Wednesday, February 24, 2010

New Column: Defending My Indie Cred

People will often ask me how I keep up with all the new music coming out each week. The short answer is, I don't, at least not to the level I'd like. There are very good bands making very good albums that slip by me all the time, and I discover them later, with an embarrassed look on my face. But what can I do? There's so much music, it's often difficult to decide how to focus my meager resources.

The insane levels of hype surrounding every new band that emerges only makes the task more difficult. I spend a good chunk of my time trying to discern whether the buzz I am hearing is real or manufactured, whether the acolytes of a band or musician are genuinely impressed or just concerned with being ahead of the curve at any cost. That hype is the subject of this week's column at, and if I come off sounding like a grumpy old man here and there, well, writing it made me feel like one.

It's not all grousing - I use the indie hype framework to review new albums from Hot Chip, Yeasayer, Beach House and Local Natives. And I reveal the #14 album of the 2000s. Sound good? Click on over to read it, then come back here to leave me a comment. Even if it's just to tell me what a crotchety old bastard I've become.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Reasons to Be Cheerful 005

Rufus Wainwright might be the best songwriter in North America. Any time he makes an album, it's an event. In recent years, Wainwright's been pursuing other interests. He released two live documents, one of his Judy Garland tribute show and one from his Release the Stars tour in 2007. He wrote an opera, and was the subject of a documentary film, both entitled Prima Donna.

But on April 20, Wainwright will finally give us his sixth album. It's entitled All Days are Nights: Songs for Lulu. It contains three songs based on Shakespeare sonnets, one song that appears to be in French, and a closing track written while watching his mom, the venerable Kate McGarrigle, suffer from cancer. (She died on Jan. 18.) The title's all Shakespearean too - it's from Sonnet 43. And the album includes a song titled "Give Me What I Want and Give It To Me Now!" (Punctuation preserved, of course.)

This already sounds like a winner, full of grand and flowery ideas, and deeply personal emotion. The U.S. gets this thing last - Wainwright's home country of Canada gets it on March 23, almost a month earlier. I may have to do some online border-hopping. A new Wainwright is just that important.

More info here.

First Listen: Surfer Blood, Astro Coast

This is kind of an addendum to next week's tm3am, which is all about indie buzz. Surfer Blood, a quartet from West Palm Beach, fits the criteria well - they're a new band, on their first album, and they're all about 20. Astro Coast picked up some serious buzz upon its release last month, so much so that you'd expect something brilliant right out of the gate.

In reality, the album is just okay. If the Beach Boys had grown up listening to Pavement, they might have made this instead of "I Get Around." But it's basic guitar-rock with a hint of surf music, and the quality is simply not sustained, even over the 40 minutes of Astro Coast. Buzz or not, these guys need to mature a little more, and write some more songs, before they're worthy of the praise they're getting.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Reasons to Be Cheerful 004

Peter Gabriel's Scratch My Back is beautiful and amazing. The album, out March 2 here, is a collection of covers performed with an orchestra. Gabriel takes from some sources you'd expect (Paul Simon, Randy Newman) and a whole bunch you wouldn't (Bon Iver, Arcade Fire, Radiohead, Elbow), and infuses them with that indescribable Peter Gabriel-ness that I have loved since I was 13.

Here, take a listen to The Guardian's exclusive sneak preview. Pay special attention to the Elbow and Arcade Fire tunes, my favorites.

Scratch My Back is just the first part of this project. The artists covered here will, later this year, each turn in their own version of a Gabriel song, on an album called I'll Scratch Yours. Imagine Thom Yorke singing "Wallflower," or Randy Newman doing "Big Time," or Elbow taking a crack at "Red Rain." It's all happening.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

New Column: Catching Up is Hard to Do

And believe me, it is. I buy so much music that it's nearly impossible to a) listen to and b) formulate some thoughts on it all. But I try!

This week at I tackle two that nearly got away, and one new release I'm very happy with. It's all positivity all the time this week - I quite like the new Spoon, very much enjoy the new Fair, and positively love the new Final Fantasy/Owen Pallett. I also think pretty highly of my #15 album of the 2000s, which I reveal this week.

If you're in the mood for some grumbling, though, I start this week's missive with some thoughts about MTV removing the "Music Television" from its logo. All this can be yours with one click of the mouse. Come on back here after you've read it to leave me a comment.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Reasons to Be Cheerful 003

Just got back from seeing local songwriter Kevin Trudo's new trio, billed as The Kevin Trudo and Meathawk. Seriously, have you ever heard a better band name than Meathawk? Kevin and his band played Ballydoyle in Aurora, and were very good.

Kevin writes what he calls "loud folk songs" - pretty basic, but with interesting (and fascinatingly vulgar) lyrics. Go here to hear what he normally sounds like. Now imagine that, but much, much louder.

