soundstreamsunday #84: “Your Protector” by Fleet Foxes

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Fleet Foxes is a progressive rock band in the same sense Gazpacho is, where what they’re getting at is a total environment or vibe rather than a particular baroque form of electric music with rock instrumentation.  I read recently what I think is a good observation, that their third album, 2017’s Crack-Up, has an appropriate home in Nonesuch, which started as the classical wing of Jac Holzman’s Elektra Records, but in recent years has extended its reach to artful achievers in what we might otherwise think of as the rock world.  It’s the right label for a band that doesn’t like to rush things.  Their previous record, Helplessness Blues, was released in 2011, after which songwriter and lead singer Robin Pecknold, by then a rock star, decided to push pause and go to college and wait for the muse to revisit.  It did.

In a rock world where everything is “post-,” Fleet Foxes shares with the other intelligent American bands of their era — thinking Spoon, Band of Horses, My Morning Jacket, Shearwater — a smart melodic sensibility and a complex vocal approach to its music, atop an intense but restrained musicianship.  With a sound instantly identifiable, in its harmonies the band reliably draws comparisons with the Zombies, Moody Blues, and Crosby, Stills and Nash, and while I get it I don’t really hear it, maybe because I find Pecknold’s lyrics darker, funnier, better, or maybe because there’s no smack of the hippie, despite the hair, that so defined those groups.  I think if anything Fleet Foxes taps into the reverb-drenched sound of 90’s Britpop, the adventurousness of the early 70s British folk scene, and the impressionistic poetics of Dylan‘s best work.  Even while being on the inside there’s an outsider’s sensibility.

“Your Protector,” from Fleet Foxes’ 2008 self-titled debut, is like a puzzle you turn in your hands trying to figure out how it comes apart.  I can’t really parse it, but I’m pretty sure it’s not a happy story, while the galloping, western-movie chorus is an inscrutable, spine-tingling chant difficult to forget.

As you lay to die beside me, baby
On the morning that you came
Would you wait for me?
The other one
Would wait for me

The live-in-studio version here shows the band in full flight, as part the second series in Nigel Godrich’s From the Basement program, and includes drummer Josh Tillman (aka Father John Misty) soon after he joined the group.  There’s a sleekness to the work that speaks volumes on the meticulousness of the band’s constructions: the simplicity of the arrangement, the power in its dynamics, the harmonies.  The air crackles and sparks.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.

Progtoberfest: Day 2 Report

by Rick Krueger

The sun shone warmly again on the south side of Chicago as Progtoberfest III kicked off its second day.  Taking in the view as I exited the ‘L’, it was amusing and welcoming to see a familiar screaming face painted on the exterior of Reggie’s:

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Hoping to get Alphonso Johnson’s and Chester Thompson’s autographs in the VIP Lounge the night before, I’d struck up a delightful conversation with members of the North Carolina Genesis tribute band ABACAB.  In 2016, festival organizer Kevin Pollack had given them “homework” for this year: to play all of Genesis’ live album Seconds Out on the 40th anniversary of its release.  You could tell the band was nervous (they focus on 1980s Genesis to get bookings, so they had to learn half the album in the past year) but also absolutely thrilled to bring it to the Rock Club stage.  And on Saturday afternoon, they nailed it, to the joy of an enthusiastic, supportive crowd and rave reviews from other acts.  They’re already planning to return to Reggie’s in April as a headliner, and for Progtoberfest IV next October.  Check out why below:

Continue reading “Progtoberfest: Day 2 Report”

Gord Downie, 1964-2017

by Rick Krueger

In August of 2016, my wife and I vacationed in Stratford, Ontario — one of our favorite places to visit, due to its internationally acclaimed theater festival and its lovely riverside parks.  Picking up local classic rock stations as we crossed into Canada, I noticed lots of talk about The Tragically Hip’s upcoming concerts in London and Toronto.

I’d heard of The Hip, but never got into them — partially because I’d moved away from metro Detroit, where good Canadian bands could easily score airplay and well-attended shows.   I was surprised at the amount of hubbub around this tour; it was only after we returned to the States that I learned the reason for the buzz.

The Hip’s lead singer and lyricist, Gord Downie, had been diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme, the worst kind of brain cancer, late in 2015.  After finishing the 2016 album Man Machine Poem, the band decided on one last go-round of Canada’s hockey rinks, winding up in their Ontario hometown of Kingston in front of 6,700 fans in the local arena, thousands more on the surrounding streets, and a national audience on CBC.

Honestly, the music of The Tragically Hip is little more than well-executed, basic rock — lots of Rolling Stones and John Mellencamp grooves ranging from competently shambolic to tightly locked in.  The secret sauce was Downie’s surreal, shamanistic lyrics.  Stirring together a underdog outlook, the perspective of Canadians from the “great wide open” and random streams of consciousness (sometimes improvised live as the band rocked on — sperm whales were a recurring theme), they were fascinating precisely because they were sharp yet ambiguous, complex — even openly, defiantly confused.  At their best (in my view, on the album Fully Completely and the compilation Yer Favourites) the group was pretty compelling.

