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march 2007

March stands to be a pretty good month release-wise. In addition to the new Arcade Fire which comes out next week, we've also got new material from Ted Leo, LCD Soundsystem, and the long-awaited new disc from Modest Mouse featuring new member ex-Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr. Plus we've got the American releases of the debut albums from I'm From Barcelona and the Fratellis, which have been out in Europe for a while already.

I'm looking forward to almost all of these records more than I was any of the 2007 records I've bought so far (except maybe the new Shins album), especially given the drought of releases the last few weeks. Arcade Fire and Modest Mouse are the ones with the most obvious potential for mainstream success, but I think LCD Soundsystem is a good dark horse candidate, especially given their recent prominence in ad campaigns, which tend to be a better indicator of success than coverage in Rolling Stone or being added to radio playlists.

I still buy CDs, but I don't really listen to the music on them the way I would have before the iPod. Back then, I would have chosen 20 or so CDs for the week, usually at a ratio of about 2:1 new versus older music, and I would have drawn on those CDs one at a time for as my listening selctions in the car or while at work.

Now, of course, it just all goes into the iPod hopper, and though I tend to have a playlist with my recent purchases on it, I still listen to that playlist on shuffle, so I don't hear the songs from a single album back to back or in the order the artist intended. I tend to listen to music in album blocks when I'm working at home on a project, but that's pretty limited most of the time, and I usually get to know an album based on the strength of multiple individual tracks rather than as a coherent, distinct entity.

For records I really like, I will spend some time getting to know them in their intended form, but it sometimes takes a while for me to make that effort, and often I've already progressed to the point where I'm really listening to it as a collection of singles rather than a contiguous work. I'm not really sure this is a bad thing, but there is that little twinge of regret about the whole situation that I always get when I know something I once loved has changed forever. Still, what else is there to do but move forward?

Just like the lunar eclipse, I missed the limited release stream of Wilco's new album, Sky Blue Sky, this weekend. There will be repeat performances of each in a few months, but it still would have been cool to have experienced them.

Anyone who is even a semi-serious Velvet Underground fan is undoubtedly aware of the rare acetate of sessions from what would become The Velvet Underground & Nico with several alternate takes that was put up for auction earlier this year. WFMU have apparently managed to get their hands on MP3s of these tracks and have posted them to their music blog, so if you haven't already lost interest in this entry, then you're probably someone who's going to want to hop on over to their site post-haste and download these alternate takes. Enjoy.

Eff me. The Hold Steady was playing at the Ottobar last night and I had no clue until it was too late. How do I keep missing these things?

No Neon Bible yet. I was going to run down and get it during my lunch hour, but between all the mini-crises at work and my need to leave earlier to avoid the Baltimoron drivers who lose half their IQ points when it's snowing, I didn't have time. Tomorrow hopefully.

I stopped off at the record store today on the way to pick up lunch, and I got my hands on Arcade Fire's Neon Bible (the deluxe edition, which as far as I can tell means that it comes with a lenticular cover and two flip books), Peter Bjorn and John's Writer's Block (plus a bonus disc), Beirut's Lon Gisland EP, and Bright Eyes' Four Winds EP, which features the first single from their upcoming full length.

I haven't listened to Neon Bible yet——the first time I hear it, I want to be able to pay it proper attention, and I just haven't found the right time yet. However, I'm loving my first listens of Writer's Block (especially "Amsterdam") and Lon Gisland (especially "Scenic World"). The Bright Eyes disc is a little disappointing——too much of it sounds too much the same, and it recalls the more average moments on the country/folk twinged I'm Wide Awake It's Morning. I hope the real album has a little more variety and a little less earnestness, but I'm not going to put any money on it.

I listened to Neon Bible pretty heavily over the weekend, and I tell you, for a band whose career was launced with massive hype and for whom the expectations for their sophomore effort were so impossibly high, Arcade Fire really delivered a winner. The sound is cleaner than on Funeral, and even though the songs are dealing with a less personal subject matter, the record still feels very intimate——fans of Funeral will still feel as connected to the band by these songs as they did on the debut.

The only misstep is including a reworked and re-recorded version of a pre-Funeral song, "No Cars Go". I wasn't that big a fan of the first version of the song——I would hardly have guessed that the band that made it would have immediately thereafter produced something as sublime as Funeral——and while the new recording improves on the original immensely, it's still not up to the standard of the rest of the tracks on Neon Bible. "My Body Is a Cage" isn't the best song to end on either, being the weakest of the new compositions, so I'm guessing that "No Cars Go" was added to give a little kick to the end of the album before the droning oppressiveness of the closing track.

