Who Loves The Sun: Remembering Lou Reed

For some people it was the death of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain or Jerry Garcia that made time stop. For me it was Lou Reed.

My seminal Lou Reed moment took place on a brisk Fall evening in 1988. I was a freshman in college and off on an East Coast road trip stopping by Wesleyan and Tufts, eventually making my way to Providence for an evening with an old friend at the Rhode Island School of Design. I had never been to Providence and I remember being instantly jealous of everything about the place as we walked across town to a cheap and delicious Vietnamese restaurant surrounded by a whole city of smart artsy hipsters. By the time we returned to my friend Tom’s apartment, a dozen beverages into the evening, we got right down to the business of playing records and talking about music. At some point he dropped the needle on the Velvet Underground’s “Loaded.” Immediately, and I mean within the first few notes of “Who Loves The Sun,” my mind was blown, and my musical life was changed forever. Then came “Rock & Roll” and “Oh! Sweet Nothing,” which were even more transformative for me. We must have played the album four times straight before we passed out, bleary-eyed, but high on music.

I had certainly heard Lou Reed many times before, but “Walk On The Wild Side”  – albeit cool, was not the Velvet Underground (VU). The band, I would learn, was managed by Andy Warhol, and became a symbol for the New York art scene in the late 60’s.  While The Dead and Jefferson Airplane played the Fillmore and the Warfield, VU played Warhol’s Factory. They can almost single-handedly take credit for igniting what would ultimately become genres as far-reaching as punk, new wave, and later “alternative” or “indie rock.” What the Beatles did for pop music, Dylan for folk, and the Stones for rock and roll, VU did for what would become “independent music.” There were many things that made them so unique beginning with their attitude, the all black fashion sense, the fact that they had one of the first female drummers (Mo Tucker), the incredible music (thanks largely to Reed and John Cale), and their devastating and authentic lyrics. But mostly it was that the band made music so far ahead of its time it still sounds like the future – even today.

“Loaded” was the last VU album, made with Lou Reed halfway out the door, and although their most accessible album, it is likely “The Velvet Underground & Nico” will remain the one in which they will be most remembered. Featuring the iconic Warhol banana image, and the vocals of European supermodel turned actress singer Nico, Reed created an album filled with gentle melodic ditties like “There She Goes” and “Sunday Morning” and juxtaposed them with gritty classics like “Heroin” and “All Tomorrow’s Parties.”

VU disbanded in 1970 after four proper albums, but this was just the beginning for Lou Reed. He literally created the art rock universe that still exists today. Without his influence, there would have been no Bowie/Ziggy, no Iggy Pop, no Ramones, Patti Smith, Strokes, Luna, or thousands of other bands that played in his wake. There were plenty of drugs, which oriented his music not only lyrically and emotionally, but unlike most of his peers, he persevered, never seeming to lose a beat. His storytelling describes primarily a hardscrabble NYC during the 70’s and 80’s. This was the era of Needle Park, city wide blackouts, the ultra sketchy East Village and Times Square and Harlem, but it was also the era of CBGB’s, the rise of independent record labels, and punk rock.

Lou Reed, was a musician from childhood. He played doo-wop songs in high school, studied poetry in college, and wrote pop songs for Pickwick after college. He was always all in, and smart and talented enough to have gone in any direction he might have chosen. Real artists are born artists. They don’t compromise and spend a lifetime evolving and experimenting. They inspire future artists, and leave a canon that will endure forever. His music was never easy. “Berlin” and “Metal Machine” were dense, impenetrable works that divided critics and fans, but “Transformer” established him post-Velvets as one of the most talented songwriters of all time. Less heralded classics like “New York” and “Magic and Loss” represent Reed becoming comfortable with middle age, and doing so with all the relevance and vigor of the Velvets Reed from 20 years prior.

