Friday Fix: My First Bucket List, Checked

On Saturday night, at the Fox Theatre in Detroit, I will have checked off the last on my list of artists I must see before they die.

Sounds kind of morose, huh? Well, one must be a realist.

As I grew into my musical tastes and found artists whose songs and personae began to breathe meaning into my own life, I decided that I had to be in the same physical space as three musicians in particular.

"Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine"

I think I was in a car, driving through Wyandotte or East Lansing (I'm not exactly sure) when I first heard those soft, deceptive piano chords that preface the most challenging, courageous, and guileless opening lyric to any album I've ever heard. Sung in a low, transgressive growl, Patti Smith's defiant declaration of her existential freedom shocked me to the core. I probably listened to just that opening lyric over and over again as I was fighting personal battles with my previous beliefs and what it meant to live in a different live sex universe of disbelief.

In retrospect, the sentiment seems like a youngish one, from a mind old enough to have broken through childhood dogma but with an energy that seems uncouth for such a monumental new consciousness-as if stated with too much charisma. It is not a declaration sung with wisdom, as much as daring self-assurance.

Nevertheless, I was hooked, and totally at the mercy of this voice and this person, Patti Smith, whose name I had heard and read but whose music I had never experienced. But when I did, it filled me completely with the kind of brazen self-confidence that surely allowed Ms. Smith to sing with such conviction.

And it helped that this existential declaration of independence is followed by a 4 minute dance party.

"Gloria" from Horses (buy)

"Death kept followin', tracking us down. At least I heard your bluebird sing."

I fooled you a few years ago by turning my review of Bob Dylan in concert into a personal chaturbate account of what Dylan means to me, in about 2000 words. Haha. Here's a little bit about the actual concert experience: Dylan came on. I couldn't believe it was him. There was lots of drunk Grateful Dead fans around me. Half way through the show, I kept thinking "I can't believe I'm here. This is so great. Is it almost over?"

I think Dylan is better to listen to on album these days. But still, I don't regret a second of that show. As anyone who reads this blog regularly must know, my love affair with Dylan's music is unending and true.

My uncle made me a tape of Dylan's Biograph when I was about 15. I listened to "Up to Me" thousands of times.

"Up to Me" from Biograph (buy)

"He said, 'All men will be sailors then until the sea shall free them'"

And Saturday, I get to see Leonard Cohen. All of the reviews of his live shows on this tour have been extremely good. I think it'll be an intimate and very special evening.

I discovered Leonard Cohen because of Ween.

I know, wtf? Right?

Well, I had Ween's The Pod and someone told me the album art mimicked Cohen's Best of.

So I bought it. And am I glad I did. It took less than a minute of "Suzanne"-at about "and you know that she's half crazy"-to realize that my life will be a little different as a result of Leonard Cohen.

"Suzanne" from Best of Leonard Cohen (buy)

About five years ago (geez, has it been that long!) I saw Patti Smith at the 9:30 Club in Washington, DC.

Three years ago, I saw Bob Dylan at a minor league baseball stadium in Maryland.

And Saturday, I will be in the same room (although a very big room, and quite far away) as Leonard Cohen.

Fire in the Eye! A Review of Mastodon in Chicago, April 30th, 2009

Mastodon has evolved oddly. They began in 2000 as a death metal/hardcore/math hybrid with a healthy Southern rock influence and have since developed into a progressive metal band that has replaced its ample heaviness with psychedelic groove, Ozzy-esque vocals, and fantastical album concepts. Many fans who loved their first album Remission (which still sounds just as killer as it did in 2002, by the way) were put off by the shift since Mastodon's sound was unique and a true breath of fresh air on the metal scene. Their sophomore album, Leviathan, was a totally worthy successor, combining the pure riff power of the first jasminelive album with an overarching concept, a few clean vocals here and there, and their first ten-minute-plus song, the amazing "Hearts Alive." 2006's Blood Mountain is beloved by many, myself not included. Its attempt at "progressive" just ended up sounding like random unrelated parts smushed together and its goofy concept was a sad departure from the effectiveness of their early lyrics.

Which brings us to this year's Crack the Skye. In a lot of ways, it makes sense as the next step in the band's development. It has the fewest songs of any of their albums, the longest average song length, the least growling, the most clean singing, the fewest holy-fuck-this-is-so-metal moments, and a concept possibly even more nutso than their last. Why, then, is it so much better than Blood Mountain? Mastodon is on tour right now playing the album in its entirety, so I was hoping that would be illuminated last night.

First, though, there were a couple opening acts. After paying twenty-five dollars to park in a lady's garage since the Metro in Chicago is located oh-so-conveniently three blocks from Wrigley Field and there was a Cubs game starting at the same time the doors opened to the show, I arrived a few minutes before Intronaut hit the stage. They're much more on the metal side of progressive metal than Mastodon is, and their futuristic vibe propelled by the outstanding drumming of ex-Uphill Battle drummer Danny Walker hit the audience hard. After a frustratingly lengthy gear setup, Kylesa took the stage with their melodic, double-drumming Southern psych-metal, and they were so good that I forgave them for the forty-minute downtime. The rest of the sold-out crowd was right there with me, too: after yelling and booing when the band continued to dick around onstage in front of their already set up gear, we could not help but cheer the righteous sludge of the Savannah, Georgia five-piece.

