Tag Archives: 2005

17th Favorite: Flood, by The April Skies

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Flood. The April Skies.
2005, WiaB Records. Producer: Jeff Feltenberger.
Purchased, 2005.

IN A NUTSHELL: Flood, by The April Skies, is a collection of ten infectious tunes with a terrific sound and an Alternative Rock feel. Bandleader Jake Crawford writes great melodies, and delivers them with a weary, yet determined, style. His guitar lines are always interesting and the band behind him always delivers. Drummer Mark Tritico is a highlight throughout, playing subtly intricate beats and rhythms that always serve the song. It’s a little band on a little label, but the results are very big!

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
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I’ve mentioned before that way back in the 80s I played the trombone in high school. I was really good at it, good enough to be in some honors bands and a trombone ensemble with little-to-no practicing. However, I never really liked it so after high school I rarely played it, and by about 25 I was done for good. At some point in my late 20s, my mom told me she was sad that I’d stopped playing. “I always imagined seeing you as a big, famous trombone player on TV,” she told me.

It’s sweetly charming that my mom, by the mid 90s, figured that, among the rappers, boy bands, girl groups and other oddities in the United States’ cultural consciousness, some space still remained for a celebrity trombone player. The wave of the celebrity trombonists surely crested in the 1940s with Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey. There’s been nary a ripple since until, perhaps, Trombone Shorty today, whose TV appearances would only just barely, perhaps, qualify him as a “big, famous trombone player.” But still – I know what she meant. She meant the talent I displayed early on portended a larger role for that talent in my life than eventually materialized – a role she’d hoped would land me a spot on TV, I guess.

When I had kids of my own, I got some perspective on the child-activity-based forecasting done by most parents – including my mom. As my kids grew up, I realized that my predictions were based too much on the physical abilities of children. “That kid’s really fast! I’ll bet she’ll go to the Olympics!” “That kid built a Lego bridge! I’ll bet he’ll be an architect!” “That kid plays trombone really well! I’ll bet he’ll be a big, famous trombone player on TV!” However, I learned that those physical traits, even if they continue to develop and bring joy to kids and those around them, don’t account for all that is required to reach the equivalent status of “a big, famous trombone player on TV.” A larger necessity than physical traits is an innate DESIRE TO BE a big, famous trombone player on TV. The fast kid won’t go to the Olympics, but the fast kid who WANTS TO go to the Olympics might.

As a teenaged trombone player, I made lots of friends, I had fun times and laughed a whole lot. I didn’t love the music that we played in band, and I hated to practice. I was happy to be complimented as a talented trombone player, but had it been a talent that never revealed itself, I don’t think my life would’ve been much different.

Eventually I learned to play the bass guitar, and this was an instrument that I actually considered playing professionally – sort of. I was part of a band that wrote and performed songs and played wherever we could and tried to grow an audience and get a recording contract. Had things worked out the way we hoped, I’d have been a professional musician. Had things worked really well, I’d have been a big, famous bass player on TV. (This wasn’t as far removed from reality as one may think. We knew lots of people whose bands had videos on MTV. “Big, Famous” may have been a stretch; “on TV,” not so much.)

However, I myself wasn’t really trying to be a professional musician. I was trying to be a professional rock band member. There’s a difference. The other three members wanted to play their instruments. I just wanted to have some fun.

I’ve read dozens of rock and roll autobiographies. What I’ve learned from reading books by big names like Keith Richards, Bruce Springsteen and Chrissy Hynde; and less-celebrated names like Andy Summers, Dave Davies and Tony Iommi, is that everyone who “makes it big” loves doing what they do. You get the idea that if these people hadn’t become wildly popular and (for the most part) wealthy musicians, they’d still be in their little hometowns, old and gray, picking up the guitar every day, writing songs and playing music, making themselves happy.

It wasn’t really my deep ambition to create music, so after my band, The April Skies, broke up, I didn’t pursue music with much devotion. I continued getting together with Dr. Dave in our excellent band, J.B. and The So-Called Cells, and I joined with friends to form other cover bands, such as Tequila Mockingbird and Two Legs Bad. But I didn’t have the drive to make music my life. The other three guys from my time in The April Skies did.

The April Skies, ca. 1992. (l to r) Cary Brown, Author, Jake Crawford, Mark Tritico. 3/4 of this band appear on Flood.

As of November, 2018, Drummer Mark Tritico is a professional drummer. Singer Cary Brown performs all over Europe with his band Ill River. And Jake Crawford, who led the band long before I joined, continues to put out music nearly 30 years later with The April Skies. He loves what he’s doing, and I love what he does.

So of course, I’ve heard of the band for years and years, ever since Cary, this kid I knew from high school, stopped me in the street while I was delivering pizzas in early 1990, to invite me to come see his band, The April Skies. About fifteen years later, long after I’d joined the band and left the band, I was still listening to everything the band put out. By the early 2000s, Jake had assembled his latest version of the band, and they were hitting the studio with Jeff Feltenberger, member of the roots-rock outfit The Badlees, who’d had some chart success in the 90s. Why don’t I let Jake take it from here:

Flood was the first record where we had a pre-production phase. We rehearsed most of the songs, and worked really hard for 2-3 months while gigging up and down the east coast. There was so much enthusiasm…” I myself LOVE that a bunch of guys with day jobs speak of enthusiasm to create art. “The studio was state-of-the-art. Big sound rooms. Every guitar and amp style you could want. Even a baby grand in the main room. It didn’t take long to see we were putting together something special. We just worked a lot harder at this group of songs than any previous effort. The tempo, the arrangement, the melody, the lyrics and the vocal delivery. All of that was (producer) Jeff (Feltenberger). This record would’ve never happened if not for Jeff.”

As I’ve said, I’ve continued listening to The April Skies since I left the band, and I’ve enjoyed all their music. But something about Flood clicked with me from the first listen. At the time it was released, in 2005, I was working in a lab, and I’d play it on my portable CD player all the time. The album opener, “322,” is an atmospheric, slow-burner that builds powerfully.

All permutations of The April Skies have been able to take a page from the U2 playbook and build an exciting, terrific songs around just 2 chords – as is the case with “322.” The sound swirls between both speakers as Jake’s signature, trebley guitar repeats a simple riff. I think Jake’s always been more comfortable leaving vocal duties to other singers, but I like his voice, and on this album it’s quite strong. “When I heard my voice [on that song], it was life changing. I never sounded that powerful,” he told me. Mark Tritico, who drummed when I was in the band, plays on this record. He’s one of the most creative, yet powerful, drummers I’ve played with. I really like the syncopated rhythm he plays beginning at 1:10. At about 1:50 the song becomes a driving force, with Matt Mazick’s bass and Matt Higgins’s keyboards moving to the forefront. By 2:35, there’s a satisfying resolution, and the song fades quickly. Rte. 322 is a main thoroughfare in the band’s Hershey, Pa., town. Regarding lyrics, Jake says “some tornados had just cut thru this area. The fear and destruction it caused…felt like a great comparison to a few relationships I was privy to at the time.”

Next up is “Crutch,” a song that’s one of my favorites, and that sounds stylistically similar to an act that I couldn’t name. Then Jake told me recently that it was “My attempt at copying Coldplay’s ‘Yellow’.” I myself have always disliked that song. But I love this one.

I’ll be gushing about Tritico’s drums the entire album, and I love them in this song particularly. His snare sound is really great, as are his inventive fills, and his bass drum beat propels it all forward. It’s a catchy mid-tempo number, and the harmonies in the chorus are really strong. I love Jake’s guitar at 1:46 during the bridge, and the harmonies after 3:00. I especially love Tritico’s drums after 3:20 to his final, bubbling drum fill, which is one of my favorites in any song. Both Jake and Mark Tritico were in the band when I was, so maybe it’s because I know them, but I’m a fan of both. Their guitar, vocals and drums help make “You Are The One” a solid song that I would have released as a single.

Jake plays a terrific guitar. I can always pick out his trebley, pinched (in a good way) sound. His playing has always reminded me of James Honeyman-Scott, from The Pretenders. In “You Are the One” it’s less distinctive. But you can hear the typical “Jake” sound on the next piece, the fun, danceable “Long Way Down.”

This song is awesome! To my ears, it’s the lead single – fun, bouncy and danceable. The intro guitar solo sets the stage, and it drives. Regarding the lyrics, “I was lashing out a bit a people who took themselves too serious,” Crawford says. This song also features another member of the band from my years: singer/guitarist Cary Brown sings the high-pitched “Long Way Down” backing vocals. I could listen to this one all day. Jake’s guitar sound is also featured on “A Game,” giving the song a Middle-Eastern feel. His vocals are strong, and the harmonies in the chorus really make it. I love the little organ in the chorus, as well.