In some ways Reed defined what cool would mean for nearly 50 years. It was most superficially the look and attitude, but more than anything there was that voice and that beautiful and distinctive guitar. It was unlike anything that had come before it. A kind of talk-singing-poetry set to music. At times it’s bleak and jarring, at other times it’s raucous and fun, but most of the time it’s just sublime and cerebral in a way that is largely impossible to describe.

New York is a vastly different place than the one Lou Reed chronicled between the mid-60’s and late 80’s. CBGB’s is long gone. Many of the great artists from that era are no longer with us. There is a Starbucks on every corner, the Disneyfication of Times Square, and the gentrification of the East Village. The death of Lou Reed surely signifies the end of something, but he will always be with us. That is the beautiful thing about music. The best of it will live on, finding new audiences, inspiring new artists, and leaving us with a portrait of a time long gone.

Like “Catcher and The Rye,” “Harold and Maude” and a handful of other exquisite works of modern art that changed my life in immeasurable ways, Lou Reed’s music set me on a very different course. I can’t imagine who I’d be without him.

Reed said it best in the classic tune “Rock and Roll:

But one fine mornin’ she hears a New York station
She doesn’t believe what she heard at all
Hey, not at all
She started dancin’ to that fine fine music
You know her life was saved by rock ‘n’ roll
Yeah rock ‘n’ roll

Yes, my life was saved or at least shaped by rock n’ roll. Thank you Lou.

TastemakerX V24: “Thank You Lou”


Is Yo La Tengo The Greatest Indie Rock Band Of All Time?

In the mid ‘80s a young rock journalist named Ira Kaplan and his wife Georgia Hubley started a rock band. Their band, Yo La Tengo, was named after a Spanish baseballer’s lingo for “I’ve got it.” Their name has always been as accessibly irreverent as their music. Growing up in the late ‘70s early ‘80s the band’s influences included everyone from Love to the Velvet Underground. Punk music had come and gone and a different kind of American independent music scene had just begun. Enough time had passed that bands could now comfortably start to explore what had come before them with a sense of nostalgia and admiration, but not enough time had passed for it to not seem a bit ironic. But that is exactly what independent music has always been about: evolving the recent past while at the same time creating just enough original nuances to inform the future. But implicit in this pact is that only one of two outcomes were inevitable: mainstream success which involved alienating core fans by creating easier to swallow and broader reaching songs, or eventually fading into an adulthood that didn’t involve touring in vans and playing college towns. For twenty-eight years now Yo La Tengo has managed to live somewhere in the middle. Like their hometown of Hoboken, NJ just across the river from Manhattan, they seem most comfortable just one deviation from the center.

Twenty-seven years have passed since the debut Yo La Tengo album, “Ride The Tiger.” It was a fairly straightforward collection of jangly guitar sounds cut from the same cloth as the early REM and Feelies efforts. But as their career would progress, Yo La Tengo would evolve ever so slightly with every record. Much like trying to watch sap run down a tree, it would take a time lapse camera over a very long period of time to see fully the shape of the path it would take. Although most great bands manage to build gradually on their sound, very few of them have the patience and fortitude to see it play out over such a long period. Radiohead, The Flaming Lips and Spoon have all adapted to the times by embracing, to varying degrees, electronica and keyboards, but none quite so subtly as Yo La Tengo.  Bands like Pavement, The Verve, and others would break up before being forced to confront the golden age of MP3’s and EDM. Perhaps much of this has to do with the fact that Ira and Georgia are married, and that their life together has presumably been spent making art. This is what they do, and they do it together. Having bypassed parenting for art, I’d imagine that this is what they will always do. Only Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth hold a candle to the idea that domestic life and art can coexist over such a long period of time. But sadly, as Sonic Youth wound down as a band, so did their marriage. Or perhaps it was the other way around. [Read more…]

July Music that Matters

Music on a summer day just sounds better. Here are the records that made it all worthwhile. TastemakerX: July Music That Matters Spotify Playlist

1) Lower Dens – Nootropics

Like Beach House on Xanax, Baltimore’s Lower Dens spins deep mellow grooves build on the beautifully androgynous vocals of Jana Hunter and the metronomic drum and bass lines. The ten songs here crash like gentle waves and then build into tightly spun futuristic dreamscapes. Weirdly and transcendently gorgeous.

