Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Spotlight: Sufjan Stevens, "Hark! Songs for Christmas"

I'm not usually into Christmas albums, least of all because we aliens don't celebrate Christmas. Although the occasional Christmas single by a rock musicison is a fun alternative expression of one's style, recording whole Christmas albums is usually an exercise in speedy cash cow production. But this cannot be said for Sufjan Stevens' new multi-volume Christmas album, which has a genuine originality in style and substance. It is characteristically Sufjan, which of course implies a certain unpredictability. The bottom line: get this album. It will not only make a conversation-starting soundtrack for your next Christmas party, but you will likely be able to listen to it out of season because of the richly textured arragnements of a number of classic hymns. Check out.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Review: The Mars Volta, "Amputechture" (2006)

This fall The Mars Volta released their third full-length studio album, Amputechture. Not only has this band become a significant force in progressive music in both mainstream and underground contexts, but also their music has a certain self-commending power that transcends even their current cultural hipness. Whatever one thinks about The Mars Volta, listening to their songs is anything but a forgettable experience.

Amputechture takes the band to new heights of creativity precisely by seamlessly melding structure and improvisation. So much improvised rock music merely drags out a repetitive structure upon which it builds improvised instrumentation. Not The Mars Volta. Songs vary in length according to sensible song structures. In other words, the songs have parts, not just verse-chorus-solo plodding.

Of course, all this could be said of all the best representatives of the progressive rock genre. The difference with The Mars Volta is that they have a groove and drive that is often absent from the expansive sound-scapes of their genre-predecessors. Only King Crimson is comparable in sheer force of sound and deep sense of groove. And this grove is borne out of more than just Jazz and Latin instrumentation. Even the guitar has an earthiness to it that prevents The Mars Volta from merely being an eclectic experiment. They actually have a sound: angular yet groovy, driving yet smooth.

A significant aspect of any band's sound is its vocals. And this will be the make or break factor for many listeners. For those who have been schooled in any high-pitched vocal style and understand its juxtaposition with low-end rhythm instrumentation will find nothing objectionable in this department. But any new listener must be forewarned of the abrasiveness of the vocals.

Lastly, a general comment is in order. Does The Mars Volta signal a new era in progressive rock? Although I would welcome such a revival, I do not see any such development on the horizon. Yes, there will be a flock of bands working in this genre in the next few years. But there will be no new era of progressive rock. The co-existence of The Mars Volta alongside The White Stripes on the one side and The Killers on the other shows that rock music has the potential to sustain fragmentary and apparently contradictory genre-movements. All three bands are working within a distinct genre-revival. But these "revivals" do not work successively but simultaneously.

The point of this observation is that just fragmentation is nothing new to rock. There will be no second era of progressive rock precisely because there was no first era of progressive rock. The time of early Yes, Genesis and King Crimson was also the Singer-Songwriter revolution. There are no "periods" except those created by music critics. Genres co-exist and co-mingle with a freedom that often confuses the self-proclaimed sophisticated listener. What we need to learn is that there is no law requiring genre-loyalty. Perhaps the emergence of The Mars Volta in the midst of this decade's garage and pop revival will serve to free us from such narrowness.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Advance Review - The Shins: Wincing the Night Away

The Shins are back...or I should say, they will be back when the new album, "Wincing the Night Away" hits stores on January 23rd.

The Shins captured everyone's heart in 2004 by virtue of Natalie Portman saying, "You gotta hear this one song, it'll change your life, I swear," in Zach Braff's film Garden State. The perfect placement of Shins tracks in key portions of this film inspired many new fans to check out the band's 2003 album, "Chutes too Narrow."

Following a rigorous touring schedule with an elongated break for writing and recording the new record, The Shins latest album will come 39 months after the release of "Chutes."

"Wincing" was leaked to the internet this past weekend, and this tech savvy reporter/Shins fan quickly obtained the illegal files for early review purposes. (It's not stealing if you intend to buy the album on release day, is it? Let's see if good intentions hold up.)

In regard to sound, this album is far more diverse than Chutes or the previous full-length "Oh! Inverted World" which relied fairly heavily on vocal driven tracks that drew comparisons to Coldplay (what?) from such reputable mags as Rolling Stone and Spin. "Wincing" is more diverse in that it allows the complex instrumentation to drive songs forward and allows the voice of lead Shin James Mercer to fill in the gaps.

For any Shins fan, this record will more than satiate a new album desire, and it avoids any of the third album (though they've recorded several EPs and an album under the name Flake Music prior to becoming The Shins) pitfalls, such as falling into a rut or dismantling
completely in an effort to "stay fresh."

Key Tracks: Sleeping Lessons (listen), Sea Legs

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 (Though the album does have Top 5-2007 possibility, unless they rush the release after the leak, then 2006)

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Top 5 Soundtracks

Following through on last week's post, I thought I might suggest a Top 5 Soundtracks. This list is not based on their integration into the film (which is of course key in the initial evaluation of a soundtrack), but rather on their continued function as collections of great songs:

5. Philadelphia

Although the Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young tracks alone makes this a worthy album for regular rotation, the remaining cuts flow perfectly from one to the other to form a great evening-at-home soundtrack.

4. Pulp Fiction

A number of Tarrantino soundtracks contend for placement on this list. Pulp Fiction stands out not just for its cultural impact but also its breadth in terms of genre and era, which can be contrasted with the more stickly 70's material of "Reservoir Dogs" and "Jackie Brown."

3. Saturday Night Fever

You might hate disco, but if you want some in your rotation (even if for strictly historical reasons), here is the one-stop shop for all your disco needs. Of course, the dancers among us have further reason to enjoy a little Fever.

2. Forrest Gump

There is no album out there that better tells the story of rock music from its beginnings in Elvis to its fragmentation in the early 80's. Although The Beatles and Led Zeppelin are conspicuously absent (for copywrite reasons no less), in some way it is better that the general movement of the periods is not overshadowed by its genre- and period-busting giants. Note that "Dazed and Confused" and "Almost Famous" are great introductions to classic rock, but are too narrowly 70's in content to compete with the narrative breadth of Forrest Gump.

