Tuesday, April 24, 2012

What's New?: 4.24.2012

Leo Kottke — 6 and 12 String Guitar (1970)
Cool budget priced, nice quality vinyl reissue of Leo's first album that really grabbed people's attention.  This one is entirely instrumental, so I course am into it completely.  The album opens with the sort of progressive bluegrass of 'The Driving of the Year Nail' but then goes straight off into left field immediately afterwords.  With a cursory listen, you'll not hear much outside of strummy pickins' and whathaveyou, but the melodies on this thing are just from another world completely.  Songs like 'Jack Fig' and 'The Fisherman' have a sort of playful introspective tone to them that just sounds like nothing else.  The liner notes are excellently absurdist, written by Leo himself, completely devoid of anything resembling sense (this is where he infamously describes his voice as sounding like "geese farts on a muggy day").  Hilarious with a heart.  Really can't lose with that approach, as far as I'm concerned.

Chris Kando Iijima, Joanne Nobuko Miyamoto, "Charlie" Chin — A Grain of Sand: Music for the Struggle by Asians in America (1973)
Complete blind purchase on this one, but also one of the best arguments I've come across in a long time in favor of the blind purchase.  Because this thing kicks butt.  Here is the official word.  It has that definite protest music vibe to it, but filtered through a stripped down early 70's folk pop approach.  Lightly strummed nylon strings and big, harmony-filled choruses.  The content is inherently political, but the tunes being top tier certainly doesn't hurt things.  There is a sort of dark introspective tone to the whole thing — and that fits because the crux of the album's subjects is being displaced.  Feeling like you don't belong, unintentionally unfamiliar with your past and unsureness about your future; it's all tackled here from a really unique point of view.  This is best exemplified on 'Something About Me Today' — arguably the album's defining song.  'We Are the Children' is a darn catchy little angry folk song, while 'Warriors of the Rainbow' approaches epic status within the first minute.  Overall, reading up on the group's creative center, Chris Iijima, I had no idea of just how juicy of a find this actually was until I truly sat with it for a day or two.  The reason I keep scouring vinyl bins.  As a fancy unintended bonus, the previous owner of this album bought a 7" 45 rpm single by this same group when they were calling themselves Yellow Pearl and funking it up a little more (complete with a full band backing them).  The 45 has a funkdafied re-recording of 'Yellow Pearl' and the otherwise unfamiliar song 'I'm Alright Jack.'  As if the package couldn't get any sweeter.

The Velvet Underground — Loaded deluxe edition (1970)
Totally cliched to say so, but as a proper anti-social music dork, I love the Velvet Underground.  It's too far into the debate, at this point, for anyone to objectively say whether or not they're overrated.  I just love the songs.  It's one case where I can honestly say that the date of when the material was released doesn't really matter to me.  I'd still like the songs, no matter when they were recorded.  Loaded has always been my favorite.  It's low-key, it's strummy, it's jangly.  How could I not love it?  I was fooled, for years, into thinking that the proper ten song initial version of this album was the only real version that should ever be acknowledged.  Wrong again, stupid me.  Of course, that initial ten song version of the album kicks off disc one, and it's just as excellent as ever.  Classics abound: 'Who Loves the Sun', 'Rock and Roll', 'Sweet Jane' and et cetera.  The bonus material is obviously the big reason for my enthusiasm for this particular version.  Loaded was famously VU's "mellow" album (perhaps explaining why I like it so much) and it does not disappoint in that respect, as the first two extras after the initial album are 'Ride into the Sun' and the far superior finished version of 'Ocean' (seems Slowdive digs the tune as well).  On disc two, you get an entire alternate version of the proper album, with some of the songs bettering their finished counterparts (especially on the Bob Dylan aping demo of 'I Found A Reason').  More outtakes and, when it's all said and done, you get as many songs that didn't make the album as ones that did — and they're all of equal quality.  It's given me a lot to reassess about one of those classic albums that I've known in one form for so long.  Not all the demos and alternate mixes are completely necessary, but it's not like I mind hearing that stuff either.  Totally worth it.

Simple Minds — x5 (late 70's/early 80's)
I've been waiting for this one since it was announced late last year.  I've always been a big fan of the early Simple Minds material.  They were such a prolific, unpredictable band in those years.  From the undeniable Roxy Music ripoff of their first album Life in a Day through the chilly synth-pop turnaround New Gold Dream and all the odd and artsy things in between, this box set chronicles the first four years of the band's recorded output across six discs of pure new wave pleasure.  The big draw here for me, having all these albums on vinyl previously, were the bonus tracks; most of which were previously vinyl-only things that were never released in America in the first place.  It's hard to sum up six albums in one short write-up like this, but I guess I should say this as the single most important thing: if all you know is 'Alive and Kicking' and 'Don't You Forget About Me', you have been grossly misinformed about this band.  The closest they come to that sort of big sound on this material is on the 1982 album New Gold Dream and, specifically, its leadoff single 'Someone Somewhere in Summertime' but one listen to that song and I don't think I need to detail just how different it is in just about every facet than their more well known material.  Previous to that, they were even more experimental and, sometimes, just plain old weird for weird's sake.  However, they were responsible for some totally undervalued new wave classics.  Have a listen: 'Changeling', 'Celebrate', 'Theme for Great Cities', 'The American', '70 Cities as Long Brings the Fall.'  Many more gems to be discovered within.  I've long thought they were one of the more neglected new wave bands because their later success eclipsed the quality of their initial output (especially here in America).  This set just confirms that in my mind.  Totally brilliant.  Totally essential.

