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Posts Tagged ‘The Decemberists’

By Joel Francis

The nice weather is giving me a different type of spring fever. I miss baseball and concerts and hanging out with friends. Thankfully, there is always music. Let’s dive back into the stacks.

Dave Douglas and High Risk – Dark Territory (2016) A few years ago, it felt like there was a trend, or maybe it was a micro-trend, of acoustic jazz musicians performing with electronic musicians. Pianist Brad Mehldau did it with drummer Mark Guiliana and trumpet player Dave Douglas collaborated with electronic artist Shigeto for two albums under the High Risk moniker. Both projects were mostly rewarding and enjoyable. I had the good fortune to see High Risk play at the Iowa City Jazz Festival in support of their first album. Watching Shigeto respond to Douglas’ playing, and then hearing how the rhythm section responded to their interplay was fascinating. I know there can be an easy temptation to assume electronic musicians pre-program beats and melodies and the acoustic musicians shape their music around that, but High Risk was a true live collaboration.  Dark Territory is the most recent High Risk album but I’m still holding onto hope that we might get another album from them at some point. I also hope more musicians explore this concept.

The Clash – Cut the Crap (1985)
Various artists – Recutting the Crap, Vol. 1 (2017)
Various artists – Recutting the Crap, Vol. 2/The Future Was Unwritten (2018) The final album from the seminal punk group The Clash is a mess, not even a hot mess. The conventional thinking is that solid songs were killed by poor (over)production. The good folks at Crooked Beat Records, a shop I used to visit regularly when I had relatives in Washington, D.C., tested this theory by rounding up several local bands to put their spin on the material written after guitarist Mick Jones was fired from the band and manager Bernie Rhodes assumed more control over the group’s music. It looks solid on paper and in truth it’s not bad on record, either. However, the thesis doesn’t hold up for a couple reasons. First, I don’t think all of the songs are as strong as they could be. Joe Strummer didn’t have Jones there to bounce ideas off and push him to improve the material. Secondly, the Clash are a hard band to cover. Sure, you can get the chords right and nail the lyrics, but the non-musical elements – the hunger, the spirit, the righteousness – can’t be taught or copied. You either have them or you don’t. A lot of big-name acts learned this the hard way on the disastrous Burning London tribute album back in 1999. 

Recutting the Crap is best when Cut the Crap is its worst; the lesser known, underdeveloped materials. The tribute runs into problems on “This Is England,” easily the best song on Cut the Crap, and the bonus album of songs that could have been Clash songs. Joe Strummer’s solo contributions to soundtracks and his collaborations with Mick Jones in Big Audio Dynamite. Here, the original material is so strong that the covers, however well-intentioned, come off as pale covers.

Both Cut the Crap and Recutting the Crap are interesting endeavors, but each fall short of the goal line for different reasons.

Sonic Youth – Dirty (1992) The NYC noise rockers found the perfect balance between their early indie releases and having a major label budget (and promotion) on Dirty, their seventh album. “Sugar Kane” and “Wish Fulfillment” strike the balance between melody and discord. “Youth Against Fascism” and “Chapel Hill” have a strong political message as urgent and unruly as what Rage Against the Machine was doing at the time (albeit with a different musical approach). Then there are savage cuts like “Drunken Butterfly” and “Purr” that no doubt confounded the record label executives. The deluxe edition I own contains two extra LPs containing b-sides and rehearsal tracks. A cover of Alice Cooper’s “Is It My Body” sung by Kim Gordon picks up the same feminist string as the Dirty album track“Swimsuit Issue.” A sideways tribute to the New York Dolls on “Personality Crisis” is a hoot. The works-in-progress recordings fill out the story of Dirty, but they’re not interesting enough on their own to keep me turning back to them as often as the album.

Dirty is my favorite major-label era Sonic Youth album. It’s likely that even casual Sonic Youth fans will get Dirty frequently. Anyone nostalgic for the early ‘90s alt-rock scene should check it out as well.

