Month: February 2014

Catching Up On The Week With Special Guest Copyright Law (Feb. 28 Edition)

A few quick links you may have missed this week and worthy of your time this weekend

I’m always interested in the intersection of music and the law, and considering I spent three years and a fortune for the privilege of receiving a sheet of paper that says “Juris Doctor”, I would hope that there would be at least one thing from my chosen profession that I should enjoy.  So I was excited to read an article discussing yet another lawsuit over sampling, with this one concerning Frank Ocean’s “Super Rich Kids”, and not only because I’m a fan of the song.

Most sampling lawsuits concern an area of copyright law known as “fair use”, which allows certain reproductions that otherwise might be considered infringements in certain limited circumstances, using a balancing test of four factors.  Discussions about fair use are one of the more entertaining parts of copyright law, but unfortunately for most participants there have been several areas that haven’t been settled.  One concept that is still being debated is what is considered “transformative”, which addresses the “purpose and character of the use” component.  Changing the pitch or adding distortion can often be a huge change to a piece of music, so I would be more liberal in my assessment of the transformative question.  In addition, the article mentions a new proposed system that would seek to prevent the hassle of most of these lawsuits by instituting a compulsory licence system.  I’ll definitely spend some time this weekend reading up on that suggestion.

There was recently another development in the area of “fair use”, where an Australian company reached a settlement with a Harvard Law professor who used a clip from Phoenix’s “Lisztomania” for a lesson on on “fair use” posted on YouTube.  It seems to have been a clear attempt at steamrolling potential violators by the label holding the copyright, because the purpose was clearly educational and would be determined to be “fair use” by a court.  The label admitted as much, and thankfully also paid the professor’s legal fees (though I am generally loath to cheer on anything from that particular institution, I am glad for this particular result).

Just your neighborhood studio

Just your neighborhood studio

In a little bit of news, Stereogum has a look at the recording process behind the new Mastodon album.  Glad to see that it’s been smooth sailing for one of the most original bands in the metal scene today.

I know readers of this site are probably a bit Beck’ed out at this point, but if for some reason that’s not the case, SPIN has put online their cover feature from 1994 after the release of Mellow Gold.

I normally wouldn’t link to anything featuring Bill O’Reilly, but if you want to see a clueless argument against rap music, he’s a good source to follow.

Consider this quote:

O’Reilly argued it’s a problem when young black boys idolize “these guys with the hats on backwards” and “terrible rap lyrics” and drug use, and told Jarrett Obama has the power to “reverse the peer pressure.”

If you omit the word “rap”, Bill just provided a description of popular music from the last 50 years.  Congratulations Bill, glad to see you’re putting that Harvard degree to good use.

Finally, I’ve got a little bit of reading of my own to do this weekend.  There’s a Stereogum feature that goes in-depth into the My Morning Jacket “One Big Holiday” festival, and “extensive” doesn’t begin to describe it.  It’s been an open tab for nearly a week now, and considering how much of a fan of the band I am, I still intend to read it.  I’ll probably do so while downloading the shows from the festival.


The Beck File

With the release of Beck’s new album Morning Phase this week, it’s a great time to take a look over Beck’s long, varied, and often bizarre career.  Imagine telling someone back in 1994 that the guy who sang (or rapped, your call) “With the plastic eyeballs, spray paint the vegetables/Dog food stalls with the beefcake pantyhose” would still have a career twenty years later, and more than that, was a highly-respected musician; that person who was the recipient of your madness would be more than justified in attempting to have you committed.

Hopefully that scenario I presented only exists in the hypothetical world, because CrazyPants was actually correct.  Here we are, two decades after “Loser” and Beck is now an elder statesman, whose every move the music press documents and analyzes for greater meaning, even if his album sales have declined over the years.  As of the writing of this article, Morning Phase has a MetaCritic rating of 82 based on 43 reviews, his highest score since the release of Midnite Vultures in 1999.

