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Tuesday, Apr 28, 2009
I really do. I love Death Cab for Cutie, but their uninspired and relatively unimpressive show at Chicago's Aragon Theater on April 13th demonstrated that the band, which is an indie rock mainstay, deserves to be able to alter their songs and recreate the musical experience for their fans.

I have a secret. I like Death Cab for Cutie. I’m a 36-year-old, married man, living in Chicago, and I walk my dog two or three times a day (I am a terrible and awful urban cliché) and I really like Death Cab for Cutie. I think Transatlanticism is a very good album with depth and glorious pop hooks, and dynamic depth. I own every Death Cab album and think each has important merit in my love of music.


But have refused to see Death Cab for Cutie in concert. The myriad of 16- through 25-year-old girls, hungry for sensitivity, dragging their boyfriends to play sing along for a two-hour Death Cab show has always prevented me from wanting to see them live.


This time, I would not be deterred. I was going to see Death Cab for Cutie. I was going to buy three or five beers and stomach the high pitched yelps, the desperate sing along, the disappointed boyfriends, and I was going to like this show.


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Monday, Feb 23, 2009

During an odd afternoon as a part time DJ at a community college radio station which I finally heard what a strained, angry woman sounds like.  The radio station received its measly weekly mailings from our distributor and near the bottom of the small box was a copy of P.J. Harvey’s first album Dry. The disengaging cover grabbed my attention first: the smear of red lipstick across the bottom of a nose to the top of the chin. A vertical line, cutting through P.J.’s sneer. Sure, I had heard Pattie Smith and was a closet Pretender fan. I dug Sinead and thought other women rock stars were cool, but this was different. The inset informed us that this was the brightest sound of rock (NOTE: not women’s rock) coming from Britain in years. The insert also commanded us to play the new single “Sheela Na Gig” and check out her video on MTV’s “120 Minutes” in the coming weeks.


In pure community college fashion, I took the ad’s advice and cued “Sheela Na Gig”; without a preview; just a quick “What the hell?!” The quick light of the initial guitar riff and this rhythmic, hardened guitar and then:


I’ve been trying to show you over and over
    Look at these my child-bearing hips
    Look at these my ruby red ruby lips
    Look at these my work strong arms and
    You’ve got to see my bottle full of charm
    I lay it all at your feet
    You turn around and say back to me
    He said
    Sheela-na-gig, sheela-na-gig


After playing the song, quickly pawning the CD into my school bag and “borrowing” it for the night, I found a woman who screamed from a level of womanhood that only a few ever tried, but were, at best, given the “exhibitionist” label and quickly dismissed. P.J. Harvey demanded our utmost respect; not because she’s a woman, but because she sang and played on Dry at a level that very few at the beginning of the ‘90s even challenged. Only 22 at the release of the album, PJ challenged her listener at every turn of the record. The simplicity of PJ’s guitar riffs, basic rhythmic section, and mixed with Harvey’s voice created an album that I consider possibly the best album of the early 1990s.



Dry is an album that is unapologetic to the pains of prior generations of women. Dry is an up front accusation of men and women who propagate and survive because of a Patriarchy that Harvey deals with richly developed bombastic accusations that challenge not only men, but the women who gain from playing in the system. By the time the final track “Water” buzzes through the speakers, we’ve been indoctrinated into a world that very few artists have ever been successful at describing and criticizing. P.J. Harvey is a magnificent songwriter that borrows from the greats, but all the while creating a sound that has influenced all sorts of albums. Let’s face it Radiohead fans, Thom Yorke needed P.J. to be great and when you hear the desperation of Dry I believe you hear the sighs and moans and screams that are constant reminders that so much is borrowed from this woman’s musical career. Ironically, P.J. is the loudest and sharpest woman voice of her generation, but she never had to bust out a chorus of “Closer to Fine” on “Lilith Fair” for her credibility to ring as hard and determined as any in rock.


