Sunday, December 28, 2014

Music I Discovered in 2014: The Songs

Hello, my friendly readers and readerly friends. I've spent this last week (including Christmas) being sick, and being surrounded by other sick people. It didn't make for a very merry Christmas, and I'm pretty sure that it will be an especially quiet New Year's coming later this week. But I am on the upswing, and am pretty optimistic about things getting better soon, health-wise and in other areas as well. It's also my busy time of year for my job, so it's likely that my own music, as usual, will take a backseat to other things for the short term.

In the meantime, I thought I'd share with you some of the more cool/interesting songs I discovered in 2014. Note that I say "discovered"; it doesn't mean that all of these were released in the last year (though most were). One of the wonderful things about music is that you can "discover" a band that hasn't released music in 30 years, but if they're new to you, the joy of getting to know them and their music is equally good. As you'll soon see, my tastes leaning toward independent music of various genres. Basically, almost anything you'd hear on pop radio (or would be acceptable on a show like "American Idol") are things you won't find in my top playlists. Anyway, here are the top 10 tunes that I didn't know about a year ago. This is a song list, so the order is alphabetical by song title.

Syd Arthur - "Autograph" (2014)

If I had to pick one band that I was most excited to find in 2014, it's this group of young and super talented guys out of Canterbury, UK. In as much as I never really like to go out to see or do anything, we had a fantastic time seeing Syd Arthur at the tiny Hotel Cafe in Hollywood last summer. They are a nearly indefinable blend of prog, pop, rock, psychedelia, jazz, and more. I am totally looking forward to their next batch of tunes, whenever it arrives.

Unwound - "Demons Sing Love Songs" (2001)

Here's a great example of finding a terrific "new" band that doesn't exist anymore. Out of Olympia, WA, these people made music together from 1991 until 2002, right after this ultimate album of theirs. And then, another 12 years went by before I'd ever heard of them. This song is ridiculously ahead of its time.

Nicholas Stevenson - "Here I Land" (2014)

I found this UK-based indie singer-songwriter (and, coincidentally, superb visual artist) when my band They Stole My Crayon submitted a song to the "Welcome To Night Vale" podcast. While checking out some of the other artists whose music had been chosen, I immediately gravitated toward this song, and bought it as soon as it was released. Nicholas has a terrific sound that, like most of the music makers on this list, isn't easy to immediately classify.

Fatso Jetson - "Long Deep Breath" (2014)

I'd love to be able to show you this whole song (a clip of it starts at 1:09 above), but the band seems to have only released this split EP on vinyl. Ah well. Fatso Jetson is a hugely influential band in the desert/stoner rock scene, and any new music from them is highly welcomed. We saw them in June at Pappy & Harriet's, and immersing ourselves in this band on an outdoor stage at sunset in the midst of the Mojave was fucking sublime.

Tweedy - "Low Key" (2014)

Jeff Tweedy, of course, was a member of influential alt-country bands Uncle Tupelo and Wilco. This year, he and his son Spencer created a band simply called Tweedy, and I have to say, this particular tune just hit all of the jangly, poppy goodness that I often like in music. It's simple, it's fun, and there's nothing I don't fully enjoy about it.

Heroic Doses - "Reggie, Is It?" (1998)

Here's the oldest entry on this year's list. Yeah, 1998. Making matters even more strange, this Chicago-based band did one album, and as far as I can tell, never did anything again. Somehow, I stumbled onto them, and loved their sound which is at times reminiscent of The Police if they didn't have a narcissistic vocalist. Or any vocalist; most of the tunes on this album are instrumental.

Talk In Tongues - "Still Don't Seem To Care (2014)

This is probably the newest band on my list. They're a psych-rock band based here in Los Angeles, and are so fresh that this single (and a remix of it) is all they've put out so far. I am looking forward to see what else they can do, but this tune is a sweet psych nugget regardless.

Quilt - "Tie Up The Tides" (2014)

A really cool indie psych-folk band out of Boston, I became more impressed with Quilt after I saw them do a couple of live shows, which really highlighted their musicianship and performance skills for me. Great harmonies and strong songs in a modern yet very organic-feeling package that doesn't feel at all contrived or overly hipstery.

Beck - "Waking Light" (2014)

You'll note that few bands on my list are on any kind of major label or are known on a widespread basis. Beck is one exception to that rule, but Beck has always been an exception. It was immediately apparent to me that his 2014 album Morning Phase was a companion piece to his great 2003 album Sea Change, and is simply an amazing piece of studio work. The songs and the sounds are all innovative and outstanding.

Polvo - "The Water Wheel" (2013)

Holy shit... how did I not know about Polvo until this year? I have few regrets in life, really, but I do wish I'd known about this North Carolina-based art/noise rock band previously. No better time than the present; their latest album (released in 2013) is fantastic. I'm not quite sure of their status; they haven't toured since 2011, but they use dissonance and odd timings in ways that appeal to me on many levels.

