Wednesday, March 10, 2010
Lost Cartographers at Uncommon Ground on Devon, March 13
Monday, December 21, 2009
My Top Albums of the Decade
However, reading Paste Magazine's take on the topic led me to reflect a bit on how much my musical life has changed in the last ten years. If the 90s were the decade when I discovered music -- when the power of melody, rhythm, lyrics and live performance were first revealed to me, and I made my initial tentative stabs at writing, performing, and recording music -- then the '00s were the decade in which I began to live it. In the last ten years, I've recorded three solo "bedroom" records, as well as a full-fledged studio record with my band The Lost Cartographers, played dozens of gigs, seen hundreds more, and increased the size of my music collection by a power of a power of ten. iTunes changed the way we buy music, and made it possible for me to listen to that entire collection shuffled together (making the album itself a somewhat archaic way of organizing lists like these). And my iPhone allows me to take a large chunk of it with me wherever I go, as well as find and download new music from anywhere.
Through all these changes, the albums listed below are the ones that I most enjoyed over the past decade. I make no claims that these are the best albums produced in that time frame, but they are the ones that I would take with me to that other critical cliche: the desert island.
- Beirut, Gulag Orkestar (2006)
- Art Brut, Bang Bang Rock & Roll (2005)
- Clem Snide, The Ghost of Fashion (2001)
- The Decemberists, The Crane Wife (2006)
- Sufjan Stevens, Illinois (2005)
5. Main Hoon Na (2004) - Main Hoon Na is the Bollywood movie I recommend most often to those who have never seen one: it's funny and smart, worldly and rooted in an ancient mythic tradition (it's based on the ancient epic Ramayana), and the music is great. The soundtrack takes the something-for-everything approach of masala films to a global level, mashing together styles as diverse as qawwali devotional music, American 1950s rock, and Latin pop just for the sheer joy of it, and it provided a big chunk of the soundtrack for my summer in Jaipur.
4. The Avett Brothers, Four Thieves Gone: The Robbinsville Sessions (2006) - While 2007's Emotionalism and 2009 major label debut I and Love and You get most of the critical attention, Four Thieves Gone gets my vote as the Avetts' best, as it's one of the few studio albums that manages to convey the frenetic joy of a great live band in all its jagged glory.
3. Solomon Burke, Nashville (2006) - The larger-than-life "Legendary King of Rock and Soul" returns to his country roots on an album produced by Buddy Miller, and featuring collaborators from Patty Griffin to Dolly Parton. The result is an incomparably beautiful mix of soul and country, a truly American sound.
2. Old 97's, Blame It On Gravity (2008) - Currently my favorite band of all time, the 97's had an up-and-down decade, getting dropped by Elektra after 2001's 60s-pop-influenced Sattelite Rides, returning to their alt.country origins on 2004's Drag It Up (which unfortunately obscured some pretty good songs with muddy and orerdone production) and coming back with six-guns blazing for their last album of the decade, an accomplishment that rivals their excellent late 90s albums for country swagger and pure melodic bliss.
1. Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002) - In the summer of 2002, while driving north from San Francisco in a rented car to visit friends and family in the Pacific Northwest, I stopped at a roadside mall to buy some CDs for the drive (this was a good four months before I got my first iPod). I had never owned a Wilco CD before, but the critical buzz over their new album was deafening, especially in my new hometown of Chicago (whose iconic Marina Towers also graced the CD cover), and I had heard enough bits and pieces of it to be intrigued. At that moment, driving away from the ruins of a failed relationship and toward a future that was thrillingly uncertain, the insect hum of homemade electronics, off-kilter drumming, and half-drunken piano plinking of "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart" held out the promise that, for all its heartbreak, the world remained a strange and beautiful place. By the end of the achingly lovely "Jesus Etc." I knew that this would be one of my favorite albums of all-time.
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
Project Update: Lost Cartographers Poster
Next week, the Lost Cartographers and I will be playing at Chicago's legendary Empty Bottle for the second time; we'll be opening for the incredible Samanatha Crain & The Midnight Shivers (check out this preview of the show). The Bottle's promo folks asked us to provide some posters, and while we don't normally make posters (the return on investment is just too low in terms of getting people to come to the show), I decided it might be fun to do one for what promises to be such a great show.
I'd be interested to hear in the comments what you think about the poster -- does it capture our sound, and tell the story of our music (which you can hear here if you haven't already)?
Friday, August 21, 2009
Project Update: Lost Cartographers Redesign
Here is the before:
And the after:
Wednesday, April 22, 2009
For the Record (Store)
I have to admit, it's been a while since I bought anything in a record store (I get most of my music these days from eMusic). But I find it slightly bizarre that Greg Kot and Jim DeRogatis spend much of their time applauding the changes in the music business that are leading to the collapse of the major labels' outmoded business model, then spend an entire show lamenting the challenges wrought by those changes on the record stores' outmoded business model.
