Tournament of Tunes: Yo La Tengo vs. Lou Reed

Yo La Tengo, "Sudden Organ"
Lou Reed, "Last Great American Whale"

Interesting that these two bands would face each other, given what an obvious musical debt Yo La Tengo owes to Reed's Velvet Underground. Yes, of course dozen of bands owe that debt, but Yo La Tengo (especially in its earlier days) owes more than most.

"Sudden Organ" is somewhat of a musical departure for Yo La Tengo. James McNew forgoes his bass guitar completely, switching over to keyboards where he creates an eerie, droning figure that underpins the melody (like a bass does) and even gives the song its title. But the band's other distinctive elements - Ira Kaplan's moody tenor vocals and sharp guitar, Georgia Hubley's tom-tomming, Moe Tucker-ish drumming - are all here. The song doesn't really jump out at you, but is somehow still very effective. A solid song from what remains my favorite Yo La Tengo album.

What I love most about Lou Reed's New York is its directness - the bluntness of the lyrics ("I'll take Manhattan in a garbage bag with Latin written on it that says 'It's hard to give a shit these days'", "the Statue of Bigotry", etc.) and the in-your-face instrumentation. Unfortunately, "Last Great American Whale" is the least direct song on the album, both lyrically and instrumentally. The lyrics are highly metaphorical, telling a story that despite countless listenings I've never really been able to follow. Reed's vocals are subdued, with little of the emotional fire that marks his best work. And the instrumentation is barely even there - mostly a single guitar line and basic drumbeat. Narrative 2

While it has its intriguing moments, "Last Great American Whale" is just too much of a departure - lyrically, vocally, instrumentally - from Reed's greatest work. Though it's hard for me to knock out any song from New York, this one is probably my least favorite on the album. So I'm going with "Sudden Organ."

Winner: Yo La Tengo, "Sudden Organ"

May 26, 2010 in Music, Music: ToT 10 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tournament of Tunes: A Plea for Forgiveness

I've been sorely remiss in keeping current with my latest Tournament of Tunes. Even in its abbreviated 16-song format I've totally let it slide, not posting any results for the past six weeks. I'm now vowing to not only resume the competition but to speed things up considerably, posting two or three of the remaining matches each week. So the tournament hereby resumes today, with Yo La Tengo taking on Lou Reed.

May 26, 2010 in Music, Music: ToT 10 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tournament of Tunes: The Minutemen vs. Tom Waits

The Minutemen, "Corona"
Tom Waits, "Never Let Go"

I love what "Corona" says about the Minutemen. Despite generally being known as a hardcore punk band, they were much more than that, moving effortlessly into other realms, including funk, free jazz and straightforward rock, and with "Corona" they showed how far they were willing to push the envelope. As I mentioned earlier, the song is cowboy hoedown music (or, as suggests, "neo-Norteña polka"), and I enjoy imagining the reaction (likely, offended) of the L.A. hardcore crowd to the song back in the band's heyday. Sure, the band's more open-minded fans would have loved it, but the zealots probably resented the departure from the party line. (I'd also love to know what the zealots thought of the Van Halen and Steely Dan covers alongside "Corona" on Double Nickels on the Dime.) This song is a statement of artistic freedom, and quite a fun one at that.

"Never Let Go" shows the softer side of Tom Waits. For most of his career he's adopted the persona of a ragged boho troubador, sometimes slightly deranged, other times wistful and melancholy. The instrumentation here is quite lovely, starting with a simple piano figure that is joined by subdued strings and a mournful accordian, all underpinned by a moderate martial drumbeat and of course Waits' marvelously evocative growl of a voice. The tune is nothing short of majestic, and one of my very favorites of my admittedly limited knowledge of Waits' oeuvre.

"Corona" is great, but "Never Let Go" is greater. In what is very much a battle of the titans, Waits ekes out a decision and moves ahead to the semi-finals.

Winner: Tom Waits, "Never Let Go"

April 13, 2010 in Music, Music: ToT 10 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tournament of Tunes: Sebadoh vs. R.E.M.

