Monday, June 25, 2007

Trivia Hint #4

I guess you could call this past week-plus another period of writer's block, although maybe it's more that I just haven't felt like writing at all. I'll get back on track, though I suppose the fact that it's over a month since my 40th birthday means it's starting to lose its luster.

Actually, the funny thing is (well, not really that funny) I started writing this because I wasn't going to give in to the usual dread that accompanies milestone birthdays. I was really doing a good job of that, or so I thought. However, in the time that has passed since I started this project, I met someone knew, started getting used to having her around, even if it was only a couple days a week, maybe even falling for her. This short-lived relationship has since come to an end, and over the past week I've found myself falling into the trap I was trying to avoid.

Well, fuck all that. I guess I'm going to have to have a good listen to Son Volt's "Drown" and move on. The ironic part, though, is that in a lot of ways, this recent attempt at romance reminds me too much of the initial circumstance that led to that song becoming an anthem of sorts. Whether or not this song still has the same effect on me, one thing I know for sure is that I'm not falling into the same extended funk that I did back in '96.

On to the trivia hint...the sixth and seventh answers to the question also share both of their bands in common. One of them also shares a band, not discussed at all in this blog, in common with one of the first five answers. That is, one of those for which I've already given a hint.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Pernice Brothers (1998)

This is a little off topic, but it's still music related. My iPod died a couple months ago. It was pretty devastating, but I took it pretty well, despite the fact it was just short of its second birthday and I had neglected to purchase the extended warranty, so I was pretty much screwed. I tried at least a dozen times over the course of a couple weeks to resurrect it by resetting, but to no avail. It kept coming back with the frowny face that tends to indicate a hardware problem.

I read the online support information and tried everything they suggested, but I was convinced it was dead. However, just before I threw it on the cart, Sara suggested we go to the Apple store together, as hers had died recently as well. There was something about the strength in numbers that would come from the two of us accompanying each other to the dreaded Genius Bar. Little did we know when we arrived there were no more geniuses available that day, so I logged onto the in-store Mac to schedule an appointment for two days later.

Sara wasn't with me when I returned. While I was waiting in line, I pulled the source of my frustration out and started playing with it (that sounds bad, doesn't it?). I clicked the hold button back and forth a couple times, and saw the shaded Apple logo that usually appears as the thing is re-booting. I watched and waited for the frowny face to come back, but it didn't. In its place was the standard menu. When I clicked on Artists, there it directory of the 55+ GB of music on my iPod, all of it intact.

So, tonight I have it set up on the HomeDock I use to play it through my stereo, and I've been listening to my entire Pernice Brothers collection as I've been writing the following...

I discovered Joe Pernice at the previously discussed Wilco/Scud Mountain Boys Saratoga double bill. Both Len and I purchased their then current album, Massachusetts, at that show. Little did we know it would turn out to be their swan song. We were able to explore their back catalog, but it was limited, as the two-disc The Early Year would compile both of their prior albums, Pine Box and Dance the Night Away.

We were aching for more excellent alt-country at the time, and Massachusetts absolutely fit the bill. The two earlier albums were good, but a little too pure country for us to really embrace. When the somewhat ironically named Pernice Brothers (Joe's brother was only a part-time member of the band and his role has diminished since) rose from the ashes of the Scud Mountain Boys, we were a little disappointed there was very little alt-country twang on their debut, Overcome by Happiness. Even more ironically, a song from that album, "Chicken Wire", was recently named #1 on AOL/'s list of the "25 Most Exquisitely Sad Songs in the Whole World."

Overcome by Happiness would grow on me, though, and would close out my 1998 second only to Richard Buckner's Since. Scott second-guessed my ranking of this album ahead of Varnaline's Sweet Life, and in hindsight I agree. Len would also contend it wasn't as good as Massachusetts, but was an impressive debut. A more appropriate comparison would be to point out it couldn't hold a candle to the two masterpieces that followed.

I've often made the statement I might be the world's biggest Pernice Brothers fan, as few agree with that previous statement, and with my evaluation of 2001's The World Won't End and 2003's Yours, Mine and Ours as the #1 albums of their respective years. I might have some competition from the writer of Gilmore Girls, a show I've never watched for more than five minutes despite numerous Pernice references. Re-thinking my previous discussion about my second favorite artist, it's a sin of omission I left Joe Pernice out of that conversation.

The World Won't End is definitely still my favorite, but I'm sure Sara's is Yours, Mine and Ours, as that is the album that kicked off her obsession...thanks to me, of course. In fact, since Sara practically invented the concept of bludgeoning an album to death, I'm really surprised she never killed any of the Pernices' for me, given all the times she drove me to and from work.

