Saturday, October 3, 2009

November 2009

If the best day of the year musically is The Big Day Out, a close second has to be the first announcement of bands in late September. Months of rumour and web leaks are finally ended by the media release detailing the first tranche of bands that will grace the pre-eminent Australasian music festival in January. This year was no disappointment with perhaps the worlds best live band Muse selected to headline the show. They will be ably accompanied by the likes of Groove Armada, Dizzie Rascal and Kasabian. Even the prospect of once again having to endure another set by Powderfinger didn't dull this punter's sense of anticipation.

However, it was further down the list of bands that my attention often strays. A Big Day Out is a great opportunity to experience live performances by bands who often dont make it Downunder via their own concert tours. I was thus delighted to see little known The Decemberists make the show bill. It is to the organisers credit that they continually seek out the quality indie bands coming out of America and persuade them to come to New Zealand / Australia. The likes of acclaimed indie bands such as The Greenhornes, Wilco, Flaming Lips and My Morning Jacket have all graced our shores recently thanks to these diligent efforts.

So for those looking for something a little different at the Big Day Out, here is an introduction to some of the best work of The Decemberists. You have three months to fall in love with them; you will probably only need three minutes.

Album of the Month

The Decemberists : The Crane Wife

Can you be too nerdy for rock and roll? It seems great art in other disciplines is synonymous with stately acclaim. But rock and roll seems to delight in the low-brow whether its childish lyrics, antics or behaviour. Regrettably, rock artists are too often remembered for their wives than their witticisms.

The Decemberists dare to be different. This folk-rock band out of Portland, Oregon take immense pride and delight in delivering folk tales set to gentle indie rock soundtracks. It's stories set to music rather than words attached to a catchy tune. Rock writing at its best is indistinguishable from poetry. This is their fourth studio album, and perhaps their best. After three efforts on minor labels, The Crane Wife represented their first major label release, and they have lifted their game accordingly.

You need only listen to the first track of the album, The Crane Wife, to understand all you need to know about The Decemberists. It forms the opening gambit of the song cycle which permeates throughout the album. The story relates to the Crane Wife which is a Japanese folk tale about a poor man who takes in an crane with an injured wing. After tending to the crane, he sets it free only to shortly have a beautiful woman appear on his doorstep. He falls in love and marries the woman. To alleviate his poverty, she makes beautiful silk garments which she agrees to let him sell as long as he promises never to watch her make them. This he agrees to but temptation eventually gets the better of him. He sneaks a glance into her room one day only to discover a crane plucking feathers from her body to weave into wondrous garments. The crane sees him and flies away, never to return.

The album is thus not your standard rock and roll fare. Other songs explore themes such as the Siege of Stalingrand (When the War Came), the inhumanity of the IRA (Shankill Butchers) plus a musical reworking of Shakespeare's The Tempest in the three part mini-opera The Island. This is a band clearly not short of inspiration or ideas.

On previous albums, The Decemberists were firmly in the folk - folk/rock genre but they expand their reportoire a little on The Crane Wife. There are more guitars and some rock power chords, even perhaps hints of a dalliance with progressive rock in The Island. But ultimately its primarily a mellow listen almost camouflauging the serious intent and ideas of these talented wordsmiths.

Whether their understated charms will suit the Stadium Rock environment of the Big Day Out is certainly up for debate. Listening to the album again moved the Nevstar to wonder whether they would be better enjoyed by an audience of 14 people in a large living room than 45,000 at Mt Smart. But, given the right setting, a cleansing ale in one hand and a sun-drenched Auckland summers day, they just might fit perfectly into an afternoon slot as The Magic Numbers did a few years ago. Without quiet, there is no loud.

Listen to and purchase here :

Best Track : The Crane Wife

Try this if you like :

The Kinks : Arthur - Or The Decline And Fall Of The British Empire
The Beautiful South : Welcome to the Beautiful South

If you like this try :

Belle & Sebastian : Dear Catastrophe Waitress
Rilo Kiley : Under the Blacklight
The New Pornographers : Mass Romantic

Essential Classic Album

Suede : Suede (1993)

Music is the art of imitation. There are only so many instruments and only so many ways to play such instruments (not including a certain Mr Jimi Hendrix!). So, an original sound is pretty hard to come by. Except that is if your band's name is Suede. Suede's major achievement on their eponymous debut album was taking three guitars and making them sound fresh and innovative if not downright sexy.

