Archive for November, 2005

Defeat the Homeless

Thursday, November 24th, 2005

Now, here’s a war I can get behind.

Emerging from the ATM yesterday – none the richer, since some vengeful deity has decreed against my having any money this week – I encountered one of the ubiquitous United Homeless Organization tables. Usually the pitch is some variation of “Give just a penny to help feed the homeless.”

Yesterday the table was womanned by a lady calling out very clearly, “Give a penny, help defeat the homeless.”

If I’d had a penny to spare, I might have done it. I would very much like to defeat the homeless. Actually, I would like to defeat anyone. I would love to experience the thrill of victory. To gloat, to crow, to lord it over my vanquished enemy. The homeless? Bring ‘em on.

Like some intellectual Al Bundy, my victories came early in life. Leading my eighth-grade class to victory over Russell’s class in the big current-events trivia match. Receiving some academic awards. Getting into Harvard (much harder than getting through it, by the way). Getting the girl I was madly in love with to marry me.

But where are the victories now? Whenever do mature adults get to win things? These days I can’t even win an argument.

Sure, you can call a radio station and win passes to a concert, or buy a lottery ticket that returns a few bucks. But that’s winning against chance. Where’s the joy of defeating a real foe? Where?

I guess it’s like the great composer Charles Ives said: “Prizes are for children.” Except if you get famous. Then you can accept your Oscar or Emmy or Grammy, graciously thank all the people who got you where you are, and go home and gloat.

But not us regular people. So I give up. You win. Satisfied?

Interview with Magnatune Founder John Buckman

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2005

Over the past decade countless Internet music ventures have gone down the drain. Sometimes it seems as if today only a giant (and gigantically rich) company like Apple with its iTunes store and software tie-in can succeed in music-download sales.

Magnatune is helping to prove the contrary. On the heels of its quietly revolutionary announcement that customers may share their uncompressed-audio music purchases with up to three friends, the online record label and store has seen a 40% increase in sales. I spoke by email with Magnatune founder John Buckman about his new offer to “fill your iPod for $200″ and, generally, about what he’s doing right and what the music industry on the whole is doing wrong.

A basic element of Magnatune’s business plan is that although it sells directly to the customer, it also deals directly with the artists, who are signed to non-exclusive distribution agreements and receive 50% of the proceeds from sales of their music. The lack of an intrusive middleman is what makes this equal partnership economically and conceptually practical. With traditional record labels, creativity in marketing is discouraged, when it’s needed now more than ever; “Every business idea [the artists] have needs to be approved by the record companies [which] control the music,” Buckman says.

Native Internet companies aren’t immune from seemingly nonsensical thinking, either. When Real.com, through its Rhapsody service, cut its prices in half and sold ten times more music downloads, it ended up “paying the record companies more per song than they were charging, despite the fact that the tenfold increase in sales meant five times more revenue for the record companies. Basically,” says Buckman, “I pity anyone who has to convince record company executives of new business models: that’s a short path to insanity.”

Magnatune customers set their own prices, paying what they feel an album is worth (plus a fixed additional fee if they want a physical CD, including full artwork, mailed to them). On average, the artists receive $4-$5 per album sale, far more than artists on major labels get. And while that may be somewhat less than the typical take from a CD sale at the revered online indie record store CD Baby, and less (percentage-wise) than the latter pays out for download sales via its digital distribution service, Buckman explains that CD Baby is a very different beast: “CD Baby doesn’t promote your CD, it’s a shopping cart [and fulfillment house] for you to send orders to, from your [the artists's] web site. Cargo Cult, for example, one of Magnatune’s best-selling artists, sees fewer than 10 sales a quarter from CD Baby yet sells hundreds of copies in that same time frame on Magnatune. That’s no failing of CD Baby, they simply have a different mission: CD Baby sells your CD to people who already want to buy it. Magnatune finds people and gets them to want to buy your CD. Totally different things, equally valid.”

