Wednesday, December 26, 2007

SF Weekly: Bloated Box Sets

From Radiohead to the Stooges and Merzbow: The wide world of boxed sets, by Keith Laidlaw.

As two different Radiohead releases this month prove, rock boxed sets aren't becoming any more sensible. The "discbox" version of the band's new record, In Rainbows, is stuffed with extras, from useful (music) through aimless (booklets and artwork) to mystifyingly redundant (the album on CD, 12-inch vinyl, and MP3). Meanwhile, Radiohead's former label, EMI, is cashing in on the free-download delirium by releasing the band's entire back catalog as both a traditional bunch-of-CDs-in-a-box package and as a newfangled four-gigabyte USB thingy (look, kids, plug it into your Interweb!).

It's all George Harrison's fault. When he added an extra "jam session" disc to his already-double-length All Things Must Pass in 1970, thus creating the world's first triple album, record companies were awakened to the profits to be made from such additions. It took two further inventions in the 1980s — compact discs and nostalgia — for the trend to really take off. Suddenly, artists' back catalogs were being repackaged as grand "boxed sets" with all sorts of extra features, ranging in pointlessness from bonus tracks to the box itself.

For example, when the Beatles finally got round to releasing the U.S. versions of their early records on CD in 2004 (essentially the same as the previously released U.K. versions, but with the tracks in a slightly different order), each one could have fit on a single disc. Instead, the eight albums were packaged into a pair of grand collections portentously titled Capitol Albums Volumes 1 and 2, which were padded out with separate mono and stereo versions of each disc to justify the bloated price tag. Ker-ching! Of course, it didn't help that the band had already released every rarity worth listening to (and a lot more besides) on the three-double-CD Anthology series.

The boxed-set phenomenon isn't restricted to big-name acts, as Japanese experimental musician Merzbow proved in 2000. However, his Merzbox demonstrated that a little imagination goes a long way. Not only did it contain 50 CDs (20 of which contained music previously unreleased in any format), it also included such unusual extras as a medallion and a rather stylish leather fetish box. Radiohead, take note.

While most artists construct boxed sets using an entire career's worth of releases, the Beach Boys marked a new high point of musical excess in 1998 by creating one from a single album. The Pet Sounds Sessions took the 13-track original record and turned it into a 90-track, four-CD monster. In addition to stereo, mono, and a cappella versions of every original song, fans could finally hear such treasures as "Highlights from tracking date," "Stereo backing track," "Promotional Spot #1," "Promotional Spot #2," "Original speed, stereo mix," and "Original speed, mono mix" — all variations of just one song, appropriately "Caroline, No."

But in 2000 the nonsurfing surfers were beaten to the title of most needlessly overinflated single-album collection. The Stooges' 1970: The Complete Funhouse Sessions takes the concept of "complete" a little too literally by filling seven CDs with every minute of studio time used to record the original 36-minute Funhouse. This means, for example, that you get to hear 31 individual takes of the song "Loose" (at least 30 of which have previously been deemed inferior to the version you know and love), while almost a quarter of the total 142 tracks are simply titled "studio dialogue." What better way to spend seven hours and 52 minutes of your life?

For fans fearing overkill, help is at hand. Nirvana's four-disc, 61-track collection of rarities, With the Lights Out, is the best-selling box set of all time, but it is also notable for being rereleased as a shorter, more sensible 19-track single CD, Sliver: The Best of the Box, for those unwilling to trawl through all of the never-intended-for-release nuggets included in the original. Now there's a good idea.

Exclusive Bonus Limited-Edition Extra Section

Away from the world of rock, jazz artists have traditionally been better served by lovingly compiled boxed sets, particularly as alternate takes of improvised tracks are likely to be significantly different from one another. Most notably, the eight-boxed-set Miles Davis series issued through Sony's Columbia/Legacy imprint is a stunning achievement. Released over an 11-year period, concluding with this year's The Complete On the Corner Sessions, the sets together total 43 CDs, and range from the three-disc Complete In a Silent Way Sessions to Seven Steps: The Complete Columbia Recordings 1963-1964, which appropriately enough comprises seven discs.