The album is primarily notable for its sexuality but not in the traditional sense. Suede is sexual, bisexual and asexual all at the same time. From its flagrant androgynous cover art to the stinging opening chords of the baldy So Young, this album is replete with that 'sexual feeling'. It mirrored to a certain extent, the increasingly flamboyant and liberal arts flourishing in the United Kingdom at the time. By all rights, it shouldve been lead singer Brett Anderson on the cover of Vanity Fair and not Liam Gallagher. He belonged on the cover of FHM.

Regardless of the attitudes and studied air of nonchalance, the album has aged well in the main because its replete with fabulous songs. The dynamic Animal Nitrate follows the aforementioned So Young and its a cracker filled with raw emotion and fiery inquiry. What animal spirit lurks in the hearts of men when blood flows towards their little heads?

After some more reflective, sobering tracks through the middle, the album closes with a triumphant triple treat. There is the anthemic destruction of Metal Mickey preceding the hard driving guitar heroics of Animal Lover. Finally, we a treated to the musical equivalent of a wistful glance backward with a knowing smile in the piano-driven The Next Life. Following the rapid, rabid sexual exertions of the first half hour, The Next Life brings the romance to an end. Easily the most tender and affectionate track it subtly reminds us that touching a cheek is more erotic than groping a breast.

Suede famously played live at the Brit awards in 1993 after a campaign by the NME to include more relevant music rather than further appearances by rock dinosaurs such as Phil Collins and Annie Lennox. But the penguin suited music head honcho's didnt really 'get' the act. Once again the music establishment was out of touch with youthful consumers. It should have been easy; lest we forget, rock and roll has and always will be about sex.

Listen to or purchase Suede :

Best track : Animal Nitrate

If you like this try :

Suede : Dog Man Star
Roxy Music : Country Life
David Bowie : Diamond Dogs

Top Ten List

This months Top Ten list was the idea of a regular reader. The question, simply postulated, was what are the greatest rock instrumentals of all time. While much electronica music is without vocals, very few rock bands attempt to write music without vocal accompaniment. However, there were quite a few good ones to sort through. For this list, I have arbitrarily excluded movie and television themes which we have explored previously. So here are the Top Ten Rock Instrumentals of All Time.

10. Oasis : F*cking In the Bushes
While not a movie theme, this bruising instrumental track, is used to devasting effect in the climatic fight scene in Snatch. The first track off the album Standing On The Shoulder of Giants, its probably also the best track. Proof, if it were ever needed, that Oasis werent reliant on Liam's vocals to sustain your interest.

Watch the scene here.

Hat tip to Don.

9. Freddie King : Hideaway
There are three great 'Kings' of blues guitar. BB King, Albert King and the lesser known Freddie King. For those of you who havent heard of him, this is the place to start. A ground-breaking piece of music which came at the start of the electric guitar blues revolution. A massive hit at the time (as the video attests), it still sounds fantastic today.

Watch him play it live here.

8. Machine Gun : Commodores
What self-respecting instrumental list could possibly exclude this dynamic hit from The Commodores. Given its name by the punchy repetitive clarinet which sounded like gunfire to a music exec, Machine Gun became a mainstream funk hit crossing over into the pop charts on its release in 1974. Popular and likeable to this day.

And a fun fact about the song that only the web can provide. The song was a huge hit in Nigeria! It was actually played after the national anthem at the end of each days television broadcast.

Listen to it here.

7. Dick Dale & The Del Tones : Misirlou
This is unfortunately now more widely known and loved as the Pulp Fiction opening score but to exclude it on that basis seems churlish. It is the finest work of one of the greatest guitar innovators the world has ever seen, the King of Surf Guitar, Dick Dale. That it should be considered still edgy, intriguing and powerful enough to open a movie 30 years later is testament to its enduring legacy.

Listen to it here.

