Thursday, March 12, 2009

21 Greatest Albums: Dr. Mars - 'Up In The Air, Vol. 1'

Dr. Mars is a mysterious band. My cousin Liam is Dr. Mars. And yet, they remain a band and mysterious.

I've started this review three times now and I am finding it hard to express just how this music strikes me. I was going to go song by song and dissect just why each one is a perfect little jewel. But now that I sit down to do that I find something lacking in that approach.

Why? It's too literal. And this music is anything but literal. It is visceral. To say that Dr. Mars echoes the sound of Bowie, The Beatles, The Ramones, The Clash, T Rex, glam rock, Queen, etc. is to put you in the arena but it doesn't put you in your actual SEAT. The beauty of 'Up In The Air, Vol. 1' is that is invokes those sounds you've been hearing since you started listening to music but somehow it turns them around, faces them in a new direction, puts them in a new context. So you are at once comforted and exhilarated.

But what pushes this music from pure enjoyment into genius is the tension that exhilaration is faced with when it is paired with the underlying theme of the album. There is a narrative that shoots through the songs, one of a great love challenged by some strange and unwieldy ideas. A man and a woman in an urban landscape wrestle with their suspicion that aliens have landed and are trying to contact them. Dr. Mars himself explained this story to me at one time but I've probably telephone-gamed it into something else.

Here is the story as I understand it.

They are in love. She is convinced that aliens are among us. At first he is concerned for her sanity and worries that the woman he loves has lost her mind. She slowly convinces him that she isn't crazy, that she has seen x,y,z and while she doesn't have an ET in her closet eating Reese's Pieces, some strange things have certainly been happening. His love for her ushers him into this world of deciphered messages, hidden meanings, as Dr. Mars says, '...scanning for cyphers and clues'.

His willingness to see her point of view sends him into a madness all his own. He yearns to break free from this Earth, to see, to KNOW. So while the idea of aliens might seem B-movie, here it is understated enough to achieve allegory.

By the end of the album they have left all normalcy behind and are ready to board, to vanish, to let their love take them away from everything they've ever known.

Scary. Romantic. Funny. And it rocks.

Now, I'm sure that I've changed some details here and perhaps Dr. Mars could write a synopsis for me someday, but that isn't really the point. You could listen to this album without knowing any of this and your response would still be enormous. The territory covered is perfect fodder for anthemic rock, doubt, fear, regret, sex, and yes, UFO's.

All great rock and roll front men are mythic figures. They place themselves outside of our experience so that they can better reflect a wider range of human truth. So, sure, Bowie seems to be singing about some cat named Ziggy Stardust. But really, he's singing about you.

When Dr. Mars imagines himself 'seein' home through the dome/wavin' back', we are the ones who have boarded the ship. We are zooming into space forever, leaving all we know behind us in the hopes of some great adventure. We are up in the air.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

22 Greatest Albums: Siobhan O'Malley - 'Alibi Bye'

So my sister Siobhan has just released a killer second album. No sophomore slump for her, no sirree! Her first album, 'Permanent Markers' is wonderful in its own right, with a homemade feel and emotional intensity. This album keeps those qualities, yes, but the production and instrumentation are far more intricate.

Siobhan is always quick to list her influences. She is a voracious listener and soaks up all sorts of styles and genres. She's also, in spite of her willingness to write, sing, and record songs, rather shy of the spotlight and kudos. So while I think that her deference to those who influence her writing is classy, I also think it deflects attention from this groundbreaking music.

The range of styles on 'Alibi Bye' is breathtaking. This is not all of the songs on the album, but merely a taste of the whole.

'Give Me The Creeps' is a rollicking rock song with a bite.

'I Might Have To Deal Drugs In Order To Afford To Live In This City' uses a funk r&b guitar lick and a tempo change to underscore its bleak picture of the economic reality of the life of an artist in New York City.

'It's Not Yesterday' is an heart breaker which has my favorite line on the album...'There's nothing like denial to blur your periphery'. It also is one of those songs that instantly gets into your consciousness and you find yourself singing the chorus while brushing your teeth.

'A Future Me' is that rare bird, a song without a trace of rancor. It details the pure love of a girl for her older sister. Granted, I'm part of this family so it hits me very square in the gut but I defy anyone with any sense of familial tenderness to hear this song without breaking into tears of joy.

'Squinting Optometrist' is...I mean, just look at the title. Do I even need to say anything else?

'The Fundy Bay Forecast' is an epic. Modern love leaves most of us at one point in a state of bleakness so total that we are unable to move, breathe, eat, sleep, or most important, consider loving again. This song is like a dark psalm attempting an exorcism the singer doesn't believe will work.

'Avenue C'd' ends the album and takes all the emotion of the previous songs and funnels it into a pinpoint of helpless rage and despair. I can barely listen to this song without having to check into a spa.

Now, the subject matter is often difficult, the emotion is deep and disturbing, but with the sound of this album, Siobhan gives the listener a lifeline, and by doing so she positions herself as a kind of humorous shaman, guiding us through our own treacherous terrain.

So, yes. Siobhan is influenced by Sheryl Crow. She loves Elvis Costello. She digs Mariah, Beyonce, Britney, etc. She invokes Cat Power somehow. But with this album she has declared that these people are peers, not idols.

Somewhere, sometime, a young girl with a guitar will listen to this album. And then she'll think, "I wish I could write like Siobhan O'Malley."

