Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Guilty Pleasures: Comic Books

Once upon a time a chubby little goober in Kingston couldn't make any friends. Let's call him L.O. When bigger kids pushed him around and no one would pick him to play basketball or invite him to sleepovers, he found solace in friends named Wolverine and Batman. And thus a beautiful friendship was born. Comic books taught him everything: how to read and write and draw, even how to travel through multiple dimensions of space and time to save the earth from evil robots. All vital lessons. Eventually puberty hit, and along came girls and sports and music and a lot of really embarrassing hairstyles. The boy put the comic books away in his closet where they've gathered dust to this day. (Sorry, Mom!) Flash forward to a few weeks back, when a friend hands him a comic book -- sorry, graphic novel (the preferred nomenclature old dudes use to justify reading kids' books now). It's about detectives solving superhero murders, and it's awesome. He borrows a few more. One is about a man in a magic flying suit who runs for mayor of New York City. The smell of the print on the paper is like youth distilled. Lately our hero L.O. finds himself back in comic-book stores amid groups of young boys riffling their fat fingers through stacks of superhero books. Not much besides age separates them, although to tell you the truth some of these nerds look like they could use a good butt-kicking.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Bought a car, we bought a car. Look at us! We bought a car.


It wasn’t the leak in the gas tank so much that sent us over the edge. It wasn’t the mysterious failure of the power steering, or the bone-rattle death knell of the engine either. It wasn’t the embarrassing look of the car either, we’d long grown accustomed to the sun-bleached easter-egg paint job. No, the final straw for old Blue Boy, our beloved 1991 Toyota Camry came in the form of a plow truck trimming a few inches off the car’s rear end. Perhaps it was a blessing in disguise though, because now my girlfriend and I were going to make our first big purchase together. We were going to buy a (sort of) new car. For most people (my girlfriend, for example) this would involve a lot of research. Comparison shopping online, talking to trusted family members and otherwise responsible, decision-making adults. But I just wanted to get the whole thing over with. I can’t even spend ten minutes in the Gap trying on jeans before I get panicked and impulsive and need to get out. The prospect of dealing with some skeevy sales dude giving us the hard sell and test-driving a dozen models seemed like a death sentence. And so laziness won the day. In the end I test-drove a grand total of two cars, and made a half-hearted pass at another (its sunroof seemed tacky). I literally kicked the tires too, although I’m not sure what that even is supposed to tell me. The first car that we found in our price range with a nice paint job was the one for me! How’s the engine? No idea. What’re those holes in the seats from? Whatever, let’s get the hell out of here. I’d say I spent less time worrying about the ten thousand dollar car I’m going to be driving for the next five years than I do deciding where to go to dinners most weekends. I suppose I shouldn’t get too attached though, because there’s snow falling again today, and the way some of these plow trucks drive it probably won’t be long before I’m out shopping for a new car again.

Friday, February 23, 2007

New Young Pony Club

"Ice Cream"
Reproducing the sounds of indifferent robot sex, while still managing to sound sexy isn't easy. But this song barely even exists. The synths and hand claps are basically a wispy frame over which front woman Tahita drapes her icily spoken come-ons. Still, its vapidity is captivating. Stream the song here.

Originally published in the Boston Globe

Nas feat. Will.I.Am

"Hip Hop Is Dead"
Most emcees get buried beneath their samples and repurposed hooks, or at least end up sounding bland in context. Not so with Nas, who more than stands up to Iron Butterfly's iconic "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" riff and an encyclopedia of classic beat breaks and old school call outs.
Listen to it here.

Originally published in the Boston Globe

The Shins

"Phantom Limb"
On this song from their latest album the Shins wrap us up in another cozy musical sweater of sun-kissed bliss and reverb romanticism. It sounds sullen and shining like a precious UK ex-pat's California holiday. Stream it here.

Originally published in the Boston Globe

Cut Copy



"Future"
On the dance record of the year, Melbourne Australia's Cut Copy blend huge hand clap beats and squiggly bass lines with dreamy vocals that rock in an organic, futuristic dream. What car commercial soundtracks sound like in the land of hipster unicorns. Stream it here.

Originally published in the Boston Globe

Mando Diao


"Long Before Rock N Roll"
Mando Diao wiggle and shimmy through their wicked 60's garage rock and soul fetish in a raw psych-era time capsule that distills the spirit of rock in about two minutes. Once again, the Swedish bands do Anglo-rock better than the real deal. Stream it here.

