Category Archives: Music

Your Wilco Ranks are Rank

binkleyOkay Pal.  So you made the definitive list of Wilco albums from worst to best.  Fine.  I won’t stand in your way.  I won’t provide the definitely definitive list in opposition to yours.  Fret not dear Pal, your album assessment remains unchanged in the order with which you placed them.  However, as a long-standing member of the League of Canadian Contrarians, I wouldn’t be doing my official league duties if I didn’t explain in detail how every single one of your rankings could be flawed. So that’s what I’ll do.

Let me just warn you.  I’m gonna be mean.  I’ll throw your arguments back in your face. I’ll provide the obligatory comparisons to Radiohead using irrelevant Rock ‘n’ Roll precedence to disprove your arguments. Most importantly, I’ll provide my own personal view on Wilco and what these albums mean to me.

Just like you, I would like to establish a few guiding principles before I start railing on you and unfairly judge a most excellent Rock Band:

  1. There is no bad Wilco album
  2. I am a Dad + I Rock = I am into Dad Rock.
  3. Despite your best intentions, you got everything wrong

Boy-oh-boy did you mess this list up, Pal.  Below are all the reasons why.

In a very particular order……yours

10 – SCMILCO (2016)

I wonder who destroys

schmilco.jpgI understand your instinct to put this album as their worst, but I think you are clouded by all the greatness of other Wilco contributions that your baseline is way off.  The expectation bar was set so high by this point that its greatness left you flat and wanting more. However, if you put any one of these songs on another Wilco album, like Being There, that song would stand out as a highlight for sure.  This album is like if Wilco was playing in your fucking living room. How could you put Wilco playing in your living room as the worst thing Wilco every produced. That experience deserves 7 at the least. The one thing I would say is that those songs do play better live. I was really digging them when we heard them at Massey Hall.  They came across as louder and more aggressive that they do on Scmilco, but it’s still not the worst.

9 – STAR WARS (2015)

I kind of like it when I make you cry

star_wars_wilco1This, my sweet Pal, might be your biggest mistake.  Star Wars is pretty much perfect. It’s a tight set of kick ass gems that work so incredibly well together, it just can’t be second last.  In a strange way Star Wars stands outside of this list holding a special status all to itself.  Perhaps because of its brevity or perhaps because we saw them perform the whole album live.  Either way, this album can not be denied.  It is the high standard of Dad Rock.  It pays homage to the quintessential kid movie from my generation, it has a weird dorky cover, and every track fucking kicks ass.  “Random Name Generator” is an instant classic. You compared Wilco to Radiohead in your post.  I will do the same by drawing similarities to this album and In Rainbows in both its lush driving sound, its brevity, and its Rock prowess. Definitively not second last, man. Get your head out of your ass!

8 – A.M. (1995)

I don’t think you even understand

amI hate to do it.  I really didn’t want to put their first album as the worst, but, I think in this case you have to.  You’re right, though.  I am one of those people who rarely play A.M.  As you state, it has a lot of great stuff on it, but it reflects a band yet to be realized.  With a band progression such as Wilco’s, it is incorrect not to put their first at ‘low bar’ status. I consider it insulting not to. It is like spitting on Jeff Tweedy’s guitar.  Way to go, Pal.  You just spit on Jeff Tweedy’s Gibson SG by not putting this album as the worst one they ever made.  Another flub.

7 – THE WHOLE LOVE (2011)

No standing O O O

whole-loveThis may not be your biggest mistake, but it is probably the biggest beef I have with your list.  You say this album is overrated, eh? ‘Dems fighting words.  The Whole Love is a behemoth. It’s like walking up to Kareem Abdul Jabbar and saying, “you’re not so tall.” This album is gorgeous and expansive.  I would strongly consider it for Number 4. Definitely top 5.  Starting with “Art of Almost” it’s got the best of their out-there Art Rock Intros.  I am talking about songs like “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”, “At Least That’s What’s you Said”, “Misunderstood”, and “Sunken Treasure”.  Like Kareem, “Art of Almost” towers over all others, asserting its dominance at every moment.  And yes, that was the best intro to a live Wilco show we had ever seen. The next track on this glorious album is “I Might”.  It’s hard driving and jaunty, full of dark motifs delivered with that trademark Wilco subdued joy. I contend it is one of the best Wilco songs ever written. An assertion that could be made about many other song on this album like “Standing O”, “Whole Love”, or “One Sunday Morning”. Let’s pop a squat on that last song. “One Sunday Morning” is a song that I could listen to forever and never tire of it.  If that song was on a constant loop in my head, I think I would be smiling all my days.

6 – WILCO (THE ALBUM) (2009)

By the end of the bout, he was punched out

wilco-the-albumYou were right in admitting you are wrong about this album, but I argue that you are more wronger than you think you are.  This album has it all.  Great melodies, fantastic hooks, aggressive guitars and musical restraint.  It all results in some of Wilco’s catchiest song-writing.  I remember reading that Jeff Tweedy thought this was the best album Wilco had made to date.  I suspect it was because of how mature the song writing is.  Songs like “Deeper Down”, “You and I”, “I’ll Fight”, “Sonny Feeling”, and “Everlasting Everything” are all master classes in how to write the best song ever.  I know that you took a 180 degree turn on this album and that is to be admired, but with your ranking, Wilco’s most underrated album remains undervalued.  It deserves at least one notch more up the ladder towards best. Perhaps two.

5 – SKY BLUE SKY (2007)

It definitely starts to spoil my heart

sky-blue-skyOkay, Sky Slue Sky.  This is the album I probably have listened to the most.  This album is right in my Dad Rock wheelhouse.  However, I’m gonna stick my neck out on this one and say that it might be their most overrated album. I say that for two reasons.  The first is that I spent too much of my own personal time on it.  I should have been listening to other Wilco albums, like Being There and Summerteeth.  I have Wilco-gret about that. Second is the listening hump of getting over “Shake it Off”. Let me explain. We often play this album at get-togethers.  it’s always a huge hit, in the beginning.  From “Either Way” to “Side with the Seeds”, you have perfection. Best Wilco Ever!!

…Then, like a bump in the road, along comes “Shake it Off”…

I like “Shake it Off”.  But I am a Dad.  I have to like it.  Inevitably someone (usually my wife) pipes up with something like, “what is this?” or “I am not into this”.  Somewhere between that moment and “Walken” I change it to another album, thereby denying myself and my guests the wonderful pleasures of “What Light” and “On and On and On”.  It hurts me to say that Sky Blue Sky should be closer to worst.

4 – A GHOST IS BORN (2004)

So good, you don’t even know

a-ghost-is-born1THIS SHOULD BE NUMBER ONE!!!! Way off Pal.  You got the apex wrong.  They were still climbing after Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. All you have to do is listen to the opener, “At Least That’s what You Said”, to know that they had more in store for us beyond Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Bigger and Badder than ever before.  This is an extravagant album in all the best kinda ways.  And yes, Pal, we do need 12 minutes of hiss. We so desperately need it and Wilco knew it.  And to follow that up with “Late Greats”. Whoa momma! Perfection.

