Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Why Smashing Pumpkins Matter: Looking Back at Siamese Dream 15 Years Later

Fifteen years ago from this week, when “grunge” music was skyrocketing in popularity (even though it was already in decline as an art form), Smashing Pumpkins released Siamese Dream; their follow-up to their successful debut Gish. They were lumped in with the other huge grunge bands of the era, but you didn’t have to listen to them for more than a minute to realize they didn’t belong in that category. More than any other album, Siamese Dream bridged the gap between my 14-year-old self and the music I now find so exceedingly important. This was the first album that taught me that exploring new music, unlike my then floundering baseball card collection, was going to be a life-long endeavor. I have no idea if history and people will forget this band or album. I just know that they shouldn’t.

Siamese Dream was a big deal to me back in 1993. For awhile I played it every day after school. I sent a letter requesting the lyrics from the album. They soon came in the mail and were studied intensely (my original lyrical interpretation of “Geek U.S.A.” was way off). “Consume my love, devour my hate/Only powers my escape” might sound slightly sheepish now but when you’re in high school it constitutes locker material. I seem to remember that also included with the lyrics was a note stating that lyrics for Gish were not available because only “…Billy knew them for sure.” Riiiiiight.

Such outlandish and sometimes pretentious foolery would soon become the norm in the world of Billy Corgan, Jimmy Chamberlin, James Iha, and D’arcy Wretzky. However, not once did I let that impact my affections for Siamese Dream or Smashing Pumpkins. In fact, if anything, I was always fiercely loyal and defensive about the band. And I probably still am in a way. But along the way, those loyalties were tested as the band spoon-fed fodder to plenty of haters eager to tear them down, expose them, or simply cast them aside as ultimately insignificant to the musical landscape.

These were the normal knocks against the band at the time: They were interlopers on the Chicago scene. They hadn’t paid their dues. Joe Shanahan (owner of the Metro) merely propped them up for success. And Billy was a whiner. All of this may be true. And all of this I couldn’t give the slightest damn about. Not then, not now. And by “then” I speak of a time before the Internet, before Pitchfork Media, and before satellite radio. Today, someone who lives in Missoula, Montana, has nearly as much access to the independent music scene as someone living in New York City. It wasn’t like that in 1993. Growing up in Central Illinois, bands like Guided by Voices and Pavement meant nothing to me. They weren’t on the radio, weren’t being written about in Rolling Stone, and they didn’t have videos on MTV (Pavement did actually have videos. I remember those hoodlums Beavis and Butthead taking in “Cut Your Hair.” But they were very sparce. Same goes for Guided by Voices, if they actually had any videos.) Those bands mean something to me now, but I’ll never have a connection with them like I might have if I could actually remember what I was doing when Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain was released. And that’s what some people who never lived outside the bubble of a huge city with a thriving underground music scene will ever understand. There was once a segment of the population who needed good music to be accessible if they ever wanted to hear it. And this is where the Pumpkins came in.

Simply stated, Smashing Pumpkins made good music and it wasn’t hard to find. They were on the radio and you could purchase their albums at Wal-Mart. (Although if I recall, the Wal-Mart version of Siamese Dream doesn’t have the tracklist on the back sleeve because of song 11 “Silverfuck.” Warrants mentioning.) With multiple layered guitars, they thumbed their noses (whether intentionally or not) at lo-fi and proved that good music and mass appeal don’t have to be mutually exclusive. They not only made music videos, but they made awesome music videos. Their videos were like movies, rather than just some footage of a band playing in their attic. Billy gave countless interviews and was labeled a “rock star,” all the while embracing the designation. I know it’s not kosher, but I liked this. I liked that my favorite band was (gulp) popular and that I didn’t have to drive out of town to some record store to dig through a cardboard box of used CD’s to find their LP’s. Or subscribe to some unknown fanzine that was published in some dork’s mom’s basement just to read a blurb about my favorite band. But most importantly, the music and songs on Siamese Dream could stand alone from all the other bullshit. It was just too good, which is why criticism of the band usually had to fall back on the manufactured turmoil. It rarely involved the music. At least, it didn’t early on.

Then, the band committed the ultimate sin and continued to make music. Had they stopped right there, All Tomorrow’s Parties would have booked them by now to play Siamese Dream in its entirety, while the same fans that now like to hurl insults their way would emerge in droves and speak loudly about how unfortunate it is that Smashing Pumpkins only had a shelf life of two albums.

Of course, that nearly happened. Even most casual fans know the back stories behind the recording of the album and the tension and turmoil that surrounded the band at the time. In a nutshell (and what reads like it comes almost directly from the rock and roll cliché handbook), Billy was dealing with depression that led to a nervous breakdown, Jimmy was battling heroin addiction and was often times missing and unaccounted for, Billy and co-producer Butch Vig would spend an entire day trying to get a ten second hook exactly right, James and D’arcy were increasingly feeling alienated from the band, and the (persistent) rumor had it that Billy eventually lost patience with those two and relieved them of their duties and played their parts during the recording session—while in turn forever branding himself with the “control freak” label. That’s enough crap for a band to endure for a lifetime, let along one recording session. As for the rumor that Billy played James and D’arcy’s parts on the album, I’m pretty convinced from what I’ve read that that actually happened. Maybe not to the extent that it has been reported, but something along those lines definitely occurred and I think I’ve even read somewhere that D’arcy said as much.

In one of the greatest ironies of the 120 Minutes generation, the same people that reveled in keeping this rumor afloat to denigrate the makeup of the band are the same ones now faking outrage that Smashing Pumpkins have recently made an album and toured without the services of James and D’arcy. Listen, I love James and D’arcy. To me, they will always be a part of the band. I wish they were still in the band. And I hate that they have resorted to suing. But for the sake of rationality, let’s all at least be honest. This has always been Billy and Jimmy’s show (with an exception of the Adore album, but that’s for another day). As stated, I wish there hadn’t been a nasty divorce but everyone needs to quit making more out of the situation than what is there. Let’s just say it’s not exactly Rush making an album without Neil Peart. Anytime I've read an article on Pitchfork concerning the band they seem to whine about James and Darcy's absence. I guess it’s really breaking Ryan Schreiber’s balls that he doesn’t get to see Smashing Pumpkins in concert and bask in the glow of D’arcy screwing up her basslines.

All that aside, this is supposed to be a celebration of the album. And now that I have thrown the defensive gauntlet down, let’s get down to business. Although I now listen to it sparingly at best, ask me in ten years and Siamese Dream will still be on my desert island top five. So, to celebrate this dubious momentous occasion, I thought I’d give the album another spin and track my thoughts song by song. Here we go:

Cherub Rock Drum roll, please. Hey, thanks Jimmy. Right on cue is Billy with the guitar lead in, followed again by Billy, ahem, I mean D’arcy on bass and at the 0:21 mark the trademark heavy layered guitars that define the album bust through, and we’re off with the first track and first single from the album. Wow, I have to say, it really is just like old times…I feel like I’m 5’1 and 85 lbs. all over again. With an exception of a few opening lyrics and later when Billy howls “Tell me all of your secrets…” I was completely lyrically lost until the sent-away-for lyrics arrived. But this song is a call to arms against the snobbish and exclusive indie scene at the time. Count me in. And I’m going to stop typing in a second because there is a face-melting guitar solo coming up and I don’t want to miss it. Hold up…here it comes…(guitar solo)………..yes! Soon after the album was released the band was on Saturday Night Live and played this song (along with “Today”). Immediately after seeing it, I recall thinking: I have a new favorite band.

Quiet With guitars coming at me in every direction this song literally picks up right where the last one left off. And in all my times seeing the band, I’m not sure I ever heard them play this song live. I could be wrong, though. As for the lyrics, again, who the hell knows. I wish I knew what I did with that lyric sheet. And I wonder if PO Box 578010, Chicago, IL 60657 is still a valid address, maybe I can send away for them again. Wait, what’s this? Another ridiculous guitar solo? Another one?! Alright, if you say so. I’m a fan of every track on this album but this tune was always in the lower tier. There was something about Billy’s echoing vocals at the end that always kind of bothered me. And I thought it never deviated away from “Cherub Rock” enough. I’ll still take it over any song on Wowee Zowee though. Yeah, I said it. (Thousands of heads in Wicker Park just exploded.)

