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by Evan Sawdey

23 Feb 2010


In a short amount of time, composer Ben Frost has gathered up a powerful arsenal of friends, ranging from (his mentor and The Reader score composer) Nico Muhly to Icelandic string quartet Amiina to Swedish metal band Crowpath to Bjork & Bonnie “Prince” Billy producer Valgeir Sigurðsson.  Then, he invited them all to play on his album. 

By the Throat is Frost’s third major full-length album, and it’s been bathing in ecstatic (and well-deserved) praise, mixing minimalist melodies with an eclectic mix of beats, vocal samples, and sheets of distortion, making for a powerful, cutting, and emotional disc that sounds like nothing like it on the avant-classical front today. 

Yet as film scores beckon and a long-awaited US tour is rumored to be in the works, the Australian-born Frost takes some time out of his busy schedule to discuss the paintings of Mark Rothko, the appreciation he holds for Looney Tunes, and why it’s best to carry a big stick with you when time traveling ...

by PC Muñoz

22 Feb 2010


“Have a Little Faith in Me” - Bill Frisell, Kermit Driscoll, and Joey Baron
Written by John Hiatt
From Live, Gramavision/Rykodisc, 1995

An earlier edit of this post first appeared on pcmunoz.com on February 14, 2006

Since its initial appearance in 1987 on writer John Hiatt‘s popular Bring the Family album, “Have a Little Faith in Me” has become something of a modern classic. The song has been covered numerous times, by wildly different artists, but my favorite version is this live instrumental arrangement by guitarist Bill Frisell, bassist Kermit Driscoll, and drummer Joey Baron.

Though Frisell, Driscoll, and Baron are quite capable of radical song-reconstruction, madcap rhythmic shifts, and rollercoaster twists of form, here they wisely allow their arrangement of “Have a Little Faith in Me” to unfold gently, within a fairly accessible structure. The often-angular and surprising Baron even breaks into a straight-out pop backbeat for a few measures.

by Sean McCarthy

19 Feb 2010


A fellow music geek from another music review website gave a favorable review to Pearl Jam’s Backspacer and named it one of the best albums of last year. This isn’t particularly news—Backspacer may not have wooed critics, but it received mostly positive reviews. What was news, at least to me, was that this was the first Pearl Jam album this guy had listened to from start to finish. This may have been one reason why he gave Backspacer such a glowing review.

A lot of critics (myself included), judged Backspacer in the lexicon of Pearl Jam albums. The general consensus was the album had a solid bunch of rockers. Not much risk-taking, but no out-and-out failures. Pretty much what the band has been doing since its post-Yield output. A Pearl Jam album. While this may be true, like many other artists that opt to continue doing what they do best, this can prevent people from judging an album on its own merits and not as part of an artist’s legacy.

by Crispin Kott

18 Feb 2010


Little Steven Van Zandt may look like a buffoon, but he knows what he’s talking about. Witness what he had to say last year about Primal Scream, one of music’s great lost causes of the past few decades:

Primal Scream could be the biggest band in the world. They are fantastic when they make rock records—once every 10 years. But they can’t tour because of drug problems, or whatever. I don’t have patience for it. I’m like, all right, you want to be a drug addict, go be a drug addict. Don’t waste my time. (“Steven Van Zandt v Bobby Gillespie”, Guardian.co.uk, 25 March 2009)

Okay, so I really only agree with the first bit. The rest, like Little Steven’s standard gypsy wardrobe, is a bit shaky. Their rock records—assuming we’re talking about Give Out But Don’t Give Up (1994) and Riot City Blues (2006)—are certainly not without their charms, though the quasi-Stones riffage and faux boogie is only ever convincing enough to make maybe half of each collection worth an addition to one’s iPod.

But even when they shift aesthetic gears from release to release, their success ratio isn’t terribly encouraging. Whether on the dub-noise excursions of Vanishing Point (1997) or the technopocalypse of Evil Heat (2002), there’s enough brilliance to make one crumple to the floor in wanton lust, and there’s just as much absolute balderdash to leave the same listener questioning if all they ever loved in the world was nothing more than a glorious but fleeting mirage.

What makes Primal Scream so infuriating is the simple fact that in their back catalogue are two of the greatest albums of the latter 20th century: The ecstasy-fueled highs and lows of Screamadelica (1991) and the crushing electro-fury of XTRMNTR (2000). On these two efforts, Primal Scream is firing on all cylinders, something they’ve certainly managed elsewhere during their career, but primarily on individual tracks (“Kowalski” and “Miss Lucifer”).

