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Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Rob Sheffield's Love is a Mix Tape

Rob Sheffield of Rolling Stone has been the industry's most entertaining music critic for some time now. His humor and obscure '80s pop culture references make every review an easy read, even when it's a review of a band I hate. (Check out the opening lines of these Paris Hilton and White Stripes reviews.) When I heard that Rob had just written a book, I got excited because I knew I'd probably read the whole thing in a couple days.

Love is a Mix Tape lived up to my expectations. It's the story of how he and a girl named Renee met and turned their love of mix tapes into a 5-year marriage, which lasted until she tragically died at 31. It's a sweet, nostalgic tale that covers all the important music of the '90s, from Nirvana to Hanson. He describes Renee:

She would wake up in the middle of the night and say things like "What if Bad Bad Leroy Brown was a girl?" or "Why don't they have commercials for salt like they do for milk?" Then she would fall back asleep, while I would lie awake and give thanks for this alien creature beside whom I rested.

The anecdotes are what make the story interesting, like when he heartwrenchingly describes how after her death he would visit the 24-hour Walmart to spy on other married couples:

I just wanted to be near them, to listen to them argue. This one is $2.99! But this one is $1.49 for just one!... But $2.99 is cheaper per roll! But you can never have to much of it! And so on. Married people fight over some dumb shit when they think there aren't any widowers eavesdropping.

Rob shares my unabashed affinity for mainstream pop music, and his paragraph on the subject could be the manifesto of this very blog:

In some circles, admitting you love Top 40 radio is tantamount to bragging you gave your grandmother the clap, in church, in the front row at your aunt's funeral, but those are the circles I avoid like the plague or, for that matter, the clap. The beauty of Top 40 is you don't have to be any kind of great artist to make a great record - indeed, great artistness is just a pain in the ass...

Besides making me pine for my own Renee, the story made me want to immediately start making my own mix tapes. It drags a bit towards the end, but it's still one of the best books I've read recently.

In addition to his magazine existence, Rob has a blog. Here's a recent entry, entitled "40 Things Rob Sheffield hates more than Paris Hilton." My favorite from the list: "31. Quad City DJs not making a record lately. That party train isn't going to ride itself, you know." (Simple yet brilliant writing...) Also, I have to stop saying "the internets" now, because Rob has declared it uncool.


Friday, May 25, 2007

Rock artists, stop running from your '80s hits!

I'm reprinting this photo of Heart, because right now fully half the visitors to my blog find me via a Google image search for this picture. (Go figure?) As this blog is still in its infancy and I'm desperate for visitors, I'm not above doing whatever it takes...

I saw the VH1 Rock Honors concert tonight, and while I was really disappointed that Heart didn't play their awesome '80s hits, man, did they rock! "Crazy on You" was powerful. The Wilson sisters still have it. Now I'm sorry I didn't go see them last year, during my one-night trip to Seattle, when I had nothing to do and decided I might as well see a show. Heart was playing, but tickets were in the $50 range, so instead I headed to Chop Suey for some little known national rock band whose name I can't remember.

So Heart rocks! Unlike Genesis. That band chose to use its ten minutes on an early '80s song I wasn't familiar with, and - get this - "No Son of Mine." A mediocre, minor hit from the early '90s. Of all the songs they could have played... No Son of Mine?! That would be like Madonna playing "Bedtime Story," or Michael Jackson doing "In the Closet." It made no sense, and made Genesis look even older and more out of place than they already seemed.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Your makeup stains my pillow case, like I'll never be the same

Post-Gazette Pavilion, Pittsburgh: May 22, 2007

The emo-heavy Honda Civic Tour swung through town last night, and being the intrepid pop music blogger that I am, I had to be front and center (actually, front and slightly to the right) to witness it.

Cobra Starship, best known for recording the theme to Snakes on a Plane, opened the show and really impressed me. Frontman Gabe Saporta has quite the stage presence, bandmate Victoria Asher rocked the keytar (I loves me some keytar), and their songs were cool - catchy and slightly more dance-y than the typical emo fare.

