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The Classics and The Digital Age

29 Jul

This article from the Ringer rightly sums up my feelings on the Digital Music Age. Ever since i lost my Ipod Classic 7 months ago, there has been a hole in my soul. If you have one, keep it secret, keep it safe.

 

 

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Back by Popular Demand: Timmy T’s Top Ten of Twenty Fourteen

22 Jan
Music super fan Timmy T is back again with his take on the year that was. Without further adieu, and presented without comment by Unsung  (ok, 2 comments:  Where is Hozier??? How about Sturgill?? 🙂  here’s your chance to catch up on all the great music you may have missed!
AppleMark
1.)  alt-J  –  This Is All Yours
Best Song:  “Every Other Freckle”
Why It’s On The List: Very different yet easy listening stuff; kind of like if someone took the Drive soundtrack and put it in a blender with some heavy riffs and lyrics for extra flavour.

2.)  Bruce Springsteen  –  High Hopes  &  American Beauty (EP)

Best Songs:  “American Skin (41 Shots)” from High Hopes  &  “Mary Mary” from American Beauty (EP)

Why They’re On The List: Look, he’s called the Boss for a reason; it’s not like the name was awarded for half-assed music. This time out, he’s done another collection of cover songs, outtakes and re-imagined tracks. It’s done with contributions from both the E Street Band and Tom Morello and nearly every song sounds amazing! If you like Bruuuuuuuccceee, do yourself a favour and give both of these a listen.

3.)  Paolo Nutini – Caustic Love

Best Song:  “Scream (Funk My Life Up)”
Why It’s On The List: Just a great contemporary take on soul and R&B and a tiny little bit of funky funk. The first track is really a great leading track (for almost any playlist) and everything that follows is mellow and soothing while thought-provoking. A great album for a quiet night in, along with some great drinks.

4.)  Sam Roberts Band  –  Lo-Fantasy

Best Song:  “We’re All In This Together”
Why It’s On The List: I was a little worried he might never have another great album, that he “might never be the same again”. Well, I was wrong on both counts. Not only is this album fantastic, it’s also a re-invention of Sam Roberts. Take what you think you know about him and his band, stomp on it with your foot, and kick it across the room. Then pull it apart and crumple it back together. Then paint it with a combination of groovy colours. That’s what this album is!

5.)  Ryan Adams  –  Ryan Adams

Best Song:  “I Just Might”
Why It’s On The List: Personally, I think if you have to ask, then you haven’t obviously ever been listening to any of his work to begin with. And shame on you then. Setting aside a dismal concert performance in E-dot (in my humble opinion), this album is quite possibly his best work yet, and that’s saying something. The guy has already done a ton of amazing work. If you have listened to him, then you know what I’m talking about. And, you’ll agree with me if you know what’s good for you.

6.)  SomeKindaWonderful  –  SomeKindaWonderful

Best Song:  “Devilish Man”
Why It’s On The List: A combination of nearly all genres, somehow it works. Initially, I didn’t think it did. But, on the second listen, there’s quite a bit of complexity to this album. One of the main cases in point is “Devilish Man”; it’s got a catchy but also throwback attitude. The whole thing is quite enjoyable.

7.)  Spoon  –  They Want My Soul

Best Song:  “Inside Out”
Why It’s On The List: Just when you think this album might be trying to be Brit-pop, it veers off into some pretty interesting melodic territory. If you’re familiar with Spoon already, this is their best work so far, in my opinion. And, I think the future is even more promising for this band than ever before, based on this album.

8.)  John Hiatt  –  Terms of My Surrender

Best Song:  “Nobody Knew His Name”
Why It’s On The List: If you like slow Blues, without it sauntering up to you and being all up in your face, then this is a great album for you. It’s not fancy, but that’s a good thing. This is the kind of album I see myself listening to by the fire pit with a beer, and howling at the moon in angelic harmony with the album. I have an angelic voice, you know.

9.)  Vance Joy  –  Dream Your Life Away

Best Song:  “Mess Is Mine”
Why It’s On The List: I like fast-paced Folk riffs. So does everyone else apparently! This album is kind of like if only one guy from Mumford & Sons decided to go solo.

10.)  Royal Blood  –  Royal Blood

Best Song:  “Figure It Out”
Why It’s On The List: Well, NME‘s readers voted it number ‘1’, and that’s worth something, right Unsung? 😉 It’s also a total rebel assault on rock n’ roll itself. Don’t listen to this if you don’t like meat & potatoes rock n’ roll. By the way, based on this, the genre (i.e. ‘rock n’ roll’) is alive and well.

