Archive for the Music Category

The Summer’s Best Record Is A Compilation of Velvet Underground Covers

Posted in Lou Reed, Music with tags , , , , , on August 15, 2017 by johnbuckley100

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Over an embarrassingly long span of time, we’ve made dozens of Velvet Underground playlists.  On cassettes, Mini Disks, and various i-devices, we’ve carried an encyclopedia of music all tied to a single band.  These playlists haven’t just been collections of songs by the Velvets, or covers of Velvets songs, but also that more ethereal if no less important sub-genre of music: songs by bands that would never have existed had the Velvet Underground not summoned them from dank basements and moody bedrooms.

In fact, a little over 10 years ago in this very space, we wrote about the concept of Velvet Underground music as notional, a category that actually exists more through bands they influenced than the four-album entity that broke up in the early ’70s.  That band, the real Velvet Underground of Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, Maureen Tucker and, what the Hell, Doug Yule, surely existed.  They were captured on the four original albums, the wildly variable official and unofficial live albums,  plus — and crucially — 1985’s posthumous compilation album, VU, which released so many great songs heretofore only heard as covers by other bands.  But like a truffle dog in pursuit of pungent underground treasures, our life has been enriched by the search for those great bands that, long after the real Velvets were gone, channeled them, brought them to enhanced life, and in so doing created the music we most adore.

If the main highways of rock’n’roll lead back to the Beatles, Stones, and Dylan, to Motown, the blues, and Elvis, to the San Francisco bands and early metal, our favorite potholed city streets go directly to the Velvet Underground via Spiritualized and Galaxie 500, Per Ubu and the Brian Jonestown Massacre, the Black Ryder, Mazzy Star, and Jesus and Mary Chain.  The Velvets existed, but their progeny did so much more, and no, we won’t repeat Brian Eno’s hoary invocation of The Velvet Underground and Nico as the record that launched 1000 bands.

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C) Joel Meyerowitz 1968

The Brazilian blog and record company, The Blog That Celebrates Itself, commissions bands from around the globe to participate in compilation homages to fave bands, from Echo and the Bunnymen to Spiritualized.  It was just a matter of time before they would get to the Velvet Underground.  Brace yourself.

After Hours, Velvets In Another View, which you can download from Bandcamp, has just come out and is, by some margin, the Album of the Summer.  Hearing favorite bands like Flavor Crystals play that most gorgeous of Velvets songs, “Ocean,” brings tears to the eye.  But everyone steps up, and as is the case with compilation albums, we immediately learn about bands we’d never heard of.  Thank you, The Other Kingdom, for your version of “What Goes On” — we will immediately become your biggest fan. The Tamborines’ version of “Heard Her Call My Name” will forever be on our Velvets playlists, Volume 63-102. Each of the songs here sound bright, as if the bands had money to play with.  And while Iceland’s Singapore Sling are veterans of the studio, as is proved by the pulsating version of “Sister Ray” that kicks off the album, we don’t know enough about Robsongs and Psychedelic Trips To Death and Magic Shoppe to grok whether the ace versions here of “Oh! Sweet Nothing,” “Run Run Run,” and “Heroin,” respectively, are par for their particular course, or just showcase bands getting their shot and going for it.

Maybe the only thing that really needs to be said about the grip the Velvet Underground has had on my life is that, in the final record he made with the band, Lou Reed wrote a song with these lyrics:

Jenny said, when she was just five years old
There was nothin’ happening at all
Every time she puts on the radio
There was nothin’ goin’ down at all, not at all
Then, one fine mornin’, she puts on a New York station
You know, she couldn’t believe what she heard at all
She started shakin’ to that fine, fine music
You know, her life was saved by rock’n’roll

Growing up in ear shot of NY AM radio, this was the story of our life.  While most reference to the Velvets focus on heroin, decadence, noise and squalor, to us they always were a band of uplift, of Sunday mornings and pale blue eyes. Of intelligent questions, like what goes on in other people’s minds.  Of wisdom and revelation, when you’re beginning to see the light.  And of beauty, and peace, like the drone of the cosmos in the sound of ocean waves.

