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Category Archives: country music y’all

It hasn’t been a great couple of months for blonde alt-rock icons who meant the world to me when I was thirteen. First, Courtney Love reconstructed Hole to release Nobody’s Daughter, a meaninglessly brash update of the heartbreaking and raw solo demos that floated around the internet last summer. What has been lost from the post-rehab versions is the sense of vulnerable humanity that pulsed within the warm guitars, the open spaces of the songs, and Courtney’s disheveled croak which actually enhanced the tales of burnout and decay and hopeful redemption. In the Hole record, that croak sounds weak and thin when backed by pseudo-grunge guitar crunch, and with new songs (or rewrites of the old ones) that contain lyrics full of silly bluster; where once Courtney Love sounded as if she was staring her demons in the eye (finally!), she now sounds as if those demons are insignificant and barely worth attention.

This new iteration of Nobody’s Daughter is unfortunate because it really could have shown a new Courtney Love—an honest, poignant, sympathetic, and artful one—instead of all this hollow bluster. She really is a fantastic writer; if only she’d get out of her own way more often. Hey, Courtney: rock music is dead—at least the kind that you want to play—so do you really want to make a record that sounds like it should be played on radio stations that pump out Chevelle? Next time—if there is a next time—stick to the warm SoCal 70s acoustic guitars. They worked a lot better, and made you sound like a real person.

She’s done a lot of terrible or confusing things, but worst of all (for me) is what she did to “Pacific Coast Highway.” The original is right up there with “Malibu,” proving that for all her faults, Courtney Love is a tremendous chronicler of Los Angeles.

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Liz Phair is getting laughed at—AGAIN—for her terrible music decisions, leading people to think that the music itself is terrible. This happened most recently in 2003, when she wrote and recorded a handful of songs with The Matrix (responsible for at least two of Avril Lavigne’s best songs) on her much-derided eponymous major label debut (I myself think the record is cynical and a little cringe-worthy at worst, but contains some exuberant and occasionally touching songs).

Phair is now getting mocked for releasing her new album Funstyle—rejected by her record label, which does have a point—on her website, including the head-scratching “Bollywood,” an honest-to-God rap over a faux-bhangra beat that details how she began to work as a television composer (or something?).

Look, there are other songs here—songs like “Miss September” (which wouldn’t sound out-of-place on Whitechocolatespacegg) and “Satisfied” (a song that Taylor Swift could do wonders with if she rewrote the lyrics, proving an earlier point, though isn’t it weird that Swift is now a better writer than Phair?)—but the weird joke-songs like “Bollywood” and “Smoke” (which seems to poke fun at her post-Liz Phair career) and “Beat Is Up” (a send-up of Chicago ladies and their self-help gurus) and “U Hate It” (appropriately the final song on the album, which is hilarious and also contains the immortal lyric “I think I’m a genius/You’re being a PEEN-IUS”) will garner all the attention. As they probably should, and certainly Phair wouldn’t want it any other way.

Because look: how long has Phair been a troll? Let’s not forget that Exile in Guyville was a deliberate response to not only the Rolling Stones, but all of Chicago and dude-centric indie rock to boot. Her Girlysound tapes contained the cowfucking diptych “California” and “South Dakota.” So these new songs, as far as intent goes, are really nothing new. You could say that even her foray into glossy pop was a large-scale trolling in line with Guyville, but directed at a much larger population. Taking all this into account, Liz Phair may actually be the world’s most successful internet troll, with Funstyle as her latest salvo.

Does this make Funstyle a good record? Absolutely not. But like Zappa, like Metal Machine Music, it makes for an interesting listen (of course, because Liz Phair is a woman with a certain reputation, the assumption is that there is no semblance of thought behind her artistic intent, which is bullshit: songs like “Bollywood” and “Smoke” are too galling and knowing—too self-conscious—to be anything less than the kind of pop-art statement that makes Lady Gaga look like the shallow pretender she is; hey “Little Monsters,” this is how you do subversion). Which is more than you can say about Somebody’s Miracle—to quote Pitchfork, “Now [that] is a terrible Liz Phair record.” Funstyle is the sound of Liz Phair not giving a shit, and daring you to do the same. The fact that you are angry or bemused or interested or appalled only means that Phair—loser that she may often be—has won again.

