Monthly Archives: August 2009

STARS ALIGNED Meaghan Smith

The animator turned singer-songwriter had her
own
dreams.

 

BY JAMIE
GADETTE

 

Meaghan
Smith’s first name is pronounced Mee-gan, something to remember should you ever
chance upon the Canadian chanteuse. Stranger things have happened. In 2007, her
producer Les Cooper randomly bumped into DJ Kid Koala in an Austin bookstore
and handed him Smith’s demo-this after months of hot pursuit by Smith, who’d
pegged Koala as an ideal conduit for her dreamy vintage-meets-modern sound. The
collaboration might still have floundered had Koala’s wife picked another demo
to pop in their car stereo.

 

“So many
things that shouldn’t have happened worked out,” says Smith, an animator who
pursued music full time when her day job wore thin. “I got tired of making
other people’s dreams a reality.”

 

“Other
people” might also include a Halifax radio station that funded Smith’s 2004
debut, an album that all too conveniently fit the station’s format. “It didn’t
turn out like I’d hoped,” Smith says, so she pulled out all the stops and
recorded The Cricket’s Orchestra on
her own dime. “I didn’t think it would go anywhere. I made it as a gift to
myself.”

 

It just so
happened, though, that Smith got the mixes back two days before the Atlantic
Film Festival. And wouldn’t you know it, organizers wanted to use one of her
songs to open all the screenings. In exchange, Smith received a free pass to
the fest where she handed out demos to industry folk. “I really just wanted to
get someone else’s opinion,” she says.

 

Seemingly
endless months later, the venerable Sire label put out The Cricket’s Orchestra, followed
by the EP/DVD, The Cricket’s Quartet,
comprising four tracks plus videos with Smith’s animations. Quartet’s “I Know”
features Kid Koala scratching over a mellotron sample of 30s-era jazz
musicians. It’s a whimsical song emblematic of Smith’s sonic juxtapositions-new
and old; organic and electronic. She’s not simply recreating the past: “No
offense to Michael Buble. That’s just not what I do.”

 

Meanwhile,
Smith’s alt-roots were on display when her cover of the Pixies’ “Here Comes
Your Man” was featured on the soundtrack to the hit film (500) Days of Summer. She’s also become an avid Twitterer, tweeting
on near-daily basis. Will world domination follow? Stay tuned…

 

GONNNA TAKE SOME MIRACLES The Miracles

Smokey Robinson and
his ‘60s group the Miracles made pure Motown magic.

 

BY RICK ALLEN

 

Bob Dylan once called Smokey Robinson “America’s greatest living poet.”
Cynics and rock critics without souls (and soul)
have said that Dylan was being facetious. Even allowing for Dylanesque
hyperbole it’s obvious from listening to a fantastic new retrospective of his
early work with the Miracles that those folks were either not paying attention
or are extremely tin-eared.

 

For many, experience with the Miracles, later Smokey Robinson
and the Miracles, begins with their 1965 hits “The Tracks Of My Tears” and “Ooh
Baby Baby” or with cover versions of those tunes by other artists ranging from
Todd Rundgren and Linda Ronstadt to Dolly Parton and Ella Fitzgerald. Beatles
fans count their version of Smokey’s “You Really Got A Hold On Me” to be a
highlight of that band’s early recordings.

 

But the history of the Miracles goes back to the very
beginnings of the story of Motown Records or Tamla Records as it was called
when it came into being in Detroit
in 1959. The Matadors were the first act signed by Motown founder Berry Gordy.
Their name was changed to the Miracles and when signed, the group included Claudette
Rogers, the sister of original Matador Emerson Rogers – who left the group after
being drafted in 1958 – and songwriter/guitarist Marv Tarplin (who continues to
tour and write with Smokey) who had been accompanist for a group of three
teenaged Detroit girls known as the Primettes. That group later changed their
name to the Supremes and had a hit or two themselves. Claudette Rogers became
Smokey’s first wife and Smokey, on his own and in combination with Tarplin and
fellow Miracles Bobby Rogers (brother of Emerson and cousin of Claudette) Ronnie
White (who discovered Stevie Wonder and brought him to Gordy’s label) and Pete
Moore went on to write some of the best and most recorded songs in pop history.

 

Their songs were hits for not only the Miracles but for a
staggering list of artists including almost the entire Motown stable: The Temptations;
Mary Wells; Marvin Gaye; The Supremes; The Jackson Five; The Rolling Stones and
those mentioned above. John Lennon was a huge fan and “adapted” a few of the
lyrics to Smokey’s “I’ve Been Good To You” for his song “Sexy Sadie”. George
Harrison, a little less light-fingered – maybe due to his storied troubles with
the battle over the originality of “My Sweet Lord” – paid tribute to Robinson
in the song “Pure Smokey” for his 1976 album “Thirty Three & 1/3” and the
classic “The Tracks Of My Tears” written by Smokey, Stevie Wonder and Motown
producer Hank Cosby even survived a treatment by Phil Collins.

 

The new collection from Hip-O Select, Depend On Me: The Early Albums, contains five of the Miracles’
first six albums (their 1953 Christmas LP was not included) and bonus tracks
including 2 regionally released versions of “Shop Around” (the Miracles and
Motown’s first million seller).

 

When Rod Stewart’s solo career was blooming, some compared
his voice to that of Sam Cooke. For many, the connection was hard to make.
Listen to Smokey singing “Way Over There” and the lights come on; he sounds
like the musical bridge between the two. Good luck trying to get past “Way Over
There”, “I’ll Try Something New” or more than half the cuts in this set on just
one play. The music on these albums is sometimes almost painfully exquisite.
Smokey’s alto bordering on soprano voice was not a falsetto like the Four
Season’s Frankie Valli’s or the Temptation’s Eddie Kendrick’s. Unaffected and
comfortably in the higher registers it carries a natural tear that makes
pleading, yearning lyrics like those of his classics like “I’ll Try Something
New” or “Who’s Loving You” deliriously heartbreaking and his treatment of the
Gershwin brothers’ “Embraceable You” is a revelation .