1. Trainspotting

Trainspotting not only enshrines the best of Brit Pop during its heydey, it also includes selections from earlier artists with even wider influence such as Lou Reed, New Order, and Iggy Pop. More importantly, its just an excellent collection of songs compiled in the perfect order for a late night drive.

Note: I have excluded from this list soundtracks to Concert Films, as these are more approriately categorized as Live Albums. I have also left out the Single-Artist Soundtrack, where one artist supplies original music for the entire soundtrack. This sub-category is deserving of its own list. But since I may never get to it, I will mention Tom Petty's "She's the One" and Aimee Mann's "Magnolia" as conteders for placement on this list.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Thank You for Singing

First, please ignore the silly "Warning" label on this product and buy it...or at least rent it.

Second, this post really IS about music.

As I watched this film I was interested in the story, I laughed at the comedy (Adam Brody brings "Seth Cohen" to the big screen with hilarious results), I smirked at the satire, and I was entranced by the acting (save for the vapid Katie Holmes) -- BUT -- It was the soundtrack that did me in.

There are things that a soundtrack should do -- it should be able to go unnoticed for 85 minutes of a 90 minute film and make emphatic statements in the five minutes it is noticed -- but most importantly a soundtrack should punctuate the sentence of the film. The "Thank You for Smoking" soundtrack does all of the above with style.

If you have had the opportunity to see this film, you will understand. Anyone who recognizes one song from this film without google is a musical Rainman (definitely, definitely Patsy Cline...Three...Three Cigarettes in an, an Ashtray) -- but look at the tracklist from the CD. Not only do all but three of the titles refer to smoking or cigarettes, but these songs invoke the memory of a time when the world held an entirely different view of cigarettes. This is the job of our protagonist (Aaron Eckhart) -- to bring us back to that feeling. If only big tobacco could pipe (unintentional pun, I assure you) The Mills Brothers "Smoke Rings" into every convenience store and magazine stand, we'd all be smoking right now.

Thank you Rolfe Kent and Jason Reitman for this lesson in score and sountrack...

Sunday, October 01, 2006

From the Wall Safe: Minus the Bear - "Menos el Oso"

This album was released in August of 2005, over a year ago, but I'm dusting off the disc and giving it a fresh review.

Actually, Minus the Bear is in the "new to me" category -- they're one of those bands that you say, "I've heard OF them" so as to not look completely dweebish while speaking with a fellow rock snob. For me, this album came as a result of a foiled attempt at free eMusic downloads that locked me into a 40 download with $9.99 fee, I followed some RIYL links and ended up listening to one track online..."Good enough for a cheap download," I thought.

Then I imported into iTunes, burned a CD and plunked it in the car on my way to the beach. The first track "The Game Needed Me" (listen) sounded so different from anything I had heard...

Once I got over the initial thrill of listening to something different -- I ran the checklist. Music - solid, lyrics - amusing (and not trite), voice - style AND sincerity, and something I'm always secretly hoping to hear - a little bit of yelling.

I think I'm in love.

Every time the CD would run through I'd reach for the visor CD holder and think..."nah, one more time through." It's been a month...

Here is a sampling of the lyrics that cause either an ironic chuckle or conjure an unmistakable image:

  • "Would you ever miss your desk's caress?"
  • "The wind on the boat's deck is a cold hand on the neck."
  • "That night we laid on the floor of the desert, but I could barely sleep, I had this dream, there was a man in a black car, with a man in the backseat, and I woke up in a cold sweat with her lying next to me."
  • "I drive too fast at night, because accidents happen to other men and not me."
I just realized that I've written all of this and not given the reader much of an indication as to what they should expect to hear. I guess this sounds like the superior offspring of a loveless marriage between papa The Appleseed Cast and mama Fugazi...but the kid really looks an awful lot like uncle Rush (if you know what I'm sayin').

Click the listen link and new favorite band.

RIYL: My Morning Jacket (read - Band of Horses), The Mars Volta, Broken Social Scene...etc

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Music

It seems inappropriate to review a post-modern autobiography in a discursive, analytical style. So I will riff off Chuck's story about music culture by offering a glimpse of my own.

The last few years I have noticed my musical snobbery begin to wane a bit. Yet my love of music has grown in inverse proportion to my snobbery. I still seek out progressive new acts and obscure influential back-catalogue artists. But my attitude has become considerably more open to mainstream tastes of the great bulge in the middle of the bell-curve of the North American music culture.

How did I go from a sarcastic-categorizer to a charitable appreciator of music? There are at least four things that have had a direct impact on my attitude toward music.

(1) Buying an iPod. Why? Becuase my iPod re-introduced me to my own collection of classic rock and mainstream 90's rock which I grew up on. My iPod has reminded me that an artist doesn't have to be unknown to be worth listeing to.

(2) Playing in bands. Feeling the brunt of others' snobbery during and after performing has made me second guess the value of a folded-arm approach to music.

(3) Getting away from NY. As Klosterman points out, people only go to shows in New York City to be seen there, to say they saw a bad before they were big, or to say that a band everyone likes actually sucks. Moving from a NY orbit to a Philly orbit - where they are considerably less snobby and considerably more fun - has shaped my approach to music.

(4) Reading Killing Yourself to Live by Church Klosterman. This meandering narrative indictment of NY hipster culture was the straw that broke the camel's back. The book is full of telling lines ("I have more CDs that 90% of Americans, but less CDs that 60% of my friends"). By telling the story of his visit to all the famous rock death sites, Klosterman helped me re-discover a love for music. For anyone with enough musical sophistication to visit ALIEN CORPSE, Killing Yourself to Live is a must-read.

These are four clear steps that led toward my de-snobbification. If I come up with eight more I could start a self-help group. But in the meantime these experiences have softened my snobbery without undermining my active engagement in music culture. Is it inevitable that such a softening will usher in a deadening of my musical sophistry and wit? Maybe. Although I hope not, that may be a risk worth taking...

