Archive for March, 2013


“Diane Young” by Vampire Weekend

The two months between March 15 and May 15 this year comprise a rather fertile period for big-name indie-rock, with new albums by the Strokes (Comedown Machine, already out and well worth your time and money), the Yeah Yeah Yeahs (Mosquito, out April 16; lead single “Sacrilege” already out), Phoenix (Bankrupt!, out April 22; lead single “Entertainment” already out), and Vampire Weekend (Modern Vampires of the City out May 14; lead single “Diane Young” and B-side “Step” already out).

And so here I am, highlighting the latter band’s cheery “Diane Young” as “Hipster Music That’s Actually Good.”  Usually I’d pick something significantly obscurer for this monthly feature, but whatever, I suspect that in some quarters Vampire Weekend is still considered a hipster band.  And yet they basically write and play pop music  — it’s just that they do it much better than today’s mainstream pop acts.  “Diane Young” is a terrific pop song — upbeat, catchy, and concise.  I can’t wait to hear the whole album and then see them at Firefly.

For the week of 3/25/2013…

“Gouge Away” by the Pixies

It’s common knowledge that the Pixies provided Nirvana and other ’90s acts with many a model of quiet-loud-quiet-loud dynamics shifts.  As I listened to Doolittle over and over this week (you know, whenever I wasn’t listening to the new Strokes album), “Gouge Away” became one of my favorite such songs.  In this, the album’s final track, Black Francis deftly relates his story of a crumbling romance to the Biblical tale of Samson and Delilah.  The loud verses are nothing short of powerful and thrilling, as lead guitarist Joey Santiago hammers at a chord when Francis screams each third line of five.

Below I write about six of the albums I bought from the bargain bin at the Princeton Record Exchange during spring break.  I also bought a seventh CD, an underwhelming and ultimately uninteresting live album recorded by a country-rock bar band of little note, Kings in Disguise, in the 1990s; released on an obscure local label, it documents a performance of theirs at a Long Valley, NJ, café.  In my opinion, it’s not worth writing about any more than I have already, so instead I’ll just proceed to my roundup of the other six records.

Artist:  The Pixies
Album:  Doolittle (1989)
Notes:  Like so many kids who have gotten into Nirvana over the years, I took a little time in high school to investigate Kurt Cobain’s own favorite bands and albums.  One of the latter, obviously, was the Pixies’ Surfer Rosa; it was too inaccessible for me, at least at the time, and I became disinterested in the influential Boston band.  This is unfortunate because it took me a long time to actually give a chance to the more accessible but utterly terrific Doolittle, their second album and their major-label debut.  After finding a $2 copy of Doolittle in the bargain bin, I think I’m ready to try Surfer Rosa again (and get into their later discography as well).  But first I’m playing the shit out of this record:  If it weren’t for the excellent new music being released this week (Wavves’ Afraid of Heights, Wire’s Change Becomes Us, and especially the StrokesComedown Machine), Doolittle might have been the only thing I’d have listened to.  Front to back, “Debaser” to “Gouge Away,” it kicks ass.  A five-star classic.
Sample song:  “Debaser”

Artist:  Green on Red
Album:  This Time Around (1989)
Notes:  Green on Red were a band in 1980s Los Angeles affiliated with two significant underground scenes during that time, initially the psychedelia-influenced so-called “Paisley Underground” and then the Gun Club- and Cramps-led “cow punk” scene.  By 1989, the band was reduced to a core duo of singer Dan Stuart and guitarist Chuck Prophet.  With their career on the wane, Green on Red recorded a mostly pretty subdued album called This Time Around, which featured a reprise of Stuart’s signature “drunken-loser schtick,” as AllMusic put it.  Listening to it even without having heard much of the band’s previous work, I found that This Time Around does feel kind of formulaic and uninspired.  It definitely isn’t the work of a band in its prime.
Sample song:  “You Couldn’t Get Arrested”

