February 1, 2008

So we started a group and here we are, kickin it just for you

Please click over to Weiss‘s always bitingly-entertaining blog this morning to read his bit on Boyz II Men, watch a little bit of referee-sweaters+shorts unison choreographed dance moves, and agree or disagree with his conjecture that “no group got more Junior High kids tongue during the years 1991-1994 than the Illadelphian vocal quartet.”

I mean seriously. How could I not adore someone who starts a post with the sentence, “Needless to say, if you don’t like ‘Motownphilly,’ we probably can’t be friends“?!

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March 28, 2007

Sometime I wanna get you low: Cracker in Colorado Springs

Cracker don’t get no respect.

These guys are legend in my book, true godfathers of the alternative rock scene, and the show last night was only half-full at best. Given it was a Tuesday night, and given that this is Colorado Springs which is not exactly known for its swingin nightlife (that’s why we have Denver, and Boulder) — but they sounded fantastic, and gave it their all.

Criminally underappreciated, they easily were better than over half the bands I’ve seen at the Black Sheep, still sounding tight and unabashedly rocking, and the venue should have been full (if the kids knew what was good for them). Cracker is and always has been unique in the pantheon of alt-rock bands from the ’90s. They combine absolutely solid rock (as Lowery said between songs, “Hello. We’re Cracker. We make rock music.”) with an attitude of punk, and tones of country, Americana, and even folk. Plus they’ve definitely got some of the most delightfully tongue-in-cheek, intelligent lyrics of many of their contemporaries.

I walked up (late) to the club to hear the bitingly sarcastic lyrics of “Teen Angst (What The World Needs Now)” pounding through the glass-block windows (we are classssssy here) and that kicked the set off in fine style. Highlights of the show included the Camper Van Beethoven polka-punk classic “Take The Skinheads Bowling,” which is so much fun to sing along to. Camper Van Beethoven were a sort of legend in the area I grew up in (they are from Santa Cruz), and trivia fact: I just found out that David Immergluck from Counting Crows was a founding member.

VIDEO: Take The Skinheads Bowling

Bonus Camper Van Beethoven cover:
Take The Skinheads Bowling – Teenage Fanclub (re-upped)

As drummer Frank Funaro started cracking his sticks together in a slower, deliberate rhythm, within two beats I recognized “Low” – a truly fantastic song from the ’90s. Maybe because I am older and jaded now, but I never realized how suggestively nuanced some of the lyrics are:

Sometimes I wanna take you down
Sometime I wanna get you low
Brush the hair back from your eyes
Take you down
let the river flow
. . .
A million poppies gonna make me sleep
But just one rosie knows your name
The fruit is rusting on the vine
The fruit is calling from the trees

I particularly love those last two lines. The imagery is so vivid (fruit rusting? genius), and in my mind it reminds me of another video from the ’90s with fruit withering in fast-motion or falling off trees – was it a Nirvana video? Does anyone else know what I am thinking of? Maybe…NIN? Too many agricultural themes for me to keep straight (which really aren’t about agriculture at all).

Low – Cracker

Even though Lowery’s been singin that tune for the better part of 15 years, he puts his heart and soul into it, even though his eyes stay closed for most of the set. He occasionally would take a glance down at the crowd, coolly, inquisitively. He still looks the rocker part, with his skinny jeans (before they were cool again), his Sauconys, and his three-day bronze stubble — as he goes to town on the guitar with all he’s got. Still the same wonderfully gravelly voice, a distinct great in rock music.

Cracker co-founder/guitarist Johnny Hickman has recently relocated to Colorado, so I saw him in August 2005 with Roger Clyne & The Peacemakers up at the Gothic. He still reminds me of a Mellencamp/Springsteen hybrid, and still shreds the guitar with finesse and joy.

I stood there feeling remarkably and deeply happy during the whole set, dancing to the relentless rhythms (drummer is great, even though he looks like he just escaped San Quentin) and singing along where I could.

I couldn’t resist dashing off a text message during “Euro-Trash Girl” to my friend Shannon in California, who attended that first show ever with me 13 years ago next month at the San Jose State Event Center (Cracker & Counting Crows) asking “wanna crowd-surf?” All 8 minutes of that hidden track, going from folksy travelogue to downright rocker, still make for a great anthem for living the wild life in Europe. Maybe I should have used that in promotional efforts for study abroad back when I was working at Santa Clara U. Selling plasma in Amsterdam, sleeping in fountains in Athens, getting tattoos in Berlin on the palm of your hand. Right on.