I get that they couldn't end the record with "Windowsill" and that they probably wanted at least ten songs, but honestly, it would have been smarter to wait and write a different album closer and leave those final two tracks out altogether. Interesting b-side material, but neither song is up to the task of putting a period on what is otherwise likely to be one of the best records released this year.

The mandolin and the ukelele are criminally underused in the world of pop music, but they're not nearly as underused as they used to be.

The banjo, on the other hand, could use a serious boost.

I can't figure out why Beck's The Information, released just last year, is now being re-released with an extra disc of remixes. But what I really can't figure out is why Pitchfork is reviewing it again, and especially why this exercise in milking your fan base has been bumped from a 6.9 to a 7.4 on their ratings scale. I'm pretty sure that's the first time I've ever seen a shameless and pointless repackaging of an album actually increase its quality in the eyes of the reviewers.

Ever since the death of Ice Magazine last year, which had the only regularly updated and easily readable list of new releases, I've just had to hope that any record I was interested in would generate enough interest from the Pitchfork folks to compel them write a review of it the week it came out, or at least to post a news item about it in the weeks preceding the release.

Sure, there's the Billboard new releases list, but that's almost TOO comprehensive, and the limited sorting options make looking for new releases that I'm interested in too much of a pain in the ass. I don't read any music magazines anymore, and I don't visit too many other web sites about music, so if I didn't see something about a new record on Pitchfork, it was likely that I wouldn't hear about it until weeks or months after it had come out.

But a couple of weeks ago, I stumbled on a couple of good places to keep up with new releases. First is Metacritic's Upcoming Releases page, which I'd never noticed before in my somewhat regular visits to the site, so either I've just been blind to it all this time or they just instituted it in the last couple of months. Either way, it tends to focus on the kinds of records that I'm interested in, and helpfully links to the Metacritic summary page. For those of you who haven't visited Metacritic before, they don't really review records themselves, they just compile links to reviews on other sites and come up with a composite score on a 100 point scale based on the critics' reviews to date. They also allow users to post their own reviews and have a user composite based on a 10 point scale.

The other site I found by chance during a Google search, and I'd never heard of it before. It's called New Music Tipsheet, and although it seems to be drawing from a similarly overstuffed database as Billboard's list, there are more filter options and I found it a little easier to sort and find what I was looking for. The site also has links off to articles on other music sites, and highlights recent releases on the front page.

Overall, I'll still probably reference the Metacritic page before the New Music Tipsheet, but if I'm looking for a comprehensive list, I'd prefer that one over the Billboard list. Neither of these options is perfect (I really wish there was a site that let you filter by genres you're interested in, rather than just being able to sort by genre and having to hunt for your favored genres from the whole gigantic list), but between those two and the news and reviews from Pitchfork, I'm a lot less likely to miss out on a new release than I was a few months ago.

Weird. First the Shins new record debuts at number 2, and now Arcade Fire follow suit with a number 2 bow for Neon Bible, narrowly missing number 1 by a few thousand copies. I don't take this as a sign that this country's taste in music is improving in a general way, but it's cool that bands like this are getting wide enough exposure that their fans can help them make a decent showing on the charts despite total lack of radio airplay.

Well, since we're now in March of 2007, I suppose it's time that I officially move past 2006 and give you my list of top 10 songs from last year. As usual, only one song per album is allowed. The list is in reverse order, so my favorite song will come last.

Arctic Monkeys——"A Certain Romance"
This is not your typical Arctic Monkeys track——it's fairly long at five and a half minutes; it starts with a half minute raucous guitar intro before settling into a midtempo, pensive groove; and there's no chorus to speak of. But it still wouldn't be a mistake to call this the definitive track from their debut album.

Cat Power——"Could We"
A jaunty little number from everyone's favorite indie head case. If there's a heaven, the lounge act at the airport motel has already added this one to their repertoire.

Voxtrot——"Soft & Warm"
There are so many things that could have gone wrong with this song: the lyrics mix personal issues and politics; the tone is both anthemic and confessional; and the standard rock instrumentation is buttressed by a pulsing electric piano, swelling orchestral strings, and a mournful trumpet. But Voxtrot takes it all in stride, and their mastery of such complex material shows their potential for greatness. Let's hope their debut full-length, due out this May, fulfills the expectations set by this track.

The Islands——"Jogging Gorgeous Summer"
This song probably captures the loose tropical vibe of the band's debut, Return to the Sea, better than anything else on the album. Steel drums and penny whistles flutter happily around the shuffling beat and sunny guitars, conjuring the kind of happiness only a perfect pop song is capable of. Lyrics like "Millions of sunsets/But the one I'll remember/Is the one where you told me/You'd love me forever" are usually a prelude to heartbreak, but the Islands give us a happy ending for once.

