Monday, December 31, 2007

My Favorite Albums of 2007

Most of the time, I really don’t like top ten lists. I’d much rather make a list of 10 albums, movies, or whatever else I liked from the year regardless of rank. However, I do still think in my head about where I would rank albums over others. Since that’s going on in my head, despite my best efforts I make ranked lists at the end of each year. I make my lists based on what I liked from the year, and not on what hot, buzzed-about band every zine and blog goes crazy over that particular year. You're not going to find any Animal Collective, Panda Bear, or LCD Soundsystem on here, I just don't like any of that enough to even consider putting it on a list. I respect those releases, but when I do stuff like this, its about what I like.

I think this year has been a pretty good one for music. A lot of times you hear in the press that the year sucked for music, that ten or twenty years ago there was a much higher mean quality of music, but I tend to disagree. I can always find ten albums that I believe legitimately deserve to be remembered from the year, and 2007 is no exception. Here is my list of my top 10 favorite albums of the past twelve months:

10. Bright Eyes – Cassadaga

Conor Obherst finally dropped the boy wonder label with this release, recorded all over the country while he recovered from addictions he suffered from on the tours following his two releases in 2005. The album sounded mature, unwavering, soulful, and honest. I saw him play a concert at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley, and with an orchestra behind him Obherst brings the house down on these tracks. It’s great to see him being experimental with his sound while his lyrics add much welcomed maturity to their originality and poetry.

9. Arcade Fire – Neon Bible

When I first heard the album, I didn’t really like it except the only previously released song “No Cars Go” because that song is to this day my favorite Arcade Fire track. Over the course of the year though, the album grew on me and deepened in the same way the band changed “No Cars Go” from its first incarnation into the thundering, string heavy, powerful barnburner it is on Bible. They transcended the sophomore slump, and I can’t wait to hear what they’ve got in store for their next, most likely even more ambitious disc.

8. Arctic Monkeys – Favourite Worst Nightmare

One of my favorite songs from the year is “Fluorescent Adolescent,” and these English boys delivered another album full of great images of their travels. From the description of a friend in “Brianstorm” to a warning of hometown fans in “If You Were There, Beware” the whole album tells a great series of stories. It moves along at a masterful pace for the first six tracks, takes a break on “Only Ones Who Know” and then plunges into another race until the last track “505.” The last four songs are still the best ending to an album I’ve heard in a very long time.

7. Paramore – Riot!

Sometimes all you want to do when you listen to music is have fun, and no record I heard this year did that better than Riot!, the second album from Paramore. It’s loud, raucous, raging, pulsing, and just a huge good time of an album. It’s full of punchy guitars and loud, fast choruses, and I loved every one of them.

6. Glen Hansard, Marketa Irglova, & Interference – Once Soundtrack

I love the film for what it is, but it is undeniable that what gave Once its strength was the quality of the songs written for the film by Hansard and Irglova. Achingly powerful in their raw energy, Hansard belts his lungs out on songs like “Leave” and “Say It To Me Now,” but it is the chemistry between Hansard and Irglova (now an official couple off the set of the film) makes “Falling Slowly” and “When Your Mind’s Made Up” some of the best songs ever written for a film. I have no qualms about saying this is the best film soundtrack for popular music since Purple Rain.

5. Radiohead – In Rainbows

It’s on almost everyone else’s year end lists, and if I were to make a list of the most important releases of the year, this would without a doubt be at the top. I love Radiohead, I can’t stop following them down the creative rabbit hole they’ve made for themselves with every successive album. I marvel at the way they are able to go in almost any direction and make a great work of art. This time around they made their most cohesive, thematically tight album since OK Computer. No album Radiohead makes sounds like a previous work, so comparison to a different album’s sound is almost pointless, but taken as another fantastic album in a series, In Rainbows stands above a lot of the bands’ recent work.

4. Bloc Party – A Weekend in the City

A lot of people were turned off by the direction Bloc Party took with their sophomore disc. Kele Okereke chose to create a cohesive, story oriented album about life in a metropolis. Since their debut was such a party-oriented, fun-filled rock fest, this understandably turned a good amount of people off; but those that stuck around were rewarded with a fantastic concept album that plays through better with every subsequent listen. Okereke is clearly scared of London and the life that city fosters in people. The Xenophobia present in "The Prayer" and "Where is Home?" is palpable, with the fear and terror coming through in the music. The rest of the band kept the sound very tight, with Matt Tong's drumming still ranking with the best around. I heard this album develop from the early live debuts of some of the tracks, and the lyric changes only made the album better. If Silent Alarm was the sound of a late-night party, then A Weekend in the City is the sound of knowing you have to eventually leave hat party and walk home through the dark and unfriendly city. Bloc Party captured life in a big city better than any band since The Clash in London Calling, and it'll probably be another thirty years before anyone gets this close again.

3. Daphne Loves Derby – Good Night, Witness Light

They’re my favorite band for a reason, and every song on here resonates with me in a deeper way than anything I heard all year. These boys from the Seattle area possess some of my favorite indie rock ever made, and front man Kenny Choi really got poetic with his lyrics this time around. The title was named after a line from a Robert Frost poem, and the rest of the lyrics grapple with personal issues and finding a place in the world. I’ve loved this band ever since I first heard them as a wide eyed high school sophomore, and I haven’t stopped since.

2. Rilo Kiley – Under the Blacklight

Longtime fans of the band were up in arms over the sound of the first single off this record, “Moneymaker”, but in retrospect all the criticisms of the album and the new direction the band took seem insignificant in light of the masterful piece of pop music they created. It’s a portrait of Los Angeles, but also a perfectly crafted breakup album of Jenny Lewis and Blake Sennett, the worst band mate breakup since Gwen Stefani and that bassist from No Doubt. Instead of just getting “Don’t Speak” out of it, Rilo Kiley got an entire album full of great tracks that fly by over Under the Blacklight’s short running time. Everything about the band over the past few years is examined in the lyrics and sound of these songs, and everything is fantastic.

1. Bloc Party – Another Weekend in the City

Some people might see this as cheating, but I don't give a damn. From the first time I read about the amount of b-sides Bloc Party was putting on different releases of A Weekend in the City I was ready to listen. The idea made fiscal sense because the actual album had been leaked in December of 2006, but it also was sonically different from what made it onto their sophomore album. Instead of being tight thematically in line with songs about a foreboding metropolis, these tracks were more akin to their debut, full of carefree, ballsy, danceable rock. When I first saw the band, it was the first time I had danced through the entire set of a rock band, and I loved that feeling. Listening to these tracks, in the order originally postulated on the Good, the Bad, & the Unknown the week of the emergence of the tracks, I can't believe that a band could release an amazing concept album, but have an equal amount of great rock-out tracks just waiting in the wings. Yes, the album is unofficial, as is the title, tracklisting, and album cover, but I didn't listen any album by any band, new, established, favorite or otherwise than this collection of 11 Bloc Party "b-sides." Considering the quality of all the tracks Bloc Party has released as so-called "b-sides," including "Two More Years" "Tulips" "Flux" and the entirety of these tracks, I have a hard time coming up with a single song they've created that isn't a great one.

Monday, December 24, 2007

My Christmas Playlist

I never really kept up with my promise of posting Christmas songs, so I'm going to do it in one large playlist. These are my all-time favorite Christmas songs. Some are classics, some are alternative covers, and a few are original Christmas songs that I personally enjoy. May they bring you a little joy during what little of the Christmas season is left.