Euro-Trash Girl – Cracker (fixed)
(My video here. Worth watching just for the drunk mime emoting of the lady on screen-right every time the lyric, “Yeah, I’ll search the world over” came up)

Teen Angst (What The World Needs Now) – Cracker

Mr. Wrong (live) – Cracker
(just listen to these lyrics, brash and wonderful)

The materials from their new album Greenland (2006, Cooking Vinyl) seamlessly melded alongside the old, sounding great. Some of it is a bit more wistful than previous tunes (although they did play “Take Me Down To The Infirmary” from Kerosene Hat and I forgot about the slow goodness in that).

They didn’t do this one last night, but it’s the leadoff track from the new album and I heartily enjoy it:

Where Have Those Days Gone (new) – Cracker
(wonderful California place references, clearly a native)

3/28 – Vail, CO – 8150
3/29 – Denver, CO – Twist & Shout in-store
3/29 – Denver, CO – Soiled Dove
3/30 – Denver, CO – Soiled Dove
3/31 – Ft. Collin’s – Hodi’s Half Note
4/25 – Hoboken, NJ – Maxwell’s (acoustic)
4/26 – Fall River, MA – Narrows PAC (acoustic)
4/27 – Hartford, CT – Webster Underground (acoustic)
4/28 – Allston, MA – Harper’s Ferry (acoustic)
5/4 – Birmingham, AL – Crawfish Boil
5/5 – Pensacola, FL – Flounder’s
5/17 – Robinsville, MS – Horseshoe Tunica Casino
5/20 – San Francisco, CA – Golden Gate Park (!!)
5/27 – Beverungen, Germany – OBS Festival
5/29 – Zurich, Switzerland – El Lokal
5/30 – Karlsruhe, Germany – Tollhause
5/31 – Vienna, Austria – Chelsea
6/8 – Chattanooga, TN – Riverbend Festival
6/21 – Albany, NY – Empire State Building
9/6 – Pioneertown, CA – Pappy & Harriet’s
9/7 – Pioneertown, CA – Pappy & Harriet’s
9/8 – Pioneertown, CA – Pappy & Harriet’s
9/15 – Deadwood, SD – Deadwood Jam

BONUS: Check a good live show from last summer in Madison, with some more tunes from their new album.

February 20, 2007

Hype! (“Everybody loves us, everybody loves our town”)

Somehow, someway, I made it all the way to my 27th year of life without ever seeing the fantastic documentary of the meteoric rise of all things Seattle, Hype! — and this from an admittedly huge fan of what was called “the Seattle sound.” I remember wanting to attend a screening when Hype! first came out in 1996, but the club must have been 18+ or something, because I ended up not going — and in the days before Netflix, never noticed it at a local video store. I finally watched it recently and very heartily enjoyed the experience.

Hype! is a wonderful music documentary by Doug Pray (Scratch), and highly recommended for anyone of my variety of musical come-uppance. I started high school in the fall of 1993, so I guess I missed the very beginnings of the explosion of bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden, but I caught up just as fast as I could (I had to go through my junior high Bel Biv Devoe phase, unfortunately).

Since I was young and somewhat naive, I never realized a lot of the background of music in the ’80s in Seattle. A point is made to lay the foundation for the film that Seattle was definitively not a cultural hotspot in the early 1980s:

Bands never used to come here . . . they’d go as far as San Francisco and then not come all the way up to Seattle ‘cuz it wasn’t worth it to play just one show.” — Nils Bernstein, Sub Pop

Well, Seattle was really lame, specifically in the early ’80s; it was like a million second cities. It had a fake Talking Heads, Pere Ubu, Killing Joke, all the fake Ramones you could shake a stick at, and, you know, people from Bellevue singing with English accents.” — Steve Fisk, record producer

That’s what made the explosion in the early ’90s all the more surprising to Seattleites, fueled largely by the Sub Pop record label. Bruce Pavitt started Sub Pop in 1979 as a cassette fanzine network where he’d make and distribute a zine along with compilation tapes of local bands. Pavitt teamed with Jonathan Poneman in 1986 to co-found the Sub Pop label with the goal of taking the sounds of their city beyond the confines of the region, with the hopes of allowing their musicians the freedom to quit their day jobs and take to the road, making it viable for them to get their music out there.

