Sunday, December 16, 2007


Back in February, after getting advances on three albums that would wind up in my year-end Top 10, I wrote on “Every so often, pop hits a particularly good patch—a moment in time in which several artists simultaneously appear with records that raise the bar for everyone else. It last happened two springs ago, when Beck’s Guero, Spoon’s Gimme Fiction and Coldplay’s X&Y brightened the landscape with their comparably delectable juxtapositions of slam-dunk hooks, phat grooves and overall inventiveness. Happily, it’s happening again with the Shins’ latest, which pushes the door wide open for Fountains of Wayne and Kings of Leon.”

That turned out to be an accurate forecast of the year, if I do say so myself, and I was fortunate enough to snag assignments from Uncut, Paste and Mix to write about nine of my eventual Top 10, and a number of other tasty albums as well. So here are my fave LPs, and some of what I—and in some cases the principals themselves—had to say about them.

1. Kings of Leon, Because of the Times (RCA)
“We’re willing to take risks—playing it safe hasn’t done anything for us,” says Kings frontman/rhythm guitarist/ lyricist Caleb Followill, 25, about his band’s adventurous third full-length album. Working once again with co-producers Ethan Johns (Ryan Adams, Ray LaMontagne, Crowded House) and their mentor, Angelo Petraglia, band responded to the perceived pressure by opting “to really take it someplace new,” says Johns.

The result is a righteously old-school yet envelope-pushing album whose highlights include the irresistible seven-minute opener “Knocked Up,” with its hell-bent groove and defiantly yearning vocal; “On Call,” of which Johns notes, “it’s got that great little bass part, it’s relatively easy to swallow, but it’s still got bags of attitude”; and the blazing “My Party,” which stands as the analog equivalent to Trent Reznor at his most intense. According to Esquire’s Andy Langer, Because of the Times is “a record on which you don’t have to know where they’ve been to see where they’re headed.”

After making their first two albums in L.A., the Kings recorded back home in Nashville for the first time. They fell in love at first sight with Studio D at Blackbird, a block-long facility in the city’s Cherry Hill neighborhood owned and run by John McBride, the husband of Martina and a self-described Beatles nut; consequently, the facility is well stocked with vintage gear, all of it thoroughly familiar to Johns, who grew up watching his legendary father Glyn Johns making now-classic records, and who has subsequently become one of rock’s most accomplished analog specialists.

“We walked in—it looked like a beautiful hotel,” Caleb says of the studio. “Went in the room, opened the ceiling up; you could make the room whatever color you wanted with the lights, for every mood, every vibe. The atmosphere was just amazing. We all knew we had written the record, and all we had to do was relax and let it come out. As soon as we all walked in there together, it was like, no matter what had been goin’ on, we’d play a song two or three times, and it was like, ‘We got it!’”

According Johns, the mandate for the album “was to really take it someplace new,” and Because of the Times bristles with such distinctiveness in musicianship and material that the “southern Strokes” tag no longer applies, while they’ve also separated themselves from their southern rock forbears. If anything, the album’s backwoods sophistication gives it the flavor of a hopped-up, postmillennial Music From Big Pink, as Caleb’s anxious drawl fights for purchase amid snarling guitars placed left and right in the mix, old-school-style, and hyperkinetic, Jeep-rattling basslines.

“Knocked Up” consists of intricate variations on an unchanging eight-bar bed, propelling Caleb to one of his most fiercely emotional vocal performances. “It’s got a lot of sexual tension and the fear of growin’ up before you grow up,” he explains. “Like the fear of bein’ 30 years old and not knowin’ what it’s like to have a kid and havin’ to fight to stay in love with a woman and all this stuff – it’s like that angst that gives you a little tickle in your balls. And then, as soon as that song ends, here comes ‘Charmer,’ with me just screamin’ at the top of my lungs, and it just punches you in those same balls that you was feelin’ that tickle in.”

The LP’s not-so-secret weapon is strikingly original bass playing of Jared Followill (at 20 the youngest of the three brothers and a cousin who comprise the Kings), which is prominently featured in the mix. This is one band in which bass and drums are very much lead instruments, and for good reason—Jared and drummer Nathan, 27, make a glorious brotherly racket together, as hyperactive basslines bounce off of pummeling snare and kick in the rock ’n’ roll equivalent of Ali’s mantra to “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.”

“On a lot of records, you can’t hear the bass at all, and the bass on this record is different,” says Jared with obvious pride. “One song, I was like, ‘I just need a little bit more bass,’ and you could tell that Ethan was pissed, and he told the assistant, ‘All right, turn it up 1.5 dBs,’ to teach us a lesson ’cause it was obviously gonna be way too loud. And he did it, and everybody listened to it, and everybody was like, ‘Yep, it’s great—that’s it,’ and we kept it there.”

Johns, who describes Jared as an “absolute monster” on his axe, acknowledges that Jared was right about pushing the bass beyond conventional levels paid off. “I don’t think bass is ever gonna be loud enough for Jared,” says the producer. “But if he’s happy with it, then he was definitely right. He’s a force to be reckoned with, that Jared, but it’s great energy to have in the studio—it’s full on. He really cares. They’re all like that—that’s why they’re so much fun to work with. One of the most special things about them is their ability to allow a spiritual elevation to occur during a performance—getting something going and feeling it and creating that elation of spirit. That’s what I’m going for in a take with them; it’s when they hit that that it all makes sense.

“This is gonna sound a little absurd,” Johns acknowledges, “but I do think that they’re the best rock ’n’ roll band playing at the moment. I don’t think there’s anyone out there that holds a torch to these guys. They’re gonna be around for a long time, those boys. There’s no doubt.”

The Kings have become remarkably tight over the course of three albums and 200 shows a year. “And not only that,” says Caleb, “we’ve quit tryin’ to be fuckin’ cool. This is gonna sound really cocky, but at this point, we know we’re cool. I don’t mean that in a negative way; we’re comfortable in our skin, and we realize we’re cool enough now where we don’t try to be as cool as the other bands. Fuck it – we just try to go for it.”

Says Jared, fixing a defiant expression on his cherubic face, “It’s all or nothing for us.”

1A. Radiohead, In Rainbows (self-released)
Whaddaya know, a one-listen Radiohead album, lush and ultra-melodic, but still full of surprises. Workout faves: “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” (with its allusions to the Blue Nile’s “Tinseltown in the Rain”), “15 Step,” “Reckoner.” Tracks to get lost in: “Jigsaw Falling Into Place,” “Faust Arp,” “House of Cards.” Tracks to blast your troubles away: “Bodysnatchers,” with that serrated, inside-out distorted guitar, the weather system that is “All I Need.” In Rainbows is a frontrunner for stoner album of the decade, but it also contains some of the most stunning old-school pop and soul bits (barely disguised). The music brilliantly delivered on the anticipation. Plus, you’ve gotta hand it to them for keeping a lid on the digi-LP right up until Oct. 10; hip-hop superstars should consider hiring the band as online security experts. Can’t wait to see whether co-manager Bryce Edge was right about the CD delivering far more detail than the 160 kbps MP3s, and I’m dying to hear those other eight tracks as well.

3. The Shins, Wincing the Night Away (Sub Pop)
Blown away by the folk-rock grandeur of first single “Phantom Limb,” with its incremental buildup to a climax worthy of the Arcade Fire, I read a number of reviews of Wincing the Night Away with great interest, and while each was positive, none was rhapsodic. In his lead review for Rolling Stone, Bob Christgau pronounced that the LP “feels labored,” though “gracefully realized” in an assessment that dwelled on “clumsy bits of overreaching” in James Mercer’s lyrics. Those qualifiers led to a rating of three-and-a-half stars, which has become the Stone equivalent of Christgau’s B+. So, as I slipped the CD into the tray after scoring a copy, I expected to be mildly disappointed, only to find myself jumping up and down in exhilaration from the first moments of “Sleeping Lessons” to the dying notes of “A Comet Appears”—the gleaming architecture of the arrangements fashioned by Mercer and his bandmates, with every nuance captured by co-producer/engineer/mixer Joe Chicarelli in a career turn for the old hand; the viscerally elegant grooves; Mercer’s captivatingly earnest vocals and essentially musical use of language; and, above all, melodies possessing all the untethered brilliance of the young Brian Wilson.

