Tuesday, October 31, 2006

how to write a song by a would-be writer

My favorite writer and fellow alumnus in education and occupation, Joel Hartse, wrote this interesting post about the clever and ambiguous nature of contemporary lyricism.

So sayeth Joel: "I consider it my mission in life to combat willful obscurity."

For the most part, I agree with Joel's sentiment. When you grow up listening to bands like MxPx, Elvis Costello and Billy Joel, it's easy to find yourself gravitating toward similar songwriting. You want to internalize the emotions of your song, while letting anybody who hears it know that it could be their story, too. As a result of this type of back-and-forth, pop music is singularly the most confusing genre.

But then you age and start to diviate from pop-rock and as you start to enter new stages in your life like high school, college, a girlfriend or whatever, and you find yourself seeking out bands that are a little bit more estoeric. A little weirder, if you will. If you look back on the pop music that you listened to prior to your progression, often you'll shudder and think "Why did I listen to that?" Nobody likes admitting to their own shortcomings, but it takes a fairly strong person to accept that we all start from somewhere, even if your reference point is Blink 182 and not the Misfits.

For example, let's take Death Cab for Cutie. This band has had their two biggest hits with "Transatlanticism" and "Plans," two albums that rest on singer Ben Gibbard's ability to break out of the indie rock box of writing songs of a fictious nature or based on other works (i.e. "No Joy in Mudville" is loosely based on "On the Road"). Obviously the name drop on "The O.C." had a little to do with their success, but those albums are the most vunerable you get to see Gibbard, and thus the masses are able to connect with the quartet. The back end of the "regression" in Gibbard's writing technique is that "Transatlanticism" and "Plans" were largely panned by critics, myself included. I suppose, personally, I felt a little betrayed because this band had put out these great songs about various things, but were all shrouded in mystery. It's interesting how pretentious you really are when you think about it.

As for myself, I can say that I'm of two minds when it comes to writing songs. My earliest bands were of the heart-on-my-sleeve kind; many of the songs that I've written about were autobiographical. With my current band, I've tried to use metaphors and allusions, really using writing devices to convey a story. I'm not carrying the Flaming Lips' torch or anything, but I feel that it's part of growing up as a songwriter and a lyricist. Many of the lyrics are still largely autobiographical and I could easily tell you what it's about. Shit, who else would write a song about William Steig's "Dr. Desoto," as a metaphor for our president? At the same time, however, there's still a certain amount of personal integrity I want to keep in the lyrics. I don't write ambiguous lyrics for the sake of being weird, but I don't necessarily write with a sweeping generalization to pander to people's feelings.

I guess in the long run, it's about building a connection. Topically, Lessons in Regret's songs hinge on world politics and scrutinizing society, but its origins rests on actual events: people (not necessarily girls) that have broken your heart, relatives' obsession with celebrities, working retail and seeing people just throw money away on stupid superficial things, etc. Obviously when you write and record music, it's a snapshot of where you are in your life. When I was 18, 19 and in the Transfer/Shoes for Imelda, I was writing songs about girls and drinking; when I was in Season of Death and Breathless Mahoney, I was writing songs about suicide, rejection and people who betrayed me; now I'm writing songs about people that I miss, people who've hurt me and books that I enjoy reading to my kid. But if anybody ever asked me what specific songs meant -- unless I know you -- I would never tell because I want whoever is listening to the song to form their own meaning. Not because I'm trying to be obscure, an ass, or indie, but because if that song means something different to another person, then they've made it their own and I accomplished what I set out to do.

As I wrap this up, I feel that I've been trying to defend myself from Joel's idea of songwriting, but that's not the case. At the core of his argument, Joel is absolutely right. Why write lyrics that no one will understand because you wanted to be eccentric? But sometimes, you have to get through the weird to get to the heart of the matter.

a sign of age

[anatomy of a ghost -- r.i.p. van winkle]

I started bombing all of my myspace friends with a little ecard I made for Halloween this year while I was listening to this band called Anatomy of a Ghost. The band broke up two years ago and reformed as Portugal the Man -- with a near identical line-up, yet it drives towards the dance-influenced rock that's been the bee's knees for the past year. While listening to this band, I started to think of all the pop-punk, screamo, post-hardcore, or "insert idiotic sub-genre here" bands that have broken up. I used to think that breaking up a band was reserved for groups who were long-in-the-tooth. Blink 182, I can understand; those guys had a 13 or 14 year run before they called it quits. But recent break ups of bands like Kind of Like Spitting, Dexter Danger, Race the Sun, Waxwing and The Plot to Blow Up the Eiffel Tower have me feeling a little old when these groups hit their collective expiration dates.

