Saturday, March 20, 2010

Album Review: Broken Bells Self Titled Album

James Mercer and Brian Burton are two great forces in the world of modern pop music, though you may not recognize their names. Mercer is the front man for indie-pop icons The Shins, and Brian Burton has been associated with The Black Keys, The Gorillaz, Gnarls Barkley, Beck, and is the genius behind the critically acclaimed and infamously banned The Grey Album. You may know him as Danger Mouse.

Six years ago, these two met and discussed a collaboration. The timing was not right until last year, when they entered into Burton's studio stocked with an array of musical instruments, beers, ambitions and their respective genius. Had the result been released last year, my Top Fifteen Albums of the last decade would have had a slightly different look. The result is Broken Bells, a tidy pop album which deserves a spot on your shelf. Or hard drive.

What's strange about the combination of these two artists is where each comes from; Danger Mouse is primarily a producer who favors heavy studio work and post=production on his projects, while The Shins' style is mostly stripped down and easily reproducible in a live setting. The good news for Broken Bells (which is the name of the "band" as well as the album) is that the heavy production can be carried to a live setting (as they have proven on late night television and at this year's South by Southwest music festival. This is the result of a careful selection of musical instruments; if the sound could be produced by a mechanical instrument rather than an electronic synth machine, it was.

Tracks like "The High Road," "Your Head is on Fire" and "October" offer a kind of synergy of 80's synthpop, 90's techno, and 60's rock. And with everything Danger Mouse is attached to, there is a hip hop undercurrent. All of these genres meshing at once could be disastrous, but in Burton's hands and with Mercer's musicianship and wonderful voice, the end result is not a melting pot but a well mixed salad. The last track, "The Mall and Misery" fades into its component chord progression, played on organ and then instead of landing for the finish, it seems to vanish into the air. It left me strangely satisfied and yet hungry for another listen.

This album has the potential to land the underrated and soon-to-be much coveted honor of the "I'm o.k, I'm all write Best Album of the Year" award. It's the first serious contender to have been released (have you heard the new Spoon album, because I find it fair enough and also OK Go's new album is great but not competitive against the band's music videos). Burton and Mercer put together a band to support the album, but they haven't as yet made plans beyond late-night television and SXSW. Here's hoping they'll continue to tour, and that they manage to find their way to the St. Louis area. I missed The Decemberists last year and since Sunny Day Real Estate and Conan O'Brien both deemed St. Louis unworthy of visiting (why, CoCo, why?), one can only hope for a treat like Broken Bells.

You can listen to the whole album at NPR Music's Exclusive First Listen through the end of the month.

I can't find it now, but All Songs Considered host Bob Boilen did a chat with Burton and Mercer about the album, and it was released as the ASC podcast before they began their SXSW coverage. You can listen to their performance at NPR's SXSW Music Showcase Live at Stubb's BBQ here. Much like The Decemberists did at Stubb's last year during the festival, Broken Bells played their entire album live. It's not as good as being there, I am sure, but if you like the album but are skeptical of how it would sound live, give it a listen.

Speaking of bands playing music festivals, I would like to take this moment to congratulate Pokey LaFarge and the South City Three for landing a spot at this year's Newport Folk Festival. This is a pretty big deal if I do say so myself, and I'm very excited for these guys. My father and I were eager to attend the show, but it looks like that will be a no go for me at least, as the festival is in August and that's when the baby is scheduled to arrive. As much as I love Pokey and the SC3, baby takes precedence. With luck, NPR music will cover it and podcast it and I can continue vicariously living through NPR Music's Bob Boilen and Robin Hilton. do I get a job like those two have? Totally unfair.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Complaints and Then Traditions.

I have received several-not complaints per se but, comments I think we'll call them-lately to the tune of "Your last couple posts were way too long!" To that, I say, "Dem's da breaks, kiddo."

But really, here's a good summary: Downloaded music okay. Physical media better. Vinyl records best. Electronic books stupid. Physical books awesome. Electronic media mixed bag. Easy for new players to the media game. And finally, iPad stupid stupid stupid stupid stupid.

I hope that clears things up a bit.

