30 August, 2007

Don't Worry, Be Happy

Don't worry because even though Elliott Smith is gone, he's not forgotten. Albums chock-full of his music are still being released. If you're in the mood for the real Elliott Smith, listen to New Moon. It's a two CD collection of lovely lullabies (that will give you sweet dreams and crazy nightmares).

Be happy because, if you're in the mood for something Smithesque but not completely unoriginal, you can listen to Malcolm Middleton. Previously a member of the band Arab Strap, whose music straddled the edge of Goth (it's quite lugubrious) and Folk (the lyrics are often the defining characteristic), Malcolm Middleton has created three solo albums. I'm going to ignore the first two for today because they were created while he was still a member of Arab Strap, and instead concentrate on album number three: A Brighter Beat. The title for this album is ironically appropriate, for although the songs are preoccupied with death, depression, and lost love, they are distinctly more upbeat than most of what Arab Strap created. Not to imply that this is a collection of happy songs. You won't find any unicorns or a pot of gold on this side of the rainbow. It's more likely that after wallowing with Malcolm for a bit (maybe after a nasty breakup) you'll click your heels three times and ask to go home. Still, it's always a good idea to own an album that'll help you through the dark times, and A Brighter Beat is that kind of album.

The first song "We're All Going To Die" sounds emo, right? Wrong; this song has a sense of humor. Not only is the chorus a repeated sing-along of the words "you're gonna die, you're gonna die, you're gonna die alone", but Malcolm can sing them without cracking up and with a charming Scottish brogue. The song is dark, but also witty and dry.

"Death Love Depression Love Death" sounds cumbersome, but breaks into full-out rock mode after a few crooned lyrics. It's probably the most badass track on the whole album, and it's also dark, but in a rock 'n' roll way.

"Stay Close Sit Tight" achieves a certain light beauty, but again, the lyrics are heavy. The lyrics of this song almost lurk behind the sweet piano, like a monster under your bed.

"Up Late At Night Again" captures that restless, sleepless, half-living feeling of insomnia. Why don't people sleep at night? The night is uncomfortable, and sometimes in the dark, all of your problems, failures, and regrets are thrown into sharp relief. In the day, you can forget some of these things because there are people around you and things feel alive; but at night you wrestle with your deepest fears.

My favorite song on the album is a little penultimate masterpiece called "Superhero Songwriters". This song has drama and depth, and the title itself speaks of something huge that you can't live up to: a superhero. "Stop dreaming, start living..." and "I'm getting older..." are a few of the depressing realizations that come to light in this song, but despite the weight of these ideas, the strings move with grace through the song.

To be honest, I think this whole album is a reckoning with that hideen monster: depression. Depression lurks around every corner and in every crevice, but unlike Elliott Smith, Malcolm Middleton seems to have enough humor to pull himself from under that ever-present monster. It's comforting, in a way, to know that other people are fighting their demons. I hope he wins his fight.

28 August, 2007

Comfortable Sounds

As I was previewing new music this morning, I came across a real gem of sound. The album is Red Earth by Dee Dee Bridgewater, and it seemlessly wraps traditional American Jazz music in the sounds of Africa. For musical historians, this mixture shouldn't be much of a stretch as jazz is a direct decendent of many types of African music. Still, what Dee Dee Bridgewater has accomplished is a feat of musical prowess. It takes clean composing and highly polished musicianship to make music from another world sound as comfortable as the jazz I can hear in my own backyard. Bridgewater creates an absolute masterpiece with varying sounds interwoven, but what's exceptional about this music is that it doesn't sound plastic, it doesn't sound like music that has been a constant labor of love. Instead this music sounds organic and rich like it was grown in the best soil.

"Afro Blue", which was previously released, sounds vibrant and "rich as the night" to pull a phrase from the song itself. "Bad Spirits (Bani)" is composed of lyrics sung in both an African dialect and in English, and this lyrical trade-off is paralleled by the musical trade-off of African and American sounds. "Mama Don't Ever Go Away" is so well-crafted that you don't even notice the piano that's sprinkled into the song, unless you listen carefully. "Long Time Ago" is the first slow song, but it's still a celebration song, and Dee Dee's voice reminds me most of a bird singing at dusk. "Red Earth" is the first real blues song, but in this context blues doesn't seem to meld as well with African music as Bridgewater's jazz does. This is unfortunate, because Dee Dee's voice seems built to sing blues just as well as jazz and with more power than on her jazz numbers.

