Reconsidering the Monkees
Published on March 11, 2012 by guest author: Tony Are

“Hey, hey, we are The Monkees,
You know we love to please/
A manufactured image/
With no philosophies...”

- ”Ditty Diego/War Chant” from the album Head

Marge: But it's true. They didn't write their own songs or play their own instruments.

Psychiatrist: The Monkees weren't about music, Marge.  They were about rebellion, about political and social upheaval [Marge smiles, relieved]

-The Simpsons, “Fear of Flying” (season 6, episode 11)

When Davy Jones died about a week ago, I didn't initially give it much thought, except for the usual “gee, that's too bad” that we tend to say when some celebrity who we kind of liked dies. Also, when you get to my age, there's also the “gee, he wasn't that much older than I am” factor, which is a bummer, but is soon forgotten as other things press on. But then I started looking at the obits, including this one in the New York Times and I realized that even after all this time the unfortunate Monkees are still not getting their due. Even before Jones' untimely death, a music-obsessed friend of mine (I guess that pretty much describes all my friends, but I digress) who is working on a meta-project examining the music made between 1967 and 1974 told me he was leaving the Monkees off the list of music to be considered (you can take a look at the music he did include here). They can't even get into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame - where even the talentless Red Hot Chili Peppers and TV-creation-playing-in-front-of-genius-sidemen Ricky Nelson are inductees.

To me it's kind of weird to have to defend the Monkees at this point, but I guess it just has to be done. It's amazing how the critical prejudices of the 60s have filtered down to the current time. Yes, it's absolutely true that they were “manufactured” in the sense that they didn't come together organically, but were assembled for a TV show, based largely on their charisma in front of a TV camera. And then, instead of working their way up the ladder of success from their basements, to clubs, to arenas, they were given a jump start with a popular program, which was based loosely on a de-fanged version of “A Hard Days Night” (and later on, more than a bit of “Help”).

Before they were ever a band they were four actors “playing” a band on TV. The “downside” of their historical legacy, if you want to call it that, is that they demonstrated for the first time a successful method for the entertainment industry's “good old boys” to try to “rein in” what had become an increasingly tumultuous and unpredictable period, especially in music. RCA and Columbia/ Screen Gems' ability to “create” a successful musical group that appealed to “the kids” (or at least some section of them) was the first step in the decade-long struggle by the entertainment companies to bring back “stability” to the industry. They also demonstrated, at a time when rock music was starting to “grow up” and demand that its listeners become more sophisticated, that you could still tap (and expand) what's now called the “tween” market of impressionable middle school to-junior-high-schoolers and cash in big time. Seen this way, MTV videos, Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus, The Twilight series, and Lana Del Ray are just the latest exits on a freeway that started with The Monkees.


Jane's Addiction, In Concert
Published on March 5, 2012 by Sara Foss

Over at the DG, I write about Friday night's Jane's Addiction show.

One complaint I didn't mention: They didn't play "My Time." Every concert always seems to have that one song you really wanted to hear, but didn't, and this was it. I think of it as "the song that got away."

Anyway, I digress.

Click here to read my review.

New Radiohead
Published on February 28, 2012 by Sara Foss

And Another Thing!
Practice Makes Perfect
Published on February 20, 2012 by guest author: Barry Wenig

I have a dirty little secret in my bedroom closet. It isn't hiding beneath a pile of old clothes, and it doesn't require batteries. It's not something I wear when my wife Mary goes out. It has four strings and it mocks me every time I walk past it. It's a bass guitar.

Technically, it's not even my bass. It belongs to my friend Steve and his brother Greg. They lent it to me (along with a small amp) a few years ago when they were talking about starting a band. The idea was that I'd get lessons and be able to contribute.

So, I took lessons, and tried to practice, but other things seemed to crop up. Things like work, yes. But also things like movies on television, reading, singing around the house, brushing the cats ... in short, anything I could think of to avoid practicing the bass.

Practicing a musical instrument? It sounds like work ... because it is. My brother Jeff, now 53, has been playing electric guitar since he was 13. He's very good. I have vivid memories of him practicing for hours in our house in Queens, N.Y., and later in Suffolk County on Long Island. He's always played, even though he put playing in a group on the side for a number of years when he got married and started a family.

I'm no Jeff, but my attempts to practice whatever instrument I wanted to play at the moment have been paved with good intentions. It's the follow-through I've had problems with.