I know I have talked about my family a little bit in the past. I count myself lucky to count myself amongst not only my parents and sister, but also amongst my sister's husband, their two little girls (link), my wife, her parents and their nine other children and their various and varied family members. There are a lot. Six brothers, three sisters, five sisters-in-law, one brother-in-law, three nieces, two nephews and one more nephew to be born in the next three weeks (so, you know, by the time you get around to finishing my last two posts and this one, that kid will be halfway through with his doctorate). So that's a lot of family for me to keep tabs on.

Add to that, I have close friends who I consider family. Sure, some of that family I may not see all that often, or call consistently, or...wait, now I look like a bad friend/relative. Anyway, I am getting to a point. That point is that with all this family plus the time that these families have spent together (separately and together) comes a slew of traditions.

The traditions range from the weekly to the annually and all other sorts of permutations. I think that traditions are important when building and maintaining a family, so I'm going to talk about some of my favorite ones.

Sunday Dinner - Growing up in my parents' house was kind of...odd. I don't intend that to sound mean, but, for most of my childhood, the house was in a constant state of flux. Not the household, but the house itself, the brick-and-mortar and four-walls-and-a-roof house. One of my earliest memories is of my dad and my uncle Tim working together on remodeling the bathroom. Then together (and with the help of other uncles from both sides of the family) they tackled the deck, tore the old one down and built a new one (which still stands). My sister and I had bedrooms upstairs in what had been the attic but which had been (as my father would say) remuddled into living space. But it had lackluster insulation and no air conditioning, which meant it got ridiculously cold in the winter and unbearably hot in the summer. Winter wasn't a big deal, really, because there were always plenty of blankets. Summer, however, usually meant camping out in the couch in the living room. After a while, I just moved permanently onto the couch. My sister, however, got her own bedroom; what had been the dining room was remodeled into a bedroom and I couldn't understand why she got it and I didn't (at the time, anyway, but now I get it; she's a girl and she was entering those teenage years and I can't think of a better place for a teenage girl than locked up in her own room...haha, kidding Mo). What this meant was that we were now short a bedroom for me and a dining room. We ate a lot of our meals in the living room, which is where I slept.

Anyway, eventually the remodeling process took a huge leap and we had a real life second story to the house. Finally, I had my own bedroom and my own closet and I moved off the futon in the living room and onto a twin bed (later replaced by the futon, which is currently in the basement, and if you're a regular to the blog you've seen it as I am sitting on it in my video blogs). My sister's old room (which, remember, was the dining room) became the living room and we started working on turning the living room (and my parents' old room) into new space. The front half of the living room was going to remain living room, with my parents' old room becoming the rest of the living room. The old back part of the living room was going to become the dining room. But that took a few years. Meanwhile, we had a table in a small room we called the breakfast nook (a sun porch leading out to the deck, which, again, is still there to this day) but we ate most of our meals, again, in the living room. The temporary one. It wasn't until I was mostly done with high school that the whole project was finished. I don't want to make it look like my parents were lazy or anything like that, they just worked when they could and when they could afford it, and when you've got two kids to raise and you're looking at paying for them to go to college maybe, and my mother was in school for a majority of that time and working full time (I did it and I don't know how she did it because I was stressed enough without two kids to take care of), so it went slow and steady. And though I sometimes went without a bedroom, I never went without a bed and though I sometimes went without a dining room, I never went without dinner. So I'm not complaining.

The final piece of the remodel came after I left for college (attempt number one). The summer between my first and last semesters at the University of Minnesota was filled with tuckpointing, new driveway and no kitchen. That's right, that summer my parents remodeled their kitchen, which needed it, trust me. The old one was, shall we say, retro in a very not-cool-retro-but-actually-held-over-from-the-seventies way. The appliances, too (aside from the oven, which had been replaced due to the utter failure of the oven door of the old one, which is a long story I actually won't go into here, surprisingly). But, what that did mean was that summer is written in my memory as the summer of the grill. We grilled almost every meal we ate. We had a charcoal Weber kettle, my late Grandpa Rauscher's Char Broil gas grill, a Coleman camp was all set up outside on the deck. We ate so well. And we had a brand new refrigerator in the room that had been the dining room and then became my sister's room and then was the living room (side note; that room has actually been very many rooms since my parents moved in; dining room, bedroom, living room, kitchen, office, music room, storage room, pretty much every room my parents have in that house aside from the bathroom), so we had a good summer eating in the relatively-new-dining room. I went back to college before the counter tops arrived.

