Archive for the ‘Blues’ Category


Chicago Music Festival Report

April 14, 2010

In 2008, I went to a single day of the Pitchfork Music Festival and all three days of Lollapalooza. In 2009, I did the opposite and went to all three days of Pitchfork and a single day of Lollapalooza. This Summer I’m happy to say I’ll be able to do all three days of both. I have my lovely grandmother who bought me Lollapalooza tickets a a surprise.

A dramatic reenactment of our phone conversation:

“Grandma! Those tickets must have been awfully expensive!”

“Oh, don’t worry, I’ve been saving up quarters.”

Anyway, I thought I’d give my two cents on both festivals’ lineups.

Lollapalooza has ace headliners this year, and they’ve got the goods to call on legions of rock ‘n roll fans throughout the country.

The more mainstream leaning headliners are very strong. Soundgarden is this year’s alt-rock headliner, and the festival’s older devotees and 90’s rock fans will jump to see one of the band’s first reunion shows. Green Day, though they have lost some indie fans since their glory days, have more than enough star power to fill a stadium, and they will probably change the face of the crowd this year. But the real game changer this year, on a brilliant booking move by Perry Ferrell is the pop juggernaut Lady Gaga, who will sell thousands upon thousands of tickets for Lollapalooza. She’ll attract pop fans, preteens and hipsters alike. It stands that not many, if any other festivals have the means or the balls to pull this kind of headliner.

The indie rockers will be drinking tears of joy this year based on the presence of The Arcade Fire alone, who are due for a tour and a new album. They have been out of the live circuit for a while, but they are more than strong enough of a band to make the headliner slot. The Strokes are also a dazzling attraction. Like the Arcade Fire, they’ve also been out of commission for a long time and they’ll enjoy widespread excitement and ticket sales in response to their headlining spot. But the year’s left field headliner is Phoenix, who due in large part to their 2009 album “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix” have skyrocketed to the top of the indie food chain, and this slot will be great for Lollapalooza as well as Phoenix, who will consequently get a huge crowd and massive cred regardless of who they go up against in the lineup.

There’s more than enough other shit to keep just about everyone shelling out cash for at least a one day ticket:  Jimmy Cliff and Devo for the older crowd, Slightly Stoopid for the hippies, The Black Keys for the blues fans, AFI for the emos (they’re still around?), Erykah Badu for R&B and funk fans, and Social Distortion and Gogol Bordello for the punks. Perhaps more importantly, there is a large selection of big indie names on the lineup: The New Pornographers, Spoon, The National, Hot Chip, The Dirty Projectors, Yeasayer, The xx, Stars, Matt & Kim and, my favorite, The Walkmen.

Lollapalooza may have a lot of great acts, but Chicago’s biggest indie festival The Pitchfork Music Festival is comparable if not greater in terms of amount of sheer talent.

As with previous years, there is a whole slew of artists at the Pitchfork Festival that you won’t be able to see in too many other places this summer. From the start, Pavement was the festival’s big seller, probably being the major reason that three day passes sold out within the week they were available. The band have reunited for a tour in support of their compilation album “Quarantine the Past,” and we all couldn’t be happier to have the chance to see them live. The other two headliners, Modest Mouse and LCD Soundsystem, are also sought after bookings this Summer, and they sealed the deal.

But there is much more to rabble about beyond the headliners. Wolf Parade, Liars, Broken Social Scene and St. Vincent are also strong sellers. Other stuff you’ll hear me making noise about: Sleigh Bells, Alla, Kurt Vile and The Tallest Man on Earth.

The festival’s hip hop lineup this year is as strong as it has ever been, featuring the likes of Raekwon, Big Boi and El-P. You’ll see me in the crowd for all three.

There are some other very special acts that you probably won’t be able to see in many other places this Summer, particularly Robyn, Panda Bear, Dam-Funk, Major Lazer, and Lightning Bolt.

In terms of the past year’s up and coming Beach Pop scene, Pitchfork has nearly half of the major bands covered: Beach House, Delorean, Real Estate, jj, Girls, Neon Indian, Surfer Blood, Best Coast and Washed Out will all make appearances, plus the likes of Local Natives, Free Energy, and The Smith Westerns, who are though not exactly beach pop are closely related in style and popularity.

