Month: July 2014

“That One Part”: “I’ll Believe In Anything”

We’re going to take things a little easy today; the weather has just been too nice outside to spend time typing away on laptops, even if it’s about something that we love like music.  So we’re going to do a quick piece that isn’t a true “Feats of Strength”, but we’re just going to talk about a moment in a song that we really really really like.

Almost a year ago to the day, Pitchfork ran a feature in which they asked their writers to give stories about particular moments in their favorite songs.  I felt that this was a really well-executed piece, and enjoyed reading each of their stories.  The anecdote about a unique performance of The Flaming Lips’ “The Abandoned Hospital Ship” was an especially memorable one, and it is definitely worth reading so you get the backstory behind this electrifying moment.

There is no reason why Pitchfork should have all the fun, so I am picking up on their cue and writing about a specific moment in one of my favorite songs, “I’ll Believe In Anything”.  It should be no surprise that we here at Rust Is Just Right are big fans of Wolf Parade, considering we were inspired to name our site after one of their lyrics.  Their debut Apologies to the Queen Mary is one of the greatest albums of the 00’s, and the climactic run of the trio of “Shine a Light”, “Dear Sons and Daughters of Hungry Ghosts”, and “I’ll Believe In Anything” in the middle of the record matches that the peak of any record since then.

“I’ll Believe In Anything” has a nice stately feel that comes across as almost like a gentle gallop, a sensation that’s matched by the Barry Lyndon-esque setting for the video.  The song is punctuated by huge snare hits that accentuate each beat, constantly pushing the music forward as Spencer Krug sings elliptical lyrics about “taking you where nobody knows you and nobody gives a damn.”  After a couple of rounds of verses and choruses, the song truly begins to develop with the bridge at about the 2 minute mark, as Spencer begins to list the various things that he can take or give away.  At 2:10, the bassline on the keyboard jumps down an octave, giving an added weight to the next set of lines as Spencer doesn’t let up in his singing, continuing to build momentum.  It is at this point where there is a subtle shift, a moment where Spencer demands the listener’s attention: “Look at the trees, look at my face, look at a place far away from here.”  He lets that moment hang in the air for a second, and then the band explodes behind him.

I’ve listened to this song hundreds of times, and this specific moment has never failed to give me chills.  Depending on the circumstances, it can have an even greater impact–I regularly jog to this album, and often this song will come on just as I’m reaching the top of a hill, and I can take a quick moment to actually act out the lyrics and survey the scene around me.  There is something to Krug’s particular directions given in the lyrics, which shifts the focus of the audience’s eyes from nature, to humanity, and then beyond, possibly to the future that helps enhance the effect of the song’s climax.  Eyes are actually an important motif in the song: the line “give me your eyes, I need sunshine” is repeated throughout as a sort of mantra, which is a wonderfully eloquent way of asking for someone for the necessary help to brighten up your day.  This early repeated line helps establish an image in the listener’s mind and gives the latter lyrics of the bridge an added significance.  The result is a truly memorable moment whose power never fades, even after hundreds and hundreds of listens.


The Great Disparity: “Here Is No Why”

Today Billy Corgan announced the details of the latest reissue of the back catalog of the Smashing Pumpkins, this time revealing that Adore will be re-released in a ridiculous 6 (!?!) disc set, including outtakes, live performances, a live DVD, and a mono mix of the album.  Somewhat unexpectedly, this news didn’t inspire me to to rehash old arguments about an album that at the time of its release had a divisive reception, but whose appreciation has grown over the years.  (For the record, Adore is a very solid record and serves as one of the better examples of a band incorporating the electronica trend in its sound (the initially jarring lead single “Ava Adore” has aged fairly well over the years), though I wish they included their gem from Lost Highway, “Eye”.)  Instead, I immediately began reminiscing about an underappreciated song from their previous album, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.

