The Power Trio…

“Three helping one another will do as much as six men singly”old Spanish proverb

“Three is the magic number”Schoolhouse Rock!

Ah, the power trio. Whether we’re talking the traditional guitar-bass-drums line-up (think either of Jimi Hendrix‘s incarnations; Cream; Rush; et. al.) or the slightly augmented version featuring the keyboard/organ employed by Emerson Lake & Palmer, the age-old question comes into play again and again: who really needs a fucking rhythm guitarist? With only three members you can all turn your shit up to eleven and the guy you hired just to strum can go home, you didn’t really wanna split the gate with him anyway because why split something up four ways when you really only need three?

The term “power” implies a certain strength, and here it’s volume. Pure, unadulterated, balls-to-the-wall rawk. So I bring to you fifteen of the greatest power trios of rock-and-roll.

15. Boris (Takeshi, bass/guitar/vocals; Wata, guitar; Atsuo, drums)boris

Japan’s heaviest trio- that is when they want to be heavy. Changing styles from record to record, it’s pretty impossible to pigeonhole Boris into one genre, if you want stoner sludge, go Heavy Rocks. For thrash, go Pink. Veering towards psychedelia- Smile. Drone metal in the style of SunnO)))? Akuma No Uta. (They also did an album with those Southern Lord drone-jerks, but then that’d a quintet now, wouldn’t it?) Mogwai-esque minimalism/bombastic post-rock? Flood. “Something for everybody” should be Boris‘ mission statement. There’s both an attitude of sneering punkishness and a severe metal influence underpinning the whole sound, it can be as extreme as orthodontics or as subtle as being tickled with feathers on the soles of your feet.

Recommended listening: Flood (MIDI Creative; 2000) is basically one 70-minute song divided into four suites; (probably) my favorite, but that’s more or less an intense and active listening experience- encompassing all over Boris‘ styles in one go. I’d say start with Pink (Southern Lord; 2005), it boils down the experience into an eleven track, 55-minute ride; again: sludge, thrash, psychedelic/stoner, drone metal at its finest.

14. Hüsker Dü (Bob Mould, guitar/vocals; Grant Hart, drums/vocals; Greg Norton, bass)husker-du

If you play the very first Hüsker Dü song from their first album (All Tensed Up from Land Speed Record) next to the last song from their last album (You Can Live At Home from Warehouse: Songs & Stories), you’d have a hard time trying to convince someone that they’re the same band and that this evolution only took five years to complete. This Minneapolis threesome re-wrote the rules by adding melody to hardcore, penning a seventy-minute double concept album with piano-driven ballads, folky acoustic tunes and touches of psychedelia (completely unheard of in punk circles at the time) and slowly morphing into an alt-rock/MTV-friendly band, Hüsker Dü never gave a shit what anyone thought anyway, so when Mould sang I Apologize on New Day Rising, don’t think he meant anything by it…

Recommended listening: New Day Rising (SST Records; 1985) isn’t as tedious as the “punk opera” Zen Arcade (SST Records; 1984), but both are glimpses of the band’s apex in the mid-80s, before they got all melodic on the world. If you’re feeling adventurous, go Zen, with its angst-ridden, emotive honesty (as much as a storyline about running away but never getting anywhere can be). If you want a great melodic punk record, then NDR.

13. Yo La Tengo (Ira Kaplan, guitar/keyboards/vocals; James McNew, bass; Georgia Hubley, drums/vocals)yo-la-tengo

Hoboken’s second most famous residents (after Ol’ Blue Eyes, of course), this trio of Mets’ fans named themselves after the famous “catch”-phrase from the Richie Ashburn-Elio Chacón fiasco of 1962 (I can’t explain it here, and if you ain’t a baseball fan then just forget it…). Anyhow, YLT has made quite a name for themselves as an indie rock giant, an unrelenting force that’s been with Matador Records since ’93, veering from Sonic Youth-type guitar noise rock to My Bloody Valentine-esque shoegaze to Stereolab-ish post-rock/electro; basically being unbound by any genre or classifier, and usually in the span of one album. I got to the Yo La Tengo party late; they allow recording of their live shows and encourage tape trading, so I “found” them on an interwebs trading site (2002). I haven’t regretted it in the least.

Recommended listening: I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One (Matador; 1997) is as close to an indie rock masterpiece as anything else you can name (I dare you, for I will defend this record against almost everything), combining elements of Krautrock psychedelia (Spec Bebop), shoegaze (Return To Hot Chicken), dream pop (Autumn Sweater), fuzzy noise (Deeper Into Movies), atmospheric ambience (Green Arrow), electronica (the Stereolab-inspired Center Of Gravity)- it’s truly an everyman’s record, for there’s everything here. There’s even a fuzzed-up version of The Beach BoysLittle Honda.

