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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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Tuesday, Sep 15, 2009

In the UK music scene, the city of Glasgow is the stuff of legend. Considered by many to be a Mecca for discovering new talent, it possesses one of the most vibrant music scenes in the world. Texas, Primal Scream, Snow Patrol, Oasis, Simple Minds, Franz Ferdinand, Mogwai, Young Marble Giants, Belle & Sebastian, Camera Obscura, and the eponymous, Glasvegas—are all in some way or another indebted to the city for their success.


The reasoning behind its flourishing musical environment is simple. Marred by consistently rainy weather, an industrial past that left deep class divisions, and a cultural regeneration unparalleled in Europe in the 1990s – Glasgow has all of the signature trademarks of a city like Seattle or New York. It is no wonder then that the artists who live, breathe, and play in Glasgow, are propelled by a spirited urgency.


From this very cloth, there comes a new musical outfit called, Paper Planes. Fronted by New-Jersey Girl, Jennifer Paley, along with three Scottish boys, Craig O’ Brien (drums), the boyish Fraser McFadzean (bass), and Christopher Haddow (guitar)—Paper Planes serve as an accessible trans-national link between the two divergent music worlds. Their inspiration comes from the American ilk of the Velvet Underground and The Modern Lovers, but is also interspersed with the whimsical melody of Scottish players such as, Belle & Sebastian and Camera Obscura.


The band’s first single, ‘Doris Day’, to be released in October, is a catchy Rock-pop tune that mixes the abrasive edge of Kim Gordon, and perhaps even Weezer, along with the lilting charm of Jenny Lewis, and a resounding guitar riff that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Mission Impossible soundtrack. Bolstered by a lyrical simplicity (i.e. the refrain: “How absurd, how obscure”), Paper Planes’ music holds a unique spot between raw Rock and Pop. The B-side to, ‘Doris Day’, ‘Restless’ utilizes a more restrained approach, and finds Jennifer waxing lyrical about the drudgery of the everyday (“Same old, Same old…and this and that”).


Together for just over a year, the group are renowned for keeping their gigs short and spare – to allow them the time to develop their niche, at their own pace. This isn’t to mention of course, the numerous woes that have troubled the lead singer, Jennifer, who has struggled to maintain her UK residency. Luckily though, this laid back approach seems only to have helped the foursome hone in on the kind of music that they want to make. And If they keep it up, this bunch of art school graduates may very well find themselves singing in the clouds.


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Wednesday, Sep 9, 2009
Yoshie Fruchter convincingly distills the essence of jazz improvisation into his rock-meets-klezmer workouts.

Following my ardent endorsement of Rashanim (the great trio who have just released what may well be the best album of the year: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/109489-rashanim-healing-music-for-unrighteous-times/), I would be remiss to not also mention a new name we can hope to hear much more from in the years ahead. Yoshie Fruchter, also a guitarist, released his debut on (John Zorn’s label) Tzadik entitled Pitom in late 2008, and it is as indispensable as any of the Rashanim releases (”Pitom”, incidentally, means “suddenly” in Hebrew). It is similar in that it’s (mostly) rocking jazz with an explicitly Jewish sensibility, but where Madof’s traditional roots are always discernible, Fruchter sounds somewhat like a precocious younger brother who found the stash of ’70s prog rock albums and never put them down. In a (very) good way. Indeed, the kinship with the great King Crimson outfit of the early-to-mid ’70s is undeniable, not merely because both bands feature the same instrumentation (drums, bass, guitar and viola): there are songs on Pitom that recall some of the more adventurous tracks from Red and Larks’ Tongues in Aspic.


Check it out:



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Thursday, Aug 6, 2009

Before Zach Galifianakis’ outstanding breakout roles in The Hangover and Humpday respectively, this comic had a penchant for lyp syncing to saccharine little dities about love such as Anita Baker’s “You Bring Me Joy”.



After this foray, he managed to convince none other than Fiona Apple to be in her whimsical music video for “Not About Love”.


Without a doubt, these ‘inspired’ ventures bore the marks of Zach’s impending success. And it is no surprise that recently, Roger Ebert compared Zach’s Hangover performance to that of John Belushi in Animal House—Kudos indeed!


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