As we look back now in the years since its release and as the star of the Smashing Pumpkins has lost some of its luster, it can be easy to dismiss the album.  At first glance, it seems that Mellon Collie was an indicator of the bloat and excess that would mar the band’s later work and a symptom of Billy Corgan’s inability to reign in his tendencies to excess.  How could a band justify a 28-track double album that clocked in at over two hours in length?  And that doesn’t even take into account the countless B-Sides generated from those recording sessions, many of which were compiled in the 5-disc compilation The Aeroplane Flies High.  But if you go back and listen to both discs in their entirety, there are really only a couple of semi-duds on the whole album; not only that, if you ask a sample of Pumpkins fans, there would be some disagreement on what exactly the duds are, so it was a good idea to include them all.

This was also an album that generated six great singles which show the full range of the band, and many of which are still played regularly on rock radio (though it is a shame that “Muzzle”, which is already buried in the back of the first disc, never gets enough airplay–one of the things that I loved about my old job was we still had a copy of the single that we would be sure to play as often as we could).  Compare the gritty and blistering “Zero” to the orchestral epic of “Tonight, Tonight” (I’m not sure if a rock band ever married alternative rock with a giant string section better than this song), or the fury of “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” to the gentle “Thirty-Three”.  And then there’s “1979”, a song that will live on for generations that ends up being a perfect distillation of many of the moods and styles of the album.

Those are all great songs, but to this day my favorite track on the album is the bombastic rocker “Here Is No Why”.  The reason is pretty simple: it’s a fucking great song to play on the guitar.  There are several little details that make it an incredibly fun song to jam along with, from the unique combination of the repeated major-7 chord (a jazz chord rarely seen in rock, though you may recognize it from “Under the Bridge”) at the beginning with the double palm-mute non-chords (a total hard-rock/metal cliche, but still fun), to the big epic chords of the chorus mixed with those giant turnaround leads at the end of each phrase.  Then there’s big ridiculous solo from Billy, which somehow mixes in both a response to the original melody line with just pure noise that’s hard-to-imitate-but-fun-to-attempt.  I mean, just look at how much fun they’re having playing this song in this performance.

As awesome as that guitar part is and as fun as it is to play, that’s exactly how awful the lyrics are to this song.  Normally, I’m not one to harp on bad lyrics, or even attempt to pass any judgment on them at all.  My primary focus is the music, not the words, and besides, many people have ridiculous standards when it comes to assessing lyrics.  There is a difference between reading words off a page and singing them with a melody, and the necessities of the song creates problems of awkwardness and general fit that regular poetry would not have.  Of course there are also the problems of judging the intent of the songwriter or understanding how individual lines serve general themes of an album, broad concepts that often get swallowed up when someone tries to parse specific words.  Plus, you know, there’s just no accounting for taste.

So believe me, it takes a lot for me to call out what I believe are “bad lyrics”.  Hell, I don’t even partake in mocking the endlessly ridiculed opener to “Bullet With Butterfly Wings”, “The world is a vampire.”  Whatever, that sounds pretty ominous and it grabs my attention; I don’t really care how that metaphor could possibly work.  But “Here Is No Why” is an entirely different animal.  “Somewhere he pulls his hair down, over frowning smile; a hidden diamond you cannot find, a secret star that cannot shine over to you.  May the King of Gloom, be forever doomed.”  Christ, that’s just…ugh.

The thing is, I understand the intent of Mr. Corgan: he’s calling out to those lonely teenagers looking to their rock idols, trying to give them a little bit of a helping hand (the talk of sad/teen machines helps make this rather clear).  And if I were in high school, maybe these words would provide some comfort; on the other hand, I never paid attention to the lyrics back then, I just wanted to learn how to figure out how to play this fucking awesome guitar part.

And you know what?  That’s OK.  Not everything can be perfect, and the greatness of that guitar part (and the music in general–Jimmy Chamberlain is a fantastic drummer, and D’Arcy’s matching eighth-notes on the turn-arounds in the chorus really help bring out the full power of the song) can certainly overcome the cringeworthy lyrics (I am using that adjective in the literal sense here–my body has an actual, measurable physical reaction when reading some of the words).  And though I’m unlikely to use the song in one of my random lyric quotes of the day with my friends, let it be known that I love this song, and the next time I pick up my guitar this will be one of the first songs that I bust out.

