofy pop songs and some really deep and powerful stuff too. It helps that they had it right from the beginning and kept maturing.

Ben Folds Five (1995)

In 1995, Ben Folds Five (featuring Ben Folds on piano on lead vocals, Robert Sledge on bass and backing vocals and Darren Jessee on drums and backing vocals) really stuck out in the guitar-driven world of alternative/college rock. Though it garnered some decent airplay on college radio and 120 Minutes, Five was commercially ignored (except in Japan). Regardless of initial sales figures and notice, for a debut album, it would set the trio on a great course by giving them many sidestreets to go down in the future.

Sounding like a group of jazz students who also grew up on Top 40 pop, Folds, Sledge and Jessee weren’t afraid to rock and be a little tongue-in-cheek in the process. However, they weren’t some novelty revue dripping with irony.

From start to finish, Ben Folds Five doesn’t slow down or get out of control. Take a listen to “Philosophy” and you may find yourself bopping along to this catchy little tune. However, you might be surprised that a song supposedly about a penis is actually worth listening to over and over.

Fan favorites like “Julianne” and “Underground” would come from Ben Folds Five, but one particular track tucked away towards the end shows how wide this band’s range could go: “The Last Polka” has a relatively fast punk rock feel cut up by rather quiet and mysterious verses. When everything crashes down in the outro into half time, you may be wishing that it goes even longer.

Whatever and Ever Amen (1997)

Though there are a number of upbeat numbers on Whatever and Ever Amen, it was a quiet ballad about abortion that gave Ben Folds Five their first and only mainstream crossover hit. “Brick,” a track co-written by Jessee and Folds, came after two great singles, “Battle of Who Could Care Less” and “One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces,” stayed at bay on specialty show playlists. While “Brick” is a great song regardless of the mainstream visibility it brought, a number of classics are on this album.

Though songs like “Kate” and “Battle of Who Could Care Less” are instantly likeable, a song like “Fair” builds up to an unforgettable chorus augmented by strong backing vocals from Sledge and Jessee. Other tracks like “Steven’s Last Night in Town” and “Smoke” showcase the band using more complex rhythms and moods to varying degrees of success. Yet it’s the simple and slow final two tracks that end Amen on a truly strong note: “Missing the War” and “Evaporated” complete the album in rather subdued fashion, but they’re both beautiful requiems about moving on in life.

Naked Baby Photos (1998)

With the mainstream success of Whatever and Ever Amen, a door was opened to what else the band had lying around and whatever they wanted to do on the side. Folds cut a solo record under the moniker of Fear of Pop, and Volume 1 features his first collaborations with William Shatner (check out the half-amusing/half-silly track, “In Love”).

Though the album is a rather goofy and experimental addition to the Folds-related catalog, Naked Baby Photos (a collection of demos, b-sides and live tracks) is very much worth your while if you like Ben Folds Five and Whatever and Ever Amen.

Certain tracks on Naked Baby Photos show more of the band’s humorous side (witness “For Those of Y’all Who Wear Fannie Packs,” “Satan is My Master” and “The Ultimate Sacrifice”) but a select few make you wonder why they didn’t end up on a proper album. “Emaline,” a track left off Ben Folds Five (supposedly because it features an acoustic guitar), would prove to be a live fan favorite in the years to come.

Another highlight is their cover of Built to Spill’s “Twin Falls,” which has the distinction of being a rare case where the cover is better than the original. Built to Spill’s version is a quick little ditty, while Ben Folds Five transform it as a longer, driving track while staying true to the original.

The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner (1999)

Regardless of whether The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner was a tremendous leap forward or a tremendous leap into head-scratching confusion, the album was a relatively major departure for Ben Folds Five. Though it does contain shades of being a concept album (certain lyrics and melodies are repeated in various songs), don’t think this is some career-killing baffler. A track like “Don’t Change Your Plans” features a killer bridge section with the kinds of horns that you hear in classic Burt Bacharach hits. Though their previous albums had a nice balance of slow/sad songs and happy/upbeat songs, the general feeling on Messner is morose, even on upbeat tracks like “Army.”

The album may have been a little too mature for fans at the time, but it’s a real grower. Going from a track like “Regrets” (with its “Sunshine of Your Love”-like finale) to the quiet introspection of “Jane” and “Lullabye,” Messner would eventually be the concluding statement from the Ben Folds Five. Though sessions were held for a fourth proper album, the band called it a day in March 2001.

