Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The Slip - Eisenhower

Don't call it a jam band, they've been here for years (c) LL Cool J

I'll get to The Slip's CD review in a sec, but I just want to preface this post: I hate when good bands that can play for more than 5 minutes at a time get labeled a "jam band" for obvious reasons. The first thing you think of are a bunch of Phish wannabees who probably overplay their music to the point of exhaustion. Oh wait, isn't that what everyone thinks when they hear "jam band?"

The only "jam band" that is legit is the Allman Brothers Band. Sure, the Grateful Dead rock, but after a while, I hear the same song over and over (FYI- I like the Dead, I just f-ing hate Phish...).

Back on track, The Slip are not a jam band - at least not in my opinion. This trio of Boston guys rocks as a controlled and cohesive unit. Made up of guitarist/lead singer Brad Barr, his brother and drummer Andrew, and their bassist buddy Marc Friedman, they anticipate and mesh with an uncanny instinct. Up until now, their music has been pretty free flowing, from their live 1997 debut disc From the Gecko, to their newest and most polished recording, Eisenhower.

You may recognize The Slip from Guitar Hero fame, as their first single "Even Rats" was featured on the game. The catchy and melodic opening bass line is crushed by a sweet guitar riff and then complimented by Brad's lead vocals. His singing style is a combination of Kelly Jones of the Stereophonics, albeit without the raspiness and English accent, and Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie / The Postal Service.

While "Even Rats" may be the first single off the CD, it is the happy-go-lucky "Children of December" that really gives this album its identity. As the lead off song, "Children of December" catches your attention immediately with its fast paced but low-key sound. Their producer on this album, Matthew Ellard, was obviously very influential in forming the style of this album. A veteran producer of such artists as Elliott Smith, Billy Bragg, and Wilco, Ellard infused The Slip with a well crafted direction in the studio. You can almost hear the Elliott Smith in "Suffocation Keep" over a simple acoustic guitar, as well as the Jeff Tweedy in "Life in Disguise." The Slip even throw in a little Flaming Lips-like sound in the connected songs "First Panda in Space" and "The Soft Machine."

Overall, this album is a break from their loose and improvisational style, yet it comes through loud and clear. The Slip, who won "Best Live Act 2006" by the Boston Music Awards, continue to shine in their live performances; yet Eisenhower proves that The Slip are just as talented in the studio.

Here's to hoping their partnership with Matthew Ellard is a lasting one. Until next time, here's the definitive track off Eisenhower and a link to 3 other streamable songs.

The Slip -
*Children of December.mp3

Click here for:
"Even Rats"
"Suffocation Keep"
"Life in Disguise"

Guest Blog - The Midnight Lumberjack defends his home forest

Thank you, thank you, it's great to be here. I just flew in from and boy is my head still in the clouds! Ha-ha! Oh, what's that? We're on? I don't believe you…what? Oh right, musical hometowns. Sorry. Let's get this blog into the sphere.

What's with all this Midwest bias over here? You guys use Springsteen nicknames. He's from Jersey, the armpit of the EAST COAST. I think you should all go for Bob Seger monikers: Comeback Baby (Jacob), Beautiful Loser (Coonhound), and Old Records (Irish). Yeah, that's the ticket. Anyways. Lets talk about the dark sides of your musical hometowns. Detroit? Kid Rock doesn't let anyone forget he is "straight out the [motor city] trailer." Minneapolis? Every tween's favorite whine-time band Motion City Soundtrack is from the Twin Cities. And Akron? Hey Irish, you failed to mention DEVO was Akron born and bred. Whip it, jerk.

You know a city with no dark side? Fairfield, Connecticut. Welcome to the most picturesque suburban town in the country. Check out this resume: GE World Headquarters. Meg Ryan. The exterior house shot from Who's The Boss. James Blake. The finest Jesuit high school in America, Fairfield Prep. Don Imus. The kid who plays the Mac in those Apple commercials. The world famous dive The Seagrape. Oh, and one more…

...wait for it...

...John Mayer.

A goddess among men. He taught us how every girl's body can be a theme park, how deep down we all want to run through the corridors of our schools, and why dad's better be good to their baby momma's babies. He gave every college douche bag a free pass to buy an acoustic guitar, memorize derivative chords and put it on display in his dorm room, hoping that one night he would be able to use this shtick: "Yeah, I play guitar, I'm okay. What's that? You want me to play something? No no, I'm not that good. Okay fine, do you like John Mayer?"