Honourable Mentions

  • U2’s Songs of Innocence had its detractors for obvious reasons, but all in all, it’s a pretty good U2 album. Just not good enough for the main list. Sorry, Bono. But, also congrats for being on my Honourable Mentions list.
  • Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack has awesome songs from the seventies. A great playlist unto its own and just awesome homage. FYI reminder, not to be a downer, but “Spirit in the Sky” gets played at my funeral and/or at O’Byrne’s for my wake.
  • Walking Dead soundtrack EP has some phenomenal tracks I’ve never heard of before, especially Sharon Van Etten’s “Serpents (Basement)”; if you like music, you should listen to that track. The track is not from 2014, but the soundtrack is. So, that’s why it’s in Honourable Mentions.
  • Death from Above 1979’s “Trainwreck 1979” is a rip-roaring track!
  • Robert Plant’s lullaby and . . . The Ceaseless Roar has some great tunes on it, if you’ve enjoyed his latter year mellowing melancholy tunes. A little Celtic flavour underlying this one too, which is an interesting juxtaposition to what is an otherwise ordinarily rock-blues-country vocal.
  • Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers’ Hypnotic Eye; after years of not being on charts, that this one made it, and is worth the nod, is worth the nod. Honourable Mention, but not a top 10. Good going, Tom. Maybe a TT Top 10 is in your sights yet. 😉 Keep at it. You’ll make it someday.
  • I only happened to discover The Killers’ “Shot At the Night” during 2014. Yes, it’s a 2013 track from a Greatest Hits compilation. But holy cow! Magnificent track!! I remember being absolutely paralyzed when I first heard it (and that was a good reaction; it’s the reaction to have to music – when it’s soooo good, you can’t move; literally). I have to mention it because I don’t have an Unsung website so, this is my only opportunity for this plug. Yes, I’m a year late. But, if you have only one song you can download this month, this is my absolute 100% foolproof recommendation.
    • Your life will thank you.

Coffee Cup Reading: The Greatest Lyrics of All Time

15 May

What is it about a song that gets to you? Most often its the groove or the mood, the pace and the pitch. But songs also have a way of speaking to you in words, consoling and cajoling, speaking universal truths, or simply adding context and imagery to the rhythm. The below is a humble collection of favorites  – can you spot the song and has it spoken to you before?   (Prophets and preachers are abbreviated to last names. Who says poetry is dead?)

 “The screen door slams, Mary’s dress waves. As a vision she dances across the porch as the radio plays” – Springsteen

“God is a concept, by which we measure our pain” – Lennon

“I’m just a soul whose intentions are good. Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood” – Eric Burdon, The Animals

“Have you come here for forgiveness, have you come to raise the dead, have you come here to play Jesus to the lepers in your head?” – Bono

“Well those drifters days are past me now, I’ve got so much more to think about. Deadlines and commitments, what to leave in, what to leave out” -Seger

“She was physically forgotten and then she slipped into my pocket with my car keys. She said, “you’ve taken me for granted because I please you, wearing these diamonds” – Simon

“All your dreams are made, when you’re chained to the mirror and the razor blade”
– N. Gallagher

“Sometimes I don’t know where this dirty road is taking me, sometimes I can’t even see the reason why. I guess I’ll keep a-gamblin’, lots of booze and lots of ramblin’, it’s easier than just waitin’ around to die” – Van Zandt

“Freedom has a scent, like the top of a newborn baby’s head” – Bono

“The world is in your hands, or its at your throat” – Julian Casablancas, The Strokes

“So I’ll start a revolution from my bed, cuz you said the brains I had, went to my head”
– N. Gallagher

“The morning sun, when its in your face, really shows your age. But that don’t bother me none, in my eyes you’re everything.” – Stewart

“Some days are sulky, some days have a grin, some days have bouncers that won’t let you in” – Bono

“Straight outta Compton is a brotha that’ll smotha yo’ motha….and make ya sister think I love her” – Easy E

“She moved so easily all I could think of was sunlight…..She asked ‘Don’t I know you from the cinematographer’s party?’ I said ‘Who am I to blow against the wind?’ – Simon

In a world of steel-eyed death, and men who are fighting to be warm,
“Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm.” – Dylan

“And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.” – McCartney

“Now I work down at the carwash, where all it ever does is rain. Don’t you feel like you’re a rider on a downbound train?” – Springsteen

“There’s beauty in the silver singing river, there’s beauty in the sunrise in the sky – but none of these and nothing else can match the beauty, that I remember in my true love’s eyes” – Dylan

“There ain’t nothing like regret, to know that you’re alive” – Sheryl Crow

“I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain, I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end. I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend. But I always thought that I’d see you again” – James Taylor

“Oh the snow fell without a break. Buffalo died in the frozen fields you know. Through the coldest winter, in almost fourteen years, I couldn’t believe you kept a smile” – Stewart

“You know I didn’t mean, what I just said, but my God woke up on the wrong side of his bed” – N.Gallagher