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

23 Greatest Albums: Liz Phair - 'Anything But Exile In Guyville Just To Piss Off Those Who Only Like Exile In Guyville'

Living in Los Angeles affords you all sorts of strange golden opportunities. For example, this weekend? My girlfriend and I somehow wound up with free tickets to see Joan Rivers in her autobiographical play at the Geffen. One minute you are wondering what you are going to do with your Saturday, and the next Joan Rivers is blaming the Malibu fires on Suzanne Somers's vagina.

One of these fluke nights out came pretty early on in my new life in LA, so it was probably 2004. My cousin called me up and asked what I was doing that night. Whenever he asks me that, I pretty much give over to the fact that SOMETHING is going to go down and I'm going to be a part of it.

Turns out a last minute benefit concert was happening at The Knitting Factory. I don't remember what they were raising money for (breast cancer, perhaps) but a whole crew of us descended on the club.

I had been to The Knitting Factory in New York many times. My impression of the NY club was mixed...there was a too-cool-for-school vibe to the whole place that I found vaguely oppressive. I found myself wishing I'd worn a leather wristband with big metal snaps; or a Kangol hat cocked at an angle. This caused a knee jerk reaction in me to become MORE mainstream. I found myself bringing up how much I liked Guns 'n Roses Use Your Illusion or singing Cheap Trick just to undercut the overly hip underground voodoo bullshit.

But the Los Angeles version felt very different to me. I'd been lucky enough to actually play a gig at the club directly upon my arrival...covering The Replacements' 'Here Comes A Regular' with a great band called The Broken Remotes. They were called Wiley back then. I took pictures of the band and the crowd while I was on stage. It was a great way to debut on the West Coast.

Part of the appeal of The Knitting Factory for me is its location. It isn't tucked away on some dingy lower Manhattan side street that adds credibility to outsider status. Nope. The LA K.F. is in a mall right near Mann's Chinese Theater. You walk the pavement to get to it and you meet up with Spiderman, Darth Vader, various hobbits and goblins, and Marilyn Monroe. Tourists meander, families is NOT cool.

For me, this has the unexpected effect of upping the cool factor for everything that goes on inside the club. It feels like an oasis, not a snide one-upmanship factory. The benefit benefited from this atmosphere...philanthropy, altruism, rock and roll, in a mall??? That's America, baby.

This would be my first time in the club as a spectator and I was in for a treat. Liz Phair was going to perform. She'd been catching flak for months because her latest album was too mainstream. I find the vitriol aimed at Liz Phair to be something akin to the feminist version of the crowd booing Bob Dylan when he went electric at Newport. Bitter people who don't want to expand their perception to include whatever the artist has in mind.

I had always liked Liz Phair, bought all of her albums, followed her career. But it wasn't until the night of this benefit concert that it truly dawned on me...I HAD A CRUSH ON LIZ PHAIR. I am not one to take appreciation of work as romantic interest. I don't lust after actresses. When I was 13 I cut out a picture of Katarina Witt from Sports Illustrated and hung it on my wall, but that is as close as I ever came to that kind of idolatry.

Imagine my surprise when I started getting nervous as her slot on the bill approached. I felt like I was on a date and wanted to impress. I checked my teeth for spinach. I chewed a piece of gum. I patted my hair into place. I tucked and untucked my shirt countless times. What the hell was wrong with me? Turns out it was lucky I primped.

Whoosh, there she was. It is not a large club so I was quite close. She wore a microscopic pink skirt with some sort of vest over a t-shirt, high heels, no tights. She had a guitarist, bassist, and drummer to accompany her. They did a set that drew liberally from her albums, but focused a good deal on her latest, the one maligned in music circles as being somehow a sell out.

One of these songs is about her little boy and how he has dealt with the divorce of his parents and the new man in her life. I'd heard it on the album and liked it, but hearing her play it live truly drove it home in a new way. Perhaps it was because I was separated from my son at the time, he being in Maine starting first grade. Perhaps it was due to some sort of psychic unbalance because of my new surroundings, my new life. But the weight of my own divorce and ongoing separation anxiety combined with Liz Phair's voice and words to pack a devastating punch for me.

So now, in addition to the schoolboy crush thing that had been happening, she had just helped me deal with my own broken heart. I wept discreetly, eyes welled to overflow throughout the entire song.

Then as they readied for the next one, she got a bit turned around with her guitar and chord. She turned her back on the audience to confer with her band mates and the chord rose slightly, carrying her already teeny skirt with it. A flash of white greeted the crowd. If they were anything like me, they were mesmerized by this inadvertent exhibitionism. No catcalls, no 'hey, Liz, your skirt is hiked up'. Nope. She casually shook the chord, freeing her skirt to drop back to its intended place.

Soon she left the stage to thunderous applause.

As I socialized and sipped my beer, I found myself rehashing her performance with everyone I spoke with. It had just the right mix of ease and effort. We were all blown away.

I made my way towards the back of the club to pick up another beer. Suddenly and before I knew it I was walking right towards her. She seemed to be 3 feet tall, impossibly delicate. She glowed with energy from the show. She thought she recognized me and held her arms out to hug me.

I said, "You don't know me..." But she hugged me anyway. Her scent engulfed and disoriented me. She laughed that she didn't know me but had thought she did. Still holding her, I told her how she had affected me with her song 'Little Digger'. She thanked me in a way that said she appreciated my situation as a single parent.

I continued on my way to the back of the club but I never did get that beer. I was already drunk on Phair.