 

Those hearing this music for the first time or revisiting it
after a few years will be surprised and pleased to find that the group was
originally more of an ensemble than they knew or remembered. The collection
doesn’t give credits for musicians (one of Motown’s most egregious sins) but that’s
Ronnie White taking lead vocals on “A Love That Can Never Be” and Claudette on
“After All” and “He Don’t Care About Me” and in saucy dialogue with Smokey on
their version of Gordy and Janie Bradford’s immortal “Money (That’s What I
Want”). The hugely under-sung Marv Tarplin’s guitar is/was also a huge part of
the character of the group’s sound. Tarplin’s playing, sometimes reminiscent of
Curtis Mayfield’s, is one of the elements that brings into focus the connection
classic pre-soul music vocal groups like the Platters and the Ink Spots have to
Mayfield’s Impressions, the Miracles and The Motown Sound i.e. “The Sound Of
Young America.” There is no more damning truth of the utter worthlessness of the
“honor” of being in the so-called Rock and Roll Hall of Fame than that Smokey
Robinson was not inducted until 1987 and the Miracles as a group not until the
end of the first decade of the 21st century almost fifty years after
“Shop Around” earned them and Motown Records their first certification for a
million selling single.

 

A personal note: For
someone who grew up in Detroit
during Motown’s glory days, the Miracles, particularly Smokey, as performers
and songwriters, hold godlike status. Every important aspect of young life,
from frustration (“Get A Job”) to celebration (“Going To A Go Go”) to love’s
promise (“More Love”) and love’s loss (pick one) had a song written or recorded
by Smokey and the Miracles to go with it. A first kiss while slow dancing with one’s
first real girlfriend at a party in a friend’s attic or basement becomes even
more entrenched in sense memory for having happened while listening to “More
Love.” An early heartbreak is soothed, though not cured, by playing the 45 of
“The Tracks Of My Tears” over and over on a cheap plastic Westinghouse record
player and, in less maudlin moments, there was the determination to learn that song’s
eternally haunting guitar lick. A new dance is learned from an older sibling or
the cute older girl who lived down the block as “the Temptations’ (not Rare Earth’s) recording of
Robinson’s “Get Ready” plays. Listening to “Cruisin'” while doing just that
along Woodward Avenue, the city’s main drag, during a return visit home after
having moved to some far off place, invokes all those memories -old loves, old
friends, here and gone -in relentless waves of emotion and brings visceral understanding
of the fact that the word “nostalgia” means “bittersweet pain” and is an
amalgamation of Greek words meaning “returning home” and “ache.”

 

But such a wonderful ache you wouldn’t trade it for all the
tea in China.
Ooh baby, baby; you really got a hold on me.

 

 

BLURTING WITH… Brendan Benson

Talking dirty with the
pop Raconteur (and songwriter in his own right!).

 

BY
HAL BIENSTOCK

 

Brendan
Benson just can’t seem to get a break. For nearly 15 years he’s been pumping
out guitar-heavy power pop that has made critics drool. Yet during that time
Benson has been dumped by multiple record labels and remained a virtual unknown
until he and Jack White teamed up to form The Raconteurs. While that band gave
Benson his greatest success to date, it also led to an identity crisis. After
all, Benson wanted to be known for his own music, not just as Jack White’s
second banana.

 

With
the release of his latest album, My Old,
Familiar Friend –
his first since joining The Raconteurs – Benson has his
best shot yet at solo stardom. It’s a heaping helping of hooks and harmonies
that would sound great blasting out of a convertible, if radio stations
actually played this kind of music anymore. We talked with Benson about the
album and the challenges of balancing The Raconteurs and his solo career. 

 

***

 

You’ve been performing
for a long time but people primarily know you from The Raconteurs. How do you
feel about that?

 

I’d
prefer to be known as a solo artist, and in the beginning I was a little miffed
about that. I worked so hard at it for so long, and had no real success. Then
to team up with Jack and suddenly have huge success… [The Raconteurs’ hit] “Steady
As She Goes” was my song, and I couldn’t help but wonder whether it would have
been as big if I had done it on my own. That’s a bummer to think about, so I
guess I just stopped thinking about it.

 

You had to know The Raconteurs
would be a big deal, though.

 

I
thought I was well prepared for it mentally, but I couldn’t help feel sometimes
resentful. But there were just fleeting moments like that. Overall, I have a
great time in The Raconteurs.

 

How did playing with
them change your songwriting?

 

One
thing I picked up was bearing in mind how a song would be done live when I was recording
it.  I tend to go crazy with my solo
stuff, then I get onstage and go “Shit, we need 18 people to play this.” I
learned from The Raconteurs, how to get to the bare bones of a song, so when
you play it live, it’s still cool and identifiable.

 

Is the stuff you keep
for yourself different than what you write for them?

 

Not
really. Most songs that I write could work either way. With some, you
immediately think “The Raconteurs could kill on this song.” With others, I
think “This is a song I’d like to do because maybe they wouldn’t get it.” The
song “You Make a Fool Out of Me” was like that. I gave it to The Raconteurs,
but it didn’t pan out. They weren’t feeling it.

 

You’re often described
as a pop songwriter. What do you think of that term?

 

I
don’t think I’d be happy with any label, but I guess pop describes it pretty
well. I try not to think too much about that stuff. I remember when my first
record came out, a lot of reviews mentioned The Beatles. I wasn’t a huge
Beatles fan. I liked them, but I didn’t own any of their records. So I started
researching The Beatles to figure out what people were talking about. Then I
got caught up in it, and when I wrote my next record, I was thinking that I
needed to write songs like The Beatles. That’s when I realized it’s better to
just write and not think too much about it.

 

You wrote a lot of these
songs several years ago. Is it weird to go back to them now?

 

It
is weird, but I’ve done that with every record. I’ve never been on the same
label for more than one album. That means each time, I’ve had to shop a bunch
of songs, shop a record, find the right label, negotiate the right contract. It
just takes time. More time than you’d think. So by the time record comes out,
the songs are old. I’m used to it, but it’s not ideal.

 

How do you keep the
songs fresh for yourself?

 

It’s
a case of revisiting the songs. When it comes time to tour, I re-learn them and
rediscover them. And playing live, you can change things around and have fun
with the songs instead of trying to remember them or play them exactly like you
have been.

 

But you write so much
about relationships. It has to be strange to sing about relationships so many
years after they ended or changed.

 

That’s
true. Sometimes it’s hard to remember the lyrics for that reason. I’m just not
in that space anymore, so the words don’t always make sense to me. In those
cases, I have to memorize them, like you would with a speech.

 

You wrote most of this
album on the road, which is unusual for you. Do you like doing that?

