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14 April 2007

This is part two of my musings on the year in music, 2006. The first part ran here on March 11 and can be found here.

That part was mostly the political part, now for the mostly music part! Some of the below might be familiar as two long passages were quoted in The Village Voice as part of their annual “Pazz and Jop” issue Year End Wrapup issue, specifically my raving about THE DECEMBERISTS and my comments on the end of Tower Records. This may be old news now but hopefully will still make for good reading. Enjoy!—Jack R

Now, as to the Decemberists, all such politics aside, it’s almost embarrassing how much of 2006 I spent listening to them. Yikes! What got into me?!?!? In my 40s now, I’d thought myself way past the point where I could play one artist to such exclusion of anyone else, in the way I once did the fireballs of my youth (BEATLES, KINKS, WHO, JAMES WILLIAMSON-era IGGY & THE STOOGES, JOHNNY THUNDERS’ HEARTBREAKERS, BUZZCOCKS, CLASH, BAD BRAINS, COMSAT ANGELS, CHAMELEONS, THE SOUND, SMITHS, REPLACEMENTS, etc.). How bad do they have me? If I still had a high school or college notebook, I would probably be doodling the Decemberists’ name and their song titles all over it, as I once did all the above. (And were I a girl, I’d probably add little hearts or memorize their birthdays or whatnot.) It feels almost unhealthy to have such a fixation/obsession at this stage of my life. And standing amidst the teens and 20-somethings at their shows (and even younger great bands like VOXTROT’s), I’m even starting to feel like the late JOHN PEEL did when I interviewed him in his 50s, when he said he felt like young punters must think he was some kind of dirty old man “there to feel young people’s bottoms,” or something like that.

But in my defense, it’s clear that no one can touch what The Decemberists are doing now, young or old. Having given us my #2 LP in 2005, Picaresque (a record I’m notably still playing much more than my 2005 #1, BOB MOULD’s electric comeback Body of Song), I’ve since reappraised the group’s first two lesser LPs Castaways and Cutouts and Her Majesty as being actually much stronger as a whole than I’d previously thought. Yet I am nevertheless completely shocked at the artistic length and breadth to be found on The Crane Wife. It’s just plain more ambitious and unique than any other of the 3800 or so CDs I received in the mail this year, from the teeming masses of labels and tin-pot BRIAN WILSONs out there.

OK, last decade there was rarely a week that I didn’t play a recording by CATHERINE WHEEL, SWERVEDRIVER, LEATHERFACE, or GENE (or, on this side of the pond, AMERICAN MUSIC CLUB/MARK EITZEL, SUGAR/Bob Mould, and BAD RELIGION). And there’s a big hint in that: To a lesser extent, the Decemberists’ dominance of my musical listening time probably has a lot to do with the stunning decline and fall of the U.K. music scene in the ‘00s, which once reliably produced a few dozen incredible bands a year. There are so fewer fresh, original, non-nostalgic-feeling bands coming out these days in general, but especially from ol’ Blighty, that the emergence of this rather delightful Portland bunch has come as much as a godsend and a relief as a joy. But all such caveats about lesser competition aside, I just can’t stop playing this band and that’s really great.

Rarely have I ever seen such a devoutly “indie” band with supposed “indie” values make the jump to a major label with such aplomb, by stretching out so much on their established template. The band’s major strength clearly remains: COLIN MELOY’s songs and endlessly erudite and amusing lyrics are still the band’s tastiest sensations. But what became clear already on Picaresque is now a resounding, equally crucial element: his four bandmates are not only keeping up with him, as they had been previously, but they now fully match his contributions to form a truly invaluable four man/one woman unit in fleshing out his compositions to their fullest. Meloy himself gave me the biggest clue on this subject when I traveled to his home in Portland to interview the group for my current issue cover story, when he forthrightly noted, “We were all kind of consummate music fans and not just tied down to one kind of music. We don’t just want to churn out acceptable indie rock. I think it’s exciting to delve into each of our own personal influences and put them onto record.”

And what a range of influences these five people so well incorporated! Whether bands I’ve never really liked (YES, GENESIS, EMERSON, LAKE & PALMER, and especially, the LP’s patron angel, FLEETWOOD MAC), to groups I once adored (ELO, TALKING HEADS, Smiths, Who), these five and their battery of music-class-closet instruments managed to stitch their own multifaceted masterpiece to match the one woven by the titular metamorphosed crane from the Japanese children’s folk fable. To see this Crane Wife stuff performed live, where the band did eight out of the 10 songs on their October/November tour, was a further delight and revelation. Like BELLE & SEBASTIAN, it’s uncanny how many instruments they all play so well, and how many of them sing, the sum of the whole unthinkable without so many little interlocking parts, making the music so much richer for it. Bravo to them!

