Monthly Archives: December 2011

2011 In Review & Looking Forward

(Bowing to the Jukebox.)

Musically speaking, 2011 has been an interesting year. Pop music has moved even further into the electronic dance realm, modern rock radio seems as stagnant as ever and Spotify shook up the industry in quite a few ways.  2011 was also the year when older artists unveiled their vaults in the form of lavish box-sets, which are priced from the affordable to the outrageously expensive (U2 – I’m looking at you!)

For me, 2011 will be remembered more for those we lost, rather than any new albums or artists. I’ve written a lot about R.E.M., in the past few months and after this I plan to let them finally go. Even though for the better part of a decade they were a shadow of their former selves, they were always dependable and always existed in one form or another. Chronic Town, the band’s debut EP was released in October 1981, a few months before I was born. Due to my older siblings, they were the soundtrack to my childhood. As a kid, I could sing along to Michael Stipe’s lyrics even if I didn’t know what they meant (and let’s be honest, not much has changed in 20 years).

In December, I turned 30. In an odd way, it seems significant that R.E.M. would break-up the year when I become what some might finally view as an adult. They defined much of my childhood and teenage years, and now we’re both at a cross-roads of some sorts. So for now, good-bye R.E.M., I’m finally letting you go.

The deaths of both Clarence Clemons in June, and Amy Winehouse in July also had an effect on me, as many others.  Bruce Springsteen recently announced that he was getting the E-Street Ban back together with both a tour and album next year, and it’s hard to imagine them without the Big Man. Clemons’ was not only a brother to Springsteen, but also his foil. As Springsteen’s ambitions and aspirations grew bigger, Clemons was always there to bring a bit of soul to the “big rock”.  The lyrics of “Badlands” represented a struggle, but Clemons’ saxophone break gave the listener the sense that everything would be alright, even as we spit in the face of the Badlands.  “Born to Run” would still be triumphant without Clemons, but without his signature playing on the track, the song would lose a lot of its fun and recklessness.

Earlier this year when it was announced that Clemons would be lending his services to Lady Gaga’s forthcoming Born This Way album, I did a double-take. “What the fuck?”, was my initial thought.  Musicians can do whatever they want and play with whoever they please, but I just couldn’t imagine Clemons’ saxophone playing over Gaga’s dance-oriented pop. As it turns out, Clemons’ playing on “The Edge of Glory” not only fit, but lifted the otherwise bland song into something else. When Clemons died, I couldn’t help but lament the fact that being featured on a Lady Gaga album was in fact his final statement as a musician.  Then again, if being a guest on “The Edge of Glory” introduces new fans to Clemons, then it’s totally worth it.

As for Amy Winehouse, not many were shocked at her death and most of us had seen it coming for years.  Even though it was inevitable, the sting of her death didn’t hurt any less. To say she was a bit of anomaly in the pop scene of the 2000s, is an understatement. Her soulful sound and raspy voice are irreplaceable in an era where the charts are dominated by thumping beats and digitally altered voices.  Every once in a while, a true artist breaks through the pop scene and catches everyone’s attention. We’re seeing it now with Adele, but there’s no doubt that her path was already carved by Winehouse a few years earlier.

A few days back, I thought about compiling a list of the best albums of the year, but I found the task both daunting and depressing. While there were plenty of good albums this year, I never found one that captured my imagination and remained definitive of both the year and the artists themselves.  If I really had to pick an album of the year, it would most likely be The Roots’ undun. While the group remains as tight and experimental as ever, and Black Thought’s sharp lyricism remains under-appreciated, undun fails to capture the glory and grand statements found on both Game Theory and Rising Down.

That’s not to say there weren’t any good albums, however. Wilco’s The Whole Love found the group balancing their experimental side and more conservative efforts, making it the best album they’ve put out since Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Mates of State’s Mountaintops was quite good as was Tom Waits’ Bad as Me, his his wildest and craziest album since Bone Machine.  And for those of you who are looking to see if I’ll list The Decemberists’ The King is Dead, I’ve tried (really, I have!) to like them, but they’ve never done anything for me.

