25 August 2006

is it the end of the line?

all i ever wanted : train
click here or on the image below to listen
mississippi : train
click here or on the image below to listen

Pat Monahan is one of my favorite male voices in rock. I think his voice has a rare combination of passion, power and distinctiveness, with a sharpness that cuts through jaded ears – as rousing, brooding or numb as he wants it to be. And edgy as it is, his voice is best suited for materials of a similar nature, which is why I find it difficult to like Train's latest album, For Me, It's You. The band has been accused of being faceless and middle of the road, and I can understand that given the lack of consistency in every album they've released so far. Monahan seems comfortable straddling the border between radio-friendly rock and rock that just doesn't give a damn. He's better at the latter when he writes songs so personal, even cryptic, that they're almost mystifying, not just in words (songwriting is not actually Monahan's best suit) but also in melody. Mississippi, from Train's second album Drops of Jupiter, is a midnight musing over an unattainable relationship, aptly laid with an aching opening bass line and slow, rippling guitar. In All I Ever Wanted – and, in fact, the entire new album – Monahan sides with the universal as opposed to the intimate, resulting in some of the most mediocre lyrics he has ever written. Take this from Cab, the album's first single: New York snow this time of year/There’s nothing more beautiful to me/Except for you. Wow. Deep. That said, I like the arrangement of All I Ever Wanted, especially the diversity of its melody and how Monahan flirts with the falsetto which he hardly uses. This song must kick ass live.

12 August 2006

folk everybody

As you may have guessed from the post prior to this, the week since I came back from my holiday has been very stressful. Yes, there's the lost luggage which remains unfound, but there's also the jetlag, the persistent coughing, the catching-up with everyone and everything else, not to mention work, which brings me once again to India where I am right now. So I have been making a conscious effort to calm my nerves, partly by listening to folk music or the many rock varieties of it anyway. Here are three from a playlist I call Folk Everybody!

thin blue flame : josh ritter
click here or on the image below to listen. a whopping 9m 38s

This is the most impressive track from The Animal Years, the latest album by Idaho native Josh Ritter. It becomes a commendable work if you take it for what it is and look past the obvious influences from the more familiar names in the genre. In short, it lacks originality, but is worth a listen anyway. Ritter has been compared to Dylan and Springsteen, not just for the way he sounds but also for the maturity of his perspective on the themes he explores. The Animal Years is a politically charged album, a sharp (thanks to a weathered voice that also sounds like he would knock your teeth out at a slight provocation) and highly literate jab at things that make you throw your hands up and wonder how the world fucked up. "I just felt so angry; I felt like something was on my back," he told an early interview with Billboard, when asked why his new album differed from his prior autobiographical work. "These are a collection of songs about confusion and about where this country is going. It's not as much a political record, but just a diary of things I observe, how divisive everyone is, no matter whose side you're on." I just have to say, however, that there are tracks where, musically and vocally, he channels Grant McLennan more than anyone else. The intro to Girl in The War is practically torn from the same chord sheet as McLennan's One By One. Where Ritter excels is in his songwriting, and you can get a load of how much he has to say in Thin Blue Flame, a surreal vision of what becomes of the universe when its inhabitants and creator stop giving a damn. My favorite line: 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. At nearly 10 minutes, you can call the song overstretched and contrived, but it intrigued me on first listen and it interests me up to now. Try to see how much of it you can handle.

i got nobody waiting for me : m. craft
click here or on the image below to listen. 3m 48s

The problem with the one-act-one-guitar route is that there is very little room for innovation. Here's a theory with no scientific backing whatsoever, because to have one would require reading a good sampling of album and artist reviews since Mr Zimmerman became the benchmark of the genre since, oh, 1963? The theory is: Music critics make more artist comparisons when they review works by acoustic singer-songwriters than by full-on rock bands or even pop newcomers. Count the number of comparisons in this review of Silver and Fire by M. Craft (it stands for Martin). I counted six. Six! Now count the same in this review of St Elsewhere by the breakthrough duo Gnarls Barkley. How many? Just three. What accounts for the difference is rather obvious: How many ways can a solo act express the same thought or emotion with the same minimal instruments? Not a lot, I suppose, but then again, does it really matter? In this song, Craft, a London-residing Australian, pays homage to the late Elliott Smith, with his guitar as crisp and his vocals as wispy as Smith's in Between The Bars. In the end, what matters is whether the song, album or artist speaks to you or not, and in this case – in my case – Craft is a good companion indeed.

duet for guitars #1 : m. ward
click here or on the image below to listen. 2m 15s

Now here's a brave take on folk innovation. M. Ward (it's Matt this time) describes his own work as "guitar music," and in this song, guitar is what it's all about. It's a short instrumental piece that's equal parts embracing, paranoid, acerbic and spooky. The parallel playing of notes high and low from the middle toward the end of the song is almost grating to the ears, but it also plays with your senses and conjures up a dream populated by bad characters. And no, I'm not taking anything. I don't have an M. Ward album – this song comes from the excellent compilation Matador At Fifteen, referring to the 15th anniversary of the venerable indie label – but the three songs of his that I have are enough for me to put him in the genre-busting category. Sweethearts on Parade starts off like an intro to an electronica track, until the strums of an acoustic guitar come in and his near-falsetto voice croons old-school style. Four Hours in Washington starts grunge-like, until a flamenco-inspired guitar breaks in, followed by successive infusions of deep percussion, trumpets, cymbals and piano. It's confusing. It's weird. It's an acid-and-base solution that stirs you up and can either rip your guts or blow your brains out. In other words, it's good for you.

