Indie Round-Up for Dec. 15 2005: Panic Division, Mankita, McMullen

Welcome to this week’s Indie Round-Up. Here in New York City we’re facing the threat of a transit strike, which feels like a mini-apocalypse in the making. So Aaron McMullen’s gritty urban folk music is fitting. Jay Mankita’s gentler songs are a balm. And Panic Division – well, the name feels just about right for this moment in this place. Read on.

Panic Division, Versus

This is corporate noise-pop at pretty close to its worst. Polished, professional, and forgettable, its headbanging rhythms, frantic power chords and circular melodies add up to empty grandiosity. Here and there, as in “Paradise” with its skewed beat and U2-borrowed melody, and in the moody “Little Child,” Panic Division comes up with something slightly more interesting to listen to, but even those bits are too derivative to say anything even slightly important. We heard early U2 back in the days of early U2; a faster version of Flock of Seagulls isn’t going to turn anyone’s world upside down either. These guys should be doing something more original with their musical talents.

Jay Mankita, Morning Face

Last time we covered Jay Mankita’s lighter-side CD. Today we discuss his more serious recent recording, Morning Face, which shows off his quirky, jazzy-bluesy songs, deft acoustic guitar work, and subtle take on the human condition. Everything Mankita does here is understated, and the more effective thereby. Graham Nash and early Simon and Garfunkel come to mind, but Mankita has a bluesier style than most guitar-folkies.

Songs like “Shadow” reflect his facility with children’s music, but it’s no kids’ song: “Shadow, shadow, you already know/You shadow of my former self, you’ve got to let me go.” The title track has a lilting, playful melody too, but there’s an adult sadness to the lyrics: “I bring to you my morning face, my morning face/My face before the thoughts rush in, before the waters of the flood rush in.” This is an evocation of childlike simplicity by a wistful adult mind that can’t quite recreate it.

Can’t always, anyway. Children and adults would both enjoy the delightful “Bread Alone” and “Rain Rain.” The latter unifies nature and humanity by calling on rain to “bring us life again,” wind to blow down “the foolish houes I build if they won’t bend,” and a ray of sunlight to “melt away the icy words I spoke to you today.”

In “How Deep And Wide,” a simple Donovan-like tune with a creepy minor-key break alternates with a traditional-dance instrumental theme and a folk-rock chorus a la the Roches. That structural complexity is of a piece with the irregular rhythms of the wordless “Finny in The Long Run,” the jazzy harmonics of “Worms in the Night,” and the jiglike but harmonically complex “Sliwa the Cat,” which picks up on the Celtic dance theme and adds a merry concertina to the mix.

Jay Mankita uses bits and pieces from various folk traditions to say his piece. His generous talent and heart will bring warmth to the spirits of – to use an overused but useful cliche – children of all ages. His CDs are available at CD Baby here.

Aaron McMullen, 75mg

Aaron McMullen’s latest lo-fi Web album is another collection of miniature slices of life in the dual locales of drunken urban streets and a sensitive mess of grey matter circa 2005, and circa any year. Many of the songs have a fragmentary nature, but some, such as The Nick Cave-like “Sad Song Sung” and the dramatic-as-Brel “City Country City,” display an increasing songwriting maturity on the part of this fella who’s always had a way with words: “Oh, here in the dark beneath these sheets,/I watched a play performed by spirits midst the twisting waves of heat/And when the play was through, I had a wakin dream a you.”

Behold a true Irish poet of the back alleys. “Oh, and the queen done propositioned me,/He had a song he sang to me/Was a tattered love song, ode to someone chewed the soul from outta him/But the song that snared my senses, yeah,/Wasn’t his, was someone else’s, yeah/And I can’t recall a single line,/An I never heard that song again.” Treading the knife edge of consciousness, these songs pull on you like a feral cat its prey. If he builds up his vocal power McMullen could make a serious impact with language like this.

Indie Round-Up for December 1 2005

Danielia Cotton, Small White Town

This lady can sing; she can rock; and she’s clearly got some serious backing, since she’s netted opening slots for Bon Jovi, Living Colour, Collective Soul and more. Perhaps Danielia Cotton’s a dynamo on stage – her take-no-prisoners vocals give that impression – but underwhelming material makes this CD a disappointment. The songs, in general, are insufficiently memorable, and, strangely for a rock album, the electric guitars sound thin.