Sebadoh, "Got It"
"West of the Fields"

I think Bakesale is the album on which Jason Loewenstein first hit his artistic stride. On the previous Sebadoh album, Bubble and Scrape (a wonder in its own right), he seemed like the new kid on the block, cautiously occupying the middle ground between Lou Barlow's sensitive lyricism and Eric Gaffney's sonic anarchy. On that album, Loewenstein sometimes sounds like Barlow, sometimes like Gaffney. But by the time of Bakesale, Gaffney had left and Loewenstein stepped to the forefront (admittedly a secondary forefront, as Sebadoh was always Barlow's band), and "Got It" is a prime example of what he's musically capable of.

Musically - that is, instruments and vocals - I love "West of the Fields." There's Stipe's lonely wail of a voice, of course, but also the brisk, driving rythym, Peter Buck's guitar work and the backing vocals of Mike Mills in the chorus. But though the title has a nice evocative quality - what, exactly, is to be found west of the fields? - the rest of the lyrics are either too undiscernable or vague to convincingly back up the title. And it's not just a case of early-period R.E.M. and its penchant for lyrical obscurity. Many other songs on the great Murmur, especially "Shaking Through" and "Sitting Still", are equally as inscrutable and yet have some sort of emotive quality that never fails to imbed the songs deep into my soul. In short, I don't really connect with "West of the Fields" as much as I do to most of the rest of the album.

Hard to believe that tunes from neither Slanted & Enchanted nor Murmur will go no further than this round, but that's precisely what's happening here. "Got It" advances.

Winner: Sebadoh, "Got It"

April 5, 2010 in Music, Music: ToT 10 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tournament of Tunes: Dumptruck vs. Pavement

Dumptruck, "Autumn Light"
Pavement, "Perfume-V"

The narrator of "Autumn Light" is paralyzed by stasis. He lives a dissolute and likely meaningless life, and though well-meaning friends urge him to "get out of here" and try to change for the better, still he sits and does nothing. While he realizes that doing nothing and simply waiting around for change will lead nowhere, still he sits, questioning his (ex-?) lover for her abandoning of everything she's started - as if he's some sort of beacon of perserverance - and wondering where he would go and what he would do next in the unlikely event that he attempted a move. Some unsettling questions indeed.

Narrative is very hard to follow in Pavement songs, that is, if there's any narrative there in the first place. Part of that is due to the lo-fi production, which mostly buries the vocals and gives them no more sonic prominence than, say, the bass, and part of it is Steve Malkmus' lazy vocal delivery. But like early R.E.M., it's likely that even if Pavement's lyrics could be discerned they still might not be comprehensible. Malkmus, like Michael Stipe, might just be willfully vague.

Though it's impossible to deny the sonic thrill of "Perfume-V", its lyrics are just vague enough to keep me from fully engaging with the song. But the lyrics of "Autumn Light" draw me into the narrator's plight, and even if I don't particularly admire what I see there I still find the experience compelling. And because of that, Dumptruck moves on to the semifinals.

Winner: Dumptruck, "Autumn Light"

March 31, 2010 in Music, Music: ToT 10 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tournament of Tunes: First Round Update

The first round of the 2010 Tournament of Tunes has now ended, with Dumptruck, Pavement, Sebadoh, R.E.M., The Minutemen, Tom Waits, Yo La Tengo and Lou Reed all advancing. Interesting how many big names are there (with the exception of the comparatively unknown Dumptruck) which I suppose is due to the smaller 16-song field. With 64 songs there would have been more entries, a greater variety of artists and potential for major upsets, though there would have also been strong potential for my abandoning the entire contest only halfway through.

To whet your appetite for the next round, I considered handicapping the field, but given that I'm the sole arbiter, that might prematurely reveal who I'm leaning toward and thus eliminate much of the reader's suspense. So instead I'll simply list which year each artist first entered my record collection in full-album form, which you're welcome to interpret any way you like.

R.E.M.: 1986
Dumptruck: 1989
Lou Reed: 1989
Yo La Tengo: 1992
Pavement: 1994
Sebadoh: 1994
Tom Waits: 1996
The Minutemen: 2007

I'm taking the rest of this week off to recharge my judicial batteries, and will resume with the Dumptruck-Pavement contest on Monday. Stay tuned.