Gord Downie passed away last night at the age of 53.  To say he leaves behind a grateful nation is not an exaggeration.  You can see and hear what Geddy Lee had to say about The Hip last year as the farewell tour wound down here, and read a well-wrought appreciation of Downie’s take on Canadian identity here.  Banger Films (the folks responsible for the Rush documentary Beyond the Lighted Stage) have completed a film about The Hip’s final days, Long Time Running; it’ll be streamed on Netflix starting November 26.  And check out the Yer Favourites compilation below.  I especially recommend “Fiddler’s Green,” Fifty-Mission Cap,” “Courage (for Hugh MacLennan),” “Fireworks” — and if you only have time for one track, the fierce “At the Hundredth Meridian.” 

“If I die of Vanity, promise me, promise me
That if they bury me some place I don’t want to be
That you’ll dig me up and transport me
Unceremoniously away from the swollen city breeze, garbage bag trees
Whispers of disease, and acts of enormity
And lower me slowly, sadly, and properly
Get Ry Cooder to sing my eulogy …”

 

Rick’s Retroarchy: Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, The Live Anthology

by Rick Krueger

When I heard that Tom Petty had died, I dug into my Closet Full of Box Sets and pulled out this baby.  Released in 2009, it came in two versions: a four-CD set with 48 tracks (still available at a super-bargain price) and the Best Buy-only version with an extra CD, one of the first 96K/24 bit audio Blu-rays that included all the songs, two DVDs (a 1978 concert and a 1994 documentary), a replica of a 4-song vinyl promo EP from 1976, various and sundry tchotchkes, and a ludicrous price tag.  Guess which one I bought?

Listening to The Live Anthology again over the past week, Petty’s songwriting struck me again as solid, unpretentious and down to earth; it hasn’t resonated that strongly in my life, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile and well done.  A lot of my favorite moments on the set come when TP quiets down and pours himself into the forms of classic country and folk.  Songs like “Wildflowers” (which feels like an obscure Carter Family tune), the beautiful, hushed lullaby “Alright for Now” (the closer for the four-CD set), and the agrarian hymn “Southern Accents” skip overblown, Springsteen-style myth-making and just communicate — plain-spoken, deeply felt, lovely.

And then there are the Heartbreakers.  Back in my college days, I used to read Stereo Review regularly, mostly for Steve Simels’ rock reviews — agree or disagree, they were always opinionated and entertaining.  Truer words may have never been written than Simels’ New Jersey-style summation of TP & the HBs’ work on Damn the Torpedoes: “Dese guys is good.”  On the evidence of The Live Anthology, they stayed that way for more than 30 years.  Always in sync, almost telepathic at times, Petty, guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench weave elegant, immersive webs of rock, blues, and R & B over a variety of unflappable, grooving rhythm sections.  Whether it’s the Byrdsy power pop of “I Need to Know,” “Even the Losers” and “The Waiting,” mega-hits a la “Refugee,” “Runnin’ Down a Dream” and “Free Fallin’,”  extended jams like “It’s Good to Be King” and the previously unreleased “Melinda,” or a head-spinning range of cover tunes (a surf instrumental version of “Goldfinger”?  Booker T & the MGs’ “Green Onions”?  Van Morrison, Conway Twitty and the Grateful Dead?), the band always sounds lean and soulful, consistently in the moment, listening for the inherent magic and then doing what’s needed to make it happen.

For a while in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Petty rented out our local arena to get ready for his US tours.  Now I kind of regret that the closest I got to hearing him live was serving beer at one of the concession stands for his 2008 Grand Rapids show.  (There are soundproofed plastic flaps over the arena entrances; plus, I served a lot of beer that night.)   For people like me who missed the chance, The Live Anthology is an eloquent testimony to what the man and his band could do at their best.  Listen to the complete deluxe version here:

 

soundstreamsunday: “I’m So Tired” by the Beatles

paul john mixing white album 68Released in November 1968, the White Album did a Pollock on all the principles of freedom the Beatles had been shaping since 1965’s Rubber Soul kicked off their long, disciplined freakout, and splattered the canvas with every elementary Beatle colour: rock and roll, British music hall, folk-and-pop, country, novelty songs, in no apparent order or thematic unfolding.  In its elemental, revelatory mess and as a rock double album it bears resemblance to Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde (1966) or even Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland (released just the month before), and if you took the long view you could, I suppose, think of it as part of the strengthening trend in the late 1960s towards the belief in rock music as art.  While The White Album may not be a lot of things to otherwise die-hard Beatles fans, it is very definitely Art.  Self-conscious Pop collage.  If the grinning nods-and-winks of yore are replaced by the dour four studiously not having a good time together during these last years of their existence (or perhaps merely shrugging the veil of idolatry), the music gives the lie to this not being good for the rest of us and for popular music in general across the timeline of centuries.  That Abbey Road and its blueprint for rock’s next steps was still in their future is almost impossible to believe.

