Suspending Judgment: Arcade Fire’s “The Suburbs”

I’m not quite sure what to make of Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs. I, like most everyone else, came to love the band for their incredible 2004 debut Funeral, and I stuck with Neon Bible long enough to realize that it’s actually a pretty decent album. But The Suburbs hasn’t been easy for me. I’ve heard it compared to London Calling in scope, but I’m not convinced.

I guess the most frustrating thing for me is that I feel like the band is stagnating in both sound and vision. While The Suburbs most definitely has some killer songs, I guess I was hoping for something more revolutionary and ambitious, something that would threaten to both alienate old fans and gain legions of new ones, a record we could really divide into camps over. Instead of going all Radiohead on us with a Kid A (and setting the tone for the decade to come), the band has delivered what, in my mind, is their X&Y. And by the way, I like Coldplay.

Anyway, here’s what I do like:

  • “The Suburbs” – Great lyrics – “I want to hold her hand and show her some beauty before all this damage is done.”
  • “City With No Children In It” – Nifty sound. This is probably the most unique sounding track on the record, easily my favorite.
  • “Suburban War” – I love the stark, almost apocalyptic sound of this track. Very nice McGuinn-style guitar playing here.
  • “Sprawl II (Mountain Beyond Mountains)” – Makes a strong case that what this band needs more of is Regine on lead vocals. I thought the same thing when I heard Neon Bible‘s “Black Wave/Bad Vibrations.”

All in all, The Suburbs is a good, maybe even great third effort from The Arcade Fire. I just wish it was something I was breaking down doors to tell the uninitiated about.

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Placeholder: Rodan live video

Going on vacation, back to posting on 9/27. For now, enjoy this video of Rodan playing “The Everyday World of Bodies” from 1994. Glorious.

Peel-ology: Rodan’s 1994 BBC Session

Peel-ology is where I write about some or another Peel session. The Peel session has special importance for me because of the “mystique” that surrounds it. Oftentimes, bands come to the Peel session with a small set of songs that have never seen official release. For fans of arcane indie rock, that’s like the Holy Grail…

rodan (e wolf) Rodan’s 1994 Peel session holds a special place in my heart. On one hand, it was my introduction to the work of John Peel, the first time I had ever heard of a “Peel” session at all. On the other hand, it is the only hint of what one of my all-time favorite bands might have sounded like on their second LP. While all of Rodan’s members went on to have prolific careers in other musical ventures (including the Mueller/Noble vehicle Shipping News), there was a definite magic realized by Jason Noble, Jeff Mueller, Tara Jane O’Neill, and Kevin Coultas on their Bob Weston produced debut Rusty.

  • “Sangre” leads things off. It’s a slow, brooding, almost meditative track, featuring O’Neill’s distinctively moaning vocals and some excellent high-fret guitar work from Jason Noble. I swear, when this song kicks in, I see thunder. That’s the only way I know how to put it.
  • “Big Things, Little Things” might be the closest Rodan ever came to “poppy”, figuring brightly between the other two tracks here. I love the bass work here. In my book, TJ is one of the best indie bassists of all time.
  • For all the greatness of the other tracks, “Before the Train” most successfully captures what made this band great. A 10-minute-plus instrumental (with the exception of the spoken “I’ve seen things you wouldn’t believe”), the song evolves from elastic, visceral post-punk into quiet, spectral neo-classicism, only to re-emerge in a furious explosion of noisy, angular fury. This track contains, in a nutshell, everything that made Rodan special.
  • Kevin Coultas’ drumming totally blows me away. Rodan went through 3 drummers in their existence, but it was Coultas’ imperfect-in-all-the-right-ways work that transformed the band from mere post-rock into epic chamber-punk. His drumming helped the band achieve the monstrosity of sound that their name implies.
  • It’s John Peel who, between tracks, mentions that the band will be returning to the US in just a few weeks in order to complete their follow-up LP. I guess a lot can happen in 2+ months.

