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Modern Concepts: Anais Mitchell’s Hadestown

When my friend Nick told me about the existence of this album, I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t found it before then. First off, I’m a concept album nut – especially when there’s a cohesive narrative as well as a unifying theme (which I suppose is the distinction between concept album and actual ‘rock opera’, but the line is often blurry). The fact that it has a cast of characters and a different person portraying each one is icing on the cake. Secondly, the story is taken from the story of Orpheus and Eurydice in Greek myth – I can never get enough mythology – transplanted into what feels like Depression-era America (everyone lookin’ for work, etc), which imagines the story fantastically. Thirdly, it’s some of the best folk I’ve ever heard. The harmonies, the melodies, the instrumentation are all absolutely top-notch.

One simple fact about the cast here that nevertheless improves the listening experience immensely is that no character sounds remotely like any other character. Anais Mitchell herself has a sprightly, innocent voice with incredible vibrato, which initially seems jarring, but handles Eurydice’s transformation from wide-eyed wonder to sorrow surprisingly easily, as she laments the empty promises she’s received in “Flowers (Eurydice’s Song)”. What’s also very effective about it is that her voice is easily discernible when it pops up in ensemble choruses that are representing the denizens of Hadestown – your being able to hear her marks her as one of the masses from that point on.

The other female main character is Hades’ wife, Persephone, as played by Ani DiFranco who has a lower and freer quality to her voice than Mitchell – she takes her time and gives an enticing performance on her character’s main song, “Our Lady of the Underground”, claiming to be the cure for all those that are ailing from being underground in Hadestown too long. She offers sunshine and wind and all the luxuries not easily available to those on the inside, which gives you a good picture of the racquet that she and Hades are running there. She remains more than a one-dimensional character, however, as she also has moments of poignancy, pleading the case to Hades for Orpheus and Eurydice to unite after hearing him sing in “How Long?” (which actually appeared  on Mitchell’s previous album The Brightness as “Hades and Persephone”), as bedroom chat between the couple.

Following that, Justin Vernon picks up the story as Orpheus himself, retelling the story of how Hades and Persephone themselves were once young and how they came to be entwined and how Hades’ own heart is not so hard as it seems (“suddenly Hades was only a man”) – another plea to both Hades himself and the people in Hadestown to free Eurydice, in “Epic (Part II)”. It picks up the tune from part 1 earlier in the album which describes how mean and old mean old Hades really is. Vernon, he of Bon Iver, handles the constant pain and occasional joy that a god of music such as Orpheus might experience. He often hits the high notes in this that he’s famous for, but actually manages to give great performances from all over his range. The one quibble with this I have that I have a real hard time even arguing is the fact that all of his vocals are harmonized. I mean, it sort of fits that everything Orpheus sings would be in harmony, but the fact that he is the only one on the whole album whose vocals are treated that way takes me out of it a little bit – pulls me out of the fact that I’m listening to a play/story unfold and makes it sound a little more like just standard song vocals than a character delivering dialogue/lyrics. The harmonies themselves are even fantastic! It just is not consistent and makes it sounds weird when he interacts with other characters. But a very minor issue.

Greg Brown, with his lugubrious voice, plays Hades, every note that he sings screaming ‘shady’, ‘untrustworthy’ and ‘unbelievably confident’. He has an incredibly rich voice that sounds totally at home commanding his citizens to slave away working on “Why We Build the Wall”, as they repeat his propaganda back to him in an ever-lengthening chain of word or attempting to woo Eurydice to come work for him on “Hey, Little Songbird”, brushing away any of Orpheus’ credibility and replacing it with the promise of a paycheck. A more perfect villain’s voice I cannot imagine.

Ben Knox Miller only appears a couple times on Hadestown, as do the Haden triplets, but both are difficult to forget once you’ve heard them. Miller sounds like an old rambling bluesman in his turn as Hermes, presumably a friend of Orpheus and Eurydice as he chimes in on the popular opinion of Hadestown on the big showpiece that incorporates most of the characters in the play on the upbeat “Way Down Hadestown”. The other track he’s one, “Wait For Me”, he spends in reverent whispers as he gives Orpheus instructions on how to get into Hadestown with a few ominous turns of phrase  – “If all you got it your own two legs/just be glad you got ’em”. The voice he uses for his two appearances actually vary quite a bit, but both fit the mood of the song so absolutely and lend credence to the narrative.

The Haden triplets play the Fates, and what you get here is three ladies with remarkably similar voice doing all kinds of harmonic acrobatics, as they assure Eurydice that trying to get yourself some money and a steady job ain’t the worst thing in the world in “When the Chips Are Down”. The way their vocals interweave and layers on repeated lines is spellbinding and are unfortunately here to mainly dispense hard truths to our heroes.

