Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Holiday Greetings: Rudolph/"Roxanne" Mashup

In response to my previous post on covers, my friend Nick turned me on to a clever mashup of Ruldolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and the Police's "Roxanne." A funny and clever mix complete with video featuring cuts from the 1965 stop-motion tv program that is still popular today.

Check it out here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5N4EFVgtB0Y

You can also see my friend Nick covering the mashup at a live performance here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RMB8qGB7dnc

What's your favorite holiday cover?

Monday, December 20, 2010

Paul Wisner Rates "Kids in America" Covers

Occasionally, and much to the dismay of our keyboardist/guitarist Paul Wisner, my band covers a song. In fact, we (Miskatonic) played an entire set of unlikely cover songs at our singer's wedding. But aside from that, I can only recall three that we've played out: "Do It Clean" (Echo and the Bunnymen), "I Was Made for Loving You" (KISS) and "Kids in America" (Kim Wilde).

Paul thinks we shouldn't cover any songs; but if we had to it should be a unique version, "based on the the original words and melody - as opposed to mimicking a particular recorded performance." He points to Sonic Youth's haunting interpretation of The Carpenter's "Superstar" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y21VecIIdBI).

In this spirit, he recently shared with the band his ratings of "Kids in America" covers ...

MxPx (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_QuuKqwRpCc)

The Muffs (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=31amCrgicbI&feature=related)
Pennywise (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xFuWMXxpf5M)
The Bloodhound Gang (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QPxtvwd-2lw)
The Donnas (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zu-8soqGK-U)
Len (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5dxkF-GWwCQ)

Lawnmower Deth (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iJz6_PEu6Iw)

Cascada (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TRLxeiBzSJQ&feature=related)
Kim-Lian (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ieyU4F76EYU&feature=related)
Hannah Montana (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w7o_aateAsE&feature=related)

The Jonas Brothers (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NOZxpCyGxF8)
No Secrets (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CYAPDCEaJ80&feature=related)

I'm sure he didn't capture all of them ... any others worth consideration??

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Sheila Divine Reunites to Record a Fan-Funded Album

The Sheila Divine, much beloved Boston-based band of the '90s, has reunited to record a new album. (For background, they were previous written about in this blog here.) That's great news in and of itself, but what's more insteresting is that singer/songerwriter - and digital marketer - Aaron Perrino, has used the project-funding site, KickStarter, to finance this project. In his own words:

"Well it's 2010 and The Sheila Divine has decided to join the party. We want to try and recreate that lightning in a bottle. The original 3 piece line up of Aaron Perrino, Jim Gilbert, and Shawn Sears are teaming up with Brian Charles producer of New Parade to have another go at creating a piece of work that we can be proud of."

Setting an initial goal of $5,000, the band has proven that they are fondly remembered - and still relevent - raising more than $13,000. Pledgers of $1 or more get a digital download of the album, which is now in progress. Pledge $15 and add a signed photograph from the recording sessions. Increased generousity gets you t-shirts, limited edition vinyl presses, visits to the recording studio, tickets to a concert, etc. Then, starting at $500 it gets really interesting:
  • Pledge $500 or more and they will record any cover of your choosing and give you the exclusive rights and ownership to it.
  • $1,000 or more gets you an original song that you are the exlcusive owner of. (You can even have your wife's name in it.)

  • For $1,500 or more: "What do you want from us? Dinner at an amazing restaurant? A date with Jim? All the options above are fair game or email us your pitch."
  • And, finally for $5,000 they will perform a concert in your town. 
They have two backers at $500, but none above that. I wonder what covers they will be recording! ...

It's a great idea succesfully implemented by Aaron. As a small-time pledger I have been receiving regular updates from them with links to downloads of just-finished songs. Surprise gifts delivered to my inbox!