For every Kill Your Idols that breaks up, there are 15 other hardcore bands waiting to take their place and that seems a little weird. Not to say that a power-pop band like Dexter Danger would've changed the world, but it certainly meant something to somebody, especially considering the band's inception and popularity preceded internet outlets like Myspace and Purevolume. I'm talking about mp3.com here, people.

Obviously some groups can't hold it together, but it's still a little uneasy when you're cruising punknews.org and their break ups posting has bands' timespans as 2000-2006 or 2002-2006. I mean, if MxPx can have a steady stream of releases for 12 or 13 years, why can't these new jacks do the same? [1]

[1] I understand that this is a bad example since MxPx hasn't put out a great record since "Life in General" or a listenable album since "Slowly Going the Way of the Buffalo." I guess I could cite "Let It Happen" but that was a rarities compilation released without the band's consent back in 1998. Interestingly enough, Tooth and Nail is rereleasing the comp with bonus tracks, just as the band has released their own b-sides collection, "Let it Rock," on rival pop-punk label, Sideonedummy. What a joke.

Friday, October 27, 2006

the octave museum rawxxx...the short review....

Stephen Broadsky
"Octave Museum"
(Hydra Head)

For many reasons, Stephen Broadsky's "Octave Museum" wasn't quite what I expect. Which is a good thing. If you've heard anything from Broadsky's 9-to-5 band Cave In or his earlier solo material, then you know that he can range from some pretty sophisticated metal to some FM friendly radio rock to a quiet troubador. "Octave" explores Broadsky's psych rock side, while indulgent in some Brit-pop moments. Whew, there's alot of musical labels and subgenres that I just threw out, but the record is pretty diverse, so deal with it.


Many, many moons ago, I had the intention of starting up an mp3 blog called "Backed With" (which is commonly abbriviated as b/w). Thanks to the power of blogamp, I'm able to make this come into fruition. So check Backed With!

Thursday, October 26, 2006

a gotdamn travisty

[welcome to the asshole parade]

If you haven't seen/heard the new abortion of a song that Good Charlotte has unleashed upon the world click here. I won't go on until you're done watching it; don't worry it'll only be a minute or so.

Watched it?

So first they're punk, then they were goth and now they're dance rappers? It's difficult to take idiots like these guys seriously when they can't hang on to an image for more than a year at a time. I imagine with the disappointing sales of high profile bands such as Angels and Airwaves, Taking Back Sunday and Yellowcard, the Madden fucks thought it would be a good idea to capitalize on the punk-dance craze that's been eating up all the pop-punk and hardcore kids lately. I mean, catering to the children will always allow Benji and Joel to afford their faux-cool, teen-banging, faux gangsta lifestyles. After seeing this gotdamn travisty of a video, I've realized that from now until they break up, Good Charlotte will always be your little sister's favorite band.

Boycott this band. For real.

too hardcore for school

"Unifying Themes Redux" (reissue)
(Hydra Head)

Senses Fail
"Still Searching"

I thought it would be fun to review these two releases at the same time because they both are indictative of the two biggest trends to hit hardcore in the last few years. Botch was one of the bands that pioneered the math-metal tinge that made hardcore even more aggressive, while on the other end of the spectrum, Senses Fail's brand of screamo-ing made it cool for both goths and cheerleaders to sing along to songs about pirates and the breaking of one's heart.

