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This Train is Bound for Glory

13 Aug

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It is times like these I like to turn to the Dust Bowl Troubadour Woody Guthrie for hope. Guthrie, the son of a KKK member, made his crusade that of freedom and social justice. He is the encapsulation of an individual who fought against an upbringing of hatred to create a life of truth and acceptance. His main opponent was fascism. As he came to prominence during World War II, he despised Hitler, of whom he said anyone human is against. His slogan, “this machine kills fascists” was spawned from an anti-Hitler song he wrote in 1941. Perhaps his thoughts on fascism were made most clear in his song “What Are We Waiting On,” where he urged the United States to enter the war effort against Hitler and the Nazi Party. He wrote:

There’s a great and a bloody fight ’round this whole world tonight 
And the battle, the bombs and shrapnel reign 
Hitler told the world around he would tear our union down 
But our union’s gonna break them slavery chains 
Our union’s gonna break them slavery chains

I walked up on a mountain in the middle of the sky 
Could see every farm and every town 
I could see all the people in this whole wide world 
That’s the union that’ll tear old Hitler down
That’s the union that’ll tear the fascists down

Our union will “tear old Hitler down.” Our union will “tear the fascists down.” That is America, according to Woody Guthrie. His classic “This Land is Your Land” further cements his views on America, a unique country that continues to fight its demons but represents the unbridled hope of all. America is multifaceted. America is diverse. It’s a social experiment with bruises and wounds, but, like a prize fighter, it perseveres, because it “tear[s] the fascists down.” If only Woody Guthrie were alive today.

Music, like most art, is a response to the times. Inspiration comes from experience. Woody Guthrie wrote out of necessity – his songs engendered nationalism at a time where democracy was threatened, and he preached acceptance for the entire country, not just a portion. Musicians today have the same responsibility to speak out. Protest music is not what it was in the 1960s, but it still exists, albeit too taciturn and encumbered by the glut of music today. So, we turn to Guthrie and Ochs and Lennon and Baez, because, according to Baez, we have not seen an anthemic protest song released today. That said, we can look to Green Day, Bruce Springsteen, Kendrick Lamar, Kodak Black, and even Beyonce for pieces of social protest – they are, in a way, carrying the torch of Woody Guthrie – however, I for one would like to see the torch brighter.

Speaking of torches – tiki torches to be exact – a group of white nationalists came together for a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia this weekend. The empowered group chanted anti-Semitic epithets while many proudly waved the Nazi salute as they marched with tiki torches on the campus of Virginia. Let’s look beyond the hilarious irony of white supremacists using a Polynesian product to declare their inherent hatred of immigration and longing for racial purity. Such a display could and should be laughed at because of its inanity and racism, but I do not want to discount the danger of these groups thinking they are powerful. Also, the events of this weekend led to the deaths of three individuals, one of whom was run over by a lunatic domestic terrorist. We are supposed to be the union that tears the fascists down, not the union the excuses blatant Nazism. Remember before when I mentioned the bumps and bruises of American – one of those gashes is the seedy undercurrent of misguided nationalism that spawns in Nazi sympathizers. I’d be ignorant in saying that this can ever be removed from society. It won’t be; however, one cannot provide these individuals with power. It’s simple. We want to respect the views of all people in America – however, if one’s view is obdurate hatred for people “not like you” with appreciation of the Nazis, those views are dangerous, inappropriate, and vile. Such an individual should be required to get out of his/her bubble, so he/she can recognize that people are people. Those individuals cannot gain credence or any form of acceptance. And, that’s where music can have a role. Music has served a tremendous role in our country, providing a conduit for social change and shifting perspectives of many. It can once again open the eyes of those who are blinded by ignorance and fear. It’s time to hear more from musicians.

All this said, I am confident that the despicable underside of hatred that marred the news this weekend will be conquered. Woody Guthrie was correct that the machine of music kills fascists. It’s an unstoppable force. Just take one listen to the American gospel classic “This Train,” that Guthrie adapted and played. “This train is bound for glory” – no liars or con men allowed – only the righteous and the holy can get on this train. America may not be perfect, but, throughout its history and the tireless work of fighters for social justice, it has kicked liars and con men off the train bound for glory, and I am confident that they will be kicked off again, because this train is bound for glory and it’s not going to be stopped.

Here is a lively version of the tune from Mumford and Sons, Edward Sharpe, and The Old Crow Medicine Show. That’s right, a few Brits, a wacky Californian, and a string band from Tennessee singing a gospel song with joyous effervescence. That’s America at its finest.

 

We Don’t Deserve Everything Now – New Arcade Fire

31 Jul

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Arcade Fire, the uber-eccentric Canadian Indie Rock band, released its fifth studio album last Friday. The album follows the natural progression for Arcade Fire who embraced the dance rock feel with their last LP Reflektor. For Everything Now the band brought in Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter and the sound reflects this collaboration.