Saturday, September 09, 2006

iTunes vs. eMusic

If you own an iPod and buy digital music, iTunes is the place to go, right? Well, that may no longer be the case.

eMusic, a subscription download service catering to individuals with an "independent" bent, is closing that gap. Members of eMusic pay a monthly fee in exchange for a set amount of downloads -- the site offers three plans: $9.99/month for 40 downloads (works out to $.25/song), $14.99/mo for 65 downloads ($.23/song), $19.99/mo for 90 downloads ($.22/song). If you use your allotment before the end of the month, you have two options: wait until the 1st of the next month, or purchase a "booster pack" for various prices--$15 for 50 songs is best value.

Compare those numbers to a flat rate of $.99/song from iTunes. Correct, there is the occasional album that has 15 tracks and sells for $9.99, or in the case of Razorlight's (very satisfying) new album--10 tracks for $7.99, but typically one will be paying a dollar for every song downloaded from iTunes.

Another benefit to eMusic is the portability, that is, the fact that there is no encryption on the files downloaded from the site, compared to the rather strict guidelines that iTunes places on their files. (ie, don't even think about putting an iTunes track on a MP3 player that is NOT an iPod).

If you look solely at the numbers, it makes sense to join eMusic and scrap iTunes altogether. 40 tracks a month is (about) 4 albums, and I rarely download more than 2 (ok, 3... please don't tell my wife) I could pay $9.99 a month instead of $40 for the same tracks.

Or, I would be paying less for the same tracks IF eMusic had a decent catalogue. If you are eagerly anticipating the release of (insert fav artist here)'s new album, don't expect to find it in eMusic on Tuesday. Unlike iTunes, eMusic does not have the entire music industry waiting with baited breath to do their bidding. When looking for music to download with my free trial (which accidentally turned into a month paid subscription), I was having trouble finding music that I wanted. I resorted to downloading (shudder) Pavement's "Slanted and Enchanted" (granted, I haven't listened to it yet, and I hope I like it so Dan shuts up about it being the "best and most influential album ever" or whatever he says, I usually stop listening).

So, maybe it's not about the money. Maybe it's about the convenience of not having to drive to the record store (read: Best Buy) to try and buy the album that came out today, but rather sitting down and with two clicks and a minute and a half listening to the album (complete with album art) on my iPod...and maybe the thought of being FORCED to pay $10 a month when I just may not want to buy any music (let alone if I can't find any music I want) puts me in a bad mood.

Here is what eMusic is good for. Back-cataloguing. Say you get on to an artist after he has released several albums (Sufjan Stevens is the perfect example), and you want to own his earlier stuff but don't want to pay $.99 per for it. Join up with eMusic, take your 25 free trial tracks and 40 for $9.99 tracks and take 65 Sufjan Stevens songs home in the morning. Round out your collection, look really hip when you say "I prefer his older stuff," and be satisfied that reading this post did you some good.

Thursday, August 31, 2006


Review: "Awesome! I F___'in Shot That!"

The Beastie Boys release a new concert DVD that involves the much so that the "3 MCs" actually have their audience shoot the DVD.

The premise is that 50 Hi8 camcorders were given to 50 audience members spread throughout Madison Square Garden, and the recruited camera men and women were instructed not to turn the cameras off. The idea is brilliant -- not only because the viewer is bombarded by a fresh take on the show every few seconds, but also because of the "uncut" rawness of the footage (one scene takes us on an extended tour of the MSG restroom facilities).

Some reviewers have criticized the camerawork an
d editing of the film, calling it too choppy, even disorienting. This is an apt criticism (APT!), but this viewer felt it made the DVD more immersive. This "home movie-esque" technique allows the DVD viewer to feel almost
voyeuristic in watching someone else watch the show.

In the opening scene, the director titles the DVD while addressing the cameramen, "This is going to be great -- in 20 years you will watch the DVD and say, 'Awesome. I fuckin' shot that.'"

Regarding the performance, the Beastie Boys are still at the top of their game, getting better with middle age. The transitions are smooth, the banter is fun, and the teamwork is flawless. For everyone that hasn't seen the Beastie Boys live, this will serve as the appetizer --enticing the viewer to track them down. Mix Master Mike provides the Boys standard tracks with more than a little flair, making the old seem new and f

Watch for a certain fellow New-Yorker former Rabbi, male-model, and dodgeball loser rapping along to "3 MC's and one DJ."

Special Feature Report: "A Day in the Life of Nathaniel Hornblower" showcases David Cross as the liederhosen-wearing Nathaniel Hornblower, director of the DVD and most of the Beastie's videos. Cross' career has had some moments of brilliant comedic timing, impeccable writing, and mind-blowing awkwardness, and this video short is spot-on the latter.

Even if you have no interest in the Beastie Boys as artists, rappers,New York City icons, trendsetters, contagiously fun individuals, or musicians (they play several of their tracks as a live band, such as "Gratitude" from "Check Your Head"), this DVD is still worth a Netflix simply for its innovative appearance.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Track Review: "When You Were Young" by The Killers

The Killers were everybody's favorite retro-rock band of 2004. Their debut album, Hot Fuss, was adored by both the corporate music world (the radio played them, Rolling Stone and Spin sung their praise, and U2 took them on tour) and the indie music world (their obvious Smiths influence as well as their exuberant anthem "Glamorous Indie Rock & Roll" won them some credibility). Band leader Brandon Flowers has even become something of a heart-throb.

Hot Fuss was a near perfect debut; every song sounded like a single. The first song we probably all heard was "Somebody Told Me." A very fun tune, but I worried that they were just a New Order novelty band. And then the heart-on-his-sleeves lyrics of "Mr. Brightside" hit the airwaves and every emo kid and TRL viewer fell in love. But it really wasn't until "All These Things That I've Done" that I realized that this band has some real soul.

So how should an alternative rock band like the Killers follow up a top-selling, perfect debut like Hot Fuss? Should they go back to the basement like Nirvana did with In Utero? Or should they create a commerically-disastrous cult classic like Weezer did with Pinkerton? Or perhaps they should just cave in to the pressure and realize that you can only save rock and roll once, like the Strokes did with Room on Fire?