2) Glen Hansard – Rhythm and Repose

I have been loving Hansard since his debut in the Commitments eons ago, and throughout a half dozen handful of beautifully emotive Frames albums. But it was the film “Once” and the beautiful collaboration with Marketa Irglova as The Swell Season that finally brought Hansard to the quasi mainstream. “Ryhthm and Repose” is another bittersweet masterpiece by one of the finest songwriters since Astral Weeks era Van Morrison.

3) DIIV – Oshin

I have a sweet spot for 80’s new wave music as I spent much of that period in my room reading Option and Spin Magazine, and drunk on Echo and the Bunnymen and New Order. DIIV, the side project from Beach Fossils Zach Smith, revisits that period with impeccable precision. Old wave for a new generation.

4)  Friends – Manifest!

It’s been quite a while since I can remember a record as funky and beat laden as Friends debut “Manifest!’ In fact you could argue that the last band to channel this specific energy was Luscious Jackson. Singer Samantha Urbani has unearthed the sounds of Summer from the mean streets of Brooklyn, and in the process has put the East Coast on the same planet as Best Coast.

5)  The Lumineers – The Lumineers

I am a sucker for earthy Americana indie folk bands. To that end, this summer’s answer to Fleet Foxes, Dawes, and The Head and the Heart, is Colorado’s Lumineers. These guitar-based rustic balladeers flirt dangerously with being overly sentimental, but I won’t hold it against them.

6) Young Magic – Melt

The Aussie/Malay Brooklyn transplants Young Magic mine the bins for eclectic relics and in the process channel MBV’s “Loveless” but mash it up with a more tribal Yeasayer vibe. The band’s dreamy angular world music drifts here and there, but eventually ends up under your skin in the best possible way.

7) Here We Go Magic – A Different Ship

Over half of the bands I am obsessed lately seem to be from Brooklyn. The best of which have to be Here We Go Magic. The impeccably produced “A Different Ship” is an impossible to pinpoint amalgam of indie goodness. There are jangly guitars, trance-like vocals, and deep colorful grooves that make it impossible to resist standing still.

8) Husky – Forever So

Like Australia’s version of Rogue Wave, Husky makes perfect pop music. It is a sound drenched with a soulful optimism. Like a new wave revision of 70’s era California rock, singer Husky Gawenda has a voice like a hipster angel and the band accompanies with just right balance of orchestral goodness.

9) Hospitality – Hospitality

I guess I’ve been a girl singer kind of mood these days. Hospitality is a band that asks very little of you, but gives you so much so easily. They write slender pop songs about everyday life, cut from the same cloth as Camera Obscura and Allo Darlin’. The bright and approachable vocals of Amber Papini, carry an otherwise straight forward indie pop sensibility into another strata.

10) Japandroids – Celebration Rock

Every once and a while you need a straight up rock record, with giant guitar riffs accompanied by melodious punk ballardry (think mid-career Husker Du, or select Hold Steady). Although Japandroids have been making music for five years, “Celebration Rock” is exactly that, and tribute to all that has come before it and all that will hopefully follow. Put the top down and play loudly.

