Saturday, January 29, 2011

Hey, Help a (Young) Brother Out...

Unsigned band out of Florida... If you like Band of Horses, but with a little more dance-rock lean (a la Interpol, maybe?) you should definitely check this out. I don't mean to say this band is "all influences" (though to me, those are good ones), but to give you a little bit of a reference point. I like their sound. The songs build nicely (they're all about the same length), and there's enough variety in tempo and vocals to make it interesting. Really quite good.

Check it out, buy it (name your price) or send it to a label scout!

Website: Young Brother at Bandcamp

Friday, January 28, 2011

Old things: The Lonesome Call of the Crowded West

I was listening to the Meat Puppets cover of 'Good Golly Miss Molly' the other day, which to me is one of the great covers of all time. I'll post a decent version of it one day. The first time I ever heard it was at my first MPs show, at the Brewery in Raleigh in 1986. Flat Duo Jets was the opener. Based on my having played the grooves off of Meat Puppets II and Up on the Sun, I told a bunch of buddies to come see this weird jazz trio playing desert math rock (although I'm sure I didn't call it math rock). Any of you who saw them in their heyday knows that that is not what we got. It was a hundred mile per hour blast of joyous chaos, and ever since then I've thought of Curt Kirkwood as one of the truly unsung guitar players of his or any generation. They played inspired covers, like Buddy Holly's 'Not Fade Away' at 78 rpm, and the aforementioned Little Richard gem that made you feel like you were Michael Jackson on the set of a Pepsi commercial.

All the rock and roll stations that summer were playing "In Your Eyes" and "Back in the High Life", which caused me to retreat to the Meat Puppets. Although not nearly as often as in the past, I still get that need for westernness, or the arid landscape that my brain projects when I listen to their old music. So this morning I was thinking about all that crap when I started trying to think of the other music that does that for me. It's not so much music about wide open spaces as it is music about empty spaces, and of course, the allegorical emptiness that we insist on connecting to it. Sort of like "Pulp Fiction" if it had been directed by Sergio Leone.

So that's my best effort at trying to explain the thought process that brought me to post these two tunes -- different sounds and different times, but both doing a similar thing for me.

I don't think it's an overstatement to suggest that Wall of Voodoo, on their masterpiece 'Call of the West', "got" their place and the characters in it the way that Steinbeck "got" Salinas, California. This is a good live version of the last (title) song, but you can really only get its full impact when it follows the other songs, especially desperate songs like "Factory" and "Lost Weekend".

I can't think of another album that would catch that mood again until Modest Mouse released 'The Lonesome Crowded West' in 1997. Despite the title, it was not as overtly "western" in its themes, but for some reason (maybe just the title) it puts me in the same place. Here's my favorite Modest Mouse song.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Friday Old Stuff (Rocksteady74): Reggae

Whether measured on a per capita or square mile basis, the island of Jamaica may be the music capital of the world. It infuses the lives of the people, and constitutes its best known import (with due respect to Usain Bolt). However, the music has not always been reggae, and certainly not always the reggae of Bob Marley. In the 50s, calypso and mento were the most popular music forms. Then the usually faster paced, horn dominated sound of ska took over. In the latter half of the 60s ska gave way to the forms known as rocksteady and reggae. These forms were characterized by a slower beat, less reliance on horns and more emphasis on bass. Vocally, the forms parallelled the music coming out of Detroit and Memphis. While socially conscious lyrics began to creep in to the music scene, the lyrical content more often was similar to the content in U.S. R&B.

