Pittsburgh Union of Record Geeks electronic

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Crosby, Stills and Nash (2006 reissue) and David Crosby- If I Could Only Remember My Name (2006 reissue)

It's easy to look at Crosby, Stills & Nash as the ice patch that began the slippery slope that would descend rapidly from the heights of the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield to the dregs of the Eagles' and James Taylor's most insipid products. But some concocted cash-in this record was not. Rather, this is a snapshot in time of three musicians bouncing like pinballs between the highs and lows of their own careers and making a decent little pop record in the process whose reputation tends to become entwined in subsequent events.

Hard to fathom now, but none of these guys were really household names nor generally acknowledged as musical forces to be reckoned with when this record was made. Most musically accomplished was likely Graham Nash, who co-wrote and sang awe-inspiring harmonies on some of the best pop singles of the '60s as a member of the Hollies. That group, though, enjoyed a much higher profile at home in England than in the States. And by 1969, most "British Invasion" groups regardless of the level of brilliance their output reflected had mostly receded into anonymity.

David Crosby was probably the most "famous" of the three, having served as the McCartney stand-in for the pinups of America's answer to the Beatles, the Byrds. But that band's status as the best of the '60s next to the Fab Four had precious little to do with Crosby. While his harmonic prowess rivaled Nash's and was integral to the Byrds' groundbreaking sound, only a couple of the small handful of his compositions in the group are notable, and when he tried to assert himself during the recording of The Notorious Byrd Brothers it resulted in the band's few pompous moments and the breakup of the classic original group.

Neil Young walked away with most of the buzz after the breakup of Buffalo Springfield, a group that had seriously underachieved after copious initial hype. This left some very good moments that Stills masterminded in the group's waning days largely unnoticed. Tracks like "Special Care" and "Questions" hew very closely to what Stills would accomplish on CS&N.

Because what the remastered reissue of this album more generally regarded as hippie artifact than musical creation shows more than ever is that it is effectively Stills' accomplishment alone--and clearly his crowning one.

While Nash's songs on the record are unpredictably weak departures from his impressive resume as a pop composer, and Crosby's work clearly displays the heavy-handedness he suffered from throughout his career, Stills contributes a diverse array of solid compositions. Stills also virtually cobbled the album's backing tracks together singlehandedly, handling the lion's share of guitar parts as well as bass and keyboards.

The remastering job on this issue is exquisite. I had become so used to the thin layer of harmony over deadened instruments that it was like I was hearing this album for the first time. You can hear the trio actually singing together instead of an assimilated whine. And inventive bass playing and guitar work by Stills that had been buried is everywhere, adding life to even the album's less substantive numbers.

The album-closer "49 Bye-Byes" is particularly well crafted song and recording. This is sunshine pop with a sense of purpose not far removed from Rubber Soul or Revolver-era Beatles. "Helplessly Hoping" could have been the beginning of the sensitive singer-songwriter bit that would induce vomiting within a few years, but it's among the most redeeming examples of the subgenre. "You Don't Have To Cry" is the type of vaguely country-inflected pop number that may have saved Buffalo Springfield had Stills come up with it a couple years earlier. And as much as you want to malign "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes," which seems like a cliche today, it's a relatively heartfelt and adventurous vestige of flower power.

Unfortunately, Stills' days of inspiration and musical adventure ended here. His contributions to the follow up, Deja Vu, largely reflected the pomposity and relative pointlessness he quickly settled into. Nash reasserted his pop genius with "Teach Your Children" and "Our House," Crosby contributed his best number to the group in "Almost Cut My Hair," and of course Neil Young's addition--adding the ultra-powerful "Helpless" and his incendiary guitar--made it look as though Stills was just taking up space.

And while I'll admit to not being familiar enough with Stills' early solo work to posit that he never did anything worthwhile again, I can say with great confidence that they didn't match his bandmates' striking yet relatively ignored solo products of the next year--least of all Young's After the Gold Rush, this reviewer's favorite album of all time, but also Nash's affecting Songs for Beginners and Crosby's If I Could Only Remember My Name...