Artist:  George Thorogood & the Destroyers
Album:  Thorogood Live (1986)
Notes:  Mike and I saw George Thorogood & the Destroyers live in Montclair the day before we went to Princeton, and it was a pretty great experience.  Thorogood’s combination of old-school Chuck Berry-style rock ‘n’ roll with over-the-top ’80s cheesiness made for an entertaining spectacle.  “Ladies and gentlemen, the rock ‘n’ roll heavyweight champions of the world!” a prerecorded announcement blared as screens on the back of the stage depicted a mushroom cloud.  “How sweet it is!” Thorogood roared as he strode onto the stage and began playing his first song.  This live album captures the general experience of seeing him live fairly well; it’s a recording of a Cincinnati gig in 1986, when Thorogood was at the height of his powers, and the set-list hasn’t changed all that much in 27 years.  Unfortunately, the differences that do exist actually make Live a flawed album.  In particular, after the great one-two punch of “I Drink Alone” and “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer” that ends the first half of the record, Thorogood performs a ghastly, fairly cringeworthy cover of “Alley Oop.”  It deflates the album’s energy in a big way, and the next track, the fast “Madison Blues,” feels underwhelming as a result.  Live regains its mojo with the arrival of a pretty good rendition of “Bad to the Bone” and an epic cover of “The Sky Is Crying,” and ultimately benefits from a big dose of classic Thorogood ridiculousness:  “I got to know, do you have any ob-scenity laws in this part of town?  That’s good, ’cause I feel like getting dirty tonight.  I’m tired of singing all these pretty songs.  Me and the fellas feel like gettin’ dirty one time!”  And with that he launches into an innuendo-laden cover of Berry’s “Reelin’ and Rockin’.”  Not a bad CD at all to have in my collection.
Sample song:  “I Drink Alone” (yeah, this is the studio version, but whatever)

Artist:  The Datsuns
Album:  The Datsuns (2002)
Notes:  A band from New Zealand riding the Strokes/Hives/White Stripes wave to popularity in the early 2000s, the Datsuns actually played a style of rock distinct from those bands’, taking their cues largely from ’70s hard rock.  The problem is that they’re not very good at it, and that, while they incorporate most or all of the cliches of the genre, the end result is not particularly memorable or fun or listenable.  A lot of reviewers loved it in 2002 (although some ruthlessly trashed it), but just hearing an older style of rock resuscitated shouldn’t be enough to get people excited.  There need to be better songs and less unfocused messes of Brian Johnson-style yowling and dubious soloing.  The Datsuns fare better on tighter songs like “MF from Hell.”
Sample song:  “At Your Touch”

Artist:  British Sea Power
Album:  The Decline of British Sea Power (2003)
Notes:  A much better album from the early-2000s “return to rock” era is the amusingly titled debut by English indie band British Sea Power, The Decline of British Sea Power.  It’s a long album (run-time of about 57 minutes) and in some ways a difficult one, and so far I’ve only listened all the way through once.  Mike observed that their sound reminds him of Modest Mouse’s deep cuts; I don’t listen to Modest Mouse, so I can neither confirm nor deny the accuracy of the comparison.  What I can confirm is the quality of this record, which apparently generated enough momentum to propel British Sea Power to make five more well-received albums over a decade (the newest is to be released next week, incidentally).
Sample song:  “Fear of Drowning”

Artist:  Jethro Tull
Album:  Thick as a Brick (1972)
Notes:  Heh, as if you need me to inform you about Thick as a Brick.  Needless to say, it was pretty cool to find a copy for only $2.  Anyway, obviously the whole album consists of one long track, but fuck it, I’ll post it anyway.

I’ve been meaning to do this for a while, but I had to work my way through that Big Dipper anthology over the last couple of months to do it right.  A post cataloging my finds from our March trip to PREX is coming soon.

Artist:  Big Dipper
Album:  Supercluster: The Big Dipper Anthology (2008), compiling Boo-Boo EP (1987), Heavens LP (1987), Craps LP (1988), and a good deal of previously unreleased material.
Notes:  Mike and a few of my friends at school can testify to my recent preoccupation with this excellent but mostly little-remembered band.  To lift several lines of text from a “song of the week” post I wrote a few weeks ago, Big Dipper was an indie band from Boston who released an EP and a pair of LPs in the late ’80s before making the jump to the majors.  Epic signed them to an absurd eight-album contract; they laid an egg with a subpar album, Slam, that didn’t sell and were promptly dropped.  They broke up, but (apparently) reunited recently and put out a new album last year.  They sound kind of like R.E.M., but with more of a post-punk twitch (instrumentally only, they sound similar to the Pixies on Doolittle); now imagine that combined with the whimsy of Devo or Camper Van Beethoven.  Well, I bought their flop of a major-label album, sound-unheard, after finding it in the bargain bin at the Princeton Record Exchange last August.  At the time, I thought it was pretty good.  Then, this January, I bought an anthology compiling all of their indie-label stuff, and it is indeed way better.  I’ve been listening to it studiously over the last few weeks (more intensively than in the previous month-and-a-half, certainly), and I’m eager to share some of the cool tunes I’ve found.  There are parallel-universe radio hits like “Ron Klaus Wrecked His House” and “Faith Healer”, and then there are deeper cuts written about things like supernatural subjects (e.g. “Loch Ness Monster”), the imagined tribulations of historical figures (e.g. “Humason” and “Hey! Mr Lincoln”), and God-knows-what (e.g. “Younger Bums” and “A Song to Be Beautiful”).  This, in other words, was a terrific find.
Sample song: “Hey! Mr. Lincoln”

