Wednesday, December 31, 2008

KQED Music: 2008 Awards

As the good ship 2008 nears the end of its voyage, it's time to look back at the year's musical peaks and troughs. But rather than heap yet more praise (or derision) on the artists and releases I've already written about, the following unscientific, arbitary, misguided awards are intended to fill in any gaps I missed. Which means I won't even mention that my favorite albums of the year were ...

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Monday, December 15, 2008

KQED Music: Bill Drummond - The17

The founding principle of The17 is the idea that all recorded music is dead, destroyed by the ease and carelessness with which we now access and consume it. The17 is an attempt to wipe the slate clean and return to a musical Year Zero; Pol Pot wins a prominent mention among the many people Drummond credits as influences. It is his attempt to reimagine music as if no music has gone before.

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Thursday, December 11, 2008

KQED Music: The Late, Late Shows

In San Francisco, music venues seem happy when shows drag on well past bedtime, regardless of whether it's a weekend or a school night ...

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Chow: MYO Fizzy Water

How adding carbon dioxide can reduce your carbon footprint.

We all know that drinking water from the tap is better for the environment than buying bottled. But what if you like the bubbly stuff?

Well, now you can make your own carbonated water with the Soda-Club home soda maker. Simply fill one of the supplied bottles from the tap (or a filter jug, if you prefer), place it in the machine, press the button a few times to add CO2, and voilà! Your water now sparkles.

The beauty is that you can add as much effervescence as you like. Granted, it won’t taste quite the same as a fancy frizzante naturale water imported from Italy, but it is cheaper, more convenient, and a lot better for the environment than buying it from the store. You can even add sweet syrups to make sodas.

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

Chow: Archive



Last updated: January 25, 2010

Sunday, November 30, 2008

KQED Music: David Holmes - The Holy Pictures

I hesitate to use the phrase "greatest living Irishman" while Shaquille O'Neal is still shuffling his size 23s around the NBA, but Belfast musician and DJ David Holmes is certainly one of the most talented still to find fame in the States. Which is surprising considering that his new album the The Holy Pictures will be his fifth full-length release, or ninth if you count his mix albums. And then there are his movie soundtracks, at least five of which have been released on CD, not to mention his work as a remixer and a movie producer and ...

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Tuesday, November 4, 2008

KQED Music: Of Great and Mortal Men, 43 Songs for 43 U.S. Presidencies

While the rest of us have been busy wondering who is going to become the next president of the United States, three musicians (Jefferson Pitcher of New York, and J. Matthew Gerken and Christian Kiefer, both from Sacramento, CA) have decided instead to look back at the previous occupants of this country's highest office. The result is an ambitious musical opus Of Great and Mortal Men: 43 Songs for 43 U.S. Presidencies.

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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

KQED Music: Awake, My Soul / Help Me To Sing

Devotional music has a pretty bad rep among nonbelieving sections of the listening public. It's easy to understand why if you have ever endured one of those interminable ads for mail-order-only collections of bland Christian rock on TV. Despite the existence of such unholy dross in this world (but hopefully not the next), there remains a rich seam of music inspired by the almighty that can stir the heart of even the most godless listener; it just doesn't tend to be advertised on daytime cable.

The full-blooded harmonies of Sacred Harp singing is an ideal example. Few people have heard of this uniquely American choral tradition outside of the few Southern backwaters where it was born in the early 1800s. For two centures, small congregations have gathered for communal recitals known simply as a "singing." But these are no ordinary church choirs. The music is rebellious in its disregard for musical convention, punk in its inclusivity, and powerful in a way that only music performed with true passion can be, regardless of what may have inspired it.

The first important thing you need to know about Sacred Harp music is there aren't any harps involved. Sung without accompaniment, the name instead refers to the voice, our "god-given" instrument. There is no audience either, only participants. Individuals take turns to lead the group in a song, standing in the center of a square of singers, who all sit facing the middle. Each side of the square takes a different vocal part: treble, alto, tenor, and bass.

The music is written using a unique system of notation, with four notes (fa, sol, la, mi) represented by four shapes to make it easier to read (which gives rise to the tradition's other name: shape-note music). These four notes, repeated to form the octave, are sung by name through the first verse of each song, before more conventional lyrics take over. That first run-through of nonsensical syllables evokes both the idea of singing in tongues, and the doo-doo-doo style harmonies of rock bands such as the Beach Boys (although a closer reference here might be the Langley Music Project's Beach Boys cover versions).

Like much of the world's best music, Sacred Harp is performed at full volume throughout. As participation is mandatory, some of the singers are not the most accomplished vocalists, but the lack of skill in some is more than compensated for by the spirit and enthusiasm of all. Underneath the complex, repeating harmonies, the music is driven on by a stomping rhythm that never seems to let up.

The story of The Sacred Harp can be traced back to the traditions of the earliest puritan pilgrims, whose austere beliefs didn't (as many people may think) extend to banning music completely. However, instruments were seen as an unneccesary indulgence, as was the idea of singing anything other than the Psalms, or anywhere outside of church.

Hence an a cappella tradition was born that spread as these early immigrants swelled in number and moved south. The tunes developed in style, becoming quite different from the English hymns they had started out as. Relatively untrained musicians added new compositions to the canon with little regard to European conventions and rules. Indeed, the story provides an interesting argument against the widely accepted idea that jazz is modern America's first indigenous musical form.

These unconventional songs grew in number and popularity. In 1844, Benjamin Franklin White and Elisha J. King put together a collection of more than 250 popular and original songs, called The Sacred Harp. This book has served as the tradition's other bible ever since, its revisions and changes reflecting the schisms and evolution of the musical movement itself.

This story is told in the movie documentary Awake, My Soul, which in turn has given birth to a soundtrack CD of the same name, featuring performances by contemporary choirs who are helping to keep the tradition alive. Each song begins the same way: with a wave of voices rising together with irrepressible vigor. Even the odd bum notes songs are sung with such unbridled enthusiasm that you begin to wonder if the mistake might be yours rather than theirs. The rough edges are part of the pleasure; one track, "Restoration 312b," even features a child crying in the background. The whole thing is wonderfully, strangely real.