The base for the music was provided by the producers, such as Coxsone Dodd (Studio One), Duke Reid (Treasure Island), Prince Buster (a former professional boxer and "protection" guy for Dodd), Leslie Kong and the Chin family (which still controls VP Records, in Queens, NY). Originally, the producers were operators of "sound systems" that would set up outdoor dancehalls and play their music. They often would sell the music as well, and the selling gradually became more important. The producers generally hired and provided the instrumental talent, while solo artists or groups sang the songs. The groups tended to form, break up and reform. And they jumped from producer to producer and back again. Few artists made real money under this system. In that sense (as well as many others), The Harder They Come illustrated real life in the Jamaican music world. The producers would own the music, so they often would recycle the instrumental pieces to keep the costs down. Over the years, "versioning" different songs off of the same instrumental, sometimes with portions of the original vocals as background, has become a distinct part of the music scene; but more on that another day.

The short rocksteady era (about 1966-1968) was dominated by two studios: Coxsone Dodd's now legendary Studio One, and Duke Reid's Treasure Island. Treasure Island became a studio after Duke terminated his career as a policeman and took over the family grocery store. He entered the businesses of sound systems and recording. He was a tough man, keeping a loaded gun and hired muscle (often his former police compatriots) at his side as he negotiated. Apparently, the gun was discharged into the ceiling for emphasis from time to time. Dodd's business lagged Reid's for a while, but Duke ran into several problems: Failing health; refusal to embrace the rastas and their form of reggae; and the fact that even though Dodd was a tough character who didn't always make his artists happy, he was considered better to work with than Reid.

Here are a few examples of the rocksteady/reggae music of the mid to late 60s. By the way, unlike R&B and rock, the vocal groups of rocksteady and reggae generally were comprised of three members.

The Cables had an early rocksteady hit with Baby Why:

Despite their talent, The Cables were underrecorded, and you are likely to find their works only on quality compilations.

Here is Rougher Yet by Slim Smith, which also is a Studio One recording:

Smith started recording at age 17, displaying a voice like his hero, Curtis Mayfield. He had success as a solo artist, as well as with The Techniques and The Uniques. He recorded for Dodd, Reid, and for Bunny "Striker" Lee. Sadly, he bled to death alone at age 25, and it is uncertain whether his death was accidental or a suicide.

Here is an early Rocksteady hit produced at Duke Reid's Treasure Island studio, Dobby Dobson singing Loving Pauper:

The American R&B influence is readily apparent in this Studio One hit, Love Me Forever by Carlton and the Shoes:

You may also note in this early Rocksteady hit echos of the recently passed Ska period, as the producer made ample use of horns.

And it is fitting to end this post with the Duke Reid produced song, Rock Steady, which may well have been the source of the name for the period, sung by Alton Ellis who probably was the artist most identified with rocksteady regardless of whether that song provided the label.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Old Stuff Friday - The Soul Corner - First I Look at the Purse

In keeping with Old Stuff Friday tradition here, I'm going to post something old each Friday, and until further notice, it'll be a a soul song.

We'll kick it off with a Motown classic and one of my all-time my favorite party tunes. Penned by American poet laureate William "Smokey" Robinson, quoted here in all its politically incorrect glory:

"I don't care if her teeth are big / I don't care if her legs are big / I don't care if her hair is a wig / Why waste time lookin' at the waist line? / Cuz first I look at the purse"

A big part of Motown's magic was how well Berry Gordy matched material to artist. He couldn't let sweet-voiced Smokey do this track, or the Four Tops with the great Levi Stubbs, so serious and raw, nor did he let it go to the smooth and soulful David Ruffin and the Temptations. No, "First I Look at the Purse" could only be done by Motown's dance party kings, the Contours.

This recording is so slamming. Check out the rhythm playing and those hand claps. And the lead vocal. Damn. I've listened to it for 40+ yrs and never tire of it, brings smile to my face every time.

And while white rock bands covering soul songs is sometimes not the best thing, a pale imitation as it were, I gotta say the J. Geils Band also do this track justice. But nothing touches the Contours version.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

REVIEW: Dolorean – The Unfazed

I promise not to write exclusively about Portland bands, but this recent release is so damn good, I can’t wait one more day to write about it. And I hear we have some readers overseas who follow this blog. Dolorean are headed to Europe in two days, so all you Euro-based When You Motor Away readers, please listen up (and check tour dates in link below).

