Category Archives: Music

My Morning Jacket: The Band That Jams For Those Who Don’t Like Jambands

As a general rule, I don’t particularly like jam-bands.  I’m sure that I might be missing out on some classic music (The Grateful Dead, The Allman Brothers), but I usually find the endless sonic detours into nowhere rather boring.  The extended jams seem to suggest (to me anyway) that they want the audience to know how well they play, not how good their songs are.

A friend of mine in college (a huge fan of all types of jam-bands) first told me about My Morning Jacket, my junior year in college, which was around the fall of 2002 or the spring of 2003.  “Augh, you know I don’t like jam-bands,” I told him with a bit of smugness.  I had already had enough of listening to the Dead at the numerous parties which were always held in his room.  One more band like that, would be one too many for me.   A few years later, another mutual friend told me to check out My Morning Jacket’s Okonokos live CD.  This friend was also a huge fan of jam-bands, but he also had a pretty broad taste, I didn’t dismiss his suggestion right away.  That being said, I never acted upon it.

I finally came around in 2006, when My Morning Jacket opened for Pearl Jam (who ranks among my best concerts list).  It quickly became apparent that My Morning Jacket might rival Pearl Jam.   Sure, their jams were extended – but they were loud.  But the biggest impact was Jim James’ magnificent voice.  There was a subtle tenderness for the slower songs, and cry from the tops of the mountains for the louder songs.  It seemed to cut through the band was playing.

After that show, I went out and bought (what was at the time) their latest album, Z, which remains one of my favorite albums of the past 10 years.  Its the soundtrack to summer twilight – hot and sweaty, and orange/reddish in color.  It rocks, but it’s also laid-back and relaxed.  You also hear each individual member of the band.  Jim James (sorry I can’t refer to him as Yim Yames) might be the frontman, but he never overshadows the music.

James may lead his band into adventurous territory, but his emphasis has always been on songwriting – which is  why his side projects have included Monsters of Folk with Connor Oberst and an EP tribute to George Harrison.  Though they might be considered a “jam-band” by nature and rock out like the best 1970s bands, My Morning Jacket have a down-home feel that takes more cues from The Band, than The Grateful Dead.  “I’m Amazed” (one of the best rock singles in the past few years) sounds like a Basement Tape out-take.

When My Morning Jacket do jam, the extended instrumental feels as if they written into the song, to give the song the extra punch and emotional power. Sometimes they contain loud and slow passages (“Dondante”), other times it’s cathartic (“Gideon”) or just a logical step (“Off the Record”).  The Okonokos CD showcases a band at the height of their power – one who is not afraid to take chances taking their audience for a ride, but also one who knows when to bring it in as well.

I’ve only listened to their latest CD Circuital once, but so far its seems like James and company have made another masterpiece – 2008’s “Evil Urges” was a little too bizarre and scattershot though it did have some great moments – once again making a claim for America’s best band.

“Gideon”

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The Top 10 Post “Blood on the Tracks” Bob Dylan Albums – 10. Slow Train Coming

Since Bob Dylan turns 70 next week, and countless blogs and magazines have been having tributes and lists,(Rolling Stone recently ranked “The 70 Greatest Dylan Songs”) I’ve decided to look take a look at Dylan’s latter-day career.  Almost every single acclaimed album since 1975 (in one way or another) has been ranked according to “his best since ‘Blood on the Tracks'”.  

Slow Train Coming

Slow Train Coming receives a fair of criticism for being Dylan’s first “Christian Album”.  I admit to having only listened to “Gotta Serve Somebody” from this album as it was included on The Essential Bob Dylan.  When you listen to Dylan, preaching isn’t necessarily something you want to hear.

U2’s Bono has often been quote as suggested that his favorite songwriters are either running towards God or running away from God.  Bono  surely must have been listening to “Slow Train Coming”, especially “I Believe in You” a hymn to the Almighty disguised as a love song. Surely, this must have been a template for many U2 songs in the same vein such as “Mysterious Ways”.   Dylan, of course had spent a good deal of years running away from God, even as he occasionally used the Bible as a source of literary inspiration.