With this release, and because we now live in a culture that is obsessed with mining over the past (especially the recent past), there has been a flurry of thinkpieces and longreads about the career of Beck and what this album means, most notably its relation to his somber album Sea Change.  And what better way for a fledgling new publication to distinguish itself than by writing a variation that other more popular outlets have already done?  We won’t be looking at the new album specifically (we’re saving that for its own review), but instead taking a closer look at each of Beck’s previous albums.  Really, it’s the least we could do considering how the entire week before was spent on listening to those albums.  Think of it as an actually decent Consumer Guide, coming from a guy who doesn’t stubbornly insist that In The City was The Jam’s best album.

It would be a fair assumption that the proper place to start with any retrospective is from the beginning, but it’s somewhat of a difficult task with Beck, since he had a few albums before his major label debut Mellow Gold.  These on the whole amounted to glorified demos, and while there are a few gems here and there, I never really have the energy to sit through entire albums of alternative folk songs.  There are a few interesting songs on One Foot In The Grave, and if you get the re-released version, you get the gem of an early version of “It’s All In Your Mind”, which would eventually be used for Sea Change.  Beyond that, I would only recommend the early material if you’re a completist or are really into weirdo-folk, and if that’s the case, all the more power to you.

So it’s probably a good idea to start with Mellow Gold, and to answer the question that those who only know about Beck in passing–is there anything worthwhile on the album besides “Loser”?  Yes!  Even though I would personally rank it on the lower end of the Beck Album Scale, it’s definitely not an album with just one single and then filler through all the rest.  You do get glimpses of the genre-splicing that Beck would become famous for, though the highlights tend to be variations on folk (my shorthand in this case for simple acoustic chords).  “Pay No Mind” and “Blackhole” are great examples of this.  And Beck’s humor in his lyrics are evident throughout the record.  In other words, there was a good reason why you would consistently see “Beercan”, “Soul Suckin Jerk”, and “Fuckin With My Head” in people’s Napster directory.



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What You’ve Missed (If You Haven’t Checked Our Tumblr)

Here’s another reminder that not only do we have this nifty website with all sorts of in-depth analysis, but we also have a spiffy Tumblr which is great for passing on little bits of news.  Sometimes we even make an attempt at a pithy comment!  If you haven’t checked it so far, you’ve missed news about the anniversary reissue of Soundgarden’s landmark album Superunknown, a new song from Tokyo Police Club, that The National will be the musical guest on Saturday Night Live on March 8th, and that the Eels will be releasing a new album and going on tour this spring.

Live at the Schnitz, well after Superunknown

Live at the Schnitz, well after Superunknown

So yeah, make it a habit to check out, and you won’t miss out on stuff like this!  Unless of course, we do more of these round-ups.  Which we probably will, but just save yourself the hassle and go directly to the source.

Covered: “Pink Moon”

Covered is a feature where we examine the merits of various cover songs, debating whether or not they capture the spirit and intent of the original, if the cover adds anything new, and whether or not it perhaps surpasses the original.  If we fail on those counts, at the very least we may expose you to different versions of great songs you hadn’t heard before. 

For this edition, since we’re in the middle of “Beck Week” here at RIJR, we’re going to be using him as a pivot in this feature.  In other words, we’ll be examining both a cover done by Beck as well as another artist covering one of Beck’s songs.

Initially, I was going to analyze Beck’s cover of Dylan’s “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat”.  I first heard this cover at a live show on the Modern Guilt tour, back when I was in New York.  I remember how energized Beck was for that particular song, which was a marked contrast to his demeanor for most of the rest of his set (I also want to pin some of the blame on the audience, who were pretty indifferent to much of the set, even when it dipped into Odelay-era rarities like “Minus”).  I wasn’t sure how much the lackluster performance could be blamed on doing a multi-night stand, or on the venue (the United Palace Theater is a pretty stunning venue, but while it’s perfect for acts like Sigur Ros, it’s not as conducive to a full-on rock show), or just general malaise from doing yet another tour.  In subsequent interviews, I learned that Beck had severe back pain during that era, which makes me feel a bit bad for being generally disappointed with the show.