We skipped Paul Wall, because who the hell wants to see Paul Wall? The Academy Is... were good, not much different than the last time I saw them. The high point was their performance of their new single "We've Got a Big Mess on Our Hands."

The band I was really looking forward to was +44, the group composed of two-thirds of the former Blink-182. They did an admirable job even though nobody knew any of their songs except the finisher, "When Your Heart Stops Beating," and the one Blink number they threw in, "The Rock Show." Mark Hoppus didn't crack jokes the way he used to in Blink, which was a disappointment, but it's understandable that he wants the new band to move in a new direction.

As for Fall Out Boy, I'm a little perplexed on how to write a review, because it was exactly by the book, 100% what I expected. After following standard concert procedure by opening with track 1 from their new album, they had the obligatory acoustic ballad by the singer, the obligatory drum solo, the obligatory song where the band members go out in the crowd, the obligatory confetti and fire going off, the obligatory crowd sing-alongs, and the obligatory left-field cover (Michael Jackson's "Beat It").

The only thing at all that deviated from protocol was playing their biggest hit (a fiercely energetic "Sugar, We're Going Down") three songs into the set and closing with "Saturday," a song from one of their early, non-blockbuster albums. But that's what they've done for some time now, so even that isn't a surprise.

This isn't to say their performance was bad; in fact, it was the perfect show for this audience. The new songs were particular highlights ("Golden," "Thnks Fr Th Mmrs," "I'm Like a Lawyer with the Way I'm Always Trying To Get You Off".) For many of the young fans in attendance, this was their first concert. Fall Out Boy gave them a textbook example of how to play a rock show - Rock Concerts 101.

My only regret is that the batteries in my camera started dying after Cobra Starship so I could only take a handful of pics the rest of the way. It's rare that I'm that close to the stage, and I was unable to take advantage of it. Lesson learned - that will not happen again!

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Country music '07: Taylor Swift, Tim McGraw, and a whole lotta crap

I missed last week's Academy of Country Music Awards, which is a shame because they are one of the two times a year I pay attention to country music, the other being the CMA awards in the fall.

I was way into country about ten years ago, when it was dominated by Shania and Faith, and newer artists like the Dixie Chicks, Jo Dee Messina and Lee Ann Womack were taking over. (Notice how those are all women...) But then country radio stopped playing Shania and Faith because they were "too pop." And don't even get me started on the boycott of the Dixie Chicks...

Country music does well when it promotes its female artists. But now we're left with a bunch of annoying, loudmouth men like Toby Keith and Kenny Chesney. Tim McGraw is the only decent male country singer at the moment. If you look at a typical country top 20 chart, you'll be lucky to find more than 1 or 2 women. Every year, the nominees for Entertainer of the Year are four men and Brooks & Dunn. No women. It's stupid and it's a sad reflection on how behind the times Nashville remains.

Anyway most of this is just rambling, but the reason I brought up the ACMs is because I read that Taylor Swift did a killer rendition of her song "Tim McGraw," which was the best song in country music in 2006. This girl is 17 years old and has legitimately earned her place as a rising country music star (look out, Carrie Underwood...)

They keep removing clips of Taylor's awards show performance on YouTube due to copyright violations (thanks a lot, Dick Clark Productions), but I just found another one. This was cute - despite the success of the single, she had never even met Tim McGraw until the awards broadcast. Quick, watch now, before it gets removed again!!

Thursday, May 17, 2007

My 5 favorite bands, May 2007

Since I haven't actually blogged about my favorite bands yet, here is the current list:

Inventors of the "Brechtian punk cabaret" genre. Amanda Palmer is one of the few songwriters who can make me pay attention to lyrics, as I'm typically more drawn to melody. Her words are emotional, moving, edgy, personal, and humorous. Brian Viglione is one of rock's more underrated drummers. Their powerful live cover of "War Pigs," with only vocal, piano and drums, is worth tracking down.
Recommended: "Sex Changes," "Half Jack"

A quirky Australian troupe that plays the catchiest happy pop songs you will ever hear. I discovered them by complete accident through someone's LiveJournal and was instantly hooked. I've decided to travel to Philly to see them next month and I'm psyched about their new album due out this summer.
Recommended: "It'5!," "Maybe You Can Owe Me"

Their 2005 album Twin Cinema just kept growing on me, and "The Bleeding Heart Show" became my favorite song of the past year. I love how it starts as a slow verse with sporadic drum bursts, and then opens into a glorious final chorus with a repetitive "Hey la, hey la" refrain behind Neko Case's beautiful lead vocal. The rest of the album is equally engaging.
Recommended: "The Bleeding Heart Show," "Sing Me Spanish Techno"

This one's a little embarrassing but if I'm being honest with myself, they deserve to be here. Fall Out Boy's last two albums are clinics in how to write quality, hook-filled rock songs. They've almost established their own emo empire, with Gym Class Heroes, Panic! at the Disco, The Academy Is... and all the other bands they hang out with.
Recommended: "Of All the Gin Joints in the World," "Thriller"

Absolutely filthy electroclash songs, almost exclusively about sex. I first saw her live when she opened for Nine Inch Nails and couldn't stop laughing (in a good way) at how far out there she was. I can't reprint any of her lyrics here, but a Google search for "Peaches lyrics" is a goldmine.
Recommended: "Fuck the Pain Away," "Two Guys for Every Girl"

Bands that would be on the list, except they have been inactive lately:
Junior Senior, Sigur Ros, Radiohead

American Idol embarrasses itself

I just watched American Idol, and I was reminded why I've never been able to stay interested in that series.

Melinda Doolittle, by far the most impressive singer this season, was sent home, sending to the finals a lightweight Melinda imposter, and a talentless assclown. Sorry, I'm sure that's an unfair assessment, but based on the limited number of episodes I've seen this season, that's my impression.

Although I was shocked at first that Melinda was voted off, in retrospect it makes perfect sense because of Idol's horribly flawed voting system. If you're going to have an elimination-style program like this, you should be voting OFF the person that you like least. But Idol instead has you vote for the person you like the most, and then whoever gets the fewest votes gets booted. Thus, the person who leaves isn't the contestant people dislike the most, it's the contestant people like the least. That subtle but important distinction is Idol's fatal flaw, and it allows for all sorts of unnatural events, like Sanjaya hanging around for weeks because a small but committed group wanted him to stay.

In other words, if fans had been asked to vote AGAINST somebody, nobody would've voted against Melinda, and she would've made the finals as deserved. But she lost tonight because she was ignored. Everyone just assumed she'd be in the finals, so her supporters didn't make any sort of extra effort to get out the vote for her. The fans of Jordin and Blake knew their favorites were in BIG trouble, and therefore voted 3 or 4 or 10 times each, to try to edge the other out. What happened as a result is that both had enough votes to surpass Melinda. They made it because of a horribly flawed voting process.

I know it's unrealistic to expect them to change the voting process. The idea of voting against people might seem too cruel, or it might cost Fox too much money by discouraging repeat votes. But it would be the only way to ensure justice.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Girl Talk, anonymous even at his own show

May 11, 2007
Mr. Small's Theatre, Pittsburgh

The first of five opening acts begins playing as we walk in the door and take a spot in the crowd. A few feet to our right stands the headliner, Gregg Gillis, aka Girl Talk, the Pittsburgh-based mashup artist whose show tonight is sold out. He is not recognized by anyone, except for a solitary dude who comes over to offer a handshake and a few words.

Anonymous even at his own show in his hometown, Gillis has gone from unknown local guy to nationally renowned mashup artist who performs for thousands around the world. Upcoming gigs include Bonnaroo, the Pimlico festival in Baltimore, and the Primavera Sound Festival in Barcelona. But you still wouldn't recognize him on the street. This from a guy who (we think) still holds a day job at a downtown office and has co-workers who (we think) still have no idea what he does on the weekends.

If you've read one Girl Talk review, you've read them all. He stands on stage in front of two laptops, which he uses to mashup songs on the spot. His hour-long set largely ignored 2006's acclaimed Night Ripper, which wound up on every music magazine's top 20 list, and that was a good thing, because it wouldn't be very fun to go to a show and just hear the CD over again.

Gillis came on stage dressed in a bizarrely-spotted hoodie, which he removed to reveal a Steelers t-shirt, which later came off to reveal a Penguins tank top. Paying further homage to his hometown, Gillis' first mashup was a re-working of Night Ripper's opening track, "Once Again," with the Ludacris rap replaced by one from local rapper Wiz Khalifa's song "Pittsburgh Sound." It took not five minutes for the crowd to spill onto the stage, and from there the dance party was on.

Gillis added some brand new material into his mashups, including Avril Lavigne's "Girlfriend," Timbaland's "Give It To Me," and Gwen Stefani's "The Sweet Escape," which became one of the show's highlights as the audience sang along to the obnoxious "woohoo, weehoo!" lines. The high point was the most talked-about moment on Night Ripper, when Gillis mixes Notorious B.I.G.'s "Juicy" with Elton John's "Tiny Dancers." The crowd exploded as if they were watching a rock band perform its biggest hit. Another personal favorite moment was when the baseline from Hall & Oates' "Out of Touch" kicked in on "LC and Lo."

At the end of the show, Gillis, either drunk or just riding the high of the moment, asked the crowd, "Where's the after party?," then proceeded to give out his home address to the hundreds in attendance. (Sorry, stalkers, I didn't catch the street name - it's 500 Something Street in Wilkinsburg.) As he normally does, he then took the mic to end the show with an actual singing performance of Nirvana's "Scentless Apprentice," which strangely sent everyone home happy.

Girl Talk on MySpace

Here's a short, grainy clip (I wish videos looked as good online as they do on my camera...)

Friday, May 11, 2007

Austin is calling me

Just when I thought all the summer festivals had been announced, I see this: The Austin City Limits, September 14-16 (http://www.aclfestival.com/default.aspx).

I'm very tempted to go. I won't, but only because I've already seen most of the headliners before. It's still a great lineup - Bob Dylan, the White Stripes, Damien Rice, Amy Winehouse, Kaiser Chiefs, Wilco, DeVotchKa... The only ones I'll regret missing are Bjork and the Killers.

I really want to visit Austin though... maybe I'll have a chance to go next year for SXSW.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Adam Levine restores my faith in chart integrity

Last week the new Maroon5 single made the biggest jump to #1 in history, climbing 64-1 to take the top spot. This is great news, because it's further proof that we as consumers, via iTunes, are controlling the music charts again.

For a long time, from the mid 90s to early 00s, the charts were formulated based on radio airplay alone, which put way too much power in the hands of a few select radio programmers. But a couple of years ago, Billboard started including iTunes sales as part of its chart formula, and the changes have been monumental.

For one thing, pop artists can finally hit #1 again! I'm only slightly exaggerating when I say that wasn't possible before. During those 90s-00s dark days, only rap songs could reach the upper portions of the chart. Every once in a while, you'd have a pop artist get a fluke #1, like Clay Aiken and Kelly Clarkson, based on outrageous sales after the American Idol finals, but in general 90% of the songs in the top ten were hip hop. A lot of times I looked at the top ten and saw songs I'd never even heard of. These charts absolutely did NOT reflect what was truly going on in the world of popular music.

Now, when you look at the Billboard singles charts, you see a healthy supply of hip hop, but you also see Maroon5 and Avril and Gwen and The Fray. We are in total control! (Which also means we have to take responsibility for shit like Hinder and Fergie...)

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Let's take out a loan and go see Genesis!

Tickets go on sale this weekend for some of the shows on the Genesis 2007 Turn It On Again Tour. For the Pittsburgh show, the cheap seats (E & F level) are $57, while most of the remaining seats go for $202, before surcharges.

No, really.

Genesis actually believe that people would be willing to pay more than $200 to see them live. Who do they think they are, the Eagles? Maybe Fleetwood Mac or the Police could get away with that kind of thing, but we're talking about fucking Genesis!

I see large-scale cancellations and/or massive ticket giveaways for many of these shows. At least for the Pittsburgh show - people in this city aren't even willing to pay $5 for parking, let alone a week's pay to see a long-forgotten, semi-important pop-rock act from 20 years ago.

I don't mean to diss the Genesis - much of their catalogue is great, and they're a rare rock band with a visible sense of humor. "Invisible Touch" is a terrific pop song, and the video for "Illegal Alien" is awesome - it's so politically incorrect they could never get away with it today. But someone needs to explain to their promoters the concept of supply and demand, as it relates to ticket pricing.

On a brighter note, Genesis is playing this year's VH1 Rock Honors show... along with Heart! Yes, the Wilson sisters, one of the most underrated bands of the '80s, owners of four of the most classic tracks of that decade - "Alone," "Never," "These Dreams," and "What About Love." Now there's an old band I really want to see.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

An ode to pre-crazy Britney

Lately Britney Spears has followed Tom Cruise into the world of kookville. But, as with Michael Jackson, when we're talking about singers, one mustn’t let their eccentricities overshadow the music itself. Especially in the case of someone like Britney, who doesn’t get enough respect as it is.

No, she’s not a great singer, and she doesn’t write her own songs… hmmm, what was my point? Well, she has been one of the most influential artists of the past 10 years, for better or worse. And mindless pop music is not a bad thing. Sometimes you just want to dance...

So with that in mind, let's flashback to the days when she was America's sweetheart, claiming to be a virgin and sneaking cigarettes when the paparazzi weren't looking. Before she met K-Fed, went crazy, and shaved her head. Here they are, the top 5 Britney songs of all-time (I was going to make this a top 10 before I realized I couldn't come up with ten worthy tracks...)

5. Lucky, 2000

A cute, simple pop song. It’s done in the third-person narrative style, but manages to overcome that tired format. It featured a catchy chorus – “she cry, cry, cries in her lonely heart” – that was easy enough for the TRL kids to sing along to, and a video that allowed her to explore her emerging diva side.

4. (You Drive Me) Crazy, 1999
The other big dance hit from Brit’s debut album. How ironic is this song title now? She’s crazy, but she feels alright. Words to live by.

3. …Baby One More Time, 1998
This will almost certainly go down as Brit’s signature song, the one that introduced her to the world, the one that conjured up countless Lolita fantasies with the Catholic school outfit (I use the word Lolita in a shameless attempt to get more hits from the search engines…) I just discovered it was originally offered to TLC first, but they turned it down, which is a good thing. You wouldn't want T-Boz singing these silly lyrics. This song was tailor-made for Miss Spears.

2. Overprotected, 2002

Not as well known as her other big dance songs (it peaked at #85), this one hits harder than all the rest. If there’s one Britney song you want to crank up the speakers and blast out your windows, this is it. The lyrics offer a sense of rebellion, which is always a winning theme in pop music. And it has that killer chorus that I’m always a sucker for. I love when there are multiple vocal tracks layered together into one, all-powerful voice.

1. Everytime, 2004

A gorgeous, sweet ballad with toy piano as a prominent instrument. How can you not love a song that features toy piano? It probably took Brit 100 takes to record it, but no matter - the end result is great. Look, I even found video of her singing it live instead of lip synching!

Honorable mention: Sometimes, I'm a Slave 4 U, I Love Rock N Roll