Category Archives: Heavy Rotation

What our contributors have been listening to lately.

Zooey and the Terabithians

Sometimes after seeing a movie with memorable music, I later discover that the best songs are missing from the soundtrack. This recently happened with my six-year old daughter Amelia’s favorite, Bridge to Terabithia, which moves from tween fantasy fare to thorny and honestly portrayed realist drama once the music starts to take hold.

An unlikely trio of covers, missing from the Disney-dominated official soundtrack, gives the movie its real spark. The music teacher, played by the almost-famous chanteuse Zooey Deschanel, leads the kids through “Someday” by Steve Earle, “Why Can’t We Be Friends” by War, and “Ooh Child” by the Five Stairsteps. War’s socially conscious low-riding funk and the Stairsteps’ wide-eyed Chicago soul can hold their own on any playlist. But “Someday,” Steve Earle’s early anthem of longing and escape, has acquired a magical power for my daughter and me. I pull out an acoustic guitar, stumble through a few clumsily played licks, and listen to my urban-dwelling, public transportation-loving little girl belt out the lyrics—“I’ve got a ’67 Chevy, it’s low and sleek and black/ someday I’ll put her on the Interstate and never look back”—like she has just discovered the missing link between Haggard and Springsteen. I have no idea how or why they make perfect sense to her, but I know it must be time for a really good road trip.

At this point, Zooey is better known for being ridiculously charming than for her singing and songwriting. But last year’s minor classic She and Him (she wrote most of the songs, with music by M. Ward’s “him”) resonates more than I expected. The music mixes Motown-inspired soul (right down to the Smokey Robinson cover) with the urbane country shuffle of George Jones and his duet partners. Not everything works, but the best of these, like the subtle “Black Hole” and the sparkling “This is Not a Test,” sound timeless rather than simply nostalgic. These songs won’t set the house on fire, but Zooey’s voice has a quiet power that reminds me ever so slightly of—dare I say it?—Karen Carpenter. There, I just said it.

For a video of Steve Earle’s “Someday,” click here.

For a video of War’s “Why Can’t We Be Friends,” click here.

Zooey Deschanel, “Someday” (from Bridge to Terabithia)

She and Him, “Black Hole”

Five Stairsteps, “Ooh Child”

Deerhunter: Eligible Receivers Downfield

You expect lead singers to be tall and gangly, but Bradford Cox, of Atlanta’s ambient noisemakers turned gonzo garageband Deerhunter, is in a league of his own, with a physique that would make even presumed invertebrate Iggy Pop look like a fullback. This isn’t because he’s trying to be cool. Like Joey Ramone before him, he has Marfan’s syndrome and looks like he will blow over in a strong wind. But over the years, Cox and his cohorts, notably percussionist Moses Archuleta and guitarist/ keyboardist Lockett Pundt, have stayed grounded by growing nimbler and smarter than most of their peers. If they were a football team, their recent work would resemble the controversial A-11 offense used by California’s Piedmont High and a handful of other schools featuring gangly, underweight smart kids. Fluid and fast, the two-quarterback A-11 offense turns every member of the team into an eligible receiver, making even familiar plays seem off-kilter and unpredictable.

Cox, who records beguiling solo records as Atlas Sound, occasionally posts excellent micromix playlists on his website that underscore his unpredictability (one recent list has Aaron Neville, Lee Hazlewood and Shuggie Otis brushing shoulders with the Residents and Robert Wyatt). Despite these, I was a bit behind the curve warming to Deerhunter. Even though I admired the mind-melding sonic collages on 2007’s Cryptograms, they exuded a chilly air that, in my more curmudgeonly moods, left me running for the nearest vinyl slab of Al Green or Merle Haggard. I had them pegged as a shoegaze band, and I’m just not that interested in footwear.

But last year’s sprawling double whammy, Microcastle/ Weird Era Cont., adds more than real guitars and real songs; it has a fluidity and humanity that I thought was beyond them. You can hear familair strains on almost every track, but the band’s playbook is now covering new ground, turning the field into a dizzyingly blurry hybrid of ambient drone (Can, Stereolab, 4AD bands) and thumping avant-rock (Velvets, Television, Feelies, Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine, and even Cox’s beloved Echo and the Bunnymen). At a time when most of us probably feel like we could be blown down in the next storm, it’s weirdly comforting to know that you don’t have to be Metallica or Motorhead to compete in the big leagues.

