Thursday, June 25, 2009

Pete Yorn album review

Pete Yorn
Back & Fourth

Last time we heard from Pete Yorn on 2006’s Nightcrawler, he was breaking out the synths right and left, harmonizing with Dixie Chicks and utilizing the drum talent of Dave Grohl. The results were pleasant, but not as memorable as the rootsy hit debut musicforthemorningafter five years prior.

Having completed a trilogy, the Jersey rocker went on a creative tear, making a duets album with Scarlett Johansson (Break Up, due in September) and a noisy Frank Black-produced effort.

For the organic Back & Fourth, he headed to Omaha to record with a band for the first time with Mike Mogis (Bright Eyes, Rilo Kiley) at the helm. The results are wonderful, containing some of Yorn’s most personal lyrics to date.

Emotional album opener “Don’t Wanna Cry” finds the musician in quiet, fragile vocal mode singing about a sad sack who isn’t afraid to show his sensitive side. “Paradise Cove” is breezy ’70s pop, but has a dark undercurrent about feeble summer babes (“when you talk it makes me cringe/you want so bad to have meaning/but you’re empty and draining”). Keeping on the seasonal tip, the reverb drenched “Last Summer” is totally enthralling.

The lush narrative “Social Development Dance” is about unsuccessfully searching for an old flame (“I Googled your name in quotes/got no results”) and later discovering the tragic results.

Meanwhile, “Thinking of You” is pure atmospheric splendor. The steady presence of sweet female backing vocals from Azure Ray’s Orenda Fink adds an inviting dreamy quality, while Jonny Polonsky’s ringing guitar work and former Beck/R.E.M. drummer Joey Waronker helps propel everything nicely.

Q&A with Carbon Leaf's Barry Privett

Here is more from my phone interview with the Carbon Leaf singer:

You did the Belly Up a couple years ago. What do you recall about that gig?
The last time we played there, we had a great show. It was packed, so we were beside ourselves because of that. It’s good when people come out when you’re so far from your main home base. Having people come out and respond to the music is great. We actually recorded that show. It was a fun night.

For someone who’s never seen Carbon Leaf live, how would you describe a typical show? Do you tend to extend the songs out more?
We do, on ones that make sense anyway. We try to get the audience participating and connect on a live level – not just play through the songs as they are. A lot of guys in the band are really able to pop off. We can expand the songs a little bit. Maybe it’s different that what you hear on the album.

Are there certain areas of the country where you have pockets of really devoted fans?
It’s funny. You go to different areas and there is a different collective mindset it seems sometimes with crowds. Like in Burlington, VA or Chapel Hill, NC, they listen to the music in a different way than maybe people in St. Louis. Everyone’s digging it, but there’s a different kind of focus. There are some cities where people are just more unhinged and it’s this wild show. Then other places you’ve got people watching intently what we are doing onstage. It makes it a cool thing for us and informs us how we should change the set list, things like that. Any place that’s got people in it is good enough for me [laughs].

How has it been working with a new bassist and drummer live?
We’ve already started to write some and look forward to getting back in the studio with the new dynamic. As far as live goes, it’s been terrific. We spent 3 or 4 months just bringing everybody up to speed with the 80 or whatever songs we’ve got. John was good to come in and learn all the bass and vocal parts we dumped off on him. That was the priority – to get the live show up and running. Now we’re looking forward to writing new stuff.

When you were writing the lyrics on 'Woman,' did you find yourself gravitating toward subjects such as home life and women as opposed to the darker themes on the last album (“The War Was is Color,” for example)?
The title of ‘Love Loss Hope Repeat’ was tongue in cheek, but there was a lot of relationship things. I was fresh off one going into the album so it kind of added an urgency. ‘War’ was an intense song that almost didn’t make it on that record, but I’m glad it did.

My favorites on the new album are the ones with chiming, jangly guitars like “Lake of Silver Bells” and “Snowfall Music” with its gorgeous buildup and picturesque lyrics.
Yeah, there’s definitely some stuff with more levity to it.