So there you have it. In September of 1994, the band played its last show and fractured into several different bands, including June of 44, Rachel’s, Sonora Pine, and Retsin (Shipping News & Tara Jane O’Neil’s solo work would come later). There are a few low-quality bootlegs floating around that feature other, untitled tracks, some of which made it onto the debut records of the above-mentioned bands. But this stunning Peel session is the only studio indication of what might have been.

you can download the whole Peel session from this site

Career In Brief: June of 44

I came to June of 44 via Rodan. I became a huge fan of Jeff Mueller’s first band after hearing their album Rusty in early 1995, only to learn that they had broken up shortly after its release. Fortunately, the creative forces behind that musical beast were only getting started, and just a few months later June of 44’s Engine Takes to the Water hit the streets. Mueller joined forces with members of Codeine, Lungfish, and Hoover, and the band was termed an indie rock “supergroup” at the time. Mueller could sort of be seen as continuing to carry the mantle of Rodan’s angular, slightly cerebral post-rock with June of 44, but it also gradually became clear that he was looking to move beyond it. The band continued releasing records at a pretty frequent rate, and they started exploring unorthodox instrumentation and incorporating the musical influence of jazz fusion outfits like late-era Miles Davis. The band quietly called it quits in 2000. They have often been cheekily termed “boat rock” for incorporating manifold nautical themes into their music, but for me and other fans, their “hipster prog” was one of the most appealing things about the band. Four Great Points is their masterpiece, but I think Engine Takes to the Water remains the best introduction to the band, so start there.

MAJOR/NOTABLE RELEASES:

Engine Takes to the Water [1995] (B+): Recorded right on the heels of Mueller’s stint in Rodan, this is the band at its most Slint-inspired, and I think some of these tracks may even be the result of leftover sketches from Rodan’s final days. That being said, Engine Takes to the Water is no mere Mueller vehicle. The creative influences of all the members are highly evident, from the trumpet work of Fred Erskine to Doug Scharin’s thunderous and precise drumming. For all of the dynamic wonder of “Have a Safe Trip, Dear”, the best tracks are the most subdued. “I Get My Kicks for You” and “Sink Is Busted” really shine in retrospect. R: “I Get My Kicks for You”, “Have a Safe Trip, Dear”, “Sink Is Busted”. (buy from Amazon)

Tropics & Meridians [1996] (B): It didn’t take long for June of 44 to establish themselves as indie rocks heroes, and Tropics & Meridians opens with what was probably their grandest musical statement, the lumbering, tension-driven, cybernetic post-rock of “Anisette.” “Lusitania” considers things maritime and tragic in a vein quite similar to the band’s first record, but it is “Lawn Bowler”, a rustic, rickety, shadow-laced instrumental that shows the band striving for something different. “June Leaf” is good but typical, and “Arms Over Arteries” recalls the finer, quieter moments of Engine Takes to the Water. The final track, “Sanctioned in a Birdcage”, is a curious affair, the band’s first approach to the noise-jam approach they would take on later releases. R: “Anisette”, “Arms Over Arteries”. (buy from Amazon)

The Anatomy of Sharks EP [1997] (A-): The Anatomy of Sharks marks a creative turning point for June of 44. While the highlight of this 3-song extended player is most definitely the uncharted nautical epic “Sharks & Sailors”, the record’s second track, “Boom”, is a harbinger of things to come. Essentially the band’s first foray into jazz fusion, it features an exotic trumpet passage belted above repetitive drum rhythm. Final track “Seemingly Endless Steamer” should not be missed. R: “Sharks & Sailors”. (buy from Amazon)

The Four Great Points [1998] (A): 4GP is the record where June of 44 achieved a winning synthesis of their angular post-rock and their fusion-inspired jazzier imaginings. Album opener “Information & Belief” delivers like a prettier “Anisette”, while “Cut Your Face” blazes ahead at a faster pace than we’re used to, but it’s first-listen head-scratchers like “Lifted Bells”, “Shadow Pugilist”, and “Air #17” that keep you coming back for more. This is a great record, equal-parts post-Slint hard rock and post-Tortoise sonic landscaping. Highly recommended. R: “Information & Belief”, “Lifted Bells”, “Air #17”. (buy from Amazon)

