One Way Trigger by The Strokes

The cover for Comedown Machine, the latest record from The Strokes.

Ok, I’m not yet sure what I think about this. Here’s why.
New Strokes material is always released amid a barrage of internet opinion – derisive, exuberant, contemplative and more. It is almost impossible to judge the music on its own merits. I’ll try to stay observant and neutralish. But full disclosure, The Strokes were THE band for me in high school.

The Strokes arrived at a weird time for music. Everything was colliding and imploding all at once. Is this it? dropped in late August 2001 in the UK, and in early October 2001, which bookend the 9/11 attacks. They hailed from New York, at a time when people wanted to hear vibrant New York voices. They sounded vintage, even as a new band. Their initial single was pre-released by a stalwart of the old-guard music press NME – but not on one of NME’s signature compilation CDs, but experimentally as a digital download.

They blew up just as, and just because, the music business – that is, the $20-per-CD-pseudo-monopoly-old-boy music business – was starting to tank. Executives were willing and able (and desperate) to throw money at a band, especially one like the Strokes, who had the promise to really move units. This was also the same time that taste-making blogs like Pitchfork, Tiny Mix Tapes, Brooklyn Vegan, and a host of others really started to rival print media like Spin, NME, and Rolling Stone. Pitchfork, for example, only started doing daily updates two years earlier, in 1999. By 2001, the general public had really started to express themselves and really explore the internet, and move away from AOL, email, and porn (the sturdy bedrock upon which the rest of the internet was built). Napster was gone, but copycats like KaZaA, Morpheus, Limewire, and a bunch of others rose up to fill the public’s insatiable desire for 1-song-at-a-time free downloads (man, remember how long that took?!?). 2001 was pre-facebook and myspace, remember.

The Strokes, for a couple of months, were all things to all people. They were voices from the hip underground of battered city looking for champions. Both old and new waves of music criticism proclaimed glowing adoration. The power of internet buzz had taken off, but high-speed downloading had not yet crippled the mainstream music industry. And somehow, with perfect timing, they exceeded the hype and released a great, incredibly successful pop record. One that was simultaneously cool and popular, retro and fresh – and one that will haunt everything that they ever do.

An early release from what the internet has discovered will be their fifth record, Comedown Machine, One Way Trigger seems like it might finally be a step in the direction that fans hope and expect, though it’s tough to judge from the single tune. They’re doing what they do best: this song is a stylish experiment in a genre as old as they are. Julian Casablancas is pushing his voice into falsetto, which I like better than I expected. Frenetic synth-y arpeggios and a mechanical beat drive the track, a sound reminiscent of their work on Room on Fire and First Impressions. I’m excited to hear the rest of the record.

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Laura by Bat for Lashes

Whenever I’ve tried to write my own songs, I’ve encountered the same problem. With so many instruments, effects processors and sounds at my disposal, how do I know what is enough? When do I stop adding layers of sound? When does the music I’m trying to make become just noise? This is especially problematic for a bedroom recording artist like me, because I don’t have a flesh-and-blood band that I’m writing for. Songs could be two layers or 20 – their live playability matters only in the abstract.

This is debilitating in two ways. The first I’ve already mentioned – unconstrained, I can keep adding layers and layers indiscriminately, until I’ve made a mess that’s near-impossible to mix and master. The second is that I end up spending way too long on every single song, and  stop seeing the song’s promise and focus only on the flaws. In both cases, I lose motivation quickly.

Sometimes what I’ll do is create some artificial constraints for myself: the song must be able to be played live by a 5-person band, the song must contain no more than 2 guitar tracks, the song must be written and recorded in one day. All of these methods work at hauling me out of the doldrums of song writing,  but they can leave me with this nagging feeling that the song I’ve finished isn’t fully realized – that the minimalism I’ve imposed onto myself and my song has done the song a disservice.

I think this is the struggle for songwriters. If unrestricted, how do we reign in maximalist impulses?

Natasha Khan is the woman behind Bat for Lashes. She’s a multi-instrumentalist with a flair for the grandiose, very much in the mould of Kate Bush. Bat for Lashes songs typically collide disparate sounds: tribal beats and Enya-style string synths, jittery guitars and fantastical lyrics typically dominate her compositions. Her usual genre-gymnastics don’t prepare the listener for the sparseness of her arresting ballad, Laura.

Laura, uncharacteristically, is an exercise in restraint. With little more than her quavering voice and simple aggregated piano chords, Natasha Khan delivers this devastating song about the glamourous but fragile Laura, lost in the excesses of a never-ending night life threatening to leave her behind. The singer keeps pleading that Laura is “more than a superstar”, but she’s forgotten how to be anything else.

