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by mbreen 08.19.2011
Posted In: Music Commentary, Music Video, Live Music at 12:00 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)
 
 
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Squeeze the Day for 8/19

Music Tonight: The MidPoint Indie Summer Series on Fountain Square features some of Cincinnati's finest this week. Tonight's free show (7 p.m. start) is headlined by beloved local Indie Pop duo Bad Veins, which recently posted on Facebook that their second full-length is finished and they need extras for a video shoot for one of the new LP's tracks (go here for more info). No word on a release date (or a label — BV and Dangerbird Records, home to the duo's debut, appear to have broken up, removing all reference to each other from their various websites).

Newer Electronic/Rock/Post Punk group Kry Kids and Nashville's The Clutters, featuring keyboardist Andrew Higley, also perform. Higley is a former local musician (now Nashville pro) who remains a frequent collaborator with Cincinnati's The Chocolate Horse, also performing on the Square tonight, just before Bad Veins. The Horse is celebrating its just released new album, Beasts.

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by Brian Penick 06.11.2013
Posted In: Local Music, Music News, Music Commentary at 09:57 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)
 
 
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Guest Blog: Musicians’ Desk Reference, More Specifically

Editor's Note: Brian Penick of local music promotions company The Counter Rhythm Group is guest blogging for CityBeat monthly to provide a behind-the-scenes look at his journey to release his interactive industry guidebook, Musicians’ Desk Reference.

It has been killing me to remain so broad and vague this entire time about what exactly me and my staff have been working on, and while I will attempt to be slightly more specific this time around, I am afraid that you will inevitably be strung along for yet another 30-day span, inching closer to the release this Fall.

If you have been reading these entries (or know me personally), you know I am a musician, and that I have experience touring and working in the music industry for about half of my life. While I do not necessarily claim to be an expert (I believe it requires an extreme longevity with multiple facets of success and even some failure to be given that label), I can tell you that I have an understanding of how the working elements of this business function, and that I have been able to make a career as both a performer and a servicing agent. That being said, my passion (and I do consider myself a passionate person), has become helping others to succeed in this industry through sharing my experiences and knowledge. While competition certainly has its place and can keep you sharp, ultimately we are all in this together, trying to reach a common goal of finding success. The more we work together the better the potential is for any one of us to achieve these goals.

I truly believe Musicians’ Desk Reference is the next step in the evolutionary process to bind us together as a musical community. My overall intention with this project is to level the playing field as much as possible, everywhere from general theories of advancement to the specified documentation that an artist will actually work with. At the end of the day, we hope to unveil the unknown variables that musicians will face and provide the tools and the understanding and put the focus on what matters most: your music.

How do you know if Musisicans’ Desk Reference is something for you? The eBook encompasses several distinct areas of the music business, ranging from the inner workings of just starting out as a musician, down the necessary paths of recording, promoting, touring and eventually building a team of industry professionals to work for you. These topics are based on my own personal experiences as a musician and with operating The Counter Rhythm Group (my music industry promotions company), in addition to many conversations with musicians over time about what topics they are most curious about. Not surprisingly, many of the requests were in the same categories, so in the end the subject matter was not too difficult to choose from.

It is an exciting time for sure, as we are literally in the last two weeks of content creation, working right along schedule with our team of professionals we have amassed to help make the dream a become a reality. 

Looking ahead into the near future, I am excited to announce that we will be conducting some closed focus groups for the content, eventually leading into beta testing a full working version. All preparation is leading up to the release of the final product this Fall, and while I cannot give out too many specifics (sorry!), I can say that it will be a series of events not to be missed. 

I apologize if the bulk of these blogs seem to relate more to the backstory and the generalities of the book rather than the specific content and the process behind the final product, but that is unfortunately the direction that it must take for now. While I have been hit with a wave of positivity from musicians familiar with the project, it is very clear that more explanation is required as to offer insight as to what we are actually doing over here. The process, as that of many servicing professionals, can often feel like a variety of desk jobs that exist in the world, with the obvious exception of working with fantastic clients and the ability to go to shows, travel and be among others with similar interests that are typically awesome. In all honesty, I sit at a desk and work on several computers, monitors and devices, working with my team to create, verify and edit content, hour after hour. It is nothing but work, work, work around here (especially lately), and I would not have it any other way.

