There’s A Reason George Martin Was The 5th Beatle

May 1, 2008 at 6:02 am (new releases, reviews, rock and roll)

As we head into Derby Week (bummer of a post position, Brownie), tonight’s blog post has me recalling something the ever-astute Marc Attenberg told me years ago about handicapping horse races: the worst guys to ask for ‘capping wisdom are the trainers and jockeys. Why? I could speculate a few reasons, but to me the main one is easy to pick out. I think trainers and jocks are lousy at sizing up a race because perhaps they’re too close to the subject to form objective theses on the subject at hand.

Which brings us to what I want to yammer on about tonight: earlier this month UNI/Polydor re-issued the seminal and only record (to date) released by Liverpool’s legendary The La’s. It arrives as a double-cd package with the original as-released album remastered, and then a variety of different mixes with different producers of the songs on that original album. Of special interest is the inclusion of the “Mike Hedges Album”, allegedly the version of the debut album that La’s frontman and creative force Lee Mavers was happiest with.

Before going forward, I suppose there might be someone out there unfamiliar with the turbulent history of The La’s and their only album. As the story goes, Mavers had a precise and certain La’s “sound” in his head. Signed to the ultra-hip Go! Discs, the label forked out a lot of money to hook the band up with in-demand producer Steve Lillywhite. Mavers was upset with the production and would later claim the band deliberately played poorly in the recording sessions, in hopes that the material would never be released in that state. The La’s subsequently went through a series of producers (including John Leckie) re-recording the album before a frustrated record label had Lillywhite piece together as coherent a record as he could for release from the initial sessions. Mavers was livid with the label and refused to release another album until the debut could be recorded properly with the songs sounding on record the way they did in his head.

Yeah, good luck with that Lee. Allegedly of all the producers who took a stab at The La’s back in the day, the guy who came closest to capturing the sound that Mavers wanted was Mike Hedges (who’d later work with U2 and Radiohead, among others). The inclusion of the Hedges version of the debut on The La’s Deluxe Edition, then, would seem to be a pretty important occurrence for fans of the band…

…and yet, having listened and re-listened to the Hedges versions of the songs…not so much. There are discoveries to be made on this double-disc set to be sure, but the most major of these is that Steve Lillywhite is one hell of a great producer. Lillywhite’s versions of these songs just seem far, far, FAR superior to anyone else’s. Obviously, the bias of having heard only those versions for the last 18 years is part of it. But even trying empirically and objectively to find brilliant bits of the songs as recorded by Hedges, Leckie, or Gary Crowley, it seems clear that Lillywhite was head and shoulders beyond his peers here. The other versions plod with a sort of deliberateness and hesitancy that make the songs sound positively dull. The myriad versions of the hit “There She Goes” are really jarring; the signature guitar riff on the song sounds fluid and loose in the original, but the differnt versions on the re-issue sound like first-year guitar students picking out the riff by sight-reading a tablature chart. Lillywhite’s versions practically leap out of the speakers by comparison; taken side-by-side in this format it ends up being like watching the “Wizard Of Oz”, where everyone else is black and white and the original version is glorious technicolor.

As such, I’m going to express a bit of pop music blasphemy: Lee Mavers was wrong, wrong, wrong. If the Hedges version of his songs were the one closest to what he wanted, then Mavers was a talent lacking in perspective. Which brings us back to the horse racing analogy at the beginning of this post (yeah, I’d almost forgotten it too). When you’re in a band, I think that like horse trainers and races, you’re too close to the subject sometimes to be able to think critically and have accurate notions of what works and what doesn’t. Hey, the guys in Nirvana were sick and tired of playing “that stupid riff” that became “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. Eric Clapton fled The Yardbirds partly because he couldn’t stand playing the four-chord strum of “For Your Love”, which sounded boring to him. Hell, take a look at the post-1969 solo careers of The Beatles; on their own it became clear that John, Paul, and George sure seemed to need the critical and editorial ear of George Martin to help them tell the difference between what worked and what didn’t.

Sadly then if over the years you’ve built in your mind a sort of altar to someone really getting The La’s sound “right” in the studio and laid hopes on hearing the same, I’ve got news for you. Seems as if Steve Lillywhite had it right all along, and had a better feel for The La’s sound than the band themselves. Unless you’re a completist or contrarian, there’s no reason to throw over your old La’s CD for this new version.

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Crash Into June.

