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Tuesday, Sep 29, 2009

Walking into the Silent Comedy show at San Diego’s Casbah on September 11th, you might have felt you’d stumbled onto the craft services table on set of a remake of Paper Moon. Every other guy in attendance looked like a particularly roguish Depression-era hobo or the piano player at a Chaplin film festival. A sampling of the look can be found in the video for the band’s 2007 song “Bones”, except these aren’t costumes—these dudes dress this way 24-7. To take advantage of sartorial similarities with opening acts Mississippi Man, Skyline Union and River City, the gig was christened “Mustache Mayhem”.


In fact, the guys in the Silent Comedy love facial hair so much that they’ve turned it into a way to finance their next CD. You too can be a patron of the arts if you sport a mustache (real or faux) and give a donation on the band’s website. Talk about music industry innovations in the tech age!


The band had reason to celebrate, having won a San Diego Music Award for Best Pop Group the night before. Frontman Joshua Zimmerman (aka J. John) displayed a newfound confidence and swagger that was palpable as the band launched in the song “Poison” with all the fervor of a tent revival meeting. There was no sign of the hellacious hangover that photographer Rich Cook said followed Thursday night’s totally unexpected win—but that might be due to the very liberal hair-of-the-dog flowing throughout the set.


Mississippi Man was the only non-San Diego band on the bill, and their sound, while certainly as sepia-toned as the rest, had the most modern flair, if your idea of modern is the 1960s. Sure, they look just as breadline-ready as their compatriots, but their music is decidedly more Brian Wilson than Al Jolson. And River City, playing in the back bar known as the Atari Lounge during breaks in the main stage sets, might have been the sleeper hit of the night. Their mustache ratio was strong (three out of five), and they rocked a Maid Rite washboard to boot! 


September 11th is a time of somber reflection for most Americans. But the crowd at the Casbah that night got a welcome break from the cares of the day with the help of some great music, and some truly inspired facial hair.



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Monday, Sep 28, 2009
Pop Heroism, One Song at a Time

“Dreamlover”
Written by Mariah Carey, Dave Hall, and Walter Afanasieff
From Music Box, Sony Records, 1993


An earlier version of this V-C-V first appeared on pcmunoz.com on January 17, 2006


I love Mariah Carey for all kinds of reasons. For starters, she’s a technically amazing vocalist, capable of notes most vocalists can only hope to reach via a healthy dose of “digital assistance”. She’s also a steely, determined artist who wouldn’t let consecutive project failures and public embarrassments defeat her spirit. And of course, I appreciate that she’s a serious, savvy songwriter, who has worked with everyone from Carole King to Kanye West. After a rough patch around the year 2001, Carey spent a few years as the butt of mean-spirited (read: hatin’) jokes and undeserved write-offs. Fans like myself were not surprised at all when she re-emerged on the scene in 2005 with a wildly successful straight-out R&B album, The Emancipation of Mimi, a spectacular platter of choice grooves, killer vocals, and a fun vibe that recalls the ‘90s hit I will discuss here, “Dreamlover”.


“Dreamlover” is pure, frothy pop. It flows along so sweetly and lightly, it’s easy to dismiss the wide-eyed innocence which the lyric imparts. With her talk of rainbows, charm bracelets, music boxes, and butterflies, I’ve always thought Mariah Carey seems to possess a kind of little-girl spirit which most female songwriters don’t dare conjure, for fear of being pigeon-holed, stereotyped, or mocked by “serious” songwriting peers and critics. One might conjecture that Carey’s use of these images is simply a calculated manipulation of her focus-group tested demographic (young females), or, worse, an indication of a kind of stunted emotional growth, but I happen to be of the opinion that she really likes that kinda stuff. Her covers of Journey’s “Open Arms” and Def Leppard’s big-haired suburban classic “Bringin’ on the Heartbreak” support this theory, as far I’m concerned. Carey’s penchant for this imagery of course completely precludes her from ever earning the type of indie-cred heaped upon more appropriately-cool songwriters like PJ Harvey, Ani DiFranco, or the early, pre-pop-stardom-grab incarnation of Liz Phair, but it certainly does not warrant automatic dismissal of her work as an artist.


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Friday, Sep 25, 2009
After taking Arrested Development back to Tennessee, Dionne crafted a musical hit that still resonates today.