Some bands change simply for the sake of change, and perhaps this is part of the Primal Scream’s DNA. In following their whims, they often sacrifice passion for fashion, even when the latter is likely based on how frontman and head Scream Bobby Gillespie is feeling in the weeks leading up to the recording process.

Gillespie is regarded in many indie nerd circles as something of a living legend, and it’s hard to deny his pedigree backs that up. The lanky Scotsman was the Moe Tucker-inspired drummer of the Jesus and Mary Chain, back when that band was melding Beach Boys songcrafting, Phil Spector beats, and tinnitus-causing feedback on their seminal debut, Psychocandy. If you believe the legend is true, the Brothers Reid gave Gillespie an ultimatum: Stop working on the fledgling Primal Scream and focus on the Mary Chain, or hit the bricks. It can’t have seemed like a sure thing at the time, but Gillespie laid down his sticks and set a course for somewhat modest stardom.

It didn’t exactly happen overnight. Before tapping into the rave-and-Madchester culture with Screamadelica, Primal Scream released a pair of largely ignored albums—the Byrds-drenched Sonic Flower Groove (1987) and the band’s first forays into balls-out retro rock, Primal Scream (1989). It was on the latter that Gillespie developed a taste for his role as a frontman, even if legitimate aptitude didn’t follow for another year or two. Like many great pasty frontmen before him (Mick Jagger, Ian Brown), Gillespie couldn’t really sing, but looked fantastic enough to make it work. Also like his predecessors, Gillespie knew how to give the kids what they wanted.

Gillespie’s co-conspirators have largely been unsung heroes in the Primal Scream saga, though the addition of former Stone Roses bass guitarist Mani in the mid-‘90s was an inspired choice, as was the year or two spent working with My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields, who yielded his greatest influence on the band around the time of XTRMNTR.

Yet as a journey through the years with Primal Scream proves, the band’s hits (meaning artistic successes rather than commercial) have been far outweighed (at least in volume) by their misses. Still a dangerous live band, Gillespie and Co. are regrouping after releasing and touring what is quite possibly their worst album yet, the flaccid pop of 2008’s Beautiful Future. As on prior missteps, the record isn’t a total wash—“Necro Hex Blues” (recorded with Josh Homme) and the undeniably catchy title track are among the standouts, but it’s those moments when the band really shines that one begins to long for something a bit more consistent. If Primal Scream were to ever release a complete turd from start to finish, it would be so much easier to forgive.

Perhaps the real tragedy with Primal Scream is their collective ability to still be great. Despite the quality of the Homme-guested track, the band is rarely successful when inviting a celebrity guest on board, whether that interloper be Kate Moss or Lovefoxxx or Linda Thompson. Unlike the Beatles, who found inspiration prior to imploding with Billy Preston and Eric Clapton, Primal Scream’s collaborations feel cheap and gimmicky. Other times, Primal Scream’s presumed best efforts are outshined by throwaway compilation tracks, such as the glorious glam-rock cover of Suicide’s “Diamonds, Furcoat, Champagne” recorded in tribute around the same time as the antiseptic sheen of Beautiful Future.

Primal Scream will have to find its soul within the group itself. History hasn’t proven that to be a reliable prospect, but that doesn’t mean they’re incapable. I still love Primal Scream, I just can’t depend upon them anymore.

by Colin McGuire

17 Feb 2010


If you are a Backstreet Boy, what’s the only thing worse than waking up with a throbbing headache, stuffy nose, sore throat and every other symptom that can be associated with a day-ruining case of the common cold? Having to be interviewed by someone with the exact same condition.

But that’s what happened when I spoke with A.J. McLean, the shades-wearing, hat-donning, sometimes bearded badass of the group. “Oh, I’ve seen better days,” he mumbled over the phone an in almost inaudible tone after I initially asked him how he was doing. As it turned out, he probably wasn’t faking, either. Later that day, wire services blew up with reports that fellow Backstreet Boy Brian Littrell had been diagnosed with H1N1, more commonly known as the Swine Flu. As a result, the group was forced to cancel various promotional appearances throughout New York City that were centered around the release of its new album, This Is Us. It was yet another obstacle on the way back to the top for one of the biggest pop groups of all time. That’s okay, though. It’s not like these boys haven’t been faced with adversity before.