All of that accessible headiness finds its way into songs rich enough to haunt your dreams and accompany you into wakefulness. Lately, that’s been happening to me with “Sea Legs,” whose skipping-record groove, ornamented with a lilting string synth line redolent of Boz Scaggs’ Silk Degrees, blossoms into the sort of widescreen climax that Tears for Fears (my wife Peggy gets credit for noting the TFF parallel) were so good at erecting a quarter century ago—totally unexpected and utterly irresistible. You’ll note that this is the track Pitchfork’s Matt LeMay dismissed for “its intrusive synthesized drum beat and lackluster arrangement,” comparing it to Eve 6, yet. To borrow John McEnroe’s ever-useful expression of incredulity: Matt, you cannot be serious! If “Sea Legs” ain’t a smash, there’s something terribly wrong with the music biz… Um, scratch that last part.

4. Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, Raising Sand (Rounder)
The pairing of the wily old tomcat and the classy country thrush turns out as magically in reality as it seemed unlikely on paper. Working with producer T Bone Burnett, whose impeccable taste in material (from Mel Tillis to Tom Waits) and players (from venerable folkie Mike Seeger to axeman supremo Marc Ribot), guides these two inhabitants of different worlds toward a fertile common ground, somewhere between the Appalachians and the Delta, out of which to entwine their voices. The spacious, burnished settings are designed for nuance, enabling Plant to overwhelm without raising his voice above a near-whisper on Townes Van Zandt’s “Nothin’”, and Krauss to move with lissome grace from shitkicker on the Everly Brothers’ “Gone, Gone, Gone” to siren on the Stones-associated “Fortune Teller”. The partners’ close harmonies are especially ravishing – intimate as Gram & Emmylou on Roly Salley’s “Killing The Blues”, ghostly as the grave on Gene Clark’s “Polly Come Home”. Side projects don’t get any better than this. Put this record on shuffle with Gram & Emmy, Richard & Linda, Jack & Meg.

5. Amy Winehouse – Back to Black (Universal Republic)
The creative process works in mysterious ways. Take the moment of conception of “Rehab.” One evening, after shooting some pool in Lower Manhattan, Winehouse was relating her romantic travails to Mark Ronson, who was producing the English artist’s second album, as they walked back to his AllIDo Studios in Lower Manhattan. She’d become so depressed after the breakup, she explained, and was so close to going off the deep end that her friends and family started urging her to get some help. “They tried to make me go to rehab, and I was like, ‘No, no, no,’” she told Ronson. “When she said it, she did this ‘talk to the hand’ thing,” he remembers, “I said, ‘That’s really hooky; maybe you should go back and write a song.’ We didn’t give it that much thought. Then she came and she played it to me, and I went, ‘Cool. Let’s put claps here and maybe a minor chord in the verse to make it a bit jangly.’ And that was it. It is a good story when the song’s a hit; otherwise it means nothing.”

After Winehouse left for the night, Ronson worked up the arrangement and she sang over it the next day. Sitting in his studio, the producer plays me a snippet of the demo. His drums (played on a standard kit, not programmed), bass and guitar emphatically lay down the now-familiar Motown-derived groove, and Winehouse’s vocal hits the hook with a vengeance. “Wow—it’s all there,” I marvel. “It’s close,” he agrees. “It’s just not as good.”

Even then, Winehouse and Ronson had themselves a natural-born smash; the rest of the process simply involved making it undeniable. To do so, he called on the Dap-Kings, and once these cats sank their teeth into the song, it hit the force-of-nature level.

“When I started working with the horn section of the Dap-Kings on Amy’s record, I realized I could make the same kinds of sounds I used to sample,” Ronson explains. “And when we recorded the whole band, the way Homer [“Funky Foot” Steiweiss] the drummer played, it sounded like a record I would’ve paid 50 bucks in the store to sample one four-bar drum loop from, only here’s a guy playing it live and putting these incredible fills in it, and I just couldn’t believe it sounded that good.”

Ronson discovered that the drums on the Dap-Kings records were tracked with just one mic, so he followed suit on the Back to Black sessions, using one-inch, 16-track tape. And that’s all it took to get that uncannily accurate Motown snare sound—one mic, magnetic tape and tons of reverb, old-school to the max. But that’s what the record called for, as Ronson had figured out before they got started on the album.

“The inspiration came the first time we sat in the studio and Amy told me what kind of music she was into,” he says, his conversation increasing in BPMs as he gets deeper into it. “We listened to a lot of great ’60s pop the whole day, and when she left that night I was kind of inspired, and I came up with the piano for ‘Back to Black’ and the kick drum and tambourine, with tons of reverb. I wouldn’t have known how to make a record like that a year ago; I would’ve felt the same way I felt when Brian [Burton, Danger Mouse’s given name] played me the Gorillaz record—I’d just go, ‘Fuck, man, how do you do that?’ But I guess it’s about going each step of the way and not being afraid to embarrass yourself in front of a string section because you don’t know the right words. But I just always loved those sounds, partly because nobody else was doing it. There will always be bands trying to sound like Led Zeppelin or the Who, and R&B singers trying to sound like Stevie Wonder, but for some reason people are afraid to try and recreate the bombast and the lush backdrops of some of these old records, which is just as great and inspiring.”

6. Wilco, Sky Blue Sky (Nonesuch)
One of L.A.’s most respected producers, engineers and mixers—and one of the busiest—Jim Scott has built his rep off of crisp live-off-the-floor sounds and attendant good vibes. Scott picked up his first Grammy in 1995 for engineering Tom Petty’s Wildflowers, scoring two more for his work with Santana on Supernatural and the Foo Fighters’ One by One. In February, he doubled his Grammy total, scoring a hat trick for his recording of the Dixie Chicks milestone Taking the Long Way. That album was the most recent of dozens of projects Scott has done with Rick Rubin during the last two decades, from Petty and Johnny Cash to the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Slayer.

Sky Blue Sky, the highest-profile album Scott has mixed at his new Santa Clarita studio PLYRZ thus far, is a return to the band’s late-’60s/early-’70s following the envelope-pushing Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born. After recording it live to tape in Wilco’s Chicago rehearsal space, bandleader Jeff Tweedy gave the tapes to mainstay Jim O’Rourke, who’d mixed both Yankee and Ghost, producing the latter, but Tweedy wasn’t satisfied with the results. “Compared to the demos, [O’Rourke’s mixes] just didn't feel quite the same or like the record we, as a band, had made,” he explained in Billboard. So he turned once again to Scott, who’d mixed several Wilco albums, most recently the live Kicking Television. A day after receiving it, Tweedy asked Scott to mix the entire album.

“I’ve done enough mixing for Jeff that I learned where he wanted his vocal and where he wanted the band to be,” Scott explains. “But on this record, I just couldn’t help myself—I felt like I wanted to mix his vocals a little louder and clearer than ever. I thought, OK, that’s what this record is: it’s about his words and his voice and, of course, the the music he wrote to support and accompany his vocals. Jeff’s just in the best place ever, and why not make a record that sounds great too? There’s nothin’ to hide. You get the songs and feel the songs; he sings so well and with so much emotion. And the album isn’t all dolled up and fixed up like everything else—it’s just real, and it’s great. So I’m really happy for him.”

As for band as a whole, “After mixing the live album last year with the same lineup, I got the gist of what they were trying to do,” says Scott, “ and I wanted to hear everything. If you keep your eye on the most important parts of the music, the other parts will find their own balance and importance, especially with Wilco. There’s not a lot of overdubs—they worked really hard to make their sound. Those weren’t spontaneous jams, they were the result of rehearsal and decisions. And it still sounds fresh because they’re totally performing. Wilco’s just a crackin’ band.”

Said Tweedy in the same interview: “The mixes we did with Jim Scott put you in this room a lot more than the [first] ones we did, which sounded much more like a ‘record.’ The room was gone.”

7. Crowded House, Time on Earth (ATO)
The first recording from the reborn Crowded House – whom Gen Xers will remember as a breath of Beatlesque fresh air in the arid mid-’80s – isn’t a one-listen album, nor does it work well as background music. Inevitably, a lot of people, half-remembering lilting hits like “Weather With You” and “World Where You Live,” will perceive the original band as a hooky, tuneful and undemanding pop group in the McCartney manner, and I fear that too few potential fans will sink into Time on Earth deeply enough (as readers of fiction do automatically) for it to catch them in its thrall. This record is never merely pretty (despite Neil Finn’s gift for melody) nor obvious, requiring the sort of progressive unpeeling one would give to an onion, and it gets more pungent with each layer that’s exposed.

