Ted Leo

Covered: “Since U Been Gone”

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.

After reading all these articles about the omnipresent-yet-invisible songwriter Max Martin, as well as seeing Tokyo Police Club perform a version of the song, I have now thought about the song “Since U Been Gone” far more in the past few weeks than at any other point previously in my life.  It is definitely one of the modern pop songs that bothers me the least, though that is in no small part due to the fact that I was able to avoid hearing it repeated ad nauseam during its initial lifespan.  The fact that it is also a well-constructed song also works in its favor, with a great dynamic contrast between the soft verses and loud chorus, as well as that big hook in that memorable chorus melody.  There must be a reason why indie rock fans would cop to liking this song…

Oh yeah, that reason would be because Martin in fact looked to indie rock for songwriting inspiration.  Not only did he co-opt that trademark Pixies loud/soft contrast, but he reworked a previous hit song, “Maps” by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.  He even admits this was his intention.  From The Atlantic, paraphrasing from John Seabrook’s recent book, The Song Machine:

They are listening, reportedly, to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Maps”—an infectious love song, at least by indie-rock standards. Martin is being driven crazy by the song’s chorus, however, which drops in intensity from the verse. Dr. Luke says, “Why don’t we do that, but put a big chorus on it?” He reworks a guitar riff from the song and creates Kelly Clarkson’s breakout hit, “Since U Been Gone.”

It is hilarious that Martin misunderstands that the drop in intensity was an intentional maneuver on the part of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and helped strengthen the impact of the lyrics.  In a nutshell, that explains the difference between the approaches to songwriting in pop and indie rock–why be subtle when you can shout your intentions at the top of your lungs?  In this case, both ways worked.

But we should give kudos to Ted Leo for spotting the similarities between the two songs years before it was confirmed, and smoothly blending the two into a seamless whole.  The “Since U Been Gone/Maps” mash-up ends up being a good primer for the Ted Leo novice, as it shows both his vocal range and guitar chops (even with a minor flub at the end of the bridge taken into consideration), which helps elevate the cover above the standard “fans playing a favorite song in their bedroom” that can be found all over YouTube.  And it is proof once again that Ted Leo is the fucking coolest dude on the planet.

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Project Pabst 2015 Day 2 Recap

The first day of Project Pabst had a better lineup, but the second day offered just enough that made spending a second day in the heat a worthwhile proposition.  At least it never got as hot as it did the previous day, though there was little to no escape from the sun, aside from the odd bit of shade and the PBRcade.  Still, water refills were once again free, even if that did not make up for the fact the organizers made no adjustments overnight.

Alvvays delivered the most season-specific music

Alvvays delivered the most season-appropriate music

If there is one thing you can count on when you travel in Oregon, it is that random traffic jams will occur without any reason.  A massive slowdown on I-5 added another hour to our travel time, forcing us to miss the majority of Alvvays’s set, an unfortunate result considering we were really excited to see how one of our favorite new artists from 2014 performed live.  However, we can authoritatively state that, from what little we heard, Alvvays’s bouncy, shimmery pop-rock was a perfect soundtrack to a sunny outdoor festival.  Though attendance was lagging at this point in the day, at least there were a devoted few that sang along to closer “Archie, Marry Me”.

Aimee Man and Ted Leo had easily the best stage banter of the festival

Aimee Man and Ted Leo had easily the best stage banter of the festival

Though I have been a fan of Ted Leo for years, I had yet to give his collaboration with Aimee Mann a shot.  However, The Both won me over with their ripping set, with Aimee and Ted displaying a tight chemistry that was only matched by El-P and Killer Mike.  The music was an intriguing mix of the two styles, though I tended to prefer the moments when Ted would kick it up a notch with flashy-but-efficient guitar solos.  The stage banter between the two was a definite highlight, including a memorable bit where Aimee poked fun at Ted’s love of all things Tolkien, with Ted responding by totally owning it and singing an impromptu version of “Frodo of the Nine Fingers”.  Also, for the record, Ted can change a broken guitar string faster than any performer that I have ever seen.

