Wednesday, June 22, 2011

On the Move

In the words of John Lennon at the Maharishi's feet, "you again?!?"

Now, I'm not positive that's what Lennon said.  I'm also not positive Lennon was ever "at the feet" of the Maharishi.  I also can't confirm or deny rumors that "Maharishi" literally means "Man of Many Stews."

All I know is that I've stared at html for the last 45 minutes or 75 hours and my eyes ache and my brain hurts.  Help me?

The New Blog Is Right Here

The Blog is moving to Wordpress.  The big, final move will happen Friday, June 24.  At that time, only this post will be visible at Blogger, and all past and future posts will not.  So, what do you need to do?

1) Why, visit the new blog!
2) And bookmark its new URL!
3) And subscribe to its feed!

(Basically, update your bookmark and feed urls.  There's also a handy-dandy guided tour of the new site over there, right now.

But, PLEASE, make sure you do this
4) COMMENT over there and let me know what you think!
5) Use the Facebook and Twitter buttons at the bottom of each post to let your friends see the new site's address.

First, this helps me because I know you've made it.  Second, the commenting system is different over there, and I want to make sure it's not hassling anyone.  Third, I want to hear your feedback!  The whole point of the move was to make the blog easier to interact with--I want y'all in on the conversation.  So PLEASE, let me hear it.  And please, invite folks to the party. 

See you over there!

Friday, June 17, 2011

Song of the Week: Ray LaMontagne "Rock & Roll and Radio"

Before I dive into this week's song, a bit of housekeeping:

I'm in the process of transferring this blog from Blogger to Wordpress.  I'm working out the kinks right now, setting it up at the new host, migrating content, etc.  Friends, confidantes, and Wordpress techies assure me this can be done with minimal hassle and maximum continuity.  In other words, don't worry: all past content, archives, and comments should be retained.  The blog will just have a new url and, if you've subscribed to this RSS Feed, you'll need to update it.  I'll give you that info soon.

The tentative date for the switch will be Friday, June 23.  I'll post here Wednesday, June 21 with specifics for folks who want to update their bookmark/RSS feed/etc.

For what it's worth, I think this'll make the blog much more enjoyable for you to read.  Wordpress simply does a better job of integrating the blog into the ways people really use this stuff: Facebook, Twitter, email, Google Reader, etc.  The goal has always been to talk about music (my music, other artists' music, etc.).  I think this will make it easier to us to interact.


Song of the Week: Ray LaMontagne, "Rock & Roll and Radio"

Several weeks ago, Kings of Leon appeared on VH1's Storytellers.  As an unabashed KOL fan, I found their episode fully entertaining and totally unnecessary (e.g. "this song's about our's called 'Fans'").  The next week, My Morning Jacket's Storytellers aired.  Their performance was predictably great and weird (i.e. they only played one song--a non-single--off their new album).  Then, last Friday, Ray LaMontagne told his stories.

Six years after first hearing him, I still can't gauge my Ray-fandom.  I generally like him, but I don't own any albums.  I know and admire a few specific songs, but have never sought them out.  I never choose to listen to him, yet I never turn him off.

I'm telling you this because I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed his episode of Storytellers.  But as I watched, something occurred to me: what I like about Ray LaMontagne's songs is the same thing that I liked about his Storytellers episode.  I enjoy his music less for what it is than for what it evokes. 

Maybe the best example is Ray's voice: it's resonant and vaporous, solid but shapeless.  It's full of ghosts and cobwebs.  It's a wool blanket.  It sounds like rain in the morning.  And on, and on...and there's the key!  Though he sings everything similarly (compare his voice song-to-song to, say, Paul's on "Michelle" and "Helter Skelter"), that one voice conjures up a hundred different things.  He doesn't really change, but my imagination does.

I'm not minimizing this; it's a real gift.  No other voice in pop music sounds quite like him.  In fact, compare his speaking voice to his singing voice--he doesn't even sound quite like him.  I don't doubt that his singing voice is natural and unaffected.  But hearing him speak, I can't account for it.  His voice is a microcosm of his total musical appeal to me.  Watching Storytellers, I realized that his songs do the same thing over five minutes that his voice does in an instant: they evoke much more than they say.

I could get into the nuts and bolts of why I like "Rock & Roll and Radio."  I could take it line by line, chord by chord, like I do with other Songs of the Week.  LaMontagne is a thoughtful, adept songwriter.  There's plenty in there.  And I'm sure his superfans experience his songs this way.  But I don't.

