Thursday, May 31, 2007

Morning Shorts

Sam the Record Man is closing its flagship Toronto store. The huge vinyl records on the store's exterior are something of a Toronto landmark, and efforts are underway to save them. As best I can tell, this is the Canadian equivalent of Tower shutting down.

If nothing else, the Shrek media empire brings the tunes of the Eels to the greater public. My Old Kentucky Blog has a download of Mark Everett's latest, "Royal Pain", a typically jaunty bit of chin-up sad-sackery ("I'm just trying to get by with my pride a little bit intact").

It's Hard to Find a Friend features M. Ward covers.

Check out iff favorite Jana Hunter's Portuguese radio sessions, via Gorilla Vs. Bear.

Cafe Eclectica has pictures, setlist and review of the Bright Eyes NYC show featuring a surprise Lou Reed cameo.

Mix Me a Molotov has got your Dan Bern tour coverage down.

I came across Pete Green while scanning some upcoming Kimya Dawson tour dates; she'll be playing with Pete in Leeds June 26th. This track's got a sweet, fragile sound that reminds me of Robyn Hitchcock in his less loopy moments.

MP3: Pete Green - Everything's Dead Pretty When It Snows

Friday, May 25, 2007

Pocket Shelley - Small Illuminations in a Darkening Sky

In an effort to track down signs of life from Carlos Forster, lead singer for the underappreciated Bay Area indie band For Stars, I stumbled onto what would quickly become one of my favorite albums of the year so far, Pocket Shelley's Small Illuminations in a Darkening Sky, which features guest turns by Forster and Marc Cappelle, as well as production by and musical contributions from American Music Club member Tim Mooney.

Details like this virtually assured I would like the album, but my expectations were exceeded. Pockey Shelley is the singer-songwriter vehichle for Bay Area musician Michael Mullen, of the bands Glasstown, Roman Evening and the Size Queens. Putting vocals, piano and acoustic guitar front and center, Mullen has put together a stunning album of romantic but grounded songs, generous, open-hearted stories of everyday longing, regret and joy that fans of American Music Club and Mark Eitzel shouldn't miss.

As with Eitzel's songbook, details of California abound, particularly in the track I've posted here, "Half Moon Bay", which begins tentatively and tenderly, "Happy birthday, baby/I'll take you out to dinner/let's go to Firefly/that's up in Noe Valley" and tumbles through a series of wishes and memories that teases the listener, never really letting on as to what's real andwhat's imagined, making it all the more relatable. Mullen's ability to fuse the grand and everyday is crucial to making these songs work, as in another romantic track, "Mirror Lake", where he sings of love "in city and in country/and by the oceanside/and sometimes in your twin-size bed".

Musically, these songs move between spare, room-noise piano/vocal arrangements and squalling sadcore psychadelia, as when Cappelle's flugelhorn wails in a long coda to "New Year's Day", and in the swelling build of "Acid Orange", a nearly nine-minute celebration of natural and chemical highs that reminds me of longer tracks on Red House Painters' eponymous Rollercoaster album like "Strawberry Hill" in sheer transporting power.

In addition to ten originals, the album features a fine cover of Dylan's "Farewell Angelina" and Tony Kushner's "Duets: 'Night Mamma", from the musical Caroline, or Change.

You can buy the album at CD Baby and listen to more tracks at Pocket Shelley's MySpace.

MP3: Pocket Shelley - Half Moon Bay

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Morning Shorts

A new show is up on the Internet from Dan Bern, not from his current tour, but from the Indian Lookout Country Club "Gathering of the Vibes", in possibly scenic Mariaville, NY, in 2003. Bern's in fine voice, and the short set's got one of my favorite non-album Bern tracks, a longtime concert staple that wouldn't work nearly as well in the studio. "The Fifth Beatle" is frentic showmanship unbound, featuring Bern's Ringo Starr singing a Harrison/Ono tune, "Bansai Tree" ("Bansai tree for you/and a bansai tree for me...)".

MP3: Dan Bern - The Fifth Beatle

It's Hard to Find a Friend (a very good blog and, in my opinion, the best Pedro the Lion album) has a selection of Dave Bazan's covers, including a classic take on Radiohead's "Let Down".

The New York Times covers Daniel Johnston's recent show: "Without a guitar, Mr. Johnson’s hands trembled constantly, yet he sang with plaintive conviction. Though he looked vulnerable, he could rely on his songs."

The 46th Annual Philadelphia Folk Festival has announced its initial lineup; the names so far include Doc Watson, Mavis Staples and Elvis Perkins, thought I suspect you'll see some other biggies added. Recent years have had headliners such as Jackson Browne, Richard Thompson, Rogen McGuinn and Joan Baez. The orgy of 60s revivalism/family-friendly snooze-folk, punctuated by some great performers, is in August.