Name... has recently undergone the Rhino deluxe reissue treatment, concurrently with the release of a three-CD box set retrospective on Crosby. And while the latter is almost laughable in its indulgence, don't discount the former even given its hefty price tag and dubious bonus DVD.

The album begins with "Music Is Love," a lighweight riff and dippy slogan laid down by Crosby before Young and Nash rescued it, put some meat on its bones, and made it into a beautiful, if incongruous, intro to the album. Much of Name... explores the very dark areas of Crosby's mind, brought to the fore by the recent death of his girlfriend Christine Hinton in a freak auto accident.

"Cowboy Movie" follows, an angry and emotional rocker hinging on Crosby's too-infrequently featured but excellent rhythm guitar playing. The track is remarkably similar to "Revolution Blues" from Young's On the Beach lp, on which Crosby's rock solid playing is also a highlight and which tells a not dissimilar story of depravity in a scary underworld all too real to the two. But while Young's tale is about his too-close-for-comfort associations with the Manson family, the liner notes to this reissue reveal that "Movie" is an allegory to CSN&Y itself. Most of the Grateful Dead backs Crosby on the song, with Jerry Garcia and Phil Lesh capably matching his instrumental power.

"Laughing" is more in keeping with Crosby's usual of tack of concocting mystical imagery that too often gets away from him. It doesn't here, and stands out as probably the best song he would come up with in his career. The backing track is other-worldly (especially Garcia's pedal steel and Joni Mitchell's backing vocal) in keeping with the lyrical subject matter of searching for spiritual fulfillment. It's easy to imagine the song played by the Notorious-era Byrds, and the fact that Crosby would re-record it on that group's reunion lp in the near future indicates he might have had the same thought. The version here outmatches the reading on that less-than-inspired album, though.

"Song With No Words (Tree With No Leaves)" is one of several tracks on the album on which Crosby forgoes lyrics altogether. I'm usually not much for this type of thing, but it works to perfection here. His wordless vocalisations carry a lilting melody that an inspired lead guitar (Garcia? Jorma Kaukonen?) picks up toward the end. Let's face it, Crosby isn't the most gifted lyricist, and this format probably gets his palpably deep emotions across better than any words could have.

Sadly, this album's greatness is more or less an anomaly in Crosby's career, much as CS&N is to Stills'. Yet it indicates that maybe there's something to the fact that they maintain such a devoted following among many of those who came of age in the brief moments when the two were creating something special. For the rest of us, the question then is whether these singular triumphs make their future transgressions easier to forgive or just harder to swallow.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

2007...The year of PURGe

Karen resolves to listen to enough new records in 2007 to compile her own list.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Friendstealer comes crawling back

friendstealer has trouble remembering all the records he stole last year.

put these right in a row at 6 & 7

phoenix - it's never been like that (astralwerks)

I was introduced to the music of phoenix by the use of their all-time classic single, "too young," in the film lost in translation. it's a great scene (look it up.) their albums have never really delivered the total pop of that song. this one does. more hooks than a sack of hooks or something like that...

phil boyd and the hidden twin - s/t (faux totem)

I keep forgetting that this came out this year, because it came out early. I'm no fan of the modey lemon, although the one live show I saw was pretty intense, but this phil boyd "weird folk" (or whatnot) record is pretty magical. I used to listen to it at work a lot. I don't work there anymore, but I can still listen to it.

remove sean lennon and belle & sebastian, if you dare

A Different Rob's Top Three of 2006

Rob is a minimalist record geek from Friendship.

This year for various reasons--mostly financial (eat it, Sallie Mae)--
I've only heard three albums that were released in 2006 in their
entirety. Not enough for a Top 20, Top Ten, or really any multiple of
five list, so instead, here are my Top Three Records of 2006.

1. The Evens- Get Evens (Dischord)

You know how in the Karate Kid, Mr. Miagi starts out teaching Daniel
how to fight by having him wash his car and paint his fence, and then
later, Daniel discovers that Mr. Miagi has really been teaching him
how to fight the whole time, because the secret to karate are the
basics moves, timing, and balance? The Evens are like Mr. Miagi. For
a rock band, they're about as stripped down as you can get: two
people- one plays drums, the other plays guitar, and they both sing.
When they tour they bring their own PA, and two light bulbs attached
to guitar stands for lights, and that's it. No keyboards, no second
guitar parts, no orchestral arrangements (really no other instruments
period), no effects pedals- they don't even have distortion on the
electric guitar.

