Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

First, some ground rules. We’re not talking about songs which make reference to movies. Breakfast at Tiffany’s song from the mid-90s – there’s no place for you here. Same goes for jokes. Maybe you could argue that Jonathan Coulton’s Re: Your Brains takes place in the world of a Romero movie, but it’s not about the movie. We are looking for songs based on movies, earnestly, or ambiguously ironically at the least.

The Drive-By Truckers The Monument Valley

Strange that on an album of slice-of-life character studies, the most heartfelt song turns out to be about westerns. But then, who doesn’t love John Ford movies?

“It’s all about where you put the horizon / said the great John Ford to the young man rising.” The opening lines describe the act of moviemaking. On the one hand, nothing is more irritating then meta-art. If I have to read one more book which equates writing with physical creation, I’m going to punch a wall. And an artist’s desire to put on display his or her influences is understandable, but tedious. Yes, I’m sure you’re very well-read and that you know a lot about 1920s wax cylinder recordings or 1970s summer camp movies, but show me what you’ve got.

That said, this song pulls it off – mostly because it so accurately captures the long quiet landscapes of the best westerns. And by the final verse, the lyrics tangle John Ford the person with the famous line from The Man Who Shot LIberty Valence. “It’s where to plant the camera and when to say action / When to print the legend and when to leave the facts in.”

In the end, far truer to what makes westerns so enduring than Burt Bacharach’s song The Man Who Shot LIberty Valence. (Sample lyric: “Cause the point of a gun was the only law that Liberty understood / When it came to shooting straight and fast, he was miii-ghtyyyy good!”)

Daniel Johnston King Kong

This might be the most straightforward film-to-song adaptation. It’s a chanted summary of the film, told from the point of view of the titular monkey. Daniel Johnston’s childlike lyrics make for an interesting version of the story, full of straightforward descriptions like “He stripped his woman / he stripped her bare / but there was a pterodactyl / there.” It’s more of a description of individual things which happen in the movie, rather than a story.

The Jimmy Castor Bunch King Kong

Here’s another musical take on the same film, but where Daniel Johnston’s focuses on the obsession and fall of creature, The Jimmy Castor Bunch celebrate his power, size, and restraint, apparently. “He didn’t dance or party,” they tell us. But like Daniel Johnston’s song, a good chunk of time is devoted to straight up summary. Regarding Kong’s fight with a Tyrannosaurus, Jimmy Castor sings “He stretched the creature’s mouth until it split / Then like a child, began to play with it.”*

Bob Dylan Brownsville Girl

Even the most unappealing Dylan album has something to recommend it. Knocked Out Loaded, marred by weird 1986 production, and mostly uninteresting songs, has Brownsville Girl, Dylan’s collaboration with playwright/actor/former Holy Modal Rounder Sam Shepard. Clocking in at close to eleven minutes, it’s a winding, half-sung, half-spoken song about, um, something probably. Dylan mentions a girl, a trial, a bunch of places in Texas. Mainly, the song seems to be about this movie Dylan seen one time, ’bout a man riding ‘cross the desert and it starred Gregory Peck. As Dylan ruminates his way across the song (“The only thing we knew for sure about Henry Porter is that his name wasn’t Henry Porter”, he sings at one point, and at another, “Oh if there’s an original thought out there, I could use it right now”) he returns to his Gregory Peck movie again and again. He thinks he sat through it twice.

*I would’ve included The Jimmy Castor Bunch’s Dracula as well, but in fairness, that’s probably based on the novel.

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Before I bought At Mount Zoomer, I read reviews about how they recorded it at the church owned by the Arcade Fire. My heart caught in my throat. The Arcade Fire treatment, I thought, was the last thing my lovely Wolf Parade ever needed, because Wolf Parade is all rough edges and the Arcade Fire is all sandpaper. To sort of mix a metaphor, I like the Arcade Fire okay, but I feel like they’re in third gear all the time and need to push it to overdrive. I realize this is not a popular opinion among the skinnypants-and-ironic-shirt wearing crowd.

It’s not as bad as all that. Actually, that’s not fair to say–At Mount Zoomer is downright good. It’s full of the howling synth and vocals, both always sounding a little off key, that I loved on their first album. It’s downtempo, it’s got melodies and hooks. It jams. It has lots of those driving grooves that make you tap your foot and nod your head and you don’t even realize it, along with my favorite rock & roll trick, which is the mid-song tempo change. Lots of eighties-style singing along the lines of New Order (see also: Modest Mouse, Interpol) that some other blogger doesn’t like but I do.

