Today’s Free Download – The Decemberists

decemberists.jpgAnd a bouncy little number “Summersong” is, provided by the nice, if occasionally cranky, folks at Pitchfork:

Continuing in the vein of 2004’s The Tain EP, the Decemberists have crafted their fourth full-length, The Crane Wife, to be an enormous folk-prog monsterpiece. It’s a beautiful thing, really…This song has none of the multi-part progginess of others on the record. It’s a simple, accordion-tinged ode to the end of summer.

With the temperatures creeping down and most of the festival activity leaning towards the blues, here’s a chance to squeeze a little more out of the season.

Thanks, Pitchfork!

Local Rhythms – SpiralFrog is a Leap Forward

free-music.jpgAppears in the August 31, 2006 Claremont Eagle Times:

Partially adapted from an earlier post
Watching the record industry come to grips with the new realities of the music business is a bit like watching Sam I Am’s evil twin at work. You remember the Dr. Seuss character? Sam tried to force an unwanted breakfast on a poor guy who was probably studying for his cholesterol test.

“Would you eat them with a fox, would you eat them in a box?” Well, now it’s music instead of green eggs and ham. “Would you buy it in a stream, a cell phone beam with an encryption scheme?”

But the cute little music business muffin-head has now turned mean and ugly: “How about if I sue your spouse, lien your house and smash your mouse?”

I do not like this, Sam I Am….

SpiralFrog, announced Tuesday by Universal Music Group, is the industry’s first credible attempt to confront the new economic order. In an unprecedented move, the service plans to make UMG’s entire catalog available for free online – with restrictions.

Tracks can’t be burned to a CD, but can be copied to a Microsoft-sanctioned portable music player, which also has to be re-docked to the computer periodically. Plus, you’ll have to look at ads before you download. It’s Windows-only, which makes perfect sense. They’re trying to slow down the Apple digital music juggernaut, which means no iPods, no iBooks, no iNothing.

Some, most notably Bob Lefsetz, consider SpiralFrog another big dud by the usual suspects. Much as I love Lefsetz, I think he misses an important point. Magazines, papers, and now television have all latched onto web-based advertising as to pay for making free content available online. Now, here comes the music business – can Hollywood be far behind?

For Lefsetz, it’s the restrictions that kill the deal. People want to own music, the argument goes, and this scheme makes them rent it. Well, something that’s free can’t be rented. In this case, it also can’t be owned. But it also won’t get you arrested.

Besides, stealing music online is a huge pain. For every quick track pulled from LimeWire, there are five more stuck waiting for available hosts, or completely dead on the vine. Spiral Frog, at the very least, will behave more like iTunes and less like Kazaa.

Claremont’s last record store closed months ago, but there’s more music to be had, and at better prices, than ever before. That’s a reason why a column called “Local Rhythms” is so often about the world beyond the Twin State Valley. Here are my local music picks:

Thursday: Matt McCabe, Canoe Club – A quiet storm in downtown Hanover. McCabe’s piano playing has been known to liven up records, as a sideman to Roomful of Blues and Duke Robillard. At Canoe, he settles into a jazzy space, with sophisticated music that inspires dinner conversation, not booty-shaking.

Friday: Pete Merrigan, Sophie & Zeke’s – Sadly, the season’s nearing a close for my favorite ex-pat, with just a few appearances before an Irish vacation and a return to his Florida home. Fortunately, two of them are in downtown Claremont, consecutive Fridays at a venue that’s building a following for music as well as food.

Saturday: Stonewall, Royal Flush Diner – Vermont’s grittiest power trio takes over Springfield’s new hot spot tonight. Stonewall’s been laying down tracks for an album of late, at former Ingrid’s Ruse drummer Shamus Martin’s Exsubel Records studio. Check out their MySpace site for a taste of things to come, or see them live. They always bring out my inner headbanger.

Sunday: Josh Maiocco, Front Porch Series – Speaking of the now-defunct Ruse, their excellent lead guitarist showcases his solo work at this, the final installment of the Bellows Falls Front Porch Series. It’s a movable “Picnic Potluck” feast held today at the Village Guest Suite, 6 Hapgood Street. Josh has a nice bluesy singing voice, and great taste in covers to go with his own stuff.

Monday: Bread & Roses Folk Music Festival – In 1912, Lawrence, Massachusetts became an international focus for the debate on child labor, workplace safety and subsistence wages. On Labor Day, that legacy is celebrated in music. It’s as much about learning as listening, with Phoebe Legere and Anne Feeney carrying on the Woody Guthrie tradition, and Corey “The Singing Lecturer” Dolgon (a full-time Worcester State College professor) playing historical songs. The roots rocking Mammals headline.