I think the melodies this band writes are tremendous. Every song is sing-along catchy. Even the songs Jake doesn’t write, like the lovely “Still,” written and sung by keyboardist Mark Higgins.

It opens with a simple drum beat, with the keyboards and bass, by Mark Mazick, driving the song forward. Higgins’s voice is a strong tenor, and the ranging melody is fabulous – particularly in the second verse. It’s a sweet love song, and Jake adds some nice guitar throughout. Higgins’s keyboards add atmosphere and depth to many of the songs, for example on “Shaking the Tree.” The ethereal organ, along with Jake’s pinched guitar, gives this rocker an 80s British Invasion sound. Tritico again shines here, giving the song a bit of a dance beat while Crawford sings, obliquely, about addiction.

Jake’s lyrics are great. They’re indirect, but clearly purposeful. On the lovely, rather epic, “In the Mirror,” a long-term relationship has ended.

Jake says, “I wanted to paint the not-so-great periods in a relationship so that they’d go away forever. I wanted to isolate those moments where maybe I made a joke I shouldn’t have, or said the wrong thing.” The transition to the chorus is lovely, and Higgins’s harmony vocals are terrific. My favorite parts are Crawford’s guitar solo, about 3:08, and the wonderful bridge, beginning at 4:40, which always gives me chills.

Quick story: when I was in the band, Jake would always play a particular acoustic piece he’d written that was just stunning and powerful, a slow ballad that was clearly personal and that always connected with whomever was listening. We always tried to get him to record it, but he wouldn’t do it. Flash forward 15 years, and the song, “Something to Shine About,” has been transformed into a rocker.

I love the little bass note at 0:13, and the piano. The transition, at 1:07, to the chorus is great, as are the harmony vocals. I also love how the band pulls back, around 3:30, with Tritico’s rimshots carrying the load. Jake plays a cool solo (that could be louder in the mix!) On re-working this old gem, Crawford says, “The band worked up this music. And somehow, the lyrics re-appeared and it seemed to work. Our original intent was for it to be more Pixies/Radiohead with the verses being quiet and the chorus very loud. It sounds kinda Springsteen to me.”

Obviously, my connection to the people who made this record enhances my esteem for it. But I’m sure I’d love this record whether or not I had a friendship and history with Jake Crawford, Mark Tritico and Cary Brown. Would it be #17? I don’t know, or care. What I do know is that the final song, “I Will Surround You,” is one of my all-time favorite album closers.

Mark Tritico has always been able to set a mood with a drumbeat, and the echoes added to his intro deepen the mood here. Jake’s subtle, unmistakeable guitar sound is featured in the introductory solo, at about 0:48. He expands on the solo theme at the end of the song, 4:24. It’s another song that does a lot with only a few chords. It also features Cary Brown on backing vocals again. The lyrics are about a relationship coming to an end. “I had a recurring dream about this song,” Jake told me. “Long before we recorded it, we would jam it out at rehearsals. It would go on and on. My dream, we were playing somewhere out west, at Coachella or some outside event in front of 60,000 people. It was sunny and it starts raining lightly. While we play this song on and on. When I finally wrote the lyrics (long after the music was recorded), it only made sense to plead to keep the life we created together. Didn’t work. But at least I got this beautiful song.”

This last quote, to me, explains why some folks keep hammering away at their art. It says everything you need to know about creative people, and what it means to be “successful” as an artist. To an artist, there are dreams of your art bringing fame and fortune, and there are dreams of your art making a difference on people around you. But in the end, you do it because you could end up with something beautiful – an outcome that’s even better than being big, famous and on TV. The April Skies succeeded with Flood.

Track Listing:
“322”
“Crutch”
“You Are the One”
“Long Way Down”
“Something to Shine About”
“A Game”
“Still”
“In the Mirror”
“Shaking the Day”
“I Will Surround You”

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51st Favorite: If You Didn’t Laugh You’d Cry, by Marah

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If You Didn’t Laugh You’d Cry. Marah.
2005, Yep Roc Records. Producer: Marah.
Purchased, 2006.

IN A NUTSHELL: An under-appreciated, little-known band with a history of nearly going big-time, but sadly missing, presents an album of songs that mirror the band’s story: what might have been? It’s a bluesy, Americana, country-rock tour-de-force, and the star is the songwriting of the Bielenko brothers, Dave and Serge. The sound is great, and Dave’s voice is noteworthy and unique, centering the songs right in the heart.
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Ahh, the drunken sadness of unfulfilled dreams…

I’ve had a bit of a problem with alcohol in my past. I haven’t gotten dangerously drunk in a long, long time, but way back in my past it was a rather regular occurrence. Luckily, I never hurt myself or anyone else (physically) while it was all happening. I made a lot of bad decisions under the influence of booze, and pulled lots of stupid stunts and I came through pretty much unscathed – so it must have involved some luck. As a parent of teenagers, my antics particularly frighten me – because I can’t say they weren’t fun.

My folks drank alcohol so rarely that it’s honest to say – though technically untrue – that they didn’t drink at all. My dad drank about two beers in a year – the two remaining beers from the case of Miller High Life bought for our annual family Christmas party and drank by my uncles and cousins. He’d finish both cans off by the end of February, then go dry for another 10 months. My mom frequently alluded to her dad, who died the year I was born, having difficulties with alcohol, and this fact clearly influenced her own tee-totaling ways. I recall her and my grandma making banana daiquiris one New Year’s Eve, each drinking one, and have no other recollection of her imbibing during my youth. My parents weren’t drinkers – one of many ways in which they hewed to the straight-and-narrow.

I followed in my parents’ footsteps all through high school, traveling along the trail they blazed of clearly-defined Right through a wilderness of Wrong. That wilderness was described for youth like me in Parables of Poor Choices: teens trespassing after midnight in public pools, paralyzed in shallow-end dives; boys blowing off hands while playing with shotgun shells; girls getting so drunk they were now unsure of who the daddy is. Among these Wrongs, the path I traveled kept me safe from teen drinking. But it wasn’t so much that wilderness of immorality that frightened me as it was my parents’ potential reaction if I got off the path.

That concern was removed on a late-August afternoon in 1985, as I waved goodbye to them from the curb in West Philadelphia as they drove off in their ’78 Ford LTD wagon, beginning their two-hour drive back home from my new college. That night I went to a bar with my new friends.

And I had lots of fun.

That initial feeling of being buzzed has always been a pleasant one for me, from the first couple beers I ever drank. I’ve always felt like an extrovert – someone who enjoys other people and is energized by interactions with them. However I’d learned that the righteous path of my youth was best traveled with minimal social interactions, the better to avoid both temptations of the wilderness and beatings by its denizens, who could become agitated by the inferences they drew about my own self-regard as I viewed them from my elevated path through their surroundings. As a result, I assumed the role of “shy guy.” But the initial lightheaded feeling of a hastily-drank beer opened a doorway on the path that I could step through to engage anyone I wished. I felt like the self I always knew I was.

Alcohol was the formula that unleashed a superpower within me, my own radioactive spider bite or gamma radiation, and it took many years for me to realize that a) the superpower existed without the booze as trigger; and b) more booze did not equal stronger superpowers. There were some regrettable moments in the meantime … but there was a lot of fun, too!

I find being a little bit drunk quite enjoyable. I get a gentle swirly feeling, a sense of subtly floating and a belief that those around me are subtly floating, too. Conversation flows, jokes are funny, a bit of physical contact is affably shared. Of course, all of these characteristics are unhappily stretched, unpleasantly engorged and distorted with further drinking: swirling floatiness becomes shambling stumbles; conversation becomes assholes who won’t shut up; jokes become provocations and physical contact becomes worthy of filing charges. That boundary separating the goodnatured warmth from the ugly derangement of alcohol use is as delicate as a soap bubble. But when one is capable of properly monitoring what is being ingested, and how it is affecting one’s actions, it is possible for some folks (particularly those without a genetic predisposition to alcoholism) to maintain a happy, healthy use of alcohol.

Just as hostility in the ugly drunk is an attenuation of the charming authenticity of the floating drunk, I find the blubbering sorrow of a melancholy drunk to be simply a distortion of something positive about drinking: that wistful sadness of the gentle blues. Maybe it’s because, as an American man raised in the 70s & 80s, I have difficulty expressing emotion without alcohol’s little nudge; maybe it’s because I’m mildly clinically depressed all the time; but whatever the reason, there’s something I like about feeling a little blue with a little booze.

