Monday, December 21, 2009


For the last month or so, I’ve been building a working list of my fave tracks from the last 10 years. And because this has been the iTunes/iPod/a la carte decade in terms of both the way we listen to music and the way we organize it, I’ve decided to make this an interactive playlist.

Specifically, I chose the “year” tab as the means of sequencing these 257 tracks, so that they descend in order from 2000 through 2009. As I drag tracks into the playlist, iTunes (A) maintains the chronology while alphabetizing by (B) artist’s first name and (C) song title. With everything now in place, I just choose “shuffle,” click on the “play” arrow and let iTunes decide the order.

Because I started using the iTunes software in 2003, my ability to reference my favorite songs from each year has increased exponentially since then. That also means I had far less to work with in recalling my faves from 2000-2002; for that reason, I’m sure I’ve forgotten about some stuff that enthralled me at the time. On the other hand, I’m fully loaded with 2007 music—I chose 43 tracks, the most of any year in the decade, and I could’ve easily thrown in at least 25 more.

In terms of productivity, I’m high on Radiohead (15 tracks, seven from In Rainbows alone), Wilco (16), Beck (12), Spoon (11), Kings of Leon (10), the White Stripes/Raconteurs (eight) and Phoenix (six)—all of whom did their parts to keep the album a viable medium during a singles decade. They did it in the most surefire way—with batches of songs that fit together like peas in a pod. To my mind, Amy Winehouse (five) and Robert Plant & Alison Krauss (five) are right there with the above-mentioned acts and would likely be better represented if they’d released more material.

There are some modern-day classics in this playlist I’ve heard so many times that I’m nearly burned out on them—OutKast’s “Hey Ya!” and Gorillaz’s “Feel Good Inc,” for example. And yet there are others I’ve heard just as much that continue to hook me every time—like Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy.” And Danger Mouse produced all three. Go figure…

A word about bit rate: I’ve settled on 320 kbps—the highest rate that can be selected using the AAC encoder—as a utilitarian compromise. Tracks imported from CD at 320 sound virtually identical to the source (the oft-repeated “near CD quality”) but can still be loaded into the flash-based iPod Shuffle, which won’t take higher quality WAV or Apple lossless files. If I didn’t use the Shuffle for working out, I’d probably import tracks at one of the higher rates—especially with storage space no longer an issue now that 500-750 GB hard drives are pretty much standard for desktop PCs. As it is, I’ve spent hours reloading CDs from earlier in the decade that I’d originally imported at 128 kbps—because I didn’t know any better at the time.

I gotta tell you, having some friends over, pouring some wine and playing my soundtrack of the noughties in shuffle mode (running it through the stereo and out my mid-’80s KEF floor-standing speakers for maximum sonic oomph) makes for a can’t-miss evening. I suggest you put together a playlist of your own ’00s faves and shuffle away.

Send me your comments and suggestions at

“Red Vines,” Aimee Mann
“Things Have Changed,” Bob Dylan
“Don’t Panic,” Coldplay
“Trouble,” Coldplay
“Yellow,” Coldplay
“Bohemian Like You,” The Dandy Warhols
“I’m Gonna Make You Love Me,” The Jayhawks
“Smile,” The Jayhawks
“In the Sun,” Joseph Arthur
“Directions,” Josh Rouse
“Everything in Its Right Place,” Radiohead
“How to Disappear Completely,” Radiohead
“Idioteque,” Radiohead
“The National Anthem,” Radiohead
“Amy,” Ryan Adams
“Thought It Would Be Easier,” Shelby Lynne
“Everything Hits at Once,” Spoon
“What a Shame,” Steely Dan
“Beautiful Day,” U2
“Walk On,” U2
“Any Major Dude Will Tell You,” Wilco

“High Water,” Bob Dylan
“To Joy (Revolution of the Innocent) ,” Chris Whitley
“Why Georgia,” John Mayer
“3x5,” John Mayer
“Working Girls (Sunlight Shines) ,” Pernice Brothers
“Our Time Has Passed,” Pernice Brothers
“For Nancy,” Pete Yorn
“I Might Be Wrong,” Radiohead
“La Cienega Just Smiled,” Ryan Adams
“Caring Is Creepy,” The Shins
“New Slang,” The Shins
“Sister Surround,” The Soundtrack of Our Lives
“Last Nite,” The Strokes
“Island in the Sun,” Weezer
“Hash Pipe,” Weezer
“Fell in Love With a Girl,” The White Stripes
“We're Going to Be Friends,” The White Stripes

“The Golden Age,” Beck
“Lost Cause,” Beck
“I’ll Be Your Man,” The Black Keys
“Tiny Spark,” Brendan Benson
“The Rising,” Bruce Springsteen
“The Scientist,” Coldplay
“Clocks,” Coldplay
“Daylight,” Coldplay
“Lose Yourself,” Eminem
“Do You Realize??,” The Flaming Lips
“Times Like These,” Foo Fighters
“The Seed (2.0),” The Roots
“Jonathon Fisk,” Spoon
“Small Stakes,” Spoon
“The Way We Get By,” Spoon
“Heavy Metal Drummer,” Wilco
“Jesus Etc.,” Wilco
“Kamera,” Wilco
“War on War,” Wilco

“The Way You Move,” Big Boi featuring Sleepy Brown
“Quattro (World Drifts In (remix edit),” Calexico
“The Last High,” The Dandy Warhols
“Transatlanticism,” Death Cab For Cutie
“Valley Winter Song,” Fountains of Wayne
“All Kinds of Time,” Fountains of Wayne
“Are You Gonna Be My Girl,” Jet
“Molly's Chambers,” Kings of Leon
“Hey Ya!,” OutKast
“Such Great Heights,” The Postal Service
“There There,” Radiohead
“Vicious World,” Rufus Wainwright
“Things I Miss the Most,” Steely Dan
“I Can’t Remember,” The Thorns
“Seven Nation Army,” The White Stripes
“The Hardest Button to Button,” The White Stripes

“Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels),” Arcade Fire
“Rebellion (Lies),” Arcade Fire
“Wake Up!,” Arcade Fire
“Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime,” Beck
“Catch My Disease,” Ben Lee
“Our Prayer / Gee,” Brian Wilson
“Surf's Up,” Brian Wilson
“When the Sun Goes Down,” Charlie Mars
“Take Me Out,” Franz Ferdinand
“American Idiot,” Green Day
“The Bucket,” Kings of Leon
“Slow Night, So Long,” Kings of Leon
“Float On,” Modest Mouse
“Manhattan Avenue,” Nellie McKay
“Musicology,” Prince
“Shelter,” Ray LaMontagne
“How Come,” Ray LaMontagne
“Whatever It Takes,” Ron Sexsmith
“Vertigo,” U2
“Muzzle of Bees,” Wilco
“Theologians,” Wilco

“Cold Wind,” Arcade Fire
“E-Pro,” Beck
“Black Tambourine,” Beck
“Earthquake Weather,” Beck
“Scarecrow,” Beck
“The Greatest,” Cat Power
“Since K Got Over Me,” The Clientele
“Talk,” Coldplay
“Speed of Sound,” Coldplay
“Soul Meets Body,” Death Cab for Cutie
“I Will Follow You into the Dark,” Death Cab for Cutie
“Here Comes a City,” The Go-Betweens
“Feel Good Inc. ,” Gorillaz
“Daft Punk Is Playing at My House,” LCD Soundsystem
“It Beats 4 U,” My Morning Jacket
“Off the Record,” My Morning Jacket
“Wordless Chorus,” My Morning Jacket
“The Painter,” Neil Young
“Everything Is Everything,” Phoenix
“Rough Justice,” The Rolling Stones
“Rain Fall Down,” The Rolling Stones
“I Turn My Camera On,” Spoon
“My Mathematical Mind,” Spoon
“Chicago,” Sufjan Stevens
“My Doorbell,” The White Stripes
“Spiders (Kidsmoke) ,” Wilco (live)

