Archive for the ‘Rock 'N' Roll’ Category

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the rock i dig the most ’09: Visqueen

February 28, 2010

Within the first seconds of Visqueen’s Message To Garcia, on first track, “Hand Me Down,” the band announces its return with a classic, cranked up, Ramones-y riff that quickly gives way to pure distortion pedal driven pop rock. Its a sound welcoming and familiar to those of us acquainted with their excellent two previous records, 2004’s Sunset On Dateland and 2002’s King Me. The band had been MIA the past few years. Shortly after touring for Sunset On Dateland, singer/guitarist/songwriter/frontwoman Rachel Flotard decided to put Visqueen on hiatus to care for her terminally ill father. Her father unfortunately passed after a long battle with cancer in early 2008.  Message To Garcia, inspired by and in tribute to Flotard’s father George, is a heartfelt, pogo-inducing, life-affirming record about love that rocks.

Before jump starting Visqueen, Rachel joined up with friend Neko Case to serve up backing vocals in Neko’s touring band.  Neko returns the favor here, supplying backup vocals to a number of tracks on Message To Garcia.  Other members of Case’s backing band turn up here as well, providing an expansion to the band’s guitar/bass/drums sound, including a fantastic pedal steel guitar solo from multi-instrumentalist Jon Rauhouse on “Beautiful Amnesia.”

The too catchy for their own good songs on Message To Garcia are still guided by Rachel’s chainsawing guitar chords, just as they were on those previous, excellent, two albums. This time around though the songs are accented by an extra layer or two of backing vocals, horns, cellos, a pounding piano, squealing organ, hand claps, the previously mentioned pedal steel solo and more. While the punchy aggression displayed on King Me and Sunset On Dateland is slightly dialed down on Message To Garcia, the songs are actually better for it. Rachel’s crystal clear, sweet megaphone of a voice is given more room to breathe and soar over the instrumentation rather than trading punches with the bash and pop of the guitars and drums. The punky riffed power pop takes one short breather altogether at the album’s half time for a bona fide ballad. “So Long” is Flotard’s poignant and direct sad goodbye and thank you of a love song to her father and even that finds a way to summon strength from the tears.

The second half of the album kicks off with the bouncy “Ward” with Rachel cheering on “Baby c’mon, c’mon, c’mon and turn it around.” This is the spirit of the record boiled down to one line of a chorus and not surprisingly is what could be expected from the songs of a woman who in her spare time has taught music to kids and gone to Laos on aid missions, building schools, handing out medicine and food to those less privileged than herself. Like seemingly everything else she appears to do, Visqueen is a force of good.

And for all it’s greatness, soul bearing sadness, sunshine, strength and rock ‘n’ roll, this is a record that couldn’t find a label to release it.  Seriously? Seriously. This is telling of the world we live in and the state of the record industry in general. While the top ten is consistently littered with celebrity clones singing meaningless auto-tuned, pro-tooled product for profit, a record full of musicians rocking out catchy tunes with beautiful voices singing lyrics penned from the heart of the human condition struggles to be heard.  Motherfuckers just don’t get it. Records like this are what it’s supposed to be all about.

Carrying on though is the point. Like any good fighters would, the band, now a four-piece, including Tom Cummings (guitar) and Cristina Bautista (bass) joining Rachel and drummer Ben Hooker, formed their own label and put it out themselves. Buying Message To Garcia, and I do mean BUYING it, listening to it, rocking the fuck out and enjoying it, even when it makes you tear up, feels like supporting all that is right in the world. Message To Garcia is one of my favorite records of the past year for all of the right reasons.

