Sunday, June 6, 2010

Writer’s Jukebox – The Old is New Again

Sometimes it isn’t what’s new that grabs our ears.  Often it’s a song we’ve heard before but not given its due, or a band we’re rediscovering or simply can’t walk away from.  I have albums from a few years back to which I’ll perennially return, finding new lyrics or interludes to enjoy that swiftly become my favorite parts of the record.

Such is my experience with the Led Zeppelin oeuvre.  My highly disorganized collection of their music dates back to my free-spirited p2p file-sharing days.  Songs don’t have album labels.  Nor are they grouped by track number.  In an odd way, it makes stumbling through my library a little more exciting.

Don’t worry, I won’t just ramble on about Zeppelin for the whole post.  Andrew found a band while working, and Rob can’t stop listening to The National’s album that he loves so much.

Craig – Covering the Zep

Every few months I rediscover the wealth of Led Zeppelin waiting patiently on my iPod.  Like an old friend you only see every other year, I’m always surprised by how much I love this band.  I have extremely fond memories of warming up to them on my parents’ old Led Zeppelin IV LP.  And I enjoy going back and (like my journeys through the Beatles’ catalogue) hearing how much modern music owes them.

Can anyone properly explain why “When The Levee Breaks” is so good?  Is it the fat signature riff grooving lazily under Robert Plant’s wailing harmonica?  Or is it the triumphant interlude led by Jimmy Page’s guitar?  The main riff rocks so hard it’s instantly recognizable in any form.  I once saw the jam band Galactic perform in New York and do a fantastic sax-led rendition of “Levee.”  That’s right: sax-led.  It’s the insistence of that riff, the persistent churning of waves over a wall.  Recognizable and hypnotic in any form.

I first heard “No Quarter” on Tool’s live album Salival.  (Yes, I went through a long Tool phase, and I still appreciate their uber-theatrical, occasionally thrashy evolution of prog rock).  I was pleasantly surprised to find how well they captured the spirit of Zeppelin’s haunting original from Houses of the Holy.  Its watery ambience sprawls over Jon Bonham’s tight drumming.  In keeping with the title, almost every instrument (including Plant’s voice) sounds somewhat displaced – echoey and purposefully overprocessed.  Again, each Zeppelin track is nothing without a killer lead riff, and Page’s fuzzy concoction drives this one from start to finish.

Those on the hunt for more Zeppelin covers should take a listen to Bettye LaVette’s version of “All My Love.”  I checked out her album Interpretations (The British Rock Songbook) after her recent appearance on Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me!  It’s an excellent, eminently recommendable collection of sensuous R&B covers of British rock staples.  That’s right, I said sensuous.

Andrew – Picking Apples

The first time I heard this week's selection I was at work, actually, fixing someone's computer (I won't say who - a gentleman doesn't fix and tell). In fact I don't even remember what song I heard. All I know for sure is that I was digging what was on, and a quick peek at the client's iTunes library told me that I was listening to The Apples In Stereo.

I filed the name away, intending to investigate further at a later date. Months later, jonesing for some new music, I remembered the name and laid down $9 for the Amazon MP3 version of #1 Hits Explosion, a 2009 compilation that serves as an excellent introduction to the group (as compilation albums often do). In particular, check out the John Lennon-esque haze of "Strawberryfire" or the amiable stride and call-and-response chorus of "The Rainbow."

Many of Explosion's best songs come from the Apples' 2007 effort New Magnetic Wonder, which alternates between slickly produced three-minute songs and minute-long throwaway filler tracks. Nothing here is particularly interesting lyrically, but sugary cuts like "Can You Feel It?" and "Energy" please the ear (though they occasionally offend the brain), while the layered harmonies of "Same Old Drag" and the rock stomp of "Sunndal Song" are songs you can like without feeling as bad about it later.

Enjoyable in a slightly different way is the band's 1995 debut "Fun Trick Noisemaker," which has a fuzzier, lo-fi vibe that evokes the sound of labelmates Neutral Milk Hotel. "Tidal Wave," "Pine Away," and "Lucky Charm" are all highlights, and in general the album should appeal to people who find the Apples' later recordings to be somewhat insubstantial.

I don't like it quite as much as what I've already talked about, but since we're on the subject it's worth mentioning that their latest album, Travellers in Time and Space, just came out a few weeks ago. Highlights include "No Vacation," "Told You Once," and "It's All Right."

Rob – Still moping about to High Violet

After laboring in obscurity for more than the decade, The National are finally getting some comeuppance. High Violet, their latest, debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 in its first week (for reference, its predecessor charted at 63). And with good reason - High Violet is about as smart, smooth and refined as indie rock gets. And two weeks after writing the review, I can't stop listening.

Which isn't really a good thing. The National are known for erudite mope-rock, but High Violet is grim stuff. Even the album's most upbeat track, "Bloodbuzz Ohio," is an ode to remorse and entrapment. Despite getting some lift under its wings, "Bloodbuzz" remains weighed down by the soul-crushing gravity of, well, life. The National have never shied away from anyone's private terrors - Am I smart? Am I successful? Am I growing old? - so this won't be anyone's summer soundtrack.

But I'll be damned if "England" isn't the best rock song I've heard in years. Building on a slow-burning crescendo, there's a moment around 3:53 where the drums thud and the horns swell and you know the band's going for broke. Watching "England" live, it's incredible to watch a group of consummate musicians - Guitarist Bryce Dessner collaborates with Phillip Glass and Steve Reich - put their guts into every note and build up something big and dramatic. It's good to the point of being chilling.