“Think I'm in Love,” Beck
“Cellphone’s Dead,” Beck
“Someday Baby,” Bob Dylan
“The Perfect Crime #2,” The Decemberists
“Mary Shut the Garden Door,” Donald Fagen
“Crazy,” Gnarls Barkley
“How We Operate,” Gomez
“Satellite,” Guster
“The Warning,” Hot Chip
“Black Lexus,” Joseph Arthur
“Get Innocuous!,” LCD Soundsystem
“Time to Get Away,” LCD Soundsystem
“North American Scum,” LCD Soundsystem
“Show You How,” Lindsey Buckingham
“This Is Us,” Mark Knopfler & Emmylou Harris
“Chinese Translation,” M. Ward
“Dance Like a Monkey,” New York Dolls
“New Shoes,” Paolo Nutini
“Young Folks,” Peter Bjorn & John
“Undercover,” Pete Yorn
“One Time Too Many,” Phoenix
“Steady, As She Goes,” The Raconteurs
“The Book I Write,” Spoon
“You Only Live Once,” The Strokes
“Black Swan,” Thom Yorke
“Harrowdown Hill,” Thom Yorke
“Saving Grace,” Tom Petty
“Square One,” Tom Petty

“Rehab,” Amy Winehouse
“You Know I'm No Good,” Amy Winehouse
“Back to Black,” Amy Winehouse
“Tears Dry On Their Own,” Amy Winehouse
“Keep the Car Running,” Arcade Fire
“Timebomb,” Beck
“Girls in Their Summer Clothes,” Bruce Springsteen
“Bookshop Casanova,” The Clientele
“Nobody Wants To,” Crowded House
“Sugar,” Dan Wilson
“Fast Company,” The Eagles
“Business Time,” Flight of the Conchords
“Someone to Love,” Fountains of Wayne
“Strapped for Cash,” Fountains of Wayne
“Ah Mary,” Grace Potter & the Nocturnals
“Knocked Up,” Kings of Leon
“My Party,” Kings of Leon
“Fans,” Kings of Leon
“Arizona,” Kings of Leon
“Valerie,” Mark Ronson Feat. Amy Winehouse
“15 Step,” Radiohead
“All I Need,” Radiohead
“Bodysnatchers,” Radiohead
“Faust Arp,” Radiohead
“House of Cards,” Radiohead
“Reckoner,” Radiohead
“Weird Fishes/Arpeggi,” Radiohead
“Dreamworld,” Rilo Kiley
“Fortune Teller,” Robert Plant & Alison Krauss
“Gone Gone Gone (Done Moved On),” Robert Plant & Alison Krauss
“Killing the Blues,” Robert Plant & Alison Krauss
“Please Read the Letter,” Robert Plant & Alison Krauss
“Through the Morning, Through the Night,” Robert Plant & Alison Krauss
“Winter Windows,” Sea Wolf
“Phantom Limb,” The Shins
“Sleeping Lessons,” The Shins
“Sea Legs,” The Shins
“You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb,” Spoon
“Don't You Evah,” Spoon
“The Underdog,” Spoon
“Satellite Radio,” Steve Earle
“Either Way,” Wilco
“Hate It Here,” Wilco
“Impossible Germany,” Wilco
“Side With the Seeds,” Wilco

“Freeway,” Aimee Mann
“Wishing Well,” The Airborne Toxic Event
“Flume,” Bon Iver
“Strawberry Swing,” Coldplay
“I Will Possess Your Heart,” Death Cab For Cutie
“Mercy,” Duffy
“The Bones of You,” Elbow
“Grounds for Divorce,” Elbow
“Forever,” The Explorers Club
“White Winter Hymnal,” Fleet Foxes
“Ragged Wood,” Fleet Foxes
“Inner City Pressure,” Flight of the Conchords
“Ready for the Floor,” Hot Chip
“Troubled Land,” John Mellencamp
“Time to Pretend,” MGMT
“Crawl,” Kings of Leon
“Notion,” Kings of Leon
“Use Somebody,” Kings of Leon
“Scare Easy,” Mudcrutch
“The Last Ocean,” Pictures and Sound
“It's You,” Pictures and Sound
“100 Directions,” Pictures and Sound
“Old Enough,” The Raconteurs
“Salute Your Solution,” The Raconteurs
“Sarah,” Ray LaMontagne
“Yell,” Robin Danar featuring Jesca Hoop
“Halfway Home,” TV on the Radio
“A-Punk,” Vampire Weekend
“Oxford Comma,” Vampire Weekend

“My Girls,” Animal Collective
“Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat,” Beck
“It's All Good,” Bob Dylan
“That Western Skyline,” Dawes
“When My Time Comes,” Dawes
“The Rake's Song,” The Decemberists
“Southern Point,” Grizzly Bear
“Two Weeks,” Grizzly Bear
“While You Wait for the Others,” Grizzly Bear featuring Michael McDonald
“Never Had Nobody Like You,” M. Ward
“Couldn’t I Just Tell You,” Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs
“Go All the Way,” Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs
“Dear God,” Monsters of Folk
“Say Please,” Monsters of Folk
“Nobody Got No Bizness,” New York Dolls
“Don't Wanna Cry,” Pete Yorn
“Lisztomania,” Phoenix
“1901,” Phoenix
“Lasso,” Phoenix
“Rome,” Phoenix
“These Are My Twisted Words,” Radiohead
“Got Nuffin,” Spoon
“All For the Best,” Thom Yorke
“Magnificent,” U2
“Moment of Surrender,” U2
“Unknown Caller,” U2
“Get On Your Boots,” U2
“Exit Music (For a Film),” Vampire Weekend
“Bull Black Nova,” Wilco
“You and I,” Wilco
“You Never Know,” Wilco

Saturday, October 10, 2009


Here's my initial (but far from final) attempt at coming up with a list of the 25 best albums of the '00s:
  1. Radiohead, In Rainbows (2007)
  2. Beck, Guero (2005)
  3. Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, Raising Sand (2007)
  4. Kings of Leon, Because of the Times (2007)
  5. Spoon, Gimme Fiction (2005)
  6. Arcade Fire, Funeral (2004)
  7. Wilco, A Ghost Is Born (2004)
  8. Beck, Sea Change (2002)
  9. Amy Winehouse, Back to Black (2007)
  10. Bob Dylan, Modern Times (2006)
  11. Brian Wilson, SMiLE (2004)
  12. Radiohead, Kid A (2000)
  13. Wilco, Sky Blue Sky (2007)
  14. Ryan Adams, Gold (2001)
  15. Spoon, Kill the Moonlight (2002)
  16. Shins, Wincing the Night Away (2007)
  17. Sufjan Stevens, Illinois (2005)
  18. White Stripes, Elephant (2003)
  19. Coldplay, A Rush of Blood to the Head (2002)
  20. Aimee Man, Bachelor No. 2 (2000)
  21. Ray LaMontagne, Trouble (2004)
  22. U2, All That You Can’t Leave Behind (2000)
  23. Bob Dylan, Love and Theft (2001)
  24. My Morning Jacket, Z (2005)
  25. LCD Soundsystem, Sound of Silver (2007)

Tuesday, September 8, 2009


This is the day The Beatles reclaim their legacy (as if they were ever remotely in danger of losing it) via the release of the remastered catalog on Apple/Capitol and the unveiling of the much-ballyhooed MTV/Harmonix game The Beatles: Rock Band.