I loved a quote in the film from British record producer Martin Rushent, which captures the essence of the music scene at the time that Seattle started letting the raw rock fly: “When you’ve been through periods where you’ve had keyboard players with 50,000 lbs of kit on stage and 82 keyboards and 95 samplers, you know, after a while you just go, ‘Hang on. This is like eating too much food at one sitting; there’s too much sound, there’s too many colors, it’s all got poncey and posey. Let’s go see some bands where they just bash it out.” That ‘bashing it out’ is precisely what started to emerge from Sub Pop and other independent releases from Seattle.

In 1988, an article in the UK publication Melody Maker focused on the new sounds coming out of Seattle, and essentially wove together a story that created the myth of the city as an “explosion of subculture.” Journalists everywhere began writing about “the new Liverpool,” and what was happening in the Pacific Northwest. The NY Times article Seattle Rock: Out Of The Woods and Into The Wild (by David Browne) posited, “This fall, the record industry went in search of the Seattle sound and returned with four rock bands whose only common trait seems to be inordinately long hair.”

And so began the fever for all things Seattle. The town became a mecca for bands looking to get heard and signed. Newly-formed bands were getting record contracts with only a week of live shows under their belt, just by virtue of being there.

One of the best cultural snapshots in the entire film is a shot of a sedate ride down an escalator in a department store. Piped in over the speakers is a tinny Muzak-synth version of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit,’ and the mannequins are all shown in their $180 “grunge wear.” It made me remember just how stupid and out-of-hand it all got once it was leeched onto by the fashionistas. Jeff Ament is quoted as saying, “More than anything else, I just think it’s funny. We wear long johns cuz it’s f*ckin’ cold!” (I’ll cop to wearing flannels pretty much my entire freshman year of high school. And Docs. And thermal shirts . . . okay, okay!)

The Supersuckers talk a bit about the excitement of the do-it yourself ethic in Seattle at the time, which I found inspiring: “That was the whole lesson we learned when we moved up here – just do it. We saw other bands no different than us just putting out records, zines –you know– a radio show, their own label, plus live shows.” That sounds to me a bit like the music scene at this very moment, with music blogs replacing the word-of-mouth of zines, MySpace streaming everyone and their gramma’s band on-demand, eMusic sales skyrocketing, and live shows like Daytrotter disseminating independent music faster than ever before.

The film’s got a very interesting (and humorously lo-tech) segment with Seattle musician Leighton Beezer, who constructed a computer program charting the inbred Seattle “family tree” for bands – linking musicians throughout a spiderweb network. It’s almost like ‘Seven Degrees of Kevin Bacon’ through shared band members: Screaming Trees –> Nirvana –> The Melvins –> Mudhoney –> Green River –> Mother Love Bone –> Pearl Jam. Hours of endless entertainment in exploring those connections.

In addition to roiling, raw, cathartic live performances by everyone from Pearl Jam and Soundgarden to The Gits and The Posies, the film also includes the first ever live performance of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ with Nirvana in a tiny club. It gave me the chills, with the grainy home video, the alternate lyrics, but that undefinable quality that always made it a great song.

When I was watching Hype, it struck me as sort of a companion piece to one of my favorite movies Singles, which was conceived by Cameron Crowe as a love letter to the city, but also served to glamourize the whole “scene” to a whole generation of wide-eyed teenagers (like me). Hype! is firmly based in reality of the era, while Singles is admittedly fictionalized, scripted, and styled, but they both document an era. I remember wanting to live there soooo bad (I almost went to college in Seattle), imagining in my subconscious that, you know, I’d be sitting outside my apartment building and Chris Cornell would walk by and nod at my new stereo system, or Jeff Ament would pop his head in the basement of my building and ask me to move my car. Ha.