On opener “Nobody Wants To,” from the initial sessions produced in Auckland by Ethan Johns (Kings Of Leon, Ray LaMontagne), Finn’s slide guitar hovers like a solitary seabird over his understated vocal and the subdued but sturdy groove fashioned by Nick Seymour’s bass and Johns’ drums for an expression of yearning rendered all the more convincing by the unstressed presentation. With its caressing melody and subtle emotional pull, the track encapsulates the album’s insinuating aspects. The musically buoyant “Don’t Stop Now”, which follows, is one of four tracks subsequently cut in London with Steve Lillywhite (U2), presumably in order to bring some brightness to the muted colors of the Auckland recordings. With Johnny Marr supplying a glistening guitar line, Finn reveals the metaphorical possibilities of the GPS, as he attempts to navigate his spirit toward “something I can write about… something I can cry about”. Both songs move from anticipatory verses to their gratifying chorus melodies as inexorably as approaching cloud banks.

A few tracks later, the album offers a similarly affecting sequence connecting the stirring message song “Pour le Monde,” burnished by Johns’ string arrangement, to the exhilarating “Even A Child”, a Finn-Marr co-write which the guitarist decorates with a 12-string part that conjures up a starry sky.

The notion of reforming Crowded House didn’t play into the writing of most of these songs, because it preceded the decision, but Hester’s death was the elephant in Finn’s writing alcove, so a sense of the old band pervades the songs in any case, particularly “Silent House” (here transformed from the Dixie Chicks’ bittersweet treatment into a stormy guitar symphony), “English Trees” and “People Are Like Suns,” which run an elegiac thread through the album’s somber but gripping second half. So in a sense, Time On Earth demonstrates the impact of the gradually evolving reality of Crowded House Mk 2 on what would have otherwise been Finn’s third solo album. In that sense, it’ll be fascinating to see what happens when the newly invigorated veteran writes the next batch of tunes with Crowded House specifically in mind.

8. Spoon, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga (Merge)
Spoon leader Britt Daniel and drummer Jim Eno don’t just worship the beat, they make love to it from every conceivable angle; for them, the tambourine and shakers are sex toys. Since Girls Can Tell back in 2000, the rocking Austinites have embraced minimalism with a vengeance, removing anything not essential to the movement and character of a track with a conceptual purposefulness as systematically precise as a sushi chef. Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, the fourth album in this bootie-shaking art project, is Spoon’s most unremittingly infectious set, pulling back from the panoramic vistas of 2005’s Gimme Fiction in order to zoom in on the rhythmic, melodic and textural gears and pulleys that are this band’s specialty. Lusty saxes lubricate the grooves of the reverb-y “You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb” and the Jon Brion-produced single “The Underdog,” Daniel adds more rhythmic detail to “Don’t You Evah” by double-clutching his vocal Dwight Twilley style, “Rhythm and Soul” reveals the poetry of the well-timed cymbal hit and “Finer Feelings” turns on a subtly seductive guitar figure that is the quintessence of tone and touch. Closer “Black Like Me” climaxes with a direct reference to The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life.”

9. Fountains of Wayne, Traffic and Weather (Virgin)
With their fourth LP, Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood perfect their signature blend: recognizable vignettes of everyday existence populated by concisely drawn characters in the manner of Randy Newman and Fagen/Becker—restless souls trying to keep their heads above water amid the flotsam of pop culture. By my count, Traffic and Weather contains five instant classics, eight similarly impeccable but somewhat less sticky confections (although “’92 Subaru” warrants accolades for sheer density of detail) and one excuse to trot out their Beatles licks without having to apply them to a narrative vignette (the gratuitous but delightful “Revolving Dora”). As before, the partners populate their songs with The male protagonist of “Someone to Love” “puts Coldplay on, pours a glass of wine,” while his female counterpart is “sitting at home watching The King of Queens.” In the highway nocturne “I-95”, a driver’s races southward toward his love while the radio emits “a kick drum mixed with static.” The lost-luggage lament “Michael and Heather at the Baggage Claim” swells into an arcing bridge boasting the universally relatable couplet, “It’s been a long, long day/Can’t we just be on our way?” “Strapped for Cash”, which recounts the travails of a gambler being pursued by heavies who want their money, crams a complete Elmore Leonard yarn into 3:31, while the the title song picks up heavy breathing in the newsroom at drivetime. And every one of the above has a hook to die for. Traffic and Weather cements FoW’s status as the savviest modern-day practitioners of both Beatlesque pop and Steely Dan’s cool precision.

10. LCD Soundsystam, Sound of Silver (Capitol)
Didn’t write about this album, but I can safely say it’s got three of the most killer workout songs of the year in “Time to Get Away,” “North American Scum,” “Watch the Tapes,” the title track and the awesome, Bowie-meets-Tom Tom Club epic “Get Innocuous!”

11. Bruce Springsteen, Magic (Columbia)
Didn’t write about this one, either, but “Girls in Their Summer Clothes” is one of Springsteen’s best songs and vocals ever, and I love the way the details in the material and Brendan O’Brien’s unfairly maligned production reveal themselves over time.

Arcade Fire, Neon Bible (Merge)
The Eagles, Long Road Out Of Eden (Eagles Recording Co. II)
Feist, The Reminder (Cherrytree/Interscope)
John Fogerty, Revival (Fantasy)
The White Stripes, Icky Thump (Third Man/WB)
Steve Earle, Washington Square Serenade (New West)
Kanye West, Graduation (Roc-A-Fella/IDJ)
Bettye LaVette, Scene of the Crime (Anti-)
Lucinda Williams, West (Lost Highway)
The Thrills, Teenager (Virgin)
Brandi Carlile, The Story (Columbia)
Grace Potter & the Nocturnals, This Is Somewhere (Hollywood)
Mark Olson, The Salvation Blues (Hacktone)
The Honeydogs, Amygdala (Copycats)
Mark Ronson, Version (RCA)
I’m Not There (Columbia/Sony Music Soundtrax)

Neil Young, Live at Massey Hall 1971 (Reprise)
The Traveling Wilburys, The Traveling Wilburys Collection (Rhino)
Nils Lofgren, Back It Up!! Live... An Authorized Bootleg (Hip-O/A&M/UMe)
Emmylou Harris, Songbird (Rhino)
Donald Fagen, Nightfly Trilogy (Rhino)
U2, The Joshua Tree (Island/UMe)
Moby Grape, Listen My Friends! (Columbia/Legacy)
Stephen Stills, Just Roll Tape (Rhino)
Forever Changing: The Golden Age of Elektra Records, 1963-1973 (Rhino/Elektra)
Love Is the Song We Sing: San Francisco Nuggets, 1965-1970 (Rhino)
Stax 50th Anniversary Celebration (Stax/Concord)

Most of the “albums” I actually listen to from start to finish I make myself, selecting and sequencing the tracks with all due obsessiveness. This has nothing to do with iTunes—although the app makes the task so easy and fun; I made my first cassette compilation 35 years ago. Speaking of which, I picked up Love Is a Mix Tape by Rob Sheffield, Rolling Stone’s resident humorist, after flipping through it and discovering replications of Rob’s handwritten sequences on the cassette cards. Damn—why didn’t I think of that? I’ve got boxes of mixtapes out in the garage…my own soundtrack of the last three-and-a-half decades. But I digress; here’s my soundtrack to 2007, conveniently gathered on three CD-Rs. You’ll note that each has one oldie for perspective’s sake.