Or maybe the Killers should just try to take over the world. That's what "When You Were Young" sounds like. First off, it's better than anything on Hot Fuss. The guitars soar higher than "Beautiful Day." Yes, this is a guitar band just as much as it is a keyboard band. Now, the vocal melody might throw you a bit. The Boss? Yep, the Boss. Reportedly, American rock, like Springsteen and Tom Petty, is a great influence on the new album. This doesn't mean we won't hear that British influence anymore. It just means that the Killers might be the biggest band in America in 2007. How great would it be to have an American band (they hail from Las Vegas) be the biggest band in America again? Aw, shucks! I'm getting all patriotic!

Flag-waving aside, what is truly impressive about "When You Were Young" is the lyrical content. Hot Fuss had some fun and sometimes clever lyrics. But this single is definitely a step up. Brandon Flowers must have become a student of Bono's school of songwriting: the best songs are the songs about the search for God. "When You Were Young" is about a not-so-young woman who is waiting for "some beautiful boy" to come along and save her from "her old ways." (Regret seems to be a recurring theme in Flowers writing already.) Flowers writes that this beautiful boy "doesn't look a thing like Jesus, but he talks like a gentlemen, just like you imagined when you were young."

Youth lost? Love lost? Salvation found? "When You Were Young" is available for download on Itunes now (or you can stream it for free on the Killer's official site, you tightwad!) Watch for the Killer's new album, Sam's Town, on October 3rd.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006


Much of the roots rock revolution of the past five years has made way for the re-emergence of a power trio with sounds unheard for a generation enhanced by indie developement that pre-empt the usual pretentious pitfalls of such bands. If this sounds unbelievable, then make your way to

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

From the Vault: 40th Anniversary of The Beatles' Revolver

Forty years ago this past weekend The Beatles' released their transition studio album Revolver. The Beatles recorded this album in early 1966 during their last stint of touring. Within a month of its late summer release, The Beatles quit touring and became a exclusively studio band. Revolver is their first of many song books to never be performed live by the band. And although this served to weaken the authenticity of some of their later material, at this point the integrity of The Beatles as a band remained in tack.

Although the album is great, it often confuses non-fans of the Beatles why this album so often tops list of best all-time albums. Why not Sgt. Pepper, Abbey Road, or even Rubber Soul? What makes Revolver stand out?

In congruence with a prevalent Alien Corpse theme, the prominence and permanence of Revolver is that, at least on this album, all the instrumentation, experimentation, studio-trickery and stylization seemlessly serve the songs themselves. There are a number of Beatles' albums that contain greater songs, and a number of albums where the experimentation is even more groundbreaking and creative. But Revolver more than any other combines songwriting with musical progressivism. The result is that Revolver is not only interesting, but also enjoyable to listen to.

It is this combination of experimentation and good-old-fashioned songwriting that leads to Revolver being the most diverse Beatles' album. Many of their albums suffer from conceptual fancies or idiomatic narrowness that limit genuine musical diversity. Because Revolver is about songs, each song is molded organically into a style most fitting for the song. So Revolver contains everything from rock classics employing some the Beatles' best guitar work in both playing and sound ("Taxman," "She Said, She Said," "And Your Bird Can Sing," "Doctor Robert") to beautiful ballads using strings, harmonies, baroque arrangment, and even horns ("Eleanor Rigby," "Here, There and Everywhere," "For No One"). Both ends of the spectrum are held together by strong songwriting and musical arrangment that perfectly fits the songs as they were meant to be expressed. Even John Lennon's psycholedic exploits ("I'm Only Sleeping" and "Tomorrow Never Knows") have aged well because the songs are so memorable in-and-of-themselves. And Paul McCartney's goofy pop songs ("Good Day Sunshine," "Got to Get You into My Life"
"Yellow Submarine") are still inherently enjoyable and surprisingly not distracting despite being nestled between progressive rock pieces.

The point is that all this diversity results in a cohesive album because the Beatles' songwriting is in the foreground. Bottom line: don't buy Revolver because it is influential (which it is), significant (which it is) or interesting (which it is). Buy Revolver because there you will find songs and music in perfect harmony.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

RIP - Pedro the Lion

David Bazan officially laid to rest the Pedro the Lion name in January, but the spirit lives on with his newly released (June 13th) solo EP, titled, "Fewer Moving Parts."

The record doesn't break any new ground for those die-hard fans of Bazan's work with PTL and Headphones. But the listener gets the sense that Bazan feels a great deal of freedom in being out from under the Pedro the Lion moniker.

A recent article in Sojourners online magazine (thanks Erik Fisher) describes a Bazan who has grown into his faith and seems to understand/accept his role, though he still "bristles when others...casually place the Christian label on him." This is not a new statement, but the explanation is new to me --

“People who use it to describe me are generally using it to be reductive of what I do or to imply that it’s invalid simply because [of my faith], and that makes me pretty angry.”

The EP is 5 tracks recorded twice -- once acoustic and once fully instrumented. This sounds uninteresting, but it works often like listening to Iron & Wine's cover of The Postal Service's "Such Great Heights" (my favorite cover ever - new list idea); only Bazan is covering himself. The recording of "How I Remember" in the fully instrumented version is frustrating to me, because the vocals are too much in the background - almost sounding muted...

Jade Tree is set to release a full-length solo Bazan record in 2007.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Favorite Songwriters

This week I've been thinking a great deal about songwriting and the skill that is necessary in this process. There are two types of songwriters in my mind -- those that use powerful imagery in lyrics to get their point/story across, and those that ilicit the same response with music.

Many times the best songwriters are strong on one skill only, mixing subpar or not that exciting music with punchy lyrics (or vice versa). Though certainly we have seen the rare songwriter who consistently blows our mind with both lyrics and music.

The quickest way to identify into which camp a songwriter falls is to mentally scan the artists catalogue and identify whether you are remembering words/stories or guitar riffs/chord progressions.

It's interesting to think whether this is the songwriter's ability or the listeners paradigm...When I listen to music I more often than not hear lyrics, and only when a song is GREAT musically I take notice. This is definitely because I couldn't identify chord progressions or discuss music theory much beyond Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge (and couldn't describe that at gunpoint either).

What do you hear? List your 5 favorite songwriters and why. Here are mine.
1. Blake Schwarzenbach - Jawbreaker/Jets to Brazil -- My first taste of indie music was the lyric "I'm just a question knowing my answer, hope I'm wrong" Smart, punchy lyrics with tons of double entendre.