In the years to come, two Ben Folds Five posthumous releases surfaced: The Complete Sessions at West 54th DVD features a very memorable set shortly following Whatever and Ever Amen’s release. Amen itself was reissued in 2005 with seven bonus tracks (including an amazing, neo-bossanova cover of the Flaming Lips’ “She Don’t Use Jelly”).

As for their ex-members, Jessee formed his own band, Hotel Lights, which features him on lead vocals and guitar. Though Hotel Lights’ debut was originally self-released, Bar None reissued the album in March 2006. Sledge would resurface in a band called International Orange, which broke up last fall. Folds, re-married, a father of twins and living in Australia, would prove to be the most visible ex-member of the Five.

Rockin' the Suburbs (2001)

Released on 9/11, Ben Folds’ first proper solo record could be thought of as a safe retread of Ben Folds Five’s first two albums. Featuring Folds playing almost all of the instruments himself, Rockin’ the Suburbs could also very well be mistaken for a lost Ben Folds Five album. The fuzz bass playing of Robert Sledge and the busy jazzy drumming of Darren Jessee are present even though it’s Folds playing the instruments.

The most drastic departure for Folds is the album’s title track. Spoofing the nü-metal and hip-hop of the day, “Rockin’ the Suburbs” sounds a little dated now, but it’s still a funny little satire of suburban angst. The rest of the album is very worthwhile, especially the bouncy “Not the Same” and the closing track (and possible “first dance” song at many weddings), “The Luckiest.”

Songs for Silverman (2005)

Before Folds’ second solo album appeared in 2005, a number of Folds-related material was released. Released on Epic in 2002, Ben Folds Live consists of favorites from the Ben Folds Five catalog, Rockin’ the Suburbs, three new songs and a cover of “Tiny Dancer” — all featuring just Folds’ voice and piano. The new songs (especially “One Down”) are worth hearing, but the versions of “Army” and “Not the Same,” with the audience accompanying Folds, are the real treasures here.

As he worked on tracks for a new solo album, Folds would release three EPs: Speed Graphic, Sunny 16, and Super D. While worth having for the hardcore fan, they aren’t truly essential (though the original version of “Give Judy My Notice” and his covers of the Cure’s “In Between Days” and the Darkness’ “Get Your Hands Off My Woman” are great to have). Don’t get me wrong, there are some great songs spread across the fifteen total tracks, but the real deal came when Songs for Silverman finally arrived in 2005.

Though further delayed so Folds could collaborate with William Shatner again (this time, a rather amusing/silly full-length entitled Has Been) and the Bens (featuring Folds, Ben Kweller and Ben Lee), Silverman shows Folds shedding his funny side in exchange for a more overt tenderness. Luckily, this grown-up still knows how to write great, memorable songs.

Tributes to his daughter and the late Elliott Smith come across as heartfelt instead of sappy drivel. “Landed” is a perfect soundtrack for anyone coming out of an intense relationship and realizing how much else is out there. “Trusted” is a slower, but pounding little trek through one’s realization about the duality of trust. Folds has never shied away from serious topics in his songs, so it should be very interesting to see what he does next.

Until that drops, check out the recent DVD release, Live in Perth, featuring Folds joined by the Western Australian Symphony Orchestra on a number of Ben Folds Five tracks and selections from Rockin’ the Suburbs. Also worth finding is Songs for Goldfish, a special ten-track album which features an assortment of non-LP material, like “Hiro’s Song” and a cover of Lucinda Williams’ “Side of the Road,” which which came out in conjunction with Songs for Silverman.

A note about most of this week's content . . .

Kudos go to Idolator for this link pertaining to our friend Jeff Giles' currently offline blog, Jefitoblog. Basically, his hosting company boarded up shop and didn't tell anyone. So, no blog for him and a lot of other people. It royally stinks to see such a fine blog get zapped, especially a blog that went beyond covering what hipsters were royally praising for six months and then royally making light of in another.

Jeff's writing can still be found in a couple of places, most notably Bullz-Eye and Rotten Tomatoes. He recently did a preview of the fall's movies and a mix of comeback songs for Bullz-Eye.

Since I contributed a few pieces to the site -- most notably a handful of Complete Idiot's Guides -- I figured it would be worthwhile to repost my stuff on here. Not to turn this into A Star is Born, but I mean this in tribute to a blog I loved writing for. The next few days will see all of the text reposted, but without the MP3s. Enjoy!

Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Castanets

Sometimes I have dreams that are just so out there they are hard to forget. They puzzle me, so I try to piece together where certain elements came from. In this particular case, this dream sounds like the makings of a question for the AV Club in their weekly "Ask the AV Club" section. Meaning, those questions that begin with something along the lines of, "I remember seeing a movie when I was a kid that was from the late-'70s, early-'80s . . ."

About two months ago, shortly after viewing Lost Highway for the first time, I dreamt I watched a movie from the Seventies called The Castanets. With a visual style akin to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre with its dark blues and light browns, its story followed a pair of murderers who went across the South on a killing spree. The murderers' faces are never shown and most of the murders are seen from their perspective, similar to Black Christmas and Halloween. A young Tommy Lee Jones plays a sheriff who's on their trail, but never catches them.

Sounds like an almost-forgettable film from the Seventies featuring a future superstar, right? Maybe, but what's so strange is that it seemed like a real movie, with credits and everything. I literally thought I was watching this on DVD on my TV.

To see if this was real, I poked around Google and the IMDb. Google had nothing, as did IMDb and there's nothing like it on Tommy Lee Jones' resume. So the mystery remains. The only thing that ties in with my life is the title: there's a band with that name and I've received e-mails about them. But I have yet to check them out.

You could say I shouldn't bring this up on the blog and save it for a screenplay or something. Well, it would be impossible to make this film the way I saw it. Plus, how can you have a young Tommy Lee Jones when he was born in 1946? The visual style is the key dealbreaker though; it's something straight out of the Seventies, a decade that was almost three decades ago. You can't make a film look like it came from the Seventies no matter how hard you try.

Never before or since have I had a dream like this. And please don't read into the fact that this dream movie had murder in it. Most of my dreams involve meeting people I've never met in places I've never been to. Just the other night I dreamt I met a friend's father at a house I'd never been to in a part of New Orleans I've never been to.

But I'm curious for those of you that watch a lot of movies. Have you ever had a dream where you swore you were watching a movie?

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

. . . And the band plays on

With this week's publication of The Onion's spot-on spoof of Pitchfork's reviews, I bring up an issue that's been on my mind as late. No, it's not the hilarious sting found in the last sentence (Maher termed Schreiber's assessment of music "overwrought, masturbatory posturing intended to make insecure hipsters feel as if they're part of some imagined elite beau monde."). And it goes beyond looking like you just rolled out of bed, haven't shaved in ten days, put on some dirty clothes and claim you seriously like mind-numbing hip-hop more than tuneful rock music.

Without trying to get too broad, I think about what is remembered more: the art or the criticism of the art? More often than not, it's the art.

Sure, you may still hear about how a riot occurred when Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring" debuted, but do you ever hear about how Beethoven's Ninth Symphony was received by the main newspaper in Germany? You may see some lines from glowing reviews of a movie on a DVD box or a CD, but they are praising a movie or an album. They help market the product and lend credibility.

Usually outliving whatever critics thought of it when it first came out, I wonder why we put stock in criticism in general. As somebody who's been doing a permutation of criticism, reflection and philosophy for a few years, I kinda get the creeps when I think about this. It reminds me to do more than just talk about how good a show, a CD or a movie went. Simply, I've always wanted to do something more than write about whether you should buy something or not. Maybe that's why I stick to blogging . . .

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

You See Everything

I hear all the time about how something from someone's childhood isn't around anymore. Be it a musical genre, a channel that played music videos, a venue, a restaurant, etc., it's just not the proverbial same. Well, I think there are some things I'm glad aren't around anymore. High up on that list is watching movies in pan-and-scan.

Before I was in college, I never noticed the difference between seeing a movie in widescreen in a theater and seeing it in pan-and-scan on a TV. I thought Tim Burton's Batman looked the same on TV as it did on the big screen. Well, with the advent of DVD (and seeing The Matrix on DVD), I've never wanted to see a movie in pan-and-scan again. I can't go back . . . and that's fine with me.

Depending on how you view it, rewatching movies in widescreen can be a royal pain in the ass. However, seeing movies from The Muppet Movie to Kentucky Fried Movie on DVD and in widescreen, there's no contest. The more that's onscreen, the better. It's almost like watching a whole other movie. And I've never minded seeing black bars on the top and bottom of my screen.

A recent case in point for me is Lost Highway. For some strange reason (probably, like with Twin Peaks, there's a rights issue), the Region 1 version of Lynch's 1997 film is only available in pan-and-scan. The video quality is so poor that it looks like a VHS dub burned onto DVD. Yes, it's that bad. Obtaining the Region 2 version for my region-free DVD player, the movie looks amazing.

