Tag Archives: Elvis Costello

Is The Live Album Dead?

I love live albums. There’s something about hearing the roar of the crowd from the speakers, an the artist reacting to it. A good live album is a good indicator of an artist. They either push themselves to the limit, or fall or their feet. The best live albums not only capture the energy of magic of the live experience, but can also change your perception of artist.

Sam Cooke’s Live at the Harlem Square Club shows Cooke racing through classics such as “Twisting the Night Away” and “Chain Gang” with an energy and reckless abandon that is not apparent on his studio work. The Who’s Live at Leeds is a tour e force of hard rock. Jimi Hendrix’ Band of Gypseys finds Hendrix exploring jazz elements, and perhaps the finest performance of an electric guitar with “Machine Gun”.  Peter Frampton has spent his entire career trying to live up to the success of the massive Frampton Comes Alive!  Nirvana’s Unplugged showed that the band that changed the world with their punk anthems could turn it down and still retain their power.

These are albums that add to the story of legends.

Unfortunately, most of the live albums that have had any impact were released years ago. Live albums are no considered to be part of an artist catalog, but rather an asterisk. They still exist but they are almost always tacked onto another set, whether its the infamous Live DVD or a re-issue of an older album. Seldom do you see a newer band release a single live album as its own entity. And those artist that release live albums exclusively – like Pearl Jam and Dave Matthew Band – seemingly release every single show they’ve ever recorded.

U2 – a band who I love – is one of the worst offenders in this area. The band remains one of the best live acts around, but they haven’t released a “proper” live album since 1983 instead opting for a live video for every single tour. And the  “live bonus CD” while nice, too often seems like an afterthought and a cash-grab for re-issues. Thankfully, Elvis Costello reversed this trend by releasing proper Live Albums of live tracks he had been sticking on re-issues for years.

Itunes also shares some of the blame for the decline of the live album as well. If you ever log onto iTunes the front page is loaded with artists who record exclusive “Live EPs” for the digital store. While I can appreciate it as a fan of live music, I also can’t help the feeling that these bands are contractually obligated with iTunes to play these shows and then have them released.

The good news for fans is that more live music is probably being released than ever before. But if artists see their live show as their bread and butter as albums sales decline, perhaps they should give its release the same reverence.

 

 

 

 

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Proto-Punk? Yes. Post-Punk? Yes. Punk? Eh, Not So Much

When I was a teenager I discovered The Clash and with them, punk-rock. There was a certain immediacy and urgency that appealed to my teenage self. Everything was vast, loud and angry. Even if I didn’t exactly understand what they were referring to (this was the case for many Clash songs in my younger years) it didn’t matter. It was exciting and visceral.

Sometime later, a friend of mine took me to an Anti-Flag show about ten years ago, and I found the whole experience completely boring. Sure, the songs were played at break-beck speed, but they mostly stuck to their studio incarnations and seemed lackluster. I also didn’t enjoy being shoved every which way as the kids around mossed themselves in oblivion. I couldn’t understand why no one paying attention to the band – they only seemed intent on bashing each other.

Punk-rock it seemed, didn’t fit my personality after-all.

This isn’t to say that I totally dislike punk. I still rate both The Sex Pistols and The Clash among some of my favorite groups. The Clash and Nevermind the Bullocks are some of the most exciting and classic albums of rock and roll. It seems to me that no matter how hard any punk has tried subsequently they’ve never been able to better those two albums. There’s a reason why The Sex Pistols imploded, and the Clash moved on embracing other musical styles. The standard three-chord attack of punk only offers so much for a song.

I however, have a huge fondness for proto-punk and post-punk. Readers of this blog will surely know my affinity for Iggy Pop and The Stooge and of course, the Velvet Underground. The blue-print for punk was more or less created with these artists. As the 60s closed and the 70s began, mainstream rock became a little stagnant with the advent of prog-rock, bands whose names sounded more like law-firms, and other bands who took their names from cities and other locations.

In come The Stooges with their abrasive sound and Iggy’s legendary antics. It should also be noted that their first album also updated early rock and roll, giving it a more aggressive and wild sound complete with tightly controlled feed-back solos. Iggy seemed to be attack the “golden god” singers of the era when he declared, “Your pretty face is going to hell!”  Both the Stooges and The Velvet Underground’s proved that any one could make rock and roll. You didn’t have to be an expert or a virtuoso to get attention.

Punk of course, took that philosophy to the extreme. Naturally, the next groups of artists to emerge would combine punk’s do it yourself freedom, but not completely sticking to its three-chord ethos. Elvis Costello wasn’t strictly a punk-rocker at the beginning, but his first two albums – My Aim Is True and This Year’s Model – combined punk’s punchiness with a songwriter’s mentality. He also looked and acted like Buddy Holly who could punch you in the face and have no trouble stealing your girlfriend in the process. The Police managed infused their punk with tinges of reggae and in the process became one of the world’s biggest bands. The Talking Heads took avant-garde to a mass audience without ever forgetting their roots as a bar-band in CBGBS.

