May The Lines Sag Heavy and Deep Tonight


The Decemberists - The Crane Wife 3
Blood Brothers - Laser Life

So it's just ticked past midnight; it still feels like Thursday night to me but I guess technically it is Friday morning. Which means that right now it's my birthday. Honestly I wasn't expecting to feel any monumental change, but now I can officially confirm - 24 does not feel any different than 23. 21 was certainly an exciting year - I could finally legally drink and gamble and took full advantage of both in a boozy Vegas weekend vacation. And 25 seems like an important age. I think that's the age by which I'm supposed to have made some kinds of accomplishments in life. But 22, 23, 24, these don't feel like significant ages. I mean, I guess there are things to be depressed about if you look for them - Bob Dylan wrote "Like A Rolling Stone" when he was 24; when Kobe Bryant was my age he had just captured his third NBA Championship.

But really things like that don't bother me much. There's always going to be somebody accomplishing more than you and doing it better and doing it at a younger age (and I long ago made peace with the fact that I am not going to write like Bob Dylan or play basketball like Kobe Bryant). A different (saner?) person might look at my life at 24 and be pretty disappointed. But there are certain small pleasures in life that keep me from dwelling on the negatives for any extended period of time. Things like the new Decemberists' new album.

I brought up this album, The Crane Wife, last night in a discussion with a friend who said she wouldn't want to bring a child into this world. Things are fucked up, sure: the Bush presidency, global warming, poverty, disease, racism and all that. But seriously - can a world where this album exists be all that bad? Like that scene in Manhattan where Woody Allen rattles off into a tape recorder all the things that makes life worth living, if I made a similar list it would mostly consist of music.

I don't know if "Potato Head Blues" would be enough to get me out of bed in the morning but there's plenty of music that seems to do the trick. In this year alone The Decemberists, The Thermals, TV On the Radio, Lupe Fiasco, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Bob Dylan, Lily Allen, Rah Bras, Aloe Blacc, Figurines, NOMO, Outkast, Love Is All, Beyonce, Justin Timberlake and just the slightest rumor of a Jay-Z comeback album (oh my god. You know how they say men think about sex like every six seconds? That's about how often I think about the new Jay-Z album); all these artists have been enough to make my world a little brighter.

Just listen to "The Crane Wife 3", the first song off The Crane Wife, and be depressed. Just try. See, it's impossible. This is as close to perfect as pop music gets. It's ironic of course considering how utterly depressing the story of the Crane Wife is, but this song is so beautiful it's subject hardly matters. I think people focus too much on the "hyperliteracy" of Colin Meloy's lyrics. What makes the Decemberists great is not the lyrics. Who would read a novel that repeated the words "I will hang my head, hang my head low" over and over? But in a song, atop the Decemberists' sublime instrumentation and sold by Meloy's delicate but impassioned delivery, these words soar. Read off a page it may fall flat, but sung I could listen to this refrain forever.

But still, I see how people get fixated on the words. It's not often you come across snowy shrouds and boughs unbound in a catchy little folksy pop song. OK shit, it's not ever. And the fact that this is on a major label just makes it so much weirder. Two songs over 10 minutes long, obscure Japanese fables, northern Irish terrorists, watery graves, civil war soldiers? Is this stuff gonna fly on TRL? Probably not. But hopefully with a major label's backing these sermons will reach some people outside the choir. And luckily, for the uninitiated, they'll get to start a love affair with the Decemberists at their most bizarre, most ambitious and most astonishing album yet.

And speaking of boundary-pushing bands that are inexplicably on major labels, have you heard any of the new Blood Brothers yet? Here's the video of the "single"(?), courtesy of YouTube:

Um, yeah. Brilliant. How many albums do the Blood Brothers get to sneak out of V2 before somebody realizes that these guys are probably not gonna break into the mainstream? But thank god somebody is paying them to do this. Could you imagine if Johnny Whitney had to have a day job? Anybody who's heard him sing would probably tell him not to quit it. And yet he makes a living off that insane nails on a blackboard screech. Sometimes life works out strangely wonderful like that.

The first two leaked tracks I've heard off of the Blood Brothers upcoming album Young Machetes (thank you Idolator), sound a lot more like Whitney's side project Neon Blonde than the more hardcore inclined Blood Brothers albums. Which, at least for me, can only be a good thing;Chandeliers in the Savannah was one of my favorite records of last year. And, coincidentally, I got that album last year as a birthday present.

So, not much has changed since then. I live in the same place, in the same dead end boring county, with a different but similarily uninteresting and unimportant job. I still don't have a girlfriend (another Woody Allen moment comes to mind, a joke from the end of Crimes and Misdemeanors, but unfortunately I've never been to the Statue of Liberty), I still wouldn't be making anybody jealous at a high school reunion. But goddamn is my iTunes Music folder impressive.

Life is pretty good.

(Click here to buy The Crane Wife on Amazon.)

(Click here to pre-order Young Machetes on Amazon.)