To keep a long story from going any longer, I decided to go with a different cover, because while I enjoy Beck’s version, I feel that it’s a little too close to the original to be worth further analysis.  It’s pretty much how you would imagine a Beck cover of a Dylan song would go–it’s got the ragged feel of the original, slightly more uptempo, with a fuzzier bass and electro-country leads.  In other words, it’s not exactly like Death Grips taking a lyric from the song and going in a completely different direction.  Instead I’m going to look at a cover that I only learned existed recently, that of Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon”.

Like many of my generation, I am not ashamed to admit that I first heard the song in a Volkswagen ad.  It’s not as if I had a huge knowledge of the English folk scene from the 70’s back in high school, so please pardon my ignorance.  But I was touched by just the pure beauty of the song, from the soft vocals, the churning acoustic guitar, and that delicate little piano melody that somehow in one line ties the whole thing together.  The album would soon hold a dear place in my heart, most notably as a soundtrack to my first couple of semesters of college.

Beck does a great job of capturing the same atmosphere and emotional feelings of the original, and is definitely faithful in that regard.  It’s interesting how it is distinctly Beck’s voice, but he is still able to evoke the memory of Nick Drake’s vocals.  The difference between the two comes from the guitar parts, which leads to a focus on different rhythms in each version.  Most people don’t realize the technical complexity of Nick Drake’s guitar playing; it is an example of how sometimes the most difficult things to do sometimes appear easy to the untrained eye.  He used a lot of alternate tunings that allowed him to play a lot of complex rhythmic and lead parts at the same time, often interacting with each other in the same measure.  That’s why there’s a consistent drive to the rhythm in the original.  Beck (wisely) chooses to not imitate the complexity of those guitar lines, and instead emphasizes certain beats with strummed chords, giving the song a more laid-back feel, and in turn making it somehow even more melancholy.  This even extends to the famous piano melody, which with this extra bit of drag conveys an even greater sense of longing.

Now we have the slightly more difficult task of looking at those who have attempted to cover Beck.  Surprisingly, there are not that many from which to choose.  On the one hand, Beck has composed hundreds of songs, dabbled in dozens of genres, and been around for over two decades now, so you’d think there would be a wide variety of artists that would attempt to cover his work.  But even through all those various detours and musical experiments, there is the singular persona of Beck that shines through, and he leaves a specific stamp on each song that he does.  But it makes sense that it’s from his album Sea Change, in many ways his most straight-forward singer/songwriter record, that we see at least an attempt by others to try out.

“The Golden Age” kicks off the record, and in many ways after those opening lines (“Put your hands on the wheel/Let the Golden Age begin”), it’s all downhill from there, at least emotionally speaking.  I’ll never forget that when the Boston Red Sox won the World Series back in 2004 that the network broadcasting their victory decided that this was an appropriate song to mark the occasion, making it one of the best examples of an executive green-lighting a song without ever hearing the whole thing.  Who doesn’t love celebrating with a song whose chorus goes “These days I barely get by/I don’t even try”?

It’s hard to even call this a cover, since the Flaming Lips toured with Beck shortly after Sea Change came out.  So you know they at least do a faithful job of covering the music.  I do appreciate the rumbling low-end that the Lips manage here, but I miss the slide guitar parts from the original, which added a great counterpoint to the melody.  Wayne Coyne adds a bit more fragility to his vocals, but he doesn’t get the same longing feel that Beck conveys in his part.  What I find most interesting though is the fact that they omit the second verse, which is actually the one that I prefer.  This may be due to the live nature of the performance for a radio show, but it’s an interesting comment if it’s intentional.