To start, Dolorean are a true band, a stable unit of five who’ve been playing together a long time. And on The Unfazed, their 5th full length recording, the confidence, competence and trust that comes from being such an experienced band shines through.

Second, Al James is a terrific writer. He could have just as easily been a novelist or short story writer had he not become a songwriter, or like fellow Portlandiar and like-minded artist, Willy Vlautin (Richmond Fontaine), James could do both if he so desired. James says so much in so few words, paints a picture in every song, makes you care about the characters he introduces in the songs.

Al James makes me feel. And sometimes, Al James doesn’t make me feel so good. The Unfazed is full of heartache, pain, broken relationships, drink, regret. But ultimately, it’s a story of survival. And beautiful music.

The instrumentation and arrangements are well done, with tasteful use of keyboards and violin. Jay Clarke's piano warms the sound throughout. And James’ vocals are gently delivered, direct, so beautiful, with gorgeous added harmonies from band members and some extra female voices. You are lifted up far more than brought down.

The title track:

The production and mixing is first rate. One great aspect of modern technology - you don't need a big budget to make a great sounding record anymore.

There's an ambition and skill level here that makes this rise far above the standard singer-songwriter record. Songs like "Black Hills Gold", “Country Clutter” and "If I Find Love" would not be out of place on a Joe Henry project or a Daniel Lanois-produced Emmylou Harris record.

The centerpiece for me is the lead track "Thinskinned". Beautiful piano opening, guitar strum, great first lines: "It only takes one burr under the saddle / And you and I babe, oh we do battle / Seems like we're just too [perfect pause] thinskinned" [repeat the word three times with ever so slightly different feel and cadence each time]. Then cue the violin. Haunting, under your skin, etched in your brain, pulling at you like a perfect Neil Young song - I just can't imagine how it could be better. Which is how I feel about all 10 songs here.

Dolorean Website

Might as Well Say Something about Nashville... Jack White, Third Man Studios, JEFF the Brotherhood, URP

Since inviting those other three on board, we've been treated to Portland, Seattle and Chapel Hill nuggets... which was just the kind of thing I was hoping for.

But I'd like you to know about some of what's going on in Nashville. It's a little different than a lot of other local rock scenes, as you might imagine of a city that's still the Vatican of the big-time radio-ready country music industry.

First, a long article from the Nashville Scene about Jack White's Third Man Records. Yes, the guy is ridiculously cool... Conan O'Brien did play a gig there on his way to Bonnaroo... Jack did get onstage with Bob Dylan at the Ryman recently; among other songs, he played a stunning lead on "Outlaw Blues", played and sang "Meet Me in the Morning" and sang a duet with Bob on "One More Cup of Coffee"... this is all true. But he's jumped right in with the folks who have been trying for the last 20 years or more to share Nashville's rock scene with the world, they seem to have accepted him and his help, and it's exciting to see.

Second, one of the acts White has been working with and will feature on a live release soon, JEFF the Brotherhood, is playing what might best be described as heavy electric garage metal blues rock. Take a listen and see if you've got a better description. This is bracing stuff. Here's a cut from their split 7" with WYMA favorite Best Coast:

Jeff the Brotherhood - Bummer by VolcomEnt

Also, JEFF has a live disc out on Third Man Records.

Finally, I thought you should know that real record pressing is still going on in Music City USA. United Record Pressing does all the vinyl for Third Man, just around the corner, actually. There are hundreds of interesting stories relating to URP's history... including the apartment suite the owners had built for a very specific purpose... From the History section of the website: When the current URP plant opened in the 1960's it was a very different time in the South, Nashville included. In the early 60's there were hardly any restaurants or hotels in Nashville that would offer their services to African Americans. With top clients like Vee Jay Records and Motown being run by people of color, the company was in need of accommodations for their clients and created what we now call the "Motown Suite", an apartment located above the factory. The Motown Suite which is still viewable to guests touring the plant, displays the same furnishings that these execs were offered including a common room with a bar, a turntable, enough seating to entertain guests, a full bathroom, a double occupancy bedroom, a kitchen equipped with an old push button stove and other novel 60's decor.