3 – BEING THERE (1996)

I wanna thank you all, FOR NOTHING!!!!

being-thereOf the so many things wrong with your list, this is the least wrong.  Although I gotta bump it down to four now that I put your four at my one.  Despite its beautiful folk sensibility, it is still very edgy.  It’s the Ghost is Born of early era Wilco.   I completely agree with you on one thing.  Like you, the biggest surprise for me was how much I now like those, as you say, ‘filler songs’.   Why have I not noticed songs like “Lonely 1” before. That song is gorgeous. Songs like “King Pin” are as Rock ‘n’ Roll as anything they have ever wrote. It’s timeless in its sound.  The whole album is sort of like that.  To quote Mr. Tweedy, Being There “sounds like someone else’s song, from a long time ago.”

2- SUMMERTEETH (1999)

Your prayers will never be answered again

summerteethJust like Being There, Summerteeth falls victim to your complete miscalculation of A Ghost is Born. It is my number three. Summerteeth is so wonderfully pretty in the most wonderfully terrible way.  As explained in “How to Fight Loneliness” this album is a fake smile that fools everyone.  This album makes me so happy despite how sad the lyrics are.  The bright upbeat jams serve as the bedrock for all the dark organic soils that make up Tweedy’s words. It is simply breathtaking.

1 – YANKEE HOTEL FOXTROT (2002)

I’m bound by these choices so hard to make

yhfYankee Hotel Foxtrot is the OK Computer of Wilco’s cannon.  It’s adventurous, complex and expertly layered.  Completely singular song writing of the highest caliber. It tugs at every heart string and every emotion.  Joy. Fear. Happiness. Sadness. Excitement. Nostalgia. Insanity. Loneliness. Confusion. Aggression. Love. It’s a gift to the world and has no equal in its completeness. A true treasure to behold. That said, I like Kid A better. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is Wilco’s second best album to date.

So that’s it Pal.  I think I put you in your place and set you straight.  Feel bad about what you did.  It’s not that I hate you.  I love you and I love your passion for Wilco.  But I don’t love the way you ranked Wilco’s albums from worst to best.

Later Pal.

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Wilco albums ranked worst to best – the definitive list (for now)

miloHey Pal:

Let’s talk about Wilco. Over their 20+ years, front man Jeff Tweedy and the boys have evolved from boundary-pushing alt country darlings, to purveyors of so-called “dad rock” (is that supposed to be a bad thing?), to elder indie statesmen who still have a few tricks up their plaid and denim sleeves.

You and I have been on hand for much of that evolution and we’ll be on hand when Wilco roll into Toronto next week to blow the roof off Massey Hall yet again; so in honour of the occasion I thought I’d take a crack at ranking all their studios albums from worst to best. There are a few such lists on the internet, with a good deal of disagreement among them, so it’s high time somebody did the definitive list.

This is not that list.

But until the king of “worst to best” lists, Stereogum, gets one done it will have to do.

In preparation I sat down and listened to every one of Wilco’s albums in chronological order, some of which I haven’t heard in years, and then I listened to them all a few more times for good measure. It was a beautiful journey, during which two thoughts dominated:

  • They’ve never really made a bad album (although the chasm between “worst” and best is wide).
  • Certain assumptions and beliefs I’ve held for a long time are wrong.

(Quick note – the Mermaid Avenues are not here because they are not purely Wilco albums.)

All right, let’s assassin down the avenue…

10 – Schmilco (2016)

Painting myself as a normal American kid
I always hated it

schmilcoI really didn’t want to do this. I didn’t want to pick on Wilco’s newer albums by putting them at the bottom of the list. I didn’t want to suggest the quality of their albums is in decline and all their best work is behind them.

I really, really didn’t want to do that.

Alas.

It’s unfortunate too because I was pumped about Schmilco (despite the goofy title), because its sound hearkens back to their days of strange, eerie, psychedelic alt country. The songs are mostly acoustic and some are infused with a hint of sonic weirdness, but this time it feels put upon – like they’re just trying to elevate what they know are dull songs.

Jeff Tweedy is a marvelous songwriter with a gift for musical left turns and provocative lyrics that are more for feeling than understanding. There’s some of that on Schmilco but not enough to resonate.I will say I love the bitter nostalgia of “Normal American Kids”.

They’ve never made a bad album, but this one’s just OK. Perhaps the live versions of these tunes we hear next week will inspire me to change my mind.

(Bonus points for the cover, though, which takes the idea of “dad rock” to a whole new level.)

 9 – Star Wars (2015)

I change my name every once in a while
A miracle every once in a while

star_wars_wilco1

I should mention that Wilco are absolutely epic in concert. Six masterful musicians who have been playing together long enough they can read each other’s minds.

Because of that, they were able to make this album sound more interesting than it is when they played it in its entirety at the Toronto Urban Roots Festival last summer. I respect the choice of playing the whole thing. Many other artists of their vintage devolve into greatest hits nostalgia acts. Not Wilco. They stand by what they’re recording now.

Star Wars is pretty cool, but doesn’t quite knock my socks off. The chugging “King of You” is awesome, though, as is “Random Name Generator”, which is destined to become a perennial concert favourite. Also, gotta dig closer “Magnetized”, with its weird pauses, organ sounds and a classic WTF Tweedy line: “Orchestrate the shallow pink refrigerator drone.”

Points for brevity – at 33 minutes it doesn’t last long enough to overstay its welcome.

wilco-live

Did I mention Wilco are epic in concert?

 8 – A.M. (1995)

You’re gonna make me spill my beer,
If you don’t learn how to steer

amConventional wisdom has it that the band got off to a shaky start with this debut. Conventional wisdom declared this a paint-by-numbers set of country rock tracks that in no way hinted at the experimental genius that was to come.

Conventional wisdom needs to give its head a shake because I’ll bet it hasn’t actually listened to A.M. since it came out.

If conventional wisdom would do what I did – crack a beer on a Friday night, crank A.M. to top volume and air guitar the shit out of “Casino Queen” and “Box Full of Letters”, then bliss out to “It’s Just that Simple” and the Tonight’s the Night tribute “Passenger Side” – then it would understand the truth. A.M. is terrific. It’s heartfelt and infectious. It’s tight and it’s a blast.

I’m pretty sure the problem is that Tweedy and two bandmates were fresh out of the wildly revered alt-country legends Uncle Tupelo and this debut from a “spin-off” band suffered by comparison. If a completely different band had made A.M., alt country fans would have been bouncing off the walls and exclaiming that they’d just found the new Uncle Tupelo.

7– The Whole Love (2011)

This is how I tell it
Oh, but it’s long
One Sunday morning
Oh, one son is gone

whole-love

I’m going to venture onto a long, treacherous limb and declare this Wilco’s most overrated album. Not bad. Just overrated. Many people, myself included, saw it as a return to form after the so-called “dad rock” albums (more on those soon enough), and we all got very excited because the boys were getting back to being a little loud and experimental.

Also, the thing starts and ends magnificently, opening with the righteous blast of techno rock that is “Art of Almost” (a song that we learned, Pal, also makes for a jaw-dropping opener in concert), and closing with the folky, 12-minute Dylanesque “One Sunday Morning”, a heartbreaking study of a troubled father/son relationship. Two awesome tunes.

Unfortunately, I find now that too many of the songs in between are kinda forgettable. I enjoy them while they’re happening but they don’t stick. Exception – “Born Alone”. That song rocks.

