Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Dr. Dog - Shame, Shame

Standing on top of the clouds, looking down on the land below in contemplative peace would be the proper way to listen to “Unbearable Why,” one of the best songs on Dr. Dog’s new album. Though lead vocalist Scott McMicken’s falsetto warns that the eye of the storm approaches, swirling double harmonies and minimalist 4-chord piano plunking seep into a breezy ‘60s beach vibe. As the Philadelphia-based quintet switches to a new record label and feels the mounting pressures of touring, Shame, Shame takes a few turns for the melancholy. McMicken wrote the laid-back “Shadow People” as he grew exhausted of the quirky characters and places in West Philly. Troubles and ashamed confessions culminate into a huddled cry on the title track, an emotional catharsis where the vocals ooze with honesty and the bass drips with sadness. Lines like "I used to wander the streets at midnight/avoiding any signs of life" paint a grim picture. Yet, in traditional Dr. Dog fashion, layers of gooey reverb, feel-good guitar riffs, and playful hi-hat overshadow the doom. In the band’s first try at recording outside their home studio, Shame, Shame has more polish. The airy, thrown-together vibe remains, and it’s as enjoyable as ever.


Um, I'm sorry, but HOW DID I NOT KNOW THAT ELLIOTT SMITH ALSO PLAYED MUSIC IN A BAND? And Brendan Benson opened for them on tour? Oh sweet mother of music worship shrine kingdom royalty! If only I was older than 9 years when this was happening... the things I missed...

Someone fill me in, and quick.

Monday, March 29, 2010

My Heart Crushing Love for Dogs, Doctors, etc.

I'm listening to Dr. Dog's newest album, Shame, Shame. I was really quite happy with their relationship with Park the Van records, and although I have to admit that I'm not in the band or conducting any of the business of album releases, I'm upset with their new relationship with Anti- Records. It feels like traitorship to me, mostly because Park the Van feels like they are my best friend, and Anti- feels like they are my dad's sleazy friend who's trying to have sex with me. (Not that this is happening in real life, like, at all, but you know.)

One shallow reason that I am upset with Anti is that they fail to provide me with a digital or physical copy of the album. Their stream doesn't even work. So I'm listening to the new album on Grooveshark. Thank god for semi-illegal music websites.

Reading this Under the Radar write-up on Shame, Shame, I also feel like the band was forced into recording in a "real" studio, and pressured to adopt a style that wasn't completely and totally "theirs."

Politics. You know when your life is inconsequential when:
-Dr. Dog signing to a new label is as dramatic as your aggressive hate for all Americans opposed to health care reform. I want true, unforced music! And I want to not lose my left eyeball by this time next year! Remember, it is a tragedy to be young and uninsured.


Despite any kind of drama I mentioned (and really dreamed up out of thin air) above, this album is the epitome of HI-i-want-to-listen-to-you-all-day! It's the "let's pull up a lounge chair!" type of music. And an album where you can simultaneously reflect about life's disappointments and its simple pleasures. Melodies swirl perfectly, and time stops, and all you can do is curl up or sprawl out and take a very deep breath. Just stop what you are doing.

"Unbearable Why" is a particular favorite of mine. After a few listens, I'm still trying to pinpoint why it stands out to me. There is this three chord piano plunking - plunk, plunk, plunk. Very simple stuff, almost an Asian minimalism to it. Then they have these two-part harmonies about clouds that literally sound so airy that you are in the clouds, staring down at earth, through the fluffy fuzz you're standing on. Did you ever play N64's Yoshi's Story? (Yeah, I was the target audience for sissy video games.) It's like you are Yoshi, and you're on the clouds, and there is a friendly dragon that you have to jump onto before you can eat more eggs and make Yoshi fatter. The guitars are massively peaceful, and the electric riffs add just enough edge to this powdery goodness.

The title track borrows My Morning Jacket's Jim James for a few harmonies. (Sidenote: James is who got the word out about Dr. Dog - after he heard Toothbrush, their second album, he took them on tour.) (Sidenote 2: Jim James is everywhere!) Melancholy drips from the bass. I love this line - "I used to wander the streets at midnight/avoiding any signs of life." All of lead singer Scott McMicken's troubles and ashamed confessions culminate into a huddled cry, an emotional catharsis that oozes honesty and avoids self-importance.