What I enjoy about his songs has everything to do with them vaguely, cosmically, intangibly and nothing to do with them really.  They put me in a trance.  You know the code word or snap of the fingers that puts people under hypnosis?  That's the beginning of every Ray LaMontagne song for me.  I hear those drum brushes shuffle and my mind runs.  Here's how I experienced "Rock & Roll and Radio," roughly in real time.  Step inside my head for six minutes.  Follow along if you like:

This melody sounds like Joni Mitchell.  Square beat against round, syncopated phrasing.

Sounds great.

It's slow.  It sounds warm. 

Solo acoustic stuff sounds wintry, but this sounds like summer.  Sounds like midnight in June.  I want to put this song on a CD and drive anywhere and nowhere.  I bet it sounds good in that heavy summer air.  I want to drive off and around the old Houston Levee, winding through the gnarled trees, the sharp curves, the darkening purple sky.  I'll play it loud through those haunted backroads of my youth.  I'll let it drift out my window, back through the moonroof, and out the other side.

Last time I drove those roads, rock n' roll and radio weren't strangers.  Middle school, high school, college.  I'd take the back way from Germantown to Wolfchase, the long way, the scenic way, woods all the way from here to there and back.  I'd listen to 96X, or its successors and imitators, or some mix CD derived from it.  I'd pass the landmarks.  I'd drive nowhere and think about girls and think about music and pass familiar places. 

That's where the Winterfest dance was.  That huge mansion appearing out of nowhere in the tall trees.  It looked new, but it also looked like part of the woods, that unsettled Cordova frontier.  I never went to a Winterfest dance, but that's where it was.  I met some friends afterward.  Bad cologne mingled in the air, stagnated in the backseat of my car.  Semisonic.  There is it, that huge mansion--I can see it.  Fewer trees now.

There's where those two juniors fought after school one day.  Late in the school year, almost summer.  One more week and they wouldn't have even had to.

There's the sudden, jagged curve where the accident happened the night I finished eighth grade.  I can smell the honeysuckle there.  I got outside one night and stood in the spot for twenty minutes and no cars came.  It was the middle of the night in the middle of the woods, but the moon was bright.  I could see.  I only heard crickets, but they were deafening.  And then in the car a minute or an hour or a year later, the Goo Goo Dolls on 96X.  "Name" isn't really so different from "Rock & Roll and Radio."  Sing it, Ray.  Both have an acoustic guitar and both mention the radio.  They're both about a girl.  They're both about losing something.  I could drive out there now with this CD in my car and park in that same spot.  It might be as dark, but not as empty.  Lights from condos nearby.  The moon less bright. 

There's the middle school, a four-legged brick spider.  The corner window in the west leg--there was my seventh grade English class.  I can hear "Champagne Supernova," and I'm back inside.  That skinny brown-haired girl sang it by herself one day.  She sat in English class before anyone else came into the room.  She was usually loud but she sang it in a whisper.  She didn't know I could hear her, didn't know anyone could.  She was always laughing at something, but she had sad eyes.  I don't know what I thought of her before or after, but for a second or a minute or an hour she sang "Champagne Supernova" to herself in an empty classroom and goddamn she was beautiful.

I could loop around the high school baseball field.  That's where I played Pearl Jam's "Breath" on repeat one night in April.  I listened to the whole Singles soundtrack on repeat that April.  I never left it alone.  I circled that park, didn't want to face the crowd.

There's the house we rolled in daylight.

Sing it, Ray.  Oh man, this would sound great on the road tonight.  I could let it ring through my car, driving past Shelby Farms.  There's that stretch of road, wide open and technicolor green, no traffic lights, fireflies hovering over the grass in every direction, little lights circling, searching for nothing in the dark.

And then I'm playing flashlight tag in my friend's neighborhood.  Listening to "Machinehead" before, sprinting through the backyards, hopping fences, shoes soaked in dew.  Old neighbors complaining like they were never young.

But that's just for a minute.  I'm back on Walnut Grove, cutting through Shelby Farms.  There was that summer after college I took this road from Appling to midtown so many nights.  I told myself it was to hear any given band, or to see any given girl.  Now I think it was just to drive and hear "Sixteen," or "I Will Sing You Songs."  Songs about loving music, and songs about girls, and loving songs about all of these things at once.  The drive out was always my favorite, pointed west.  The Clark Tower stood lonely in the distance, sun burning low on the horizon, night an open invitation, every point of light a possibility.