Of the rockers, I liked “Today,” which has a good hook to go with its chunky beat. And Cotton makes some fruitful moves away from rock, into neo-soul territory for “4 A Ride” and the passion-drenched “Shame”; and back in time for the ballad “Pride,” which sounds like it could have been an Aretha Franklin track from the late sixties. Another positive: the downright inspiring, powerhouse vocal arrangements in “It’s Only Life,” “Take My Heart,” and the acoustic-electronic closer “Chains,” among others.

But overall, and particularly as far as her hard stuff goes, this Hendrix- and Led Zeppelin-inspired artist needs better material to make the most of her powerful pipes.

Tina Dico, In the Red

To make a horrid generalization: pop music from Europe often sounds behind the times. The Danish star Tina Dico’s first US and UK release, with its 1970s feel, is no exception and by rights should feel pretty old-hat. But Dico’s songwriting ability and lyrical seriousness give the music a timeless quality, and sometimes untrendiness is cool. The contemplative “Warm Sand” and the gripping “Head Shop” are two prime examples of her straightforward attack.

That 1970s feel is found primarily in Dico’s strong, relatively uninflected singing style and close harmonies, which suggest earlier Northern European pop acts like Ace of Base, the Corrs and even Abba. But those groups had an intentional frilliness which Tina Dico does not share. Her sombre melodies and introspective lyrics are fetching in quite a different way. If music can be said to be both heavy-hearted and uplifting, that’s Tina Dico.

Vulnerability is nice when tastefully done, but there’s too much tasteless whining in female folk-pop (not to mention male alt-rock) these days. There’s much to be said for letting a song’s message come through unimpeded. Dico shows some welcome rawness in a few songs, like the lovely “Room With a View,” but as a whole this CD is a statement of the power rather than the lossiness of romance, and a bracing antidote to the pseudo-girlie, affected breathiness that habitually let down today’s would-be rock or folk-pop music fan.

And for unconditional emotion from the male point of view, check out Steve Northeast‘s intense little self-titled EP. These four heavily emotional power-pop songs, with their focussed message and structure, charge directly into your brain, barreling through all pretense. It’s straight-from and straight-to-the-heart stuff that speaks for the romantic, the idealist, the lover, the hopeless (or hopeful) devotee, the Icarus, the Abelard in us all. And it’s a firm marriage of song and sound. “I want to share with you the air I breathe. I’m not pretending anymore – you are everything to me.” Indeed.

Jay Mankita, Dogs Are Watching Us

Satire is always welcome in grim times, and since times are pretty much always grim, a good-natured but sharply clever songsmith like Jay Mankita has an important place in the musical rainbow. You can hear his smile in every lyric: in places he almost bursts into laughter while singing. The songs are by turns biting, funny, and touching; some are childlike enough to work as kids’ songs (not surprisingly, he does do children’s concerts); but he tucks thematic complexities into his simple descriptive accounts. The two anti-Bush tracks are clever and funny, but it’s in the quirkier ditties, like the weird “Little Soap” and the cockeyed, mushy “Tracy At the Bat,” where Mankita stands out from the crowd of musical satirists – a crowd that’s actually pretty small. Rapping Beastie-Boys-style about the philosophical quandaries of the Big Bang Theory, he doesn’t have to explain that just because a scientific theory isn’t fully worked out doesn’t mean it isn’t true. The message is implied, and well received.

I enjoyed this CD immensely, and Mankita also has another, more straight-ahead modern folk album which I’ll cover in a future column. All his CDs are available at CD Baby here.

Defeat the Homeless

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

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. This can be seen as a very innovative plan by getting buyers to set up a recurring payment whilst helping out other people in the process.

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, 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. The support for musicians on every level is what keeps the music industry going and the influx of new and amazing artists, there is a music community app from that can be a real support for connecting musicians to professionals that need it.

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, 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 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. As 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. Some people turn to a local marketing vault to help them with this, obtaining new skills and learning methods to reach out to the public that they may have not known about before. 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. Whilst these are all positive methods of marketing, music companies should also consider using social media marketing to help their artists become more successful. By using platforms like Instagram, musicians should be able to create an audience to promote their album, helping them to get more sales in return. Perhaps these musicians could also consider using companies like Nitreo to get instagram followers at first. This should encourage more people to follow them, helping them to establish a fan base. This should benefit sales, and help the company to earn more money. Social media marketing is a great way to push a music career.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 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

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.

