Waxed: The Appleseed Cast's Low Level Owl: Volume 1 and Low Level Owl: Volume 2

There’s a brief moment, amidst all the swirling sounds, keyboard collages and chiming guitars all, where the gentle rustle of the wind blowing leaves comes through your speakers, and only one word can describe it: bliss.

But, bliss best describes The Appleseed Cast’s magnum opus, Low Level Owl (volumes 1 and 2 – which we will from now after refer to as Owl 1 and Owl 2). Back in those college years, when I had not yet become half of the music aficionado that I am today. A friend and fellow musician turned me on to Owl 1. We went to the record store (TD’s CDs and LPs, for those of you Bloomingtonian residents), and there dug around until we found it.

“There’s a volume two?,” I asked. My friend Frank just nodded his head. “Even better than the first one,” he said.

It only took me another five to six years to test out that theory, but Frank may have been right. Regardless, the best way to experience Owl 1 and Owl 2 is to listen to them back to back – as they were intended.

The Appleseed Cast had been an “emo” band, one of the many similar sounding bands on the Deep Elm record label. Not that this was a band thing – Deep Elm at the time had a rich, talented roster of bands, and was well-known in indie circles. Still, the leap from The End of the Ring Wars to Low Level Owl: Volume I is drastic – and a great step in a new, fantastic direction.

From the opening notes of “The Waking of Pertelotte” though “View of a Burning City” and “View of a Burning City (reprise),” which end Owl 1 and begin Owl 2, respectively, and on until the last track of Owl 2, “Confession,” you are on a seamless aural ride.

Some might consider it a stretch, but really, Radiohead never did anything this good. The Appleseed Cast was labeled as “America’s closest thing to Radiohead” after these albums dropped in August and October of 2001, but the comparison is unjust in many ways. To me, these albums sound like what Roger Waters, David Gilmour, and the whole Pink Floyd gang would’ve made, had they grown up and came of age in the late ‘90’s. In terms of sheer depth, timbre, and feel, Low Level Owl has much more in common with Dark Side of the Moon than O.K. Computer.

In the land of post-rock (a label the Cast has again been pigeonholed into) and post-emo, these two records stand alone, on their own merits. There may be better bands, and better albums, in post-rock, underground indie rock, psychadelia, and instrumental rock, but the way these two albums flow together, and take the listener on an inner journey, can’t seem to possibly be topped, except maybe by Sigur Ros, and then… it’s a coin flip.

There are vocals on many of the tracks, but you may not know what they are exactly unless you sit down with the album booklet and read through them as you listen. That’s not a half-bad idea, either, if you want to know what’s being said, but it might be even better to just turn off the lights, lay back on your bed, or hell, even your living room floor, and just listen.

When “The Waking of Pertelotte” turns into “On Reflection,” you know you have arrived at a sweet musical experience. The snapping, echoing snare hits and the bubbly guitar arpeggios are like dessert. And that’s just the beginning.

The completely masterful soundscapes that this band create over the course of two albums could draw comparisons to Mogwai, Pelican, Sigur Ros, and Explosions in the Sky. What sets them apart is the way the albums fit together, song after song leading into the next experiment.

Small tracks like “A Tree for Trails” link up songs like “Convict” and “Signal” (both of which are among the best tracks on the albums, especially “Signal”). When “Sunset Drama King” repeats musical and lyrical melody lines other songs, it reminds you how pleasant this experience has been, and at well over an hour into the journey, it may be the first time you’re reminded of just how seamless these albums are.

Certain listeners may find the songs to be too repetitive, too samey for their tastes. While generally I like a lot of variety in my music, it really doesn’t stand out that much for me with Owl 1 and Owl 2. In fact, there are many, many peaks and valleys in the music presented here. Even though they do all sound of the same mood and the same mold, the listening experience in total is so unique and fresh-sounding as to not notice, or rather to be bothered by, the explicit continuity between songs and albums.

Even as the album winds down, with “The Argument” again recalling an earlier song, the tiredness of that track feels so natural as to seem, well, just plain right. It makes the perfect beginning of the end, just before “Reaction,” with feedback-laden guitars washing noise around the melodies of songs long since come and gone.

