Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Off to Cornerstone

I'm headed to Bushnell right now for three days of music from some of my favorite (relatively) unknown artists. Wifi-willing, I'll be posting updates to this blog about my trip. Watch this space!

New Column: Spiritual Machines

So I'm off to the Cornerstone Festival this morning, for three days of dust and music. But I did manage to post a new column at today for your reading pleasure. This one's all about artists who use electronic instruments to enhance organic emotions. Boy, that sounds like a riveting topic all written out like that, doesn't it?

Well, hopefully I made it interesting for you. First up is Eminem, who has gone from one of the most important artists of the late '90s-early 2000s to a shrill self-parody with nothing to say in recent years. His new one, Recovery, seeks to make things right. Also on the docket are Kele Okereke (of Bloc Party) and the Chemical Brothers, another group in need of a reinvention.

In addition to those three reviews, I unveil my 2010 halftime report, giving you the lowdown on my top 10 list as it stands right now. As always, click on over to read the column, then come back here to leave me a comment. And now, Bushnell or bust!

Monday, June 28, 2010

First Listen: Sia, We Are Born

You probably know Australian singer Sia Furler best for "Breathe Me," the stunning number that closed the final episode of Six Feet Under. She's done that epic ballad thing more than once since, which is why her fourth album, We Are Born, is such a surprise. Sia lets her hair down here, and gives us a non-stop party record of wonderful little songs.

Honestly, there's just no letup here - this is one terrific upbeat jam after another. "Clap Your Hands" should be a hit, as should "You've Changed." The melody is "Never Gonna Leave Me" is fantastic, and even changes of pace, like "Be Good to Me" and "I'm in Here," fit in nicely and don't bring down the energy. As if to drive home her primary influence here, Sia covers Madonna's "Oh Father," but drives the tempo up. Throughout, Sia's soulful voice is in top form. This is a smart record that knows how to have fun, a danceable dynamo with a brain and an unerring tunefulness. Lady Gaga should take notes.

First Listen: The Roots, How I Got Over

The Roots have been doing what they do for more than 20 years. They're one of the few true hip-hop bands in the world - they use real instruments to back up their rhymes, and the musicians in the band are extraordinary. The public is finally catching on, thanks to their nightly stint on Jimmy Fallon's show, and How I Got Over, the first Roots album since they accepted that post, should be the album that introduces them to the big time. But if ?uestlove and his crew are feeling the pressure, you can't tell on this wonderful little disc.

How I Got Over is a concept album about overcoming, and its very format tells the story. The album's first half is slow and spectral. The first sounds you hear come from a choir of voices, delivered by the three female members of Dirty Projectors, and the beats from there crawl along, quietly mulling over Black Thought's lyrics. But when you get to the awesome title track, things explode, and they don't come back down. How I Got Over ends in joy and triumph.

Along the way, the Roots collaborate with some fascinating guests. John Legend does his soulful thing on "The Fire," the Monsters of Folk (Conor Oberst, M. Ward, Jim James and Mike Mogis) contribute their song "Dear God" for a remake, and the band samples Joanna Newsom for "Right On." How I Got Over, at a trim 42:25, easily establishes the Roots as one of the finest and most creative hip-hop acts on the planet. This one's well worth your money, folks.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

First Listen: Steve Mason, Boys Outside

My introduction to The Beta Band came from John Cusack. You remember that moment in High Fidelity when Cusack’s character, a record store owner, proclaims that he will “now sell three copies of The Three EPs by the Beta Band,” and then proceeds to play this gorgeous, atmospheric music? Turns out that was the superb “Dry the Rain,” and I loved it and had to buy it.

I admit I haven’t kept as close track of the Beta Band, or founding member Steve Mason’s other projects, as I should have. If you’re in the same boat, now’s a good time to pay attention again, because Mason’s first solo album, Boys Outside, is finally available in the U.S. (more than a month after its U.K. release). The album sports the same folksy electronica Mason crafted with the Beta Band, but this time it sounds more intimate, more personal.

Boys Outside has an appealing home studio feel to it, with acoustic guitars and electric pianos sitting atop trippy programmed beats. Mason has an everyman voice, but he can make it sound spectral and haunting. “The Letter” has a sweeping menace to it, and single “All Come Down” will stick with you. My favorite, though, is “Lost and Found.” Its simple melody and piano figure work well with its Enigma-style beat, and its nearly six-minute running time gives it the space to stretch out.

Mason has created a shorter, more subtle album here, but it’s no less a treat. Try it here and buy it here.

New Column: Devolution Working Man Blues

This week at, I took an in-depth look at the new Devo album, Something for Everybody. If you take a gander down this blog, you'll see my first-listen review of this album, and my opinion hasn't changed. It's been 20 years since we last heard from Devo, but this record makes the decades melt away. It's awesome.

I also took more critical listens to new albums from the Gaslight Anthem and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. As always, click on over to read the column, and come back here to leave a comment.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

New Column, New Look

Good day, sunshine. I'm back from vacation and ready to roll.

If you haven't headed over to in a while, check it out. For the first time in nearly 10 years, the design has been completely revamped, courtesy of my genius friend Mike Ferrier. I'm happy with it - it looks like the old one, but doesn't use frames, and it has a bunch of new features while still being comfortably old-school enough for me. I hope you like it.

As for the actual column this week, it's a passionate defense of one of my favorite records of 2010 so far, Hanson's Shout It Out. Yes, that Hanson. I can hear you singing the chorus of "MMMBop." Stop that. The Hanson brothers have grown into splendid musicians, and this record is well-crafted, fun, classic pop music.

I also take aim at new ones from Rooney and Teenage Fanclub. As always, click on over to read the column, and head back here to leave me a comment. It's good to be back!

