Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Trivia Hint #6a

In my five previous hints, I've covered all nine of the indisputable answers. My last hint(s) is(are) regarding the two disputable answers.

The two disputable answers were definitely official members of one of their two bands, but not necessarily the other. It depends on your sources actually.

Both of these guys have sisters in the music business. One of them has an older sister who is more successful and well known than he is. The other has a twin sister who would have to be considered less successful than her brother, although he isn't exactly a household name.

Oh yeah...and, obviously, both are men. In fact, all 11 answers are male...not surprisingly.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Okkervil River (2005)

I'd known of Okkervil River for a few years, assuming they were just another alt-country band, and I was long since over that genre. It was probably because they had received some press in No Depression that I was under this misconception, but in 2005 I learned I couldn't have been more wrong. Ironically, it was due to more press that I figured this out. Possibly the most influenced by a record review I've ever been was PopMatters' 2005 review of Black Sheep Boy. I think this is the part that drew me in:

Black Sheep Boy
is rife with insecurities, bad decisions, jealousy, cheating, and the alienation of always trying to force a connection with the wrong people...We feel alone, angry, or sad. We look for love and are rejected. We choose a quick or slow self-destruction. Perhaps there is a redemption, or at least short moments of it.


I instantly knew that I would love this album. It was about me, after all. I'm long since over embracing my own misery (and even that might be a slight exaggeration), but I still can appreciate the tragic comedy of one particular aspect of my life...well, sometimes. And, I'm a sucker for music that makes me think and feel something deep inside, as only subject matter I can relate to is capable of.

Black Sheep Boy hits the nail on the head, from start to finish. But, the beauty and intensity of this album kicks off from the moment Will Sheff creepily sings "Some nights I thirst for real blood, for real knives, for real cries" on the album's second track, and continues to his desperate closing breaths, "I am waiting, you know that I am, calmly waiting to make you my lamb", on the album's second to last song. The two songs these quotes refer to, "For Real" and "So Come Back, I Am Waiting" are both absolutely stunning, the latter being the greatest album ender that, unfortunately, is not the last song on the album.

I recall driving down the Taconic Parkway on my way to Poughkeepsie for a weekend, cranking that song and belting out the lyrics while tears attempted to escape my eyes (some succeeded). I'm not really sure why. That's just the way I am, I guess. Or maybe that song, or this album, reminds me of sometime, or someplace, or somebody...or some combination thereof.

I used that song to close out my 2005 year-end compilation, even if the boys in the band erred in their decision not to. I suppose a few song-sequencing choices would be my only minor complaint with this album. A couple of sentences near the end of the review pretty much sum it up for me:

Okkervil River's Black Sheep Boy is a record that stuns on first listen, then manages the elusive—it sinks deep into your soul... If a finer record than Black Sheep Boy is released in 2005, it will be a very, very good year.

A finer album than Black Sheep Boy was not released during 2005, but it was a very, very good year nevertheless. It didn't take long for me to decide that this album would top my year-end list. There was still 5 or 6 months to go, but I still knew it. Although momentarily, on a somewhat delusional day in late December, I considered bumping it in favor of Sufjan Stevens' Illinois...a record certainly worthy of that distinction, but one that didn't come close to meaning as much to me as Okkervil River's did.

I've spent a little time with each of Okkervil River's older albums, and I've liked what I've heard, particularly 2002's Don't Fall in Love With Everyone You See and the earlier songs they've played at the two live shows I've seen. Still, this band makes this exclusive list on the strength of just one album. One of these days I'll sit down and attempt the impossible task of ranking my top 50 or 100 albums of all-time. Whether this happens one year from now or 20, I'm pretty certain there will be a place reserved for Black Sheep Boy in the top ten.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

The Flaming Lips (2002)

As with many people, my introduction to The Flaming Lips was their 1993 alternative rock radio hit, "She Don't Use Jelly". I considered the song a bit of a novelty, and it was, but it was also pretty good. After a while, though, I got sick of it, and it certainly didn't give me any reason to consider taking them seriously.

Fast forward to Christmas Eve of 1999. As has become a bit of a tradition in recent years, and for all I know this may have been the year it started, Scott, Anders and I meet up at Scott's sister Julie's house. Yes, she's the sister referred to way back in the Styx post. That evening, when Anders remarked at how good the new Flaming Lips' album The Soft Bulletin was, it was difficult to believe he was talking about the same band who sang about spreading vaseline on toast.

