A Special Flower Delivery

I work for a local florist delivering flowers. Most days are the same: multiple deliveries to the front desks of hospitals and funeral homes, deliveries that I bring to secretaries for their bosses at downtown offices, and baskets and vases ending up in the hands of confused neighbors when their neighbors aren't home. Today, though, I had a special delivery. Its almost December now, and the weather is reflecting that cold reality. A freezing wind whipped frozen rain through my hair as I carried a poinsettia across Harrison Boulevard to a large home that was deemed 'historical' by the City of Boise (it proudly stated so on a plaque nailed next to the front door). The door opened to a wispy thin and frail old lady who was bouncing with excitement that didn't quite match her appearance. I handed the poinsettia to her, but before she had taken hold of it, I pulled it back, realizing that the weight might be too much for her. I offered to bring it to wherever she wanted, and she directed me to the kitchen table. The home was warm and colorful, and had a distinctively 'old person' scent to it. That is, the room smelled comfortable, like any given grandparents' home during the holidays. It smelled like a place one might remember as warm and welcoming, despite the weather outside. An old man sat in his pajamas on the couch reading the paper. I don't know if anything was cooking in the kitchen, but it seemed there should have been. Some cookies or soup or something warm and soul-satisfying. The bouncy, excited lady marveled as I removed the plastic covering from the plant, and with a smiley 'happy holidays!', she ushered me back into winter, which felt considerably warmer.

Woody Guthrie - Ballads of Sacco and Vanzetti

Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, Italian anarchists in Massachusetts, were framed with murdering a guard and paymaster at a shoe factory and for allegedly stealing over $15,000. They were electrocuted in 1927. The judge that convicted them described the pair as "anarchic bastards." Their execution caused unrest and outcry across the globe.

On Ballads of Sacco and Vanzetti, Woody Guthrie champions their politics (they led labor strikes and participated in the anti-war movement) and decries the system that put them to death. On "I Just Want to Sing Your Name", Woody does just that. He sings their names with tremendous emotion, illustrating his appreciation for the pair and his immense sorrow at their fate. Other songs develop the story, with the opener "The Flood and the Storm" laying out the historical backdrop of the story. World War I has ended and in the following economic boom in the states "a few got richer, and richer, and richer but the poor folk got poorer."

Remarkably, this is the first Woody Guthrie album I've heard. Upon hearing it, I've realized to what extent Bob Dylan imitated Guthrie in the early 1960s. Much of the guitar picking on The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan is directly traceable to Guthrie's style. The melodies and vocal habits of Guthrie also turn up in Dylan. Guthrie half-laughs in the midst of some lyrics, a trait that Dylan emulates often.

Today, Guthrie's music will probably garner comparisons to the explosion of bluegrass following the release of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. Unsuspecting listeners engaged by the folksy guitar and old-time country voice, however, might be caught off guard by the words. Guthrie doesn't waste a single line on this album with musings on love or traveling- every word is devoted to the story of Sacco and Vanzetti.

Guthrie's skill is storytelling through his tunes. Over the course of these songs, characters are developed. He gets you to despise the villains, including Judge Thayer and Eva Splaine, who "sent these men to the chair." In "You Souls of Boston", Guthrie sings:

One lady by the name of Eva Splaine saw the robbers jump in their car and drive away. For a second and a half she seen this speeding car,she swore Sacco was the bandit man. It was twenty, or thirty, or fifty more, said Sacco was not in the robber's car. Judge Webster Thayer stuck by Eva Splaine, said Sacco was the guilty man.

His delivery evokes a friendly conspiracy between Thayer and Splaine. One can't help but be appalled by the villainy of these characters.

Guthrie develops other characters as pour souls left behind by progress and villanized by the state. We deeply feel for these characters. On "Suassos Lane", Guthrie sings, after explaining the multiple alibis of Sacco and Vanzetti:

I tell you workin' people fight hard for higher wages, fight to kill blackmarket prices, this is why you take my life. I tell you workin' people, fight hard for cleaner houses, fight hard for the wife and children. That's why they took my life.