Originally published in the Boston Globe

Introduction of Sorts



Hello friends, this is my first attempt at a blog at long last. Mostly I'll be collecting my reviews and essays published in the Boston Globe, Weekly Dig and elsewhere, but eventually I expect I'll be making bad jokes about celebrity nipples and haircuts or whatever else people do on these things.

This is me and my favorite person in the world, Michelle. Check out her blog here.

Leave a comment, or whatever.

Guilty Pleasures: Weddings


There’s been a run on the bank. Two weddings in the last month, and only three more to go in the next! It’s the wedding season of my life. I suppose the foreboding onset of (late-coming) adulthood has gripped my friends with a sense of doom, (love) and that’s supposed to inspire all sorts of self-reflection. But that only leads one of two ways, and neither interest me today. For now, marriage, second hand. It may mean an earlier curfew for some on poker nights, but I couldn’t be happier to lose some of my friends, so to speak, because I love going to weddings. The costumes we slouch into, the golf-course hors devours, the endless loop of “We Are Family” exuberance and “Marcarena” shame. Love it all. I don’t necessarily dance to those songs myself, but I’m glad someone’s aunt does. And while some say being married may force friends apart, send us off on different paths, what weddings themselves do is bring us together. And for a few hours, people from all over our lives gather together in a rickety time machine, hustling into moments of shared history, and things are as they should be. I cry every time.

Luke O'Neil
Originally published in the
Boston Globe

Regina Spektor


"On the Radio”
Regina Spektor’s music seems of another time and place, and yet she reflects the multi-pop-cultural spirit of post-millennial sincerity perfectly. With one foot rooted in the traditional songs of her native Moscow, and one in New York City’s anti-folk movement, her songs are of two worlds, both old and new; when she sings, her voice breaths in the sadness of √©migr√© assimilation, and breathes out the exuberance of contemporary Americana. “On the Radio” the gorgeous piano single from her album Begin to Hope, is a modern update of “Lean On Me” that blurs the lines between wounded innocence and knowing sarcasm. Spektor’s lilting, matter of fact delivery spins economic poetry out of deceptively simplistic phrases. “This is how it works,” she sings, “You’re young until you’re not. You love until you don't. You try until you can't ” And in my imagination, singing cartoon bluebirds alight on her flowing curls.
Stream the entire album here.

Luke O'Neil
Originally published in the
Boston Globe

Boy Kill Boy

“Suzie”
Quick recap in case you haven’t been paying attention in download class: Girls Like Boys are the natty, hirsute emo boys (who like girls) that write dashboard confessionals. Boy Kill Boy are the natty, hirsute London neo-fops who really, really like Paul Weller and the Jam. “Suzie”, from BKB’s album Vertigo is a pure dose of keyboard candy straight to the brain. The mad scientists in the evil rock & roll lab perfected the precise chemical equation of band-husbandry on this one, fusing the down-strokes on the up beat start-stop guitar style over a charging bassline with the ubiquitous contemporary paradox of a sing-song melody masking some dude’s seriously hurt feelings. Sad and fun together at long last.

Listen to the song here or sample the entire album at www.boykillboy.com


Luke O'Neil

Originally published in the Boston Globe

Boys Like Girls


HQ: Boston, MA.

Now Playing:
Boys Like Girls (RED INK/COLUMBIA)

The Story So Far:
In Boston, it seems like promising emo rookies Boys Like Girls came out of nowhere. Largely bypassing the hyper-competitive club scene, and with virtually no local press, 21-year-old Martin Johnson and band -- who've actually been touring in various configurations since high school -- caught the attention of My Chemical Romance's booking agent and Panic! At The Disco's producer with their early online demos. "Everything really came together with this lineup over a year ago," Johnson says. "It's been a blast, but sometimes [it's] draining."

Why You Should Know 'Em:
Songs like the standout "Hero/Heroine" are huge, slick pop-rock anthems with instantly memorable choruses that cut straight to the heart of universial teenage drama. "The record is the last three years of my life in about 45 minutes," Johnson says. "[There are] songs about relationships, defining myself, leaving friends behind and my mother passing away." And much like arena cowboys Chris Carrabba and Jon Bon Jovi before him, Johnson knows how to package that hurt by ratcheting up the drama of each successive chorus. "We like to save the energy for the end," Johnson says. "We really want to nail it. Whether it's popping the octace or doing something dramatic, we try to make every song like a movie, where the climax comes at the end."

