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Posts Tagged ‘Death Cab For Cutie’

By Joel Francis

Remember, the best way to stay safe from the coronavirus is to stay home. And while you’re there, you may as well play some records. Here are some of mine.

The Temptations – Wish It Would Rain (1968) The seventh album by Motown’s soul stalwarts is groundbreaking in several ways. It was their final album with David Ruffin on vocals and Smokey Robinson producing. It’s also their last album to contain the classic Motown sound before producer Norman Whitfield (who is behind the boards for several tracks here) starting taking the Tempts down a more psychedelic path. The heartbreaking ballads “I Wish It Would Rain” and “I Could Never Love Another” were based on a real-life relationship that cut so deeply Robert Penzabene, who helped write both numbers, killed himself. The rest of the album stays along these themes of heartache and loss, but the Funk Brothers keep punching away, keeping the album from getting too somber. With Wish it Would Rain, the Temptations ended their classic lineup era on a high note and carried that momentum into the next psychedelic chapter.

Priests – The Seduction of Kansas (2019) The Washington D.C.-based punk trio named their second album after Thomas Frank’s book of the same name, an examination of why people – mainly conservatives in his thesis – vote against their own interests. The songs are more empathetic than angry, written as an attempt to bridge and understand the divide that has split America. Texturally, the album moves from a spacey, early Cure vibe on the paranoid “Not Percieved,” to the post-punk thump of revenge on “I’m Clean.” The final song, “Texas Instruments,” is my favorite cut. It discusses the whitewashing of history by looking at the story of the Lone Star state. Sample lyrics: “The hubris of propriety/Macy’s Day Parade history/Puff your chest up so we can see/Who brought the books you read?” Heady stuff to be sure, but the music keeps the feet entertained while the brain is engaged. Sadly, Priests went on an indefinite hiatus shortly after their tour behind this album wrapped. I hope this isn’t the last we hear from them.

Hearts of Darkness – self-titled (2010) Man, you could hardly go anywhere around Kansas City without bumping into either a member of Hearts of Darkness, someone talking about Hearts of Darkness or seeing a flier for an upcoming Hearts of Darkness. They won a spot at Farm Aid in 2011 and blew Snoop Dogg off the stage as an opening act that same year. Watching the 15-piece Afrobeat group perform was like standing on the launch pad as a rocket takes off. The band’s energy was matched only by the amount of smiles generated. Hearts of Darkness released another album in 2012 and then gradually tapered off. According to their ReverbNation site the group’s most recent show was in 2017. High time for a comeback.

White Stripes – Icky Thump (2007) After expanding their sound on Get Behind Me Satan, the White Stripes’ previous album, Icky Thump was the sound of the duo getting back to a straightforward rock sound. This isn’t the garage rock they perfected on early albums, however, but a more spacious arena-ready sound reflecting the larger venues they were now commanding. A cover of Patti Page’s “Conquest” remains a divisive song among fans, but other singles like the title track and the stomp of “Rag and Bone” make up for this misstep. It would have been interesting to see where Jack and Meg White would have taken their sound after this album. Icky Thump sounds like pair were getting back to basics and regrouping before deciding where to go next. Unfortunately, Meg White called it quits after the tour wrapped. We’ll never know what the next chapter may have held.

Jackson Browne – Running on Empty (1977) Put the iconic title track that opens this album and the magnificent medley of “The Load Out/Stay” that closes the record. There’s some pretty weird stuff happening in the other 30 minutes of this album. Cocaine shows up in nearly a third of the songs. “Rosie” is a tribute to a groupie. (Sample lyric: “She was sniffing all around/like a half-grown female pup.” Classy, Jackson.) There are a couple songs about the loneliness and desolation on the road, one of which was actually recorded on Browne’s tour bus as it hummed toward the next gig. Its like Browne decided to turn Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page” into a concept album. I won’t say it doesn’t work, but take away the first and last cut and there’s not much to make Running on Empty into more than a one-night stand.