The final song on Ballads of Sacco and Vanzetti, "Sacco's Letter to His Son", is played by Pete Seeger. According to Wikipedia, the words were actually composed by Nicola Sacco. Seeger beautifully delivers his words, which, if nothing else can, exhibit the goodness in Sacco's heart.

Imagine if albums like Ballads of Sacco and Vanzetti were recorded by today's popular artists. Maybe we'd see Ballads of Murat Kurnaz. A German citizen who was arrested in Pakistan after September 11th, Murat Kurnaz is now detained at Guantanamo Bay. Amnesty International believes that the evidence against him is weak, and his innocence is likely. They call for an immediate fair trial or release. No one is writing songs on his behalf.

To learn more about Sacco and Vanzetti, you can reach the Wikipedia article here, or a website about the Guthrie album here. To learn more about Murat Kurnaz, click here.

The Exit - Home for an Island

(originally written for the Boise Weekly)Home for an Island begins with "Don't Push". Its the sound a confident band produces despite not boasting any measurable talent. The Exit are smug and comfortable singing juvenile poetry over a muddy mixture of mainstream radio rock and post-punk rock. Cryptic, meaningless verses lead into the severe let-down of "don't push your love away" over and over again for the chorus. "Don't Push" is not worth the four minutes and twelve seconds it will steal from your life.

The remaining twelve tracks on
Home for an Island follow suite. By track 3, "Back to the Rebels", I was grimacing at the screech of lead-singer Ben Brewer's voice. Other than his squealing, the music isn't awful, just dull. Its run of the mill, mildly distorted guitar reminiscent of nineties radio rock with a rhythm section to match.

The Exit fall apart with the words. They've yanked random words written on slips of paper from brown paper bags and carelessly tossed them in between the chords. The only line that rang true: "I feel like a criminal for writing this down." He should be locked up- if not for the rest of the album then certainly for "Soldier". Here The Exit hijack the classic guitar/harmonica equipped singer-songwriter archetype to deliver grossly incompetent lyrics. Telling us that you hate what you see on the television is not profound reflection of these turbulent times.

The Exit have imagined an image of themselves as intelligent rockers that they've attempted to realize on
Home for an Island. Its clear that in their minds, they've achieved this goal. But what counts is the state of their audience's minds. This audience strongly feels that, in their drive to live up to this image, The Exit has carelessly forgotten to write even one decent song.

Upcoming Reviews

Today I visited the Boise Weekly offices to pick up new CDs to review. Watch for reviews of two Portland bands, Oxcart and Tractor Operator. Oxcart, in their press release, says that they play a mix of "explosive rock, funk, and deeply atmospheric melodies." I've already listened once through Tractor Operator and at first impression they sound charming, and very identifiable with the Pacific Northwest music scene. I also heard a Cake influence in Tractor Operator. I'll also be reviewing The Kingsbury Manx, The Exit, and Fear Before the March of Flames.

There are some reviews I have planned outside of the Boise Weekly too. I recently downloaded my first Woody Guthrie album from eMusic. Its called Ballads of Sacco and Vanzetti. Sacco and Vanzetti were framed for murder and executed in the 1920s because of their involvement with trade unions and promoting anarchic ideals. Guthrie devotes an entire album to their story, championing their politics and denouncing the system that killed them. I'll also continue my 3 part review of Bright Eyes - Vinyl Box Set by reviewing Letting off the Happiness in the second installment.

Against Me! - Searching For a Former Clarity

(originally written for the Boise Weekly)

The press release states that the only constant with Against Me is redefinition. Fans become bored when their beloved groups descend into a Jack Johnson fashion of mediocrity by remaking the same album over and over. Though Searching for a Former Clarity certainly sounds fresh, it wouldn’t be too difficult to imagine songs from 2003’s As the Eternal Cowboy fitting into the album, or vice versa. Against Me doesn’t quite redefine. Regardless, Searching is a top-notch punk record.

On As the Eternal Cowboy Against Me stirred a delicious mix of ingredients - a gritty punk rock sensibility, a folksy anchor, and fist pumping, sing along choruses - to create one of my favorite punk albums. Perhaps wisely, the band chose not to reinvent themselves with new ingredients, but rather cooked the old ingredients longer and with more heat for Searching. The result is 14 tracks encompassing all we love about the band, even as they surprise us.