Hanson - Merry Christmas Baby (the guiltiest pleasure on this list, but it's from what I consider one of the greatest Christmas albums of all time...)
Phantom Planet - Winter Wonderland
Sufjan Stevens - O Come O Come Emmanuel
Sufjan Stevens - That Was the Worst Christmas Ever!
Elvis Presley - Here Comes Santa Claus
The Jackson 5 - Santa Claus is Comin' To Town
Nat King Cole - The Christmas Song
The Beach Boys - Little Saint Nick (the Californian in me can't resist the idea of hearing this song on a beach in the sun when the rest of the country is covered in snow)
Paul McCartney - Wonderful Christmastime
Britney Spears - My Only Wish (in retrospect, she obviously wants to wish for more than this for Christmas...perhaps some sanity for starters...)
Relient K - the 12 Days of Christmas
Chris Ayer - Wintertime
Daphne Loves Derby - Silent White Christmas Night (my favorite Christmas song, ever.)
Daphne Loves Derby - Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas
Gatsby's American Dream - Christmas Time Is Here
Bright Eyes - Blue Christmas
Alvin & the Chipmunks - The Christmas Song
Fall Out Boy - Yule Shoot Your Eye Out
Trans-Siberian Orchestra - Christmas (Sarajevo 12/24)
Mariah Carey - All I Want For Christmas Is You

Happy Holidays

An Early Xmas Gift: A Guest Top 25

Since I got home for Christmas I've essentially stopped posting. I needed a break, but the small readership of this blog has suffered. In any case, in the next few days I will hopefully have a ton of new posts up, starting with my second ever guest post. My friend Jake listens to way more music than I do, and has sent me his Top 25 albums of the year. While I don't agree with all of them, I'm posing them because I strongly believe in having more than one opinion out there. Check out the year-end accumulations over at Metacritic to see most of the media's top albums.

Jake's Top 25 Albums of 2007

25. The Silent Years- “The Silent Years”
24. Sunset Rubdown- “Random Spirit Lover”
23. Dinosaur Jr- “Beyond”
22. Blacks Lips- “Good Bad Not Evil”
21. Dan Deacon- “Spiderman of the Rings”
20. A Place to Bury Strangers- “A Place to Bury Strangers”
19. !!!- “Myth Takes”
18. Iron & Wine- “The Shepherd’s Dog”
17. The Clientele- “God Save the Clientele”
16. Menomena- “Friend or Foe”
15. Wu-Tang Clan- “8 Diagrams”
14. Spoon- “Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga”
13. Battles- “Mirrored”
12. Beirut- “The Flying Club Cup”
11. White Rabbits- “Fort Nightly”

10. Deerhoof- “Friend Opportunity”
I’ve been a Deerhoof fan for as long as I can remember, and this album definitely satisfied my hunger for their new album. The Runners Four is great, but I think this even surpasses it in terms of a complete album. Considering this came out in January, it’s impressive that when making this list I immediately thought of “Friend Opportunity.”

9. The Fiery Furnaces- “Widow City”
OK, this is no Blueberry Boat, but what is? The Fiery Furnaces, no matter what, will always make a f*cking sweet album. Honestly, I was kind of disappointed and it’s still my 9th favorite of the year. Musically, this album is up there with their best; however, it lacked the completeness that I felt from Blueberry Boat and Gallowsbird’s Bark. Still, awesome.

8. Papercuts- “Can’t Go Back”
I listened to this album well after everyone else did, so I feel a little guilty putting it in my top 10. But it’s so f*cking great, that I couldn’t resist. If anyone puts this album as their number 1, you have no arguments from this guy. From the intense lyrics in the opener “Dear Employee” to the haunting “Unavailable,” this album has a song for anyone who likes music. First time I put this on my iPod, I listened all the way through like I do with every first listen, unless it frustrates me (aka “American Gangster” and “Places Like This”). I then listened to it two more times (Yeah, I have a lot of time on my hands); that’s how good this album is.

7. Liars- “Liars”
Best two track opening to an album of the year, and probably the last 2 years although the Junior Boys may have a good case. Once you play those two songs over and over again, you can finally continue and you’re in for a treat. Great lyrics, wonderful guitar work, just solid in every area.

6. The Besnard Lakes- “Are the Dark Horses”
My “dark horse” of this list is this Canadian group. No words can really describe the feeling I get when I hear this album, but the last two minutes of the second track “For Agent 13” may be my favorite part of any song this year. I was glad to see the Lakes get some recognition in some reviews for the great album they made. I’m expecting big things from these guys in the future.

5. The Arcade Fire- “Neon Bible”
Ahhh The Arcade Fire, the new “kings” of indie rock. Funeral is a tough album to follow up, but Win Butler and crew did an admirable job with Neon Bible. Although I hated the first track, “Black Mirror,” every other track on the disc is superb. From the up-tempo “Keep the Car Running” to the beautiful duet “Black Wave/Bad Vibrations,” Neon Bible appealed to all music tastes, which is fucking impressive these days with all the pretentious assholes out there (not excluding myself).

4. Radiohead- “In Rainbows”
I mean, what’s there to say? You might say it’s no Kid A or OK Computer, but what’s that supposed to mean? Nothing will ever be anything like those albums.

3. LCD Soundsystem- “Sound of Silver”
James Murphy just rocked my world with the opening track “Get Innocuous.” Once I heard that track, I figured the disc would just go downhill, which somehow he managed to avoid. I didn’t really like the last two tracks, otherwise it would have been number 1. Still, awesome work by Murphy.

2. Of Montreal- “Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?”
Not to be a dick, but I wish Kevin Barnes would be depressed more often. OK, Of Montreal has made some f*cking amazing albums, but this is my favorite of all of them. Although some of the lyrics may be depressing, how can you not dance to most of these songs, or at least move around? When I’m driving listening to this album, I’m dangerous. It didn’t hurt either that track 7 is my favorite song of the year.

1. Okkervil River- “The Stage Names”
What are you talking about? Okkervil River? Really? Have you looked at your list? In a year where you were all into the dance, upbeat shit, this is your favorite? Well, I don’t know what to tell you. They’ve made 5 albums, and the only other one I like was the 2005 disc Black Sheep Boy, which honestly was a completely different album. I was immediately drawn in by the opening track “Our Life is Not a Movie or Maybe.” It’s such a pessimistic album, while at the same time cheerful. Being able to achieve such a difficult thing to do made for a much more enjoyable listen. Well done, OR.

There you have it, Jake's top albums of the year. I'll admit I haven't listened to a lot of them, and when I post my top 10 it will be relatively clear that I liked much different stuff, but there's a lot of great music on here.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Why I Loved The Dolphins Win

Sunday saw the Miami Dolphins win their first game of the 2007 NFL season to avoid the possibility of being the first team to go 0-16 in the history of the league. It was an amazing evasion of futility, and while a lot of people thought the celebrations got out of hand, I thought it was a great story. However, my favorite part of the win was not the Dolphins avoiding a completely defeated season, it wasn't the undefeated '72 Dolphins being on hand for their 35th anniversary, it wasn't any of those big stories. My favorite part of that whole game was the man that caught the 64 yard touchdown in overtime to win the game: Greg Camarillo.

Most people have no idea who Camarillo is, and seeing as how half the Dolphins are no name players due to massive injuries to the starters I'm not that surprised. But I've known who Greg Camarillo was since I was in middle school. He's the son of Susan Camarillo, a woman who worked at my middle school as a counselor, and who I knew very well for three years. Here's what I know of her son's story:

He went to Menlo-Atherton High School, right down the road from where I went to high school in Atherton, California. He went on to college at Stanford, where he walked onto the football team just as the Tyrone Willingham era had ended, the coach bolted for Notre Dame, and the Buddy Teevens & Walt Harris tenures began. Camarillo played so well at tight end that he was given a scholarship for his later years on the team, and was given a fifth year of eligibility due to injury. After completing his college career, he ended up on the practice squad for the San Diego Chargers, and that was the last I had heard of him until Sunday when I watched him take a pass and run all the way down the field to give the Dolphins their first win in almost a year.