Wake Up it's Time for Work


Cursive - Dorothy Dreams of Tornados
Cursive - Rise Up! Rise Up!

Date> 25 September 2006
Subject> Wake Up it's Time for Work

Hey there, Patrick...

I was thinking about a few things on the way home from work today; one of them being the power that words have to clue us in to new music. In particular I'm reminded of My Morning Jacket who had never interested either of us until "Z" came out. Even though they had other records out (and we've listened to some since) there was never anything in any of their reviews that prompted either of us to check them out. But "Z" was something different. Out of the My Morning Jacket CDs, it sounds the most like one we'd be into. So thank goodness somebody reviewed that record with enough sense to fill in the appropriate Jeff-and-Patrick buzzwords.

I was also thinking about how sometimes even a "bad" review will use strange terms and phrases that will pique our interests as well. The quickest example I can think of is the "Castlevania guitar tones" on the latest Mars Volta record. Even if the reviewer is using the term negatively, it evokes something positive for us.

So here I am, on day 7 of a nearly incessant Cursive binge and I want to write the review for the latest album, "Happy Hollow," that makes you want to check it out... that lends a pair of fresh ears and new pair of specs. (One's that don't earn the ire of your supervisors, perhaps?) Because beyond if you even end up liking the record, let alone the band, I think this record explores a lot of ideas that you and I have talked about before (and even written songs about.) And maybe it's just me, but I love it when someone 'established' has similar ideas as I do... especially if those ideas are relevant and important. And beyond the lyrical and meta-meanings of the record, I think it sounds absolutely brilliant. (More on that later.)

I try pretty hard not to be a typical art-rocker or a closed-minded rockist, as you know. So concept albums are almost always hit-or-miss for me. I have no love affair for "Tommy" or "In Search of the Lost Chord," but if a good album comes along labeled as "concept," I'll admit it. (Note: my closet love affair with Coheed and Cambra.)

But Cursive's "Happy Hollow" is a concept record unlike all others. There's some more typical demarkations like the bookending musical themes on the record and repeated lyrics and melodies throughout the songs, but most of it feels like a good dramatic play or movie. Rather than forcing Cursive songs into some conceptual mold in order to make them fit on the record, the band finds fertile and plentiful material in their own self-imposed set-up.

I'm not sure if it's because I was forced to read and watch it so many times, but for some reason I hate "Our Town." So it pains me to compare "Happy Hollow" to it, but it's the best I can do... maybe "Our Town" crossed with some French New Wave director who focuses on a few characters in depth rather that telling the story of one archetypal hero... (Can you think of a good example?) But like a genius director, the stories of all these characters combine to form a meaning, a message, a story, bigger than the individual pieces themselves.

The cover art is the first clue. Referencing old postcards, the art depicts an anywhere-town that is desolate, boring and completely run-of-the-mill. At first I wasn't sure I'd be able to get into this record as much as "The Ugly Organ" because I can relate to playing in a band, but I wasn't sure about relating to small town life.

But "Happy Hollow" is more about the delusions and games that people play in this small town in order to keep going on. (And I've found them relatable to the point of obsession.) I suppose I can relate especially to the struggle of growing up with certain religious truths presented as solutions and never having the chance to objectively see them as diversions.

In a lot of ways, this record is about the "culture war" between the Red and Blue states... between the University and the Church, Science and Religion. It's about "Normal Life" and the meaning of existence. There are tales of alienated priests so human and well-rendered... beyond charicature of simple black-and-white. All the characters in Happy Hollow are complex and dimensional. There are tales of girls who's boyfriends are off at war, grown men doubting their faith, and head on confrontation with "intelligent design." (And the Wizard of Oz flourishes actually work rather well...) And while there isn't a real story arc, listening to the album in its entirety feels complete... like you're ready for a cigarette, a sigh, and muttering, "Well, that was a good flick."

You know, maybe it's not a concept album after all. Maybe it's just a good album. Maybe albums are supposed to be more than a collection of singles... maybe they should be more like a "body of work"... but "Happy Hollow" feels more like a city-sized mural than a portfolio or gallery show. The ambition and scope are breath-taking.

And what really brings it all together is the music itself. While I was bummed at first that there would be no cello on this record, (Cello! You have a bass!) I soon found myself at home in the almost free-jazz horn arrangements. Cursive has this thing where they load up the beats with like 10 guitars, a bass and snare hit, and now, bizarre horn arrangements. If for nothing else, check out "Happy Hollow" just for the way the songs sound. There really isn't anyone else out there doing this... and if there's anything close I want to know all about it. And the songs on this record have this off-kilter gospel vibe that I can't quite place. The only thing that comes close is Lord Have Mercy On Us. It's loud and powerful and full of angst, but it feels like gospel. It's like the flip-side of gospel... post-apocalyptic gospel as I like to say.

But there's also some slide guitar that brings out the real Americana elements to the music. And of course that only adds to further the concept of small town life. But then of course there's the lyrical content atop those familiar tones... and the songs never sound like period pieces or revivalism... they feel painfully like now. (And now I think I might be repeating myself...)