"Red Earth" is a fine song on its own, but the music seems better matched to jazz lyrics and delivery. There's a certain level of improvisation that can be found on the whole album, but blues isn't really known for its improvisational potential; and, although there's certainly room for creativity in any kind of music, the sentiment of a great blues song can be overwhelmed by too much sound. The uneven sound can be found again on the song "Compared to What" which is another blues number. Still, Dee Dee Bridgwater's album carries only a few of these unsuccessful forays into blues music, and is ultimately redeemed by many successful jazz fusion numbers.

This album is a celebration at its roots. It's a celebration of the potential of music, the culture found in music, and the cadence and rhythm of the music itself. Red Earth is an album that captures the sounds of summer, of vibrant, exploding life.

24 August, 2007

Out of Body Experiences, and why Boys are Bad

Here are two articles of interest. Both are from the NY Times and both revolve around the brain.

"Studies Report Inducing Out Of Body Experiences"


"Is There Anything Good About Men?"

Be sure to read the transcript from the actual lecture "Is There Anything Good About Men?", which is linked at the Tierney Blog.

The Orphan of Zhao

According to Wikipedia and the New York Times, The Orphan of Zhao is a famous Chinese play, cemented in the world of musical theatre by its classical and cultural aspects. The play is historically sanguine, and based on a traditional Beijng Opera. Stephin Merritt's (Magetic Fields, Gothic Archies, Future Bible Heroes, and the 6ths) adaptation of the Orphan of Zhao for New York City's 2003 Lincoln Center Festival, is both inspired and strange.

I'm sure my faithful blog-readers are scratching their heads at this moment, wondering why I'm writing about an old musical. Well, the main reason is that I just found out about Stephin Merritt's Orphan of Zhao, and I think it's awesome. Stephin Merritt is currently working on a musical adaptation of the children's story Coraline by Neil Gaiman, which is a story so eerie and haunting that I was only able to read forty pages (granted, I was about twelve years old when I tried). Now, I've listened to quite a bit of Merritt's music, and most of it is pleasantly recondite with lots of strange images that only make sense on a primal level. Not to say that his music is hunter-gatherer in any way, it's actually very sophisticated and seems to be composed with care. Coraline is filled with menacing, almost violent descriptions of actions that are commonplace (I seem to remember that sewing buttons was particularly horrible in the story), and the Orphan of Zhao is openly violent, but like most Chinese stories, the violence is wrapped in intrigue and honor.

In the Orphan of Zhao, Merritt pulled in the bizarre traditions and almost histrionic pulse of American musical theatre, but retained some of the art and subtlety of Chinese theatre. The music itself is full of traditional Chinese sounds, and the lyrics are odd. Take for example the song "Has the World Gone Insane?". The music clashes together like orange and brown clothing, the imagery of "enemy baby with enemy milk on his chin" is both ridiculous and frightening, and the song succeeds in making the listener feel uncomfortable; I think the point is to make people feel uncomfortable. Physical discomfort makes you want to change your position, so maybe mental discomfort does the same thing mentally; and, if this is true, then mental discomfort is an invaluable tool to a writer. I'm sure that Coraline was written to be an uncomfortable story, to make you realize that their are some actions in life that are frightening, even though they're also mundane. Scary things don't always make sense; in fact, I think scary things rarely make sense, which is why they are so scary.

Getting back to music and away from philosophy, I would recommend the Orphan of Zhao to anyone who enjoys musical theatre. Stephin Merritt composes multi-layered and emotional scores, and he drags you into the story (preferably, kicking and screaming). You can find Stephin Merritt's showtunes on iTunes, and probably somewhere else. Just don't listen if you're afraid of discomfort and insidious violence.

23 August, 2007

Desert Rock

I can't imagine what it would be like to live in a war-torn land. I imagine Iraq as it is at this moment: a world where people are afraid to leave their houses, where food and clean water are scarce, and where the people with any money at all have scuttled across the borders to find refuge in other countries. These images are far from tangible to me, because I'm separated by more than miles. I'm separated from the experiences of refugees by all of the things that make my world comfortable, and that allow me to blog, right here, about music.