Things aren’t quite that cut and dried: CD Baby does provide a recommendation engine and offer some promotional possibilities; conversely, Magnatune artists do have their own websites, from which they link to Magnatune. But Buckman’s distinction between a “boutique” store/label like his and a supermarket like CD Baby is important. Any artist can sell through CD Baby: currently it offers CDs from a staggering 112,000 indie musicians and bands. Magnatune’s 200 or so artists, by contrast, have been selected carefully by Buckman and his small staff. It so happens, for example, that Magnatune has an excellent roster of early (e.g. baroque, or pre-Classical) music, of which I am a fairly big consumer. Having bought several albums and sampled numerous others there, I know that most anything Magnatune offers in that genre will be something I would want to have. So, for me, Magnatune has become a destination in itself. And when I buy music there, I know that 50% of my purchase price will be going directly to the artist. Hence I am getting not only music I like but the satisfaction of knowing I am truly supporting the musicians.

For its musicians, Magnatune offers more than a storefront. It employs “a full time PR agency that does nothing but send our CDs out to magazines and websites for reviews. We’re constantly getting major PR.” This week’s issue of Time Magazine, for example, lists Magnatune among the top 20 music websites; a full page story in The Economist appeared recently; “and those stories usually feature our artists. Not to mention podcasters playing our music, our network of partner web sites (Webjay, iRate, last.fm) and others.” Buckman has a refreshingly radical view of paid advertising: “Advertising is stupid, it’s only for companies that no one is naturally interested in. Over 600,000 web sites point to Magnatune.com today, because they think it’s a very good thing and want to spread the word. Magnatune is religion. Fight evil! What could be simpler?”

Magnatune customers considering buying an album can listen to the whole thing online – not just samples – in high quality first. Once they buy it, they can download both MP3s (compressed) and CD-quality audio files. Although the latter are much bigger and take a lot longer to download, Buckman reports that “70% of buyers get the perfect quality files, and another 40% download the mp3s. You can download multiple formats, or come back in a month and get the files again. The trend is clearly toward perfect quality, as well as well-tagged MP3s for your iPod.” Since most online music stores do not offer full-quality files, this is one way Magnatune stands out.

Another is the selection. Like a major label, Magnatune offers quite a few genres of music. But unlike a major, Magnatune sells more classical music than anything else. World music, Electronica and New Age are also big sellers. Evidently Magnatune has found an audience with tastes that are not being adequately served by the old-guard labels. So, although its nontraditional business plan may get much of the press, Magnatune’s concentration on high quality music in second-tier genres is also a big factor in its success.

Buckman goes beyond pointing out the majors’ failure to adapt to the digital age. He considers their practices downright sinister. Magnatune’s slogan is “We are not evil.” By evil, Buckman means “behavior that is unethical and destructive. Labels not paying musicians… CDs going out of print, while the labels keep the rights so the musicians can’t even make their own CDs, that’s evil. DRM [Digital Rights Management, currently in the news because of the Sony rootkit debacle] is evil. Suing end users is evil. Abusively high pricing is evil. 30-second samples are evil. Spyware is evil. We’re surrounded by so much evil stuff on the Internet and in the music business that I feel we’ve lost perspective. What would it be like to run a company that wasn’t evil?”

Magnatune might not be evil, but building a company takes money. Buckman has invested $1 million into the site, and it is just now “barely turning a profit, as of August 2005… [but] the ‘barely’ is on purpose: the focus is on growing Magnatune, not pulling cash out, because this is all about getting musicians enough money so they can keep at it, and avoid working at Burger King!”

Fees from music licensing (to independent filmmakers, for example) can be a significant part of the income an artist can make, but usually it’s a much more difficult side of the business for artists to deal with – unless they’re also lawyers. But Magnatune makes it unusually easy, both financially and technically, for producers to license its artists’ music. In fact, the artists who market and appeal to both consumers (via direct downloads) and producers (via licensing) do the best at Magnatune.

Another big part of growing the company is coming up with new marketing ideas. Buckman attributes the recent sales jump to several of these, including giving customers who buy an album the right to give it to three friends and to podcast the music for free. He will even send the enthusiastic customer a stack of promotional cards to hand out.

Magnatune’s latest marketing idea is its new “fill your iPod” offer. Noting that iPods have a lot more storage space than the average person has enough music (and/or time) to fill up, Buckman came up with the idea of bundling its 400 or so albums into one $200 lump-sum purchase. Yes, that’s not much money going to each artist included in the bundle, but it’s better-than-free promotion, especially considering that people who take Magnatune up on the offer would not have otherwise been acquiring most of those albums at all.