Radiohead – The Bends (1995) If this is your first time encountering The Bends, you are in store for a tremendous experience. If it is not, feel free to use this as an excuse to play it again. So much has been written about Radiohead and The Bends, I don’t know that I have much to add. I will say that The Bends was gripping the first time I heard it and continues to reveal new layers a generation later.

Death Cab for Cutie – Plans (2005) One of the best moments at a Death Cab for Cutie concert is when the band exits the stage, leading singer Ben Gibbard alone to sing “I Will Follow You Into the Dark” with his acoustic guitar. This heartfelt, darkly romantic ballad has been a staple on mixes and playlists by the angst-filled and lovelorn from the day Plans was released. There are several other great songs to be found here as well. “Soul Meets Body” and “Crooked Teeth” are perfect slices of indie rock and the rest isn’t far behind. Plans isn’t Death Cab’s best album, but it has definitely earned a place on the medal platform.

The New Pornographers – Together (2010) Together was the first New Pornographers album that didn’t excite me when it was released. It felt like the band was having to work too hard to develop the delightful power pop that made the group’s first three albums so wonderful. That their sound was becoming a crutch. In retrospect, I think I was too hard on the album. Granted, the band isn’t breaking any new ground but there are several genuinely great songs here, such as the delicate “Valkyrie in the Roller Disco,” (How’s that for title?) “Crash Years” and Dan Bejar’s always-skewed songwriting on “Jenny Silver Dollar.” Together may be a holding pattern, but if this is what it took to get to Brill Bruisers, their next release, a classic on par with the Pornographer’s early material, then it was worth the stop.

Dinosaur Jr. – I Bet on Sky (2012) The third album after Dinosaur Jr.’s reunion is cut from the same cloth as their previous release, Farm. More of the same isn’t a bad thing, though. Not when you’ve got J. Mascis’s guitar ripping through the speaker with bass player Lou Barlow and drummer Murph right behind him, chasing Mascis like he owes them money.  You’ll know within the first 30 seconds if you like this album. If you do, the full listen won’t be enough. Fortunately, the Boston-based trio has left us several more platters, just like this one.

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(Above: Author Greg Kot discusses his book “Ripped” in this 30-minute radio interview.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

When I was in graduate school I wrote my précis – an abridged thesis – on how the internet was changing the music industry. It was an exciting time. Napster was in full swing and Metallica’s lawsuit was not only breaking news, but new research ripe for my writing. (Incidentally, the record industry’s great hope at the time was to create a new type of CD that could not be copied or ripped to computer.) I was praised for my paper, but the research did not age well. Barely two years after graduation, its findings were horribly outdated.

Greg Kot fares much better in his recent book “Ripped” How the Wired Generation Revolutionized Music.” Published in 2009, he takes the long view on the digital evolution of the past decade. The book opens with an overview of how the major labels wound up on the wrong side of their consumers at the turn of the century. In the first three chapters, Kot covers the consolidations that homogenized commercial radio and placed extra emphasis on the major labels’ profit margins; the labels’ revolt against the payola system they built and established; and how labels quashed their artists’ efforts to embrace the Internet.

That’s a lot to cover in 50 pages, but Kot is wise not to belabor these points. Other books – notably Steve Knopper’s “Appetite for Self-Destruction,” which appeared a few months earlier – cover this ground in far more depth. Kot’s summary provides a nice launching pad for the real meat of his book, namely how the net has allowed artists and fans to connect in unexpected ways with unexpected results.

Today Prince is a punching bag for declaring the internet “completely over,” but his actions in the mid-‘90s laid the groundwork for the path Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails and other bands currently follow. Walking away from his contract with Warner Bros., Prince built a network with his fans where he would release music directly to them, at a pace he dictated. Without the modern digital infrastructure, distribution was often slow and frustrating. It is puzzling that yesterday’s visionary opted out just when technology became the most accommodating.

Kot also discusses how the internet helped Wilco and Death Cab For Cutie develop an online cult following and how that translated to mainstream success. Another chapter is devoted to the impact of Pitchfork and other online tastemakers. The book ends with the stories of Lily Allen, Nine Inch Nail’s Trent Reznor and Radiohead and how their business models have turned the industry on its head.