Lost Highway is a great example of how butchered a movie can look in pan-and scan. Its 2:35 width is tarnished in the 4:3 format and I wonder why such savagery is allowed. It's about as bad as watching Pulp Fiction on VHS. It's terrible-looking and rather confusing when there's stuff cut out of the frame.

Now with widescreen TVs becoming pretty much the only TVs you can buy in a retail store, the "don't care"/lowest common denominator audience will have to see everything in widescreen. Gone are the days when a certain megastore that bends over backwards for that audience sells only pan-and-scan DVDs. Maybe this has been long overdue for everyone else to deal with this. It's about time.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Happy

It may sound too simple or flowery (and maybe a direct effect of reading a certain book by David Lynch), but I think it often takes a lot of hard work to be happy. Especially when you've been angry for many years, being happy feels like a long, arduous climb. Why? Because it's easy to be ho-hum and annoyed with life when that feels the most familiar. Somehow the happiness you knew when you were younger slowly evaporated as you grew up. Happiness seems fake while sadness and pain feel real. And it can be very difficult to change this.

In my own experience, getting fussed at/dumped upon and feeling abandoned by others all felt real and stable. Happiness seemed to be a fleeting thing and I thought it would always be. The innocence of my childhood had long passed and being an adult somehow meant dealing with a lot of pain and grief. Now all these years later, I find that attitude to be a big illusion.

In a lot of instances, whether we know it or not, we can choose to be happy or not be happy. I've never met an adult who's happy all the time, but I've met my fair share of adults who are sad all the time. Life handed these people lemons and instead of considering the lemonade they could make or learning how to juggle them, they just squash them on their faces and trudge along. And it's a bummer to be around them all the time, at least for me.

There's a difference between venting about life's frustrations and staying stuck in the mud. Venting is like pooping: we all do it and must do it. You find people who vent and get over frustrating matters. You also find people who do nothing but whine and complain. At various over the last few years, I've been in both camps. Frankly, these days, I'd like to stay in the former as much as possible.

When people ask me, "Where do you see yourself in five years?" I say, "being happy." That might not be the best answer to give in a job interview, but I think it's an important attitude to have about life in general. You won't instantly become happy once you start making more money. You won't instantly become happy once you get married. You won't instantly become happy once you have children. You can choose to be happy right now whether or not you're in any of the aforementioned situations.

I don't mean to say all this like I'm a tree-hugger sitting on some grass playing a guitar. All I'm saying is, getting to a state of pure, unashamed happiness requires effort. And it's in my opinion that the effort is worth everything in the long run.

Friday, September 07, 2007

First!

As much as I dislike comment sections on various websites I check out, it's at least worth taking a glimpse in hopes there isn't immature back-talking or nitpicking. These hopes are often dashed, but not every time. When there is a good back-and-forth between readers, it's a pretty thoughtful, cool read. Yet something I still can't wrap my head around is the desire to be the first to post a response. In other words, those comments that simply say, "First!" What gives with this?

Steve Hyden over at the AV Club touched on this in a recent post about "grade grubbin'" nitpickers. I get the sense he and I aren't the only ones annoyed by this. How about you?

For me, I'm well aware of how sites like the AV Club, Ain't It Cool News and MySpace are highly trafficked because of the immediate responses in their comments sections. A post can be only a few minutes old and already there's a response or two. But what exactly does a first post saying "First!" really say? Not much, at least to me.

The stakes are incredibly high to be the first to post a comment on sites like these and I think that's the gist of the race. But how does being first in this case make you feel? I don't equate it to running a race around a racetrack or entering a science fair. Being a Firstie seems like a flimsy, carefree hope that you'll be the first to say something and nothing more.

I remember when Noel's wrap-up of LOST's Season 3 finale came online. I felt he really nailed so much about the episode and I was a little surprised to see nobody had posted a comment yet. So I just wanted to share my thoughts and wondered if my post would have the distinction of being the first comment. Turns out, it was. Now, did I celebrate and feel like my self-esteem went through the roof because of this? No, but I did feel like the first one to buzz in on something, like what I've seen on Family Feud and Jeopardy! It was cool, but I was just lucky.

Of course, on a blog like this where there aren't many comments posted in the comment section, I get the feeling there isn't a race. So, I'm curious with what you, the reader, think. What gives about being a Firstie? Is it empowerment? A sense of mattering in the online world when you feel you don't in the physical world? Something I'm reading waaayyy too much into? I want to hear what you think and don't feel rushed to be the first to comment.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Translocation

If I haven't said it already: despite spending a lot of time and effort with writing about post-hardcore/emo bands, I don't listen to them as much as I used to. I doubt I'll ever give up listening to this music entirely, but there's so much other stuff that I listen to. Still, a big reason why I wrote Post the way I wrote it was: talk about the people behind the music more than the music itself. You may never care to hear an At the Drive-In song, but probably can relate to their story of struggle. The same goes for every other band mentioned.

Well, there are times that I'll flash back to a story a band member told me in these last four years and really relate to what was said. As of late, the following quotes from No Idea's Var Thelin sum up a lot of feelings I've been having:

Another aspect to the backlash was that the band left No Idea. Their friends at the label felt the same way. “We were absolutely not cool with that,” Thelin says. For Thelin, the exit was a severe personal blow. “I believed in the music so much that I had to be away from it,” he says. “It was a good solid year where I did not partake. I didn’t go to the shows and I stayed away. I just had to because if I went, and this is not bullshit, I would have started crying because I really, really believed in it.”

Decisions like this would prove very difficult to not take personally, especially at a relatively young age. “The way that you hear certain records when you’re younger, you really take things to heart,” Thelin says. “You make the music yours. It’s part of you. And that’s what happened with Hot Water. I didn’t buy into it initially and then I really did. ‘I believe in this. I believe in these people. It’s more than just music.’ Anytime you leave yourself vulnerable like that, you sometimes get the other side of it. And that was me at the time.”

Sometimes the rug is pulled under you and you just don't really know why. This goes way deeper than wondering how many copies of Fuel for the Hate Game were pressed on green vinyl. The point is, this is why I approached Post the way I approached it. I might not cover every single band from this era, but at least I'm trying to go deeper than what an encyclopedia or liner notes would go to.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Matter

As I patiently await some word back on Post, I figured I'd pass along some information about some forthcoming books covering some of the same topics and bands. In hopes this doesn't read like a sticker on a Victory CD ("If you like X, Y and Z, you'll love Q!"), let me just say these are books worth looking out for if Post's subject matter interests you.

Norman Brannon (ne, Arenas) is probably best known as the guitarist for Texas is the Reason. Well, the guy has been writing for a long time and did a zine called Anti-Matter back in Nineties. Covering bands like Quicksand, Sunny Day Real Estate, and Sick of It All, Anti-Matter was an influential voice in the zine world and the writing still holds up. Revelation will be releasing The Anti-Matter Anthology in November of this year and it looks really great. Aaron wrote the book's forward, so that in itself is a main reason for me to read it.

Fellow former Punk Planet writer Brian Peterson has spent the last four years working on his forthcoming collection, Burning Fight: The Nineties Hardcore Revolution in Ethics, Politics, Spirit and Sound. Compiled from interviews with 150 people (including Karl from Earth Crisis, Norm Brannon and Walter Schreifels) topics such as straight edge, animal rights, and spirituality are discussed. This is something that really dives into the topics I briefly touch on in Post. Well worth checking out when it hopefully comes out next year.

What I find very promising about the mere existence of these books is that I'm not a loner here. I've often wondered if anyone else was willing to take the time and cover this time period in music. So my hopes have not been dashed and my thunder has not been taken away. Far from it. As I've said all along, the more different perspectives on a similar thing, the better. So, here's to the better.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Stop! Take some time to think, figure out what's important to you

I often think about what kind of advice I'd give to college students who are just about to graduate. I hope to visit my alma mater sometime in the near future and give them some, but for the time being, it's given in conversations and blog posts.

If there's one recurring thread I hear about in all fields, it's you don't make a lot of money right out of the gate. I don't know why suburban kids expect to make almost as much as their parents do in the first few years out of college, but they do. Money is necessary to live off of, but it doesn't equate happiness. Having a surplus of money can make life seem easier (i.e., car repairs, medical attention, clothing, entertainment, etc), yet it's not the only thing worth working hard for in this world.

Be it a doctor, lawyer, writer, computer programmer, salesman and so on, nobody starts with the top job with the highest salary. You start at the bottom, but the bottom is rarely as bad as people think it is.

Yes, I've been through the whole "gopher" aspects of my field, but I've learned so much in the process and have had fun. Little step by little step, it's pretty amazing to be respected and valued for the job you do. You don't get points taken off for doing a good job and paying attention. If 90 percent of life is showing up, another five is paying attention and the other five involves luck and talent. That's something I think we all can do.

