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february 2008

I picked up a few new things yesterday: Cat Power's Jukebox (with a bonus CD), Magnetic Fields' Distortion (with a bonus single), and the Drive-By Truckers' Brighter Than Creation's Dark (with an insert telling me how I could use my mobile phone to order ringtones from the album for a price).

I was also looking for Vampire Weekend's eponymous debut and Times New Viking's Rip It Off, but they didn't have any in the racks, and when I went to ask at the counter to see if they might be elsewhere (sometimes this store is not so good about keeping new, lesser known stuff on the shelves, but they'll have several copies behind the counter on the shelves that hold recent releases), they told me that not only did they not have any of either record, the chain wasn't planning to stock it and I'd have to special order it. Also, the racks behind the counter which hold the newest releases and which normally stretch across that entire wall had been reduced to a single rack of CDs, with all the others now being stocked with Zunes, copies of Guitar Hero III, and other music items (I know, I know, those things are peripherally related to music, but you know what I mean).

This was a bit disturbing, because this locally owned independent chain of stores was recently purchased by a national coporate chain, and I've been dreading how this will change them. This store in particular has been pretty good about having new releases in stock the first week they come out, and for them not only to not have any but not even planning to get any is not what I've come to expect. Another omnious sign: they were in the process of moving all the music around on the floor, presumably to make room for more non-music items, and their stock in general seemed a lot lower than usual.

Their prices were also higher, with the normal price being $15.99, whereas the normal price at this chain has traditionally been $12.99 or lower. $12.99 was the sale price on all the items I bought because they were new releases (one of the hallmarks of this chain that so far seems to be intact), and there's no way I'm going to go back to paying $15.99 for a CD. Between these new significantly higher prices and the lack of selection, the corporate buyout of this chain might be what finally pushes me to iTunes for all my music purchases, which is something I'm reluctant to consider for a variet of rational and irrational reasons. But if I can't find the things I'm looking for locally, and if they're going to make me pay a much higher price than I'm used to for the few things I can find, I'm not sure I'll have much choice.

During Tom Petty's Super Bowl performance, there was one member of his band who got almost equal camera time with him, and who was also afforded a prominent place at the front of the stage, etc. I was trying to figure out why this might be, and the only thing I could come up with was that it was some sort of celebrity guest, and looking at him on the closeups, it kinda sorta looked like Peter Buck with a beard, which would make a little bit of sense because they are at least acquainted and R.E.M. has a new record coming out in a couple of months.

But after checking the internet, it turns out it was just Mike Campbell, a longtime member of the Heartbreakers, and not Peter Buck or any other famous guest guitarist. Kinda weird that he got to strut around at the front of the stage while the rest of the band was tucked away in the back, unless Cambell is Petty's equivalent to Jimmy Chamberlin in Billy Corgan's bands——the only other stable member, and one who therefore gets a more visible position.

The Drive-By Truckers have always been the kind of band that could easily afford to trim a few extraneous (weak) songs from their albums, and that's more true of certain albums (The Dirty South, overall their weakest record with 14 tracks, only about half of them decent) than others (Southern Rock Opera, their masterwork with 20 tracks, very few of them undeserving of a place on this concept record).

But it's really true of their latest, Brigther Than Creation's Dark. At 19 tracks, in clocks in only one track short of the double CD Southern Rock Opera (granted, the tracklisting for Brighter breaks it up into four sides, but it was released on a single CD), and while overall it's a pretty good album (probably their strongest since Decoration Day), it would be even stronger if they had limited it to 12-14 tracks.

The band underwent some serious changes since their last record——one of the three songwriter/guitarists, Jason Isbell, had a major falling out with the band and left to forge a solo career for himself, leaving behind his ex-wife/bassist Shonna Tucker to step into his shoes as a songwriter/vocalist for the band. Her real contribution at this point isn't her songs——her tracks are among the weakest, and there's not really a single one that stands out as mixtape-worthy (although the delicate "The Purgatory Line" comes close)——but the new textures she brings to her more prominent backing vocals for the songs from Mike Cooley and Patterson Hood.

This is the work of a group in transition, and as such it would have been a better creative decision to edit themselves a little more strictly while they figure out just who they're going to be. Sure, they should have recorded all these songs——that's part of the process of finding out which parts need to stay and which parts need to go——but it was a mistake to put all 19 of them on the official release (and given that almost every band leaves material on the cutting room floor during the recording process, I shudder to thinnk of the tracks that were rejected for inclusion based on the poor quality of some of the ones that made it).

For longtime fans, Brighter is a journey worth taking, although you'll likely end up leaving at least five songs off your iPod as you do the editing they should have done. For curious newcomers, my recommendation, as always, is to go pick up Southern Rock Opera.

Stephen Merritt's last two concept albums under the moniker the Magnetic Fields——69 Love Songs and i——handle the weight of their artificial frameworks much better than his latest, Distortion, on which every track is produced with an echoey, feedback-laden sound meant as a tribute to the Jesus and Mary Chain's classic Psychocandy. And the negatives of this approach cut both ways on this record: sometimes the production distorts the beauty of a truly great track, and sometimes the production seems to be trying to cloud the fact that what you're hearing is a pretty mediocre song.

Worth owning, for a fan? Sure. Would it have been better if Merritt had taken the best songs from this effort and released them as an EP? I think probably so.

I've really been slacking on my best-of lists from 2007, probably because 2008 has been so light on quality releases that it doesn't really feel like 2007 has been over for that long. But I'll try to get around to it this week. Or next. Whatever.