Post by Marc Ruxin

The Bestest 2011– Tunage

If you look hard enough, any year can turn out to be a great one for music. Long gone are the days when commercial radio called the shots, when proximity to a killer record store or access to a suitable tastemaker could serve as an excuse for embracing mediocrity. Spotify is finally stateside. Record stores hardly exist anymore. Pandora is available in some cars. Satellite radio has XMU. You can hear KCRW’s “Morning Becomes Eclectic” on your phone. You can listen to your iPod over Bluetooth on a Jambox. You can push your 500+ gig collection to anywhere over Sonos. Coachella, Pitchfork, Austin City Limits Festival, Bonnaroo, Sasquatch, Outside Lands … so many festivals, so little time. There is simply no excuse not to take advantage of turning on to something truly life affirming. 2011 was another year steeped in brilliant, resurgent, rootsy Americana indie rock. There was also the emergence of some incredible new female voices, and a healthy dose of chill wave electronica. In the end music can make the world go round, so plug in, life is too quiet without it.

1) The Head and the Heart – The Head and the Heart (Sub Pop)

The greatness of some bands is immediately apparent. A few chords, a few harmonies, and you are hooked emotionally with melodies tattooed on your mind for the balance of the day or week. I have been listening to this masterpiece for almost a year now since its release in January of 2011, a year in which I have seen them four times, each a bit better than the time before. Like the love child of Mumford and the Fleet Foxes, The Head and the Heart is both pop enough to eventually become a massive hit, but with enough indie cred for tastemakers to keep coming back for the follow up, hopefully for a long time . The band is a five piece band, three of whom trade equally compelling vocals.

This record is part of the new Americana rock movement that emphasizes 70’s harmonizing, acoustic guitar, piano, strings, and thematic preoccupations with nature and love. I don’t listen to commercial radio, so I have little idea how big this band has gotten over the past half year, but it is hard to imagine that this isn’t a record for the ages for those into folk, pop, jam, or indie rock. The production is warm and earthy, while the songwriting both harkens back and is very modern in a dusty respectful way with soaring melodies and chorus’ that build into rainbows of joy. This is a very special record indeed.

2) WU LYF - Go Tell Fire To The Mountain (LYF)

There are few artists who growl as beautifully as Ellery Roberts from WU LYF.  In fact Tom Waits, “The Pogues”, Shane McGowen, and Captain Beefheart might be the only ones. But WU LYF, a self-produced Manchester band, hits you immediately like an emotional ton of bricks, although you are left a bit uneasy trying to get your balance right. Musically, things seem familiar enough, big distant sounding percussion which builds little by little with every song, sparse keyboard sounds emerging now and then, with a kind of bright melodic guitar line holding it all together. Hard to place, familiar, but really like nothing you have heard before.

But back to the vocals. I’m still unsure whether to try to focus hard enough to understand the gruff emotive howls, or just let it go and let the words pour over me like a beautiful but indistinct instrument. On “Dirt,” my vote for the signature track, you get this euphoric and transcendent musical groove swirling, and every once in a while you catch a lyric or two that you can understand, but then, as quickly as you caught it, it disappears. That is the beauty of WU LYF who flirt dangerously close with the traditional but then mess with it just enough to make it too weird for those not willing to let go. On “Concrete Gold” you latch onto a familiar enough sounding guitar, but realize that so much is happening behind the surface you can’t resist getting sucked in. So is life (or LYF).

3) Laura Marling – A Creature I Don’t Know (Domino)

Some artists are born to rock while others will it into existence. Some do both. At 21 Laura Marling is a student of rock history taking equal parts Fairport Convention, PJ Harvey, and Cat Power, and blending them into some of the starkest, sultriest folk rock in decades. She has the dusty weathered voice of a wounded angel, and the sensibility of Led Zeppelin, often beginning with a few gentle strums before erupting into cacophony of hard driving rock.

On the transcendent “The Beast” and “Salinas”, you are tricked into expecting something hushed and acoustic, but quickly drawn into something dark and beautiful. In an age where Adele and Gaga rule the airwaves, Marling seems satisfied with channeling the blues and transforming it into something altogether bigger, badder, and ultimately better.