John Coltrane – Ballads (1963) Entire books and doctoral theses have been written about John Coltrane’s genius. I’m not sure I have anything to add, except to say that hearing Coltrane perform with his classic quartet – and especially McCoy Tyner, who we talked about way back on Day 2, is always a deep pleasure. Listening to him hold back the sheets of sound for this slower material provides yet another layer of reward. Put this on after a stressful day for the perfect lull in the storm.

U2 – Pop (1997) U2’s PopMart tour marked the first time I saw the band in concert, so I’m a little biased toward this album. Pop also feels like the last moment that U2 stopped trying to be U2 and while I enjoy several of their albums after this, they also feel very safe and calculated. At the time it came out, recording for the album ran late, cutting into tour rehearsal time and resulting in a rush-released product. You can still hear the effects of this today because the album feels disjointed. I think listening to Pop on vinyl improves the experience because there are forced pauses in the music between sides. The first side contains the opening three hard dance songs. More gentle, acoustic numbers comprise most of the second side, segueing into the most experimental (and weakest) material on the third side (“Miami” and “The Playboy Mansion”). Pop ends with three atmospheric, contemplative tracks on the final side. Being able to concentrate on one style of song at a time gives the album an extended EP feel, which helps it. Regardless how you feel about Pop, the sound of U2 swinging for the fences and missing here is still vastly preferable to the weak bunts and sacrifice fly balls they’ve been serving up for the most part ever since.

The Decemberists – What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World (2015) The seventh album from the Portland, Ore., indie rockers was also the first release that they sounded like themselves for a while. They went all-in on the proggy concept album “The Hazards of Love,” then responded with the very poppy and folky The King is Dead (which we discussed back on Day 18). Finally, the pendulum arrived back in the middle for this excellent release. Several moments, including “Cavalry Captain” and “Mistral,” recall the high points of their early albums. They break the fourth wall on opening number “The Singer Addresses His Audience,” which comes across as a more academic (and less fun) version of “The Wilco Song,” only with references to Axe shampoo. The centerpiece is “12/17/12,” a response to the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School that leaves me with a lump in my throat every time. This is a good place to start if you are curious about the band. Longtime Decemberists fans will find much to love here as well.

The White Stripes – The White Stripes XX (2019) Arriving just in time for the 20th anniversary of the White Stripes’ debut album, this look back includes a record of studio outtakes from the album’s studio recording sessions, and a set from the duo’s tour opening for Pavement. (A DVD documents an additional show from that year.) The platter of outtakes reveal a couple items of curiosity. The is an early version of “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground,” which wouldn’t appear until the band’s third album. The smoking version of “Little Red Book” is nearly worth the price of admission on its own. The most surprising thing about the live set is that it exists at all. If you listened to the first season of the Striped podcast, you may remember that the Stripes were essentially driving themselves to these shows and losing money in doing so. It’s amazing that Jack and Meg had the money and foresight to roll tape on these gigs at all. The other revelation is how fully formed their sound is, right off the bat. The recording is a little distant, but the essence of the band that ended up playing arenas around the world is very present on this tiny club stage. Ultimately, there’s nothing here that replaces the raw, honest goodness of the White Stripes’ first album (with the exception of that “Little Red Book.” Yowza!) but the material here is the perfect complement. A dig through the detritus for those who want it.

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By Joel Francis

Saturdays and Sundays are for family time. I think the trend of fewer weekend spins and a combined entry spanning Friday through Sunday will continue going forward.

The Dirtbombs – Ultraglide in Black (2001) Musically speaking, the Motor City is best known for two groundbreaking styles of music: Motown, of course, and the raw rock and roll that would become punk, pioneered by the MC5 and Stooges. The Dirtbombs combine both of these genres masterfully on this tribute to their hometown. Hearing Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye get a layer of scuzzy guitars and blown-out drums not only casts the songs in a new light but is a pure delight. If you like Detroit music, heck if you’ve ever driven a Ford, you’ll find something to like here.

