Thursday, January 28, 2010
Seems like a shame to let our Album of the Decade - Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot - get away with only the pithy commentary you read the other day.
So I dispatched my trusty assistant Paco down to RT's secret subterranean archives, where all manner of "unofficial" recordings are stored in a hermetically sealed, climate controlled environment. After two days without food, water or light, Paco emerged with a gem that more than justified his efforts: The Yankee Hotel Foxtrot Sessions which Rock Turtleneck is sharing with our devoted readers.
This collection of demos is fascinating for several reasons. One, the finished album is quite deliberate in its use of musical textures, and these sketches show songs like "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" still tentative but starting to take shape. "I'm The Man Who Loves You" meanwhile, is heard more in the alt-country style of their Mermaid Avenue work, fueled by dobro, not the distortion of the official release. And "Kamera" is tried several different ways that vary wildly from the R.E.M.-ish final take. Fascinating if you are into the process of record production and studio-as-instrument.
Second, many songs were recorded but discarded because they did not suit their vision of the album for one reason or another. Many of these songs are excellent. Two favorites are "A Magazine Called Sunset," and "Alone" , both super-catchy nuggets in the Brian Wilson vein they tapped on YHF's predecessor Summerteeth. "Sunset" is proof that if you're talented and work hard, you can write a good song about absolutely anything.
Thirdly, there are several fun instrumentals that show the band trying to find their sound. As the final album shows, it wasn't pretty, but they eventually found it.
Herewith, as a public service, the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot Sessions for the downloadin' below. Enjoy - and be sure to tell your friends your friend Rock Turtleneck sent ya.
Wilco: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot Sessions
Tuesday, January 26, 2010
Years from now, when my son asks me what the 2000s sounded like, I will take him aside, sit him down, crack open a couple of cold Sierra Nevadas and put on the opening tumult to "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart," the lead track from Wilco's 2001 masterpiece - and Rock Turtleneck's Album of the Decade - Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
Like much of the Aughts, little of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot seemed to make sense at first. What exactly is an "all-American aquarium drinker"? How exactly does one "assassin down the avenue"? Why do Chicago's Marina apartment buildings look so ominous on the cover? Why is that woman reciting letters from the NATO phonetic alphabet? Looks like a hard rain's a-gonna fall.
But the passage of time and many listens to the record revealed many truths. One, the Marina towers seemed to echo the fallen Twin Towers, only they hadn't fallen yet. Same goes for the lyrics from the gorgeous "Jesus, etc.": "Tall buildings shake/Voices escape singing sad sad songs."
And the saluting of the Ashes of American Flags? Back then, they were still flags, not ashes.
Perhaps Jeff Tweedy was somehow tuned in to the cosmic unconsciousness when he wrote those lyrics. Maybe they just came to him while he was driving his kids to school. In any case, the beauty of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is truly haunting - Y2K folk music with a disturbing undertow of electronic beeps and homemade sound effects. It's a perfectly paced record with a dramatic opening, a tuneful middle and heavy ending.
As my friend Alex, one of the biggest Wilco fans in the northeast said not long ago, "All of their albums are great, but Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is like a Beatles record."
As befits a masterpiece like YHF, their record label Reprise didn't hear any hits on the album and refused to release it. In a move from the Jeff Zucker playbook, they paid Wilco to get out of their contract, leaving them to shop YHF to the highest bidder.
In the meantime, Wilco, one of the first web-savvy bands, streamed the entire record free on their website, building serious buzz about this opus being squashed by The Man. Eventually, the boutique label Nonesuch picked up the record. In a perfect metaphor for the shambles that is the music industry, both labels are owned by Warner Music, meaning they paid for the same record twice. (This can all be seen, along with the ugly dismissal of the late Jay Bennett in the great documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.)
I could sit here all night discussing the richness of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, but I have to work in the morning. Leave it to say that this is a record full of joy, sadness, talent and wisdom, and if you aren't intimately familiar with it, I pity you.
But it's not too late. Pick it up or download it using the links below. Then pick up their other gems from the decade: A Ghost Is Born, Kicking Television (Live in Chicago), Sky Blue Sky and Wilco (the album). And once you've digested those, go see them live: they're on the road pretty much all the time.
