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Monday, Feb 9, 2009

The Grammys: our window into the corporate music world. A sprawling three-hour-plus event featuring remote possibilities of: copyright lawsuits on stage, sentenced criminals performing, performers (possibly) giving birth, artists guarding against the unfortunate live music swears, and the usual array of winners.


I think you have to take the Grammys for what they are worth and move on. As MTV channeled music award producing to a more successful platform, the Grammys were sloshing through poor attempts at being like the Oscars. However, the Grammys are taking a stand and producing unexpected moments for TV drama. A reality show of sorts; made up of mash ups between performers, wacky musical numbers, odd costumes, and fastening to whatever is legendary for these times. Yes, the Grammys want you to believe they are living on the edge!


The 51st Annual Grammy Awards took place in the Staple Center in Los Angeles to a host of music big wigs and celebrity glitz. Chief amongst these celebrities was the rapper M.I.A. The story goes that she is nine months pregnant and, in a Grammy moment that will live on for some time, she performed one simple verse from her internet turned radio hit “Paper Planes” before turning over the reigns to the Queen Latifah named “Rap Pack”: Kanye West, T.I., Jay-Z, and Lil Wayne (in honor of Dean Martin who was being honored with a lifetime achievement award) and their performance of “Swagga Like Us”.


To say M.I.A. is proud of her pregnancy is the understatement of the year. The woman flashed a polka dotted meshed “Preg-kini” during the entire performance. The act was decent with the apparent disgust between Kanye and Jay-Z in full display on stage as they jockeyed for the home court advantage (NOTE: there are financial dealings to be worked out for the four rappers). Kanye was smooth; he’s always smooth. And, Lil Wayne…didn’t swear. T.I.? Didn’t go to jail either. I guess the performance went off without a hitch. I don’t know, maybe the Grammys wanted the swear, the baby, and the walk to prison during the performance?


Coldplay was easily the early show’s ‘on-air’ (NOTE: only 10 of the actual Grammys were awarded on air) winner. Their album Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends won two on air awards for Song of the Year for the self titled track “Viva La Vida” and then later for the Rock Album of the year. All the while the beats of Joe Satriani’s lawsuit against the band for copyright infringement danced in the heads of the band and their audience. Their performance of “Lost” featured Chris Martin on piano and Jay-Z doing freestyle rap; it was a fine early moment of the evening. The boys, in what they termed were their Sgt. Pepper’s Suits, finished the set with their hit “Viva La Vida” from an album that later won the Rock Album of the Year. Funny: the title track from the album featured timpani, a giant bell, electronic strings, and no guitar. Carrie Underwood rocked harder than these guys!


The performance hits of the night were easy to spot. Radiohead absolutely stole the night. Playing “15 Step” from their latest album In Rainbows was a fantastic moment for the band. They brought with them a portion of the University of Southern California band to perform percussion and some brass. With the help of the deeply moving guitar of Johnny Greenwood, Thom Yorke flailed and jerked through the performance. The visual and sonic fills by the USC Marching Band were jarring and added another dimension to a song filled with so many that it’s hard to keep track.


A nod also needs to go to Lil Wayne and his performance with Allen Toussaint and Robin Thicke. The performance of Lil Wayne’s “Tie My Hands” as a dedication to New Orleans was trumped only a moment later by Allen Toussaint’s performance of his song “Big Chief” with the New Orleans’ brass outfit the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and the aforementioned Lil Wayne. It was a spectacular moment that bridged the musical landscape of New Orleans. A humbled Lil Wayne only gave a small thanks to his family and fans a moment later when he received his award for Rap Album of the Year. I believe there is no coincidence to the idea that he just was accepted in the New Orleans’ musical heritage. Playing with Allen Toussaint and other New Orleans’ musicians gives Lil Wayne credibility beyond the hip-hop community


But in the end, the big awards went to Allison Krauss and Robert Plant. They won on air awards for “Rich Woman” in the Pop Collaboration with Vocals and their album Raising Sand won Album of the Year. The awards were not a shock and although their performance was solid, I was taken by Robert Plant’s assertion that “In the past this would be considered selling out, but it’s just a nice Sunday.” upon receiving the Album of the Year award. I guess when you win, it’s not selling out.


