Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Jesse Malin & the St. Marks Social and Marah - World Cafe Live 12/19/10

Jesse Malin (left), Dave Bielanko of Marah (right)

Having missed Jesse Malin and his new band during their first few gigs in Philly this year, I wasn't going to miss their last one of 2010. And when I heard that Philly's own Marah would also be playing as part of a "It Came Upon a Midnight Beer" mini-tour with donations for Toys for Tots, it just made it that much better.

The show opener was a local act, Slo-Mo. Slo-Mo is veteran local guitarist Mike Brenner, who has played with dozens of local artists over the years, including Marah. The rest of the band consists of rapper Mic Wrecka handling some vocals. They are also notably joined by Sue Rosetti and Steph Hayes, both formerly of Stargazer Lily. It appears they are part-time members of this band. It was a quick enjoyable set.

Jesse Malin & the St. Marks Social followed. Malin's career is an example of what happens when you have talent and determination. He's been a veteran of the NY hardcore punk scene since 1980, when he was 12 years old in the band Heart Attack. Since then he formed the under-appreciated D Generation in the 1990's and then went solo, showcasing his songwriting talent and other influences like Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, and Paul Westerberg along with his punk background. They are touring in support of Love It to Life - Malin's 4th solo album.

The St. Marks Social represents a return to his roots, with songs about the NY scene and life in the Bowery section of the city where CBGB's used to be. NY hardcore veteran Todd Youth plays lead guitar and helped put together the rest of the band with Malin. Youth also played in Agnostic Front, Murphy's Law, with D Generation on their final album in 1999, Danzig, and lately has been playing with the likes of Glen Campbell and Ace Frehley.

The set was tight, albeit a little short at only about 70 minutes. But they ran through a lot of crowd favorites. And it had the usual Malin banter between songs. My only quibble is that having seen Malin play about 6 times now, I've heard a few of these stories already.  And when the set was finished Malin even went to the Merch table to talk to fans and sign stuff.

In between sets Cracker and Ted Leo played on the sound system, so that was plus.

Marah came on to close the show shortly afterwards. They are promoting their latest release, Life Is A Problem. Dave Bielanko said he kind of blew out his voice the night before at the Stone Pony in Asbury Park, NJ. But they would do their best and got through an hour or so long set. Christine Smith plays keyboards in Marah and she used to play with Malin a few years ago, so there's that connection. And she handled vocals on a few songs to give Bielanko a break. They also played some instrumentals for the same reason. Marah have always had a Bruce Springsteen meets punk rock with a dash of stringband music in it. So they find a way to incorporate instruments like accordions, bagpipes, and banjos in their songs and it all works somehow.

And then Malin and the St Mark's Social came back out to play the last 3 songs with Malin handling lead vocals on all of them. The highlight was "Fairytale of New York" - one of my favorite Christmas songs. It was originally done by the Pogues and Kirsty MacColl. Malin recorded this for his covers record in 2008. Christine Smith handled the female vocal parts.

I just wish Bielanko had his voice and the set was longer. This was the first time I had ever seen Marah and their impressive live show. I'd like to see a normal longer set by them one of these years, since this show only consisted of 5 Marah originals.

Jesse Malin & the St. Mark's Social Setlist:
1. Cigarettes and Violets
2. Burning the Bowery
3. Hotel Columbia
4. Prisoners of Paradise
5. Disco Ghetto
6. Burn the Bridge
7. Wendy
8. Lucinda
9. The Archer
10. Mona Lisa
11. Black Boombox
12. All the Way From Moscow
13. Black Haired Girl
14. Solitaire
15. Instant Karma (John Lennon)

Marah setlist:
1. O Come All Ye Faithful (instrumental with bagpipes)
2. Rocky Theme (instrumental)
3. Limb
4. The Catfisherman
5. Baby, It's Cold Outside **
6. Angels of Destruction
7. Muskie Moon
8. Valley Farm Song
9. Here Comes Santa Claus *
10. Santa Claus Is Coming to Town *
11. Auld Lang Syne
12. Holly Jolly Christmas
13. Winter (by Rolling Stones) #
14. Fairytale of New York (by The Pogues with Kirsty MacColl) # **
15. Merry Christmas Everybody (by Slade) #

* - with Christine Smith on lead vocals
** - with Christine Smith on co-lead vocals
# - with Jesse Malin & the St. Marks Social, Malin on lead vocals

Old 97's at the TLA 12/11/10

I've seen the Old 97's or Rhett Miller solo 11 times now and the shows are still entertaining. They do play some songs at nearly every show, but they also play a nice chunk of their latest material, along with some older songs that are added back into the setlist rotation. So at least 1/3 of the set will usually be songs you haven't seen live before or at least not in a long time.

Part of what makes it fun seeing the band is that they have so much fun doing it. They really seem to enjoy playing together and that comes through during their live shows. Rhett Miller joked to bassist and songwriting partner, Murry Hammond, before one song that they spend so much together, they are like each other's second spouse. The quartet, which also includes guitarist Ken Bethea and drummer Philip Peeples, has been performing together for 17 years. You'd be hard-pressed to find another band with all the original members, who has been together at least that long, without breaking up and reuniting or going on hiatus. U2 is probably the only other one still going.

The formula remains the same for them - smart catchy pop/rock songs with a twang, highlighting their Beatles by way of 80's Alt Rock with a dose Johnny Cash influences and high-energy live shows. They are definitely one of those most hard-working and reliable acts of recent memory, remaining in a near-constant write/record/tour mode for almost their entire careers except for a few year break earlier last decade, right after they all got married and had kids.

This most recent show did not disappoint. It ranks somewhere near the top of the list of shows, perhaps 3rd or 4th best. I suppose it was a tad disappointing that some old favorites were left off the setlist like "Doreen", "Big Brown Eyes", "Streets of Where I'm From", "Won't Be Home", and "Murder (Or a Heart Attack)", to name a few. And in general the material from 1999-2004 - Fight Songs, Satellite Rides, and Drag it Up, isn't greatly represented any longer, but cuts have to be made to fit in the new material. And they can't play forever.

The highlights were the set closer, "If My Heart Was a Car" - a song that hasn't been played much since the 1990's but has resurfaced in most sets the last year or so. It is one of my favorite songs from their debut album, Hitchhike to Rhome, and this was the first time I have ever seen them do it live. And they began the encore with "Wish the Worst", also from their debut album. A few audience members had been yelling for that song all night and they finally obliged. This was also the first time I have ever seen this song live as well.

As expected, much of the rest of the setlist consisted of tracks from the new album, The Grand Theatre, Volume One - 9 tracks in all. The new material sounded great. They also played a cover of the Rolling Stones' "Rocks Off" during the encore at a time in the set where they had been playing R.E.M.'s "Driver 8" during much of this tour. The setlist below is pretty much spot on and was based on what the band had written up. The only track I'm not sure about is "Indefinitely", which wasn't on the official setlist, but was added after they found out Steve Garvey of the Buzzcocks was in attendance. And at the end of "Indefinitely" they referenced "Everybody's Happy Nowadays" as a nod to the influence that song had on their song.

1. The Grand Theatre
2. Here’s To the Halcyon
3. Dance Class
4. Lonely Holiday
5. You Smoke Too Much
6. Busted Afternoon
7. Champaign, Illinois
8. Victoria
9. Love Is What You Are
10. W Tx Teardrops
11. Please Hold On While the Train Is Moving
12. Stoned
13. Question
14. Designs On You
15. You Were Born To Be in Battle
16. Barrier Reef
17. Let the Whiskey Take the Reins
18. Rollerskate Skinny
19. Smokers
20. Indefinitely
21. Every Night Is Friday Night (Without You)
22. Melt Show
23. If My Heart Was A Car

Encore-1-Rhett solo:
24. Here It Is Christmas Time
25. Holly Jolly Christmas
26. I Need To Know Where I Stand

Encore-2-whole band:
27. Wish The Worst
28. Rocks Off (Rolling Stones)
29. Dance With Me
30. Timebomb

Friday, November 19, 2010

Darkness on the Edge of Town and The Promise

I've been thinking recently about Bruce Springsteen's reissue of Darkness on the Edge of Town, including a 2-disc set of rarities and outtakes from that era called The Promise. And also 3 DVDs all for a ridiculous list price of $85+ for one release, but that's another story for another day. Unfortunately, when I cut my arm, I don't bleed dollar bills. So hopefully, one of these months I'll get around to listening to the rarities unearthed on The Promise. But in the meantime I listened to Darkness again recently and also the song, "The Promise" that was released as part of the Tracks boxed set of rarities in the late 90's.

