High Frequencies
Jenny Owen Youngs - Secrets
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Jenny Owen Youngs - Secrets

From the album Transmitter Failure (2009)

I was recently going through an old, dying laptop, trying to salvage what files I can before I wipe the drive and get rid of it forever. There was a ton of music on it, and I moved a bunch of albums on to my trusty travel drive. It’s been a great excuse to revisit some of the music that I haven’t necessarily been digging into in recent years - there were some old chestnuts from Sinatra and Grant Lee Buffalo that I’ll likely be posting about soon - and one of the albums I came across was this fantastic, power-poppy disc from Jenny Owen Youngs. I first came across this one about three years ago, and I’ve quietly been following Youngs’ career ever since.

I must admit that I have a soft spot for musicians who (a) crank out quality power-pop (b) seem to have a good, self-effacing sense of humor and (c) are thoughtful without being condescending. Youngs seems to have all these qualities, and for proof of her excellent song craftsmanship, one need look no further than to “Secrets,” a track that starts with Youngs coyly singing “I’ve got secrets up to here, love, don’t you worry your pretty head” over a choppy, stabbing rhythm guitar, before the whole band suddenly thunders in. It’s a basic rock combo that’s augmented by brass coloring and a soulful organ, painting a rich musical backdrop for a tasteful tale of mind games. 

In the hands of a lesser writer, it might have been a train wreck, but this song has a sly, dark humor, a great hook, and a playful, tight live feel to it. Always glad to come back to some tunes from Youngs, so at least there’s a small upside to my old laptop finally biting it.

Paul McCartney - The Mess (Live) (Bonus Track)
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Paul McCartney & Wings - The Mess

Single release (flip-side of “My Love”) (1972)

Continuing on with a bit of the aggressive music I’ve been listening to lately is this hidden gem from early in Paul McCartney's solo years. This track, a smoldering rocker recorded during the first proper Wings tour, way back in ‘72, seems to have largely been lost to time (I’m wondering if even its author remembers that it exists?), and was originally given a studio treatment and intended for the Red Rose Speedway album. It apparently was given some airing during that tour, and McCartney thought enough of it to stick it on the b-side to his My Love single in March of that year. That song was a big hit for McCartney, and a key lift for him at a time when he was still taking a fair amount of drubbing in the press for his role in splitting the Beatles. And, ever eager to prove that he was more than just a balladeer, it was totally in keeping with his character to even out the smooth A-side of this single by placing the harder-edged rock on the flip side.

But, for whatever reason - maybe because “My Love” proved so big and so enduring - the B-side just got swallowed up and all but forgotten. Not played on any subsequent tours, not making it into the greatest hits packages over the decades. It was tacked on to the CD re-issue of Red Rose Speedway, at least, and that’s how I first discovered it: this song with the nonsense words, the slightly dour refrain (“Oh sweet darling, what a mess I’m in”), and that glam-rock vibe. With the loud, crunching guitars, the quick tempo breaks, and that trippy, echo-drenched vocal mid-song, it’s got all the trappings of an early 70s rock ‘n’ roll throw-away, something that McCartney is still talented enough to polish up and make memorable.

Even if McCartney and the world at large seem to have written “The Mess” off, I’m sticking to my guns: it’s a cool little track.

The Who - Underture
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The Who - Underture

From the boxed set 30 Years of Maximum R & B (1994)

It’s been kind of an aggressive summer out there, hasn’t it? At least, for those of us watching the news with any regularity, it feels like it’s been particularly tense out there: from the constant turmoil in the Middle East, to the tumult on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, to the violent end to Robin Williams, to the Ebola tragedies in Africa, to the siege and political unrest in Iraq - the world just seems to be a mean, murky, malignant place at the moment.

Or maybe it’s just the same as it ever was, but it just all seems more urgent  right now. Whatever the reason, sometimes I feel like aggressive times call for aggressive music, to sort of melodically work through all the tension. Enter The Who, to get the job done. The Who, in their prime, were a famously aggressive band, particularly thanks to the wild, thrashing drumming of Keith Moon and the lunging, dynamic leaping and windmilling of guitarist Pete Townshend. Seeing footage of the band in full flight when they were younger is like watching a musical street fight, and they infused that aggression and attitude into some of their best music. At their peak, they didn’t even need words to effectively communicate it.