Also, the band sounds amazing, especially guitar god Nels Cline, who can do absolutely anything with six strings (and occasionally 12), whether it’s building swirling atmosphere for the rest of the band to play in, or taking centre stage with a mind-bending solo.

nels-cline

Don’t hurt yourself, Nels

6 –  Wilco (The Album) (2009)

One wing will never fly
Neither yours nor mine
I fear we can only wave goodbye

220px-wilco_the_album_cover1 Boy was I wrong about this one. At the time of its release I wrote it off as bland and forgettable, and going into this ranking exercise I was fully expecting to plunk the “camel” album – the second dad rock album, incidentally – in the basement.

Then I listened to it.

And I listened to it again.

And I fell in love with the camel.

“Bull Black Nova” is the cool kid brother of “Spiders (Kidsmoke)”, and that is a fine thing to be. The second half of “One Wing” is transcendent. “I’ll Fight” is a contender for top 10 Wilco tune. And “You and I” is a deceptively sweet little duet with Canadian singer Feist that boldly questions the merits of honesty and transparency in a relationship.

I do wonder if the band carries Tweedy a bit on this one. This is the second album with the perfect ensemble line-up that still exists to this day, and by this point they were magically in sync. That’s why this album sounds so good even though Tweedy’s songwriting and weary but expressive voice are not at their best. Consider “Country Disappeared”. It seems like a pretty flaccid tune to me, but by the end I’m transfixed. Just listen to that interplay of guitar and keyboard.

I could be wrong, but I think it’s the playing, not the writing, that elevates the camel to greatness. 

5 – Sky Blue Sky (2007)

But I’ve turned to rust as we’ve discussed
Though I must have let you down
too many times
In the dirt and the dust

sky-blue-sky

This is the precise moment that Wilco were branded “dad rock” and it’s all thanks to the wise-ass kids down at Pitchfork, who called Sky Blue Sky “an album that exposes the dad-rock gene the band has always carried but attempted to disguise– the stylistic equivalent of a wardrobe change into sweatpants and a tank top.”

Someone needs to knock some sense into those punks and make them listen to it again.

Is it less experimental and more “comfortable” than its predecessors? Definitely. But that doesn’t make it lazy or dull. It’s a beauty. Tweedy finds poetry in everyday life in these “sweatpant” tunes, whether it be gentle pleadings (“Please be Patient With Me”), or puttering about a house that no longer feels like a home (“Hate It Here”), or the glorious jam that is “Impossible Germany”. The playing is perfect and the songs, while mellow, still go in unexpected directions.

Also, the album closes with the thrilling one-two punch of the sage and inspiring “What Light” followed by the haunting and unsettling “On And On And On”.

4 – A Ghost is Born (2004)

Saxophones started blowin’ me down
I was buried in sound
The taxicabs were driving me around

a-ghost-is-born1

It might not be the obvious choice, but I nominate A Ghost is Born for the award of Weirdest Wilco Album because, seriously, where did this come from? The previous four albums were an amazing but logical evolution down the band’s uniquely carved road of atmospheric alt country, and then along came this abrupt left turn into pop rock city.

Explosive guitar jams and sweet pretty ballads (sometimes in the same song); bobbity piano pop, groovy jams, and even 12 minutes of electronic hiss – this album has it all and it’s a ton of fun. You never know what’s coming next.

My personal favourite is the smooth and seductive “Hell is Chrome”…or maybe “The Late Greats”…no wait, “Handshake Drugs”…or “Spiders (Kidsmoke)”…or….never mind, just go listen to the whole thing (except the 12 minutes of hiss – we didn’t really need that).

tweedy-singing

“I never hear it on the radio,             Can’t hear it on the radio”

3 – Being There (1996)

When you’re back in your old neighborhood
The cigarettes taste so good
But you’re so misunderstood
You’re so misunderstood

being-there

What a surprise this turned out to be – another album that landed higher on this list than I thought it was going to. I used to think Being There was half brilliant and half filler but I’ll be damned if I can find the filler now. As much as I think A.M. is underrated, there is no question this follow-up sophomore album, with its experimentation and expanded range of sound, is a huge leap forward.

It’s a double album and each “disc” is a lean and perfect set of gems worthy of standing on its own. And the openers! Oh the openers! Disc one kicks off with the epic six and a half minute mind-bender “Misunderstood”, which aggressively declares in its rattling thumping intro that Wilco had no intention of settling into any kind of formula. The song is a beautiful noisy unleashing of emotions from nostalgia to rage. Disc two opens with the comparatively spare but almost as stunning “Sunken Treasure”, which might have been my favourite Wilco song if I hadn’t heard “Misunderstood” first.

 2 – Summerteeth (1999)

She’s a jar
With a heavy lid
My pop quiz kid
A sleepy kisser

summerteeth

How can misery and madness sound so sweet?

The band took the trippy sound they found on Being There and added sunny pop flourishes so that when they didn’t sound like the grooviest alt country band on the planet they sounded like the Beach Boys, but cooler.

And Tweedy’s lyrics went extra dark. Whether he’s dreaming about killing you again last night, or being begged not to hit her, or reading messages in an ashtray, he captivates with his weird, morbid thoughts and sounding like the weight of the whole world is upon him. Even the sweet lovely lullaby to his kid, “Oh Darling”, sounds haunted.

Every song is a beauty, with “Via Chicago”, “She’s a Jar” and concert favourite “Shot in the Arm” the obvious stand-outs.

For most other bands, this would be the pinnacle of achievement but for Wilco this was just another warm-up leading to their grandest statement…

 1 – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002)

Tall buildings shake
Voices escape singing sad sad songs
tuned to chords
Strung down your cheeks
Bitter melodies turning your orbit around

yhf

Was there ever any doubt? All hail Wilco’s masterpiece. It doesn’t contain the band’s greatest songs (see #2 and #3). It doesn’t even feature their finest musicianship (see the “dad rock” of #5 and #6). But Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is studio alchemy; the most cohesive and immersive journey in Wilco’s catalogue – their most album-y of albums – and the perfect evolution of the moody experimentation they started on Being There and Summerteeth. If Radiohead made a country album this is what it would sound like, but now they can’t do it because Wilco beat them to it.

I don’t know what was in Jeff Tweedy’s enigmatic mind when he made Yankee Hotel Foxtrot but here’s what it’s about as far as I’m concerned: It’s about memories that make you smile and cry at the same time. It’s about alienation and communication breakdown. It’s about being in a crowd but feeling alone, about staring into a loved one’s eyes and wondering if you really truly know them. It’s about struggling for understanding.

It pulls you into a world entirely its own and doesn’t let go until its final notes – a world that is both comforting and unsettling, familiar yet foreign. There’s nothing else like it.

I could go on and on but I already have, not just here but elsewhere in this blog, so I’ll shush up now.

One last point – it needs to be noted that the top three albums just happened to be the only three Wilco albums made with multi-instrumentalist and wannabe co-leader Jay Bennett on the roster. The story – as shown in the excellent documentary “I am Trying to Break Your Heart” – is that Bennett was canned during the making of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot for being a dick, and he may very well have been one – but the music suggests he was a terribly gifted dick. They were never as good as they were with him.

jaybennett1-300x2681

RIP Jay

So there you go, Pal – my ranking of Wilco’s albums. How’d I do? Bang on, way off, or somewhere in between? Don’t let this post go unanswered. I expect a merciless analysis of my mistakes. Take off the band aid cuz I don’t believe in touchdowns.

