Points for creativity

Okay kids, today we’re going to stray a bit from our beaten path–a bit of off-roading, if you will. Now usually I talk about things that I like on this blog. This is pretty much my whole purpose in writing and posting here, to share with you what I am listening to now, what I listened to back then, and what associations I make between my music and my memories. I may make a few critical remarks every now and then about a song or an artist, and sometimes a song is associated with a bad memory, but for the most part you get to read about what I enjoy. But not today, my dear readers.

No. Today I’m going to talk about a band that I am (rather surprisingly) very interested in at the moment. But I’m also going to talk about their latest single, which (spoiler!) essentially creeps me the frack out! The band is Seattle’s indie folk band Fleet Foxes and the song is The Shrine/An Argument, which is the first single from their second and latest studio album, Helplessness Blues–incidentally nominated for the Best Folk Album Grammy award this year. And I’ll come right out now and say it, the Grammy nomination was definitely well deserved. The band features a mainly acoustic instrumentation of drums, mandolins, guitars, bass, and the mysteriously titled “multi-instrumentalist”. And they apply a heavy hand in the use of layered, harmonizing vocals that inevitably put me in mind of 1970s era folk rocks bands like Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, America, and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. The only modern-day equivalents that I am aware of are The Civil Wars (who beat them to the Grammy) and perhaps Mumford & Sons, who may come off as a bit more rocking but employ the same emphasis on vocal harmony. I’ve been a fan of CSNY and America for years, and I’d probably rank Mumford & Sons’ Sigh No More as one of my top 10 albums of 2011. So you would think that Fleet Foxes would land smack dab in the middle of my bailiwick, right? Well… as I am coming to find out, Fleet Foxes is not here to make things easy on you.

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A taste of home

Heard this today and a little part of me abruptly flew away home and watched the desert sunset paint the sky gold. I miss the desert passionately and no matter how long I am away from home, I still pine for it. Mountains and purple skies and bright starry nights haunt my dreams and honestly always will. It is nice to know that I am not the only one who feels this way.

Little Fluffy Clouds by The Orb

Sorry to get so sappy and poetic on you all the sudden here folks. But I promise I’ll make it up to you with something thought-provoking and scathingly critical tomorrow or Friday.

No Stairway? Denied?!

Well, not anymore! Led Zeppelin fans rejoice for there is hope shining like a candle at the end of a very, very long tunnel. Now you ask how this could be? John Bonham and John Paul Jones have been residing in the hallowed halls of Rock ‘n’ Roll Valhalla for decades now. And Jimmy Page and Robert Plant dashed the hopes of fans everywhere when they abandoned their last collaboration in 2009 and since have been focusing on solo projects that often stray far from their rocking roots. So how can a devoted Led Zep fan aspire for something more? Has hell frozen over? Have the laws of time and space been irrevocably altered? (Cue Peter Venkman!) Hardly! But Led Zep fans from back in the day may not believe their ears when they hear this little track.

What song could possibly have gotten my classic rock-obsessed mind into such a tizzy? Well my friends, I am referring to the surprisingly epic song entitled Little Black Submarines. What’s that you say, you can’t place it? Well, I can assure you that you will not find it on any Led Zeppelin bootleg recording and it has not been languishing on a shelf somewhere deep within the BBC vaults for the past 30 years. No, this song is from a little American rhythm and blues revivalist duo known as The Black Keys. Now you might be confused as to how anyone could manage to get these two bands mixed-up. Sure they do share some of the same blues and folk influences and they both employ masterful instrumentality, finely honed lyrics, and a production standard that screams quality. Yet there is some distance between the two of them, from their subject matter to their style, as well as their stage presence . But if an old devotee happened to push play on this track unwittingly, they’d swear it was everybody’s favorite blues rock Brits circa 1971. Don’t believe me? Well, first let’s start with a refresher for those of you lacking in your music education.

Now I don’t know if Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney consciously set out to make their Stairway to Heaven, but this is essentially what they have accomplished with Little Black Submarines. The words of the tragic singer who asks to be reconnected with his (lost?) lover border on the fantastical and the complicated circular style in which the lyrics are delivered belies their simplicity. Sure, they may lack the Tolkien-esque mysticism of Led Zep’s best known track, but they do come pretty darn close. And the stark contrast created between Auerbach’s soft-voiced intro–accompanied only by acoustic guitar–and the grandeur of the full-force percussion and roaring riffs of the climax easily matches the majestic transformation that takes Stairway from a whisper to a howl over the course of its 8 minute length. The only thing missing is Plant’s unmistakable wail at the finale, although this is somewhat alleviated by the addition of three female back-up singers. But unlike Stairway, Submarines benefits from the missing weight of Led Zep’s formidable pedigree and at the much more manageable length of just over 4 minutes, the song has the ability to become more accessible to a general audience. And the best part is that The Black Keys pay such beautiful tribute to these gods of rock without losing their own identity in the process. At no time does the song feel forced or overblown.

In the end Little Black Submarines stands as a beautiful song, a fitting tribute, and something that fans of Led Zeppelin can fearlessly play in guitar stores everywhere.

