News Bits: Jay Bennett Dead

bennett1This is old news now, but with word of his death I just want to say that Jay Bennett is somebody I sort of forgot about in the last several years. The unfortunate thing for his legacy is that he will always be remembered primarily (in the public eye at least) as the guy who Jeff Tweedy kicked out of Wilco in a very public way. That’s really sad for Bennett and for Tweedy because it doesn’t really all seem to have been as black and white as that. As someone who played in a few bands back in the day, I can bear witness to the messiness of intra-band relationships. Great friendships and creative partnerships can become strained over the weirdest and most unexpected things, and the blame is never quite so clear cut as it seems to the onlooker.

It’s really sad that the last word on Bennett’s life was that lawsuit against Tweedy. It makes Bennett look like a jerk and a sore loser, but I don’t really think that’s true or appropriate. I think you had a guy reaching to keep his dreams alive when hefty medical bills threatened to destroy everything he had. It’s just speculation on my part, but Bennett never seemed to harbor all that much bitterness toward Tweedy after he was kicked out of Wilco, and I want to think that although his motives may not have been the purest they nevertheless seemed necessary and inevitable to a guy who had fallen on extremely hard times. 

bennett2Anyway, not to dwell too much on all that stuff, I just wanted to post a little tribute to the late, great Jay Bennett, a musician and artist whose legacy is far greater than the credit he is likely to get. All you really have to do is read the liner notes to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot to see that he co-wrote 8 of the 11 songs on there and all you need to do is read this article to see that he contributed greatly to the sound of the album. The popular accounts all say it was a Tweedy/O’Rourke affair, but I sometimes wonder if that’s overdoing it a bit?

Bennett was a major creative force behind two other great records in Wilco’s catalog, Being There and Summerteeth, and there’s no doubt he made significant contributions to the Mermaid Avenue records as well. One can easily make the case that Wilco’s first great period ended with Bennett’s departure.

All in all, my favorite Wilco w/ Bennett work is the group of demos recorded for Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Since Bennett later recorded versions of many of these songs himself, it’s safe to say that he carried much of the songwriting duties. Personal favorites are “Cars Can’t Escape”, “Venus Stopped the Train”, and “Alone (Shakin’ Sugar)”, although there are several others that are worth hearing.

Here’s a few other interesting Bennett links:

Impromptu “Department Store” Interview with Bennett a few months after leaving Wilco – most moving is his tribute to Ken “I Was Wilco’s First Drummer” Coomer, with Bennett regretfully admitting the part he played in showing Coomer (apparently a good friend) the door

Download full album Whatever Happened I Apologize (free and legal) – just released it this year too, pretty good record

21 Reasons Why Jay Bennett Should Be Back In Wilco – interesting facts here, they claim Bennett is responsible for the melody of the awesome “California Stars”

Remembering Jay Bennett

Last of all, I’ll close with an upbeat little rarity of Bennett’s from back in the day, the silly little song “Junior.” To me, there’s nothing finer to close a tribute to the guy than to say that here was a man who never took himself too seriously, a guy who did it all for the joy of rock and roll, and a guy who I pray will rest in peace.

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Late Greats: MAGNETIC FIELDS Holiday

holidayI got turned onto Holiday after I downloaded “Strange Powers” for free somewhere. In case you haven’t heard, “Strange Powers” is one of the best indie-pop songs ever written, and someday it will get its own much-deserved write-up on here. But I will cease with the clap-clap for “Strange Powers” and simply sing the album’s praises overall. Holiday is a magnificent, trippy ride through a sugar-coated pop world. Most of the songs here are in the major key, so there’s nothing too ironic about calling the record Holiday, because in 36 minutes it leaves you with a nice sense of euphoria. “Desert Island” opens the record in highly lo-fi fashion, fuzzy guitars, ethereal vocals, woody percussive effects, and casio keyboard tones filling out a jam-packed mix. The musical mix is so thick that the lyrics never get a chance to leave a huge impression, but as with most Magnetic Fields songs it is worth listening a little closer to make them out in all of their hilarity, clarity, and sincerity. “Deep Sea Diving Suit” continues in similar fashion, starting to say something of Stephen Merritt’s overall aesthetic, as if he’s sifting the goof out of They Might Be Giants’ quirky novelties. “Strange Powers,” as already mentioned, is transcendent, hitting your ears with the same magic that Graceland-era Paul Simon hit them in the eighties. Merritt delivers some of his strongest images lyrically, and the music is lush and dreamy.

