December 31, 2013
My Favorite 10 Records of 2013

1. Phish - 7/31/13 - Stateline, NV

Here’s what’s great about following every note of a band that plays dozens of shows a year, through occasional frustration and persistent fear that they’ll never recapture a long-ago peak: when it clicks, it feels like you’ve all won a championship together. I’ve placed this entire show at #1 to shoehorn it in as an album, but it’s really just the 36 minutes and 48 seconds of “Tweezer” that earns it the top spot — a runtime only a few minutes short of the #2 album on this list, incidentally. They are, without a doubt, my favorite 36:48 of the year.

I’m sure that track length sounds like an intimidating commitment to the uninitiated, but the band’s refined powers of restless yet effortless improvisation in 2013 keep the jam evolving through themes at a brisk rate throughout, avoiding cul de sacs of noodling. Along the way, it gives a scenic tour of virtually every era of Phish: easygoing funk groove, Eno-washed ambient, thundering hard-rock stomp, and a gloriously arena-sized finish complete with spontaneous crowd interaction. It’s also a musical autobiography of the band — eagerly cycling through styles for the first half, almost fizzling out around the 20-minute mark, but miraculously reassembling for a thrilling final act and a weathered, bittersweet coda. There’s no better demonstration of a band that — to my great relief and admiration — proved itself as a sustainable creative force in its 30th year of existence.

The rest of my Top 10… 

2. Kanye: An ugly record that puts me in a foul mood, and I hate 4 songs in the middle. Still the best-executed concept album of 2013.

3. Cass McCombs: The #indiejam record of the year gives Cass’ doom-folk unexpected elasticity, makes me nostalgic for Being There.

4. Eleanor Friedberger: The year I move to her hometown, EF welcomes me w/ a cozier take on the melodic sweetness of early Furnaces.

5. Deerhunter: Victims of their own consistency, this was their Experimental Jet Set, a small, muffled, vulnerable creature.

6. Laura Marling: If Joni Mitchell was the Influence of the Year in 2013, Marling wore it best. The opening five-song suite is deadly.

7. VW: Watered the seeds planted by those amazing, dubby last two tracks on Contra and something wonderfully dark and subversive bloomed.

8. MBV: The comeback record that wasn’t a letdown. In the upset of the year, the drums are as thrilling as the guitars.

9t. Dawn of Midi/The Necks: Dawn of Midi/The Necks: Hypnotic, iterative records that creep along the borders between improvised/composed & electric/acoustic.

10. Kurt Vile: To paraphrase @stevenhyden, it perfectly captures the woozy psychedelia of being a newish, sleep-deprived Dad.

See you in 2014.

January 2, 2013
tonotopia: Please No More Sad Songs

tonotopia:

Changing the tune: Listeners like music that expresses a contrasting emotion

Contrast is the simplest way to play tricks on the brain. Sit in a dark room for a while then go outside, and a sunny day can be painfully blinding. Hold an ice cube in your hand then stick it under a tepid…

It’s a New Year’s tradition for me to try to launch Tonotopia, my perpetually doomed “science of music” blog, on a new platform. 2013 is tumblr’s turn. Hope it finally gets some wind in its sails.

December 28, 2012
CHR 1.5: Neil Young - Time Fades Away

imageSo we reach The Great Mystery of the Neil Young Discography: Why is Time Fades Away out of print? It’s a record smack dab in the middle of his peerless 70’s winning streak, the follow-up (however unsuccessful) to his most popular LP, and — for three songs — it features a three-quarters reunion of CSNY at the height of their powers. Conversely, any of the theories about why Neil has left it to collect dust in his voluminous archives don’t hold water. Does it reflect an era that remains an open wound? Well, yeah (read down for why), but so does Tonight’s the Night and On The Beach, both of which were also recorded in that same gloriously creative, emotionally crushing year. Is it the raw, warts and all, new songs recorded live format? Again, Tonight’s the Night uses basically the same approach, minus the crowd noise [1], and it’s a method Neil would return to later in the decade with Rust Never Sleeps. Is it just a bad album? Shakey cites a 1987 interview where Neil calls it “the worst record I ever made…I was onstage and I was playing all these songs that nobody had heard before, recording them, and I didn’t have the right band. It was just an uncomfortable tour.” But, in part thanks to its relative obscurity [2], Time Fades Away has earned cult status and is generally considered on par with the rest of the decade.

