Category Archives: Music

Is Everything Really Just A Remix: Plagiarism vs. Inspiration

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Last week I wrote a post about recent revelations that longtime journalist Chris Hedges has, for some time now, been lifting other writers’ words and passing them off as his own. The whole matter seemed pretty cut and dry. Plagiarism is an ill born of some unknowable combination of laziness, ignorance, and hubris. But then I stumbled upon an interesting (and very well-made) video series called Everything Is A Remix, and I’m curious about where we draw the line between stealing someone else’s work and, well, using previous work as a springboard for (suspiciously identical) inspiration.

I’ve only seen the first two videos in the series so far, but from what I can tell the premise is quite compelling: What do we do when we realize that all art is, in fact, derivative? For instance, fans of Led Zeppelin (myself included) shouldn’t be surprised to learn that many of the band’s most celebrated songs—including “Stairway To Heaven” and  “Dazed and Confused”—are pretty much direct, unattributed ripoffs of songs that came before them. Ever heard of this guy?

A bit more startling was to watch some of the uncanny instances where George Lucas used shots and conceits from several other films in making Star Wars: Episode IV. And he isn’t the only one. As Remix narrator and filmmaker Kirby Ferguson points out, Hollywood (and the music industry, for that matter) has made billions by way of recycling old material, and will probably continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

To be sure, Everything Is A Remix does not set itself up as a defense of plagiarism—and neither does this blog post. But I think it’s worth exploring some of the nuances between purloining the intellectual property of others and using that property in an interesting (fair?) way to go on and make newer iterations.

What’s more, I’m left wondering how to feel about the issue when I’m confronted with instances wherein artists I love and admire seem to be lifting material quite unapologetically for their own purposes. Consider, for instance, the insanely obvious parallels between Prince’s “Purple Rain” and Ryan Adams’ “Hotel Chelsea Nights.” I mean, shit. It’s like Adams was writing the exact same song with different words.

Or consider this 2012 LA Times article that looks at the many instances where, throughout his career, Bob Dylan has been accused of plagiarizing the songs and lyrics of those who came before him. In response, Dylan made some interesting declarations about the organic and muddied nature of the issue. Like this:

Dylan added: “I’m working within my art form. It’s that simple. I work within the rules and limitations of it. There are authoritarian figures that can explain that kind of art form better to you than I can. It’s called songwriting. It has to do with melody and rhythm, and then after that, anything goes. You make everything yours. We all do it.”

This issue will never go away. In fact, in the internet age—where so much material is so easily shared and repurposed—I have a suspicion that the conversation will only grow fiercer and more challenging. In the meantime, check out the first two parts of Everything Is A Remix below (and visit the site for more—it’s worth it). I’d love to get your thoughts.

The Beatles: Let It Be & Yesterday And Today

For today’s entry I’ve posted my evening post from The Spin, a Tumblr blog dedicated to my vinyl record collection. Enjoy.

As I’ve mentioned in previous Spin posts, I haven’t put much conscious effort into adding Beatles records to my collection. Not only are worthwhile copies usually outside my spending threshold on any given day, but I kind of harbor this notion that at some point in the (not too distant?) future I will actually commit to bulking up on these Liverpudlian lads’ library. And when I do I want to do it right. Should I go all mono or all stereo? Should I look for particular pressings (about which I known nothing at this point) or just pursue quality in general? Until I sort all of this out, I sort of just take whatever comes my way. Which is how I came into this rather shoddy copy of Let It Be.

I honestly don’t remember how this came into my possession, but I think it may have been one of several records Cydnee’s mom donated to the cause about two years ago. Which was cool. Despite the rather sad circumstances under which it was recorded, it’s always been one of my favorite Beatles efforts. Sure, you come for classics like “Across the Universe” and the album’s famed title track, but you stay for the more obscure ditties like “I’ve Got A Feeling,” “For You Blue,” and “One After 909.” The whole thing is a testament to the fact that even when the band’s chemistry and endurance was up against the ropes, these guys still managed to put out a collection of kick ass music.

The shame of it all is that this record is practically unlistenable. It’s not warped or scratched, but for some reason the pitch of every song ebbs and flows from start to finish, making it sound like someone is slowing it down and then speeding it up at random intervals. I don’t know why, but it kinda sucks. Still, the album looks pretty cool, which is something. I guess.

It also came with like 20 photocopies that someone decided to make from the album’s iconic cover. I wonder why…

Then there’s Yesterday and Today. Again, I don’t know how it came into my possession (see the above theory for a possible explanation) but I’m glad it did.

Released in 1966, the album is a compilation of tracks from the band’s two most recent British LPs at the time—Help! and Rubber Soul—as well as a few from the upcoming Revolver. Unfortunately the copy I have is not one of the original pressings, which came with an entirely different cover, known in most circles as “The Butcher Cover.” Here’s what it looked like:

Yeah, I know. There’s a very interesting story behind this original cover, as well as the reasons why it was eventually changed. To read all about it click here. Obtaining a “Butcher Cover” copy of Yesterday and Today is considered a Holy Grail in most vinyl collector circles, so until I set out on that particular pilgrimage this one will have to do. Besides, the cover of the one I have still has an interesting little anecdote. Notice who’s sitting inside the trunk? Yup. That image is just one of many supposed “Paul Is Dead” clues littered throughout Beatles lore. And the music isn’t half bad either.

Let Us Now Praise…Conor Oberst and Dawes

 

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To be honest, it’s been a long day of writing, house tending, dog walking, and all around life-izing—and I don’t really have much blog power left in me this evening. But in the spirit of keeping up with the goal of filing a post every day this month I thought I should at least share something. And that something is Conor Oberst and Dawes.

For those who have been following the ‘ol Twenty Pounds pub since its inception, you know that I’ve written extensively about Conor in the past. And he does indeed deserve all (er, most of?) the digital ink that has been spilled in his name over the past decade. But I don’t think I’ve touched on Dawes all too frequently (if at all). Let me do so…now.