Covered: “Fade Into 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.

“Fade Into You” is one of the most enduring songs of the 90’s, even if many of its fans never learned the name of the song or the band that performed it.  It’s a gorgeously melancholic ballad, the kind of tune that’s perfect for long moonlit drive down a long country road.  The song is malleable enough that it can fit between just about any mood, from somber and pensive to relaxed and content;  it’s the perfect soundtrack to either a night of solemn, longing regret or perhaps peaceful joy with satisfied companion.  I never fully became a fan of Mazzy Star, but the brilliance of this song forces me to try again every so often.

Musically, it’s built on several wonderful little sonic details, from the haunting lead slide guitar lines, to those piano figures that accent the end of each phrase, to that laid-back yet insistent acoustic guitar with its loping waltzing rhythm, with Hope Sandoval’s breathy, ethereal vocals softly hanging above the mix.  The song is built on a slightly unconventional take on the normal three-chord structure, progressing in a IV-I-v structure, with the dominant five chord played as a minor chord.  This slight violation of normal harmonic theory gives the song its edge, as each line in the song seems unsettled because the chords haven’t resolved properly; it’s what gives the song its mournful atmosphere.

The last time we did this feature, we looked at Dinosaur Jr. dismantling and giving a shot of energy to The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven”.  This time, J Mascis takes a different approach with his contemplative and respectful version of the song.  It actually fits with his style as a solo act; for an artist that’s known for letting loose with blistering solos at the loudest possible volume with his regular gig, J often takes a more measured and thoughtful approach as a solo artist, and often indulges in acoustic ballads.

With this cover, J keeps it simple with just two guitars.  The rhythm guitar track is played with a softer, looser feel than the original, with the kind of touch that either indicates softer strings or perhaps strummed without a pick.  The lead is also done on an acoustic guitar, with meandering yet melodic lines dipping in and out throughout the track.  J’s leads, though omnipresent, often remain in the background, but when they poke through to the forefront are never showy.  Each line is not meant to purely dazzle the listener with technical wizardry (even though they are often impressive), but instead offer variations and comments on melodies from the vocals and in the original.

Then again, over a 30 year career we’ve come to expect this from J, at least from a guitar-playing perspective.  Here, J’s vocals also help produce a great cover: J’s unique vocal style has that particular vulnerable quality that really helps bring out the fragile beauty inherent in the music.  His voice may not be technically perfect, but in this case the imperfections become an asset by helping to enhance the delicate emotional complexity of the song.

Over the Weekend (July 14 Edition)

In contrast to the relative paucity of links from Friday, we’ve got an avalanche of videos and news this week.  So here we go!

The music world lost another giant this weekend, as Tommy Ramone passed away due to complications from bile duct cancer.  Tommy was a vital part of the Ramones, anchoring their back-to-basics but give-them-hell attitude from behind the drumkit, but he also was an early producer for the band and was the main creative force behind many of the band’s most-loved songs, including “Blitzkrieg Bop”.  After he left the Ramones, he continued making his mark, including producing one of the greatest albums of all time, Tim by The Replacements.  Now is as good as a time as any to listen to that album along with any and all Ramones albums you may have, and be sure to read this great write-up by Jon Wurster in SPIN.

Interpol released their “first” official video from El Pintor, for the propulsive and upbeat “All The Rage Back Home”.  I put “first” in quotations, because that ignores the live video for “Anywhere” that previously was released, but is also understandable because at least this is a studio recording.

