Monthly Archives: October 2009

Q-Tip “Kamaal the Abstract”

Q-Tip
“Kamaal the Abstract”
Battery Records
 

Rating: 6

Many rappers have tried to bring jazz into the hip-hop world, whether it be incorporating samples from classic jazz standards or actually using a full-piece band to back the rapper’s flow.   Rap at its core is vocal jazz, with ideas popping and pouring out of the MC’s mouth in hopes that their improv will have the same bite that a Charlie Parker solo did 70 years ago. Unfortunately, most of the rap community has abandoned the jazz building blocks once built by Gang Starr, DeLa Soul, and Tribe Called Quest.

On “Kamaal the Abstract”, Tribe frontman Q-Tip attempts to bring it all back to the smooth sound that has been trampled and forgotten in favor for the mundane Southern rap of monetary masturbation and sexual innuendo. (We get it Lil Wayne- you’re not actually talking about a lolli-pop).  Q-Tip’s jazz aim is in the right direction, considering his last outing “The Renaissance” was a mediocre attempt at reminding hip-hop that he was a production mastermind way before Kanye came along.

The highlight of the album is probably “Do You Dig U?”, a sleek, syrupy pool of organ runs over a tippy-tap drum kick that is reminiscent of The Roots. The mid-song flute splashes are the perfect touch, although you can’t help but wish for Erykah Badu to suddenly make a guest appearance.

The same chill vibe can be heard on “Feelin’”, a smooth jam that will have you slowly nodding your head like old school Tribe did back in ’91.  But a minute in, just when you’re ready to grab your Reebok Pumps to go shoot some hoops, a three minute organ solo kicks in that would even ground Dee Brown. The same problem arises on several songs on the album, with Q-Tip maybe trying a little too hard to stay honest to the whole “jazz” thing, relying predominantly on organ solos, which are never a good thing (just try listening to a Doors album from start to finish).

The style of jazz on the album is also suspect, less like the classic be-bop that Gang Starr sampled, and sounding more like something you’d hear on the Weather Channel.  Jazz shouldn’t sound so clean; it should be so gritty that you can almost smell the cheap cigarette smoke in the air.  Q-Tip’s brand of jazz only seems to be missing a little Kenny G to bring it all together, and that’s really a shame.  It sounds like Q-Tip surrounded himself with some great jazz musicians. On “Abstractisms” you can hear their immense talent at moments when the music is on that edge that makes jazz so unpredictable and raw. Too bad the recording quality is so clean that every improvisation sounds rehearsed.

Mid-album Q-Tip abandons the jazz tip altogether, attempting to sing, a skill that was never shown on any Tribe albums, and for good reason.  While his nasally rap vocals are unique and irresistable, his singing voice is what you’d imagine T-Pain sounding like without his trusty auto-tuner. 

Track #9 “Even if She is So” gives us hope that Q-Tip still has something to offer to the rap community.  It’s catchy, has a jazz vibe, yet stays grounded in hip-hop from start to finish. The production is classic Q-Tip, and if you strain your ears just hard enough, you might just hear the ghosts of Phife and Mohommed, completing the puzzle that would make it a classic Tribe ditty.

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Lightning Dust “Infinite Light”

Lightning Dust
“Infinite Light”
Jagjaguwar Records

Rating: 8.5

I hate when musicians use the term “side-project”.  It instantly lessens the worth of said project, presenting it as their baked potato to the main course. Lightning Dust, for example, is considered a side project for Amber Webber and Joshua Wells of Black Mountain.  While Black Mountain creates grandiose jam metal that conjure up memories of Black Sabbath, Iron Butterfly, and Deep Purple, they rarely stray from the formula, keeping with the retro feel from start to finish.

The “side-project” Lightning Dust, on the other hand, provides the dynamic duo the opportunity to stray from the mold. Wells describes it as an opportunity to “…do something that is sparse and minimal, and with a lot of space around it.” The word “space” couldn’t be a better descriptor of Lightning Dust, taking their music into unknown galaxies, exploring soundscapes while always being grounded in the past.  For example, the song “Never Seen”, although simple in structure, is sweltering with a thick atmosphere that is other-worldly. 

The album artwork supports this sci-fi theme with an image of a living room that looks out upon an environment that resembles Lando Calrissian’s Cloud City.  Yet, when looking closer upon the decor of this space hub, one is reminded of their grandmother’s home, with rocking chairs and antique lamps. 

Webber’s singing matches this grandmother imagery, with her warbly voice sounding wise beyond its years.  Like a weathered time traveller, she belts out passionate yarns over a background of organs and strings that meld sounds from across the span of time. 

The album is organized in a way that resembles a time traveling fantasy, starting with the antiquated “Antonia Jane” moving through string backed opuses like “Dreamer”, stopping by Black Mountain’s familiar 70s sound for “Wondering What Everyone Knows”, and ending with “Take It Home”, a track that could fit within Radiohead’s “OK Computer” with its building, apocalyptic finish.  

Throughout the album, the songs contain a sense of urgency, despite the lack of drums and the processional pace.  It is this urgency that makes this album seem much more essential than anything the two have done as Black Mountain. But the more I think about it, I’d prefer a buttery sweet potato over a pork chop any day.

 

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6. Road Trip 2009: Hobo Warrior

Tomorrow is the most important thing in life. Comes into us at midnight very clean. It’s perfect when it arrives and puts itself in our hands. It hopes we’ve learned something from yesterday.
-John Wayne

Despite planning our trip for a month, we still had no idea where we were going.  One option involved speeding west to Salt Lake City, Utah to see Bon Iver in two days, and then heading up the coast to Oregon.  Our issues with this plan were that we’d have to make the drive in two days, and the Bon Iver show was a free Saturday performance at a down town park.  Free park shows always stink because anyone shows up, regardless of who is playing.  A few years back I watched Public Enemy at a park in Austin surrounded by hippies and baby strollers.

Although, I do think Flava Flav would play well with Utahs polygamy crowd.

Although, I do think Flava Flav would play well with Utah's polygamy crowd.