Dry begins with a sinister blend of bass riff and P.J.’s pleading line “O My Lover/Don’t you know it’s alright/You can love her/You can love me at the same time?” At once Harvey takes full command of the relationship she will have with her listener and her lover. A pardon for listening or loving anything beforehand because, quite frankly, it’s okay; all the while the collected session musicians plays a devilish and desperate number in the background. “Oh My Lover” introduces the listener to a world hell bent to avoid the apology and desperate for you to understand that P.J. Harvey is in complete control. By the time track 2 “O Stella” finishes, a tightly packaged band is in full form and P.J. Harvey has mastered a vocal range that demonstrates the raw power she will use as a foundation for her early career.


Highlights on Dry are endless and, quite frankly, there isn’t a weak track on the entire album. However, what P.J. will be known for in her career is her flexibility as a songwriter. P.J. demonstrates this in four numbers track 5 “Happy & Bleeding”, Plants & Rags”, “Fountain”, and the final track “Water”. The starkness of Harvey’s efforts are on display in these four tracks. However, a nod must be made to the track “Plants & Rags”; a mashing of Harvey’s acoustic guitar with the layered textures of string patterns that sound like a precursor to Billy Corgin’s future work with The Smashing Pumpkins; “Plants & Rags” shows a thoughtful and playful songwriter. If P.J. stuck to the hard edges of “Oh My Lover” and “Sheela Na Gig” there is little doubt that she would have succumbed to the death of many woman songwriters who play loud bombastic rock. Truth is, when P.J. appeared for the first time she was immediately paired with that songstress Liz Phair, but it’s the flexibility of Harvey’s work that separates her from the pack of ordinary rockers.


The last two tracks on Dry “Fountain” and “Water” play off the Feminist messages Harvey delivers with expertise, but it’s with playfulness that she calls upon the biblical allusions of “Hand in hand/He’s my big man/ Stays with me/ Some forty days/ No words/ Then goes away/ I cry again.” However, P.J.’s final shot is across the bow of manhood. She challenges the adventurous, hubris men of Christ and Icarus with the notion that these characters toy with a woman’s emotional stability, in this case Mary, with pleads that will eventually drawn her in water. When P.J. challenges her man to “Prove it to me”, she calls out from that same voice that led her listener off the album’s cliff; I can hear this as P.J.’s final strike. “Water” finishes with her request of Mary to hold on tight because P.J. isn’t a sucker; she’s walking on water.


Now the water to my ankles
    Now the water to my knees
    Think of him all waxy wings
    Melted down into the sea
    Mary Mary what your man said
    Washing it all over my head
    Mary Mary hold on tightly
    Over water
    Under the sea
    Water
    Water
    I’m walking
    Walking on
    Water


P.J. Harvey calls upon her past to challenge their position in history and not to be satisfied with the bit parts in the script. Dry functions on these ironic placements. From the ironic conception of the cover and the misplaced lipstick to the lyrical and musical output within, the album excels on a level few have reached. It is with this irony that P.J. Harvey’s Dry is successful and will live on as a great masterpiece in rock and roll history. The great thing is that this was the beginning of a career leading Harvey to great musical experiments. What was promised on an album like Dry has been furthered throughout P.J. Harvey’s career.


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Friday, Feb 13, 2009
How The-Dream took me from a modern R&B hater and made me into an R&B believer. Revisiting The-Dream's debut, Love Hate, in anticipation of the March release of Love vs. Money.

I’ve long been a modern R&B hater. I’m not claiming it’s not a valuable genre or form of music, because it obviously is, it’s just never had any musical elements that have appealed to me. From Boyz II Men to Brandy to Chris Brown, it’s always come off as boring and preposterous; all of the “whooowhoowhoooo”s and the needlessly sappy and slow songs lost my interest by the first chorus. There have been exceptions over the years; Usher, Beyonce, R.Kelly, Ciara have all nailed it on certain songs, bringing a certain energy and swagger to a typically uninspired and maudlin genre, but my feelings towards modern R&B changed a couple of summers ago when Rihanna’s “Umbrella” hit the radio (minus Jay Z’s terrible intro verse) with its heaviness, hookiness and nonsense “ella” and “ay” repetitions.


