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Tuesday, Nov 11, 2008

After seeing a bit of Lukestar’s set on the last night of CMJ, I didn’t feel I gave them a proper chance. If anyone had been doing the amount of CMJ’ing that the PopMatters staff were, I’m sure they would have been in the same boat. But what it boils down to is that Norway’s Lukestar writes rather brilliant pop songs that aren’t meant for a crammed Cake Shop at 1 in the morning. They are meant to be played to wide open air in the Festival grounds or in an old cathedral where their sound can resonate.


“White Shade”, off their latest record Lake Toba, is the perfect example of the potential their sound can reach. Acting on perfect interplay between rhythm and melody, this song should have been the logical progression for the mid-‘90s alternative sounds of the Promise Ring and Sunny Day Real Estate into the new millennium, rather than finding itself rooted in mainstream American culture. Songwriter/Singer Truls Heggero, contrary to popular belief, does not sound like Sigur Ros. Just because he sings in a high register, does not make him anywhere comparable to the Icelandic group, and this is a good thing. His vocals have a more pop sensibility and serve not only as an instrument, but as a vital portion of the song.


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Monday, Nov 10, 2008

When Obama takes office in January of 2009, it will be a half-century since Free Jazz forefather Ornette Coleman dropped the provocatively titled “The Shape of Jazz to Come”. 1959 was a watershed year for jazz music (arguably the greatest single year for jazz in all history–which is saying a LOT). Here’s a taste: Miles Davis “Kind of Blue”, John Coltrane “Giant Steps”, Charles Mingus “Ah Um”. That is like the holy trinity of jazz music; all from the same year. But in the not-so-silent shadows a young, relatively unknown alto saxophonist was poised to fire the musical shot heard ’round the world–a shot that still reverberates today. “Kind of Blue” is correctly celebrated for establishing modal music, and a genuine evolution from bop and post-bop; “Giant Steps” is the apotheosis of the “sheets of sound” that John Coltrane had been practicing and perfecting for a decade; “Ah Um” is an enyclopedic history of jazz music, covering everyone and everything from Jelly Roll Morton to Duke Ellington. And each of those albums were immediately embraced, and remain recognized as genuine milestones today.


But “The Shape of Jazz to Come” was incendiary and complicated: it inspired as much resistance as it did inspiration. Some folks (Mingus included) bristled that it was all so much sound and fury, signifying…little. But what Coleman (along with trumpet player Don Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Billy Higgins–representing as solid a quartet as any that have made music, ever) achieved was, arguably, the most significant advancement since Charlie Parker hit the scene. Of course, Parker was also misunderstood and dismissed when his frenetic, almost incomprehensibly advanced alto saxophone assault began to cause scales to drop from audiences’ eyes–if not their ears. Like any genuine iconoclast of the avant garde, Parker and Coleman were not being new for newness sake; they had to fully grasp and master the idiom before they could transcend it. Tellingly, what was revolutionary and almost confrontational, then, seems rather tame and entirely sensible, now. Of course, it didn’t take 50 years for Coleman to resonate: he not only found his audience, John Coltrane–the all-time heavyweight champion–embraced his compatriot. He endorsed, and, crucially, he imitated. The Book of Revelation that Coltrane’s mid-’60s Impulse recordings comprise did, in many respects, grow directly out of the opening salvo fired by Coleman in ‘59.


Coleman’s compositions are nakedy emotional, unabashedly intense, totally human. Like the best jazz music, all of the instruments are communicating. What they are saying are different things, at different times, to different people. That is the power of this music. It was the soundtrack for a truly unique and momentous time in American history. It remains, more so than ever, the soundtrack of now.


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Friday, Nov 7, 2008
Many Moons - Janelle Monae

I admit that most of the happiness I derive from this video is the visceral pleasure of watching Monae perform.  The Annie Lennox gender bending, the classic dance nods to Michael Jackson and James Brown, and the way she opens her arms in wide swim strokes like everybody should step back so her outsized persona can get through.; it’s completely mesmerizing.  She’s strikingly self-possessed. 


But that’s just the most obvious surface.  The song itself is bold for audaciously shedding anything like a standard pop format: sounding like a Curtis Mayfield opera written for the Uptown String Quartet. It’s riveting and full of tangential suites, where dream-sequence acapella breaks into a list-rap of denigrating terms that one presumes Monae has had directed at her.  The song is existentially searching without being pretentious.  When she challenges the listener with “So when you’re growing down/instead of growing up/tell me are you bold enough to reach for love”, it’s really a gorgeous plea asking people if they can manage to be the best of themselves under the worst circumstances.  My answer:  not so much.  But damn, it’s a great lyric.  The rest of the song explores themes rather than hewing to a chorus; it’s a galaxy of a song with a charismatic center.