Since Lee has already read me the riot act regarding Gillian Welch, I'm a little nervous about opening up this can of worms, but Joe Pernice is also on a non-music related short list of mine. That is, my favorite Red Sox fans. I can't even explain my criteria for this list, but there's something about these folks that makes me appreciate their love for a team I can't help but despise, thanks to all the idiotic yahoos in this town. And yes, they're more idiotic than Yankee yahoos, which there are plenty of, because they somehow believe in this ridiculous notion they're the most intelligent fans in baseball. I say with a great deal of confidence that the only Red Sox fans who know more about baseball than I do are Peter Gammons and Jerry Remy, and the latter is debatable.

Wow, I thought I was sympathizing with Red Sox fans here. Ok then, the list...there are only four of them. I couldn't even come up with someone to round it out to a top five. These are in no particular order, but obviously Joe Pernice is one. Then there's Sara's mother, she of the classic quote, "I really like Dan...even though he's a Yankees' fan." Apparently, she can't say the first half of that without adding her little qualifier. Third, there's Craig, Lee's college pal, who has to be the least confrontative Red Sox fan I've ever met. I still appreciate the story of how Lee mailed Craig his "1918" t-shirt after the Sox won the World Series...not only a great expression of sportsmanship, but hilarious as well.

Last, but of course, not least, is Gert. I still love to tell the story of the day I met Gert. It was my first day of work at Forsyth in March of 2002. Gert came into my office and introduced herself. I had no idea who she was, for all I knew she was a member of the Board of Trustees. After about a minute of small talk, she says "...enough about that, let's talk about baseball." I feel like from that moment forward, there was an instant connection. It's as if we'd known each other for a year rather than a minute. Gert and I are still close friends, despite the fact I left Forsyth a year ago and am not able to walk down the hall to talk with her about baseball or life (two somewhat interchangeable concepts) every day as I used to.

Though I haven't been as excited about their last two albums, both have been solid and predictably enjoyable efforts. Still, as the only artist to command the top spot on my year-end list on two separate occasions, the Pernice Brothers maintain a reverential status that is second only to Neil Young, and that's saying something.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Trivia Hint #3

The fourth and fifth answers to the trivia question share both of their bands in common. Additionally, one of them attended the same high school as I, and the other holds the distinction of being the youngest of the 11, and is the only one born in the 70's.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Lucinda Williams (1998)

My introduction to Lucinda Williams was "You're Still Standing There", her magnificent duet with Steve Earle on his 1996 album, I Feel Alright...that and her cover of Victoria Williams' "Main Road" on 1993's benefit album, Sweet Relief. But, it was the former that really blew me away. I subsequently read about the Lucinda legend in No Depression, particularly how she's such a perfectionist that it took her six years to complete the followup to 1992's Sweet Old World.

The result of this six-year process was 1998's Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, an absolute masterpiece and well worth the wait. I've already discussed my inherent but unintentional prejudice against female artists, so it should come as little surprise that this album's year-end rank of #4 on my list was the highest charting female artist to date. What might be a little less surprising is that no female artist has climbed higher since, with this ranking being matched only by Kelly Willis' What I Deserve in 1999, Kathleen Edwards' Failer in 2003, and Joanna Newsom's Ys in 2006. This, of course, does not include the #2 ranking of The Fiery Furnaces' Blueberry Boat in 2004 or The New Pornographers' #3 effort of 2005, Twin Cinema, as both bands receive significant contributions from, but are not really fronted by, female artists.

After Car Wheels and its followup, 2001's Essence, the strength of Lucinda's output has dropped off considerably, in my opinion. Though 2004's World Without Tears and this year's West were well received by many, I feel they lack the great songwriting of her previous work. I really only dipped into her back catalog a little as well, purchasing Sweet Old World, and not hearing her self-titled 1988 release until Sara made a copy for me a few years ago. It was probably as a result of bonding over Lucinda that I turned Sara on to Kathleen Edwards, and I was rewarded when Sara got her to sign the liner notes of my copy of her debut album, "To Dan, got her hooked, eh?" That last touch indicating she somehow knows of my history of fondness for Canadian artists. The only thing about Kathleen Edwards that Sara and I could never agree on was who had a better chance of sleeping with her. Probably neither of us.