They're quiet and unassuming but The Evens can still kick your ass.
Ian Mackaye plays a baritone guitar, which has both the low-end, bassy
sound of a umm... bass, with the melodic notes of a guitar. Amy
Farina, his partner in the Evens, plays gently, giving the drums a
crazy amount of texture. Mackaye's not yelling as much as he did in
Fugazi and Minor Threat, but the vocals still have that anthemic
quality that invites you to sing along. And the lyrics manage to be
political while still leaving room for interpretation and thinking-
a rarity these days. The Evens don't sound angry so much as very
firm (again, the Karate Kid comes to mind), something few other bands
that sing "political" songs manage to pull off. In interviews and at
shows, Mackaye has said that he's not as interested in "smashing the
state" so much as building alternatives. In other words, instead of
just getting mad, maybe we should... you know...

2. Armalite- s/t (No Idea)

Armalite's debut CD is punk rock as catchy as it gets (and fast--11
songs in under 25 minutes), with lyrics that speak to people who went
to punk and hardcore shows as teenagers, are now in our mid 20's to
30's, and are like, "well... now what?" The first song, "Entitled" is
most specifically about "the adult crash," but there are other songs
about having close friends scattered all over the East Coast, being a
parent, and voting. It's nice to be reminded that I'm not the only
one freaking out about this stuff, and there's something reassuring
about hearing it yelled over blazing fast, distorted guitars.

Interesting note about the band members--Armalite has sort of an
all-star line up from the Philly punk scene: Dan Yemin from Lifetime
and Kid Dynamite is on bass, Mike McKee, editor of the magazine
Rockpile, sings and plays guitar, and Atom Goren, of Atom and his
("his Package" being a synthesizer that he used to record
geeky, 80's new-wavy sounding songs), also sings and plays guitar, and
despite being married, the father of a two-year-old, and a high school
Physics teacher, still sounds like he's eight years old.

3. Hi Tek- Hi Teknology, Vol. 2: The Chip (Okay Player)

Actually, this one kinda sucked--but since its the only other album I
heard in 2006, here it is. It had the potential to be great--Hi Tek
produced a bunch of songs on the Black Star album, and this album has
guest appearances by some of my favorite rappers: Talib Kweli, Common,
Mos Def, Q-Tip--but I think that just made it more disappointing when
I actually heard it. There is one really good song on this one--"Where it Started At"--but everything else is just 'eh.' I'd say more about it, but I don't have it anymore- I ended up trading it in at The Exchange for a dollar and a Soul Rebels Brass Band CD. (Mini-review
from the guy working at the register: "Why do you want to return it--because it SUCKS?")

Friday, January 05, 2007

Friendstealer's Top 20 of 2006

friendstealer is a record geek and recording artist from kittanning.

1. joanna newsom – ys (drag city)

yeah, I decided to listen to it more closely after seeing the arthur piece and photos. I've got blood in me....c'mon.

I go to sleep to this a lot and couldn't dream of coming up with it...in a good way.

2. mew - and the glass-handed kites (evil office)

this album went thru a big series of emotional crap with me this year. without going into a bunch of self-descriptive garbage, it's good for joy, heartbreak, and sometimes just a good nap.

3. bonnie 'prince' billy - the letting go (drag city)

I hated this...went into some big rant about how I was ready for oldham to come off the soft rock trip. shows you what I know. the little instrumental break in the second song will break the heart and fortify, all at once and stuff.

4. howlin rain - s/t (birdman)

evidently, I enjoy this album more than anyone else in the world, excepting maybe their moms or girlfriends. well, that's fine with me. sure, there's a mention of beer, but I'll let it slide. it sounds likes the black crowes.

5. colossal yes - acapulco roughs (ba da bing)

along with the 2 good songs on the comets record, which is generally been-done unlistenability, these are some nice pop moments, full of hooks and drama. I like that. that's cool with me.

