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Thursday, Jan 15, 2009

“They put me down for fuckin’ around with things I didn’t understand… for getting involved with something I shouldn’t have been involved with… well, FUCK THEM.”
—Neil Young, in the biography Shakey



In 1982 Neil Young released the album Trans, a synthesizer heavy, electronic rock album with Young’s vocals rendered virtually unrecognizable by use of a vocoder on all but three of the nine songs. At the time it was a commercial and critical flop but in recent years has begun to be reassessed and appreciated, if for nothing else the boldness of such a release from a mainstream artist, another example of Young’s total commitment to doing exactly what he wants, when he wants.


It’s easy to dismiss Trans (and much electronic music) as “cold” or lacking in emotion due to its synthesized drum machine beats and robot sounding vocals. This would be a mistake. Trans is one of Young’s most personal, heartfelt, and affecting albums of his career. In 1982 Young was going through an incredibly trying time in his personal life. His son Ben had been born with severe cerebral palsy, rendering him quadriplegic and non-verbal. Neil couldn’t understand his son’s words, so he made an album where the listener can’t understand the singer’s words.


Perhaps the most well-known song from Trans, probably due to it’s inclusion in Neil Young’s 1993 performance on MTV Unplugged, is “Transformer Man”. The only song on the album to not feature a single guitar, it is driven by a drum machine, keyboards and Neil’s voice processed to a computerized falsetto by the vocoder. It has a serene, lilting quality to it that immediately defies the cliché of synth-pop as “cold”. The song benefits from the vocoder immensely, the vocal sounding like a sad cry from the deep reaches of space. The keyboards are warm and unassuming, the drum machine beat is simple but the emotional punch of the song comes from what Young is singing.


A long time train aficionado, one of the ways Neil was able to connect to his son was through model trains. He even developed a remote control that enabled Ben to properly use the trains on their tracks. With this knowledge it becomes immediately apparent when you hear the lyrics (although reading along with a lyric sheet might help) that Transformer Man is Ben: “You run the show / Remote control / Direct the action with the push of a button / You’re a transformer man”. The most touching moment comes in the chorus, when Young sings “Every morning when I look in your eyes / I feel electrified by you”. It is at this point that the song becomes, in my opinion, one of the most moving songs of Neil Young’s career.


Neil never pursued electronic music further after Trans and I think it’s kind of a shame. I would love to hear what Neil Young in 2009 would do with the genre. Knowing Young’s penchant for bucking preconceived notions, an electronic album might not be that improbable.


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Thursday, Jan 15, 2009
It might only be two weeks into '09 but I think I've already got a soundtrack.

The world of music journalism is on board with the new Animal Collective album, Merriweather Post Pavilion, and rightly so; it’s a varied, dense and accessible piece of weird-pop wonder. On it, there is one song in particular that I need to listen to five to 10 times a day because it makes me feel that good. I speak, of course, of “Summertime Clothes”


The song begins with some odd, pulsing, syncopating keys, then thumping bass joins in to smooth out the pulsations, making it a head-nodder by the 20-second mark. The song progresses nicely; when the layers of vocals begin the song gains some momentum and depth without taking any drastic steps. Then the vocal harmony starts and brings the song into Brian Wilson territory (or perhaps, more aptly, the excellent Brian Wilson aping of 2007’s Panda Bear album), and once the vocal inflection hits on the “makes me smile” line we know we’re in the land of Pop Monster-Jams. 


The chorus hits almost without warning sending a rush of emotion that makes me want to throw my arms in the in time to the “dusty but digital” electro-lushness. By the time “I want to walk around with you / And I want to walk around with you” (is that a direct refutation of the Ramones?) comes in, it’s a bit disappointing that the chorus has already ended, but there’s still the exciting anticipation of its return.


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Wednesday, Jan 14, 2009

Me:  I love Jenny Lewis.
Mom:  Don’t you have a boyfriend, right now?
Me: Yeah, but, well I’m in love with Jenny Lewis.
Mom: Who?