“I’ve looked at love from both sides now, from give and take, and still somehow,
it’s life’s illusions I recall, I really don’t know love at all.” – Joni Mitchell

“I once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me” – Lennon

And if a ten-tonne truck kills the both of us, to die by your side, well, the pleasure, the privilege is mine.” – Morrissey

“Sometimes, when I look deep in your eyes, I swear I can see your soul” – James

“You try and find a love that will see you through your darkest days… and her soft brown hair is as long as a Canadian highway…and there’s no road that ain’t a hard road to travel on” – Sam Roberts

“See I’m stuck in a city, but I belong in a field…oh the heart beats in its cage” – J. Casablancas, the Strokes

“I’m a-goin’ back out ‘fore the rain starts a-fallin’,
I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest,
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty,
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters,
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison,
Where the executioner’s face is always well hidden,
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten,
Where black is the color, where none is the number,
And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it,
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it,
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’,
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin” – Dylan

“So don’t change the dizzle, turn it up a little, I got a living room full of fine dime brizzles
waiting on the Pizzle, the Dizzle and the Shizzle, G’s to the bizzack, now ladies here we gizzo.” – Snoop Dogg.

“I drink concentrated OJ. I think consolidated is ok. Its not the band i hate, its their fans….three cans of water perverts me” C. Murphy, Sloan

“If you’re having girl problems i feel bad for you son, I got 99 problems but a bitch ain’t one” – Jay-Z

“Someone told me there’s a girl out there, with love in her eyes and flowers in her hair” – R. Plant, Led Zeppelin

“I saw a beggar leaning on his wooden crutch. He said to me, “Don’t ask for too much.”  And a young woman leaning in her darkened door. She cried out to me, “Why not ask for more?” – Cohen

“Our fiction feels real. Yours is a heart I could steal” – Samantha Savage Smith

“Maybe I will never be, all the things that I’d like to be. Now is not the time to cry, now’s the time to find out why – I think you’re the same as me, we see things they’ll never see. You and I are gonna live forever” – N. Gallagher

“She lit a burner on the stove and offered me a pipe
“I thought you’d never say hello” she said
“You look like the silent type”
Then she opened up a book of poems
And handed it to me
Written by an Italian poet
From the fifteenth century
And every one of them words rang true
And glowed like burning coal
Pouring off of every page
Like it was written in my soul from me to you
Tangled up in blue”

Dylan

“She came from Greece she had a thirst for knowledge
She studied sculpture at Saint Martin’s College,
that’s where I / caught her eye.
She told me that her Dad was loaded
I said in that case I’ll have a rum and coke-cola.

She said fine / and in thirty seconds time /she said, I want to live like common people
I want to do whatever common people do, I want to sleep with common people
I want to sleep with common people / like you. 
Well what else could I do ? I said I’ll see what I can do. 
I took her to a supermarket
I don’t know why but I had to start it somewhere, so it started there. 
I said pretend you’ve got no money, she just laughed and said oh you’re so funny. 
I said yeah? Well I can’t see anyone else smiling in here. 
Are you sure you want to live like common people
You want to see whatever common people see
You want to sleep with common people, 
you want to sleep with common people like me. 
But she didn’t understand, she just smiled and held my hand. 
Rent a flat above a shop, cut your hair and get a job. 
Smoke some fags and play some pool, pretend you never went to school. 
But still you’ll never get it right 
‘cos when you’re laid in bed at night watching roaches climb the wall 
If you call your Dad he could stop it all. 
You’ll never live like common people
You’ll never do what common people do
You’ll never fail like common people
You’ll never watch your life slide out of view, and dance and drink and screw 
Because there’s nothing else to do.” 

J. Cocker, Pulp

 

ADD YOUR OWN FAVORITE LYRICS TO THIS LIST!  POST BELOW

Coffee Cup Reading – TT’s Top Ten of Twenty Thirteen

5 Mar

A good friend of mine belongs to the unapologetic group of music die-hards we all love and know. We’ve been trading mix-tapes and having music arguments since high school. What sort of die-hard do you ask? The type of die-hard that will air guitar GnR on your kitchen floor, that will go see a show anywhere in North America, that will drive 6 hours to deliver custom made U2 b-side box sets to his friends on a Tuesday night after work, just because that’s the day that new music is released. Now that is commitment. We don’t always see eye to eye on musical choices, but there is always room for healthy debate, and usually one of us comes around on whatever band or song is in dispute. (Even if it takes a couple of years and a drunken confession over pints). One thing I always look forward to is his Top Ten list, which always manages to spark some fires and introduce some new sounds to your life. For the first time ever (and certainly not the last), a guest columnist on Unsung Presents – Mr. Timmy T. 

