music

Thoughts On Growing Old, Attending Music Concerts, And Three Years of Silence.

“When is the last time we saw Wilco?” Erin asked on our drive downtown last week. We were going to the Taft to see Jeff Tweedy and crew. It had been nine years.

“I think it’s been nine years,” Ben said.

“It has not been nine years,” Erin replied.

“I’m afraid it has.”

Nine years ago, Wilco played Tall Stacks in Cincinnati. That fall show — October the 7th, 2006 — was two years after A Ghost is Born had been released, and less than a year before Sky Blue Sky would come out. Wilco has since released two more full-length albums, while Jeff Tweedy and his son, Spencer, collaborated on a project (under the moniker “Tweedy”) called Sukierae. Nine years.

And just like that, we felt old. The last concert we attended was also at the Taft, when Ryan Adams played three years ago. THREE. YEARS. AGO. (That was so long ago it was when we were still blogging on a regular basis.) When did we get old? When did we stop going to concerts? Why did we stop blogging? (There are multiple answers to that one, life being the primary reason.) And, perhaps the question that sums up all of the other ones: When had we secretly entered middle age?

These thoughts played through our heads as we sat in the nose bleed seats (another sign we’re not in our twenties: we were relieved it was a sit-down concert) while Wilco revisited a catalog spanning twenty years now. We sang along with “Heavy Metal Drummer” and “I Got You (At The End Of The Century),” thinking of what those songs meant to us when we first heard them in college or just-out-of-it. Our first meeting was helped, in part, by a Wilco sticker on Ben’s Nalgene bottle … a bottle Erin spotted at camp, thirteen years ago, before she connected it to the owner; before a certain inconvenient boyfriend was out of the picture; and before we both settled in Nashville and decided, sure, let’s get engaged and figure this thing out as we go.

The more recent songs — “Art of Almost,” or “Born Alone” (notably, the band played nothing off of “Wilco (The Album)” — “not many of these songs seem destined for the Wilco canon” we wrote back in 2009) — we listened to politely, enjoying them respectfully if not with the same ardor as we did the early stuff. It was during these songs that our attention drifted and we looked around at the audience, wondering how much the people in the seats around us — mostly white, mostly adult, vaguely hipster-ish (or post-hipsterish) — were a reflection on us. How does a rock band age gracefully? How does anyone age gracefully?

We promise not to return with much navel-gazing and chin-stroking. We blogged what seems like forever ago because we loved it, and that’s why we want to restart now. But we’re returning a little simpler. The whiff of pretentiousness behind our former title (the Raymond Carver-inspired “What We Blog About When We Blog About Love”) has been replaced with just “Voreblog.” Posts may not be quite as frequent, and there may be less to say now about, oh, what we’ve been reading (since pleasure reading has diminished of late), or what the Utah Jazz should be doing this offseason (answer: acquiring a veteran point guard). But plenty else has happened, and we’ll unspool those things in the coming days and weeks. (And yes, Scooter Thomas is still alive.)

When Wilco launched into “It Dawned On Me,” toward the end of the show, Ben pulled out his smartphone (yes, we own them now!) and recorded it for Sam. On our vacation to South Carolina last year, Sam requested that we listen to this song roughly one hundred and eighty-seven consecutive times. Being parents on an eleven hour road trip, we obliged. He knows it only as “the Wilco song.” (We’ve tried explaining to him that Wilco is a band with many songs; this concept still eludes him.) The day after the concert, I (Ben) showed Sam the video, and he watched it with joy, piecing together that this song he loves could also be performed, in real life, in a dark auditorium where he does not yet have access to go (“Were there kids there?” he asked), and which his parents could now capture on a phone and play for him (or, more accurately, he could play himself, as the four-year-old mind seems perfectly assembled to intuit how smart phone navigation works). He listened to it over and over. When I tucked him in that night, he asked if he could listen one more time. I said sure. He took the phone and huddled up in a ball, his red blankie draped over him as he made a secret fort. The sound of a band I loved played faintly from below the covers. I pictured myself, listening to Wilco for the first time back in 1996, seeing this moment from afar, and wondering, as with so many things in life, how we got here from there.

