Monthly Archives: March 2009

Britpop favorites

Pulp – “Mis-Shapes” from Different Class (1996)
Pulp – “This Is Hardcore” from This Is Hardcore (1998)

I might not be the Britpop enthusiast that Phil is, but I do like me some Pulp. Their 1996 classic, Different Class, would make a wonderful musical. Wouldn’t this opener sound great with a full chorus, dancers, a flashy light show? Glamorously unshaven ragamuffins on the dole singing bitterly against the upper crust they desperately want to be a part of. It’d be like the present-day Threepenny Opera. I can’t believe no one has adapted this album for Broadway yet.

This Is Hardcore is pretty good too.

Buy it here

Posted by Glenn

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Filed under 1990s, Pop, Rock

Two songs I adore

Cans

Cans

There’s no theme or commentary to today’s post other than it’s Friday and I adore these two songs.

Can – “Mushroom” from Tago Mago (1971)
Califone – “Sawtooth Sung A Cheater’s Song” from Heron King Blues (2004)

What sounds good to you this Friday?

More Califone on SWR

More Can on SWR

Buy the ‘fone

Buy the ‘an

Posted by Glenn

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Filed under 1970s, 2000s, Acoustic, Experimental, Folk, Post-rock, Prog Rock, Psychedelic, Rock, Roots rock, Space rock

Drumkit favorites, part ii

I know, right?

I know, right?

Elbow – “Grace Under Pressure” from Cast of Thousands [2003]

Hey kids, don’t you love britpop?  I do.  At least sometimes.  You know, when it’s great and reminds you of summer and driving cars and having the windows open and being young and powerful. Elbow has always surprised me with all the sensitivity britpop should have combined with really thoughtful production and great performances. And with that:

THIS DRUMKIT SOUND RULES. It’s full and kinetic, frenetic and jerky and propels this simple little song about believing in love and giving the finger to the world a drastically different energy than the sleepy little intro.

My favorite britpop moments include the band Elbow, the first two Doves records, and A Rush of Blood to the Head.  Yours?

Buy it here

Posted by Phil

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Filed under 2000s, Pop, Rock

Anthology of American Folk Music, pt. 3 of 3: Songs

Does a body good.

Does a body good.

Welcome to the third and final installment of our humble series on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. For those of you who’ve missed the previous installments, please scroll down to our two previous posts.

Volume 3 of the Anthology, Songs, features blues and non-narrative songs, many mysterious in origin. The strangest and most otherworldly tunes are found on the Songs discs. More importantly, Songs is where Harry Smith’s skill as an editor and compiler is to be admired. Essentially, Smith was putting together a mixtape. So Dock Boggs’s cackling, bitter “Sugar Baby” is followed up by Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s sweet but inexplicable “I Wish I Was A Mole In The Ground” — one kind of world-weariness matched up against another. Elsewhere, Uncle Dave Macon’s rollicking celebration of the Coal Creek Rebellion is followed up by Mississippi John Hurt’s mellow rejection of an oppressive job which itself leads into a jug band’s version of a railroad work song. That mixtape-quality is what gives the Anthology much of its mystique.

By the way, “I Wish I Was A Mole In The Ground” is one of the classics. Listen to it here.

Buell Kazee – “East Virginia” (1927)

Buell Kazee, a Baptist minister from Kentucky, is responsible for many of my favorites on the Anthology. This song resembles a blues and features spare banjo and high-lonesome style of singing, similar to Clarence Ashley. “East Virgina” is the second track on the first Songs disc, following up Ashley’s “The Coo Coo Bird.” Note how these two songs work together to call forth an image of a mysterious mountain landscape, full of “dark hollers where the sun refuse to shine.”