Anders' opinion has always held a lot of weight with me, but I ignored this recommendation. That is, until three years later, when I heard some good press about Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. After listening to a few samples on (remember those days?), I bought the album and was hooked instantly from the opening moments of "Fight Song", an anthem of perserverance if there ever was one.

Yoshimi would go on to earn my album of the year honors. 2002 was also the year that I officially embarked on my new career and ended a 2 1/2 year relationship that went on at least a year and a half too long. Actually, it turned out to be one of those that wasn't over even when it was over, but I won't get into that.

Around Christmas of that year, having already completed my top ten, so I no longer had to devote all of my time to listening to music from the current year, I picked up a copy of The Soft Bulletin. Three years after Anders' initial recommendation, I finally realized what a masterpiece it is. For a while I thought it was better than Yoshimi, and most people agree it is, but now I'm not so sure. Soft Bulletin is more consistent, but Yoshimi is more varied and, therefore, more interesting. I highly recommend that you spend the requisite three months obsessing over both of these albums to decide for yourself.

Last year's At War With the Mystics made my top ten, but I still think it falls a little short of the brilliance of its predecessors. Nevertheless, their tour to support said album was fantastic, and if you've yet to share in the Flaming Lips live experience, what are you waiting for? I can honestly say this is the only show I've ever been to where I felt a bond with every stranger I came into contact with. And, given my fondness for well chosen live covers, the "War Pigs" encore was a joyful experience, especially with images of Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld flashing on the screen behind the stage. Wayne Coyne is no Ozzy, but the band pulled it off admirably.

Venturing into the back catalog, I still prefer 1995's Clouds Taste Metallic to Transmissions from the Satellite Heart, the album that gave birth to their brief flirtation with commercial success. I'm not a huge fan of the older material, and I still haven't had that Zaireeka listening party that I've been talking about for years. In fact, that's one CD I own that I've never listened to, and I've refused to listen to the blended versions of this adventurous set of four discs intended to be played simultaneously on different CD players. Therefore, I still haven't heard it, not even a second of it.

The Flaming Lips and the remaining three bands on this list represent the new wave, so to speak, of music I'm into...the post alt-country period, if you will. The Lips are easily the most established band of the four. Still, I expect and look forward to future Flaming Lips material, while I'm also afforded the perfect opportunity for further exploration of the past work (i.e. Zaireeka) of one of my newer favorite bands.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Trivia Hint #5

I've given you hints regarding 7 of the 11 answers so far. I'm going to cover the remaining four in two more hints, for those of you who are still reading this, despite my decreased output of late.

Here goes...the final two indisputable answers also share both of their bands in common. Are you sensing a pattern here? Also, they share similar roles in both bands as the two answers that were the subject of hint #4. Am I making sense here?

Alright, I'll get even more obvious. Each of these pairs includes a guy who was the drummer of both bands shared in common. I don't need to give a further hint about the other two.

I'm not sure if that cleared anything up. Good luck.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Alejandro Escovedo (1999)

No Depression magazine named Sheila E's uncle, Alejandro Escovedo, their artist of the decade for the 1990's. The peculiar thing about this was that they awarded him this honor in mid-1998. Considering the magazine was named for an album by Uncle Tupelo, and that Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy were both very relevant throughout the decade, I was slightly appalled. Still, I had to find out what the fuss was all about.

I started with the live compilation More Miles Than Money, released in 1998. I was quite impressed with a handful of songs, especially "Pissed Off 2 A.M.", but I wasn't blown away. I didn't give up, though, even after being quite unenthusiastic about his side project Buick MacKane's 1997 release, The Pawn Shop Years, which also had a few standout tracks, but overall was quite inconsistent.

1999's Bourbinitis Blues was the album that really pulled me in, and 2001's A Man Under the Influence more than reinforced my enthusiasm. Both would make my top ten in their respective years and led to some back catalog exploration with the purchases of Gravity and Thirteen Years.

The quality that made Alejandro stand out most to me was, and still is, his showmanship. He possesses a tremendous gift for engaging an audience, with his music and his storytelling. He's one artist I'd definitely like to meet. He also has a knack for selecting excellent covers to pepper into his shows of mostly originals. The Stooges' "I Wanna Be Your Dog" and Mott the Hoople's "I Wish I Was Your Mother" come to mind.

It was at my first Alejandro show that I was caught in a lie to a current employer. In 2001, I was working part-time as a Reference Librarian at Framingham State College, while working my way through grad school. I worked a couple weeknights from 5-10, in addition to Sundays. One particular weeknight that I was scheduled to work, Alejandro was playing Johnny D's in Somerville. I told the Head Reference Librarian that I needed to leave early that night, and gave some excuse related to my school work. I'm not sure why I didn't just ask for the night off, but I know I felt guilty about leaving early, because this workaholic supervisor of mine would end up working until 10pm after she had already worked a typical 8-5 day.