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the rock i dig the most ’09: Baroness

February 18, 2010

There are at least two dozen different moments on Baroness’ Blue Record that  remind me of Queen’s 1985 Flash Gordon soundtrack. I mean this in only the most respectable way. As in, there are guitar lines so striking that they make me want to shout “Hawkmen, Dive!” at the top of my lungs. Good Metal should make you want to do shit like that. Now, Blue Record isn’t full of campy dialogue drops and dated synth, but it sounds majestic like that Flash Gordon record sounded. In fact, the guitar leads on Blue Record’s “The Sweetest Curse” sound like the kind of leads Brian May might have laid down if he had done time in Thin Lizzy. It has that completely over-the-top feeling of that Flash Gordon record. It is heavy and bombastic but has its transitional moments of beautiful, though disconcerting, calm.

Most of all, it actually sounds like a soundtrack. The songs are more like the individual movements that make up a larger piece, flowing into each other flawlessly. Even when you know Blue Record by heart, it’s hard to pick out where one song ends and another begins. Except that the movie for Blue Record only exists in your head. Well, they did make a video, but sadly, if you’ve seen this horrible, horrible video for this great, great song, you have no fucking idea what that movie might be about and likely wouldn’t want to see it. Blue Record’s visuals are probably better served by the stunning cover art created by lead singer/guitarist John D. Baizley.

Adding to the visual confusion presented by the video I linked above are the lyrics. I’ve listened to Blue Record no less than a hundred times and I’ll be damned if I know what these songs are truly about. The lyrics read like scripture and sound like a series of poems barked out by a madman. When the shouting temporarily subsides, the vocals trip into a psychedelic and atmospheric harmony floating over sparse acoustic guitar and piano, as on “Steel That Steeps The Eye.”  Thematically, I’m picking up that God doesn’t like war and that there is something about a horse and some fish, bullhead catfish specifically. Metaphorical, sure; biblically symbolic, maybe; no idea, most definitely, and that’s about as far as I’ve gotten. It’s tough being a fan of what some would call Stoner Metal and not actually getting stoned. Bands like Baroness and Mastodon make me want to own a bong and know a guy.

Of course, though, it’s the music that ultimately matters and when really smart guys get into mastering Metal and marijuana, generally, really great things happen. It happened here and with guttural vocals blasting through the chugging crush of riffs, Baroness delivered a killer Metal record in every respect. Though it’s the layers of guitar work from Baizley and Peter Adams that make Blue Record more than just another killer Metal record. There’s the aforementioned Brian May in Thin Lizzy quality of the leads, the Zeppelin III-era Jimmy Page acoustic flavoring of the minute long interlude, “Blackpowder Orchard,” (which then lays another Brian May Flash Gordon lead over it). Yeah, back to those Flash Gordon comparisons again. The instrumental “Ogeechee Hymnal” straight up sounds like some lost demo track for that record.

What Baroness achieves on Blue Record is grandiose and wild, headbanging and head scratching, gorgeous and severe. Baroness proves that melody doesn’t have to be sacrificed for heaviness and that psychedelic doesn’t have to mean slow and spacey. They fall into none of the trappings of  Metal’s various and never ending subgenres while staying true to the traditions those subgenres define. On only their second full length album Baroness has carved out their own distinct niche.

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the rock i dig the most ’09: Mastodon

February 11, 2010

My most played album of 2009 is nothing short of an epic Heavy Metal mindfuck. An epic Heavy Metal mindfuck so unavoidably good that it even landed on the radar of someone that actually got paid to write about records for Time magazine. Though, their lame so-called review finds reason to apologize for it, as if admitting that it is good should be beneath you because well, it’s a Metal record by a Metal band. Who the hell reads Time magazine these days anyway, let alone for their music reviews? Still, I find it interesting that a record this downright heavy and “out there” is able to cross-over to audiences outside of the Metal world. Not a bad thing.

And heavy and “out there” it is. The limitations of the human body, astral projection, time travel(?), Rasputin, bodily possession, the limitless nature  of space…I don’t know that I’ll ever quite get my head completely around all of the themes and ideas presented on this record, but that is part of its depth. Crack The Skye is like one of those cool “pick-a-path” books I used to read in sixth grade where you turn to page 78 to fight the dragon on your own, or turn to page 112 to fall back and gather your wizard, barbarian and dwarf.  Aspects of the story this record tells can mean one thing to me on one listen and on the next listen, something completely different jumps out at me and in a completely different way. On one listen the story is a literal narrative, on another, purely metaphorical.

