Monday, June 27, 2005

Song of the Week 6/24/05

Eisley - "I Wasn't Prepared"

Over the two and a half years I've been doing the Song of the Week, no track has just missed the cut as much as this one. I've listened to both recordings of it many times for over two years, yet another song would always seem to raise its head up above it. After listening to it each day last week in anticipation of their show Friday night at Bowery Ballroom, I decided its time had come.

I first heard "I Wasn't Prepared" when it appeared on Eisley's debut EP, 2003's Laughing City. At the time I thought the piano-driven song was a nice and intriguing ballad, good enough to make it onto a mix of new stuff I made for a trip up to Boston in the fall of that year. I was pretty sure it was a sad song, most likely about lost love, even though I couldn't figure out what the heck the lyrics were about. Yet something seemed to be missing from the song, something I couldn't quite put my finger on.

The second time I heard it was this February when Eisley's full-length debut, Room Noises, was released. After one listen, I knew what was missing in its original recording--some road experience. In this version the playing was more confident, the harmonies between the two female singers were up from great to absolutely spine-tingling and the overall production finally matched the quality of the song. Quite simply, this new version of "I Wasn't Prepared" knocked me out. Of course, I had no idea how inexperienced the band was to begin with. As I read the bio that came with the disc, I was stunned to find out that these two great voices came from 20-year-old guitarist Sherri Dupree and 16-year-old keyboardist Stacy Dupree. So that's what they sounded a bit more experienced two years later.

The whole Eisley story is truly fascinating: The Tyler, Texas band consists of four siblings (along with one close friend) who were home-schooled by their parents; the group got off the ground when the other guitar-playing sister Chauntelle at the age of 14 (she's now 22) discovered Radiohead's OK Computer; the band played their first gigs in Christian bookstores; and they took their name from a space port in the original Star Wars. It's amazing to me that more music magazines haven't written about how crazy it is that this band got discovered by Coldplay's management and got signed to a major label.

Back at the end of March Moria the concert pal and I went to see Eisley open for New Found Glory at that hell hole Webster Hall. I must admit I was nervous going in because I thought the Dupree girls' harmonies were somehow manufactured in the studio. After one song, I knew that wasn't the case. And when they did "I Wasn't Prepared," I got another surprise--these two traded off verses during the song. And oh, they sang it so well and sounded so sad I was genuinely moved. (And then genuinely felt like a dirty old man thinking how young they are.)

Friday the concert pal and I checked out Eisley's first headline show in New York, and once again "I Wasn't Prepared" was the highlight of the set. And yet, even after all the times I have listened to the album version (31 times by my Itunes count) and the original EP version, I still don't understand these lyrics:

"Oh, when the day is blue
I'll sit here wondering about you
and how the pollen fell
All around your face in strange yellow patterns

But, I wasn't prepared for this
Oh, I wasn't prepared for this

When the morning came
The bees flew down and
Wrapped themselves around me
and that's when i spoke the word
To have them trace your face for me in pollen

But, I wasn't prepared for this
Oh, I wasn't prepared for this

Come, come back to me, my, my darling
Come, come back to me, my, my darling

I wasn't prepared for this
Oh, I wasn't prepared for this

When the day is blue
I'll sit here wondering about you"

They're sad--that's obvious. So was the subject of the song taken away by bees? Are these two young girls afraid of bees? Aren't these girls a bit young to be writing such great songs? And why do I like a band that I am old enough (seriously) to be their father? I wasn't prepared to feel this old.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Song of the Week 4/1/05 UPDATE

So this is odd, no doubt about it.

R.E.M.'s "World Leader Pretend" was Song of the Week over two months ago, and I wrote about how there was a new band called World Leader Pretend releasing an EP on R.E.M.'s long-time label, Warner Bros. Over the past few weeks I've been hearing some really good cuts from World Leader Pretend on the World Cafe and on the best internet station out there, WOXY.

Last night I went to see Dark New Day and to hang with my friend Jim. He's Dark New Day's publicist and was in town from L.A. for a couple of days to handle some press things with them. (Full disclosure: I am one of those "press things," as I am interviewing them later today for work.) Jim works for Warner Bros and...(wait for it)...I discovered is also World Leader Pretend's publicist. I told him that I wrote about the band's EP two months ago, and he told me their full length album was due out next week. I thought to myself, "Cool, another good record to look forward to in the mail."

Flash forward to this morning: I step out of the shower, and what song do I hear on WFUV? Yup, "World Leader Pretend."

I told you it was kind of odd.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Song of the Week 6/17/05

Soul Asylum - "Sometime to Return"

Karl rocks, at Rock for Karl

In my “day job” as a “music journalist” I’ve had to write a few obituaries for rock musicians that have died before their time was up. I’ve finished most of them pretty easily, perhaps with the occasional joke or two (because we’re sarcastic bastards in the media ya know) before moving on to write about the latest dumb shit Fred Durst or The Offspring or Dave Matthews Band did that day.