Cat Power's latest record, a set of covers called Jukebox, employs the same sultry, smoky soul sound that made her last album, the excellent The Greatest, an unexpected but brilliant sharp turn from her normal sonic palette. But this time, it just doesn't work. For a few seconds, I thought it might: the opening cover of Sinatra's "New York" sounds like it was made to be played over the closing credits of a Sopranos episode, but even after a relatively short 2 minutes, it loses its charm.

And the rest of the album is so undifferentiated that there could well be a couple of great tracks lurking somewhere in there, but I don't know if I'll be able to keep my head off the desk long enough to hear them (although if pushed, I'd say that "Aretha, Sing One for Me" and "I Believe in You" are the most likely candidates; they at least have a heartbeat of some sort). "She's Got You", the final song on the bonus disc, would be an inspired choice to close out a pre-Greatest Cat Power album, but coming at the end of 17 long tracks on Jukebox (12 on the album proper and 5 on the bonus disc), it loses all it's power to surprise.

This album is the Mermaid Avenue Volume 2 to the Greatest's Mermaid Avenue (these two records were the result of recording sessions where Wilco and Billy Bragg put music to unpublished Woodie Guthrie lyrics provided by Guthrie's daughter Nora): proof that a great idea doesn't necessarily bear fruit the second time around.

I'll admit it, Apple is great at picking relatively unknown songs to prop up its ad campaigns for new products. Their most recently discovered gem is "New Soul", by French/Israeli singer Yael Naïm, which most people in the US first heard on an Apple ad for the MacBook Air. After a week or so of pretending that I wasn't going to succumb and buy this song, I made the inevitable trip to the iTunes store to download a copy.

But I learned from my last experience with the Fratellis, whose song "Flathead" was the signature toon for an iPod ad. Instead of just purchasing the single from the commercial, I ended up taking a chance and buying a whole EP, and while I wouldn't say that was a mistake, purchasing their debut album a few months later definitely was.

So this time I listened to every clip from the album containing "New Soul" before making the decision to buy anything besides that one track, and I'm glad I did: there wasn't a single other song that appealed to me even remotely. I still pulled the trigger on "New Soul", and I've had it on repeat for significant portions of the past couple of days. In the world where I find my music, a great track is typically a harbinger of further greatness to be found on the album from which it comes, but in Apple's world, you can't infer anything about the quality of the surrounding material from the genius of just one song.

There's no doubt that the best love song of the past year was going to come from Jens Lekman's Night Falls Over Kortedala, the question was, which one would it be? After careful consideration, I've chosen "Your Arms Around Me". But honestly, you should just buy the whole album for your sweetie. She'll fall in love with Jens, but since he won't be around to make good on the deal, there's a good chance you'll get the overflow of her affection.

Last time the Pogues came to play the 9:30 Club, their first trip to American soil in 15 or so years, I picked up a couple of extra tickets and ended up selling the pair for enough to cover the cost of all five tickets plus a little extra.

They're making a return engagement next month, and their first show is two years to the day after the first show on their last tour. I again purchased an extra pair, which I sold yesterday for about twice their face value, and the profit will go immediately into the toy budget. I have two left, and I might sell another one of those as well, because my friend Sliced Tongue got his own ticket and my wife just had to back out on the concert because she's going to be home tending to her mother after surgery.

The show was fucking amazing last time——it was everything that I could have hoped for. My expectations won't be quite so high this time, because I feel like I've already gotten my concert-of-a-lifetime out of this band, but I'm not going to be surprised if they find a way to equal the performance they gave us two years ago.

I missed out on the Radiohead presale for the venue closest to me on their upcoming American tour. And even though I ordered my tickets the second that the public sale was available, and even though my order was processed in the first 60 seconds of the sale, I still only ended up with general admission lawn seats.

But through careful watching of the dozens of eBay auctions (did any of the reserved seats make it to anyone besides the ticket brokers?), I was able to get section 101 seats for only $10 per ticket more than I would have paid if I had gotten the tickets directly from Ticketmaster.

So I'm finally going to get to see Radiohead live, something I've been wanting for over a decade. I'm pretty psyched.

Sufjan Stevens better get cracking if he's going to finish his 50 states project. Unless Jeebus is going to grant him a Methuselahian lifespan, one record every three or so years just isn't going to cut it.

I can't tell if I haven't been listening to music very much recently because I'm bored with all the stuff that I've got in iTunes (which is just a fraction of my CD collection) and there hasn't really been much in the way of new releases that I've been able to get my hands on, or if music is just getting boring in general.

For years I kept a daily photo on my main blog, and sometime right before Christmas, I just gave up, and I haven't posted anything (or really taken many pictures) since then. I just kind of got burned out. Music should be different, because I'm a consumer, not a creator, but right now the feeling I get when I scroll through my music library is the same one I would get when I'd take my camera out with me and end up not taking any shots but thinking about the fact that I wasn't taking any shots the whole time I was out and just being completely miserable.

I wonder, if Oasis had flamed out after two or three records and Nirvana had gone on for another 15 years, would their two current positions in the rock pantheon would be reversed?

I'm coming dangerously close to buying an album from iTunes that I could get on CD, just because I don't think the local indie store will ever have it (they are rapidly ceasing to deserve the independent label since their recent acquisition by a midwest mainstream chain), I don't want to go hunting for it in the city at a real independent record store, and I don't feel like ordering it for Amazon. The record is Thao's We Brave Bee Stings and All, which I might be willing to pay $10 for just based on the title. But the clips sound pretty good too. Also: it's got a song called "Bag of Hammers".

I'm still undecided about the Magnetic Fields' Distortion as a whole, but I am totally in love with "California Girls". Mostly because of the only intellible lyrics in the whole song: "I hate California girls."