You Like? You'll Like:
The Juliana Theory/The All-American Rejects/Dashboard Confessional.

Luke O'Neil

Originally published in Alternative Press

Guilty Pleasures: Scratch Tickets

I’m standing in line. The guy next to me is missing his front teeth. Someone ahead is holding things up, and I think about turning to leave but it‘s too late. Everyone looks nervous. A quick glance around, to make sure no one I know is looking. I’m fidgeting with some crumpled up money in my pocket. Finally, it’s my turn. “I’ll take five number fifteens please.” That’s not some new drug slang, it’s called buying scratch tickets. But to be honest, what I’m actually buying here is nothing, and that’s pretty shameful. “Hi, I’ll take twenty dollars worth of nothing please.“

I guess that’s not entirely accurate though, because what we’re really buying when we go scratching is called hope. Yes, the odds are tall, and the stakes are low, and the infinitesimal moment of expectation, the rush of possibility, that this could be the moment I‘ve been waiting for -- and why not me? -- is probably not worth the money. Twenty dollars for a 5 second high isn’t exactly an economically sound drug policy -- but I’ll be damned if it’s not my right as an American to spend money I don’t have on something that doesn’t exist.

Luke O'Neil

Originally published in the Boston Globe

Guilty Pleasures: My Chemical Romance


I haven’t been angry at my parents in years. I’ve never purchased anything at Hot Topic. I don’t wear black nail polish, or eyeliner, don’t skateboard or have a white belt and asymmetrical hair. My life isn’t pain and my sorrow isn’t eternal. In other words, I’m not 16 years old. But somehow the emo-marketing arrow shot at the black hearts of the Myspace generation veered wildly off course and knocked me on my ass, because I think the melodrama of New Jersey rock heroes My Chemical Romance is irresistible. Apparently that’s not acceptable for a man nearing thirty. But so what if their image is rooted in comic-book camp and millions of teenage girls everywhere plaster their blogs with singer Gerard Way’s pasty face. The overwrought funeral dirge of their triumphant song “Helena” soared to transcendent heights unequaled in years. And MCR’s latest single, the multi-part, operatic “Welcome to the Black Parade”, from their forthcoming album is pretentious and self-important in ways Queen only dreamed of. It’s about demons or something. But more importantly, it totally rocks, and that‘s more than good enough for me. Listen to both songs here.

Luke O'Neil

Originally published in the Boston Globe

Guilty Pleasures: DVR


Through my early twenties I was one of those insufferable people who “didn’t watch much TV.” You can imagine the self-satisfied look on my face as I said it. Instead, I was eager to let everyone know how busy I was reading my way through Dostoevsky or Kafka. How little I knew about the world then, dear reader! You see, in the past year or two I’ve discovered digital video recorders for cable and had what some smug literary type might call an epiphany. My coming out, or coming in, as it were, also happened to coincide with the emergence of television as the foremost media for brilliant story telling. Who knows, maybe it always was. But wading through 24 minutes of commercials on Wednesday night to get through an episode of Lost, or planning my schedule to be home on Sundays for Six Feet Under never appealed to me. Now I just program this magic little box of joy to record everything I’d been missing out on. Who knew The Daily Show and The Sopranos were legitimately good!? Because I no longer have to watch commercials, or watch a program when it first appears, I watch hours of television I never knew I needed. I’d write more, but I have the new episode of The Wire on pause right now, and I’m desperate to see what happens next.

Luke O'Neil

Originally published in the Boston Globe

Kasabian

“Empire”
Deep into the third generation of bands weaned at the Gallagher brother’s fecund teat, Kasabian continue to swagger and spit their way though the UK rock scene with another hyper-charged dose of electronic rock bombast on their sophomore effort Empire. With a nod toward Oasis’ us-against-the-world populism and the druggy haze of the early-nineties Madchester explosion, the title track boasts a giant, fuzzy bass line that stomps and growls and a snarling lyric about “wasting away.” A neck breaking tempo change on the chorus and triumphant horn sample throughout set the feel of the song midway through martial defiance and boozy theatrics. Stream the entire album here.