Kings of Leon – Mechanical Bull

  • Best song: “Beautiful War”
  • Album summary: Hello, best album by anyone ever, ever. Ever. Seriously though . . . e-v-e-r!
 Arcade Fire – Reflektor
  • Best song: “Here Comes the Night Time”
  • Album summary: 2013’s slowest burner.
 MS MR – Secondhand Rapture
  • Best song: “Hurricane”
  • Album summary:  Like a gooseberry with honey drizzled over top, but for your ears!
Arctic Monkeys – AM
  • Best song: “Do I Wanna Know?”
  • Album summary:  I think Unsung recommended listening to these guys, you know, before they were good. 😉 Well, they might be good now, because this album is.
 
Jack Johnson – From Here to Now to You
  • Best song: “Shot Reverse Shot”
  • Album summary:  The guy just truly never ever does a bad album.
Lorde – Pure Heroine
  • Best song: “Team”
  • Album summary:  See album title.
 
Soundtrack – Inside Llewyn Davis
    • Best song: “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song)” – performed by Oscar Isaac & Marcus Mumford
  • Album summary:  Pair with an Innis & Gunn and a cigar!
Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City
  • Best song: “Diane Young”
  • Album summary: New Age Paul Simone with a passive aggressive bite. 
 
Ben Harper with Charlie Musselwhite – Get Up!     *
  • Best song: “I Ride at Dawn”
  • Album summary:  Whenever you become concerned that music nowadays is all overproduced, this is your 2013 meat & potato blues rock reminder that it isn’t always; there’s still some purity out there!

* Elena (editor’s note: Timmy T’s wife) pointed me in the direction of this album in 2013, and I therefore need to apply credit where credit is due.

Daft Punk – Random Access Memories
  • Best song: “Instant Crush” – featuring Julian Casablancas
  • Album summary:  Soulfully funky easy listening; strange that electronic beats like these could coax me into a rocking chair with a cup ‘o joe and a pipe!
Honourable mentions!

 

  • I really wanted John Newman’s Tribute album on the main list; it’s fantastic! But, it’s at number 11, unfortunately. Sorry, Newman. Hopefully on your sophomore outing. Really fantastic album though!
  • Oh no they didn’t!! Did Pearl Jam cover Eddie Vedder!? Did I just blow your mind!!? Yep. Sure did!
  • Jake Bugg for his album redux; maybe he’s a Sam Roberts fan (speaking of whom – guess who might make the 2014 list? Wha!? Teaser!)
  • Pharrell Williams for involvement with two of the biggest catchiest songs; the feature on one & the leader on another
  • The National for becoming closer to big
  • The Killers for their live performances & commitment to Christmas
  • The Neighbourhood for getting my attention (but not holding it quite enough just yet)
  • The Walking Dead for introducing the music of Jamie Commons

Coffee Cup Reading: Return of the Conquerors of the World

9 Sep

And now for the least Unsung post of all time!

Some words about the biggest rock bands in the world: being the biggest rock band in the world used to be a badge of honour, because being the biggest rock band in the world simply meant that you were the biggest band in the world. It doesn’t mean the same thing as it did when (a) the Beatles were battling the Stones, (b) the Stones were battling The Who, or (c) the Stones were battling Led Zeppelin for the generally accepted (and often self-appointed) title; for we now live in the Age of Pop-Hop, where twerking (if you don’t know what that is, consider yourself fortunate) and machine based melodies are generally the preferred way of the under 25 set to get down and get up. Is Rock burning out, or fading away? Is it merely reinventing itself, or will its dwindling number of apostles keep the concert lighters flickering until a new Jesus-Elvis emerges? Wait and see, but for now the discussion is subdued, and I daresay under the radar. Those of us who are old enough to remember what a guitar sounds like (does that sound ageist and smug? I’m over 30, I have a right to be curmudgeonly) can get excited about right now, because the stars have magically aligned and the 5 biggest and best rock bands of our time (with apologies to everyone’s favorite folk minstrels) will be releasing new music, and keeping the home fires burning brightly! Today is a good day to be alive. Love live rock.

Kings of Leon

Most everybody heard that the last tour was a near miss disaster low on Gatorade and high on…erm, life, and that the Southern kings of rock seemed to be imploding via a heady mix of family in-fighting, model wives, and booze. Then there was the inevitable hipster backlash to ‘Sex on Fire’ and ‘Use Somebody’, songs so massive and initially pleasing to the ear that they had to be bludgeoned to death by never-ending repeated radio plays, which actually led the Kings to stop playing them in shows, because some ‘fans’ would leave after hearing them. It seemed like the end of respectability and relevancy for Kings of Leon. But if the first two singles from new album ‘Mechanical Bull’ are any indication, the boys are back in all their foot stomping, rooster crowing, boozy-balladeering glory. I’m proud to say I have been a fan for more than 10 years. There will always be a place for bands like KoL, and all the drama and ups and downs only add to the story and poignancy of the songs; this is what a soon to be legendary career in Rock looks like. As long as Caleb is singing those songs and the rest of Followills are willing to follow (see what I did there?), the rock will keep rolling. New album out September 25.

