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Monthly Archives: August 2009

Giving away the bride with the condition that the groom understand good music.

Giving away the bride with the condition that the groom understand good music.

So Cristy and William got married. And the morning before the party the father-in-law-to-be came in to co-host a show on the flavor of music he enjoys most. As if there wasn’t enough else to do. And a splendid time was had by all. Although 24 hours from when this picture was taken, the gentleman in the center of the picture would be in the throes of his first champagne hangover. And that’s all the gossip you’ll get from this blog.


Joanie, quit ridin me. Why don’t you go brew me some more of that Tanzanian Peaberry.

Here’s the weirdest radio show Cristy and I have done so far.

A radio show about the (self-)important music of the 1960s.

The Shallow End, with Mike Nickels and Joanie Cokespoon. Music for thinking people, from when the music mattered.

Download an hour’s worth of attitude here.

2007. Urbana. Parasol Records. I was trying to find a new job. Twelve interviews in twelve months, and after each, to calm down, I went to Parasol Records wearing a suit, feeling dirty, and blew money on records. On one such day, itching to spend but finding nothing I knew I needed, I asked Angie to recommend something I had never heard before. Something undanceable, with weird lyrics and unexpected time signature changes. This was probably an unfair request, but she nailed it. She handed me Widow City, by the Fiery Furnaces. She had been in a band or two with Mathew Friedberger. I took the disc home and put it on while painting a wall green, and Cristy and I were blown away in a way we seldom are: new music irresistible and yet unlike anything we’d ever heard, sharp, cool, unique, weird, jarring, bad-ass in a nerdy way, but with an integrity that made its own sense.

In fact, though we have each had such experiences on our own, there is only one other album that paralyzed us both together on first listen…

2003. Urbana. Blue Moon Farms. Rick and I were walking somewhere out past the basil, admiring the sunset, when he mentioned a band he thought I should check out: The Negro Problem. Well, truth be told, the whole idea of a band called The Negro Problem made me uncomfortable. But intrigued. But no Negro Problem albums presented themselves to me over the following months, so I didn’t have to take a stand on whether I thought The Negro Problem was an appropriate name for a band.

2009. Iowa City. The record store behind Haunted Books. On a whim, I looked in N, and there, enigmatically, was Welcome Black by The Negro Problem. I guess that I expected some confrontational, racially-charged music, probably rap. A few days later I was driving around Urbana at night, running some pointless errand, and I put the disc on. From the moment two minutes into the album when the singer Stew bursts in, erupting with the unforgettable, unfathomable declaration “Don’t want to put you in a pop coma/And then they put you in a popcorn machine!” I got very confused. I just felt weird. I could not stop driving around until the CD was over. And even then I had to back it up a couple of times. (Oh no, he did not really just sing, “Mr. Mellencamp, show me a hip small town free of those serial rednecks and all/With a bookstore where Chomsky’s speaking down at the Veteran’s Mall.” That’s too weird. This is like a black Tom Waits performing glam cabaret show tunes from Jupiter with Robert Fripp on guitar. Or… something.) The liner notes did not clear anything up: musicians credited include Ennio Lessaconi, Rollin’ Barthes, and someone named Loop plays something called Garoo.

Teachable moment: of course I wondered whether I should savor the wonderful weirdness of this new album — that rare, total What the Fuck? moment — or immediately research and obtain all the other material by the band. I did the latter, should have done the former. Even if Post-Minstrel Syndrome is perhaps the best possible album title for a band called The Negro Problem, I gather that Stew learned to write lyrics a few albums before he learned to focus on setting them to good melodies and arrangements, joining forces with Heidi Rodewald. I heard nothing else that throttled me in two other Negro Problem records and three Stew albums. Until I finally found the most recent Stew album…

2008. Nashville. Grimey’s Records. On our way back from the Florida Keys, we stop at this wonderful record store long enough for me to buy every Fiery Furnaces album on vinyl. And an ABC button. The clerk is a fan (of the Fiery Furnaces, not ABC), and he strikes up a conversation with me about their various albums. But he tells me that Widow City is his least favorite. “It’s like, I get the point, you can change time signatures.” What he doesn’t like is what I like.

So you might like the new album by the Fiery Furnaces, but I don’t. It’s not exquisitely strange. It’s almost like a rock album by a band who doesn’t quite know how to rock, but who really wants to. They try to pump out simple, repetitive, electric songs in steady quadratic time signatures. It sounds like an awkward attempt to try not to be too weird. The guy at Grimey’s probably likes it. I respect it as an addition to their eclectic catalog — it’s not an embarrassment, just a disappointment — but I won’t buy the vinyl this time. You might like I’m Going Away, the new album by the Fiery Furnaces, because I don’t.

Let’s compare. The opening lines of Widow City:

“There ain’t no more favors to ask;

There ain’t no petitions to pass;

It’s all in the hands — it’s all in the hands —

Of the Philadelphia Grand Jury now.

More crooked sons of bitches you can’t ever

have come across.”

Okay. They’ve got my attention. This is a song about something. By contrast, the opening lines of I’m Going Away:

“I’m going away, I’m going away.

I’ll be back some old day.

I’ll be back some old day.

I’ll be back some old day.

I’m going away, I’m going away.

I’ll be back some old day.

I’ll be back some old day.

I’ll be back some old day.”

And repeat. And repeat. That’s not writing, that’s copying and pasting.

Passing Strange, the latest album by Stew of the Negro Problem, is a live performance of his Broadway musical — an autobiographical pop opera (to be released as a performance film by Spike Lee this month). It’s not like Welcome Black in that it is definitely more like show tunes, but it has all the weird hooks, charm, and astonishing lyrics of that record and something more: the story of Stew’s life. One gets no sense of the man whatsoever from the surreal Welcome Black, but here he lays himself bare. And this time the music is racially charged, but in a personal and non-confrontational way that I can get. For example, there is an amazing moment in this story when he visits Amsterdam and befriends a woman who gives him the keys to her apartment. He is blown away by this simple gesture of trust, which he believes would never happen in America.

