Saturday, August 25, 2007

Midlake (2006)

I'm sure most of us can trace our influence in becoming a fan of such-and-such band through one particular friend who turned us onto them, to a show at which they opened for the band we were there to see, or to a connection by association to another band. Discovering a band on one's own, though, can be a much more satisfying experience. Does discovering one by accident qualify for this distinction, though?

That's what happened when, sometime shortly after the middle of last year, I went onto to search for the debut album by The Drams, a band consisting of three former members of Texas alt-country rockers Slobberbone. That album turned out to be nothing special, but one of Amazon's "Customers who bought this item also bought..." recommendations was Midlake's The Trials of Van Occupanther. The only real similarity between the bands is their hometown of Denton, Texas, an artsy enclave on the outskirts of the Dallas suburbs that is also the home to indie rock bands Centro-Matic and The Baptist Generals.

A couple months earlier, Afshin and I had discussed what the album of the year thus far was. Actually, such a discussion generally consists of Afshin telling me what he thinks my #1 album is, me slyly saying "maybe" or "no comment", and the conversation going absolutely nowhere. He was convinced it was The Flaming Lips' The War of the Mystics. That certainly was a contender at the time, but I wasn't satisfied with its potential as an album of the year candidate. I recall thinking and saying to him that I thought I had yet to discover my album of the year. I just had a feeling something special was going to come along in the second half. It did.

Trials is one of those albums that comes along about once a decade. It's just that, in this case, it was the second year in a row that such an album materialized. So maybe I exaggerate a little. What I speak of, though, is an album that not only hearkens back to a musical era that most people never took seriously...that not only does this in a way that sounds modern and refreshing...but also ties it together as a wonderful concept album. And, not an overblown, pretentious and self important concept album, a la a few of the bands I've already written about. But, instead, one with timeless this case, that of the struggle of human beings who feel out of place in a world that feels like it has passed them by. People who long to live in a simpler time, one in which maybe they would be better understood. Yes, I agree that "sometimes I want to go home and stay out of site for a long time". And, of course, how could I be completely enthralled with an album that didn't cover the territory of unrequited love. Alright, so this kind of sounds like I'm describing America's "Lonely People", but maybe that's not just a coincidence.

In September, I was in New York to attend a Yankees' game with Jud. The day after the game, we made our semi-regular visit to Kim's Records, a truly independent record store that has actually survived the digital age. I was already pretty obsessed with the Midlake record. I pointed it out to Jud, referring to it as "...a cross between America and the Alan Parsons Project, only better than anything either of those bands have ever done". Jud called me out on this bit of indie snobbery, saying something about comparisons like that being ridiculous. He was right. How can you say something blows away its influences, when it might not exist if not for those influences? But, you have to draw the line somewhere. Obviously, bands can improve upon what has come before, and Midlake, in my opinion, is way better than both of those bands. Now, if I had made the comparison to Fleetwood Mac and ELO, that would've been a different story.

The main complaint most people have with this album is that the first half is incredibly strong, but it fades somewhat after that. I don't entirely agree. While the first half is stronger, and includes the album's best songs ("Roscoe", "Bandits", "Van Occupanther"), the second half, in fact, is just as essential. "It Covers the Hillsides" is just as worthy as those songs previously mentioned, and along with "Chasing After Deer" and "You Never Arrived", ties together the album's overall theme very nicely, particularly with the album's closing line, "...we'll pass by for the last time".

The Midlake live experience is just as magical as this record. I'll be seeing them live for the second time in just a couple of weeks. I'm happy to report that they've gone from playing a sold out show at the tiny upstairs room at the Middle East to the more reputable Paradise Rock Club. I think I could have sold my $10 ticket to that first show for somewhere in the neighborhood of $60 on craigslist, because their popularity had risen dramatically since the booking of that tour.

Midlake is the 40th band on this list only because they are my most recent discovery. As I previously said about Okkervil River's Black Sheep Boy, this album could easily rank among my top ten of all-time, and since it was only their second album, Midlake tops my list of bands I most look forward to finding out what they have to offer to their listeners in the years to come.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Trivia Answers

Congratulations to Lee Mazzola for correctly answering the thorn-in-my-side trivia question. He wins a Collector's Edition first printing of the double-disc Fab 40 Companion, which is still in production as I write this.

Here are the answers:

1. Bill Bruford was the original drummer of Yes and the long-standing drummer of King Crimson, joining the band in 1972 and enduring several hiatuses and reincarnations until 1997. He was born on May 17, 1949, 18 years to the day prior to me.

2. Greg Lake was the lead singer and bass player of King Crimson on their first two albums, In the Court of the Crimson King (1969) and In the Wake of Poseidon (1970), before leaving the band to form Emerson, Lake & Palmer with Keith Emerson and Carl Palmer.

3. Gram Parsons was born and raised in Florida, but after graduating from high school in 1965, he enrolled at Harvard, in Cambridge, where I lived for 5+ years. He joined The Byrds in 1968, and stayed only long enough to record Sweetheart of the Rodeo, before leaving to achieve success with the Flying Burrito Brothers and as a solo artist. He suffered a drug and alcohol related death in 1973.

