Monday, February 23, 2009

Milam's February Mailbag!

Welcome back to a running feature here at Milam HQ, in which I readers lob questions at me and I knock them straight out of the park.  If you'd like to be in future Milam Mailbags, just drop me a line with "Mailbag" in the subject.  Onto the letters!

Hey Chris, I noticed that your last post quoted the Hold Steady.  Settle a bet for me: Are you a fan?  On one hand they rock and have good lyrics, on the other hand their singer isn't for everyone.  What's the verdict?  -Tom, Brooklyn
I am a fan of the Hold Steady.  For those of you who haven't heard them/heard of them yet, the Hold Steady are a rock band from New York.  They've released two really strong records in a row (Boys and Girls in America and Stay Positive).  They're an interesting band for a lot of reasons, most of those contradictory.  They're a self-described bar band that now plays amphitheaters, they're musically catchy but melodically inept, and they aim really high but have have no ostensible dreams of superstardom.  The crucial element here is the lead singer/talker, whose vocal stylings--literate and ambitious lyrical meanderings conjuring everyone from Keruoac to Springsteen to emogirls--are closer to spoken-word than they are to singing or rapping.  As such, the vocal melody doesn't really exist--the band usually supplies the ear-catching tune.  Because the band is such a wonderfully accessible constant, it's the singer who either pulls you in or pushes you away.  Personally, "Stuck Between Stations" pulled me in.  

Right now, there are a handful of bands who want to make classic American rock, but want to do it independent of the music industry.  This isn't to say that these bands aren't signed or don't have a business plan--it's that they're not of the industry.  While they're making grand, sweeping, huge rock songs (big enough for an arena), their ethos is one of Glorified Bar Band, an alternative vox populi.  Bands like Lucero (whom the Hold Steady have collaborated with), Drive-By Truckers (whom the Hold Steady have toured with), and the Hold Steady have built something themselves through constant touring, prolific songwriting, and earnest ambition.  The goal was to create a fanbase without the industry's help, so that its successes wouldn't be determined by a suddenly-fired A&R rep, or a bitchy publicist.  What the industry didn't giveth, it can't taketh away.

Even if I didn't enjoy the music itself, I'd be a fan of the Hold Steady on principle.  They aim high, they tour constantly, they're never disingenuous, they understand and appreciate their fanbase, etc.  Some songs work, some songs don't, but they always get an A for effort.

(***Side note: I just saw on their Myspace that they're touring with the Counting Crows soon.  The only way this could make less sense is if the tour was sponsored by Mothers Against Drunk Driving.  How do you think their whole cut-the-crap-and-rock-for-the-people ethos will react the first night Duritz finds a keyboard and some chardonnay?)

Chris, how's your last name pronounced?  -Paul, Houston
"MY-lum."  Think of the guy who drives an aircraft.  A pilot.  It's like "pilot" but with, you know, different letters.  And a different sound.  So, I guess it ultimately sounds different but has some parts in common.  I mean, what do you want from me, I don't know phonics.  I don't have a pronunciation guide sitting beside me.  Fine, I'll say it: I can't read.  

How do I write a blog, then, you ask?  Easy: monkey dictation.

(Monkey Dictation = new band name!)

Milam, what's your team for college football?  -Will, Atlanta
I got two, actually.  I have a family connection to Alabama and was 8 when they won the '92 national championship.  Rooting for that team as a nascent sportsfan would be like dating Megan Fox as a pubescent teen.  Fork me, I'm done.

But I was born in Blacksburg, Virginia because my folks taught at Virginia Tech.  We naturally rooted for the Hokies as they toiled through the 90's in obscurity.  Then one magical day this mysterious stranger came along and changed my life forever.  Rooting for VT in 1999 would be like spending your entire life in maximum security prison, only to be busted out by the female offspring of Megan Fox and (you guessed it) Jesus.  And then you move in together and the floors of your house are actually a trampoline.  And then you jump from it into the heavens.

VT went from afterthought to heavyweight almost overnight.  It was a rare case of loyal fandom finally paying off.  So now my two teams in college football happen to be perennial contenders.  And if your next question happened to be, "Could Chris possibly have a heart attack this September," you have the answer.  Yes, emphatically yes.

Just curious, who are some of your favorite female artists?  -Kristy, St. Louis
I know I write mostly about male artists in this space and I'm trying to even that out.  Of course, I'd have an easier time if I wasn't such an unbearable misogynist.  I kid...

