Monthly Archives: March 2014

ROCK ‘N READ: LOVE AND OTHER B-SIDES

Romance and rock collide in novelist Lisa Peers’ Love and Other B-Sides.  Call me lame, but I’ve always been a sucker for a good love story.  Flavored with musical references and plot elements ripped from the headlines, Love and Other B-Sides reminded me of films like LOVE ACTUALLY…only good and written by Nick Hornby. Peers spins a yarn that touches on redemption, aging, find one’s true calling in life, and starting over.

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The book centers on the relationship between aging rocker Stee Walsh and Connie Rafferty, a new fan who comes to the singer’s attention via a tech-savvy super-fan Walsh meets while signing a deal with a digital music conglomerate. Using a highly intrusive computer program designed to “study” the music habits of the buying public, Walsh becomes interested in a woman half a world away who spent the better part of a year purchasing his entire catalogue one song a day.

What’s great about Love and Other B-Sides, is the way it depicts its protagonists, Peers does a fantastic job creating realistic characters.  Stee, already a complex character at the beginning of the book, deepens as he falls in love (real love) with an ordinary woman.   Connie’s character was the one that intrigued me the most, however. All too often we dismiss the partners of rock stars and other celebrities, but they’re people.  How much it feel to dwell in the shadow of a Mick Jagger or Paul McCartney? While the wealth and trappings of fame are appealing, not being taken seriously simply because of one personal relationship would be very difficult. Connie’s character is grieving the loss of an unfaithful husband and Walsh is a former fuck-up who’s sober but inhabiting the remains of a life ravaged by substance abuse. Unlike many love stories, both characters are doing the rescuing, which is refreshing.

One of the reasons I’d never attempt to write a book like Love and Other B-Sides is because I’m not sure I could come up with believable songs/song titles.  Again, Peers crafts believability into her tale by adding intricate musical details and full-song lyrics to her imagined rock stars songs.  Walsh, who musically seems like a much more fun Springsteen, is one of the world’s top rockstars—I know few people with the stones to write songs that are supposed to be world-wide chart toppers, so hats off to the author.

The book moves at a brisk pace, and the deranged computer hacking fan adds an element of unease to the books otherwise light romance. Overall, I’d say that Love and Other B-Sides is a solid debut from a promising, music-centric novelist.  I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention the early Axl Rose reference (like Axl, Stee is a red-head) and a late in the story mention of Warren Zevon.  Also, the book features an amusing running gag involving the piano man himself, Mr. Billy Joel.

You can buy Love and Other B-Sides on Amazon.com and be sure to visit Lisa’s awesome blog, LP on 45.

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“Grass” by XTC

“It would shock you, too/the things we used to do on grass…”

Though Andy Partridge is the lead-mad genius of British New Wave rocker XTC, my all-time favorite song by the band was written and sung by Colin Moulding.  The lighthearted, easygoing bassist was very much the McCartney in XTC.  His songs are guided more by the heart than the more cerebral, neurotic songs written by Partridge.  Of the two, Moulding is very much the one who comes across as an average bloke, the sort of guy you could have a beer with down at the pub.  That’s not to say Moulding was incapable to complex, witty, psychedelic numbers like Partridge.

xtc-grass-virgin

Moulding’s song “Grass” off the band’s 1986 album SKYLARKING is my favorite XTC song for a couple of reasons. For one, its surreal, psychedelic sweep is beyond splendid. The song opens with a sweeping string arrangement and chirping bird sounds (the album does anyway, the single version doesn’t have the sound effects). Lyrically, the song is both about having sex in a field and having sex while under the influence of marijuana.  The song is loaded with delightful double-entrees that are cute and not skeevy like I’m making it sound.  While it’s by no means high poetry, I’ve always enjoyed the cheeky, very British, wordplay of “Grass.”

“Grass” was written and recorded in the late 1980’s, at a time when it was pretty uncool to like The Beatles. Sure, there were bands like Tears For Fears mining The Beatles pop territory, but it was done in a most un-Beatle way. “Grass” was a desperate stab at a much-needed American hit single.  The song got XTC a hit in the States, but not in the way the band predicted: DJ’s ignored “Grass” and made the song’s b-side “Dear God” a surprise hit instead.  Produced by super-producer Todd Rundgren, the song never got it’s due in my opinion.  I think “Dear God” is a very good song, but by no means as representative of XTC and what the band stood for as “Grass.”