If you’re actually (gasp) paying for updating your Beatles collection from the wretched 1987 CDs and want to get the most bang for the buck, start with the absolute essentials (in chronological order): A Hard Day’s Night, Rubber Soul, Revolver, The Beatles (a.k.a. the White Album) and Abbey Road. At Christmastime, ask Santa for Beatles for Sale, Help!, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Past Masters. Then fill in the holes with Please Please Me, With the Beatles, Magical Mystery Tour and Let It Be. The primary lure of the Yellow Submarine soundtrack, which contains six Beatles songs and seven pieces of George Martin’s score, is the scalding John Lennon rocker “Hey Bulldog.”

For full immersion, I humbly suggest you run, don’t walk, to the nearest retailer (preferably an honest-to-God record store) and peel for the superb, ultra-cool box set The Beatles in Mono, plus the stereo-only Let It Be and Abbey Road. You’ll then own the mixes as personally overseen by the Fabs and producer Martin. (The mono Past Masters includes “Hey Bulldog” and the other Yellow Submarine entries, which weren’t originally album cuts.) That said, you can’t go wrong with Big Black—the stereo box set in its eye-catching, glossy monolith of a container.

If you still need persuading as to why you need this music, allow me to cherry-pick from some of the early reviews I enjoyed. There are persuasive arguments for both mono and stereo versions, as you'll see by scrolling down to the last two quotes...

Peter Aspden in the Financial Times: “The important thing is that it doesn’t disappoint. There is greater clarity, warmth and balance on these versions than has ever been possible before. To listen to them is to rediscover a canon of work that will also, once more, find fresh disciples… By paying proper respect to pop’s greatest opus—the packaging, which includes mini-documentaries on computer files, is exemplary—we have nowhere left to go: this is the end of the record collection era… Buy and listen to any of these CDs, and then try watching The X Factor or American Idol. You will realize that the Beatles remasters are the requiem for an art form. And that their final song—‘The End’—was meant to be taken literally, after all.”

Allan Kozinn in the N.Y. Times: “The most striking and consistent improvements are a heftier, rounded, three-dimensional bass sound, and drums that now sound like drums, rather than something in the distance being hit… Probably the most revelatory of the new transfers is the stereo White Album. From the opening jet engine effects on ‘Back in the USSR’ to the final orchestral chord on ‘Good Night,’ this album now leaps from the speakers. Gentler songs like ‘Julia’ and ‘I Will’ have a lovely transparency, and hard rockers like ‘Yer Blues’ and ‘Helter Skelter’—as well as John Lennon’s quirky vision of dystopia, ‘Revolution 9’ — have a power and fullness unheard until now.

Abbey Road also benefits considerably. The clearer instrumental profiles serve this rich-textured album beautifully: ‘Sun King’ and ‘Here Comes the Sun’ are unusually supple; the vocal on ‘You Never Give Me Your Money’ no longer has a shrill edge, and Lennon’s proto-Minimalist ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’ has never sounded more mesmerizing. Nor has the group’s valedictory jam in ‘The End.’

“And if you are cherry-picking among these reissues, the two-CD singles compilation Past Masters should be near the top of your list. The stereo mixes of these songs are often less hard hitting than the mono singles were, but the remastered versions, with their enriched bass, palpable drum sound and improved sense of vocal presence, no longer sound anemic. You find yourself discovering textural details (the percussion overlay in ‘She’s a Woman’ is one such surprise) that show how imaginative the Beatles’ arrangements are.”

Mark Edwards in The Times of London: “Time and again, on album after album, I felt as if I were listening to music I’d never heard before… I expected to be thinking things like: ‘Well, they’ve really brought some crispness to the hi-hat on this one.’ What I didn’t expect was to be blown away by the music all over again.”

Chris Riemenschneider in the Mpls-St. Paul Star Tribune: There's simply a lot more oomph in the discs now. Rockers such as ‘Yer Blues’ and ‘I've Got a Feeling’ sound as if they come bleeding out of the speakers. More tender fare such as ‘Here, There and Everywhere’ and ‘Norwegian Wood’ also have more of a crisp, warm sonic panache. Extra geek-out value can be had by the mini-documentaries included with each album about its making, plus expanded liner notes and photos. Listening to the more experimental (read: more drug-influenced) albums such as Yellow Submarine and Magical Mystery Tour—which are hardly among their best collections songwriting-wise—is especially more gratifying, boosting them back to the wild aural experience associated with modern recording innovators such as Grizzly Bear or TV on the Radio.”

Randy Lewis in the L.A. Times: “In general, the music sounds like an aural scrim has been lifted. Everything has become cleaner, fuller, the dynamic range—the difference between the loudest and softest sounds—has been expanded, vocals sound more immediate. The old ‘Twist and Shout’ sounded almost tinny next to the opened-up sound on the remastered version. The sound of McCartney's fingers plucking the strings of his acoustic guitar as he sang ‘Yesterday’ become more tangibly percussive, the tone of his voice and the guitar more open. George Harrison's ‘Taxman’ benefits from more visceral punch from Ringo's drums.”

Anthony DeCurtis in Rolling Stone: “One tip for deep-pocketed fans: The 12-CD The Beatles in Mono box set is more than a collector's indulgence. The warmth and punch of early albums With the Beatles and Beatles for Sale evoke the experience of first hearing songs like ‘All My Loving’ on the original vinyl. But in stereo or mono, these albums have finally received the treatment they deserve.”

Rob Harvilla in the Village Voice: “Speaking personally, I would rather this transaction take place in stereo. The argument for its opposite as The Way They Intended You to Hear It is a valid one: As the dominant format of the time, way more attention was paid to the mono mixes all the way up until Abbey Road, whereupon they were dumped entirely... But through headphones especially, the warmth, fullness, clarity, grit, etc. of those first four records (on CD in stereo for the first time!) is startling. Yes, John had a cold while recording Please Please Me; yes, the phlegm is almost audible, or you can almost convince yourself it is. (And yes, that's a selling point.)

“Not to say the unearthliness of those early highlights—the hymnlike elegance of ‘If I Fell’ (Paul's voice doesn't even crack in mono!), the sweet Motown worship evident in With the Beatles' gorgeous cover of ‘You Really Got a Hold on Me’—suffers much in either format. On the later, weirder records, that's less true: The mono version of the White Album is immediately disqualified, as ‘Helter Skelter’ doesn't have the part at the end where Ringo screams, ‘I GOT BLISTERS ON MY FINGERS!!’ Doing extensive, deep-concentration, track-by-track, side-by-side comparisons of the two Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band iterations is a particularly hallucinatory way to spend an afternoon, but you can only listen to ‘She's Leaving Home’ so many times before your heart breaks.

“Hardcore audiophiles with money to burn are not begrudged the impulse to own both boxes—the Beatles are basically a one-band justification for being a hardcore audiophile in the first place. But Ringo's blisters aside, it comes down to personal preference, headphones vs. speakers, being bowled over vs. being surrounded, so on and so forth. Choose a side. We're in a recession.”

