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may 2007

5.1.07

Mixtape: 1988

Track 9
"Storms in Africa"
Watermark
Enya

Yeah, I know. It's Enya. Paul Simon's Graceland was the one CD that my father and I could agree on when we were in the car together; Enya's Watermark was the one the my stepmother and I saw eye to eye on. I loved this record at the time, and much of it holds up pretty well. But Enya has always been a very divisive artist: either you love her or you hate her with a passion. A subset of folks in the hate group are those who have never actually listened to her music, but just hate her on principle, a group that I probably would have been in myself had I not actually had an open mind about her music the first few times I listened to Watermark. If you've really given her an honest shot at least once and you just don't like her, I'm not going to try to convert you. Her work is definitely made for a specific mood, and some people are just never in that mood.

After hearing her second album, Shepherd Moons, via my stepmother, and finding it to be so similar to Watermark as to be indistinguishable, I realized that Enya was one of those artists I would never need to own more than one album's worth of songs for. So before I started writing this entry, I had no clue about her subsequent career: was she still recording, had she fallen into the cult category, etc. It turns out that she is still actively releasing music, and while her sound will always keep her in a certain niche, she's probably far too successful to be labeled a cult act. According to iTunes, she's the second most successful Irish artist of all time, behind only Bono and the rest of the U2 kids; she apparently had a fairly successful single in the wake of 9.11; and she appears to have contributed some songs to the Lord of the Rings movies (I recall thinking when I saw the films that certain soundtrack elements were ripping her off bigtime, but knowing now that she actually contributed music to the project, it makes a little more sense).

There are two versions of "Storms in Africa" on this record; the one I've chosen for this mix is the one that closes out the album, which uses syncopated African percussion much more prominently and which is a little less approaching storm-like than the version situated in the middle of the album. It's a mood piece that contrasts well with the Camper Van song before it and gives a nice lead-in to the Cowboy Junkies' haunted, understated sound.


5.2.07
Noted for the record: with my recent purchase of seven Bolshoi tracks meant to fill in the gaps from my CD collection, I have officiallly passed 200 purchases on iTunes. It took just over a year for the first 100, and then another two years for the second 100, but with 36 free tracks already credited to my account, I have a feeling that the third 100 won't take quite so long.


5.3.07
I was going to wait another week or two before I bought any more new CDs——the Arctic Monkeys' Favourite Worst Nightmare last week and Patrick Wolf's The Magic Position this week were the only things I wanted to pick up until Wilco's Sky Blue Sky on the 15th——but then I listened to some clips from Dinosaur Jr.'s reunion disc, Beyond, and it reminded me of everything I ever loved about the band, so much so that I didn't want to wait two more weeks before to get it. I haven't had a chance to listen any of the three yet, but I'm hoping to give them all a couple of full walkthroughs while working at home today.


5.4.07
Wow. Dinosaur Jr.'s just released Beyond is their first album in 10 years and their first truly kick ass album since 1991's Green Mind (yeah, I know that Lou Barlow was exiled and even Murph's presence was minmal, but it was still a Dinosaur Jr. record through and through). Who knew they still had it in them?


5.7.07

Mixtape: 1988

Track 10
"Misguided Angel"
The Trinity Session
Cowboy Junkies

The day I bought The Trinity Session, I was in a particularly ornery teen mood and I was looking for something loud, raucous, and angry. I didn't know anything about the band and hadn't heard a single song off of the album, but I remembered seeing it on the college music top 10 in the back of Rolling Stone, and I figured with a band name like the Cowboy Junkies, there was a good chance it was what I was looking for.

Those of you who have heard the record can imagine my deep disappointment when I heard the first track, which turned to even deeper disappointment with each successive track, until I finally gave up around five songs in. I didn't even pretend to give the record a chance that day; it just wasn't right for the mood I was in.

But eventually I came around and started to appreciate the uniqueness of this record, from the live single-microphone recording technique to the mixture of original material, covers, and traditional songs to the haunting beauty that underpins it all. The Trinity Session is so called because it was recorded in the Church of the Holy Trinity in Toronto in a single session (although not in one continuous take).

The Cowboy Junkies share some unusual affinities with the previous artist in this mix, Enya. Like the Irish vocalist, the Cowboy Junkies are still making music nearly 20 years after their best known work was released (in fact, they just released a new album last week), and, like Enya, you really don't need to own more than one of their records, since their style has been so consistent over the years. I don't, however, think that these Canucks are the second highest-grossing act of all time from their home country.