While many fans would rate the more popular Born to Run, Born in the USA, or even the sprawling, classic double album The River, as their favorite, Darkness was always my favorite Springsteen album.

Bruce has always sung about the struggles, hopes, and dreams of the working-class. Born to Run was his idealistic "dreamer album" - songs about kids like him from a small towns trying to get out and hit the big time. It captured the unharnessed youthful restlessness of that era and the desire to do something, anything important and finally punch your ticket out of town. And it came through in big anthems like "Born to Run", "Jungleland", and "Thunder Road."

And the material after Born to Run reflected the difference in maturity as Bruce still had his idealism, but it was tempered with a healthy dose of realism (yes realism not cynicism...idealists too often accuse people of cynicism when it's very often just realism).

The mid-20's kid who wrote Born to Run thought he could change the world. And then shit happened. They had to delay the recording of the next album, because Springsteen was involved in a lawsuit with his manager Mike Appel, over the licensing deals he originally signed. It was probably more about power than money, but that kind of set the mood for the next album. Until the lawsuit was resolved, the band wasn't legally able to officially write or record new songs. But Bruce never stopped writing. And the new songs were more stripped-down and basic and less audacious. And in interviews since then Bruce mentioned that the back-to-basics approach was at least partly influenced by the excitement of the first wave of punk rock that oozed into the mainstream in 1977.

His first 3 albums were viewed as more urban albums, influenced by classic 50's and 60's rock and blues, so Clarence Clemons' saxophone was the perfect exclamation point to a lot of those songs. With Darkness it was more difficult to work in the Big Man, since these were more rural/Americana kinds of songs. But after listening  to "Promised Land" again the sax and harmonica combination works so well that you wonder why it wasn't tried more. But this split between urban/rural music also explains why Bruce has recorded many of his folky albums without the E-Street Band ever since Darkness. The rest of the band works well with a certain style of songs and not as well as with others.

The late 20's guy who wrote the material on Darkness seemed to still be an idealist at heart, but he began to understand the lessons from the serenity prayer. And perhaps being a little scarred from his first legal battle and humbled by his newly found success, the old "Catholic guilt" kicked in. Born to Run was like the pre-fame album and Darkness is the aftermath and the realization that the world is still a pretty screwed up place, even after most your teenage dreams have come true.

Both albums contained songs about loners and loneliness, isolation and desperation. But in Born to Run he wanted to be somewhere else and even be someone else. Whereas in Darkness that feeling is replaced with more contentment without quite reaching resignation. It was finding comfort in his own skin again and reasserting who he really was. He was definitely not entirely comfortable with the idea of being the guy who was on the covers of Time and Newsweek as the "rock's new sensation" and a "rock star", coming out of nowhere after being at risk of being dropped from his label just a few months prior to that.

Before Darkness, his first 3 albums were mostly stories about people like him. On Darkness he was able to write with an uncommon depth about people he no longer had that much in common with any more (at least economically). But like all great songwriters and storytellers, he was able to empathize with the characters and themes he wrote about so convincingly that you still felt like he was singing about people he hung around with every week - the factory worker, the young kid drag racing, etc. Some of the songs on Darkness can be seen as an homage to his father, a middle class factory worker. As he said in the documentary, he still felt a kinship with these people and felt like he needed to write about their every-day struggles.

The transition to this songwriting style on Darkness is a common thread in all of his work since then. And I think the dichotomy of the Born to Run style vs the Darkness style, both musically and lyrically, is sort of the yin/yang of the Springsteen canon.

That's my $0.02 anyway.

Here's a clip of "Promised Land":

And another of "Badlands":

And this classic "Rosalita" clip  from the same show was actually shown on MTV for a little while in the 80's:

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Election That Restored Insanity

(source: NY Daily News)

(source: Huffington Post)

1. I don't know quite what to make of this week's election results. Every poll showed this wave was coming for months and with a poor economy in the early stages of recovery and unemployment still between 9.5-10%, historical trends show that the party in power was sure to lose at least 45 seats no matter what they said or did the previous 2 years.

But exit polls showed that voters disapproved of Republicans by the same amount as Dems. This was more of a "throw that bum out and vote in a different bum and see how that goes" kind of a election.

One pundit made a point that voters are like Goldilocks now, except they never seem to think anything is "just right." Think of the numerous conflicting, schizophrenic messages voters have delivered in the last 6 years. After 2004, it looked like a very Republican country. Karl Rove was getting credit for creating a "permanent Republican majority." And I had to consider learning a new language for when I would be forced to move to Europe. Then in 2006 all of a sudden voters decided that everything that happened the previous 4 to 6 years (much of which was that way in 2004, but was ignored and/or actually supported then) was no good. "The wars suck, the economy sucks, and we want a new direction." Even though those things sucked in 2004 as well. By the time 2008 rolled around, the wave continued. The economy got gradually worse until it bottomed out and the Dems were fired up, so they voted even more decisively in favor of a new direction.

Then after about a year into Obama's presidency, the tide started turning the other way leading to this wave we saw in 2010, with voters again wanting a new direction. Voters keep delivering huge changes in offices that normally would represent a mandate for that agenda. Then when that party tries to enact that agenda, voters complain that they went too far. Between 2004 and 2006 and then between 2008 and 2010, neither Bush nor Obama did anything they didn't campaign on doing. If you didn't like it then, you shouldn't have voted for it. Elections have consequences but impatient apathetic American voters (either by voting or not voting at all) end up delivering a result that is a reset every 2 years.

Apparently people think 2 years is enough time to reverse 8 years of bad governance and economic problems, and really 30 years of income redistribution upward. Voters' memories are short, seeming to forget what happened 5 minutes ago, so I guess that gives the Dems a lot of hope for 2012. But it's enough to give you whiplash. And when what voters want doesn't make sense or is so unrealistic it can't be delivered, it's to the benefit of the party that has no realistic policy agenda, like the Republican party of today. Voters say they want politicians to fix all of these big problems. But that involves hard choices and tough votes. And then when they actually have the cojones to make those tough votes, voters respond by voting them out of office. So voters are not giving politicians any political incentive to ever do the hard thing and fix the big problems. And you wonder why problems never get solved.

Now obviously the same people aren't voting for all of these different things. Some stay home and that makes the opposition voters decisive in that election. But there does seem to be this wishy washy 10-15% of the electorate, who have no idea what they want and end up being the swing votes in close elections. So they vote and if whatever they wanted doesn't materialize within a few months, they are ready to throw those people out of office, even when slow and steady progress seems to be happening, as it is now (11 consecutive months of private sector job growth after 22 straight months of job losses prior to that - the last 11 months of Bush and first 11 under Obama, etc).

2. Related to the Rally to Restore Sanity from last weekend, I am big fans of theirs but I didn't really understand what Stewart/Colbert were trying to accomplish. They engaged in a lot of false equivalency, criticizing all media as being equally bad, when in reality it's more like most media is just incompetent and lazy, and one is really a propaganda outlet (FOX).

Neither type of media problem is helpful, but lumping them together as being equally bad is also wrong. To paraphrase what Keith Olbermann tweeted after the Stewart/Colbert rally, "whatever the losses on Tuesday will they be because liberals were too loud or too timid?"

It reminds me of the childish "Both parties stink so I don't pay attention to anything" philosophy you hear from a lot of people. It makes the person who says it sound like they are above it all, but ultimately it is the duty for all of us to stay minimally involved and informed and make decisions based on facts.

The only thing worse than that is the voters who complain about the negative advertising and say they want to see more cooperation. One voter interviewed for a story in Illinois said, "I'd like to get to the bottom of what's really right for this country, and that's kind of hard while they're all calling each other names." Oh dear god, not name-calling! Here's a thought: why don't you read about what they are saying about each other, taking whatever they say with a grain of salt, find out what the facts are, and stop whining about politicians being negative.

And this obsession with milquetoast bipartisanship by many in the media like columnists like Broder, Brooks, former Senator Evan Bayh, etc, (and yes Stewart and Colbert are in the media whether they like it or not) is a luxury that a lot of people don't have. Most people aren't observing politics from their little ivory towers, wishing we would all get along. Getting along is fine, but getting along doesn't always get health care reform passed, or a green energy/carbon emissions bill passed (as we saw last year), or help preserve a vibrant, functioning middle class. Bipartisan deals only work when both sides want to negotiate in good faith. I won't be holding my breath for that to happen any time soon.

