December 15, 2009

Song of the decade - Josh Ritter's Thin Blue Flame

There are a zillion posts and articles out there expounding on the best this and that of the decade, and personally I don't give two wits about most of them. But I do feel it's necessary to offer my two cents on Song of the Decade. At first I was leaning toward Bruce Springsteen's "My City of Ruins" because of its connection to Sept. 11, 2001, which I believe set the tone for the entire decade. The words, which start off decrying a ravaged city, ends up imploring people to rise up. The Boss sang it on national TV during the telethon to help the victims of 9/11 and its meaning struck a nerve even though the song, actually written in 2000, wasn't penned with the terrorist attacks in mind.
But a second song, by Josh Ritter, called "Thin Blue Flame" – from his album "The Animal Years" released in 2006 – takes those same sentiments and unleashes emotions so deep it even surpasses Springsteen's song. Ritter alternately spits out horrific evil in the world and also its beauty, as if he can't figure out which is more powerful.
In my review of the album in Modern Acoustic (Issue No. 8, Jan. 2006), I wrote this about "Thin Blue Flame": "It's a massive collection of lyrical images, each one you hear for a split second before the next one comes along. The song seems to see-saw between political darkness – Borders soft with refugees/Streets a'swimming with amputees/It's a Bible or a bullet they put over your heart/It's getting harder and harder to tell them apart – and dreamy hopefulness – The straight of the highway and the scattered out hearts/They were coming together they pulling apart/And/angels everywhere were in my midst/In the ones that I loved in the ones that I kissed. All the while the music builds to a dirge-like crescendo and then dissipates to quiet gentleness – solo electric guitar then squalling guitar, bass, piano – and back again. The song clocks in at an unheard of singer-songwriter 9 minutes and 38 seconds, ending in one last crescendo, then to feedback fading to oblivion. It leaves the listener breathless, trying to figure out just what hit them."
And that was just after a few listens. Hundreds of listens and years later, the words – all 372 of them – are still chilling. Questions about religion, politics, God, beauty, heaven and hell. Who are we as human beings, and what can we believe in? All thrown up in the air after 9/11, and with a president who seeked revenge over understanding.
All the while the music is peaceful then chaotic, then peaceful and chaotic again – it's a rollercoaster ride of emotion. And in the end, Josh singing "Only a full house gonna have a prayer," telling us family and togetherness makes us whole. In the end, he's shouting it over the full-on instrumental dirge of guitar, piano, bass and drums.
I can't think of another song that hits you in the gut and makes you think at the same time.
Listen and download the song HERE.

The complete lyrics to Josh Ritter's "Thin Blue Flame"
I became a thin blue flame
Polished on a mountain range
And over hills and fields I flew
Wrapped up in a royal blue
I flew over Royal City last night
A bullfighter on the horns of a new moon's light
Caesar's ghost I saw the war-time tides
The prince of Denmark's father's still and quiet
And the whole world was looking to get drowned
Trees were a fist shaking themselves at the clouds
I looked over curtains and it was then that I knew
Only a full house gonna make it through

I became a thin blue wire
That held the world above the fire
And so it was I saw behind
Heaven's just a thin blue line
If God's up there he's in a cold dark room
The heavenly host are just the cold dark moons
He bent down and made the world in seven days
And ever since he's been a'walking away
Mixing with nitrogen in lonely holes
Where neither seraphim or raindrops go
I see an old man wandering the halls alone
Only a full house gonna make a home

I became a thin blue stream
The smoke between asleep and dreams
And in that clear blue undertow
I saw Royal City far below
Borders soft with refugees
Streets a'swimming with amputees
It's a Bible or a bullet they put over your heart
It's getting harder and harder to tell them apart
Days are nights and the nights are long
Beating hearts blossom into walking bombs
And those still looking in the clear blue sky for a sign
Get missiles from so high they might as well be divine
Now the wolves are howling at our door
Singing bout vengeance like it's the joy of the Lord
Bringing justice to the enemies not the other way round
They're guilty when killed and they're killed where they're found
If what's loosed on earth will be loosed up on high
It's a Hell of a Heaven we must go to when we die
Where even Laurel begs Hardy for vengeance please
The fat man is crying on his hands and his knees
Back in the peacetime he caught roses on the stage
Now he twists indecision takes bourbon for rage
Lead pellets peppering aluminum
Halcyon, laudanum and Opium
Sings kiss thee hardy this poisoned cup
His winding sheet is busy winding up
In darkness he looks for the light that has died
But you need faith for the same reasons that it's so hard to find
And this whole thing is headed for a terrible wreck
And like good tragedy that's what we expect
At night I make plans for a city laid down
Like the hips of a girl on the spring covered ground
Spirals and capitals like the twist of a script
Streets named for heroes that could almost exist
The fruit trees of Eden and the gardens that seem
To float like the smoke from a lithium dream
Cedar trees growing in the cool of the squares
The young women walking in the portals of prayer
And the future glass buildings and the past an address
And the weddings in pollen and the wine bottomless
And all wrongs forgotten and all vengeance made right
The suffering verbs put to sleep in the night
The future descending like a bright chandelier
And the world just beginning and the guests in good cheer
In Royal City I fell into a trance
Oh it's hell to believe there ain't a hell of a chance