There are a few tracks, such as the Bush-bashing “From Her Lips to God’s Ears”, that burst with an urgency and energy that replaces a playfulness on similar songs from the past. The band screeches “Condoleezza!” as lead singer Tom Gabel accusingly asks “What are we gonna do now?” When the band mellows out on “Searching for a Former Clarity” Gabel grabs hold of the opportunity to achieve an intimacy seldom heard in punk rock, showing off his rough, but rich voice.

Other tunes, like “Violence” and “Justin”, are similarly strong. While listening to Searching, however, I was wishing that it was shorter. None of the songs are awful, but most begin to play like filler in the midst of 14 others. Short and sweet would have been better, and though this album manages to escape the ‘mediocre’ label, it wanders dangerously close.

Bright Eyes - Motion Sickness

Motion Sickness is both a special treat for devout fans and an accessible, defining introduction to the Oberst phenomenon. This new live disc, recorded from Bright Eyes' spring tour earlier this year in the wake of I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning and Digital Ash In A Digital Urn, contains a few older tunes, the strongest songs from I'm Wide Awake, the oft controversial "When the President Talks to God", and even a couple of covers.

Oberst wears his politics on his sleeve and boycotts the media giant Clear Channel Communications with zeal. As a result, Bright Eyes ends up playing theaters with plush seating instead of smoky clubs with beer-drenched dance floors. Motion Sickness somehow channels the atmosphere of these venues into the music. The live band attains a grandeur that is hidden under raw emotion and urgency in the studio. Perhaps, however, the band's size and diverse array of instruments causes the grandeur. When I saw Bright Eyes in Salt Lake City the band included a harp, slide guitar, upright bass, and trumpet. The band on Motion Sickness consists of seven members.

The live renditions of I’m Wide Awake material sound much like the studio versions, albeit with a bit more energy as exhibited by the frenzy and chaos of “Road to Joy.” He sheds most of his band for “Landlocked Blues” but throws all of his being into the tune, blowing away the live audience and probably at-home listeners too. It was my favorite track on I’m Wide Awake and it’s grown even stronger on Motion Sickness. His older songs, such as “Scale” from Fevers and Mirrors and “Make War” from Lifted, are reinvented on Motion Sickness. While they lose some of the famous Oberst intensity, they gain an accessibility that will please new listeners wary of that intensity.

The strongest two tracks on this disc, “Mushaboom” and “True Blue”, are two that even the most committed fans have probably never heard. While touring in Canada, as Bright Eyes drummer Jason Boesel explains in the linear notes, “an interviewer recommended a Canadian singer named Feist” to Conor. He promptly purchased her album Let it Die and “it became almost the only CD played on the entire tour.” Bright Eyes recorded a rendition of her song “Mushaboom” while in Japan that will generate smiles, especially for those who have heard the Feist version. It’s a joyous and addicting song that’ll be played over and over again on stereos and iPods everywhere. “True Blue” embodies a similar joyousness, with its blaring trumpet and amusing lyrics over three simple chords. In the first verse, Oberst sings,

“I am a blue blood, I will admit that. I dance in blue shoes and wear a blue hat. Live in a blue house, on a blue street, in a blue town by a blue creek. I write my blue songs with my blue pen. I sing the blue notes to my blue friends. Now I don't know that much about you, but I like you because you’re true blue.”

The song continues in that fashion and one can’t help but marvel at Oberst’s lyrical imagination. Had such a song been attempted by most any other artist, the result would most certainly have been cliché. Oberst, however, manages to pen an endearing and clever song.

If you’ve been curious about Bright Eyes, now is the time to fork out $15. Motion Sickness is perfect for you. If you are already hooked on Oberst and friends, you won’t be able to live without this disc.

This review also appears on BlogCritics.

Click here to visit Team Love Records, where you can purchase Motion Sickness.

New Stereo Equipment!