You can read more about their project on Kickstarter here. And you can listen to some of the songs they've recorded here.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Danielson: Not Your Father's Christian Rock

When I was young and someone referred to Christian rock, I thought of Stryper and other third-rate bands who would never have had an audience if there didn't exist a group of Christians who were intent on hearing their faith expressed by big-haired hard rockers. I also thought of Godspell, a favorite of my parents. Now I know that's not a fair association and that Christian rock is not a genre of music ... but that was the association I grew up with.
Daniel Smith, the singer/songwriter behind the band, Danielson, hates it when reviews of his band begin with disclaimers about "Christian rock." He wonders why reviews of reggae albums don't begin with disclaimers about the writer's views on Rastafari. He has a good point. But the reggae albums I've listened to tend not to push their religion on me ... and I am not accustomed to being evangelized by Rastafarians. I have, however, had Christianity pushed on me. But that's not Danielson's fault.

Danielson's overarching message is the healing powers of Christianity. In fact, they are known for wearing nurses outfits during concerts to visually represent this message. Yet, Danielson has attracted an indie audience while largely being ignored by the fledgling Christian rock scene. Their innovative songs and performances are challenging even for the indie listener. Smith often sings in a squeaky falsetto, with family members responding high '50s-inspired backing vocals. The structure of the music can be complex - and the instrumentation is varied, ranging from Smith singing alone with an acoustic guitar (often while wearing a nine-foot-tall textile tree costume), to arrangements that involve string and horn sections. The result is hard to put into words, but let me try: The Pixies on acid playing children's songs at a Christian revival meeting. 

Danielson formed almost inadvertently in 1994 when Smith performed his musical thesis at Rutgers University with his siblings, the youngest just 12 years old. The project received an A, the family became a band, and the 24-song album was later released as A Prayer for Every Hour. Smith continued to write and perform songs with his family and other rotating members, releasing increasingly ambitious and impressive albums. They were helped along the way by famed indie icons Kramer and Steve Albini, who produced some of their early albums. This gave them indie cred, and they found themselves performing alternately at small town churches and hip NYC venues such as the Knitting Factory.

Where should you start your listening? I'd suggest Ships, Danielson's most recent full-length, or Brother is to Son, a sort-of best-of collection. They are band that is easy to rule out, but stick with it. Danielson is one of the most innovative, inspiring, and interesting bands playing today.

Recently the band has been chosen by Matt Groening to perform at the edition of the All Tomorrow's Parties festival he is curating in May 2010 in Minehead, England. They have also recently released a two-song EP, Moment Soakers

Below is the video for "Did You Step On My Trumpet" from Ships.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Video: Cleveland Hardcore Scene Circa 1986

In 1986, Brad Pedinoff (b. mossman) and I were paired to do a project for our ethnomusicology class at Oberlin College. Since we shared an interest in alternative music we decided to make a video of the Cleveland hardcore scene, which I was familiar with from growing up outside of Cleveland. We trekked into the city for the weekend and ran around town filming as much as we could. It was a productive 48 hours. We interviewed record store owners, fans, bands (The Guns, Spike in Vain, and Knifedance) - and filmed Knifedance in their practice space.

It was the first video either of us had made, so the filming and editing is rough - and it is narrated from an enthnomusicological perspective. But it captures a moment in Cleveland's music history that has received little documentation.

Since then, much has happened. Sadly, some of the people we interviewed died at young ages. Dave Araca, drummer for The Guns and Knifedance, a talented tattoo artist, and really nice guy, suffered a brain aneurysm in 1994 at age 26. Scott Eakin, guitarist for The Guns and Knifedance (and a childhood friend of Dave's) died in 2007 of a heart attack at age 38. On the brighter side, Bob Griffin (Spike in Vain) went on form the band Prisonshake and to become the president of Scat Records, a successful label that produced Guided by Voices and My Dad is Dead among other notable bands. I'm not sure what became of the other people we interviewed. Please share an updates you have.

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Invisible Rays Deserve More Visibility

During a break from the mixing of Miskatonic's second release, our producer, Rafi Sofer, played us what he called a "rough mix" of a song off his band's upcoming album. He said they weren't happy with it yet. We were blown away (and briefly considered abandoning our musical pursuits in favor of indoor gardening).