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.

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

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.

New York Notes: One Week Until New York’s Mayoral Election

Many New Yorkers will be facing a dilemma in next week’s mayoral election. We think our mayor is doing a good job governing the city. But we loathe the national party to which he belongs.

Four years ago Michael Bloomberg used his personal fortune to fund his longshot campaign. During and since that successful run he never tired of pointing out how his billions make him impervious to the influence of special interests. A lifelong Democrat, Bloomberg had switched parties in order to run, and most New Yorkers believed that he wasn’t a “real” Republican, that he actually had his heart in the right place, and that as far as governing went he could in fact be truly independent, driven only by the best interests of the city and his own ego (hopefully in that order). And I still believe that’s true to some extent.

But personal fortunes aside, politics makes strange and sometimes noxious bedfellows. It’s common knowledge that Bloomberg spent some $7 million of his own money funding the last Republican National Convention, among whose many offenses was its disgusting political exploitation of 9-11. But as Wayne Barrett recently reported in The Village Voice, Bloomberg has also cozied up to the Bush White House in numerous ways. By merely praising Bush, for example – whether in public or at a party event – Bloomberg helps the cause.

Even though Fernando Ferrer, Bloomberg’s Democratic opponent, seems capable, we hesitate to vote out a mayor who’s running the city well. This is the second hardest job in the nation, and if we’ve got somebody good, we’re loath to boot him out before we have to. We weigh Bloomberg’s ties to the Bush administration against our own ties to our life in the city we love. In our minds, New York is not like other American cities: we tend to think of it as a quasi-independent city-state, though it is no such thing. New York City’s economy and the nation’s are interdependent, as are their cultures, but we see ourselves, sometimes obnoxiously so, as above and apart. We often feel a stronger local allegiance than a national one. Hence our dilemma.

I’m not voting for Bloomberg next week, and if he loses, I’ll be pleased. Regaining the New York City mayoralty would be a shot in the arm for national and state Democrats. But I have to admit that I will also be pleased if he wins re-election (which is almost a certainty). And I’ll be less nervous about the immediate future of this great and unique city. Does that make me a strange bedfellow with myself? In the words of that famous New Yorker, Walt Whitman,

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Some eight million, in fact.

Book Review: TCP/IP Guide

TCP/IP, the stack of technologies that underlies the Internet and the World Wide Web, is, not surprisingly, a large and complex topic. During my two decades in the technology field I’ve looked at a number of books on the subject, but tended to give up quickly and content myself with the discrete bits of knowledge essential for the job at hand. TCP/IP, however, is one of the few important topics about which it is really impossible to know enough, even for an information systems generalist like myself. For TCP/IP technologies have become as critical to modern business – and personal communication – as blood circulation is to the human body.

Charles M. Kozierok’s new TCP/IP Guide is the best-organized and easiest-to-digest “complete” TCP/IP book I’ve ever seen. I put “complete” in quotes because no single volume could possibly drill down to every last detail of every protocol in the suite, and Kozierok doesn’t claim to, not even in the 1,400-plus pages of this volume. What he does, however, is write clearly and engagingly, dividing the topic into short manageable chapters, covering pretty much everything a technician could ever need to know about TCP/IP, and providing just the right amount of background information and context to give the reader a sense of why and how the technologies we use every day were designed just so.

The last is no small thing. The why and the how are of more than academic interest. Knowing how technologies developed sometimes actually helps increase comprehension. And having some historical context makes the essentially dry and difficult subject matter more pleasant to read, which is also no small matter.

The book delivers to the attentive reader a working knowledge of TCP/IP in all its multifaceted complexity. Kozierok begins with some valuable chapters on the fundamentals of networking technology, the standards organizations that give rise to the flummoxing sea of acronyms every IT professional must learn, and the mathematics that underlies computing (if you’ve ever struggled to understand binary or hexadecimal numbers, the explanations in this book are as good as any I’ve seen). Then, the heart of the book explains the many protocols and related technologies that comprise the TCP/IP stack.