Keep the Car Running / '07 grooves
Steve Earle, Satellite Radio
The Eagles, Fast Company
Radiohead, 15 Step
Fountains of Wayne, Someone to Love
The Shins, Sleeping Lessons
Mark Ronson f/Amy Winehouse, Valerie
Spoon, You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb
Arcade Fire, “Keep the Car Running
Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, Gone Gone Gone (Done Moved On)
Kings of Leon, Fans
Radiohead, Weird Fishes/Arpeggi
Nick Lowe, I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass (1978)
Spoon, The Underdog
Beck, Timebomb
Ryan Shaw, Do the 45
LCD Soundsystem, Get Innocuous!
Kings of Leon, “Knocked Up
The Shins, Sea Legs
Radiohead, Reckoner

Impossible Germany / '07 moods
Rilo Kiley, Dreamworld
Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, Fortune Teller
Feist, My Moon My Man
Sea Wolf, You’re a Wolf
Spoon, Don’t You Evah
Amy Winehouse, Back to Black
Wilco, Impossible Germany
Bruce Springsteen, Girls in Their Summer Clothes
Crowded House, Silent House
Kings of Leon, Trunk
Radiohead, Jigsaw Falling Into Place
The Honeydogs, Heads or Tails
Dan Wilson, Cry
Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, Killing the Blues
Fountains of Wayne, I-95
Kings of Leon, Arizona
Jackson Browne, Oh, My Love
Wilco, Either Way
Traveling Wilburys, End of the Line (1988)

Black Thumbnail / '07 edge
Radiohead, Bodysnatchers
LCD Soundsystem, North American Scum
The White Stripes, Icky Thump
Led Zeppelin, Dancing Days (1973)
Foo Fighters, The Pretender
Kings of Leon, My Party
Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, Nothin’
Amy Winehouse, Rehab
Arcade Fire, Intervention
Radiohead, All I Need
Steve Earle, Way Down in the Hole
The White Stripes, Rag and Bone
Wilco, Side With the Seeds
Spoon, The Ghost of You Lingers
Flight of the Conchords, Business Time
Kings of Leon, Black Thumbnail
The White Stripes, I’m Slowly Turning Into You
LCD Soundsystem, Time to Get Away
John Fogerty, I Can’t Take It No More

Monday, November 5, 2007


Hey Halloween birthday girl,

I want to explain why I put these specific songs on the mixtape I made for you.

Honestly, I’m having second thoughts about the edgier tracks I picked—Led Zep’s “Dancing Days,” Joe Cocker’s “Woman to Woman” and the Doors’ “Moonlight Drive.” I put all of them on as a reference to your teenage years, when you had a poster of Jim Morrison over your bed and I gave you the Led Zeppelin vinyl box set, which you seemed really happy about at the time. You’ve always loved Cocker, and I did put your fave, “You Are So Beautiful,” at the end, but “Woman to Woman” is Joe at his most intensely soulful, and I couldn’t help myself.

See, I envisioned this as a sort of driving comp. as well as one to play at your party—and both Ralph and Matthew were rockin’ out to “Dancing Days,” which was playing when they walked in (Hanna would've preferred Miley Cyrus, I think...or the original song she sang for everyone later on). The song was nostalgic for Ralph and an initiation for Matthew. But I suspect that when you’re driving around by yourself (on the way to pick up a kid, or having just dropped one off), you’d rather listen to something soothing, since being the mom of two little ragamuffins tends to be kinda raucous. If that’s the case, start with Track #14, “Sugar,” a low-keyed, totally gorgeous duet between Dan Wilson (ex-Semisonic) and Sheryl Crow.” From that point onward, the mix is totally mellow, if not without some emotional intensity.

I opened with Coldplay’s “Don’t Panic” as a symbolic way of saying, “Don’t stress out—you have a beautiful life and people (and pets) you love.” The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony” is big and sweeping, like a good movie, and it sets up Cheap Trick’s “Surrender,” which I think of as the perfect reflection on your frequently challenging childhood living with a pair of rock & roll parents: “Mommy’s all right and Daddy’s all right/They just get a little weird…” Feist’s “My Moon My Man” is rhythmic and lunar, which seemed apt in the hormonal sense.

Then come three driving songs: Alison Krauss’ cover of Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home” is mesmerizing, Arcade Fire’s “Keep the Car Running” (written and sung by Win Butler, the son of your mom’s lifelong friend Liza Rey) is urgent and anxious, just like modern life, and “Moonlight Drive” is a kind of escape fantasy. I went for “You Know I’m No Good” simply because Amy Winehouse is an awesome newcomer with a delectable old-school sound, and I chose Beck’s “Earthquake Weather” because it’s such a wistful look at the uncertainties of living here in SoCal.

The last third is composed of stuff I know you like—Elton, Coldplay, the Beatles and Cocker, plus the Beach Boys (“In My Room” captures solitude as well as any record), Aimee Mann describing a relationship face-off, Rio Kiley going to blessed “Dreamland” and Justin Currie from Del Amitri bringing some much-needed rain—doing it in the minute and a half I had left on the CD. I couldn’t have fit one more second of music on there.

Essentially, I let the right side of my brain be my guide in making this thing; there was only one draft and this is it. Let me know which ones you hate and I’ll switch them out. I’ll also take requests, of course.

I’ve watched you grow up, and there’s a part of you that will always be 8 years old to me, but I like the way you turned out, KAK!



  1. Coldplay, Don't Panic
  2. The Verve, Bittersweet Symphony
  3. Cheap Trick, Surrender
  4. Feist, My Moon My Man
  5. Arcade Fire, Keep the Car Running
  6. Alison Krauss, Can't Find My Way Home
  7. The Doors, Moonlight Drive
  8. Amy Winehouse, You Know I'm No Good
  9. Beck, Earthquake Weather
  10. Joe Cocker, Woman to Woman
  11. Bruce Springsteen, Girls in Their Summer Clothes
  12. Led Zeppelin, Dancing Days
  13. Bee Gees, Night Fever
  14. Dan Wilson, Sugar
  15. The Beach Boys, In My Room
  16. Rilo Kiley, Dreamworld
  17. Aimee Mann, Wise Up
  18. Coldplay, Fix You
  19. Elton John, Harmony
  20. The Beatles, It's Only Love
  21. Joe Cocker, You Are So Beautiful
  22. Justin Currie, In the Rain

Friday, September 28, 2007


One of my favorite places to fully experience music is during Spinning sessions at my gym, the Sports Center at Toluca Lake—assuming the instructors use some of the tracks I burn for them. Illegal? Technically. But I believe I’ve inspired quite a few iTunes transactions during the five years I’ve been doing this, so get over it.

I started Spinning after a sobering visit to the orthopedist, where I found out that 20 years of daily runs had ground nearly all of the cartilage out of my knees. The doctor told me to switch to low-impact workouts and recommended bicycling. A few months later, with some trepidation, I took my first Spinning class and was gratified by the amount of sweat that poured out of me during the 50 minutes, although the music itself left something to be desired. Soon afterward, I bought myself a pair of bike shoes and started putting together CD compilations of tracks with infectious beats for the trainers. Some of them failed to get the hint or just didn’t hear the stuff I’d come up with as applicable to their approaches, but I was delighted when a couple of them started working my picks into their playlists. I’ll never forget how delighted I was the first time Spoon’s “The Way We get By” from my very first compilation came blasting out of the speakers and the whole class jumped right on the groove.

The most receptive trainer—and the one whose taste most closely paralleled my own—was the youngest, Essie Shure, who’s now 25. Essie has a great ear and a highly developed sense of rhythm, which she uses with the skill of a choreographer to keep the Spinners cranking at the peaks of their effort levels. If you haven’t tried one of these classes—and yes, it does look intimidating when you stick your head into a class and see the sweat flying off them and their legs whizzing impossibly fast on the pedals—you’ll be shocked by how motivating it can be with a good instructor and a compelling song sequence.

The basic idea behind Spinning is the adjusting of a resistance knob in relation to the groove of the track, from sprinting to the equivalent of pedaling up a steep hill, and the more resistance you dial up, the more effort it takes to stay right on top of the groove. The thing is, with an inspiring piece of music, you find yourself putting out a more intense effort than you thought you were capable of. Psychologically, it’s a lot like dancing—you’re so into the groove that you don’t realize how hard you’re working. Indeed, when I look into the mirror on the front wall and see as many as 20 Spinners in five rows of four bikes all completely in synch with a really good song, it reminds me of finding myself in a line of dancers doing the hustle back in the mid-’70s.

One of these days I’m gonna compile a Spinning’s Greatest Hits playlist from my now vast experience—I average six intensive Spins (and one creaky run) a week. But for now, a look at Essie’s playlist from yesterday (to the best of my memory) is a killer example of a playlist that doesn’t quit—think of the following as 800 calories burned in the most brutally pleasurable way possible.