And Meloy? Well, maybe his tunes were a little catchier on the breakout Picaresque; and were I to make an album of the best 12 songs from Castaways and Her Majesty, that too would make for a superior LP in the narrow terms of memorable and concise pop songwriting. But although it took far more plays to fully comprehend its brilliance, Crane Wife is not really a record to pull off one song for your mixed CD like its three predecessors. Each song is plenty good enough with no dregs, that’s for sure. But it’s really like one 46-minute, 14-part suite, and I saw nothing so ambitious attempted this year or any other recent year, let along so fully realized. Completely making good on the promise of his narrative storytelling skills so amply demonstrated on Picaresque’s “The Bagman’s Gambit” and especially “The Mariner’s Revenge Song,” going back as far as Castaways’ twin story-song gems, “A Cautionary Song” and “The Legionnaire’s Lament” (which the band smartly combined for a smashing finale at two of their three shows I saw on that tour, at San Francisco’s stately and elegant Warfield Theater and Philadelphia’s big barn Electric Factory), one hangs on every word Meloy utters. I remain endlessly enchanted by the intrigues of gangland robbery gone wrong, safecracking criminals, dead soldiers lullabying bereaved spouses, and most of all, “The Island”’s three-part saga of pillage, rape, and murder that was this year’s most stunning track of any kind. Like “A Cautionary Tale” four years prior, it all sounds so jolly and bracing, yet the lyrics’ dark and hopeless tragedy is worthy of SOPHOCLES, making for the most searing contrast. It’s great art, hands down.

Perhaps Meloy has toned down his “thesaurus” quotient a tad, and that’s too bad. Unlike many, I enjoy looking up words in the dictionary when employed to such good effect, much as I did from 1988-1990 with a string of incredible Bad Religion albums filled with words such as “obsequious” and “sepsis.” But still, Meloy’s couplets are so instantly classic, they inspire the most satisfying and crisp sing-alongs I have. Yeah, it’s his melodic hooks that count for the most in making me open my mouth. But when one croons along to something like, “Sing muse of the passion of the pistol” to open one such tale, you know you are in rarified territory. And such words taste so delicious to the tongue—and brain equally—as they slip off. As an added bonus, Meloy, much like his mates, makes for one of the more pleasant, thoughtful, unpretentious, un-self-impressed interviews around–even properly humble when pressed—judging from my two marathon sessions with him in 2005 and 2006, and others I have read. He’s just a plain old marvel, but a rather regular-guy-type that everyone can relate to. Drama-class kings (and queen)? English major lit rock? Call it anything you like, it doesn’t matter. It just blows away everyone else going at a scale no one else is attempting.

And as I said, for once I didn’t feel alone in noticing and obsessing on such a great group. It’s been especially fun watching the Decemberists become so thoroughly noticed and lauded. They were on the cover of not just my own mag but also several others like Filter simultaneously, to the giggles of everyone in my office—even prompting The Idolator to note, in writing about our mag, “There are currently 3.1 million independent music magazines on the stands, half of which feature the Decemberists on the cover.” Heck, even the Thai restaurant I frequent in Park Slope, Brooklyn has a poster of The Crane Wife on it’s entrance wall. (Say what?) And I’ve heard the LP in three other eateries I frequent. Perhaps the owners all had seen the band on TV. The group were merely OK on Conan O’Brien and seemed a tad nervous on David Letterman (fair enough, they’re still experiencing such strong national exposure for the first time). But I absolutely loved the episode of Colbert Report devoted entirely (which I don’t remember seeing STEPHEN COLBERT do before) to his mock feud with the band. One of 2006’s priceless moments was seeing CHRIS FUNK, The Decemberists’ gifted lead guitarist and quiet play-everything guy (he even plays the Medieval drone instrument the Hurdy-Gurdy, only the second time I’ve seen that on a stage, after only the late ETHAN JAMES) jamming out the show’s theme on guitar with PETER FRAMPTON and CHEAP TRICK’s RICK NEILSON while Colbert “sung” like a frontman to conclude the show. Funk was particularly funny feigning shock after he “lost” the comically rigged “Shredathon” solo guitar-jam contest (kicked off by HENRY KISSINGER’s starting cry to “rawk”), in front of judges ANTHONY DECURTIS of Rolling Stone, NYU’s JIM ANDERSON (who was given the night’s cleverest line, claiming that he needed to stay hip with his students so he had “to go with The Decemberists’ hyper-literate prog rock”) and even New York governor-elect ELIOT SPITZER, exposer of major label payola scandals, who admonished Colbert for an attempted bribe! (Crowned the winner of the contest thanks to Frampton’s stand-in act, Colbert won the “prize”: a copy of The Crane Wife, thus shouting, “In your face Chris Funk!” as Funk made a mock face of utter confusion into the camera!”). It was all pretty damn funny, and I could think of no better national publicity for a band that has been so consistently fun and so un-full of itself than this one. That it was the unsung Funk getting the star-turn this time was particularly fitting. I’d like to see apple-cheeked keyboardist JENNY CONLEE, she of the widest and least affected smile in all of pop, be similarly spotlit on a future keyboard-playoff with PAUL SHAFFER.

