Tuesday, January 22

Coachella 2008 Lineup

Well, it looks like festival season is coming early this year.

Only three weeks into 2008, the fellas and ladies behind Coachella, the massive L.A. based rock festival, have announced the line up for this springs' show. The lineup, which features well over 60 acts, is impressive, if not a bit reliant on established, long out of work acts like Madness and Kraftwerk. The latter being best known for their seminal Autobahn album, released in the 70's and featuring electronica songs that are way too fucking long. And we all remember Madness for that classic 1982 hit, "Our House."

I guess that's cool, but neither of those acts is going to get me to pay for ticket, air fair and lodging.

The other big draws are equally unimpressive. Jack Johnson is headlining the first day of the festival, which really depressing. The Verve is also on the bill for the first day, which would be a lot more exciting if this were 1996 and not 2008. Death Cab For Cutie is another "big" name, but I honestly can't imagine that a Death Cab stadium setup would be any fun, considering the band pretty much made a name for themselves with emotional mope-rock. Nothing says fun like mid-tempo poetry about being emotionally crippled played at 3oo decibels.

Coachella is really reaching out to the stoner crowd this year, too. Besides the for mentioned Johnson, the concert is also featuring Roger Waters, My Morning Jacket, Slightly Stoopid and myriad other groups that will probably at some point cover a Bob Marley song. Although, to be fair, I'm told MMJ put on a great live show, and unlike Death Cab, their sound would transfer really well in a festival setting.

Snide comments aside, there are some things to get excited about. Aesop Rock, The Streets, Little Brother and Spank Rock will all be in attendance, which is exciting until you realize that indie rap is too dense to be any good live. The e-popping rave crowd will be happy to see Justice, Fatboy Slim, Holy Fuck, Booka Shade, The Field and Dan Deacon will all be there expanding minds. Dan Deacon is a must-see and Justice is supposed to be incredible, so at least Coachella has got that going for it.

Mr.Dogg Recommends:
If you're hell bent on going to Coachella this year, Here are the bands that should not be missed. If Battles are half as interesting live as they are on Mirrored, they'll make for a great show. Equally cool is Minus the Bear, who have been playing math / dance / prog / punk / electronica music better than anyone in the past few years. For fans of collective music, axe Animal Collective and instead go watch twee masters Architecture in Helsinki make people feel good. That goes double for I'm From Barcelona, who plastered shotgun-powered smiles on the faces of hundreds at last year's Lollapalooza. Finally, make time to take in the Shout Out Louds, the finest UK pop band this side of Los Campesinos!

The full line-up is here. Maybe you'll be more impressed than I was.

Wednesday, January 16

Ladyhawk Fights for Anarchy

Artist: Ladyhawk
Album: Fight for Anarchy EP

Comments: When we last left our friends in Ladyhawk, they were coming off a successful tour with indie-upstarts Tapes n’ Tapes. The four dudes from Vancouver, Canada were playing tracks off their ’06 self-titled freshman release, an album ripe with catchy melodies and powerful guitar work in the vein of Neil Young and Stephen Malkmus.

Now, a year later, those dastardly fellas in Ladyhawk are back with the Fight for Anarchy EP, a record that seems promise growth, but may also hint at regression.

(Before the actual review: I think the title of the EP is really stupid. Fight for Anarchy is the kind of name you expect your little brother’s crust-punk band to have. You wouldn't expect it from group of southern-influenced booze rockers like Ladyhawk.)

Silly name aside, things get of on the right foot with “War,” the opening track. Fans of the band will notice right away how much more production has gone into this EP than into their full length. Pianos, feedback, sharper vocals and nameless guitar squeals swirl around the song, which is a catchy pop rock song featuring more of Ladyhawk’s trademark hookmaking. “Don’t just tag along / start a war if you want to,” sings Duffy Driediger, and while the tune might not illicit the action intended, it’s still a good number number.

Following that is “If You Run,” which is a psychedelic rocker that sounds like it was produced inside of a trashcan. It has the same far away feel and swirling noise of “War,” but I can’t help but feel that this would sound better with less noise behind it.