On Slow Train Coming, the Bible is the main source of inspiration, but the surrealistic imagery from  “Gates of Eden” is replaced by taught evangelical lyrics.  It also retains quite a bit of the anger old, just with a new vision.  that  Still, there’s plenty of good songs to be found throughout the album.  “Slow Train” awakens the ghost and apocalyptic visions of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”.   It’s just more specific in its targets and also denounces secular  science and world issues- “I don’t care about economy, I don’t care about astronomy”.  He’s just worried about his love ones “turning into puppets”.

Slow Train isn’t all fire an brimstone though.  There’s some humor throughout, particularly on “Man Gave Names To All the Animals” which finds man giving monikers to different animals based on their attributes. Dylan’s famous non-verbal “ahhhhh” returns in this song as well.  It’s not scornful as in “Like a Rolling Stone”, but rather enlightened – “ah, I think I’ll call it a bear”.

Slow Train Coming also boasts a rather bluesy feel to it due to Jerry Wexler’s production, and there’s some great guitar work courtesy of Mark Knopfler. Musically, it kind undercuts some of Dylan’s lyrics, which depending on your point of view, may or may not be a goo thing.

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Songs and Memories: U2 – “Until The End of The World”

Without a doubt, Achtung Baby is my favorite U2 album.  I was 9 when it came out, and had grown up listening to The Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum through my older siblings.  At the age of 5 or 6, I could point the different members of the band on my older brother’s Unforgettable Fire poster that hung on his wall.

I was too young to remember the backlash U2 received with Rattle and Hum.   It always seemed like a good record to me.  In fact, it was the first album I ever heard on CD.

Still, the sheer sound of Achtung Baby was a shock to my young ears.  The opening chords of “Zoo Station” roared like a monster that had been caged for too long.   “I’m ready,” Bono declared after a minute of weird sounds and rhythms.  Except, this didn’t sound like Bono.  His voice was distant and cold.  Could this be the same guy who declared he would always been with his love on New Year’s Day?

Achtung Baby was a life-changing album for me.  It was my first real introduction to music that was wild and mind-bending.   Every single song is a masterpiece in obsession, post-modernism and lost love.  I’ve probably listened to Achtung Baby more than any other album (and that’s saying a lot considering how many times I’ve listened to Bringing It All Back Home and Astral Weeks.)

In an album full of great track, (besides the obligatory “One”), the true standout is “Until The End of the World”  – one of U2’s fiercest rockers.   The main riff is the closest The Edge gets to playing straight rock an roll, while his solo is one of the most intricate pieces he’s ever developed.  The rhythm section drives the song, hitting home the song’s theme of betrayal.  Lyrically, the song is among Bono’s best.  It’s filled with tension – as a party is taking place, yet there’s chaos underneath.   As a kid, I just assumed it was about a couple’s break-up – “I kissed your lips and broke your heart.”  It wasn’t until later that I discovered the song is actually song from the perspective of Judas.

For lack of a better term, this was a revelation.  Having grown up Catholic, religious imagery was not something that I wanted in rock music.  As a teenager, songs are sex are much more appealing than songs about God. (Even though U2 did have the Gospel inspired “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”, I found it trite and boring.)  “Until The End of The World” was using Biblical imagery as a tool – there was no preaching here.  The Bible was a source of inspiration for the drama in the song, and Judas’ betrayal fit in perfectly with the themes of Achtung Baby.   U2 themselves have recognize the power of this song, keeping it as set-list regular, and releasing it on their second Best Of Compilation even though it was never a single.

