Friday, March 21, 2008

A Blog Too Far

Since this blog keeps taking extended "breaks," I've decided to lay it to rest, or, in the network parlance, place it "on hiatus." While I would love to spend the time to make the website what it really ought to be (a blend of reviews and writings on psychedelic music new and old), right now I already tend to three other blogs: the official Of Montreal blog, which I keep promising myself I'll spend more time developing; the film blog Kill the Snark; and most frequently, the Elephant 6 blog Optical Atlas, for which I've also started creating a podcast series. And I have an exhausting and stressful day job! I'm only human. My apologies to those who wanted more from this site, and if you still want to get in touch with me, you can contact me here.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Deek Hoi - The Golden Country

Knoxville Tennessee's Deek Hoi have released The Golden Country, an 8-track album dominated by banjo and sinister bass, with dreary, half-sick harmonica and vocals to match. Those vocals are split between Jen Rock and Danny Coy, also of Kentucky's spectacular Big Fresh, and Big Fresh's John Ferguson, also in the Apples in Stereo and Ulysses, contributes to the CD as well. Rock and Coy's songs sound like Appalachian folk songs filtered through the sensibilities of 60's psych-rock and 70's CBGB's acts. The songs are catchy, but they're also mesmerizing. "Eiea" hits the sweet spot with its dreamy background vox; instant single "California" falls more on the nightmarish side of the equation with its toy piano and mysteriously simple lyrics and singalong chorus. Two-parter "A House a Home" will have you slamming your tambourine slowly in accompaniment. It's perfect lo-fi ear music, and all kind of unexpectedly great. Highly recommended.

MP3: Deek Hoi - California
Deek Hoi MySpace
Buy The Golden Country at CDBaby

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Two from Paper Garden Records

Nashville's Darla Farmer are releasing their debut album, Rewiring the Electric Forest, March 4, and it's hypnotic, rocking, tragic, otherworldly. I am not exactly sure I have the slightest clue what it's about, but I can't stop listening to it. Lead singer/guitarist Clint Wilson's lyrics are intensely descriptive and eloquent, sometimes screamed at such a pitch, the words compressed so tightly, that they can scarcely be understood; at other times they unwind slowly like a rusty coiled wire and present emotions and characters that are strikingly vivid. The most apt song in the collection might be "Dirty Keys," the album's centerpiece, which describes a frothing-mad circus that turns against its audience, blocking the exits and forcing them to confront its horrors. This is exactly the kind of music a mad circus would make. Darla Farmer uses an arsenal of instruments, but its two primary weapons are a blaring horn section of trombone and trumpet, and sweet violin strings pleading and pulling the assaulted listener back. And if it all seems much too much, Wilson's vocals, constantly reciting stories straight out of Edgar Allan Poe, make it all riveting. An emotional pitch is reached on the improbably named and improbably moving "The Cow That Drank Too Much," in which Wilson opines:

Everything is falling fatefully/I see the past is chasing me/Must meet her while I sleep/And face the truth/In between every dream

This is the kind of music that might exist between dreams--reveries and nightmares waking you in a sweat, confused, exhausted.

MP3: Darla Farmer - History
Darla Farmer MySpace

Darla Farmer - Upcoming Dates

03.04.08 Nashville, TN @ Exit In (Album Release Party)
03.13.08 Austin, TX @ Maggie Mae's (SXSW)
03.15.08 Austin, TX @ Lucky Lounge
03.25.08 New York, NY @ Club Midway

From the same label and at the other end of the sonic spectrum is Doylestown, Pennsylvania's Peasant. Damien DeRose is a tremendously gifted singer/songwriter, and his new album, On the Ground (available February 26), is mostly stripped-down acoustic folk, occasionally opening up for a wider, pleasing pop sound on tracks like "We're Good" and "Those Days." But there's also the haunting, harpsichord-driven "Birds," and the ethereal "Missing All You Are" (which reminds of Michael Penn) that speaks to a more subtle experimentation with melody and sound. It's a lovely album. Peasant will be playing a handful of live shows before heading overseas--U.S. dates are below.

