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Peter Gabriel, Juliana Hatfield, Story of the Year and More

By Brian Baker · February 22nd, 2010 · I Shall Be Released
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My wife and daughter survived their weekend together while I was howling at the Michigan moon on my own, thereby negating any opportunity on my part to relate potentially wild tales of their hammer-and-tong battles. I was afraid I'd be returning to a combination of the Donner pass and the Overlook Hotel, but my periodic phone checks proved that their weekend was turning out to be largely uneventful, which made my weekend considerably more relaxed.

In spite of previous predictions to anyone who would listen — and several who weren’t even paying attention — I did not wind up piss-pants drunk at any point during my festivities. I caught up with a good many friends I hadn’t seen in close to two years, had lunch and spent an afternoon with my son and his partner and just generally chilled. Beer was certainly on hand, and I drank plenty but never to the excess I'd half expected to achieve, considering the massive pressure I had experienced for the two weeks prior to leaving.

I even did a little work, making contact with a record store owner in Lansing to talk with him about doing a feature on his store for one of my freelance publications. He was jazzed, I told him I’d call within the next couple of weeks and took a few photos to accompany the piece. Work, fun and no hangovers — could this be a harbinger of actual adulthood? It seems unlikely, but possible. Time will tell, I suppose.

And with my return to the Bunker, a bit of the pressure returns as well. I’ve taken on a couple of fresh features that will require research and questions for interviews and I’m cranking to get back on a regularish schedule. I had hoped to get this posting done last week before jetting out of here, but that proved to be slightly more ambitious than I was able to manage in the timeframe and with the workload I had. I’ll write until the weekend catches up to me (I was never in bed before 4 a.m. and never slept past 9 a.m.) and then start again in the morning. However it got done, it awaits your perusal below.

Throughout Peter Gabriel’s long career — first as the much camouflaged frontman and creative catalyst for Genesis and then in his often groundbreaking solo work — he’s been considered one of Rock’s most startlingly original artists. Whether penning elaborately plotted and executed suites and Rock operas (“The Return of the Giant Hogweed,” The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway) or reordering ideas on Pop music and its accompanying videos (“Sledgehammer,” “Big Time”), Gabriel has always been among the leaders in an industry that often succeeds by way of pack behavior. That’s why it might seem strange to think of him covering other artists’ material across an entire album, as he does on his latest, Scratch My Back. Strange until you hear it, of course.

Gabriel’s genius is revealed at every level on Scratch My Back, from the artists he chooses to cover (Elbow, Bon Iver, Arcade Fire, Magnetic Fields, Regina Spektor) to his offbeat song choices from more conventional artists (Talking Heads’ “Listening Wind,” Lou Reed’s “The Power of the Heart”) to the manner in which he reconstructs all of these songs to suit his concept. Original versions are all but abandoned as Gabriel (with help from former Durutti Column contributor John Metcalfe, veteran producer Bob Ezrin and producer/engineer Tchad Blake) interprets his covers from the ground up, rearranging the music for piano and orchestra (no guitars or drums) and completely retooling the vocal melodies to craft a collection of songs that bear the loosest resemblance to the original tracks.

Stripped of its bouncy soundtrack, Paul Simon’s “The Boy in the Bubble” exudes a good deal more emotional resonance, “Power of the Heart” proves to be one of Lou Reed’s most tremulously effecting love songs and the Arcade Fire’s “My Body Is a Cage” is a quietly swelling revelation. Gabriel leaves Magnetic Fields’ “The Book of Love“ and Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” largely intact, deciding not to tinker with perfection and merely adapting the songs to his orchestral purpose.

Scratch My Back may be Gabriel’s most impressive solo accomplishment simply because it’s an album that reinforces his originality through his vision of other artists’ work.

With Art Brut, Eddie Argos has had a lark tearing through an early New Wave soundtrack that nods toward the nervous Pop energy of XTC, Wire and Talking Heads, with the lyric recitation format of the Blue Aeroplanes, all of it teetering on the brink of affectionate parody.

After the serious fun of last year’s Art Brut vs. Satan, Argos wrote a batch of songs that seemed even too high concept for his primary outlet, so he teamed up with Blood Arms vocalist/keyboardist Dyan Valdes and formed a cool side project called Everybody Was in the French Resistance...Now!, and set to work on crafting the songs that comprise the duo’s debut album, Fixin’ the Charts Volume 1.

The main thrust of Fixin’ the Charts is that Argos has written a dozen tracks that serve as responses to existing hits, a good many considered Pop classics. Some hardly need explanation — “Billie’s Genes” is an angry face to face diatribe against the father who denies paternity in Michael Jackson’s smash hit (“My mother always told me, you, not me, were the mistake …”), “G.I.R.L.F.R.E.N. (You Know I’ve Got A)” is a blistering rebuke of famed boyfriend stealer Avril Lavigne, “Creeque Allies” reimagines the Mamas and the Papas’ self-referential hit about their early days by turning it into a history of the French underground during World War II and “He’s a “Rebel”” exposes the bad boy of the original as a swaggering pretender.

The songs are all wonderfully assembled and laser targeted, as Argos sneers his spoken word lyrics to deflate the puffed up narrators of some of the Pop world’s most famous hits. Musically, Fixin’ the Charts is all over the Pop map, with blasts of Motown horns, skittering New Wave keyboards, chunky ’70s guitar, ’60s girl group harmonies and leads. Sometimes the stylistic adventures are conceptually appropriate but often they just to serve the song at hand, not necessarily the original that it’s answering (“Coal Digger” is a fantastic ’60s Soul rave-up that addresses Kanye West’s “Gold Digger”).

