Now Hear This (Vampire Weekend – debut column, 2008. Be nice to me)

Now hear this!
Music you may have missed
By Jonathan ‘Killstring’ Herzberger
The Cauldron Contributing Writer

“There’s no good music anymore.”

We’ve all heard this. Some of us are saying it. It’s a legitimate question: adrift in a world of factory-fresh teen starlets, soulless vanilla rockers, and cookie-cutter wannabe tough guy rappers, what’s a discerning listener to do? I’ll tell you what you’re going to do. You’re going to read Now hear this! – and you’re going to be exposed to an entire world of music that may have slipped right under your radar.

Today’s Act: Vampire Weekend.

Now, when first presented with these guys, I expected a very specific sort of mopey, eyeliner-drenched gloom rock, or at the very least, some angry, angst-filled industrial beats. Imagine my surprise, instead being greeted by some of the most unironically chipper music ever recorded.

Vampire Weekend formed at Columbia University (the name is taken from a student film produced by frontman Ezra Koenig his freshman year,) and derives its sound from equal parts British Pop, Congolese soukous music, and as near as I can tell, the Merriam-Webster Thesaurus. Unsurprisingly, the Ivy League campus was receptive to their unique Euro-African literate Indie pop, and they’ve been on a landslide of success ever since, with SPIN magazine naming them the best new band of 2008, and even the almighty Rolling Stone ranks their song “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” #67 on their Top 100 songs of 2007.

Their major label release, titled (yeah, you guessed it) Vampire Weekend is a light-hearted romp through pop convention. Songs like ‘Mansford Roof’ (which was the first single released, in addition to starting the record off) blend vintage organs, strings, and the atypical drumbeats that exemplify the band’s quirky approach. Koenig’s trademark falsetto is never forced, never strained – and that goes for pretty much everything else on the record. ‘A-Punk’ delivers a more straightforward approach, with its bright, clean guitars, and persistent rhythms. The guitars on this record really bear mentioning – in an age where even contemporary pop and country artists have big, distorted electric guitars, Koenig and co-conspirator Rostam Batmanglij keep it clean on the 6-string front – there’s nary an aggressive snarl in sight, and the album’s lone guitar solo is more an exercise in melodic exploration than gratuitous face-melting axework. Batmanglij’s Harpsichord takes center stage for ‘M79’, before giving way to driving violins, bouncing bass, and one of the catchiest melodies in recent memory. The driving, piano-pounding ‘Walcott’ is a tongue-in-cheek tale, loosely tied to the titular hero of the ill-fated Vampire Weekend film. The album’s concludes with arguably its strongest track, the Clash-esque ‘The Kids Don’t Stand A Chance’, a (insert reference here)

So, why should you go out of your way to listen to some absurd amalgamation of Ivy League English nerds, and traditional African music? Quite simply, there is no single better cure for a low test-score, a rough breakup, or any other strain of crappy day. Vampire Weekend is sunshine in a freaking glass.

Now hear that.

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Ebony & Irony (My first published music piece, from 2008 – be gentle!)

Ebony & Irony
(A nearly serious look at modern music)
By Jonathan ‘Killstring’ Herzberger
The Cauldron Contributing Writer

After a few brief moments of silence, the crowd erupts as lights violently snap to life. Our heroes revealed, they acknowledge our tribute, exploding in a cacophonous roar of sound. Complete strangers stand shoulder to shoulder, shouting platitudes in unison, and for a brief moment, there is a palpable sensation of magic.

So yes, suffice it to say that I think live music is kind of neat. It’s sweaty. Loud. Personal in an immediate sense that’s difficult to replicate via recordings. And in a local sense, it’s dying out.

Back in my days as a concert promoter/tour manager/all purpose rock star accessory, people all over this fine nation of ours had a lot of preconceptions about Cleveland. Shockingly, most of them were positive. “Birthplace of rock and roll – you guys must have a great scene!” Patriotic native son that I am, I would dutifully reply that yes, yes we certainly did. Do. Have such a thing. And sonically speaking, it’s true that Northeast Ohio has a wide variety of local and independent acts spanning all genres and tastes, and a lot of that is focused here in Cleveland. And while normal artistic ratios of tone-deaf and horribly misguided folks do apply, there’s a lot of very high-quality music being produced right here in our backyard. (Quite literally ‘on-campus’, if one is to take the brochures seriously) So in a sense, what I told them was true – from a certain point of view.