This gentle blue feeling – like most positive aspects of mild alcoholism – is best shared with a friend. To sit together and reminisce while sipping a bourbon or beer; to consider past glories as roundabouts on life’s highway that could have sent you in three different directions; to allow speculative wonder to navigate an alternate trajectory; to burnish memories with little fibs, like splicing explosive bits of blockbuster films into the humdrum documentary of your life, and therefore arrive at the destination of your dreams; and to finally assert that, for all the possible unchosen avenues, you’ve got to admit you’re happy with how life’s turned out so far … these are the steps to a happy sadness, the gentle blues.

This feeling pervades the Marah album If You Didn’t Laugh, You’d Cry. The first phrase I wrote down when I started this post was “The drunken sadness of unfulfilled dreams,” and for so many reasons this is the feeling I get from this band. I first heard of Marah around 2005, when I was still performing stand-up comedy. I would frequent an online Comedians Message Board, and someone whose taste I trust recommended the band and its latest album. I bought it blindly, and I became a fan of the band. Not only is their music tinged with sadness, but their story is, as well. A Philadelphia band, touted by giants like Stephen King and Nick Hornby, they were the darling of the critics, but never able to push through, despite some national TV exposure; and then a final splintering provided lots of questions of what might-have-been. A band named Marah still exists, but its Bruce Springsteen dreams are now a DIY reality of Americana pickin’ – and they seem okay with it. They seem gently blue.

If You Didn’t Laugh You’d Cry opens with a brief, jaunty slide guitar melody that is revisited throughout the album, then flies right into “The Closer,” a flying, bar-band stomper with a nifty riff, a sing-along chorus and a recorded phone message …

Singer Dave Bielenko writes the songs with his brother, Serge, who also takes lead vocal on a few songs. Dave has a distinctive, nearly-out-of-tune voice that carries a whiff of drunken abandon with it on nearly every song he sings. Or – in the case of this song that’s all about wild intoxication – far more than just a whiff.

The band also shows a fondness for cramming lots of words into their lyrics, in a Bruce Springsteen/Bob Dylan manner, which sounds really good when done right. It’s a feature of the next song, “The Hustle,” and the coming-apart-at-the-seams feel is enhanced by the sloppy/cool guitar throughout and the lyrics’ working-artist content.

It’s another straight-ahead rocker, although the bridge at about 2:05 changes things up and deposits the song back again at about 2:30 with a different guitar riff and a disco bass line, demonstrating the band’s dexterity and playfulness. The song ends, then a clip of sad music follows – some interstitial sound linking the pieces together.

Next up is one of those gently blue, bittersweet songs, “City of Dreams.”

It’s a lovely acoustic song, with a mournful lap steel and mellotron accompanying. Dave holds back a bit on his voice’s drunken affectation as he sings about being a dreamer in the big city. His voice can be very expressive, despite its scruffy nature, particularly on these slower songs. One of my favorites is the us-against-the-world love song, “Out of Tune.” It builds from a voice and guitar, adding brother Serge on banjo and harmonies, finally adding handclaps around 1:54 as the initial sadness turns to the pride and unity of shared love. And I love the message, and chorus, of the song: “So what if we’re out of tune with the rest of the world?”

The songwriting is what carries this album. The Brothers Bielenko are excellent composers, and their arrangements – full of slide guitar and banjo – fit the tunes perfectly. The band sounds like an excellent bar band, all rough edges and passion, and I regret that I’ve never seen them live. There are many videos on YouTube of their live shows, and they seem like they put on a terrific show. A song that I think captures their fun energy, and that I’m sure is great live, is “Poor People.”

It’s got a different beat, again uses a simple guitar riff to drive it and includes a banjo in the background to pull things together. It builds to a point at 2:30 where the entire band fills in with background vocals – which is where I’d be screaming lyrics back to the band, if I heard it live. It’s about the indignities of living poor, where “The mice are crazy from paint chip crumbs/As the iron lung of the icebox hums/There’s cool ranch dust on our lunchtime thumbs.” And the lyrics again have a certain drunken pride – though they suggest a lousy life, the singer celebrates it, almost daring the listener to criticize. Marah is a Philly band, and this deep-seated pride is a characteristic I associate with Philadelphia and its citizens. In the 1970s the Philadelphia Phillies had a player named Mike Schmidt, one of the best players ever in the game. But Phillies fans booed Schmidt frequently, and griped about his play constantly. HOWEVER – if a fan of a different team put Schmidt down, he could expect an earful in support of Schmidt, and perhaps a punch in the face. There’s an Older Brother quality to Philadelphia that Marah’s music captures: I can talk shit about my little brother, but nobody else better do it!

Philadelphia, pride, sadness – they all play a big role in “Walt Whitman Bridge,” a song set on the Philadelphia landmark, where the singer contemplates a lost love and life itself, with great imagery of celebrating life’s miseries with memorials such as shoes on phone lines and words strewn like bread crumbs.

It’s a folksy, blue number with a nice acoustic guitar and some Dylan-y harmonica. Some lap steel and tinkling piano provide nice color, and the harmonies in the chorus, first heard about 1:17, give me chills every time.

The Bob Dylan influence is particularly noticeable on the gem “The Dishwasher’s Dreams,” a song with a constant stream of words set to an Americana stomp. Similar to “Poor People,” it’s a tale of the desperate poor making bad decisions, and fearing the future so badly that they dream of killing themselves. The only saving grace to their grim life is the love they share for one another. It’s a well-told tale, and lines such as “I fell in love with Monique/ on a Yanks winning streak/ and we danced to the popping of corks” are brilliantly evocative. This is another favorite of mine.

There isn’t a bad song on the album. The jaunty, interstitial melody heard at the album opening is finally given its due in the country sing-along “Sooner or Later,” with the lovely dobro riff carrying it along. That riff ends the album, as well, then turns into the hidden track, “The Sooner or Later Interlude,” a straight-ahead rocker featuring more great Serge/Dave harmonies. “Fat Boy” is a honky-tonk stomper, and “Demon of White Sadness” is a sadly bouncing number with a nice guitar riff, and lyrics about depression described not as the typical blackness, but as something turned white with medication.

Brother Serge takes lead vocals on another tear-jerker, the miss-you-while-I’m-on-the-road, country-tinged “The Apartment.”

I love the lyrics of this song, the form and structure. I love how few of the lines rhyme (except for some great internal rhymes) – it’s really an essay about missing one’s love. Mundane facts of life on the road – truck stop bananas, pumping gas – are interspersed with little expressions of yearning love: souvenir keychains, drunken phone calls. Vaguely mariachi trumpets provide a wistful backdrop to the song.

“Wistful” is defined by Google as “having or showing a feeling of vague or regretful longing.” Merriam-Webster calls it “yearning or desire tinged with melancholy; musingly sad.” It’s the feeling I associate with mild drunkenness, a sense of being “gently blue.” If you wanted to describe wistfulness in a simple sentence, you might say this: “If you didn’t laugh, you’d cry.” If you wanted to feel it for yourself, you might listen to “If You Didn’t Laugh, You’d Cry.” You’ll be happy you did.

Track Listing:
“The Closer”
“The Hustle”
“City of Dreams”
“Fat Boy”
“Sooner or Later”
“Out of Tune”
“Demon of White Sadness”
“The Dishwasher’s Dreams”
“Poor People”
“Walt Whitman Bridge”
“The Apartment”
“Sooner or Later Interlude (Hidden Track)”

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60th Favorite: Z, by My Morning Jacket

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Z. My Morning Jacket.
2005, ATO. Producer: John Leckie, Jim James.
Purchased 2006.

z album

nutshell60IN A NUTSHELL: Straight-ahead rock, with just enough bends to satisfy. Leader Jim James has a distinctive voice that soars and floats but is always out front, no matter what style song he writes – from jam-band psychedelia to three-minute rave-ups. The rest of the band keeps it all interesting. A record with so many great songs that it’s hard to pick a favorite
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I have a soft spot in my musical heart for polka. Maybe it’s in my genes, as my family is generations-deep into its initial settlement of Pennsylvania Dutch Country, and Pennsylvania and Polka go hand-in-hand. polkapartyMaybe it’s because my grandfather’s band, “Die Lauterbach German Band,” played polkas and oompah songs and so the music is in my blood. Or maybe it’s simply because as a young child of 4 or 5, I had a stack of about twenty-five 45-rpm polka records in my basement, almost all of them from the Chicago-area label “Jay Jay Records,” and I played them incessantly and “marched around the basement” while I listened, as my mom has told me.

records 45sThose polka records were my first experiences in active participation in my own personal enjoyment of music. I’d go downstairs to the little portable record player, take out some 45s, and place them on the turntable. Then I commenced marching (apparently).