Christ, keep singing Ray.  Cause the sky looks just like it did then, that deep violet after the sun goes down.  It stays almost black for another hour.  I remember that dark purple light best from my friend's pool, every Friday.  We'd listen to 107.5.  Tan, pretty girls, dogs chasing each others' tails.  Ray's song doesn't sound like me being there then; it sounds like me remembering it now.  Why is that?  What is that?

This is a long song.  Have I heard this before?  It sounds so familiar.  Another road, another road.  I wonder what the girl in the song looks like.  I wonder who he's really talking to.  Sometimes I don't know.  I'll get this song.  I'll burn it to a CD and I'll go.  I can go back.  Let it wade through that heavy summer air, winding through the gnarled trees, the sharp curves, the crimson sky.  I'll play it loud through those haunted backroads of my youth.  Down every street I know by heart.  Lap the miles where those woods used to be.  Haunt those backroads and smell the wildflowers at the road's shoulder.  Let the names of past loves ring out through my car.  Whisper them to myself, hear them drift out my window, into the moonroof, out the other side.  I can go back.  I can go there right now, drive off before the night.  Keep singing, Ray.  The sun's just beginning to set.  It's not dark.  There's still time.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Another Cup of Coffee with Jeff Powell

For those just catching up, I do a monthly feature with the Vinyl District.  I interview a different person in the Memphis music community: artists, sound guys, business people, superfans, etc.  The idea is that, over time, we might see how all the pieces fit together to make something really special.  It's called Another Cup of Coffee.

This month, I got to talk with Jeff Powell, ace producer and engineer at Ardent Studios.  He's worked with everyone from Bob Dylan to the Allman Brothers, from Big Star to BB King, and just about everyone in between.  As you might imagine, he's got a few stories.

So please, hop on over to TVD and enjoy Another Cup with Jeff Powell!

(Note: To read all the past Another Cups of Coffee, click here.  You can stay updated on all my blog posts, here and elsewhere, by subscribing to the blog or bookmarking this page

Also, if you'd like to subscribe to TVD Memphis,
click here.)

Friday, June 10, 2011

Song of the Week: Dr. Dog, "My Friend"

One hot night a few Augusts ago, I stopped by my friend Steve's place.  He had just moved into a new apartment in East Nashville and wanted me to see it.  It was the upstairs unit of a big house on a beautiful tree-lined street in downtown's shadow.  He was still getting things settled, but he had the important things unpacked: his bed, some stray food, and his record player.

Steve's a sound guy, and a music lover; he's one of those people who always has music playing in the background.  If you visit him at work, he's been listening to something.  If you see him at home, the turntable's spinning.  I'm the same way, but 1) I know what I'm listening to and 2) I don't own a record player.  That's one reason I always loved going to Steve's place, wherever it was: I usually heard something new, and it always sounded different (read: like vinyl). 

This particular night a few Augusts ago, we talked while something spun in the background.  It immediately reeled me in: I didn't recognize the songs, but I recognized the sound.  The record's production was vintage--jangly, organic, and golden like so many folk-rock albums of the 60's and 70's.  A little George Harrison All Things Must Pass, a little early Stevie, and a lot of something else.  Tons of energy.  Joyous background vocals.  Multi-section songwriting, each part naturally easing into something new.  A million different things--barroom keys, manic tambourines, harmonies and melodies swirling around each other--for the ear to latch onto.  It sounded like a gorgeous old house filled with secret rooms and trapdoors.  I'd never heard it before, but felt like I had.

"Steve, what are we listening to?"

"Dr. Dog.  You don't know Dr. Dog?"

That particular introductory song was "Hang On."  A few Augusts later, not only do I know Dr. Dog, I know all their albums, and I've seen them live (favorite concert of 2011 so far).  I'm a big fan.  Steve also introduced me to Delta Spirit, and the Thrills, and Josh Ritter, and who knows who else.  Steve's got a great track record. 

