June, 2010 Archives

11
Jun

Our Benefactors–The Weakerthans

by Lefort in Music

We were reminded of the great band, The Weakerthans, upon the release of their new live record, “Live at the Burton Cummings Theater.”  Once again the band has shown they are stronger artistically than most bands on the planet.

We have been huge fans of this band for quite some time (thanks Matt).  Every record glimmers, glistens and gains your undivided attention.  John K. Samson writes songs with magnificent melodies and carefully crafted, complex lyrics, while the band stunningly supports and harmonizes.   The weight of the world is felt and lifted off in Samson’s stories.  Amongst our faves of all time.

We caught them live finally several months ago at Downtown Brew in San Luis Obispo, and the long wait was more than worth it.  We brought others along who had never heard a single song of theirs before the show, but whose jaws dropped as they became instant fans and exclaimed, “How is it possible that this band is so phenomenal, and I’ve never even heard of them?”  Such is life in the modern era where Pro Tools and the internet have enabled the musical Niagara Falls into which we thrust our nets in search of impeccable specimens.

The new live record is a perfect place to witness one’s knees weaken over the Weakerthans.  Listen below to the even-better-live delivery on one of their stunning achievements, Benediction, with heartstrung pedal steel from Stephen Carroll. This is a great song of self-examination and doubt.  Samson and Christine Fellow’s acappela segment at 2:20 is rapturous, and begins one of the finest stanzas in all of modern music:

Megaphones in helicopters squeal, “Hey, are you okay?” as searchlights circle where we lost our way. All our accidents went purposeful and fell, stripped of providence or any way to tell that our intentions were intangible and sweet. Sick with simple math and shy discoveries, piled up against our impending defeat.”

(Yet another great song with saving-helicopter metaphors:  see our prior review of The Antlers’ song, Wake.)

The Weakerthans–Benediction (live)

[audio:http://www.thelefortreport.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/20-Benediction.mp3|titles=20 Benediction]

Also take a good listen to a few of our other favorite Weakerthans songs from their studio records.

Time’s Arrow includes these stunning verses:

“All the streets lie down, deserted in the darkest part of night, to lead you through the evening to the light. Pulled along in the tender grip of watches and ellipses. Small request. Could we please turn around?”

The Weakerthans–Times Arrow

[audio:http://www.thelefortreport.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/07-Times-Arrow.mp3|titles=07 Time’s Arrow]

In the great Left and Leaving, Samson regally regales with these show-stopping lyrics of a relationship’s demise:

“Someone choose who’s left and who’s leaving. Memory will rust and erode into lists of all that you gave me: some matches, a blanket, this pain in my chest, the best parts of Lonely, duct-tape and soldered wires, new words for old desires, and every birthday card I threw away. I wait in 4/4 time. Count yellow highway lines that you’re relying on to lead you home.”

[audio:http://www.thelefortreport.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/07-Left-Leaving.mp3|titles=07 Left & Leaving]

And in A New Name for Everything, Samson again leaves other lyricists to leap from their laptops:

“One more time, try. Stand with your hands in your pockets and stare at the smudge on a newspaper sky, and ask it to rain a new name for everything. Fire every phrase. They don’t want to work for us anymore. Dot and Dash our days. Make your face the flag of a semaphore. All you won’t show. The boxes you brought here and never unpacked are still patiently waiting to go. So put on those clothes you never grew into, and smile like you mean it for once. If you come back, bring a new name for everything.”

[audio:http://www.thelefortreport.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/10-A-New-Name-For-Everything.mp3|titles=10 A New Name For Everything]

Please listen in and then go buy their new, stronger-than live record.


10
Jun

Oh, So That’s Why We Do What We Do

by Lefort in Books

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Michael Chabon is one of our favorite contemporary authors.  If you haven’t read his Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, in particular, or Wonder Boys, or any of his other novels, do yourselves a huge favor and do so.  Chabon always manages to tell magnificent stories.

Chabon’s most recent offering, Manhood for Amateurs, is a tremendous compendium of essays of modern life as a father, husband and human being.  He assesses his childhood in the 70’s and examines his parents’ divorce, his short first marriage, his happy current marriage, being a father and in general what it’s like to be a modern man.   Chabon impresses throughout with his deft, clever writing, well-examined details and hilarious anecdotes.  Highly recommended for all, not just guys with wives and kids.