12. Motörhead (Lemmy, bass/vocal; Eddie Clarke, guitar; Phil Taylor, drums)motorhead

The best combination of punk, metal and rock, ever; probably invented speed metal, because this is what metal played by speed freaks sounds like. I’m citing the “classic” line-up here, from 1976-’82. So what exactly Lemmy, Fast Eddie and the Philthy Animal did for 80’s metal is pretty much take the whole thing up a notch by introducing a punk sensibility (have I mentioned speed yet?) while paving the way for the whole “New Wave Of British Heavy Metal” bands like Judas Priest & Iron Maiden to keep getting faster. This of course pushed Slayer, Metallica, Megadeth & Anthrax and thrash metal to come. Inventing a new genre while influencing about ten more is pretty much some serious game-changing shit. Add those aforementioned facts to the idea that Motörhead did all this without the technical chops of Maiden or the leather pretentiousness of Priest. Completely uncompromising punishing metal.

Recommended listening: No Sleep ’til Hammersmith (Bronze Records; 1981)– the obligatory live album is the best place to start; it contains live versions of tracks from the three best studio albums: 1979’s Overkill & Bomber and Ace Of Spades (Mercury Records; 1980) the definitive early-80s metal album.

11. Dinosaur Jr. (J Mascis, vocals/guitar; Lou Barlow, bass/vocals; Murph, drums)dinosaur-jr

When people think of the 80s musically, they mostly think of really cheesy synth-pop (thanks to Madonna, Depeche Mode, Pet Shop Boys, and the like. You definitely don’t think of monster guitar bands, let alone a screamy, sludgy, Big Muff mess like D-Jr. But through the latter part of the decade, they released some of the best guitar rock this side of Sonic Youth. I’m not even gonna count the Lou Barlow-less version of this band as an accurate representation of who and what they are (anything that a mass of backward hatted-fratboys can get behind, count me out) so the period of this band between 1989-2004 doesn’t matter, as those four records are a craptastic paint-by-numbers ’90s type of alterna-rock that pandered to said college fucks. But the five albums D-Jr did with the “real” line-up are as good as Sebadoh. Almost.

Recommended listening: The opening songs from both You’re Living All Over Me (SST Records; 1987) and Bug (SST Records; 1988) are as good as any album openers in recent memory; Little Fury Things and Freak Scene respectively are kick-ass rockers. Bug is the tighter album of the two, meaning that Mascis‘ supreme guitar heroics are more refined, whereas on YLAOM he’s basically a hot mess- a sloppy, screechy, explosive and beautiful mess.

10. Grand Funk Railroad (Mark Farner, vocals/guitar; Mel Schacher, bass; Don Brewer, drums)gfr

The classic line-up of Mark, Don & Mel from 1968-’71 were as heavy as Black Sabbath and funky as Funkadelic, and their signature hard-rock/blues/funk sound was responsible for influencing a whole decade’s worth of what would later be called heavy metal. Hailing from the working class city of Flint, Michigan contributed to Grand Funk‘s heroic output of music as a trio- five full-lengths and a live record in the span of four years. If there ever was a poster-child for blue-collar rock-and-roll, Grand Funk is the band.

Recommended listening: Their second album, simply titled Grand Funk (Capitol Records, 1969) finds the band hitting their stride with the almost ten-minute jam-and-a-half Inside Looking Out, a cover of the The Animals‘ song from 1966. Add the rocker Mr. Limousine Driver– one of the best songs about groupies this side of Frank Zappa.

9. Emerson Lake & Palmer (Keith Emerson, keyboards; Greg Lake, vocals/guitar/bass; Carl Palmer, drums)elp

Masters of prog-rock studio wankery (and I mean that in the highest regard), ELP did for the synthesizer what Jimi did for the guitar. Okay, Rick Wakeman is up there too; and both Herbie Hancock & Chick Corea have better chops, but I’ll take Keith Emerson just for his sheer audacity and ability to spend thousands of hours in the studio to get that perfect sound. Everything ELP ever recorded went over-budget and over-deadline, but listening to the masterpieces like Brain Salad Surgery or the pretentious (if not ambitious) re-imagining of Mussorgsky‘s Pictures At An Exhibition, or their self-titled debut; I can only imagine the heartburn and insomnia they caused countless producers, record executives, etc. during the recording process. I mean, they had a whole 18-wheeler just for Emerson‘s equipment, which is the pinnacle of 70s arena-rock excess.

Recommended listening: Brain Salad Surgery (Manticore Records; 1973) When I was in middle school, I used to get really “sick” the second week of March, so I could stay home and watch the opening rounds of the NCAA basketball tournament. One year, CBS (I think) used Karn Evil 9: 1st Impression, Part 2 as their theme song (you know it, the song that goes, “welcome my friends to the show that never ends, step inside, step inside…”) and for the next year I was convinced it was a Who song (Greg Lake kinda sounds like Roger Daltrey there). So when I got kicked out of Choral Music on the first day of class, I had to take General Music, and it was probably the best thing that ever happened to me, because a Mr. Dave Nelson was our teacher and we proceeded to learn about all the awesome music from the mid-to-late sixties up through to that year (which was 1989). Of course, we did a little unit on ELP. When Mr. Nelson played Karn Evil 9 for us, the lightbulb went on. Then we spent a week on Pictures At An Exhibition (Cotillion; 1972), a re-invented version of a Russian piano suite written in 1874 by Modest Mussorgsky.

