New Year New Music Part One – Craig Finn

So here we are, on the 13th day of the New Year, and my writer’s block that has been dogging me since last year has managed to get itself distracted for long enough for me to get my fingers on a keyboard and start writing some goddamn posts. Every year, I’ve spent January hunting through emails, blog posts, Soundcloud streams and the like to find the most exciting, most thrilling, most stunning new bands and songs, for your delectation. Previous finds, such as Freelance Whales and Cotton Jones, have ended up being albums of that year. And what better way to start this year than to do the same?

Craig Finn has been delivering classic Springsteen-esque meat-and-two-veg rock par excellence for a number of years now, as lead man of The Hold Steady. Taking advantage of a break in that band, he’s going solo with a new album out on 24th January, titled “Clear Heart Full Eyes”. Here’s a new track from the album, named “New Friend Jesus”.

Now I quite like this new, more acoustic Craig, like he’s just wandered into a bluegrass bar in South Carolina and decided to jam along with the house band, before drinking some blue liquor that looks like it should be used for cleaning combs and passing out in someone’s chicken coop.

You can pre-order the album from here, and if you order quickly you’ll get a free bandana, which must be up there as one of the oddest free gifts of recent years.

More to come, soon, hopefully.

Resurrection Monday

‘Tis Easter Monday here, and who better to listen to than those marvellous chroniclers of modern American life – that heady mix of consumerism, beer, and latent Christianity – than The Hold Steady? With a new album “Heaven Is Whenever” coming out in early May, some early tracks have come leaking out of the Interwebs. My favourite so far is “Rock Problems”, with its superlative bar-room rock that The Hold Steady are experts in.

A Hand Reaching Up To Heaven, Or Raised Up In Celebration Of Doing Loads Of Drugs (Symbolism Ahoy!)

But one little worry about the new album is the news that marvellously mustacheod (sp?) keyboardist Franz Nicolay has done a runner. Which is a massive shame; his piano lines have often elevated their songs above the meat-and-two-veg rock that they could sometimes stumble into. Let’s see if that, over the course of a whole album, his departure makes a difference. I certainly hope not. Going to miss him though; he’s a great live presence and a thoroughly nice chap.

On a related note, isn’t May going to be a mental month for new releases from some great bands? The Hold Steady, The National and Broken Social Scene all have new records out. I believe the vernacular is “Woot”.

MP3: Rock Problems by The Hold Steady

Pre-Order “Heaven Is Whenever” (CD)

Buy “Boys and Girls in America: Special Edition” (CD/MP3) (And you should)

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Albums Of The Decade (Part Four)

First off, let me say, oh balls, I missed something…

My Photoshop Crashed And Did This

Devendra Banhart – Rejoicing In The Hands (2004)

Pretty much kicked off the whole freak folk movement. Not quite as mind-boggling as his first album, but a far more listenable and loveable record.

MP3: Will Is My Friend by Devendra Banhart

Buy “Rejoicing In The Hands (Of The Golden Empress)” (CD/MP3)

Right, back to the list. Here’s my own take on the albums of the decade. My criteria? Do I really, really, really love them and can I listen to them happily all the way through?

Parts One, Two, and Three. Enjoy!

Like Kandinsky, Only Less So

Wolf Parade – Apologies to the Queen Mary (2005)

A yowling, yelping, thundering record packed full of ideas, vim and vigour. Came out of nowhere, and kept me awake during those early days of being a new father.

MP3: Grounds For Divorce by Wolf Parade

Buy “Apologies to the Queen Mary” (CD)

Great Cloud

Low – The Great Destroyer (2005)

Low turn their amps up past 2, and make a great album. Again, I’d forgotten how good this was until listening to it recently. “Low go pop” is probably pushing it, but they showed that they can engage with the outside world at something approaching the outside world’s pace, rather than their own glacial stride. I’d say it was their best album.

MP3: California by Low

Buy “The Great Destroyer” (CD/MP3)

The Recording Studio

Grizzly Bear – Yellow House (2006)

The most atmospheric album of the decade. And the most baffling, mysterious, ominous, lovely, chilling and gorgeous one too. I caught onto this late (in 2008) and it’s still a wondrous thing.

