Friday, October 22, 2010

Rediscovering Obsessions: Okkervil River - "John Allyn Smith Sails"

I have an amazingly hard time talking to my idols. I assume most people do, and I think most of the time, the idols at hand have a hard enough time talking to their own idols so it shouldn't be a big deal but there's this whole hierarchy of idolatry that's at work that makes everything incredibly awkward. I tried to get Will Sheff to record a station ID when I was at SXSW my first time in March of 2008 and he politely declined. I was a bit crestfallen for a second, but he seemed entirely cordial and his reasons for not wanting to record a station ID were absolutely reasonable and well, pretty much the reason I didn't want to record them in the first place: Because they were hollow and meaningless little soundbytes that didn't really do much for anyone. I remember some girl came up and said Hi to him and hugged him and I started to slump off and he paused to tell me thanks for liking his band and then I saw Okkervil River play their showcase set at Stubbs the next night and it was one of the best shows I'd ever seen.

And somehow, this is all bringing me back to Minneapolis, the city where poet John Berrryman took his life and strangely inspired two of my favorite bands to write songs about him and his suicide within a year of each other. The Hold Steady featured Berryman's suicide on "Stuck Between Stations," the opening track from Boys and Girls in America and Okkervil River wrote a song about Berryman less than a year later on their 2007 album The Stage Names. It was kind of strange, but it felt like one of those amazing collective unconscious things where Craig Finn and Will Sheff both decided to write songs about this one guy at one point in time. Maybe there was influence, I'm not sure, but I'm thinking probably not since both songs fit so perfectly at the beginning and the end of these bands respective masterpieces (well, critical masterpieces, since I'll always tout Separation Sunday as the best album I've heard in forever forever).

I'm reading Neil Gaiman's American Gods at the moment and I'm almost done with it. Gaiman lives near Minneapolis, and a good chunk of the story takes place in the upper midwest when it isn't taking place all over America or, amazingly, in the geographical center of the country which is in my wonderfully crackpot homestate Kansas. And I just got back from Minneapolis a week ago where Jenny and I stayed a few days and never really wanted to leave. It was a strange feeling where I felt at home because the Twin Cities felt like everything I wanted my home to be. In this case, my home is based on the Kansas City suburbs where I grew up, the college town where I've spent the last six years, and the kind of place I've wanted to move that incorporated my favorite elements of those two places and cut out all the bad and annoying parts. The end result was a city that had numerous food co-ops, had restaurants that served local and organic food that was straight-up fucking bad ass, had a music venue where the sound system was like angels singing on high (despite the exorbitant drink prices) and where people smiled at you when you smiled at them.

"He loved the Golden Gophers but he hated all the drawn out winters," sings Craig Finn on "Stuck Between Stations," which is maybe the curtest and most succinct way to explain Berryman's decision to jump into the Mississippi river. There's no discredit there, it's an amazing line. And then the backstory is fleshed out by Okkervil River a year later. It makes me think about American Gods now, too, since The Stage Names is all about this revered people in pop culture operating under assumed names and well, tons of struggle. And all things seem to be centering on Minneapolis even though it's really fucking cold in the winters. Or maybe my brain is just geared to convince my body to drag itself north, which wouldn't be such a bad thing, not at all. There is more work to be done, but this song was deeply embedded in my skull this evening.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Guided by Voices Live at First Avenue

This wasn't supposed to happen. The way the story was SUPPOSED to go was boy discovers favorite band six months after they break up. Boy spends rest of his life wishing he could have seen one of their booze fueled rock and roll shows. Boy accepts fact and loves band regardless, but still contemplates the what if. Then Guided by Voices announced they were playing Matador's birthday show in Las Vegas and I freaked out and then I almost cried a little because I knew there was no way I would even remotely be able to afford that. Then they announced the reunion tour, with the classic Propeller-Bee Thousand-Alien Lanes-Under the Bushes Under the Stars line-up and I almost died. Almost, litereally, died, because they weren't coming to Omaha or St. Louis or one of the closer big cities that bands usually stop at because I guess Lawrence and Kansas City suck or something. The closest show was eight hours away in Minneapolis at the legendary First Avenue rock club. I booked two tickets immediately.

To be fair, at $25 a pop, it wasn't a huge investment and one that would exclusively provide amazing returns if I carried out my not yet hatched plan of kidnapping my girlfriend and forcing her to go see Guided by Voices with me in Minneapolis. Somehow, everything managed to fall into place and I'm sitting in a hotel room in the Twin Cities writing about how I saw Guided by Voices. I, the boy who was never meant to see Guided by Voices, woke up with a sore throat and a raspy voice because I was shouting along with “A Salty Salute,” “Game of Pricks,” “The Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory,” “Smothered in Hugs,” and the like. Sure, the guys had all gone gray or bald, but someone forgot to tell the silver-haired Bob Pollard that old farts like him were supposed to get their kicks playing golf. Instead, Pollard not only gets his kicks by reuniting one of the greatest bands in the world, ever, and does LITERAL kicks on the stage because he's still limber like a gymnast. Though way old now, he still emits an ultra cool that you just can't make up. You can't even try to achieve that cool. He just has it. It pours out of him and demands the utmost respect.

