Month: December 2014

Essential Classics: The Walkmen – Bows + Arrows

The Walkmen were one of the greatest indie rock bands of the new century, and with excellent solo debuts this year from former members Hamilton Leithauser, Peter Matthew Bauer, and Walter Martin, now is as good a time as any to go back and revisit one of their classics, Bows + Arrows.

But it’s not only the year that is appropriate, but this particular season as well–though Bows + Arrows is not a concept album per se, it does seem to revolve around a period in late December.  Not only do many of the song titles reference different aspects of the holiday season, from “No Christmas While I’m Talking” to “The North Pole” to “New Year’s Eve”; Even seemingly innocuous titles like “138th Street” help conjure up images of winter, as that particular is on the northern part of Manhattan.  In addition one can find musical and lyrical markers as well that recall this particular time of year.  The band’s unique “vintage” sound evokes in the listener feelings of nostalgia (or perhaps memories of a past real or imagined); this is due mainly to their trademark trebly guitars dipped in heavy reverb, accented by their unique warm organ flourishes, and filled out with a dash of rickety but energetic percussion.  In an era when seemingly every new rock act met at the same art school and came out of the same dive from the Lower East Side, The Walkmen stood out from the pack with a style all their own.

Even in their early years, The Walkmen seemed to have an air of maturity to their sound, or at least gave off the sense of a lived-in weariness that only comes from years of experience.  This is evident from even just a quick listen to their breakthrough hit, The Rat”.  The song revolves around an old friend or lover returning, but without having made amends for the transgression which led to a break in their relationship (to tie it in to our thesis, this is the kind of scene that would play out as people return to their hometowns for the holidays).  The song is a furious rocker, but in the midst of the raucous pounding drums and insistent tremolo-strummed guitars, there is the hauntingly gorgeous bridge: “When I used to go out, I’d know everyone I saw; now I go out alone, if I go out at all.”  In those two lines, The Walkmen captured the feeling that comes at the moment one realizes the fun of youth has receded, and now with that chapter closed there is the question of what to do next.  “The Rat” was great on its own, but that bridge made it transcendent.

“The Rat” definitely deserves all the accolades it has received over the years, but have long felt that “Thinking of a Dream I Had” is equally deserving of admiration.  The song kicks off with a galloping tom pattern (colored with some sleigh bells), and is matched by a boisterous and bouncy guitar part, before it runs headlong into a slow, delicate organ figure.  The contrast between the two sounds provides an intriguing juxtaposition, especially in the way it is combined with the chorus: the initial figure is the accompaniment for “I’m waiting on a subway line, I’m waiting for a train to arrive; I’m thinking of a dream I had,” but switches gears as Hamilton sings, “Maybe you’re right.”  At that moment, it gives the impression to the listener that this is a moment of true contemplation and reflection (as the verses seem to confirm).  It’s absolutely gorgeous.

The entire album is filled with great songs, but for those who are more familiar with the more polished work of the latter years of The Walkmen, some may be put off by the more raggedy production.  On the other hand, for many that is precisely part of the charm of this particular record.  Hamilton is still feeling out the edges of his unique voice, and to some his bark may be grating, but make no mistake, the man hits every note he wants as intended.  At the very least, one should enjoy Bows + Arrows for the reason that it’s one of the few modern rock albums that expertly deploys an organ.


Over the Weekend (Dec. 29 Edition)

News, videos, and other end-of-the-year paraphernalia as you transition from one holiday weekend to another…

We gave the Rust Is Just Right staff an extra day off last week, so we’re going to combine our linkdump days this week and get to a couple of stories we neglected to share; we hope you didn’t miss us too much, and hopefully this makes up for our absence.

We’ll kick things off with a music video, as TV on the Radio just released one for the upbeat and frenetic “Lazerray” from their album Seeds, and footage of skateboard tricks somehow seems to be an appropriate take on the song.

For those in the mood for more music videos, NME provides a slideshow of the best music videos of the decade so far, and I’d have to say I agree with the number one and number three selections in particular.  In other “lists” news, Pitchfork now has their Readers Poll results up (which differs only slightly from the staff selections, for the most part), and Under the Radar has their Top 140 albums.  A more interesting feature offered by the latter is their annual Artist Survey; we enjoyed the one from Max Bloom of Yuck in particular.