“The average buyer spends $14 a year at Magnatune,” explains Buckman, “buying an album and a half (on average). If we can get those people to spend $200 on us instead, then, yes, the per-CD price is much lower (of course, that’s why the person spent the $200) but much more total money comes our way and gets paid out to musicians. As a musician, I’d rather sell 1,000 albums at 50 cents, than 10 albums at $8. It’s not only more money, but a much larger audience and word of mouth! Besides, people don’t buy 40-gig iPods to put just their five iTunes-store-bought albums on them. They want to fill them up! The need is there, it’s just that no one has ever offered to fill an iPod up with legal music, at a realistic price.”

Now someone has. Stayed tuned for the further adventures of Magnatune.

Indie Round-Up for November 17 2005

Friday, November 18th, 2005

Stardate 2005:
Drivin’ back from a – hike upstate
Dad ridin’ shotgun, we were – running late
Stuck in traffic, had to – muddle through every
Goddamn CD we could – listen to

All about Vietnam, they were
All about Vietnam, seemed like
Every CD had at least one song, about a
Cool rocking Daddy gone to Vietnam…

Stardate 1984:
I’m just out of college. Still wearing my Ronald Reagan protest beard. Well, protest goatee, on account of those youthful gaps between my chin and cheek hair, but let that pass. Eight more years of Republican White Houses lie ahead, hence eight more years of silly smudges on my face. Our housemate Rick brings home the new Springsteen LP, Born In the USA. Controversy: the Reagan re-election people want to use the title track as a campaign song. They didn’t listen to the anti-war lyrics, I guess: “Got in a little hometown jam so they put a rifle in my hand/Sent me off to a foreign land to go and kill the yellow man.” But let that pass. The beat pounds through the stereo like Thor’s hammer. With five notes and two chords Bruce lays bare the marrow of a generation, Born To Run no longer: “Down in the shadow of the penitentiary/Out by the gas fires of the refinery/I’m ten years burning down the road/Nowhere to run ain’t got nowhere to go.”

Stardate 2005:
Twenty more years down the road: Born To Run is reborn in a fancy new package while the country slogs through eight years of insanity – I’d have to put on a wolfman outfit to protest via hair this time. But let that pass. The blockbuster Born In the USA with its many hits is mostly forgotten. But a CD version now resides in my car. As does Danielle Miraglia’s Nothing Romantic featuring “You Don’t Know Nothing”:

I sang of Vietnam
With a reaper-like charm
Code Red and counting the dead
When an eight o’clock shadow
With eyes like arrows
Slammed down his glass and said
“You don’t know nothin’
You weren’t there
Till you’ve had shrapnel under your skin
You couldn’t begin.”

Then we put on Old Crow Medicine Show‘s self-titled CD. These super-authentic-sounding old-timey youngsters also have a song about Vietnam, “Big Time in the Jungle”:

That young man got his life turned upside-down
Turned his smile into a frown
Robbed that king of his crown
For an ideal he didn’t even know about.

Steve Earle’s “Copperhead Road” (“I learned a thing or two from ol’ Charlie don’t you know”) was on one of my self-burned road-trip compilation CDs I still can’t help calling “mix tapes.”

And so it went.

Johnny Cash, now – he wasn’t in the car with us at that moment. But I just saw the new Cash biopic Walk The Line, “What Is Truth” comes to mind:

A young man of seventeen in Sunday school
Is being taught the golden rule
By the time another year’s gone around
It may be his turn to lay his own life down!

Yep, seems you can hardly listen to more than a few minutes of American music without running into ol’ Charlie. Doesn’t seem to matter much if the person who wrote the song was even born at the time of that particular little conflict, either. Songwriters, unlike some soldiers, grow old and die, tapping into something eternal along the way. But war never dies.

Star Date: The Next Friday
But enough levity. Butt-kickin’ blues-rock is alive and well in Texas. Lookin’ for Texas, Brother 2 Brother‘s stew of blues, rock and soul goes down warm and sweet. It’s a studio recording with a live feel: this Houston outfit is not slick – in fact, they’re not always even very tight – but they’re good musicians who sound like they love playing together, which is more important. Clever, well-crafted songs complete the picture. “I Don’t Care” recalls Georgia Satellites via Jerry Lee Lewis, while “Fool Boy’s Road” suggests Jim Morrison and the Doors. You’ll hear some Fabulous Thunderbirds, a little Lynyrd Skynyrd, more than a pinch of soul from the excellent horn section, and plenty of Chicago blues in these eight songs; there’s even a shiver of the bayou in the accordian-led “Toobin’.” Altogether a wide variety of styles, served up with heart and a generous helping of fun. Brother 2 Brother is not literally a band of brothers, but their camaraderie shows in the music.