We were grabbed immediately in the book’s first chapter, The Loser’s Club, when we read the passage below related to his failed childhood effort to start up a comic book club:

“This is the point, to me,  where art and fandom coincide.  Every work of art is one half of a secret handshake, a challenge that seeks the password, a heliograph flashed from a tower window, an act of hopeless optimism in the service of bottomless longing.  Every great record or novel or comic book convenes the first meeting of a fan club whose membership stands forever at one but which maintains chapters in every city–in every cranium–in the world.  Art, like fandom, asserts the possibility of fellowship in a world built entirely from the materials of solitude.  The novelist, the cartoonist, the songwriter, [Lefort–the blogger,] knows that the gesture is doomed from the beginning but makes it anyway, flashes his or her bit of mirror, not on the chance that the signal will be seen or understood but as if such a chance existed….

Sometimes things work out: Your flashed message is received and read, your song is rerecorded by another band and goes straight to No. 1, your son blesses the memory of the day you helped him arrange the empty chairs of his foredoomed dream, your act of last-ditch desperation sends your comic-book company to the top of the industry.  Success, however, does nothing to diminish the knowledge that failure stalks everything you do.  But you always knew that.  Nobody gets past the age of ten without that knowledge.  Welcome to the club.”

Yes, we suppose we have always have known that.  We just hadn’t seen it put so well.

We reach for a hand, await the password and attempt to flash our signal from that mirror in the window.  We’ve convened the meeting.  We hope for attendees, but we accept that none may attend.  Nonetheless we reach, arms outstretched, while failure stalks.

Chabon delivers epiphanies and good words throughout.  Required reading.

9
Jun

The Meadowlands–The Wrens Flying High Back Then, But Now on Watch

by Lefort in Music

We don’t know if it’s possible given our (and lots of others’) incessant warblings about this band, but in case you have not heard The Wrens and their 2003 record “The Meadowlands,” we think it’s high time.  We have played this record to exhaustion since we first discovered it in 2004 and never grow tired of it.  Every song (yes, every dang song–well maybe not that last one or two) is a mini-masterpiece.

The Wrens have a storied past.  They put out two records in the 1990s (the second, “Secaucus,” in 1996) to justifiable critical raves, and then suffered serious record label setbacks and band difficulties, resulting in their follow-up, The Meadowlands, not being released until 2003.  And in the seven years since 2003 and now?  A couple of singles and compilation contributions, and that’s it.   There have been some live shows and lots of rumors and innuendo regarding tracks being written and some cut (and a few actually released), but no new longplayer has been launched since The Meadowlands.  The wait became so interminable for some that in 2009 Magnet magazine established a Wren’s Watch (a hilarious page).

(As an aside, the great Santa Barbara band, Buellton, has now exceeded the Wrens-esque delay in their follow-up to their star-spangled 2001 record, “Avenue of the Flags.”  Beware Buellton:  we are seriously considering establishing the “Belated Buellton Bulletin” on these very pages.)

Suffice it to say there’s a large indie community out there eagerly awaiting the next Wrens record.  And/or tour.  At some point both will happen, and we won’t miss it.

In the meantime, check out a few seminal songs from The Meadowlands.

One of our favorite songs of all time is She Sends Kisses. While some find the lyrics of this song of lost-love too “emo,” to those we would heartily recommend an urgent soul-implant.  Against appropriately mournful organ, at second :17 the doleful vocals enter, elegantly-harmonized.   The singer will “cue every memory at half-speeds” and then lists TMI details of the courtship (the well-wrought “hopes pinned to poses honed in men’s room mirrors”–what dude hasn’t?– being the least discomforting).  The title chorus is first heard, high and barely discernible, at 1:29, but the second time at 2:58 the singer wails in full.  After a series of key changes, the chorus is kicked up yet again at 4:55.  And the lyrics “she sends kisses in envelopes stamped w/ ‘Hope & Hearts’ – ripped right open” convey the pain.  A great song.

