Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Polytechnic & The Grates- good clean fun

By now, you're probably sick of hearing how summer's along over. Well, it is, so get over it. Well, maybe it's not so bad since the heatwaves weren't fun but don't worry, global warming will shorten the winter, right?

If you're not in the mood to think about or worry about such heady things, you need some good entertaining distractions. Obviously, you're not going to find it on TV now much less in blockbuster movies that are bust so you might as well stick with some good, fun music. Manchester's Polytechnic gives you just that- bright, breezy power pop.

If that's a little too lite for you, try The Grates, an Aussie trio who mix in a little grrl attitude into their music- Patience Hodgson is a good belter indeed. Their first album, Gravity Won't Get You High, is a nice rockin' little item and they've already been talked up by all the big print pubs so there's no need to resist their lure, right?

Stay cool for now...

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Untitled Musical Project- what's in a name?

What do Charles Mingus, Minutemen, Anal C*nt and Kid 606 have in common? They all know the power of a good song title. Some performers go even further and figure out a great moniker for themselves. Depending on how you feel, you might say that a certain Birmingham UK band either have a brilliant or disasterous name: Untitled Musical Project. I think it's pretty nifty myself, especially when you consider another fine band that loaded itself up with irony in its name: the Pop Group. Also think of the non-rootsy Austin bands who think that goth sentences pass for band names: And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Our Dead or I Love You But I've Chosen Darkness (makes you wonder how or why they let Spoon stay in town).

But going back to UMP, they impress me not just because they really sound like a bunch of pisse-off punk rockers but also because they spit out their words so fast that they might as well be rapping or at least doing dancehall music. As much as I have a soft spot for mall punk (Green Day, Blink-182), I do admit that I also like a real jolt of unapolegtic noise that harks back to ye olde punk days and that's just what UMP do so well.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Weird Al wants you to pay for his new pool

I've always had a soft spot for Weird Al. Maybe it was growing up on Dr. Demento or maybe just that the guy was pretty funny in a silly way and skewed pop culture so well. Too well sometimes, as Coolio and Eminem could tell you.

After his recent beef about CD royalties (which was no joke), I was wondering if he was also serious about the supposed scourge of the music industry, free downloading. In addition to a delicious parody of James Blunt's "You're Beautiful" (titled "You're Pitiful"), he's also got a new song on his MySpace site called "Don't Download this Song." You have to wonder then, is he serious?

This is Weird Al we're talking about. He does up the song as a grand 80's power ballad (think "We Are the World") with an uplifting bridge. As for the words, he name-checks Morpheus, Groskter, Limewire and Kazaa, compares stealing songs to robbing liquor stores or selling crack, warns that you'll get busted by the RIAA even if you're a grade school kid or grandma ("like the evil, hard-bitten criminal scum you are"), complains that free downloading is coasting him a new gold Humvee, claims solidarity with Lars Ulrich and warns that you might be Tommy Chong's cell-mate if you don't mend your wicked ways.

Brilliant. I'd love to send the RIAA a copy but they're so thick-headed that they might think it's a good way to promote their slimy agenda.

But leave it to Weird Al to hide one more ultimate laughable irony here. You see, when you go to his MySpace page, not only can you listen to "Don't Download This Song" as streaming audio but he also lets you... um, download it for free. Such a kidder, that guy!

Sunday, August 20, 2006

RIP Joseph Hill (Culture)

Sad news. The leader/singer/songwriter of the reggae band Culture died on Saturday. I spend many an evening in college listening to him wail and plead and cry his heart out on albums like International Herb and Two Sevens Clash. Even though I had the privilege to see other 70's luminaries like Lee Perry, Burning Spear and Gregory Isaacs all recently, Culture was another band on my list who I'd wanted to see. Though they might continue without him, it just won't be the same without Hill at the helm of this group.

Some details from a Jamaican Observer article. Also, there's a 2003 article about the group from my zine and you can see other details at the official Culture website.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Meat Purveyors- bluegrass goth and c*ck-rock

Maybe it's not a great sign when a band's cover songs are better than their originals but that's the case on the Meat Purveyors' Someday Soon Things Will Be Much Worse! (Bloodshot). Which isn't to say that this Austin bluegrass band doesn't come up with good songs- their album titles alone belong in the down-and-out hall of fame (another one is All Relationships Are Doom To Fail).