The songs after make up the meat of the EP. The first, titled “Boy, You Got Another Thing Coming” is a big step forward for the band. This slow ballad is the kind that, on previous Ladyhawk releases, would probably sound sloppy and overdone, trying to weave massive guitar licks where they don’t belong.

On Fight for Anarchy, however, the band sounds somber and restrained, introducing violins and minimal brush drums before lapsing into the a sorrowful (and fitting) guitar solo that takes a page straight from Harvest Moon. It’s a fitting lick, and it plays off the “sad drunk” feel of the song perfectly.

What follows is “Red Teeth,” which soudns like a song that could have been on Ladyhawk. It’s another slow tune, but while “Boy, You Got Another Thing Coming” sounds like a drunk sitting at a bar, “Red Teeth” is the kind of song a cowboy would play riding into a gunfight he knows he will lose. A little less focused and a little more sloppy, it will come as a comfort to older Ladyhawk fans.

I find elements of this EP very encouraging. The band seems to have figured out how to write a ballad properly, by giving it room to develop instead of trying to bash through it. However, the growing use of psychedelic elements and clouds of noise is a bit discouraging. And the lack of any out-and-out rock songs like “The Dugout” or “My Old Jackknife” is kind of lame.

I’ll have to wait until March (when the group's second LP comes out) to see what the outcome will be. In the meantime, Fight for Anarchy is pretty much a standard EP; it will build interest and holds one or two really good songs, but it won’t stick.

Rating: 6.5 out of 10

Key Tracks: War, Boy You Got Another Thing Coming

Buy, Steal, Skip: My love for the band say "buy," but my gut says "steal." Ladyhawk is not some big, U2-type band that's making money hand over fist. Fans of southern rock or Neil Young should buy this. As for the rest of you, do the right thing.

Monday, January 14

The National Can't be Knocked Down

Artist: The National
Album: Boxer

Comments: I heard the hype surrounding Boxer long before I heard the actual album. Everywhere I looked, the album was showing up on year end top 10 lists. I figured with that kind of press, there had to be something to it. So I snagged myself a copy of Boxer, the second album by The National.

After many, many spins of this album, I can see what all the hype is about. Boxer is a hopeful record bursting at the seems with intelligent songwriting. Like many albums hitting the shelves today, it’s a reflection of our times. However, where some look out the window and see only doom and brimstone (cough El-P cough), through the eyes of the National, there is something to look forward to, something to hope for.

The strengths of the record lie in the lyrics and the way in which they are delivered. For example, take this line from “Apartment Story”: “let’s stay inside until somebody finds up / do whatever the TV tells us.” This is the kind of lyric that could, in the hands of a lesser songwriter, come off as cynical and self-important. Pessimism for pessimism’s sake.

However, on the honey-dipped, lounger singer voice of National vocalist Matt Berninger, it becomes a statement of hope and affection. It turns into a whispered prayer in the ear of lovers, a statement of how people can prevail when they stick together. It’s this kind of slice-of-life lyric, found throughout the whole album, that makes Boxer such an uplifting album.

But it’s not just a vocal show. Sure, there is some singing pretty on album opener “Fake Empires,” but it is the piano coda, steady and calm like a man walking his neighborhood at night, that establish the song’s power. It’s the gently pounding drums that give the song rise. It’s the trumpet blasts at the end, passive and insecure at first before gaining steam and announcing an arrival, which gives the listener a sense of possibility beyond current hopelessness.

It isn’t a perfect offering. Songs on Boxer do tend to run together on account of Berninger’s eternally soft and calm singing. He doesn’t change his voice much, and it is possible to just let it wash over you without taking anything in. And I’m not a fan of “Mistaken for Strangers ,” which plays like Interpol in the Catskills.