I think the truth lies somewhere in between. If it were just another in-print Neil record, I think it would be somewhere around Zuma on the 1970’s NY power rankings. But despite its musical flaws, it’s absolutely fascinating as a chapter in the storyline of Neil Young [3]. The grueling 62-date tour it documents was darkly christened by the fate of Danny Whitten, who, after failing his tryout for the touring band and receiving $50 from Neil to get home, was found dead with $50 worth of heroin in his system. Artistically, Neil was experiencing an internal backlash against his own success thanks to Harvest, and writing songs about as far away from “Heart of Gold” as possible. So while Neil would throw his 1973 crowds a bone with a brief solo set and the big Harvest hits up front, he would then pummel them with a bunch of unreleased, dark material that doesn’t really sound finished or particularly well rehearsed. I’m pretty sure everyone at a 1973 rock concert was really fucked up, so it probably wasn’t exactly Dylan at Newport or anything. But it’s still a pretty punk rock move for a guy at the commercial peak of his career, and a fascinatingly confrontational listen.

Basically, Time Fades Away is the prequel or the dress rehearsal for Tonight’s the Night, opening with a line about “14 junkies too weak to work” and featuring the same last call vibes instrumentally. But instead of facing the decaying stench of the 60’s full on, for now Neil hides under a blanket of nostalgia, to the point of including a song called “Journey Through The Past” [4].” Two different songs talk find Neil talking about his Canadian homeland, and the best of the two (“Don’t Be Denied”) pens an autobiography that runs from his Winnipeg school days to a hilariously cynical recounting of Buffalo Springfield’s rise to stardom. Vocally, the album is full of raw throats and cracking notes — even when Crosby & Nash show up to help out, the harmonies on “Yonder Stands The Sinner” or “Last Dance” are brutal and perverse. 

It’s weird that Neil throws the Stray Gators under the bus in Shakey, when the lineup also featured frequent co-conspirators Ben Keith, Jack Nitzsche and Tim Drummond [5]. They also sound, to my ears, perfect for this increasingly bleak material — Keith, especially, whose pedal steel and brute-force backing vocals amplify the desperation of the songs. The end jam of “Last Dance” is masterful architecture, with the precision guitars and drums like heavy marble columns while Keith’s instrument haunts the empty spaces between. Even King Cheeseball Graham Nash can’t ruin the moment with one final cry of “Last Dance!” before the needle runs off the final groove.

Would releasing this music digitally — either as part of the perpetually-delayed Archives Vol. 2 or on its own — break its spell? Doubtful; On The Beach only increased in reputation after it was released from its long, cruel exile, and that record is no sunnier, if a little bit more polished and subdued. But there’s something poetic about an artist who sticks to his guns on an album and a time he’d rather forget, resisting an easy deluxe reissue cash-in and leaving a weird toothless gap in his peak era discography. For an album that’s about seeking solace in the past and finding nothing, it’s also an appropriate omission.

[1] - Audiophile Neil of today who insists on HDCDs and Blu-Rays and the like apparently thinks it sounds too “murky.” I appreciate its lo-fi aesthetic, and as with the tone of the material, it’s not much different from Tonight’s the Night.

[2] - Sure, you can’t get it on CD or stream it, but it was the friggin’ follow-up to Harvest, so there’s a few million copies floating around in used vinyl bins. A nice side effect of this restriction is that you can only experience the cover art — one of my favorites of all time —- at full size.

[3] - In that same 1987 interview, Neil begrudgingly admits “as a documentary of what was happening to me, it was a great record.”

[4] - Actually recorded two years before the rest of the album, at the same concert that yielded the Harvest version of “The Needle and the Damage Done.”

[5] - There were drummer problems, which led Kenny Buttrey (a frequent Dylan backer) to be fired halfway through the tour over money demands.