Remember the Lou Pearlman situation? You know, the impossibly greedy manager that tried to use the group for all it was worth before heading to prison on conspiracy and money laundering convictions? How about when McLean himself admitted to his stunning drug abuse habit, and went on national television to confront it? Or even when Kevin Richardson, a longtime member of the group, decided he wanted to distance himself from the band, leaving to “pursue other interests in his life?”

Like I said, a little case of the sniffles, and hell, even the occasional case of H1N1 couldn’t bring these guys down. Not after nearly two decades of rollercoaster ups and downs.

“You have to stay positive,” McLean told me when I asked him about how any group could survive in today’s ever-changing, fickle world of pop music. “(If we were starting over again) we’d have to know to set goals. It has to be difficult for new artists. But after all this time, we have learned that we have to stay true to ourselves. You just can’t let anything or anyone get in the way of who you are.”

Who are the Backstreet Boys these days, anyway? The group opted for live instrumentation and Adult Contemporary dominance with 2005’s Never Gone. That acoustic/piano driven style continued for the most part with 2007’s Unbreakable. But now, in 2009, what exactly is the sound the four-part band is attempting to achieve with its latest release, This Is Us?

Well, for starters the band recruited top-notch hip hop collaborators such as Lil Wayne, Jim Jonsin and T-Pain to help craft the album. And while other pop mega-producers like One Republic’s Ryan Tedder and the legendary Max Martin offered a hand, McLean is quick to point out the difference between the group’s past experiences making a record with that of their latest.

“We had a real interesting team of people to work with for this record,” McLean said. “We had a lot of hip hop cats come in, so it was different. In the end, it worked out perfectly, though. We couldn’t be happier with the way it turned out.”

How it turned out is decidedly more mature than ever before. The acoustic guitars have been ditched for the most part, and the electro-fied beats that helped propel them into legendary status in the mid-1990s return on This Is Us. Why the group sounds more grown-up than ever, though, has nothing to do with its sound. That aspect can be attributed to lyrics that see the Boys in a new light.

A song like “PDA,” with its aggressively sexy feel and suggestive verse, is the perfect example. “Kissing and touching with my hands all over your booty,” sets the lyrical tone for a record that clearly isn’t aimed at the 14-to-16-year-old demographic the pop stars once famously aimed for with songs like “As Long As You Love Me,” and “Larger Than Life.”

“Lyrically, we aren’t kids anymore,” McLean told me. “It’s not like we can’t talk about booties. We wanted to push the envelope with this new record, and I think we did that.”

Pushing the envelope is not a foreign concept for McLean. Clearly the bad boy of the group, the singer cemented his reputation when he checked into rehab in 2001 for cocaine abuse and alcoholism. If that wasn’t enough, earlier this year, TMZ reported that McLean’s sobriety was in doubt after video surfaced of him appearing intoxicated.

Realizing his reputation precedes him almost anywhere he goes, McLean noted that he understands he is the “rocker” of the group. Though he has a soft spot for rhythm & blues music (Prince and Teddy Pendergrass, to be exact), he explained that he’s not like the other guys for more than one reason.

“I’m the kind of guy who grew up listening to Three Dog Night and Lynyrd Skynyrd,” he said. “A lot of the other guys aren’t really into that kind of stuff. Right now, the new Muse record is phenomenal. They will definitely break in the states soon enough. The other guys (in the band) tend to go with the catchier stuff, but I’m a rocker. That’s what I bring to the group.”

What the group plans to bring to the public is a tour supporting This Is Us. The tour, set to stretch across nearly the entire globe, is something McLean is especially excited about.

“It’s going to be an amazing show,” he said as his voice perked up from the sickness he was battling. “Each show is going to be like a live movie. It’s something the fans have never seen before - like a rock opera. We plan on going for about an hour and 45 minutes each night and doing around eight of the 12 songs from the new record, along with a bunch of the classics. Everybody’s going to love it. We are really, really excited about it.”

So with a new album, a new tour and a rejuvenated attitude toward his group’s career, McLean’s head cold seemed to be the last thing on his mind as our conversation wound down.

“We are going back to the old Backstreet Boys sound on this record,” he said before taking a few seconds to let out some coughs and a muted sniffle. “I think people are going to see what we have become. This album is a declaration of who we really are.”

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