There are dozens of more bands I could list as favorites who were influenced by punk’s attitude, but not so much its sound. For me, punk has always been about freedom and too often a lot of “punk” bands seem stuck in one mode.

 

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Vinyl Love!

I’m a big fan of vinyl.  Even in the age of digital convenience, I still prefer the pops and hisses that only vinyl can provide.  There’s also a warmth and depth to the sound that is lost.  I’ve been collecting records for about 5 or 6 years now and have managed to find quite a few of my favorite albums either in record stores or by chance in thrift stores.  Some others have also been give to me by siblings an friends.  For special selections which I must have, I go to Baltimore’s Soundgarden and pick up re-issues of classic albums.

As my collection has grown I’ve ended up with about 60 records in total.  Many of them are personal favorites (Elvis Costello, Bob Dylan, U2, Johnny Cash), but others are just odd and random selections (German Beer Hall Music, Eastern European Gypsy Music, the soundtrack for The Sting).

A few months back, my girlfriend and I started what we like to call Record Night, which funnily enough was inspired by a scene from the movie Easy A.   Every Wednesday night we sit down, pick a record and sit down and listen to it.  Since a lot of music listening is in the background for many listeners (in the car, on the subway, running etc) it’s refreshing to actually to be able to just listen and digest the art for what it is.

Here’s what we’ve listened to so far.

The Sounds of SilenceSimon & Garfunkel

Irish Favorites – The Best of the Mummers – “Aqua String Band

Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits

This is Johnny Cash

No Jacket RequiredPhil Collins

High NoonTex Ritter;  Smash HitsThe Jimi Hendrix Experience

She’s So UnusualCyndi Lauper

Get Happy!! – Elvis Costello and The Attractions

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Songs of Summers Past: Part 2

(Carrie became so inspired by my list last week, that she wrote up a list of her own.  Check it out.)

(Me, circa 2006.)

The Clash – “Rudie Can’t Fail” (Summer 2003)

For me, “Rudie Can’t Fail” is the highlight of London Calling an album on which every single song would be a highlight on somebody else’s album.   London Calling was one the CDs that I brought with me on for a summer semester in Italy.  I had been to Europe before, but these trips were either with family or organized.  Living in a small town in Northern Italy for 6 weeks meant plenty of down-time to explore the subtleties of Italian culture I would not have otherwise been exposed to.  Each Wednesday morning the town opened its streets to a market.  The linens, Catholic relics, Italian leather were a link to the old world.  With my headphones on, I used to wander around the streets for hours trying to soak up as much as I could.  With its reggae and third world feel, “Rudie Can’t Fail” was the soundtrack to my self imposed Italian education.  The lyricsm “I went to the market, to realize my soul cuz what I need I just don’t have,” never seemed so prophetic and exciting.

“King of the Rodeo” – Kings of Leon (Summer 2005)

For everybody who thinks of Kings of Leon based on “Use Somebody”, I urge them to listen to this song.  It’s an entirely different band.  Matthew Followill delivers one of his sexiest and dirtiest guitar riffs, while Caleb’s vocals are incomprehensible and boozy, yet strangely melodic.  The only lyrics that can be deciphered are “let the good times roll, let the good times roll”.   I became obsessed with Kings of Leon’s Aha Shake Heartbreak earlier that year, due to their opening slot of U2’s tour.  While U2’s show was perfectly rehearsed with little room for improvisation (not a bad thing, by the way), Kings of Leon came out as if their instruments were weapons in a bar fight.  There was a sense that anything could happen.  Aha Shake Heartbreak became my “go to” CD that summer, as I drove to and from my shitty job.   I probably broke the skip button as I kept placing “King of the Rodeo” on repeat.  I can’t understand the rest of the summer, but “let the good times roll” became something of a mantra.

“High Fidelity” – Elvis Costello & The Attractions

I had recently discovered the genius of Elvis Costello about a year earlier, and was quickly becoming acquainted with his back catalogue, in particular Get Happy!! and “High Fidelity”.   On an album full of great songs, “High Fidelity” is a masterpiece – the piano never sounded so violent and menacing and also poppy.  A great sing-along song for the summer at full volume.  I used to always say that I never liked to drink too much a show, as I wanted to remember to it all.  Sadly, this was not the case at the Elvis Costello an Allen Toussaint show.  My friend, and my brother started tail-gating hours before the show.  To the audience at Wolf Trap, which is actually an outdoor theater sometimes used for a rock show, we were heathens.  Wolf Trap’s BYOB rules did not suit us well.  And our cans of Budweiser and bag of Lays was a direct contrast to everyone else’s wine and cheese.   At one point, I remember sitting on a pair of steps with my head between my legs desperately trying not to get sick.  As I tried to come to my senses, I did manage to hear “High Fidelity” in the background.

