Wrens Watch, March 23, 2009

wrenswatch92111We’ve been fans of New Jersey’s finest since even before their first album came out back in 1994, so let’s just say we’re used to sitting around waiting for them to take their sweet-ass time putting out new music. (Three albums in more than 14 years makes the Wrens about as prolific as Boston, which is kind of like being as tall as Deep Roy.) As reported in a Wrens Watch Special Report, January 9 marked a huge milestone for the guys: guitarists Charles Bissell and Greg Whelan, bassist Kevin Whelan and drummer Jerry MacDonald. They issued “Pulled Fences,” their first new (well, sort of new) song since 2003’s The Meadowlands. Perhaps motivated by finally releasing something, the band convened—not in a real studio, but in Kevin’s basement—nine weeks ago to begin work on its new album. And not only that, the Wrens recorded an actual song (which you can download for free here). When we checked in with Bissell a month ago, he took exception with our good-natured sarcasm and quickly ended the interview. After ignoring us for a while, Bissell finally gave us a progress report; it seems that while other bands get together and record, the Wrens stay apart and talk to each other on the phone. Or they do nothing at all. Or they update their Facebook pages. Last week, Bissell informed us he was “too busy” to respond to our questions about the Wrens’ recent show in New York City and their three SXSW gigs, but he did promise us some exclusive Wrens mp3s in the near future. This week, he didn’t even bother responding to our calls and emails. Who does Bissell think he is, an unprolific Ryan Adams?

Lost Classics: Mazzy Star “So Tonight That I Might See”

tapem200bThey’re nobody’s buzz bands anymore. But since 1993, MAGNET has discovered and documented more great music than memory will allow. The groups may have broken up or the albums may be out of print, but this time, history is written by the losers. Here are some of the finest albums that time forgot but we remembered in issue #75, plus all-new additions to our list of Lost Classics.

So Tonight That I Might See // Capitol, 1993

mazzystar355If Intro To Psychedelia wasn’t included in your high-school curriculum, Mazzy Star’s second album was there to educate you. Ex-Opal maestro David Roback perfected his brand of glacial, hypnotic folk with Hope Sandoval as his icy chanteuse. Pretty radio hit “Fade Into You” was a seductive gateway drug that pointed back toward So Tonight’s influences: the Doors, Bert Jansch and the Jesus And Mary Chain. Sandoval’s opiated Patsy Cline moans were a soft take on alt-rock’s alienated weirdness that her contemporaries weren’t prepared to offer. The anti-social Roback and Sandoval may have sounded like they wanted to disappear, but the ghostly echo they created still haunts.

Catching Up:
Sandoval, who formed Hope Sandoval & The Warm Inventions and released 2001’s Bavarian Fruit Bread, has collaborated with Air, the Jesus And Mary Chain, Massive Attack, the Twilight Singers and others. Roback worked on Beth Orton’s 1999 album Central Reservation before moving to Norway. He wrote music for and appeared as himself in 2004 Nick Nolte/Maggie Cheung film Clean.

“Fade Into You”:

MP3 At 3PM: St. Vincent

stvncent355St. Vincent’s next album is titled Actor, and the name fits; its whimsical tunes are full of movie-soundtrack allusions. Featuring lots of Annie Clark’s sultry soprano, “The Strangers” is a fuzzy, danceable piece of Technicolor pop that brings to mind both Disney princess movies and ’60s musicals set in tropical getaways. Look for the April 20 release of the album’s first single, “Actor Out of Work,” and check out Actor when it hits stores and iTunes May 4.

“The Strangers” (download):

SXSW Report: Won’t You Come On Down To My Rescue?

echo_2005365MAGNET’s Corey duBrowa wraps up a week’s worth of reports from Austin’s SXSW with one last missive from the front:

“If I said I’d lost my way/Would you sympathize?/Could you sympathize?”
—Echo & The Bunnymen, “Rescue”

Riding the elevator down to the lobby of my hotel at the unholy hour of 5:30 a.m. (just in time to catch my early flight back to Portland, Ore.), I passed a series of bleary-eyed stumblers clearly making their way back “home” from wherever they’d been the night before. As Echo & the Bunnymen (pictured) once sang—and did, live, earlier in the evening—“Won’t you come on down to my rescue?” seems an appropriate theme for the conference’s messy, final day, and it’s precisely this juxtaposition of seemingly opposed realities that makes SXSW what it is: part indie, part major; 50 percent conference, 50 percent Roman toga party; half-cocked, half-amazing.