 
 
by mbreen 11.10.2008
Posted In: Music Commentary at 04:22 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)
 
 
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I'm Buying A Lottery Ticket (or Going to a Parade)

A while back, a wrote a bit about my experience with "musical ESP." Has it happened to you? You think of a random song, something you haven't heard in years or that would be unlikely to just pop up on the radio, and suddenly it materializes on your radio dial or TV? The experience happens frequently to me. The one that inspired me to write was pretty freaky — out of the blue, I was singing a song by Cincinnat's Bad Veins. Within a half hour, the song came on my Sirius radio (not something to happen to unsigned Cincinnati bands regularly).

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by mbreen 08.22.2011
 
 
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Squeeze the Day for 8/22

Music Tonight: Handsome Furs is the Electro/Post Punk/No Wave project featuring Wolf Parade's Dan Boeckner and his wife, keyboardist and short story author Alexei Perry. On the road supporting its latest release, Sound Kapital (on SubPop), the duo comes to Newport's Southgate House tonight. The Furs aren't fighting for positioning on the Synth Pop bandwagon, nor are they flirting with contemporary Dance music styles, as seems the case with many acts dependent on electronics. Though they hardly sound retro, the Furs have more in common with Suicide, early OMD and the raw Electro experiments that marked the bridging of Joy Division and New Order. Fittingly, Cincinnati's Eat Sugar, another Electronic act forging its own non-pandering vision of tech-driven musical adventurousness, opens up the show at 9 p.m. Tickets are $13 at the door. Read Brian Baker's preview from this week's CityBeat here. Below is Handsome Furs' video for Sound Kapital's "What About Us." WARNING: Unless you work at a Hustler store, this clip is VERY NSFW.

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by Zohair Hussain 10.28.2013
Posted In: Music Commentary, Music History at 02:11 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)
 
 
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All Yesterday's Memories, All Tomorrow's Parties

Remembering Lou Reed

I was a few months shy of 16 when I first heard the lucidly stark voice of Lou Reed stream over the airwaves. I was just another suburban weirdo, looking for a justified rebellion to call his own. I had spent those “formative years” sleeping around with any album loud enough to drown out my inner white noise, moving through a steady stream of Hardcore, Punk, Metal  — if they were screaming it, I was buying it. As it turns out, though, what I was really looking for was a quieter sort of revolution, and at the helm was Mr. Lou Reed, telling me with a frank honesty that there was freedom in the composition. It was, like any great lesson, one I’d come to learn in time.

To say I enjoyed those first striking chords of “Heroin” would be an understatement. It was on a snowy night in 2007, crammed in the back of a friend's Yaris Liftback, when I first heard it. I can’t remember exactly where we were previous to that moment, when that raw melody first came in. All I can remember is how I suddenly became more aware of myself than ever before.

Everything I knew about music, about artistry, about writing — all of it would change with that first overlap of beautiful melody. I was mesmerized, shaken from a stupor of conditioned knowledge and thrown into a concoction of John Cale’s haunting strings with Lou Reed’s candid crooning. By the time Maureen Tucker’s drumming kicked in, sparse in its reverberation, my resolve would be just as stripped, replaced by a wily knot that would take years to untie. Though, right then, the song was just “fucking awesome.”

It would only be years later, waking up to a chilled October morning in 2013, that this memory would even begin to matter. As the headlines would come to read, “Lou Reed Dead at 71,” so, too, would the horizon appear most clearly.

I’ve always been a firm believer in the crossover of influences, the collaboration of mediums in shaping any sort of artistry. As a writer, I can proudly say that the recorded sound has had just as much influence on me as the written word. And when I heard the Velvet Underground for the first time, it became clear that they believed in a similar marriage, affirmed on the morning of Oct. 27. With the news of the passing of a legend came an onslaught of anecdotes from around the arts world, plastered against my computer screen. Amidst the mass of legends, one story stood out in particular.