Anahata [1999] (C): Suffering from a sub-standard recording and a hap-hazard approach to song-writing, Anahata comes off as the band’s attempt to take the trance-inducing experimentalism of the last few recordings to the next level. Opening with an apparent re-write of The Anatomy of Sharks’ “Boom”, “Wear Two Eyes (Boom)” jumps right into things but fails to live up to the opening track standards that, by now, June of 44’s fans have come to expect from them. While the rest of the record has its moments, with “Escape of the Levitational Trapeze Artist” and “Equators to Bi-Polar” both achieving success in the band’s new style, attempts to write more traditional songs, like “Cardiac Atlas” and “Southeast of Boston”, come off with little impact. R: “Escape of the Levitational Trapeze Artist”, “Equators to Bi-Polar.” (buy from Amazon)

In the Fishtank EP [1999] (B): Thankfully, after the disappointing Anahata, the band closes its career on a high-note with the spontaneously-conceived In the Fishtank EP. Given 2 days to record, this is where the band captured more perfectly the sort of open-ended, live feel that they attempted on Anahata. The results range from meditative and sublime (“Henry’s Revenge”) to energetic and propulsive (“Modern Hereditary Dance Steps”) to languid and funky (“Every Free Day a Good Day”). The rest of the EP consists of a cycle of tracks (“Pregenerate”-“Generate”-“Degenerate”) that succeeds in lending the record a necessary overall unity. R: “Henry’s Revenge”, “Modern Hereditary Dance Steps”. (buy from Amazon)

other/rarities: The band released most of their recorded output on their major releases, with one notable exception: the magnificent Rivers & Plains”, released in 1995 on the Lounge Ax Defense & Relocation Compilation CD. This track is well worth seeking out (sample it below), and is perhaps the best single recording June of 44 achieved. There are live recordings of album tracks to be found in different places, and there was also an extremely rare “Magic Eye” single recording of a song titled “1000 Paper Cranes” credited to June of 44, although it sounds like it was probably only Jeff Mueller on an answering machine.

Worth Repeating: Bob Dylan, Song and Dance Man

I’ve seen bits and pieces of Bob Dylan’s 1965 San Fransisco press conference before, but I gain a greater appreciation for it the more I think about the creative process of an artist. Art becomes so much more than what the artist intends, and I think it is a sign of good art when it impacts different people in different ways. Some of the questions Dylan gets asked are just so naive, but he really is a song and dance man. Check it out for yourself…

Some of my favorite quotes:

“Mr. Dylan, I know you dislike labels.
For those of us who are, uh, well over 30, could you label yourself and perhaps tell us what your role is.”

Well, I’d label myself as ‘well under 30’.  (Audience laughter.)
And my role is to just stay here as long as I can.”

*********************************

“Do you think of yourself more as a singer or as a poet?”

“I think of myself more as a song and dance man.”

**********************************

Reporter: How many people who labor in the same musical vineyard in which you toil – how many are protest singers? That is, people who use their music, and use the songs to protest the, uh, social state in which we live today: the matter of war, the matter of crime, or whatever it might be.

Bob Dylan: Um…how many?

Reporter: Yes. How many?

Bob Dylan: Uh, I think there’s about, uh…136.

Reporter: You say about 136, or you mean exactly 136?

Bob Dylan: Uh, it’s either 136 or 142.

