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Wednesday, Oct 28, 2009

Question: What happens when you put members of the Stooges and the MC5—two of the rawest, most powerful bands of their day—in a band together?  You end up with the five minutes of sustained awesomeness that is “City Slang”.


Sonic’s Rendezvous Band featured drummer Scott Asheton and guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith from the aforementioned Detroit protopunk groups.  After those ensembles imploded in the early 1970s, Smith assembled the band and cut “City Slang”.  Due to internal band tension, the planned b-side “Electrophonic Tonic” was pulled prior to the single’s 1978 release.  But in a maneuver of sheer ballsy simplicity, the group remedied the situation by simply placing “City Slang” on both sides of vinyl, in mono and stereo version.


Now, any rock song of that breaches the five-minute mark (much less one that appears on both sides of a vinyl single) needs to have either an interesting composition, a hypnotic quality, or tons of charisma to keep listeners engaged.  Sonic’s Rendezvous Band opted for the latter, delivering a powerful rocker with lurching grooves and a stuttering vocal hook.  There’s a killer bass breakdown in the middle, and a great ending where the band just rides out chord progression as Smith’s guitar delivers pummeling eighth-note rhythms.  The group even works in a piano into its assault.  To think, this was the only material released while the band was still active.  In a time when punk was insisting that rock had to be short, fast, and loud, Sonic’s Rendezvous Band demonstrated to the new kids that two out of three could be even better.


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Tuesday, Oct 27, 2009

I’ve long been an admirer of John Crossingham, who is best known for being part of the Broken Social Scene collective, but has put out some of the most underrated Canadian music of this decade with his band Raising the Fawn. After a strong run of albums including 2004’s The North Sea and 2006’s The Maginot Line, I’d been wondering what became of Crossingham and his band, and while Raising the Fawn has been silent on all fronts for a couple years now, Crossingham has been hard at work on another project… yes, it’s music-related, but it’s a completely different medium. It turns out the guy’s written a book. A kids’ book.


Published by the folks at Canada’s Owl Kids (publishers of the long-running Canadian children’s nature magazine Owl) Learn to Speak Music: A Guide to Creating, Performing, and Promoting Your Songs is aimed at the nine-to-12-year-old set, as Crossingham offers a beginners’ guide to creating music. And the scope of this 96-page book is remarkably wide, as he takes the reader through the processes of choosing and learning an instrument, forming a band, writing your own songs, setting up live performances, recording your music, promotion and merchandising, and myriad other little tips. Most importantly, he promotes a strong DIY indie aesthetic that serves as an extremely refreshing counterpoint to the mainstream’s preoccupation with instant, pre-fab, American/Canadian Idol fame. It’s all about the joy of creating, and I can’t think of a better message for little kids these days. In fact, reading Crossingham’s friendly, lucidly-written advice—for example, learning to be fair to your bandmates and treat them with respect, or how to organize a well-run, financially responsible concert—there are plenty of grown-up musicians who could even learn a thing or two from this book.


One of the coolest things about the book is all the little sidebar tips from various well-known Canadian indie artists, as people like Feist, Emily Haines, Dallas Green, Buck 65, Melissa Auf der Maur, Kevin Drew, Brendan Canning, Andrew Whiteman, and many others offer their own advice for young readers. Also, scattered throughout are excelleently chosen playlists that offer terrific examples of such things as dynamics, cover tunes, unusual arrangements, lyrics, classic live performances, and lo-fi versus hi-fi. Jeff Kulak provides plenty of eye-catching illustrations that help explain what Crossingham is getting at, but in the end it’s Crossingham’s personable writing style, not to mention his years of experience writing and performing music, that makes Learn to Speak Music so enjoyable. It’s not so much a “how to write an incredible song” book as it is a “how to be yourself through music” book, and no matter what style of music a kid wants to play, Crossingham shows that the entire process can be extremely rewarding if you’re willing to put in the effort. It’s an absolute pleasure to read for kids and grown-ups alike.


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Monday, Oct 26, 2009

Some people think artists shouldn’t cover a song unless they put an entirely unique spin on it.  The late Jeffrey Lee Pierce of Los Angeles swamp-punk legends the Gun Club was one of those people.  Miami (1982), the Gun Club’s second album, features two covers:  Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Run Through the Jungle” and the traditional folk song “John Hardy”.  The latter sounds nothing like any of the myriad arrangements it has been given over the last century by artists from Leadbelly to Uncle Tupelo.  And the former takes such pains to distinguish itself that it scarcely shares any lyrical content with the original. 