8. Sebadoh (Lou Barlow, guitar/bass/vocals; Eric Gaffney, drums/guitar/vocals; Jason Lowenstein, bass/guitar/drums/vocals)sebadoh1

So Lou Barlow wasn’t long for the original version of Dinosaur Jr, a younger J Mascis was probably threatened and paranoid having another songwriter in the band, and he couldn’t hold back Lou‘s immense talent forever. So Lou was freed, meets Eric Gaffney and they begin a quest of four-tracking every little noise they make. Enter Jason Lowenstein and the rest is history. My “favorite band that no one else listened to” in high school, and why would anyone want to listen a trio of weedheads ramble on about things like control or girls or weed forestin’ or the seBADoh? Unfortunately, Gaffney would leave the band in ’93 and new drummer Bob Fay would step in as Sebadoh‘s acclaim grew- the next couple of albums are two of the mid-90’s greatest records. Sebadoh would release one more record as the decade wound down, then fade away (as Barlow had his Folk Implosion to fall back on, and the eventual reunion of D-Jr. in 2004).

Recommended listening: Sebadoh hit their stride in the mid-90s, with Bakesale (Sub Pop Records; 1994) and Harmacy (Sub Pop; 1996)– the two records are easily their most accessible, most polished offerings (and would see co-founder Gaffney quit the band right before they “made” it). Go for their earlier stuff if you want the four-track madness, but these two albums showcase both Lou and Jason‘s songwriting chops- Barlow‘s flair for being the “sensitive guy” (no wonder he and Mascis didn’t get along) and Lowenstein‘s tongue-in-cheeky confrontational nature adds up for some great listening. Bonus points for Barlow as well, right around the time he was releasing these Sebadoh records, Dinosaur Jr. was turning into a friggin’ joke on commercial radio and MTV.

7. Sleater-Kinney (Corin Tucker, guitar/vocals; Carrie Brownstein, guitar/vocals; Janet Weiss, drums)sleater-kinney

So here’s another version of the power trio; a guitar-guitar-drums edition. No bass is needed because these ladies absolutely rock the fucking house down; I don’t mean the shutters are shaking a little bit, I mean earthquake-roof-collapse-cracked-foundation rock the fucking house down. Here the two guitar attack acts as both a lightning rod and buzz-saw; lest I forget the strongest part of S-K‘s sound- Corin Tucker‘s amazing wail. The first two records are basically warm-ups, then in comes drummer Janet Weiss before recording Dig Me Out and voila- they go from cutesy riot grrrl act to full-fledged feminist icons. Big, attention-grabbing, anthemic. Three ways to describe the Pacific Northwest’s answer to overblown kawk-rawk.

Recommended listening: Dig Me Out (Kill Rock Stars; 1997) is their debut with Weiss on drums, and it’s the album where they both found their sound and were the most exciting, blistering eardrums with tracks like Words & Guitar, One More Hour and the title track. One Beat (Kill Rock Stars; 2002) is a politically-charged as well as introspective look at the the post-9/11 world according to Sleater-Kinney, it has their best songwriting efforts. Or the anthemic swan-song The Woods (Sub Pop Records; 2005) has their arena-sized ambitions at heart, too bad they never made it there…

6. The Jimi Hendrix Experience (Jimi Hendrix, guitar/vocals; Noel Redding, bass; Mitch Mitchell, drums)experience

You probably think I’m insane for ranking Jimi at #6, but keep reading (this wasn’t his only band, just his more famous one…) Yet people may forget that this band was broken up by Hendrix because he didn’t think they were the best possible bandmates for him, and somewhat hampered his ability to get as wild as he could (or would). At any rate, the three records this trio released will go down as three of the best ever, as well as their performances from October of 1966 until Woodstock three years later. The effect, influence and importance Jimi had on the electric guitar is immeasurable, it’s like trying to understand the effect of the moon on ocean tides; it has something to do with gravity and fluid motion, but they’re not 100% sure, yet. And that’s what Mr. Hendrix and his guitar are like; no one’s really sure how wide his net of influence is- I’d say all rock and roll, but that’s open to interpretation and inviting all kinds of argument. Nevertheless, Jimi did in these three years with the services of Redding & Mitchell what people have been trying to do ever since; blow your mind with music. Feedback, wah-wah pedals, distortion, psychedelic R&B; Hendrix married them all and gave it to the world, and forever changed the way people look at the electric guitar. Thank you, Jimi

Recommended listening: Of course, Jimi was at his best when playing live, so Jimi Plays Monterey (Reprise Records; 1986) catches him at his best- kicking off the “Summer Of Love” on June 18th, 1967 at the Monterey Pop Festival; you can hear Brian Jones of The Rolling Stones introduce the Experience as they tear into Killing Floor and go into a 45-minute buzz saw-whirlwind-Stratocaster fury. Yeah, this is the infamous show when Jimi burned his guitar at the end of Wild Thing. In the studio; I’d go with the first release Are You Experienced (Reprise; 1967)– it contains Jimi at his rawest and serves as an example of his earliest mind-blowing, face-fucking awesomeness. But really, anything (live or studio) Jimi‘s ever done is pretty rad, so you can not fail with any releases by him. Fact.