One of the most remarkable things I've learned while reading about world music, is that all truly creative people will make their music in the circumstances described above. As bombs fall in their backyards, musicians continue to play. They create in the midst of unbearable destruction. It's really a beautiful thought, like the titular image in "A Tree Grows In Brooklyn": the beautiful, strong tree growing in the midst of poverty and depression. The tree grows where no other tree can, and it grows strong without care and cultivation. It's just another reminder that beautiful things don't just grow in the dirt, they grow because of the dirt. Despite the fact that I cannot understand living in a war-torn country, I can understand the music that comes from such a world. The one thing I really can't imagine, is a world without music.

When you feel like roaming the desert for forty years, try listening to this music. I guarantee that you won't have a tan when you're finished, but you also won't be unbearably thirsty.

"Matadjem Yinmixen" by Tinariwen

"Habibi Min Zaman" by Balkan Beat Box

"Cheik Omar Bah" by Toumani Diabate

"Char Chinari Bazaar" by Rahul Sharma

"Until We Burn In The Sun (The Kids Just Want A Love Song)" by Bedouin Soundclash

Out of the Darkness booms...Emerson College!

I listen to all kinds of radio stations (well, at least all the kinds that I can find on my dial). I always like to listen to something that matches my mood, so I switch up my radio station almost every night. I frequent the BBC, WFNX, the local hip-hop station, the local classic-rock station, and the loudest pop station, with world, jazz, and classical sprinkled in for good measure.

Last night, I was dialing through all the boring stations (how many times do we really need to hear "Free Bird"?) and I came across a fun hip-hop song. The song was so catchy that I listened to the whole thing, and when the DJ popped on at the end, I was struck by his enthusiasm and untrained commentary. The "uhhs" and "umms" were ubiquitous in this DJ's speech, but I didn't mind because the guy actually seemed interested in the music. Come to find out, this is Emerson College's station (WERS 88.9). I'd tried to tune into their station before, but had never received such a clean signal.

Emerson does a really nice job with their station. The shows aren't weighed down with an overabundance of talk, the music is mixed fairly well, and the content is interesting without being too challenging. I feel like there's a real market for this kind of station, that plays a well-rounded bunch of music, isn't afraid to regularly mix new sounds in with the old, and has a certain youthful exhuberance that is found most notably on college campuses. Check out the WERS website here: http://www.wers.org/ and then friend WERS on Myspace. Oh yeah, it would be cool if you listened too!!

21 August, 2007

Beyond "Galang"

Everyone who listens to fringe hip-hop and dance music can agree that M.I.A. makes different sounds (getting a consensus on whether those sounds are good or not is another story). A few things you need to know about Maya Arulpragasm (M.I.A.) are 1) that you've probably heard an M.I.A. song without even knowing you were listening (Honda used the song "Galang" to sell their cars); 2) M.I.A. is an artist with rabid fans and rabid foes; and, 3) M.I.A., whose life has been defined by a series of dramatic moves across the world and parents who "fight the power!", has made her music both multicultural and rebellious. M.I.A. is not easily definable, which is probably why everyone is trying to define her music.

I will try not to fall into the trap of jaded music reviewers and analyze every lyric on M.I.A.'s new album, Kala. I enjoyed "Galang", and the whole Arular album, but not enough to invest in an entire copy. I didn't get involved in the hype of the last album (not an easy task), and I judged her music on its own merit; I hope I'll be able to do the same with Kala.

Kala starts off with the song "Bamboo Banga", which sets the mood for the whole album. This record is a dance record, but the dancing is not the wild and exhuberant type of dancing that followed "Galang", it's the kind of dancing that is done early in the morning at clubs. "Bamboo Banga" gives you the feeling that everything is dark, but very alive; the underground is throbbing. It's a nice fringe club song, but it gives the whole album a deeper, darker, almost chthonic feeling.

"Bird Flu" takes you a little higher; although the banging and drumming reminds me of Army Marching Bands and gunfire, the vocals aren't as low as those on "Bamboo Banga". M.I.A.'s lyrics are dark, and the theme of cultures at odds hits harder the second time around. On Arular, M.I.A. threw out some lyrics that referenced the consumer culture of European countries as compared to the struggle to live that takes place in countries to the South and East, but her ideas were far from fully formed and her lyrics lacked that extra pop against the dance music. M.I.A.'s lyrics are written with a steadier hand, especially on "Bird Flu" where, in the same line, she juxtaposes "live in trees chew on feet" and " watch lost on cable". This line brings together the idea of how people see her (as a racist caricature of a Sri Lankan or as a poseur), and how she sees herself (a mixture of all the worlds from which she comes).

