Monthly Archives: December 2014

The Offensiveness of Alfie the Christmas Tree & Missing Muppets: A Look Back at John Denver and the Muppets’ “A Christmas Together”

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If I’m being truly honest, I can trace my love of vinyl back to my family’s copy of John Denver & the Muppets: A Christmas Together. Every Christmas as I kid, I looked forward to  pulling the record out of the giant sleeve and putting it on the record player. I loved the warm sound that it created in the winter nights as Christmas approached. As the record played, I would stare in delight at the cover photo of John Denver smiling in glee with the Muppets beside him. In recent years my sister claims she loathed the record because I played it so much every Christmas season.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve developed mixed feelings for record, even if it’s still a tradition for me to break it out every December. I have no shame about my love for the Muppets; they’re a big part of my childhood and I will defend Christmas Eve on Sesame Street until the day I die. (Seriously, check it out.)

Nostalgia can only go so far. You can’t listen to it as an adult and find unintentional humor in it. Even for a Muppets’ record it is over-run with sticky-sweet sentiments. “The Rainbow Connection” at the end of The Muppet Movie is indeed a sappy song, but at least it was contrasted with the meta-humor and bizarre slap-stick in the rest of the movie.

That usual craziness is almost nowhere to be found on A Christmas Together.  For the most part, it’s is devoid of the characters we know and love. There are no horrible jokes from Fozzi. Ms. Piggy’s diva-tantrums are reduced to butting in occasionally and mimicking the sound of drums when she’s not supposed to on “The Twelve Days of Christmas”.  And Statler and Waldorf? The album is just begging for them to make a make a snarky comment.

Most of the blame lies on John Denver. It’s really his solo Christmas album with the Muppets as his backing band. Every stereotype you know of John Denver is littered all over the album: overt sincerity, sticky sweetness and mellow tunes. The earnestness found here makes U2 and Bruce Springsteen seem ironic in comparison. Just take a look at the titles of some of the songs: “The Peace Carol”, “Noel: Christmas Eve 1913”, and “A Babe Just Like You”.

Through John Denver, the listener is subjected to the origin of “Silent Night” (which he refers to as “the most beloved of all Christmas Carols”) and forced to endure an apology of sorts to his infant son Zachary on “A Babe Just Like You”.  The under-stated tunes make it all the more nauseating.

The worst offender of all is “Alfie the Christmas Tree”. Over a lonely organ, Denver tells the tale of a talking Christmas Tree, for whom Christmas was “much more than a special day..more than a beautiful story…it was a special kind of way.” As Denver continues the story, Alfie becomes sad that “some folks have never heard a jingle bell ring or heard of Santa Claus, or the Son of God”.  Just a thought: shouldn’t be upset that he could potentially be chopped down and stuck in someone’s house for a month and then thrown to the curb?

But then comes the real clincher: “Did mean that they’d never know of peace on earth or the brotherhood of man? Or know how to love, or know how to give?  If they can’t, no one can.” Apparently, Alfie has no balls to ask the listener himself! He has to have John Denver do it!  That line just might be the most offensive thing I’ve ever heard on a record this side of a 2 Live Crew album.

Despite all my gripes, I still hold a soft spot for the duet between Rowlf the Dog and Denver on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”.  It’s the only moment on the album that doesn’t sound contrived. I like it so much that one year while incredibly wasted, I drunkenly declared that the song was “sexy”.  Truth be told, that’s probably the most embarrassing drunken mistake I’ve ever made. It’s many things, but sexy isn’t one of them. I have no fucking clue what I was thinking. Perhaps I got the definitions of poignant and sexy confused.

It’s too bad that Jim Henson couldn’t think of a better musician to do a Muppets Christmas album with. Instead, we’re left with John Denver who somehow manages to turn up his John Denver-ness to 11 on the record. On the bright side, it’s still infinitely better than the Holiday Special with Lady Gaga that appeared on TV last year.

 

Review: “Big Apple Blues” – Tomás Doncker Band

 

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For their second release together, Tomas Duncker and Pulitzer-Prize wining poet Yusef Komunyakaa take cues from the Blues, but refuse to be found by it. Doncker describes his sound as “Global Soul” which he describes in part on his record label True Groove as, “the sound of our collective consciousness…it is not genre specific but genre inclusive.”  This inclusiveness drives Big Apple Blues. It’s rooted in the Blues with its guitar chords and harmonica breaks. The band’s horn section sounds they came right out of Bourbon Street as they blare loudly behind Doncker’s voice. “Little Blue Room” is a hard, blues-funk hybrid while “Ground Zero” contains a distorted disco-style guitar line complete with a David Gilmour-esque solo.