Worth Shouting About: Givers

I’m certainly not the first one to recognize something noteworthy about Givers of Lafayette, Louisiana. Paste, Spinner, and others beat me to the punch. However, they certainly get a “highly anticipated” vote from me based on what I’ve heard so far. Seeming to combine influences ranging from Flaming Lips to Peter Gabriel to Talking Heads to Vampire Weekend, I’m thinking these guys will be playing SNL sometime around summer 2011. It may be effervescent, but I’ve got a gut feeling that the bubbles are only the run-off from a hyper-creative hot spring residing in this collective. For now, go ahead and enjoy yourself some free mp3s via Daytrotter (below) and get to know this band before everyone else does.

get the Daytrotter session

get their debut EP

Tracknotes: “Horses” by Palace

horsesBefore he was Bonnie “Prince” Billy, he was Will Oldham, and before that he was Palace Music, and before that he was Palace Brothers, and before that he was Palace, and before that he was Palace Songs, and really, all of the Palace monikers got shuffled about without making any apparent sense.  Originally released in 1994 as a 7″ single on Drag City.

[Turns out “Horses” was written by Sally Timms & Jon Langford of The Mekons, first released on Sally’s LP Somebody’s Rockin My Dreamboat in 1988. Thanks to reader Tom H. for pointing this out. Mea culpa.]

Old (classic) version:

  • “I’d be riding horses if they let me…”, “Everybody needs an angel/But here’s that devil by my side…” Fantastic lyrics here. It’s a pretty simple little strummer, but the lo-fi recording makes all the difference.
  • This is basically Will Oldham + Slint. The four Spiderland players form his backing band here, and that’s David Pajo shredding the frets late in the song. Interestingly, it appears that this track pre-dates most of the other Palace material, and even Spiderland. The A-side label for the 7” single lists a 1988 copyright for Low Noise Music. Anyone know anything about the producer, Steve Good?
  • Not too sure how I feel about the updated “Nashville session” recording. The original is such a classic, was it really necessary? I’m a sucker for the mandolin and all, but some things should just be left alone.
  • Probably one of the all time great tracks in at least 2 genres: indie & alt-country. I have to say I’m surprised this one doesn’t see more covers.

New (decent) version:


Tracknotes: “Lemon” by U2

Big Lemon Of U2’s albums, the record that has grown on me most over time is undoubtedly Zooropa. The record that nipped at the heels of the classic Achtung Baby!, Zooropa was heavily steeped in a European irony that made it, in terms of U2 albums, almost inaccessible to American audiences. After all, the debut single from this album was “Numb.” But there are some great tracks on Zooropa (“Stay (Faraway So Close!)”, “Somedays Are Better Than Others”, “The First Time”), and chief among those is the epic kraut-pop of “Lemon.”

  • This song has a great back story. At one point in the early 1990s, a relative sent Bono an old home movie of his mother wearing a lemon-yellow dress as the maid-of-honor at a wedding. Bono was extremely moved by the footage of his deceased mother as a young woman, and the song is about the power of images to stir our memories and our emotions.
  • The video is intended to mimic the first motion picture ever created, a “moving picture” of a rider and horse by a man named Eadweard Muybridge.
  • The lyrics are deeply stirring: “She is the dreamer/She’s imagination/Through the light projected/He can see himself up close.” In my opinion, with this track U2 nailed the paradox that they were trying to capture in the 90’s, that of the extreme humanizing and de-humanizing effects of technology.
  • The guitar sound is amazing. The Edge apparently stumbled upon a gated guitar effect that went perfectly with a drum and bass pattern that he’d put together in the middle of a tour. Still, I think the piano interlude makes the song. It adds the “sehnsucht” to the track that is the key to any great U2 song.
  • All in all, this is one of my favorite U2 tracks. The unique sound of the song, the watery guitar effects, the gorgeous melody, the backstory – it all combines to make classic U2, and one of the most innovative pop songs I’ve ever heard.

Late Greats: My Favorite Tracks from Michael Been of The Call

michael been I can’t remember the last time an artist’s death struck me as deeply as the loss of Michael Been of The Call. I guess I can attribute it to several factors: Been’s incredibly human, affecting delivery; their status as a “never-quite-was” band; the fact that they had only hit their stride with 1990’s Red Moon and then called it quits; but most of all his music. I suppose I feel that the humility and emotional depth of the band’s music serves as a sort of antidote for the trite product that we often label “music.” I don’t intend to look down on anyone, but Been was a bird of a different feather from your average pop star, both then and now. No one wrote or performed songs quite like Michael Been.