1. Spoon, The Underdog (pre-class warm-up, 3:42)
2. Crowded House, Don’t Stop Now (sprint, 3:54)
3. Feist, My Moon My Man (climb, 3:48)
4. Traveling Wilburys, End of the Line (stand-up jog, 3:30)
5. Arcade Fire, Keep the Car Running (sprint, 3:29)
6. New Radicals, You Get What You Give (climb, 5:02)
7. Royskopp, Remind Me (radio edit) (sprint, 3:38)
8. Kings of Leon, Knocked Up (climb/sprint, 7:10)
9. Shins, Sea Legs (climb, 5:23)
10. Fountains of Wayne, Traffic and Weather (stand-up jog, 3:27)
11. Thom Yorke, Harrowdown Hill (extended) (climb/sprint, 7:03)
12. LCD Soundsystem, Get Innocuous! (sit/stand/squat, 7:12)
13. Prince, A Case of You (cool-down, 3:31)

Thursday, September 13, 2007


In February 2006, near the end of our sponsorship by Sony Connect, Roy and I were joined by the shorter, darker half of Hall & Oates for a three-way chat we referred to at the time as a “tri-a-blog.” Because the powers that be questioned the degree of interest in John’s musical opinions, the virtual conversation got shelved, and our most-trafficked blog, with Fall Out Boy’s articulate Pete Wentz, turned out to be our last. Considering that Hall & Oates drew in excess of 30,000 fans to the Hollywood Bowl over two shows last weekend—making it clear that the powers that be had been dead wrong about the duo’s appeal—Roy and I thought this would be the perfect time to post our exchange with Oates, in the original Music Snobs format, including the related playlist, which follows the back-and-forth. You can also read Roy’s review of H&O’s Bowl performance in the latest edition of Trakin Care of Business on

BIGGER THAN BOTH OF US: In which Bud and Roy induct John Oates into the Music Snobs inner circle, as they tackle such topics as Zen and the art of songwriting, the recipe for great soul music and the yin and yang of Hall & Oates. John also gives his takes on H&O’s legacy, Curtis Mayfield, Nickel Creek, Maroon 5 and John's new discovery, Geoff Byrd.

Bud: Hey John, I gotta start with something nonmusical: You look EXACTLY like you did 20 years ago, minus the 'stache, of course. What's your secret?
John: Living in Aspen, CO, good genes and a few thousand sit-ups!
Bud: Ab-solutely.
Roy: It is pretty remarkable, but he has to keep up with Daryl... That can't be easy.
John: What you don't know is that I'm getting shorter!
Roy: It's the laws of gravity...
John: I'm done on that subject
Bud: It seems absurd to say this about the top-selling duo of all time, but you guys are underrated. Not by me, though. I've been following along since Abandoned Luncheonette.
Roy: No Grammys in your entire career... That's unbelievable.
John: Well, I guess it depends on who's rating us... We've never been members of the Grammy club, so I guess that's the reason.
Roy: It seems to bother Daryl... Does that lack of recognition bother you at all, John?
John: Four American Music Awards and an induction into the Writers Hall of Fame (of which I'm very proud). Yes it bothers me – not for the awards aspect, but for the respect within our own business.
Bud: The thing is, when you talk about soul singers, you don't need the qualifying adjective in terms of Hall & Oates.
Roy: Your most recent album, Our Kind of Soul, is a real tribute to your own roots and seminal influences.
John: We started as songwriters and evolved as performers, but I think the essence of what we do starts with the songs.
Roy: What makes a great song for you? Both in terms of your influences and the way you started writing…
John: I'm thinking long and hard on this subject as I've just been invited to do a lecture at Berklee about songwriting.
Bud: Really? There's some validation.
John: There are so many components to the process, it’s hard to deal with it in this format. I would say the marriage of words and music, inspiration and connecting with the listener by tapping into a common emotional thread. There's also the magical part, where you create something from nothing, balanced by the craft aspect, which you can develop and hone.
Bud: So in order to become universal, a song has to start out as a personal expression. There are certain emotions a song can evoke more intensely than any other art form. Longing, heartbreak and I suppose joy, for that matter… Libido...
Roy: I know you first met Daryl at a Philly concert of some of those original inspirations... How important was R&B and soul to your early development?
John: Man, we got the historian and the psychologist!!!!
Bud: Ha! We can change places very easily, though.
John: My brain's frying – settle down, boys... Plus it’s two against one!
Roy: Well, history and psychology... I would say both go into writing a song.
John: Very true... Personal songs are an amalgamation of your past and influences combined by one's personal point of view and style of expressing it.
Bud: Can you enumerate any of those influences?
John: I'm always trying to write a song that captures the spirit of the music of my past...the music/songs that made me want to be a musician. Someday I'll write the perfect John Oates song that captures the spirit of Curtis Mayfield.
Roy: What's your favorite Curtis Mayfield song?
John: “People Get Ready” and “Gypsy Woman.” He was a unique R&B performer in that he played guitar and sang ...rare in the ’60s His singing and playing style is very high on my list of influences.
Bud: That's true. There are only a handful – Bobby Womack is another one...
“People Get Ready” is the essence of gospel, and gospel's the root of soul, right?
John: The spiritualism and pop sensibilities blended without diminishing either form.
Roy: What about your affinity to groups like The Spinners, O'Jays, The Emotions and The Stylistics, all of whom you cover on the new album? What did you take from them? And I imagine Motown was another obvious touchstone.
John: There are so many... I was a big fan of Stax/Volt stuff as well. The Philly stuff is in the blood – what I heard on the radio growing up. It has to do with the evolution of doo-wop and those harmonies unique to Philly music
Bud: There were still regional hits in the 1960s... That may be hard for people to understand in the information age.
John: The demise of American regional music is one of the great losses to our popular culture
Bud: It was your incubator, allowing you to combine culture, immediacy and certain preferred technical elements – including vocal harmonies.
John: The regional sound of Philly is a very important part of the tapestry, and perhaps not as well appreciated as Motown, for instance
Bud: Not as celebrated, except by music scholars, I suppose.
John: Philly music has its roots in the fact that it is one of the first "Northern" cities that combined Southern Black culture and Anglo church music (the English). It’s very piano-oriented, and vocal harmonies are a big part.
Bud: I never thought of it that way, but it makes perfect sense. Like the blues and Chicago around the same time.
John: The music that came up the Mississippi River was guitar/blues-based, and the Chicago sound is a more sophisticated version of that.
Roy: I didn't realize you were such a musicologist, John.
Roy: You do a great cover of The Five Stairsteps' "O-o-h Child."
John: When D and I met, we were at a "record hop" in W. Philly, and The Five Stairsteps were the headliners. I thought the song was a perfect vehicle for our voices.
Bud: Your approach seems to be to let Daryl step up while you fill in the canvas. I love that combination.
John: Takes more than that for a backstage pass!!! It has to do with our personalities: what you see is what you get... It’s all very natural and not contrived. He is exactly what you see onstage, and so am I.
Bud: I loved that bit he wrote about you in the notes of Our Kind of Soul about "What You See Is What You Get," one of your rare lead vocals. You're the perfect team player.
Roy: You seem so low-key; you let Daryl take the spotlight...
Bud: But he couldn't do what he does without John.
John: It’s the old Zen thing: Can't have a beautiful sunset without the horizon.
Bud: Dude, you rock!
John: OK, now you get the pass!!!
Bud: The yin/yang thing is at the heart of pop artistry. Phil & Don, John & Paul, Mick & Keith.
Roy: You don't ever feel like telling Daryl he's a prima donna?
John: You can't be a lead singer and frontman without an unusually large amount of confidence and flamboyance.
Roy: You are the perfect "second banana." And I don't mean that as an insult, either.
John: Sometimes I just want to climb a mountain and drive my tractor. I'll eat the banana after I reach the summit.
Bud: You're loaded with Zen metaphors.
John: I'm more of a nuts-and-bolts person, and since no one sees what I do behind the scenes, there can always be some questions about things... A duo always seems to evoke that sort of thing.
Roy: What stand out as definitive H&O songs to you?
John: There are many... “She's Gone,” of course...”Sara Smile,” “Maneater”... But there are album tracks that provide even more insight into us as people...way too much to get into here.
Bud: "Open All Night" is a really good album track.
John: Sure...what about “Adult Education”? How's about “Diddy Doo Wop (I Hear the Voices)”? “Change of Season” is one of my personal faves.
Bud: And most people don't know you made "experimental" records like Along the Red Ledge in the mid-’70s.
John: Red Ledge is one of my fave albums...
Roy: What about the string of huge hits in the '80s: "Kiss on My List," "You Make My Dreams," "I Can't Go for That”… Do you feel that was your peak?
John: No, I don't feel the ’80s were our most creative – only our most commercially successful. We were free to experiment in the ’70s. Take a look at the styles we dipped into... Abandoned Luncheonette to War Babies ... Need I say more?!
Bud: There weren't the stylistic barricades then that you see now in pop. When your career is consigned to a one-disc best-of, people completely miss the nuances that make an artist special and deep. You guys need a box set.
John: Ah... Box set coming this year!!!! There are so many songs in the catalog – we're talking over 30 years!!!
Roy: Ya know, John, your attitude is downright refreshing in this era of egos run amok...
Bud: Hey John, he says the same thing to me.
John: Nothing like a ringside seat as Egos Run Amok!!!! Sounds like a "B" movie.
Roy: Do you think the critics punished you for that eclecticism?
John: Critics have to write something to get attention... I mostly listen to musicians when it comes to music.
Bud: At the same time, those '80s nuggets like "I Can't Go for That,” “You Make My Dreams” and “Kiss on My List” are absolutely perfect in their organization as songs and as records. Like soul/pop sonnets.
Roy: How did you hit the zeitgeist at that point?
John: We made well-crafted pop records in the ’80s that reflected the time. Our sound became the sound of radio, and we rode the wave.
Bud: Did that become less gratifying after a while? I suppose it could have become an artistic cul de sac...
John: Living in NYC during that time gave us an edge to tap into the common consciousness of the era… By mid-’85 we had done about all one could do... We needed to step out to survive
Roy: Are you disappointed the group seems to have been marginalized by critics into an "oldies/blue-eyed soul” outfit?
John: Obviously you haven't seen us perform lately... The fact that we've never really stopped touring has kept us vital and on our game. We've never drifted into the nostalgia category. Most people say we're a lot better now than we ever were... Not to mention the fact that we seem to draw a new audience of fans who come in curious and leave believers.
Bud: And why not? You have that massive body of work and you've matured as artists.
Roy: I saw the show at the Greek, and you guys were fantastic. The band rocked, and the crowd was into it... I'm just talking about the general perspective.
Bud: Look, people who know what makes up musical artistry can just look at the work and see that it succeeds on so many levels.
Roy: Do you listen to new music?
John: Yes, I listen for songs regardless of the style... One of my fave albums this year is Nickel Creek’s Why Should the Fire Die? Everything about that record is a masterpiece...the playing, singing and recording are perfect. Their musicianship is kinda scary!!!!
Bud: Those three are musicians' musicians.
Roy: They're kind of on the roots-country side, right?
Bud: But consider the parallel, Roy – harmony singing.
Roy: The similarities of all great music.
John: I'm working with a new artist – Geoff Byrd – and he is the real thing!
Bud: I just checked him out on Well-crafted and well-sung. What's your involvement? Guy's from Portland, OR, I see.
John: Wait till you hear his new stuff, some of which I've co-written with him and my buddy Jed Leiber. Geoff opened the show for us in L.A. last summer, and I was taken with his voice... Turns out H&O are a big influence, and we started to write together.
Bud: Where is the new material taking him? The tracks I sampled don’t seem particularly soul-oriented.
John: Soul is a state of mind, not a musical style… He is what the music business needs: a committed, talented artist who can develop and become someone who can have a long career.
Bud: Too bad the music business forgot about that stuff.
Roy: What about Maroon 5? They seem closest to a Hall & Oates for the 21st century.
Bud: Except it's Adam Levine's show. But they are overtly soul-influenced.
John: Yes, their pop stuff is very "today." They've got their finger on the pulse of their audience.
Bud: Daryl also writes in the notes to Our Kind of Soul that in the '90s, because you stopped for a while, you were able to step outside of yourselves, look at yourselves objectively and figure out what you do that's unique.
John: True...not to mention I was able to "get a life" outside of my career...have a child, get married, build a house... Those experiences allowed me to survive. My music is richer for it. Now my career is only part of my life, not all of it.
Bud: You mean there's more to life than groupies and blow?
Roy: Can't be, Bud.
Bud: Can you elaborate on what makes you unique…in 25 words or less? Kidding.
John: We are part of the sound of Philadelphia infused with a lifetime of travel around the world and the personal point of view of two guys who read a lot.
Roy: Quick take, John... Hip-hop... Was it the ruin or salvation of soul music?
John: Hip-hop expressed the world it comes from – just another limb on the tree of rock.
Bud: My turn. Who's the greatest male soul singer ever: Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder or Al Green?
John: Remember, soul is not the domain of race. How can I answer that?? Too many kings, too many castles…not enough crowns.
Bud: OK. John Lennon or Bob Dylan?
John: Dylennon.
Bud: Nice save.
John: Thanx. I've done a lot of interviews!!!
Roy: Ya know, Oates is less a Music Snob than a Zen Archer....
Bud: Bull’s-eye.
John: Maybe more a Zen Swimmer trying to keep his head above water.
Roy: You and we both, sir.
Bud: Looks like psychology trumps history today...
John: Thank God I took typing in 11th grade… Dinner is on the stove and my son just got a Lego with 3104 pieces!!! So maybe we need to wind this down.
Roy: John, a pleasure.... You are an honorary Music Snob, but in your case, that doesn't even begin to convey your point of view.
John: I've always known I was a Music Snob, but now it’s official. Thanx for including me in this mayhem – now I gotta rest my fingers. I need a glass of wine and some eye drops!!!