Coldplay

No new album is in sight, just a lovely return to form piano ballad for a movie soundtrack that sounds like it could have been right at home on ‘A Rush of Blood To The Head’. It reminds us all that Coldplay can do this in their sleep, and that the Eno-isms of the last two albums, while sonically interesting, are really just glossing Chris Martin’s root talent – all the studio trickery in the world can’t match the voice, accompanied by piano or guitar.

 

Hopefully more good things to come from the world’s self-proclaimed biggest soft rock band….

New single out now.

Arcade Fire

Can we be anymore excited for this? Their last album, ‘The Suburbs’, was a brilliant and bold concept piece, daring to go where few bands go without sounding pretentious or arty for the sake of being arty (See: Pink Floyd, Radiohead), and live, they are as vibrant and life-affirming as ever. New album ‘Reflektor’ has rumoured collaborations with David Bowie and LCD Soundsystem….who knows what we can expect?

New album out October 29, new single to debut tonight!  

U2

Like their ‘dinosaur rock dad’ forbearer the Rolling Stones, prodigal Irish sons U2 have been at it longer than most of us have been alive. While their last album didn’t spawn any hit singles, it did have the biggest grossing tour of all time. Sound familiar? Every time U2 have a commercial or critical flop (see: Rattle and Hum, Pop) they come back swinging with reinvented, yet familiar, sounds and big anthems. And Bono isn’t one to go gently into that good night, as he so recently confessed: “U2’s gotta do something very special to have a reason to exist right now.” Succinctly put, these are the stakes for U2: remain culturally relevant, or risk becoming a nostalgia sideshow like the Stones, forever trotting out the greatest hits package of years past.  New album out late 2013.

Arctic Monkeys

Ask my friends…..I’ve been wrong before about the world conquering potential of a band before you have ever heard them (see: The Strokes) but I’ve also been very right (see: Coldplay, Kings of Leon). So what do I think about the Arctic Monkeys? They…could be big. Really big. 7 years ago, their debut album became the first true internet phenomenon, the fastest selling UK album of all time. It was all buzz and vigour, capped by lead singer Alex Turner’s keen observations of home town streets and dance clubs, all delivered with the wry and snotty wit of a then 19 year old punk. Each successive album has honed the band’s craft and expanded their sound and confidence, with Turner’s songwriting, bravado and range becoming increasingly captivating. Just listen to “Cornerstone” or “Love is A Laserquest”:

And you know what? Teenagers actually like them. Yup, those same teenagers with the hormones and the rap music. The new single Do I Wanna Know’ is genuinely swaggering, a fusion of modern rap beats and lounge rock sex. It will bust open the US for Arctic Monkeys; what follows from there remains to be seen.  I think they are on the verge of creating an Achtung Baby for the new Millennium, and while I haven’t heard the rest of the album yet, things sound promising.

New album comes out tomorrow.

Coffee Cup Reading: Attack of the Bryan Adams EarWorm

30 Aug

193

So I was in Greece last week:  amazing sunsets, salty water, hot dance clubs til 5am, sweet fruit, feta, and veg that will make you wonder what the hell Canadians are eating – you get the picture, i won’t belabor it to the point of jealousy.  Among the many revelations one has on a trip like this, came a startling discovery about international trade and music: Bryan Adams is big in Greece. I know, right? How the hell did the pride of Kingston end up endearing himself to a nation a million miles from the Great Lakes? Your guess is as good as mine, I’ve always preferred his misspelled doppleganger. Although I will confess to waiting for slow songs in Grade 8, and when his Robin Hood oeuvre came on, you found the prettiest girl who would say yes and made your way to the centre of the gym. And who hasn’t been Cut Like A Knife? (probably shortly after said dance)…..

…so we were on a rooftop, drinking vodka, coke and sour cherry. The DJ was spinning cool ambient music, the kind of stuff that is perfect for a certain place like a rooftop bar, but that you never think to download after the fact. The brilliant Greek Sun had set, and we admired the Acropolis in the near distance. Perfectly chill. Then out of nowhere comes “Have you Ever Really Loved A Woman”:

Well have you? Bryan Adams wants to know, and he wants to know while he salsas to a latin beat. I mean, really really really ever loved a woman. What in the hell just happened? Why did the cool Greek DJ think that this song was a perfect capper for our perfect greek night? Nothing can explain it. Or maybe two things can explain it…..