It’s structured logically according to the layers of the OSI Reference Model, starting from the physical transfer of data via wires, moving up through the complex logic that enables a giant network of millions of devices (e.g. the Internet) to interoperate smoothly, and ending with the top-level applications most everyone’s familiar with, such as HTTP and email. Thus, one can comfortably read or skim the book straight through. Afterwards, it will function as a useful reference – probably for a number of years, since the pace of TCP/IP development is quite slow. (Imagine trying to rebuild a bridge into a bigger, better bridge without ever being able to close it to traffic, and you’ll have an idea why the next generation of TCP/IP, known as v6, has been under development for a decade already.)

Since it does not presume much network knowledge, the book is appropriate for both neophytes and professionals. I’ve been around this technology for many years, and even in my quick read-through I learned quite a bit. I also remembered why some of the topics, like subnet masking and sliding windows, have previously caused my head to swim, and appreciated the clear, detailed but concise presentations in this book. The author truly has a gift for explication.

I can’t think of a reason why any datacenter or beginning IT technician wouldn’t want to own this volume. It’s well written and organized, as complete as nearly everyone could want, contains many useful tables and diagrams, and covers IPv6, the forthcoming next generation of Internet technology. It’s not inexpensive, but then again, on a per-page basis it kind of is. And it’s not one of those books that’s going to be outdated in six months’ time. (Also, as a side benefit, carrying it around will help build muscle mass). If TCP/IP technology is at all important to your job, pick up a copy of this book – you won’t regret it.

[Cross-posted at Blogcritics]

DVD Review: Bobby Womack, Soul Seduction Supreme

Bobby Womack may not be quite the hugest star R&B ever produced, but his career – now spanning over half a century – as songwriter, singer, guitarist, and soul man, marks him as one of the most important soul performers of all time, and the quintessential soul survivor.

Sam Cooke discovered the gospel group The Womack Brothers when they were kids in 1953. When, encouraged by Cooke, the brothers began to make the move from gospel to R&B, their father threw them out of the house. Recording for Cooke’s label as the Valentinos, the group toured behind James Brown, and later Bobby joined Cooke’s band as a guitarist. Bobby’s big break as a songwriter came during this period (1964), when the Rolling Stones’ recording of his “It’s All Over Now” went to number one on the U.K. charts. (Trivia time: “It’s All Over Now” was also, according to, the first song Bruce Springsteen ever learned to play on guitar.) Rock and pop fans may also know (or be interested to) that Womack wrote and played guitar on “Trust Me,” from Janis Joplin’s “Pearl” album, and wrote “Across 110th Street,” a song (from the blaxploitation movie of the same name) which was revived as the theme to the hit Quentino Tarantino film Jackie Brown.

Soul Seduction Supreme presents nine songs from a late 1990’s concert at the Town and Country in London. A master showman, Womack plays the crowd, cavorts with his band, cracks jokes and sings his heart out. In between songs, the filmmakers visit him as he travels from gig to gig, fusses about money, relaxes in hotel rooms and in one somewhat bizarre scene, takes a bubble bath. There are also amusing bits where the band members practice and study, showing the joy, the drudgery and the anxiety that come with making music. And Womack’s philosophical but peppery reminiscences and reflections are of interest. But the DVD is primarily devoted to the performance, which is nicely recorded and fun to watch.

I was a little disappointed that it didn’t include Womack’s breakout hit “That’s the Way I Feel About ‘Cha,” but it’s otherwise a good selection of songs from the different stages of his career, from the early “Lookin’ for a Love” (re-recorded in the 70s, it was his only Top Ten hit on the pop charts) and “It’s All Over Now,” through “Woman’s Gotta Have It,” and the later “Love Has Finally Come at Last,” which was originally a duet with Patti LaBelle in the 1980s.

The main drawback is the lack of liner notes. Biographical information and discographies are easy to find on the Internet, but some information about the specifics of the tour and performance recorded here would have been nice. Still, this is a worthwhile DVD to own for fans of Bobby Womack or soul music in general.