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I first came to know about this band about five years ago, courtesy of the incomparable Joseph Master. He sent me an Mp3 of “That Western Skyline,” the first track from their debut record North Hills, and I experienced that exceedingly rare moment when you know you’re listening to a band that is still relatively unknown but perched on the precipice of great acclaim. And they have not let me down since.

To date, I’ve seen Dawes perform live at least five times (the first being a Free At Noon concert in West Philly hosted by 88.5 WXPN), and their live presence only further cemented my confidence in their eventual ascension to greatness. Since the band’s righteous debut they have released two additional studio efforts, Nothing Is Wrong in 2011 and Stories Don’t End in 2013, both of which have not disappointed. So when I found out they were going to be touring this summer with Oberst (who is promoting his current solo effort Upside Down Mountaindig the play on words there?) I knew I couldn’t miss a show if it happened through Philadelphia.

And happen it did. I had the pleasure of seeing both acts perform at Union Transfer (my 100 percent, no joke favorite Philly concert venue of all time) on May 21, and the vibe was unmistakably incendiary. Not only did Dawes come out and rock a 90-minute-plus opening set, but they then returned to the stage less than 30 minutes later to back up Oberst for nearly two juggernaut hours of foot-stomping, hand-clapping musical brilliance. Dawes frontman Taylor Goldsmith (along with drummer and brother Griffin) leant gorgeous harmonies to Oberst’s originals while also searing into regular guitar solos with the type of piercing nuance practiced by the timeless likes of Mark Knopfler and Robbie Robertson. It was, in short, one of the greatest concerts I’ve ever attended—a fitting tribute to two musical acts that I have respected for many years now.

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Dawes backing Oberst. Photo courtesy of yours truly.

Leading up to this summer’s joint tour, Dawes and Oberst released a limited edition Record Store Day seven inch that found each covering the other. The exclusive split featured Dawes covering the Bright Eyes song “Easy/Lucky/Free” and Oberst covering Dawes’ “Million Dollar Bill.” And now, for your listening enjoyment, here are both tracks (and my lord, what they do with each other’s respective work is truly beautiful):

Here’s the original “Easy/Lucky/Free” (and a cool video to boot):

Here’s the Dawes cover:

Here’s the original “Million Dollar Bill”:

And here’s the Oberst cover:

Sonic Sunday Links: An Audio Aggregation for Winding Down

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The Sunday evening view from DiUlio cottage.

Sitting on my front porch at the end of a weekend spent camping and carousing in beautiful Lewes, DE, the sun sinks slowly behind the wooded park across the street, begging me to bring light to the interwebs. After all, it’s Sunday night, and who wants anything too heavy? So pour yourself a dram, a pint, a cup, or chalice and sink like the sun as you click through a few interesting sonic links to help you get through the weekending evening:

1) 10 Public Radio Stations You Wish Were In Your Town: Courtesy of the ever-awesome Paste Magazine (did you know I once wrote a story for them?), this list is a testament to the enduring power of radio. Here they’ve curated 10 listener-supported stations “with consistently great programming, great hosts, and even some local flavor.” Do yourself a favor and put a Sunday night soundtrack on the stove.

2) This American Life’s “House On Loon Lake”: What do you get when a group of teenagers sneaks into an old abandoned house in Massachusetts and finds a home that appears to have been left behind in a hurry? One of the most captivating episodes of one of the most captivating programs in radio history. Originally broadcast in 2001 (and rebroadcast this afternoon, much to my listening delight) this is one of those episodes where Ira Glass devotes the entire hour to one tale in particular. And trust me, it doesn’t disappoint, going well beyond Scooby Doo spooks to delve into fascinating ruminations on memory, family, and the things we leave behind.

3) Radiolab’s “Who Are You”: God I love this show. I’ll resist the urge to write 500-plus words enumerating the many virtues of Radiolab (and trust me—There. Are. Many.) and cut to this chase. According to the program’s website, this week’s episode “centers around a chilling question: how well can you ever really know the people around you?” Delving into everything from a baby’s first 1,000 days on the planet to a true-life story about a wife who suddenly thinks her husband is an impostor version of the man she knows, this episode—like all Radiolab episodes—begs the lister to ask some very complex questions with some intensely humanizing answers. Oh, and as a bonus, check out the amazing Radiolab video short below.

 

4) “Sunday Mornin’ Coming Down”: And of course, this.

Let Us Now Praise…Robert Ellis

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One of the most loathsome tropes employed by music critics is the comparison of a new band or artist to an old band or artist for the sake of lending credence, understanding, or street cred to the many ineffable qualities of uncharted sonic territory. You know, something like, “Dawes is today’s heir apparent to The Band.” No. Dawes is Dawes and The Band is (was) The Band. Sure, all art is reductive on some level, but grasping at these low-hanging-fruit comparisons is just not fair, neither to the new nor the old. In doing so we water down the energy of the contemporary for the sake of nostalgia or simplicity (and yes, I’ve been guilty of doing this myself). That being said, when a February 2014 Esquire blurb did this with singer-songwriter Robert Ellis, I’ll admit, it made me sit up:

“The 25-year-old Texan is Paul Simon trapped in Tom Waits’s head, with George Jones’s voice. He’s what Jim James might sound like if he’d liked Randy Newman more than the Band.”

Ugh. Admittedly, that blurb is one big orgy of regrettable comparisons, but it did the trick and inspired me to give Ellis a digital spin. And I’ve been delighted ever since.

