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january 2008

I did end up picking up a few new things before the end of 2007 from Schoolkids Records when we were in Chapel Hill the day after Christmas. They have all the stuff in stock that I've been looking for for months from my local independent record store (which I just found out has been bought out by some sort of coporate chain, the effects of which transaction are unknown as of yet), and although I know I could just buy it off Amazon and have it in a week, I stubbornly insist on combing through the racks in an actual record store.

Anyway, I got the Papercuts' Can't Go Back, Okkervil River's Down the River of Golden Dreams, and Jens Lekman's When I Said I Wanted to Be Your Dog. I'm sure I could have remembered a few more if I'd had more time to browse, but the day was ending and we still needed to make our annual trip to the Old Well with my mom (Chapel Hill is her alma mater).

Radiohead on iTunes? That's unpossible!

I'm starting to get the feeling that all the Flaming Lips are interested in recording at this point are songs for movie soundtracks.

I was all set to by the Drive-By Truckers EP Brighter Than Creation's Dark when I figured out that it has the same name as their upcoming full-length and that all the tracks on the EP will also be on the album. I don't quite get the point of this release——I could understand if the opening track was their first single off the new album and this EP was meant to build a little buzz, but why on earth would I pay for this when I'm going to pay for these four songs all over again when I buy the album in a couple of weeks.

When I bought Jens Lekman's When I Said I Wanted to Be Your Dog from Schoolkids in Chapel Hill, the kid behind the counter told me he was also a fan, but that he hadn't been able to get into the latest album, Night Falls Over Kortedala, which uses a lot more in the way of extra instrumentation and which also draws from a much wider range of popular genres, including 50s doo wop and even a little bit of disco. After listening to Dog (Lekman's full-length debut) a few times, I can sort of see his point; if you fell in love with Jens through that record, you might have a hard time with his evolution, in which his heartfelt narratives become increasingly surrounded by lush orchestration and layers of ornamentation.

But even from his earliest EPs (most of which are collected on his 2005 release Oh You're So Silent Jens), he hasn't been shy about incorporating strings and horns into his arrangements; in fact, that album serves as a nice bridge between Dog and Kortedala, even though most of the material was actually recorded before Dog. Kortedala certainly uses far more supplemental sounds than his earlier works, and it has a much slicker feel in terms of the production values, but it's also clear that it's still the same Jens who gave us Dog and Silent; the artist hasn't changed, even if his palette is a little bolder than it used to be, and his works still hold that special charm that you fell in love with in the first place.

The guy at Schoolkids also told me that there were a bunch of clips on YouTube featuring Jens Lekman playing impromptu gigs without benefit of a band or even a microphone. I poked around the site for a while, and although I found tons of clips from official gigs, I only found a couple clips that were like what he was describing. The two below are Jens performing in what looks like an alley outside a club, and another of him performing in someone's apartment after a show in Chicago.

Even though these weren't recorded in ideal conditions and they obviously aren't his best performances (he even forgets the lyrics to his own song halfway through the first clip), you can't tell me that his brilliance still doesn't shine through. If you haven't completely fallen in love with him by now, then you either haven't heard him or you have no hope of ever loving anything that falls even remotely into the genre of pop music.

I resisted for a while, but I've gone ahead and done it: I bought the Flaming Lips track "Love the World You Find" off iTunes. And why was I resisting, you might ask? Because it came off the soundtrack album for Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium.

Whenever they eventually collect this track on a b-sides and rarities collection in the next few years, I won't be surprised if they try to severe the link between the song and the movie, just as R.E.M., in the liner notes to Dead Letter Office, described the original release of "Windout" as "From a soundtrack that shall remain nameless" (that soundtrack, for the record, was Bachelor Party, a Tom Hanks vehicle from the early comedic portion of his movie career).

I've seen Wilco play live a lot in the past few years, but it would have been amazingly great to see them play a small venue like the 9:30 Club. And although they're going to do that on two nights in February, I'm not going to be there, not because I couldn't get tickets, but because the days they're playing are the days we're going to be out of town on our annual ski trip, which was planned months before the Wilco shows were announced (I still probably should have tried to snag some tickets, though——I'm guessing it wouldn't have been hard to flip them and turn a profit).

But I am going to the Pogues show in March, nearly two years to the day after the last time I saw them there, which was also the first time I'd ever seen them live. It was such a perfect show that I guess there's some risk of spoiling the memory if the new show doesn't measure up, but if there's even a slight chance of them being as good as they were that night, it's a risk well worth taking.

New York, I love you, but you're bringing me down.

Actually, I don't love you all that much, but I have to take a train to visit you today, and I'm trying to use your native son James Murphy's words to create an emotional connection with you. But honestly you scare me a little bit, despite your Kidrobot store and your ridiculous quotient of creative people. I don't like being on an island that you have to pay to get off of.