Ugh. All right, I admit it; I hate his stinking guts. But all that
aside, here are some truisms: He really can play the guitar. He is
moderately funny. He dates Jessica Simpson.

Yeah, that didn't help. It just makes me hate his fucking guts even more, this time out of pure jealousy. But a few things about him didn't help cool my hatred from the beginning. I was a teenage musician in the area when he hit it big and had to deal with constant and horribly misguided comparisons (I'm taller and better looking).
Growing up as a Beatles fan, he constantly bashed them in interviews. And once I left Fairfield I got asked if I knew/had ever met him ALL the fucking time. (For the record, I don't and haven't)

So, yeah, in retrospect, I got nothing. Fairfield sucks for music. I grew up living vicariously through New York. My high school band, The Rounders, was possibly the most successful act to come out of the area besides Mr. Quarter-Life Crisis. And that's only because we sent our demo to anyone we could find with a subscription to Rolling Stone.

So have your fun you Midwest bastards. But they way I see it, if I live in NYC for the rest of my life, I can start saying THIS is my hometown and then really get back at you jerks. But we'll save that for the future. That and flying cars.

Until then, this is the Midnight Lumberjack saying goodnight to all you woodland creatures and musical prostitutes.

Now where did I put my ax?

-Midight Lumberjack

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Hitsville, USA

"Jackie Wilson said, it was 'Reet-Petite'." Yes he did, Van. Yes he did. And do you know where Jackie Wilson was from? None other than Detroit, MI, the home of your very own Little Gun. And it is with Jackie Wilson that we will begin our music journey down Woodward Ave. (authors note: this is the site of the Woodward Dream Cruise, an event in which Detroiters and folks from out of state get out their igloo coolers and fold-out chairs and sit on the side of Woodward Ave and watch classic cars drive by for about 5 days's miserable), past the city limits of 8 mile road (real road; my high school was located on 7 mile about cred), and into the white and blue house on 2648 West Grand Blvd, where Detroit's Motown scene was birthed.

So why do we begin with Jackie Wilson? Well, mostly because Van Morrison (the third member of my own personal music trinity with Dylan and Springsteen) named a song after him. But Jackie was no slouch in his own right. First of all, his nickname was "Mr. Excitement," a nickname that any of us would kill for if we were really honest with ourselves. He had a couple hits, including "(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher," "Lonely Teardrops" (which he performed on the Ed Sullivan show in classic fashion, and, the aforementioned "Reet-Petite." The man who co-wrote "Reet-Petite" was a man named Berry Gordon, Jr., which is where we continue our musical journey.

Berry Gordon, Jr. was the creator of Motown Records. Motown Records was headquartered at the aforementioned (I've been saying "aforementioned" a lot) 2648 West Grand Blvd., and was very arrogantly, but appropriately titled "Hitsville, USA." Motown Records was started in 1959. The first group that Gordon signed was a group called "The Matadors," whose name later was changed to "The Miracles," and was led by a young man named Smokey Robinson. From there, the label took off, developing a brand of music so popular that it practically became its own genre, known as the "Motown Sound."

Now, due to the sheer volume of legendary artists that were a part of Motown Records and the "Motown Sound," it seems that I'm too close, and am switching to guns (bullet points).

Marvin Gaye-The top male solo artist of the Motown family, Marvin Gaye is a man who needs know introduction. His early days in Motown featured hits such as "Heard it Through the Grapevine," "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," and "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)." You all know these songs. They have been part of the soundtrack of every family wedding you have ever attended. As well as the soundtrack to all Disney sports movies, any movie starring Diane Keaton, and, of course, The Big Chill. His early motown success spurred him on to later hits such as "What's Going On" "Sexual Healing," and, of course, "Let's Get It On." And I'm just getting warmed up. (Side Notes: Marvin Gaye as the same birthday as your author. Also, Marvin Gaye attempted to join the Detroit Lions in 1970...he was turned down without a tryout...but you can't fault the Detroit pride).

The Temptations
-Formed in Detroit as "The Elgins" (good name change). By 1982, they had sold 22 million albums, marking them as one of the most successful groups of all time. From the harmonies, to the choreography, to the matching suits, The Temptations were a staple of the Motown era. Hits include: "The Way You Do the Things You Do," "Ain't To Proud to Beg," and of course, the song my Aunt Beth, and every other 50-60 year old woman, goes weak in the knees over, "My Girl." (Sidenote: I performed a lyp-synched version of My Girl at my middle school's "Mock Rock" competition that brought the house down, and my popularity up, I think it's safe to say).