Undoubtedly, without Seattle's Botch, there would be no Norma Jean, Fear Before the March of Flames, and countless other bands that are too crappy to name (The Chariot, for one more). This re-re-release of their collection of singles contains two of the best Botch songs ever committed to vinyl: 1. "Frequenting Mass Transit," which was featured in the Seattle-based, Outsiders-rip off film "The Edge of Quarrel." 2. "Rock Lobster," a spazzy version of the B-52s classic pop record. These two songs are no doubt the highlight of the compilation; there are other great songs on this, mind you, but these two make the comp worth buying. Otherwise, I would recommend "American Nervoso" as your introduction to the band.

Unlike Botch, Senses Fail walks past the entertaining -- if not mildly obscene -- notion of covering an 80's pop hit and goes straight for the brooding introspective heart of your average high school emo kid. Yet, with their frequent label changes and overhyped charisma, the band still manages to have at least four or five stand out songs per record. Like genre brethren, Silverstein, Senses Fail know how to write these great lead guitar riffs, thus boosting the technical aspects of the band to Eddie Van Halen status.

Their latest record "Still Searching" has a few great songs on it ("All the Best Cowboys," "Shark Attack," "Sick Or Sane," "Calling All Cars," "Still Searching"), other than those, this is pretty much what you'd expect from a band that has its shirts for sale at Hot Topic. It's not a terrible record at all, but it's easily forgettable.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

coolness updates and tales from the darkside

so i have a bunch of stuff planned for the coolness -- reviews, editorials, etc. -- but i've been writing my new book, so the daily blogging has had to take a backseat of sorts. i'm in the homestretch and i'm probably a little over halfway finished with my new novella, title to be announced. after it's finished, i'll be shopping it to publishers and (hopefully) someone will pick it up. otherwise, i may end up publishing and distributing it myself if i can get the money together.

here are some new CDs that i recommend listening to:

botch "unifying themes redux redux" (hydra head, originally on excursion)
new found glory "coming home" (geffen)
shook ones "faceitous folly feat" (revelation)
owen "no good for no one now" (polyvinyl)
ink & dagger "drive this seven inch stake through my philadelphia heart" (initial)
alkaline trio "crimson"

Thursday, October 19, 2006

the best rapper right now?

About a month and a half ago, I got a CD by some rapper named Nump. I found the artwork for the album a little interesting as it looked like the kind of Pen-N-Pixel art that was all the rage back in the mid-to-late 90's. Seeing that Nump's album, "The Numpyard," was released by E-40's Sick Wid It Records, I had no other choice but to assume that it was a hyphy record.

And indeed it was. But unlike most Bay Area rap these days, it didn't suck. Actually, if I may be so bold, Nump might be the best new rapper right now. Of course, being the best new rapper isn't a hard feat, seeing as hip-hop has been pretty stagnant for the last four years or so. Nump seems to be exception, however; his wordplay and flow is similar to mentor and label boss, E-40, but he's still able to command his own voice. The production on Nump's album is equally as engaging. The song, "Slizzured," features a prominent Inspector Gadget sample that's just crazy. To top it off, Nump also happens to be Filipino, a fact that is never overplayed and, in fact, is never mentioned, save for the picture on the back of the booklet where he is eating a plate of lumpia. Unlike most Filipino-American rappers who use their ethnicity as their crutch or their gimmick, Nump simply glosses over his.

With all of the hype surrounding hyphy, I think Nump will prove to be its breakout star. Dude's already contributed to DJ Shadow's latest opus "The Outsider," so only time will tell if this kid actually sticks around to continue to reinvent the Yay.

[Related Links]

Nump's Myspace

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

what's wrong with the record industry pt.85

As I am typing this, I'm listening to the Smoking Popes, one of the greatest rock bands from the 1990's. They were also on Capitol Records, a label that is synonymous with signing the Beatles and Coldplay, but more importantly, dropping Jimmy Eat World right before the band skyrocketed with "Bleed American."

I may have addressed this on the Coolness before, if not then certainly on some other forum, but the problem with the record industry isn't downloading, bootlegging or indie labels, it's when major labels pull some shit like this:

"Lost In Translation star Scarlett Johansson has signed a deal to make her first record, Scarlett Sings Tom Waits, according to media reports in the US. The album is being recorded at the moment and sessions will continue through the winter, with a possible release next spring from Rhino Records' currently re-activated Atco label." (Taken from IMDB.com)

Seriously, does Scarlett Johansson need anymore fucking money? Not like she's pulling some of that Julia Roberts dough, but I'm sure she makes more than Cat Power does on any given day. On top of that, she's singing Tom Waits songs. WTF? Did anybody watch "Lost In Translation?" And by "watch" I don't mean just stare at Johansson for the whole flick, I mean really watched that movie? Remember the karaoke scene? That shit was awful.

