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Wednesday, Jan 28, 2009

The silly red hat: it’s back. At first, when I see Elvis Costello wearing that questionable fashion choice once again atop his head while performing (an abridged) “All This Useless Beauty” at the start of tonight’s episode of Spectacle: Elvis Costello With… (airing Wednesdays at 9pm EST/PST on the Sundance Channel), I conclude that he must dust the thing off each time a devotee of opera appears on the show. Tonight’s guest, after all, is American soprano Renée Fleming. Alas, my conclusion is premature: halfway through the episode, Costello introduces, as a surprise guest, Rufus Wainwright, who appears wearing the same outfit from his previous episode. This episode, then, was taped on the same day, perhaps the only day that hat made it out from some whimsical closet and into public.


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Wednesday, Jan 28, 2009

Brutal. Even for a die hard Midwesterner like myself, January weather in Chicago has been brutal this year. So brutal that I find myself wrestling with the winds and bitters of Chicago sidewalks to make my weekly treks to local record stores. Falling over sheets of ice, dirty salty air, and a need to walk hunched to avoid all but the sidewalk just in front of my next fearless step. Yep. It’s been this bad.


I have found myself dodging some current releases in order to refresh my record collection of some lost, classic American songwriting. Today’s picks were a pair of purely American originals. Tom Waits and The Band tell stories we’ve all heard before, but each give us perspective and point of view demonstrating a rich palette of Americana. I speak to albums from each artist/group: Tom Waits Franks Wild Years (sic) and The Band The Band.


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Tom Waits, Franks Wild Years


Tom Waits’ 1987 release is the music he co-wrote with his wife Kathleen Brennan. The songs became the basis for the play of the same name; performed in1986 by Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company. The album is pure Tom Waits and I’m shocked I have never spent the time listening to the entirety of the album. It is a record that demonstrates Waits’ flexibility as a songwriter. A song like “Hang on St. Christopher” is a staple in the Waits’ catalogue, but experiments on the two versions of “Straight to the Top” demonstrate musical moxie that harkens back to Leonard Cohen and Irving Berlin more than anything contemporary to Waits. Typical of Waits’ albums, he borrows from his previous albums in songs like the previously named “Hang on St. Christopher” and “Telephone Call from Istanbul” that fit in line with some of his previous experiments in 1986’s album Rain Dogs (incidentally, the title of the album is a nod to an early song of the same name on his 1983 release Swordfishtrombones), but gently massaging his listener in different experimental directions in the songs “I’ll Take New York” and “Blow Wind Blow”. Franks Wild Years is a masterful touch from one of America’s greatest songwriters to ever grace us with his presence. Truly, a man who can write a song like “Straight to Vegas” and then three songs later (and on the same side of the record) share a song like “Cold Cold Ground” where Tom laments “Take the weathervane rooster / Throw rocks at his head / Stop talking to the neighbors / Til we all go dead / Beware of my temper / And the dog I’ve found / Break all the windows in the cold, cold ground.” shows dexterity that is pure talent, shockingly beautiful in its execution.


 


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The Band, The Band


I always have found it interesting that The Band’s second, self-titled album was a more commercially and financially accepted album on its release date than compared to their previous album, 1968’s Music From the Big Pink. The Band is a little more evenly arranged. There is a definite sense that Robbie Robertson (that’s J.R. Robertson to you and me) had a vision to the development of the track’s order and subsequent arrangement. However, I have always been more emotionally drawn to Music From the Big Pink because of exactly why The Band’s second album is so credited; because Big Pink is so uneven and spontaneous. With this being said, The Band is a beautiful collection of songs that paints a visionary tale of Americana. The first track “Across the Great Divide” sets the album in motion. Robertson’s invitation to “Grab your hat, and take that ride” calls out the listener to sit back and ride through the backroads of Americana.  The pace is continued through Reconstruction Dixie in “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, continued in the songs “Up on Cripple Creek” and “Look Out Cleveland”. Each demonstrates narratives about the people and events that shaped the complicated history of America. As I listen to the album for the first time in a long while, I am reminded in how well The Band told the Oral History of an America forgotten at the end of the commercially successful “Summer of Love”.


 


So that was my weekly venture to the record stacks of Dave Records on Clark and Wellington in Chicago. Without a doubt, bitterly cold days are not the norm around Chicago, but I’ll remind those who regret setting up their shacks in the Midwest that the cold days do not prevent us from heading out, grabbing some records, and returning home to some nice beers, a bump of the volume, and hockey on the TV to remind us Januarys are a state of mind around these parts.