The experience of handling the 45s and reading their labels and watching them spin contributed greatly to my enjoyment. I can recall the fascination I felt eyeing those 45s pressed into clear, yellow plastic, and reading the sparse information provided: “POLKA PAL POLKA. (E. Blatnick). EDDIE BLATNICK and His Polka Pals. 237B. Diana Music. 2:24.” Who was Mr. Blatnick? Where did his Pals sit while they made the record? Diana Music?? Who is she? dick allenThe records didn’t have sleeves, they just lay naked and unashamed inside an old candy box, so I couldn’t find any other information about them.

In addition to the polka records, there were other 45s in that candy box as well. The label I most liked from the non-polka selections was “Drum Boy Records,” which was also from Chicago, and was also run by the same guy who ran Jay Jay Records, Walter “Li’l Wally” Jagiello. The song I liked best from this label was “Let’s Go Go Go White Sox,” by Captain Stubby & Buccaneers (with Li’l Wally Orch.). I wasn’t a White Sox fan, drumboy2but I loved baseball – plus it is an excellent song to march to, and I must have appreciated that. Another Drum Boy record I enjoyed was “My Little Josephine,” – a watered-down, decade-late (it was recorded in 1965) “Rock Around the Clock” ripoff performed by The Don Ralke Orchestra. It’s pretty bad, but does feature a pretty awesome lead guitar throughout. But I can’t imagine its orch-rock swing inspired much marching in me.

That box of 45s contained so much joy! Besides the polka records and Drum Boy singles, 45sthere were lots of pop song novelties from the 50s that I enjoyed (again, likely with minimal marching.) Frankie Laine and Jimmy Boyd packed a 1-2 punch with the single “Let’s Go Fishin’” backed with “Poor Little Piggy Bank.” Phil Harris caused my kindergarten mind to run wild with his classicThe Thing.” And my little brain deduced something vaguely sexual in Guy Mitchell’s “Chicka-Boom,” about a woman whose “shoes paddy-wack in the front and the back while her yellow curls go swingin’.”

But the joy wasn’t simply from the sounds of the songs turntablethat I heard, it was also contained in the physical stack of plastic that I could hold in my hands, and swing onto a hooked thumb. There was joy in the words on the labels, the numbers and letters coding secrets to me: “45-JB-1-244” on a Jubilee 45; “9-62033” on a Coral 45; “249 A” on one of those Jay Jay Records polkas. I derived joy from the motivation and physical actions required to hear those songs. I had to go down to the basement, find the box of records, open the record player, select some songs and place them on the turntable. I had to monitor the songs, and be ready to remove the record linusbefore the needle ran into the label and made that dreaded clicking sound. There was a dance that the records and the record player and I performed together, a connection between us, that was accompanied by those songs we produced together. When the music was good – those polkas, the White Sox, the novelty songs – it all felt right. When the music was bad – the Doris Day, Tony Bennett, Julius LaRosa – it felt as if all three of us were disappointed together. Listening to music was more than just listening to music. It was a process that involved my body and my mind.

Of course, 45s and 33 1/3 LPs were the cassettmain medium for listening to music for all of my young life, so the whole-body experience became deeply ingrained. In my teen years, I got into the convenience of cassettes – particularly blank cassettes, which allowed me to record my albums and take them with me and listen through my wonderful Walkman. This process definitely involved a physical interaction with the media, however if I really liked a record I always preferred having the official label release over a pirated cassette. I wanted to read the packaging, to see what the artist wanted me to know about the work, to hold something in my hands while my boom-box hissed along. Sometime in college cdI was introduced to “Compact Disc technology,” CDs. People liked the clear sound and the convenience, and you still had a little something to hold and read while you listened. There was a bit of backlash to the new-fangled things – most people who are into such things agree the sound quality on CD is inferior to albums, although most people NOT into such things can’t even tell the difference. Some artists were reluctant to release material on the new medium. Others complied, but got their little digs in at the rise of convenience over sound. I eventually switched over as well, which must be obvious if you’re reading this website.

CDs began the digital music revolution, but by the time the revolution really took off in the late 90s – win98when the new 1s and 0s of popular music were swept up in the giant tidal wave of the internet, and together they crushed the seemingly indestructible ship, the S.S. Recording Industry – my life no longer had enough time to devote to the ever-changing modes of compiling recorded music. Napster, KaZaa, LimeWire … they all came and went with barely a disruption to my music consumption habits, which remained confined to CDs and the occasional vinyl bought at a yard sale. But at some point around 2006, the file-sharing storms had mostly subsided, the waters had calmed and I decided to dive in among the flotsam and jetsam remaining after the wreckage of the Recording Industry. So much detritus remained, and among such driftwood as Rhapsody, Zune, and Y! Music, I selected what seemed to be the most stable piece of crap on the sea, ignored the fact that it was drifting further and ipodfurther away from the Microsoft shores I recognized, and joined iTunes.

Around this same time, my local Don’t-Call-It-An-Oldies-Station was playing a great song by a singer with a high-pitched voice for a man called “Off The Record.” It was catchy, had some nice guitar … The band was My Morning Jacket – a name I’d heard over the past few years but with whom I was unfamiliar. I liked it enough to buy the band’s CD. Inspired by some twenty-something co-workers who were also music fans, I decided to make this album my first official digital album purchase. Remembering my love for the meta-information in CD booklets and album covers, and wishing to hold something in my hands, I also downloaded the “Digital Booklet.”

z and itunes

It wasn’t the same. As much as I liked the record (and there are only 59 records I like better!) I still didn’t feel connected to it in the same way that I’ve felt with other records – even those I like less. I don’t picture this record in my head the same way I picture others. platformMost records I love feel like a lake or a pond I can swim in, and the physical object – whether a cassette case, album cover or CD package – is like the platform tethered in the middle of that lake. It’s the place I can swim to and lean on, where I jump off to get to another part of the lake. I can hang out on the platform. Or I can spend the day at the lake and never even touch the platform, but it’s nice to know it’s there if I ever want it. And the digital booklet was no substitute – it was more like a small, inflatable raft with a slow leak, tethered to the shore: practically useless, entirely forgettable. Z has always felt like a lake without a platform.

mmj band 2But I loved the music immediately. Naturally, I burned a CD.

“Off The Record,” that first song I heard by the band, is a fun number that begins with a a guitar riff that sounds straight out of an old Western. It soon transitions into a sort of Reggae song with a straight rock beat.

After the verse, there’s another catchy guitar riff, and the song pumps along with a nice groove. Bandleader/guitarist/singer Jim James has a tenor voice, a la Roy Orbison, and it’s the distinctive sound of MMJ. james 1He has fun making these songs, as many songs feature all kinds of weird sounds and other goings-on in the background – such as the scream-along “right, right, right” around the 1:50 mark. The lyrics seem to be a straightforward request for discretion from a partner. The version played on the radio (which has a pretty cool video) ends at about 3 minutes. But the album version demonstrates what it is about this record that really captured me: the final two-and-a-half minute psychedelic instrumental that continues after 3 minutes. It features some organ, conga drums, some more strange spoken word stuff, and subtle guitar work. It’s the type of song that helped the record show up at #23 on Rolling Stone magazine’s “40 Greatest Stoner Album” list.

Another song in the same vein is the 70s-rock-feeling “Lay Low.”

It’s got terrific guitar work through the verse and chorus, pat hallahanbut drummer Patrick Hallahan is the star of this song. His high-hat keeps the beat steady through a choppy rhythm, propelling the song forward all the time. James sings in a lower register this time, prodding a lover to stay in tonight and chill, but his voice takes off around 1:20, just before that cool riff re-enters. The melody is captivating despite its cluttered wordiness. It’s a nice little song that at the three minute mark explodes into a guitar workout,james broemel and by 3:30 becomes a crushing guitar duel between James and lead guitarist Carl Broemel. It’s a song you can get lost in, with a definite whiff of 70s Neil Young/Lynyrd Skynyrd taking over the final two minutes. It’s great to hear a band like this let loose and wail for a while.

The band lets loose on many of the songs on Z, playing with abandon and recorded in a way that gives the record a live feel. A short song that rips nonetheless is the terrific “What a Wonderful Man.”

According to reports, it’s a song about a former friend of James’s who committed suicide. jim james guitarIt’s a great, ramshackle song that sounds like its about to fall apart several times, built on Hallahan’s sloppy (in a good way) drums and Broemel’s 70’s-sounding Southern Rock lead guitar. It’s short and to the point, with a squeal of joy from James closing it out.

