Saturday, April 12, 2014


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


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.