Like many things on UnSung, there are those artists and bands that amount to nothing on a global scale or are underrated; then, by the grace of God or chord progression, they shoot up the charts with a firecracker and are shared by the world. Until they disappear from consciousness again, only to resurface years later in Greece, a place where (presumably), they were always in fashion, and you are reminded of being a teenager, and the Summer of ’69, and how three men of vastly different backgrounds somehow made sense as the musical Muskateers:

Isn’t music so great?

I returned home from Greece. Days later, time after time, whether it was in the shower, cooking, walking, working – “Have You Ever Really Loved A Woman” played back on the soundtrack in my brain. Inescapable. Irritating, confounding, but somehow addictive. Why does a song stick in your head? Let me drop some science on you, the doctors are on it and they are calling it an EarWorm. Adams’ declarations of love, at first so banal, now seemed profound. “to really love a woman, you let her hold you…..give her wings so she can fly…….and when you can see your unborn children in her eyes, you know you really(really really) love a woman”. Puke. But still, somehow…..sweet. I thought about it. Maybe it has to do with love in your own life; if you’ve been there, you know, and you want to be there again with the girl/boy by your side. Schmaltz is the soundtrack for lovers, but love songs only seem silly when you’re not in love or don’t want to be in love.

So thank you, Bryan Adams EarWorm. Thanks for being a Canadian ambassador to the land of honey and seaside sunsets. Thanks for letting Kevin Costner be a Prince of Thieves. Thanks for the catalogue of music that I begrudgingly get into every once in a while. And thanks for distilling the notion of love into 4 minutes and 57 seconds, so I know it the next time I see it.

Coffee Cup Reading: The Story Song

5 Aug

Last night, the city was quiet, streets left emptied for long weekend getaways. Gone was the typical commotion and congestion, the young drunks on the pavement. There seemed to space in the air, between the buildings and alleys. I flipped to an Irish music show on TV, and a strange short haired woman with pink tinted glasses and a southern drawl was giving an interview. The question came about whether she was finding life on the road to be difficult; she answered earnestly and without hesitation that she was happy to be playing under the roof rather than fixing it. Then, she stood up on the stage of a church and sang a song about a homeless man from another time, whose life was also on the road. It was mesmerizing.

And it got me thinking about the great story songs of modern music. What is a story song? Well, it can’t be a love song, at least not directly so. And it’s gotta have colourful characters, like Snoopy and the Red Baron, Hurricane, a boy name Sue, Lucille, and a good for nothing prince. And hey, if it says something about us or about society, even better. Crafted with seamless lyrics, the economy of word and prose, and the ability to fire the imagination.

Does anyone really do ‘em anymore? They’re tough to pull off, especially when the subject matter is a historical figure…it ain’t easy writing a chorus about someone long dead and gone. But story songs are always crowd pleasers and recalled fondly. As a kid, one of the earliest story songs I can remember was Big Bad John:

As we bombed around in the family’s tan coloured station wagon, bouncing along to the clink of the pick axes, I could almost see the men in the mine, struggling in the dust, saved by the otherworldly strength of their rescuer. It may have been the first time I encountered the concepts of death and tragedy, of true sacrifice and virtue.

Then as an 11 year old, my cousin introduced me to the man who made a career out of the story song: Stompin’ Tom Connors. Recently deceased (may he rest in peace), the man himself had a back story suitable for a TV movie. The songs were simple, the lyrics sometimes cringe inducing and clunky, but no one could belt ‘em out like Stompin’ Tom. He was the minstrel for a nation’s folk heroes, and he had us all singing along.

Story songs hit their hey day in the 50s and 60s, peaking in the 70s with perhaps the greatest story song of all, ‘The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald’. Perhaps a song about a great lake tragedy shouldn’t be the high water mark of a Canadian legend who also sang of reading minds, and carefree highways and sundowns. But Lightfoot’s voice seems to roll endlessly like the waves of water that doom folklore’s famous ship; it  is never more commanding and pervasive – even if you know nothing about the ship and its men, the story pulls you in:

There are plenty of lesser known story songs that are tragic vignettes of characters, usually hopeless or cast out by society, sometimes mirroring the authors of their own creation. The great Townes Van Zandt was always on the brink of life, fame and success. Every time he looked to break into Nashville, he showed up drunk on country music tv. Even his biggest hit, ‘Poncho and Lefty’ was only a hit when Willie Nelson sang it (even though Townes’ version is better)

And there is the Divine Comedy….like the Edwardian playwright that is their namesake, a song as well crafted as ‘An English Woman of a Certain Age’ can only be described as appropro.