James’s voice – squealing, shouting, reaching for highs and bending for lows – is the keystone of this album, and one of the most recognizable in rock over the past ten or fifteen years. It’s used to full effect on what may be my favorite song on the album, “Gideon.”

It begins simply with a kick drum tom band an arpeggiated guitar riff, and James’s subdued vocals. After about 50 seconds the build starts, cymbals crash … only to pull back and introduce the bass guitar, which helps build the song once more … dramatically this time, to James’s howling at 2:00 – truly a vocal expression on par with some of the great rock and roll screams of all time. It’s a song that is built on feeling and suspense, repetitive but natural, containing enigmatic yet spiritual lyrics.

Jim James’s lyrics are of the oblique style in which nothing is stated directly and listeners can make inferences for themselves. And in a song such as the terrificjames 2 fly v opener, “Wordless Chorus,” as the title suggests, lyrics are entirely absent from the chorus – James choosing instead to use his impressive vocalizations to convey meaning. But James can use his vocal instrument subtly, as well, as on the quiet, gorgeous “Knot Comes Loose.” A similar vocal style is evident on the country-tinged, pedal-steel-featuring “How Could I Know.” It’s an example of James’s knack for writing songs that sound like they’ve been around for years – he writes tunes that are simple and memorable. But he can pull off the unusual as well, like the circusy “Into the Woods,” or the lovely, intricate “It Beats 4 U.”

Vying with the aforementioned “Gideon” for title of my favorite song on this record is the straightforward rocker “Anytime.” It’s got a great, ripping guitar intro and the drums once again are sloppy-in-a-good-way, pushing the song forward constantly.

The thumping, ascending bass line in the chorus meld nicely with James’s melody. The lyrics concert 2admit a problem with communication that the singer’s trying to work on, with the help of wisdom from Madonna.

I suppose it says a lot about a record when I call two songs my “favorite.” So in praising Z, I might as well throw a third selection into the ring as my favorite. The eerie, epic, multi-faceted jam of the would-be album closer “Dondante.”

James’s voice once again carries things here, concertparticularly at the beginning of the song where he’s mostly accompanied simply by drums. But as he sings his mystifying lyrics, the song builds to a nice quiet guitar solo about 2:35 that bridges things until 3:30, when the band enters with full force and grows to still another level of urgency and energy. By 5:30, the energy has gone away as quickly as it entered. There’s a dreamlike quality to the song, again justifying the album’s place on a list of Best Stoner Albums. “Dondante” has the feel of one of those epic songs you’d hear on the radio in the 70s late at night while the DJ left the studio to complete a drug buy.

Of course, in the 70s, a DJ would have handled the actual vinyl album, vinylcould have read the liner notes on the record sleeve, might have gotten lost in the cover art; but by 2005 DJs were just clicking icons on a screen. There is so much progress and genius and hard work and wonder inherent in the fact that what 40 years ago took so much equipment – turntable, amp, speaker, wires, electricity, a piece of vinyl or plastic to hold – is accomplished today with a few finger swipes and taps. We’ve come so far and gained so much, but to me what we lost was significant, as well. I don’t think it affected my appreciation of Z – but how can I tell? Might a physical connection with this record have placed it higher on the list? Are there albums in the upcoming 59 whose packaging enhanced my experience with the music, the physical and visual senses bolstering the aural, therefore placing it ahead of Z? Did that candy box full of 45s ruin me for albums made after 2000? These are questions I’ll never be able to answer, and maybe they don’t matter. Z is a record I love, and I’ll enjoy it on any medium – even though I can’t march along to it.

Track Listing:
“Wordless Chorus”
“It Beats 4 U”
“Gideon”
“What A Wonderful Man”
“Off The Record”
“Into The Woods”
“Anytime”
“Lay Low”
“Knot Comes Loose”
“Dondante”
“How Could I Know”

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73rd Favorite: Extraordinary Machine, by Fiona Apple

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Extraordinary Machine. Fiona Apple
2005, Epic. Producer: Mike Elizondo, Brian Kehew, Jon Brion
Purchased: ca. 2008.

album 73

nutshell 73IN A NUTSHELL – Jazzy pop songs with strong vocals, nice piano and creative instrumentation; introspective, wordy lyrics express a wide range of emotions in catchy yet unexpected melodies. She’s a performer reminiscent of Randy Newman, but with lyrics directed at herself, not society. It’s not an album I would’ve predicted to appear on this list 10 or 15 years ago.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
A Series of Open Letters to My Younger Selves

To: Me (1976)

bicentennial glassesBoy, this Bicentennial stuff is pretty neat, isn’t it? I have to say, for a nine-year-old, you did a good job of Christmas shopping. That set of coasters stored in the shape of a stylish, plastic Liberty Bell was GREATLY appreciated by Mom, just so you know.

Liberty BellSo, I’m writing to discuss music with you a little bit. I know you’re a fan of WLBR, and “Sir Duke” and “Philadelphia Freedom.” And the fact that your favorite song is “Strawberry Fields Forever,” well – it brings a tear to my eye! But remember, just recently, when you were at Dr. Eisenhauer’s office? The dentist, near the Post Office? And remember how you were SHOCKED when Dr. Eisenhauer asked the receptionist to turn the radio to a different station because he “can’t stand that Barry Manilow!”?!?!

barry

You must recall how – stunned at this revelation – you told your mom and sisters all about it, asking them, “How can anyone hate Barry Manilow? He is so good!!” They seemed to agree, especially Liz.

Gentle fact here, pal: lots of people hate Barry Manilow. He has some hard core fans and has always been popular with them.

fanilow

And it’s true he will have had lots of hit records and an extremely successful career in pop music. But many people find him sappy and insincere – although most everyone recognizes his immense musical talent. Strange to hear, I know, but musical talent won’t necessarily equal popularity. And lots of musicians are very talented but never achieve success like Barry. It’s weird.

Anyway, someday you’ll change the station when he comes on, too! It’s true. But the point is this – there’s music out there for everyone – and the stuff you like now might not be what you like later on.

A couple things from the future: enjoy Happy Days while you can, ‘cause it’s about to get pretty ridiculous.

archie

Also, Good News: your favorite team, The New Orleans Saints, WILL win a Super Bowl some day! Bad News: Not until you’re 42. (Secondary Good News: you’ll live at least until you’re 42!)

To: Me (1982)

mtvMTV, buddy!!! Is it the COOLEST THING EVER, or what??! I can’t believe your house gets it, but almost nobody else does! Take that, Rich Kids living in Mt. Gretna, who don’t get it!! High five!

I’m here from the future to tell you that it’s not weird for you to be so obsessed with Chrissie Hynde from The Pretenders.

I was obsessed enough with Chrissie Hynde as a 15 year old that I would have made a million of these collages, given 2015 tools. However, I wasn’t so obsessed that I did so with available 1982 technology, so I’m not a nutjob.

It’s understandable for you to spend (waste) your hours watching bullshit videos from The Producers and Phil Collins and Juice Newton just so you can MAYBE catch a glimpse of “Talk of the Town” or “Message of Love” or – the Holy Grail – “Tattooed Love Boys.” Chrissie Hynde is worth those hours spent.
sex ed

I know your parents have no words to describe what you’re feeling, and that they’ve spent their lives pretending they’ve never felt it, and that they hoped to at least get you and your sisters out of the house before you three ever acknowledged its existence, (don’t worry I won’t mention its name) but it’s totally normal. It’s not a bad thing! It’s not a weird thing!

Your friends can talk all they want about Cheryl Tiegs or Heather Thomas or Christie Brinkley – they’re just pretty faces (and etc.; let’s be honest, it’s not just the face.) But Chrissie is a talented MUSICIAN, modelsand believe it or not, you’ll come to realize that her appeal (let’s call it) is as much about her musical abilities – that is, who she is as a person – as it is about her looks. She fronts a KICK-ASS rock band, plays guitar and sings the songs really cool, and that just heightens the whole “appealing” thing.

And if Chrissie played shitty music, you wouldn’t be so obsessed.Keep judging musicians – both men and women – by the music they play, not by their looks, okay?