Later, Pal.

Review of a Perfect Album: Velvet Underground’s Loaded

miloHey Pal:

Good debate! I enjoyed that. It feels good to be right (ha ha). Anyway, our sparring over one angry, misunderstood musical genius got me listening to another angry, misunderstood musical genius (one of Kurt’s influences, in fact), and it inspired another entry into our Two Pals’ Perfect Album series. We’re going to play around with time and identity with this one, so please keep up…

You are Lou Reed. The 1960s are coming to a close, though for you they never really existed in the way that people like to think of them, all full of peace and love and hippy stuff. You and your band The Velvet Underground have made three albums that will be regarded as masterpieces; that will secure your place as the godfather of punk and new wave; that will forever be cited as essential influences on any rocker who prefers to rattle people’s chains than make pretty music. The 1960s are over and you are about to make your fourth and final masterpiece with the Velvet Underground, and your record label is busting your balls insisting that once — please, just once! — you make an album that might actually contain a hit.

You are me. The 1980s are coming to a close, though for you they never really existed in the way that people like to think of them, all full of optimism and a belief that prosperity and happiness will just naturally find us as long as we get a university degree. You are a worrier. You doubt yourself. You are preparing to go to university and like most people your age you listen to U2, Guns N’ Roses, Springsteen and Tom Petty; but you also listen to stranger stuff that average teens are not drawn to, like Love, Randy Newman, the Waterboys and the latest album from Lou Reed — New York, a bleak and angry song cycle about the decaying city that has always been his home. You’re not exactly a freak, but you’re attracted to darker stuff. You’re not exactly a rebel, but you have a tendency to doubt conventional wisdom.

You are Lou Reed. Your band isn’t what it used to be. Your collaborator and combatant John Cale has left, which means the Velvets’ music is now without his haunting, screeching viola. Maureen Tucker is pregnant and can’t play, which means you’ll be without her imperfect but entrancing drumming. But you have Doug Yule and Sterling Morrison and most importantly, you still have you — the angry visionary who has always driven this ground-breaking (actually, more like ground-scorching) band. And you have decided to have fun with your record label’s demand for hits. You’ve decided to make an album so loaded with hits that it will be called Loaded — and you will do it your way.

You are me. Following your slightly oddball music tastes, you’ve been spending a lot of time lately with the Velvets’ first album, 1967’s Velvet Underground and Nico (the classic banana album)…

…and it is starting to obsess you. Sure, you love the Beatles, but you’re discovering the Velvets are the anti-Beatles and that makes them cool and interesting. You love the idea that in 1967, while everyone else was hitchhiking to San Francisco with flowers in their hair and grooving to Sgt. Peppers, there were four sunglass-wearing, leather-clad freaks holed up at Andy Warhol’s factory scaring the shit out of everyone with noise and dissonance and hard-boiled lyrics about heading uptown for heroin and head. You’re all for the surreal and euphemistic loveliness of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, but you also seriously dig getting slammed in the face with the blunt reality of “Heroin”.

Flower power, Warhol style.

You are Lou Reed. You write and record Loaded. It opens with “Who Loves the Sun”, which is a direct retort to the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun”. You make it sound every bit as sweet and catchy and hippy-dippy as the Beatles’ song. Both songs are freaking gorgeous, but where John and Paul said “yay for the sun!” your message is “fuck the sun”. You also include a handful of perfect classic rock tunes, including “Sweet Jane” and “Rock and Roll”; and mix it up with a few ballads (“New Age”, “I Found a Reason” and “Oh! Sweet Nuthin”) so big and warm and fuzzy they’d even make Phil Specter swoon, until he realizes they’re about hobos, hookers and washed-up starlets. You even toss in “Lonesome Cowboy Bill”, a boppin’, janglin’ country rock song that is presumably a nod to the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers, who are in the process of inventing country rock.

You do all of this for one simple reason — to show your record label and everyone else how fucking easy this is for you; to let them know you could have been making beautiful hits all along but have always found it more gratifying to assault and challenge your listeners with “The Black Angel’s Death Song” and “Sister Ray”.

You are me. You move on from the classic banana album to Loaded and discover it may actually be better. It’s certainly more fun. You wonder if Lou is messing with you. How could the guy behind “All Tomorrow’s Parties” also produce such straight-up rock? And cheese! Compelling cheese, but cheese all the same. It never gets cheesier than “I Found a Reason”, with its Pa Pa Pa sing-along and its ridiculous spoken word interlude:

Honey, I found a reason to keep living
And you know the reason, dear it’s you
And I’ve walked down life’s lonely highways
Hand in hand with myself
And I realized how many paths have crossed between us

You laugh at it, but you also love it. And perhaps this is what makes it the most subversive thing the Velvet Underground ever did. Imagine if Stanley Kubrick directed a romantic comedy with Meg Ryan, or Salvador Dali decided to take a stab at a Norman Rockwell scene. This is the musical equivalent: a dark, twisted genius slumming it in Happy-Land, and doing it better than just about anyone else could.

Other interesting things are happening in the late 1980s that are giving the Velvet Underground an aura of renewed relevance. Alt-country pioneers The Cowboy Junkies do a wicked cover of “Sweet Jane”. Lou is enjoying a resurgence with New York. And following Andy Warhol’s death in 1987, Lou and John Cale decide to hate each other less and work together more and make a spooky tribute album called Songs for Drella.

Meanwhile, you’re about to head off to university wondering if it’s going to do anything for you, and somehow all these things fit together in your fledgling world view, and Loaded, with just the right blend of sweet and cool, earns its place on your frequent play list.

And that’s the story of how a moody rocker in 1970 made a pop classic despite himself, and how 20 years later it was discovered by a kid who really needed to hear it. And it is the latest addition to the Two Pals’ perfect album canon:

Later, Pal.

We Like All His Pretty Songs, But We Don’t Know What it Means: A Two Pals Debate Over Who Owns Kurt Cobain

binkleyI finally watched all of Montage of Heck. It is worth seeing for sure. If you don’t have a headache and you aren’t slightly insane by the end of it, you did not watch it correctly.

I was also thinking a lot about our conversation this summer about Nirvana and how pissed off you seemed that “Palina” and I would not budge on how influential and earth shattering Nirvana’s rise in the scene was‎ and how you don’t understand because you are slightly older than us. I still maintain this position but I can see how the latter would be irksome for you.

miloI only got pissed when you said I was too old. I definitely wasn’t. Lots of people my age agree with your assessment, and I was leaping about to Smells Like Teen Spirit in the clubs right along with them. At the time.

In hindsight, I just no longer buy the myth that has taken hold  that the 80s were one way and the ‎90s were the opposite and that Nevermind was the one big magic switch that flipped it. It’s too simplistic. The Pixies, for instance, we’re doing their thing in the 80s.