Rafi's band, The Invisible Rays, were working on their sophomore release, Salute The American Popular Song (2009), an epic work that took three years to complete. If I had to choose one word to describe the Boston-based Rays it would be cinematic. Their songs are cinematic in scope: their vast soundscapes take advantage of decades of technology, from Mellotrons and Roland Drum Machines to Fender Deluxes and Symphonic Bass. Their influences are cinematic: the band uses spoken word samples (from sci-fi b-movies, old radio shows, news broadcasts, presidential speeches, etc.) in place of traditional vocals. And they are cinematic in performance: The Rays have created high quality, entertaining videos for nearly all of the songs on Salute, and their live shows are a visual extravaganza. (I was lucky enough to be at the CD release party for Salute. The band projected the videos behind them as they played in perfect time to them.)

Although The Invisible Rays are a traditional four-piece band: guitar (Rafi), bass (Eric Kreuter), keyboards (Brendan Haley), and drums and samples (Ned Armsby), they sound nothing like it. Constantly experimenting with technology, the band layers and manipulates parts and instruments until they no longer sound like their sources. Ambitious and innovative, their songs are painstakingly crafted in a variety of tempos and time signatures, layering and juxtaposing sounds to create something fresh and powerful. Yet for all the artful science behind it, the songs often maintain a punk rock sensibility. Influences can be heard -- the B-52s, Throbbing Gristle, the Ventures, Sonic Youth -- but the overall effect is unique. The Rays can be humorous, creepy, melancholy, or uplifting, but they are always engaging.

The band is currently working on finishing the final two videos for Salute. (I'm hoping they release a DVD.) They're also experimenting with new sounds and sculpting them into new songs.

Below is the video for "DK Ray/Interference." You can view all the Salute videos on their youtube channel.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

My Band Shares Favorite Songs Over Pizza & Beer

Last Friday night several members of my band, Miskatonic (left), got together at our drummer Mark's house for pizza and beer - and to each share a few songs that inspire us and might be relevant to our '80s-influenced alt-pop sound. These weren't necessarily our favorite three songs ... just ones we liked and wanted other band members to hear. (Unfortunately, Tim, our guitarist, was out of town.)

Between beer, pizza, and playing Beatles Rock Band, here's what we listened to. What would you choose?

Mark (Drums)
  • Secret Meeting - The National
  • To Be Broadcast - The Butchies
  • Uncontrollable Urge - Devo
Paul (Guitar, Keyboards)
  • You Gave Your Love to me Softly (Unreleased) - Weezer
  • Violent Life - Blonde Redhead
  • Lucky Guy - The Muffs (I've been playing this song obsessively since being reminded of it.)
Liz (Vocals)
  • Kiss, Kiss - Yeah Yeah Yeahs
  • You'll Find a Way - Santogold
  • Wolf Like Me - TV on the Radio
Steve (Bass)
  • The Pace is the Trick - Interpol
  • I Only Said - My Bloody Valentine
  • I Want the One I Can't Have - The Smiths

Here's the video for "Wolf Like Me" by TV on the Radio from their performance on Letterman.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Dali's Car: A Brilliant Disaster

Dali's Car was a disaster by almost any measurement. The band recorded one album in 1984 with just seven songs on it. That album, The Waking Hour, cost twice their recording budget of $30,000 and was a commercial failure. Most of the tracks on the album were recorded separately by each musician, who sent tapes back and forth. When the two primary personalities behind the band, Peter Murphy (former Bauhaus vocalist) and Mick Karn (former Japan bassist/multi-instrumentalist) finally were in the same room together, they clashed and decided they could not continue working together. While a tour had been in discussion, this squashed any hopes of it ever happening.

Great art is full of tension, and perhaps it was the tension between Murphy and Karn that produced an album unlike anything heard before or since. Karn's quirky, virtuoso fretless bass is the lead instrument, accented by Asian- and Middle Eastern-influenced keyboards, minimalistic guitar riffs, and the jagged and constantly changing percussion programming of Vincent Lawford, the third member of the group. Murphy somehow finds a way to phrase his vocals powerfully over this strange conglomeration of sounds - and the effect is otherworldly. While some elements of the production and the electronic percussion date the album as '80s material, there is something so fresh about the composition and instrumentation that it still holds its magic today.