Bud: I'll drink to that! And blink to that.


Daryl Hall & John Oates
I’ll Be Around
(Our Kind of Soul)
“A real tribute to [their] own roots and seminal influences.” – Roy

Daryl Hall & John Oates
What You See Is What You Get
(Our Kind of Soul)
“One of [John’s] rare lead vocals… The perfect team player.” – Bud

Daryl Hall & John Oates
When the Morning Comes
(The Atlantic Collection)
“I’ve been following along since Abandoned Luncheonette.” – Bud

Curtis Mayfield
Gypsy Woman
(20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection: Best of Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions)
“Someday I'll write the perfect John Oates song that captures the spirit of Curtis Mayfield.” – John

Curtis Mayfield
People Get Ready
(20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection: Best of Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions)
“The spiritualism and pop sensibilities blended without diminishing either form.” – John

The Five Stairsteps
O-o-h Child
(The First Family of Soul: The Best of the Five Stairsteps)
“When D and I met, we were at a ‘record hop’ in W. Philly, and the Five Stairsteps were the headliners. I thought the song was a perfect vehicle for our voices.” – John

Daryl Hall and John Oates
Adult Education
(Rock ’N Soul, Part 1)
“There are album tracks that provide even more insight into us as people.” – John

Daryl Hall & John Oates
It’s a Laugh
(Along the Red Ledge)
“Most people don't know you made ‘experimental’ records like Along the Red Ledge in the mid-’70s.” – Bud

Daryl Hall & John Oates
I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)
(The Very Best of Daryl Hall/John Oates)
“Absolutely perfect in [its] organization as song and record.” – Bud
“Our sound became the sound of radio, and we rode the wave” – John

Daryl Hall & John Oates
Kiss on My List
(The Very Best of Daryl Hall/John Oates)
“I don't feel the ’80s were our most creative – only our most commercially successful.” – John

Maroon 5
Sunday Morning
(Songs About Jane)
“A Hall & Oates for the 21st century” – Roy
“They've got their finger on the pulse of their audience.” – John

Sunday, September 9, 2007


It felt like Peggy and I had entered some parallel universe Friday night. The strange sensation kicked in as we drove over the hill from Studio City to the Greek Theatre, where the Kings of Leon were headlining, and found ourselves in a traffic jam on the Hollywood Freeway because of all the cars heading to the Hollywood Bowl to see (are you ready?) Hall & Oates, on the first of two nights with the Spinners. Now, if someone had told me a year ago that 30,000-plus people would pay to see an act that hasn’t had a hit in a quarter century, and that another 5,000 or more would flock to the Greek to see a young band that’s seemingly barely on the radar in L.A., I would’ve dismissed the scenario as a pipe dream. Happily, it turns out there are enough music lovers in Tinseltown drawn to the holy trinity of good songs/good singin’/good playin’ to nearly fill the city’s two biggest outdoor venues.

As a Hall & Oates fan since Abandoned Luncheonette in 1973, I’d be stunned if the Bowl crowd was anything less than gaga over the sounds and style of the impeccable Philly soul men (looking forward to reading Roy’s assessment of the show in the next edition of Trakin Care of Business on But I’m here to tell you that the fans who came to see the Kings of Leon went absolutely bonkers over them, standing (or more accurately boogalooing) throughout the entire near-two-hour set and putting up the sort of roar you hear from a full stadium at a college football game. How did they even know about this band? The only place you can hear them on L.A. terrestrial radio is on KCRW…but then, terrestrial radio isn’t how people discover music anymore, as Friday night’s turnout so amply demonstrated.