The waltzing lilt of the melody is familiar even on the first listen: it at once feels timeless. The chord changes feel inevitable and necessary – giving them incredible weight , especially on the chorus.

Bat for Lashes may be known for tireless experimentation, but Laura is perfectly unadorned.

Weird Ceiling by Zammuto

Lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of Laurie Brown. For me, her show is constantly exciting. Never before has the radio been a way for me to discover new music. Instead, it’s been a way to kill time and distract myself as I drive, a chance to sing along to half-remembered lyrics and melodies that somehow exist, often unwelcome, in my subconscious. Of course, there’s the unique joy that comes from the surprise spin of something truly great – and I love this part of radio. However, I’m finding though that the bar I set for “greatness” slips lower the more time I spend in my car. Before, I’d roll down the windows for true favourites like New Order, Harry Nilsson, or Lou Reed. More and more, I’m finding myself cranking up “Hungry like the Wolf” or “Come on Eileen”.

Laurie Brown’s show The Signal offers something totally different for me. I rarely recognize what I’m hearing, but I’m always interested. The music she plays demands attention.

I have not digested music this way before, ever. By the time I was looking for music of my own, the Internet had ascended to become the media source of choice. Don’t get me wrong: this has been great for so many reasons. New, small, under-funded bands can be heard by millions, labels no longer have an iron grasp on distribution, and spheres of sonic influence have expanded to encompass the globe. However, every new song, new band, is always presented pre-judged (pitchfork 7.3), pre-analysed (derivative of joy division), and slotted into an ever-expanding genre catalogue (chillwave, slowcore, nu gaze, etc. etc.). Listening to this radio show is exciting for me because I can make up my own mind.

So here’s Weird Ceiling by Zammuto. I heard it on The Signal. What do you think?

Love Interruption by Jack White

It seems like relocating Third Man records from Detroit to Nashville has done something to Jack White. The grittiness of Detroit informed every part of the White Stripes sound. This one, on the other hand, from his debut solo record Blunderbuss coming out in April (amazing that such a prolific artist doesn’t yet have a proper solo record), is all Nashville cool. In “Nashville Cats” The Lovin’ Spoonful they sum up the sound pretty well. “Nashville cats play clean as country water…play wild as mountain dew”. Gone are the buzzsaw solos and vocal-chord-shredding howls. Instead, Jack strums an acoustic guitar, accompanied only by a backup vocalist, a wurlitzer organ, and a bass clarinet (!). noticeably absent is a drummer – possibly done on purpose to separate the sound on the new record from his most famous band. The song is a slow burn soul number built around a tongue-twister chorus. It just simmers, never boiling over into one of Jack’s signature freak-outs. The threat of something wild happening never dissipates though, the tension built from being right on the edge keeps this song exciting throughout its short run time. The lyrics are great, each new line in the verse a dark murder-ballad or blues inspired gem, darkly comic and visceral.
Unfortunately, there are no Canadian dates yet, but I’m excited to see what sort of band Jack puts together to tour this and the rest of the record.

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Because The Night by Patti Smith

This is a wild, ragged love song by two of New Jersey’s finest. Co-written by Patti Smith and Bruce Springsteen, and released by Smith in 1978, the song casts the bond between the two protagonists as both life-sustaining and all-consuming, both elixer and narcotic. The song captures the exhileration you experience tying your fate to another, and the conflicting sense of safetly and powerlessness this creates. It’s powerful, it’s bold, and it has one of the all-time greatest sing-along choruses.
I’m reading Just Kids by Patti Smith right now, which is just great. The stark images and inspired word choice that are hallmarks of her lyrics and poetry also show up in the book – so far it’s an amazing account of living in New York in the late 60s. The book is mostly about her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, the controversial artist and photographer who was briefly Smith’s partner before he came out. Their friendship remained strong, she describes in the book, each providing support for the other during trying times. Their relationship maintained a sense of romance despite their attachment to others – it was much more than a conventional friendship.
I’m probably reading too much into this, but I think that this relationship with Mapplethorpe informs the verses to “Because the Night”. It makes for interesting suppositions, anyway. Here’s a couple versions of the song, by Smith and others.

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Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis by Neko Case

Tom Waits introduced this song once by telling this story:

“I was in Minneapolis – it was 200 degrees below zero – I know – you think I’m bullshitting, no, I swear to God, I was wearing just a bra and a slip and a kind of dead squirrel around my neck – he was colder than I was. The police cars would go by and they’d wave… Merry Xmas, Merry Xmas, Merry Xmas – anyway – I got caught in the middle of a pimp war between 2 kids in Chinchilla coats, they couldn’t have been more than 13 years old- they’re throwing knives and forks and spoons out into the street – it was deep – so I grabbed a ladle – and Dinah Washington was singing “Our Day Will Come” and I knew that was it.”

