Wilco @ Coney Island : Donate And Get It.

Keyspan Park on Coney Island
Keyspan Park on Coney Island

In an effort to encourage people to donate to the relief effort in Haiti, Wilco posted 2 shows on their website in exchange for a donation (its the honors system, they link to a few charities, don’t screw your karma here!) Of course, we shouldn’t need incentives to help those in need…but a few live concerts is a nice touch. One of the recordings is this summers show from Keyspan Park in Coney Island. It was a beautiful summer evening, outdoor small stadium, free ice cream trucks in the parking lot, Nathans hot dogs, Feist and the dude from Grizzly Bear sat in, all good things. But listening back, as is often the case, the energy doesn’t translate as well. A live album is a tricky and mysterious thing. For every “Live At Budokan” there are hundreds of “Kiss Alive XXVII”.

Tweedy and Feist in Brooklyn
Tweedy and Feist in Brooklyn

In my earliest days of audiophile aspirations, I traded cassettes of live shows. This was in the early days of the Internet, we still mailed cassettes, CD burners were not commercially available…and you could barely send a jpeg…UPHILL IN THE SNOW BOTH WAYS! Recently when my parents moved from their house, I found all these original cassettes in the basement in several racks. There were hundreds of them. Sometimes you would get lucky, as in the case of The Black Crowes, i believe it was the Palace Theater, in Syracuse 1996. Someone leaked a soundboard recording of the show, I still remember the insert card on the case, it was bright pink photocopied, with some Fillmore style text on it. Even on that crappy inconsistent speed of the cassette, probably 9th generation, you could feel the incredible multiple drug infused energy of this band at their peak. On the other hand, pick any one of thousands of Grateful Dead tapes from XYZ Arena, and you have the opposite effect.

As far as official live releases go, the classic AC/DC life is pretty near flawless.  The Stones live classic “Get Yer Yayas Out”  Is a perfect picture of a sloppy burnt out bunch of English rockers at their best, just about to fall apart and create a masterpiece in the studio.  It seems like back in the day, more thought was put into a live album, since so much preparation had to be taken in order to make it happen.  With remote recording rigs so readily available, I would venture to say that most larger bands record nearly everything they do. Sometimes they all get released- as is the case with the Live Phish series, as well as current Black Crowes shows. Others, as in the case with Wilco, they filter the releases a little more. The Keyspan Park show probably suffers in the technical mix a bit, maybe we were just distracted by the beautiful surroundings of Coney Island at the time, who knows. But in some cases, I think my new philosophy will be to live in the moment as far as shows go, and not seek recordings after the fact.

Steve Liveblogs Lady Gaga

Today dear reader, lets take a journey together. A journey into uncharted territory. I will now attempt to liveblog a Lady Gaga Album.

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Who is Lady Gaga? Chances are you know better than I do. I have no idea. Her name is thrown around by pop culture fanatics and esoteric hipsters alike. She apparently is the new Madonna? I don’t know, you don’t come here to hear about Lady Gaga. In all this hubbub, I feel the need to be in on the action. Steps have been taken to clear my mind of all preconceived notions, I’ve done some stretching exercises, my subscription to Lala.com has been created (this site seems absolutely kick amazing, thanks to Eric Tarn for the recommendation). I will listen to 30 seconds of each song from whichever album I find first, then do about a minute of stream of conscious writing. Ok, the album will be Fame Monster. Ready? GO.

BAD ROMANCE: This seems like the opening of a meatloaf album. I feel like some giant guy is going to descend from the ceiling in a cage carrying a red rose and pluck a woman from the top of the empire state building. After that fog will fill up the stage and various scantily clad dancers will come out until suddenly the action stops and that song “Ya’ll Ready For This!” comes on and Lady Gaga appears in an 18th century ball gown, which is being carried at the ends by various doves, all dyed different colors and glowing in the dark. NEXT SONG.