I was about to complain about how the record companies have had plenty of time to completely digitize their back catalogs and make available for legal download anything released in the past forty years (at least), but that I still couldn't find bands like Cactus World News and Guadalcanal Diary on iTunes, groups that were reasonably popular in their day but whose CDs are long out of print. But then I found both of those artists in a search of the iTune database, and not only that, there was a whole album from Cactus World News that was never released in the US (although it doesn't sound all that good, so maybe that's why).

I'd still like to get the Screaming Blue Messiahs, though. Can the bastards at whatever remains of Elektra music get on that pronto? Their version of "You're Gonna Change" is still one of the best Hank Williams covers ever recorded.

My pal Sliced Tongue had an entry yesterday talking about how he never gets past the first three songs on Panda Bear's Person Pitch because they're so great and they're the exact length of his commute. I'm here to tell him that it's worth moving to the second half of the album, even though I think those three tracks ("Comfy in Nautica", "Take Pills", and "Bros") are absolutely amazing and probably as good as any three songs in sequence from a single album to obsess over.

"Good Girl/Carrots" is the standout of the second half of the record——it starts out a little slowly, with insistent drum and keyboard parts repeated endlessly, occasionally layered with backwards vocals and a tinny horn accent. But the track eventually veers charmingly off-course into two other terrific four minute segments (the song is 12+ minutes long, with three distinct movements taking up about a third of the length each). The final segment if probably my second favorite piece on the record, surpassed only by the last half of "Take Pills".

Even though this is a gorgeous mess of an album, the only part that is scattered and shapeless enough not to be much fun for me is "Search for Delicious". It's the only real wasted space on an otherwise brilliant record; Person Pitch is simultaneously so unstructured that it feels like it might fall apart at any second and so meticulously crafted that there's no doubt that every note was carefully considered by its creator. But Sliced Tongue has always had a lot more tolerance for tracks like "Search" than I have, so he might find it to be just as amazing as everything else on the album.

My heart still hasn't warmed to Wilco's Sky Blue Sky overall, but at least there a few tracks that I've developed real affection for. So it kinda sucks that the band decided to allow Volkswagen to use most of those songs as part of an ad campaign that kicked off around the same time as the album release.

I know that I'm just going to have to get used to the fact that it's no longer considered an artistic compromise to license your music to major coporations to help them hawk their products (I'm looking very pointedly in your direcion, Shins——McDonald's and Microsoft? Really?), but for some reason the extreme intertwining of product in the Wilco/Volkswagen campaign reminds me that, in some fundamental way, these songs are just that to the band: product.

Wilco's live performances are incredible, and its in these venues that the songs truly live and breathe——what's on the records are just artifacts, and listening to them is like looking at a picture of something amazing that you've experienced in real life. That is, after you've experienced it in person, the artifact merely becomes a trigger that reignites the feelings of wonder and awe that you felt when you were actually there. But there's something about these ads that diminish the spirit of these songs, making it that much harder for them to take flight in the context of a performance, and subsequently making it harder for them to stand out in the overall canon of Wilco's work. And that's a little bit sad.

There's been a lot of speculation about which member of the Decemberists is ill since they canceled an ambitious concept tour last fall, and many people concluded that it must be frontman Colin Meloy, because he's the only one that is absolutely vital for a tour (the others could have temporary fill-ins for touring purposes while still remaining full members of the band).

But Colin just recently announced that he's embarking on a solo acoustic tour, which he's done a few times in the past, without annoucing anything further about major tour dates for the Decemberists (they're playing a couple of shows around their hometown, but that's it), so you have to assume now that he's not the one who's sick. That's some nice solidarity among bandmates, really: they are all willing to take a financial hit (the band makes tons of money on tour, selling out every venue they play) instead of taking on a temporary player while one bandmate recuperates.

I'm not sure how smart it is, given that touring is not only their primary revenue stream but it's also what has allowed them to grow their fan base so dramatically over the past few years, but it's kinda cool to see that their friendship with and support of a band member during a time of need is more important than making money.

With new releases from Magnetic Fields, Cat Power, and Drive-By Truckers, it might finally be time to make my first trip to the record store since the calendar turned. But given that I'm still trying to parse last year's releases (I've spent shockingly little time with more than a couple of the records I bought last year), I should probably hold off for a few days, at least until I can get my 2007 best-of lists in order.

The Yeah Yeah Yeahs were the last really interesting set we saw at the Virgin Festival——I'd love to see them in a small club sometime, but despite the enormity of the stage, singer Karen O and her woodsprite charisma connected with the audience on a very intimate level. There were some failed theatrics with the costume, which involved some shoddy looking homemade masks and a TON of tinsel, but somehow that made her even more endearing.