5. The Police (Sting, bass/vocals; Andy Summers, guitar; Stewart Copeland, drums)the-police

Adding pure pop sensibilities to a combination of jagged punk rhythms, skanky roots reggae, angular post-punk guitar lines and one of the most amazing stickmen (Copeland) to ever pound the skins, The Police were like a breath of fresh air- debut Outlandos d’Amour had a perfect mix of the above sensibilities, and tongue-in-cheek lyrics of falling in love with prostitutes, loneliness and sex with blow-up dolls showed a naïve immaturity that was endearing. Sting would later go one to become that tantric douchebag, selling his songs to Jaguar commercials and basically making lame music for housewives to make home-made potpourri to, but from ’78 to ’83, The Police were the world’s pre-eminent power trio.

Recommended listening: first off- if you can, get the remastered versions of Regatta De Blanc (A&M Records; 1979) because the drums are louder, and I’ve always felt that the strength of The Police was in the drumming of Stewart Copeland. Some of their best songs are on this album: Message In A Bottle, Walking On The Moon, Bring On The Night and The Bed’s Too Big Without You. For the big “hits”, get Synchronicity (A&M Records; 1983)– it’s their most accomplished record. Side Two (of the vinyl, dummy) is better than 99.9% of every other band’s entire recorded output.

4. Rush (Geddy Lee, bass/vocals/keyboards; Alex Lifeson, guitar; Neil Peart, drums)rush

Between 1976 and 1981 Rush went on one of the most impressive five record runs, all prog-rock/high-art concept album masterpieces in their own right. I know that I’m practically begging for the comment section to fill up with “pssshhhhts” and “ewwwws” right here, as if the words “prog” and “pretentious” are interchangeable and I’m the biggest asshole in the world for even mentioning Rush, but if you cast aside your ignorance for just a minute, Rush totally fucking rules. Make fun of Geddy‘s voice all you want, but try to name another bass player that’s been at this for forty years non-stop. Neil Peart‘s drumming? Unparalleled. Alex Lifeson‘s riffs? His solos? The entire 2112 album? Seriously

Recommended listening: 2112 (Anthem Records; 1976) If you’ve never taken LSD in your parent’s basement and listened to 2112 over and over again, stop reading here. If you have, then you know as I know all the secrets to the universe are contained here in this record (also in Jethro Tull‘s Thick As A Brick, Fleetwood Mac‘s Rumours, Jefferson Airplane‘s Surrealistic Pillow, etc; but that’s another essay altogether). This is the greatest thing Canada has ever given the world. Then five years later, Rush gave the world Moving Pictures (Mercury records, 1981) and nerds everywhere could now spend eternity not getting laid while playing air guitar to the breakdown in Tom Sawyer. Duuuuuuuuuude!

3. Minutemen (D. Boon, guitar/vocals; Mike Watt, bass/vocals; George Hurley, drums)minutemen

So D. Boon turned up the treble knob on his guitar and scratched, jabbed, raked and blistered the strings with such ferocious and wild abandon that he’s been heralded as an innovator- no one played the guitar like that until he came along. With a  dominant rhythm section of Mike Watt and his low end bass bombs and George Hurley‘s supertight stop-on-a-dime-and-pick-it-up drumming makes the Minutemen the most interesting band of the early eighties. Interesting because nobody knew who or what the fuck they were- were they punk? Post-punk? Hardcore? Post-hardcore? Funk? Finding a home on SST Records kept them virtually unknown outside the punk community, they eschewed the trappings and confinements of a major label by “jamming econo”, their term for keeping costs down by loading their own gear in and out of shows, driving themselves to and from shows, etc. Sadly, Boon died in a car crash, cutting the Minutemen‘s wonderful career prematurely short.

Recommended listening: Double Nickels On The Dime (SST Records; 1984) A double album? Unheard of in punk rock circles, the massive undertaking of DNOTD was spurred on by the Minutemen‘s friendly rivalry with labelmates Hüsker Dü, after hearing their Zen Arcade tapes before it was released caused Boon, Watt & Hurley to go back into the studio and cut 20+ more tracks. Their first full-length release, The Punch Line (SST Records; 1981) is a furious attack of 18 songs in a mere fifteen minutes- you can see the nascent promise that was fully realized three years later.

2. Cream (Eric Clapton, guitar/vocals; Jack Bruce, bass/vocals; Ginger Baker, drums/vocals)cream

I used to consider Clapton vastly over-rated, but have changed my mind as of late- he wasn’t over-rated, he just peaked too early and hasn’t done anything remotely as interesting as the things he did with Bruce and Baker. That’s not a bad thing, it’s just enough to put Cream at a distant second to Jimi’s Band Of Gypsys. With the blues-influenced Clapton on guitar and the jazz-trained Bruce (who played an upright or double bass before switching to electric) and Baker (also well-versed in jazz and blues as a previous band-mate with Bruce in the Graham Bond Organization) the “cream of the crop” soon outdistanced their peers with technical proficiency par excellence, seamless and “heavy” improvisations, Baker‘s ability to play odd time signatures and polyrhythms, Slowhand‘s blues soloing, all three members sharing vocal duties; basically it all adds up to one of the most important and influential bands of all time.

