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Thursday, Aug 14, 2008
The introduction to the video for "Poppin'" provides a pretty good summation of what viewers can expect: "Hopeless Records Presents All Time Low."

I once attended college in Los Angeles, where I came across a lot of rich So-Cal kids (or rich, wannabe So-Cal kids) who casually used the n-word to insult each other and openly admitted their racism, even expressing pride in it.


I’ll be damned if this piece of garbage doesn’t remind me of some of those old acquaintances. These guys might as well have filmed their minstrel video in blackface.


Tagged as: all time low
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Wednesday, Aug 13, 2008

The ninth installment of Live from Abbey Road (Sundance Channel, Thursday, August 7th at 10 p.m. Eastern and Pacific) is quite possibly the most dynamic yet. The Kills kick things off with “Getting Down” and “Last Day of Magic” from Midnight Boom. These are those fantastic, kinetic types of tunes that can only come from two people feeding off of each other and inspiring ever-escalating bursts of brilliance. It’s clear watching VV and Hotel facing off for these performances that they are locked into each other on every level, musically, and that’s what makes the songs so compelling.  Of course, good songwriting is important too, and the Kills have that locked in as well. “Goodnight Bad Morning”, also from Midnight Boom, is a languid, churning and obvious ode to the Velvet Underground, but it feels very in-the-moment, rather than sounding like a Lou Reed rip-off, which imparts an even greater sense of depth within the song. 


Sara Bareilles begins her segment by discussing—and then demonstrating—the depth of her relationship to music. She talks about not being taken seriously as a musician, because she’s a young girl playing “pop” music, but concludes that it ultimately doesn’t matter, because she knows who she is. Who is she? Well, to judge from these performances, she is a remarkably assured songwriter with an equally strong voice. If you’re unfamiliar with Bareilles’ piano-based songs and no-frills style, you’re going to be pleasantly surprised with this segment. She performs “Gravity” and her big hit, “Love Song”, from her debut disc, Little Voice, and then she pulls out all the stops for a stripped-down version of The Beatles’ “Oh Darling” in honor of the “sacred” atmosphere of the environs.


The Fratellis were one of my favorite finds of the past two years, and this set of songs doesn’t disappoint. Tales are told of coming up to St. John’s Wood for a weekend at 18, only to wander up and down Abbey Road all day (because you can’t just walk into the studios, you know!), and a bit of a warm up with some Pink Floyd is played to get the band ready for its set. First up is “Flathead” from the band’s incredible debut album, Costello Music, and in case you were wondering, yeah, neighbors will look at you funny if you funny if you’re dancing in front of the television and singing along to the chorus. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it anyway, this performance practically demands it.


“Milk and Money”, off the sophomore release Here We Stand starts as a piano ballad featuring, dare I say it, a Harrison-esque guitar sound and a sad and lovely refrain questioning what happens when the last song has been played. Then it erupts into a frantic, all out rocker before briefly returning to the mournful piano melody as it ends. Finally, “Mistress Mabel”, which had its lyrical genesis in Cream’s “Badge” (yet another George Harrison connection!), closes out the Fratellis segment, and does so with possibly more energy than all the songs in all the segments preceding it! 


So if last week’s episode was about being happy and letting it come through in the music, this week is all about relentless, high energy coupled with an anchoring, unshakable depth. And remembering to close the curtains when we dance!


Upcoming Line-ups:


Episode 10 - August 21
The Subways, Gnarls Barkley, Herbie Hancock w/ Sonya Kitchell


Episode 11 - August 28
Bryan Adams, Ben Harper, Justin Currie


Episode 12 - September 4
Teddy Thompson, Martha Wainwright, Brian Wilson


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Thursday, Aug 7, 2008
This is the reggae album for people who do not know, or claim not to like, reggae music.

Go and Seek Your Rights: The Mighty Diamonds’ Right Time


Big misconception about reggae music: it’s all happy, at the beach, drinking music. Biggest misconception about reggae music: it all sounds the same. Even Bob Marley (and it is both respectful and required to at least mention the great man’s name in any consequential discussion or reggae) had markedly different styles he embraced throughout his career, as his sound evolved from straightforward ska and rocksteady in the ‘60s to the full-fledged rastaman vibration everyone has heard on the radio—or at Happy Hour. Indeed, Marley serves as the most obvious case study for the distinctive sounds reggae has produced: anyone unfamiliar with songs not included on Legend, but curious to explore what else is out there, are encouraged to start with the crucial transition albums from the early ‘70s. You cannot go wrong with African Herbsman, the culmination of his brief but bountiful collaboration with Lee “Scratch” Perry. Or to appreciate the incomparable harmonizing of the original Wailers (Marley along with Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer), Catch A Fire and Burnin’ are indispensable cornerstones of any halfway serious reggae collection. And, above all, if it’s possible to single out one work that encapsulates Marley’s genius, Natty Dread is the alpha and the omega: not only is this his masterpiece, this one holds it own with any album, in any genre.