Do you think those particular songs show how the band’s sound has progressed?
I don’t know. The guys all write from different places, which is good for us. We can have an album that’s got a lot of different influences rolling around. We don’t want to assign ourselves to any one sound, but it’s cool when you have songs like those that sound different from what you’ve done, that we can add to our pallet of stuff. Luckily our fans let us get away with that and it’s become a strength and outlet for us – to go from a roots song that sounds like a bluegrass or Celtic tune to a pop/rock song to something like “War Was in Color” and go really anywhere we can.

Or go to a bluesy, soulful one like “Meltdown,” which stands apart from the rest of the album’s songs.
It is. Likewise “Another Man’s Woman.” Those are two songs where it was a different thing for us.

Plus you got the amazing Toby Lightman on backing vocals on “Indecision.”
We did. We toured with her for a couple weeks awhile back. She was perfect for that song. I gave her a ring and she was happy to do it.

How did you get Butch Taylor to do piano and B3 work on a few tunes? Had you guys toured with Dave Matthews Band in the past and met him then?
We did some side stage stuff with them, but we’ve known Butch a little over 10 years now. He used to work at a studio in Richmond where Terry Clark, our guitarist, was also an engineer at before the band got really busy. He worked with Butch a lot on sessions and we kind of became friends with him through that relationship. Then he started doing more and more stuff with Dave Matthews over the years. It’s just one of those things where he’s just 'Butch from Richmond' to us. He was in town while we were making the album. He’s played on a few albums of ours. He was available and interested, so we spent a day or two doing some tracks.

Over the years, you’ve incorporated Celtic overtones into Carbon Leaf songs. Was that element there right from the start?
No, the first album, was just us coming out of college and the first 12 songs we ever wrote...Then on the second album, there were one or two songs with a rootsier, Celtic influence. On the third and fourth albums, we expanded on it a fair amount more with mandolin and penny whistle. When ‘Indian Summer’ came out, we felt like we weren’t really inspired by those sounds anymore and we wrote a bunch of songs that were like that. But we realized those weren’t the strongest songs we’d written of the bunch. The ones that became ‘Indian Summer’ were not Celtic influenced. People were like, ‘what’s going on? You’re changing your sound.’ And I’m going, ‘we’re always trying to change our sound.’ Not to reinvent the wheel, but to follow inspiration. For a split second, we thought, ‘should we stay on this course of the rootsy, Celtic thing?’ And the answer was a quick ‘no.’ It’s got to be genuine. Otherwise, you become a jukebox for someone else. So we were glad we realized that. Not to say it won’t return; it kind of does on “Pink” and “Seed,” which definitely harken back to that. Again, it’s got to be inspired and everything stems from that.

How long have you played the bagpipes and penny whistle?
I play poorly. I have my little thing where I’m limited and ok with that. I picked it up about nine years ago and got really into the bagpipes for about three years. Then they became too impractical. You can’t play them with the band really well and take a lot of maintenance to keep the reed moist. I bring them out for St. Patrick’s week, put it that way. They’re good in small doses. The penny whistle as well.

When you guys first started out was the Richmond music scene really fertile with a bunch of college bands?
It was. There was a lot going on at the time. Cracker was big coming out of there. Dave Matthews was the local success story who went from playing every Tuesday in Charlottesville and every Wednesday in Richmond and all the sudden [his popularity] just explodes. Then you had bands like Avail, the local punk heroes that were road dogs. Coming around recently, you have Lamb of God and Jason Mraz. There’s lots of big and small colleges where bands just emerge from.