The brief moment of space – of no sound – just before “Reaction” immediately draws your attention to it. It literally breaks the hypnotic spell the album has put over your. The break announces the end, and brings with it another magnificent song, this one with the lyrics a little more upfront. It still matches the overall tone of the album, but almost sounds as if you’ve come out from a tunnel, or as if you had been listening underwater, and now your head has crested the surface, and your gasping for air.

Who knows and who cares if you have been drowning all this time. “Confession” begins its slow, winding drive towards home, towards the end, and you can here the drip of water in the sink, the sound of it hitting the beach, the gulls taking flight, the sounds of the strangeness of the real world creeping back in.

Do yourself a favor. Go to the local record store, buy Low Level Owl: Volume 1 and Low Level Owl: Volume 2. If you burn them on your iPod, that’s ok, but do yourself this one favor – promise yourself to listen to them, back to back, twice: once with headphones, and once without, with the volume turned up and the walls shaking. If you’re the type of personal who likes musical journeys, you won’t regret it.


Miller High Lite: Lips of An Angel...Vagina of the Devil

The other day Dusty and I were talking about Hinder and particularly their number one, chart topping, radio blanketing, super smash hit, Lips of An Angel...and why I hate it. Obvious reasons would be radio over-saturation, douche bag band members, and outright cock-rockery. Let's look past that for a moment and get to the real heart of the problem. One that plagues many top 40 radio staples...I say plague as if it's the song that suffers and not us...and makes every sucker singing along that much more of a mindless host for the Viacom parasite. I speak of *fanfare*...lyrical content.

We all know that the key to a great pop song is the hook. People want to sing along, they want something they can get into right away and feel like they know the words already after a minute and a half of the song. If there's anything that pop music has proven is that it doesn't actually matter what those words are. Forget for a moment that this is a anger spewing diatribe of hate and think about that. Regardless of what the words are, we remember that tune. We hum it in our heads, sort of half mumble it under our breath, whistle it was we walk our dogs, and often times even get the words wrong. So remember all you aspiring artists out there...if you want to make it in "the biz", write a catchy tune. You can write the words later...or never at all (read: Scatman).

Let's face it, there's only one Bob Dylan, there's only one Neil Young, there's only one Tom Waits....you are not them. If you want to make it as a musician you may just have to give up those dreams of being this profound, ground breaking voice of a generation *gasp!*. I'm not saying give up your artistic integrity and sell out, I'm just saying give a little. You're not going anywhere being a pompous, pretentious a-hole. Write a few songs people can get into, that they can relate to, and then fill the rest of your album with your heartbreak and views on politics and the economy and how much you hate the president.

Now to the real perpetrator. Maybe more than the horrible lyrics and underlying theme of the song, it's the mob of young women in every bar, and every cheerleading practice, and every sleepover that belt out every god awful word that I despise. Hordes of girls love this song, love it. And why? Because he misses this girl? This is where the whole thing really gets to me. No one takes the time to really listen to the whole song. The song is about a guy who's with a girl and gets a late night phone call from his ex. She's upset and tells him she misses him and he precedes to tell her the same. They can't be too loud because his current girl is in the next room and it could start a fight between her and her current man. Every girl thinks it's so sweet that he misses this girl and he has all these great things to say about her. News flash! - You are not the girl on the phone...you are the girl in the other room. And even if you're not...do you really want to be with this guy that can't make up his mind and really just wants to get back with you for a few steamy gropefests in the dressing room at the mall, only to have him call the other girl two weeks later and sing the same damn song to her, telling her how much he misses her "lips of an angel"? Not to mention you have a significant other as well. Soooo, you want to cheat on him...and be with a guy who will cheat on his girlfriend? Sounds like a formula for life-long happiness. "girl you make it hard to be faithful"

Alright, let's calm down...we'll move on and let you mull that over later.

Let's look at some other classic examples of pop songs that people tend to belt out without really thinking about what they're singing. We'll start with an easy obvious one:

Every Breath You Take - The Police
Before Puffy got a hold of it and numbed the minds of an entire generation it was hit single by good old Sting. The song is, at the core, a song about a stalker. The character in the song is stalking this woman..."oh can't you see...you belong to me" Creepy when you think about it...so think about it. It's not some great love song about longing and desire. It's super-creepers.