It's extraordinarily satisfying to know his story; to have seen someone take a different route into a meaningful place in the NFL. Camarillo didn't get a scholarship out of high school football, didn't get drafted, didn't have anything handed to him in any way to give him a chance to shine, but he still carved a place for himself in a way many players who have coasted through to a professional career haven't been able to. Yes, the Dolphins suck, and yes, when the starters come back from injuries Camarillo will most likely be headed back to the practice squad. But there's no way fans in Miami will forget the players responsible for keeping them from utter humiliation in the 2007 season. Greg Camarillo's name will be remembered, and I think he's very deserving of that.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Review: Juno

If I were to offer any complaint about the smash summer comedy Knocked Up, it would be that it is from the perspective of the guy that donates the seed, instead of following the woman who gets knocked up. That small problem is rectified in Juno, the new film from Jason Reitman (Thank You For Smoking) written by newcomer Diablo Cody and starring Ellen Page, Michael Cera, Jennifer Garner, and Jason Bateman.

Almost any kind of simple plot synopsis wouldn't really do this film justice. Basically, Page plays Juno, a high schooler who has sex with her best fried (Cera) and gets pregnant. She decides to keep the baby and let a childless couple (Garner & Bateman) adopt it. Those two sentences don't even begin to describe how brilliant this film is though; it really exceeding every gigantic expectation I had when I walked into a preview screening in downtown Chicago a few weeks ago.

I am a huge fan of Arrested Development, so it was great to see Michael Cera and Jason Bateman in the same movie again, even though they didn't share any screen time. They are both great at being either leading men or filling character holes, and Juno is filled to the brim with quirky, indie characters that fill every niche in the indie-movie blueprint. There's a dog-obsessed stepmother, a vulgar friend, and a host of other small parts that get great lines courtesy of Cody's incisive and side-splitting screenplay.

Diablo Cody was hand-picked to write Steven Spielberg's next project after this movie, and she's got a host of other projects in the works specifically because of how amazing this script turned out. It feels very hip, but very easy going, flowing easily from one fantastic line to the next. Garner and Bateman get great exposition as a wife increasingly ready to be a mother and a husband who isn't sure but doesn't say it.

The soundtrack is also an amazing mix of indie rock you probably have never heard of. Kimya Dawson and The Moldy Peaches provide many of the songs on the advice of Page that they would be what the actual Juno MacGuff would listen to. The songs fit perfectly into the color scheme, attitude, and tempo of the film. You can find my favorite song from the soundtrack at the bottom of this post.

The script, soundtrack, and all the rest of the performances aside, Ellen Page is front and center for the entire film and carries it the whole way. She is nothing short of amazing for the full running time, careening from emotional high to low with incredible accuracy. This is the kind of exposition I wish we saw of Katherine Heigl in Knocked Up. Juno is dealing with an unplanned, unwanted pregnancy, being in love with her best friend, going through high school, and growing up. As she says to her father, "I don't really know what kind of girl I am yet." That Juno is still figuring her life and finds a way through a difficult pregnancy, and we believe it every step of the way is a credit to Reitman, Cody, and especially Page.

I implore each and every one of you to go out and see this film. It's definitely one of the best of the year, and provides a great, possibly superior complement to Knocked Up. See it at all costs, you'll be hearing about it for months, and Page, Cera, Cody, and Reitman will be riding the wave this movie creates for years to come.

The Moldy Peaches - Anyone Else But You

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Songs for the Season

Today I'm posting some of my favorite songs to listen during the Christmas season that aren't necessarily covers of Christmas carols. Most of the time, I don't really like original songs that are about the Christmas season (case and point, The Killers "A Great Big Sled"), but other times something just strikes me the right way.

New Found Glory - Ex' Miss

One of my greatest guilty pleasures is New Found Glory out of Coral Springs, FL. I've listened to them since seventh grade, and I never plan on stopping. This song is about a hated ex-girlfriend during the holiday season, as opposed to just a hated ex-girlfriend, like about 60% of NFG's other songs, and roughly that percentage in the genre as a whole. I still love it though, especially the "Jingle Bells" guitar solo.

The Matches - December Is For Cynics

Who could resist a song that suggests its listeners "get high on art supplies"? That's my favorite line from this Oakland, CA band's wintertime song. I saw them play a private party at a club in Palo Alto once, and they were great. Very energetic, personable, but they did play a private show for two girls having an 18th birthday party, so they were thinking about the money on that decision. To be honest, this is my favorite song by The Matches, but their second album Decomposer has some pretty solid stuff on it.

Fountains of Wayne - Valley Winter Song

I cannot listen to this song without thinking of a log cabin out in the wilderness being covered by a snowstorm. Listen to this song and try not to have that visual stuck in your head. Impressively, this song is actually about seasonal affective disorder during the winter, but it remains a happy, wintery pop tune. I really enjoyed listening to it while I was watching the first snow of the year here in Evanston a couple days ago.

Monday, December 3, 2007

A Viral Music MySpace?

I was reading Another Form of Relief the other day, and they had a post up about this girl Laura Hocking. She's a Cambridge grad, living and performing in England for a while.

What I was intrigued by was not just that her songs are fantastic, not just that she's giving away fourteen tracks for free downloading, but that she's spread the music out over three different MySpace accounts with three similar names.

From what I can gather the project is titled Laura Sings L*ver, with that * being replaced by an o, e, or i for each of her sites.

The simple guitar+vocals formula works really well; I think she sounds a bit like Regina Spektor with a guitar instead of a piano, what with the quirky sounding voice and staccato delivery. My only complaint is that I wish there was some other place I could find the rest of the songs that belong to the album these free downloads do. If anyone tracks those down, let me know. For now, just take a listen to a few of her songs I really liked, and then go download the rest off of her sites.

Laura Hocking - Leonie Lauder's Morning Jaunt
Laura Hocking - Swim Thru
Laura Hocking - Strongmen and Acrobats

Saturday, December 1, 2007

My Favorite Time of Year

Today is December 1st, the beginning of my favorite month of the year, leading up to my favorite holiday: Christmas. Over the course of the next 24 days I will put up at least 12 of my favorite Christmas tracks, as well as my year-end lists for my favorite movies and albums of the year.

We start with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, and possibly the most epic Christmas song ever. The Trans-Siberian Orchestra is made up of almost all the members of prog-rock outfit Savatage, but this incarnation of the band has been much more successful due to its grandiose takes on Christmas material. "Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24)" is perhaps their most well-known song, and it's the only epic Christmas tune I really like. The guitars screech all over the place, and it makes you just want to experience the band live with thousands of people around you. Take a listen, and get ready for the holiday season.

Trans-Siberian Orchestra - Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24)

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Mid-Week Special: The Bird & The Bee Xmas Cover

Today I'm killing a few birds with one stone. This post kicks off my month-long post-a-thon of Christmas covers by rock bands and other nontraditional styles. It also gives me an opportunity to talk about one of the weirder yet great artists I've recently added to my music library: The Bird & The Bee.

Consisting of Greg Kurstin and Inara George of Los Angeles, The Bird & The Bee are an electronic pop duo that released a self titled album last January. It was a tiny little pop gem of sorts, with melodies that were very sugary but not quite saccharine and witty lyrics to go along with them (see titles like "F*cking Boyfriend").

When I first saw their cover of "Carol of the Bells" on iTunes I had been looking for it, because that is one of my favorite Christmas songs, but I couldn't find it for free anywhere. Imagine my surprise then, when this week's free download of the week was in fact "Carol of the Bells" by The Bird & The Bee. Just when I start to completely lose faith in the iTunes store, they find one tiny little thing to keep me checking in every now and then. Check out the track, and be ready for more to come.