Our second option would be to stay in Colorado five days and seeing Bon Iver in Boulder.  This option was weak because we’d already planned to meet our college friend Tony Nath in Denver for the last week of our trip.  Although it is a state where mountains and breweries are bountiful, I didn’t want to spend 50% of our trip there when Oregon called our names. 

 Our final option would be to miss Bon Iver altogether, heading North through Wyoming, stopping in Montana, swinging down through Idaho, and finally reaching the promise land: Oregon.  It would be our own version of Oregon trail, minus all the snowstorms and cholera.  The weakness with this choice would be the lack of live shows until reaching Oregon, almost a week and a half away. Plus, my anticipation for Portland brews and ocean air would be placed on the back-burner. 

 Before making a decision, one thing was clear – we needed supplies: hiking gear, packs, and a tent.  As we ventured across Wyoming, we spotted an Outdoor Expo Outlet along the highway and decided to stop and take care of the Rivendell portion of our trip in one fell swoop.

 

Unfortunately, the outlet store stunk.  They only sold Hobbit sized packs, and their tents were over-priced. As we walked out of the store, murky skies greeted us once again. More storms were ahead.  Without a tent, where would we stay for the night?

 Not a problem.  A year earlier we stayed in a cave outside of Laramie, so we decided we would stay there again for the night.  The only complication would be finding the cave within Vedavoo State Park, and to make matters worse, the storm clouds were quickly attacking the remaining sunlight. 

 After a quick stop at a grocery store for hot dogs and soup, Paul drove us up a gravel road that led us up to the park. Once out of the car and roaming through the rocky terrain, we were somewhat lost, uncertain where we camped the year earlier.

 “Maybe we can just stay in a separate inlet,” Paul suggested.  But as we ventured further into the park, my memory of the area popped in my head like a flash bulb. 

“I know where we stayed,” I said with confidence, walking ahead. 

 “Lead the way,” Paul responded.  I knew he doubted me, and why wouldn’t he? My sense of direction is despicable.  It’s so bad that while working as a sports writer at my hometown newspaper, I once got lost driving back from Armstrong, a small town less then 20 miles west of where I lived for 20 years of my life.  When I reached the Minnesota border I realized I’d made a wrong turn.

  But for some reason, on this night outside Laramie, I felt confident I could find a cave in the dusk.  I methodically marched, ducking under rock arches and skipping over bulbous stones along the way.  Even with little eye sight in the dwindling twilight, I somehow navigated the area, all my sense at high alert, leading my blind march.  

 

I was like Daredevil, except in this case Hells Kitchen was a cave.

I was like Daredevil, except in this case Hell's Kitchen was a cave.

Then it hit me. “It’s over here,” I announced, turning left and heading straight into a patch of tall grass surrounded by tall rock walls. 

 As I headed up the corridor of rock, Paul called after me, “Are you sure?” Ignoring his question, I ventured on, climbing a familiar incline.  At its peak I looked down to see a stack of fire wood sitting upon a rock.  Instantly I knew it was our wood pile, created only a year earlier during our first stay in the cave. 

 “Paul, this is it!” I shouted, my voice echoing out toward Paul and the rest of the Wyoming countryside.  When he finally arrived, he couldn’t believe that I’d found our one time humble abode. 

Although we had left a bundle of sticks the year before, Paul decided we needed more wood to cook up our hotdogs and keep us warm for the night. After a quick jaunt around the area, our pile had doubled.  Soon after Paul had our first fire of the trip stoked.  We cooked up a couple dogs, chowed down, enjoying our uniquely familiar surroundings.

So easy, even a caveman can do it.

 Eventually, with the fire dying down and the cold settling in, we bundled up in our sleeping bags and went to bed. Despite my drowsiness, I couldn’t get to sleep with a chill in the air and a rugged rock floor beneath me.  Yes, I was back in the wild.

That smile is hiding the pain of a my bed-rock.

That smile is hiding the pain of a my bed-rock.

The next morning I awoke to find Paul already up, standing on a giant blouder, rolling up his sleeping bag. “Hey Ocean Man, let’s get going,” he said looking down.  I threw him my sleeping bag, then struggled to stand, cramped and sore from my bed of stone.  Knees creaking, muscles aching, I felt older than ever.  Maybe 30 year olds aren’t supposed to sleep in caves.

 

Paul referred to this process as the Rock n Roll.

Paul referred to this process as the "Rock n' Roll".

By the time I got my weary bones moving, Paul arrived with a breakfast comprised of homemade power bars. I forced mine down with a smile, cringing at the thought that I was eating a mixture of oats, nuts, and mouse droppings.

 

Once packed up, we headed to Cheyenne in hopes of having better luck with gear shopping. We would decide our trip plans from there. Once in Cheyenne, we drove around lost for a bit in search of a Sports Authority or Scheels.  As we drove, Paul noticed a pattern. Every bar (and I mean EVERY bar) had a Crown Royal banner hanging out front. We even spotted a couple Crown Royal billboards, something I’ve never even seen in the alcoholic city of San Antonio.  We contemplated why Crown Royal was so popular in this mountain town.  Did they make Crown in Cheyenne? Was it the whiskey drinking cowboy population? And if so, wouldn’t you think they’d prefer a more rustic whisky like Jack Daniels or Jim Beam?

 

Or maybe they just like things that come in velvety bags (this includes the scrot).

Or maybe they just like things that come in velvety bags (this includes the scrot).

Continuing up Crown Royal Boulevard, Paul spotted an army surplus store and suggested we get supplies there.  We pulled in only to discover it didn’t open for another hour.  Comforted that we had a back-up plan, we headed on up the road, eventually finding the mall, prominently featuring a Sports Authority.  Inside we were once again disappointed by a lack of man-sized packs and a weak tent selection. The store was empty, with the two of us being the only patrons.   The clerks followed us around suspiciously, while we scowled at their over-priced products.

 Fearing our trip would be stalled another day due to a lack of shelter, I sucked it up and purchased a two man tent that advertised that it only weighed five pounds.  After hiking the year before with all the heavy gear, I couldn’t argue with the five pound feature of the tent.  Leaving the Sports Authority, I quoted “Swingers” saying, “This place is dead anyways.”

