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Friday, November 30, 2007

Interview with Bob Schneider

Photo credit: Alexandra Valenti

Bob Schneider is pretty much the coolest dude ever. He’s a singer/songwriter, but he's not a typical folkie – his songs are more rocking, with explicit lyrics, sharp wit, and in-your-face attitude. He’s currently in the middle of the “Songs Sung and Played on the Guitar at the Same Time With People in the Room Tour,” and he called in to talk about touring with the Dixie Chicks, the decline of the Austin music scene, and the varying degrees of giving a fuck.

You’re doing a solo acoustic tour right now. How much different is that from the full band thing?
Well, besides the obvious difference that there’s not a band… I can only play the good songs when I do solo acoustic. With the band we can play some shittier songs - because you have the band, you can kind of polish the tard, as they say, with good musicianship. The other difference is I engage the audience a little bit more in between songs, which I don’t do a lot of when I’m playing with the band. When I’m solo, I wanna feel like I’m having a conversation with the audience, so there tends to be a more intimate sort of concert setting because of that.

Can you do songs like “Ass Knocker” in that setting?
I get requests for that song all the time when I’m solo and I will play it, usually just to shut people up, but it’s not my first choice.

Which do you enjoy more, a small headlining show, or a large arena show where you’re opening for someone like the Dixie Chicks?
I like both, but I really enjoyed those arena shows. I would love to be headlining those arena shows. That would be the ideal situation. If I can’t do that, then opening up for somebody like the Dixie Chicks is great. Their audience isn’t too much different from my audience, so it was a nice match. If we were opening for someone like Ozzy Osbourne, it would be a harder sell, I think.

But it’s nice to headline too. There’s a certain energy in small clubs, there’s a certain lack of pretension. There’s a don’t-give-a-fuck attitude in a club that’s hard to generate when you’re in front of 15,000 people. You usually tend to give at least a small amount of a fuck in front of that many people. But you’re shooting for 100% don’t-give-a-fuck when you’re playing live, so it’s easier to do that in a smaller venue.

I listened to the track “Blauu” on your website, which you classified as “gangsta rock.”
(laughs). I classified it as gangsta rock?

Well, there you go. You can say anything on your own website, as you know.

You seem to like playing around with different styles and genres. Your first band was a rap-funk group, is that correct?
No, the first band I was ever in was called the Warriors, and it was a rock band. The first band that I made enough money to quit my job and start playing music full-time was a rap-funk band, sort of a rap-rock band similar to Limp Bizkit and Red Hot Chili Peppers. It was this band where you could get laid a lot.

I saw an interview where you talked about how language shouldn’t be censored, and that’s something that comes across in your songs. They’re kind of in-your-face lyrically.
Well, when I talk I cuss a lot, so I guess when I write songs I tend to use bad language in the song. It just depends on the song and who’s narrating it. If the narrator in the song uses graphic language, then you use it. I don’t write a lot of autobiographical things, so it usually tends to be from the point of view of somebody that’s not me.

The Austin music scene has exploded in the time you’ve been there. How do you feel about being one of the leaders of that?
Actually, I feel like it’s imploded. When I got here the music scene in Austin was really quite exciting and there were a lot of bands taking a lot of chances musically. It was really neat to live here. It still had a small-town vibe to it, and you didn’t have to work a lot to get by. You could just be a creative, drug-taking musician in this town. And then when the high-tech companies came in the mid-‘90s, it drove the price of living up. I think the town lost a lot of those slacker musicians that were making this really interesting music, and I think the music scene ended up really hurting because of it.

Recently, there’s some interesting stuff going on in Austin. There happen to be a bunch of pretty decent bands that live here, but they don’t play here hardly ever. They play here once or twice a year, but they’re nationally known acts. It’s kind of bizarre how that works. A lot of the bands that actually play here aren’t so good, I don’t think. I mean there’s a lot of music here, a lot of great players, but I have this romantic idea of the early ‘90s and that whole period of time when it just felt like there were so many great, great bands that were playing in Austin at that time. But having said that, I’m completely out of the loop. I play 250 shows a year. I don’t have time to go out and see music, so there could be tons of great shit that I don’t know about.