Buy YHF on iTunes here
Sunday, January 24, 2010
Conan O'Brien's final Tonight Show on Friday was a fantastic hour of TV, especially from a music vantage point. I like to picture NBC genius Jeff Zucker, watching the sincere tributes by the most respected names in show-biz, sweating it out in the NBC control room saying "tear up Jay's contract - we're keeping Conan."
Kudos to friend and fellow rock-blogger Doug Donelan of Actual Monkey fame for correctly predicting that guest Neil Young would pay homage to Conan with his beautiful"Long May You Run." In his liner notes to Decade, Neil said this song is about "a car and a girl." Add "wrongly-dismissed talk show host" to the list. At the end, Neil thanked Conan for championing new music.
The Tonight Show's closing number, a Last Waltz-style version of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Free Bird," featuring Will Ferrell as Ronnie Van Zant (complete with Neil Young Tonight's the Night T-shirt and cowbell) and a fake wife named Dawn who is "with child," was brililant, funny and even touching. I find Ferrell's comedy to be hit or miss, but this was definitely hit.
And the backing band, featuring Beck, Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, Ben Harper and Conan himself, managed to be both sincere and satirical. "Free Bird" is a cliche of the ultimate rock encore, but it's also a great song.
Of course, to NBC, Conan is anything but a Free bird - Zucker the Sucker had to pay him somewhere around $40 millionjust to leave. Maybe they should have called it "Fee Bird."
Conan's 'Freebird' Farewell - The funniest bloopers are right here
Let's take things home with the southern-fried original: here's Synyrd doing "Free Bird" on The Old Grey Whistle Test in 1975. Thanks for the laughs and the tunes, Conan - see you on Fox in September.
Thursday, January 21, 2010
After a glorious seven-month run, Friday night is Conan O’Brien’s last Tonight Show on NBC.
Conan will be missed, not only because he is way funnier and fresher than super-stale, passive-aggressive Jay, but also because he has great taste in music. Since his Late Night debut in 1993, Conan has been the most musically forward-thinking of the late night hosts. He ended his Late Show last year with the White Stripes doing a Dylanesque update of their twee classic “We’re Going to Be Friends”
This time around, our hero Neil Young will be closing up shop on Friday's show. As Conan has gotten more daring in the past couple of weeks, it's fitting to have a true iconoclast wrap things up.
Neil being Neil, it's impossible to guess what song he will play. But several of his classic songs perfectly sum up the late-night imbroglio with only minor lyrical adjustments.
From Carson to Letterman
From Carson to Letterman
I watched TV with you
Here I am with Leno’s show
Doin’ what I do
I always expected
NBC would see me through
I never believed that in seven months
Jay would say “You’re through”
Can we get it together
Can we still host side by side
Can we make it last
Just not at 12:05?
I am a lonely visitor
I came too late to cause a stir
Though I campaigned all my life
towards that goal
I hardly slept I should have wept
Your show is safe and still well kept
Where even Jay Leno has got soul
Even Jeff Zucker has got soul.
Tonight's the Night
Tonight’s the night
Tonight's the ni-hi-hi-hi-hight
Jay Leno was a working man
He used to tinker that Econoline van
A lantern was in his jaw
But his fate was in his hands
Cause people let me tell you
It sent a chill up and down my spine
When I picked up the telephone
And heard that he died
Out there in Prime Time
Tonight’s the Night
Tonight's the ni-hi-hi-hi-hight
Wednesday, January 20, 2010
In addition to being arguably the greatest band named after a piece of cutlery, Spoon is among the best bands working today.
In fact, according to an interesting study on the website Metacritic, which arbiters critical opinion from all media, Austin-based Spoon was the best-reviewed rock band of the Aughts, beating out Radiohead, Wilco, OutKast, Bob Dylan and the White Stripes, among many others.
Their four records from the decade, Kill the Moonlight, Girls Can Tell, Gimme Fiction and Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, were mini-masterpieces of angular, catchy-as-heck, guitar-bass-drums-piano-tambourine-marracas rock.