Which I’ll just leave without comment, other than that it kind of blows me away.

As sung by Tom Waits, “Christmas Card” is a watershed song. Tom is at his most indulgent and his most a-melodic (at least until Rain Dogs). This song forces you to listen to what he’s saying, and to listen to how the tension in the timing, in his delivery, and in the song’s dissonance effect and are affected by the lyrics. It’s a song that separates the casual Tom Waits fan from the die-hard.

Neko Case brings an entirely new perspective to this song. Her voice is powerful even when she whispers – she’s got the sort of pure, commanding alto that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up. She brings an urgency to the lyrics, something plaintive, that Tom’s rasp did not. Her choice of arrangement, with church organ, makes the protagonist seem less rabid, more innocent. I feel more sympathetic towards her and the tragedies that she’s faced – she seem less disingenuous than Tom – her apologies are more sincere.

However, it lacks that tension, that grimy element that exists in the original. The mood has changed. It’s a different song, for another occasion. Find it on New Coat of Paint: Songs of Tom Waits, from 2000.

She’s eligible for parole tomorrow, remember.

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Don’t Spend It Honey by Corin Raymond and the Sundowners

I witnessed something strange, heartwarming, and uniquely Canadian at the Tranzac on Wednesday night. I was there with friends from out-of-town to see night two of a two night engagement by Cameron House legends Corin Raymond and the Sundowners.
Corin played almost exclusively covers of unknown, little-known, and near-forgotten folk artists and was recording the concerts to make a live album as a preservation effort of sorts.
The concert was great, Corin is a born storyteller, weaving stories from the road and stories about the songs in and around the music. He kept us engaged for the whole three hours and twenty-one songs that the band played that evening.
Highlights included “Little Byrd”, “Change”, and the Ragho Lokanathan-penned “I’m a Fucking Genius” and “Caledonia”. Then there’s the song that makes the whole thing worth writing about, “Don’t Spend it Honey”.

Don’t Spend it Honey!
Not the Canadian Tire Money!
We’ve Saved It So Long! x2
Jolly Scotch Bonnet,
It’s Got the Cute little Scotsman on it,
We’ve Saved It So Long! x2

…Goes the chorus. Apparently, when Raymond and Co. would play this song at the Cameron house, regulars would throw the individually worthless paper bills at the band, which is kind of a fun gimmick. The game changer came when Corin found out that the studio at which he was going to record his covers album accepted Canadian Tire money at par. This provoked the singer to set up a website,, and encouraged fans to pay for their concert tickets, in part at least, with Canadian Tire money. He started receiving donations from across the country, from young and old, from fans, and from people who heard about the project from the Globe and Mail or This Hour Has 22 Minutes. He managed to raise a staggering $1500 by the end of the second concert in Canadian Tire money alone: not bad, considering that the largest denomination is two dollars.
So now the song itself. It’s a typically folky three-chorder, with clever but forgettable verses. The chorus is killer though, the kind of sticky pop melody that worms its way through your brain for days. For me, I’ll always remember it as the last song that a Toronto mainstay played at a celebratory and vindicating concert. Give it a listen. It’s not for everyone – you kinda had to be there.

Watch it here courtesy of Now Toronto.


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Dawned On Me by Wilco

The Whole Love is not the best record that Wilco have put out. However, for almost any other band, this late career collection would be a great achievement – the kind of singular sound that signals a newfound maturity and vision. With past albums like Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (a pitchfork 10.0), it’s hard to accept anything short of genius from this hardworking band.
When I saw Wilco on their tour to support Wilco (The Album), I recall that the band was still getting used to its new incarnation as a six-piece. When they played some of the sparser songs from older records like Being There and Summerteeth, their attempts at finding things for all the members to do sometimes resulted in clunky arrangements and just too much going on. Not that it wasn’t an impressive concert. New songs like Impossible Germany, with a five or six-minute guitar freak-out interlude by the sorcerer Nels Cline stuck in the middle, and Bull Black Nova as well as the title track really shone.
Some have complained that Wilco are sounding too comfortable, that they’ve lost some of their edge. I disagree, I think on The Whole Love  the band has really locked into its six-piece sound, and are producing some of the best pop songs of their career. The record on the whole does feel less groundbreaking than some of their earlier work, but this is partly due to the brood of imitators that now compete with Wilco for our alt-country attention. The standout tracks are many: Art of Almost, I Might, Born Alone, and this one Dawned On Me.
This is a classic Wilco song, a twisted pop song that explores darker themes with a sunny melody. “I’m taken by the sound of my own voice/Voices in my Head” Jeff Tweedy croons in the first verse. Later, he  admits that “I regret letting you go/ Sometimes I can’t believe how dark it can be.” This tension between a dark topic and traditional pop song structure is classic Wilco. They let this tension inform the music as well – the song begins with the quiet whine of guitar feedback, and the organ plays a little dark-circus riff intermittently. This tension is most effectively encapsulated two minutes into the song when a wild, overdriven guitar solo by Cline is interrupted and cut off by Tweedy whistling the verse melody. This little musical joke reenforces the feeling that the protagonist of the song is making a conscious effort to keep the crazy inside, to keep the song a sunny pop number, but he’s failing. It’s beginning to fall apart at the seams.