Another cover of a Beck song that I think is worth sharing is The Cinematics performing “Sunday Sun”, also from Sea Change.  Already one of the more uplifting songs on the album, The Cinematics turn it into a genuinely happy song.  It’s not just in the attitude and tempo, but through each part, from the drums (the sixteenth-note hi-hat rhythms help drive the song), to the guitar tones, to the vocals themselves which are simply cheerier.  Beck’s original is much more dramatic, and does a great job in building and building over the course of the song.  But even when the melody soars, Beck maintains a certain tension with his vocals over the course of the song, which makes the collapse at the end fit perfectly.

Over the Weekend (Feb. 24 Edition)

I don’t plan on mentioning the name “Miley Cyrus” very much on this site, but when I found out that she performed a cover of “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Pt. 1” with Wayne Coyne, I’m obligated to share that news.  Stereogum has the video of that performance, as well as her cover of OutKast’s “Hey Ya”, both of which were a lot better than I expected.  Also unexpected: the amount of times that Miley drops F-Bombs on her tween audience.

A highlight of any tour of Oklahoma City

We found it by total luck

Stereogum also has an inside look at the making of the new Fucked Up album.  I had recently been wondering about the status of the album, so it’s good to hear that it’s somewhat on track (less good to hear–the possibility that Stereogum may be reading my thoughts).  It’s an interesting look at the band’s unusual dynamic, where everyone kind of does their own thing, and reading about the internal tension between vocalist Damian Abraham and guitarist Mike Haliechuk is pretty fascinating.

Finally, if you’re stuck in a meeting, I recommend that you read up on a couple of old interviews.  The first one I have is an oral history of the making of the Wu-Tang Clan’s debut album Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) courtesy of SPIN.  As one would expect with any story concerning the Wu, there’s tons of great anecdotes about various members, including the ODB.  There is also a lot of revelatory discussion about the specific recording techniques that were used.  And finally, in preparation for the new Beck album that will be released tomorrow (and our upcoming retrospective on his career so far), it’s worth checking out this old wide-ranging interview with Pitchfork about his career.  You get a lot of insight into the early parts of Beck’s career and how he became an accidental superstar, and his attitude about the music business in general.  Towards the end of the interview, you also get a feel for Beck’s recording philosophy and techniques.

Winter’s Greatest Sport

With the Winter Olympics ending today (well, depending on your perspective I guess–in reality the Closing Ceremonies have already happened, though they haven’t been shown on the tape-delay here in the US, so please forgive me if I don’t want to further discuss issues with the myth that is the way humans perceive time), it’s as good a time as any to share a song about the greatest sport that the competition has to offer: curling.  Courtesy of The Weakerthans, here’s “Tournament of Hearts”.

Catching Up On The Week (Feb. 21 Edition)

A few quick links you may have missed this week and worthy of your time this weekend

In preparation for our upcoming profile on Beck (and his new album coming out next week), you may want to read up on these retrospectives courtesy of BuzzFeed (really?) and Grantland.  Strangely enough, the BuzzFeed profile was a bit more satisfying, despite the assertion that Midnite Vultures is Beck’s masterpiece, a claim which is pitched as fact and not a matter of debate.  As for the Grantland piece, the premise that the “real” Beck is either one of two types (ironic funkster or serious folkie) doesn’t make much sense at all, but you know, deadlines mean you gotta come up with SOMETHING.

The A.V. Club had a couple of interesting bits of news.  I’m really excited to hear that Sharon Van Etten has announced that her new album is coming out soon with this teaser.  If you haven’t picked up her previous album Tramp, do so pretty much immediately.  In addition, we have news of another “supergroup” forming–and since Dave Grohl and Jello Biafra are both involved, the label is definitely necessary.

Pitchfork will be posting a documentary on the Brooklyn venue 285 Kent, and one of their teasers is this video of a live performance by Deafheaven at the club.  We’ll be discussing their album Sunbather in-depth in the future, and when we do our Top Albums of 2013 in April, it will definitely make an appearance.  There’s a good reason a lot of outlets have done thinkpieces on the album.

