Sunday, February 26, 2006

Don't call it a comeback

The Mountain Goats - The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton (from All Hail West Texas)
The Robot Ate Me - Regret (from Carousel Waltz)

Biographers take note: this past week signified a distinct break from my musical past. The Blanks, popularly known as the world's greatest rockity roll band, fumbled in a last quarter attempt to tack on their first ever reunion show. Jim Dandy, the band's vocalist and greatest cheerleader, had helped to put something together for us in Salt Lake City with the help of his fire-jumping cousin Nolan. The old dreams and desert visions were all there: putting down their typewriters and wheelbarrows for one extended weekend, the four Blanks would trek across distant locations in America's mid- and south-west to meet somwhere in the middle and casually knock off a show so good, so pure it would keep the audience members' grandchildren awake with wonder for years to come. Perhaps this would become a habit, and we would mysteriously reappear in dusty western towns with all the regularity and enigma of a Yeti sighting. But what made the prospect of this show so intriguing was the rumor that the people were actually down for it. There must've been something in that Utah water, boys, 'cause they were thirstin' for it.

The reality of the picture painted a very different landscape. The cost and stress of traveling to an unfamiliar location, playing with unfamiliar instruments, and - get this - opening for another band with no payment guarantee all seemed to dampen the funness of the idea. Worse still were the growing burdens of everyday adult concerns: limited vacation hours, wedding planning, credit debt, taxes, savings for furniture and real estate. It all seemed too much. So, after several extended man-to-mans with Brother Daniel and Jim Dandy, we bunted. (Attempts were made to contact Mr. Ried; however, given his superhuman schedule, he was unavailable for comment.)

The disappointment here isn't just that we're young and in debt; that would be easily enough explained. And it certainly wouldn't be the first time we've had to abandon an opportunity because of personal schedules and other responsibilities - lord knows we were only ever ambitious in rhetoric. The Blanks, for all our failures, always meant something greater. For three odd years the band was a vessel for our collective fantasies and it provided some defense against the fact that most people don't care about your fantasies - collective or otherwise. As they say, time consumes us, and this decision feels like a large chunk of the past has just been bitten off.

But as much as the band tied us all together, it also tied us up. Hopefully this will signal an opportunity for us start focusing on our own endeavors. The Blanks will always be a part of us, and may very likely rise again to set some small western town on fire, but it's not the only thing we can pour our dreams in. (If nothing else, the Blanks were always great sentimentalists.)


Here are two songs from one-man bands I've been listening to a lot lately. John Darnielle's Mountain Goats sings about underappreciated death metal bands in west Texas. Ryland Bouchard's The Robot Ate Me plays another delicate bedroom melody. Carousel Waltz was amazingly listed as the #1 album of the year by a long time friend and critic of mine - amazingly because he typically prefers down tempo Russian dance music and post-shoegazer instrumentals. I once interviewed Bouchard; he seemed like a pleasant fellow.


Ironically, after all this talk of Lansing rock music, I saw Detroit's The Sights perform last night. My opinion of these rats can be found here. I was going to a neighborhood bar because I knew the bartender working. I was pleased to see that the crowd reaction was overwhelmingly unimpressed by their extended organ solos and midget rock'n'roll posturing. Boo.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Shiver the whole night through

Jane's Addiction - Been Caught Stealing (from Kettle Whistle)
Leadbelly - In the Pines (from Where Did You Sleep Last Night: Leadbelly Legacy 1)

After I returned home on Friday evening from an awkward work Happy Hour in which I spent a good deal of time not making conversation with the VPs and other executives who were letting off a little steam and listening to unprovoked marital confessions from my co-workers, Kim was distraught. The story, in brief, involved wayward ex-cheerleader sister Nikkole (sic) pawning off family valuables with the result of being temporarily excommunicated from the already dysfunctional family. A story in two parts, as captured in the two songs above. For greater detail of these events, please refer to Kim's blog.

Perry Farrell opens this week's edition with, what I presume to be, a psychotropically-enhanced sense of self worth, lecturing faceless audience members on the virtues against "stealing another man's girl." The song, meanwhile, seems to give high praise to the rush associated with stealing other people's property. As we learn in the case of Nikkole, being caught stealing at the age of 18 is nowhere near as enjoyable as being caught stealing at the age of 5.

Leadbelly (Huddie Ledbetter) shares our anxiety over the consequences. I had always assumed this song was about infidelity, judging by the macho threat and anguish present in Kurt Cobain's voice in the popular Unplugged version. However, with age and some quick history lessons, I learned that this song has been around since the late 19th century and probably falls into the same category of traditional tunes like "Swing Low Sweet Chariot" that are meant to provide guidance and instruction to escaped slaves who are hoping to make their way up North ("where the cold winds blow").

The question on everyone's lips, then, is the same: Nikkole, damn girl, where have you been sleeping these last few nights?

In other news, back on planet normal, I'm attempting to prepare a homemade beef stew.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

We're having fun

Neu! - Lila Engel (from Neu! 2)
Iggy Pop - Funtime (from The Idiot)

I'll admit it, I've been in a bit of rut lately. I commute to and from work at about the same time every day; I get caught in about the same goddamned traffic every day; perform the same set of tasks at work; eat the same things for breakfast, lunch, and dinner; and, with the gracious exception of the Winter Olmpics, I watch the same schedule of television programs every night. I don't go out as often as I first did when I moved to Cincinnati, but when I do, part of me wishes I had just stayed in to avoid disrupting my comfortable monotony. This is the result of no one's work but my own. In other words, I'm an 80-year-old shut-in.