To borrow a phrase from former Arizona Cardinals’ head coach Dennis Green, “They (The Grammys) are what we thought they would be.” Now, honestly, I hope no one lets them off the hook for delivering to us another year of produced unexpected moments packaged as an award’s show. In the end, the show lacks any sort of punch. But this is what you get when you consistently shoot for the middle. Occasionally you will hit a winner (like Radiohead), but most of the time you will reward stage space to guys like Kid Rock whose awful performance of what seemed like three separate songs and a throw in of the “Sweet Home Alabama” rift was awful in execution. Good thing for Kid Rock that after the commercial break, the Grammys threw on stage Katy Perry’ terrible working of “I Kissed a Girl”. Terrible not so much for the overdub and lip sync, but that it featured some of the worst excuse for performance dancing of the night. Oh. Ironically, Katy didn’t kiss a girl in the performance (which I would have thought would have been something Ms. Perry would have wanted to do after singing about it 50 times in the song).


In the end, the Grammys are industry slop. When Neil Portnow, President of the Recording Industry and Chief Grammy guy, arrived on stage to announce that he “wants to get all performers compensated for their performances” while desiring Barack Obama to appoint a cabinet level position called “Secretary of the Arts”. I’m wondering if this guy really understands the economic situation of the country. Trillions of dollars in debt and Mr. Portnow wants to have a government official to provide oversight to stop grandma and 13-year-olds from downloading songs from the Internet. The fact that Mr. Portnow gave his little speech the segment immediately after Radiohead, the anti-industry superstars who made a ton of sales and money while thumbing their noses at men and women like Mr. Portnow, is an irony that everyone but Mr. Portnow seemed to be aware of during his speech. I suppose the Captain doesn’t think he’s sinking into the ocean while we all saw the iceberg from miles away.


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Monday, Feb 9, 2009
Relaxing before the big game.

Relaxing before the big game.


This is shaping up to be a very busy year for Los Angeles based the Soft Pack (formerly the Muslims). They recently signed to Kemado Records, are about to embark on their first European tour—where they were invited to play England’s “All Tomorrow’s Parties”, being curated by the Breeders (whom the band toured with this past year)—are recording their debut record for their new label, and will be touring the US extensively opening for Friendly Fires and White Lies.


This is all the more remarkable considering they have only been in existence for two full years. The buzz is deserved, after witnessing them open for the Ravonettes recently at Bimbo’s in San Francisco, I saw plenty of converts by set’s end. The set was blistering; showcasing the wit, intelligence, and musical economy, that make them a band to keep your eyes on in the coming years.


I ran into the founders of the Soft Pack, singer/guitarist Matt Lamkin and guitarist Matty McLoughlin, at a bar up the street. They were relaxed, focused, and truly genuine. After bonding with McLoughlin over our fanatical devotion to the Replacements, he agreed to an interview with me.


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Sunday, Feb 8, 2009

Only Everything was Juliana Hatfield’s third album after leaving Boston’s Blake Babies and with it she seemed on the verge of stardom. “My Sister” and “Spin the Bottle” were modest hits and she appeared on the covers of Sassy and Spin. When Only Everything came out, however, it received mixed reviews and was only moderately successful. Even today it remains overshadowed by the album that it proceeded; the more fondly remembered Become What You Are.


Only Everything, however, is my favorite Juliana Hatfield record. Part of the reason might be because it was the first of her albums I heard, but there are less personal reasons too. The guitars are big and loud, the songs are melodic and tight, and the production is top notch. Some of the awkward lyric rhymes of Juliana’s previous albums are completely avoided here and her voice has never sounded better. Like Elliott Smith, Juliana’s small, soft voice sounded incredible when multi-tracked and on Only Everything layer after layer of overdubbing has made her vocals strong and rich and never in danger of getting overpowered by the wall of guitar fuzz. That’s quite an accomplishment considering how much the guitars dominate the mix. Hatfield has often cited J Mascis as an influence and on this record it shows.