The below video is a live version of "His Box" for the U.K. television show, The Old Grey Whistle Test.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Sneak Preview: New Unbunny, Common Loon & Painted Hills

When I wrote about Unbunny a few weeks ago, I mentioned that they weren't big on self promotion. Things seem to have changed. Immediately after I tweeted about my Unbunny post, their label, Parasol Records, contacted me and asked if I wanted to hear their new, unreleased album. I did.

The 10-song album, Moon Food (upper left), is due out in May. I had wondered if Unbunny would develop a more heavily produced sound as they evolved. The good news is they have evolved without relying on studio technique. The approach is typically minimalistic and the production is high-quality lo-fi. Driven by folky acoustic guitar, the songs are stripped down to their essential instrumentation. Moon Food highlights Unbunny's country/folk influence as much as anything they've previously released. Yet there is still enough diversity among songs to give the album a nice flow. "Young Men Are Easy Prey" might be off Neil Young's first release, while "Straw on a Camel's Back" comes as close to rap as we might ever hope Unbunny will get (although it is one of my favorite songs on the album). As always, the quality of Jarid's voice and vocal harmonies shine through as he sings self-deprecating lyrics that can be in turn melancholy and funny. Unbunny fans won't be disappointed in this release, but will it win them a larger audience? We'll have to wait to see ...

Included with Moon Food in Parasol's package to me were unreleased debuts from two bands I had never heard of: Common Loon's The Long Dream of Birds (April 6) and Painted Hills self-titled release (April 20). I'm rather particular about music. I don't like much of the new music I hear and there are many technically great bands that never made a strong impression on me. So I was surprised to find myself happily listening to both of these albums repeatedly. While the two bands are heavily influenced by 60s-era psychedelic rock, their sounds are clearly distinct.

Hailing from Sierra Madre, CA and led by former Beachwood Sparks guitarist, Josh Schwartz, Painted Hills has a lush dream pop sound, accentuated by guitar riffs whose influences range from Middle-Eastern to country to 70s rock. The band's press sheet suggests we "think sun-baked, pastoral psych-pop and starry-eyed Cosmic Americana influenced by the Laurel Canyon scene of the 70s and the 80s Paisley Underground in Los Angeles." I understand only a bit of this, but it somehow seems reasonable. I hear traces of the Beatles' psychedelic era combined with the full, lingering guitar sound of The Doves, among other influences.

Common Loon, a duo from Champaign, Illinois, is more dynamic in their approach, contrasting moments of thick vocal harmonies over noisy guitars with sparse, spacey instrumentation and vocals. They have a knack for creating strong musical moments with dramatic changes between parts or in instrumentation. Common Loon's press sheet describes them as trafficking in "dreamy, dayglo rock, blending classic West Coast harmonies with some classic shoegazing guitar-lushness." They are now touring with dates available here.

Returning to Unbunny for a moment: Parasol has recently release Unbunny's New England tour schedule:
Apr 18 @ Death By Audio - Brooklyn
Apr 19 @ Green Line Cafe - Philly PA
Apr 21 @ Garfield Artworks - Pittsburgh PA
Apr 25 @ Pa's Lounge - Somerville MA
Apr 26 @ Red Door - Portsmouth NH
More dates coming...

While we're waiting for these releases and shows, I'll leave you with Unbunny's Casarole video, off their Snow Tires album.

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Sheila Divine: Boston and (just a little) Beyond

Ever since I started this blog (a couple of weeks ago), my wife has been after me to write a post about The Sheila Divine. She can't understand how such a great band never made it beyond Boston. Well, it turns out they did; they were also big in Buffalo and Belgium. That's right ... their following was even referred to as "the three Bs." But even so, they seemed destined for so much more.

Formed in 1997 and influenced by the early 80s post-punk movement, The Sheila Divine played guitar-driven music that often took the loud/soft/loud song structure to a new level, creating intense dynamics within vocal phrases. The band was also defined by melodic bass lines and singer/songwriter Aarron Perrino's booming voice, which he also varied to extremes: pretty falsettos followed by spine-tingling screams. Perhaps most notable among the band's four releases is their 1999 full-length debut, New Parade, which received praise from local critics and included the college hit, "Hum." The first four songs on it are as powerful a start as any album gets.