867-5309 (Jenny) - Tommy Tutone
No one will ever, ever, ever, ever forget this phone number. One of the biggest pop tunes of our time and it's a phone number. It's just that easy kids.
(see also: 25 or 6 to 4 - Chicago)

Ironic - Alanis Morrisette
Not a goddam thing in the song is ironic...wait...isn't that ironic?

Like A Virgin - Madonna
Just do yourself and favor and rent Reservoir Dogs...nuff said

Crash - Dave Matthews Band
Not only is this song about (unprotected) sex, but a little S and M action, a little voyeurism, and some nocturnal emissions. How many little college freshmen, drinking their Natty Light, playing Corn Hole do you think even know what voyeurism or nocturnal emission means? Trust me, go read the lyrics and see what I mean, too many examples to list.
(see also: Sweet Dreams - Eurythmics)

Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm - Crash Test Dummies
They took all the hard work out and just made the chorus humming. Of course with as low as Brad Robert's voice gets half the time, he could be saying something and it just sounds like a bass hum.
(see also: MmmBop - Hanson)

There are so many more and I won't sit here and list them all. You're all smart kids, next time you find yourself singing along to whatever's on the radio, on the TV, secretly hidden on your iPod, or just stuck in your head from 10 years ago...pay attention. Trust me, we're all guilty, so until next time....
All I want to do is *bang* *bang* *bang* *bang*
and a *click* *ching*
take all your money



Personal Reactions to Waxed: Vitalogy

In cleaning up the article I wrote about Vitalogy and Pearl Jam, from 3 years ago, I learned a few things and had a few interesting thoughts I think I should share.

First and foremost: that is terrible writing. But, it was written in two parts on a weblog that I had to be careful on - didn't want to offend any friends, didn't want anyone to know anything I didn't want them to know, but I am a bit of a storyteller, a bit long-winded, and I like to wear my heart on my sleeve.

While the review was reaction to that aforementioned Bill Simmons article on ESPN.com's Page 2, it wasn't my first reaction to it. Prior to that, I wrote a deeply personal account of why I loved Vitalogy so much - because it was, in effect, the soundtrack to my first heartbreak.

Looking back on that blog entry fills me with joy, happiness, sadness, and energy. That fall was an interesting time in my life. I didn't know it yet, but I was about to go on another rollercoaster ride of a relationship, one filled with love, passion, sex, lust, and discovery, and later filled with sadness, hurt, loss, mistrust, and missed opportunities. It's as if I can draw a line from that first big heartbreak to the next, and the next, and the next.

Thing is, there is always a soundtrack - to the heartbreak, and to the love in between and afterwards. Some of those soundtracks haven't stood the test of time - the albums that got me through the end of 2006 and beginning of 2007 aren't bad, but are hardly classics, either. None of the "heartbreak" albums, then, stand up to the test of time, and the internal test of importance and meaning, as Vitalogy does, still today.

The complete, wreckless nature of its sounds, the fury of its lyrics and vocals, to this day fill me with so many emotions, but most of all, energy and hope.

While creating it's own bleak and dark imagery, the album's hope cracks through, like a lighthouse on the shore, a lantern in the dark woods.

While times have changed, my tastes of changed, and I've grown up and grown out of many things, one of the things that remains constant is the emotional impact music has on my life, and in particular how important Vitalogy was to a 15 year old heartbroken kid, a 22 year old heartbroken young adult, and a 26 year old heartbroken young man.

Vitalogy is the lighthouse of hope, visible from where ever you are in the dark waters.

That, Bill Simmons, is why it is the defining album of the 1990's. And why it remains one of my favorite albums ever to this day.

Waxed: Pearl Jam's Vitalogy

(Editor’s Note: I wrote this article in September of 2005. I have edited it for posterity, to fix a few mistakes, and other editorial type of things. The spirit, overall feel, and mindset of the piece remains the same. The piece was actually written in response to an article written by Bill Simmons and Chuck Klosterman, where Simmons took the position that Vitalogy sucked, and Klosterman vehemently disagreed. It should be noted that both Bill Simmons and Chuck Klosterman are favorite writers of mine, and each in their own way are a huge influence on my pop culture meanderings. Here, then, is my response to Simmons claiming that Vitalogy was a mailed in effort, the “Spin The Black Circle” was a terrible song, that Pearl Jam had missed its mark. Obviously, in my opinion, this was the only album they could’ve made, and it quite possibly saved the band, the whole ‘90’s alternative-rock movement, and thousands of lost teens, 20- and 30-somethings that the music of Seattle spoke to.)