Thursday, June 11, 2009

It’s All Good: Scoppa’s Midyear Playlist

In my mind, the ’00s didn’t really kick in until 2007. By this time that year, I could not believe the number of terrific records that kept coming one after another. By Oct. 1, when Radiohead’s fully godhead In Rainbows appeared online, the decade’s most artistically supremo top 10 was complete. It topped off a batch comprising Kings of Leon’s Because of the Times, the Shins’ Wincing the Night Away, Spoon’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black, Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky, Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible, Robert Plant & Alison Krauss’ Raising Sand, LCD Soundsystem’s Sound of Silver and Fountains of Wayne’s Traffic and Weather. Those records were so loaded with killers that I filled three CDs putting together my year-end comps of fave tracks, using a mere handful of other cuts like Rilo Kiley’s “Dreamworld,” Springsteen’s “Girls in Their Summer Clothes” and Steve Earle’s “Satellite Radio.”
We haven’t seen anything quite like that explosion of creativity since, which makes the midyear arrival of the utterly sublime Wilco (the album) a major event in my house. This record has everything I love about the band (and rock in general): dynamics, smarts, heart, tunefulness and the players’ ability to seamlessly juxtapose the timeless and the adventurous so that every passage sounds instantly familiar and endlessly thrilling at the same time. I can think of no modern band that does a better job of honoring the past without being limited by it than Wilco—and that is precisely the challenge facing any contemporary artist with a sense of context and the ambition to stake a claim in the rock pantheon.
We could conceivably get new albums from the Shins and Arcade Fire before the end of the year, and I’m definitely looking forward to the upcoming LP from the reconstituted Crowded House, working with Wilco (the album) coproducer/engineer/mixer Jim Scott. But here’s my personal soundtrack to the half-year. This is a playlist, meaning that it’s meant to be played, in this order (transitions are important in the post-album era), and I’ve road-tested it both in the car and the spinning room at the gym. The following takes are meant to accompany the listening experience, which is the real point of this exercise.
1. Wilco, “You Never Know”: Delectable Beatlesque pop-rocker that appropriates the groove from Sly’s “Everyday People” and the slide lick from George’s “My Sweet Lord” in the service of a generational anthem with the irresistible singalong refrain, “I don’t care anymore.” Not just Jeff Tweedy’s catchiest song yet, but the catchiest track anybody has released this year.
2. Matthew Sweet & Susanna Hoffs, “Go All the Way”: Sue sexes up Eric Carmen’s lead vocal part while Matthew cranks out Wally Bryson’s lusty guitar riff, nailing the distortion and overtones in all their serrated glory. The rock & roll equivalent of a bravura interpretation of a key piece from the classical canon.
3. Beck, “Leopard Skin Pill-Box Hat”: In contrast to the above track, Beck takes radical liberties with the familiar source material from Blonde on Blonde but still captures the sarcastic snarl of the original via his brutally distorted guitar riffage and howling harp over an earthmoving industrial beat.
4. The Decemberists, “The Rake’s Song”: The last album contained “The Perfect Crime #2,” a pumping rocker that picked up where “Life During Wartime” left off, and The Hazards of Love sports this similarly seductive cut, powered by a springy single-note acoustic riff and thunderclap drumming. The lyric, which concerns the black deeds of a cold-blooded killer, would be tasteless and horrific if set in the modern world and described in straightforward language, but in Colin Meloy’s deft hands it comes off like a newly discovered chapter of The Canterbury Tales. That’s not why it’s batting cleanup in this playlist, however; it’s here because it rocks like crazy.
5. Doves, “The Outsiders”: After a sequencer-sparked opening that looms like gathering storm clouds, the Brit trio unleashes a gale-force rocker that never flags, the mix burying Jimi Goodwin’s defiant vocal in a sonic maelstrom of guitars and synths. As with chunks of the U2 record, I’m picking up the influence of Elbow’s brilliant 2008 opus The Seldom Seen Kid in the band’s delectable use of dynamic contrast.
6. Kings of Leon, “Use Somebody”: Yes, this cut is from a 2008 album, but the Kings are breaking big right now behind it, and this arena anthem, with its Arcade Fire-like full-throated chorale, is a lot closer to what makes them the best young rock & roll band to come along in this century than “Sex on Fire,” their improbable (if slyly seductive) ticket to the big time. KOL’s rise parallels that of Spoon in the sense that the band’s artistic coming of age, Because of the Times, preceded the commercial breakthrough of Only by the Night in the same way that Gimme Fiction preceded the irresistible but not quite as mind-blowing Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. That said, all four are essential pieces in any contempo collection.
7. U2, “Magnificent”: At any previous point since the early ’80s, this signature U2 epic would’ve been a colossal hit; the fact that times have changed doesn’t diminish the awesomeness of the work, with the requisite 16th-note flurries from Edge, lots of billowing, Eno-manipulated effects, Bono barely keeping a lid on his overarching tendencies, the struggle further ramping up the sense of urgency, and, best of all, Adam Clayton’s burrowing bassline, on which he seems to be quoting “Billie Jean,” of all things. This is as good as they get—it would’ve worked just as well on The Joshua Tree or Achtung Baby.
8. Wilco, “Bull Black Nova”: The jittery one-note sequencer pattern—actually mimicked by an electric keyboard—is straight out of A Ghost Is Born’s “Spiders/Kidsmoke,” and the curlicue guitar riffage is a hopped-up variation on Sky Blue Sky’s gossamer “Impossible Germany,” but the end result has a soft/LOUD, tension/release excitement quotient all its own, one further distinguished by a twist of Steely Dan-like pretzel logic. It’s right here that the band opens up the hood of the deceptively serene Wilco (the album) to show off the massive horsepower lurking in its purring power plant.
9. Sam Roberts, “Them Kids”: For a half decade now it’s been the same story for Roberts, who’s Springsteen big in Canada and can’t get arrested in the States (assuming he doesn’t attempt to get through customs with a bag of weed in his road case). This burner turns on a wicked-clever premise: Sam is bummed that “the kids don't know how to dance to rock & roll,” and he’s worked up a backbeat-powered stomp in hopes they’ll snap shut their cellphones and come around. Otherwise, “If nobody listens, will we disappear?” But the best lines get right to the heart of being the keeper of a flickering flame: “We're under pressure to reconcile/our point of view with contemporary style.” You said it, Sam.
10. Harlem Shakes, “Strictly Game”: These smart-ass post-collegians may not have gotten the lavish attention bestowed on Vampire Weekend last year, but they’re similarly charming in that shambling, playful way. Mixing harsh reality and life-embracing optimism, “Strictly Game” slaps together organic and robotic rhythmic elements, intercut with hints of world beat and glee-club ingenuousness, en route to as refrain that sounds like a communal singalong. “This will be a better year,” they sing in unison, their voices as reassuring as their message.
11. Franz Ferdinand, “Ulysses”: Franz puts across this paean to the conjoined pleasures of sex and drugs with the arch, swaggering irony of early Roxy Music. Alex Kapranos manages to slide upward to a fey falsetto while keeping his tongue jammed into his cheek, while Bob Hardy plucks out a bassline as thick and flexible as Monster cable, uncoiling a tantalizing groove that’s laid-back and lascivious at the same time. Note: these Scots will get some competition in the archly swaggering department from England’s Wild Beasts when Domino puts out their Two Dancers in September.
12. Phoenix, “1901”: I keep reading that “Lisztomania,” the opening track of Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, is a contender for track of the summer, but I’m partial to this spikier cut, which follows, as super-compressed power chords sandblast the balmy soundscape.
13. Empire of the Sun, “Walking on a Dream”: We now arrive at the prime MGMT moment of the last six months, courtesy of Aussie eccentric Luke Steele. He lost me on the second Sleepy Jackson album, but he’s lured me back with this sparkling bit of sunny pop, studio-tweaked so that it seems to be wafting out of a radio in some parallel universe.
14. The Bird and the Bee, “My Love”: Who woulda thunk that Lowell George’s daughter Inara would grow up to be an alterna-diva, flitting from an orchestral LP with Dad’s pal Van Dyke Parks to a synth-pop workout with Greg Kurstin that sports this luminous neo-new wave romantic ditty?
15. Brendan Benson, “Eyes on the Horizon”: This piano-powered midtempo gem from the upcoming My Old, Familiar Friend evokes Runt-era Todd Rundgren, from the surging bass notes on the ivories to the cascading melody. I hope Benson meant to make that lift, cuz Todd is quite possibly the most important artist to be shunned by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (although I could—and have—named a bunch more on my blog). Benson has been building up to his big moment since the mid-’90s; could this LP be the one that does it. And if it is, will anybody notice? Let’s hope the Raconteurs connection makes a difference this time out.
16. Sweet/Hoffs: “Couldn’t I Just Tell You”: Rundgren was the only artist to get covered twice by Matthew and Sue on Under the Covers Vol. 2, and both selections come from Something/Anything? I adore their take on “Hello It’s Me,” with Matthew handling the lead vocal while his longtime cohort Greg Leisz plays lead with characteristic silkiness, but listening to this perfectly rendered performance of Todd’s power-pop classic, with its chiming guitars, layer-cake harmonies and eruptive bridge raises goosebumps as big as the ones that popped up every time I blasted the original on my KLH stereo back in the day.
17. New York Dolls: “Nobody Got No Bizness”: Todd produced the Dolls for the first time since their hugely influential debut album in 1973, and this winking chunk of strutting old-school R&B hews close to the spirit of their early days. David Jo’s dee-lite-ful spoken shtick also recalls “Loosen Up” from Todd’s teenage group the Nazz, itself a goof on Archie Bell & the Drells’ “Tighten Up.”
18. Derek Trucks Band, “Down in the Flood”: Another Dylan cover that honors the original without worshiping it. No longer locked into purist live-off-the-floor recording, Trucks layers the track with overdubbed parts over a groove as taut as military corners, interweaving an acoustic rhythm pattern, a keening slide part that sounds like a siren-like female voice and a shimmering dobro lick plucked right out of old weird America.
19. Bob Dylan, “It’s All Good”: Here’s the Bard himself, capturing the zeitgeist as only he can on a bluesy basher that finds him ferociously playing off the most obnoxious phrase in the current American vernacular. Dylan’s sensational combo, augmented by David Hidalgo’s Tex-ex accordion runs, powers through a deep-gut groove cut from the same rugged cloth as Modern Times’ “Someday Baby.”
20. Wilco, “I’ll Fight”: Here, over a ’50s-style acoustic rock & roll arrangement accented by Del Shannon-style carnival organ and hillbilly lap steel, Tweedy unleashes a lyric composed almost entirely of one-syllable words, hitting like a flurry of quick jabs and generating a sense of desperate earnestness as he works himself up to the ultimate vow: “I’ll die, I’ll die, I’ll die for you I will, I will, I will.”
21. Pete Yorn, “Don’t Wanna Cry”: Just heard this track in a promo for an upcoming movie (wish I could remember which one), and I expect music supes to jump all over it in the coming months, because it is the kind. A brokenhearted ballad sung with tattered intensity by Pete, as he goes from muted to unhinged, “Cry” splits the difference between Tom Petty circa Wildflowers and Sufjan Stevens circa Nebraska. Kidding—Sufjan hasn’t gotten around to that state yet, but Yorn cut this album in Omaha with Conor Oberst producer Mike Mogis and arranger Nate Walcott, who’ve crafted a stirring outro using a one-off orchestra of local horn players. Like “You Never Know” and “Magnificent,” this track sounds like it’s been around forever.
22. U2, “Unknown Caller”: The U2 of No Line on the Horizon is a six-piece that includes musician/cowriters Eno and Daniel Lanois, and the expanded lineup delivers the goods on this intoxicating slab of sonic bliss climaxing charting the course of a long night’s journey into day with a rare solo from the Edge that seems to part the clouds and let the sunshine in.
23. Sweet/Hoffs: “Back of a Car”: The most knowing proponent of the Big Star school, Sweet gets every nuance right as he burrows deep inside the stoned hormonal bliss of this Radio City cornerstone. Where other pop groups strive for perfect circles, Big Star worked with oblong shapes, and Matthew, more than any Chilton-Bell acolyte, understands how compelling the results of drawing outside the lines can be. If Picasso had been a rocker, he might’ve sounded like this.
24. Wilco, “You and I”: The perfectly imperfect coupling of Tweedy and Feist’s voices on this unabashedly tender duet ineffably captures the sense of wonder of a guy and a girl in a long-term relationship who are still discovering things about each other while keeping certain parts of their respective psyches private. “You don’t have to tell me . . . everything,” they harmonize at one key moment. It’s a way of saying that one and one makes three—lovely notion.
25. M. Ward, “Outro”: The Portland-based singer/songwriter has a way with words, spooling them into modern-day folk songs armed with metaphysical payloads, but I’m going with the instrumental closer of Hold Time—mainly because it’s so durn purdy. For what it’s worth, this shimmering nocturne, in which Ward’s tremolo guitar curls like smoke rings around the hovering strings, encapsulates the album’s collective contemplations with wordless eloquence, though it holds up beautifully on its own . . . or at the end of this playlist.

