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by Sean Murphy

20 Dec 2010


As Ian Anderson said, “We’re getting a bit short on heroes lately”.

And Ian, while he wasn’t speaking of Don Van Vliet, nevertheless would—and has—endorsed the man better known as Captain Beefheart. Indeed, the list of well-loved and iconoclastic artists who have cited CB as an inspiration and hero include the likes of Tom Waits, Nick Cave, P.J. Harvey and Matt Groening. When the people lots of people worship name you as someone they worship, you can safely conclude you have done influential work, even if it didn’t necessarily pay the bills.

To say Don Van Vliet, who passed away on December 17th, was unique is rather like saying the sun radiates heat: it doesn’t quite capture the enormity and impact of the subject. To assert that he was brilliant would be almost insulting, if that is possible. A genius? Let’s just say that if he wasn’t, then no other pop musician has ever been either. Even that is not quite right, since pop refers to popular and Captain Beefheart was anything but popular. He was highly regarded, and always will be, but the circle of aficionados who gravitate to his uncanny catalog is likely to get smaller, not bigger. Also, it just doesn’t work to call what he did pop music; he was an artist. Literally. When he walked away from music, forever, in the early ‘80s, he concentrated on his painting and made far more money from that (calling to mind another eccentric genius, Syd Barrett, who turned his back on the scene and quietly tended to his paintings and his plants).

by Jason Mendelsohn and Eric Klinger

17 Dec 2010


Mendelsohn: Before we talk about where we first heard this record or how it made us feel or why our world is a better place because of it or any of that—I’d just like to throw this out there: Radiohead’s OK Computer is to the 1990s (and probably the next two decades) what the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds was to the 1960s (and ’70s and ’80s).

Klinger: Hmm . . . sonically daring, aesthetically bold, and fetishized beyond its standing by pale mopey geeks? You may be onto something there, Mendelsohn.

Mendelsohn: It’s not just the pale, mopey geeks who love this album. OK Computer went platinum in almost every country, spawned three chart hits and a hit video in the waning days of MTV, when music videos were being shown the door. We’re talking about a pop masterpiece with a commercial and critical appeal that had seldom been seen in a decade or more preceding and still hasn’t been matched. We’re talking about one of the last great albums here. Very possibly the last entry into the Great Rock ’n Roll canon. Whether or not you like Thom Yorke’s crooning and the band’s sad-sack guitars, you have to give this album its due.

by Sean Murphy

16 Dec 2010


“Living is easy with eyes closed / Misunderstanding all you see / It’s getting hard to be someone but it all works out / It doesn’t matter much to me”. Those aren’t just defining lines from a defining song by the defining band of all time, the Beatles. They are lines written by the closest thing we humans get to a super hero at the top of his game, having just shouted down from the mountain top on one of the most innovative, shape-shifting songs of all time, “Tomorrow Never Knows”.

If some people, understandably, think the everything-plus-kitchen-sink approach on the subsequent Beatles album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) was in places a tad too haphazard and indulgent, no such concerns can apply here: songwriter John Lennon knew what he wanted, telling MVP producer George Martin he wanted his vocals to sound like “a hundred chanting Tibetan monks”. No worries, right? Martin, with appreciable assistance from an always-game Paul McCartney, sliced, diced, looped and spliced, and second by painstaking second, reel-to-reel tape transported the magic from Lennon’s mind. To say that this song set the tone for experimentation and was influential across multiple genres, including—or especially—ones that didn’t even exist yet, scarcely does it justice.

by Sean Murphy

15 Dec 2010


“I can’t go on, I’ll go on . . .” When it comes to the Beatles, I feel obliged to invoke Samuel Beckett. Everything has been said; enough can never be said. So let me say this: as long as I have eyes, ears, fingers and a keyboard, I’ll be talking about the Beatles.

And that is just referring to the band’s official discography. What about the incalculable covers of their catalog? With a band as beloved and unavoidable as the Beatles, we’ve heard it all. Especially the stuff we didn’t want or need to hear and, unfortunately, the stuff that can never be unheard (Bee Gees and Beatles don’t mix). That said, while nothing, of course, can ever compare to the real thing, there are some amazing tributes out there. Naturally, the more unorthodox ones tend to fare better, if for no other reason because they retain the spirit of the original without drawing an overly direct comparison, which is always a losing proposition.

I can think of several; so can you. How about Eddie Hazel’s funkadelic deconstruction of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”? Or Joe Jackon’s plaintive take on “Eleanor Rigby”? Or the enchanting Allison Kraus’ version of “I Will”? Or Jimi Hendrix’s straight-out impounding of “Sgt. Pepper”? Or anything by Electric Light Orchestra—oh wait, those weren’t covers? Never mind. The best one I’ve seen in ages, and one I suspect I’ll never tire of, is St. Vincent’s stylized, sexy-as-all-get-out take on “I Dig a Pony” which needs to be seen, immediately.

Understanding, then, that there is always room for more Beatles, the question still must be answered: is there really room for an entire album of Beatles covers? Well . . .

by Evan Sawdey

14 Dec 2010


Tom Zé is one of the most underappreciated geniuses in all of pop music history. He is considered by many to be one of the founding fathers of the Tropicalia movement, which helped redefine how the world felt about Brazilian music culture from the 1960s onward.  Although people like Gilberto Gil and Os Mutantes all came from the same collective mindset, it wasn’t until the mid-‘80s when Zé broke through, having caught the eye of David Byrne, getting signed to his Luaka Bop record label, and soon experiencing a remarkable career renaissance . . .

Back in October of this year, Zé became recipient of some unique reissues, ranging from a fantastic multi-LP vinyl box set called Explaining Things So I Can Confuse You, along with a single-disc greatest hits retrospective CD called Estudando a Bossa. To help commemorate these releases, Zé sat down to do a brief 20 Questions feature with us here at PopMatters, revealing how he wished he discovered the diatonic scale, why he looks so good in a fig leaf, and how psychoanalysis is his stress management . . .

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