 I like all different types of male artists, and am patient with the singers I don't immediately respond to (the Hold Steady, for example).  But with the women, I have to immediately respond to them as singers for me to stick with the music.  Really, this rapid-fire list of favorite female artists is mostly just a list of my favorite female singers.  Often--maybe too often--they go hand in hand:

In no particular order:
1) Emmylou Harris - THE Voice.
2) Diana Ross and the Supremes - Effortless delivery, classic songs.
3) Lauryn Hill - Heartbreaking timbre.
4) Patty Griffin - Sharp, incisive.  Sounds like the truth.
5) Martha and the Vandellas - Original badasses.
6) Janis Joplin - All heart.
7) Joni Mitchell - Versatile.

Hey there, what's your favorite venue to play in Nashville?  Favorite elsewhere?  -Vic, Little Rock
In Nashville, it all depends on type of concert.  I've enjoyed playing at a now-defunct coffeehouse as much as the big rock rooms.  Maybe the best blend of both is The Basement, a medium-sized venue that's actually the basement of Grimey's record store.  The ceiling's low, and an occasionally column cuts up the floor-space.  In other words, it feels smaller than it is.  This lends itself well to an intimate acoustic set.  But if you want to pack the place for a rock concert, the main room can fit a ton of people, not to mention the back porch area.  The sound's always great, the staff's cool and never snobby, and the venue probably has the highest percentage of good artists playing on any given night than any other room in town.  It's the only venue that I always have a great time playing, regardless of the type of set.  

Outside Nashville, there are just too many to name.  Andrews Upstairs in Atlanta is one of the best medium-sized venues I've ever seen...exceptional sound and a gorgeous setting.  Uncommon Ground in Chicago is everything a coffeehouse should be--the type of place people reserve tables weeks in advance so they can sit and listen in a warm, inclusive atmosphere.  Of course, the Bitter End in NYC is a special place to play.  Maybe the place I'm most attached to is the P&H in Memphis, a quintessential dive-bar with a great history.  

One of my all-time favorite sets, however, was at a place called Caffeine in Chattanooga (since defunct).  When I got there, I realized they didn't have a sound system and had expected me to bring one.  We made do, however, and I ended up playing an acoustic set without an amp or microphone--literally "unplugged."  The audience was remarkable--generous, fun, attentive--par for the course in Chattanooga, I found out later. The Noog's one of my favorite cities to play, regardless of venue.  Some towns just have an incredibly active, supportive music scene, and Chattanooga is one of them.  Can't wait to get back.

Worst set of all-time was in a glorified barn, where I opened for multiple death metal bands.  Picture me singing earnest alt-country for a growing audience of gothed-out-body-builders in the middle of nowhere.  The crowd skipped heckling and went straight to "making it crystal clear that I should leave."  How I got placed on that bill I'll never know.  I just remember tearing through 5  songs and motioning for my friend to "start the car" during the last chorus.  

A while back you said something about an Scale of Awesome.  What's 100 on that scale?  What's 1? -Brianna, Nashville
I haven't flushed out the Scale of Awesome yet.  I'd say a 50 is "Eating a Mexican popsicle."  By my powers of extrapolation, a 97 would be somewhere between "Dating Kelly Kapowski circa 1990" and "Democracy."  Actually, switch those.

4 - "The Newest Counting Crows Record"
3 - "Maggie Gyllenhall" 
2 - "Anything Related to Baseball" 
1 - "Watching a Baseball Game Beside Maggie Gyllenhall While She Sings the New Counting Crows Record."  

The rest needs to be flushed hit up the comments section with your suggestions!

Hey there, Oscars are coming up [editor's note: they just happened].  What were your favorites of 2008?  -Ryan, Murfreesboro
One word, two syllables: Jumper.  

To be honest, I've seen maybe three movies this year, and none of the Oscar contenders.  I've got nothing.  Maybe y'all can help me out.  

I will give you the short list of favorite TV at the moment, however:

The Wire:
For five years I ignored the hyperbolic press, ignored the glowing recommendations, ignored the reruns on BET, etc..  I knew it was probably great, but I couldn't bring myself to jump in. Then I got the entire series for Christmas, and jumped in for 2 weeks straight.  Everything you've ever heard about it is true.  Yes, it's the best TV drama of all time.  No, you won't believe me until you see it yourself.  Yes, you should start with the pilot and proceed accordingly.  It's superficially a cop drama about the Baltimore inner city and its drug trade.  It's actually a modern masterpiece that explores how America has failed so many of its cities, and citizens.  It simply aims higher and achieves more than any TV show I've ever seen.  

Mad Men:
Though The Wire's the best drama I've ever seen, Mad Men might be my favorite.  Set in the early 60's, it follows the business and pleasure of Madison Avenue ad executives, specifically Don Draper.  The acting is impeccable and the character study is as deep and realistic as any I've seen.  It's also shot beautifully, and renews Cool as an art-form.