This live performance of Underture, a track originally from their Tommy album and performed here at Woodstock in 1969, is a fine case in point. This performance is just Moon, Townshend, and bassist John Entwistle bouncing off each other, weaving around each other, creating this terrific, rumbling, melodic tension-and-release sound with a dynamic pressure-cooker vibe throughout. It’s all the more amazing when you realize there’s just two melodic instruments - Townshend’s guitar and Entwistle’s bass - that are carrying the tune. The music constantly feels like it could veer off course and careen out of control, until the musicians suddenly pull it back into these taut, razor-sharp passages. To the best of my knowledge, this performance remained unreleased until the mid-90s, when the band released the 30 Years of Maximum R & B boxed set. SO good.

Sometimes, you just need some hard-charging rock to get your mind off all the heaviness out there. And that’s when it’s good to plug into the Who.

Weezer - Don't Let Go
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Weezer - Don’t Let Go

From Weezer (2001)

I’ve previously written here that, in the late 90s, I was surprised to learn that Weezer had more going for them than just the one hit song. I’d heard Buddy Holly when it first came out, I’d enjoyed it, but I didn’t start following Weezer or actively seeking out their records. I figured they were a “one and done” kind of deal. A couple of years later, I got to college and a friend would play their Pinkerton album, though, and that got me hooked. It seemed like the band disappeared after that disc, and then, all of the sudden, they were returning with what’s come to be known as the Green Album.

I liked the album from the opening drum thump of “Don’t Let Go,” a high powered track that seemed specifically designed to announce to the music world and to their fans, “We’re Back.” The song is an amped-up, twin-guitar assault that encapsulates the kind of buoyant, frothy power-pop the band excelled at in their prime. The lyrics are a straightforward “I’ll always be here for you, and if you try to dump me, I’ll beg you to change your mind” message - nothing particularly profound or original. But there’s always been a place for energetic, melodic rock tracks like this one, and Weezer has always had a knack for cranking these out. A great kick-off to their last must-own album.

Elliott Smith

I just realized that today would’ve been Elliott Smith's 45th birthday. Seems the best way to remember the man is via his music, and a very quick Google search led me to this Spin article mentioning that there are over 90 complete Smith concerts available for listening and download. While he sadly isn’t here to celebrate the birthday, his music continues to keep his memory out there. Here’s hoping he’s at peace….

Valerie June - You Can't Be Told
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Valerie June - You Can’t Be Told

From the album Pushin’ Against A Stone (2013)

About a year ago, the name Valerie June started popping up everywhere around me. I started seeing her winning praise in various blogs I read, she rated a mention in MOJO, she made an appearance on NPR - hell, even a friend that I’d had a nasty falling out with broke the silence just to tell me that I needed to check her out. So, based on the unmistakable signals that the Universe was throwing my way, I eventually picked up her latest disc around one year ago, and I liked what I heard - but I was also in the midst of one of those crazy work periods that lasts for several months, so I must admit that I never got to spend the proper “getting to know you” period with this album that it deserved. I listened, I liked it - but I didn’t get to live with it. I threw it on the iPod, and that was that.

Fast forward to this past weekend, when I was getting a chance to sit around and just listen to music for what seems like the first time in awhile. This track came on, and it was the audio equivalent of a slap across the face. I was reminded of the fact that I own this album, and of just how good it really is. The missus was actually a bit put off by the fact that this track, in particular, is so heavily influenced by producer Dan Auerbach that it also feels more like his track than Ms. June’s. I disagreed, and thought that his sound and her voice were a perfect match, and it gave this song - and much of the album - a great retro, soulful 1960s heaviness that just works. It works as a contemporary update of a favorite vintage sound, it works due to strong compositions and solid performances, and it works because of Valerie June’s distinctive vocal style. Yes, this song could’ve just as well sat on a Black Keys album, but to my ears, that’s a plus.