Here are some initial thoughts on the song: 1) I love it when Interpol goes for speed, and it works even better in contrast to the slow open; 2) The lead guitar in the verses, while a continuation of the first slow part, clash way too much with the chords once the song gets into gear; it’s a lot like when I was in jazz band in high school, and the director would point to me suddenly and go “you have the next 16 bars”–a lot of noodling on the upper part of the neck that doesn’t make any sense whatsoever; 3) In the video they have Paul playing bass, emphasizing that as a recording unit they’re a three-piece, but live they will have a more traditional lineup with Paul on second guitar; overall, Paul acquits himself quite well, though I hope on other songs he attempts to replace Carlos D’s ability to use space and off-beat rhythms and lines that were such a key part of the early Interpol sound.  In related news, Interpol announced today the details of their fall tour, with tickets for most shows going on sale on Friday.

Speaking of tours, the recently reunited Slowdive (and subject of one of the first pieces on our site) have announced that they’re going beyond an initial run of festivals and are going on a full-fledged tour.  I can’t wait to see them in November, as that month seems to be shaping up to be “Reunion Month” with Death From Above 1979 stopping by the Northwest a couple of weeks later.

We’ve mentioned before how much we’ve loved Hamilton Leithauser’s solo debut, and we’re glad to see that he’s released another music video, this time for “I Don’t Need Anyone”.  This one is pretty funny, and has a nice dark edge to it that’s perfect for a Monday.

Continuing with a theme of funny videos, Metallica cut a humorous promo for Sportscenter, fitting in with the latter’s long run of great ads.  In this spot, the band is looking for something to do now that Mariano Rivera has retired and so they no longer have to play “Enter Sandman” for his entrance music.

As there is the “Rule of 3’s” in comedy, so it is with funny music videos, as Weird Al released a video for his parody of Pharrell’s “Happy”, with the clever “Tacky”.  Yankovic gets some famous friends in on the fun, and those who have tired of hearing the original should welcome it. (Warning: Video autoplays)

And for your last video, if you need to come down a bit, there’s The National doing an interview over on Pitchfork that should help.

After some rumblings before, it’s now official that Radiohead will be heading to the studio to record their latest album in September, according to Billboard who listened in on a BBC radio interview.  As always, it will be interesting to see just what direction the band will take this time around.

Catching Up On The Week (July 11 Edition)

Hope everyone remembered to get a free Slurpee today.  Because goddammit I forgot to get one.

As a capper for their multi-part feature on punk in the 90’s (“Fear of a Punk Decade”), the AV Club engaged in a roundtable to discuss whether the music had a lasting impact.

David Greenwald has an extended look at the business of streaming and breaks down the band payments for Spotify in this article from The Oregonian.

Somebody uploaded a video from 1983 that features the first live performance of “Purple Rain”, which would then go on to be used in the film itself.  Included in the video is a “director’s commentary” a la Pop-Up Video, providing additional insight into the song.  Better watch it soon, before Prince takes it down.

(Update: And sure enough, it’s been pulled.  Hope you enjoyed it while it lasted!)

Pitchfork interviews Geoff Rickly about his new band, United Nations.   I had been a fan of Thursday (Full Collapse will always be a favorite of mine), but didn’t realize they had broken up with the release of their latest.  Rickly talks a bit about Thursday’s break up as well in the interview.   Pitchfork also catches up with Christopher Owens, formerly of the band Girls, and they discuss his upcoming album.  Father, Son, Holy Ghost was one of the best albums of 2011, but there wasn’t much on Owens’s solo debut Lysandre that seemed worthwhile, so I’ll hold off on my anticipation a little bit.

Unexpected Influences

Over the years, I believe that Radiohead’s Amnesiac has been unfairly overlooked.  Previous albums OK Computer and The Bends were rightly hailed as two of the finest albums of the 90’s, and helped solidify my love of the band.  It was with the band’s release of Kid A when my devotion wavered a bit.  It was an unexpected curveball, even when accounting for the probability that the band would take a creative left turn after the triumph of OK Computer and their even greater commercial success and critical respect.  It took dozens of listens before I began to fully appreciate the album and realize the thought and musicianship behind it.  I wasn’t the only one–at the time of Kid A‘s release, critics gave it moderate praise, as indicated by the Metacritic score of 80.  It wouldn’t reach its status as a consensus top album of the 2000’s until much later in the decade, as artists drew inspiration from the record and audiences fully processed its impact.