But what's admirable about their covers is how much they reveal. You'd think that except for some nostalgia buffs, Foreigner's cock-sure "Hot Blooded" or the Human League's synth-goth "Don't You Want Me Baby" would be bad memories, much less an odd choice for a bluegrass group to cover. The fact that they're such odd choices and that they work is what makes them such good covers though. Minus singer Lou Gramm's chest-beating vocals, Jo Walston's high-stepping glee makes the "Hot Blooded" sound like the fun it's supposed to be (just as in the film Monster, I finally understood the power of Journey's "Don't Stop Believing" as an inspirational working class anthem even though I still hate the song itself). Similarly, she moves the League song from a cocktail bar to a honky-tonk bar where it sounds just peachy, even without the force of the synth hook on the original (plus the singing is much better here).

Playing it for other music fans who remembered the original versions, they didn't have any second thoughts- they knew that the Purveyors improved the tunes, even more than the Abba and Ratt songs that they covered on earlier albums. Nevertheless, the fact that the band did pick up on those tunes meant that they did effect them in the first place and now we know why- like good DJs who scour the bins for something interesting that they can unleash on a dance crowd, the Purveyors similarly scour their own collections for something seeminly offbeat that they can sink their teeth into. More proof that sometimes, beyond the fog of bad vocals and bad intentions, good tunes may be buried underneath.

Also see the MP's MySpace page to hear some of their prime original material.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Pandora's box o' music

Granted, this isn't breaking news but let me add myself to the chorus that's been praising Pandora. In case you haven't heard of it, this free online service lets you build your own virtual radio station based on a group of artists and/or songs you enter there. It then calculates what other artists you'll dig based on this info, including tempo, types of harmony, instrumentation, etc.. If you need the technical info, it's part of the Music Genome Project.

I had an account set up there for a while but never really used it, figuring it couldn't offer me much beyond what I already knew or listened to. What a clueless snob I was!

I decided I was in a power pop mood one day so I started a Big Star station, beginning with B.S. themselves. I added a few other related artists (dB's, Raspberries) and waited to see what happened. I had songs loaded up by all the artists I chose and then the fun began. 20/20, an unjustly forgotten late 70's band, appeared as did the Bangles, Sloan, the Posies, Blake Babies, the Romantics ("Talking in Your Sleep" plus "Little White Lies," a nice one I didn't remember) and the Troggs (mostly known for "Wild Thing" but here doing the lovely "With A Girl Like You").

What was surprising here was that some of the hits I knew already but never really loved actually sounded good now. Furthermore, the obscure songs by the familiar bands that the program selected sounded good too. Even some performers I sometimes or usually can't stand had a good song that made me think twice: Tom Petty's "Listen to Her Heart," Brian Jonestown Massacre's "This Is Why You Love Me," the Knack covering Buddy Holly's "Heartbeat" (from their first record) and that Tommy Tutone song about a phone number. Plus there was other cult gems that slipped my mind but were definitely worth reviving, including the Bats, Richard X. Heyman and Sloan.

Even bigger surprises were in store. The program also selected power pop moments by bands that you wouldn't list in that category ordinarily. 38 Special? Yep, a decent little tune called "What Can I Do?" Pat Benatar?? Yep, "Out-A-Touch" is a good song too. A rockin' little song that sounded kind of Stonesy? Sure, it's from a Keith Richards album ("Eileen" from Main Offender). Early UK punk band the Adverts?? Their "Love Song" does indeed belong on the list. Other bands that had their p-pop moments included there were The Who (a live version of "Squeezebox" where Townshend ribs Moon) and Cheap Trick (a demo of "Come On, Come on").

Plus for supposed know-it-alls (i.e. me), there were also artists I'd never heard of before but wanted to know more about now, including Eugene Edwards, Manda and the Marbles, Sarah Blasko.

Granted, Pandora isn't perfect. The occasional stinker came up that was related to the music I asked for but definitely wasn't what I wanted to hear: Berlin's "Like Flames" (at least it wasn't "The Metro"), Michelle Branch, the Quarter After (partly a BJM spinoff), Goliath (a prog rock band from Kentucky!).

But then again, how many radio stations always play songs you love. That'd be a little boring, wouldn't it? And even with satellite radio's expanded selections for all types and tastes in music, there's no customization like there is for Pandora. Not yet at least and they should really consider it. In the meantime, you should just log on to their website and enjoy all the streaming tunes for free.

In the meantime, I'm grateful to them not just for all the great music I thought I knew or forgot about but for throwing so many musical revelations at me: that doesn't happen often enough with radio not to mention other types of media...

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

King Tuff blowing minds

Kyle Thomas is better known as a member of the folkie outfit Feathers and hard-rock band Witch where J. Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. plays drums. He also has a knack for artistry as seen on several album sleeves (Comets on Fire, Radio 4) as well as drawings displayed at East Village gallery Little Cakes. What he should also be known for is a "power pop" band that's actually glam in the best way.