So I know there are segments of our musical-taste Venn diagrams that don't cross, but I'd like to move Cursive out of that section and into the intersection... at least "Happy Hollow." I wouldn't go to all this trouble for nothing; I think you'd be missing out if you didn't at least give it a listen... maybe look up some lyrics online...

"Rocking chairs of disenchantment, green grass of envy and malice - our salad days, living in Happy Hollow."


This Might Be Satire


Jews and Mexicans - Fk Song

Remember Icy Hot Stuntaz, the trio of ridiculous white rappers who became an internet phenomenon?

This is funnier.

Remember the macho homophobic misogynistic alpha male motherfucker who called you a "fag" in high school? The fratboy jock asshole who watches Bumfights and lights his farts on fire? The one with the backwards baseball cap and the life-size hot wheel car with the GINORMOUS tires?

This is his band.

If this was a parody it would be at Johann Goethe levels of genius. But I can assure you, this is unfortunately not a joke. This is a real band. And they really are called Jews and Mexicans. This song really is called "Fk Song" (it comes from a burned CD-R entitled "The Fuck Demo"). And yes. Yes, he really did just sing "I popped a boner".

Their "manager" gave me the sales pitch over the phone: Imagine Jim Morrison fronting the Stooges, with Robert Plant's swagger, and something about "lyrical decadence and debauchery". I forget the rest. The only reason I remember that much is that I had to hear the same memorized speech about 8 more times after he showed up at the venue I volunteer at trying to get his band a show. He told it to whoever would listen. Obviously he'd spent a lot of time crafting this perfect quote, dreaming of somebody at Rock City News reading it in the band's press kit, and he was proud of himself.

A while after he left I found myself bored enough to pop in the CD and find out just how bad it was going to be. I'll admit, I was curious: Would it be laughably bad or just mediocrely boring? I mean, I knew it wasn't going to be good. But honestly I never dreamed it would be as hilariously bad as it is. This is like Right Said Fred kind of so-bad-it's-fucking-amazing.

But at first I was ready to turn it off after the first couple seconds. It's basically just a complete rip off of "L.A. Woman" with a guy who wants to sound like Jim Morrison just as bad as any guy working at Guitar Center in West Hollywood and playing at the Whisky-a-Go-Go on Tuesday nights. But then it starts to get a little interesting. Just before the one-minute mark there's a particular vocal phrasing that kept me from hitting stop. It's the two lines that end in "all day" and "your way". The way the singer slurs those words he sounds exactly like Mr. Mackey on South Park. All day, your way, mmmm kay? It made me hesitate for a moment - maybe this is going to get funny. And thank god I hesitated because I was rewarded with a musical moment that was just plain fucking magical:

One day I saw you naked and then
I popped a boner
So hard that it made me shiver

Oh my god. I rewound that part fourty times before I even got to the rest of the song. I'm listening to it now and I'm still laughing. Will this ever get old? But wait, that's not the only great part of the song. Right after the shiver inducing erection we get into the chorus, which is "I just wanna fu fu fu fuck you. Fu fu fu fu fuck you. I can't wait to fuck you all day and night. Fu fu fu fuck fuck you" repeated over and over. Is this the best stuttering in a song since "My Generation" or what?

The next verse after the chorus is also killer. The first line is "Down on your knees so you can suck my cock" and I can't really decipher what he's saying in the second line but suffice it to say, it ends with "we're gonna rock". And as brilliant a lyricist as this guy is (and maybe now would be a good time to mention that according to the band's myspace page the lead singer's name is Baby Rapest [sic] ) he is as equally adept at improvised yelping noises as he is at clever couplets. This song is punctuated by the strangest set of "oh"s, "ah"s, "uh"s, "ooh"s and "yeah"s I've ever heard. After one particularly absurdly strange cracked-voice squeal Baby Rapest tells us that "that's the noise you're going to make baby". If I was ever with a girl who made that noise I think I would be scared.

But, actually, I'm not so sure this song is being sung to a girl at all. At one point the singer says "Come on Shane." Granted this is right before a ripping guitar solo (a solo that also features some pretty rocking handclaps) so maybe he's just calling out a musical cue. But I'd like to think that possibly "Shane" has been the object of lust all along. Especially when you consider that their website is so full of homophobic slurs it's like Fred Phelps-style offensive. I think thou doth protesteth too much, know what I'm sayin?