Yes. I did actually graduate from college, from one of the best public journalism schools in the nation, with a magazine writing concentration to boot. I was born to write. And yes, in all fairness, I should reveal my deeply ingrained opinion that Pearl Jam is my favorite rock and roll band, and possibly will be the greatest rock and roll band of all time, first. But - Bill wants real journalism. So, I claim: Vitalogy is the defining album of the '90's.

Set the stage in the late '80's: a small handful of good pop metal bands - Guns 'N' Roses, and... um... Guns 'N' Roses - and way too many craptastic pop metal bands - Warrant, Trixster, L.A. Guns, Kix, etc. - were dominanting rock and roll and pop charts. Most bands moved to Los Angeles to make it or break it in the big bad music biz.

Enter a sleepy little town in Washington state. A dreary, rainy place known for coffee. Seattle. And in this city? The Melvins. Soundgarden. Green River. Mother Love Bone. Mudhoney. And yes, Bill, I know that Green River splintered off into MLB and MH - but did you know that GR's drummer went back to school to be a lawyer? NO?!? Yes. Mother Love Bone. And... the first Seattle drug casuality, Andrew Wood.

Lucky for us, Cameron Crowe was hanging with wife Nancy Wilson in the rain-soaked north and got to witness the aftermath of Wood's overdose. Including the musicians. Who, lucky for us, decided it was time for a tribute a short time later. Chris Cornell and Matt Cameron from Soundgarden got together with Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard from MLBone, and Mike McCready jumped on board, and then, Eddie Vedder appears from nowhere (well, from friend and current Red Hot Chili Pepper drummer Jack Irons) and... Temple of the Dog is born. Pain, love, memories, rejoicing. ROCK.

Vedder was auditioning for Jeff and Stone's new project. Mike had joined. Jack was recruited as a drummer, but didn't want to leave the Peppers (though he shortly would, when then Peppers guitarist Hillel Slovak died of an overdose months later). Jack did hook up the three with Vedder, they found a drummer and what resulted was an album called Ten. ROCK.

Soon, Pearl Jam was born... and soon, they joined a then-unknown band from their hometown named Nirvana, and the two bands joined the Smashing Pumpkins on a tour. And then... all hell broke loose. Nirvana and Pearl Jam simultaneously became the two biggest bands in the world, long before anyone outside of college towns knew who U2 was.

Nevermind and Ten went head to head on the rock charts, and bedrooms everywhere were plastered with posters celebrating the bands. Vs., Pearl Jam's second offering, sold 1.1 million copies in it's debut week - shattering the record, then held by Garth Brooks' album Ropin' The Wind. Nirvana released the then-critically dogged, unbelievably harsh, and undeniably cool and rockin' In Utero. More rock chart wars. Wars in the press. Words and music, money, fame, teenage wasteland. It's only teenage wasteland.

Then... in the midst of the "alternative revolution," in the midst of Time magazine covers and Rolling Stone interviews and rampant drug use and skyrocketing superstardom... Kurt Cobain took his life.

Suddenly, now there was but one. Pearl Jam was the biggest band in the world – the last band standing as the voice of a generation, the voice of millions. Fighting Ticketmaster over high ticket prices - the band took a substantial cut in personal profit - and struggling with their own demons, both private and personal... suddenly, there was only one.

They stop making videos (actually... they did that around Vs. release). They shirk from the public eye. They stop touring. They return to Seattle, hide in the recording studio... and make an album some people have suggested is the '90's equivalent of the Beatles' White Album. The last remaining "voice of a generation" was about to scream a rallying call, a deafening blast of hope, pain, and survival for all of '90's teenage wasteland:

lives opened and trashed..."look ma, watch me crash"...
no time to question...why'd nothing last...
grasp and hold on...we're dyin' fast!
soon be over...and i will relent!!!