Oh yeah—”Bollywood” at the very least showcases better white-girl flow than anything in Ke$ha’s oeuvre. Also? That part where she goes “CONNNNNTRRRAAAACCCT” all evil-like reminds me of that skit in “Dre Day.” Finally: “I was trippin’ lookin’ at my portfolio” is possibly the funniest opening line to any song that has ever existed. God bless you, Ms. Phair. Just, you know, try to write a fucking song again, at least once in a while

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Speaking of Ke$ha, how terrible has pop radio been lately? There have been exactly zero good songs this year that have gotten any play. Lady Antebellum’s crossover “Need You Now” was the one bright spot earlier this spring, though its debut on country radio in late 2009 disqualifies it from contention (Justin Bieber’s creepiness and Ludacris’s embarrassment also disqualifies “Baby”).

At least last summer had a few certified summer bangers, no matter how terrible (“I Gotta Feeling”), slightly douchey (“Best I Ever Had”), or marginalized (“You Belong With Me,” “Party in the USA”). This year we are relegated to Katy Perry, a singer/personality so abhorrent she can’t even make a song about the superiority of California girls sound even remotely listenable or fun.

Highlight of the year so far: Miranda Lambert’s month-long country chart-topper “The House That Built Me.”

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I don’t know if it’s my SoCal homesickness, but lately I’ve been listening to two indie rock acts (GASP!) from Southern California who slather reverb and fuzz onto their specific genres. San Diego’s Wavves and Los Angeles’s Best Coast have struck a laidback breezy vibe that reminds me of SoCal beach lounging; Wavves with surf-inflected punk-pop and Best Coast with their vaguely girl-group sound. Of course, being so typically indie, the production makes both acts sound like absolute shit, obscuring the fact that some actual tunes are buried underneath all that pretension. Wavves’s Nathan Williams is hot but douchey, which is perfect for a Southern California boy, and his voice produces the exact kind of obnoxious whine you’d expect (I keep thinking Cobain crossed with someone else I can’t quite place; maybe a bit of Pete Shelley?). “Green Eyes” has the great punk line “My own friends hate me/But I don’t give a shit.” And Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino could actually be a force if she matured beyond indie aesthetic; songs like “When I’m With You” showcase an actual songwriting talent and vocal presence sorely lacking in much of contemporary indie rock (including Wavves).

And if their aesthetic and their locale weren’t enough to have me conflate the two acts, here are their recent album covers:

I CAN HAZ FUZZPOP.

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My second contribution to 10Listens is a long (too-long) write-up regarding Miranda Lambert’s long (too-long) new album Revolution. I wanted to expand on some ideas here, considering how long (too-long) that review was already.

As an objective listener and critic, the album is a definite success–a refinement of many of her lyrical themes while also allowing for new shades to her considerable songwriting prowess. This is, without a doubt, a Next Step record: one that makes the statement, “I am everything you thought, and more.”

As a fan, however, the album is a little disappointing. For one, it is much too long, and Lambert’s insistence on proving her maturity is both unnecessary and not fun. Because part of what made Crazy Ex-Girlfriend such a great album was that for every badass pose like “Gunpowder and Lead” or the title track’s uncontrollable bouts of rage, you had a rueful almost-not-quite apologia like “More Like Her.” The balance of those extremes on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend made for a full, satisfying listen; you got the sense that Lambert was completely in control of this image as a full-bodied representation. She had a temper, but knew it had its consequences. It was a smart and effortless presentation of Lambert as an artist.

Some of Revolution seems like too much effort, like Lambert proving she can play that Nashville game by blanding out her sound on “Dead Flowers” and “White Liar,” the two awful choices for singles. I wish I’d never heard either out of the context of the album, where they provide wonderful depth and nuance to a record whose seeming sole intent is to showcase same; as singles, however, they don’t resonate at all. And I realize she didn’t want to just be seen as the Tough Gal again, but something like the rip-snortin’ “Only Prettier” or the totally classic-sounding “Me and Your Cigarettes” (the other Classic–as shown on “Famous In A Small Town,” Lambert has a knack for these–on this record is “Airstream Song,” which would never get radio play because it sounds like an old standard that Emmylou Harris would’ve popularized 35 years ago) would’ve been great choices.