Limited to 100 copies on the Spirit of Orr label, his band King Tuff's Mindblow CD-R is a treat. Because of his in-demand artistic work, this 2003 album had to wait a few years before coming out but it was worth it. It's believed to be recorded mostly by Thomas himself, in his parents' basement- doesn't get much more indie-cult than that, does it? The music is more T-Rex than Slade and pretty much up the alley of any London Suede fan. The melwing vocals are no problem if you're already a Tom Verlaine fan. And the songs themselves are very tasty. Stomping drums, breezy guitars, well-placed solos and all the important concerns that a good rock song should cover like listening to the radio, falling in love, dancing, etc.. What's more there's not a bad song among the 15-song selection, which is a rarity nowadays. For 12 bucks post-paid, it's a hell of a bargain but don't sleep on this: I have copy number 80 of this so it's gonna run out soon (unless this is just a genius marketing move). If you do miss out, they're planning to tour in the fall so at least catch 'em live.

Listen to "Dancing on You" and "So Desperate" (courtesy of Aquarius Records)

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Gram Parsons on film

He was a pretty boy, a rich boy, a drug addict and an opportunist. And he happened to be an American musical icon. And as befits many American cult legends, it took the Europeans to give him the befitting props in a form of a BBC-sponsored documentary and a German director.

2004's Fallen Angel takes a pretty straight-forward look at the life of Gram Parsons, weaving in interviews of family, friends and musicians who knew him, loved him and appreciated him but didn't kid themselves about his failings.

Chris Hillman (Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers) fills in many details about Gram's tenure in both bands, including the real reason he left the Byrds (he wanted to hang out with Keith Richards) and how GP was fired from the Burritos. His drug intake assured that and ruined many shows which could have otherwise helped to promote his band and later his own solo career: even his tailor noted that his famous nudie suit (pictured above) told the story of his destruction, lined with pot, pills and naked women.

His rock star ambitions led him to the Stones but also kept him away from the Burritos. Hillman recounts how he had to go to a Stones session to drag back Parsons. Even Mick Jagger told GP that he should leave and work with his own band.

Parsons' family recounts the sad details of a father's suicide, a mother's descent into alcoholism and a step-father who at first embraced him and later pushed him away. Later, his sidekick recounts the details of how he stole Parsons' dead body from an airport to burn the remains in the middle of the desert as he thought GP would have wanted it: though he's still unrepentant about the deed, the family (including his wife) is still in tears when they remember it.

But beyond the usual Behind the Music melodramas (and this case, there's some startling ones), there's also an admirable amount of detail in the movie that makes a good case for GP's legendary musical status. Richards tells how much he had learned from Gram about country music and it's obvious that he also taught the Byrds a thing or two about the same, thus infusing two of the most popular, influential rock bands at the time (and still today, truth be told) with these ideas. Ultimate groupie/fan Pamela Des Barres provides some great details about how important GP's mission was: not only would he play his favorite country records for his friends and associates to make sure they understood and appreciated that music too but he also made the idea of country music palatable to a rock crowd. Not that he was the first to do (see Buck Owens, one of his heros) or the only one to do it but up until that time, few in the rock world had done it so thoroughly and passionately (I was intrigued by this myself, compiling a group of articles about him in 2001 for my zine when another spate of GP activity was happening).

But when all is said in done, there's no denying that his stature is also built on his 1973 demise. The old live-fast-die-young scenario (which similarly claimed Morrison, Joplin, Hendrix not long before that) plus his overdosing death not to mention the bizarre necrophilia coda all just add to the myth.

The fact that Fallen Angel is able to capture much of these facets of GP's life is impressive (though it's regrettable that one of his sisters and Roger McGuinn couldn't be included there). Which isn't to say that this is the final word on Gram. He's already the subject of a few biographies not to mention others that may materialize later. It's safe to say that the whole alt-country/No Depression movement would be pretty unthinkable without him. A country star who wooed the rock world or a rock star that wooed country music into its realm? One of GP's gifts was that he blurred all of that.

Friday, August 04, 2006

RIP Arthur Lee

Even though there'd be news of his bad health recently and a benefit to help cover medical costs, it was still something of a shock this morning to hear about the death of Love man Arthur Lee. I had the privilege to attend one of his post-jail performances in 2002 and though his voice couldn't always hit his full vocal range, his spirit was there.

Lord, did that guy have spirit. He was one of the most bizarre interview subjects I've ever spoken to (and I've done hundreds of interviews). Shortly before the 2002 show, I set up a phone conversation with him through his jerky manager. At first, AL was calm and willing to expound on his work and life. Then, he'd get off on tangents about other rockers, race, his philosophy and such. I felt bad for him- like Miles, it was obvious that the guy had been put through a lot of shit and had a lot of bitterness about it. As such, he worked himself into a frenzy and as a crescendo, he slammed down the phone and hung up. I was kind of stunned because I knew that it wasn't anything I said to him. Undeterred, I called him back and he seemed placid and calm as he was at first, like nothing happened. As I asked him a few other innocuous questions about his work, the same thing happened- he worked himself up, got furious and hung up. Again, I was stunned, wondering what the hell happened. I did need a few more quotes for the story so like a masochist, I called him again and the same thing happened. After three times, I had enough. I had my quotes and I was kind of tired of being yanked around.