Deerhunter, “Nothing Ever Happened”

Deerhunter, “Agoraphobia”

Holiday in Cambodia: Khmer Rock, Dengue Fever and the River of Time

Part One: Life During Wartime

Last week, when Aretha Franklin put on her oversized bow hat and melted fire with her inaugural version of “America (My Country ‘Tis of Thee)”—Samuel Francis Smith’s 19th Century rewrite of a German rewrite of “God Save the Queen”—a piece of my heart held the memory of another queen of soul, one generation and half a world away, who met with a more tragic fate. Blessed with a voice of equally staggering power and beauty, Ros Sereysothea rose from poverty and illiteracy to become the most beloved singer in her native Cambodia during the sixties and early seventies. Thanks to the excellent Los Angeles combo Dengue Fever, discussed below, the music of Ros and her contemporaries is finally experiencing a rebirth on both sides of the Pacific.

Ros’s story carries a distinctive rock twist. Along with the cherub-faced godfather of Khmer soul, Sinn Sisamouth, a former Royal Court crooner turned unlikely garage rocker, and the more playful female vocalist Pan Ron, who makes me think of Martha Reeves, Ros meshed Khmer music with the range of Western sounds that made their way across the Pacific during wartime—everything from Motown and classic R&B to surf, psychedelic and garage rock. Eastern sounds from Bangkok to Bollywood also entered the mix. The resulting Khmer rock underground was like nothing else heard before or since. A track like Ros’s “Chnam Oun 16” (translated as “I’m 16” or “Sweet 16”) virtually defies description, but to me it sounds a bit like an even more intense Asha Bhosle performing an upbeat Aretha number, backed by the 13th Floor Elevators. The song sounds so alive that it seems to mock death itself for its weakness and cowardice.

Ros Sereysothea, “Chnam Oun 16”

As John Swain captured in his Indochina memoir River of Time, Khmer rock’s seminal figures remained upstarts in their heyday; even Ros and Sinn scrounged for cassette sale revenue and never reached the upper echelons of Cambodia’s economic elite. But their musical revolution came to an abrupt end after April 1975, when Pol Pot’s forces overrode Cambodia. Few of the leading Khmer musicians survived the genocide. Sinn Sisamouth was sent to a work camp and executed. Pan Ron disappeared. Ros Sereysothea’s demise remains the subject of conjecture, but Greg Cahill’s short film about her life, The Golden Voice, concludes that after her discovery in a slave labor camp, she was forced to sing pro-Khmer Rouge songs and marry one of Pol Pot’s henchmen, who later had her killed. In another account, she died from malnutrition in a Phnom Penh hospital weeks before the Vietnamese invasion ousted Pol Pot. Either way, this achingly beautiful and surprisingly rocking music—which often paired melancholy sentiments with sparkling melodies—virtually disappeared, preserved only because fans risked lives and livelihoods hiding priceless cassette tapes. The musical history of a generation went undercover in the face of what Hannah Arendt, commenting on a different genocide, termed “the banality of evil”: ordinary people following orders confiscated and destroyed the tapes, even as they were silently humming these same songs under their breath.

Sinn Sisamouth, “Ma Pi Noak”

Pan Ron, “Rom Ago Ago”

After the click-through: Dengue Fever and the renaissance of Khmer rock and roll.

Continue reading Holiday in Cambodia: Khmer Rock, Dengue Fever and the River of Time

The Wonderful Truth About Burma

I love art and I love rock, but to say that “art rock” has usually been neither would be an understatement. This problem calls to mind Matt Groening’s French sex comedy paradox: the French are funny, sex is funny, and comedy is funny, yet French sex comedies are are never funny. I know, there are good exceptions, from Robert Fripp in his livelier moments to Brian Eno, when he’s not busy recording ambient seal mating noises to play at low volume in European airports. But if art rock is usually a fever, my most reliable cure for three decades running has been Boston’s Mission of Burma, a band that still cranks its amps to eleven even though its guitarist has tinnitus. How “art rock” is Mission of Burma? Well, they’ve recorded two songs about Max Ernst. But unlike, say, Don McLean whining about how nobody loved Vincent Van Gogh, Burma’s art songs are alive with a visceral, spiritual connection to their subject matter. “Dada-dada-dada-dada-dada-dada,” it turns out, makes for one rocking chorus.