So here’s to rediscovering something that was right under my nose. And to continuing to find great new music that looks to the past for inspiration and still sounds fresh.

No Sinner - Boo Hoo Hoo

From the album Boo Hoo Hoo (2014)

JUST came across this track yesterday, via the missus (via Band of the Day). We were sitting around listening to music, and as soon as this track came on, I shot up outta my chair and asked “Who is that??” The band had a swaggering, bluesy, classic-rock sound, and the singer had this husky, smokey voice snarling out these great, kiss-off lyrics. It was one of those songs that just grabs you, that was designed to just grab you, and it made me want to hear more. Mission accomplished.

What I learned is that the band is No Sinner, and the voice belongs to one Colleen Rennison. Neither was a known commodity to me, but no matter - I like what I’ve heard, and I’m looking forward to hearing more. Boo Hoo Hoo kicks off with a thundering, thumping drum, before quickly launching into a adrenalized bar-band stomp, before a mid-song break that has echoes of the Stones’ I Got The Blues, and then picking up steam again. It’s a fine example of how a very basic, almost generic set of rock chord changes can pack a punch when it’s delivered with a fresh burst of energy and enthusiasm by an incredibly tight band.

I’m always pumped when a band comes out of nowhere and forces me to pay attention. It’s the shot in the arm that keeps me coming back, and it’s one of my favorite things about the mysteries of music. Keep it comin’.

First Aid Kit - Love interruption

Cover of song from Jack White’s Blunderbuss (2012)

As anyone who reads this blog knows, I’m just a fanatic for that Stockholm Sound. Can’t get enough of it (and while I’m obviously kidding, it just hit me that there’s probably an indie band in Brooklyn somewhere named “The Stockholm Sound.” Or, at least, there should be). If there is a music scene bubbling up from Stockholm, I’m not aware of it….but I have recently been getting hipped to a pair of sisters named First Aid Kit that originate from Stockholm, and they’re carrying on the long, proud tradition of being influenced by music originating in the States and then giving it right back to us.

In the case of First Aid Kit, the sisters have mentioned how much they’ve been influenced by the Americana strains of Gram Parsons, Johnny Cash, and Emmylou Harris - so much so, that they even name-checked all of these musicians in “Emmylou,” which first came across my stereo earlier this year. It’s a pleasant little song and the duo have been on my radar as a band to watch.

I’ve been enjoying their latest album, Stay Gold, and earlier this evening, I was blown away by their recent cover (in the clip posted, it starts around the 1:10 minute mark) of a song off Jack White's Blunderbuss disc. Actually, I enjoy their cover more than White’s original. It’s a little bit earthier, a little more urgent, featuring a vibe that has echoes of the best of Ryan Adams, with the sisters’ voices playing nicely off each other and a crack, sparse band anchoring the action. Really quite enjoyable (and, for some reason, it also reminds me of this older clip of singer Lera Lynn blowing the original song composer out of the water with her cover). Now, listen and enjoy…!

James Govan - Something
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James Govan - Something

From Wanted: The Fame Recordings (2013)

To quote a friend of mine: So Much Dammit. Mere months after I first learned about soul singer James Govan, and had a chance to truly enjoy his music, I learn that he’s passed away. And with him, one less link to the golden age of soul music. Very sad.

When I last posted a track from this guy, I came very close to posting his stunning cover of the Beatles' Something. When I first heard it, I was raving about it to friends, playing it on repeat for days, just knocked out with how Govan brought this gritty, Memphis-infused soul sound to George Harrison's masterpiece. The slowly building track, complete with brass backing, a sad, longing organ, female backing vocals, and Govan's rasping, pleading voice….and that repeating fade-out at the end, just building in intensity. Wonderful track, and one of the finest covers of a Beatles song I've ever heard.