And a few honorable mentions...

The GOASTT - "Animals" (2014)

I have to admit, if The GOASTT was some random indie band, I'd probably like them even more than I do knowing that it's fronted by Sean Ono Lennon, the son of John and Yoko. As it is, it's very hard not to make comparisons and have certain expectations. I will say that I like what they did on this album quite a lot, and this tune hooked its way into my brain for quite awhile last summer.

Connan Mockasin - "It's Choade My Dear" (2010)

Well, if you want weird, I've got some weird for you. I'm not sure if Connan is a human, an extraterrestrial alien, or some kind of hedgehog, but his album from 2010 that I ran across this year has some moments of extraordinary strangeness.

Foo Fighters - "Subterranean" (2014)

Perhaps the most mainstream band on this entire list, I give the Foos credit because of Sonic Highways, Dave Grohl's spectacular television series on HBO this fall. This is the tune they did in Seattle, and is probably my favorite on the new album (which, while a solid rock outing, isn't nearly as strong as their previous LP Wasting Light which may have been their best).

They Stole My Crayon - "Things Under Trees" (2014)

I should say that I'm certainly not including my own band's only release of the year in some promotional effort on my own behalf. In fact, I had little to do with this song at all, other than performing on it. The lyrics are by my lovely Christina Lee, and the music is by the equally lovely Bunny Knutson. But looking back over the year, I find that I genuinely enjoy this song, and am proud of it despite my relatively small personal contribution toward it. It will be available as part of our debut release coming in mid-2015.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Joe Cocker (1944-2014)

This day was already pretty iffy. I'd spent much of yesterday worrying over my sick teenage son -- he just has a bad cold, but it's a particularly shitty one -- to (not surprisingly) realize I was coming down with the illness as well. I awoke today to a foreboding burning pain in my chest, and throbbing in my eyeballs, and congestion. Yeah, all that fun stuff. And, of course, it's been a pretty depressing week, with last Wednesday's horrifying accident down the street from me on Pacific Coast Highway. Add to all this the stress associated with my absolute busiest time of my work year, and things have not been exactly peachy as of late. And then, my phone rang.

It was Kat, letting me know that Joe Cocker had died of lung cancer at age 70. Ugggggggh! Well, there will be many well-written obituaries about Joe. I'm only here to share a couple of personal observations and interesting factoids that might offer a little perspective on this unusual musician.

1. My parents listened to Joe... a lot
My folks came from the same generation as Joe, born in the early/mid 1940s. And they were hip and cool people. They actually still are, though they're now hip, cool, and old. Anyway, around my house, there was a lot of music playing while I grew up. Beatles (of course), and lots of singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Elton John, and the like. Plenty of soul, including Aretha, Al Green, and Marvin Gaye, and some other varied stuff that ranged from Santana to Burt Bacharach to Beethoven. But two of the big albums on the playlist in my house were Joe Cocker's With a Little Help from My Friends and Mad Dogs & Englishmen. I heard every song on those now-classic albums all the time in my most formative years. I can't but think that Joe was probably a huge influence on me as a musician, as I started playing in 1972 (at age three), when he was still a young and vibrant pop star.

2. Joe was an amazing performer... but not a huge songwriter
There are some many songs associated with Joe... but he didn't write them. Like, any of them. Look at any of his most well-known hits, along with the people who actually composed the tunes:

- "Feeling Alright" (Dave Mason)
- "With a Little Help from My Friends" (John Lennon, Paul McCartney)
- "She Came in Through the Bathroom Window" (John Lennon, Paul McCartney)
- "Delta Lady" (Leon Russell)
- "The Letter" (Wayne Carson Thompson)
- "You Are So Beautiful" (Billy Preston, Dennis Wilson)
- "Up Where We Belong" (Jack Nitzsche, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Will Jennings)
- "You Can Leave Your Hat On" (Randy Newman)
- "Unchain My Heart" (Bobby Sharp, Teddy Powell)

You get the idea. However, while many singers have achieved fame performing other people's songs, there's something very special about Joe. He often did completely different arrangements of the song. This was no cover artist. Listen to his version of "With a Little Help from My Friends", and compare it to the Beatles' original; it's practically an entirely different song (and many would say a superior one, including me). Most of Joe's material was like that. He took great songs, and added something you could never have anticipated from having heard the original version.

3. Who's playing that awesome wailing lead guitar on Joe's "With a Little Help..."?
Why, it's Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page! Jimmy did the session work in the studio, but the most iconic performances of this song were when Joe belted it out live, as per below.

4. Which classic TV series used Joe's version of "With a Little Help..." for its theme song?
That would be "The Wonder Years".

5. A semi-tangential factoid: Joe's version of "The Letter" was originally a one-hit wonder by a group called The Box Tops.
And the singer was a 16-year-old named Alex Chilton, who went on to front the critical favorite power pop band Big Star.

That's all I wanted to say. In a world of auto-tuned soundalikes who use "American Idol" as their standard for what singing is supposed to be like, the world will dearly miss Joe's uniquely soulful vibe.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Vinyl Cafe/Winter Wonderland (12.11.14)

It's been rare, in recent times, that I've done two shows in a week in Second Life. But when gigs like last night's show at Vinyl Cafe come up, you jump on them, and that's what I did. Interestingly, the show itself wasn't even held at Vinyl Cafe, as cool as that would have been. Instead, it was at the special Winter Wonderland area that's shared between Vinyl Cafe and Key West, and let me tell you, it looked terrific. I didn't touch my environment settings, so basically, I was performing in a snowstorm at night... and loving it!

As I typically do, at about two minutes before the start of the show when I had three people in my audience (and two of them were my manager Maali and the venue owner Heavenlei), I got a wee bit antsy. "Where are my peoples?" I asked no one in particular. And, of course, by the time I'd finished a song, there was a nice big crowd of avatars who seemed to be enjoying themselves. All was well. I have to say, I may not play a lot of shows in SL these days, but the venues where I do play are all top-notch, and run by the coolest and most organized people in all of Second Life. It's a pleasure putting on shows at their places.

Vinyl Cafe/Winter Wonderland set list...
Low Key (Tweedy)
Man Of Constant Sorrow (Traditional)
On a Plain (Nirvana)
Broken Day (Zak Claxton)
Shock the Monkey (Peter Gabriel)
Pancho and Lefty (Townes Van Zandt)
Do They Know It's Christmastime? (Band Aid)
Long Time Gone (Crosby Stills & Nash)
Long December (Counting Crows)
California (Joni Mitchell)
You're Like a Cloud (Zak Claxton)
Birds (Neil Young)

Big thanks to all who came out, especially those who helped support my show!
Mavenn Resident, Diana Renoir, Etienne Brando, DupliCat Resident, Brad Domenici, Arturo Martinsyde, Sinful Xubersnak, Sesh Kamachi, Christine Haiku, LolaGoetz Resident, tralee Neox, Monkey Martian, Rusty Seisenbacher, my terrific manager Maali Beck, and Vinyl Cafe head beaver heavenlei Lexenstar!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Islands of New England (12.09.14)

Yes, I know I've been playing less and less shows in Second Life as of late. The reasons are no mystery.

1. As always, SL venues tend to come and go.
2. Less and less of the remaining venues are capable of paying fees for the artists they host (most are "tips only").
3. I refuse to charge some venues a fee, and play at others for no charge. It's an ethical line that I won't cross.
4. Perhaps above and beyond all that, I am in a super busy time of year at work, and also spending what little free time I have working on music for my band They Stole My Crayon.

Put all that together, and you can probably see why my SL show schedule isn't exactly packed. And, to be frank, I'm perfectly okay with that. Doing less shows makes each one a little more special, and I put more thought into my set list, and am also able to introduce more new songs to keep things fresh for my audience. Last night's show at The Islands of New England is a great example. As I've mentioned before, that place is usually packed with people who I consider my good friends in SL. We drew a very nice-sized crowd, and I really enjoyed performing a few tunes in homage to the recent finale of the HBO series "Foo Fighters Sonic Highways".

Getting my show started. Photos and top photo by Kat.

Kat joins me onstage while I perform "Blew The Dust Away" by our band They Stole My Crayon.

My crowd enjoys my Foo Fighters mini-set.

Christmas music? You can get that anywhere... except at a Zak Show. I was there to rock.

Islands of New England set list...
Pink Moon (Nick Drake)
Shame Chamber (Kurt Vile)
Thanks Anyway (Zak Claxton)
*Something from Nothing (Foo Fighters)
*My Hero (Foo Fighters)
*Where Did You Sleep Last Night (Nirvana)
If That's What You're Into (Flight of the Conchords)
Fade Away (Zak Claxton)
Here I Land (Nicholas Stevenson)
*Antiphon (Midlake)
Blew The Dust Away (They Stole My Crayon)
Don't Let It Bring You Down (Neil Young)
You've Got a Friend (Carole King)

*Indicates the first time I've performed this song in SL.

Big, big, big thanks to everyone who came out to my show at The Islands of New England, especially the following folks who helped support the show!
Bigfoot Hendrassen, RoxxyyRoller Resident, BAT8997 Resident, Jeanne Schimmer, Richy Nervous, Spec Toocool, Sesh Kamachi, Kat Claxton, Aurelie Chenaux, TheaDee Resident, hexx Triskaidekaphobia, Sesh Kamachi, my great manager Maali Beck, and most of all, IONE manager and my great friend Christine Haiku!