But once in a while I end up having to write about a musician that’s gone too early (George Harrison, Elliott Smith, 3/4 of the Ramones) whose songs have played a large part in my life. That’s the case with Karl Mueller of Soul Asylum. Mueller died Friday morning at the age of 41 (or 42, depending on whose obit you believe) after a year-long battle with throat cancer.

I only met Mueller once, at a post-show meet-and-greet in Syracuse in early 1993. He seemed to be the least likely “rock star” in the room. He sat there on a couch, pretty much minding his business and letting Dan Murphy and Dave Pirner deal with the small group of fans in the dressing room (there was less than 10 of us, as this was many months before “Runaway Train”). He seemed happier than anyone in the room, content with the memory of a great show they had just played, and the cold beer currently in his hand.

I saw Soul Asylum seven times in my life, and all but one were great shows. Pirner would always flail around with his guitar somewhere down around his knees. Murphy would lay down blistering lead licks and some of the most passionate backing vocals any man could muster. Drummer Grant Young (and later on, Sterling Campbell) would bash away on the drums. And in the middle of it all, holding it together, was Karl Mueller. He wasn’t flashy, but didn’t need to be. His steady playing held things together when the group would do a 10 minute medley of 70s covers or a blistering 90 second version of a Descendents song.

Now you might be wondering why I would waste all this space (and paper, as this was written in my little notebook while drinking a few beers at one of my Brooklyn haunts) on a bass player from a 90s one-hit wonder. Well my friends, Soul Asylum had a life before “Runaway Train” saturated the airwaves and pictures of missing kids became a staple on M-T-V. Soul Asylum rocked, oh they rocked hard, they rocked recklessly and they knew how to make a song that would cause you to scream the chorus at the top of your lungs and pump your fist as if nothing else mattered at that exact moment. So allow me to indulge you with the story of my discovery of one of Minneapolis’ finest acts.

In the summer of 1989 I worked at my FM college station, 92 WICB. The station was kept on 365 days a year because the powers that be thought it was good P.R., so a small staff of students was hired each summer to run the station. When that summer began I knew only about 15% of the “modern rock” that the station had in its library, but I got to hear a bunch of great new albums that first month of being on air six days a week -- Bob Mould’s Workbook, The Pixies' Doolittle, Love and Rockets' self-titled album and Adrian Belew’s Mr. Music Head were all in heavy rotation, and all of them were brand new artists to me. Included in heavy rotation that summer was the Lost Angels soundtrack, which included a new Soul Asylum cut called “Just Plain Evil.” After my first couple of spins of the (gasp!) vinyl I wasn’t that impressed. However, one 92sday (when we played double shots) I grabbed the Soul Asylum album called Hang Time at random and played a song called “Sometime to Return.” I was dumbfounded. How had I missed a song this great? Words fail me when I try to sum up how much this song rocked my world that one late June afternoon 16 years ago. From the low rumble of Mueller’s bass and Murphy and Pirner’s cranked-to-1100 guitars to the words that make no sense most of the time (“Throw away your calendar/And saddle up your salamander”) this song, at that moment, crystallized everything I felt was good about music that summer -- and pretty much for the rest of my life. And Friday night after writing up Mueller's obit, I listened to “Sometime to Return” over and over again, trying to make sense of life, and those lyrics.

People my age (35.6) are getting used to losing some of our older greats (how long will the entry be when Neil Young goes to the harvest in the sky, I wonder), but losing Karl Mueller at such a young age seems like a crime. I think the respect and love that his fellow musicians felt was best summed up by Bob Mould, who reunited with his ex-Hüsker Dü bandmate Grant Hart at a Minneapolis benefit last fall to defray Mueller’s medical costs. Mould told Billboard just last week about the two-song reunion, “Grant got my cell number somehow that afternoon and called me. I said, ‘Sure. This cause is bigger than anything.’”

And how can you not miss a guy that would agree to be slathered in clam dip for an EP cover:

R.I.P. Karl -- we hope your time here brought as much joy to you as it did to us.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Song of the Week 6/10/05

Spoon - “My Mathematical Mind”

Have I mentioned that the new Spoon album, Gimme Fiction, is one of the best of this year? Oh wait, I did right here. This week I got my first chance to see Austin’s best export since that famous public T-V show, and they certainly didn’t disappoint. Britt Daniel and company blazed through a set of tight, muscular songs that were great exercises in the old cliché “less is more.” In another band’s hands, songs like “Sister Jack” or “The Way We Get By” would have a lot more flourishes and instruments added on top. But Spoon have learned to break down all their songs to the bare essentials -- one great riff (either on piano or a lone guitar) matched up with great drumming and a perfect use of various percussion.

