Sunday, November 28, 2010

Michael Jackson


The average Ear to the Rail post consists of about three hundred words.  I'd like to use about fifty or so of those right now to compile a list: "ABC," "I Want You Back," "Billy Jean," "Thriller," "Beat It," "Black Or White," "Man In The Mirror," "Heal The World," "You Are Not Alone," "Wanna Be Starting Someting," "Don't Stop Till You Get Enough," "Rock With You,"  "Bad," "I'll Be There," "Smooth Criminal," "Dirty Diana," "Scream," "The Way You Make Me Feel."

The only thing I'd like to write about his personal life is that I'm not interested in talking about his personal life.  His career, however, captured everyone's attention, entertained us for half a century, and raised countless millions for charity.

Just watch the video I've linked below from the 1988 Grammys.  It's about ten minutes long, and in it you will see an entertainer--arguably at the top of his game--who is, I believe, trying to change the world through his music.  Now, whether such a thing is actually possible is another matter.  What's so captivating about this video is that it captures on tape a moment when the performer seems to thoroughly believe that it CAN be done.

Also, it's just plain awesome.  On a technical note: often in music writers will take the key up one step when they want to add intensity to their song.  If you don't know much about music theory that's fine.  Let's just call this procedure adding "the money note."  The video below has one of the raddest "money notes" in music history.

http://bit.ly/3ateI7

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Ween


Of all the bands I listen to Ween is easily the hardest to talk about. They are one of those bands you just have to "get," and it's a task that many folks simply aren't up to. Made up of two guys who operate under the pseudonyms "Dean and Gene Ween," we are talking about a band that started out recording unbelievably raunchy albums on a four track and playing shows with just the two of them and a DAT machine to signing with Elektra and releasing a series of albums where they deliberately defied any specific genera by dint of their ability to completely master all of them. But they never reach the point where imitation is mere kitsch, however; somehow they always "mean it" in their own way, and, knowingly or not, seem to thread their chameleonlike oeuvre with an element that is distinctly, well, Ween. It's weird.

There simply is no pinning these guys down.  Those who don't take to Ween perhaps find their amorphism to be too much without center. But for the die hard fans, which seem to be the only kind, it is the spontaneity and the playfulness which makes up a huge part of the appeal. Gene's infinitely versatile vocals pair perfectly with the band's musical sensibility, which crosses back and forth over the line between being satirical and completely sincere. There is indeed a lot of irony in their music, and a lot of humor too. Just when you think they are hitting on something really profound, there is always the chance that they're making fun of you. But, the fact is, the raucous humor just makes the sweet songs sweeter, simply because you know that it all comes from the same source.

It is almost impossible to decide which songs to post here since more than any band, Ween seems to need a hermeneutic approach which almost requires listening to the whole catalogue. But what the hey. Here are four tunes and two jingles.

"Take Me Away"-http://bit.ly/b4RILa

"Help Me Scrape the Mucus Off My Brain"-http://bit.ly/aUdrLz
Just when it looked like Ween might be about to carve out a comfortable place among the mainstream alternative bands they released a country album.  Here is one of the many gems from that record.

"Stroker Ace" (live)-http://bit.ly/cHGw8G

"The Argus"-http://bit.ly/awCaEK

"Where'd the Cheese Go"-http://bit.ly/OItZ
Written after they were commissioned by Pizza Hut to write a jingle for their new "stuffed crust" pizza.

"Where'd the Mutha^%&^*! Cheese Go"-http://bit.ly/cDN4o
Written after Pizza Hut rejected their first jingle.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Joanna Newsom


Joanna Newsom has a very specific element to her sound which I like; and while not everything she's produced quite resonates with me, the stuff of hers that's good is profoundly good.  So while there's just one album that in my humble opinion really hits the mark, I also think it should be required listening for anyone with a heart.  Ys (pronounced "eesh") is her second record, and actually features arrangements from Van Dyke Parks, a legend in his own right, who famously collaborated with Brian Wilson in writing the words to Smile.  His contribution to Ys is a huge part of the appeal, in fact, I can't imagine myself initially digging as deeply into this album without his presence.  He plays the orchestra with a felicity that you don't often hear in run-of-the-mill movie score type orchestration.  Not only are his arrangements tense and otherworldly, but he also meets the challenge of writing for songs which go on for thirteen minutes plus, somehow keeping things not only interesting, but "can't-look-away good."  While Parks is undoubtedly a necessary component, he isn't the reason for the occasion.

