Music Thursday: Jack Johnson and Echo & the Bunnymen

May 29, 2008

Jack Johnson — Rodeo Clowns

It’s an overused device, sure, but imagine for a second that Bob Marley, Bob Dylan and Tony Hawk had a lovechild. It would probably look a lot like Jack Johnson.

I first got turned on to Johnson through G Love, who featured Rodeo Clowns and Jack on his 1999 album Philadelphonic. The syncopated acoustics are just low-key enough to trigger visions of morning-after-prom sunrises or 11 p.m. tiki lounge acts. That’s fitting, since Johnson is Hawaiian. I think it’s that island mentality that appears to me. It’s hard to imagine him playing anywhere far away from a body of water.

Another thing that I like about his music is that it’s always so understated. He has a habit of singing close to the mic, which lends a bit of intimacy — perfect for a love song or soulful disclosures about loss and healing.

I also recommend Flake and Better Together.

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Echo & the Bunnymen — The Killing Moon

For years I confused Echo & the Bunnymen for The Cure. That’s not a bad thing in my book.

Both bands are products of the post-punk move into the early 80s movement that would eventually become alternative. And both Robert Smith and Ian McCulloch sport periods of very pointy hair. But moreover — in case you haven’t noticed — I have a crushing weakness for very dark new wave ballads, and the Bunnymen deliver with The Killing Moon.

The single from the Liverpool boys’ 1984 album Ocean Rain didn’t exactly catch fire in the States until much later than The Bunnymen were hits in the UK. But as America gradually grew more aware of The Smiths and Joy Division, the band gained a foothold on top 40 radio. It even provided a niche for psychedelic hold-overs not quite ready to embrace the goth aesthetic.

Check out The Cutter and Bring on the Dancing Horses.

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Music Wednesday: Thin Lizzy and Spoon

May 28, 2008

Thin Lizzy — Dancing In the Moonlight

You know The Boys are Back In Town. You might know Whiskey In the Jar. But for my money, Thin Lizzy’s best is Dancing in the Moonlight, which has instrumentals deceptively upbeat compared to its lyrics.

A couple of covers by the Smashing Pumpkins and Magnet play the song wound tight with angst, but Thin Lizzy effortlessly makes their mournful songs accessibly pop. For example, the guitar solo two-thirds of the way through The Boys are Back in Town is one of the saddest pieces of music I’ve ever heard, and the quiet bass line in Moonlight underlines lyrics borne of a teen feeling trapped.

Also, if you haven’t ever seen the VH1 Behind the Music episode about Thin Lizzy lead Phil Lynott, find it. Of all the working-class rockers to come out of the 70s, Lizzy is easily my favorite and I can’t understand why the band didn’t get more attention.

If you like Moonlight, try The Cowboy Song and Don’t Believe a Word.

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Spoon — The Way We Get By

Andrew likes complicated, thrashing counter-melodies crashing together in dark metal anthems. I like rebellious, jazz-inspired experiments by alt-slacker beatniks. So here I am, recommending Spoon, a band that mixes piano and cymbals with underplayed guitars to create catchy indie pop.

These are songs that are more about creating a mood than causing jaws to drop in awe. There’s not much technical prowess here — just a jangling basement-jam-session pathos. And that’s why The Way We Get By ends up in heavy rotation on my iPod.

May I also recommend Lines In the Suit?


Music Monday: Silversun Pickups and Reel Big Fish

May 19, 2008

Silversun Pickups — Lazy Eye

This video is 1980s-a-licious. I suppose everybody goes through this as they grow up, but it was shocking to see some of these old styles come back into fashion. There’s the girl’s bob haircut, the leather jacket, the long hair and striped shirts, the teen dance club. The entire thing reminds me of Some Kind of Wonderful (Andrew and I agree Lea Thompson was haaawt back in the day).

But the song stands on its own, too. It’s got that laid-back bass line that always gets me in the groove, and it gradually escalates in the middle to a primal scream. Enjoy.

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Reel Big Fish — Take On Me

Forget for a minute that this song headlined the Basketball soundtrack. I went to great pains to find a video sans Trey Parker and Matt Stone.

Instead, focus on how catchy Reel Big Fish managed to get this remake of A-Ha’s classic 1985 video (which Andrew and I love — it’s undoubtedly the best of the early MTV videos from back when the channel had actual music). Radio never really treated ska as anything more than a fad, and some (Andrew) would argue that’s just fine. Not me. I think horns are horridly underutilized, and I often wish we could fall back on the good ol’ days when Chicago and Earth, Wind and Fire actually got respect for playing technically superior tunes.

God, I hope my father never finds this blog and reads that last sentence. He’s blare those two groups non-stop on a record player when I was growing up, and I made a show of hating his music. I’m never going to change my tune about Barry Manilow, though, Dad.


Music Monday: Such Great Heights

March 31, 2008

The Postal Service

Cleveland doesn’t have an indie or alternative-that-isn’t-Smashing Pumpkins stations, so this song filtered down to me in commercial form. It was released in 2003 by The Postal Service, but I first heard it on the Garden State soundtrack and then (as a cover) on that infamous kaleidescope M&Ms commercial. I didn’t really think much of it at the time.

Then Andrew sent me a YouTube link for the above vid a couple of months ago, and I instantly recognized the song. But what I recognized wasn’t — again — The Postal Service. What tugged at my mind was a jangling ditty I’d heard by piano virtuoso Ben Folds.

I’ve spent a good bit of time in the past few hours trying to decide which version I like better. The original is more clipped and polished with an electric edge.

I think the video is worth mentioning. Remember when Mr. Rogers used to take us to the peanut butter factory of the cotton mill to show us how those things were made? Well, I’m not sure if the PS vid was filmed in a real microchip lab or if some set design engineer deserves a raise, but The Postal Service uses some very nice shots to give us a new spin on the old Earth-as-dirt-under-a-giant’s-fingernail chestnut (think the big pull-back shot at the end of Men In Black).


Ben Folds

He’s a genius. I’ve always had a man-crush on Ben Folds, and here we get so many things to praise: Starting with his awesome glasses, hitting his frenetic piano-key-jamming performance, and wrapping up with the improvised percussion.

After a lot of reflection, this is my favorite version of the song (to date). It’s by far the most dynamic in it’s highs and lows (see what I did there?) and I really think the piano is an underused tool. With so much being done by synthesizers, you can sometimes forget how great that deep, rolling concert piano timbre is. Plus, he adds the word “shit” where it should be.


Iron and Wine

This cover was released right on the Postal Service single in 2003, and it’s my least favorite of the three (I know, Wiki-heads, there are some other covers but I haven’t tracked them down). Iron and Wine blatantly try to yank my emotions around with that angsty whisper-over-acoustics tactic I hate. That’s led to a legion of 14-year-old amateur guitarists posting their YouTube odes. Ugh.

Sadly, it works so well as a soundtrack mood piece that I can’t just blow it off entirely. Oh well.