Do you have a favorite place to play?
I play every Monday at the Saxon Pub when I’m in Austin, and it’s my favorite show. We have a hardcore group of people that have been coming for years to those shows. That’s where I try out all the new stuff that I’ve written that week. That’s where I dig in and pull out songs that I don’t ever play anywhere else, so it’s a fun show for me.

Well Bob, thanks for taking the time to chat, I really appreciate it. I’ll be checking you out when you come to Pittsburgh next week.
Alright, come up and say hi!

Find Bob Schneider online at www.bobschneidermusic.com or www.myspace.com/bobschneider.

Upcoming tour dates for Bob Schneider:
November 30 LAWRENCE, KS Bottleneck
December 1 OMAHA, NE The Waiting Room
December 2 MINNEAPOLIS, MN Varsity
December 3 MILWAUKEE, WI Shank Hall
December 4 CHICAGO, IL Schuba's
December 5 CHICAGO, IL Schuba's
December 6 ST LOUIS, MO Blueberry Hill
December 7 INDIANAPOLIS, IN Music Mill
December 8 PITTSBURGH, PA Club Cafe
December 10 PHILADELPHIA, PA World Cafe
December 11 ANNAPOLIS, MD Ram's Head
December 12 NEW YORK, NY Knitting Factory
December 13 VIENNA, VA Jammin Java
December 14 VIENNA, VA Jammin Java
December 15 CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA Gravity Lounge
December 16 ASHEVILLE, NC Grey Eagle
December 17 ATLANTA, GA Smith's Olde Bar
December 18 NASHVILLE, TN Exit/In
December 19 BIRMINGHAM, AL Workplay
December 21 NEW ORLEANS, LA One Eyed Jacks
December 22 HOUSTON, TX Mucky Duck

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Colbie Caillat and India.Arie - have you ever seen them together?

For a few weeks now I've been hearing this "Bubbly" song on the radio and thinking, Cool, India.Arie has a new song! Turns out it's by some broad named Colbie Caillat. I don't know who she is, but I've already decided I don't like her. We don't need another India.Arie. We already have one. Their voices sound exactly the same. It's too bad they can't combine themselves into one person, then together they might have a decent discography.

You know, in the same way that if all the hair metal bands became one, they'd be great. Like, Dokken and Winger and Cinderella and Ratt and Slaughter sucked, but if they were all one band, they'd have one hell of a catalogue!

Anyway, both Caillat and Arie are on Universal, a label which won't allow its YouTube videos to be embedded. So, I'm providing links to the videos in case anyone wants to check them out. Now that I watch them again, I'm not as convinced about the resemblance...

YouTube links:
Colbie Caillat - Bubbly
India.Arie - Video

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Saving the world: There's a right way to do it, and a wrong way

Causes 1 is a Darfur charity album featuring tracks from Bright Eyes, Bloc Party, Death Cab for Cutie, and the Black Keys, among others. Proceeds go to three organizations: Doctors Without Borders, Human Rights Watch, and Oxfam America.

The album will be available for download on iTunes for 90 days only. A good cause, and a good product.

MP3: Bright Eyes - Coat Check Song (live)

Meanwhile, have you checked out the latest Fall Out Boy video? It's for the Babyface-produced "I'm Like a Lawyer with the Way I'm Always Trying to Get You Off." The video was shot in Uganda and seeks to draw attention to the plight of that nation's children, as its civil war drags on. This is undeniably a good cause, but the problem is that images of Ugandan refugees are interspersed with footage of the band performing the love song in a field. It's downright bizarre.

Read more about the story behind the video at mtv.com.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Killers - Sawdust

The Killers' last record, Sam's Town, attracted a lot of attention (and scorn) for being a blatant rip-off of Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run. I never understood that. Musicians mimic their idols all the time. Oasis was beloved for ripping off the Beatles, but the Killers aren't allowed to rip off Springsteen?

The album's first single, "When You Were Young," was brilliant - the best single of 2006, in my estimation (and one hell of a challenge when playing SingStar Amped karaoke.) But the rest of the album was entirely ignored. Even by me. It sat on my shelf and I never really felt compelled to play it again.