[Cross-posted at Blogcritics]

Indie Round-Up for October 20 2005: Man Alive, Danny Draher

Man Alive, Open Surgery

One of the better punk-driven rock bands I’ve heard on disc lately, Man Alive hails from the unlikely location of Israel but is brought to you by the Militia Group, the lean and muscular West Coast label that also promotes Copeland (and other promising new bands). With big, husky vocals, a mix of punk shouts and sing-along melodies, and a forceful two-guitar attack, they owe much to their punk forebears (both “pure” and pop), but most bands with a similar sound don’t write as well as Man Alive.

Most of the songs are loud, crunchy, and on the fast side, though the slowish “Say What You Want” almost treads into Tears for Fears territory. In several songs (like “Stationary” and “Rewind”) the band fits multi-part arrangements, including time changes, into three-minute spans without breaking the integrity of the songs. The opening track, “Give Me a Sign,” is a catchy, anthemic distillation of stuttering, alienated youth:

Tell me how, how long were you planning to wait for
Are you in or are you out. Give me a sign, boy
You take it in. You take it in but you hold on for
For anything, for anything while everything passes you by

The real heart of the album is “Catch Phrases, Slogans and Chants,” an impassionate diatribe against conformity and in favor – surprisingly for a band with a punk attitude – of quiet:

There are times for silence
And there are times for action
But mostly there are times to listen
And listen with some love

Even with their agile songwriting and rough-edged sound, Man Alive doesn’t fully escape the sameness that persists in most of today’s punk-influenced rock. The context in which this band is good is a rather narrow one. Someone like the bluesman Danny Draher (see below) stays within a well-worn set of conventions too, but has a broader musical palette to work with and thus can record an album that’s over twice as long but never gets boring. Once you’ve listened to the 35 minutes of Open Surgery, though, you feel you’ve gotten everything Man Alive is about. It’s why people go nuts when a band like the White Stripes comes along – they’re excited to see someone using the old tools to build something even a little bit new. Man Alive uses their old tools very well, and they’re certainly a band worth watching. But I’ve received a lot of CDs in this genre recently, and when even the best of them (like this one) feels sort of old-hat, I wonder if there’s much juice left in the old punk-rock lemon.

Danny Draher, Big Fun Tonite!

Veteran Chicago guitarist Danny Draher‘s debut CD as a leader is a blues album that sounds as good as it feels and vice versa. Draher touches on many of the song types you’d expect from a bluesman: long, slow jams like the epic “Don’t Know Much,” which features guest legends Dr. John on piano and Bernard Purdie on drums; funkified numbers like “My Desire”; the slow, crashing swing of “I Don’t Know Why”; tasty jump blues like “Garlic & Onions”; the rock-fortified “Disco Woman”; and arrangements that suggest earthy, sloshy big-band swing, like “32nd & 3rd,” where Chris Foreman provides an especially brilliant Hammond organ solo and the group gives a clinic in drawing high energy from a laid-back groove.

Recording all original songs was a good choice. Many blues artists mix covers with originals, and too often the originals don’t measure up in comparison, if only because the well-known traditional songs are so deep in the bones of the blues audience. Since Draher can write, play and sing well in all these blues modes I’m glad he lent his skills to his own material.

A sideman of choice for the likes of Etta James and Allen Toussaint, and a musician with a very long resume, Draher is a good singer who’s obviously absorbed some of the spirit of the great blues shouters: listen to “Goin’ Home” for some of the best evidence. But he makes his mark with his guitar, which speaks volumes, sometimes with few notes, often with many, but always exactly the right amount, and each infused with human warmth. His touch on the instrument is fluid but funky, deft but full-tilt, with plenty of tonal and stylistic variety, drawing as he does from the whole tradition of blues- and blues-inspired guitar, from jazz to pop, swamp to swing, Albert King to the Allman Brothers.

On most of these songs the only chordal instrument besides Draher’s guitar is the Hammond B3 organ (mostly played by the exquisite Foreman but with turns by other excellent players as well). Drums and sometimes bass are the only other presences on most tracks. Yet the small combos produce a wonderfully full sound because Draher surrounds himself with musicians who play, as he does, with equal measures of heart and skill. One of the best indicators of this is the beautifully syrupy instrumental ballad “Love For You,” which would sound perfectly at home on the dance floor at a Long Island wedding. Listen carefully to Draher’s and Foreman’s solos, though, and you’ll always hear something that goes just beyond the common tropes and cliches. In venturing their furthest from the blues, Draher and his group demonstrate best their mastery of and love for it. At nearly 80 minutes long, this CD leaves you wanting more, because it’s just plain fun, and that’s the ultimate test of a successful (and in this case overdue) debut.