Luke O'Neil

Originally published in the Boston Globe

Hot Chip

"Boy From School"
An electronic band that writes folk songs, plays keyboards live on stage like a rock band, and sings in gorgeous harmony like classic pop musicians, UK paradox Hot Chip have written the song of the summer. Never mind the overplayed “Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley. Hot Chip’s paean to lost love and saying goodbye hits with a similar, irresistible one-two beat, but a delicate humanity floats throughout the song. “We tried, but we don’t belong,“ they sing , the harmonies working together like our friendships and relationships so often do not. Stream it here

Luke O'Neil

Originally published in the Boston Globe

Guilty Pleasures: Wikipedia

I remember a time when people had to walk ten miles in the snow, up hill both ways, to go spelunking in the dreary catacombs of the local library to look up, say… The Sherman Anti Trust Act of 1890. But now, within a minute, I’ve just thought of something stupid, typed it into Wikipedia, and learned all (or mostly all) about it. What’s the catch, you ask? Well, since Wikipedia is an open-collaboration, written by anyone with access to the internet and a lot of time on their hands (way too much time, in fact) it’s not always the most accurate source. Sure, plenty of professors and scientists submit and edit articles, but then again, so do I, and that doesn’t exactly instill a sense of information security in anyone, does it? No matter though, because while it has its issues, there is simply nowhere else in the world I can go for instant access to the most useless, boorish, irrelevant information imaginable. Let’s say I want to revisit the storied history of former WWF star Ted Dibiase the Million Dollar Man, or refresh my memory about the early acting career of Dirk Benedict, better known as the Faceman from the A Team, I know where I’m pointing my internet browser. Democracy of information may be notoriously messy, but it’s also funny. And messy + funny = awesome. Search for it.

Luke O'Neil

Originally published in the Boston Globe

Guilty Pleasures: Staind

The pride of Springfield and absolutely nowhere else, Staind is that rare rock 'n' roll paradox: a band that's sold millions of records, yet no one I've ever met will admit to owning one. Could be because the group's breakthrough hit, the brooding jock ballad "Outside," first appeared as a live radio single with Fred Durst of Limp Bizkit singing backup vocals. Oof. If that doesn't epitomize the nadir of popular culture, then I don't know what does. But there was a certain dysfunctional teenage charm to the band's XXXL black T-shirt sound, and somehow, entirely against my will, they've managed to smuggle hit after moribund hit past my BS detector. Staind takes its cues from every awesome metal band before it: slaying with riffage is nice, but the real money is in the acoustic tear-jerkers. It worked on me. In songs like "So Far Away," "It's Been Awhile," and "Right Here," singer Aaron Lewis pierces the suburban malaise in my brain with an irresistible eyebrow ring. It's like some sort of involuntary response. Everything is a travesty with this guy, and his father never loved him, or something, so you can understand why millions of Doritos-dusted kids would fall for it. But I'm an effete urban sophisticate. What do painful songs about lost love and the frustration of disappointment have to do with me?

Luke O'Neil

Originally published in the Boston Globe

Monsters Are Waiting


“Ha Ha”
Sinister is nice. Cutesy has its charms. But a song that combines both into a sultry dance floor come-on pushes all the right buttons. Annalee Ferry, singer for Monsters Are Waiting (the current band of the moment for the digi-cam party blog set in LA,) coos and sighs through “Ha Ha” like a broken heartbeat. Monsters stitch the Cardigans’ cool indifference and Lush’ shimmering guitars through a drum part that heaves and sweats with impeccable style . Find it at www.monstersarewaiting.com

Originally published in the Boston Globe

Explosions in the Sky




All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone

Texas post-rock band Explosions in the Sky have always gone to absurd nominal lengths when it comes to their titles; and their latest, All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone, is no different. It’s easy to get lost in their long, meandering instrumental songs, but the emotional specificity of the titles offers something to focus on, much the way a placard lends context to an abstract painting. To be sure, Explosions make abstract musical compositions, but tracks like “It’s Natural to Be Afraid” shift the scales of the song’s emotional heft from a hazy luminescent fog within plaintive, chiming guitar repetitions to chaos wrought by scorched-earth drums. “Welcome, Ghosts” weights the pomp and formality of the song’s otherworldly atmosphere with the waning heartbeat of a man refusing to die—there’s the violence of the struggle, peace, then one final earth-shattering refusal. Sure, it sounds utterly pretentious—and in a way, it is—but this collection of songs, along with 2003’s The Earth Is Not a Cold, Dead Place and their scoring works for Friday Night Lights, is as close to wordless poetry as indie-rock gets: living, breathing songs that fight their way out of and right into complete nothingness.