6. black keys - magic potion (nonesuch)

just because rock and roll's evil and I'm trying to be a better person, doesn't mean I'm a brick wall.

7. shearwater - palo santo (misra)

lou says this bores him. I think it's their best and most dramatic album yet. who's right? probably neither one of us, but you get the point.

8. ladyhawk - s/t (jagjaguwar)

can you listen to 'the dugout' without pumping your fist and thinking about everything you can and cannot ever have in this shitty world? probably. I have a hard time doing it, though, and right now, it's all about me.

9. magnolia electric company - fading trails (secretly canadian)

my favorite jason molina record ever...and just when I was about to throw in the towel. these songs get in and out pretty well. they're no-nonsense. right off the bat, it's like, "don't fade on me..." damn right, jason. I feel ya.

10. albert hammond, jr. - yours to keep (rough trade-u.k.)

okay, I hate the strokes. this album is also named after (I'm assuming) a guided by voices song...I hate guided by voices more than any other musical entity not named stephen stills. still...(haha)...this thing is great. simple. from the heart. real. you might cry, but you also might just dig it. it's like a way better jonny polonsky or however you spell his name...or a less musical jason falkner or something.

11. jeremy enigk - world waits (lewis hollow)

I saw sunny day real estate years before I really took to their music. jeremy was a hooded figure who, I swear, had an older dude who seemed to be functioning as his "handler" or some shit. I was amused. now, it all seems so right. this guy can sing, and he brings the drama. these are great things in my world.

12. wooden wand & the sky high band - second attention (kill rock stars)

I don't really have anything to say about this. I dig it a lot, as I do most of his stuff. there's some stones in here to go with the charlie, if you need it.

13. kaki king - until we felt red (velour)

I truthfully have listened to this less than anything here, so I may be the wrong person to comment on it, but it seems a lot more standard song-oriented to me. I love her stuff and this is nothing but a welcome slight change for a pedestrian dude like me. she plays guitar, in case you didn't know. she's on, like, guitar magazine covers and stuff...

14. raconteurs - broken boy soldiers (v2)

what can I say? I mean, it's plain and simple devotional rock, I'd say.

15. fiery furnances - bitter tea (fat possum)

surely more standard than the ones before it. still, it's not like you'd hear it in giant eagle. if I could make an album with my sister, it would sound nothing like this, but that's not really any kind of indictment.

16. minus 5 - s/t (yep roc)

this should be higher...maybe I just take scott for granted. god, he's one of the very very few people who make records this far into a career that can stand up to their early work. not to mention his hardcore straight-edge values, values which inspire me everyday.

17. sean lennon - friendly fire (capitol)

I love this a lot, but I can tell you right now, I may not listen to it for a few years. there's some painful shit here. it sounds like elliott smith and that kinda vibe...and julian lennon...

18. belle & sebastian - the life pursuit (matador)

their best record. yes.

19. danielson - ships (secretly canadian)

dude's got a lot to live up to, his dad being the incredible lenny smith, and he does a pretty damned good job here.

20. jason molina - let me go, let me go, let me go (secretly canadian)

I don't like it as much as his other record from this year, but this is a fine return to form after a couple of genuinely crappy albums. the guy loves randy rhoades. do you need more?

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Rob's Top 20 of 2006

Rob is a record geek from Regent Square.

1. Boris - Pink (Southern Lord)

Records these days don't really get any more whalloping than this one. For the better part of Pink, this near-legendary underground trio sound eerily like a Japanese Stooges on cheap trucker's speed colliding with the breathtaking psych freakout guitar of the lovely Wata (every music geek's fave-rave pin-up guitar-hero waif--think Faye Wong in Chungking Express for a quick reference point). Warning: Don't be lulled/fooled by the uber-shoegazing/MBV-inspired wall of gauze that is the opener, "Farewell"; it's the piercing feedback wail at the start of the title track that more accurately sets the tone for the rest of this wild ride. (And yes, oh Jap-psych snobs, I realize that a version of this was released outside of the U.S. last year. I even like the old cover more than the new cover. However, the nine extra freak-ee-out-ee minutes added to "Just Abandoned My-Self" gave me--in my mind, anyway--enough justification to count this edition as a new release for this year.)

