Friday, December 11, 2009

ONA Year In Review: 2009

Click here for the 2009 Video Time Capsule.

Sometimes you have to hit bottom in order to learn what's really important to you. And did One Note Ahead ever hit bottom in 2009! Since ONA's inception in October of '06, I'd used MySpace to promote it. There were occasional problems with MS, but they were short-lived. Then during the first 3 or 4 months of 2009, ONA suffered a two-sided indignity: MS blocked all links to ONA, redirecting users to a page claiming that ONA was "very naughty" and was most likely a spamming, phishing, or virus website. (In truth, the problem was that certain other sites on this webhost were allegedly problematic, leading MySpace to block the entire domain -- this problem still exists on occasion.)

While the content and readership of ONA in 2008 were solid, I'd lost sight of the diversity that used to characterize the blog. As a result, I lost a lot of the diversity in my readership. Without realizing this, I just so happened to start reintroducing diversity into the blog -- but there wasn't necessarily an audience for it. I had to find a diverse readership once again, and I had to do so by deliberately posting more material that would interest different kinds of people.

I tried new methods of promoting ONA and tracking its visibility. Some of them worked, but jumping on yet another social networking bandwagon didn't do much good. Yes, One Note Ahead's Facebook page got a nice little group of "fans" including some ONA musicians, but it hasn't gone viral as I'd hoped. Despite the woes of MySpace, people apparently prefer it for keeping up with ONA.

I never wanted to give up One Note Ahead, but in July I decided that if it didn't appear to be back on the upswing by October, I'd end it before the year was out. The year is nearly over now; One Note Ahead isn't.

And now, some of the highs and lows of 2009.

My favorite ONA lines from 2009:

[about SuperJimenez] Then there's "Rescue Remedy," in which drummer Daz Coen lays down a subtle trip-hop beat and lead singer Ronan Cunningham comes in crooning a Dido-ish melody; this shouldn't work, but it does. (from Album Review: A Jimenez Most Super)

[about Bojibian] Incidentally, they're named in honor of rock legends Bo Diddley and Jibi Hendrix. Not buying that? Okay, fine: they're actually named after Armenian financier A. Randolph Bojibian, who funded their first recording session. Okay, fine! In truth, "Bojibian" doesn't mean anything. (from Now Hear This! - Vol. 2)

[about Matt Duke at the XPN festival, with Tim McGlone in his band] He also turned the lead spotlight over to Tim for one song, McGlone's catchy "Hollywood." During this number, a friend of mine was grooving along but nevertheless leaned over to me and said, "Not as good as Duke!" Well.....who is? (from XPoNential Function, Part One)

[about Sarah Borges and the Broken Singles at the XPN festival]
Meeting them afterwards, I found them to be every bit as fun and funny as they were on stage. Smart, too: Sarah had introduced a slowish number by saying that slow songs are a great way to get to know the person next to you, if you get her drift. Maybe so, but it was actually during a fast number that I found a new dancing partner, and I told Sarah as much after the show. "Did you meet someone?" asked Sarah with a surprising amount of enthusiasm, to which I replied, "I did! During 'Stop and Think It Over,' I believe." After getting over her enthusiasm, Sarah admonished, tongue somewhat in cheek, "Well: Stop! And think it over before you do anything." (from XPoNential Function, Part One)

[about Illinois at the XPN festival] My XPN member newsletter refers to them as "indie-rockers." Oh, really? At the festival, they played a stompin' folk-rock raveup, then a number with hip-hop beats and heavy synthesizers, then a piano ballad; their last song was a funky thang with a banjo and ear-splitting electric guitars. This ain't no indie-rock band. (from XPoNential Function, Part Two)

Michael is an extremely prolific film and TV composer. Kevin is a movie star. So are The Bacon Brothers any good or are they just trading on their success in other endeavors? Well........they're actually good! (from XPoNential Function, Part Two)

Norristown, PA, a scenic train ride from Philadelphia, is home to an up-and-coming bunch of rockers known as Reality Stricken. The title of their latest EP, Signal Fire, is fitting because.....this stuff is hot! (from EP Review: Get Stricken!)

And the "Please don't ever die again!" award goes to: (drumroll, please) Michael Jackson. A lot of people have complained that MJ was sent off too positively: many of his fans let him off the hook for things they'd hold against anyone else, and some in the media suddenly stopped treating him as a sideshow and started treating him as a saint just because he was dead. All true, but in my circle, the problem was not that people sent him off too positively; the most outspoken actually acted as if he never did anything good in his life, acknowledging his talent reluctantly if at all. One needn't approve of his personal behavior to feel a sense of loss now that he's dead; Frank Sinatra and James Brown didn't have the cleanest hands, but they were damn good (and extremely significant) artists -- their deaths affected me on that level. Though Michael Jackson reached a previously unseen level of public bizarreness, I can only judge him so much; I never even met the guy, and I really cannot know all the details of what happened in his personal life. I was appalled that normally reasonable people who were in the same boat nevertheless tore into MJ and anyone who stood up for his right to have an artistic legacy. I don't care whether MJ's detractors intended to take their anger out on appreciators of his talent; bottom line is, a lot of them did. The so-called debates that raged in the first 24 hours following MJ's death were good only for turning friends into enemies and complete strangers into instant adversaries -- I literally lost my appetite. One such "debate" started immediately after MJ's death had been confirmed, when one of my Facebook friends posted a status update which read: "One more child molester off the street." In response, ONA-approved Jim Boggia made the only worthwhile contribution that anyone (myself included) ended up making to the ensuing comment thread: "It was Off The Wall. Know your history."

EP of the Year: Eligible EP's are contemporary releases which I own and gave full reviews or referred to repeatedly on ONA in 2009: Tim Laigaie's Out of Focus, Jake Snider's The Seven, Panic Years' eponymous debut, and Reality Stricken's Signal Fire. These are all good, but the two strongest contenders are Panic Years and Signal Fire. Signal Fire is simply a mind-blowing rock EP, a non-stop wild rush of face-melting mania with sophisticated songwriting and excellent production. Then again, Panic Years presents a sound that's hard to describe and even harder to forget: derivative in theory, distinctive in practice; raw and crude on the surface, beautiful and delicate at heart. Both releases are all killer, no filler affairs whose songs reveal more and more depth with every listen, and anyone who wants proof that some of today's best rock music can be found in Philly needs to hear these EP's. That said, I'm gonna risk my hide and give the nod to Panic Years. Incorporating a wider range of influences than Signal Fire, Panic Years is more representative of what I've actively sought to embrace with ONA this year, namely the synthesis of diverse elements into one complex-yet-accessible whole.

Album of the Year: Same eligibility criteria as EP of the Year. Candidates are The Guggenheim Grotto's Happy The Man, SuperJimenez's BANG, Butterfly Boucher's Scary Fragile, Tim McGlone's Street Sounds, Diane Birch's Bible Belt, Tippy Canoe & the Paddlemen's Parasols & Pekingese, and The Swimmers' People Are Soft. Wow, a lot of interesting albums here, and a lot of fascinating stories surrounding them, but this award must go to Happy The Man. Unless you're a close friend of mine, you have no idea how miserable I was in January. Then I listened to Happy The Man, and for a young man going through (cliche coming in a major existential crisis, it was a life-changing experience. It didn't answer all my questions, nor was it alone in helping me come to better understandings about life, but it did give me quite a lot to think about and it soothed my wounds while I was thinking. Besides, it really is a consistently great album; to my ears, there are no throwaway tracks. While I can say the same thing about Scary Fragile and People Are Soft, Happy The Man gets the edge because of its profundity and, like the Panic Years EP, its effortless synthesis of surprisingly diverse musical elements.

That said, I am extremely happy that my Scary Fragile review was quoted in a Butterfly Boucher press release (although as of this date, typing in will only get you here indirectly -- but it's the thought that counts!).

Must-Hear Track of the Year: "Breakdown" by Tim McGlone. This was the first track I raved about in the Now Hear This! series, and with damn good reason! While I'm at it...