I'm not going to link to their website though, because I really don't want to give this band any more promotion then I already have. But I had to post the song because, well... it's not every day that you luck into finding the song with the worst lyrics ever written. But now that I've got this song in my iTunes folder I'm just gonna throw this CD away (I skimmed through the rest of "The Fuck Demo" and nothing else comes close to being as funny. It just sucks.) And I certainly don't want these guys to play at our venue. If their manager calls back to book a show I think I'll just tell him:

"Fu fu fu fu fu fuck fuck you"

The Ashes Are Already About Us


Justin Timberlake - LoveStoned

In the ongoing music nerd debate between rockism and uh, anti-rockism (is it anti-rockism or popism? Either way, if you follow our blog at all it should be clear that this is the side of line we tend to fall on), today marked a huge blow to the rockist's argument. Or, if you don't give a shit about splitting hairs over what music critics think (which let's face it, if you're sane you probably shouldn't) just think of today as a great day for pop music. Today the new Justin Timberlake album came out.

Two years after Kalefah Sanneh's "The Rap Against Rockism" article in The New York Times (re)ignited the debate, people are still talking about it. Or at least the kind of people who talk about this kind of thing are still talking about it. And more and more I think it's becoming apparent that, authenticity and rock and roll paradigms be damned, pop music is really fucking good lately. And I mean pop music in the literal sense: popular music. The music that's on the radio, on MTV, in the clubs. The music that normal people listen to. The music that sells millions of records. My inner rock snob doesn't want to admit this, the 13 year old me who sold his entire CD collection because he decided all the bands he liked were sell-outs would probably hate the 23 year old unabashed Justin fan me, but the fact remains - this music is just as good, just as important, just as boundary pushing and sonically interesting as any underground hipster band du jour.

Undoubtedly there's still a lot of popular music that sucks. While watching MTV's VMAs this year, I was slapped in the face with the reality of how much a lot of popular music really sucks. Black Eyed Peas, All American Rejects, Panic! at the Disco - these bands are fucking atrocious. I have a co-worker who assures me that Fall Out Boy are a great band. Today a guy at work was blasting this stomach churning dancehall cover of "I Will Survive" (sung by a dude. I think it was Sean Paul) and this motherfucker was rocking out like this was his jam. Yes this makes me die a little inside. Yes I wish more people would buy The Thermals record than the Nickelback record. But when your Billboard chart features albums like Outkast's Idlewild, Gnarls Barkley's St. Elsewhere and Beyonce's B'Day, there is at least some glimmer of hope on the musical horizon.

Those albums I mentioned have already been blogged to death so I don't really think I need to write about those. (Fluxblog in particular had a great post on a track from the Beyonce album a couple days ago). Anybody who wanted them would probably have them by now. (And if you didn't, get them - they're all worth it). But I guess I'm hoping that Future Sex / Love Sounds may still be fresh enough that I can catch some people on the fence and push them into buying it.

I honestly could write entire posts off each song on the record. But I had to pick one so I figured I might as well let you dive right into the center piece of the record. "Love Stoned" is both one of the best pop songs in recent memory and one of the most completely bizarre. It's a seven and a half minute beatboxing, ass shaking, bloody dancefloor, spage age synthesized orchestral funk/hip hop... thing. And then at some point it morphs into some kind of electro pop gospel R&B ballad. This shit is epic. If Justin was ugly and signed to an indie label he would be so critically acclaimed he'd make Sufjan Stevens look like Fred Durst.

I remember just before Justin's first record came out I was reading an interview with The Neptunes where Pharrell said that he and Justin had a lot in common and got along really well. It seemed like a funny comment at the time. I just couldn't picture Skateboard P and the curly haired guy from NSync hanging out together. Now obviously I don't know anything about Justin personally, but listening to this record I think I'm starting to see what Pharrell meant. I think that I could get along with Justin too, at least get along on one fundamental level... I think he's got great taste in music. It's impossible to put a finger on one influence but the album is reminiscent of the best of artists like Prince, Michael Jackson, Al Green, Marvin Gaye. There's a quality and a depth in his voice that you just don't hear in most watery white pop singers. It feels like he's absorbed his musical predecessors, but at the same time it's not simple imitation or even homage. This is the kind of music you imagine those great artists would be making if they were in their prime in 2006.

I know a lot of people want to dismiss Justin's creative involvement in his songs. Even I originally wanted to just write about Timbaland's beats on this record. Before I heard the record I was ready to immediately assign all credit to his production over Justin's vocals. But a curious question arises when listening though the album. Timbaland's been doing his thing for awhile now, and he's pretty prolific. He makes a lot of beats for a lot of people. So how come EVERY one of his beats on Future Sex / Love Sounds is mind blowingly good?

Mere coincidence seems statistically improbable. Justin is making these songs sound this good. He's been brilliant without Timbaland before (most of the best songs on Justified were the Neptunes tracks) and obviously Timbaland was making hip hop interesting when Justin was still on the Mickey Mouse Club. But together, it's like if John had met Paul after they were both already famous. Justin and Timbaland have crafted something truly unique here. Dance music that's fun and funky but intelligent and inventive. It's compelling and weird and catchy. These sound like hit songs but don't follow hit song rules.

So forget the notion that pop music is inauthentic or inherently disposable or not cool. In fact, forget the rockism debate at all, because Justin isn't just on both sides of the line -he's obliterating the line. He's redefining those notions. And he's redefining what popular music sounds like.