The thing is, though, that I can’t talk about this album or the show I went to a few weeks ago without comparing it to their first album, Apologies to the Queen Mary. Calling that one frenetic and raw wouldn’t be amiss, and that’s something that’s just not there in Zoomer. It doesn’t have the same wild, screaming-at-the-rafters energy of the first, the near desperation you can hear in all their best songs. And who knows, maybe they really were desperate. Maybe the sound of Mount Zoomer is the sound of relief.

The concert crowd agreed with me, though. They cheered for the new songs, but they went berserk for the older stuff. Hell, I went berserk, sitting up in the balcony in my padded seat I was waving my arms, singing along and probably looking a little like a lunatic. I felt like a lunatic, and it was great.

I couldn’t really find a decent concert video of these guys (although they were amazing), so here’s a great regular video.

At Mount Zoomer: ★★★★☆

(Apologies to the Queen Mary: ★★★★★)

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In 1966, the Beach Boys put out Pet Sounds. The album was written by Brian Wilson, and was a major leap over previous Beach Boys songs. Where their previous recordings were catchy teenage surf rock, Pet Sounds was a melancholy mission statement. The arrangements were elaborate and the melodies were powerful. Although the Beatles fashioned Sgt. Pepper as a response, Pet Sounds remains a one-of-a-kind album.

After Pet Sounds, Brian Wilson started work on Smile. Mental health problems led him to stop work on the project for 40 years, but not before he finished a few classics, including Heroes and Villains, Good Vibrations, and – one of my favorite songs – Surf’s Up.

This song provokes a near universal reaction: “That’s Surf’s Up? That doesn’t sound like surf music at all.” It’s strange, haunting, and oddly sad. The lyrics, by Van Dyke Parks, are some kind of American class system gibberish, somehow made poignant by the weird leaps in the melody. The Beach Boys always sang high, but in this song, and particularly in the solo recording in the clip above, the song sounds otherwordly.

That clip, by the way, is from a Leonard Bernstein TV special on pop music. Bernstein introduces the song by saying something to the effect of “95% of modern music is crap. This song, though, is OK, I guess.” I’d like to find the full recording of that show, or at least the full recording of Brian’s performance.

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I hear Old Man Luedecke has a new album out. I haven’t gotten my copy yet (it’s only available on the Canadian iTunes store – weird), so I thought I would review a previous album of his.

Old Man Luedecke - Hinterland

Hinterland is a nice album. That may sound like faint praise, and those who demand that their music be edgy and challenging at all times may find little here to like, but I mean it in the best possible way.

I found Old Man Luedecke the same way I found the Ditty Bops – on Pandora. I believe the station for both of these was a mix of Townes Van Zandt and Dan Hicks. If you haven’t tried that yet, I highly recommend it.

The title track came on, and I liked it immediately. The low-key banjo and the melancholy chorus got under my skin. Hinterland is a song you can live in. After it popped up for the third or fourth time, I bought the whole album.

None of the other songs match the power or feeling of the title track, but the album is full of nice moments.

The song proper starts around 1:15.

The songs are catchy enough to be immediately enjoyable, and simple enough to stand up to repeated listens. The lyrics are… well, they seem sincere, and appropriate to the music. Really, the main draw here is nice melodies in an upbeat pseudo-traditional style. I’m looking forward to hearing his latest.

Old Man Luedecke – Hinterland: ★★★★☆

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As far as I’m concerned, Bob Dylan hasn’t put out a bad album in the last sixteen years. (I would have said nineteen, but, well – sorry, Under the Red Sky, I tried to like you). His original songs have been great lately – funny, pretty, harsh, and intense, all at the same time.

In fact, his music seems to be going so well that he has a surplus of songs. How else to explain the presence of previously unreleased Dylan recordings on countless compilations, tribute albums, and movie soundtracks, including a 2007 movie which I hadn’t heard of before, called Lucky You. Dylan contributed Huck’s Tune, which apparently played over the end credits.

This song is straight up gorgeous. It’s a murky waltz, full of long organ notes and sparse guitar picking. Dylan croaks through what sounds like an ancient melody, singing with what sounds like a genuine melancholy smile. And the lyrics embody what Dylan in his current incarnation does best – gone is the dazzling but showy wordplay, replaced with a more subdued sense of wordplay. “The game’s gotten old, the deck’s gone cold”, he sings at the end, and he sounds sad but not surprised or even disappointed.

