Tuesday, March 30, 2010


Black Tambourine
2010, Slumberland Records
9 out of 10

In the early-to-mid 1990's, there was a whole lot of underground and independent rock skipping across that great pond known as the Atlantic Ocean. Europe had Sarah Records, The Pastels and that darling C86 compilation cassette. In the States, we had Slumberland Records, Black Tambourine and homemade mixtapes.

My exposure to Black Tambourine's music was through a co-worker named Rose Melberg. We both worked at a cafe in Sacramento named New Helvetia way back there in 1993-land. I had horrible taste in music then, having fallen-off my Dinosaur Jr-appreciating wagon in order to allow the punishing sounds of industrial and goth to wipe their feet on my imagination (what a mess!) Rose, I quickly found-out, had just dissolved her band, Tiger Trap, and was setting course for a solo career with the help of Slumberland Records (I still have the flexi disc Rose gave me which featured her on one side, the The Magpies on the other, and the black-and-white cover art of Adriane Tomine which she and co-worker/friend Emily Elders had taken turns coloring-in with crayons).

Taking note of my lowered appreciation in music ("That stuff is really depressing and cheesy." Rose told me when I showed-up to work one day in a Godflesh t-shirt), she made me a cassette featuring The Ne're-Do-Wells on one side and Black Tambourine on the other (recorded from 7" singles, no less!) Needless to say, it was a transformative musical experience. While I had been wallowing-away in the defeatist schlock of music that wasn't really doing it for me (that new music kick I was looking for was more of a dull, unrelenting thud, really), the homemade dream-pop of Black Tambourine was what I had really been searching for, but didn't know where to look.

Thanks to this band, I later discovered and/or sought-out bands such as My Bloody Valentine, Lilys, Pavement, Guided By Voices, Thee Headcoats, The Pastels, The Mummies, Flake Music (who later changed their name to The Shins and wrote a song titled "Pam Berry," no less), and countless other lo-fi bedroom rockers making two minute micro-symphonies for penniless, skinny white kids to enjoy. I suspect Black Tambourine had the same influence on a number of other people, too, considering the bands (then and now) that cite Pam Berry and Co. as an influence (Whorl, Veronica Lake, The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart, Vivian Girls, etc.)

I never owned any of Black Tambourine's 7" releases or the many compilation records they appeared on (save for the One Last Kiss comp on Spin Art Records). It wasn't until I finally wore-out the tape Rose made for me that I broke-down and purchased the 10" 10-song The Complete Recordings compilation Slumberland released years later. I played The Complete Recordings so much, I soon found that I was in danger of wearing-out the vinyl version as well.

Given Slumberland's recent revival (did this wonderful record label ever really go away?), it seems fitting that they would release this Black Tambourine collection with new songs tacked onto it. The results? Wonderful, of course. Seeing as how Black Tambourine's original songs are pretty damned fantastic to begin with, how could one really find any fault with the additional material that this collection provides?

I'm not sure if Black Tambourine invented the art of grafting shoegaze to doo-wop and merging that with raw, vulnerable, feedback-drenched noise pop, or if the band simply perfected it, but the 10 "original" tracks on this new collection are as accessible and dreamy as they were 10 years ago. "Black Car" still shimmers with Berry's hazy, longing vocals echoing against those heavy, weaving and bobbing bass lines. Ditto the Lush-esque "Pack You Up" and baroque "Drown" (if anything, this band could be held accountable for inspiring "air bass playing" in its listeners). No other band who has done a cover of any one of Love's songs has been able to attack them with the required verve and vigor the way Black Tambourine does with "Can't Explain." "Throw Aggie Off the Bridge" still resonates as the band's signature single, despite possibly still giving Stephen Pastel indigestion.

Of that bonus material are two "first demo" versions of "For Ex-Lovers Only" and "Black Car" recorded by the Lilys' Kurt Heasley, and four brand new songs; "Tears of Joy," "Lazy Heart," and covers of Suicide's "Dream Baby Dream" and Buddy Holly's "Heartbeat" (influences, damn!) Though this new material sounds a bit more polished than that of the songs recorded in the 1990's, Black Tambourine's twee-pop blitz is still as cuddly, kinetic and charming as ever.

As this collection illustrates, Black Tambourine made the kind of hazy, lo-fi music anybody could make, everybody tried to imitate and nobody could duplicate. That's the stuff of legend.

Lo-fi legend, that is.

Thanks again, Rose!

In Memorial: Alex Chilton

Remembering Alex Chilton - (1950 - 2010) R.I.P.

It's hard to say where my music taste and appreciation would be if I had not been exposed to Big Star, but I know I wouldn't want to go there.

Big Star's music wasn't pretentious or bloated. Their songs revolved around falling in and out of love, enjoying all the freedoms young summer days had to offer, hanging out with friends, and getting high. Their songs were personable and easily related-to, and that's probably what sunk them in a decade devoted to guitar solos, stadium-filling egos and songs about wizards (ah, rock-n-roll of the 1970's). It wasn't until a decade later that Big Star would influence bands such as The Replacements, The Posies, R.E.M., the dB's, Young Fresh Fellows, and a host of other young groups with a revival perfectly christened "power pop."

In the late 1960's, Memphis-born Alex Chilton first made a name for himself at 16 as the singer for the Boxtops, whose hits included "The Letter" and "Cry Like A Baby." Disillusioned by the recording industry, Chilton struck out on his own, learning how to play guitar by studying Stax Records guitar great Steve Cooper, and eventually releasing two solo albums, Lost Decade and 1970.