Today This song is instantly recognizable by the opening plucking guitar riff. And most people remember the video, after which, two things forever changed:

1. Smashing Pumpkins were officially huge alternative rock stars.
2. No one would ever look at James Iha the same way again.

Once Billy starts singing about today being the greatest day he’s ever known, the song seems to have such an upbeat feel, despite slightly perverse lyrics written at a time when Billy was supposedly contemplating suicide. Thankfully, that never happened. Those seven of you who can’t live without The Future Embrace record can now breathe a sigh of relief. (For full disclosure purposes, and being ever the loyalist, that album is currently sitting on my CD shelf somewhere.) “I tried so hard/to cleanse these regrets.” I always loved those lyrics back in the day; it was as if he was trying to convince himself that whatever he had done wrong was in the past, but for whatever reason his mind just wouldn’t let go of it. He really is an outstanding songwriter. Towards the end is a brief jam out session that serves as a reminder that Jimmy hasn’t quit pounding away on the snare since this album began. He’s the best.

Hummer This song is one of the deep cuts that gives the record its alternative muscle. And it’s also the first time on Siamese Dream that the Pumpkins reveal their frail and gentle side. “Hummer” is also an early example of a “sneaky-long” Smashing Pumpkins song. A “sneaky-long” Pumpkins song is one in which you really enjoy but before you know it the song is over. Then you look at your watch and realize that said song took nearly 9 minutes, or something. (“Thru the Eyes of Ruby” from Mellon Collie and “Rhinoceros” from Gish are other examples of this.) The lyrics are also somewhat discernible and I always thought this was one of the better written Pumpkin songs, both lyrically and musically. “When I woke up from that sleep/I was happier than I’ve ever been” and “Yeah, I want something new/But what am I supposed to do about, about you.” sound much more melodic than they read. Trust me. The song then winds down in tempo before kicking back up again as Billy sings out “Life’s a bummer/when you’re a hummer”. Whatever that means. Hey, no one’s perfect all the time. But now the song really does wind down with a simple bass chord and Billy singing “Ask yourself a question, anyone but me/I ain’t free”. I saw them play this song back in October and they absolutely nailed it.

Rocket The last, and least celebrated single from the album. I love the guitar lead in on this song, love the simple 70s rock guitar solo in the middle, and I love the lyrics. “Bleed in your own light/Dream of your own life”…you show me someone who didn’t have that written on their physics folder and I’ll show you someone who never got their ass kicked in high school. You know what else I loved about this song? The video. Remember that one? The one with the kids building the rocket to fly into space while the parents just casually ignored them while eating their lunch? Yeah, that one. I loved that video and kind of always wished the band had kept going in that playful direction. Somewhere along the way I think they kind of lost their sense of humor.

Disarm If “Today” turned Smashing Pumpkins into huge alternative rock stars, then “Disarm” turned them into a band that had mass appeal. I noticed in its aftermath, any time a band added strings to a song it was often remarked that such-and-such person was reaching into his “inner Corgan”. I’m pretty sure this song wasn’t the first of its era to include a string arrangement but it might have had a bigger influence than any of the others. Funny thing, this song doesn’t even sound like it belongs on the album, but in a way it absolutely does. Siamese Dream would have been incomplete without it. And I always had this album on CD, so I have no idea how the tracks worked on a tape, but in my mind I always cut up Siamese Dream into three pieces:

1. the songs before “Disarm”
2. “Disarm”
3. the songs after “Disarm.”

It kind of felt that way didn’t it? As I believe the story goes, the band had the toughest time laying down this track in the studio. The song was supposed to sound like more of a conventional rock song, as they often play it live, but for whatever reason they couldn’t get it to sound as they wanted. Frustrated, Billy eventually just picked up an acoustic guitar and went into the other room and started playing. Vig liked what he had heard, had some other ideas, and the version that eventually appeared on the album was born. The song is going to end in about 20 seconds, but real quick, how come Corgan and Vig never work together again? They were a great team. Can anyone provide a decent answer to this?

Soma This has always been my least favorite track on the album, but some people absolutely adore it. The beginning is too soft. I can barely hear Billy singing. And what I can hear is almost too depressing, even for Smashing Pumpkins’ standards. I missed two minutes in the middle because I ran to the bathroom. (This album is over an hour long.) I got back just as the guitars picked up. I think I’ve read somewhere that they used an ungodly amount of layered guitars for this track. Something like 43. Or maybe 433. One of those. Whatever the case, still a pretty decent guitar solo towards the end of the track that continues while Billy sings directly over it “So let the sadness come again…” and eventually culminates back into a soft ballad and fades out. The good news is we are more than half way done. I'm slightly relieved. Listening to an album and trying to type as it goes along is not as much fun as I thought it would be.

Geek U.S.A. This song starts off with some drumming from Jimmy, which is appropriate because nowhere are his skills on finer display than this track. I’ve always told people if you don’t like Smashing Pumpkins after listening to “Geek U.S.A.” a couple times then they’re just not for you, which is completely fine, they’re not for everybody. But they’re for me, even if for the longest time I thought Billy was speaking an entirely different language while singing this song. Here’s my favorite part of the song: “The disappointed disappear/Like they were never hear” (I understood that), cut to a slowdown a la the end of “Hummer” and Billy singing “In a dream/We are connected/Siamese twins/At the wrist” and then cut right back to loud and heavy again. After more incomprehensible lyrics, Jimmy and the guitar solos are turned loose and it sounds like you’re being pummeled with drums from every angle. I love it. I’m not going to type anymore because I just want to listen to the last 45 seconds without this stupid idea of a column ruining it.

Mayonaise Another incredible track. And that red squiggly line just appeared under the word “Mayonaise.” Apparently it’s correctly spelled with two “n’s.” Did you know that? I didn’t. “Fool enough to almost be it/Cool enough to not quite see it. Doomed.” I have no idea what this means. But I have no idea what any of the lines from “The Raven” mean either so who am I to judge. I just know this song is fantastic and I was always surprised that it was never a single. It’s probably the most listenable deep cut on the album and has a pace that I think encompasses Smashing Pumpkins’ sound more than any song in their discography. As I listen to it for well over the 100th time, I'm still somewhat amazed by the subtle soothing aura this song has.

Spaceboy We’re back to an acoustic guitar leading into a spacey buildup right at the chorus. I believe “Spaceboy” was written for Billy’s brother with a physical disability, although it’s not entirely clear. None of their lyrics were entirely clear in their early life, and I mean that in the most endearing way possible. If I can't convince the same person from earlier who didn't like "Geek U.S.A." to like the Pumpkins after listening to this song then there is simply no hope for him/her. I've always felt this song was a good example of the band's alter ego from "Geek U.S.A." type tracks. I don’t have much else to say about this song. There’s some incoherent muttering after it ends but I don’t quite remember what is being said. Good song, though.

Silverfuck Track 11 and the last rocker on the album. My iTunes tells me this track has a length of 8:43, but is by no means sneaky-long. It's just long. “I hear what you want/And I feel no pain” is the common theme. Jimmy nearly rivals his drumming display from “Geek U.S.A.” at different spots. At around the 3:00 mark the song comes to an almost eerie silence; eerie because it immediately follows a rather loud and hyper rock crescendo. Whenever they would play this song live, James would always get out some toy ray gun and shoot it into the speaker for a pretty cool psychedelic feel. Billy is now singing “Bang bang you’re dead/Hole in your head”, which isn’t exactly setting the lyrical bar very high but it serves as a pretty good setup for the encore of screaming vocals, ritalin-fueled drumming, and three or four more than necessary ending guitar chords. It’s grandiose, beautiful, and obnoxious all at the same time. And I think that kind of sums up the Pumpkins. After the song, if you listen closely you can hear Billy say in reference to a mistake that was made, “I don’t give a fuck.” For once.

Sweet Sweet Ahh, “Sweet Sweet.” Short, beautiful, and sweet with perfect brevity. Unlike this column. I’d apologize if I thought anyone was still reading.