The Velvets contained multitudes. After Hours, Velvets In Another View is the summer’s revelation.

PJ Harvey’s Astonishing Show At Wolf Trap

Posted in Music with tags , , on July 22, 2017 by johnbuckley100

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In the 21st Century, the only musical artist working with a conceptual breadth to rival Radiohead has been PJ Harvey.  Last night at Wolf Trap, with a nine-man band of shape-shifters who reconsolidated themselves, moment by moment, with emphases on percussion, horns, and strings, she accomplished what has become such a rarity: a live show of complex material that sounded so much better than the studio output.

They marched in like Buddhist monks about to perform the Black Hat Dance, nine men and a waif with a saxophone in her hands, and by the time they were into “Chain Of Keys” from last year’s D.C. travelogue, The Hope Six Demolition Project, the effect was astonishing.  The baritone saxes and all-men’s choir, the double drums and guitars, all allowed Harvey’s high, pitch-perfect voice to cut through the humid night air.  We say that her band, largely intact from her last album and one of the century’s greatest works, Let England Shake, sounded even better than it did in the studio, and so it did.  Paradoxically note perfect and looser, combined with a singer who over 90 minutes literally never hit a flat note, this was a live act on a tour you pray someone has the sense to let tapes roll so that that a rara avis can be captured: a live album you’d want to play instead of the source material.

The third song of the evening was “Shame” from 2004’s undervalued Uh Huh Her, but until she got to a mini-set of old songs three-fourths of the way through the show, the material moved back and forth between Hope Six and Let England Shake, with an emphasis on the latter.  Live, “The Glorious Land” was the perhaps strongest anti-war denunciation in musical history, as she hauntingly indicted America and England in growing “the glorious fruit in our land/the fruit is deformed children/what is the glorious fruit in our land/the fruit is orphaned children.”  She may have been singing about World War I, but at an outdoor show in Northern Virginia, with the Pentagon — the “Ministry of Defence” — so near, it was a searing indictment.

PJ 1Last year, when Harvey released The Hope Six Demonstration Project, it was proof that she operates on a literary plane different from her peers, because like her World War I chronicle, Let England Shake, it wasn’t simply an album of songs, it was an interconnected set of observations from her visits to Washington and Kosovo.  Widely criticized, including, perhaps, here, the put down was that she had taken a “windshield tour” of DC’s poorest neighborhoods and exploited them with a shallow rendering of their pathologies.  Last night, though, as the songs were allowed to breath in the hot night air, we changed our mind a bit, and found ourselves loving the material in a way we hadn’t last year, even as we included the album as #7 on our 2016 Top 10 List of albums.  And when she closed the set by bringing out Anacostia’s Union Temple Baptist Church Choir for “River Anacostia” and then “The Community of Hope,” all was forgiven.

To a non-PJ Harvey fan who was seeing her last night, we tried in advance to widen the frame of what to expect.  Don’t judge her, we said, in the narrow context of what kind of rock’n’roll show she puts on.  Harvey works on a level not dissimilar from Dylan, channeling all sorts of pre-rock influences, in her case going back to Greek theater. With her songs of war and the pain of missing children, this is musical theater as classic literature.  Oh, and also gorgeous rock’n’roll.  Last night, she did not disappoint.

The Rolling Stones in ’72.  The Clash in ’79, Gang of Four in ’80.  Alejandro Escovedo in 1997.  Yeah, PJ Harvey in 2017.  We won’t soon forget it.

Kevin Morby’s Gorgeous “City Music” Should Blare From Apartment Windows Everywhere

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , on June 17, 2017 by johnbuckley100

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Some years ago, when contemplating the life I would lead in New York after graduating from a college set in the fields and orchards of Western Mass, I would stare at the jacket of Donald Barthelme’s collection, City Life.  A couple in nightdress, he older and somewhat delirious, she younger and game for the dance, seemed to sum up how much better life would be in the big city.