It had been a while since I'd seen Mastodon live. I discovered them right as I was getting into metal and saw them an average of twice a year between 2001 and 2005. After that, nothing. I showed up to a show in spring 2007 but they canceled due to an illness of singer/guitarist Brent Hinds, probably related to his getting his skull cracked open in a fight earlier that year. So the last time I saw Mastodon, Blood Mountain hadn't come out, they were still on an indie label, and Brent didn't have any face tattoos. I was excited that they were playing the whole new album because I'd heard the songs from the first two albums performed many times and wanted a taste of what nowadays-Mastodon sounds like live. They walked on stage and without speaking a word, immediately launched into "Oblivion," the first track off Crack the Skye. My first impression of that song when I'd heard the recorded version was confusion and maybe even a bit of betrayal- it's melodic rock without much metal in it at all. But after listening to it more and hearing it live, I forgave them, because it works. That was my impression of the album in general, and that's what separates it from Blood Mountain -yeah, it's different, but this time they got it right. They then played the rest of the new album, and the crowd went predictably apeshit. The songs are heavier live, and even the two ten-minute-plus songs kept everyone's attention.

A guy standing near me turned my way during "Quintessence" and made a face that clearly implied "I cannot believe how amazing this is." I gave him the same face, and we exchanged a couple comments between songs about how great everything was. They played in front of a huge video screen displaying digitally weirdified clips from old movies about Czarist Russia, swirling stars, and other mood-enhancing images. Crack the Skye soared. After a brief break, they came back and peformed another forty five minutes (!) of older material, making the set dangerously close to two hours. The handful of tunes from Blood Mountain did not really sway my opinion of that album (though "Crystal Skull" is admittedly one of the best songs they've ever done) and the Leviathan stuff is still brutal. And even though I'd come to the show to hear new stuff, I still shed a single tear when they only played one song from Remission. The crowd was getting totally worn out when bassist/vocalist Troy Sanders said they had one more song. I think everyone was expecting the fan favorite (and recent Guitar Hero playable track) "Blood and Thunder," so when they launched into the fourteen-minute "Hearts Alive," I was both excited because that song is great and a little disappointed because it was late and I was tired and the thought of that much more show was exhausting. But you know what? It was excellent, and now, twelve hours later, I don't regret driving two hours, paying the same price I paid for the ticket to park, and dealing with Cubs fans in order to see the show. Mastodon has always ruled, even with their minor missteps, and they probably always will.

Friday Fix: Camera Obscura

Camera Obscura's catalog is a concordance to the thoughts and feelings of that dark, grim-visaged, exquisitely vintage dressed girl sitting demurely in a corner of a dark dive-the femme too pigeonhearted to have anything fatal about her-with nothing but a drink and a dog-eared paperback as her paramours. She'll eventually make her way to the jukebox, and will spend her quarters on anything produced by Phil Spector in the early 60s, the few Northern Soul tracks from a mix someone left on the box long ago, and probably a Billy Holiday song just in case you didn't get what she's feeling at that moment from the looks of her. You've seen her before, and she doesn't mind that her method is melancholy-it's who she is, and she ain't changing soon. But she ambles back to her corner with a bit of sway in her steps, her hips like the slow bowing of a violin, a slight but noticeable bobbing of her head to a sweet sounding Ronnie Spector vocal, her heart too full to be lulled into stagnant submission by the slings and arrows of a mischievous trickster cupid. In this instance, the paperback is a book of poems called My Maudlin Career.

I'm Going Away: New Fiery Furnaces album gets me all sorts of excited

While Scotter harbors his inexplicable blog-crush for the shrill Joanna Newsom, there's still no band that gets me quite as hot and bothered as the inimitable Fiery Furnaces. I guess where he finds sustenance in the pomp and flutter of courtly Elizabethan balladry, my heart is tickled by winding Germanic meta-narratives filled with labrynthine plot twists and whimsical wordplay, but alas, to reduce this difference in taste to a matter of preference for poetic bloodlines is just the Deutsch in me overanalyzing things again.

So. why am I telling you this again? Right! I remember: the Fiery Furnaces are releasing a new album! Sure, they tend to release new albums like clockwork - this being their sixth new album since Gallowsbird's Bark (the seventh if you count EP as an LP, which it basically was, the eighth if you count the double live album Remember, or the tenth, if you consider Matt's double solo albums Winter Women and Holy Ghost Language School as part of the official discography - but who's counting?), but that's no reason not to get excited.

Okay, wow, that was anticlimactic. Thankfully, the siblings Friedberger also decided to release two arcane "promo" videos that might give us a little something extra to sink our teeth into:

The Fiery Furnaces - promo video 1 from Thrill Jockey Records on Vimeo.

Jeez, Matt, take it easy on Eleanor, willya? Oh wait, I get it, you kids are just being your casual zany selves. You so did not get Boutros Boutros-Ghali to come out retirement and record your record, silly, it was Jason Loewenstein! Ha, cute. We do, however, get a very brief snippet of what track 9 "Keep Me in the Dark," which apparently includes dueling pianos, which is always a nice thing. Also, they appear to be practicing in a personal library of sorts. Matthew is flanked by a volume of poetry by William Dunbar on the left and the philosophy of W.V. Quine on the right. Eleanor has a book by the English travel writer Eric Newby near her. What this all means I don't quite know yet, but I'll have to hit the stacks soon to find out. It continues:

The Fiery Furnaces - Promo video 2 from Thrill Jockey Records on Vimeo.

More dueling pianos. Is Matt doing a Dylan impression? No, I think he's trying to sing the closing track "Take Me Round Again" but can't remember the lyrics. There are no covers on this record, he claims, which contradicts the statement by Pitchfork that the title track is a traditional arrangement. Hmm, intrigue.

This is shaping up to be a good year for Fiery Furnace fanatics: The audience-inspired "Democ-Rock" coming out in limited edition vinyl formats, a possible "Silent Record" that's actually a book, and, according to the P4K news piece linked earlier but which is mysteriously absent from Thrill Jockey's news, another record called Stories from the Old Testament by the Fiery Furnaces is also in the works.