Live Moment of the Year: Tim McGlone and The Turn were performing at World Cafe Live's Beta Hi-Fi Festival. Going from memory, I'd say the date was August 17th. Audience members voted for their nightly favorites, and Tim and the Turn won. Not surprising considering the level of showmanship: for the dramatic reprise on his closing song "Confidence," Tim slung his guitar behind his back, grabbed his mic from out of the stand, stepped onto a vacant chair in front of the stage, then stepped onto the vacant table in front of that chair, leaned back, and shouted: "Yeah, yeah, yeah, I GOT this WAY with CON-fidence!" He sure did.

2009 has been a rough year, but we sure have had some excellent music to talk about here! I thank you all for either standing by One Note Ahead, coming back to it, or getting into it this year and I hope you'll stick around for next year. As long as people are reading and I have the time, I'll keep ONA going. All the best for whatever holidays you're celebrating and as always, stay tuned -- you never know what'll be on One Note Ahead next!

Copyright © 2009 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.

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One Video Ahead: 2009 Time Capsule

As previously announced, I decided not to do One Note Ahead Live this year, but I did decide to make a video time capsule with a mix of videos. Not all of these videos are from 2009, but they are all about artists I've featured here in 2009. Not every ONA artist from this year will be included; basically, these are current artists who interest me most and/or have the best relevant videos online.

Let's start with two from last year's holiday season:

Sarah Borges and the Broken Singles previewing "Do It For Free"

Sharon Little (and Scot Sax) performing "Follow That Sound" --

Now that we've got you in the holiday spirit, let's move on...

Panic Years profile and performance (I was there when this live footage was shot)

The Guggenheim Grotto performing "Her Beautiful Ideas"

The Swimmers performing "A Hundred Hearts"

Tim McGlone and The Turn performing "Breakdown" --

Butterfly Boucher performing "Gun For A Tongue" --

And to close, two particularly interesting pieces.

Tippy Canoe in the super-cool music video for "Mass Transmissions"

And finally, some of The Bacon Brothers' XPN festival set was packaged as an episode of the PBS TV series On Canvas. If you watch this episode, look towards the bottom right-hand corner during the performance segments....see if you can spot a certain dancing machine wtih a 'fro and a striped shirt.....(ahem) --

Continue to the Year In Review.

Text copyright © 2009 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.

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Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Big News: 3 ONA Favorites

Just when I thought there was no news left to publish, huge news came my way from three One Note Ahead mainstays. Ready?

=> On an uplifting note, The Idles are gearing up to release their new EP, Arrogance Through Ignorance, and you can get a taste in advance. The official statement from the band's MySpace bulletin:

Its been a while, but we've been well and truly busy finishing the EP and getting it just right. We've put a sneak peek for you, so head to our MySpace page for a listen. Let us know what you think.

The full EP is out for release on iTunes and all other digital providers online on the 14th December, with the official launch party in Liverpool at the Masque on the 12th, everyone's invited so come along and bring your friends, you don't wanna miss it.

So all my Liverpool readers, mark your calendars! For all of you in the rest of the world, the MySpace preview consists of snippets of the new tracks. I know The Idles are up for a review, so I expect the EP to be one of the first releases I review in 2010.

=> You know how big a supporter I've been of Drexel University's MAD Dragon Records. I even had the pleasure of working in conjunction with MDR as a publicist last fall (
click here for details). And with MDR being one of the most buzzed-about labels on the Philly scene, you'd think this next news item would be getting more attention. As it was, it went right over my head and I needed some actual MDR folks to point it out to me. From Philadelphia City Paper, issue dated November 12, 2009:

Major stuff: [Ropeadope Records founder Andy Hurwitz] — Baby Loves Disco-tech, Temple U teacher, Piazza at NoLibs booker/broker — left those latter two jobs up north (but never the 'Dopey) for points west: He'll start a gig teaching at Drexel and running Mad Dragon records, home of The Swimmers, Andrew Lipke, etc. This all means that mad Terry Tompkins was let go from the Dragon but stays on as professor at DU.

This almost coincides with a vague statement on
MDR's MySpace page, dated September 5, 2009: As the summer draws to an end, we at MDR are keeping busy supporting our artists and staying on top of label business. We are also saying goodbye to a few dear staff members...

What is the ultimate meaning of all this? Good question. The rumor mill is already grinding away, and I'm not about to contribute to it. But having an inside track to MDR, I can say that the label's going through a major transitional period. The end of Terry Tompkins' reign as President of MAD Dragon's record division signifies the end of an era from an ONA-centric perspective. From
the first Matt Duke feature over three years ago, Terry was a big part of the label and even set up a couple of ONA reviews himself. But then again, certain other people who were also part of the label in 2006 are still part of the label today, and they're still committed to supporting real talent that deserves more exposure. Given Ropeadope's reputation as a cutting-edge label, and Andy Hurwitz's involvement in innovative endeavors, it's difficult to predict what direction MAD Dragon Records will take next. But I can't imagine it'll be boring. Meanwhile, don't forget the Dragon! The Swimmers' excellent People Are Soft is the label's latest release.

=> Reaching back to 2006 for another longtime ONA favorite, I'm afraid I have some sad news: SuperJimenez have called it quits. The news came rather abruptly through
MySpace via frontman Ronan Cunningham:

Superjimenez are no more

Thanks to everyone who said something nice.
Thanks to DJ's and fans that played and sang our songs.
Thanks to promoters and festivals for giving us stage time.
Thanks for the good reviews.

To the begrudgers...fuck you all.

Music is a tough business. To everyone who ever picks up a guitar or writes a song in search of fame, glory or whatever reason, I wish you all the luck in the world.

No regrets, I may be back myself at some stage.

I think I sometimes oversold the band, but when they were at their best, I thought they made brilliant pop/rock and I thought they deserved to find an audience beyond Ireland. But Ronan is right: music is a tough business. Remember, these guys went through hell just to get one album made, dealing with record label issues and having to fight the Irish government for nine months to get their Australian lead guitarist back. So not every last track in their small catalogue is the stuff of legend; they still leave behind a lot of wonderful tunes that should not pass into obscurity. Get thee to iTunes while the goods are still there.

Well, this news bulletin has been dramatic! Unless some more big updates come a-knockin', here's what I have planned for the rest of 2009:

There will be no One Note Ahead Live this year. I'd love to do it, but I'm not pleased with most of the relevant live videos.

There will be a big year-end wrap-up, possibly in two parts.

There will be no more new reviews in 2009, but there may be new entries in the "Now Hear This!" and "One Video Ahead" series.

I'm really looking forward to wrapping up 2009 in high style and kicking off 2010 in even higher style. Thank you for reading and stay tuned!

Copyright © 2009 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.

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Monday, November 9, 2009

One Note Ahead Update #3

It's time once again for updates on some of our favorites.

=> I announced last month that The Swimmers' second album, People Are Soft, would drop on November 3rd. Now I have it and I cannot stop listening to it! As enjoyable and well-received as their first album was, they could have just made a carbon copy for their second. Instead, The Swimmers opted to break loose, crafting intense songs about human vulnerability and performing them with remarkable gusto amidst fascinating sonic landscapes. People Are Soft is truly an album-length statement, and best appreciated as such. I've run out of profound things to say about the album, so......just give it a chance, eh?

=> Our good friend Matt Duke is not doing so well; he's fractured his right hand and has had to stop performing for the time being. He's updated us on his blog, but in the meantime, I hope all of us in the One Note Ahead family wish him the best. I know I do.

=> On a brighter note, remember how April Smith asked for your help in funding her next record? Well, she exceeded her goal and is currently working on the album! Congrats, April.

=> In our last update, I said that Downtown Harvest had a new album in the works. It's out now, and it's called Discovering Dinosaurs. It's been a long gestation period, with the forthcoming release announced at times as an album called Taco Hospital (greatest album title ever rejected), an EP called Shimmy, and an album called More Than Friends -- maybe not in that exact order, but I know everything else I said is correct! At any rate, Discovering Dinosaurs is available at all DTH shows and will hit iTunes next month. I don't even have my copy yet, but I hope to change that soon. If you're in the same boat, check MySpace for some new tunes.