Song of the Week: Dr. Dog, "My Friend"

Dr. Dog has two main singers and songwriters--bassist Toby Leaman and lead guitarist Scott McMicken.  Their albums are roughly split down the middle in terms of who sings which song and (I assume) who wrote that song.  Whenever a band has two main songwriters, fans often pick their favorite.  This is a descendant of a Beatles phenomenon, where fans self-identify as a  "John Guy" or a "Paul Guy" or, semi-weirdly, a "George Guy."  It's continued since.  Some Uncle Tupelo fans preferred either Jay Farrar's songs or Jeff Tweedy's, ultimately picking sides when the band broke up and begat Son Volt and Wilco.  Mark Arm and Stone Gossard from Green River begat Mudhoney and Mother Love Bone (eventually Pearl Jam); the former stayed true to a punk-purist songwriting style, the latter veered off into the pop world, and fans followed according to their own aesthetics.  The list goes on.

Dr. Dog is lucky enough to have two gifted songwriters and lead vocalists that 1) share a vision for the band but 2) have their own perspective.  I love "My Friend" because it's one of the only times we get two-songs-in-one from them: each guy gets a part.

The first half belongs to Leamon.  It's an up-tempo rock groove, rhythm-driven, bouncy, syncopated, seemingly at ease.  Lyrically, the song's both narrative and abstract.  He outlines a friendship facing some issues, but we get more rumination than detail.  A worried lyric belies the light-hearted music.  This is a dichotomy Dr. Dog does very well, and very often: happy music with heavier lyrics.  After a few repeated sections, they settle into a coda that fades into a lone piano track and some ambient train noise (2:57).  This begins McMicken's section, which gives us more insight into this "friendship."  His half of the song is more melodic and mid-tempo.  But the background vocals at the end of each phrase ("don't give it up...") are the most uplifting moments of the entire song.  It might sound less hopeful than the first half, but it is more hopeful. 

The song's conflict (a friend trying to help another friend in trouble, and both getting lost in terms of what's best for each) is reminiscent of Pearl Jam's "Save You."  By its end, we've seen both sides of a co-dependent relationship.  The first half confronts a friend on the edge and negotiates dread and worry with a false, bouncy front; the second half offers hope in the face of some harsh realities.  And as heady as all of that can be, here's why it's Song of the Week: it's fun to listen to.  You can geek out to the meaning of the "train" in the song, its sneaky placement, its function in the lyrics, etc.  Or you can just hear and love the exuberance of the background vocals ("won't go away...") played against a wonderful guitar hook.  You can engage this song as little or as much as you like, and you'll still get something out of it.

Like the Beatles "A Day In the Life," it brings this band's two songwriters under one roof.  It lets them use their own perspective, their own unique talents, to tell two sides of one story.  As a concept, it's beautifully-executed.  As a piece of music, it's just beautiful.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Song of the Week: My Morning Jacket, "Circuital"

There are probably 40-50 artists whose next album release I anticipate.  There are probably 20-25 artists whose new album I will almost definitely buy at the time of its release.  There are probably 8-12 artists whose new album I will buy sight unseen/sound unheard the very second it's available.  That list, off the top of my head:

Bob Dylan
Pearl Jam
Cory Branan
Outkast (if it ever happens)
White Stripes (probably won't ever happen)
Green Day
Tom Petty
New Pornographers
My Morning Jacket

Of those, there are artists I probably love more than My Morning Jacket.  But I might anticipate a new MMJ album more than any other.  This is mostly because, after twelve years and six full albums, I still don't know their ceiling.  It Still Moves established them as a heavyweight, but Z and Evil Urges proved they still had room to grow, both artistically and commercially.  As great as they are, I keep thinking their next album will be their best.  And as popular as they are, I keep thinking their next single will be their mainstream crossover. 

This week, Circuital came out, and I've probably listened to it twenty times since Tuesday. 

A few stray thoughts about the full album before I dive into the Song of the Week:

1) I'm dying to know what other people (casual fans, diehards, and nonfans alike) think of Circuital.  I immediately liked it--a lot--but haven't yet fallen in love with it.  Anyone in love with it?

2) When Z and Evil Urges each came out, a lot of reviews called My Morning Jacket "America's Radiohead."  I've never understood that comparison, mostly because "America's Radiohead," if anyone, is clearly Wilco.  To wit:
--Both are bands from the 90's
--Both have evolved greatly through the years
--Both have massive, rabid, tech-savvy fanbases
--Both have experimented with different marketing techniques for their releases
--Both are obsessed with technology's impact on modern art
--Both are hugely popular yet still viewed as critically unassailable

The analogy works, right down to the fact that the British version of a given idiom (here, experimental-yet-still-popular-enough-to-fill-an-arena-rock) is often more commercially successful than the American version.  For some reason, Brits know how to sell albums back to us better than we do.  Mumford vs. Avetts.  Etc, etc. 

