Category Archives: Rock

Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band: Trout Mask Replica

Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band:  Trout Mask Replica (1969)

Adam: What can we say about Trout Mask Replica?

Jordy: Probably too much. Continue reading

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Filed under 1960s, Experimental, Psychedelic, Rock

Tom Waits: Rain Dogs

Tom Waits: Rain Dogs (1985)

Glenn: Now is the time of the year that Rain Dogs makes it to the stereo and my girlfriend asks me, “Why does Tom Waits sound so romantic?”

Phil: I can’t speak to this one: all I can say is I hate this version of “Downtown Train” as much as Rod Stewart’s. And it’s a great song. You should probably ignore me on this post.

Jordy: I love these Island records.  Some time around 1983, Tom Waits must have had some catharsis that moved him from bawling, grisly, gravelly nightclub croonings to surreal but often touching freak show poems. And Rain Dogs stands as perhaps his most “romantic” as Glenn’s girlfriend puts it. But before I get into those schmultzy tunes, I want to mention the edgier songs like “Jockey Full of Bourbon” and “Tango Till They’re Sore.” These songs continue the boozy standard Waits had set with Swordfishtrombones: weird and dubious characters, overplayed horns,  solid, stripped-down rhythm section, all under Waits’ yowling.

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Filed under 1980s, Rock

The Band: The Band

The Band: The Band (1969)

Glenn: I should probably admit up front that until about six months ago I had no feelings whatsoever for The Band. Sure, they rocked it with Dylan, and I’d seen enough of The Last Waltz to be glad that punk rock was able to dispose of the coke-crusted cremains of dinosaur rock (seriously, there’s so much self-congratulatory bullshit smeared all over the celluloid that it’s hard to see what’s happening). But I’d never been interested in The Band’s music, per se. At best, they provided fodder to late-night acoustic guitar jams (“The Weight,” “Up On Cripple Creek”). At worst, they seemed to typify all that was wrong with rock: way-too-sorrowful ballads, pretentious romanticizing of rural life, too-earnest singing, “funky” but actually leaden drumming, bad organ solos (there’s a special place in hell for “Chest Fever,” ugh). I hated their version of “Long Black Veil” — and I hated that my brothers always tried to play their too-damn-slow version instead of the superior Johnny Cash version.

Suffice it to say that I was blaming The Band for things beyond their control. Just because one can hear the roots of Journey and Foreigner in “Chest Fever” doesn’t mean that The Band is to blame. In fact, they should be celebrated for their very real accomplishments and general awesomeness. I was blind, but now I see.

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Filed under 1960s, Americana, Rock, Roots rock

The Microphones: The Glow pt. 2

The Microphones: The Glow, Pt. 2 (2001)

Phil: I don’t remember the first time I heard Phil Elvrum’s (now Elverum, see his interview with The Believer) masterpiece of separation and personal discovery, but I can say I have listened to this album several times in several different contexts and it stands apart as one of the finer releases of the Pacific Northwest’s Indie scene.

A friend of mine once told me she thought that every Microphones album sounded like the band practiced for four days straight without sleeping and then recorded. Production on Microphones records is almost always arrestingly simple and childlike, like no one cares if vocal tracks clip and distort or if the hard-panned guitars aren’t really in time. And Phil Elverum’s a smart guy. He could make everything line up just so if he really wanted to, but this approach to the recording process is either calculated naivete or an attention to something else altogether.

What’s important to Phil Elverum? Like any good artist, he seems to be concerned with expression; if this album was tight, in tune and clean, it would be a completely different statement. It would be an album about intentionally working through intense personal muck instead of an album about wandering around in a fog (or glow, if you will) of uncertainty, occasionally tripping over something transcendent but mostly thinking about uncertainty and its aftereffects.

“I Felt My Size” (far from my favorite track on the album) stands, in my mind, as the prime example of most of the elements that make this album exactly what it is. It starts with Elverum’s voice and guitar right up front in the mix with some noise in the very back, sounding very…Northwesty…until the drums come in and they’re just so gd compressed that you can hardly tell what they’re supposed to sound like. And then we get some weird auxiliary noises until the group choir comes in and tells us that Phil is not a planet at all, that he has found his place in the universe and it is certainly not much of one. So you have the sound of someone understanding that the universe does not really much care for them (a theme explored in the following LP Mount Eerie) and it sounds unsettling.

I think this album is unsettling because it is an unsettled album. It’s for grey days and feeling like you don’t have a clue and need to feel like somebody has gone through this all before. And so many have, but few have communicated it as well as Phil Elverum on this here album.

Glenn: I completely agree with you, Phil. This album always sounds just out of earshot — and that is unsettling. There are those albums I know by heart, from first note to last fade. London Calling, Astral Weeks, Kind of Blue, Crooked Rain Crooked Rain, Abbey Road. But, for me, this album is more like The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, Exile on Main Street, Amnesiac, and Camofleur: each listen is like the first listen, and something new comes to the front. The Glow Pt. 2 is perhaps the album I love best that I know least. There is something distant, almost unknowable about the album — fog, as Phil puts it.

Yet the mystical quality of the album seems steeped in the real world. For example, see “The Moon,” my favorite Microphones song. A glance at the lyrics shows it to be a straightforward narrative. But the childlike production is what makes the song poignant. Only so often do lyrics lines emerge clearly through the haze of guitars: “We walked around and stayed up late….And the wind and the mountaintop….My chest was full….And in its light I saw my two feet on the ground.” The fragments of story are more meaningful than the story itself, because you, the listener, must do the work to make sense of the song.