November 16, 2012
Quick postscript: Let’s Be Undecided

It occurred to me belatedly that the best non-jamband example of a band that has found innovative ways of touring is Yo La Tengo. They’ve tried almost all of the ideas I mentioned in yesterday’s post: gimmicks (the Q&A/acoustic/request format of “The Freewheelin’ Yo La Tengo,” or the randomized “Wheel” sets of the last couple years), rearrangement of songs, constantly changing setlists, and a healthy dose of improvisation (if mostly of the long, skronky solo type). Nothing portrays this better than the "I Can Hardly Wait" mix Tyler Wilcox put together to accompany Jesse Jarnow’s awesome Yo La Tengo biography, Big Day Coming, which consists of seven different live versions of the song that inspired the book’s title. There’s the absolutely incredible 27-minute long debut of the song in 1991, versions with Ira singing, versions with Georgia singing, acoustic versions, electric versions, slow versions, versions with Sun Ra Arkestra and Jad Fair and Mac McCaughan, long versions, short versions…you get the point. It’s exactly why I will see them every time to come to Chicago — unlike 98% of bands that I go see, I never know what to expect, and that is addictive, and all I ask of a touring band, really.

It’s just too bad they haven’t gotten on the webcast game yet — I know at least a few people who would happily chip in some charity donations to be able to experience the Hanukkah Maxwell’s run from their couch.

November 15, 2012
naming blogs is easy: Six reasons why "if you want to get paid for music you should play it live" is an idiotic argument.

maura:

Some bad-ass dude replied to Damon Krukowski’s breakdown of how much money he makes from streaming services with a sneer and a windy response that basically boiled down to “duh, quit yer bitching and make your money on the road, old man.” Which… are we really still having these arguments,…

Lots of good points from Maura, as always, in this post. However, I think a lot of them are predicated on bands remaining stuck in the classic indie-rock mode of touring - load up a van, hit a bunch of cities, and (usually) play the same set night in and night out. I’m a broken record on this point, but indie bands really could learn a lot from jambands about how to make touring a more significant revenue stream. For instance, to address one of Maura’s points, one way to avoid saturating a particular market with your live show is to do something different every time you visit that market: change your setlist, rearrange your songs, perform with special guests, improvise! I realize this requires a deeper catalog and (possibly) more technical skill than a lot of young rock bands possess, but if you have a couple albums and a handful of covers, it shouldn’t be too hard to rotate your set at least a little. 

Jambands have also found successful ways to monetize the live experience beyond their cut of ticket sales and merchandise. Many of these bands sell soundboard recordings of every show they play from their website, which requires some technical overhead, but is a self-released product with (presumably) high profit margins and built-in demand from people who attended the show and want a more substantial souvenir than a t-shirt. Many of these bands also webcast shows live, which not only allows you to sell more tickets than a given venue holds, it allows you to reach the remote fans in Halifax that Maura rightly says are expensive to reach physically. Again, there are obviously technical costs to producing a webcast — especially one that looks and sounds good — but streaming video services are easier and easier to use, and it creates a new source of revenue that wasn’t available before. You actually don’t even need to play an actual show in a venue to create a webcast — if you’re doing interesting stuff with your music, you can probably get a certain number of fans to pay to watch you play a “show” in your basement. 

Granted, a lot of these methods only work if a band already has a decent-sized following, and they’re likely far less viable for artists that are just starting out/building an audience. But I think “established” artists could benefit from thinking about touring differently just as many are (forcibly) thinking about different models of releasing recorded music. 

(Source: pitchfork)

August 15, 2012
CHR 1.4: Neil Young - Harvest

I’ve lost track of whether it’s cooler right now to love or hate Harvest. So I’ll just lay my cards down — I’m not a fan. It’s not because it’s overproduced, though on at least two songs it certainly is, to the point of comedy. And I don’t really care about it being Neil’s biggest commercial success, making it his defining work for people like my parents. Nope, I dislike Harvest and rarely put it on for one simple reason: because for the majority of the album, Neil is a little shit.

Neil may have wallowed in self-pity before, but Harvest is one mopey song after another, proto-LiveJournal scrawls from a veteran songwriter who should have outgrown his emo phase by this point. From the third-person “Out On The Weekend” whose protagonist “can’t relate to joy” up to the maudlin “A Man Needs A Maid,” where Neil considers his loneliness so special that it takes the London Goddamn Symphony Orchestra to express it, the narrator of Harvest is just a frickin’ annoying dude. The worst of all, due in great part to its soft-rock ubiquity, is “Old Man,” where 24-year-old Neil condescends to a elderly farmhand and says he’s got problems too, man, living on this awesome ranch that I bought by playing guitar for a living. Can you imagine the look Neil of today, a legitimate Old Man, would give this punk?