Until today, when I listened to vinyl, I heard it through a weak stereo that wasn't made for turntables. Everything I heard on vinyl was very quiet and barely audible if anything was happening in the room besides the music. But today I bought myself new speakers and a new receiver to hook up to my turntable! I put on The White Album by The Beatles and it was loud! I also heard some Willy Mason and Jethro Tull at full volume. In addition to listening to vinyl at high volume, I can now also use my computer in collaboration with this new equipment to turn all my vinyl recordings into digital files for my iPod. Not that I'll stop listening to the records. Nothing quite compares to the experience of vinyl.

Willy Mason - Where the Humans Eat

Last Sunday, I saw Willy Mason open for Bright Eyes in Salt Lake City. I was instantly impressed by his deft voice and guitar work, and his clever songwriting. When I arrived home, I found Mason's album on Conor Oberst's Team Love Records and immediately ordered it on vinyl. Mason has received some Dylan comparisons (like at this blog), and I'm convinced, after hearing Where the Humans Eat, that those are earned comparisons.

Like Conor Oberst, Willy Mason is fairly young (though I'm the same age, but I'm not writing songs like these) at just 19. Why does the age of these artists matter? Because I wouldn't even expect these songs from someone who had twenty years of songwriting experience under their belt. Oberst and Mason are similar in their talent and age, but their styles are vastly different. Both have garnered Dylan comparisons, and though Oberst's songwriting is incredible, Mason's songwriting is much more Dylan-esque.

Mason's songs evoke an authenticity that is rarely present in today's music. Where the Humans Eat contains songs that are about reality in this modern world. They arise from a place deep within a person who has a peculiar ability to get under the facade of his environment. He doesn't just sing about a subject, he penetrates it; he gets under the skin. Here is a chorus from one of my favorites, Hard Hand to Hold.
It's a hard hand to hold/ That is looking for control/ It is tempting to fight/ When you know that you're right,/ It's hard to lie down
When you don't trust the ground/ It's hard to hold on,/ It's hard to hold on.

This strong poetry is delivered by a voice that sounds years older than it is and is accented by skillful, folksy guitar and Willy's brother Sam Mason on drums. Sam is just a sophomore in high school, but his drumming is already confident and solid.

Where the Humans Eat has me excited about seeing more from Mason in the future. This is a must-have album, especially for fans of Dylan or any other talented troubadour. You don't want to miss Mason's rise to songwriting legend.

(check out a video of Mason's song Oxygen right here)

Three New CDs in Three Paragraphs

Pinback - Blue Screen Life

Pinback is a very decent emo/indie band. At times Blue Screen Life reminded me of Death Cab for Cutie and at other times it leaned too far on the emo side for my liking. But I did enjoy this considerably. The vocal hooks evoke the emo, but they somehow manage to sound more mature, and more credible, than their peers. The guitar work evokes the indie, reminding me sometimes of Built to Spill. The major problem is that it is far too easy to gloss over the lyrics. The album is audibly pretty, and we are satisfied just hearing words and phrases, rather than entire poems. This didn't detract too much from the overall work, and I would recommend checking out Pinback, especially if you are need of some good emo, or if you've ever been a Death Cab fan. If you get Blue Screen Life skip to XIY and West before hearing the entire album.

Iron and Wine - Our Endless Numbered Days

Iron and Wine is Sam Beam from Miami, Florida. He writes country-tinged ballads that feature stunning and beautiful acoustic and slide guitar work and his deep, smooth voice. The words are similarly beautiful and deep, even if they don't blow you away. One song, however, worked its way into my heart. On Naked As We Came, Beam ponders death in the context of love:
"she says, 'if I leave before you, darling/ don't you waste me in the ground'... one of us will die inside these arms/ eyes wide open, naked as we came/ one will spread our ashes around the yard"
It is a simple, short, and sweet song that will either make you smile or cry. Our Endless Numbered Days is simply irresistible. There is nothing else to say, except for "get it now!"

The Most Serene Republic - Underwater Cinematographer

This otherworldly indie act from Canada's Arts and Crafts label, which is also home to the indie collective Broken Social Scene and the beautiful Feist, has a smooth inside and rough edges. Like with Pinback, the lyrics are too easy to gloss over, though to a lesser extent, but the music is so addictively cute that it doesn't really matter. If concise pop songs with clear endings and beginnings are your thing, steer clear of this. Some of these tunes seem like montages of three or four distinct songs while three or four other tunes on the disc blend into each other without any clear separation between them. The whole disc, in fact, makes more sense as a whole than it does divided into separate parts. Track 1 is called Prologue, and sounds the part, while the closing track is called Epilogue. The tracks in the middle are titled as if they are chapters in a story. Oh, and the music, like I've already hinted at, is so much fun! This is the epitome of great, nerdy indie rock.