I met up with Len at this show, and who did I see there but the Library Director, otherwise known as my boss's boss. It was crowded so I was able to avoid her, or so I thought, but I was a little disappointed that I couldn't approach her and discuss our common admiration of the music of Senor Escovedo. As it turns out, I would get the chance. The next day, I received an email from Bonnie, the Director, asking if she'd seen me at the show the night before. I owned up to my mistake in judgment, not to her, but to the supervisor to whom I'd lied. She was surprisingly understanding. Bonnie never revealed that she had any knowledge of my dishonesty, and our Alejandro bond lives on. I've seen her at one show subsequent to this, and every time I talk to her his name comes up. She remains on my list of references to this day.

Last year, apparently I made an offhanded remark to another Director of mine, now my former boss. She had always expressed interest in learning about new and interesting music, of any variety except heavy metal, despite the fact that she is mostly familiar with classical. Near the end of my tenure at my old job, I made a casual mention of Alejandro, and when he played a show late last year at the Museum of Fine Arts, she attended. I showed up at my former employer's Christmas party weeks later, and my former boss Susan, after a few glasses of wine, went on and on raving about the show.

After a 2-plus year bout with Hepatitis C, he released his fine comeback album, The Boxing Mirror, last year. The illness almost killed him, but now everything seems back to normal. I can't think of anyone who is more deserving of a second chance.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Tom Leach (1998)

One band that is noticeably absent from this list is Blue Mountain. They are one of a handful of bands that just missed the cut and were painful for me to leave off. That's not to say they don't have a place in all of this, though. They were definitely a significant part of the alt-country heyday and it was at one of their shows that Len and I made a great discovery.

Tom Leach was the opener at that show at TT the Bear's in Cambridge, obviously selected by the local promoter for his potential appeal to Blue Mountain's roots-rocking audience. Also on that bill were Leach's Slow River/Rykodisc labelmates, the Purple Ivy Shadows from Providence, another unfortunately underappreciated band that no longer exists...although there have been rumors of a reunion involving founding members Chris Daltry and Erik Carlson.

Back then, we likened Tom to the second coming of Johnny Cash. Of course, his sound definitely owed a debt to the legends of country music, but his influences turned out to be a little more varied than that. Regardless, he became my first and only favorite local artist of my days in Boston, and quite possibly the artist whom I've seen live the most times, although Shore Leave must be creeping up on that distinction.

I'm not sure if it's deserved, but I give Tom Leach the credit for inspiring Len's golf method of rating songs. Len and I played golf, albeit poorly, together during our high school years, at places we would later hang out late at night drinking, such as College Hill. Len's system was pretty basic, but it worked. Par was a decent song, with a Birdie being a very good song, and an Eagle was one of those songs that would give you goosebumps every time you heard it. We never really bothered to rate songs that were above par, except to refer to those we didn't like by artists we did, as Bogies. I suppose we could have gone further in that direction, considering a golf score can increase infinitely, just as a song can be infinitely bad.

There were a few songs that were identified as Eagles during those numerous Tom Leach shows that we saw back in the day. Unfortunately, I don't know the names of any, and none of them have ever seen the light of day on record. I own the only two official Tom Leach releases, as well as two homemade recordings, but none of them hit the nail on the head in the way that those Plough & Stars shows did. Well, maybe that's a good thing in that it makes them all the more special. I doubt if Tom would've made this particular top 40 otherwise.

He's still recording and playing today, although he moved to Brooklyn several years ago. On a recent visit to the Abbey Lounge, I told him that I haven't had a favorite local artist since he left town. It's sort of like missing a woman so much that you feel like you don't want anyone else, although that feeling eventually passes. Tom Leach still hasn't been replaced, and if my love life was a perfect analogy, it would be pretty sad. Sometimes it feels that way, but it's really not that bad.

The thing of it is, it wasn't just Tom himself that made those songs and those shows and those times so special. It was also the band he assembled and their cohesiveness and chemistry at that particular point in time. What I'm trying to say is, it's not the same without Dave Steele. His amazing guitar playing, background vocals, and Gram Parsons-esque good looks were a major factor in making those experiences so memorable.

And it's also not the same without the guy we called "The Ultimate Tom Leach Fan", an honor that may have been bestowed upon him at the expense of two more deserving fans.