I woke beneath a clear blue sky
The sun a shout the breeze a sigh
My old hometown and the streets I knew
Were wrapped up in a royal blue
I heard my friends laughing out across the fields
The girls in the gloaming and the birds on the wheel
The raw smell of horses and the warm smell of hay
Cicadas electric in the heat of the day
A run of Three Sisters and the flush of the land
And the lake was a diamond in the valley's hand
The straight of the highway and the scattered out hearts
They were coming together they pulling apart
And angels everywhere were in my midst
In the ones that I loved in the ones that I kissed
I wondered what it was I'd been looking for up above
Heaven is so big there ain't no need to look up
So I stopped looking for royal cities in the air
Only a full house gonna have a prayer

December 11, 2009

Our favorites of 2009

YEAH! Our faves of 2009 (from Modern Acoustic, Issue 27)

“I and Love and You,” the Avett Brothers; “Sea of Tears,” Eilen Jewell. The Avetts’ mountain music has just enough punky attitude. Yes, we realize the band’s sound has been scrubbed a little cleaner than in the past, thanks to legendary producer Rick Rubin, but “I and Love and You” still comes off fresh and exciting, and new to those of us who hadn’t been paying attention before. As for “Sea of Tears,” Eilen’s timeless voice gets backing from some of the most-kickass late-’60s and early-’70s guitar-based sounds from a band who appears to have totally found its groove.
(Read our album reviews: Avetts HERE; Eilen HERE)

“Friend of a Friend,” David Rawlings Machine. Since we’ve been waiting six years, anytime there is new music from Gillian Welch and David Rawlings it is a surprise.
(Read album review HERE; check out Dave’s music HERE)

Regina Spektor blowing the shofar as part of her encore.

Dragonforce guitar player Herman Li (see above)

Big Surprise Tour. We went to see Gillian and David. We also got to hear the Felice Brothers, Old Crow Medicine Show and Justin Townes Earle – all together sharing the stage in one big hoedown. The highlight was a concert-ending full-on version of “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ’n’ Roll).”
(Watch our video HERE; read our CONCERT review HERE).

House of Blues Boston. We have mixed feelings about this. We love small clubs for their intimacy and HOB is a corporate rock club that holds a couple thousand people. But we saw six shows there this year – from Regina’s Spektor’s pin-drop quietude to the jam-rock of Grace Potter -- and the sound was perfect every time. Even when there were nearly 15 musicians on the stage for the Big Surprise Tour, we could hear every instrument and vocal nuance. While you do have to stand most of the time, the sightlines are surprisingly very good. One thing: $6 for a can of Bud? That’s why corporate rock really sucks. A special shoutout to the Palladium in Worcester. We had never been there before and it’s a pretty cool place to see a show. (read our GRACE concert review HERE)

Regina Spektor at the House of Blues, Dragonforce at the Worcester Palladium. Anytime you can experience music with your kids, it’s a good time.
(read our REGINA concert review HERE).

Q. How would you respond to some critics saying that “Inhuman Rampage” is just playing fast at the expense of taste?
Vadim Pruzhanov, Dragonforce keyboard player: We love to shred and shredding is what we do. There are plenty of bands that play mid-tempo power metal whilst looking at their fretboards and not move at all. If it’s too fast, you’re too fucking old! (FROM SAVIORSOFROCK.COM)

The Low Anthem. This R.I. band caught our attention with their song “Charlie Darwin.” We look forward to their next album. (Check out the Low Anthem HERE).