“Let’s Go Crazy” – Prince (Summer 2010)

A while back, I looked at my girlfriend’s Ipod and was surprised to see “Let’s Go Crazy” on it.  I never suspected her to be a Prince fan.  Even more surprisingly, she had mistakenly downloaded a remix with an extended ending.  That purchase has always made me laugh and “Let’s Go Crazy” has become a song that we listen to quite often when driving.  She even knows the opening monologue by heart, which is even more hilarious.  Last summer while in Florida with her family, I bought a copy of Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of Rock and Roll that led to a rather humorous (and sometimes tense) discussion with her father over which songs should and shouldn’t be included. It turned out to be a great bonding experience even if we disagreed on quite a few songs. He argued there were way too many Prince songs on the list (including “Let’s Go Crazy”) while I suggested that “Born to Be Wild” really isn’t that good, and was only included for nostalgic reasons.

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Music To Listen To This Summer

Each season has their own soundtrack and summer is no exception.  There are numerous albums I listen to in the summer, and find perfect for days when you just can’t seem to cool off.  So here’s my selection of albums to listen to and kick back to.  (Note: I exclude some obvious choices such as Springsteen.)

Elvis CostelloGet Happy!!

Though King of America and Imperial Bedroom might be better albums, Get Happy!! is Costello’s most listenable album from front to back filled with R&B and soul styled songs with a punk twist.  The songs move along at breakneck speed (as do some of the songs) leaving the listener with barely any time to soak in the subtleties. Even when the songs are mean-spirited, the music is sheer fun.  What comes across though is Costello’s melodies and flawless songwriting, making it the perfect soundtrack for a summer day.

Outkast – Speakerboxxx

When Outkast’s double album first came out, most of the press focused on Andre 3000’s half, The Love Below.  As it turns out, Speakerboxxx turns out to be the better of the two, as Big Boi flirts with fast-paced beats, swing and jazz influences and George Clinton-style funk.  And like the rest of the albums on this list, there’s no filler – it’s genre -hopping music that’s perfect for nights with intense heat that never seems to let up.

The Gourds – Blood of the Ram

If you’re outside grilling, and drinking a beer, Blood on the Ram should be an essential addition.  It’s a combination of bluegrass, Band-style Americana, and alt-country.  Each song is a masterpiece in Southern Boogie and sing-alongs.  Songs such as “Do 4 U”,  “Lower 48” and “Cracklins” are designed to get you off your chair and dance.  And if you don’t feel that way, your humanity might come into question.  Plus where else can you sing every single state in the lower 48?

Creedence Clearwater RevivalChronicle

For a long time, I resisted getting this collection because practically every single on this collection is burned into the consciousness of every fan of classic rock.  But song for song, you can’t really ask for a better greatest hits collection.  With a a mix of down home rock and memorable songs, Chronicle feels like a lazy summer day.  And if it’s really hot, let CCR do the hard-work and sweat for you as they tear through their classics.

Al GreenThe Absolute Best

For me, Al Green has the best soul voice anybody’s side of Sam Cooke, and this collection as the title suggests, offers nothing but his best.  There’s straight-up soul classics – “So You’re Leaving”, “Strong as Death (Sweet as Love)”, funk-rock – “I’m a Ram”, “Driving Wheel”, and soul-jam classics – “Look What You For Me”.  Perfect for relaxing, with a strong drink in your hand as the day winds down.

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The Top 10 Post “Blood on the Tracks” Bob Dylan Albums: 4. Infidels

I recently read Bob Dylan considered Elvis Costello, David Bowie and Frank Zappa to help produce Infidels.  Costello would be the most interesting to see at the helm – he might have given Infidels a more folk-style approach.  As such, Infidels holds up extremely well in large part due to the addition of Mark Knopfler – whose tasteful production and guitar work are everywhere throughout the album.

For the 80s it was contemporary sound – but it doesn’t hold itself as an 80s album (something that can’t be said of some of his other albums from that era.)  Dylan reportedly hired Knopfler, in part because he didn’t know the new production technology.  Still though, its an album that has been trimmed of the fat and excess. “Jokerman” might be the most well-known song, but its reggae isn’t not representative of the album. There’s a punch on many songs – “Man of Peace” “Neighborhood Bully” – and Dylan lashes out the lyrics with a renewed vigor not seen since Desire.