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Friday, Oct 31, 2008

For a debut single, especially from a band of wide-eyed and excitable young rock ‘n rollers, “Love Me Do” feels like a curious selection. It’s a decidedly mid-tempo and almost drifting amble that showcases patience far more than promptness. The Beatles don’t achieve any sort of boisterous rush within its running time and clearly didn’t intend to. The lyric, which simplifies the pursuit of love down to a mere request, seems underdeveloped and repetitious even by the standards of early ‘60s pop. As Steve Turner points out in A Hard Day’s Write, the word “love” makes over 20 appearances (it’s noted that Paul began writing this when he was just 16 or 17 years old. Even so….). And the song’s focal point, not to mention its most effective asset, is John’s performance on the harmonica, which provides well-measured texture throughout the chorus and verses, a quirky solo that memorably stands in for what might have been a guitar part, and, of course, the fluttering, blues-thick intro. Evidently the harmonica section helped convince George Martin of “Love Me Do’s” potential as a single. He had originally wanted to release the Fab Four’s cover of “How Do You Do It?” as he would again the next time around before agreeing to “Please Please Me”. It’s a testament to the Beatles’ underlying ingenuity and Martin’s solid pop instincts that they arrived at this oddball-ish tune for the group’s historic entry onto the radio waves. It peaked at #17 on the UK Singles Chart in late 1962.


However, listening to the song in 2008, I’m not certain that it’s among the Beatles’ imperishable classics. On Please Please Me alone, I think “I Saw Her Standing There”, “Twist and Shout”, and the title track belong in the first tier of quality with “Love Me Do” atop the second. Maybe it’s the modern urge for easy climaxes and quick gratification that prevents this inhibited and leisurely paced number from fully satisfying (my ears, anyway). Maybe my sensibilities are more at fault than the song’s casual way about things. Undoubtedly, “Love Me Do” is a charming song with skillful components and passages: the aching unison that Paul and John strike on “Ple-ee-ee-eeease” right before the chorus, Paul’s at times expertly tempered vocal, and the thumpy rhythm that naturally incorporates Ringo’s tambourine hits (Andy White played percussion on the UK album version which I’ve used for my commentary here). But, overall, it seems slightly less than the sum of its parts and lacks the spark to have been fast tracked for the Beatles’ canon. It strikes me as overrated but not unreasonably so.


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Friday, Oct 24, 2008
I am happy to make the case that this team represents the best possible players, based on the various criteria. What do you think?

Part Three: The Starting Lineup


And now, the starting lineup, complete with designated hitter (as it would somehow seem less American not to play by American League rules; all of the National League purists are encouraged to join the conversation about how the game used to be played over at Nogoodmusicwasmadeafter1960.com), organized by batting order:


NAME             POSITION


Creedence Clearwater Revival         SS
Bruce Springsteen         CF
Steely Dan           1B
R.E.M.              3B
The Pixies           DH
Bob Dylan           C
Lynyrd Skynyrd             LF
The Doors           RF
The Beach Boys             2B


Question: Where are the Grateful Dead? Three answers: First, they are too busy patrolling the concourse, dispensing miracles, to participate in organized games. Second, and perhaps more to the point, what position, exactly, is Jerry Garcia going to play? Finally, the game needs a mascot, and what could be more appropriate than the Steal Your Face guy flying in and around the stadium, at once part of the game and calmly removed from it; like a beach ball, only trippier. Also, instead of the current trend of singing “God Bless America” during the seventh inning stretch, we’re pumping in Howlin Wolf’s rendition of “Smokestack Lightning” because, frankly, it doesn’t get any more American than that.


Leading off, at short stop, is the hits machine Creedence Clearwater Revival. In their relatively brief, but remarkably productive prime, they were not only a force to be reckoned with, but unparalleled as a positive force in American music. They led the league in hits and batting average over three seasons (1968-1970). Their highlight reel runs constantly on FM radio, and it’s worth recalling that these dudes rocked the flannel look long before it was cool (in the ‘70s or in the grunge 2.0 fashion cycle).


Hitting in the number two spot, in centerfield, is Asbury Park’s own Bruce Springsteen. A promising rookie in ’73 who’d paid some serious dues for several years in the minor leagues, his breakthrough season came in 1975 when he garnered MVP honors for Born To Run. Since then he has seldom been out of favor, cranking out timely singles and infusing the game with his unmatched energy and integrity. If the team ever hits a losing streak, the Boss is often at his best when times seem the toughest: Bruce understands (and does his best to ensure) that the glory days are always in the future.