The fact that I am yet again blasting Mastodon’s Crack The Skye into my head via my headphones (and this is a true headphones record) as I write this and am still finding new details to geek out about is a testament to its greatness. There is just so much here to digest. Musically, Crack The Skye is a shape shifter of a record.  From traditional thrash Metal riffage to bursts of heavy prog to beautiful melodic stretches to atmospheric spacey interludes, Crack The Skye feels like the music itself is traveling and exploring. An aspect emphasized all the more when you listen to the alternate instrumental “score” version of it. The vocals, though, lend themselves to this vibe. With 3 of the band’s 4 members handling lead vocals at any given time plus guest Scott Kelly of Neurosis showing up on the title track, this multi-faceted recording benefits from its multi-faceted and distinctly different voices.

I’m now three paragraphs into talking about this record and I haven’t even brought up the guitar work or the guitar solos yet. For all its adventurous complexity, Crack The Skye is a Heavy Metal record after all, and Mastodon is downright fucking brutal (a compliment). The twin-guitar attack (that’s never not fun to write) of Brent Hinds and Bill Kelliher creates a bizarre symphonic tornado of sound so killer that it lands them on the covers of every guitar geek mag still in print. Don’t take my word for it. Check out “Divinations” stripped of drums, bass and vocals:

So not only do you have killer guitar work, Mastodon’s Brann Dailor is by far the best drummer in Metal right now. Which, if you’re the best drummer in Metal, that pretty much makes you the best drummer in all of Rock. Dailor’s work is constantly busy and always tasteful. Fills roll on top of fills on top of fills, all while pounding and spiraling through time signatures that are more at home in jazz and prog than in thrash. It’s as if Neil Peart and Dave Lombardo had a hyperactive, more artistic baby.

Troy Sanders’ bass lines seemingly hold all the cacophony of Mastodon together, sort of guiding the songs through their elaborate mazes. The centerpiece of Crack The Skye, the four-part, nearly eleven minute “The Czar” is a prime example of this. Plus, he’s the most versatile singer in the band, armed with a voice clean enough to be clearly understood (something not to be taken for granted in modern Metal) and able to, at times, lend a more melodic leaning to the vocals and yet rough enough to push the more aggressive moments over the edge…and he has a really cool beard.

Mastodon’s Crack The Skye is simply a band in their prime hitting on all cylinders. There are no weak links and the chemistry of the band’s four musicians is in perfect balance. This is Metal executed as a form of art. Not just one of the best albums of the year, and not just the best Metal album of the year, but one of the best albums of all time. Not even a full year since it’s release, Crack The Skye is already a classic.

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the rock i dig the most ’09: Mariachi El Bronx

January 29, 2010

The Bronx have proven to me, both on record and in a live setting, over the last few years that they are without a doubt a world class rock ‘n’ roll band. Like Rocket From The Crypt before them, The Bronx seem to carry an extra gene for being cool. You know, the one that makes everything they do 100x cooler than everyone else’s attempt at cool. Some bands/people are just a cut above their peers. The Bronx are that. So when the band announced that they were planning on making a mariachi record, I was interested. Though I didn’t know if they were joking or not. Then, on last year’s Warped Tour they started playing sets as Mariachi El Bronx. This was no joke.

I’m not going to pretend I have a bunch of mariachi cred. I don’t know the first thing beyond identifying its general sound. The records I own by Alejandro Escovedo and Calexico are about as close as my record collection gets to having anything even remotely close to mariachi music in it. What I do know are songs. This record has ’em. Strong ones. With melodies and hooks. This record is a man sitting alone at a bar, drowning his sorrows. Longing and loss.  Regret and redemption. This record displays a high level of musicianship. This record creates an overall vibe that my ears don’t often experience. It’s a pop record I can dance to, a soul record I can feel, a rock ‘n’ roll record I can relax with, and yet, it’s a bona fide mariachi record.