Okay, okay, I’ll stop. I agree – it’s too weird to discuss this with you. But listen, on a somewhat related note: if that really pretty girl, J., whom you’ve liked since seventh grade, upon returning to the high school lockerslate at night after performing in a parade together with the marching band, asks you if you want to “go for a walk around the lockers,” an area of the school which is – of course – darkened, because it’s 10:30 at night (which means – by the way – that you have a good half hour to spend on such a stroll, since your mom isn’t going to pick you up til about 11) … well, when you DO go for this walk, at least try to hold her hand, or something!! YOU’LL NEVER GET A CLEARER HINT FROM A GIRL, YOU IDIOT!! If you just go for a fast lap hallwayaround the lockers with her, and blather on about David Letterman and Steve Martin, and how your band uniform makes you sweat and itch, you’ll NEVER get another chance to possibly kiss her!! EVER! And this fact WILL haunt you for years. I’m not kidding. Years.

To: Me (1998)
Nice San Francisco apartment, nice girlfriend, good job (I guess science wasn’t too bad a choice …), pursuing theater and comedy … it’s all working out pretty well, my friend!

sf skyline
I know there’s been talk about starting a family, and I know that scares the shit out of you. As it should. new dadSo, listen, others will give you all types of advice about the pros and cons of fatherhood, what changes to expect, what it all means, blah blah blah. But I’m gonna tell you something nobody else seems to consider – something I know you’ll want to hear: How Will Fatherhood Affect Your Musical Life?

family music1) Most of the albums you buy in the next ten years will be by Raffi, The Wiggles, and Laurie Berkner. You’ll be bummed out not only by how persistently catchy the songs are, but also by how easily you’ll come to recognize them AND by how long you’ll remember them – word for word!!! Everyone will tell you you’ll come to hate these songs.
wiggles
But the horrible truth that no one else will tell you is this: you’ll find many of the songs enjoyable. See, what’s fucked up about parenthood is this: even though the songs, in a vacuum, are really horrible, just as you think, you won’t be experiencing them in a vacuum. You’ll be experiencing them through your children. So while “Having Fun at the Beach,” or “I’m Gonna Catch You” are – in and of themselves – the aural equivalents of chugging a bottle of Mrs. Butterworth’s Syrup, syrupswhen you see your kids bopping their heads to the songs, or belting out the lyrics along with the record, or working up a sweat in front of the TV set while they dance along to the videos for twenty or thirty minutes, it will become IMPOSSIBLE to separate the songs from the good feelings of seeing your kids really, really happy. It’s just how it is. Your kids will have an affect on your music appreciation – and not just with Kiddie Songs.

2) The albums you buy for yourself for the next … fifteen or so years will sometimes go unlistened-to for weeks, or MONTHS!! cdsYou’ll be so excited to get that CD in the mail and then continue to find it lying around the house, unopened, for the next several weeks. You’ll start to listen, but find yourself tied up with soccer practices and dance practices and Little League board meetings, and PTO meetings, and homework, not to mention home ownership, and work (fucking science), and family time, and spending time wrestling/playing/dancing/arguing with your kids, and the next thing you know there will be another CD you HAVE TO BUY, but you still haven’t really heard that last one. They’ll start to stack up. And your ridiculous, it-seemed-smart-at-the-time plan to borrow them from the library will fail miserably, as well.

3) As they get older, you won’t like most of the music your kids like. But they’ll continue to like a lot of the music you like, so you’ll feel a little bit successful as a cultural guide for the youth.
guide
But watch out: just as it happened when they were toddlers, you’ll find yourself experiencing music through your kids, so a catchy song that you otherwise would hate will become a Song the Makes You Think of Your Daughter or Son, and next thing you know you’ll be buying it on itunes. Don’t say I didn’t warn you that someday you may find yourself wiping a (manly) tear from your eye

when you happen to hear a goofy song by Carly Rae Jepsen or LMFAO at just the right (wrong?) time.

Okay, that’s about all I have time to tell you. But here’s a bit of advice: that condo in SF with no parking that seems too expensive, at $165,000? It is NOT too expensive. In another 3 years it will be worth 10 times that. I shit you not.

Carry on, younger selves!! Somehow you’ll make it to November, 2015, without all this sage advice I just gave you.

+++++++ ++++++++ ++++++++

criticSo I began putting together this list of favorite albums mainly in opposition to all the “best of” lists that music magazines and music critics are so fond of publishing. I always think “best” is a strange attribution for art, and I tend to believe that any critics who believe they can identify “the best” of anything are nothing more than bullshit artists. I tend to dismiss much criticism. But there are times when I’ll hear a critic’s take on something and find myself interested. (I’m sure it happens far more often than I’d like to admit!)

Fiona Apple is an artist who, by the mid 2000s, I hadn’t thought much about in years. I knew her by her breakthrough 90s hit, “Criminal,” a pretty cool, bluesy pop song that didn’t make much of a lasting impression with me – other than the fact that the video was very controversial, as it featured a scantily-clad

– not to mention unhealthily skinny – Apple, looking regretful or intimidated, while singing and sprawling and disrobing amongst, or clinging to, random unconscious young bodies in dimly-lit rooms. fiona criminalIt all seemed to suggest a teenage booze and drugs party gone horribly wrong – the type of party that gets ripped from the headlines to be fictionalized on an episode of Law and Order: SVU. I heard her name a lot, but she seemed to me to have gotten lots of press from basically one song, and I tended to dismiss her as one more artist in a long line of critic-adored 90s musicians onto whose bandwagon I could not muster the enthusiasm to hop.

fiona elvisBut sometime around 2006, I saw a performance of hers that caught – and firmly held – my attention. She appeared on TV with one of my favorite performers, Elvis Costello, singing one of my favorite songs of his, “I Want You.”

My first thought when I saw she was performing was, “Where’d they dig her up? Who’s coming out next, Duncan Sheik?” But her obvious talent, the weight of her performance, the commitment to the song … it all worked together to make me think, “There’s more to this singer than I previously thought.”

Also around that time I heard a review of Extraordinary Machine on NPR’s Fresh Air that made me fiona applethink I would like it. I was the father of a young daughter, thinking a lot about the great wilderness of future that lay ahead for any child – but especially a girl – and the reviewer’s description of the album made me think I could gain some insight from Apple’s perspective on life on this particular album.

The program also played a bit of the album’s title track, “Extraordinary Machine,” and that was enough to send me to iTunes to download the record.

The orchestral arrangement of the song, coupled with a slyly placed chime, drew me into the song immediately. I also really like Apple’s lyrics, and how the long run of words that end each verse (i.e. “I still only travel by foot and by foot it’s s slow climb/but I’m good at being uncomfortable so I can’t stop changing all the time”) seem to fiona singnot quite fit into the structure of the song, but actually are packaged in such a way that they do, just right – like a week’s worth of belongings packed into an expert hiker’s small rucksack. Also, the message of the song, particularly as expressed in the chorus, (“Be kind to me/Or treat me mean/I’ll make the most of it/I’m an extraordinary machine”) is a message of strength and resilience, with a touch of grace-under-pressure and a belief in one’s self. These are traits that parents wish for all their kids, but at the time I first heard them, as the father of a young daughter, the song pretty directly expressed many of the hopes I have for her. It’s become one of my favorite songs, not just because of the influence fatherhood has had on my musical tastes but also because of this:

oboeSomething you should know about me, that perhaps I’ve kept secret through the first 27 albums I’ve reviewed, is this: I’m a sucker for the oboe. It gets me every time. Throw an oboe into a song, and I’m probably gonna listen more than once.

Fiona Apple is a piano player, and the next song on the album, “Get Him Back,” is a bouncy, piano-driven number.

It’s a straight-ahead rock number, but what lifts it to another level are Apple’s vocals. fiona piano 2Her phrasing is jazzy and cool, and the melody itself, which takes some unexpected turns. For example, the “…kill what I cannot catch” line always seems to surprise me by NOT rising in pitch in a way I think it should – and that makes it sound great! Apple’s lyrics sometimes tend toward the “you-did-me-wrong,-you-bastard!” variety, but on “Get Him Back,” she’s blaming herself for basing her judgment of a new suitor on the last two jerks she dated.

In the NPR review, Ken Tucker compares Apple to Randy Newman, and I think this is an apt comparison. Both are piano-playing songwriters who keep a thesaurus in one pocket and vial of potent irony in the other. However Newman tends to focus his songs outwardly, on society, and takes on different personae when he sings in the first person. But Apple’s focus sounds deeply personal. One never gets the feeling that her lyrics are meant to speak for anyone other than herself.

fiona pianoThe most direct of these on Extraordinary Machine may be “Parting Gift,” a spare song featuring simply Apple’s piano and voice that was recorded – according to Brian Kehew, the track’s producer – in one take.