2. David Bazan - Pedro the Lion/Headphones/Solo -- If the first time you listened to the "Whole EP" alone didn't come close to crying you are heartless. Genuine storyteller. Also, wins award for "most likely to send letter bomb" with this pic.

3. Jack White - The White Stripes/The Raconteurs -- One of the only songwriters who makes me hear music first.

4. Gord Downie - The Tragically Hip -- More of a poet than a songwriter and the imagery he uses makes me wish I could write like that.

5. Pending further development -- Regina Spektor and Sufjan Stevens. Both have a keen understanding of music and lyrics that make me feel stupid, but write songs that have heart so I feel better after.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Top 10 Double Albums

This summer’s release of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Stadium Arcadium has brought up the perennial issue of the prudence of double albums. Are double-albums a good idea? Are they a sign of the sheer volume of genius? Or are they just the bloated expression of artistic hubris? Or are they simply the result of a lazy production not willing to shave a record down to its best elements?

As with so much in music criticism, the wise approach to this inquiry is not to evaluate the double-album as a medium in general. Rather, one ought to evaluate each double-album on its own merits. Although there are many terrible double-albums, there are also many great ones. I have provided a list of the Top 10 Double Albums (according to my humble yet impeccable opinion). Note: I am excluding all compilations and live albums.

Top 10 Double Albums:

10 – Jimi Hendrix, Electric Ladyland (1968)
9 – Sonic Youth, Dirty (1992)
8 – Bruce Springsteen, The River (1980)
7 – Wilco, Being There (1996)
6 – Derek & the Dominoes, Layla and other Assorted Love Songs (1970)
5 – Bob Dylan, Blonde on Blonde (1966)
4 – The Beatles, White Album (1968)
3 – The Clash, London Calling (1979)
2 – Rolling Stones, Exile on Main Street (1972)
1 – Led Zeppelin, Physical Graffiti (1975)

The interesting thing about this list is that a number of these albums could also be placed in the Top 100 albums of all-time. Also, about half of these records are considered by some to be the best albums produced by the respective artist. So, despite the dangers of the double album, sometimes the risk pays off.

Unfortunately for the Chili Peppers, Stadium Arcadium will likely be categorized among the many double-albums that would have been great albums if they just would have been cut in half. Albums such as Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973) Pink Floyd, The Wall (1979), Prince’s 1999 (1982), Guns N’ Roses’ Use Your Illusion I & II (1991), Smashing Pumpkins’s Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (1995) and Outkast’s Speakerboxxx/Love Below (2003) were all good records boasting great songs, but they lack what the albums above had: solidness. If you find yourself skipping through the filler to get to the next “real” track, the hubris of bigness has trumped musical integrity. Despite its size, a great double album should feel like any other great album: you love every song on it.

What double-albums would you add to and subtract from the above Top Ten list?
What double-albums should also be place in the “should have been cut in half” category?
What generalizations (if any) could be made about double-albums as a medium?

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Cornerstone Diary, Day Five

Dear Diary,

I'm in love! John Davis, John Davis, John Davis! The former lead singer of Superdrag (Remember "Sucked Out" from '96? Me neither.) was saved a few years ago and started writing songs about his faith. Good songs. Really good songs.

The bold faith and the humility of his song writing and stage presence was unlike anything else at Cornerstone. John played two sets (Yes!) on the last day of Cornerstone, one on the Gallery Stage and the other at the Jesus Village stage. His Gallery Stage performance was very rocking, including some new jams (he's headed back to the studio in a couple of weeks). Then John broke it down on the keyboard at the Jesus Village to play some of his gospel-ish burners including, "I Hear Your Voice" and "Jesus Gonna Build Me a Home".

John's music and his show were all about his testimony: Jesus gave him hope when we didn't have any. John made no bones about it: He was there to testify to what Jesus did for him. The spotlight of his performance was Jesus, not himself. That, I guess, is what true humility is all about. It was the best church service I'd been to in a while.

So, C-stone is now over. My top five C-stone performers are as follows:

5. Relient K

4. Underoath

3. The Violet Burning

2. mewithoutYou

1. John Davis

A good year. Although I was puzzled as to why Danielson, Pedro the Lion or Damien Jurado were not there. Maybe next year, Cornerstone?

The amazing John Davis.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Cornerstone Diary, Day Four

Dear Diary,

Day Four at main stage was filled with family-fun from MxPx and Relient K, although both bands played slightly subversive cover songs. MxPx covered "I Would Walk" by the Proclaimers and "Surrender" by Cheap Trick. Relient K covered Kenny Logins' "Flight into the Dangerzone" from Top Gun. It had all the 30-ish somethings smiling. (What can I say? Alien Corpse had two older sisters who loved pop music in the 80s!)

But the real entertainment of the evening was all about the metal. Here now is an interview with the original Metal Freak, Neil Beard.

Which band totally melted your brain last night?
The Showdown! They stole it!

What songs did they play?
Some new songs: "The Snake Pit" and "Give Us This Day."

How did the new songs sound?
Excellent and a lot heavier!

Did they turn the crowd into a pile of skulls?

Does liking the Showdown make us hillbillies, too?

Good interview, Neil,, the Metal Freak.

Dave from The Showdown. Yes, he is wearing his own band's shirt. Yes, those are snakes coming out of the skull, and yes, the back of the shirt does say, "High Voltage Heavy Metal."

The Metal Freak hanging out with the number one heavy metal band, The Showdown.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Cornerstone Diary, Day Three

Dear Diary,

How lucky am I to be able to see mewithoutYou TWICE at Cornerstone this year! mewithoutYou opened main stage (!) on Thursday night with "Tie Me Up! Untie Me!" Hearing lead singer Aaron shout out, "Did you untie me, Lord? I haven't even thought about killing myself in almost 3 years!" rather than the 5 months testified to on mewithoutYou's brilliant record, Catch for Us the Foxes was an awesome testimony indeed. (If you are interested in checking out mewithoutYou, start with "January 1979" and "Paper Hanger" from Catch for Us the Foxes.)

mewithoutYou on Cornerstone Main Stage. Photo by Neil Beard.