2011 has also been a milestone for Leading Us Absurd.  Over the past few months, I’ve had the great opportunity to interview numerous up and coming artists.  You can view the entire list here.  There’s too many to list here, but some of my favorite have included experimental New York rockers Black Taxi, singer-songwriter Laura Warshauer who has played with E-Street great Roy Bittan and Edward Rogers who channels the early days of the Kinks on his latest release.  I hope you’ve enjoyed these articles as much as I have putting them together.  Hopefully in 2012, I’ll be able to bring even more exclusive interviews and content to Leading Us Absurd.

Speaking of that….

In an effort to try and be more productive for 2012, at the suggestion of two of my closest and friends, I’ve decided to make each day a theme.  So here’s my outline for those interested:

  • Mondays: Song of the Week
  • Tuesdays: Album of the Week
  • Wednesdays: Lists
  • Thursdays: New Music (include interviews, profiles and/or new artists I’m getting into)
  • Fridays: Weekly music round-up – what’s going on in the music world, new releases, etc.

My hope is that this structure will enable me to be more productive, and also be more interesting for the readers. I’ll throw in other posts as necessary, but at least this way everyone will know what to expect.

Thanks again to everyone who has read and/or commented here.  Have a happy New Year and I’ll you on Monday!

 

 

 

The Hit Men – “A Four Seasons Christmas”

Courtesy of The Musebox

“The Hit Men, original recording and performing members of The Four Seasons, Tommy James & The Shondells, The Critters, are back in the studio. ‘A Four Seasons Christmas,’ is The Hit Men’s newest release, and is recorded with that ‘vintage’ Four Seasons sound that will take you back to the 60’s and 70’s!” – The Hit Men Live

Check out the song here.

Lo-Fi Christmas? The Orienteers – “Do You Hear What I Hear?”


I’ll be honest: “Do You Know What I Hear?” has never been one of my favorite Christmas songs. The narrator in the song is pretty smug. Thanks for rubbing it in our faces, that you might know something everyone else doesn’t.

But Ottawa’s The Orienteers totally redeem the song by giving  it a dark and spacey lo-fi treatment.  Check it out here.

Interview with Marius Hagen From Team Me

Team Me from Norway is one of the hottest newcomers of 2011. The accidental success of Team Me came about when Marius Hagen started his own side project, while playing with two other bands, Jaqueline and SiN, the name Team Me reflecting himself as the only member of the band. But when the music he submitted ended up in a Norwegian national radio-battle for new and unsigned bands, Marius quickly had to get a band together and Team Me made their live debut in January 2010 at the finals of the contest, to great acclaim. From then on, Marius’ little secret was not so easy to hide, and the world seems to be falling in love with this six-piece indie band and their richly orchestrated music and unique live shows.

Team Me recorded their debut album, “To The Treetops!” in Oslo in May 2011. The album was produced by Marius Hagen/Team Me and mixed by Mike Hartung at Propeller Music Division.

Team Me has a really interesting history. Marius you were in two separatebands and Team Me was the name you use for your own stuff until you ended up on a radio station contest.  Tell me a little a bit about that experience, and how you got the band together.

 
The band got together when Team Me was picked out to play in the final of a
national demo competition in Norway. At the time Team Me was only a name for
all my electronic and/or acoustic song-experiments. As I didn’t dare to play
these songs live by myself as a singer/songwriter, I called some friends and
asked if they’d be interested in joining me in the “band”. They said yes,
fortunately. So, that’s basically the way it happened. The first time the
“band” was in the same room, was to have photos taken for the competition. We hadn’t even had a rehearsal.
 
 
You’ve gained quite a bit of attention over the year.  Did you imagine that
this would happen?  Are you still involved in the other bands?
 
I don’t think anyone of us ever imagined this when we all met for that
first Team Me rehearsal. Most of us have been playing in bands or by
ourselves for some years, and I guess we’ve all had some ambitions to get
our music out there, but I don’t think any of us really really thought it
would happen. Although we’re still pretty small fish in the big sea.
I’m still involved in both Jaqueline and SIN. We just have to find time.
 