Steve Earle. We’ve known about Steve for a long time. But after seeing him at the Berklee Performance Center, we realized he is the real deal, a folk singer with that political drive to keep going.
(READ OUR concert review HERE; Steve's Music HERE)


Jenny Lewis at House of Blues We knew Jenny had a great voice, but we were amazed that in concert she hits all the notes, whether singing a solo gospel number or fronting her full-tilt rock band. (Read our concert review HERE; check out her music HERE)

The Avett Brothers at the House of Blues We’d heard that seeing these guys live is a different experience than hearing their albums. And it is true. The energy level is ratcheted up to the point where you can’t help but dance. (Read our concert review HERE; check out their music HERE)

Kathleen Edwards at Paradise This was our second time seeing Kathleen. She puts on a great show, stomping around the stage and firing off funny stories about life on the road. (Read our concert review HERE; check out her music HERE)

Eilen Jewell doing Loretta Lynn songs at Lizard Lounge We almost didn’t go to the show, but at the last minute changed our minds. And we’re glad we did. (Read our concert review HERE; check out her
music HERE)

Erin McKeown, “Hundreds of Lions” Erin has a spark, a wit, and a way with songs like no other. Take a listen to “(Put the Fun Back in) the Funeral” and “The Rascal” and try not to smile. (Read our album review HERE; check out her music HERE)

Regina Spektor, “Far” We thought we’d never love a Regina album as much as we did “Begin to Hope.’’ But, lo and behold, “Far” hooked us. It has so many great tunes full of her amazing vocal acrobatics. One listen to “Eet” or “Dance Anthem of the ’ 80s’’ and you’ll be hooked too. (Read our album review HERE; check out her music HERE)

Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson, “Rattlin’ Bones” Kasey is a nationally known folk-pop singer; Shane, her husband, is apparently known mostly in their native Australia. This album, a mix of folk, blues and bluegrass, really stands out for the way their voices meld into one. The best songs -- “Jackson Hole,” “The Devil’s Inside My Head” – are romping tunes filled out with some furious banjo picking. (Read our album review HERE; check out their music HERE)

Issue 27, Dec. 2009

I Survived Dragonforce
We all have have things we have lost tolerance for. Animated kids’ films? No more, thank you. Musical theater? Not unless our kids our in it. Costume parties? No invite necessary.
But it is good occasionally to step outside your comfort zone and take in experiences you don’t consider your style. Sometimes they even surprise you.
A couple of summers ago, we spent a weekend at a jam-band festival. We are not big fans of jam music but we were interested to see if the groovy vibes of the Grateful Dead era that we knew and loved still existed. (They actually do!) Did we come away loving the music? No. But we were more appreciative of the whole scene.
This year we put our mettle to a test by taking our son to a metal concert. Now the metal-est we get is Zeppelin and Hendrix, so this was a real challenge.
The question was not only would our ears be able to take the decibals, but would we be able to tolerate the music and the scene, which has never appealed to us.
So how did it turn out? You’ll have to read all about it in our review, but we will tell you we were pleasantly – and amusingly – surprised.
Something that might not surprise you is that we have picked our favorites for this year and they include albums by Eilen Jewell and the Avett Brothers. We have written about both bands in depth, reviewing both their albums and concerts. It makes us happy just thinking about them.
We had a great time at shows this year, seeing performances by Regina Spektor, Grace Potter, and the Avetts at the House of Blues, Kathleen Edwards at the Paradise, Steve Earle at the Berklee Performance Center, and the metal extravaganza with Dragonforce at the Palladium in Worcester.
Check out our annual list of favorites.
Finally, just in case you hadn’t gotten your complete musical fill from this issue, we offer a review of the new release from – gasp! – Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. It’s actually the first release from David Rawlings, with help from Gillian Welch.
Hey, at least they have finally released something new. And with it, we can slip back into our comfort zone.
Rich Kassirer, editor
To read the full issue, click HERE
To read our review of David Rawlings album, click HERE

MA5 - Songs
Song that helped us survive this issue:
1. “January Wedding,” “I and Love and You,” the Avett Brothers. A wonderful little ditty of a love song.
2. “Long Distance Runaround,” “Fragile,” Yes. Reaching way back to someplace way back in my brain.
3. “To the Dogs or Whoever,” The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter,” Josh Ritter. Still a blast to listen to.
4. “The Rascal,” “Hundreds of Lions,” Erin McKeown. Erin sure knows how to have fun – even when she’s mad!
5. “A Man Needs a Maid/Heart of Gold,” “Live at Massey Hall 1971,” Neil Young. A great solo acoustic version.