But I realize a lot of those concerns are extra-musical. It’s just great to have Lambert putting some energy in country music; much like Jamey Johnson last year, Lambert is proving that being true to one’s artistic vision can lead to success in country music. Just not enough to be Carrie Underwood or Kenny Chesney. But then, artists like Lambert and Johnson wouldn’t be half as special if that’s who they were trying to be.

Above is a picture of Taylor Swift performing at a country music festival, possibly in character for this song:

“You Belong With Me” is Swift’s third single off of her sophomore record Fearless–a record that, though she may have proven herself a pretty good country artist on her self-titled debut, shows that Swift is an even better pop star. On Taylor Swift, she hopscotched through various conventions of country songwriting, acting out a bit of vengeful female here (“Picture To Burn”), lovelorn pining there (“Teardrops On My Guitar,” such a classic country title also), with a fair dose of perky down-home good ol’ girl sentiment thrown in (“Our Song,” “Mary’s Song [Oh My My My]”). What elevates Swift’s songs beyond their traditions, however, is the quality of her songwriting craft–whether it’s in the specificity of details, the tweaking of a chorus lyric or in the subtle way she sings a line that creates an unexpected texture to the writing itself.

This kind of exceptional craft is all over the place in Fearless, and every song on here is a winner to boot. Easily my favorite thing about Swift is her dedication to being a certain kind of teenage girl–the kind of bright-eyed optimist who believes in the stories of fairy tales and reimagines Romeo and Juliet with a happy ending (“Love Story”). This naivete is all the more striking when the record takes its downward turn to heartbreak, starting with the refutation of fairy tale imagery in “White Horse” with such clarity so as to make it striking:

I’m not a princess, this ain’t no fairy tale
I’m not the one you’ll sweep off her feet
and lead her up a stairwell

Except for rhythmic innovation, her songwriting contains much of what I want out of pop music; while there’s a strong dedication to convention and tradition, what Swift does within the lines are charmingly fresh. Liz Phair and Sheryl Crow only wish they could write songs like these, and Swift is decades younger than they are. Even better than the heartbreak of songs like “White Horse” and “You’re Not Sorry” (in which she sounds like she’s been directed to think of whatever Jonas brother it was that dumped her), however, are the big-hearted ones like “Fifteen”–another exercise in teenage mythology that simultaneously celebrates it and tears it down–and “The Best Day,” a song so moving that, as Sasha Frere-Jones put it in his stellar New Yorker profile on Swift, it should become the official Mother’s Day song.

But to get back to “You Belong With Me” for a second. It’s already her highest charting single on Billboard‘s Hot 100, currently at #3, and I hope she finally gets a #1 single soon, especially if it means dethroning the horrible turd-filled run that the Black Eyed Peas have had with first “Boom Boom Pow” and now “I Gotta Feeling.” Why? Fearless is probably my favorite ever pop album made by a teenage girl (sorry, Fiona), and “You Belong With Me” is like a sweeter, non-grating version of Avril Lavigne’s “Girlfriend”; the fact that these two could make a song and video so thematically similar and yet one comes off as bitchy and cruel and the other comes off as sunny and adorable speaks volumes to their respective personalities.

“You Belong With Me” also takes a hackneyed teen movie concept and boils its essentials (the dichotomy of shorts skirts/t-shirts, of high heels/sneakers, cheer captain/being on the bleachers) down to a delightful 4 minutes rather than the interminable 90 which would have included, oh, Rachel Leigh Cook’s bitchface or Freddie Prinze Jr.’s non-personality. The absolute zoom on the chorus, and how Swift’s reed-thin voice manages to ride its bombast before flattening with vulnerability. And then there’s my absolute favorite moment of pop music in 2009: Swift’s audible gasp at 2:46 before breathlessly listing every lovesick reason why she’d be this dumb oblivious schmuck’s perfect girlfriend. So desperate and sad and hilarious, like much of teenage existence.

And the mere fact that she deserves it; since 2006’s “Tim McGraw,” she has had my favorite run of singles this decade with nary a #1 to show for it. Putting this in perspective, B2K has more #1 hits than Swift. One of these acts is keeping the music industry afloat, and the other is one you have never heard of. And there’d be no one more fitting to knock off the Black Eyed Peas–who represent everything that is evil and wrong with pop music–than Swift, who represents much of what is wonderful and great about it.