MP3: Easier by Grizzly Bear

Buy “Yellow House” (CD/MP3)

My Photoshop Crashed Etc

Russian Circles – Enter (2006)

Post-rock meets metal to stunning effect. Doesn’t quite sound like anything else out there, and shows you only need three people to make a Godspeed! style racket.

Micah by Russian Circles

Buy “Enter” (CD)

Boys And Girls On An Album Cover

The Hold Steady – Girls and Boys In America (2006)

When I first heard the line “She was a really cool kisser and she wasn’t all that strict of a Christian” I knew I was in safe hands. Still a high-water mark in making rock and roll transcendant. No-one’s done it this well since Bruce Springsteen back in the ’70’s.

MP3: Hot Soft Light by The Hold Steady

Buy “Boys and Girls in America” (CD/MP3)

Albums Of The Decade (Part One)

Albums Of The Decade (Part Two)

Albums Of The Decade (Part Three)

Albums Of The Decade (Part Five)

Albums Of The Decade (Part Six)

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Holiday Songs, Part 2 – Ybor Rocks

So now I know what Craig Finn of The Hold Steady is on about when he sings about Ybor City. After a lovely day at the Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa, we headed on down to the original Columbia Restaurant in Tampa. It’s situated in the old Hispanic Quarter, now tarted up and brushed up, ready for a late-30’s rock singer from the mid-West to rhapsodise about over the best bar-room rock you’ve heard since the E-Street band tumbled out of Noo Joisey.

And I can see exactly why the various protagonists of Finn’s songs come to Ybor City to drink. The place is filled with bars, clubs, the occasional tattoo parlour and everything else the discerning 20-something needs to have a really messed-up time.

Ok, so we didn’t quite get so drunk that Ybor City almost killed us (again). It’s tough to do that with a 3 year old. At five-thirty in the afternoon. More like a couple of bottles of Modelo Negro (mmm dark beer), some great food and a charming waiter who told us all about his German Shepherd/Rottweiler puppy. That’s trouble brewing, I can tell you.

We drove away playing The Hold Steady’s “Slapped Actress”, with me singing along, badly, backed by my son asking for Feist’s “1,2,3,4”. Ybor City – not just for the hugely drunken moments in life.

Slapped Actress by The Hold Steady

Buy “Stay Positive (Limited Edition Special Package)” (CD)

The Pitchfork 500 Alt Rock 101 Part 2 – Replacements to REM

So here’s the second part of the Alt-Rock 101 article I started last week. We’ve had Sonic Youth, Hüsker Dü and The Meat Puppets, now it’s time for these three:

The Replacements – I Will Dare
Minutemen – History Lesson (Part II)
R.E.M. – So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry)

The Replacements, like Hüsker Dü before them and The Hold Steady after them, hail from Minneapolis. There’s a reason I mention The Hold Steady. In this great article, Craig Finn talks of how they saved his life. As an awkward, slightly geeky teenager, he found The Replacements and they set him onto the path he’s still on today. There’s a great story in which his dad takes him to the local record store to buy “Let It Be”, from which this song stems, and the guy behind the counter turns down the sound on the stereo, points at his dad and him in turn, and says “Cool dad. Cool kid”. You know what? You don’t get that kind of thing downloading MP3’s from iTunes or BitTorrent.

So, after hearing so much about them from bands like The Hold Steady, would the real thing stand up to scrutiny? To repeat a phrase I used in part One, hell yes. It’s not quite as bad as the feeling you get when you read a Gabriel Garcia Marquez book and realise that Salman Rushdie and Louis De Bernieres are plagiaristic hacks, but this more than stands up to some of the best bands around today. And it kicks the ass of the landfill indie currently clogging up the airwaves in the UK.

This is one great, great song. It fairly grooves along, mixing Squeeze and Bruce Springsteen, with a devastatingly catchy chorus in which the singer appears to be trying to get a younger lady to do something inadvisable. Better still, it features a fantastic guitar solo before going off onto a REM-esque jangly bit. No shock there, given that the band’s Peter Buck plays it.