Speaking of Kathleen Edwards, and other female alt-country artists such as Kelly Willis, to what extent is Lucinda Williams owed some credit for their ascendancy? I can't necessarily speak for their careers in general, but I can for their esteem in my book. Lucinda is, in some respects, the Jackie Robinson of my musical world. For years, I oppressed these female artists, never giving them the chance to prove that their talents could match up with their male counterparts. My admiration for Joni Mitchell was kind of an aberration, but Lucinda Williams has paved the way for those who've followed.

Alright, I'm exaggerating at my own expense here. Still, despite a diminished interest in the alt-country scene in recent years, female countryish vocalists are still a bit of a weak spot for me. They're not all necessarily in the mold of Lucinda Williams, but in my book, she certainly deserves some serious pioneering credit and, of course, the distinction of being the second female artist to infiltrate my Fab 40.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Richard Buckner (1997)

The inclusion of Richard Buckner completes a trifecta of sorts. I've previously discussed Anders' recommendation of Joe Henry and Jud's of Steve Earle in 1996. Well, it wasn't until the following year, but John Parker gets the credit for Richard Buckner. It was during a Varnaline tour, while joining the band for dinner at the Middle East prior to a show that the subject came up. Buckner was scheduled to play TT the Bear's the following week, and John recommended highly that Len and I go see him. He also said to say hello from the guys in Varnaline, but we didn't. In fact, years later, and after all the tours Anders has done with him, and all the times I've seen Buckner live subsequently, I've never talked to him. He actually seems approachable, unlike Jay Farrar, but it must be his somewhat imposing size, lerch-like look and his unconfirmed reputation as one of the toughest guys in indie rock that's intimidated me a bit.

This, of course, reminds me of a discussion Len and I would sometimes have on the subject of meeting musicians whom we were fans of. Having fairly obscure taste, the fact that we were able to see some of our favorites at such small venues was an advantage that was not lost on us. Being huge fans of Uncle Tupelo, and later Son Volt, the main focus of this conversation was Jay Farrar, as Anders toured with him several times. I'm sure Jay is a decent guy, but given his reputation as a reserved and private person, we basically decided we didn't really care whether or not we ever met him. There certainly were opportunities. At one show at the Paradise, we were hanging out backstage with Anders after his set, while Jay and Mark Spencer were on stage. Near the end of the show, we opted to rejoin the audience to watch them perform their last few songs rather than remain backstage and possibly get to meet Jay.

Being a Neil Young fanatic, the question often crossed my mind as to what I would say to him if I ever had the chance. I really love "Cortez the Killer", man? The bottom line is, I have no idea what I'd say, and I'm basically happy that I'm not one of "those fans". My only real brushes with greatness have been baseball players. In the spring of 1993, during the year that I lived in Fort Myers, FL, I was at a restaurant with a few co-workers and spotted Dave Winfield dining alone. It was his first year with the Twins, who trained in Fort Myers. I mustered up the nerve to approach him and, although it was a brief and satisfying exchange in which he referred to George Steinbrenner as "The Fat Man", I've since decided that there are times that these people should be left alone.

A couple years ago, I was eating at a Thai restaurant in the Back Bay on a Sunday night, with some friends who knew nothing about baseball. Just as we were getting ready to leave, I realized that Mariano Rivera was dining, with Felix Rodriguez, at a table behind us. I'll admit that I became pretty starstruck at that moment, so I headed to the bathroom to figure out what I was going to do. On my way out, I stopped at his table briefly and wished them luck in their upcoming series with the Red Sox. Rivera, in a very softspoken and polite tone, said, "thank you", and that was it. I was pretty giddy about the whole thing and immediately called Jud to tell him what had just happened.

Oh yeah...Richard Buckner. I went to that TT's show per John's recommendation and immediately bought Devotion & Doubt, which would eventually make that year's top ten. One year later, the magnificent Since would be my album of 1998, and 2000's The Hill completed a three album run of top ten honorees, second only to Steve Earle's streak of four consecutive top ten records. None of these, however, are as good as 1994's Bloomed, which was reissued in the late 90's and remains my favorite Buckner album.

Though the three albums that Buckner has released since have failed to chart as high, he remains one of the most consistent and enduring artists from my alt-country period. While I have been generally unenthusiastic about the recent output of some of my favorites from that period, the aforementioned Earle included, Buckner consistently writes and makes music that, while it never strays far from his standard formula, rarely manages to disappoint.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Trivia Hint #2

The third answer to the trivia question is the only one of the 11 who is no longer alive. He and I also share a former city of residence, although he lived there very briefly and before I was born.