I am getting to Sunday Dinners here. When I moved back-well, no. After I moved back, actually, and my sister was living with Kevin (who is now her husband), she would come back and eat dinner with us on Sundays. It was nice. We had a kitchen, a dining room, a living room, all functioning. All those meals we had eaten in the living room in my youth, not to detract from them because the food was uniformly good and the company some of the best the world has to offer (sucking up to the family much? Elliot, do you need money or something? No, I promise, it's all part of the literaryness of the post), there is something about gathering around the table with the family once a week and catching up. We kept this going after Kathy and I got married and we moved into our apartment, and it's a tradition that has grown. My sister and her family spend alternating Sundays with her husband's family, which is only fair. We'd probably do the same it weren't distance prohibitive to drive to Kathy's parents' house just for dinner once every two weeks. My grandmother Mary Beth (my mother's mother) joins us. Other extended family members have come. Of course my sisters' girls come along with their parents. And whenever one of Kathy's family members is in town, they tag along as well. Basically it's a great comfort to me to know that each week, I get to spend one meal sitting at the table, laughing with my parents and spending time with people I love.

Gay Schnucks - Okay, having ended that last tradition on a sappy note, I'm going to go for funny now. And no, you didn't read that wrong, that says Gay Schnucks. Schnucks is a supermarket here in St. Louis (I'd link to them but 1. they're not paying me to and 2. I don't think they'd be too keen on any publicity that is preceded by the qualifier "Gay") which is quite nice in its selection, location and hours. The closest one to my parents' house is about a five minute drive and it's open 24 hours, which is helpful to someone planning a get-together in the midst of the holiday season.

That's right, Mom, I'm talking about our Christmas Eve tradition.

Early in the morning on Christmas Eve (or, really, generally late in the evening on Christmas Eve Eve), my mother will do the last minute shopping for the annual(ish) Christmas gathering she and my father host. This gathering consists of my mother, my father, myself, my wife's self, and some other selfs who are wont to comment on the blog occasionally (hi Bridget). This past year it grew in scope to quite an overwhelming proportion, so maybe next year it'll be toned down a smidge. Anyway, the last minute shopping takes place at the aforementioned nearby Schnucks, and the four years I was in high school (and the next couple years after when I lived at home), I would accompany my mother on this shopping trip to provide moral support/push the cart/keep her company. The reason this Schnucks is called "Gay" Schnucks is because it is located near a vibrant gay community, and many of the shoppers you see there are in fact gay couples. The first year I accompanied my mother on this trip I was fifteen, and as I recall this was the first time I had heard the store's unofficial nickname. I thought little of it; so what? Gay people shop there in large, noticeable numbers? Good for the boys! But we were there so late that they made an announcement at a quarter to two in the morning stating that if you had liquor you wished to purchase, buy now or regret it later. Or something to that effect. My mother indeed intended to buy several bottles of wine, so she left me with the list and the cart and rushed to buy the wine in one bulk purchase, promising to return so we could continue shopping together. This was not my first time alone in a grocery store, but it was the first time alone so late at night in a grocery store. I, again, didn't think much about it.

Until...a creepy man started tailing me. Smiling at me, but not in a "Oh, I'm just being polite and we made eye contact" kind of way. More in a, "So...come here often?" Kind of way. I smiled in a way that I was sure said, "No, especially not this late because generally I have a curfew and I'm only fifteen and my mother is just getting some wine. Really, I'm awfully flattered but, as I said, I'm fifteen years old and also, not that there's anything wrong with that but I don't play for that team. Did I mention my mother is just buying some wine? Yeah, she'll be right back any minute. I appreciate the smile, you have lovely teeth for sure but, honestly, I'm fifteen and you're kind of creeping me out and you're standing in front of the milk and I really need a gallon of it so if you could just, say, shove off in a totally different direction, life would be a lot less stressful for me at this moment in time." I'm not sure how it came off, but eventually he wandered away.

You'd think I'd have been deterred by this, but no. I kept coming back. At least five more years. And every year, I think, "Oh, I should go help my mom. This time, though, I'll pick up the wine myself and leave her getting the rest of the groceries."