Recommended listening: Disraeli Gears (ATCO Records; 1967) All the staples are here: Strange Brew, Sunshine Of Your Love, Tales Of Brave Ulysses. The perfect segue from their bluesy roots into the world of acid-drenched psychedelia that was fully developed on Wheels Of Fire (ATCO Records; 1968); the world’s first platinum-selling double record. With a disc of studio tracks (White Room as well as a cover of Born Under A Bad Sign), the actual awesomeness here is the second “live” disc, with a version of Crossroads, Willie Dixon‘s Spoonful and a 16-minute Toad (featuring a thirteen-minute Ginger Baker drum solo).

1. Band Of Gypsys (Jimi Hendrix, guitar/vocals; Billy Cox, bass; Buddy Miles, drums/vocals)band-of-gypsys

The penultimate power trio, nothing even comes close in my book. The only drawback is that their entire recorded output is only somewhere around two hours (the 1999 release of the 1969-70 Fillmore East New Year’s shows, which is basically an extended version of the previously released Band Of Gypsys album from June of 1970; and a handful of singles: Stepping Stone, Izabella, Ezy Ryder, etc.). Of course people immediately point to the more famous (and probably more accessible) The Jimi Hendrix Experience, but I always thought they lacked the “soul” that the all-African American trio had. With Billy laying down some of the deepest funk grooves known to man and Buddy perfectly creating the pocket with hard-hitting and metronomic fills, Jimi was the cornerstone of the strongest three-man foundation ever laid to two-inch tape. The combo allowed him to work out his furious finger exercises and frenetic psychedelic blues explorations- not a single note is wasted anywhere. Plus, Buddy Miles was a damn fine singer as well. If you want the most bang for your buck, go Gypsys– you shan’t be disappointed.

Recommended listening: Live At The Fillmore East (MCA Records; 1999) Both versions of Machine Gun here will suck the roof of your skull forcibly down your spinal column and blow it out of your fucking chest. For the abridged version of this two-disc set, the previously released Band Of Gypsys (Capitol Records; 1970) is just six songs in length, more to the point but less of the actual experience of Jimi (no pun intended).

Disclaimer: you may be all, “Where’s Nirvana?” Well, sorry- I’m not a Nirvana fan and never really was. Completely over-rated. They’ve been placed on a pedestal that they don’t deserve, they didn’t do anything new or inventive- they wrote catchy, three-minute pop songs that happened to have some fuzz/distortion and pounding drums. Nothing special. You’d blow your brains out, too, if people threw a ton of money at you that you knew you didn’t deserve; which, by the way, is what created this whole “mystique” and “legacy” anyway. Suicide=album sales. Take your Nirvana-loving ass away from my blog, bitches.

September Catching Up

Now’s a better time than ever to weigh in on The Beatles‘ 2009 remasters, or re-remasters, or re-released re-remasters, whatever… since they came out this past week (9/9/09). I’ve only had the pleasure of listening to Abbey Road & The White Album, since they’re the two best records in their catalog and the two I associate with their deserved reputation as the greatest rock-and-roll band of all-time. Basically; they’ve been improved by making them less “muddy” (not to say Sir George Martin‘s original production was muddy, he did the absolute best with what was available at the time), but there seems to be more “space” between each instrument and the vocals; it’s definitely “louder” and “crisper”, take the mix on I Want You (She’s So Heavy) from Abbey Road; the snare has much more “punch”, the cymbal hits are more present, Paul‘s bass feels as though it’s way more upfront, actually, everything feels like it’s more forward in the mix- the layered vocals during the chorus are actually distinguishable in that you can hear each part separate in the left/right channels (seriously; mess with your speaker’s knobs as the chorus plays if you wanna hear what I’m talking about.) Anyway- totally worth it if you’re a Beatles‘ fan.

Some of these albums aren’t worth the plastic they’re pressed on, but whatever…

maudlin Of The Well – Part The Second (self-released; 5/14)

maudlinThis record was one of those accidental finds- all I can say is it’s been one of the year’s most challenging listens for a number of reasons. maudlin Of The Well is an avant-garde art-prog outfit that veers dangerously close to post-rock; Part The Second is not an album you can throw on and clean the house to- it demands you pay close attention (for there are subtle nuances hidden all over this record) which ultimately leads to the record’s downfall; it’s challenging in that its overt influences make it somewhat pretentious; while the playing displays unparalleled virtuosity, the blending of rock with jazz saxophones and classical string arrangements make it too unfocused, the noodly guitars border on masturbatory, the vocal effects are annoying at times; it’s not a study in what prog should be (or could be), and for that I need my classic 70s stuff (Yes, Jethro Tull, et al.); there’s a reason the genre died- no need to exhume the bodies and study them again. This album is free if you want it, here’s the link. 5/10