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Songs and Memories: Ryan Adams – “The Hardest Part”:

Ryan Adams – “The Hardest Part”

From about 2005 to 2006, I was under the impression that Ryan Adams could do no wrong. He was something like a contemporary Bob Dylan – brilliant, prolific, and unpredictable. I had just started Graduate School for Publication Design in the Spring of 2006. In retrospect, it was an odd move. While the program was a combination of Graphic Design and writing, I knew shit about Graphic Design.  My introductory course in Design was on Saturday Mornings (a schedule that did not fit my lifestyle at the time) and Adam’s music was almost always playing in my car during the commutes.

For me, Jacksonville City Nights was the highlight of the trio of albums that Adams released in 2005.  Adams has often been dubbed “alt-country”, but Jacksonville City Nights is the album where he hitches a ride on a boxcar and takes it through America.  It’s a real country album, filled with melancholy, girls that leaves imprints on your brain, and absence.

The album’s highlight “The Hardest Part” could be described as something of an acoustic rocker.  From opening chords, Adams pulls you along with his tale of wanting to get out and away from whatever it is that’s been bothering him. He’s paid his respects to the company store, and the company boys.  His hat has been tipped, and he’s out.  Naturally though, there’s some complications and the hardest part isn’t all the shit he’s been getting – it’s leaving the girl behind.  The bridge is where the song really takes a life of its own.   The acoustic guitars are strummed with the intensity of a punk song and Adams can barely contain himself:

I could stretch that penny like a silver line
Rolling through the pages of my life
Underneath your name where it’s underlined
I’ve been turned around
I’ve been mystified by a true love

Ever since I first heard it, I’ve grown attached to those lines.  I’m not quite certain whether its the lyrics themselves, or the way Adams sings them – desperate, out of control, and also tender.  Those lines would become the centerpiece for my final project in my Design Course.   The class was assigned to “redesign” a CD cover and booklet, and without even thinking I chose Jacksonville City Nights.  I put “The Hardest Part” on repeat while I sat and designed the booklet on my computer.  Even though I was a novice at Graphic Design, that wasn’t the hardest part.  It was cropping, spraying and mounting the finished piece that proved to be a hassle.  Without realizing it, I bought boards that were too thick for the razor-blade, and in the process I sliced my fingers open a couple of times.  After numerous attempts, I finally finished it and ended up with a lower grade mainly based upon my shoddy presentation with the mounting.

If I had any shame, I would never let this piece see the light of day.  Luckily, I did get better at both Designing and the mounting.

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Albums Worth Revisiting: “Ultraglide in Black” – The Dirtbombs

I wrote about the Dirtbombs a few months back, placing them among my “Top 20 Concerts List“.   Ultraglide In Black, an album consisting of (mostly)  old soul and funk songs – (“Your Love Belongs Under a Rock” is the only original).The album will turn 10 this week, so now is the perfect to write about this under-rated gem.  Like the songs that The Dirtbombs tackle here, Ultraglide in Black is a full-on party album.

The Dirtbombs attack these song with punk furor, but never taking away what made the originals so great and timeless. It would be easy to suggest that The Dirtbombs were trying to put a contemporary spin on these songs, but the album plays more like musicians playing songs they love, because they want to.  With two drummers and two bassists, The Dirtbombs have turned these covers into tightly controlled jams, that lie somewhere between absolute chaos and sheer enthusiasm.  Singer Mick Collin’s voice in an instrument in itself.  He’s clearly in command here, pushing his bandmates as he shouts his way through J.J. Barnes’ “Chains of Love”.  Elsewhere on, “Kung Fu”, he croons in a soulful voice that is more than homage to the music that has clearly inspired him.  Smokey Robinson’s “If You Can What” is a sing-along fury, that nearly flies out of control.  Stevie Wonder’s “Livin’ For The City” is given a slow, fuzzed out treatment, that sounds like a cross between funk and the noisy experiments of the Velvet Underground.

Ultraglide in Black is the sound of a great band deciding for one drunken night that they are the best soul and funk cover band.  And with one listen to the album, you’d be crazy to think otherwise.