Perhaps the coolest thing about them was that they didn't shy away from playing their biggest hit to date, the phenomenal "Maps". And not only did they not shy away from it, they played it twice in a row, once electric and once acoustic. I've always wondered if bands that write a song that just knocks me flat feel the same way about it I do after years of playing it live in hundreds of shows, or if it's just another entry on the setlist, and my psychic bond with the band got a lot stronger when they made it clear that that song means just as much to them now as it ever did——there was a real affection for it that was clear to anyone in the audience who was paying the slightest bit of attention.

Interpol played right after the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, which seemed kind of odd to me——in the circles I move in, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs would be the preferred ticket, but in the complicated calculus of deciding which bands will play on what stage on what day and in what order, I guess Interpol must have had some slight edge.

They put on a very tight show, although at times it was as emotionless as their recorded work tends to be on average. The one revelation was how much the bass plays into their live show compared to their recorded work, and it left me wondering if that had anything to do with the fact that the bassist has an outsized personality that tends to generate more press than the singer's. I'm not convinced there would be anything else to learn about this band from another show, even in a more intimate venue, but I guess I can at least check them off my list.

The final set of the Virgin Festival was the newly reformed (but not really) Smashing Pumpkins, and although I had it in my mind that we would stay for a decent portion of the set, I had just about had it by the time Billy Corgan went through his ten minute guitar noise windup to the first song. I stuck around for "Today", the second song on the setlist, but they mangled that pretty horribly, and I can't even remember what song they started to play as we headed for the exit, exhausted from a weekend spent in the hot sun.

I'm glad I went, but I don't think I'll be going again. The VIP ticket wasn't VIP enough for the price, but there were certain amenities that I don't think I'd want to do without for an entire weekend. I suppose there could be an absolutely killer lineup that would tempt me, but I'm guessing the overlapping sets on dual stages would force me to make the same kinds of Sophie's choices (like the Police versus Modest Mouse) that left me disappointed with this year's festival.


There's more to life than books, you know
But not much more

That line alone has earned for Morrissey from this and all future generations of readers the kind of obsessive devotion he had for his idol, Oscar Wilde. Someday some upstart indie bookstore is going to pick that up and start printing it on their bags, and they better have a full selection of Smiths CDs (or whatever the going media is for music) available once people start asking who the author is.

I'm praying that R.E.M.'s upcoming album Accelerate won't suck; their last release, Around the Sun, is the first R.E.M. album since Monster that I didn't buy right away, and the only one that I never, ever bought. Every time they release a mediocre to terrible album, I keep hoping the next one will be some sort of astounding comeback like Automatic for the People, the record that brought them back to me after Monster.

But it's probably going to suck, right?

I know Vampire Weekend is the new It Band, one that on paper I should fall in love with about 2 bars into the opening track on their debut album, but I've listened to clips from their stuff quite a bit, and I'm just not feeling it. The din of accolades from the press and the bloggers is so overwhelming that I'll probably end up purchasing their CD just to make sure I'm not missing something special, but I wish I was a little more excited about them already. Last year didn't have one of those kinds of bands for me, like the Thermals or the Hold Steady or Art Brut, bands that I got right away and just fell for harder the longer I listened, and it would be cool to have one hit early this year. But I just don't think it's going to be Vampire Weekend.

I've been listening to all the stuff I've marked as four or five stars from the years 1986-1988 over the past couple of days, and now it's making me doubt those rankings for some of the more recent stuff in my music collection, especially the four star stuff. Pretty much everything in the 1986-1988 period that has earned at least four stars from me is a song that I'm overjoyed to hear; not once when listening to this set of songs have I thought for a second about bumping a track down to three stars, although I've pushed a few up to five. For the more contemporary stuff, I think I'm being more generous than maybe I should, and at some point I'm likely going to go back and bump more than a few of the four star songs down to three.

Part of this could be that I know these older songs by heart, and I really haven't listened to them very much in the past year, and now I'm just thrilled to be surrounded by them again. But part of me wonders if I'm starting to enter a stage where newer music will hold my attention less and I'll start to listen to the stuff from earlier in my collection more frequently. There has to be a point where your music collection becomes so large that you really don't have time to listen to it all in-depth, and even the stuff you really like you're going to have to make an effort to listen to again. And for purely practical reasons, if the choice is between something you know you already love, something that still thrills you after twenty years, versus something that, even if you listen to it twenty times this month you might not ever have a desire to hear it again, then you're going to end up going with the sure bet.

It's not like I'm going to stop buying new music in the near future, or even lower my rate of consumption. But this is the first time I've seriously believed that this might be what lies ahead of me.