Bob Dylan – Huck’s Tune: ★★★★★

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Music habits change in ways that are hard to track and harder to predict. Most people have only a handful of albums in heavy rotation at any given time. As weeks turn into months, some albums drop out and new albums come in. And while some albums are boon companions, most music lovers have a need for new music. It doesn’t have to be brilliant – sometimes, you just want a fresh album to get into.

The music rotation defies any attempts at logic or analysis. I used to consider Exile on Main Street to be a decent album, but I didn’t understand what the hype was about. Then one day, I noticed that it had been in heavy rotation for close to a year. What was it about that album that was durable? Why did I get tired of countless other albums, but not that one? To this day, I still can’t put my finger on the answer.

Of course, they can’t all be Exile on Main Street (although I did have a similar, “Hey, I’m still listening to this” experience with the Kelly Joe Phelps album Lead Me On). Most albums naturally fall out of rotation for a while. And with these albums – particularly with more recent releases – it can be unclear if the albums fell out of rotation because it was time for something new, or if it was because they were never that good to begin with. Will these albums hold up? Or was I listening to them only because I wanted something new to listen to?

Which leads to today’s piece, Is That Still Good?, which very well might possibly become a recurring feature. In Is That Still Good? we look releases from a few years back, which we may not have thought about recently, and see how they hold up. One point – this is not about nostalgia. I’m not talking about how much you liked the “You’ve Got the Touch!” song from the Transformers cartoon. This is about that album you used to listen to when you were hanging out with your friends that summer.

So, this brings us to Eels, and their 2003 album Shootenanny. I had just purchased an iPod, which was the first portable music player I had ever owned. Shootenanny was one of the first albums I listened to while walking, and it seemed perfect – it was springtime, I had an iPod, life was going great. It was full of bleak lyrics, but had toe-tapping beats and simple, catchy melodies. It was in heavy rotation for that spring, and stayed in light rotation for the summer after. Eventually, it was phased out as a new batch of new music came in – probably TV on the Radio, or whatever my dad happened to have sent me (look for an upcoming review on Dad Music).

The question is: Is it still good? Does this album have some depth to it? Or some staying power? Or did I listen to it because I didn’t want to listen Belle and Sebastian anymore? (And for the record – Belle and Sebastian does not hold up.)

Answer: It is still good. The sound on the album seems very 90s, despite having been released in 2003. It doesn’t sound dated, though – just pleasantly old fashioned. The songs are simple, verging on the simplistic, and the backing tracks often consist of nothing more than a few measures of music repeated over and over and over. However, this also means that there is little to get tired of. Gimmicks which sound new and exciting at first often quickly become annoying – luckily, E pretty much avoids them, writing simple songs with simple arrangements and clever lyrics. Plus, the album contains a few classics. Saturday Morning is told from the point of view of a kid who has woken up early. And Love of the Loveless is a perfect little pop rock song. And it turns out that Shootenanny is still a great album to walk to.

Eels – Shootenanny: Still good.

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It’s hard to find a more serious, self-important genre than contemporary folk music. Folkies tend to split into two groups: those who perform somber reflections on relationships, unhappiness, and other feelings-intensive topics, and those who carefully recreate older forms of music. At least the Ditty Bops seem to be having fun. They draw their inspiration from jazz and folk standards, and sound more like Dan Hicks than Leonard Cohen. I don’t know why there aren’t more bands like this – I’d certainly be happy if there were.

Their latest album continues in the vein of their previous releases, playing ragtime and western-swing inspired music, with catchy and surprisingly complex melodies. However, the music is a little less frantic, and the lyrics a little less confrontational. It’s a (relatively) subdued album, built on guitar, mandolin, and lap steel, and it sounds a little more relaxed. Their newfound restraint results in fewer of the ear-twisters and hooks which made their previous albums so memorable. However, the new approach pays off on the quietly swinging “When She’s Coming Home”, a highlight of the album. Some of the slower songs drag, particularly the lethargic “I Feel From the Outside In”, but as a whole, the album is both fun and rewarding – a good combination.

Summer Rains is probably best summed up by its title song and opener. The lyrics are about global warming, the arrangement is drenched in lap steel, and it doesn’t have the melodic hooks their previous albums provided. So why does it work so well?

Summer Rains manages to include references and nods to all kinds of interesting music from the first half of the 20th century, ensuring that old music geeks such as myself are happy, without skimping on the energy and fun that makes people want to, you know, listen to music in the first place. Good job, Ditty Bops.

Summer Rains:

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