Spunk In Centerfield: The Boss

Spunk In Centerfield: The Boss


Batting third and flashing some serious leather at first base is the quiet but deadly duo Steely Dan. These guys were as close to a dynasty as anyone else in the much-maligned decade of the ‘70s. Perfectionists, oddballs, studio wizards, the Dan put together a string of winning seasons that any band would happily emulate. Consummate team players (never ones to put their faces on albums), Donald Fagen and Walter Becker were such perfectionists that they stopped touring altogether in the ‘70s so they could concentrate on crafting their meticulous string of albums. Every team requires the quietly obsessed, lead-by-example professional, and in the understated Dan, this squad has the perfect player to keep them grounded, and focused on what matters most.


The clean-up hitter and arguably most impressive player on the squad is that most American of bands, R.E.M. Not only the ultimate run producer and homeruns leader (from their rookie season in ’83 through at least ’96, their prime is one extended batting title). Consistency has always been their hallmark, and only the most versatile, fearless and original band could cover the hot corner year in and year out. If they’ve shown their age in recent years, it does not (cannot) diminish their credentials: a longer heyday than any other American band, hands down.


Batting fifth is highly regarded designated hitter The Pixies. This perennial fan favorite would warrant inclusion in the lineup courtesy of their two masterworks Surfer Rosa and Doolittle.  But to put their influence and reputation in proper perspective, consider the fact that Kurt Cobain once admitted that on the Nirvana hit “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, he was “basically trying to rip off the Pixies…I should have been in that band—or at least a Pixies cover band.” Factor in that this is also the band that (sort of) spawned The Breeders, not to mention Black Francis’s metamorphosis into Frank Black, and the considerably satisfactory solo career he’s had. When you contemplate a band that hit long bombs when given the chance (with the strikeouts that are an inevitable part of the DH position), you might be hard pressed to come up with a better slugger. If the bases are loaded with two outs in a tie game, all that needs to be said is “if man is 5, then the devil is 6 and if the devil is 6 than god is 7”. That (rally) monkey’s gone to heaven.


Catcher, Captain and Iconoclast: Bob Dylan

Catcher, Captain and Iconoclast: Bob Dylan


Team captain, and catcher, Bob Dylan hits sixth. To be honest, he could play anywhere and do anything he feels like. It’s rather unlikely that he’d want to be associated with any teams, as he owes allegiance to no one other than Woody Guthrie. Dylan is, in short, the consensus leader of this entire generation: he is the alpha and omega of post-‘60s American music. Everyone from The Byrds to the Beatles and singer-songwriters from Van Morrison to Neko Case are, in their own way, paying homage to everything the bard from Minnesota made possible.


Batting in the number seven slot, it’s the tough-as-nails, first off the bench in a brawl southern boys Lynyrd Skynyrd. And where else but left field for a band that took Neil Young to task for critiquing “sweet home” Alabama, only to befriend him later? Where else but left field for a group with ultimate southern street cred advocating that we toss all pistols to the bottom of the sea (“Saturday Night Special”)? These non-NRA endorsing rednecks wrote songs that were remarkably nuanced (“That Smell”, “Needle and the Spoon”) and unusually sensitive (“Tuesday’s Gone”, “Simple Man”) as well as the obligatory ‘70s anthems (“Sweet Home Alabama”, “Give Me Three Steps”, “Free Bird”). Like too many of their teammates, tragedy derailed their run to glory, but the body of work is versatile, deep and enduring.


Hitting eighth and getting the mojo rising in right field are The Doors. Not too many groups have finished their careers as solid and strong as they began them, but L.A. Woman was almost as perfect a swan song as The Doors was a debut. Overlooked and easy to dismiss (Jim Morrison was to rock music what the oft-suspended and self-immolating prima donnas are to today’s sports), they cast an immense and influential shadow—often on the short list of younger band’s role models. And while right field is arguably the least exciting and uneventful position in the field, when you need that long throw home on a rope, or that perfect song at the end of the night before you slip into unconsciousness, the Lizard King is always ready to light up the fire.


The Hits Machine at Second Base: Brian Wilson

The Hits Machine at Second Base: Brian Wilson


Finally, batting ninth and turning double plays at second base, it’s the forever young angels from the gold coast, The Beach Boys. Obviously, they had enough ammo, early in their career (another runs factory) to warrant serious consideration for inclusion on this team. But some historical perspective is imperative when really assessing the Beach Boys’ place in history: while The Beatles are (correctly) credited with creating rock music’s first commercially embraced work of art with Sgt. Pepper, it is well documented that Paul McCartney’s initial inspiration was to somehow make a record as incredible as Pet Sounds. A second baseman is counted on to stir the pot and produce timely singles, and The Beach Boys delivered some of the most crucial hits ever in postseason play: “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?”, “God Only Knows”, and, of course, “Good Vibrations”—the single still hear ‘round the world.
So there it is: the ultimate lineup of American rock music legends. While I reserve the right to second-guess myself (that, after all, is pretty much the point—along with instigating discussion!), I am happy to make the case that this team represents the best possible players, based on the various criteria. What do you think?


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