Blind Lemon Jefferson – “See That My Grave is Kept Clean” (1928)

Texan and sometime-professional-wrestler Blind Lemon Jefferson was a nationally popular blues artist in the 1920s and an associate of Leadbelly who froze to death on the streets of Chicago. It’s not hard to tell why Jefferson garnered popularity when he did — his introspective singing is nuanced and his guitar playing has a seductive groove. This song is reportedly the last Jefferson recorded before his early and awful death. As such, he must be mentioned along with those artists we’ve examined in previous months whose early deaths give their music a romantic and possibily morbid allure. To that end, be sure to check Jefferson’s spine-chilling bell tolls at 2:30. They toll for thee.

Henry Thomas – “Fishing Blues” (1928)

SWR spiritual advisor Jeff Wheeler’s fave, Henry Thomas, contributes the perfect closing song to the Anthology. This tune will make you smile, grab your rod-and-reel, and head to the nearest fishin’ hole. In his notes, Harry Smith claims that “references to fishing, other than as sexual symbolism, are rare in American folk music.” At any rate, “Fishing Blues” is the perfect song to open your weekend with, and the perfect song to close this series with.

Buy the Anthology of American Folk Music

Posted by Glenn

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Filed under 1920s, Acoustic, Americana, Blues, Folk, Traditional

Anthology of American Folk Music, pt. 2 of 3: Social Music

Before we get started on the second volume of the Anthology of American Folk Music, some information about the image above. When Harry Smith’s 1952 Anthology was reissued in the 1960s, no doubt to capitalize on the burgeoning folk music revival, the albums were plastered this Depression-era photograph, taken by social realist artist Ben Shahn, famous for his portraits of Sacco & Vanzetti. Harry Smith was furious about the cover. His intent was to preserve lost recordings, and to compile them in such a way that highlighted their regional differences but underlined their emotive similarities, not to lend them a vague political charge that, in retrospect, seems more fashionable than political.

The third and fourth discs of the six-disc Anthology contain what Harry Smith termed Social Music — dance songs on disc 3, church and religious songs on disc 4. The dance music is fascinating, in part because most of it is so off-kilter; it’s hard to imagine people dancing to the melancholy fiddle warbles that dominate disc 3. The religious music on the fourth disc is my favorite on the Anthology — it has a spiritual authority I’ll discuss a bit later.

Frank Cloutier and the Victoria Cafe Orchestra – “Moonshiner’s Dance Part 1” (1927)

One of the few full-band tunes on the Anthology, this dance song is a crazed medley of popular and ragtime tunes, none of which I recognize, but some of the titles, apparently, are “Over the Waves,” “At the Cross,” “When You Wore a Tulip,” and “Maggie.” And can any of y’all make out the exchange at 1:19? To me it sounds like:

“What’re you gonna do with that towel, Herbert?”
“Kill somebody, Chucky!”

There’s no way that can be right.

Alabama Sacred Harp Singers – “Rocky Road” (1928)

Sacred Harp singing, or shape note singing, has been a choral style of sacred music in New England and the South since Revolutionary times, and seems to be making some inroads into the mainstream as of late. As far as I can tell, shape note singing is based on simple solfeggio scales, with individual notes notated by both shape and position on the clef, so that it is easier to sight read. The term “Sacred Harp” comes from the name of one of the prominent songbooks, The Sacred Harp, from 1844 (though many of the songs date back further). These songs, including “Rocky Road,” are characterized by four-part a capella harmony, usually quite raw, and can be sung by hundreds of people at a time. The effect is staggering. Listen for yourself, and find out more here.

Rev. Sister Mary Nelson – “Judgement” (1927)

This song exemplifies the power of the religious songs on the Social Music set. Nelson cajoles and exhorts and and warns, at one point accusing her congregation of hypocrisy, but the performance contains such pure joy that it’s kind of hard to take. Listen closely to the background singing: doesn’t it sound like a 10-year-old boy is shouting along? Not much is known of Sister Nelson, but she seems to have been born late in the 19th century and to have led a Pentecostal church in Memphis.