We can but dream that Sony will one day decide to release all eight in one awesome package — and perhaps also find enough room to throw in their live Davis boxes such as The Cellar Door Sessions (six discs) and The Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel 1965 (eight discs). It's the only way any of them can ever hope to compete with the awesome 20-CD set of The Complete Miles Davis at Montreux: 1973-1991.

But for the craziest boxed sets of all, we have to turn to the world of classical music (perhaps not surprising, considering a full performance of Wagner's Ring Cycle takes about 15 hours). Depending on your budget, you can either splash out around $1,600 for the Rubinstein Collection, which gathers together the complete recordings of legendary pianist Arthur Rubinstein over the course of 94 discs. If it's value for money you're after, a special mention must go to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, whose Complete Works 170-CD boxed set is available from Costco for the bargain price of $99.99, which even includes free shipping.

And the best all-round boxed set of all? Possibly the Velvet Underground's 1995 Peel Slowly and See, which packages the band's four studio albums as a five-CD set, complete with first-rate hard-to-find and unreleased extra tracks. And it has a peelable banana sticker on the front. Ah, bliss ...

Read this article in its original setting here.

This article was also published in:
Houston Press, Dallas Observer, The Pitch Kansas City, Miami New Times, and Cleveland Scene.

Friday, November 16, 2007

KQED Music: Los Campesinos! cause a twee bit of trouble

Being a music fan used to be much simpler when I was younger. Back then, I saw the world in delicately nuanced shades of Black or White. But with age comes a sort of wisdom, which in turn just seems to make life much more complicated. Take, for example, Cardiff-based indie kids Los Campesinos! who are due to land in San Francisco for the first time on November 28, 2007. Seven members strong, they burst onstage with a youthful, infectious energy that is hard not to love. But they also carry with them the unmistakeable whiff of twee, which troubles me.

Over the years, I have developed a strange, contradictory relationship with this fey branch of indie rock. Occasionally, it produces glorious moments of shimmering pop that cause me to fall in love with music all over again. Which is all the more surprising when I find the vast majority of the twee tribes to be an irritating, self-absorbed, weirdly conservative bunch of cardigan abusers.

But, instead of pretending that this side of Los Campesinos! doesn't really exist, or that I don't have a problem with twee after all, I have decided to face my fears like a grown-up should. Are they really twee and, if so, is this such a bad thing?

Twee sign one: Boy-girl harmonies
Any twee band worth their salt should feature mixed-gender singing. Ideally neither voice should be particularly strong or tuneful: the boy errs towards weak and yelpy, while the girl turns up the bubblegum sweetness while simultaneously channeling the spirit of Moe Tucker. Los Campesinos! lead vocalist Gareth and back-up singer Aleks fit this classic template perfectly, but both also have enough moxie in their voices to avoid the limp, lisping, tuneless excesses of twee pop past. In fact, Aleks' voice is really rather nice.

Twee sign two: Being indie
Of course, releasing your first record on small-format vinyl via an indie label doesn't in itself make you twee, but it definitely helps. LC have done it twice: first in the UK with their debut seven-inch single "We Throw Parties, You Throw Knives" on Wichita Recordings, then in North American by re-releasing their first two UK singles as a six-song EP called "Sticking Fingers into Sockets" on Canadian indie label Arts&Crafts, available, naturally enough, on 10-inch vinyl. But quirky releases are fun, and one thing twee bands can't be faulted for is keeping the punk tradition of DIY mail-order-only singles with hand-printed sleeves alive and well.

Twee sign three: Twee roots
One of the surest indicators of a band being twee is if they formed out of a shared love for some other twee band. For example, perhaps the most twee moment in history occurred when the founding members of Talulah Gosh met because they were both wearing Pastels badges. Ditto for Los Campesinos! Their lead guitarist Tom met the three original members of the band (Neil/guitar, Ollie/drums, and Ellen/bass) when he overheard them chatting about American indie pop act The Decemberists in a Cardiff bar. Which is the kind of cute story that is forever destined to overshadow their shared love for more credible acts, such as Pavement and Sonic Youth.

