Thursday, March 28, 2013

March Roundup: Standing on the Poop Deck

Our Spring Break Disney Cruise was the first time I had ever traveled in public with the Little One, and I found out quite quickly that inconveniences like customs checks and lines for boarding passes are pure torture to a toddler. After spending the entire day driving down and navigating these obstacles, we were both about to fall apart as we stepped out on deck to be counted present for the escape plan orientation. The crew was very diligent about passenger participation, and we were given the impression that this was the only time we really needed to be serious. Every man, woman and child was ordered to find their places on the deck and listen carefully to the instructions.

None of us really wanted to be there. To make matters worse, I noticed that the Little One's diaper had become a little squishy.  I hoped that she could hold on for fifteen more minutes. The prognosis seemed good - despite the somewhat grueling morning, she was in a pretty good mood. In fact, she was being quite charming and garnered a bit of attention from the people around us. This situation changed dramatically, however, after she reached into her diaper to figure out what was bothering her and, finding it, proceeded to smear it across my chest to get it off of her hands.

This was a new one. We had been under strict instructions to stand and pay attention, though, so there we were, standing on the poop deck, with little more than a couple of wet wipes to clean up a mess that warranted a full bath for both of us. There was no getting out of the drill, which made the rest of it pretty intolerable.  We powered through it, though, stink and all. As soon as we were released, we both had a good scrub down and adjusted to the fantasy offered by the Disney cruise.

On my listening, I’ve been in a bit of stasis this last month because I have a really great run of albums going in the changer (this happens sometimes). The playlist is a bit short because not too much has shifted out.

march2013 by Jeff Hodges on GroovesharkPuffy AmiYumi - Nice: It would stand to reason that Andy Sturmer's talent at reinterpreting classic power pop sounds would be a valuable commodity in j-pop circles. As musical director on Nice, he supports Puffy Ami Yumi's characteristic cutismo with strong compositions and incredible drumming.

The Dirty Projectors - Swing Lo Magellan: The eccentric and distinctive approach to pop songwriting that pervades Swing Lo Magellan is gloriously free of any autotuning or significant computer manipulation. It is, quite clearly, the refreshing voice of hardworking, gifted musicians with a clearly left-of-center musical vision.

The Format - Interventions and Lullabies: I feel as if I just can't get enough of this album. It could come to be a power pop classic in my collection.

My Bloody Valentine - mbv: My first impression of this album was somewhat apathetic. After I received my hardcopy in the mail, however, and heard the intended running order of the album, it was like a whole new experience.

Steven Wilson - The Raven That Refused to Sing: A lot of current progressive music endeavors to recapture the past with simple mimicry. On this most recent release, Wilson reinterprets prog's past through the very relevant voices of 21st century prog illuminati.

Flying Colors: This recent one-off album by a supergroup of the same name presents itself as a bit of the same-old-same-old if you are a fan of Neal Morse's other collaborations. Still, the songs present rarely addressed topics that are appealing to grownups and shroud them in compelling musical settings.

Änglagård - Viljans Öga: I gave this top twenty album from last year a spin again this month. Looking forward to more from the group in the near future.

Friday, March 15, 2013

The Format: Awkward Reflections and Profound Nostalgia

It was probably about 2006 or so when a friend of mine introduced me to The Format. I had just completed an academic project on nostalgia in cover bands, and I found myself regularly attending shows by a Queen tribute band called Queen for a Day. As you might guess, the person in the proverbial hot seat there was the lead singer. Freddie Mercury was arguably one of the greatest rock singers that ever lived, and his incredible prowess usually brings even the most subtle weaknesses in a vocalist into startling focus. The lead singer, Gregory Finsley, did respectable imitation. On one occasion, however, the band uttered the fateful words “we’d like to do an original,” and it was, predictably, a bit awkward.  In this singular instance, however, Finsley dropped his façade and let his natural voice be heard.

The point being, my first impression of The Format was that they reminded me of Queen for a Day when their lead singer freed himself of the nostalgic idiosyncrasies of Freddie Mercury. This was certainly enough to grab my attention. I liked the album I was given, but it was on a burned CD, and because I am the way that I am, I could not take it seriously until I had my own first-generation copy. I put it on my Amazon list.

The First Single by The Format on Grooveshark

Then, predictably, it sat there for quite awhile. It even was removed and added to the list on several occasions. The recent emergence and popularity of the band Fun., however, finally forced my hand. Nate Ruess, who was the lead singer of The Format, fronts this increasingly visible and musically interesting band. Their rising popularity made me feel a little guilty about never following through on The Format when the first opportunity arose. One thing led to another and I ended up with Interventions and Lullabies under the Christmas tree this year.