 

It’s
not the ideal thing. But if I sit down with pencil and paper and a guitar and
I’m comfortable, then chances are the songs won’t come. They always come at the
most inopportune times. I remember having the idea for “A Whole Lot Better”
right before a Raconteurs gig. We had to be on in 15 minutes, and I was in the bathroom
trying to write it down.

 

 

 

KARMA KOMMANDERS, PART DEUX Radiohead

With albums three, four and five
– now, newly expanded and reissued – our heroes began chasing their
Rainbows.

 

BY JOHN DWORKIN

 

Radiohead has become a lightning rod in the music community. Jazz,
Rock, Creative Improvised, Post-Rock, Electro, Modern Classical, Film Music,
you name the circle and they’re being listened to or at least acknowledged and
occasionally referenced. They consistently spark passionate reaction from
critics, listeners, and musicians alike. Attitudes range from idolatry, to
derision, to intense mock indifference. And like any such known entity, it
often seems people have deep impressions (good or bad) based entirely on
others’ opinions without much real contact with the band’s actual music itself.

 

It’s like the phenomenon in which a politician is praised or condemned
by his/her constituents who know nothing of their actual policies but only what
they’ve been told about them by Fox News. Obama’s Health Care “Death Panels”
anyone? [The extreme irony of likening an aspect of Radiohead’s position to
that of a politician is duly acknowledged.] Or as Bob Dylan put it, some “just
want to just be on the side that’s winning,” while others hate on them simply
because they’ve been heaped with so much praise. They’re an easy target. Bjork
is the only other artist that seems comparable in all the above respects, and
she gets the business just as bad (worse?!). Radiohead is a singular rock band.

 

But none of that matters when you sit down to listen to Radiohead’s
music – or crank it up at a party/gathering. At their best, they’re completely
awe-inspiring, beautiful, disturbing, ass-kicking, and mysterious. And
as Albert Einstein wisely observed, “The most beautiful thing we can experience
is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art…”

 

Einstein would’ve dug Radiohead. As do artists from all over the
spectrum; for example, America’s best young film director P.T. Anderson
recruited guitarist Jonny Greenwood to score his Oscar winning epic There
Will Be Blood,
and both bluegrass mandolinist Chris Thile and jazz master
pianist Brad Mehldau have covered Radiohead material.

 

EMI Records (let’s leave the issue of the inherent evils of behemoth
corporate conglomerate record companies and their dealings with bands like
Radiohead for another write-up…) has released their second trinity of 2CD,
Collector’s Edition Radiohead discs: 2000’s Kid A, 2001’s Amnesiac, and 2003’s Hail
To The Thief.
As with the first round of reissues – Pablo Honey, The Bends and Ok
Computer
, previously scrutinized in our “Karma Kommanders” feature – each
title includes the original release plus a bonus disc of radio sessions, live
recordings, and B-sides. “Special Collector’s Edition[s]” are also available
for each title that include an additional DVD of promo videos and/or live
performance footage. Although this is not necessarily hard to find material,
having it all collected together is sweet. And for many who aren’t rabid fans
but still love the band, much of the additional material will be as eye opening
and as exciting as the original releases.

 

The insular and textural masterpiece Kid A was the band’s
follow-up release to the universally hailed Ok Computer. With almost
every song a classic, revisiting Kid A is always illuminating. Lyrics
and music both become more abstracted, beckoning you to scrutinize them as they
simultaneously lean toward shutting you out. The frequent oddball electronic
instrumentation and impenetrable lyrics are only frustrating for those who need
their beds made perfectly in the morning before leaving the house. Thom Yorke
and the rest of the band are not spoon feeding the listener ideas. You’ve got
to bring something to the table. The bonus CD includes two versions of
“Everything In Its Right Place,” both of which include somewhat extended
looping, and near mash-ups, of Yorke’s vocals toward the end. Nearly the entire
original CD is reproduced live on the bonus disc. Especially sweet is the
intensely high energy performance of “Idioteque” from Later… With Jools
Holland
included on the bonus DVD.

 

Similarly to Kid A, Amnesiac is a classic recording and
tunes like “Pyramid Song” and “Knives Out” just get better and better. The
bonus CD materials on this one are more extensive including seven B-sides all
worthy of having been included on the original recording and seven live tracks.
It’s quite remarkable how much consistently fascinating material came from
these sessions. And the bonus DVD for Amnesiac is a goldmine. Live
performances from Top Of The Pops and Later… With Jools Holland are present as well as four promotional videos. Among them is director Johnny
Hardstaff’s avant-garde short film of “Push Pulk/Spinning Plates.” It’s some
type of Kubrick-influenced, dystopian horror short that feels like a vague yet
fervent warning meant to induce a palpable sense of free floating terror. (It
does.) The other videos are also hardly your typical MTV titillating marketing
tools, especially “Knives Out’s” David Lynchian, surrealist dreamscape logic
and frightfully black comic imagery. 

 

With Hail To The Thief a sort of fatigue syndrome seems to have
set in. Given the relentlessly high level of music coming one after the other
with their previous three releases, it’s inevitable people will expect a
bottoming out. This expectation may have clouded the reception of Hail To
The Thief
a bit, but it is nearly as fine as the band’s previous two
releases and continues on in a similar vein. The big guitar hooks, sweeping
melodies, cryptic words and killer grooves of “Go To Sleep,” “There There” and
many others are still present in spades. The bonus CD and DVD are similar to
the ones from Amnesiac in that there are intriguing B-sides, promo
videos and live performances. The highlight is certainly the intense live
performance of the anthemic rocker “Go To Sleep” from Later… With Jools
Holland
on the DVD with Jonny Greenwood’s wonderfully ape-shit guitar
fireworks toward the end. 

 

This, as a television or radio announcer might be inclined to put it,
concludes the EMI-hosted portion of the Radiohead program. As everyone
certainly knows, 2007’s self-released In
Rainbows
was just around the corner, accompanied by reams of pundit-spewed
commentary on the album’s game-changing marketing strategy. With these and the
previous three reissues, however, fans can get a clear sense of how the band
was paving its own path towards that very intriguing – and artistically
fruitful – next phase.

 

 

 

 

 

MAGIC POTIONS AND CRYSTAL BALLS Black Keys

Contemplating the ifs
of the Akron
band’s career to come.