Artist:  The Psychedelic Furs
Album:  Forever Now (1982)
Notes:  The follow-up to Talk Talk Talk was kind of a transitional album for the Furs, as they began to shift from their brand of post-punk towards synth-pop and a somewhat larger audience.  Tapping Todd Rundgren as producer both symbolizes that transition and marks that shift in sound.  There’s some pretty excellent music on Forever Now, but I think it doesn’t reach the heights of its predecessor, and certainly sounds significantly more dated.
Sample song:  “Goodbye”

Artist:  Mission of Burma
Album:  Vs. (1982)
Notes:  I was really excited to find in the bargain bin a copy of Vs., the only full-length studio album Boston’s Mission of Burma released during their original run (they released more in the 2000s after reuniting).  This is generally regarded as being among the finest and most important albums in the history of punk and post-punk.  While that may seem hyperbolic, and while I’ll admit that it’s not something I’ll listen to all that often, I think it’s pretty hard to dispute that it’s a remarkable piece of music worth listening to many times over.  If you’ve never heard this album, you should definitely check it out.
Sample song:  “Einstein’s Day”

Artist:  The Strokes
Album:  Room on Fire (2003)
Notes:  I’ve had an MP3 version of this album for years, of course, but I was pretty thrilled to finally find a hard copy in the bargain bin.  With all our chatter about how great Is This It is, it’s easy to forget that the Strokes’ sophomore album was damn near perfect too.  I’ve accordingly placed the CD in my car stereo semi-permanently.
Sample song:  “What Ever Happened”

Artist:  Rilo Kiley
Album:  Under the Blacklight (2007)
Notes:  I bought Rilo Kiley’s acclaimed 2004 album, More Adventurous, the year it was released, and I’ve always thought it was a quite good album with some genuinely great tracks.  With that in mind, I picked up their follow-up, 2007’s Under the Blacklight, in Princeton.  Dismayingly, I got home and found out it’s widely acknowledged as their worst album by far.  I could easily call this a sellout record or a move towards pop in conjunction with their jump to a major label, but that doesn’t quite do justice to the situation.  What Rilo Kiley actually did on this album is adopt the style of modern pop-country, which to my sensibilities is far worse than a move towards mid-2000s pop-rock or top-40-pop would have been.  The subpar music isn’t the only problem, however; lead singer Jenny Lewis’s lyrics leave a lot to be desired here.  Reviews of this album tended to note that Lewis’s songs on Under the Blacklight tended to be sex-obsessed, and that the album was a little tiresome for lack of variation in theme.  This is kind of true, but the bigger problem is that her sex-obsessed lyrics are by and large clumsy and poorly written.  Far more enjoyable are songs wherein the female singer’s sexual preoccupations are expressed in a way that comes across as more street-wise or slick, and expressed a little less bluntly.  The Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O on Fever to Tell and, for that matter, Lewis herself on “Portions for Foxes” (from More Adventurous) prove that this can be pulled off quite well.  Under the Blacklight proves how easily this theme can be bungled.  Rilo Kiley broke up after this record, mirroring Big Dipper’s breakup after the disaster of Slam.
Sample song:  “Close Call”

Artist:  Aloha
Album:  Some Echoes (2006)
Notes:  Pitchfork gave this an 8.0 when it came out in 2006, and while there has been a concerted effort over the last few years to change what it means to get a high grade from Pitchfork, in 2006 it meant it exactly what you’d think it would.  This is textbook hipster music.  That’s not to completely write it off, of course, and in fact there are some quite good songs here that manage to be simultaneously psychedelic and tight.  Notably, when Aloha incorporates organ into their music, as in songs like “Summer Lawn,” it pays dividends.
Sample song:  “Summer Lawn”

Artist:  World Party
Album:  Goodbye Jumbo (1990)
Notes:  When I bought this CD, I was unfamiliar with World Party but intrigued by Goodbye Jumbo‘s album cover, which features a man wearing a gas mask and huge cloth elephant-ears.  When we put it on in the car on the way back up from Princeton, we quickly determined that it was aggressively average classic-rock revivalism, the UK’s hamhanded answer to Tom Petty.  After listening to a few tracks, including the mind-numbingly stupid “Put the Message in the Box,” we hastened to put something else on.  Once I got home, I went online to figure out what the deal was with World Party.  I was shocked to discover that not only was this album released to general critical acclaim, but in fact was ranked the #1 album of 1990 by Q, a notable British music magazine.  What’s more, its two singles were rock radio hits, and fucking “Put the Message in the Box” was one of them.  And, further bolstering the idea that this is an album that lots of people actually bought, I subsequently found this both Goodbye Jumbo and the preceding World Party album, Private Revolution, in the CD collection of a house I recently visited.  Unbelievable.  Anyway, the song below is actually rather good, if derivative, for what it is.  It’s the exception to the rule on this album, though.
Sample song:  “God on My Side”

P.S. This was a pretty damn good trip to the record store; for Mike, the bargain bin yielded, among other things, cheap copies of Franz Ferdinand and Live at Folsom Prison, and an obscure compilation from the ’90s that included a lost jazz-rap gem called “Stoned Again.”