I came a bit late to the Spoon feeding, but have been devouring their unique brand of rubber soul as fast as I can shovel it down. Like R.E.M. in the 80s, each Spoon record is distinct, showing a natural, thrilling progression, yet together they are very much of a piece.
The 10s (or whatever this decade is called) look to be just as fertile for singer/songwriter/guitarist Britt Daniels & Co. Their latest record, Transference, came out yesterday and sounds like another must-own.
If you are not familiar with Spoon, now is a perfect time to get on board. Here are a few of Rock Turtleneck's favorite Spoon tracks from records past.
"Sister Jack" (Gimme Fiction)
"You Got Yr Cherry Bomb" (Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga)
"I Turn My Camera On" (Gimme Fiction)
"Small Stakes" (Kill the Moonlight)
Buy Transference on iTunes here
Wednesday, January 13, 2010
The general consensus amongst people who follow rock music is that Radiohead’s Kid A was the best album of the Aughts.
Kid A was a studio-bred masterwork, no doubt about it. So was its evil twin Amnesiac. Recorded together, but released a year apart, they form a 9/11-era White Album – in fact, I wish they had released them together as such (The Red Album, perhaps.).
Kid A is the kind of quote-unquote “important, difficult" record that sends rock critics into a lather. But 2007’s In Rainbows is a more enjoyable and yes, better album.
In Rainbows has the intensity and sense of exploration of the other two records, but it also has more traditional rock & roll song structures. It’s the first Radiohead album since 1995's The Bends that you could put on at the beginning of the party, not at the end when everyone is up for a late-night freakout.
In Rainbows is the sound of a band in complete command of their art, showing awesome powers of rocking in tracks like “Bodysnatchers”:
Their mid-tempo tracks like “Reckoner” are sonically, rhythmically, lyrically light years ahead of all but a handful of artists.
In Rainbows also featured one of their most haunting ballads, "House of Cards," which seems to describe a failing relationship but also points to the global financial meltdown that was just around the corner.
At the time of In Rainbows’ release, the big news wasn’t the music but the paradigm-shifting pricing plan – pay whatever you wish at the Radiohead website and the record is yours to download. Or pay nothing at all. (I paid 4 pounds as I recall) Yes, this was bold and daft, but what will be remembered in years hence is not the goofy - and successful - sales gimmick but the very un-goofy genius music.
One of the best things about In Rainbows was that it showed, after the dark, Bush-bashing Hail to the Thief, that the band was still capable of having a good time, as demonstrated by this in-studio cover of The Smiths' "Headmaster Ritual" - something that bodes very well for the world's most awe-inspiring band at the start of this new decade, whatever it's called.
Buy In Rainbows on iTunes here.
Thursday, January 07, 2010
Happy 75th Birthday to Elvis A(a)ron Presley, born on January 8, 1935 to Vernon and Gladys Presley in Tupelo, Mississippi.
Rock Turtleneck has a more fitting tribute planned for this momentous occasion but for now, sit back and let the King take us, as he has so many times before, to The Promised Land.
Happy Birthday Elvis. TCB75.
Wednesday, January 06, 2010
Happy Birthday to R.E.M. vocalist/lyricist/mouthpiece Michael Stipe, who turned a whopping fifty years old on Monday.
As someone whose key formative music-listening years coincided precisely with R.E.M’s rise (I was in high school when I first heard Chronic Town and was an instant fan), it is hard to believe these four icons of my youth are all in their fifties.
In his years in the public eye, Mr. Stipe has evolved from an eccentric Southern Gothic wallflower to a soy-latte-drinking, Patti-Smith texting jet-setter, but as Bob Dylan might say, "Hey Man, are you the same person you were in 1982?"
Stipe was also the driving force behind Rock Turtleneck's least favorite album of the Aughts: R.E.M.’s Reveal. My two regrets of the 00s are not taking any photos of my then-infant daughter on 9/11 so she would know she was there; and not throwing my new copy of Reveal out the window of my car and onto the Jersey Turnpike when I was done listening to it for the first time. I have tried listening to it several times since and find it both boring and irritating.
