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Monday, Nov 23, 2009
Pandora's Kevin Seal takes over this week's column, and reveals a gem in sonic collage artist Dave Fischoff.

Dave Fischoff is a sonic successor to the painter Georges Seurat. He thinks in colors, paints in pixels and eyelash brushes, and connects millions of dots to create his gestalt. Fischoff’s 2006 masterpiece on Secretly Canadian Records, The Crawl, is his A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (or, for that matter, his take on Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George”):  an epic landscape of skin, populated with a set of characters who are all reflections of the same hive-mind consciousness.


In Fischoff’s parallel reality, acid rain turns to gasoline, Cinderella becomes Ray Charles, Chicago snowstorms are merely tiny ripples in the ocean, and marriage is either a case of sour grapes or a brilliant vineyard waiting to bloom. In this evolutionary crawl, Adam and Eve are just another middle-class Ward and June, and all of the past negatives evolve into future hopes and dreams.


Fischoff has recently re-christened himself in Brooklyn as a DJ named Spoolwork, but in his past life, he worked at the Chicago Public Library, crate-digging thousands of LPs to find the micro-samples that would populate his pointillistic masterpiece. He built The Crawl entirely within Reason (a step-sequencing software tool), but you would never guess that within the first ten listens. Like all finely detailed paintings, this one requires multiple views. And like all great albums, the cover art is central and inexorably linked to the sound, courtesy of Emme Stone.


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Monday, Nov 16, 2009
Artist/producer PC Muñoz mines for gems and grills the greats.

“There’s the me you see, there’s the me I see, there’s the me that I really am…”
—“Pushed Aside, Pulled Apart”, Lyrics Born


Though he swaggers with the best of ‘em and has bangin’ beats to spare, indie boom-bap pioneer and Quannum Projects co-founder Lyrics Born has always been a man apart in the hip-hop world. This is both by design, and by default: as a producer and artist, Lyrics Born adamantly blazes his own trail with each new record, refusing to cynically regurgitate trends or tone down his crackling technicolor vision of what hip-hop can be.  As a lyricist, he has long been known for a stellar word-stash and multi-layered rhymes that go deeper than the first listen. As a hapa/multi-racial (self-described as Japanese-Italian/Jewish) MC, Lyrics Born has also, for the past 16 years, grappled with the pros and cons of being one of the first Asian-American rappers to make a significant impact on the hip-hop scene.


For my money, however, it is not his daredevil artistic choices, nor the particular mix in his double helix that really sets Lyrics Born apart. It’s that voice. Lyrics Born’s voice, a unique instrument that can shout, soothe, and sing with equal effectiveness, is, in my opinion, an exceptionally more versatile musical tool than what the majority of contemporary MCs are packing. He’s got a sexed-up low register, a sassy, swinging shout, a rapid-fire show-off mode, a new-wave tinged melodic mellow tone, and a bunch more vocal versions of himself tucked up his hoodie sleeves, all of which coalesce into an electrifying and distinct sound on record and on stage.


In the above-quoted song “Pushed Aside, Pulled Apart”, from his upcoming album As U Were, Lyrics Born raps passionately and reflectively about being “pulled apart”, and several lines in past lyrics also acknowledge his chosen path as a road-less-travelled hip-hop maverick. Though in “Pushed Aside, Pulled Apart” he makes a compelling case for being a tortured artist who is painfully self-conscious about every choice he makes, the truth is, Lyrics Born has taken the multi-faceted influences of his personal and professional life and fashioned an unparalleled aesthetic which no one but he can claim. And there’s nothing more cohesive than that.


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Monday, Nov 9, 2009
Artist/producer PC Muñoz mines for gems and grills the greats... this time, right in his own backyard.

On his 2008 DIY solo album Obligatory Get Down, San Francisco Bay Area songwriter/indie artist Luke Franks strums guitars, gets squirrelly with the synth bass, rhymes “faded or jaded” with “love it or hate it”, contemplates the Almighty, shows big love for his beloved East Bay Area, makes like Prince at 1:44 into the track “Then Than”, and closes by tearing down the “fourth wall” and spitting some spoken-word which directly addresses the listener, over a busy electro-fried beat.


It’s an interesting alternative glimpse of Franks, who for the last four years has been buzzing in the Bay Area and beyond not as a maverick beat-heavy bedroom DIY artist, but as the leader and golden-voiced singer-songwriter of the Federalists, an indie/alt.country/classic-rock flavored outfit. Since 2005, the Federalists has been a powerful showcase for Franks’ staggering song smarts and spellbinding vocal style, which manages to be both completely original and warmly familiar at the same time.


The group’s newest release, The Way We Ran (Talking House) is their first album released in association with a label, and their first release under their new, semiotically-charged moniker Luke Franks Or the Federalists, or LFOTF for short. The new name came about as a result of the inevitable growing pains the group experienced while transitioning into a national-scene, road-ready project, and it fits. It is a koan of a name, a puzzle of sorts—a kind of linguistic doppelganger for the diverse, unexpected, and ever-evolving gifts Luke Franks possesses and coheres into a compelling, unified whole throughout all his projects.


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Monday, Nov 2, 2009
Artist/producer PC Muñoz mines for gems and grills the greats.