But the harsh reality is that for many local acts, the support just isn’t there – record contract or no. Acts like Brandston, Driver Side Impact, The Vacancies – they have no trouble drawing a crowd all over the country – provided that place is anywhere but Cleveland. In a conversation with Labor Force guitarist Josh Vardous, I commented on their laudable success in the surrounding markets – Detroit, Columbus, etc – to which he agreed that yes, they were off to a pretty good start, but it was (in his words) “too bad Clevo doesn’t rep us.” Wondering what that meant exactly, I headed to their show at The Grog Shop. The Grog’s an institution, having proudly hosted bands like Fall Out Boy long before most folks had any idea who they were. So I made it a point to attend.

12 other people made it a point, too. Now, if there is any haven for blue-collar punk rock in the area, surely it’s The Grog, right? Bands like The Street Dogs constantly fill it to capacity – so what gives? Where’s the love? Granted, this was one show out of the dozens that go on every week in our city – which might actually be part of the problem. Are we oversaturated? We live in a time where musical equipment is the most affordable it’s ever been, and easy access to software means that making a demo is no longer an investment requiring thousands of dollars. And this is a good thing, right? Who wouldn’t want artists to have access to the tools they need? (Besides professional recording studios trying to make a profit, but that’s another story) Toss in the power of the internet, and BAM! A brave new world of creation and distribution for the everyman, free from dependence on record labels – Karl Marx would headbang in approval, no doubt. This is all well and good, but the greatest strength of the ‘information age’, that being that everyone has a voice – is also its greatest flaw. Because, you know… everyone has a voice. Every. One. A cursory search on myspace will reveal hundreds of acts within a meager 5 miles of campus. And while some of these will doubtlessly be pretty good, the normal ratios still apply – not everyone is a brilliant artist, and that’s ok. But my ears get pretty fatigued trying to find any diamonds hidden in this rough. Finding new music should be fun, and exciting – it shouldn’t feel like work. Also, despite what certain political figures may claim, our economy is All Manner Of Suck right now. If you have to scrimp and save so that you can see a big national tour, why go to all that trouble for some scruffy local kids?

I’ll tell you why.

Because something worth doing is simply worth doing – regardless of who else thinks so. Because there was more honesty in that concert than in a year’s worth of over-commercialized glitz. Because some guy you’ve never met said it was cool in his newspaper column. (The logic of this last one is virtually unassailable) Besides, there’s always the chance one of these bands will explode in popularity – then you can be that insufferable jerk who saw them first, before they were popular. Who doesn’t love that guy?

Now Hear This! Stars (2009)

Originally published in The Cauldron (2009)

Now Hear This!
Music You May Have Missed
By Jonathan “Killstring” Herzberger
The Cauldron Arts & Entertainment Editor

So, we at the Now Hear This Mothership have relocated recently, uprooting the base from the prior safe haven, and setting up our laboratory of Alchemical Rock Experimentation in a newfound home, fraught with danger, excitement, and new opportunities.

Okay. This is an overly dramatic way of saying that I, your humble narrator, decided to move downtown in the middle of the semester. The questionable wisdom of my choice of timing notwithstanding, the project included lots of big, Tupperware bins.

“Why bins,” you ask? Good question, and one that does nothing to further recommend said narrator’s handling of the relocation. You see, after several rounds of dispute as to the original and ideal ownership of several articles of furniture, it was decided that a moving truck wouldn’t be necessary after all, and that anything that couldn’t be fit into the back of a grungy 1980’s BMW was not in fact, worth keeping. So bins, obtuse plastic-esque things – far more practical than boxes, considering how relatively few material possessions would make the trek downtown.