The last 2 major votes that received large bipartisan support (i.e., more than a few token Republicans) of more than 60 votes were TARP bailouts and the Iraq retrospect probably the 2 most unpopular things Congress has done in the last decade. Iraq War votes killed the GOP House majority in 2006 and the TARP votes along with economy helped kill the Democratic majority in 2010.

For better or worse you only have 2 choices when it comes to voting. So do some research and make the best choice for yourself. Develop a coherent worldview that doesn't change with whatever way the wind is blowing and stick with it for more than 2 years. Be open to new ideas and new and different ways to get positive results, but at least stay with a consistent philosophy.

You can be partisan, passionate, and also sane and respectful of opposing views. You just probably won't be shown on cable news shows too often. But principled moderation didn't bring about civil rights or women's rights or Obama's election for that matter.

Sometimes you have to get your hands a little dirty to get tough things accomplished, when corporate power and the status quo inertia seems to make getting anything significant done nearly impossible. I obviously am not old enough to have lived through FDR and LBJ and the historic legislation they passed that helped build the strong 20th century middle class America that so many people are nostalgic for now. But I guarantee that at times they were hyperbolic and over the top in their rhetoric. They would have been mocked by Jon Stewart. And if Fox News was around then, they'd be calling them communists/socialists/Hitler 24 hours a day.

3. Some other headscratching results from the polls:

- 35% of people blamed Wall St for our current economic problems, followed by Bush at 29% and Obama at 24%. (I guess the other 12% blamed Andy Reid and Donovan McNabb, hiyooo).

But of the 35% who blamed Wall St, they voted 56-42 in favor of Republicans. This tells me 2 things: A) the ads run by the GOP (ironically, funded by Wall St!) linking Dems to the bailouts of Wall St were probably the single most effective ads of the election cycle, and B) voters really don't pay close attention, since they are putting a lot of people back in power who voted for the bailouts and voted against the Wall St reform bill that would alleviate the need for future bailouts...all because they didn't like the bailouts.

- Exit polls in Nevada showed senior citizens backed Sharron Angle, the Senate candidate who wanted to end Social Security and Medicare as we know it, by a margin of 53-44. The biggest problem in Nevada is like a 15% state unemployment rate and the collapse of the Real Estate market there. And seniors typically aren't affected as much by those things. And Harry Reid ended up winning with younger voters. Talk about people voting against their own self-interest. Plus Reid is like 125 years old so you'd think older voters would relate to him.

- But the single most stupefying anecdote I heard all night was the woman in Indiana who was interviewed on CNN. She voted for Obama in 2008 and in 2010 pulled the lever for a straight Republican ticket. She's been out of work for over 2 years. And her #1 issue is she wants more/better health care coverage. So she just voted for people who want to repeal health care and against the party who voted for the bill giving people like her more affordable access to health care and more protections against insurance company abuses once she gets it. Did she not pay attention during that year-long debate over health care? I believe it was in the news a few times.

4. So what does it all mean? Obviously people are angry and a lot of swing voters all turned out and voted Republican while a lot of the Democratic base stayed home. Obviously real people voted the way they did.

But I think what you see is the culmination of a 20-month or so campaign by Corporate America and its surrogates (Fox News, Limbaugh, etc) to take their big piece of the country back, using the real Tea Party people as useful idiots. The Tea Party is simply the Republican party re-branded with a new name, since people rejected that other brand a few years ago, and still do. So now it's the same party, same policies, same corporate backers, but now they are the "new and improved Tea Party" going to Washington to enact change. And the first orders of business are to extend tax cuts for millionaires, repeal the health care law, and undo financial regulatory reform laws. A pretty clear agenda to take care of those in the top 2% and screw everyone else. So a return to those booming times of late 2008!

The early Tea Party rallies were more grassroots things. And then the Karl Rove and Dick Armey and the big corporate donors figured they could ride (and then eventually steer) this bus back into power. So they astro-turfed it from there on out. Sweeping new changes do not scare voters as much as they scare big powerful corporations, who then in turn spend big money running ads scaring voters about things they have no reason to fear, hoping they'll put Corporate America's wholly-owned subsidiary, the Republican Party, back into power.

So after 2 years, some of the Democratic base was unenthused and disappointed over not getting everything the Dems campaigned on, an economic turn-around, and a bag of chips all in just 2 years. And younger voters are disillusioned because, like, you know lots of stuff they wanted didn't get done yet...or something and so they couldn't be bothered voting. 2006 and 2008 enthusiasm: poof - gone. Those first time voters thought the work ended with the election in 2008. That was the beginning, not the end. Hopefully this will be a wakeup call to them to stay the hell involved and vote in 2012.

And so while too much of the Democratic base stayed home, an energized conservative base and frustrated middle-of-the-road voters, just voted to put most of the same politicians, running on pretty much the same exact platform, right back in power after just 2 years. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result. So in 2010, I guess the majority voters opted to restore insanity rather than continue on the long path forward. Welcome to the Idiocracy.

"Everybody complains about politicians. Everybody says they suck. Well, where do people think these politicians come from? ...If you have selfish, ignorant citizens, you're going to get selfish, ignorant leaders. Term limits ain't going to do any good; you're just going to end up with a brand new bunch of selfish, ignorant Americans. So, maybe, it's not the politicians who suck. Maybe something else sucks around here... like, the public...."
-- George Carlin

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Hold Steady @ Trocadero 10/5/10

(Source: Rough Trade)

The Hold Steady may be from Brooklyn, by way of Minneapolis, but in many ways they fit the hard-working "bar band who made it big" image that Philly-area people usually adore. Their sound has always been sort of a like a meeting at a bar between Thin Lizzy, Bruce Springsteen, and the Replacements.

I'd rate this show as one my tops of the year so far. I have always theorized this is perfect time in a band's career to see them live - when they have 3 to 5 good albums under their belts with lots of old crowd favorites, so they play a little longer and you leave hearing everything old that you want to hear + the new songs. The played a fairly long set (1:30-1:40), played almost everything I wanted to hear, and most importantly sounded great live. What more can you ask for? Other than maybe "Slapped Actress", "Massive Nights", or "Citrus", I can't think of anything else that would be missing from what I would call my perfect setlist.

Craig Finn doesn't fit the media image of someone who would be fronting a popular rock band, but looks are deceiving and he really puts on a great live show. There were lots of sing-along moments in the crowd, especially during "Southtown Girls", "The Weekenders", "Chips Ahoy!", and "Sequestered in Memphis." The lead guitar skills of Tad Kubler were on display throughout. Here is a clip of "Sequestered in Memphis" from the show.

And in one of the finest moments of the set during the first song of the encore, "Constructive Summer", there's a line that goes - "Raise a toast to Saint Joe Strummer /I think he might have been our only decent teacher." And during the "raise a toast" part everyone in the audience who was holding a beer raised it in unison. Here is a full clip of that song. "Joe Strummer" part happens at about 2:54 in.

The setlist covered all 5 albums pretty evenly and even included 2 rarities. 3 songs from Almost Killed Me, 5 from Separation Sunday, 5 from Boys and Girls in America, 4 from Stay Positive, and 5 from the latest Heaven Is Whenever, plus the 2 rarities.


1.Positive Jam
2.Stuck Between Stations
3.Hurricane J
4.Girls Like Status (bside of Chips Ahoy!)
5.The Swish
6.Rock Problems
7.You Can Make Him Like You
8.Stevie Nix
9.Multitude of Casualties
10.Hot Soft Light
11.You Gotta Dance (With Who You Came To The Dance With)(from soundtrack/compilation album).
12.The Smidge
13.Chips Ahoy!
14.We Can Get Together
16.Southtown Girls
17.The Weekenders
18.Sequestered in Memphis
19.Chicago Seemed Tired Last Night
20.Killer Parties


21. Constructive Summer
22. Your Little Hoodrat Friend
23. Stay Positive
24. How a Resurrection Really Feels

Superchunk /Jenny and Johnny/ Versus @ Trocadero 9/22/10

(Source: Merge Records)

I was looking forward to finally seeing Superchunk play live for the first time. I was late getting into them, but have been a fan of theirs for years now. They always had a nice mix of pop, punk, and alt/indie sensibilities in their music, but for whatever reason (partially by choice of remaining on Merge Records) never really were able to break through in a big way the way similar-sounding acts in the 1990's did.

This show didn't disappoint. They played great set and the new songs from Majesty Shredding sounded great live. The crowd was really into the new material, which is refreshing to see when a band has been around 20+ years. Here is a taste - "Iron On" from the show.

Jenny and Johnny opened and they played a good set as well, showcasing 9 of the 11 songs on their new album, along with the set closer "Next Messiah" from Jenny Lewis' last solo album, and another track I didn't know. I found out later it is called "Just One of the Guys", which I think is a cover from a band called The Blondes.