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ALEJANDRO: Ok this one i had to extend to 35 sec since the first 30 is all intro. She puts on a french accent, some violins are playing. We’re on a dark street corner (not an actual corner, but some type of film set) and the fog machines are once again blasting. Meatloaf, who is still in the cage from the first song is the subject of her desire, after a wardrobe change, she makes various hand gestures, maybe in Kabuki style makeup perhaps? When she tells our beloved Loaf that she just can’t be with him anymore, the cage explodes in a fantastic pyrotechnic explosion of glitter, and Loaf is now her dance partner, in some type of tuxedo with a rose in his teeth. Lady Gaga is in some type of S&M getup (ok, shes basically Madonna, even after 1:05 of music I have come to this conclusion) and various backup dancers each dressed as a different historical figure shadow their every move. There is Napoleon, Einstein, Patrick Ewing, and Andy Warhol…NEXT!

MONSTER: How is it that every song so far fits into my idea that Meatloaf is a constant character on this album? Meat is now back in a different cage…a jail cell! He has been re-incarcerated after his glittery escape from captivity, at least he got to enjoy a night on the town with his lady, Gaga. He sobs, as she looks on longingly, yet with an heir of confidence, that her life will now be free and easy without a giant Meatloaf/gorilla shadowing her every move, preventing her from getting in taxicabs, things like that. As the auto tune of “He Ate My Heart” comes in, the prison guards turn out to be her backup dancers, the dramatic lighting kicks in, you know where it goes from here.

meatloaf

SPEECHLESS: Oh my god, its a meatloaf album. Seriously, this song is like Rocky Horror Picture Show. Loaf remains in the cell as Gaga has run off, and left him a single red rose. A spotlight appears and a piano is rolled out next to him. As the power ballad drums come in, he dramatically switches back to tuxedo, the single rose in a vase atop the piano. I’m only listening to 30 seconds of each song, but I’m willing to wager that this one ends with a dramatic piano/vocal outro, which in our imaginary live Broadway production, Loaf would remove the rose, give it a dramatic sniff, and a single tear would run down his cheek. (again, the fact that Lady Gaga is singing is irrelevant, this song clearly belongs to Jim Steinman and Meatloaf)

DANCE IN THE DARK: Gaga now begins her dark descent into the seedy underworld as her one true love has been taken away. The intro carries her through various back alleys, with our trusty fog machines working full force (they really are helpful with this album) She becomes more and more disheveled as these first 30 seconds of the song continue. By the end she looks like one of those heroin chic models from the mid 90’s, with that crazy black eyeliner. Shes in a bad part of town with a sketchy clientele as the music kicks in, and the various vagrants once again become her backup dancers. When this goes to broadway, we’ll save a lot of money by just using the same 5 backup dancers, but dressing them as prison guards, historical figures, homeless junkies, you get the idea.

TELEPHONE: She is in the midst of embracing her 2nd act life struggles. Shes in the club, as the lyrics state, blocking out memories of one Meat Q. Loaf, remaining alone in captivity, for reasons we do not yet know or understand. The lyric “I Got No Service In The Club, Sorry I Cant Hear You I’m Kinda Busy” is clearly a metaphor for her running away from her problems and embracing a life of crime and substance abuse. She has various visions of scary things, maybe theres even a guy in some type of demon suit (a la that scene in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in the hotel lobby) Yet in the midst of all this, there is a sure to be classic dance sequence on the club floor. This will rival both Travolta in Saturday Night Fever and Jackson in Thriller. I’m willing to bet the next song will be some type of ballad….lets see.

SO HAPPY I COULD DIE: Ok, i should really look at titles before I predict the next song. But this is truly live, no preparation or extra time has been taken. Lets call this one Conflict Resolution. Shes getting her life back together. This could be where the Training Montage comes in, various scenes of her becoming independent and powerful, taking life by the horns. Buying expensive clothes, having high powered meetings, volunteering with young children, shes on the path for success. She passes by some of her old associates on the street who are not doing well, she doesn’t even stop to look. She has business to attend to. And that business sang Paradise By The Dashboard Light. NEXT!