Twee sign four: Odd instrumentation
Los Campesinos! are loaded with musical extras, including a violin, a glockenspiel, and melodica (which looks a bit like a cross between one of those mini Casio keyboards from the eighties and a bong). But there is nothing wrong with expanding your musical horizons beyond the standard guitar/bass/drum template; it's what you do with them that counts. For Los Campesinos!, that means creating a big sound more redolent of Arcade Fire than the likes of BMX Bandits.

Twee sign five: Childishness
Music critic and author Simon Reynolds famously described the twee movement as a "revolt into childhood," and Los Campesinos! certainly fit the bill on that front thanks to their cartoonish aesthetic and songs filled with kiddie references (most of them too peculiarly British to bother trying to explain here). However, a certain youthfulness is forgiveable in a band who are all still only 22, and thankfully they are already showing signs of maturing. Like wearing cheerleader's outfits or hanging around school playgrounds, the childish side of twee becomes increasingly dubious with age.

Twee sign six: Self-referentialism
Their latest single is called "The International Tweexcore Underground." It doesn't get much more twee than that. But dig a little deeper and you realise the song doesn't just name-check twee icons such as Sarah Records, Amelia Fletcher, and Calvin Johnson, it disses them too. And then it does the same thing to Henry Rollins, which is far too tough to be twee. So are they twee or not? Ah, screw it. I've no idea. But they're dead good, so who cares?

Los Campesinos! play the Great American Music Hall on November 28, 2007. Their EP "Sticking Fingers into Sockets" (Arts&Crafts) is out now, and their most recent single "International Tweexcore Underground" (Wichita) is available via import from RecordStore in the UK. Their debut album is due for release in March 2008.

By Keith Laidlaw. Read this article in its original setting here.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

KQED Music: Covered Up

When it comes to music, "authenticity" is a hugely overrated concept. Despite being widely considered an expression of praise, the idea carries with it a lot of baggage including: the notions that artists can only play types of music that match their background or upbringing; that commercial success negates artistic achievement; or that you aren't a proper artist unless you write your own songs.

Which is all clearly crap. If it were true, then Elvis would have remained just another country singer, and Eminem would probably be stacking shelves in Detroit right now. Sgt. Pepper wouldn't have meant a thing, nor would anything Radiohead released after The Bends. And, crucially in the context of this column, Aretha Franklin would never have recorded "Say a Little Prayer," nor Jimi Hendrix "All Along the Watchtower," Soft Cell "Tainted Love," Jeff Buckley "Hallelujah," Johnny Cash "Hurt" (along with most of the rest of his final five albums)... and so on. The list of great cover versions is as long as it is varied.

I'm not talking about lazy copies here, but versions of songs that bring something new to the original. This can be dramatic or subtle, but the essential fact is a good cover version can force you to reconsider the original entirely, and create something completely new and surprising in the process. Cover versions are fundamental to the fabric of modern music, helping artists to create the hybrid genres and new ideas that keep pushing things forward.

Not convinced? Then here are some songs to persuade you that first isn't always best:

"Just" by Mark Ronson featuring Alex Greenwald (originally by Radiohead)
Mark Ronson's recent album of covers, Version, produced two standout tracks: a stomping, Amy Winehouse-fueled Motown take on The Zutons' "Valerie," and "Just," which proves that jewels of pure pop can be found in the most unexpected places. Phantom Planet vocalist Greenwald may sound like he's competing in a Thom Yorke karaoke contest, but Radiohead's anguished original is nevertheless transformed by its new horn-drenched backing into something not just upbeat but also downright funky.

"Guns of Brixton" by Nouvelle Vague (The Clash)
French covers-only act Nouvelle Vague takes a different tack from the dancefloor-friendly Ronson by creating mellowed-out, bossa nova versions of punk and new wave classics. Their smoky, sultry sashay through The Clash's "Guns of Brixton" (from their self-titled debut), for example, ignores any punk beligerence in the original and instead highlights the song's underlying sense of creeping menace.

"Straight Outta Compton" by Nina Gordon (NWA)
While your first reaction to hearing this might be to laugh in disbelief, ex-Veruca Salt member Gordon's delicate, acoustic, folk-core cover of the original NWA classic is also strangely beguiling. We have become so inured to all sorts of violent and profane words coming out of the mouths of rappers. But, by singing "My AK-47 is a tool / So don't make me act the motherf--king fool" with a sweet, melodic voice, Gordon makes the words sound both more innocent and more shocking at the same time. My only gripe is why she didn't record "Folk the Police" instead.