Big Apple Blues is a hard-hitting record that resonates on many levels. The genre-bending only add to its appeal. Every single musical element fits together seamlessly: not an easy feat. It’s frustrating to listen to because Doncker makes it seem so effortless.

Many of the lyrics – written by Duncker and Komunyakaa – seem to focus on New York City and its inhabitants, both past and present. “There’s no hero at Ground Zero/Only human beings doing human things,” Doncker almost shouts. In a dream, he imagines “the towers rose up from smoke and ash.” The deep-fried soul of “Harlem Hell Fighters” tells the tale of World War I soldiers from Harlem who were “fighting Jim Crow over here to fight a war over there.”  Komunyakaa appears for a spoken word bit giving details about “the brothers fighting over-seas.”

Any fan of the Blues or Soul music would be a fool to turn away from Big Apple Blues. It’s a rare kind of record: one that moves the body, soul and mind.

 

For more info on the Tomás Doncker Band, check out True Groove’s web-site.

Exclusive Interview with Indie Artist Tattoo Money

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A while back, I posted indie rocker Tattoo Money’s latest single, “Coco Curious”.  I recently had the opportunity to check in with him and get his thoughts on the making of his album, The Brain. The Mind. The Heart. which was released on December 9th. Check out the interview below.

Your new album is called “The Brain. The Mind. The Heart.” That’s a very philosphical title. How did you come up with that title?

I was talking to a girl I liked who was kind of rebellious. We were seeing each other and had a connection. In her mind, she wanted to fight it. While I was talking to her it came: all the choices you make. The album’s about relationships – about half about relationships and half about friendships.

Let’s talk a little bit about the making of the album. 

I put out an EP last year. I try to make each one better than the last and lyrically go after good songwriting. The concepts come from real life, and then I try to put it to a beat. There’s no one else on the album except me – I play guitar, bass, synths and electronic drums. I put down what’s meant to be put down. I create my life to a beat and produced the whole thing.

One of the things that I like about “Coco Curious” is your ability to take a very serious situation and kind of flip it. Did you ever approach the song in another way or was this how you always envisioned it coming out?

Sometimes you have to laugh instead of crying. You don’t want to take a subject and make it too dark.  I just tend to think, “I’m alive, not dead.” That’s how I handle things, you kind of have to laugh sometimes at situations.

Your music is a kind of hybrid or R&B, hip-hop and indie rock. Does that mesh of sounds come naturally to you?

I honor all my influences. My main influences are modern bands and I’m into current music whether it be Arctic Monkeys or John Mayer. I’ve never believed that the best stuff is from the past. There are dope people making dope stuff now. I originally started rapping. And then I transitioned into rock. On a senior trip, a friend of mine played Everclear’s “Father of Mine” and I though, “Man this is crazy.” The Smashing Pumpkin’s Adore was the first rock CD I had. I was playing rock music before I decided to try and do it live. It took some courage, but I decided to go in all the way. My hip-hop influence makes me competitive.

Has being in Brooklyn affected your artistry in way huge way sonically or lyrically?

Brooklyn is the epicenter of rock music. The mix of electronic and rock configurations is different and inspiring. I’ve gotten to meet a lot of awesome bands.  It’s a nice community and a lot of bands are changing it up and mixing different sounds, not just relying on guitar.

Once the album drops, what’s next for you?

I’m planning a West Coast tour and then in March head to SXSW in March. I make music to perform, that’s what I love to do. When I play live, it’s just me with guitar and a backing track. I created some visuals to go with the live experience. I may drop an EP but I also plan to do a couple of videos before the tour.

Check out “Coco Curious” below (if you haven’t already done so.)

 

 

Review: “Arise Upon Oblivion” – Unfathomed of Abyss

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With a band named Unfathomed of Abyss and Arise Upon Oblivion for an album title, you’d surely expect lots of doom. And there’s plenty of that to be found Arise Upon Oblivion with its aggressive drums, guttural vocals and distorted guitars.  Even song names like “To Nothing” and “To The Unequal Balance of the Cosmos” suggest destruction and end-times.

Arise Upon Oblivion truly sounds like a coming apocalypse. You can practically smell the smoke and feel the fire coming from the depths of hell. There’s no shade of light to be found anywhere. Arise Upon Oblivion is a perfect name because it’s designed to pound your mind and your ear-drums into oblivion.

Surprisingly though, what really makes the music so jarring is the musical accompaniment of strings and piano that lies underneath the wall of guitars and vocals. It creates an eerie effect to an already unsettling listening experience. The contrast between the two seems to suggest that there is always darkness waiting around the corner.

Unfathomed of Abyss is the project name for Black Metal musician Kevin Price. Price played all of the instruments on the album, excluding drums. Arise Upon Oblivion has been a labor of love (if you can call a Symphonic Death Metal album that) for Price. He’s spent the last 14 years creating and carefully orchestrating every detail of the album. Originally he was going to release a three-hour version of the opus, but eventually settled on this nearly hour-long set.