As according to Rolling Stone, it was 1965, and the first few months of the Velvet Underground playing under their iconic moniker. They had began a residency playing in New York’s Café Bizarre and in the beginning stages of developing their distorted and chaotically composed sound. Management was set on having performers play more contemporary numbers, and warned the band not to play their original composition “Black Angel Death Song.” They went on to perform the number anyway, fit with all the chilling accidentals in its string arrangements, and were fired immediately.

Though they would emerge from that loss victorious (it led to their introduction to Andy Warhol, the man who would come to produce their record and put them on the map of the underground art scene of ‘60s New York), there was something bigger about that moment, something more pressing in my association with it.

Incidentally, “Black Angel Death Song” was the first thing I clicked on Sunday morning when I heard the news of its writer’s passing. The strings were suddenly more haunting, and the story seemed all the more important. It was yet another quintessential moment in the life of Lou Reed, a man who sang with unbridled frankness, who played with unencumbered passion, and who inspired me with the tirelessness of his dedication to honest expression. It transported me back, seven years and a lifetime ago, to that night in December 2007, when I first pricked my ears with another of his songs, that found, all at once, both comfort and chaos within itself. Though I’d spend the lapsed time between 2007 and 2013 finding appreciation for the 40-plus years of Reed’s prolific career — from “Black Angel Death Song” and “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” through “Satellite of Love” and “Pale Blue Eyes” and even up until his Hudson River Wind Meditations — it would always be that compositions that would stay, forever imprinted in my mind.

“Heroin” became, for me, a love song to the in between — it was everything I’d been listening to up until that point and nothing I’d ever heard before; it was the sentimentality of Indie Rock, the calm before the double bass in hardcore, the simplistic, chord interplay of Punk and its cleaner cut cousin Pop. And, at the same time, it was also the recklessness of avant-garde, the soundtrack to the colors of an underground New York I’d only experience in preserved murals and snapshots. It was everything I’d known, and everything I would come to know about music, about art, about sound and about writing.

There are moments that comprise your past, songs that take you to a memory you thought you’d left. And then there are moments that define your future, songs that propel you forward into infinity.

Lou Reed, and what he accomplished before, with and after the Velvet Underground, stood as a symbol for finding freedom in ones composition, and pushing the statements made to work in a fashion of success.

It was a lesson I would learn time and time again in my own work, as I moved through the progression of my writing and my own performance techniques. I would come to face my own obstacles, fight my own battles against normative expectations. And it would be in those times I fell the deepest, my resolve threatening to falter, that this education would come back to me, mysterious in its origins, all the while growing, like a backbone that stood rigid for honest experimentation and freedom in the composition.

Even now, as this mystery’s been unearthed, its inductor put to rest, ahead of me remains miles and miles of still shrouded possibility. But against that wall of lessons I’ll stand, riveted, staring towards the looming unknown. And I’ll try for a different kind of kingdom, if I can.

 
 
by mbreen 04.29.2009
Posted In: Music Commentary at 01:55 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)
 
 
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Music Editor Announces New Recession Pricing Plan

The Internet, ALLEGEDLY, does have more to offer than just porn and “social networking.” The ’Net, for music fans, has been a total blessing, though it has its downside – there’s way more shit online to wade though than there is just skimming through racks at the record store.

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by Jeff Roberson 05.01.2012
Posted In: Festivals, Live Music, Music Commentary, Reviews at 12:45 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)
 
 
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MerleFest 2012: That's a Wrap

April 29 - Super 8 Motel, Wytheville, Va.

Wytheville — pronounced "whiteville," I believe — sits at the cross of I-77 and I-81. Looking down I-81, I used to see Bristol, Tenn., and think of that time in 1927 when The Cater Family and Jimmie Rodgers separately met a rep from the Victor Talking Machine Company and recorded a couple of songs. They got paid about $100. Lot's changed since then, though the pay's about the same. These days when I look down towards Bristol I see a redneck deputy hauling a longed haired songwriter off to jail for the crime of relieving himself behind a bush. In 1981, that cost $25. There use to be a great BBQ joint in Wytheville. It's gone. too. They had the best fried chicken and blackberry cobbler.

I guess everyone wore themselves out Saturday as no one stayed up past midnight to talk or jam or whatever. On Sunday morning, with a solid six hours of sleep, I was up and drenched in coffee by 8 a.m. I packed up camp and planned what was left of my MerleFest weekend. I like to get going, so it was an easy morning and I headed out to the Traditional Tent for some Shape Note Singing with Laura Boosinger.