The highlight of mewithoutYou's set was a new song they played last. They invited all of their friends to come out and dance with them on the last song, which included a ton of tribal drummers, a girl dressed in sackcloth, and man in a Native American-ish bird suit. I wasn't sure about the bird suit (hiding in the shadow of His wings?), but it was dramatic. The new song really demonstrated mewithoutYou's musical growth, adding much quieter elements to their songs, and much more melody as well. The song ended with Aaron shouting, "I do not exist!" over and over, a testimony to how a Christian can lose themselves in Christ completely.

mewithoutYou's set was awesome, but the best part of the day came as a surprise to me. I happened to wander over to the indoor stage and caught a set by the seminal, alt-Christian band, the Violet Burning.

First of all, the Violet Burning were a great break from all of the emo and metal acts that dominate Cornerstone. It was very cool to hear some British influenced rock for a change. My Bloody Valentine, Depeche Mode, U2 and the Cure could all be heard in the Violet Burning's set.

But what was most impressive about their set were a few short words by singer Michael Pritzl. Michael talked about how God loves all of us just as we are, which is a message you could hear at just about any evangelical church this Sunday morning. But Pritzl took it one set further and told the crowd that God loved the church just as it is. Yes, the church has its problem, and we should all want to change those, but God loves his church as it is.

In this age when so many intelligent young believers (David Bazan anyone?) are being turned off by the sins of the church, it was refreshing to hear someone stand up and say, "I need the church! God loves the church and so do I!"

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Cornerstone Diary, Day Two

Dear Diary,

The Cornerstone Festival has always been the Christian music festival that was more open to alternative music. They always had the underground stage that featured all the newest punk, hardcore and indie rock bands. And there are always dozens of bands set up at generator stages throughout the festival campgrounds. But main stage at Cornerstone was always about the mainstream rock acts. You know, like DC Talk and Third Day.

But this year all that changed. Main Stage at C-stone day two was invaded by a bunch of hardcore, screamo and heavy metal bands.

The evening started with the beauty and blister of As Cities Burn. These guys define screamo. It sounds like these screamo bands have been listening to U2 or something, because their spacey, melodic riffs were more than enough to fill the whole arena. Well, their intro song was a Sigur Ros song(!), so what should I expect?

The Chariot was up next with their destructive, spastic hardcore. I actually feared for the welfare of the band during their set. But it didn't compare to the brutality of Norma Jean.

Norma Jean. Photo by Neil Beard.

The highlight of their set (and maybe of the whole evening) was when the lead singers of The Chariot and mewithoutYou came out to sing "Memphis Will Be Laid to Waste." What a scary and inspiring song!

Next up was Ozzfest regular As I Lay Dying. Straight up metal with some melodic vocals. Not bad. But something could compare to the set Underoath put on. Underoath is definitely the biggest emo/screamo/Warped Tour-ish band in the whole world right now, and deservingly so. They played several songs from their new album, Define the Great Line, which sounded perfectly constructed for arenas and mass consumption. And I do not mean that in a bad way. Also, it was way cool to see all of the cell phones out when Underoath played their OC-hit, "A Boy Brushed Red Living in Black and White."

But what was most exciting about this whole main stage spectacle was a man named Chad Johnson. Johnson is the A&R man for Tooth and Nail/Solid State Records (he used to own Takehold Records before it went under). He came out just before the Underoath set and...well...preached a sermon.

It was shocking and wonderful. Tooth and Nail was one of the first to preach the "We're Christians in a band, not a Christian band," thing. And I understand that position. Not everyone has the spiritual gift of preaching, and we shouldn't always expect our art, including music, to be a tool for ministry.

But Johnson and Underoath showed the crowd that music can be a way of sharing the most important thing in the world, the gospel of Jesus Christ, with lost people. (Whoops, I hope you don't accuse Alien Corpse of being a Christian site now! :) ) Johnson's message was short and about how we sin when we turn rock artists into idols. Convicting.

Underoath was unashamed about their faith, as well, and the fact of them being a Christian band, not Christians in a band. "We are here to represent Jesus Christ," said vocalist Spencer Chamberlain. Now, I don't now if they say things like that when their on tour with Killswitch Engage, but they said it last night, and it was amazing.

What do you think, Alien Corpse readers? Is it OK to use art as a tool for the gospel. I think my feelings on the subject are pretty clear. But I am interesting in discussing this hot topic.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Posthumous Music -- Cashing in or Remembering Our Heroes?

With this week's release of the first American Recordings posthumous release from Johnny Cash, ALIEN CORPSE has been pondering the cash cow of life after death in the recording industry.

Is this practice simply the record company giving the fans what we want; giving us a way to connect with our fallen/tortured/misunderstood heroes? Or are we being taken advantage of, manipulated into spending money on typically subpar releases because our beloved is no longer with us?

There is certainly a great amount of attention received after a musician passes away that encourages a record company (or the surviving members of the band) to polish and then push a release of a "not quite finished" record. There is also the "dead artist" mentality that maintains an artist's work is more valuable after the artist passes on.

Also, many times the artist was in process or nearing completion of a project when they die, and it just takes their producer adding finishing touches to release the record, sometimes (especially in the case of Elliott Smith) giving the listener insight into their state of mind prior to their death (suicide).

As one being that has tasted death, ALIEN CORPSE has decided to take this stance: Immediate releases of unfinished work are acceptable especially in the case of suicide, greatest hits are acceptale, whereas remixes/"from the vault"/B-sides/other crap are offensive to fans and should be treated as such.

Here are some posthumous examples:

  • Elliott Smith - From A Basement on a Hill(2004), Smith passed on October 22, 2003.
  • Johnny Cash - Unearthed (11/03) (!), My Mother's Hymn Book (4/04), The Legend of Johnny Cash (10/05) American V: A Hundred Highways(7/4/06), Cash passed September 12, 2003.
  • Elvis Presley - Too many to mention, the most notable is the FRIGHTENING 2002 remix of "A Little Less Conversation," Elvis passed August, 1977.
  • Russell Jones (aka ODB, Dirt McGirt) - A Son Unique (expected 06), ODB passed November 2004.
  • 2Pac - Greatest Hits (1998), Until the End of Time (2001), All Eyez on Me (2001), Better Dayz (2002), Ressurection (11/03), Loyal to the Game (12/04), 2Pac passed in 1996.
  • Nirvana - Nirvana (10/02), With the Lights Out (11/04), Sliver: The Best of the Box (11/05), Kurt Cobain passed April 5th, 1994.
What are we missing? What's your favorite or (even better) your most hated posthumous release?