The album (and really the band) is probably best known for the cover of the Velvet Underground's "Sweet Jane", but for me, the standouts are the first two tracks: the traditional "Mining for Gold", sung a cappella by lead vocalist Margo Timmins, and the original piece "Misguided Angel", composed by her brother, lead songwriter and guitarist Michael Timmins. There aren't many bands that would mix in their own original material with covers of songs like "Blue Moon", "So Lonesome I Could Cry", "Walkin' After Midnight", and the previously mentioned "Sweet Jane", but "Misguided Angel" and "200 More Miles" more than hold their own.


5.8.07
I've written about the use of music on Friday Night Lights recently, but I've also got to give it up to the new MTV sketch show Human Giant——not only do they use a Death From Above 1979 song as their theme song ("Romantic Rights"), and not only do they use a lot of music I like as the soundtrack for their sketches, they actually had a bit this week that featured Tapes 'n Tapes and Ted Leo playing themselves. Extra bonus: the bit also featured a fictional Pitchfork editor who gets beat up by the henchman of an overzealous music promoter.

Any show that boosts the awareness of Tapes 'n Tapes in the popular consciousness and gives you the chance to see someone from Pitchfork (even if it is a fake someone) get the tar beat out of him is okay in my book. It doesn't hurt that it's pretty funny to boot.


5.9.07
I'm not in love with every song on the new Patrick Wolf, The Magic Position, but the ones I am in love with I'm sick in love with. It's hard to describe——the most straightforward description is baroque pop crossed with laptop chamber music, which isn't really straighforward at all. There's a lot of it that sounds vaguely familiar, but it always sounds remarkably fresh. This is for people who like both Rufus Wainwright and LCD Soundsystem and wouldn't mind seeing them cross paths in the studio. If that sounds at all appealing to you, make sure you give this a listen.


5.10.07
Hmmm...so Stephen King is comparing Ryan Adams to Neil Young. I'm actually willing to give the head Cardinal a lot more credit than most people seem to, but the Neil Young comparison seems like a real stretch to me (Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst might be a better candidate). Adams has some amazing songs in his catalog, but honestly, the consistent mediocrity of the majority of his work crossed with his overwhelming, constant release of new material is like some kind of mutant half-breed of Son Volt's Jay Farrar and Guided By Voices' Robert Pollard. But Neil Young? Yeah, I'm not buying it.


5.11.07
iTunes has this weird habit of not downloading artwork for some newer releases that I know it has the artwork for, because the albums are for sale on iTunes and the proper artwork displays there. The discs for 2007 with this problem include some pretty major releases, like Bright Eyes' Cassadaga, Nine Inch Nails' Year Zero, and Modest Mouse's We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank.

The only common thread I can find between these records is that they were all available as iTunes presales which included bonus tracks or videos. But it just doesn't make sense that it wouldn't recognize the album properly without that bonus material, unless it's some sort of punitive thing for not buying the CD on iTunes. Either way, it's pretty stupid.


5.14.07
I don't think I've ever been more dissatisfied with the bureaucracy of my employer. The payroll department missed my last paycheck for no apparent reason; over the last two weeks the HR department has demonstrated the short-sighted incompetency that I suspect is the defining characteristic of all HR departments; and my near-daily struggles with the larger IT division continue unabated, just as they have for most of the last five years. Normally when I'm working, the music I like to listen to is stuff that's a little milder so that I can fade it into the background when I need to concentrate, but man, for the last week or two, nothing but Year Zero will do.


5.15.07
I'm taking a course in 20th century American composers for the final class of my master's degree in the liberal arts. I'm not really that into classical music, but I figure this will be a good way for me to get exposed to more of it and to start to understand some of the formal structures at work in those compositions. Plus, any class where the only homework is listening to music seems like a pretty good deal to me, even if it's music that I wouldn't normally choose to listen to. I don't know if I'd be able to finish this program without a class like this; I'm just really not into the reading/essay writing thing at this point.


5.16.07
There were two albums that came out yesterday that I had plans to pick up sometime this weekend, but I had lunch with my brother at a place around the corner from the record store that's close to campus, so I swung by on the way back to the office to pick them up. The two new releases I was after were Wilco's Sky Blue Sky (I got talked into another deluxe version, probably the fifth one I've bought this year) and Rufus Wainwright's Release the Stars.