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Things That We Recommend The Owners Of The Taft Theatre Do The Next Time Ryan Adams Plays Cincinnati

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Dear Owners of the Taft Theatre,

You have a great venue! We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves at Saturday night’s Ryan Adams show. Well, mostly. The thing about the Taft is that it has seats, so the shows you put on (often acoustic, as this one was) require people to, you know, sit in them. This has its advantages. Being old and crotchety (especially after nine o’clock), we like that we don’t have to stand for two hours. Seats help maintain that chill vibe us thirtysomethings strive for these days.

The disadvantage of seats is that you cannot get away from the annoying people sitting next to you. And there were a lot of annoying people at Saturday night’s show. (We’ll leave aside the question of what this may or may not say about Ryan Adams’ fans.) Perhaps all of them were simply seated directly behind, next to and everywhere around us. Regardless, we want to recommend a couple changes in your admittance policy for future shows that we might attend.

These are in no particular order.

1. Do not admit anyone with an iPhone who will obviously only be using it to check her Facebook status during the show. These people should be obvious to spot.

2. Do not admit anyone who will clap along to the songs. They are morons.

3. If someone looks like a hummer, ask how loud and off-key. Don’t let them in regardless of how they answer.

4. Perhaps screen people by asking if they plan to shout idiotic things like, “Delicious!,” “I’m just misunderstood” and “Come pick me up” eight dozen times. If they say “yes,” you know what to do.

5. Don’t just reprimand people who use their phones/cameras to take pictures. Take a cue from the polar bears of Svalbard and smash them.

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Of course, we realize that you’re in the business of turning a profit, and it may be in your best interests to allow the people who comprise groups #1 through #5 to attend and instead turn away us, the outnumbered, meekly obedient, quietly appreciative concertgoers that we are. If this be your decision, we will rue it, but we will understand.

We will then honor it by crushing your rib cage like a scorned Svalbardian polar bear.

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Sincerely,

The Vores

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2011: The Year in Music

I am angry and have a cane!

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2011 may well be the year our music tastes stopped evolving. Chances are we’ll look back on this year from some future vantage point and see the transformation of our musical tastes from still-somewhat-adventurous-middle-age to full-curmudgeon, distrustful of the new, always pining for the old and familiar. In other words: We shook our cane at James Blake and told him to get off our porch.

None of the music we loved this year could be called especially new or groundbreaking. It was all our usual comfort food. We gobbled up albums by Wilco, Iron & Wine and Fleet Foxes; shed a tear as we hummed along to R.E.M.’s career-spanning anthology; welcomed the return of “old” Ryan Adams even as we wished he wrote better lyrics. We were happy sticking with the familiar.

When we did order something new off the menu, we were almost always disappointed. Florence + The Machine? One of us (Ben) liked, one (Erin) wasn’t so sure. The aforementioned James Blake? Dubstep, shmubstep. We wanted to like Cults and Cut Copy and The War on Drugs  and The Weeknd more than we actually did.

The boldest step (if you can call it bold) we took this year in the realm of music was embracing Spotify. We like Spotify. (We wish a pox on Spotify + Facebook, however. A pox!) It did nothing to curb our musical purchasing (except, perhaps, to ward us off what otherwise would have been ill-advised, sight-unseen purchases). What it mostly did was allow us to indulge in a little game we called Shameful Guilty Pleasures From Our Youth, in which we tried to surprise the other with an even more shameful guilty pleasure from the 80s or 90s that we once embraced with every angsty fiber of our teenage bodies. (See: Soul Asylum; Everclear; Crash Test Dummies; Sloan; P.M. Dawn; Screaming Trees; and Butthole Surfers.)

Before we get to the list, we’ll start with what was certainly the musical highlight of the year: Seeing U2 in Nashville on July 2. The picture below (courtesy of Flickr) is of Vanderbilt Stadium, where “The Claw” descended to serve as the stage for the evening.

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It was the first time U2 had played Nashville in thirty years. The last time Bono and the gang swung through Music City was to play Underwood Auditorium on the campus of Vanderbilt in 1981. This time they brought with them a monstrosity of a set which, according to U2’s website, featured “a cylindrical video system of interlocking LED panels and a steel structure rising 150 feet from the floor over a massive stage with rotating bridges.” Ben texted a picture to his brother, who texted back, “What is that, and where are you?”