 Paul dryly remarked, “Yeah, people in Wyoming hate authority.”

Back on the whiskey lined streets, we headed back toward the army suplus store.  With Paul driving, I looked through his I-Pod filled with black metal, lo-fi noise, and obscure 70s folk propaganda.  Tucked amidst these albums, I discovered an album with a “Lord of Rings” themed cover.  “What’s this ‘Lord of the Rings’ album?” I asked.

“Oh, I downloaded that for you to listen to while you read ‘Fellowship’, which we still need to get you.  It’s by some dude from the 70s named Bo Hansson.” 

“Bo Hansson it is,” I said chuckling and playing the strange music, layered with organs and strange renaissance instrumentation.  With Tolkien’s Middle Earth on the brain, I mentioned, “Do they ever talk about Gandalf having a home in ‘Lord of the Rings’? In ‘The Hobbit’ he’s basically a nomad.”

 “No, I don’t think so,” Paul responded.

 “He’s like a hobo dude.”

 “Yeah,” Paul responded. “That’s why Gandalf rules.  If I don’t get a job this summer, I might do the same thing.” Although the idea of living the hobo life sounds exciting, I think it has been romanticized a bit. I didn’t like the idea of my friend becoming a drifter, possibly losing contact with him altogether.

Back at the now open surplus store, we made our way into the entrance. A tall man in his 50s stood at the register, suited up in a camouflage uniform from head to toe, topped off with a crew-cut hair cut and black rimmed army spectacles.  He glanced up at us as we passed saying, “Hello gentleman and lady.”  We walked on with me holding in my laughter, knowing he’d mistaken Paul as a girl from behind.  I wasn’t sure if it was on accident or on purpose.  I wondered if he was one of those hippie hating Vietnam veterans, still taking jab at long haired tree huggers.

 Right away Paul located some nice army packs and handed one for me to check out.  As we tried them on with excitement, the stoic army clerk approached us.  “Those are good packs, but if you want the best, you want this version,” he said reaching up and pulling down a pack that looked familiar to what we were trying on.  “This is the most versatile pack you will ever find.” He said with purpose.  For the next 10 minutes he methodically showed us how this one pack with a plastic back frame could be modified to have a travel pack, a vest for ammo, a butt pack, side packs, etc, etc, etc.  There was no doubt, this serious sergeant knew his shit. 

It slices, it dices...

"It slices, it dices..."

He ended his presentation saying, “If you can think of it, you can do it with this pack.” Paul and I were sold. 

“Did you use this pack when you served?” Paul asked.

“No, I used an earlier version,” he replied.

“Well, you seem to know a lot about your gear,” I added.

He looked up at me from the floor, where he had performed his demonstration.  Finally, he spoke. “I served as a mountain ranger for 20 years, but still like to keep up on the latest gear. ” He paused and looked at the two of us with a steely glare. “”When you’ve learned everything you ever needed to know from someone, you keep up with your Army.”

There was a moment of silence as he finished setting up the pack for optimal mountain hiking, then spoke again. “So, do you both want to get one?”

“Yes!” we responded in unison.

“I’ll be right back. I have another one in storage.” He left us alone. Paul and I shared a look of “Holy shit this dude rules!”  We then began looking around the store for other gear. I found a mat that would come in handy if I slept on a cave floor again. Paul began scouring the nearby boxes for more gear. The first box featured used brown army shirts which Paul insisted we buy.

I agreed. “Yeah, these are pretty sweet.” Then Paul moved to another box, filled with brown used Army underwear. Once again, he tossed one in my direction. “No thanks.” He continued to insist upon purchasing second hand underwear, but I refused. Despite my disgust, Paul would end up purchasing three used, brown, undies.

You know youre not in high finance. Considering second-hand underpants. -Flight of the Conchords

"You know you're not in high finance. Considering second-hand underpants." -Flight of the Conchords

The Army master returned with a large pack announcing, “This is for the big guy.” I took pride in the sergeant calling me ‘The Big Guy’.  “Come here and watch this,” he said to me. I stood over him as he once again walked me through how to set up the pack. It seemed the soldier who originally received my pack didn’t know what he was doing. The Sarge complained while fixing former mistakes, “This must have been owned by an Air Force guy. Done all wrong. They get these guys new equipment they don’t understand for the one week they are in the barracks. Never use it. The field?  the air forces idea of the field is sitting in the barracks waiting to deploy.  they don’t know the field.” Although I didn’t like the idea of government money going into unused packs, I was happy to know mine had barely been touched. 

As he moved along fixing my messed up pack, he realized it was missing an important strap. “I have another one of these straps at home. Come back tomorrow and I’ll adjust your pack with it.”  This guy has straps at home? How dedicated can one be to the Army?

Fuck Air Force. GO JOE!

"Fuck Air Force. GO JOE!"

We told him we’d be back the next day, which meant our idea of heading to Utah for Bon Iver was probably out of the question. When we paid with our credit card, the sarge took the time to read our names and say after payment, “Thank you for your purchase Andrew Schroeder,” and, “Thank you for your purchase Paul Peterson.” Basically, what I’m saying, is this guy might be the biggest  bad-ass/most respectful fella EVER.

He was like Rambo, minus the douche factor.

He was like Rambo, minus the "douche" factor.

Outside by the car, Paul tried on his pack once again, giddy with excitement. He commented, “That guy ruled. I’ve thought about joining the military if the whole job search doesn’t work out.” Once again, Paul’s worries about finding a job resurfaced, with another option arising. Looking at my friend with his new Army pack upon his back, I selfishly preferred the idea of him using it to survive the streets of America over the streets of Iraq.

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The Dodos “Time To Die”

The Dodos
“Time To Die”
Frenchkiss Records

 Rating: 7

Death is a major theme in The Dodos latest release, “Time To Die”, and it is fitting, although not in the way that they intended.  Like a funeral, the album pays tribute to their past at times, but overall, the experience is one of mourning. The songs still resemble the same melodic band with Meric Long’s signature guitar strums and Logan Kroeber’s African drums keeping pace.  But upon further review, the album lacks the life that made “Visiter” and “Beware of Maniacs” so irresistible. 