Also, remember Korn?  If you don’t, I envy you.  In case you were wondering, Jonathan Davis has decided to go in a political direction, and his views have all the subtlety and intellect that you would expect.

And finally, when it’s time to settle into a relaxing weekend, it’s a good idea to listen to some Real Estate. If you’re bored with your relaxing weekend, it’s a good idea to learn to play some Real Estate.  The band is providing the lesson with their newest video, which displays an overlay of the guitar tablature to the song.

Feats of Strength: Beck

We’re really excited for the release of Beck’s new album Morning Phase next week, so we’re going to be taking a closer look at one of the greatest musical talents of the last twenty years.  It’s pretty amazing that Beck has consistently produced great music for such a long time–sure, people knew that the guy behind “Loser” had a genius instinct, but who knew that it would lead to a sustainable career?  In preparation for an extended look at the career of Beck coming up soon on this site, we’ve decided to whet your appetite with this quick look at one of Beck’s most well-known but least-understood strength.

Back in the 90’s, we were all about BREAKING THE RULES and TEARING DOWN BOUNDARIES and you know what GENRES DON’T EVEN MATTER ANY MORE, MAAAN.  In many ways, one of the catalysts for this movement was Beck’s own “Loser”, which in tearing new folkies a new one by attaching a hip-hop beat to hilarious ramblings, inspired many to mix-and-match musical styles as they saw fit.  Of course, this was a dangerous power that left in the incapable hands of neophytes could reign terror across the land (See: the rise of late-90’s “rap-rock”).  Or it could just be kind of shitty (See: almost every single “mash-up” since 2000).

The difference with Beck was that he didn’t mix genres just for the sake of the mix; he instead found the connections between them, and built on those to create a new sound.  Take for example the section of “Where It’s At”, from 3:11-3:32 (we’re using the original track because this section was edited from the video version).  Beck in this post-chorus bridge is about to lead into a repeat of the first verse, and begins by singing with a distorted voice with a hilarious non sequitur of “Make Out City is a two-horse town” (which is generally pretty true if you think about it).  It’s followed by the sample “That’s beautiful, Dad”, which in juxtaposition with the original vocal provides a hilarious response to Beck’s original…suggestion (really, it’s the “Dad” part that seals it).  It then moves into a sublimely slinky sax solo, which captures the mood of the entire exchange.  Underneath this jazzy solo, Beck uses a similar guitar figure to the one that’s been used throughout the rest of the song (at least in terms of tone), that groovy country-tinged blues line that is immediately recognizable.  Except now the rhythm has shifted a bit, and now it’s a more laid-back feel.  All of these elements together, while representing different genres and styles, are mixed together to create a new sound.

Review: Band of Horses – Acoustic at the Ryman

If you really want to laugh some time at how seriously music critics take themselves, I recommend you take a look at the evolution of Pitchfork’s opinion of Band of Horses.  What was first breathless praise slowly but surely evolved into near utter contempt.  Even though it was the work of multiple reviewers, each had similarly high hopes derived from the band’s early work.  At a certain point, you have to ask, “Why was this case?”

Though it may seem like I’m attempting to bury Band of Horses, this actually is not the case.  I am just offering an argument for not having rapturous expectations in the first place.  I remember hearing “The Funeral” when it first came out, and my first instinct was to say “Hey, this is a pretty good Shins song.”  You would think that considering that they were label mates on Sub Pop that this would be among the first comparisons to be made, but instead I saw a lot written about My Morning Jacket (not really, but I can see some similarities at least from a vocal perspective between Ben Bridwell and Jim James) and Neil Young (no, not at all).  In fact, I had first tried to pay attention to Band of Horses because of the MMJ comparisons, and when I didn’t hear the similarities, I decided to ignore them, despite the heavy praise of the album.  It wasn’t until I saw BoH open up for Dinosaur Jr. that I decided to reconsider my stance, based both on the music and Bridwell’s beard, which was at the time at a level of Martsch-ian proportions.