So I guess what I want to do here is run through a few of my favorite tracks, tracks that reach a little deeper into The Call’s back catalog, and give a little more exposure to this man’s beautiful music. I hope his memory lives long – I think he was a sort of under-recognized treasure to the world of music, an artist who never fit any particular mold but made great music that was completely true to his own vision. So enjoy the clips…

”Red Moon”
Although this track is certainly not typical of The Call’s sound, it’s just beautiful. Been paints a lyrical picture that seems to follow a man through the stages of his life, dressing it in a simple song that almost comes off as a lullabye. And I guess that’s what I love about this track – it’s almost as if Michael is addressing the song to a child, a subtle admonition to take nothing that comes in this life for granted.  “A warm wind and a red moon and the world goes by…”

”What’s Happened to You”
Michael takes a cue from Van Morrison on this gorgeous track, the opening cut from Red Moon. Notably, he’s joined on the chorus by Bono, who (thankfully) lets Been take the lead. The track seems addressed to someone who has emerged into joy from a deep darkness. This is the sort of track that you can’t help but sing along with, and Been masterfully plays the song leader. “Did you see some great vision/Did you finally break through/Did you shake the foundations/What’s happened to you?”

”You Run”
”…but you can’t escape the reach of love.” I wonder how autobiographical this particular track is, especially coming just on the heels of the intensely dark Into the Woods. Again, the intensity and immediacy of Been’s vocal delivery makes for sonic gold.

”A Swim in the Ocean”
The Call uncharacteristically took a shuffling blues approach on this track, employing a poor man’s music style to deliver a rebuke to the wise of the world. They prove their musical flexibility, giving me one more reason to lament the fact that they didn’t continue into their second and third decades.

”I Don’t Wanna”
This is perhaps Been’s most powerful vocal performance. There is a point in this song where he sounds like he might just come apart at the seams. I can only imagine how transcendent it would have been to see this song performed live. I get chills just thinking about it.

“Become America”
This song was actually recorded as part of the band’s attempted comeback in the mid-90’s. There is a sort of heartland quality to this track, with Been delivering a spiraling lyric that seems to lift America up to the Almighty, asking for mercy for all her sins.

”Uncovered”
I can’t think of a more fitting way to say goodbye to the man. There is something so final and vulnerable about this track. There’s really no use describing it in words – it simply must be heard. The closest touchpoint is Dire Straits’ “Brothers In Arms”, but just listen already…

There’s plenty more goodness to “uncover” with The Call. While most of their LPs are out-of-print, if you like what you hear, you can purchase mp3s through Amazon, and most of their old records and CDs can be found in hard copy via eBay.

So long Michael. Rest in peace…

Worth Shouting About: The Young Scamels


“The Tempest” by The Young ScamelsScamelsWebsite_Cloud_500

More wonderful rock and roll forthcoming from the apparently indomitable Jason Noble:

Formed in late 2007 for a production of Shakespeare’s “THE TEMPEST” at Actors Theatre of Louisville, directed by Marc Masterson. The show ran from January to February 2008, then we recorded the majority of the album live with KEVIN RATTERMAN (Wax Fang). Additional editing and recording continued in 2009. Mastering was completed in December 2009. Our release date is now set for September 21st, 2010. The CD will be available at independent record stores { distributed by the fine folks at Carrot Top Records }. The Digital Download version will be available through the kindness of FILE 13 records {http://www.file-13.com/}.

OK, why wouldn’t I be excited about this?

  • Post-rock from Louisville? Check.
  • Shakespearean influence? Check.
  • Guitar work courtesy of Jason Noble of Rachel’s, Rodan, Shipping News, etc? Check.
  • String-work from Christian Fredericksen of Rachel’s? Check.
  • Nautically-themed? Check.

It’s as if they asked themselves “What kind of record would that guy at Sweet Georgia Breezes want to hear?” Thanks guys – you are, in fact, super-duper.

And check out their MySpace site for more clips.