(Click here to buy Future Sex/Love Sounds on Amazon.)

I Gots To Get Paid


Alexi Murdoch - Orange Sky

The idea of an mp3 blog, from what I can gather, is to post songs that are good. Or at least songs that you like. Or maybe just songs you think other people should hear. But what about a song you think people should hear (if they haven't already, which would probably be unlikely for reasons we'll get to in a moment) but you don't necessarily think is good? I'm not sure if Alexi Murdoch's "Orange Sky" is a "good" song or not, I'm on the fence as to whether I can say I like it or not without adding a caveat, but there's something intriguing about it, something that makes me think it's worth posting.

In last Sunday's LA Times Calendar section there was an article about the recent phenomenon of DVD TV binging, and I must admit that I seem to fit the profile of a TV binger. Naturally possessing something of an obsessive personality, if I find a TV show that I like (which is becoming less rare lately; either I'm getting dumber or television is getting better) I tend to consume everything I can about it in a short period of time. The first time I saw an episode of Oz I devoured four seasons in as many weeks. It took a couple weeks to get through the first season of Numb3rs, mostly because I kept each disc longer than usual as I tried to convince friends to watch the episodes with me and get on board with how fucking brilliant and subversive the show is. I watched the entire British Office series in a few days, watched the first American season in one day and then spent another reading every season 2 script online (the DVD release date just seemed too far away at the time). Currently I'm 3 discs into the first season of Lost. And recently I just finished season 1 of Prison Break, which if I wasn't desperately trying to get out of this television digression and back to the subject of music I would tell you is the best show on TV and then I would get into all the reasons why. It was in an episode of Prison Break that I first came across the song "Orange Sky".

But like I said before I can't tell you if I like the song or not, or even if I liked it that first time I heard it. Obviously I was interested enough to find out what the name of the song was, but I think that had more to do with my interest in songs used on television than in that particular song. I've always been fascinated by what's going on behind the curtain. I'm not just obsessed with pop songs themselves, I'm obsessed with everything about them: how they're written, how they're recorded, how they're used. I love learning the intricacies of copyright law, the finer points of publishing deals, everything that encompasses Industry Rule Number 4080. And perhaps at the heart of this fascination are the ethical dilemmas that inevitably arise when we're talking about a multi-billion dollar industry that revolves around an art form. What grabbed me about Alexi Murdoch's song wasn't the lyrics or the vocals or the chord progression - it was why was I even hearing this song? Why did the producers of Prison Break decide to use this particular song? And why did Alexi Murdoch agree to give permission?

Just in case anyone is unclear, music used in film or television is licensed differently than music on record. To oversimplify it: I could record a cover of "Orange Sky" if I wanted to and I don't need anyone's permission. I'm issued a compulsory mechanical license and I can legally record and release a cover of any song I want as long as I pay the set license fee (currently 9.1 cents per record if the song is under 5 minutes long). But to use a song for film, television, video games or any other medium where music is synchronized with images, a different license, called a synchronization license, is required. And unlike a mechanical license, there is no set fee for a synch license - it's entirely negotiable. And it requires permission. So when you hear some horrific cover on the radio, say for example that Used/My Chemical Romance cover of "Under Pressure" from awhile back, you can sleep well at night knowing that David Bowie and the Freddie Mercury estate had no control over that. But if you heard that same song in a car commercial, when you hear Bloc Party shilling for Target, when you see The Spinto Band jumping from the pages of blogs to selling diamond rings in the blink of an eye, when you hear the latest cool "indie" band in an episode of The OC, it means that somebody made a choice. Somebody said yes.

The OC is actually a perfect example to use when talking about the ethical choice of bands issuing synch licenses. It was an interview with The OC's Josh Schwartz in Billboard that launched a heated debate in my Music Publishing class about the responsibility of an artist letting their music be used on television. In the interview Schwartz revealed that the only band to ever say no to him was the Arcade Fire. I loved the Arcade Fire already, but this revelation shot my respect for them through the roof. However my teacher, a lawyer in his mid 60's who gave us constant lectures about how file-sharing was really file-stealing, immediately dismissed the band's decision as "stupid". He was of the opinion that the lucrative nature of licensing your songs for film and television was enough to completely dispel any notions of artistic integrity. He even admitted that as a lawyer for publishing companies he would frequently try to get songwriters to sign away they're rights of refusal and to let the publisher worry about when to give license permission. The only point that he would concede was that if an artist had a moral objection to the products being advertised - like tobacco or alcohol - then it was OK to say no. But what if the artist's moral objection is to the very idea of their art being used to sell products? When I asked this question he looked at me like I was Bill Maher and I'd just commented on the bravery of suicide bombers.

