Archive for May, 2008

Wire: Brit punk, fast, smart and loud

May 28, 2008

This week, I dip into the lost Boombox archives again, to revisit an exciting punk disk that invites you to play it loud.

Wire: Pink Flag

One big music regret I have is that I didn’t get into punk music when it was first happening in the late 70s/early 80s. Mainstream rock was pretty uniformly bland and awful then, so I mostly retreated into blues, jazz and classical.

I finally found punk largely thanks to my daughters, taking them to all ages rock shows at places like Metro and the greatly missed Fireside Bowl—and once even on a road trip to St. Louis to be among the maybe 30 or so people who turned out to see the Chainsaw Kittens—for the record, NOT a punk band—on a frigid winter night in an unheated storefront venue. The girls eventually mostly moved on to other music, including what I like to think of as whiney singer/songwriters—Rufus Wainwright, Conor Oberst and the like.

I, however, remained faithful to bands who know three power chords and the F word and whose songs all come in at two or three minutes or less. Local college station WNUR has a show from midnight to 2am Sundays that pretty much sums up what I’m looking for these days when I’m listening to rock music: Fast ‘n’ Loud.

Wire delivers just that, with Pink Flag. The album, originally released in 1977, has 22 songs on it and clocks in at a hair under 38 minutes. The shortest song is a 28-second gem called Field Day for the Sundays. Remarkably, the band had only played 15 gigs when they went into the studio to produce this seminal album.

Wire is an old school punk band and, even better, as far as I’m concerned, a Brit punk band. Plenty of speed and low-fi distortion, but also more musicianship and variety than some punk bands can muster. A great, high-energy listen, even if you think you don’t like punk. And as one reviewer put it so well, “Short, odd, angular, sarcastic songs… remind the listener that punk rock can be simultaneously smart, detached, and visceral.”


Groove globally, listen locally

May 21, 2008


There has perhaps never been a better time for listening to music. There is so much variety out there. Good, cheap technology is making it possible for more and more people to make and share music. And everyone from Amazon to iTunes to MySpace is making it easy to get our hands—and ears—on a dazzling array of music from every little corner of the world.

In some ways, this bounty mimics what’s going on in the food world. Increasingly, formerly exotic ingredients are making their way to supermarkets and home kitchens. Seasonality be damned, if you want asparagus in January, it’s being grown somewhere in the world and chances are, you can find it in the store. I can already hear the locavores groaning. What about carbon footprints? What about protecting local, small farms? What about embracing seasonality and absolute freshness? All valid points.

I’d like to suggest the same thing for music—kind of a locahear movement. You know, supporting local musicians by showing up for their gigs, paying cover charges or dropping something in the tip jar. And by buying their CDs.

I did that this past Friday night, catching a too rare performance by Chicago jazz combo Soulio at Nick’s, a friendly no-cover bar in Wicker Park. Soulio’s website describes their sound as “bluesy, groove-based jazz, hard bop, funk and soul-jazz.” Down Beat magazine’s Jeff McCord calls it “an amalgam of loping funk, Blue Note-like hard bop and a blues-driven vibe reminiscent of the Jazz Crusaders.” And Brad Walseth of labels it “good time straight ahead soul-jazz that is meant to be enjoyed by listeners or dancers alike.” Having heard Soulio live a few times now, I would say their sound is D.) All of the above.

I picked up their self-titled CD too that night, for a mere $12.99. Soulio is 11 tracks, about an hour of loose-hipped but tightly played jazz, a mix of pieces by the greats—Dexter Gordon, Eddie Harris and Freddie Hubbard, for example—two originals by sax player Matt Shevitz and two ’60s tunes, Sunny and Grazing in the Grass. Proving once again that familiarity does indeed breed contempt, these two tracks are my least favorite on the disk. But if I force myself to tune out the “heard that a thousand times” factor, what they do with even these songs is quite nice.

The basic group is a quintet, led by trombonist John Janowiak and rounded out by a sax player, guitarist, bassist and drummer. Given the sometimes hardscrabble nature of local music, personnel sometimes changes. Various friends guest on some of the tracks on the CD—a trumpeter, a keyboard player and an additional drummer. When I saw them this past weekend, they had an excellent trumpeter sitting in with them.

Which brings me back to my ad hoc locahear movement. Making music is a hard way to make a living, especially at the local level. A bass player friend of ours in St. Louis says that you get paid for hauling equipment and you play for free. When I talked to Soulio’s trombonist during a break Friday night, he said they all play in a number of groups, including a corporate/wedding band. He didn’t say so, but I’m sure most of them also have day jobs. For every White Stripes or Mariah Carey or Common who strikes it rich, there are countless hardworking, talented musicians who barely get by [often with the support of an understanding spouse gainfully employed at a place with benefits]. But they do it. They make music because they love it. And we’re all richer for it.