Sad to see another great leave us, and a mostly under-appreciated one at that, but the music will live on.

blake babies - nothing ever happens
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The Blake Babies - Nothing Ever Happens

From the album God Bless The Blake Babies (2001)

Dear Juliana Hatfield: I’m like 99.9% certain that was you in front of me in the Whole Foods line earlier tonight. And I really wanted to (1) confirm that it was, in fact, you, and (2) tell you how much I’ve enjoyed your music over the years. Partially because I’ve read your book and I know that you sometimes lose sight of the fact that people really do feel a connection with your music, and they/we really do appreciate it. And partially because I didn’t want to be the creep that’s just doing that “Is that her? I think that’s her…” staring thing that people do when they see someone famous or musicianly or whatever. In any case, it was the dinner hour, you were wearing shades in the store, and I didn’t want to annoy you by interrupting while you bought what I can only presume was organic popcorn. Because even cool indie musicians deserve to buy their popcorn in peace, don’t they?

So in lieu of pestering you in the checkout line, I thought I’d just post a link to one of my favorite tracks off your 2001 reunion album with your old band, Blake Babies. I’ve written previously about how much I loved this album when it came out, and how the gig the band played in support of it is still one of my all-time favorite concert experiences. This track, Nothing Ever Happens, is a great example of the kind of high-quality power-pop that makes this album such a standout, more than a decade after it was released. You didn’t write this song, but you gave it the bite and attitude, anchored with those choppy, crunchy power chords propelling the song forward, that makes it so punchy, sloppy, and great. It’s about as fine a rock song about ennui and growing older as I’ve ever heard, and it’s one of the standouts on a criminally under-appreciated album.

Anyway, you go enjoy your Whole Foods purchase, and I’ll just enjoy the rest of this disc. Seems like a fair deal.

Beastie Boys - So Whatcha Want
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Beastie Boys - So Whatcha Want

From the album Check Your Head (1992)

I will always have my older brother to thank for exposing me to a lot of music I’d otherwise probably not have heard when I was growing up. Granted, this isn’t like those stories you hear about all the cool music your older siblings hipped you to, which led to your developing such a keen ear for great stuff and being cool before your time. With my brother, it was pretty much the opposite, where he and I would battle to drown out each other’s music. I’d turn up the Beatles, so he’d turn up his Powerman 5000. I’d crank the Stones, and he’d crank up Tool. Often, I’d sort of just give up and put on the headphones, blocking out his music and disappearing into the sounds I was devouring as a pre-teen and teen. Glory days, folks. Glory days. 

Still, in retrospect, I’m glad to have been exposed to my brother’s music, even if most of it never resonated with me. And as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to appreciate that it’s great if anyone can get a thrill out of any music at all, and whether I happen to like it is irrelevant. Do I listen to Britney Spears? No, but if her music is making someone happy, or getting them through the day, or bringing them some comfort, I can be down with that. 

But back to my brother’s music. There were one or two bands he listened to that did start to wear down my resistance a tiny bit, back in the day. One of those was Red Hot Chili Peppers, and another was Beastie Boys. Particularly, I remember liking the rhythmic, aggressive sound of So Whatcha Want, which never made a whole lot of sense to me, but definitely was kind of catchy. One need only scroll through this blog to see that I never became obsessive about the band or hip-hop, but there are a number of tracks this band did that I’ve grown to love over the years, and this was definitely the first to get me hooked. So I’m sending out a shout-out to my bro on the west coast, and cranking up some vintage Beastie Boys to kick off the weekend…!

Wilco - I Must Be High

Wilco - I Must Be High

From the album A.M. (1995

Sometimes the simplest songs are the best songs. Case in point: the lead track off of Wilco’s debut album, A.M., which I was just knocked out to realize is now almost 20 years old. Where does the time go?? I was actually just going through my car, cleaning it out to prepare it for the scrap heap, and I came across some old mix CDs I’d made ages ago. On the first CD was this track, which I probably haven’t really sat and listened to - I mean, really listened to - in a few months. Suddenly, it all came back to me: the tight rhythm section, the breezy acoustic guitar pushing it along, Jeff Tweedy's familiar, slightly raspy voice pleading out some very basic lines about the regret of letting someone slip through his fingers, the simple, circular melody that keeps winding around and repeating, the thumping bass-line pounding against a stomping drum pattern below. It's a perfect little Americana track, an oddly happy-sounding song about a failed relationship, made for blaring out your car speakers on a sunny summer’s day….