The problem for record stores, I should note, is not that the internet has enabled people to illegally download music that they otherwise have bought in hard copy -- studies indicate that those who download music illegally actually buy more music -- but simply that no brick and mortar store can possibly offer the range of choices one finds on the web. If I want an album by a relatively obscure band like the Pine Hill Haints, I could get on the CTA, go to Reckless Records and try to find it... or I could get on the web and order a copy in the time it would take me to find my keys.
These days, services like iTunes make it almost effortless for independent bands to get their music online, while sites like CDBaby make it possible to get hard copies in the hands of individual consumers without the hassle of finding a distributor to get their music into record stores. The record store as middleman no longer has much reason to exist, unless it can find some way of adding value to the experience of shopping there (and I don't consider being smirked at by a 25-year-old who thinks he's the second coming of Lou Reed but still lives with his parents to be value added). Unfortunately, the future of the record store may very well be that rack by the cash register at Starbucks.
Now, don't get me wrong -- I have fond memories of teenage years spent browsing record stores and blowing my meager summer paychecks (I'm looking at you, Rhino Records in New Paltz), and I still enjoy having a physical copy of a cd, with album art and liner notes and so on. I would love for the Lost Cartographers' music to be able to help support independent record stores, but our label doesn't have a distribution deal, and our fans will only be able to get our music online. And until someone starts a CDBaby-like business aimed at distributing physical product into physical stores (rather than just to individual consumers), record stores simply won't be able to compete with the abundance of music available online.
Saturday, January 31, 2009
Concert Review: Frightened Rabbit
At the Empty Bottle on Saturday, I got a pleasant reminder of what it's like to be a fan at a show like that. Frightened Rabbit are four guys from Scotland who I first heard about last year on Sound Opinions; their album The Midnight Organ Fight was one of my favorite albums of 2008. In concert, they manage to be both achingly sincere and exceedingly funny, and give the impression that there is nowhere else they'd rather be, and nothing else they'd rather be doing -- an attitude that is truly infectious to a crowd. Take a listen to this encore, for which lead singer Scott Hutchison came out with an acoustic guitar and perched atop a speaker, singing with no amplification. The crowd may not have been pumping their fists during this number, but they were certainly hanging on every word.
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
Is Having Music Stolen Good for Bands?
I certainly understand that feeling, but my contention is that the more people who hear our music -- whether they've paid for it or not -- the more people will come to our shows and the more cds we'll actually sell. So I've advocated things like streaming the whole thing online, licensing songs for free to other aspiring artists for use in their art, etc. My reasoning for this is that the value of recorded music as a product is -- in economic terms -- quickly approaching zero. It's simple economics: supply and demand. The ease of digital recording and distribution have greatly increased the supply, while demand has generally stayed the same. And, in our case, demand is -- at the moment -- pretty much zero. The only way we make our musical valuable is by creating demand; the only we we create demand is by getting people to hear our music. And they won't hear it if they have to pay for it -- there's just too much other music out there that they don't have to pay for.
While I get most of my music via the subscription download service Emusic, I've definitely "stolen" music -- burned friends' cds, etc. -- that I wasn't sure I wanted to spend money on. Sometimes I listen to the album, am unimpressed, and forget about it; but if I like it I'm far more likely to buy the band's next album or spend money on tickets to go see the band when they come through town. Sometimes I'll even buy a copy of the album that I already got through illicit means so that I can have the physical artifact itself and provide additional support to the band. For example, I wasn't sure that I would like Art Brut's first album, but having burned a copy from a friend, I discovered I loved their sound. I wound up buying both their second album as soon as it came out AND a copy of the "stolen" album, and have gone to see them live three times. That never would have happened unless I had been able to spend some quality time listening to the album, and I would never have gotten that quality time without "stealing" the album.
So I'm curious: am I an anomaly, or part of a larger trend? Do you steal music? If so, does it make you more or less likely to pay for future albums, and more or less likely to to go see a band in concert?
Friday, January 2, 2009
My Top 5 Albums of 2008
While I downloaded or purchased physical copies of over 50 albums in 2008, only about 20% of them were actually released in 2008. So I really ought to be doing a list of the albums I listened to most during the year, but who am I to buck the conventions of rock criticism? (Except, you know, by being lazier and only choosing 5 albums.)
5. The Whigs, "Mission Control" - Drum-pounding, melodic, no-frills rock and roll, with just enough indie swagger to keep it interesting. I like the Hold Steady, but in a battle of the bar bands I think the Whigs would eat Neil Finn and company's lunch.