Cornerstone Diary, Day One

Dear Diary,

Well, Cornerstone Day One is officially over. Today was Tooth and Nail Day, with just bands that Tooth and Nail Records invited to play. There was actually a great variety of music to hear today, from the arena anthem rock of The Honour Recital to the goth-core of The Becoming. Even good old Project 86 was there (8 Cornerstones in a row?). Hearing the crowd sing along with Andrew Schwab, "I do not need anymore truthless heroes!" was truly one of the highlights of the night.

But two bands really stood out to me today: Becoming the Archetype and mewithoutYou.

Becoming the Archetype is straight up death metal. That's right, not metal-core, not some metal-emo hybrid, but straight-up finger tapping metal.

Here is the Jason of Becoming the Archetype. Yes, at times he did raise his hand as if he were holding a mystical energy orb to help him hit those really low notes. Photo by Neil Beard.

Alex of Becoming the Archetype. Photo by Neil Beard.

mewithoutYou definitely stole the show on the first day of Cornerstone 2006. What is so exciting about mewithoutYou is their creativity. NOBODY (secular or inspirational market) sounds like mewithoutYou. They started out as an art damaged hardcore band, but they have let the art damage finally take over. At this show, they used keyboards, maracas, djembes, acoustic guitars and a harp alongside their normal instrumentation to create a truly psychedelic experience.

mewithoutYou, of course, has always been a very visual band, as well. Lead singer Aaron is one of the most expressive and theatrical artists at Cornerstone, and he was in full form at this show, twirling and shaking out his vocals. I can't wait to catch their main stage performance on Friday night!

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Road Trip

I, the great and mighty Alien Corpse, am going on vacation next week. Yes, even all-knowing, transdimensional beings like myself need a vacation every once in a while. I will be vacationing at (where else?) the Cornerstone music festival in the middle-of-nowhere, IL.

In preparation for the big trip, I've been putting together a few playlists for the road trip. Here's what I've got so far:

1."Birthday" by the Beatles. It's got a driving beat and is probably the catchiest guitar riff George Harrison ever wrote. "Gonna have a good time," is the best sentiment for the beginning of a road trip.

2. "Party Hard" by Andrew W.K. A totally underrated songwriter in my opinion. Nobody writes songs that are as fun as Andrew W.K. I wanna go on vacation with him!

3. "7/4 (Shoreline) by Broken Social Scene. Anarchist Canadians create a great driving beat that will just push you down the road.

4. "Incinerate" by Sonic Youth. Their new album, Rather Ripped, is so good and this might be the best song on it.

5. "Conventional Wisdom" by Built to Spill. Ok, time to wake back up with this great piece of pop rock that becomes a great indie jam. This is how I wish Phish would have sounded.

6. "Good Vibrations" by Brian Wilson. Smile makes me smile. And you can't think about summer, vacations or road trips without the Beach Boys.

7. "Pretty Vacant" by the Sex Pistols. This is side two, track one. The opening guitar riff (which is really just Steve Jones picking through an A power chord; brilliant!) sounds like the notes are bouncing off great expanses of the American landscape.

8. "Tough as John Jacobs" by Maylene and the Sons of Disaster. How could you create a road trip playlist without some good old Southern rock and metal.

9. "Nature Anthem" by Grandaddy. This song will either make you stop at the next scenic overlook, or go buy a Honda.

10. "Crazy" by Gnarls Barkley. "Crazy" is Alien Corpse's Number One Summer Jam for 2006!

11. "Walk on the Wide Side" by Lou Reed. This works as a great driving song because of the crazy bass line. Plus, it makes you want to do crazy things on your vacation dress and stuff.

12. "Learning to Fly" by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
13. "Into the Great Wide Open" by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
Does anybody want to debate that Tom Petty is the best artist to drive to EVER?

So what are your favorite road trip songs or albums? Comment soon, because I can't wait to trash your taste!

Friday, June 23, 2006

Keane - Under the Iron Sea

Keane's first project - Hopes and Fears - was a well-crafted bit of ear candy that got some significant buzz going in the discussion of a new wave of "brit -poppers" (Starsailor, Travis, et al.) but somehow recently became a guilty pleasure album that was seared into the popular conscience not least when one of its tracks was used in the trailer to Keanu Reeves's and Sandra Bullock's new flick "Lake House". This would be an example of when britpop seems in my impression to no longer "work" - that is when it is no longer ironic - sort of like when the Oasis track "All Around the World" was sold as the new theme song for AT&T. ugh

Keane's new project was released in the US this week. As sophomoric releases go "Under the Iron Sea" seems in my impression to be somewhat of an archetype. It boasts of a kind of pseudo maturity that shows the band's growth in budget, but seems to lack real reflection and resorts too often to cliches and self-involvement in the struggles of newly found success. However, as to not isolate their quickly growing fan base they also include a number of elements that are reminiscent of the first album (with added string section and impressive new sounds from the keys - keeping the guitarless guitar-band vibe going). So in other words - if you liked the first album as I did - chances are while you can criticize the second one you might just enjoy it as well.

The band touted the writing on this album as a little darker than the first - representative of their experiences over the last two years having seen the "darker" side of life living on the road as mega-rock stars who deal with disillusionment with home and relationships. They also propose, however, to tackle broader sorts of "dark" issues like disillusionement with government and feelings of helplessness over not being able to influence decisions that will directly effect this generation's future (this is a self-proclaimed theme from their PR release on the album).