With three full length albums under his belt—The Great Re Arranger (2009), Photographs (2011), and The Lights From The Chemical Plant (2014)—Ellis’s talents as a lyricist and vocalist are undeniable as he aches his way through landscape tales of disillusion, complicated love, and American ennui with a pinched and plaintive whine accented by slide guitars, jangly pianos, and inspiring dynamics. And while I’ll resist the urge to do so myself, it’s easy to see why Esquire saw fit to make the comparisons it did, name dropping the likes of Waits and Newman in its review. Because there’s something slanted about the songs of Robert Ellis, who lures listeners with the charm of his melodies but then takes them by the hand through sinuous back alleys of irony, insight, and sympathetic satire once they’re hooked. Consider, for instance, these lines from “TV Song,” the opener of The Lights From The Chemical Plant:

I am not a failure, I played the hand that I was dealt
But every now and then I do pretend that I am someone else
It takes no imagination, just a flick of the remote
Then I am on vacation in a life someone else wrote

Maybe I’m a millionaire, I travel over the world
I’m handsome and respected, I get all those pretty girls
So calm and mysterious, fighting for the greater good
People love and adore me from New York to Hollywood

Well, this may not be the healthiest, I know
But I’m happiest when I exist through my favorite TV shows

I’m a gun fighter, I’m a bull rider
I’m the captain of some pirate ship at sea
For a couple hours I got super powers
Oh my God, I love watching my TV, oh yeah
Oh my God, I love watching my TV

In the hands of lesser talent, a song like this would be nothing more than a self-righteous hipster’s sneering lament about the trappings of contemporary escapism. I mean, I don’t even own a TV, man. But Ellis treats the characters in his songs with a melancholic kindness that inspires introspection rather than condescension. Give it a listen:

Another highlight is his most recent album’s namesake, “Chemical Plant,” an impressionist tale of young love juxtaposed against industrial skylines.

She says my heart is like an orphan
And your words are like home
I do not deserve such kindness
Keeps me warm down to my arms
We bear some strange familiar likeness
To a man I feel I know

As if to keep each other safe
They spent the night and then embrace

And the lights from the chemical plant
Burn bright in the night like an old kerosene lamp
When all seemed unstable
I could watch how they were there
The lights from the chemical plant

I could go on at great length about the virtues of Robert Ellis, but you gotta hear it for yourself, because it’s well worth the listen. This guy not only understands the sublime and painful nuances of life, but he gets America and what it means to feel the way we feel during this specific time and age. And that’s a rare quality indeed.

Review: “Topography of a Bird”

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“Three things are necessary,” wrote Thomas Aquinas, “for the salvation of man: to know what he ought to believe; to know what he ought to desire; and to know what he ought to do.” It could be said that Topography of a Bird, the charming full-length debut from singer-songwriter Mark Rice, is an exploration of that path to enlightenment. Full of transcendental petitions for love, comfort, and understanding, Topography is a record that explores some complicated queries through some improbably uncomplicated folk melodies and introspective lyrics; the meditations of a journeyman concerned less with the answers than he is with the questions at hand.

Topography of a Bird is the stuff of Sunday night introspection; of those solitary moments that descend after the church lights have dimmed, the monks have retired for the evening, and the rest of the congregants have gone home. In those instances, alone and unhinged against the backdrop of forever, one rarely thinks in nuanced poetry or grand declarations. Instead, he thinks (prays, meditates) on the perpetually dawning sweep of his life in the broader scope, and Rice seems to understand this quite well, whittling his search down to its most primary parts. How have I failed? How have I succeeded? What do I desire? What do I despise? Who am I now and what do I eventually wish to become? That his music appeals to these (quote-unquote) big life questions without proselytization or solipsistic trifling is a laudable feat, and it’s what males Topography at once so enjoyable and also so severe.

Belief, desire, and action. Rice raises the curtain on these concerns from the outset with the album’s whispered opening track, “Show Me How To Love,” a lyrically and sonically understated entree that begins with the chirping rhythm of nighttime crickets before the first strum of guitars. As the song builds Rice returns to one simple refrain over and over again: “Show me how to love/ Show me how to love/ When the stars are so bright…so bright.” It’s a soft meditation that sets the table for the album’s ensuing 13 tracks.

To be sure, Rice’s brush strokes are broad, even at times a little vague, as he peppers Topography with supplicant titles like “Hold Me Now,” “Don’t Let Me Down,” and “Save Me Tonight.” But this strain of indeterminate invocation—to a woman? to a friend? to God?—is the record’s greatest strength. It’s what binds the album as an honest and accessible work. And even when he sometimes dances on the edge of sentimentality Rice never gives in, always managing to avoid preciousness with an easy turn of phrase. His songs—along with all of their potential vagaries—are both intensely personal (see the wonderfully haunting “Ohio”) and yet universally appealing to a hunger for understanding what it means to be frail and broken and human.

In “Hold Me Now,” Rice is “at the crossroads/ Looking for the ancient way, the good way.” In “Don’t Let Me Down”—a road-ready, drive-time ditty—he beckons, “Don’t let the day get away/ Until I make amends.” And in “Maybe This Time,” one of Topography’s standout tracks: “I’m messed up and broken/ And I can’t see past my pride.” The cynics may confuse these for the lamentations of an old-world Pollyanna, the cries a man who still believes that perhaps salvation is simpler than we think. But where Rice’s silence and simplicity leave off, the vibrancy of the album’s musicality picks up.

Topography’s edge of enlightenment owes much to the production of David Young, a vintage stylist with some serious pop-rock predilections that harken back less to Dylanesque balladeers than to The Beach Boys or Weezer. Pulling from that tradition, Young allows Rice’s otherwise simple, coffee-shop melodies to blossom and grow into their fuller organic potential. Consider “Tuscan Sun,” a bittersweet number that, in the hands of a lesser reggisseur, might suffer under the weight of its own importance. But Young—who sings backup and also plays several studio instruments on the record, including some impressive lead guitar and harmonica—transforms the track into something wholly anthemic. You can almost see the lighters being raised in unison as a grand, harmonic chorus swells in the final minute, begging “Don’t let the sun go down now/ All my life I’ve waited now I/ Know your eyes, your life, your smile with mine.” It’s a sublime moment.