Infidels might be Dylan’s first secular album after a trio of Christian inspired albums, but the Bible and its themes are everywhere.  Interestingly though, it’s the Old Testament and Judaism that occupies his thoughts.  “Jokerman” name-checks Leviticus and Deuteronomy, Sodom and Gommorah.  Elsewhere, “Neighborhood Bully” has often been interpreted as Dylan’s support of Israel, due to the inclusion of Israeli historical events.  The penultimate song, “I And I” borrows its title from a Rastafarian practice of saying “I and I” when referring to one’s self to include the speaker with the presence of the Almighty in every day situations.  Taking this as cue, Dylan uses the song to refer to the Hebrew God, whose name can’t be uttered by the observant.  It’s also worth noting that the front cover photograph was taken by Sara Dylan, at a hotel in Jerusalem.

Among critics, Infidels has been seen as something of a lost opportunity for Dylan.  The exclusion of “Foot of Pride” and “Blind Willie McTell” has left many shaking their heads for decades.  The familiar demo version of “Blind Willie McTell” (though apparently there’s a full-band version that was recorded) while brilliant, probably would have overshadowed the rest of the album’s quality.

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The Ten Most Important Artists of the Last Decade: 10. – Death Cab For Cutie

I first heard of Death Cab For Cutie sometime in 2003, sometime before the infamous Seth Cohen Starter Pack episode of the OC.   One of my friends in my poetry class next to me, who knew that I liked music, asked me if I heard of them.  “No,” I told her, thinking that Death Cab For Cutie was such an odd name for a a band.  She told me to listen to them, which I did, but I didn’t think much of it at the time.  I wasn’t too into the sensitive rock that they excel in at the time.  I was too into the “angry young man years” of Elvis Costello and Bob Dylan to really give Death Cab much of a chance.

For a while, I kind of forgot about them.  Then somewhere along the line, tons of people I know started talking about them.  This was probably due to their inclusion on episodes of The OC.  I had heard of The OC, but it wasn’t on my radar.  “Why would a band want to sell out and include themselves on a TV show?”, I wondered.  My thought was that they were obviously a bunch of sell-outs.  This thought is of course, not really well constructed.

Back to Dylan and Costello for a moment.  Both of these artists, represent an aura of non-compromise.  They do what they want, consequences by damned. Costello, famously playing “Radio Radio” on Saturday Night Live when the producers told him not to.  Dylan, of course, for going electric when he was the hero of folk-music.  Sure they sold records, and have a wide audience, but “selling out” wasn’t something they would do.  I for one, held onto this very idea for a long time.  (Ironically, around this time Bob Dylan was appearing in a Victoria’s Secret commercial, but I deemed it too weird, and surreal to be considered “selling out”.  Really, I just didn’t want to admit that even my hero could do something like that.)

But for bands in the early 2000s, the music business was different.  The record companies were fledging, and there had to be a new way for artists to get exposed.  While it may seem commonplace today, for artists songs to be used on Glee, in 2003 having your songs on shows like The OC was uncharted territory.  Especially for respectable bands, but Death Cab along with Bright Eyes seized the moment, and it worked.  Suddenly people started talking about Death Cab all the time.  Their sensitive, melodic  songwriting, and Ben Gibbard‘s soft voice ushered in a new wave of indie-rock, where it was okay to emotional without being angry.  Death Cab represented a true alternative to radio rock which seemed to be dominated by big, dumb rock songs.  They also weren’t “cool” like The Strokes, or guitar-heavy like The White Stripes.  Death Cab was more interested in writing songs and telling stories that people could relate to.

When you think of “indie rock”, it’s hard not to think of Death-Cab.  Earlier incarnations of indie rock mostly included punk, hard-core, riot girl, and weird experimental post-punk bands. But Death Cab represented a new era of “indie rock”, and almost every indie band that came out after (or around the same time) – from Modest Mouse to Vampire Weekend – owe them a huge debt.  Let’s also not forget Death Cab also became a band that teenage girls, and women in college could relate to, something which rock radio seemed to be lacking.

When Death Cab signed to Atlantic in 2004, it was a major move.  True, Modest Mouse was among the first of the “new indie” bands to sign to a major in 2000, but when Death Cab signed people were left wondering if they would alter their sound for the masses.  But like R.E.M., two decades earlier who had also put out several albums on an indie label before signing to a major label, Death Cab put out Plans in 2005 , an album that didn’t compromise their sound, but built upon the foundation they already had as evident on such songs as “Crooked Teeth“, and “Souls Meets Body”.

Even though they’ve never really had a “hit”, Death Cab For Cutie remains extremely popular in part because the world came to them.  Perhaps in their own way, maybe they are a bit like Dylan and Costello.

Edit: Here’s the full list of The Ten Most Important Artists

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