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5 Classic Best Of Collections

I’ll be the first to admit that Best Of Collections are usually a terrible representation of an artist’s catalog. As a general rule, I usually try and stay away from them, preferring to check out the classic albums instead.  Have you ever checked out a collection from an artist you absolutely love, and been horrified at the song selection on their collection? In some instances, key songs are missing.  Or, in other cases a ban has several Hits Collections and you have to buy the separate packages to get everything you want.  (Of course, maybe this isn’t so much of a problem for those who use Itunes religiously.)

Too often, these collections tend to gloss over an artist’s evolution or focus on a singular period.  Van Morrison’s Greatest Hits, while containing some of his most well known songs, is actually a pretty poor depiction of his forays into what can be dubbed Celtic-Soul.  Occasionally though, there are some collections that are absolutely essential, that actually get the story of the artist right – as opposed to just compiling a bunch of songs together in a neat little package.

Sly & The Family Stone – Greatest Hits

Originally released in 1970 to fill the gap between Stand! and There’s a Riot Goin’ On, this set is mind-blowingly good containing the best of Sly & The Family Stone’s hits in the late 60s.  Every single track is a explosive fusion of funk, R&B, rock, and soul that tons of bands have tried to emulate, but none have perfected the way Sly & The Family Stone did.  Greatest Hits is a non-stop party that never lets up particularly on “Sing a Simple Song” and the absurdly titled “Thank You (Falentinme Be Mice Elf Agin”).  As a blend of party-music and socially consciousness anthems, it doesn’t get any better than this.

James Brown – 20 All-Time Greatest Hits

James Brown has a lot of hits collection, but this is the best singular compilation containing the early R&B hits (“Please Please Please”, “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World”).  There’s also the the cultural touchstones of “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” – which almost single-handily invented funk.  More than just a collection though, All-Time Greatest Hits captures all of Brown’s energy and passion from the sex-induced singles  – “Get (I Feel Like Being) A Sex Machine Pt. 1” – to the African American empowerment anthem, “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)”.

Talking Heads – Sand In the Vaseline (Popular Favorites)

If you ever needed to know anything about The Talking Heads, this is a great place to start.  It encompasses the big songs (“And She Was”) with fan favorites (“Heaven, “Psycho Killer”). If you listen to their early records, it can be hard to comprehend how the hell they got so big.    Without a doubt, Talking Heads remain of the oddest bands to ever chart a hit (and they had numerous hits).  But Sand in the Vaseline shows a natural progression of art inspired new-wave to pop oddities they would have in the early 80s.  It also doesn’t gloss over their strangest efforts either – the African music inspired “I Zimbra” with nonsense lyrics from Dada artist Hugo Ball is also included.

David Bowie – Changesonebowie/Changesbowie

Changesbowie was released in 1990 to replace Changesonebowie so it would include some songs from the late 70s and the early 80s.  This collection holds a special place for me, since it was my first introduction to Bowie.  My older brother used to play on his car cassette player while picking me up from school.  I was probably 12 or 13 at the time and mostly listened to R.E.M., U2 an whatever was on the radio.  Bowie seemed so far out and exhilarating.  Not one song sounded the same.  There was the neo-soul of “Young Americans” to the glam-rock of “Rebel Rebel”.  The lyrics were similarly mind-blowing.  Did he really just sing, “well hung with snow white-tan?” on “Ziggy Stardust”.  It’s a good place to start obsessing over Bowie.  I’ve always considered Bowie to be the gate-way artist to much weirder stuff, and this is a collection which leads you down that path.   The only complaint is the really awful remix of “Fame”.

Bob Marley – Legend

An absolute classic of a collection.  Bob Marley’s work is universal but also varied.  Legend does a great job of collecting the love songs (“Stir It Up”, “Waiting in Vain”) songs of protest and social injustice (“Buffalo Solider”, “Get Up, Stand Up”).  It truly captures the spirit of Bob Marley.  As for many I’m sure, this was my first introduction to Bob Marley (and also reggae) and left me wanting to know more about Jamaica, Marley, and reggae.  Kaya, Exodus, and Catch A Fire are great albums, but for some reason I find myself listening to Legend more.