Bloc Party




A Weekend in the City

The relentless shocks of jagged guitar and nosebleed drum stabs on songs like “Banquet and Helicopter” from Bloc Party’s debut, Silent Alarm, were a revelation—like they had just invented that ubiquitous disco-beat shit on the way to the club. So fresh. But little of that paranoid dance-party glory survived in the band’s transition from punchy Essex upstarts to international remix-ready punk heroes. Perhaps there are only so many stop-start staccato guitar figures in anyone’s bag of tricks; but the slowed pace and more expansive spaces created in this new batch of songs do little more than signal that dreaded second-album stretch for maturity.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Caspian


Kicking out North Shore post-rock anti-chanteys

Formed an estimated 30 million years ago, the Caspian Sea is the world’s largest inland body of water, bordered by Russia, Iran, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. Because it is completely landlocked and has elements of both salt-water and fresh-water bodies, many consider it to be the largest lake in the world. The band Caspian formed a few years back at Gordon College in Wenham, MA, which is bordered by Beverly and Hamilton and probably Salem—I’ll have to check on that one. Rich in elements of both instrumental post-rock excess and emotional bombast, a lot of people consider Caspian one of the best "rock" bands playing right now. Like those notorious trend-spotters at the Herald, who called Caspian’s 2005 You Are the Conductor EP "possibly the mightiest, grandest record of the year, local or otherwise"

It’s well-deserved praise, if a touch hyperbolic. Certainly, the band has managed to capture the ocean-sized moments of majesty and grandeur of post-rock’s heyday: Vast rogue waves of feedback crest and crash and hurry themselves into placid movements, and world-beating guitar themes fight against what feels like overwhelming entropy. It’s complicated and ambitious, the brushes they paint with are broad, and their canvas is broader. Caspian’s ideas are sometimes too big for a record, but it works.

Of course, many times even the freshest approach can grow formulaic. I asked guitarist Philip Jamieson how the band thinks they stand out in an already crowded field, and he had answers:

"I’d like to think we have a more vibrant and exciting rhythm section than most post-rock bands, for one. We also try to avoid the quiet-loud-quiet-loud dynamic element of most bands of this genre by relying more on melody, mood and flow than predictable repetitive chords slowly building into a crescendo over and over again. Like most bands of this genre, we are storytellers, except to us, stories don’t take a long time to hit the payoff, and they have various narrative arcs that re-surface here and there throughout the duration of a piece, ebbing and flowing, growing and evolving as it reaches some kind of conclusion."

He added, "Whenever we play [an all-instrumental bill], I’m always amazed how well Chris [bass] and Joe [drums] play together and create their own world of rhythm. They don’t do anything incredibly complex, and there isn’t a lot of flash or ridiculous showmanship. But the pocket they create is an aspect of Caspian that gives me confidence in our ability to stick out amongst the increasingly growing heap of instrumental bands.

Not to belabor the geography thing, but it occurred to me that place—and a sense of place—probably played a big role in forming Caspian’s sound. Philip agreed. "Our geography has been absolutely pivotal and essential to our music," he told me. "Living up on the North Shore is a blessing to us, as it’s a beautiful place with all kinds of terrain, lots of dramatic ocean-centric-type places, and yet the area in general has incredible diversity. Urban ethnic areas in Salem and Lynn, artistic communities of Beverly, the absurd wealth of Manchester, the insularity and character of Gloucester ... Being from Massachusetts, you also have to throw in the crazy seasonal cycle that covers every weather base out there in its most extreme form. I think it’s no surprise that our music ends up hitting a lot of ground.”

Fortunately, the band was able to bring that sense of home with them on the road for their recent six-week tour of the country. "I remember pulling out of Beverly in our van last April to head out on our first real tour. The van was packed with gear, food, all of that stuff ... The guys in the back buckled down and started watching a movie or something. Driving out of there and knowing that people across the country—even if it was about 40 people total—were going to hear songs that we wrote in this town was a pretty beautiful feeling."

Originally published in the Weekly Dig