Exhibit 1A: the concluding day of the festival’s musical lineup. On the one hand, the Twittersphere was abuzz with the long-rumored appearance of Kanye West at a private party hosted by Fader. I can hardly think of an artist less appropriate for SXSW than West, whose highly calculated, careerist hip hop stands in stark contrast to the sort of unsigned indie-band routinely seen maniacally running around between seven back-to-back daytime gigs. And yet on the other, artists like West (as well as Metallica, which put in an appearance at Stubbs Friday night, and a reunited Jane’s Addiction, which played a private function Thursday) do, in fact, sit side-by-side with the festival’s more typical fare each year.

So even as we marveled at some of the last day’s musical offerings—such as the afternoon run-of-show at the Mohawk’s sunny outdoor patio, which featured Portland’s terrific Viva Voce, Scotland’s snoozy Camera Obscura and Japan’s Peelander-Z (the most hilarious, energized, out-and-out insane display of comedi-punk/metal you’ll ever witness; seriously, go find this band on its current North American tour so you can fall in love with enthusiastically reckless live performance all over again—we also found ironic some of the strange bedfellows the festival’s sprawl created (such as seeing Spoon’s Britt Daniel walking down Fifth Street all alone; he was in town to participate as part of the daytime panel “Producers Making Classic Records”), then seeing the woman whose album he’d just produced, San Diego’s Anya Marina, later that evening at Maggie Mae’s (unfortunately, her wisp of a voice and compellingly written material was somewhat wrecked by a vortex of bad sound/technical issues). At the Chop Shop Records showcase that evening, you could witness Denmark’s Asteroids Galaxy Tour (authors of “that iPod commercial song” called “Around The Bend”) and Kansas City’s terrific Republic Tigers (who’ve had songs placed on Grey’s Anatomy and Gossip Girl but whose Travis-inspired material and Ian Curtis-indebted stage moves have yet to find a mass audience) in close proximity.

The evening ended at a relatively new venue—Rusty Spurs, which featured a chaotic door situation, hopelessly late gig schedule, boneheaded bouncers and a sticky-hot club packed to the rafters with pissed-off punters—and featured Liverpool’s Echo & The Bunnymen, whose music is still as ahead-of-its-time as it ever was but whose sad, wilted-at-the-edges performance gave the impression that the band has become something of a nostalgia act, with iconic frontman Ian McCulloch devolving into the very cliché of a faded former rock-star, sunglasses, unintelligible Liverpudlian side commentary, ever-present cigarette and all.

As McCulloch himself sang, is this the blues I’m singin’? Hardly—the music industry may be in a state of crisis at the moment, but you’d be hard pressed to tell from the throngs crowding Sixth Street late into the night, every night, throughout SXSW 2009.

Kelley Stoltz covers Echo & The Bunnymen’s “Rescue” (download):

In The News: Death Cab For Cutie, The Breeders, Dinosaur Jr, Mark Kozelek And Free MP3s

