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Thursday, Oct 29, 2009
"The feeling is gone / Only you and I / It means nothing to me / This means nothing to me / Oh, Vienna"

It begins with a drumbeat that pulses like a human heart but sounds more like shutters flapping in an empty manor.  A synthesizer whines as a voice wafts in like a cold wind over the sparse backdrop.  It smolders for a while; then, as keyboards enter like rays of sunlight, the voice bursts out into full force in a cry verging on the operatic, punctuated by delicate piano keys.  The song is nothing less than poised grandeur, mourning a deep loss in a somber, moving fashion.


The single “Vienna” was an affirmation for struggling synthpop pioneers Ultravox.  At the dawn of the 1980s, the group was in a precarious situation. Not long before the song was recorded, original frontman John Foxx had departed the group, and his replacement, Midge Ure, arrived in the middle of a group whose chance at stardom was widely considered to be long past.  “Vienna” proved Ultravox was ready for another shot.  In fact, the song was so strong that Ultravox’s record label, Chrysalis, changed the band’s fourth album title name to Vienna from the less straightforward Torque Point.  Released in January 1981, “Vienna” hovered at number two on the UK Singles Chart in the early part of the year.  Oddly enough, it was kept from the top slot first by a pair of singles by then-recently slain ex-Beatle John Lennon, then by Joe Dolce’s novelty hit “Shaddup You Face”.


Although it never reached the top of the charts, “Vienna” is nonetheless Ultravox’s greatest triumph.  “Vienna” excels at creating a mood suggestive of reflection, despair, and longing.  The song’s restraint of composition is its strength, keeping its more sensational moments from coming off as overblown melodrama. This does not just apply to execution of the music.  The beautifully-realized atmosphere of “Vienna” is crafted in part by lyrics that suggest emotions instead of outlining hard details.  The words do not explicitly state what the song is about, for the lyrics are concerned with conveying the feeling through word choice and phrasing rather than explaining what exactly the narrator is ruminating about.


Tagged as: ultravox
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Wednesday, Oct 28, 2009
Why I can't tell you why this band rules.

Driving home from a really tremendous rock show is an adrenaline-fueled bummer for me.  I am so hopped up on the rocky goodness that I can fairly stay strapped into my Honda, buzzing with all of the things I want to pour out into this blog—and knowing damn well that I won’t, because I can’t.  Because the saddest truism for a writer like me is that I cannot find the words to say why I love the music that I love.  The emotion does not easily translate to the written word, nor does the giddiness, the sore glutes that come from rocking out as violently as is possible on a barstool, the can’t-hardly-wait anticipation of “OH MY GOD THAT SONG IS AMAZING WHEN ARE THEY GOING TO RELEASE IT?!”  Punctuation is so cumbersome to the 14-year-old I become in the wake of a show like the one Apes of Wrath played on October 9th at Tin Can Alehouse in San Diego.


The venue, bless it’s heart, was as nondescript and tiny as one could imagine, and my companion assured me the sound was atrocious.  I myself do not really care about stuff like bass levels or other minutiae of audio amplification, as those things have never stopped me from getting my face rocked off.  Going to the women’s restroom necessitates stepping almost right onto the stage, or at least the invisible border that delineates the stage from the regular old floor.  Opening acts the Sunday Times and the Howls put on energetic and entertaining sets, especially the latter, who handed out burned copies of their homemade CD with their website name written in Marks-a-Lot.  The music reminded me of early Wilco, and the singer was sort of like Whiskeytown era-Ryan Adams (but without the crazy).  I especially dug the song “Dead Men Tell No Lies”. The adorable factor went through the roof when the singer announced that this was their first show since their drummer turned 21.  (Adorable to me, anyway, since 99% of the crowd wasn’t far ahead of him.)


Apes of Wrath are a San Diego band who put out a wee gem of an EP in 2007 called Plastic, Fake & Frozen that really blew my hair back after I bought it at one of their Casbah shows.  It was this really manic pop that reminded me of early Oingo Boingo and had great lyrics like “I wear purple in the sun now / Cos it doesn’t retain too much heat”.  Months later, I still haven’t removed it from my car stereo, and after the Tin Can Alehouse show, I officially declared Apes my New Favorite Band.  They didn’t play even one song off that EP, and therefore not one song that I knew, which usually bums me out to no end.  That’s the mark of true musical love for me—if the words “This is a new one off our upcoming CD” don’t send me running for a bathroom break.  I can’t wait to see them again.  For all those reasons that I can’t describe, and all those feelings that I can’t put into words.


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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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