Wait a minute… “Band of Brothers”… John Kerry… Vietnam… Aughhhhhhhh!!!

Available at CD Baby.

Movie Review: Walk the Line

Friday, November 18th, 2005

Walk the Line, the new biopic about Johnny and June Carter Cash, is loaded with music, family drama, drug abuse, sentiment, comedy and tragedy. But it’s not about any of those things.

Talent, fame and riches didn’t protect country music’s best-known couple from the blows that afflict us all. Just like us, they seemed to spend their lives alternately rebelling against and trying to live up to their parents’ expectations. Director James Mangold’s depiction of the first half of Cash’s life and his relationship with June Carter is, first, about the security-blanket-cum-straitjacket of family. But most fundamentally it’s a story of the simultaneously confounding and uplifting, devastating and salvational power of love.

As depicted here, the young Cash tries to be a good husband to his wife Vivian (the effective Ginnifer Goodwin making the best of a fairly thankless role) and daughters, but as his career takes off and he spends more time on the road his abuse of pills and alcohol turns him into an unpredictable, staggering jerk. Yet his friendship with June Carter, deepening as they tour together, turns gradually and inexorably into the true love which ultimately saves the volatile Cash from himself and the upright Carter from her unfulfilling marriages.

Joaquin Phoenix transforms with gusto first into the awkward young singer and thence into the fabled Man in Black whose common touch and unearthly deep voice made him the Everyman of American music. Though Phoenix pushes the mannerisms a little too far at times, he convinces us that he is the tortured soul who could, in the climactic scene, connect deeply with a crowd of prisoners at the famous 1968 Folsom Prison concert. Reese Witherspoon, in spite of looking a little too young and fresh towards the end, is miraculous as June Carter Cash, who gave as good as or better than she got, stuck by her friend in need, and just happened to write “Ring of Fire” along the way.

Especially notable in the excellent supporting cast are Robert Patrick as the senior Cash – a seething tower of repressed rage – Dallas Roberts as legendary producer Sam Phillips, and Ridge Canipe and Lucas Till as 12-year-old Johnny and his brother Jack. (It’s amazing how good child actors are these days.) T-Bone Burnett’s ghostly, Doors-like score knits the scenes together, the actors do a good job singing the classic songs, and Mangold’s directing style is to stay out of the way and let the taut script and good acting tell the story. And that’s what this is: nothing too fancy, just a damn good yarn. True, it’s about famous people, but their struggles illuminate our own. The songs which Johnny Cash and the Carter Family before him sang so plainly and richly did the same – and still do, if we take the time to listen. When it comes down to it it’s all about love – its presence, its absence, the troubles it makes for us and the rescues it alone can effect. Not just interesting, the story this movie tells so well might even serve as an inspiration to aspiring singers, songwriters, couples, and struggling human beings everywhere.

CD Review: Grateful Dead, Fillmore West 1969

Thursday, November 17th, 2005

The Grateful Dead were far more famous as a live band than anything else, so it’s no surprise that their first live album, the two-disc set Live/Dead, is of unquestioned importance to Dead fans and rock music historians. Documenting the band’s first major flowering as a long-form experimental group, it has remained one of the most popular of the band’s official LPs since its release in November 1969.

Several of the tracks on Live/Dead (the first live 16-track album ever made) were chosen from a relatively carefully planned four-night run at the Dead’s “home base,” San Francisco’s legendary Fillmore West ballroom. Fans have long desired more material from those concerts, and so, recently, the Dead released a limited-edition 10-CD boxed set containing all four shows in their entirety.

A bit excessive, you say? If you’re not quite that much of a Deadhead – or if you didn’t snag your copy before they sold out – the beautifully produced 3-CD set Fillmore West 1969 should be just the thing to cure your Blues for Allah.