Luna Luna is the Latin name of the Earth’s moon as well as the name of the Roman goddess. I think at one point Smashing Pumpkin fans resorted to calling themselves “Moon Kids.” I did not. Even I have standards. “Luna” is also the last track on this nearly perfect 90s alternative album. For an album that was so monumental and crafted with such loud and stylized guitars, I always thought it was interesting that they decided to sign off Siamese Dream with this track. It was a good decision. The song is gentle and focuses on the simple theme of “love” which we would see the band tackle a few more times in the years that followed. Perhaps they were signaling things to come. Or perhaps they just wanted fans to yearn for earlier stuff like “Cherub Rock” in hopes that they would listen to the entire album again from the beginning. I know I did that several times. Whatever the reason was, it was a good one.

Sixty-two plus minutes have passed with a strange "this is your life" feel. That was a bigger endeavor than I realized and if given the choice, I probably would not do it again. But for an album that has given me so much joy these past 15 years, particularly the years of my youth, I owe it that much. And I think I realized that I don’t really care if this band or album is left out whenever that particular history book is written. Everyone has their own personal version of past rock history. And I know my present and future musical identity is much brighter because of this album and because of this band.


Sunday, July 27, 2008

Interview: Sofia Talvik

For those of you that aren't burned out on live music following the Pitchfork Festival, you're in luck because it's Lollapalooza week. Swedish singer/songwriter Sofia Talvik will be playing at the Citi Stage on Friday at 12:00pm. Her third album Jonestown is set to be released at the end of August and she answered a few questions for us via email.

NQL: First off, congratulations landing a set at Lollapalooza. Have you ever performed for a crowd of such potential size?

Sofia Talvik: Well, thank you. No, I’m actually more used to smaller, more intimate settings. It’s going to be awesome to play at a festival of this size.

NQL: The day before your gig at Lollapalooza you’re playing at the Swedish American Museum. In all the time I have spent in Chicago, I had no idea this place was even in existence. Hopefully, I’ll be able to make a trip over there soon, but in the meantime, what can you tell me about Sweden that you would want those unfamiliar to know.

ST: Sweden is a small country about the size of California, in the heart of Scandinavia. We have a beautiful archipelago in the south and spectacular mountains in the north. We only have about two months of summer, usually not as sunny as one would hope it to be, but Swede’s love the sun and we don’t have any polar bears running around on the streets or anything like that. ;-)

NQL: Anyone else in particular you’re looking forward to seeing at Lollapalooza?

ST: Radiohead and Duffy. I’ll probably not have a hard time filling up my schedule with shows I don’t want to miss.

NQL: Can you describe how your early years in Stockholm shaped your songwriting?

ST: I think it was my early years, rather than my early years in Stockholm if you know what I mean. Like when you’re young you have all sorts of crazy thoughts going on, and you go to a lot of parties and meet new people all the time. Lots to get inspiration from so to say…

NQL: How did you approach the songwriting and recording for Jonestown as compared to Blue Moon and Street of Dreams?

ST: All my albums have been completely different processes. My first was special because it was my first. We recorded most of it live, and all of it in one week. My second was different because I released it on my own label and now my third has really been an experience as it’s the first one I worked with a producer on. I think you learn stuff from all ways of work, and working with a producer this time was a good learning experience as well as a good thing for my sound.

NQL: “Burning Fields” is one of my favorite tracks on Jonestown. It’s such a beautiful song with pretty personal lyrics. And me being the rude and nosy person that I am, can I ask about the back story to that song? What, or who, was the inspiration?

ST: Aaaah, I never kiss and tell. I think the songs lose their meanings if I force my own interpretations on my listeners. If you like a song it’s probably because you identify with it, so why should I wreck it with my personal experiences?

NQL: Sounds fair to me. On your debut album Blue Moon you pretty much oversaw the entire production of the album. As you set to release Jonestown and other music in the future, do you find yourself reluctant to give up production control to others?

ST: I do. I’m sort of a control freak. I guess that’s why I produced my two first albums and have my own label. I’m very ambitious with my music, probably more than anyone else could be. But that doesn’t mean I never need help, I just happen to like to be in charge, haha. I would never fully give up control over my music, but I’m open to suggestions.

NQL: Can you explain the naming of the Jonestown and the title track that ends the album?

ST: Well I guess this is where I contradict myself and wreck the song for you… Actually the song "Jonestown" was named after the cult People’s Temple and their utopian town Jonestown in Guyana. 930 people died there in 1978 when the pastor Jim Jones forced them to commit suicide. The song is sort of an invitation for people to consider their own actions and not hand their lives over in someone else’s hands.

NQL: How was working with Tobias Fröberg? Did you get a sense whether or not he minded sharing a first name with this guy?

ST: I actually called him up right now and asked him. He said that the name Tobias means “God is good” and that’s all he cares about. I enjoyed working with Tobias although it was hard to compromise sometimes when you’re used to deciding everything on your own. I think he did an awesome job and that his own albums are really good as well.

NQL: Also, what was it like working with Bernard Butler [guitarist for Suede] on the single “It’s Just Love” from your last album? I read that you contacted him via MySpace. Could you describe how integral the internet has been in not only distributing your music but also allowing access to other musicians for collaborations?

ST: I think the internet is crucial to spread music. Like I wouldn’t be here answering these questions today if it weren’t for the internet and I’ve done several collaborations over the internet, for example we released a remixed version of my second album Street of Dreams (which is available for free on my website), with artists from all over the world making remixes of the songs. Working with Bernard was a treat as he’s such a talented singer. I hope to be able to work with him again someday, though we never met during the process.

NQL: Any collaboration in the near future we all should know about? And is there anyone you would especially like to work with?

ST: There are tons of people I’d like to work with. Jon Brion for example. He’s a very talented producer. I don’t have any other surprises, but I am doing sort of a collaboration thing on myspace at the moment. We’re releasing web cam videos of me performing the songs from Jonestown together with other Swedish artists during the summer. That’s really something everyone should check out.

NQL: Sofia, thank you very much for your time. I really love the new album. Enjoy Chicago!

ST: Thanks for having me. I look forward to seeing Chicago!


Friday, July 25, 2008

2008 Pitchfork Festival--Union Park, Chicago, Illinois (Sunday)

By the last day of a music festival, it’s hard enough to drag oneself out of bed at a decent hour, let alone to arrive for the very first band of the day. Plus, when a no-namer like Mahjongg and a grating, lo-fi monstrosity like Times New Viking are your early morning options, it’s best to stay in bed for an extra hour. This was the very reason that I chose to arrive at Union Park a little before 2 p.m. on Sunday for the last day of Pitchfork Music Festival.

Hoping to secure a good spot for Los Angeles noise-rockers, HEALTH, and their 2:20 slot, I walked over to the Balance stage. Instead of seeing the stage being set-up for HEALTH, I got there just in time to see High Places start their set, which was originally slated to begin at 1:25. Confused, I overheard from someone next to me that the church on the other side of the fence from the stage had pushed every band back thirty minutes because Pitchfork had to wait until the service was over to start. Damnit. I decided to stay and watch High Places for a little bit, even though I’d never listened to them before. BIG MISTAKE. Between the barely-there vocals and bland, boppy keys and tropical rhythms, I was half-asleep by the time they were onto their second song.

Thankfully, Japanese metal titans, Boris, had been playing on the Connector stage since 2 p.m., so I made my way over to the main part of the park to watch them instead. A huge gong and a see-through pink drum kit was all I needed to see to confirm my belief that Boris would be much more entertaining live than High Places. I watched a few songs from behind the sound-board, chatted with some friends, and scored some free Ice Cream Man treats from said friends that had VIP area access. Sweet deal, literally.

One ice cream sandwich later, I wandered back over to the Balance stage to see if HEALTH were ready to play. They were, and within minutes, their squalls of guitar feedback and screaming vocals were attacking the crowd of hundreds gathered around the stage. Sticking to songs from their self-titled debut album, they worked the crowd into a frenzy, with fist-pumps and head-banging winning out over the hot-as-hell early afternoon sun.

HEALTH playing at the Balance Stage.

With HEALTH’s noise fading into the background, it was now time to get a spot for the band I’d been waiting all weekend to see: Les Savy Fav. Back over at the Connector stage, a small group of fans had gathered, craning their necks for any possible Tim Harrington sightings. Elephant 6 indie-pop favorites, Apples In Stereo, were already playing on the Aluminum stage nearby, so I watched them while waiting ten feet from the barricade for Les Savy Fav’s 4 p.m. set.