Three of the six songs clock in over 10 minutes. The song structures try to resemble a classical piece suite; with sections that rise and fall. There are quiet moments throughout when the background music comes forth; but it’s hardly a reprieve.

If you like Black Metal, you should check out “Arise Upon Oblivion” for its scope and vision alone.

 

For more info on Unfathomed of the Abyss, check out the web-site.

My Life in 33 Songs: #19: “Californication” – Red Hot Chili Peppers

 

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When I graduated from high school, I was relieved. There was a sense of freedom in the and adulthood in the air. College loomed on the horizon. I couldn’t wait to pack up and leave my hometown behind. I spent the summer working at Little Caesar’s Pizza, counting down the days until I would be gone.

Little Caesar’s wasn’t glamorous but I was glad to be making some money. Plus, we got free pizza during work hours. Having eaten Little Caesar’s many times over the years, that seemed like the perfect perk. What 18-year old didn’t love pizza?

On the first day I was given a quick run through of my duties which included prepping dough, filling the containers for the toppings, making the pizzas and various other cleaning jobs. I have to admit, I was a little disappointed that I would not be throwing the dough up in the air and spinning it around. I always wanted to do that.

My boss constantly talked about how busy Friday and Saturday nights would be. With a few exceptions, there was never any barrage of angry customers lining up out the door. On the rare occasions that there were, I told myself I would be gone in a matter of weeks.

The only real down-side was seeing my taste for pizza deplete rather quickly. It had seemed like a good perk, but the endless supply and clothes wreaking of stale dough and sauce made my favorite food unappetizing. It became more of an obligation: Oh god…I guess I’ll have pizza again because I’m hungry. Is there anything else?

As the summer began to wind down, I suddenly began to have mixed about leaving home. The endless possibilities that awaited no longer seemed quite as exciting. The comfort of home would be gone. I’d have to make new friends. Even Little Caesar’s in its own odd way began to feel stable.

One day on a whim, I went to the record store door to the pizza shop and bought Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Californication. I liked all of the singles that were out at the time and had decided to give the entire album a try.

Even though most of the album is upbeat, there’s a certain amount of melancholia throughout much of Californication and its title track. Over Flea’s sad but prominent bass lines, John Frusciante’s guitar chords have rarely sounded so vulnerable as they do on “Californication”. Frusciante’s sparse solo perfectly fits the vibe: slightly depressed, yet still hopeful.

The Chili Peppers are perhaps the most California of all California rock bands. Hearing Anthony Kiedis shine a light on some of the darker aspects of his beloved state struck a chord with me even though I’ve never been to California. Knowing that he had written many songs about the beautiful aspects of California and was still capable of criticism made me feel validated in my own mixed feelings about leaving. No matter how much I wanted to get away, it was still home and always will be.

Review: “The Big Sleep” – Society Islands

 

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Indie-rock act Society Islands’ The Big Sleep is a moody affair. Its lush sound recalls that of a surreal dream. It’s the kind of album that needs to be listened to on high-fidelity headphones on a good system in order to take in the dense, thick sound. You can tell there’s been a lot of detail put into the production.

Much of the album seems to emerge from post-rock experimentations like early 2000’s Radiohead. Unlike Kid-A, there’s an organic feel to the The Big Sleep that makes it feel human. Songs like “Cheap Life” and the guitar-stomp of “Sunday” have the sound of a full-band. Underneath the experimentation there are nods to Neo-Folk and European influences.

The songs aren’t structured in a conventional way and take a while to reveal themselves. Even when the songs have a hook – “Run For My Money” – they’re not immediate, but can still linger in your head for a while afterwards.

Society Islands is the brainchild and solo project of German multi-instrumentalist Boris Rogowski. The name is taken from a group of French-Polynesian Island in the South Pacific. The native islanders have a myth explaining the formation of the Islands. The water theme  as a form of redemption and creation runs deep throughout The Big Sleep. On “Square One”, Rogowski asks if “you want to fish me from the lake.” while another song is called “In the Water”.  On “Sunday” there’s also a reference to an octopus.

The Big Sleep exists in its own musical world. It’s not necessary an easy listening experience, but one that is rewarding and reveals more with subsequent listens. You get the sense that for Rugowski this isn’t just rock and roll; it’s life and his life is art.

 

 

For more info on Society Islands, check out  the web-site.

Review: “Good Boy” – Nate Paladino

 

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Nate Paladino’s Good Boy is a mix of pre-Beatles rock and roll, rockabilly, jazz and country. It’s mostly a mellow affair, with a few Jerry Lee Lewis-style rockers thrown in for good measure. The songs also recall some of the mellow-drama  and sound of Chris Isaak.