 I would hate to go as far as to say the band’s sound is dead, far from.  The album features some of their most mature material to date, and is even a tighter package than their past offerings that seemed to ramble on at times.  Yet, I don’t remember anyone wanting The Dodos to grow up.  That youthful exuberance is what made “Visiter” such a gem in 2008; while the songs were instantly hummable, they were hidden within Meric’s playful banging upon his guitar and Krober’s unpredictable beats.  You could tell they were having fun, and you joined in the fun just by listening.

“Visiter” often drew comparisons to Animal Collective due to its tribal meanderings, but those experimental dabblings are all but dead, although “Two Medicines” is a failed attempt at rekindling this sound. The album just sounds too pretty. Where’s the vibration of Meric’s guitar strings? The crack of Groeber’s stick upon the edge of a drum head? All but gone. Instead, Meric’s voice is put on center stage, caked in reverb and smoothed like a once jagged stone. 

 They were once like puppies,  charming and mischievous, yet impulsive and often straying where they shouldn’t.  Now they are in that awkward stage between puppy-hood and becoming a full fledged dog.  They’ve been trained to do what an up-and-coming band should do (hire a big name producer, sell the rights to their hit song for a Miller Light Chill commercial, etc). You still gotta love them, but they just aren’t as spunky.

 While they once wrote fun little dittys like “Horny Hippies” and “Elves”, they are now trying to convey messages like “The image on the board, selling things we can’t afford” or “Don’t think we need you, but you need us, this is a business!” Unfortunately, they come across about as insightful as a high school student’s term paper on global warming. 

 After the genius that was “Visiter”, I’d like to believe this is a bump in the road.  The majority of the songs on “Time to Die” show promise, and by the time the final two tracks arrive, glimpses of where the band is going creates hope for a better day. Maybe the band is just experiencing musical puberty, that uncertain stage of trying to figure out what it is to be an indie rock powerhouse.  Until then, I guess this awkward puppy will suffice.

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Best Songs of 2008

Best Songs of 2008

Like last year, I decided to come up with a list of my favorite songs of 2008. I didn’t include songs from any of my top ten albums because: 1. that would be overkill and 2. a truly great album must be heard from start to finish. I’ve always been a purist, an album guy, feeling the necessity to listen to an entire album rather than repeat the same hit over and over again. But with the I-POD, I’ve grown to appreciate the ability to throw on a quick Deerhoof song, and then move to a little Bonnie “Prince” Billy. What makes a great song, in my opinion, is a tune that keeps bringing you back for more, whether it makes you laugh, makes you think, or makes your heart pound a little bit faster. The genres of music covered in this list are wide ranging: from folk to punk to rap to country. So grab that I-Tunes gift card and start downloading some amazing songs. You may not like all of my favorites from the year, but I promise if you give some of my suggestions a chance, you’ll discover a gem that will hopefully become a favorite of yours in 2009.

Honorable Mention:
“Na Na Na” Theresa Anderrson
“Water Curses” Animal Collective
“Bright Light” Black Mountain
“Hummingbird” Born Ruffians
“Antillas” El Guincho
“I Feel Evil Creeping In” ..Islands
“Wishing Well” Love is All
“Western World” Pennywise
“San Andreas” Portastatic
“Tane Muhata” Ruby Suns
“Right Hand On My Heart” The Whigs

25. “Libby’s First Sunrise” Destroyer

During my road trip this summer with my friend Paul, I kept copious notes, knowing I would write a running blog about our experiences on the road. These notes helped me remember little events from our days, how each beer tasted from brewery to brewery, and some of the strange conversations had between us as we drove. It also helped me remember songs that were in conjunction with the experience such as Eddie Vedder’s “No Ceiling” at the top of the Sphinx Mountain or Cirith Ungol’s “I’m Alive” as we sped through ..Yellowstone… But one song I forgot to take note of has me still kicking myself to this day. On our final day of driving we listened to Destroyer’s latest album “Troubles in Dreams”. As we neared Lincoln, the final song “Libby’s First Sunrise” came on, and the lyrics had me recollecting my experience.

You’ve been wasted from the day
of wandering, boozing and sleeping outside
Playing the idiot all of your life
and this is what you get
Master of all you survey, but today
You’ve been wandering around
You’ve been fucking around

How perfect, eh? Unfortunately, while writing about the final leg of our trip, I failed to use the song and its lyrics to summarize the summer experience and capture the fact that we are still two kids out “fucking around”.

24. “Basket Ball Get Your Groove Back” Deerhoof

There aren’t many good songs about the game of basketball, and those that have been done are usually hip-hop, and are always horrific. Lil Bow Wow’s “Basketball” is atrocious, and Shaquille O’Neal’s library of basketball puns are just plain laughable (although his 2008 summer hit “Kobe, Tell Me How My Ass Tastes” is certainly an attention getter). And then there’s Deerhoof and their 2008 ode to b-ball “Basket Ball Get Your Groove Back”. With Deerhoof you never know if they are trying to make an artistic statement or just having some fun, and this song is no exception. Whatever their purpose, you can’t help but smile listening to this song, ironically lacking in groove with its seemingly off-beats and squawky guitar lines. Satomi Matsuzaki adds to the joyously outlandish tune with her innocent voice, singing lines like “Rebound, rebound, rebound, ready okay!” or “Bunny jump, bunny jump, bunny, bunny!” I’m anxiously awaiting the NBA’s new commercial coupling this fun little song with clips of Dwight Howard dunking in a bunny suit.

23. “Inner City Pressure” Flight of the Conchords

In 2008 we saw our economy reach all-time lows and unemployment reach new heights. In this age of uncertainty, Flight of the Conchords new wave parody “Inner City Pressure” provides us with a chance to laugh at our own plight. Humor is the best medicine for dealing with economic strain. As we watch the government bailout company after company like a soup kitchen, it’s comforting to know your life isn’t all bad. At least you haven’t been “considering second hand under pants” (yet).