March 25, 2010 in Music, Music: ToT 10 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tournament of Tunes: Joel R.L. Phelps and the Downer Trio vs. Lou Reed

Joel R.L. Phelps and the Downer Trio, "From Up Here"
Lou Reed, "Last Great American Whale"

Joel R.L. Phelps is one of my favorite musicians - a sharp guitarist, skilled songwriter and idiosyncratic singer. He first got my attention as part of Silkworm, the band which he co-founded before leaving in the mid-nineties for a solo career. His solo work is considerably lower-key than the more raucous Silkworm, but he rocks out as much as he needs to, though he generally sticks to slower, quieter, more moody material. "From Up Here" is from the most recent Downer Trio release, Customs, which came and went without much public notice. A shame, given what a memorable record it is. The song is minimalist, with drums sticking to a metronomic 1-2-3-4 beat, bass and acoustic guitar playing straight chords with occasional lead guitar flourishes, and lyrics told from the perspective of a soldier. (An interesting narrative turn, as the album's theme is anti-war.) But though I admire the song, I would have liked a little more fire here. The song simmers without ever boiling over; Phelps restrains his caterwaul of a voice. The emotion and passion of Phelps' best work is still there, though mostly held in check.

It's hard for me to speak objectively about Lou Reed. And even harder for me to say anything about his long, high-profile, iconic career that hasn't been said hundreds of times already. I'm a longtime admirer, of both the Velvet Underground but especially his solo work (interesting as it is, the VU was just a bit too avant-garde for me to fully embrace) and this song comes from my favorite album of his, New York. The 1989 album is a manifesto, screed and selective survey of his home city which combines sympathy for the downtrodden with righteous scorn for the indifferent figures who hold power - all of it set to muscular musical backing of two guitars, bass and drums, and of course Reed's timeless sing-speak vocals. "Last Great American Whale" is one of the quieter songs, with lyrics which are an odd blend of plainspoken rant (about environmental degradation) and abstract metaphor (about an Indian chief, a whale, a racist kid, an errant-shooting NRA member - all of which might also be about the environment, though I can't say for sure).

I'd love to advance Joel Phelps to the next round - if just to give him a small sliver of the public recognition he deserves but has mostly been denied - but his song just doesn't completely light my fire. And all of New York has been burning in my head, out of control, for more than twenty years.

Winner: Lou Reed, "Last Great American Whale"

March 24, 2010 in Music, Music: ToT 10 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tournament of Tunes: Yo La Tengo vs. Kevin Salem

Yo La Tengo, "Sudden Organ"
Kevin Salem, "Will"

Yo La Tengo was probably my favorite band during the 1990s, after discovering them in 1992. But for whatever reason they lost me around the time of their 2000 release, And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out, an atmospheric, almost ambient departure from their previous, more guitar-based work which I loved at first before drifting away from. And as I drifted from the album, I drifted from the band as well. Which is a shame, because they put out some really great tunes during the nineties that I still greatly enjoy, "Sudden Organ" (from Painful) being one of them. The song has such a great vibe - insistent guitar, droning keyboards instead of bass, low-tuned tomtom drums - that makes it easy to love. 

Kevin Salem has garnered some accolades as a producer (of albums by Giant Sand, Freedy Johnston, Madder Rose and many others), side musician (he replaced Kirk Swan as guitarist in Dumptruck) and occasional solo artist. "Will" is from his debut album Soma City and is the best song to be found there. A pounding drumline and loud guitars (louder than most of the other songs on this fairly subdued record) make for a very vigorous sound that mostly covers up Salem's limited vocals. The lyrical message is terrific - a man pledging his eternal friendship and even love to a woman who seems to have spurned him for someone else.

"Will" is a real rouser, but I have to give the nod to Yo La Tengo.

Winner: Yo La Tengo, "Sudden Organ"

March 23, 2010 in Music, Music: ToT 10 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tournament of Tunes: Tom Waits vs. Morphine

Tom Waits, "Never Let Go"
Morphine, "You Look Like Rain"

Despite the length of his career - pushing 40 years now - Tom Waits isn't well-represented in my collection - just Orphans, Swordfishtrombones and a handful of mp3s from later albums. But, wow, is Orphans a great collection, which more than makes up for the lack of quantity I own of his work. Sure, an artist of Waits' immense talents will inevitably have some absolute gems spread over the course of a three-disc set like this, but the quality level here is astounding, especially on the the ballad-heavy first disc (referred to as "Bawlers"). "Never Let Go" is simply gorgeous, much more stately and majestic than you might otherwise expect from this often-ragged troubador. A great song.