The Office:
I love this show, but I do not love it every week.  The writers room needs to lock it up.

Rock of Love:
Sans irony.

Friday Night Lights:
I honestly don't understand why this show has been nearly cancelled about 12 times.  Excluding Season 2, the writing's remarkable, and the acting is great.  Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton alone have set a new bar for "TV parents."  To boot, it's centered around America's favorite pastime and eye-candy abounds.  Television, at its worst, takes something real and distorts it with melodrama and cheap sentiment and wild plot-holes until it becomes unreal.  But Friday Night Lights--to anyone who's spent time in a small town or around football--will ring very true.  

Top Chef
Padma.  Also, foodsnarks are hilarious.  They end up at tailgates wearing berets, critiquing crawfish ceviche with guys named "Tank."  

With all this talk about 96X and favorites from back in the day, give me your Most Underrated Album of the 90's.  Go!  -Mike, Birmingham
I would love to pull an obscure name out of a hat right now and send you to a mind-blowing grunge band you've never heard of.  But I can't do it.  In the past, I've defined "underrated" as the disparity between the quality of the work and its actual impact/public success.   By that rubric, we're probably talking more about "lesser albums by great artists" than "great albums by lesser artists."  So I have a runaway winner:

Pearl Jam's Yield.  

When this record came out in 1998, pop music had turned a corner.  Folks wanted fun again, and weren't sure what to do with moody holdovers from the grunge era (especially after 1996's deliberately weird No Code).  Of course, Pearl Jam had turned a corner too: Yield replaced grungy bluster with dynamic songcraft, consummate musicianship, and (gasp and drool!) light-hearted fun.  The band had evolved from sonic-force-of-nature into something nuanced, inclusive, and more versatile.  Each song on Yield was built layer by layer, melody by countermelody, part by part, musician by musician, rather than powerchord by powerchord.  The result was a set of thirteen cohesive tracks, exuberant and varying, inspired and vital, composed with masterful precision and craft, occasionally light but always powerful.  Yield remains a gorgeous piece of work that, despite its emotional range and aesthetic versatility, feels unified.  

By any artistic measure, it is a more successful album than No Code, Binaural, and Riot Act.  It's at least as listenable as Ten, Vs, and Vitalogy.  It has perhaps aged the best of all the Pearl Jam records, which speaks volumes about its musical breadth and lasting relevance.  Whenever I pick one CD to fill an hourlong drive (regardless of time of day or season of the year), I continually come back to Yield.  It's really that good.

But when it came out, it was met by disappointing sales and unfavorable press.  Radio largely dismissed its two singles, "Given to Fly" and "Do the Evolution."  In '98, the New Pop was in bloom, boy bands were sprouting across America, and teenage girls braced with wild anticipation.  Yield wasn't so much disliked as completely ignored.  

Eight years later, Pearl Jam released a self-entitled album that was instantly dubbed their "second-coming." Critics effusively praised its vibrant energy and its multi-faceted songwriting.  Record sales jumped back to Pearl Jam's expected heights.  Radio swooned.  Grammy nominations abounded.  And, sure, Pearl Jam was a terrific record.  It was also, at its best, the A-minus version of Yield.  

Sometimes, timing really is everything.

What's your Most Underrated Album of the 90's?  How about the 00's?  

Til next time,


ross k. said...

Good call on the otherworldy Emmylou, and interesting, surprising choice on Yield. I don't have "THE" album or answer on the underrated music of the nineties, but I have some noteworthy suggestions for good listening.

-Morphine, Cure for Pain. I used to listen to this over and over. It's one of those rare albums that's good all the way through. A lot of their albums have awesome songs on them, but this seems to be the most even, consistent one. If you haven't heard Morphine, stop cheating yourself.

-Deee Lite, Groove Is in the Heart. Danceable and funky without being too techno-y. You can listen to it all the way through. If you've heard of these guys, it's probably just from the title track, but the rest of the album is solid too. Too often overlooked.

-Van Halen, For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge. This is the one that has "Right Now" on it. And that's all most people have heard. They're missing a kick-your-ass rock record that's good all the way through. World-conquering shred dinosaurs don't seem to fit into "underrated," "underappreciated," etc., but this ALBUM as an album apart from its singles is what's overlooked. The singles are smiley, but you'd be surprised how tough and awesome the unknown songs are. Put it up loud in the car and you will be jammin'.

-STP No. 4 isn't Core, but it's pretty damn good listening. If another band with no other credentials had come out with it, it would get more press.

Have to give some thought to the oughts.

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