[Cross-posted at Blogcritics]

INDIE ROUND-UP for October 6 2005

Copeland, live at Irving Plaza, NYC, Oct. 5 2005

Copeland (it’s a band, not a person) played an energetic opening set at the eagerly anticipated Bob Mould concert at Irving Plaza last night in New York City. Copeland is a tight quartet with a wall-of-sound two-guitar attack – except for a couple of songs where lead singer and rhythm guitarist Aaron Marsh switches to Rhodes piano – that charges and thrums through your whole body, especially out of Irving Plaza’s superior sound system.

Marsh has the look of a shoegazer but the voice of an angel. His soaring tenor, which frequently sails into an ethereal but assured falsetto, is the most remarkable thing about the band. Sounding at times like a less angst-ridden Thom Yorke, Marsh also can evoke the very young Roger Daltry. And when bassist James Likeness chimes in with his crystalline backing vocals, the harmonies and vocal quality bring to mind, just a tiny bit, Roger McGuinn and the Byrds. Yet the band’s attitude and sensibility are youthful and thoroughly modern.

Their anthemic songs could use a little more variety; their set steps up to a higher level at the end when they play their best two songs, “No One Really Wins” and “Love Is A Fast Song.” Those two show Copeland’s real potential to be a pop-rock powerhouse. Their ability to win over the Bob Mould crowd in spite of playing a very different kind of music was also an excellent sign.

Mould and his amazing band, incidentally, kicked butt. Watch and listen, punk-rock kiddies: that’s how it’s done. (I hadn’t seen him since 1984, when Husker Du opened for REM at Harvard!)

Amelia’s Dream, Unravel

After a long hiatus, Amelia’s Dream is back with their third full-length CD. Recording Unravel live in the studio (vocals and keyboards were overdubbed) drew lively, powerful performances from the musicians, and the band’s songwriters, Amelia Gewirtz and Harold Stephan, have a knack for catchy, simple melodies; the best of their songs, like the contemplative “Blue Sky,” the rocking “Covered Up The Sun,” the celestial “Save Me” and the Nirvana-inspired “Only On The Inside,” have real staying power after a couple of listens.

The sound is a mix of raw pop and emo. Gewirtz’s voice resembles Sarah McLachlan’s but her singing is edgier; the “dark side” of this band may be its most appealing aspect, in fact. There’s even a bit of Pink Floyd in the crunchy minor-key attack of “Only On The Inside.” But their lyrical elements are strong too.

The band’s melodic habits can get somewhat repetitious; the CD could have done with a few fewer songs. Their 9-11 tribute, for example, could have stayed in the lyrics-notebook. But overall this album is a mature, emotionally powerful effort from a talented team whose past work has not surprisingly earned many TV and film placements.

Available here at CD Baby.

Anny, Naked

Anny’s press materials describe her music as “ground breaking [sp] approachable mood music.” I don’t know why everyone thinks they have to be promoted as ground-breaking. 99.9% of the time it’s just hype, and anyway, breaking new ground is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for music to be good.

Anny is not blazing any trails. But her best songs comfortably merge two time-honored grooves: 1990s ectophile’s delight, and bygone happy-pop in the vein of Petula Clark and Abba. Taken in this spirit, they’re very enjoyable. The opening track, “White Lipstick Girl,” epitomizes this recipe: after the verse trickles by with vaguely mystical preciousness (“sugar plum fairies / dance in her eyes”), the chorus charges in with strongly belted, doubled vocals. “Home” follows a mellower version of the same pattern, with rich harmonies elevating the understated chorus to a grand style.

“I Want To Break Free” is a gorgeously arranged ballad with a delicious little pop melody, but it’s dragged down, to a degree, by some awkward, prosy lyrics. The same problem crops up in “Here You Are,” although the organ-drenched groove and Abba-esque harmonies on the chorus are hard to resist. And the artist’s most characteristic pattern returns with “Gonna Get Mine,” where a fluid, octave-jumping and breathily delivered verse leads into a stately declarative chorus.

