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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A Few of My Favorite Things 2010: Sad Songs

Posted By on Wed, Dec 29, 2010 at 6:20 PM

I love sad songs. Whether or not I am, in fact, sad in that moment, melancholy music has always struck a chord with me. Most of my all-time favorite records are late night, punch drunk confessionals: Frank Sinatra's In the Wee Small Hours, Tom Waits' Heart of Saturday Night, anything by Otis Redding and pretty much the entirety of country music, etc. There is a certain poetic beauty in sadness, which may be why sad songs usually resonate with me as much as, if not more than their more upbeat counterparts. Or maybe I'm just a sucker for a pretty melody.

This year there were a number of great, mellow, melancholy additions to my stacks. To name but a few: chippy bedroom pop from Belle & Sebastian on Write About Love, swooning art folk on The Head and the Heart's self-titled debut, and an unflinching masterpiece from songwriter Joe Pug, Messenger.

Of course, there are many different types of sad songs. You've got your torch song, your break up song, the fuck you song, the lonely sap song, the clinically depressed song, and so on. Pop music is virtually overloaded with sad sack sentiment. To quote Rob Gordon in High Fidelity, "What came first, the music or the misery? … Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?" Fair questions.

The thing is, not all sad songs are created equally. Because pop is over-saturated by songwriters who seem to think theirs was the first broken heart, the annals of rock and roll are littered with overwrought cliché, terrible, cloying songs that artlessly gnaw at the heartstrings rather than gently tug or assuage. Depressed? Write a song about it! It's a tack followed by far too many marginally talented artists. But who can blame them? To quote Def Leppard, "Love bites."

So what makes a great sad song? I doubt there's an easy answer, if one exists at all. And really, it is entirely subjective. What hits to your core might turn mine queasy. What makes me swoon could very well make you wretch. To paraphrase an old chestnut, beauty is in the ear of the beholder. 

For me, it's usually the melody that hooks first. Throw in a clever turn of phrase or two and I'm yours for the night. Sing it with soul, and my oh my, it could be a lasting love. Then again, sometimes it's none of those things. Sometimes, certain songs or albums just catch you when they're supposed to. Sometimes it's just fate. Two such artists caught me that way this year. Some way, somehow, they entered my life at the precise moment I needed them most.

The first was songwriter Sean Hayes. His 2010 album, Run Wolves Run, is a gorgeously crafted, unchained treatise on love and life, and among my favorites this year. But that album wasn't what first turned me on to Hayes. Rather, it was one of his older songs, "Fucked Me Right Up," that, well … you know. There is a raw, visceral hurt in Hayes' vulnerable delivery that deepens his otherwise simplistic lyrics. The song barely has two verses, but by the time he bids us "good bye" again and again at the song's conclusion, you feel what he feels in no uncertain terms. It's chilling.

Here's a live version of the song from a house concert. It's a little rough around the edges, which I kind of prefer. The ragged quality suits the song. But if you'd like to hear the cleaner album version, click here.

 

This next artist writes great sad songs too, but in an entirely different way, which you could likely surmise simply from his name, Sad Brad Smith. Some might be familiar with Smith from his single, "Help Yourself," which was featured in the recent movie, Up in the Air. I've actually never seen that flick, or heard the song. But Smith's full-length debut, Love is Not What You Need, has rarely left my iPod since it came out this fall.

Smith's approach to melancholy is tongue-in-cheek whimsy. He revels in wallowing. He writes clever, heartfelt songs that both tease and admire the peculiar conundrum of the superficially depressed. Ever have that friend who is only truly happy when he or she is unhappy? Love is that friend's personal soundtrack. Or maybe the record Charlie Brown would have written if he grew up to be a singer-songwriter. 

Here is live clip of Smith performing a song from Love, a typically overly underwrought charmer called "I'm So Sad." Enjoy. Or, um … don't, depending. And tune in tomorrow when we cheer the fuck up.

 

 

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A Few of My Favorite Things 2010: Spoon

Posted By on Tue, Dec 28, 2010 at 11:57 AM

Today's installment of my personal 2010 "Best Of" non-local music series features Spoon, a band that I doubt regular readers — both of them — will be surprised to find planted firmly among my garden of year-end treats. For one thing, they're a, ahem, perennial favorite, and for my meager money, the best rock band working in the US today. Yes, really. For another, I was practically orgasmic when their 2010 album, Transference, came out early this year. And for yet another, when I grow up, I want to be Britt Daniel.