Lollapalooza will always have the capacity to bring together acts that will sell hundreds of thousands of tickets, and still have a strong selection of indie bands on tap. Though smaller and more geared towards a specific crowd, The Pitchfork Festival’s lineup this year has finally matched Lollapalooza’s in terms of sheer talent and diversity. We’ve got two great major music festivals lined up for the Summer, and I’m excited for both.


Off This Century – My Favorite Albums of 2000-2009

December 25, 2009

Robert Johnson – The Complete Recordings

January 3, 2008

Almost exactly seventy years ago, a man who was then known as Robert Johnson passed away. He was poisoned, presumably by a houseman/barkeep whose wife had been flirting with him on an August Evening. Around the same time, a king pin of the then small, homely music industry sent out a middle man to find Johnson, in hopes of striking a record deal. It took until almost a year after Johnson’s death for word to get back to the industry that Johnson was, in fact, deceased. This is not a surprise, considering that the spread of news at the time, let alone in poor black Mississippi (or really, where ever he may have taken up residence at the time), was reserved to word of mouth.

Why then, does this fact interest me so much? I don’t know. I almost find it a little bit funny. It took almost an entire year for word to get back to New York that one of blues’ most popular artists had died. Today, it would have taken the better part of five minutes, for two phone calls to have been made, at quickest. Back when America wasn’t heavily wound in telephone lines, we could apparently have fascinating folklore like this. That kind of distant, legendary intimacy is no longer present.

Robert Johnson is arguably the most important, influential, and respected blues artist of all time. Back in the days when Johnson was still with us, recording equipment was sparse. Johnson recorded a grand total of forty one cuts, twelve of them alternate takes. All forty one cuts are included in this box set, in the highest quality that they could possibly be in. Along with the two disks of music is a very nice booklet containing a factual essay outlining the events of Johnson’s life with as much accuracy and objectivity as possible, and including details of his relationships and musical repertoire. A small essay on the style and spirit of his music is also here, but I contend that it is mostly opinionated trash. Also included are two short essays by Keith Richards and Eric Clapton regarding Robert Johnson, and complete lyrics to each recording. The booklet is altogether rather nice. It also contains both known photographs of Johnson, one of which is on the cover which depicts the man posing rather nicely for the camera, his somehow appreciable lazy eye punctuating his generally handsome face, and his long fingers grasping his guitar. The other picture is arguably the better one. It depicts Johnson once again grasping a guitar, this time very close to the camera, with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth.

Even considering all this, it almost seems extravagant to have made The Complete Recordings a box set. The release could have easily been packaged into a double compact disk format, and released that way. In any case, this box set is bar none the most complete means of getting to know Robert Johnson and his repertoire, or at least what remains of it in the public knowledge today. It’s rare that you can gain such a complete portrait of an artist in one fell swoop. You drop fifteen dollars on this collection, as it costs on, and bam, you are a Robert Johnson fan. That’s all it takes. Unbelievable.

What I learned about Robert Johnson in the weeks since I received The Complete Recordings for Christmas is that I have never owned a more important, rewarding box set in my life. That may be a rather premature statement, considering I have only ever owned four other box sets in the first place. Those are the 1990 Led Zeppelin box set, the James Brown Star Time box set, The Complete Studio Recordings of Led Zeppelin box set, and the Nirvana box set With The Lights Out. All of these other box sets would cost a pretty penny on the market today. And yet, this one for a Delta blues singer who was born nearly one hundred years earlier and is no where close to a household name like the other said artists are is better. It just is. And it costs fifteen dollars.

What the fuck?

The surprise is that, essentially, Robert Johnson is one of the most important American musical artists of the past one hundred years, and you know him already whether or not you recognize his name. From what these recordings play, there is and probably never was a more respectable blues singer in the business. What you hear here is his deceptively complex guitarwork and versatile and soulful voice, on all forty one tracks. Highlights are not few. Kindhearted Woman, Sweet Home Chicago, They’re Red Hot, Terraplane Blues, Phonograph Blues, Walking Blues, Last Fair Deal Gone Down, and Me And The Devil Blues are my personal favorites, but this collection is a treasure trove. When I try to tilt my head and look in at the music from as outside of a perspective as I can give it, this music should bore me utterly. Most all of the songs are made in the same twelve bar structure, and yet on my first straight through listen, I was never bored. Johnson’s unique switchups and naked guitar style enough to keep each cut fresh, even the alternate takes. For a music fan who for the most part isn’t into blues at all, I find myself in awe at what I hear in Johnson’s recordings.