 

BY RANDY HARWARD

 

A few years ago when we first spoke with The Black Keys’ Pat
Carney, the Akron blues-rock duo was hot; now they’re kinda huge. They’ve moved
on from backwoods indie label Fat Possum to Nonesuch,
the suburb of Major-label-land where bands like Wilco go when their hipster fan
base reaches critical mass.

 

You probably know plenty about these guys, or have at least
heard one of their tunes in a TV show (Sons
of Anarchy
, The O.C., Big Love, Entourage…), commercial (Victoria’s
Secret), video game (Grand Theft Auto 4),
a movie (School of Rock, Black Snake Moan, Cloverfield). That is to say, The Black Keys don’t need much promo
right now. There’s no new album to plug-Attack
& Release
came out almost 16 months ago. Even frontman Dan Auerbach’s
solo record Keep It Hid is old-ish
(came out last February). But damn, they’re good… and usually pretty funny. So
we called Carney anyway, if only to contemplate the ifs of The Black Keys’
career to come.

 

Onanistic Opuses

What’s good for Dan’s good for Pat, ain’t it? If he did a
solo record, Carney says it’d be “less about traditional songs and more about
atmosphere and rhythm.” He’s already working on “semi-improvised jams” with his
uncle Ralph, who plays sax with Tom Waits. And there’s Drummer, the indie rock
supergroup band where Pat Carney plays bass alongside members of Teeth of the
Hydra and The Six Parts Seven (Feel Good
Together
comes out Sept. 29). “People tell me we sound like Journey,” he
says. “I hope we don’t.” As for a truly solo effort, he says he’d love to have
guitarist Marc Ribot guest on it, along with Uncle Ralph. But not Carney’s
buddies Gil and Ultimate Donny (from Gil Mantera’s Party Dream). “I can’t hang
with those guys. They’re my friends, but they’re legitimately, awesomely
crazy.”

           

Dirty Laundry

Public figures are subject to the pressures of fame, which
may lead to meltdowns and scandals. Carney, who says he has “trouble relaxing,”
figures he’d have the meltdown. “A scandal would probably be Dan; he keeps his
cool better than I do.” Would that meltdown involve fisticuffs? “No, ‘cause I
can’t fight. I’d probably just talk a lot of shit.”

 

Dirty… Whores!

Long careers can result in weak, repetitive albums-or worse,
bids to stay relevant, usually by licking up a mainstream, or
flava-of-the-month, producer. How would The Black Keys sell out? With P. Diddy
or Kanye? “If we were really gonna
sell out, it’d be P. Diddy ‘cause I don’t think he’s done anything that hasn’t
been disgusting… It’d probably be us covering a Sting song, with P. Diddy
producing and a couple of American Idol runners-up
singing on it.”

 

Splitsville

The inevitable breakup. Like Cormac McCarthy wrote, “You
can’t stop what’s comin’.” For one reason or another, bands grow tired of each
other and seek the Strange. The Black Keys are already doing that with their
record labels (Carney owns Audio Eagle), protégés (Auerbach’s Jessica Lea
Mayfield), etc. Could the duo someday go their separate ways (Ha-Journey
joke!)? “Dan and I have been through so much shit together-good shit and
bad-that at this point in our lives, if we were to stop making music together
it’d be a mutual decision. But I’m sure if I was like in a Nike commercial, air
drumming, that’d probably end the band.”

 

Talkin’ Some Shit

It’d be an amicable split, sure. But you gotta have some
juicy tidbits for the Behind the Music episode.
What kinda dirt do these Akron boys, who’ve known each other since “the fuckin’
sixth grade,” have on each other? “We have brutally damaging information about
each other, just as far as former musical tastes,” Carney says. “But I think I
would keep my mouth shut. I think he would, too.”

 

And It Feels So Good

Might as well reunite, right? Like fake encores, fake
breakups/reunions are virtually required. Will the TBK recommencement feature flashy
stage shows with bigger tire piles? Fancy entrances on flying harnesses or
spring-loaded sub-stage platforms? “We’d probably hire personal trainers in
order to be presentable 20 years from now,” says Carney. “[As for the tires], I’d
like to think we wouldn’t rehash the same old shit.” And though he’s “all
about” bands swooping onstage from lighting rigs, he demurs. That’s for party
rockers. “But we would encourage our opening band to do it. Maybe the Party
Dream could reunite at the same time.”

 

Hall of Lame?

Let’s assume The Black Keys are as adored as Michael Jackson
forty years from now. They’ve made their artistic mark, given younger artists a
leg up only to be outsold by them, scored films, organized huge charity
concerts, and it’s time to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “I
don’t see it happening,” says Carney, “because I don’t see anybody givin’ a
shit about rock n’ roll in 40 years… and [the HoF] keeps inducting a lot of
irrelevant shit-I think Madonna’s in there. I don’t know, man. Awards and
stuff… it’s completely pointless. But if we did [get inducted], we would
definitely have B.B. King’s skeleton onstage with Joe Perry and Slash.”

 

THE SECRET OF MY SUCCESS Of Montreal

Kevin Barnes doesn’t
want to be all things to all people. In fact, he’d rather keep ‘em guessing.

 

BY A.D. AMOROSI

 

Maybe corny is the new sexy. Or maybe the liberated
sexuality that Of Montreal’s Kevin Barnes sings of is a musical solution to his
problems.

 

But when Barnes talks about Of Montreal’s Skeletal Lamping and the sensuality rampant throughout, it’s funny that when he’s tries on his
favorite track, it’s the record’s most diligently innocent one, “An
Eluardian Instance,” that’s the sweetest love song he’s written in a long time.
“There’s just a nice nostalgia there that’s not too corny,” observes Barnes.
You can almost hear him sigh when he says so.

 

Moving from lean lo-fi pop to something more luxuriating like
glam’s grandeur has given Of Montreal its time in the sun. It would be a simple
thing – if only people would let enjoy it.

 

“Ha, I don’t know what happened to me,” laughs Barnes, about
being the earnest nice boy from Athens with an
epiphany-filled ethereal pop band from the Elephant 6 collective first led
astray by a woman from Canada.
It would seem as if his first real loves were the Mersey bands of Britain, what
with the initial Anglo ardor of 1997’s Cherry
Peel
on Bar/None, or ‘98’s The
Bedside Drama: A Petite Tragedy
on Kindercore.