MP3: Peasant - Those Days
Peasant MySpace

Peasant - Upcoming Dates

02.28.08 New York, NY @ Piano's
02.29.08 New Hope, PA @ John n' Peter's
03.01.08 Doylestown, PA @ The Classi Cigar Parlor (Album Release Party)
03.07.08 Bronxville, NY @ Sarah Lawrence College
03.08.08 Moorestown, NJ @ Emancipation Rocklamation
03.10.08 New York, NY @ Union Hall
03.15.08 Austin, TX @ Lucky Lounge

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Two from New York

I'm a sucker for rich baritones, and like Gary Olson of Brooklyn's The Ladybug Transistor, Murder Mystery's Jeremy Coleman's got a rich, velvety baritone that's just about perfect. He's from New York too. On the band's debut album, Are You Ready for the Heartache Cause Here it Comes, they bridge the gap between The Kinks and modern indie pop, touching on influences as diverse as Tom Petty and The Cars along the way. Their most modern-sounding (and flat-out fun) track is "Love Astronaut," which is, well, about an astronaut looking for love--the lyrics are direct, the synths glittering, the melody pretty, the vocals gorgeous. Note to my fellow Wisconsinites: they're playing the Annex in Madison this Friday, January 25.

MP3: Murder Mystery - Love Astronaut
Murder Mystery MySpace

Also from New York is Brooklyn's Boy Genius, who have just released an EP that has grown on me like Tribbles, Eureka. Like Murder Mystery, this band has an affinity for simple, direct song craftsmanship, and yes, that's what I love, but they rock a bit harder, and lead vocalist Jason K's got a more rugged voice. Oh, and he has a female vocalist backing him up, and she shares his last name ("K"), much like Murder Mystery's backing vocalist Laura Coleman who is obviously of some relationship to Jeremy Coleman....hey, can you tell that I wrote lots of compare/contrast essays in college? This is one of those CDs where you think, upon first listen, "These guys are pretty good." And you spin it again and think, "God, this is a really great band." The most immediately singalongable--and representative--track is the terrific "Radio Silence," though I'm particularly drawn to their moving EP closer, "Great Lakes," which has a surprising grandeur. You will hear more from them, I hope.

MP3: Boy Genius - Radio Silence
Boy Genius MySpace

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Tullycraft - Every Scene Needs a Center

Let me tell you why I'm now in love with Strictly Discs down on Monroe Street here in Madison. When they didn't have the new Tullycraft album, Every Scene Needs a Center, they got it for me in two days. Then they fucking removed the sticker seal from the top of the case without leaving any adhesive behind. Then they stamped my little card which says that I get a free CD once I've bought 11 more (okay, 10--I had to buy that Camera Obscura album when they didn't have Tullycraft...just had to). Oh, plus they've got a special room of "imports" (i.e., lotsa Beatles bootlegs) hidden in the back, like the secret porno section of the Family Video across the street. This is how you do a mom and pop store, folks. It should also be mentioned that the only reason they didn't have the Tullycraft is that they'd just sold out of it. That speaks as much to the quality of Every Scene Needs a Center as it does the taste of Strictly Discs.