They produced the vinyl copies of the Exile on Main Street reissue last year. And they give tours.

Monday, January 24, 2011

New Sounds of Scotland, Part 2: Kid Canaveral, The Cinnamons, We're Only Afraid of NYC

One of my favorite albums of 2010 was Shouting at Wildlife by Scotland's Kid Canaveral. The band has had little exposure here in the states, but this spring they are playing a few dates in New York, and then heading to Austin for SXSW. Try their album here, and if you like it, splash out some coin and help them get to Austin.

Here is a video for one of their songs, which tells a story about a music hipster getting shot down by a woman with different tastes:

Kid Canaveral's Bandcamp Page

Another Glasgow band I learned of last year is The Cinnamons. The music is pop/rock with a nice bass groove. And the band seems to take care with the lyrical content as well.

The Cinnamons at Bandcamp

And the third Glasgow band is We're Only Afraid of NYC. It is a young band with a big post-punk sound.

We're Only Afraid of NYC Bandcamp page (free download)

Are you up for some Male Bonding?

Pointing out the excellence of this Brit trio is by no means revelatory. They're on Sub Pop, and their first album, "Nothing Hurts", came out way back in May of last year. Since then, every critic who took the half hour it takes to listen to it has called it one of the best of the year. It's not really groundbreakinig, and doesn't have pretensions to be. Just thirteen two minute bursts of really well-played, even melodic, punk music.

One of the many things this band has done right is make sure they have a freaking great drummer. Another thing they've done right is make sure the drummer is given a prominent seat at the table in the production of the record. The result is an album that sounds like three excellent musicians having a pretty awesome time.

If you don't have two minutes to watch this band, you need to rethink your priorities.

Here's a video for my first (but not current --which is the sign of a good record) favorite song on 'Nothing Hurts', called 'Weird Feelings'. Looks like they broke the Sub Pop video budget with this one.

Here's Male Bonding's myspace page.

Here's their band page on Sub Pop's site.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

WYMA 2010 Top 20 (Rocksteady74's List)

Management undoubtedly will hold up my bonus if I don't publish my 2010 Top 20 soon, so here it goes:

1. Orange Juice, "Coals to Newcastle" -- This isn't a greatest hits collection, it is an "everything they've ever done" collection. The group is an indie rock icon and an inspiration for many who followed. Is there a negative? Yes -- it is expensive. The silver lining is that your purchase will never be outdated by a subsequent package, because there is no more.

2. Frightened Rabbit, "The Winter Of Mixed Drinks" -- More mature and cheerier than the prior album, and with higher production values. Not everyone liked it better, but for my ears it still is a top album and I'm listening to it regularly many months after purchase. As for the tone of the songs, I've not going to blame a songwriter for finding potential redemption after pouring desperation and cynicism out in prior albums.

3. The Radio Dept., "Clinging to A Scheme" -- This album is pretty much perfect Scandinavian guitar pop to my ears. In their comfort zone, this band has the complete package of songwriting, hooks and delivery. They won't bowl you over with blasts of noise or gritty rock riffs, but they deliver matchless music.

4. Girls, "Broken Dreams Club" -- I love the sound this band produces, and only worry that to satisfy me that much they must be living inside my head. While only an EP, I think it is good enough to justify inclusion on the list of top albums for the year.

5. Kid Canaveral, "Shouting At Wildlife" -- Widely acclaimed in their native Scotland, I think they are virtually unknown on this side of the pond. And that is a shame, because they are a very good indie pop/rock band. Their music has the hooks, flourishes and, when needed, muscle, while their lyrics are actually worth hearing. There will be a proper review with links on this site in the near future.

