Saturday, March 29, 2008

eMusic March 08

In January I started a subscription with eMusic. Thus far I am very satisfied. There are folks who complain (like there are for anything), but many of the complaints I see stem from two sources:

1) Apparently there are folks who don't understand that a service that deals mainly with independants isn't going to have material by Shakira or Metallica or The Beatles or [insert most acts on the big 4 labels here]


2) There seems to be confusion resulting from nobody telling you what to buy

The solutions here are simple. Taking the time to know what you're getting in to before forking over any cash is always a good policy. As for the second, well, the recording industry seems to think you want cookie-cutter winners of televised talent shows on your iPod, so marching down to the local mass marketer (where won't you be confused by a deep selection of options) and demanding the latest as-seen-on-TV thing may be considered your instructions. Somebody's gotta buy this stuff. And if you look at sales figures for American Idol winners after Kelly Clarkson it is obvious somebody's not following directions.

But I'm very happy with eMusic. Here, as much for my benefit in keeping track as for your curiosity, are my March 2008 purchases:

Bikini Kill Pussywhipped
Cat Power eMusic Sessions EP
Dressy Bessy California EP
Gossip Standing in the Way of Control
Gossip The Gossip EP
Heavens To Betsy Calculated
Lucky Soul The Great Unwanted
Ray Wall Band "The X-Men Song"
Sleater-Kinney Dig Me Out
God Damn Doo Wop Band Broken Hearts
Traci Lords "Sunshine" "You Burn Inside of Me"
Portishead "Mourning Air"
Sinead O'Conner "Ode to Billy Joe"
Indelicates America EP
Carter Family "Single Girl, Married Girl"

Friday, March 28, 2008

I'm not getting back in the van until you say we're heavy f'n metal

Joanna Cotten is alt country?

How we get from the title to that, starting with that: the South by Southwest festival/conferance/happening (SXSW) occured in the middle of March in Austin Texas. The event website has links to a bunch of mp3s from bands showcased. The bands are catagorized by date of show, venue, and genre. Most of the classifications make sense to me, but a few do not. For example, Joanna Cotten is listed as alt country.

I first heard Cotten a few months ago while 'following the links' between band web pages. I started with The Pipettes (surprise, huh?) and somehow wound up watching a video of Cotten's "Funkabilly". The title was intriguing, but not so much the song itself. Good listenable radio ready country (which is not my cup of tea), but nothing really out of the ordinary (beyond being listenable - much pop country is not). Why the "alt country" tag? The band list also uses a "country" tag, which seems more suitable.

Perhaps there is commercial or promotional value to the label "alt country". Reaching out to an audience that might take a listen to "alt country" but isn't interested in Top 40 pop country at all (an audience of which I am a member, FWIW).

This is apparently the case with the word "metal". If headbangers have given the world nothing else, at least we got a plethora of "metal" genres and sub-genres to argue about. Visit Wikipedia if you don't believe me. Progressive Metal, Symphonic Metal, Gothic Metal, Folk Metal (I'm a fan of that one), Oriental Metal, Technical Metal, Doom Metal, True Metal, and on. And on. And on. I half expect to encounter Tiki Lounge Easy Listening METAL some day. Thing is, many of the bands described by "whatever" metal are not very ANYTHING metal.

Which is not to say they are bad. One of my current "top 15 or so" bands, The Gathering, is often described using the word metal with either "progressive" or "gothic" in front of it. Not in a million years would I use the word metal to describe that band.

Which brings us to the title of this post. One episode of the British comedy "Comic Strip Presents" features a "mockumentary" about faux metal band Bad News. In one segment band leader Vim Vuego is trying to explain to a journalist that Bad News is "more" than heavy metal. This goes on for several hours. Finally having heard enough, guitarist Den Dennis angrily storms out of the tour van. Vim is shown trying to get Den back on the van, but Den is resolute. He says (I paraphrase here) "I'm not getting back in the van until you say we're heavy f(*@#$n metal". This seems almost a reverse situation to using "metal" where it almost certainly doesn't belong. The scene plays through my head every time I see "whatever" metal.

But isn't it confining to use genre names at all? I argue that it is not. Genre names can be very useful tools. When I say "trad country is OK" or "I like indie pop" ideally, if you are familiar with that genre, you will understand what I'm going on about. That is why the plethora of "metals" and "alts" is frustrating. It takes away the ability to talk about these things in a useful and well-understood way. It more difficult to explore if you don't have landmarks to guide you.