"Boyz" and "Jimmy" are very different songs musically, but they're both dance songs about boys. "Boyz" is banged out over some heavy beats and horns, while "Jimmy" is very '70s Disco meets '80s dance tune. Both songs are fun for a few listens, but I found them both annoying after the third play.

"Hussel (featuring Afrikan Boy)" dives into deep jungle sounds with an eerie speed after the Western bubblegum sounds of "Jimmy". Maybe M.I.A. is juxtaposing cultures again, maybe she's pointing out the fact that the jungle is never too far from the party, or maybe I'm overanalyzing. No matter what its meaning as far as album position goes, this is my favorite song on the album. I especially enjoy the lyric: "I hate money cause it makes me numb". An astute observation that rings true, because it's made by someone who hasn't always had money.

"Mango Pickle Down River (featuring The Wilcannia Mob)" is the weirdest song on the whole album. The song consists of rhymes without much of a back-beat (again that throb is present). The rhymes are thrown out by kids and by M.I.A. herself, but the song fails a bit, because it never really tricks the listener into hearing the lyrics.

"20 Dollar" is mechanical and dark. The lyrics are well-written, but slightly overwhelmed by the fuzzy, overloud guitars in the background. An interesting song, whose placement creates another disjointed juxtaposition (if M.I.A. didn't plan these awkward bridges between completely different sounds, then her mixer is definitely not doing a good job). The softness of "Mango Pickle Down River" smooshes up against the hardness of "20 Dollar", probably making the song sound more dramatic than it would against, say "Hussel".

"World Town" is the most fun you'll have listening to the whole album. The song is light and playful, but not without depth. M.I.A. is representing the World Town, a crossroads of disparate cultures and sounds, but she's bringing it all together in a cohesive little unit of song.

"World Town" sets the mood for the final five songs, which are all lighter in tone than the first seven. These five final tracks are what you'll hear on the radio, if you hear any of Kala on the radio. It's unlikely that the album will recieve much attention from stations, because the sounds are influenced by both world-music and rebellion, a bit of a stretch for most stations. Still, the fact that Timbaland appears on the penultimate track "Come Around" is testament to the fact that M.I.A. is getting attention from the popular musical community.

Overall, the album Kala carries a depth and a finish that were not found on Arular. The polish of the songs on Kala is partly from being recorded in a studio that lives up to the sounds being expressed, but the writing is also polished. The album is not without bumps, but it is of a higher quality, in my opinion, than Arular. None of the tracks on Kala are as fun as "Galang", but maybe M.I.A. didn't want them to be. Check out the album if you're interested in a dance record that stretches your mind.

20 August, 2007

What is the male equivalent of a muse?

I've been wondering that for awhile, and I finally had to get it out in the open. The question was becoming stale in my mind. I'm pretty sure that I'll have to invent a word for a male muse. This is a perfect example of cross-sexism in our culture: women can only be inspiration, and men can only be inspired. Interesting idea, but I'm probably just paranoid.

Moving from muses to music isn't too much of a stretch. I'm always wondering where artists find their inspiration, especially those artists who see something exceptional in the mundane. Sometimes you really have to reach to understand an obscure lyric, but other times the reference falls right in your lap, and you can shout "I UNDERSTAND!!". A little dramatic, I know, but I definitely think those words when a particularly puzzling lyric falls into place in my mind.

For example, I'm almost always confused by Moldy Peaches lyrics and The Decemberists' songs are just a little obscure for my mind (although, very catchy), but I can feel an Elliott Smith song and Iron & Wine lyrics just make sense to me. I'm sure this feeling is different for every music-lover, which is why people have such varied tastes in music. Which brings it all back to inspiration, doesn't it? Different things inspire different people, because humanity's varied experiences make completely varied ways of understanding our world. I'm inspired to view the world at a different angle through music, if I can find something in the music that applies to me. In this way, I think music can be just as enlightening as great stories and poetry, but only as enlightening as the active participant (the listener) will allow based on his/her experiences.

My ideas are a little jumbled at this time, but my basic point is that inspiration occurs on multiple levels, and is really more like a game of tag than a game of solitaire. Inspiration is bounced between the people who place themselves in the line of ideas. If you expose yourself to everything from smooth jazz to back metal, then you're placing yourself in the path of many ideas. People who expose themselves to different types of music, are opening themselves to a variety of thoughts. Some of these ideas will inspire you to take action, to apply a new principle to your life, while other ideas will not jell with your current experiences or make sense to you in your life's context. Anyone who takes part in this inspiration exchange is an artist of life.