Weier Family Classic - My wife's family is large, as I said, but they're also spread out across five states (Nebraska, Minnesota, Iowa, Colorado and Missouri). With ten children and a branching family tree, it's difficult to get everyone together. So several years ago, they initiated the Weier (and that's pronounced like the conjunction for "we are" or, if you prefer, like the last name of US Figure Skating pretty boy Johnny Weir though spelled differently) Family Classic. The idea is that each year, the family gets together and holds a contest of some kind, and the winner gets to take home a trophy which is as tall as my wife.

The first year, it was a fishing challenge, and the trophy went to my wife for catching the biggest fish. She wasn't even using bait. And the fish isn't a legal fish to catch, as it's endangered. Of course it's endangered! It bites unbaited hooks (this one bit hers not once but twice). The second year it went to my niece Morgan for "Best New Attraction" (they scrambled for a category that year). The third year (my first participating year, as my wife's fiance) we went bowling, and the trophy went to my wife's brother Joe for getting the most strikes in a row. The fourth year we bet pennies on a minor league baseball game (we were each assigned a batter and for each hit they got, everybody else gave you a penny for a single, two for a double, etc). This contest was held a week after I had married Kathy. And I won.

We've had lawn olympics, rock-paper-scissor tournaments and Diet-Coke/Mentos fountain contests. It's a good way to get the family together and see each other at least once a year. It's been a couple years now, as families have grown it's gotten even harder, but the trophy (wherever it now resides, I can't remember) beckons to each of us. There are those who still lust after it, upset that startups (like myself) can just stroll in off the street and claim the title. They're still waiting for their day. For past champs like myself, we miss the thrill of competition. Also, there's always food involved. Really, ridiculously good food.

Olympic Ribs - This is a relatively new tradition. And by relatively new, I mean it's only happened once, and that in the very recent past. Though it has its roots elsewhere.

The roots lie in another tradition that Kathy and I started; Each night, before we go to sleep, we generally watch one or two episodes of M*A*S*H. You know that show, right? It's been in syndication for my entire life almost, held a viewership record that stood until the most recent Superbowl for most viewers watching a single program (the series finale in 1982). Alan Alda, Jamie Farr wearing dresses, Harry Morgan, Korean've got it now I'm sure. Well, there is an episode in I want to say Season Two called Adams Ribs, in which Hawkeye (Alan Alda) is sick and tired of army food and calls a BBQ joint in Chicago and orders forty pounds of frozen ribs and two gallons of barbecue sauce, then has to have his tent-mate Trapper call up a girl he used to know in Chicago to pick it up, pay for it and put it in a box marked "Medical Supplies-URGENT!" and send it to them in Korea. Every time we watch this episode, we crave ribs.

One night, the craving hit us so hard we called in an order to Applebee's and I picked it up. The ribs were...disappointing. Another time, we had our own barbecued ribs at my parents' house (for a Sunday Dinner). And in 2008, a few days after we watched this episode some friends of ours came over to watch Olympic Gymnastics, and they offered to get dinner. They asked us what we wanted, and we told them, duh, ribs! So we recently started watching the series again (for the nth and not the final time), and two days before the Vancouver Winter Olympics opened, we saw that episode. We knew that we would be glued to the opening ceremonies on that Friday (because we're suckers for that kind of stuff) so we decided to get ribs and watch them. So we did, and I decided that regardless of when the last time we watched that particular episode of M*A*S*H was, come the 2012 Summer Games in London, we will be ordering a slab of ribs from Bandana's BBQ here in town, with some cole slaw and potato salad, and we'll watch those opening ceremonies while we stuff our face with ribs. That's the kind of tradition Kathy has no problem getting behind.

So why bring up all these traditions, anyway? Surely these things would have been more present in my mind over the holidays or directly after the rib-sauce-soaked opening ceremonies? Well, sure, but we've had other things on our minds. My digital music/book rant one of those things, maybe. Watching the Olympics, perhaps. But mostly, we've been preoccupied with the thought of incorporating a new family member into these traditions. This isn't just idle speculation, either. Come August 19th or thereabouts of this year, I'm Not Just o.k., I'm not Just All Write, I'm also a father. Which makes Kathy a mother, and that way we keep it all in the family. And that means the blog might take on a little bit of a different character (again, link for some perspective).

So you've all got that to look forward to. Who's excited?

I know I am.