Big Star (1997)

When Scott and I were living together in Albany (he was my roommate, not my "partner" as one local proprietor asked), he owned a copy of #1 Record/Radio City, their first two albums on one cd. I couldn't get past Chris Bell's vocals on the album opener, "Feel", and instantly dismissed it, without even getting through one song.

I'm not really sure what possessed me to buy it on a whim a couple years later. This was still a year before "In the Street" would become the theme song of "That 70's Show". Honestly, I just think it was a case of the intrigue of knowing their reputation as a band that never achieved commercial success but had a tremendous influence on numerous acts that followed. I figured that, if I gave it a chance, I would probably like it. This turned out to be not entirely true. I was absolutely awestruck, to the point that I began referring to Big Star as the band who picked up where the Beatles left off. That is, they would have if anyone was really paying attention, and if they stopped letting Andy Himmel occasionally contribute one of his songs. It's a little unfair of me to say that, I suppose. "Way Out West" isn't bad, but "The India Song" is abominable, possibly one of my least favorite songs by an artist that I love. Well, I guess Neil Young would have something to say about that.

I can still see myself living in my little dive of a motel room in Framingham that I got a monthly deal on because I was tired of checking in and out of the Red Roof Inn every week. I was in the process of relocating to the Boston area for the job that is associated with the aforementioned evil pager. I have vivid memories of sitting in that room, escaping from the reality of my very stressful new job, listening to my two recent discoveries, #1 Record/Radio City and Whiskeytown's Strangers Almanac. Unfortunately, that wasn't my only means of escapism.

Escapism...I know it's going to be difficult to believe, but I'm going to go off on an unrelated tangent here. Tom Petty's 1999 release, Echo, was a nice little comeback...not necessarily a return to his original Heartbreakers-era form, but better than his decent but unremarkable material from earlier in the decade. I absolutely loved that album's first song, "Room at the Top", which was clearly about using substances to temporarily forget one's troubles, maybe the by-product of his recent divorce. I purchased Echo at Rock Bottom Records in Portsmouth, NH, during one of the many times I passed through while traveling between Boston and Poland Spring, Maine.

It was also during this visit that I heard James Iha's Let it Come Down playing in the store and instantly fell in love. Basically, the album consists of 11 beautifully sappy love songs, reminiscent of 70's AM radio soft rock, that have a certain melancholic optimism unrivaled by anything else I've ever heard. I realize that's a bit of an oxymoron, and that the album has been criticized for recycling essentially the same melody over and over, and that I'm going way out on a limb here, but I'll forever stand by my contention that this is one of the best albums I've ever heard.

For those of you who don't know, Iha was the rhythm guitarist and co-founding member of The Smashing Pumpkins, and his only solo album bears absolutely no resemblance to that band's output. I've often fantasized about starting my own record label and releasing albums by criminally underappreciated acts such as Reservoir and Tom Leach, and maybe even Shore Leave. In retrospect, though, I have to say that my first order of business would be to convince Iha to sign on for the long-awaited followup to this masterpiece.

Getting back on track here, for years I was under the mistaken impression that Alex Chilton was Big Star. I guess I never bothered to reconcile the fact that there were two distinctly different voices on 1971's #1 Record. It wasn't until I heard the excellent, but posthumously released, Chris Bell solo compilation, I Am the Cosmos, that I realized the original Big Star was just as much Bell's band as it was Chilton's. In fact, Bell was a founding member and Chilton was recruited to join the band after his stint as the teenage lead singer of The Box Tops.

Unfortunately, as is the case with many co-fronted bands, the two couldn't get along and Bell left after the first record. 1974's Radio City was clearly an Alex Chilton affair, and it was just as good as its predecessor, but it seems a shame that this tremendous collaboration only existed for an album's worth of material. Any hope of a reconciliation ended when Bell was killed in a 1978 car accident.

Big Star would release only one more album, 1978's Third/Sister Lovers, before calling it quits. Their 2005 comeback album, In Space, doesn't necessarily tarnish their legend, but still kind of reminds me of Michael Jordan's comeback in his late 30's...not disastrous, but pointless.

Big Star defined power pop and paved the way for bands like The Replacements, Teenage Fanclub and Cheap Trick. More importantly, to me that is, they played a major role in influencing my eventual shift in taste, away from country influenced rock towards music firmly grounded in pop sensibility.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Old 97's (1997)

1997 should have been the year of the Old 97's, but unfortunately I didn't pick up Too Far to Care until late in the year. So, most of the time I spent with this album in frequent rotation was in early '98. Back then, I wasn't as adamant about having my year-end list completed by New Year's Eve, so I spent the first couple of months of '98 listening heavily to Teenage Fanclub's Songs from Northern Britain, Reservoir's Pink Machine, and Too Far to Care, trying to decide if they were top ten worthy. Old 97's would eventually slot in at #8, while the other two would get edged out. In hindsight, Too Far to Care was probably my second or third favorite album of '97, that is among those I was aware of at the time, and the 97's instantly became synonymous with the term cow-punk in my lexicon.