"Break My Body" by Hanne Hukkelberg (Pixies)
This is an object lesson in how to change the style of a song so much it's almost unrecognizable, but also stay true to the spirit of the original. Despite being a huge Pixies fan, the first time I heard Norwegian singer Hanne Hukkelberg's version of this Surfer Rosa track, I couldn't work out where on earth I knew it from until the chorus arrived one-and-a-half minutes in. (What's even more surprising is that I did exactly the same thing the second time I heard it, but perhaps that says more about my memory than anything else.) It may not howl as loudly as the original, but this whisper-quiet rendering somehow packs the same emotional punch.

"In the Ghetto" by Candi Staton (Elvis Presley)
Despite the fact that for years this was my favorite Elvis track, Candi Staton's version has a power that makes you forget all about that whatshisname from Memphis. Unfortunately, the link above only gives you a sample of the song, but I cannot recommend the album it comes from, Candi Staton (a collection of her pre-disco, southern soul recordings released in 2004), highly enough. It also features a great version of "Stand by Your Man." (Of course, the original "In the Ghetto" was actually written by Mac Davis, but first recorded by Presley).

"Living on a Prayer" by Octoberfest Oompah Band (Bon Jovi)
This tongue-in-cheek instrumental track by London's self-described "newest, freshest, most temulent Oompah ensemble" somehow transforms the overblown hair-rock original into something much more poignant. The new version ends up sounding more like the gypsy stylings of Eastern Europhiles Beirut than a song written by New Jersey's most famous poodle-perms.

"Song 2wo" by Earl Zinger (Blur)
When this dub-heavy, reggae transformation of the "woo-hoo" song was first released, it sounded so old school that some people began wondering if Blur's original was really the cover version. But, despite many self-propogated rumors to the contrary, it turned out that Earl Zinger was a modern-day alias of ex-Galliano mainman Rob Gallagher. Which is a shame, as the whole thing would have been much more entertaining the other way round.

Next week, Dan Brown will re-write this article to highlight how a shady cabal of Catholics are to blame for Willie Nelson's 2005 reggae album.

By Keith Laidlaw. Read this article in its original setting here.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

KQED Music: Tokyo Police Club

Meet the Geek Squad.

Tokyo Police Club, who play San Francisco on October 25, 2007 are not only awesome live, they are also wonderfully breathless on stage, like a bunch of hopelessly gawky teenagers. Songs burst out like short rushes of adrenaline, as if to cover up the band's shy-eyed embarrassment.

Such awkwardness seems to be a hugely undervalued quality these days. Most new acts, even those at the supposedly indie end of the music machine, seem to emerge pumped with confidence, already groomed by video stylists and brand consultants to become spotless, chart-conquering gods.

But I just don't buy it. I certainly don't consider myself to be anything other than a geek, after all. So, watching Toronto's Tokyo Police Club at The Independent back in July, I realized that it wasn't just their spikey, clever power pop that I loved (although, obviously, I did); I had also fallen for their scratchy-edged dorkiness.

They're like the band I always wanted The Strokes to be. Sure, I loved The Strokes' early singles, but I never really consummated my relationship with them. Why? Because they were just too slick and knowing, all rich parents, Swiss finishing schools, cool cliques, and uber-hip New York fashion labels. Ugh. Give me a bunch of awkward losers with wan skin and bottle-bottom glasses any day: ie, Tokyo Police Club.

And I don't mean that they have adopted a hipster-style token nerdiness like so many other indie bands. They have a genuine, impossible-to-hide discomfort with being in the spotlight and, in the shape of Graham Wright (keyboards/screaming), a spit in your face, sinew-straining misfit of the finest kind.

Because, while the others try to hide their social discomforts behind their fringes, Wright wears his on his sleeve. He writhes, hunched, with his nose just an inch from his keyboard (which he may or may not have built himself from a kit), before periodically lunging forward to bellow into his microphone with a rasping yell that would make throat doctors weep. He even wears thick-rimmed glasses, which has been the proud badge of musical losers made good from Graham Coxon all the way back to Buddy Holly.

