Call for Music Writers... Rock, Indie, Urban, Electronic, Americana, Metal, World and More

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Wednesday, Dec 16, 2009

The answer, of course, is Moses Asch. This month marks the 104th birthday of Asch, who founded Folkways Records more than 70 years ago along with Marian Distler. One of the most valuable musical, audio, and cultural resources of the last century, Folkways Records aimed to document the sounds (and lack of sounds) of the universe. That included titles like Sounds of North American Tree Frogs (1958), Sounds of Steam Locomotives (1956), and Sounds of a South African Homestead (1956).


It also included folk music, not just from the U.S., but from all over the world. Here’s how Asch explained the importance of this music: “Since folk means people, and this in turn means all of us, folk represents all of us. Folk music reflects…a people’s culture, its heritage, its character.” Over the years, Folkways Records introduced the world to voices like Lead Belly, Mississippi John Hurt, and Pete Seeger. In 1952, the massive six-album collection “Anthology of American Folk Music” put Folkways on the map for good and changed the face of popular music forever. That compilation turned the likes of Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, Jerry Garcia, Jeff Tweedy, Lou Reed, and Patti Smith on to folk music, in particular the blues and country sounds of rural America. It was the first time most people had even heard of artists like Blind Lemon Jefferson and the Carter Family, and the effect was gargantuan. (In fact, as I sit here next to my own copy of “Anthology of American Folk Music,” with its six CDs and its ghostly essay booklet, I can still sense the collection’s power, and it gives me chills.)


When the Smithsonian acquired Folkways after Asch’s death in 1987, they agreed to continue Asch’s tradition of always keeping all the label’s releases in print, regardless of record sales. In total, Folkways Records released over 2,000 recordings under Asch and, since the Smithsonian’s acquisition, over 300 more have been put out.


Music lovers owe it to themselves to check out Folkways Records. Here are some other excellent releases from the label, in no particular order, that show the enormous scope of its astounding discography:


Music of the Carousel (1961)
Sounds of Sea Animals (1955)
Blind Willie Johnson, 1927-1930, Blind Willie Johnson (1965)
Angela Davis Speaks, Angela Davis (1971)
American Favorite Ballads, Vols. 1-5, Pete Seeger (2009)
Dust Bowl Ballads, Woody Guthrie (1964)
Dillard Chandler: The End of an Old Song, Dillard Chandler (1975)
Negro Prison Camp Worksongs (1956)
Church Songs: Sung and Played on the Piano by Little Brother Montgomery, Little Brother Montgomery (1975)
Watergate, Vol. 1: the Break In (1973)
Sing for Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement Through Its Songs (1990)



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Monday, Nov 23, 2009

On the TV show Project Runway, hopeful designers are given challenges to make fabulous fashions on a shoestring budget. Their faces invariably crinkle in dismay when they find they’ve only got $150 and 24 hours to make a gown worthy of the red carpet. When the results are evaluated, one of the most coveted comments from the judges is that a piece “looks expensive” even though it was created with very little money. The ultimate compliment is when Heidi Klum says something like, “I could walk right out of here and wear that to a party tonight.”


Being an unsigned band is kind of like being a contestant on Project Runway. You might have more time to produce a CD, but not a whole lot more financial resources. Most of the time, the results are a bit rough-hewn, raggedy around the hem, with an exposed zipper or puckered fabric here and there. But every once in a while, a little nobody band manages to produce a CD so good, so cohesive, and so professional that it could sit right beside the cream of popular music, today, as is. San Diego’s own Transfer has submitted just such an album, Future Selves, and if enough people heard it, I have no doubt it could walk right out of here and go to a party with Kings of Leon, Weezer, Muse, and everyone else on Billboard’s rock charts for November 2009.


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Wednesday, Sep 30, 2009
Brooklyn workhorses return with new material.

Every few years I wonder “What ever happened to Alice Donut?” The Brooklyn band has been around since 1986, putting out 12 albums and countless singles while it did what all good punk bands did back then—toured its ass off all over the world. Led by vocalist Tomas Antona, the band has spent the majority of its career on Jello Biafra’s Alternative Tentacles label, and if any band could personify Biafra’s off-kilter take on music and the world in general, it would be Alice Donut. Just look at some of their album titles: Dork Me Bangladesh, The Untidy Suicides of Your Degenerate Children. Over a decade before emo made the mile-long song title faddish, Alice Donut gave us a little ditty called “The Son of a Disgruntled X-Postal Worker Reflects on His Life While Getting Stoned in the Parking Lot of a Winn Dixie Listening to Metallica”. (Take that, Fall Out Boy!) If Alice Donut didn’t exist, Snakefinger from the Residents would have had to invent them. And they’re back with a new CD, Ten Glorious Animals.


After a long hiatus following their 1996 breakup, the band reformed to release Three Sisters in 2004 and Fuzz in 2006. They occupy that murky grey area of one of those stalwart bands with no real commercial success in over two decades of playing, but sufficient fans dotting the globe to make it worthwhile to persevere. It is a subject that plays out in their lyrics, as Antona and his band mates wryly accept their lot in life on the track “Shiloh”: “Gonna get famous and rich / Got a gig with the Unsane / And 7 Year Bitch.” They know they aren’t going to be the next Green Day, and they’re cool with that. As guitarist Michael Jung said in a 2007 interview, “We weren’t in search of hand jobs or castles. There’s all kinds of popular success. Look at Tom Waits.”


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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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Tuesday, Sep 1, 2009

This past week saw the public debut of material by Bad Lieutenant, as the band uploaded the track “Sink or Swim” on its MySpace page.  Bad Lieutenant is the new group formed by singer/guitarist Bernard Sumner, after the dissolution of his previous band New Order by bassist Peter Hook in 2007.  The breakup is an interesting story in of itself, as Hook went around telling interviewers that the group was over while his bandmates expressed surprise and bafflement over his remarks for months on end.


While the group features latter-day New Order guitarist Phil Cunningham and contributions from stalwart Joy Division/New Order drummer Stephen Morris, the impression is that Bad Lieutenant is very much Sumner’s band.  “Sink or Swim” is a decent start, if not a particularly striking one, not sounding out of place among material by British indie bands more than half Sumner’s age.  The song takes advantage of the fact that a bassist of Hook’s caliber is not laying down the central melody, instead letting guitarist Jake Evans weave winding leads throughout.  While Sumner has never been the greatest singer in the world, there’s a certain charm to his soft, average-guy-singing-in-the-elevator voice, and it suits the song perfectly.  Despite the song’s downer lyrics, Sumner sounds quite pleased to be surrounded by so many guitar parts.


The song gets a physical release on September 21, with the group’s debut album Never Cry Another Tear due in October.  Meanwhile, Hook has remarked to The Quietus recently that material by his long-gestating Freebass project (featuring fellow Manchester, England bass legends Andy Rourke of The Smiths and Mani of The Stone Roses) is due for release around the same time as Bad Lieutenant’s record.  He’s even gone as far as to refer to his potential showdown with his former bandmate as “a bit like a fat version of Blur and Oasis”, referencing the epic UK chart showdown between the Britpop titans for the number one single slot in 1995.  Will either of these releases chart that high?  Not likely, but at least Bad Lieutenant has so far given the public a glimpse of something promising coming out of the unfortunate end of New Order.


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