In early 1998, I crashed and totaled my 1990 Nissan Sentra. I won't get into all the details of that one (only a few people know the full story and two of them are named Scott), except to say that, right after the accident, that evil pager of mine went off and, seconds later, was launched deep into the woods. The car was really only totaled because it had a bent frame and wasn't worth much anymore. In fact, I didn't really bother to find out. I just called the junk yard and said "come and get it".

Anyway, the reason I bring this up is that, shortly thereafter, I bought the car that I'm still driving, a 1998 Subaru Impreza. You wouldn't know it anymore, but that vehicle was deceptively powerful in its younger years. What does all this have to do with the Old 97's, you ask? Not much, except I recall driving that car around and belting out the lines, "She said, do you have a car? And I said, do I have a car?" every time I listened to "Barrier Reef". I guess you had to be there.

Another of my favorite lines from that album was "Well I'll find another lady, and you'll wreck another man" from "Salome", Rhett Miller's ode to lost love. Really, though, I never felt like saying that to anyone. My favorite song from Too Far to Care, at least in the early days of my Old 97's fandom, was "Big Brown Eyes". But, it's not because I could identify with the lyric, "If that phone don't ring one more time, well I'm gonna lose what's left of my mind". Definitely not.

On the tour to support that album, Len and I saw them at TT the Bear's in Cambridge. In fact, that show was Len's introduction to the band. During one of the openers, who we weren't really interested in, Len and I almost played a doubles match in pool against two of the 97's. I believe it was Murry Hammond, the bassist and occasional singer-songwriter, and drummer Philip Peeples, but they had to go get ready for their set before Len and I finished off our opponents.

This also reminds me of the time Scott and I were playing pool against each other after a show at Bogie's in Albany. This was undoubtedly part of the Lifetime Pool Achievement, for which Scott and I decided to keep track of our record against each other for the rest of our lives. I guess there's only a 50/50 chance that the winner will be able to celebrate, and even that will be bittersweet, I suppose, but the tournament has been dormant for quite some time. In fact, neither of us remember what the score was, but we do know that it was tied. I'm thinking something like 33-33.

Anyway, The Reverend Horton Heat had been the headliner that night at Bogie's, and Jim Heath, the Reverend himself, was waiting to play the winner. Well, Scott and I were drunk, beyond the point that the alcohol improves your pool playing skills, and were so bad that he eventually picked up his quarters from the table and left. I'm not sure why we were at that show anyway, as neither of us were ever really a fan of that band. There was probably some connection to one of the opening acts, or maybe our friend Carl, who worked the sound board there until he was unceremoniously canned, got us in for free.

The 97's two earlier albums, Wreck Your Life and Hitchhike to Rhome, were very good as well. The latter wasn't very well regarded, and I suppose it did expose Rhett Miller's immaturity as a songwriter, but that quality also made songs like "St. Ignatius", "Hands Off" and "If My Heart Was a Car" quite endearing.

I was disappointed in the band's move in a more pop-oriented direction on 1999's Fight Songs. As a regular reader of No Depression, the power pop transformation of many alt-country bands turned into a divisive issue, with Wilco's Summerteeth being another prime example. Of course, the purists wanted more of the same from their favorites, but the flip side was the desire of these artists to avoid being pigeon-holed. Although not entirely in the purists camp, and despite the fact that 2001's Satellite Rides showed the band improving on their new formula, for me this was the beginning of a downward slide for the 97's, and Rhett Miller's subsequent solo material certainly adds fuel to the fire.

Seeing Miller play solo and attempt to stir up a little nostalgia by playing some of the Old 97's fan favorites was further evidence that these songs were missing a key element without Ken Bethea on guitar, and that nothing could ever match the cow-punk energy of the original Old 97's formula.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Trivia Hint #1

While I suffer through a bout of writer's block, I'm going to introduce the first of a series of hints to the trivia answers:

The first two of the 11 answers share one of their two bands in common, and although they both are credited with appearing on many of the same compilations, they never played together in that band. Also, one of these two shares a birthday with me, although he's a bit older.

By first two, I mean the first two revealed in my chronological list.