I misidentified this a few days ago as Sacred Heart singing. The idea is the same — using shapes for notes instead of notes on a musical staff. Sacred Heart uses four notes. Shape Note uses seven. The workshop I attended was about those seven notes and how to sing them. It's pretty straight forward — anyone who's ever seen The Sound of Music and sang "Do Re Mi" will get the idea. "Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti" — each note has a particular shape attached to it and you sing that note when you see that shape. Laura talks about the history of Congregational singing, why they use shapes (people actually patented musical notation at one time) and how Sacred Heart differs from Shaped Note contextually, historically and regionally. Pretty cool stuff, even if the Traditional Tent smells like a barn and is now filled with flies. Laura is also really funny, cracking denominational jokes that the churchgoers find hilarious. I don't get them.

My interest in Sacred Heart/Shaped Note singing came when I wandered into a church one Sunday morning 30 or so years ago. I was wandering around northern Alabama on a motorcycle making my way to the Natchez Trace and then south to New Orleans when I stopped for a breather and cool air beneath a tree. I heard the singing as soon as my head stopped rattling. I slipped inside the outer part of a church and heard the most glorious harmonies — not sweet or beautiful, but primitive and inspiring.

In Shape Note, everyone is singing to the pitch the lead singer has identified. There is no piano, no organ, no hip dude playing guitar, only imperfect humans looking for the most comfortable place for their voice to sing. Your split into four groups depending on your vocal range  — altos (includes sopranos), tenors, bass (includes baritones) and leads (anyone who can't but follow the melody regardless of range). I go to the bass group. Each group has a different part to sing — the altos, basses and tenors all singing a harmony part and the leads singing the melody. When it all comes together it unifies the same way most old time music does. It's wondrous and miraculous; if there is a place where God exists, it is inside the dissonance that has congealed into a thing so coherent and beautiful that any existence of God outside of it becomes marginal and meaningless.

I leave the Traditional Tent invigorated and inspired and head back to camp to pack the van. Everything packed and lunch consumed, I head back to the Traditional Tent for one last show before heading home — "Women Singing Traditional Music." On stage are women ages 20 -70, including hosts Carol Rifkin and Gaye Johnson, Brooke Buckner, Laura Boosinger, Joan Wernick, Tara Nevins (Donna the Buffalo), Kim McWhirter and Gailanne Amundsen (Jubal's Kin). All give outstanding performances, but Kim McWhirter brings the house down with a moving version of the Dolly Parton song "Crippled Bird" (which in turn is based on an English Broadside) sung in a sweet mountain lilt and strummed sparingly on guitar.

A wonderful to finish to a great MerleFest.

Addendum
MerleFest is so much more then one guy can write about, no matter how much he tries. I like what I like — new bands and rediscovering old favorites. In addition to what I see and hear, there are workshops on everything from clawhammer banjo to dulcimer playing, a kids stage and activities, open mics, sitting and picking, indoor concerts, food, vendors galore. It is amazing how much music and activity the organizers pack into one day (and then clean it all up and do it again).

A lot of people stream in mid-afternoon for the nighttime concert. As mentioned, these always feature name acts. I am most fortunate to be able to tag along with my sister, help her in her booth and receive onsite camping privileges in exchange. By 8 p.m., I'm pretty exhausted and looking forward to reading under the remaining light and then laying back and hearing what's on the main stage.

This year they had some good acts. Thursday night the very humble and talented (and maybe the last real Country act standing in Nashville) Vince Gill had a fine set. Saturday I was fortunate to hear Derek Trucks take Sam Bush and his band to school on how to play melodious improvisation on the Clapton tune "Bell Bottom Blues." Derek Trucks is the living heir on slide guitar to the dead-to-early Duane Allman and he has unquestionably extended that legacy way past a wink and a nod and into something quite imaginative and bold. His wife Susan Tedeschi joined them on The Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" and hit all the backing vocal parts with soul.