[audio:http://www.thelefortreport.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/03-She-Sends-Kisses.mp3|titles=03 She Sends Kisses]

One of our other favorites is This Boy is Exhausted, wherein the band voices its frustration with its struggles (analogized to “splitting rocks, cutting diamonds” for “8 years long”).  But, set against a storming melody, we also hear of the intermittent epiphanies and the revival of their music that carries them on (“but then once a while we’ll play a show then that makes it worthwhile,” and “then Greg plugs in, a treble checking that says we might win”).  Ultimately the sheer exhaustion is felt and heard in lead and harmony vocals alike, but with glimmers of hope.

The Wrens–This Boy is Exhausted

[audio:http://www.thelefortreport.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/04-This-Boy-Is-Exhausted.mp3|titles=04 This Boy Is Exhausted]

And in Happy a jilted lover (perhaps the same from She Sends Kisses) initially bemoans a love, but eventually sends vehement kiss-offs to the same girl.  The change in tone in this one song is stunning (it took Noah and the Whale an entire album to do the same in its highly-laudable “The First Days of Spring” earlier this year).   The change in lyrical tone is perfectly paralleled by the increasing tension of the band’s music.  That tension builds throughout until the release at 4:27.

The Wrens–Happy

[audio:http://www.thelefortreport.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/02-Happy.mp3|titles=02 Happy]

What we miss about these Wrens is their phenomenal sense of dynamics and the ability in one song to capture so much.

Hey Wrens:  Please put the Wren Watch out of business and give us another masterwork soon.

8
Jun

Please, Phosphor Us

by Lefort in Music

We have been fans of the “band” Phosphorescent since 2007 when we first heard their song Cocaine Lights off their record “Pride.”  Matthew Houck has been the sole songwriter and stationary member of the band, and his haunting vocals and emotive songs have always held sway at the Lefort residence.

Following Pride, Houck hooked up with members of the country group, Virgin Forest, to put out the stellar Willie Nelson-tribute record “To Willie.”  We’re happy to see that Houck and the Virgin ones have remained a collective.

Now comes the band’s new record, “Here’s to Taking It Easy,” and it is further confirmation of Houck’s (and the band’s) worth in the land of alt-country.  Like the Avett Brothers, Houck is Alabama-born and Brooklyn-resident, and the musical thaumaturgy of Brooklyn has once again been borne out.

The new record plays with 70’s country-rock stylings, and coincides perfectly with the re-release of the Stones’ “Exile on Main Street.”  You can almost hear Gram Parsons, Keith Richards and the Stones entourage in that French mansion on the new song The Mermaid Parade. Alternately, one hears The Band and the pizzicato-playing of Robbie Roberston.  Houck slays on this song with the delivery of these lines in particular:

“Now our hearts were on fire
Only two weeks ago
And our bodies were like live wires
Down on the beach in Mexico
But I came back to this city
And you stayed home in LA
And then our two years of marriage
In two short weeks somehow just slipped away”

He never seems to fail to render the heart.

Phosphorescent–The Mermaid Parade

[audio:http://www.thelefortreport.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/The-Mermaid-Parade.mp3|titles=The Mermaid Parade]

And do listen again to Cocaine Lights. On this song, with its gospel gambit and prayerful piano petitions, you’ll swear you feel your own blood clickin’.

Phosphorescent–Cocaine Lights

[audio:http://www.thelefortreport.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/13-Cocaine-Lights.mp3|titles=13 Cocaine Lights]

“But lord they’re rolling me away
Ain’t they rolling me away
Don’t they roll oh oh oh
In the morning in the kitchen
I can hear my own blood clicking
So I stand there and I listen
Til the glowing begins

—-

And lord I truly am awake
And lord, truly I am afraid
And, lord, truly I remain

—-

I will recover my sense of grace
And rediscover my rightful place
Yes and cover my face
With the morning”

7
Jun

A National Treasure

by Lefort in Music

Having listened to Prairie Home Companion on NPR for multiple dog-years, we champed at the chance to attend the live radio show Saturday at the Santa Barbara Bowl.  Despite very high expectations, we had no idea how impressive this group of Midwesterners (with California musical support) are in person.