U2’s unabashed grandiosity has always been its charm, and occasionally its overreach. But there’s something to be said for a band that aims as high as U2. For two people who don’t usually do big, stadium-sized shows, we were giddy during the whole thing. And it wasn’t just because we were hanging out with Seth and Miriam Swihart (though that never hurts).

Honorable mentions for albums this year include the Buddy Holly tribute Rave On; Mr. Adams and his Ashes & Fire; Strange Negotiations, David Bazan; and The Black Keys’ El Camino.

Now, on to the list. (Previously, 2008, 2009 and 2010.)

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10. Iron & Wine, Kiss Each Other Clean. Like Justin Vernon (#9), Sam Beam opened up his trademark sound to incorporate some poppier elements — in Kiss Each Other Clean’s case, that meant some sweet saxomophone.

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9. Bon Iver, Bon Iver.  It was no For Emma, Forever Ago, but Bon Iver’s self-titled follow-up staked out new territory for Justin Vernon and featured the should-have-been-cringeworthy-but-somehow-he-pulls-it-off closer “Beth/Rest,” what Rolling Stone calls “an unlikely sweet spot between Nick Drake and Peter Cetera.”

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8. Over The Rhine, The Long Surrender. Erin’s favorite OTR album since Ohio, and Ben’s favorite with the exception of Snow Angels. The fact Karin and Linford played a free show, at Ben’s place of employment (a bookstore, not a record store), on the day the album released, may have had something to do with it cracking the Top 10. They’re good folks.

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7. Josh Garrels, Love & War & The Sea In Between. It’d be a misnomer to call Josh Garrels “praise” music, and yet no album this year was more of a worship album for us than this one. Before we scare you off it completely, Garrels’ musicianship merits inclusion on this list. Everyone we recommended it to loved it as well. You can check it out yourself (for free!) at Garrels’ website.

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6. Raphael Saadiq, Stone Rollin‘. The hip-shakingest pick of our Top #10, and the only one with any real soul. Props to Mr. Saadiq for casting Cutty from “The Wire” in his video for “Good Man.”

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5. Wilco, The Whole Love. It is not our favorite Wilco album, but even a just-OK Wilco album has enough moments of pure rock-out joy to crack #5 on our list. The Whole Love may be a bit scattered, musically, so think of it as a Wilco smorgasbord and chow down on the good stuff (“Born Alone,” “I Might,” “One Sunday Morning (Song For Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)”).

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4. Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues. Nature make-out music. But it says something about this year’s list that we still don’t consider Helplessness Blues to be the prettiest album we heard all year. (Wait for #1. Wait for it.)

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3. The Decemberists, The King Is Dead.  A little folk rock gem that borrows heavily from early R.E.M. (perhaps because Peter Buck turns up on three songs here), The King Is Dead is a beautifully concise set of ten songs that range from country to Americana to rock. It’s the first Decemberists’ album we actually wanted to listen to from start to finish.

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2. Girl Talk, All DayTheoretically, anyone could sit in front of a computer and create these Frankenstein mash-ups. What Gregg Gillis does is provide just the right jolt of electricity to bring them to life, repurposing anything and everything that’s ever hit the Top 40 over the last five decades and providing a sort of Cliff’s Notes education in pop music while simultaneously creating great party music. When the current is flowing, as on the latter half of All Day, it makes for mesmerizing listening, especially if you’re ADD or running long distances. (Yes, we know this is technically a 2010 release, but we listened to it as much as any other album in 2011. And it was late 2010.)

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1. Gillian Welch, The Harrow & The Harvest. Coming eight years after Soul Journey, The Harrow & The Harvest is intimate, lovely, often haunting. It veers into darker territory lyrically but never loses its gentle, easy grace. The ten songs compiled here sound timeless: simple, spare and evocative. The term “slow music” sounds a bit insulting, but we mean it in the best sense when we say that Welch writes some of the finest slow music out there.

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TOP FIVE SONGS OF THE YEAR!

“Born Alone,” Wilco. Boom goes the dynamite.