22. “By Cover of Night (Fire Fight)””Sebastien Grainger & The Mountains

When I found out a few years ago that Death From Above 1979 broke up, I went through a period of denial. “It couldn’t be true!” Once it set it, I became angry at the band’s selfishness. “How could they take such an amazing sound away from us so quickly?” This past October, when drummer/singer Sebastien Grainger came out with his solo album, I began to make bargains within my head. “Well, at least we have Grainger’s music to fill the DFA void.” But upon first listen, I moved quickly into the stage of depression. Just like how Mars Volta can’t live up to At the Drive-In, Grainger’s solo album lacked the masculinity of DFA. Eventually, after spending weeks locked in my room pissing in mason jars, I moved to the final stage of the grieving process, accepting Grainger and his poppier sound. It’s actually a pretty incredible album once you get past expectations. And if you listen to “By Cover of Night (Fire Fight)” close enough, you just might hear the ghost of Jesse Keeler within the distorted bass-line, giving you hope that the distinct DFA sound may still live again.

21. “Junkie…Julieee…” Blood On the Wall

Blood On the Wall make punk rock sound easy. Take “Junkie…Julieee…” for example with its simple guitar riff and bassline, a sporadically messy guitar solo, and high-pitched howling of Brad Shanks, reminiscent of Frank Black. There in lies the genius. Blood On the Wall have found the complexity of punk music through a simplistic approach.

20. “No Redemption” Jason Collett

When I first played Jason Collett’s solo album the music threw me for a loop, sounding more like Bob Dylan than his band Broken Social Scene. The Dylan imitation is over the top and deliberate: who did he think he was fooling? Originally, “No Redemption” annoyed me the most. Not only did he sing in Dylan’s nasally drawl and feature the signature harmonica introduction, but the lyrics sounded deftly familiar to Dylan’s “Higway 61 Revisited”: “Staying stoned on highway 401. Heading toward the sun your bastard son.” But the more I listened to the soothing song, the more I found it to be an homage to the master. You can’t help but root for the aloof narrator of the song, clumsily moving through life, searching for the same redemption Dylan preached about decades ago.

19. “Gonna DJ” R.E.M

If R.E.M’s latest album “Accelerate” is a conscious effort toward returning to their former sound, then “Gonna DJ” is the sequel to “It’s the End of the World as We Know It”. While the classic song met the demise of the planet earth with a smile, “Gonna DJ” kicks it up a notch, celebrating the end of the world with a dance party. Although a superficial concept on the surface, Michael Stipe conveys a deeper message. While the original apocalyptic song rambled on about the problems of modern society, “Gonna DJ” provides us with the solution: music. As Stipe beautifully states “Music could provide the light that you cannot resist”. Listen to his credo and start “collecting vinyl … for the end of the world!”

18. “PWND” Mae Shi

The Mae Shi’s interpretation of the Good Word is anything but good. While most Christian bands present God as a forgiving father, Mae Shi present a darker, more vengeful Lord. “PWND” explores the Bible’s elephant in the room (Revelations) and shows God kicking ass and taking names. In the song God proclaims:

Open up their eyes and let them know that I’m very close to them now and that I’ve always known it would come to this and that they finally have something very real to fear because I’m very, very, close.

Despite the vehement lyrics, you can’t help but pump your fist and yell along with the closing chant of “Get ‘em out of those bodies! Get ‘em out of those bodies! Get ‘em out of those bodies!” I don’t know about you, but I kind of like the Lord who has a chip on his shoulder.

17. “Transliterator” Devotchka

When I purchased “A Mad & Faithful Telling” I expected the same dramatic build-up heard in “Little Miss Sunshine”. I had no idea I was getting into a big-band brouhaha, a cross-section of Beirut and Man Man. I love the album and the band’s rambunctious approach, yet I yearn for the emotional touch heard on their movie score. “Transliterator” is the one song on the album reminiscent of “How It Ends” from “Little Miss Sunshine” with its sweeping string section and morose lyrics of a man and his suicidal maiden.

16. “So Everyone” Bonnie “Prince” Billy

“So Everyone” conjures up memories of old school country duets like Willie Nelson and Emmy Lou Harris with its classic country sound and the dueling voices of Will Oldham and Ashley Webber. But I don’t remember Kenny Rogers serenading Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers with lines like “O kneel down and please me.” Bonnie “Prince” Billy never ceases to amaze me with his ability to take his beautiful music in the most unexpected places.

15. “You Appearing” M83

When I first downloaded M83’s 2008 offering of “Saturday’s = Youth” I was beyond ecstatic. Their first album “Dead Cities, Red Seas, & Lost Ghosts” is a far reaching exploration of the musical galaxies. The first song on M83’s latest installment, “You Appearing” didn’t disappoint. Starting with a dramatic piano chord progression, the song builds with the band’s signature synths swelling up to a climatic halt. Unfortunately, the band’s genius ends there as the song morphs into the disappointingly dated sounding second track, “Kim & Jessie”. The absence of former band member Nicolas Fromageau is quite apparent, with the remainder of “Saturday’s = Youth” sounding more like the soundtrack to a John Hughe’s film than the epic grandeur of the past. Based off the cover art, it is obvious the band aimed for a nostalgic tribute to 80s synth, which is all fine and dandy. I just wish these 80s revisionists wouldn’t have taunted us with “You Appearing”, a reminder of better days.

14. “All Day” Human Highway

Nick Thorburn, formerly of The Unicorns, had a busy year with the release of albums via two separate projects: The Island’s “The Arm” and Human Highway’s “Moody Motorcycle”. While The Islands “The Arm” was a dark journey into the human psyche, Human Highway provides an avenue for Thorburn and Jim Guthrie to explore the happier side of music. “All Day” is the best example of Human Highway not taking themselves too seriously. The guitar riff is a combination of reggae and Hawaiian ukelele (think Jack Johnson with integrety), and the sweet vocals fit perfectly alongside the feel good lyrics of letting “the day waste away”. Although The Island’s “The Arm” is a masterful mind-fuck with songs like “I Feel Evil Creeping In”, it’s good to see Thornburn can still “let the sun shine through”.