Really, My Morning Jacket isn't "America's anyone."  Sure, I hear Radiohead's influence.  I also hear Neil Young, and 60's girl groups, and the Muppets, etc.  But on Circuital?  I hear the Who.  I hear a lot of the Who.  Which brings me to...

3) What I hear the most listening to Circuital is another deeply layered, heavily melodic, organically-produced, ultimately underrated record by another Who-a-phile band: Yield, by Pearl Jam.  My Morning Jacket has always had a lot in common with Pearl Jam, enough that they've made natural tourmates in the past and they share tons of fans.  One week in, I think Circuital is their Yield.  Like Yield, it's full of lovely, understated songwriting.  Like Yield, it highlights a band at the peak of their technical powers; you can members democratically offering their parts, ideas thrown around, improved upon, everyone working with great facility in service of the song.  Like Yield, the songs are stylistically--but not thematically--diverse.  Like Yield, the production is organic and open.  And like Yield, it will satisfy established fans, but might not make new ones.

(I've written at length about Yield in the past.  I claim that it's the most underrated album of the 90's here.)

4) Finally, the early press for Circuital has been mostly glowing.  I've been confused, though, by how many reviews spin this album as a "return to greatness" after the "misstep" of Evil Urges.  The same Evil Urges was almost universally praised when it came out by those same publications and blogs.  In other words, it's (I guess?) nice to see that My Morning Jacket has entered yet another strata.  We'll call it: Artists Whose New Album Is Always Awesome, Until It's the Last Album.

This is also known as "The REM Rule."  It's a time-honored tradition.  Every few years since the mid-to-late 90's, music journalists have declared the New REM Album their "return to glory."  To illustrate this return to glory, they reference an REM "golden age" we universally recognize and cherish, and draw comparisons between this new album and those old albums.  Until the next New REM Album comes out.  Then, they pan the last New REM Album to make the same point about this New REM Album.  There's also the "Ryan Adams Corollary," which is similar, except it harkens back to a golden age that isn't universally recognized or cherished. 

Anyway, those are a few of my immediate reactions to the full album.  Next week, I might feel totally different.  What do y'all think?

Song of the Week: My Morning Jacket, "Circuital"

I first heard this song at a Starbucks in Denver (you were there), biding time until that night's show.  Later, I burned it onto my next road-mix.  It kept me company on the long drive(s) through the heartland.  It joined me one bleary-eyed morning setting out for Omaha.  It played on repeat one late night in Kansas, driving through a thunderstorm.  It's a song about things coming full circle, and it soundtracked my own circuitous route home.  But all of that came later.

I first heard this song at a Starbucks in Denver, a little tired, a little homesick, and a little lost.  I was one of many people on an island with their earbuds and coffee and tiny table.  Then I heard Jim James, my old friend, absent a few years.  His falsetto soared.  He dreamily sung about returning to "childhood ways."  Suddenly, golden acoustic guitars strummed, recalling something timeless yet brand new (1:10).  The next time they returned, Who-esque powerchords (2:00) joined them, propelling the song into a new, anthemic section.  And suddenly I was a tired, homesick wreck in the middle of a Starbucks in Denver.  I won't lie to you: this song got real for me.  Its second minute is simply special--inspired, perfectly executed, and flat-out gorgeous.  And in that moment, it did exactly what it's supposed to do: it called me back home.  Bigtime.

Of course, I could go on and on about all the ways the music of this song enacts the "circular" themes of the lyrics (e.g., it ends exactly the way it began, etc.).  And I could type endlessly about the production of the song (i.e., how amazing the band sounds).  And I could ramble about Carl's wonderfully side-winding lead parts in the song's second half.  I could pick a dozen different technical things this band does amazingly well, things that set them apart from so many other bands.  But I picked "Circuital" because it has the rarest of things: a little bit of magic.

I'm still listening to the rest of Circuital over and over again, looking for more magic.  I haven't heard it yet, but that's why I'm always craving the next MMJ song: they've got it in them.