Despite the slow pace and emotive singing, the lyrics are actually quite humorous, a bit mean, but yet reflective. Apple has a reputation for being “a tragic victim waif,” which she herself has complained about. But lyrics like those in “Parting Gift” demonstrate she’s much more complex than whatever image has been put forward for her. She’s angry and derisive, yet funny and wistful and taking full responsibility for whatever’s happened. Plus I like how – once again – she packs many words into a small space (“but we went on wholehearted, it said stop”) and makes it sound unhurried and natural.fiona arms out

As I’ve stated and restated, I’m more of a guitar and drums guy, with lyrics taking a backseat in my music appreciation. But sometimes lyricists stand out to a degree that really strikes me, and Apple’s lyrics do so on this album.

For example, I love the rhymes on the track “Tymps (The Sick in the Head Song).”

Apple constructs rhymes like this in many songs, sounding, to me, like the way Chuck D put fiona concertwords together, or Bob Dylan. The rhymes occur in unexpected places, but fit the flow of the song. “Tymps” also has a nice tick-tock pace and great background instrumentation. And once again, the lyrical content shows Apple to be less angry than frustrated. I think the “angry” label was something sort of thrust onto Apple (and many 90s women acts) as a way to categorize her, but it doesn’t really fit. Or often – as with “Tymps,”she sounds angry at herself.

Which isn’t to imply there’s anything wrong with being angry in song! The song “Oh Well“ shows a contemplative, smoldering side of anger, while one of my favorites on the record, “Window,” is more of a physical expression of it.

It’s one of the more straight-ahead rockers fiona sing 3on the record, and the music is well played and cool, but the star of “Window” is Apple’s voice, once again jazzy and soulful, with excellent phrasing. She stretches single syllables into multiples expertly, and – as always – sings with a distinct point of view, which enhances the connection with the listener.

Her voice is the star on all of the songs, really. One of my favorite vocal performances on the record is the song “Not About Love,” shown here with a funny video featuring Zach Galifiniakis.

It’s a multi-part piece, with lyrics that are accusatory, reflective, and funny (“I miss that stupid ape”) all in a brief 4 minutes. The song starts with a rhythmic piano and syncopated drums, and Apple’s husky voice comes in with a rather awkward melody, almost a yodel, that works because of her control. fion bandAfter a couple bouncy verses, there’s a slow dirge part, followed by a frantic piano playing part At about 2:52, she sings a verse that’s almost scat-singing, an impressive vocal performance. My wife makes a Swedish dish sometimes, called “pitta-panna” in which all the leftovers are thrown into the pan and cooked together, with a fried egg thrown on top of everything. It’s delicious. With it’s diverse sections, “Not About Love” is the pitta-panna on the album, and that scat part is the yummy fried egg.

Better Version of Me” is another bright, jazzy pop song. Like the other songs I’ve discussed, it has great, wordy lyrics and a real “Broadway” feel to it. (Which, if you’ve read other album write-ups of mine, you know is a compliment coming from me.) “O’Sailor” is a track that sounds unlike most any other pop song you’ll hear.

It’s got a nautical feel to it, and that video is almost seasickness-inducing. It’s another strong melody, with unusual instrumentation, and again sounds like it would be at home on a Broadway cast recording.

Please, Please, Please” and “Red, Red, Red” demonstrate the breadth of Apple’s songwriting and performing, as they’re just about polar opposites of each other.

The album closes with “Waltz (Better Than Fine)” an uplifting, positive way to end an album chock full with emotion and personal expression.

It’s another theatrical production, with full orchestra – and one imagines our protagonist and her love interest dancing across the stage as she sings – but brief, with lyrics letting the listener know that even though there’ve been some troubles along the way, she’s gotten through them and is doing Better Than Fine. fiona matchI’ve read that Apple’s biggest pet peeve is having people around her worry about her, and this song, together with the opening track, are her means to allay others’ concerns. They’re great bookends to a really cool album.

When I was nine, and enjoying Barry Manilow, I never would’ve thought I’d ever like an album like this. But then again, she is a talented songwriter and pianist, just like Barry.

fiona back coverWhen I was fifteen, and obsessed with MTV, guitar rock, and Chrissie Hynde, I never would’ve thought I’d ever like an album like this. But then again, she is an attractive woman whose looks are deeply enhanced, in my estimation, by musical talent.

When I was thirty, and buying albums I’d barely ever hear, I never would’ve thought I’d ever like an album like this. But then again, when you have a little daughter and you hear songs like “Extraordinary Machine” or “Window,” or “Not About Love,” it’s hard not to think about the strength and talent you hope she’ll one day possess.

Musical taste is weird. It’s fluid and difficult to predict. So I say keep listening, and try not to totally reject anything. You never know who you’ll be one day, or what that person would like to hear.

TRACK LISTING
Extraordinary Machine
Get Him Back
O’ Sailor
Better Version of Me
Tymps (The Sick in the Head Song)
Parting Gift
Window
Oh Well
Please, Please, Please
Red Red Red
Not About Love
Waltz (Better Than Fine)

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96th Favorite: De Nova, by The Redwalls

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De Nova. The Redwalls.
2005, Capitol Records. Producer: Rob Schnapf.
Purchased ca. 2006.

de nova

nut 96IN A NUTSHELL: As “Beatlesque” as Beatlesque can be, these four Americans know their way around melody, harmony, song structure and – best of all – lead guitar that supports the song throughout. The album presents a bit of a conundrum, as their Beatles sound is what I love, but it also probably limits my enjoyment. WOULD BE HIGHER IF – it had 3 fewer songs, and one or two of the remaining had been more “Redwallsesque.”

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Imitation has always been inextricably bound to rock and roll music. Nothing that has come down the pike (aside from a few unlistenable things) has been truly original – it has all been based on something that came before. (And even the unlistenable stuff is a mutation of previous, listenable music!) When I was a kid, they said that “Rock Around the Clock,” by Bill Haley and his Comets, was “the first rock and roll song,” as if Haley had gone to bed one night as a classical guitarist, then sprung from bed the next morning and suddenly pooped out a backbeat, 12-bar blues and a simple, repetitive melody.

haley cometsAnd listeners were supposedly suddenly hypnotized by a sound the likes of which had never been heard before, as if Poseidon himself had risen from the sea and unleashed his magnificent ichthyological ensemble on terrestrial beings everywhere. under sea

Other smarter, better writers than me have discussed at length the dangers of simplifying historical narratives (and for a historical topic as insubstantial as popular music, danger is probably too strong a word), but nonetheless I’ll point out that describing a single song as “the first” of any genre will obviously leave out much of the story.

Bill Haley had heard all kinds of music in his life, I’m sure, and “Rock Around the Clock” probably sounded like much of his musical repertoire, and similar to what he had been hearing among his musical colleagues, particularly his black colleagues who couldn’t get their songs heard by the white populace – artists like The Four Blues. Much has been written about white American musicians co-opting black American music, (far less has been written about black American musicians co-opting white music, but it has been done) and while it’s true that societal racism was at work in popularizing white artists like Haley, Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis while many African American artists went unrecognized, something that’s not considered very often in the discussion is the fact that these artists – both white and black – were making music that sounded the way it sounded not because they were trying to cheat someone else out of recognition or money (at least not until Led Zeppelin, anyway) but because it was what they liked and what they heard around them. Musicians tend to play the music they like to hear, so it makes sense that “new” music will sound very similar to “old” music, and that white cats who dug the new sound (in the parlance of the times) would reproduce it in their own way. I doubt that anyone in the 70s really thought the “first rock and roll song” was by Bill Haley – I think it was more about hyping up the TV show Happy Days than anything else.

(Random thought – look at that Bill Haley and His Comets photo again. Can you imagine there was a time when a rock and roll band had use for an accordion player in the mix?? Although, when I l look closely, it appears to me that maybe he’s being phased out of the band)

Another reason musical artists copy others (although, as Picasso supposedly said, “Good artists copy, great artists steal”) is because the listening public wants to hear what they know. Acts from Bill Haley in the 50s through Radio Disney artists of today have benefited financially from having a recognizable sound that becomes distinguished precisely because it is not distinguishable.

beatlemaniaIn the 60s, the wave of Beatlemania was followed closely by ripples of Beatle-somia. other bandsActs like The Dave Clark Five and The Knickerbockers capitalized on their Beatle sound, and Hollywood executives put together a mock-Beatles band, The Monkees (complete with animal name and misspelled long “E” sound) that was wildly successful (in large part because of the quality of songwriters they hired.) Even big-time artists with careers of their own took a shot at incorporating That Beatles Thing, such as The Rolling Stones’ answer to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the album Their Satanic Majesties Request.satanic maj

In the early 70s, the sensitive singer-songwriter James Taylor began pumping out his string of earnest, mellow hits and before you could say “Don’t let me be lonely tonight,” sensitivethe airwaves were flooded with story-songs sung by a dude with an acoustic guitar sitting on a stool. They didn’t all sound like James Taylor, but this fact was actually part of the imitation: each artist’s singularity was what was being marketed at the height of “The Me Decade.