Carbon Leaf spent nearly a decade doing the DIY thing. Was that by design or because the major labels didn’t offer you what you wanted?
It was pretty much the latter. I think the best asset for us was not having any help starting out. There was no label interest; we didn’t have a manager or booking agent or publicist. We had nobody helping and had to learn to do everything ourselves. That kind of sucked, because we wanted help and you couldn’t buy it. I think it really helped build our foundation and we would come to learn through the course of our career where we got a manager on board after the AMAs and lost management and had to do it ourselves. There were periods where we had to pull from our pasts and take control of things if we weren’t getting the help we needed. It’s been invaluable, the do it yourself approach. And we’re still very hands on. I’m sitting right here, doing payroll and answering emails even though we’ve got good a management team and label all in place.

What effect did the AMA appearance several years ago have on the band?
It definitely garnered attention as this whole kind of undiscovered talent thing was just kicking off. We were only one of three unsigned bands to perform at the AMAs before they killed the award. Then “American Idol” came aboard. The biggest thing it did was give us a reason to be out on the road with something to promote. When we got home from the AMAs, we were like, ‘let’s take what we can from this and use it to our benefit.’ That answer was to get out and start touring and touring. The whole label/management thing quickly ebbed. With our touring, it was a big deal. A couple radio stations picked up on the AMA story and started spinning “The Boxer,” which is the song we performed [on TV]. It got us some good attention in DC and Seattle and led to Vanguard being interested in the band. But it took a couple years. We didn’t sign with a label until 2-3 years after the AMAs.

Since your video for “Learn to Fly” featured “actress” Katy Perry, what did you guys think when she later had some major hits of her own?
It’s funny. We shared the same management company at the time. We made that video a year or two before her record. It was interesting to experience that and see her blow up. Good for her, right?

Carbon Leaf interview

Last night I caught one of the best concerts of the year so far when Carbon Leaf performed at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano, CA.

The following interview appeared in the North County Times newspaper to preview their Solana Beach, CA gig tonight. The band also heads to the Roxy in West Hollywood on June 26, then onto Arizona June 27 & 29.

Stepping off the music industry treadmill will rejuvenate the creative process.

Carbon Leaf would agree, having rushed to make 2006 effort “Love Loss Hope Repeat” and not being completely satisfied with the results. Once promotional duties ended, the Richmond, Va.-based jam/roots rock band (best known for minor radio hits “The Boxer,” “A Life Less Ordinary” and “What About Everything”) decided to relax awhile.

After constant touring for six years, the musicians wanted to “take a year off, write as much as we could, peel back the songs and work from there,” singer Barry Privett said via phone while en route to a gig in Des Moines.

“We really needed to [ask ourselves], ‘why are we doing this?’ It became a revelation - you don’t release an album because it’s time [to do one], you release an album because you’ve got something worthwhile to say.”

For “Nothing Rhymes with Woman,” its third studio release on Vanguard Records (and seventh overall), Carbon Leaf “really got back to the foundation and remembered what sparked us to do this in the first place.” The enjoyable recording experience resulted in a more carefree vibe and lyrics interspersed with subtle humor. A few weeks ago, the album debuted at No. 3 on Billboard’s Heatseekers chart.

“There’s a little more sunshine to it,” explained Privett. “We just wanted to cut loose and rock a little more. ‘Indecision’ reflects that. But there are also songs about struggle like ‘Cinamindy’ and ‘Pink.’ The latter is colored by sway-worthy accordion and violin.

Privett revisits adolescent memories of soap box derby cars and cardboard fighter planes on the rustic “X-Ray,” which recalls mid-period R.E.M. The jangly, harmony-laden “Drops of Rain” revolves around a gal walking around town on a lazy day: “flip flop/belly ring/pull back hair/I really don’t care/just a hoody affair.”

Elsewhere, the bluesy “Another Man’s Woman” is tailor made for hoisting beers skyward in a bar, while former touring partner Toby Lightman adds supple backing vocals to the soulful “Meltdown,” where Privett does his best to channel a certain heartland rocker circa 1977.

“It would be awesome if I sounded like Bob Seger, but I don’t. Those are the kind of songs you take a stab at and hopefully they work. I think we got away with it.”

Dave Matthews’ touring keyboardist Butch Taylor – a longtime friend of the group – also guests on several tracks.

