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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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Wednesday, Sep 23, 2009

In belated recognition of the recent release of Beatles CD remasters, I thought I should briefly discuss my favorite Beatles song.


“Dear Prudence” is the second track on the group’s 1968 double album The Beatles (more commonly referred to as “The White Album”).  It was one of several songs the band members wrote during their early 1968 trip to study meditation under the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India. John Lennon wrote the song about attempts to get one of his fellow meditation students, actress Mia Farrow’s sister Prudence, to come out of her room after suffering a panic attack. During recording sessions for “The White Album”, Paul McCartney played bass, piano, and drums on the song, the latter the result of the temporary resignation of drummer Ringo Starr from the group.


The most distinctive aspect of “Dear Prudence” is its ethereal, almost foreboding quality, something which is quite uncommon in the Beatles’ discography. The song’s sound is partially due to the fact that the group recorded it on eight-track equipment. However, the arrangement of much of the song is intentionally sparse; after the upbeat power-chord Beach Boys homage of album opener “Back in the U.S.S.R.”, “Dear Prudence” wafts onto the record like a gentle breeze. At first “Dear Prudence” seems nothing more than low-key ballad wrapped in sadness; its strength lies in how it builds up to a fantastic finish that banishes the negative atmosphere just like the sun breaking through on a cloudy day.


Tagged as: the beatles
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Tuesday, Sep 22, 2009

It’s a huge release week, one of the most packed of the year. Fall is indeed here in force. Pearl Jam self-releases, but partners with retail behemoth Target, while indie rock unloads a treasure trove of new music, and British pop stages an invasion of sorts with the return of Mika, Richard Hawley and David Gray.


Pearl Jam - Backspacer: This is a giant release and marks the former grunge band’s embrace of pop, so perhaps it’s fitting that the normally anti-corporate Eddie Vedder and co. steered the exclusive big box store release to Target. The band is going it alone here with a self-release, something only the world’s biggest artists like them and Radiohead can really do and still move major units. The result has been near universal critical acclaim for the band’s new musical direction.


Basement Jaxx - Scars: The South London house duo release their first record since 2006’s Crazy Itch Radio. While nothing here trumps the sublime beats of 2003’s Kish Kash, Scars does offer an engaging selection of collaborations, including turns with Santigold, Amp Fiddler, and Yoko Ono.



Tagged as: new cd releases
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Tuesday, Sep 22, 2009

In a recent PopMatters post, I highlighted the importance of the Glasgow music scene – and its historical relevance to the world of music. Like musical hotspots, Seattle and New York—Glasgow possesses the wet weather of one, and the greased-up urban spontaneity of the latter. As such, it should come as no surprise to find that another up and coming Glasgow-based band is rekindling the flame of the 1970s NY punk music scene in 2009.


In particular, I am referring to the quartet, known as Isosceles. A member of the Art Goes Pop music collective, Isosceles’ sound is emblematic of the collective’s moniker. Rickety guitar work is interspersed with a spattering of drums, and lead singer, Jack Valentine’s yelping vocal execution – all of which help position the band nicely between Television and The Modern Lovers.


And just like their forefathers, the foursome is keen to experiment with ironic, self-referential songs. Their second single (and perhaps their catchiest) entitled, “Kitch Bitch” is like a post-modern version of Pulp’s “Common People”, churned out at high speed. While their first single, “Get Your Hands Off’ is a tongue and cheek number that flips the notion that men are sex pests on its gender-bending head, suggesting instead that women are the ones hungry for the bump and grind. However, when Valentine begins to sing, “I said honey, don’t use your sexuality on me”, one starts to realise that his voice is laced with the equivalent of a wink and a snigger. For all of the song’s candour, it is still clear that the boys approach their subject matter with a sense of humour.


Having already supported Scottish stalwarts, Franz Ferdinand on a previous Scottish tour, the boys have already developed a healthy buzz in the area. Personally, my interest in the band grew out of trips to a local coffee shop (referenced in their second single). When I overheard the strapping young gentleman mutter something about his musical career, I felt such a strong compulsion to investigate them. In the year since then, the band have continued to develop their following in the Glasgow music scene, whilst maintaining their humble and erudite personas—saving their energy for their fervent, audience-pleasing shows.



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Monday, Sep 21, 2009
Pop Heroism, One Song at a Time

“Better Days” - Bruce Springsteen
Written by Bruce Springsteen
From Lucky Town (Columbia, 1992)


A slightly different version of this V-C-V was originally published on pcmunoz.com on August 9, 2005


Bruce Springsteen has long dealt with intense, powerful subject matter. The characters in his songs are often trying to find their place in life while battling the burdens of fleshly weakness and spiritual frailty, attempting to make sense of the various ties that bind them to people and places.


“Better Days” is the lead-off track from 1992’s Lucky Town, one of the two discs Springsteen simultaneously released that year (the other album was called Human Touch). It was not made in collaboration with the E-Street Band. Much of the relationship-oriented material on the record deals with the idea of renewed hope, after a wrong turn in the recent past. “Better Days”, particularly, seems to be the light at the end of the dark “tunnel of love” Springsteen so thoroughly described in the album which preceded Lucky Town and Human Touch.


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