Saturday, November 15, 2014

NOW HEAR THIS! NIGHTWATCHMAN (ELECTION WEEK, 2008)


Now Hear This: Nightwatchmen


Note: this was originally published in 2008, in The Cauldron

This being election week and all, it seemed appropriate to venture into some of the more political music out there – and these days, there is hardly a shortage. From Fat Wreck Chords’ Rock Against Bush samplers, to hip-hop activists like Jurassic 5, to Punk bands like Anti-Flag and Rise Against, the tradition of music and activism is alive and well – if much more diversified — than in the 60’s protest song heyday. Oddly enough, one of the most vital and recognizable political musicians of the 90’s is arguably the most vital and least recognizable of the modern scene.
I’m speaking of Tom Morello – the Harvard-Educated guitarist for the combustibly subversive funk rock band Rage Against The Machine. Now, Morello’s political activism has never lost a step, but his post-Rage work with Chris Cornell in Audioslave – while occasionally musically stirring – didn’t exactly set the world on fire, never mind the millions of albums sold. So whatever happened to that quixotical soldier from Rage, the man who proudly proclaimed “Arm The Homeless” on his guitars, and protested The Gap, knowing jail time was almost certainly in the cards?
Turns out he’s alive and well.
The Nightwatchman is Morello’s alter ego, and for anyone familiar with his groundbreaking guitar work might find themselves scratching their heads at the stripped-down, acoustic folk music on display here. In his first album, 2007’s One Man Revolution, Morello is often accompanied by a rickety acoustic guitar and nothing else; Morello’s husky baritone blends the warmth of Jakob Dylan with a wizened delivery more in line with Mr. Dylan, Sr. Songs like “Up in Flames” sport lyrics like “It’s in Colin Powell’s lies, it’s in the shaman’s trance/It’s in the cellar waiting, and it’s in the best laid plans.” Morello pulls about as many punches as boxer Kelly Pavlik. On “Let Freedom Ring” and “until the end”, Morello eschews larger issues in favor of more personal tales, sticking with just the guitar. Bringing in a band for his just-released second Nightwatchman record, The Fabled City, Morello picks up the torch dropped by Bruce Springsteen so long ago, and delivers a record about the working-class that comes off without all the heavy-handed pretention that occasionally infected Revolution. Put simply, this is not a record that will tell you who to vote for – this is a record that will remind you why you care. “Gone Like Rain” tells the bittersweet tale of the often high cost of standing up for your beliefs, where in “Lazarus On Down” Morello and longtime friend Serj Tankian paint a mournful, contemplative picture, continuing the conversation without commentary – an unexpected choice for an activist, and it works brilliantly. Stepping into quasi-electrified funk in ‘Whatever it Takes”, Morello proudly proclaims “I’ll meet you now, wherever you are/I’m here until the front line breaks, whatever it takes”
And in his own progression as The Nightwatchman, Morello tells a continuing story – it’s our story, a mutant immigrant tale of unbridled hope in the face of often terrifying odds. Listen to Revolution before you go to vote, and put on City afterwards – if nothing else, it is hands down some of the best folk music of our generation.
And that’s a cause everyone can get behind.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

NOW HEAR THIS! FRIGHTENED RABBIT (2009)


Note: this article is hosted here as part of my massive moderate when-I-feel-like-it blog consolidation project. 

It is worth noting that I myself don't partake of mind-altering substences - alcohol included - nor did I do so at the time of writing. I did, however, occasionally wake up in strange places, uncertain how I got there. College!

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.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

So I think I figured out 5E

Update: The 5th edition of D&D has been, in general, quite well-received. I have met many people who really like it, and they are reasonable, intelligent folk. You may find yourself thinking that I, therefore, am none of those things. 


It's possible! Though I'm fairly certain I still qualify as folk. 


I stand by my initial analysis. What I didn't realize is that for a lot of people, failing a bunch, frequently and dramatically, is all part of the game. Competent characters who succeed at their tasks with relative frequency are just not as important to many gamers. That's cool! I don't necessarily feel that it invalidates my observations, but it does place them in a richer context. 