We arrived early (like good Midwestesterners) to take in the rare mid-afternoon air and amiable ambiance of the Bowl.  At exactly 2:45 Garrison Keillor traipsed onstage to say howdy, pass along the protocol and warm-up the crowd by singing two songs with Sara Watkins (formerly of San Diego’s Nickel Creek).  He went silent at 3:00 pm, and the live broadcast was on.

We learned that each week the entourage arrives at that week’s show site on Thursday.  Keillor then writes the entire script on Thursday (and perhaps polishes it up a bit on Friday), and then the ensemble rehearses the show Friday night from 6-9 pm before Saturday’s showtime.

Keillor began with a short monologue about Santa Barbara and California and then sang an amusing ode to Santa Barbara (which included the line, “Even the McDonald’s have red-tile roofs in Santa Barbara”).  The mispronunciation of Jacaranda (Yack-aranda) and the curious “whippoorwhill” reference (that bird don’t hunt here) could be forgiven.

We were treated throughout to watching Fred Newman perform his sound-effect magic with a few props such as styrofoam plates.  Newman manages multiple voices (including “Beowulf,” the baby) and accents, and sounds of aviation and military attacks, oodles of animals, and even Scottish hip hop, and all to hilarious effect.  What we learned from viewing the show is that Tim Russell, Sue Scott and even Keillor, effectively add to the sound effects.  And the usual segments enthralled as they do each week:  Guy Noir, the News from Lake Wobegon, etc.  The latter was done by Keillor as he ambled back-and-forth on the stage (with eyes oft-closed) delivering his seemingly scriptless, improvisational romp.  For the scripted portions, Keillor tosses the script pages to the floor as each segment is finished, and they are gathered by one of his assistants.

The show’s band, “The Guy’s All-Star Band.” impressed throughout with their virtuosity and variety, ranging from blues to bluegrass to jazz (particularly enjoyable was Richard Dworsky’s piano playing on the apt  tribute to Thelonious Monk–Thelonious Boogie).

The musical guests were perfect for the venue and included the blues-mirth of Elvin Bishop and the beautiful singing of Sara Watkins and her collaborations and harmonizations with brother Sean and with Garrison.  Sara and Sean mezmerized on Late John Garfield Blues by John Prine (another national treasure and one of our all-time best songwriters), gospel songs (River of Jordan) and Sara’s great new song, Cross Over (which can be heard at 1:23:29 at the show’s archive link below–highly recommended).

What we particularly enjoyed was the obvious enjoyment and stringent smiles on all the performers’ faces (Keillor, less so) throughout the proceedings.  A good time was being had by performers and audience alike.  And of course it was great to be there for the show tailored for our hometown, with its references to State Street and its trolleys, First Thursday, the Mission, surfing, Cottage Hospital, UCSB, the Solstice, Spanish Days and Film Festivals, and Keillor marveling at the concept of Pineapple Guavas.  It’s always fun to hear your neighbors (Sandy and Gordy) mentioned on national radio.  And we didn’t mind the intermittent, good-natured roasting of Orange County and San Diego

We were so enamored that we didn’t realize the time passing, and it was no-time before the two hours had elapsed.  The ensemble came back twice for group-bows to acknowledge the standing-ovation of the crowd.

We stayed in our seats after to soak in the Bowl’s perfect late afternoon atmosphere and let the crowd disperse, and were treated to being handed copies of several segments’ script pages (one assumes previously tossed to the floor by Keillor).

Word to the wise:  life is fleeting, and you and Garrison are not getting any younger.  So the next time Keillor or the show come to Santa Barbara, give good effort to skip that 207th graduation party or soccer game, and instead come see one of America’s national treasures in action.

But if you missed Saturday’s show, you can listen to it here.  Each show is archived at that site.  Listen in and download the podcasts, and enjoy a masterful group.

6
Jun

That Time of Life

by Lefort in Music

Transitions are going down all over town and earth.  It’s that time of year and life.  Here are two all-time great songs that relay relevant perspectives.  Even if you’ve heard before, these are songs worthy of revisiting. Give a good listen you who are transitioning, and young and old parents.

