30 October 2008

Loudon Wainwright III

While at work on a sunny summer day I heard something interesting on the speakers. I thought, "Is this the new Ryan Adams? But it's…good!" It wasn't Ryan Adams, and that guy still stinks. It turned out to be Loudon Wainwright III. Album II. "Me & My Friend the Cat." I started doing a bit of research and found that Loudon has existed on the periphery of fame for nearly 40 years. As the singing surgeon on M*A*S*H*, the original sidekick to David Letterman, and the dad of both Martha and Rufus Wainwright, Loudon has reasons for fame aside from his incredible 38 year, 22 album career.

I found that some of his music was a little hit and miss, but overall, bafflingly good. He mixes humour with heart-wrenching pain, nostalgia, and self-deprecation better than any songwriter I've ever heard. He was originally heralded as "the new Bob Dylan", but unlike Dylan, Loudon didn't reinvent himself a dozen times, never lied about where he came from, and doesn't suck live.

His talent lies in his willingness to discuss personal details fully and precisely, such as the time he hit Martha in the car, or his divorce from Kate McGarrigle, or his career failures. Loudon can construct songs in a variety of genres- lounge, reggae, folk, country, rock, blues- and always sound comfortable and authentic. A reggae song about being a pathetic tourist in Jamaica, or a rowdy bar song about the alcoholic implications of dinner parties with friends ("drinks before dinner and wine with dinner and after-dinner drinks"), or a cheesy "Running-On-Empty"-esque country song about his biggest fan (both literally and figuratively) being a bigger fan of both Bob Dylan and Neil Young: this is all just typical Loudon- personal, funny, and poignant.

All this has gotten him a decent career and following, but rarely any commercial success. His only real single was "Dead Skunk," a minor AM radio hit over 35 years ago. He's had acting roles in a variety of things, notably Tim Burton's "Big Fish," and the TV show "Undeclared," but it's probably too late for a full-blown entry into stardom. So ol' Loudo will have to remain on the fringes, as he's done for nearly 40 years, getting his name spelled wrong on marquees worldwide.


Me & My Friend The Cat.mp3
The Swimming Song.mp3
Wine With Dinner.mp3
T.S.M.N.W.A. (They Spelled My Name Wrong Again).mp3

26 October 2008

Department of Eagles - In Ear Park

It might not come as much of a surprise, but Daniel Rossen and Ed Droste of Grizzly Bear haven't always gotten along. Being one of my favourite bands, I don't like to think of any problems going on with Grizzly Bear, but if a little bit of a difference has led to Department of Eagles releasing their new record In Ear Park, well then it's something I'm absolutely willing to put up with.

Grizzly Bear's music seems to alternate between two subtle personalities, led by Ed Droste and Dan Rossen. More delicate and familiar, Dan Rossen has really opened up with his other project, Department of Eagles

Department of Eagles are Fred Nicolaus and Daniel Rossen, who met at the University of New York in 2000. With their first album, The Cold Nose, quietly released in 2003, their next anticipated album has arrived a little more loudly, and with a bit of help from the other members of Grizzly Bear sans-Ed. With 'Deep Blue Sea' being the standout song on Grizzly Bear's Friend EP, I was excited to hear anything of Rossen's that I could get my hands on.

Their second album, In Ear Park, is filled with beautiful harmonies and rich acoustic guitar. It avoids being superior or pretentious, simply by being personal and tender. This doesn't mean that it's simple; as an album, In Ear Park  is quite complex, and so varied and dynamic that it requires a few listens to take it all in. Once you spend some time with it, In Ear Park is an album you can get close to. And what's more, it's really really good! I've listened to it quite a bit, and am more than happy to carry these songs around in my head all day. Also, on the single release of 'No One Does it Like You', they've included Dan Rossen's cover of Jojo's 'Too Little Too Late', which is just great. It sounds so different from the original (thank goodness), and is a beautiful song in its own right. Apparently Dan put it together for Ed's birthday.

I don't want to pitch Department of Eagles against Grizzly Bear. Obviously, there are a lot of similarities between each of their sounds. In truth, listening to In Ear Park was more like getting to know one side of Grizzly Bear a whole lot better.  And while I'm waiting for Grizzly Bear's third record to come out, nothing could tie me over more perfectly.

Department of Eagles - No One Does It Like You.mp3

- Emily

15 October 2008

Book of Longing - 11/10/08

Philip Glass performed his new composition based around the poetry of Leonard Cohen Saturday night at the Sydney Opera House. Although not a typical show for me to attend, Book of Longing was an inspiring and well-paced look at both the mind of a starkly-isolated man as well as a minimalistic genius.

Before ever hearing Philip Glass' music, or the music of his colleagues, I mistakenly equated "minimalism" with "music for the compulsively bored." In fact, it has more to do with subtle variations and creating shifts that scrutinise repetition. It's less boring than it is intriguing, less tedious than it is exciting. Minimalism is a strange term- anyone unfamiliar with that genre who witnessed the show Saturday night would have described it as anything but minimal. An eight-piece ensemble performed the intense pieces while four vocalists sang Cohen's poetry.

I initially thought the singing would be distracting and too interpretive, but was mostly wrong. Cohen's poetry (and lyrics) are introspective and self-absorbed to the point of isolation. At times Cohen's recorded voice boomed over the music and projected self-portraits, usually prompting a laugh from the audience. Quips are only part of Cohen's work, but one which Glass must have considered most true to him and him alone. For all the longer poems, the vocalists took duty- both in solos and choruses. The choruses proved more effective, as it left less to the vocalists' personal interpretations and more to the commanding nature of the words themselves.

The music was best when fast-paced, on schedule for doomsday. Set in a minor key, my favorite piece revolved around pacing drums and an urgent chorus that called to examine the players in the Holocaust as puppets. A later song, musically similar but taking on the subject of God's intentions to let Cohen philander as he so chooses, was another of the highlights. Glass also wrote solo instrumental pieces for the cello, violin, and tenor saxaphone, which were well-placed in the otherwise vocal-oriented performance.

As a performer, it appeared that Glass largely elected to sit this one out. As a 71-year-old man and unequivocal genius it's his right to do what he wants. Glass sat in the background, hand on chin, observing his performers throughout most of the show, only occasionally offering but one helping hand to the keyboard on his side of the stage. As I know little about classical performance, I'm not sure how involved the composer gets, or how much of his duty calls for him to perform at all (most composers are dead when their work is performed anyway). Perhaps Glass felt obliged to be seen, if only as a still-life, for the sake of the audience. Perhaps he enjoys the spotlight. Perhaps he has arthritis. I had only hoped I'd see a little liveliness with his presence.

What hints at Glass' knowledge and experience in live performing, however, was not in his presence, but within the measure of the set. Solos and Cohen's recorded quips interjected the varied moods of the lengthier compositions, thematically set around love, lust, religion, age, and decrepitness both morally and structurally, all laced with Cohen's brevity and bravado. If anything, the 100 minutes felt too short, or maybe just enough, to glimpse, if only marginally, the genius of two of the most well-respected musicians living today.