In the end, I was never the target audience for D&D5, so it's no big deal that I don't much care for it. Anyway, without further disclaimer, here's the original text, sans a typo or two.


So in a move that I both totally support, and wonder at the motivation of, WOtC is giving away their "core" rules as a free .pdf download from their website. It makes sense for a lot of reasons - there's a bunch of free D&D out there already, and they need to convince their core demographic to buy a new thing.

I delved those depths, my friends. What follows are my thoughts.


Observation One: WotC has a very specific vision for what playing D&D looks like.

The .pdf starts off with a play example, which highlights something shown both in their examples, but also kind of explicit in their description of how to play: namely, a weirdly structured, call-and-response feel. Their "how to play" blurb outlines the following:

Quote
  • The DM describes the environment
  • The Players describe what they want to do
  • The DM narrates the results of the adventurers' actions
...this pattern holds whether the adventurers are cautiously exploring a ruin, talking to a devious prince, or locked in mortal combat against a mighty dragon. In certain situations, particularly combat, the action is more structured.
p. 3; emphasis mine.

This idea is echoed throughout - now, it's in the "what is D&D" section, so maybe they thought the experienced gamers would just skip it, but this sentiment shows up again in places; like the whole game is supposed to be more turn-based. Maybe I'm overreacting, but it kind of feels that way to me.

One thing that I do like, is they've really drawn on their source material - all the "in-world" examples come from D&D fiction of various stripes - R.A. Salvatore, Margaret Weis & Elaine Cunningham all make appearances, and the feeling is stronger for it. They really talk about D&D worlds a lot.

Another thing, and I'll get into this in a bit, is they seem to have decided what the "feel" of D&D is, and optimized for that. You know how 1st level feels really different from 6th, which is almost unrelated to 15th? I think we have more consistency here.

Observation Two: The designers wear their influences on their sleeves, but it's one of those iron-on decals.

So, some indie games were played, they tried to streamline things. Some worked, some didn't.


You know how Monte Cook was originally brought on to design 5E, but left over creative differences? You can really see what he was trying to do if you look at Numenera; 5E very clearly feels similar, but misses the bits that make that system playable.

Basically, you make attribute checks. While this might be specific, like "make me a wisdom [perception] check," it might also not. If this sounds like a trivial distinction, it really isn't: skills are much squishier, and every character will have precious few. I mean that: the Rogue is awesome, because they get to be proficient in 4 whole skills! You also get 2 proficiencies from your background (you pick from pre-made backgrounds; these seem to give 2 skill proficiencies, language or tool proficiencies, and a negligible amount of gear).

Proficiency is binary: you're either proficient, or you're not. If you ARE proficient, you get to add your proficiency bonus: see the next point for more on that.

I do kind of like some of what they've done with spellcasting. Prepared casters get spell level slots based on level, which are separate from their spells memorized, which are equal to casting stat + character level. So, if I'm a 3rd level Cleric with a Wisdom of 16 (pretty good by their stat spreads), I've got 4 first-level, and 2 second-level slots, which I can use to cast any of my 6 memorized spells.

That flexibility is kind of cool, and avoids "wasted" spell slots.

It also allows you to cast spells in higher slots - so there's no more Cure X wounds - it's just cure wounds. Cast it in a higher slot for more effect. Same with Magic Missile, and a bunch of other spells. On the flip side, spells don't scale anymore. Your level 3 fireball will always do the same damage; you need to spend a higher slot on it to scale it up.

I've talked about how much I like the Advantage/Disadvantage mechanic before - it's cool. Even if it has shown up before, I never ran into it, and it's very core to the system here, which I like.
 
Observation Three: This is a game about failing, a bunch.

So, remember your proficiency bonus? I never explained that, did I? It's simple: it's a scaling bonus, which starts at +2 at 1st level, and goes up to +6 at 20th. This is the bonus you get to add to doing stuff. Proficient with a skill? Add this bonus. Proficient with a weapon? Add this bonus. If not? Just roll D20+stat bonus.