4) Bon Iver – Bon Iver (Jagjaguar)

I am a total sucker for sparse emotive indie folk. Heartbreaking mythology now a few years behind Bon Iver’s debut “For Emma,” Justin Vernon’s follow-up is a much thicker, schmaltzier masterpiece. A self-confessed lover of Bruce Hornsby and all things almost beyond ironically cool, “Bon Iver” is a richly textured road through small towns like “Calgary” and “Perth.”

Like his most supergroup side project Gayngs (whose 2010 full length is, in some ways, even better) this record is a silky smooth affair, gliding on the confident calm of Vernon’s occasional falsetto. In some ways this album suffered from over play, stuck in my car CD player for months, but it is rare to hear a song as simultaneously moving and cool as “Holocene.” It is hard not to be rooting for and hoping that this is the beginning of a long and lush career.

5) elbow - build a rocket boys (XL)

Tragically for most people, elbow seems like a new band, but in truth they have been around for a dozen years cranking out moody crescendo-bending music. I have always loved brit pop, starting with the Manchester Factory records, the ethereal bliss of 4AD in its prime, and through the historic Creation records. So it is no surprise that the only still viable keepers of this flame, elbow, with “build a rocket boys” has reawakened such a wonderful nerve. As easy as it is to fall in love with the recorded songs, to see this band live, complete with a singer whose angelic, soaring almost operatic voice defies his physical likeness to Ricky Gervais, is to truly understand them. At the Austin City Limits festival this year after the longest draught in Texas history, a few songs worth of much needed and beautiful rain fell from the sky as this band had the crowd swaying hands up and fingers approximating the fall from above. A beautiful moment.

The ten songs here all tend to build from lush and fragile to full flung explorations of sound and emotion, most notably the opening track “the birds” and “with love” that begin innocently enough before exploding into something other-worldly. In the end whether you have been tracking this band from the beginnings as serious, perhaps moderately pretentious yet immature art rockers, yet still serious and fully formed musicians, or you just drop in on them this time around, they are something to behold.

6) Girls – Father, Son and Holy Ghost (Matador)

Full disclosure, I am an unabashed zealot for Girls. Their debut record and follow-up EP topped my lists for the past two years. This time out, the band travels even darker and deeper into themselves than their previous two brightly lit trips to paradise lost. As in previous efforts, they alternate between long brooding epics like the incredible “Vomit” and “Forgiveness” and lighthearted Beach Boys meets Elvis Costello ditties like “Honey Bunny” and “Alex.”

Christopher Owens, the principal songwriter and guitarists, is a true morbid savant. He is a musician whose troubled upbringing has made him both wiser than his young soul should be, but also still innocent enough to make you really care. Whether or not he becomes the next Brian Wilson or Lou Reed, the music of Girls is a real treasure, worthy of patient honest reflection.

7) PJ Harvey – Let England Shake (Universal Island)

Of all the female rockers to emerge from the early 90’s, only PJ Harvey is  still down her own dark dirty road, still hungry and creative. In many ways she is like a soul mate to Tom Waits, never at a loss for words or emotion, complete with raucous percussion, and embracing experience and translating it into words, accompanied for the first time in a decade, and creating genuinely accessible bliss.

Tunes like “This Glorious Land” and “The Words That Maketh Murder” are infectious grooves, while she lets down her grizzled guard on ballads like “On Battleship Hill” and “Hanging on a Wire” making it easy to jump aboard and bathe in light. Some records have the power to rip you out of a moment and transport you to a wildly different place. “Let England Shake” is very special and proof that youth isn’t wasted on the young.

8) Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues (Sub Pop)

Almost four years ago, even before their first EP “Sun Giant” was released, I stood before a bunch of bearded hippies at the Bowery Ballroom, transfixed by their lush nostalgic confidence as they buzzlessly opened for Blitzen Trapper. Nothing they have done since that night has been anything less than perfect. Their CSN harmonies and their mid-70’s meandering California spirit is such an authentic relic of a bygone era, even among a sea of more popular revisionists like Mumford, that the years that have passed since the debut have passed way too slowly.