Stevie Wonder-Born in Saginaw, Michigan, and blind since infancy, Wonder signed with Motown in his teens and has won 21 grammy awards (record for a solo artist), and has 30 top ten hits. Too many awesome songs to mention. His personal best in my opinion are: "Signed, Sealed, Delivered" and "For Once in My Life." Bonus points for being able to play more instruments Prince...and he plays them better...blind.

Can I stop now? Hasn't Detroit already won? There's just too much firepower.

Diana Ross and The Supremes-Formed in Detroit, one of their biggest hits, was covered by Phil Collins (You Can't Hurry Love). You can't compete with that.

Smokey Robinson and the Miracles
-Smokey was born in Detroit. Smokey, with the Miracles and by himself had 70 Top 40 hits. The Miracles performed "Tracks of My Tears," and "You've Really Got a Hold On Me." Smokey also wrote a bunch of The Temptations hits. This is just getting ridiculous.

Other Motown favs: Martha Reeves, Aretha, the Four Tops, and The Jackson Five.

After Motown's day in the sun, Detroit was a mecca for the garage band scene, featuring bands such as Alice Cooper, Iggy Pop, Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels. This scene is not very important to me, but I'm throwing it in there for anyone who cares.

Seger. Seger played at my dad's high school dances. Seger is synonymous with Rock n' Roll. If you're not emotionally moved by "Night Moves," or "Running Against the Wind," you're lying to yourself.

Negative points for Detroit: Uncle Cracker and Kid Rock. I'll give you those.

Eminem. Before leaving the game, it was generally accepted that he was at the top. Admittedly, this was when Jay-Z was out, but still...Eminem's not a bad guy to have for Detroit's case.

I could go on, but I'm tired of writing about Detroit's greatness. I'll leave you with this. Try and think of a joyous family celebration in which you haven't heard Marvin Gaye or Smokey Robinson through the stereo speakers; haven't heard Seger pouring his heart out through song, while you pour your heart out on the dance floor; haven't cooked up a tub of popcorn and watched 8 Mile with the family. Wait, what? You get the point.

(Pictures and music to come. Right now I'm in a coffee shop in McAllen, an hour away from home, and I need to go...for now, the text will speak for itself)

Akron, Ohio - Midwest Musical Mecca

No, your eyes are not deceiving you. Akron, Ohio has more to offer musically than you would ever have guessed. Hitting the scene most recently with the success of NBA superstar LeBron James, the Akron area is a hotbed of artistic talent buried in a little city 40 miles south of Cleveland, and the reason you don't know about it is because you are ignorant. You're willing to put your life in the hands of the Goodyear Rubber Co. (headquartered in Akron) everytime you get behind the wheel, but I doubt that you give my hometown the respect it deserves when it comes to turning on the CD player in that vehicle.

Maybe you've never heard of the Eagles. Yes, THE Eagles, the ones who brought us Desperado, Hotel California and Life In The Fast Lane. Also, to my knowledge, the only band to have 6 members, 5 of whom play guitar, and the other one (the drummer) who sings on most of the songs. Well, one of those guitarists - the creme de la creme - is a guy named Joe Walsh. And don't pretend you've never rolled the windows down and blasted Rocky Mountain Way as you pulled through the Taco Bell drive-thru in Twinsburg, OH. So, you know who I'm talking about.

Joe Walsh, after a nomadic youth, ended up at Kent State University, just 15 miles from downtown Akron. There he launched the musical career that would eventually land him in The Eagles and secure his place in rock and roll history - and in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. (The Hall of Fame, by the way, is not so far away in Cleveland, Ohio.)

But Joe Walsh is not just a one-dimensional character. He's not only a brilliant guitarist and songwriter, but a politician as well. In the 80s Joe ran for President on the platform of "Free Gas for All." Take that Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson and the rest of the Detroit losers.

Here's a track that you like. You probably already have it, and if you don't there's something wrong with your music library. So, ignore Jeffrey Lebowski and enjoy some of Joe W's guitar licks. And thank the Akron, OH area.


