From The Desk Of John Wesley Harding: Dirty Projectors “Bitte Orca”

jwhlogofJohn Wesley Harding knows when he gets an email, phone message or a piece of postal junk addressing him as “John,” it’s coming from someone who’s never met him. He’s known to friends as “Wes,” since his real name (the one he uses in his second career as an award-winning author) is Wesley Stace. Harding’s 15th album, Who Was Changed And Who Was Dead, depicts an artist well aware of what he does best: marvelously witty lyrics delivered in an emotion-wracked singing voice. Harding will be guest editing all week. Read our Q&A with him.


John Wesley Harding: I know very little about Dirty Projectors, but I think their new album, Bitte Orca, is terrific: beautifully sung and arranged, and truly progressive. I hear a little Yes in the pitch of the vocals (and in the appealing ambition of the music; that was always the best thing about prog, the sound of people trying for something beyond), some David Byrne in the twitchiness, even a little 10CC in the harmonies, and a lot of the folk guitar picking I love (Bert Jansch, etc.) in the fragmented and beautiful guitar parts. I highly recommend the record, though I’m sorry I haven’t got anything very pretentious, knowledgeable or original to say about them. I’ll leave that to Pitchfork and the New York Times. In fact, the Times says Dirty Projectors call to mind “stuttering modal riffs from Mali, the meandering melodies of opera or modern music theater, pygmy antiphonal vocals, Captain Beefheart, Zimbabwean and Congolese rock, King Crimson, Talking Heads, Dan Hicks and his Hot Licks.” And, of course, I heard nothing of that except for Talking Heads, unless the “stuttering modal riffs from Mali” are like Jansch’s fluid modal riffs from Glasgow. And now I come to think of it, I definitely hear that African guitar thing. Perhaps Dirty Projectors will be all things to everyone or nothing to no one. Let’s assume the former. Good sounds! Listen up!

“Stillness Is The Move” (live) (download):

Live Review: Green Day, New York, NY, May 18, 2009

greendaylivebImagine, at the height of their popularity, catching a set from the Who down at your local pub. Or a show from U2 in one of Dublin’s infamously gritty nightclubs rather than some flash, Pop Mart-like extravaganza. You’d feel like you’d gotten away with something, wouldn’t you? Like you and the small, amped-up horde around you had just witnessed history: something fleeting, rare, accessible but to a scant few who could legitimately claim that they’d “seen them back when.” Most important: You’d never forget that moment as long as you lived, mere feet away from an all-powerful rock tsunami usually viewed through the safe remove of binoculars at one of America’s countless sports arenas where such spectacles are typically scheduled for the benefit of the suburban masses. (And the bank accounts of the artists in question, of course.)

This is what it was like to see Green Day at New York City’s Bowery Ballroom (max capacity: 600) as the band warms up for its first world tour in three years later this summer. Having launched the dense and dramatic 21st Century Breakdown straight into the mouth of the recession late last week, the band has embarked on a barnstorming tour of New York, scheduling club gigs at the Bowery, Webster Hall and Tribeca’s P.C. Richard & Son Theater as well as a free show in Central Park (as part of its appearance on Good Morning America). Sure, it’s a savvy marketing move at a time when the recording industry is desperate for anything remotely resembling a “must have” release and corresponding tour, but by making a band that can easily sell out 50,000-seat stadiums around the world accessible to contest winners and fan-club members at small venues, the folks at Warners are cleverly cementing the myth of Green Day as The People’s Band, which tonight’s gig did absolutely nothing to contradict. For nearly two hours, Billie Joe Armstrong, Mike Dirnt, Tré Cool and the handful of friends who serve as the expanded lineup for Green Day’s upcoming tour played their new album and a set of choice encores as though their very lives depended on it.

The band’s first set consisted exclusively of songs from 21st Century Breakdown, an 18-track, hour-plus sprawl that will likely take months if not longer to settle in with the band’s faithful (even as radio gravitates almost immediately to the focus track, the now-ubiquitous anthem “Know Your Enemy”). A running narrative loosely based on the trials and travails of a young couple—Christian and Gloria—on the run from the economic meltdown and societal dissolution that surrounds them in a post-Dubya U.S. of A., it’s a shaggy summary of everything the band is capable of doing from a songwriting and performance point of view. You have your trademark hammer-down stompers (“American Eulogy,” “Horseshoes And Handgrenades,” “Murder City”), Beatlesque moments of melodic majesty that would completely shock the troops who once claimed these guys as their own back in their Gilman St. days (“Before The Lobotomy,” “21 Guns”), power pop that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Cheap Trick album (“Last Of The American Girls”) and moments that are more Meat Loaf or Elton John than punk (“Restless Heart Syndrome”). It’s clear that Green Day is enjoying the act of playing together again; Armstrong was decked out in a sheriff’s getup (complete with silver star and bullet-casing belt) and whipped around the stage like a man with his pants on fire, marching in time one minute, windmilling like Pete Townshend the next, high-fiving the fans down front and recklessly throwing himself into the crowd at one point. Like American Idiot before it, this is an album that will give the band plenty of elbow room for experimentation and expansion in a live setting, so I fully expect these songs to take on a very different set of dimensions by the time the tour is about midway through its worldwide run.