=> Finally, I'm trying to keep up with Nicole Atkins.....I really am......but it's difficult these days. After two EPs and one album, she and Columbia Records have parted ways; she's now looking to move to a smaller label. She's out on the road trying out new songs on her live audiences, and plans to record her next album this coming winter. If you've been missing her in person (I have), live performances of her new songs keep showing up on YouTube; so many, in fact, that I'm waaaaayyyy behind in checking them all out! You can also listen to a live audio recording of her new song "The Tower" on MySpace.

And that is all for now!

Copyright © 2009 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.

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Saturday, October 24, 2009

Now Hear This! - Vol. 3

You know how this goes by now: a bunch of earworms that you might've missed out on, some of which are oldies, others more recent. I try to make sure you can find them all as individual tracks online, and I tell you which albums they're on if you want more than one song. Songs from albums or EP's I've already reviewed on One Note Ahead are not eligible.

Let's do this!


"Polite Society," Maia Sharp (available on Echo)

I found out about this artist because she was supposed to open for The Guggenheim Grotto here in Philly. That ultimately didn't happen, but I did get to discover this fantastic slab of impossibly sweet-sounding angry rock 'n' roll. The biting lyrics ("The greater good you go on about has been redefined to keep everyone out") are offset by smooth vocals and a melody that could've come out of the Brill Building. A must-hear for fans of female singer/songwriters, but it has great potential to appeal to a much wider audience.

"Lost and Found," Victor Victor Band (available on Chatterbox)

Like The White Stripes but better. Hyperbole? Damning with faint praise? Check out Philly-based couple Jamie and Danielle Victor and decide for yourself. Personally, I'll reconsider my opinion when Meg White can play keys and drums at the same time like Danielle does. I honestly cannot explain why this particular track from their current album stands out to me. I just know that I can't get it out of my head. And hey, ONA loyalists, did I mention that Andrew Lipke produced it?

"Once Was Love," Ingrid Michaelson (available on Everybody)

You might recall that Ingrid was a major ONA darling last year. Of all the songs on her new album, "Maybe" was chosen as the lead single, "Soldier" became the opening track, "Everybody" lent its title to the album, and "The Chain" seems to be the pick hit in my circle -- at least among the ladies! All those songs have their merits, but "Once Was Love" leapt out at me like no other track on the album: a hypnotic, slightly sharp-tongued ode to love gone cold, with Ms. Michaelson doing some unusual vocal acrobatics over an arrangement that at times sounds like it was copied from the Philly soul playbook. Ingrid, if you're reading, you might want to consider this as a single.

And now, a bonus: I told you that ONA favorite Jake Snider was releasing a new EP called The Seven. It's been available at his shows and is supposed to get an online release later this fall, but if you can't wait, check out the amazing "All You Need," a standout track which is streaming on Jake's MySpace page now.


"You Won't Forget Me," Jackie De Shannon (available on What The World Needs Now Is...Jackie De Shannon - The Definitive Collection)

Jackie De Shannon sure had a lot going against her, writing and singing serious pop, folk-rock, and soul songs at a time when white female singers weren't supposed to write their own material, sing serious music, or sing soul music. And folk-rock wasn't a recognized style, either. Think I'm exaggerating? Perhaps a bit, but Jackie sure was a trailblazer. Take "You Won't Forget Me," a sophisticated pop composition in which the female protagonist takes an empowered stance against her cheating lover. Powerful stuff for 1962 -- too powerful, probably, for radio at the time.

"Little By Little," Dusty Springfield (available on Dusty Springfield Gold)

Well, I had to go from one trailblazing woman to another! Dusty was so influenced by American music that it's easy to forget she was from the UK, where she had much more chart success than she did here. For example, "Little By Little" was stuck on a B-side in the US, while her UK label recognized it as hit material and released it as an A-side. It's a bouncy Motownish number with a great melody, but let's remember that Dusty was a great interpreter of song. In this case, she injected the lyrics with a lot of fire while also retaining the cool, understated feel the melody demanded. A delicate balance, to be sure, but she nailed it.

"Turn Up Your Radio," The Masters Apprentices (available on Fully Qualified - The Choicest Cuts)

Though it is under-recognized worldwide, Australia has a colorful rock 'n' roll history of its own. The Masters Apprentices were one of the top Aussie rock acts of all time, and "Turn Up Your Radio" was one of their most beloved hits. The 1960s were turning into the 1970s, and rock was getting louder and heavier. These Apprentices edged into near-metal territory with a song whose lyrics paid homage to early rock 'n' roll of the 1950s! Somehow, it worked. Loud, raunchy, crude, and brilliant, this song reminds us all that no matter how the music changes, rock 'n' roll is still rock 'n' roll.

I hope these earworms keep you entertained for now.

Copyright © 2009 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.
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One Video Ahead: Oh, Diane!

So a few months ago, I spotlighted "Fools" by Diane Birch in my Now Hear This! series. I was trying to demonstrate that she has more good songs besides the ubiquitous "Nothing But A Miracle," a point which I would have preferred to drive home with good live videos of her performing such songs. But I wasn't pleased with what was out there.....until recently.

Here are a couple of songs she performed for Spinner's The Interface. First, let's go with "Fools."

Now another favorite of mine, "Valentino."

I haven't even had time to watch it all, but there is more where that came from:

Text copyright © 2009 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.
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Friday, October 16, 2009

One Video Ahead: Exclusive Michael!

I know I've spent a lot of time avoiding the volatile subject of Michael Jackson, but the new "This Is It" song and movie are not the only lost MJ treasures finally being unearthed. I've gotten ahold of exclusive video of a previously unaired, unreleased interview with and performance by The King of Pop himself, and whether you're a fan of his or not, you have to see this!

Okay, okay, sorry about that. But I really think the subject of MJ needs a little good-natured humor now and then. That was actually Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry back in 1990 on their BBC sketch comedy series A Bit of Fry and Laurie.

Here's another one for you, featuring Steve Martin and Jay Thomas in 1984 on the short-lived NBC sketch comedy series The New Show.

And that's about all for now.

Text copyright © 2009 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.
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Sunday, October 11, 2009

In the interest of disclosure.

The Federal Trade Commission recently issued new guidelines to remove the veil of secrecy from bloggers' faces. The FTC wants us to disclose whether we are getting freebies or kickbacks in exchange for our reviews. I haven't yet made up my mind whether this is merely well-intentioned government action to protect consumers or an attempt on the part of our government to discredit bloggers. Either way, I've got nothing to hide.

I have at times reviewed products I paid for. But if I can get free a CD or DVD in exchange for my review, I might just take advantage. "Might" -- I have standards when it comes to what I review for One Note Ahead.

Take the DVD set Elvis: The Ed Sullivan Shows. A marketing company contacted me about posting a press release or review on ONA. I wasn't going to post a press release and merely advertise a product I had no connection with. However, I did some research on the product and decided that I would most likely be able to write a review that was both favorable and honest, so I agreed to review it. The marketing company sent me a copy of the DVD set, and the rest was history. I still have the DVDs; incidentally, this article claims that traditional journalistic venues (as opposed to blogs) typically must return products they receive for review, but I really haven't known this to be the norm in music journalism. And bear in mind that I have worked as both a music journalist and a music publicist.

There have been plenty of instances in which artists, bands, and their representatives offered me a complimentary copy of an album or EP for review. I accept the offer only if I believe I can write a review that is (here it comes again) both favorable and honest. I don't review artists or products I don't like; it serves no one's purpose and it wastes my time.

Now, there have also been times when I've offered to review an artist or band and they (or a representative thereof) accepted my offer and gave me a free copy of whatever they wanted me to review. This is just the way things work, people! But I always operate on this principle: if I offer to review an album, EP, or DVD and get a free copy only to decide I don't want to review it, I will pay for it. I will not review it just to avoid having to pay for it.