I spent every commute this week listening to Spoon albums, adding 1998’s A Series of Sneaks to the I-Pod when it came in from Amazon on Monday and playing 2002’s Kill the Moonlight at work repeatedly before Wednesday’s show after picking it up on a record shopping adventure Tuesday night. And while I played those two as much as possible, I kept coming back to Gimme Fiction, particularly “My Mathematical Mind.” A five minute song with no chorus that sounds like the same eight seconds of piano and guitar interplay over and over doesn’t seem to be a winning combination for a song, yet these guys somehow make it work. It's as if the band decided that getting the song down to its essential elements required dropping out that last chord that would bring a natural resolution at the end. Spoon closed their main set with it Wednesday night, a perfect placement for a tune that doesn’t seem to end -- I believe it stops because it’s too tense to continue.

Matthew Perpetua of the great Fluxblog was at the same show, and he and I must have been on the same wavelength Thursday morning as he wrote a great piece about the song as well. He also posted a live version of the song from Willie Nelson’s Songs for Tsunami Relief: Austin to South Asia benefit album, which is worth picking up. And have you bought Gimme Fiction yet? What the heck are you waiting for?

Monday, June 06, 2005

Song of the Week 6/3/05

Graham Parker and The Figgs - "Dislocated Life"

"Dislocated Life" is one of the many fine tracks on Songs of No Consequence, the first studio effort from Graham Parker and the Figgs. I've written many, many times about The Figgs over the past 11 years, so I think I'll let G.P. himself tell the story about how this album came to be:

Thoughts of Chairman Parker

"Dislocated Life" was the first track that grabbed me on the album, and Friday night at Maxwell's in Hoboken, New Jersey G.P. and The Figgs (with added guitarist Brett Rosenberg, who G.P. called "the Figg du jour") played an absolutely killer version of the song that brought yells from the crowd before it was even done. That's pretty good for a tune which the majority of the audience had never heard before. Songs of No Consequence is in stores tomorrow, and I encourage everyone that likes bitter and cutting lyrics matched up with some great power-pop to buy it.

And if you're in the New York area, G.P. and the Figgs will be at the Knitting Factory Saturday night. Show starts at 7pm. I'll be the guy up front, rocking out.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

RT20 Special Report: Music on the Brain

I read a fascinating piece in the New York Times on Tuesday. It discussed how researchers had begun to pinpoint where, as the headline said, "New Love Sears the Brain." Discovering that a specific part of my brain--one that was completely separate from the part that controls the desire for sex--had caused me such intense pain over the years made me want to grab a sledgehammer, crack open my own coconut and extract that tiny section of brain matter.

But besides inspiring the desire to make myself a vegetable, the article got me pondering about other parts of my brain--specifically the ones that control this all-consuming passion for music I've had most of my life. So I did a little research, and came up with the following diagram:

I’ve identified the 22 parts of the brain that deal with my musical pursuits. Here is what each of these numbers on the diagram mean:

1) Matsdate - Inspires devotion to drunken musicians from Minneapolis.

2) Beatlegotta - The first area to develop in the brain pursues short hooky songs.

3) Discothalamus - Another area that develops early taste for dance music, which goes away as a person gets older, only to come back with a vengeance in the late 20s.

4) Mouldulla Oblongata - Inspires devotion to gay Minneapolis singer-songwriters.

5) Posterior Figgsa - This part of the brain controls an almost psychotic devotion to bands from upstate New York.

6) Brain Jam - Located near the bottom of the brain, this portion of the brain causes the love of neo-hippie rock, but stops growing at the age of 19 and shrinks over time.

7) Vedder Plexus - Controls the obsessive collection of all things Pearl Jam-related.

8) Dylanbellum - Inspires devotion to the world greatest songwriter from Minneapolis, even through his born-again albums.

9) Cerebral Wilco Fluid - This fluid needs to be replaced before the release of albums by bands based in Chicago.

10) Pettytuitary Gland - A small gland where all the words to "American Girl" are stored.

11) Quadro Fossa - A very mysterious part of the brain, it controls how much a person likes rock operas by British bands.

12) Cuomo Chasm - The junction where all the power-pop loving parts of the brain meet.

13) Asylum Region - Inspires devotion to Minneapolis rockers who date famous actresses.

14) Gravel Tissue - Controls how much one listens to bands from New Haven.

15) Come On Come On Callosum - This fiber deep in the brain enables one to sing all the words to Cheap Trick's first three albums.

16) Hawk Cord - Connects the brain to the rest of the body, and alt-country bands from Minneapolis.

17) Fresh Fellows Fossa - The obsessive part of the brain, which focuses on singles and compilations of Seattle bands.

18) Buffalo Ganglia - A small part of the brain that likes drinking and trios from Boston.

19) Private Eyes Optic Chasm - Another nerve area that connects to the eyes, which allows a person to see Philadelphia blue-eyed soul.

20) Costello Nerves - This part of the optic nerve makes one wear geeky glasses and like smart-ass lyrics.

21) The Neilstem - Linked to a love of quirky Canadian singer-songwriters

22) Zappa Tentorium - This flap of tissue keeps lyrics like "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow" away from other, more serious parts of the brain.

So there you have it. Next week, maybe I can figure out the other half of my brain that likes beer and baseball.