When those landmarks are misleading at best it can be very frustrating. Take for example the "girl group" genre. It is a style I am very enthusiastically a fan of. Words cannot express how much of a letdown it is to hear about a new "girl group", only to discover the latest R&B light neo-disco American Idol wannabe ... stuff.

I'm pretty protective of the term "girl group". If it ain't remeniscant of certain early-60s pop styles - it ain't girl group.

Even if it is a group of gals.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Because The Night

I like cover versions quite a bit. At best they can reveal unemphasized aspects of the original. Take Rasputina's cover of Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here". The sense of melancholy is almost palpable, a mood present in the original but not nearly so ... heavy. Of course there is also a worse case, where the cover actually detracts from the original version.

I generally like to keep things positive around here, so for the first batch of covers I look at we'll start with one of my favorite songs: "Because The Night". This track off Patti Smith's 1978 album Easter was originally written by Bruce Springsteen and given by him to Smith when the two were recording in adjoining studio spaces. Smith rewrote the song's typically Springsteenian blue collar workingman lyrics to emphasize the relationship in the song over the protagonists. (The Wikipedia entry for the song claims this is a 'females' perspective, but there is nothing in the lyrics themselves to support this assertion.) There are numerous covers of this justifiably well-known song. Let's look at a few. Not all are great, but none really that bad.

10,000 Maniacs

This live version from "MTV Unplugged" is probably the most famous cover of "Because The Night", so well-known in fact that many believe that 10,000 maniacs did the original! This version adds little to the Smith version beyond an acoustic arrangement, but Natalie Merchant's vocals more that make up for that. Her voice has a sultry, almost smouldering quality that fits the song very well.

FULL DISCLOSURE: My opinion of Natalie Merchant probably colors the above sentiments quite a bit.

Alphabet Girls

We go from a sultry cover to one that is anything but. "Because The Night" is a passionate song which requires a passionate delivery. So one would think this nearly antiseptic cover would not get praise from me.

One would be wrong, then. This cover achieves the rare trick of being passionately dispassionate. The tension between the lyrical passion and almost lackadaisical delivery adds an interesting dimension to the song. The instruments mirror the vocal delivery - the clean, synthetic beat one would expect. Don't let labels like "synthpop" and "electronica" fool you - this is disco.

SKAdandalous All-Stars

From passionate vocal delivery to oddly dispassionate vocals, and now to NO vocals. The SKAndalous All-Stars are a, well, all star group of musicians from the New York ska scene. There are no vocals on this track. What we are left with is essentially muzak. This cover would feel at home in elevators around the world. Hip elevator music, but elevator music none the less.

What I'm Missing

What I'm Missing is not a band name, rather the place where I talk about some versions of a song that are out there but that I don't have yet.

Of course it would be interesting to hear the song performed as originally written. Although only 'committed to vinyl (CD?)' once, on Live 1975-1985, many live recordings of Springsteen performing "Because The Night" are floating around, several in fact being video clips on YouTube. If I was more than interested in passing it would not be that difficult to add to my collection, but I'm not really that horribly interested.

I am horribly interested in the cover by Kim Wilde from the various artists album Philharmonia. This was only released in Germany and it has been difficult to find a copy. You'd think with the vaunted global nature of the Internet it would be much easier to find. Actually, I was able to track down a copy for sale.

In Australia.

(No, not Austria. Unlike our president, I'm not confused by the two names.)

Friday, March 14, 2008

Bass Girls Directory

You may notice a new link over on the left in the 'Browse' section. I read an article in the local arts paper the other day about Steve Malkmus and the Jicks. I found it interesting that the entire rhythm section - bass and drums - is female.

When I thought about it, that wasn't unknown, even outside bands like Sleater-Kinney or the Runaways. Off the top of my head I could think of Talking Heads' Tina Weymouth, and ... uh ... others I can't recall right now.

I stumbled across while I was trying to fill out the obvious gaps in my knowledge. It's a good resource when looking in to this kind of question. Plus, say what you want about 'girls with guitars' - I'll take bass!

Especially intriguing are gals playing good ol' rockabilly slap bass on an upright.

But that is a much rarer thing.

So I did the logical thing and started a list.