I have NEVER requested or accepted payment for my reviews. If someone puts me on the guest list to a show or does me some other favor because they like my review, fine -- I don't expect it or demand it, but it's a nice gesture when it happens. But no monetary bribes or rewards! I refuse to play that game as a reviewer and as a publicist because the moment I do, there goes my integrity and thus my credibility. One Note Ahead has never been a money-making endeavor. Why do you think it takes a backseat whenever I'm otherwise occupied? I never wanted One Note Ahead to be bound up with the need to make money because as a music journalist I had gotten so concerned with making money that I began to devote less consideration to the music. I always wanted ONA to be pure in that sense, but that means I need to make money elsewhere and the blog must become a secondary or tertiary priority when my income-generating work leaves me little to no blogging time.

In closing, I will add the following: I no longer make a habit of reviewing albums, EPs, or DVDs I paid for. I might do it occasionally, but most of the products reviewed on ONA from 2008 onward were freebies. If someone gives me a freebie and asks for nothing in return, I may or may not review it. That said, the "Now Hear This!" series is open anything that's available to the general public, whether I paid for it or not. I've only ever reviewed one book on ONA; it was a book I read because someone in the music business recommended it and I happened to find interesting enough to review.

Any questions?

Copyright © 2009 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.
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Sunday, October 4, 2009

Album Review: Tippy Canoe (but no Tyler)

On one song, it's jaunty country-rock. On another, it's '80s power pop. '60s girl-group styles dominate elsewhere, leaving Vaudeville, Tin Pan Alley, and Latin motifs to be explored on still other tracks.

And that's just the sound of this album.

Tippy Canoe & the Paddlemen are not exactly your typical indie-pop band. Parasols & Pekingese (Late Bloomers Works) is not exactly your typical indie-pop album.

Aside from the Randy Newman-ish "Monday Night Man," on which guitarist Mikie Lee Prasad takes the lead, the focal point of this record is girl-with-ukulele (were you expecting "guitar"?) Michele Kappel-Stone -- that's Tippy Canoe to you, thank you very much! Her songwriting is multifaceted, to say the least. She delves into the rich history of popular music with glee, but displays a thoroughly contemporary attitude with songs like "Mood-ish Me," whose lyrics include "Did I conjure you to saw me in half?" and "Kick my ass for my own sake."

I have to stop and let you digest that one.

Tippy is quite good at taking unexpected left turns and juxtaposing seemingly contradictory moods. "Champs-Elysees" has a bouncy melody and paints cheerful pictures of gumdrops falling on the street, yet it climaxes on a snarky "Ha ha joke's on you!" refrain. "Sleep, Sleep My Dear" is a chilling, macabre lullaby, but she sounds undeniably sexy dragging out its syllables in that robust voice of hers: "Sleeeeeeep, sleeeeeeep, my dee-heeeeeeeeeeeear......"

That voice is a captivating instrument, with an almost operatic lilt and a sweetness offset by Ms. Canoe's tendency to hit the notes ever-so-imperfectly. Instead of making her sound like a clueless American Idol hopeful, her natural imprecision brings nuances out of the notes, each tonal variation contributing to the memorability of the performances.

There's only one real complaint I have about the album, which is that the recording quality could stand improvement. I try to be forgiving of such things when it comes to independent and small-label releases because they are often made on a shoestring budget (if even that much). But at certain points on Parasols, Tippy's voice is somewhat buried in the mix and one must listen especially carefully to make out her lyrics. This is particularly true on "Mass Transmissions," an otherwise solid commentary on the culture wars we wage every day: "We hold so dear our warring contradictions, and often times they're just two sides of the same coin."

Michele is from Baltimore and is now based in Oakland, keeping a busy tour schedule when she can. Having seen her when she swung through Philly recently, I can tell you that she is a delight live and she plays a mean ukulele. If you get Parasols and Pekingese, be prepared for one of the most unusual -- and most interesting -- pop albums you've ever heard.

For music and more information:

Copyright © 2009 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.
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One Video Ahead: New Swimmers

Remember The Swimmers? They're baaaa-aaaack! And their new album, People Are Soft, promises to be a lot darker and heavier than their debut Fighting Trees. The Swimmers are previewing tracks on their website and MySpace right now, and they've also got a video for the song "What This World Is Coming To."

Yes, I know: I share video clips of live performances and interviews, but rarely do I share music videos. I'm not usually a fan of music videos, but this is one of the most striking pieces of audiovisual art I've seen in a long time. And take note: among its directors are Swimmers frontman Steve Yutzy-Burkey and Jonah Delso, not only a talented solo artist but also ONA-approved Tim McGlone's funky bass player. What a small world the Philly music scene is.

What This World Is Coming To from the swimmers on Vimeo.

People Are Soft is due from MAD Dragon Records on November 3rd.

Text copyright © 2009 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.
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Sunday, September 27, 2009

EP Review: Get Stricken!

"I'm the surefire cure to the angst you endure / So take me in without warning and call the doctor in the morning" (from "Stitches")

Norristown, PA, a scenic train ride from Philadelphia, is home to an up-and-coming bunch of rockers known as Reality Stricken. The title of their latest EP, Signal Fire, is fitting because.....this stuff is hot!

Every track on this EP leaps out of the speakers with enough force to blow down an entire block of rowhomes. This is the real rock sound of today, with big, loud riffs and chords, massive drums, and huge walls of shouted vocals. These guys are clearly in it for the love of music; nowhere on this EP will you find them watering down their style with poppy hooks and mundane lyrics just to get a hit. Instead, all of these songs are intricately constructed and arranged, with lyrics that challenge you to think without beating you over the head. Lead singer Steve Angello has an edge about his voice which is hard to describe and even harder to ignore. He gives an already powerful band an even more distinctive character. The songs on this EP are not only well-chosen, they're impeccably well-produced and recorded thanks to Chris Badami.

There is simply not a dull moment on this record, and by the time it's over you'll be cheering for more. All you can do is hit "Play" again. With releases this good, it's about damn time that the Philly-area rock scene got its due.

For music and more information:

Copyright © 2009 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.
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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Beatlemania Remastered - Part Two

See Part One for the introduction. And now, the individual reviews:

Please Please Me

Abbey Road had four-track recording capabilities, but all The Beatles were allowed to use was lousy two-track -- hence the binaural stereo soundscape. And some of the selections on this album were intended only as singles when the Fab Four laid them down in the studio: recorded in two-track to get a good balance on the mono mix used for the singles. In those days, recordings intended for singles would often be mixed and mastered in mono and then the multi-track session tapes required to make a stereo mix would be reused, discarded, lost, or destroyed. If the time came for those singles to reappear on a stereo album, the stereo pressings of the album would use alternate takes, fake stereo versions, or true stereo mixes that were somehow pieced together from whatever tapes remained. The Beatles were not immune to this! Thus, the stereo edition of their first album included fake stereo versions of the songs from their first EMI single, "Love Me Do" and "P.S. I Love You." Mercifully, the new CD includes these tracks in mono. But the album's title track was not spared. Mind you, the song "Please Please Me" does not appear in a fake stereo mix. It's true stereo, alright, but based on an inferior alternate take (in which there is a painfully obvious lyrical flub), with the harmonica passages cut-and-pasted from the mono version into the right channel. This is the atrocity I used to hear on oldies radio and I couldn't stand it as a teenager! I haven't grown any fonder of it now; if you want the correct version (the mono!) in clear sound quality, it's most readily available on the mono box set or the ubiquitous 1962-1966 CD comp from 1993.

Another issue with the Please Please Me album is that most of it was recorded in a marathon style throughout a single day. The remastering makes it clear just how raw The Beatles' voices were during these sessions, and did I mention that John had a bad cold? On the remaster of "Twist and Shout," you can hear how much John struggled, both because of his cold and because it was the last song they recorded that day.

