Screaming Trees: Buzz Factory

I remember liking this a lot more.

The band’s last “indie” label release, this one was produced by Jack Endino, who produced about a jillion amazing albums, most famously probably Nirvana’s Bleach, which came out the same year as this album.

Like Bleach, this album has some amazing songwriting, always a strength of Screaming Trees, and also like Nirvana’s first album, this one is best listened to loud. The sound is kind of muddy if you listen to it at lower volumes, but when you crank it up it kind of breaks through into a nice fuzzed out raunch.

Lanegan starts to get amazing here. He screws his voice up and down into all kinds of contortions on “Black Sun Morning,” (which is, along with “Smokerings” from Invisible Lantern, the best song they’ve done to this point) in a way I don’t think he’s even done since.

Here’s a tribute to Screaming Trees: Consider that by 1989, a full two years before Nevermind and Ten and three years before people would actually turn on to those albums, these guys were on their fourth album and had matured into an awesome band. I think I even hear some drop-D tuning going on here…the signature sound of what would be called grunge years later. For crying out loud, this was the same year Melvins would release the ridiculously raw and untamed Ozma.

Anyway, a lot of good songs, but not as many great ones as I remember. I remember “Flower Web,” “Where The Twain Shall Meet,” and “End Of The Universe” all being better than I find them now. On the other hand, I don’t remember “Black Sun Morning” being quite this strong and it’s been a real treat to re-discover “Yard Trip #7” and “Subtle Poison.”

Rating:
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– “Where The Twain Shall Meet,” “Black Sun Morning,” “Yard Trip #7,” “End Of The Universe”
– “Windows,” “Too Far Away,” “Subtle Poison,” “Flower Web,” “Wish Bringer,” “Revelation Revolution,” “The Looking Glass Cracked”
Filed Between: Screaming Trees’ Invisible Lantern and Something About Today
Song Notes: After the jump
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Los Lobos: …And A Time To Dance

Until very recently I thought How Will The Wolf Survive? was Los Lobos’ debut. But there’s this EP as well as another album (Spanish-only?) from 1978 and another from 1976. I’ve seen in a number of places that this is a revered disc. While there are shadows of the mix of traditional Mexican music and bluesy rock and roll that the band would go on to define and then redefine, I find it a fatiguing listen.

Most of these songs are just fine on their own, but together they add up to an assault. There’s very little of the comfortable, sultry groove the band would bring on How Will The Wolf Survive?. Instead, almost all of the songs are done uptempo, with a upbeat-emphasizing snare pushing you along, raising your pulse in unnatural and unpleasant ways. Far from the romantic dance image of the cover, I think of this as the kind of jackrabbit dancing that teenage boys do: all energy, no soul, just the way they f**k.

The highlights are the wonderful cover of Ritchie Valens’ “Come On Let’s Go” and “Why Do You Do,” a rockabilly track that owes just as much to Elvis as Elvis owed to the old blues masters, a nice reveal of how much Elvis did add of his own. There’s also the cheeky lyrics of “How Much Can I Do?” where the narrator proceeds from promising there’s nothing he won’t do to prove his love, including “hanging around those topless bars” (great line) and drinking “that premium T-bird wine”, to lamenting it’s not worth it to spend all his time proving his love and daring her to prove her love is real.

Almost half of the EP is full-hearted, so three clowns seems harsh to me, but it feels right. While there isn’t a song on here I would be unhappy to hear come up on shuffle (maybe the way-too-intense “Walking Song”), supposing I’m in the right mood for it, I don’t think I’ll ever want to listen to this straight through again, even though it is only about 20 minutes long. Maybe if I’m doing a lot of coke in Tijuana….

Rating:
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– “Let’s Say Goodnight,” “Come On Let’s Go,” “Why Do You Do”
– “Walking Song,” “Anselma,” “Ay Te Dejo En San Antonio,” “How Much Can I Do?”
Song Notes: After the jump
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[Sister-In-Law] Christmas CD Mix 2012

Reviewing a mix my sister-in-law made for me is kind of like reviewing a friend’s CD; not gonna do it. So here are some notes on the songs for my reference.