Most haters are going after the album saying things like, "the album is lyrically unimpressive and far too reliant on cliches". On the one hand the criticism is valid - but on the other I think it misses the point of Keane - and the broader britpop project which they may be described as having adopted. It is pop music insofar as the lyrics are broad enough to appeal to emotions that have no well defined carrier - could be about betrayal of a girlfriend or could be about perceived betrayal by Tony Blair and the New Labour Party. Contemp Christian music is master of these generalities by singing to Jesus and someone you are crushing on at the same time. So I don't think criticizing the album oon this front is appropriate without taking to task the broader pop project - can it work? Britpop was the tool to bring a new generation on board to overthrow Thatcherism and replace it with a younger more visionary government (see docu. Live Forever). In the end there was a lot of disappointment when britpop was left just as it had always been a tool - but there was no big idea or "something more" behind it. So this raises interesting questions as to whether it is the best method to pick up when one is criticizing New Labour and others for having abandoned the vision and betrayed their contingency. Is it effective? Could be - I don't know.

Okay well all of this is important to understand the context of the album - but here I have probably not given fair mention to the album itself: A synopsis will have to do.

1) If you hated the first album stay away - this is Keane to the power of 10 - new approaches but same methods.

2) If you loved the first album - you will love this one too probably - they have expanded on the elements of the first album - it is more produced but not to the point that it gets in the way - there is still no guitar - and yes Chaplin's voice does soar oh so high

3) If you are not sure - I still would reccomend Hopes and Fears as an entry point - there is too much polish on this album to make the old school britpop elements come through.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

From the Vault: Frampton Comes Alive! 30th Anniversary

Thirty years ago, the album that ruled America's charts, AOR radio, and lava-lamp-lit bedrooms was Peter Frampton's live double record, Frampton Comes Alive! It topped the charts for sixteen non-consecutive weeks between April and September 1976. It was the album of the bicentennial summer. As Wayne Campbell puts it, "Of course I have Frampton Comes Alive! It was issued to suburban homes along with samples of Tide."

The question for this 30th anniversary retrospective is why Frampton Comes Alive! was such a big album and, more important but not unrelated, why is it still worth listening to today? It remains a mystery why the live versions of unknown material by this second-rate Humple Pie drop-out became standard AOR fare and endure as classics to this day. Live albums are usually used by established acts as time buffers after a long tour so they do not have to go back into the studio right away. I am not aware of any compiled live album to do for an artist what it did for Frampton. So what makes Comes Alive! different?

First, there's the gimmick. Frampton is credited for making significant use of the guitar voice box. He certainly was not the first to use it. But he was the first to make it a major part of his song writing and style. As can be heard on "Show Me The Way" and "Do You Feel Like We Do?" the audience goes nuts for his voice-box solos. It was a fresh gimmick then and so it created a buzz. However, now that the voice box has been relegated to Bon Jovi come-back singles, it is hard to get excited about the technique anymore. Some appeal remains for vault-listeners, as Frampton was one of the few who put the voice box to melodic use.

But the gimmick alone cannot explain its popularity then and classic status now. The 1970's where full of technical advances that do not necessarily result in great albums. Technique must accompany songs. And Comes Alive! does not lack great songs. Although it has been spoiled for many in my generation by a terrible 1990's cover version, "Baby I Love Your Way" was and is a perfectly simply love song worthy of its heavy airplay. In college I managed to loose track of the second CD on account of lending it out too many times to people wanting that song.

But more important than the love songs are the deep album cuts like "I Wanna Go To The Sun" and "Lines On My Face" that used to receive airplay on AOR stations before the Classic Rock format took over in the early 1980's. Ironically, now we can only hear singles from classic bands who made their names on an anti-single, anti-Top-Forty format. So every band between 1969 and 1978 (with the major exception of Led Zeppelin) are relegated to one-hit-wonder status, as we hear the same songs over and over, never realizing that these albums were full of songs much better than those on the air now. So Frampton Comes Alive! deserves a fresh hearing simply because it cannot be heard via radio the way it used to. Hopefully on-line digital music will help to resurrect a number of smaller acts that have become punchlines over the years.

So buy the CD, or at least a couple of songs on iTunes. Try to imagine what it would be like for a live rock record to be the number one album in the summer of 2006. Ponder what it would take to happen again. Better yet, get an old turn table and buy the vinyl for $1 at a used book store or yard sale, set it up next to your lava lamp and see if you can recapture the excitement of the first time someone heard the opening notes of the voice-box guitar solo on "Do You Feel Like We Do?" blare through a pair of over-sized earphones.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Worst album ever...

What is the worst album on your iPod/iTunes Library/CD Holder?

This could be a/an:

  • Guilty pleasure
  • Newly released album that came with high expectations and disappointed
  • Recommended album that surpassed all levels of suckiness
  • Album that you used to LOVE but now realize its true undeniable lowliness
Or any of your own criteria...I just want to see the seemy underbelly of your record collection.

Let 'er rip.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Review: Gnarls Barkley, St. Elsewhere

This is one thing that ALIEN CORPSE is thankful for: He is thankful that he lives outside of media saturation of music. This enables him to devour an album like Gnarls Barkley: St. Elsewhere, and not have to worry that he will hear about the album at every turn. That can really ruin an album. It is ALIEN’s sense that the general public of indie 20 somethings will have already found this album to be sequentially: exotic, vibrant, skillful, tired, and annoying. Thankfully, ALIEN just hears the groove.

This collaboration between King Midas himself, DJ Danger Mouse (reputed for his “Grey Album” mashup of The Beatles’ White Album and Jay-Z’s Black Album), and rapper/crooner deluxe, Cee-Lo Green, is a revelatory departure from everything else on the scene in 2006.

Blending Danger Mouse’s talent on the production side with Cee-Lo’s golden vocals was a match made in heaven. There is a nice combination between a hook-laden soul album with SOME genuine lyrics. Just when the listener has settled in for a long peaceful chill-out session, track 8, Transformer, rattles the cages and is a true Hip-hop song. Actually, the one-two punch of Just a Thought and Transformer is worth the price of the album alone.

Overall, this is a stellar release that embodies fun, uptempo music/lyrics and the skills of the greatest producer in the music scene today. Take that, Kanye!

Rating: 5 out of 5

RIYL: Gorillaz, DangerDoom, The Streets