Surprisingly, Pearl Jam’s role in the film was muted. Ed Vedder gives a reflective interview (sitting next to his ex-wife Beth Liebling, in an uncredited appearance) on fame and hype during a time when he was still very much struggling with it publicly, and is shown jamming on the drums with Hovercraft (a side band that he’s toured with). I loved the very ending of the film, which shows Pearl Jam conducting their rad Self-Pollution Radio program in their Seattle studios. A few of their friends are shown stopping by (Mark Arm, Kim Warnick from The Fastbacks, Kim Thayil and Chris Cornell of Soundgarden, Barrett Martin from Screaming Trees, Layne Staley from Alice in Chains, and Krist Novoselic from Nirvana), and the lyrics from the song shown here are a most fitting way to end the film:

“Small my table, sits just two
Got so crowded, I can’t make room
Ohh, where did they come from? Stormed my room!
And you dare say it belongs to you . . . to you . . .
This is not for you!
. . . Never was for you!”

Not For You (live on Self-Pollution Radio) – Pearl Jam

Here’s some more music documenting the sounds of that era, from tunes featured in the film. The full soundtrack to Hype! is also available on Sub Pop Records.

K Street (live) – The Fastbacks
Definite Door – The Posies
Touch Me I’m Sick (live) – Mudhoney
Negative Creep – Nirvana
The River Rise – Mark Lanegan
Low Beat – Young Fresh Fellows
Throwaway (live) – The Posies

Hype! also features a clip of Soundgarden performing this killer song off Badmotorfinger, in a bendy, sweaty, screaming performance with those notes being nailed by Chris Cornell. I saw Soundgarden in 1996 at the Henry J. Kaiser in Oakland, and it remains one of the best shows I’ve seen.

With My Good Eye Closed (live in 1996) – Soundgarden

And this is purely a bonus track from me; Green River is the now-defunct Seattle band of Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament of Pearl Jam, with Mark Arm and Steve Turner of Mudhoney.

Queen Bitch (David Bowie cover) – Green River

Ultimately, it’s interesting to see how disparate and unique all the bands were that were lumped together under the headline “Seattle sound” when no one sound really ever existed. Hype! does a fine and entertaining job dissecting these years in American musical history. Director Doug Pray has made a convert of me to his productions; his next project is a film called Surfwise (about the life of Malibu surfer Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz) and I have a feeling it will include some choice tunes. Bring it on, Doug!

March 7, 2006

Alice in Chains can’t TOUR

Saw this on Jerry Cantrell’s website today:

“Alice In Chains Tour Dates Announced”
More details on Alice in Chains’ first tour in close to a decade have been released. The band will be playing several European festivals over the month of June including two shows in Germany, one in England, one in Ireland and another in Italy. The first leg of the tour will then finish in Austria.”

That just seems a little bit . . . weird to tour after Layne Staley, the VOICE of Alice in Chains, died of a heroin & cocaine overdose in 2002. At least they aren’t holding a reality-TV competition to find a new lead singer. But still, it seems somehow wrong to me to tour under the same moniker.

In terms of posting this on my blog, yes, I know that Alice in Chains is a bit hardcore, but hey, I really liked them when I was 14, when (I am laughing as I type this) I was really, really hardcore too.

Here is one of my favorite songs by them that I still feel confident in standing behind in a public forum:

Right Turn” – Alice in Chains featuring Chris Cornell
- check out THE Moment at 2:31 in this song!
(from the SAP EP, some of their more milder, acoustic, harmonic stuff – similar to the excellent Jar of Flies EP. Both still sound good to me 11 and 12 years later. )

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February 14, 2006

Mike Watt: Ball-Hog or Tugboat?

I rocked this album probably hundreds of times in high school. All I knew is that it featured some of my favorite artists, which truthfully is why I bought it. I didn’t really know at the time the imitable punk-rock legend that Mike Watt (of the Minutemen and fIREHOSE) actually is. But it was a great introduction.

Released in 1995, Ball-Hog or Tugboat? wins for the most eclectic & confounding title in my collection. 17 tracks, Watt plays thud-staff (bass) on all of them and wrote 14 of the tracks. His steady, bumping presence is complemented by Ed Vedder, Evan Dando, Dave Pirner, Frank Black, Adam Horovitz, Mike D., Flea, Dave Grohl, Pat Smear, Krist Novoselic, Joe Baiza, J Mascis, Thurston Moore, Henry Rollins, Mark Lanegan . . . it’s just madness is what it is.