Everybody heard about PAPER magazine’s “Break the Internet” issue for other reasons, but hidden within its pages was a fascinatingly hilarious interview with Snoop Dogg, discussing mainly his newfound passion for painting.

Stereogum has the video for a compilation that asked artists over the years a simple question: “Lennon or McCartney?”  I believe that the choice of one over the other says a lot about the person, but I shouldn’t have to tip my hand one way or the other.  I will say that Bo Diddley offers the best answer of all, however.

Elsewhere on the Stereogum site, they have a list of the 101 Most Anticipated Albums of 2015, and you’re correct we’re using it as a cheat sheet to remind us what’s coming out next year.

And finally, we recommend that you read this remembrance of Joe Cocker from Jason Heller of the AV Club, which does an excellent job of explaining the power of his voice and his unexpected influence on younger generations.

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas, from everyone here at Rust Is Just Right!  We’ll celebrate this holiday the same way we do all the others–with way too much food and indie rock!

Once again, The National has collaborated with Bob’s Burgers to produce a new carol for the holiday canon, this time branching out into Christmas music.  It’s delicate and way-too-serious in a goofy-sort-of-way, which is exactly what we’d expect from this partnership.  We hope that for those of you celebrating today that you make this a small part of your festivities, and for those of you who aren’t, that it at least puts a smile on your face.

The Best Songs That Use Sleigh Bells

It’s time once again for another list, but this time we have one that’s a bit more season-appropriate.  Rust Is Just Right is ready to present to you the somewhat-definitive list of the “10 Best Songs That Use Sleigh Bells” that are in no way affiliated with Christmas.

10.  Death Cab for Cutie – “You Can Do Better Than Me”.  A selection that implies “we needed one more song to fill out this list” in more ways than one.

9. Grizzly Bear – “Ready, Able”.  A lot of people love this single off the excellent album Veckatimest, but it always felt a little incomplete for me.  But Grizzly Bear gets this spot because they often use a lot of unique percussion to great effect and should get credit for that effort, and I am at least certain that sleigh bells make an appearance (even if it’s a faint one) in this particular song.

8. Wilco – “Outta Mind (Outta Site)”.  While the raucous “Outtaside (Outta Mind)” has a nifty video, it’s the stripped-down reprise that’s augmented by the cheerful sound of sleigh bells.

7. The Replacements – “Kiss Me On The Bus”.  One of the highlights of the classic album Tim, you can hear the sleigh bells make their appearance on the final chorus, providing an intriguing color to the music.

6. Eric B. and Rakim – “Microphone Fiend”.  Built on a sample of Average White Band’s “Schoolboy Crush”, this is one of the landmark singles from the Golden Age of Hip-Hop and still sounds great today.  Always good to hear a smooth operator operating correctly.

5. The Walkmen – “Nightingales”.  The Walkmen were definitely not strangers to the allure of the sleigh bells, sprinkling their sound throughout their career, most notably on multiple songs from the beloved Bows + Arrows.  But we’re going to give the honor to this lovely track from their swan song Heaven, since it includes moments where the sleigh bells are given their time to shine.

4. The Hives – “Walk Idiot Walk”.  What should a band do as a follow-up for their huge break into the American charts?  If you’re The Hives, you write a single that uses the sleigh bells to keep time in the chorus for no particular reason.  If anything, it at least gives some insight to the casual listener that The Hives are willing to look outside the box of traditional garage rock sounds.  It’s too bad that Tyrannosaurus Hives has been neglected over the years, since it’s a fantastic album.

3. The Beach Boys – “God Only Knows”.  When you fill out your sound with a hundred-piece orchestra, you’re bound to have someone playing sleigh bells for some songs.  We’re going to go with one of the most beautiful songs in the deep catalog of the Beach Boys with this one.

2. Radiohead – “Airbag”.  Radiohead kicks off one of the defining albums of the 90’s with the sound of sleigh bells over sliced-up drum tracks, adding a touch of humanity to an opus about the haunting alienation of technology.  In a song about being miraculously saved from a car wreck, are we to assume that Santa was the savior?

1. The Stooges – “I Wanna Be Your Dog”

I don’t think there’s any argument here with this choice for the top spot.  Once you notice that insistent sleigh bells part chugging along with the rest of those buzzsaw guitars and ramshackle drums, it’s hard to get out of your head, and it adds a strange psychedelic element to the entire enterprise.