“Well then, wiseguy, let’s try this again: why bins, as in – why are you talking about something so brutally dull in the music column I treasure so?”

Point. And thank you.

As I laboriously unpacked these ugly gray bins, a rogue disc tumbled out of the meticulous (okay, haphazard) stacks, and fell into my lap. It was In Our Bedroom After The War by Stars, a Canadian Indie band. Gently, I picked the disc open – the case had cracked a bit from the impact, but the disc remained unscratched. I smiled fondly – it was like seeing an old friend again. As I surveyed the room, and my remaining possessions – and finding my options sorely limited – I opted to slapdash together a makeshift stereo system. An Xbox 360 running into a mixing board, running into a guitar amp later, and the album was playing.

God, was it worth it.

You see, Stars is one of those acts that demands your attention, and once they have it, good luck getting it back. Music to do homework by, this ain’t. The band started out around the turn of the century in Toronto, and put out a decent electro-pop record called Nightsongs, but this was just the beginning. They migrated, first to New York City, then later to Montreal, where they became an integral part of the blossoming indie scene there, around the formation of the fledgling Arts & Crafts record label.

As seemed to be the case with Feist (remember her?) and honestly, pretty much everybody in that scene, the band found itself sort of absorbed into Broken Social Scene – and the members of Stars remain part of that bandalmagation to this day.

That’s right, here at the NHT studios, we’re inventing new words daily, so that you can wax pretentious about Canadian indie music. You are most welcome.

Anyway. The band released Heart on Arts & Crafts (Stateside, anyway) in 2003 – which started moving toward the lush compositions that would come to characterize the group, and introducing singer-guitarist Amy Milan to the mix that already contained singer-trumpet player-actor Torquil Campbell’s front and center. If this is starting to sound like we’re heading into the part of the story where massive egos collided, and dramatics ensued, fear not – this is Canadian indie pop, my friends. They’re far too chilled-out for something like that to happen.

And we’re lucky for it – as the result was a band starting to forge an identity around the idea of the duet – and the already eloquent and thoughtful lyrics started taking on an increasingly lyrical bend.

This really started to blossom on 2004’s Set Yourself On Fire. While NHT cannot verify how many people did or did not take the title literally, it certainly set the music scene on fire – reaching certified gold record status up north, and doing respectably well down here in the U.S. as well, garnering the band their first bona fide single, “Ageless Beauty.” The compositions were lusher, and more extravagant and meticulously placed, as the band started to hit its stride.

That stride was officially hit at the release of 2007’s In Our Bedroom After The War, that fateful disc that started this whole conversation. Campbell had described the record as a deliberate process to tell a story from start to finish, and even if it didn’t succeed precisely the way he might have envisioned, the result is such a gorgeous, lush gem of an album, that original intent doesn’t really matter.

If not exactly a rock opera or particularly cohesive narrative, the wordplay between Milan and Campbell pairs with an orchestrated approach that delivers an album that is just, well… you hesitate to use words like ‘classic’ for something that’s not quite three years old yet, but Bedroom makes a solid case. From the urgency of “The Night Starts Here,” to the heart-wrenching tales of love and war in “Barricade” and the crescendoing title track/finale, this is a piece of art that invites you to come along for a ride.

And as Campbell croons “we won – or we think we did/when you went away, you were just a kid. And if you lost it all/and you lost it; well, we’ll still be there, when your war is over” to a sparse piano, and gradually swelling orchestra, I dare you not to be swept away into this world, it’s mythology and characters. I dare you not to care. I dare you not to have goosebumps as the song and album reach their climax – and while literary conventions suggest that I should dare you not to love this album, that seems a waste of thought.

Of course you will love it, in all it’s bittersweet glory. You’ll hardly be able to help yourself. And as this newfound love drives you to pick up their Sad Robot EP, and anticipate their upcoming 2010 release with baited breath, spare a thought for those ugly gray Tupperware bins.

They played a part in this too, you know.

Now Hear This! Jonathan Coulton (2009)

Originally published in The Cauldron (2009)

Now Hear This!
Music You May Have Missed
By Jonathan “Killstring” Herzberger
The Cauldron Arts & Entertainment Editor

The Cake is a Lie.