A reunited Versus opened the show and unfortunately I missed them. I've read mixed reviews of their performance on various blogs.

Here is a good review of the show.

Superchunk Setlist:

1.Kicked In
2.Iron On
3.My Gap Feels Weird
5.I Guess I Remembered It Wrong
6.On The Mouth
7.Fractures in Plaster
8.Water Wings
9.So Convinced
10.Crossed Wires
11.Digging For Something
12.Detroit Has a Skyline
13.Like a Fool
14.Hello Hawk
15.Hyper Enough
16.Everything At Once

17.Cast Iron
18.Slack Motherfucker
19.100,000 Fireflies

Encore 2:
20.Precision Auto

Jenny and Johnny Setlist:

1.Scissor Runner
3.My Pet Snakes
4.Just Like Zeus
5.Straight Edge of the Blade
8.Just One of the Guys
9.Big Wave
11.Next Messiah

Pavement @ The Mann Music Center - 9/17/10


I'm a bit late with this review, but the show was well-reviewed by others, so I'll just link to one of those.

I'll just say that Pavement played an unusually tight set and sounded good. The setlist leaned heavily on their first 2 albums, Slanted and Enchanted and Crooked Rain. And they basically played everything from those albums you wanted to hear except "Summer Babe."

Anyway try here for more details.

And here is the full setlist:

2.Cut Your Hair
3.Kennel District
4.Heckler Spray
5.Elevate Me Later
7.Silence Kit
8.Starlings of the Slipstream
9.Box Elder
11.Fight This Generation
12.Shady Lane
14.Spit on a Stranger
16.Two States
17.In the Mouth a Desert
18.Conduit for Sale!
19.We Dance
20.Rattled By The Rush
21.Range Life

22.Date w/ IKEA
23.Trigger Cut
24.Stop Breathin'

Encore 2:
25.Gold Soundz

Friday, July 23, 2010

Top 15 Albums of 2010 So Far

It's about halfway through the year, so I figured it's a good time to post "best of so far" kind of thing. So anyway here goes:

1. Harlem - Hippies (Matador). 60's pop/rock done in a lo-fi way with punk influences and incredibly catchy songs. This probably won't still be #1 at year's end, but I can't say I've listened to another album more often than this so far in 2010.

2. Wavves - King of the Beach (Fat Possum). The best 8 or so songs to lead off an album I've heard in a long time. No more explanation needed. Just get it and listen. I was starting to think maybe Jay Reatard was this generation's Kurt Cobain. He did have the whole dying young thing to boot. But now I'm thinking maybe the Wavves' Nate Williams is that guy. Oh, and the former Reatard rhythm section is now backing him to add to the greatness.

3. Titus Andronicus - The Monitor (XL Records). So you have a 5-piece rock band from NJ who decided to make a Civil War concept album for their sophomore release with song titles like "No Future Part Three: Escape From No Future", "Four Score And Seven", and "The Battle of Hampton Roads" (an epic 14-minute marathon that sounds like about 5 different songs), with lots of references to Abe Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, and war. On its face it sounds like recipe for major suckage. But somehow they pull it off. Their sound is similar to the Hold Steady but more lo-fi. So you can hear Springsteen and 80's post-punk influences along with Billy Bragg, the Clash, and even some heavier stoner rock ala Queens of the Stone Age and even some stuff with fiddles reminiscent of the Celtic/punk of Dropkick Murphys. The lead single, "A More Perfect Union" may be the best song of 2010. You will be guaranteed to replay it a few times after you first hear it.

4. Jesse Malin & the St. Mark's Social - Love It To Life (Side One Dummy). Very lean 10 songs no filler...all in all another superlative effort by Malin. Ryan Adams produced it.

5. The New Pornographers - Together (Matador). This whatever-piece band from Vancouver just keeps getting better and better. 5 albums in now they have yet to release an album that wasn't good. It's actually difficult to find too many songs that aren't good. AC Newman and Dan Bejar are main songwriters and sing most of the songs and they are aided with talented female vocalists Kathyrn Calder and the great Neko Case.

6. Male Bonding - Nothing Hurts (Sub Pop). British 3-piece punk band lo-fi and are similar to other trios like Husker Du and Nirvana in places, but they fit well with other similar bands (Vivian Girls, No Age, Wavves, etc).

7. The Best Coast - Crazy For You (Mexican Summer). Similar to Harlem 60's pop/rock melodies with a lo-fi punk aesthetic. It kind of sounds like the Ronettes or Dusty Springfield meets Husker Du's wall of sound.

8. The Soft Pack - S/T (Kemado). The band formerly known as the Muslims returns with a more marketable name and a nice follow up to their 2009 debut album, then self-titled as The Muslims.

9. Alkaline Trio - This Addiction (Epitaph/Heart and Soul). I guess it was a disappointing effort compared to their previous work, but I found this album growing on me as the year went on. I doubted it'd still be in my top 10 by now, but here it sits. The title track, "Dine Dine My Darling, "Fine", "Dead on the Floor", and "Piss and Vinegar" are good tracks....most of the rest are fair. For punk purists beware of the trumpet solo on "Lead Poisoning."

10. Drive By Truckers - The Big To-Do (ATO Records). The Truckers keep cranking good Southern rock albums year after year with very little notoriety. The latest may be their best or 2nd best ever.

11. Against Me! - White Crosses (Sire/WEA). I believe this is their 5th proper release and their 2nd on a major label. But whereas their previous album, New Wave, didn't seem to have the requisite polished sound that usually occurs when a pop/punk act goes from indie to major label, you can definitely hear the changes on White Crosses. Butch Vig (Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, etc) produced it giving it a "bigger" cleaner more arena-friendly kind of sound. That caused points to be deducted for me as it sounds like they are conjuring the Killers on a few songs, but overall the songs are good enough to overcome this.

12. Delta Spirit - History From Below (Rounder). Solid follow up to their good 2008 release. They are sort of like Dr. Dog....give them a listen if you like Dr. Dog you won't be disappointed. The songs "911" and "Bushwick Blues" are worth it alone.

13. Dum Dum Girls - I Will Be (Sub Pop). Good record and one of my favorites earlier in the year, similar to Best Coast and Harlem but just a notch below. "Jail La La" is a great track. Several others too. And any band whose name is based on a combo of a Vaselines' album and an Iggy Pop song scores extra points.

14. Ted Leo and The Pharmacists - The Brutalist Bricks (Matador). Good record by Ted Leo which may end up being his last for awhile. From what I'm reading it sounds like he may be temporarily retiring from the music making part of the biz.

15. The Hold Steady - Heaven is Whenever (Vagrant). I guess this is album is a bit disappointing compared to their previous string of stellar releases but still solid.

Top 10 songs of 2010 in no particular order:

Spoon - "Trouble Comes Running"
Titus Andronicus - "A More Perfect Union"
Drive By Truckers - "Birthday Boy"
The New Pornographers - "The Crash Years"
Jesse Malin & St Mark's Social - "Burning the Bowery"
Alkaline Trio - "This Addiction"
Harlem - "Be My Baby"
Delta Spirit - "911"
Wavves - "Post-Acid"
The Soft Pack - "Answer to Yourself"

Friday, June 11, 2010

Huffamoose @ the Grape Room 6/8/10

For a few hours on a cool weeknight in early June it sort of felt like the mid to late 90's again at the newly re-opened Grape Room (nee Grape St. Pub) in Manayunk. It was my first trip to this landmark club in many years. Since I last was there, it had moved to more a elaborate Main St location where it thrived and then fizzled out, closed for good, and then reopened as the new Grape Room back at its original location on Grape St. earlier in 2010. The reason for my attendance was a short notice Huffamoose reunion show, since singer/guitarist Craig Elkins was in town visiting from his new home in Los Angeles for a few weeks.

The club looks largely the same as the last time I was there with the bottom floor a perfect intimate venue for 300 or so people. Former Stargazer Lily drummer Scooter bought the club, and they are kicking it old school with original live music almost every night of the week, with many new local artists and older faves from the 90's and early 00's.

Like for instance, Ben Arnold, who opened the show. I've seen Arnold play countless times over the years, usually sharing a bill with Huffamoose. And maybe my memory is clouded by time and a haze of alcohol, but I think this was one the best sets of his I've ever seen. Arnold and his band delivered about an hour's worth of twangy and bluesy rock tunes, recalling other local fave, Marah. While Huffamoose was setting up to play, Radiohead's The Bends played on the sound system, just adding to the nostalgic feeling of the mid to late 90's.