A music critic and reporter for the Chicago Tribune, Kot draws on his day job to incorporate first-hand quotes delivered in the heat of the moment. Putting the reader in the speaker’s mind in real time keeps the stories fresh and makes the linear exposition more exciting. Very little is revealed through hindsight; the reader gets everything as it occurs.

“Ripped” shares many traits with Thomas Freidman’s 2006 exploration of the online paradigm “The World is Flat.” Both books hold few revelations for readers who followed the events unfold in real time, but are also handy encapsulations of everything that has occurred. At the same time, they are immensely in explaining to the uninitiated how we got to where we are. Whether “Ripped” deserves a spot on the bookshelf or a visit to the library depends on the reader’s level of knowledge. Either way, it is worth reading.

Keep reading:

Review – “Record Store Days”

Radiohead Rock St. Louis

Review – “King of the Queen City”

Review: Wilco returns to the Crossroads (2009)

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Expect a ‘faster and louder’ show at the Bleeding Kansas Festival.

Cover story, Kansas City Star, August 03, 2006

By Joel Francis

Elvis Costello, Atlantic Records, Franz Ferdinand and Lollapalooza have at least one thing in common: Death Cab for Cutie.
The Seattle band had been building a loyal fan base since 1998 when last year it signed to Atlantic Records and released the album “Plans.” The fans rejoiced when the big label association didn’t alter the music. In fact, the band wasn’t done pushing its core conceptions.
“We knew full well when we signed (with Atlantic) that we didn’t have to,” said keyboard player, guitarist and producer Chris Walla. “If they didn’t give us what we wanted, they wouldn’t get us. What we wanted was to be able to do exactly what we were doing but with more resources and access to people.”
Walla and the rest of the band — singer, guitarist and chief songwriter Ben Gibbard, bassist Nick Harmer and drummer Jason McGerr — are headlining the Bleeding Kansas Arts & Music Festival at Burcham Park in Lawrence on Saturday. The steamy outdoor setting isn’t ideal for “Plans,” an album best suited for rainy afternoons indoors.
“We’re not performancy performers. There are no rock-star moves or laser shows,” Walla said. “Festivals are difficult for us because there are so many ‘X’ factors. We just turn it up and play faster and louder than we would otherwise.”
The more popular Death Cab gets, however, the more it plays in places that serve thousands of fans than it does intimate clubs. In June, Death Cab played Bonnaroo; Friday the band plays Lollapalooza in Chicago. In both places, Walla said, the band will adjust.
“It’s a different mind-set,” he said. “The whole performance from the stage keeps having to get bigger and bigger to reach the back of the places we’re playing.”
That’s not the only adjustment fans have had to make. It recently toured with Franz Ferdinand, whose frenetic disco rock is the complete opposite of Death Cab’s introspective, mellow sound.
“It was an exercise in counterpoint,” Walla said. “Franz could go out with American Hi-Fi or the Arctic Monkeys, but how much of one thing do you need?”
The bands were already mutual fans and quickly embraced the idea, alternating opening and closing nights.
“If we were the first band up that night, we’d start big, but if Franz would open then we’d start out super quiet,” Walla said. “We bring it back as far as we could. To highlight and contrast (the two bands) just seemed to be the thing to do.”
Death Cab recently performed with Elvis Costello for VH1’s televised “Legends” concert.
“It was especially exciting for me because Elvis Costello, Talking Heads and the first few XTC albums are my bread and butter,” Walla said. “It was difficult to find a song that made sense to us and that we could play (with Costello). It would be completely inappropriate for us to play anything from ‘This Year’s Model.’ I wanted to play ‘Peace in Our Time,’ but it didn’t work out.”
In the end, “Accidents Will Happen” and “Kinder Murder” won out.
So what are the consequences of all this mingling with strange bedfellows and playing huge festivals?
“Our musical direction right now is pretty static,” he said. “We’re just playing shows. There are no new songs or decisions about the next record.”
For a band that has been as adventurous as Death Cab has been lately, static is a new direction.

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