“Umbrella” seemed to have a lot more going on than previous modern R&B, with its heavy keyboards and hip hop drums. When the follow-up single came out, “Shut Up and Drive”, I realized that “Umbrella” had nothing to do with Rihanna—it was essentially karaoke—the real talent was with the writers. It’d be a while until I found out who that writing team was, and the answer drew me in to modern R&B.


When friends started talking about The-Dream’s album Love Hate (Love Me All Summer / Hate Me All Winter), I was not on board.  It just seemed like typical R&B and I already had my token listenable R&B song with Usher’s “Love in the Club”. After hearing more and more of The-Dream’s debut album I realized that he was employing Rihanna’s “ella”s and “ay”s and something like Young Jeezy’s “Aaaaayyy”s. After very little investigation I found out that The-Dream (Terius Nash) and his production partner Christopher Stewart were the geniuses behind “Umbrella”,  that’s all that was necessary for me to give the entire album a chance.


Prejudices can make people do odd things. I had ignored modern R&B for a decade, when I’m sure when mined there are a ton of good albums regardless of your tastes. Hearing The-Dream’s debut has given me more listening satisfaction than most other 2008 releases (it was released Dec 2007). I’m kind of glad that I was late in discovering Love Hate, because it means that the wait for more The-Dream is not as long as it is for those early adapters. So, with his new album, Love vs. Money, set for release March 10 (I wonder how close Def Jam will get to that actual date), I want to give late praise to The-Dream and Love Hate—from the perspective of a changed man. For all you R&B haters out there: if you’re going to check out one R&B album, make sure it’s this one, it’ll change your perspective.


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Sunday, Feb 8, 2009

Only Everything was Juliana Hatfield’s third album after leaving Boston’s Blake Babies and with it she seemed on the verge of stardom. “My Sister” and “Spin the Bottle” were modest hits and she appeared on the covers of Sassy and Spin. When Only Everything came out, however, it received mixed reviews and was only moderately successful. Even today it remains overshadowed by the album that it proceeded; the more fondly remembered Become What You Are.


Only Everything, however, is my favorite Juliana Hatfield record. Part of the reason might be because it was the first of her albums I heard, but there are less personal reasons too. The guitars are big and loud, the songs are melodic and tight, and the production is top notch. Some of the awkward lyric rhymes of Juliana’s previous albums are completely avoided here and her voice has never sounded better. Like Elliott Smith, Juliana’s small, soft voice sounded incredible when multi-tracked and on Only Everything layer after layer of overdubbing has made her vocals strong and rich and never in danger of getting overpowered by the wall of guitar fuzz. That’s quite an accomplishment considering how much the guitars dominate the mix. Hatfield has often cited J Mascis as an influence and on this record it shows.


The album opens with what sounds like Juliana coughing up some phlegm as the buzzsaw guitars of “What a Life” hit you in the face. “Greasy, dirty, smelly, wretched…grungy…” she sings and this is clearly the sound she wants for the album, albeit with high production values. The mix of clean and dirty, Juliana’s “pretty” voice and the fuzzed out guitars works perfectly. It’s not lo-fi but it never sounds too glossy. One of my complaints about her earlier albums is they seemed sonically thin, especially on the harder rocking songs. Here, the production is beefed up and Juliana finally sounds like she’s really rocking out. There are still plenty of softer songs though and they too benefit immensely from the top notch production, filled out with piano, organ and Juliana’s vocal harmonies.


My favorite song on the album might be “Outsider”, with its guitars sounding like they’re being played underwater and Juliana’s vocals thick and sweet. For the first two minutes of the song the only percussion is what sounds like hands tapping on the back of an acoustic guitar. Combined with the muted electric guitars and Juliana’s multi-tracked vocals, the song has an effervescent, spacey mood. The track may seem slight at first but it rewards with repeated listens.