The Bird & The Bee - Carol of the Bells

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Before the Weather Outside Gets Frightful...

Fall Quarter at Northwestern ends in a little under three weeks. I've pretty much finished everything up until I take my finals, so I haven't really had any real work to do and it's felt prematurely like the end of the year. The weather also hasn't gotten too horrific yet. It's been consistently in the 30s, but for the Chicago area in November that's pretty good. There hasn't been any big snowfall, though we've seen a bit of snow in the past two weeks. None of it is sticking, and no amount that is actually recordable.

I have officially begun my Christmas shopping for this year. I always end up making a list that I lose multiple times before getting all my gift shopping done, but who cares, I always have fun going and shopping during Christmas season. It's the one time of the year where I do not dread a long excursion to a mall or other shopping center. Being on a college campus means I've got a little bit of a weird distance to travel for buying stuff, but it's still very fun for me because I love this season and Christmas.

Going with those end of the year type mentalities, I decided to make a mix of songs with the months of the year in their title. I think it's a pretty diverse array of artists, and an enjoyable little playlist. Enjoy:

mewithoutYou - January 1979
Bright Eyes - Happy Birthday To Me (Feb. 15)
Rogue Wave - March
Gillian Welch - April the 14th(Part 1)
Elvis Perkins - May Day!
Bright Eyes - June on the West Coast
The Decemberists - July, July!
Rilo Kiley - August
Earth, Wind, & Fire - September
Be Your Own Pet - October, First Account
Guns N' Roses - November Rain
Weezer - December

I enjoy how this list will lead in to my Christmas music stuff for the month of December. Things to look for in the coming weeks:

1. Early review of Jason Reitman's new film Juno that I caught a preview screening of in downtown Chicago a little while ago.

2. Year end album and movie lists for 2007.

3. More alt-rock christmas covers than you can shake a stick at.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Sir Alex Ferguson Overreacts a Bit

Over the weekend Manchester United lost at Bolton Wanderers for the first time since 1978. Their manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, got sent from the manager's box into the stands during half time for some delightful comments to the referee in the tunnel.

After the game, Sir Alex made some comments during a press conference that just don't sit well with me. The idea that lesser teams should be treated differently by referees because they are not as storied or as championed as Manchester United is absolutely insane. When two football teams step out onto the pitch, they become equals. They are foes for ninety minutes, but they are equal under the laws of football. That idea gives smaller teams a fighting chance psychologically, that they are protected in the same way the other team is even when they're facing some of the best and most expensive players in the world. Hell, the entire structure of the FA Cup is based on the idea that every English club team can earn the opportunity to play against any other team, from a semi-pro team all the way up to the Premier League. It seemed a bit irresponsible for a coach to believe he and his team are above another squad that isn't having one of their better years in the Premiership.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Mid-Week Special: Thanksgiving Thoughts

Another year, another Thanksgiving, another Dallas Cowboys game on national television. My thoughts don’t exactly all have to do with the games today, but here are some ruminations I’ve had for a little while:

What the hell was with the intro by the Cowboys Cheerleaders on Fox? I understand that Dallas has been billed as “America’s Team” for the past twenty years, but does anybody really believe that? Did anyone believe that when it was first said? A game at Texas Stadium is an NFL tradition, but the better game to me has always been the Packers-Lions game. It’s a division rivalry, the attitudes are much more akin to a college game in its intensity, and even when it’s a blowout the game is more fun to watch.

Also, I keep seeing the trailer for Last Christmas. Why do the studios think America needs this same style movie with the same actors every year? If you see a family dramedy once, you've seen it enough times.

I'll be compiling some year-end lists really soon, but I have to get out and see a lot of the holiday movies before I can make my film list. This year was a pretty damn good one for movies, so it should be a fun holiday season for anyone that wants to see the movies that will get attention come February.

So, in celebration of Thanksgiving, here’s a little track for any last minute shoppers. This is my first holiday away from home, and I can imagine a lot of college kids not going home over this break going to get some food at the last minute. Happy Thanksgiving everyone.

The Clash - Lost in the Supermarket

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The A Cappella Manifesto

I've been at college for a few months, and as such have had ample exposure to a genre of music that is limited almost exclusively to college campuses: A Cappella. A few weeks ago, I attended a long a cappella show called "Best of the Midwest" which was an attempt to display some of the best college a cappella groups around the area of Northwestern. There were groups from Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan, and Northwestern's own Purple Haze performing. During that concert, I got to thinking about the genre and its place on campus.

Ever since I've known people in college, I've heard about a cappella groups. These bands of all-male, all-female, or coed undergrads would dress thematically, choreograph kitschy dance moves, and sing versions of your favorite pop songs, replacing all the instrument parts with other voice parts. A cappella groups are not a modern invention: a simple check of Wikipedia provides us with the information that the first one at a college was founded in 1909. However, those were all "Glee Clubs," groups that sang barbershop songs, choral standards, and other music reserved for its own genre. With the development of vocal percussion and beatboxing, colleges saw a drastic rise in popularity of a cappella groups as they became able to cover modern pop songs as they were released. Now there are over 1,200 groups in the US spanning every kind of university, and involving every kind of gimmick imaginable. Here at Northwestern there are male, female, coed, Jewish, and Indian groups, and I'm sure there are others out there I don't know about. There is a huge movement in music for recording a cappella, with specialized producers who help groups put out CDs. Groups try to get their songs on Best of College A Cappella, or BOCA, compilations, to get their group recognized nationally. These CDs are purchased almost exclusively by college students, but this is one of the only ways that the music trickles down into high schools.

So what's my beef with a cappella? I don't have a major one, I'm just curious as to why it's so popular, so revered, and so quirky. I mean, my best friend is in an all-male a cappella group here called Freshman Fifteen. I've heard them, they sing great, they have a good time, they put on a good show. I'm just not really sure why there's such a big mystique to the whole genre, and why it is isolated almost exclusively to colleges and universities.

The Good

There are things I like about a cappella; in fact there are a lot of things. I really enjoy listening to cover songs. I have a ton of them in my music library, and I think you can tell a lot about a band by the types of songs they cover live or in the studio. Elliott Smith had a huge catalog of live covers he performed, with tons of songs by the Beatles (and the individual members), Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and more. Hearing cover songs makes you appreciate the songs you love in a different light. Maybe you'll enjoy an acoustic version, or a live version done by another of your favorite bands. That only works to a point though, because sometimes artists reach too far and cover songs that really should never be touched, like Counting Crows reworking of the Grateful Dead's "Friend of the Devil" or Ben Folds' very, very late to the party take on "Such Great Heights."

Obviously, the best thing for these groups to do is to try and write something original, or to make a medley of something that you would never hear in this context. The best part of the Best of the Midwest concert was a group singing an original song called "Facebook Stalking" that was downright brilliant. Here's another group from that concert that did a great job making something original and completely out of line with every other group in America:

Also, it's impossible to ignore that some of the singers really have fantastic voices. Northwestern houses one of the best theatre schools in the country, and a great music school, so we have a plethora of voice majors and theatre majors with great voices that perform in a cappella groups.

The mystique that surrounds a cappella could have something to do with getting into one of these groups. At places like Northwestern, where there are tons of people with great voices, getting into one of these groups legitimates your voice and your talent. It is a pat on the back and a helpful "you can sing well" to people that make it; it designates them as worthy of pursuing singing, and as a better singer than a lot of other people at their particular college.

Our nationally notable groups include Purple Haze and Thunk, who have appeared on BOCA albums along with the "best" a cappella groups in the nation.

The Bad

I guess it's with that note that I'll start with my gripes. I'm not really sure what makes an a cappella group "great." In my mind, the barometer for categorizing a cappella groups looks something like this:

<-- choral/formal -- music focused -- balanced music/humor -- humor focused -- chaotic batshit insane -->

By the classical definition, an a cappella group is one without instruments, only using voices. I treat that as the most formal type of group, and I'm associating it with choral music, because there are groups that dress formally and perform some strict choral music.

