Sparks: Please Explain

sparks350It’s been reported you spent 18 months working on your new album, Hello Young Lovers (In The Red). Yet the opening track quite clearly and quite often proclaims that “All I do now is dick around.” What are we supposed to believe?

Sparks’ Russell Mael replies: It’s all hard work. Humorous elements in our music are sometimes mistaken for frivolity or novelty. For every song like “Dick Around,” there are several months of agonizing work, trial and error and experimentation to be able to do something musical that isn’t based on tried-and-true conventions of pop music that have been around for 50 years. We take the craft of making our type of music very seriously. In order to have 20 albums and still be able to do music we feel pushes the boundaries within pop is a task that few in our position seem willing to adopt. We approach every new album with the idea that it might be the first album a listener may hear from us and it has to stand on its own without reference to past music we’ve done. In that sense, Hello Young Lovers is our debut.

Gravenhurst: Out Of The Ashes

gravenhurst355Nick Talbot’s punk moment had nothing to do with a teenage riot, a Clash double album or a mosh-pit injury. Talbot, the songwriter and multi-instrumentalist behind Gravenhurst, had his musical epiphany while listening to the pastoral psychedelic hum of Bristol, England’s Flying Saucer Attack and Movietone.

“It was the first time I heard really lo-fi, four-track music pressed onto vinyl,” he says. “Before then, I’d been listening to Stereolab and My Bloody Valentine, bands that spent a lot of money on recording. It’s very liberating to hear a good album recorded for nothing in a bedroom.”

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Shelley Short: Working Title

shelly_short350bOne thing you can say about Shelley Short: The girl’s got a thing for titles. Where, for example, did her career begin?

“The Second Annual Holiday Hot Dog Rodeo,” she says in the same little-girl voice in which she sings. “It was just a bunch of singer/songwriters; they each played three songs. I didn’t have any songs, so I wrote two.”

Short, a Chicago resident whose third full-length has just been released by Hush Records, admits she spent weeks trying to find a suitably stirring moniker for it.

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Q&A With Tommy Keene

In a 1998 MAGNET interview, a somewhat frustrated Tommy Keene threw a scare into a small but slavishly devoted cult of power-pop enthusiasts by suggesting his then-current album, Isolation Party, might be his last. Thankfully, the prediction proved premature. Since then, he’s released a live record (2001’s Showtunes), another studio effort (2002’s The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down) and a rarities disc (2004’s Drowning), all to the kind of critical acclaim and commercial neglect that Keene has grudgingly come to accept over the course of a three-decade career. At age 47, Keene has just released his best work in a decade with Crashing The Ether (Eleven Thirty). Recorded at his Los Angeles home studio, Ether finds Keene producing and playing almost every instrument, yielding an album that recalls the twin peaks of his classic ’80s LPs: 1986’s Songs From The Film and 1989’s Based On Happy Times. The sessions that produced Crashing The Ether also found Keene simultaneously cutting tracks for a collaborative record with erstwhile Guided By Voices leader Robert Pollard. The duo’s disc—with Keene composing the music and Pollard adding lyrics and vocals—is set to be released under the Keene Brothers moniker this summer. Currently, Keene is touring as guitarist/keyboardist in Pollard’s solo band. It’s another plum gig for Keene, who’s previously handled similar chores for Paul Westerberg and Velvet Crush.

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Antony And The Johnsons: Let It Come Down

antony70_360The broken-hearted people living in the world agree: Antony And The Johnsons have become a profound voice of hope and sorrow. A story of divine tragedy, avant-garde androgyny and plenty of soul. By Matthew Fritch

It’s the grayest New York day I can remember. The weather doesn’t even deliver a heavy downpour or a single rumble of thunder; there’s just a light, no-umbrella mist and a low-lying fog that covers everything above the fifth floor of the buildings along Sixth Avenue. It’s Sunday. Somewhere, the Giants and Jets are losing football games. In Penn Station, soldiers stand around in camouflage fatigues with their M-16 rifles at chest level, their muzzles pointed straight at the ground. Bored-sounding announcements are issued to passengers over the station’s PA system: Do not leave your luggage unattended. Promptly report suspicious activity. In terror-alert parlance, perhaps it’s the most yellowish-orange New York day I can remember.

Antony Hegarty and I can’t even think of anything to do. After a quiet brunch, we shake off some of the lethargy and finally decide on a real plan of action: We’re going shopping for socks. Or maybe we’ll go to the pet store and stare at the caged puppies. But Antony needs black crew socks for an upcoming tour, so we begin trudging toward the fluorescent lights of Old Navy when we happen upon an outdoor flea market.