In the summer of 1992, Arrested Development had the first of three top ten hits with “Tennessee”, a song as powerful and hypnotic today as it was seventeen years ago. A quest for spiritual enlightenment hindered by the anger and pain of growing up in a world that often makes no sense, the song ended with the strong, pleading voice of Dionne Farris echoing the song’s search for home.


Dionne, who was more one of the “extended family” than an actual member of Arrested Development, got noticed after the song became such a major hit, and Chrysalis (Arrested Development’s record company) offered her a solo contract. Looking for more creative control than the company was willing to give, Dionne turned down the offer. Fortunately, Sony Music heard a demo she made with David Harris, and they offered her a contract that was more flexible.


The result was one of the best albums of the year, Wild Seed, Wild Flower.


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Thursday, Sep 24, 2009
Music writers have tried to correlate the death of the CD with the release of the remastered albums from the Beatles. But as long as we like having a physical copy of a special album, hard copy formats will not disappear anytime soon.

For music journalists, it would be easy to declare the release of the remastered versions of the Beatles albums as the end of the CD era. Bloggers and music writers, most notably NPR’s “All Songs Considered” host Bob Boilen said the new Beatles remastered CDs will likely be the last CDs many people will buy.


It would be a fitting epitaph for the format: Born: 1984 with Born in the U.S.A the first CD massive produced in the United States. Died: September 9, 2009 with the Beatles boxed set. Where I live, there is even some serious circumstantial evidence to back up this claim: the same month The Beatles released their remastered albums, Homers Music & Gifts, the largest independent music distributor in Nebraska will close two of its four locations.


Unfortunately, the end of CD purchasing just isn’t true. Yes, downloads are eclipsing CDs in terms of how people get their music, but what will keep the CD alive is not lower prices or even the quality of the product, but our insatiable desire to display stuff.


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Thursday, Sep 24, 2009
Bluegrass band Iron Horse created a Modest Mouse cover album with amazing results.

A good cover song should change a song yet still retain enough of its character that you find a new way to appreciate the original. Where lyrics had gone unnoticed before, a new version can emphasize different moments or add unique twists by changing the delivery. A new beat or even a few new chords could add a whole new element to a classic piece and give something for both new and old audiences to appreciate. The principle is true enough that for bluegrass band Ironhorse, doing tribute albums for their favorite bands along with their own original recordings led to a remarkable discovery. Modest Mouse songs sound fantastic as bluegrass.


Each song gets translated to a style of bluegrass that matches its character. You’ll have a plucking piece, a waltz, a crooning song, or sometimes just a rapid dance. The dark, moody song ‘Trailer Trash’ is an easy fit for a slow plucking tune. Yet the more the band gets into Modest Mouse’s more distorted, warbling sound the more the bluegrass version pulls it back to its roots. The dramatic beats and shifts in tone of ‘Ocean Breathes Salty’ and ‘Float On’ are wiped away in their covers, leaving a steadier progression that delivers the chorus through crooning instead of shouting. Nor does Iron Horse always go for a conventional adaptation, ‘Baby Blue Sedan’ becomes a plodding waltz instead of being just another acoustic adaptation.


Creating these songs is a trial and error process. In an e-mail band member Vance Henry explains, “CMH Records comes up with the ideas for the covers. Once a project is agreed upon, we will listen to the songs that the producer has selected for any that we feel just can’t cross over into the bluegrass style and if everyone agrees we will replace it. Sometimes we notice them upon first listening, but occasionally we discover them when we start putting an arrangement together….It is a group effort where we will just chart the song and get in a circle and start playing and let the arrangement evolve and I think these turn out to be the best arrangements/projects.” The album was recorded in two weeks through the group plucking in the studio, leading to a real sense of cohesion and balance as they make each song have its own spin.


The most impressive thing about this cover album is how much it will increase your appreciation for Modest Mouse’s lyrics. The clever wordplay of the band was always noticeable, but having their lyrics be sung elegantly in bluegrass style adds a new sense of quiet desperation to them. The lines “I miss you when you’re around” ring even colder when sung to a waltz that is meant to be slow danced with a partner. Instead of lead singer Brock angrily shouting, “Outside naked, shivering looking blue, from the cold sunlight that’s reflected off the moon, Baby come angels flying around you, reminding you we used to be three and not just two” in the cover it is now a careful and earnest solo. The repeated lines of, “Don’t you worry, we’ll all float on” become a group harmony, with each member of the band joining in until everyone is singing. Hearing these new versions gives new dimension to these songs, so that you’ll want to hear the original and just as much as the bluegrass cover.


You can find the album through the band’s website and through most online services.


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