The same could be said of “Be With you Tonight.” What begins as an unadorned bedroom ballad—a little bit Elliot Smith, a little bit Ray Lamontagne—slowly builds into another one of Topography’s unexpected anthems, swelling with pianos, thudding percussion, and electric guitars. Just when it seems Rice’s spirit is beyond saving, his music finds redemption yet again. Torture, death, rebirth. Let the rain fall down.

Rice also gets a lot of help from a respectable swath of studio musicians here, including the venerable Verien Brotzman on percussion, Tom Swope on bass, and Sissy Clemens on violin and vocals (more about her in a moment). But Topography’s background players do more than add layers to the music; they lend the album a casual air of good nature and inviting humor. Despite their gravity, Rice’s tunes are not depressive. In fact they are remarkably optimistic, and this chorus of musicians at his back only serve to drive home that point.

Only once on the album does Rice take a backseat to his fellow musicians, and the moment is one of Topography’s greatest triumphs. On “Starting Ground” Clemens takes the reigns and delivers a beautiful slice of smoky sensuality and sadness that thoroughly bely her mere 20 years. “Starting Ground” is a Clemens original and the only non-Rice tune on the record. Delivered at the album’s half-way mark, this late-night, bar-room piano ballad (I am painfully resisting the all-to-obvious Billie Holiday comparison here), which concerns itself with the simple sorrow of deception, takes the pathos to an entirely new level while never feeling out of place within the context of Topography’s greater aesthetic.

Rice has said the Topography’s title is derived from a quote he once heard about the ways in which thoughts are like birds. “We can’t stop them from flying over our heads,” it goes. “But we can keep them from making a nest in our hair.” What Rice has done is craft an album that is rich with flight and absent of any nests. It’s a patient album for a throughly impatient time, and at every turn it feels as though silent salvation is at hand.

BONUS TRACK: Check out the following clip of Rice performing “Ohio” last month in Pittsburgh during his record release concert.

Native American Pale Ale Rock (or, How I Came To Know The Great Unkown)

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The February sun had set on Saturday night and Theatre 941 in Northern Liberties was becoming quite crowded with the weird beards and biceps cartoons that can so often be found wherever the mighty blue ribbon is served. Everyone was gathered that evening on North Front Street for the first annual Pabst Blue Ribbon Art & Craft Fair, which, for the nominal entry fee of $6, promised live music, an endless well of the beer being praised, and wall-to-wall PBR-inspired wares like red white and blue quilts, beeramid cupcakes, and bottle-lid cufflinks.

I had no intention of discovering new music that night. I was there to cover the event for Beer Magazine and around 7 p.m. found myself talking to Julie Roboczi, the show’s founder and organizer. Roboczi heads up the venerable Philadelphia Independent Craft Market and had, on a whim of inspiration, decided to launch this first of many PBR fairs to come. We were halfway into a chat about the event when a broken bathroom poet arrived on the scene to declare an emergency.

“I was sent to tell you there’s a problem with the bathroom,” said the young man in a brown leather coat trimmed with sepia fur. He had appeared from nowhere, leaned in, and spoke in an easy, calculated rhythm, like the bathroom was a lady and its problem was a broken heart. He wore dark country jeans with a rolled left cuff, workingman shoes, and a hapless fedora on a curly head of hair. His wide, unblinking eyes bounced from corner to corner. “I think you’ll want to attend to its needs,” he said. And then he smiled.

The purple costume feathers sprouting from the head of Roboczi twitched in time with her mild flustering as armies of ironic sneakers marched around her and so many tattooed fists clutched cans of warming Pabst against their patch-work hoodies and striped cardigans. The music was loud, the din beneath the buzzing fluorescent lights getting boozier by the minute. A malfunctioning bathroom was indeed an urgent matter. “Well,” she said, “I think I should go see to it then. I’ll be back. Excuse me.” And then she smiled. And then she was gone. I was left standing next to the messenger.

“You don’t want that tonight,” he said, still darting his eyes, still smiling. “Lots of PBR going down easy. Lots of pissing going on, I’m sure.” He took a sip from his can of Pabst and swallowed hard. “Like lava.”

“What’s that?” I asked. His voice was low and muted beneath the thundering of some punk outfit playing loudly in the adjacent room.

“Like laaava.” He drawled. “Laaava. Pissing lava.” I wasn’t sure what he meant by this. Not in the least. But whatever he was trying to say was clearly dear to him, clearly the most important moment of that moment because his eyes stayed wide and the humor of his internal monologue registered with every slink of his puckish frame. So we kept on talking.

This, I came to find out, was none other than Todd Henkin, and Todd Henkin’s band was about to go on in thirty minutes. “We’re The Great Unknown,” he said. “But we’re different than what you’re hearing right now. It’s nothing like this.”

“This” was thudding, post-Pixies metal mixed with a dash of slick Interpol angst, the kind that comes on at 2 a.m. after one too many PBRs. “We’re more like…Americana? Or uh, or like roots style music. Lap steel and all that. I don’t know. It’s…it’s not like this. It’s not PBR kind of music, I don’t think.”

“So what kind of beer should somebody drink to your music?”

“I don’t know. Maybe an IPA? Yeah!” Henkin liked every pet theory that came to mind. And he really liked this one.

“There’s your genre right there, man,” I told him. “IPA rock.”

“Right! Yeah. We’re an India Pale Ale.” He laughed a little and tossed off the moment with a shrug. It was then I realized that I wasn’t sure about anything he was saying. I had been at the craft fair for nearly two hours at this point, and to be sure, nothing breeds suspicion quite like these sorts of No Libs gatherings. Everything is a joke and everything is a serious edict at once. Sincerity and sarcasm do a mad, opium dance of the dead and suddenly all one is left with is the certainty that nothing is certain. Ever. For all I knew Henkin was full of shit. For all I knew he could have been a solo hip-hop free stylist who dressed as a clown on stage and rapped about Kierkegaard’s latent fascination with Muppets or accountants with Dixie Cup fetishes.

