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Month: June 2009

ACL explains it all: Daniel Johnston

Most genres have some redundancy built in; it allows people to find new music they like (“if you like this band, then you’ll like that band“). This is a tried and true way to discover music. If it were the only way to discover music, though, Daniel Johnston would have zero fans. Because Daniel Johnston doesn’t sound like anybody.

Much has been made of Daniel Johnston’s struggles with mental health, and it’s tough to keep up with what he is doing (in fact, one of my friends who runs a different music blog thought he was dead, and I can’t really fault him). So when I saw that he was playing ACL this year, I immediately got excited. Since it’s hard to keep up with Daniel Johnston, it’s rare that I see and am able to attend a concert of his – I thought I would never actually get to do it.

What’s funny about this set-up is that even though his ACL set will be one that I most anticipate, it probably won’t be one of the sets I most enjoy. Not that he’s going to perform poorly; I expect him to get up there and do his thing with the best of them. But his voice is so peculiar and his songs are so unique that I’m going more for the experience of seeing Daniel Johnston than I am of actually hearing his songs. I don’t know how others feel about Daniel Johnston; perhaps some are really hardcore into his songwriting. But I have a pretty high tolerance for annoying music (being a Mountain Goats obsessive and all), and Daniel Johnston’s work is still hard to stomach in long stretches.

But with the mysterious mental illnesses and the general mystique that has built up around him, he’s going to have lots and lots and lots of people at his set. Because everyone wants to see what it’s about. It’s more about the event of seeing him and validating (or debunking) this mysterious aura that’s been built around this quirky songwriter. Just like coolness is kind’ve hard to pin down, the mystique is hard to pin down. Where does it start?

But it’s pretty easy to tell where it ends. I may not like Daniel Johnston as much after the set; if he seems like a relatively normal person with a weird voice and an acoustic guitar, I’m going to feel kind of cheated. If he seems genuinely eccentric and a little bit crazy, I’m going to feel like it was worth it. If it seems that this is kind of mean to be doing this to an artist with such problems, I would suggest that this is the only possible way to view Daniel Johnston’s work (unless, as I have said, you are totally into his voice and songwriting, which I’m only mostly ruling out). Daniel Johnston is the sum of everyone’s talk about him; whether he lives up to his hype or not is not dependent on what he creates. Instead, it is in how he presents it.

Is this saying that his health would be a jeopardy to his stature in my eyes? I think so. Is this horrible? Yes. Is it true? Yes. Everyone wants to be able to say that they saw a tortured genius. I would have loved to have seen a Nirvana concert or an Elliot Smith concert, just to have had that tangential exposure to tortured genius. It seems so romantic; and if we encounter it, brush up against it, idolize it, then we can have some of the romance and none of the tortured part.

Because, I bet you could ask any of the three guys in question and they’d tell you that the “tortured” part of the “tortured genius” title sucks a lot. But we romanticize it in film (A Beautiful Mind), music, and life in general. It’s just part of our mythos. It helps us feel like geniuses are human, and it makes us feel a little better that, if we are not as smart/talented/pretty/funny as that famous person, at least we’re a bit happier. It’s a consolation prize, but it’s a prize. And then when we are feeling tortured, we can access their genius, channel it, and try to feel better about ourselves through their genius by communing with the pained. We basically get everything we need out of tortured genuises without actually having to be one.

Anchoring Down on Solid Rock

It might be bad to say that I’m immediately reminded of several other bands by the Steel to Dust EP from Portland band Anchor Down.
First of all, and bearing no weight on the quality of the music, the band’s name is reminiscent of a band that I’ve reviewed here on IC – Anchors For Arms – which subsequently reminds me of the now defunct local OKC band, Arms For Arsenal. So initially it was difficult to identify the band separately from these bands in my mind.

Upon listening comes the second set of bands I’m reminded of. Anchor Down favors the same sort of melodic, Midwestern-flavored punk rock that one might hear from the likes of the Gaslight Anthem (one of my favorite bands, so that’s a good thing for this reviewer), American Steel and my good friends from OKC, Red City Radio. The sound is strong and definitely feels like the sort of anthem one needs for a long car drive with the windows down on a summer afternoon with fists pumping. It’s energetic and has a lot of spirit to it.

The guitars are relatively simple but highly effective, with driving power chords and subdued riffs that never come off as flashy. The bass and drums on these six songs are both solid and show a degree of skill from Matt Brown and Sean Cisneros, but Brown’s bass definitely takes a backseat to Cisneros’ drumming and is by far the least noticeable part of the band’s sound. Cisneros especially shows his skill in the intro to “Crass-A-Nova.” The vocals from guitarists Alex Hudjohn and Lucas Andrews compliment the music quite well, but fail to really stand out over the instrumentation, since both rarely show more variation or range that a gruff baritone. This slight monotony tends to make the vocals less attention-grabbing, which is a shame because the lyrics are quite well written. Fortunately, this isn’t a problem for “World War 1,” the EP’s definite stand-out track, or for “Never Was A Lesson Learned (Remember Me),” which I would say is runner up to the title.