Yesterday was Bloomsday, which celebrates unquestionably the greatest love song to a city ever written, and of course it was fitting that Kevin Morby released his magisterial new album, City Music. For those late to this story, Morby was the bass player in Woods, and co-bandleader of The Babies, and beginning in 2013, a solo artist whose powers increase record-by-record.  His paean to city life is as heartfelt as Joyce’s, and the respect he pays to certain moments in modern urban history resonates deeply with me.

The title track of last summer’s fine sophomore album, Singing Saw, invoked the magic of  Talking Heads’ More Songs About Buildings And Food, and on City Music, the sometime-New Yorker invokes Television, Talking Heads, Garland Jeffreys, Lou Reed, and the Ramones, to name just a few of Fun City’s champions. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that Dylan’s a New York artist too. Morby doesn’t.

In a lovely NPR piece published yesterday, Morby walks us through the album song by song. It’s worth a read, revealing as it does how this young artist absorbs influences and uses them as inspiration.  He cites “Marquee Moon,” as the source of the title track’s guitar sound, and it’s as fun to listen to as seeing Wilco cover the original by seminal New Yorkers Television.  On Singing Saw, Morby had the benefit of Sam Cohen as producer and a guitarist whose lines take these completely unexpected left turns; the ensemble assembled on City Life is a congenial and accomplished band that you’d love to see live.  Even on the slow songs, they swing.

Morby’s voice isn’t particularly expressive, but his songwriting and storytelling more than make up for it, and his ambitions seem to be growing.  On Singing Saw, songs like “Dorothy” and “I Have Been To The Mountain” were so strong that they masked weaker material elsewhere on an album that was pretty universally acclaimed, including in these here parts.  There’s no such problem on City Music: every song, even the cover of the Germs’ “Caught In My Eye,” will make you want to play this album loud enough to bug the neighbors in your stifling apartment building.

A year ago, when Morby was able to tell the story of how he picked up and moved from Kansas City to Brooklyn, landing a few weeks later in Woods — then and now, a highlight of modern New York bands — the notion of the Bright Lights, Big City luring him from the midwest placed his narrative in familiar terms.  In City Life, he’s made it, he’s gone from the periphery to the center, like Dylan, like Jimmy Reed of Dunleith, Mississippi, who wrote the song, and Jay McInerney of Hartford, Connecticut, who wrote the book.

Around the time that we sat in our college dorm dreaming of joining the party in New York, we fixated on another great work of its time, Raymond Sokolov’s Native Intelligence.  The novel begins with the college admissions essay written by a young midwesterner who wants to go to Harvard to participate in the intellectual discussions he imagines exist there.  The opening chapter ends with the admissions officer’s notes, written in longhand in the margins: “Grades, SATs, and high-school recommendations all very high.  We will, of course, accept him, but I think he is going to be disappointed with Harvard and depressed by Radcliffe.  Another case of great expectations in the boondocks.”

Thank Heaven young Kevin Morby got on that bus.

 

 

Holy Grail Alert: We Found Henry Badowski’s “Life Is A Grand” In A Digital Format

Posted in Music with tags , , on May 20, 2017 by johnbuckley100

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In June 2013, we asked a simple question: Is Henry Badowski’s Life Is A Grand THE great lost album of all time? After all, this perfect gem of an Eno-esque solo album, released by IRS Records in 1981, had defied the near universal jukebox reality we have lived in since the dawn of the CD era, when record companies, hot to sell everything a second time, brought virtually all vinyl records into a digital format.  It never came out as a CD.  It couldn’t be found as a legal digital download.  Unless you had the vinyl, or paid up for it, you would have to take the word of people like me: this was about as close to the Holy Grail of record collecting as a modern power-pop fancier could get.

Over the years, a fair number of people have read that post, linked to it, and commented.  Every once in a while, there is some spike in Tulip Frenzy’s traffic and it quite often comes from some diehard finding the piece and linking to it.  Henry Badwoski’s fans may be fairly few, but they are devoted.  As they should be.