Since you’ve released the EP a lot has happened.  What difference can fans expect on “To the Treetops”?
 
I guess people can expect an over-the-top, self-produced, playful debut
album or just a six-piece band trying to fit all of their different but
very similar music references into their debut album. It’s a big
sounding record. Melancholy songs wrapped into psychedelic, cheerful sounds,
or something like that.
 
Your music sounds is very melodic yet it also pretty sophisticated in its
sound.  Tell me a little bit about your songwriting process.  What do you
envision for Team Me?
 
There’s no recipe for writing a Team Me song. The first songs were just
random experiments, and written during a long period of time. Most songs are
written on an acoustic guitar, and then orchestrated after whatever
direction we want to go. We have no rules for what Team Me should sound
like. So, the next record will most likely sound different than “To The
Treetops!” We just have plans to make and release a lot of music, and
hopefully people will be somewhat interested!
 
I’m from the US, what can American fans expect from Team Me?  Do you have big promotional plans for the US?
 
We’ve always wanted to play in the US. And it looks like we’re heading over
to visit you in March! I think we’re doing a few showcases and we’re playing
at the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas. We’ll know more soon. The dates will
be up on our website teamme.no <http://teamme.no/>  as soon as they are
confirmed.
 
What’s next for Team Me?
 
We just got back from a European tour, and are actually currently in the
studio finishing up a few tracks that we started recording for “To The
Treetops!”, but didn’t really fit in with the rest. Then we’ll have a
Christmas break, before we head back out on the road for some more
Norwegian, European and US date. We’ll be touring a lot in 2012, but
hopefully we’ll have time to start writing some songs for our second album.  

 

The Album That Got Me Through My Teenage Years: The Who’s “Quadrophenia”

Pete Townshend is one of the few writers in rock and roll who understood the trials and tribulations of being a teenager. Early Who singles such as “Substitute” and “My Generation” captured adolescent angst in way that few of The Who’s contemporaries did.  With its antagonistic lyrics and fiery performance “My Generation” was a call to arms. Even today, over 40 years later “My Generation” remains relevant whenever there’s a teenager who feels misunderstood or put down.  And Townshend’s words didn’t hit home hard enough, the sonic assault of The Who brought the sentiment home.

For The Who’s second rock opera Quadrophenia, Townshend expanded on this theme.  Tommy may have gotten more attention, but Quadrophenia is the album where Townshend truly delved into the life of a teenager.  Through the character of Jimmy the Mod, Townshend wove a tale of self-doubt, anger, drugs, love, lust an confusion that is still ever bit as potent today as it was when it released in 1973.

I was 16 when I first hear Quadrophenia, an age where I was obsessed with anything and everything The Who did.  Few artists have spoken to me the way The Who did in my teenage years. Everything I went through, The Who seemed to articulate (musically and lyrically) in a way that I couldn’t. I held off getting Quadrophenia for a long time, in part because its $30 price tag. I finally obtained the album as gift from my sister.  Upon first listen, something seemed different about this album.  I listened intently on the floor of my parent’s living room waiting for The Who to arrive. Instead, there were sounds of crashing waves and wind that made up on the first track, “I Am Sea.”  This was not what I was expecting.  Two minutes went by, and I was slightly disappointed.  Maybe there’s a reason why they abandoned this album, I thought.

The sounds of “I Am the Sea” could not prepare me for what came next – Quadrophenia’s first “proper” song “The Real Me”.  Suddenly, the sound of The Who came through like a mob crashing through castle gates.  Even before Roger Daltrey sang a word, I was transfixed.  The Who are an aggressive band, but even for them this seemed like sheer madness. Keith Moon’s are chaotic but tightly controlled, John Entwistle’s bass pounds it way into submission, and Townshend’s power chords cut like a knife.

On paper, the chorus of “can you see the real me?” from “The Real Me” seems trivial, but Roger Daltrey nails the line perfectly. It’s not a lament of being misunderstood, but a declaration of intent. To say that this song threw me for a loop it is a bit of an understatement. For a good 15 minutes, I replayed the song about 6 times before listening to any of the other songs. I couldn’t get past it, and kept thinking, “What is the rest of the album going to sound like?”