See, this is part of the problem with major labels; they sink all kinds of money into a celebrity on the hopes that they'll be the next Jared Leto, or whatever. This is probably just as bad as when Minnie Driver got a million dollar advance for signing to whatever label she ended up on. What labels tend to forget is that movie and TV stars seldom turn a profit for lack of credibility. For every Jared Leto or Jason Schwartzman, I can name at least 10 celluloid stars with failed albums. Don't believe me? Here's the roll call:

1. Keanu Reeves
2. Rick Moranis
3. Joey Lawrence
4. Paris Hilton
5. Bruce Willis
6. Don Johnson
7. Peter Gallagher
8. Jada Pinkett-Smith
9. Mekhi Phifer
10. David Hasselhoff

Yeah... In your face, Scarlett. Good luck major labels, in your quest to destroy pop music with your vile bullshit and inability to keep any good artists on your roster.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

the multi-review post

I got bombarded this week with a ton of new releases, most of which deserve some sort of review. I thought I'd give them a quick scan over on the Coolness.

Cobra Starship, "While the City Sleeps, We Rule the Streets" (Decaydance)
Q: Do we really need a full-length of shitty synthrock with a song that is a tribute to the affair of Notorious BIG and Lil' Kim?
A: No. This album sucks. Don't buy it; if you think about buying it because so and so said it was cool, remind yourself of the time when so and so said that Limp Bizkit was the greatest band of all time.

The Decemberists, "The Crane Wife" (Capitol)
Colin Meloy & co. get the major label treatment and walk away with their "Vauxhall and I."

Birdmonster, "No Midnight" (Self-Released)
This is what idiots would label "Post-punk." I say it's awesome.

A Static Lullaby, "A Static Lullaby" (Fearless)
Way better than their last album, but not as good as their debut. Meh.

Bright Eyes, "Floor Noise" (Saddle Creek)
What's another year without a second album from Connor Oberst? Recommended for Bright Eyes super fans only. If you're a marginal fan, you won't find anything special in this recording. FYI, I still think that "Digital Ash" is superior to the other one.

Spitalfield, "Better Than Knowing Where You Are" (Victory)
Spitalfield's Victory debut "Remember Right Now" was a catchy record, but pure remedial pop-punk. 2004's "Stop Doing Bad Things" and "Better Than Knowing Where You Are" has the band evolving (or devolving) back to the great, angsty rock that their "Cloak & Dagger Club EP" represented.

Converge, "No Heroes" (Epitaph)
I haven't heard this yet and it's been on my desk for a week. It's Converge so I'm sure it's pretty good.

Mighty Mike Lenaburg, "Eccentric Soul" (The Numero Group)
Fantastic compilation of British R&B from the sixties. Probably the best release I got this week.

what you know 'bout the jazz?

Verve is releasing a series of discs called "To >> Go" which is aimed at the iPod crowd. According to Verve's website: "To>>Go is great music for people on the move. Stick the disc in your computer, rip the music to your portable device, put the head phones in your ears and go! Quality music, legendary artists, and an extremely low price, all in one simple little packageā€¦To>>Go. "

This is simultaneously the worst and coolest thing to happen to Verve. First the cool part: if you're not at all familiar with jazz, then these little EPs are a good way to quickly get acquainted.

Now the shitty part: taking musically important figures like Louis Armstrong, Stan Getz or Sarah Vaughan and tapering their careers down to six songs is pretty lame. If you wanted to get to know a great artist, you'd research their entire discography and not just the hits. It's kind of like those lame ass people who only own The Beatles' "1" compilation, but none of their other records.

If this was Sum 41, Richard Marx or some other equally disposable act, I can see why this series seems like a great idea -- pop music is built around hit singles and choruses, but with a genre like jazz, it's not about parts, it's about the whole composition.