Needless to say, they sound spectacular. Masters of the short-sharp-shock school of rock, their songs mostly sprint along for just two minutes each, and never, ever stray past the three-minute mark. Their only album release to date, A Lesson In Crime, is clipped to the point of abruptness, measuring just 17 minutes long by seven songs wide.

Tokyo Police Club speak to the geek in me, and in all of us. When Wright holds up his camera to take a picture of the crowd at the start and end of every gig they play, I suddenly feel prouder of my drawer filled with old gig ticket stubs, and less ashamed about dancing along to his band's songs like an over-excited dog with three legs. Which can only be a good thing.

Tokyo Police Club play Popscene at 330 Ritch Street on October 25, 2007. Doors open at 9pm, and there are no advance sales. Their EP "Smith" is due out November 6 on Paper Bag Records, and a new album is expected to follow early in 2008.

By Keith Laidlaw. Read this article in its original setting here.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

KQED Music: Adele's Cute Accent

What is it about a voice? I've long since lost count of the otherwise talented bands I've hated, or mediocre acts I've loved, based solely on their singers. And it's the one aspect of musical taste that seems least universal or easy to predict in others. How often have you recommended a CD to someone, only for it to be returned with a comment like "the music's fine, but I can't stand that goddamn yowling/yodelling/yelping"?

Occasionally, however, we'll hear a voice that grabs us by the tender parts and just won't let go. This is what happened to me when I first heard the song "Hometown Glory" by Adele Adkins, a 19-year-old singer from south London, a few weeks ago. I was probably in a slightly maudlin mood that day anyway, but I swear her voice crept up on me like some emotional ninja, laying me out with a single swift punch that I never even saw coming.

Already being tipped to "do an Amy Winehouse" -- presumably in the pop charts rather than in pub toilets -- she really isn't the sort of mainstream-success-bound singer I normally go for, so I've been trying to work out why I like her so much ever since. The answer may lie in the fact that a healthy liver isn't the only thing Adele has that her fellow-Londoner Amy doesn't: she also has her own accent.

At the risk of pointing out the obvious, the vast majority of singers who sing in English do so with an American accent, regardless of where they are from. I'm not even sure how many people in the States are aware of this, partly because my informal polls have proved inconclusive, but mostly because it isn't something that's often commented on, either here or in the rest of the world. It's like some huge, multinational open fly everyone is aware of but nobody wants to be the first to mention.

Of course, the reason for this uniformity of enunciation is crystal clear. From jazz, through rock'n'roll, to hip-hop, almost every seismic shift in popular music felt around the globe has had its epicenter in America. Sure, the rest of the world has had its moments, but even the Beatles started out wanting to sound like Chuck Berry and Little Richard.

Which is why Amy Winehouse's put-on transatlantic drawl is barely noticed. But Adele, who coincidentally attended the same school for performing arts as the redoubtable Ms. Winehouse, has a singing voice that's unmistakably south London. Her inflections give a rather wonderful twang to what may otherwise have been just another pretty voice.

Sure, she isn't the first to sing a bit Cockney: The Streets, Lily Allen and even Blur spring to mind. But none of them can sing like Adele can, so perhaps you should prepare to lose your heart to a little bit of England.

Adele's debut single "Hometown Glory" will be released in the UK on October 22 as a limited-edition 7-inch single on Jamie T's Pacemaker Recordings label. You can hear it now on her MySpace page, and her debut album is due early in 2008.

By Keith Laidlaw. Read this article in its original setting here.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

KQED Music: Don't Look Back

A friend of mine once told me his theory that everyone's favorite album is one released in the same year they start college. It's a flawed proposition, not least because we don't necessarily hear albums for the first time in the same year they are released (nor does everyone go to college, obviously), but the guiding principle behind it is surprisingly accurate.

For example, most of my all-time favorite bands are ones I was listening to when I was around 18 years old: Pixies, My Bloody Valentine, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Pavement. So it's probably no coincidence that now they are all hitting the nostalgia market at around the same time too.

While the emotional scars caused by seeing one of the Velvet Underground's unfortunate European dates in 1993 have largely healed for me, I still have mixed feelings about reunion tours. One constant is that my levels of enthusiasm seem to depend largely on whether or not I saw the band in question the first time round.