It’s never less than a satisfying experience listening to the first folk opera I’ve ever heard, and holds my attention utterly. The songs all vary pretty significantly and the different vocals are a treat to listen to. This actually got me onto Anais Mitchell’s entire discography and she has become one of my absolute favourite folk artists because of it (her recent album with Jefferson Hamer recounting old English folk songs, Child Ballads, is fantastic)!

“Flowers (Eurydice’s Song)”:

“Our Lady of the Underground”:

“Epic (Part II)”:

“Why We Build the Wall”:

“Way Down Hadestown”:

“When the Chips Are Down”:

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Enter the Collector: Wither the Album?

I’ve long bemoaned the decline of the physical album in favour of digital formats, because I am a fan of things. For the most part, it feels like the distinction is insignificant, as a majority of my music listening is spent either on my computer or my phone, where the source could be digital or CD without any real discernible difference. But I really like lookin’ at ’em all collected there on my shelf. Flipping through the liner notes or art inside. Organizing them meticulously. Gazing into them as they do me.

It is for this reason that I’m happy to see the tidal wave of ‘archival’ style releases of classic albums that is approaching us. Being 50 years on from the 60s, it’s about to hit big time and it ain’t gonna let up. Led Zeppelin, impatient to reach the big 5-0 has released its first three LPs in a deluxe format to celebrate their 45th anniversary of being recorded. Accompanied with each are the juicy extras – live concerts from the time (eagerly anticipating getting my hands on the ’69 concert from Zep I), demos and songs that never made it onto the albums originally. Extra Zep! Don’t have a 50th anniversary coming up? That’s okay, you probably have a 25th!

A couple years ago, I picked up the rerelease of R.E.M.’s Document on its 25th anniversary, replete with photos, a gigantic poster and a concert from the album’s tour. And that’s the stuff I’m really into. The digital format is no doubt here to stay and has usurped any physical format as the way to check out albums instantaneously now, but these rereleases offer up the context and experience of the album at the time it was releases. Hearing what a band sounded like and what they did with the album they were promoting at the time at live shows is fascinating, not to mention seeing both the publicity from the era and the rare b-sides that were cut that didn’t make it on. That not only allows you to hear new stuff from your favourite band, but new stuff from that specific time period that you love so dearly.

Having things attached to an album other than the music flowing through your ears gives you more to associate it with and spaces everything out so that the material that you already love so much gets a little bit more attention and a different perspective from you. That’s not to say that you don’t appreciate King Crimson if you don’t buy their 13-CD boxed set of Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, but having the experience of that extra material might help it from bumping against Madonna, Conway Twitty and Stevie Wonder in your brain as you listen. Physical formats are becoming a collector’s game, so it’s at least nice to see that collectors are being offered something more interesting to collect as the physical-album-buying public becomes ever narrower (I still treasure the copy of Jethro Tull’s Thick As A Brick that I found packaged with a newspaper replicated the original LP cover!).

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Panic! Attack, Part 1: A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out

Welcome to my non-consecutive (currently) five-part series taking a look at the discography of Panic! at the Disco (formerly ‘Panic at the Disco’, who was formerly ‘Panic! at the Disco’). At only four studio albums (and one live one), their oeuvre is not particularly daunting, and I’m particularly curious to see how they have evolved their sound. My only memory of them from when they broke out in 2005 is the one line from the chorus “I Write Sins Not Tragedies”, but other than that particular vocal I remembered absolutely nothing. At this time, I was heading backwards into music’s history (I have a distinct memory of my friend Nik walking into my dorm room, handing me a huge shoe-box of CDs and saying “this is ‘A.'”), and was really selective about what I put in my ears, with much of my palette consisting of The Beatles and Pink Floyd. Since that time, I hadn’t really given them a thought until my lovely girlfriend Chloe told me that they were one of her absolute favourite bands. Not even knowing that they were still producing music, and after a little chin-scratching, I decided the only thing for it was to see what was up with these guys. The prospect of widening my tastes and having more music to listen to is one I find terribly exciting!

The first thing that struck me listening to A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out is that singer Brandon Urie is all over this album! He rarely stops to break, but that’s because he’s not just the singer of the band – he’s also the emcee. The album begins, appropriately, with “Introduction”, where someone’s clicking down the dial on a radio and looking for something that speaks to them before hearing “Ladies and gentlemen, we proudly present a picturesque score of passing fancy”, everything very much muffled and distant before we delve into the meat of the album a few seconds later as we accept out invitation to this world.