I won't share it yet. Right now a piddly little four names are all I have. Unlike my attempted list of 'female metal vocalists', which rapidly grew to an unmanageable size, this one shows no threat of spiralling out of a controllable state.

More on both lists later.

Monday, March 10, 2008

35 Years Ago Today

And this time no fudging the numbers. No 'around 35' or '35ish'. It actually was 35 years ago today.

March 10, 1973, Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon was released in the United States.

I'm not going to bother with a review or commentary or anything. Listening to that album is pretty much part of basic cultural knowledge.

So if you haven't heard it in a while, today would be a good day to give it a spin.

Wizard of Oz viewing optional.

Saturday, March 8, 2008


Just got a chance to hear the song "Four Minutes", off Madonna's forthcoming Hard Candy. Didn't like it much at all.

Not because I don't usually listen to this kind of Top 40 dance stuff, although you wouldn't necessarily guess that from the material I've talked about so far. So if it's not my usual cuppa, why did I bother, you might ask?

Well, two reasons. I sort started listening to music heavily just prior to Madonna becoming a known star. Whether I tried to or not, I ended up hearing a lot of Madonna. And second, I rather like her vocals. Her 'not as bassy as you think' style intrigues me.

Which points to the problem with "Four Minutes". For a Madonna song, there is precious little Madonna not buried in the mix. The production does not do her any favors. Rather the near-frantic rhythm is the centerpiece. Maybe this is what producer Timbaland is known for. I dunno. Again, not my cuppa. Don't know that I've ever heard anything he produced before.

If I'm listening to a Madonna song I want to hear Madonna, not a drum machine. I'll be sticking to the 'classics' (roughly pre-1990).

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Where are the MP3s?

You probably noticed there are no sound files on this blog.

There are two reasons. The first is purely practical. I just don't have access to the space I would need for long-term storage. There are options out there, but they all require more investment than I am willing to make or are otherwise inadequate. I find trying to download a mp3 and getting a file expired message instead very frustrating. I have no desire to 'prune' what readers have access to.

The second is also practical. The companies supporting the RIAA's War On Music Fans have not, as yet, to the best of my knowledge, targeted folks linking to files posted by the artists performing the songs themselves. But what if they did? And what if they go after folks who link to a site with inadvertant (rather than malicious) violations? Given the climate of fear the recording industry fuels I don't have confidence that either of these scenarios will be handled in any sensible or reasonable fashion.

I have no desire to become a casuality as the industry continues desperately to try to push the genie back in the bottle.

I'm just a fan.

Monday, March 3, 2008

It Was 20 Years Ago ...

... today.

No, not really. And the '20 years' part is a bit off, to. Twentyish years ago some unspecified time is more like it.

Or we could just go with last week.

Last week I was browsing eMusic by decade - probably 70% of my collection dates between the early and mid-80s - and came across not one, but TWO albums I intended to purchase back in the day but never had gotten around to buying.

Both are concept albums. Not albums with a half-baked storyline, but albums written with an idea behind them.

Laibach - Opus Dei

Consolidated! have a track named "Industrial Music Is Fascism". They may have had this album in mind. Laibach have been accused of both far-right and far-left sympathies. The band has always denied either. The music is, of a sort, performance art.

My favorite tracks on the album are both covers. Queen's "One Vision" gets reconstructed as "Geburt Einer Nation". Australian arena rock outfit Opus' "Live is Life" gets the Laibach treatment in the title track "Opus Dei".

'The Laibach treatment' consists of orchestral swells, bombastic percussion, and vocals not so much sung as croaked. Not really what I usually listen to, and it does wear thin by the end of the album. As an examination of the spooky similarities between the crowds at a national socialist rally in 1936 and the crowds at an arena rock show in our modern 'more enlightened' era it works very well.

Will Powers - Dancing For Mental Health

And now for something completely different.

Don't use all your energy goosestepping. You'll need some for dancing when you put Will Powers' record on your turntable. Or CD in your player. Whatever.

As a bonus you'll be improving your life. Becoming the 'you' you want to be. Simply dance and let the music do the work.

The central concept behind Dancing For Mental Health is to take pop-psych platitudes and put them to an electronic dance beat. Vocals are handled by photographer Lynn Goldsmith with a synthesizer-altered androgynous voice. Guest vocals come from luminaries such as Carly Simon and Todd Rundgren.

The standout track is "Adventures In Success". Daily affirmations set to good old-fasioned synthpop.

It just might change your life.