As a final point tying this year’s recap together, Meloy makes some sly anti-war references in The Crane Wife, in such a buried, non-preachy way that even the aforementioned staunch GEORGE BUSH supporters might not recognize their ultimate target. (In the past Meloy’s been just as coy at slipping in his political leanings, declaiming “the stolen election” in one early, often unnoticed lyric.) As noted above, mankind’s harsh brutality has appeared in every Decemberists LP. But in using the example of Civil War death at Manassas in “Yankee Bayonet” as a simultaneous tale of home-front woe (a pregnant woman will now have to face the late 1860s as a single mother), and in hammering that theme even more on “When the War Came,” a subtle parallel to current events is established, capped off with the LP’s final hopeful repeated coda, “Here all the bombs fade away.” The atrocities, tragedies, and wide scale death in Iraq these four years were never far from my own mind, and I suspect Meloy’s as well. Very adroitly done.

I can hardly wait for their next tour, album, interview, album artwork, and poster… Heck I might just buy a Decemberists lunchbox at this rate, to my eternal mortification. I hope they never break up, and that Meloy’s new responsibilities as a (touring) parent never prove too daunting to keep up the frantic and incredible pace of his pen. They made 2006 so very bright for me and for so very many others, and I’m grateful to them for it.

Finally, of course, not all 2006 was rosy, and it was a particularly bad year, I thought, for deaths of people I knew and/or admired in the music world. I lost an especially good friend with the sudden recent death of WIZ from MEGA CITY FOUR, and I suspect that with his passing there will be an outpouring of reappraisal for his band’s greatness based on his songs and singing, as well as his typically fine work in SERPICO and IPANEMA. Hail and farewell, my fantastically talented friend. And any year that costs us the incredible if troubled ARTHUR LEE of LOVE and SYD BARRETT, plus JAMES BROWN, the equally incomparable WILSON PICKETT, and RUTH BROWN, DESMOND DEKKER, BILLY PRESON, LOU RAWLS, THE GO-BETWEENS’ nice guy GRANT MCLENNAN (a 20-year mild acquaintance), DIRK DIRKSEN (of famed San Francisco punk club, the Mabuhay Gardens), SWELL MAPS’ NICKY SUDDEN, THE RUNAWAYS’ SANDY WEST, BILLY COWSIL of THE COWSILLS, GENE PITNEY, BUCK OWENS, ANITA O’DAY, and the great AHMET ERTEGUN was a doleful one. I will always miss Wiz, and a great deal of respect to all the above for all they gave us.

(Ditto too to many other people whose work meant a good deal to me, like ROBERT ALTMAN, DON KNOTTS, GLENN FORD, JACK PALANCE, RED BUTTONS, and AL LEWIS (AKA Grandpa Munster), the first celebrity I ever met, at age 8. Also both MILTON FRIEDMAN and JOHN KENNETH GALBRAITH from my days as an economics major, STEVE IRWIN, MIKE DOUGLAS, and even old hockey hero BERNIE “BOOM BOOM” GEOFFRION. Ah, memories.)

And though you won’t find it listed as one of these celebrity deaths in 2006, the demise of both Tower Records and CBGB are the year’s single biggest disappointments to me in the music industry. Oh, the former was inevitable, as we’ve all been witnessing the death of music stores this entire decade while forecasting the ultimate demise of those remaining. But Tower was the last national chain that actually bothered to stock all the up and coming nobodies who needed the shelf space most, and I bought plenty of records and then CDs there. Furthermore, it was always better selling a magazine at one of their stores, which were all about music, than at some faceless mega chain/mall bookstore competing with Popular Mechanics, Field and Stream, Yachting, Golf Digest, W, and Star. Indeed, the music magazine world has already been severely hit by Tower’s stores’ shuttering. There goes 1000 sales for me personally, and it is my fear that without their steady sales and revenue, a number of good music magazines still fighting the good fight with competition from free internet content will also disappear. Walking past the Tower store at Broadway and Fourth this week and peering through the window at all the ghost-like empty shelves still sitting there as the space awaits its next tenant, was pretty chilling.

And it’s just another place that music fans met that is gone now. Just like CBGB, which I wrote an entire farewell piece on that I don’t feel like reprising. But suffice to say I think it sucks. Maybe I didn’t go there that often any more, like I did from 1978-1983 and 1988-1994. But when I did, I always felt at home, both basking in the present (its soulful confines, its booming, clear sound system which was always a joy when playing there as well!!!) and also basking in all the history that had occurred there simultaneously. I will always feel a little hole in my heart when I walk by 313 Bowery from now on. What a travesty! It’s like the final blow in favor of Manhattan as a surprisingly yuppie-only town (where apartments in the West Village now go for $7.2 million) that we couldn’t save one of these final reminders of when New York was a real cultural center for all the classes, not just a playground for stockbrokers awaiting many more millions this year in bonuses.

But all such grousing and memorials aside, I liked 2006 just fine. And the records by NEIL YOUNG, The Decemberists, and the others I list below as my favorites (especially the classical music-influenced beauty by two ex-ABLE TASMANS, HUMPHREYS & KEEN, and JOE PERNICE’s latest under-appreciated out and out PERNICE BROTHERS gem), plus the Democratic victory, made it so. May 2007 continue the overall good vibes. I haven’t felt this hopeful in forever.