I recently got around to checking out the Killers' latest effort, a collection of B-sides called Sawdust. This is an unusual B-side album, because most of these songs could've fit right in on Sam's Town. They're not inferior tracks at all. It almost feels like a brand new Killers record, instead of a collection of leftovers.

Lou Reed appears as a guest vocalist on the solid opener "Tranquilize," and the Killers also cover Joy Division and Dire Straits. Also included is a nifty remake of the Kenny Rogers 1969 hit "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town."

Overall, it's almost as good as Sam's Town itself - if I were going to give it a grade, it's a solid B.

MP3: The Killers with Lou Reed - Tranquilize Amazon

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Pipettes = Fembots; Nicole Atkins = budding superstar

CONCERT REVIEW: The Pipettes/Nicole Atkins
Diesel, Pittsburgh
November 19, 2007

I saw the Pipettes the other night. They came onstage and struck me as the most joyless creatures I'd ever laid eyes on. Up there wearing their polka-dot dresses and singing these happy pop songs, and yet they weren't even cracking a smile. It was as if I was watching three fembots perform. They looked tired and disinterested, as if they were in the middle of a long national tour (which they were).

Fortunately, they loosened up as the show went on and things got a lot more fun, although the audience seemed to enjoy their banter mainly because it was spoken in a cute English accent. I'm not sure how much respect people actually had for their musical abilities. That's something the Pipettes will need to get past if they ever want to be bigger than they currently are...

Nicole Atkins (recent interview subject of mine) opened the show and delivered a terrific set with her band The Sea, closing with a furious, spot-on cover of Patti Smith's "Pissing in a River." She has a great voice, good songs, and an engaging stage presence. I'll be very surprised if she is not huge within a year or two. My favorite moment was the introduction to "Cool Enough," when she said, "This song is about going back to your hometown 10 years later, and realizing that all the people who used to be cool in high school aren't anymore, and you are." I can relate!

I caught up with her after the show and she said she thought I looked like the guy from Grizzly Bear. Compared to the comparisons I usually get, I'll take that...

MP3: Pipettes - ABC (We are the Pipettes) Amazon

Monday, November 19, 2007

Interview with Nicole Atkins

If you’re not yet familiar with Nicole Atkins, you will be soon. Last year Rolling Stone named her one of its Ten Artists to Watch, and she recently made her national TV debut on The Late Show with David Letterman to promote her full-length major-label debut, Neptune City, which has been earning positive reviews for its lush arrangements and her seductive vocal delivery.

Nicole called in from the road in Vermont to discuss the album, the tour, dinner invites from Letterman, and being the new DeNiro (sort of).

You’re on tour right now, opening for the Pipettes. How is that going?
It’s going good, the shows have been really great.

How are the Pipettes' fans responding to your performance?
Surprisingly well. There’s a lot of younger fans in the crowd, younger girls with polka-dot dresses on, and they seem to really like us. They’ve been buying our CDs after our set, which is good. A lot of people were saying they were surprised they liked the opening act!

Neptune City is based on life in your hometown. Can you elaborate on the story behind the songs?
I was living in Brooklyn for four or five years, and I just got to this point where I was really sick of the city. I moved back down to Charlotte for a few months just to get my head together, and I decided to move back to New Jersey for awhile, and it was basically about me coming to deal with all that, and being ok with living in my hometown again, because I always wanted to get as far as I could away from it, and I ended up really liking it.

There are conflicting emotions in some of the songs – a sense of pride in your town, but also disappointment in the changes that had taken place.
Yeah, you got it. It was hard because I didn’t know anybody that lived there anymore, but I ended up meeting some of the best friends I’ve ever had. It became easier for me to live there and write songs and commute to New York a couple days a week to practice, than it was for me to actually live in New York.

“Brooklyn’s on Fire” stands out as a song that paints a vivid picture. What was the inspiration for that song?
That was actually the first time I met my best friend Susan, who was my old roommate. We met on the fourth of July in Brooklyn at a rooftop party, and it was about that time, you know, just being young and living in Brooklyn, hanging out in New York and making the best memories of your youth in that time. It was a tribute song to her.