That's it. That's the game. No magic weapon scaling, no improving your skills; +2 to +6 in a D&D game where you can't even buy an 18 in anything at character creation. So, let's say that I'm playing a character who wants to succeed at a thing; let's say picking locks. Ok, so I max my dex (16) and do something to get me a proficiency - they don't stack, so I only need one. Ok! Let's look at DC's

Quote
Typical Difficulty Classes
Difficulty:

  • Very Easy: 5
  • Easy: 10
  • Medium: 15
  • Hard: 20
  • Very Hard: 25
  • Nearly Impossible: 30
p.58Ok! So, let's say I need to roll against medium difficulty. It's a medium thing! My super-optimized character will roll a D20+3+2 to do this. Let's be generous, and say that I roll average, a nice 11, for a total of 16 I succeed, but barely. If I'm trying an actually hard lock, forget it.

But hey, I'm level 1! What about when I'm an awesome level 10 adventurer? Well then, my proficiency bonus goes up to +4! I've also gotten 3 ability bonuses (if I didn't take any feats, which are now an optional thing in the Players handbook - when you would get +1 to a stat, you could instead take a feat) But let's say I didn't - these are the core rules, after all. So, I roll D20+4+4, which gets me a kickin' awesome 19 on a roll of 11!

Which still won't open the lock, 10 levels later.

Basically, it's entirely a game about how well your D20 just rolled. And it had better roll high, otherwise you get to fail, and feel bad.

Now, if that example had used a race that gives a dex bonus, then it pushes those rolls over the line; it's still basically a coin flip though. And that, to me, makes this a game about failure. Which leads me to my final point:

Observation Four: There is nothing 5E does that isn't done better elsewhere

*Shrug*

If I want to play D&D, I'll play 13th age - which I'm excited about - or Pathfinder, which is a very mature game at this point. If I want to play with ideas of helplessness in an RPG, I'll play a goddamn horror game; there's a whole bunch of them out there, and that's a genre that benefits from failing, a lot.

D&D is classically held up as the example of RPGs where failure feels really awful. Then they went and made the game about that for some reason, even though it really clashes with their source material.

I tried to go into this with an open mind; I wanted to be surprised. I wasn't; this is just as bad as it was back in the early playtest. As such, I can't in good conscience recommend 5E for... anything, really. Which is rare for me. Anyway, avoid this, if you can manage, and for the sake of every god, don't spend money on it.

~Killstring

Saturday, April 12, 2014

NOW HEAR THIS! STARS (2009)


Note: this piece was originally published in The Cauldron (2009). It's around this time that my NHT column began to take an overtly conversational style, which - like it or hate it - was wildly popular on campus, bestowing upon me a level of easy celebrity that I had no idea what to do with. 

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, its 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.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

NOW HEAR THIS! ALT-COUNTRY (2009)


Note: consolidating blogs is time-consuming, but I'm committed to giving you all the opportunity to read mediocre stuff I wrote in college.

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.

Friday, March 21, 2014

NOW HEAR THIS – GUSTER (2009)


Note: Blogsolidation 2k16 marches on. NHT had hit its conversational, familiar stride. To this day, I'm not sure I can say this was good writing, but it was popular with its intended audience. As a writer, I'm not sure I can/should ever ask for more than that.


And a pony. 


Popularity with my intended audience, and a pony. Then I'm good.


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 clich├ęd 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.

NOW HEAR THIS! JONATHAN COULTON (2009)




Note: Originally published in The Cauldron (2009). Friend of The Cauldron JoCo was really surging in popularity among the geek set at this time, due to the popularity of Valve's quirky puzzle game, Portal, which turned out to be A Whole Thing. 

This, along with The Nightwatchman, was one of the few times where an artist was profiled due to massive request. It's still strange to think that my college newspaper column had massive requests, but there you have it.

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! Transplants



Note: this originally appeared in The Cauldron, (2008), and is included here as part of an ongoing blog consolidation project.


Now Hear This!
Music you may have missed
By Jonathan ‘Killstring’ Herzberger
The Cauldron Staff Writer

The Supergroup. One of rock music’s most often attempted disasters, simply cut-and-pasting members of different bands together has more often than not resulted in train wrecks that were not only less than the sum of their collective parts – many were downright embarrassing. It turns out that the love of music that come from friends messing around in their basements is difficult to manufacture.

But what if a Supergroup formed accidentally, by doing exactly that?

Why then, you would have the Transplants – one of rock music’s happiest accidents. In the summer of 1999, Rancid Singer/Songwriter/Guitarist Tim Armstrong had been fiddling around with some recording software on his computer, teaching himself to play the piano, and generally goofing around, making hip-hop. His friend Rob Aston added some vocals, and bit by bit ideas began to look like songs, songs began to sound like an album, and as more and more friends stopped by to add their two cents, it began to sound like a band. When Blink 182 drummer Travis Barker signed on in 2002, it became pretty clear they were on to something special.

In this case, ‘something special’ equated to Transplants, modestly and quietly released on Armstrong’s own Hellcat Records. The thought was that the disc might move a few units, maybe they’d do a tour, and that would have been a fun little diversion. However, Transplants was lightning in a bottle – its spastic, genre-leaping (and in some cases, defying) sound was immediately accessible, vital, and just plain fun. From the inner-city reggae of ‘California Babylon’ to the catchy ‘DJ DJ’, the blend of Armstrong’s mad-scientist instrumentals, Skinhead Rob’s unorthodox rapping, and Barker’s kinetic skinwork, the appeal of Transplants was immediate. With ‘Diamonds and Guns’, the band managed to blend a cautionary tale about the Columbian drug trade with a piano hook so catchy, Neutrogena now uses it to sell shampoo. The band was more successful than anybody had anticipated, and after a few singles and some successful touring, the band shook hands and parted ways from what had undoubtedly been a wonderful experiment – but it was time to get back to their ‘real’ bands.

Following his unfortunate divorce from Distillers vocalist Brody Armstrong (don’t cheat on your boyfriends when you go on tour, ladies – that’s in terribly poor taste) Armstrong recorded Indestructible with Rancid – as tasteful a post-breakup record as exists, and even brought Aston along for guest vocals on “Red Hot Moon”. Barker did some more touring with Blink, and cameos notwithstanding, Aston got back to carrying around guitar amps for AFI.

In 2004, the rumblings of a second album were forming in much the same fashion as the first – only this time, members of Cypress Hill, Dilated Peoples, and Boo Ya Tribe were lending their talents, and Atlantic Records was talking distribution. In the summer of 2005 – a mere four months after Blink 182 declared an indefinite hiatus – The Transplants released Haunted Cities, a masterful blend of punk, hip-hop, soul, reggae, and – well, pretty much everything else under the sun (and possibly a few ideas from deep space.) From the leadoff single “Gangsters & Thugs”, Armstrong & Co. set the stage for record’s inherent duality with the simple refrain “Some of my friends sell records – some of my friends sell drugs.” The album takes an unexpected twist, as the depressing gravitas of “What I can’t Describe” – an ode to despair, a weary resignation to dying alone – is delivered in some of the smoothest, most soulful R&B since Motown’s heyday. “Crash and Burn” blends a jovial calypso beat with more street-hardened tales, and “I want it All” is another toe-tapping piano-pounder, which casually weaves a story about growing up in a culture of crime, and the pratfalls of arrogance.

And that’s where the Transplants really shine the brightest – in a dichotomous blend of gritty street cred, boundless joyful optimism, and an experimental freedom to try just about anything, Transplants make music that exists in multiple worlds at once. It’s Punk, and Hip-Hop, it’s focused and freestyle, it’s aggressive and puts a smile on your face. Circa 2008, the band has no plans for the future – but the possibility remains. In the meantime, we have two absolute gems from some unlikely collaborators. There’s nothing really to compare it to – because there’s nothing really like it. This is music for the joy of music, pure and simple – and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Now Hear This! Elbow (2008)


Note: this Originally appeared in The Cauldron, (2008). It's included here as part of my ongoing blog consolidation. Blogsolidation? Anyway, here's me raving about Elbow.


Now Hear This!
Music you may have missed
By Jonathan ‘Killstring’ Herzberger
The Cauldron Staff Writer

Emotion. Whatever the genre, tempo, or volume of the song, music seeks to elicit emotions in the listener. From the most agressive speed metal, to the corniest polka and J-Pop, music that fails to move its audience, essentially just fails. So I realize that describing any kind of music as ‘stirring up emotions in the listener’ is pretty redundant. Hell, I could be talking about anything between Yanni and Napalm Death – so I understand the grain of salt you ight be taking, but when I say that the British Indie band Elbow creates the kind of music that makes one genuinely feel things, understand that I mean it as the highest sort of praise.

Elbow has been around for a while now – their first UK EP debuted in 1998, and they debuted stateside in 2002 with their first full-length, Asleep in the back, which (like so many artists profiled in Now Hear This) was critically praised, and sold like whatever the opposite of hotcakes is – but that’s neither here nor there. We’re going to focus on their two most recent albums, as it’s actually possible to locate and obtain them with some ease here in the States.

2005’s Leaders Of The Free World saw Elbow really hitting its stride – the band’s quirky blend of traditional rock with piano, ethnic percussion, and the odd bit of pizzicato strings provided the perfect backdrop to frontman Guy Garvey’s Peter Gabriel-esque voice and awkwardly literate, disarmingly candid lyrics. Tracks like “Station Approach” find the band striding in a hesitant, yet steady groove, whereas the single “Forget Myself” opts for a slightly more bombastic and confident stand. The title track slithers along with an oily, snaky feel that manages to provide social commentary without any annoying grandstanding like so many The album is full of moments like this – where the potential of ‘indie’ rock seems limitless, and utterly free of pretension.

However, it’s in The Seldom Seen Kid (released this past march) that sees this Manchester quintet reach a plateau that is (to pardon the author’s unforgivably awful pun) seldom seen by an Indie band. Forget for a second that the Coen Brothers’ tapped the gallows-humor blues rock of “Grounds for Divorce” for the Burn After Reading trailer, forget that they just walked away with their first Mercury Prize, edging out Radiohead’s In Rainbows – Kid is that rare sort of record that gets exponentially better upon consecutive listens. Elbow focuses on their strengths on this album – and created a charming, quaint sort of masterpiece that sneaks up on you – though many won’t know what to make of Kid at first. Chock full of quiet, introspective moments, Kid’s brilliance isn’t always immediately obvious.

Starting off with “Starlings” Garvey & Co’s delicately composed dynamics ebb and flow their way through a young man’s uncertain footsteps, taking the listener through all the emotional ups and downs of an emotionally stirring film, steadily increasing in both bravado and clarity, until it blows up -climaxing in a breathtaking crescendo when our hero finally gets the bloody words out – and this is all in the first track. The aforementioned “Grounds For Divorce” and “An Audience With The Pope” that doesn’t try to sound epic, or grandiose – yet is undeniably both. “The Fix” sees Garvey team up with Richard Hawley (formerly of Pulp, and a damn fine listen in his own regard) for a delightfully snarky hustler story that packs as much charm as any of the Ocean’s films, and “On A Day Like This” the band pokes fun at its own wordiness with lyrics like “what made me behave that way/using words I never say… ‘cause holy cow, I love your eyes” – and the tongue-in-cheek feel is miles away from what you’d expect from a Coldplay, or a U2 – there’s precious little ego here.

But it’s on “Mirrorball” – a track that owes as much of its sound to Japanese composer Yasunori Mitsuda as any ballad – that Elbow shines the brightest. At its heart a simple story, Elbow employs their unique ability to make the universal intimate, and weaves a tale that is simultaneously intimate and accessible, as big as time, and close as a whisper. It’s not an exaggeration to say that The Seldom Seen Kid is an album to fall in love with, and probably to.