There. Now that we have that particular bit of business out of the way, let’s have a chat, shall we? Jonathan Coulton is certainly no stranger to these pages – in fact, he’s been interviewed in them. But that was years ago, that is to say, more than one year ago – and we here at the Now Hear This institute for a better life are absolutely fine with your crippling, debilitating ADD.

Robots!

Still with us? Great. Jonathan Coulton: self-proclaimed code monkey turned singer-songwriter turned internet sensation. Don’t believe us? Ye of little faith. Go ahead, google him – we’ll wait.

You back? Cool. Now let’s talk music.

Doing various comedy and spoof tunes while working as a computer programmer at software company Cluen, Coulten put out a little record called Where Tradition Meets Tomorrow – a five-song gem of a record that includes a gentle ballad about being a horrible monster at the bottom of the sea (“I Crush Everything”), a love song from a mad scientist to his hapless captive (“Skullcrusher Mountain”) cyborg love vengeance (“The Future Soon”) and the Mandelbrot Set (Somewhat unsurprisingly, “Mandelbrot Set”.) Coulton recorded the songs himself, playing all the instruments, and generally being a one-man show – much as he had with his first record Smoking Monkey – a modest, but charming affair.

It was, perhaps unsurprisingly, rather well-received in the nerd community – math nerds, and computer nerds alike got into the quirky folky tunes, landing him the peculiar position of ‘Contributing Troubadour’ with Popular Science magazine, and resulting in the creation of the EP Ourselves, Our Bodies, Our Cybernetic Arms – which, while hardly revolutionizing the face of modern music, certainly showed that Coulton – or JoCo as his expanding fanbase was wont to call him – had more going for him than a simple Internet comedy folk act.

He was a really good Internet comedy folk act.

Good enough to quit his job, and try to make a living as a musician. Good enough to try a sort of experiment – the ambitious task of writing and recording one track per week, and posting them to his website, iTunes, and maybe making a compilation CD when all was said and done.

The ambitious project was called Thing A Week – which might not have been the most innovative of titles, but it at least got the point across. And it was here – nestled within the web 2.0, instant-access blogger culture, that Coulton really began to shine.

Fans offered suggestions. Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” was rendered as a touching, heartfelt ballad, complete with banjo, and Ben Folds-esque vocal harmonies. Then-President George W. Bush got remixed, as did Sir Paul McCartney, in “W’s Duty” and “When I’m 25 or 64”, respectively.

And a funny thing happened – Coulton was finding that it was in fact, feasible to be a professional musician with no record label, no big-name band you used to be a part of, no advertising campaign, and not so much as a sniff of radio. Really, nothing but a glorified blog, and a lot of word-of-mouth.

Well, word-of-text, anyway. This was the Internet, after all.

So where are we today? The Thing A Week projects reached up to four installments – and while they yielded their fair share of duds, there’s more than a lion’s share of gems here.

And this brings us to the point – yes, there is a point, I promise. Yes, some of the songs are silly fluff, good for a laugh, and little more. Don’t download those.

But for much of his body of work, there’s a genuine, earnest quality to the performance that simply does not exist in most comedy acts. Sure, “Re: your brains” is a song about Zombies in an office setting. You might not want to hear it every day. But tracks like “I’m Your Moon,” “Famous Blue Raincoat,” and Coulton’s signature “Code Monkey” have bits of humor to them, but more importantly, they’re genuinely well-crafted songs, full of wit, crafted with a deft, gentle touch, haunting melodies, and a clear, earnest voice.

Pretty much everything you’d want in your folk-tinged indie pop, regardless of the subject matter. And this is what sets him apart from say, a Stephen Lynch, who’s (debatably) funny once, but subsequent listens reveal how bloody funny the singer thinks they are.

Maybe that’s the key to JoCo’s unlikely success. The songs never tell you when you should laugh – you get to decide that for yourself. You can buy them in records if you like – or you can pick and choose the MP3’s you like, it’s all the same price. Music on the terms of the listener, without pretense, or demands. The rest of the music industry would do well to follow his example – we the people want our music on our terms.