A great way to start Spring, enjoy “Grass”:

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ROCK ‘N MAILBAG #3: Dot Dash

Welcome to the third installment of my semi-irregular series Rock ‘N Mailbag! For a few months now, I’ve been getting solicitations via email from independent artists wishing me to review their albums.  I’m not sure how these people are finding me, but rather than dismiss them, I’ve decided to listen to them and give them a little love.

I got an email back in January from a Washington D.C. band called Dot Dash asking me if I wanted to give away copies of their single “Shopworn Excuse.”  Their bandcamp profile lists them as a “post punk pop band.”  I’ll be honest, I really don’t know what that means…to me Dot Dash are a pop band, plain and simple.  I can see why folks would have trouble with, the term “pop” has devolved into this really negative Britney Spears-connotation over the past 10+ years.  But that’s what Dot Dash is: they’re a pop band.

DotDashgrouplive

“Shopworn Excuse” is a pleasant, sun-shiny song with just enough jangle to keep it from being too sugary.  The dark lyrics also provide a nice contrast to the fizzy pop.  Dot Dash remind me a bit of Swedish poppers Acid House Kings mixed with Jon Brion Why don’t you do me a favor and give “Shopworn Excuse” a listen and chime-in in the comments section.  I hopped on Spotify and checked out the rest of their album, HALF-REMEMBERED DREAM, and found it to have an even stronger 90’s brit-pop flavor than “Shopworn Excuse” led me to believe. I particularly like “Bloom/Decay” and the hyper-literary”Fiction Section.” I was on the fence about these guys, but the album sold me.  HALF-REMEMBERED DREAM is a great little pop gem, a true diamond in the rough.

Check out “Shopworn Excuse” and chime in with your thoughts in the comments section.

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I Think I Might Not Hate Bob Seger After All

I’m trying to figure out why I hate Bob Seger.  For some reason, I woke up this morning with “Against the Wind” stuck in my head, which has prompted this re-evaluation.  Ever since I’ve been alive, Seger’s been a part of my life and all over the radio.  I’ve been inundated with his so-called Silver Bullet Band from the time I was a small child because my parents like him. And while he projects a really cool imagine, I think his most beloved songs–like “Rock And Roll Never Forgets” (his lame spelling of rock ‘n roll, not mine) is about as cool as “You’re Momma Don’t Dance” by Loggins and Messina.  That’s not very cool.

Silver Bullet Band

Seger’s particular brand of blue-collar “heartland” rock has never really been my bag, but he has always struck me as sincere.  More sincere than many other musicians in this category—I’m looking at you John Cougar Mellencamp.  Seger’s a Detroit man and his affection for Motown is evident in his music, which is pretty damn cool for a white guy so he has that going for him.  Now that I think about it, other than “Rock And Roll Never Forgets” the only other song of his that I absolutely can’t stand is “Old Time Rock and Roll.”  And that’s probably due to a mix of it being overplayed and the fact that songs about rock ‘n roll tend to be lame.

I really like “Night Moves,” “Fire Down Below,” “Mainstreet,” and “Beautiful Loser.” There’s a live cut of his song “Katmandu” that I hear on the classic rock radio way too much that I alternate between loving and hating.  Really when I step back and think about it, my problem isn’t with Seger, it’s with the people who have been programming classic rock radio for the past 25 years. As I’ve been writing this, I’ve been listening to NIGHT MOVES via YouTube (why Bobby, won’t you add your music to Spotify?) and I actually really dig the deeper cuts of the album. Turns out I probably don’t hate Bob Seger.  He still reminds me of my Dad a little too much and his backing band has a name that makes me think of crappy beer…but overall I guess I really am a Bob Seger fan.

The moral of this story is: take time every now and then to ponder why you don’t (or do) like something.  Take it apart and if your dislike makes sense, then fine.  But if not…you’re just being an asshole.

