Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Boys and Girls in America by The Hold Steady

Rock and Roll today it seems, is almost bereft of people with something to say. Platitudes abound, like the singer just couldn't be bothered thinking of anything particularly creative or relevant. Just sing something nice, or sad, or angry, or winsome. The Hold Steady's Craig Finn bucks that trend with a vigour that is as admirable as it is awesome. Too rare it is today to find that rare vocalist who is both articulate, literate, and manages to have kept his/her finger on the pulse enough to write songs that people feel they can relate to. And not in a Panic! at the Disco kind of 'I hate my mum, she never really loved me, why does no one understand me?, Oh I hate being a teenager' way. By telling tales of low lifes, drunks, average Jjoes and Jjills who all hang out at bars and drink and bond, much in the way Tom Waits built a career on, the songs weave narratives of people who we feel we know 'She put $900/On the 5th horse/in the 6th race/I think it's name was Chips Ahoy', even if they are a little fantastic 'we hung out in the car/And I drank out of a purse'.
And that's before we get to the music. Rooted in Bruce Springsteen as much as the Sex Pistols and the aforementioned Mr Waits, it seems the Hold Steady have no idea why Punks and Old School rockers drink in separate pubs. Riff heavy guitar and power chords rock around, with a tinkling (or pounding) piano crashing or caressing song after song. And just when you think it's all a little bit E Street, in comes 'First Night', one of the best, heartstring-tugging, country-influenced, mournful love songs you'll hear all year.
Every time you start thinking that smart people have stopped enjoying straight-out rock music, along comes a band like The Hold Steady to remind you that it's ok to just be rock and roll.

4 1/2 stars

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Wednesday, November 22, 2006


I may be alot of things, but pig-headed is not one of them. (Well, it's less so then when I was younger, but that's not important) I am not one to avoid admitting when I'm wrong. And I was a bit wrong about Beck's The Information. I accused the man of laziness. Upon repeat listenings, I've come to the roundabout conclusion that this is possibly the record he has put the MOST effort into since Odelay in 1996. The first half does have that familiar Beckish wrap/pastiche vibe about it, but flip to side 2 and the influence of producer Nigel Godrich becomes far more apparent. In fact, if it's the subdued wrap over glitchy, Radiohead-esque (who would've thought) beats of 'We Dance Alone' or the Captain Beefheart aping chaos of 1000BPM or the ultra cool morbidity of the climactic 'Horrible Fanfare/Landslide/Exoskeleton', this record sees Beck pushing new boundaries. This doesn't make it his best record, but it certainly puts it up alongside Odelay, Midnite Vultures, Seachange and Guero as one of his strongest offerings.

Monday, November 13, 2006

All time top ten - #6 - Blood on the Tracks

Any list of the greatest Bob Dylan records invariably lists ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ and ‘Blonde on Blonde’ over ‘Blood on the Tracks’. They’re the legendary Dylan records, lending an enigma that will never be decrypted. Moving from folk to rock and blues, confounding fans, and creating a new brand of rock that is still emulated today. People tend to forget ‘Blood on the Tracks’. It wasn’t the record that blazed a trail, or established a mythology. But it was the record that stands as the bridge between the Wunderkind of 1966 and the modern day elder statesman of music today. Poignant, earnest, heartfelt and intimate, this is as close as Dylan ever got to bearing his soul on a record. While still full to the brim with allegory and cryptic poetry, ‘Blood on the Tracks’ is an open window into the true Bob Dylan, a man dealing with a broken marriage, and as a result is forthright in its honesty, sadness (‘Simple Twist of Fate’), anger (‘Idiot Wind’) and hope (‘You’re a Big Girl Now’) in equal measure.
After being somewhat forgotten since his motorcycle accident in 1966, Dylan had made some lackluster music (Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid anyone?), and 1975 saw him returning somewhat to his roots. Dispensing with the amplification that made him (in)famous, it once again became about the words; the music merely a means of concentrating and focusing an emotion. While regressing somewhat to his acoustic heritage, this is not the record of the angst-ridden 24 year-old of 1966, but a worldly adult. His vocals were deeper, wiser and fuelled the lyrics with a life of their own, the music seems to have a greater awareness of the history they invoke when ‘Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts’ rollicks over a rockabilly rhythm section.
Whether it be the stunning ‘Tangled Up in Blue’ making life as a fugitive cool, or the sneering, furious ‘Idiot Wind’ (“you’re an eeeeidiot, babe”), ‘Blood on the Tracks’ is resolutely human, examining the flaws of both singer and subject. But it’s when Dylan just picks up a guitar and punches out ‘You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go’ which, at 2.55, is the shortest song on the record by a minute and a half, the listener is reminded how devastatingly effective a song can be without unnecessary instrumentation, particularly when written by a genius such as Mr. Zimmerman.
Dylan made a greater mark with other, earlier records, but it’s hard to argue that he made a better record.