Okay. Even for those who are not sufficiently intrigued by the notion of a deeper dive into reggae’s abundant waters, there are more than a handful of sure things right on the surface. Enter the Mighty Diamonds and their first—and best—album, Right Time from 1976. Like the Wailers, the Mighty Diamonds are a harmonizing trio (with a killer backing band), and these three men, Donald “Tabby” Shaw, Fitzroy “Bunny” Simpson and Lloyd “Judge” Ferguson, created songs that stand tall alongside the very best reggae. Right Time manages to combine several styles and merge them in a seamless, practically flawless whole. This, to be certain, is roots reggae, yet at times it sounds like the most accessible soul music, closer to Motown than Trenchtown.


The group’s allegiance to Rastafarianism is skillfully articulated in the socially conscious lyrics, but the ten tracks on Right Time tackle romantic turmoil, violent crime, and redemption—sometimes all in one song. The title track, equally an ominous call to arms as well as a rallying cry against the system, sets an immediate tone that predicts chaos while promising resolve, pre-dating Culture’s epochal Two Sevens Clash by a year. The brilliance of the songs that follow must be heard to be believed, and it’s difficult to imagine how singing and song craft this tight, spiritual, and emotionally rich could fail to convince. The next two songs, “Why Me Black Brother Why?” and “Shame and Pride” constitute a one-two punch that manages to invoke Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and Otis Redding: Gaye’s authentic words, Smokey’s silken voice, and Redding’s gut-rending fervor. If the world was right side up, all of these songs would be standards, familiar to anyone who listens to the soul legends mentioned above. The album’s highlight may be the resplendent anthem “I Need a Roof”—-a rather uncomplicated piece of poetry that invokes Marcus Garvey and Jesus Christ with its (obvious) insistence that without shelter there can be no peace, and without justice there can be no love. Listen: even writing about this record, albeit while offering the highest possible praise, inexorably mutes the message. That message is conveyed with voices that must be heard so that the music can make sense. Go seek it out.


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Wednesday, Aug 6, 2008
Elbow, MGMT, and Alanis Morissette...

Live from Abbey Road‘s eighth show (Sundance Channel, Thursday, August 7th at 10 p.m. Eastern and Pacific) begins with a segment on Elbow, the members of which, believe it or not, have been together for nearly two decades now.  The performances in this episode are taken exclusively from 2008’s The Seldom Seen Kid, the band’s highest charting album so far, and it’s obvious why. The three songs here are all equally strong, striking compositions. “Grounds for Divorce” is just a really good rock song. “The Bones of You” is particularly affecting in my opinion, with its hypnotic rhythms and Guy Garvey’s stirring voice coupled with a gorgeously haunting lyrical refrain. But “One Day Like This”, featuring an anthemic, sing-along chorus of “Throw those curtains wide / One day like this’d see me right”, is the one that will have you buying the record after you’ve watched this.


MGMT, from Brooklyn, also performs songs exclusively from its 2008 album. Although that probably has a lot to do with the fact that Oracular Spectacular is the band’s debut. The interview bits in this segment are focused on boys being boys on the bus, rather than studio talk. It’s fun to see young musicians more interested in goofing around and then just playing music (rather than steeping themselves in the Abbey Road aura), but it does seem a little incongruous with the style of music MGMT favors.


Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser say they each only listen to older stuff and have no real knowledge of current popular culture, and it seems to be working for them. “Electric Feel” has an authentic ‘70s groove, yet it manages to avoid a seeming dated and actually sounds somehow totally new. “Time to Pretend” also has a sense of newness to it, and yet it wouldn’t have sounded out of place in the ‘60s. It’s a musically dreamy, lyrical send-up of the fantastical lives of rock stars, and an amusing and beautiful song. Pay attention to these guys.


Alanis Morissette rounds out this episode, with performances of tracks from a couple of her earlier records. “Hands Clean” from 2002’s Under Rug Swept is a stripped down version of the original, as are all the songs here, reminding us that not only does she possess stunning vocal abilities, but she’s an truly gifted songwriter as well. Morissette speaks of this when she mentions the disillusionment with the idea of fame, saying she now writes music for herself and then shares it so others can make it their own, instead of doing it to be in the public eye.  Then she gives a rendition of “Perfect” that is, for lack of better term, perfect.