So is this remaster too much of a good thing? Not entirely. Primitive though the mixes may be, the level of detail in the sound allows you to hear just how skilled these guys were as musicians even in this early stage. And the rawness is strangely charming, like you're at a show and these guys have been singing and playing non-stop all night long. Also, these mixes have not been soaked in echo like a lot of the US releases of the early Beatles, so they're crisper than what many of us Americans are used to hearing. You get to hear that less really is more on "There's A Place," and you can appreciate just how hard Ringo could rock (even as a singer!) on "Boys." "P.S. I Love You" is simply a revelation, with the distinct percussion parts finally being discernible from each other (Ringo was left to shake maracas while session man Andy White took over the drums).

The final analysis: If you love the early Beatles, you should get this remaster. If the middle or later Beatles are more your bag, you might not even like this album, so hearing it in remastered form probably won't change your feelings.

A Hard Day's Night

Well, this is the ultimate Beatlemania album, isn't it? But does the remaster do it justice? Let me see if I can answer that question in a classy, dignified manner.


Okay, I tried to contain my enthusiasm, but this remaster really is that good. The 1987 CD version sounded lifeless, and even the good stereo remasters of certain tracks on 1962-1966 didn't bring those tunes to life as much as this new CD does. The boys were now recording on four-track and could make more sophisticated records with more careful overdubs and more nuanced stereo mixes -- no binaural here. Listen to John and Paul's thoughtfully-layered vocals on the title track; Ringo's swinging drumming on "Can't Buy Me Love"; George's textured guitar playing on practically every selection. These cuts happened to be well-recorded by the standards of the time; while this remastered version does expose a few inherent flaws (the guitars on "I'll Be Back" never did sound right anyway), it mostly brings out the best in this album. "Tell Me Why," "Any Time At All," and "Things We Said Today" just leap out of the speakers, with both the fun and drama of those songs brought to the fore. And I never realized just how funky "You Can't Do That" was until I heard it here.

I should note that the stereo version of the album is materially different from the mono. You'll notice that the opening harmonica passage on the stereo "I Should Have Known Better" is not as smoothly played as it is on the mono (although it's a great song and recording either way). "If I Fell" has differences in the vocals and if you ask me, the vocals on the mono version are superior, though in both versions Paul's voice breaks on the word "vain" (if McCartney had a hard time hitting that note, you know it's a tough note to hit!). If you're trying to be a completist, you'll need the mono version of this album as well as the stereo.

The final analysis: You're reading this because you like The Beatles, right? Anyone who likes The Beatles should own this CD.

Beatles For Sale

This is probably The Beatles' most maligned album, and it's true that no amount of remastering will make "I Don't Want To Spoil The Party" less depressing or turn Ringo's butchering of "Honey Don't" into a tour de force. But it's still a Beatles album, so it still contains some classics and the 1987 reissue didn't present them in the best light.

Sometimes the stereo mixes on this album are just not as thoughtful as they were on A Hard Day's Night. It's clear in many cases that their main objective with four-track was to have more flexibility in the recording and mixing processes, not to create balanced stereo mixes. Still, hearing "No Reply" in crystal-clear stereo really brings out the darkness of the arrangement, the morbid piano chords and cymbal crashes jumping at you with dramatic intent. "I'll Follow The Sun" sounds warm and spacious, while a seeming throwaway like "Mr. Moonlight" becomes a multi-dimensional listening experience.

"Eight Days A Week" is a delight here. Squashed and warped on the 1987 reissue, it has unprecedented breathing room on this remaster, allowing you to hear how closely twined John and Paul's voices are on this brilliant co-lead vocal.

Then again, "I'm A Loser" just sounds too clean and, as a result, soft. I'm not about to lay down the cash for that mono box set, so the 1987 mono will have to suffice -- it's listenable and unlike the stereo remaster, it has teeth. "Every Little Thing" is also too pristinely remastered, to the point that the vocals hit me right in the head, and not in a good way. The stereo version on The Capitol Albums, Vol. 2 has minor flaws, but it's easier on my ears.

The final analysis: Since it is one of their least celebrated albums, you have to really like it (or at least some of it) in order to consider this remaster a worthwhile purchase. It's worth buying if you really do care that deeply about the content of this album; otherwise, you can live without it.

If you have any comments about these or the other new Beatle remasters, please share them -- but please be civil. Thank you.

Copyright © 2009 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.
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Monday, September 14, 2009

Beatlemania Remastered - Part One

You've seen and heard the fuss by now: The Beatles' catalog has been remastered and reissued! But what's the significance of this? Basically, all of The Beatles' original UK albums, plus the US Magical Mystery Tour album, were released on CD in 1987. The first four albums were released in mono and the remainder in stereo. The CD era was young then, and the sound quality on the 1987 reissues has left many Beatle collectors wanting remasters. There has also been some dissatisfaction with the sound on the two Past Masters compilations of non-LP tracks. Finally, the albums and the Past Masters comps have been remastered.

But are they worth the money, especially in this recession?

Let's consider the facts: Past Masters is now a 2-CD set. The new reissues of the individual albums all feature the stereo versions of the albums. They do not feature new remixes; the Help! and Rubber Soul albums are presented in their 1987 remixes, the others in their original mixes. So you get familiar mixes, but they're supposed to sound clearer and livelier than before. For a limited time, the individual CDs contain mini-documentaries that you can view if you have the right computer equipment and software. There is also a stereo box set and a mono box set -- the latter also includes the original stereo mixes of Help! and Rubber Soul. Confused yet?

Personally, I wasn't convinced that I had to replace all of my Beatles CDs with these new remasters. I need to spend my money more practically, anyway. But I've been a good boy with my dough lately, so I could find room in the budget for three of these remasters in particular: Please Please Me, A Hard Day's Night, and Beatles For Sale. On the 1987 reissues of these albums, the sound quality was often muffled, flat, and one-dimensional. Some tracks on those CDs had at least passable sound, but there was a lot to be unhappy with. And they were in mono. Sometimes I prefer mono to stereo, but I like to have the choice.

I will review the new CDs individually, but some general comments first. Sometimes when oldies are remastered, they actually sound worse. Recording technology in the 1960s was nowhere near as sophisticated as it is now, and there are a lot of inherent defects in the sound of recordings from that era. And let us remember that Abbey Road Studios liked to reserve their best recording equipment for easy listening and orchestral recordings; thus, The Beatles and other "beat groups" did not get to make the best-sounding recordings they could make until they were powerful enough to convince Abbey Road to give up the goods. That said, remasters often do have the desired effect of making recordings sound better than ever before, and these Beatles albums both benefit and suffer from remastering.

Since these albums are short in length, EMI and Apple Corps could have included the mono and stereo mixes of each album on each individual CD; instead, one must buy the mono box set. That's simply unfair. And the mini-documentaries are nothing to write home about. Visually, each has a montage of photographs and old film clips. Vintage concert footage is haphazardly synched to studio recordings. You hear the individual Beatles and George Martin reflect on the making of these albums, but you need to rely on your own ears to tell who's who. These docs don't provide much insight that knowledgeable Beatles fans didn't already have. In addition to the original album notes, each CD comes with new liner notes, which are informative but you still have to look elsewhere if you want to dig deep. The packaging is nice, folding out into three parts and ostensibly eco-friendly -- much more pleasing than the original reissues.

See Part Two for the individual reviews. And if you have any general comments about the new Beatles remasters, please share them -- but please be civil. Thank you.

Copyright © 2009 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.
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Thursday, September 3, 2009

A Round of Tributes

This has been a summer of losses in the entertainment industry, and I'm not talking about dollars. A lot of great artists have passed on recently, and I've tried to pay tribute to some of them, but I am only one man!