Later that night, Trucks and Tedeschi helped Los Lobos to new heights on a cover of the Grateful Dead's "Bertha." They sounded like they were having a blast, and my noisy camp neighbors confirmed as much the next morning as they were on stage watching the whole thing go down. Unfortunately, I slept through most of Los Lobos set and the Tedeschi/Trucks set Saturday night, though I caught the first few songs, and they sounded quite excellent. Good sleeping music — that's a compliment!

View Jeff Roberson's photos from MerleFest 2012 here.

 
 
by Mike Breen 03.05.2013
Posted In: Music Video, Music Commentary at 12:24 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)
 
 
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The Funniest Video You'll See Today

An inside look into The Postal Service's early auditions, courtesy of Funny or Die

Though so far the closest it'll get to Cincinnati is Columbus, Ohio's LC Pavilion (June 8), the reunion tour for Platinum-selling Electronic Pop duo The Postal Service continues to add dates. While you anxiously await news of any shows closer to your hometown, you can sneak a peak at some recently unearthed footage of Jimmy Tamborello auditioning members for his new band. Members of Foo Fighters, Helmet and blink-182 apparently were among those who failed their try-outs. (Spoiler alert: Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie gets the job.)


 
 
by Mike Breen 09.26.2012
Posted In: Music Commentary, Free Download, Music News at 03:31 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)
 
 
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LISTEN: Mitt Romney Made U a Mixtape

Give a listen to the likely songs our unlikely next president jamz out to

The PR folks working with covert comedic organization Team Coco sent over a press release this afternoon that also included "Mitt Romney's Fave Tunez," an Rdio-made, embed-ready playlist featuring the Mittster's favorite jamz.

Here's a snippet from the release:

During the heat of the current presidential election, you can always count on Team Coco to keep those LOLs and ROFLs alive and well. For its  weekly Rdio mixtape, Team Coco has procured the perfect songs for a Mitt Romney playlist. Featuring tracks such as Money, Money, Money, Polygamy Blues, I Gotsta Get Paid and many more, this playlist is sure to get anyone’s Romney on.
Enjoy! Well, most of you. Forty-seven % of you can go fuck yourselves find something productive to do for once.



UPDATED: The original post included a press release that was sent out unintentionally. The post has been corrected with the proper release quote.
 
 
by Brian Baker 05.01.2015
Posted In: Music News, Music Commentary, New Releases at 12:40 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)
 
 
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Musicians Pay Tribute to Influential, Gone-to-Soon Singer/Songwriters

Remembering Elliott Smith and Jason Molina as they get the full-album tribute treatment on a pair of recent releases

Tribute albums are typically divided into three categories. They’re either a) bankable artists covering high profile subjects (or, infrequently, famously known cult figures); b) cool/respected artists covering cool/respected artists; or c) some weird hybrid of the first two. 

Two recently released tributes fall squarely in the second category, with Avett Brothers frontman Seth Avett and rising Americana/Rock vocalist Jessica Lea Mayfield taking a quietly beautiful stroll through a sampling of Elliott Smith's exquisite catalog on Sing Elliott Smith, and Frames frontman and solo artist in his own right Glen Hansard honoring his great hero and friend Jason Molina on It Was Triumph We Once Proposed: Songs of Jason Molina, which was available last month.


There are odd connections between the two projects. In the general point of interest sense, both are posthumous tributes. Smith died in 2003, apparently by his own hand, and Molina succumbed in 2013 after a long battle with alcoholism. And on a more personal level, by the sheerest of coincidences, I've interviewed both of the subjects of these two tributes.


Back in 2000, I spoke with Smith while he was still touring on Figure 8, which had come out earlier that year. And in 2003, I was assigned a feature on Songs: Ohia, fronted and braintrusted by Molina, who had just finished an album he titled The Magnolia Electric Co., which marked the end of Songs: Ohia and the shift to the band named after his new album. Both were fascinating and heartfelt conversations with artists who were amazingly self aware but not at all self absorbed, quietly brilliant songwriters who had an almost pathological need to extract their musical impulses from the dark well of their ultimately troubled souls.