April 24, 2008 at 6:40 am (new releases, reviews, upcoming stuff I might blog about)

June 10th is looking like a treee-mendous day for new releases. As mentioned elsewhere, The Telepathic Butterflies emerge from 3 years of silence with a new disc, and samples available at their myspace page and on the Rainbow Quartz page sound pretty good.

…and then there’s this, posted last week on Sloan’s official site:

Sloan have completed work on their ninth studio album, “Parallel Play”, which is due to be released on June 10th. In Canada, the album will be available on Sloan’s own murderecords, distributed by Red Ink Music. In the USA, we are once again working with our friends at Yep Roc Records.

The album was recorded this winter at Sloan’s studio space and features 13 new songs.

We will soon have news about our summer and fall tour plans. We’ll also have some brand new audio and video posted before long, so be sure to check regularly for updates.

The good folks at Yep-Roc have the whole freakin’ album streaming right here. Impressions later, but my first take is that there’s more Patrick Pentland on this disc than on Never Hear The End Of It…and more Patrick Pentland is always a good thing.

Oh….and then I note that the long-anticipated new disc by The Modfather is due to drop on June 24th. Too. Much. Great. Music.

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On The Horizon

April 17, 2008 at 4:01 pm (new releases, upcoming stuff I might blog about)

Stuff I’m listening to and digging and may or may not write about in the next few days/weeks:

1. The first For Against record with original guitarist Harry Dingman III since 1989.
2. The new Telepathic Butterflies disc (I’d worried they’d broken up, but new disc out soon!)
3. The Foxboro Hot Tubs (I’ve become a Green Day fanboi, and an unapologetic one.)
4. The Constantines
5. etc. (not a band.)

I’m also simultaneously attempting to read:

1. the first-ever collection of Michael Chabon essays (“Maps & Legends”, published by McSweeney’s with a pretty kick-ass cover/coverlet),
2. Jonathan Barnes’ The Somnambulist
3. Lauren Goff’s The Monsters Of Templeton

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I Know How To Ask For More Lemons…

April 9, 2008 at 6:55 am (cool band alert, new releases, reviews, rock and roll)

…and “mas papas fritas, por favor” I can do in two different accents, but beyond that my restaurant-learned Spanish is pretty awful. Not that I’m at all good with foreign languages. I struggle enough with my mother tongue; people who are effortlessly bilingual fascinate me.

But I’m digressing. I have a sudden interest in non-restaurant Spanish all of a sudden.

Here’s the deal: it will surprise few of you reading this that I’m a pop knob at heart. I unabashedly heart the Fab Four, prefer the Buzzcocks and Undertones to The Clash, and think “Box Elder” is far and away the best song on Westing By Sextant and Musket. The flip side of that, though, is that for the last 20 years I’ve been acutely aware of just how much utter shite there is out there masquerading as melodic rock and roll. Honestly, I can take about 30 seconds of most “power pop” stuff before my teeth ache from the cotton candy-ness of it all. That’s why bands like The Blakes or Novillero (message to Winnipeg: please tell me Novillero hasn’t broken up?) rock me so hard–they get that hooks are good, but by themselves they’re like whipped cream without the pumpkin pie. They’re chili and cheese without the dog.

I also learned while playing a college radio show and working at Euclid Records that playing one favorite song of mine after another bored me to tears inside of 15 minutes. My favorite radio shows (and music discoveries) were when I busted myself out of my comfort zone. That’s how I discovered and/or learned to love stuff like Sparklehorse or People Under The Stairs or The Grifters or Silkworm.

And so for the last month or so, I’ve been listening to a ton of music that falls way outside my usual interests. Underground hiphop and electronica. Metal. Lots of metal. Indie rock with no discernible music structure to it. Experimental guitar stuff and even some found sound noodling that didn’t have me lunging for the eject button.

I have eaten my musical vegetables, in other words.

And so now we get back to my interest in Espanol. I just stumbled across a double CD retrospective by a band called Ross. I know zilch about them, except for on first listen I immediately figured the singer had a non-American accent and, thanks to a cover of Teenage Fanclub’s sublime “Verisimilitude” pegged them as Scots or Geordies from the North of England. Nope. Finally tracked down their Myspace page (try finding out info on a band called “Ross”; if they’d called themselves “Jack” I’d have had an easier time of it) and it turns out they’re from Murcia, Spain. Which means that while their songs are all in English, all web infos about ’em are in Spanish. Since none of the information or bio on the band involves lemons, fish, potatoes, or the words “hot” and “cold”, I’ve got nothing really to tell you about them, other than it seems as if Ross’s career ran from 1992 to 2002, and after a long hibernation they seem to be doing live shows and stuff.