The Greek offered a killer ahead-of-the-curve bill, as the Followill boys brought along young Atlanta-based neoimpressionists the Manchester Orchestra (missed ’em, unfortunately) and L.A.’s own Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, who were at their mesmerizing, lurking-in-the-shadows best as they led the crowd through the gloaming and into the night.

The place went nuts when KOL hit the stage, starting even before the struck the chunky chords of the opening number, the characteristically refracted, poetically titled stadium rocker “Black Thumbnail”—and I was shocked when the goateed dude next to me (who looked like Murray in Flight of the Conchords) started singing in word for word at the top of his lungs, even nailing Caleb’s utterly unprecedented vocal character, at once conversational and incantatory, with its roil of phlegm, pine tar and raw silk, sliding upward at the ends of lines, Valley-girl-like, in a real-time metaphor of yearning.

As my ear adjusted to the surreal moment, I realized there were thousands of would-be Calebs forming a massive, chanting chorus that covered the hillside—and they’d keep it up through the whole show. Inspired by the enraptured response, KOL ratcheted up the exhilarating urgency that permeated everything the played, offering living proof of what their longtime producer, Ethan Johns had described to me a few months ago as “spiritual elevation.”

Interesting, the newest songs—they played all but two tracks from Because of the Times (my album of the year, in a runaway—and it’s been a really good year), on which they’ve perfected the unique ricocheting rhythms that emanate from their genetically synchronized racing pulses and their musical teeth-cutting at countless Pentecostal services—brought an increased intensity to the selections from the first two albums. The groove starts with oldest brother Nathan, 28, who locates and messes with all sorts of rhythmic counterpoints on every part of his kit, and extends to youngest brother Jared, 21, whose own rhythmic inventiveness seems to mesh with Nathan’s like Velcro while seeming wholly his own. Cousin Matthew transforms lead guitar into a rhythm instrument, slicing through the carnivorous grooves as if his Gibson were a Ginsu knife.

The template is perfectly set in the album’s astounding seven-minute opener, “Knocked Up,” which features the most striking use of space in a rock song since Jimmy Miller was producing the Stones—all the better to silhouette the interlocked elements, including a wordless background chant that starts as a kind of spur-of-the-moment aside and blossoms into a thrilling expression of us-against-the-world brotherhood. Naturally, they saved “Knocked Up” for the first encore, and people started singing Oh-ooh-whoa-WHOA-oh as soon as the band kicked into the song’s tantalizing, trench-deep groove. Talk about goosebumps.

That “Knocked Up” rhythmic sauce enlivened other songs in the set, particularly the ferociously funky “My Party,” with its addictively gleeful refrain, “Ooh, she’s at my party,” and the swaggering “Fans,” which starts out with the similarly delectable line, “Homegrown…rock to the rhythm and bop to the beat of the radio.” The way Caleb fired it off Friday night, it sounded like both a credo and a promise.

I fell in love with them back in January, not at a show—this was my first KOL performance—but during an interview with all four of them in a Nashville restaurant. In person they’re just as irresistible as they are onstage—26-year-old Caleb dead-earnest but loaded with spontaneous punchlines his speaking voice identical to his singing voice; Nathan the ringleader, dry and intense; Jared with his cover-boy looks, guileless and passionate; and cousin Matthew, 23, seemingly lost in thought, opening his mouth only when he has something particular to say. These guys and that album they’d made—well, they had me hook, line and sinker. This was a show I had no intention of missing, and it didn’t surprise me that it was everything I’d hoped for. What surprised me was that I was surrounded by believers every bit as ardent as I am, and that was an immensely gratifying surprise. Taste is alive—hallelujah.

They didn’t do anything but play—no patter, no posing, just takin’ care of business. And, like Radiohead live, they were all the more cool for their laser-like focus on the matter at hand. The closest thing to theatricality was Nathan blowing bubbles between swigs of beer, the pink globes he kept inflating framed by his shoulder-length dark hair. Watching them, I was reminded one point Caleb had made with unmistakable pride during the Nashville conversation. “We’ve quit tryin’ to be fuckin’ cool,” he told me. “This is gonna sound really cocky, but at this point, we know we’re cool. I don’t mean that in a negative way; we’re comfortable in our skin, and we realize we’re cool enough now where we don’t try to be as cool as the other bands. Fuck it—we just try to go for it.”

Yesterday, Peggy was telling one of her friends about the show. “I loved them—everybody loved them,” she said. “And they’re all so cute. It was almost like seeing the Rolling Stones.”

During my phoner with Ethan, he made a provocative assertion. “This is gonna sound a little absurd,” he told me, “but I do think that they’re the best rock & roll band playing at the moment. I don’t think there’s anyone out there that holds a candle to these guys—they’re mind-blowing.”

Now I get it, Ethan—I totally get it.

Thursday, August 30, 2007


I don't go to a lot of shows anymore—not after spending years being forced to go to a million clubs to check out a zillion crappy bands as an A&R guy, and not in the midst of the new golden age of episodic TV, which makes the living room my primary entertainment destination (Big Love and Mad Men rule). But last weekend, I decided on a double shot of live music, and I didn't have to twist Peggy's arm, cuz the prospects were too good to pass up: spend a weekend freeloading with our friend Cindy on the Mesa in Santa Barbara, and heading over to the impossibly picturesque County Bowl on consecutive nights to see Crowded House on Saturday and Wilco on Sunday.

Formed a decade apart and half a world away from each other, Crowded House (Auckland, 1985) and Wilco (Chicago, 1995) turn out to have a whole lot in common. Both bands are led by supremely talented, disarming and charismatic writer/singer/guitarists in Neil Finn and Jeff Tweedy, both sport sounds rooted in the 1960s and ’70s, and both enrich songs that would be memorable presented with just a vocal and acoustic guitar with intricate detail, while always leaving space to stretch out, particularly in live performance, at which both excel.

This outing would take place just two weeks after I made my first amphitheater foray of the summer to see Squeeze with Fountains of Wayne at the Greek, an experience recounted in the previous entry—an IM exchange with sometime fellow Music Snob Roy Trakin. We’d disagreed about where to put Squeeze in the rock firmament; remembering Andrew Sarris' useful categories for filmmakers, I’d said Far Side of Paradise might best describe the band's status, and I later added that I'd probably put Crowded House (who remind me of Squeeze in terms of their roots in the Beatles and their inventive melodies and chordings) on the same level of significance.

But after seeing them Saturday night, I'm tempted to make a claim for the band’s bona fide greatness. The fact that they have a real grower of a new album in Time on Earth enabled CH to sprinkle the setlist with new material without disrupting the flow. It’s no small thing that recent songs like “Nobody Wants To,” “Heaven That I’m Making” “People Are Like Suns” and the epic “Silent House” (written with the Dixie Chicks, who recorded it on their latest LP, Taking the Long Way).

I’ll confess that I’d forgotten how staggeringly good Crowded House has always been at elevating Finn’s songs to godhead onstage. And that has never been any more deliriously evident than it was on a gorgeous Saturday night, under a nearly full moon and wispy clouds, with this new lineup. From the opening number, “Private Universe,” which the band turned into a withering anthem in the manner of Neil Young & Crazy Horse at their best, it was dramatically evident that this was far from the mellow, tuneful pop band most people imagine when they think of the group’s records—on this night they reached for, and sustained for two hours, all-out majesty.

American keyboardist/guitarist Mark Hart, who was on hand for the final phase of CH’s first incarnation, plays a truly essential part now, expanding the band’s sound with deftly executed accents, including some tasty forays on lap steel, singing spot-on harmonies and taking flight alongside Finn as he elevates the solo sections into the stratosphere. Even more surprising was the virtuosic muscularity of new drummer Matt Sherrod, an Angeleno best known for his work with Beck, who drove the band's forward movement onstage with the chugging mass of a locomotive—and looks like he's having a blast while he's at it, which adds to the momentum and helps make CH as fun to watch as to listen to. Afterward, Cindy said, "Geat show," just like that—she italicized it. Peg and I seconded that emotion. We practically levitated back to the car.

What stunned me was that Crowded House’s set turned out to be even more memorable than Wilco’s, though both bands put the pedal to the metal in the rarefied dimension they share—stretching out the songs and taking them somewhere truly magical and previously unexplored (which is how Deadheads view the live experience, I imagine). That’s not to disparage Wilco, who were transporting as well once they warmed up after a slow start—apparently looking for a way to connect with the mellow crowd (they live in paradise, after all), like boxers feeling each other out. The first four or five numbers were beautifully played but distant, and the crowd sat passively, as if watching a recital.