Amnesiac, which was recorded during the same sessions as Kid A, was an easier pill to swallow.  For years, I preferred Amnesiac to its compatriot, as it seemed to feel more like a rock record, though a subdued one, with just the right amount of electronic and experimental touches.  Songs like “I Might Be Wrong” and “Knives Out” were great singles that you could immediately jump to, and “Pyramid Song” was a total triumph, a song that decades from now will be recognized as one of Radiohead’s greatest accomplishments (and be sure to watch the beautifully moving music video, with its devastating ending).  Gradually my opinion has been swayed as to which is the better of the two albums, but I still hold Amnesiac in higher esteem than most, if it’s remembered by people at all.

Perhaps the most overlooked song on this overlooked album was this short instrumental near the end of the album, “Hunting Bears”.  It’s presence is particularly jarring on the album, between the jazzy “Dollars and Cents” and the glitchy/disorienting “Like Spinning Plates”; the jagged, trebly guitar pierces through like a knife from the subtle synth background, playing a mysterious melody that slowly gets swallowed up in reverb.  It may not be a particularly significant song in the Radiohead catalog, but it’s a nice change-of-pace on the album, and I can’t help but being caught up in its intrigue when I listen.

The MC5, while a noteworthy band in the history of rock, does not seem like it would be a particular influence on Radiohead, beyond perhaps just a general prompt for some teenagers to pick up some instruments and raise holy hell.  Their sped-up blues-rock and revolutionary rhetoric were a revelation for many, and their music and antics helped inspire the first generation of punk rockers.  Their debut, the live album Kick Out The Jams, is rightly heralded as a landmark album, but that is certainly not their only contribution.  Some have a soft spot for their follow-up, Back in the USA, but I prefer their third and final album, the rollicking High Time.

High Time built on the ramshackle spirit of their debut, and is a better attempt at capturing the live spirit that inhabited the typical MC5 show (or at least that’s the story that I’m told, since I am too young to have witnessed the band perform during its heyday, though periodically some clips pop up on YouTube).  It’s been unfairly overlooked over the years, not only by the public at large, but audiences who would be inclined to listen to the MC5 at all.  Perhaps its most noteworthy appearance came in the first episode of “Eastbound & Down”, when the song “Miss X” was used to announce the introduction of April, Kenny Powers’s muse (due in no small part to the fact that MC5 member Wayne Kramer was responsible for the music on the show).

With the disparate nature between the two bands now settled, let’s get to where the two bands unexpectedly meet.  I embedded the song “Future/Now” from High Time up above, and as you listen to it you may still wonder where the connection is–it’s a groovy blues rock song that sounds like it’s ready to kick off the party and lead a wild protest march.  But the song unexpectedly shifts gears slightly after the 3 minute mark.  At 3:16 we have…a reverby guitar that plays a similarly mysterious melody to what we’ve heard before from this article.

Even though there are a few noticeable differences between the two songs, there is still clearly some similarity between the second half of “Future/Now” (perhaps we could consider it the “Now” part) and “Hunting Bears”, from general style to specific tones.  While I believe it’s unlikely that Radiohead was inspired by a deep cut from an old proto-punk record and can more likely be chalked up to coincidence, it would be great to find out that the band decided to give a subtle nod to one of the favorite bands of their youth.  At the very least, maybe some people searching around for information on Radiohead will be inspired to pick up an old MC5 album, and I would consider that a fine accomplishment on my part.