 

“To be honest, the first music I fell in love with as a kid
was pop, soul and funk,” he confides. “My first cassette tape was a Kool and
the Gang greatest hits. I got into Prince at a very young age too. I didn’t
discover the Kinks and the Beatles till around high school, so you could say my
roots are in freak funk more do than Anglo psych pop.”

I could say that. OK. I will. That explains some of the funk. But the
flamboyant fabulousness of 2007’s Hissing
Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?
and the new music’s sensually branded glam
pop came under the auspices of an alter ego, “Mr. Fruit” and that character’s
nascent sexual aplomb. Before you ask, he doesn’t tell.

 

“I don’t really know where this new direction came from.
It’s all very organic. Maybe I got sick of being so depressed and uptight and
needed a new position. It just sort of evolved out of the depression and
paranoia.”

Much has been said of Barnes’ depression. He started a band because he was sad
a woman left him. It’s been rumored he was recently in real trouble with his
psyche. And of course, while early
tracks of Of Montreal were silly and humorous (“Tim, I Wish You Were Born
A Girl”) many of Barnes’ narratives since 1997 have evolved with dramatic
sadness as their basis. While The Gay
Parade
saw the advent of Barnes’ invented characters (in songs such as
“Jacques Lamure” and “Mimi Merlot”) and miserable conversations
(“Advice From a Divorced Gentleman to His Bachelor Friend Considering
Marriage”), albums like Aldhils Arboretum,
found peppy melodies and bleak lyrics as their base  – “Doing Nothing” and “Old
People in the Cemetery,” for example.

 

Before the current crop of sexually awake albums, his
favorite Of Montreal record was Coquelicot,
the epic and the open ended classic that is the transitional bracket between
glistening pop and sexual healing glam. “It is pretty similar to Skeletal Lamping in its structure or
lack thereof,” says Barnes. “Coquelicot is the first record I really cut loose and completely abandoned the
conventional pop song template. That is the one record that was a true
collaboration with other people as well. It was a pretty great experience.
Unfortunately it didn’t sell worth shit and the band sort of fell apart quickly
after that.”

 

With that band disappeared and Fauna‘s main character – Mr. Fruit – doing most of the talking,
phase two of Of Montreal seemed complete and successful.

 

But, why did
Barnes need an alter ego in Fruit to begin with, and now that he’s disappeared,
is Skeletal Lamping all Barnes?

 

“I realized that it was me all along. There is no split
personality thing happening.”

He doesn’t wish people to think that Skeletal
Lamping
is a concept album or that he was singing from the perspective of a
fictional character. “SL is just as personal
an album as Hissing Fauna. I’m just
exploring and exposing different areas of my psyche. I think people tend to
find sexuality to be more superficial than subjects like mental problems or
relationship woes. I don’t agree though. The psychological aspects of sexuality
are extremely complex and fascinating to me. So much of our self concept is
influenced by how we define ourselves sexually. I have chosen to not define
myself and to allow for my self identity to be fluid.”

 

What Barnes discovered that has made Skeletal Lamping so much freer and sexual than previously was that
he was hung up; that time and energy and his current openness about himself and
his music was ripe. “I guess I was in more of an introverted and hung up state
of mind earlier on in my life. I seem to be going through a sexual awakening. I
guess it is somewhat influenced by hitting rock bottom and being reborn. I
couldn’t have predicted it. I try not to second guess things. I just follow the
organic spirit where ever it wants to go. That sounds like a hippy bumper
sticker but it is true.”

 

So why do audiences and critics seem confused by this new
record and the personae or non-personae of it. Read Of Montreal’s most recent press and it’s as if
every critic – but BLURT’s staff of course – ain’t doing a whole lot of fucking.

“I can’t say,” says Barnes. “I think that anyone who feels annoyed by the
complexity of the album just lacks intellectual depth. I can’t understand how
these so called ‘music aficionados’ criticize the album for being too
unpredictable and complex. I would have thought that critics would have
celebrated the album for its exceptional quality but I’ve been shocked by how
many critics have completely missed the boat. I guess I gave them too much
credit.”
 

And what’s the something-something so delicious about Skeletal Lamping that is the secret to
it success? Barnes can’t help but stifle a giggle. “Every instrument on every
song was recorded while masturbating,” says Barnes.

 

You go.

 

 

 

THE BLURT BULLY PULPIT Baby Teeth

“Stagnant pools of
extra testosterone”: Tennis, anyone? Motherfucker!

 

BY ABRAHAM LEVITAN

 

Baby Teeth is hardly a band of jocks. We have the standard
lower-back pains and knee blowouts of most sedentary Americans in their early
thirties. Our pasty complexions (often euphemistically referred to as “studio
tans”) testify to lives spent generally staring at a glowing screen of one kind
or another. A couple of years ago, I got my first hernia, which led me to
believe that social-security checks certainly couldn’t be too far behind. 

 

In truth, a general sense of physical infirmity is nothing
new for me. I was somewhat of a sickly child, and I’ve been dogged by
clumsiness and slowness as long as I can remember. My gym teacher used to taunt
me for being the last one in the locker room after class; somehow, the
transition from gym clothes back to “street clothes” just took much longer for
me. When I was twenty, I did a brief stint as a waiter at a restaurant in Times Square. My manager regularly chastised me for my
slow lope from table to table. When he didn’t feel like I was worth talking to,
he would sometimes just gaze at me across the room and sadly shake his head. He
even went so far as to sit me down one day, stare at me solemnly, and intone,
“You are stupid. But….” (pregnant pause) “… you are also…. very stupid.”

 

Having endured several decades of a life in which balletic
grace was in short supply, I was delighted to find, about two years ago, that I
really, really liked playing tennis. I had always enjoyed dressing like I really liked playing tennis — terrycloth
wristbands and short-sleeved knit shirts have been mainstays in my wardrobe for
many years. But suddenly, I really wanted to play: I craved it. Fortunately, I
had a willing accomplice: Baby Teeth drummer Peter Andreadis. When the two of
us hit the courts, I felt like I had transcended the young man’s realm of
trying to prove physical prowess, embarking instead upon a new life as a
sophisticated gentleman of leisure. (That I was far too broke to be a genuine
gentleman of leisure didn’t really matter.) In this incarnation, physical grace
wasn’t the really the point; rather, it was a casually-noted byproduct of
old-school virtues like hustle, strategy, and good sportsmanship. Peter and I
didn’t have to act like young men in order to get exercise. Walking onto the
court, we might as well be Alan Greenspan and Lloyd Bentsen, septuagenarian
D.C. insiders meeting together for a friendly game and a bit of professional
gossip.

