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Entries in Music (13)

Friday
Mar192010

Bad Religion: 30 Years of Punk Rock

“And I want to conquer the world
Give all the idiots a brand new religion
Put an end to poverty, uncleanliness, and toil
Promote equality in all of my decisions
With a quick wink of the eye, and a
‘God you must be joking!’”

“I Want to Conquer the World” No Control

Photo by Rick Loomis, LA TimesPunk rock is arguably the most influential and long-lasting movement in the history of rock ‘n’ roll, which is a great irony considering it’s live fast and die young mentality.  A living testament to that longevity, the seminal L.A. band Bad Religion can officially be deemed godfathers of the modern punk rock scene as they celebrate their 30th anniversary this year. 

Beginning March 17, Bad Religion will play multi-night residencies at House of Blues venues in Anaheim, San Diego, West Hollywood, and Las Vegas to celebrate their milestone.  To thank their fans for the years of support, the band will create a best-of compilation from these performances and offer it as a free download for those who sign up on the band’s website. 

I entered the Bad Religion world mid-stream, with the release of their first commercial success, 1994’s Stranger Than Fiction.  It’s funny to think that MTV helped introduce me to a punk rock band that rarely gets radio airplay, as the band’s most widely known song, “21st Century (Digital Boy)” was a staple in the late-night video blocks.  For a sixth-grader who had just begun to get into “modern” punk rock like Green Day and The Offspring, Bad Religion shone through as a mature, driven band that had a clear message.  I quickly dove into their back catalogue and followed the band throughout high school, a perfect soundtrack for those tumultuous years. 

But while Bad Religion’s “Crossbuster” logo might belie their antiestablishment views, the intellectual stimulation gained from listening to their music has shaped my worldview of a society too often ruled by the status quo.  Jamming exigent vocabulary and critical ideas into rapid-fire songs full of soaring harmonies, Bad Religion’s music encouraged me to think critically about the world around me.  These were serious people who had a message of free will and personal character expressed in a burst of artistic energy. 

Lead singer Greg Graffin does not identify himself as an atheist, rather, a naturalist who values the scientific method and a belief in the goodness of humanity.  Earning a master’s degree in geology from UCLA and a PhD in biology from Cornell University, he engages in dialogue that addresses the big questions of the universe, instead of railing against them with a battle cry. 

Brett Gurewitz, guitarist and other main songwriter for the band is an amazing story in his own right, and his absence from the band through much of the 90s left their material wanting.  Gurewitz founded Epitaph Records in order to put out Bad Religion’s material, and was instrumental in the success of bands like The Offspring. 

Bad Religion provided the soundtrack to dozens of adolescent scenes of discovery, yet they have remained a mainstay in my music catalogue and concert listings.  They will be recording their 15th studio album in May, and have no plans on quitting anytime soon.  The power of their longevity is magnified by fact that they keep producing new material. 

Graffin tends to stay modest about the milestone: “The greatest feeling about this anniversary is that it is happening at all. I'm mostly uplifted by the fact that a vibrant and evolving punk scene still inspires young people all over the world. If Bad Religion somehow serves as a symbol for the lasting importance of punk, then I am satisfied beyond words by reaching this milestone.”

I have barely scratched the surface of the monumental legacy of Bad Religion, but for now suffice to say they are my favorite band of all time. 

Recommended Albums:

Suffer 1988
Against the Grain
1990
Stranger Than Fiction
1994
The Empire Strikes First
2004
New Maps of Hell
2007

Books: Is Belief in God Good, Bad or Irrelevant?: A Professor And a Punk Rocker Discuss Science, Religion, Naturalism & Christianity

Bad Religion on Epitaph

Brett Gurewitz on Twitter

Thursday
Mar112010

Broken Bells: Supergroup of the Year?

Broken Bells

Broken Bells

Columbia

March 9, 2010

Broken Bells is the much talked about collaboration between James Mercer of The Shins and Brian Burton, aka Danger Mouse.  Ever since this project was announced last September, I wondered whether this experiment could be as cool as its billing promised.  The answer is yes. 

Described as “melodic, yet experimental,” Broken Bells delivers creatively arranged songs that utilize the full range of Mercer’s vocals, from his normally dulcet tones on single “The High Road” to a space-age falsetto on “The Ghost Inside.”  Burton, who did pen some of the lyrics, also adds his golden producer’s finger to driving beats and a myriad of keyboard instruments, including a resurrected electric harpsichord. 

It’s easy to hear elements that would be comfortable in both Shins and Gnarls Barkley songs, but Broken Bells pulls in an extremely wide range of influences, sometimes to their detriment.  The arrangements can change on a whim, as if including chord progressions or certain instruments just for their own sake.  In this regard, the album could stand to loosen up a bit.

This project is not just a series of studio tricks, though, as Broken Bells will be taking a full band on tour.  They performed “The High Road” on Letterman on March 9, and will be playing several sets at next week’s SXSW, including NPR’s showcase on March 17. 