That said, this was an exclusive fan-club show (thank you Sam from Craigslist!), and it was during the encore set that the real action took place. The band playfully grabbed songs from the recesses of its back catalog, from early favorites such as “Going To Pasalacqua,” “She” and “Longview” (the latter a crowd participation exercise in which a heavily tattooed young woman was hauled up onstage to sing the song in Armstrong’s stead) to latter-day hits such as “Minority,” “American Idiot” and a 10-minute take on what I maintain is Green Day’s finest recorded moment, “Jesus Of Suburbia.” Drummer Cool was even given the mic (after Armstrong took a moment to teach him the chords, to the amusement of the rest of the band) to sing his Kerplunk!-era country joint “Dominated Love Slave,” causing convulsions in the crowd and a bemused Armstrong to note, “Oh my god, that just really happened.” But for me, the moment that best illustrated what this band is all about and how far it’s come in its 21 years together was a medley of old-time rock and soul: “Shout!” “(You’ve Got The Cutest Little) Baby Face” and “Stand By Me,” performed while the band was on its collective backs onstage, having commanded the crowd to “get down low” for the finale. The show periodically took on the flavor of a family reunion; one kid down front caught Armstrong’s eye, prompting him to tell the crowd, “I haven’t seen this guy in four years! Where have you been, college? In Buffalo? Oh man, that’s almost as bad as Oakland!” Green Day is in its element in an intimate live setting such as this one, connecting with its legion of fans, sweating its way to salvation and generally having one helluva good time in the process.

It’s safe to say I won’t forget this night for a good long while. And I’ll bet there are about 600 others who streamed into the New York night saying exactly the same thing.

—Corey duBrowa

TiVo Party Tonight: Grizzly Bear

tivogrizzlyEver wonder what will happen during the last five minutes of late-night TV talk shows? Here are tonight’s notable performers:

Late Show With David Letterman (CBS): Grizzly Bear
Read New York‘s kingmaking profile of Grizzly Bear and try not to hate music journalists. Though we like to needle music critic Sasha Frere-Jones from time to time, his analysis of Grizzly Bear in last week’s New Yorker was a fair and insightful characterization of Ed Droste’s Brooklyn outfit: a little bit Brian Wilson, a little bit Sufjan Stevens. (Disclaimer: Frere-Jones is wrong to say Grizzly Bear is never precious in its arrangements, however. It also dawned on us that, as he makes the connection between the vocal approaches of indie-rock outfits Grizzly Bear, Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver, there is not much “rock” in indie rock these days.) Enough with the critiquing of critics—we bet Grizzly Bear plays “Two Weeks” from Veckatimest (Warp).

“Two Weeks” (live on Letterman, 2008) (download):

From The Desk Of John Wesley Harding: “The Agony And Ecstasy Of Phil Spector”

jwhlogofJohn Wesley Harding knows when he gets an email, phone message or a piece of postal junk addressing him as “John,” it’s coming from someone who’s never met him. He’s known to friends as “Wes,” since his real name (the one he uses in his second career as an award-winning author) is Wesley Stace. Harding’s 15th album, Who Was Changed And Who Was Dead, depicts an artist well aware of what he does best: marvelously witty lyrics delivered in an emotion-wracked singing voice. Harding will be guest editing all week. Read our Q&A with him.

15683804_8beb4dd73cJohn Wesley Harding: It’s very sad about Phil Spector; sadder for Lana Clarkson, the woman he murdered. I was thinking of writing a novel about the whole thing, but (as happens so often) reality has outdone fiction. He’d be such an unbelievable and absurd fictional character, unless the novel was set in a fantasy world, like, say, Michael Jackson’s. What I want to recommend is a BBC documentary called The Agony And Ecstasy Of Phil Spector, the best piece of television I saw last year (and which I’m sure you can download somewhere illegally). Beyond the weird hairstyles and bizarre public antics, you see the man himself in his rambling mansion; a gothic character living in a Gothic McCastle. You hear his keen sense of humor and sense the raw pain in him; how he has coped with the tragedies throughout his life (his father’s suicide, etc.) and how he has tragically failed to cope with them. The name-dropping is jaw-dropping; the self-mythology of outsider-dom is of Homeric proportions. The movie, which should be recut in light of his conviction and given a run in cinemas, is epic. My emotions were many, but I did not finish the documentary disliking Phil Spector the man. (As for the murderer: I disapprove of Russian Roulette, almost across the board.) In fact, maybe that makes him the perfect narrator for a novel after all: We happily allow ourselves to be charmed by murderers in novels only. (I make no exception for people who write to—and then try to marry—death-row inmates. Those people are insane.)

MP3 At 3PM: Or, The Whale

orthewhale390lSan Francisco indie-folk outfit Or, The Whale fills its energetic, boot-stomping live shows with bluesy anthems and gut-wrenching ballads. “Rope Don’t Break,” the gem from debut LP Light Poles And Pines, is led by a moody pedal steel and topped with warm, angelic vocals. Though the band members’ past projects range from punk to roots and funk, Or, The Whale’s musical equation equals a contagious fusion of timeless and traditional Americana that will most definitely make its way to the East Coast once the dust clears in West.