I guess these discs will be worthwhile purchases for people who buy their CDs at Starbucks and whatnot, but I bet if Satchmo were alive today, he'd be knocking cats out with his trumpet over this bullshit.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

no longer the tower of power

[sorry i've been lagging on content. i got the new decemberists, static lullaby, spitalfield, cobra starship, bright eyes and a ton of other shit to review, but i had to get cracking on my redefine contribution for the month. now that that's done you can expect reviews of the afformentioned bands maybe]

Tower is dead. Fin. In the grave. It's a bittersweet end for me. On the one hand, having worked at that place, I'd grown to fucking hate it. They had a really lame medical insurance plan, the "discounts" were kind of shitty, and they basically had it out for the local stores by talking shit about them all the time. On the other hand, I have pretty vivid memories of going to some of Tower's midnight sales and in-stores, as well as just hanging out there when I first started buying records for myself. When I'd come up to Seattle to visit my dad, the first place we'd go after he picked me up from the airport was Tower.

Sadly, several groups of people will suffer from the demise of Tower Records, not only its 3000 employees, but also the many people who put out zines and records through Tower. The store had its own system of indie distribution and consignment, which many chain stores do not have. Do you think Best Buy's going to carry your shitty unsigned band? Obviously not, but Tower would.

So while I'm simultaneously cheering on the demise of my former employer (as well as the product I will reap from its clearance sale), as a music fan, it still sucks to see a cool chain store like Tower go down.

Friday, October 06, 2006


(Super Happy Wax)

Matt "Smoke" Smokavich is a member of Seattle Christian hip-hop collective, Oldominion, who -- at one point -- pretty much owned Seattle hip-hop. As the MassLine set (Blue Scholars, Common Market) gain more traction, Oldominion has become less visible, perhaps overshadowed by their own group-within-a-crew trio, Boom Bap Project.

Smoke has spent much of his time in Oldominion as a hype man and producing various tracks for their releases, but he's never really had a chance to shine on his own. For his debut, "Bleed," Smoke channels his inner El-P to bring his Def Jux-lite album to life.

The album's opener, "Compress," is a paint-by-numbers Def Jux-type song. In fact, it's a pretty weak way to start an album that supposedly has six years behind it. "Killa" has a RZA-influenced intro, but goes into another El-P drum track that sounds like a marching band stomping in my ears.

As a whole, "Bleed" is very difficult to listen to; much of the production is held together by your run-of-the-mill hipster blips and beeps that passes off as hip-hop these days. Smoke's rapping style is some mix of Everlast and Johnny P. Church, and while he's not flat out saying "Believe in Jesus," it's pretty much implied throughout the recording.

While I commend this dude for not putting out another hyphy record, it still doesn't mask the fact that it's imitative of a style that died two years ago. It also makes me long for the days when I could put on a De La album and know that it was going to be okay.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

die, indie stores, die!

Today, CNN is running an article lamenting about the possible demise of the indie store, due to the popularity of online retailers like iTunes and Rhapsody, as well as big chain stores such as Target and Best Buy. Having worked at both an independent record store, a chain music store, and a media retailer, I can say that, at least in Seattle and possibly San Francisco, our beloved indie havens are safe from closure.

When I was working at Easy Street Records, it was probably the most comfortable atmosphere I'd ever been in, as far as retail goes. You don't have to wear stupid name tags or attempt to have an add-on sale such as a subscription to Entertainment Weekly like you would at a Tower or Sam Goody. Because the employees were comfortable, the vibe of the store reflected that. I can name at least 10 people who would always show up for our midnight sales on Mondays, versus the nameless people who would inconsistently pop-up at Tower. And places like Best Buy don't even have midnight sales, unless they're debuting a new video game platform.

But I guess that's all small stuff. What it really comes down to is that music fans -- real music fans and not just people who hear a single on the radio -- will always go out of their way to get the full-on record store experience. People who frequent these stores go there to converse with employees and exchange thoughts about pop culture, as opposed to the chain store experience which is about getting people in and out quickly while making a profit.