4. Jud Ehrbar is the youngest of this group (born in 1970), was one of the founding members of Space Needle, and later became the drummer of Varnaline for their self-titled album and Sweet Life, as well as contributing to Songs in a Northern Key.

5. Anders Parker is the founding member of Varnaline, and later joined Space Needle for The Moray Eels Eat the Space Needle and the subsequent tour. He attended Arlington High School on the outskirts of Poughkeepsie, New York, graduating in 1986, one year after I did.

6. Jay Farrar was a founding member and co-leader of Uncle Tupelo, and after their dissolution, went on to form Son Volt. He also recorded a collaboration with Anders Parker in 2006, using the moniker Gob Iron.

7. Mike Heidorn was the original drummer of Uncle Tupelo, appearing on their first three albums before leaving prior to the recording of their swan song, Anodyne. He went on to become the original drummer of Son Volt, but is not part of their current lineup.

8. Jeff Tweedy was also a founding member and co-leader of Uncle Tupelo, and went on to greater post-Tupelo success than Jay Farrar by taking that entire band, sans Farrar, with him to form Wilco.

9. Ken Coomer joined Uncle Tupelo for their final album, Anodyne, and was the original drummer of Wilco, although no longer with the band.

10. John Stirratt played on the final Uncle Tupelo album, Anodyne, though his status as an official member of the band is debatable. Several sources say he was, while others say he and Max Johnston were just hired guns for that album. I emailed John at his web site, and his answer was "no we weren't full members at that time, and Max had played with them longer than me at that point...". He then became the original bass player and only remaining original member, other than Jeff Tweedy, of Wilco. His twin sister, Laurie Stirratt, was the bass player for Blue Mountain for their entire existence.

11. Max Johnston, as with John Stirratt, played on the final Uncle Tupelo album as a part-time member, according to Stirratt, and was part of the original Wilco lineup. He was their multi-instrumentalist for the A.M. and Being There albums, before leaving the band to become a full-time member of The Gourds. His older sister is singer-songwriter Michelle Shocked.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

The Hold Steady (2005)

I first heard of these guys when they appeared on Smithwick's best of 2004 compilation. The album was Almost Killed Me, their debut, and the song was "Certain Songs". I liked it, but I didn't get really turned on to The Hold Steady until the following year, with the release of Separation Sunday.

Interesting story about Smithwick...I've only met him once, at Jud and Amy's wedding, but it seems like I know him better than that. After all, I've received copies of his last three year-end compilations, I've traded online barbs with him while debating the Hall of Fame worthiness of Steve Garvey, and I've heard Scott mention his name numerous times when telling stories about that infamous summer in Alaska. That probably stuck in my head simply because it's funny hearing Scott say "Smithwick".

But that's not the story. The first time I ran the New York City Marathon, in November of 2000, I was staying with Jud at his Upper West Side apartment. The Yankees had just defeated the Mets in the World Series and Jud hadn't spoken with Smithwick, a Mets fan, about it yet. While I was there, eating pasta, relaxing and hanging out with Jud, Smithwick called. He was trashed. Jud said something subtle about the World Series, and Smithwick proceeded to lace into him with an endless barrage of expletives. After a couple minutes of this, Jud handed me the phone, and Smithwick gave it to me as well. Of course, he doesn't remember this, but this was my first interaction with the guy.

Regardless, he gets some credit as the person who introduced me to The Hold Steady. Separation Sunday was an instant hit, and would wind up as my #7 album of the tremendous year that was 2005. Last year's Boys and Girls in America was a bit of a commercial breakthrough for the band, as it helped land them a spot in a Carnegie Hall Bruce Springsteen tribute concert. They performed "Rosalita", or so I've heard, following Jewel's rendition of "Born to Run".

Two of the members of The Hold Steady are in the baseball pool that Jud and I run annually. When John Agnello emailed to ask us if they could join, I was pretty psyched. Of course, this bumped John out of his spot as the biggest music industry name/pool participant. This also afforded me an opportunity to read a transcript of an email exchange among band members regarding the aforementioned Carnegie Hall show. Somehow Galen Polivka, the bass player, attached it to the end of the email he sent with his pool entry. Not sure how that happened, but I was happy to be privy to such information.

To me, The Hold Steady represent a fresh perspective on modern rock...bearing a slight resemblance to a lot of stuff I've heard before, but as a whole being unlike anything else out there today. Their lyrics also provide me a chance to live vicariously through fictional characters in a way that I previously only did through movies about decadent lifestyles. I guess deep down I really just want to be a gangster...that's gang-ster, not gang-sta.

Unfortunately, I'm yet to catch their live act, and it seems I've missed out on my chance to see them at a small venue. I procrastinated on getting tickets to a show at the Middle East last fall, thinking I'd have a softball playoff game that night, only to see our team make an uncharacteristically early exit. The next time they're in town, I'm sure they'll be playing some horrible venue like Avalon. Maybe as consolation I can weasel my way into backstage passes or something.