Asobi Seksu’s latest album, Hush, is releasing February 17 on Polyvinyl Records. Here’s the first single, “Me & Mary”.
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Brutal. Even for a die hard Midwesterner like myself, January weather in Chicago has been brutal this year. So brutal that I find myself wrestling with the winds and bitters of Chicago sidewalks to make my weekly treks to local record stores. Falling over sheets of ice, dirty salty air, and a need to walk hunched to avoid all but the sidewalk just in front of my next fearless step. Yep. It’s been this bad.
I have found myself dodging some current releases in order to refresh my record collection of some lost, classic American songwriting. Today’s picks were a pair of purely American originals. Tom Waits and The Band tell stories we’ve all heard before, but each give us perspective and point of view demonstrating a rich palette of Americana. I speak to albums from each artist/group: Tom Waits Franks Wild Years (sic) and The Band The Band.
Tom Waits, Franks Wild Years
Tom Waits’ 1987 release is the music he co-wrote with his wife Kathleen Brennan. The songs became the basis for the play of the same name; performed in1986 by Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company. The album is pure Tom Waits and I’m shocked I have never spent the time listening to the entirety of the album. It is a record that demonstrates Waits’ flexibility as a songwriter. A song like “Hang on St. Christopher” is a staple in the Waits’ catalogue, but experiments on the two versions of “Straight to the Top” demonstrate musical moxie that harkens back to Leonard Cohen and Irving Berlin more than anything contemporary to Waits. Typical of Waits’ albums, he borrows from his previous albums in songs like the previously named “Hang on St. Christopher” and “Telephone Call from Istanbul” that fit in line with some of his previous experiments in 1986’s album Rain Dogs (incidentally, the title of the album is a nod to an early song of the same name on his 1983 release Swordfishtrombones), but gently massaging his listener in different experimental directions in the songs “I’ll Take New York” and “Blow Wind Blow”. Franks Wild Years is a masterful touch from one of America’s greatest songwriters to ever grace us with his presence. Truly, a man who can write a song like “Straight to Vegas” and then three songs later (and on the same side of the record) share a song like “Cold Cold Ground” where Tom laments “Take the weathervane rooster / Throw rocks at his head / Stop talking to the neighbors / Til we all go dead / Beware of my temper / And the dog I’ve found / Break all the windows in the cold, cold ground.” shows dexterity that is pure talent, shockingly beautiful in its execution.
The Band, The Band
I always have found it interesting that The Band’s second, self-titled album was a more commercially and financially accepted album on its release date than compared to their previous album, 1968’s Music From the Big Pink. The Band is a little more evenly arranged. There is a definite sense that Robbie Robertson (that’s J.R. Robertson to you and me) had a vision to the development of the track’s order and subsequent arrangement. However, I have always been more emotionally drawn to Music From the Big Pink because of exactly why The Band’s second album is so credited; because Big Pink is so uneven and spontaneous. With this being said, The Band is a beautiful collection of songs that paints a visionary tale of Americana. The first track “Across the Great Divide” sets the album in motion. Robertson’s invitation to “Grab your hat, and take that ride” calls out the listener to sit back and ride through the backroads of Americana. The pace is continued through Reconstruction Dixie in “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, continued in the songs “Up on Cripple Creek” and “Look Out Cleveland”. Each demonstrates narratives about the people and events that shaped the complicated history of America. As I listen to the album for the first time in a long while, I am reminded in how well The Band told the Oral History of an America forgotten at the end of the commercially successful “Summer of Love”.
So that was my weekly venture to the record stacks of Dave Records on Clark and Wellington in Chicago. Without a doubt, bitterly cold days are not the norm around Chicago, but I’ll remind those who regret setting up their shacks in the Midwest that the cold days do not prevent us from heading out, grabbing some records, and returning home to some nice beers, a bump of the volume, and hockey on the TV to remind us Januarys are a state of mind around these parts.
The 2008 remake of the 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Still was rich in contemporary and relevant social criticism despite the regurgitating an apocalypse narrative and re-hashing Keanu Reeves as another prophetic savior. Even the ditsy, airheads Bill and Ted managed save the world. Yet, unlike most films within the apocalyptic sci-fi genre- the set of films, comics, etc. that assume humanity almost destroys itself before realizing any greater (public) good- this film’s alien has no intention of destroying the earth. Humanity is already well on the job!
Prejudice and polarization are the greatest threats to democracy. America is highly polarized, threatening to re-order the world in its wake. This is the backdrop of this film and, critically, increasingly the evening news. Naturally, the aliens land in Manhattan. Yet rather than seeing “the city” focus as typical American chauvinism- it’s true and exhausting that MOST Hollywood films take place in either New York or LA- this film ran the Jesus narrative to a tee! Many believe that Prophets only descend when and where there is total moral decrepitude. In fact, a devout, practicing Muslim friend from Mali once explained to me that this clarifies why there had been no African equivalents of Jesus or Muhammad. No better place to represent humanity’s worst than where so many global narratives of hate converge: The Twin Towers and Wall Street! It is now clear that greed, anger and stupidity enabled both the construction and destruction of these icons.
The Day the Earth Stood Still was unrelenting in its critique of humanity’s arrogance in assuming that we’re alone in the universe, the presumption that the planet belongs to us, and the supposition of dominance/sub-ordinance in any and all inter-cultural encounters. This critique was maintained throughout the film, yet came to a head with plenty poignant points of dialogue: “Do you speak for the entire human race?” the alien Klaatu, portrayed by Reeves, asks the US Secretary of Defense Regina Jackson. She replies: “I represent the President of the United States.” Luckily, realizing that not all viewers would see the sheer arrogance and truthfulness of this response, the director played to the peanut gallery and cast Kathy Bates in the role. She was certainly miserable!
This film was a critical commentary on cultural imperialism and chauvinism, challenging humanity to refocus on what binds us rather than divides because this allows us to reconcile despite any conflict. Exactly like the latest Harry Potter, Spiderman and Batman flicks, the conflict posed in The Day the Earth Stood Still, i.e. humanity’s destruction, is resolved through reconciliation- the two main characters agree to forgive themselves and one another, thereby causing Keanu Reeves/The One/Jesus, to save us. This time the Obama narrative was unmistakable. Like the little boy who thought that Keanu should have been killed, by the end, the little tanned, bi-racial, curly haired boy is the greatest advocate for tolerance and understanding in order to save us all.
New albums out this week that are available in full on lala.com for streaming…
Colin Munroe performs “Will I Stay” with Wale, who scored big with critics, including us, last year with The Mixtape About Nothing. Munroe’s debut album, Don’t Think Less of Me, will be releasing this spring Universal Motown. This video is the latest in live recordings of his free mixtape, Colin Munroe is the Unsung Hero, which you can pick up here.
And here’s a few of Munroe’s previous videos…
I Want Those Flashing Lights (Kanye West Remix)
World of Pain
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