Also, look at that picture! Conceptual dedication and regular gosh-darned cuteness.

In this week’s issue of The New Yorker, Sasha Frere-Jones profiles Neko Case in concert with the release of Case’s new album Middle Cyclone. In the article, Frere-Jones makes some stunning remarks–not least of which is “Neko Case is the horn section,” one of the best descriptions of a singer that I’ve ever read. I do agree that Middle Cyclone is Case’s best record; she seems to get exponentially more mature as a songwriter, most notable in the lyrics which have quickly caught up to the quality of her voice. Every record is better than the last, and each one capitalizes on Case’s strengths as a singer and songwriter while minimizing any previous misstep. But I’d have to contend with this point, even if I agree with it on a certain level:

At first, Case’s take on country was engaging, mostly because of her voice…Without Case’s voice, the Boyfriends records would have been fairly unremarkable country-rock albums.

By the Boyfriends records, Frere-Jones means The Virginian and Furnace Room Lullaby, albums she released before singularly owning 2003’s Blacklisted. I don’t really know that this criticism works for Furnace Room Lullaby, which keeps the production that Case calls “some sort of Owen Bradley magic” of The Virginian while branching into the moodier content and sonics that inform Blacklisted (the title track, after all, concerns the narrator cremating her lover).

Part of what makes Frere-Jones’s comment stick out to me is that it is in line with what I had thought of The Virginian–Case’s debut and her least ‘accomplished’ record–when I first heard it, dismissing it as lacking any of the qualities that made Case a unique artist. A few years removed and a healthy dose of Loretta Lynn and Patsy Cline and Wanda Jackson has made me respect the charms, however slight they may be, of The Virginian–a modest iteration of the classic Nashville sound that manages to sound aged in moonshine while still full of modernity’s swagger.

And oh yeah, there are tunes.

Not to denigrate Case’s songwriting, but she no longer writes “songs” in the classic verse-chorus-verse tradition. And that’s fine; it works for her to create the prose found in Fox Confessor Brings The Flood (“Star Witness” being her greatest example) as well as the singularly poetic lines she has crafted with increasing frequency since Blacklisted (perhaps my favorite from Middle Cyclone: the title track’s “I lie across the path waiting just for a chance to be a spiderweb trapped in your lashes”). And what makes the songs work is the strength of Case’s writing coupled with the immense power of her voice. In fact, to turn Frere-Jones’s critique on its head, I feel as if Middle Cyclone would seem like your standard unremarkable indie-folk record without Case’s voice (plus, again, her lyrical talent). Imagine also if bearded white boys sang this; the amount of acclaim would be deafening (see: those indie-folk white boy beard records that came out last year which I don’t remember).

In fact, Case’s voice dials waaaaay back on Middle Cyclone than it previously has. It is, actually, much less of a horn section than normal. This disparity has been spotlit in the past three or so weeks as I’ve revisited Case’s catalog, most judiciously listening to the two I’ve heard least: the live record The Tigers Have Spoken as well as The Virginian. It’s not a coincidence that both are consisted of roughly half-originals and half-covers each. What is great about Tigers is how remarkably fun the whole thing sounds; it’s good to hear Case (armed with secret weapon The Sadies) take songs by the Shangri-Las and Loretta Lynn and the Nervous Eaters and make them her own. Case has an almost unparalleled ability to improve upon originals for the simple fact of her voice and her enthusiasm.

She does this tremendously on The Virginian, where it is almost impossible to tell which songs are originals and which ones are covers, except for maybe the betrayal by a slightly off-key lyrical flourish (like including the word “rhetoric” in a chorus, which OUCH). “Timber” takes a simple metaphor and makes it sound as big as the song’s fallen tree; her duet with Carl Newman on “Bowling Green” must have inspired their work in the New Pornographers; “Karoline” is a rip-snortin’ performance worthy of prime Wanda Jackson. These songs are as honky-tonk and grimy as Neko Case will ever be, I fear–it is great to hear this much propulsion and energy coming out of her and her band. But she can also do justice to the heartbreak she’ll explore later in much more poetic terms, while keeping them grounded in the simplicity of “Lonely Old Lies” and “Thanks A Lot.” This latter performance is not as distant or slightly ironic as when Ernest Tubbs, God bless ‘im, sang it, but I’ll take Case’s furious longing when she wails “I’ve got a broken heart, that’s all I got.”