Tuesday: Irish Sessions, Salt Hill – Blue Monday is dark this week, as the Tuohy brothers get into the Labor Day spirit. But Tuesdays will once again burst forth with sounds of the old country, with Dave Loney and whatever friends happen to drop by. They always play in a circle at the center of the room, like a heartbeat. It’s lovely, and even better with a pint.

A Review of Kasey Chambers’ Carnival

chambers.jpgAppears in the August 31, 2006 Claremont Eagle Times:

In 2000, when U.S. audiences were first exposed to Kasey Chambers, she was already a star in her native Australia. American radio programmers didn’t know what to do with the quirky singer-songwriter. “Cry Like A Baby” was a minor hit on country radio.

But the genre was an uncomfortable fit for Chambers, with her punked-up Deana Carter vocal style and pierced lower lip. After a well-received stint opening for Lucinda Williams, she found a place in the cult artist-rich Americana format.

Despite huge success down under – her last record entered the charts at Number One – she’s been slow to catch on here.

With each release – 2002’s “Barricades and Brickwalls” and 2004’s “Wayward Angel” Chambers’ music has gotten edgier. With her latest, “Carnival,” she busts out all the stops with her most un-country record yet.

The menacing love song “I Got You Now,” a duet with Tim Rogers, moves along at a pace reminiscent of seminal punk band X’s most frenetic work. The bluesy “Railroad,” with moaning guitars and shrieking train sounds, also kicks up a lot of dust.

“Sign on a Door” teases with the drawl that got her on many a Nashville station, but the slashing playing of new guitarist Jim Moginie, formerly of Aussie political rockers Midnight Oil, propels the song along with insistent urgency. Chambers’ deceptively child-like voice shines as she flits up the register in “The Rain,” while “Light Up a Candle,” which sounds a lot like the swaying “Pony” from her last record, features a real child’s voice.

In “Hard Road,” a weary yet resolute track, she effectively trades vocals with Powderfinger’s Bernard Fanning. The upbeat “Nothing At All” goes in the other direction, a goofy singsong that works because of its’ mindlessness, not in spite of it.

Less successful is “Surrender,” an odd bid for a dance floor hit that sounds too close to Madonna for comfort.

The song is the only miss on “Carnival,” which moves easily from rock and roll rave-ups to passionate bursts of soul, like the easygoing “Dangerous” and the Motown rhythms of “Don’t Look So Sad.” It’s Kasey Chambers’ strongest bid yet to export her success from down under.

(four out of five stars)

A Review of Ray LaMontagne’s Till the Sun Turns Black

lamontagne.jpgAppears in the August 31, 2006 Claremont Eagle Times:

New Hampshire native Ray LaMontagne’s latest release is a sometimes too-deliberate move away from the successful formula that propelled his surprise 2004 hit “Trouble.”

“I never learned to count my blessings/I choose instead to dwell in my disasters,” he reports convincingly in a typical track (“Empty”). The morose cloud never quite lifts from the record, but what “Till the Sun Turns Black” lacks in mood it does make up in musical texture – an element it shares with “Trouble.”

The arrangements, assisted by well-regarded producer Ethan Johns (Ryan Adams, Tift Merritt), are at once meaty and pristine. Johns manages to lift the songs from the lugubrious swamp of LaMontagne’s outlook. Trembling horns frame “You Can Bring Me Flowers” and also lift up the record’s liveliest song (and the disc’s first single),“Three More Days,” a smoldering Otis Redding-styled boogie.

Other tracks employ chamber strings to stark, evocative effect. A Van Morrison inspired dirge, “Gone Away From Me,” is all agony, as LaMontagne’s dark, plaintive whisper of a voice lays his pain raw: “Life is long and love is gone away from me.” The title cut is the record’s best track, with mournful violins draped over an otherwise spare arrangement that’s occasionally punctuated by timpani flourishes. At its’ highest point, LaMontagne simply moans a beautiful singsong as a coda to lyrics examining self-fulfillment.

It’s strong material, but also relentlessly bleak. It makes one long for any hopeful echo from “Trouble.” Perhaps a shadow of the title song’s joyful chorus (“I’ve been saved by a woman”), or the comforting sentiments of “I Could Hold You in My Arms.”

Instead, the listener is drenched in a thunderstorm of sorrow.

The record ends with “Within You,” a funereal anti-war song that never quite ignites a spark. Like the instrumental “Truly, Madly, Deeply,” it’s more an interlude than a complete song.

It’s a characteristic that’s shared with most of the record. “Till the Sun Turns Black” finds LaMontagne trying too hard to distance himself from his artistic past. Every buoyant moment of “Trouble” has been replaced with gnawing emptiness – and, unfortunately, confusion.

It’s a great record for anyone fresh from a breakup, and looking to dwell in despair. Otherwise, one hopes that the next time out, Ray LaMontagne will find time to come in from the rain.