I love how McMicken describes "Shadow People" - "This one apartment I was living in, I felt like I was stuck in the insane heart of West Philly. It’s a weird, insular little community, and there’s a lot going on and a lot of crazy, flamboyant characters and a lot of porch life and coffee shops. But for me, it was kind of overwhelming, and I had overextended myself into the lives of a lot of wacky people, because those are the type of people that I gravitate towards the most."

It reminds me of my trip to Los Angeles, where one person was quirkier than the next, and everyone was living out some kind of dream, stylishly and not without risk. It seems like such a romantic notion to me.

Every piece of music that Dr. Dog crafts has the romance for me. Simple enough to leave playing, yet layered and complex enough to reflect upon, I'm going to go ahead and say that my love for these Philadelphians will continue. I'm not going to listen to this album over and over again. But every month or so, when my Dr. Dog craving returns, Shame, Shame will be a welcome addition to my ever unquenchable thirst for music that makes me feel like I'm in the 60s, on the beach.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings - I Learned the Hard Way

Sharon Jones makes music the way it’s supposed to be made, with an eight-track tape machine and a voice that fills the gaping holes in your stomach with a fullness that leaves no room for fluff. The thick, soulful yearning that oozes from her vocal chords is only further enhanced by a backing band that plays horns with saucy, polished verve. While the Rock Hall celebrates the beginnings of Philly soul, Jones is busy creating a second movement. The band’s fourth album, I Learned the Hard Way, kicks off with “The Game Gets Old,” a smooth number that chugs along with all the charms found in old Stax records – a grand, sweeping introduction, brassy flourishes, and the casual sway of rhythm. We’re reminded of the past but also forced back into the present with “Money,” where Jones squeals and screams, “I’m hungry and tired, but my money’s all spent/money, where have you gone to?” The Dap-Kings are best when fired up; attitude explodes from “She Ain’t a Child No More” and the title track. I Learned the Hard Way is not a throwback, but a modern re-thinking of old soul.

A Night of Many Concerts

I was supposed to go to two different concerts last night, and I made it to neither. I guess some might call it old age; I prefer to call it "sickness prevention." Going on limited sleep for the past couple of weeks, I just needed a break from being hip. (We all know how cool I am, yeah? My love for unicorns and Oscar Wilde gives it away, I think. Hrmmph.)

So yeah, I was supposed to see some locals at the Grog Shop. I had also promised a friend I'd check out the Temper Trap at the the HOB's Cambridge Room.

At the risk of sounding reeeallly old, and ever more peculiar, (I don't use a cane yet, but that time will come) I'm going to throw out a blanket statement: out of both of the concerts I was supposed to see, I would have preferred to swap with my parents. They went downtown to the Moondog Coronation Ball. While they were watching the 70-year-old members of The Turtles, Paul Revere + the Raiders, and Little Anthony and the Imperials, all the hip young kids were missing out.

I guarantee that the old people fest out-funned any of my other options for the night. When you've got a slew of sweet-ass old musicians (including the keyboardist from the Cars, I must mention), and a slew of sweet-ass old people in the crowd, that just can't be beat. I would have loved to say that I was the youngest baby in the audience, watching those masters at work.

In the end, I ate a bowl of chicken noodle soup and hung out around the house while my sister and her friends played drinking games to The Room. It was one of those nights - the ones where you wish you grew up in the 60s and 70s, before Tommy Wiseau was making awful soft-core porn movies and before local bands with emo haircuts tried to sweep 12 year olds off their feet.

I mean, really, swooning over bowl-cuts must have been so much classier. No?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Best Thing I've Seen All Day

Ben Folds, singing to chatroulette folks. On toilets.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Soft Pack - Answer to Yourself

I read a lot about the Soft Pack nowadays. They are all over the internetz, all over Paste, and all over my face. (K, that was a lie.) But really, the one thing I read most is: "... bs... bs... bs... They used to be called The Muslims, but changed their name for obvious reasons.... bs.... bs... bs..."