From the song “Keys (Marianna)”:

“You know those L.A. ladies in their Mercedes:

They lock their doors if you just sneeze.

Now it’s like, ‘Bitch, please. She gave me her keys.'”

In describing the new ways he is treated in Europe — trusted in Amsterdam, fetishized in Germany — Stew brings a sharp contrast to the stereotypical racial identity that is his burden at home. These songs tell a story, fill your plate with thought, are funny and well-constructed, and surprising. It’s not just about racial identity, it’s about life, family, love, and there’s even a song, with creepy organ playing reminiscent of Piper at the Gates of Dawn, called “Must Have Been High” about someone who wants to climb a tree.

Passing Strange is the crest of the wave of music pouring through my life at this moment.

For the next 2 hours, Cristy is hosting a women’s rock show called “Ladies of the Eighties” on Womyn Making Waves, streaming on I am on hand to select Yaz songs. Download this revisionist nostalgia in then-inconceivable podcast form.

We think, under the hair, this is Yaz.

We think, under the hair, this is Yaz.

Black Moth Super Rainbow: Eating Us

It would be enough to have a psychedelic name, surreal xerography on the album cover, a cryptic persona with no band photos, and a history of bizarre independent releases including speckled vinyl with scratch-and-sniff album covers. But this music is so sublime it melts in your mind. Analog synthesizers and vocoder-pureed vocals make for one of the most eerie-mellow listening experiences I’ve been immersed into for in a long time. This band is everything everybody thought the Flaming Lips should have been to me. It’s timeless, sickly beautiful like a glistening pupae morphing into a butterfly, and purely obscure.

Hermit Thrushes: Slight Fountain

Captain Beefheart is a cult figure who is the subject of more hyperbole and anecdotes than serious study. Most rock geeks will buy Trout Mask Replica, not listen to it much, and consider themselves in the loop. I call this Trout Mask Replica Syndrome, which is a malaise that affects many challenging bands who are remembered for only one of their albums that is cited to save people the trouble of listening to the catalog.

What my study of Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band suggests is that the contributions of Captain Beefheart (Don Van Vliet) to the music that bears his name are easily overestimated. Trout Mask Replica is neither his best record nor his weirdest. It is just the longest. Vliet did not compose the double album in one afternoon—a groundless tidbit of nonsense that is often trotted out as proof of the man’s genius—in truth, he did not compose it at all. He whistled out some musical ideas to the actual musicians in the group—notably, Drumbo (drummer John French)—who than worked out the material into arrangements, which the starving, abused band members rehearsed slavishly while Beefheart rode around in expensive cars and went shopping for hats.

Well, to make a long story shortened, obviously I care about the Magic Band a great deal. I like to hear them play without that fool Captain Beefheart bellowing over the top of their complex arrangements, as in the Trout Mask rehearsals on the Grow Fins box set. So when I say that the new album by a band called the Hermit Thrushes sounds like the Magic Band without Captain Beefheart, I am not making that comparison casually.

Don’t get me started on Captain Beefheart.

In fact, maybe it’s not such a good thing that these guys sound like the Magic Band after all.

Never mind. Hermit Thrushes are original.

God Help the Girl

If you like the idea of Belle and Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch writing a rock operetta for a band comprised of three female vocalists in an effort to replicate the sound of 1950s girl groups, with lush orchestration provided by members of Belle and Sebastian—in other words, if you already have an uncritical affinity for the Belle and Sebastian sound, and are comfortable with that same sound frosted with an additional layer of pink icing, and are ready to lie back, eyes closed, in the bubblegum bubblebath of sweet naivete with enough musical complexity to distract you from your mortgage payments but not so much that you have to furrow your brow in jazz anxiety, then this is for you. But if you are that person, then you already knew that.

Warning: this is not punk rock.

Those Darlins

Wickid country. But not at all what I thought it would be. It’s rocking, youthful, and fun, and the voices of Nikki, Jessi, and Kelley Darlin sound less like Dolly Parton than they do the Chipmunks. In other words, country music is a departure point for this band, not a destination. Like the Avett Brothers, they have taken a uniquely and tritely American musical genre and morphed it into something kind of disarming, weird, and spastic—in a word, expressive. Heck, y’all, I don’t much cotton to country, or even western, but I dig this disc. There is no doubt that these three ladies could kick the tar out of Catherine, Brittany, and Dina from God Help the Girl. DUI or die!

Paul Kotheimer: Familiar E.P.

The new EP by local musical Swiss army knife Paul Kotheimer takes a turn for the personal away from his recent turn to the political that followed his turn to the fictional. Though enough fragments of his earlier directions are here to satisfy those of us who have followed his development, a development it is. He confesses to stealing a satchel of money from the Bagdad green zone, fails to kill a spider in the shower, and delivers a sad lecture on modernist poet Louis Zukovsky. There is some exciting trumpet playing by David Tcheng, appropriate use of an eighties Juno synthesizer, and—don’t you know—precise acoustic guitar and a cover of a Rich Krueger song, without which no Kotheimer production would be complete. At the center of all this is Paul’s pitch-perfect pipes exhibiting a crafty control of dynamics, timbre, emotion, and the secret weapon that makes him stand out from his peers: notes. The latest chapter in Paul’s canon would also serve as an excellent introduction to newcomers. It’s available in a limited-edition CD pressing. And (hint) the EP is just the right length to put on while washing dishes: it ends in time to let the worst pots and pans “soak.”