I actually first became excited for the band when I heard the lead single for Cease to Begin, the seemingly upbeat “Is There A Ghost”.  And then when I saw that they had a song called “Detlef Schrempf”, they had all the hooks they needed for me.  If you reference one of my favorite third-banana NBA players from the 90’s (and a beloved Blazer in his short time here), you definitely have my attention.  It was at this point that I decided that I would start following this band and at least keep track when they released a new album.

Now I will agree with the critical consensus about the decline in relative quality over the course of BoH’s career.  Infinite Arms had a couple of catchy songs, but I never played it as much as Cease to Begin or Everything All The Time.  And Mirage Rock left such a minimal impression on me that I recently checked to make sure that I actually own the album.  The difference is, I don’t see the decline in the grandiose tragic terms as some of those other critics.  “Where’s the artistic growth?” they would ask; I respond, “Why did you expect any to begin with?”  There wasn’t anything necessarily uniquely great about the group from the beginning.  They merely developed an interesting sound, wrote a few good songs, and continue to do pretty much the same thing for each album.

This leads me to their latest release, Acoustic at the Ryman.  The review for this album in particular is even more hilarious considering the level of bile and invective.  It’s at this point you have to step back and ask, “What is a live acoustic album for?”  It pretty much just serves the purpose of providing a mix tape of previous albums, a pseudo-Greatest Hits collection for neophytes, with a slightly different take on these songs, something that serves the fans.  There’s no need to go into long digressions about the significance of the venue and analyzing the existential dilemma of a moderately successful indie rock group.  Accept it for what it is, and move on.

So, considering those parameters, is the album a success?  If you’ve never heard Band of Horses, pick the album up and you will get a good idea of their sound.  For fans of the band, sure, why not–the arrangements are different enough that they’re enjoyable to compare to what you know.  It’s not sacrilege to hear “The Funeral” with a piano.  Save the theatrics for someone else.

Covered: “No One’s Gonna Love You”

Covered is a feature where we examine the merits of various cover songs, debating whether or not they capture the spirit and intent of the original, if the cover adds anything new, and whether or not it perhaps surpasses the original.  If we fail on those counts, at the very least we may expose you to different versions of great songs you hadn’t heard before. 

This week we’re going to bridge between an artist we examined last week and a group whose new album we’ll review tomorrow.  First, we’ll examine the original from the new artist:

It’s easy to see why “No One’s Gonna Love You” was one of the singles from Cease to Begin.  It’s a gorgeous and delicate ballad, with beautiful crystalline guitars, and a soaring melody which is a perfect showcase for Ben Bridwell’s voice.  It’s pretty much right in Band of Horses’s wheelhouse, the kind of song that people would suggest when selling the potential of the band.  Sorry for the quick description, but the qualities of the song are pretty self-evident upon first listen, and there’s no real need for further analysis on my part.

When examining the tracklist to Cee Lo’s album The Lady-Killer, I wondered if this could possibly be a cover of the Band of Horses tune, and much to my surprise it was.  Upon first impression, one wouldn’t expect there to be much common ground between the two artists, but of course Cee Lo has never been one to constrain himself with musical limits (see the previous “Covered” with Gnarls Barkley’s version of “Reckoner”).  Cee Lo says “Fuck that” to your narrow-minded expectations (of course, not to be confused with another popular statement he made that year.)

The thing that I love best about this cover is that instead of downplaying the potentially saccharine sentiment of the song, it goes in completely the other direction and amplifies them to the hilt.  “No one’s gonna love you more than I do”?  Let’s make sure you get the message by adding huge swelling strings!  And the basic hip-hop beat programming works surprisingly well with the music too.  And the final confirmation of what makes this a really good cover: I’m sure there were plenty of people that bought Cee Lo’s album without realizing that this song was actually done by a semi-obscure indie rock band.

And to top things off, Band of Horses decided to return the favor by doing their own cover of Cee Lo’s “Georgia”.  It’s quite the mutual appreciation society that they’ve developed.