I’d like to think that some people have learned about Henry from that piece.  After all, we said “the record is like a mix of Eno’s Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy and Bowie’s Low –– though it is so endearingly sweet, you have to imagine Bowie on ecstasy, not blow.  It is almost entirely upbeat, and the rhythm section could easily have been the Moxhams from Young Marble Giant — minimalist, spare — underneath Farfisas and simple keyboards.  All we see of Badowski from the album cover is a fey, Bryan Ferry head of hair posed near a hedge on one of those great British country gardens.  And that’s all we’ve seen of him for 30 years or more; he disappeared, at least on this side of the pond.  And the record?  It disappeared too.”  Who wouldn’t want to know more, to track it down, to hear it?  What self-respecting rock’n’roll fan wouldn’t be intrigued?

A few weeks back, someone commented on Tulip Frenzy that they’d found the record as a digital download on this here Internet thing.  And sure enough!  You can download “Life Is A Grand” here!

Now, let us say, we are opposed to artists not getting paid for their work, and have never participated in illegal fire sharing.  But there is no other way to get a digital file of this record.  And we justify posting a link to the site where you can download the record thusly: we bet that, if Henry is not going to be able to get royalties from his 1981 masterpiece, he would want people to listen to it.  To remember him.  To recognize that he produced The Great Lost Album of the post-punk era.

Happily, it’s lost no more.

Robyn Hitchcock Brought His Guitar, Sense Of Humor, And The Best Catalogue In Rock To His Two Nights At Jammin Java

Posted in Music with tags , , , on May 12, 2017 by johnbuckley100

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It is an article of faith in these here parts that the songwriter with the strongest collection of songs written over the final two decades of the 20th Century and the first two decades of this one is Robyn Hitchcock. For much of this Spring, Tulip Frenzy World Headquarters has rung with the chiming sounds of a two-hour long playlist of Hitchcock’s work going back to his time with The Soft Boys.  Our daily commute of late has passed far faster thanks to continuous playing of his most recent, eponymous album, his best in years.

Wednesday night at Jammin Java Hitchcock played a solo acoustic set featuring 20 of his own songs and a handful of covers.  Only one of his songs was off the new album, and just one more was chosen for our two-hour compendium of personal favorites.  Does this give you a sense of just how deep his oeuvre is? The show was, of course, brilliant.

Like Bob Dylan — his only threat in the Championship Round of the competition — Robyn Hitchcock’s songs are based on beautiful melodies, artful phrases, and an underlying sense of humor.  (“There’s a thin line between what you do and what you should/Every time I cross it I just feel insanely good.”) Both artists have surrounded themselves with great musicians, can easily shift between real rock’n’roll and quieter folk, write love songs with tenderness and irony, and are as much rock historians as they are musicians. (Though unlike Dylan, we can’t think of a Hitchcock song, even those that are mean, containing the least glimmer of misogyny.)

So why is Bob Dylan “Bob Dylan,” and Hitchcock playing solo before an audience of 200 or so at a small club in suburban D.C.? We have a theory, but first, more about Robyn Hitchcock, his hardest rocking, most complex, and best album of the past decade, and a bit more about that show Wednesday night.

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Hitchcock makes his home these days in Nashville, and thank Heaven he does, because his neighbor, Brendan Benson, was inspired to produce his newest record, requesting that it sound like The Soft Boys.  Robyn Hitchcock, released in late April, does sound like The Soft Boys’ two ’70s records, as well as his first solo album, Black Snake Diamond Role, which came out in ’81. Truth be told, it also sounds like the 19 studio albums he’s released since then.  That is the purest of compliments. Few are the artists who have changed so little over 40 years — and thank God for that.

To the uninitiated: if you want a good entry point to Hitchcock’s work, at age 63, his new album provides it. From the hard rocking opener, “I Want To Tell You About What I Want,” to the gorgeous closer, “Time Coast,” it touches every base.  When rock critters describe Hitchcock’s influences and antecedents, Dylan, the Beatles, Kinks, and Byrds are the first references, with those looking to score points throwing Captain Beefheart in — not because he sounds like Don Van Vliet (though they do each possess multi-octave voices), but because of his absurdist sense of humor.  On the new record, Hitchcock sounds like… Dylan, the Beatles, Kinks, and Byrds, which is to say, after 40 years of record making, he sounds like Robyn Hitchcock, an artist who should be in their ranks, but somehow isn’t, except in our house, and those of uplifting gormandizers.