Tim Harrington, before the stripping and the mud.

Right on time, my hero and yours, Tim Harrington, strode onto stage with his band-mates. It only took about thirty seconds into their first song for the stripping to begin. Harrington’s original bright-yellow jumpsuit was soon reduced to shiny red leggings that hugged him in all the wrong places, and an oversized tie-dyed t-shirt. Wardrobe changes and stripping weren’t about to slow Harrington down though. From crowd-surfing in a trash can, to running through the crowd and rubbing mud on his body, to blowing up latex gloves, Harrington was unstoppable and by far the best frontman of any band performing in the festival.

Fun with acronyms with Les Savy Fav.

Sticking mostly to tracks from their great 2007 album, Let’s Stay Friends, as well as a few classic older songs, Harrington somehow managed to sing each song without missing a beat, while his fellow band-mates barely seemed to acknowledge his crazy antics. I’m assuming they’re probably used to it by now. “Why we can’t do this every day? Why can’t we buy this park? Why can’t we buy this equipment?” asked Harrington as he changed into a Sherlock Holmes costume right before the band launched into “We’ll Make A Lover Out Of You.” Funny, I was wondering the same thing all throughout Les Savy Fav’s stellar performance.

Tim Harrington gets up close and personal with fans.

I had originally planned on watching The Dodos set at 5 p.m., but after moving every single part of my body to Les Savy Fav’s terrific show, I needed a break. I listened to The Dodos from afar, got some food from the Chicago Diner booth, and decided to see Ghostface Killah and Raekwon at the Balance stage at 6 p.m. I know; I’m a 5’2’’, indie-rock-loving, white girl, why would I rather see two Wu-Tang Clan members over indie troubadour, M. Ward (who was playing at the same time)? I just figured that since I’ve seen M. Ward before and am about to see him play with She & Him in a few weeks, why not see someone that I would be less likely to watch perform again?

Ghostface and Raekwon totally coordinated their outfits together, omgz.

It was a good decision on my part, because Ghostface and Raekwon were great. With the smell of weed hitting my nose from every direction, I watched as the crowd waved their hands in the air and rapped along excitedly to a mix of Wu-Tang Clan classics, solo album cuts, and a tribute to Ol’ Dirty Bastard aka Dirt McGirt aka Big Baby Jesus. I’m not going to lie and say this is the kind of music I listen to on a regular basis, but sometimes there’s nothing better at a giant summer festival than watching a couple of rappers hype the fuck out of a crowd that’s been standing in the sun all day.

Raekwon wakes up the crowd at Pitchfork.

As Ghostface and Raekwon were winding down, I too had had just about enough of the festival. My feet hurt, I was tired, and it didn’t take much for me to be convinced to head back to my apartment and miss the few remaining bands. I’ve never been one to leave a festival early, but I don’t think I really missed much by taking off at 7:30. Bon Iver will be back to Chicago in the fall, I missed the respective Spiritualized and Dinosaur Jr. boats by about ten years, I had just seen Cut Copy in May at the Abbey Pub, and it’s safe to say that Spoon, while they’re good live, they also basically put on the same show every single time.

Enough excuses though. I had arrived at Union Park on Saturday thinking that the Pitchfork Music Festival was going to be 100% obnoxious hipsters and a dozen or so average performances. But while walking back to the Green Line on Sunday night, all I could hear in my head was Les Savy Fav’s Tim Harrington and his now-famous quote: “Why can’t we do this every day?” Although he appeared to be rambling, I think Harrington aptly summed up the festival with that one line, because every music fan knows that it never truly feels like summer until you’re drinking overpriced beers and sweating next to strangers at a giant outdoor music festival.

--Anna Deem

Thursday, July 24, 2008

2008 Pitchfork Festival--Union Park, Chicago, Illinois (Sunday)

For reasons that will become obvious when you get to the end of this short post, my Sunday account was partially derailed in a moment of non-ambidexterity. But here's all you really need to know about Sunday: it was hot, Tim Harrington was in a trashcan, and Spiritualized blew minds. We will have a more acceptable Sunday recap from another contributor up later.

I have been gone from Chicago for less than four months and they deactivated my CTA Smartcard. Hey Chicago, what gives? I won't forget this.

Rex Grossman haunts me even at large "indie" music festivals.

During Spiritualized, Scott...uh...did something...sorry, I just don't have the energy for this anymore.

See that guy in the straw-looking hat? The one with his arm resting on top of the fence? (I can't believe there are two people with straw-looking hats in this picture.) Well, he's in the VIP section, and at least three times I saw him lean over and spit on the other side of the fence. Our side. The not-so-important-section. Who does this a-hole think he is? And Pitchfork pulled the same crap as last year. The Chipotle brand was plastered all over the 2008 Festival brochures and website, but the only way to gain access to the Chipotle tent was to be in the VIP section. Outrageous. Besides, how many burritos does Jim DeRogatis actually need?*

And here we reach the finale. See that blank picture above? Well, during Dinosaur Jr., I was fumbling around for my camera, pulled it out of my pocket, lost a grip on it, and it plunged directly into my beer that I was holding in my left hand. Worse, when it landed in my beer, it took a picture with the flash on. So if you've ever wondered what the inside of a beer looks like, there you go. (Between you and me, I was expecting something a bit cooler. Maybe at least a bubble or two.) The pictures and beer ended up being salvageable. As of right now I can't say the same for the camera. If anyone has any cleansing tips I would be eternally grateful.

*Editor's note: I cringed as I typed this. I love Jim DeRogatis. Even when I disagree with him, I always find his opinion fair and informed. Still, in my opinion, a remotely funny jokes trumps common decency.


Tuesday, July 22, 2008

2008 Pitchfork Festival--Union Park, Chicago, Illinois (Saturday)

Never mind United Airlines pulling out all the stops to say otherwise, the 2008 Pitchfork Festival still had two full days to soak in. Saturday kicked off on a rather somber and gloomy note as rain (a first in the short history of the festival) was added to the daily bill. An NQL team was assembled to take in the damp festivities and here follows a pictorial account of what went down.
Ah, the incomparable Union Park. Alright, so maybe it's very comparable. That's not the point. It has served as a nice home for this ever growing (in attendance, popularity, and price) festival these last few years.

Jim from Louisville is in the building! Little does the event staff know, he is packed from head to toe with nearly 140 oz. of booze. Look at him, he's not the least bit worried about being admitted. I tell you, that kid has ice in his veins.

Titus Adronicus

Named after the Shakespeare play, New Jersey outfit Titus Adronicus opened things up on Saturday with a furious, albeit quick, set. I haven't heard their debut album The Airing of Grievances but those that I trust tell me it's fantastic. If their loud set was any indicator, those that I trust are right. When one song was reaching its crescendo, the entire band and most of the crowd shouted out "Fuck You!" which I found slightly rude but everyone else seemed fine with it. Also, the lead singer came adorned in a Batman t-shirt which was appropriate since, after all, we were in Gotham. Sorry New York, but it's true. Your reign is over.

Our friend Scott is just loving Titus Adronicus!

Jay Reatard

Veteran garage-punker Jay Reatard (in the white Stones' shirt) next took over the Aluminum stage, and with a name like that, he's lucky he has a decent handle on that Gibson Flying V guitar that he wields around so haphazardly. I just don't see the powers-that-be at a place like Kirkland & Ellis ever making the following announcement:

Ladies and Gentlemen, I'd like to introduce, and for you all to welcome our newest associate: Jay Reatard.

That aside, Scott is really feeling Jay Reatard!


Caribou is the stage name for Dr. Daniel Victor Snaith (he has a Ph.D in mathematics), although he was performing with a complete live band. He bounced around from percussion to guitar to keyboard and was phenomenal. I listen to Caribou's last album Andorra very sparingly, but after seeing this electronic-folky thing in person, I will probably be spending some more time with it. The highlight of the day so far.

Scott agrees.

