SXSW Report: Rollin’ With The Homies

primalscream390MAGNET’s Corey duBrowa checks in from the annual bacchanal that is Austin’s SXSW festival and finds that it’s momentarily turned into Portland South:

To judge from last evening’s Rose City-centric bill, Portland’s music-playing massive (in its entirety) must’ve decided to head to Austin for Spring Break this year. Oh sure, the day itself was diverse enough: Paste’s party at Radio Room included sets from San Francisco’s Thao With The Get Down Stay Down (which probed at the previously-invisible line separating Rickie Lee Jones from Cat Power) and Cambridge, Mass.’s Passion Pit (a New Order-leaning act whose set was unfortunately plagued by sound problems, hot/feedback-prone microphones and a somewhat lackluster performance; blame it on the heat, perhaps? The band certainly kept referencing it). Nothing out of order here, so far.

But after a quick dinner meant to serve more as a venue to “parfait” food and alcohol (my friend is the one responsible for altering the English language by turning a word previously known as a dessert-oriented noun into a verb, meaning, “to stack unlike items on top of one another” as a survival technique for SXSW), our crew headed over to Red Eyed Fly and began to notice that everyone in the place was of a decidedly Northwestie provenance: hey look, the Thermals (who rocked a completely packed venue a few hours later)! There’s the Decemberists’ Chris Funk (who added steel guitar and keyboards to Blue Giant across the street; more on that in a moment)! Aren’t those the guys from Shaky Hands and Horse Feathers? Portland’s in the hizzouse, yo. And they came to party, albeit in my hometown’s understated, sort-of-ironic way.

Primal Scream’s “Urban Guerrilla” (download):
http://magnetmagazine.com/audio/UrbanGuerrilla.mp3

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Crime Stories: George Pelecanos’ “Shoedog” and “The Night Gardener”

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

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Shoedog / The Night Gardner
George Pelecanos has written four stand-alone books, three in the past five years. 1994’s Shoedog and 2006’s The Night Gardener are Pelecanos opposites that I’ve grouped together based on flimsy criteria: If readers want to start with a non-series, then why not pick one of the strongest two? And if the uninitiated are not only new to Pelecanos but new to crime fiction, The Night Gardener will go down smooth.

Published in the space between Nick’s Trip and Down By The River Where The Dead Men Go (both volumes in Pelecanos’ Nick Stefanos series), Shoedog recalls the classic noir trick of keeping the reader transfixed when a dead-end or unsavory conclusion becomes imminent shortly after the story commences. To this day, you can’t go wrong with a well-written drifter, and Shoedog protagonist Constantine is one of the best. Most people find drifters to be infinitely readable (more so in a bad economy). The urge may be tiny or dormant, but deep down inside every drone chained to a soul-shredding day job, every person who pays rent or a mortgage and every spouse buried under a relationship of convenience and repetition, lies an escapist’s longing to be free of any ties, to be able to pick up and leave in good or bad times. People enjoy seeing the world through migratory eyes.

Constantine is no Jack Reacher (the absurdly indestructible drifter’s drifter created by superstar mystery writer Lee Child) or transient action figure. He has the requisite stoicism of a cautious man living off the grid, with an almost childlike naivete toward potentially deadly factors of the crime lifestyle. Like Stefanos, Constantine has a certain music taste and various irresponsible habits (including poor judgment in the pursuit of women), but Constantine is too much of a don’t-give-a-fuck badass to be troubled with steady employment or prolonged residency. His involvement in a double robbery (of liquor stores) is prefaced by little to no hesitation, like it’s a welcome break in the monotony of town-hopping. The heists are planned by Grimes, a wealthy man who puts together robberies as a hobby. Constantine is a driver, and the impromptu crew is peopled with men that owe Grimes money. In true noir style, the job stinks from a mile off, so after the crew is shrunk exponentially by Grimes’ malevolent motive, the finale finds Constantine in revenge mode and predictably weakened by the wrong woman.

Many prominent crime writers wisely take advantage of a research perk peculiar to their profession: riding with cops. Pelecanos did this as research for several novels before he wrote uniformed protagonists. Funny, then, that The Night Gardener best achieves Pelecanos’ goal of writing outside the crime-fiction genre. It’s an amalgam of police procedural and Pete Dexter character study, with the serial-killer element downgraded to a subtle subplot. Another writer that comes to mind is the overlooked Andrew Coburn, who also writes character development as something more than a reluctantly mandated glue connecting scenes of action. The Night Gardener is politely aggressive in spurts and dismal throughout, but it never shucks hope and heart.

Tomorrow’s installment: Pelecanos’ Drama City and The Turnaround.

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”)
http://magnetmagazine.com/audio/TheNightGardener.mp3

Lost Classics: Seam “The Problem With Me”

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.