I think Steel to Dust shows a great amount of promise from this group, and I very much look forward to future releases to see how they refine their sound. I will be quite content to let the songs play whenever they pop up on my iTunes, but I can’t say I’ll be listening to this EP over and over again. If you enjoy bands like Gaslight Anthem or Dillinger Four, or just like good, solid rock music, I would definitely recommend checking out Anchor Down.

Dark. Funny. Shiver.

Mona Medusa is a relatively new band, and, unlike most new bands, they seem to have already come up with a unique, easily recognizable sound for their new album Shiver. This isn’t generic rock. It isn’t alt rock, at least in the generic sense of the term. It isn’t even really dark wave, which is the closest I could come up with that they match. It’s a combination of the three, a fun-but-disturbing mix of happy and sad vocals, laid down over guitar and drums, with the periodic violin or accordion part. Sounds interesting, right? That’s because it is.

The songs “What Is Will Be” and “Ousire” have an energetic feel to them – is that possible while making dark music? Apparently so, because Mona Medusa pulls it off cleanly. There’s a hint of a rebellion and angst in the lead vocals, though it’s contrasted against backup vocals that swing from creepy, wordless harmonizing to amusing bits that shake and quiver like the stereotypical ghost sound you might hear in an old horror movie. It’s worth nothing that for the most part background vocals are female, with male lead vocals. They sound pretty good together, though I think the backup vocals could be a bit stronger. “Ousire” ends well, with tension that builds, builds, builds, and finally resolves. Touches like that are what make an album.

Mona Medusa takes on a different tone mid-album with “Water and Women (reprise).” For starters, it’s quieter, and acoustic; the combination is actually a very nice sound, though quite the departure from the rest of the album. The previously-mentioned accordion comes into play on this track to great effect, adding some excellent flavor to the song. “Fire and Glass,” another change from their typical sound, is a short and sweet instrumental break. It’s a string intro with violin and acoustic guitar that’s gorgeous. It leads nicely into the next song, “Blood on Blood.”

Speaking of “Blood on Blood,” it was one of my favorites of the album, with a sweet, distorted guitar intro and a more triumphant, cathartic tone to it than the rest of the album. Mona Medusa displays some great instrumental versatility in their music, primarily thanks to member Andrea Lee – she provides the violin and accordion parts that round out their sound and help to distinguish their sound from that of other bands. The tone of song is summed up by the lyrics, “I want to rise / I want to rise through the fire.”

Shiver is a fine offering from a band that is just starting to hit their stride. Mona Medusa manages to cover a wide range of tone and emotion across the tracks without making anything that is distinctly not-them; you can listen to any of these and tell that it’s Mona Medusa that made it. They’ve made it further than many bands ever do – finding “their” sound. I’d like to see more and stronger interplay between the male and female vocals; they place nicely off each other when singing full-out. They still have room to develop and grow their sound, but Mona Medusa is off to a great start with Shiver.

High highs and low lows with Josh James

The most recent release from Tulsa musician Josh James, Asbestos Honey, has some really great moments and some not-so-great moments. James has also released an EP and another full-length LP with backing musicians called Painted in a Corner.

Asbestos Honey is a mix of pleasant, emotive songs with catchy melodies and also, unfortunately, some songs that are rather boring. For example, the album’s opener should normally be the place for an attention-grabbing number. But “Truth” is sadly wishy-washy and forgettable. The album improves vastly with the next song, “Rock Alone,” which has a bit of a Ryan Adams alt-country influence. The only problem is James’ overly breathy and strained vocals. If he loosened up a little and maybe didn’t try so hard (or at least sounded like he wasn’t trying really hard), the songs on Asbestos Honey would be much easier to listen to. And yet, the vocals on some songs, like the rockin’ “Ball and Chain” that has a fun falsetto vocal line, and the slow, folky “1829,” are much cleaner, clearer, and less self-conscious.

Josh James incorporates a wide range of genres, including country, folk, rock, and indie. The best songs on this album are the ones that have strong choruses that set them apart. The almost-anthem-esque “New Beginnings” and the upbeat, funky “Ball and Chain” are both examples of this. However, listeners can get lost in-between choruses on Asbestos Honey due to verses that can sometimes run together.

James just recently added a backing band called True Story with Adam Hewett on lead guitar and Sean Wilson on drums. Check out his schedule for upcoming shows around Oklahoma on his myspace.

ACL Explains it All: Dave Matthews Band

I don’t like Dave Matthews Band. There is no animosity between me and Dave, nor are there any old feuds (like John Sellers’ qualms with Bob Dylan that sprout from his difficult relationship with his father, in Perfect From Now On). Their music just doesn’t connect to me in a meaningful way. I hear it, and I am not impacted.