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“Second Song,” TV On The Radio. We were underwhelmed by Nine Types of Light, but not this track (even though “You” is the song off this album appearing on most critics’ lists).

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“Go To Hell,” Raphael Saadiq. What starts as a confessional (“Here’s the situation, yes, the devil knows me well/See I’m trying to do my best not to go to hell”) turns into a soaring, full chorus refrain to “let love bring us together.”

“I Can’t Make You Love Me,” Bon Iver (covering Bonnie Raitt). From his appearance on “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.”

“Oh My God,” Cults. Though we didn’t warm to the whole album, this track is instantly likable. Is it just us, or is there a creepy resemblance between Madeline Follin’s balloons exploding and the scene in Aliens where the Queen Alien’s body is shellacked with Lt. Ellen Ripley’s pulse rifle grenade blasts?

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Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage: 1982-2011, R.E.M.

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The passing of R.E.M. several months back was a sad but hardly surprising event. Bands don’t usually stick together for three decades. The ones that do have often worn out their welcome long ago. While we liked R.E.M.’s last proper album, Collapse Into Now (which guest blogger and R.E.M. fan Andrew Cashmere reviewed here), it’s safe to say nothing the band has done since Automatic For The People rivaled its early output.

As Matthew Perpetua (oh to be named after a font!) writes in Pitchfork, R.E.M.’s constant evolution — or, as he puts it, “throwing curveballs at their audience” from Reckoning on — “gave listeners valid reasons to jump ship along the way.” He goes on,

It makes just as much sense to enjoy all their records as it does for someone who favors Peter Buck’s early jangle-centric guitar style to recoil at his flamboyantly distorted tone on Monster, or for fans of their immensely popular chamber pop records Out of Time and Automatic for the People to shrug off the skewed, highly politicized arena rock of their late 80s records.

He’s arguing, persuasively, that R.E.M. evolved so completely over thirty years that they managed to alienate virtually all their fans at some point along the way. (We, for one, still loathe Monster.) The band also had a real knack for defying the current musical moment. Automatic For The People, easily the band’s most beautiful album to listen to, arrived in 1992, smack dab in the middle of Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains.

These guys.

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What Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage: 1982-2011, the first career-spanning compilation of R.E.M.’s hits, does is draw a throughline from Murmur to Collapse Into Now and remind you just how many great songs R.E.M. wrote over the years. Besides the obvious inclusions like “Radio Free Europe,” “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” and “Stand” are our personal favorites like “Driver 8,” “Fall On Me” and “Electrolyte.” We concur with Perpetua that everything “through at least the middle of the second disc is unimpeachable,” though we would’ve found some way to slip in Automatic’s “Find The River.” (The one Monster track included is the perfectly acceptable “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?”)

The second disc includes three previously unreleased tracks, including the wistful, strings-and-horns Burt Bacharach number “We All Go Back To Where We Belong.” The lyrics are more straightforward than the band’s early years but still impressionistic and tricky to decipher. Whatever they mean, they certainly evoke a sense of farewell. “I will write our story in my mind/Write about our dreams and triumphs/This might be my ‘Innocence Lost,'” Michael Stipe sings. Part Lies may not be R.E.M.’s ‘Innocence Lost,’ but it’s a welcome reminder of the band’s influence over the past three decades, and more than a fitting end to a remarkable career.

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Ashes & Fire, Ryan Adams

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Ryan Adams and us go way back. Erin was at the infamous show at the Ryman where he berated and then kicked out an audience member for shouting “Summer of ’69” as a song request. Erin and her sisters will admit to a perhaps unhealthy obsession with Mr. Adams circa 2001, a time period during which they partook in, among other things, stalking his tour bus in the parking lot of a Best Western at two in the morning.

We haven’t kept up with the pathologically productive Adams in all the years since. Once he started releasing three albums a year (2005), and switching back-up bands at the drop of a hat, we allowed ourselves a little Ry-Ry hiatus. There were good albums sprinkled through his post-Gold stretch — we fancied Jacksonville City Nights, and there was always at least one stellar track on his albums with The Cadinals — but mostly we were left to develop theories about how Mandy Moore had corrupted him, while secretly acknowledging that he’s not the type who needs any help with that.