So let's talk about Alexi Murdoch. Here's an artist who appears to have absolutely no qualms about selling his songs to film and television. And he's selling to whoever's buying. Looking the song up after seeing it on Prison Break, I found out that this is far from the first time it's been used. It was featured in the films Garden State and Ladder 49. It was used in the trailer for Paradise Now. Besides Prison Break it's been used on Dawson's Creek, House and the aforementioned OC. It's been used in commercials for Honda and Hallmark. This is a new kind of hit song. It's been used so ubiquitously that I'm sure Murdoch has made as much money off of it as any pop hit, and yet I've never heard it on the radio, I've never seen his name on any kind of pop chart. He retains the low profile of an indie artist but gets the royalty checks of a superstar. His Wikipedia page, despite rattling off the instances of "Orange Sky"'s appearance onscreen, stresses his indie pedigree with this story:

"... when he took his music to a record company... the record company guy popped the disc into his computer rather than a stereo and then proceeded to stare at the counter on the screen waiting to see how long it took to get to the chorus, et cetera. This is when he supposedly knew he had to go the indie route."

It's a nice anecdote, but a little too perfect I think. Sounds more like something from a press savvy one-sheet on some Sprite "Image is Nothing" shit. The indie artist battling the big bad record company used as a marketing strategy. But maybe I'm just cynical, and maybe I'm wrong. Maybe Murdoch is a struggling independent artist who is a sparkling example of DIY spirit but just happens to drive a Honda and uses Hallmark greeting cards. He's simply a huge fan of all those movies and TV shows. And maybe that makes it OK. That was Bloc Party's excuse for being the center of the Target campaign. And even the bands who have said no to the OC promotional behemoth have popped up elsewhere around the dial- Arcade Fire on Six Feet Under, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah on The Office. But there's something about "Orange Sky" that just doesn't sit right with me.

I think I've overanalyzed the song way too much to speak objectively about it now, but I want to at least attempt to decipher whether it's actually a good song or not. I have to confess that I was motivated enough to pay for and download it (albeit from allofmp3 so it only cost a few cents) and I have listened to it dozens of times now. But is it because I genuinely like it or because I knew I wanted to write about it? Observer bias like a motherfucker. I can say at least that I don't hate the song. It's not like I could ever write about something like "My Humps", because I wouldn't be able to bear listening to it over and over. But I can listen to "Orange Sky". Apparently, I've been able to listen to it 19 times over the last week or so. And that might be part of the problem. It's so completely unoffending that I can just tune it right out. It's a softly strummed acoustic song, with a mildly catchy refrain, Murdoch's voice is soothingly bland, and the lyrics are just meaningless enough that I can hang whatever importance I want on them. The lyrics in particular seem to be what makes the song so appropriate for cinematic moments. The song scores a scene in Prison Break when it seems like all hope is lost for the series' protagonist, it appears he's not going to be able to save his brother's life after all, and Murdoch's hushed "Brother you know it's a long road we've been walking on" is given emotional weight. But taken out of context (or I guess, put back in it's original context) this line doesn't really mean anything, it doesn't go anywhere. In the next couplet he's singing about his sister and then about how weary and heartbroken he is and then at some point he finds salvation in somebody's love, although it's never quite clear whose love he's talking about. But it must be important since this is the chorus.

And in a way, this is what a good song is supposed to do. An old industry maxim is that no one cares what you have to say, they only care about how what you have to say relates to them. And I think this is true, the songs I really connect with are ones that I find my own meaning in. I've never been in love with anyone with pale blue eyes and yet when I listen to the Velvet Underground's "Pale Blue Eyes" I somehow find it completely relatable. But the difference is, I would rather invest my own meaning into lyrics as unique and complex and personal as "If I could make the world as pure and strange as what I see/I'd put you in the mirror I put in front of me." than the milque toast "My salvation lies in your love." "Orange Sky" is like the musical equivelant of the weekly horoscope. So vague and general that you can be tricked into thinking it was written just for you.

All this of course still doesn't answer the question of whether it's a good song or not. But to define exactly what makes a song good is probably beyond the scope of any mp3 blog, even one as wordy as ours. Does the fact that "Orange Sky" has been recycled for so many commercials and trailers and TV shows make it bad? Does it make Alexi Murdoch a bad person, or an unethical artist? Going back to the question I posed to my professor - should you have moral objections to other people using your art for commercial purposes? I don't have answers to any of these questions and I don't think it matters. But I do think, especially as artists and record companies trying to fight the onslaught of digital downloading are scrambling to make a buck wherever they can, in a time when it's no longer a shock to hear one of your favorite songs in a TV commercial, when 'sell out' no longer seems to be a dirty word... what is important is that, even if the answers don't come easily, we still ask the questions.

(Click here to buy Alexi Murdoch's Time Without Consequence on Amazon.)

(Watch the second season of Prison Break, Monday nights on Fox.)

Surf Will Tear Us Apart (Again)


Mister Loveless - Family Jewels
Mister Loveless - A Prison Break

First off - Hi, How are you? It's been a while. These blogs can be so strangely surreal and completely awesome at the same time. Getting email from some of my musical heros and other artists I've covered is one of the coolest perks I could have asked for. And beyond that, sometimes you get to hear from voices thought long in the past. When I made a passing remark about my first kiss, the other guilty partner in our middle school rite of passage actually found the post and wrote me a little email... and even posted a comment on the blog. (Which I'm about to hyperlink in one sentence.)