Feats of Strength: Deafheaven

Deafheaven’s second album Sunbather came out of nowhere to appear by the end of 2013 on numerous Best Albums lists.  It was no small feat for a black metal album, considering how rarely the genre receives recognition from a broad critical audience–no matter how brilliant or adventurous it may be, black metal tends to be confined to a specific niche audience.  I myself am not a particularly avid metal fan; I tend to stick to a few favorites, and usually do not venture into the more extreme subgenres.  However, after a random search through Metacritic midway through last year to see what albums I may have missed, I noticed one album with a peculiar cover with a score in the 90s, and I knew I had to check it out despite any possible misgivings about the labelled genre.*

I wasn’t the only person that ventured out of my comfort zone, as there were plenty of other fans and critics that went out of their way to praise the album.  But I found it interesting that there seemed to be a consensus that the opening track “Dream House” was the clear highlight, it made me wonder how closely a lot of these people listened to the album as a whole.  I’m not saying that people didn’t actually listen to the album and claiming otherwise; “Dream House” is an excellent song and it does a great job of preparing the listener to what’s in store for the rest of the album.  It’s just that the closer “The Pecan Tree” is a perfect encapsulation of the different themes and styles of the album, one that ends with a beautifully cathartic release that may have been the peak musical moment in all of 2013.

In analyzing “The Pecan Tree”, it is then necessary to understand the structure of the album as a whole.  Sunbather is made up of four major multi-part metal songs (“Dream House”, “Sunbather”, “Vertigo”, and “The Pecan Tree”), with three interstitial pieces (“Irresistible”, “Please Remember”, “Windows”) mixed in between each that weave in gentler instrumentation (such as piano and acoustic or clean electric guitar) and sometimes accompanied by spoken word and captured field recordings.  It’s the combination of these elements that leads to the comparisons to Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Explosions In The Sky, though there are musical ideas in the metal pieces as well that recall those post-rock artists.  These interstitial pieces aren’t mere throwaways, but instead provide much needed breaks from the pummeling music and emotional assault of the other tracks, and provide some context for the narrative of the album as well.

“The Pecan Tree” kicks off with a bang by immediately launching into a furious musical attack: a thick wall of guitars that bring to mind a more extreme version of shoegaze acts like My Bloody Valentine matched in perfect time by punishing drums playing an extremely complicated series of blast beats.  While the guitars are being played at an extremely rapid tempo, a careful listen reveals that over the top a melodic line is slowly being played over the dense chords, and that the drums match the melodic movement as well.  This leads to a gradual slowing down at around the four-minute mark, as the drums enter into a series of rolls with the emphasized beat punctuating each guitar chord, before settling into a peaceful lyrical ballad that recalls the interstitial tracks.  A descending guitar arpeggiated section evolves into a simple gorgeous piano melody, with another guitar providing a countermelody on top.  As before, we encountered one extreme emotion and are now faced with a different extreme, but this does not provide resolution.

The true release comes at the 7:54 mark, when the distorted guitar comes in again.  This is the moment that makes the album, that makes it all worth while to wallow in the muck and mire of what came before.  The guitars coalesce into a single octave figure, providing the clearest and most forceful melody on the album.  But while this is significant, the key to what makes this passage works is the drums, specifically with its half time feel.  I’m going to try to attempt to explain this in a way that isn’t too technical, so bear with me.  In music, we deal a concept called time signatures, which is how we subdivide the beat; for an outsider, this is how we break up a song so that we can all follow along easily and be on the same page.  When we talk about four beats to a measure, or a 3/4 waltz (boom tst-tst, boom tst-tst), this is what we’re talking about.  For the majority of the album, the drums alternate between regular time and double-time, like in the blast beat section at the beginning of the song that I mentioned.  Think of the difference between the two as the contrast between regular walking and a military march; in the latter, you may not be making any gains in speed, but there’s a different feel when you emphasize every single step and make sure everyone is moving at the same time.  You get a similar result when instead of everyone meeting on the 2 and 4 of each measure everyone is in lockstep 1-2-3-4.

The half time feel works in a similar way, but in the opposite direction.  By emphasizing less, it frees up the overall feel of the passage.  In the context of “The Pecan Tree”, it gives a sense of weighlessness to the music, as the drums purposely slow down and let the guitars float over the top.  Gradually, the drums enter in with a more standard pattern, but the feeling remains, even as the fills get busier.  The drums then are able to emphasize specific melodic patterns; notice how at around the 10 minute mark that while the cymbal hits are at a regular beat, the big hits on the kick drum and snare are still spread out.