On Wednesday night, Hitchcock dipped into his repertoire and sang in strong voice, the fingers of his left hand moving like a tarantula up and down the neck of his guitar, songs introduced with a stand-up comic’s storytelling magic.  It was one of those sets that remind us that live music can transport us from the tedium of the everyday into another, better world.

So back to the question of why isn’t this greatest songwriter of the past 40 years carried around in a sedan chair, his face adorning The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, dozens of bands referenced as Hitchcockesque? Other than the old standbys that life is unfair and there is no justice, we think there may be a reason, absurd though it may be.

Our theory is that, when the Soft Boys hit our shores in that second wave of British punk, and found common cause with the jangle of the dBs and other Big Star/Byrds and folk-infused bands like R.E.M., Hitchcock’s English eccentricities put him in a box.  A radio programmer might grok an incredible song like “Kingdom Of Love,” but with lyrics like these — “You’ve been laying eggs under my skin/Now they’re hatching out under my chin/Now there’s tiny insects showing through/And all these tiny insects look like you” — Hitchcock could be segregated into the Captain Beefheart box, chains wrapped around it, visible only via underwater moonlight, pushed away from the main currents of even “alternative” music.

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Over the ’80s and ’90s, Hitchcock released a powerful series of albums that occasionally broke through, with songs like “So You Think You’re In Love” getting radio play.  Hell, Jonathan Demme made a concert film and put him The Manchurian Candidate. By the 21st Century, he was putting out one amazing album after another — dip into Ole! Tarantula, or any of the Oslo albums, Goodnight Oslo or Tromso, Kaptein, and you will hear work deserving to be in the same conversation as Love & TheftModern Times, and Time Out Of Mind.  And yet there he was at Jammin Java, for financial reasons not even bringing the ace band of young Nashville tyros who played with him last week in L.A., stomping through a proper set of rockers culminating in the Doors’ “Roadhouse Blues.”

Robyn Hitchcock is a national treasure — and he’s ours now, fuck Britain.  His shows should be performed at the Verizon Center, or at least he should be able to tour, like his hero Bob Dylan, minor-league ballparks.  At Jammin Java Wednesday night, he began his two sets with Dylan’s “Not Dark Yet,” and concluded it with “Visions of Johanna.”  In addition to covers of songs by Nick Drake and The Doors, he played 20 originals spanning 40 years of our devoted fandom, 40 years of pleasure. His body of work is so rich he could play 19 songs not on our list of his greatest ones and the evening still was glorious. That he is hilarious and eccentric is his charm and his undoing.  No one and nothing, not even time and commercial neglect, can take away his greatness.

We Wish The Vacant Lots’ “Endless Night” Lasted Forever

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , on May 6, 2017 by johnbuckley100

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It might be easy to categorize The Vacant Lots as a sophisticated art project, given their album covers are as distinctive as their sound.  But from the very start, Jared Artaud and Brian MacFadyen proved their mix of garage psych and synth-driven pop was aimed at pleasing aural canals.  They have aimed to become a great band, associated with the likes of Dean Wareham, Anton Newcombe, Sonic Boom, and Alan Vega, and their debut album Departure has stayed on our playlist since the summer of 2014.  And yet none of this prepared us for Endless Night, which from its start to its historic finish is astonishing.

The duo, co-located in Burlington and New York City, gave us a fresh glimpse of greatness when their Berlin EP, a collaboration with Newcombe in his adopted hometown, came out last November.  It simultaneously sounded like the best of recent Brian Jonestown Massacre albums and the apotheosis of that swirling, disorienting sound The Vacant Lots had contributed to our permanent playlist.  But just a few months later, Endless Night shows that Artaud and MacFadyen’s vision has become realized.