kolezle550Right about now, maybe you’re saying to yourself, “I would really love to have two new Trent Reznor-produced Jane’s Addiction songs, but I’m not willing to part with any cash to get them.” MAGNET is here to help. Download “Chip Away,” and download “Whores.” And tonight you’re going to party like it’s 1989 … Grammy also-rans Death Cab For Cutie’s new EP, The Open Door (Atlantic), is available online starting March 31 at the band’s website. The five-track effort features four previously unreleased tunes … The not-at-all-ambitious Decemberists began selling their new, understated The Hazards Of Love (Capitol) March 17 exclusively at iTunes. If you want to wait for the all-format release, Tuesday is your lucky day … This one’s a little complicated, so pay attention: Enter The Vaselines (Sub Pop, May 5) is a triple-LP/double-CD reissue of 1992’s The Way Of The Vaselines with a new title and new cover art, plus demos and live stuff. The Way Of The Vaselines originally compiled two EPs (Son Of A Gun and Dying For It) and the lone LP (Dum-Dum) from Scottish band the Vaselines … While you process that, the Breeders are self-releasing a four-song EP, Fate To Fatal, on April 21. It’s limited to 1,000 vinyl copies, so you kids with your newfangled CD players and iPods are SOL … Dinosaur Jr has signed with Jagjaguwar. To celebrate, the band is hitting the road for some dates in April; fans who buy tickets to select shows will receive their choice of a limited-edition, tour-only seven-inch or a digital download of new material. Download “Almost Ready”Mark Kozelek (pictured) is putting out Lost Verses: Live (Caldo Verde) on May 12. The 14-track set was recorded during 2007 and 2008 acoustic tours with Sun Kil Moon/Red House Painters guitarist Phil Carney. In case you can’t get enough live Kozelek, Find Me Ruben Olivares, Live In Spain is available free with any purchase from the Caldo Verde website beginning April 1. Download “Up To My Neck In You” … Former Sunny Day Real Estate frontman Jeremy Enigk’s new outing, OK Bear, drops May 12 on his Lewis Hollow imprint. The LP is the follow-up to 2007’s The Missing Link … Capitol/EMI is reissuing a couple of ’90s classics: the Beastie BoysCheck Your Head (1992, March 30) and bald nutty gal Sinead O’Connor’s I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got (1990, April 21). There are too many configurations to go into here, but rest assured there are plenty of bonus tracks, b-sides and other swag … And to end this edition with something irrelevant, Kid Rock and Lynyrd Skynyrd are once again touring together this summer. (Did anyone know they played gigs last year?) The Rock And Rebels Tour shit-kicks off June 26 in West Palm Beach, Fla. You’ve been warned.

The Vaselines’ “Rory Rides Me Raw”:

Lost Classics: Dusty Trails “Dusty Trails”

tapem200bThey’re nobody’s buzz bands anymore. But since 1993, MAGNET has discovered and documented more great music than memory will allow. The groups may have broken up or the albums may be out of print, but this time, history is written by the losers. Here are some of the finest albums that time forgot but we remembered in issue #75, plus all-new additions to our list of Lost Classics.

Dusty Trails // Atlantic, 2000

dustytrailsbIf loving the defiantly ’60s-leaning, yé-yé art pop of Dusty Trails is wrong, then why be right? The one-off duo—Josephine Wiggs (Breeders) and Vivian Trimble (Luscious Jackson)—came on like an ultra-feminine version of Trimble’s previous side project, the Kostars (a similarly breezy, cinematic exercise produced by Wiggs). Dusty Trails wove gentle French and Brazilian pop styles into songs otherwise possessed of an entirely post-modern attitude. If “Est-Ce Que Tu” isn’t responsible for the conception of a thousand indie-nation babies by now, then the kids were either stone deaf or had surely lost all interest in matters of the flesh.

Catching Up: Surprisingly, very little has been heard from Wiggs or Trimble since this release. Wiggs joined the Breeders onstage in London for two 2005 reunion shows and is recording music for film and television. Trimble reportedly reunited with her Luscious Jackson bandmates to record an album of children’s songs.

“Order Coffee”:

SXSW Report: Panda-monium

pandabear400MAGNET’s Corey duBrowa checks in from Austin’s SXSW and finds that the world around him has suddenly faded to black and white:

With the benefit of the hindsight that comes from the morning after the night before, I’m not quite certain where all this panda nonsense came from, to be honest.