Jeffrey Lewis & The Junkyard – ‘Em Are I (Rough Trade; 5/19)

jeffrey-lewisJeff Lewis is best experienced live- that being said; his albums are exercises in patience in that he’s as much a visual performance artist as he’s a musician, the music itself leaves a lot to be desired. His comic books are component pieces to his music; the time I saw him open for The Mountain Goats, his folk-punk story-telling was endearing because it was set as a narrative to his gigantic flip book of drawings (The Last Time I Did Acid I Went Insane and others). Furthermore; his web/TV show is pretty awesome- he’s huge in the UK where most of the episodes are set, as is his record label. Anyway, for this album it’s more vintage Jeff Lewis (lyrically it’s self-deprecating in that whole “I’m a dirty poet that can’t get laid, Oh how I have to suffer for my art…” thing) which isn’t all that endearing on celluloid- again; plays great on the camera and the canvas, but here’s it’s trite as fuck. Musically, it’s more mature (read: better production, better musicians, etc.) so that saves it a wee bit, especially the eight-minute jam-out The Upside-down Cross, but for the most part, it’s just a so-so version of the Lower East Side’s punk-folk scene- which even the best of that is probably just below average… 5/10

Rome – Flowers From Exile (Trisol; 6/26)

romeAnother record I completely stumbled on by accident, how often do you find yourself perusing “industrial folk” duos from Luxembourg? I didn’t even know that genre existed, let alone the bold, deep baritone of lead singer Jerome Reuter‘s voice- which is at once both startling and comforting; he recalls Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave, Tom Waits and The National‘s Matt Berninger. Add Patrick Damiani‘s production (complemented by field recordings, foreign voices, ambient textures, dark and brooding industrial-type rhythms, Spanish guitars, etc.) and you have an interesting listen to say the least. The story line follows that of the Spanish Civil War; making the album dark and apocalyptic in its scope, revealing a narrative of a war-torn and displaced people, soldiers, isolation, desperation- acting as a modern-day protest record in itself. It’s as European an album I’ll find all year; it’s making me want to delve deeper into the Old Continent’s vast expanses of undiscovered music reserves to find something as new and rewarding as this. 8/10

Wu-Tang Clan – Wu-Tang Chamber Music (E1 Music; 6/30)

wu-tang-clan-chamber-musicBasically a mix-tape made by the RZA, even though only five of the Clan are featured (RZA, U-God, Ghostface, Raekwon and Inspectah Deck) it’s still a Wu release and for that I’m grateful. It’s the Wu, motherfucker; it doesn’t have to be good, it just has to be available. That’s all. But you can’t put Tony Starks, the Chef and Bobby Digital in a room together and it not be good, again- it’s Wu, mother fucker. Plus, New York legends Masta Ace, AZ, Cormega, Sean Price, Havoc of Mobb Deep, Kool G Rap and Brand Nubian’s Sadat X all show up for guest appearances and Brooklyn-based funk/soul band The Revelations provide live instrumentation for eight of the 17 tracks; it’s an interesting combination. Working with various producers (Andrew Kelley, Bob Perry, Noah Rubin, Tre Williams of The Revelations and Fizzy Womack of M.O.P) give this album a cohesive feel; after RZA‘s production on 8 Diagrams created beef between him, Ghost and Rae for not having that “classic Wu sound” this can be seen as a return to that darker, sinister sound. Tracks like Harbor Masters, Evil Deeds and Ill Figures are all cut from the classic mold of Shaolin street knowldge; if you like hip-hop you’ll like this. If you like the Wu, you’ll love this. 9/10

Cass McCombs – Catacombs (Domino; 7/7)

catacombsThanks to Jason Dill for introducing me to Cass McCombs. If you’re unfamiliar with Dill, he’s the pro skater that was pals with Jack Osbourne on the first season of The Osbournes, the dude who had a bottle of Jack Daniels among his possessions. Anyway, Dill skated to a McCombs‘ song (What Isn’t Nature) for his video part in DVS’ Skate More (2005) and Jerry Hsu followed suit a year later, skating to a different McCombs‘ song (Sacred Heart) for his Bag Of Suck part. So there’s your skate-video-music-cross-referencing-nerd-shit that I do. So onto the review of this Cass record now; I’d like to add that with each subsequent release, Mr. McCombs becomes a little more refined, his songwriting gets a little better- he’s moved away from the ethereal sounding, churning dream pop and towards a more “American” sound (which is to say a countrified brand of folk-rock that isn’t too much of either). I prefer McCombs‘ albums A and PREfection to this record, as well as his last (2007’s Dropping The Writ). It’s still a decent album. One thing McCombs does that I really like is this idea of “conceptual continuity”, carrying related themes and threads of consciousness from record to record. 7/10