I've come to the conclusion that there doesn't need to be a word for a male muse. Muses come in all shapes and sizes, colors and sexes, and are not necessarily human. The word muse has transformed over time to mean inspiration, and inspiration obviously doesn't have to be female. An artist, someone who is open to inspiration, can find genius in a peanut-butter sandwhich. The active participant can hear (see, read) this peanut-butter sandwhich in the context of their life, and then allow their experiences and their inspiration to form into new ideas. Mmmmmm, I'm hungry.

19 August, 2007

On The Road 50th Anniversary!

"I like too many things and get all confused and hung-up running from one falling star to another till I drop.

This is the night, what it does to you. I had nothing to offer anybody except my own confusion."

-Jack Kerouac, On The Road

50 years and so many minds opened to the possibility of adventure. People ask me what I dream of in my heart. People say: "What do you really want to do? What do you really want from life?". I guess I want some kind of obvious journey, a task or absolute goal that I can pursue, but in pursuing, discover myself a little more. I want to live in a great story, and witness enlightenment; travel, and be enlightened in the process. I want a eucatastrophe, and I want to be able to write about it in a way that makes others feel as connected as I do when I read Kerouac. I guess I wouldn't feel connected, if I weren't confused, and neither would Jack.

Jazz was the heart palpitation of the beat generation, and the best of it doesn't have a straightforward groove. Here's some old and new jazz for you guys to enjoy:

"Stardust" by John Coltrane

"Zarafah" by Joshua Redman

"Lazy Afternoon" by Joe Henderson

"Poet" by Cassadra Wilson

"St. James Infirmary" by Turk Murphy

"A Banca Do Distinto" by Badi Assad

"Cypresses" by Anat Cohen

18 August, 2007

60 Musical Revolutions Per Minute

I heard this NPR interview with Eugene Hutz of Gogol Bordello the other day. Very interesting, and fun, and they play plenty of music from "Super Taranta!". Also, on the same page, NPR has a recorded Gogol Bordello concert.

NPR: Eugene Hutz

Bring on the Lucie (Freeda People) - John Lennon

(Alright Boys, this is it, over the hill)

We don't care what flag you're waving
We don't even want to know your name
We don't care where you're from or where you're going
All we know is that you came
You're making all our decisions
We have just one request of you
That while you're thinking things over
Here's something you just better do

Free the people now
Do it, do it, do it, do it, do it now
Free the people now
Do it, do it, do it, do it, do it now

Well we were caught with our hands in the air
Don't despair paranoia is everywhere
We can shake it with love when we're scared
So let's shout it aloud like a prayer

Free the people now
Do it, do it, do it, do it, do it now
Free the people now
Do it, do it, do it, do it, do it now

We understand your paranoia
But we don't want to play your game
You think you're cool and know what you are doing
666 is your name
So while you're jerking off each other
You better bear this thought in mind
Your time is up you better know it
But maybe you don't read the signs

Free the people now
Do it, do it, do it, do it, do it now
Free the people now
Do it, do it, do it, do it, do it now

Well you were caught with your hands in the kill
And you still got to swallow your pill
As you slip and you slide down the hill
On the blood of the people you killed

Stop the killing (Free the people now)
Do it, do it, do it, do it, do it now
Stop the killing (Free the people now)
Do it, do it, do it, do it, do it now

Bring on the lucie

Wicker Plane - State Radio

Oh my gosh, State Radio, do you guys EVER sleep? It seems like whenever I go on your site you have a new cause, a list of up-coming shows, and an album in the works, *SIGH*. I guess that's why I love you.

No, actually, I love State Radio because they play their asses off and make killer sounds. Their newish EP is very nice, and their new album (which hits the streets on September 18th) sounds like it shall be excellent. If you want even more State Radio, check out their Youtube videos, which are numerous. Definitely catch a show, because these boys can rock.

Find complete tour dates on their site: http://www.stateradio.com/

14 August, 2007


This movie is amazing, honestly, it is sooo good. It is like the Princess Bride, only more irreverent, and Tristran Thorn is a little less charismatic and elegant than Westley, while Yvaine is a little more pissed off than Buttercup, hahah. Oh, it's fun! Overall, just a great love story (and really, what better kind of story is there?).