Joanna is a poet, plain and simple, worth reading along to as you listen to the music.  Although not all of it can be grasped, even after repeated listening, the words are uplifting, like you're being taken through her own self-made images and allegories to a place that is both universal and, you get the sense, intensely personal for Newsom.  She's one of those musicians who has the courage to follow her own voice; the end result in this case has been a spectacularly original work.  Below is the first track from Ys with an extra link to the lyrics.  If you're the type that likes to know something going in--I sometimes find that helpful myself--I'll go ahead and tell you that I've read that the song is about her sister who is an astrophysicist.  My only advice for a first time listener it this: give it time to grow on you, you'll be glad you did.

"Emily"--http://bit.ly/cYDejR
"Emily" words--http://bit.ly/b1krWz

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Beck


Because he did this in 1998:
"Diamond Bullocks" the hidden track off of Mutations-http://bit.ly/ahuA2r

And because that was from an album which for the most part sounded like this:
"Dead Melodies"-http://bit.ly/19pNvoL

Add to that an extensive and widely varied catalogue which includes a funk record, Midnight Vultures, which satisfies event the most epicurean funk aficionado, and Sea Change, as earnest an offering as any songwriter could really wish to produce.  Originally a hipster, the hipsters for the most part have moved on from Beck.  His detractors accuse him of ceasing to be a trendsetter, becoming a trend follower instead, and of placing a higher price on production than on songrwriting. They deem his R&B antics superficial, and his excursions into folk at best overly abstract, and at worst maudlin. Whatever.

I think we ought to remember just how far ahead of the curve this guy was.  In a time when the airwaves were dominated by grunged-out arena rock, he came along with a beat up acoustic guitar and an 808 and sang "I'm a loser baby."  When anthems to angst were en vogue he penned words with actual metaphors in them.  Self produced from the beginning, he combined sounds we hadn't really heard put together before.  (Note: he has since collaborated with several distinguished producers, including the Dust Brothers, Nigel Godrich, and most recently Danger Mouse.)  Nowadays a lot of what I argue are Beck innovations in the breaking of genre have become standard fare--one of the most notable being the incorporation of electronica into otherwise disparate forms.  He's still good today, but I think it's worth mentioning just where a lot of these mainstream trends got started.  Go back and check the record; I think you'll find Beck there, half coy, half knowing he's got everybody beat.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Flaming Lips


Thanks to the nearly bygone age of continued major label support this band has never gone away.  Had they not been given the time to develop we wouldn't have songs like "Do you Realize"--which is one of those broad and timeless tunes like "A Wonderful World"--and which, as of last year, is also Oklahoma's state song.  But thankfully the Flaming Lips are here to stay.  Here are two tracks (oldies but goodies) that are worth a listen if all you've heard so far from this deep and ambitious band are the one or two songs that made the charts.

"The Spark that Bled"-http://bit.ly/2fWni1
Sometimes listening to the Lips you get the feeling that this whole thing is as new to them as it is to you.  They always seem to be discovering and developing their sound as they go.  As a kind of embodiment of this notion, this song has a roaming, explorative feel to it. Not to mention there's a heck of a groove thrown in there from time to time.