That changed when they launched into “Impossible Germany,” the extended three-guitar symphony that is the sublime high point of the band’s latest opus, Sky Blue Sky, with Tweedy and the versatile Pat Sansone playing Allmanesque harmony lines while the alarmingly gifted Nels Cline danced around them like a punk Nureyev. The moment of explosion that takes climaxes the song was also the moment when people in the crowd not only got to their feet but started moving toward the stage—and that was all Tweedy and company needed to take the performance to another level of intensity. From that point onward it just kept getting better, and, as with Crowded House, the drummer quaterbacked the coordinated rhythms of the other players. Glen Kotche proved to be a force of nature, soaked to the skin on this cool night, his hair flattened against his skull, sweat flying off him, grinning like he was exactly where he wanted to be in the universe. It was a sheer joy to watch him.

The rest of the set was as rocked-out as it was disciplined, and a bunch of the irresistible highlights came off the new album, like the Cline showcase "Side With the Seeds," a rhapsodic "On and On and On" and "Walken," which seemed to contain all the best parts of my record collection, from the Beatles to Kings of Leon. They topped off by a raging workout on “Spiders (Kidsmoke),” which gave these focused players a chance to really let it all hang out in what has become a signature fusion of control and abandon.

They had to encore with “California Stars,” which seemed to have been designed especially for this lovely spot on this glorious moonlit evening.

For a compare and contrast, click here to read Roy's thoughts about Wilco's show Wednesday night at the Greek (you may need to do a ridiculously simple registration). It's on the site we jointly edit (so to speak), I get up early to do the morning shift; he stays up late going to shows three or four times a week, so he takes afternoons. We like to think of it as a synergistic relationship.

Sunday, August 26, 2007


Once upon a time (from 2004 till early last year), Roy Trakin and I had a site called (with no www), sponsored by Sony Connect (soon to be defunct), on which we dia-blogged using IM. Indulge us now as we relive those carefree days, comparing notes on what I’d been anticipating as THE guitar-pop bill of the summer: Squeeze with Fountains of Wayne. It started with an aside...

Bud: Squeeze was really good at the Greek.
Roy: they were... i thought fountains were pretty good, too. very enjoyable....
Bud: They have a lotta memorable songs, and the band still cooks.
Roy: I met Bret from Flight of the Conchords backstage... My big thrill of the night.
Bud: Whoa.
Roy: "Brit... Brit... Best show on TV!!" No Jemaine in sight, though. But I love Bret.
Bud: Me too. Interesting seeing all the power-pop connoiseurs there last night. Including Glickie and Julia.
Roy: Ahhhhh... good for them... It was definitely a night for the savants. It's hard to put over good pop music in a setting like that, but they both did, I thought.
Bud: Yup. FOW suffered a bit from semi-obscure song choices and murky sound, apart from drums. But the patter was hilarious—Adam Schlesinger is a very funny dude.
Roy: FOW's comment about giving 70% in a venue that was 30-40% full was pretty funny.
Bud: Loved that 30-40% line.
Roy: funny... Michael Hartman said it was one of the most self-deprecating things he'd ever heard a band say onstage.
Bud: In truth, I thought they gave a solid 85%, which is the best you can expect without the energy of an adoring crowd.
Roy: neither band are what you'd call powerhouses live, though... that was my only problem... It really was just about the music.
Bud: Omigod, we’re unconsciously doing Music Snobs!
Roy: i was just thinking the same thing.
Bud: I'm saving this, just in case.
Roy: Difford and Tilbrook... Scoppa and Trakin... together again.
Bud: There you go.
Roy: those two really do have a nice chemistry with their vocals... very distinctive. Chris and Glenn, that is.
Roy: The high and the low.
Bud: Love the contrast. To me they're a power-pop Steely Dan—very dry and acerbic.
Roy: I thought it was a good show, but it was hard not to be "bored" a little by it all... Just my take. But Squeeze was good... It's incredible to realize none of those hits ever really crossed over to the Top 40 here. They seemed ubiquitous to me.... I dunno. There were at least seven-eight songs I remember... even album cuts.
Bud: They were central to my life. Loved that they went to "I Think I'm Go Go." But then, I was their A&M product manager in the beginning.
Roy: When was that song from? I didn't remember it.
Bud: Argybargy. Great album. “Mussels,” “Nail,” “If I Didn't Love You.”
Roy: That was my favorite, too... The only comparison I can make is to Hall & Oates... Same kind of R&B/Motown feel...
Bud: They're my fave kinda pop band—one that grooves. That's what I loved about the Odds. You have to be able to really play to pull that off.
Roy: the band was pretty impressive when they stretched out.
Bud: Exactly.
Roy: I argued with Hartman afterward... I thought they were second-tier, but underrated as opposed to Elvis Costello, who's better, but overrated. And first tier.
Bud: I rate Squeeze higher than you do.
Roy: that's all... they certainly write better pop hooks than Elvis. Kind of a B+... is my assessment. Just below the pantheon level.
Bud: They're part of my parallel universe HOF, along with the Tubes, Todd, Dolls, Gram Parsons, Little Feat, Roxy Music...
Roy: in an Andrew Sarris vein. I can see what you mean... very underrated... I mean, classically so.
Bud: Far Side of Paradise is a reasonable category to put them in.
Roy: there you go.
Bud: Love the Sarris categories. Lightly Likable is very handy.
Roy: he was always one of my favorites when it came to lists... sort of the original Nick Hornby
Bud: He was indeed… By the way, I watched Friday Night Lights on your recommendation. Just watched the first-season finale.
Roy: did you get a copy of that FNL DVD?
Bud: No, I DVR'd a bunch of episodes and just finished last night. Awesome show.
Roy: what a wonderful show... put a lump in my throat at least several times per episode...
Bud: Exactly.
Roy: The relationship with the Coach and his family is so real.
Bud: It starts there.
Roy: I don't think there's a better depiction of the modern American family.
Bud: Big Love, mebbe—by exaggeration.
Roy: well, that is the nuclear family times three. it just explores the various sides in an unusual situation. This season of Big Love has been superb, also.
Bud: It has indeed. This is the new golden age of TV, that's for sure.
Roy: I heard one of the ESPN commentators last night on Sports Center calling referencing Flight of the Conchords. Someone got a clutch hit to start a rally, and the anchor went, "It's business time..."
Bud: Love it. Bret and Jemaine are taking over.

Saturday, August 18, 2007


Every so often, pop hits an especially fruitful patch—a passage of time in which several artists simultaneously appear with records that raise the bar for everyone else. It last happened two springs ago, when Beck’s balmy Guero, Spoon’s minimalist epic Gimme Fiction and Coldplay’s grand X&Y brightened the landscape with their comparably delectable juxtapositions of slam-dunk hooks, phat grooves and overall inventiveness. Happily, it’s happening again, and has been since the very beginning of 2007, with a combination of young bands that are growing—Kings of Leon, for starters—and old-timers who have revitalized themselves. Here’s a playlist, which also fits onto two CDs—but doing that would be so 2006. Check it out—the titles are compelling all by themselves.

/ Midway 2007
The Shins
, Sea Legs
Spoon, Don’t You Evah
Fountains of Wayne, Strapped for Cash
Mark Ronson f/Amy Winehouse, Valerie
Arcade Fire, Keep the Car Running
Crowded House, Don’t Stop Now
LCD Soundsystem, Get Innocuous!
Kings of Leon, Knocked Up
Wilco, Walken
Amy Winehouse, Rehab
The White Stripes, Rag and Bone
Feist, My Moon My Man
The Shins, Phantom Limb
Spoon, Rhythm & Soul
Wilco, Impossible Germany
Kings of Leon, Trunk
Glen Hansard & Markéta Irglová, When You’re Mind’s Made Up
Crowded House, Nobody Wants To
Spoon, The Underdog
LCD Soundsystem, Time to Get Away
Fountains of Wayne, Someone to Love
Kings of Leon, Fans
The White Stripes, Bone Broke
Arcade Fire, Intervention
The Shins, Sleeping Lessons
Feist, 1234
Peter Bjorn & John, Young Folks
k.d. lang, Help Me
Crowded House, Silent House
Wilco, Side With the Seeds
Kings of Leon, Arizona
The Honeydogs, Heads or Tails
Markéta Irglová, The Hill
Wilco, Either Way
Neil Young, Tell Me Why (live, 1971)
The Shins, Red Rabbit
Fountains of Wayne, Michael and Heather at the Baggage Claim
Jackson Browne, Oh, My Love