The shotgun blast heard 'round the world rang quite loud in Seattle, throughout a community of musicians whose struggles with fame, drugs, and more were suddenly brought to the forefront of American culture. One of the two major people in the community, Kurt Cobain, had committed suicide. One "voice of our generation" was dead, unable to handle the pressures of his super-stardom. The other remaining voice, Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder, suddenly became the most famous Seattle voice... no more battles between bands. Worse... how would He Answer? How would the band ever answer?

Maybe you don't think of these things when you play an album - the history surrounding it, the personalities contained within, the meaning behind each and every song on a record. Nonetheless, they play a role. And here, laid bare in the music, was the soul of a band, damaged, bloodied, but not beaten. Vitalogy was Pearl Jam's answer to being the biggest band in the world and the voice of millions of lost twenty-somethings and teenagers.

The funky faux-jazz that starts the record quickly fades into the blistering opening track, "Last Exit." "Lives opened and trashed... look, ma, watch me crash… no time to question why'd nothing last... we're dying fast..." The lyrics were so direct - this would be a fight for survival. Even the music - in an off-kilter beat, 5/4 - would seem driving, maddening, but be propelled to succeed, to overcome. How would the battle for young souls be won, especially when one of their heroes lay dead by his own hands?

"Spin the Black Circle" would answer: music. The black circle - a record - would spin out tunes, and the music and words would comfort. What Bill Simmons thinks is a silly, throwaway song is really just instructions that answer the "Survive!" rallying cry of "Last Exit." Survive! How? Listen! It was an ode to vinyl, an ode to plastic spitting out melody and harmony... and spinning in bliss. It was also light-hearted - a way of saying "we'll be o.k."

But that wouldn't last for long. "Restless soul, enjoy your youth," rang out the opening words of track three, "Not For You," a blistering take on what musicians were being used for - their fame would sell records, sell clothes, sell MTV awards shows. "There is something sacred about youth, and the song is about how youth is being sold and exploited," Vedder had said of the song. "I think I felt like I had become part of that too." "This is not for you... fuck you!" Eddie would scream, while the band pounded out an instantly memorable beat. You can see Stone grooving in a corner in a studio, while Mike shreds an electric 12-string, wringing every emotion he could get out of wood and steel.

"Take my time - not my life," would be the message in "Tremor Christ," a song about a relationship gone bad. Was "she" just another girl, or... was "she" the record buying public? Was "she" the mass media machine using the "Alternative Revolution" to sell torn up jeans and flannel shirts for $74.99 a piece at The Gap? Whatever "she" was, it was obvious that the protagonist was hurt - "wounded was the organ he left all bloodied on the shore." And while she drowns "in his wake," the smallest oceans still got the big, big waves. A sea-sick dirge of a song, it remains one of Pearl Jam's most visceral tracks - and a testament to all bands that think "heavy" means "loud and detuned." The song feels like the weight of the human condition... and by track four on the album, you wonder... will we survive, after all?

"Nothingman" was a song that had been around a while, according to the band. A story of love and loss... and the feelings of loneliness and nothingness when something so sacred is let go, and can't be taken back. The quiet, introspective ballad was the first musical relief on the album - and lyrically, it seems lost and hurting. Like a dog licking a wounded paw. And you still wondered... will... we...

"Don't mean to push, but i'm being shoved! Ohh, i'm just like you, think we've had enough!" Vedder and the band blaze through "The Whipping" - the previous lull being just that, a brief respite for the ears, and a rest for the mind (at the expense of the heart). "Whipping" pulls no punches - the original lyrics are written on a petition for the Clinton administration to investigate a recent rise in bombings at abortion clinics. It went for the jugular, literally leaving the listener reeling. The song even won an award at the MTV Music Awards, to which Vedder said, "This award, it really doesn't mean a thing."

"p-r-i-v-a-c-y is priceless to me" was the only lyric in the next song, "Pry, To."