In 1969 the band was developing the template for Grateful Dead concerts for decades to come: a compact set of discrete, relatively short songs, followed, after a break, by a set of longer, free-form jams built around the skeletons of a few select numbers. Although, in their maturity, the Dead could base a jam on most anything, several of what became their favorites were chosen and developed at the time of these recordings. So this set is of unusual interest, as much for its historical significance as for its multifaceted musical inspiration.

It’s easy to forget that the early Grateful Dead depended hugely upon the singer (and harmonica and keyboard player) Ron “Pigpen” McKernan’s vocals and stage charisma. His Joplinesque energy and singing gave the Dead a degree of blues credibility the band wouldn’t have otherwise had. This is especially evident on the blues-heavy Disc One. Yet even in some of Pigpen’s songs, the band’s uniqueness comes through. Although “I’m a King Bee” and “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl” are both straight blues tunes, the former is played fairly straight while the latter is full of the micro-rhythms and fillips that made the Dead the supreme jam band. The Bobby “Blue” Bland R&B classic “Turn On Your Lovelight,” a two-chord song that became so identified with the Dead that their rendition was actually the first many people ever heard, displays an almost bebop-like level of improvisatory complexity.

Discs Two and Three are representative of Dead show second sets: longer jams that merge into epic suites; more soloing, less singing; more ethereal, folksy Jerry Garcia, less gruff Pigpen. One gets a clear sense that despite McKernan’s continued presence, the band’s bluesy element was already becoming less important. Disc Two is dominated by the Dark Star -> St. Stephen -> The Eleven -> Death Don’t Have No Mercy suite, totalling almost 43 minutes, and Disc Three is one long suite anchored by “That’s It For The Other One,” a suite in itself which was always (for me) the most exciting of the Dead’s “usual” jams. The Disc Three suite also contains the “Drums” and “Space” (here called “Jam”) sections that practically every Dead second set was to include thenceforth.

A nicely printed booklet with plenty of photographs and Dennis McNally’s informative liner notes is built in, giving the package the comforting one-piece feel of a real album (in the old sense of the word). The sound quality is unusually good for the time. Sadly, Pigpen and Jerry Garcia are no longer with us, and while the band’s concerts will survive indefinitely through the bootlegging they encouraged, it is quite wonderful to have this fine-sounding and lovingly presented encapsulation of rock’s greatest improvisational band at their earliest peak.

[Cross-posted at Blogcritics]

CD Review: Lewis Taylor, Stoned

Thursday, November 10th, 2005

British neo-soulster Lewis Taylor will be getting some long-awaited US exposure with early 2006 concerts supporting the American release of Stoned, his sparkling new CD. Whether American audiences will respond in a big way to Taylor’s sophisticated sound is, of course, an open question, but if they don’t it will be their loss.

Taylor, who sings in a falsetto that ranges from Russell Thompkins, Jr.-smooth to Steve Winwood-acid, has obviously absorbed much from the soul music greats of the seventies like Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, Donny Hathaway and the Stylistics; the influences are evident in both his songwriting and his singing. Modern drum sounds and effects give his arrangements an up-to-date feel, but since he takes the bulk of his inspiration from the great songwriters and interpreters of the 70s, his music has much more richness than most of today’s neo-soul, which owes more to modern limp R&B than to classic soul music.

One of Taylor’s own most distinguishing characteristics, besides his supple voice, is found in the vocal fills that encompass a style of his own as well as wider-ranging influences – “Throw Me a Line” and “Melt Away” even evoke Queen and the Beach Boys. Another is the acid-rock guitar that occasionally shakes things up, as in “Shame,” one of the best tracks of this solid one-hour set.

Not every song is equally marvelous, but each has something to offer and each listener will have his or her own favorites. The CD can be appreciated both as an homage to, and a reinterpretation of, the golden age of soul. It’s seriously good music for grown-ups.

A Weed Grows In Brooklyn

Tuesday, November 8th, 2005

We have a plant growing in our kitchen.

Not a houseplant in a pot (we’ve never had much luck with those). It’s a weed, growing up through a gap between the linoleum tile and the painted wooden molding.

We’re pretty messy people, and our somewhat decrepit kitchen never really gets clean. But it has been ever thus. Why a kitchen weed now?

The nearby dishwasher has been broken for months. There’s no faucet within leaking or spraying distance. And if the cats were “watering” it, we’d smell something.