TEETH: Man, Whats with this last track? It just doesn’t make sense with the rest of the album. There is no conflict resolution, no final romance, no triumphant ending (well at least in the first 30 seconds) I Hate to leave this unfinished, so maybe we can come up with some type of ending? Maybe its a really artsy film where the end doesn’t have to make sense? Or like Kubrick where he says “you won’t understand this for 20 years” I don’t know. Gaga, I mean, its a catchy track, but you’re really not working with me on this one. Mabye Jim Steinman who seems to have wrote most of the previous material we have discussed took a lunch break, and while he was having a sandwich she finished up the album. That’s what I’m sticking to.

meatloaf

Whew! Well that was grueling. I guess after a look back (I made no edits, that was truly live) this was less of a live blog and more of a “Live Dramatic Interpretation.” As a closing thought, I would agree with the Madonna comparisons that are so present in her media criticism. But I really think they’re missing the boat with her Meatloaf influence. The obviously put on drama, the introductions, its all there.

Spoon: Transference Album Review

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When I initially learned of the new Spoon album, Transference, I was not so excited to go out and get it.  Gagagagaga was a good recording, but I felt like my relationship with the band had ended there.  We would remain friends, acting cordially towards each other at gatherings, but never rekindle the magic we once had.  Really, it was that live show that did it.  Spoon’s albums are well crafted in my favorite sense.  The sounds are not too polished, the arrangements kind of stripped down, the groove is always good, and the melody always obvious yet not too in your face.  Its got a minimalist thing that I love.  The guitars always sounded great.  “Commercial Appeal” was a fantastic track, go listen to that just for posterity then we’ll continue.

Spoon at Terminal Five last year
Spoon at Terminal Five last year

But a few years back they played Terminal 5, and I was left so unsatisfied that I had trouble listening to the band afterwards.  It was not as if they were horrible, or even sub-par, they were really just….par.  Nothing jumped out at me, its like they weren’t connecting with the audience.  And maybe its unfair to judge a band based on one show, but it just left me feeling uncomfortable.   So Spoon records went unplayed on my ipod, new of the band went overlooked by my short blog related attention span.

But this morning while listening to the Sound Opinions Podcast (a great podcast which I highly recommend from Greg Kot and Jim DeRegotis from Chicago) they reviewed the new Spoon album.  I heard some clips, and the fire was re-ignited.  They claimed the tunes were more stripped down than on Gagagagaga, no fancy horn arrangements or attempts at pop masterpieces, just a straight ahead kind of artsy minimal rock record.  Well Jim and Greg, lets have at it.  I went through the morning considering the options of how to purchase (or illegally download) and made a decision.  Normally, such decisions would be kept between Trent Reznor and I, but I bought it through iTunes, strictly because it came with a Digital Booklet.

This is one of the most overlooked concepts in the digital download world.  Why does every album not include one?  Its not like there are any extra printing costs, you’re just including a .pdf file with the artwork.  It really gives a context to an album. The greatest thing that everyone misses about the CD and even Vinyl days is the artwork and liner notes.  Its a little insight into the feel of an album, perhaps even some notes from the band.  For tech junkies like me, I love to see where it was recorded, or if i know the engineer or any guest musicians.  Maybe some in studio photos?  I’m getting nostalgic just thinking about it.  But anyway, whats keeping this from being included with every album on iTunes?  For real, I would like to know.  Someone get Steve Jobs on the phone, patch him through to my secretary, I’ll be in meetings until after lunch.