TV on the Radio——"Wolf Like Me"
Three releases into their career, and it's becoming cleaer that TV on the Radio's problem is that they have trouble sustaining their brilliance for an entire record——their debut EP is the only release so far that doesn't contain any obvious dross. But they have not yet failed to give us at least a few jaw-droppingly good tracks on each album, and "Wolf Like Me" is the most compelling of these on Return to Cookie Mountain.

The Thermals——"A Pillar Of Salt"
This album was so consistently good that it was hard to single out just one track for inclusion on this list. But "Pillar of Salt" is the one they made a video for, and the first thing that plays when you go to the band's MySpace page, so I'll rely on the band's preference for this one.

Tapes 'n Tapes——"Omaha"
Tapes 'n Tapes were the most intriguing new band to come out this year, the one whose album you loved as much for what it was as for what it promised for the future. I know Modest Mouse comparisons can cut both ways these days, but The Loon stands up as an Austin-influenced counterpart to the Seattle-born The Lonesome Crowded West. Not every great band is destined to produce a masterwork like The Moon and Antarctica, but Tapes 'n Tapes sure seem like they're walking down that road.

Arab Strap——"There Is No Ending"
An oddly uplifting song about love growing stronger while the body decays from the resident troublemakers of Glasgow's vibrant music scene. Replete with brutally honest language about growing old, with references to rotten teeth and reeking feet, it's nonetheless impossible not hear the sincere devotion that replaces the band's typical sarcastic disdain. It's an unlikely swan song from a duo that made a career of cynicism, and it just might be the best thing they ever wrote.

Lupe Fiasco——"Kick, Push"
Not really much need to explain this one. If you've heard the track, you know why it's on this list.

Art Brut——"Emily Kane"
There are more than a few tracks from this record that are deserving of being on this list, but this is the one that grabs everyone the first time through the record. If you don't like this track, you're probably not going to like anything on Bang Bang Rock and Roll no matter how many times you listen to it.

Honorable mention: "Eyes" by Rogue Wave. Ridiculously good song, but not included on this list because I'm not completely sure that it was released in 2006 (it might have been 2005) and also because I didn't first hear it until 2007. But it deserves to be mentioned somewhere.

I swear to god, if I have to read one more article about Arcade Fire that mentions both U2 and Bruce Springsteen MULTIPLE times, I'm going to lose it. Can't someone out there in the professional critical community come up with some other points of reference?

I picked up a few new discs yesterday: Ted Leo and the Pharmacists' Living with the Living, Modest Mouse's We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, LCD Soundsystem's Sound of Silver, and the Fratellis' Costello Music. I was also hoping to find I'm From Barcelona's Let Me Introduce You to My Friends, which finally got a domestic release, but for some reason the store I went to didn't receive any even though the chain is supposed to be stocking it, so hopefully that will show up by the next time I pay them a visit.

So far I've only been able to listen to the Modest Mouse, and less than half of that disc, and I'm not really sure what my initial thoughts are. In some ways it feels like they're trying to cram too many musical ideas and instruments into some of the songs——there are certain tracks that sound like they belong on an Isaac Brock solo project and not a Modest Mouse album——but the first single, "Dashboard", doesn't irritate me nearly as much as it did when I first heard it a couple of months ago. I've still got some hope that this record will impress me as much as anything they've done has, although I've given up on them ever producing another record as icily brilliant as The Moon and Antarctica.

I'm going to try to hold off on the LCD Soundsystem until I've got a firm grip on We Were Dead because I have a feeling once I start listening to that disc, it's going to grab me for a couple of weeks and I'm not really going to listen to much else. Ted Leo and the Fratellis can wait a bit——I'm expecting more out of Leo than I am the Fratellis, but I'm guessing they'll both be decent or better based on what I've heard so far.


Mixtape: 1988

Track 7
"Everyday Is Like Sunday"
Viva Hate

Like many Smiths fans after the band's unexpected breakup, I was tempted to think that I was really a Morrissey fan, and that Morrissey's solo records would elicit the same kind of response in me that the Smiths' records had. And Morrissey tried damn hard to ape the sound that Johnny Marr had created to envelop his words, hiring former Smiths producer Stehpen Street to write Marr-like tracks and writing lyrics that would have fit perfectly well on a Smiths record.

But as much as the faithful wanted to believe, Morrissey wasn't the only ingredient that made the Smiths so special; no one could match Marr's songwriting for the band, not even Marr himself——his post-Smiths work, whether solo or as part of a band, doesn't begin to come close to anything he did with the Smiths (although his recent allliance with Modest Mouse, the fruits of which were just released, holds some promise). There was just something about the music Morrissey and Marr made together that can't be recreated by either one of them alone.