First up is Tom Rush’s rendering of one of the best growing-up-and-moving-on songs ever written.  In Murray McLaughlin’s “Child’s Song,” a son tells his family it’s time to leave home.  The lyrics are at times devastating (we think of our own when Rush sings from the older son’s perspective: “little sister you’ll have to wait a while to come along”).  But proper perspective and lift are provided as well:

“Thanks for all you done it may sound hollow
Thank you for the good times that we’ve known
But I must find my own road now to follow
You will all be welcome in my home.”

Listen in.  Hate/have to let ’em go.

Tom Rush–Child’s Song

[audio:http://www.thelefortreport.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/10-Childs-Song.mp3|titles=10 Child’s Song]

We wonder how much more difficult it became for Rush and McLaughlin to sing this song later in life when their parents were aged.  Be mindful transitioners, but all as well.

As a coda, Rush also timely performed “Child’s Song” recently on Prairie Home Companion (at 1:43:50).

The other song is our favorite performance ever by the great Frank Sinatra.  Forgot the swingin’, finger-snappin’, Rat-packin’,  upbeat Sinatra (though there’s a time and a place).  We’ll take Sinatra singing a slow, afflicting song any day.  Nobody has sung a song so well while conveying the matters of the heart.

Here, on September of My Years, an older Sinatra looks back on his life, and the remorse is palpable, though life’s resolve carries the day.

As Stan Cornyn captured well on the liner notes regarding the recording session for this record, “Tonight will not swing.  Tonight is for serious….He sings of the penny days….He sings with perspective….He looks back….He has lived through two lives, and can sing now of September.  Of the bruising days….September can be an attitude or an age or a wistful reality.  For this man, it is a time of love.  A time to sing.  A thousand days hath September.”

We have repeatedly had to pull ourselves back up after hearing Sinatra’s phrasing in the lines:

“As a man, who has never paused at wishing wells
Now I’m watching children’s carousels
And their laughter’s music to my ears.”

Every time we hear this song, we lament lost opportunities with children, family and friends.  Take heed.  We’re striving anew to reduce the lengthy list of possible regrets.

[audio:http://www.thelefortreport.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/01-The-September-Of-My-Years.mp3|titles=01 The September Of My Years]
5
Jun

Temper Trapped or Lifting Off?

by Lefort in Music

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We sauntered down to Soho Thursday night in Santa Barbara to check out Melbourne, Australia’s Temper Trap band brought to you by Club Mercy.  Only time will tell this five-piece band’s long-term artistic merit, but as witnessed Thursday they clearly have the ability and drive to take over a venue and rev up a crowd as well as any young band out there.  The jury’s out though on a key question:  can this band develop its own voice and continue to captivate more discerning crowds long-term?

We were pretty worked from the workweek as we walked in the doors at Soho, but the band came on immediately, and our desire to flee for home fled.  Temper Trap and its Indonesian-born singer, Dougy Mandagi, soon Motowned their way into the college-crowd’s heart with Mandagi’s Smokey Robinson-esque vocals on Rest (from its only record, “Conditions”), while the band drove the song with its TV on The Radio (TVOR) sound.   Fader followed with its energetic, spot-on Ben Folds simulation.  And the crowd danced on.  The band then lit up with the very Arcade-ian Fire song Down River. Later, the Tempered ones dove into Love Lost, with Mandagi invoking Prince to deliver his message of loss via a Coldplay backdrop.   And the crowd raved on.  The band then segued into Resurrection (with its incessant TV on the Radio and Yeasayer affectations) before ending its set with its catchy anthem, Sweet Disposition ( heard on the “500 Days of Summer” soundtrack).  Unfortunately, Sweet Disposition entails the band’s most blatant sound reproduction, this time replicating U2’s sound circa Joshua Tree (albeit with stellar group-vocal attack by TT).  Needless to say, the crowd again went wild.

The band encored with torrid, tribal Drum Song, with Mandagi ably adding stand-up-snare rhythms and top-hat to drummer Toby Dundas’s attack.  As good as it was, if we looked away all we heard was fellow Aussie band Midnight Oil circa 1988.  And when we looked back we expected to see MO’s Peter Garrett banging on his snare while railing away on vocals.  But instead of a tall, bald-pated dude, it was Mandagi and his mates, and the crowd worshiped on.  Temper Trap brought its set to an end with Science of Fear, once again employing major TVOR soundings.