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:: SEAM
The Problem With Me // Touch And Go, 1993

The delicate, perfect spheres on its cover nicely paralleled the delicate, perfectly crafted songs on Seam’s second album. Monumentally sad yet overwhelmingly triumphant, The Problem With Me was birthed in the short shadow of singer/guitarist Sooyoung Park’s old band (Bitch Magnet) and a semi-famous ex-drummer (Superchunk’s Mac McCaughan), but its indie-rock blueprint—would Death Cab For Cutie’s most resonant moments exist without it?—proved far more important than past associations. Nine blissfully hypnotic songs circled Park’s sadness and anger, building up tension and releasing it in a crash of restrained guitars and half-shouted vocals.

Catching Up: With Park as its only constant, different lineups recorded a pair of follow-ups before Seam petered out in the late ’90s. (A few reunion shows leaned heavily on Problem’s best moments.) Park plays guitar in Ee, though he’s not the band’s songwriter.

“Bunch”:

TiVo Party Tonight: The Duke Spirit

tivodukeEver wonder what will happen during the last five minutes of late-night TV talk shows? They let musicians onstage! Here are tonight’s notable performers:

Jimmy Kimmel Live! (ABC): The Duke Spirit
Not to be a jerk or anything—the Duke Spirit’s recent Neptune is very good—but will this band do anything for attention? Three most recent headlines on the group’s website promote an exclusive EP at Target stores, a fashion-show gig for Sienna Miller’s clothing line and a contest sponsored by Vestal watches. How many platforms do you need? Read our interview with the Duke Spirit.

SXSW Report: Heartless Bastards, Dan Auerbach, Doug Kershaw

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Mitch Myers checks in from Austin:

Since the MAGNET editors have wisely entrusted fellow scribe Corey duBrowa to burrow into the edgier netherregions of SXSW, the pressure is off and I can finally go back to hanging out at four-star hotels and eating three-course dinners. On my way to a dinner at the Driskill Hotel (sadly, only three stars) Wednesday night, I lost my nerve and skipped seeing Echo & The Bunnymen do an unscheduled, early evening concert. Instead, I dropped into The Parish on 6th Street and caught the 73-year-old Doug Kershaw (a.k.a. the Ragin’ Cajun) sawing away on his fiddle and singing his once-famous hits from the early ’60s such as “Louisiana Man” and “Diggy Diggy Lo.” While Kershaw still has loads of talent and a playful manner, his band was lame and the crazy Cajun had to get by on a combination of charisma and indifference.

The Parish isn’t such a bad place to hang out at, and a couple hours later I saw the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach blaze through an amazing set mostly drawn from his new solo album, Keep It Hid, The band was really tough, Auerbach’s guitar style was most bruising, and the intensity of his live show far exceeded the sounds of his recent recording. After Auerbach left the stage around midnight, the swamp-king himself, singer/guitarist Tony Joe White, followed to close the show. Sadly, Tony Joe had been sitting around backstage drinking all night, and his meandering set was weighed down by distorted wah-wah guitar playing and little else. The guy couldn’t even put together a complete version of “Polk Salad Annie.” I was bummed.

The best thing I saw on Wednesday was a short afternoon set by Heartless Bastards (pictured). Singer/guitarist Erika Wennerstrom is obviously the real deal and has one of the best rock voices to come along in quite some time. Opening with the tough Junior Kimbrough tune “Done Got Old,” she and her band cranked out combustible punk-blues with relentless, dramatic precision. Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, on to the next three-course dinner. Let duBrowa do the dirty work.

Heartless Bastards’ “The Mountain” (download):
http://magnetmagazine.com/audio/TheMountain.mp3

MP3 At 3PM: The Vines

vines360Despite releasing three albums, several EPs and one singles compilation, the Vines remain best known for 2002’s “Get Free.” And while the scene might have changed since then (the Strokes? Out. Klaxons? In), the Vines are still playing their signature blend of garage and classic rock. Fourth album Melodia (out March 24 on Ivy League) lets the Aussie rockers blend a hint of Beatlesque craftsmanship with their usual sound, while frontman Craig Nicholls remains as vicious as ever.

“Get Out” (download):

SXSW Report: I Was Meant For The Stage

decembersshowa500MAGNET’s Corey duBrowa may have spent his daytime hours doing “day gig” things in Austin, but then he donned his finest “none more black” rock attire to get out last evening and partake of the cornucopia of musical happenings going on around town during SXSW.

As it happens, the Decemberists’ Colin Meloy really was meant for the stage.