 

That is, until the game starts, at which point each of us
tries mightily to kick the living shit out of the other. While we have
collaborated for years as bandmates with a fair amount of artistic (if not
commercial) success, on the court it’s another matter entirely. Our fondest
wish is to see the other one humiliated by a stinging, just-beyond-reach
crosscourt return. When Peter dupes me in said fashion, I scream “Motherfucker!” and leap up and down
repeatedly. When I return the favor, Peter hurls his helpless racket to the
ground. Then, he picks up the racket, grabs the nearest tennis ball, and hits
his most savage forehand into the fence of the public park. In either case, the
inflictor of the opponent’s frustration has to choke back a smile. After all,
such strategically-imposed torment is the point of the game.

 

Before I realized that tennis could be an outlet for my
stagnant pools of extra testosterone, a lot of that rage and competitiveness
used to go into my songwriting. For some people – Joe Strummer, Ian MacKaye,
Chuck D – writing with a head full of rage can create powerful art. In my case,
it tended to obscure what I could do well as a songwriter – write catchy hooks
and relate little vignettes about life in suburban dystopia. In my early
twenties, I would frequently step all over myself trying to show how hard I
could rock, how loud I could sing, and how comfortable I was screaming, “Motherfucker!” These are now avocations
that I’m able, in most cases, to leave on the tennis court.

 

Is all of this just a lot of mumbo-jumbo about settling into
middle age? Well, maybe. But in my own experience, life and art tend to work a
lot better when you’re able to access some kind of inner peace and stillness
when you need it. Like a lot of people with the XY chromosome combo, I spent a
lot of my twenties in a pissing contest with the rest of the world. In all
likelihood, this tendency was only aggravated by my not really having a sport
that I loved playing. While I tried to work around this by telling the
cleverest possible anecdote at a party, or by writing the most ribald possible
lyrics, these practices ultimately proved neither socially endearing nor
artistically satisfying.

 

So, twenties rocker dudes, listen to your clumsy big brother
with the bad back and the slow, stupid-looking walk. If you’re anything like
me, I would advise you to play more tennis and stop trying to prove yourself so
much. I think your songs will get better.

 

Then again, you didn’t ask for my advice. Maybe I’ve even
made you angry. But please: if you do want to kick my ass, kick my ass in
tennis.

 

***

 

Chicago‘s Baby Teeth – Levitan, Andreadis and
bassist Jim Cooper – has their recent album
Hustle Beach out now on Lujo Records. The band can be
found at their website,
www.babyteethmusic.com.]

 

***

 

Previous installments of BLURT’s The Bully Pulpit:

 

/features/view/367/

 

/features/view/262/

 

 

 

 

 

MOORE THAN A FEELING Moore Brothers

For the sibling rockers,
it’s “the beyondness” that makes them make music.

 

BY
BRIAN STAKER

 

Brothers
are notorious for quarreling, sibling rivalries, even physically fighting each
other in some families. According to the Bible, the first male sibling
relationship ended with murder. Harmony is about the last word you associate
with the sometimes competitive nature of brothers of the same mothers, and
fathers. But Greg and Thom Moore of the not-so-curiously titled Moore Brothers
have made harmony the staple, trademark and backbone of their musical affinity.

 

Growing
up in LA in the ‘80s, their close-knit family helped shield them from that
city’s rock scene in the period, for which they were grateful. They were into
bands like the Cocteau Twins and Robyn Hitchcock. “Also Jonathan Richman, from
whom melodically we get a lot,” offers Thom. Prince has influenced Greg:
“especially his latest; he’s a great pop songwriter.”

 

“We
just happen to sound like Simon & Garfunkel; two guys playing acoustic
guitar with high-pitched harmonies,” he tosses off, as though the feat was
easy. These are some tight harmonies,
also evoking Beach Boys at times, and every sixties wacked-out compositional
wizard who threw a wild chord change in to feed the head starved for musical
variety, but in the eloquently mannered Simon & Garfunkel restraint. It
makes for incredibly beautiful music, something to put on when wanting to charm
a member of the opposite sex.

 

Three
years older, the 38-year-old Greg started writing songs a full decade before
Thom, but it didn’t take long for the younger to catch up. “We always had a
strong personal connection to our record collections growing up,” Thom said,
but I didn’t realize I could make music for a while. They are so anti-rivalry
that they split the songwriting on their sixth album Aptos (American
Dust), alternating every other song.

 

The
songs are full of lyrical as well as melodic surprises, as Thom describes his
song “Iraq.”
“I was trying not to write a typical love song,” he explains. “I wrote it just
days after the attack, almost trying to make a connection between a depressed
state, which that country is in, and a girl in the same state. The similarity
is that she feels like she doesn’t have communication with the rest of the
world.”

 

Although
they split songwriting duties, they are each dictators of the sound of their
own compositions. They say this is greatly aided by their rhythm section of
Neal Morgan on drums and Jun Ohnuki on bass. Instead of rivalry, that certain
energy that brothers have around each other made them push each other to write
more songs. “We aren’t like the Everly Brothers, or Oasis,” they joke.

 

They
have honed their recording process from their debut, 2001’s Colossal Small,
which they say was “rushed,” to Aptos which has such perfect sound you’d
swear Phil Spector broke out of jail to produce it. A big push in popularity
beyond their Northern California regional
following is added by harpist/singer Joanna Newsom, who guests on “Good Heart,
Money and Rain.” “She heard us play and became a fan,” they recall. She asked
them to open for her European tour, which they say was a thrill, and with
typical self-effacement, “it’d thrill anyone. We just made the best of an
opportunity that came along.”

 

Growing
up in the land of opportunity, they also had the good fortune of having noted underground
artist William Stout design their album cover’s R. Crumb-like desert cartoons.
“I used to babysit his kids next door while he was painting,” explains Greg.
“It’s neat to have a classic-looking album cover, but we’re not trying to use
it for success.”