And the whole time, the crowd went wild.  And we admit that there is reason for the crowd to be enthralled since Temper Trap delivers its songs with verve and a multitude of musical and vocal talent.  This is a band that has serious, arena-size aspirations, which translates well to large festival and small club stages alike.  Make no mistake:  they have the chops and drive to be huge, and Mandagi in particular has Buckley/Prince/(pick your favorite singer) caliber pipes.

But as hinted at above (subtlety admittedly not being our strength), this is a band that’s going to have to quickly develop its own distinctive sound and step-away from its blatant aping of its musical influences.  From what we can gather from its first record, “Conditions,” the band has good and interesting things to say lyrically (Science of Fear‘s lament of the science-community’s derision of faith is particularly well-done).  But the musical derivativeness undermines at every turn, and our focus remains on the sounds of the originating bands, with Temper Trap’s good message getting trapped off to the side.  We will hope that the next round of songs (Conditions was released early last year) will transcend.

Yep, we have bemoaned this issue repeatedly recently regarding several young bands.  We hope this won’t continue to be the case.  While there’s nothing new under the proverbial sun, and much of rock and roll has been influenced by predecessors and contemporaries, the better bands have been less blatant about their borrowings and managed to significantly separate themselves from their influences (could this be the latest and most tangible totem of the “Everything is Free” music-generation?).

Perhaps we’re just yearning for a new revelation instead of obvious retreads.   Thinking back, we may just be craving more moments like the exact moment when we first recognized the power in the ravings of  Johnny Rotten as he vehemently decried the Queen’s fascist regime in God Save the Queen (’twas 1977, while driving through flooded Pacific Beach and watching kids run/wade across the street from Tower Records screaming and flashing their prized “Never Mind the Bollocks” records while Rodney Bingenheimer revved up the song on KROQ). And we may just be longing for other oracular moments (1991, driving onto the Bay Bridge via the 2nd Street on-ramp in San Francisco) like when we first heard Kurt Cobain’s vocals squalling full-on in Nirvana’s game-changing Smells Like Teen Spirit.  These were moments and sounds that were unique and grabbed you by the soul.

Incredibly high standards?  Yes.  You may not be the next Sex Pistols or Nirvana (look where it got them for heavens’ sake!), but please don’t just cut and paste  your influences onto your sleeves.  Give good thought and full measure to transcending (or at least differentiating from) those you admire.

So dear Temper Trap:  we agree with the merit of those who have influenced you.  But next time?   Visit a distant, ingenious island, and when you come back, come out swinging and set yourselves apart.  Otherwise there will be a lot of playing weddings in Melbourne.  And not much else.

But check ’em out and let us know:

As a post-script, we definitely laud the band for supporting and pitching (mid-encore) the malaria-prevention efforts of Buzz Off.  By donating a small amount at www.buzzoff.org, you can download a new song by the band.  Check it out.

2
Jun

While We Await True Summer

by Lefort in Music

Having fulfilled our responsibilities on Memorial Day, and after the clockwork-like arrival yesterday of Santa Barbara’s usual foggy “June Gloom,” we are now pining for the warm, blithe days of true Summer.  Unfortunately, we know the fog will not likely relent until July.  So in the meantime, here are a couple of sunny numbers to get you in the mood.

On Odessa we hear (from their latest record, “Swim”) Caribou’s post-modern, re-imagined disco (a la Hot Chip and Erlend Øye), with added squawking-vocal effects, scratch- guitar, and polyrhythmic triangle/cowbell/wood playing, all anchored by a bounteous bassline.

Caribou–Odessa

[audio:http://www.thelefortreport.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/Track17_Caribou_Odessa.mp3|titles=Track17_Caribou_Odessa]

Fuego is also a layered, rhythmic melange, this time from Bomba Estereo, a smokin’ five-piece Columbian band that mixes traditional Caribbean rhythms with a musical attack smacking of Kingston (we hear “reggae music” credits) and Rio, but ultimately its own.

Bomba Estereo-Fuego

[audio:http://www.thelefortreport.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/Fuego.mp3|titles=Fuego]