Support them. Get out there and hear some music. In a club, a bar, a coffeehouse… hell, even the lounge of the Holiday Inn out by the airport. At the very least, you’ll have a little fun. You might find something truly transcendent, like Soulio. And I guarantee, the musicians will be glad you came.

A gift for you, from Nine Inch Nails

May 14, 2008

Nine Inch Nails: The Slip

Before Dolly Parton ditched duet partner and old school country star Porter Wagoner for a successful solo career, she used to be a pitch woman for Duz detergent. At some point in the commercial, she would pull a towel out of the detergent box. It was a free premium that came with the detergent, and Dolly would announce, “You cain’t buy these towels in any store. But you can get them free in boxes of Duz!”

Well, you cain’t buy the new Nine Inch Nails album The Slip in any store either. But you can download it for free at the Nine Inch Nails website. Yeah, let other bands offer up a measly song or two—this is an entire album. Ten songs, nearly 45 minutes, absolutely free. What’s more, the slip is licensed under a creative commons attribution non-commercial share alike license. And the band encourages you to “remix it, share it with your friends, post it on your blog, play it on your podcast, give it to strangers, etc.”

So that’s what I’m doing here. Just click on the album cover art or title above and you’ll be taken to the Nine Inch Nails site where you can download it. For free. No tricks. As Trent Reznor, the band’s only permanent member says, “As a thank you to our fans for your continued support, we are giving away the new Nine Inch Nails album one hundred percent free, exclusively via”

And what do you get for free? Despite the often true old adage you get what you pay for, this is one fine album. Reznor’s hugely influential industrial rock sound comes through loud and clear on this latest album. From the opening track, the music is dark and insistent. He builds textures and layers with guitars, percussion, electronica and, on one track, an old, out-of-tune piano. One reviewer refers to some of the music as “Eraserhead industrial noise.” I can see that, especially on some of the instrumental tracks or passages. And honestly, that’s some of the stuff that intrigues me most on this disk. That said, the straightahead rock numbers rock in a most satisfying way.

There’s a thematic consistency to this album that really works—it feels of a piece. But there’s also plenty of variety, especially impressive when you consider that Reznor writes, sings, plays and produces all of the music on it. [He hires a back-up band for his tours.] Equally impressive for me, the more I listen to it, the more it works. So do yourself a favor. Download The Slip. You can’t beat the price—or the music.

Buddy Guy: Chicago blues, alive and real

May 7, 2008

This week I’m revisiting another album that fell into a technological black hole when I revamped my kitchen boombox sidebar blog sometime back. The amazing Buddy Guy Live: The Real Deal lives up to its name and then some.

Buddy Guy Live: The Real Deal

Buddy Guy takes a certain amount of heat for sometimes playing in the rock ‘n roll end of the blues pool. And I’ve read reviews of him pandering to the crowd with easy, crowd-pleasing pap like Mustang Sally. But when he gets it right, he nails it.

On this 1996 release recorded on his home turf—his club here in Chicago, Buddy Guy’s Legends—he gets it right. The back-up band is G.E. Smith and the Saturday Night Live Band [complete with the horn section], and they are in turn backed up by blues piano legend Johnnie Johnson. Not bad company.

Probably my favorite way to listen to live music is in a bar. This hour-long live album delivers the sound of that venue, right down to appreciative crowd noise and energy and even the buzzing of a guitar amp on the opening track until the guy at the sound board gets it sorted out. Put a drink in your hand and some smoke in the air [well, no more—Illinois has gone smoke-free, I’m happy to say] and you’re there. A great mix of songs and tempos and solid musicianship, wall to wall. And yeah, Buddy Guy Live: The Real Deal owes more than a little to rock [as does much of Chicago blues], but there’s still plenty of Mississippi juke joint in Buddy’s guitar.

If you want to catch Buddy live in this kind of setting, your best chance is the dead of winter. This just kills me. He owns Legends—he can play there anytime he chooses. And when he chooses is the entire month of January, probably the least hospitable time to be in Chicago. But book your tickets early—pretty much the entire month sells out quickly, especially the weekend dates.

Of course, when he’s not on the road other times of the year, you may find him sitting at the bar in Legends, taking in whatever local or touring blues act is playing that night. And while he won’t get up and play with other bands playing his club, he’s happy to talk with you if you walk over and say hi.