And what I find even more interesting is that upon listening, I can pick many riffs and lyrics from other songs that I already know. As Keith Richards and Eric Clapton indicate, Johnson had an immense influence on The Rolling Stones and Cream, but I hear both of my Led Zeppelin box sets in this music as well. I marveled at Led Zep’s Traveling Riverside Blues for many years, and I always wondered what gave it so much power and energy. I now realize that it mostly comes from Robert Johnson, with John Bonhams crushing beats added. I know a wealth of Red Hot Chili Peppers fans. I mean, almost too many. They would be happy to hear the original cut of They’re Red Hot, which makes the humorous cover seem like a sin to modern recording.

On any given listen, these recordings can be seen in a wealth of different lights. On one listen they may sound happy and uplifting, fiery on another, and solemn and breaking on another. This is blues music at it’s finest.

Basically, you owe it to yourself to acquire the recordings of Robert Johnson somehow, and this is the best way. Fifteen dollars. That’s it. That’s all it takes, and then you have the complete recorded works of one of the single most important musical artists of the past one hundred years. Johnson is indirectly responsible for the development of blues and the creation and development of rock and roll since the 1950s. Robert Johnson is an essential figure to American music and culture. You owe it to yourself to save your lunch money for this one.


The White Stripes – Icky Thump

June 14, 2007


“What’s up?”

“Turn on the radio to XRT.”

“Okay. Why?”

“The new Jack is on!”

“Yeah, I’ve heard it. Do you like it?”

“He’s a damn genius. It has this crazy organ thing. It’s great.”

“I know. I can’t wait for the album to come out.”

I have concluded after careful consideration and honest observation that my mother loves Jack White more than she loves me. I still contend that White Blood Cells was the first album to truly get me interested in music, and since I acquired it so many years ago, I have worked my way through the discography treasuring most every moment. I have very fond memories of sitting in my room doing algebra homework, while my mother watched my stereo from the doorway with subtle wonder. Within a year or two, when I finally owned all of the albums, she would practically break down my door screaming “ITS JAAAACK” as if it was Beatlemania all over again. The fact that spellcheck does not find error in the word “Beatlemania” and does find error in the word “spellcheck” vaguely adds some backbone to the love my mother has for Jack White. She talks about him like he is the favorite child, a son who has gone off to college and, unlike the other children, calls back frequently and sends her beautiful bouquets of flowers on mothers day. Whenever we take a ride in the car, she demands that I bring a White Stripes album. And she constantly praises his genius. She only has to say the word “Jack” to encompass the careers of both The White Stripes and The Raconteurs. It is not as if she does not care about Meg, because we both realize she is necessary to the sound, but she simply has brought her love to that high of a level. He makes her laugh. It sounds like I am exaggerating. Sadly, I am not.

When we heard Get Behind Me Satan was on the production line, we freaked out about equally. I cut out a full page add from The Onion and put it on my wall, above my CD rack. It is still there. It is in obscured light. She called me on the phone and told me about the fantastic single, Blue Orchid. We were very excited. When we finally bough the album, we couldn’t be more indifferent. I was angry. For an album with so much hype, I was pissed that there were so few winning songs. She was more confused and hurt than anything. I remember playing the CD in the car, and when we got to My Doorbell, she simply told me, “I’m sorry, I can’t deal with Jack right now.” That was the breaking point. That is usually a statement that she saves for Axl Rose. That was a rough ride home. I could easily spend an entire review complaining about Get Behind Me Satan. I probably won’t.

Both of our woes were significantly healed by the release of Broken Boy Soldiers by The Raconteurs. We both enjoyed the depth that was given to Jack White’s songwriting, and the quality of the songs, but we realized it wasn’t as heavy as we would like. She sipped a thermos of black coffee in the car.

“This is good, but not Elephant good.”

