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Thursday, Nov 12, 2009
After getting tackled by biker chicks and shying away from the "emo-pop" label, Owl City mastermind Adam Young is still adjusting to his newfound fame, but is taking it all in with a level-head and even more ideas for future nighttime synth-pop creations ...

All these years later, Adam Young still can’t sleep—and that just might be a good thing.


When the then-20-year-old Adam Young suffered from intense insomnia while living in his parents basement, he used his non-sleeping hours to carefully construct his own brand of Postal Service-indebted synth-pop, eventually self-releasing two albums under his Owl City moniker (2007’s Of June EP and 2008’s Maybe I’m Dreaming) to decent acclaim but somewhat marginal sales. When he put his music on MySpace, however, a following gradually began to grow around Young’s abstract, optimistic tales of love, his whimsical song “Hello Seattle” gaining particular notoriety. It wasn’t long before he got signed to Universal Republic, began collaborating with Relient K vocalist Theissen, and began forming an near endless litany of side-projects (with animal-friendly names like Swimming With Dolphins and Insect Airport).


Yet a funny thing happened following the release of Ocean Eyes, Young’s major-label debut. The quirky single “Fireflies” began picking up steam, first via MySpace, and then through the video outlets like MTV and VH1. Next thing you know, the 23-year-old Young has a chart-topping hit on his hands, is touring the nation with a full band, and is still selling hundreds of thousands of downloads every week, making him one of the brightest pop stars to emerge out of 2009. In short, these past few months have been a bit of a whirlwind for the dark-haired pop maestro, but—as is revealed in this short yet illuminating interview via e-mail—Young hasn’t let success go to his head at all. Being tackled by biker chicks, discovering Taco Bell, and still (still!) suffering from bouts of insomnia—these are just some of the moments that have colored Adam Young’s life this year. If his success is any indication so far, Owl City’s ride is just beginning ...


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Wednesday, Nov 4, 2009

In 1989, I was lucky enough to discover Soundgarden two years before the grunge revolution. I read a rave about Louder Than Love in what was at that time my musical bible: Circus magazine. After a steady stream of Anthrax, Metallica, and Megadeth, I was floored at how heavy a band could be by playing so slow.


Two years later, I was somewhat disappointed by Badmotorfinger, partly because the sound wasn’t as raw as Louder Than Love, and partly because a lot of the kids at my high school were discovering a secret that I was in on two years before. By 1994, I was so steeped in playing “spot the sellout” that I couldn’t listen to their blockbuster Superunknown due to the incessant rotation of “Black Hole Sun”.


Years pass. People mature. And occasionally, you find yourself ready to pop in a CD that you may not have given much of a chance when it first came out. Sure, “Spoonman” still justifies the skip, but what floored me was the quality of the “deep tracks”, specifically the seven-minute closer “Like Suicide”.


If any song in Soundgarden’s arsenal showed how indispensible each member was, it was on this slow-burner of a closer. In the span of seven minutes, bassist Ben Sheppard starts the song with a bubbling bass line, leading into Kim Thayil’s warning siren-like guitar riff. Thayil and Sheppard keep the tension building while Chris Cornell goes from gentle croon, to rawk wail, to unleashed scream. Finally, as the entire thing explodes, drummer Matt Cameron closes the song with such ferocity, you’re half expecting to hear his snare crack. The entire effect is the musical equivalent of a dormant volcano slowly building before its Mt. St. Helens-like eruption.


On Superunkown, Soundgarden proudly wore their Led Zeppelin influence, and “Like Suicide” was the band’s “In My Time of Dying”. Comparing love to suicide is hardly original, and a year later Billy Corgan shouted Cornell’s lament almost verbatim on “Bodies”. But Cornell’s sentiments on “Like Suicide” were more sinister and thus more believable. When Cornell yells “I feel for you”, you’re not sure if that’s actually a good thing.


The lyrics also contained its share of cryptic foreshadowing. The most obvious one being the death of Kurt Cobain, who expressed his love of Louder Than Love in interviews. However, there are other most subtle instances. Nearly a half-decade before school shootings overtook the media spotlight, Cornell’s pained delivery of a line like “with an ounce of pain, I wield a ton of rage” can put a chill down a listener’s spine. And all this from a song that Cornell apparently wrote about a bird that fatally flew into a window in his house.


“Like Suicide” would have been a great capper for Soundgarden: It combined the pure aggressiveness of their earlier work with the refined skill the band demonstrated in the more Beatlesque songs on Superunknown. The song could also be on the shortlist for best song the band ever recorded. But the band opted for one more album, 1996’s Down the Upside, with mixed results. Still, many circles regard Superunkown as grunge’s last masterpiece. And like most masterpieces, the closing track pretty much determines whether it’s fit for that distinction or just merely a “great album”. Judged on “Like Suicide”, it was easy to figure out what category Superunknown would fall.


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Thursday, Oct 15, 2009

The ravages of time eventually claim everyone, but it’s a sad fact that some talents go before others.  In light of the recent release of The Fountain, the eleventh album by the long-lived British post-punk group Echo and the Bunnymen, now is an appropriate occasion to ruminate on the premature loss of a great voice in rock music.  While still very much alive, head Bunnyman Ian McCulloch’s vocal talents have unfortunately diminished in recent years.  McCulloch long possessed a wondrous, powerful voice that rivaled that of U2’s Bono, but smoking, drinking, and age have clearly diminished what used to be an epic sound.


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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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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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