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ROCK ‘N MAILBAG #2: What, Really?

Welcome to the second installment of my semi-irregular series Rock ‘N Mailbag! For a few months now, I’ve been getting solicitations via email from independent artists wishing me to review their albums.  I’m not sure how these people are finding me, but rather than dismiss them, I’ve decided to listen to them and give them a little love.

Pop-rockers What, Really? hail from Italy, that magical boot-shaped wonderland of vino and pasta. Though their email described the band as a “power pop” band, I really don’t think that fits.  The band has a pleasant, low key, indie rock vibe.  They’ve apparently played the International Pop Overthrow Festival in Liverpool and have crafted a nice little EP titled simply WHAT, REALLY?

What, Really? EP

The EP opens with “Ophelia (Among the flowers)” which clocks in just under 3 minutes.  And while it’s not a barn-burner by any means, it grooves fast enough.  The melody is catchy and the vocals are nice and clean. Next is “Dandy Hobo” which is darker and sounds a bit like The Shins with a hint of Jason Falkner.  It’s a good song

“Ninja Expert” has a goofy title but is probably my favorite song on the EP.  This is the band’s best, most fun song.  It reminded me of Canadian indie-rockers Tokyo Police Club with it’s angular guitar riff and shouty vocals. As good as the song is, it feels a bit restrained.  I’ll wager that when playing “Ninja Expert” live, the band really lets it rip. And really, that’s the biggest issue I have with these songs, they feel like a band operating at 90%.  Just a little extra oomph would have pushed these songs into fantastic instead of really good.

The last track “Clouds” is as good as everything else on the EP but is a bit too short and again feels like a restrained effort.  As far as EP’s go from unknown bands, What, Really? have something really good on their hands.  If this was mine, I’d be really proud of it.  That said, for the full album the band really needs to step up with the energy (or hire a producer capable of capturing their energy better, or both). I think they should stop marketing themselves as power-pop and embrace the indie-rock sound that they cultivate.  And honestly, if I were them, I’d buddy up with some Italian Film School kids and let them use their music in their independent film–because I could totally see these songs as the backdrop to some awesome black and white art house flick made by some newbie filmmaker.

As you can imagine, I get sent a TON of crap from all over the globe. What, Really? have a good foot forward, I genuinely hope they pool their resources together and put together a full length album. Based on their EP alone, I would buy an album from these guys.  If you’re interested in checking out WHAT, REALLY? you can go here and download the whole EP for free. 

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“Walk Out To Winter” by Aztec Camera

Scottish rockers Aztec Camera are one of those bands that I came to really late. When I say that, I don’t mean that it was 1989 or 1995 when I started listening to them…it was about 2 years ago.  I discovered them in, of all places, a J.C. Penny Outlet store.  I was waiting around near the changing rooms, waiting for my wife and amid the terrible, terrible lite jazz and boring adult contemporary I heard “Walk Out To Winter.”

Aztec Camera band

Aztec Camera about to take a snappy.

The song’s production is pretty dated, but delightfully New Wave-ish enough to save itself from being totally unlistenable.  Roddy Frame, the mad genius behind Aztec Camera, comes off just earnest enough: any less would be boring, any more would be embarrassing. I first thought I was hearing a really early Morrissey/The Smiths song, only because Frame’s voice has that beefy timber that’s similar to the Moz.

I was disappointed to find that HIGH LAND, HIGH RAIN, the band’s 1983 debut album, was a little hard to come by. But rejoice! This April will mark the 31th anniversary of the album’s release, and to celebrate Domino Records is putting out a remastered double-CD edition of the album. I got my copy in the cut-out bin of my local record shop, but I’m tempted to pick this one up.  HIGH LAND, HIGH RAIN is a fantastic record top to bottom. The single “Oblivious” is probably the album’s most notable track, but I really dig “Walk Out To Winter.”

I woke up this morning to a freshly fallen winter wonderland myself, and this song was playing in my head. If you haven’t checked out Aztec Camera, don’t feel bad just get with it and seek out HIGH LAND, HIGH RAIN.