Or he might not be a musician at all. Who was to say? This was Northern Liberties. This was Pabst.

“Either way,” he continued, “I don’t really like the term ‘Americana.’ That’s not it. Maybe we need another genre. Like…like native American.”

“But then people might think about American Indians,” I said, noticing for the first time a subtle scar that ran from the corner of his mouth to the dip of his five-o’clock chin. “I don’t think that’s what you’re going for.”

“But…yeah! No, that’s it! Native American. American Indians. We are American Indians. I’m an American Indian. Like Bob Dylan.”

“Bob Dylan was an American Indian?” This, I knew, was certainly not true.

But then again…

“Hell yeah! He was an Indian.” Henkin laughed again.

“Dude, he was Jewish. You’re telling me he was a Jewish American Indian?”

“Oh…wait. No, yeah. Jewish! He was Jewish.” More laughter. More mad, darting eyes. He looked at me like he was on the lamb and I was about to call the cops. “That’s what I meant. Jewish. They’re so similar, ya know? Jewish. Indian. I get ‘em mixed up. So maybe Jewish American rock? Whatya think?”

The conversation continued like this for a few more minutes until Robosczi finally returned to tell us all was right with the flushable world. I shook Henkin’s hand and told him I was anxious to hear the band. He told me to find some IPA.

Later, while waiting in the back of the theatre for some more PBR to arrive (the natives growing restless) I began to hear the copper strumming of an acoustic guitar. The thudding of a country bass. The slick slide of a lap steel. The Great Unknown was warming up. When the new batch of beer finally arrived I grabbed myself a chilled, cozi-less can and made my way to the crowded front room, where I found Henkin and Co. already well into the second song of their set.

So he was telling the truth after all.

For thirty minutes I watched The Great Unknown churn out some of the most exciting and finely crafted American music I have had the pleasure of hearing in this city. Henkin lead the outfit with his loose acoustic and sharp vocals, backed all the while by a jangly electric guitar, sweet and subtle lap steel, excitable bass, and riverstone drums. They were harmonizing three parts, laughing between beats, and moving in mountain step with one another the way one imagines wolves might if they had smiles and voices and hands to play such sweet, rollicking tavern anthems to the night.

For thirty minutes I watched The Great Unknown conjure up images of its woozy urban cowboyism played against the mossy backdrop of an American forest, or through the smoky blur of a basement in the dark, pensive Pennsylvania hills. Henkin sang about love declared to sleeping ladies and whistled his way through a number’s closing. He made Tom Waits references between songs and all the while kept darting his wide, junkyard eyes from corner to corer, just as he had done when I met him less than an hour before.

For thirty minutes I watched the members of The Great Unknown have the time of their lives, as though every number was the closing of a concert given to celebrate the end of the world. I watched them inspire some in the crowd to belt out delirious rebel yells that would make the sober eyes of nuns rattle in their heads and young women shudder for the impossibility of affection. This was the young man music for which rock and roll was first invented. The music of getting drunk when it matters the most. The music of reckless love in dusty jukebox corners. The music of being snowed in by time and guarded against its sinister march. The music of long conversations that mean nothing, save for their assurance that long conversations still exist somewhere in the hearts of the young.

For thirty minutes I watched The Great Unknown restore my faith in the possibility of accidentally stumbling upon a band that makes you want to sing until your voice is raw and stomp until your feet are blistered and ghostly. I have spent many years seeking out such possibility, going from Philly pub to Philly pub with the hope that I might leave with the desire to tell everyone about the band I just saw. Sadly, that expectation is most often met with disappointment, and I wind up wondering if anyone is yet to be discovered. But last weekend I was treated to thirty unexpected minutes of The Great Unknown, and now I know the search has been worth it. And it is worth it still.

It’s unfortunate that the indie world has become so bloated with expectation and slavish devotion to novelty and irony these days, because what so many local outfits miss in their efforts to become the next Arcade Fire or Deerhoof (fine bands in their own right, don’t get me wrong) is the bliss of being enveloped by the simple, singular pleasure of solid songwriting and a band bleeding its life on stage. Consider that just last month I watched a seven-piece group crowd the North Star with a violin, three guitars, synth keyboards and marching band drums. In all of their expected grandeur, those guys and gals couldn’t manage to eek out a single melody that came close to even the simplest lines of The Great Unknown. These dudes know how to summon the muse, and they do it damn well.

Look, this band isn’t going to push the limits of pop music evolution. The Great Unknown probably won’t rearrange the sonic landscape as we know it or woo the critics with its visionary scope. But I can tell you this: they will make you feel, they will give you one hell of a good show, and you’ll find yourself humming their tunes long after the others have packed away their violins and cut off the power to their canned orchestras.

With the PBR fair finally winding down I managed to catch up with Henkin as he and his mates packed up for a show later that night in Center City. But before I could get a word in to tell him how incendiary their set was, he looked at me and said, “So. Did it make you want an IPA?”

Check out The Great Unknown here. Or better yet, go see them play at Johnny Brenda’s on March 7. You won’t be disappointed.

Review: “Cardinology”

 

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It’s probably an obvious point, but the so-called “digital age” of pop music in which we presently find ourselves helplessly fixed has numerous drawbacks. Consider the veritable death of album artwork, for instance. A shame. The possible death of the album, for that matter, as a work of artistic entirety at the hands of easily plucked ninety-nine cent single songs also comes to mind. And what about liner notes? These seemingly superfluous bursts of an artist’s thoughts can provide revealing aspects about an album’s greater purpose otherwise lost on the casual listener. I think about this in light of Ryan Adams’ newest studio effort, Cardinology, which was released last week on October 28. Buried deep within a collage of lyrics, black and white photos, and painted clouds that scatter across the record’s jacket are Adams’ requisite “thank you’s.” The first one reads: “Thank you Universe, for connecting us one and all. Consider this music as a gesture of our appreciation.”