Spoon-band-2005

It turns out this album was self produced.  I like the sound of that, to me that says “we had success with our last release, now we’re just going to do what we want, we’ve already got your money, so lets enjoy ourselves”  whether this is true or not, I can only speculate, but the album delivers that feel.  It sounds like it was recorded in 4 days, with not too much attention paid to detail (that’s a good thing).  Songs end abruptly or with a quick fade, delays and other effects seem hastily piled on, orchestrations are minimal and song structure is simple.  It was moving in the right direction.   Overall, this is a Bass and Drums record.  I can barely remember one interesting guitar part, yet all the drum and bass parts connected instantly.  Some great fuzzed out bass tones, some punchy Motown style licks, I enjoyed all of it.  On the drum side of things, it was like they went into my brain, picked out some ideal drum sounds, and ran back to the studio with them.  (Yes, I am accusing Spoon of intellectual thievery, you will be hearing from my imaginary lawyer any moment.)  One thing that stands out, is the use of shaker over hi hat. This has been my new goal in life, ever since I listened to Jay Bellerose (T Bone Burnett and Ray Lamontagne’s main drummer.)  The snare is always very flat and present, there are no extraneous drum fills, its as if the drums walked in the room where you are currently sitting, greeted you warmly, sat in a chair directly in front of you, and started tapping on your head in a pleasing yet interesting manner.

Lets select some highlights from the record, as we don’t have time to go through the whole thing, we’re all busy people, with important government related business to attend to.  Based on initial listening, my favorite tack is “Who Makes Your Money”  and not just because I’ve recently really been into AC/DC’s “Money Talks”.  It makes use of all my favorite elements, but not just in a trivial way, they all serve the song.  Shaker instead of hi hat, incredibly consistent bass line, weird delay on either a guitar or keyboard, very basic etherial sounding melody.  The song achieves almost a hypnotic trance feel, its so even and driving that you begin tapping your foot, and maybe even swaying a little bit on the PATH train on your morning commute while the guy in an uncomfortable looking suit sitting in front of you gives you a quizzical look.  I’m just sayin in general, not specifically.  The song clocks in at just over 3 minutes, there is no messing around.  The background vocals have this weird tremelo-delay thing happening, its kind of like if 50’s rockabilly met some dub reggae music.  The prechorus breaks down to just bass and drums, a technique I’m very much a fan of- subtraction rather than addition.

One key characteristic tying many of these songs together is the lack of a bridge.  This I also support.  Don’t just add extra stuff for the sake of adding it.  There was that Death Cab For Cutie “Open Door EP” released recently, which featured the fantastic song “My Mirror Speaks”, which might have been one of the best songs ever, had it not included a pointless and distracting bridge.  Lets stop this before it gets too far to turn back.

spoon

“The Mystery Zone”  runs along similar lines as “Who Makes Your Money”  with a great consistent feel, almost as if your brain is on autopilot being driven by delay effects, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but lets talk about another song.  “Written In Reverse”  slams along like a White Album Beatles track, with more soul.  Slamming on piano and guitar, with some lower octave background vocals and big distorted bass fills, it all comes together. It might just be one chord for most of the song, which again, I fully support.  Its not even a riff, its more of a drone, accented by dynamic changes and sloppy guitar fills.

If there is any immediate criticism, I would say that for such a driving and consistent album in the middle, it starts off kind of hodgepodge with “Before Destruction”  which seems to lack a little focus.  These days, who cares, we just put the songs we like on our ipods and shuffle away.  BUT, since the digital booklet was split up into “side a” and “side b”  for the track listing, I am holding Spoon to it.  The also include the phrase “buying records at actual record stores is cool”  which I respect, even though I bought it on iTunes.  Overall, Transference is a solid album, it veers towards the weird side.  Its like a giant drone, flavored with some rock music.  You’ve won this round Britt, see you next time.

Coming up next week, I’m going to listen to 30 seconds of each track of the most recent Lady Gaga album, which I have never heard, and write stream-of-consciousness for 20 minutes after.  What results, is any-one’s guess.