….which is exactly what I would do, if my car wasn’t falling apart on me. Nevertheless, hearing this song again and blasting it through my headphones, I’ve fallen back in love with it. I’ve always felt that this was the best song on A.M., and was always a little let down with the music that came immediately after it. Still, it showed that Tweedy had some serious potential as a songwriter, which he definitely lived up to on subsequent albums. He’s just winding down a solo tour at the moment, and I’m looking forward to the release of his upcoming album

Bee Gees - Spicks And Specks

Bee Gees - Spicks and Specks

From the Ultimate Bee Gees (2009)

Earlier today, I came across an article in Rolling Stone that was notable for a number of reasons: it was actually well-written, it wasn’t chasing the musical fad of the moment, and it was quite poignant. It was a sketch of Barry Gibb, the last surviving member of the Bee Gees, looking back on his family, his career, his success…and now sitting in an empty room, surrounded by the echoes of that success and the memories of times he probably thought would go on forever. 

In some ways, this Rolling Stone article reminds me of the Levon Helm documentary, Ain’t In It For My Health, which focused on this once-young, dashing, charismatic musician who had the kind of fame and success most can only imagine, but is now looking back on lost friends, declining health, and missed chances. It’s the kind of moment I think most people face, if they live long enough, but it seems to take on an interesting dimension for someone who lived their live on-stage, in the spotlights, at a perhaps more intense level.

In any case, since it’s so rare to come across a piece like this in Rolling Stone - and so rare to see the Bee Gees handled with anything other than a wink and a laugh - I thought it was worth sharing, and worth juxtaposing it with the brothers in full-flight, singing their earliest hit live in concert. If you missed the Rolling Stone link earlier, here she is again

Kula Shaker - Avalonia

Single Release 1999 (available here)

Well, summer is officially here - and with it comes the heat, the humidity, the sluggishness, and the feeling of wading through pea soup each day. But with the help of cold beers, a working AC unit, and some good music, I’m making my way through. One of the songs I’ve turned to recently is this probably not well-known acoustic track from BritPop band Kula Shaker. I’ve written about the band - one of the many English bands that gained some attention after Oasis briefly made some noise in the States back in the mid-90s - on several previous occasions, noting that they never really hit it big in America, even though they had the tunes, the swagger, and the talent to go further. But the music business is fickle, I suppose. 

In any case, the summer heat often makes me think of people sitting around campfires, pulling out their acoustic guitars and lightly strumming away. Which is probably why this beautiful acoustic track has always resonated with me, and why I’ve recently been going back to it. For a band that hasn’t had many hits, this would probably be considered a deep cut, but the light touch they gave it, the lilting melody sung by Crispian Mills against the slight drone of the guitars, and the vague echo of that old Beatles sound just works. So have a listen, and don’t get too overheated out there.

Gerry Goffin: 1939 - 2014

Sadly, news came in yesterday that songwriter Gerry Goffin passed away the other day. Goffin was, of course, famous putting the Goffin in “Goffin-King" partnership in the early-mid 1960s, along with then-wife Carole King. The duo had a slew of hits back then, pretty much helping to write the post-Elvis, pre-Beatles DNA of rock and pop music with hits like “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” “The Loco-Motion,” “One Fine Day," and countless others. Of course, the Beatles and many other British Invasion bands also covered Goffin-King songs on stage and on record, including "Keep Your Hands Off My Baby.” I was going to link to the Beatles playing this from their Live At the BBC disc, but the quality is a little dodgy. I love their take on it, though, so I’ve gone and probably committed sacrilege by posting this cover from a random Beatles cover band, who are faithful to the Fabs version (and the quality is a keeper). Besides, a good song is a good song is a good song, right? And what better way to pay tribute to Goffin than to enjoy his music…?