The booklet for the next song featured an x-ray of teeth - instead of a lyric sheet. "It is about a relationship but not between two people. It's more one person's relationship with a million people. In fact, that song's almost a little too obvious for me. That's why instead of a lyric sheet we put in an X-ray of my teeth from last January and they are all in very bad shape, which was analogous to my head at the time." Vedder and the band struck pay-dirt though - the song is arguably one of the greatest rock and roll songs of all time. "Corduroy" was born - and a million PJ fans would never be the same.

"Bugs" would showcase an accordian, in a carnival-type insane waltz. The bugs in the head were obviously the reporters constantly hounding the band. Such a very weird song - a song of fear of what would happen if the band let down its guard.

"Satan's Bed" would roar to life after a few whipcracks, before the lyrics would once again deride fame and fortune. Vedder screams, "Already... in love!" and the band drives home yet another rocker. For a band seemingly known for their ballads, Pearl Jam spent most of Vitalogy raising hell and not giving a damn who got in the way. This song could easily be the "Paris Hilton Anti-Anthem."

"Betterman" was another song about a messed up relationship. A song from one of Eddie's old bands, it would rocket up the charts and dominate rock radio. It would be parodied when PJ cancelled shows later due to illness - "can't find the Vedderman." A song of abuse and hopelessness - that ignorant fans the world round would propose to - until the band let them all in on the secret, and tell 'em to read the lyrics...

"Aye Davanita" would provide another small respite - in the form of a band jam session, complete with chanting and wondering basslines - courtesy of Jeff, whose bass work is stellar throughout the album. Again, the respite would be brief - for the album's darkest tune would follow next.

vacate is the word...vengeance has no place on me or her
cannot find the comfort in this world
artificial tear...vessel stabbed...next up, volunteers
vulnerable, wisdom can't adhere...
a truant finds home...and a wish to hold on...
but there's a trapdoor in the sun...immortality...
as privileged as a whore...victims in demand for public show
swept out through the cracks beneath the door
holier than thou, how?
surrendered...executed anyhow
scrawl dissolved, cigar box on the floor...
a truant finds home...and a wish to hold on too...
he saw the trapdoor in the sun...
i cannot stop the thought...i'm running in the dark...
coming up a which way sign...all good truants must decide...
oh, stripped and sold, mom...auctioned forearm...
and whiskers in the sink...
truants move on...cannot stay long
some die just to live...ohh...

"Immortality" was the tale of the other voice of the generation - the one that couldn't stay long, and felt like he had to die, just to live. Featuring a lazy melody, a beautiful 12-string acoustic guitar solo from Mike, and what would become a Pearl Jam trademark, the full band jam at the end of the song... "Immortality," became an instant classic. Of the many songs on the album that are quintessential Pearl Jam, and required listening alt-rock, this tune would stand alongside of "Corduroy" as one of the best and most honest songs the band would ever write. The lyrics try to hide but become so transparent - with the "cigar box on the floor" being where Cobain had left it, moments before he took his life.

"Immortality" was the answer to the question - and the answer was that Vedder and Pearl Jam were just as confused and heart-broken as everyone else. The final jam would be the hope at the end of the tunnel, as the music itself seemed to celebrate life and survival and goodness and hope. The times had changed... but we would survive, not the same, but not finished or done in, by any means. There was hope.

"Hey foxymophandlemama, that's me!" would end the album. Again considered a strange, wasted experimental throw away like "Bugs," it was more like Pearl Jam's version of the Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows" - a song deep within the scariest, lost places of the mind. A look at the lyric sheet is disturbing... and perfectly captures the disturbing nature of the entire album. The album ends as lost as it began...

Vitalogy was a testament to the will to move on, to survive - made by a band that was itself dying. After the release of the album, Pearl Jam would go on full retreat, away from the public consciousness. They gave their answer - which was, don't look to rock stars for answers, 'cause we're just as messed up as you are. But here... have hope, live on, and rock out for the hell of it. "Ain't it s'posed to be just fun?"

At this point, in this time, when crisis had struck... well, no. Life is hard. But you've got to live it.

Pearl Jam knew that better than anyone. They would persevere, just as the hints they left for their listeners would encourage them to persevere as well. Vitalogy is the pillar of that “being lost but fighting on” mentality. It answered little, questioned much, but most importantly, blazed a trail of hope and strength for those who dared to wonder what life was all about and what it was worth.