For the week of 3/18/2013…

“Waitress in the Sky” by the Replacements

In the middle of the Replacements’ 1985 major-label debut, Tim, is a track which stands out as lower-key and relatively lighthearted compared to the rest of that great album.  “Waitress in the Sky” is a loose-feeling, amusing little ditty that frontman Paul Westerberg wrote as a put-down to the entire flight-attendant profession.  Hints of the protagonist’s loserdom seep in at points as Westerberg’s voice becomes more ragged, but for the most part this is just a catchy, almost carefree-feeling little tune.  Listen to it a few times and later this week you may find yourself humming, “Struttin’ up the aisle, big deal you get to fly, you ain’t nothin’ but a waitress in the sky.”

For the week of 3/11/2013…

“Your Pretty Face Is Going to Hell” by the Stooges

A blast of early punk rock was just what the doctor ordered this week.  This one is, of course, from Raw Power, the loud, iconic album the Stooges made in 1973 just before they imploded — or rather, just as they were imploding.  Retitled from “Hard to Beat” for mass consumption, “Your Pretty Face Is Going to Hell” is still pretty damn nasty.  Iggy Pop aggressively snarls and growls the lyrics, spitting barbs as James Williamson’s manic lead guitar soars over an indifferent sheen of buzzsaw rhythm guitar.  Hell, according to Iggy, in producing the classic mixes of the album, David Bowie fed Scott Asheton’s drums on this track through something called a Time Cube to make it “sound like he’s beating a log.”  Together with the rest of the album, it’s a landmark of the genre.

So I hate to have fallen behind on these for the second time already in 2013, but I have a good excuse:  I’ve been computer-less for over two weeks now (and will continue to be without-laptop for another two at least).  Fuck Dell.

I spent my last couple of weeks at school listening to music almost exclusively on my iPod, and as a consequence (or maybe it was just a coincidence), I started listening to whole albums slightly more than usual and zeroing in particular albums to listen to over and over again.  My musical tastes during this time focused on a number late-’60s psychedelic pop albums, none more so than the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds.  Man, Brian Wilson may have had a nervous breakdown over the mental stress of trying to create Smile, but frankly I think 1966’s Pet Sounds is significantly better than his 2004 fully realized vision of Smile.  Songs like “That’s Not Me” do a wonderful job of evoking awe and emotion from the listener, both musically and lyrically.  Not that Pet Sounds needs me to heap accolades on it; obviously the idea that it’s a masterpiece is not exactly a new or unusual thought.

But here’s a kind of unusual thought, or at least one that’s a little less common:  Big Dipper put out some awesome music in the late ’80s.  Who, you wonder, are Big Dipper?  Well, they were an indie band from Boston who released an EP and a pair of LPs in the late ’80s before making the jump to the majors.  Epic signed them to an absurd eight-album contract; they laid an egg with a subpar album that didn’t sell and were promptly dropped.  They broke up, but (apparently) reunited recently and put out a new album last year.  They sound kind of like R.E.M., but with more of a post-punk twitch (instrumentally only, they sound similar to the Pixies on Doolittle); now imagine that combined with the whimsy of Devo or Camper Van Beethoven.  Well, I bought their flop of a major-label album, sound-unheard, after finding it in the bargain bin at the Princeton Record Exchange last August.  At the time, I thought it was pretty good.  Then, this January, I bought an anthology compiling all of their indie-label stuff, and it is indeed way better.  I’ve been listening to it studiously over the last few weeks (more intensively than in the previous month-and-a-half, certainly), and I’m eager to share some of the cool tunes I’ve found.

Take for example “All Going Out Together,” from the band’s first full album, Heavens.  Big Dipper’s bassist, Steve Michener, had a dream in which Bruce Springsteen was singing this chorus.  But Bruce had no such song in his repertoire; therefore, with help from his bandmates, Michener expanded upon it and the result was an amusing doomsday anthem, capturing the bittersweet feelings of knowing a cataclysmic earthquake is about to hit.  And it rocks!  Sadly, Michener’s dream of the Boss singing (in reality covering) “All Going Out Together” has yet to come true.  …Or at least it had yet to come true in 2007 when the liner notes for the Big Dipper anthology, Supercluster, were written.

For the week of February 25, 2013…

“That’s Not Me” by the Beach Boys

For the week of March 4, 2013…

“All Going Out Together” by Big Dipper