At the same time, I felt bad for him. Lee obviously had problems that he was still trying to work out in his own mind. It wasn't just the feud with his girlfriend that landed him in jail or the jail time itself (which was a total travesty). He had contributed a lot to the world of music- serving as a hero for Jim Morrison, Robert Plant and helping to drive the L.A. scene in the mid-60's after the Byrds got it going. Forever Changes is rightfully noted as a 60's rock touchstone, capturing the wonderful, bizarre innocence of the time while also not fooling itself about its trappings. And yep, he worked with Hendrix before AND after he broke big. After all of that, if all you had to show for it was a prison record, wouldn't you be pissed? Some black rock pioneers like Little Richard or Chuck Berry also have a ring of bitterness in their egomania, as well-earned as it is- you know, that feeling that if they were white, they'd be lauded so much more. When I spoke to Lee, he had that bitterness also and with good reason.

But what he also had was a full blown comeback. The NY show I caught was just one in a series of shows he did including a wonderful series of "Forever Changes" shows complete with horns and strings. The bloody British Parliament had a resolution to honor the man. He also claimed that he was working on new material (which hopefully will see the light of day some time).

I'm not the first or last person who'll group Lee in the same sentence as Syd Barrett but unlike Syd who also passed away recently, Lee didn't go into hiding. He was forced there for a while but took full advantage of his freedom once he got it.

If you're not already enamored of Lee's genius, I urge you to grab a copy of Rhino's 1995 2-CD collection Love Story. It's got a nice selection from the first Love album, the better half of the 2nd Love record, all of Forever Changes (each side split between the two CD's so you can experience it like the original record) and a generous sampling of his late 60's/early '70s work. It's still in print and it's a great way to honor the man.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

The Handsome Family- dead girls and other fun things

"Our first drummer quit because he said that all our songs were about dead girls," Rennie Sparks revealed at a recent NYC gig. Normally, drummers aren't known for their smarts (unless they're Neil Peart) but this guy was onto something. When you sit through a set of Handsome Family songs, you notice a theme. Drowning, bottomless holes, getting lost, dying, getting killed- these all come up as themes. If they didn't happen to be a great husband-and-wife alt-country duo, the Handsome Family might be the morose goth band you've ever heard. Luckily, Brett Sparks' sounds like he's channeling Johnny Cash (though sometimes too self-consciously) more than say the Cure's Robert Smith.

With a musically low-key group like HF, you can't really expect many sparks from the Sparks. Instead, you enjoy one good song after another. And while I couldn't appreciate their latest record, Last Days of Wonder (Carrot Top), as much as their earlier records (which were at least more upbeat musically), their show helped to set me straight: what they're great at is being low-key, at least on the surface. What that means is that Brett's tunes have found an even keel with Rennie's dark lyrics. Luckily, she doesn't just wallow in gloom (again, compare the goths) but finds interesting things there, especially in the details: Nicola Tesla's dwelling, frozen yogurt at airports, throwing TV's off a cliff, shooting bears, spray-painting tree-stumps, getting sentimental over dented cars and getting a small bag of onion rings at the drive-through. She makes Brett's gloomy songs sound down-right homey when you bear down on them and they deserve the attention. If she gets the inkling, a great career in prose fiction awaits her.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Destination Out- a home for deleted free jazz

Granted that records themselves are supposed to be the subject here but a blog that covers out-of-print treasures is good enough to be saluted and visited on a regular basis. So imagine my delight when I received this e-mail:

"As a long-time reader of PSF, I thought you might be interested in a newish mp3 blog that my Chemistry Class colleague and I have put together: Destination: OUT . It's an avant jazz-focused thing; given PSF's focus, I'm guessing you have some interest in this kind of stuff. There doesn't seem to be much free jazz action in the mp3 blog world, for whatever reason.

We're specializing in rare and out-of-print tracks. We've so far posted some John Zorn (off "News for Lulu"), Don Cherry, Alice Coltrane, the Shorter bros., and lots more. We're updating about twice a week, and just this morning posted a few tracks from Ornette Coleman's Carnegie Hall show from last month."

... only that was last week and in the meantime, we have some Randy Weston tidbits to enjoy. As always, any enterprising label should take heed and note of the goodies there to consider turning some of these items into reissues.