Huffamoose sounded great during their roughly 80 minute set, almost like they never broke up and stopped playing together for nearly 10 years. Maybe I'm reading too much into things, but the setlist seemed carefully chosen and not just thrown together for a quick reunion. I imagine quite of few of these songs required some additional rehearsals to pull off live after so long. Sure, the usual obligatory crowd favorites were in there like their minor hit "Wait", along with "She Don't Get It", "Buy You a Ring", and "James." But they also resurrected "Delusion" from their self-titled 1995 debut album, playing it live for the first time since 1993. And "Take You With", the one song from We've Been Had Again that I had never heard them ever play live before, made it into the setlist.

And they included 3 unreleased rarities in the set, 2 of which (I will call "1000 Hours" and "On Purpose Fellas" based on the lyrics in the song) were as familiar as many of their album tracks to fans who saw them play live frequently in the late 90's. Other song selections like "Beautiful Town" seemed purposeful for a reunion show in their hometown. "Snapshot Family" seems as if it could have been written by the band now, reflecting on their turbulent rise and fall in the late 90's during that era of record company mergers, downsizing, and reorganization which of course was followed by the advent of downloading which had an even more radical effect on the industry.

Present day 2010 intruded a little on the reunion vibe a few times. When Elkins introduced the band late in the set he made a joke thanking guitarist Kevin Hanson and bassist Jim Stager "of the Fractals" for helping them out tonight. And a few other times they plugged the new Fractals album that was just released in May. But it served as more of a reminder of what the band has accomplished and where they are heading now. Even if it turns out to be just a one-off gig, as it appears, for at least one night Huffamoose recaptured some of their past magic and reminded everyone why they were such an important band in their heyday.

Setlist (as best as I can remember):

1. Beautiful Town
2. 1000 Hours (unreleased)
3. Enigmatic
4. She Don't Get It
5. Celeste
6. Take You With
7. James
8. We've Been Had Again
9. Delusion
10. Speeding Bullet
11. Snapshot Family
12. Buy You a Ring
13. Wait
14. Like a Weed (with Led Zeppelin's "Nobody's Fault But Mine" as an interlude I think...I'm bad remembering Zeppelin titles)
15. On Purpose Fellas (unreleased)
16. Sweet Thing? Yes Man? (old rarity I couldn't recall)

Monday, May 3, 2010

Wilco @ The Electric Factory, Philadelphia - 04/10/2010


I'm finally getting around to posting the Wilco concert review from 4/10/2010 at the Electric Factory. It was a tremendous show and probably my favorite Wilco show since I saw them at the Troc in 1999. They ended up playing for 3:15 and played 39 songs with no breaks for Jeff Tweedy until the encore which came nearly 3 hours into the show. They played a mini 9-song acoustic set in the middle of the show (Set 2 below) which was kind of cool, although the sound quality wasn't great...there was a problem with the mic or something.

And the ended the regular set with a cover of Big Star's "In the Street" with bassist John Stirratt handling the vocals. It took me a minute to figure out what song it was, because it fit so well with their sound on their early records. I guess it shows you how much of an influence Big Star was on them.

It's pretty hard to leave a show of a band who has been around as long as they have with 9 or so albums of material and only come up with 4 or 5 more songs you would have loved to hear. That's how this was. Really other than "Box Full of Letters" and a few others like "Lonely 1" and "ELT", which I've never seen them play live, there was nothing else I was really dying to hear that they didn't play. And I believe they haven't played "Box Full of Letters" at any Philly area shows since 1997. And I was legitimately surprised to see them close with "Outtasite (Outta Mind)" after playing the acoustic version - "Outta Mind (Outta Sight)" - earlier in the show.

Full setlist and album breakdown here.

1. Wilco (The Song)
2. I Am Trying To Break Your Heart
3. Ashes Of American Flags
4. Bull Black Nova
5. You Are My Face
6. One Wing
7. A Shot In The Arm
8. I'll Fight
9. Company In My Back
10. Pot Kettle Black
11. Handshake Drugs
12. California Stars
13. Impossible Germany
14. Poor Places

Set 2:
15. Spiders (Kidsmoke)
16. You And I
17. Sunken Treasure
18. That's Not The Issue
19. Forget The Flowers
20. Laminated Cat
21. War On War
22. Passenger Side
23. Outta Mind (Outta Sight)

Set 3:
24. Airline To Heaven
25. Via Chicago
26. Hate It Here
27. Walken
28. Jesus, Etc.
29. Theologians
30. You Never Know
31. I Must Be High
32. Can't Stand It
33. Heavy Metal Drummer
34. I'm The Man Who Loves You
35. In The Street

Set 4:
36. Dreamer In My Dreams
37. Casino Queen
38. Outtasite (Outta Mind)
39. I'm A Wheel (rave version)

Monday, April 19, 2010

"1000 True Fans"

I just came across an interesting analysis in a post that is now over 2 years old.

The point is that in such an era of niche-driven music, a band can survive without a record label and prosper making enough money to pay the bills and then some, as long as they have around "1000 true fans" who each spend roughly $100 per year on this band and their products. Finding 1000 people in a country so large doesn't seem so difficult, especially now that the Internet and pro tools and the like has democratized the barriers of entry into the music business. You no longer need the record label to pay you an advance and cover your 3 months of recording fees and then pile another significant amount into marketing and advertising.

And once you already build a following of 1000 true fans and several thousand more who are interested enough to buy most of your catalog and attend most of your shows in their area, there is really nothing more that a label could do for most bands...other than get in the middle, take a cut of the profits, and ultimately probably not sell many more albums for them. I guess what keeps some new artists signing with major labels is that they believe they will be that 1 out of 100 bands who signs with a big label and goes onto super-stardom, rather than just making a nice living doing it your way. And waving a big advance in front of them probably helps - the bird in hand and all that.

At this point, I should describe what the phrase "1000 true fans" means. It refers to 1000 people who are die hard fans - they get email news alerts, are probably on mailing lists or fan clubs, buy every new album the day it is released (either in CD or from iTunes, etc), drive several hundred miles if necessary to see a live show, buy t-shirts or other merch, etc, on an annual basis. They will buy the new reissued, remastered, including bonus tracks and early demos version of the same album over and over again.

Some artists like Pearl Jam, for instance, probably have hundreds of thousands of fans like this. That affords them the opportunity to do whatever they want when it comes to style and live set lists, with still enough demand to sell out arenas and make enough money to pay their bills and still live very comfortably. Pearl Jam has not signed on with a major label since their Sony contract expired earlier last decade. Instead they are releasing albums on their own label and then signing on with other outlets for distribution. For their most recent album, it was exclusively through Target.

On a smaller scale, a band like Wilco is sort of like Pearl Jam but with tens of thousands of "true fans" instead of hundreds of thousands, with enough demand to sell out large theatres. And as you work your way down the scale, you will find probably hundreds if not thousands of artists who have over 1000 true fans.

Record labels have become as irrelevant as video stores now and most everyone should cut out the middle man.

Friday, January 8, 2010

The Year in Music 2009

End of year lists are getting more difficult to compile. It's probably not something that will still be relevant even 6 months or a year later because our preferences and likes/dislikes are constantly evolving, especially when it comes to art and pop culture. And often times when you are discovering older albums, your favorite or most-played album in any particular year, may have been released several years before that. But nevertheless here is my small contribution to this huge waste of time and exercise in futility. I guess it is still kind of fun for music fans to do an annual inventory of what they bought that year and what they liked and disliked or else we wouldn't do it. So without further ado, enjoy.

2009 Shows

Jesse Malin – 4/3 at the Tin Angel
Jay Reatard – 7/4 at Johnny Brenda's
Face To Face with Pegboy – 9/20 at the Trocadero.
Dinosaur Jr with Bob Mould and Lou Barlow – 10/9 at the TLA.
Pearl Jam with Social Distortion – 10/28 at the Wachovia Spectrum.
Pearl Jam with Bad Religion – 10/30 at the Wachovia Spectrum.
Grant Hart with Taggart – 12/17 – at the World CafĂ©.

Best Live, Rare, EP, Singles, Compilation, Reissues, Cover albums of the year

Unless otherwise noted, these releases are just reissues of the original album, often with extra bonus tracks or bonus live discs.

Death Cab For CutieThe Open Door EP (Atlantic). These were some tracks left over from the sessions for their last album.

The GamilonsBlue Whispers EP (Not Lame Records). Promising Beatles-esque EP from Pete Wiedmann of Love Seed.

The Get Up KidsSomething to Write Home About (Vagrant).