I saw the Dirtbombs touring in support of another album, several years after Ultraglide came out. The show started after midnight and there were about a dozen people in the audience. It was fantastic.

The Temptations – All Directions (1972) Before taking the compass to All Directions, let’s pause for a moment and marvel at the industriousness of the Motown machine. All Directions was the first of two Temptations releases in 1972. Overall, it was their 16th studio album (counting two full-length collaborations with the Supremes) in only eight years. Think about that for a moment. In less than a decade, they went from “The Way You Do the Things You Do” to “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone.” Wow!

“Papa” is the standout track here, a No. 1 hit on the U.S pop charts, but the rest of the album isn’t a bunch of cast-offs. “Funky Music Sho Nuff Turns Me On” starts the album with a faux-concert intro before the five Tempts trade lead vocals a la “Ball of Confusion.” Album closer “Do Your Thing” is a rare example of Motown covering Stax. The version of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” won’t make anyone forget Roberta Flack, but newcomer Richard Street handles it well. After this album, the Temptations took a whole seven months off (during which they were no doubt touring) before releasing their next album.

Tom Petty – Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough) (1987)

Tom Petty – The Last DJ (2002) Last autumn, I was on a business trip with the better part of a day to burn in Gainesville, Fla. Knowing that was Tom Petty’s home town, I did some online sleuthing and found several Petty-related points of interest to visit. The night I got in, I was walking around a nice little square of shops near my hotel when a sign caught my eye: Lillian’s Music Store. I had to go in. As I ordered my drink the bartender who gave me the scoop: Lillian’s hadn’t been a music store for some time (it claims to be the oldest bar in Gainesville) but kept the former occupant’s business name. Which is why on the song “Dreamville,” the third track on The Last DJ, Petty sings “Goin’ down to Lillian’s music store/To buy a black diamond string/Gonna wind it up on my guitar/Gonna make that silver sing.”

Now, the larger question is this: If I am going to buy a drink at Lillian’s Music Store chiefly because it appears in a Tom Petty lyric, as a Clash fan am I likewise obliged to get inked at the Death Or Glory tattoo parlor? The answer of course, is yes. And yet it didn’t happen. My apologies, Mick and Joe.

One more quick note about Lillian’s. They had these weird heavy, glass dishes that I hadn’t seen for several years scattered around inside. Ashtrays. Because indoor smoking is still cool in Florida, I guess. All my clothes smelled afterward and I had to double-bag them so they wouldn’t reek into the rest of my luggage.

A couple quick thoughts about the music on these albums before moving on, because this is already running long. Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough) contains one of my favorite Petty deep tracks, “Runaway Trains.” It has very ‘80s production and feels almost more like an adult contemporary tune closer to something Sting or Steve Winwood would come up with than anything in the Heartbreakers catalog. I love it because it is so unusual and has those great Petty lyrics and singing. This album also has “It Will All Work Out,” one of my all-time favorite Petty songs. The Last DJ is excellent, except for the song “Joe,” which is my least favorite Petty song. It sounds like a demo that should have been scrapped in the studio. You should still own both albums.

David Bowie – Station to Station (1976) One of many favorite moments from catching David Bowie’s concert on the Reality tour during its stop in Kansas City, Mo. was watching him hang out on the side of the stage, arms holding on to the scaffolding, grooving along to as his band churned through the long instrumental introduction to “Station to Station.” It was the first song in the encore set and for those minutes, Bowie was just another music fan, like all of us in the crowd.

Bowie claimed to have no memories of making this album, but Station to Station’s detached, synthesized paranoia paved a direct path to Joy Division.  Single “TVC15” was durable enough to find a spot in Bowie’s Live Aid set nearly a decade later and his cover of “Wild is the Wind” is an touching showcase of Bowie’s vocal talent. An essential addition to any rock fan’s music collection.