That being said, Boxer is an album that will definitely stick to the ribs. Casual listeners will be won over by the soft, passionate voice of Berninger, while audiophiles will be wooed by the piercing observational lyrics found throughout the album (not to give anything away, but Berninger talking about his friends drinking on “Green Gloves” is one of my favorite lyrics of ’07)

Tender and wounded, while maintaining an innocent hopefulness, The National’s Boxer is one album that is deserving of the hype.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Key Tracks: Fake Empires, Apartment Story, Gospel, Green Gloves

Buy, Steal, or Skip: Buy

Wednesday, January 9

I'm Not There OST - By Joe Gilson

When the bio-pic Walk The Line about the life of Johnny Cash came out, I was essentially bombarded by friends telling me I needed to see the movie. They knew I was and am a huge Johnny Cash fan, and they clearly meant well when they told me I needed to see it. I finally did relent and see the movie and came away entirely disappointed. There was tangible shock and frustration on their faces when I told them I was merely lukewarm about it, and I had to explain to them the main reason: There is only one Johnny Cash. I don’t care how good Joaquin Phoenix was as an actor. He wasn’t Johnny Cash.

That is the problem with doing tributes and homages to legends like Johnny Cash and, here, Bob Dylan. These two artists are so much bigger than themselves and the soundtrack to the new Dylan bio-pic I’m Not There proves that. It seems as though all of the artists on this tribute are playing it safe. Genre-breaking artists like Stephen Malkmus and Sufjan Stevens still do virtually nothing to do anything more than just replay the songs. What this record proves more than anything else is the breadth of Bob Dylan’s influence on artists of every genre and generation.

When listening to a lot of records, we can sit there and say “Oh, there is a Bob Dylan influence” and the influence isn’t tangible, it isn’t right in your face. When the artists cover Dylan himself though, many times the influence becomes so obvious it is nearly palpable. For example, Cat Power’s song on this record literally sounds like she is singing a karaoke version of one of Bob Dylan’s most beloved album cuts, and Mason Jennings doesn’t even sound like he is doing a karaoke version of “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” it sounds like he put his name on Dylan’s recording. Even Stephen “don’t call me Pavement” Malkmus sounds far too derivative on “Maggie’s Farm.” I challenge anyone to actually tell me they believe that Eddie Vedder brings anything to the table on his version of “All Along The Watchtower,” and Jeff Tweedy’s version of “Simple Twist of Fate” sounds way too much like it would fit in perfectly on a Wilco record.

As I said, most artists do not change much at all except for adding some of their own vocal
touches and a few instrumental flourishes, like the intro to Sufjan Stevens’ cover of “Ring Them Bells,” and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot’s guitar intro to “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” is an outstanding moment of the record. For the most part, the changes, however, are vocal. It is in the sense, strangely, that many of the improvements are made. It is no secret that Bob Dylan was not the greatest singer in the world, but he had a certain delivery that was so endearing. It is only when the covering artist can match or surpass Dylan’s original emotion that the song improves, such as Glen Hansard’s take on “You Ain’t Goin Nowhere,” one of the absolute highlights on the album. Mark Lanegan also adds a level of sadness on his cover of “Man In The Long Black Coat” that I have never heard Bob Dylan approach.

More so than any of the other bands on the record, The Hold Steady and the Black Keys deserve credit for actually adding heavy guitars (gasp!) and their own style to their covers. These two artists highlight the underlying issue I really have with the record. The producers had virtually NO BALLS in picking the artists they wanted on it. Everyone on it is so influenced and enamored with Bob Dylan that they sound scared to death of changing anything in a song. I mean, Richie Havens? Willie Nelson? I respect them a lot but, seriously, who the fuck cares anymore?