I could scream it from the rooftops. Unfortunately, those listening, like my mother, would have probably not heard of this enigmatic singer/songwriter. Once a child actress, Lewis has emerged and developed as the lead singer of the band, Rilo Kiley. Within the last couple years she has explored her own voice—pairing up with the soul singers, the Watson twins. Her first solo album Rabbit Fur Coat, has been housed in the CD player of my car for the last three months. Her voice is sweet, but not too saccharine. Her melodies have done everything from mix Southern blues, with gospel, and folk with indie rock. Her lyrics, are simple yet biting: “I’m in love with illusions, so saw me in half / I’m in love with tricks so pull another rabbit out of your hat.”


But, what is it exactly about Jenny Lewis that makes women love her? A fair share of women I have conversed with have admitted that she is their one and only “girl crush”. I believe that Jenny Lewis is the archetypal free-spirited woman; she is smart and talented enough to write her own music, and doesn’t seem to give a damn about what other people think. She looks like a fashion icon with her short mod dresses and her signature red hair. There is no reason to be jealous of Jenny Lewis because we all secretly want to be her. I want to emulate that confident, quirky, versatile woman. She has a past and marches to her own drum, a drum that happens to coincide with the music she writes. Check out one of Rilo Kiley’s earlier videos…


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Wednesday, Jan 14, 2009

Elvis Costello wears a silly hat throughout this episode of Spectacle. It distracted me. (The offending accessory is a red, short-brimmed fedora that appears to be made from, ahem, velvet.) Is he attempting to be ironic, given that this episode deals with, among other things, pop standards—and, furthermore, that he opens the show with a winking cover of “If I Only Had a Brain”? (A performance that seems to say, Get it, if I only had a brain? Obviously I do have a brain, a big one at that; ergo, what I’m doing here with this song amuses me so.) Does he think that this sort of questionable fashion choice is, in fact, the sort of thing that would impress or entertain a gay man? His guest, after all, is Rufus Wainwright, who makes no mention of the hat, this velveteen red elephant sitting atop the host’s head in a cocked, taunting fashion. (Wainwright does, however, stumble through many an answer—behavior that one could logically attribute to the absurd trauma of having questions posed to you by a man in a funny hat.)


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Monday, Jan 12, 2009

The 1993 music video for “Gentlemen” was my introduction to the Afghan Whigs, who would quickly become one of my favorite bands. At first glance it might seem like a pretty standard-looking rock video, but on closer inspection it reveals itself to be something much stranger.


In the video singer Greg Dulli stalks around a house that looks like a set from Beverly Hills 90210, peering out the windows at the neighbors, snarling and looking more than a little like Joaquin Phoenix (young Joaquin, not new shaggy Joaquin). Behind Dulli, the band is rocking out with such force that it’s hard not to wonder why the Whigs aren’t brought up more as one of the truly great bands of the ‘90s. The song itself is an all-out attack, with Dulli not so much singing the words as spitting them. Recounting a relationship gone sour, you can hear the venom in his voice on lines like “We dragged it out so long this time started to make each other sick” and “I waited for the joke…it never did arrive.” The chorus has him pleading innocence: “Do you understand?! I’m a gentle man!” The delivery of these lines would lead us to believe otherwise.


As Greg walks through the house after peeping on the neighbors, something very strange happens. It cuts from him walking towards the camera, singing, to a large black man walking towards the camera, singing. It then cuts back to Dulli and then to an old (white) man walking towards the camera, singing. Both the big black guy and the little old man are dressed exactly the same as Dulli, suggesting that they in fact ARE Dulli. It’s bizarre and somewhat unsettling and what it’s suggesting is anyone’s guess. The whole video actually, from the sets to the editing, has a very ominous Twin Peaks-like, surreal quality about it. In other words; a great video and a perfect introduction to the Afghan Whigs.


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