Elvis Costello – Imperial Bedroom (1982) Elvis Costello’s seventh album concludes an incredible opening run with the country tribute Almost Blue as the only misstep. (Almost Blue doesn’t miss because of the genre – the songs and performances just aren’t as strong as on the surrounding albums.) Former Beatles engineer pulls several tricks out of George Martin’s playbook with his gorgeous production arrangements. I love the orchestral countermelody on “And in Every Home” and what sounds like a sitar on “Human Hands.” Not every song is dressed up. “Tears Before Bedtime” and “Man Out of Town” have a pared-down Attractions sound that could have come from Trust, Costello’s previous album. It’s not hard to imagine bands like the Decemberists obsessing over Imperial Bedroom and coming away with dozens of ideas. Costello wouldn’t stay in this baroque mood for long, however. By the next album (and year) he had moved on to a more modern sheen and added the TKO Horns for Punch the Clock.

Lana Del Rey – Norman Fucking Rockwell (2019) Lana Del Rey got a lot of buzz when her album Born to Die came out nearly a decade ago. I watched her on Saturday Night Live, eager to hear what the fuss was about and sampled her debut album before dismissing her as a joke trying too hard to be ironic (and iconic). NFR is the album that finally won me over. Del Rey has built her catalog almost exclusively on torch songs, but here she does them really, really well. Early in the album, the sweeping guitars at the end of “Mariners Apartment Complex” lead right into “Venice Bitch,” which slowly builds into a psychedelic meltdown. Later, Del Rey delivers one of the sexiest music nerd songs ever on “The Next Best American Record.” Don’t ever say she doesn’t know her demographic. The super-profane opening couplet that opens the album belongs in the poetry hall of fame as a stand-alone lyric. I don’t know how long LDR will be able to hold me, but she definitely got me with NFR.

Slobberbone – Bees and Seas: The Best of Slobberbone (compilation) Alt-country fans lamenting the end of Uncle Tupelo need look no further than Slobberbone. The questionably named quartet from Texas perform with the same reckless abandoned that fueled UT classics “Screen Door” and “Gun.” This two record set devotes roughly one side to each of the band’s four albums. The band remains remarkably consistent in sound a quality throughout. There are no detours into horn sections or bagpipes and Brent Best’s songwriting via scenes of everyday life never fail to suck me in. Sadly, like Uncle Tupelo, Slobberbone is no longer releasing new material. Unlike their forebearers, though, Best and company frequently reunite and tour.

The Kinks – Face to Face (1966) As the Fab Four started to migrate toward more intricate, artistic material, the Kinks stepped right into the void, albeit with a more garage-y sound. Straightforward rockers “Party Line” and “Rosie Won’t You Please Come Home” set the album off strong, but Ray Davies takes a couple surprising turns with the Indian instruments on “Fancy” and faux-Hawaiian guitars on “Holiday in Waikiki,” a charming tale about winning a holiday in the Pacific. “Dandy” is the type of music hall number only an Englishman could write (and probably stomach – it’s much to cloying for me). Several years ago, I was fortunate to hear Ray Davies perform “Sunny Afternoon,” my favorite song from Face to Face, in concert. It remains an enduring memory of a fantastic night.

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By Joel Francis

The journey through my record collection continues.

Pet Shop Boys – Actually (1987) The Pet Shop Boys’ second album is the strongest in their still-growing catalog (Behaviour is a close second). Come for the hit singles and stick around for the album cuts, like the Kraftwerk-inspired “Shopping” and “It Couldn’t Happen Here,” the moody track based on an Ennio Morricone melody that opens the second side. Still not convinced? This is the album with the glorious Dusty Springfield duet “What Have I Done to Deserve This?” That alone makes Actually worth owning. While the other nine songs aren’t as strong (how could they?), Actually is filler-free dance/pop perfection.