Andrew Bird — Weather Systems (2003)
In which the template for the Andrew Bird, as he is now known, is created.  An idiosyncratic, violin playing alternative folky that likes to whistle.  As I've come to discover with him lately, he hones songs, sometimes for years, before actually finishing them.  This album contains the songs 'I' and 'Skin' — later to respectively be resurrected as 'Imitosis' (in 2007) and 'Skin is, My' (in 2005).  Of course, this sort of thing only gains extra clout in hindsight.  The title track, and its album closing reprise, strike me as one of his defining works right away.  Sure, it can be asserted as simply a stepping stone in his evolution in hindsight, but it has works and pieces to his puzzle that are entirely unique, even in that context.

Andrew Bird — Fingerlings 4 (2009)
Hard to see this spine in the above scan, but I scored it at the merch table at the show and it only came in a cardboard sleeve, so that's just the way it is.  This was a solo Andrew live performance from 2009 and he plays a lot of material from Useless Creatures (which, at that point, not a lot of people outside of hardcore fans knew).  I'm more of a fan than ever of his loop station violin noodlings, and this one has a lot of that, so I'm into it right away.  The big thing of note, especially after hearing this after familiarizing myself with Break it Yourself first, is that it contains no less than three early sketches of Break it Yourself tunes — those being 'Danse Caribe' (retitled 'Danse Carribe' and playing up the fiddle aspect of the tune), 'Sifters' (retitled here 'The Sifters' and playing up the intimacy of the tune) and 'Eyeoneye' (retitled here 'Oh Baltimore' and just appearing in the most polite rendition of the tune you could possibly imagine).  He's just so insanely good at what he does.  I can't even think about it on anything except fanboy terms right now.  Most unique and self-sustaining talent in music since Vini Reilly.  This is just proof.  And it's excellent music, too.

Andrew Bird — Norman OST (2011)
Late on this one, but oh well.  It should just be subtitled "Sketches for Break it Yourself."  Outside of solo Andrew instrumentals that meander around now familiar themes from his latest album, you get blatant demo versions of 'Lusitania' (retitled here 'Arcs and Coulumbs'), 'Sifters' (retitled here 'Night Sky') and three incredibly intimate variations of  'Desperation Breeds' ('The Kiss/Time and Space/Waterfall', 'Epic Sigh/The Python Connection' and 'The Bridge').  'Desperation' was already my favorite song from the new album, but sheesh, he was toiling over that thing.  His work paid off.  I have no interest whatsoever in the film.  There's no way it can be as good as the soundtrack.


Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Show Review: Andrew Bird 13 April 2012

I saw Andrew Bird open for Kristin Hersh, years ago, on the Grotto tour and he was just this one man band, near freakshow, of flailing and wailing brilliance.  I had never heard of him.  To say he left a permanent mark in my memory with his whistling, violin playing and loop station mastery that night is an understatement.  He's always been on my radar so, when he announced a tour late last year, I bought tickets without a second thought for his show at the Fox Theater in downtown Oakland.  Fast forward a few months to when his latest album was released and my anticipation for the show went through the stratosphere, as it's arguably his best album yet.

Fucking weather.  Snow in April.  Chains required to get over I-80 to the Bay Area.
Long drive.  Need to refuel.
Anytime I get near Telegraph Avenue, there's a good chance I'll be eating Ethiopian food.  (yes, it was delicious)
Stand in line.
Wriggle our way up front.

When he took the stage around 9pm, I honestly didn't know what to expect.  When he just started looping pizzicati, whistles and bowed violin lines, I can't even convey how surreal it was.  2,500 people watching this skinny man create his pocket symphonies in real time.  Just unreal the things he was able to do his violin and his mouth.  When the band joined him onstage after a few songs, it was a no-brainer that this was going to be good, while in a between song moment, Andrew declared, "I've been looking forward to this show, though I don't know why."  

Although there's only four people on stage, it took a real step back and a realization of what he was actually doing up there all by himself to understand just how incredible a live performer he is.  The way he directs the band in subtle nods and finger points, his incredible pitch-perfect whistle/xylophone harmonies and the way he brandishes his violin as a guitar are all the marks of a musician at the very top of his game.  Indeed, in a between song banter moment, Andrew announced that the band would mostly be playing songs from the new album because they were "a whole lot of fun to play."

And I guess that's what struck me about the whole performance: through all the perfect musicianship and utterly professional approach to the whole thing, there was no lack of grins being exchanged between band members and when they all took a final bow and said their thank yous at the end of the night, it felt like they really wanted to personally approach every person in the the place thank them face to face.  

Elsewhere, the quirks of the performance were all over the place.  Somebody constructed this odd spinning gramophone thing that shot all kinds of super echoey racket when it was used and I have to admit that, besides being a great stage prop, it served a purpose that I was completely confounded by.  He played his now infamous rendition of 'It's Not Easy Being Green' which was nothing if not worthy of a good chuckle.  And, you know, a bit of the good ol' rockin' out.  A three song, entirely acoustic encore of all country and traditional folk songs pretty much tore the house down from where I was standing.  And that was that.


His band was excellent and I really have to take a step back and realize just how far he's come in the last decade since I first saw him.  To say that his approach to making music is essentially unchanged, but only refined, really illustrates just how good he is.