The LemonheadsVarshons (The End). An album of covers by Evan Dando produced by Gibby Haynes of Butthole Surfers. Some interesting covers on here, as well as some head-scratchers. I actually would have preferred a few of these surprises mixed with an album of the covers Dando has performed frequently in concert over the last 15 years – "Skulls" by the Misfits, "Lake Charles" by Lucinda Williams, anything he's covered by Big Star, etc.

Modest MouseNo One's First and You're Next EP (Epic). This was a solid EP covering the same sonic ground of their last 2-3 albums, but with a little more experimentation than usual.

NirvanaBleach (Sub Pop).

NodzzzTrue To Life - Single (What's Your Rupture?). This song goes great with the rest of the Nodzzz album like tobasco sauce with a Bloody Mary.

The Pains of Being Pure At HeartHigher Than the Stars EP (Slumberland). An EP released earlier in 2009 before the full-length album came out with other new tracks than were on the album.

Pearl JamTen (Epic).

R.E.MReckoning (A&M).

RadioheadPablo Honey (Capitol).

RadioheadThe Bends (Capitol).

RadioheadOK Computer (Capitol).

SpoonGot Nuffin' EP (Merge). Decent little EP of some experimental rock by Spoon. A few tracks sound a bit different than what you are used to hearing. That’s what EP's are for. Well worth if it like Spoon.

Sun AirwayOh, Naoko EP (self-released). Sun Airway is the new band started by some of the members of the A-Sides. Solid power pop/rock.

SuperchunkCrossed With Wires Single and Leaves in the Gutter EP (Merge). Superchunk were always more of a singles/EP kind of band, than a full-length album band - at least until the mid to late 90's. These are no exception and represent some of the best material from them in many years.

U2The Unforgettable Fire (Island).

Paul WesterbergPW & The Ghost Gloves Cat Wing Joy Boys EP (Dry Wood Music). Another off the cuff release by Westerberg. 6 solid but unspectacular songs and DIY album artwork of pictures of Westerberg apparently hiking on family vacation. That's worth the price alone.

Vivian GirlsI Can’t Stay and Surf's Up Single (In The Red). These non-album releases also contain no tracks that were also on their 2009 full-length release. Definitely worth checking out if you liked the albums.

Disappointments of 2009

The Animal CollectiveMerriweather Post Pavillion (Domino). I had to check out this album to see what all of the rock critic fellatio was about early this year. It's fun in parts, but much of it sounds like pretentious background music to me. And Beck, the Flaming Lips, Radiohead, Wilco, and even Grandaddy have already covered this ground and done it better.

Julian CasablancasPhrazes for the Young (RCA). Casablancas opened the 2000's with maybe the best album of the decade as the frontman on the Strokes' debut album. And here he is closing it out with a flat out unlistenable release of electronic dance rock. This was the worst $12 I spent all year.

CrocodilesSummer of Hate (Fat Possum). This isn't a bad album, but it sounded a little like Fat Possum was looking for more bands that sounded like Wavves. And Crocodiles were close enough, although they weren't a good enough imitation. The title track is pretty damn good though.

Dead WeatherHorehound (Third Man/Warner Bros). Would I have bought this album if Jack White wasn't involved? Probably not. White plays drums here while the female singer from the Kills handles vocals. It has that fuzzy punk/blues sound that has probably been the signature rock sound of this decade. But sadly this album doesn't measure up.

Franz FerdinandTonight: Franz Ferdinand (Sony). What is it with all of these rock bands making 70's-sounding disco albums? I guess it's not a total shock that these bands who broke onto the scene earlier this decade heavily influenced by indie-techno-rock bands like the New Order, Joy Division, and the Smiths would eventually end up here. The Yeah Yeah Yeah's have also gone in this direction. And the Bravery, Killers, Bloc Party, and Interpol are on their way.

Ben KwellerChanging Horses (ATO). This was Kweller's "country" album. It's ok and there a handful of decent poppy/twangy songs. And I respect what he was trying to do with steel guitars and the like. But I expect a return to alt/pop soon. Maybe the lesson here is don't "change horses" in midstream.

Ben LeeThe Rebirth of Venus (New West). Surprisingly the 2 songs with the most cringe-worthy, this-song-is-going-to-suck-just-based-on-the-title titles – "Yoko Ono" and "I Love Pop Music", are actually 2 of the most tolerable efforts on here. The rest is a rather embarrassingly sappy effort by a songwriter who I respect quite a bit.

Them Crooked VulturesS/T (DGC/Interscope). A band with Josh Homme on guitar, John Paul Jones on bass, and Dave Grohl on drums sounds like an incredible project. But the sum of the parts is much greater than the whole. There are very few memorable songs or even riffs on here, which is a huge shock.

ThursdayCommon Existence (Epitaph). I thought this band was the best in this emo/screamo genre earlier this decade, but their last 2 releases have left me wondering what the hell I was thinking. It’s a solid effort, but another disappointment.

Honorable Mentions

The Black CrowesBefore the Frost...Until the Freeze (Silver Arrow). The Crowes had released no new material since 2001's Lions until 2008. And now they have cranked out the equivalent of 3 new records in about 16 months time. The first album of this double album release, Before the Frost, was released as a solo disc and if you purchased that you were given a free download of the companion album Until the Freeze. The 20 total tracks on the 2 albums were actually recorded in front of a sparse live audience in upstate NY in a barn owned by Levon Helms of the Band. This is the album the band has wanted to make for years. So the songs have that immediate jammy live feel to them – the sound that has made the band both so compelling and so frustrating at times over their 20-year career. They definitely seem to be stuck in an Allman Brothers/early 70's Stones phase the last few years and there are some really great tunes on here. But overall, much like their live shows have felt the last few years, it was just a bit too much "stretching out" for me to digest.

The DipsomaniacsSocial Crutch (Face Down Records). The Dipsos have been a somewhat local fave (Trenton NJ) of mine for nearly a decade now. Every few years they crank out another good album of Replacements and Who-inspired power-pop tunes. This is no different.

GlasvegasS/T (Sony). This indie rock quartet from Glasgow, Scotland caught my attention early in 2009. There are some obvious influences like U2 and the Clash, but the songs have a big Phil Specter-esque "wall of sound" layer to them. But without good songs all of that build up to the crashing choruses wouldn’t be going anywhere.

Tommy KeeneIn the Late Bright (Second Motion Records). Tommy Keene has been cranking out power-pop masterpieces since the early 80's. This album was a solid return to form after his last few releases where he seemed more intent on showing off his first class guitar playing. So it is a return to what he does best – 4 minute power-pop gems.

MastodonCrack the Skye (Reprise). As far as contemporary "progressive metal" goes Mastodon is probably at or near the top of the heap right now. You can definitely hear links to Metallica and System of a Down. But they also fall into some sub-genre I've heard called Alternative Stoner Metal or something like that – so you can hear traces of Queens of the Stone Age and Biohazard as well. Here you have 7 songs checking in at about 51 minutes with long solos, reminiscent of early Metallica albums. This is their 4th album and they worked with producer Brendan O'Brien (Springsteen, Pearl Jam) on this to smooth out the rough edges a little bit.

Rhett MillerS/T (Shout! Factory). For the first time in my life I was kind of bored by a Rhett Miller release. I guess I just enjoy his work so much more in the Old 97's that these solo releases seem a bit self-indulgent. But it's his best outlet for these poppy songs I suppose. It's better than trying to get the rest of the band to dress them up into something they aren't. And some of these songs are a little twisted lyrically too, which was a nice surprise, but otherwise I just wasn't feeling it. Good album, but a bit disappointing.

The Minus 5Killingsworth (Yep Roc). Scott McCaughey is joined by his usual sidekick, Peter Buck of R.E.M, on this album, as well as several members of the Decemberists. The result is a pop/country-rock album with fiddles and steel guitars. It sounds like it would be some fun crazy, off the cuff project, like the 2003 release Down with Wilco, with (surprise) Wilco backing him. But it's actually a pretty serious, somber set of songs.

Bob MouldLife and Times (Anti). I was finally able to cross off one of things on my bucket list in 2009: see Bob Mould play live. Hey, it's a modest list – scaling Mt. Everest wasn't on there. I'm a hipster douchebag, so I'd rather see an alt/rock guitar god instead. This album was a bit more stripped down than his previous 2 releases and the rockers were a little disappointing. But there also were some of his career best songs on here and the ballads were good.