“I’m So Tired” is a late Beatles-era Lennon masterpiece, a song of yearning and uncertainty.  Its central line,  “I’d give you everything I’ve got for a little peace of mind” is both a call of desire for Yoko Ono and, in its cultural context, maybe the expression of the need to cool off for a bit, get some bearings amidst the drugs and money and politics and war and bullshit.  This is what makes great songs.  And of course it doesn’t hurt that there’s a lazy kind of rhythm to it, torch ballad sway giving way to hard rock march in the B section.  Twice through and out, nothing to it really, but in its barely 2-minute glory it contains in its molecules everything the Beatles were and would be.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.

soundstreamsunday: “Can I Sit Next To You” by Spoon

spoonThe connections are clear, right? Michael Karoli’s cousin and girlfriend were the cover models for Roxy Music‘s album Country Life (1974); Spoon names itself after a song by Karoli’s band Can; and if Spoon isn’t America’s Roxy Music then I’m buying a ticket to Cologne and getting this all figured out for good.  Spoon is the rock art band of the moment and of many previous moments, their career now in its twenty-somethingth year.  Released this spring, the band’s latest, Hot Thoughts, along with LCD Soundsystem’s American Dream, gives the lie to what is otherwise a general truism: rock bands are a young person’s game.  A killer set of songs with a sustained, youthful definition, Hot Thoughts makes me search my brain for other great rock records made by folks who are my age.  A real, original rock record.  With guts and balls and great songwriting and absolutely no fat.  Not something worthy of elder statesmen or something celebrated by NPR for the maturity of its grizzled veterans, but damn, something that makes you want to dance and call out its lyrics without having much of a history with the band (and I don’t).

When Britt Daniel sings “I’ve been working on a plan, yeah” on “Can I Sit Next To You” he makes it feel like the most important words ever uttered.  Part of this is his voice, which as rock vocals go is, as my 10-year-old would say, “savage, yo” (really).  A mix of John Lennon, Iggy Pop, and Lee Mavers, Daniel can do falsetto soul back-to-back with a nasal/glottal/punky growl.  This was the territory of the giants of early 70s British rock as it morphed into pub and punk, the White Album (yeah and maybe some Marvin Gaye…and Can…) in one hand and a lager in the other.  So, everything is a hook but all the hooks have a Martin-esque depth of detail, flourish, and care, and a slightly shifted off-ness that makes it a slow, satisfying grower.  When in the middle of the song the bulbs pop and the keyboards go eastern psychedelic, it opens the horizon and we’re getting a thumbnail funk view of the Arabian Peninsula.  Sick — maybe the Cure would have thought of this but wouldn’t have been so economical, and there is whiff of “Fascination Street” lingering in the background.  Jim Eno’s boss kick drum brings it back to old school, and if you’re like me you’re waiting for that crazy keyboard bit one more time, and it does come, hallelujah.  With all it makes me think about, still…this is a conjuring music, an act of devotion not imitation.  Song ’bout kicks and the lengths you might go to.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.

Bob Dylan, The Bootleg Series: Trouble No More, Volume 13 / 1979-1981

by Rick Krueger

I’m not a hardcore Bob Dylan fan, but I admire quite a bit of his work: the early folk music, leading into the groundbreaking electric stuff (basically what’s in The Original Mono Recordings box set); Blood on the Tracks and Desire; the recent run of “old guy plays the blues” albums that started with Time Out of Mind.  I’m also grateful that Dylan’s music has midwifed some of the most resonant work by highbrow rock writers like Greil Marcus, Clinton Heylin and Michael Gray, along with poet Christopher Ricks’ masterful Dylan’s Visions of Sin.

To top all that off, Dylan’s Bootleg Series is, in my mind, one of the best-curated rarities/reissue series from a major artist.  Every volume has been at least an interesting listen for me, and I consider the last two releases, The Basement Tapes Complete and The Cutting Edge 1965-1966 (as well as Volume 4, The ‘Royal Albert Hall’ Concert) downright essential.

I also remember, as a college freshman, reading Jann Wenner’s review of Dylan’s Slow Train Coming in Rolling Stone.  Wenner knotted himself into a human pretzel trying to reconcile the free-spirited, hippie picture of Dylan he had built up for himself with a new album of — shudder — “born-again Christian” music.  It was unintentionally hilarious.

I’d argue that Slow Train Coming was really more of an “lost Old Testament prophet” kind of record — and thus in line with Dylan’s long-term aesthetic.  It wasn’t a masterpiece, but it was quite good — and there were occasional fine songs on the other “Christian” albums, especially “Every Grain of Sand” from Shot of Love.

Thus, Trouble No More: The Bootleg Series, Volume 13 /1979-1981 is definitely on my want list.  8 CDs plus 1 DVD of live and unreleased studio material, to be issued (like King Crimson’s Sailor’s Tales) on my birthday, November 3.  I really need to find some long-lost rich relatives!

More info here.