Pierce’s take on “Run Through the Jungle” starts off in a fairly straightforward way, with the familiar riff created by John Fogerty and Co. (Remember when Fogerty was sued for plagiarizing “Run Through the Jungle”—that is, plagiarizing himself—with his 1985 solo tune “The Old Man Down the Road”?)  But don’t start singing along yet, because Pierce has other ideas, as was usually the case for this misunderstood visionary.  The chorus is the only thing that ties the song lyrically to the original, although instead of “Better run through the jungle / Oh and don’t look back”, Pierce sings “I will run through the jungle / And I won’t look back”.


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Sunday, Oct 25, 2009
Artist/producer PC Muñoz mines for gems and grills the greats.

Thao Nguyen is awesome. That’s really the best way I can think of to begin this piece. Unlike a lot of the songwriters I often feature here, Nguyen doesn’t have a decades-long body of work behind her, no loud trail of evidence which the majority of music fans have encountered in some form or another. She’s all of 24 years old (or thereabouts), started releasing records in 2005 (her new one, Know Better Learn Faster came out this month) and though she’s been playing guitar for most of her life, she’s basically in the early years of her career. 


Nguyen’s free-spirited and confident stage manner, her deft guitar playing, her cool band (The Get Down Stay Down), and cute-indie-girl look all likely play a part in her growing popularity, but the real secret weapon she wields is her disarmingly unique vocal style—her voice and melodies are some of the freshest things you’re likely to hear this year.


In my opinion, Thao Nguyen has significant cross-generational appeal. Young folks of course are already taking to her music, but I also recommend her stuff to any Boomer or Gen X’er who is interested in finding a Millennial songwriter to really dig into. Seriously—the artist that Thao Nguyen most reminds me of is Laura Nyro. Not so much on the direct musical/lyrical tip, but I do get a Nyro-like vibe from Nguyen in the intangibles—the raw sincerity, confident singularity, and pure physical force of the work.


What was the first song you fell in love with, and what is your current relationship to the piece?
It was Smokey Robinson’s “You Really Got a Hold on Me”. I love it still, I think it is perfect. We covered it last year, in tribute.


Who is your favorite “unsung” artist or songwriter, someone who you feel never gets their due? Talk a little bit about him/her.
Margo Timmins of the Cowboy Junkies—her voice and delivery are so moving—she has incredible warmth and richness and sadness in her tone, and at the same time a subtlety that is just as devastating. 


Is there an artist, genre, author, filmmaker, etc. who/which has had a significant impact/influence on you, but that influence can’t be directly heard in your music?
Grace Paley—my favorite short story write—my college roommate introduced me. My love and admiration for Paley’s work has endlessly guided and motivated me in my lyric writing. She doesn’t do anything unless its necessary. And I named my touring company and a song after her story Goodbye and Good Luck.


Do you view songwriting as a calling, a gig, a hobby, other…?
I view songwriting as the thing I need and take for granted the most.


Name one contemporary song that encourages you about the future of songwriting/pop music.
The Avett Brothers’ “Will You Return”.


Check out the video below of Thao Nguyen with The Get Down Stay Down’s 2008 song “Bag of Hammers” to get a vibe, and visit thaomusic.com for information on their new album, Know Better Learn Faster, as well as lyrics and more.



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Friday, Oct 23, 2009
He wanted to hold on, but too many fans remembered the time he pushed Donna down the stairs.

Alex was a sensitive poet/songwriter who worked in a grocery store by day and sang lead in a rock and roll band at night. He was in love with Rita, a dispatcher for a beer distributor who played saxophone in the band, and along with the others, he dreamed of finding success as a member of the Heights. The group’s hopes were cruelly crushed, however, when Fox canceled The Heights after just three months due to declining ratings.


Jamie Walters, the actor who brought Alex to life, was also the lead vocalist on the show’s theme song, “How Do You Talk to an Angel”. In a rather cruel twist of fate, the song became a smash hit, spending two weeks at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, just as The Heights’ final episodes were airing. At 23, Walters found himself both an unemployed actor and the official face and voice of a one-hit wonder.


Fortunately, his second chance at fame came a couple years later when he was cast as Ray Pruit, a carpenter and the lead singer of the Peach Pit After Dark house band, on Beverly Hills 90210. Walters quickly became a fan favorite, and in 1995, he released a self-titled album. Although it peaked at #70 and fell off the Billboard 200 album after four months, it did produce a Top 20 hit. “Hold On” spent half a year on the Hot 100, eventually peaking at #16.


Then things went bad.


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