Moving back to Memphis from New York, Chilton hooked-up with Chris Bell and formed Big Star. The group released three records (#1 Record, Radio City and Sister Lovers/Third) to critical acclaim and commercial indifference. Internal strife within the band led to its break-up by the tail-end of 1974. Bell was killed in a car accident shortly thereafter.

Chilton again struck out on another solo career after Big Star's break-up, and embraced the looser punk rock movement of the 1970's (he engineered The Cramps Gravest Hits EP and Songs The Lord Taught Us album, among many others). Nearly 25 years later, Chilton reformed Big Star with original member Jody Stephens, as well as The Posies' Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow, and released Nobody Can Dance in 1999 and In Space in 2005.

Big Star's career may have been short, but the band's cult influence reverberated, especially in the underground rock arena. R.E.M.'s Peter Buck considers Third on par with The Beatles  Revolver, Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited and Rolling Stones Exile on Mainstreet, while in 1987 The Replacements recorded an ode to their hero on Pleased to Meet Me simple titled "Alex Chilton." In 1998, Big Star's "In the Street" (from #1 Record) was covered by fellow power-poppers Cheap Trick and used as the theme song for That 70's Show. "I'm in Love With A Girl" appeared on the soundtrack for the 2009 film, Adventureland.

Alex Chilton was almost 60 years-old when he died of a heart attack on March 17th, 2010, days before his scheduled appearance at this year's SXSW music festival in Austin, Texas. Chilton was an easy-going, uncomplicated man, whose honesty and heart was reflected in his music. I think it's fair to say that we wouldn't have underground (or as it's now tagged "indie-rock") had it not been for the influence of Big Star and Alex Chilton.

He will be deeply missed.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010


Broken Bells 
Broken Bells
2010, Columbia Records
8 out of 10

You can't blame James Mercer for wanting to take a break from The Shins - or at the very least, to get some distance and perspective on a band that was once touted as "life changing." He kicked-out founding members Marty Crandall and Jesse Sandoval, moved his crew from Sub Pop Records to his own Aural Apothecary label and pushed back the release date of any potential new material from the band. Geez, just writing out this paragraph outlining The Shins drama makes me sick of the band. One can only imagine how Mercer must feel about this.

But he's one of those creative types, this James Mercer, with a plethora of musical output fountaining out of him. With The Shins mothballed, Mercer needed a new outlet for that meloncholy-sprinkled sense of wonderment of his. Enter fellow Dark Night Of The Soul  collaborator Brian "Danger Mouse" Burton, whom Mercer met at a Danish music festival in 2004. From this meeting, Broken Bells was eventually born.

Broken Bells sounds exactly like what you would imagine a pairing between Mercer and Danger Mouse would sound like, and this is a good thing indeed. Mercer's rubber band-stretched vocals float plaintively over Mouse's luxurious midnight tempos. Where Mercer nearly toyed (fantastically, boldly) with inorganic rhythms on The Shins' "Sea Legs," on the entire of Broken Bells debut, he's seemingly found a kindred spirit in Danger Mouse, who implores the shin-man to soak-up the sequencing, samples and beats with reckless abandon. The results are pretty damn fantastic, mixing Danger Mouse's looseness with Mercer's dour whimsy into a lackadaisical, relax-colored cocktail.

Indie-folk-hop, if you must.

Danger Mouse and Mercer employ their magic expertly. Their merging here is near-seamless, mixing Mouse's (p)lush orchestrations over Mercer's vocals and acoustic guitar strumming. "The High Road" (the first single off this album) could fool some listeners into thinking it were a Shins song had they not been told ahead of time. Danger Mouse's back beats crawls toward you like a snail with a slow motion circus on it back, while Mercer's peaks and valleys vocals recall the best moments of all three Shins records.

Then comes "Vaporize," with Mercer commanding his vocal range like a canon, lulling listeners into more Shins comparisons until Danger Mouse releases a 21-gun barrage of beats, signaling that the collaboration is well underway: leave your Shins expectations at the door, the duo seems to insist. This album is something new - something transcendent. Nowhere is this more evident, of course, than "The Ghost Inside," with it's Prince-like vocals, cacophony of whirling rhythmic do-dads and Danger Mouse on actual drums (truth be told, Danger Mouse plays "real' drums on most of Broken Bells' 10 tracks), with Mercer's vocals cutting-in midway providing a tether to reality.

"Citizen" recalls the French band Air's more fluid moments, with guitar and keyboard arrangements intertwined around a delicate piano ribbon while a chorus hums in the background. "Sailing To Nowhere" opens with murky, lo-fi carnival organs and Mercer gliding in, underneath, over and around Mouse's hazy framework. It's the most baroque, dreamlike moment on the entire album, and it feels real - beautiful - while ending way too soon. Closer "The Mall and Misery" qualifies as 2010's best song title, and loses nothing with Mercer's kinetic guitar work and vocals. This is easily one of the best songs on the entire album.

And that is saying a lot for an album full of great songs. What could have been perceived as just another novelty pairing ("indie-rocker meets hip-pop tinkerer"), Broken Bells is in all actuality an out-right triumph of substance over style; expert musical output over shallow aesthetics. These songs aren't "The Shins James Mercer meets Danger Mouse." Nah-uh! They are Broken Bells songs, and they stand on their own merits - flawlessly.

Who'da thunk it, right? The merging of the studio knob-twisting of the Gorillaz, Beck and MF Doom producer, and Indie-rock's introspective merry troubadour. On paper, it reads like just another one of those collaborations. But the proof is in the pudding, and Broken Bells sound more like a legit outfit than a fly-by-night operation, thanks in no small part to these 10 songs. 

If anything, Broken Bells is surely the most fun a downer can sound like.