Now, with Ashes & Fire, we are happy to report that Adams has returned to form, or at least the form we prefer, alt-country, not his most recent fascination, metal (as on Orion). The emphasis is back on Adams’s vocals, and tunes amble along pleasantly and effortlessly.

Here’s the thing about Adams, though — and it pains us to say this when we have admittedly obsessed over him in the past: He sure can be a lazy songwriter. “When The Stars Go Blue” is a gorgeous little song, but it doesn’t take that many listens to realize Adams is rhyming “blue” with “blue.” There are so many other words that rhyme with blue! Just off the top of our head, we can think of at least six: glue, zoo, new, hue, true and shoe. That took us, like, five seconds. And we are not famous musicians.

Consider just a sampling of the lyrics from Ashes & Fire:

I believe the sun still rises here
But when it falls
I’m not sure what there is to say
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Everything you are to me is bigger than the spaces
Between me and the chains of lovexxx

Kindness don’t ask for much
But an open mind
Kindness can cure a broken heart
Honey, are you feeling kind?
Do you believe in love?
Do you believe in love?

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We won’t even quote the lyrics from the final song on the album, titled “I Love You But I Don’t Know What To Say.” (OK, we will: “When I met you/Clouds inside me parted/And all that light came shining through.”) With hackneyed lines like these, you’d be smart not to print the lyrics in your liner notes — at least Adams’s voice and the rootsy instrumentation distract you during the songs themselves. But when you print them, there they are in black and white, like Adams spent an afternoon wandering up and down the aisles at Hallmark. And then when he didn’t find the right cards, he came up with lyrics about not knowing what to say. (The first lyric quoted above — “I’m not sure what there is to say” — isn’t even from the song entitled, “I Love You But I Don’t Know What To Say.”) We’re speechless too, Ryan. And now we’re going to put Heartbreaker back in.

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Wilco, The Whole Love

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There are still a few bands out there for whom we giddily circle the Tuesday release date on the calendar and then, when that blessed date arrives, make a point of going to the music store so we can hold in our hands and purchase the physical artifact that is an album. Wilco is, if not tops on the list, in the top three. (Arcade Fire, Andrew Bird, and Radiohead would vie for the other two spots. R.E.M., may it rest in peace, was the first band to grace this list.)

What’s funny about Wilco is that, going back to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002), we have heard the entirety of every album well before it officially released. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was, famously, the album that got the band dropped from its label, Reprise, an episode that was the subject of Sam Jones’s documentary I Am Trying To Break Your Heart (our inaugural Friday Recommend). Wilco bucked conventional wisdom by streaming the album free online during the interim period until Nonesuch officially released it. It’s difficult to comprehend now what a radical thing this was at the time. Who would buy music they had already heard for free?, many people wondered. Lots of people, it turned out. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot went gold and remains Wilco’s greatest commercial success to date.

Ever since Wilco has made it easy to hear its music before it officially releases, and like A Ghost is Born (2004), Sky Blue Sky (2007) and Wilco (the Album) (2009) before it, we’ve been listening to The Whole Love steadily over the past few weeks. It may be the least consistent album the band has yet released — a virtue in that Jeff Tweedy and the gang are back to the experimentation that gave YHF and A Ghost is Born their edge, a vice in that The Whole Love feels less cohesive than what we’ve come to expect from these guys. It’s literally all over the map, from the discordant skronk of the first track, “Art of Almost,” to the beautiful, autumnal closer, “One Sunday Morning (Song For Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend),” with forays in between to power pop (the Summerteeth-esque “Dawned On Me”), straight-on rock (“Standing O”), folk (“Rising Red Lung”), psychedelia (“Sunloathe”) and country (the shambling “Capitol City”). The Whole Love may make a lot of unexpected left turns, but you can’t say it’s not an interesting trip.

Whatever the merits of The Whole Love and discussions about where, precisely, it belongs in the Wilco canon aside, what we’re grateful for tonight is simply that we have a new Wilco CD playing on our stereo. In other words, it’s a good day.

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Reviews of The Whole Love from PitchforkThe Huffington Post, NPR, Spin and Rolling Stone.

Here is Wilco performing on Letterman last week. And the video of the album’s first single, “Born Alone”: