Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The Sky Blue Sky is Leaking

Ok, I know I'm late with this post, but there were other topics I wanted to get to first. For those of you that don't know, tracks from Wilco's new album Sky Blue Sky, scheduled for a May 15th release, were leaked on the Internet a few weeks ago, and days before the band streamed the record on their own website. While the mainstream media seemed shocked by this piracy, in this day and age, it only fuels the buzz. Fall Out Boy's new record was in the hands of kids for months prior to its official release, yet a few weeks ago it was the best selling CD in the country. Hmmmm......

I've heard more than half the tracks from the new album and they sound great. More of a return to the softer, alt-country, impressionistic tunes of Summerteeth, embellished with the beautiful guitar work of Nels Cline. To this point, my favorite track is You Are My Face. This will be one of those records that I buy the day it's released, just like the good old days.

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Monday, March 19, 2007

New Music Monday - Maps & Atlases

I love the idea of the South By Southwest Music Conference. A gathering of new bands fighting for exposure, credibility and the elusive record contract, mixed with the sage advice and precious club sized gigs of industry veterans. Like Sundance, press coverage at SXSW could break the 'next big thing' in the rock/indie world. Someday I'll find a way to attend and soak it all in. In the meantime, I'm limited to the reviews and numerous blogs that chronicled the proceedings. In my last 'New Music Monday' post two weeks ago I focused on Canada's The Besnard Lakes, who apparently made quite a splash at SXSW. So I'll work in reverse this time and explore a new band that played at the conference. From Chicago come Maps & Atlases, a progressive rock influenced band with an uptempo, complex sound. The songs I've heard are dominated by an edgy, experimental guitar sound reminiscent of Adrian Belew and Robert Fripp. And there's certainly a feeling of the more complex Yes music coursing throughout, although the vocals are edgier, nothing like the angelic Jon Anderson. It will be interesting if this band catches on with this type of sound, but who doesn't like a bit of prog-rock now and then, eh? Their current record is a self-released EP called Trees, Swallows, Houses.

Sample some of their music here


Saturday, March 17, 2007

Pete at SXSW

I was just telling a friend about my thoughts on what the rock's elder statesmen should be doing. Massive tours for the faithful are one thing, but I'd like to see them act as mentors, taking young artists under their wing. The benefits are mutual, as all musicians, young and old can draw from such collaboration. Seems like Pete Townshend is on the right track. From Billboard News:

Earlier in the evening [March 16th], Pete Townshend and his girlfriend, Rachel Fuller, presented a more subdued but even more ambitious series of collaborations with a special edition of their Attic Jam concert series at La Zona Rosa. With fellow big names like R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck and Robyn Hitchcock looking on, the duo worked with a collection of younger artists -- including Martha Wainwright, Massachusetts troubadour Willy Mason, new British sensation Mika, British singer/songwriter Alexi Murdoch and Joe Purdy, a Los Angeles artist with whom Townshend performed a duet version of his solo hit Let My Love Open The Door.

Townshend, along with Fuller -- who likened the show to "a hootenanny" -- served generously as a sideman for portions of each artist's set, happily playing a support role even though his mere physical presence eclipsed anyone else on stage. For his own performances, Townshend dipped into the Who songbook, launching the evening with a solo acoustic rendition of "Drowned" from the Quadrophenia album. He then closed the show with a spare voice-and-piano version of In The Ether from the Who's latest album, Endless Wire, and I Can't Reach You, a Who chestnut from the '60s that he told the crowd, "not only have I never played in public, nobody I know has played this song in public."

Pete also took the stage by surprise during the Fratellis set (the upcoming Glasgow band known for the music behind the latest ipod commercial). The band has also recorded as part of Townshend/Fuller's In the Attic project. This is what I'm talking about, people. Imagine the thrill of this young band and the stunned audience at a barbecue joint in Austin when Townshend took the stage. and by all accounts, Pete is relishing every moment and drawing more energy from his participation. Hopefully, more news of this nature to come.

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Friday, March 16, 2007

Dylan Hears A Who, among other things

Whoa, it’s been a long time since the last post. So much to do, so little time. Fortunately for me, I’ve been mostly at play. Saw Rusted Root at the Chicago House of Blues a week ago Friday, then the Who yet again last Monday. This was my first exposure to Rusted Root, and I felt a little like I crashed some sort of tribal gathering. The band has a rabid following much like Phish, only on a smaller scale. The floor of the HOB was definitely moving with the throng, to music I can best describe as a melding of 60’s west coast jam –band, reggae and world beats. I kept hearing Jefferson Airplane and Poi Dog Pondering. RR has definitely found a particular sound and honed it to perfection. In my opinion, they could use some keyboards and electric guitar just to add some variety, as the sound is energetic but one-dimensional. Interesting covers included Stevie’s Superstition, Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower and the King’s Suspicious Minds.

The Who’s Left? Tour returned to town on the 5th, and the only disappointment was the nearly identical set list from September, even though Pete led us to believe that things would be different. However, the playing was sharper, some of the extended jams more inspiring, and overall, a good time was had by all. It warmed my heart to see Pete and Roger genuinely enjoying themselves, and a few times absolutely stunned by the audience reception. As a reward we got The Naked Eye in the encore, and an unbelievable Tommy medley that was worth the price of admission alone. Townshend was on fire all night, and as chatty on stage as I’ve ever seen him, to me indicative that he’s relaxed and confident in the new Who. After the show we pondered if this was the final go around. The way Pete is playing, and the obvious enjoyment evident in his demeanor, I can’t imagine him quitting now. A recent blurb in Rolling Stone covered his recent club gigs with Lou Reed, J Mascis and the Raconteurs. Pete says he finds these types of gigs inspirational, and hinted that the next Who tour could be more intimate, acoustic affairs. Yikes. Some video is available at In The Attic. Select audio available at itunes.

Finally, Dylan Hears A Who has been snaking its way across the Internet of late. The source of this remarkable mimicry is reportedly a Houston based producer named Kevin Ryan, who has obsessed over sound and studio technology before, and has created some amazing audio here. If you weren’t paying attention, you’d swear this was a 1965 era Zimmy covering Dr. Seuss. I wonder what Bob thinks…..

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Monday, March 05, 2007

New Music Monday - The Besnard Lakes

When a band's sound is compared to a blend of the Beach Boys, Pink Floyd and Roy Orbison, one's curiosity is peaked. Enter the Besnard Lakes, from Montreal, who somehow manage to do this on their recent release, The Besnard Lakes are the Dark Horse. I read about this band at Paste, and downloaded a few tracks at e-music. They do manage an artful blend of Brian Wilson type harmonies, Pet Sounds orchestration and a bit of Floyd psychedelia. The track Devastation also has a Lennonesque sound, circa Revolver. I have yet to find Roy Orbison, but I'm planning to check out a few more cuts from this album. If you like My Morning Jacket, I think you will like this.

Listen to Disaster

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Saturday, March 03, 2007

Musicology 101 - Rocket 88

This post marks the beginning of a new feature where I will select and dissect a particularly important song, delving into its history, influence, lyrical meaning, and any other bits of relevant information I can scrounge up. I’m fascinated by the stories and legends behind the music, and although most of this information is available in a variety of books, liner notes and web sites, my goal here is to distill it all into a manageable text, for my own benefit and enjoyment, and perhaps, yours as well.

So what better way to start this series than with the first rock and roll record ever made, Rocket 88 by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats? Of course such a bold statement has been debated by countless music historians, but there’s a lot of evidence to support this theory, and a pretty good story too. On March 3, 1951, Ike Turner’s band the Rhythm Kings recorded the song in Sam Phillips studio in Memphis. Although written by Turner (1931- ), Phillips credited the songwriting to lead singer Jackie Brenston (1930-1979), and fabricated the Delta Cats for royalty reasons. Turner admitted to lifting the basic structure from a 1947 jump blues song called Cadillac Boogie, recorded by Jimmy Liggins and the Kings of Rhythm. There’s also an instrumental called “Rocket 88 Boogie,” originally recorded by Pete Johnson for the Los Angeles-based Swing Time Records label in 1949.

Although there were no rock and roll charts in 1951, Rocket 88 hit number 1 on the Billboard R&B chart in June, 1951. The song extols the virtues of the fast and muscular Oldsmobile model, but the innuendo and double entendres are evident:

You may have heard of jalopies
You heard the noise they make
Let me introduce you to my Rocket '88
Yes it's great, just won't wait
Everybody likes my Rocket '88

Gals will ride in style
Movin' all along
V-8 motor and this modern design
My convertible top and the gals don't mind
Sportin' with me, ridin' all around town for joy
Blow your horn, Rocket, blow your horn

Step in my Rocket and-don't be late
We're pullin' out about a half-past-eight
Goin' on the corner and havin' some fun
Takin' my Rocket on a long, hot run
Ooh, goin' out, oozin' and cruisin' and havin' fun

Now that you've ridden in my Rocket '88
I'll be around every night about eight
You know it's great, don't be late
Everybody likes my Rocket '88
Gals will ride in style
Movin' all along

So what makes Rocket 88 the first rock and roll record? If you consider rock and roll to be the melding of rhythm and blues and swing combo music, there were probably many songs that crossed the line in the late 40’s and early 50’s. What’s significant about Rocket 88 is the energetic backbeat, rollicking piano, boisterous vocals, and, believe it or not, probably the first use of distorted, or fuzz guitar, anywhere, by anyone (see Mythology, below). Its influence is enormous, introducing the automobile as a subject matter (and a metaphor for sexual prowess). Little Richard stole the piano introand I'd say Jerry Lee Lewis owes a little of his keyboard style to Turner. If you consider rock and roll to be the melding of R&B and country, well Bill Haley had a hit with a cover of this song in June of 1951, three years before he formed the Comets and cut Rock Around the Clock.

Mythology – The myth around a song of this magnitude has grown, and very likely has been embellished over the years as all good stories have. Legend has it that B.B. King invited Turner’s band to Memphis to record at Phillips’ studio. Some versions have Turner writing the song on the way to the session, others have him fleshing it out at the Riverside Hotel in Clarksdale, Mississippi (home to Robert Johnson’s Crossroads and where you can now frequently find Robert Plant roaming the streets in search of the spirit). On the drive up Highway 61 to Memphis (later ‘revisited’ by Dylan in 1965), a tube amplifier apparently fell out of the car and the woofer was damaged. Turner stuffed some paper into it, Phillips rolled tape, and the rest is history. Far fetched maybe, but I love this stuff!

Rocket 88
Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats (Ike Turner’s Rhythm Kings)
Words and music by Jackie Brenston (actually Ike Turner)
Recorded March 3rd (or 5th), 1951
Memphis Recording Company, Memphis, TN
Originally released as Chess 1458
Produced by Sam Phillips

Ike Turner, piano
Jackie Brenston, vocals, saxophone(?)
Willie Sims, drums
Jesse Knight, bass
Willie Kizart, guitar
Raymond Hill, saxophone

This information was distilled from various sources. I would welcome any comments from real music historians that might be lurking out there.

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Thursday, March 01, 2007

Green Thoughts - Lose the Bottle

For the most part I will refrain from using this blog for preachy diatribes, but I am compelled to remind readers of an ongoing problem. Our addiction to bottled water has reached epidemic proportions, and the senselessness of it all is casually overlooked on a daily basis. Newsday recently reported that bottled water is an $11 billion industry, and at least 25 percent of it is nothing more than filtered tap water. Why stock your fridge with bottled water at about $7 per gallon? The average cost of a gallon of tap water in the US is about $2 for 1,000 gallons.

Environmentally, the impact of bottle fabrication, packaging, the excessive use of fossil fuels in shipping (sometimes great distances), energy used in refrigeration and the countless numbers of bottles that end up in landfills despite our heightened recycling efforts is all damaging and irresponsible. The bottled water industry generates 1.5 million tons of polluting plastics each year. Moving large quantities of fresh water from its place of origin contributes to freshwater depletion. Indeed, 25 percent of all water bottled and traded is consumed outside its country of origin. The Earth Policy Institute estimates that making bottles to meet the US demand for bottled water requires more than 1.5 million barrels of oil annually, enough to fuel 100,000 cars for a year.

And the health benefits of bottled water appear to be overstated, as recent studies have shown similar levels of bacteria and impurities as tap water. Consider these published facts:

In one study, published in The Archives of Family Medicine, researchers compared bottled water with tap water from Cleveland, and found that nearly a quarter of the samples of bottled water had significantly higher levels of bacteria. (New York Times On-line 8-1-05)

Both bottled and tap water suffer from occasional contamination problems, but US water quality standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency for tap water are more stringent than the Food and Drug Administration’s standards for bottled water.
New York City tap water, for example, was tested 430,600 times during 2004 alone. (New York Times On-Line 8-1-05).
Many bottled water suppliers use filtration systems that remove fluoride, leading to an increase in cavities, according the American Dental Association.

I’m not suggesting we ban bottled water, only the consumption based on laziness, convenience and fashion. As I recall, it was celebrities and models that launched the fashionable trend of bottled water. I distinctly remember Sylvester Stallone years ago stating that he only drinks Evian (naïve spelled backwards, by the way). More recently, celebrities have been seen with premium Bling H20, priced at $35 per bottle. If it takes celebrities to guide the public mindset, then so be it. The solution is simple:

Get yourself a home filtration system and a refillable water bottle. Your cost per gallon just dropped about 97 percent and your environmental responsibility just skyrocketed. Think about it.

Further reading:

Recycling Failures
Dasani Disaster
The Purity Myth
Recycling Misconceptions
Bling Water

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