Oh. Before I forget – that opening line? If you haven’t pieced it together yet, Coulton also penned the theme song “Still Alive” for a little video game called “Portal.” It got kind of popular.

Though I never did get any cake. Ah well. Can’t have everything on your terms.

Now Hear This! Frightened Rabbit (2009)

Now Hear This!
Music You May Have Missed
By Jonathan “Killstring” Herzberger
Originally published in The Cauldron (2009)

Summer is over.

There, I said it. Best to start off with these kinds of things, get them out of the way early. It’s okay to be sad – we’re sad too. Go ahead and have a good cry if you need to – we at the Now Hear This institute of Musical Awesomology are a non-judgmental lot, and everybody deals with summer’s transformation into autumn differently.

Some of us hit the books with a vengeance. Some find a renewed vigor for campus involvement, hurling ourselves into groups, and activities on campus. Most of us aren’t going to come out of the gate with such gusto – most of us are planning on dragging our feet, oversleeping at least once the first week, and generally be pulled, kicking and screaming, back into the routine of the semester.

Then again, some of us wake up face down in a gutter, utterly confused as to where we are, how we got there, and if it’s realistic to think that fate has something personal against us.

The rest of you are dismissed. I’d like to talk to my fellow vagabonds for a moment – nothing personal.

Good. Now that it’s just us rogues, losers, and castoffs, we’re going to talk about a Scottish indie pop band called Frightened Rabbit. Write that down – probably next to the slightly smudged phone number with no name attached, that you don’t quite remember getting. Frightened Rabbit. Everybody caught up? Good.

The first Rabbit shows were one man and a guitar, the brand stretching its (hind?) legs, as frontman Scott Hutchinson’s stage name for his solo shows. Frankly, the early shows were disjointed, messy, hungover affairs. Delightfully so.

“Some of the songs still didn’t have words and I was mostly just mumbling nonsense half the time,” quipped Hutchinson in an interview with UK-based zine God Is In The TV.

Story of my life, Hutch. Thanks for putting it to music.

Powerful music, at that. After recruiting his brother Grant to play the drums, and guitarist/bassist/multi-instrumentalist Billy Kennedy, the band’s sound had evolved into something both upbeat and downtrodden, urgent and lazy, carefully crafted, in a thrown-together, garage-y sort of way.

Confused yet? It gets better/worse.

In May of 2006, the band locally released their debut, Sing The Greys – because you know, the blues just seemed too vibrant. The album was released stateside in October 2007, and even with all the fancy remastering, and major label support, the album carries that undeniable ‘garage’ feel to it. Imagine if The Strokes got all over-confessionally drunk, or if Counting Crows were young and homeless, sporting switchblades and hangovers, or if The Frey had any talent.

Zing!

Snarky jabs aside, Greys is a solid, if unpolished record – especially when you consider it was essentially recorded in a basement, and had an original run of 1,000 copies. Actually, considering that, it’s a freaking miracle – imagine what these guys could do given the chance to make a ‘real’ record.

Sounds pretty good, right? That’s the power of IMAGINATION, kids! Having said that, give your poor, tired brain a rest – once this week is over, you’ll be done with the ‘getting to know you’ part of the semester, and you’ll need the poor thing. Luckily for all of us, the Rabbit in question added another bandmate (guitarist/keyboardist Andy Monaghan) and put out a big, fancy, major label release on Fatcat Records.

The ensuing album, called Midnight Organ Fight (Curious about the title? It’s a euphemism for hot, dirty sex. Now you know) got the full indie darling treatment, up to and including nabbing Peter Katis (Interpol, Guster, Spoon) to produce, and the requisite trendy press buzz. Calm down, hipsters – calm down. The record deserved the hype in this case. Hey, it happens.