"Motor Away"
The band seemed to have worn off the rust I'd been reading about in the reviews of the reunion shows prior to this one, or maybe it was just First Avenue's pretty fucking great soundsystem smoothing out the rough edges. It's kind of a perfect place to see music, even if I had a number of misgivings about the venue. The club is kind of what I imagine the void to look like, or the scene in the movie where some pseudo-saavy director depicts hell as a crowded night club where the drinks are all way to expensive for a college dwelling rock chump to get drunk. Not like that stopped me from getting obliterated, because when you're in “Fuck it, it's vacation!” mode your wallet tends to act like it has a nicked artery. I did the math, and I dare say I spent $50 on 7 drinks, and it almost made me sick. $5 for a PBR tallboy made no sense because a six pack costs $4.50 but I did it anyway because I was gonna be damned if I didn't have a proper drunk going and a beer can to raise when GBV laid into opening number “A Salty Salute.” And by the time that happened, I'd already downed a double whisky and, well, more whisky, and realized that I'd neglected to eat dinner and that paired with my six month abstinence from hard liquor made for a sloppy, wobbly, one-more-drink-and-things-are-gonna-get-real-embarassing drunk. That is to say, it was the perfect drunk for facing Guided by Voices, and the chanting twenty and thirtysomething males packed in like sardines up front by the stage thought so too.
I know they say that nothing brings people together like mutual hatred, but I'm going to revise that and say nothing brings people together like a Guided by Voices reunion show. It's maybe the one show that single dudes will go to and try to not get laid, because that would get in the way of all the singing along, the fist pumping, the high fiving, and the general bro-tastic happenings that were all around me in the sardine can. Jenny stayed by my side, (thankfully she shares a fondness for Dayton's pride and joy) but I knew she kind of wanted to go to the back with the rest of the girlfriends. GBV is a boy's game. I don't think it's a sexist notion, they just appeal to a very specific type of person, and that person is capable of growing a beard and will put off showering for as long as humanly possible. Bob Pollard is every dude's dream cool uncle.

I really can't think of what to say about the actual music and the actual show, because I'm biased and I know all that I'm going to say is going to be somewhere along the lines of “it was a life changing experience that almost brought me to tears a handful of times and drove me to buy two 12oz cans of Miller Lite for $12 when a guy brought beer into the crowed because my cup had runneth dry.” It was the kind of experience that would lead to me making poor fiscal decisions because well, what would Guided by Voices say if they saw me passing up getting booze? Well, actually, they pry would have said “Why didn't you just get drunk in your car in the parking lot?” I've heard stories of their legendary drunk performances where they slowly worked their way into incoherence, but Pollard and the boys seemed remarkably sober. Well, in their case, remarkably sober is like being pretty drunk to any normal person, but they were on it none the less. Mitch Mitchell smoked the whole time and seemed exactly like the fucking crazy dude he was in those GBV videos from the 90s I watched. Well, minus the long stringy hair. He still seemed a little crazy (he was wearing a t-shirt with a big Anarchy sign on it! Crazy!) and produced some of the weirdest, most out of character (bandwise) stage banter of the evening, in which he tried to solicit some “Minneapolis pussy.” It got a little weird until Pollard diffused the situation by cooly muttering that someone should “take that man home tonight” and quickly slurring “thisisasongfromalienlanescalled'watchmejumpstart'” and all awkwardness had been relieved. My intrepid girlfriend managed to capture this on video, and in it I can see myself. I didn't know she was filming anything and there's something about the raw and drunken joy on my face that makes me know that this was one of the most insanely brilliant evenings of my life. Also, in one of the videos someone hands Bob a baseball, which he signs and gives back to the fan mid-song. How fucking amazing is that?