Hansard — who came to prominence as the voice, guitarist and primary songwriter for Irish Rock band The Frames before establishing a side project (Swell Season) and solo career and hitting semi-big with the movie Once and his soundtrack, featuring the Academy Award-winning hit "Falling Slowly" — was so inspired by Molina's deeply emotional and confessional songcraft that the first fan letter he ever sent to a fellow artist was to Molina. Back in 2005, two years after I'd interviewed Molina, I had the rare opportunity to witness the pair's personal and professional bond firsthand.


At my second South by Southwest experience, I followed former The Onion music editor Stephen Thompson to see a Frames appearance at one of Austin's innumerable daytime parties. Stephen was a huge Frames fan and the band knew him well; he had done enough to help expose the band to American audiences that they thanked him in the liner notes to Burn the Maps.


When we arrived at the venue, the band members were wandering through the crowd just prior to their set and Stephen made a beeline for them. He introduced me to The Frames, but there was a dark, diminutive and somewhat familiar presence in the circle who was clearly with the band but not as a member. Glen Hansard spoke up, in his pudding thick Irish brogue, and said, "This is Jason Molina."


I shook his hand and reminded him of our phone conversation and the Rockpile feature two years previous. He greeted me warmly and we talked about what we'd seen at the festival to that point and what we hoped to see going forward. We spent a good 10 minutes in this convivial manner, right up until The Frames took the stage and were announced. After that, his unwavering focus was on the band; he watched and listened as though he was occupying the front pew in church during a sermon he knew for an absolute fact would change his life for the better. He stood in rapt attention, soaking in every word, every note and every nuance and with good reason — The Frames were a mesmerizing live force back then.


At the set's conclusion, Molina immediately swiveled toward me and we exchanged jaw-dropped exclamations of disbelief. Within a few minutes, Hansard made his way to Molina's side and the two began critiquing the performance, Hansard pointing out the flaws and Molina categorically dismissing them. I laughingly thought to myself as I headed to the door and the next party, I'll bet their roles will be diametrically reversed when Magnolia Electric Co., the band that Songs: Ohia had morphed into, plays later this week and Hansard is the fan in the front row. It reminded me of something Molina had said regarding the fact that he was already thinking past the album he had just finished. 


"I can do better," he said without hesitation. "My next one, I'm already sweating it. Since the day I walked out of the studio, I've been working on the next one. I don't feel like this one failed, but I'm still looking for the better one."


I thought about Hansard's face as it must have looked while he watched Molina's appearance in Austin, Texas, a decade ago, and imagined the sadder but equally beatific visage he must have exhibited in the studio as he was translating the five tracks that comprise It Was Triumph We Once Proposed. This brief and beautifully executed EP serves a similar purpose as Hansard's distant but never forgotten fan letter, as he pays loving tribute to his long personal friendship with Molina and to the work that first illuminated his immense talents to the world.


Hansard assembled a group of longtime Songs: Ohia/Magnolia Electric Co. collaborators/friends to record a heartbreaking quintet of Molina compositions, all Songs: Ohia tracks and all lending themselves perfectly to Hansard's passionate and sensitively wrought translation. Molina often worked at the creative intersection of Leonard Cohen and Neil Young, and Hansard taps into that shivery vibe with a true fan's boundless devotion and a true friend's immeasurable grief. On the one-two punch of the powerfully poignant "Being in Love" and the achingly beautiful "Hold On, Magnolia," Hansard illuminates the raw, wrenching wisdom of lines like, ”We are proof that the heart is a risky fuel to burn," and the prescient "You might be holding the last light I see before the dark finally gets ahold of me." And just like Molina's life and amazing musical output, Hansard's It Was Triumph We Once Proposed is both immensely satisfying and far too short.



The other contender for Most Amazing and Deserved Tribute of the Year is Seth Avett and Jessica Lea Mayfield's Sing Elliott Smith, a (relatively) spare and loving bow to one of this generation's most insightful and contemplative songwriters. After his shredding turn with Portland’s Heatmiser, Smith turned down the volume for his home-recorded solo debut, Roman Candle, which was followed by his equally nuanced eponymous sophomore album and then the jewel in his crown, 1998's Either/Or, which director Gus Van Zant cherry-picked for his soundtrack to his masterpiece Good Will Hunting. Smith scored an Academy Award nomination for his song "Miss Misery," and the success of the soundtrack and his almost uncomfortably vulnerable performance at the Oscars vaulted him into a spotlight that he never actively pursued.