There’s Nothing Wrong With Norah Jones

Lets talk about Norah Jones.  There are lots of opinions floating around out there about Miss Jones.  Yes, she’s easy to dislike.  Probably because your mom owns Come Away With Me, and you’ve straight up gotten sick of it.  She’s easy to dismiss as elevator jazz, watered down pop, whatever.  But I am here to fight you on this.  And I will do so to the death.  Well, maybe not to the death, but at least until we both get thrown out of whatever venue we are in at the time.

I did not like Come Away With Me.  I don’t know, I just didn’t get it.  And also some family members played it constantly on repeat, which put it out of the question.  In college, while working for the school’s radio station i got a copy of Feels Like Home, and again, I just didn’t get it.  I don’t know, it didn’t really connect with me.  Sure, Levon Helm and Garth Hudson of The Band played on a track, but i was not blown away.  This relationship continued for a while.  I tried to keep an open mind, I didn’t actively dislike her, maybe she just seemed like a nice person, I don’t know.  It changed definitively one night when I accidentally saw her perform.

Ryan “I’m Most Likely Completely Out Of My Mind But Have Flashes Of Genius” Adams was doing 3 nights at Town Hall, and I chose the 2nd.  For good old Ry’, this was not the night to attend.  He wore platform moon boots, had a little pony tail on the top of his head, and played strictly recent material.  The surprise of the evening was an unannounced band called The Little Willies.  This group consists of a few New York songwriters, playing old country tunes, notably Willie Nelson songs.  Leading the group was none other than Miss Jones.  I maintained an open mind, thinking maybe things would change…they certainly did.

To say her voice was like an angel coming down and cooking you dinner while giving you a back massage would be putting it lightly. I doubt there has ever been a more beautiful voice on earth.  Town Hall is renown for its beautiful acoustics, you could hear her actual voice, rather than simply the PA recreating the sound, so there was no sonic trickery going on.  As we know, I love for an opening band to surpass the headliner, and this was one such case.  I was hooked from here on out.  This was intensified after I learned the track “The Long Way Home”  on her Feels Like Home record was written and suggested to her by none other than Tom Waits.  They don’t sell cred like that at Wall-Mart.

Again though, her Not Too Late album just didn’t connect with me.  There was a definite Waits inspired track, “Sinkin’ Soon” but it was no “Long Way Home”.  Last year I heard of another group called Puss N Boots, playing the Mercury Lounge, opening for Mikael Jorgenson of Wilco.  This group was just a trio of girls, 2 guitars and a Bass, featuring Norah, Sasha Dobson and Catherine Popper (who played bass with Crazy Ry Adams.)  So, i figured, why not.  Maybe Town Hall was just all acoustics, and nothing to back it up.  Well, I was proven wrong dear Norah.  They played a few country group vocal covers to start, Jones on electric guitar, not too exciting.  As soon as they broke into “Cry Cry Cry” by Johnny cash, and she took a lead vocal, it was apparent that the business was serious.  If she tried out for American Idol, she would get through the thousands of rounds and win hands down.  (god, I’m sorry for that Idol reference, but its just the truth)  They then covered “Jesus Etc” by Wilco, and my heart was officially won.

Norah Jones at the Mercury Lounge
Norah Jones at the Mercury Lounge

Anyhoo, some word was floating round the ol interwebs about the new Norah Jones album being inspired by Mule Variations- Tom Waits epic masterpiece from the late 90’s.  Now, these are serious accusations being thrown around.  She hired the same engineer and producer, a cast of the same musicians (including my 2 favorite guitar players, ironically mentioned in the last post, Marc Ribot and Smokey Hormel)  In addition to studio ace drummer Joey Waronker (Beck, Air) to even out the crew.  Now Norah, you’re just playing with my emotions.  The real key is….how does it sound?  Well, I just watched this clip from Letterman, thats none other than Smokey Hormel on guitar, and correct me if I’m wrong, but is that Joey Waronker on drums?

Its got some indie sounds happening.  Less pop, more drive, so far….I think our ‘In Person Only’ relationship may be on its way out?  I’m going to buy the album tonight when I get home, and we will continue this discussion further.