Stray thought (WARNING: IDLE THINKING AHEAD): It occurs to me that old-time religious music is so exciting for two reasons. First, it is dead serious. Serious about divine inspiration, about justice, about emotion, about humility, about this life and the next. The religious impulse, the will toward God, whatever you want to call it, is an unavoidable part of human experience, but is hard to capture successfully in art, and many of these old-time religious songs seem to do just that.

But secondly, maybe more importantly, old-time religious music is free of the culture-war baggage that present-day religious music hauls along. We’ve mentioned Sufjan Stevens at this blog before, one of the few musicians today tackling religious themes without lapsing into evangelicalism or fundamentalism. (In our old mate Jordy’s parlance, Sufjan “helps make Christianity hip,” a funny thought.) But he’s the exception rather than the rule. The good music I can think of that does tackle Christianity is either intellectualized to the point that it can’t convey religious ectasy (Pedro the Lion, Danielson) or is one-dimensional about the religious life (The Hold Steady — I love ’em, but sometimes doesn’t it seem like their redemption is a bit trite?). So…..I don’t know. But the religious music on the Anthology hits on at least ten different emotions that accompany religious feeling and religious life, and I wonder whether that kind of range, a propos of religion, is even possible in music these (secular) days.

Check in tomorrow for Part 3 of this series on the Anthology of American Folk Music!

Buy the Anthology

Posted by Glenn

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Filed under 1920s, Acoustic, Americana, Folk, Gospel, Traditional

Anthology of American Folk Music, pt. 1 of 3: Ballads

For the next three days I will be discussing the Anthology of American Folk Music, which I have recently acquired in a handsome-as-hell reissue package. These 6 CDs have been called “the holy grail of folk music,” but I prefer to think of them not as an impossible gleaming cup floating in a shaft of light in some far-flung castle, but as a chipped hand-thrown clay mug we mere mortals can drink from whenever we’d like, whether we are worthy like Parsifal or not (and we’re probably not).

Harry Smith, a beatnik and experimental filmmaker, spent years combing through commercially recorded music of the late 1920s and early 1930s to compile the Anthology. Smith wanted to put together a truly populist anthology of old-time music, which is why he used commercial recordings on gramophone disc rather than earlier wax cylinder recordings or the field recordings of Alan Lomax, Zora Neale Hurston, and the like. Smith’s assumption is an interesting prospect. Folk culture by definition is both populist and extremely localized, and quality commerical recordings are able to account for both strands of folk culture: popularity and particularity. As Smith put it, these recordings, many of which sold tens of thousands of copies when first released, made available “the rhythmically and verbally specialized musics of groups living in mutual social and cultural isolation.”

The anthology is divvied up into three sets: Ballads, Social Music, and Songs. Today I will focus on three of my favorites from the Ballads disc. By the way, narrowing twenty-seven ballads down to three is very, very difficult, so I have tried to include my favorites while also giving you faithful readers an accurate representation of what is included.

Clarence Ashley – “The House Carpenter” (1930)

Also known as “Tom,” Ashley was from the East Tennessee mountains, and his high lonesome voice and banjo picking sounds like the shadowed hollows and mysterious grassy balds. During the 1960s folk music revival, he began playing the college and festival circuit with the likes of Doc Watson. One of the odd pleasures of the Anthology is the goofy notes that Harry Smith wrote for each selection. For the songs on the “Ballads” discs, these notes take the form of lurid headlines: “Wife and Mother Follows Carpenter to Sea; Mourns Babe as Ship Goes Down.” It is absolutely chilling when the narrator of the song, after convincing the house carpenter’s wife to board his ship and set sail, says, casually, as she weeps for her lost child: “Well, we hadn’t been on ship but about two weeks. I’m sure that it was not three.” And, according to Wikipedia, this song is based on the Child ballad “The Daemon Lover.”