Phil: I’d be willing to cut “The Mansion”; I think it’s a really good lyrical centerpiece to the fog/glow of the album, but the title track is pretty stinking awesome.

Glenn: I’ve always thought that the song “The Glow, Pt. 2” would sound good arranged for brass quintet. Dig a French horn on that gorgeous vocal melody.

In fact, that’s maybe what we’re getting at in this conversation. This record glows with fog, but underneath it all lie solid melodies and good lyrics. Which is more than you can say about any other Microphones or Mount Eerie release (sorry, Phil; sorry, Phil).

Key tracks:

“I Want Wind To Blow”
“The Glow, Pt. ii”
“The Moon”
I Felt My Size

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Filed under 2000s, Experimental, Psychedelic, Rock

Wolf Parade: Apologies to the Queen Mary

Wolf Parade – Apologies to the Queen Mary (2005)

Jordy: It’s hard for me to believe that it’s been four years since this album dropped.  I remember hearing it that fall of 2005 and thinking “This is exactly how I want rock to sound: fast, hooky, dark, and triumphant.”  Isaac Brock earned his short keep as a Sub Pop A&R man and producer with this record and, in that light, I can only hope that his last four years’ energies haven’t been wasted on mere Modest Mouse albums.  He found this band right when they needed it.  They sound hungry.  (Not that they made any money necessarily.)

The opener “You are a Runner and I am My Father’s Son” is a real ass-kicker and introduces the listener to Spencer Krug’s two greatest offerings: really cool yelping vocals (which aren’t nearly as Tiny Tim-esque as some haters might assert) and pounding keyboard grooves.  I was sticking my waxy earbuds in everyone’s face that October saying, “You have to hear this shit!”

I’ll leave some of the other highlights to Glenn but not before I claim the two greatest back-to-back tracks of the indie era.  “Dear Sons and Daughters of Hungry Ghosts”  features Krug’s very best lyrical turns powered by high swirling organ and en invigorating la-la-la chorus and you’d think you couldn’t get higher.  Until the next track.  “I’ll Believe in Anything” is nothing less than a glorious stomping hymn in earnest praise of, well, Anything.  Incredible.  This pair still gives me chills after hundreds of listens.  The songs are truly durable in their form and sentiment.

Glenn: Durable is right, Jordy. I must admit that at first this album struck me as just another indie rock record. “Bound Arcade Pornographers, Broken Social Pitchfork….meh.” That stuff is good but it gets…old. It was about six months later that I found myself humming “You Are A Runner And I Am My Father’s Son” and “Grounds For Divorce” to myself, trying to keep my balance on the snow-slick streets of Chicago in winter. These are solid, catchy songs.

For me, this is a record that sounds like warmth in the midst of cold. I’m not sure why, exactly — perhaps because I first loved it in winter — but it might have to do with the sound of struggle on the record. While the band is a well-oiled groove machine (what indie rock is this furious and yet this danceable?), the songs seem to grapple their way upward from real pain toward sunlight and joy. And not in an emo way, either. When he says, “I need sunshine,” you believe him. Triumph, indeed.

One more thing: remember all those “Wolf” bands circa 2005? That was funny.

4 Essential Tracks:

“You Are A Runner And I Am My Father’s Son”
“Grounds for Divorce”
“Dear Sons and Daughters of Hungry Ghosts”
I’ll Believe In Anything

Buy it

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Filed under 2000s, Rock

Nirvana: In Utero

Nirvana:  In Utero (1993)

Adam: I was 12 years old and my family was on vacation in Florida when I saw the news reports on TV in our hotel saying that the singer from a band I was vaguely familiar with had killed himself.   I was just beginning to be interested in rock music in 1994, and after Kurt Cobain’s suicide, I wasn’t allowed to own any Nirvana albums.  I had to get my Nirvana fix from the radio and from a mixtape a friend gave me later that year which included half of Bleach and half of In Utero.  I used to listen to it through headphones on the school bus and in the back seat of our minivan.  I listened to it a lot in the winter of 1994-95, and for a long time after that, listening to In Utero reminded me of winter.  I still haven’t heard the other half of Bleach, but I bought In Utero a few years later and I listen to it every now and then.  My inspiration for writing this post was the recent media attention surrounding the DVD/CD release of Nirvana’s set at the 1992 Reading festival.  I bought the DVD, and it is great because it documents what a Nirvana concert was like when the band was at the peak of its popularity. Continue reading

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Filed under 1990s, Grunge, Rock

The Velvet Underground: The Velvet Underground

Velvet Underground

The Velvet Underground – The Velvet Underground (1969)

Glenn: Let’s clear one thing up: “The Murder Mystery” is awesome. Anybody who disagrees hasn’t caught onto the Velvet’s project, which is to use drones, pulse, and deadpan-specific lyrics to create a trance that contains an entire world. Anything else the Velvets do — sing, change chords, play feedback, take speed, let Nico do her thing — is extra. While “The Murder Mystery” isn’t a typical Velvets song, it does have the elements I’ve just identified, plus a wild bouncy-piano-with-vocals outro.

After listening to the demos and live stuff from the Peel Slowly And See box (see below for a live “What Goes On” that kills), I’m convinced that the Velvets were after some kind of secret chord-pulse-noise mechanism that could transcend space and time. In other words, they were trying to be Can or Bitches-era Miles Davis, before Can or Miles dreamed a way to the astral plane. The thing is that the Velvets were also Long Island dopes who wrote folk-pop songs. The tension in their music is the tension between trying to get free and trying to keep together — the dichotomy Dave Hickey traces in his classic essay about the differences between jazz and rock and roll. Continue reading

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Filed under 1960s, Rock