The band was big, no doubt, but the myth took hold because Kurt Cobain shot himself. If we’d watched him get old, Nirvana would simply be seen as a dominant player in a movement that once happened, not a revolutionary force.

binkleyYou were dancing to Nirvana, but you would have been 19 and out of high school (or a senior) when Nevermind came out. I was 16. That is a big difference in terms of what that is tapping into. It was more than dancing for a sixteen year old. Nirvana hit the confused angsty kids that weren’t smart enough to listen to the Pixies, which is way way more people than Pixies fans. Nirvana went mainstream. That might hurt their credibility but not their impact on youth and youth culture.  Elvis was influenced by a pile of people before he made it big too.

I still remember how distinctly different Smells Like Teen Spirit was than anything else I was listening to. I wasn’t even into that kind of music, it just tapped right into me. I relentlessly listened to Nevermind. Sure the suicide makes it all mythical. But I am not even talking about that. Smells Like Teen Spirit was a sea change. It felt different and all my friends felt it too. His death didn’t elevate that for me. I didn’t even really follow Nirvana after Nevermind.

Critics and observers can jump onto the mythology and you are right to say that it is blown out of proportion.  But, I don’t think you can deny he is a symbol for a movement change, regardless of the specifics. I would argue he was a symbol even before he died.  People were saying he killed hair bands way before he killed himself.

I really hate pissing you off and I hope I haven’t (because that hurts me to the core) but your perspective is of a university guy. For you this was just another very successful rock song/album among a sea of other amazing rock songs/albums that you could party hard too.  To kids my age, this was way more personal and that is how you start a movement.

miloHey, don’t worry about angering me; I’m fired up, but in a good way. Now, my retort:

Just what the heck do you think 20-year-olds were listening to in 1991 — Color Me Badd and Paula Abdul? What do you think was going on at university campuses?

I think you might have been old beyond your years because Grunge belonged more to my age group than yours. We were the prototypical Gen Xers at that time — the Singles/Reality Bites group. We were in our early 20s, supposedly adults, but working in coffee shops and restaurants and slowly realizing our lives weren’t going to roll along as smoothly as we thought they were going to; that success would not be as effortless for us as it had been for our parents.

The promise we received by coming of age in the sunny and prosperous 1980s was not coming true. Hence — angst, for which Grunge made a good soundtrack. We defined it, dude!

I always thought the “killed hair metal” thing was a little wonky. Late 80s/early 90s I was listening to Neil Young, Jane’s Addiction, Faster Pussycat, GnR, Soundgarden, Nirvana, Metallica. It’s all just hard rock, and it’s all pretty angry and angsty.

BTW — for the “death of hair metal” story, definitely listen to Drive By Truckers’ “Self Destructive Zones”. That’s what it’s about — and it’s an awesome tune.

binkleyI am flattered you say I was older than my time but the truth is if Nirvana spoke to people your age the way they did to kids my age, I would consider them younger than their time.

Nevermind was genius because of its brilliantly naïve reflections and ramblings from a confused, dark and twisted person with no clear concept of the world.  Kurt was singular because he had a strong artistic sensibility that was worth hearing (especially to 16 year olds). For us, Nirvana was about moving forward.  Like a big brother to look up to.  For you guys it was the same old same old. Maybe even a regression as a reaction to perhaps not wanting to grow up and be like your parents who, as you say, had it made in the shade.

You say it is a reaction to the eighties life, and you certainly lived in the eighties as a teen more than me.  But for me and kids my age, we were learning from him.  We had no idea of such things yet, but we were perfectly ready to hear it at 16. Kurt was just speaking your language.  Nothing new. The revolution came from us not from you.

We own Kurt Cobain!!!!!

milo

This is a fun and twisty debate because we are battling two distinct issues simultaneously:

  1. My initial assertion that the myth of Kurt Cobain’s “revolution” has been overblown and oversimplified over time
  2. Your assertion that I just feel that way because I was too old to get it at the time

This puts me in an interesting spot because any arguments I make on #1 could be interpreted to prove your point on #2.

But you remain misguided on #2. While I’m not sure who owns Kurt, I can assure you my fellow 20-year-olds in 1991 were every bit as moved as you young’uns were. We were on a scary precipice and had plenty to angst over. More so, I would argue.

But here’s what I will concede — others my age were feeling the Kurt love more than I was. Nirvana was pretty cool, but just another band for me. I preferred Soundgarden, the Screaming Trees and even Kurt’s wife. He was the most famous representative of a cool music scene, something that captured the zeitgeist for a brief time, but that was it. Then he took the coward’s way out. There were crunchy guitars and angry lyrics before Grunge (and there was Grunge before there was Nirvana), and there was plenty of cheesy music during and after it. What changed?

You say that Kurt showed people your age things you didn’t know existed. He led you. Really? I’m pretty sure you’d heard angry hard rock before you were 16. Nirvana’s legacy is the beneficiary of historical revisionism. I’ll bet if Eddie Vedder had shot himself in 1994, we’d be having this debate about Pearl Jam right now.

binkleyOkay, you conceded on something, so I will concede. I too did not get as swept away as others my age did by Kurt. But I did get swept a bit and significantly more than any other band of that time so I feel comfortable to lump myself in with the rest in an effort to keep my argument simple.

That said, I still maintain that Kurt is different and that you were too old and too musically smart at the time to appreciate his impact fully which has bled into your overall assessment of his impact on Rock lore. You lived it but I, my teen culture and a whole pile of bands after Nirvana emulated it.

In an effort to put this age thing to bed I need to hoist you by your own elderly petard. You are a keen smart man with a great sense of music and culture and social momentum but I really think you are missing the boat on this.

The twenty year olds had a lot more musical living than us 16 year olds. Many of us were listening to crappy pop or old Rock (that’s me), or whatever 10-15 years listened to (in “Palina’s” case it was New Kids on the Block). Despite the great bands you mentioned, mainstream music was getting stale at that time and everyone was feeling it. Guns and Roses came out with Use Your Illusion the same year as Nevermind and I tried to like it but I knew it was old and out of date. It didn’t speak to me and my generation the way it did to yours.  Funnily enough GnR broke up after that. I know you don’t want to admit GnR is a hair band but they sure as heck are. They may be the best most kick ass hair band going but they are a hair band no denying. And Faster Pussycat? Come on man. Sure lines are blurry and maybe not as black and white as I am describing but those bands were on their way out and songs like Smells Like Teen Spirit slammed the door right in their asses.

We 16 year olds needed something new and didn’t know how to find it. You twenty year olds knew what was out there, but we were tired of listening to our older brother’s music all the time.  Then Nirvana came along. For many, this was our entry into alternative Rock. Something more meaningful than what we were generally listening too. It was the starting line for us. Nevermind would have been the first real Rock album for many 16 year olds generally. You guys were already on mile 20 down the Rock road. You knew how to navigate it.  Grunge was a big switch for us and Nirvana’s mainstream success facilitated that.

The musical change is the genre of Grunge music.  Grunge culture was apathetic, lazy, disaffected, and pissed off.  You say Metallica, GnR, and Neil Young is angry and angsty? No my friend, not angsty like Kurt. Angst is hopeless. Kurt is hopeless. Axel Rose is not hopeless, he is just angry.

