Monthly Archives: August 2016

Tegan & Sara Vs. Middle Class Fashion

It was 2004 when I was first introduced to Canadian pop duo Tegan & Sara. I’m sure I’ve written about it many times before, but in a nutshell: “Little” Steven Van Zandt turned me onto them via his radio show. Somehow, Little Steven was finally able to penetrate the thick cloud of testosterone swirling around my brain and he convinced me that women could rock and there was nothing wrong with a dude listening to “girl music.” Sure, it’s funny to look back on this now as some sort of revelation, but I was young and dumb smack dab in the middle of the country.

Since that time, I’ve followed Tegan & Sara’s careers with great interest. [Sidebar: I can’t believe SO JEALOUS, my favorite album of theirs, is 12 years old. Where the hell has the time gone? ] Over the years the duo have morphed from indie darlings to a much more mainstream act. Besides appearing on TV and the radio, the concert venues have been getting larger and larger. It’s all very exciting and I’m honestly very happy for them that they’ve found success. However, I’ve noticed that as their popularity increases Tegan & Sara seem to move further and further from the indie rock/folk sound that I loved so much when I first discovered them. This first became noticeable on their 2009 album SAINTHOOD. When it first came out I enjoyed SAINTHOOD, even though I noted that the sound skewed a bit more synth-pop than their previous albums. Then in 2013 they released HEARTTHROB, the album the launched them into the popular consciousness with the single “Closer.” When I heard this song in a JC Penny, I knew that Tegan & Sara were officially entering Kings of Leon territory.

 

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If their new album was a cool as their eye make-up I swear to God they’d be my all-time favorite band. And, this article would not exist. So really, everyone would win.

 

Let me pause in order to make two things perfectly clear. First, I’d like to say that there is nothing wrong with a band evolving and changing over a period of time. I have a lot of trouble with this because on an emotional level, I just want things to stay the same forever. Like most humans, I profess that I love change and that chang is good all the while fearing change. Intellectually, I know The Beatles are a better band than say AC/DC because none of The Beatles records sound the same. The Fab Four changed and grew over the course of their albums and the world was all the better for it. When a band doesn’t grow and change over time they turn into a factory, endlessly producing the same product over and over. To the point where I honestly can’t tell the difference between the last 4 AC/DC albums. I love AC/DC and bands like them (The Ramones also come to mind) but let’s face it: doing the same thing over and over isn’t the same as jumping from “Love Me Do” to SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND.

So while I poke fun of sell out bands like Kings of Leon that started out making cool garage rock with dirty lyrics who went on to become Mom Rockers, I can’t begrudge them from trying something new. Even if that new thing isn’t what I want. With Tegan & Sara, I wouldn’t want them to pump out endless clones of THIS BUSINESS OF ART or IF IT WAS YOU for the next fifteen years. I dearly love those records, but I don’t think that would make Tegan & Sara happy nor would it make me happy ultimately. Maybe I don’t like this new dance-pop direction they’ve taken, but who’s to say that this won’t lead them towards something new that I will love.

 

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Middle Class Fashion: purple power.

 

Tegan & Sara but out a new album recently, an album called LOVE YOU TO DEATH.  Guess what? I didn’t really love it to death. I listened to it exactly once, because I’m a fan, and then I promptly forgot about it. The only thing I can exactly recall about it is that it’s painfully short. Like barely clocking in at 30 minutes short. Ten tracks short. The sort of release that feels like a band running out of steam. As I write this, I just pushed play on the album and right from the first song (“That Girl”) I find that I don’t hate this music. It just isn’t as good as “Time Running” or “Walking With A Ghost.” It’s not that Tegan & Sara are wrong and making less-inspired music, it must be that I just don’t like this sort of electro-pop music, right? Wrong.