And now, to accompany a new DVD release of the film, a second CD has been added: Help Me To Sing features modern musicians performing their own versions of the songs of the Sacred Harp. While the authentic versions are relentless in their intensity and forcefulness, this second set is more mixed in both tone and quality.

The songs that don't work so well tend to be those attempting to divine some underlying beauty in the originals. Unforunately, once you strip away the spirit and multipart harmonies, most of the songs are revealed to be fairly thin source material. The worst end up sounding like nursery rhymes, with a rather dull, childlike simplicity. The best interpretations, on the other hand, retain the fire and brimstone of the originals, for example the pounding guitar and harmonica on "Weeping Pilgrim 417" by Elvis Perkins in Dearland, or the caterwauling singing style of Mac Powell's "Help Me to Sing 376" and "The Traveler 108b" by Cordelia's Dad.

Overall, the hit to miss ratio is about even and, with 20 tracks in total, that means a good amount of bang for your buck. But the real value lies with the 24 original songs on the first disc. Even if you've never raised your own voice in praise of the big guy upstairs, or even believe he exists, this music is something to be thankful for. Amen.

'Awake, My Soul: The Original Soundtrack / Help Me To Sing: Songs of the Sacred Harp' and the DVD 'Awake, My Soul: The Story of the Sacred Harp' are both out now, via Awake Productions.

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

Monday, August 11, 2008

KQED Music: 31 Knots - Worried Well

Being different is hard work; at least, it must be considering the amount of musicians who fail miserably to excel in the department of individual distinction. Few artists would ever admit that they actually want to sound like someone else (other than the members of Nearvana and Ironically Maiden, perhaps), but the fact that so many never seem to fully escape the orbit of their influences speaks for itself.

Thankfully, 31Knots haven't been afraid to put in a bit of hard graft in their pursuit of idiosyncrasy. Their new album Worried Well is a peculiar beast in the best possible sense, a great leap into the upper atmosphere that strains at the seams with new ideas and unexpected changes of direction.

The album opens with "Baby of Riots," just 43 seconds of clicks, whirrs, hand claps, shouts, and yelps that steadily builds momentum before jumping without a pause into the guitar rush of first track proper "Certificate." From here all the way through to closer "Between 1&2," which sounds like a recording of a Jamaican steel band being played at half speed from the bottom of the ocean, there is little that seems recycled or predictable. Songs stop, start, deviate, and turn, all the time using strange noises and samples that seem more in tune with the world of experimental electronica than rock.

And yet this three-piece probably couldn't be more pedestrian in composition: Portland-based singer/guitarist Joe Haege and bassist Jay Winebrenner are backed by San Francisco's Jay Pellici on drums. Together, the three of them sound like a fairly recognizable indie pop band one moment, before becoming speeding, screaming, feedback-driven noiseniks, lurching back to become the house band for a midnight cabaret show in Berlin, then metamorphosing again into some infernal, clanking machine of the gods (often all within the space of a single song).

But wait, it gets better. They have all this, and brains too. Song titles such as "Statistics and the Heart of Man" and lyrics like "Better to know your place and to take it / Better to fail the test than to fake it" from "The Breaks," point towards real intelligence at work in the midst of the chaos. And wit, too: "Compass Commands" at one point breaks into a call-and-response sequence that starts out sounding a little like OutKast's "Hey Ya!" ("Ladies? Yes? Are you ready?") but then quickly shifts tone: "So who can tell me the universal rule of thumb? Kill or be killed."

Snatches of other unexpected influences pop up now and then. "Upping the Mandate" has an eighties R&B synth sound that is pure Prince, while there is a Queen-like theatricality to tracks such as "Strange Kicks." The combination of metronomic bass and angular guitar that crops up more than once (for example on "Certificate" and "Opaque/White") recalls The Cure's early days (think "10:15 on a Saturday Night"). And near-title track "Worried but not Well" has moments of Beatlesque guitar, but in a chopped up way that is more closely related to the left field genius of Danger Mouse's Grey Album than any boring, Oasis-style homage. And few of these moments are allowed to hang around long enough to distract before 31Knots lurch onward once again.

Someone was obviously paying attention at Weird School. If you want to stand out from the crowd, it isn't enough to merely copy someone else who sounds a bit strange. No, 31Knots are ringmasters of their own circus, creating an exciting dramatic space full of theatricality, menace, and humor. They also have an ease and assuredness that comes from maturity. With five previous albums and several EPs already under their belts, 31Knots have had the time and space to grow into themselves, and are now thoroughly convincing in their conviction. They succeed in drawing you into the world they've created because first and foremost they seem to believe in it themselves.

'Worried Well' by 31Knots is released August 19, 2008 on Polyvinyl Records.

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

Saturday, July 19, 2008

KQED Music: Record Keeping

I love my record collection, and I'm pretty sure it loves me. Sure, we've had our occasional ups and downs over the years, particularly after I've said something thoughtless and stupid like "you've got to slim down a bit." Fortunately, we learned from our mistakes and in the end these hard times only made our bond stronger. But then, in April 2007, things changed.

At first I thought my trip to the United States was going to be temporary and we would only be apart for a few months. Then, when I decided to stay here, the months stretched out to more than a year. I've got to be honest, it put serious strain on both of us. I even began flirting with new CDs and records here in the U.S. while my collection, my REAL collection, languished neglected in my mother's attic in Edinburgh.

But a couple of months ago, after an arduous 10,000-mile journey by sea, my music finally joined me here in San Francisco. And that's when the real work started. Sure, my records hadn't changed much, but I had gotten married and moved in with my new wife. Plus I had left all of my furniture in the UK, so I now had none of the cases or boxes my record collection used to call home.

Rather than pretend nothing had happened, we decided to make a fresh start. Our first step was to visit the wonderful Fenton MacLaren unfinished furniture store in Berkeley, which sells inexpensive pine shelving units designed to fit CDs, DVDs, records, or books. If their standard sizes don't work for you, then you can do what I did and have a unit custom-built to your own measurements for not much extra cost.

Next came the dreaded question: how to organize it all? With a total of around 1,000 CDs, I realized that I couldn't just fill the shelves and hope for the best. They had to be sorted in a way that made sense not just to me but to my new wife as well.

In the past I operated a system loosely based on the "cream rises" principle: if you simply stack CDs back on top of each other after you listen to them, less-popular discs will tend to sink to the bottom of the heap, while your favorites will stay nearer the top where they're easier to get at. I also grouped discs in piles that corresponded loosely to genre, although some of these were admittedly looser than others. My jazz section, for example, would have been obvious to anyone, but the fine line between the subsections devoted to "miserable music" and "CDs to drunkenly fall asleep to" probably wouldn't have made sense to anyone but myself.

The solution to this organizational conundrum was to do something so drastic it still makes me slightly nauseous to even talk about: I alphabeticized my entire collection.

(A quick technical note: I ordered by artist name, with solo acts filed by surname. I haven't been too strict about it though, for example sticking Bill Callahan's solo album next to his recordings as Smog.)

You may be wondering why I don't just get with the 21st century and import all the CDs onto my computer. The truth is I don't have nearly enough space on my hard disk and, even if I did, it would take me far longer to rip them all than it has done to simply organize them a bit. Plus, I like browsing through physical piles of CDs and records. They have details such as price tags on the cases that remind me where I was when I bought them, or stains on the sleeves from that party where I dropped a beer into my record bag. At the risk of sounding like an over-romantic luddite, you don't get that from iTunes.

One added bonus I gained from the process, other than learning that I have a surprising number of recordings by artists whose names start with P, was that finally I was forced to do something about all those CDs that have thin, sleeve-like covers (mainly singles, promos, and CD-Rs) rather than proper plastic jewel cases with a legible spine. Previously, I had kept them all together in one big, impenetrable bunch, and had rarely bothered searching through them. Now, that was going to change.

But how to organize these slim-sided treasures? Mixing them individually with the rest wouldn't be much of an improvement as they'd be pretty much invisible next to their thicker-cased cousins. Instead, I decided to create groups of them corresponding to each letter of the alphabet, then place these on the shelves to serve as sort of markers for the start and end of each letter's section in the larger throng. And, rather than just placing these little piles loose on the shelf, I decided to make little cardboard files for them, like the ones you get for magazines but smaller. That way I can stick little letters on the front too, and ... Oh my god. Is this going too far?

That's the problem with organization: knowing where to stop. My record collection used to be an organic mess, one which reflected my eclectic, ever-evolving tastes; now it looks neat and tidy, like an accountant's sock drawer. Sure I feel organized, but I also feel slightly soiled by the whole process. The next thing you know I'll be one of those people who has a motorized tie holder in their closet. Is this who I want to be?

I only hope my record collection can forgive me, once again.

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

Friday, July 4, 2008

KQED Music: Americana

So much of listening to music is about context. The same tune can sound completely different depending on where, when, and how you hear it. Equally, there is some music for which such petty considerations fade, music so ubiquitous it's virtually timeless and placeless.

For example, I can't remember the first time I heard a Bob Dylan record. His music seems to have always just been there, to exist on a higher plane, untouched by mere day-to-day circumstance. Which is not to say that context has disappeared entirely, just that it takes some major shift to make music like this seem new, to let you hear it with fresh ears.

Luckily, it turns out that moving from Britain to the United States has given me exactly that kind of jolt. Since arriving in San Francisco just over a year ago, I've been given a whole new perspective on the American music I once heard from afar, particularly artists such as Dylan whose music is steeped in the history of the place.

What was once vague and distant, like a half-remembered story from my youth, has been reinvented as something rooted in a specific place, much more real, concrete, and suddenly relevant.

Which got me to thinking, what precisely is Americana? It is a hard concept to pin down. But that's also one of the things that makes American music so fascinating, as these three recent albums demonstrate.

Laura Cantrell: Planes And Boats And Trains

Nashville-born New Yorker Cantrell pulls off the remarkable trick of reminding us what's great about country music while simultaneously helping us forget all that's bad about most of its modern incarnations. Better still, she steers us on this path with such an easy grace that you almost don't realize it's happening.

Her latest download-only album of covers is based around the theme of travel, so it was fitting to first hear it while driving through the countryside around Tahoe. In a place like that, Cantrell's elegant, bewitching voice singing "The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down / Of the big lake they call Gitche Gumee" makes perfect sense. The effect is, like the landscape in that part of Northern California, both delightful and dramatic.

The songs are drawn from disparate sources, ranging from the predictable (folk legend Gordon Lightfoot's "Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald," quoted above), to the unexpected (a haunting version of New Order's "Love Vigilantes"). But none seem odd or forced, including the title track, a perfectly weighted take on the Bacharach and David song, which brings out its delicate emotion without ever turning saccharine.

'Trains and Boats and Planes' is available for download from iTunes, Amazon, and eMusic.

Blind Willies: Everybody's Looking For A Meal

Imagine the White Stripes driven by the fevered folk of Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie, and you might get some idea of where the Blind Willies are coming from. Duo Annie Staninec and Alexei Wajchman have brought a punky attitude to bear on songs whose templates have long histories.

Alexei's voice drawls and snarls over agitated guitar, while Annie's fiddle playing gives the music it's whirling, devilish heart. Like Meg and Jack before them, they combine to create a sound bigger than the mere sum of their parts. High points include the rich, sneering sarcasm of "Mom Says No," the bluesy, Jagger-esque swagger of "Shark Out of Water," and the dark gypsy sorcery of "Sinners Medley."

The line between the past and present is muddied in the melée: You can as easily imagine "If You Was a Good Pimp" being penned in a dingy prohibition-era juke joint as by Snoop Dogg. It's this sound, of traditional music being seized by musicians with new, fiercely held ideas of their own, that makes this album so invigorating.

'Everybody's Looking for a Meal' is out now on Diggory Records. Blind Willies are currently touring the western states, with details available on their website.

Bon Iver: For Emma, Forever Ago

Bon Iver started building a steady snowstorm of praise for their debut album even before it was released early this year. However, despite the presence of some twanging banjo, it isn't exactly typical Americana. It sounds more like a downtempo, acoustic version of a TV on the Radio album, if you can imagine such a thing. There are modern rhythms (the subtle, insistent electronic thump that drives "Lump Sum"); unusual arrangements ("The Wolves Acts I & II," which starts with a simple strumming guitar, but ends up tripping and clattering in all sorts of directions); and, all the while, multitracked falsetto vocals that reach for notes and emotions far beyond the typical range.

Despite all this, it's also unmistakeably American and rural; it is Americana in the simple sense that it couldn't have been recorded anywhere else. The album is the result of three months Justin Vernon, the band's creative force, spent writing and recording in a cabin during the remote desolation of a Wisconsin winter. It is no surprise, then, that it is filled with isolated longing and space, as well as a wonderful, raw honesty on tracks such as "Skinny Love" and "Creature Fear." It is an album to treasure, wherever you are.

'For Emma, Forever Ago' is out now on Jagjaguwar. Bon Iver play the Outside Lands festival in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park on 24 August.

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

Monday, June 9, 2008

KQED Music: The Accidental - There Were Wolves

The Accidental's debut album There Were Wolves is notably lacking in the volume department. Where others might shout and scream, it speaks in understated acoustic whispers. But listen carefully and you will discover a quiet delight, full of hushed beauty, playful surprises, wide-eyed optimism, and dark menace. In the end, its muted tones amplify rather than muffle its impact.

The sort-of title track "Wolves" unfolds like a fairytale, using images of innocence to conjur the story of a night out clubbing in some anonymous town. A girl "dancing in a neon cave with a tilted smile and a lover's laugh" is surrounded by wolves who "can smell the blood on the summer air." Then, from this forest of metaphor, we circle back to the real world with lyrics that find beauty in the everyday, as the wolves "drink beer from plastic glasses til they find the way to make the first move."

These contradictions, of strong emotions quietly stated, of light and dark, of traditional fable in a modern setting, are just a few of many wrapped up in this release. For example, The Accidental are a British alt-folk supergroup of sorts, but one formed of individuals lurking so far under the radar that the term seems amusingly inappropriate. (For the record, they are: Hannah Caughlin/The Bicycle Thieves, solo singer/songwriter Liam Bailey, Sam Genders/Tunng, and Stephen Cracknell/The Memory Band. Apologies to any of their lifelong fans.)

In the right hands, such mismatches and inconsistencies become happy coincidences. The album came together largely by accident (hence the band's name) but despite this unplanned conception, and the fact that writing and performing duties switch throughout, the end result is cohesive in tone and structure rather than fractured or rambling as you might expect.

And then there are the songs themselves, based on English folk traditions in structure and instrumentation, but recorded with liberal use of subtle loops and samples, most notably on the circular vocals of album opener "Knock Knock" and the quietly insistent rhthym and backing that creeps slowly into the excellent "Illuminated Red."

But then, just as modern production techniques and lyrics that talk of "the clock radio by the bed" or "the lights on the stereo" threaten to drag you into the urban now, suddenly birdsong trills in the background of "Jaw of the Whale," pulling you instead towards some rural idyll of yesterday. It is a reminder that the whole thing was recorded in the relaxed setting of someone's living room (albeit on a laptop), and that there are no easy pigeonholes here.

And, so, quietly, definitely, inexorably, the album takes you deeper into a world that, despite its contradictions, is fully formed and unique, one that could only be made by The Accidental. As they sing themselves on "Time and Space," the album closer, "To your own self be true."

'There Were Wolves' is released June 3 on Thrill Jockey.

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

Sunday, May 18, 2008

KQED Music: Music + Advertising = Wrong

The advertising industry worked out long ago that just the right piece of oh-so-cool music can lend their 30-second sales pitches some much-needed hipster cachet. But, more recently, this particular street has become a two-way thoroughfare. Young musicians are leaping at the chance to soundtrack major commercials, thinking that nationwide exposure can only be a good thing. There's just one problem with this theory: these musicians are dirty little whores for suckling the teats of the evil corporate beast.

OK, so I exaggerate. Slightly. But the truth is that, in the rush to piggyback themselves on someone else's commercial campaign, these acts often don't realize how much of a burden this kind of association can become. The unlucky ones will become known simply as "the band from that commercial," and the luckiest will often struggle to completely wash this cheap stain from their reputations. (This is assuming, of course, that anyone notices either the ad or the music in the first place; many will just sink without a trace.)

It doesn't even matter much if it's a cool company or a great commercial; the fact remains that the whole concept stinks of sellout. Take the example of José González: I was completely unaware of him until I saw this Sony Bravia ad. It's a beautiful commercial and, yes, it did introduce me to his music. But I still can't hear "Heartbeats" without thinking of those brightly colored rubber balls and a certain Japanese television manufacturer. For me, it will always be a commercial soundtrack first, and a González track second.

Established acts, of course, can more easily hawk their back catalogs to the highest bidder without fear of doing so much damage to their credibility. Bob Dylan suffered less long-term from slumming it with Starbucks than Jack White did when he cozied up to Coke, for example. And the reputation of the Rolling Stones will rumble on regardless of their more recent, equally compelling Bravia commercial. But acts as big as Dylan and the Stones are special cases, having established corporate brand identities every bit as important in the public conciousness as the companies they have chosen to do business with.

The real difference tends to be about where you hear the band first. So, for example, I had already established a fairly steady relationship with Brazilian dancefloor punks CSS before Apple persuaded them to lie back and think of iPods, so that didn't upset me too much (although I did feel a little betrayed, it's true).

But Yael Naim didn't get off so lightly. When I first read about this French-Israeli singer, she sounded exactly like my kind of artist: kooky, worldly, interesting. But as soon as I clicked on her MySpace page I realized the sad truth: Steve Jobs and the Macbook Air had gotten to her first. Where's the fun in finding a new act only to discover some billionaire CEO is way ahead of you?

Now, I realize that all of this isn't just subjective, but also completely irrational to the point of gross hypocrisy. After all, the concept of the single was created, in essence, to be a radio commercial for a larger product (the album). And, as much as we might try to pretend that music is all about art and truth, the reality is that the people who run the record industry are just as corrupt, profit-driven, money-obsessed, and generally ruthless as the next industry, if not more so.

This proves that not wanting to be introduced to new artists by the likes of Wal-Mart, JCPenney, and Wells Fargo isn't logical, but that changes nothing. Music isn't about reasoning, after all, and I still feel that the whole sorry business is wrong, wrong, wrong -- like a sickness in my gut.

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

Friday, May 2, 2008

KQED You Decide: Defense Spending

Does the United States spend too much money on defense?

By Keith Laidlaw

Defense spending is the biggest single expense in the federal budget, costing more than $600 billion annually, or the equivalent of around $5,500 for every U.S. household. In 2008, we will spend as much on defense as the rest of the world combined: just one country’s expenditures equal to that of all the other 191 members of the United Nations put together. Projections indicate that the amounts will continue to increase. Can we justify such a massive expenditure?

But shortages of basic equipment faced by troops on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan paint a very different picture, one in which the spending needs to be increased, not reduced. Also, we live in a world where vast inequalities of wealth, a growing global population, limited natural resources and widening ideological differences all point to a future of increasing conflict and a need to strengthen our nation’s defenses — and that takes money.

Yet the situation isn’t static. U.S. defense spending has jumped by around 11 percent in the past year alone, but much of the increase is to the result of the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and these won’t go on indefinitely. When the conflicts end, will the defense budget be reduced? Or do these conflicts and many of the failures we have suffered during the course of them point toward a future in which military spending will continue to swell?

Think you know where you stand on this issue? During this activity, we will ask you three times: Does the United States spend too much money on defense? Based on your responses, we will argue the opposite point of view.

[Read full article]

Monday, April 28, 2008

KQED Music: The Blank Tapes - Daydreams

Sometimes new acts blow onto the music scene like an unforecast hurricane, taking the world by storm in a single Force 12 blast of hype and excitement. But not always.

Enter The Blank Tapes, a folky, lo-fi (largely) one-man band, otherwise known as Bay Area local Matt Adams. Released last fall, his latest album Daydreams arrived with a ripple rather than a splash. But, at 26 tracks and a fill-that-CD-to-the-edges 79 minutes long, there is a lot to chew on. Perhaps it isn't surprising that it's taking us all a bit longer than usual to catch up.

Of course, the fact that it was released through his own Matty-Made Music label probably doesn't help either. And the fact that it is self-recorded and self-released goes some way towards explaining a slight lack of... no, not quality control. Long it may be, but padded with fillers it ain't. Perhaps "restraint" is a better way to put it.

Because while Daydreams may be a bit untidy in terms of structure, it's also chock full of excellence: overflowing with it in fact. Every time you hit play, another gem pops out from the crowd. But overall it's just too much, like trying to eat a family pizza on your own.

Adams is, apparently, aware of the problem. As he says on his MySpace page (in response to an earlier review pointing out that Daydreams may be a little, y'know, lengthy): "yes it's true, my albums are f@#king long. Oh well, I can't seem to change that."

Athough this may seem frustrating at first, try thinking of the CD less as a finished product and more as a sort of DIY work in progress. Welcome to the flatpack album release, which is one of the beauties of the post-iTunes musical landscape: we are now free to take the raw materials of any album (in this case, a 25-song hodgepodge) and chop, change, cut, and paste to our heart's content.

For example, you could easily make two great albums from this single CD, but how you split the tracks is up to you: do you sort them by pace (separating the upbeat rockers and rollicking folk stompers from the sad acoustic ballads and stoned moaners), by quality (cutting together a slimmed-down main release of your favorites next to an album of bonus material), or even just crudely cleave it in half down the middle?

For me, there was an obvious split between the more folksy, acoustic Americana of tracks such as "This is What's Inside," and the rockier indie of "When I See You." But (and this is where it gets complicated) many of the album's best tracks arrive when the two styles collide.

For what it's worth, my perfect mix starts with the excellent trio of tracks 17 through 19: "Oh My Love" (think Tapes 'n Tapes with a country beat and you won't be far off), "Part the Clouds" (an upbeat, salty shanty worthy of The Coral
), and the more light-hearted "Listen to the One."

Elsewhere, I've included "Long Ago" (like The Notwist at their soft-focus folkiest), "Silverado" (which couldn't be more charmingly Neil Young-like if it tried), and retro-indie classics "We're Better Not Together" and "We Can Still Be Friends" (both of which party like it's 1989).

My mix closes by sneaking in the pretty, whimsical "Why Must I Fall in Love" as a kind of "hidden" final track. Unfortunately, this ignores the existing album's only real nod towards structure, which is the inclusion of (oops) a "hidden" final track. This one ends, appropriately, with the clunking sound of the stop button being pressed on a tape recording. I guess it's time to start work on compilation two...

Of course, no matter which way you decide to cut it, you may end up with a few tracks left over. Don't panic: Just think of them as lost B-sides, to be included in your very own deluxe double-disc reissue in 20 years' time.

The Blank Tapes are touring Portland, Washington, and California during April and May: check here for details. 'Daydreams' is out now on Matty-Made Music.

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

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

KQED You Decide: Immigration

Are tougher U.S. immigration laws hurting America?

By Keith Laidlaw

The figures are dramatic: There are now 300 million people living in the United States. That’s twice as many as in 1950, four times the total of 1900. And the numbers will only rise going forward.

Why? According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the population increases by one individual every 30 seconds due to immigration alone: That’s more than a million people per year. The Pew Research Center estimates that 82 percent of population growth between 2005 and 2050 will be caused by immigration, both by people who arrive during that time and by their descendants.

Many look at these figures and worry. Surely we can’t afford to accommodate so many new arrivals. Who is going to pay for their education, health care, housing? Where will they find jobs? Where are the food, water and electricity they need going to come from? And how can we be sure that our enemies aren't among them?

But is increased regulation of who crosses our borders really in our best interests? Where will industry and agriculture find enough workers? What about the valuable contributions immigrants make in terms of culture, ideas, hard work and taxes? And can we ever really keep out those who are determined to harm us, no matter how secure we make our borders?

Think you know where you stand on this issue? During the course of this activity, we will ask you three times: Are tougher U.S. immigration laws hurting America? Based on your responses, we will argue the opposite points of view.

[Read full article]

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

KQED Music: Caribou - "She's the One"

We've all heard them, those sad, delusional types who mutter darkly about how there's "no good music around these days." Unless you quickly stop them talking by deftly changing the subject or smacking them around the head with a handy length of two-by-four, they'll probably also offer a few observations on the superior quality of music from some dusty era in the past, and even trot out a few clichés like "it's all just noise," or "go tidy your room."

Lazy, lazy, lazy. True, there isn't a whole lot of good music in the display racks of your local Wal-Mart or Best Buy, but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist. There is LOADS of good music around these days. But the truth is that often it takes a bit of work to find it. You've got to do some hunting, be brave, and sometimes even expose a little bit of your soul to the open air.

But none of us are completely immune to this kind of cynicism. Occasionally, as I get older, I worry that I'm getting too old and jaded to feel that same giddy rush of excitement from hearing new music I seemed to experience every other week as a teenager. But then something comes along like "She's The One" by Caribou.

I've been aware of Dan Snaith's musical adventures since he went by the name Manitoba (he had to change it to Caribou because of a copyright dispute too tedious to relate here). But we had kind of fallen out of touch in recent years and, even though I knew he had a new record out, it took me a while to get round to hearing it.

But then I found a random link to "She's the One" on YouTube. And I was blown away. Astonished. Gobsmacked. And completely infatuated.

His voice is fuzzy and low in the mix (as it normally is), but it is the backing vocals, repeating and insistent like a Steve Reich sample that made me swoon. It doesn't sound quite like it's supposed to be there, but is also the thing that makes the song so special. On occasion the different parts are pulling in different directions so much that it sounds as if it is on the verge of falling apart into a mistimed, atonal mess. But then, like a tightrope walker in a high wind, it manages to maintain its balance and hold it together until the end. It is delicate, fragile, and utterly wonderful.

The rest of the album it comes from, Andorra, contains some more wonderful surprises, particularly in the way it manages to sound so psychedelically retro and utterly modern at the same time. But, for me, it's all about that one song, and about the power of music to make me fall hopelessly in love, over and over again.

Caribou plays The Independent in San Francisco on April 23. The single "She's the One" and album "Andorra" are both out now on Merge Records.

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

Monday, March 31, 2008

KQED Music: Headlights - Some Racing, Some Stopping

Michael Stipe once said that REM's Fables of the Reconstruction sounded like "two oranges being nailed together." As well as being a great quote, it was also a joke (one missed by the journalist he was speaking to at the time, unfortunately). However, it made an important point: that trying to describe music in words is an essentially futile task.

Which is something that Some Racing, Some Stopping, the new album by Headlights, illustrates perfectly. The album was a bit of a guilty pleasure when I first heard it, as it seemed a little cutesy and lightweight. I was worried that it might turn out to be an Ikea record: attractive and enjoyable at first, but essentially an insubstantial piece of crap that was going to give way under the slightest pressure.

Then one day the sun came out, literally. And, just like in countless episodes of CSI, a little UV light revealed all. No, not blood splatter patterns or the dried crust of sordid sexual activities, but the realization that this was a SUMMER album. As the warmth of spring spread over San Francisco, those sweet boy-girl harmonies and pop hooks suddenly made perfect sense. From beginning to end, whether it's the effervescing pop of "Catch Them All," "Cherry Tulips," and "Market Girl," or the lullaby-like softness of the title track, the sunshine never stops.

But there's something else too, and that's where it gets complicated. There's a sadness, an aching melancholia behind the honeyed harmonies and hooks, but one that somehow feels good at the same time. It's sort of like the warmth of tears on cold cheeks, or perhaps the way even the most carefree Sunday is haunted by the Monday to come. Maybe it's the whispered promise of love that cannot possibly last beyond fall? Whatever it is, it feels delicious.

Even the "do doo-doo" backing vocals on "School Boys" (a perfect slice of pop if ever there was one) are broken up by wistful sighs of "aah," like a pinch of salt in caramel ice cream. Everywhere you turn, xylophones jingle like wind chimes in a light breeze while voices drenched in soft-focus reverb and faraway echo sing lines such as: "Wouldn't it be sort of strange if we could hear our hearts all beating at once?"

If you listen for it, that indescribable, indefinable sadness is present in much of the very best summer music. But how to adequately describe it? Occasionally, a new word will come along to help us, as Nick Cave has discovered by applying the concept of duende to the darkness at the heart of his own music (which is a far deeper, blacker thing than the thing I am trying to describe here). But for now there doesn't seem to be any easy literary equivalent for the weird happysadness at the heart of the Headlights' shimmering pop.

Instead, you just need to wait for a suitably sunny moment, buy an ice cream, shed a few tears, and discover it for yourself.

'Some Racing, Some Stopping' is out now on Polyvinyl Records.

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

Thursday, March 6, 2008

KQED Music: The Heavenly States - Delayer

It's so easy for us to over think our reactions to new music. The first time we hear a track or album, only one question should really matter: Is it any good? But, more realistically, the question we ask is "do I like it?" And, before we know it, our pet peeves and personal prejudices are getting involved, and we're well on the way to over thinking things.

For example, I have a terrible tendency to write off new artists unless they astonish me within the space of a single song, and/or sound incredibly different to anything I've heard before. Unfortunately, the first time I listened to Delayer, the new album by Oakland's The Heavenly States, it achieved neither. But it had arrived recommended, so I persevered. Then, a few days later, I found myself happily humming the bouncy hook to album opener "Morning Exercise" while I was doing the washing up, and I realized I had been smitten.

Of course, I'm not saying this album is about to rewrite musical history after all, only that it was unreasonable to condemn it out of hand for this reason alone. After all, even those few recordings that do arrive like an incredible bolt from the blue and sound as if they're going to turn the pop universe upside down, normally achieve something much, much less. Such as when I excitedly play some "amazing" new band to a friend, only to have them reply: "Oh, they just sound like [insert name of other, older, smugly obscure artist here]."

Instead of attempting to serve up a musical revolution, Delayer concentrates on simpler pleasures. In particular, the first three tracks pop out of the traps with a gleeful, driving rush that, after a few listens, is hard to resist. The album does lose a little momentum in the middle, but there is enough quality on either side of this flat spot to compensate.

Highlights include "Lost in the Light," which recalls the Velvet Underground circa Loaded, the slower-paced "Make Up," which breathes the same melancholic air as Jane's Addiction in their quieter moments, and "The System," which is propelled by the kind of squalling guitar riff that would have rocked just as hard in any decade out of the past five, but sounds none the worse for it. In fact, this is probably one of the keys to the band's charm. Like The Raconteurs (to pick another recent example), they aren't doing anything particularly new, they're just doing it well. And, of course, it also helps that Ted Nesseth sings as if he was ordained to front a rock band from birth.

It's probably no coincidence that The Heavenly States remind me of a few other pop-edged indie outfits I grew to appreciate despite some initial misgivings. These include The Shins (although with a bit more balls, which is no bad thing), Razorlight (particularly at the start of "Pretty Life") and The Dandy Warhols.

In fact, this last example seems the most apt. When Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia came out, I was working in an office with a stereo that seemingly had no "off" button, and just two volume settings: loud and louder. Once I got used to the noise levels, I discovered this arrangement offered two great benefits. The first was the Pepsi-challenge "blind taste test" effect; that is, hearing new music without first knowing who it's by, which removed a great deal of personal prejudice from the equation. And the second was that even if I didn't like something straight away, the chances were that someone else did, and I'd end up hearing it a few more times before my opinions hardened enough to complain.

Of course, the down side was ending up in a conversation that started with me explaining to a work colleague precisely why I'd always hated The Dandy Warhols and then going on to ask what was playing on the stereo because I really liked it. I'm sure you can guess the rest.

The Heavenly States' record release party is at The Independent in San Francisco on March 7, 2008.

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

Thursday, February 28, 2008

KQED Music: British Sea Power - Do You Like Rock Music?

Listening to British Sea Power's new album Do You Like Rock Music? is a frustrating experience. Not because it's rubbish (it's actually very good, and the band's best yet) but because it gives the impression it would sound even better live.

For all the great technological advances, leaps, and bounds currently shaking the music industry, the live experience has remained important and popular. Because, no matter how clever widgets such as MP3s and internet streaming are, the best way to really rate an artist is still to see them in the flesh.

For example, I'm much more likely to feel favourably towards a band I've seen rearrange the essential matter of the universe on stage, but who can't quite bottle that alchemy on record, than one who produces a breathtaking album they can't reproduce live.

This isn't an absolute rule, of course, particularly as some types of music are much easier to play live than others. However, seeing a band live is also important as it allows me to gauge one of the essential measures of whether I truly love any particular act: how seriously they take themselves.

Consider the example of my brief, starcrossed love affair with the British dance act Faithless. When I first heard them, I thought they were AWESOME. They took all the cheesiest, silliest, most overblown bits of modern dance music, and combined them into a fantastic festival of fromage-flavored fun. It was hands-in-the-air silly, and I loved it.

That was, until I saw them live. As soon as they started playing, I came to a horrifying realization: This wasn't a knowing, clever pastiche. They actually meant it. Not only that, but they were incredibly, deadly serious. Rarely have I seen a more joyless band on stage, before or since.

English eccentrics British Sea Power could so easily have fallen into a similar pothole. Many of their anthemic indie peers certainly seem to have (consider the dreary dirges of Embrace, Snow Patrol, and so on). Instead, BSP produce rousing music that comes armed with a much-needed injection of levity.

Famous for playing on stages festooned with foliage and dressing like the paramilitary wing of the Boy Scout movement circa 1940, their new album contains many signs that they are fully aware of life's absurdities. For example, "Waving Flags" is a song about immigration with an unlikely focus: "You are astronomical / fans of alcohol / so welcome in." Meanwhile, "Atom" doesn't just mention the phrase "caveat emptor" but makes it the wickedly catchy chorus of a song about, er, nuclear physics. And the chant of "easy, easy" in "No Lucifer" is in homage to a hero of British Wrestling.

The paradox in this case is that, with such firmly frivolous credentials on record, the onus is going to be on BSP to prove they can seriously rock live. And there's only one way to find THAT out...

British Sea Power play Bottom of the Hill as part of Noise Pop on March 1, 2008. Tickets are available at the door only. 'Do You Like Rock Music?' is out now on Rough Trade/World's Fair.

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

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

KQED Music: American Music Club - The Golden Age

If everything was right with the world, then the new American Music Club album would be an absolute stinker.

Consider the evidence: The band only recently reformed after a decade-long break. And, as if having the "reunion" tag hanging over them wasn't bad enough, three members of the band have since left, leaving only singer Mark Eitzel and guitarist Vudi to record and tour a new album with a replacement rhythm section. Not only that, but the record they have finally come up with has a song about the World Trade Center on it. Uh-oh.

Perhaps most troubling of all is the apparent change in Mark Eitzel's mental state over the past few years. He has always been the band's artistic focal point and, after many years of being a reluctant, awkward, and famously depressed poster boy for wretchedly miserable music fans the world over, these days Eitzel seems much happier and more comfortable in himself: almost cheerful, in fact. Could things get any worse?

Let's face it: if there's one thing -- ONE thing -- we all know to be absolutely true about the world of modern music, it's that artists make better records when they are battling the demons of depression and dependancy. As Marvin Gaye said "great artists suffer for the people" and, as Eitzel's back catalog proves, he has suffered more than most.

Amazingly, despite all of this, and perhaps even because of a lot of it, The Golden Age is a genuine triumph. Eitzel's new-found contentment may rob the new album of some of the blacker, bleaker extremes of AMC records past, but this is no bad thing. It means instead that the songs are now better balanced, with more space for hope, humor, and redemption.

The album's sound is also more mellow, making full use of excellent back-up harmonies from new recruits Sean Hoffman on bass and drummer Steve Didelot. The opening and closing songs "All My Love" and "The Grand Duchess of San Francisco" have a beautifully muted delicacy, and there are moments in between that could almost be described as easy listening. Just like Nick Cave could make a credible metamorphosis from hardcore punk to crooning lounge lizard precisely because of, rather than in spite of, his Birthday Party past, so Eitzel has made his move towards the middle of the road with authority after a turbulent life spent on the fringes. This is the cathartic sound of the calm after the storm.

Not that it is all light and grace. Even in the album's mellowest moments, Vudi's guitar carries the threat of something darker, always hinting at distortion and feedback despite (mostly) holding it in check. And the demons of Eitzel's past are rarely far away either, as lines such as the repeating "no one here is going to save you" chorus from "The Decibels and the Little Pills" remind us.

And, yes, there really is a song about the World Trade Center. "The Windows on the World" is about a party in the restaurant that once topped the North Tower, which Eitzel was taken to by a friend. But gone are the overt politics and righteous anger of 2004's comeback album Love Songs For Patriots when, for example, Uncle Sam was recast as a desperate male stripper in "Patriot's Heart." Instead, this song is not only quietly poignant, but also funny: "I said to Kit, look at me, look at me, I'm on top of the First World with a free beer / He said, don't worry my dear, they'll let any trash in here."

In yet another apparent contradiction, the album also contains two songs about San Francisco, despite the fact that the band, if not Eitzel himself, is now based in Los Angeles. But the band's roots will always lie in the Bay Area and, in particular, "All the Lost Souls Welcome You to San Francisco" captures the city's charms in a way that ought to banish all mention of lost hearts and hair-based flora forever.

The fact that it probably won't, shouldn't distract us from how much this album achieves, and how many important lessons it teaches in the process. Reunions are OK. Change is good. Happy and sad aren't mutually exclusive. And, everything being right with the world isn't necessarily a good thing.

'The Golden Age' is released February 19, 2008 on Merge Records. American Music Club begin their US tour at The Independent in San Francisco on April 2, 2008.

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

Thursday, January 17, 2008

KQED Music: Black Kids, Cool Kids ... What's in a name?

Record sales rise and fall, entire genres of music come and go, even interminable Las Vegas concert runs occasionally come to an end. But one constant remains in the strange world that is the music industry -- bands with rubbish names.

And there are two entirely separate, fun things you can do this month to remind yourself of this consistent source of both amusement and bemusement: download the excellent and totally free Wizzard of Ahhhs EP by knowingly cool indie-pop outfit Black Kids, and go to The Independent on January 17, 2008 to see the similarly titled Cool Kids perform their much-lauded retro-infused hip-hop.

One only needs to remember the middle-aged members of Sonic Youth to know why both Black Kids and Cool Kids have names that suck, and that's before we cast our eyes over the other, troublesome parts of their titles. What makes the situation even more bewildering is that, while their music may be quite different, they share at least one other important trait less obvious than their names: they both seem to be savvy media operators.

For example, Black Kids are offering their debut as a free download, which is so painfully right now that it might even be in the future. And in a similarly up-to-the-minute move, The Cool Kids' most recent step toward wider recognition was made by appearing in someone else's TV advert. (You know the one: it features some dweeby guy dressed in a towel dancing around his living room, oblivious to the fact that a bizarrely contradictory bunch of musicians appear to have crept into his house while he wasn't looking.) Such canny marketing moves make it hard to believe they arrived at the most important elements of their brand identities by accident.

What is hardest to fathom is why they have both appeared at the same time. Add the recently surfaced Cold War Kids and you virtually have a movement. Not so long ago, the same thing happened when proto-metallers Wolfmother, indie rockers Wolf Parade and the largely uncategorizable Patrick Wolf all began bothering the music scene at around the same time, which is not to mention the similarly named psychedelic Krautrockers Lupine Howl. Coincidence? Weirdly, there doesn't seem to be any more logical explanation on offer.

However, it is also important to remember that even the worst epithet is rarely a barrier to sales success, at least not on its own. From the terrible pun that no one ever seems to notice on the cover of every Beatles record onwards, music history is littered with examples of acts who have sold many more records than their names ever deserved. So why not close your eyes and give the "kids" a chance. You might be pleasantly surprised.

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

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

The Future Laboratory: Fixing Up

Bad ass cycling without brakes, by Keith Laidlaw.

Fixed-wheel bikes originally designed for use on velodrome-style tracks have become a defining fashion accessory for a new tribe of young urbanites on the streets of US cities such as New York, Chicago, Portland and San Francisco.

Also known as fixed-gear bikes, or simply "fixies", these are bicycles stripped down to their barest essentials. They have no sprockets or derailleur gears, and can't freewheel, so the pedals are always turning whenever the bike is in motion. Traditional drop handlebars are often replaced with an ultra-narrow straight grip; even the brakes are removed. "It's acceptable to have a front brake, but it's totally unacceptable to have a back one," explains London-based art director and fixed-wheel rider Ben Brannan. Riders use the pedals to slow the back wheel instead, something which San Francisco scenester Gary Bishop calls the "tough factor" of thinking, "I don't have any brakes on my bike, I'm bad-ass."

Fixed-gear bikes first became popular with bike couriers attracted by their low weight and minimal maintenance needs. Now that cycling has become a mode of transport for a generation which is fed up with costly trains, doesn't want to own a car and can't afford a scooter, the fixie has become the must-have accompaniment to the arty kid's city lifestyle.

Three-quarter-length skinny-fit jeans are obligatory, but helmets are rejected in favour of retro Campagnolo cycling caps. U-Locks are carried in the back pocket; attaching a bracket to the frame is totally verboten. "It's like a stylized aspect of cycling," says Laurie X, who works in a a popular Portland bike shop. "The bikes are a little like show ponies with a whole culture that ties into other youth sub-cultures, like graffiti and punk rock."

The bikes may be fiercely minimalist in build, but not necessarily in looks. Riders match or mismatch DayGlo paint jobs with lurid rims, spokes and handlebar tape. And they have a retro appeal, as most riders opt for old-fashioned pencil-thin steel frames.

The trend is spreading. Brick Lane Bikes, opened last year in London's Shoreditch by lawyer-turned-bike-courier Jan Milewski, specialises in fixed-wheel bikes built around vintage Italian frames. Fixie fans from around the word congregate online at sites such as and can be found hanging out at bike polo events in London or New York.

Published by The Future Laboratory in 'The' magazine, issue 2, 08:01:2008