6. Surf City, "Kudos" -- In 2009 I bought an import EP from a New Zealand band called Surf City. I loved the touchstones of The Jesus and Mary Chain, Surfer riffs and shoegaze (Surfgaze, anyone?), and didn't mind the somewhat casual approach to the lyrics and vocals. I must admit that it occurred to me that I might never hear from them again. I'm thrilled to report that Kudos builds on the EP with a smashing full set of songs that seem more mature, but just as vibrant and exciting. That Kudos didn't receive more attention in 2010 is a shame. Correct it--get a copy.

7. The Henry Clay People, "Somewhere On The Golden Coast" -- I was early on the bandwagon for The Henry Clay People, and nothing since has pushed me off. To my ears this album has a bit more guitar muscle than the first two albums, but that's not a development I'll complain about. In terms of genre, I'd say its a well executed mixture of bar band, Pavement, and The Replacements.

8. Avi Buffalo, "Avi Buffalo" -- Excellent tunesmithing and guitar playing and an interesting back story. I consider this group one of the finds of the year, and I hope to be hearing new things from them for years to come. Some folks compared them to the Shins, but frankly, I don't think any in The Shins (and I like The Shins a lot) can hang with Avi on the guitar. Mercer may write better lyrics, but he's been at it for more than a decade longer.

9. Jonsi, "So" -- I'm not a big Sigur Ros fan, but this album pleasantly surprised me with its sonic breadth and upbeat tone.

10. Beach House, "Teen Dream" -- I went around in circles about this album. I first heard a few songs, and liked them. But I also concluded that I wouldn't be interested in a full album of dream pop performed at that tempo. Accordingly, I entered the album on my running list of contenders for the year and expected it to get knocked down. I am surprised at this point to write that in a year that contained a lot of quality music, I still rate this album pretty highly. Less surprising is that a couple of the songs are on my playlist of favorite songs of the year.

11. Yeasayer, Odd Blood
12. Vampire Weekend, Contra
13. Surfer Blood, Astro Coast
14. The Young Evils, Enchanted Chapel
15. The Drums, The Drums
16. Local Natives, Gorilla Manor
17. The High Dials, Anthems for A Doomed Youth
18. She & Him, Volume Two
19. Perfume Genius, Learning
20. Tame Impala, Innerspeaker

WYMA (JD's) Favorite Music of 2010

Our benevolent leader here, Mr. Hyland, asked his new recruit (me) to include a Top 20 of 2010 list. And these exercises are a bit compulsive to begin with, so I figure I have to get it in here by the end of January or it'll be moot or at least mildly embarrassing.

A couple caveats: I am not longer the completist I once was. This list signifies nothing more than these are records I happened to hear and like a lot. It does not suggest that I think the 20th of these is "better" than say Beach House and all these hip records everyone else thinks is great but I haven't heard. Truth be told, I might have listened more to Exile on Main Street, Bob Dylan and Solomon Burke (whose death was a significant loss in 2010) than all this new stuff combined. So consider this a drive by of sorts.

For many years I have written about and listened mainly to singer-songwriter kind of stuff, but this year found myself gravitating towards rock'n'roll. Which isn't to say this necessarily was an unusually great year for rock (though I believe it was) or off year for singer-songwriters, but more just where my head was at.

I've listed my favorite of year, then gone in alpha order for the rest of a Top 10, then added 10 more. Please excuse the brevity and lack of links and videos, but I know our readers are resourceful. And hey, I'm on deadline here.

Black Keys, Brothers. Hard to believe at this point in the game that anyone could mix the blues and rock’n’roll and come out with something sounding completely fresh and innovative, but these Ohioans do just that. And when I’m driving around and “Tighten Up” gets played on the commercial radio stations in Portland, the sound leaps out of the speakers and sounds awesome. Turn it up.

Alejandro Escovedo, Street Songs of Love. Al has survived a nearly fatal serious illness, every up and down the music industry could provide, and various other life obstacles. So now he just tells the truth, lets it fly like John Lennon. One of my favorite artists doing more quality work with his special brand of Texas roadhouse, garage rock, Rolling Stones, glam rock. Raging.