If I put those feelings aside and try to block out the horrid “Maid” and its even sillier symphonic sibling “There’s A World,” I can find some things to appreciate about Harvest. The production on the Nashville session songs (“Heart of Gold,” “Old Man,” the title track) is actually pretty perfect — they’re smooth and spooky without being sickeningly slick, I like James Taylor[1] and Linda Ronstadt’s cameos, and they don’t try to hide the fragile grace of Neil’s voice. You can look at this half of Harvest as the far more successful sequel to Neil Young; compare any of those three[2] to the overwrought “The Old Laughing Lady,” for instance.

A great deal of that successful sound can be attributed to a session musician Neil picked up in Nashville and then carried back to his barn to join his new band, the Stray Gators, and virtually every subsequent band he would go on to form. Enter Ben Keith, the most important and durable creative foil in Neil Young’s career. Danny Whitten may have helped Neil carve out his electric sound and inspired (in the worst way possible) some of his greatest albums, but Keith’s pedal steel would give voice to Whitten’s ghost and all the other things haunting Neil through the rest of the 70’s, and be a loyal companion for the highs and lows to follow.

Something interesting also happens in the last three songs of Harvest, putting the lie to the common wisdom that it’s Neil’s easy listening record. Two of the three, “Alabama”[3] and “Words (Pretentious Parenthetical),” are live-sounding recordings of the Stray Gators playing at a barn on Neil’s new Broken Arrow Ranch. Neither song is top flight in Neil’s catalog, but they could fit right into the wounded melancholy of the next record, Time Fades Away, with Jack Nitzsche’s piano reprising its After The Gold Rush counterpoint and Keith’s pedal steel wails used to rawer effect than in the sedate Nashville studio.

Then there’s “The Needle and the Damage Done,” another, older live track where Neil unabashedly rewrites Bert Jansch’s “Needle of Death" and creates classic rock’s definitive Just Say No dirge, trotted out whenever a musician ODs [4]. Compared to almost anything on Tonight’s The Night, it’s a featherweight rumination on watching friends kill themselves with drugs. But there’s something so disturbing and effective about how the crowd applauds this miserable song, only to be abruptly chainsawed by the opening chords to “Words.” It’s only a small step more to the inscription on Tonight’s the Night that would serve as thesis statement for the next phase of Neil’s career: “I’m sorry. You don’t know these people. This means nothing to you.”

[1] - I like to imagine an alternate reality where Neil kept chasing the soft-rock success of Harvest while James Taylor unraveled and started writing drunken eulogies for dead friends. In this reality, Linda Ronstadt remains Linda Ronstadt.

[2] - Or the awesome “Bad Fog of Loneliness,” recorded at the same session, bootlegged forever, but not officially released until Archives Vol. 1.

[3] - What exactly did the South do to Neil in the early 70’s anyway? Did he get some bad service at a Waffle House? At least this one doesn’t contain imagery of slaves getting whipped.

[4] - Forever stuck in my memory is Neil performing it in hilarious shorts at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame of all places, during the 1996 MTV Awards while photos of Kurt Cobain and other dead rock stars were projected behind him. Not so much as a moving moment but as a bizarre one — apparently it ran between LL Cool J performing “Doin’ It” and a Hootie & The Blowfish performance.

——

July 23, 2012
After The Gold Rush Bonus Content

Fellow traveler Jesse Jarnow pointed me to bootleg master Tyler Wilcox’s It Might Have Been, an attempt to imagine what an all-Crazy Horse version of After The Gold Rush would have sounded like, had Danny Whitten not started his rapid decline during its recording. The link there is broken, but Tyler helpfully shared the playlist with me, which I’ve re-created in Spotify drawing mostly from Archives Vol. 1. Sadly, no studio version of “Winterlong” with the original Horse has been released (yet), but the Fillmore East 1970 version is pretty sweet.

Tyler’s Doom & Gloom From the Tomb is chock full of Neil rarities and other fascinating stuff, so check it out (I particularly adore this one). And you should also read Jesse’s excellent new biography of a band who plays their fair share of Neil Young covers, Big Day Coming: Yo La Tengo and the Rise of Indie Rock.

July 22, 2012
CHR 1.3: Neil Young - After The Gold Rush

Allow me to put my old man hat on for a moment here. Before there was the streamin’ and the downloads and the file sharing, a music-hungry kid had to find a way to hear albums on a lawn-mowing budget. For me, the solution was vinyl. Most record stores, having moved fully into those fancy new compact discs, had boxes and boxes of old LPs for a quarter each hidden under the CD racks, and a few bucks could pay for a good stack of classic rock that your parents didn’t already have stashed in the basement.