Between the kitchen and the backyard is the bedroom, which has no basement or foundation under it because it used to be a porch. So I guess you could say that, groundwise at least, Planty is really only two feet or so from the Brooklyn jungle out back. Maybe there’s groundwater seeping into the wooden floor of the kitchen, gradually turning the 125-year-old wood into yummy mulch. Can’t really tell.

Don’t really want to know anyway. (We rent.)

As for light: maybe this is a good advertisement for the full-spectrum bulbs in the ceiling fixture. It really is Like Sunshine In Your Home!

Here’s a picture of Planty, and a picture of the backyard.

planty_closeup yard_sm

Planty looks fragile, and he’s not growing fast. But he’s persisted, green as any yard weed, for weeks now. Does he yearn for the yard? Does he pine for his weedy mates growing apace in the brownstone backwoods, so close yet so impossibly far?

Or is Planty a sinister offshoot of one of those unkillable yard vines, or of the pretty but deadly pokeweed that the cats somehow know not to nibble?

Planty will not easily give up his secrets. But I know one thing:

You just don’t get this sort of entertainment in the suburbs.

Theater Review: The Taming of the Shrew

Sunday, November 6th, 2005

It’s a common problem in the theater: how to maintain reverence for the text of a great work when the message of that text has become politically incorrect. One can play it straight, aiming for historical accuracy, or one can risk undermining the art by updating the story. To explain just how the Queen’s Company, an all-female troupe, manage the task in their delightful and thought-provoking new feminist rendition of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew would be to give away too much of what makes the production so entertaining. Suffice it to say they succeed grandly in giving the play a modern spin while presenting Shakespeare’s language with its grace and bawdy humor intact.

As it must have in the Bard’s day – only here in reverse – it takes just moments to suspend disbelief and accept the female actors as men. After a scene or two, one ceases observing how they ape and exaggerate male postures and mannerisms, and gets swept up in director Rebecca Patterson’s zippy telling of Shakespeare’s tale of the loudmouthed, independent Kate (played with commanding charm by the spunky but focussed Carey Urban); her meek, proper sister Bianca (whose unconventional casting is even more interesting than the changed sex roles); and their pompous suitors. As with many modern productions of Shakespeare, this Shrew has been cut somewhat, and Patterson has contributed a new prologue; a musical production number Shakespeare probably would have enjoyed seeing; and some original stage business, notably during Petruchio’s attempts to break Kate’s spirit and during the latter’s climactic speech admitting that

I am asham’d that women are so simple
To offer war where they should kneel for peace,
Or seek for rule, supremacy, and sway,
When they are bound to serve, love, and obey.

But no essential story elements are lost, and in some almost magical way the fine acting, brisk direction and genial high spirits marry the text quite naturally to a feminist interpretation. The outcome of Shakespeare’s battle of the sexes is not so much reversed as made a fairer fight. And the happy ending of this classic comedy is to be found less in the mandatory weddings than in the extraordinarily touching expression of true love with which the production leaves us.

The one-named Samarra plays Petruchio with all the expected manly swagger, oozing lechery and confidence. Every cast member, in fact, contributes skill and boisterous energy; all are adept at the play’s requisite physical comedy – wonderfully staged by Patterson – as well as the playwright’s incomparable language. Terri Power even steals a few scenes in a nearly silent Servant role. Beverly Prentice as Hortensio especially shines with crystal-clear diction and amazingly spot-on delivery of every line.

Lighting and sound are in more than capable hands, contributing not only color and atmosphere but motion and pace. The set and costumes are perfect, just what’s needed and no more. But it’s Patterson’s conception, and the actors’ fulfillment of it, that make this production, if not a Shrew for the ages, certainly a fine Shrew for today. Among other things the play is a character study of an outspoken young woman chafing against male domination. It takes surprisingly little manipulation to turn its surface meaning around, since it already hides a fairly modern message. The Queen’s Company reveals the real heart of Kate’s character – and by extension, the human condition – in a speech less famous but more touching than the one at the end:

My tongue will tell the anger of my heart,
Or else my heart, concealing it, will break.

Who hasn’t felt that? Kate stands in for all of us. Now through November 20 at Walkerspace (in lower Manhattan).