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The Ten Most Important Artists of the Last Decade: 1. The White Stripes

In 1973 the critically hated band Grand Funk Railroad claimed themselves to be “An American Band”.  But few bands are as strictly American as The White Stripes.  The ghosts of Son House, Robert Johnson, and Blind Willie McTell  live in Jack White’s basement.  Using old blues records and folk songs as a template, The White Stripes created some of the most authentic and engaging music to come out in decades.  Add to that they came from Detroit, perhaps popular music’s most important city.  It’s a city known for its blues artists in the 50s and 60s, and helped popularize Black Music with Motown in the 1960s, and conceived punk-rock with The Stooges and The MC5.  The White Stripes have almost exclusively ignored musical trends since the end of the 1960s, an era when Detroit seemed to fall out of favor with the music public.

Even as they’ve dug up the past, The White Stripes live in a world that very few artists have.  It’s a world that isn’t defined by time.  While Elephant and White Blood Cells they could easily  exist in the 50s just as they do in our age.  Just like The Basement Tapes, The White Stripes looked to Americana for inspiration, but in the process created their own version.

Crucial to their own version of Americana, is The White Stripes’ own myth-making.  It may seem silly in the age of information for Jack and Meg to insist on being siblings when in fact they were really married at one point.  But like their heroes, they created personas of themselves directly linking themselves to the past, even going so far as to change their names.  Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil to play guitar. In In the early stages of his career Bob Dylan (another of White’s heroes) created the illusion that he was actually a ho-bo to make himself seem more authentic in the burgeoning folk-scene.  In “Ball and Biscuit”, White refers himself to “the 7th son” – a folklore concept in which the 7th son is given special powers due to his birth order.  It’s no coincidence that White makes this declaration in a seven minute showcase for his fiery guitar freak-outs.  By making such claims, The White Stripes are securing their place in American culture, right alongside other legendary artists.

But it’s really the music where The Stripes establish their credibility.  It’s a primitive and primal crunch, that has to be made two people.  Adding another instrument of person would take away from the rawness that harkens back to the blues records.  There’s a reason why they only recorded with vintage guitars and equipment.  It’s not just because they prefer that particular sound.  Anything else, would make them just another blues band, instead of blues purists.

That sound, while if not wholly original, must have been a shock to casual radio fans who weren’t familiar with the likes of Son House and others.  In era where everything on rock radio seemed homogenized, “Fell in Love With a Girl” was a blast of fresh air.  Not since “Blitzkrieg Bop” have two minutes sounded so exciting and fresh.  “Fell In Love With a Girl” helped established The White Stripes as a new voice in rock and roll to the mainstream (even though they had been receiving critical attention for a while), but it was really “Seven Nation Army” and Elephant that saw them conquer the world.

With that famous “bass riff”, Seven Nation Army”, has got to be one of the weirdest songs to grace radio in years.  The whole song is built around a variation of the same chord, and there’s no chorus. While some detractors have claimed that Meg White as a terrible drummer, no other drummer would have sounded right for this song.  White has claimed the title came from a childhood mispronunciation of “salvation army”, but the magic number 7 pops up again.

The White Stripes’ popularity suddenly make it possible for younger bands to realize that they didn’t have to be pigeon-holed by a particular sound.  Over the last decade, there has been a surplus in bands that just contains two members, or omit a bass player – The Black Keys and The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, being the most prominent.  Numerous unsigned and local bands have also taking the cue as well.  But trying to be authentic, The White Stripes have helped create a rock revolution not seen since the punk-era or grunge.

As significant as their influence on younger bands is, The White Stripes remain legendary because they’ve established themselves as part of American culture in a way that few artists have.  The White Stripes could never keep going, because Jack White is always on the move – always between two places, never staying in the same place once.  Since their break-up they’ve truly managed to become what they’ve always wanted – artists that existed for a time, but never part of a particular time.

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