When Bob Dylan finally dies, I would like to see another tribute album of covers done for him. That way, artists may not be so seemingly afraid to really change his music. I get this image of Dylan sitting there lording over these tracks making sure everyone stays true to his original tone and maybe all these artists had the same image, and that it why it is so…..blah.
I am left looking at this album as a conundrum. It seems as though the producers couldn’t decide if they wanted to make this an album for collectors or an album for those trying to get into Bob Dylan. The relative drabness of the covers would suggest it is for newcomers but I think it is the opposite. People that love Bob Dylan’s deep cuts like the ones on this record (not even a sniff of "Like A Rolling Stone" or "Rainy Day Women") would be deeply offended by anyone changing Bob Dylan’s sound. So that is who this album is for. Serious collectors who can just say they own it.
Covers are supposed to bring things out of the original song we never heard before. They can make a decent original sound incredible or make a great original sound like garbage, but at least they change the song. On I’m Not There, the best original Dylan songs end up being the best covers. So, really, what’s the point?

Best Tracks:
Glen Hansard, Sufjan Stevens, The Hold Steady, Ramblin Jack Elliot
Worst: Eddie Vedder, Cat Power, Karen O
Rating: 5 out of 10

-By Joe Gilson

Monday, January 7

Rivers Leaves Weezer Fans Alone

Artist: Rivers Cuomo
Album: Alone: The Home Recordings of Rivers Cuomo
Comments: Alone: The Home Recordings of Rivers Cuomo is a bittersweet collection of b-sides, castoffs, and lo-fi musical experiments by prolific uber-nerd and Weezer front man Rivers Cuomo. For Weez fanatics like myself (and really, who else but the fanatical is going to know who Cuomo is, let alone have an interest in this album), it's a must have documentary that provides a glimpse into the mind and songwriting process of a fracture pop maestro. However, it also hints at what many Weezer fans have long feared; that Cuomo's best years may be behind him.

Alone boasts a rather inauspicious beginning. Of the first four tracks, one is a 40 second vocal warm up, one is a moody Gregg Alexander cover (never heard of that guy. Thanks, liner notes), and one is a noisy lo-fi rendition of Ice Cube's "The Bomb," which is probably equal parts funny and embarrassing to Cuomo.

It's after these rather self-indulgent blips are over that the collection gets good. Tracks like "Chess" and "Lemonade" are the kind of quirky pop metaphors that made The Blue Album such an emotional success. They showcase Cuomo at his least insecure and most confident, before the eyes of the world turned their focus on the quiet weirdo from L.A. Both tracks are the kind of simple, sweet, and catchy pop music that don't require a W tattoo to enjoy.

The meat of the album, five songs found in the middle, are all cuts from Weezer's long lost would-be second album, the abandoned space opera tentatively titled Songs from the Black Hole. While I would never trade Pinkerton for anything, listening to the fuzzy 70s rock guitar on tracks like "Blast Off" and "Who You Callin' Bitch?" do make me wonder what could have been. And while the other two songs border on cheese, it's real hard to deny the row singing harmonies of "Dude, We're Finally Landing."

It's after these tracks that the wheels begin to fall off. Sure, there's the guitar-only jealousy rock of "Lover in the Snow," which would have sounded perfect on The Green Album, and there is "Little Diane," which finds Cuomo fronting 90s alt-rockers Sloan (it's fun to imagine a younger Cuomo awkwardly flailing around a mic, angular and blissful while Sloan kicks it to 11 around him), but the rest is less interesting. "Crazy One" and "I Was Made for You," both later album b-sides, suffer from the same clunky writing and overblown 80s riffing that plagued half of Maladroit and most of Make Believe. Then there is "This is the Way," which might be the worst potential Weezer song yet.

My uncle has a theory that songwriters begin to regress at a certain point. Listening to Alone, it's hard to disagree with him. It is not lost on me that the eariler tracks are the ones that keep coming up on my evening drives, while the late tracks are getting passed over. It's possible that Cuomo peaked back in 1996. If that is the case, let Alone: the Home Recordings of Rivers Cuomo stand as a testament to the rise and fall of a alternative hero.

Key Tracks: Chess, Lemonade, Blast Off, Lover in the Snow

Rating: 6.5 out of 10

Buy, Steal, or Skip:
Steal. There are some really extensive and cool liner notes that are more than worth the price, but only avid Weezer fans would be into that, and they would buy the album anyway. Your average Jack and Jill Popmusic won't care.