It was my first show of 2010, and it reminded me how much I love seeing music spun out of nothing live. (My second will be the Magnetic Fields, on March 7.) If the fact that musicians live all around us and are willing to put on shows for us all the time isn't a reason to be cheerful, I don't know what is.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

New Column: Hope and Change

So this woke me up this morning at 4 a.m. Felt like my entire house was shaking, like the roof had caved in or something. It's 7:45 right now, and I still feel shaken up - my head is throbbing, my back hurts. Very scary experience.

I've been awake for nearly three hours, and it still took me this long to update The new column is up there now, all about terrific new records from BT and Corinne Bailey Rae. Also, some thoughts on the Lost premiere and the Oscar nominations, and my pick for the 16th best album of the 2000s.

As usual, click on over to read it, then head back here to leave a comment, should you wish.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Reasons to Be Cheerful 002

I told myself I wasn't even going to mention Doctor Who in this space, if I could help it. My geeky obsession with this show makes me smile, but many I know find it annoying. Yet here we are, at Reason #2, and I'm already breaking my unwritten rule. Sorry! But this news put a big, wide grin on my face, and made me ready for 2012 right now.

Neil Gaiman is writing a Doctor Who episode. Hell to the yeah.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Reasons to Be Cheerful 001

I'm trying to figure out new ways of doing this blogging thing, so it doesn't feel so much like an obligation. Here's one I came up with: just a random sampling of things I'm excited about, which hopefully I will remember to write down as I'm hearing about them.

I used to mark dates on my cultural calendar as "reasons to stay alive," but I'm much less morbid these days, so I think I'll stick with my Ian Dury reference. So here's the first Reason to Be Cheerful: February 23.

If Feb. 23 isn't the greatest new release Tuesday of the year, we're in for a barnburner of a 2010. Here's what's coming our way in just a couple of weeks: Shearwater's new album The Golden Archipelago, completing the trilogy started with the gorgeous records Palo Santo and Rook; a two-CD team-up between David Byrne and Fatboy Slim called Here Lies Love, all about (get this) the life of Imelda Marcos; and new things from Balmorhea, High on Fire, and The Rocket Summer.

That'd be fine on its own, but I haven't even mentioned the good stuff yet. Feb. 23 will also bring Have One on Me, the third album from Joanna Newsom, and it's a two-hour triple-disc affair. Some thought I was kidding when I named Ys the best album of 2006, but I couldn't have been more serious. I'm out of my skin excited for this one.

To top it off, we get the final Johnny Cash album, American VI: Ain't No Grave. It's the last of the Rick Rubin sessions, recorded shortly before the Man in Black's death, and our last chance to hear That Voice sing something we've never heard it grace. Now that, ladies and gentlemen, is a new release Tuesday. That's how you do it.

First Listen: Motion City Soundtrack, My Dinosaur Life

On the pop-punk spectrum, Motion City Soundtrack are much more pop than punk. That's a good thing, because it means they write interesting songs, instead of bashing out the same three or four chords the Sex Pistols used. It also means their albums have little more on their minds than being clever and fun, two things I wholeheartedly endorse.

Their fourth record, My Dinosaur Life, is both. It's their first on a major label, and despite being produced by Mark Hoppus of Blink-182, there's nothing tired about it. "A Lifeless Ordinary" should be a hit, but every song here is melodic and punchy and danceable. True, it gets a bit samey as it goes along, but as it clocks in under 40 minutes, it never wears out its welcome.

Plus, I just love the idea of a song called "Her Words Destroyed My Planet." I hope I'm never too old to enjoy fun little records like this one.

First Listen: The Hotrats, Turn Ons

No, The Hotrats is not a Frank Zappa tribute act, although that would be a good name for one. It is, in fact, Gaz Coombes and Danny Goffey from Supergrass, here performing nothing but covers. But this isn't some thrown-together garage-recorded EP or anything - it's produced by Nigel Godrich, and features a pretty terrific selection of songs.

Some of them are note-for-note, like the Rats' run-through of Elvis Costello's "Pump It Up." But some are radical reinventions. The most obvious is the melodic rock take on "Fight For Your Right," by the Beastie Boys. The Rats also do fine versions of Pink Floyd's "Bike" (Coombes turning in a decent Syd Barrett impression) and The Cure's dip into jazz-rock, "The Lovecats."

The final track is a slow and melancholy version of Squeeze's "Up the Junction," proof that if you look hard enough, you can find the sadness in anything. It's my favorite thing here, and it caps off a little record with modest ambitions - it's just a lot of fun.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

New Column: A Distorted Reality is Now a Necessity

I'm just a terrible blogger, there's no other way around it.

It's been another seven days since I posted anything, and in that time I just barely scraped together a column for the main site. I have half a dozen first listen reviews ready to go, but only in my head - I actually have to sit down and write them, which I never seem to find the time to do. I'm rethinking things.

In the meantime, I reviewed the new Magnetic Fields album this week at, as well as offering a post-mortem on Dollhouse and a look at my #17 album of the decade. Come on back here to leave me a comment when you've read it. Thanks!