“The Only Difference Between Martyrdom and Suicide is Press Coverage” begins the album proper as an invocation and a pledge to the audience that they’re going to get a show if they only promise to pay attention (much like Queen’s “Let Me Entertain You” or The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”) – “Swear to shake it up/if you swear to listen” rings the chorus. The song is all about establishing that relationship with the audience up front, as Urie and the band will be your guide through this world so you gotta know you can trust them going forward (“Don’t you see/I’m the narrator and this is just the prologue?”). Nowhere is this more evident than in the first few seconds of the song where it’s made clear that you are not just listen, but you are having a conversation – “Sit tight/I’m gonna need you to keep time/Come on just snap snap snap/your fingers for me”. All very well and good, audience participation is encouraged. It’s that the next line is “Good good/now we’re making some progress” that makes you take a step back and go ‘whoa, he’s paying attention’.

Not that it’s difficult to keep your ear on the beat. There’s a lot of straight ahead backbeating and guitar crunching with the amount of swagger appropriate to the theatricality of the show. The energy is so high here and things move at such a swift pace it’s easy to miss things as they go by – a few bars of out-and-out EDM spring fully formed out of the bridge and we whip by a quiet multi-faceted harmony before launching back into the chorus.

That first song is a great example of what makes the album such a joy to listen to – it’s clear that the band’s influences are legion and they’re eager to get as many of them into the proceedings as possible (hence the “passing fancy” of the introduction). They have thrown everything on this record, hung on the skeleton of the tried and true guitar-bass-drums punk rock format. “Nails for Breakfast, Tacks for Snacks” begins with a great overdriven synth riff that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Metric track; “London Beckoned Songs About Money Written By Machines” features a space reserved for a gain-drenched drum kit to pound around; “Intermission” is part-synthesizer disco track until the interruption and apology by our radio announcer friend before moving into a frilly classical-sounding piano piece.

Each track on the album is a little journey with all the parts with different instruments, tunes and beats that build up to the chorus – the unison section of “But It’s Better If You Do” is casual demonstration of the band’s skill while still keeping things terribly exciting before the refrain comes around again and everyone can relax (comparatively speaking). “I Write Sins Not Tragedies”, the album’s and possibly the band’s most popular single begins with a riff on a plucked cello with some bowed bass notes and a xylophone tinkling the rhythm away during the verses – another nod to the influence of classical music on the band – before launching into the straight-ahead thrashing of the chorus while nodding and adding “Seriously!” when Urie asks “haven’t you people ever heard of/closing the goddamned door?”

As an album written with a clear love of music in every corner and an equal love for all things proper and theatrical (“Please leave all overcoats, canes and top hats/with the doorman”, Urie requests in “There’s A Good Reason These Tables Are Numbered Honey, You Just Haven’t Thought Of It Yet”), A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out is one of those very rare debut albums that quite possibly gets out everything the band wants the public to know about it while maintaining a certain cohesion and boundless energy. 40 minutes from open to close, Panic! makes their statement without wearing out their welcome and having you itching to get back to that world at your earliest possible convenience.

“The Only Difference Between Martyrdom and Suicide is Press Coverage”

“But It’s Better If You Do”

“I Write Sins Not Tragedies”

Happy Anniversary. 🙂

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Toxic Canadian Rock Syndrome: Joel Plaskett Emergency’s Fashionable People

It’s not all Nickelbacks, Dions and Biebers up here. It’s not even all Loverboys, Triumphs and Troopers (still a lot of Rush, though). We still have the rock, sometimes you just gotta look for it. Sometimes, it wins a Grammy and people are angry because they’ve never heard of the group before. Sometimes, it comes in the form of a band that has the best name based around a bandleader since “Blues Explosion.” Joel Plaskett Emergency’s Ashtray Rock brings the quirk, the rock, the jangly indie bits, the sweater vests and a concept album with a story as old as time: two dudes start a band, fall in love with the same girl and have a falling out. “Fashionable People” sets the scene at a party where the narrator has stars in his eyes and attempts to entice a girl away from all the other wannabes.

Immediately, the words of youth – “I feel foolish/I wanna drink too much”. As the narrator drinks, he attempts to talk up this girl he’s met, decrying all the other people at the party as he tries to make himself out to be the clear the prime candidate for attention: “I bet their parents/Are ridiculously loaded/Let’s get moving/Before I’m loaded.” The narrator uses the opportunity to talk about what’s on his mind, flaunting his newly-formed band, reciting the mantra “Fashionable people/Doing questionable things” to set his partying and recklessness up as a contribution to his future lifestyle instead of just being a drunk teenager. All the while, he attempts to be sly in getting with the girl he’s having the conversation with – “I like your boyfriend too/Do you think he’d understand?” – before the booze gets to his brain and he just says what he’s really thinking: “So ditch him/He’s no good for you…Switch him/Switch him up with me/Leave him in a ditch/And you can take a ride for free”. Plaskett’s relaxed delivery perfectly suits the tale as he delivers it with all the swaggering confidence he can muster.