Built to Spill Preview

Today I heard a Built to Spill album that won't be released until next year. How, you ask? Well, Built to Spill hails from right here in Boise, Idaho. One of the florists at the flower shop I work at received the tentative new album from Doug Martsch and let me hear it.

Doug Martsch and friends have reinvented themselves on their seventh album. After 2001's
Ancient Melodies of the Future lacked something that I couldn't quite pinpoint, this new album has delivered that something in each and every note.

The album opens with an epic eight minute track presumably titled 'Going Against Your Mind.' Up tempo drums get it started, which is uncommon for BTS, and after a moment the guitars kick in. The noise they make, however, is unlike any noise BTS guitars have ever made. The florist was reminded of The Strokes, but this is
so much better. The song alternates between urgent vocal work and engrossing jams that, despite being laced with reminders of the past, sound entirely fresh. I couldn't help but smile as I heard this tune a few months too early.

The closing song, which I'm guessing is called 'You Wait' or 'The Wait', is destined to go down as a BTS classic. Its up there with Car, Strange, The Plan, and the legendary live Cortez the Killer. The eight songs in between the first and last are BTS at its best. A few are some of the darkest that BTS has written, and the band handles this new territory with grace. They have also written one of the best guitar pop songs I've heard recently.

The album has much in common with 1999's
Keep It Like A Secret and nothing really in common with Melodies. This is a very good thing. This doesn't mean that they've fallen back on their recipe for Keep It Like A Secret. The likeness stems from ten great songs, each one important on its own yet intricately involved in an overall work that sounds focused and instantly classic. These songs also contain extended jams that are never predictable, just as Secret did. But these jams are entirely new, and might even prove to be better. Don't miss this album when its released.

Bright Eyes - Vinyl Box Set (Part I)

I turned 19 yesterday. Understanding my almost unhealthy obsession with Bright Eyes, my brother and sister gave me the new vinyl box set containing tons of early material. I'll soak it into my bones in a three part posting. Part I is A Collection of Songs Written and Recorded 1995-1997.

A much younger and rougher Conor Oberst quietly mutters, "I've never felt so separate..." and then explodes into "It's hopeless and I know this, and that's why I can't dream." This is exactly what I need. Self-pitying, lo-fi, raw emo music at low volume in my empty, dark house. Who says this music isn't important? I relate to this simple poetry and these basic chords that are delivered so intimately. These ideas may be naive and fleeting, but they are here and they are real. Bright Eyes manages to speak for millions when they play their songs, and if that doesn't make the music socially significant, I don't know what can.

The passion that bursts out of a record such as this may be self-involved and somewhat exaggerated, but that's what these songs are for. Writing and performing them is cathartic.

A Collection of Songs, like all of Bright Eyes, isn't just simple emo songs. These lyrics possess a depth beyond the status quo. They capture the essence of youth which some have left behind but everyone remembers. A Collection of Songs is the recording of the time we grow into ourselves and become who we are. Besides, not every song can be characterized as emo. 'How Many Lights Do You See?', though youthful, speaks volumes of Conor's knack for writing big songs: "How many lights do you see? How many lights do you see? There's one to say that night has come. And there's one that guards this jagged shore. And there's one to call the children home. And there's one to light the path they take." It isn't extraordinary, but that's why we like it. You can't help but smile and it only betters as the song continues.

Technically, the music behind the words is a bit below par, but that doesn't matter.
A Collection of Songs is far warmer than most everything that the mainstream music machine ejects into the collection of shit we call pop music. This stems partly from the fuzzy but sweet lo-fi production but is also an inevitable result of Conor's voice. In its imperfection, combined with his bursting passion, his voice manages to plunge the depths of ones soul to affect it in profound ways. His guitar jangles with a similar imperfection that gives his voice an anchor.