Charlie Poole & The North Carolina Ramblers – “White House Blues” (1926)

Many of the songs on the Ballads discs concern news items of previous years: boll weevils, Casey Jones, the Titantic, automated cobbling machines. There’s even a song supposedly written by Charles Giteau, James A. Garfield’s assassin. My favorite is this assassination lament sung by Charlie Poole, a hard-drinking moonshining textile worker from my area of the country, the NC Piedmont. “Roosevelt’s in the White House, he’s doing his best. McKinley’s in the graveyard, taking his rest.”

Mississippi John Hurt – “Frankie” (1928)

John Hurt’s name is one of the few I recognized when I first began listening to the Anthology. It’s clear that Bob Dylan modeled some of his early singing after Hurt’s low-pitched, buzzing voice. For me, Hurt’s vocal performance embodies the weird allure of the Anthology: the promise of a palpable past, more genius songs than even the 84 included here. Plus, John Fahey said this version of “Frankie & Johnny” featured some of the best guitar-playing ever, and who am I to disagree?

Coincidentally, music blog River’s Invitation is posting folk songs this week. Do check them out. Clarence Ashley’s “The Coo-Coo Bird” is absolutely essential.

UPDATE: Please check out The Old, Weird America for an in-depth analysis of the Harry Smith Anthology.

Buy the Anthology

Posted by Glenn

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Filed under 1920s, 1930s, Acoustic, Americana, Bluegrass, Country, Folk, Roots rock, Singer-Songwriter, Traditional

“Barracking, blundering, pillaging, plundering”

imagine that its standing on top of a radio.

imagine that it's standing on top of a radio.

TV on the Radio – “Dreams” from Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes (2004) & “Shout Me Out” from Dear Science (2008)

TV on the Radio are one of those bands that people 25 years from now will listen to and say that’s what the ’00s were like. TVotR’s “life-during-wartime bellow that nailed our post-post-9/11 ennui” has been well-documented, not least because the band formed just after 9/11, but the epoch-defining quality of this band goes further than their evocation of dread, suspicion, ambivalence, and boredom. They are the first (pop) band I know of to use inorganic sounds (that is, electronic sounds meant to sound like they emanate from no instrument played with hands; possibily the buzz and hum in the foreground of so many TVotR songs is the White Noise of Don DeLillo) to do some other than evoke dread, suspicion, etc. They use the growl and hiss and chatter of dial-up modems and dead phone lines and blown tube amps and on-the-fritz iPods and overheated laptops and interrupted cell phone service to call forth, sometimes, joy, pleasure, regret — the big-time sweaty heavy-breath emotions. The ones that wear you out. No coincidence that “Wear You Out” is the final track on their first full-length.

And, in world where more and more pop music seems to be defined solely by what influences it has combined (as if making worthwhile art were as easy as mixing up a batch of frozen margaritas in a blender; would that that were true), TVotR seem like their own men. It is curious when you can spot the influence, where TVotR seem to pull from an alternative canon: David Bowie, Talking Heads, Peter Gabriel, Pixies, Talk Talk, barbershop quartets, Brooklyn noise (am I the only one picking up heavy TVotR vibes on the new Animal Collective record?), even Tom Petty (listen closely to the verse on “Shout Me Out”). Plus, what they do just sounds so right. At their best (these tunes, “Staring At The Sun,” “Blind,” “Wolf Like Me,” “I Was A Lover,” “A Method,” “Tonight,” “Golden Age”), it’s hard to believe that these songs haven’t always existed.

In conclusion: TV on the Radio fucking rules.

TV on the Radio on the Colbert Report

Interview with lead singer Tunde Adebimpe (includes the money quote: “Or these scientists who are working on making a self-contained black hole—how short is that victory party going to be? And how quickly is someone going to turn that to the worst application? It’s like, “We made a black hole!” “Oh cool, can we watch sex on it?” “No, not really.” “Can we kill someone with it?” “Probably.””)

Buy it here (uh, and how come when I search for “tv on the radio” on amazon, the first thing that pops up is Steve Harvey’s relationship advice book?)

Posted by Glenn

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Filed under 2000s, Experimental, Post-rock, Rock