Sunday, May 24, 2009


Note: I was assigned this piece the spring of 2000 by Revolver, but the mag was recast as a metal monthly while I was working on it. So it s been languishing in my computer ever since.

In the early '70s, four youngsters from Memphis, the birthplace of rock and soul, put together a pop band (of all things) and proceeded to make music that merged the architectural majesty of the original Byrds with the charged mystery of Revolver-era Beatles, adding to this rich brew an element of anxiety that gave it a dark undercurrent not usually associated with guitar-pop music. In retrospect, the fact that Big Star remained improbably obscure during and after its brief existence only added to its appeal for subsequent generations of musicians, who turned each other on to this music as if it were a secret religion or a new drug. For Big Star acolytes like Dan Wilson, now of Semisonic, the band s obscurity rendered its music extra-beautiful. "I think the way Alex Chilton wrote songs actually might have put up a wall that most people couldn t get over, so the few of us who made it over the wall got the music plus the treat of feeling special."

"One of the coolest things about the whole Big Star legend is that they’ve always been such an enigma," says Ric Menck, co-leader of the Velvet Crush and longtime drummer in Matthew Sweet s band. "Big Star are right up there with the Velvet Underground as perhaps the greatest cult group of all time. The only other groups working in a similar style at the time were Badfinger and the Raspberries, both of whom had hits and therefore weren’t as mysterious as Big Star, who, of course, didn’t. This only adds to Big Star’s allure, and Chilton has been very good at perpetuating that mystery over the years by being incredibly idiosyncratic about his career and his regard for his former rock combo."

But what about the music itself? Where does Big Star fit in? Mitch Easter, the former leader of Let s Active and R.E.M. s first producer, tosses out some reference points via e-mail: "Obviously, there’s that slippery soul guitar thing heard on 'O My Soul,' 'September Gurls,' etc., that’s related to Steve Cropper, Joe South, etc., the George Harrison/other Brits Beautiful-Descending-Chords deal, like 'Back of a Car.' Generally [they purveyed] '60s-style writing, with some late-'60s/early-'70s guitar playing and flash drumming, which a lot of people were (sort of) doing, although only Big Star put it together at that time from that place. Sort of English-style prettiness, but with soul elements. People who make comparisons to, say, the Raspberries are right, except they’re completely wrong, y know? I just think Big Star was a real band, like the Beatles, and the Raspberries were formalist fans, like a tribute band to their record collections. I guess it was the words, and the soul and taste of the musicianship. And the fact that Big Star evolved (devolved?) pretty quickly (like the Truly Heavy bands) so that eventually, one has to look to, oh, Skip Spence s Oar for comparisons in the last days! But I think there are usually some legit comparisons, keeping them in sort of the mainstream of songwriting."

The original Big Star cultist may well have been North Carolinian Chris Stamey, who played bass in Chilton s New York band in '77 and the next year formed the Big Star-infatuated dB s as well as releasing Chris Bell's "I Am the Cosmos" b/w "You and Your Sister" as a single on his Car label. Following Stamey s kick-start, the myth grew through the '80s, aided by R.E.M. and the Replacements (although Easter, who should know, doesn t buy the much-cited Big Star-R.E.M. connection), until, by the early '90s, Big Star s influence could be heard everywhere, although only the initiated realized it.