This was the act the crowd appreciated the most

This was the act the crowd appreciated the most

Passion Pit generated the best crowd response of the day, but my reaction to the group has always been the embodiment of the shrug emoji.

Buzzcocks still going steady

Buzzcocks still going steady

Since I spent several years listening to Singles Going Steady, a truly essential compilation for anyone who has ever dabbled in punk rock, the Buzzcocks were the “living legends” reunion I was looking forward to seeing the most at Project Pabst.  Judging by the packed backstage area, I was certainly not alone in this sentiment, as one could easily see other performers like Ted Leo singing along to the words of some of their classic hits like “Why Can’t I Touch It”, “What Do I Get?”,  and “Noise Annoys”.  The group tore through their discography at breakneck speed, with guitarist Steve Diggle constantly asking the sound mixer to crank up the volume.  Just hearing “Ever Fallen In Love” and “Orgasm Addict” live made Day 2 worthwhile in and of itself.

Weezer finished off Project Pabst with some flair.

Weezer finished off Project Pabst with some flair.

There are few bands with whom I have more of a love/hate relationship than Weezer, and considering my age it should be easy to spot exactly where that dividing line occurs in the band’s catalog.  I think the surest example of how people my age should not be lumped into the catch-all “millenial” generation is that we would never cheer as loudly for “Back to the Shack” as we would for “My Name Is Jonas” or “The Good Life”.  I ended up sticking around longer than I anticipated since the group did a good job of mixing in some of their genuinely great songs with their later hits that played well to certain segments of the crowd, and I can certainly admired the well-oiled machine that Weezer the performance act has become.

Project Pabst was a solid success this go-around, but hopefully they will learn from a few of their mistakes from this edition as they set up plans for next year.  Hopefully they can create a lineup as exciting and varied as the first two editions.

Random Notes

Number of free water refills: 2

Number of beards longer than mine: 1

Number of comments on my shirt (Dinosaur Jr. Green Mind cover): 2, including a “Best Shit EVER!”

Review: Sleater-Kinney – No Cities To Love

Though this is difficult to hear, every year we get more evidence that it may be a good idea to break up your band for a decade, even if they are at their creative peak.  Last year, Death From Above 1979 came back and wowed us with the stellar The Physical World; the year before that saw the surprisingly wonderful return of My Bloody Valentine; and then there is Dinosaur Jr., who have released three excellent albums after the reunion of their original lineup after nearly twenty years apart.  Sleater-Kinney has pulled off the same trick with the excellent No Cities To Love, a furious and catchy album that is both an artistic step forward as well as a classic example of the trademark S-K sound.

The frenetic “Price Tag” kicks off the album, pairing an off-kilter looping Sleater-Kinney riff typical of their early years with ferociously political lyrics; not since the heyday of Rage Against The Machine have we heard a song that targets economic inequity and middle-class complacence.  “Fangless” follows and throws a bit of a curveball with its mixture of funk rhythms and new-wave guitars, as well as featuring a prominent bass counterpart that was previously a rarity in light of S-K’s usual twin-guitar attack.  The track is indicative of the kind of musical adventurousness found throughout No Cities To Love as well as what makes the album so much fun.

No Cities To Love features some of the best hooks of Sleater-Kinney’s career, including the peppy title track and the bouncy “Hey Darling”; the descending chorus melody in the latter immediately brings to mind something Ted Leo and the Pharmacists would have concocted circa Hearts of Oak.  “A New Wave” has some fun with the bass riff from Nirvana’s “Love Buzz”  before shifting into a sing-song chorus that makes perfect use of the unique vocal harmonies of Brownstein and Tucker.

Sleater-Kinney has been a band that has long been beloved by critics and pushed by their most passionate fans as all-time greats, but rarely have I ever felt that this type of hype was fully justified.  I’ve certainly have enjoyed their albums over the years (after overcoming an initial reluctance due to their unconventional vocals) and recognize the impact that the group has had musically and culturally over the years (they have been arguably as far-reaching in their influence as Pavement in the past couple of decades), yet never had them break into my regular rotation nor would put them in that upper echelon of groups.  However, even considering Sleater-Kinney’s excellent discography as a whole, No Cities To Love is a cut above, and will certainly invite not only repeated listens but end-of-the-year list consideration.  Not bad for a January album.