Bonus: For the video, Wilco partnered with king features to produce the first hand-drawn Popeye cartoon in 30 years! With Wilco as characters! It’s a real gem.

Jackson By Craig Finn

I’m just ten posts in, and I’ve already evoked Bruce Springsteen in about a third of them. While this may seem excessive (or just lazy) I would say that I’m refering to him because he is the most easily identifiable in a slew of artistists that attempt to capture an American heartland sensibility that, while I’m certain doesn’t really exist anymore, may never have existed at all. I say Springsteen, and you think immediately of character-driven narrative songs about small towns, the allure of the city, and the period in your life where youth slips into adulthood, sometimes without notice, sometimes painfully. He’s a storyteller trying to encapsulate some of the angst and uncertainty of his own generation and of young adulthood generally. His goal is narrative with an emotional connection – and this sets him apart from the crowd. His goal is not rock for the sake of it, or introspection-as-art, or experimental noodling. He lacks the self-conscious irony that so often just marrs my enjoyment of what might otherwise be a good rock n’ roll song.

He’s got contemporaries – Tom Petty, The Band, Steve Earle. And boy, does he have followers. Social Distortion, The Gaslight Anthem, The Constantines, and (now I’m getting to it) The Hold Steady.

The Hold Steady rose to prominance a few years after The Strokes “saved” guitar rock back in 2001. This is just speculation, but I think indie rock listeners had gotten tired of the wave of bands that followed in the footsteps of The Strokes – bands like Franz Ferdinand, Ima Robot, Interpol, etc, who were all haircuts and outfits and New York cool. The Hold Steady come from the midwest, and proudly. They mine the narrative song, but they do it a little differently. “There are nights when I think that Sal Paradise was right,” Craig Finn laments at the beginning of Stuck Between Stations from their record Boys and Girls in America, “Boys and Girls in America are so sad together.” besides beat literature, their songs are full of references to New American Cinema, national landmarks, and legendary musicians. They stitch these images into worlds that appeal to the consciously cultured youth, the sideways references making listeners feel as if they belong in the America that The Hold Steady sings about, and not the more depressing real one. However, other than being a little self-conscious, these songs brim with an honesty and optimism that was totally lacking in the New York rock revivial of the early oughts.

Later this month, Craig Finn is releasing his first solo record. In interviews, he’s commented that the songs are overall more personal, which is certainly a change for the songwriter who is renowned for telling complex character stories. Contrary to this claim though, Jackson off of Clear Heart Full Eyes (a reference to the show Friday Night Lights) tells the story of Jackson, Stephanie, and the narrator getting into hot water while staying in a hotel from August to November. This version is stripped down and acoustic, recorded in Craig Finn’s own house by The A.V. Club. The ominous repetative chords and the drone strings echo the foreboding in the lyrics. The song is both a confession and a denial of involvement, which is sort of evocative of the way people deal with “incidents” in a small town. In between verses that paint stark and vivid pictures( i.e., “Jackson was an actor, ‘least he was when he was well, Stephanie was good to me, not so much to herself”), Craig questions the listener in the chorus, “So why’re you asking ’bout Jackson? It was a long time ago, nothing really happened.” Without the full rock band of the hold steady behind him, it’s just Finn’s lyrics that get to shine, and they more than stand on their own.

There. I wrote the whole thing without mentioning Nebraska.
Craig Finn discusses and performs “Jackson”

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Ledged Up by Odonis Odonis

How do you feel about really grimy rock? These sweaty, loud, propulsive songs that can only be appreciated in dark basements, punctuated by strobe light flashes synched with snare drums and accidental run-ins with entranced strangers gyrating haphazardly to some band someone likened to Joy Division. Have you listened to Bela Legosi’s Dead all the way through? On repeat?

Try Odonis Odonis. Ledged up from Hollandaze captures this pretty neatly. They play garage and surf filtered through 80s goth and noise. It’s music to mosh to.

They play Feb 16th at the Shop as part of Wavelength 12.

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