Something I'd add is to follow your bliss, but follow it pragmatically. If you really want to be a writer, painter, musician or a filmmaker, don't flat-out avoid working a job that pays the bills in the meantime. It's like what Stephen King once said: let your life inform your art; not the other way around.

Most stories I've heard of successful artists (read: people who are passionate about what they do and are happy with what they are doing) don't start out doing their art full time. Richard Linklater, Robert Rodriguez and Kevin Smith learned the ways of filmmaking on their own time while they worked in places like oil rigs and convenience stores. Chuck Klosterman wrote for a local paper while he worked on Fargo Rock City. Elvis Costello pretended to work on computers while he tried to find a record deal.

The stories are endless, but the point remains: find what you love to do. Flex those creative muscles and don't stop being creative just because college is over. It should not be a primary goal to make money doing what you love to do. It's like what Ryan has put perfectly to me: if you're not willing to do something for free, then you shouldn't do it. I know that all too well with all my years playing music and writing. Those are things that I do not for the money, but for creative necessity in my life.

I understand sticking to a path of discovery requires a degree of discipline, but I equate it to staying on an exercise routine or a diet. Map out your own routine and stick with it . . . and don't give up on it because you're not seeing immediate results.

One last piece of advice for now is this: don't let dream-killers dictate "life" to you. Frankly, I've found people who take a bleak attitude with life in general gave up their dreams long ago and find some sort of satisfaction with bursting someone else's bubble. It's like they're jealous of you for having a dream because there was a time when they had a dream. Or worse, they never had one in the first place.

So, that's just some of the advice I give to people. I might sound like some floaty, wannabe motivational speaker, but I can't forget the lessons I've learned along the way and the people that gave them to me. Besides, this is the kind of stuff you don't learn in college. You learn them by experience; not in books.

Monday, September 03, 2007

"We're completely irrelevant on LP and compact disc"

Listening to this week's Sound Opinions podcast about great lead-off tracks on albums, there are a couple of mentions about the state of the album in the iPod era. Like many people (myself included), Jim and Greg have a valid concern about people still caring about albums when you can have thousands of songs set on Shuffle on an MP3 player. So one can ask, does the idea of 30-50 minute, 10-12 song album still matter to a general, mass audience?

Well, instead of trying to answer that, let me say this. What we do during on our personal time is really our say. Be it vinyl, CD, MP3, terrestrial or Internet radio, I don't think there's one right or wrong way to listen to music. Just as long as people are listening to music, we can go from there. Since there's no shortage of music buffs who want to listen to an album from start to finish, there will be no shortage of those who just want to hear the familiar hits. And there's nothing wrong with this because it's always been this way.

I think of it like taking a shower or a bath; as long as people are soaking themselves in water and cleaning themselves, is it really a concern? Not everybody uses a washcloth or covers their entire body in soap, but pretty much everyone knows that bathing is essential to living. So, drawing a parallel to music listening, people listen in their own ways. Truth to be told, it's very hard to tell right now if there will be any drastic changes in the next few years.

Make no mistake, I was disturbed when I heard about college students downloading thousands of songs for free off of peer-to-peers, sampling them, deleting them and downloading another thousand. The idea of music as a close, intimate connection seems lost on these people. This kind of process is completely foreign to me and there is a reason to be concerned about where things might be heading. Can people truly claim ownership of something digital over something tangible?

I think about my own listening habits: I listen to CDs and MP3s at home and in the car and listen to my iPod while I take walks. I'm perfectly happy with my iPod nano being filled with familiar tunes I like hearing over and over again. When it comes to downloading songs, I definitely make an effort to give everything a few listens. But there's always those songs/albums that elicit such a negative response that I don't want to listen to them again. Besides, there are so many songs available to download for free, so I keep searching for something I'll really like. A great song could lead me to a great album. But I don't have infinite time to listen to everything I download. So many songs are at risk of falling though the cracks this way and frankly, it sucks.

All this said, at least the music is out there. At least we're not living in a time where music is banned and people aren't allowed to have personal music players. We have the option to create playlists on iTunes and on iPods. CD players are still in cars. Multi-disc CD changers are still made. CD burners come standard with computers. Heck, turntables are still made and people still buy new albums on vinyl. So, I have no doubt the album format is not going away, but the topic about whether people will actually pay for it is a whole other discussion.