The milk in my fridge expires on June 19th. On June 19th, the White Stripes’ new album, Icky Thump, will hit stores. I have heard the album. I have not downloaded the leak. I heard it played all the way through on my local alternative rock radio station, Q101. This was a musical experience like almost nothing else I have been through. I have also heard the whole thing legally on the internet, god forbid the only reason I have visited ever in the past five years. I refuse to download the leak mostly because listening to The White Stripes on my stereo as loud as I can and bobbing my head back and forth has been one of the few truly authentic listening experiences for me anymore. The White Stripes are a band whose albums I BUY. I’ll buy all their records, no matter their quality. I have entered cheap, dingy record stores and bought their obscure singles. It’s just something that I do. I cannot steal from The White Stripes, especially a damn good record like this.

One of the issues I had with Get Behind Me Satan was the wishywashy experimentation that they utilized. Marimbas and banjos sounded like a good idea. They weren’t, really. They simply were not used well. When I first heard Icky Thump on Q101, what struck me immediately were two songs in the middle, Prickly Thorn But Sweetly Worn and St. Andrew (This Battle Is In The Air). Both songs mesh together almost as one identity, and they heavily feature bagpipe solos. The former can be compared to Little Ghost off of GBMS, where the band tried a completely different genre. But Little Ghost was a mostly failed attempt at bluegrass while Prickly Thorn But Sweetly Worn is a completely successful European folk song of sorts. And St. Andrew is justification enough that the Stripes have ironed out all of their issues. It features Meg on vocals. Most people cringe at this thought due to the damage that was previously done by Passive Manipulation, but here, Meg recites some nice poetry in a warped voice while the bagpipe and drums rage in the background. This song is not unique, in that interesting instruments like organs pop up more than once on the album, but they don’t simply throw in weird ass effects or instruments for the sake of having them and there are plenty of songs that stick to the classic White Stripes agenda of drums, guitar, and vocals.

As far as a collective sound goes, Icky Thump is the bands heaviest album since their self-titled debut, which had the advantage of an extremely raw production. This album, on the other hand, still has a pretty slick production, but unlike it’s predecessor that doesn’t get in the way of the music. On the title track, Jack’s vocals sound very clear and crisp, and are in fact doubled, an effect that they have done really bad things with in the past. HOWEVER, the doubled vocals are wound very tightly and don’t get to be a problem at all. As for style, the signature blues swagger is picked up again, with great success. Jack goes to work with a soloing style on the bagpipes and organs that is very all over the place, and unspeakably heavy. Beyond that, all of these riffs are rock solid and none of them falter in the places where they might have the opportunity to, another weakness of GBMS. This is classic, vintage White Stripes. Bone Broke, the Spanish themed Conquest, and Little Cream Soda are all classic rockers that will go down in White Stripes history, no doubt.

Strong moments are not few. I can sincerely say that there are no weak songs on the album, but maybe it only seems that way to me because I am a really big White Stripes fan, but it should still mean something that even on the first listen I couldn’t recognize any bad songs beyond the fact that I still can’t. For such a solid album, it’s tough to pick favorites. But I’d have to go with Icky Thump, Prickly Thorn, Rag and Bone, Little Cream Soda, and Catch Hell Blues as personal highlights. But just because the album is at it’s best while doing really heavy blues riffing does not mean that is all it can do. The second and third songs are a little more reserved, at least in comparison to the rest of the album. You Don’t Know What Love is kind of reminds me of some of the pop that is on White Blood Cells. 300 M.P.H. Torrential Outpour Blues is a very mellow little acoustic tune that transforms into a heavy rocker. As far as vocals go, this is second only to Elephant. Especially great is Rag and Bone where Jack and Meg get silly. At points the lyrics sometimes even get dirty, and I have no problems saying this is most likely the sexiest White Stripes album to date as well.

The White Stripes are back with a vengeance. My milk expires in less than a week. All of the record stores in the area have either gone out of business or moved, so me and a carload of friends will give up the extra few dollars and pack it up for Best Buy. The experience of buying records is not like it once was. We can’t go home and spin a record while smoking doobies on the provided paper. But we will go home and crank the stereo all the way up. And I think that my mother will only stand in the doorway nodding her head along with us, and possibly telling us to “turn that shit up.”