  1. The Once And Future Carpenter – The Avett Brothers – Love the line, “If I live the life I’m given, I won’t be scared to die.” This is very good, but it doesn’t quite stand up to repeated listens.
  2. Still Fighting It – Ben Folds – Amazing lyrics. “Everybody knows it hurts to grow up/And everybody does/It’s so weird to be back here/…/And we’re still fighting it/You’re so much like me/I’m sorry.” Totally sums up how I feel about my dad to me to my elder son. Powerful. Man, Ben Folds is mostly trite, but this and “Smoke” are just killer. Killer!
  3. The Boy Who Blocked His Own Shot – Brand New – I don’t hate it but it doesn’t do anything for me. And I dislike aspects of it.
  4. I Will Survive – Cake – Sounds much better in headphones. And even beyond that it sounds better with earbuds instead of overear phones. It’s the rhythmic interplay between the guit in the left channel and the vox in (mostly) the right channel. I appreciate them trying to unfunk this one, and they do a good job of it, but the ennui affect wears on me after a while. Except if I get that earbuds effect, that’s pretty sweet.
  5. Not If You Were The Last Junkie On Earth – The Dandy Warhols – Now this one I hate. Downright annoying.
  6. Can’t Help Falling In Love – Ingrid Michaelson – What a great song. This and #4 are bold, bold covers.
  7. Honey And The Moon – Joseph Arthur – pretty lame but not bad. Wish it had more dynamics…too static.
  8. Go Your Own Way – Lissie – Another bold cover. Much better than the original, but I really don’t like the original, so (i) that sets a low bar and (ii) there’s only so much you can do with what’s bad source material.
  9. Leave The Lights On – Meiko – sexy voice. Pretty good. I want to hear more of her. But this is a bit too fey and predictable to be full. Wish she’d stay in the sultry zone more. Nice drum (machine) beats. We’ll make it a full heart in the hopes that that will help me remember to listen to more of her.
  10. Banditos – The Refreshments – How do I know this song so well and yet I had never known the band or song name? The only thing I can think is that in 1996 I must have just heard it in the air. Best song ever.
  11. California (Tchad Blake Mix) – Phantom Planet – Nice enough. But the strained vox are a bit played.
  12. Reasons Why – Nickel Creek – Wow this is boring. I can only imagine that the appeal is in the lyrics, but I’m too bored by the song to listen. Can’t stand their voices, either. Is this Christian rock?
  13. Catapult – Operator Please – Only an open heart on prior year’s mix. But I was being picker about full hearts then. This is def a full heart.

– “Still Fighting It” (Ben Folds), “Leave The Lights On” (Meiko), “Banditos” (The Refreshments), “Catapult” (Operator Please)
– “The Once And Future Carpenter” (The Avett Brothers), “I Will Survive” (Cake), “Can’t Help Falling In Love” (Ingrid Michaelson), “Honey And The Moon” (Joseph Arthur), “Go Your Own Way” (Lissie), “California (Tchad Blake Mix)” (Phantom Planet)
– “The Boy Who Blocked His Own Shot” (Brand New), “Not If You Were The Last Junkie On Earth” (The Dandy Warhols), “Reasons Why” (Nickel Creek)
Filed Between: The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion (Now I Got Worry) and Janis Joplin (Pearl)

Farmers Market: Surfin’ USSR

After listening to Farmers Market’s 2008 release on Ipecac, Surfin’ USSR, I went over to read their Ipecac bio. It started about as I expected.

The music of Farmers Market is a mixture of Bulgarian folk music, jazz standards, popular music and humor.

But then the next sentence kind of floored me.

Farmers Market has become one of Norway’s most popular live bands….

So yeah, as if you needed further proof that Norway is awesome, here we have a free jazz band from a nation of about five million people that also specializes in folk music of the Balkan region. And even beyond that, it’s awesome.

This isn’t free jazz in the artsy-fartsy deeper-than-the-ocean-blue sense where they’re kind of working with some intellectual but not necessarily aesthetically pleasing concept. On the contrary, these are songs in the traditional Western sense with a predominant influence–melodically, harmonically, instrumentally–from Eastern Europe folk music (think gypsies, horns, accordions) meshing perfectly with a standard rock and roll line up of drums, bass, and guitar. The performances are virtuosic, the sound is crystal clear, and the music is lively, endlessly interesting, and, as a result, a ton of fun.

The first half of the album is perfect. The band lays out a variety of musical styles, from metal (“To Hell And Baku”) to sweeping-strings-style, Italian-esque pop (“Lodtschitze Mini Maritza (Ferry Cross The Mersey)”, which probably shares best track honors with “From Prussia With Love”) to a predominantly vocal track that sounds Middle Eastern or at least modal in its harmonies (“Dissident Harmony Sisters Camel Call”).