Nowlemmetellyawhat: Ross is one of the sweetest, most wonderful music discoveries I’ve made in a long, long time. This double CD retrospective contains 44 songs and clocks in at well over 2 hours of tuneage. It has all the easy stuff for poppish, Beatle-influenced bands to do: chiming guitars played through AC30 amps, sweet Lennonish vocals and gorgeous (but not overdone) harmonies. Thing is, there are thousands of bands able to muster that start, but most of these bands are utterly terrible. These Spanish fellows don’t fall into that trap. In fact, they manage to take that start and take it to some wonderfully unexpected places.

I’ve now spun through the two discs in this collection, and I’m utterly stunned at the fact that these guys managed to come up with 44 gorgeous pop songs that never induce listener fatigue (I got to the end last night and punched up disc one again immediately). They manage that with some incredible songwriting craftsmanship–the melodies here twist and turn and go in all sorts of unexpected places with a seeming effortlessness. Thanks to the mixed recording heritage of these tracks, there are moments of lo-fi majesty, and plenty of Teenage Symphonies To God, as they say.

The disc is called “A Collection For Enemies & Friends, 1992-2002”. You’ll have to hunt for an online shop to import it if you don’t have a buddy stationed at a military base in Europe to pick you up a copy. This is a double CD worth jumping through some hoops for, though.

Let me play you a couple of reasons why:

“Starships-Supersonic Spacewalk”
“Sugar”
“Chroneman”

Here’s their Myspace site, if you speak the language.

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Ever fallen in love….

April 6, 2008 at 6:08 am (new releases, reviews)

….with something you shouldn’t have fallen in love with?

Yeah, Pete, I sympathize. I spent the better part of six months ignoring and/or feigning hatred/outrage for the buzzband flavor o’ the month, NYC’s own Vampire Weekend. Morton had hepped me to the Weekend back in August or July of last year, and I think I gave “Mansard Roof” all of 40 seconds before I recoiled in horror and decided that this was not my thing, as they say. I think it was an expectations thing: you hear “Vampire Weekend” as a band name and I dunno…I was expecting cave teen stomp-a-billy, or at worst really shitty goth revivalism (note to college freshmen intent on forming bands after flunking out this semester: we are not now, nor will we ever be, in need of a Mission UK or Sisters Of Mercy revival so just don’t, ok?) Instead, “Mansard Roof” bubbles out like the Mark Mothersbaugh soundtrack to some Wes Anderson pirate movie (now that, we could use…)

I could’ve left it at that, except for Sirius radio. One of the coolest gadgets I’ve seen recently is the Sirius Stiletto 2 portable satellite radio. I got one for Christmas, and it is a slick piece of hardware, managing to do all those cool satellite radio things, along with a lot of mp3 storage in a package the size of a small iPod. Last week I was walking home from a buddy’s house after an evening of beer and poker, and it was after midnight, the stars were out, a beautiful, balmy early spring night. I don’t even remember which Sirius station I had on the Stiletto, but I heard this song that seemed to effortlessly mix early Israelites-style reggae with a dash of Graceland-ish African feel, as well as that sort of dreamy Mothersbaugh-ish soundtrack shimmer. The song was “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa”, and in the setting I heard it in, it was absolutely perfect.

And that’s how it started. I got home and decided to give Vampire Weekend a good solid chance, and this time I noticed how cool songs like “Mansard Roof” and “Oxford Comma” really were. I noticed that “A-Punk” defies you to not fall under the spell of its tricky rhythms. I noticed especially that “Bryn” might be one of the most touching and gorgeous love songs I’ve heard in a while. What I also noticed is that this CD isn’t a bunch of hyper-precious refrigerator-art pretense; these fellows can write a terrific song and a wonderful melody hook, and manage to deliver it in a way that, lord help me, makes the heart feel glad.

So yeah, here I am buying into something that a month ago I would’ve told you was pure fraud. I can’t help it and I can’t deny it. Listening to Vampire Weekend makes me happy. There is a sense of joy and wonder shot through these songs that once taken root inside will possess you.

Here, have some video:

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