So there you have it–the greatest non-traditional Christmas song is “I Wanna Be Your Dog”.  Be sure to include it in your setlist tonight when you’re out caroling!

The Best Concerts of 2014

We do things a little differently around here when it comes to the traditional lists like “Best Albums of the Year”, since we like to take the extra time to see if we may have missed anything.  But we admit we can’t resist the opportunity to look back on other highlights of the year, so it’s the perfect time to create an arbitrary ranking of the best concerts we saw this year. 

Over the course of 2014 we saw a grand total of 32 different concerts (including two separate festivals), giving us close to an average of three different shows a month to see national touring acts.  Considering that we had to travel at least an hour to and from all but one of these shows, allow us to shed our modesty for a second and say that this was quite the accomplishment.  Luckily, not a single concert could be even remotely considered a dud, so it makes narrowing down the list to just ten shows that much harder.  That said, we think that these shows are worthy of special recognition, and we invite you to use the tags to read up on our reviews for each performance.

Cloud Nothings put on a great show, but will have to settle for just outside the top ten.

Cloud Nothings put on a great show, but will have to settle for a spot just outside the top ten.

Honorable Mention for The Thermals playing a show in Salem and making the town seem like a real cool place for once.

10. The Men, live at Dante’s

9. Hamilton Leithauser, live at the Doug Fir

8. The National, live at the Les Schwab Amphitheater

7. Modest Mouse, headlining Project Pabst

6. TV on the Radio, live at the Crystal Ballroom

5. Queens of the Stone Age, live at the Keller Auditorium

4. Beck, live at Edgefield

3. Neutral Milk Hotel, live at the Crystal Ballroom

2. Death From Above 1979, live at the Crystal Ballroom

1. Slowdive, live at the Crystal Ballroom.

It’s no surprise that the top of the list is loaded with reunions, though the exact order goes against what probably would have been predicted at the beginning of the year; the biggest shock remains that shows at the Crystal Ballroom ended up being the venue to house the best shows, though that speaks to the ability of each of those groups to overcome any obstacles that tricky room could toss their way.

Let’s hope that any shows we see in the next year live up to the unbelievable standard that this past year has set!

Over the Weekend (Dec. 22 Edition)

Some videos and lists and other fun stuff as you continue to put off Christmas shopping…

Last week we said farewell to one of our favorite late night comedy shows with the end of The Colbert Report, but that wasn’t the only great program that finished its run last week.  The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson was underrated for the entirety of its run, as few could match the creativity and anarchic spirit of its host.  Craig ended things with a bang on his last show, and it was nice to see this tribute at the top of his show.  Here’s the official video, though it’s missing an excellent second half as seen in this link.

The “Bang Your Drum” performance was an excellent followup to the latest rendition of the annual holiday tradition of Darlene Love performing “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home”) on The Late Show with David Letterman.  Of course, what really takes the performance to another level is the bari sax solo, but all the musicians are worthy of praise.

Once again, we have even more lists for your consultation.  Cokemachineglow has multiple lists for top albums, and then there are best videos lists from Vulture, PASTE, and Buzzfeed.  While there are several good selections, I’m surprised to see the absence of our personal pick for best music video of 2014, the haunting “Story 2” from clipping.

Song Exploder has an excellent interview with members of The National, who discuss the creation of “Sea of Love” for Trouble Will Find Me.  They really go deep into the making of the song, so all those budding songwriters out there should take note.

In a bit of unsurprising news, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are “on a bit of a hiatus” according to Karen O.  But it sounds like it’s just down time and not anything signalling the end of the band, which is great.

The Replacements have released some new music, and to say it’s different than what you would expect would be an understatement.  Pitchfork has the link to the 25 minute jazz improve piece “Poke Me In My Cage”.

Daniel Kessler from Interpol’s side project Big Noble just released their first music video, providing a visual accompaniment to the soundscape “Stay Gold”.

And a melancholy farewell to Joe Cocker, who possessed one of the great voices in rock history.  His cover of “With A Little Help From My Friends” was a huge part of my childhood, and I’m sure millions of others could say the same thing.