I like her quietly soulful version of the Hall & Oates chestnut “Every Time You Go Away,” too. But after that the album sags a bit. Even “Purple God,” a song about a vibrator, isn’t as much fun as it should be. The last track, “End of the Road,” is worth a listen for its whooshing soundscape, but it doesn’t have much of a chorus and Anny gives in – as she does in a few other places – too much to a tendency to ape Tori Amos’s vocal mannerisms.

Bottom line: I liked two thirds of this album, which is a lot. Well-structured, original songs with solid, memorable choruses are quite difficult to write, and there are a number of them here. You can feel good about buying Anny’s music, too, because you’ll be supporting someone who works as a Court Appointed Special Advocate for abused children. Talk about your real heroes of society.

Available here at CD Baby.

New York Notes

From the Dept. of Euphemisms: Newsday reports that the former schools superintendent of suburban Roslyn, NY pled guilty to stealing over a million dollars from his district. Apologizing in court, Frank Tassone said, “I will make restitution to the Roslyn schools and I am sorry for my poor judgment.”

Speaking of judgment, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, owner of the late World Trade Center, is finally on trial for the 1993 WTC bombing, which killed six people and injured thousands. The PA is accused of neglecting security in the underground parking lot where the truck bomb exploded. But public anger is concentrated on another seemingly all-powerful Robert Moses-era public authority, the one that runs the public-funded mass transit system without seeming to answer to anybody. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority will end this year with a $933 million surplus. Common sense – and State Comptroller Alan Hevesi – says the money should go toward putting off planned fare hikes, or at least making debt payments. But the agency wants to use it to improve valuable property it owns on the west side of Manhattan (where the Olympic stadium would have gone if NYC had won its bid for the 2012 Games).

Something is wrong with this picture. The MTA is supposed to serve commuters, and manage its funds to that end. But because it is not a government agency directly answerable to elected officials, but a quasi-independent Authority, there’s not much anyone can do to control it – not even Mayor Bloomberg, who’s had some success getting things done in this impossible city.

The MTA claims developing the West Side Yards would net big profits down the line, improving the agency’s long-term fiscal health. While in the wider world it makes sense to think long-term on such matters, the MTA is not a corporation answering to shareholders, but an agency responsible (morally, if not in actual fact) to the public. Public needs are both long- and short-term, and a sensible balance must be struck. In this case, since the segments of the public most dependent on the MTA’s services and most in need of low fares are the poor and middle class, who tend to live paycheck to paycheck in this ridiculously expensive burg, holding down fares is the right thing to do.

The MTA’s history of cooking its books is another argument for keeping it on a short leash and in the here and now.

Howard Dean, by the way, is trying to convince me that Mayor Bloomberg is not a fake Republican and I should vote against him in the upcoming election. If the Democrats had a great candidate, the decision would be easy, but I’m not too impressed with Fernando Ferrer, who vacillates between foot-in-mouth disease and cautious-wuss syndrome. Yes, Bloomberg contributed $7 million to the RNC, but that wasn’t what gave Bush his victory. New York’s such a tough town to govern that when we’ve got a mayor who’s doing a pretty good job, we hesitate to kick him out.

[Cross-posted at Blogcritics]

Magnatune Pushes the File-Sharing Envelope

The Internet record label and store Magnatune has announced a new policy whereby uncompressed, CD-quality music purchased from its site can be legally copied and shared up to three times. While Magnatune, which now represents over 200 artists in a variety of genres, offers its music in compressed MP3 and Ogg Vorbis formats, it is unusual among online music-download retailers in that it also provides the sound files in uncompressed formats (such as WAV) for download (or, for an additional charge, a packaged CD complete with artwork).

Even with broadband Internet access, downloading uncompressed music files can be a lengthy procedure because of their large size. Hence the popularity of compressed formats such as MP3 (typically unrestricted) or AAC (Apple iTunes‘s copy-protected format), which enable users to share and download easily and devices like the iPod to hold thousands of songs. But some listeners object to the loss of sound quality caused by compression, and some consumers object on principle to paying for a product that is of lesser quality than what was originally released by the artist and record company. Although some recordings and some types of music withstand compression better than others, and not all ears are equally discriminating, ultimately a compressed recording will never sound quite as good as the original version such as you find on a commercially packaged CD. Magnatune caters to those who want the option of acquiring the music without compromised sound quality.