Last week, fans of classic pop music lost two folks who might not have been household names, but there music sure was widely known. Ellie Greenwich wrote and produced some of the most beloved pop hits of all time. Don't believe me? Take a look. I've mentioned Artie Wayne here before and recommended his blog; well, his Ellie Greenwich tribute has attracted comments from many music business giants who knew her. Check out Artie's thoughts and the responses:

While you're at it, take a look at Artie's tribute to Larry Knechtel, not only a member of Bread but also one of the most prolific session musicians of all time:

If you know me, you know I've been largely avoiding the subject of Michael Jackson on One Note Ahead because, well, you've seen and perhaps been involved in the controversy. I dove headfirst into it myself right after he died and that was a mistake! But today is the date of his burial, which has me thinking about a blog posted in June by Boy Wonder, one of the big names on the Philly music scene. So he incorrectly identified Michael's cause of death; I still think this is one of the more intelligent fan tributes I've seen. And note how he lists "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" twice among Michael's greatest compositions; I'd like to think that's not a mistake.

Of course, there are plenty of other MJ tributes out there (including Artie's), but I wanted to share that one in particular.

That's all for now. Stay tuned.

Copyright © 2009 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.
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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

One Video Ahead: A Les Paul Tribute

I'm not a guitarist. I've never been. Even when I used to be a musician, I found the keyboards perfectly suited to my linear way of thinking while the guitar bewildered me. Maybe this is a good thing, for if I had ever seriously attempted to play the guitar, at some point I would have gotten hip to Les Paul. And I would have tried to play like him. And I would have failed miserably and given up the axe in shame.

Before giving up the instrument, I might've read how he built one of the first solid-body electric guitars and that the Gibson Les Paul became a favorite model of such rock giants as Keith Richards, Pete Townshend, and Jimmy Page. And I might've tried to invent my own innovative model, which of course would have led to nothing.

But wait! There's more! Multi-tracking is a recording technique that's long been near and dear to my heart. As a 14-year-old, I was fascinated and inspired that Gene Pitney transcended the limitations of early-1960s recording technology to multi-track himself into a full band. Little did I realize that Les Paul had pioneered that very technique more than a decade earlier!

See, I knew the name. I knew he was a big deal. But I didn't realize how big a deal he was until after he died last week at the age of 94. Let everyone else deliver the umpteenth story about that other great musical talent who passed away this summer; One Note Ahead will now present three Les Paul videos for your viewing and listening pleasure. Remember that the volume varies on these and that they might not be available forever.

Les Paul and his then-wife and partner Mary Ford demonstrate multi-tracking on "Omnibus" with Alistair Cooke, October 23, 1953. The techniques and Paul's playing are way ahead of their time.

I don't know the date on this one, but this is another demonstration: the Les Pulverizer!

Les Paul at 90, still going strong. From the documentary Les Paul: Chasing Sound!

Text copyright © 2009 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.
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Monday, August 10, 2009

Spotlight On: Panic Years

Let's not even try to come up with a label to pin on Panic Years; any label we could place on them wouldn't do them justice. And let's not begin with a list of their influences, for even when they are obviously influenced by another act, they still sound like Panic Years. Let's just say that if you're into recent or contemporary rock music, keep reading.

Panic Years began in Virginia Beach with singer Ed Everett and guitarist/keyboardist Amy Miller. With the assistance of Mark Padgett and Rob Sweitzer, the pair recorded the excellent Panic Years EP. Intricately-crafted melodies and complex drumming patterns provide a surprisingly sophisticated setting for the band's raw, angry lyrics -- and Ed's equally raw, angry vocals. Amy's fluid guitar work adds a bit of sheen to the proceedings while still providing the driving rhythms that keep the songs anchored. The music is aggressive, but it's also undeniably beautiful, transcending the narrow appeal of rock's subgenres to create something more universal.

Amy and Ed moved to Philadelphia last year, seeing the specialness in my fair city that so many Philly artists don't even see. They've since fleshed out Panic Years with new members to become a much beloved local act. I've yet to experience them in person, but the EP is one of the more engaging releases I've reviewed, and I recommend grabbing a copy online if you can't make it to the band's shows. If you can and do attend a show soon, maybe you'll see me there.

For music and more information:

Copyright © 2009 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.
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Tuesday, August 4, 2009

One Video Ahead: Bob Gaudio

I know I've got some fans of Frankie Valli and The 4 Seasons among my readers! Well, I became a fan of theirs during that awkward time period between their hit streak and their post-Jersey Boys resurgence. In other words, I became a fan when it wasn't cool. While it's great that Jersey Boys has renewed interest in the guys, I must admit I haven't even seen it yet. Maybe if it gets made into a movie, I'll rent it when the DVD comes out. I've seen various casts of Jersey Boys on TV and let's face it: good as the actors may be, nothing compares to the real thing. For me, the classic era of 1962-1970 does the trick. There were three constant members of The 4 Seasons, thus there was a sound and there were identifiable faces. While some of the later efforts were stellar, the band became more like a franchise owned by Frankie Valli and Bob Gaudio. Who? Well, if you're a devoted fan, you know who Bob Gaudio is. If you're a casual fan, you should learn about him. Either way, you'll get a whole lot out of this interview with Jian Ghomeshi on Canada's arts and culture series QTV.

Text copyright © 2009 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.
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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

XPoNential Function, Part Two

Continued from Part One.

Day Two: Saturday, July 25, 2009

Having had such a blast on Friday, I was really psyched about Saturday and Sunday. Slathered in sunscreen, umbrella packed despite forecasts for a clear day, I arrived at the festival grounds in time to hear and see local rockers The Peace Creeps. I must hand it to them for demonstrating the perils of well-intentioned but ill-advised covers. One month to the date after Michael Jackson's death, it was not surprising to hear covers of his or The Jackson 5's songs. As I was making my way through the festival grounds, I heard The Peace Creeps absolutely slaughtering "I Want You Back." Having never seen or heard them live, I thought, "This is what The Peace Creeps sound like? This is terrible!" But then they played their own songs and they sounded great!

Sharon Little is difficult to pin down genre-wise, but I truly believe she is a soul sister at heart. And she is such a photogenic performer that whenever I see her, it takes much discipline for me to actually pay attention to the music and not just take an endless stream of pictures. I once made a point of leaving my camera at home for that very reason. Thankfully, her River Stage set was too funky for me to even hold on to my camera; I took a couple of photos but I was too busy dancing to go overboard. Supported by Scot Sax (her partner in almost everything) and Josh Dion, she delivered a typically exhilarating performance marked by untamed vocals and all sorts of dramatic gestures. Combining established favorites with new songs, some of the latter featuring a nifty horn section, her set was one of the festival's strongest. Sharon is one of those rare artists who can make me smile and bring tears to my eyes at the same time. Go, sister, go!

Bands with geographical names are not always named in honor of their home turf, a case in point being Pennsylvania's Illinois. I was somewhat familiar with this band and was looking forward to seeing them take over the Marina Stage. My XPN member newsletter refers to them as "indie-rockers." Oh, really? At the festival, they played a stompin' folk-rock raveup, then a number with hip-hop beats and heavy synthesizers, then a piano ballad; their last song was a funky thang with a banjo and ear-splitting electric guitars. This ain't no indie-rock band. Illinois' festival set was, in a word, marvelous. Their musicianship was spectacular and frontman Arch was funny as hell. I wasn't the only one who was impressed: I made a point of getting to the festival merch table quickly to buy the band's CD The Adventures of Kid Catastrophe, but even in my haste all I could get my hands on was the next-to-last display copy. All the others had already sold out!

Michael is an extremely prolific film and TV composer. Kevin is a movie star. So are The Bacon Brothers any good or are they just trading on their success in other endeavors? Well........they're actually good! And they're wise enough to surround themselves with excellent supporting musicians. Their River Stage set of Americana rock was at times funny, at times moving, and always enjoyable. Michael came off as the serious, devoted musician; Kevin came off as the one who was in it for fun. They complemented each other well and they were both solid showmen. And I'm glad to report that Kevin did not have a "movie star" attitude on stage; he was just one of the guys and interacted nicely with the audience. I tried to meet the brothers Bacon afterwards, only to find that their meet and greet session took place before their set -- the worst part being that I had looked at the meet and greet schedule earlier and should have known that! No matter; I mostly just wanted to tell Kevin that I went to the same high school he went to.