6. Booker T & The MG's : Green Onions
Booker T & The MG's had two personas. They made their living as the house band for Stax Records providing instrumentation for hits by such luminaries as Sam & Dave, Otis Redding, and Wilson Pickett. But they also recorded their own material including this from their most acclaimed album of the same name. Its a terrific track showcasing the dexterity and talent of Booker T on the organ, the impeccable timing and rhythm of Al Jackson on drums and the exemplary guitar section of Donald "Duck" Dunn and Steve "The Colonel" Cropper (of Blues Brothers fame).

Great footage of the band and song here.

5. Elton John : Funeral For A Friend
This possibly stretches the definition of an instrumental, but I have always loved the first part of Funeral For A Friend / Love Lies Bleeding. They are listed as two separate tracks on my CD version so thats good enough for me. Funeral For A Friend has an atmospheric opening which builds slowly, adding instruments while inexorably ramping up to a brilliant climatic moment in full symphonic traditions. Absolutely stunning live particularly as it usually opens a concert.

Watch it here.

4. The Shadows : Apache
Growing up, there was only one instrumental that anybody and everybody knew and that was Apache by The Shadows. The Shadows are possibly better known as Cliff Richard's backing band, but they were originally part of a deluge of instrumental guitar bands in the early 60s. Most faded away and virtually none of the songs left a lasting impression. Except this one. It has endured the test of time; a scintillating western themed instrumental track evoking images of desolate spaces and wagon trains, John Wayne and Rio Bravo.

Watch it here.

3. Fleetwood Mac : Albatross
From the original incarnation of Fleetwood Mac when they were an Elmore James inspired blues band. I think I was about eight years old when I was first introduced to this track by my music teacher at the time (the dearly departed Mrs Godfrey). She asked the class to listen to it and imagine we were a bird floating on wind currents soaring above the ocean. I loved it the first time I heard it and Im still listening to it 30 years later.

Watch video here.

2. Van Halen : Eruption
If you are a rock guitar fan, this should need no introduction. Eddie Van Halen's mesmerising guitar solo warranted inclusion in its own right on Van Halen's eponymous debut album. Some guitar playing just defies belief. I could practice 18 hours a day for the rest of my life and never get close to being able to play this. Sublime finger picking skills, particularly the revolutionary (at the time) fretboard tapping. Ever the perfectionist, Eddie claims that he made a mistake in the studio version "at the top end" and to this day thinks he couldve played it better. You be the judge.

Listen to the studio version first here. But then watch a live performance (here), and if you are anything like me, you will be applauding by the end.

- and the number one instrumental of all time is.......

1. Link Wray & His Ray Men : Rumble
I think you could safely bet that 1 person in 100 knows this instrumental by looking at the title and artist. But 99% will recognise on hearing it. Its the brilliant piece of music chosen by Quentin Tarantino to accompany his famous Jack Rabbit Slims scene in Pulp Fiction. Link Wray was a guitar god who revolutionised the sound of the electric guitar virtually inventing the rock guitar staple known as the "power chord". He has been cited as an influence by no less a troupe as Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix, Duff McKagan, Marc Bolan and Neil Young. Peter Townsend went further saying that if it wasnt for Link Wray, he never would have picked up a guitar! After losing a lung to tuberculosis, Link Wray concentrated on instrumentals with this one becoming the most powerful, enduring and famous. Wikipedia reports that the song was banned on the radio for a time because it incited juvenile deliquency. Not bad for a piece of music with no lyrics!

See here for incendiary live performance.

Others considered for the Top Ten include :

Led Zeppelin : Moby Dick - here
Jimi Hendrix : Star Spangled Banner
Edgar Winter Group : Frankenstein
Mike Oldfield : Tubular Bells
Metallica : Orion
Jeff Beck : Bolero - here

Thats all for another month. But, 'Before we go' (as Kermit used to say), I thought I would invite submissions for NEXT months top ten. As we draw to the end of 2009, it becomes relevant to ask what were the Top Albums of the year? In the December issue I will outline my top ten albums for the year that was. Any suggestions dear readers? Leave me a comment or send me an email. Would love to hear your thoughts on the best albums this year.

Thats all for now.