The episode ends with an acoustic “Hand in my Pocket” that Morissette seems truly pleased to be singing. If there was some sort of unifying theme to this episode (and perhaps to the series as a whole), that might be it. Everyone is really happy to be doing what it is that they are doing, and that comes through in the music, which is as it should be.


Upcoming Line-ups:


Episode 9 - August 14
The Kills, Sara Bareilles, The Fratellis


Episode 10 - August 21
The Subways, Gnarls Barkley, Herbie Hancock w/Sonya Kitchell


Episode 11 - August 28
Bryan Adams, Ben Harper, Justin Currie


Episode 12 - September 4
Teddy Thompson, Martha Wainwright, Brian Wilson


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Wednesday, Aug 6, 2008

Perhaps it is misleading that I am writing this under the banner of Pop Past, given that the band in question released their sole album less than one year ago, but it has nevertheless come to be sadly appropriate in the case of Georgie James. Principle members John Davis and Laura Burhenn quietly announced the band’s breakup on their website yesterday:


After three years, Georgie James is calling it a day. We’re proud of the album we made and everything else that we were able to do during our time together. We are both working on our respective solo projects (John’s can be found at www.myspace.com/titletracksdc and Laura’s at www.myspace.com/lauraburhenn) and hope to have albums out early next year. Thanks to everyone that helped our band over these past few years. And thanks to those who’ve listened to the music and come out to the shows. It is greatly appreciated. See you around soon.
—John and Laura/Georgie James


Their album, Places, was, to my ears, one of last year’s very best, a collection of infectious, gimmick-free pop songs that was astonishing, largely, for just how unassuming it was. Indie rock never seems to be at a loss for bands looking to evoke the virtues of classic rock and pop, but most of these acts are quick to reveal one particular musical fetish or another, whether it is for the iconic songwriting of Brian Wilson or Lennon/McCartney, or for the un-self-conscious maximalism of ‘70s glam pop. While recognizing the greatness of such celebrated retro-poppers as Sloan or the New Pornographers, or the playful Smiley Smile-esque innovations of the Elephant 6 collective, there is a level on which their music is as much about it’s very retro-ness as it is about the band’s own explorations of their craft.


Georgie James were instead much closer in spirit to such pop true believers as Aimee Mann and Matthew Sweet, crafting songs that sounded instantly timeless simply by virtue of never feeling the need to sound married to any particular era, past or present (the closest the band may have come to indulging in retro-ness was with their wispy cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “El Condor Pasa (If I Could)”, the b-side to single “Need Your Needs”). It was only when listening to this album the first few times through, trying to mentally contextualize it alongside what I assumed to be it’s contemporaries (Burhenn’s voice is not unlike Jenny Lewis’ and it would be all too easy to mistake Davis’ nasal rasp for A.C. Newman, and Places was released within a month of Rilo Kiley and New Pornographer’s 2007 offerings), that I realized that while I had heard countless albums in recent years that I had wanted to sound like this, I had heard very few that actually did sound like this this. Perhaps it was the casual nature of a project born out the experience of its players—most of whom are veterans of numerous other bands, with Davis having drummed in the spastic post-punk outfit Q and Not U—but Places had an assured ease that was rare for a debut album, fully capturing the spirit of falling in love with great pop music (how many albums contain an ode to the perfect pair of headphones?) while never seeking to be anything more than perfect melodic pop music itself. 


I was looking forward to hearing the next five or ten Georgie James albums, but whether it had any relevance to their dissolution or not, Places had the misfortune of debuting amid one of the more dazzlingly eclectic years for music in recent memory, only to become predictably lost in the shuffle. 2007 was a year in which even the most celebrated guitar-based indie bands—Modest Mouse, Bright Eyes, the New Pornographers again—found their latest albums being met with a relatively muted critical response as the music press found sustenance in the rich genre-bending sounds of Justice, M.I.A. and LCD Soundsystem, Radiohead’s groundbreaking distribution methods, the Kanye vs. Fiddy hullaballoo and the inescapable gravitational pull of a certain “Umbrella-ella-ella”. If Georgie James were admittedly too unflashy to gain even minor critical attention in such a dynamic year, Places will remain a would-be pop classic ripe for eventual rediscovery. Give it a belated listen today on your own pair of comfortable headphones.


Tagged as: georgie james
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