During Caribou I had to run to the bathroom. Did anyone else notice that things at the Festival seemed to be running much smoother this year? Not that there was ever a huge problem in the past, but the lines to the bathroom were shorter, getting food and drinks never seemed to be a huge hassle, and most importantly, I don't remember anyone having any sound issues. In fact, the acoustics inside this porta-John during Caribou were simply amazing!

Fleet Foxes

Everyone seems to love Fleet Foxes right now. Back at the Aluminum Stage, anticipation was pretty high for their set. Their recent self-titled release received excellent reviews and if you can detect any buzz in the air right now that's probably them. For the two people that don't know, they come from Seattle, they're signed to Sub Pop, and surprise, surprise, Pitchfork loves them. With good reason though, their album is beautifully done and vocal heavy, and those comparisons to Crosby, Stills, and Nash that often pop up are pretty accurate. I was curious how well they could pull it off in a live and large outdoor setting. Well, they pulled it off. Keeping right up with the vocals standard set on the album, they hit every vocal note nearly perfectly and even drew the crowd to an almost stand-still silence. While waiting for each peak and valley, the crowd was silent as if awaiting a serve before a big point at Wimbledon.

I was impressed, but not swept off my feet and decided it was time to grab a beer. And if you tune in for Sunday's recap, you'll see how beer nearly ruined my entire weekend...but not in the way that you'd expect.

When I asked Scott if he wanted to come with me to get a beer, he responded, "And miss this?! You must be crazy!"

Dizzee Rascal

Raise your hand if you've always found live hip-hop to be a bit underwhelming. Yeah, me too. I might have to change my tune after seeing Dizzee Rascal. He's from London. Before you find yourself wondering how tough a rapper with a British accent can really be, just know that when he was younger he was incarcerated for stealing cars and robbing pizza delivery men. Yikes. Also, he had no qualms about dressing down his sound guy in front of everyone. I was even trembling a bit. But once the minor sound problems were dispelled, he put on the biggest party of the weekend at the Connector Stage. I have only heard his stuff a few times, and I'm not sure I ever heard his latest album Maths + English. But with a good rap show it doesn't matter. What other genre of music can you sing along to a song that you've never heard before? That's what was happening during his set. There was more than just singing though, there was also some dancing, some arm waving, and believe it or not, from what I could detect, a lot of marijuana smoking.

Scott was later heard telling someone he thought Dizzee was "Off the hook."

Now is a good time to mention that our good friend Jim came to the festival with a leg injury that required him to sit or often lay down intermittently throughout the three days. However, during Dizzee Rascal, he was so caught up in the show he refused to bow down to the searing pain shooting up and down his leg. During a quick conversation he stated, "My leg is killing me, but this guy is so good I can't walk away from this. And I mean that both literally and figuratively. Put that in your blog and smoke it." Well, then.

Vampire Weekend

Vampire Weekend, the only band ever to have a backlash against them before their first album debuted, next took over the Aluminum Stage. To be fair, they are also the first band ever to be on the cover of Spin Magazine before their first album debuted. Greg Kot hammered them in his writeup for the Tribune. I've never been a huge fan, I've only listened to their album five or six times, but for the most part I think it's fun. And even being slightly unfamiliar with their stuff, I felt like I intimately recognized every song they played. Is that a good thing? I think it is. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, I ended up in the back of the crowd and didn't get a lot of pictures.

When later reached for comment concerning Vampire Weekend's set, Scott stated, "Backlash? Not from this guy!" It was then reported that he proceeded to do a dance not seen since 1989 when someone, amid a large mob, accidentally played Side 2 of Paul Simon's Graceland at the annual Freaknik meeting in Atlanta, Georgia.

We assembled a pretty good team for this year's festival. Unfortunately, one of our good friends couldn't make it. To cover our losses, we found a guy (standing in middle) who we felt most resembled our friend for the group picture. When told why it was necessary for him to be in the picture, he reluctantly agreed.

As above, this year brought rain. And it was only a matter of time, but when you combine "this"...

...with "these" people, you eventually wind up...

...with "this".

RED-ROVER, RED-ROVER, SEND ANY IDIOT WHO IS GOING TO REALIZE IN ABOUT 20 MINUTES THAT MAYBE THIS WASN'T SUCH A GREAT IDEA ON OVER! On a related note, I thought the girl on the far-left side with glasses was pretty brave for going topless. And sorry boys, she was the only one.


If you look closely, that's !!! playing up on the screen at the Connector Stage. Unfortunately, a couple of us had to sacrifice them to the Pitchfork Gods and head over to the other stage to jockey for position for the Hold Steady. Those are the types of decisions you have to make sometimes at festivals such as this. A few girls that I was with stayed behind and stated that !!! was unbelievable and the highlight of their weekend. I don't doubt it. I saw them at the 2006 Touch and Go anniversary at the Hideout Block Party and felt the same. Nevertheless, a decision was made and we had to stick with it.

Uh-oh, Jim looks like he's down for the count. I'm not sure he'll have what it takes to make it through the Hold Steady's set. When I asked what his status was, he stated, "Yeah, my leg hurts and I might actually sit down. Get over it. And by the way, you can put that in your blog and smoke it."

So much for that, he's up! Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Willis Reed of indie music festivals! According to Jim, "Hey, you know what, I'm not missing this, I love the Hold Steady. And you can put that...". Alright, alright, we got it.

The Hold Steady

Just before the Hold Steady took the stage, some random fan just handed me a free beer. This always happens at Hold Steady shows. It never fails. They emerged and kicked things off with "Constructive Summer" from their recently released, but long ago leaked, album Stay Positive. We all toasted Joe Strummer. Most were pretty excited to see how the new songs played out live. I was no different. The band was their usual selves; vibrant and exploding with showmanship.

Besides the opener, other songs from the new album that hit the right marks were "Stay Positive" and the sneaky-excellent "Magazines." They peppered in songs from their previous three albums as well and encored with the inevitable closer "Killer Parties."

The sun actually poked it's head out slightly while the Hold Steady were on stage. People call them the last great bar band, but their natural home might actually be a large, sunny outdoor festival. This seemed most true when Tad Kubler was putting the touches on one of his southern rock-type guitar solos from the new album as the sun was slowly fading. By the time they ended, everyone was a big sweaty mess and all the happier for it.

They say you are who you surround yourself with, and if that's true, then everyone at the festival must be pretty good because we were all surrounded by everything that encompasses a Chicago summer: live music, food, beer, and (a little) sunshine. I am no world traveler, but if there's a better place to be in the summer I have yet to find it.

It had been a pretty long day at this point, evidenced by darkness slowly casting a shadow over Union Park. We decided to rest up during Jarvis Cocker, although everyone we talked to stated that was a mistake as the ex-frontman for Pulp reportedly put on a pretty good show. All that was left for the evening was Animal Collective. I regrettably didn't venture over to the Balance stage once throughout the day. Those I spoke with had great things to say about Atlas Sound and No Age--two bands I had every intention of taking in. That's one of the crazy things about Saturday, before I knew it the day was nearly over and plenty of items on my checklist were still unchecked. So it goes. Time for Animal Collective.

Animal Collective

When it came time for Animal Collective we were all so tired we decided to set up shop on a blanket in the middle of the park. I was a little surprised when I saw they were headlining. I thought the Hold Steady or Cocker would have been better suited. I was wrong. Animal Collective was perfect, and like Caribou, I think I'll find myself reaching for some of their albums a bit more often.

Avey Tare hopped around on the Aluminum Stage in a hat that not many can pull off, as they slowly rolled through Animal Collective's discography while fighting time against the 10pm curfew. Halfway through, they gave the crowd a pleasant surprise and treated us to some Panda Bear as they weaved through "Comfy In Nautica" from the great Person Pitch. A jolt was lit into the slightly fading crowd when the beginning music of "Peacebone" from their latest album Strawberry Jam began emanating from the speakers. It sounded so invigorating that Jim almost rose from the blanket to actually stand up! He didn't, but most others did.

When the little hand struck 10, we were instructed it was time to vacate the premises. As we pow-wowed outside the fence waiting for the disgusting line at the Ashland stop to quell, we traded war stories from the day and laid praise upon Animal Collective. They were a great headliner, whoever made that decision at Pitchfork got it right. And you can put that in all your blogs and smoke it.