Queen's Company - Taming of the Shrew

Photo by Bob Pileggi

[Cross-posted at Blogcritics]

Indie Round-Up for November 03 2005: fielding, Hayley Taylor, Gentle Giant

Friday, November 4th, 2005

The front page of Blogcritics bills this column as “New Indie CDs,” and that’s fine shorthand, but not entirely accurate. This week’s selection, for example, includes only one actual CD of new music. The others are 1) a set of songs available so far only at the artist’s Myspace.com page, and 2) a reissue of music that’s almost thirty years old. Nevertheless all three fit happily into this column’s large but friendly world: a) music that’s b) new or newly available and c) not released by a major label. Good stuff to tell you about, so read on! Here’s the

Indie Round-Up for November 03 2005

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fielding, self-titled CD

fielding (a band that lives entirely in lower case) makes power-pop with a dash of punk attitude – often sunny, occasionally snotty or grim. however this is a album not to analyze but in which to lose yourself. it doesn’t matter that the lyrics are fairly abstract, as powerful lead vocalist eric b. sings them with pathos and a hard edge that makes it seem he’s living them, and the band plays with equal zeal. individual lines do flash out: “you’re beautiful when you’re on the ground”; “the jacket you wear is such a pretty color… i’m hiding under the whitest covers.” it’s all very pleasingly accessible without being too derivative. songs like “big surprise” even evoke the naivete of 1960s pop, especially with the addition of effective, affectless vocals from keyboardist beth b. eric b.’s soaring vocals on “June 5″ approach the expansiveness of thom yorke, while the song itself evokes the magical-realist american kitsch of talking heads: “so come on over, and test the waters/we’re floating above apartments and quiet.” “indigo” too is very influenced by radiohead. fielding uses repetitious vocal phrases effectively in several songs, particularly “big surprise” and “slide.”

the ten songs on the cd maintain a consistent guitar-rock sound with some strong keyboard touches, sustaining interest through compositional variety. with above average vocals and songwriting and an emotionally rich but mostly happy mood, fielding’s debut on the militia group label is a winner.

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Hayley Taylor, Waking (EP)

While it’s fair to ask if we really need another song about a man who can’t commit, the answer, if it’s Hayley Taylor’s haunting “Orange Tree,” is yes. This lovely minor-key tune is a small masterpiece of alt-pop. Taylor’s voice is pretty, but, like Nick Drake’s or Liz Phair’s, plainspoken to the point of discomfort – a sweetly disturbing sensation for the listener. Without remarkable strength or tone, it penetrates deep into the psyche. One almost feels one has been delivered the succinct lyrics telepathically instead of aurally:

You’ve got your orange tree
I’ve got the blues
You’ve got your easy answers but
I want the truth

The dreamy, country-tinged “Fallen” suggests what Radiohead (they’re everywhere these days, aren’t they?) might sound like with a pedal steel guitar and Aimee Mann singing. Here another frustrated lover (or perhaps the same one) seems to be sadly accepting her fate as a victim of incomplete love:

I’ll take the last train car
The one too dark to see
I’ll be the bravest heart
The missing part you need

But in the end she remains defiantly hopeful: “Love just keeps on calling/Till you start listening darling.” Here Taylor exaggerates her lazy drawl to simultaneously convey resignation, patience and a twinkle of humor, locking them down memorably with simple but sophisticated melodies.

“What I Never Said” layers a Beatle-esque tune over folky acoustic guitars to tell the tale of a volatile and doomed relationship. Taylor sounds very much like the rueful Liz Phair here, swallowing the words as if they’re nearly too painful to squeeze out. “You made me breakfast and you screamed ’cause you couldn’t cry.” Finally, “This Is It” is a catchy little waltz that evokes the Beatles’ “Hide Your Love Away.”

All four songs are enjoyable, and the best ones show an almost startling songwriting talent. They will appear on Hayley Taylor’s upcoming EP. Check her out at Myspace and make a note to buy the disc when it comes out. Very highly recommended for lovers of good songwriting and seriously sexy (or sexily serious) voices.