Essentially, Elbow makes stirring, emotional music without a hint of self-indulgence, the kind of music that can make people believe in things they never thought they would. It is powerful, dynamic, and I feel genuinely sorry for anyone missing out on it. So grab a cup of tea, set aside an hour or so, and let yourself believe in love – even if only for a moment.

Now Hear This! Shoegaze



Originally appeared in The Cauldron, (2008). Included as part of BLOGSOLIDATION 2K16.

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

Britain. Over the years we’ve seen countless musical trends from across the pond, and the interplay between popular music in the U.S. and U.K. (Rock n’ Roll influences the British invasion, which spurs psychadelia, which punk rebels against, etc) has certainly moved musicians to create new and different approaches, and many of our current genres are a result of this exchange. Of course, with so much variety over the years, entire movements can be lost in the shuffle.

A prime example of this would be the British “Shoegaze” scene, which peaked in popularity around 1990, but never really caught on in stateside. Blending atmospheric, dreamy pop stylings with wall-of-fuzz guitars, lush atmospheric synths, and vocals that were more about melody and texture than lyrical delivery, the shy, introspective musicians in bands like Ride and Slowdive earned the “Shoegazer” moniker by playing entire concerts without looking up at the audience, and focusing more on the ground than the camera during interviews. Unsurprisingly, this was difficult to market, especially with the theatrics of Grunge beginning to captivate the musical imagination of so many. The scene didn’t just fade into the night without any sort of legacy, however – the real impact of Shoegaze would be its influence on American alt-rock; from bands like The Smashing Pumpkins, The Verve and Mazzy Star to modern groups like Blond Redhead and Silversun Pickups, the genre had no shortage of effect on this side of the Atlantic.

California’s Starflyer 59 is arguably foremost among these acts. Frontman Jason Martin has been making quirky, introspective pop records for about 13 years now, and the band’s latest, Dial M should be hitting stores by the time this article is published. From the Sonic Youth-style fuzzy art rock of Silver and Gold, to the electric jangle pop anthems of Everybody Makes Mistakes and The Fashion Focus, the band continued releasing records at a prolific rate, arguably reaching a creative zenith with 2001’s Leave Here A Stranger, a symphonic surf-rock masterpiece that sounds like nothing so much as a soundtrack to an art film that was never made, by an existential director who doesn’t exist. In tribute to the Beach Boy’s seminal Pet Sounds, the album is recorded entirely in mono. From 2003-2006, Martin & Co. released one record per year, culminating in My Island, which saw a more up-tempo feel, and the release of a single and accompanying video. True to form, the band hired actors to play them in the video, with the musicians proper only appearing briefly towards the end, staring uncomfortably at their avatars, awkwardly out of place in the rock and roll world they created.

With 2007’s The Brothers Martin (a collaboration with Ronnie Martin of Joy Electric) the punch and atmosphere of Starflyer was blended with electric synth-pop to create one of the most surprisingly good records of the year – and with Starflyer’s latest, Dial M coming out roughly the same time as this article, Starflyer’s keeping the Shoegaze ethos of complex, beautiful songwriting alive and well, while infusing it with the verve of modern indie pop.

Even if he still can’t make eye contact with interviewers.

Now Hear This! Man Factory's Street Fight

This piece was originally published in The Cauldron (2008)

Note: it's no longer 2008, and MySpace is not really A Thing anymore. As such, you can find them here