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Tuesday, Jan 27, 2009
by PopMatters Staff

New albums out this week that are available in full on lala.com for streaming…



Tagged as: cd releases, new cds
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Monday, Jan 26, 2009

Human depravity, sexualized violence, macabre desires come to life in two dimensions; this is the world artist Raymond Pettibon renders in pen and ink.  It is a world mirrored sonically by the band he formerly played with, Black Flag, and the label where he acted as visual curator, SST, for much of the late ‘70s and ‘80s.


Most familiar with the hardcore punk scene of this time will remember Pettibon’s comic book influenced drawings.They adorned telephone poles, streetlights and album covers.


Flyers depicting police officers with guns lodged in the their mouths, nuns brandishing shiny steel hedge clippers, and other disturbing scenes accompanied by cryptic captions, advertised shows by Black Flag, Circle Jerks, DOA, and many other bands of that period.  In 1990 he did the artwork for Sonic Youth’s Goo.

The album cover has been both one of his most enduring and typifying images.


While his artwork has since become iconic and synonymous with this period in punk music, few know the artist responsible.  Fewer still know he was the original bassist for Black Flag; a band started by his older brother, guitarist/songwriter and SST label founder, Greg Ginn.Pettibon was responsible for suggesting the name Black Flag reasoning, “If a white flag means surrender, a black flag represents anarchy.”  He also created the four black bar logo that served as the band’s emblem.


His art conjures R. Crumb and Ralph Steadman, two other artists whose illustrative approach are often attached to a literary narrative.  Crumb and Steadman partnered with writers Charles Bukowski and Hunter S. Thompson respectively, while Pettibon borrows text and verse from a variety of sources, including those of his own creation.  He cities Henry James, Ruskin, and Mickey Spillane asliterary inspirations, whose prose, often inspire and accompany his drawings.  The noir themes and world the characters in his art inhabit dovetails perfectly with the grit and naked aggression associated with hardcore.  His art helped to inform the gutter poetry and paranoia inherent in the genre.


Pettibon has since gone on to earn the prestigious Bucksbaum award in 2004, given to artists every two years that have exhibited at the Whitney Biennial.  His work is part of the permanent collection at the MoMA in New York, Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, the MoMA in San Francisco, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, along with the Whitney Museum of American Art.  Despite achieving some renown in art circles he is still relatively unknown beyond the underground subculture.  Recently, he has begun recording and playing music again with his band the Niche Makers.  The music is described as, “New Orleans on cheap wine and canned martini’s” and a record is slated for an early 2009 release.


His art seems particularly timely today and worthy of exploring.  On a recent trip to New York City, a visit to the Chelsea art galleries revealed several artists working in Pettibon’s graphic cartoon style.


The violent themes, sexual content, and hard-boiled view of life on display were undeniably influenced by his uniquely American vision.  Given the resurgence in hardcore, with bands like the Gallows and Fucked Up looking back to bands like Black Flag for inspiration, some of Pettibon’s imagery is sure to seep into the popular consciousness.  God help us all.


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Friday, Jan 23, 2009
"Work All Week" is the third Mekons single and it finishes the outstanding triumvirate by this underrated post punk group.
Work All Week

Work All Week


The third single put out by the Mekons is “Work All Week”, an anti-materialist anthem disguised as a love song.  Like “Where Were You”, it’s a song that reveals its true identity after repeated listens (you’ll have to get this song on your own as copyright does not allow me to post the original version, only the 2004 folk reggae version).  Though the song can, at first, seem to be a typical love and marriage tune, upon closer examination it bears that signature post punk cynicism and satire.  In most love songs the object of the speaker is to woo their potential partner, or to express their love/devotion/affection in some way, “Work All Week” shows that love and marriage seem to be impossible without killing yourself trying to make the money to buy the materials which signify happiness.  In a love song the object of the speaker’s affection is a person, in “Work All Week” the object of the speaker’s affection is the objects needed to barter for love.


The songs starts with a ‘70s-sounding “oriental” riff straight out of Carl Douglas’s “Kung Fu Fighting”, then moves into a lilting chord progression that’s a bit out of time with the drums.  An excellent bass run fills in the simple chord progression and gives a good background to the misleading lyrics.  The refrain of “I work all week” is a constant reminder that most things that the speaker discusses are impossible without constant labour. 


The first lyric is straight forward enough: “I work all week to buy a ring / I work all week / Extra hours to get real gold / I’ll buy you anything / You know I’ll buy you anything / I work all week / Not put off by signs saying sold.”  Love is supplanted with a ring—there’s no mention of who he’s buying the ring for or what the ring symbolizes, the goal of working seems to be the acquisition of a ring made of real gold.  The song is boastful when the speaker says “You know I’ll buy you anything”, as if these possessions are enough, the cost of love is the value of his person.


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