4. Okkervil River, "The Stand Ins" - On paper, Okkervil River sounds like a cynical combination of some of the darlings of college radio's last few years: the desperation-filled but enthusiastic crooning of Arcade Fire and Wolf Parade, the relatively complex orch-pop arrangements of the Decemberists and Beirut, the dark humor and Americana-roots of Wilco. But somehow, this Austin band manages to make it all sound fresh and new.
3. Frightened Rabbit, "The Midnight Organ Fight" - With their frantic sound and plaintive vocals about heartbreak, these Glaswegians would probably be considered emo if they took themselves seriously -- which, thankfully, they do not. Plus, they put on an amazing live show.
2. Murry Hammond, "I Don't Know Where I'm Going But I'm on My Way" - As the bass player in the Old 97s, the laid-back Hammond contributes a few (usually excellent) songs to each of that band's albums, but has often been outshined by charismatic lead singer Rhett Miller. On this solo disc, however, Murry really shines as an interpreter of gospel and old train songs. Many of these songs, especially the ones featuring just his lonesome voice and the drone of a harmonium, are just breath-takingly beautiful.
1. The Old 97's, "Blame It On Gravity" - Hammond, Miller, lead guitarist Ken Bethea and drummer Philip Peebles make a return to form after 2004's muddily produced "Drag It Up." In the accompanying DVD (which also features a driving tour with Miller of the band's early days) producer Salim Nourallah says that his goal was to be able to capture the energy of the band's live shows. He succeeded admirably, producing the band's best album since 1997's "Too Far to Care."
Sunday, November 2, 2008
Concert Review: The Decemberists
No band I've ever seen has more fun on stage than the Decemberists. I've seen them four or five times over the last couple of years, and it's always obvious that they are having an absolute ball. I had the chance to see them twice over this weekend, at Wheaton College on Halloween and then the next night at University of Chicago.
The Halloween show was a classic. It opened with a reenactment of "The Shining," with singer Colin Meloy pedaling a Big Wheel onto the stage to be met by the creepy twins of drummer John Moen and bassist Nate Query (whom Meloy noted were likely the first two cross-dressers ever to appear on stage at famously conservative Wheaton College's Edman Memorial Chapel).
With a setlist tailored to the evening, the highlight of the night was a version of "Shankill Butchers" featuring Jenny Conlee playing the chapel's massive pipe organ. If you listen to the recording, you'll hear the band launch next into "Culling of the Fold," but I wasn't able to record the whole thing, since during his frenzied stalking of the stage, Meloy reached out and grabbed my iPhone as I was trying to take a picture of him (my wife made me promise I'll never wash it again).
The following night's show was a bit less inspired -- maybe it was the crowd of "Where Fun Comes to Die" students, or maybe it was just that we had to sit for part of the show instead of being right up at the front of the stage -- but it was still great. The highlight of the U of C show was when Meloy grabbed a fan's video camera and created an on-the-fly Public Service Announcement (the PSA starts about 5 minutes in). And they finished with a rousing -- and inspiring -- version of "Sons and Daughters" that had everyone in the crowd singing along.
Wednesday, October 8, 2008
Esta un Perdedor: Beck at the Aragon (10/2)
For your average rock show, last night's sold-out Beck show at the Aragon Ballroom was pretty damn good. There was an energetic crowd, a mix of old hits and new material, and very loud guitars. The thing is, Beck is not your average rock star. As one of the most consistently innovative artists of the last 15 years (Jesus, I feel old writing that), when you go to see Beck, you expect the unexpected: maybe some puppets, or entire songs played on dinnerware, or at least a little break-dancing. But aside from a three-song acoustic break and a slightly embarrassing borderline minstrel-show hip-hop bit in which all five band members grabbed head sets and drum machines and did everything but tell the lily-white crowd to throw their guns in the air and wave 'em like they just don't care, last night's show was essentially a straight-ahead stadium rock extravaganza. The only accoutrements in evidence were a giant projection screen in the background (featuring what appeared to be someone's senior thesis in abstract expressionist film) and some nifty lights not unlike those Tom Petty brought to the United Center a couple months ago. Hell, Beck is even starting to look a little like Tom Petty. Don't get me wrong: I love Tom Petty, and it was fun hearing rocked-out versions of old favorites like "Loser" and "Where It's At," but I expected more interesting stage antics -- or at least a little amusing banter -- from someone I'm not embarassed to refer to as a visionary. Of course, this hard-rock minimalism may just be the latest in Beck's endless stream of transformations -- but it's certainly the least interesting one yet.
Monday, September 29, 2008
Contest: "Walk On" Album Cover
Tuesday, April 29, 2008
Come Find The Lost Cartographers At The Empty Bottle
Thursday, March 20, 2008
Amitabh 2008: Yes, he can.
Amitabh (he needs two names about as much as Jesus does) has had many jobs over the years: Angry Young Man, (disgra--er, retired) Member of Parliament, original host of the Indian version of "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?", Bollywood's Elder Statesman-cum-Answer to Chuck Norris... and now, future Prime Minister of the United States. You might remember the abortive 2004 campaign by the guys over at Badmash to get him elected president (I still regret not buying an "Amitabh for America" t-shirt), but they're apparently changing tactics this time around by making him run for a different office entirely. When Gabbar Singh calls at 3am, isn't this the man you want answering the phone? He makes McCain (look like Ralph Wiggum).
Of course, to me, Amitabh will always be Anthony Gonzalves, erstwhile drunk and Christian hero of possibly the greatest movie ever made.. In honor of the upcoming Easter holiday, please see this clip as proof that while Barack Obama may sound like Lincoln, only Amitabh can pull off the stovepipe hat.
(Want to hear my remix of this song? Check out my music page or my GarageBand page.)
Thursday, March 6, 2008
Actually, Make That 30 Seconds of Fame
Friday, February 15, 2008
Lost & Lonesome
Sunday, January 27, 2008
My Top Five Albums of 2007
Surprisingly, some of my favorite bands' eagerly anticipated new albums didn't make the cut (Arcade Fire, the Shins, Wilco). Instead, my list is headed by two bands I found out about just this year:
- The Broken West: "I Can't Go On, I'll Go On" - Americana/roots rock a la Tom Petty, but full of pure pop sunshine.
- O'Death: "Head Home" - Saw these guys at the Hideout Block Party. Full-on country-punk madness from this New York band.
- Modest Mouse: "We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank" - The one highly anticipated album that actually lived up to the hype.
- Robert Plant & Alison Krauss: "Raising Sand" - I never thought I'd like anything Robert Plant did this much, but these are beautiful songs.
- Josh Ritter: "The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter (with Bonus EP)" - My Oberlin College classmate finally starts rockin' out.
Tuesday, January 22, 2008
Bulletin from the WTF? Department
Perhaps the Lost Cartographers should apply. I'm pretty sure our bassist Karl is a "recognizable celebrity nationally or internationally." And at least they'd give us body armor.
Monday, January 21, 2008
How To Stay Sane On The CTA
Paste Culture Club - Paste is almost my perfect music magazine: heavy does of alt.country/americana and indie rock, with occasional forays into underground hip-hop and the just-plain-weird. While they may throw in a few too many earnestly mediocre singer-songwriters, I'll take that any day over the Frankenstein's monster Rolling Stone has become -- the reanimated corpses of Boomer nostalgia acts steered by the criminally insane brain of top-40 teen-pop (shudder). Paste's biweekly podcast features full-length songs, interviews, and news about new releases.
Sound Opinions - Featuring Chicago's own major-paper rock critics, "The World's Only Rock-and-Roll Talk Show" was on WXRT when I moved to town, and has since moved to Chicago Public Radio. I'm pretty sure it's one of the only shows on public radio where you'll ever hear people wax on about the talents of Ghostface Killah.
Design Matters - Sterling Brands' Debbie Millman (she designed the Burger King logo, among others) interviews some of the top designers in the field (Steven Heller, Milton Glaser, etc.), along with other cultural luminaries like Malcolm Gladwell.
Be A Design Cast - A group of young designers from (of all places) Omaha puts together this entertaining bi-weekly podcast. They too interview design big-wigs (including Debbie Millman), but don't take themselves (or much of anything, except Mountain Dew can redesigns) too seriously.
Freelance Radio - Not really a design show, but applicable to those like myself who do freelance design work. The hosts discuss things like contracts, time management techniques, and client horror stories.
Boagworld - Hosted by two Brits who run a web design company called Headscape. The dynamic between old friends Paul, the often-cranky designer type and Marcus, the ex-pop-star salesman/project manager is itself worth listening to the show. The fact that it's full of interesting news, reviews, and interviews is just icing on the cake.
This American Life - Single-handedly responsible for making me a member of Chicago Public Radio, TAL is the most popular podcast on iTunes. I actually listened to all 300-plus episodes on the web before they began podcasting, which means I wait with baited breath each week to see if the lastest podcast will be a new episode or a rerun.
The Story - Kind of like TAL, but daily.
Savage Lovecast - "America's only advice columnist" Dan Savage is even funnier live than he is in his weekly column. Warning: anyone who doesn't find hilarity in the idea of elderly grandmothers inadvertently pleasuring their pet parakeets probably shouldn't listen.
So -- any suggestions for ones I should absolutely add to my list? I'm all ears.