Covered: “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”

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.

Is there anybody that doesn’t appreciate “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”?  It seems like one of those songs that we can all agree is pretty great, and even though it was ubiquitous enough that we’ve all heard it, no one seems to think it was overplayed.  Just take a listen right now, and tell me that it doesn’t put a smile on your face.

Tears for Fears is touring once again, and they’re one of the headliners for this weekend’s Project Pabst festival in Portland, mixing it up with the likes of Modest Mouse, GZA, and the Thermals in a one-of-a-kind lineup.  I didn’t even know that the band had reunited, but it’s a nice surprise and I’m sure there will be plenty of people from younger generations who would love to hear “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” live for the first time.  It’s pretty much a perfect pop song–who doesn’t love those warm synth chords, those gorgeous harmonies, even that lively drumbeat and that whirling guitar part?  I never paid much attention to the lyrics, but it’s easy to see that they’re versatile enough that you can use the song in a variety of setting, from the sarcastic to the sincere.  The song represents the best of pop music trends in the 80’s, with none of the irritation.

Ted Leo has done some great covers in his time, so he was a great choice to kick off the AV Club’s “Undercover” series; unfortunately for the rest of the bands that followed that season, he was a tough opening act to follow.  For this version, he swaps out the synths for guitars, but their shimmery tone more than makes up for the switch.  It’s a tricky drum part, but Chris Wilson nails it, and even includes some of the memorable fills of the original.  And though it was only Ted on vocals, he does a great job of capturing the style of Tears for Fears, yet at the same time staying true to his own voice.

The key that makes this cover so effective is that the group commits to the song, even though they could have easily decided to toss it off as a lark.  This is especially apparent in their re-working of some of the guitar parts and the brilliant solo sections, where Ted and the Pharmacists trade off some excellent licks.  At the same time, the group keeps the feel loose enough that the performance doesn’t come off as rigid; it feels like an especially tight rehearsal, which is the best you could really aim for in that round room.

A SXSW (P)Review

The big news this week is of course the SXSW Festival, and you’re probably tired of hearing the same stories about the festival over and over.*  They usually follow one of two tropes, and it doesn’t matter which, because they’re both terrible: either the “all of your favorite bands are having a blast here in the LIVE MUSIC CAPITAL OF THE WORLD” or “it sucks now that SXSW has totally sold out, man” (annoying coming from either an Austinite or a music industry lackey, for different but totally valid reasons).  Here’s what you should know: 1) None of your favorite bands, if they are in Austin, TX this week, are having a blast because it’s now a requirement that anyone with new music coming out has to stop by and play crowded bars that haven’t seen an inspection since 1998, and 2) Nobody cares that the festival was awesome before anyone heard about it.

*I’m making a couple of assumptions here: that you like music (why else would you be here, unless you were really into cartography, I guess) and that you have at least enough of a passing interest in music/news that you are aware that there is a festival called “South by Southwest” (SXSW for short) and have seen at least one mention of this gigantic festival.  I would think that these assumptions didn’t need to be stated for the record, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Don't believe everything that you read.

Don’t believe everything that you read.

That said, there are tons of pieces out there attempting to provide a preview of this year’s particular incarnation of SXSW, and they’re all fighting for your eyes and clicks.  That means I have to come up with my own original approach, and I think I found the right hook: I’ll be reviewing my previous trip to SXSW in order to give you an idea of what to expect.  Because history repeats itself, and time is a flat circle.

I was lucky enough to attend the festival in 2011, when it lined up perfectly with my Spring Break from law school.  With my sister already in town for grad school, I had a floor for crashing and the toughest part of the trip figured out (a previous attempt to attend the festival back in 2007 when I was still working in radio fell apart because of that detail).  It sure seemed to be a better idea than sleeping in each day until noon and then waiting three hours in line for a Shake Shack burger–now I would sleep in each day until noon and then wait three hours to watch some of my favorite bands (because let’s be honest–I wasn’t going to work on my thesis in either scenario).  I looked forward to a week of sunshine, music, and cheap/crappy beer, instead of a week of cold, traffic, and expensive/crappy beer.