I was not to be let down.  What followed was a more than a collection of songs, but a journey.  Though the narrative is rather loose, Townshend’s lyrics were direct, honest and sometimes even brutal.  I didn’t need to know much about the Mod Scene, for Jimmy’s tale to get beneath my skin. Throughout Quadrophenia, Jimmy is let down by almost everyone – from his family, to his idols, and even the girl he dreams about from afar. Townshend used the four different members of The Who to portray the different facets of Jimmy’s personality.  Upon first listening it seems like Jimmy might be schizophrenic, as mood easily changes from depressive to insightful and back again (sometimes in the same song).  But those types of feeling are part of being a teenager – it’s hard to know exactly how you’re feeling when everything else and everyone else in the world seems to be against you.  At the end of the album, Jimmy finds solace in the pouring rain.  It’s rather open-ended. Townshend never describes what happens next to Jimmy and it doesn’t really matter.  By the time you’ve listened to Quadrophenia the whole way through, Jimmy’s journey has become the listener’s journey and what comes next is your own story.

 

Checking In With Singer-Songwriter Laura Warshauer

Singer songwriter LAURA WARSHAUER launched her full-length album The Pink Chariot Mixtape on June 14th, 2011 on Pink Chariot Music. Laura recently received the first ever Buddy Holly Singer/Songwriter of the Year Award from the Songwriter’s Hall Of Fame and Songmasters. 

I recently caught up with Laura during a stop in Baltimore. You can also read my original interview with her.  

You started playing guitar at the age of 12?

I did. My Dad got me my first guitar. I had always loved singing, and he thought it would be great if I could accompany myself.

So you’ve always been musically inclined?

Yes, I have been singing for as long as I can remember. I would wake up in the middle of the night in my crib and belt out songs like “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”, and then sang “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” in front of the entire school at the age of 5. I remember putting on my Mom’s bright red lipstick and barely being tall enough to reach the microphone.

 And then you started writing songs at 14.  That’s a pretty young age.

At the time I was really inspired by Alanis Morissette’s “Ironic” and Joan Osborne’s “One of Us”. Something about both of those songs struck me, as they were simple in a way yet very powerful. I remember not only feeling their impact on me, but watching how they affected others. I decided to try writing my own songs. After I wrote a few, I really wanted to record them, so I went looking in the yellow pages for a studio and found one on the Jersey shore.

So what happened after you recorded the demos?

I went to Backstage magazine and found some open mics in New York City that I started going to. I learned pretty quickly not to show up at the ones also looking for comedians! (Those weren’t quite the right fit…)

What have you learned from some of the artists that you’ve met? 

Staying true to who you are is a recurring theme of all the successful artists I’ve met. I’m a firm believer in this. But first, you have to find out what this exactly means, as it’s something different for everyone. It’s not necessarily a process that happens overnight, or even a process that has an end. I think we’re all constantly in a state of discovery.

You recently won the Holly Prize. Congratulations. What was that like?

Amazing, thank you! It’s really such an honor to receive an award that celebrates Buddy Holly’s legacy.

I saw on your site you have a section called “The Warheads”.  Tell me a little about that.

The Warheads is my official fan club.  It’s a play on my last name, Warshauer. It’s really a community where my fans can connect more with me as well as each other and have the opportunity to get special songs, videos, tickets, passes at shows, etc.

Now that you’ve achieved some success, does music still inspire you as much as it did when you were a kid?

 I really love music. I enjoy the different processes involved, from the writing and recording to the live performance. If anything, I’m even more inspired now than I ever have been before. I’m also at a point where I’m really interested to go back and either discover or re-discover artists whose music I might not be familiar with or can simply appreciate in a different way with some of the experiences I’ve now had.

 

You’ve stated before that “Sweet 17” is autobiographical.  How do you think that age affected you and why so many songwriters seem drawn to that age?