13. The Healer” Erykah Badu

I don’t know what it is that makes “The Healer” so contagious. The beat seems awkward and jangly, the hand claps are a half a beat off, the twitches and swirls of synth come off annoying, and Erykah sounds out of place singing lines like “It’s bigger than religion, hip-hop, it’s bigger than my niggas, hip-hop”. But somehow, this mish-mash, bi-polar soundscape is an irresistibly delightful ear infection.

12. Go First” Damien Jurado

Eons ago Paul burnt me a book of CDs, and one of the biggest highlights within the pages of discs was Damien Jurado’s “Ghost of David”. That book of CDs turned me on to some of my all-time favorite bands (Animal Collective, Neutral Milk Hotel), but for some reason I never followed up on my love of “Ghost of David” until this past fall when I purchased his latest “Caught in the Trees”. While the album is more polished and professional, Jurado’s somber style and sound remain prevalent. “Go First” is the biggest highlight of the album, a plea to a loved one to stay by your side, whether it be in a relationship or even in a hospital bed. After one listen of “Go First” you’ll never want the song to leave your side either.

11. “Big Trouble” Man Man

Three things to consider:

Zombies rule
Man Man rule
Songs by Man Man about Zombies rule

10. “Modern Leper” Frightened Rabbit

Everything has its purpose in this song: acoustic guitar backbone, a cheery mandolin riff, the thick Scottish accent of Scott Hutchison, and a rumbling drumline pushing it all along. “Modern Leper” on face value is an upbeat pop ditty, but like most of the songs on Frightened Rabbit’s masterful album “The Midnight Organ Fight”, the cheerful toe-tapping melodies are deceiving. The lyrics are abstract and mysterious, throwing imagery of “masicists” and legless “cripples” haphazardly. Is “Modern Leper” about a broken relationship, a self defeating loser, or drug addiction? There could be a hundred interpretations, and that is what makes for the best songs: the ones you can take and mold into your own meaning. While most music on the radio force feeds you contrite fairy tales, Frightened Rabbit create an auditory choose your own adventure.

9. “Sly Fox” Nas

At this point, attacking Fox news seems a little passé, but somehow Nas manages to make it fresh and relevant with “Sly Fox”, his burning rant on the incompetence of the media. It helps to know that Nas isn’t just being a liberal douche attacking an easy target; he actually has a reason to attack Fox News and the rest of the lemmings. A year ago O’Reilly blasted Nas for doing a memorial concert at Virginia Tech, calling his lyrics “violent and insulting”. Instead of hiding in his mansion sipping crystal, Nas retaliates with his biting words. It’s nice to see a rapper attacking a nightmare like O’Reilly instead of the run-of-a-mill rap war we’ve grown accustomed to.

8. “Cape Cod.. Kwassa” The Very Best (Esau Mwamwaya & Radioclit)

This cover of Vampire Weekends “Cape Cod Kwassa” takes the core guitar lick from the original and takes it completely into the realm of African music. The addition of steel drums, an African choir, and a djembe drumline creates a sound that conjures up scenes from “The Last King of Scotland” (I’m thinking one of the happy scenes with naked booty dancers, not the ones with sliced limbs and what not). While the original is a happy little ditty, Esau Mwamwaya gives the Ivy League boys a lesson in African music done right.

7. “Time To Pretend” MGMT

I saw MGMT open for Of Montreal four years ago and thoroughly enjoyed their minimalist performance. They came across like two teenagers just having a good time. They performed their entire set over an audio track like glorified karaoke, and they had a make-shift backdrop comprised of bed sheets and shoe polish. They opened with “Time To Pretend”, a song about becoming huge rock stars, which at the time seemed funny in an tongue in cheek kind of way. These two kids would never be big stars: how wrong was I? Fast forward three years and me pulling a copy of SPIN out of my mailbox, only to find the same crazy kids on the cover. Somehow, in the span of four years, the boys landed a deal with Columbia records. Their first album is a bit of a disappointment, but “Time To Pretend” is still a catchy ode to being rich and famous musicians: who knew, in an ironic twist of fate, that the satirical song would eventually come true?

6. “On Whose Authority” Nadasurf

Looking at the lyrics of “On Whose Authority”, one might be confused as to what Matthew Caws is singing about. A question to members of the military about following orders? A plea for self control? But the longer you listen to the contagious melody, the sooner you’ll realize that it doesn’t matter what the lyrics mean. Soon you’ll have the song running on an endless loop in your brain, and for once, having a song stuck in your head won’t be a bad thing.

5. “Little Tornados” Aimee Mann

“Little Tornados” begins with a verse that sounds like a twisted nursery rhyme: “Little tornado, bane of the trailer park, lifting houses to leave your mark”. The backing sound of a plucking guitar line adds an even more somber meaning to Aimee’s brilliant lyrics. Aimee is at her best when she is able to catch the listener off guard, matching conflicting lyrics and melody in a way that is difficult to do. “Little Tornados” is more proof that Mann is truly one of the best songwriters of our time.

4. “Always Wanting More” Jay Reatard

The intro guitar lick sounds like something straight off a Superchunk album, the verses recall The Wipers, and the chorus is vintage Cheap Trick: “Always Wanting More” shows Jay Reatard at his finest, meshing various sounds to create catchy pop punk that will run through your head endlessly.

3. “Sweet Love For Planet Earth” Fuck Buttons

The beauty of “Sweet Love For Planet Earth” is how gradually it builds. There isn’t a sudden takeover of noise, it just somehow happens to appear before you realize it. The opening sound of wind chimes seems to be repetitive, but the repetition is gone without even knowing it has disappeared. At some point you unknowingly begin nodding your head, and just like that, six minutes into the Zen fest, satanic garble emerges, fitting perfectly alongside the serenity. The song can only be described as inconspicuous, yet incredible.