Downloading a CD’s worth of uncompressed music from Magnatune costs less than what one would typically spend on a packaged CD – $8 is the usual suggested price, and, unlike at iTunes, the new Napster, and other download retailers, Magnatune does not sell sound files burdened with copy protection. However, while Magnatune’s MP3 versions are distributed under a Creative Commons license, which allows noncommercial reproduction and distribution, the uncompressed files are not; until now, buying them gave you just the same rights you’d have to the music you’d buy on a commercial CD, which do not (surprise!) include the right to rip and burn copies for your friends.

Now, however, Magnatune customers can legally distribute up to three copies of uncompressed music. Why? Founder John Buckman explains it this way: “People fall in love with new music by being exposed to it by others. It’s such an obvious point, and everyone knows the truth of it, yet the music industry has always fought it.” Buckman’s betting this form of grassroots peer-to-peer marketing will draw more music fans to the site and prompt more sales. Given the relatively small, boutique nature of the label – artists are hand-picked by Buckman and his small staff, with a browsably small quantity in each genre – I wouldn’t bet against him. One of the functions of a record label has always been editorial filtering, and the major labels’ failure to adapt intelligently to the digital age leaves plenty of room for small, discriminating labels – whether traditional, or entirely Internet-based like Magnatune – to step into the breach.

In the Garage

This week, instead of reviewing indie CDs, I’m rooting around in indie heaven (or indie hell, depending on your perspective):, a true Internet survivor.

Since 1999 the site, which counts George Martin, Jerry Harrison, Brian Eno and Steve Lillywhite as members of its (strangely, all-male) Advisory Board of 39 industry heavy hitters, has provided an intriguing form of peer review for over 150,000 bands and musicians. And now, musicians can get garageband on pc download to help them make musical projects from scratch.

The idea is simple: each indie artist who wants to get a song onto the site has to first listen to and review in writing one song from each of 30 other artists. Reviewers are expected to write something thoughtful and preferably specific about what they liked or didn’t like about the songs, which are presented anonymously in same-genre pairs, and indicate which of the pair they preferred, whether it’s a type of music they typically listen to, whether they’d be likely to buy it, and so on. The general public is welcome to register and participate in the reviewing process for their own edification as well.

It sounds a little cumbersome, but if you approach it in a spirit of adventure and helpfulness and you possess even an average facility with words it’s fairly painless. It’s probably a little like speed-dating, actually: you simply can’t spend a lot of time on any one song, or it’ll take up your whole day. Extra-busy (or language-impaired) bands can, incidentally, bypass the initiation by coughing up some cash to get their song straight into the review pool. But that’s taking the fun out of it, if you ask me.

Once you’ve reviewed a song, the site tells you the name of the band and lets you add the song to your playlist if you like it. Meanwhile, an actual human being at Garageband gives each review a quality rating. Higher ratings entitle you to extra benefits.

I’ve been mucking around in the slush pile for a few days and am well on my way to earning the right to put one of my own songs into the pool. The reviewing process is both encouraging and discouraging. Most of the music is terrible, which is encouraging, since it leads you to think, rightly or wrongly, that your own music is much better than most of what you’re hearing. It’s discouraging, though, to realize how many thousands and thousands of hopefuls are out there competing with you, and how even if only one percent of the artists were really good, that’s far, far more than there’s room for at the top of the heap.

Why is it worth it to artists to participate? If you believe the website’s hype, many have gone on to bigger and better things, some signing to major labels. (cf. American Idol‘s Bo Bice). What makes this hype, even though Garageband is unlikely to be literally lying, is that savvy, industrious indie bands aren’t going to sign up on a single free website. They’ll be all over the Internet, promoting here, competing there, looking for every possible connection and medium of exposure. Rather, Garageband stands out for other reasons: its peer-review pool concept, its longevity, and its fine user interface. (The site itself works quite well. Years of development have not been wasted.)

On the minus side: the tinny, low-fi sound quality makes it tough to evaluate some aspects of the music. You have to pretend you’re listening to a transistor radio that’s under a blanket. Then you’re OK. But get some more hard drive space, Garageband. Everyone’s doing it: Google, Yahoo, you name it. Get some space so you can host higher-quality files.

Now, about that all-male advisory board…