The thing that I like best about this album is its diversity. You have every type of song on here from classic pleasing (rocking) pop songs to hardcore rock, and punk, and jazzy funk, and Henry Rollins (angry! angry!). There are also great stories told throughout the songs, such as “Drove Up From Pedro,” which tells of Watt discovering punk at a Germs show in Los Angeles.

Here are three of my favorite cuts, but you gotta just buy the album because there are so many great tracks I didn’t post. I somehow got the big massively tall version (above) of the CD case, but it also comes in a nice square blue cover as well. Which would be easier to file in the ole IKEA CD cabinet.

Piss-Bottle Man – Evan Dando on vocals (golden)

Chinese Firedrill – Frank Black on vocals (*gorgeous* acoustic guitar )

E-Ticket Ride – with Mike D. and Flea (and the baby of Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore & Kim Gordon providing, uh, background vocals)

Other songs I like that I left off here are “Big Train” (little double entendre lyrical content with Dave Grohl, Ed Vedder, and J Mascis), “Against the ’70s” (with Ed Vedder, Krist Novoselic, and Dave Grohl – and didn’t that track get some radio play too?), “Sidemouse Advice” (swingin jazz with Carla Bozulich and Flea), and the title “Intense Song for Madonna to Sing” (and indeed it would be) always makes me laugh.

Mike Watt was instrumental in the Southern California post-punk movement of the ’80s, along with his band the Minutemen, and later fIREHOSE. He began playing music in his early teens, along with friend D. Boon, who would be a co-founder of the Minutemen. From his innocent beginnings (“I didn’t know what the bass was,” Watt says. “In arenas you couldn’t really hear it. But we saw on album covers that every band had a bass player, except the Doors and the Seeds. So we knew it was a big part of the band. In the pictures it looked like a guitar that had four strings. I didn’t know they were bigger. I didn’t know it was lower.”) Watt grew into a kickass & well-respected bassist.

Watt and Boon were in on the very beginnings of the Southern California punk scene, and the way it slowly began to change the face of music. Watt was there as bass became more of a crucial element in the music that he loved to make. “Before punk, bass was kind of where you put your retarded friend,” Watt theorizes. “Left field. It was a real inferiority complex dumped on me because of the bass guitar. But with punk, you had everyone lame, so all of a sudden the bass player was elevated and everybody was brought down. It was a lot more equal, and the bass drove the songs more. They were all learning, they were all beginning.”

The Minutemen released 5 albums before D. Boon’s death in 1985 in a car crash. Watt then went on with fIREHOSE to release more music (Watt says that he got the name fIREHOSE “from watching a film short of Bob Dylan doing Subterranean Homesick Blues using cue cards for the lyrics. I thought that it was funny when he held up the card that said ‘firehose’.” So there you have it.). Watt has jammed both solo and as a temporary member of bands such as Porno for Pyros, J. Mascis’ band Fog, and, most recently Iggy Pop & The Stooges. Not too shabby.

Turns out this is also a timely post because there is a wonderful documentary out about the Minutemen and their influence on the punk-rock movement. Titled We Jam Econo — The Story of the Minutemen,” the film premiered last year in San Pedro, California, and is still making the rounds to cool venues across the U.S.

Tomorrow night (the 15th) it is playing at the Art Institute in San Francisco, and there are about a dozen other screenings worldwide in the next few months. Watt is on tour this Spring both solo and with Iggy Pop. Check out something of a punk-rock legend if he comes to your town.

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Bio Pic Name: Heather Browne
Location: Colorado, originally by way of California
Giving context to the torrent since 2005.

"I love the relationship that anyone has with music: because there's something in us that is beyond the reach of words, something that eludes and defies our best attempts to spit it out. It's the best part of us, probably, the richest and strangest part..."
—Nick Hornby, Songbook
"Music has always been a matter of energy to me, a question of Fuel. Sentimental people call it Inspiration, but what they really mean is Fuel."
—Hunter S. Thompson

Mp3s are for sampling purposes, kinda like when they give you the cheese cube at Costco, knowing that you'll often go home with having bought the whole 7 lb. spiced Brie log. They are left up for a limited time. If you LIKE the music, go and support these artists, buy their schwag, go to their concerts, purchase their CDs/records and tell all your friends. Rock on.

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