There is a certain romance about being seventeen (or at least looking back on it!) A lot happens at that age. You’re sort of poised between youth and adulthood in a way that is all at once exciting and precarious. As a writer, you can easily touch upon all that romanticism, and that makes it a very inspiring. I actually went to Scotland at seventeen to the University of St. Andrews. I had graduated a year early from high school in New Jersey, so it was really my first time away from home.

You’ve worked with the iPledge Campaign.  Do you think it’s important for female artists or artists in general to raise awareness?

It’s very important, and I think it’s great if anyone can raise awareness.  It’s about that sense of community and involvement. This particular cause, the iPledge Campaign, sheds light on domestic violence, which is such a dire issue.

How’s the tour going so far?  Do you have a full-band?

I’ve had a fantastic time doing some tour dates opening up for Bob Schneider. A highlight was playing to a sold-out crowd at Rams Heads in Baltimore. I performed trio with Ryan Vaughn (percussion, vocals) and Rebecca Haviland (keys, synth, vocals). It was a relatively simple set-up with a massive sound. I loved this configuration.

Since 2006, when you first started social media has really blown up, and given artists new ways to connect with their audience.  How has it affected you?

It’s great for me because I can connect in a casual way with my fans, everyday. As I’m touring I can share my new discoveries, like a cool coffee shop or restaurant, or just something that strikes me. It’s a nice way for fans to get to know the real person behind the music.

Jay-Z said “you’re fantastically talented.” How did that happen?

I had an early record deal with Island Def Jam, when Jay-Z was actually an executive at the company. He had seen me do a showcase performance, and then I happened to see him again at a Grammy after-party in Los Angeles. My A&R (the “talent scout” at a label) turned to Jay-Z and was like “Jay, you remember Laura.” At the time, I was thinking that he would have no idea who I was. But, low and behold, Jay-Z just looked me right in the eye and said, “You are fantastically talented.” I think time stopped a little for me in that moment.

“I Love You, Mr. Grinch”

23: The Age of Rock Genius?

I recently turned 30. Somebody asked me if I felt any different, or expected to have a crisis of age.  I don’t feel any different, yet.  If somebody had asked me the same question when I turned 23, I might have answered differently.

Music has always defined much of my life – whether its through albums obsess over, songs I know by heart, or random bits of music trivia.  Because of this, turning 23 was a turning point. 23 was the age when many of my idols made albums that not only defined them, but in some cases rock and roll altogether.

Some of these artists already had established careers, and reached a turning point.  Bob Dylan recorded Bringing it All Back Home at the age of 23 – an album which is a watershed moment in not only his career, but was pivotal in folk and rock. Dylan himself has said that he caught lightning in a bottle during that period, and even now wouldn’t be able to write a song like “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” if he tried.  Similarly, Van Morrison coming off of the success of Them, recorded his immortal and beautiful Astral Weeks, an album that unfolds with each subsequent listen.  Paul McCartney was also 23 when The Beatles recorded Revolver, and much of Sergeant Pepper. 23 was also the age when Brian Wilson created The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, which might arguably be the best straight-up pop album ever made.  And who can forget Phil Spector’s beloved Christmas album A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector, which released a month shy of his 24th birthday?

For others, 23 was the beginning of a long illustrious career.  Elvis Costello’s debut My Aim Is True, was released in 1977 the year he turned 23.  Though Costello would make better records later on, none of them match the immediacy of that album which combined punk rock with a spirited lyricism.  In 1983, the then 23-year-old Michael Stipe sang and mumbled his way through R.E.M.’s Murmur, which would become a watershed in alternative and college rock.

Though I probably shouldn’t judge myself by what others have done at certain ages, it’s interesting to see how ages can affect people.  23 isn’t quite as romantic as 16 or 17, but in the case of the artists mentioned above it perhaps represents a “make it or break it” moment.  Technically, by the age of 23 you are an adult, but there’s still the fire of youth which is represented in these songs and albums.