2008 Pitchfork Festival--Union Park, Chicago, Illinois (Friday)

The last post signed off with "...my flight leaves in two hours, see you all soon." That was last Friday, which was also the first day of the 2008 Pitchfork Festival. Scheduled for that evening was Mission of Burma playing their 1982 album Vs, Sebadoh's Bubble and Scrape, and an encore by Public Enemy, performing their classic It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. I had a ticket, I had a flight, I was set to be in Chicago with plenty of time to spare. I arrived at Reagan National Airport at 2pm. I will save you all the trouble of describing what then unfolded, but after a series of cancellations, delays, and disappointments my flight for Chicago eventually left at 10:45pm. Needless to say, I missed the show and was not happy (burn in hell, United). So we are without an appropriate Friday post. I did find a decent writeup surprisingly turned in by USA Today. And not to be outdone, Jim from Louisville was there and captured a nice, quick video of Public Enemy's set. As stated, I did arrive in Chicago late Friday night and was there for every awesome moment the rest of the weekend had to offer, so an appropriate recap will be up soon.


Friday, July 18, 2008

NQL Celebrating One Year Anniversary at 2008 Pitchfork Festival!

Today sort of marks this site's first birthday as we got our legs wet one year ago with our inaugural post covering the 2007 Pitchfork Festival. Well, we are returning to Union Park tonight for version .08 and will again be documenting all three days, but only this time with more in depth coverage, more interviews (actually, that's probably not true), and more pictures. So, if you can't make the festival this year, fear not, return to this site next week and you'll be in good hands. We have one member from our staff who has been sleeping underneath the Ashland Green Line tracks since Tuesday for the purposes of avoiding that dreaded will-call line. That's the type of coverage we're talking about. If you will be attending the festival, take some time on Saturday and head over to the west-side port-a-potties at 3pm where we will be serving some cake and ice cream in honor of this huge birthday. Hope to see you there; it's going to be a great weekend.

On a somewhat unrelated note, I stumbled upon a post written by the guy who covers music for Chicagoist and he was making a brief point about the current state of music journalism, particularly as it pertains to indie music. In short, without putting any words in his mouth, he stated the most effective means of writing about music is to try and appeal to someone who perhaps has never heard the very music you're writing about, and those who too often stray from these boundaries are partially responsible for indie music having the reputation of exclusivity. I couldn't agree more, and that's what we have tried and accomplish here the past year. Although I concede I sometimes fail at this, it's usually more of a product of bad writing rather than bad intentions. That said, again, it's going to be a fun weekend, my flight leaves in two hours, see you all soon.


Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Album Review: The Hold Steady

The Hold Steady
Stay Positive
NQL Rating: Not quite as good as Boys and Girls in America, but much better than Short Circuit 2.

Despite a scheduled mid-July release date, Stay Positive actually leaked to the parasitic masses on the cusp of Memorial Day weekend which was seemingly appropriate for a band that signifies the spirit of a good, fun American summer. Like Boys and Girls in America before it, the Hold Steady’s fourth full length record starts off with a classic guitar riff leading into a rocker that is certain to kick off their heavy slate of live shows this summer. Although “Constructive Summer” isn’t really indicative of the album as a whole, it’s one of the most complete Hold Steady songs I have heard. With a loud, banging chorus that may or may not have been written by Andrew W.K., Craig Finn guides the listener through a tale of blue collar dreams and summer nights. When he sings “Let this be my annual reminder that we can all be something bigger.” just before a piano solo, anyone who has ever felt stuck or stagnant in life can proudly raise their bar glass to the best current bar band around. But keep those glasses up, because at the end of the song on Finn’s command we’re toasting to Saint Joe Strummer who, as Finn sings, “…might have been our only decent teacher.” Amen to that.

Maintaining the pace of the first track, single “Sequestered in Memphis” has an On the Road-ish theme that we’ve seen from this band before. Someone was causing trouble in Texas, the law catches up to them in Memphis, and somewhere there was a girl mixed in. Another reason why you should always head west. And I don’t want to alarm anyone but it looks like at the end of the song we have a sing-along! Woo-hoo!

“Sequestered in Memphis” isn’t alone as similar themes crop up throughout the album that will make the average Hold Steady fan feel right at home. On “One for the Cutters” a girl resorts to hanging out with the townies when all the regular parties run dry. “Getting nailed against dumpsters behind townie bars” is a lyric only Finn could write and make it sound melodic, romantic, and heartbreaking. This is the first track from Stay Positive where the band muscially steers in a bit different direction from past material…most evidenced by someone rocking a pretty serious harpsichord. Same is true with the next track “Navy Sheets” where a synthesizer dominates the landscape of the song. And I don’t want to give away the song’s message, but I’d be very cautious about sleeping on any navy sheets for the time being.

The band switches gears on “Lord, I’m Discouraged” which sounds both like a southern rock anthem and an R&B confessional. Finn sings of a girl he’s trying to reach that’s way past arm’s length. Complete with a long, winding guitar solo from Tad Kubler, the song ends with Finn seeking guidance and confessing that his faith is on shaky ground. When he sings “Wont you show me a sign?/Let me know that you’re listening.” he doesn’t seem to be patient enough to wait and heads back into the chorus (“Excuses and half truths and fortified wine”) and ends singing “I know it’s unlikely she’ll ever be mine/So I mostly just pray she don’t die.” Don’t get too depressed, because it’s a great song and before we know it we’re back to rocking on “Yeah Sapphire”. The narrator in the song proclaims over some heavy guitars, “I’m sick and I’m tired and I’m fried and you gotta believe me.” Yeah, well, what else is new? Those that have always loved Finn’s wordplay will probably gravitate towards this song. Those that live in Aberdeen, South Dakota will also gravitate towards this song because I bet it’s not every day your town gets name dropped. In fact, a simple google search suggests this might be a first. Hey, congratulations Aberdeen!

One of the intriguing things about the Hold Steady is how the lyrics have often used Catholicism as a crutch for when things get messy. “Both Crosses” is a quiet, drum-based ballad where it seems the narrator is using Biblical and friends’ names rather interchangeably. I think this song is one of the less memorable tracks on the album, but when Finn sings, “You Catholic girls start much too late.” it’s obvious he didn’t go to my high school. The title track brings back some fist pumping energy with a preemptive bar-like chant of “Wo Ho Ho”. The chorus later in the song of “We gotta stay positive” is simple yet embodies the Hold Steady. They’ve always had a lot of street credibility with every scenester type kid out there, but they maintain this without an ounce of pretension and with a mischievous, if not optimistic, smile on their faces. It’s the message that life is serious, life is draining, but stick with us and you’ll have fun and you’ll be fine.

Track 9 “Magazines” is a nice piece of pop/rock that tells the story of how each day starts off promising but often ends up the same as the night before. When Finn sings, “Magazines and daddy issues. I know you’re pretty pissed/I hope you’ll still let me kiss you.” I’m reminded of an all too common notion of our own selfish desires sometimes overshadowing what’s really important. And is that C.C. DeVille singing on the backup vocals? I think it is! (It’s not.)

Despite a nice guitar solo from Kubler (that’s one thing about Stay Positive, the shorter hooks are replaced with longer guitar solos), I find “Joke About Jamaica” to be the low point of the album. An ode to Led Zeppelin, much like “Citrus” before it, someone utilizes a talkbox solo to the band’s (dis)advantage but that’s okay, it’s just a nice setup for closing track “Slapped Actress”. Unlike too many bands, the Hold Steady has always been cognizant of the importance of going out on a high note. Stay Positive is no different. On “Slapped Actress” they’ve come full circle and find themselves back in trouble and back in Ybor City. The song and album end with a unified chant of “Wo ho, ho-oh, oh-oh” that will again be inviting to the so many fans looking to sing along with them this summer. And that’s one thing that has always been interesting about this band. The wall between them and their fans is much more blurry than that of most band/fan relationships. I’ve said many times before, the Hold Steady has always been one big party and everyone is invited. I stand by that.