Catching Up On The Week (Dec. 19 Edition)

Some #longreads for your weekend as you mourn the end of the greatest television show of all-time

The music world is still buzzing about the surprise release of D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, with critics greeting it with universal acclaim.  We’re certain that you can find a multitude of thinkpieces on the album from everyone and their cousin on the web, but this analysis from Complex is probably the best you’ll find.

Just how big was that surprise release from D’Angelo?  Big enough that it pushed aside the news that Modest Mouse will finally release a follow-up to We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank as their new album Strangers to Ourselves is set to be released on March 3 of next year.  Meanwhile, keep their new single “Lampshades on Fire” playing on repeat, at least through this weekend.

This article was originally published in January, but we didn’t come across it until this week, so it’s new for us: Buzzfeed explains how the punk band Crass fooled MI6 and other intelligence agencies into thinking there was a Soviet disinformation campaign, all with a crappily-produced prank tape.

It’s the weekend–do you need any other excuse to read an analysis of Billy Joel’s ridiculous hit “We Didn’t Start the Fire”?

And finally, we like millions of others are mourning the end of The Colbert Report, though we’re hopeful that Stephen Colbert will do a terrific job of taking over The Late Show.  Like many, we were impressed by the turnout of former guests that appeared for the final sing-along, but we also were delighted to hear that as the credits rolled for a final time that Colbert had selected our personal pick for greatest song of all-time, Neutral Milk Hotel’s “Holland, 1945”, to be the musical accompaniment.  It turns out that Stephen’s selection of the song was not just a result of his good taste, but the result of a personal connection to the song that is quite touching.  Just don’t ruin the moment by clicking through the links to see what the rest of Slate had to think about music this past year.

Feats of Strength: Low

Yesterday we ran a piece in which, among other (legitimate complaints), we knocked a band for being “repetitive.”  But we want to make it clear that “repetition” itself is not necessarily a problem in music, and in fact in many instances can help enhance a song.  For example, repetition can help create a rising tension in a song, as the listener patiently awaits any change that would signify a resolution to the chord progression or drum pattern to which they can finally experience some relief.  With “All My Friends”, LCD Soundsystem accomplished this by expertly employing a simple progression of two chords and a relentless drumbeat to keep the listener’s attention over its seven minute running time.

Low also uses repetition in their song “Nothing But Heart”, a highlight from their stellar album C’mon, but in a manner that differs slightly from the traditional purpose outlined above.  Musically speaking, Low uses a single descending progression repeated several times over the course of the song, but uses this as a foundation on which they can layer on top several other instruments and melodies and musical ideas.  That sounds similar to what most other bands do, but the added wrinkle is that Low also does this through repetition in their lyrics.  The entire song is only four lines, with the last line repeated endlessly.

I would be your king,

but you wanna be free.

Confusion and art–

I’m nothing but heart.

As the listener realizes that the band is not going to deviate from this pattern and instead have fallen into a sort of endless loop or repeating this last line, the phrase “I’m nothing but heart” begins to take on different meanings.  It at first appears to be a sort of mantra, but as the repetition continues without fail, the phrase begins to take on different tones.  The band plays this up with their vocal performance, embellishing it with different dynamics and points of emphasis.  As a result, the band is able to convey several different meanings from the same phrase–over the course of the song, it appears to be hopeful, conciliatory, regretful, bitter, even defiant.  Though the band sings the line over thirty times, one can sense that with each utterance that Low intended the listener to feel a different emotion each time.  It’s an extremely powerful performance.

Oh, and it allows the band to really rock out with some gorgeously jagged guitar solos over the top of it as well.

The Future Islands Problem

Every year there is a band that inexplicably rockets out from the depths of obscurity and ends up on all the year-end lists after riding months of breathless critics’ praise.  Though the music industry is now so fractured that these groups often don’t push themselves into the mainstream, they still become an annoyance to people like the people who run this site who devote time and energy to seeking out new music.  It may be a matter of only switching the station the four times the band is actually played on the radio, but there still is an irritation when you see the countless plaudits for a group that could best be called “boring”.  This year, that group is Future Islands.