(two out of five stars)

Why SpiralFrog’s Free Music Plan Will Work

spiralfrog.jpgWatching the record industry trying to come to grips with the new realities of the music business is a bit like watching Sam I Am’s evil twin at work. You remember the Dr. Seuss character, haranguing that poor guy, who’ s probably studying for his chloresterol test.

Trying to force an unwanted breakfast on him – “would you eat them with a fox, would you eat them in a box?”

Well, now it’s music instead of green eggs and ham.

“Would you buy it in a stream, a cell phone beam with an encryption scheme?”

But RIAA’s cute little muffin-head has now turned mean and ugly: “How about if I sue your spouse, lien your house and smash your mouse?”

I do not like this, Sam I Am….

SpiralFrog, announced by Universal Music Group on Tuesday, is the industry’s first credible attempt to confront the new economic order. In an unprecedented move, the service plans to make UMG’s entire catalog available for free download – with restrictions. They’re working to bring other companies on board.

With SpiralFrog, tracks can’t be burned to a CD, but can be copied to a Microsoft-sanctioned portable music player, which also has to be re-docked to the computer periodically.

It’s obviously Windows-only, which makes perfect sense. They’re trying to slow down the Apple digital music juggernaut, which means no iPods, no iBooks, no iNothing.

Some, most notably Bob Lefsetz, consider SpiralFrog another big swing and a miss by the usual suspects:

These are the same guys who came up with Farm Club and PressPlay. Literally the same guys, Doug Morris and Jimmy Iovine. Doug’s a sexagenarian song guy. Jimmy? He’s an opportunist. Believing these guys have the digital answer is akin to believing the guys who did the Mentos movie are going to eclipse Paramount.

Much as I love the guy, I think Lefsetz is missing an important point. Magazines, papers, and now television have all latched onto web-based advertising as the key to making content available for free online. Now, here comes the music business – can Hollywood be far behind?

For Lefsetz, it’s the restrictions that kill the deal. People want to own music, the argument goes, and this scheme makes them rent it. Well, something that’s free can’t be rented. In this case, it also can’t be owned.

Every time I hear him make this argument I wonder – how many promo CDs are in his collection? How many concert tickets has he actually PAID for in the past 30 years? What’s the ratio of free (as in you didn’t buy it, the record company gave it to you) music to the stuff he truly owns?

One more thing, Bob. LPs don’t count.

Regular people buy one or two albums a month, and a year later they’re tired of them. Online mavens steal a lot more music than that, but I’d be surprised if their listening habits are much different. They just don’t have anything to sell back to the used record store.

Here’s another news flash – downloading music is a huge pain. For every quick track pulled from LimeWire, there are five more stuck waiting for available hosts, or completely dead on the vine. Spiral Frog, at the very least, will behave more like iTunes and less like Kazaa, which is a very good thing.

I think this is a revolutionary move.

Like the New York Times, I’m sure Spiral Frog will eventually offer a paid premium content component, sooner rather than later. But with the tectonic shift in advertising, something impacted by Tivo on the one hand and the Long Tail of business on the other, the time is ripe for a model that doesn’t force cosumers to buy music when they’re convinced it’s their right to have it for free.

Let ’em have it – right after this word from E-Trade.

Today’s Free Download – Stonewall

stonewall.jpgThese guys always bring out my inner headbanger. Since they’re playing at Springfield’s Royal Flush this weekend (Saturday, September 2), it seemed like a good idea to link “I Choose Not” in spite of the inevitable Stone Temple Pilots comparisons.

I also like “Since the Day,” available as a stream (but not a download) on their MySpace page.

If you’re in the Local Rhythms area, go and see this young band play live. They pound out every song with honest fury, and they’re amazingly melodic for a power trio, not all bitch-slapping aggression like some other bands. Josh Parker has rock-star swagger, Ryan Young looks like he could add 20 pieces to his drum kit and not miss a beat. Phillip Chiu rounds things out nicely on bass, with easy charm and steady rhythm (or was that steady charm and easy rhythm?).

Today’s Free Download – Jody Watley

Borderline - SingleWatley’s re-make of “Borderline,” one of Madonna’s first big hits, insinuated itself into my consciousness though it seemed a trifle the first time I heard it. But I kept coming back to her slowed-down, sultry take, until finally I just had to link it as a free download and let others decide whether it deserved a cover version.

Watley, you may recall, hit the scene with the 70’s disco trio Shalamar – remember “Second Time Around”? – and had a string of dance floor hits in the mid-80’s. She’s been quiet for the last few years. She had a minor hit last year, several re-mixes of her 1989 hit “Looking for a New Love,” but not much in the way of new material.

With “The Makeover,” the song selections are old, but she reinvents them quite nicely. Not an original trick, mind you, but given the state of R&B these days, Watley’s gorgeous, restrained phrasing on “Borderline” is a refreshing change.

Borderline – Single

Jody Watley
Avitone Recordings