I mention this little detail because it speaks volumes about this record; and while I think the sentiment is quite evident in the music itself, reading the statement was a confirmation of a nagging suspicion I had harbored throughout my first few listens, namely that Adams is painting with unprecedentedly broad, musical and lyrical strokes here, each one aimed at battles for individual spiritual redemption never quite won and a struggle to listen for a voice from God never quite heard. It’s an ambitious effort that feels familiar when it works but foreign and forced when it doesn’t, making Cardinology one of Adams’ most perplexing and, sadly, forgettable showings to date.

 

Ryan Adams and His Cardinals

Ryan Adams and His Cardinals

To put this in context, let’s first acknowledge another obvious point: Ryan Adams loves The Cardinals. No, he really loves them. The backing outfit of Neal Casal, Chris Feinstein, Jon Graboff, and Brad Pemberton has been with Adams off and on since 2005’s brilliant Cold Roses. In fact, Cold Roses, its 2006 followup Jacksonville City Nights, and this most recent album, were all released not as pure solo records but as works by the larger package known as Ryan Adams & The Cardinals. Much in the way Neil Young teamed up with Crazy Horse as a perpetual sonic compliment to his solo efforts, so Adams has indelibly married himself to The Cardinals’ remarkable ability to infuse his music with a broader complexity otherwise absent in his solitary arrangements. And his respect for these musicians with whom he plays is vast (and well deserved). Consider that in recent live performances Adams has been known to take a backseat to the staging of this band, hiding in the side shadows instead of bringing himself to the front of the stage. Here on Cardinology he does just that. Make no mistake, this is a band album, as Adams’ vocals and individualism play second fiddle to the quartet’s broader picture. Oh yeah, and lest we forget, the record is called Cardinology!

Before it was even released, the prospect of a new Adams effort bearing a title that gave serious props to his band was thrilling, as The Cardinals have leant wonderful compliments to Adams’ brilliance as a songwriter and composer over the last four years. Despite the critical disparity levied upon it, Cold Roses is as solid a work of brilliance as Adams has ever produced, and much of its success would not have been possible without his band’s significant contribution. But whereas that record’s two-disc sprawling ambition is peppered with nuance and character, Cardinology is plagued by overproduction and vagueness. It feels as though Adams is indeed trying to swallow the Universe whole; but he’s not savoring the meal. He’s choking on it.

The first four tracks are immediate indications of Adams’ intentions here, bearing optimistic tittles like “Born Into A Light,” “Go Easy,” “Fix It,” and “Magick.” On the first, Adams petitions the listener (himself?) to embrace the idea that we were all “born into a light/ we were born of light/ we were born into a light” and the promise that if you “heal your vines, eventually you’ll heal inside.” On track two he begs “go easy on yourself,” and while the subject of the lyric’s petition may very well be a specific lost love, the broader implications of the song are clearly aimed at the principle of individual forgiveness for ourselves and the mistakes we’ve made—a subject in which Adams, an infamous reveler in the sins of the flesh, is quite well versed. Look, I want to be lifted by these songs. I want to feel the redemption that inspired Adams to write them. But the obviousness of the message kills the rawness of the emotion, and that’s a shame. In other words, nothing in the entirety of these first four seemingly uplifting numbers comes close to achieving the absolution Adams realized with one beautiful line on Cold Roses’ “Magnolia Mountain,” wherein he sang, “It’s been raining that Tennessee honey/ So long I got too heavy to fly/ Ain’t no bluebird ever gets to heavy to sing.”

On “Fix It,” Adams is yearning to do just that. “I’d fix it/ I’d fix it if I could/ And I’d always win/ I’d always win/ I’ll always win in the end.” Casal’s chunky guitar riffs launch the track and set up the song for a quiet rebel swagger that sadly dissolves as the song meanders and collapses under its own weight (a problem throughout). On “Magick,” the album’s fourth track and obvious single, Adams picks up the pace and harkens back to his Rock N Roll days, only this time with more parts Oasis and less parts Green Day. Clocking in at just over two minutes, “Magick” is a quick, unassuming rollick that tells us to “turn the radio on/ So turn the radio up/ So turn the radio up loud and get down/ Let your body move/ Let your body sway/ Listen to the music play/ It’s magick, it’s magick.” I believe Adams here for the first time on the album, even though he can’t resist the urge to remind us of yet another Universal truism (“What goes around comes around”).

While the record never fully abandons the theme of Universe’s Greater Purpose Meets Individual Unrest, the remainder of Cardinology is somewhat less obvious in this regard; and when Adams familiarly opens himself up to the bittersweet conflict of yearning for enlightenment but meeting instead the silence of God and bedtimes spent alone, the results are far more interesting. Consider the semi-sleepy swing of “Let Us Down Easy,” wherein Adams admits that, “Every season I spend alone/ Feels like a thousand in my heart and in my soul” and that “Instead of praying I tell God these jokes he must/ Be tired of himself so much he must be more/ Than disappointed, Christmas comes we eat alone/ A pretty girl’s smile surrounds a pretty girl who/ Takes your order she yells it and cries alone in/ The backroom once in a while until it stops.”