Much of the magic of the rest of the album comes from Merritt’s unorthodox lo-fi instrumentation. His uninhibited keyboard layering delivers wall-of-sound impact in humble packaging, but at the root of it all is imaginative and melodic songwriting. “Swinging London” and “The Flowers She Sent And The Flowers She Said She Sent” are personal favorites. “In My Secret Place” comes off, like much of the record, with a “here’s the Smiths’ lost demos” feel. I can easily hear a less self-impressed Morrissey composing the track in his bedroom in the early 80’s.

The lovely orchestration of “Sad Little Moon” show that Merritt had more than just keyboards and drum machines up his sleeves. “Sugar World” shimmers with an almost Joshua Tree wide open light, and its only in the last three tracks that Merritt begins to stumble just a bit, though even these tracks have their weird appeal in the right context.

Overall, this is an oft-overlooked record that deserves to be seen as the Rubber Soul to 69 Love Songs’ Revolver. It’s quite possible that this record has had a greater influence on current indie sounds than is normally acknowledged, even if that influence has been often indirect. Nevertheless, it’s highly recommended for any fan of the indie pop sound.

Classic Album, Quick Review: REM’s MURMUR

imagesMURMUR gets it right by starting out with the song that helped define a genre. Look up “college rock” in the dictionary and you’re likely to find “see RADIO FREE EUROPE.” It’s a marvelous piece of work, and the band’s restrained, confident take on the album version easily outdoes the rushed take on the early single version. The good news is that the restraint and confidence continues throughout the album, from the triumphant “Catapult” to the pensive “Talk About the Passion.” Still, there’s something of the post-punk fervor of the band’s roots hidden just below the mix. In true REM fashion, the songs are restrained because the band are holding back like true southern gentlemen. The revelatory issue is that MURMUR might have been a vastly different album if it weren’t for the fellows making the music. MURMUR is a rare debut – it serves as a sort of launch point for everyone of the styles the band would later explore.

BAND OF THE MONTH: Wilco in June

In tribute to the release of their upcoming seventh full-length record, I’ll be covering all recordings Wilco during the month of June. They’ve got a lot of little stuff our there, so I’m looking forward to highlighting some of their lesser known work. If you’re a Wilco-head or just looking to dig deeper on a great band, be sure to stop by and check it out!

Late Greats: Boundless & Starstruck

f56802k52joI have a soft spot for good instrumental rock, which probably explains why I don’t listen to much jazz or classical music. Boundless & Starstruck was a one-off non-profit benefit project from musical renaissance man Kevin Ratterman, probably best known as the drummer for Louisville ambient-core stalwarts Elliott. Boundless is a pretty good indication of what Ratterman brought to that band. From what I can tell, he was probably one of the two main architects of the band’s unique sound, and this record serves to document his ideas in their pre-False Cathedrals form.

There’s an overall lazy, meaning unhurried, feel to the songs here. While they pick up the tempo in a few places, Ratterman’s overall approach is to begin with a  melodic seed and let it blossom in non-linear fasion, and the aura created is mystical in a pastoral sort of way. The album always retains a slightly magical feel, stars bursting in the fringes.

Many of the songs come off as dream soundtracks, such as the stunner “To Watch One Sleep” and the regal “The Knight Shines.” More mournful tracks like “Death & Dying” and “Jay” maintain a nostalgic joy that keep them from ever ranging into the downer territory that can be a problem with this type of music. The closer, “Purple Azure”, is a quite literal example of the “painting with notes” style of musical impressionism that Ratterman seems to have been channeling the whole time, as he layers stroke after vivid stroke of ambient color over the simple opening guitar riff.