I understand that this may be a little bit harder in smaller towns where independent record stores may not exist and that Wal-Mart may be the only music store they have, but the Internet is changing that. It's weird to think that a store like Sonic Boom Records existed without a website (or at least one that wasn't as user-friendly as their current one), but it did; and now with name drops by bands like Death Cab, Jimmy Eat World, and God knows who else, the store probably does a considerable amount of business online.

To people who aren't really aware of the independent record stores that do well, it may seem like a fluke or a dying outlet, but perhaps there's a reason why a store like Easy Street is still alive and kicking while four blocks away, Tower Records is a ghost town, in all its Chapter 11 glory.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

boys night in?

Boys Night Out
"Dude, You Need to Stop Dancing"

Up until last year's "Trainwreck" I've had a love-hate relationship with Boys Night Out. Their Ferret debut, 2003's "Make Yourself Sick," came out at a time when I was personally sick of the pop-punk/screamo hybrid. But, it's still hard to deny that the band has hooks. They know how to write a good pop song, otherwise, I wouldn't think twice before dismissing this band.

Their latest release, a live DVD coupled with a "documentary," probably captures the band at their creative apex. Many of the live songs come from "Trainwreck," 2005's concept album about a man who murders his wife during his slumber. It's tricky to do any song from a concept record live, but the band manages to pretty much do the entire album, throwing in songs from "Sick" as intermissions.

The documentary portion captures the band during their final days, a la "Hard Core Logo." This, of course, is all fictious and there are some funny parts, but once the "death" of Dave Costa comes up, all humor is pretty much lost.

This is pretty much a standard DVD release for a new band: live show, a short documentary, and a few music videos. It's hardly anything to cheer about, but if you're a fan of the band, or even marginally interested in their music, I'd recommend it.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

another act of shameless self-promotion

download four songs from the new ep, "it's not worship music, it's worse hip music" by lessons in regret, a band that i happen to sing in.

Monday, October 02, 2006

emo vs. emo

Over the weekend, everybody's favorite website, Absolutepunk.net, posted this statement from Tim Kinsella (of Joan of Arc and Make Believe, as of late) and his take on all things associated with mall-punk and emo (shudder). In short, he hates it.

Then Max Bemis of Say Anything posted this statement, which pretty much says "Fuck you."

First off, the idea of two genre stalwarts fighting each other over the internet is pretty hilarious. This is probably just as amusing as that whole "The Killers Vs. Fall Out Boy" thing.

It sort of interesting that Kinsella chastises a genre that he pretty much helped pioneer in the mid-nineties, although I'm sure seeing a bunch of children who spend more time on their hair rather than writing songs is probably the last thing he had in mine, or would want to take credit for.

I can see where Kinsella is coming from. I blast contemporary emo pretty much everyday on this thing. I think it's ridiculous when there are bands who lack drive and talent (i.e. Panic at the Disco) get signed before they play a single show. It's dumb. Media (not that conspiracy "the media" shit, but mass media) has given these children the keys to the toy store and now they're running it into the ground.

But I can also hear out Bemis in pointing out Kinsella's hypocracy, as a person who was a pioneer in the genre accusing the current hit bands of being sell outs, yet he writes it in Alternative Press, rather than Punk Planet, Maximum Rock & Roll or Giant Robot.

Here's the thing: music is subjective. Even with all the crap I write about bands, I don't EXPECT anyone to take my opinions as Bible truth but just what they are, opinions. For every Panic, Motion City Soundtrack or From First To Last, there's a new band like Say Anything, that I feel is doing this messy genre any justice.

Do I feel that kids are being marketed to? Of course. I wouldn't write about it extensively if I didn't feel that way, but I don't think that the bands are to blame or be responsible. It's to the point where it's pretty obvious that pop-punk/emo is pretty much a marketing tool and if the kids don't realize that, then it's their own damn fault and they are to blame when they're 45 and they still have a shitty Alkaline Trio tattoo.

Personally, I have written a song or two about this sort of thing, but it's more of a topical nature. I'd like to raise awareness, but it's not my nature to be didatic about it. Even on this forum.

On a side note, what's even funnier than these two going at it is the fact that people will take sides. Pop-punk hipsters vs. regular hipsters. Maybe there's something to this war, after all.