The Raconteurs – Broken Boy Soldiers

July 9, 2006

Having heard and thoroughly understood the Raconteurs first (and possibly last) album, I have not actually heard any material from band member Brendan Benson or both members of the Cincinatti band The Greenhornes. So when I’m telling my friends that I got the album from “Jack White’s new band,” I feel a little silly and left out. Because the band is obviously not Jack White’s new band. “New” describes the band as being more than just a one time thing, and there is no word on whether or not this is actually true. But I honestly don’t think I’m the only one who would describe this as Jack White’s new band, because he is clearly out in front the most, and the most well known member of the new superband too. I’m pretty sure no other member of the band sings here at all, except maybe for backup vocals. But what I’m trying to say is, I’m going to talk about the album heavily in relation to the work of Jack White, because he is the one that I am familliar with. So if you want a completely balanced review or you are sick and tired of Jack White’s antics, I reccomend you redirect your browser.

Anyway, I’ll come out and say that this is probably nothing you haven’t heard before somewhere. The entire album is heavily reminiscent of the sixties and seventies, and you could probably dig up some of your parents vinyl that at least vaguely has the same kind of elements. In fact, I was a bit shocked when I heard some of the layerd backup vocals that are a trademark Beatles thing. And the effects Jack throws onto his voice during Blue Veins is very John Lennon esque. I mean, this is a band that isn’t afraid to say that they haven’t forgotten the good old days when you could wear clothes like they do on the cover. But with that said, the album actually covers a whole lot of ground, and it doesn’t sound tired like you would expect an album with this much old-timer influence to be.

The big catch is obviously that Jack has now temporarily left Meg White for a full band with some serious talent. It’s actually still very unnerving for me to not hear Meg’s relentless pounding, and instead a more controlled beat with lots of bass and a few guitars to help it out, and a lot of cool effects and a less raw production. Is that good? Well… Jack seems to think that it is very obvious that it is good. With all due respect, if you do the math, there is no way that this isn’t good. But when I think about it, the real catch with this band is that Jack White is writing music with someone else. White Stripes fans will love this, of course. That isn’t even a question. The curious thing is, in my head, I can lay Meg’s drumming over almost any individual track and it would sound like something the White Stripes would have written. But at the same time, not exactly. The sound is less raw and tough, and that’s a downside to some extent. But the upside is that these songs are clearly being performed in the medium they should be performed in.

I said before that the album covers a lot of ground. It seems that I take pride in reviewing a lot of albums that are diverse. Yes, this album covers a lot of ground, but I would hardly call it diverse. There isn’t any genre switching so much as a heavy variance within the one genre, which is pop/rock. But you never hear the same thing twice on this album, and that is very good. I was actually shocked at the tune Broken Boy Soldier and it’s eastern tinge, and in that song you can actually hear Jack White struggling to break away from his White Stripes mode when he flips on the distortion for his voice. The single, Steady As She Goes, is solid, as is my personal favorite track, Intimate Secretary, reminding us that garage rock revival might not have just been a small phase. There are also a lot of classic pop tunes like Hands and the happy Yellow Sun. There really isn’t too much bad on this album, but there are a few flubs. Level is a tad annoying, the vocals on Together turn an otherwise instrumentally solid piece a little sour, and Can We Call It A Day is just bad. But that’s to be expected. The disk isn’t perfect, but no one was expecting it to be.

I’m sure there is a certain question going through everyones mind. Is this album better than any White Stripes albums? Well, considering I’m a diehard White Stripes fan, I’m probably not the one to answer this question, but I will. It’s better than Get Behind Me Satan, and it’s almost on par with s/t. And I’ll admit, it’s taking a little while to fully settle in, but it’s getting there. It seems like the band worked really hard to make the disk likeable to it’s listeners, and that is good.

The fact of the matter is, this is just really good quality pop. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. And it was really a joy for me to listen to, and the instrumental complexity is something I have been waiting to hear, whether or not it is good for Jacks songwriting escapades. There are some points where I wonder how much is really Jack White and how much is really the rest of the band. Because the quality here is just so high above Jack Whites other recent material that it makes me wonder how he could get so much better on a songwriting level without the help of the other band members. I mean, it’s a given that the other band members have written a lot of the music too, and that Jack White in fact only co-wrote most of these songs. So that question can be answered only by the release of another White Stripes album or another Raconteurs album. At this point I am indifferent to which happens. It’s a good, enjoyable disk that forecasts future success, and that’s all I could have possibly asked for.