“Rope Don’t Break” (download):

Enter To Win A First Listen To The New Album From Moby, “Wait For Me”

moby_contest375Full-album early-listening event takes place at the Hayden Planetarium in New York City on Wednesday, May 27. All entries must be received by midnight on Monday May 25. Contestants should RSVP to with the subject line: MAGNET – MOBY CONTEST. Winners will receive a confirmation email from Mute with timing details on Tuesday May 26.

Download Wait For Me‘s first single, “Shot In The Back Of The Head.”

From The Desk Of John Wesley Harding: Dag Juhlin And Twitter

jwhlogofJohn Wesley Harding knows when he gets an email, phone message or a piece of postal junk addressing him as “John,” it’s coming from someone who’s never met him. He’s known to friends as “Wes,” since his real name (the one he uses in his second career as an award-winning author) is Wesley Stace. Harding’s 15th album, Who Was Changed And Who Was Dead, depicts an artist well aware of what he does best: marvelously witty lyrics delivered in an emotion-wracked singing voice. Harding will be guest editing all week. Read our Q&A with him.

dag355John Wesley Harding: I haven’t quite gathered my thoughts on Twitter. But this much I have deduced: No one wants to have endless promotion tweeted at them; they want pithy witticisms of less than 140 characters. Or they want you to guide them elsewhere, somewhere interesting or amusing. John Roderick (Long Winters) is good at the former; Colin Meloy (Decemberists) excels at the latter. What we don’t need is thousands of bozos twittering from SXSW about how they’ve just seen a good new band from Brooklyn or eaten a killer burrito at the Magnolia. Despite that, the best thing to emerge from SXSW this year were the tweets of Dag Juhlin (Poi Dog Pondering, Goldstars, Greenwoods, Slugs). I don’t really need to say too much more. You can find them here. The first one was: “I am going to start Tweeting from South by Southwest! (Warning: I am not attending South by Southwest this year. Please enjoy.)” The fun started there.

Three random favorites:
“SXSW: Been on an AWESOME cocaine binge!!! Email me privately for names of fellow binge buddies. Lots of laffs—and some serious talk, too.”
“SXSW: Peter Hook (New Order) at it again. DRUNK as F. at ATM, thinking it was a video game. Piles of cash on the ground. I grabbed $480.”
“SXSW: Hey, anyone know where I can find a determined young band in giant sunglasses handing out their CD? Oh, wait, here are 6,000 of them.”

I loved them so much I asked him to read them out at Wes And Eugene’s Cabinet Of Wonders in Chicago recently. Find all these and much else besides by signing up for his tweets. Includes the classic: “Half-baked TV show idea sitting around: “CSI:NY” It’s about Crosby & Stills investigating Nash and Young. Anyone? Help? Flesh out? Kill it?”

The Slugs’ “Margaret” (download):

Live Review: The Shins, Philadelphia, PA, May 16, 2009

shinslive550bA concert venue featuring crooning indie-rock superstars the Shins was the perfect environs for serial-monogamist hipsters to bring their girlfriend/boyfriend of the moment. You could almost hear some of them squealing, “That’s our song!” when the band played “New Slang.” The newly revamped Shins—longtime members Marty Crandall and Jesse Sandoval have been replaced by Ron Lewis (Grand Archives, Fruit Bats) and Joe Plummer (Modest Mouse)—performed an alternately poppy and mellow set that suited the implicit date-night atmosphere at Philadelphia’s Electric Factory. Sentimentality poured from the speakers and riveted the audience, as giddy teens and balding boomers alike contemplated their sunset-and-margaritas-swilling trip down the shore two years ago.

Singer/guitarist James Mercer’s multi-faceted, octave-hopping voice penetrated bone marrow as the Shins segued from the jangly, carbonated “Know Your Onion!” to the musical NyQuil of “Weird Divide,” which gave me an urge to trudge to the lounge area and fight for a futon inside the cabanas at the back of the Factory. Listening to the cerebral lyrics of past albums such as 2001’s Oh, Inverted World and 2007’s Wincing The Night Away, I’d envisioned each group member sporting a James Lipton goatee and smoking a well-hewn pipe. While only Mercer had a beard, the band’s witty onstage banter and brown corduroys made me feel like I was in a debate-club meeting at Dartmouth College.

The Shins provided plenty of non-offensive tweaks and surprises, from a funky, Bonnaroo Festival version of “Sea Legs” to new material that sounded like a Shins-ified Austin Powers theme song. Even though you’d be hard-pressed to interpret any of Mercer’s lyrics as romantically inclined, the Shins sear an emotional brand into your brain that makes favorable associations inevitable. Those hipsters definitely knew what they were doing when they took their significant others to the show.

—Maureen Coulter

“Know Your Onion!” (download):

Film At 11: The Veils

Here’s the video for “The Letter” from the Veils‘ latest album, Sun Gangs (Rough Trade). And that’s frontman Finn Andrews in the fedora, looking like Johnny Depp’s understudy for the role of John Dillinger in Public Enemies.