A Collection of Songs is simply wonderful. It is no doubt a relief that Bright Eyes has grown from these songs into a more mature sound, but it is refreshing to lose oneself in the simplicity and roughness of these early tunes. And right now, A Collection of Songs is exactly the type of therapy I require.

The Frames - Burn the Maps

(originally written for the Boise Weekly)

To pass the time at my flower delivery job, I listen to music. For three straight days, Burn the Maps was the only album that I heard. This is that rare work that demands your attention and never disappoints. Each song has been passionately and carefully crafted into a chilling masterpiece, simultaneously original from the rest of the album and delicately entrenched in the overall aura that emanates from Burn the Maps as a complete work.

The Frames' heartfelt and genuinely penned lyrics aren't always exceptional (though they often are) but they explore dark territory without falling into traps of cliche. The words that may not stand alone are propped up by a haunting voice that soars above or whispers softly below a dense background of incredible music. The songwriting is freshly imaginative and never ceased to amaze me. Peppy but poignant guitar pop songs, like "Fake" and "Underglass," stand next to beautiful, more subdued ballads that end with eruptions into awe-inspiring crescendos complete with a fiddle.

The Frames' allure is crystallized on the third track, "Dream Awake." It begins with a lone, eerie guitar that captures the ideas before the words even kick in. The music is the sound inside your head during quiet shock at having experienced monumental and tragic loss. When the words do kick in--"For every time I came home screaming and got sent away, with no warning at all, I had to dream awake..."--the
listener is already relating. The richness of this song captivated me. Not only did I understand what was being said, but I felt it. With the sheer quantity of empty music produced, we often lose sight of why we make and listen to music. We sing our songs to feel. The Frames never fail to remind us of this.

A Bad Habit

I have a nasty habit of buying way too much music. In the last three weeks or so, I've bought all this: Bob Dylan-Highway 61 Revisited, The Frames-Set List, Death Cab for Cutie-Plans, Emmanuel Jal-Ceasefire, Built to Spill-There is Nothing Wrong With Love, Willy Mason-Where the Humans Eat, Bright Eyes' splits with Neva Dinova and Spoon, Iron and Wine-Our Endless Numbered Days, The Most Serene Republic-Underwater Cinematographer, Pinback-Blue Screen Life, and Iron and Wine/Calexico-In the Reigns. I also just received a vinyl box set of early Bright Eyes material for my birthday. I haven't even been able to fully soak up all those new tunes. When I do, I'll tell you about them. In the meantime, I think I have enough new music right now to work on kicking this nasty habit, or at least subduing it to the point of only a few new albums every month.

Ashes (thoughts after a break-up)

Out of ashes bloom new beginnings. This is how I retain hope. Ashes are everywhere. Ashes of my personal relationships, ashes of so many mistakes and regrets, ashes falling as the entire world stumbles. I have to bear at least some of that responsibility.

After a mild, mostly sunny October that ended in disaster, it has begun to rain. Its fallen off and on for a week now, and the first breath of winter's chill has crept in with it. The raindrops turn the ash into a heavy cake. It coats every surface I touch and rubs off on my hands. They always feel dirty now. The cold apparently freezes this muddy ash into a thick black gel by morning time that is tough to walk through. Trying makes me feel like a clown. The sun is dropping off the horizon earlier in the day and all with the clouds, the ash, the rain, and the cold, the world is darker today than it ever has been. Logic would convince me that winter is coming. Yes it is, but that does not account for the minor tragedy that is happening now. And there is no explanation for the ashes.

But ashes are opportunity. This logic eases my mind in moments of flustered panic, but my heart is far to naive to find comfort in this hollow advice. Winter hasn't even arrived yet! November, December, and January are all yet to come! These are the hard months. The cold bites the bones in the darkness of their winter. My heart is already frozen. It won't understand the opportunity that the ashes are until it witnesses flowers blooming.

For now, my heart is surrendering to my mind. When my mind is busy the shouts and murmurs of the heart, desperate as they are, aren't quite audible. If my mind works through the dark at cultivation - at urging some blooming - then my heart can be won over in the spring while my exhausted mind rests a bit. And then I'll be alright.

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