2. “California Dreamer” Wolf Parade

From the opening Comanche organ riff to the constant references to winter, “California Dreamer” is an obvious ode to the Mamas and the Papas classic “California Dreaming”. While the original tells of a yearning to return to the warmer weather of California, Wolf Parade uses the seasonal metaphor to convey a bigger message that would make Robert Frost proud. The California that Mama Cass sang so fondly about has drastically changed over the past 40 years. The state once glorified in the classic song is no longer dreamlike, with Spencer Krug singing “I might have heard you on the radio but the radio waves were like snow.” The one time warmth of California has turned cold and self serving, yet the people still “dream of seasons that never die” through botox, tummy tucks, and any other means of helping “the young stay pretty” by getting “younger and younger”. In the end, Krug warns the Mamas and the Papas and all other dreamers that “the city doesn’t belong to you anymore.”

1. “Silver Stallion” Cat Power

Channing Marshall sounds out of place in the majority of the songs on her 2008 covers album “Jukebox” (covering Sinatra’s “New York, New York” is a stretch, and her version of “Rambling (Wo)-Man” is just plain silly). But on “Silver Stallion” she sounds perfectly at home on the range, singing about a stallion she wants to tame and ride off into the wild. The fact that the song was originally sung by male country super group The Highwaymen (Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson) is kind of gay in a “Brokeback Mountain” kind of way. The song was bread for a female vocalist. The guitars are a haunting, yet romantic backdrop to her tale of outlaw runaways. I’m not usually a big fan of covers, but Marshall took this wild stallion of a song and tamed it with her soft, soothing voice.

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5. Road Trip 2009: Of Mice and Men

You are about to enter another dimension. A dimension not only of sight and sound, but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land of imagination. Next stop, the Twilight Zone!

“Twilight Zone”- Opening Narration

After bumping along over gravel roads, I finally arrived at the Peterson farmhouse where I spotted Paul’s rusty, beaten car parked out front.  Driving up the lane, I could see Paul and his brothers arguing next to one of the trucks.  When I stepped out of my car, they didn’t pay me any mind and continued berating each other.

“Whatever!” Josiah shouted. “I wouldn’t have thrown them if you hadn’t attacked me.”

“Dude, you should have just let me have the keys to drive, dumb ass,” Paul responded, “Come on Andy, we have to go find his truck keys.”

During the drive he filled me in on the events leading up to the missing keys.  After working in the fields that afternoon, Paul asked to drive Josiah’s truck back to the farm.  When Josiah said no, Paul decided to tackle him, but as he went to take his brother down, Josiah tossed his keys up in the air.  As a result, they spent 30-minutes looking for the keys. We were now returning to the scene of the crime armed with rakes.  Upon arrival, we began combing the dry dirt, searching for the missing keys amidst the scattered weeds and patches of grass.  After about 10 minutes, Paul suggested the keys may be hiding beneath a mammoth piece of cement.

Josiah, believing this had to be a joke, challenged Paul to look underneath the concrete. With a shovel in hand, Paul lifted, while Josiah and I pulled up with our hands, and lo and behold, there sat the keys.  Paul made sure Josiah knew he was right, but even I didn’t know how the keys ended up under the heavy cement.

Paul knew his keys were under the cement when he heard his Phil Rizzuto keychain shouting, Holy Cow!

Paul knew his keys were under the cement when he heard his Phil Rizzuto keychain shouting, "Holy Cow!"

Back at the house we sat down in the living room to cool off with a glass of ice water.  Paul came back from the fridge with what looked like a couple brownies in his hand.  “Try my homemade energy bar out. They rule.” Everyone, including Paul’s resting dad, began laughing.

“I don’t know if I’d eat that Andy,” he chuckled.

“Just try it,” Paul insisted with annoyance.

As his mom passed through the room she warned, “I’d be careful eating that…”

“You said they were good!” Paul called after her.

She stopped with a smirk on her face and answered, “Actually it was really good.  Just make sure he isn’t giving you the contaminated ones.”

As she left the room, I gave Paul a confused look.  “What?” I asked.

“Tell your tall-tale Paul,” Paul’s dad said sitting up with a grin on his face.

“It’s not a tall-tale,” Paul said.

“What happened?” I asked.  Josiah and Caleb sat down nearby, obviously ready to hear Paul’s story.  He paused for a moment, irritated by his family’s disbelief, then began his epic tale.

Originally, Paul had planned to get to his parents farm a few days prior to my arrival in order to spend some good family time.  Of course, he procrastinated and found himself still sitting in Idaho making homemade power bars the night I would be arriving in Omaha.  Realizing he needed to get on the road, he quickly threw everything he owned into his car, including his power bars packed nicely in zip lock bags.

While driving in the wee hours of the night, he thought he saw something move across the arm rest of the passenger seat. He tried to take a gander at the movement, but could see nothing in the dark. When he thought he saw more movement a bit later, he took his I-Pod ear buds out, suspicious that he was not alone in his beat-up vehicle.  Moments later, he could hear a scurrying sound in the back seat. Just then he felt something brush his right arm, and when he looked down he swore he saw a small rodent sprinting up his arm rest toward the back seat. His attempt to crush the intruder failed.  He stopped his car on the side of the road and inspected the interior. Nothing.  With his maternal nature taking over, he decided to move his precious power bar creations to the passenger seat. He then checked the trunk, again finding nothing but a baseball bat.  Jackpot – he now had a weapon to battle the beast.

Unlike Gandalf, Paul found his Foehammer in a trunk rather than a troll cave.

Unlike Gandalf, Paul found his Foehammer in a trunk rather than a troll cave.

Back on the road, with a bat at his side and power bars keeping him company, he continued his challenging journey. With his ears perked at full alert, moments into his drive he once again heard a rustling noise to his left. They were after his treasure.  He gripped the bat tightly and diverted his eyes down to the right, hoping not to make any sudden movements. By the light of the overhead streetlights he could finally make out his enemy: a field mouse (or rather, a mountain mouse).  The criminal was tip-toeing toward the power bars, ever so slowly.