Only Everything still conjures up good memories whenever I listen to it. Perhaps the album’s inability to take Hatfield to the next level of mainstream success was indication that the public had already tired of the alternative rock explosion of the early ‘90s. Limp Bizkit and Britney Spears were lurking just around the corner, like vampires, ready to suck the blood out of the music industry. Hatfield’s next record, entitled God’s Foot, never got released. Atlantic, her record company, felt it wasn’t commercial sounding enough, so Juliana asked to be dropped. Atlantic agreed to release her, but not her album. “God’s Foot, the master tapes, languishes still in a vault somewhere, gathering dust” wrote Juliana in her recently published memoir, When I Grow Up. After returning to the indies she put out four solo albums on Rounder Records before starting her own label, Ye Olde, in 2005. Her latest record was last year’s How to Walk Away. I haven’t heard it yet but I’m pretty sure I’ll enjoy it, as I have everything else she’s done, but this one goes out to the one I love: Only Everything.


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Tuesday, Jan 20, 2009
“I never met a hero I didn’t like. But then, I never met a hero. But then, maybe I wasn’t looking for one.” -- Lester Bands on Lou Reed.

Lou Reed - Berlin


Lester Bangs dedicated a large portion of his writing career to Lou Reed. Bangs’ loved Lou Reed, but he also hated his guts. Genius and creativity mixed with egotism and jackass-ery. I love Lou Reed. Quite simply, he’s probably my secret crush that I don’t talk to many people about for fear of having to defend this love against a wall of the opposite point of view.


Can I be honest? I have all sorts of difficulty with Lou Reed. There are moments I feel he receives absolutely no credit for the evolution of rock and roll. I mean, come on! No Velvet Underground? No R.E.M. No Sonic Youth. Absolutely no major influence for the underground music scene of the ‘80s and no Nirvana and the list goes on and on. Don’t give me the Ramones or the much over-hyped Sex Pistols. Velvet Underground. More distinctly, Lou Reed holds the key to everything.


And then I stop myself. Usually mid sentence and remind myself whom I am talking about—Lou Reed: The masochist of rock and roll. The man that not even Lester Bangs could quite pin down (which has to be a reason why so much of Bangs’ career is dedicated to writing about Lou Reed). In the end, Lester concluded, “Lou Reed is my own hero principally because he stands for all the most fucked up things that I could ever possible conceive of. Which probably only shows the limits of my imagination.” Lou fought with the demons created by David Bowie and tried to match full bore that type of excitement; almost pissed he hadn’t thought of glam first. Thus, Lou returned to his VU roots and turned out Berlin.


Berlin caught hipster renewal the past year because of director Julian Schnabel’s filmed concert of Lou Reed performing the entire Berlin album. Shockingly panned by critics and fans upon initial release, Lou spent the majority of his career avoiding the music from Berlin. The album is Reed’s rock opera about a disturbing relationship between a couple based upon drugs and not much else. A maniacal album with full session horns mixed with music snippets from Lou’s days with the Velvet Underground; the most affirming this point are within the song “Caroline Says”, a direct rip from the VU’s “Stephanie Says”.


Berlin is an arresting album and not one for an introduction to Lou Reed’s musical legacy. However, the album dedicates itself to pull its listener to the depths of post ‘60s, urban decay. Truly a song like “The Bed” where Lou whispers of the death of his character Caroline; “And this is the room where she took the razor/And cut her wrists that strange and fateful night/And I said, oh, what a feeling” summarizes the pain and death of the West in a post Vietnam/Summer of Love era that is largely built upon fluff and excess. True, Lou loves the characters he addresses, but Lou also understands that by addressing these issues he stirs up the bowl of stew and no one likes all the ingredients in this stew.


Whatever the case, Lou Reed’s Berlin is probably a nice way to microcosm Lou’s career. He probably gets too much blame for making the album and for making it a disturbingly story that feels disjointed with the glam he was producing at the time. At the same time, Lou probably doesn’t get enough credit for making an album that harkens back to Velvet Underground while giving us a glimpse into what will be Lou’s most engaging and critically acclaimed work of his career in New York and Magic and Loss where Lou shows the focus that is somewhat lacking throughout Berlin


Regardless, Lou Reed’s Berlin is a necessary album for a Lou Reed fan. I am happy to see it receiving some new critical acclaim and was happier to see it in the stacks of “New Vinyl” at Dave’s Records. It shows that rock and roll can resuscitate without traveling down the pathway to corporate sponsorship and excess. Rock and roll can be what it’s supposed to be: urgent and unrepentant. Both are true of Berlin.


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