The whole thing reached its crescendo in 1993. From where I sat at the time--the A&R chair at Zoo Records--I didn t have to look far for evidence, as Matthew Sweet made the dark epic Altered Beast, labelmates and recent Big Star converts the Odds released the tormented but melodious Bed Bugs, and Chilton agreed to play a Big Star reunion show with Jody Stephens and the Posies Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow, which we happily recorded and released under the title Columbia (after the Missouri college town where the performance took place). The Posies' own Frosting on the Beater came out the same month, April, the reunion took place, while the worshipful Gigolo Aunts (whom I kept running into at Big Star shows from San Francisco to London) came with their own covert tribute, Flippin' Out. Teenage Fanclub borrowed the title of one of Chilton s most memorable Big Star songs for its album, Thirteen. More prominently, Starophiles the Gin Blossoms and Counting Crows (who anonymously opened a Big Star show as "the Shatners" ) ruled the airwaves with albums made at hallowed Ardent Studios in Memphis, where Big Star had recorded.

That year also marked the commercial apogee and psychological flashpoint of another artist Ric Menck sees as being emotionally connected to Big Star and its leader as no other. "Back when Nirvana were big, everyone was constantly comparing Kurt Cobain to John Lennon, but to me he always seemed more like Chilton in that he was flawed and real and couldn’t portray himself in any other light," Menck pointed out to me in an e-mail. I m not certain whether Cobain ever listened to too much Big Star, but more than any of the groups on your list, I think Nirvana had both the sense of melody and pathos that Big Star had."

But most of the bands that aspired to pick up where their heroes had left off possessed neither the insight nor the talent for the job, according to Easter. "Nobody got the lyrical thing that the best Big Star songs had (I mean as in the lyrics ), which is why I’ve always cringed at every record I’ve heard that’s described as being like Big Star. To most people, that seemed to mean some kind of pop formalism that really missed the boat as far as I could tell. I mean, I find myself thinking, Those guys don’t even qualify for polishing Big Star’s platform shoes."

While I don't dispute that the bulk of the Big Star-influenced bands and artists fell far short of the lofty heights of their avatars, a handful did capture the elusive spirit of the source music--its juxtaposition of beauty and danger, the uneasy romance of angels and demons, or the seductive pressure of unexpected chords and oblong grooves against lithe melodies. Here s a subjective top 10 in this admittedly ambiguous category.

Matthew Sweet: Altered Beast (Zoo, 1993): If his classic Girlfriend (Zoo, 1991) reflected #1 Record s fusion of pop richness, smarts and heart, this gutsy follow-up paralleled the unlikely juxtaposition of troubling themes and lovely melodies of Third/Sisterlovers. Altered Beast shudders with anxiety, paranoia and mortal dread, as a young man anticipates the loss of all that is dear to him as he goes through his allotted years. Heavy and very real, this album is especially dear to Sweet's diehard fans.

Jayhawks: Sound of Lies (American/Columbia, 2000) Posies: On its second album since the departure of founding member Mark Olson, the veteran heartland band completes its seamless transition from alt-country avatars to pop-rock masters in the Big Star tradition, with the expert help of storied producer Bob Ezrin (Pink Floyd, Alice Cooper, KISS). The unlikely pairing results in a thrilling widescreen opus that merges '70s-style rockisms (screaming guitars, lush orchestrations, massive chorales), modern loop-aided grooves and the dlectable hooks that current bandleader Gary Louris is so adept at concocting. The life-affirming Smile is a compelling companion piece to 1997 s dark classic, Sound of Lies (American/Reprise, 1997).

Frosting on the Beater (DGC, 1993): Says Jody Stephens, who handpicked the Posies to fill in the holes for the reunited Big Star: "Frosting on the Beater does to me what all my favorite albums do: They surprise me with a sense of wonder much like the kids in ET must have felt when all their bikes took to the air." Also The Best of--Dream All Day (Geffen, 2000) for Auer's touching rendition of Bell's "I Am the Cosmos."

Matt Wilson: Burnt, White and Blue (Planetmaker, 1998): Says Dan Wilson, who once worked with his brother in avant-pop group Trip Shakespeare, "The melancholy of Burnt, along with chimy guitars and built-in downward-spiraling vibe, does make it the perfect reincarnation of Big Star."

Velvet Crush: Teenage Symphonies to God (Sony 550/Creation, 1994): "Although people are constantly comparing us to them, I m not sure anything the Velvet Crush has ever done is very much like Big Star," says Menck. Also Free Expression (Bobsled, 1999), recorded and produced by Matthew Sweet in his home studio, Lolina Lane.

R.E.M.: Murmur (IRS, 1983)
Also Lifes Rich Pageant (IRS, 1986)

dB's: Stands for Decibels (I.R.S., 1981)

Teenage Fanclub: Bandwagonesque (DGC/Creation, 1993)
Also Songs From Northern Britain (Creation/Columbia, 1997)

Aimee Mann: I'm With Stupid (DGC, 1995)
Also Bachelor No. 2 (SuperEgo, 2000)

Wilco: Being There (Reprise, 1996)

Monday, April 13, 2009


I’ve been wanting to do this for years (as one of my inductees famously ad-libbed), and was reminded of this long-intended mission by reading Barney Hoskyns’ RBP blog entitled “The Perennial Joys of “Godd” Rundgren, wherein he writ, “I think I’m more loyal to Todd than to any other single artist; I just keep coming back for more and more. Please discover the rabbit-toothed magus of rock if you haven’t already done so.” I second that emotion, big time, and extend it to the following loves of my life (inductees to the “real” R&RHOF excluded; 25-year rule ignored):

Todd Rundgren
Procol Harum
Gram Parsons
Little Feat
Big Star
Mott the Hoople
The Tubes
Roxy Music
Robert Palmer
New York Dolls
Fairport Convention
Crowded House
Lindsey Buckingham
Matthew Sweet
The Odds
The Jayhawks
Kings of Leon

Monday, March 23, 2009


Uncut, April issue

Whip-smart concept album twists the esoteric into arresting new shapes, makes a compelling case for the album as enduring art form.

Since relocating from his hometown of Missoula, Montana, to Portland, Oregon, and forming the Decemberists in 2000, Colin Meloy has been embedding archaic verbiage into songs that draw on the British electric-folk movement—particularly Fairport Convention—and prog-rock fantasias. Along the way, the lyrics of this former creative writing major have hewn to a rigorous style that evokes the rollicking seafaring yarns of Patrick O’Brian and the fabulist fiction of Steven Millhauser, with whom Meloy shares a piquant sense of irony. These aspects are readily apparent in the song titles themselves: “The Legionnaire’s Lament” from 2002’s Castaways and Cutouts, “The Gymnast, High Above the Ground” from 2003’s Her Majesty, “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” from 2005’s Picaresque and “The Shankhill Butchers” from The Crane Wife.

This penchant for tongue-in-cheek arcana (I suspect he’d spell his lyrics in Middle English just for laughs if he could get away with it) is accompanied by a thematic ambition that manifests itself in extended pieces like The Tain, a five-part, nearly 19-minute piece based on the ancient Irish epic poem of the same title) that takes up an entire EP, and the three-part title song of The Crane Wife, which spans 15 minutes-plus. Both are laden with orchestral motifs and movements crisply executed with standard rock instrumentation. Given all of the above, it’s a good thing that Meloy possesses a wicked sense of humor, and that his band plays with such visceral intensity.