Paladino always has his eye on a girl, and he will try anything to win her heart even as he breaks hearts. It seems as if Paladino wants to create an image of himself as a ‘50s greaser with a rough edge who also has a sensitive side. On “Give Me Something to Prove” he brags about breaking mirrors and bottles, as if that makes him a badass. Too often, the sensitive side wins and the results can feel a bit underwhelming.

On several songs, he’s so overly sweet and sentimental that it can be cringe-inducing. “I thought this time, I found the girl for me,” He croons on the acoustic-soul of “Come Back Home”. She won’t answer the phone, but he’s not willing to give up. And so it goes throughout Good Boy. “Baby, I don’t want to break you, give me something to prove,” He sings in a Tom Waits-esque baritone on “Something to Prove”.

When he does show off his angry side, it seems a bit forced. On the mid-tempo twang of “My Kind of Bitch,” he revels in the troubles he’s found himself in. “I’m pathetic I know,” he growls admitting that they both seem to like the odd relationship they’ve created. The soft “Buy Your Heart” starts out sweetly with Paladino listing off all the things he’s going to buy for her. At the end he flips the narrative and shows his true colors admitting, “I’ll buy your heart and make it love me.”

What keeps Good Boy from becoming memorable is its lack of distinction between songs. With the exception of the 50s rock of “Don’t Say Maybe” and “My Kind of Bitch” the songs tend to blend together. If the songs created a specific mood that could work in his favor and create an overall unifying theme. But too often the songs rarely leave a mark in the way Paladino wants them to.  If Paladino could figure out exactly what he wanted to say musically and lyrically, Good Boy would fare much better.  As it is, it’s too scattershot to leave an impact.

 

For more info on Nate, check out his web-site. 

Review: True Believer – Michael Cullen

 

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“I asked Leonard Cohen, how lonely does it get?” Michael Cullen wonders on the opening track, “Black Dog” of True Believer. Listening to True Believer, it makes sense that he would ask Cohen about loneliness because it is Cohen’s shadow that hangs over the album. The cold, dense sound recalls some of Cohen’s later records. Like Cohen, Cullen looks for answers about life in past relationships and his own life experiences. And he’s not afraid to throw some of the blame on himself.

Cullen might consider himself lost in the world, but there’s a focus in the songs found on True Believer. The music never overshadows Cullen’s tales of self-doubt and broken relationships, and the moody atmosphere enhances the vibe. The organ flourishes evoke a bit of sadness while also generating sympathy.

Cullen started his career playing in several post-punk bands, and while that influence doesn’t appear sonically, it does so in mood and aesthetics. There are hints of Ian Curtis-style self-loathing. Cullen has also been compared to Nick Cave, but his voice sounds a lot like another singer who dealt with many demons: Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock.

Regret is a running theme on the album, but instead of running away Cullen seems to be embracing his past-life even as he toggles between being pissed off and mournful. “What would I give to kill all these regrets?” He asks on “True Believer”. Cullen faced some health issues between True Believer and his last album, the critically acclaimed Love Transmitter. As a result, he was not able to promote it normally and though he never mentions it explicitly, it’s hard not to think of it when he mentions he’s been crashed and burned but still, “as good as new.”

True Believer is a pretty apt title for an album like this. It’s a kind of musical therapy for Cullen. He may occasionally feel broken, but he’s still here telling his story for those who want to listen. Cohen though, probably isn’t listening. “He didn’t answer,” Cullen declares sounding slightly upset.

 

For more information on Michael Cullen, check out his web-site.

Review: “Cease and Desist” – Manilow

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The spirit of punk lives on in Manilow’s Cease and Desist. The four song EP from the London three-piece is loaded with buzz-saw guitars, spitting vocals and crashing drums. There’s a genuine sense of musical anarchy and excitement that drives the record. It’s all about the attitude.

And there’s plenty of that to be found on Cease and Desist. Like a lot of good punk, the musicians purposely never seem to fall in sync with each other. Background vocals fly out of the speakers but never create a harmony. Instead, they’re spat out with venom and malice. Drummer Gary Cardno hardly ever provides a steady beat, but he doesn’t need to. He flies around the kit with a wild abandon that only heightens the drama. If Manilow truly locked in with each other, they would lose their power.

You can easily imagine that these guys would stop their set mid-way through to either curse at the audience or spit on them. Lead singer Dean Moston conjures up the ghost of Johnny Rotten throughout Cease and Desist. His vocal phrasing seems to be taken right out of Nevermind the Bullocks. Even when the band slows down slightly on “Law Here” the guitar sears through the speakers violently.

Manilow might not be for everyone. But if you’re into contemporary punk, Cease and Desist is not a bad place to start.

 

For more info on Manilow, check out their Facebook Page.