2. Nina Nastasia - On Leaving (Fat Cat)

Nina Nastasia has based her career on peddling faintly-queasy (in a junk sick kind of way)-but-absolutely rapturous beauty, and this album may be her most beautiful. The songs here are often not more than fragments, yet they always leave me wanting more. That she's consistently recruited the Dirty Three's Jim White to drum on her records (as well as the mighty Steve Albini to produce them--only Steve could get acoustic records to sound this way) further compounds my admiration.

3. Joanna Newsom - Ys (Drag City)

I can't really add to the heaps of adjectives that have already been showered upon this unbelievably ambitious and heartbreaking release, so I won't even try to address it on those terms. I do want to say, however, that although Van Dyke Parks can certainly arrange an avant-pop tune, it's not so much his much-vaunted contributions to this record that have knocked me on my proverbial ass, but rather the songs (I'd almost call them "compositions" if such a word would not summon up unpleasant memories of my teenaged trawling through ELP records) themselves and the unbelievable amount of emotion that every boy's favorite indie-rock harpist pin-up is able to convey through her vocals. "Sawdust & Diamonds," the song that most resembles her past work, is actually my personal favorite on the album, although to me, anyway, this album is superior in every way to her prior releases.

4. Colossal Yes - Acapulco Roughs (Ba Da Bing)

This album really sneaked up on me just prior to my completing both my "best of '06" mix CD and this list. Eleven luxuriantly orchestral piano ballads served up in the noble tradition of Plush's Liam Hayes by... well, the drummer from psychedelic cowboys Comets on Fire! Go figure. As much as I love Comets (three Comets-related projects are actually on my top 40 records for the year), this album has really found a way into my psyche. I simply cannot stop listening to it and the epic "Poor Boy's Zodiac" could well be the greatest single songwriting and arranging achievement from this year. I look forward to seeing what Utrillo Kushner cooks up next.

5. Thom Yorke - The Eraser (XL)

Although I own every Radiohead release from The Bends through Hail to the Thief (Pablo Honey's warmed-over U2-isms are flat-out inexcusable), I don't really want to like the band and, in particular, I don't want to like Thom Yorke. As a result, I resisted this record for the better part of six months, thinking, "Thom Yorke is the most pretentious part of Radiohead (see all of his comments relating to Kid A at the time of its release). Surely his first solo album will suck...." Well, I was wrong. Dead wrong. This record is gorgeous, all warm & fuzzy analog synths, close-mic'ed vocals, and treated guitars. There is a strong possibility that "Harrowdown Hill," "Black Swan" and the title track could be three of my absolute favorite songs of the year. And, as an added bonus, Yorke mercifully keeps his Bono-esque vocal malapropisms to an absolute minimum.

6. Bob Dylan - Modern Times (Columbia)

Another record that, prior to listening, I couldn't imagine liking. I'm a *huge* of Dylan in his prime, but aside from 1997's somewhat overpraised Time Out of Mind, I haven't really dug a Dylan album since 1978's chronically underrated Street-Legal. When Love & Theft was released five years ago, I read the intensely positive critical reaction to the record and rushed out to buy...a completely unfocused set of blooz shuffles that featured His Bobness wheezing unbearable cliches. I assumed this record would be more of the same until my buddy Sam pressed a copy of it onto me a few months ago and I was knocked out on first listen. The nimble and loose R 'n' B poetics of the opening triumvirate--"Thunder on the Mountain" (with its completely disarming reference to Alicia Keys), "Spirit on the Water" and Bob's mighty reworking of Muddy Waters' "Rollin' and Tumblin'"--are worth the price of admission alone, and other standout tracks like "Workingman's Blues 2" and "Ain't Talkin'" are more than just icing on the cake.

7. Sparks - Hello Young Lovers (In the Red)

Sparks' latest release is bold, refreshing and dazzling, with Ron Mael's caustic, absurdist wit completely intact (see the "Dick Around" opener as Exhibit A) and Russell Mael's operatic vocals sounding better than they have any right to sound in 2006. After years of languishing in the post-New Wave delete bin, Sparks--via the brisk pop of "Perfume,” sleekly ironic protest of "Baby, Baby (Can I Invade Your Country?)" and sprawling grandeur of "As I Sit to Play Organ at Notre Dame Cathedral", to name just three--have certainly returned to the vanguard of contemporary music.