I mean, sure, it was late and all. And it had been a long, hot day of musical deli-tray adventure, ranging from acts like San Diego’s Wavves (basically Nathan Williams playing distorted E chords up and down the neck of his Fender Mustang and feeding the whole speeded-up mess—guitars/vocals/feedback/whatever—through a giant Marshall stack tucked in the back corner of Emo’s main room) to Brooklyn crowd faves the Hold Steady (led by an ebullient Craig Finn, the boys played a sun-baked set of their E Street ‘Mats best to a full house of singalong fraternity faithful) to New York Vampire Weekend-on-spring-break-from-private-high-schoolers Harlem Shakes to an entire evening of singer/songwriter magic at Momo’s, simulcast for the benefit of the NPR community (the country flavor: Jon Langford And The Pine Valley Cosmonauts; the jingle-jangle version: North Carolina’s Rosebuds; and the “classic” iteration, via Gary Louris & Mark Olson’s amazing set of Jayhawks material, including personal favorites such as “Two Angels” and immortal ballad “Blue”). Situation: good, and mostly normal.

Somewhere along the way, a conversation started concerning the merits of pandas. I don’t really know why, precisely; it could have been the lackluster set from Edmonton’s Hot Panda (note: a new singer might help), or it could have been the “mmm,Empanadas” food trailer we passed somewhere on Sixth Street (which we misread as “mmm,Pandas”). In any event, somewhere toward the end of the Rosebuds set, an idea began to take shape, at first individually, and then collectively: We should invent a fake band that leverages the Panda theme we see proliferating across Austin and use our social media wherewithal (code for “put stuff on Twitter”) to begin to hype them. We could call the band “Pete Panda And The Dancey-pants” or, more to the point, “Panda-monium.” Make them fluent in dance punk. Give them a cool logo and MySpace page. You know, do it up right, like we do.

Wallpaper’s “Evrytm We Do It” (download):

Continue reading “SXSW Report: Panda-monium”

MP3 At 3PM: Casper & The Cookies

casperActive under a variety of band names since 1996, Casper & The Cookies seem to be settled with a steady lineup for the May 12 release of third album Modern Silence. The Athens, Ga., quartet led by Jason NeSmith (a.k.a. Casper Fandango) recalls NeSmith’s former band, Of Montreal, minus the constant sex imagery in the lyrics. The Cookies’ brand of power pop is best showcased on new single “Little King,” which shines with bright-sounding guitars and feel-good vocals, while the off-time “Pete Erchick Bicentennial Service Area” has a spastic, trippy feel. The Cookies wrap up Silence with a track featuring 35 musicians, including Bryan Poole (Of Montreal), Robert Schneider (Apples In Stereo) and Vanessa Bricsoe (Pylon).

“Little King” (download):

Everywhere With Helicopter (And Small Planes)

sumka_blimp450bIf you feel compelled to complain about odd hours at your job or the occasional bout of sleep deprivation, try to think of traffic reporter/radio DJ Ken Sumka. Thanks to his vocational combination, the Brookfield, lll., resident’s schedule is pretty hectic. (And it’s now busier thanks to the birth of his daughter, Abigail, on St. Patrick’s Day.)

On weekday afternoons, Sumka hops into a plane (sometimes a helicopter) and lets listeners of Chicago’s WBBM-AM know what crowded highways to avoid; on Sundays, Mondays and Thursdays, he spins records on the graveyard shift for WXRT-FM, Chicago’s most-established rock station. Sumka, who recently celebrated his 15th year with ‘XRT, also hosts a show from 7 to 11 p.m. on Saturdays.

“I manage to juggle both jobs fairly easily,” says Sumka. “After doing an overnight, I go straight home and go to sleep at 6 or 7 a.m., then wake up around 1 or 2 and drive out to the airport. We take off at 3:30 p.m. and land at 6. I usually get home before 7 and then exercise, eat and relax before doing an overnight shift on ‘XRT. On the days I don’t work overnight, that gives me an opportunity to do the normal things one needs to do during the day.”

Even though he’s a pilot himself (he once had the pleasure of taking the reins of the Goodyear blimp), Sumka doesn’t do the flying when giving his traffic updates; it’s against the law in Illinois. And while he used to have music playing between reports, that’s no longer the case. “We used to have an iPod interface with our intercom system, but it stopped working last summer,” he says. “With listening to the pilot, air traffic control and my editor, music was always a distant fourth anyway. Safety first, you know.”

Guided By Voices’ “Everywhere With Helicopter”:

Continue reading “Everywhere With Helicopter (And Small Planes)”

Crime Stories: George Pelecanos’ “Drama City” and “The Turnaround”

Don’t be afraid of the raised lettering on the book jacket; a well-written crime-fiction novel deserves to be treated as high art. MAGNET’s Andrew Earles surveys the modern landscape of hard-boiled detective stories and tales of noir-colored underworlds



Drama City / The Turnaround
Why are these two George Pelecanos books saved for last? 2005’s Drama City and 2008’s The Turnaround don’t dance with my obsessive-compulsive tendency to stuff artistic endeavors in categories based on common denominators. They are by no means weak contenders or conspicuous oddballs. Kindred spirits with The Night Gardener (a book that I happen to be a little more enamored with), these are departures from the crime-fiction norm in much the same way: Drama City (the title slang for Washington, D.C.) and The Turnaround contain crime without abiding by the A-to-B mystery-solving journey.

The great yardstick of “going straight” crime fiction is Eddie Bunker’s 1976 novel No Beast So Fierce (adapted to the screen two years later as the Dustin Hoffman vehicle Straight Time). Drama City is a worthy companion piece, with much more going on. For one, don’t expect a dire circumstantial spiral to derail the protagonist (ex-con Lorenzo Brown). There are challenges and the distinct risk of lapsing, though Brown, a Humane Society animal cop, faces danger from outside forces stronger than any internal conflict. The book deals with urban dog fighting, a festering cultural sore so powerfully loathsome that, if dwelled upon, can siphon any hope for basic human decency. The book’s co-star is Brown’s probation officer, a walking tragedy and one of Pelecanos’ better character studies.

Pelecanos has said that writing a book per year has caused confusion and conflict as to where he’s headed next. 2007 was the first year since 1999 that didn’t have a new Pelecanos title. Who does he think he is? Charles Portis? Pynchon? Fred Exley? Get it together, George! What’s next? Wandering your vast estate in a tattered bathrobe, using your millions to buy up every Mustang II in existence so the roads will no longer be tainted with their presence? Just do like James Patterson: Have your wife draw little shreds of paper out of a whirling PowerBall machine four times a year. “Alex Cross + Homeland Security + Rap Music + New Love Interest – Old Friend = Revenge Fantasy w/ Topicality” Nope, don’t like that one, draw another. “Cross + U.F.O. Kooks + Assassination of ‘Ooga Danktrillian’ (our first black president) + The Reverse of Global Warming + Navy Seals – Old Friend = Bigger Advance if Written in Two Months.” That’s more like it!

The Turnaround arrived in 2008 and is based on a real event: a violent—and in one character’s case, fatal—attack that occurred in early ’70s. White teenage race-baiting lights the fuse and things go horribly wrong in this partial period piece. Pelecanos constructs a largely fictional back story and subsequent aftermath around the incident. The Turnaround speaks volumes about life after prison, the war in Iraq, race and gentrification without defaulting to self-righteous preaching, even when three out of those four issues are known Pelecanos pet peeves.

Pelecanos has edited two short fiction collections, to which he also contributed stories: D.C. Noir (2006, part of Akashic’s fantastic Noir series) and The Best American Mystery Stories 2008. Both are good samplings, as is his contribution to 2003’s fantastic Men From Boys, edited by John Harvey. Compared to some contemporaries, Pelecanos has had few short stories published, though there’s no question as to how his fiction is best enjoyed.

This concludes our weeklong look at Pelecanos’ work. His new book, The Way Home, is due May 12.

On Monday, Pelecanos made MAGNET a mix tape; check it out here.

In 2001, Pelecanos interviewed ex-Dream Syndicate frontman Steve Wynn for us; read it here. They got along so well that four years later, they wrote a song together (“Cindy It Was Always You,” from Wynn’s…tick…tick…tick) and also performed once in a live setting, with Wynn providing instrumental backing to Pelecanos reading from 2006’s The Night Gardener. (Download “The Night Gardener”)