I guess it’s because so much time has now elapsed, but I don’t hear the Freddie Mercury comparison quite so strongly any more. If anything, Reuss seems like a less whiney, bolder Ben Folds, and I only make such a strong point of it above as the greatest of compliments.  Although I think that Reuss could do a solid Mercury impersonation if pressed, I believe that he is quite possibly the real deal on his own.  Along with co-writer Sam Means, he crafts and delivers genuine, direct, uniquely creative power pop that is both entertaining and thought-provoking.

It’s the street-level topics that The Format tackles in their lyrics that bestows Interventions and Lullabies with depth. In my book, lyrics often take a back seat to musical effectiveness, but on this album, musical effectiveness is inextricably wedded to its lyric content. Considering Reuss’ relatively young age when Interventions and Lullabies was released, his observations on life, death, music, fame, and nostalgia are intimate and often profound.

On Your Porch by The Format on Grooveshark

Because The Format were most active during the early 00s and gained more notoriety in retrospect (like another great pop band we all know and love), there is not much “vintage” video footage out there of the band playing. I did happen across a set of videos, however, that were somewhat disturbing in their familiarity. They are of The Format awkwardly playing an amazing set to virtually no one, which pretty much sums up what it was like to play in a band in that abysmal time between the record company monopoly that shattered in the late 90s and the independent artist models that bands subsist on today.

If I would have discovered Interventions and Lullabies back when it was first released in 2003, it would have complimented a couple of great underground pop albums that I had in rotation during that time.  As it is, though, nearly ten years after its release, it delivers so well on so many levels that I can't bring myself to take it out of the player. 

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Jellyfish Family Tree Part 8: Manning's Imagination

After playing the role of sideman and producer for nearly a decade, Jellyfish keyboardist and songwriter Roger Joseph Manning released his solo debut in 2006. This album, The Land of Pure Imagination, showed up in the mailbox early in 2008, probably the result of a somewhat irresponsible Amazon indulgence. Of any of the releases by Jellyfish members after their breakup, it had the clearest relationship to the bittersweet, almost tragic nostalgia that that the band's best work evoked. There were several songs that displayed his significant contribution to the Jellyfish formula, and these were real highlights for me back when I first got The Land of Pure Imagination.

Wish It Would Rain by Roger Joseph Manning Jr. on Grooveshark

As a whole, though, I viewed the album as inconsistent, a stance that has changed since reviewing it for this project.  The Land of Pure Imagination is perhaps better described as "varied." In the time since Spilt Milk, Manning was involved in countless projects. The Land of Pure Imagination seems to be his intentional effort to coalesce these explorations into an identifiable style. While I'm not sure if these stylistic variances coalesce into a singular style, they certainly hang together as representative facets of Manning's broadly experienced musical identity.

Clearly, The Land of Pure Imagination was the closest that a Jellyfish fan could get to an album of new material, but it was not really a substitute. Manning clearly played an important creative role in Jellyfish’s songwriting and distinctive vocal arrangements, and as a solo artist, his songcraft overflows with similar creativity and conviction.  As a lead singer, however, his angelic voice didn't deliver Andy Sturmer's appealing, subtle angst, but it did imbue his ruminations on lost innocence with tear-jerking credibility.

Because my past recollections of The Land of Pure Imagination were hampered by a misguided concept, my impressions of the album from 2008 were somewhat vague. A conclusion that I still stand by, however, is that if Jason Falkner was the George Harrison of Jellyfish, then Roger Joseph Manning played the role of Paul McCartney. McCartney's solo work, in comparison to the Beatles, was always more saccharine without Lennon's confrontational wit as a counterbalance. The Land of Pure Imagination is similarly beautiful, but in comparison to Jellyfish, well, it's just not quite the same.

It is, however, an amazing, maybe even magical album, and my recent experiences as I have revisited it have largely overwritten the vague flashes of the Dallas 635 turnpike that dance around in my head when it is playing.  As a result, I am placing it in consideration for the "best of 2013" year-end list.  I have also been inspired to put its follow-up, 2009's Catnip Dynamite, on my wish list.  Only one can qualify, though, so we'll see which is the last to stand.

To check out the previous post in this series, go here.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

January/Feburary Roundup: Yourself in Disguise

I try to impart my band students with a sense of self-sufficiency and responsibility, so I felt pretty hypocritical when I could not find my suit for contest. I cleverly went with the contemporary "all-black" conductor look and flew under the radar, but there were several family functions coming up that required formal dress. I would not be able to them dodge so gracefully, so I was going to need a replacement.