Back in May, I mentioned briefly my first musical phase involving the Beach Boys. I'm still a little unclear why I sought out Surf music or even more specifically the Beach Boys but surfing was definitely cool and I'm thinking one of my friends must have had a Beach Boys tape. And in thinking long and hard about the subject, I'm pretty sure I convinced Aaron to let me stay the night at his house just so I could listen to his tape some more. (And I think he said he had one more tape at home too... and maybe I could listen to that as well!)

Like most kids, he had a greatest hits compilation album. But some time later, I convinced my mom to let me buy a tape from the local Alpha-Beta. Tell a friend. (If that means nothing to you, it's because Ralph's later bought Alpha Beta and I never saw thier Richard Simmons-like spokesman again.)

I remember my dad taking exception to the little note on the cassette's cover: Due to time constraints, some songs from the original album may not be contained on this cassette. I remember he said, "I wonder what songs you don't get to hear." Or something to that effect. But I was a kid and didn't really have any clue about what an 'album' really was, in fact, I don't think I was really clear on the concept of what a band was either. In the fourth grade, at the peak of my Beach Boys infatuation I got to see them play live. You would think I would have been totally excited and amazed to get to see my idols live, but I remember being sort of bored. (Especially when Chicago was playing first.) I remember being more excited about seeing an Oldies cover band at the Pear Fair in Walnut Grove. I mostly recall being totally pissed that we had to walk around the fair and couldn't just stay and watch the band. I really remember that...I was super pissed. I don't think there's any way a 10 year old can rationally express that kind of resentment.

So a few weeks ago, I went ahead and bought the Beach Boy's first three albums. I think I have a fairly solid grasp on 'albums' and 'bands' now and I'd like to re-listen to these songs without having to resort to old, well-loved cassettes.

I may sound like a total moron here, but I had no idea the Beach Boys actually played surf-rock. I guess I always just thought they came up with their folk-inspired and surf-inspired music naturally in Southern California. But apparently the aging county fair mainstays started out recording versions of "Miserlou" and "Let's Go Tripping." I think maybe all the instrumentals got cut from the cassette versions. Somehow my whole vision of the band's early days has shifted. I started to wonder if the real surfers listened to instrumental stuff like Dick Dale and thought adding vocals was a mainstream, sell-out move.

Don't get me wrong, I think the Beach Boys vocal arrangements are true genius and no doubt molded my impressions beyond repair. (It's an easy segue from Beach Boys to The Queers, Screeching Weasel and all that pop-punk I love and have loved... and even to Essex Green or Mates of State.) But I was amazed how much the music had affected me as well. I didn't know in the fourth grade who played guitar or bass, or even who the lead vocals were on which song, but somehow the music still got through. After hearing "Surfin' Safari" and "Help Me Rhonda" thousands of times since, I actually listened to them. I'm still a sucker for that classic surf beat on "Surfin Safari" and that catchy little riff on "Help Me Rhonda."

So where does that leave me? Do I start attending touristy beach festivals and rocking out with a Hawaiian shirt and khaki shorts? Thankfully, there's some folks out there who might just love surf music as much as I do but approach from a contemporary, underground-y perspective. Indebted as much to Fugazi and Joy Division as much as anything Southern California produced in the 60s, Mister Loveless, create a an amalgamation of sounds that just sounds ridiculous on paper. At first I was wary of a band claiming to be the missing link between surf-rock and post-punk. I didn't think there was such a link... nor really any need for one. But then I heard the music.

The X meets Y formula is such a shallow short-form, but it's hard to explain a band in terms everyone will understand and quick enough so you don't lose their attention. So maybe it's a perfect explanation for potential fans (and bloggers), but the music is much richer and sincere than a quick tagline description.

While more and more bands attempt to pull off some sort of Ian Curtis delivery with less and less sincerity and more and more empty style, Mister Loveless manage to capture what has endured Curtis for generations: the palpable desperation. That's a fellow human being delivering those vocals. I can relate to that isolation. And I'm not sure if I'm a good enough writer to explain how even the guitar tone and melodies manage to espouse some sentiment of alienation and anxiety. It doesn't sound like those dark, minor chords ala Nick Cave; the melodies are almost poppy. But there's a dark corner to even the most pleasing major scale, and Mister Loveless finds it, and dwells in it. And when they are working with a minor chord, dude, it gets dark and tense.

I may be doing the band a disservice making them seem so completely bleak. Don't forget the lingering elements of surf-rock I told you about earlier. The beats never leave you bored and shift from that classic 2-4 surf rhythm to a 16th note hi-hat disco attack to straight-ahead four-on-the-floor... and they never get showy, and never merely 'serve the song.' The unexpected beats elevate the band's sound into a new territory. Atop these drums strides languorous, desperate and oddly comforting guitar lines. And where so much surf gets mired in technicallity and reverb, Loveless remains human and accessible.

