In terms of my daughter’s summer break, the season is nearly at an end. Back-to-school time has become something of a bittersweet ritual in the eight years I’ve spent at home with her since being relieved of my graphic design career in 2001.
As a work-at-home dad, I have the flexibility to arrange my schedule but, as it’s happened this summer, my schedule has been arranging me, leaving me little opportunity to do much out of the ordinary with her. Luckily, as she’s grown she has acquired the ability to entertain herself, which works to my advantage.
We have been able to sneak in some Wii sessions after having lunch together, we hit the community pool several times a week and she runs most errands with me, but it’s been a fairly uneventful summer. Our two-week vacation (which I'm on at this very moment, having finished typing this up just hours before departure) will likely feature a few more stimulating activities: bike riding on Mackinac Island, some putt putt golf, lots of lake swimming.
In a lot of ways, even though much of the time we spend together is ultimately passive, I think my daughter enjoys the fact that I’m on hand. If she hears a song she likes on her Zune or sees something on TV that she thinks is particularly funny or poignant or worthwhile (she’s been obsessing over the first three seasons of Gilmore Girls on DVD) or if the dog or one of the cats does something noteworthy, she’ll run down and give me a quick report. Sometimes it happens in the middle of a phone interview, which I’ve explained repeatedly is disruptive and inappropriate (she’s ADHD; every day brings a new challenge and a few of the old ones), and she’s gotten better at checking to see if I have the phone in hand before she bolts down the hallway to the Bunker.
Still in all, as frustrating and exhausting as she can often be in the course of a day, I will miss her presence when she heads back to school at the end of this month. Sure, the house will be quieter and my schedule will be more continuously structured, but how will I ever keep up with the comings and goings of the cast of Twilight on my own? It won’t be long before her visits to the Bunker are few and far between and the bulk of our conversations will be by phone, so I'm endeavoring to enjoy the next few years of her distractions while I have the opportunity.
Wait, there’s something coming in now … apparently Hilary Duff is interested in joining the cast of Gossip Girl but they’ve told her she’ll need to lose some caloric baggage to compete with the walking sticks on the show. Oh, I could get this stuff from the Web with a click, but that can’t match the energy of it pouring almost incomprehensibly from a breathless teenager. I’m missing it already.
On Pictures of Then’s 2007 debut, Crushed by Lights, the Minneapolis quintet seemed to be shining Billy Corgan’s flashlight through a 1966 Pink Floyd prism, projecting a gorgeous psychedelic Pop rainbow across a Ziggy Stardust tour poster. The combination of PoT’s respect for the vintage past and desire for a modern future came together seamlessly in a soundtrack that was both vaguely familiar and engagingly fresh. A handful of us here in town were witness to PoT’s greatness two years ago when they appeared at 2007’s MidPoint Music Festival in Cincinnati, following Superdrag’s triumphant return at The Exchange, and those of us that stuck around knew we were seeing a band on the verge of something special.
As telegraphed by the gorgeous New World-tinged woodcut illustrations adorning their sophomore album, Pictures of Then and The Wicked Sea, PoT spends a little more time perusing its sonic scrapbook of the past this time around while still remaining committed to indie Rock’s vibrant here and now. The Wicked Sea’s opener, “A Glimpse of Dawn,” nods to Superdrag’s modern retro vibe in a perfect balance between Pop delicacy and guitar bombast, which segues into “When It Stings,” a swinging Soul/Pop mind meld of early Kinks and later Spoon and continues into “The Big Sell,” a similar treatment that shivers and pounds like a Smashing Pumpkins tribute to The Pretty Things
Fans of The Shins and the 88s will find much to love on The Wicked Sea, from the gentle lilt of “Ahead” to the simple Pop appeal of “7th Street,” and I defy anyone (Chris Martin, are you listening?) to write a more beautifully wrought love song than PoT’s “Nowhere is Somewhere,” which skillfully blends propulsive and balladic pop under a lovely lyrical sentiment (“I’d rather go nowhere together than somewhere alone...”). Pictures of Then are an amazing blend of reverent classicism and modern vision, and The Wicked Sea is loaded with glittering Pop diamonds that are never showy, always tasteful and completely infectious.
I saw The Hooters in 1986 when they opened for Squeeze down in Lexington. It was the year after the band had signed with Columbia and released their label debut, the platinum Nervous Night, which also spawned some of the year’s biggest singles; “And We Danced,” “Day by Day” and “Where Do the Children Go.” They had a reputation as a great live act, but I wondered if they could really replicate their exquisite Pop vibe outside of the studio.
I had a photo pass for the show, so I made my way down to the front of the stage to get some shots. By the time I got into position, the band was in full swing and they sounded amazing, tight but adrenalized, and they were clearly having as good a time as their audience. As I began snapping pictures, guitarist John Lilly saw me getting him in focus and pointed to himself and gave me a smartass look that said, “Oh, you want a picture of me?” I nodded and smiled, and he proceeded to wheel through his parody of the big book of Rock guitar moves, all hilariously and stereotypically overwrought.
When I took down my camera, he gave me another ironic look, like, “Was that OK?” and with a smile he went right back to cranking out his riffs effortlessly and flawlessly (although he’d never stopped doing just that during his “performance”). Guitarist Eric Bazilian and keyboardist Rob Hyman saw all of this and smiled between them and offered up similar moments when I moved to get shots of them as well. It was obvious that as a band The Hooters had no intention of taking themselves as seriously as they took their music.