This record could have been a rock band making a mariachi record for shits ‘n’ giggles. It could have been an album full of take-offs on Ween’s
Buenos Tardes Amigos.” And while I like that song a lot and it’s a fun listen every time I hear it, I didn’t need an entire record of it. Instead, what the Bronx delivered with Mariachi El Bronx is, in my opinion, the most beautiful record of the year.

Mariachi El Bronx sounds lovely like this:

The same band in their other incarnation, The Bronx, sounds lovely like this:

I love it all.

The Bronx also represents something sentimental for me. My brother is just about nine and half years younger than me. We have a lot in common when it comes to music. Without giving our entire musical history, basically, we both Rock in the truest sense of the word. I don’t mind taking a lot of credit for that. Once my baby brother graduated from the crib, he moved into my bedroom, which made it our shared bedroom. Bunk bed and all. Most three or four year old boy’s bedrooms are decorated with some bad baseball and football kidproof easy-to-clean wallpaper, maybe a toy box in the corner. My brother got wood panelling covered up with Motley Crue, Ozzy and Iron Maiden Eddie posters straight out of the poster rack at the local mall’s Spencer’s Gifts store.

Those posters would soon be replaced with Metallica, Anthrax, and Slayer by the time he was five or six.   As I experienced my teen years and went through every stage of aggressive music that a midwestern teenaged boy is want to go through, my brother was right there taking it all in about a decade too soon. While most kids were making box car racers in cub scouts, my brother was making his own 90-minute Heavy Metal and Punk Rock mix tapes on my dual cassette tape deck.

As I got into more punk rock, thrash and speed metal , alternative rock , live bootlegs and even underground tape trading stuff like The Frogs and Daniel Johnston, he was right there making his own copies on the seemingly endless supply of Maxells that existed in our bedroom. Where my brother and I differed though (besides his major exploration into the music of Rush) was at some point during these years, my brother picked up a guitar and could actually play it.  To this day, I still struggle with the few chords I actually learned from reading tab. My brother is one of those people who just knows how to play inherently. I honestly can not remember a time when he didn’t know how to play guitar. It’s as if he picked it up and out came Metallica’s “Blackened.” When he became interested in drums, my dad and I took him to buy his first set. Again, he just sort of instantly knew how to play. I think he took some lessons for a short time, but he quickly seemed to be better off on his own. I was amazed at how fast he picked things up. I can barely keep a single beat on a kit. I’ve even heard my brother sing well, hitting all the high notes on a drunken karaoke run through of A-ha’s “Take On Me.”

Later, he got serious about his playing and explored Jazz a bit, even getting a paying job as a teenager playing drums in a jazz combo with musicians much older than he that did gigs at a fancy supper club joint on the weekends. He had his pop-punk high school bands and floated in and out of a few bands with friends before eventually ending up playing drums in a band with an established indie label record deal, put out a record and hit the road off and on for a few years.  He’s currently slugging it out at the DIY level in two bands, recording, hitting the road and playing shows whenever he can. I’m extremely proud of him and totally envious of his talent.

So back to The Bronx and the reason I hold a bit of a sentimental love for that band. The Bronx are without a doubt one of my favorite bands. The recklessness of hardcore punk and the power of riff rock fight over the melodic aspects of pop in their music. They pull it off beautifully and in spades, minus any grace whatsoever. The Bronx hit you in the face and then in the heart and you have fun taking the punch. They embody so many of the basic things I love about Rock ‘N’ Roll.

While my brother heard his first notes of Metallica, Slayer, Anthrax, Led Zeppelin, Iron Maiden, The Frogs, Guided By Voices, The Clash, The Ramones, Triple Fast Action, Ween and countless other bands that we share a love for from me…I heard my first notes of the Bronx from my brother when he nonchalantly loaned  me their first record and said, “Check these guys out, I think you’ll like them.”