Some Bands Age Well ... And Some Don't
Published on February 20, 2012 by Sara Foss

Over at the DG, I contemplate some of the bands I liked in high school and college, and whether they've aged well.

Here's an excerpt:

"My friend Beka saw Jane’s Addiction in concert a few years ago, and thought they were terrible — a bunch of has-been alt-rockers acting like it was still the mid-1990s. I’m going to see Jane’s Addiction in two weeks at the Palace Theatre, and I’m interested to see whether I share Beka’s opinion. (I recently learned that Jane’s Addiction frontman Perry Farrell and his wife, Etty Farrell, appear on the reality TV show 'Married to Rock,' which in my opinion is not an encouraging development.) In preparation for the concert, I’ve been listening to Jane’s Addiction a little, and trying to assess whether the band stands the test of time.

My conclusion: Yes, Jane’s Addiction’s music is still pretty compelling, if you can ignore the band’s juvenile celebration of drug use and unbridled hedonism. (The song 'Whores,' where Farrell sings 'I love them whores they never judge you,' is pretty dumb.) The 1990 album 'Ritual de lo Habitual' features catchy, propulsive, metal-tinged anthems such as 'Stop!' and 'Been Caught Stealing,' but also works as a concept album, with long, dreamy, complex pieces such as 'Three Days' and 'Of Course.' More than 22 years later, I can find much to admire in Jane’s Addiction’s body of work. The band took risks, and they helped bring alternative rock into the mainstream, which was something to be grateful for if you were living in rural New Hampshire, as I was, and the only musical options were pop and classic rock. And the music holds up pretty well. Not all of it, but most of it."

Click here to read the whole thing.

Tuba Theft is Plaguing America
Published on February 12, 2012 by Sara Foss

Did you know that a rash of tuba theft is plaguing music departments in Southern California?

This is pretty remarkable. I think there was, like, one tuba player in my high school band. So why are tubas suddenly so popular? According to the New York Times, "the growing popularity of banda, a traditional Mexican music form in which tubas play a dominant role" is to blame.

Until reading the tuba theft article, I was unfamiliar with banda. So I found a video, and posted it below.

I Wanna Dance With Somebody
Published on February 12, 2012 by Sara Foss

I particularly enjoyed this tribute to Houston by the Chicago Tribune's Greg Kot.

B-Sides and the Pet Shop Boys
Published on February 9, 2012 by Sara Foss

As a Pet Shop Boys fan (and a music fan), I enjoyed this Guardian piece about the band's new B-sides collection, "Format."

The Art of the Pedal-Steel Guitar
Published on February 8, 2012 by guest author: Roger Noyes

My friend Philip reminded me the other day why I took up the pedal-steel guitar. It may seem like a country music cliché, but I had just recently laid my dog to rest and desperately needed a way of focusing my attention on something productive, to rid my grief.

In a time of trouble, the idea of learning pedal-steel guitar simply had a deep resonance, like the sound of the instrument itself. It gave me a much-needed platform to pass time, absorbed in a complex task. And, of course, it very appropriately tapped into the musical tradition of heartbreak: country music, where most people have heard the pedal-steel guitar (even if they don’t know what it is) and where many a dog has been lovingly laid to rest. (I miss you Della.)

For those unfamiliar with the pedal-steel guitar, its sonic textures can be chime-like, mimicry of feral meowing, reverberant echoes, atmospheric touches, pure twang, bend and release and slow volume swell.

Mechanically, it is the musical equivalent of a nautilus machine. For the player, every limb gets a workout. One hand slides an aluminum bar across the strings, altering the pitch as the smooth metal passes up and down the neck, while the other hand picks. The left foot presses floor pedals that are connected to spring-loaded rods in the undercarriage of the instrument, bending the pitch of specific strings. The knees pivot in and out on levers that likewise alter the pitch. The right foot seesaws on a volume pedal that allows certain chords or notes to swell. This all happens in a miracle of coordination; thus it is more than a little ironic that an instrument with such a slippery sound demands such an incredible steadiness of execution.


The Lady
Published on January 30, 2012 by guest author: Tony Are

There's a grave marker at the Putney Vale cemetery on the western side of the city of London (also the final resting place of the filmmaker David Lean and the art critic/spy Anthony Blunt). It says simply, “The Lady - Alexandra Elene Maclean Lucas (Sandy Denny)." Her date of birth is listed as January 6, 1947. She would have been 65 years old this month. She was 31 when she died in 1978.

"Sandy always transports me to a unique musical place, and defines a certain time in music history to my ears,” said Lee Renaldo of Sonic Youth in an appreciation in the UK Guardian in 2010. “Her music and voice have been elevated to the top-most reverential rungs of all I hold dear in my musical life.” Robert Plant (who chose her as the only woman ever to perform on a Led Zeppelin album) said she was his "favorite singer out of all the British girls that ever were." The somewhat more articulate Richard Thompson (who had been a bandmate in Fairport Convention) described her this way: "Sandy had a way of really living a song. And I think she was able to do it because she had a very acute imagination. You could almost describe Sandy as someone who didn't have any skin. She was so hypersensitive to every little thing in the world, it was as if she lived more vividly than the rest of us. And I think that ability to get right inside a song, inside the persona of a song, was really quite extraordinary."

My own introduction was hearing the first Fairport Convention album released in the U.S., Fairport Convention, (which was actually the re-titled  What We Did On Our Holidays). The opening song, “Fotheringay," named for the castle where Mary Queen of Scots met her demise, sent a signal to an antenna that I didn't even know I had. The atmosphere of tragic claustrophobia, combined with a kind of singing I had never heard before - well, to be more exact, singing that was actually very similar to things I had heard before, but with a quality that made it into something else entirely. I spent hours puzzling over what that “something else” was, the kind of obsession that comes naturally to high-school-age music fanatics.

Forty-three years later (give or take), I'm still thinking about it.


Carolina Chocolate Drops in Concert
Published on January 30, 2012 by Sara Foss

Over at the DG, I write about the Carolina Chocolate Drops concert at The Egg.

Click here to read it.

Also, Rule of Thumb contributor Eric J. Perkins named the Carolina Chocolate Drops album "Genuine Negro Jig" one of his top CD purchases of 2011.

Puppetry Interlude
Published on January 25, 2012 by Sara Foss

Apparently English singer Kate Bush likes shadow puppets, and has released an animated video for music from her new album "50 Words For Snow." The clip, titled "Eider Falls at Lake Tahoe," is set to the track "Lake Tahoe." And it looks pretty cool.


Musical Interlude
Published on January 25, 2012 by Sara Foss

The Afghan Whigs are one of my favorite bands ever, and frontman Greg Dulli's follow-up band, The Twilight Singers, aren't bad, either.

So it comes as no surprise that one of the best things I heard today was Greg Dulli singing Leonard Cohen's "Paper Thin Hotel."

Click here to listen.

Eric's Favorite Albums of 2011 (And Some Stragglers from 2010)
Published on January 22, 2012 by guest author: Eric J.Perkins

Note: This piece is also posted at Eric's blog, Ray Bradbury's Love-Camel.

Was 2011 a great year for music? No ... I don't think so. If it's been a great year for music (for me, anyway), I have a hard time picking my top 10 albums. Sometimes I have a hard time picking my top 20. This year, I struggled to fill my top 10. It wasn't that there were that few albums that I liked. There were a lot of good albums. There just weren't a lot of great albums. I want my favorite albums of the year to exceed my expectations, not just meet them (even if I have relatively high expectations). So this year, it's just a top seven, plus two 2010 albums that I didn't discover until 2011.

7) Iron & Wine - Kiss Each Other Clean

When Sam Beam released "The Creek Drank the Cradle" nearly 10 years ago, he was writing spare wisps of songs. The songs were quiet, but powerful. He could have released a few more albums like that and been remembered as someone who wrote pretty, sad songs - a modern Nick Drake (minus the tragic ending, one would hope). Iron & Wine's second album was actually pretty similar to the first, but then Beam started to evolve. If someone had told me a decade ago that he would release an album like "Kiss Each Other Clean," I would have been incredulous. The songs are still powerful, and often still sad, but there's a richness to their sound and production that the early albums lacked. More instruments, more harmonizing, more everything. Sometimes more is less, but it works here. For the record, it did not work for me as well on 2007's "The Shephard's Dog." That album seemed like more of an experiment of styles and came out a bit of a mess. "Kiss Each Other Clean" is more cohesive. The opening single, "Walking Far From Home," quickly became one of my favorite Iron & Wine songs, but the whole album is highly listenable.


I'd Rather Go Blind
Published on January 20, 2012 by Sara Foss

In Honor of Etta:

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