The album opens with what sounds like Juliana coughing up some phlegm as the buzzsaw guitars of “What a Life” hit you in the face. “Greasy, dirty, smelly, wretched…grungy…” she sings and this is clearly the sound she wants for the album, albeit with high production values. The mix of clean and dirty, Juliana’s “pretty” voice and the fuzzed out guitars works perfectly. It’s not lo-fi but it never sounds too glossy. One of my complaints about her earlier albums is they seemed sonically thin, especially on the harder rocking songs. Here, the production is beefed up and Juliana finally sounds like she’s really rocking out. There are still plenty of softer songs though and they too benefit immensely from the top notch production, filled out with piano, organ and Juliana’s vocal harmonies.


My favorite song on the album might be “Outsider”, with its guitars sounding like they’re being played underwater and Juliana’s vocals thick and sweet. For the first two minutes of the song the only percussion is what sounds like hands tapping on the back of an acoustic guitar. Combined with the muted electric guitars and Juliana’s multi-tracked vocals, the song has an effervescent, spacey mood. The track may seem slight at first but it rewards with repeated listens.


Only Everything still conjures up good memories whenever I listen to it. Perhaps the album’s inability to take Hatfield to the next level of mainstream success was indication that the public had already tired of the alternative rock explosion of the early ‘90s. Limp Bizkit and Britney Spears were lurking just around the corner, like vampires, ready to suck the blood out of the music industry. Hatfield’s next record, entitled God’s Foot, never got released. Atlantic, her record company, felt it wasn’t commercial sounding enough, so Juliana asked to be dropped. Atlantic agreed to release her, but not her album. “God’s Foot, the master tapes, languishes still in a vault somewhere, gathering dust” wrote Juliana in her recently published memoir, When I Grow Up. After returning to the indies she put out four solo albums on Rounder Records before starting her own label, Ye Olde, in 2005. Her latest record was last year’s How to Walk Away. I haven’t heard it yet but I’m pretty sure I’ll enjoy it, as I have everything else she’s done, but this one goes out to the one I love: Only Everything.


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Friday, Feb 6, 2009
R.E.M. is a vital band, but is their legacy as one of America's great bands becoming tarnished by sub standard rock.

I just dumped R.E.M. and this time it’s for good!


The first time I tried to dump R.E.M. was in October of 1994. The air was crisp, the sounds of the alt-rock that R.E.M. had helped influence had grown to the stale melodies of radio-easy music, and R.E.M. released their “rocker” Monster. Some critics talked about how R.E.M. finally delivered their great rock and roll album after years of toiling with the sad songs of the past. The quartet from Athens, GA finally came through with an album that was all parts Document and Life’s Rich Pageant. I placed that damn CD in my Walkman for a whole month trying to like the thing and one day in October of 1994, I told R.E.M. “I need a break from our relationship.”


Two years later and R.E.M. released a new album New Adventures in High-Fi and I bought it, kinda liked the last track “Eloctrolite”, but it salvaged little from an album of blandness and broke up with them again late in 1996. I was furious. I refused to make up again. I did this back and forth for the next three albums. Each album represented music that did not push boundaries or re-invent (or invigorate) modern music. I would break up with the band, get back together the moment their new album came out, break up after listening to each successive album until one day; maybe a week ago, a good friend came to me with a copy of the latest album Accelerate, an album I purposely ignored and refused to acknowledge, and a small endorsement of the album’s content; “It’s not too bad.” I went home, hooked up my headphones to my stereo, plugged in this latest venture into my musical heart, and two listens later, I frustratingly put my headphones down and announced; “Michael, Peter, and Mike (and Bill), I am officially breaking up with you. It’s over. I cannot handle it anymore. I know you are trying real hard and feel each album is a new venture into your maturing sound-scapes of a career, but really. Stop it. You’re no good to me and you’re hurting yourself.”