Casey Neill and the Norway Rats, Goodbye to the Rank and File. I wrote a long piece on Casey for this blog last week and won’t repeat myself. But this unusually well written record is wonderfully varied with rock, waltzes, ballads, Celtic hints, a great Husker Du cover…

Corin Tucker Band, 1000 Years. Corin left the beloved, respected Sleater Kinney and stayed home for a couple years to raise kids. This new beginning took her to new and deep places, the writing here so strong. And it sounds nothing like S-K and has a great deal of stylistic breadth. She's still rockin' though. And who knew Corin could sing, and I mean really sing, like this? Wonderful, triumphant.

Mavis Staples, You Are Not Alone. I love Mavis and love Wilco too, but when I heard they were making a record together, I thought, huh, I’m not sure about that. But Tweedy checked his ego at the door and tapped deep into the songs here much like he did on Mermaid Avenue records. Mavis is so deeply soulful.

The National, High Violet. This is a real rock band, the whole so much more than sum of its parts. Anthemic guitar rock written by super smart guys. It helps to have a kick ass lead singer. Their outdoor live show performing these songs in early September at Pioneer Square in downtown Portland before maybe 4000 people was live rock at its best. I’d much rather see this band than U2.

Steve Wynn and The Miracle 3, Northern Aggression. So how does a guy at this stage of his career make his hardest rocking record ever? Great band, dual guitar attack, great songs. As good as anything the Dream Syndicate ever did and I mean that as the highest compliment possible. Hell, Lou Reed himself would kill for a record this good.

Superchunk, Majesty Shredding. As a former Chapel Hill resident, I have a soft spot for this band. But staying with my theme and biases here – this is some infectious, super intelligent kick ass rock’n’roll by an experienced band who know what they are doing.

Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, The Brutalist Bricks. A music blog dominated by a bunch of Notre Dame grads simply has to include Ted Leo, easily the coolest guy to come out of Notre Dame in the last 40 years with the possible exception of Joe Montana. Except Joe can’t write songs like Elvis Costello and isn’t a super smart encyclopedic old school punk rock god. Three chords and a cloud of dust.

Teenage Fanclub, Shadows. Don’t call it a comeback… well maybe you should. A terrific return to form by Scotland’s finest. Well crafted power pop, great harmonies. The closest thing to Big Star we have left.

Ten more:

Carolina Chocolate Drops, Genuine Negro Jig. Banjo, fiddle, guitar. Born in 1920, alive in 2010.

Drive-By Truckers, The Big To-Do. Now a venerable and vital American institution. Working class Southern heroes who seem to put out a record every year and never stop touring.

Gaslight Anthem, American Slang. A truly great bar band.

LCD Soundsystem, This is Happening. Post punk, heavily Bowie influenced, urban dance rock is hardly my thing but damn are these guys good. Will I embarrass myself to admit I listen to this while working out?

Los Lobos, Tin Can Trust. More great American music from real pros.

New Pornographers, Together. Confession: I have an autographed photo of Neko Case in my office. And AC Newman’s catchy power pop songs are a lot of fun.

Ray LaMontagne and the Pariah Dogs, God Willin’ and the Creek Don’t Rise. It almost isn’t fair to have a band this good. Especially if god gave you that voice.

Ryan Bingham and the Dead Horses, Junky Star. The guy behind some of the great music in the great film Crazy Heart. Country music isn’t really dead, you just have to be willing to go looking for it. T Bone Burnett produced and that is always good news.

Tift Merritt, See You on the Moon. Delightful and soulful country pop Americana. Producer Tucker Martine (The Decemberists) gets such a warm sound, and help from Jim James (My Morning Jacket) and super sessionist and Pariah Dog Greg Leisz on pedal steel doesn't hurt. Tift’s best ever.

Titus Andronicus, The Monitor. They mean it. Joe Stummer would have loved this band.