The thing that’s hard to realize about SXSW until you’re there is just how many bands are there, and they’re all playing venues that they would otherwise have no business playing in, whether it be a downward or upward shift in fortune.  Queens of the Stone Age playing in a converted auto-body garage?  Um, if you say so.  Some Brazilian surfer-punk zydeco hybrid band playing a packed two-story bar?  Yeah, you’ll never hear of them again (I think their name started with a ‘Z’), but for a brief moment they were a Next Big Thing at this festival.  You truly can’t comprehend the sheer number of bands.  My one souvenir from the festival was a t-shirt that listed “all” of the bands that played.  I took it out during the course of writing this as a reference to help jog my memory of what bands I saw, but it’s practically worthless in that regard because the half-point font makes reading impossible.  And and all these bands are playing in any possible space that they can find.

They even had a singing saw, but they couldn't play a Neutral Milk Hotel cover?

They even had a singing saw, but they couldn’t play a Neutral Milk Hotel cover?

So to people who are fans of “music” as a concept, this all sounds wonderful; to sane people, not so much.  You walk down Sixth Street, beer in hand, (or as I call it, Bourbon Street Lite) and  hear through the air the strains of 30 different bands playing packed, ramshackle bars.  Oh what glory it is to be alive, as the streets are filled with the sound of music!  Of course, if you’re able to actually pick out through the cacophony that sounds great or at the very least interesting, good luck in trying to actually make it into the venue.  This is something that a normal, sane person would enjoy, but SXSW makes this task very difficult indeed.

SXSW is of course famous for the long lines at its venues.  Of course, as a ridiculously popular festival, it’s to be expected.  However, I thought I had purchased a proverbial golden ticket: the wristband.  A couple of hundred bucks up front, and I had bestowed upon my hand the promise of “access” to nearly all shows without paying additional cover charges and the ability to skip lines.  As anyone who’s been to Disneyland knows, this is truly the only way to travel.  And it’s true, you CAN skip ahead of the lines…well at least part of the lines.  What I didn’t know is that SXSW had created an additional supertier with “badges”.  Those were the people that actually had access and so on–you know, what you thought you were getting with the wristband.  In the end, you realize that your purchase of a wristband was the equivalent of pulling into the gas station and selecting the “Plus” nozzle–additional dollars down the drain, with no real noticeable difference in product.

That means your dreams of seeing someone like Bad Brains were pretty much gone.  You thought you could make it into the shack where Death From Above 1979 had a surprise reunion?  Only one possible reaction.  If you’re aiming to see Queens of the Stone Age put on a show at midnight, well you better get to the venue at 7 and watch random crap for five hours, because there’s no way you’re going to be let back in.  It’s tough shit for the badgeless.

Kim Crowdsurfs

Kim Crowdsurfs

That means your dreams of bouncing from show to show are pretty much shot to shit, no matter how willing you are to zig-zag around town.  You are now forced to plan your time judiciously.  And you were hoping that there was not going to be any homework on this trip–I mean, if i was going to think at all this week, shouldn’t it have been in the course of completing my thesis?  These are not the kinds of reflections that I should be having on Spring Break.  Instead, I’m having to do calculations of “is this band popular enough that I can go see them with minimal hassle, but if there is a line, do I really want to see them?”  At this point, I’m about five seconds away from dumping all relevant information into Excel spreadsheets.

Travel 2000 miles to remind yourself of home

Travel 2000 miles to remind yourself of home

For those looking for the best way to see multiple bands, the lawn parties are really the best way to go.  It amazed me that I traveled a couple thousand miles to see a lawn party hosted by the record store that was across the street from me in New York, but Other Music had a great lineup, and offered a bonus attraction for avoiding the terrible Texas heat: shade.  It’s not the most intimate setting, but I was able to see Low, Ted Leo, and !!! all at the same place, and in relative comfort.  And if I wasn’t so restless, I could’ve seen future favorites of mine Sharon Van Etten and Cults as well.