Instinctively, Paul raised the bat swiftly, swinging it up into the windshield and slamming it down in the vicinity of the crook.  He lifted his weapon to see if a squished mouse remained, but all he found were flattened energy bars and a cracked windshield.  Just when he was about to burst in frustration, he heard a muffled squeaking in the back seat – a squeak of pain. Even though he damaged his window and his baked goods, he had connected on his homerun hit.

I wonder if Morneau has ever made a victim squeak upon impact?

I wonder if Morneau has ever made a victim squeak upon impact?

This was not the end of the battle though.  As night was becoming morning, Paul looked in his rear view and could see the silhouette of a mouse darting across his back window.  Was he battling a zombie mouse? Or were there two, three, a dozen mice in his car?!  Maybe he was just seeing things?  It was almost four in the morning after all, and the only thing keeping him awake at this point was his fear that his power bars would be held captive and destroyed.

WARNING: If you look up zombie mouse on Google Images, some pretty disturbing stuff pops up.

WARNING: If you look up "zombie mouse" on Google Images, some pretty disturbing stuff pops up.

He decided he needed to catch his wits and some shut eye, so he pulled into a rest area.  With a pillow in his right hand and a bag of power bars in his right, he ventured out to a covered picnic table where he set up camp.  Despite his drowsiness, he couldn’t get to sleep, continuing to hear noises. Had the mice left the car in search of the bars?  If they could get in the car through one of the body’s rusted holes, they could surely get out.  As he laid there looking out toward the dog shit riddled rest area lawn, he swore he saw small figures sprinting toward his picnic table. This was war.

He jumped up from his concrete bed and began strolling the premises. As he turned around the corner of his covered area, he saw one of the thieves, running alongside the wall, trying to escape Paul’s watchful eye.  His anger crescendo-ed in a furious downward stomp, aimed in the direction of the interloper. “Ha!” Paul thought; got him!  He lifted his foot slowly, relishing in the destruction of one of his foes, but would be disappointed once again, finding nothing.

It was at this point in the retelling of his tale that Paul’s dad cut him off. “Now wait a second. Was this a magic disappearing mouse?”

“No! It just wasn’t there. I swore I got it, but it somehow escaped.”

Now let me get this straight grandpa. First there were zombie mice, and now there are disappearing mice?!

"Now let me get this straight grandpa. First there were zombie mice, and now there are disappearing mice?!"

His dad began giggling, and soon his brothers joined in. Finally, his dad joked, “Sounds like an episode of ‘The Twilight Zone’.”

Josiah chimed in, “Yeah, and in all my years of working on the farm, I’ve never heard a mouse whimper in pain.”

“How often have you seen a mouse in pain, dumb ass,” Paul retorted. “It made this noise… EEEEE…EEEEE….EEEEE!”

As Paul demonstrated his squeaking ability, his dad and brother’s shook their heads in disbelief. “Wow, you sure can tell a story Red Green,” his dad added, sending both his brothers into uncontrollable laughter. I laughed along with them, although I didn’t really get the Red Green reference. Doesn’t he just talk about duct tape all the time?

The Peterson family mocked Paul’s farfetched story for another hour, reiterating the Red Green/Twilight Zone jokes, while Paul continued stressing that he was telling the truth.   Despite their pessimism, Paul insisted that they leave one of the farm cats in his car while we were on our trip, or to fill the vehicle with mice traps.  I told him the mice would probably get bored and come out to explore the farm, but he persisted that precautions be made before we left.

When we finally made preparations to begin our trip, Paul stopped his mom and asked, “Do you have any copies of The Fellowship of the Ring around this place anymore? Andy’s read The Hobbit like a dozen times but has never read the trilogy.”

“What?” Josiah interjected.

“I know,” Paul responded, “that’s like owning Neil Young’s ‘Harvest’ and never checking out any of his other albums.” He had a point.

His mom sent Caleb downstairs to look for the first book. While we waited on him his mom said, “Yeah, Paul’s dad gave me the trilogy as an engagement gift and told me he wouldn’t marry me until I read all the books.”  The Peterson family’s adoration of Tolkien caught me off guard.  I knew Paul loved the books but not every member of his devoutly religious family.  If Harry Potter is evil, Tolkien has to be, right?

Maybe the word Lord in the title threw them off.

Maybe the word "Lord" in the title threw them off. "On the third day after his death, Jesus arose from the hobbit-hole." Tolkien 16:2-6

Unfortunately, Caleb came back upstairs with only a copy of Return of the King, but Paul vowed that I would read “Fellowship” by summer’s end.

Eventually we said our goodbyes to his family and headed west down a gravel road.  Ahead storm clouds loomed. “Just another sign of things to come,” I thought to myself. As the rain picked up, our trek up the dirt road slowed to tortoise speed, but we didn’t care.  Despite the fact that we’d been talking on the phone almost daily, planning our trip, we somehow still had a lot of catching up to do.

An hour later, when the rain had finally died down and we were actually on a paved road heading toward Laramie, Wyoming, Paul decided the time had come to put on some music.

“Uh oh, dude! You better pick something good. It is the first song of our trip after all.”

“I know just the song,” he replied.  Moments later, a buzzing bass line vibrated through my car speakers. A catchy guitar riff began building, and my interest was rising. When the drums erupted, I was forced to ask Paul what amazing band we were listening to.

“Japandroids my friend,” he said with a smile.  Being a band that we both hoped to see on our trip, I perked up and listened intently to the lyrics from the opening track “The Boys are Leaving Town”, a musical anti-thesis to Thin Lizzy’s double guitar lead classic:

The boys are leaving town,
The boys are leaving town,
The boys are leaving town, now.

Will we find our way back home?

I don’t know.
Will we find our way back home?
I don’t know.

“Good question,” I thought to myself. Would I make it back home to San Antonio? Who knew. But at that moment, riding with my comrade Paul, heading across Wyoming’s hilly terrain, I didn’t care where we were going or if we’d come back.  We were on our way to God knows where, and for the first time in weeks, I was ready to throw caution to the wind.

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