Yeah, whatever.

The important thing to know about the Soft Pack is really this: "Answer to Yourself" is the best song you'll hear in weeks. It's got all the classy elements of a solid rock song: great, simple chords, a just-distorted-enough vibe, and a whole lot of power. Oh, and what a chorus. And another reference to dying before realizing dreams (Japandroids much?). Let's put it this way: during my 5:30am jog (I sm crazy), I played it on repeat, and might have started headbanging (just a little - I mean, there were people around). Then I ate an entire pizza.

Again, point is: rock out. This song is simple, and it's solid, and it immediately caught my ear. It will catch yours too, if you let it.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Q & A with Daniel Martin Moore

Sub Pop sent me an album by Daniel Martin Moore and Ben Sollee about a month ago. It's called Dear Companion. Popping in the album with no expectations - I'd never heard of either of these guys before - I was overwhelmed by its sound. I was brought back home to Appalachia, where I'd spent the previous four years of my life. Not only is the music beautiful, but it's touching. The proceeds for the album all go to bringing awareness to mountaintop removal mining, a horrible environmental clustercuss that you hear about in the news every day (if you live in that region).

A noble cause, sure, but if the music stunk, I wouldn't listen. Not the case. The album reaches from good ol' Appalachian folk to singer-songwriter (think Mason Jennings, Jack Johnson, Matt Costa) to absolutely gorgeous instrumentals ("Wilson Creek," holy crap). You can listen to the whole album, streaming on their site.

I did a little interview with Daniel Martin Moore, and if you're in the good old land of Cleve like I am, I suggest you make it out to the show - in two days - March 11th at the Beachland Tavern.

How did you and Ben find each other to team up for Dear Companion?

Myspace - can you believe it? Ben heard the song “Flyrock Blues," and sent me an email about meeting up the next time I came through Lexington, where he lives. I had just scheduled an in-store at CD Central, their indie record store, for the next week. So, we had a good long talk about music and Kentucky, and that conversation laid the whole foundation for this record and tour. Chalk it all up to the modern world.

What first brought up the issue of mountaintop removal? Did you know from the start that album proceeds would go to Appalachian Voices to halt MTR?

It was something that we were both thinking a lot about, and writing about, and we both felt and still feel that it's too much of a hidden cost of the way we all live. Chalk that up to the modern world, too. ‘Cause MTR is not only poisoning people and destroying land, it's also destroying our cultural heritage. When our homeland is gone, we lose the place and the community that gives us our identity. We wanted to make sure that as many folks found out about it as possible. We hadn't settled on a group to partner with yet, but as time went on, it became apparent that Appalachian Voices was the one. They have powerful tools and knowledge freely available on their website, www.ilovemountains.org, and do more to raise awareness than any other group.

You grew up in Kentucky, where I’m assuming you were surrounded by mountaintop removal. When did you first discover what it was, and what was your reaction?

The first time i really connected the dots was when I heard the Jean Ritchie song, "Black Waters." I can remember, as a child, seeing MTR sites, but I've never actually lived under one. I have the same reaction to MTR as I'm sure most everybody does - it's just colossal in scale, a cleverly planned yet seemingly careless feat of engineering that is hard to justify when all the fallout is taken into account.

Do all the songs on the album pertain specifically to the mountaintop issue? Many of the lyrics sounded like they could be love songs and speak to much broader world issues.

We see the record as being many things. For one, it's a love letter to Appalachia and the traditions we've all grown up with, and the music and culture that has nurtured us. But it's also a letter to the rest of the country, asking for attention and for help. Some of the tunes, like “Flyrock Blues,” are specifically about MTR. Whereas a song like Ben's “Something, Somewhere, Sometime” is more about how we got to this point of literally destroying ourselves in order to consume as much as possible, and more and more all the time.

Tell us about the inspiration behind the album’s title track.

We wrote the song “Dear Companion” after reading a letter written by a miner who had died after being trapped in a mine collapse. It was addressed to his wife, 'Dear Ellenor' (he repeated that greeting over and over again) and was basically saying goodbye and expressing his love for his family, and his deep sadness that he wouldn't see them again. We saw the parallels for all of central Appalachia, and wanted to write a letter, as if to say, "we have been forsaken, are bearing this tremendous burden for you, are you paying attention?"