I’m only slightly embarrassed that my most-played “new” album of 2008 was Matador’s re-release of Mission of Burma’s 27 year-old Signals, Calls and Marches. Meticulously produced by Ace of Hearts svengali Rick Harte, it doesn’t sound remotely dated. Since the Zeroes have already seen the likes of Interpol, Kaiser Chiefs, Ted Leo, M.I.A., and just about everyone else channeling the early Eighties underground, the time is ripe for a Burma renaissance. Mission of Burma is enjoying a surprisingly productive second life since its 2002 reunion; if you think the band is a nostalgia act, play 2006’s scorching The Obliterati right after any other recent release. One of the best shows I saw in 2008 was Burma’s San Francisco performance of everything from Signals, which reached even further into the band’s back pages with the dark and mysterious “Peking Spring.”

Matador’s 2008 reissue of Signals actually improves on and completes the original version. This year’s model adds four tracks to the original EP’s length, including both sides of one of my all-time favorite singles (Clint Conley’s wonderfully grumpy grad school anthem, “Academy Fight Song,” and Roger Miller’s frenetic “Max Ernst”) and two formerly instrumental tracks from the same sessions (“Devotion” and “Execution”) that the middle-aged Burma gang gave a vocal makeover sometime after recording The Obliterati. Without the dynamics of the original Signals‘ signature number, “That’s When I Reach for My Revolver,” the reworked songs still blend beautifully, sharing a style that has one foot in the conservatory and the other in the mosh pit. The sum total is thirty-five minutes of heavenly bliss disguised as punk rock. About the only thing I miss is the lyric sheet from the original release, which arranged all the words in alphabetical order.

Mission of Burma, “Academy Fight Song”

Mission of Burma, “This is Not a Photograph”

Continue reading The Wonderful Truth About Burma

This Band Could Save Your Life

Can you think of a band that could save your life? I didn’t ask which band could be your life, the subject of the Minutemen‘s classic “History Lesson, Part II” and Michael Azerrad‘s survey of the American rock underground circa 1981-1991. The question posed here is more literal. A Reuters article this week reported that the Bee Gees’ falsetto-fortified 1977 disco hit ‘Stayin’ Alive,” which clocks in at 103 beats per minute (bpm), almost perfectly matches the 100 per minute rate that the American Heart Association recommends for chest compressions during cardiopulmonary resuscitation. A recent study at the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Peoria found that listening to “Stayin’ Alive” helped 15 doctors and medical students perform chest compressions on dummies at the appropriate speed. By contrast, Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On,” despite its title, plods along at a potentially lethal 50 bpm.

No disrespect for the Bee Gees, who started out as a rather classy British Invasion band, but I suspect the disco-loving doctors stacked the deck on this one. Quick review of an online bpm directory reveals that the medical authorities strangely bypassed plenty of songs registering exactly 100 bpm, including such life-affirming ditties as “Straight Cadillac Pimpin‘” by 8-Ball and MJG and “No Shelter” by Rage Against the Machine. But I’m probably just getting defensive because I had to give a guy CPR once, and the song I recall hearing in my head was “Blitzkrieg Bop” by the Ramones, which races along at a frightful 175.8 bpm. Miraculously, he survived. For years, I’ve harbored the delusion that the Ramones helped save his life, when the life they helped save was mine.

One song I’d identify as a “lifesaver” without resorting to mathematical determinism is “(Reach Out) I’ll Be There” by the Four Tops, whose lead crooner Levi Stubbs passed away yesterday. It’s as thorny as a hook-laden love song can get, with “confusion” rhymed with “illusion” and an outstretched hand offering solace in a “world crumbling down.” Almost as good is the 1986 British hit that Stubbs inspired, “Levi Stubbs’ Tears,” which probably ranks as Billy Bragg‘s finest moment. The song is a bittersweet character study of an enduring woman that says more about living with dignity in hard times than a dozen of Bragg’s wordier political anthems. “When the world falls apart, some things stay in place/ Levi Stubbs’ tears run down his face.” When the nameless woman in the song quietly places the Four Tops tape back in its case, her world remains bleak, but she’s managed to survive to face another day, a little wearier and a little wiser. Call me corny, but at a time when the world sure seems like it’s falling apart, keeping the heart moving a little may be the most subversive impulse available. And it’s not just based on math.