I enjoy this album immensely, but to me it is still (slightly) inferior to those that came before it. I think all these "near-perfect" reviews (I have read a couple) may be a product of many music reviewers who were a little late to the party and are trying to make up for lost time. That said, you are all greeted with open arms, and for my money, it doesn't get much better than "Constructive Summer" and "Lord, I'm Discouraged" as far as Hold Steady songs are concerned. The album as a whole didn’t reach out and shake my entire rock foundation and beg to be played every day as their predecessors did. I heard the same sentiments from a lot of friends after they spent some time with the album. But that’s because we’re old friends with this band by now. Old friends don’t blow you away, but they’re dependable, they’re reliable, and they’re consistently good. And so is Stay Positive.


Monday, July 14, 2008

Interview: Wade Alin of The Atomica Project

Songwriter Wade Alin formed the Atomica Project with vocalist Lauren Cheatham back in 2004. Since then they have created music with exotic vocals, complimented by spacey beats, that have drawn comparisons to Portishead. Their sophomore effort Grayscale is now available (and features a great single called "Gravity"), and Wade answered a few questions over email to discuss the new album.

NQL: You've spent considerable time in both Chicago and New York City. Can you describe the similarities and differences between the two cities as far as the music community is concerned?

Wade Alin: There's a huge fundamental difference between Chicago and New York. New York has (at least the illusion of) access to all of the major labels, management firms, agents, MTV, etc. and I think on the negative side it causes the music scene to focus on success and money instead of anything legitimately artistic. It's hard to focus on the artistic side of the process when the Geffen office is 4 blocks away and that's definitely reflected in the musical climate there. It gets tired pretty quickly. I auditioned probably 10 vocalists in New York for the Atomica Project. They were all pretty dead set on becoming the next Madonna.
Chicago has a much more honest and open music scene, a lot of people doing what they want to do, however they want to do it. I'm sure somewhere in the back of their head, they'd like to be successful –but it doesn't impose itself the way it does in New York. It's been refreshing to be around. The big plus side of New York is people generally have their shit together. They're knowledgeable, somewhat educated about the music business, and understand the importance of self promotion. It still freaks me out when I go to a Chicago show with 3 bands and there are like 5 people there.

NQL: I read that Grayscale is said to be loosely and partially based on the bipolar weather that too often encompasses Chicago. Can you expand on that at all?

WA: Having grown up (until I was 7 or 8) In Southern Illinois, I'm a huge fan of Midwestern storms. There's nothing like them, the impact of them is just amazing. I wanted to make Grayscale feel that way. Not in the sense of being hard hitting, knocking trees over and such. But to capture the anxiety of an imminent storm, the wonder of its result, and the memory it leaves. People in Chicago still talk about the "great storm of…" and "the winter of..." The ups and downs of the weather here are not dissimilar to life itself, that's what we're trying to tie together on Grayscale.

NQL: Grayscale took awhile to complete. Does that add to any pressure? After pouring so much blood, sweat, and tears into the record will you be more disappointed if it isn't received the way you would like?

WA: Well, honesty, I probably put just as much into Metropolitan, but Grayscale took a lot longer. We had technical issues, personnel issues – it was one thing after another. At one point I just got too exhausted to work on the record anymore. And then I had a daughter. I'm not trying to come off the wrong way by saying this, but getting Grayscale released and moving on was a success in itself. I do hope people like it, but I'm still overjoyed that I even finished the record.

NQL: What can fans expect from Grayscale that is different from say Metropolitan?

WA: Musically, it's a bit darker and more complete sounding. We used much more realistic sampling on this record, especially for the orchestration. My day job is as a composer for television and film and through that I've actually started to become very confident with full on orchestral writing. It certainly seemed to allow me more control over the mood of the tracks. But probably the greatest difference of this record is Lauren. Metropolitan was the first time she'd ever been recorded. She approached Grayscale with a lot more confidence and brought a lot of personality and emotion to the record.

NQL: Any favorite venues in Chicago? And, what cities have you found to be most receptive to the Atomica Project's sound?

WA: We love the Darkroom on Chicago Ave. It's up the street from me and I can almost always count on seeing good bands there. They were also the first venue here to give us the opportunity to play live. I love all of the classics here as well – Metro, Empty Bottle, Double Door, etc. In general, we seem to get a good reception on the east coast, D.C., New York, Boston.

NQL: Lauren's vocals are pretty powerful. How does that lend itself to the type of music and songs you write?

WA: I met Lauren through a random Craigslist ad that I put out. The first time I met her, I didn't even get to hear her sing but I cancelled the ad. I had a gut feeling she was who I was looking for. In the same sense, she brings something intangible to the tracks and makes everything sound so much better than I'd expected. We've been working together for 4+ years now and the process has really started to flourish.

NQL: Have you ever considered adding another "L" to your last name so you can tell people you're related to G.G. for some extra street-cred?

WA: Ha. That's funny. The funniest part is that I come from a punk background so if a few things had gone differently, I might very well be seeking G.G. style credibility.

NQL: Anyone in particular that you and Lauren are listening to while on tour?

WA: I'm currently obsessed with This Will Destroy You and Sigur Ros. Lauren is listening to Katy Perry, Feist, a bit of St Vincent.

NQL: iTunes sells more music in the U.S. now than any other outlet. In terms of distribution, how big of an asset do you feel iTunes is to your band? And do you think iTunes has at all taken away a bit of the thrill of the hunt?

WA: iTunes has been very good to us – mostly the "also bought" feature. We have a lot of people discover us that way. It has probably taken a bit from the thrill of the hunt but, at the same time, it not always good to be on the completely undiscovered side of being an artist. I do miss the separating men from boys process of having to take your band on tour if you want anyone to hear you, though gas prices have a much greater effect on that than iTunes does.


Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Futureheads--Bowery Ballroom, New York City

If you were to ask me who my favorite band was at any point from 2004-2007, I would immediately say Radiohead. Then I would backtrack a little and say that, well, I think Radiohead is the best, the life-changer, and all of that. But my favorite? My favorite might be the Futureheads. I first saw them in London at Barfly in Camden in the summer of 2004 about a week after buying their self-titled debut. I thought the record was fun and fresh (I hadn’t yet started listening to Gang of Four, Wire, or the Jam) and figured that seeing a young British band during my London summer would be a worthwhile experience. I was right - the show was perfect. The venue was small, the company was fun, and the sound was good enough. As I emerged from Barfly that night four years ago, soaked in beer with ringing ears, I had a new favorite band.

Since that night, and not including this Bowery show, I have seen the Futureheads five times. They are the one band I will always see when they roll into town regardless of the night or venue. Only once have they been less than great, and that was because of guitarist Ross Millard’s sore throat rendering him unable to sing (the Futureheads’ vocal arrangements don’t work minus one). Over the past four years though, my love for the band has waned because their studio output has been less than stellar. Their second album, News and Tributes, has some good songs but is a mostly drab affair devoid of all of the excitement and punch of their debut. When I heard their most recent release, This is Not the World, about a month ago I was so disappointed that I think I called it “bad,” which is one level worse than “eh” and one level better than “Make Believe.” After listening to it, I realized that the Futureheads were no longer my favorite band, and probably hadn’t been for a while. I was so down on them that I almost didn’t go to the sold-out show (that I already had tickets to and was a five minute walk from my apartment) to watch game 6 of the NBA finals instead. I ultimately, and somewhat reluctantly, decided to go to the show. The awfulness of game 6 notwithstanding (unless you’re a Celtics fan), it was a very, very good decision.

I tried to time my arrival at the Bowery to coincide with that lull between opener and headliner but somehow I screwed up and got there before the opener even started playing. The opener was called Chief and they’re from (drum roll…..) Brooklyn. We’re to the point now where we should just assume that every band is from Brooklyn and they should tell us if they’re from somewhere else. Because every fucking band is from Brooklyn. I think it’s somehow required for all shows in New York to have at least one opener from Brooklyn, and I think it’s required for every new band to say that they’re from Brooklyn even if their only connection to that borough is that they know it is located on Earth.

Anyway, Chief was excellent. They’re a pretty straightforward four piece with a alt-country / classic rock sound, but what might separate them from the pack is that the three guys on the front line could all sing very well. The two guitarists switched off lead vocal duties while the bassist provided solid backing support throughout. One lead has a Big Rock Voice and the other has a soft, emotional croon that reminded me a lot of Will Oldham. Those elements combined with a good sound and good presence makes me think that, with a couple breaks, Chief could go somewhere that’s not Brooklyn.