By the time of our 2000 interview, Smith had managed to come to uneasy terms with the maelstrom of fame that resulted from Good Will Hunting and Either/Or's tangential success. It had required him to think about his work in pedestrian ways, to explain it in a fashion that would be understandable to people with little understanding.


But through it all, Smith remained true to his own process, trusting that, regardless of outside opinions, expectations or interests, he continued to create the kind of music he wanted to hear in the manner that he wanted to create it. And he knew that, no matter how much anyone involved in his career wanted him to pull Either/Or 2 out of his magician's hat, the only thing that would truly satisfy his artistic nature would be to create what came out of him organically, without being conjured or forced.


"I don't think it was on my mind," Smith said about making the Beatlesque Figure 8 in the wake of major-label debut XO, Either/Or and Good Will Hunting. "I was just making up songs the way I always do. I mean, it was never going to sell millions of copies, so there wasn't that kind of pressure."


That may well be why Sing Elliott Smith is so incredibly successful as a tribute. Smith's songbook is among the most revered in contemporary music and the acclaim that has been lavished on Avett and Mayfield since their debuts is both effusive and deserved. Given all that, there's little risk involved at any level of this project.


The blending of the two principals' voices was the only unknown and that particular question mark is definitely straightened into a boldface exclamation point with Avett and Mayfield's brilliant opening duet on Either/Or's "Between the Bars." Avett's stylistic path from Punk provocateur to rootsy Americana troubadour to genre melding alchemist is a pretty fair match to Smith's own journey, and Mayfield's weary optimism lines up well with Smith's gloomy hopefulness. Together, Avett and Mayfield are the perfect translators for Smith's hushed (and not so hushed) odes to the anguish and bittersweet joy of love and modern life and they coalesce almost effortlessly on brilliant lines like, "Nothing's gonna drag me down/To a death that's not worth cheating." 



It's moments like that one from "Baby Britain" that make Sing Elliott Smith resonate so clearly from start to finish. It's particularly poignant when Mayfield takes the lead on "A Fond Farewell" — from the album Smith was working on at the time of his death, released posthumously as From a Basement on the Hill — and she sings words that seem so startlingly prescient coming so close to Smith's sad end; "A little less than a happy heart/A little less than a suicide/The only thing that you really tried/This is not my life, it's just a fond farewell to a friend/It's not what I'm like, it's just a fond farewell to a friend/Who couldn't get things right."


Avett and Mayfield offer a broad core sample of Smith's amazing catalog (only 1995's self-titled sophomore album isn't represented), and the pair's affinity for and love of their subject's work is evident in every trembling note and emotional lyric. At almost 37 minutes, Sing Elliott Smith is a full album but it feels impossibly short and is over well before the listener is ready for it to be done. If ever there was a release that warranted the often-dreaded subtitle of Volume 2, it would be Sing Elliott Smith.


It seems only proper that the final words in this piece should be reserved for the subjects of these two tributes. First, an interesting comment from Jason Molina about his songwriting process led to a philosophical statement about his musical belief system.


"I almost write the music at the same time I'm trying to think of who could best put this onto tape, and that goes right down to the engineer," he noted. "Maybe it's a cowardly way to work because I don't take all of the burden onto myself, but ego should never be part of the music."


And finally, Elliott Smith addressed the media's tendency to label him as "melancholy," which morphed into an explanation of the simple reality that labels have tried to manipulate and contradict throughout their long and checkered histories.


"As soon as someone calls you a songwriter, you automatically get the melancholy tag," Smith admitted. “Also, 'Why aren't you playing dance music?' and 'Why are your songs so sad?' They're just clichés. If it wasn't those, it would be different ones. You can't always expect people to relate. There are all kinds of people, and some people understand each other and some people don't. NSYNC sells nine million records, so there's nine million people that can relate, and I'm not one of them. So even if you sell millions and millions of albums, there's always going to be somebody who doesn't get it. If you want to be creative and do what you do, it's going to be kind of idiosyncratic."


Long live the idiosyncratic artist, and the memories of those who left us way before their creative dreams were fulfilled.


 
 

 

 

 
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