These are but a small sampling of our story songs. You may share in common memories, and have some of your own. So do yourself a favour. Sit down for 6 minutes. Or get in a car and drive into the summer, preferably across the Alberta plains or the Rocky Mountains. Tune out the city and the rest of your life and let a singer tell a story and fill the space in the air. Mary Gauthier was the woman who started my recent journey. Maybe she can start yours too:

Coffee Cup Reading: Old Tymey Vests

27 Apr

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[band picture or turn of the century labourers? You decide.]

“I think people think it’s cool to pretend you live in a 1920’s work camp and eat beans from a tin that you cook over a bonfire (in your Brooklyn apartment). I want to know what ole tymey store all these bands are buying their dressup outfits from. There has to be some sort of Gap for the throngs of idiots who want to pretend they make their own clothes. Somehow wearing one of these outfits makes listening to your really bad music acceptable for people.” – Zak Pashak, founder of Sled Island,  CEO of Detroit Bikes

I’ve been thinking a lot about hipsters lately. Probably more than I should be thinking about them. And not your card carrying, green pant wearing, gypsy jewelry toting, Coachella ambling, hipster. But that unique strain of hipster my friend Zak describes so well, which seems to thrive in the music halls and mp3 downloads of our time. And on the streets too – a form of fashion favoured by certain bands and people – you’ve seen them, you’ve known them, maybe you are them. Whole mediums glorify and lampoon the modern day hipster; Vancouver and Portland are virtual champions of a sadistic visual sport home-brewed in their cities.

And Mumford and Sons are certainly the patron saints, or at very least, the soundtrack to this scene. I remember the first time I heard and saw them….a carefully constructed live performance in a rustic library:

And just look at this video – why the fuck are they in a field with an accordion playing?

But five years ago, the look, the sound, the soul, was a revelation. A startling back to the future lightning bolt of promise – 4 pioneers of music sent to save us from our indulgent selves, tilling our plastic pop wasteland with the harvest of hearty grains and wholesome music, just like our pappies listened to. How could a voice as gravelly as lead singer Marcus Mumford’s transcend? Why did they have so much god-damned gusto? When was the last time we had heard a banjo in a pop song? And where did they get those great haircuts and shirts?

Then came the inevitable growing groundswell of support, first in the alternative corners, and eventually, into the mainstream with Grammy fame and success. A second album followed that traded on the quiet and loud aesthetic of the first, with no new ideas; the clear harbinger of a band drowning in its self-created surf. Even their greatest moment was a subdued cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘The Boxer’; the ideal muse for Marcus’ voice, majestically accompanied by the sublime slide guitar of guest Jerry Douglas:

But now, just like with everything that the mainstream devours, what little original novelty that may have existed with the Mumfords and their hipster movement has been exposed, their secret sauce reverse engineered. Maybe it’s only a matter of time until the Dr.Mindbenders at the giant record labels learn how to commoditize and mass produce their sound and image to create the most feared and reviled Frankensteins of our age: the Boy Band. I can see the lineup now: the pretty folk boy hipster who dresses like a depression-era factory worker, though somehow is still impeccably clean shaven; the bad boy rummy with a stogie in his mouth and a heart of gold behind the coal stained hands, and the angel voiced lead singer sporting a comically thick beard that nests 2 robins (they help with harmonies). And we shall call them: “The New Deal”.

And now, five years on, I view it all with a fascinated curiosity. Amazed at how the masses can be swept up by a heady Prohibition-era cocktail of good looks, hooks, and feigned earnestness that only a banjo and hand stitched northwestern lumber mill shirt can provide. The Calgary Mumford show sold out in less than 5 minutes (true, many of those tickets were ‘purchased’ and immediately available for resale via Ticketmaster’s minion Stubhub – if that isn’t the evil conspiracy of our time, I don’t know what is.) But it’s happened before and it will happen again. The music machine keeps on churning, just like fashion keeps coming up with new designs that upholster a not so distant age. And sometimes the two collide in a wonderful meteor storm that is Mumford. There’s nothing inherently wrong with them; they play their own instruments and write their own songs; they seem to feel the heartache they feel. And maybe they will get over their difficult second album, have a difficult look in the mirror like the Boss once did, and settle into a comfortable rut in the road firmly fixed between the real and the oversold.

Mumford ain’t the first, and they ain’t the last – see: Peter Paul and Mary all the way down to Avett Brothers. Perhaps it’s like the immortal lines sung by Chris Murphy of Sloan: “It’s not the band I hate, it’s their fans.” And if that’s true, maybe we hate a little of ourselves for being so fickle – falling hard for bands that we won’t care about as much as soon as the next one comes along, just like a forgotten dress in a deep closet that just doesn’t seem to capture the color of today.