In some ways, Transference delved even deeper into the "less-is-more" idea explored on their previous album Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. The songs here strip superficial pop constructs like paint thinner. While so much of indie-rock moves toward high-fructose ear candy and uses glo-fi glitter to mask inferior chops and writing, Spoon continue to chip away at rock's facade, exposing the raw, bloodied nerve endings at the core of their music. Or something.

I had the chance to catch Spoon live in Boston earlier this year. As I wrote at the time, it was the best show I never saw. Unfortunately, due to my poor vantage point on the Mezzanine level at the House of Blues, I had to watch the show on a projection screen, which was of course just a split second behind the live sound. Frustrating. Eventually, my compatriots and I resigned ourselves to hanging by a satellite bar, enjoying the concert armed with but our ears and few rounds of Narragansett tall boys — that's PBR, southern New England style. Ask your dad.

Even without the benefit of good — or any — sight lines, it was among my favorite concerts of the year. The sound at HOB is unparalleled. I've rarely ever heard sound mixed so well or presented so clearly. And Spoon are as dynamic and interesting live as they are on record, which is truly saying something. If you have the chance to see them, pay special attention to bassist Rob Pope and drummer Jim Eno. As remarkable as Daniel's songwriting is, Spoon would not be the same without their inventive interplay.

Anyway, here are a couple of Spoon clips. The first is the official Merge  Records video for "Written in Reverse," from Transference. The second is Daniel performing "I Summon You"  from Gimme Fiction, solo acoustic in the back of a taxi cab. And by the way, Spoon has a collection of outtakes from 2008-2009 called Bonus Tracks — clever, no? — available for download on their website. It ain't free, but it's cheap and certainly interesting as a companion to their work over the last few years. Enjoy.

 

 

 

 

 

Monday, December 27, 2010

A Few of My Favorite Things 2010: Jeremy Messersmith

Posted By on Mon, Dec 27, 2010 at 12:26 PM

A belated happy holidays, Solid State. I trust everyone is safe and warm somewhere as the weather howls past my picture window. Baby, it's cold outside. Anyway …

With Christmas unwrapped and the new year just around the corner, 'tis the season for music pundits such as myself to don their robes of self-importance and enlighten the masses with picks for the best music they've heard in the year that was.

[Little known secret: said robes are handed out when you accept any music crit job and kind of look like Roman philosopher's robes, but with punk rock patches sloppily hand-sewn about them. True story.]

With regard to the best local music of 2010, this Wednesday's paper will offer a glimpse into my thoughts and ramblings, as well as my picks for the top ten VT-made albums of the year. But man cannot live on localvore tunage alone. So this week, I'll be serving up some of the music that made me swoon, laugh, cry, rock the eff out or otherwise just got a kick out of in the past 12 months. Most of it was released this year. Some of it wasn't, but managed to find its way to me in 2010. You've probably heard of much of it, might not have heard of some of it, but I'm hoping you'll find something in the mix you'll enjoy either way.

First up, Minneapolis-based songwriter Jeremy Messersmith. He kinda looks like Buddy Holly (ooh-wee-ooh!), sings a bit like Paul Simon, and has a gift for irresistible pop hooks that will leave you whistling for days. Or in my case, most of the year.

My much cooler-than-me kid sister, Ari, actually knows the guy and introduced me to his music last year. But I didn't really pay attention to him until he released his 2010 album, The Reluctant Graveyard, this spring. That thing never left my iPod, was a staple on most of my summer mixes and served me well through an unusual fall. It's the kind of record that sneaks up on you, even if you love it immediately as I did. Nearly every time I put it on, I discover something new within Messersmith's deceptively simple pop that gives me a heightened appreciation for his work.

Below are videos for two of my favorite cuts from that record. The first is a sweetly chilling ballad, "A Girl, a Boy, and a Graveyard," that feels appropriate given this bleak midwinter day. The second is the album's lead track, "Lazybones," featuring what may be my favorite single hook of the year. I triple dog dare you to get its jangly genius out of your head before 2011. And if you can't, The Reluctant Graveyard and all the rest of Messersmith's music is available through his website as pay-what-you-want downloads.