They also had Albert Hammond, Jr.'s (of the Strokes) debut disc displayed next to the counter, so I picked that up on a whim, and then the guy behind the counter talked me into Grinderman, Nick Cave's new project. I don't own any Nick Cave stuff, but I've heard his work in all its iterations over the years and I've always liked it, so yesterday seemed like as good a time as any to get a little more familiar with him.


5.21.07
I'm not usually a big fan of side projects, but Strokes' guitarist Albert Hammond, Jr.'s solo debut, Yours to Keep, is actually a pretty decent record. It's not as good as a proper Strokes album, and it also sounds less like a Strokes album than you would think. Whereas Thom Yorke's first solo outing, The Eraser, sounded pretty much like the more electronica-influenced songs from Radiohead, Hammond dabbles a bit more in sounds and textures that just wouldn't seem right on a Strokes release (although several tracks, such as "In Transit", "Everyone Gets a Star", and "Holiday", have a decidedly Strokes-like quality).

I don't get the impression that Hammond is about to quit his main gig——this record feels more like a diversion than a serious attempt to establish himself as an artist apart from the Strokes——but as a solo work/side project, it's more rewarding than most discs in this category.


5.22.07
Adult Swim continues to build their street cred with indie music fans with Warm & Scratchy, a compilation of new or rare tracks from artists like TV on the Radio, Liars, the Raveonettes, Les Savy Fav, and Broken Social Scene. It's available as a stream from their site, but you can also download the whole thing for free, artwork included. I'm not sure if it's a tie-in to a new show or something, but the TV on the Radio track alone ("Me-I") makes it worth the bandwidth/hard drive space.


5.23.07
Everytime I hear new material from Voxtrot, I always think it's weaker than the stuff they've done before, but within a few listens I come around and start to think it's on par with, if not better than, their earlier efforts. They released their debut full-length yesterday, and while I don't own it yet, I have been listening to the clips on iTunes.

And I gotta tell you, it doesn't sound as good as their EPs. So I'm really hoping that my past experience with their music will hold true and, once I've bought the full album and listened to it a few times, I'll think that this is a record worthy of the hype they've built over the last couple of years. I'm really rooting for these guys, and I'd hate to see them waste the goodwill and anticipation they've generated with their early EPs.


5.24.07
I think I might like the Arctic Monkeys' new record better if I didn't know how huge they are in England. Actually, I take that back——I think their new record would actually BE better if they weren't so huge in England.


5.25.07
From a purely intellectual perspective, I can appreciate Rufus Wainwright's attempts to elevate the mundane to high art——after all, some of the best pop songs in history take everyday occurences and enshrine them as key moments in a personal romantic mythology. But sometimes, as with "Slideshow", from his newly released "Release the Stars", it just feels like Rufus is trying a bit too hard (that's actually not a bad summation of the album in general, come to think of it).

I'm still a big fan, although I think this record is his weakest work to date, but the lack of direction, meaning, and drama in his personal life is bleeding over into his art in a major way. I hate to think that artists need to have drug addictions/alcohol problems/mental disorders in order to make great art, but this is the third album this year where we've seen an artist get clean, sober, and right in the head and then release the least consequential records of their careers (Modest Mouse's We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank and Wilco's Sky Blue Sky (about which I'll go into more detail soon) are the other two).


5.29.07
When I saw that Pitchfork had given Wilco's new album, Sky Blue Sky, a 5.2 out of 10, I figured it was just a backlash rating that was more for the commercial and critical success of their last two albums (Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born) than it was for the actual poor quality of this record, especially because most other reviewers continued to praise the band, making reference to a summery, dreamlike quality that, while different from the work on the last two records, was still in the same league as those efforts.

What made Pitchfork's rating even more of a shock, aside from its disparity from other reviewers, was that it came out of the blue——this 5.2 wasn't like the 0.0 they gave to Liz Phair a few years back. Everyone saw that rating coming; for years Phair had been seen as increasingly interested in music as a moneymaking career rather than a mode of expression, and when she released a self-titled record ten years into her career that was a shameless attempt to have a big radio hit, the harsh rating was entirely deserved. She had gone from an indie underdog with a unique point of view to a generic wannabe rock star who would do and say and write and sing anything that she thought might make her a little bit richer. All serious music fans have had to revise their definition of a sellout as indie groups increasingly have their music used in movies, television shows, and ad campaigns, or have their tours underwritten by questionable corporate sponsors, but there's almost no one who loved Liz Phair's early work that wouldn't label her as a sellout now.