Current single “Miss Hollywood,” now climbing the AAA radio charts, is about re-examining your dreams and continues the feminine thread running throughout the album. “That one is very close to my heart,” admitted Privett.

All five original members of Carbon Leaf attended the same college when the band formed in 1992 – a musically fertile time in Virginia when Cracker, Matthews and Pat McGee were all attracting major attention. Carbon Leaf’s debut disc “Meander” was self-released three years later.

“A really strange mash up of Red Hot Chili Peppers, R.E.M. and Neil Young - just kind of weird and grungy,” is how Privett described the sound. Subsequent albums would regularly incorporate Celtic (bagpipes, mandolin, penny whistle) influences.

Then in January 2002, Carbon Leaf won the Best Unsigned Band category at the American Music Awards and performed “The Boxer” on the national telecast. “This was at the forefront of reality TV. To have an unsigned band on the AMAs was a big deal at the time.”

No label deal commenced, but the accolade reinforced the group’s need to stay on the road. Several radio stations added the track, later featured in a Pontiac TV commercial. Heritage folk label Vanguard eventually showed interest and put out “Indian Summer” in 2004. “For us, there have always been these small incremental steps to building the band.”

Since the stellar “Woman” is a sonic leap forward for Carbon Leaf, they shouldn’t have trouble accumulating a large number of new fans this time around.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Taylor Swift/Def Leppard

Early this morning, I watched the CMT Awards telecast from last night and my wretched AT&T U-Verse DVR cut off the last 10 minutes. So I had to go onto the CMT website.

Now I've been getting sick of seeing and hearing Taylor Swift everywhere lately, but I was very curious about her duet with Def Leppard on the show. They recently taped a "CMT Crossroads," which I've yet to see.

Anyway, she was waaay out of her league on the awards during closing tune "Pour Some Sugar on Me." Not only is her voice too weak to carry a hard rock song, but I always find it creepy when the latest hot young thing is paired up with someone old enough to be her father. Swift and Def Lep's Joe Elliot (age 50) fit the bill. The sexual lyrics made it even more uncomfortable to watch.

Did anyone see it?

Friday, June 5, 2009

High concert prices

A friend forwarded me an eye-opening article the The Wall Street Journal ran in March. It said that many big artists (Neil Diamond is singled out as an example, among others) allow chunks of tickets to be set aside for markups in the secondary market. Apparently they try to keep quiet about it for obvious reasons. How disgusting is that?

At least we know Bruce Springsteen will not allow his tickets to be sold on scalper-type sites like or

While I'm on the subject of tickets, I am so sick of going to for show information, only to get a prompt "please wait while we direct you to where you can buy tickets." Live Nation - currently trying to merge with Ticketmaster - has a far from user-friendly site with minimal info for those trying to buy tix. I've said this before, but let's hope the merger isn't approved.

Jarvis Cocker album review

Jarvis Cocker
Further Complications
(Rough Trade)

Lanky, extremely clever and coming across like a depraved college professor, Jarvis Cocker was the most unlikely of Britpop stars in the ‘90s. With Pulp, he combined Roxy Music’s sophisticated glam and Leonard Cohen’s sensual poetry. The band never made it big here, but was on par with Blur and Oasis in the U.K. Once they ended a 20-year run earlier this decade, Cocker became a family man, wrote tunes for legendary female singers and appeared in a Harry Potter flick. His self-titled solo bow in 2007 was a glorious slice of introspective alt-pop.

Longtime fans might raise an arched eyebrow after discovering the singer bashed out Further Complications in a few quick sessions with Steve Albini (Nirvana, Pixies) at the boards and a core band including Pulp’s old bassist. Cocker frequently rocks harder and yelps like never before, especially amid the herky jerky title track, Fall-like instrumental “Pilchard,” crazy sexually charged “Caucasian Blues” and whacked out “Homewrecker,” driven by saxophonist Steve Mackay of Iggy & The Stooges’ Funhouse fame.