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USE YOUR WEAPONS by Valley Lodge

Valley Lodge Band Use Your WeaponsValley lodge came to my attention last week via podcaster Dave Slusher.  Prior to that, I’d never heard of the band but was quickly impressed with their song “Go.” I looked them up online, and it turns out Valley Lodge has a pretty impressive pedigree. The band formed in 2005 and features members from such diverse acts as Satanicide, Sense Field, Sons of Elvis, Cobra Verde, and Walk Mink.  The Cobra Verde connection really piqued my interested because that’s a band that has ties to Guided By Voices, one of my all-time favorite bands.  So how had they escaped my Sauron-like gaze for so long?  Well Valley Lodge, like most power-poppers today, is more famous in Japan than they are here in the States.

I love a really catchy, stupidly simple song.  For me that’s the essence of power-pop: taking something pretty basic and making it infectious.  Valley Lodge has crafted one heck of an earworm with their song “Go.”  It’s goofy but incredibly catchy and I’ve been unable to go a day without listening to it at least once this past week.  Once I got over the initial sugar rush of “Go,” I decided to check out the rest of the band’s latest album.  Would the rest of USE YOUR WEAPONS manage to live up to that first song?  Being a “glass half empty” guy, I was certain the rest of the album would be downhill after such a stellar opening track.

Thankfully I was wrong, USE YOUR WEAPONS is a solid album.  Less syrupy than you’d expect after hearing “Go,” USE YOUR WEAPONS pays tribute to British invasion-era pop but with a dash of snarky-grit.  The band compares favorably to California rockers TSAR, who also inject a whole lotta fun into their hooky, sometimes-dark songs.  Valley Lodge, like all great power-pop bands, owes a lot to Big Star whose influence can be felt throughout the record, especially on “Make Up Your Mind.”

Lead singer Dave Hill is a comedian as well as writer/blogger, so it’s unsurprising that Valley Lodge’s songs are funny, but don’t mistake the mistake of writing the band off as a joke—these songs seriously rock.  Even though USE YOUR WEAPONS is fun, there’s a darkness peaking out from the corners on a few of the albums tracks, especially on “Pretty Thing” and “Waiting in the Rain.”

Not everything on USE YOUR WEAPONS is perfect; I didn’t care for the semi-grating bubblegum of “Gimmie Gimmie” which is a shame because it has some great guitar work.   I also think that the band’s sound feels only partially formed, and that the songs have a disjointed quality, as though they were cobbled together from a couple of different bands rather than one.  That said, I’m really glad I found this band and look forward to exploring their back catalogue.  I’d say if you were intrigued by “Go” you should definitely check out the rest of USE YOUR WEAPONS.

A fun throwback, I’d definitely recommend Valley Lodge’s USE YOUR WEAPONS for fans of Big Star, The Raspberries, and Fountains of Wayne.

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Dire Straits “Money For Nothing”

Now that I don’t have Spotify, I’ve been forced to return to my expansive CD collection.  One of those shiny, shiny discs, was a copy of Dire Straits 1985 album BROTHERS IN ARMS.  It’s the band’s most famous, best-selling albums.  I hadn’t heard it all the way through in a while and when I recently re-listened to it, I was astounded that the first three songs were all singles.  The album’s also really long, the songs are lengthy but none of them feel overly long.  That’s something that’s kinda lost in this age of ADD-riddled post-MTV age.

Speaking of MTV, I’m still completely blown away by “Money For Nothing.”  Talk about a song that wouldn’t work today, where to begin: I love that Sting is on this track.  I love the sentiment, the commentary on music videos and the perception of being a musician.  I love that guitar riff, man is that a million dollar riff! And the best part? That super-meta video with the primitive CGI.  I feel so blessed to have had young parents that were into MTV during it’s initial hey-day. I remember seeing this video, not when it first came out mind you (I’m not THAT old), and being really wowed by the visuals.

Dire Straits Brothers in Arms cover

Mark Knopfler is such an amazing talent, I think I prefer his solo stuff to Dire Straits, but BROTHERS IN ARMS is a damn fine album.

Yeah buddy, that’s his own hair.

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