Whether musicians are consciously trying to sound like what’s come before, like Kingdom “wir klingen genau wie Led Zeppelin” Come or whether a band just had a sound that some record exec thought sounded like, say, Led Zeppelin, one of the best ways to get some traction as a musical act is to sound like another musical act.

(A quick aside: Musical imitation also remains a booming industry in the nightclub concert circuit. lez zeptragedySo-called “Tribute Acts,” whose members imitate other bands with varying degrees of accuracy and sincerity, are some of the highest-grossing unsigned acts performing today. I’ve seen both Lez Zeppelin, an all-female Led Zeppelin tribute act that is remarkable in both its power and its musical chops, and Tragedy, an as-good-as-it-sounds Heavy Metal Bee-Gees Tribute Band, which melds metal and disco and both acts put on some of the best shows I’ve seen. There’s a tremendously interesting book about tribute bands called Like a Rolling Stone: The Strange Life of a Tribute Band, by Steven Kurutz, which I highly recommend!)

(One more thing here: One of the first “Tribute Acts” I remember was Sha-na-na, sha na na
a group in the 70s, named for a distinguishing musical feature of 50s doo-wop music, who covered 20-year old rock and roll songs, and who [after warming up the crowd at Woodstock just before Jimi Hendrix (!)] parlayed that narrow ability into a successful TV variety show – one of the most successful syndicated TV shows of all time! zimacostnerTo put that in perspective, imagine a few pierced guys dressed in flannel and thrift shop clothes today calling themselves, say, “Distortion Pedal,” and having a hit TV show on which they perform old hits by Bush and Lit and Fuel in between telling corny jokes about Zima, “Virtual Reality” and Kevin Costner. It boggles the mind.) (And it sounds like a great skit idea for Portlandia! Someone call Fred and Carrie!)

As has been well-documented here in this blog, I am a Beatles fan. To summarize, I really like The Beatles. beatles fan Billions of people are, or have been, Beatles fans over the past 50 years or so. I won’t go into details, but if you want you can read this dude’s BA thesis, written a few years ago by a student at a Marasyk University in the Czech Republic.

Since I like The Beatles, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that over the years I’ve enjoyed many acts that have been described in the press as “Beatle-esque.” Cheap Trick, XTC, and Matthew Sweet beatare a few acts whose albums are close to my heart (and possibly part of my Top 100??!!??) – acts that don’t exactly sound like The Beatles, but that clearly were strongly influenced by them. I know I like the sound, so I keep my ears open for acts described as “Beatlesque.”

At some point around 2005, probably on a message board about Stand-Up Comedy, I became aware of the existence of a young band from the Chicago area called The Redwalls that had a serious Beatles thing going on. band I think a friend’s band may have opened for them somewhere in the Boston area. I checked out the name on Youtube, and came across what has become one of my favorite songs ever: their first single from De Nova, “Thank You.”

What first captured my attention in this song was Andrew Langer’s guitar. It had become very rare, by 2005, to hear modern bands play the style of lead guitar heard on this song. I believe it was the influence of Grunge and 90s punk that caused the lead guitar to become so diminished in rock music. Bands like Nirvana and Green Day might throw a guitar solo into a song once in a while, but if they did, more often than not – as in the guitar solo in “Smells Like Teen Spirit” – the solos sounded ironic, lead guitarlike an outright mocking of the idea of a “Guitar Solo.” Even less popular than the Guitar Solo was the idea of a “Lead Guitar,” that is, a guitarist who plays something other than chords and rhythm throughout the song. Lead guitarists like Don Felder, from the Eagles, and Jeff “The Skunk” Baxter, from The Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan, and George Harrison would fill up songs with all sorts of interesting fills and figures that added color and texture to a song. Part of the ethos of punk and grunge was to strip away all the frills and leave behind the power of a simple, loud song. I can appreciate this aesthetic, but I also really love a well placed, cool-sounding guitar. And “Thank You,” and the entire De Nova album, has this type of guitar work throughout.

The next thing that really drew me in to the song was the melodic, boop-de-dooping bass work of Justin Baren, one of the two brothers who lead the band. He plays a true Lead Bass, in the manner of classic rock bassists such as Paul McCartney and John Entwistle. Lines of melody that have their own path, but juxtapose perfectly with the guitar and the vocal melody. The vocals, on this song and throughout, may be what cause most listeners to immediately state “Beatlesque.” Logan Baren has a nasally, distinct voice, with a hint of a British accent (maybe he was hanging out with Madonna, another American with a British accent), that calls to mind at once John Lennon. lennon There have been other singers that sound a lot like Lennon, but Logan Baren may be the closest match who is not genetically linked. He sings in a deadpan style, but somehow he sounds sincere. The lyrics in “Thank You” are a nice reflection on a longtime love, and the entire piece works on all levels.

I immediately went out and bought the album. I was not disappointed by the rest of the songs.

The Redwalls have a bit of a political bent to some of their lyrics. The song “Falling Down”

is a screed against political censorship which humorously, and blatantly, uses several “words you can’t say on TV” to make the case for freedom of speech. This album was released around the time of that Great American Dark Nightmare of Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl Nipple,oops which, if you don’t remember, caused politicians across the political spectrum to take action to protect the nation’s youth from naughty words and glimpses of boobies while, shockingly, doing nothing to prevent lousy halftime shows at every Super Bowl since then. [Except Bruno Mars in 2014, which was actually pretty good.] “Falling Down” is a mid-tempo song with a bouncy drum beat, nice guitar work, and the Everly Brothers-esque vocal harmonies that are featured in most Redwalls songs. The voices of the brothers Baren, who trade off lead vocal duties, blend perfectly.

The songs “Glory of War” and “Front Page” also go political, offering a Redwalls take on war and violence and disarray in the modern world. Their political songs’ lyrics are not so overt, and don’t make you feel as if you are attending a political rally. The songs are good and catchy, and after a listen or two the lyrics start to come into better focus. The band definitely takes a “first, make catchy songs” approach to their work, and sound like they’d rather shoehorn an odd lyric into a good song than take the song in an odd direction. But their lyrics are never bad.

A close second for my favorite song on the album is “It’s Alright,”

which starts out as a straight-ahead rocker in the verse, lyrically referencing The Doors, but in the chorus (around the 50 second mark) throws in a tempo change, stellar harmonies, and drum break which sound – I’ve been trying to avoid the “B-esque” word, so I’ll say – Liverpudlian! liverpool In a great way. Again, the guitar work is nice throughout the song, continuing to be one of my favorite aspects of the band.

The Redwalls show their peace and love leanings in the excellent song “Build a Bridge.”

The song offers the cool hippy sentiment “Build a Bridge/and bring both sides together.” It starts out with a simple piano and builds to include horns and orchestration, and this makes the peace lovesong sound important, epic. The catchy sing-along chorus brings to mind the end of the night at a jam session with friends, in which anyone in the room is invited to join in. I think this band has a tremendous songwriting talent, for making the kind of song that makes the listener feel like part of the same club. Some bands can present music that makes me, as a listener, feel not cool enough to “get it,” but The Redwalls invite you in.

So? What are you smirking at? Because this band isn’t all that original? Okay – so what?!? The band obviously likes The Beatles, and so do I! I don’t mean to be defensive. It’s not the only thing I like about them – I like their songs, their harmonies, and especially their guitar. So what if they throw in backward guitar that could have been lifted off Revolver, in songs “Back Together” and “How the Story Goes“? What does it matter if a song like “Hung Up on the Way I’m Feeling,” with its sleepy lead bass, oohs and ahs, and close harmonies, sounds like it might have been cut from the side two medley of Abby Road ? Is it so wrong to have an affinity towards the best band ever? Does it really matter that “Rock & Roll” sounds like it might have been played in The Cavern Club in 1963? I don’t mind at all. The Redwalls are Beatles-ish, but I think they have enough of their own thing going, too. And they don’t pick obvious Beatles songs to cover live, so I like that, too!

Besides, if you’re going to pick a band to copy, you might as well pick the best!
simpsons

TRACK LISTING
Robinson Crusoe
Falling Down
Thank You
Love Her
Build a Bridge
Hung Up on the Way I’m Feeling
On My Way
It’s Alright
Front Page
How the Story Goes
Back Together
Glory of War
Rock & Roll

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