 

All
the lyrics aren’t as light as the harmonies, however. Thom’s “You, Me and Razor
Dan” he says is about a pregnancy. “Razor Dan is an unborn child, and it’s
about the fear of giving birth to a monster,” Thom notes. “Like Biff Rose’s
‘Mother of Hitler.’ ‘What’ll he make of our world?’ it’s an eternal question.”
And their imaginative energy is such that Greg didn’t have to experience the
travails of parenthood to come up with it.

 

Of
the evocatively-titled “Bed, Bath & Beyond,” Greg says “the song is just a
list of words. I see it like an E.E. Cummings poem but with more words on the
page, with a nice ‘bath’ of chords.” Someone had to write a song with that
title, but instead of some cheesy pop-country twanger, we are lucky it was the Moores. “I think the
tuning we use might be the one Joni Mitchell uses on Hejira.” Another
touchstone of their youthful listening.

 

Greg
Moore says it has to do with creature comforts, but also what lies beyond the
physical trappings; ‘the void of what could potentially be.‘ Like E.E.
Cummings, their word stream somehow coalesces into deeper meanings: “The
beyondness is why I make music.”

 

 

MUSICAL THERAPY Damion Suomi

The songwriter may not be certain
of the answers, but he definitely has the big questions.

 

BY JASON FERGUSON

 

You know
the guy. The handsome kid belting out covers in the bar, the one with the spark
in his eye and the scratch of premature world-weariness in his voice that lets
you know that he’s got far more to offer the musical world than crowd-pleasing
renditions of drinker-friendly tunes … you know that guy, don’t you?

 

If you
don’t, then meet Damion Suomi, a bearded, tattooed twenty-something who pays
his rent (and paid his dues) singing tunes in an Irish pub in Cocoa Beach,
Florida, but who has recently released a solo album – the wittily emblazoned Self-Titled – that packs an emotional
and spiritual punch more resonant than a whiskey-soaked 2 a.m. rendition of
“Danny Boy” ever could. 

 

“Music
has always been a part of my life. My dad always played in bands, and there was
always a guitar around; my brother was a guitar player too,” says Suomi.
“It didn’t really interest me until I was 15; they were always trying to
put a guitar in my hand, and I didn’t really want anything to do with it, but
around that time, I picked it up and it was just magical.”

 

That magic
– and a series of fortuitous, post-high school circumstances – eventually found
Suomi living in Ireland with a friend for nearly a year, making money by
singing songs in local pubs.

 

“I
went to bible college for a year and quickly realized that it wasn’t for me,
and an opportunity arose for me to travel to go stay in Ireland for a while,
and it ended up being about nine months,” says Suomi about the unusual
path that found a Florida kid with Finnish heritage singing Celtic folk songs
in bars. “That experience was an initiation into the world; a lot of my
ideas about the world were pretty immature up to that point, and it took
getting out of this – this state, this country, this mindset – to get some real
perspective on things.”

 

That
perspective gave Suomi the impetus to take a lifetime of growing up in a
musical household and begin creating music that meant something to him as an
artist and as a writer. Yet, after returning to the States, he found himself at
the complete opposite end of the musical spectrum, playing with a pop-punk band
that proved to be regionally popular. Still, the singer-songwriter had yet to
find an accurate representation of the songs in his head.

 

“I put
my hand to writing in a more pop format before, and even though I had this
incredible band, it never just felt right inside of me,” he says of the
band experience. “So I left that band after a lot of success real quickly,
and ended up just traveling. I was in San Francisco for a while, Boston for a
bit, and came home and started penning this album.

 

“These
songs started coming out of me years ago, and somewhere along the line, it
became more about wanting to write words than just about playing music,”
Suomi says. “The guitar just became a vehicle for getting those words
across and trying to say something. It became a passion, then it became my
therapy.”

 

Back at
home in Florida, Suomi began working on the songs that would become Self-Titled, but like any good therapy
session, the album took a little longer than expected. Songs like “Sunday
Morning,” “Archer Women,” “Save Your Ass” and others make
up a gritty and soulful soundtrack to a the process of a young, well-traveled
man who’s attempting to wrestle with the puzzles that plague us all. But
they’re also, to Suomi, something of a period piece, as the process of writing,
recording and releasing Self-Titled wound up taking nearly three years.

 

Dealing
with hopes and dashed expectations, the warm comfort of booze and the trials
and tribulations of love lost and found, Suomi’s lyrics are, on one hand,
unique in their relatively youthful perspective, but on the other hand, focused
on the same sort of issues that singer-songwriters have been wrestling with for
hundreds of years. 

 

“I
don’t know, the big questions,” says Suomi when asked about the issues his
lyrics focus on. “The love questions, the spiritual questions, how people
relate to each other.” 

 

Still, even
the songwriter himself has moved somewhat past the subject matter he’s singing
about on Self-Titled. 

 

“A lot
of these songs were written two or three years ago,” he says, “so
some of the emotional stuff, I’m kinda removed from, even though a lot of them
are still relevant. At least I hope they are.”

 

BY THE FATHER’S SON Gabriel Sullivan

“We all share
underwear”: Meet the most promising artist to emerge from the Tucson scene since Calexico.

 

BY FRED MILLS

 

They say cleanliness is next to godliness, but for a music
critic, discovering a fresh new voice and being able to tell the world about it
is the thinking-person’s version of heaven on earth. Such is the case with
Tucson’s Gabriel Sullivan, who came along on the fertile Old Pueblo scene
several years after yours truly left the Southwest (following a decade living
there) but who has a sound so instantly evocative – and to these Tucson-primed
ears, immediately familiar – that it’s not just a no-brainer that I’d wind up
singing his praises. It’s a goddam imprimatur.

 

As you’ll learn from the interview below, Sullivan’s been
playing music for about ten years, along the way honing his songwriting chops
and multi-instrumental skills. The genesis of the recently-released album By The Dirt (Fell City Records), he
says, came about a year and a half ago with the realization that the
sometimes-insular Tucson
music community was responding favorably to his music, which at the time was a “dark
gospel roots” outfit called The Fell City Shouts. Working up a head of steam,
he began writing songs in earnest, and finding a voice to go with those songs.

 

Find a voice, he most certainly did – “Making the transition
from being a mute guitar player to screaming my head off into a microphone was
a real blast,” notes Sullivan – and as I put it in my BLURT review of the
album, with a nicotine and brimstone-strafed throat positioned halfway between
Tom Waits and Nick Cave, he sounds downright purgatorial in places.