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Friday, November 10, 2006

All time top ten - #7 - Kid A

The opening bars of 'Everything in its Right Place' are a defining moment in modern music. The descending keyboard riff, interspersed with cut-and paste, nonsensical vocal mutterings from Thom Yorke was automatically dismissed as 'too hard' by many. But with this glaring statement of intent, Radiohead dispensed with conventional song-writing rules and notions of structure. Gone were the Johnny Greenwood screaming, tortured guitars, gone were much of the drums, replaced by skittering beats and drum machines. There was very little recognisable guitar at all. There were no choruses! Released in early 2000, if ever an album could have ushered in the 21st century, it was this.
Taking its cues from everywhere, and possibly nowhere at all, Kid A redefined what it meant to make a rock record. Vocals are twisted, sliced and distorted within an inch of their lives, such as on the title track, with Yorke's voice squeezed until it actually sounds like a child singing; on the driving, hypnotic 'The National Anthem' an insane, climactic, horn driven crescendo would not be out of place during the more psychadelic moments on 'Bitches Brew'; the instrumental 'Treefingers' is made entirely out of guitar samples, yet sounds nothing like any guitar anyone had ever heard and the thumping, tribal 'Optimistic' breaks down via a jazz wig-out interlude into the seasickness-inducing clamour of 'In Limbo'.
'Idioteque', a disco number for those coming down after the night out, is the most radical departure from 'Old Radiohead', while 'How to Disappear Completely' is the one track that might possibly feel at home on 1997s 'OK Computer'.
Harps merge with angelic choirs, saxophones conduct squealing, wailing duels with french horns, Yorke's tortured angel voice proclaims 'I'm not here/This isn't happening'.
Difficult it may be, but a more rewarding listen may not possibly exist for those with the patience (and the stomach). Radiohead plotted a course for the new generation of musician. Ignoring genre, convention and style, Kid A brought together every conceivable influence and made something that sounded like nothing else.
And the world is still listening.

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Thursday, November 09, 2006

What the Sea Wants, the Sea Will Have

Talk about living up to your potential. After the promise displayed in her debut, 'The Overture and the Underscore', Melbourne girl Sarah Blasko has come through with a triumphant second record. So much for being difficult. Stylistically, 'What the Sea Wants, the Sea Will Have' is not far removed from its predecessor, but on top of the sweet vocals and gently plucked strings are layer upon layer of dense, orchestral arrangements, sweet, almost child-like vocals, or, in the astonishingly great (except for the slightly pretensious parentheses) '{Explain}', a hyper-dramatic descending piano ballad, replete with haunting clarinet and oboe.
The clearest example of this newfound confidence and clarity is 'The Garden's End' which would not be out of place on 'The Overture...' were it not for the gorgeous multitracked backing vocals and haunting, barely-there bass line.
Lyrically, Blasko is also well ahead of many of her contemporaries, often walking along well-trod lyrical paths, but leaving new and clearly defined footprints with a verbal deftness lacking in much of the current crop of sensitive new age solo singers.
God knows what's coming next.

4 stars


Monday, November 06, 2006

From the Vault - Pill 'n' Thrills and Bellyaches

Firstly, what a great thing that a record title clearly referring to the fun (and aftereffects) of dropping e can contain the most non-hardcore word in the English language, 'Bellyaches'.
From the opening, reggae-influenced, Lady Marmalade-pilfering (or rediscovering) 'Kinky Afro', the Happy Mondays created the seminal dance-rock album of the late 80s-early 90s (often overlooked for the more fashionable Stone Roses' debut), the movement typified by the Stone Roses and Primal Scream's 'Screamadelica'. Certainly, this record contains the biggest hit of the period, 'Step On'. Throughout, Shaun Ryder's (the guy from Gorillaz 'Dare') convoluted lyrics jump around, rarely making a great deal of sense. He was later known to say he wrote the words and sung because 'none of the others can be arsed'.
The epitome of the Madchester scene, Pills 'n' Thrills and Bellyaches set the standard for dance production of rock music (soon to be aped by Primal Scream), and introduced the cut-and-paste ethos of dance and hip-hop as a legitimate rock and roll muscial technique.
The fact of the matter is, almost every track on this record borders on the absolutely essential. The late 80s is often regarded as something of a black hole of musical rubbish, but in 1990, the Happy Mondays created a modern pop-rock-dance-fusion masterpiece that came swirling out of the mire and pushed rock into the 21st century.
10 years early.