I can hear a distinct difference between the songs you wrote, and the ones Ben wrote. How would you describe what you bring to the team?

Just another voice and perspective, I hope. That is the beauty and one of the great joys of this project: that the three of us [Yim Yames, better known as My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, produced the album] came together, each from a different place, both musically and literally. We came from a different spot in Kentucky, and crafted these tunes, each bringing our own styles and ideas to the table. As a musician, that kind of collaboration is such a great feeling.

What's Yim Yames like? Was he a super-genius music explorer? What was it like working with him?

Yep, he is all of those things. Plus he plays a mean blues solo, and knows his way around the ol’ block. But he rebukes me repeatedly for not having a beard and for not using a, quote, "real man's tuner." So I really don't like to discuss him. But I will say that he brought so much to the record, and the reason it sounds the way it sounds is due in large measure to his generous spirit and intuitive musical nature. And his blues solos.

What can we expect when you stop through Cleveland on tour?

A real old-fashioned good time! We're gonna be playing all the tunes from Dear Companion as well as a few from each of our solo records, along with some new covers. The wonderful Cheyenne Marie is with us, and we also have another incredible musician, Dan Dorff, pulling double-duty as both percussionist and keyboardist. You already know how great Ben Sollee is. Everybody at the show will be having a good time – you can count on it.

She & Him - Volume Two

Zooey Deschanel isn’t exactly unpredictable. We heard it back in the day in “Elf,” again this year in “(500) Days of Summer,” and with M. Ward in ’08. It is her vocal style – timeless, saccharine-sweet, and void of any of that whiney crap you get with almost every female pop star today (Miley, we’re talking to you). Combine the Hollywood starlet with M. Ward, one of the most talented songwriters and producers around, and you have She & Him. Their combination is as winning this time as it was on their debut, Volume One. The second volume can be summed up with “Over and Over Again,” a charming 60’s girl group tune with “ooh la la la” back-up vocals, innocent piano plunking, and a beat built for cutesy side choreography. Deschanel’s no Diana Ross, but the Supremes would have loved this song. Ward and Deschanel’s “Gonna Get Along Without You Now,” a Skeeter Davis cover, is an instant classic. The duo reach their cuteness quota on “Lingering Still,” a terrifying beach vacation number with so much pedal steel that you won’t be able to hold down your pina colada. Still, this album is an absolute gem – the kind of record you’ll smile through “over and over again.”

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Lost Elefant

Cleaning out my room today, (oh traveling, if only you didn't require constant packing and unpacking of a suitcase...) I decided to listen to Eagles of Death Metal. One of my favorite songs of the past few years just has to be "Wannabe in LA" for it's bad-ass attitude and cowbell percussion. Freakin' Josh Homme. (If you don't know this band, it doesn't sound like death metal - ugh - or The Eagles - double ugh. It sounds like pure sex.)

And this Thursday, I'm going to LA!

That's beside the point.

From Eagles of Death Metal, I scrolled down to ELO, where I proceeded to clean my room to some fantastic brilliance of 80s synth weirdo beauty. I mistakenly like ELO a lot. It's a mistake because 80s music usually turns me off. ELO turns me on, and that's bothersome, but somehow OK.

The point of this story is coming:

I scrolled again. This time to a band called Elefant. Do you remember them? They came out of NYC and disappeared as soon as they arrived. They were on The OC, like all other one-hit-wonder indie bands of the early 2000s. Yet Elefant is a different scenario in my brain. I used to listen to their full-length debut, Sunlight Makes Me Paranoid, on repeat. At the time, I would have ranked them among Franz Ferdinand, The Strokes, and Interpol. They are bass-tastic, and every song is ridiculously catchy. Dude has the best lazy-scowl vocals. Solid song construction, solid production, great album.

Yet I forgot about them as quickly as I learned of them. Here's a post to Elefant. I'm bringing them back into my life. Bring them into yours. Start with "Misfit."