We shouldn’t be surprised by all this. It permeates our society: the yearning for authenticity, for quality, for something real that you can rely on. That’s why retro will always be fashionable; our memories of olden times, recalled by way of the well-travelled road and well-worn sweater, is comfortable nostalgia. We chide the old timers in our families for speaking wistfully of simpler times, but us children of the 80s and 90s repeat the pattern (Nintendo is still more family fun than xbox). We trade and recycle decades and glorify the best tokens of those times. A fundamental guiding light of UnSung is to champion new bands that capture the classic sound of old without a sense of exploitation or veneer. Admittedly that is a pretty subjective line, and one that Mumford has hopscotched over. But there are some great bands out there who seem to fall on the right side of that line, even if they appear to fit the label:

The Tumbleweeds:

Shakey Graves:

Will they make it, find a larger audience, become mini-Mumfords, and then face a backlash when they are too popular to be cool? Only time will tell. I may have offended some hipsters or Mumford concert goers,  but hopefully I’ve just given them pause for thought. This isn’t a condemnation, but a comment, and I’m not holier than thou; I own maple brown glasses from Warby Parker, I often sport a ramshackle beard better appreciated in the backwoods of Montana, and one of my favorite possessions is a canvas jacket that looks like it’s from 1962. We’re all wanting to be hip so we’re not square. And isn’t everyone just trying to be Bob Dylan trying to be Woody Guthrie anyways?

We might as well sit back and enjoy the ride; those that strive for authenticity, those caught in the grip of fickle popularity, those just wanting to find a nice weathered shirt to go with their navy jeans and beat up loafers.

So like that old tymey vest, the penultimate ‘fashion before function’ assemblage, wear your allegiances with caution, for all can see them. And seek the pure of heart and sound; you may be led astray, but chances are, someone else has been there before you.

UPDATE MAY 21/13 – So I saw Mumford in concert last night. My verdict: The earnest head banging in the middle of banjo solos may have seemed a little over the top, but they seemed to have captured something that so many people adore – there were girls crying and drunk boys singing. Lovely patio lights that shone across the main floor. Everyone became electrified during Lion Man and I Will Wait, but there are still too many slow songs that killed any momentum – Mumford still needs to learn the lesson of U2 and Coldplay before them about the importance of a set list: take your audience on emotional ride for 2hrs, and they won’t forget it. Ironically enough, the best moment was their cover (another cover!) of I’m On Fire by Bruce Springsteen. And Marcus’ vest, it was lovely.

UPDATE AUGUST 5/13 – Take back everything I ever said about Mumford. Check out their new video taking the piss out of themselves (or at least granting comedians the right to take the piss out of themselves.) Well done, Mumford, well done.

Coffee Cup Reading – The History of Rock n’ Roll, Explained

22 Mar

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Most self-proclaimed music geeks have had those 3am spirited debates about their top ten favorite songs, the best bands of all time, and whether CCR should be the archangel to the Holy Trinity that is the Beatles, Stones and Zeppelin. (Maybe? Best argued over pints.) Recalling these sentiments is sometime rock critic Steven Hyden, who over 7 gloriously expansive pieces, attempts to explain why we like what we do, and put it all into context of history, alongside rock’s current road to extinction (please don’t die yet!). His mission statement:

“If we can learn how and why those bands became popular, and what those stories tell us about a larger narrative taking place in American culture over more than 40 years, we can track the fissures and failures that eventually caused rock to slouch toward irrelevance — and determine whether it can (or should) wage a comeback.”

Some of the golden quotes:

“In my mind, the bands and artists that have really mattered in rock were able to express the most uniquely human parts of themselves while at the same time transforming into something profoundly massive and uniquely inhuman. This sort of greatness can’t be fully quantified, but it can be partly quantified, in ways more tangible than the arbitrary judgments of music writers all too eager to set aside what moved the masses in favor of what moved them when documenting rock history.”

“If you’re interested in merely basking in the glow of a successful rock band that radiated untouchable perfection, then the Winners’ History of Rock and Roll begins and ends with Led Zeppelin. If you want to know how the sausage is made, we must discuss Kiss.”

I don’t agree with everything he says or the bands he picks, but I sure wish I had written it. Enjoy all 7 parts or just the one about your favorite band, courtesy of Grantland.com:

Led Zeppelin
http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/8821559/the-winners-history-rock-roll-part-1-led-zeppelin

Kiss
http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/8838644/the-winners-history-rock-roll-part-2-kiss

Bon Jovi
http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/8860424/the-winners-history-rock-roll-part-3-bon-jovi

Aerosmith
http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/8891607/the-winners-history-rock-roll-part-4-aerosmith

Metallica
http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/8914197/the-winners-history-rock-roll-part-5-metallica

Linkin Park
http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/8935046/the-winners-history-rock-roll-part-6-linkin-park

The Black Keys
http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/8959105/the-winners-history-rock-roll-part-7-black-keys