A few years ago, this would have been cause for panic and shame. Although I was always considered “the big kid,” between 2006 and 2008 I was looking at almost 300 pounds.  In truth, I'm not exactly sure about that figure because at its worst I was too ashamed to even get on the scale (278 was the highest recorded). Needless to say, I was engaged in an incredibly unhealthy lifestyle, and, as a result, I was incredibly unhappy.

I made some drastic changes in 2008, and have basically continued on a positive path since then. I am now weighing in at a pretty lean 210. Needless to say, going to get fitted for a suit was awesome. For the first time, I had to get a split suit for the right reason - to show off my physique rather than hide it.

I admit that this post rings of self-indulgent egoism, but is also my intent to motivate and inspire. Whatever seems to be standing in the way of you achieving your goals, examine it closely to make sure it is not yourself in disguise.

Oh, and the elephant in the room: where has the blog been? Well, it’s presently on little scraps of paper stapled together and tucked into folders, just waiting to be transcribed and posted. So yes, I’m behind. This post represents my listening from both January and Feburary, so its a little long.  Good playlist, though.  Two albums are unavailable for streaming through the widget:

Aimee Mann - Charmer: Through her past collaborations with Grays contributor and studio contributor to Spilt Milk, Jon Brion, Aimee Mann could also be tied into the Jellyfish Family Tree. These days, she's got what she does down to a science, so if you like introspective, metaphoric pop songwriting, she’s your gal.

Ulver: Wars of the Roses: Ulver is a somewhat dark, gothic band that seem to have a wide variety of labels assigned to their style. They have enough progressive flavor, however, to keep my attention for the time being.

Otherwise, here are some examples from the albums I have been listening to for the past couple of months.

JanFeb2013 by Jeff Hodges on GroovesharkJason Falkner - Can You Still Feel? & The Bliss Descending EP: Although neither of these albums recapture the fire of Falkner’s first release, they still harbor an astounding amount of melodic and harmonic detail. These are both masterful works by an amazing and effortless songwriter.

Dirty Projectors - Swing Low Magellan: The Dirty Projectors have a sound that is both polished and fuzzy, measured and deranged. It is also, in its essence, subtly framed by the classic, which gives Swing Low Magellan an ease that is the trademark of experienced musicianship.

Tame Impala - Lonersim: Its pretty amazing that an album that so clearly identifies with a certain era of music contains sounds that would have been nearly impossible to create in that time. In a side-by-side comparison with Lonerism, the most vivid albums from that high psychedelic period would probably sound brittle.

My Bloody Valentine - mbv: It took me nearly three years to “get” Loveless, so I don’t know that I should comment on mbv after just a few weeks. At this point, I don’t quite see what all of the critical hype is about.

The Format - Interventions and Lullabies: In the early 00's, I had shifted my attention in underground power pop, and The Format would have fit into that paradigm quite neatly. It is somewhat unfortunate that it took me nearly a decade to discover and appreciate their work.

P.O.S. - We Don't Even Live Here: Unlike a lot of hip-hop, P.O.S.'s work seems to get better and better with subsequent listens. I have absolutely no regrets about including it on last year's Top 20, although I think that I might have rated it higher given a bit more time.

Roger Joseph Manning Jr. - The Land of Pure Imagination: For quite awhile after Jellyfish's breakup, the band's members released music that did not always resemble that of the band that defined them. Roger Joseph Manning's US "debut" is the most reminiscent of Jellyfish's original mission statement, and at points almost reaches the heights of their best work.

Frank Ocean - Channel Orange: Ocean seems to be struggling to reconcile Prince's opulent fantasy with Stevie Wonder's street-level reality on Channel Orange. Granted, my encounters with r&b and soul music are pretty much limited to these two giants, but for Ocean to even bring them to mind is quite a feat.

Charlie Parker - Yardbird Suite: The Ultimate Collection: Parker is nothing short of mindblowing. In fact, following his soloing, in which he effortlessly creates a vocabulary of stunning complexity out of thin air, can be exhausting after an extended period.

GenesisTrespass: The band’s first album as a full-fledged progressive rock outfit predates even Phil Collins’ and Steve Hackett’s contributions to the band. It is perhaps not as memorable as the recordings from that classic prog lineup, but it does have a few outstanding moments that predict the future of the group.

HuskyForever So: I have had this one in rotation for awhile on the suggestion of several readers. I enjoy listening to it, but it's hipstery folk trappings don't seem to grab me for any length of time.

Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard - Dark Knight Original SoundtrackFor many reasons, I was very attached to Danny Elfman’s soundtrack to the 1989 Batman movie. Although it is not as melodically obvious, the Dark Knight OST is miles ahead of Elfman’s work in terms of timbral and harmonic complexity.