Maybe that explains why I've been listening to Neu's second album, appropriately titled Neu! 2, so religiously this past week and a half. The songs pound and swirl and fly and sputter with astronomical simplicity. Klaus Dinger's locked-down, methodical grooves and Michael Rother's spaceshuttle atmospherics only seem to grow more powerful and more necessary the more I hear them repeated. It's not for everyone.

If you do choose to write a song with only one note, there's only so much you can do: speed it up, slow it down, layer different tempos, play it louder or quieter, or simply repeat that perfect note ad infinitum. The gambit, of course, is that in doing so you're forced to walk a very fine line between bravery and boredom.

Neu!, more often than not, made it sound like that one note was all it ever took. But here's the catch: while half the songs on Neu! 2 are masterpieces of stripped-down, soul-scraping rock music, the other half literally takes the same handful of songs, and plays them faster, or slower, or takes the tape and chews it up. This can be maddening, especially if you insist on playing the entire album on repeat as I did, out of habit. Although some people make the mistake of calling this the first "remix" album (it's not), the real reason is that the Dusseldorf darlings simply ran out of money and their label refused to foot them any more funds. As a result, or in proto-punk defiance as it's been remarked, they made do with what recordings they had in Conrad Plank's barnyard studio and four songs and some odds and ends and created a full length.

The track here, "Lila Engel" (Lilac Angel), is Neu! at their most cavemannish. While Rother was known for pulling the band's strings toward ambience and melody; Dinger ran toward abrasive and confrontational sounds. "Lila Engel" is a Dinger song. I imagine if Animal from the Muppets ever went solo, it would sound something close to this.

As I listened to this, I couldn't help but notice the similarities to another song recorded around the same time in the mid-1970s in a politically divided Germany, but I couldn't quite put my finger on it. I kept hearing the screams grow louder until I finally heard the observant words of a detox Iggy Pop: "Baby, baby, I like your pants." Click.

After the Stooges' combusted, Iggy fell into some unfashionable squalor. Lucky for him, as legend has it, David Bowie saw his old chum lying in the streets and said something to the effect of, "Iggy, you're a wreck. Let's get you cleaned up and we'll head on out to Berlin where there are trannies and anonymity and make beautiful new music." Bowie also inquired whether Rother would be interested in doing some guitar work with them while they were in Germany. Rother declined. Thankfully for us, imitation was never one of David's ethical qualms.

Monday, February 13, 2006

honey funny sunny morning

Syd Barrett - Love You (take 1) (from The Madcap Laughs)
Elvis Presley -
I Love You Because (alternate #5) (from the Sun Sessions)
Lou Reed -
I Love You (from Lou Reed)

There are some benefits to being a recently engaged individual. Namely, that I got a little leeway this Valentine's Day in putting off my gift shopping until the very last minute. And when I went shopping, she drove. Kim has extraordinary patience to put up with me. What? You need more examples? Try this on for size: after we returned with the heart-shaped box of chocolates, she knitted in front of the TV while I compiled a mix CD of silly love songs and then painstakingly drew a card of her fantasizing about an amorous Todd posing in the Michael Jackson Thriller/tiger pose. If that's not every woman's dream, I don't know what is.

Before I was in this relationship, I always figured love had to be something grand and spellbinding. I now realize it can be much more simple and endearing than that.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

The Captain and I

Guided By Voices - Captain's Dead
Guided By Voices - Game of Pricks
Guided By Voices - Things I Will Keep

--from Human Amusements at Hourly Rates and Alien Lanes.

Last night two of my fellow co-workers and I crossed the Ohio River to witness aging song-writing factory Bob Pollard sweat and dance and sing for us for three hours in Newport, Kentucky's
Southgate House. We got there early so we could sit on the balcony to observe the show - and I'm calling him old. To me, Bob had always represented the Great Midwest Hope: that I could reasonably expect to work a drab, middle-class job well into my 30s while writing songs with my drinking buddies on the side, and then, by a stroke of sheer luck, be catapulted into a cult-like rock stardom. Easy, right?

I expressed these sentiments to Bob at a book signing for the Guided By Voices
biography, after which I gave him a copy of Lansing, Michigan's greatest rockity roll record. It ain't easy dreaming of being a rock'n'roller growing up in these parts. Bob smiled, told me he knew where I was coming from, and slapped me five. Oddly, I never heard from him again.

Well, anyway, the old man's still at it. And, judging from appearances, mildly more sober than usual. There were none of the embarassing collapses on stage, or brazen proclamations like, "Hello, we're Guided By Voices and we're the Best Fuckin' Band in the World! Better 'n the White Stripes; better 'n fuckin' Bright Eyes, that's for sure!" Of course, he isn't GBV anymore; he's just plain Bob. Still chugging out buckets of songs in the same old formula, hoping that by simple statistical probability a few of them will really knock yer socks off. And some of them did. He even managed to knock out a few old man jump kicks before the GBV-exclusive encore. Two of which are included here. The first song is just for my amusement.