We alluded a bit to our issues with the band in our review of Spoon’s show last week at the Crystal Ballroom where Future Islands was one of two openers, but we let our criticisms remain vague so as not to consume too much time railing against a weaker part of the night in favor of letting Spoon’s fantastic performance remain the focus of the review.  Our problems with the band began not with their performance on Wednesday, but way back in the spring when their performance on Letterman had a lot of music journalists and fans buzzing all over social media.  Being the diligent researchers and devotees of music that we are, we checked out their performance of “Seasons (Waiting On You)” and were left utterly perplexed how a combination of a boring bassline, a basic disco beat, thin synths, and a comical vocal performance punctuated by comically theatrical dance moves could result in such universal praise.  We checked out a few more songs from their album Singles on YouTube, and were left realizing that this same combination was present in all songs.  We remained nonplussed by all the adulation.

Now, we would like to stress that our criticism is not meant to take away from anyone who genuinely enjoys the music of Future Islands–life is too short to rip on what other people enjoy.  Our problem is with those who spend countless words trying to convince others that the band is “good” when it is nearly impossible to find something to truly recommend about their sound.  My first reaction to the band’s style was we don’t need a post-ironic take on Roxy Music’s “More Than This”, we’re just fine with the original thank you very much.  The band’s goal seems to take all of the artificial sheen that marked the worst of music from the 80’s, lay it over a never-deviating disco beat, take out all semblance of hooks or a worthwhile melody, and toss it behind a frontman with all the charisma of a guy who believes that karaoke on a Thursday night at the local dive bar is the highlight of anyone’s week.  It adds up to a package that I don’t know whether to take seriously or mock, and I’m not sure if the band or critics know which one is the correct approach.

Though I occasionally tried over the next few months to give them multiple shots, I still had the same nagging criticisms each time.  However, I still approached their opening set for Spoon with an opening mind; several journalists had raved about their live performance, and it felt like it would be unfair to the band to write them off without seeing them at their full potential.  Instead, the show confirmed all my suspicions of the band’s talent, and then some.

Each song brought up the same pattern: a basic disco beat, basslines that went nowhere, and synths that were so airy that they forgot to provide chord structures or even suggestions of melody.  Each song bled into the other, the formula never wavering.  In one of those year-end reviews someone compared the bass to Peter Hook’s work with Joy Division, and I would hope Peter read that and got on a plane and smacked this critic in the face–it’s an insult to compare Hook’s innovative melodic and rhythmic contributions that were integral parts to the brilliance of Joy Division’s music to this guy plugging away at root notes at an eighth-note clip.  People were looking to dance and get moving, but when it’s the same oom-cha straight beat for forty minutes it gets a little dull; it wouldn’t kill whatever it is that you’re going for to throw in a variation every couple of measures, pal.  As for the keyboards, it’s hard to come up with a better suggestion than just “do something.”

The vocal performance, which most devotees point to as the band’s strength, was its own sort of awful.  I can love and respect artist who put all their energy into delivering a show, but everything about Sam Herring’s actions made the entire affair seem like a “performance.”  There was no semblance of genuine human emotion coming through in any of his vocals or dance moves, and every movement and inflection came across as painfully rehearsed.  That is to say nothing about the deliberately weird affectations like the attempt at a human phaser effect by dipping into the lower register to deliver Cookie Monster-style vocals for an odd phrase here or there.  It was unclear what the point of the entire enterprise was.  I’d rather see Milosh the fresh-off-the-boat Eastern European immigrant deliver a passionate-but-fractured take on Styx’s “Come Sail Away.”

There was one moment in the show last week that proved the sheer disparity in talent between Future Islands and their fellow denizens of the Best Of lists, and that was when Spoon kicked into their hit “I Turn My Camera On.”  Spoon was able to effortlessly switch gears, and the rigid stomp-funk of “Camera” not only got the audience dancing but was a seamless part of their set.  The song has never felt like a genre exercise for Spoon (or a shameless stab at popular relevance), but a natural part of the band’s catalog, no matter how superficially different it may seem.  Contrast that with Future Islands, who spent their entire set trying to cultivate a similar style, and not conveying a genuine emotion for a single second, or even a competent dance beat.

What may be most distressing is that one can easily see how in three years that Future Islands will go from critic’s darling to a passe joke.  The most apt comparison may be Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, but as we have argued elsewhere on this site, even at their most seemingly simplistic there was genuine artistic merit to what CYHSY produced.  At the very minimum, they at least knew how to provide variation to their basic drum beat.