Payback is an amazing thing.

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the rock i dig the most ’09: Dinosaur Jr.

January 25, 2010

It occurred to me while listening to Farm for seemingly the 183rd time since it was released that Dinosaur Jr. are the George Foreman of Rock. George Foreman really had no business coming back to boxing at nearly 40 years old, well past his prime and apparently just looking for a big payday. Many bands have reformed under these circumstances, and while it’s fun to go see them, it’s never really as good as you remember it. Foreman, though, to everyone’s surprise, went ahead and won the heavyweight title in 1994 at the age of 45. Not only did he become heavyweight champion of the world (regaining the title he lost to Muhammad Ali twenty years earlier), but in the same year, he launched the George Foreman grill. This might be the greatest single year that any human being in the history of earth has ever experienced…but that may or may not be another post. For now, I’ll stay focused on Dinosaur Jr.  2009’s Farm and 2007’s Beyond are Dinosaur Jr.’s 1994 (even though they’re both far better than the record J Mascis actually did release as Dinosaur Jr. in ’94).

A few years ago when J Mascis reformed Dinosaur Jr. with original members Lou Barlow and Murph, I thought, “That’s cool. I’ll definitely check that out.” I certainly wasn’t expecting Dinosaur Jr. to be an even better band now than they were the first time around. Yet, to everyone’s surprise, that is exactly what has happened. Beyond was among the best records of ’07 and Farm is even better than Beyond. J Mascis’ guitar again remains front and center, just as it should be, overdriven, buzzing, crunching and churning some of the poppiest melodies I heard all year. Juxtaposing the sheer rock ‘n’ roll is J’s voice. Sounding like a depression-ridden, broken, beaten man cutting his vocals after being awoken in the middle of the night, his damaged drawl lays a wash of sadness on these lyrically remorseful, but for the most part musically upbeat, songs. It’s a dynamic that really shouldn’t work at all. Sort of like a washed up boxer winning the title while simultaneously endorsing an electric grill that drains fat from your burgers shouldn’t have worked. Yet not only does it work, it’s fucking awesome.

I came of age in the ‘90s. I know I’m supposed to recognize Lou Barlow as an underrated genius and sing the praises of Sebadoh and Folk Implosion, and granted some of that stuff is decent, but Lou Barlow isn’t the reason I listen to Dinosaur Jr.  When he got booted from the band, I still bought the records he didn’t play on and liked most all of them. But there is no argument that the band’s best records are the one’s he and Murph play on. In fact, Farm is probably the best thing the band has ever done, including their late-‘80s/early ‘90s output. No other record has ever made me feel introspective, reflective and somewhat somber when listening to it while simultaneously leaving me overjoyed and completely rocked the fuck out.

More reasons I dig Dinosaur Jr.’s Farm:

  • J. Mascis is a living, breathing guitar god that looks like a cross between a creepy science teacher and Gandalf the Grey.
  • They made this video for possibly the catchiest track on the record:
  • The track “I Don’t Wanna Go There” and the fact that it’s nearly nine minutes in length on the record and just about half of it is guitar shredding. Dinosaur Jr. is leading the charge to assure that the indie kids come to respect the guitar solo. J owns you at the 3:27 mark:
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the rock i dig the most ’09: intro

January 25, 2010

Every rock geek worth his or her salt compiles some sort of year-end best-of list. I’m no different (with the possible exception of getting around to posting it a month or so into the new year). Though, in recent years, I’ve given up on the whole Top 10/Top 20 type list.  I like different records for different reasons at different times and I’m not about to cut a good record out of my list because I came up with some reason one record is #20 and another is #21. That’s as dumb as rating a record with a fractional numeric score (Pitchfork).