Fixin’ the Charts is a brilliant lark, and if you’re already an Art Brut fan, Eddie Argos’ latest romp as Everybody Was in the French Resistance...Now! is an absolute necessity. The “Volume 1” tag on the album is a tantalizing hint that Argos has another set of similarly themed tunes in the wings. Here’s hoping.

There are any number of perils involved with hanging around in the music industry for too long. There is the possibility of running out of ideas and either presenting inferior work or recycling old songs into new ones. There’s the distinct danger that even really good work by a longstanding artist will be devalued for no better reason than their longevity and the sheer volume of work produced. And there is always the very real possibility that the theoretical artist in question might just drop a legitimate stinker.

All these scenarios have proven largely true for Juliana Hatfield in recent years (although she’s never really inflicted a bomb on her fans), here at the close of her two-decade run, beginning with her debut as an indie darling with Blake Babies in the late ’80s and continuing with her erratic but generally satisfying solo career and intermittent work with Some Girls.

In favor of the general industry wringer she’s been shoved through over the years, Hatfield decided to rely on no one but herself for her latest album, Peace & Love, writing and recording everything at home and releasing the album on her own Ye Olde label. Some songs, like the opening title track, “Butterflies” and “Faith in Our Friends,” quiver with a stripped back acoustic guitar/vocal demo quality, allowing the emotion of the songs to provide the impact. Others are more fleshed out affairs, with Hatfield offering some nice piano atmospherics (as on the absolutely perfect Pop of “Why Can’t We Love Each Other”) and electric guitar punch (the sinewy lines and understated power of “Unsung” and “Evan,” her heartfelt ballad to Mr. Dando).

All of this works on Peace & Love for a couple of critical reasons; first, Hatfield invests these bedroom songs with the same heart and soul that she’s poured into her best work over the past 20 years and, second and perhaps most importantly, these songs easily stand with the best songs in Hatfield’s already impressive catalog. It may not be the biggest selling or most highly profiled album in Juliana Hatfield’s career, but Peace & Love may be her most personally satisfying and intimately beautiful work to date.

2002 served as a big turning point for heavy, post-Hardcore St, Louis quintet Story of the Year, after toiling away in front of a respectable local fan base for seven years as Big Blue Monkey. The band’s EP, Story of the Year, became its name when the members found they weren’t the only Big Blue Monkey. With the name change, drummer Dan Marsala stepped into the frontman role, three members were replaced and the reconstituted group signed to Maverick Records for their charting major label debut, Page Avenue, and ubiquitous first single “Until the Day I Die.”

Since then, the going has been a bit rougher. SOTY’s 2005 sophomore album, In the Wake of Determination, did less well, Maverick folded and Warner Brothers didn’t pick up the band’s option.

Lesser bands might have been done in by that much drama at once, but SOTY drew on the resolve that kept them going as a local band for so long, signed with Epitaph and retooled their approach for 2008’s The Black Swan, a more melodic spin on their heavy sound. SOTY continues down that path on their fourth studio album and second for Epitaph, The Constant.

While there is a certain radio friendliness to The Constant, as evidenced by the easy Pop melodicism of “I’m Alive,” the album’s first single, and “Remember a Time,” heavier fare like the brutal “To the Burial” shows SOTY donning their Emocore camouflage and channeling their inner Black Sabbath. At the same time, songs like “The Children Sing” and “The Dream is Over” seem to split the difference between the two not-so-extremes. SOTY’s new expansive perspective is exhibited in the piano balladry of “Holding On To You,” clearly showing the band’s blossoming maturity and diversity.

Story of the Year has already proven its ability to handle great success and great adversity with equal grace and The Constant, in title and execution, is a perfect example of the band’s ethic and creativity.

Not long ago, Joe Pugliese had an epiphany before embarking on his senior year as a budding playwright at the University of North Carolina. Recognizing a deep dissatisfaction with his life, Pug (as he came to call himself) took a bold step, left school and headed for Chicago to work as a carpenter and revisit the guitar he hadn’t played since well before college. Cribbing ideas from a play he’d been writing, Pug assembled a handful of songs and recorded his debut EP, Nation of Heat, during guerilla nighttime sessions in a Chicago studio where a friend smuggled him in to fill canceled bookings.

Nation of Heat generated a big local buzz (based in part on Pug’s brilliant strategy of handing out free two-song samplers to introduce himself to his future fanbase) which led to sold-out gigs at home and invitations to open some high profile tours for the likes of Steve Earle, Josh Ritter and M. Ward.

After the promise of Nation of Heat, Pug delivers the guarantee of Messenger, his full-length debut. It’s not hard to see why critics have compared Pug to John Prine (another brilliant singer/songwriter who found his voice in Chicago) and Bob Dylan (naturally), particularly in the stripped emotional simplicity of “Disguised as Someone Else,” “How Good You Are” and “Unsophisticated Heart,” and Pug’s bitter anti-war ode, “Bury Me Far (From My Uniform),” which has the social import that has defined Steve Earle in the latter half of his career.

But with muscular electric arrangements on “Speak Plainly, Diana” and the title track, and a good many of his sparsely arranged acoustic tracks, Pug shows the self-conscious swagger and observational focus of Freedy Johnston, the naked honesty of Warren Zevon and the raw emotion of Patterson Hood. With Messenger, Joe Pug has displayed the full measure of his gifts and proved that he could be the kind of artist people talk about 30 years down the line.


 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
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