The CD is also available in a deluxe limited edition box set, which has a neat feature of playing snippets of extra music when it’s opened up.  The full album will be streamed on NPR for the rest of the week, and Mercer and Burton talked about the album with All Songs Considered host Bob Boilen. 

What do you think of the Broken Bells record?  Could this be the collaboration of the year? 

Tuesday
Mar092010

Frightened Rabbit: The Winter of Mixed Drinks


Frightened Rabbits

The Winter of Mixed Drinks

Fat Cat Records

March 9, 2010 [US]


Texture.  For better or for worse, that is the key sonic element on Frightened Rabbit’s third studio album, The Winter of Mixed Drinks, released in the U.S. on March 9 by Fat Cat Records.


Frightened Rabbit songs have always been characterized by a building crescendo of sound and emotion, but on this album the effect is less organic. Instead, the layering of instruments is more deliberate, and while this may have been the aim of songwriter Scott Hutchison and producer Peter Katis, it lacks immediacy and keeps the listener at arm’s length.  

On “Things,” the album opens with fuzzy guitar reverb straight out of the early ‘90s, and while it swells with cello and violin, it feels like a wave that never crashes, ironically appropriate for an album that was written on the coastal town of Crail, Fife. 

The Scottish indie band must have been more than a little daunted upon trying to follow up the masterpiece album The Midnight Organ Fight, but singer/songwriter Scott Hutchison gets a lot of things right as he finds new experiences to mine, scratchily singing of rebirth and renewal, regret and recompense.

“Swim Until You Can’t See Land,” the first single and arguably the best song on The Winter of Mixed Drinks, showcases what can happen when texture works.  The background vocals buoy Hutchison’s plaintive but confident lyric – “Are you a man or are you a bag of sand?” – the keys tinkle at just the right times, and even the cabasa and handclaps are subtle enough to allow the listener to let go of the past along with the song’s protagonist. 

This pattern of successful and off-putting textures seesaws throughout the album, and while the gap gets narrower upon repeated listens, the songs rarely capitalize on their own momentum.  High points include “Living in Colour,” “Not Miserable,” and second single “Nothing Like You,” which features the strange lyric “She was not the cure for cancer” which may just compare an ex-girlfriend to a tumor in a way that actually makes sense. 

If you were already a fan of Frightened Rabbit, you will enjoy this album, and it does have enough high points to engage new fans.  There are beautiful moments on The Winter of Mixed Drinks, and the emotional maturity of the subject matter is refreshing and rewarding.  Frightened Rabbit has taken a step forward away from the wall on this album, and may even ask mainstream success to dance sometime soon.       

3.5 / 5 Stars

Official Site

Thursday
Mar042010

Burroughs Film Kicks Off CIMMfest

The Chicago International Movies and Music Festival returns in its second year March 4 - 7, sporting an impressive lineup of events that highlight the blending of two complimentary mediums.  The innovative festival kicks off with the Chicago Premiere screening of William Burroughs: A Man Within


The startling documentary by Chicago-born director Yony Leyser features never before seen footage of the legendary beat author, as well as exclusive interviews with many of his close friends and colleagues, including John Waters, David Cronenberg, Patti Smith, Iggy Pop, and Jello Biafra, among others.  Actor Peter Weller provides narration. 

Watching the trailer for this movie gave me the chills.  Having gone through a prodigious beat phase in my teenage years, I dutifully read Burroughs' Naked Lunch and Junky along with Kerouac and Ginsberg.  The works could not have been more different, as instead of the open road and collective consciousness, Burroughs offered almost schizophrenic talk of heroin abuse and assholes, queer life and firearms.  He lived a life of struggle, with addiction, being openly gay, and the consequences of shooting his wife.  His was an unenviable fame.

To view the man in the taut, sallow flesh was something else entirely, to actually see the man within these seminal works once banned by the U.S. Government.  And though I knew of his import in the popular culture, I had no idea he touched the lives of so many film and music icons.  This film will be a powerpunch opening for CIMMfest, enhanced by live performances from Thee Majesty & Genesis Breyer P-Orridge and Penny Arcade, both of whom are featured in the film.

This opening night morsel only whets the appetite for the eclectic events throughout the weekend at locations like Schubas, Lincoln Hall, and St. Paul's Community Center.  Other highlights of the weekend include documentaries on The Mountain Goats, Paul Stanley from KISS, System of a Down frontman Serj Tankian, and cult legend Robyn Hitchcock, who also gives an exclusive live performance. 

Check out the full list of films here for what is Chicago's newest addition to an already stellar array of festivals.

Wednesday
Mar032010

OK Go RGM Video

The painstakingly creative boys in Chicago-based band OK Go have done it again: produced a DIY video that beats the pants off any big-budgeted cinematic music video out there. 

In their second video for "This Too Shall Pass," off their recent album Of the Blue Colour of the Sky, the boys who brought you the viral "Here It Goes Again" treadmills have teamed up with Synn Labs to create a Rube Goldberg Machine that is delightfully low-tech. 

Great fun for anyone who loved the breakfast scene in Honey, I Shrunk the Kids or playing Mousetrap as a kid.