For example, I was thrilled to finally get the chance to see the Pixies in 2004, as I had missed my one previous chance way back in 1991 (although in the end I didn't miss much in Glasgow that night as part of the stage collapsed just a few minutes into the gig: you can read more here).

In contrast, I'm much less enthusiastic about seeing The Jesus and Mary Chain when they play San Francisco next month (they appear at the Fillmore on October 26 and 27, 2007), or about the rumors that My Bloody Valentine might reform for next year's Coachella. I saw both bands play on the same bill of the Lollapallooza-inspired "Rollercoaster" tour in 1992, and it was almost certainly the greatest concert I've ever been to.

JAMC had almost finished their opening song before I even realized which one they were playing through the dense torrent of feedback (it was "Sidewalking," for the record). And I can't think of anything as brutal, beautiful or astonishing as hearing My Bloody Valentine play "You Made Me Realise" live, complete with its earth-shaking "apocalypse" interlude (Mike McGonigal devotes a whole chapter to this experience in his book on the band's defining album Loveless).

Also appearing were fellow feedback fans Dinosaur Jr. whose albums Bug and Fossils backed JAMC's Barbed Wire Kisses on a 90-minute cassette that changed my life (and of course they've also recently reformed their classic line-up and played San Francisco's Mezzanine on September 9), plus some perky young indie pop upstarts called Blur, whose music career I confidently predicted would soon disappear without a trace. Oops.

To what extent my memory of that night has been colored by 15 years of sepia-tinted reminiscing is kind of beside the point. What's important is that there is little chance now either the Mary Chain or MBV could live up to what I remember.

One sentimental exercise I am a fan of is bands playing one of their old albums in its entirety, as yet another act I was heavily into as a teenager, Sonic Youth, did in Berkeley this year to promote the "deluxe" reissue of Daydream Nation. The organizers of that gig curate a series of similar concerts every year, mostly in London but also here in the States, called Don't Look Back. The results are unashamedly nostalgic but also a little new; few bands ever play a whole album live and in order, after all.

It's also fun to speculate on which albums you would or wouldn't want to be included, which brings me to the subject that inspired this whole post: the fact that just a few days after I left my old home in the U.K. earlier this year, it was announced that this year's Don't Look Back program includes the Cowboy Junkies playing their 1987 album The Trinity Session at London's Royal Albert Hall on October 10, 2007.

This is the one album I have listened to more than any other in my life, and it has become the musical equivalent of comfort food or a favorite sweater for me: soft, warm and inviting. And it's the one album I'd love to see performed live more than any other.

Ah well, maybe they'll get together to do it again in another 20 years' time.

By Keith Laidlaw. Read this article in its original setting here.

Monday, September 10, 2007

KQED Music: St. Vincent: What Saint Ain't

Listening to Marry Me, the excellent debut album by St. Vincent, a thought suddenly struck me: it must be very tiring to be Björk.

This isn't to say that St. Vincent, the recording name of American singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Annie Clark, sounds anything like Björk. In fact, she doesn't at all. Not one bit. Yet, and this is the crucial point, almost everything I read about her somehow shoehorns in a mention of the elfin Icelander (you can Google their names together to see for yourself).

Why? Because St. Vincent has committed the twin crimes of making music that deviates from standard-issue mid-range pop, and being female. And, as anyone who has taken Music Math 101 will know, "weird" plus "woman" almost always equals "Björk." (This is after extensive research revealed the previous answer of "Kate Bush" to be outdated, which is ironic as, in this case at least, the earlier comparison is probably closer to the mark.)

This formula holds true for just about every female singer/songwriter hanging around on the fun side of the fence right now. I have been enjoying a rich seam of music by women recently, from the mild, relatively mainstream kookiness of Feist, through the progressively more out-there recent recordings of Regina Spektor, all the way to the genuinely awesome French loopiness of Camille Dalmais. They all share two things: an admirable streak of fearless individualism and a tendency to be mentioned in the same sentence as a certain recording artiste from Reykjavik.