One of my favorite albums to come out this year is III by Middle Class Fashion*. This album shares many of the same musical genetic components of the new wave of Tegan & Sara albums. The difference? Middle Class Fashion don’t do a serviceable job, they’re borderline brilliant. I actually think they’re brilliant, but I’m afraid to jinx them by throwing that sort of label around. The songwriting is tighter and more inspired, the arrangements are lusher and more interesting on III than they are on LOVE YOU TO DEATH. I’ve wanted to write about III and Middle Class Fashion since the album came out earlier this year, but I’ve been completely gobsmacked by it. The songs are all catchy and the lyrics are really interesting, but I have no idea what the songs are really about. Literate and mysterious, Middle Class Fashion remind me of REM’s Michael Stipe singing about how he’s gay without anyone in middle America picking up on that. My favorite song on III is a song called “86” which I think is both a reference to “86-ing something” and the year the lead singer was born, but honestly, that’s probably not even close. And I kind of love that about “86.” Compare that with the single off of LOVE YOU TO DEATH, “Boyfriend.” There’s nothing subtle or mysterious about “Boyfriend,” the song is pretty much what you think it’s about. I’m a fucking dunce and I know what that song is about.

What’s the difference between a band like Middle Class Fashion and Tegan & Sara? Besides the fact that Tegan & Sara are super-well-known. Middle Class Fashion are in the early stages of their careers, I suppose (III is the band’s third album, kinda like LED ZEPELLIN III, which makes me love them all that much more). But I think the difference between the two bands is more than just the chronology of the life of these bands. Middle Class Fashion exude a level of artistic confidence that Tegan & Sara had but somehow lost. I’m not privy to all the behind-the-scene goings on with either band, but I’ll wager someone in a very slick looking suit is influencing the artistic choices Tegan & Sara are making. Middle Class Fashion are probably doing exactly what they want to do and that comes through in the music. Also, the songwriter/singer in Middle Class Fashion is a fucking genius operating on a different level than the usual rock/pop singer-songwriter**.

Though on the surface Tegan & Sara and Middle Class Fashion have a lot in common, really this is an apples-and-oranges comparison. Tegan & Sara have somehow wandered into the same sonic playground of Middle Class Fashion and suffer greatly through the comparison. I hope that this phase of Tegan & Sara’s career ultimately results in more interesting music and I hope Middle Class Fashion keep making great records. And if Middle Class Fashion want to genre-hop they’ve more than earned that right, as far as I’m concerned. I’ve got an open mind and will follow artists I like down any rabbit hole, even if it’s just for one listen.

 

 

*Okay, so don’t kill me, but III is 11 tracks and 28 minutes long. But ya know, this is a good kind of brevity…

**Fun fact, I once stood behind the dude in Middle Class Fashion in line for beer after a show. I worked up the nerve to tell him how much I enjoyed their then-current album JUNGLE. No way in hell would I have done what with the singer.

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Loco Ono’s Hella Bummer “Sunny Day” is Awesome

I spend way too much of my free time trolling the Internet searching for bands and songs that will be My Next Favorite Band. Most of the time, I come up empty handed. Sometimes I find a song or two that’s decent, though nothing really special. And then, once in a blue moon, I find something magical. At this point, I almost dread finding that magical song because it feeds fuel into my music-finding furnace. This past week I pinched my nose, took a deep breath, and went on a deep dive into the dark alleys of the Internet.

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And it happened, I hit paydirt. “Sunny Day” by Loco Ono is everything I love wrapped up into one incredible three-minute forty-eight-second song. The track is part-grunge, part-shoegaze, and all awesome.The pounding, almost tribal drums that open the song instantly grabbed my attention. The song is sung by a very gentle, cute-sounding girl…but she’s singing about dying and rotting “one sunny day.” I’m a big sucker for this sort of juxtaposition, no matter how many times rock chicks pull it–it always works on me. Then the guitars kick in and I instantly started swooning. The song has a pretty trippy animated video that apparently cost the band next-to-nothing to make, which makes me love them even more.

I have spent the past few days trying to find out everything I can about Loco Ono, and boy the info is in short supply. Near as I can currently tell, they hail from the UK and this is their only song that’s commercially available. The track, as previously mentioned, has a video on YouTube and appears on a compilation album on Bandcamp called LONDON VS. BOGATA. I spent 2 pounds and downloaded the song on Bandcamp just so I could listen to it over and over on my way to work. The band has a few more tracks posted on their Soundcloud page which I’m looking forward to digging into just as soon as I finish this post.

Check out “Sunny Day” and let me know what you think in the comments below.