Because so much of this album’s inability to triumph can be attributed to the overwrought sound of the band involved, it’s probably no coincidence that Cardinology’s most successful track is the one that features the fewest Cardinals. “Crossed Out Name” is a swelling acoustic number that finds Adams in the familiar territory of wandering darkened streets alone and yearning, once again, for home. It’s when he’s afraid (not scared), when he seems like he’s about to crack, when he questions his motivations and future, that Adams is often at his best. Consider the following reflection on solitude: “I wish I could tell you just how I felt/ I don’t pray I shower and say goodnight to myself/ And when I close my eyes/ I feel like a page…/With a crossed-out name.” Or the subtle perfection of the way he conveys new love with this: “I kiss her mouth and I know/ For everything there is a word/ For everything but this./ I like the dresses, the shoes, and the clothes./ And everything, you know, that goes/ With loving a girl I suppose.” Damn. That’s what Adams does better than any singer-songwriter in music today. He is at once both, you know, conversational and poetic. Oh how I yearned for more of that on Cardinology.

Another refreshing emergence from the muddiness of this record’s overproduction and thematic heavy-handedness is “Evergreen,” which leans on the whisper of Graboff’s deft pedal steel, Adams’ acoustic, and Casal’s tickling piano, all of which compliment the front man’s cracking, fragile falsetto. Again, I believe Adams when he sings here, “And maybe you’ll find someone/ To lay some roots down next to you/ Be more like the trees and less like the clouds.”

“Natural Ghost” and “Sink Ships” are potential alt-country teases that forsake their inherent possibility for understated greatness with an unwelcome mess of too many guitars, confused harmonies, and throwaway lines like, “Keep the faith, keep moving in time, with the music rolling in your mind.” Really Ryan? Come on man. You’re better than that. Sonically speaking, “Natural Ghost” in particular reminds me of the most egregious errors Adams made in producing Willie Nelson’s Songbird in 2006, an album that found Willie’s voice buried fathoms deep beneath the instrumentation (a sin for Mr. Nelson!) and the emotion of the songs therefore lost in the jumble. Consider that “Natural Ghost” feels anything but ghostly. What could have been an eerie, haunting ballad about rickety stairs and moonlight is reduced to one of the album’s most forgettable tracks.

To be sure, Adams achieves a refreshing musical and lyrical maturity with Cardinology, as he did on the preceding Easy Tiger in 2007, but his recent grasps at a steadier hand have not yet commingled fully with the wilder, unhinged efforts of his earlier works that, while often yielding more than a few duds (“Luminol” anyone?) also ushered forth some of modern American music’s most timeless compositions (“English Girls Approximately” or “To Be Young”). The shame here is that Adams seems suddenly intimidated to embrace his musical and personal demons the way he has so beautifully in the past. And it’s not that this album feels safe, it’s that it feel underwhelming.

In short, Cardinology is not what I expected; but then again, no effort from Adams is ever what anyone expects. After Jacksonville, fans and critics alike were poised for Adams (and The Cardinals) to finally inherit the dusty alt-country throne left vacant by Gram Parsons in 1973 and deliver a quintessential disc of pure Americana. But what did Ryan do instead? He came out with 29 less than a year later, a hushed, sleepy, dance-of-the-dead solo effort that veered significantly off the expected course. And then, two years later, Easy Tiger found Adams newly sober and suddenly harkening back to his 2001 Gold era polish, alluding to a forthcoming effort that would have finally silenced the fans and critics who have been begging for another “Rescue Blues” or “Answering Bell” since 2001. And this is what they get. Peculiar. In some respects, Cardinology feels like a necessary crossroads, a collision of Adams’ most recent history that will undoubtedly yield more greatness in the future, so long as he can start trusting in the Universe instead of trying to thank it so profusely.

BONUS TRACK: For an example of Adams and The Cardinals kicking some ass, check this out. It’s easy to see why Adams loves this outfit so much:


Let Us Now Praise…

Music For Coming Down:

David Mead and the Post-World-Series-Election Hangover

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Fade In: Interior. Nick’s Roast Beef. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Wednesday Night. 7 p.m.

The clocks have been turned back. Another hour has been saved. Second Street in Old City is dark and desolate and wet with rain. Just one week ago to the day this place was clamorous with the delirium of hundreds in the street weeping and clapping to everyone, to no one in particular. Just one week ago to the day this place was filled with what seemed to be potential for new birth. With beer-stained hearts on fire. With senseless love overflowing. With the careless inspiration only triumph can bring forth. Just one week ago to the day, Second Street was alive.

Just twenty four hours ago, Second Street was alive, brightened by the hope of change in America, of change in the city of Philadelphia, of change in our dusty, cynical hearts. By this time yesterday, Barack Obama was already on the doorstep of victory. By this time yesterday, everyone braced for the eventual collision of history and expectation. By this time yesterday, legions of the lesser angels of our nature seemed poised for destruction. By this time yesterday, Second Street was yet another temple at which we could all worship the deity of possible hope. By this time yesterday, Second Street was alive.

Now, sitting inside Nick’s Roast Beef, Second Street is tired and alone. The bar is virtually empty. No music plays on the speakers. The Phillies already seem a distant memory. Two small televisions hang from a brick wall. One broadcasts a silent, subtitled Charlie Gibson, who guides America through replay after replay of last night’s Presidential victory, parsing every second down to the fabric of the dress Michelle Obama wore on the stage. On the other screen, a prime-time Hollywood program silently displays a montage from a new Broadway musical staring Chazz Palminteri. The disparity of the two images seems at once both obvious and obscure. There is something that connects them, I’m just not sure what that is.

More than anything else, what strikes me is how exhausted I feel—how exhausted the entire city feels—overwhelmed by a month that went by in a blur and culminated in a championship victory for a beloved baseball team and the election of the first African American to President of the United States of America. In the course of just one week, both of these events took place, and there is an overwhelming, atmospheric sense that the peak of joy has been reached, and now we must all come down. We must all swallow the bitter sweet fog of the morning after.

That’s why we’re going to see David Mead at the Tin Angel.

Some friends of mine arrive and we share a few pints over talk about quantum physics and Mr. Rogers; over the previous night’s election and the virtues of ketchup; over getting old and electric cars; over cheesesteak hoagies and the small entertaining bits of our own personal histories only we find important or funny. I know we are children of this time, I’m just not sure what that really means.