Not everything is abrasive though. A densely moody “Slush” could’ve fit on one of Pulp’s final efforts with its large choir, harp and timpani (key lyric: “if I could, I would refrigerate this moment and preserve it for all time”). “You’re in My Eyes (Disco Song),” with a females cooing and Cocker whispering about a hallucination on the dance floor, is pure Philly soul circa 1975. A solid left field turn.

Elvis Costello album review

Elvis Costello
Secret, Profane and Sugarcane
(Hear Music)

Elvis Costello has practically defined the term “eclectic” in a 30+ year career where he deftly tackled blue-eyed soul (Get Happy!!), country covers (Almost Blue), folk and blues (King of America), classical (The Juliet Letters, Il Sogno), singer/songwriter pop with Burt Bacharach (Painted From Memory), New Orleans R&B with Allen Toussaint (The River in Reverse) and more.

Now the British singer/songwriter reunites with producer T Bone Burnett, who helmed America and Spike, for an Americana collection. With the exception of Bing Crosby popularized waltz “Changing Partners,” the mostly wry, laid back tunes here are originals. Jim Lauderdale provides welcome harmony vocals throughout, while a barely discernable Emmylou Harris guests on the upbeat “Crooked Line.”

The album was recorded briskly using such unamplified instruments as dobro, mandolin, fiddle, accordion and double bass. Four songs were adapted from Costello’s unfinished Royal Danish Opera work about Hans Christian Andersen. They fit in with the others moderately well. “Complicated Shadows,” all twangy bits and a washboard rhythm, has a new dusky feel compared to the rocking version first heard on 1996’s All This Useless Beauty.

A feisty “Hidden Shame,” written for and recorded by Johnny Cash, revolves around guilt over an accidental death. Other standouts include the sinister “My All Time Doll” and “Sulphur to Sugarcane.” Elsewhere, Costello does tunes written for and with Loretta Lynn. Starbucks denizens (the coffee giant’s record label is putting this out), country enthusiasts and diehard fans should dig Costello’s latest Nashville excursion.

Taking Back Sunday concert review

photo by Rose Palmisano/OC Register
My review originally appeared at

Taking Back Sunday, Anberlin
Grove of Anaheim
June 3

Back in 2006, Taking Back Sunday co-headlined Long Beach Arena and nearly tore the roof off the place. It was an exhilarating concert, where singer Adam Lazzara was in total showman mode and the entire band gelled (check out special editions of gold-selling album “Louder Now” for a sample).

That wasn’t always the case during a sold out Grove gig on Wednesday night. Lazzara was surprisingly subdued, hardly the gregarious ball of energy I’d seen at the arena and subsequent “Louder” tour stops in San Bernardino and Devore. He even hid near the drum kit to sing into a vocoder and fiddle with an electronic gizmo a few times. Fortunately, bassist/backing vocalist Matt Rubano made up for it in the energy department.

Solid fourth effort “New Again,” which came out Tuesday, was produced by David Kahne (The Strokes, Sublime). It finds Taking Back Sunday adding ample harmonies, gang chants, Coldplay and U2-styled touches to its melodic post-hardcore sound. Lazzara even supplies some personal lyrics for a change.

In Anaheim, the Long Island, N.Y. quintet started off with the propulsive title track, the first of five fresh ones debuted live. Teenage and young adult-leaning fans in the front section delightfully moshed and crowd surfed throughout the 65-minute, 16-song set, but the most enthusiastic responses were reserved for emo tunes from 2002 debut “Tell All Your Friends” (an explosive “Cute Without the ‘E’,” the dynamic kiss off “You’re So Last Summer”).

Despite a dozen or so shows under his belt, lead guitarist/backing vocalist Matt Fazzi still seems to be finding his footing onstage and the proceedings often felt incomplete as a result (a muted sound mix didn’t help). Fazzi replaced Fred Mascherino, who left to form The Color Fred and was sorely missed on such “Where You Want to Be” and “Louder Now” songs as “Liar” and “A Decade Under the Influence.”