So I had this album for a couple of days and then loaned it to my friend Andrea, who had never heard of Tullycraft before and claims to have subsequently played it three times in a row, so immediately enamored was she of this "young and indie famous" Seattle band. I've tried to show more restraint with the album, but it's difficult. When you fall for Tullycraft, you fall hard. I fell at the last Athens PopFest. Sure, I could already sing "fuck me I'm twee" along with the band, but it was the overwhelming enthusiasm and sugar-high energy of Chris Munford that won me over, blasting out his amazing mini pop songs in-between aggressively cheery and hilarious banter. At a certain point, just after leading the audience through the singalong "If You Take Away the Make-Up (Then the Vampires They Will Die)," he invited one member of the crowd onto the stage for a marriage proposal--accepted, luckily--and Chris told me the next day that he'd never been so nervous, because "what if she said no?!" Actually, during a Tullycraft concert it's fairly safe to make such sweeping gestures. It's difficult to think soberly at such an event. Speaking of which, I'd almost forgotten that Bunnygrunt was buying the band shots during the performance, and Chris Munford drunk is just twice as much Chris Munford. (The following evening, Tullycraft and Folklore reciprocated by bringing shots onstage for Bunnygrunt. PopFest was kind of insane.)

Here's some music from Every Scene Needs a Center, courtesy Tullycraft's website--which blogs more regularly and consistently than I can here--including the lovely little video for "Georgette Plays a Goth." Now please write to the band and try to convince them to tour more often.

Tullycraft - The Punks are Writing Love Songs

Tullycraft - Georgette Plays a Goth

Friday, January 11, 2008

The Real Tuesday Weld

I've been a fan of Stephen Coates' The Real Tuesday Weld since hearing a few tracks via some Kindercore compilations years ago (Coates' first American label), and immediately falling in love. It's important that you swoon or fall head over heels when listening to The Real Tuesday Weld (so named because "Tuesday Weld" was already taken by another band), because that's what his music is about. Well, love and death, anyway. And drink. He sings torch songs and French-styled pop music laced with dance beats, clarinet, piano, trumpet, synthesizer, sound effects, old-movie-dialogue...damp umbrellas and lit cigarettes most especially. His is a very cinematic sound, in other words. More than any other music I've ever heard, his sounds like black-and-white movies, in particular gritty, jaded noir of the 40's, and continental romantic films of the 50's.

Terminally Ambivalent Over You (from Where Psyche Meets Cupid, 2001)

He calls himself "the Clerkenwell Kid," and each of his albums invokes the name at one point or another, as a running gag of sorts. This really came to blossom in I, Lucifer (2003), one of those rare things--a soundtrack to a novel, in this case a sardonic tale of Lucifer's visiting Earth as written by Glen Duncan. The concept album becomes a grand excuse for Coates to embrace his alter ego while merging it with the Devil, as on "The Life and Times of the Clerkenwell Kid," a tall tale autobiography in which he describes his own birth: "Disposed of the doctor/made out with the nurse/yeah I was born a bastard/and I just got worse." But his Miltonesque Satan is tragic; he falls in love with a mortal, as Death does in Death Takes a Holiday, and as angels have made a habit (Wings of Desire, The Bishop's Wife). So while there are mischievous songs like this and the nonsense scat of "Bathtime in Clerkenwell," there's also much toy piano, strings, duets, and heartbreaking melodies. The album is almost entirely atmosphere, drenched in fog and Coates' trademark breathy/raspy vocals. It's a delicate whisper of an album.

Easter Parade (from I, Lucifer)

"Bathtime in Clerkenwell" became an award-winning animated video by Alex Budovsky. Budovsky got the job after designing a video for "Terminally Ambivalent Over You" on his own volition and sending it to Coates. His video for "Clerkenwell" is ingenious, with simple black cut-outs on a stark white background staging a siege of London by fascistic cuckoo clock birds. What I love most about the short is how quickly it moves, rapidly developing its linear narrative into extreme, Pythonesque proportions. (It's included on The Animation Show Volume 1 DVD on Paramount Home Video, and is featured in a much lower-res video on the I, Lucifer enhanced CD.) Budovsky has since become Coates' right-hand animator, and among their works is a collaborative video for the popular favorite "Brazil."