Lawn party is the way to go, for multiple reasons

Lawn party is the way to go, for multiple reasons

The calculus homework that I did before truly came in handy during the night, when it was more of a crapshoot to determine which shows I could get in.  And here’s my advice: you know those buzz bands that you think you’re so cool for hearing about in the days before the festival?  You’re not special.  There are thousands of other people at this festival that read Pitchfork, SPIN, AV Club, FILTER, and whatever other random music press there is out there.  Hell, a lot of them read specific SXSW previews, so there’s no way that you have a chance of getting into the Toro Y Moi show that’s being held in a 50 person dive.  Unless of course you have a badge, as I mentioned above, but if you’re reading this I’m guessing you don’t.  So that means having to aim slightly lower than the hippest, buzziest bands.  And sometimes, this works very well.  I was able to catch The Antlers perform an NPR showcase that proved that Burst Apart would be a fantastic follow-up to Hospice.  I was able to watch Tapes ‘n Tapes, years after their initial breakthrough, put on a great show and convince me to give them another shot and purchase their third album (and afterwards ate some absolutely kickass Korean BBQ tacos).  And I was able to witness Cloud Nothings blow the roof off a bar as they blistered through material, and showed signs of their potential before Attack On Memory was released.  Plus, I got to hear Dylan Baldi in the last instance ask the crowd if anyone had a place where they could crash, because they just drove down from Ohio with no real plan.  I hope someone picked up the slack.

Cloud Nothings tear roof off of roofless bar

Cloud Nothings tear roof off of roofless bar

I keep emphasizing the crowds, and there’s a good reason.  I’m not claustrophobic by any means, but Andy Richter has the right idea.  Every place is absolutely jammed with people, fire codes be damned (and honestly, if they were strictly enforced, you’d just be pissed that you couldn’t get in to watch the show).  And not only that, these are some of the dipshittiest people that you’ve ever seen.  I cracked that Sixth Street was “Bourbon Street Lite” above, and that’s really the attitude that the seeming majority of festival-goers take–they’re not in Austin for a great music festival, there in town as a substitute for Cancun or New Orleans, hoping to have A FUCKING BLAST, YO!  As a result, I overheard some of the absolute most inane shit possible while spending hours in lines over the course of the week, and I have to be thankful that I can’t remember anything specific.

Which leads me to my next piece of advice: bring a friend.  Of course, it’s always fun to share the experience with someone else, but I’ve managed to go solo to several shows without any problem.  But when you’re stuck in lines for hours on end, it’s best to have someone else with which to engage, or else you will have to endure only in your head what seems like a lifetime of bullshit.  It’s not pleasant.

This is even more awesome, knowing this is outside of Odd Future

This is even more awesome, knowing this is outside of Odd Future

In the end, is it all worth it?  I did get a chance to do things like stand five feet away and see …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead play a hometown show at one in the morning, see random old guys jamming on guitar outside an Odd Future show, and see The Strokes for the first time as fireworks exploded over the Austin skyline during “Last Nite”.  I also saw a ton of forgettable bands and people consistently make such asses of themselves that it would seem to be a productive use of my team to merely weep for the future of humanity.  But in the end, it was probably a fair trade-off–all I missed was a Shake Shack burger (which I’m now told exists in Austin) and a Godspeed You! Black Emperor concert that I had purchased tickets for months earlier.  And I didn’t work on my thesis, but we all know I wasn’t going to work on it anyway.

Anyway, for those who don’t care about history and are here for some advice, here we go, in list form:

1. Bring a friend.  This makes the boredom and idiots tolerable.

2. Buy a badge.  Being rich and important is a good idea for most things in life, SXSW included.

3. Have a plan.  You’re not going to see everything you want.  You’re barely going to see half of what you want.  Deal with it.

4. Find the Korean BBQ Taco truck.  That was delicious.

5. Texas beer sucks.  I didn’t mention this earlier, but just know ahead of time.  Know that the best thing you’ll buy is some off-brand cerveza at the taverna next to the gas station.

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