The music coming out of Akron didn't die with classic rock, however. More recently, a duo from Akron's mean streets have put out a few albums that have put Akron back on the map. Two college drop-outs, Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney, were working, as their website's bio puts it, "mowing lawns for a slumlord" in Akron, OH when they almost accidentally formed The Black Keys. Five albums (more or less) later, they have established themselves as a formidable rock duo that can hang with the White Stripes any day of the week.

At the heart of it, these guys have soul. This is not some sort of soul "considering that they're lanky white guys" or "considering that their from Akron, OH". This is the real deal.

Minnesota might have Bob Dylan- but Minnesota does not have soul. Not like these two gentlemen do. The attached track is probably the best example of what the Black Keys can do. This is the kind of song that Clapton should do...but might not even do this well. Midnight Is In Her Eyes. Dig it.


Finally, there's one up and coming band that you should keep your eyes on. They're called The Huckleberry Flynns and they have some real potential. This, like The Black Keys, is a duo that was formed more by chance than by design. The lead singer is from the East Coast, but the guitarist is from a town 15 miles outside of Akron.

This is the album cover of their EP Live in Rathmines, IE. It was a two track release, but one of those songs, A Lost Duet, is a phenomenal first effort for this duo. Sadly, much like the title implies, I can not find the file on my computer right now.

I promise to look for the song and add it to this post at a later date. It's an excellent track and this is an exciting young band that I will certainly keep you up to date on their whereabouts

So, in closing, stop the disrespect of Akron, OH. If you don't LeBron will dunk on you.

I'll leave you with one from a little lady from northeast Ohio that you may have heard of.


Sunday, January 21, 2007

Feeling Strangely Confident

In case anyone was wondering the reason for Little Dynamite's sudden splurge (word choice?) of musical adulation for his home city, it is because we have recently started a bit of conversation between the three of us as to which of our home cities has the strongest musical history...and present I suppose. Now, I am not quite ready to make my case for my home city (Detroit)...but I just wanted to share a few reasons why I am so confident in Detroit wiping the musical floor with the Minneapolis and Cleveland.

1. The 4th artist that Little Dynamite mentioned was Semisonic. Now, don't get me wrong, I am a huge Semisonic fan (Closing Time is a timeless classic), but are you really going to come at me with Semisonic when I'm going to be offering up Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson? More on that later.

2. In an earlier conversation, Jack the Rabbit brought up that The Eagles hailed from Cleveland. That's all I'm gonna say.

3. You've heard of Motown right? Detroit is Motown!!! That small little music movement and brand new sound that featured the first record label owned by an African-American and built around primarily African-American artists...that all happened in Detroit. There are 23 musical artists connected with the city of Detroit that are in the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame, which I believe is the highest of any city.

I'm going to save my artist by artist analysis for another post...I'm just setting the stage for now.

Now having said all that, Bob Dylan may be my favorite artist of all time, I love Mason Jennings, and the current music scene (in terms of artists, radio stations, and artists that tour the Twin Cities) is fantastic; still, I don't see how Minneapolis can compete with the D (Oh, and neither can Cleveland). We'll see how this goes.

Minneapolis vs. Detroit vs. Cleveland

Minneapolis Edition...

A writer for the New York Times decided to do a story on churches in the U.S. He began his trip in Boston at Trinity Church and noticed a golden phone hanging against the wall. Above it, a sign read, "Calls: $10,000/min."

The writer asked the priest, "Why does a phone call cost $10,000 a minute?" The priest looked at the man and said, "That phone's a direct line to God. If you can pay the fee, you can talk to God." The writer thanked the priest and continued on his way.

He traveled all over the country - south, then west, then north again, making a circle around the country. In each church, he found a similar phone with the same sign. Finally, the writer made it to a small church in rural Minnesota. He saw the same golden phone with a sign that read, "Calls: 35 cents."

The writer asked the priest, "I have been to hundreds of churches across every part of the country and every one of them had a golden phone that cost $10,000 a minute. Why does yours only cost 35 cents?"

The priest looked at the writer and smiled. "That's because you're in Minnesota. In God's Country, it's a local call."


It's appropriate that one of music's most important blessings was born and raised in God's Country. America's greatest songwriter was born in Duluth, raised in Hibbing, and briefly educated at the U of M. It was here that Robert Zimmerman became Bob Dylan - crafting his persona and his sound under the influence of "Minnesota-nice."