New Release Tuesday

Loudon Wainwright III has found an unlikely partner late in his career in Judd Apatow, who has put Wainwright in several movies and, most prominently, a TV show, Undeclared, where he got to winningly play himself as the sad divorcee dad. But now the partnership reaches new levels of synergy with Strange Weirdos: Music From and Inspired by the Film Knocked Up (buy it). You can watch Loudon perform three songs from the disc live at McCabe's Guitar Shop, at his website. I love "Daughter", which typically takes a po-faced, simple approach to a common subject in order to make it new. The chorus is catchy, too.

Espers' Meg Baird has her first solo album, Dear Companion (buy it), out on Drag City, and the brilliant, soothing track from the album that's streaming at her MySpace, "The Waltze of the Tennis Players", recalls nothing if not Kate and Anna McGarrigle, and I'm not just saying that because of LWIII on my mind. Seriously, listen to the track and tell me I'm wrong.

And of course, the low-key grandeur of The National returns with Boxer (buy it). Paste compares it, a bit unfavorably, to American Music Club.

MP3: The National - Fake Empire

Friday, May 18, 2007

White Wedding Started Again

I'm always a few weeks behind in listening to Jeremy Peterson's In House radio show podcast, but I get to them all eventually, and they're consistently teriffic. The weekday hour-long show, broadcast over the air in Pocatello, ID, features a fine mix of new releases and classics with just the right amount of commentary.

An especially noteworthy show, from May 1st, was an all-covers affair, and featured several tracks from the new Bridging the Distance: A Portland Covers Compilation, a new charity comp out on Arena Rock. The Minders' cover of ELO's "Don't Bring Me Down" and Britt Daniel of Spoon covering Sam Cooke are highlights of the show and the comp, which is a $10 bargain. but the real find for me was Whip's acoustic take on Billy Idol's "White Wedding". While I have a high tolerance for covers of most stripes, this one rises above; for the first minute, I honestly couldn't place the song, they've so transformed it. Check it out on their MySpace.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Morning Shorts: Jackson C. Frank

I haven't been posting much lately, and there's plenty to catch up with.

To start, both Salon and Pitchfork have been pushing Nick Drake's cover of Jackson C. Frank's "Blues Run the Game", and both spin the tale, briefly, of Frank's unbelievably unlucky life (Pitchfork: "Frank was badly burned in a deadly school fire at 11, lost his first son to Cystic Fibrosis, received a diagnosis of paranoid-schizophrenia, lived in various institutions and on the streets, was randomly shot and blinded in his left eye, and, finally, died of cardiac arrest at age 56, penniless and still mostly unknown.")

The tale, with much more detail and tragic, heartbreaking photos of Frank very late in life, is told in fine liners in the essential compilation of most everything he ever recorded, Blues Run the Game, on Castle records. In addition to the only album released during his lifetime, which contains "Blues" and was produced very cleanly by Paul Simon, are recordings from the last years of his life. Essentially rescued from the streets by a fan, Frank took to the guitar after years of drifting, and the songs that came out sound like they're from an entirely different man. Although they're all basically in the same key and use similar arpeggios, they knock me down every time.

The essential article to read, after the liner notes, is from Folk Roots magazine, "Game, Set, Blues", which tells the tale of folk music fan Jim Abbott and his efforts to track down and help Frank.
Make sure to check out the Daytrotter sessions by iff favorites Richard Swift and Alela Diane. Kirstiecat was on hand at Swift's Chicago show to capture some photos for us.

I've been missing some shows lately I shouldn't. Daniel Johnston played Baltimore the other night. Brooklyn Vegan reports on a couple of Johnston shows, and a free Roky Erickson/Alejandro Escovedo show, in NYC.

Cognitive dissonance: the Merge blog has pics and setlist from a show on the unstoppable M. Ward/Norah Jones express.

Monday, May 14, 2007

New Release Tuesday

Karl Blau put out what might well have been my #11 record of 2006, Beneath the Waves on K. (I stopped counting at 10, but let's just say). I caught him opening for Laura Veirs and his mix of loops, yelps and unabashed love of a wide range of styles, and of mixing them together in wild, surprisingly accessible ways, made me an instant fan. His follow-up to Beneath the Waves is Dance Positive (buy it), which takes songs from D+ (a project whose members are Blau, the Microphones' Phil Elvrum and Bret Lunsford) and reimagines them with beats, loops and effects. The result is a record that comes in waves; at first, the low-key melodies barely escape the rhythm that's front and center, but after several listens sneak through. Blau's sneaky playfulness is muted but always lurking.

Jeff London is a singer-songwriter who's been releasing quality albums via Hush Records for a while. Earnest but never too much, London's acoustic tunes have got a pleasingly wistful quality, and his ragged vocals cut nicely against wanly optimistic lyrics. Fans of Kind Of Like Spitting and TW Walsh should especially pay attention. You can listen to three tracks from the new album Bane of Progress (buy it) at his website. "Long Island" is from his album Col. Summers Park.
Elsewhere, Loudon Wainright III completists can rejoice at the release of a CD set compiling his two long-lost 70s albums T-Shirt and Final Exam (buy it), previously only available on dog-eared vinyl.

Monday, May 07, 2007

New Release Tuesday

Kill Rock Stars brings the wider world more Elliott Smith with the release of early-period closet-cleaner New Moon (buy it), surely high on the list of most iff readers. There was a certain special wan delirium to the first records that got lost with the big production numbers. Can't wait to hear this.