“Dedicated Thespian Has Teeth Pulled to Play Newborn Baby in High School Play”


“Embarrassed Teen Accidentally Uses Valuable Rare Postage Stamp”


“Retired Grocer Constructs Tiny Mount Rushmore Entirely of Cheese”


“High School Shop Class Constructs Bicycle Built for 26”


These waggish tabloid-headline song titles, and the whimsical lyrics that go along with them, can all be found on Strange But True, the 1998 collaboration between renegade songwriter/vocalist Jad Fair and alt-funsters Yo La Tengo. Each song consists of Fair singing and speaking mini-stories which expand on the title, backed by Yo La Tengo’s avant-indie-pop grooves and soundscapes.


Jad Fair has been a prolific artist and mischief-maker for over three decades now, starting in the ‘70s with Half-Japanese, a band he founded in Maryland with his brother, David Fair. Over the course of the last 30 years, the Fair brothers have been hailed as archetypal, out-there popsters/rock ultra-deconstructionists by critics and in-the-know fellow musicians (including Kurt Cobain, who was reportedly a big fan), while remaining relatively unknown by many mainstream music fans. Their sound is an intense, chordless (detractors would say tuneless) amalgamation of earnest singer-songwriterism and primal skronk, decorated with often-tortured lyrics about girls or monsters/imaginary creatures. The result is the kind of raw-nerve honesty (in both a sonic and lyrical sense) which compels some folks to listen more closely, other folks to run for the hills, and still others to wax hyperbolic over the genius inherent in such a nakedly unfeigned artistic emission.


Since in the past I’ve occasionally been faked-out by hipster-chic critic endorsements of various “underground geniuses”,  I should make myself clear: I believe Jad Fair deserves a respectful ear not because of some kind of cool-kid/quirkier-than-thou fetishization of his “unschooled” music. Rather, it’s his obvious love for creating and exploring, his prolific output, and his utter fearlessness in expression that is most striking, and quite undeniable.


The 1993 documentary, Half Japanese: The Band That Would Be King is a good place to begin for those who are intrigued. I also recommend the reasonably accessible, above-mentioned Strange But True as an introduction to Fair’s lyric and vocal style, though diving right into one of his solo albums, or any of the 25-plus Half Japanese releases, is a more completely immersive experience for those with a burning desire to go full-on Jad right away.


What was the first song you fell in love with, and what is your current relationship to the piece?
I was a big fan of the Beatles when I was a kid, and really liked “I Saw Her Standing There”. Beatlemania was so huge. It all seemed so modern, and so cool.


Who is your favorite “unsung” artist or songwriter, someone who you feel never gets their due? Talk a little bit about him/her.
Hedy West is one of my favorite singers. She was a banjo player and released some great albums. It’s difficult to find much by her.


Is there an artist, genre, author, filmmaker, etc. who/which has had a significant impact/influence on you, but that influence can’t be directly heard in your music?
Vic and Sade was a radio show in the ‘30s and ‘40s, and is by far my favorite comedy show. It was a 15-minute show which had five shows a week. The show’s writer was Paul Rhymer. He was a comic genius. I have all of the shows I could find on my iPod and listen to the show almost every day. I’m not sure how it influences my music, but I’m sure it does, because it has such a strong hold on me.


Do you view songwriting as a vocation/calling, a gig, a hobby, other…?
I used to make my living off of music, and song writing is a good part of that. For the past seven years I’ve focused on my art. My main vocation now is paper cutting. I’ve had six books published and several exhibitions.


Name one contemporary song that encourages you about the future of songwriting/pop music.
Amy Allison‘s song “What’s the Deal?” is great. She’s one of the best songwriters around. There are many musicians that I like, but it’s hard to find a good songwriter. Amy gets my vote.


As Fair notes in his answers above, as of late he has been concentrating on his visual artwork. Visit jadfair.org for lots of information on Jad Fair’s art, music, and other activities.


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Thursday, Oct 29, 2009
"The feeling is gone / Only you and I / It means nothing to me / This means nothing to me / Oh, Vienna"

It begins with a drumbeat that pulses like a human heart but sounds more like shutters flapping in an empty manor.  A synthesizer whines as a voice wafts in like a cold wind over the sparse backdrop.  It smolders for a while; then, as keyboards enter like rays of sunlight, the voice bursts out into full force in a cry verging on the operatic, punctuated by delicate piano keys.  The song is nothing less than poised grandeur, mourning a deep loss in a somber, moving fashion.


The single “Vienna” was an affirmation for struggling synthpop pioneers Ultravox.  At the dawn of the 1980s, the group was in a precarious situation. Not long before the song was recorded, original frontman John Foxx had departed the group, and his replacement, Midge Ure, arrived in the middle of a group whose chance at stardom was widely considered to be long past.  “Vienna” proved Ultravox was ready for another shot.  In fact, the song was so strong that Ultravox’s record label, Chrysalis, changed the band’s fourth album title name to Vienna from the less straightforward Torque Point.  Released in January 1981, “Vienna” hovered at number two on the UK Singles Chart in the early part of the year.  Oddly enough, it was kept from the top slot first by a pair of singles by then-recently slain ex-Beatle John Lennon, then by Joe Dolce’s novelty hit “Shaddup You Face”.


Although it never reached the top of the charts, “Vienna” is nonetheless Ultravox’s greatest triumph.  “Vienna” excels at creating a mood suggestive of reflection, despair, and longing.  The song’s restraint of composition is its strength, keeping its more sensational moments from coming off as overblown melodrama. This does not just apply to execution of the music.  The beautifully-realized atmosphere of “Vienna” is crafted in part by lyrics that suggest emotions instead of outlining hard details.  The words do not explicitly state what the song is about, for the lyrics are concerned with conveying the feeling through word choice and phrasing rather than explaining what exactly the narrator is ruminating about.


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