I'll attempt to define these groups with videos of groups I know pulled from YouTube at some points:

These groups sing choral arrangements, don't sing as many modern pop hits, and are closer to the old Glee Clubs that used to be at colleges and universities. I'll be honest, when I hear a group do a choral song, it is a refreshing break from the overly ironic sets that every other group tends to put on all the time.

Music Focus
These a cappella groups tend not to do funny choreography, and are much more intent on a tight, musically sound performance. They're the ones that are known to sound really great, usually make the BOCA compilations, and do well in national tournaments. As far as groups on Northwestern's campus go, the quintessential group for this category is Purple Haze. They recieve university funding, they go on trips, they record albums (although that's becoming much more commonplace for all groups), and they draw the biggest crowds:

If you see a group that makes especially ironic music choices, like something by Alanis Morisette or Sixpence None the Richer, but they aren't joking around the whole time, chances are you are watching this type of group. To me, this is the best kind of group, because they sound great, are focused on making their voices work together and blend very well, but are still laid back about their performances and look like they're having fun. These kinds of groups are incredibly hard to find, because they tend to fall about one degree one way or the other. The closest I've come to finding a truely balanced a cappella group is Indiana's Straight No Chaser (which unfortunately chose to name itself after a Theolonius Monk song that references IU's party reputation). Here they are performing a Christmas song, which is a good idea of a standard

Humor Focus
This type of group does a lot of skits between parts of their set, invent little funny parts to their songs, and are very irreverent. They take a hit in their musical ability because of their attempts at being relaxed and funny, but they are still entertaining to watch. This is pretty much the group my best friend is in, and I hope they don't take offense to this classification. It's nothing against their musical ability, they are just geared more towards humor:

Chaotic Batshit Insane
I know of one group at my school that fits this bill. They're called the X-Factors, and when I saw them basically half of their group came onstage naked. They yell, they run around, they jump, and they sing pretty well. People laugh at what they do, and most of their show is watching what they do instead of listening to them sing. As far as all the comedy and rambunctious stage attitude goes, the only people who are going to find that funny are people that know the performers. If an a cappella group goes to another school, or to a high school, and tries to replicate the antics in front of anyone that isn't their friend, the humor just isn't going to work. Skits and jokes from these kinds of groups are pretty much inside jokes to friends of the group or to members of the university, so people outside that range just won't be able to have as much fun.

A lot of groups tend to have the same repertoire as well. They've all got songs by Michael Buble, can sing Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy", have a nostalgic 90s pop song up their sleeve, a Pat Benatar or other 80s song, and so on. It sometimes gets to the point where you don't know which group you're listening to if you close your eyes.

And not to be sexist or anything, but all-female groups just lag behind the quality of the coed and all-male groups. It's not because they don't sing as well, I've heard far more female soloists that sing fantastically, but it's an issue of the parts. All-female groups don't have the bottom end that the other two types do, and can't fully fill out their sound. They sound partially empty, and its a symptom of their own group design.

The Ugly

Okay, now I've just got some things that bug the crap out of me about the songs, the groups, and the genre at large. First off, go check out this list on Wikipedia. It's of the "notable" a cappella groups throughout the country. Notice anything peculiar? Essentially half of those groups are from the Ivy League, which is complete bullshit. There's no way in hell those groups are all notable, especially when a blog like IvyGate can take a bunch of groups and pit them against each other in a poll of the "Worst A Cappella Group in the Ivy League."

No matter where these groups fall on my makeshift scale, 99% of them do the following things:

1. Coordinate their dress with some kind of specific article of clothing or a set of colors, not unlike a sports team.
2. Have some ridiculous name that tries way to hard to make a pun or be clever.
3. Cover songs that are meant to be witty, ironic, or nostaligic choices.

You know the groups I'm talking about. These are the ones that dress all in black and red, sing N*Sync and Backstreet Boys while winking at the crowd the whole time, and are called the "One Hit Wonders" or something like that. We all hated that genre of music back in the 90s, and anyone who is pretending that those songs were legitimately good contributions to the history of music shouldn't have gotten in to any college or university.

General pretention really eats at me with these groups. It's so much better to see a group having fun than for a group to call itself the "best" or "premiere" group on campus and look down on the others. Here, it's obviously Purple Haze that does that, and they've even got their own little quirky, semi-intentional choreography to go along with their smug attitude and polished smiles. We call it the "Purple Haze Bounce." Take a look:

It's not that they don't have the chops. They are without a doubt one of the best blending and sounding a cappella groups I've ever heard, but in my mind no amount of talent over the rest gives you the right to act superior than anyone else.

Also, the very fundamental part of college a cappella is representing pop/rock songs with only voices. So they're trying to replace instruments...with a sound that can in no way equal how good the instruments sound on a record. It's as though the style of the genre is setting itself up to be worse than the original. Good a cappella groups will realize that they shouldn't just imitate the instruments with their voices, and just sing the song as a a blend of voices, but too often I hear the background simply attempting to be the instruments on the track, and the vocal percussion doesn't help.

Beatboxers in a cappella groups are either trying to be one of two people: Matisyahu, or this dude from a French talent search show:

In either case, they just aren't as good, and sound like really bad background drumming that you would find on a karaoke track.

The End

Okay, so I ripped on a cappella a lot this whole time, but I don't hate the whole thing. I think that since I'm in college, I'm just exposed to so much of it, that it's hard not to get fed up with how similar the vast majority of these groups are. There have only been a select few breaths of fresh air in the whole first quarter of college in a cappella for me, and the other 90-ish% has been so blandly similar that I'm at the breaking point. Like I said towards the beginning, my best friend is in an a cappella group, so I go to a lot of these shows. I enjoy going to them, I want to support my friends, but I really think something needs to change in this genre so that every group you go to see is not doing the same types of things and having almost the exact same successes and failures.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The First Year End Lists...

Stylus Magazine has closed its doors. As of October 31st, there have been no new articles on their site, and in an effort to close things out, they put up lists for their best albums and singles of the year. Granted, they were closing and everything, but there were still TWO MONTHS LEFT in the year. I don't know if any great albums will come out before the end of 2007, but it sure did seem really really early to post a best of...

The list is very, very indie, espeically in the top 10. There are some mainstream, obvious choices here and there, but I really like when lists are written by a person and are "favorite" lists of the year, not an attempt to show the "greatest" releases from the year. The "greatest" album for me really has to be In Rainbows if not only for its release style. It will be the most influential album of the year simply because of the release strategy Radiohead employed. People will always know what you're talking about when you mention that album to them, and for that engrained recognition it should be the greatest album of the year.

Once we get into December, I'll start posting about my favorite films and albums from this year. Until then...I'm really really busy with this thing called college, so my posting has started to get much more scattered. In January we have delayed rush for frats, so I might be a little M.I.A. then as well, but I'll do my best to post about concerts and movies I go to.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Mid-Week Special: Desperado Revenge covers Get Up Kids

Okay, ever since I went to see my favorite band Daphne Loves Derby play a couple weeks ago, I haven't really stopped playing their music. That happens to me a lot when I see concerts; it was the same when I saw the Hives at the beginning of school in September. On that note, I'm going to put up another, much shorter cover that they did, but in a different way than the live Third Eye Blind cover I posted a while ago.