2005 saw the release of The Return of the Clerkenwell Kid, a reintroduction of Coates' earliest material which went out of print in the States. As added incentive to fans, the songs are remixes (even the earlier American version of Where Psyche Meets Cupid featured slightly remixed versions of the original U.K. album) mixed in with newer songs that, frankly, sound more modern and don't quite gel with the others. On the other hand, the newer songs are fantastic. "On Lavender Hill" is a bittersweet reverie about an Ex, and "Something Beautiful" brings Coates into Moby territory while successfully retaining his own sharp sensibilities. On the whole, the album serves a fine introduction to The Real Tuesday Weld's charms, although it skips the essential "Terminally Ambivalent Over You" (admittedly, already redone on I, Lucifer).

On Lavender Hill (from The Return of the Clerkenwell Kid)

Now he's just released his best album by far, The London Book of the Dead. Like I, Lucifer, it acts as a concept album, but more in its unity from beginning to end than in any overt thematic relevance. It's another hushed whisper of an album, but the quietest songs are among his most beautiful: "Blood Sugar Love," "Bringing the Body Back Home," "Dorothy Parker Blue." And when he soars, the album's busted neon really begins to shine: "Last Words" is quite striking, setting the tone for the album's somber but moving final sequence, ruminating on death much as I, Lucifer moved inexorably toward "The Pearly Gates." Speaking of the dead, it is curious to note that the majority of his songbook consists of music that would be fitting for a funeral. Mind you--a sexy, rainy funeral ridden with betrayal, murder, and rebuffed advances, but nevertheless a funeral to attend.

Dorothy Parker Blue (from The London Book of the Dead)

The Real Tuesday Weld - Bathtime in Clerkenwell

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Eight Arms to Hold You

[I just posted this over at my film blog, but I'm posting it here as well since it might have some interest to Electric Sailor readers...]

Help! is a very, very odd film, but one-of-a-kind in the best of ways. It is the Beatles' second, and the last big production with their full involvement. American Richard Lester had directed their prior hit, A Hard Day's Night, and had made that film a quasi-documentary about their life in and out of hotel rooms, clubs, trains, cars, and concert halls (with one liberating moment in the open daylight, set to "Can't Buy Me Love"). When he was asked to do a follow-up, every bit the quickie as the former film--since the Beatles might be just a temporary fad--his own artistic restlessness led him to make not a carbon copy but a completely opposite work. A Hard Day's Night is cinéma-vérité, loose, rough around the edges, realistic with a satirical sensibility, with a script that sounded improvised, and cinematography in stark black-and-white. Help! is in bright, beautiful, color, rigorously scripted and structured, resolutely absurdist, a piece of pop art. It is set almost entirely outdoors, whether outside Stonehenge, in the Alps, or in the Bahamas.

If A Hard Day's Night is smothered in cigarette smoke, Help! has the cannabis aroma of the Beatles' new drug of choice, recently introduced to them by Bob Dylan. The Dylan influence is even evident in "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away," John Lennon's Dylan homage, and veiled ode to closeted manager Brian Epstein. While John strums that song in the band's London flat, which looks like something out of Yellow Submarine (1968), Paul leans against a bookcase with a secret panel that only reveals more books (some of them copies of In His Own Write by John Lennon), Ringo hits a tambourine from inside a pit in the floor, where sits his sunken bed, and George lounges on the couch next to Eleanor Bron, purse in her lap, ever dignified while George makes cartoonish bedroom eyes at her. Leo McKern peeks out from under a manhole, still hunting the Beatles down. It's really one of the first music videos, although that line's a blurry one as rock musicals overtook Cole Porter and Rogers & Hammerstein; in the supplements to the film's latest DVD release, Lester says that in the 80's he was sent a "scroll" pronouncing that he was the father of MTV--and he sent it back to the network demanding a blood test. But it's hard to argue that Lester wasn't brilliant at shooting the Beatles in performance. Each song in Help! sits comfortably on a velvet cushion; the plot is secondary and the music's the thing. The title song is performed by the band in traditional Ed Sullivan Show-stance, in a white room with Ringo at the famous logo-adorned drum kit, but the black-and-white is interrupted by red darts flung at the screen by the crazed cult led by McKern; sublimely, we briefly see their female human sacrifice pining on the altar like any teenage Beatles fan. (I almost wish that the brief prologue had been excised so that this would be our introduction to the color of Help!, presenting a neat transition from AHDN's B&W.) Shortly thereafter, the band steps into a mock-up of their Abbey Road studio to perform "You're Going to Lose That Girl"; the lights are dimmed, and the band sings through rapturously filmed lens flares and spotlights, singing into the mic in extreme close-up. Rather than pulling back to see the full band and the entire studio, Lester concentrates on fractioning the performance into these close-ups, as he slips in and out of focus. It's one of the most intoxicating and inspired pieces of musical filmmaking you'll ever see. But "Ticket to Ride" is the most famous sequence, a hit single performed while the Beatles literally tackle the slopes on skis. The band had never been on skis before, and Lester filmed them while they were learning--going sideways down the bunny slopes and tripping forward into the snow. The props are limited to a piano set up in the snow, which the Beatles climb into and around, but the most innovative moment comes when musical notes are projected onto telephone wires that frame the top of the screen.