I understand that Rick Rubin made some last-minute changes to the record. How did he get involved?
Yeah, well he became the president of Columbia and he got my record and he really liked it but he thought that the vocals were being too squashed. So he actually ended up taking the mastering off completely, and it really made all of the arrangements and vocals really crisp, and you’re able to hear the nuances of every sound. My voice ended up sounding like it was leading the track rather than just being a part of the track, so I was really thankful. At first I was apprehensive about it because I didn’t know what he wanted to do. I thought I was gonna get my record back with all this shit all over it, and in the end he just enhanced it, he didn’t change anything.

I imagine it felt good to have someone of his stature helping out with your album.
It was pretty neat. It was weird because he would call me all time. I’d be out for drinks with my friends in New Jersey and be like, 'Hold on,' and they're like, 'Who's that?' 'Oh, Rick Rubin.' (laughs). He’s a really cool guy.

You’ve cited people like Roy Orbison and Patsy Cline as inspirations, with that kind of old fashioned sound. What is it that draws you to that kind of music?
It’s more the vocal style. Most of my musical influences are from the late ‘60s on, but they are inspirations to me because, that old country style of crooning, it feels really good for me to sing that way. And also the way I write songs, I like to start them out really low and build it until it’s like pow! at the end. And that’s something they were really good at doing with their songs as well.

I have to ask you about playing Letterman a couple weeks ago. What was that experience like?
Really fun! It was completely nerve-wracking at the beginning but then after a couple glasses of wine we went on stage and had a blast (laughs). It was one of the coolest days of my life so far. It was weird because when we actually got on stage, it was almost like I blacked out for three minutes and just got so into the song I didn’t notice how nervous I was.

It seemed like Dave was quite smitten with you.
Yeah, he asked me if I wanted to go get a steak! I thought that was pretty funny.

You and your band also did an American Express commercial. How did you get that opportunity?
It was so random. An intern at Columbia, their friend worked at the ad agency. She wanted to get an up-and-coming female singer/songwriter to do the ad and they asked me to do it. I wasn’t sure about it at first, but I weighed the pros and the cons and was like, wow, I can pay off my credit card bill finally, move out of my mom’s house, and people actually get to hear my song that wouldn’t otherwise be on the radio, so I couldn’t understand any reason not to do it.

You mentioned the pros and cons - there will always be some people who see doing advertising as selling out.
Yeah, but you’ve gotta think about how the music industry is today. The only songs that make it on the radio are Britney Spears... to the few radio stations that even still exist. Musicians need to make their money somehow, and I just figured all the American Express ads that I’ve seen were really cool, and they always had cool people in them, and I figured if it was good enough for DeNiro, it was good enough for me!

The only thing that was misportrayed was we don’t really lounge around in bathrobes and offer to fly our friends out to our shows (laughs). I asked them about that too. I was like, 'We usually stay at the Econolodge.' 'Uh, that doesn’t look too good on tv.' Ok, whatever.

You’re playing here in Pittsburgh on Monday. What can people expect from your live show?
They can expect to probably dance a lot, and it’s more of a rock show than people would expect from hearing the recording. It’s pretty much a full-on rock show.

Video clip: Nicole Atkins & The Sea perform “The Way It Is” on The Late Show with David Letterman.

Nicole Atkins & The Sea perform at Diesel with the Pipettes tonight at 8 pm. Check out her website and her MySpace.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Hold me now, don't stop shaking

CONCERT REVIEW: The Polyphonic Spree/Rooney
November 15, 2007
Rex Theater, Pittsburgh

The Polyphonic Spree played in Pittsburgh last night for the first time, in a cozy club called the Rex Theater. Incredibly, they all fit on the stage. Barely. I only counted 22 musicians though, instead of the usual 27 - maybe an unlucky five had to sit this one out. There was also one guy whose only apparent job was to run the confetti machines.

The Spree put on a good show. It would be almost impossible for them not to, what with their grandiose songs and massive size - just having that many musicians on stage makes the show a spectacle, by definition. Hold Me Now and a cover of Live and Let Die were highlights, but the band played for just under an hour, including encores. That's criminally short. I spent most of the show looking forward to the encore, expecting to hear the two songs that drove the crowd nuts at Lollapalooza - When a Fool Becomes King, and a cover of Nirvana's Lithium. Instead, they played neither.