Speaking of high school, I thought I'd first become aware of the eclectic They Might Be Giants during my 10th grade class trip to New York City, when one of my classmates handed me his Walkman (remember those?) and suggested I listen to them. After seeing them at the festival, I realized I'd been aware of their music for longer than I'd thought. See, I'd always enjoyed them whenever I heard them, but I was never a connoisseur. Still, I was definitely interested in checking out their performance, and I did just that with about six million of my closest friends in front of the River Stage. You need to have a forgiving sense of humor to appreciate the band's on-the-nose comedy: " the front: THE PEOPLE IN THE FRONT!!!!!" The band's stage act, and hearing their songs in the context of a festival featuring so many of my current favorites, taught me a lesson about They Might Be Giants and myself. Follow me here: TMBG are nerdy. I used to be. I used to really like TMBG. I'm no longer nerdy. I don't like TMBG as much as I used to. Don't get me wrong, I did enjoy their performance, but it represented a sort of bittersweet closure, a break from my old nerdy self if you will.

I should note that up to this point, I'd never seen anyone do an encore or even get asked for one by anyone from XPN. Maybe the fest's organizers took my complaints to heart (read the Matt Nathanson section of last year's Day Four if you don't know what I'm talking about). After TMBG's finale, I assumed there would be no encores and I walked away, but the crowd went so wild that the band came back out and played "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)." As if anything could compete with The Four Lads' version! Anyways, I was tired but I decided to head over to the Marina Stage to check out rootsy locals Hoots and Hellmouth. Though never among my favorite acts, I knew this band to kick ass in person, so I thought it would be cool to see them. There was a thick, impenetrable crowd in front of the stage and I couldn't get a good view, so I just decided to forget about it.

Days One and Two had been awesome! Heading home on Saturday night, I wasn't sure how Day Three would play out. The scheduling of the acts I most wanted to see was tricky, to say the least. And with storms in the forecast, would we have a repeat of Friday night? Well.....

On Sunday morning, I woke up about three-fourths asleep and aching all over. I'd rocked the festival on Friday and Saturday, and apparently I'd rocked both days a little too hard. Trying to decide whether to drag myself out to Camden for one more day, I turned on my radio and listened to the weather forecast. I heard terms like "flash flood watch," "gusty thunderstorms," "damaging winds," and "hail." I turned the radio off, went back to bed, and slept in -- there was no way I was going back to the festival. Did I miss some great acts? Oh, sure. But having bought my 3-day pass with my member discount during the early bird pricing period meant that I definitely got my money's worth from the first two days, and I enjoyed those two days so much that I really didn't care about having to miss Sunday. By the way: the festival DID get rained on that night!

Thank you, XPN, for putting on such a wonderful festival. Do it again next year?

If you haven't already, check out my accompanying photo album!

Missed the festival? Attended but want to relive it? Here you go:

Copyright © 2009 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.
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Monday, July 27, 2009

XPoNential Function, Part One

Ever since attending my first XPN festival last year, I haven't been able to shut up about it. If you've been reading One Note Ahead recently, you know I spent a lot of time impatiently anticipating this year's event -- and did it ever deliver! But wait a minute; maybe you have no idea what I'm talking about. WXPN is a public radio powerhouse located in my fair city of Philadelphia and now heard worldwide thanks to the internet. Every year, XPN hosts a huge music festival which is currently known as the XPoNential Music Festival and takes place across the Delaware River from Philly on the beautiful Camden, New Jersey waterfront (yes, that's right: there is beauty to be found in Camden). Like XPN itself, the festival brings together an impossibly diverse array of musical genres including rock, blues, country, folk, soul, hip-hop, and no, not "pop" as in Lady Gaga! And just as XPN gives its members a lot for a small amount of money, XPN does the same for festival attendees, whether they're members or not. Of course I am a member, so I get all sorts of perks like meet and greets with certain artists and complimentary non-alcoholic beverages with unlimited refills -- oh-so-helpful in the dead of summer!

Even before it began, this year's festival was noticeably different from last year's. The economic recession prompted XPN to shorten it from four days to three. The lineup was decidedly edgier. Now that the fest is over, I can say these were good changes. A shorter festival meant the lineup had to be more focused in terms of quality. As for the edginess, I'll be honest: as much as I loved last year's event, I did feel that it was a bit safe overall and I feared it was reflective of a comfortable medium on XPN's part. This year's lineup helped to restore my faith in XPN as a station with some teeth to it. Besides, the edgier lineup suited the times well. Along those lines, there was magic in the air throughout most of last year's event, but with the malaise and disillusionment of 2009, I wondered if that magic would still be there. I needn't have worried one bit.

And now, the specifics of what I experienced and feel inclined to report:

Day One: Friday, July 24th, 2009

It's a delicate balance, having to prepare for blazing sunshine and the possibility of thunderstorms in the same day! I got it half right, at least. And may I just say, if you go to this festival, bring your own reusable bottle and your own hand sanitizer! I learned those lessons last year, but I'm profoundly happy to have put those lessons to use this year. If you need some other tips, contact me.

I have to question the wisdom of opening the festival with the laid-back Brazilian jazz band Minas. Maybe they're usually more energetic and this was not a representative performance; all I know is that they were good at what they did, but they hardly brought the kind of excitement you'd want to kick off a festival with. It would have made more sense to put them on later.

Minas' set took place on the Marina Stage, which is the smaller of the two festival stages. (As far as I'm concerned, the Kids Corner stage does not exist. I'd have been all over it if I were 20 years younger, though.) The first artist to perform on the vast, spacious River Stage was longtime ONA favorite Matt Duke. How awesome is it that he's come so far over the past few years? Matt performed with a setup similar to that of his Kingdom Underground CD release last year: a four-piece band backing him, with the recently ONA-approved Tim McGlone on acoustic guitar and Matt giving us the rare treat of his electric guitar work. Matt just rocked. No quiet songs, but all the aggressive material from his current album. I especially appreciated this version of "Walk If Off" because it was furious without being disconcerting; I've always found the recorded version difficult to listen to because it is a little too crazed. Typically for Matt, you had no idea how or what he was going to sing or play, his stage mannerisms were equally unpredictable, and he found amusing replacements for the cuss words in his songs -- this WAS a family-friendly event and it WAS being broadcast on the radio! He also turned the lead spotlight over to Tim for one song, McGlone's catchy "Hollywood." During this number, a friend of mine was grooving along but nevertheless leaned over to me and said, "Not as good as Duke!" Well.....who is? I enjoyed the set quite a lot, but another friend of mine who listened on the radio thought Matt "sounded awful." I'd like to think she was just listening on an awful radio.

Annuals. I knew the name and not much else. I was curious enough to want to see them. Upon learning that I'd never seen them before, a friend of mine who works for XPN (and made some good recommendations last year!) told me Annuals are amazing and described them as sounding like "The Warped Tour if it took place in Texas." They're actually based in North Carolina, but my friend's description did put my curiosity over the top. The sextet combined indie-rock, country, harmony pop, folk, and I swear I heard some Latin elements somewhere in there! Yet they had their own identifiable sound. Their set was just outrageous, with layers of dramatic voices and instruments and powerfully intense playing, all offset by frontman Adam Baker's offbeat sense of humor. I met them afterwards and briefly talked with some of them. They seemed very nice -- but things aren't always what they seem, right? Well, a few hours later I was standing by the river and I saw Annuals leaving, so I just looked their way and smiled. It was quite dark and I wasn't sure they could even see me, but one of them actually said to me, "Have a good night, man!" Talented, friendly, and their latest CD Such Fun borrows its artwork from Bob Ross, who inspired me to become a painter as a kid and whom I dressed up as for Halloween in 1995. This is all just too cool.