Son VoltAmerican Central Dust (Rounder). Son Volt's previous 2 comeback releases were really good, making this one a tad disappointing. It has a handful of real high highs, but unless you are a diehard fan of SV or Jay Farrar, you probably won't get into the 6 or 7 songs that are steeped in his country/folk influences. Farrar can still bum out people with the best of them, singing about the plight of the working class havenots in our society in the same way Springsteen, Dylan, and Woody Guthrie did. So I will still find a Farrar release interesting because of the lyrics and storytelling, even if it doesn't move me as much musically.

Street Sweeper Social ClubS/T (SSSC). I had high hopes for this. Guitar god Tom Morello returns to a band with a tight rhythm section and Boots Riley of the Coup on vocals. I expected it to be like another Rage Against the Machine album. And I am a fan of the Coup also, so I thought this had potential. Riley's vocal stylings are actually smoother than Zack De La Rocha's were in Rage, but the songs just aren't up to par.

Times New VikingBorn Again Revisited (Matador). I liked this album a lot, but I thought it was a notch below last year's Rip It Off. And with so many other lo-fi albums on my list that I enjoyed more, it dropped lower on my list, just missing my top 25. Rip It Off was like a riot put to music. And this follows similar territory with the same lo-fi charm of sounding like it was recorded in my kitchen while I was making dinner and washing dishes. And I mean that in a good way.

U2No Line on the Horizon (Interscope). This album grew on me during the year. But I just had so much trouble getting into it, that I just feel nothing towards it. I think I actually listened to it 2 or 3 times right after it was released and then didn't listen to it again until several months later. There are some highlights, but I don't see the "return to greatness" and all that praise that critics were bestowing on this. I read that some critics were comparing this to Boy and I don't hear anything on here that sounds as immediate or inspiring as Boy was. I think it most resembles The Unforgettable Fire, which is probably my least favorite U2 album from the 80's to early 90's era of the band. Is it better than Zooropa and Pop? Sure. But I thought their previous two albums, All That You Can't Leave Behind and How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, were both more enjoyable than this release. There are no new tricks now. I think we've heard every riff and solo the Edge can play. I guess it'd be different if they came out with an album every year or 2 years, but to take 3-4 years between every release, I expect better than these 11 songs.

Top 25 Albums of 2009

25. Dan AuerbachKeep It Hid (Nonesuch). The Black Keys frontman/guitarist shows a more melodic side here with bluesy rock ballads, recalling contemporaries like My Morning Jacket, as well as the Band, and other 70's classic country/rock.

24. JapandroidsPost-Nothing (Polyvinyl). Japandroids follow in the footsteps of Wavves, No Age, Times New Viking, et al, making lo-fi art-punk records that are universally adored by all of the hipsters. There is an element of the 80's-90's shoegazer influence running through all of these bands that probably traces back to My Bloody Valentine and beyond. And maybe more so with this band, giving them a little more unique of a sound.

23. Langhorne SlimBe Set Free (Kemado). The "Langhorne" in his name refers to his old hometown of Langhorne, PA (Holla!). Sean Scolnick became Langhorne Slim, moved to Brooklyn and has now released 3 very good folk-rock albums recalling Ryan Adams, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, and even early Beck. There is nothing groundbreaking here, although Slim does use a more varied array of musicians on this album giving it a more diverse sound than his previous releases. But it's just a collection of finely-crafted rootsy rock songs.

22. Benjamin Gibbard and Jay FarrarOne Fast Move Or I’m Gone: Music From Kerouak's Big Sur (Atlantic). This was a pleasant surprise – a collaboration between the frontmen from Death Cab For Cutie and Son Volt. These are 12 tracks written by Gibbard and Farrar on a project that started in 2007 writing music for the film about Beat poet/lyricist Jack Kerouak. Both Gibbard and Farrar were inspired by Kerouak's works. Much like the Woody Guthrie tribute albums on which Wilco and Billy Bragg collaborated, Gibbard and Farrar use lyrics from Kerouak's books set to original music they composed. Coincidentally, I believe Farrar has also been tapped to compose music on the 3rd Woody Guthrie album like this.

21. Bruce Springsteen - Working on a Dream (Columbia). This picks up where he and the band left off on 2007's Magic. It's been a busy decade for Bruce. He and the E-Street Band had several world tours. He did 3 big albums with the E Street Band, and 2 other folk-rock efforts either solo or with other musicians. To put that in perspective, after completing 4 decades in music now, this was the busiest decade of Bruce's career. Dream has some Bruce's best songs in decades – the title track, "Outlaw Pete", "My Lucky Day", "The Last Carnival", etc. And like on Magic, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, with an album that works well together without any duds in the mix.

20. Tegan and SaraSainthood (Sire/WEA). This has been a somewhat highly anticipated album for the Canadian twin sisters Tegan and Sara Quin, following 2004's So Jealous and 2007's The Con. Like many music fans, I didn't become aware of this duo until after the White Stripes and the Alkaline Trio covered songs from So Jealous, but I've been a fan ever since. Chris Walla of Death Cab for Cutie produced this effort and he helped create a little more layered approach to their stripped down folky pop/rock songs. But they were already moving in that direction starting with So Jealous and at this point it is just mere fine-tuning. Their first few records sounded more like Lilith Fair stuff – kind of folk/pop versions of Alanis Morrisette, Melissa Etheridge, etc., but since then their sound has matured and the songwriting has improved immensely. They returned to their punk influences and that added a little more muscle to their poppier sound. "Hell" (see video here) was the first single and has been a staple on alt/rock radio lately and is even being used as bumper music on radio and TV shows. And there are at least a half a dozen better songs on this record.

19. CrackerSunrise in the Land of Milk and Honey (429 Records). Is this the best Cracker album since the early 90's? I'd say yes. Maddeningly, this good band has never released a great album. They seem to have a series of good albums. Cracker has never really been a "hit singles" band. I think their handful of hits were happy accidents and good timing being released during the golden age of alt/rock radio. Every album is solid to very good, but it just seems like there is always something missing. This is similar but ranks up there with Cracker and Kerosene Heat, as their best to date.

18. Lou BarlowGoodnight Unknown (Merge). Barlow practically invented, or at least helped perfect, this lo-fi, stripped down style, proving that you can still make punk rock records even when you use acoustic guitars. I liked his previous solo effort Emoh a little bit more than this, but this is pretty good too. Has a voice ever fit so perfectly with a musical style as Barlow's and his lo-fi no frills recordings?

17. Neko CaseMiddle Cyclone (Anti). Case and Jenny Lewis are neck and neck these days as my favorite female vocalist. Case has been singing with the New Pornographers for years and also has released several acclaimed solo alt/country discs. Her albums go down like a smooth cocktail of rock, blues, country, and folk, similar to what Lucinda Williams has been doing for decades. "People Got a Lot of Nerve" was an early favorite of mine for song of the year, and that is just the highest high of many other highs. Check out the video here.

16. Sonic YouthThe Eternal (Matador). This and Sonic Youth's previous release, Rather Ripped, may be the best consecutive releases by this band since the early 90’s or even the late 80’s. On the Eternal, they have returned to their indie roots on Matador and have added ex-Pavement bassist Mark Ibold. "Sacred Trickster" is a great opener (see video here) and the first thing that strikes you about this album is how hard it rocks coming from a band that has been together around 30 years. It's probably their heaviest album since the late 80's. All in all, this contains a little bit of everything Sonic Youth does really well.

15. A.C. NewmanGet Guilty (Matador). Carl Newman has been cranking out so many good pop/rock songs in the New Pornographers over the last decade that it's surprising that he has some really good ones leftover for a solo album. And many of the tunes on here would have been better than anything on the last few NP albums.

14. The Pains of Being Pure At HeartS/T (Slumberland). Oh Christ, not another band of hipster arty noise rock douchebags from New York. Yes, maybe and yes. But this album is actually pretty damn good, inspite of the horrendous band name. And this round of art/punk bands are much less douchebaggy to me than the Interpol types from earlier this decade. Much like Japandroids, they blend a lot more shoegazer stuff with the noise rock, owing much to My Bloody Valentine and Teenage Fanclub. And the songs are catchy to boot. And any band who titled a one-off single from last year "Kurt Cobain's Cardigan", is alright in my book. Check out the video for "Everything With You."

13. Vivian GirlsEverything Goes Wrong (In The Red). There probably wasn't a band in indie rock circles who received more backlash from a particualr scene in the last year than the NYC-based Vivian Girls. Their 2008 debut was good and I think this is even better. They are another shoegazer-influenced, noisy art rock band. They were at the right place at the right time, playing a style that was just starting to take off before the backlash started. They remind me more of Sonic Youth and the Smiths than any of the contemporaries. Check out the video for "When I'm Gone."