The latter found Lazzara justifiably berating the annoying people rabidly taking video/photos as he leaned down over the audience: “put your cameras down and be here with me tonight.” Later on, he apologized and said, “it blows my mind that everybody spends so much time staring at computers, then you spend all this money to see us through an even smaller screen.”

Good point. Electronic devices have become so distracting that I wish they all had to be shut off upon entering a venue. Ranting aside, it was a mixed performance from Taking Back Sunday.

photo by Rose Palmisano/OC Register
Opening act Anberlin packed quite a wallop with their spiritual-tinged alternative rock. In a blazing 40-minute set, lanky leader Stephen Christian showed off an impressive vocal range (nailing a few sustained notes – not wails; there is a difference) and connected with the audience.

The Florida band prompted steady pogoing and plenty of arms raised in unison. Among the highlights: “The Resistance” (from last year’s major label breakthrough “New Surrender”), where three musicians pounded drums in unison, the poppy, keyboard-driven “Disappear,” a high energy cover of New Order’s “True Faith,” slowly mesmerizing “Dismantle Repair” - including a lyrical snatch of U2’s “Pride (In the Name of Love” - and current modern rock radio hit “Feel Good Drag.”

Taking Back Sunday at the Grove of Anaheim, June 3, 2009

Main set: New Again/You Know How I Do/Error: Operator/Set Phasers to Stun/Carpathia/One-Eighty By Summer/You’re So Last Summer/Swing/Liar/Cute Without the ‘E’(Cut From the Team)/Sink Into Me/A Decade Under the Influence/What’s it Feel Like to Be a Ghost 

Encore: Everything Must Go/Timberwolves at New Jersey/MakeDamnSure

New York Dolls concert review

[Apologies for the belated posting. A version of my review originally appeared at on May 23]

New York Dolls
House of Blues, Anaheim, CA
May 22

During a well-attended 90-minute set at the Mouse House, equally divided between ’70s and ’00s material, the Dolls put on a spirited performance despite a muddled sound mix in the first half.

Dressed in a long-sleeved red silk shirt, blue jeans and a scarf, the still-svelte singer David Johansen, 59, sported orange-tinted shades. He was in fine gravelly voice throughout and continues to possess a cool factor few active veterans (except Lou Reed) can match. Maybe it’s a New York thing.

Everything got off to a raucous start with the classic “Looking for a Kiss.” A male/female couple in full glam attire and teased up hair bobbed in unison near the stage as a teen guy with a large spiked Mohawk nodded in approval. Johansen blew through the first of several harmonica solos on the eerie “We’re All in Love” and prompted the crowd to sing along. They dutifully obliged, responding enthusiastically to new tunes like the swampy blues of “Nobody Got No Bizness.”

Original guitarist Sylvain Mizrahi excelled in the harmony department (not to mention assorted animal noises in the “Jungle/Monkey” segment) and endearingly sang lead on the Thunders tribute medley “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory/Lonely Planet Boy.” He and Steve Conte engaged in some memorable electric guitar duels, especially on an extended “Private World,” which contained a snatch of “Land of 1000 Dances.”

Toward the end, the band took the energy level up a few notches with their sizzling cover of Bo Diddley’s “Pills” (and more wicked harp work from Johansen). A slam pit began with the opening notes of “Trash” and continued all the way through the reggae breakdown section (!), a blazing “Jet Boy” (loved the nod to John Lee Hooker’s “Boom Boom”) and fun encore “Personality Crisis.”

Main set: Looking for a Kiss/ ‘Cause I Sez So / We’re All in Love / Stranded in the Jungle / Dance Like a Monkey / Nobody Got No Bizness / Private World / Better Than You / Who Are the Mystery Girls / Gotta Get Away from Tommy / Drowning / Medley: You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory/Lonely Planet Boy / My World / Pills / Muddy Bones / Trash / Jet Boy
Encore: Personality Crisis