Ramones, “Blitzkrieg Bop”

Four Tops, “(Reach Out) I’ll Be There”

Billy Bragg, “Levi Stubbs’ Tears”

Zoe Keating, Tetrishead

Zoe Roof Hatch If WNYC’s RadioLab isn’t a staple of your podcast diet by now, it should be. No one else has embraced the medium’s unique characteristics as well. Each week brings astounding new discoveries, wrapped in a blanket of sonic textures that perfectly illustrate – never distract from – the subject of the episode. It was through a recent episode of RadioLab called Quantum Cello that I came across the stunning music of avant-cellist Zoe Keating.

Don’t let the “avant” part turn you off — this music is accessible, fascinating, utterly beautiful, and works as well in the foreground as it does in the background (i.e. you can as easily close your eyes for deep listening as you can use it as a backdrop for hours-long coding sessions). There’s nothing wanky about it.

Zoe Keating: Tetrishead

Back-story: Keating was a classically trained cellist, on a fast track to the symphony. But despite her prodigious skill, debilitating stage fright kept her from advancing. In auditions, she’d forget entire compositions, drop the bow, and fall to pieces. But when playing solo, or playing her own work, she took flight. So “I bailed on the thing I loved the most.” Zoe ended up at Sarah Lawrence, creating film soundtracks for her art-major friends, who happened to have lots of effects pedals and sequencers laying around. It was there that Keating began to create her own sound, somewhere between Pablo Casals and the Kronos Quartet. Working on her own terms, not having to execute someone else’s compositions note-for-note, Keating’s stage fright virtually vanished. For her, experimenting with music was therapy. And her therapy is delicious to hear.

Her work with sequencers enables her to play live as though an ensemble unto herself, with one or two lines of classical cello and one or two lines of … something hard to put your finger on. Something warm and wiggly and textural, a romp through wonderous green clouds.

Keating’s cello sounds like these Mammatus clouds look

Despite the pedals and laptops that surround her in performance, Keating’s work never sounds electronic – it sounds like cello music, pure and simple. It’s not Bach, and she’s no Paolo Beschi, but I find Keating’s music every bit as warm and engrossing as that of the masters.

Her music is available on iTunes and Amazon MP3.

The Thao of Now

Because spring is all about dancing through contradictory strains of melancholy and joy, it’s a perfect time to listen to the tangled, effervescent music of Virginia native Thao Nguyen, showcased on the almost surreally catchy “Bag of Hammers” and most of her soulful sophomore album, We Brave Bee Stings and All. Thao draws plenty of comparisons to Cat Power’s Chan Marshall, and while I can see the similarity when she covers Smokey Robinson and Aretha Franklin, I suspect that this is simply shorthand for describing a strong-willed female singer who is hard to figure out. I hear flashes of a few other singers; at times, she resembles a more forthright Jolie Holland, a less deadpan version of her former tour partner Laura Veirs, or even a young Rickie Lee Jones channeling the whimsical, world-wise mood of the Velvets’ Mo Tucker (I’d love to hear Thao try “Afterhours” or “Woody and Dutch on the Slow Train to Peking”).

But most of the time, she really just sounds like the Thao of now, pouring water and gasoline on my ever-changing moods of 2008. Musically, “Bag of Hammers” is like getting an extra couple of months of summer vacation, with transportation courtesy of the supple rhythm section in Thao’s brilliantly named backing band, the Get Down Stay Down. Pay only casual attention to the classic pop hook and the kid-friendly claymation video, and faster than you can say “Leslie Feist,” you might swear you are listening to the new Apple theme song.

But if you think Thao can be written off as this year’s poster girl for quirky charm, listen carefully and you’re going to get dunked in the swimming pool. She’s a real writer (and former critic for No Depression) who has a knack for distilling her song’s essence in a pithy phrase (“as sharp as I sting, as sharp as I sing, it still soothes you, doesn’t it, like a lick of ice cream?”; “geography’s gonna make a mess of me”; “we splash our eyes full of chemicals/ just so there’s none left for little girls”). She’s a real musician who can play killer guitar riffs with a toothbrush. She’s capable of rocking out, as she did live in a great recent set opening for Xiu-Xiu, and does in spades on the new wavy “Beat.” She can be moving, hilarious, or both at the same time. She has the good taste to list the Funk Brothers and Orchestra Baobab among her favorite bands. And let’s face it, do you know any other alums from the William and Mary women’s studies department who are able—or willing—to simultaneously beatbox and hum Gary Glitter’s sports arena anthem, “Rock and Roll, Part Two”? (See the clip of “Geography” below.)

Thao, “Bag of Hammers”

Thao, “Geography”

Thao, “Beat”