  

 

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Free at Last

Posted By on Tue, Dec 21, 2010 at 11:26 AM

Earlier this year, I wrote a mildly tongue-in-cheek open letter to Vermont's senior Senator, Patrick Leahy, urging him to "hotline" the Local Community Radio Act, a bill he originally co-sponsored with Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Sen John McCain (R-AZ), among others. To refresh your memory, the bill would ease adjacency restrictions on the FM dial and allow a greater number of low power FM stations (think 105.9 FM WOMM-LP the Radiator) to operate. Theoretically, this means more variety and localism on an increasingly bland, homogenized spectrum, more community involvement in what is broadcast on our public airwaves (they're all public, BTW) and, well, hunky dory, warm fuzzy feelings all around. 

A few days after that piece ran, Senator Leahy actually called me back. After I got over the initial shock of speaking to one of the most powerful men in the country, we settled into a legitimate discussion on the merits of the LCRA legislation, the hurdles the bill has faced along the way and why it had yet to pass — it was proposed in 2005. Asked for his take on the bill's fate at the end of our conversation, Leahy said, in no uncertain terms, "It will pass. Soon." 

It turns out he was right. Saturday, the bill finally passed the Senate, and unanimously at that. It easily passed the House of Representatives earlier this year. 

In press release sent from his office yesterday, Leahy says, “By using low power stations, community groups can access underutilized spectrum and provide content tailored to smaller communities.” He continues, saying, “This legislation is important because LPFM stations provide opportunities for local organizations to serve local communities. Vermont has LPFM stations serving local communities in Vermont from Hyde Park to Brattleboro to Warren. There is room for more.”

Pending the signature of President Obama, local airwaves could indeed see more LPFMs in communities all over the state. Christmas miracle? 

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Coming Attractionz

Posted By on Thu, Dec 9, 2010 at 1:47 PM

This just in from ya boyz at 4Word Productions: the trailer for an upcoming animated video from BURNTmd and Akrobatik. Suck on that, Harry Potter.

 

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

John Lennon and … Howard Cosell?

Posted By on Wed, Dec 8, 2010 at 10:29 AM

Maybe you've heard, but December 8 marks the thirtieth anniversary of the day John Lennon was murdered. Obviously, there are tributes almost anywhere you look today — including a Lennon tribute night at Parima this evening with Aaron Flinn, Joshua Glass and Scott Mangan, FYI. And with good reason. You'd be hard pressed to name any single artist whose impact on the landscape of pop music and culture was as profound.

But few folks remember that news of Lennon's death was first broken not by a news icon such as Walter Cronkite or Ted Koppel, but by, of all people, legendary sportscaster Howard Cosell during a Monday Night Football broadcast. (I don't remember it either. I was two at the time.) Cosell learned of the news at the end of a game between the New England Patriots and Miami Dolphins. And were it left up to him, he might not have passed it along as the game was tied with 13 seconds remaining setting the stage for a potential winning field goal. Fortunately, a younger, hipper Frank Gifford understood the gravity of the situation and persuaded Cosell otherwise.

Below is a behind the scenes clip from ESPN in which Gifford convinces Cosell that Lennon's death is kind of a big deal. And here is a link to Cosell's delivery of the news.

 

 

 

 

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Tasty Leftovers: Arthur Brooks

Posted By on Wed, Dec 1, 2010 at 12:02 PM

Once again, ace freelancer Matt Bushlow checks in with some spare parts from his story on trumpeter Arthur Brooks appearing in today's paper. These "Tasty Leftovers" are part of a continuing series Bushlow is writing for his own blog, in which he shares some extra bits and pieces from his various freelance projects, including for VPR and, of course, Seven Days. This is his second such post for 7D, and his third in the series overall. Take it away, Matt. [Ed-DB]

-------

About two weeks ago, I interviewed trumpeter and composer Arthur Brooks for a profile that ran in today's issue of Seven Days. Brooks studied music at Antioch College in the late 1960s and later worked with two pioneers of what was called the New Music, or free jazz, movement: pianist Cecil Taylor and trumpeter Bill Dixon. It was Dixon who brought Brooks to Bennington College in Vermont, where he taught for nearly 25 years before retiring in 1997.