These are simply the records that were released in 2009 that I enjoyed the most.  Hopefully over the next few weeks I’ll find the time to ramble on about them a little bit. These won’t necessarily be full-on reviews in as much as they’ll mostly just be a few bits about why I dig the Rock and maybe I’ll end up going off on some interesting tangents.

So, in no particular order, I present the 2009 edition of the Rock I dig the most…

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solo show.

October 15, 2009

There is an element of stoic pride in going to see a rock show all by your lonesome. There is an arrogant self righteous sense of defiance in not caring if no one else you know wants to go. Your internal dialogue immediately writes off your friends that decided to blow it off at the last minute as lame and undeserving of the Rock anyway. No one is going to stop me from rocking!  Besides, I hate it when people talk to me when I’m seeing and hearing a band in some club.

I also hate it when people around me carry on conversations during the band’s set. Though due to our human race’s seemingly ever growing narcissistic need to receive constant attention it is an occurrence that is unavoidable these days. I can barely recall a show I’ve attended over the last few years where I wasn’t annoyed by someone who simply couldn’t shut the fuck up and just enjoy the show that they had just paid to see and hear.  I yelled at a girl half my size and likely a dozen years my junior at a show a few weeks ago. As she conversed nonchalantly with her friend back and forth during the middle of a band’s set, standing just a foot or so from me, I muttered a subtle “shut up” just loud enough for her to hear.  She stopped, paused as if shocked that she really heard that from a total stranger and then decided her response would be a snotty and dismissive, “Whaaat?” Her nerve pissed me off greatly, so I went off on her, yelling in her face to shut the fuck up and stop chatting through the entire song and to have some respect for other people around her. Some others standing nearby in the crowd actually thanked me. I appreciated that, but I was totally acting out of anger and I think I probably scared that girl. After I calmed down I didn’t feel good about it.  Even though she deserved it for talking through an entire song, and one of the quietest of the set at that, I felt shitty for yelling at some young girl I don’t even know. Seems loutish, and I’d rather not be a lout, even if she deserved loutishness and I’m rightly pissed off. Anyway, this is one of the reasons I still love Metal shows. (Metal is always capitalized.)

Go see a Metal gig and it doesn’t matter who is talking throughout the set, who is drunk and obnoxious, how many annoying hipsters are hanging out being too cool for the room, who is right in front of you texting non-stop, who thinks the band sucks and isn’t interested yet stays right in front of you anyway, or who is yelling at someone they don’t know out of anger. In fact, more often than not, the music itself is rooted in anger to begin with. A good righteous anger being exorcised on guitar, bass and drums burns all of those little insignificant annoyances in an instant. Whoever or whatever it is that might distract you is no match for the sheer volume and vigor of the performance. One killer riff will simply decimate all of the bullshit in the room. This is why Metal has remained such a huge part of my musical landscape. I’ve never moved on, never grown out of it, and never turned my back on it when it wasn’t “in.” Metal not only just sounds good to my ears, it feels good to my being. It’s cathartic. Therapeutic, even.

This past Monday night’s therapy session was thrown down by Red Fang and Saviours. Both bands played absolutely killer sets. Red Fang in particular with their genuine likable Metal burnout dude persona, huge guitar tones, and pummeling vibe. When you’re 36 years old and you find yourself going to Monday night Metal shows after a day of working in a grey cubicle, followed by an hour plus commute, by yourself because the few friends you have left that will actually even entertain going to a Monday night Metal show in the first place bailed out on you the day of the show, and your wife who just started grad school has a class and probably wouldn’t have gone regardless, you are:

  1. seriously, one cool motherfucker.
  2. totally Metal, no poser.
  3. someone who doesn’t quite have their shit together.
  4. old and getting older, trying to hold on to one of the few things that you have left that makes you still feel young and irresponsible.
  5. trying to escape the mundane details of your spirit-defeating weekday work life for a few hours.
  6. that kind of weird old-ish guy standing there by himself at the all-ages Rock show.

I am all of these.
Nothing like a good Monday night Metal show to put things in perspective.