Arcade Fire and I have a volatile relationship. I embrace a few of their tracks, placing those songs in the rare coterie of “listenable no matter what,” but there are many tracks that just fall flat to me. Hence, I judge Arcade Fire releases accordingly. Everything Now features a few absolute clunkers – dance rock needs to be pretty infectious for me to enjoy it and, well, several of the tracks on this album just don’t do it for me. That said, I will say that Arcade Fire’s focus on lyrics this album was a big success, and I enjoy the theme. The big release is the title track, which serves as the central motif for the album – its melody opens and closes the record. Here is the track below:

Sensationally catchy, right? That melody is toe-tapping goodness. The sampling of “The Coffee Cola Song” by Francis Bebey works well – I always appreciate some well-placed pan flute in music. The song is even electric in lyric – “Every song that I’ve ever heard
is playing at the same time, it’s absurd” – a Delillo-like wall-of-sound image. The song is one of Arcade Fire’s finest since The Suburbs. However, it is not the best song on the album. That is reserved for the song that closes out the album (putting aside the reprisal of the title track).

I’m not sure why “We Don’t Deserve Love” has not received more attention in the critic’s reviews of the album. Perhaps it is the type of song that will grow on listeners. For me, though, the song’s significance hit immediately – this track is Arcade Fire’s most sincere in years – a true testament to the excellent band that Arcade Fire is when it gets down to its Indie roots. The song’s electric rhythm calls to Radiohead’s most recent release – a bit morose but eclectically beautiful. The dulcet and eerie melody reflects the lyric perfectly – a song about trying to persist with a loving connection in a sea of confusion and mixed messages. Consider the lyric below:

The men you love always leave you alone
You hear your mother screaming
You hear your daddy shout
You try to figure it out
You never figure it out
Your mother’s screaming
That you don’t deserve love
If you don’t deserve love
And if I don’t deserve love
Could we deserve?

The string of lyrics are telling and the rhetorical question at the end is so sad but oddly hopeful because who the heck cares if one “deserves” love – love is love – even in the infinite content wasteland portrayed in Arcade Fire’s album. Through its warped melody is clarity and that seems like an eloquent concluding message for the album.

Dan Auerbach is the King of a One Horse Town

20 Jun

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There is something quite old about Dan Auerbach’s second solo studio album Waiting on a Song (June 2017), and I like it. Auerbach, who is the guitarist and vocalist for The Black Keys, has not released a solo album since Keep it Hid (2009), and this new release is certainly different – more modern in its year and more oldies in its sound. It comes as no surprise that Easy Eye Sound (Auerbach’s new record label) holds the catchy slogan “Good Sound Comes Back Around.” Auerbach, though, is able to toe the line between copying the sound he wants to pay tribute to and creating new variations on that sound. So, yes, while Waiting on a Song would have fit the record players of long-haired 1970s-era teens, it still holds a uniquely modern spin that attracts listeners of all ages.

On a track-by-track sample of the album, George Harrison pops into mind, especially with “Shine on Me,” a lively guitar-driven ditty that was one of George Harrison’s staples during his post-Beatles solo career.

The song is carried by its rhythm, jaunty percussion matched with fragmented guitar strumming. Auerbach’s lyric matches the rhythm, persistent with its mention of smiling and shining. It’s almost a bit mawkish, but thankfully there is a brief riff that brings the song back to Earth. It’s a ditty of the finest variety and while I know many Auerbach/Black Keys fans are accustomed to a dirtier blues sound, this deviation is welcome, as it credits a time when music balanced fun and talent.

“King of a One Horse Town” is a bit more traditional Black Keys, but it takes the sooty blues and replaces it with a distorted spaghetti western. The song fits the soundtrack theme with its ethereal echoes and orchestral melodies. The way the twang is balanced by the string motif is masterful, and Auerbach’s vocals fit the piece neatly. It’s another original testament to songs from back in the day.

 

“Play That Song” is What is Wrong with Music

29 Apr

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Yes, you read the title correctly. I’m over-generalizing, of course, but Train’s “Play That Song” is representative of what is wrong with music in 2017. It serves as the quintessential example of my gripe with modern musical laziness. Before I begin this tirade, let’s go back in time for some basis.

I am completely aware that music is a product of its time. The 50s, for example, provided the world with Doo-Wop and thus repeated simple chord progressions over and over again to much success. The 60s merseybeat model produced some similar sounding tunes that many bands reproduced. The 70s followed suit with arena rock and disco, the 80s with synth and percussion, the 90s with grunge and boy bands, and so on. That said, in each era, there were bands that utilized the common trope of the time and created new, genre-bending sounds that propelled music of the time to new heights, and these bands for super success. Today, though, the list of these type of bands has dwindled, and the music world is crowded with bands that serve up common music motifs that are, for the most part, potboiler dreck that vomits into the mainstream and corrupts the ears of the populace, that, of course, eats this saccharine garbage up.