"You Look Like Rain" was just the second Morphine song I ever heard, on the great community radio station WEFT in Champaign, Illinois during the early 1990s. Although I enjoyed the song's sultry, low-key vibe from the start, it's telling that I never saved it to one of the mixtapes I was so fond of compiling back then. (Which I did do with the first Morphine tune I ever heard, "The Other Side", also from WEFT.) In fact, though I was already a fan then of Mark Sandman from his Treat Her Right days, those two songs didn't compel me to seek out Morphine's debut album, Good, on which they appeared, with the band not knocking me over and winning my heart forever until their second release, Cure For Pain. So my initial hesitation foreshadows my current muted reaction to "You Look Like Rain." Sure I like the song - there's only a few Morphine songs that I don't like - but it's just a bit too subdued to completely win me over. Sandman sings barely above a whisper, and Dana Colley's sax isn't much louder.

I own every Morphine studio album, and the band is one of my absolute favorites. (I'm even writing a novel about an obsessive, overly-empathetic Morphine fan.) But I have to admit that "You Look Like Rain" just doesn't have the kick of the band's very best material, and certainly can't touch this Tom Waits tune.

Winner: Tom Waits, "Never Let Go"

March 22, 2010 in Music, Music: ToT 10 | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tournament of Tunes: The Minutemen vs. Red Red Meat

The Minutemen, "Corona"
Red Red Meat, "Gauze"

Though often referred to as a hardcore band, the Minutemen were musically so much more than that, throwing funk, classic rock and even folk into the mix. "Corona" is a great example, as it's practically hoedown music, with a brisk backbeat that I could easily imagine cowboys two-stepping to - and, yes, it's about that brand of beer. For the band the song is very straightforward, with none of the stop-and-start that so many of their other songs have. If you're never heard the Minutemen but the song sounds vaguely familiar, that's because it was used as the theme song for the old MTV show Jackass. A loveable gem (the song, that is, not Jackass).

After the major label feeding frenzy had mostly devoured Seattle after the Nirvana breakthrough, the music industry gazed longingly at other cities across the country, wondering which would be the next big "scene." In 1993 one of those cities was thought to be Chicago, which had plenty of buzz thanks to Smashing Pumpkins (Siamese Dream), Liz Phair (Exile in Guyville) and Urge Overkill (Saturation). After that inital surge began to wane, many held hope for a so-called "second wave" of Chicago bands to pick up the slack, one of which was this band, Red Red Meat. Ultimately, however, Chicago did not prove to be the next big thing (the Pumpkins stayed big, of course, but Phair and UO couldn't sustain their promise, and in retrospect probably too much was expected commercially of the second wave) and the industry's focus moved elsewhere. Which is a shame, because Red Red Meat put out some pretty solid (albeit not commercial) stuff back then. "Gauze" is languid and richly-textured, over five minutes long, with weary vocals that are evocative but mostly unintelligble (the only word I can pick out in the entire song is the first one, "medicated"), and impressive overall.

I like both songs quite a bit, but I'm going with the snappier "Corona."

Winner: The Minutemen, "Corona"

March 19, 2010 in Music, Music: ToT 10 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tournament of Tunes: Teenage Fanclub vs. R.E.M.

Teenage Fanclub, "Catholic Education"
R.E.M., "West of the Fields"

Any doubts about how random the iPod's shuffle play is can now be put to rest. Though I have only five Teenage Fanclub songs on there (out of more than a thousand), up comes this one. I've always admired this song for its propulsive, shambling, crisply-strummed instrumentation, though on further inspection the song is actually pretty slight, particularly the lyrics which consist entirely of "You wanna turn your back on everything/you wanna turn your back on everyone/well I try." The song predates the harmony-laden power pop that the band would become best known for, and which I strongly prefer to this song. (Also, it's curious that the iPod served up this song on the same day that Alex Chilton died, as his band Big Star was a huge influence on Teenage Fanclub.)

"West of the Fields" is the closer to R.E.M.'s full-length debut Murmur. Hearing it right after the sonic bluster of "Catholic Education" makes "West" seem pretty subdued, but it's actually rousing compared to the exquisite but fairly low-key songs that precede it on the album. Michael Stipe's lead vocals are in typical early-career form, imparting more emotion than actual discernable words, and I particularly love how he and Mike Mills alternate phrases in the chorus. A solid effort, though admittedly not among my favorites on this great album.

Had the Teenage Fanclub song been "Star Sign" this would have been much closer, but I can't go against R.E.M.

Winner: R.E.M. "West of the Fields"

March 18, 2010 in Music, Music: ToT 10 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tournament of Tunes: The Pogues vs. Sebadoh

The Pogues, "The Broad Majestic Shannon"
Sebadoh, "Got It"

Apparently my iPod knows exactly what day it is. It has to be more than just simple coincidence that the shuffle play served up "The Broad Majestic Shannon" on St. Patrick's Day. The song is the Pogues at their most traditional - highly conventional Irish folk with none of the band's trademark punk energy. It's spring, all is green, love is in the air, and the broken-toothed old lush Shane MacGowan sounds almost delicate and wistful. ("There's no pain, there's no more sorrow"? What's up with that?) The instrumentation is mannered, restrained, moderately paced. It's a very pretty song, one which would have served as a fitting finale to its album, If I Should Fall From Grace With God, the band's finest. But true to the band's incorrigable spirit, it's actually second-to-last, with the finale being the morbid dirge "Worms." While I admire "Shannon", however, the song just doesn't quite give me the thrill of many of their bolder tunes. Despite my love for the Pogues, this contest will be much closer than you might expect.

"Got It" is genuine Sebadoh: lo-fi production, distorted guitar, propulsive rythym, world-weary lyrics. And from my favorite Sebadoh album, Bakesale, besides. A very strong competitor indeed. Coincidentally, this song was also the band's entry in the 2006 Tournament of Tunes, where it made the regional semi-finals before falling to the mighty Built to Spill.

"The Broad Majestic Shannon", while lovely, could have been similarly performed by any number of traditional Irish folk bands and simply lacks the thrilling grit that made the Pogues so unique. Meanwhile, the Sebadoh tune is true to that band's spirit. Though I never thought it possible to eliminate the Pogues on St. Patrick's Day, that's exactly what I'm doing, and going with "Got It."

Winner: Sebadoh, "Got It"

March 17, 2010 in Music, Music: ToT 10 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tournament of Tunes: Pavement vs. M. Ward

Pavement, "Perfume-V"
M. Ward, "So Much Water"

To anyone who knows anything about indie rock, Pavement needs no introduction. Nor does Slanted and Enchanted, the phenomenal album this song came from. But perhaps the song does need some elaboration, as it's not one I generally notice being cited when anyone mentions the album. Maybe because's it's located near the end of the album, maybe because the title doesn't seem to recur anywhere in the lyrics (I'm wondering if this sort of condition lowers a song's visibility for listeners, requiring fans to say "You know, the song with _____"), maybe because there's no obvious chorus. Whatever, this is a hell of a song, just over two minutes of buzzing guitars, dual vocals and typically opaque lyrics. As many times as I've heard this song, the only line I can cite from memory is "she's got the radio on/too bad it makes me feel okay/I don't feel okay" which should give you some idea just how opaque those lyrics are. And yet I love it. Slanted and Enchanted is one of those inexplicable works of art that nearly defies description, as does this particular song. You just have to listen.

M. Ward is a bit easier to explain. "So Much Water" is from his second album, End of Amnesia, all of which sounds like a modern-day updating of old-time mountain music from a craggy old codger. Except that Ward is a younger guy, possibly a hipster (I don't know if his trucker caps are worn ironically or not), who plays exquisite acoustic guitar and sings in a warm hush of a voice. "So Much Water" is one of the better songs on this fine album, full of reflection and regret (the full line that goes with the title is "...under the bridge") and of course that great guitar.

Ward's song is lovely, but it just doesn't have the elusive mystery and instrumental rush that "Perfume-V" does. Pavement it is.

Winner: Pavement, "Perfume-V"

March 16, 2010 in Music, Music: ToT 10 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tournament of Tunes: Big Dipper vs. Dumptruck


Big Dipper, "The Beast"
Dumptruck, "Autumn Light"

Big Dipper is a late arrival to my record collection. For years all I knew of them was "He Is God" from the old Homestead Records compilation Human Music (a great disc that's really worth hunting down) and "Mr. Woods" as covered by the Gigolo Aunts on the Safe and Sound benefit compilation. Then after reading raves about the band's recent post-mortem anthology Supercluster and hearing a handful of intriguing tracks on the band's MySpace page, I finagled getting the anthology for Christmas the year before last. And am I ever glad I did. This is one of those great bands that inexplicably missed the limelight they deserved - big hooks, catchy lyrics, impossibly high energy level. Why they weren't as big as their Boston comtemporaries the Pixies, I'll never figure out. Anyway, Supercluster collects their first EP, their first two LPs and their final unreleased album Very Loud Array, which was ash-canned by the major label they unfortunately associated themselves with. (The anthology excludes their sole major-label release.) "The Beast" is one of the Array tracks, and has a nice crunchy guitar riff and the band's usual amount of infectious energy, but unfortunately isn't one of their better lyrical efforts. I'm not the biggest fan of songs that overemphasize the chorus at the expense of verses, which is what happened here - each chorus is simply the line "the beast shall come from the inside" repeated four times, and the chorus is sung three times. I would have rather heard more about the odd and likely warped romance that's taking place in a cabin in the woods that is described in the two verses, and less of the chorus.

"Autumn Light" is a typically moody and despondent tune by Dumptruck, from one of my all-time favorite albums, Positively. "Where am I to go now?" the singer asks, over and over, of his spurning lover but when he asks "How can you abandon everything that you've begun?" (one of those things presumably being the singer himself) it's not entirely clear if he's intent on moving beyond this impasse and getting on with his life, or if he'll instead wallow in pity. The music here is very effective - like many Dumptruck songs, it has that sweet-and-sour combination of bright instrumentation and dour subject matter, with a nice interplay of lead guitars.

Big Dipper was a great band and I'd love to advance them further here, but this song isn't one of my favorites of theirs. And certainly lesser than Dumptruck's. "Autumn Light" moves onward. (My apologies to Gary Waleik, who was kind enough to leave a thoughtful comment last time but whose band has now been twice bounced out of my tournament in the first round. Don't blame me - blame my iPod for not shuffling up "Younger Bums" or "All Going Out Together.")

Winner: Dumptruck, "Autumn Light"

March 15, 2010 in Music, Music: ToT 10 | Permalink | Comments (0)

2010 Tournament of Tunes

Four years ago I ran my first Tournament of Tunes, a single-elimination competition between 64 songs, each by a different band. Each weekday morning I let my iPod shuffle-play two songs which would be the matchup for the day. There was little objectivity to any of my decisions - most of the time I just went with my gut and my heart, and on many occasions an objectively superior song would lose out to an opposing song which I might have had a long fondness for or had special meaning in my life. In the end, Ted Leo's stellar "Loyal to My Sorrowful Country" topped Camper Van Beethoven's beloved "Sweethearts" to win the tournament.

All in all, it was a fun exercise that really made me think about songs in depth and why music means so much to me. On the downside, however, was the sheer size and duration of the tournament - 64 songs meant that for the finalists I would have to come up with new commentary on six different occasions, and often I found myself at a loss for fresh insight. Also, I let it drag out over six months, which was far too long to sustain its early momentum.

So I've decided to do another Tournament of Tunes, albeit in an abbreviated format - 16 songs. Otherwise the structure will be the same as last time, with the championship match coming sometime during the first week of April, or roughly the same time as the the NCAA tournament concludes. Ready? Alright then, let's move ahead to the first match, between two gone-but-not-forgotten Boston bands, Big Dipper and Dumptruck.

March 15, 2010 in Music, Music: ToT 10 | Permalink | Comments (0)