Have you noticed the trend toward two-person bands? From the White Stripes on, there appears to be an increased number of groups that have stripped down the traditional rock and roll model, forsaking interest in drummers and bassists. Here are several recently formed duos that don’t seem to be limited by a lack of group membership.
The Fiery Furnaces
She and Him
The Civil Wars
The Black Keys
I became a fan of PJ Harvey way back in 1995 when I heard her song “Down by the Water” played on the radio, a song that mesmerized my thirteen-year-old mind with its weird lyrics and slightly dissonant sound. The videos off the album To Bring You My Love, which I caught late at night on MTV’s Alternative Nation, only furthered my fascination; her bright red lipstick and heavy eye makeup lent an odd theatricality to the videos that was unsettling and so very cool.
I’ve followed PJ Harvey through many albums in the subsequent years, and she never fails to captivate my attention. Each album seems like a departure from the last, whether it’s due to the introduction of a new instrument (such as the piano on 2007’s otherworldly White Chalk), a change in her vocal styling, or the subject matter of the songs. Her ability to stave off boredom in her album-making has made her a musician who always manages to entertain me, and her latest album, Let England Shake, is no exception. The subject matter—the destruction and devastation caused by war—is darker (somehow) than her other albums, and the use of the auto harp and saxophone lend a distinctive sound to the songs. It’s a dark album, but it’s catchy and will stay with you for days.
Let England Shake
Josh T. Pearson’s stark country-folk album The Last of the Country Gentlemen is a plaintive and personal work that calls to mind the rustic laments of down-and-out troubadours like Townes Van Zandt. Pearson’s approach is to lift the veil on his bittersweet melancholia with a pained voice and delicate finger plucking of his acoustic guitar, drawing in the listener to his raw confessions on love, loss and redemption.
The Last of the Country Gentlemen
Long-time fans of the noisy, art/rock band Sonic Youth will not be surprised to find out that singer/guitarist Thurston Moore has a sensitive and melodic side to his writing. Many SY songs possess these qualities of intricate melodies and emotionally compelling elements but are often buried under feedback or a whirling dervish of sonic fury. Demolished Thoughts is a beautiful record, stripped down and spare, mostly featuring acoustic guitar, harp, violin, synthesizers and the occasional wail of a strangely tuned electric guitar. Fans of Beck’s equally downcast yet beautiful record Sea Changes will likely pick up on the similarities in recording methods and overall sonic tone (Beck produced Demolished Thoughts). Moore’s lyrics are poetically abstract but always fitting of the songs’ brooding mood. If you like this record, try the work of British singer-songwriter Nick Drake.
“Once in a while you get shown the light, in the strangest of places if you look at it right.” —Robert Hunter, ca. 1974
Advertisements in Rolling Stone for the double live “Steal Your Face” album proclaimed, “There is nothing like a Grateful Dead concert.” I also remember reading an article in one of the hi-fi magazines at the time about the Grateful Dead’s famous “wall of sound” state-of-the-art concert sound system. While I might have been a bit too young to have seen the Grateful Dead during the hippie heyday of the late 1960s, I made it a goal to attend at least one of their shows during my lifetime. That goal was realized a few years later in 1979.
In the years that followed, I was fortunate enough to see the original band four times, a somewhat modest record when compared to some, I realize. (I know people who saw them play hundreds of times!) Indeed, there was always something special about seeing the Grateful Dead play live, especially out-of-doors during the summer. The sets were leisurely, and unlike most typical rock concerts, each event carried with it a unique “festival” atmosphere.
Sadly, those days are gone. Since Jerry Garcia’s passing in 1995, remaining band members have made several respectable attempts to carry on in various incarnations. While these projects are fresh and interesting, the era of the original band has clearly passed.
Yet, there are times when the music of the Grateful Dead is still the perfect complement to a warm summer afternoon with a cold beverage, and thankfully the legacy of those spectacular live shows lives on through an impressive collection of recordings. Even though the band only released a dozen studio albums during the course of its thirty year career, listeners are blessed with a plethora of live recordings—nine “traditional” live albums, more than a dozen concert films and videos, plus more than a hundred official archive releases (not to mention the many thousands of amateur recordings from the famous band-approved taper’s sections.)
KPL provides a generous cross section of the Grateful Dead story; in print, on film, and on record. Several books in the collection document the life and times of the band and its various members. Of particular note are Searching for the Sound : My Life with the Grateful Dead by bassist Phil Lesh, A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead by Dennis McNally, and Jerilyn Lee Brandelius’ Grateful Dead Family Album. Films include The Grateful Dead Movie (a film version of 1974 “Steal Your Face” tour), and a pair of View from the Vault releases, documenting the band’s 1990 appearances at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh and Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View, California. For listeners, the collection includes decent retrospectives like Flashback with the Grateful Dead, The Very Best of the Grateful Dead, and Skeletons from the Closet. You’ll even find an archival release of a concert at the famous Fillmore East in 1969. “What a long strange trip it’s been.”
The Grateful Dead