"One More Robot/Sympathy 3000-21"-http://bit.ly/11qEMN
It's always great when a band can tug at your heart strings and make you wanna move your hips at the same time.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Fleet Foxes


The thing that strikes you most upon first hearing Fleet Foxes' self titled album is hearing that it was released in 2008. It sounds more like a lost Moody Blues record circa 1978, except earthier and perhaps less ornate.  There are tons of harmonies (think Crosby, Stills, Nash) and the occasional verbed-out guitar that almost reminds you of an Ennio Morricone track.  Probably the best way to meet this band is through the link below.  Despite capturing their sound, which is somehow both stoic and soulful at the same time, it also showcases the their other anachronistic quality, the ability to do it live.  The thing about Fleet Foxes is this, it's never pretentious or polished, it's just good music.

The Fleet Foxes playing around town- http://bit.ly/z0gwW

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Gnarls Barkley


To write this band off as just another top 40 phenomenon would be a gross oversite. And while their second record wasn't as big a success as their first, I think it is, arguably, better once you realize that this is soul, not pop, and come to view them as the heir apparent to people like Ottis Redding and Al Green. That said, Gnarls Barkley seems to be as much post-genre (if that can be a word now) as they are pop, soul, hip-hop, electronica, or any other label we would hoist on them. We've all heard "Crazy," and while I maintain that it is one of the most important, and not to mention harrowing songs to hit the mainstream--it does seem to have a haunted quality that comes from some unknown and remote place: the difference between these two tracks below is why I love this band so much.

"Transformer" (album cut)- http://bit.ly/1erBuY

"Transformer" (re-cut in-studio version)- http://bit.ly/9hdx3D

Each member of this group has a really productive solo career.  Danger Mouse, of course, has an instantly recognizable production style and works with a constantly varying, super-talented group of musicians. But I'm keeping my eye on Cee Lo Green. The fact is, he's a phenomenal singer with a unique voice, and his lyrics, once examined, turn out to be some of the most painfully heartfelt and honest stuff out there.  Not many folks are deep enough to sing you a hurtin' song with a smile on their face. So I think it's worth hearing just one of his solo tracks too.  This one lends support to my theory that all songs with the word "Georgia" in the title are automatically great.

"Georgia"- http://bit.ly/cnSX8Y

Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Dirty Projectors



“Cannibal Resource”- http://bit.ly/9DRvuc
What immediately hits you about this band is their ability to have an original, even jarring sound that still resonates in a feel-good, emotional way.  I find few bands can accomplish “head music” and “heart music” at the same time.  Not to mention, how do they do so much with so little!

“Two Doves”- http://bit.ly/cW8H5X
A softer song with a beautiful string arrangement:  The guitar line could transpose easily onto a harp and the lyrics read like a sonnet, but somehow, despite making a gentler statement, this tune still has a piquant dash of that same off-center, jolting quirkiness that’s integral to the Projector’s sound.

http://bit.ly/dhbUgJ
And since we've talked a little about influences in "inception", here's David Longstreth, the main writing force of the band, talking about his influences. (Fair warning, the audio is low.) The album of theirs which I think is so stellar is named Bitte Orca, and came out last year, 2009. If you'd like to know what he's up to now, look for his recent collaboration with Bjork.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

inception

It's a very, very common question. What music to you listen to? The seriousness of this question varies from person to person.  When people put this query to me sometimes they want to know about my influences, and other times--as is usually the case--it's just a question.  It helps folks figure out who you are.  Well... I'm not getting into any of that.  This is really just like my little Music Appreciation 101. While running the risk of belying any philosophical claims I've made over beers about relativism and culture in music, and while simultaneously running the risk of sounding like a pompous ass, I'm gonna come out and say it: I think I know what good is.  So there you have it.  What will follow here is my own take on people in music that I think are really really great, with absolutely no attention given to newness or relevance. For the most part I intend to approach each artist as if the reader has never heard of them (even though I know that will often not be the case).  But hey, take a few minutes, a second listen on a random lunch-break can sometimes yield a whole new perspective. At the end of the day this is just me going, "Hey you should experience this". Its just the stuff that I think is both great and important, without worrying too much about the distinction between the two.  And more importantly, it's just one guy's opinion.  What do I know?