8. Jarvis Cocker - Jarvis (Rough Trade-U.K.)

I've been fairly infatuated with Jarvis Cocker's persona (lyrical and otherwise) since I first became aware of his (former? I'm unclear as to whether they've formally disbanded) band, Pulp, in the early '90s. Classic singles like 1992's "Babies," 1993's "Do You Remember the First Time," 1995's "Common People" and 1998's "Help the Aged" defined Jarvis’s lyrical niche as the louche kitchen-sink voyeur with the clever turn of phrase and heart of gold. On this, his first solo record, he explores and refines his usual themes—soured middle-class relationships, sex, alienation, state-of-the-world existential angst—with a more straightforward attack that emphasizes guitars over keyboards. This approach pays off in general and fares exceptionally well on Jarvis classics like “From Auschwitz to Ipswich,” “Black Magic” (complete with “Crimson & Clover” riff sample), and “Running the World” (the brilliantly corrosive anti-Live 8 anthem premiered on MySpace and included here as a bonus track).

9. Tom Waits - Orphans (Anti-)

Jesus, this is something—a welcome three-disc clearinghouse that’s bursting at the seams with every conceivable type of Tom-ness. On disc one, we get the Beefheartian carnival barker cranking his hurdy gurdy over varying degrees of clamoring cacophony (some of which, like "Bottom of the World," my personal favorite on the whole set, can still be downright melodic). On disc two, the Piano Man--you know, the archetypal piano ballads that tug at the heartstrings and fire up the synapses in a way that the Long Island Antichrist (read: Billy Joel) couldn't even conjure in the most inflated recesses of his own ego. And on disc three, well... there are both of those guys and some genuinely creepy fellow travelers (the droll narrator of “Army Ants” springs to mind). Strangely, this collection of outtakes and uncollected tracks somehow holds together as his most essential, potentially most cohesive work since 1984’s jaw-dropping Rain Dogs (although arguments in favor of 1991’s Bone Machine or 2004’s Real Gone will be certainly be considered in the alternative).

10. The Flaming Lips - At War With the Mystics (Warner Bros.)

On their latest release, the Lips--once one of rock's most cheerfully unhinged, genuinely challenging art-punk outfits--regain some much-needed cajones after the mind-blowing (yet scintillatingly cerebral and cinematic) blast of The Soft Bulletin and the faintly warmed-over, drum-machine-led philosophizing of Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. (Note: Before I get death threats for undervaluing the universally-acclaimed Yoshimi, let me mention that I at least *like* it... it's just hard for me to actively worship a record that's universally championed by just about every uber-precocious child spawned by one of my friends.) Standout tracks like the skeletally propulsive “Free Radicals,” the oh-so-Floydian “Pompeii Am Gotterdammerung,” and “The W.A.N.D.” find these Oklahomans rediscovering their freak flag and find multi-instrumental force of nature Steve Drozd rediscovering his drumkit after a heroin-enforced layoff (he’s now clean and sober after years of abuse). On the other side of their sonic spectrum, “The Sound of Failure” (with its tsk-tsk shout-outs to Britney Spears and Gwen Stefani) and the lovely closer “Goin’ On” explore their more incantory qualities with great success. The end result is one of the most consistent albums in the Flaming Lips’ oeuvre.

Bubbling under:

11) The Essex Green - Cannibal Sea (Merge)

12) Sir Richard Bishop - Fingering the Devil

13) Albert Hammond, Jr. - Yours to Keep (Rough Trade-U.K.)

14) Mission of Burma - The Obliterati (Matador)

15) Wooden Wand & the Sky High Band - Second Attention (Kill Rock

16) Arctic Monkeys - Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not (Domino)

17) Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy - The Letting Go (Drag City)

18) Graham Coxon - Love Travels at Illegal Speeds (Transcopic)

19) The Pink Mountaintops - Axis of Evol (Jagjaguwar)

20) Simon Joyner - Skeleton Blues (Jagjaguwar)