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Sufjan Stevens: The State I Am In

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While Sufjan Stevens may appear to be making storybook albums about Illinois and Michigan, his personal and spiritual songs are nothing less than national anthems. By J. Edward Keyes

It’s a balmy Fourth of July weekend at New York City’s South Street Seaport in 2004. Sunscreened tourists and disaffected locals weave idly in and out of the stores that line the boardwalk, buying $7 cups of beer from wobbly carts and stretching out lazily in front of the jerry-rigged stage, which sways perilously at the end of the pier. It’s the closing days of the Seaport Music Festival, Manhattan’s annual free concert series, and that a coveted Independence Day weekend slot has been awarded to Sufjan Stevens is a testament to his ballooning profile.

Up to this point, his set has been as rickety as the stage on which it’s being performed. Despite their best efforts, Stevens and his seven-piece band (dubbed the Michigan Militia) can’t seem to replicate the knotty instrumentation and tricky time signatures found on Michigan, the 2003 record they’re here to promote. The brass section comes in late and spends several measures trying to catch up. The poor PA and unforgiving open-air acoustics swallow the sound of Stevens’ banjo, turning spare, delicate songs into ghostly a capella numbers. Adding to the surreal atmosphere is the fact that today is Stevens’ 29th birthday, and he leads the crowd through a spirited rendition of “Happy Birthday,” singing “happy birthday, dear Sufjan” along with everybody else.

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Guided By Voices: Picture Me Big Time

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In an excerpt from his forthcoming Guided By Voices biography, former band member James Greer recounts Robert Pollard’s early career as a local sports star.

“Going up to Northridge was almost like going to Twin Peaks. There was kind of this obsession with sports, and everyone was drinking.”
—Don Thrasher, Guided By Voices drummer (1990-1992)

Robert Ellsworth Pollard Jr. was born Oct. 31, 1957, the second child of Bob and Carol Pollard. Bob Sr. worked for Frigidaire, a division of General Motors, and had shown some athletic talent at the high-school level but never progressed beyond his early promise. As a result, he transferred, to a certain extent, his athletic ambition to his sons, of whom Bob was the first, and consequently the first subject of his father’s hopes. “He told me I had a ‘golden arm’ when I was, like, 10,” recalls Pollard. “But he was more encouraging than pushy. If I had a bad game, he always said, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ He wasn’t like one of those Bobby Knight dads.”

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Dungen: The Big Chill

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Embraced in England and slammed in Sweden: not exactly a crummy lot for most bands. That is, unless you’re from Sweden. Dungen’s Gustav Ejstes is as Swedish as they come, singing everything in his native tongue. Initially, the only critics who could decipher Dungen’s lyrics without a translator dismissed the group as proggy and outdated. Meanwhile, outside of Sweden, the NME (sans translator, presumably) was hailing the band as the Nordic Oasis.

“Our music has many references to the music of the ’60s and ’70s, and all the punk rockers who now write for the Swedish magazines hate that stuff,” says Ejstes from his new home in Stockholm. “But they’ve reacted to our global success, and it’s funny. Now they like it even though they said it was crap before.”

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The New Pornographers: The Last Picture Show

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Having staged another classic-pop blockbuster with Twin Cinema, the New Pornographers are ready for their close-up. By Jonathan Valania

They are a curious breed, our so-called gentle neighbors to the north. On first glance, they look and talk just like us, barring the occasional “eh?” that punctuates most declarative sentences. But if you look closely, you can tell they aren’t like you and me.

First of all, they are a little too friendly and good-humored, possibly due to their high-octane beer and skunky British Columbia kind bud. They are witty and well-spoken, thanks to an educational system that boasts a 97 percent literacy rate. Due to almost half a century of socialized medicine, they are unnaturally healthy, with a life expectancy of 80.1 years. Lastly, they simply don’t do sarcasm. Not well, anyway. They have no real need for it. They are peace-lovin’, good-time-likin’ people. They might not get your back if you wanted to start a bar fight in, say, Baghdad, but they will help you pound that case of Molson afterward.

Canadians are a mild and temperate people who are as discreet as they are polite, able to keep a lot of secrets under their hats, or “toques.” (Which, in case you never heard of Bob and Doug McKenzie, is pronounced “tewks.” You know, those pom-pom-topped ski caps they pull down over their Geddy Lee hair after Labor Day.) Secrets that you, my fellow Americans, are not supposed to know. But I did your homework for you. I combed through their well-funded libraries, I drank with the locals, I slept with the mooses, I even bribed a few Mounties. I did all of this so that you could learn: The Top 10 Things Americans Are Not Supposed To Know About Canada.

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Ponys: Retro Active

ponys325The Ponys have heard it all: The Velvet Underground. Television. The New York Dolls. The Ramones. Post-punk. Revivalism. Garage rock. But even with all the press-approved reference points and clunky modifiers thrust upon them, these four Chicagoans don’t feel bogged down. After all, it could be worse.

“I actually catch myself doing it, too,” says singer/guitarist Jered Gummere. “Saying, ‘Listen to this. It’s my new favorite band. They sound like this!’ So I can’t really bash it. For the most part, we’ve gotten good comparisons. I mean, if we’re getting compared to Cake or something, then I’d be upset.”

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