Enter “Play That Song” by Train, a band that hit it big with songs like “Drops of Jupiter” (which I love by the way), dropped off the face of the Earth, and have recently made a tremendous comeback. Good for them. I’m happy for Train. I like Train. They are a pop band that pairs simple chord progressions with dulcet melodies and summery lyrics. You need that every once in a while. Train’s 2016 release “Play That Song,” though is a musical humbug, a deceptive ditty that has now reached Gold in sales and has sat at several positions on several music charts. The song is melodically lazy and takes advantage of the easily impacted ear of most listeners

Why do I feel this way; well, listen to the song.


Sound familiar? The song co-credits “Heart and Soul” writers Hoagy Carmichael and Frank Loesser. It is spun as a modern take on the old Jazz classic, although the song does not do much differentiation from the melody. “Heart and Soul,” follows the well-known I–vi–IV–V chord progression. It is the classic catchy tune, and Train played on it. So, what’s my issue? It is lazy. Just lazy.

Hey, I have an idea. Let’s re-do an old catchy song into a new catchy song and release it to the masses who will inevitably sap it up because it is abiding by the same classic catchy idea that has been a proven money maker. And, Train has the audacity to title the song “Play That Song,” as if they are just laughing at the listeners, insisting that they put the song on repeat and continue to “Play That Song,” just like people repeatedly play “Heart and Soul” on the piano.

This just represents the least amount of work that can possibly go into a pop song; if it took Train longer than an hour to write the song, that is embarrassing. Train just continues to earn the reputation as a pop sinecure. Perhaps my censure is spawned from jealousy. The band may be genius. They found out how easy it is to make simple music that will make money. That said, this particular song is rubbish. Come on, Train.

On Repeat – Mountain Goats and Bleachers

14 Apr

One of the ineluctable truths of having a music blog for so long is that you end up writing multiple posts about the same artist/band. This is not a negative, as this inevitability depicts the blogger’s music taste. So, it should come to no surprise to avid readers of The Music Court that the two artists whose new tracks are euphoniously blaring on repeat from my small, but surprisingly loud, portable speaker are The Mountain Goats and Bleachers. Both of these bands have found laudatory homes on this blog before, and this post will be no exception to that status.

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The Mountain Goats own Indie Rock. For more than two decades and now 16 studio albums, John Darnielle, the lyrical demigod and two-time author, and his band continue to shape and define quality Indie music, doing it better than any other artist over a longer period of time. It is their success that somewhat shapes their new release, Goths, which will be released on Merge records in May. The album, which features no guitars, pays tribute to bands who did not persist, whose tunes faded away. To promote and preview the album, the band released a track, “Andrew Eldritch Is Moving Back to Leeds,” and since its release in late February, I have listened to it more than a few times.

Above is a recent performance by John Darnielle of the track – with guitar although it is not used on the album. Andrew Eldritch is known by some as the Godfather of Goth; he is frontman for Gothic Rock band The Sisters of Mercy. Eldritch himself is a skilled lyricist, often making lyrical references in his pieces. Darnielle plays upon the melancholic (somewhat gothic) reality of time. The song begins set in a venue where we can suppose Eldritch is playing and the goers experience the “faint gust of hope” as they “meet up against” to “remember how it was” back in the day. The song continues with the motif of Eldritch moving back home without “parade” and “no big changes in the roadways.” It is a Darnielle special, a lugubriously realistic portrayal of how little changes, a keen, singular depiction of time transforming little but memories and age, all set to the tune of Darnielle’s creative rhythm.

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Jack Antonoff is quickly cementing himself as the pop/rock king of modern music. The multi-instrumentalist creator of Bleachers, Antonoff cut his teeth with Steel Train and Fun. His second LP, Gone Now, will be released on June 2, coming off the heels of his first LP Strange Desire, which featured the huge hits “I Wanna Get Better” and “Rollercoaster.” His first single off of the new album, “Don’t Take the Money” (which features Lorde) is a quintessential example of Antonoff’s pop talent. The song is an earworm to the extreme, and it should come with a disclaimer: if you press play below you will listen to this song again and again and again.

So, what makes the song and Antonoff so good. It is the perfect, multifaceted blend of 80s music influences and the modern blend of wall-of-sound pop. The song features an immediate hook fit with reverbed synth and drums. It transitions into an echoed pre-chorus that drops to Antonoff’s far-off voice immediately falling into a pounding, blindingly catchy chorus that is almost unfair in its skill. It’s the time of chorus that makes the listener just go “yes, that is exactly what I have been waiting for.” I have blasted this song in my car on multiple occasions because of that chorus. Antonoff is utilizing so many musical influences to transform pop/rock. I, for one, am extremely pleased. The genre is in good hands.

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