The Hazards of Love, then, stands as a culmination of all these tendencies. Set in an enchanted forest, it’s a 17-track suite (I hesitate to call it a rock opera, but the term wouldn’t be far off) of striking musical and verbal intricacy that unfolds over the course of nearly an hour. This thumbnail description makes the album sound stultifying, but this is far from the case, thanks to a steady stream of surprises and a depth of detail that reveals itself incrementally, like the layers of an onion. But it takes just one listen for the key melodies, refrains and riffs to ingrain themselves, because they keep leaping out of the fabric. The title song gets no less than four parallel treatments over 18 minutes, the deliriously melodic “The Wanting Comes in Waves” comes up twice and the twinkling guitar figure from Chris Funk (who’s a cross between Richard Thompson and Wilco’s Nels Cline) that first appears in “A Bower Scene” and recurs in “The Abduction of Margaret.”

As always, Meloy sings with the accent of an American actor imitating an Englishman in a 1930s film, and one might expect that this stylized approach might get tiresome over time, but that’s a non-issue on The Hazards of Love. He shares the lead vocal duties with Lavender Diamond’s Becky Sharp, presumably chosen to play the part of the imperiled heroine Margaret because she’s the closest approximation of Sandy Denny Meloy could find, and My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Worden, who attacks her part as the forest queen with the confrontational eroticism of Heart’s Ann Wilson tearing into “Barracuda”. Additionally, the album is bedecked with stacked harmonies, with My Morning Jacket’s Jim James and the Spinanes’ Rebecca Gates joining in here and there. The guest list is completed by Robyn Hitchcock, who plays electric on a mid-album instrumental interlude – and whose “My Wife and My Dead Wife” would have fit right into this plot.

The Decemberists are now on their second major label album (having timed the jump perfectly, as did Death Cab For Cutie), and their following has grown to the extent that they filled the 18,000-seat Hollywood Bowl in a 2007 concert with the L.A. Philharmonic. In short, they know exactly what they’re doing, and that includes making sure their concept albums contain at least one hooky stand-alone track for airplay and encores. The last album contained “The Perfect Crime #2,” a pumping rocker that picked up where “Life During Wartime” left off, and The Hazards of Love sports “The Rake’s Song,” powered by a springy single-note acoustic riff from Meloy and savage drumming from John Moen, who plays with the relentless precision of Radiohead’s Phil Selway. The lyric concerns another cold-blooded killer, who systematically offs his children, celebrates when his wife dies in childbirth and, once he’s finally free, expresses relief rather than remorse. The tale would be horrific and tasteless if set in the modern world and described in straightforward language, but in Meloy’s deft hands it comes off like a newly discovered chapter of The Canterbury Tales.

If there’s a movie version, the Coen Brothers need to get the first call.

First things first, Colin: How do you follow what is essentially a Chaucerian rock opera? Pete Townshend followed Tommy with Quadrophenia; a scary precedent.
Wait. . .who?. . . what? Who wrote a Chaucerian rock opera? Did I? Hmmmm.

You mention a connection between Fairport and Black Sabbath, and I’m picking up a bit of Jethro Tull and even Heart. Specifically, what did you draw on musically from British electric folk and classic rock?
I was listening to the Smiths and Hüsker Dü during what should've been my teenage metal-stoner phase. I'm belatedly living it out now. I dress exclusively in nicotine-soaked denim and stand across the street from my house at lunch time, smoking cigarettes and hitting a 3' bong named "Schindler's Twist." My wife and child are understandably concerned.

I imagine you prowling used-book stores in search of source material. What are your primary literary reference points? Anything contemporary to go with the antique?
You do? What else do you imagine me doing? I'm thrilled that I seem to live a parallel life in your imagination. I wonder if you wouldn't mind imagining me lying in some quiet hammocked tropical veranda, drinking a mai-thai and being fanned by a modestly dressed "Breathless"-era Jean Seberg. Thanks. Perhaps you=2 0could imagine me reading some Dave Eggers, Gary Shteyngart or George Saunders -- they are three of my favorite contemporary writers.

Following this line, what do traditional idioms and classic literature tell us about modern-day issues?
As far as I can tell, the Brit folk revivalist were by and large drawn to songs that involved drinking, murder and rape. Anne Briggs' first record, the namesake of ours, "The Hazards of Love," included 4 songs that warned of just that -- the apparent hazards of being an amorous person in the auld days. I believe there were relatively more dangers that could befall your typical Spenserian teenager. A lack of prophylactic being a major contributor to this. But I a lot of those dangers remain the same. It's of the "don't talk to strangers" cloth.

Did the narrative lead you toward any particular themes, or vice versa?
I suppose so. I was just following the example of a bunch of old folk songs I was into at the time. They supplied the themes mostly.

Like “Perfect Crime” before it, “The Rake’s Song” doubles as a supremely catchy single, and another homicidal one as well. It’s intriguing how this corrosive and disturbing subject matter is acceptable when couched in archaic rather than modern language.
Yeah. I think that's one of the things that the folk revivalists were into. A lot of women singers of that era were arranging songs in which misogyny and rape figured kind of largely. I think they discovered it was safer to explore those sorts of themes in older songs -- it also gives an interesting perspective into sex relations in the 16th century.

With its seamlessness, this is emphatically an ALBUM in a singles era. Were you consciously doing your part to preserve or advance the form?
I don't know, not really. It just worked, I guess. I've always been a fan of ostentatious narrative records. This is our contribution to that form.

Hypothetically, if this story were to be made into a movie, what directors would be on your short list to bring it to life? I’m thinking Coen brothers…
Guy Maddin. Full stop.

Saturday, March 21, 2009


1. "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat," Beck, War Child Presents Heroes
2. "Get On Your Boots," U2, No Line on the Horizon
3. "No You Girls," Franz Ferdinand, Tonight: Franz Ferdinand
4. "The Rake's Song," The Decemberists, The Haazards of Love
5. "The Bones Of You," Elbow, The Seldom Seen Kid (2008)
6. "Magnificent," U2, No Line on the Horizon
7. "My Love," The Bird and the Bee, Ray Guns Are Not the Future
8. "Don't Wanna Cry," Pete Yorn, Back and Forth (June release)
9. "No Line on the Horizon," U2, No Line on the Horizon
10. "Eyes on the Horizon," Brendan Benson, unreleased
11. "Love at the End of the World," Sam Roberts, Love at the End of the World
12. "Ulysses," Franz Ferdinand, Tonight: Franz Ferdinand
13. "Down in the Flood," Derek Trucks Band, Already Free
14. "Never Had Nobody Like You," M. Ward, Hold Time
15. "Fixed to Ruin," Sam Roberts, Love at the End of the World
16. "Breathe," U2, No Line on the Horizon
17. "You Belong to Me," The Like, War Child Presents Heroes
18. "Move You (SSSPII)," Anya Marina, Slow & Steady Seduction: Phase II
19. "My Girls," Animal Collective, Merriweather Post Pavilion
20. "Unknown Caller," U2, No Line on the Horizon

Friday, March 20, 2009


Uncut, March issue

Lo-fi tinkerer completes his transfiguration into major artist.

When Matt Ward released his first solo album, Duet For Guitars #2, in 1999, he appeared to be yet another hermit in his bedroom with a 4-track recorder, inhabiting his private universe at the margins of the bustling indie scene. But through the course of the ’00s, the Portland, Oregon, native has progressively shown himself to be a multitalented art monster, popping up all over the map and establishing himself as a go-to guy musician. Among his many accomplishments: touring and recording with the comparably ambitious Conor Oberst and Bright Eyes; co-producing and playing guitar on Rabbit Fur Coat, the first album of Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis; forming She & Him with actress/singer Zooey Deschanel and concocting 2008’s soft-rock homage Volume One; and making significant contributions to the records of artists ranging from Cat Power to Beth Orton and Norah Jones.

Meanwhile, Ward’s own albums have incrementally expanded on the artist’s lo-fi roots, which put him alongside such fingerpicking solipsists as the Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle, Smog’s Bill Callahan, Will Oldham and fellow Portlander Elliott Smith. His studio output, which now stands at six LPs, reveals him as a virtuoso guitarist and expressive singer, a passionate conservator of American roots music and a purveyor of Big Themes. All that is special about Ward is encapsulated in the captivating “Chinese Translation” from 2006’s Post-War; it's an epic metaphysical parable enclosed in a lilting alt-country song, embedding poetic verbiage about the cycle of life into the playful arrangement with a Swiss watchmaker’s precision.