I don’t know that this record is still out there for consumption, but it remains one of my top Louisville records, hands down. While Ratterman did some great stuff in the Elliott collective, Boundless & Starstruck demonstrates that he’s a pretty formidable musical force all by his lonesome. It would be great to see another release from him one of these days.

Anyone else wanna give a shout out to this great record?

Late Greats: PALACE MUSIC’s Viva Last Blues

vlbThere’s not much I can say about Will Oldham of Louisville that hasn’t already been said. He’s managed to build a strong career by releasing engimatic and expertly crafted records of poignant not-quite-freak-folk and alt-alt-country. Back in the day, I was a high school freshman shopping at ear X-tacy and decided to pick up Palace Brothers’ Days In the Wake (then untitled, sporting only a poorly lighted portrait of who could only be Oldham). I liked it (it will one day get its own memoir here), so I picked up Viva Last Blues when it debuted just a few months later and I liked it too.

If Days In the Wake is Oldham’s Nebraska, then VLB is his Born in the USA. VLB was a resounding success, featuring several of his strongest songs to date. He’s never written a song that rocks quite as hard as “Work Hard/Play Hard”, and “The Mountain Low” is known for featuring Oldham’s most (in)famous lyrical turn. Understated tracks like “The Brute Choir” and the roadhouse swagger of “Cat’s Blues” ensure that VLB sports no filler, and at times Oldham seems like he meet just ignite through his vocals. VLB is a truly spirited record, short and perfect, but it’s the seventh song that really seals the classic status of this record.

“New Partner” is the kind of simple song that would be the crowning achievement of any songwriter’s career. The simple, bittersweet chorus of “You were always on my mind” is the perfect foil to the triumphant bridge: “I’ve got a new partner writing with me.” It’s a testament to the power of music that such simple words become so transcendent in the setting, but Oldham makes them magical.

VLB shouldn’t need a recommendation, but for anyone out there who’s never heard, it’s a magnificent record with far more layers of beauty than I could ever capture in a short review. For the record, highly recommended.

Shout Out: Nathan’s Key Principles

key principlesWinnipeg’s Nathan play something along the lines of western indie pop. Their 2007 LP Key Principles is thus far my only exposure to the band, and from what I can tell their sound is closely tied to the overshadowing natural beauty and mystic lonesome of the wide western praries. The band has a host of strengths in their favor – two sugar-tongued singers in Keri Latimer and Shelley Marshall, a strong sense of melody and harmony, and a knack for vivid lyrical imagery. Apparently these kids are all the rage in Canada, but so far as I can tell ain’t too many in Estados Unidos who’s heard of ’em.

The record kicks off with “John Paul’s Deliveries,” exhibit A in the case for Nathan’s songwriting excellence. The melody winds through the lyrics like a drive through the backroads as Latimer and Marshall sing a song about “listening to the crickets and the heartbeat of the dark.” It’s a good indication of where Nathan’s headed on Key Principles, with most of the songs inhabiting a sort of lost old town. A strange nostalgia is especially palpable on “The Boulevard Back Then”, where Latimer takes the lead and sings “I like to walk around my dark house/Preparing for the day the lights go out”, then remarking “You should have seen the boulevard back then/We’ll tell our grandchildren.” Here, as with all of Nathan’s songs, the phrasing is just as vital as the lyrics themselves, infusing into mere words myriad emotional layers.

The gentle dream-pop of “Trans Am” recalls the best moments of The Innocence Mission,  while “Scarecrow”, “You Win”, and “Malorie” groove with a sass that recalls four or five decades past. For me though, the most deeply affecting tracks are “The Wind” and “Ordinary Day,” the first a overcast meditation on futility and surrender, the second a heartbreaking track about hungering for loves lost.

NathanBathSMKey Principles is one of those albums that gradually knocks my socks off, if one can gradually have one’s socks knocked off. The lyrics so strong, the songs so captivating, the performances loose but full of conviction, Nathan is the kind of band that deserves worldwide fame and glory. I have a sad feeling that they’ll never achieve the kind of fame they really deserve, but really that’s ok. It gives me the opportunity to introduce them to others on a one-on-one basis, which is really the kind of exposure that does them justice. But the great news is that they have a strong back catalogue, and thus I have a feeling that I have found a stalwart of a band, one that won’t likely let me down in the years to come with each subsequent offering.