 

By The Dirt features Sullivan backed up by a host of Tucson talent, including Calexico’s
Joey Burns, guitarists Mike Hebert and Nick Luca (Luca also engineered the
album, which was mostly recorded at Wavelab Studio), drummer Andrew Collberg
(himself a singer/songwriter of steadily-rising stature), violinist Vicki Brown
and vocalist Brittany Dawn. As I also noted in my review, the record’s core
sound – noirish twang, atmospheric blues, country-folk and barnburning desert rock
– is nothing if not true to its geographical origins. But a single listen will
confirm to anyone with a working pair of ears that Sullivan’s still as unique
as they come; for me, it was one of those pull-the-car-over-and-sit-there-and-gawk
moments when I initially received the CD in the mail at my PO box and decided
to pop it in on the drive home. The fact that he’s only in his early twenties
yet has crafted a collection of tunes that sounds like it was made by a
road-wizened veteran twice or thrice his age, suggests that he’s got a long,
fruitful career ahead of him.

 

Me, I’m just proud as hell to be able to introduce you to
the guy and let him tell you a little something about himself.

 

***

 

BLURT: What were your
early musical loves – records, concerts, other songwriters and singers – that
you feel have gone into shaping your current musical tastes?

 

SULLIVAN: Well, I grew up with my Dad playing me Howlin’
Wolf and Hank Williams, and my Mom playing me Al Green and Prince. [It] really
made for an interesting home life. Sometime around the sixth grade I all at
once got a skateboard, a guitar, and a Rancid record and I fell completely in
love with it all. From there I found Pantera, Operation Ivy, Black Flag, etc…
Wasn’t ’til a few years ago it all came full circle and I realized that Hank
was the most punk rock guy there was. I’ll still always listen to Bad Brains
though… P.M.A.!

 

I know your age will
surprise folks who hear your voice first, as it certainly sounds much older and
far more weathered, so I wonder what have been some of the reactions to your unique
singing style?

 

“You know, that
smoking’s gonna catch up to you.”
My favorite, I think, is, “You
sound like a ska version of Joe Cocker fronting Led Zeppelin.” That
comment really touched me. And confused me!

 

Your record sounds
and feels like Tucson – something, perhaps, that only someone who’s lived there
might fully appreciate, but the way you convey the vibe of the Old Pueblo is
accessible to anyone, too. What about the city has resonance for you?

 

Tucson’s
great. It’s got something for everyone. I think anyone who plays music here,
whether they’re conscious of it or not, reflects Tucson in a lot of ways. On top of the
unbelievably inspiring landscape, the simple life that comes with Tucson makes playing music
something you can do very easily, and truly enjoy. The musicians are tight
knit, the bands are incestuous, we all share underwear. There’s nowhere like it
in the world.

 

Tucson’s
a big city with a central part of town packed with people doing amazing things.
Summer time, and the living’s easy. Ya know?

 

Tell me a little
about getting started and how things evolved for you up to making the album.

 

This music, specifically this last album, has been something
that I think I’ve been trying to get out since I started playing music 10 years
ago. I’ve played in punk rock bands, metal bands, and instrumental electronica
bands playing everything from drums to accordion, but I never had the guts to
sing in any of these bands. It wasn’t ‘til about a year and a half ago that I
really decided that I had a few things to say, and that I had to start singing
to do so. I started learning to sing Townes Van Zandt songs, some things fell
into place, and before I knew it me and my lady friend, Brittany Dawn, were
playin’ some dark gospel roots tunes in a project called The Fell City Shouts.

 

People seemed to think we were makin’ music worth listening
to, so after releasing a CD and doin’ some touring, I sat down and scratched
out the 13 songs that made up By The Dirt.
Making the transition from being a mute guitar player to screaming my head off
into a microphone was a real blast.

 

How about making the
album? It’s got Joey, Nick, Craig Schumacher and others on it…

 

Recording this record was one of the funnest, soberest, most
trying things I’ve ever done. I was introduced to Nick Luca through a good
buddy of mine, Andrew Collberg. I couldn’t have asked for anyone better to be
in the studio with day after day. Nick played a big part in helping me find the
right musicians and introducing me to everyone I needed to know. A couple of
those folks were Joey Burns and Craig Schumacher, which was a huge honor for
me. Joey ended up gracing my most Tucson-specific song, “Sewer Cats,” with some
beautiful accordion, cello, and upright bass that really brought the story in
the song to life. Recording with Joey was a real inspiring lesson in what it is
to be a “musician.”

 

After some digital failure and a day of crying, I had the great
pleasure of re-recording five of my songs with Craig Schumacher. We ran guitars
through 1/4″ tape and made sounds that would’ve made Hendrix proud. I
can’t say I’ve ever seen anybody in the recording business who is as much in
love with what they do as Craig is. He really pours some soul into the mixes he
does, and it shows.

Your choice of cover
songs for the record – Rainer Ptacek’s slide-guitar blues “Life Is Fine” and
Chris Gaffney’s haunting “The Gardens” – seemed astute, and appropriate to my
ears, given the context.

 

Well, the Gaffney song was one that I knew from the
beginning had to be on the record. He was someone whose songs I had grown up
with around the house and one song in particular, “The Gardens,” had always
stuck with me. It’s about a neighborhood in Los Angeles, but I think it’s a song that
anyone who’s had their fair share of rough times can relate to.

Rainer was someone I unfortunately had not discovered until he was already
gone. [Ptacek passed away in 1997, while
Gaffney died last year – Ed
.] But when I first saw the video of him playing
“Life Is Fine” on the Jools Holland show some years back, I knew that
this was someone who was channeling something more than just a song. Rainer’s
music was some of the most soulful, from the heart music that has ever been
around.

 

At this point in the
interview I should disclose to our readers that I’ve known your dad for awhile,
and since I also know his musical tastes, I can hear his influence in your
music. So in closing, what would you say to kids who feel they have to rebel
against everything their parents represent in order to make their own identity?

 

Haha! Yeah, my Dad certainly has a huge impact on my musical tastes. But it wasn’t until I had
explored every form of music that would piss my parents off that I truly
appreciated the tunes I had grown up with.

 

So, kids – go get a Bad Brains record. And parents – let
them. They’ll come back!

 

 

 

[Gabriel Sullivan will
have his official CD release party August 28 at Tucson’s Club Congress. For more details,
along with song samples from
By The Dirt,
check out his MySpace page.
]