 

 

RIP John Lennon

It’s hard to over estimate the importance that John Lennon has had on my life. Whether through the songs he recorded with The Beatles, or his solo work Lennon’s music has always been part of the my life’s soundtrack.  My older brother Pete was the one who introduced me to the Beatles, and for years I mistook his name for John “Lemmon”.

Some of them are fleeting moments, little glimpses of time that are insignificant on the surface.  For instance, there was time at the dentist several years back, where under a heavy dosage of nova-cane, I realized the genius of “Happy X-Mas (War is Over)”.  My view of Christmas carols would never be the same.  Or there was the time as an 11 year old I first heard “Working Class Hero” and realizing he said “fuck” not once, but twice.

But the real turning point was purchasing John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band during my freshmen year of college. I was going through some adjustments of college life, and having trouble making some friends.  Though I couldn’t relate to Lennon’s experiences directly, I found solace in the pain and anger he displayed throughout the album. The visceral screams in  “Well Well Well” summed up dozens of feelings I didn’t know how to express. The pounding piano of “Remember” was slightly off kilter and jarring, much like how my life felt at the moment.  By the time I got to “God”, it was hard to know whether Lennon had anything more to give. Plastic Ono Band is one of the rawest albums ever put to wax even before “God”, but this song seals the deal.

Life in college was not quite turning out to be what I had envisioned and everything I thought I knew seemed to be wrong in one way or another. The things that might have mattered before, no longer quite did. I wasn’t about to deny everything, but I understood what Lennon meant – sometimes the only thing that seems to matter is yourself  even if everything and everybody else has let you down.  But hearing Lennon say “God is a concept by which we measure our pain” (twice!  in case you missed it) and claim not to believe in his heroes (Dylan who is called “Zimmerman” and Elvis) was brave and gave me a sort of confidence to confront my own fears and frustrations.

That honesty and bravery is what most people remember about John Lennon.  It’s why his music still lives on.  And perhaps it’s also why we might need him more than ever.

Why the 2012 Rock Hall Class is Deserving But Least Interesting

For the past 10 years I used to get excited when artists I love would get nominated.  Over the past 10 years we’ve seen The Stooges, Sex Pistols, Talking Heads, R.E.M., Blondie, U2, Elvis Costello and The Clash (just to name a few) all make their way into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. For me, we’re getting to the point where the list of really interesting people inducted into the rock and hall of fame is starting to wane. There are always a few people who should have inducted long before they actually were, such as included Darlene Love, Tom Waits, and Leon Russell from last year’s class; and this year there’s Laura Nyro.  But if we’re going to stick to the 25 years since the first official release, the list is going to start to get boring really quick.  This isn’t to say that the Beastie Boys, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Faces/Small Faces, Donovan and Guns N’ Roses aren’t worthy of being in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but with the exception of the Chili Peppers I never really listened to any of these artists extensively – I just started to check out The Faces so forgive me for that one. I think in order to understand the artists for this class, you had to have lived through it.  I say this because I can understand their importance in the overall arc of rock and roll.  The Beastie Boys deserve their spot in the history of rock and hip-hop. White guys could never make it as rappers before them, and their use of sampling on Paul’s Boutique was major influence on hip-hop in general. But the songs from Ill Communication sound dated – “Fight for Your Right” and even misogynistic “Paul Revere”.  Even the songs that I do like from their 90s output are so tied to the decade that it makes it harder to appreciate on a broader level. Perhaps I was to young to appreciate Guns N’ Roses and the reaction that Appetite for Destruction had. I have since heard that album many times in subsequent years (never by my own choice) and almost every single song seems stuck in 1987; the exception being “Sweet Child O’ Mine”.  And even the most ardent supporters of Guns N’ Roses admit that Appetite is their best album. It remains to be seen whether Axl will re-unite with his original band or use the “hired guns” he’s currently using as Guns N’ Roses. As far as Donovan goes, my own frame of reference for him is from Bob Dylan’s Don’t Look Back and “Mellow Yellow”.  It’s a bit shallow, I know. As most of my favorite artists are either in the Hall of Fame already (or have only released debut albums in the last 10 years) the next few years of inductees might be kind of boring.