Opening up with the deliciously self-conscious “The Modern Leper”, in which Hutchinson’s drawling brogue regales us with the idea of leprosy as a metaphor for his social aptitude, Fight starts out in the gutter, and reaches for the stars. Snappy indie rock guitars match with the bombast inherent to bands like Elbow – which the Rabbits happily claim as an influence – there’s a grand sort of scope to these loser ballads, giving bitter, half-intelligible rants about how ‘you never loved me anyway’ the sort of epic scope that they usually only possess in our minds.

It’s a record about loss, about lust, about losers losing exceptionally well – hey, everybody’s good at something. The insidiously catchy melodies of tracks like “Keep Yourself Warm” can get you in trouble, make no mistake about it. Fight is a record thick in rich metaphor – but if you’re not careful, you’ll find yourself absent-mindedly singing things like “you won’t find love in a hole/it takes more than f***ing someone you don’t know to keep yourself warm” at inopportune times – like in front of your significant other’s parents.

I suppose this is as good a place as any to apologize. Sorry guys – the restraining order’s really not necessary – it’s just a song, honest.

In summary, sometimes life kicks you in the gut. In those times, it’s ok to get up slowly, and a record with this kind of grandiose, naked human emotion is exactly what you want for those moments. But sometimes, life kicks you in the teeth. And when that happens, a record like this is the perfect soundtrack for sweeping said teeth out of the gutter, putting them under your pillow, and making a wish, that maybe the tooth fairy’ll bring you a stroke of luck for a change.

That, and it’s only nine bucks on Amazon.com today. Stop reading this and go buy it.

Now Hear This! Alt-Country

Now Hear This!
Music You May Have Missed
By Jonathan “Killstring” Herzberger
Originally published in The Cauldron (2009)

Review time.

Sorry, I just wanted to start with that. Since we’ve started midterms, that simple phrase could well prove enough to scare a significant amount of readers off. Trust me – we understand. But here at the Now Hear This Institute for a Significantly More Awesome Life, we have promised to shore up your education.

And as recent times have shown, said education is significantly lacking in areas your brave staff had taken for granted. Never fear! Your pals at NHTISMAL are pretentious nerds so you don’t have to be!

Consider this Indie Rock: 101. Maybe 102 – the numbering system isn’t exact. Anyway. Step into the rock-fueled wayback machine, and travel back through time with me – first, we’re going to an indistinct point in the late sixties/early seventies. The lines between Rock, Folk and Country are blurry, and acts like Creedence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin, Cat Stevens etc. are making music that’s so good, nobody’s really worried about genre just yet.

This time, quite obviously, dies a lonesome death.

Now we go to the late eighties/early ninties, and meet one of our subjects, who at this time are called Uncle Tupelo. The band’s first record, No Depression was influential enough to become a synonym for Alt-Country, as well as the name taken by the genre’s flagship magazine, which published from 1995 through 2008.

This band made four pretty good albums, had problems involving a clash between singer/guitarists Jay Farrarr and Jeff Tweedy, and broke up in short order. Tweedy and the remnants of Tupelo founded a little band named Wilco, but we’ll get to them later.

Our next stop is the mid-to-late ninties, and a band called Whiskeytown. They were fronted by an enigmatic ex-punk rocker named Ryan Adams, and they – are you ready for this? They made four pretty good albums (one of which, Those Weren’t The Days, was never released) had problems involving a clash between singer/guitarist Adams and… well, pretty much everybody, and broke up in short order. Adams founded a little band called – well, to be truthful, usually called Ryan Adams.

It’s ok. He’s crazy, and we’ll get to that.

Now, Wilco goes on to release a flurry of records, most of which are rather good. The most notable of these is 2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which served as an unfortunate example of how well and truly messy the music business was, and remains. Foxtrot is a seminal album, a benchmark if you will. The weird experimentation, unhurried production, and undeniably brilliant songwriting make it one of those rare ‘classic’ albums that actually kind of earns the status.

They’ve done plenty of other notable work – 2005’s A Ghost is Born took home the Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album, 1999’s Summerteeth was a criminally unappreciated gem, 2007’s Sky Blue Sky sounds an awful lot like Tweedy & Co. tried to make a John Lennon solo album, and I mean that in the nicest way – and you get the idea.