Your boat missing is evident in your band selection from two arguments ago (GnR, Metallica, Neil Young, Faster Pussycat, etc). These are more Metal than Grunge Rock. Also, The Pixies weren’t Grunge, they were Punk. You seem to be missing that Grunge element in your argument. Kurt Cobain was the high priest of Grunge Rock. That was the movement. That was the nineties. Sure Eddie Vedder was there and I felt a similar indefinable draw towards him when Ten came out. But Kurt and Nirvana were different because they didn’t care. They were infantile. I was infantile. You were a rowdy University student scared for the future. We weren’t thinking about the future. Kurt wasn’t thinking about the future. He was us and we were him.

The same teens that he touched from their mouths to their buts with Nevermind were that same teens that were shattered when he died. You guys moved on. Got wives. Got jobs. I purport that we wrote the articles and had the conversations that deified him. ‎We elevated him, rightly or wrongly. That is significant enough to justify his legend, I think. Despite the other bands that were doing it better or doing it before him.

That is all I got.

miloPal, we seem to be at an impasse here, so I have done what I usually do when I don’t know what else to do: research and find out what others have to say.

I spoke to someone your age, and asked if it was high schoolers or university students who made grunge “happen”. He said it was definitely high schoolers. Then I asked someone my age who said it was definitely university students.

So that was no help.

Next, I went on-line to see what the experts have to say about Nirvana, and I found a pretty compelling quote from LA Times music critic Robert Hilburn. I hold stock in this quote because he was writing in January, 1994 – prior to Kurt’s death – so it’s not tainted with historical reflection. He said:

“Without losing the punk-aligned fans that first embraced the band, the group now attracts everything from the collegiate hip to the mainstream curious to, encouragingly, a growing post-30 contingent that has discovered there is something in the band’s music that speaks to more than just the MTV crowd.”

So here’s what I now think in regards to the “ownership” of Kurt Cobain: we’re both right, but I’ll concede you’re slightly more right. Clearly – sad, disillusioned Kurt spoke to sad, disillusioned people of all ages; but reading between the lines of this quote, perhaps we can infer that “the revolution”, as you have called it, started with the kids.

I’m not sure why you kids were so bummed out, but let’s talk about that “revolution” you started. As I’ve said, Kurt didn’t invent cool, angsty rock – there was lots of that before he roared out of Seattle – but, as it turns out, he may have helped to kill it. Grunge is considered to have faded out in 1996. Do you know what came afterwards? Post-grunge (this is actually a thing). Here is a list of the most successful post-grunge bands: Nickelback, Bush, Creed and Matchbox 20.

Do you hear what I’m saying, Pal?

You have said folks your age owned the revolution. To which I say – you can have it. Or, perhaps more accurately, there was no revolution. Just a short-lived, fairly interesting music scene.

On a final note, I learned something else in my reading – a band that Kurt absolutely loved at the time was REM. Automatic for the People blew his mind. Here’s a quote from 1993: “If I could write just a couple of songs as good as what they’ve written… I don’t know how that band does what they do. God, they’re the greatest. They’ve dealt with their success like saints, and they keep delivering great music.”

Kurt had also predicted that Nirvana’s next album (an album that would never get made, of course — although you could consider Unplugged a harbinger) would be “pretty ethereal, acoustic, like R.E.M.’s last album.”

I tell you this in part to needle you – you foolish REM hater, you – but also to make a point: what a damn shame that album doesn’t exist. Because I believe that would have been the best Nirvana album: an album that I would actually still be listening to today; an album that would have been more likely to attract new, young fans today than Nevermind can; an album that would have done an even better job of cementing Kurt Cobain’s legacy, without him needing to kill himself.

It’s a shame he didn’t give himself a chance to make it.

 

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TURFlections 2015

binkleyI just went to my first multi-day music festival: the Toronto Urban Roots Festival (TURF). A three day festival situated within Historic Fort York in Toronto. Yes, the place that once was a battle zone during the War of 1812 was now host to a pleasant and sometimes raucous weekend of musical celebration. Three stages within a park setting of open grass and mature trees, flanked by the elevated Gardiner Expressway to the south and train tracks to the north.

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It’s a wonderful way to see multiple artists. To watch bands you have loved forever and to discover new artists you never heard of before.

The day before the festival, I was telling my boss about my weekend plans.”I’m going to the Toronto Urban Roots Festival”, I said. “Oh, is that some hippie dippy love fest?”, he asked, in reference to the title of the festival. “Oh no”, I said. “The Pixies are headlining”. I thought that would be a clear counter to that question. Alas, he had never heard of the Pixies and their 90’s punk prowess.  So, on name only, his thoughts were immediately confirmed.

It was a wonderful 3 day festival leaving me with great memories and many TURFlections such as: our ability to get front row for all the shows we wanted (except when the dag blamed VIPers hustled in front of us after the photographers were done); musical surprises like Lucinda Williams, St. Paul and the Broken Bones and Neko Case (maybe not surprises for many, but for me they created a new long time fan); the torrential downpour during the Strumbellas show wearing our insanely lacking ponchos; finally seeing Ron Sexsmith; the amazing food; and the art of perfecting the equation of drinking Boneshakers, Ciders and water to achieve that perfect buzz.

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St. Paul and the Broken Bones

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Ron Sexsmith

So many great moments at TURF 2015. Here are this Pal’s top 5 TURFlections

The Avett Brothers show and a further indoctrination into the Avett Family

The big ticket for us Friday night was the Avett Brothers set. They had followed us from Red Rocks to see us in Toronto. In Red Rocks I felt officially a part of the Avett Family. At TURF this was further cemented when we met a journeyman who was travelling to three shows in three days at three different locations. His only travelling companion was a canvas banner that was being passed from show to show for the entire 2015 tour. He volunteered and it got passed to him to solicit fan signatures from each of those three shows.  We all gladly signed it along with all the other diehards who were parked front row while the show on the other stage was happening. That was a real treat to be a part of. The bigger treat was the show, which of course was amazing.  They tore it up as usual.  It was certainly the best show of the festival.  I admit to getting a bit weepy during The Ballad of Love and Hate. The Avett Brothers had the whole audience  in the palm of their insanely talented hands. IMG_20150918_165846

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The Avett Brothers

Wilco playing Star Wars front to back

Talk about another treat.  The whole first half of their set was their latest album in its entirety.  Star Wars is great.  Many critics say they are back to form with this album, but I feel they never broke their perfect mix of thick fuzzed-out Rock and delicate Folk beauty. Tweedy leaned into every word with a knowing snear letting us know that he knows that we know that this is some pretty kick ass shit we are hearing.

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Wilco

Pitch blackness at the kids stage and the band that decided to play adult friendly songs for an extended set

After the Wilco show we went to go piddle away what had just been rocked out of us.  The Port-O-Johns were situated between the two main stages.  A very dark place with a very long line up.  Or ears tipped us off first, but soon we could see through the blackness to a smaller stage.  The kids stage, here were two women (Rattle and Strum) playing bright jazzy-folk creations, essentially on crates, in front of a crescent shaped group of adults.  “Normally we play for children but seeing as there are none here right now, and our set is over, let’s just play songs we like to play, for you guys. Would you guys like to hear it?”  The crowd was more than eager to hear it. A fun impromptu midnight busk.  It was so dark you could barely see six feet in front of you, but this little gem of a moment will stick in my memory as a highlight of the weekend.

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Rattle and Strum

Punch Brothers and the south stage

I was most excited to see The Avett Brothers, but I was MOST excited about seeing The Punch Brothers. These guys delivered in spades.  Their musicianship is unparalleled. They are the Prog Rock extension of Bluegrass music maintaining acute sensibilities for Pop, Folk, Jazz, Classical and Alternative Rock.  What made this even more memorable was its venue.  The South Stage is the lower rent venue that played all day long adjacent to the two main stages.  Situated under the backdrop of the Gardiner Expressway, the huge sound of The Punch Brothers was perfectly framed by its behemoth pillars and sprawling girders.  There is a small grassed area in front to dance. Behind that is the south slope of Fort York.  There you can sit amongst the plentiful gopher holes to take it all in.  Country, history and infrastructure.  This is the Punch Brothers.

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The Punch Brothers

Feeling like a deviant after watching the sexually charged family that is Kitty, Daisy and Lewis

It’s a good thing that I don’t believe in a heaven or hell.  My experience discovering this band felt so sinful that I would have surely sealed my fiery fate.  The band features three siblings: two sisters in shimmering jumpsuits a la Adrienne Barbeau in Cannonball Run, and a brother singing hard rocking Blues music.  They must be 20 years old but they had the grizzled sexually charged sound of a seasoned Blues group.  To make it even stranger they were backed by what looked like their Mom (bass) and Dad (rhythm guitar). Their stage presence felt Taboo.  I was fixated as if in some kind of trance brought on by large flowing hair, one zipper jumpsuits, assorted jiggling bits, and well crafted Blues music.  When their set was over, I broke from my fever dream, recited ten “Hail Marys”, and prayed that the devil didn’t take me away for all the horrible thoughts they conjured inside me.

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Kitty, Daisy and Lewis

In summary, it was a wonderful hippie dippy love fest.  Despite the fact that the Pixies closed the show.

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Pixies

Later Pal.

 

Avett at Red Rocks – A Toast!

miloWell, Pal, we did it! We saw The Avett Brothers at Red Rocks: One of the great live acts of the moment at one of the most beautiful and renowned concert venues in the world. So maybe flying from Toronto to Denver wasn’t the most practical way to see a band we’ve already seen four times, but screw it – bucket list item checked off.

And so – a toast.

Kindly raise a can of Colorado-brewed Coors (or a hipster-approved Pabst Blue Ribbon if you prefer), and join me in a tribute to the myriad things and people that made this journey so weird and wonderful and memorable…

Here’s to…
The crazy people who built the Denver airport. Who put the thing on an unnecessarily large plot of land unnecessarily far from the city. Who decided a huge, freaky, blue horse with devil red eyes was the right way to greet arrivals to the city. Who designed the runways to look like a swastika from the air, and who filled the airport with creepy, weird murals. And who, for all these reasons, have inspired conspiracy theorists everywhere to conclude that beneath this strange, beautiful airport there are tunnels and bunkers to house and protect the secret rulers of earth on and after the fateful day that they decide to bring Armageddon upon all the rest of us. And for those who think I’m making this up, check it out.

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Here’s to…
The folks behind the hip and kitschy Curtis Hotel. For its talking elevators and themed floors (we were on the big hair floor, where Marge Simpson wished us well every time we stepped off), for the funky décor in the excellent restaurant, for the memorabilia-packed lobby featuring the leg lamp from A Christmas Story, and for being the kind of place that attracts both a burlesque conference (who knew such things happened?) and a body builder conference the same weekend we were there, serving up a wild dose of startling eye candy during our three-night stay in our home away from home.

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Here’s to…
The City of Denver. For filling itself with character and surprises, like recorded monster noises emanating from the sewers, street pianos, and statues and sculptures all over the place. For turning streets into dining rooms, and for having a pedestrian mall (under-used and beset with “urban grittiness”, according to the Denver Post) and baffling, largely ignored stop lights. For being home to the insanely popular Sam’s No. 3 diner, where you wait for an hour for a table before feasting upon a 3 egg Popeye omelet with a side of white, globby liquid fat more commonly known as biscuits and gravy. For being the kind of place where you can walk into a store and legally buy weed (smokable or edible, whatever suits you) from friendly helpful staff, and where Union Station has shuffle board and way more bars than trains. And for having a wonderful, classic ball park called Coors Field for us to sit in the sweltering afternoon sun and watch the home team Rockies crush the Atlanta Braves 11-3.

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Here’s to…
The unreasonably high number of drivers we needed during our very busy, somewhat poorly planned, stay. Like the shuttle bus driver who showed us every damn neighbourhood in the Greater Denver Area during our hours-long drive in from the spooky airport. And the Uber driver who couldn’t work his GPS and relied on us for directions to a surprisingly remote comedy club. And the various cabbies who didn’t know the way to Red Rocks even though it’s by far the coolest thing about their hometown, including the guy who told us the population of Denver went up by a full 100,000 after the town legalized dope.

And most of all, to the cabbie who looked like AC/DC’s Brian Johnson, who actually knew where he was going and went off meter to give us a discount, and who was once injured by a city bus that ran one of those baffling stoplights, and who has been battling what he considers a corrupt city government ever since. He’s got a YouTube channel, if you’d like to learn more.

Here’s to…
The visionaries who built the Rocks Amphitheatre.  Who ventured into the rugged rocky landscape near Denver in the early 1900s and came upon a place that absolutely needed to be turned into an open air music venue. Who recognized that, indeed, Mother Nature had already done most of the work by enclosing a mountainous slope with perfect giant rock walls on three sides, and all that was left to do was to add a stage, sound system and seating for 9,450 to create a magical place with stunning views, perfect acoustics and not a bad seat in the house. Who built an amphitheatre that would win Pollstar’s best venue award so often they finally decided to remove it from the competition and just name the award the “Red Rocks Award”.

I’d seen the pictures, read the rave reviews and went in with huge expectations of Red Rocks that could not possibly have been exceeded. And yet they were.

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Here’s to…
The wonderful people we saw in the Red Rocks Ampitheatre hours before the concert started, because the venue is run by the city and open all the time. To the scores of absurdly healthy people who can be found there everyday regardless of whether there’s a show because Red Rocks isn’t just a bucket list item for concert goers, it’s a bucket list item for people who want to test their endurance by running up and down those steep seats, often while being yelled at by boot camp fitness soldiers. And to everyone else just poking about, who just want to see it, or even just do this for a while…

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Here’s to…
Ranger Bob (as we subsequently dubbed him), who busted me for going off path during our hike on the beautiful trails around the amphitheatre, and who, with great seriousness, asked if there weren’t enough signs telling me to stay on the path (uh, no sir), and if there weren’t enough fences lining every inch of the path (uh, no sir), and who explained that a great deal of effort went into passing protective bylaws because back in the day when Red Rocks Park was wide open, people would trod everywhere killing the vegetation and themselves (on average two deaths per year from people climbing, then falling, from the alluring giant red rocks that are all around). And who outlined the various punitive actions available to him, asked if I could give him any reason why he shouldn’t give me a $150 ticket, and then, when I replied with heartfelt sincerity “because I hear you loud and clear and I won’t do it again”, confirmed that was the right answer by letting me go with a written warning.

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Here’s to…
The Avett Brothers, whose unique blend of sweet to stomping country rock (plus bluegrass and punk) is perfect for the natural soundscape of Red Rocks, and who have found a way to keep getting better and better in concert, in part by expanding their sound to fill the bigger and bigger places they keep finding themselves playing. Who can make you misty one moment with their tender thoughtful lyrics, then have you shouting and leaping in the air the next. To brother Scott, with his throaty voice and rollicking banjo, and brother Seth, with his heartbreaking croon and sweet guitar; and to their dad, whom they brought out for two especially touching tunes during Sunday’s show. And to their five backing players, especially Joe Kwon, the wild leaping cellist, and Tania Elizabeth, the fetching violinist, whose playful interactions and side jams made this pair of supporting players almost as entertaining as the brothers themselves.

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This is a band who can play three sold out shows at Red Rocks and not repeat a single song, a band whose loyal fans make no distinction between hits and obscurities, and who bring love, energy and beauty to every moment they are on stage.

Pal, you and I first saw the Avett Brothers when they were just a trio on September 30, 2009 at the Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto with about 350 other delirious fans, and we all went nuts because we knew this band was too big to be contained and that we’d never again seem them in a place so small.

We were right, but I still never would have imagined that night that we’d one day fly to the Rocky Mountains to see them or that, by the time we did, they would have evolved their live show to the point that they could make a 10,000-seat open air ampitheatre feel almost as intimate as that tiny little room in the back of the Horseshoe.

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Here’s to….
Our fellow Avett fans. Like the people we saw at the airport wearing Avett shirts, confirming we aren’t the only ones devoted enough to get on a plane to see this particular band at this particular venue. And to the woman who stood beside us at Sunday’s show, who had come from Kansas City and who came alone, and who said she’s thrilled Avett are playing big venues but dearly misses when she could see them in little bars. And to the young couple who were in the process of traveling from Yellowknife to Cape Breton and decided to swing by Denver for this show because, by their beautiful, meandering logic, Red Rocks was “on the way”.

And most of all to the 20 people we shared a bus ride home with after the Sunday show, and with whom we belted out every single word of the I and Love and You album, cheering and clapping after every song.

Because I encounter very few Avett fans in my daily life, it felt good to be reminded this is one of those bands that has a powerful hold on a small(ish) but passionate following.

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Here’s to…
Our families. To our munchkins and our loving wives who enjoy Avett too, though perhaps not to the same degree, but nevertheless understood our need to embark on this crazy indulgent, expensive journey, and supported us all the way, making them the perfect embodiment of Avett’s greatest line:

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And, finally, here’s to…
You, my pal and fellow musical adventurer. We flew to Denver and spent four days exploring, hiking, drinking, getting in trouble, getting lost, leaping, singing and laughing our asses off. We made a few bad choices but way more good ones. It was a grand trip. We travel well, Pal. As a very clever fellow once told me – I know where to go, but you know where to go.

So where to next?

Later, Pal.

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Don’t Scratch the Record Man! I Love that Album.

Now the sun goes down over Dolly Parton bridge
The one time home of soul takes our country’s final breath

I guess it takes
More than a king
More than a song
For such a fight
Graceland is a ghost town tonight

I guess it’s been a long decline
God bless the souls that shook up mine

(The Milk Carton Kids)

binkleyPal. What a post that was. I love that you struggled with this album for so long. It shows that that collection of songs meant something. That albums can be bigger than the person who wrote them. Records are made and then just float in the ether. Soon they become something other than what was intended. They change from being projections of the artist to projections of the listener. Albums are vulnerable to the musing of those that receive them.

This leads me to my post. I have a concern. A worry if you will. This is when I put my old man hat on and talk about how things just aren’t what they used to be. Maybe I am out of touch, but maybe I am right on the money.

Here goes…

Hey Pal, remember when you used to go to the record store to shop for albums? I remember how exciting that was. You had just heard that new song on the radio, or maybe your favorite band just released their new record, or maybe you just wanted to root through the bins of albums to find a cool cover and hear what that was all about. Going to the record store was so much fun.

I worry that, in this digital age of music downloads and streaming, we are going to lose that deep connection to the album. That in the near future, music will be more about presenting a constant atmosphere and not about having an experience. Maybe this is not a new concern. Fear of change has been here as long as music has.

beethoven

“You hear Beethoven’s new Symphony Number Five? That guy totally sold out. What’s with those DA DA DA DAAAs? That’s some bullshit right there, I tell ya.”

Nevertheless…..It’s a slippery slope to being mindless music robots

Slippery Slope #1…

I worry that the artist will be lost in this new world of music streaming.

Instead of putting on the latest Fleet Foxes album at a party, people will go to whatever music streaming app and select “Casual Party with Friends” and then press play. I have been to those parties. I usually love what I hear.

“Oh, that’s a great song. I love Fleet Foxes.”

“Who?”

“Fleet Foxes. That’s the band you’re playing right now.”

“Oh, I don’t know. This is Pandora.”

hipster party

Someone else has done all the work. There is no effort on the part of the listener. Don’t get me wrong. These mixes are a convenient way to listen to great music. They are way better than listening to terrestrial radio, but, no one knows what they are listening to anymore. Doesn’t this put too much control in the hands of other people to determine what good music is? Doesn’t it de-personalize the music?

Slippery Slope #2…

I use ITunes to buy my albums. I always listen to that 90 second song sample ITunes offers to determine if I like it first. It is not like the record store listening booths were back in the old days.  I would go with my pile of CDs and sample music for over an hour most times.  Now I can only listen to 90 seconds of a song. Recently, I heard Noel Gallager suggest that artists are actually manufacturing songs specifically for that 90 seconds. I don’t know if that is true now, but I fear that’s coming.

In some ways we are going back to the way it used to be. In the early 1900s musicians released singles only.  With digital media, the focus is not only back to the single, it’s using that 90 second sample to cherry pick the songs you might like. That is bad for the survival of the album. Have we hit a new low if we are only paying attention to a fraction of a song? Isn’t this a regression?

HEADPHONES

Slippery Slope #3…

Artists know that we are losing touch with the idea of an album. I was listening to Merrill Garbus of the Tune Yards talk about music and she asked knowingly, “No one buys complete albums anymore, do they?” It was almost a statement of don’t bother to make a complete album. Nobody cares. To hear that from one of the most experimental artists in Rock music today broke my heart.

Not making albums leaves little room for experimentation and growth. I really hope that the artists don’t get complacent. They should be driving the direction of the music. Our interest, and surprise, in what they produce should inspire them to be even more creative. Without that, the concept of making an album won’t last.

Music-Record

I must find something redeeming…

Okay, I am going to take my old man hat off now and end this post with some optimism. It isn’t the way it used to be in some ways, but it is like it always was in so many others. People need music. They demand it. Creativity in albums will never leave, as long as our butts and brains keep finding new ways of rockin.

To quote De La Soul…

If the Soul keeps rockin, the streets will keep rockin
If the streets keep rockin, the Soul will keep rockin
If the streets stop rockin, the Soul will keep rockin
If the Soul keeps rockin, the streets will keep rockin

De-La-Soul-3-Feet-High-And-R-374388

Later Pal.