This whole final section is worthy of praise, and if I were to try to convince someone to give Deafheaven a listen, this would be the specific part I would highlight.  However, while the section is great in and of itself, its true brilliance is captured when the listener has fully internalized and processed the rest of the album.  Notably, the guitars incorporate specific motifs from previous parts of the album and spin new melodies out of them, and the drums help bring out those specific patterns.  In addition, the rest of the album has to be experienced in order to get the full emotional effect of this final section; these are some beautiful melodies, but they stand out even more in comparison to what preceded it.  That’s not to say that the metal elements in previous songs lack melody, but that they don’t have the same uplift that this final section does.

And I think it’s the “uplift” that’s most significant.  The guitar parts do a great job of capturing the feeling of gradually coming down from a high, but it’s really the ingenious use of the half time feel of the drums that helps capture a feeling of weightlessness in the listener.  Often, the half time feel is a trick that bands will deploy seemingly at random, just for a quick burst of contrast from previous iterations of the same progression or riff.  In the case of Deafheaven, there is a real purpose to the half time feel, and it helps turn “The Pecan Tree” into a true classic.

*The fact that Rolling Stone reviewed the album two months later and gave it a meh 3-star rating is about as Rolling Stone as it gets.

Sharon Van Etten, Live at the Doug Fir

There’s always something to do in Portland.  One night you can go see Cloud Nothings play at a rundown theater behind a bar, and the next night you can go see Sharon Van Etten play in the cozy basement of the Doug Fir.  In two nights you get to see a couple of the best albums of the year, all within a picturesque town experiencing its finest weather of the year.

(To the outsiders, we’ll keep up the myth of the omnipresent rain (so they won’t move here), but 1). it’s never that much, and it’s usually only part of the day and 2). the summer almost never sees rain, and it’s the perfect temperature.)

They took down the marquee before I could take a picture, so you get this.

They took down the marquee before I could take a picture, so you get this.

The Doug Fir is my favorite venue in Portland: you get all the warmth and energy of a small club, but the sound system is excellent and you can hear all the necessary sonic details in perfect balance.  I have yet to see even a mediocre show at the venue, and it’s been home to some of my favorites over the years, including The Walkmen, British Sea Power, Los Campesinos!, Japandroids, and The Besnard Lakes.  Considering the quality of the acts that they book, my one concern is that I hope that the bands get enough of the gate that it makes their time coming out to Portland worthwhile.  It feels almost selfish that I get to see such great bands play in such a compact club.

The night kicked off with a set from Jana Hunter, touring apart from her regular gig with Lower Dens.  She had a decent set, augmenting 80’s synth-heavy beats (similar to those from the Drive soundtrack) provided by her laptop with heavily processed guitars (think early Jesus and Mary Chain or the most recent Dum Dum Girls record).  It was a perfectly pleasant way to start the evening, with a cover of “Maneater” lifting up the crowd’s spirits in particular.

Though Van Etten’s new album is notably bleak in several places, that didn’t mean that the show was a dour affair.  Sharon was both a spark and a soothing presence on stage, and in between songs she kept the mood light.  There were several fun jokes with the audience, including a discussion of her favorite ice cream (it involved multiple levels of peanut butter).  In other words, she was a complete delight.

Sharon Van Etten, a total delight

Sharon Van Etten, a total delight

Sharon bounced around between several instruments, trading guitars for various keyboard instruments and alternating spots on stage with her backing band.  Each member of the backing band did a great job, most notably the piano player (and Portland native!) who did excellent work in harmonizing with Sharon’s uniquely beautiful voice.  The set was heavy on material from the new album, which is perfectly fine considering how outstanding it is, but it was probably Tramp standout “Serpents” that generated the largest response from the crowd.  The new material sounded even better live, with some of the processed parts sounding more organic in this particular setting.  The show’s climax was the same as the one on Are We There, the heartbreakingly depressing yet beautiful “Your Love Is Killing Me”, and Sharon and her band were able to wrench every bit of emotion possible from that gorgeous lament.