The show ended in odd fashion after a two-song encore, with singer Tim DeLaughter pleading for a good two minutes with the crowd to go buy merch (Did you know that you can actually buy one of their trademark robes? That'll set you back $55.) You could tell the rest of the band was waiting for Tim to instruct them what the next song would be, but instead he ended the show.

The opener (and apparent co-headliner) was emo pop band Rooney, and they were pretty good, especially on Are You Afraid, a catchy little synth number with Mr. Roboto vocals that sounded straight out of 1983. But they went on way too long - 70 minutes! For an opening act! That just made the Spree's short performance stand out all the more.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Three rivers and two rappers

Could it be that Pittsburgh is actually getting a spot on the map as a hip hop city? The local scene is now strong enough to support an annual Pittsburgh Hip Hop Awards (hosted this year by Mele Mel.) Local rapper Wiz Khalifa has started to make a name for himself and is poised to breakout, having been signed to Warner Bros.

But it's another city kid, Pittsburgh Slim (above), who is getting the most attention with his single "Girls Kiss Girls." Slim, a former member of local rap group Strict Flow (who we actually booked a few times for shitty bar gigs), was signed by Jay-Z to a 5-album deal for Def Jam, and the "Girls Kiss Girls" single is exploding. According to his MySpace page, Slim is even slated to appear at next week's American Music Awards (I'm not sure in what capacity, though; the show's website doesn't list him as a performer or presenter.)

For years hip hop was an east coast vs. west coast thing, but then St. Louis got big for a while. Two rappers certainly doesn't constitute an explosion, but as Mel said, if St. Louis can become a rap epicenter, why not Pittsburgh?

MP3: Pittsburgh Slim - Girls Kiss Girls (Method Mix)
MP3: Pittsburgh Slim - First Date

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

My 5 favorite bands, November 2007

It's been 6 months, so it's time again to run down my favorite bands, since they change fairly often. Except at the top, where for the past seven years my favorite band has either been Radiohead, the Dresden Dolls, or the Dave Matthews Band.

The Dolls were fairly quiet this year, releasing only one cheeky music video, "Shores of California," whose video featured the "Shoes" girl. But they've just announced a late December mini-tour, featuring a New Year's Eve show in New York City, and Amanda Palmer is busy recording her solo album in Nashville with Ben Folds, so that is likely to keep the Dolls in the top position throughout much of next year. Amanda's introspective songwriting has always been the cornerstone of the Dolls' success, and I can't wait to see how that translates to a solo record.
MP3: Dirty Business

They returned to the radar this fall with their name-your-own-price In Rainbows CD, and although I'm not joining the host of critics who think it's their best release in years (I actually believe it's their weakest since their debut), it is still great to have the world's greatest rock band back on the scene. The two best concerts I've ever seen are both Radiohead shows. Let's hope they launch an extensive U.S. tour next year.
MP3: 15 Step

The wacky dance duo released their second album Hey Hey My My Yo Yo in 2005, but only in Japan (!) Back then, I downloaded a few tracks and waited patiently for it to see the light of day here, and finally this summer the disc came out. It was worth the wait. There are a ton of happy silly pop bands around these days, but none do it as well as Junior Senior.
MP3:Itch U Can't Skratch

The more I listen to Alison, the more I adore her. Her angelic singing voice blends perfectly with her easy-on-the-ears bluegrass style. She's performed with an amazing list of people (James Taylor, Sheryl Crow, Elvis Costello, Shania Twain, Sarah McLachlan), but she's just released her most shocking collaboration to date, an album with Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant. I can't stand him, but I owe it to Alison to give it a shot.
MP3: Crazy As Me

I blogged about how amazed I was by Ghostland Observatory's performance at Lollapalooza 2007, and after that show I tracked down a bunch of songs from their recent release Paparazzi Lightning, which is still in heavy rotation on my laptop. Their live show is something to behold. Aaron Behrens' dancing is transfixing. Just released: A live DVD!