Don’t get me wrong: R.E.M. is the most important American band since 1980. No band has the influence on American music like R.E.M. Even Saint Cobain admitted that he loved what R.E.M. stood for in his life and, like Kurt Cobain, I believed in the ideals that this band adhered to in their career. But a simple check through the back catalogue of R.E.M. albums before 1994’s Monster displays a greatness that has been left behind. The question I propose is whether to believe that the last 15 years of R.E.M. is cancelling out the loads of influences that the previous 13 years created (pre-Monster? I am a big R.E.M. fan and I refuse to answer the question in the affirmative as I believe the back catalogue of R.E.M. stands up to the strands of whatever music they attempt to generate, but eventually this big band from a sleepy college town must realize that it is slowly becoming just a sleepy band. This, honestly, makes me sad.


What makes me sadder? Take a listen to R.E.M.’s 1st EP Chronic Town and pay really close attention to a song like “Wolves, Lower”. It’s classic Peter Buck arpeggio work, the mumbled lyrics of Stipe, the solid baseline of Mills, and the constant undertone drive from Berry. Then, consider how “Wolves, Lower” becomes a new language for what to expect from a rock song. There is a band recreating the verse, chorus, bridge, chorus pop-rock song on a small label EP. By the time the band puts out its critical staple Murmur, R.E.M. has crushed what to expect from a rock and roll song and it didn’t do it by recreating the patterns of the rock song, but by disagreeing with what we expect a rock song to sound like. They stood above the song and divided the elements and democratized the rock song. At the core, rock and roll is about Democracy. It’s the shared elements of the music that equals brilliance.


Truly, there is no difference to the frame of most R.E.M. songs than there is to a song by Boston, but it’s in the completion or execution of the song; the way the band hovers over each other, no part greater than the other; this gave rock and roll another lease on life. Ultimately, this is what good music does: it engages us not to try too hard and be weird for the sake of being weird, but rather to take what we already know, shake it up, and present it to us in the same form, but the result of hearing it gives another way of seeing that original unit of measurement.


For R.E.M. they gave us a different unit to measure the pop song. It is an ironic placement of what the ‘80s Alternative Music scene did for rock and roll. No one can call any member of R.E.M. a musical trend setter, but you can say that they made us think about what a pop song is supposed to sound like.


Fast forward today and I cannot help but notice that R.E.M.’s songs no longer carry the same unity. Two-thirds of Accelerate is filled with songs this band could do in its sleep. There is not one bit of innovation. They are a skeleton of loose parts; Stipe the “Cult of Personality”, Buck the accomplished rock guitarist, and Mills dressed like a bombastic rock star.


I get it. You’re no longer R.E.M. of the ‘80s. I don’t really want you to recreate Document, but I would really love you again if you realized that at your best, R.E.M. is a band that recreated the standard of how we hear rock and roll and that each time this band releases sub standard music, it reminds us that they are inching ever closer to becoming the new Boston. It’s only a short ride to “More than a Feeling”. Ironically, I would love for them to stop by my house and play me “More Than a Feeling”. I would love for them to rise above the song, sell it to me as something more than what I expect it to be. Maybe this could regenerate my love for R.E.M. again.


I mean, come on. I broke up with the band, but I’m not going that far away. I’m only a phone call, a short letter, or a new album away.


Tagged as: r.e.m.
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Thursday, Feb 5, 2009
A new music blog that is going to make gorillas, bears, and pitchforks take off their headphones and listen.

It turns out that you don’t have to throw out the old forms; you just have to inhabit them with passion. Here’s a guy (and, so far, one excellent guest poster) who’s just started a new music blog, and he’s doing it sort of the way you’d expect, with a best of 2008 and Nick Hornby style rhapsodies on single songs. The writing, though, just leaps off the page. It makes what you’re hearing sound weird and new again.


Here’s what he said about Deerhunter’s new album:


I can never seem to remember having listened to this album. I think it’s intended to be that way. The tracks blur together in memory, wrapped in a luscious, dream-like haze. The lyrics escape into faint echoes resounding around an absent center. There’s something hiding here, which refuses to stick in the net of the conscious mind. Microcastles is the residue of a trauma. No matter how vehemently Bradford Cox insists that nothing ever happened to him, every song vibrates under the sedimentary weight of an event, a faint pulse that never stops, that resounds with the constant tremor of Deerhunter’s guitars.


The rest is here.


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