Take the opener, “Night Nurse,” which has Artaud pick out a sinuous rockabilly lead above a disco beat, and quickly transports you into the demimonde of a tiny club, hermetically sealed against outside influences.  We’re going to be in for, well, a pleasurably endless night.  “Pleasure & Pain” is not the first of these songs to call to mind progenitors Spaceman 3 and Spiritualized, and in fact, “Dividing Light” has the power of Jason Pierce’s most compelling work.  Throughout Endless Night, the hitherto unappreciated juxtaposition of disco and techno, psych and soul,  rockabilly and garage, makes the blood pulse like Molly just arrived.

We said the album’s finish was historic, and by this we mean that Alan Vega of Suicide, who died last July, brings his final growl to “Suicide Note.”  What a way to go.

With Endless Night, The Vacant Lots serve notice that they’ve entered the front ranks, and we anticipate that when the story of 2017 is told — musically at least — and Top 10 lists are fashioned, The Vacant Lots will be among the last men standing.

The New Pornographers Play Their Best Album In Years At Their Best 9:30 Club Show Ever

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , on April 30, 2017 by johnbuckley100

the-new-pornographers-live-in-chicago-at-metro-april-2017-32Purloined photo with apologies and credit to Bobby Talamine of In The Loop Magazine

We didn’t need a reminder, but boy was it comforting to hear The New Pornographers play “The Laws Have Changed” early in their Saturday night 9:30 Club show in D.C.  Yes, in the real world the laws are changing, and not for the better.  Thankfully, in that 90-minute respite from our mad president that we spent seeing a favorite band play a delightful set, we learned The New Pornographers haven’t changed a bit, and are at the same time thoroughly new.

We didn’t miss Dan Bejar, though we recognize the blasphemy of these words.  As great as his songs are, as fun as his contributions have been, both live and on albums, the streamlined New Ps with just Carl and Neko keeping the bleeding heart show rolling worked wonderfully.  The show must go on, and backing an album whose thematic heart lies in “This Is The World Of The Theater,” it surely did. Joe Seiders had already proved himself to be a worthy replacement for Kurt Dahl on drums, and even on the Brill Bruisers tour three years ago we’d learned to relax; Seiders keeps the Niagara pounding going with no letup in its galvanic force, and has a few more tricks up his sleeve.  This was the best of the six or seven shows we’ve seen The New Pornographers play at 9:30 going back to 2005.

Which makes sense, since Whiteout Conditions is the best New Pornographers’ album since the by-now classic Twin Cinema.  It’s hard to remember that when that record came out nearly 12 years ago, it was bemoaned for how the band had lost the oddness and caffeinated sheen of their first two astonishing albums.  Now, of course, we recognize Twin Cinema as a high point in Western Civ (and we’re increasingly worried that 2014’s Brill Bruisers might be seen by future historians as its peak.)  Whiteout Conditions is a mix of everything we love about the band, bright and bouncy, profound when needed.  With songs like “High Ticket Attractions,” which we can’t get out of our head, and new approaches like “Darling Shade,” which sound like Martha and the Vandellas updated for the 21st Century, this Bejar-less edition of the band  flows like a lava tube off the edge of a cliff, powerfully smoking in the creation of new earth.

That The New Pornographers are one of our very favorite bands defies certain logic.  Ordinarily, we treasure the analog sound of Fender guitars played by punk bands and The New Ps feature keyboard-driven synthetic sounds polished to a high gloss.  They’re not exactly a guilty pleasure or a secret passion, for we play their recs all the time, but the pleasure we get from listening to them is a bit like wearing only natural fibers in everyday life, while enjoying the chance to dress up in polyester.  Carl Newman clearly loved songwriters like Brian Wilson and bands like ELO, and us, not so much.  But last night at the 9:30 Club this band — capable of the most intricate studio albums — played a wonderfully organic set with four-part harmonies intact, the songs building and building so that by the time we got to “The Bleeding Heart Show” encore, we could emerge from the club’s doors with a smile on our face, ready to face anything, up to and including all the laws that have changed.

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