Better make it strong

Sometime in the late 90’s or early 2000’s, I became seriously jaded with the current rock and alternative scene. The radio stations were filled with testosterone-fueled rap-rock and quasi-metal from artists like Rage Against the Machine and P.O.D. or over-sexualized (and often scantily-dressed) pop stars like Britney Spears and Jennifer Lopez. What was a chubby, geeky girl with rocking aspirations to do? Well, in this case she turned to the classic rock of groups like Rush, Led Zeppelin, and Lynyrd Skynyrd, with some Joan Jett, Pat Benetar, and The Pretenders thrown in for good measure. It took me some time to figure out what was wrong, but what I was really craving in those days was some strong female role models who could run with the big boys of rock and punk. Not that the musical terrain of classic rock was littered with such women, but it filled the void in ways that the mainstream music industry of the day wasn’t even interested in acknowledging, let alone addressing. But much to the joy of my music-obsessed heart, things have changed for the better. The Internet and the Long Tail Effect have irrevocably leveled the playing field for both better and for worse. And I for one am reveling in the myriad of choices parading through my headphones.
In my constant quest to make up for lost time, I have had another eureka moment. This time it is Dum Dum Girl’s sophomore offering, Only in Dreams, which would undoubtedly have done my poor seventeen-year-old heart good. What started as the solo project of Grand Ole Party’s drummer/singer Kristen Gundred, who goes by the stage name Dee Dee, has blossomed into an amazing 1960′ style California pop girl band with a real rocking edge. Seemingly part of a wider 60’s inspired West Coast wave, including the likes of Best Coast and Fitz and the Tantrums, Dum Dum Girls presents a highly polished sound featuring amazing production values, sophisticated lyrics, and an underlying resonance that recalls that old Wall of Sound thing Phil Spector seemed to like so much. But while their sound and Dee Dee’s velvety voice are unmistakably influenced by some of the greats, among them The Ronettes, Patti Smith, and Siouxsie and the Banshees, there is so much more here. There are the layered vocal harmonies of 80’s New Wavers like The Bangles and the playfulness of The Go-Gos. There are the psychedelic leanings of California’s Paisley Underground movement and the echoing guitars of Mazzy Star. And there are the rich vocals of singers of substance like Neko Case, Kate Bush, and Debbie Harry.
But most importantly, there is a verve and a cohesion that make this album incredibly hard to turn off. The subject matter mainly explores the crippling loneliness that results from long-distance relationships and lost lovers. But even in the most melancholy songs the jangling guitars, simple beats, and exuberant bass–along with the strategic use of oohs, aahs, and whoa-oh-ohs–all work to keep the overall atmosphere from dragging the listener down. And Dee Dee’s lyrics display a striking inner-strength and backbone that is flat-out admirable.
The first single off the album is the ultra melodic Bedroom Eyes. I literally snapped to attention the very first time I heard it. I automatically loved it and was singing along with the chorus before the song even ended. I had such a strong reaction that when I finally had the chance to buy the album, I balked. I suddenly found myself walking up and down the record store aisles with it in my hand, putting it back, picking it up again, and wavering so much about whether I should buy it that I finally decided that this was my sign. Maybe I was afraid the rest of the album wouldn’t stand up to the single? Maybe the shadowy double-exposed album cover creeped me out? I don’t know, but either way I am now eternally grateful that I put that money down on the counter. The video can literally be summed up in three words: multicolored plastic sex. Throughout it the band members sport super short skirts, blank expressions, and stylized make-up that walks the line between the uncanny valley and the rest of reality. And there is a unique twist on the traditional stage performance video with the bright and slightly unsettling kaleidoscope effect.
Taking a left turn from the feminine despair of Bedroom Eyes is the feminist declaration of Just a creep, which puts the riot grrrl attitude front and center. Yet another song worthy of my ever-expanding list of cheerful fuck-off songs, this song positively screams to me of Nancy Sinatra and her iconic 1966 hit These Boots Were Made For Walking. Who takes shit from overbearing boys? Not this chick!
With 80’s New Wave harmonies in the chorus, an almost alternative country cadence in the verses, and a non-stop beat throughout, Heartbeat is a buoyant call for serenity in a life that is no longer fully under the singer’s control. She’s been used and abused and is now walking along the precipice between moving on and giving up. The choice has yet to be made, but the tension hangs in the air like a thunderstorm waiting to break.
And the piece de resistance is the unexpected masterpiece that is Coming Down. The most melancholy song of the album by far, it is slow, measured, soul-crushing, and so painfully beautiful that you can’t help but listen with respect. The connection to Mazzy Star’s epic Fade Into You can not be denied, but while it rightly pays homage to that song, it also breaks its own path through the musical landscape. The climax in particular is truly something to behold and in this live version recorded for Sirius XMU, you get a taste of how talented this band really is. If you don’t listen to anything else from this band, you must listen to this! Trust me.
I may have had my doubts, but this album strode right up to the impossibly high bar I set for it and stepped over it like it wasn’t even there. I am smitten and look forward to hearing more good things from the Dum Dum Girls in the future.