Ward’s heady and ambitious sixth studio album, Hold Time, finds him delving deeper into the sounds and themes of Post-War and “Chinese Translation”. The LP will undoubtedly be perceived by some as a religious tract because its rich Biblical imagery and intimations of immortality – and yes, he does thank God in his acknowledgments. But Hold Time is not an album-long testimony of belief; instead, it plays out as an extended meditation on the preciousness of time, the dance of life and death, and what evidence man can perceive of a spiritual dimension in the physical universe.

After the hushed opener “For Beginners,” the first of several contemplations of sin and salvation, Ward wastes no time connecting divine love with its human corollary. On “Nobody Like You”, he describes the redemptive power of true love via a lyric that intermixes the language of traditional songs (“I trusted liars and thieves in my blindness”) and Motown (“But now it’s just like ABC/Life’s just like 1…2…3”), in the finger-snappin’ context of a reverb-drenched arrangement straight out of Dave Edmunds. Then comes the sprightly, string-enhanced shuffle “Jailbird,” which follows the final minutes of a condemned man – one human who knows precisely when the life will go out of his body, which is what interests Ward in the subject. The words he puts in the mouth of his dead man walking directly address the album’s prevailing theme: “Save my soul ’fore they lay my old body down.”

It’s easy to get lost in Ward’s lyrics, but this artist’s thematic concerns can’t be separated from his sonic impulses, which deftly draw on the handmade sounds of Appalachian music, country blues, clapboard-church gospel and early rock’n’roll connect with his own roots. At the same time, the album has all the lo-fi signifiers, from Ward’s imperfectly doubled lead vocals – his wobbly baritone tends to sound like he has a chronic case of cottonmouth – to the gauze of reverb he throws over the tracks like an aural tarp. But these intimate elements co-exist with the most expansive arrangements of Ward’s career.

The album’s leitmotif is its lush, dreamy string sections, which bring a gorgeous poignancy not only to the metaphysical songs “For Beginners”, “Hold Time”, “Save Me”, “Fisher Of Men” and Epistemology”, but also to his radical reworkings of a pair of ’50s rockers, Buddy Holly’s “Rave On” (a duet with Deschanel) and Don Gibson’s “Oh Lonesome Me” (with Lucinda Williams), each slowed to the purr of an idling engine. A third cover closes the album; it’s the Sinatra ballad “I’m a Fool to Want You”, with Ward soloing existentially on tremolo electric guitar over vibes and clouds of synthesized strings, transforming it into the end-title theme for an imaginary spaghetti western that doubles as a wordless hymn.

“I have a lot of questions about that relationship between love and death,” Ward said in 2003. He’s pondering those questions in earnest now. This is a deep, delectable, utterly timeless work.

Can you describe the overarching theme of the album, and of "Hold Time" in particular?
its inspired by being asked where my inspiration comes from. its the hardest question in the world to answer, so i decided to make a record that tried to answer the question.

While listening to the new album, "Chinese Translation" keeps circulating in my consciousness. Is it fair to say the album is an extension of, or further inquiry into, the metaphysical realm?
i guess i m more interested in stories/songs that raise questions instead of pretending to have all the answers. theres not many elements of daily life that can take people to those areas - but i think music can.

With songs like "Epistemology" and "Blake's View," the album practically shouts Big Ideas. What are you trying to get at, and how do you avoid pretentiousness? Can a pop song actually contain this level of ambition?
lyrically, i wanted this record to begin to cover the "inspiration question" for me, so i think i was aiming higher than normal. production-wise, i wanted the big sounds i was playing with from "post-war" to be bigger and the smaller sounds to be even thinner. i wanted to find a balance between rich string sounds and thin, pawn-shop sounds.

Why did you decide to do the Buddy Holly and Don Gibson covers?
the short answer is that ive loved those songs as long as ive loved any song - theyre both love songs but also polar opposites - the long answer is that id like to erase any kind of timeframe on these records im making - i believe in healthy confusion when youre listening to a record - some kind of a chronological disorientation. i like it when i hear a song on the radio and i dont know how old it is, or where certain sounds are coming from. it was a thrill to duet with lucinda on "oh lonesome me" and zooey on "rave on" - their voices are completely opposite sounds to work with.

There's a gospel feel to the music and, in a refracted way, the lyrics on the album, especially as it culminates. What was behind the impulse to go in that direction?
this question reminds me of what its like for me to answer the "inspiration question" - i think the "impulse question" is just as good but just as confounding because i really dont know where it comes from - somewhere in my mind improvisation is equal to inspiration and instincts and impulses...

Your arrangements are more lush than ever before, and yet you've retained the lo-fi character that has always defined your records. Has lo-fi become an aesthetic principle for you, and if so, how would you define it?
growing up with making so many 4-track tapes, that sound is forever in my head and tied to my memory in some way so it has personal value - ive always viewed my larger studio work as an expansion on those sounds as opposed to a replacement.

Friday, January 2, 2009


Pictures and Sound, Pictures and Sound (Vanguard)
Randy Newman, Harps and Angels (Nonesuch)
TV on the Radio, Dear Science (Interscope)
Kings of Leon, Only by the Night (RCA)
Mudcrutch, Mudcrutch (Reprise)
My Morning Jacket, Evil Urges (ATO)
Beck, Modern Guilt (DGC)
Teddy Thompson, A Piece of What You Need (Decca)
Explorers Club, Freedom Wind (Dead Oceans)
Fleet Foxes, Fleet Foxes (Sub Pop)
Lindsey Buckingham, Gift of Screws (Reprise)
Ray LaMontagne, Gossip in the Grain (RCA)
Vampire Weekend, Vampire Weekend (XL)
Elbow, The Seldom Seen Kid (Fiction/Geffen)
Matthew Sweet, Sunshine Lies (Shout! Factory)
Death Cab for Cutie, Narrow Stairs (Atlantic)
The Raconteurs, Consolers of the Lonely (Third Man/Warner Bros.)
Robin Danar, Altered States (Shanachie)
Boz Scaggs, Speak Low (Decca)
Lucinda Williams, Little Honey (Lost Highway)
Coldplay, Viva La Vida… (Capitol)
Brian Wilson, That Lucky Old Sun (Capitol)
John Mellencamp, Life Death Love and Freedom (Hear Music)
Willie Nelson/Wynton Marsalis, Two Men With the Blues (Blue Note)
Shelby Lynne, Just a Little Lovin’ (Lost Highway)

Bon Iver, For Emma, Forever Ago (Jagjaguwar)

Neil Young, Sugar Mountain – Live at Canterbury House 1968 (Reprise)
Bob Dylan, Tell Tale Signs: Bootleg Series Vol. 8 (Columbia Legacy)
Nick Lowe, Jesus of Cool (Yep Roc)
Dennis Wilson, Pacific Ocean Blue (Caribou/Epic Legacy)
Blue Ash, No More, No Less (Collectors Choice/UMe)

Radiohead (@ Hollywood Bowl) gets the godhead award.
Kings of Leon (@ Nokia Theatre) is rapidly growing into the best rock & roll band on the planet, period.
Mudcrutch (@ the Tropubadour) set off a rollicking blast from the past.
Beck (@ Club Nokia) fused phat beats and arena-rock riffage.
Ray LaMontagne (@ the Wiltern) proved you don't have to be loud to be heavy (to borrow Tom Morello’s line).
Plant/Krauss (@ Santa Barbara County Bowl), I imagine, but there was a ticket snafu, so I can’t say for sure.