The Infinite Weirdness

The Infinite Cool: "Watch Me Jumpstart"

Guided by Voices are my favorite band and I imagine they will be even when I'm a young man regaling the grandkids about the time me and grandma went to Minneapolis and saw the greatest band of all time. They'll say “Grandpa, that music sucks. It sounds like it was recorded in a garage” and I will say “That's because it WAS, and fun fact: Bee Thousand was recorded for roughly $10 minus the cost of booze!” I will always stick up for GBV when the uninitiated complain about the sound quality or Pollard's voice or the overall weirdness of their best records. They're the greatest band of all time because they set out to be the greatest band of all time even though the odds were absolutely, 99.9999999% against them. They were middleaged when they recorded Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes, which are arguably two of indie rock's most important records. They got together in garages and banged out Pollard's brilliant pop songs and recorded them the best they could. It's easy to forgive the polished later GBV albums because well, Pollard would have done that with Bee Thousand if he could have, but he couldn't have made those big, clean, guitar rock records if it weren't for the tape hiss and the taped together and collage-like classics. Their coming back for a classic line-up reunion tour seems like a schill, but no one will call it that because no one should really care because honestly, all that matters is that one of the greatest live bands ever is playing more shows. And now I've seen it, and I can say that they're one of the greatest live bands I've ever seen. The rest of this will be random highlights, of which there were many far too numerous to elegantly work into paragraphs.

*Seeing Tobin Sprout sing “Doding Invisible Rays,” my favorite b-side of all time by any band ever. It was so unexpected I almost fell down, and that's when I bought the beer because I was so excited I needed to drink some more (even though I'd realized I was plenty drunk and had somehow magically achieved the thought to be non-existent First Avenue drunk). This song has a special place in my heart, and it's one of those simple but incredibly perfect songs I wish I had written. I actually forced my band mates to learn this for a Kite Tails show a couple years ago because I wanted to know what it was like to sing one of the most brilliant songs that no one has ever heard.


*Bob's microphone twirling, quite expert.

*Greg Demos looked amazing all night. He dressed like a rock star from the 70s if all the clothes had come from the Salvation Army. Purple pants. Heeled shoes. Ruffled white shirt with vest. Silver, like real silver, hair. And it would have been kind of sad if he wasn't being such a fucking rock star. It was so awesome to watch him.

*All the hits. Well, mostly all the hits. Bob knew what he was doing. He seems like the kind of guy who is really into seeing what people say about his band, knowing which songs everyone loves the most and you know what, he probably loves all those songs the most too. He's the kind of guy who thinks he's a total genius and makes no bones about it and the thing is, no one can really argue with that. Sure, he's kind of terrible at editing himself and his albums (that's what Tobin Sprout seemed to be really good at and why those middle albums are so great), but I swear when the man strikes gold it's solid fucking gold.

*Halfway through the show, one of the dudes in front of me left and his friend tried to save his spot until he realized he wasn't coming back and I proceeded to bro down with this random dude for the rest of the show. Jenny apparently pushed me forward because she thought I needed to brodown, which is why I love her. She knows me so well!

*Three encores! Two of which I kind of forgot due to being right plastered, but I know they closed with “Weedking” and I never really liked that song too much but man it was fucking AMAZING. FREEDOM CAKE! QUICK TO BAKE!

*Mitch Mitchell sang one of the songs, but I forgot which one. “Lethargy,” maybe?

*I didn't realize this until just now, but they didn't play “Don't Stop Now.” OH WAIT YES THEY DID! And I was wasted by this point (it was in one of the encores) but I am pretty sure I remember pollard doing the “Many more where we come from...NOT” line. Wait, did they play it? Shit, I can't remember. I KNOW They played “Exit Flagger” though and that was fucking awesome. Wait, did they play that? I shoulda paid more attention. Guess I was too busy having the greatest time EVER.

*Times New Viking opened and their reverence to GBV was almost kind of off putting since they're such a good band. The singer drummer dude started counting down the songs they had left til GBV, which was sweet, and though I was kind of not in the mood, a few songs in I started getting really into their set and noticed things I hadn't when I'd seen them before (their guitarist is great) when they opened for other indie rock legends Yo La Tengo and the Breeders (two separate shows, years apart). It's nice to see them being courted by the greats. I saw the guitarist and the drummer rocking out to the Clean at Garage Fest a couple weeks ago, and that endeared me to them even more.

*Despite not remembering what songs they played, I don't think it was because I was plastered. I think it was because when the show was happening (From the time that silly little recorded intro started when I was on my way to the bathroom, pissed, and then rushed back and forced my way through a bunch of people back to Jenny TO the point when the house music came on and I had to try to remember where the car was in the garage) I was in an altered state of reality. Since this actually wasn't supposed to be happening, I will maintain that it didn't really happen, and if I do remember it happening than that's nothing but a far fetched fantasy because Guided By Voices reuniting with the Classic Line-up is something that is way too cool to ever actually happen. Or did it? There is video evidence, so maybe it did! I can't, for the life of me, swear that they played “Gold Star For Robot Boy” but I remember losing my shit when it happened?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Top 5 Favorite B-Sides By My Top 5 Favorite Bands

When I caught the Mountain Goats at the Bottleneck earlier this week, John Darnielle played "The Day the Aliens Came," a song I'd never heard before. I went home and found it on the Come, Come the Sunset Tree demos thing. It was kind of more awesome live, but listening to it more, man, it's kind of amazing. Mostly, it's amazing because Darnielle is the kind of guy who can write a brilliant song and bury it somewhere in his massive discography. He's got too many other amazing songs that hog the spotlight. Digging up the little ones, discovering something I didn't know existed, that is one of my favorite things about liking music. Then I started thinking about how a lot of my favorite songs by some of my favorite bands are the songs that fly under the radar because finding them was such a special experience that I never wanted to let them go. So, in case you like these bands and haven't heard these songs, here they are.

5.) The Weakerthans - "Utilities"

I'm cheating here at number five. The Weakerthans don't really have any B-sides that aren't covers or reworkings of songs they've already recorded, but this one was a B-side for a long time until it ended up as the last song on Reunion Tour. I still prefer John K Samson's solo acoustic version, and I feel it best displays the sentiment that anyone can relate to: I want to be useful. There are a handful of videos of Samson playing this song, but they're all pretty much fantastic because it's just one of those songs that kinda always sounds good.

4.) The Hold Steady - "Girls Like Status"

My love for the Hold Steady is wide and far-reaching. It's so massive, when Jenny and I are hanging out in Minneapolis in a couple of days, one of the things we're planning on doing is visiting landmarks that pop up in Hold Steady songs. This song was apparently on the Aqua Team Hunger Force movie soundtrack, which is weird, because Superchunk had a song on that soundtrack and they're on this list. This is the perfect B-side. It's a fucking great song, highlights all of the band's strengths, but wouldn't have really fit on Boys and Girls and America. Plus, it references the Mountain Goats and Dillinger Four, two bands I love and adore. And the Mountain Goats are on this list too!

3.) The Mountain Goats - "Attention All Pickpockets"/ "New Chevrolet in Flames" / "The Day the Aliens Came"

Can't choose, and really, how can I? With such an epic discography, and with so many of those songs flying under the radar, well, it's pretty impossible to choose just ONE favorite Mountain Goats b-side. So, here are my three favorites. One from Tallahassee. One from We Shall All Be Healed. One from the Sunset Tree. All are spectacular, all hit a different. Well, as different as Mountain Goats songs can be. I like how "Attention All Pickpockets" is almost soaring despite being amazingly sad. I love how "New Chevrolet in Flames" almost has swagger and introduced me to the Colorado Bulldog, which if you haven't had one, well, make it yourself because no one at the bars in this town know how to make one (I DID however, order one in Austin a few years back, and I believe it was on the Utne Reader's account, but I can't swear by it. I just know it was at that little nook on Cedar Street and it was amazing and made with expensive vodka). "The Day the Aliens Came" is a new favorite that I just heard for the first time, uh, a few days ago, but I know it's gonna stick with me because goddamn, it should have been on the album. It seems to fit pretty perfectly, but I'm sure John had his reasons.

2.) Superchunk - "Home at Dawn"

I found a 7" of this at Love Garden months back and it was for some bizarre reason, marked down to some ridiculously cheap price given the quality of this song. Maybe it's because it's an A-Side only 7", but I listened to this song over and over again so many times I don't know when I would have had a chance to get to side B. The woozy bass line and the drifty guitar riff matches the post-night of drinking and bad decisions vibe of the lyrics and Mac MacCaughan sounds like he's screaming from the center of the earth. Well, screaming over the guitars at least, that said the mixing is great because it sounds like the song is about to fall apart at any second. I always put this song on mixes for the car and while the rest of the songs tend to get a little stale, I'm always ready to play this one over and over and over forever. Even if it is kind of emotionally devastating every single time.

1.) Guided by Voices - "Dodging Invisible Rays"

Guided by Voices is my favorite band. I will never get past thinking that. I'm the kind of person who immediately bought two tickets to their classic reunion tour in the closest city possible. In this case, Minneapolis, and at the time I didn't know WHO would go with me, but I figured I better jump on it just in case. Things worked out and Jenny is going with me, and we're headed there in...8 hours. Quite stoked, and since I'm obsessive I've been hounding reviews of the reunion shows and it looks like they're playing "Dodging Invisible Rays" and well fuck, that might complete my precious little life. This song gets the top spot because I once forced my bandmates to cover this at some Kite Tails show at the Replay a ways back. I think we covered Prince that night, too. But playing this one was one of the most fun things I ever did. Everyone's all Bob Pollard this and Bob Pollard that when it comes to GBV, but this is one of Tobin Sprout's shining moments and if you want to cast doubt on my opinion that he was the glue that held GBV together during their glory days, well, I'll most definitely disagree with you. Unless your answer is "Light Beer," and then in that case, I have no choice but to say "Well, that too."