As I mentioned before, the evening wasn’t just one giant downer.  It helped with Sharon’s jokes between songs, like “here’s another total bummer song”, said in a playful manner, or when she debuted a new song, an outtake from Are We There called “I Always Fall Apart”*, she made sure to mention that it didn’t aaalways happen.  The night ended on a cheerful note, as the last song was the light-hearted “Every Time The Sun Comes Up”, punctuated by comical pantomimes from Sharon.  Though I wish we could have heard some of my old favorites like “Warsaw” or “Magic Chords”, Sharon did more than enough to entertain the crowd in advance of the holiday weekend, and helped solidify the greatness of her new album with her excellent show.  Also, she succeeded in making me totally want to hang out with her.

*Not sure if this was the exact song title, since my memory is a little faded from last week (and Google is of no help), but it was along those lines.

Over the Weekend (July 7 Edition)

Hope everyone had a fun holiday weekend, with all fingers and toes still intact.  On to the news and videos:

Big news last week as Death Grips broke up, just in time for me to miss seeing them on their tour with Soundgarden and Nine Inch Nails.  To tell you the truth, I wasn’t fully expecting the group to show up, considering their history, but it’s a bummer nonetheless.  The “break-up” makes sense, in either their own narrative of being an art project or an outsider’s perspective of being a pure troll-job.  At least we can say that a lot of rich people gave them money, and they repaid that debt by giving the public a lot of cool music for free.

Some might say that the biggest news was the leak that Pink Floyd is releasing a new album, but this is only significant for people who never listened to The Division Bell and don’t care that Roger Waters is not involved in the new project.  Still, if you’re looking for an excuse to turn out the lights and fire up Wish You Were Here, might as well make it this one.

Or you could listen to “Wish I Was Here”, a collaboration between Cat Power and Coldplay for the new Zach Braff film of the same name.  I don’t remember much of the movie “Garden State”, but if it got more people to listen to The Shins, I’m perfectly fine with its existence.  I still get chills listening to “New Slang”.

Continuing with another (un)expected collaboration, Rolling Stone has the latest video to result from the Miley Cyrus/Flaming Lips partnership, this time with special guest Moby.  Yes, drugs were involved.

Jack White is continuing to clear out his vault, and announced the release of a single from his band The Dead Weather, along with a live album from The White Stripes.  Pitchfork has the details if you’re interested.

If you’re in the mood for some reading, you could do better than read the AV Club’s Hatesong feature, which continues to be a waste of time for most everybody involved.  This past week saw a comedian complain about Rage Against the Machine’s “Bulls On Parade” because…he was in 8th grade and didn’t like his classmates that liked the song.  AV Club, you’re better than this.

If you need something to lift up your spirits after that, no worries: we finally have a new song from Death From Above 1979.  The track “Trainwreck 1979” made its debut on Zane Lowe’s program on BBC Radio 1, and you can catch it at about the 1 hour and 54 minute mark.  Be sure to set your cursor back a couple of minutes before that, as Zane explains the significance of You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine to many music fans, even if it never sold all that much.  It reminds me of “Sexy Results”, but a quicker and dirtier version of it.  In other words, it’s grimy, but still has a good dance beat.

[Edited to add:] The band has uploaded a lyric video for “Trainwreck 1979” and have also included information to pre-order the new album The Physical World on their Facebook page.

Still bored?  Check out some Best Albums So Far lists, courtesy of Relix and Stephen Thomas Erlewine.  Several the albums we’ve touted appear on both lists, so good news for us, but they should also provide the opportunity to discover other new artists as well.

And last but not least, Spoon continues to release new tracks from its upcoming release, They Want My Soul.  The band released “Do You”, plus Brit stopped by the BBC Radio 6 studio to do a quick acoustic show and interview.