Beyond mimicking their favorite bands, or sounding like a band out of their time, or retro, Mister Loveless combines all the wrong elements in just the right way. The burn of isolation smells like today; the fumes are all too familiar. There is no second-degree emotion here, no sillouette of the dead past. Unfortunately this angst is all too 'of today.' Nowadays we can be isolated despite being connected to millions. It doesn't ache any less no matter how many friends I can add to MySpace. Looming on the horizon the big city beckons to a nation of centerless suburbanites. And how do we handle the day-to-day when a perfect tomorrow is only a freeway or interstate away?

That feels different than anything anyone could have felt ten, twenty, thirty years ago. We don't need anymore emotional rehashes of days gone by.

Mister Loveless Web Site
Mister Loveless MySpace

Crass Crass Revolution


Chris Robinson - Bata Motel

Crass was the band that changed everything for me. The Sex Pistols were the first punk band I ever heard, a barely audible radio station in Berkeley played "Anarchy In The U.K." when I was sitting at the train station on a family vacation and I took note that this sounded like something I needed to own. The Clash were the first punk band that I really really loved, where I bought their T-shirt and wore it nearly every day. A friend in junior high supplied me with tapes pilfered from his neighbor across the street - Black Flag, the Misfits, Minor Threat. These bands were important to me, the first time hearing each one of them ("Nervous Breakdown", "Bullet", "Filler" in that order) are moments crystal clear in my memory. But if I'm going to level a compliment as heavy as "life changing" I don't think I can honestly say any of those bands fit the criteria. But the first time I heard Crass it was more than just the sound, it was more than the lyrics, it was more than the imagery. A lot of bands sounded great, or had interesting things to say, or looked really cool, but Crass managed to single handedly make me feel less alone in the world.

Back in the summer after 8th grade a lot of things were changing for me. I was a couple months shy of my thirteenth birthday, about to become a teenager, music was becoming a lot more important to me, I was drifting away from the straight laced A students that I shared honors classes with and hanging out more with the "bad" kids who smoked cigarettes after school and went to punk rock shows at hockey rinks. It was a very awkward, corny time in my life. (It was the time in my life when, to borrow a phrase, everybody in my suburb was a sellout.) And it was the first time I started to think that I wasn't quite normal. Kids in my class would talk about sports and pussy and cars and MTV and I couldn't fucking relate to any of them. People would talk to me about religion and tell me about Jesus, people I thought were my friends would try to get me to go to church with them and I thought they were completely insane. In class I would learn about government and economics and it all seemed stupid to me. I wanted really badly to fit in, I tried going to church with those friends and I wanted to believe because I didn't want to go to Hell, I told myself I wanted to be good at sports, I tried to pretend that I liked normal things... but still deep down inside I really just wished I could find someone who was weird like me. And then I got a Crass record. It was the first time I'd ever heard anyone saying anything bad about Jesus. And they did it repeatedly. And I thought, "finally."

Back then I picked out records based on the number of T-shirts and patches I'd seen. A lot of people seemed to have Crass shirts so I thought they must be pretty good. Little did I know The Feeding of the 5000 was going to have every thought that I had been trying to suppress in my head, screamed out in words squished together to fit over manic punk rock beats. It was music that sounded as angry and confused and naive and anti-social as I felt. And it was comforting. Someone else on the planet was thinking these same things, even if we were seperated by 20 years and an entire continent.

I can't say that I still listen to Crass that much anymore. That copy of Feeding is sitting in my parents garage somewhere, but I still love them. Just for different reasons now. A lot of people overlook the fact that Crass had a sense of humor, or the fact that their music was actually really good (listen to how awesome some of those bass lines were. Jeff and I have talked for years now about starting a funk Crass tribute band where we only played the danciest Crass songs. We're thinking of calling it Crass Crass Revolution), or the fact that some of their ideas are still resonant. "Jesus sucks" may not sound as ground breaking as it did to me 10 years ago, but songs like "Bata Motel" are still pretty potent. In fact, even though Feeding of the 5000 will always have a special place in my memory, Penis Envy is probably my favorite Crass album. Subtlety seems to stand the test of time better.

I have no idea when Chris Robinson first heard Crass, I don't know if they changed his life like they changed mine, but I bet he's got a story that's fairly similar. I always liked Chris, he's a local singer/songwriter who I first met when he was playing in a punk rock band. Now he's focusing on solo acoustic material with a knack for being brutally honest and emotionally wrought but incredibly catchy and well crafted. His original stuff is really good (so after you download this one for free, you should check out his Myspace page and buy his record) and I easily could have written about some of those songs. But when I heard his cover of Crass' "Bata Motel" I felt an instant connection. I guess no matter what age you are, or what stage of your life you're in, it's still nice to hear someone sing a song and feel a little less alone.

(Click here for Chris Robinson on Myspace.)



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