Now Hear This!
Music you may have missed
By Jonathan ‘Killstring’ Herzberger
The Cauldron Staff Writer
When I was young, there were a plethora of adventure movies that all began with a similar premise: a lone inquisitive child interacted with some deus ex machina plot device that transported them to another time/place/dimension, wherein they had magical adventures, and learned valuable lessons about believing in yourself, etc. These films were awesome.
Around the same time, Arcades had not quite been replaced by the Playstations and Xboxes of the world, and many a precocious youth would line up for the privilege of plunking their quarters into the massive upright cabinets of yore. These arcades were also, in their own rights, awesome.
However, the year is 2008 – and the adventures of my youth have been relegated to the realms of nostalgia, the films and arcade both forgotten relics of a bygone era. Enter the Arlington TX Indie Pop band, Man Factory. A quirky little unsigned group whose catalog had consisted mostly of poorly recorded, uninspired and disjointed singles, singer/guitarist Tyler White and keyboardist Austin Sevener had a brainstorm one night. Why not combine the nostalgia of childhood adventure films with the arcade games they grew up on? While we’re here, why not make an ambitious 3-album Rock Opera with no record label or financial support to speak of?
Apparently, they couldn’t think of compelling reasons not to, and we get to reap the rewards. Street Fight: Round One is available for free in its entirety at myspace.com/manfactory, and the improbable proposition of a Rock Opera based on the classic 1v1 fighting video game Street Fighter II is… well…good. Rather good, in fact. The concept album finds the band in significantly tighter focus than their previous efforts, and White’s deadpan falsetto comes through strong and clear, evoking comparisons to John Sampson (Propagahndi, The Weakerthans) and Ben Gibbard (Death Cab For Cutie) without wading into derivative waters. Fellow vocalist Toni provides a softened contrast, staying comfortably within a moderate range. On the whole, the band blends guitar-driven bombast somewhere between Weezer and The Who with analog synth leads that might as well have been ripped clean from the video games that inspired the tale.
Starting off with “Night at the arcade”, the Factory tells the tale of a haunted arcade machine, ripping a poor young girl through space and time – and the earnestness with which they deliver such a far-fetched premise against the Rocky-esque main theme does wonders for the material, replete with faux horn section, dueling harmonized guitar solo, and appropriately epic build. In “Chun Li, Outside” Toni takes center stage, bringing a relatable determination to this inherently goofy revenge tale, segueing seamlessly into “Chun Li, I’m Lovin’ it” – which gleefully contrasts synthesized pan pipes with lyrics like “Bison’s Mean, Bison’s Bad, Bison fought and killed your Dad” – although it does come apart a bit towards the end, when the band tries to blend in original soundtrack from the game, and it feels a tad forced. “Where is Ryu?” and “E. Honda’s concern” continue the wink/nudge seriousness, and “Good Grief, Zangief!” branches out into eastern European folk music, before culminating in an 80’s TV theme-style power pop chorus – but the real star of this show would be “Balrog, 24/7,” in which White gleefully does his best Justin Timberlake, slinking through a slick R&B gem long on charm, and with sass to spare. And therein lies the beauty of Round One – it’s an inside joke, sure, but one that invites everyone to be a part of it. The record is disarmingly sincere in its childlike joy, and it’s 100% free.
Awesome.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

NOW HEAR THIS (VAMPIRE WEEKEND – DEBUT COLUMN, 2008. BE NICE TO ME)


Note: this piece is being reprinted here as part of an ongoing blog consolidation effort here at the Blog of Doomtm. It's my first published column, so please by kind when eviscerating me - poor freshman Killstring was trying to manage hip without sneering, and that's always a tricky balancing act. 

Second note: it's strange to think about now, with a flood of indie bands who pair jangly guitars with irreverent pop rhythms, educated volcabularies, and a sunny disposition. But it was pretty far out in left field when it came out.

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.

Monday, February 3, 2014

EBONY & IRONY (MY FIRST PUBLISHED MUSIC PIECE, FROM 2008 – BE GENTLE!)


Note: This is my first published work after quitting the rock music industry to attend university. Between the almost cringe-worthy attempts at cleverness, and my grandstanding as some champion of Right and Good, there's a heartfelt attempt by a stupid kid to talk about something meaningful. 


That will always matter to me. 


Anyway, try to enjoy! Or at the very least, appreciate the transparancy by me hosting my awkward early stuff.


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?