After hitting a few early shows on Wednesday—the best of which, New York City’s Phenomenal Handclap Band, came on like KC And The Sunshine Band on a serious cough syrup jag; the worst of which, New Zealand’s Ladyhawke (perhaps we should call her “Eightieshock”?), replicated Reagan-era forgettables like Missing Persons and Berlin but without any of the charming or redeeming parts—we headed to Stubbs’ giant outdoor confines, where NPR’s showcase event featured Dayton’s Heartless Bastards, North Carolina punkgrass eccentrics the Avett Brothers and Portland, Ore.’s Decemberists (pictured), who performed their latest LP, 17-song concept album The Hazards Of Love, to a sold-out crowd who basically ate out of the palms of their hands for the next hour and a half.

Ladyhawke’s “My Delirium” (download):

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Seen Your Video: Meat Puppets

video3Your music video may have only played once or twice on MTV, but it’s on permanent rotation on YouTube. We watch videos and TV performances—the good, the bad, the hilariously dated—with musicians to find out what they were thinking. MAGNET’s Robert Ham caught up with Meat Puppets‘ Cris Kirkwood to discuss a 1982 live clip of “Walking Boss.”

Videos like this remind me why YouTube is such a wonderful thing for music history. Fans and neophytes can watch bands move from their earliest, shaggiest attempts at music making to their most triumphant moments to their most current shaggy attempts at music making. From its 1980 beginnings, no group seemed shaggier than the Meat Puppets, especially when compared to their punk-rock brethren on SST Records. The trio—brothers Curt and Cris Kirkwood on guitar and bass, respectively, along with drummer Derrick Bostrom—had long, unkempt hair, specialized in psychedelic country rock and generally acted like it should have been at home listening to Grateful Dead bootlegs instead of burning up the highway on tours with Black Flag and the Minutemen. Since the time of this 1982 clip, the Meat Puppets went through a major-label renaissance thanks to the alternative explosion of the early ’90s, and they appeared alongside Nirvana on that band’s episode of Unplugged. Spurred on by Cris’ heroin addiction, the Meat Puppets have broken up twice, but they reconciled in 2006 (with new drummer Ted Marcus) and are currently gearing up for the release of their 12th album, Sewn Together.

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Crime Stories: George Pelecanos’ Derek Strange/Terry Quinn Series

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.

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Right As Rain / Hell To Pay / Soul Circus / Hard Revolution
Not to scoop the story of the century or anything, but the P.I. odd couple is nothing new to crime fiction. For decades, writers have used a P.I. to complete or accent another P.I. with no uniform outcome. Examples like Robert Crais’ Elvis Cole/Joe Pike duo and Robert B. Parker’s Spenser/Hawk pairing (started out strong, became a laugh riot) bring to mind the “I have too much of a conscience to throw you into that hay-baler, but my hulking, soulless man-mountain of a partner with his mechanical prosthetic arm doesn’t have the understanding that I do” formula. George Pelecanos‘ Strange/Quinn partnership is the something the crime-fiction duo so desperately needs: subtlety. Sure, no new ground is broken with the ex-cop with a dubious/troublesome past, but whining about the use of that back story is like criticizing indie rock for being rife with Caucasians. Get used to it.

As for Derek Strange, the man exudes confidence. He’s an ex-cop, successful, respected in the community, black, cocksure, smooth, old-fashioned in ways more positive than negative, altruistic and a terminal bachelor by choice (unlike Nick Stefanos). So he likes to visit an Asian jack-shack every once in a while; at least he’s not chasing the delirium tremors with a drink each morning or perpetually hunting for the slang meaning of his surname. So he’s not the stuff of genre reinvention. Show me what is. Pelecanos didn’t set out to turn the crime novel upside down with quirkiness or weird characterization (see Jonathan Lethem‘s Motherless Brooklyn for an enjoyable if not semi-precious example); he set out to write a new series and triumphed with a superior gloss on the source material. There is a maturation from the series that preceded this one (the D.C. Quartet), but as Pelecanos has stated in interviews, he was learning his craft in public.

Continue reading “Crime Stories: George Pelecanos’ Derek Strange/Terry Quinn Series”

Lost Classics: Walker Kong “There Goes The Sun”

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.

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:: WALKER KONG
There Goes The Sun // Magic Marker, 2001

It’d be a convenient lie to say that Walker Kong’s vintage pop was drowned out by the roaring rock breakthroughs of 2001 (the White Stripes, the Strokes, et al). Fact is, records like this are released with quiet confidence every year. What made the Minneapolis quintet’s proper debut so momentous, then, was the way it infused orchestral pop with an undeniable groove—something Belle And Sebastian didn’t discover until recently. An art-school conglomerate led by singer/songwriter Jeremy Ackerman, Walker Kong combines Beulah’s sunny trumpet reveries with the Go-Betweens’ jangly genius.

Catching Up: After a slowdown due to Ackerman and his wife, bassist/vocalist Alexandra, starting a family, Walker Kong returned in 2007 with third album Deliver Us From People.

“Pulitzer Prize”:
http://magnetmagazine.com/audio/PulitzerPrize.mp3