Yet, I can tell you right now that Dave Matthews Band is very good. They have an astonishingly large fanbase, they put on great live shows, their instrumental talent is solid, and they write songs that people like. There are hundreds of thousands of Dave fans. I’m just not one of them. But that doesn’t mean it’s not good music; it means I don’t like it.

That’s one of the things I dislike about most music criticism; there’s so much allowance for personal preference that sometimes good music gets bashed because the reviewer woke up in a bad mood and had the CD on the stack. Wrong place, wrong time. If I had just gotten broken up with, you could bet that I would trash an Architecture in Helsinki album as:

“Overly optimistic and giddy to the point of nonsensical. Even then, they don’t accomplish their nonsense with the same instrumentally-intensive glee as the Polyphonic Spree, nor with a pensive bent a la Sufjan Stevens, or even with a goofy demeanor (Of Montreal, represent!). In fact, it just seems contrived and pandering, like pink popcorn covered in sugar and marketed to eight-year-old girls during Hannah Montana commercial breaks.”

Which really is code for:

“This stuff is happy, and I’m not, but I still have to review it. So I’m going to take my vengeance out on them, because I’d rather be hearing Damien Jurado or Bon Iver.”

But the reader reads it as gospel truth, because he reads it without the context of seeing the bedhead, red-eyes, drunken drool and dissheveled clothes of a “I just got dumped” hangover that it was composed in. Truth is, that critic might actually like Architecture in Helsinki on a good day. But the day of the review was not a good day, and because so much of reviewing is left up to personal preference, you’ll never know the difference.

Which is why I feel comfortable telling you that I dislike Dave Matthews, but I still think he’s pretty talented. Me not liking him doesn’t make him untalented or make his albums less good. And I’d rather not be pegged as a Dave-hater, so I just stay out of the conversation, mostly. Perhaps this happens more often in music criticism than I know. I fear it does not, and we end up with a lot of crappy reviews of good bands from guys who just don’t like that particular band.

Because it’s impossible to like everything, even with extreme dedication. It’s just not possible. But to pull out what is actually meritless and what is purely self-dislike is a hard task. I doubt it is taken up very often. I would exhort all of you to ponder this.

That said, I liked the clips I heard off Dave’s new one. Maybe I will like this one…

ACL Explains It All: Levon Helm and the Band

So, there’s a neat feature at the ACL site that allows you to track (Via Facebook) how many people have added a particular band to their list of shows they want to see. I, amused, set about seeing who was the least popular band added to the festival (I am slightly morbid, I guess). While on this quest, I came across the fact that I had no clue who the Levon Helm Band was, even though they were a second-tier headliner. Apparently no one else did either, because hardly anyone had added them to their list of shows to see, and Levon Helm’s Myspace has only four thousand plays, which is ten times less than many high school punk bands that break up to head to college.

So who is Levon Helm, and why is he a second-tier headliner? After some research (we all know what that means), I found that Levon Helm used to be the drummer /songwriter for The Band (quite possibly the most pretentious band name in history). The Band is no more, but Levon Helm has his own show, and he’s riding out his success in this manner.

This hacks me off. No one wants to see Levon Helm; those who are going to this show actually want to see The Band. Yes, they will be playing the Band’s songs, but at this point, that’s not the Band performing the songs. That’s one member of the Band. It bugs me that he would get such a high spot on the concert list. I suppose that, considering ACL’s roots, this is not an odd choice. It does have a strong roots/country influence.

But seriously, when Pearl Jam, Dave Matthews, and the Beastie Boys are your headliners, it simply silly to put one fraction of a great broken-up band up on stage covering great songs. I respect the fact that Levon Helm wants to keep playing music, and he has every right to the Band’s music (although Robbie Robertson might disagree); I just question why a festival that has clearly dropped its commitment to roots music placed one fifth of a band that was more critically acclaimed than actually liked while they were in their prime forty years ago as a headliner. It just seems ridiculous.

Basically, I have no problem with Levon Helm; may it not be said that I’m against him in this situation. I’m more against ACL’s confusion over what it wants to be. In fact, I feel for Levon Helm; he’s in the first generation of artists that are getting really old. The Stones, Dylan, Aerosmith, The Band, The Who….all those guys are sixty now. The first real rock’n’roll was made by them, and now they’re stuck in the lurch. Is there an age limit on rocking? Can a twenty-two year old go to a show by a guy two and a half times as old as him and see it the same way he sees a twenty-year old rocking? Our American problem with aging is hitting rock and roll; our solution seems to be that we let the reunion tours roll, and the old fans can have it.

But Levon Helm is in a different situation here. He’s not going to be playing to reunion tour fans; he’s going to be playing to hipsters who like !!!, Bon Iver and Arctic Monkeys. He’s confronting the problem head on. Seeing as you have to go down four lines of bands to find a band that has less attendees than Levon Helm, and the band directly behind him has four times as many confirmed attendees, it doesn’t seem to be working out.