Kenny Choi, the lead singer/guitarist/songwriter for the band, has had a bunch of solo side projects inbetween Daphne projects. So far he's created Wolftron, Desperado Revenge, Sorry About the Fire, Des Rev (it's different from Desperado Revenge), and cameraphone. This particular cover of the Get Up Kids' "Overdue" used to be attributed to the band as a whole, but is now apparently classified as being a Desperado Revenge song. While the music he makes with Daphne Loves Derby is my favorite, I do like some of the stuff he does on his own. If you check out the Wolftron purevolume site, you can find a free EP called Activate that is the best example of the progression of Kenny's solo work. I remember the first time I saw Daphne Loves Derby live; I went with my dad, and the first thing he said to me after the show was he would be counting down the days until the lead singer went solo because it was his show. While I definately don't agree with that statement having seen the band progress in its live form to be more complete musicians and depending on each other more, I can totally see Kenny doing solo stuff on the side between records for the band.

Here's the cover, along with the original by Get Up Kids. Enjoy:

Daphne Loves Derby - Overdue(Get Up Kids cover)
Get Up Kids - Overdue

Monday, November 12, 2007

My Raiders Fail Me Again...

Yesterday saw my beloved Raiders attempt to win a game against the Chicago Bears. They had this crazy idea in their head that a 6-3 lead with a little over four minutes to go in the fourth quarter would win them a game. After the defense knocked out Brian Griese, Sexy Rexy Grossman came in to save the day for Chicago, tossing 2 TD passes and the Bears escaped with a 17-6 win.

So, the defense completely broke down, letting Grossman toss a monster pass to Berrian downfield to set up the go-ahead touchdown. I already knew the Raiders were horrible, so the loss isn't really what's on my mind. I'm thinking about what will happen now that Grossman won another game for the Bears.

I don't really think that Grossman is going to save the Bears' season, help them make the playoffs, or take them to another Super Bowl, but imagine if he did. What would Chicago fans have to bitch about? The defense is nowhere near the dominance of last season, or any other playoff season they've had. If the Bears make the playoffs this year, it will be because of the power of their offense, namely Rex Grossman and Berrian. They've never been a powerful offense, but I just think that if Grossman could cobble something together, the city would still kick him back down into the gutter. They seem unsatisfied with just winning; the team has to do it with style and grace or it doesn't matter. Compare that to the attitude of the Raider franchise: do whatever you have to do, break whatever limbs you must, just win the goddamn game. Al Davis doesn't give a shit about style, he just wants to win games, and win a championship. Chicago will probably lose next week because of a horrible performance by Grossman, but for now the city should let him enjoy a brief moment of happiness. They've almost never given him any breathing room, comfort, or security in his job, and now that they don't really have a legitimate shot at being a great team the fans need to back off for once.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Mid-Week Special: B-sides from The Killers

In the summer of 2004, I learned about a Las Vegas rock band called The Killers. They had released a couple songs in the UK, and had just started getting radio airplay for a song called "Somebody Told Me" which was a fantastic dance rock gem. I gathered everything I could about the band, and then went to my favorite music festival in the Bay Area the first week of June. Opening the entire festival on a small side stage at 12:30 was none other than the Las Vegas men themselves, playing seven songs off of their upcoming debut album Hot Fuss.

When the album was released that summer, I saw the band play an in-store release party at a Virgin Megastore in downtown San Francisco, met the band, and finally got to listen to an album full of their songs. It was nothing short of amazing to me. I still have trouble skipping a track when I'm listening through Hot Fuss. It was like the second coming of Duran Duran, only a hell of a lot better.

Now I look at The Killer's and see a lot of missed opportunites and wasted promise. Why grow cowboy moustaches? Why get in feuds with bands like The Bravery? Why get arrogant about your next album? Why shift from 80s tinged dance rock to Americana? Sam's Town is not a wholly terrible album, but it is a colossal misstep for a band that rose to prominence with such a different genre of music. I'm not saying that creative growth or bands stretching outside their comfort zone is wrong, but this particular case really did not work for me.

Anyways, The Killers have a b-side album called Sawdust coming out soon, so I thought I'd post a few b-sides I have from the Hot Fuss days that will be available on the disc. My favorite song by the band is still "Under the Gun" which I think is a fantastic whallop of a track. Here's hoping the third album is a little shift back to their synth-filled 80s rock and less of the down home Springsteen impersonations on their sophomore effort.

The Killers - Under the Gun
The Killers - Glamorous Indie Rock & Roll
The Killers - Who Let You Go

Monday, November 5, 2007

What the F@#*!?!? - The WGA Strike

In just a little under four hours, the Writer's Guild goes on strike in Hollywood. What does this mean? Well, in the event that the strike last for a few months (and the last time the WGA went on strike in the early 90s it lasted for about half a year) it would mean that all of your favorite television shows would run out of new episodes right around the time of the winter break. That means The Office, The Daily Show, 30 Rock, The Colbert Report, Heroes, Grey's Anatomy, Scrubs, Lost, CSI, and all the others that TV depends on to make any kind of ratings will go away for the new year.

What exactly is the dispute about? Mostly, it's over money from digital technologies. The writers want more residuals from DVD sales, as well as money from On Demand content such as NBC's system that lets viewers watch any episode of select shows streaming on their web site.

For movies, it's meant a huge rush to complete scripts for blockbusters on time. Go check out the news over at /Film with the link to your right, the news there about new movies rushing to meet the deadline has been massive in quantity. I don't know about you, but a lot of those films getting rushed into production don't look so good. Transformers 2, Justice League of America, and a bunch of others don't look to be very good. Also, people like Paul Haggis have frantically finished their scripts so that films like the new James Bond movie can start production. Who wants to rush a script with as much potential as that one? The studios are preparing to empy the vaults on delayed films should this strike delay production for more than a few weeks. I'm worried that after 2008 all we'll see are films that have been shelved for a couple years because of how horrible they were.

After watching The Office and Heroes the past two weeks, I'm really worried about what will happen to those shows if the writers strike for too long. Heroes is just starting to pick up in excitement for this new season, and The Office has a huge head of steam going for it right now; it's essentially the best written show on television right now.

2008 looks to be another good year, what with The Dark Knight and Indy 4 looming large, but this strike just makes me nervous. The NHL lockout ended terribly for all involved, and the MLB strike ended Tony Gwyn's chance at history and sent fans away for good. The industry has been building and building ever since Spider-Man, and I'd really hate to see the qulity dip that a strike would cause ruin the popularity and art of film for the next few years. I'll be reading anything I can about this, and hoping that somehow this gets solved really soon. Until then, enjoy your shows, these could be the last few new episodes for a good long time.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

In Defense of In Defense of the Genre

One of my favorite films of all time is Cameron Crowe's 1989 directorial debut Say Anything, so when I heard of Max Bemis' band of the same name I felt obliged to check it out. I picked up their 2004/2006 re-released album ...Is a Real Boy and took a bit to get used to it. On the first listen I didn't really like the instrumentation or Bemis' delivery, but after a short while epic tracks like "Alive With the Glory of Love" won me over. The album plays like a musical, which makes sense because it was initially conceived in that way. I liked being able to track the character Bemis created through the entire album, and the sense he created of singing as a character instead of himself made the emo/alt-rock/musical combination work despite an overly long album.

Now, the band has released its follow-up In Defense of the Genre. In case it wasn't just blatantly obvious enough, the genre under attack is emo. Say Anything is, much like other great bands, under the umbrella of hate that has become the genre of emo. I personally enjoy a lot of emo music, and not in the Fueled By Ramen or Decaydance Records type of way. Instead of shortening and concentrating his argument, Bemis decided to go all out on a double album stretching 89 minutes and incorporating guests on almost every track, including Hayley Williams of Paramore and Gerard Way of My Chemical Romance.

When I heard the news that this would be a double album, my expectations immediately flatlined. Max Bemis is a charismatic, arrogant musician, and a lot of times those type of personalities let their creativity get the better of them and release a sprawling album that clearly needed an editor to cut out the crappy tracks. When I put the album on for the first time, I wan't really expecting much, and that's probably why I was so blown away.

The chugging power chords are there, the ironic and cutting lyrics are there, and the guest stars add a little necessary spice to the whole ordeal. How does this 89 minute epic work so well? For me, the answer really comes down to the fact that Bemis challenges what we thought of the seemingly obvious title. Yes, there are some emo songs on the album, but the musicality switches genres from track to track, the guests do different types of backing over the course of the album, and what genre Bemis is defending starts to become unclear about halfway through the first disc.

The first four tracks switch genres easily, even including the show tune tinged "This is Why" that echoes the structure of their last album. Hayley Williams does the best guest work on the album on "The Church Channel" and second disc closer "Plea". Bemis did let his imagination run wild, and his musical creations easily swing across genre lines, but his lyrical content does tend to stick to the same subjects: difficulty with women and hatred for the music industry. He does sound more grown up, more coherent, and more in control of his voice this time around, and that added self confidence empowers the tracks with strong vocals that were somewhat lacking in some tracks on ...Is a Real Boy.

Bemis obviously felt what a lot of emo musicians have felt over the past few years: critical and popular backlash against their music for a changing fan base and the arrival of corporate packaged entries into the genre. In response, Bemis has created a crowning acheivement for the genre to aspire to be; an almagam of all the genres emo can draw upon, can be influenced by, and can look up to. The album is a beacon of hope for a now-maligned section of music, a transcendent album that defies genre specifications while at the same time staying loyal to an idealistic vision for what the genre can be with a little more care and attention to detail.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Mid-Week Special: Arcade Fire & Nada Surf bring on the New Order

With Control entering theatres, I saw the track listing for the soundtrack that came out on iTunes on Tuesday. I have to say, I’m significantly disappointed in the cover of Transmission "Shadowplay" by The Killers (edit: I mixed the song up...turns out the cover was so forgettable that I didn't remember which Joy Division song they were bad). I loved Hot Fuss, hated Sam’s Town, but I like some of the b-sides on the forthcoming Sawdust rarities album (small side note: how can a band release a b-side and rarities album after only 2 LPs? It’s not as though these guys never leave the studio…). I’ve never really heard a good cover of a Joy Division song that wasn’t “Love Will Tear Us Apart” so for today’s post I’m pulling out two of my favorite live covers of New Order songs.

The first is a “Blue Monday” cover by Nada Surf. I’m not a huge fan of the band, considering they don’t really sound different from bands like Death Cab For Cutie (whose guitarist produces their albums), but I still really like this cover.

The second is a cover of my favorite New Order song “Age of Consent” by Arcade Fire. I remember the first time I put Power, Corruption, & Lies into my computer and fell in love with it. I also remember my surprise when the song was used in the first trailer for Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. Win Butler is perfect on the vocals here, and the string section is wonderful as well.

Nada Surf - Blue Monday(New Order Cover)
Arcade Fire - Age of Consent(New Order Cover)

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Review: The Shade of Poison Trees

I will be the first to admit that I like emo music. I absolutely detest the label of "emo", but a lot of the music I really identify with and enjoy falls under that increasingly maligned umbrella. It's much too liberally applied, seeing as how great albums by Jimmy Eat World and Gatsby's American Dream are getting included in the genre but don't fit the modern popular conception of the original sound.

Emo used to be a genuinely great genre of music, with bands like Weezer even fitting in with Pinkerton. An emotional song works for me, and an emotional album that fits together sonically is something that resonates very deeply with me as a listener. Unfortunately, the "emo" label tends to stick to an artist and never get off their back, and Dashboard Confessional is a prime example of that. Chris Carrabba left Further Seems Forever after their debut album in 2001 and broke into the hearts of women everywhere with his first albums as Dashboard Confessional. Over the course of his first four albums, he started to get more an more electric, leaving behind the "one man and a guitar" sound that was his catalog so far. After last year's Dusk and Summer failed to connect while being the biggest departure from Carrabba's sound, he saw fit to go back to basics on his new album, The Shade of Poison Trees.

My favorite album by Dashboard is still 2003's A Mark, A Mission, A Brand, A Scar because of its ease switching from acoustic to electric while still maintaining its high level of emotion throughout, but this album comes close to matching that. After last year's album, a lot of people have fallen off the Dashboard wagon, and I almost counted myself among those ranks. However, I decided to give the album a shot after hearing it would be a much less expansive record, and I think Carrabba is much better suited to making that kind of music. He messed around with arrangements on Dusk and Summer, seemingly forgetting that what he's best at is writing a heartfelt song with amazing acoustic chord progression, which TSoPT has in spades.

I'll start with what I think is the strongest song, which happens to be the closer "Widow's Peak." It happens to be one of the only tracks that lacks acoustic guitar as a central instrument, opting instead for piano, but the more intimate sound is so much better for Carrabba's writing style and his voice. He sings very high for a guy, and the fragility of his voice in that register works very well with light instumentation. I remember seeing videos of him performing solo with just his guitar, and he gives much stronger performances that way.

Songs that would've been fleshed out in too much production on a different album are much stronger when they are kept stripped down, like "Little Bombs", "Watch Out For Mines", and the opener "Where There's Gold...". Even songs that are fleshed out by the rest of the band like "Thick as Theives" sound more like AMAMABAS, and that is the highest of compliments. It's also a great help that he's finally tried his hand at making his lyrics a bit more mature. It was a little was listening to a guy so far removed from adulthood still singing like he's hurting from that girl in high school. The songs here still deal with the same subject matter and have a similar sound, but the lyrics have taken a huge step forward.

Will this album bring back the fans that left? I don't think so, most of them have been really turned off by the last album, but those that actually do stick around and buy this album will find that Carrabba has gotten himself back on track. Dashboard isn't for everyone, but I still like it a lot, and this album shows me that somewhere inside Carrabba is another great album just waiting to get out so long as he resists the urge to over-produce it.

Dashboard Confessional - Widow's Peak
Dashboard Confessional - Thick as Theives

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Cinema Trend: Musician Movies

This fall sees the release of Control, the bioptic about Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis, who hung himself in his kitchen at the age of 23, right before the release of the band's 2nd album Closer, which I would put at or near the top of a list of "Most Depressing Albums Ever" even though it's a piece of melancholy genius. We're getting I'm Not There, the Bob Dylan movie where the character of Dylan gets split among 6 actors, among them Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, and Cate Blanchett.

Is it just me, or are movies about musicians getting better? Ray was all right, but Ray Charles isn't in my short list of favorite artists, and I didn't really think Jamie Foxx deserved that Oscar over DiCaprio in The Aviator. Walk the Line was a fantastic step in the right direction for bios of rock musicians, and Joaquin Phoenix deserved his nomination in full. Now with the impending release of Control and the festival buzz that the Kurt Cobain documentary About a Son has been getting, maybe we'll be getting some better movies about musicians in the next couple years.

The past few years of music movies is not that different from the re-emergence of movies based on comic book characters. Ever since Spider-Man wreaked havoc on a May box office and raked in over $100 million in a single weekend back in 2002, studios have been trying to duplicate that buisness. We've seen some great flicks come along (Spider-Man 2, Batman Begins, Sin City), as well as some pretty decent attempts (Hellboy, 300), and some miserable failures (The Punisher, Catwoman, Hulk).

I think the same could go for movies about musicians in the coming years. Before Ray got released in 2004, the most recent good film about a recent musician was the Oliver Stone helmed The Doors. After the awards attention that Ray got, hopefully studios will see fit to start production on films about some of my favorite bands like Joy Division. (I'm Not There is certainly getting helped by critical buzz, but I think a lot of it is just people that loved Dylan trying to make him relevant again. New albums from Dylan and Bruce Springsteen are among the best reviewed of the past few years, but the music on those CDs sound the same as pretty much the entire catalog of their music. I'm sorry, but I don't want to hear The Boss singing 14 songs that aren't discernable from one another for over an hour, it's just not interesting. Give me something like Joy Division, with a small catalog that opens itself up and reveals its secrets to you on successive visits to the albums. Blood on the Tracks did that, but these recent albums just don't have the same creative spark.)

All of the positives aside, I am a little nervous that it will spiral out of control and we'll end up with movies about bands that really weren't all that great. Let's be honest, we're all a little tired when we hear about the next new comic-to-movie adaptation coming out; we've seen enough of them, we need more space before we're willing to accept another worthy transfer from page to screen. I'm worried that in about three years we'll be getting a movie about Foreigner, W.A.S.P., or some other hair metal band from the 80s that nobody really wondered about. The enigmatic figures are few and far between, and I just hope we don't start scraping the bottom of the barrel too early. The great films about musicians have risen so far above the novelty of Behind the Music, I'd really hate to see these movies take a dive back towards that low point.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Mid-Week Special: Nirvana Live at the Metro

There are times in your musical life where you remember the exact moment you first heard a song by a certain artist. My introduction to Nirvana was one of those moments. Without getting into too many details, the first song I ever listened to by them was "About a Girl" off of their first LP Bleach. I was so obsessed with it that I started playing guitar just to be able to play it. It's still one of my favorite songs to play and perform, and one of my favorite Nirvana tracks. Every time I play it, I like to imagine what Kurt Cobain said at the beginning of their MTV Unplugged in New York album: "This is off our first record, most people don't know it." This version comes from a live set at the Metro in 1991, and is accompanied by a few other choice songs from that set. Enjoy.

Nirvana - Drain You(Live)
Nirvana - About a Girl(Live)
Nirvana - Breed(Live)

Lord of the Bones

It's been heavily reported over the past day or so that Mark Wahlberg has replaced Ryan Gosling in Peter Jackson's adaptation of Alice Sebold's novel The Lovely Bones. Now, I'm not such a huge fan of the book, but this news came on the eve of the start of production, and it rings a bell somewhere in my memory...

Back when production started on Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy, there was another actor who was fired right at the beginning of the production.

That man was Stuart Townsend, who was the original choice to play Aragorn. Jackson decided that Townsend looked too young to play Aragorn and replaced him with Viggo Mortensen four days after shooting began in New Zealand. Townsend ended up in films like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, one of my least favorite films of all time, and Mortensen went on to a career revitalization with the help of David Cronenberg. Though Townsend has pretty much fallen out of favor as an actor right now, he wrote and directed Battle in Seattle, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival a few weeks ago.

A bunch of stories have turned up saying that Gosling showed up to the production having gained way too much weight and with a monster beard, and was fighting with the wardrobe department. The news is collected over at /Film, and I pretty much agree with what's posted over there about Gosling. He's an actor, he should be concerned with saying his lines, and leave the rest of the stuff to Peter Jackson and the crew.

That being said, what is with Jackson and these last minute casting decisions? It looks to me like the person who should be getting the axe is Jackson's casting director, or maybe he should just think things through a little more before signing a lead actor. Granted, Mortensen was fantastic as Aragorn, and that change was probably a good decision, but I don't think the same comparison can be made here. I really like Mark Wahlberg; his roles in Boogie Nights, Three Kings, and The Departed were great, but I'm not so sure if this will be as much of a better switch. Wahlberg is an established actor who is still getting high paying lead roles unlike Mortensen was, and Gosling is an up-and-coming, respectable actor, unlike Townsend (who in addition to Gentlemen also had a turn in the Aaliyah movie Queen of the Damned). I'm not sure how this will turn out, but with the casting of Rachel Weisz as the wife of the character Gosling was supposed to play, it does make some sense to switch for someone older, even if that wasn't the original intention.

Hopefully the sudden change won't make that much of a difference, it sure as hell didn't make LOTR any worse off having Viggo in there. Who knows, maybe Jackson will get lucky again and Wahlberg will turn in a great performance.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Live: Daphne Loves Derby & This Providence

Saturday night I took the El into Chicago to see my favorite band: Daphne Loves Derby. I'm actually kind of surprised that it's taken me this long to write a post about them, but seeing as how they don't exactly fit into the rest of my music taste, I guess I'll go with that reason.

I used to cruise around PureVolume a lot, and one day back in 2004 while I was hitting the random band button Daphne Loves Derby came up. I listened to a few of their songs, and noticed that their entire 2003 debut album was available for download. They'd also put out a studio-produced EP called Closing Down the Pattern Department, which I picked up as well. For some reason, those songs struck a chord with me, and I've been listening to every song they've ever recorded since. I think that I've basically got every single track they ever put to tape, but I can't be totally sure.

The band is from Kent, Washington, which is outside of Seattle. They formed about five years ago when the members were still in high school. At the time I happened upon them, the band consisted of Kenny Choi (vocals/guitar), Spencer Abbot (guitar), Jason Call (bass/vocals), and Stu Clay (drums). Since then, Jason left the band to go on his Mormon mission, and was replaced by David Sparks on bass. They signed to indie label Outlook Records, which is owned by former Denver Bronco Trevor Pryce, and have released two full albums, On The Strength of All Convinced in 2005, and Good Night, Witness Light this past February. I have no qualms about saying that GNWL is one of my favorite albums of the year, I think it's just luminous.

They have a sound that is a lot like some other bands I know from the softer, emo/alternative/indie rock genre, mostly bands like Copeland. Even still, I think Kenny's voice is just amazing, and his lyrics are so layered, steeped in lush imagery, and so emotive that the band is one of a kind. They've really progressed from garage/punk mixed with solo acoustic songs into full-fledged arrangements over the course of the few years I've followed them, and the transition suits them.

On Saturday night they were playing with another Seattle-based indie/emo band, This Providence. The very first time I saw Daphne Loves Derby back in the summer of '05 they were touring with This Providence. That band has seen some lineup changes as well, but now have seen the release of two full length album, the most recent being an eponymous sophomore disc for Fueled by Ramen Records. They have a lot of great guitar work going on and some really good shout choruses, and I really enjoyed seeing them for a second time. They didn't play my favorite song "To Kill This" - which is essentially the theme song to my middle and high school years - but the set was really great. The venue was really small, so we could get up close and see the band, hear them perfectly, and not have our ears blown out.

Daphne came out at around 8:00 and played about a 45 minute set that included some new, some old, and some very old songs that I was glad to hear. I've now been to 5 Daphne Loves Derby shows, and I think the crowd last night was right up there with the best I've been a part of. Everyone was really into the set, the band was feeding off the energy of the crowd, and things just got better from there. Kenny played the acoustic gem "Pollen and Salt" from their debut, as well as older favorites "Guerra All Interno" and "Closing Down The Patern Department". They also threw in a great cover of Third Eye Blind's "Jumper", which was sort of the icing on the cake of the set. What I've noticed over the course of two years watching the band is that now instead of simply going straight ahead with songs, Spencer layers his guitar playing a lot more, and adds much more depth to the sound of the songs. Even songs that were on their EPs in 2004 now sound better with the hard work the band has put into sounding better and getting better as musicians. I'm really glad to have seen this band grow, and they're without a doubt my favorite band right now. Here are a few sample tracks from their career to give you an example of how they've progressed. If you like it, please go buy a record or see a show. I promise you will not be disappointed.

Daphne Loves Derby - Closing Down the Pattern Department
Daphne Loves Derby - Middle Middle (Post Post EP Version)
Daphne Loves Derby - Pollen and Salt
Daphne Loves Derby - That's Our Hero Shot
Daphne Loves Derby - Jumper (Live) [Third Eye Blind cover]