Dylan's 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited was recently rated the #4 album of all time by Rolling Stone, which seems to have an overly biased obsession with him in my opinion. Yet even though it's his most critically praised album, it doesn't stand up to his follow-up release, 1966's Blonde on Blonde.

From start to finish, Blonde on Blonde is Dylan's most complete recording. As he opens with the jovial and horn laden "Rainy Day Women #12 and 35," Dylan takes the listener on an epic journey that finishes with the lengthy, but beautiful ballad "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands." In between, Dylan pleases with each track as he tightens his sound and his stories.

While I could write about Dylan for hours, there are many more Minnesotan artists who cannot be forgotten. Forever immortalized in Chappelle Show glory, Prince has stayed true to his Minnesota roots. Born and raised, he honed his musical ambition in Uptown during his early years. His Paisley Park recording studio in Chanhassen is well known for its state of the art facilities and its close vicinity to the purified waters of Lake Minnetonka. If anyone could be held up as a foil to the stereotypical Minnesotan as portrayed in Fargo, it would be the funky, sexually charged Prince, who is known to play every instrument on his recordings.

After years of trying to spread word of an amazing singer-songwriter with Dylan-esque qualities, Mason Jennings is starting to make some noise of his own. His acoustic style and his soothing voice compliment his captivating storytelling. He's the closest thing we've had to Dylan since Dylan. And he's got a better voice.

After releasing his sixth album Boneclouds this past year, Mason has proved he has the staying power to become one of Minnesota's all time greats. One of his best qualities is that he's known for his live shows. Often times people are so produced that their sound will not come through in a live setting, but Mason shakes that stereotype with his strong performances and crowd rapport. With Boneclouds, Mason has markedly matured as his family has grown in size, described so vividly in "If You Ain't Got Love." His faith is more present than ever with the introspective "Jesus Are You Real" and throughout the rest of the CD. While not as commercially well known, Mason stands with the best in today's music world.

One of the most underrated bands to make it to the national scene is Semisonic. Their breakthrough album Feeling Strangely Fine, was a commercial success due to the overplayed single "Closing Time." However, the rest of the album far surpasses the pop quality of what is for many people the only Semisonic song they've ever heard. Sadly, most people have never listened to the acoustic goodness of "Gone to the Movies," one of my favorite album-closing tracks (which is another post altogether...).

Honorable mentions the Jayhawks, the Replacements (with Paul Westerberg), Tapes 'n Tapes, and rap artists Atmosphere and Heiruspecs, are all fantastic bands who call Minneapolis home.

A Minnesota music post is never complete without a mention of the glorious rise and fall of Soul Asylum. Their runaway hit with "Runaway Train" was too good to be true as they rode their success quickly into mediocrity. Other one hit wonders to come from Minneapolis include Next ("Too Close") and Marcy Playground ("Sex and Candy").

So in closing, I'll leave you all with my favorite Dylan song off, of course, Blonde on Blonde, an underrated Semisonic classic, and an introductory song to the happiness that is Mason Jennings.

God's Country sample:

Bob Dylan -
*Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again.mp3

Mason Jennings -
*Jackson Square.mp3

Semisonic -
*Singing in My Sleep.mp3

Monday, January 8, 2007

Book6 - A Musical Rating System

Many of you out there in the great wide world may enjoy listening to and discussing music, but find yourselves constantly asking: "How can I compare one song to another? One album to the next?"
This is a good question, and one that should be asked. It is also a question which has many implications. Can a 2 minutes and 6 second Ramones song be compared to an 11 minute Jackson Browne ballad? Isn't that like attempting to compare apples to oranges? The answer, in this case, that it is more like comparing oranges to rotten apples, because Jackson Browne is a boring, uncreative artist. But the point remains -- how can one honestly compare music that originates from different eras, countries, styles, etc?

Well, the good news is that the question has been settled, because I have developed a Musical Rating System called Book6. Like many musical enthusiasts do, I would imagine, my computers music system (MusicMatch Jukebox) offers a rating system for the purpose of sorting one's catalogue which I have spent hours carefully keeping up to date with each new album I purchase and copy onto my Dell DJ (no joke).