I like it so much I’ve played it about 25 times in the past few weeks. It’s fantastic. It’s power-pop heaven. It’s the best bar-room rock you’ve ever heard. Listen to it now and see if you disagree; I’m sure you won’t. And it’s the same with this next song, by The Minutemen.

Now, I always assumed The Minutemen were a bunch of shouty shouty earnest US hardcore punks, but this came as a massive shock. Over a lovely, jazzy guitar line, singer D. Boon chats laconically about the history of the band, starting with the immortal line “Our band can be your life”. Indeed, for many people they were; part of the hardcore scene that exploded in the early ’80’s, The Minutemen would show up in your town, play, drink and sleep on your floor. Understanding that there was a huge number of disaffected teens in an uncountable number of towns round the US, The Minutemen spoke directly to them, and went out of their way to reach out to them.

And even with 25 years between recording and now, it’s fresh as a daisy. Like all great songs it speaks directly to you, and even though my “fucking corndog” pogoing days are long, long gone, I’m taken straight back to jumping around like a fool to the bands of my teenage years1, and the friends I had then. Tragically, D. Boon would be killed in a van crash a year after recording this. What a waste of a great talent.

And going back to The Hold Steady, here’s their own tribute:

Up against these two songs, REM’s “So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry)” really doesn’t stand up well. It’s that mid-tempo jangly alt-rock with opaque lyrics sung in a slightly irritating way that REM would release from 1983’s Murmur, right through to the present day. Whilst you simply can’t argue with the presence of “Radio Free Europe” on the list, I can’t think of a decent reason why this is on here. Maybe American alt-rock fans of a certain age look back on this song fondly, but for me, a number of their later songs would fit far more comfortably on this list than this song. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a pretty good song, but one of the top 500? Nah.

That’s the Alt-Rock 101. These bands are influential beyond measure and there’s not a guitar band around today who doesn’t owe something to at least one of them.

On a personal level, I’ve gone from not knowing three of these songs, and not knowing anything by two of the bands, to absolutely loving the three songs I didn’t know. If I could go back in time, a thirteen year-old me would get a visit from a taller, slightly overweight, and rather older version of me, clutching vinyl copies of “Let It Be”, “Double Nickels on the Dime”, and “Zen Arcade”, along with a note reading “Play these. Play them every day, get a better guitar and practice it every day, and start that band.”. I dearly hope the thirteen year old would listen. This is music that can change your life, as the song says.

And now I’m off to Amazon to buy the CD’s for the adult me. I suggest you do too.

1 Dinosaur Jnr and The Pixies, since you ask. “Freak Scene” would get me out of a coma.

MP3: I Will Dare by The Replacements

MP3: History Lesson – Part II by The Minutemen

MP3: So. Central Rain by REM

The whole Pitchfork 500 series of articles can be found here.

Buy The Replacements “Let It Be” (CD)

Buy Minutemen “Double Nickels on the Dime” (CD)

Buy REM’s “Reckoning (Deluxe Edition)” (CD/MP3)

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Some Live Stuff – Pavement and The Hold Steady

Thought I’d do a few little live numbers today. First off, Cause=Time (top name, that) posted some great Pavement live mp3’s the other day. Here’s the link to the Live section but for whatever reason, I couldn’t get to the post directly. Anyhow, it’s from Pavement’s last show in 1999, at the Brixton Academy.

Now, Pavement were never the most musically meticulous band in the world, but their live shows always had a great shambolic energy. Some great numbers here, including a marvellously lethargic “Rattled By The Rush” and a jaunty “Stereo”. No Gold Soundz though. *sniff*

One band I loved seeing live was The Hold Steady. Craig Finn’s sheer energy, mixed with Tad Kubler’s great riffs and Franz Kublay’s superb mustache, make for a great live show. I saw them a few months ago playing the Rough Trade shop in London; since I’d come straight from work I was still wearing my suit. When Craig saw me, at the front, he started laughing. Ah, bless him. You can just tell how much this lot love playing live; they’ve usually got huge grins on their faces between songs. I guess they just realise they’ve struck lucky, that they are doing the thing they love the most and are getting thousands of people watching them every night. Lucky sods.

Anyway, they’ve got a live DVD out. Trailer here:

That’s all folks!

Stereo (Live) by Pavement