MP3: Elliott Smith - High Times

On a lighter note: The Basement is positively rollicking with 60s country-rock charm and with the added bonus of an appealingly breathless lead singer, could be worth spinning this summer. Illicit Hugs and Playground Thugs (buy it) came out in the UK last year and sees stateside release via Zealous Records.

MP3: The Basement - Do You Think You're Movin' On?

Also out, and previously mentioned on iff: Shannon Wright's Let in the Light (buy it) and The Voyces' Kissing Like It's Love (buy it).

MP3: Shannon Wright - Everybody's Got Their Own Part to Play
MP3: The Voyces - Kissing Like It's Love

Monday shorts: saddest songs

There's a new Mark Eitzel live comp, Ten Years of Tears, featuring covers of Joy Division and Springsteen. New all-Eitzel blog The Invisible Blog has the scoop. Currently it's only available on import (I paid around 20 bucks American for my copy, en route) so you may want to wait for a domestic version.
Spinner has a list, with audio clips, of what they deem the 25 saddest songs, ever. What's more, it's mostly pretty good ("Space Oddity", "The River"), and even unpredictably deep: #15 is Chocolate Genius' great 1998 tune "My Mom" from his Eitzel-inflected album Black Music; Spinner also mentions he's been a sideman to Springsteen of late, which I didn't know; good on him. But the real shocker is at #1: The Pernice Brothers' "Chicken Wire", of all things: "Breathy Massachusetts sad sacks offer a lovely ballad about a woman choking to death on exhaust fumes ... and a cloud of minor chords." That's right, Joe and the boys edged out Martina McBride by nine slots!

But seriously, if you're digging that deep: no Eitzel? And what of Smog's "Left Only With Love", I ask?

Pitchfork has the roundup on a handful of upcoming dates from the Mountain Goats, including a couple of benefit shows in NY for the very worthy Farm Santuary charity, which "rescues animals from all kinds of situations and gives them a place to live out the natural terms of their lives in peace and tranquility." Darnielle is "still batting around the idea of a fan-constructed set where you give more donations the deeper into the back catalog you go. That set would probably be on Sunday [June 17]."

The 'fork also notes an upcoming Guilty Pleasures comp in which indie heroes cover the likes of Blue Oyster Cult and Cher. Luna doing Paula Abdul's "Straight Up" is clearly reason enough to get this.

Most critics are falling over themselves to praise the new Elliott Smith comp out tomorrow on KRS. It comes from the pre-big-band era, definitely his best.

As if the record store business wasn't doomed enough...this is completely crazy.

You can win free Leonard Cohen stuff from Salon if you send them some Cohen-related gushing by 5pm tomorrow.

The Ladybug Transistor is an always reliable source of retro-inflected pop goodness. They have a new album out June 5th on Merge, Can't Wait Another Day and a tour going on now; check out lead track "Three Days from Now".

Friday, May 04, 2007

Jessica Star Rockers: Beloved on Earth

Bainbridge Island, Washington, where singer-songwriter Jessica Star Rockers lives and where she recorded her album Beloved on Earth, was named the second-best place to live in the United States by CNN in 2005. On "Haunted", she sings matter-of-factly, "this life, this life has never been good", then "the lights are dark/we're living off generator power". There's a real sense of the rainy Pacific Northwest in the sound of Beloved on Earth, of claustrophobia and malaise, that confusion sometimes reigns in the best of situations. This is never overdone or self-pitying; there's just a recognition of everyday driftless feelings, made compelling by Rockers' sweet, unaffected vocals.

The basic recording features nothing but her voice, guitar, some effects, tape hiss, room noise, and the sound of fingers squeaking on the fretboard. This is a smart move, and it elevates the carefully understated songwriting to heights that studio production wouldn't approach.

Also of note here are two excellent covers. "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" comes across as everywoman Cat Power, stripping down the song to turn the celebration into a plaintive lament. And the lesser-known "If I Give My Soul", by Texas country legend Billy Joe Shaver, makes the most of every ringing note, turning the song into a harrowing, field recording spiritual.

In short, fans of smart, appealingly honest, and lo-fi should make a point to pick this up; it's a grower.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

New Release Tuesday: Gratuitous covers edition

Robbie Fulks has an enticing new double-live document, Revenge (buy it), with one disc a band rave-up and the other an acoustic affair. The latter features a cover of Cher's "Believe" (which you can listen to via Yep Roc's Media Room) and a duet with Kelly Hogan on the Carter Family's "Away out on the Old Saint Sabbath".
That's about all that caught my eye this week to seek out at the record shop. But one thing I have to recommend that came out a few months back is Saturday Looks Good to Me and Flashpap'r frontman Fred Thomas' solo album Sink Like a Symphony (buy it), full of ever-satisfying, sad la-la-la codas and lo-fi folk goodness that should heavily appeal to fans of Kind of Like Spitting, Bishop Allen and just plain good music. Big thumbs up.