For the purpose of clarity at the outset, Book6 is only designed to compare complete albums to each other. Now, you could take your rating system offered by MusicMatch or iTunes (MusicMatch uses a 1 to 5-star system) and judge an album simply by averaging the number of stars by the number of tracks, but this would be wrong. This method does not properly punish an album for having terrible songs (1- and 2-stars), or, conversely give enough reward for containing a rare gem of a 4- or 5-star song. In addition, it does not take into account the time length of an album. An 11 minute 2-star song should not be compared without prejudice for its unfortunate length to a 3 minute and 30 second 2-star song.

Book6 Musical Rating System solves all that. Book6 is a mathematical equation to establish an album's rating taking into account all these factors and more, and is so named because when it was first created it was the 6th new Workbook open in my Excel program. From here on out, I will not mention any albums on the blog without posting its Book6 Score.

To introduce you to the system, I have run the analysis on each the albums that has been thus far introduced onto the blog - one from each contributing member.

Jack the Rabbit:
The Hold Steady - Boys and Girls in America

Book6 Rating: 3.273
You can read my full review for all my thoughts on this one.

Little Gun:
Josh Ritter - The Animal Years

Book6 Rating: 3.769
Despite Little Gun's insinuations that I wouldn't have the spiritual depth to understand an album like this, it is actually an album I have owned for some time and my appreciation for it grows with time.

Little Dynamite:
Ray LaMontagne - TTSTB

Book6 Rating:
Though this album is, in my opinion, no where near as brilliant as Trouble, it is an excellent album from a soulful guy who I would pay good money to see anywhere, anytime. And that is a very high compliment.

So far, Little Gun has posted on the best album. The Book6 formulas are, at this point, proprietary information that I will not reveal (and are of course under constant review). I may reveal the secrets in an appendix if Gun and Dynamite want to take a stab at calculating scores using their own opinions on a song/album's merits on the 5-star system, or if I get so much flack for this that I am forced to disclose the methodology.

As a final point, you may be wondering how to assess this information. What does at score of 2.818 really mean? Similar to the Quarterback Rating, maybe it is easiest to gauge an album score's merit by comparing it to the Holy Grail of studio recordings.

Astral Weeks from the insurmountable talent of a twenty-something Van Morrison checks in with a Book6 Rating of 7.516.

Damn right, Van.

Two 4-star Tracks for your Enjoyment:

Bob Schneider - Lorena

Jeff Tweedy (wilco) - I Shall Be Released (Live at Vic Theatre, Chicago, March 2005)

Thursday, January 4, 2007

Singer-Songwriter Josh Ritter

Recently, Jack the Rabbit basically told me that I was becoming a huge wuss with my musical tastes. While he was discussing the merits of edgy artists like Citizen Cope and The Hold Steady, I was coming back at him with singer-songwriters that play soft, melodic, well-written, and well-crafted tunes. So my first instinct was to counter the ol' Rabbit by using my inaugural post to review an edgy band with a kick-you-in-the-balls attitude.

Well, I didn't. Instead, I'd like to to discuss singer-songwriter Josh Ritter and his Animal Years. While I, like the Rabbit, am not bold enough to declare an album the best of 2006 on my first post, it would definitely be at the top of my list (along with the efforts of Josh Rouse, Dylan, and M. Ward). I first heard Ritter when I came across a live version of Girl in the War at the beginning of the year. I was brought in by the song's soft finger-plucking, and Ritter's passionate vocals and beautiful lyrics (again...wuss). "I've got a girl in the war Paul, her eyes are like Champagne/They sparkle, bubble-over, and in the morning all you got is rain," is the beautiful lyric that Ritter ends the song with; a line that has taken on new meaning for me after reading Michael Hill's fantastic bio of Ritter on his website. Hill tells us that "Ritter explores the deepening dread of the Middle East conflict, imagining his words as an epistle to St. Paul."

I still prefer this live version of the song to the one on the album, mostly because I think that the best way to hear a singer-songwriter of Ritter's type is to hear him as stripped down and unproduced as possible; just a man and his guitar. And for the most part, the album holds true to this stripped down feel. Nowhere is this more true than in Ritter's Idaho, featuring Ritter's voice, a barely audible guitar, and the barn that the song was recorded in (any artist that records in a barn gets my immediate approval). Brian Deck produced The Animal Years, and it should come as no suprise that Deck also produced Iron & Wine's, Our Endless Days Are Numbered, another album where the voice and a sole guitar remain the focus throughout.