After releasing the follow-up full-length, Where Have My Countrymen Gone in 2001 and the EP, Secret Society in 2002, they embarked on a massive world tour. The merciless schedule proved to be the undoing of the band. Near the end of the tour, during a concert in the U.S., an altercation with bassist Jim Gibert led to Aaron throwing his guitar down and telling the audience that the band was breaking up. The Sheila Divine officially broke up a year later when Aaron formed his current band, Dear Leader, who also enjoys popularity in "the three Bs."

The below clip is a live version of "Hum" off New Parade.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Lost Album of the '80s: Prefab Sprout's "Swoon"

It's not unlikely that you missed one of the best albums of the 80s - and it would be hard to fault you. In 1984, Prefab Sprout released their debut album, Swoon. And while it rose to the top 20 in their native England, it drew little attention in the U.S. The rest of their career followed suit, as eight of their albums reached the top 40 in the UK Albums Charts, while only one of their albums, Steve McQueen, made it into Billboard's top 200. This despite the superlative adjectives heaped upon Paddy McAloon, whose songwriting abilities have compared to Elvis Costello, Paul McCartney and even Cole Porter. One important fan the band did win over with Swoon was Thomas Dolby, who went on to produce several Prefab albums, sometimes being referred to as "the fifth Sprout."

Even after 26 years, I'm hard-pressed to find an album that compares to Swoon. It's a highly original work that meshes genres to create a sophisticated sound by using jazz chord progressions and complex song structures that take unexpected turns. McAloon makes the most of his strong voice with unusual phrasing complemented by Wendy Smith's breathy background vocals. His lyrics are smart and often poetic ("words are trains / for moving past what really has no name"). Each song complements the next; there are no weak links. It is an album to be listened to as a whole, preferably in the late evening. While I was drawn into Swoon the first time I heard it, I know many people who had to give it a number of listens before appreciating it. It's well worth the effort.

Prefab Sprout went on to release many more fine albums, but none has equaled their debut in originality or complexity. Sadly, in recent years McAloon has suffered from serious health issues: a degenerative eye condition has impaired his sight, and tinnitus causes him painful aural sensations. Nevertheless, he has continued to write and record, even though he hasn't released much of his recent work. Perhaps we have something to look forward to.

Here is "Cue Fanfare" from Swoon. (Static video).

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Japancakes Covers My Bloody Valentine's Classic, Loveless

It took two years and 19 studios to record - and it nearly bankrupted their record label, but the result was arguably the most influential album of the 90s. In 1991, My Bloody Valentine released Loveless, a wall of distorted, warped guitars with a great depth of undertones and textures burying breathless vocals, bass and drums. The resulting sound is simultaneously loud and delicate, enormous and intimate. While the album wasn't as commercially successful as hoped for, it won the highest levels of praise from critics and musicians alike. Unfortunately, Loveless was the band's second and last full album.

My Bloody Valentine's gutsy approach to recording extended to their shows. I saw them play at the CMJ festival in New York; in the middle of one song they struck a note and stayed there, playing it over and over for 23 minutes. (Literally 23 minutes. My friend timed it.) It was a strange experience; I went through a range of reactions: impressed, annoyed, amused, angered, disbelief, tripped-out, thoughts of leaving (and a number of people did leave!). Finally, I was amazed when we were released from this strange frozen moment as MBV seamlessly continued from where they had left off.

I would have thought it foolhardy to cover a song off Loveless, much less the entire album. It's near perfect from beginning to end. Yet Japancakes (pictured above), an experimental group from Athens, GA, did just that, giving this shoegazer masterpiece new life in their 2007 instrumental remake. Steel pedal guitar and violin replace the vocals, showcasing MBV's songwriting, which has sometimes been eclipsed by their ingenious production.

One might be tempted to dismiss the remake as a muzak version of a classic, but Japancakes has done a masterful job of replacing the textured layers of distorted guitars with piano, flute, cello and organ sounds. The songs are given space to breathe, evoking vast spaces with their sparse instrumentation and faint Western twang. The remake doesn't rival the original, which changed the course of music in the early 90s. But, then, Japancakes doesn't try to compete with it. The album is a refreshing interpretation of a classic.

Below are the original version of "Soon," the last track on Loveless, and Japancakes cover (static video). Note: For some reason there is a lot of dead time at the end of the Japancakes video.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Craig Wedren Covers Sparks' "Sherlock Holmes"

One of the more versatile songwriters of the past couple decades, Craig Wedren, first made his mark with the art-punk band, Shudder to Think, in the 80s and 90s. They were one of only a few bands to make the jump from Fugazi's legendary Dischord Records to a major label, Epic Records. Although they didn't receive the commercial success they deserved, Shudder won over critics with their progressive, yet catchy hooks and Craig's powerful, almost operatic, voice. Before Shudder to Think disbanded in 1998, they had also composed soundtracks for High Art, which consisted primarily of electronic ambient moods, and First Love, Last Rites, which featured songs from a wide variety of genres and eras - and boasted an impressive array of guest singers, including Liz Phair, Robin Zander, John Doe and Jeff Buckley in one of his last recordings.

Craig has gone on to write music for numerous television shows (including The State, Dawson's Creek, and The Whitest Kids You Know) and movies (Role Models, Reno 911, School of Rock, etc.). In 2004, he released an electronic dance album with his NYC-based band, Baby. He followed that with the 2005 release of his first solo album, the mellow, guitar-oriented Lapland. Recently, he released a collection of odd, darkly ambient recordings he made during the mid 90s, The Spanish Amnesian. (Indeed, Craig has come a long way since he sang in my high school new wave cover band, Freudian Slip.)

Currently, Craig is composing for HBO's hit show Hung and Showtime's Emmy-winning United States of Tara. But he recently took time out to have some fun covering Sparks'
1982 song, "Sherlock Holmes" (complete with a video). Unfortunately, the song is not available for purchase yet, but you can check it out here:

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Unbunny: Underrated

I was introduced to Unbunny in 2002 by my friend, Brad (aka b. mossman, who now writes songs for Wow Wow Wubbzy.) Brad was playing a show in Portsmouth, NH with a stripped-down version of his San Francisco-based band, Warm Wires, consisting of just him and tabla player Peter Altenberg. He predicted I'd love the headlining band, Unbunny, saying the singer remineded him of Neil Young - when he was, well ... young.
High expectations generally produce disappointment. But despite the cramped club and lack of a sound engineer, Unbunny lived up to Brad's hype. Singer/songwriter, Jarid del Deo, led his trio with a sweet, smooth voice (indeed reminiscent of Neil Young's) which carried beautifully over the textured, folk/country guitar and tight rhythm section. The lyrics were smart and painted strange, compelling scenes. ("Even with the spotlights on them / swans are fainting.") The only disappointment was that the set was much too short -- maybe 10 songs before a noise ordinance went into effect and the band had to stop playing.
At that time, Unbunny had two releases out: Fission Romance the West (1995), a rough, but excellent collection of home recordings, and Black Strawberries (2002), still lo-fi, but more polished. I purchased both from Guy Capecelatro, owner of Two Ton Santa Records, which had released Black Strawberries, and who has been an ocassional member of the band.
Since then, Unbunny has released "Snow Tires" (2004), "Typist" (2005), and "Sensory Underload" (2008), the last a collection of previously unreleased material. While the band has won some critical praise, they certainly deserve more attention than they've received. That may in part be due to the fact that they're not big on self-promotion. However, they do have a FaceBook page (that doesn't include any songs), and a MySpace page with four songs on it.
Rumor has it that the band will be releasing a new album in April followed by a Northeast mini tour and a larger European tour.
LISTEN: One of my favorite Unbunny songs is off their second release, Black Strawberries: "In a Way." Note: the video for this song is static, but Unbunny does have some videos of songs from "Snow Tires" on youtube.