Clark – Totems Flare (Warp; 7/13)

clark_totems_flaresJust a quick peek at Clark‘s labelmates on Warp Records and you have an idea what they are before clicking play: !!!, Aphex Twin, Boards Of Canada, Flying Lotus, Prefuse 73 and Squarepusher would all lead you to assume it’s electronic (correct) and dancy (somewhat) which would immediately raise an eyebrow- I like most of those artists (someonly for their visual collaborations; I’m looking at you Aphex Twin) but for the most part, I eschew any association with danceble electro music. Clark’s Totems Flare (minus the four songs that have vocals) is a decent album that doesn’t sway too far into hardcore techno or the other way into sleep-inducing downtempo trip-hopping; the other seven tracks are enjoyable as background music- never encroaching fully into your consciousness but hovering just below the line of noticeability. And for that, it’s a below average record. 6/10

The Duke & The King – Nothing Gold Can Stay (Ramseur Records; 8/4)

nothing-gold-can-stay“Is that Cat Stevens?” says my girlfriend from the other room. Dear The Duke & The King: immediate musical fail. Now before you freak out and say, “YOU DON’T LIKE CAT STEVENS!?!?” I’ll interject with; I like the Cat Stevens, I don’t like post-millennial ripoffs, the man is still alive for Allah’s sake. You know, I don’t like this neo-country folk stuff all that much, there’s no dividing line that separates it from all the other lousy drivel- there’s just no hook. At least Sam Beam and Justin Vernon (Iron & Wine and Bon Iver, respectively) have that hook, I can’t put my finger on it in so many words, but whatever it is they do have, The Duke & The King don’t have it. This makes me glad I didn’t experience 70s AM radio firsthand, I don’t think I can get through this whole record without at least one suicidal thought. When you see me next, say thank you for listening to all this crappy music so you don’t have to. I’m taking a bullet for you… 3/10

Destroyer – Bay Of Pigs EP (Merge; 8/18)

bay-of-pigsIf this record was made by anyone else I wouldn’t have given it the time of day. But since Dan Bejar has released three of the best records of the last ten years (2000’s Thief, 2001’s Streethawk: A Seduction & 2006’s Destroyer’s Rubies) he gets special handling. Why? Because it’s a damn disco record, an “ambient” disco record at that, clocking in at a bit over thirteen-and-a-half minutes. Halfway between casual dining music and 16-bit video game music (sorta like playing Sega Genesis at that hip Belgian place in the Mission) it doesn’t suck (completely) but it’s not gonna score high marks outside of the fact that it’s really a stretch for Destroyer, and going outside of your comfort zone is a big risk. But as far as the music goes, I’m not the type to hang out at Italian discos wearing guyliner and $700 shirts, so I’m gonna pass on Destroyer‘s Bay Of Pigs– at least the first track anyway. Track 2, Ravers, is a vocals-synth-and-organ tune that’s not as out of place as the EP’s title track, yet it’s not as interesting. It works out to be a confusing piece of music, all 21-plus minutes of it. 3/10

BLK JKS – After Robots (Secretly Canadian; 9/8)

blk-jksI’m going to contradict myself now; I said earlier that prog should rest in peace- I meant to say “only if it’s done poorly” as in the over-indulgent, self-aggrandizing form of the genre. Here comes South Africa’s BLK JKS (obviously pronounced black jacks) who can make rock music that’s both proggy and arty, sans wallowing in pretense. An exercise in energetic guitars, spastic drumming, deep-bottom basses, emotive and soulful vocals relating poignant lyrics from a part of the world that’s been sorely under-represented in popular music. They put out the best EP of the year so far (back in March, titled Mystery) and one of the best live shows I’ve seen this year; file them under Best New Act of 2009. The re-working of Lakeside (the stand-out track from the EP) on here isn’t as urgent and raw as it originally appeared, it fits with the overall mood of this record. If it remained as it did on the short-player it would’ve stuck out like a sore thumb; instead producer Brandon Curtis (of Secret Machines) made it a slower, more refined, vocals-up-front-mix. The album has a “dark cloud” sort of moodiness to it, all the while hinting at some type of silver lining; exploring dub rhythms, churning synths, interwoven guitar lines, out-of-this world drumming- BLK JKSAfter Robots is a welcome addition to any music fan’s library. 8/10

Yo La Tengo – Popular Songs (Matador; 9/8)

popularsongsThis is YLT‘s 309th release and their 373rd year together. Not really, but it feels like it, am I right or am I right? More like 25 years strong (17 with current line-up) and 46th release (18th full-length offering) would have you believe that the gang ain’t going anywhere anytime soon- and with their latest, Popular Songs, they’re right back at it. With other bands, the term “paint-by-numbers” would come as a dismissal that they were mailing it in, but paint-by-numbers Yo La Tengo is a good thing because they’re better than your average band; I wouldn’t want them to put an album of garage punk classic out now, would I? Oh wait, they did that… Anyway, that’s exactly what’s so endearing about YLT; the fact that all three members have an equal say; all three have shared songwriting credits since 97’s I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One– and here on Popular Songs it’s an obvious group effort. Classic YLT would prescribe that the band can’t be hemmed into one specific genre; so there’s the fuzz-tone jams, something for the shoegazer in us all (By Two’s, I’m On My Way), their noisy brand of pop (incorporating strings in If It’s True and Here To Fall), a heavier reliance on the Hammond B-3 sound and long experimental-type songs (The Fireside, And The Glitter Is Gone). In summation, a YLT album is a very, very good thing. 9/10