They dropped a recored cleverly titled Wilco: The Album, which leads off with “Wilco: The Song,” which is honestly just fun to type. Bottom line? Take a listen – because if you like what you hear, this particular well goes really deep.

Meanwhile, Ryan Adams wasn’t just sitting around being crazy and dating starlets. I mean, he was very, very busy doing that, but he also put out records at an alarming rate. He also happened to be the right guy in the right place at a terrible, terrible time. His 2001 release, Gold, featured a feel-good love letter to New York City, titled “New York, New York.”

Then, of course, 9/11 happened.

And a lot of big-name musicians came in to write about what had happened, and of course, this being America, a lot of capitalists tried to capitalize on the city’s newly invigorated patriotism – but the simple, honest, scruffy ode by an NYC native son seemed to encapsulate the feelings in the city post 9/11 – when we all just desperately wanted to believe that yeah, everything is going to be all right in the end.

Whatever the reason, “New York, New York” got very popular, very quickly. Gold really holds up as a record, too – sort of Counting Crows if they were more country, and didn’t have much in the way of a budget.

Adams just kept going – in 2002, after his label didn’t feel comfortable releasing his lovingly crafted album Love Is Hell, citing that it was too depressing.

To be fair, it’s hardly a cheery pop disc.

Ever the innovator, Adams returned to his label (Lost Highway, if anybody cares) with an album ready to go. That album turned out to be the uncharacteristically polished (and even a little U2-like) Rock N’ Roll – which is every bit as vital, urgent, and raucous as the name and situation would imply. Despite being a big stylistic leap, the record took off, and some critics, by which I mean this one, right here, talking to you now, think that Rock N’ Roll is possibly the best thing Adams has ever released.

Love is Hell eventually came out in 2004, after having been two split EP’s. Also an incredible listen, as is the entirety of his later work with his band The Cardinals, Cold Roses in particular.

Adams is another artist who, if it turns out you like his work, you will never find yourself bemoaning a lack of it. Hell, this is the guy who in 2006, recorded roughly 18 albums worth of original hip-hop, which is floating around the Internet somewhere. The man recently left The Cardinals to get married to Mandy Moore, but a quick look around the Internet will find projects ranging from children’s books, art exhibits, Black Metal (Under the name Werewolph) and more youtube videos than you will ever, ever find the time to watch.

He’s either this generation’s Andy Warhol, or he’s actually mentally ill, or perhaps he’s a total jerk. Maybe a mix of the three. But whatever the reason, Adams – along with Wilco, and fellow indie/emo/country darling Connor Oberst – have successfully blurred the lines between rock and country again that fans of one, the other, or even neither genre can find something to like in their music.

Okay, class is over. You’ve got a lot of music that you didn’t know you loved to get to. Godspeed, brave Audionauts, and we’ll catch you next time.

Now Hear This – Guster (2009)

Now Hear This!
Music You May Have Missed
By Jonathan “Killstring” Herzberger
Originally published in The Cauldron, 2009

Man. Education is awesome – I sure do love all this learning I’ve been doing. New ideas, new takes on old thoughts, and of course, new responsibilities, as the Now Hear This Aircraft Carrier becomes the launching point for all of our fine, bubbly Cauldron’s Arts and Entertainment news.

Okay, so that’s a rough, and stretched metaphor – but it wouldn’t be NHT without at least one absurd self-referential third-person statement, would it? Facts, you can get anywhere, but when you want useless, ponderous drivel with your hidden musical treasure why, we’re your one-stop-shop my good man/woman/hermaphrodite. And we’ve got both in ample quantity this week, cats and kittens, boy howdy.

But I’ve digressed, and it’s only the third paragraph. Education, is the word today. And we’ve spent so much time as an editorial, literary body discussing how best to address you, dear reader, that even the mighty USS Now Hear This isn’t excused from the microscope. So. What do we know about you, the avid reader of NHT?

You’re intelligent. Literate. Urbane, and discerning. Forest creatures break out in choreographed song when you approach, and there are few human beings on this planet who don’t find you attractive on at least some level.