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Rock N’ Read: Complicated Game Inside The Songs of XTC

‘I think it was the middle of 2000 when I was introduced to XTC via the band’s final swan song APPLE VENUS VOLUME 2 (WASP STAR). I remember being totally blown away by the band and eagerly devoured that album as well as the 1999 release APPLE VENUS VOLUME 1. I’ve always been a fan of lush, literate pop songs and that happens to be XTC’s specialty. I dove head first into XTC’s back catalogue and was surprised to learn that the band start out as a punk/New Wave outfit before slowly morphing into a Beatle-esque pop band. One of the reason the band never took off is because the band famously stopped touring due to lead singer/songwriter Andy Partridge’s stage fright. Partridge retreated from the spotlight after 2000 and the band only popped up on my radar occasionally when they released a smattering of demos and alternate takes of their previous output. The band remained a bit of a mystery to me, outside of their music for years, and other than one grizzled-looking CD Warehouse employee I never met anyone that seemed to be aware of them. I recently learned that Partridge has stepped back into the spotlight a bit via Twitter and writing for a few other artists (namely The Monkees whose new album I have previously reviewed).

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Writer Todd Bernhardt has spent the past decade interviewing Partridge on many of XTC’s greatest songs. Apparently, these interviews were posted on a now-defunct fan website. His book Complicated Game: Inside the Songs of XTC collects and expands upon these interviews. This sort of book, a back and forth conversation between a writer/reporter and an artist, is probably my favorite type of long-form music writing. I love hearing an artist talk at length about their work. I eagerly dove into the book, ready to finally get insight into some of my all-time favorite pop songs. And to that end, Complicated Game succeeds in spades. My only issue with the book is that it dives very deep into the mechanics of these songs. If you’re a musician and a can follow Bernhardt and Partridge’s conversation about chord changes and keyboard filters, then this book will be a treasure trove of information. If, however, you aren’t a musician and are a bit of a dunce like me you’re going to be a bit lost in a good chunk of the book. There are great behind the scenes tales and for the most part, Partridge answers all of Bernhardt’s questions with honesty and aplomb (no dodging here).

The best chapters focused on the band’s most famous song and one of their more obscure songs. I found the chapter on “Dear God” to be highly illuminating. “Dear God” has fascinated me for many reasons and I was very interested in learning about the song’s development and the how and why it was initially left off of the band’s album SKYLARKING (and how it got added back once the song took off and became XTC’s biggest hit). The reasons behind its omission aren’t quite what I was expecting and its addition to the tightly structured concept album SKYLARKING is less problematic than I’d always considered. The chapter on one of XTC’s side project The Dukes of Stratosphere songs was also very intriguing. I’d always wanted to know how the psychedelic alter-ego band came about and how this project’s songs were crafted. Those two chapters made Complicated Game worth every penny for me. The insight provided into the band’s other songs were interesting as well, though there were a few songs not covered that I’d have liked to have read about. The book also spends quite a bit of time discussing Swindon, the English town where Partridge lives and wrote about extensively in many of XTC’s songs. I’d always pictured a Kinks-esque VILLAGE GREEN type hamlet but Complicated Game paints a more realistic version. I was a bit disappointed that the band’s bassist, Colin Moulding, didn’t get as many props from Partridge as I’d have thought. Sure, Andy was generous on more than a few occasions when discussing Moulding’s bass parts…but he didn’t gush the way I’d have thought. I know the two had a bit of a falling out, but this still struck me as odd. Perhaps I’m a bit too sensitive when it comes to Moulding, whom I have always felt was an overlooked genius.

I’d recommend this book to only the hardest of hardcore XTC/Andy Partridge fans. I think that if you’re a huge fan hungering for more information on the band and their creative process, you should check this book out right away. If you’re a casual fan or someone unwilling to sift through some serious technical music-talk, then you should proceed with caution. Andy Partridge is a humble genius and much of the discussion found in Complicated Game will go over your head (it went over mine). There are a few songs/chapters where Andy’s recollections are a bit on the sparse side, but even when the songwriter can’t recall every single detail he’s able to provide a lot of insightful analysis of the song. Lastly, I very much doubt that Mr. Partridge will happen upon this review, but if he does (or if Mr. Bernhardt sees this) I’d very much like to convey to him how happy I would be if he were put out brand-new music. Demos and fuzzy warbles are fun, but nothing beats fully-finished tunes. The song he penned for the latest Monkees album was a slice of brilliance the world needs more of these days.

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