Even those songs that incorporate other instruments are done in a way that don't feel overproduced, and done in a way that fit the song. For example, my favorite track on the album, Monster Ballads, needs that soft, constant drum beat and uncomplicated organ to give the song that feel of a cross-country journey. Hill writes that Ritter wanted to make the song sound like Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer, and I can think of no better way to describe it. The song conjures up images of traveling in uncharted territories, remembering friends and lovers past, but maintains a sense of hope, "smiling just a little bit."

Good Man lends itself to the same feel as Monster Ballads, with talk of young-love, hard-times, but again leaving you with hope. Line of the song: "Swing up on this little horse, the only thing we'll hit is sunset." Classic Americana images that appeal to our basic natures (...maybe I am a wuss). A final highlight that I will point out is Here at the Right Time, a beautiful, well-written song featuring Ritter and a piano: "Under wide blue skies, there's a place to lie/for me, and Evelyn to hide tonight" (Springsteen? Dylan? Ritter.).

Ritter has just launched a solo acoustic tour in intimate venues across North America from Jan. 28 to March 1. Go if you're cool. I'll leave you now with the track that got me hooked.


Tuesday, January 2, 2007

The Hold Steady - Boys and Girls In America

I considered beginning this review of The Hold Steady's new album Boys and Girls In America by proclaiming it the best album of 2006. I ultimately held back because I have only just been introduced to the tunes and have not had ample time to rationally consider whether this is truly the case. Additionally, it was just too arrogant to cut my teeth in the blogging world with such a brash statement. So, with uncharacteristic reservation, let me simply state that this is a superb album.

The Hold Steady rocks with a throwback vibe, bringing Clash-like energy and attitude to an album which blazes through an astonishing 40 minutes and 11 seconds that leaves you worn out in the most fulfilling kind of way. Standing out above the music, which is more than commendable, is the front man, Craig Finn. Hailing from Minneapolis, a city near and dear to the heart of our own Little Dynamite, Finn formed The Hold Steady in Brooklyn in 2000. Besides being the founding father of the group, Finn is the heart and soul of the band's sound.

Craig Finn has the creative advantage shared by some of the greatest artists from Leonardo Da Vinci to Bruce Springsteen of being raised a Catholic, and the theme of salvation and the images of the Church weave through his lyrics with genuine poignancy. In fact it would seem his songs are almost obsessed with salvation, which is a theme continued from (though to a lesser degree) their debut album Separation Sunday. Craig Finn is the American Shane MacGowan (of Pogues glory) and I can't get enough of his biting lyrics sung with such unmistakable conviction and his edgy, original voice.

As long as I am tying Finn and The Hold Steady to their musical predecessors it is impossible to ignore comparing them to the greatest of American songwriters, Bruce Springsteen and his E. Street Band. The Hold Steady introduces a similar, recurring, cast of characters caught up in the seedy underground of our country's culture. Instead of such characters as Wild Billy and his friend G-man, on Boys and Girls In America we get a glimpse of Charlemagne and Gideon, two intriguing lowlifes, the latter of whom seems to be perpetually making pipes out of Pringles cans.

At it's core, this is an album which delves into the wild, scattered party scene of the young and confused, together with the drugs, sex and desperate grasps at love or anything else potentially meaningful. Everything from the drugs that the characters are "powered up" on to the religious images of Finn's youth is looked to as a source of hope in their downwardly spirally lives. Perhaps one of the most powerful moments of the album comes at the end of track 3, Hot Soft Light, when after the character in question has gone through every sort of type of high (from "blotto" to "blacked out" to "cracked out" to "caved in") he finds himself in the final climactic moments screaming "there's a cross, there's a cross, there's a cross, there's a cross, and in the center there is a hot, soft light."

Boys and Girls In America does not get bogged down in the dead-end party scene, however, though it's subjects may. Instead, Finn acts as a sort of noble savage from that frontier, pointing our attention to the universal truths of his music, hitting on one of the most heartbreaking and essential messages of artistic expression--that impossibility of holding on to the moments of clarity, the moments that should last. As Adam Duritz laments: "I can't remember all the times I tried to tell myself to hold on to these moments as they last."

In the same way, Craig Finn notes that "we can't get as high as we got on that first night." The Hold Steady's album is a fascinating work, and it will rock its message and its passion all the way home. I am thrilled to have gone along for the ride. This one comes with my highest recommendation.

Here's the track mentioned earlier - Hot Soft Light:

And here's one of my favorites from The Pogues (with Shane MacGowan) from the album Rum Sodomy and the Lash: