The New Pornographers: Together


RIYL: Neko Case, Canada, indie-pop musical theater

Since 2003, there have been only two years in which Carl Newman, leader of the indie-pop superstars the New Pornographers, has not put out an album. And for a stretch there, that was a good thing; you’d be hard pressed to find a one-two-three punch from anyone that rivals the New Porns’ 2003’s Electric Version, Carl’s solo album The Slow Wonder, and the New Porns’ staggering Twin Cinema (2005). That last album had half a dozen songs alone that could each start its own religion.

Since then, the goings have been, well, fine, but a far cry from the band’s best work. Challengers (2007) has aged decently enough, but still doesn’t contain a moment that rivals, say, “The Bleeding Heart Show” or “The Laws Have Changed.” Unfortunately, the band’s latest album, Together, doesn’t contain anything that rivals the best work on Challengers. It’s not a bad record, per se; it’s simply an average record from a band that has to this point been anything but average.

Sure, anyone who likes “Mutiny, I Promise You” will enjoy “Crash Years,” and fans of “Use It” will like the unofficial title track “Your Hands (Together).” Likewise, there are a million bands who would kill to call this album their own. But this is not some other band’s album – it’s a New Pornographers album, and they can frankly do better than this. They didn’t phone it in – the album’s final track, the other unofficial title track “We End Up Together,” is one of those reach-for-the-stars moments – but it appears that Newman’s well is running a little drier than it had been five or so years ago. Hey, writing good songs is hard – there’s a reason only a handful of people are truly good at it. If Newman needs an extra two years between albums to charge the batteries, that’s fine with us. We can wait. (Matador 2010)

New Pornographers MySpace page
Click to buy Together from Amazon

  

Jakob Dylan: Women and Country


RIYL: Bob Dylan, Neko Case, T-Bone Burnett

Jakob Dylan is back for his second solo album, sans Wallflowers, and he’s delivered an Americana gem. There’s not much in the way of the rock or roll here, but that clearly isn’t Dylan’s intention. There’s a mature vibe that sounds not altogether unlike some of the recent output from his dad. Jakob Dylan has teamed with producer and longtime friend T-Bone Burnett (who also produced the Wallflowers’ breakthrough album Bringing Down the Horse) to craft an old-school album of bluesy, alt-country majesty. The addition of the fabulous Neko Case and her backing singer Kelly Hogan adds an extra quality that lifts the songs to a higher plane. Instrumental enhancement from pedal steel guitar, fiddle and banjo also help to generate an authentic, way old-school sound.

Much of the album sounds like it could work as a soundtrack for a Clint Eastwood western about pioneers trying to make it through hard times, and that vibe fits all too well here in this foul economic year of our Lord 2010. “Nothing but the Whole Wide World” and “Down on Our Own Shield” open the album and immediately establish a rich sound with lush, bluesy guitars and the sweet backing vocals from Case and Hogan. “Lend a Hand” mixes it up a little by adding in some horns that conjure the Preservation Hall Jazz Band sound of New Orleans. “We Don’t Live Here Anymore” comes out with a somber vibe, but in solidarity with those suffering from home foreclosure. The backing vocals provide a haunting quality, and there’s rich texture from some timely banjo plucking by David Mansfield. “Everybody’s Hurting” mines a similar thematic vein, a retro throwback to another time, yet tuned into a lamentable 21st century zeitgeist. Mansfield strikes again by adding some sad fiddle to enhance the vibe.

“Holy Rollers for Love” is a little more uplifting with a major key tone, but still follows the down-tempo American template that informs the album. “Truth for a Truth” conjures a “High Plains Drifter” gunslinger mode with lyrics that speak of “an eye for an eye, a truth for a truth.” “They’ve Trapped Us Boys” is almost a little bit of a hoedown with its walking bass and mandolin strums, and is enhanced with glimmering pedal steel and angelic vocals as Case and Hogan sing “shine a light, shine a light.” “Standing Eight Count” closes the album with a horn intro that sounds similar to the theme from “Rocky,” followed by the album’s strongest beat to wrap it up with something of a triumphant, upbeat vibe. (Columbia 2010)

Jakob Dylan MySpace page MySpace page

  

SXSW 2010 Quick Hits, Day 4: Jakob Dylan and Three Legs (featuring Neko Case)

This is where the weather gods ceased to cooperate, with a storm front moving in overnight that plunged Saturday’s high temperatures into the low 50s. It was a chilly, windy day that felt more like a late autumn football Saturday in Columbus than spring equinox in Austin, but SXSW fans would not be deterred. Rachel Ray’s day party at Stubbs BBQ was the place to be on Saturday afternoon. Free margaritas and bloody Marys were served, along with tasty chicken mini-quesadillas and meatball sandwiches.

Jakob Dylan played a half-hour set with the fabulous Neko Case accompanying him to create a bluesy sound with majestic Americana flavor that seemed to fit the gray afternoon perfectly. The sound was reminiscent of some of Dylan’s father’s recent work, blending a variety of retro flavors for an artful old-school vibe. The younger Dylan’s distinctive rasp sounded great, and even more so with Case harmonizing.

The last song, perhaps titled “Shine Along,” featured some mandolin on a melodic major key tune for a more uplifting vibe. The harmonies between Dylan and Case were superb throughout the set, like two great tastes that tasted even better together. Fans can only hope that these two will continue to work together further.

Jakob Dylan and Three Legs featuring Neko Case and Kelly Hogan, SXSW 2010
Photo by Steve Hopson

  

SXSW Music 2010, Day 4: Neither Wind Nor Rain…

The weather took a decided turn for the worse in the middle of the night when a big rainstorm hit town. Festival-goers were spared precipitation on Saturday, but the temperature dropped into the 50s and it was cold and windy throughout the day. It felt more like a late-autumn afternoon in the Midwest than Spring Equinox in Austin, but the chilly conditions would not stop SXSW music fans from getting their fill on the final day of the conference/festival.

The big highlight of Saturday afternoon was Rachel Ray’s day party at Stubbs BBQ, which required a special invite. The general RSVP line was going nowhere, but thank goodness a friend had an extra pass. Free margaritas and bloody Marys were served along with chicken quesadillas and meatball sandwiches. Jakob Dylan and Three Legs (featuring the dazzling Neko Case) played a strong set that had a sound not unlike some of the recent work of Jakob’s dad – slow-burning blues and Americana sprinkled with the Tex-Mex flavor. Case’s backing vocals added an extra element to raise the songs higher for what sounds like some of the younger Dylan’s best work.

Street Sweeper Social Club stole the show though with an incendiary set that provided a needed infusion of heat to the chilly conditions. Tom Morello, Boots Riley and company rocked a heavy sound with a definite Rage kind of vibe that had people bouncing. This was one of the best sets of the week.

She & Him closed out the party with a strong set of their own. Zooey Deschanel sounded great, especially with the Chapin Sisters appearing as guest to harmonize with her. M.Ward led the able band, which even rocked out a deep jam at the end.

Getting indoors became the next imperative and there was a large crowd inside Lovejoys, one of Austin’s best dive bars. They had music too, of course, with Middle Distance Runner rocking a heavy sound. The guitarist even pulled one of Tom Morello’s slide guitar tricks. Caitlin Krisko & the Broadcast followed with a bluesier sound, with the charismatic blonde frontwoman belting out some powerful tunes, while a conga player helped provided polyrthythms.

After a break to eat some dinner and catch some March Madness (how about those Northern Iowa Panthers), it was over to Spill on 6th Street where Antennas Up were showcasing at 8 pm. The Kansas City band has a funky sound accented by some trippy synth samples. They’re clearly into the space vibe with astronaut helmets that were donned during one tune, and Space Invaders stickers on the drum kit.

The highlight of the early evening was the redemptive 9:00 set from the Watson Twins at the Central Presbyterian Church on 8th Street. The venue is an actual church with amazing acoustics. Combining this with an evening headliner slot had a dramatic effect on the Twins, with this set highlighting their dynamic sound in a way that their Friday day party set could not. They still didn’t play anything off their first album, but the new tunes sparkled in a new light in this setting.

The 10:00 hour fell flat for a variety of reasons, but Dengue Fever stepped up with an 11:00 set at Emo’s main to get things rocking again. Cambodian vocalist Chom Nimol started off the set wearing a hoodie and skullcap, but she and the band quickly heated things up with their groovy sound, causing Nimol to strip off layers until she was just wearing a pretty blue dress.

Then it was over to La Zona Rosa on West 4th Street for a great SXSW finale with Pretty Lights, who blew up the joint with their funky beats and trippy sounds. The Colorado duo’s spectacular light show provided a dazzling accompaniment to the dance party which went right up until 2 am.

Much more on the past four days coming in my wrap-up report within the next 24 hours…

  

Lollapalooza 2009, Sunday recap: Spending warm summer days indoors

All right, we didn’t actually spend the day indoors, but we hid in the shade as much as possible, because, well, it was freaking hot today. This led to one of us staying up north (he had other plans, which you’ll read about later) and one of us staying south. Who got the better end of the deal? Let’s just agree to disagree, shall we?

Ra Ra Riot, Chicago 2016 stage
Eldred: These guys sa sa sucked. Okay, not really, but they were ba ba boring. And despite the fact that I found their cellist incredibly hot (wow, I never thought I’d say that) I found my head even hotter, so I headed for the shade.

Bat for Lashes, Vitaminwater stage
Eldred: I’m always hesitant to give bands who primarily play slow-to-mid-tempo music a chance at festivals. I usually don’t have the patience for it when I’m melting away in the sun. However, Bat for Lashes proved to be the exception. The beautiful Natasha Khan (who is Bat for Lashes in the studio) came out in a sequined jumpsuit, and with a powerful bellow held the audience captive while she also played piano, the autoharp and what I think was an accordion. Pretty amazing stuff, made even more amazing by the gale-force wind that nearly destroyed the banners surrounding the stage.

Portugal, The Man, Playstation stage
Medsker: I will concede that I came very late into their set in order to find a good spot to watch the Kaiser Chiefs, but I hoped that some good grooves would come my way. All I remember is some drawn-out, “Black Magic Woman” type of jam session, and little else. Hooks, apparently, are not their strong suit.

Airborne Toxic Event, Chicago 2016 stage
Eldred: I really didn’t make an active choice to see these guys. I more or less collapsed in the shade, and they happened to be playing in the background. I’m more or less indifferentl to them. Sure, their single “Sometime Around Midnight” is a good tune, but I really couldn’t care less about seeing them. I was jealous of my cohorts who made the trip across the park to see the Kaiser Chiefs. Still, I did get to hear the ATE’s unlikely cover of Q Lazzarus’ “Goodbye Horses” (the song that Buffalo Bill dances to in “Silence of the Lambs”), which was actually pretty good and went over great with their fans. I might not like their tunes, but they definitely know how to entertain a crowd.

Kaiser Chiefs, Budweiser stage
Medsker: I was concerned about how the Chiefs would be once I heard that singer Ricky Wilson broke a rib during one of the band’s shows in New York opening for Green Day. I should have known better. They absolutely killed, opening with “Never Miss a Beat” and scarcely letting up from there. Ricky was even diving into the crowd and climbing the speakers. I wonder, though, if there will be any fallout from Ricky saying, “Can we get these people 20,000 beers?” The crowd roars, and then he says, “But no Bud, though.” (Look at which stage they played.) I saw Guster pull a stunt like that at a show. They wound up not getting paid. Sponsorship-bashing issues aside, the Kaiser Chiefs made the most of the last date on their US tour. Please come back soon, boys. Eldred, for one, wants to see what he missed out on.

Dan Deacon, Vitaminwater stage
Eldred: Praise Dan Deacon, that crazy electronic music-playing bear of a man. Sure, he may have taken a bit too much time getting the sound just right, but the payoff was more than enough. Joined by close to 20 people (including a marching band), Deacon not only played music, but the audience, guiding them to create a stage in the lawn for someone to jump down and conduct the crowd, culminated in an ungodly barrage of plastic bottles flying into the air. Pure madness and pure ecstasy. Dan Deacon made the heat go away with the power of his good vibes.

The Hood Internet, Perry’s
Medsker: This pair of Chicago DJs were spinning some crazy mash-ups from the word go. Someone was rapping over “Shut Up and Let Me Go,” while Rivers Cuomo was singing “Buddy Holly” over a monster dance beat. I also heard bits of Walter Meego (another Chicago band, which makes me suspect they know each other), New Order, Mylo, that birthday texting song, and, of course, Michael Jackson. And thank goodness the people by one of the drink stations were giving away bottles of water. After the Kaiser Chiefs, I needed about a gallon.

Neko Case, Budweiser stage
Medsker: Neko has one of those sing-me-the-phone-book voices, but this setting seriously tested my patience. She and her band sounded fine (once they took care of a feedback problem), but as Neko herself admitted, she was playing a nighttime set during a daytime show. She was grateful for the “frisky” people up front. Sadly, I was not one of them. Two guys in front of me gave me the biggest laugh of the day when they waited for Neko to start, heard three notes of her first song, and walked away shaking their heads.

Shortly after this, I called it a day, but I assure you that I have my reasons. One of my all-time favorite bands is playing on the north side of town, and they don’t play here much. My apologies to the Killers and Jane’s Addiction, who will surely put on great shows. Bonus coverage to follow…

Passion Pit, Citi stage
Eldred: Every year the Citi stage seems to be the home of an act that could easily pack one of the larger stages. Last year it was Girl Talk, and this year it was Passion Pit. (Ed. note: Whither Peter Bjorn and John?) People were packed tight on the concrete to see the band perform “Sleepyhead” and other highlights from the debut LP. Well, maybe “other highlights” is a bit of a stretch, since a good portion of the crowd hightailed it after the group belted out their signature tune. Passion Pit didn’t seem to be bothered by the the fleeing masses or the heat, but the latter sure got to me. I caved and went back to the hotel, Snoop Dog be dammed.

The Killers, Chicago 2016
Eldred: Refreshed after a lenghty break in my a/c blasted room, I trekked back for the final act of the festival. Given the choice between the Killers and Jane’s Addiction, I chose the Killers, and not just because they were the closest to my hotel (okay, that may have had something to do with it). There was nothing particularly wrong with the Killers’ performance, but there was nothing really amazing about it, either. I don’t know, maybe seeing Depeche Mode and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs the two nights before set my expectations too high. Everyone seemed to be having a good time though, especially Brandon Flowers, who was eating up the massive crowd (which he claimed was the biggest they’ve had in the States). Maybe they weren’t the best band to close a night, but they sure as hell pleased their fans. All I know is that after three days that included pouring ran, blaring heat, and everything in between while running back and forth both sides of Grant Park to watch over 20 bands, I’m done with rocking out…for a least a few weeks.

Bonus coverage: The Trashcan Sinatras, Schuba’s
Medsker: Ah, now you know where the old man has gone. From the moment that I heard “Hayfever” while I was getting ready for work one lazy morning in 1993, the Trashcan Sintatras have owned me, so once I heard that they were going to be in town the weekend that I was supposed to cover Lolla, I begged the Lolla scheduling gods that I would not have to choose between the Trashcans and either Depeche Mode or the Beastie Boys. As it turned out, they were scheduled against the Killers – whom I saw in 2005, and they were fun – or Jane’s Addiction, and with all apologies to the guy that started this whole thing, I’d rather see the Trashcans. Yes, that’s how much they mean to me.

The show was great fun. They played a bunch of tunes from I’ve Seen Everything, including ‘Hayfever,” and a bunch of songs from their new one In the Music, which hopefully will be out in the States soon. And I made good on my promise to buy the guitarist a drink, for which he was most grateful.

And now, we sleep. Full, detailed recap soon to follow. But for now, night night.

  

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