Saturday, June 12, 2010

First Listen: Devo, Something for Everybody

This is likely going to get a longer and more detailed review in tm3am, but since that might be a while, I wanted to weigh in now. And here's what I have to say: holy crap. I love this.

It's been 20 years since the last Devo album, and 30 years since "Whip It" hit the charts, making Mark Mothersbaugh and his merry band household names. '80s audiences didn't get the satire then, and it will be interesting to see if modern listeners pick up on it. Something for Everybody is a dark, angry album, but it's also relentlessly danceable and fun. "What We Do" in particular is perhaps the grooviest indictment of modern society I've heard in years. The whole 38 minutes zips by in a flash, and it takes a few listens to really hear how layered and well-made this album is.

The Devo boys hired a focus group to choose the 12 songs for this album, then ignored their advice to include the final two songs. I agree with the band - they're the best ones, especially the slow-burn epic "No Place Like Home." If you think Devo is all funny hats and novelty songs, you owe it to yourself to hear Something for Everybody. It's a comeback album, but it feels like they've never been away.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

First Listen: Kip Winger, Ghosts, Suite No. 1

I had no idea what to expect from this. Kip Winger is not the first rock musician to try his hand at an orchestral suite, but he's one of the most surprising. You'll remember Kip from his days fronting the band that shares his last name, writhing around in leather pants to hits like "Seventeen" and "Easy Come Easy Go." Winger's solo material has been much more interesting and complex, particularly his latest, From the Moon to the Sun. He gave us a preview of Ghosts on that record, arranged for string quartet, harp and piano, but it's little preparation for the full thing.

Suite No. 1 is only 20 minutes long, but it's fantastic. There are passages here that take my breath away. This is a fully composed instrumental piece, fit for a film score, and there's no hint here of Winger's pop-metal past. It is his bid for respectability, and to my mind, he's achieved it. My favorite section is the third and last, "Adagio." As it builds up over seven minutes, the melodies just get lovelier, and by the end, my heart has swelled.

I'm not sure whether Winger's fans will follow him down this particular rabbit hole, but if you like gorgeous orchestral music, I'd recommend hearing this. It's wonderful stuff. Go here.

First Listen: Jandek, Canticle of Castaway

Here's album number 64 from the mysterious Texas recluse, although that description gets more and more inaccurate with each concert he plays. It's no secret that I like the live albums more than the studio ones recently, and the reason is simple. Live, the Representative from Corwood is forced to coexist with other musicians, making his dissonant, anti-rhythmic style fit with the often more straightforward leanings of his bandmates.

In the studio, he's free to do what he wants, and lately, that means he's free to meander on one instrument by himself, with little change in pace or tone. That's Canticle of Castaway in a nutshell - three long songs, totaling 53 minutes, just the man and his acoustic guitar. All three are languid, slow affairs (at least in comparison to songs like "Stay Me Here" on prior albums), and the whole thing is oddly hypnotic.

Of course, it's all teeth-grindingly dissonant, too, but after a while in Jandek's world, you get used to that. I don't dislike Canticle, I just feel like I've heard it before. The Rep has been endlessly inventive on stage, giving us suites for piano and synthesizer, explosive electric workouts and pummeling drones of noise. I'd just like to see some of that invention follow him back into the studio.

As usual, for more on Jandek, check out Seth Tisue's site at

First Listen: Stone Temple Pilots

Yes, folks, '90s nostalgia is in full swing. But as someone who always found the Stone Temple boys underrated, I can't call this particular reunion unwelcome. STP started off as grunge-apers, California's answer to the Seattle craze. But they quickly revealed themselves as '70s-inspired pop-rockers, and it's that style that comes to the fore on their sixth album.

Of course, like all Stone Temple Pilots albums, the best I can say about this one is that it isn't bad. Riff-rockers like "Between the Lines" (about time someone used that title as a drug reference) and "Take a Load Off" are fun while they're playing, and completely unmemorable once they stop. The band is tight, the DeLeo brothers have written another set of winning pop songs, and Scott Weiland doesn't embarrass himself. But the result is another pretty good record, with little remarkable about it. STP is basically back to doing what they do, and if you liked them before, you'll like this just fine.

First Listen: Janelle Monae, The Archandroid

This record is awesome. Full stop.

Okay, I'll elaborate. Imagine if Prince and Erykah Badu had a kid, and that kid really liked Blade Runner. Monae has been gifted with the voice of an angel and the mind of a sci-fi geek. Her whole recorded output so far (this album and a preceding EP) has been geared toward telling the story of 57821, an android who falls in love, and falls afoul of a futuristic, totalitarian government. The Archandroid is suites two and three (the EP was suite one) of a planned four.

Sounds heady, right? Well, forget it. This record is a boatload of fun. It's beat-crazy, soulful, prodigiously melodic, insanely well-arranged, funky and danceable. This is pop music of the highest order, with no boundaries - can you imagine another record with Big Boi and Of Montreal on the guest list? I can't. The Archandroid is the kind of thing that exposes just how shallow and talentless 99 percent of modern soul-pop is. This record is the real deal.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

New Column: All Alone

I am currently on vacation, resting in the sweet East Coast sunlight. I know, you're envious, but don't worry, I wrote you a little something so you won't miss me too much. This week's column is about solo performances, just one man and an instrument. Those men are Steve Hogarth and Michael Roe, and their instruments are piano and guitar, respectively. And both of these records will rip your heart out.

Also, I bring my top 20 of the 2000s list in for a landing, and (behind a spoiler link) share a 3,000-word essay on the final episodes of Lost. Hope you enjoy it. As always, click on over to read the column, then head back here to leave me a comment.