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When our rambling comes to a close we leave for the show. Two doors down we climb some narrow stairs and order some more pints. First to take the stage at the Tin Angel are The Sways, a Nashville-based husband-and-wife duo comprised of Carey Kotsionis and Adam Landry. Carey’s got her acoustic, Adam’s got his medicine-red electric, and just two lines into their first song I am struck by both the beauty of their harmonies as well as the undeniable pleasure of lines like, “Knowing what to wear doesn’t make you a lady/ Showing up at my door doesn’t make you my baby.”

It would be easy for me to call this duo a marriage between the Innocence Mission and She & Him, so I won’t. Instead, The Sways are a fragile little outfit with the icy edges of their tender sound rimmed in traces of southern attitude and rust. They’ve got California flowers in their hair, but they’ve also got dusty, Memphis boots on their feet. It’s sweet, American swaying, music perfect for the autumn and summer both. They are a pleasure to watch and I would recommend checking them out if they come to town again.

When it comes to the headliner, I am as ignorant as a man can be. Going into the night, I had only ever heard one, maybe two David Mead songs in my life; but the show came by way of a zealous recommendation from my friends T. David and Kristine Young, and since I trust their respective musical tastes so implicitly I figured it was worth the $12 admission fee. And friends, after sitting through an 90 minute set of this man’s music, I can honestly say that I would pay twice as much to see him again.

Oh that dastardly breed of man known as the so-called “Singer Songwriter” is everywhere, and usually I do not suffer him kindly. Look, he’s got a lot to live up to, so I think it’s only fair to be so critical. Every college-aged crooner strumming his acoustic guitar in a coffee shop or on a lawn full of pie-eyed ladies is cooing in the shadow of geniuses like Jackson Browne, Ricky Lee Jones, James Taylor, Joni Mittchell, Cat Stevens, or even Ryan Adams. It’s not their fault the genre has been so well mined, it’s just a fact. All of that being said, when David Mead takes to the cozy, dimly-lit stage at the Angel, my skepticism is tempered only by Dave and Kris’s admiration for him.

Now watch as David Mead lifts the glass statue of my vapid cynicism, hurls it across 90 miles of jagged rock, and allows it to shatter into pieces so small and numerous as to be indistinguishable from the air surrounding them. For the entire length of his set, I am as captivated as I have ever been by a performance. Mead is a master songwriter, crafting everything from bittersweet ballads about looking out of windows at girls walking away to traveling songs about rambling to lovers and friends in drivers seats as the landscape of America unfurls its lovely, lonely distances. He even covers “These Days”, giving an apropos nod to the man to whom I believe Mead is the obvious heir apparent.

Moreover, Mead’s stage persona is a delight. Irreverent, erudite, commanding, humorous, and humble. Watching him in the intimate confines of the Tin Angel feels like being part of a sublime secret. I look forward to nights that will surely unfold with Mead’s music lining the walls of my house and of the mornings over coffee and new love wherein his tunes will kiss the moment with the tenderness for which it begs. I’ve got him on right now, in fact, and I can think of no better soundtrack for coming down from the chaotic hand life has dealt me in recent weeks.

Check out this video of him at the Tin Angel in 2004:


The Endorsement: Lady Chatterley On The Radio

 

Tonight I bring you the beauty of contemporary juxtaposition, a dual endorsement that marries perfectly the old and the new. First, the old…

“Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically…”

I recently finished reading “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” by D.H. Lawrence and cannot let another moment go by without encouraging anyone who has not yet read this novel to do so. Immediately. Written by Lawrence in 1928, the book was not published in Britain until 1960 due to the swirling controversy surrounding both the language and themes expressed in its pages. The plot is simple enough: An aristocratic, intellectual (Constantine Chatterley) finds herself in a passionless (loveless?) marriage several years after her husband returns from World War I paralyzed from the waist down. In her quiet quest for wholeness, Lady Chatterley becomes involved with one of her wealthy husband’s groundskeepers and spends the rest of the novel wrestling with the principles of devotion to her husband as weighed against the pull of organic, uninhibited passion.

As I read it, I continually had to remind myself that this novel was written in 1928 and not last year, not only because it so liberally tosses about words like “fuck,” “orgasm,” “ass”, and (oh, shudder!) “cunt”, but also because its sociopolitical themes are so incredibly contemporary. It’s unfortunate so much discussion surrounding this book concerns its more salacious moments (and believe, there are plenty), because on the whole, the novel is about so much more. It is one of the most humanistic stories I have ever read because the primary question it asks over and again is this: What makes us whole? In it you will find contemplations on sex disguised as love and love disguised as sex; socialism vs. capitalism; property and wealth as religion; the virtues and damnations of solitude; and so much more.

I picked up my copy for 50 cents at a local used book sale, and while you may be tempted to think the fusty nature of its cover makes it hopelessly dated, fear not. You are in for quite a radical treat.

And now, the new…

If you have not yet picked up a copy of TV on the Radio’s newest release “Dear Science,” do so. Now. When I first started hearing about this band four years ago, I was admittedly cynical about its supposed brilliance. The ceaseless, ubiquitous implication that everyone should be listening to these guys started feeling like a mother wagging her finger because her son will not eat his peas. I almost didn’t want to like them in spite of their acclaim, but once I realized this was an absurd feeling to have I opened myself up to their influence and have not looked back since.

“Dear Science” is one of the most solid and enjoyable records I have come across in the last year. This band blends emotive lyrics and melodies with crunchy, post-industrial electronic soundscapes so seamless as to make it sublime. Have a listen for yourself and tell me what you think. If you’re looking for a soundtrack to the age in which we live, “Dear Science” is a great place to start.

\”Halfway Home\” by TV on the Radio

[audio http://wpcom.files.wordpress.com/2007/01/mattmullenweg-interview.mp3]