There is a plot, it should be mentioned, which takes this long to describe: a cult and a duo of mad scientists are after Ringo's ring. It's an excuse for obvious gags--Rube Goldbergian plots by the cult to sever Ringo's finger, hand, or arm--and James Bond parodies and pastiches, the trend of the day. The gags, in particular the final one in which the film is dedicated to the Singer sewing machine, anticipate Monty Python's Flying Circus, although there was already a rich tradition of dry, surrealist humor in British stage, radio, and television. From the tradition comes Bron, who plays Ahme, one of the cultists who infiltrates the Beatles' inner circle; she's a gifted comic actress, but is tasked with playing it straight against the non-sequitur-spouting Fab Four, who are a bit too bizarre to be the Marx Brothers surrogates that contemporary critics envisioned. Is Ringo, as so many have asserted, the best actor of the group? Perhaps, although he's given a "type" to play in both films--the hapless schlub who doesn't understand why everything bad has to happen to him. (Worse, even his fellow Beatles try to pursuade him that he doesn't really use that ring finger very often, and could stand to miss it!) Every time I watch a Beatles film I'm impressed by John, who doesn't so much "act" as confidently deliver his sarcastic one-liners. It's the confidence that impresses me; he has none of the awkwardness of Paul and George, and convinces that this is who he really is. Which must be acting. To their credit, George allows his shirt to be ripped right off in one scene, and later Paul is shrunk straight out of his clothes, taking a nude bath in an ashtray. Teenage girls, take note.

The only real flaw in Help! is that there isn't more of their music: a whole side B is missing from the film, which includes "I've Just Seen a Face" (belatedly receiving its cinematic bow in Julie Taymor's Across the Universe), "Act Naturally," and "Yesterday." Not that "Yesterday" could really work in a film stuffed with sight gags, car chases, and bad puns. The real wonder of Help! is in the joy the film exudes. There's one moment, during a performance of "The Night Before," when Ringo shivers from the cold and then smiles widely at someone off-camera. That these couple of seconds remain in the film is no coincidence; this is what Lester was after. During the musical sequences he wanted to show the band's charisma, their real personalities, their real joy in performance, how good these songs are, and just why we love the Beatles so much. As a result, Help! and its companion film are the best possible document of the band, however fictionalized and glued to paper-thin plots. Here you can see them performing for each other, not for an auditorium filled with screaming girls who drown out their music. Shortly after this, the band would begin to tire of each other, and jealousies and bitter feelings would begin to intrude and drive them apart. Later, John would say that the song "Help!" was meant to have a slower tempo, a more serious tone; it was a song about a nervous breakdown. Instead, it's a marvelous pop song, a pinnacle of the art. Whatever the reality, the fiction of Help!--Richard Lester's Help!--is a snapshot of the band as we'd like to remember them.