The thing I will always take away from this song is the absolute insane drum sound when the chorus hits and Plaskett sings “the dancers need a dancefloor!”, very much carrying on from the sound used on David Bowie’s Low, but with much more feedback. The verses are light affairs with a heavily accented rhythm of drums, bass and light synth, with the guitar buried in the middle – none of which have any effects on them . This is what makes the chorus seem that much more boisterous when it comes around. The snare simply explodes with a few carefully-measured hits with a beautiful, overdriven raucous sound, as you bang you head and are ready to petition the government for more dancefloor space when you realize that you’re also hearing the guitar unleash for the first time. Drenched in gain but still crisp enough to whiff the fumes of those high notes on the guitar, the verse/chorus dynamic is done simply but very effectively. What makes it curiouser is the almost anti-chorus that follows the melee, as things tighten right back up and a small falsetto chorus chants “fashionable/fashionable/fashionable people” in the most delicate way possible with a little shaker in the background, which is silly but a great hook in its own right – more often than not, that’s the bit I’m singing after the song’s over!

There’s no getting around a solid song with a great hook, and for that, “Fashionable People” has earned many many relistens for me. It might be that I just like singing in falsetto a lot, too, but that certainly ain’t a strike against it!

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Frankly, Mr. Shankly, I don’t give a damn: The Smiths’ The Queen Is Dead

For a dude who has an eye towards a solid knowledge base of rock music, it took me a long time to get around to The Smiths. First off, someone told me that Morrissey always sounds like he is yawning when he singing, which I couldn’t NOT hear anytime I heard a track he was singing on. Secondly, I’d sort of sussed for myself that The Queen Is Dead was the preferred album of the knee-huggers in the corner with the too-big sweater set, which really isn’t my deal. Specifically, I thought that their entire oeuvre sounded like “Frankly, Mr. Shankly”, which is a two-minute slice of jangly twee pop on this album which works fine for its length, but I figured a whole album of that would be too cute by half. I kept my distance for awhile.

They are frequently included, however, in the discussions of best 80s bands and guitarist Johnny Marr seems to be as venerated as much as, if not moreso, than Morrissey (he played on Modest Mouse’s We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank and No One’s First and You’re Next, among other collaborations with bands comprised of young Smiths fans). I eventually decided that it was me the problem was with and that Strangeways, Here We Come was a cool album title, so I scoped a track off of that (“A Push and A Rush and the Land Is Ours”) and found myself pretty engaged. I figured the next step was to get into an album, so I picked myself up a) their only album at HMV I was at that wasn’t a compilation and b) their seminal album, The Queen Is Dead.

After a single grande olde English chorus of “Take Me Back to Dear Old Blightly”, the band launches into the title track and they are, if I do say so myself, rocking out! Mike Joyce pounding on the toms in anticipation as Marr sends out a few electric washes from the guitar to get everyone in the mood before hitting the ground running. To my surprise, Morrissey doesn’t start off entirely introspective. He does state that “Life is very long/When you’re lonely”, but has a few ideas as to why that might be and takes aim at what he sees around him driving the rampant loneliness of 80s Britain with the aggression of the band backing him up, the bass never staying in one place for too long, in fear of being found: “Passed the pub that saps your body/And the church who’ll snatch your money/The Queen is dead, boys!”

After that first song, I was ready to pick up whatever the Smiths were putting down, as I found that my assumptions about them were totally wrong – they are a much more versatile band than I gave them credit for. Knowing what they have in their quiver, I was just happy to see what they chose to notch. It turns out I didn’t even give “Frankly, Mr. Shankly” a fair shake after I paid closer attention to what the rest of the band was laying down underneath Morrissey’s foppish vocal on that song. Not that the band needed to rock out to get my attention – I just didn’t mark their versatility when I dismissed them early on.

I also noticed they bore more than a passing resemblance to one of my favourite all-time bands, R.E.M. It’s the conversational tone of the lead singers reporting on the state of the world and how it affects them, combined the the guitarists’ knack for creating textures and atmospheres with intricate picking and sliding, making a quiet, ‘busy’ sounds to ably back-up and harmonize the vocals instead of a big loud one. The Smiths of course with a big dollop of Britannia on top, whereas R.E.M. deal chiefly in Americana.

Now that The Smiths and I are getting to be fast friends, it’s time to hit up that discography. Wait…four albums? Only four? Oh well. Such are the surprises that hit when a band gets a decent amount of fame over a short period of time – their reputation grows much larger than their body of work could hope to. Simon & Garfunkel only had five albums. Ditto The Police. Hell, The Sex Pistols only had one! Nevertheless, I think it’s time to turn my attention to the rest of Strangeways, Here We Come which, as it turns out, was their swan song.

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