The second half, though, doesn’t quite measure up to that five-clown trajectory. The band loses its focus as the clarity of message is lost among meandering solos, frantic near-noise sections, and too-long tracks without a clear thesis. There are still a bunch of great parts on the back half, it’s just that they’re not the kind of concentrate you get from the first-half mainline.

Anyway, way to go Norway for figuring out yet another niche the rest of the world didn’t know it needed and filling it. As for the rest of the world, you should be ashamed. Or at least be properly deferential to all from Norway.

Rating:
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– “Surfin’ Ussr,” “Lodtschitze Mini Maritza (Ferry Cross The Mersey),” “To Hell And Baku,” “From Prussia With Love,” “Ladyboy’s Night At The Cultural Relativism Saloon”
– “Surfin’ Ussr Pt. 2,” “Anyone Who Remembers Vladiwoodstock Wasn’t There!,” “Dissident Harmony Sisters Camel Call,” “Traktor Tracks Across The Tundra,” “Red Square Dance,” “The Dismantling Of The Soviet Onion Made Us Cry,” “Steroid Train Trip,” “Meanwhile Back At The Agricultural Workers Collective,” “One Day, Son, All I Own Will Still Belong To The State,” “Yagoda”
– “Kalshnikov Wedding”
Song Notes: After the jump

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Screaming Trees: Invisible Lantern

This is the sound of a band finding their sound. Despite it being the band’s third album in a catalog that also includes a preceding EP, this is the first one where they are, as I think of them, fully Screaming Trees.  And I don’t think I’m just saying that because this is the first of their albums that I listened to back in the day. It feels like the band is much more confident here, really strutting with forceful rhythms and muscular riffs.

The sound is pretty lousy. It’s lo-fi, but not in that fuzzed out good way, it’s really just more muddy. The nice thing is that singer Mark Lanegan is closer to the front here.

And there are a few weaker songs that, while inoffensive, aren’t really necessary to leading a full life. The line in “Even If” about how “all the animals come out to see” never fails to remind me of Get A Life‘s Zoo Animals On Wheels where the audience becomes the zoo and a fight breaks out–so that’s a good thing. “Direction Of The Sun” is probably the worst of the bunch. “She Knows” has a bit of a running-off-the-rails punk energy to it that works, but it just feels like an experiment for a band whose strengths lay mostly elsewhere.

Still, this album has some of the band’s best songs, and that’s what it will be remembered for. “Grey Diamond Desert,” with its prominent piano, is the first time the band really pulls off the epic track, and the sheer wonderfulness of that and the rest of the full tracks is what keeps some of the open hearts (“The Second I Awake,” “Invisible Lantern”) down at that rating just because they don’t measure up.

Rating:
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– “Walk Through To This Side,” “Lines & Circles,” “Grey Diamond Desert,” “Smokerings,” “Night Comes Creeping”
– “Ivy,” “She Knows,” “Shadow Song,” “The Second I Awake,” “Invisible Lantern,” “Even If,” “Direction Of The Sun”
Filed Between: Screaming Jets (All For One) and Screaming Trees’ Buzz Factory

Los Lobos: La Pistola Y El Corazón

As if Los Lobos didn’t have enough cred by basically inventing their own genre of Latino-progressive-indie-rockabilly, or whatever, just as their star was exploding with the La Bamba soundtrack, they went and recorded a Spanish-only album in tribute to traditional Mexican folk styles like Ranchero and Mariachi. Oh, there’s acordéon, my friend.

I mean, these guys are not half-assing the crossover thing here. We know they can rock, and now we know they’re seriously like, Mexican and stuff. At this point they could have just paid lip service to their roots, but these guys find, like, the thing that will make their career harder going forward than anything else, then do just that. Road less traveled and all that.

Anyway, I have no legitimacy when it comes to this style of music, but I find it a very enjoyable album. I had to work at it–speaking virtually no Spanish and, again, having little to no experience with Latino music, much less traditional Latino folk music–but once I let it sink in, I thoroughly enjoyed it. It really ends strongly, too. The last three tracks might be the best three on the album and the last song, the title track and the only original, is definitely the single best track. It’s a perfect ending, as if to say, “Thanks for the inspiration, now we’ll show you how it’s done even better.”

Rating:
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– “La Guacamaya,” “Las Amarillas,” “Que Nadie Sepa Ma Sufrir,” “El Canelo,” “La Pistola Y El Corazón”
– “Si Yo Quisiera,” “(Sonojas) Mañanitas Michoacanas,” “Estoy Sentado Aqui,” “El Gusto”
Filed Between: Los Lobos’ By The Light Of The Moon and The Neighborhood