This is the power of Case as a singer; she takes over, and she doesn’t let go. Middle Cyclone is clearly her best record by a longshot, and it benefits from her vocal restraint (making her powerful intonations that much more impressive) while expanding her content in impressive lyrical setpieces and song structures. It is almost impossible to break this record up into songs; they feel like a full, cohesive, linked whole. One song plays and you think it is the best song on the record, until you get to the next one, until you get to “I’m An Animal,” which from then on is the single best run of songs in Case’s recorded career. With this record, Case has vaulted even further into the upper echelon of musical artists of this generation.

But damn, I’m gonna miss the horn section that existed on The Virginian and The Tigers Have Spoken.

Do you ever have those songs that, the moment you hear them, you think would be perfect for the soundtrack to the unmade movie of your life?

This song, “New York City Isn’t Going Anywhere” by the Star Room Boys, will be the song played if I ever actually end up leaving New York for Texas.

I had a great Thanksgiving at Stan’s place with many friends and lots of games and delicious food and booze and Ratatouille and football and it was the most fun I’ve had in a really long time. We played the video game Rock Band, which I am terrible at in every capacity except singing although you don’t really need to sing to be good at that part thank God because I’ve become a progressively worse singer since the age of, oh, let’s say twelve. The thing about Rock Band is the song selection. The first go-round there were some good cuts but it was so teenage boyhood; do people really want to play a Stone Temple Pilots song?

The new group of songs or whatever you call it (upgrade? v2.0? I dunno) excited me only because it included Bikini Kill’s “Rebel Girl.” YES OMG. And I found out that they also have Sleater-Kinney’s “You’re No Rock’n’Roll Fun.” Now those are some songs I’m happy to sing. And part of the reason I wanted to sing “Rebel Girl” was to re-enact their fabulously empty shouty rhetoric during the parts of the song where the game asks you to just make noise or whatever on the microphone. As an old gender studies minor, this gave me a great opportunity to spout sloganeering bullshit about patriarchy and women’s bodies and rape and lesbianism and on and on and on, though I really should’ve referenced Judith Butler or something. Not to toot my own horn, but I thought my Tobi Vail impersonation (inspired by seeing a YouTube of her ranting incoherently at a BK show about abortion, which unfortunately I can’t find anymore) was pretty spot-on.

Last week Stan told me about Rock Band introducing some country songs and how the messageboards or whatever were all aflame with angry people saying that country had no place on Rock Band (I don’t have a link or anything but it was probably referenced on one of those techgeek blogs where people have to wear tinfoil hats and type 175 wpm). Referencing whatever he read, Stan sent me this: “There was even a poll on the site asking, “Should country music be on Rock Band?” A few great songs (Johnny Cash!) would fit; We needn’t go hog-wild.”

Oh yeah, because there were all those great intricate drum parts and thrashing solos and wild vocal stylings in all those Johnny Cash songs. Mainly what bothers me about their reaction is the rockism inherent in it, as if only Rock Songs can be included in a game where people um excuse me SIMULATE playing music, and only rock = music. It’s the same thing as when people say they like all kinds of music except rap and country, which is a vaguely racist and classist statement. Also, why wouldn’t you want to have different kinds of music on your virtual band game? There’s already rap on Rock Band (the Beastie Boys, but oh they’re white okay). Do you need another Radiohead song to moon along to? I would love a Country Band game, and George and I have already thought about a Girl Group game, where you incorporate hand gestures w/ a Wii controller as well as stomping dance routines on a Dance Dance Revolution pad a la this amazing performance.

The timing of this is funny, because on Thanksgiving I said something like, “They should have some Loretta Lynn on this shit.” And now there’s going to be Miranda Lambert! And Brad Paisley! (I seriously hope it’s “Ticks”) We were speculating on which Lambert song it would be, and while I would love it to be “Famous in a Small Town” (seeing as it is just already a classic country song) but it is probably going to be “Gunpowder and Lead” because that song is just RAWWWWWKKKKK, and I’m okay with that.

Seriously, I just wish I could sing country songs for the rest of my life. I need a job that will let me do that.