My copy of After the Gold Rush was purchased in one of these pocket-change hauls, and even though I no longer own a functional turntable (rock critic sin!), I still have the record pack-ratted away in the basement. With tattered corners and scattered pockmarks, my copy is a long, long ways away from a pristine 180-Gram reissued and remastered fetish item, but all of its peculiar quirks are forever imprinted into my experience of Neil’s third album. Now, of course, I usually experience After the Gold Rush through the medium of digital files. But every time the album gets to the two-minute mark of “Oh Lonesome Me,” I miss my vinyl copy’s most traumatic scratch, which would lock groove into Neil moaning “she’s out…she’s out…she’s out…she’s out” until an expert turntable smack released him into completing the thought: “…fancy freeeeeee.”

That beaten-up LP might have something to do with the primary adjective that pops into my head for describing After the Gold Rush: wobbly. Every song on the record sounds on the verge of falling apart, not unlike Tonight’s the Night, but with a much warmer buzz. It’s basically Neil’s indie rockiest album: recorded mostly in his basement, raw and unpolished, hopping playfully between genres and collaborators. There’s a relaxed sweetness to it that doesn’t really show up very often in Neil’s career, and it’s refreshingly uncategorizable: it’s not exclusively an electric Crazy Horse outing or a folky acoustic session, it’s both and neither simultaneously.

Danny Whitten had already started his sad decline, so the important role of creative foil is taken up here by an entirely different instrument, played by two men who were amateurs with it at best. After the Gold Rush is a piano album — there’s the famous title track [1], of course, but then a handful of incredible songs where primal keyboard work by Nils Lofgren or Jack Nitzsche whips on Neil as effectively as Whitten’s guitar had on Everybody Knows. “Southern Man” might be an incredibly condescending piece of politics, but Lofgren’s barroom rolls give the song its essential seethe. And while as an arranger, Nitzsche was a main contributor to the overdub crimes of Neil’s debut, his one-finger pounding on “When You Dance, I Can Really Love” [2] is the piano equivalent of the “Cinnamon Girl” guitar solo: savage minimalism.

Perhaps it’s also thanks to that ubiquitous jaunty piano that After the Gold Rush gives off such contented vibes, despite a preponderance of sad-sack songs [3]. “Home recording” is often short-hand for lo-fi, but here it’s more about Topanga Canyon domesticity, as Neil takes a deep breath and jams with his friends between the big budget blockbusters of Deja Vu and Harvest. The melancholy that threads through the album sounds almost quaint compared to the dark clouds that were on the horizon in the decade to come. Maybe it’s just my own happy memories of scratchy vinyl listening sessions. Maybe I need a new turntable. Don’t let it bring you down.

[1] - Which, to be frank, is now one of those songs I’ve heard so many times I can barely hear it any more. I kind of hate how it’s evolved into an environmental anthem (for Neil) or a drug song (for his fans), as it’s much more interesting as a weird, sci-fi, post-apocalyptic hallucination. I’m far more interested in the insane-sounding Dean Stockwell movie script it was based on.

[2] - I’ve always loved the weird syntax of that title, which covers up for some of his silliest lyrics this side of perennial rarity “Dance Dance Dance.”

[3] - Brief shout-out to “I Believe In You,” my favorite song this go-round and a hilariously passive-aggressive love song that can’t help being accidentally uplifting despite backing vocals that are literally a smart-ass “Na-Na-Na-Na.”

July 19, 2012

July 18, 2012
THIS PROJECT IS NOT ABANDONED

Hey, Rob here. Just a reassurance that I haven’t thrown Chronologies into the overflowing landfill of abandoned internet ideas. I have the After the Gold Rush piece sitting at 80% completion in my draft folder right now. But paralysis on how to finish it and various life events have interfered with the timeliness of posting. Management apologizes for the inconvenience.

In the meantime, if you haven’t already seen me promoting it on every other social media platform, you can read my latest piece for The Classical, The Bell-Lappers. It’s a story that I started researching years ago, and I’m still very excited that it found a home and an audience. If you’ve already read it and possibly RTed it, thanks. Here’s a picture that I didn’t want The Classical to use because I don’t remember its potentially copyrighted origins.