But Phair's fall from grace came at the end of an obvious decline, whereas Wilco have gotten stronger with each release and have established themselves as the premiere American rock band of this decade. As recently as 2002 Pitchfork awarded them a very rare 10.0 for Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (an evaluation that was deserved at the time and which still seems appropriate today), and although the 6.6 given to the follow-up, A Ghost Is Born, seems to point to a decline, I think that most Wilco fans (and likely most Pitchfork staffers) came to believe that, even though Ghost was not as initially engaging as Yankee, it more than held it's own as a successor to that record over time, especially once you got to know the songs through a live performance (when Ghost was first released, I thought the 6.6 was a bit low, though not by much, but later, after seeing Wilco live twice and spending more time with the album, I thought it easily deserved an 8.5 or even higher).

So when I bought Sky Blue Sky a couple of weeks ago, I wasn't expecting to think that the Pitchfork 5.2 was anywhere close to accurate, especially since virtually every other major critic had given the album pretty solid, if not glowing, reviews (the Metacritic average for the album still stands at solid 77 out of 100, despite the 52 from Pitchfork and a 50 and a 40 from two other sources). But as much as I hate to admit it, I think Pitchfork might have nailed it, while the other reviewers are giving the band extra credit for their recent releases and evaluating this record as part of a larger catalog rather than on its own merits.

There are a few good songs on Sky Blue Sky——opener "Either Way", the title track, and the first single "What Light"——but the standouts on this album would barely rate inclusion on the band's past couple of releases. When "What Light" was released as an advance single, I didn't hate it, but I figured it had been selected by the record company's marketing team as the song most likely to end up on an adult contemporary playlist, not one of the stronger songs on the record in the eyes of longtime Wilco fans. But it is actually one of the stronger tracks,

I was also initially disappointed with A Ghost Is Born (although I was expecting some sort of letdown after the near-perfection of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot), so I suppose there's still a chance that this record could grow on me as well. But I really don't think it will. A turning point for my relationship with Ghost is when I saw the band perform many of the songs from the record live ("Spiders (Kidsmoke)", which I orginally saw as a repetitive 11 minute momentum killer, is now one my favorite songs after seing it brought to life during a performance), and there's also the possibility that hearing the band reshape some of Sky Blue Sky's tracks in a live setting will increase my affection for the album (we've got tickets to see them in late June).

But for right now, the album feels like a real misstep for a band that's been remarkably astute at growing their sonic palette and their audience without alienating the true believers. From the first listen, Yankee and Ghost felt like records that mattered; Sky feels like a diversion, an undefined expanse of airy blue that slowly bleeds off into the nothingness of space.


5.30.07
My favorite track from the free Warm & Scratchy compilation that Adult Swim is offering as a free download is still "Me-I" by TV on the Radio, but a close second is "Justine" by 120 Days. I hadn't heard of this band before, but thanks to this single I've spent some quality time on their MySpace page. and

"Justine" sounds quite a bit different than the songs they stream from their self-titled debut album and first EP——it's got more of a Les Savy Fav with a drum machine sound, whereas their other songs are mostly in the electronica vein (although there are also a lot of 80s goth rock/gloom synth references). I still haven't convinced myself to buy the full-length yet, because I have a complicated and unpredictable relationship with electronica, but getting a song like "Justine" for free almost makes it worth the cost even if I don't like much on the record.


5.31.07
I'm taking a class in music for my final class in my master's program. The class is on 20th century American composers, specifically Charles Ives, George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, and Leonard Bernstein, but we'll cover other, lesser composers along the way, as well as explore the larger cultural and historical contexts for their works.

During our first class, which covered important American composers until the beginning of the 20th century. There are only about six people in this category, and the only one who's really important is Stephen Foster, whose four bar phrase is the grandfather of contemporary pop music. I'm excited to learn more about the theoretical and formal elements of music, but I sure wish my brain didn't have to search for the four bar phrase in every song I listen to now (and for the record, yes, it's been in pretty much every song I've heard since having the concept explained to me in class).