One thing though. Sometime during their set, Chief was nice enough to toss copies of their CD out into the crowd. A nice gesture, but it’s probably not the best idea to fling CDs in cardboard sleeves out into a dark crowd Frisbee-style. Those corners could put someone’s eye out! All I could think about as I stood there dodging tunes was 1) I’m glad I’m wearing glasses, 2) there are a lot of liability issues in play here, 3) I hate lawyers, 4) I suck, and 5) I’m old.

Between sets I started to get excited. It had been two years since I last saw the Futureheads and had the same feeling I get when I’m about to meet up with an old friend. My old friend looked the same when they appeared on stage. They grabbed their instruments without a word and immediately sent a message with “Decent Days and Nights.” The message was this: tonight, the Futureheads are not fucking around.

On stage, the Futureheads seem more like a gang than a band. A non-scary British gang that anyone from the States would laugh at upon meeting them in a dark alley, but a gang sure enough. They all perfectly compliment and act off of one another like a basketball team that’s played together for years . They know where each other will be on stage intuitively - I still can’t believe that front man Barry Hyde and guitarist Ross Millard didn’t smash into each other at least once. Millard is a whirling dervish of energy, stopping periodically to deliver some essential yelps into his microphone. Barry Hyde is a great front man - energetic and twitchy when necessary, but generally the front-and-center glue of the band. Bassist Jaff (just Jaff) is tall, solid, and generally minds his own business stage right. Drummer David Hyde, brother of Barry, keeps the beat, helps out with backing vocals, and looks bored, which is fine because everyone is watching the Millard / Barry Hyde / Jaff combo anyway.

The set consisted mostly of songs from This is Not the World and their self-titled debut. The band wisely steered clear of News and Tributes, save a good rendition of “Skip to the End.” Before that song, Barry asked the crowd to jump up and down during it because it “looks fucking awesome.” Note to self: don’t wear sandals to any more Futureheads shows. If I had 11 toes, they would all be broken. But I only have 10 so I’m all right. Anyway, the songs from This is Not the World sounded much better live than on the record, notably “Beginning of the Twist” and “Radio Heart”. I definitely appreciate the album more after seeing the songs preformed. Tracks from their debut were outstanding as always. A few songs after “Decent Days and Nights”, they played “Meantime” and then closed with the ridiculous three song combo of “Hounds of Love,” “Carnival Kids,” and “Man Ray”. I almost wish the show ended there, but they came back on for an encore of “He Knows” and unrecorded to my knowledge live staple “Piece of Crap.”

Other than that first time I saw them, this is the best the Futureheads have been. They’ve somehow jacked up their energy and tightened up their sound where I didn’t think it could be further tightened. I don’t know if it’s because they’re now on their own label and are trying to prove something to someone, but shit this was a great show. I left the Bowery that night with the same feeling I had four years ago - I have a new favorite band.

--Jim Powers

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Oxford Collapse, Frightened Rabbit--The Black Cat, Washington, DC

I interviewed Michael Pace of Oxford Collapse last December and he mentioned a little-known band out of Scotland (awfully) called Frightened Rabbit that was currently in his heavy rotation. Fast-forward to a few months ago when I found myself rummaging through the usually sparse used CD bin at Crooked Beat Records and stumbled upon Frightened Rabbit’s recently released LP The Midnight Organ Fight. Remembering the conversation I had with Pace, I added it to my cart and went about my business. Sometime later that week I popped the album in and was immediately hooked by the very first track “The Modern Leper.” Seeing that Frightened Rabbit and Oxford Collapse were scheduled to play together at the Black Cat (a tour which I’m convinced happened because the members of Frightened Rabbit are avid NQL readers), I thought this would be as good time as any to break my recent concert funk and actually stay out after 10pm. Unfortunately, the show was coinciding with an awful sickness I had picked up in Chicago the prior weekend (which is also to blame for this review taking so long to post). No matter, though, I thought I could handle it.

I left around 9pm and I felt dizzy just walking down U Street. Not a good start. The show was actually taking place in the back stage as Harry and the Potters were playing on the main stage. Well, it’s a good thing Pedro and the Guerreros didn’t spontaneously show up or Oxford Collapse and Frightened Rabbit may have been moved to the back alley. (If you haven’t heard Pedro and the Guerreros yet, give them a listen. They’re an up-and-coming indie “concept” band from St. Louis with songs spoken through the eyes of Pedro Guerrero. Their song “Staring Down a Split-Finger with a Split-Personality” is currently summoning a lot of college radio play.)

As I made my way to the back room my sickness took it up a notch and I went into the Black Cat bathroom and dry heaved. This concert better change my life.

I only saw the last song by opening band Takka Takka. Later, Pace was singing their praises and said having to follow them made his band seem like Meatballs II. I found this hilarious as it implies the first Meatballs was some sort of cinematic triumph. Which, now that I think about it, it probably was. And as Oxford Collapse was getting ready to play, I was a complete sweaty and shaky mess. Barely being able to stand, I began texting friends to tell them how brave and dedicated I was to venture out on the town in such dire shape. I was escalating the sickness with each text; by the time the last one was sent I had a 104-degree temperature. I didn't elicit that much sympathy. Unless “Go home u moron” can be considered sympathy. I thought a Sprite and Vodka would make me feel better. It didn’t.

I found some refuge leaning against a pole when Oxford Collapse began. I don’t remember what they opened with, but at that point I couldn’t even remember what town I was in. This later caused problems when I caught a cab home. Aside from having one of the all-time great album covers, Oxford Collapse’s Remember the Night Parties is one of my favorite summer records that I don’t believe was released in the summer. More fun than pretentious and more punk (especially live) than any other genre of guitar-wielding music I can think of, this album was meant to be played while partaking in some of the shenanigans that are seen on the album cover and inside the booklet. While slipping in and out of consciousness, I recall hearing them play “Lady Lawyers”, the sinister “Molasses”, “Please Visit Your National Parks” and “Volcano”. Most enjoyable was when they hit album deep-cut “Forgot to Write” with bassist Adam Rizer taking the vocals and leaving William Butler Yeats behind and playing the role of Chris Makepeace to Pace’s Bill Murray. Other than that, the band mostly played new stuff from their pending August release Bits which I predict will be a blast.

After they left the stage, I realized for the first time that they were taking the opening slot for Frightened Rabbit…and that the room was packed with people oozing with anticipation for the Scottish band. I think the lineup was switched last month at the Empty Bottle. And have Frightened Rabbit blown up that much? I had not realized. But come on, this is Independence week, we’re in the nation’s capital, and you’re telling me the American boys can’t handle closing duties? Whoever is responsible for that decision needs to learn their geography, or history, or something.

Frightened Rabbit started off as the stage name for Scott Hutchison (who is pretty funny guy, by the way) when he was still doing solo shows. The Midnight record has been getting a lot of press lately, and I seem to even remember the guys from Sound Opinions recently talking about it. It’s filled with very catchy and folky ballads with the earlier mentioned “Leper” serving as the opening and best track. Not that the album then declines, but if there is a song on the album that is meant to grab someone’s attention who happened to adopt it from a record orphanage, it is certainly that one.

Approaching 10:45, the band took the stage and one of my knees buckled out from under me. I felt like hell but stood my ground. They opened with “The Modern Leper” and while listening to Hutchison’s commanding Glasgowy-vocals, I decided I can safely reserve a spot for that song as one of my favorite tracks of the year.

I’m hardly a reliable source, but I think the first five songs that they played were taken directly in order from the album. This included the melodic one-two punch of “Good Arms Vs. Bad Arms” (track 3) and “Old Old Fashioned” (track 5). The intrigue of whether they were going to play the album all the way through was being taken over by how miserable I felt. After “Old Old Fashioned” I left because I just couldn’t take it anymore. Maybe we can put finally put that age-old myth to bed that Sprite (and vodka) helps you feel better when you’re not doing well. Leaving early was not at all what I had planned, or wanted, but I’ll continue to tell anyone who will pay me mind that Frightened Rabbit is worth a serious listen and deserving of the recent recognition. I will fight to see them again under better circumstances and simultaneously await the August release of Bits. (For those of you who don't believe in record stores, a mid-August release is tantamount to an early to mid-July download.)

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