Anyone else out there heard Key Principles? What did you think?

Shout Out: Top 10 Emusic Purchases

I promise you I’m not getting paid to plug them, but Emusic has to be one of the coolest legal mp3 sites on the interwebs. You won’t find a whole bunch of major label stuff, but if your musical tastes occasionally stray into the indie, jazz, or classical categories, it’s hard to find a better bargain. On average, I’ve probably paid about 25 cents a track over the last year with Emusic.

Anyway, here’s a quick list of my Top 10 purchases from Emusic over the last year.

Nathan – Key Principles
The Magnetic Fields – Holiday
Ratatat – LP3
Four Tet – Rounds
Dinosaur Jr. – Beyond
Kathleen Edwards – Back to Me
Explosions in the Sky – All of the Sudden, I Miss Everyone
Faraquet – The View from this Tower
Josh Ritter – Hello Starling
Follow the Train – A Breath of Sigh

Reviews for each of these most likely to follow.

Anyone  else out there frequent Emusic? What are your top 10 purchases?

Late Greats: Lather’s A Modest Proposal

latherThis little gem from 1993 is about the closest anyone came in Louisville in the early 90’s to achieving the “alternative” sound that was gripping the nation and catapulting bands onto MTV over night. Don’t hold that against it, though. The influences are all obvious enough, and the youthful angst here deserves a capital “A.” But Lather’s only full length record (it’s really a long EP and a short EP thrown together in one collection) deserves mention because of a handful of positive qualities: dueling vocals, strong power pop melodies, and adept musicianship.

The record leads off with “The Draw,” a prime example of the Lather sound, the chorus featuring the aforementioned dueling vocals and a few time signature shifts that the band manages to pull off without notice from the casual listener. Also on show here is the band’s ability to add a genuine emotional edge to the music without coming off emo. It’s all rather lovely. Moving on, the band launches into “Sorry,” which features some excellent twin guitar work, followed by the mini-epic “Blindfold.” This was the song that really grabbed me as a kid. Though it begins as a catchy pop-punk tune, it closes in dark fashion, providing a strong lead-in to the first EP’s autumnal second half. “Yarn”, the fourth track, shows the kind of musical depth the band is really capable of, throwing old-school metal sensibilites into the mix. “Equinox” is a pretty acoustic track that slows things down, and “Suddenly” picks things up and closes the first EP in strong fashion.

“Confession” is the seventh track, probably the best song the band recorded, brimming with power and melody. At a couple of points the band almost sounds like it will lose control of the song. Particularly noteworthy is Brian Kaelin’s bass work – it really stands out and lends the band its signature sound. “Impaled” is good, but is overshadowed by the power of “Confession.” The record ends with the obtuse pop-punk of “Spitting Cell” and the nebulous and forgettable “Insolence.”

Overall, A Modest Proposal is a memorable record for a few tracks: “Blindfold”, “Equinox”, “Confession”, and “Spitting Cell.” These tracks alone show a band that might have been MTV darlings in the early 90’s had they cared to stick around long enough and tighten up their sound a bit.

Anyone else out there remember Lather?

PS Looks like you can buy it from Noise Pollution Records.

What’s News: A new Radiohead album (me happy!!)

Already been covered here, but I just want to be one of the hundred thousand people in the blogosphere that are sure to voice their enthusiasm about this. In Rainbows revitalized this band, and I have a good feeling that they have hit a creative groove. Anyway, here’s a short list of songs we know of that have not yet seen an official release (courtesy of atease). I’m sure they’ve got plenty more in the background.

Songs:

___ (a) pig’s ear / piggsee
___ burn the witch
___ mornin’ m’lud
___ no shame
___ pay day
___ spooks
___ suit don’t fit
___ unravel

BTW, I really dug what Colin Greenwood had to say about the recording process: “It’s at the stage where we’ve got the big Lego box out and we’ve tipped it out on the floor and we’re just looking at all the bits and thinking what’s next?…It was very noisy and chaotic and really fun,” says Greenwood.COOL!