Our conversation spread out over decades - from the October Revolution in late-'60s New York to Dixon's death earlier this year.

As these things often go, I couldn't include everything in my profile of Brooks. Luckily, thanks to the magic of the Internet, I can include a few of my favorite excerpts below. Enjoy.

On music as an art form:

"There are basic questions that I feel have to be addressed if you’re trying to do music as an art - as an art form. And that is basically, what is music? Where does it come from? And that’s personal. For me, that’s a personal pursuit. There are spiritual and philosophical aspects of it, and that to me is what the finest music manifests - those deeper areas. It doesn’t matter what form. It can be classical, it can be country, it can be folk. If the person doing it has a certain amount of integrity and you can hear that soul element, that’s what does it for me. I’ll listen to heavy metal if those people are tapping onto that basic core...."

Explaining why he describes his music as "country" music:

"Go down to the lake. Look at the water. And listen to it. Listen to what you see. God, up here in Vermont you’ve got these mountains that have their own shapes and rhythms, and along with the rest of everything else going on.... One of the exercises I used to give my students was for five minutes a day, no matter where you are, stop, focus all of your attention here [points to ears] in what you hear, and let it extend your hearing as far as you can. And let it absorb it, be aware of it. Go to the woods, go to the lake. "

On his mentor Bill Dixon's involvement in the October Revolution, a protest of clubs by free jazz or "New Musicians":

"Bill was also the architect of what was called The October Revolution.... Its design was to boycott all the clubs and festivals to get a better deal for the New Musicians. [John Coltrane] was a part of it, Cecil [Taylor] was a part of it.... Again, the model had already been set by the post-Modernist painters in New York. When they - Rothko, Kenneth Noland, [Robert] Rauschenberg - couldn’t get their work into regular galleries. They said, “Okay, we’ll pull our stuff out and we’ll make our own galleries.” And they kicked ass. [Laughs] They made it happen. Of course, they had some very wealthy patrons, too. We never really got that.

On playing with Cecil Taylor:

"I was kind of intimidated with playing with Cecil’s Unit, because the music is so high, so technically demanding in a certain kind of way, at least the rehearsals were, but when we got on the gig, it was [makes a “takeoff” sound and motion with his hand] pew! Cecil’s sets last for an hour, two hours, and I said, “I don’t know if I have the chops for this.” And it would be this whole universe of sound open up, and you’d be there watching yourself play and the horn is playing itself, and Cecil’s just in front of you, behind you, on your side, above you [makes more sound effects, like Cecil is zipping around him while he’s playing], just urging you on.... And we’d finish and you’d think, wow, you’ve been playing maybe 10, 15 minutes - maybe 30 - [but it was] two hours. And you finish and you can’t say anything because you’re so high. It’s amazing. And every single time I’ve played with Cecil, it’s been that way. ... And that’s what I aim for. That’s what I want, is to reach that state where the music is just revealing itself. To me, at its best, that’s what you do: You become the instrument. You put yourself in position where you become the instrument."

On where he believes the music comes from:

"I probably come from a Sufi concept of what sound is: That sound is one of the elements of the soul, that it’s the connection between heartbeat and the soul; that music is a very other-dimensional manifestation of being. I think that’s why it moves us so much, because it transcends us. If one can believe that - even if one doesn’t believe that the heart is propelled by something other than massive chemical reactions - that the heart is connected to this stream of energy that exists, that stream of energy, to me, is music. That’s why I love nature so much, because that’s a more authentic stream of energy, a less man-made stream of energy."

That Thing, That Thing

Posted By on Wed, Dec 1, 2010 at 11:28 AM

This just in from the good folks at Higher Ground: In celebration of the club's 12th anniversary, they've just announced the incomparable Lauryn Hill will play the Ballroom on Wednesday, December 15. And according to HG's Nick Vaden, she's bringing a 10-piece band. Dang. Tickets go on sale this Friday. And at $60 a pop, here's hoping there's Fugee or two involved … ahem.

In the meantime, here's a clip from Hill's "MTV Unplugged" appearance in 2002.

 

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