Anyway, ummm... back to Patti Smith. The Godmother of Punk was a huge influence on Stipe in his formative years and his remarkably close and pretentious friendship with her has been the defining characteristic of Stipe since the departure of Bill Berry from the band in 1997.
While I am not much of a fan of Smith’s music and find her incredibly overrated by mainstream rock critics (read my 2007, super-controversial take on Ms. Smith's election to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame here), she can be an extremely effective singer when given the right material.
Case in point: R.E.M.’s “E-Bow the Letter,” from their last great record, 1996's New Adventures in Hi-Fi. “E-Bow” refers to a guitar effect held in the player’s right hand that produces a bow-like sound, one of the hallmarks of the tune as played by Peter Buck. “The Letter” refers to the lyrics, supposedly taken from a letter Stipe wrote to doomed actor River Phoenix. Assuming this is true, it is one of the most non-linear, self-indulgent letters ever written from one celebrity to another. But it also makes for a great tune.
R.E.M. brought their friend and hero Patti onstage in 1998 during an MTV concert filmed at NYC’s Bowery Ballroom. Smith, looking like a cross between Mary Magdalene and Howard Stern, seems nervous and shy at first but by the end of the song, it’s like she’s banging out “Gloria” at CBGB.
Here Michael talks about his passion for Patti on a Parisian talk show. Following that, a run through of Iggy Pop's "I Wanna Be Your Dog" with Patti at the 2007 Hall of Fame ceremony, where both acts were inducted.
Ummm… Happy 50th Michael. Belong.
Sunday, January 03, 2010
From the moment Beck Hansen made the scene in 1994 (just as doomed Gen-X hero Kurt Cobain was checking out), it was clear that he was an immensely talented musician with a shocking versatitlity. Here was a so-called slacker who was equally well versed in Skip James and Rick James, Hank Snow and Kurtis Blow and Yoko Ono.
Beck hopped musical genres with the frequency of a cheap ham radio, from the lo-fi major label debut Mellow Gold, through the astounding mish-mash Odelay, the twisted country blues of Mutations and the tongue-in-cheek slo-jams of Midnite Vultures. Yet everything he did seemed to have a set of quotation marks around it, as if to say "this is old-school funk done Beck-style" or "this is the Beck take on Robert Johnson." He was a serious talent who seemed reluctant to get serious.
That changed with 2002's Sea Change. Inspired by a breakup with his longtime girlfriend Leigh Limon (not to be confused with 30 Rock's Liz Lemon), Beck emerged from his fortress of irony and delivered a set of gorgeous laments with no hint of "post modern this" or "readymade that" - it was just simple pure songwriting and performance by a man in an emotional Cuisinart using his music to deal to pay some dues gettin' through. This was apparent from the very Neil Young-ish opening chords of the first track, "The Golden Age" and its heartbreaking refrain:
These days, I barely get by
I don't even try
Many have called Sea Change Beck's Blood on the Tracks, Bob Dylan's 1974 masterpiece which supposedly dealt with the dissolution of his marriage to wife Sara.
And while Sea Change is not quite the open wound that Blood On The Tracks is, its sense of resignation and simple beauty surely put it in the same emotional wheelhouse, as attested by this KCRW in-studio performance of "Lost Cause" and "Lonesome Tears."
Never one to wallow in self-pity, Beck took Sea Change on the road with his psychedelic psoulmates The Flaming Lips as his opening/backing band. It was a match made in rock-blog heaven, with many recordings circulating.
One of our favorites was their November 2002 peformance on Austin City Limits, which Rock Turtleneck is generously making available for download here.
Here they are from that show, doing "The Golden Age" and Odelay's "Lord Only Knows."
Sea Change was the start of a second great decade for Mr. Hansen, who has continued to deliver on the promise of Mellow Gold and Odelay. There was the 1-2 punch of Guero and The Information, then Modern Guilt, his 2008 collaboration with DJ Danger Mouse, which continues to get better with each listen. Lately he has taken to re-recording classic albums like The Velvet Underground & Nico with artists like Wilco and Feist, as part of his Record Club project, which you can check out here.
Buy Sea Change on iTunes here