You have to give Marr some credit for not attempting to recreate the Smiths——nothing he's done since the band's last album has sounded remotely like he's trying to write more songs for Morrissey's voice and melodies. Morrissey, being the frontman and the literal and figurative voice for the band, had a harder time avoiding Smiths comparisons, but he also didn't shy away from them, especially on his first two or three solo releases, and that's certainly the case on his first solo outing, Viva Hate.

"Suedehead", the first single from the album, was my original selection to represent Viva Hate on this list, but the more I re-listened to the record, the more it became clear that "Everyday Is Like Sunday" is more solidly constructed, more biting, more melodic——in short, I guess, more Smiths-like——than anything else on the album.

I don't think I've ever been totally in love with a solo album from a leading player in a band I'm already devoted to, whether that artist is trying to recreate the sound of their original band or striking off in a new direction——but I'd have to say that Morrissey's Viva Hate probably comes the closest of any other similar attempt in my CD collection. Many of the tracks wouldn't be out of place on a proper Smiths album, or at least on an odds and ends compilation like Louder Than Bombs, and nearly 20 years later (god that was a weird phrase to write), "Everyday Is Like Sunday" is the clear standout.

I'm not sure that I'd say that We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank is a bad album. It might even be a good album. I'm just not sure that it's a good Modest Mouse album.

I'm not overly impressed with Ted Leo's Living With the Living so far. "Bomb.Repeat.Bomb" is one of the worst things anyone has ever recorded——it's exactly the kind of song that people would justifiably single out for criticism when they're mocking politically-oriented songs. Its presence alone is enough to knock down the rating for the whole album, and it's not the only flaw ("The Unwanted Things", a weak and cliched stab at a reggae jam, lives down to its title). But "The Lost Brigade"——or at least the second half of it——has a line that really grabbed me: "Every little memory has a song."

I originally heard it as "Every little memory has a soul", which might actually be a better line, because the "song" part calls up unfortunate associations with the soundtracks they use to punctuate reality shows on MTV. Still, it's a good line, good enough to build a four minute trance around, which is exactly what Leo does with it.

I don't buy t-shirts and such at shows very often, but I spent $65 at the merch table at the Decemberists show in Bethesda last night. Add in the $80 for the tickets (face value, believe it or not), and I'd say the Decemberists have already taken their annual haul from me. But they're also coming back to play Merriweather-Post with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra this summer, so they'll still get a little bit more.

Review of the show to follow tomorrow.

The last time we saw the Decemberists, it wasn't a very good show——it was at a crappy club in downtown Baltimore called Sonar, and they were at the very end of a long and obviously exhausting tour in support of their first big release, Picaresque. We had already seen them early on the tour at the 9:30 Club, which remains the best of their shows that we've seen (it probably didn't hurt their energy that the show was being broadcast live on NPR), and the Baltimore show just didn't compare——poor lighting, short set, and just not a lot of passion.

Although they did an extensive tour for The Crane Wife last year, this is very early on the follow-up tour (only about a week in), and the venue, a proper symphony hall, was fantastic. Because I forgot to log on to buy tickets right when they went on sale, our tickets were on the uppermost tier, and we were literally three rows from being as far away from the stage as it was possible to get. Still, the sound was great, especially on the more acoustically-oriented material. The band was in a good mood, the audience had a good vibe, and it was a really solid show.

I was disappointed that they didn't play The Tain, which I've never seen them play live despite having four shows under my belt, or "The Bagman's Gambit", which I fell in love with after their performance at the 9:30 Club. But luckily, I'll have another chance this summer at the Merriweather Post show. Not sure how well the more rock-oriented The Tain would work in conjunction with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, but I'm hoping "The Bagman's Gambit" has a good chance to make it onto the set list.

Not a real surprise, but Modest Mouse follows number two chart debuts by the Shins and Arcade Fire with a solid number one bow for We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank. It's still hard for me to wrap my head around Modest Mouse being this popular, but these first week sales and the presence of at least three strong radio singles prove that Good News for People Who Love Bad News and its smash single "Float On" weren't just a fluke.

Still feeling very underwhelmed with the new Ted Leo, so underwhelmed that I have not yet been able to listen to it once all the way through to give it a proper evaluation. There are a few good songs on it, but even the first few songs, which is where Leo traditionally concentrates his killer songs, are mediocre compared to his earlier work. And there's a lot of stuff that should have been abandoned at the demo stage.

It's too bad, really. I had hoped his star would continue to rise, but this record isn't going to do anything to help it. Honestly, it sounds like he's been doing the non-stop touring-writing-recording thing for a little too long, and it would be a good idea for him to take some time off and let his creative well refill itself a bit.