Daniel Lanois – Goodbye to Language (2016) As a producer, Daniel Lanois has worked on some of my all-time favorite albums by Bob Dylan, Peter Gabriel, Emmylou Harris, Neil Young and Robbie Robertson. (We talked about his work on the Neville Brothers’ Yellow Moon back on Day 9.) The sound on Goodbye to Language is closer to Lanois’ ambient work with Brian Eno than his commercial endeavors. The premise is simple. Lanois’ pedal steel playing is recorded and treated by Rocco DeLuca. The result is an ethereal dream guaranteed to release stress. Put this on and let yourself go.

The Decemberists – The King is Dead (2011) I jumped on the Decemberists bandwagon with their video for “Sixteen Military Wives,” which reminded me of Rushmore. Two albums later, I feared they got lost in their own mythology for the ponderous concept album The Hazards of Love. Fortunately, I was wrong. The King is Dead is everything Hazards wasn’t: succinct, buoyant, humorous, fun. That a few songs sounded like peak-era R.E.M. (“Calamity Song,” “Down by the Water”) or Tom Petty circa Wildflowers (“Don’t Carry It All”) doesn’t help. It may be easier to play spot-the-influence with The King is Dead than on the band’s other releases, but the sound is still filtered through singer/songwriter Colin Meloy’s grad school tweed and spectacles, making it distinctly the Decemberists.

Miles Davis – My Funny Valentine (1965)

Miles Davis – Four and More (1966) Both of these albums draw from the same 1964 performance at Philharmonic Hall in New York City. The ballads went on Valentine and the uptempo numbers were relegated to Four and More. By the time Four and More was released, Miles had moved on from his modal sound and was about to reinvent jazz once again. Less progressive fans probably enjoyed this look back at the time. Pianist Herbie Hancock was only 23 and drummer Tony Williams just 18 at the time of this performance, but both play with a confidence and ambition beyond their years. These are probably the best performances of saxophone player George Coleman in Miles’ band. He tends to get overlooked between tenures of John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter. The quartet lingers on the ballads, drawing out every note, particularly on the 15-minute title cut. Conversely, they blast through the chords on “So What” and “Seven Steps to Heaven” with almost careless speed.  FYI, the entire concert was finally released as originally performed on CD in 1992.

James Brown – Live at the Apollo, Volume II (1968) Five years after the first Live at the Apollo album propelled James Brown off the chitlin circuit, Brown returned to the same venue but in a different place musically. The R&B that defined the first Apollo album was giving way to funk on the sequel. Songs like a hard-driving “Kansas City” and “Think” (with Kansas City, Kan. native Marva Whitney) showed Brown’s roots, while “Cold Sweat” and “Bring It Up” point the way forward. The 11-minute version of “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” is one-third as long as the original half-hour Apollo release. So the sequel isn’t as concise, but it captures the Hardest Working Man in Show Business in prime form.

Alejandro Escovedo – With These Hands (1996) Alejandro Escovedo is an undiscovered treasure. His songwriting deftly slides between different settings, from string quartet to country, Latin American to raw rock. For his third album, Escovedo enlists Willie Nelson and his harmonica player Mickey Raphael, cousin Shelia E and singer Jennifer Warnes. Despite these high-profile guests, the spotlight remains firmly on Escovedo and his masterful songs. From the moody opener of rocker “Put You Down” through “Tugboat,” a dedication to Velvet Underground guitarist Sterling Morrison that ends the record, there isn’t a bad song to be found.

Pearl Jam – Yield (1998) “Wishlist,” the next-to-last song on the first side of Yield, is my favorite Pearl Jam song. It’s simple, quiet and understated with none of the bombast of “Alive” or even “Given to Fly,” the song that precedes “Wishlist” on Yield. This album marks the first time the Seattle quintet returned to the meat-and-potatoes hard rock without any artistic detours. Although 2009’s Backspacer produced better results mining this same vein, Yield is still a good, direct hard rock album.

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(Above: “The Rake Song,” a standout cut from “The Hazards of Love.”)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

What you thought of Wednesday night’s concert by the Decemberists at the Uptown Theater is largely based on your opinion of the band’s latest release, “The Hazards of Love.”