Songs To Break Up To – Part One

Heartbreak – who doesn’t identify with it? Even though I’m approaching my thirties and I’m happily married, I still remember all the many times I had my heart smashed to pieces either by a boyfriend, or just by some jerk off I shouldn’t been expecting much from in the first place. Along with every heartache I ever experienced, there was typically a song, or many, that helped me through the pain. Sometimes the songs made me feel better, but more often than not, they just amplified the misery and allowed me to wallow. Those songs got me through some tough times and even now, as a happily married adult, I still hear them and get a little choked up, or angry, or both, thinking about how I felt during that time in my life. So here’s my list, in vaguely chronological order.  I’m know I’m forgetting some, so I may have to do a part two at some point.

Bikini Kill – Outta Me

What can I say? I was 14 and I’d had my heart stomped on by someone much too old for me who also had a girlfriend. At that time I was discovering girl rock and was in love with Kathleen Hanna. So angsty! Favorite lyrics: “No, I don’t remember you ever loving me/I think that’s your fucking fantasy/I think you want everything…”

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The Cure – Untitled

Of course it’s hard to narrow it down to one favorite Cure “break up” song. I mean who hasn’t just listened to Disintegration on repeat after being dumped? This one really sticks for me and I have a very distinct memory of sitting in my darkened bedroom, chainsmoking, and swearing off love forever. Favorite lyrics: “Feeling the monster/Climb deeper inside of me/Feeling him gnawing my heart away/Hungrily…”

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The Smiths – Unhappy Birthday

As with The Cure, it’s difficult to pick one Smiths‘ song. There are many, many Smiths songs I have cried and cursed stupid dudes to but this one is fun because it’s so mean-spirited and bitter. Favorite lyrics: “And if you should die/I may feel slightly sad/(But I won’t cry)…”

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Depeche Mode – Shake the Disease

This song has helped me through many angry times. Sometimes when you break up with someone you don’t get the satisfaction of letting them know how much you will not miss them. This song really speaks to that desire, from the very first line, which is also my favorite lyrics: “I’m not going down on my knees/Begging you to adore me…”

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The Velvet Underground – Pale Blue Eyes

The number of times I’ve listened to this song and thought of the same person is embarrassing. Fifteen years after the heartbreak I still get a little choked up listening to this. Kind of pathetic. Favorite lyrics: “Thought of you as my mountain top/Thought of you as my peak/Thought of you as everything/I’ve had but couldn’t keep…”

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Bob Dylan – Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right

Okay, so this song isn’t particularly sad or angry, but the lyrics are so perfect. I had broken up with someone that I knew wasn’t right for me and I wasn’t really too bummed out about it. This song captured my sentiments exactly. Plus, it’s on the soundtrack of my favorite love story of all time, Dogfight. If you haven’t seen it I order you to rent it immediately. Favorite lyric: “I ain’t sayin’ you treated me unkind/You coulda done better but I don’t mind/You just kinda wasted my precious time/But don’t think twice, it’s all right…”

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Cat Stevens – Wild World

If you don’t like old Cat Stevens you might not have a heart. And if this song doesn’t tug on your heartstrings even a little bit, well then I just don’t know. You have problems. Favorite lyrics: “But if you wanna leave, take good care/I hope you make a lot of nice friends out there/But just remember there’s a lot of bad and beware…”

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Cat Power – Good Woman

Who hasn’t been with someone who was totally bad for them? And who hasn’t wanted to make it work so hard even though you know you’re both beating a dead horse and you’d be better off without each other? Cat Power certainly has, because that’s what this song is all about. This song is so beautiful and heartfelt my eyes well up every time I hear it! Yes, I am a sap. Sue me. Favorite lyrics: “And this is why I am leaving/And this is why I can’t see you no more/This is why I am lying when I say/That I don’t love you no more…”

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Sebadoh – Soul and Fire

This song is so bitter and it really stings. When I was coming out of a really long relationship I felt like this one was being sung about me and it felt terrible. Sadly, I felt like I deserved it. Favorite lyrics: “As you walk away, think of all the joy we shared/If you decide you need me, I’ll be wondering if I care…”

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Crooked Fingers – When You Were Mine (Prince cover)

I seriously love all versions of this song, but this my favorite. It  twings and twangs itself all over my little heart. I also love, love, love Eric Bachmann‘s voice. And who hasn’t completely identified with these lyrics at one time or another? Even when you know your ex is all kinds of bad for you, you can’t help missing them. Favorite lyrics: “When you were mine/You were all I ever wanted to do…”

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Yo La Tengo – Damage

There aren’t that many lyrics in this song but they are all about running into your ex after you’ve gotten over the whole ordeal of breaking up, but it still hurts and it’s strange to see them. It’s sort of a long, ethereal song that gives way for lots of sad nostalgia. Favorite lyrics: “I used to think about you all the time/I would think about you all the time/Now it just feels weird, that there you are…”

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…that’s all I got for now. I’m interested in hearing what other people like to break up to so please post some comments!