Other contenders for this list: Fiery Furnaces, Architecture in Helsinki, New Pornographers, Sigur Ros, Mickey Avalon, World/Inferno Friendship Society

Link: My 5 favorite bands, May 2007

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

November 7: Thumbs up/thumbs down

Kenny Chesney. The best country songs are not the ones about how your wife cheated on you and your dog left you and you're at the tavern crying about it, but those that deal with real-life emotions that everyone can relate to, like "I Hope You Dance" and "Two Teardrops." Chesney's latest single, "Don't Blink," is one of those songs, dealing with how your life flies by and you need to appreciate the moment. An unexpected highlight from a guy who hadn't recorded a good song since "How Forever Feels" in 1999.

Billy Ocean. Yeah. Just because. He's the new Lionel Richie. The '80s R&B dude who was laughed at back then, but now you look back at the discography and realize, wow, there's tons of good shit there! I've always been partial to Caribbean Queen and When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Going, but lately I've been on more of a Suddenly kick. It's a cheesy ballad... which means I love it. And, yes, that's what he looks like now. You have to give it up for the old man dreads.

Sarah McLachlan. I was just listening to Mirrorball the other day and realizing how great those songs were. And that was 10 years go! Where the hell have you been, lady? One new (subpar) album from you in the past ten years just ain't cutting it! Stop resting on your Lilith Fair laurels and give us some new music, pronto.

Timbaland.There's a song called Apologize that is credited to Timbaland featuring OneRepublic. Except that OneRepublic, an R&B vocal group, are the only ones on the track. Timbaland produced it. So what? That doesn't give him the right to claim artist credit on it. And certainly not as the featured artist! If anything, it should be OneRepublic featuring Timbaland. I cannot support this ego stroke. As far as I'm concerned, the song is by OneRepublic, period.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

I just saw the Fiery Furnaces, and now my nose is freezing

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

CONCERT REVIEW: Fiery Furnaces
November 2, 2007
Mr. Small’s Theater, Pittsburgh

Yes, that's my totally awesome cell phone photo from the show. This is going to be a somewhat uninformed review, because I barely know anything about this band. I’d heard exactly one song of theirs (My Egyptian Grammar) prior to the show tonight. But I went because they are a buzzworthy, brother-sister indie rock duo from Brooklyn. That’s good enough for me.

The show started off strange because the crowd was so sparse. It was the smallest crowd I’ve ever seen at Mr. Small’s – less than 100 people. But they had the air conditioning up high like usual, so my fingers and face were freezing. Nobody cheered when the band came out, because I guess a lot of us didn’t recognize them, and because Pittsburgh crowds are just lame in general.

The keyboard player was clearly thrown by the lack of enthusiasm and said sarcastically, “Hi. Happy Friday.” He wasn’t using a mike. And everyone could hear him. Despite the slow start, it got much better. Eleanor was (or acted) very happy and appreciative of those who did show up, and when the band really hit its stride (notably, during Clear Signal from Cairo), the crowd got into it.

I was very captivated by this group’s odd song structures and the contrast between the soft, melodic keyboard parts and the loud, hard-rocking sections. They struck me as a cross between Radiohead and the Dresden Dolls, who, by the way, just happen to be my two favorite bands. So obviously I’m hooked.

With most concerts, even when it’s a band I really really like, by the end I’m ready to go home. I’ve had my fill and I’m tired and I want to go to bed. But this was one of those rare shows that I just did not want to end. I’m looking forward to catching up on the rest of their catalogue.

MP3: Fiery Furnaces - My Egyptian Grammar

Friday, November 2, 2007

Ain't no party in a sad, sad city

Holy crap, I really need to get a job that will allow me to stay up late. Or, I at least need Tivo.

I draw this conclusion after just now finding out that one of my favorite bands, Ghostland Observatory, made their national TV debut two weeks ago on my birthday, on Conan O'Brien. I missed it entirely.

The performance was quite tame by GO's standards. But still awesome.

Conan is the place to be these days. Sondre Lerche is tonight's musical guest, and next week's guests include Grizzly Bear, Band of Horses, and Motion City Soundtrack. That's a damn solid lineup.

Tonight, I'm off to see Fiery Furnaces. I missed Tori Amos earlier this week. I still haven't seen her live yet, and I'm pissed about it. Someday...