08 August 2006

a not-so-little luggage saga

great car dealer war : drive-by truckers
click here or on my backpack below to listen

I hate to start my first post-vacation blog on a negative note, but I feel that I have to publicly vent my frustration with Emirates Airlines just to get some form of revenge. I am by nature a very patient person – to a fault, my best friend would say – but the Dubai-based carrier rattled my nerves for a good part of the last two weeks. For reasons you will learn in a bit, I am still unsettled, but to a much lesser degree now. Hence this song that rings of understated rage by Drive-By Truckers, who have been dubbed by All Music Guide as "the greatest hard-rock band in America today." Even for someone who doesn't listen to hard rock very much, I think that's a bit of a stretch. Anyhow, Great Car Dealer War is a previously unreleased outtake from their excellent 2004 album The Dirty South. I got it from a free CD that came with Comes With A Smile, a small British magazine that seems to focus on American indie acts – a good but very niche idea.

First, a little bit of background. As I said in a previous post, my significant other and I went to Greece for our summer holiday, flying Emirates Airlines with stops in Dubai both ways. At the end of our holiday together, R and I separated in Dubai, with her going home and me proceeding to a solo trek in Iran and then a visit with friends to the UK. I flew with Iran Air to Tehran, and with British Airways to London, using Dubai as my hub. Why? It was a cheaper proposition than using Emirates for my entire itinerary. The BA flight, for one, was free, because I used some of the frequent-flier miles I have accumulated. First class, no less!

Now count with me from 1 to 10 and exhale ... bloody mother@#&^%# Emirates! I checked my backpack in Athens on the way to Dubai on July 22nd. They were supposed to transfer it to my Iran Air flight to Tehran the next day. Lo and behold, there was no luggage on my arrival in Tehran. This was a major hassle for me, as I was scheduled to go straight from the airport to the foot of Mount Damavand on the same day and start my climb on the next. Given my limited time, I had no choice but to file a report with Iran Air, go to the mountain without my luggage, and rent my clothing and gear from my guide, a $50 damage to my wallet.

I called Iran Air as soon as I came back from Mount Damavand on the 27th. After about 15 minutes of listening to the phone ring, being put on hold, and hearing a long-winded explanation, I was told that I would be better off just picking up my luggage in Dubai when I came back. That would be four days later, which meant I had to shop for new shirts, underwear and socks, because I had been wearing the same clothes I arrived in five days ago. (That was the longest stretch of time I wore the same items of clothing straight without taking them off.)

Flying back to Dubai on the evening of the 31st, I had five hours to nag Emirates about my luggage before heading to London. Apparently, one of their ground crew had put in the computer system that my luggage had been transferred to Iran Air, but they failed to physically do so. They offered an awful lot of excuses, the most outrageous being they didn't have enough time to transfer my backpack between the two aircraft. I was on a 12-hour layover! They had half a day to move one bag from one plane to another plane! In the same airport! I nearly blew my top upon hearing this, but in my typical character, I simply took a deep breath and said it calmly but firmly. Other excuses were given, and I ended up feeling sorry for the person I was dealing with because he was miserably covering for his incompetent colleagues. He suggested that to speed things up, I could look for my luggage in their storage myself – and then he realized it wasn't feasible because it meant I would have to get out of passport control and I didn't have a proper visa. With that, he promised that their luggage crew would look for my backpack and transfer it to my British Airways flight.

Needless to say, that didn't happen either. Without really thinking, I asked British Airways if they could message Emirates to send my bag to London. The staff seemed to be accommodating of my request, and asked for my file reference number. Looking it up in their system, the BA staff saw that the file case had been closed – it said the bag was transferred to Iran Air and that if it was really missing, then my only recourse was to chase Iran Air. For a while, I thought he even gave me a look as though I was making up a lost-luggage story to make a fake claim. Wanker! My other option was to go to the Emirates counter, but it was in another terminal. At that point, I had lost my patience to narrate the snafu perpetrated by the stupid bumbling Emirates ground crew in Dubai, and so I said to myself, Fine, I will just deal with it when I get back there – again – for my final trip home.

Back in Dubai on the morning of August 6th, Emirates told me the same story: that the luggage was in Dubai, that perhaps the claim tag had been accidentally removed so it never got to London, that they were going to look for it, and that they were going to load it in my Emirates flight home. As expected, it didn't turn up. So I went to the luggage-services desk at my home airport and asked them to deal with it with Emirates.

Just hours ago, I called the airport people and received promising news: Emirates found a "definite match" of my lost luggage, but offered no word of when they would send it to me. The airline flies here once a day – if all goes well, the soonest my bag would get here is Thursday morning. To be honest, I am ready to charge everything to experience, after claiming with insurance, of course. Perhaps I wouldn't be having this problem had I taken the costlier Emirates flight to Tehran instead of the cheap Iran Air. You live, you learn. But R is getting positive vibes, and I sure hope she's right.

Watch this space.