12. The RaveonettesIn & Out of Control (Vice). Well, I guess 2008 and 2009 have been years when arty noise/pop and noise/rock albums had a bit of a revival. The Raveonettes from Copenhagen produce a catchier version of this noise/pop sound and have been doing so since early this decade. There are great pop melodies buried in that noise. And I’ve always liked the way they have blended songs with dark subject matter (death, rape, suicide) in such catchy melodies. "Last Dance" (check out video here) and "Boys Who Rape (Should All Be Destroyed)" were among the top songs of the year for me.

11. Green Day21st Century Breakdown (Reprise). It was an impossible task for Green Day to top American Idiot. They certainly don't lack ambition though and did a pretty good job with this release. I was still listening to Idiot start to finish several years after the release, and it still kept my attention. Breakdown is a very good album in a similar way, but I think it just comes up a little short and after Idiot, it seems a little more repetitive. It's still quite an artistic accomplishment for a punk rock trio who haven't even yet hit their 40's to basically reinvent themselves, while still staying true to their roots as much as possible.

10. Built To SpillThere Is No Enemy (Warner Bros). Built to Spill have had a pretty quiet decade, with this being only their 3rd studio album during this time. This follows 2006's solid You In Reverse. Sonically, this doesn't sound much different than anything they have done since the late 90's, but for some reason the songs just seem more urgent to me and this is probably my favorite BTS album since the 90's. Here's a live clip of "Hindsight."

9. Dinosaur JrFarm (Jagjaguwar). It finally hit me why I like J Mascis so much as a guitar player. His style sort of combines 3 of my favorite guitar players – Kurt Cobain, Steve Turner of Mudhoney, and Slash. It's like he combines Cobain's power chords that could crack your ribs, Turner's fuzz, and Slash's minor chords. Except for the fact that Mascis was doing this on his own several years before any of these legends even had record deals. Mascis may be rocking the middle-aged lesbian look with his long gray mane and an "It's Pat" potato-shaped body, but he has no peer as a guitar player. This album continues where Beyond left off. I just found it to be a notch below Beyond, but "Over It" (see video here) and "Plans" would be on my shortlist of songs of the year. "Plans" is like the definitive kind of Dino Jr song – killer riff, killer solo, thunderous rhythm section, and in this case fitting lyrics, with the refrain "I got nothing left to be /Do you have some plans for me?" That pretty much sums up the slacker ethos Mascis has epitomized for over 20 years. It could be about a relationship. It could be about the band. It could be about him personally. He's felt like he's done it all – carved out a decent living, lived the rock dream, and got a 2nd chance to resurrect the Dino Jr legend. What else is there?

8. NodzzzS/T (What's Your Rupture?). You can't beat Nodzzz for being economical - 10 songs in about 16 minutes, with no frills or excess, just melody and lyrics. This was also released only on vinyl or as a download, I believe. While many critics and fans tended to lump them in with other lo-fi bands, Nodzzz stood out to me. They had a 60's surf/rock vibe to their songs and a power-pop sound that had as much in common with, say, Big Star or the Feelies as Times New Viking or Wavves. Check out "In The City (Contact High)."

7. The Von BondiesLove Hate and Then There's You (Majordomo/Shout Factory). The Von Bondies have gone through some major changes since their last release – 2004's Pawn Shoppe Heart with the hit single "C'mon, C'mon" (heard weekly on Rescue Me). BTW, their February 2004 show at the Khyber with local faves The Capitol Years and Cordalene opening was one of the best bills of the decade. Anyway, they were dropped from Sire/Reprise a few years after their last record. Guitarist/vocalist Jason Stollsteimer and drummer Don Blum remain, but they have gone through several lineup changes on bass, keyboards, and guitar since then. And in spite of all that, I think this is their finest release to date. There's nothing on here that is quite as good as "C'mon, C'mon", but I think you could argue that the 12 tracks on here are all better than anything else they've ever recorded. The VBs survived, polished their sound a little more, and have come out better for it. Check out the video for "Pale Bride."

6. O.L.D.I Live in a World (Fake Record Label Records). This pop/rock gem released by Craig Elkins (Huffamoose) and his new collaborator, Larry Chaye De Gasperin, was pure fun. It has great pop rock melodies, recalling Beatles, Kinks, and Rolling Stones, along with other 70's pop/rock. The album seems to have a little bit of an edge to it with lyrics full of sardonic wit. Being a big Huffamoose fan, I'm reluctant to call this the best album ever released by Elkins, but now that I think about it, it probably is.

5. Jay ReatardWatch Me Fall (Matador). Watching Jay Reatard play live in the summer may have been the most exciting 45 minutes of music with a sense of danger and anything-can-happen atmosphere I have seen in years. There is a definitely a Brian Jonestown Massacre aspect to Jay Reatard and his band, with that tightrope walking combination of pop/rock brilliance and self-destuctive disaster. Maybe Reatard has mellowed a bit on his latest release with a poppier sound. Gems like "Wounded", "It Ain't Gonna Save Me" (see video here), "Faking It", and "There Is No Sun" are worth the price of admission alone. And he really enjoys it when fans get up on stage with him.

4. WilcoWilco (The Album) (Nonesuch). Since their debut album, A.M., in 1995, Wilco seems to have done a little bit of everything musically. But probably not since their debut album have they sounded like they were having so much fun doing it. It's much less ambitious than anything else they have done this decade, but because it was a back to basics record in a sense, it seems more focused on songcraft and melody. This is my favorite Wilco album since Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and is definitely more accessible than that landmark experimental album. I haven't enjoyed a Wilco album so much so soon after first hearing it since Summerteeth. I guess it's a sad irony they released this album just a few weeks before former member and co-collaborator Jay Bennett would die suddenly, considering it sounds more like the records he had a big role in shaping, than anything else they've released since he was fired in 2001. It is full of inside jokes and obvious jokes, like titling it Wilco (The Album), having a song called "Wilco (The Song)", and then selling t-shirts as part of the release package with the words "Wilco (The Shirt)" on it. They have proven to be a band that makes serious music and deserves to be treated as serious artists, while not taking themselves too seriously. "You Never Know" (live clip here), "Country Disappeared", "I'll Fight", and the great duet with Feist "You and I" are the highlights of an album with a lot of highs.

3. WavvesS/T (Fat Possum). Wavves may do the whole lo-fi noise rock thing better than anyone. Like Nodzzz, they also seem to have a bit of 60's surf/rock present underneath the fuzz. There is some instrumental filler on here from Nathan Williams and company, but the quality of songs like "To the Dregs", "So Bored", "No Hope Kids" (see video here), and "Beach Demon" more than makes up for it. I never get tired of listening to these songs.

2. Pearl JamBackspacer (Universal). I was wowed by how good this is. It is probably the most immediately digestible Pearl Jam album since Vs. And it may be their best, period, since Vs. "The Fixer" (see video here) was among the best songs of the year and probably their finest choice for a single since the mid 90's. "When something's gone, I wanna fight to get it back again." That lyric alone seems to represent the attitude the band has displayed throughout their career when it comes to causes they believe in and their place in the music world. Are they singing about settling into middle age and trying to relive their youth, or their relationships, or their status as a band, or their country? Who knows? But it's the catchiest damn song they've released in years. And I still think they are the best live band going today. Much like seeing Bruce Springsteen in his prime, seeing them play live is like going to church – a really cool church that serves alcohol.

1. RancidLet the Dominoes Fall (Epitaph). 18 years and 7 full-length studio albums since they began, here are one of the 90's most important alt/rock bands still standing tall. As is typical when a punk or metal band enters their 40's, they have a new younger drummer to play 100 miles an hour on tour, replacing original drummer Brett Reed with Branden Steineckert of the Used, but otherwise not much else has changed in all that time. Tim Armstrong, Lars Frederiksen, and Matt Freeman remain. This is their best release since 1995's ..And Out Come The Wolves (which I believe was my top album of 1995). There are about a dozen stellar songs, including "East Bay Night", "Lulu", Disconnected", "Civilian Ways", the title track, and in particular "Last One To Die" (see video here). As the band wrote in the release notes - "This song is about the survival of our band. Over the last eighteen years weve seen a lot of bands and friends pass on, quit or move on for various reasons, yet we keep moving forward...." It contains a mix of all of the different styles of Rancid songs – hardcore punk, ska, pop/punk, and now even a few acoustic numbers, while touching on many social and political issues. And for those who got the deluxe version, it comes with a bonus CD of acoustic versions (Rancid Unplugged, basically) of 12 of the 19 songs on the album.