I was familiar with the instrumental surf-rock stylings of Los Straitjackets, but I'd never seen them in person. Their stage act is ridiculous, but in a good way. Wearing Mexican wrestlers' masks and matching suits, their coordinated stage moves were often interrupted by long ramblings delivered in fast-tongued Spanish -- broken up with some archly-pronounced American English for good measure. There was really nothing new or original about what they played; you can go back to The Ventures, Duane Eddy, Santo & Johnny, and countless other guitar-rock pioneers to get the basis of their sound. But Los Straitjackets are good musicians and fun showmen. And they played the theme from The Munsters, which is only one of the coolest TV themes ever!

During Los Straitjackets' set, we experienced what XPN veteran David Dye so cleverly called "setus interruptus." The possibility of a thunderstorm was now a reality, and we had to go running for cover. The XPN festival is an all-weather event, you see; it would pretty much take a tornado to derail it completely. After the storm broke (or at least we thought it did!), Los Straitjackets returned to their set and their shtick, the dark night sky finally rolled in, and a beautiful post-storm breeze dominated for the rest of the night.

For me, the setting was just right to head on over to the Marina Stage and rock out to Sarah Borges and the Broken Singles. Here's a band I'd considered seeing for quite some time and I'd resolved to finally get it done at the festival. I'm glad I did. Their country-infused rock 'n' roll sound is just wondrous at its best, their super-tight playing and Sarah's familiar-yet-distinctive voice making it clear that they're not just another bar band. They also have a knack for balancing their original material with unusual cover choices; it takes a special band to open a set with Doug "Sir Douglas" Sahm's "You're Out Walking The Streets Tonight"! Meeting them afterwards, I found them to be every bit as fun and funny as they were on stage. Smart, too: Sarah had introduced a slowish number by saying that slow songs are a great way to get to know the person next to you, if you get her drift. Maybe so, but it was actually during a fast number that I found a new dancing partner, and I told Sarah as much after the show. "Did you meet someone?" asked Sarah with a surprising amount of enthusiasm, to which I replied, "I did! During 'Stop and Think It Over,' I believe." After getting over her enthusiasm, Sarah admonished, tongue somewhat in cheek, "Well: Stop! And think it over before you do anything."

Sage advice.

Robert Cray was the last act of the night, and I didn't want to end such a happy day and night with the blues! But I just missed the ferry back to Philly and had to wait for the next one, so I did hear his set and it did actually provide a strangely suitable soundtrack as I stood there by the river looking into the absolutely gorgeous night sky, watching the Philadelphia waterfront and skyscrapers in their illuminated glory.

And I don't even like skyscrapers.

Continued in Part Two.

And check out my accompanying photo album!

Missed the festival? Attended but want to relive it? Here you go:

Copyright © 2009 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.
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Thursday, July 23, 2009

Now Hear This! - Vol. 2

My "earworm" series continues. As before, I'm including a few newies and a few oldies and I'm keeping everything on the lesser-known side. I try to always go for songs that can be downloaded individually (and legally!), but of course I will tell you what albums or compilations to look for if you want to buy more than just the one song.


For the newer ones this time, I'll stay in the spirit of the season and recommend songs I associate with summer.

"Lullaby Appetite," Alexa Wilkinson (available on Lullaby Appetite)

Ah, the summer of 2007! A time spent healing my frustrated music journalist's wounds by going to concerts and tossing back a couple of beers. Beer may not be the best way to heal, but music this beautiful sure eases the pain. I wasn't even familiar with Alexa when I saw her; she was sharing the bill with another artist whom I followed at the time. The shy, mild-mannered Ms. Wilkinson didn't make much of an impression on me at first.....then in the days following the show, I couldn't get this song out of my head. An inviting, soulfully sung folk-pop ballad with simply gorgeous instrumentation and a haunting melody. I'm getting all tingly just listening to it right now.

"Hallway," Bojibian (available on the Bojibian EP)

Although I could have stayed home and watched reruns of reruns of reruns of How I Met Your Mother, the summer of 2008 found me spending Monday nights at the Philly Rising Open Mic, where I watched this local foursome rock the stage on numerous occasions. Incidentally, they're named in honor of rock legends Bo Diddley and Jibi Hendrix. Not buying that? Okay, fine: they're actually named after Armenian financier A. Randolph Bojibian, who funded their first recording session. Okay, fine! In truth, "Bojibian" doesn't mean anything. The lyrics to "Hallway" are only slightly more meaningful, but with menacing chords, gritty harmonies, and a tripped-out guitar break, does anyone really care?

"Fools," Diane Birch (available on Bible Belt)

The summer of 2009! Hellish times for many of us, but we've still got some good music to help us through it all. You're probably seeing Diane Birch a lot on TV and in the press these days. That's great. Every time you've seen her on TV, you've probably heard her perform the song "Nothing But A Miracle." That's not great. Who am I to disagree with her record company or whatever experts chose "Miracle" as the lead single from her album? I'm a consumer who went out and bought her album and decided that even though "Miracle" is good, "Fools" is the pick hit: an immediately engaging slice of soul-pop heaven with a scintillating melody and a structure that's simple without being simplistic. But hey, as long as this talented singer/songwriter is getting recognized....

And as a bonus, I'd like to mention a track that's not available yet but you can listen to it online. You might remember The Idles. They're working on a new record, and the track "Everyday I'm A Rockstar" is streaming on MySpace now. This is more of that raw, nasty, fun rock 'n' roll The Idles are known for -- pay special attention to the lyrics on this one! The Idles have been good to One Note Ahead, so please be good to them.


"(Do The) Mashed Potatoes (Part I)," Nat Kendrick & The Swans (available on The Legendary Henry Stone Presents: Nat Kendrick & The Swans)

James Brown believed that an instrumental based on the "Mashed Potato" dance (in which people shuffled their feet as if mashing potatoes with them!) could be a hit. Syd Nathan, the head of JB's label King Records, didn't agree -- by the way, King also let Hank Ballard's "The Twist" go to waste around the same time, only for Chubby Checker's cover version to cause a Twist sensation. Not one to let Nathan's ineptitude hold him back, The Godfather of Soul had his band cut "Mashed Potatoes" for another label under a pseudonym, enlisting deejay King Coleman to overdub his vocals over Brown's so Nathan wouldn't get hip. The result is weirdly cool, some basic R&B riffage punctuated by off-kilter shout-singing, and it's all over in a heartbeat. There have been numerous alternate versions and reworkings over the years, but there's nothing quite like the hit version I've spotlighted here. (Note: For some reason, "Nat Kendrick" is sometimes billed or listed as "Nat Hendrick.")

"Mean Old World," Rick Nelson (available on The Best of Rick Nelson, 1963-75)

A young Billy Vera wrote this for Dionne Warwick, but such a crudely written song would hardly have fit such a refined singer. Ah, but Rick Nelson! Never a technical genius as a vocalist, but he had a pleasant voice, a knack for choosing excellent musicians, and a true feel for downbeat lyrics. And are these lyrics ever downbeat: "I can't let them see me cry/'Cause they don't care if I live or die." Ouch! Framed by some of the most solid instrumental work heard on any of his records, Rick sounds downright pissed by the time this track is over. If you've ever been left alone or mistreated in your time of need, you'll feel his pain.

"I Feel Much Better," Small Faces (available on The Immediate Years, Disc Two)

It's too bad that the Small Faces had only one major hit in the US, and it's too bad that their only major US hit was "Itchycoo Park," which has dated so poorly it's embarrassing. But that's the problem with this band's work: for every "Afterglow (Of Your Love)" there was a "Here Come The Nice," for every "All Or Nothing" a "Sha-La-La-La-Lee" (actually, they didn't even like that one). Silly tunes like "Lazy Sunday" made and still make it hard for some to take the Small Faces seriously, but they really were fantastic and powerful musicians. "I Feel Much Better" is one of my favorites, with its whimsically poetic lyrics, slyly trippy harmonies, and mood-shifting instrumentation. (Like most Small Faces tracks, it's available on many many compilations. The one I named is the iTunes comp that has what I consider the best-sounding mix. I have the track on a different collection, though.)

That's all for now. The XPN festival starts tomorrow, so look for a blog (or some blogs) about that next week. :-)

Copyright © 2009 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.
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