The White Stripes – Walking with a Ghost [EP]

May 14, 2006

I’ll level here. I LOVE The White Stripes. And I know I shouldn’t. I usually appreciate the exact opposite kind of music, stuff with layers and details. But I can’t help getting wrapped up into the detroit duo’s minimalist style. I bought Elephant right when it came out a few years ago and I was blown away. I then got White Blood Cells, and I saw the bands knack for writing straight up pop. I also got The White Stripes and De Stijl and saw the bands talent for garage blues. I love their first four albums to death.

And then I picked up Get Behind Me Satan. This should have been the kind of thing I like, or so they tell me. It was supposed to be very different, feature a lot of marimbas, and cover a myriad of styles. I was excited. I still have that newspaper page from The Onion up on my wall. While not a lot of great music came out last year, it seemed like some kind of Angel at least gave me the three things I wanted. A new Foo Fighters album, a new Gorillaz album, and a new White Stripes album. There was a lot of anticipation.

I popped in the CD and it was dreadful. I still can’t get into it. It’s just BAD. Most of the material is under par, except maybe Blue Orchid, Little Ghost, and White Moon, and MAYBE As Ugly As I Seem and Red Rain. But the rest is utter crap, and you have no idea how hard it is for me to swallow that one of my favorite, uh, “bands” made an album that truly sucked. The production is bad too. The PRODUCTION IS BAD. ON A WHITE STRIPES ALBUM. I didn’t even think it was possible at first. Sometimes Jacks voice is played back a tiny bit and the effect is completely flubbed. There are a ton of little details that people will recognize that make this album a bore and a task to listen to. Beyond that, Jack has reached a songwriting low. I don’t even like one of the hit singles “My Doorbell” very much. And Jack could have saved that one with a simple “bout” instead of a quick annoying “about.” The Nurse is a joke. Red Rain is a perfectly good riff rocker ruined by Jacks vocals and that horrid production. It’s a bad album. It happens.

HOWEVER, someone I know snagged a copy of the Blue Orchid single before I actually got Satan. I was pleased. It can be argued that this single was weirder and more out there than the actual album. Blue Orchid is a great song. I’ll admit it. And I like the B-Sides too, even though I know they are kind of bad. I ignored the live version of You’ve Got Her In Your Pocket, because I knew that it would be bad. Looking back, I was right. It must have been hard enought to get that tune right back in the studio, and near impossible live. I saw the Walking with a Ghost EP in the store some months after the disappointment of Satan, and I decided to pick it up. I already had each of the bands albums and a single, so why not start a collection?

Bad idea. The EP features five tracks, four of which are live versions of songs on the bands previous albums. The new one is actually a cover of Tegan and Sarah’s Walking with a Ghost, which gives the EP it’s name. It’s not a very good song. The tune just kind of drones and looks for a place to go, a chorus perhaps, but it never finds this comfort. And the song seems to drift between several verses without any real resolution. I was kind of hoping for a really consistant pop tune with that one. Obviously I never got it. The live tracks are half and half. The Same Boy You’ve Always known is a good take, because it is almost completely acoustic. Same with the As Ugly As I Seem performance. It is extended, and the extra few minutes are interesting. But we also have a live version of The Denial Twist, which is a song I never really liked in the studio, so I don’t like it here either. And the version of Screwdriver makes it seem like Jack is at his bursting point. He almost tries to hush his own vocals, which is a bad idea when he could clearly just explode and the performance wouldn’t break apart. Meg also drifts into a session of Passive Manipulation, which I’m sure the audience was ecstatic about.

Not a good purchase, and I regret it. I’ve been bitten on the ass again here. I’m wondering if it’s going to happen again with Jacks new little side project The Raconteurs. The critics like them, but hell, they liked Get Behind Me Satan too and look how much that let me down. In this new experience, Jack has dropped Meg for a full fledged band to work with. But I know for a fact that Meg White was NOT the problem in Get Behind Me Satan, and only had a small flub in this EP. The majority of this bands problems come from the fact that Jack has reached a new low with his songwriting, and I’m hoping he can pull himself out of this little hole he has dug himself into.