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Gentle Giant, Interview

Re-mastered and re-released for the band’s 35th anniversary, Interview (originally released in 1976) reveals Gentle Giant at the height of its prog-rock creativity. From “Timing”‘s unexpected blues-piano interlude and the off-kilter reggae of “Give It Back,” to the gentle acoustic guitars of “Empty City” and the gristly intensity of the masterful “I Lost My Head,” this album includes some of the band’s prettiest moments as well as some of their most complex writing. Though most fans didn’t consider it among their best, this re-mastered version may be changing some minds. Fans who’ve bypassed it in the past should definitely give it another listen; I do not consider this in any way a lesser effort than Freehand or In a Glass House.

[NOTE: an earlier problem with this re-release has been fixed. The version you will now find in stores is the correctly mastered one.]

CD Review: Jerry Garcia, Garcia Plays Dylan

Tuesday, November 1st, 2005

Bob Dylan’s songs are so universal and brilliant that they stand up to a seemingly endless variety of treatments. Jerry Garcia‘s Dylan interpretations, however, are unusual in that they pair two equally iconic and influential musical sensibilities. Garcia’s fluid and imaginative guitar pushes up fresh, unexpected blossoms in Dylan’s compositional garden, yet there’s never any shock of the new; the two strains intermingle with ease and naturalness.

A new two-CD set provides a concentrated look at the long, if mostly indirect, collaboration between the folk-rock demigod and the king of improvisation. Of the fifteen selections, only four are by the Grateful Dead; the others come from several versions of Garcia’s side projects, most often known simply as the Jerry Garcia Band. This being Jerry, all are from live concerts, and while the Dead was a famously inconsistent band, Garcia’s inspiration rarely flagged when he played with his “solo” groups.

Several lineups from the 70s are represented on Disc One, including Legion of Mary (with Merl Saunders on organ) covering “The Wicked Messenger,” one of the most interesting tracks. This long Hendrix-ish jam may have appealed to Garcia because of its repetitive but asymmetical structure, the sort of thing that frequently lofted him (both with and without the Grateful Dead) to extended flights of inspiration. The underrated “Tough Mama,” which was a new song at the time, is the other unusual selection, a more complex but also irregularly timed number that inspires transcendent soloing.

The Dylan stalwarts “Positively 4th Street,” “Simple Twist of Fate” and “I Shall Be Released” (the latter recorded in 1987, and less than 8 minutes long!) show Garcia at his best as an interpreter. While his vocals waver off-key as always and never match Dylan’s in intensity, the songs’ deeper meanings (most of these are among Dylan’s sadder works) come through as clearly as the poet’s sometimes confounding but always vivid lyrics will allow. With Jerry Garcia it was never so much about the singing anyway. The singing was merely the stained and tattered road map. The music and the feelings were the trip.

The only shortcoming on Disc One is the seventeen-minute version of “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door.” I always liked when the Dead played the song, but this Garcia Band rendition – with Keith and Donna Godchaux – put me right to sleep. Perhaps a true Head could appreciate this extremely slow ramble, but I couldn’t. Or maybe, as with so many things Jerry, you just had to be there. When I listen to this disc in the future I’ll probably be skipping over “Knockin’” the way one of my college Deadhead friends carefully spliced out all the Keith Godchaux piano solos from his bootleg tapes. (True story!)

Disc Two begins with a fourteen-minute “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” and it has a masterpiece of a guitar solo. This is a prime example of Jerry transforming a short, to-the-point song with a standard structure into a magnum opus. “She Belongs To Me,” from a 1985 Grateful Dead concert, shows the band in top form, and even “Forever Young,” a song I’ve never liked, shines in the Garcia Band’s slow gospel treatment: though Jerry’s voice isn’t quite up to some of the notes he reaches for, you can tell his heart is in it. “Tangled Up In Blue” is exquisite, and the gloomy, dirge-like “Señor (Tales of Yankee Power),” recorded just a couple of years before Garcia’s death, seems, in hindsight, full of presentiments of doom.

The last three tracks are all late-period Grateful Dead. In the latest, “Visions of Johanna,” from 1995, Garcia’s voice sounds very much that of an old man as he speaks or shouts, Dylan-like, the enigmatic lyrics. Here the two sensibilities converge most distinctly.

Garcia and Dead completists will certainly want this collection. It has excellent sound quality, very nice packaging, and detailed liner notes. For the curious, it’s also a good sampling of what the whole Jerry Garcia/Grateful Dead phenomenon was – and is – all about.