After The Hooters’ global success in the ’80s waned in the ’90s, the band took a six-year hiatus, finally emerging in 2001 and playing sporadic shows before releasing Time Stand Still in 2007, their first new album in 14 years. The Hooters’ new two-disc live album, Both Sides Live, documents four live events over the past two years: a two night stand at Philadelphia’s legendary Electric Factory in late 2007 and a two-night acoustic live-in-the-studio session early last year.
The Secret Sessions disc is an interesting acoustic rereading of the band’s electric set list in the studio, essentially recording a live album in front of a studio audience. Stripped down and unplugged, The Secret Sessions plays up the brilliance of these songs and the Hooters as musicians, but it’s the Electric Factory disc that gets the blood moving. Listening to these excellent renditions of “South Ferry Road,” “All You Zombies” and the stratospheric “And We Danced,” I was instantly transported back to that hair-raising Lexington show 23 years ago. And I’ll bet when they were ripping it up at the Electric Factory that night in 2007, Lilly was probably mugging for some photographer and giving him the old “How was that?” bit. To him and all the rest of the Hooters, I can safely say: Two decades down the line, pretty damn great, guys. Pretty damn great indeed.
The term “musical drummer” was invented for people like Cale Parks. His contributions behind the drum kit as the heartbeat for both Aloha and White William go far beyond mere timekeeping. His rhythms do not simply keep the beat but are an integral and inextricable part of the melody and atmosphere of the songs. As such, it’s little surprise that Parks has taken the solo route, applying the mastery that he brings to his band situations to the pursuit of his own personal sonic vision.
Parks’ latest solo excursion, the six-song mini-album To Swift Mars, is both expansion and extension of his previous works which explored both minimalist electronic beauty (2006’s Illuminated Manuscript) and the dark heart of ’80s Synth Pop (last year’s Sparkleplace). Parks combines the two concepts to craft a soundscape that channels a late ’70s vibe reminiscent of The Units and early Human League as well as a Prog/Pop sensibility that propels the material into the melodic stratosphere. Parks has a gift for tapping into the chilly synth wash of Depeche Mode (“Eyes Won’t Shut,” “Running Family”) and subtly injecting the humanistic warmth of Peter Gabriel or Todd Rundgren in his synthier ’70s moments (“One at a Time,” “We Can Feel It”) for a hybrid that is majestic and compelling. On the truncated To Swift Mars, Parks takes another step toward the Electronic Pop magnum opus he seems infinitely capable of producing.
The only thing more amazing than the 15 years that guitarist Walter Trout spent sessioning and gigging for the likes of Big Mama Thornton, John Lee Hooker, Canned Heat and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers is the 20 year solo career he’s amassed since striking out on his own. Throughout his tenure as a sideman and into his work under his own name, Trout has based his reputation around doing unique things within the Blues form as well taking well-worn genre cliches and casting them a new light. And while Trout never achieved the kind of universality that Stevie Ray Vaughan enjoyed in his all too brief time in the limelight, there’s no question that he deserved it.
Trout’s latest album, Unspoiled by Progress, is no greatest hits collection; that would have required Trout to score a hit in the first place (he could probably put a hits package out in Holland, where he was big enough to displace Madonna at the top of the singles chart). Instead, Progress is a document of some of his unreleased live triumphs over his two-decade solo journey as well as a trio of brand new studio recordings (“They Call Us the Working Class,” “Two Sides to Every Story,” “So Afraid of the Darkness”).
Trout’s studio work is exemplary without question but he clearly has established his reputation on stage, and any random track on Progress proves it, from the Santana lines of “Marie’s Mood” to his incendiary reading of “Goin’ Down” to the slow Blues grind of “Finally Gotten Over You,” complete with a rendering of “O Tannenbaum” in the end solo. Real Trout fans will want Progress for “Sweet as a Flower,” featuring the last ever performance of Trout’s longtime bassist Jimmy Trapp, who suffered a debilitating heart attack two days after this May 2005 recording and sadly passed away three months later. Unspoiled by Progress is not quite a live album, not quite a hits compilation, not quite a retrospective, which is sort of metaphorical of Walter Trout’s career; never quite what you think but always astonishing.
For a good number of years, Interpol frontman Paul Banks has played around New York under the nom du rocque of Julian Plenti (Julian is his given middle name; we’ll leave Plenti to your imagination) and has finally taken the logical next step and recorded his debut album, Julian Plenti...Is Skyscraper. It’s a great cross between visceral synth Pop (“Only If You Run”, crunching guitar Rock (“Fun That We Have”) and lilting Folk Pop (“Skyscraper”), with an even great range of influences than can typically be found on Interpol albums. Banks has said in the past that he would never try to emulate his influences because he could never measure up, but with his Julian Plenti project he might have sailed as close as he’s ever likely to get to sounding like Frank Black, one of his avowed heros.
Julian Plenti...Is Skyscraper swings like mad when Banks is thrashing away, but in the quieter moments — and there are more than a few — he quivers with that wonderfully restrained Pixies/Black energy, and all of it has the tremulous expanse of a Brian Eno treatment. Interpol fans will clearly line up for the Banks project, but lovers of quirky Pop in general will find Plenti to love here.