The dozen songs on “Helplessness Blues” are about what you would expect – earthy epics that tend to rise and fall around the sublime vocals of still only 25 year-old Robin Pecknold. Already something of a studio perfectionist, they recorded these songs, scrapped and rerecorded them a handful of times between Woodstock, Seattle and parts in between. From the stunning title track whose chorus “If I had an orchard I’d work till I’m sore” mixes just the right amount of Johnny Appleseed pioneer spirit with earnest longing, to the bouncy slow build of “Grown Ocean” and the lush “Lorelai,” this album covers a tremendous amount of ground very carefully. Like Wilco before them, the Fleet Foxes seem destined to make a long career of trying to understand who we are and who we wish to become. There is much to love here, and I’m guessing many will grow to love it more with each passing year.

9) Real Estate – Days (Domino)

Some music fights its way into your psyche while others merely roll over you like waves of joy and calm. Real Estate is the latter, a convertible on a summer day with music playing while the breeze blows through your hair. The band is kindred spirits to fellow New Jerseyites The Feelies (“It’s Real”) but with a hint of the jangly poppiness of Luna or early REM (“Easy”).

“Days” is equal parts tranquility and infectious guitar bliss. There is a certain effortless precision that spills from Real Estate songs, like a peaceful homage to the simplicity of youth and a peaceful suburban childhood. This is a record that asks very little of the listener but gives so much.

10) A Band of Bees – Every Step’s A Yes (ATO)

I will start by saying A Band of Bees is easily my favorite band from the Isle of Wight. Despite owning all of their prior efforts, I had pretty much forgotten about them until recently when this record surfaced in the “recommended” section of some forgotten mp3 blog. The resulting find is one of the best records of the year, with perhaps the best song in a decade – the “Astral Weeks” caliber “Really Need Love Now” which just keeps building on the refrain. The sixteen songs on “Every Step’s A Yes” is like a long stroll back through time with a bunch of different flavors of psychedelia from Byrd’s era entries like “Silver Line” to the string infused lullaby “Tired of Loving” to the Velvets homage “Change Can Happen.”

There is a lushness in the production here that is truly a relic of another era. This is a record for music heads, though, for all of the joy I take in hearing musical influences from Van to The Fairport Convention, this album is a sleepy, subtle orchestral journey into the past, refreshed just slightly for modern times. With its shimmering strings, woodwinds, harps, this is not merely a collection of songs but more a fully realized albums in an age that has all but forgotten what this means. Fortunately we live in a headphone world, so grab some good ones and bliss out for 75 minutes transported back to somewhere you probably haven’t ever been. [Read more…]

Low – C’mon (Sub Pop)

You know you’re getting old when you start saying to yourself “I haven’t seen this band live for 20 years.” Low is one of those great, quiet, enduring indie bands that rode the backside of the Nirvana revolution 20 years ago. Making music from Duluth, MN for esteemed labels like Vernon Yard, Kranky and Sub Pop the band has been consistently touring and playing for quiet appreciative crowds in clubs all over the world, making, at times, barely enough noise to elicit a sway in the room entranced by the ethereal vocals of Mimi Parker and the soulful intensity of husband Alan Sparhawk.

It has been years since I really dialed into a Low album but “C’Mon” has a few of the best songs of the decade. “Witches” is a big beautiful storm of cool that builds gradually, a subtle banjo groove keeping it anchored along the way, and the beautifully apropos “Try to Sleep”  whose “You try to sleep/Cause there’s never enough/Inside a dream/ You take a stand” floats along like a children’s song with just a hint of bitterness. Perhaps this band is acquired taste but after so many years I am thrilled that neither of us has given up on indie rock.  In the end Low always gets me high, and “C’mon,” recorded in an old church, infuses a kind of subtle spiritually into this beautiful minor masterpiece. For newbies please seek out their epic cover of Toto’s “Africa” on AV Club.