The Portland-based lit-rockers played the album in its entirety during the first set of their 2-hour, 15-minute set. That meant fans who weren’t familiar with the record (or just wanted the old stuff) had to wait over an hour before the band gave them the goods.“The Hazards of Love” isn’t a standard catalog entry. It’s a full-on concept album that nearly buckles under its own weight. The story involves a woman in love with a changeling who lives in the forest and gets kidnapped by a jealous queen. Somehow an angry rake is also involved.

And while the Decemberists had hints of progressive rock in their music before, they have now embraced it completely. “Hazards” isn’t too far from the being the indie equivalent of “Tales of Topgraphic Oceans.” In other words, the evening needed a huge caveat before the first note was played.

But what a note it was. Organist Jenny Conlee took the stage alone pumping huge cords out of her B3 organ as her bandmates slowly joined her. The music shifted from acoustic numbers to heavy blues-based Black Sabbath riffs, country and canticles as different themes and characters were introduced.

To help with their production, the quintet enlisted Becky Stark of Lavender Diamond and Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond to play the beau and queen. Both artists were committed to their roles. Stark wore an all-white, flowing princess dress and would sway back and forth and gently swing her arms when her character appeared in the plot. Worden, whose band opened for the Decemberists last time they were in town, succeeded in her efforts to look and sound sinister.

While delivering the unabridged “Hazards of Love” may not be the most palatable approach, in hindsight it is understandable. Each number was largely dependent on the songs around it. Only a few numbers might have stood alone.

“The Wanting Comes In Waves” has a great pop chorus that ultimately serves as the climax to the tale. “The Rake Song” found everyone on stage, save songwriter/frontman Colin Meloy and bass player Nate Query banging on small drum sets placed throughout the stage. The power of those four additional drummers brought the hammer of the gods to the song.

“Margaret in Captivity” was another highlight. Backlit by a huge white light, Stark looked ethereal as the band played an intriguing melody that unfortunately shared the same chord changes as Bon Jovi’s “Dead or Alive.”

Meloy’s “thank you” at the end of “Hazards” was his first acknowledgement of the audience. However, after the half-hour break, Meloy returned as his usual loquacious self.

The band came back sans Stark and Worden took their time delivering favorites from across their catalog, stopping to tell jokes, organizing sing-alongs, explaining their songs and goading the audience. Before they played “Oceanside” Meloy explained what an ocean is because “I know that many of you have never seen an ocean. It’s much bigger than your muddy Missouri (River).”

Nearly every song in the second hour was greeted with big applause and loud singing. The crowd especially got into “Dracula’s Daughter,” the unreleased number Meloy called his worst song ever. That flowed right into “O Valencia,” which got the biggest response of the night.

At the end of “Valencia,” Worden and Stark snuck back onstage as a single spotlight focused on Meloy playing a familiar Spanish-tinged solo on his acoustic guitar. Suddenly the stage lit up and the rest of the band hit the riff to Heart’s “Crazy On You.” Worden and Stark threw themselves into their new roles as Ann and Nancy Wilson, showing off some great rock and roll pipes.

The encore kicked off with Meloy delivering a solo acoustic reading of the love song “Red Right Ankle.” That was followed by “A Cautionary Song,” which found everyone but Meloy, Query and Conlee parading through the audience with drums, tambourines and other percussion. Somehow Meloy orchestrated that maneuver into a lighthearted restaging of “Lawrence of Arabia.”

Whatever. Anyone who sat through an hour of music involving a rake and bought a ticket for something the band called “A Short Fazed Hovel Tour” was definitely up for anything thrown at them.

| Joel Francis, Special to The Star

Setlist: The “Hazards of Love” album. Intermission. Oceanside; July July!; Billy Liar; We Both Go Down Together;The Engine Driver; The Sporting Life; Dracula’s Daughter; O Valencia; Crazy On You; Encore: Red Right Ankle ; A Cautionary Song

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