The "B" word has become a lazy shorthand for describing any female musician who dares to deviate from the norm, which is a shame. In reality, the only thing the singular musicians mentioned have in common -- Björk included -- is a creativity that conversely makes them sound different from anyone else and each other. Their music defies easy comparisons, which is probably why they all get lumped together.

Of course, I'm aware that this blog is committing exactly the same sin. However, I'm willing to take one for the team in the fight for the greater good. Starting by encouraging you to go out and buy St. Vincent's album Marry Me, to discover its unique charms for yourself.

This relatively short, 11-track album, contains more bewitching and delightful twists and turns than most musicians manage in their whole career. I lost track of the amount of things it reminded me of: the drama of Portishead or James Bond theme music, the theatrical flourishes of Rufus Wainright or Antony and the Johnsons, the beguiling artiness of Talk Talk or Charlotte Gainsbourg, even the contrasting vocal stylings of both Ella Fitzergald and Billie Holiday (remarkably in the space of one song, album closer "What Me Worry?"). I could go on, except you will probably hear a completely different list than mine. Suffice it to say that every influence I heard, whether real or imagined, I also liked.

Put it all together and you get St. Vincent, who is that rare thing: a genuinely new voice in a world that sounds increasingly homogenic. And, no, I don't mean the Björk album...

'Marry Me' is out now on Beggars Banquet. St. Vincent will be appearing with The National at The Grand Ballroom on September 29, 2007.

By Keith Laidlaw. Read this article in its original setting here.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

KQED Music: Smog Goes Solo

What's the difference between a solo musician and a band?

The answer was easy back in the good old golden oldie days, when acts could be easily divided between those who went by the names of individuals (Elvis Presley) or adopted some collective title (The Beatles). But times change, and things get more complicated. Personally, I blame the Thompson Twins. As soon as people found out there were more than two of them, none of whom were called Thompson, all the rules went out of the window. Or perhaps it was Manfred Mann's fault. Whatever. The point is that these days more and more musical individuals are pretending to be groups, and the world is a more confusing place as a result.

This is especially true in the electronica section of your local record store, where you'll find any number of bedroom-based laptop-botherers releasing records under band-like names (think Aphex Twin, Wagon Christ, and Squarepusher) perhaps in some misguided attempt to sound less like socially awkward boys with an unhealthy interest in bleepy, squelchy sounds. More confusing is that the same practise is also common among the folky/alt-country crowd. Despite having roots containing many a traditional solo singer-songwriter, the likes of Sam Beam (Iron & Wine), Chan Marshall (Cat Power) and Will Oldham (Palace) are also blurring the line between the singular and collective.

Which brings me to Bill Callahan and his folky, lo-fi one-man band, Smog. I'll admit that I came to him (them?) late, despite the fact that he has been releasing music under the Smog name since the late 1980s. But as soon as I heard his low voice sing "Winter weather is not my soul/But the biding for spring" at the start of 2005's A River Ain't Too Much Love, I just couldn't love it enough. The album is both sparse and luxurious, stripped back to the bone in all the right places in order to let his deep, melancholic voice and black humor glow.

So when I heard that Callahan's next release would be under his own name, I was worried. As Smog, his music has varied in style, and even his biggest fans will probably admit that his back catalog has its rough patches, quality-wise. So what kind of radical shift was this name change signaling?

It turns out I had little reason to fret. Woke on a Whaleheart, released this year, may be different, but the adjustments are subtle, and don't disappoint. Ironically, the most notable change between the last Smog album and Callahan's first as a "solo" artist, is that the newer release sounds much more like the work of a band than an individual. The arrangements are fuller and more complex, with added musicians and backing singers chiming in all over the place, whereas many of the tracks on the last album could have been recorded by one lonely guy in a mountain shack (and quite possibly were). But, despite all the added warmth and color, Callahan's droll baritone still sets the tone. More accessible it may be, but shiny happy people it ain't -- thankfully.

Now, as if to further confuse his fans, the artist formerly known as Smog is planning to play not one but two San Francisco shows in a single day. On October 7 you can catch Callahan first at Golden Gate Park as part of the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass free festival, and then indoors at The Independent later that same day. I can only recommend you go see him -- but whether he's going to turn up with a backing band or on his own is anyone's guess.

By Keith Laidlaw. Read this article in its original setting here.

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