Also, you’re a student at Cleveland State University. This is important to note, as unlike certain other Universities that your faithful writer has attended, the populace here is much more diverse, both culturally and economically. For our purposes, this means one very important thing: namely, that there’s a distinct lack of know-it-all trust fund hipsters, spouting clichéd references to how everything you like is So Last Year, and they liked that, when they were seventeen and had no taste, and so on.

It’s a void, and one that we aim to fill – despite lacking the inherent arrogance, and you know… the yachts and all, we do possess an encyclopedic knowledge of modern popular music. So, what does all this mean? It means, quite frankly, that we’ve neglected your education, dear reader – well, feel lost and ashamed no longer… for today, we’re going to meet an old friend of myself, and scarf-clad indie kids worldwide.

Guster, meet the readers. Readers, Guster.

A little Massachusetts College band that got their start in 1991 – yes, Freshman, I know how old you were then, calm down – the classic lineup is duel frontmen Adam Gardener and Ryan Miller on acoustic guitars and vocals, with drummer Brian Rosenworcel providing Latin and African hand percussion. If that sounds like something that hackey sack-playing hippies would like, well, yeah. Probably. It’s also pretty damn compelling pop music no matter who you are, but if you’re looking for something a bit more polished, you might want to avoid their first two albums, 1994’s Parachute, and 1997’s Goldfly. You’ll miss out on some quaint little indie folk, before we knew to call it that, but maybe that’s the point.

The real point here, is their 1999 release, Lost and Gone Forever, produced by Steve Lillywhite – you know, the guy who did all those Dave Matthews Band albums that people like for some reason – this marked the turning point in both sound, and commercial success for Guster. Sure, the first two tracks seem fairly standard fare, a little electric guitar thrown in, but otherwise, not too distinct. But when we get to the horn section in the album’s lone hit “Fa Fa,” or the atmospheric electrics on “I Spy”, the sense of composition has skyrocketed past simple folk tunes at this point.

By the time you reach the two songs that make up the disc’s climactic third act – the Peter Gabriel-esqe, mandolin-laden “Two Points for Honesty”, and the apocalyptic “Rainy Day” it’s clear that the quaint little trio has morphed into an entirely different animal, and the scope of the work is undeniable, inexorable in a sense; you just can’t help but be swept away.

For plenty of bands, that’d be it for the article. We’d say something witty, tell you to go buy the damn album, and we’d all drink imported tea, or something. But not Guster, oh no. They were just getting warmed up. You can still drink the tea though.

Between 2001 and 2003, the band was going through some serious evolution, not the least of which was Rosenworcel’s switching to kit drums – you know, the kind you play with sticks – in order to avoid nerve damage. The result was a more up-tempo, some might say more accessible sound. They also added multi-instrumentalist Joe Pisapia to the band, to bring the energetic, varied sound on the road. Both “Amsterdam” and “Careful” scored some rotation, and filmmakers gleefully plundered the compositions for use, the most recent being Wedding Crashers’ use of “I hope Tomorrow is Like Today.”

This album laid the groundwork for a lot of what would eventually be called ‘Indie’ Rock, by pretentious jerks like your humble narrator. But even that wasn’t enough for Guster, they just… kept going.

2006’s Ganging up on the Sun was released on Reprise Records, officially launching Guster into something like the mainstream. Ganging topped out at #25 on the Billboard charts, “Satellite” was a hit on some level, the band toured extensively, and somehow found a way to make accordions chilling, haunting, and atmospheric.

At the end of the day, Guster isn’t used as a benchmark measurement for indie bands without due cause. They are quite simply, one of the best musical acts that you can find in recent memory, regardless of your taste, or preferred genre. And with a new album slated for a non-specific 2009 release, Guster hasn’t lost its lustre.

If you hate me for that rhyme, don’t worry – I hate myself for it even more – but the band’s good enough to survive such hackneyed literary contrivances. Higher praise, I cannot think of. Stop reading and go buy all their records, and we’ll see you in two weeks.