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We’ve moved!

After several months of negotiations and various wrangling of arrangements, we at Northeast Underground are proud to announce that we have changed locations. Please click on the corresponding link (http://www.valleyadvocate.com/category/blogs/northeast-underground/) to follow us to our new home as part of the main website for the Valley Advocate alternative newspaper based in Northampton, Mass.

While our name and ideals will remain unchanged, by working with a respected institution like the Advocate we hope to expand our already varied coverage of independent music and artists with connections to the northeastern United States. From now on, readers can expect more album reviews, more interviews, and more news related to music as well as other assorted pop culture tangents we see fit to post. Though we have thoroughly enjoyed our time blogging with wordpress.com, like Bob Dylan said, “The times they are a-changing,” and we are changing with them.

Or, in the immortal words of Tommy Boy:

Some of us are leaving, and that is sad, but this isn’t the end. No way. We’re gonna show this world a thing or two.”

Amen brother Farley. Thanks to everyone for the support and contributions so far. We will see you in the big leagues. Keep jamming econo. Mahalo.

– Northeast Underground, January 2011

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This music could save your life: a tribute to Captain Beefheart and D. Boon

Double Nickels on the Dime (Album cover courtesy of the Minutemen)

25 years ago today a van traveling to Arizona for the holidays crashed and flipped over alongside route I-10 near the California border. Thrown from the vehicle was D. Boon, singer/ songwriter and founding member of the indie punk band the Minutemen. Boon broke his neck in the accident and died instantly. He was 27.

Five days ago it was announced that Don Van Vliet (aka Captain Beefheart) had finally succumbed to complications from multiple sclerosis and died at the age of 69. While first coming to the public’s attention in the ‘60s as the eccentric leader of Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band, Vliet was known for performing a hard-to-categorize mix of rock, delta blues, and avant-garde jazz. Additionally, he was recognized as a notable sculptor and abstract painter, and was also a well-known acquaintance of rock musician Frank Zappa.

Though the stories and career trajectories of the two musicians listed above could not be more different, both men were able to inspire thousands with their extraordinary bodies of work that wowed critics but never managed to reach the upper echelons of the billboard charts. Yet, despite this lack of commercial recognition, there was a sense of daring present at all times in each man’s words and music.

For D. Boon, this sense of daring meant “jamming econo” and writing short, biting, political songs with band mate and friend Mike Watt. Along with drummer George Hurley, Watt and Boon’s take on punk rock was an anomaly that somehow fit, though never quite comfortably, within the strict confines of the hardcore community. Still, for a group of males growing up in San Pedro, California during the ‘80s options were at a premium, and even rarer was a chance to express oneself with complete artistic freedom.  Here, the Minutemen succeeded in spades. Whether by recording a debut for SST Records that consisted of seven songs in six and a half minutes, or by releasing their magnum opus “Double Nickels on the Dime,” a four-sided dual album response to contemporaries Husker Du that also managed to mock hard-rocker Sammy Hagar and psychedelic legends Pink Floyd, the Minutemen did things their way. How can you get any more punk rock than that?

Trout Mask Replica (Album cover courtesy of Captain Beefheart)

Meanwhile, on the other side of the equation, for Vliet a sense of daring meant challenging the music establishment itself by turning audiences on their heads and making listeners question what actually constituted rock music. For instance, during the recording of 1970’s Trout Mask Replica it was rumored that Vliet had the Magic Band rehearse for 12 hours a day in a house with blacked out windows so the musicians could learn their parts by heart. Years later, the group, now equipped with a seemingly constant rotating set of members, found success on tour and even appeared on Saturday Night Live in 1980. However, after the release of “Ice Cream for Crow” in 1982 Vliet unexpectedly retired and abandoned music to embark on a career as a painter while living with his wife in the Mojave Desert. Fittingly, his influence continued to loom large and a diverse set of artists ranging from Tom Waits to Sonic Youth and more emerged over the years citing him as an inspiration and cross-generational forefather.

Though relegated to a set of discriminating, diverse cliques, fans of both Captain Beefheart and the Minutemen can commiserate today like no other time before. While D. Boon passed on in his youth over 20 years ago and the Don Van Vliet faded away recently just a few weeks shy of his 70th birthday, the memories and experience both men gave to listeners the world over remain behind. So, in honor of such spirits and their impact on the musical landscape we at the Underground leave you with the words of indie icon Steve Albini. Though Albini’s statement was written in his diary as a reaction to hearing the news of D. Boon’s death, his sentiments are universal enough to apply to Vliet as well. Enjoy:

So there’s no one left who’s been doing it since the beginning and doing it all the way right. Fuck. It’s like Buddy Holly or something. Sure it’s kind of pathetic to get all worked up over it but hell they meant it, and that means something to me…Man, what do we do now?

Answer: we survive Steve. That’s all we can do. And, we will always have our memories. Mahalo.

See D. Boon and the Minutemen perform an acoustic take on their song “Corona” here:

See Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band perform track “Electricity” live at Cannes beach in 1968 here:

For more information on the Minutemen and Captain Beefheart please visit www.hootpage.com and www.beefheart.com.

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Happy Thanksgiving: Alice’s Restaurant edition

Alice's Restaurant (Album cover courtesy of Arlo Guthrie)

Ah, Thanksgiving. By now lucky reader your belly is surely full of turkey. While football plays in the background, your Uncle Mel is fast asleep on the couch. And, your mom, grandmother, and old high school basketball coach are gathered in the dining room sipping coffee with their pumpkin pie. Tomorrow your big sister and her friends will head down to the mall for Black Friday, but today it is time for rest.

However, before the tryptophan kicks in completely we at the Northeast Underground are keeping the feast going the only way we know how, with music. And what better tune for the hungriest of holidays than Arlo Guthrie’s classic protest anthem “Alice’s Restaurant.”

See Arlo Guthrie perform his best-known song here:

Hippies sure know how to celebrate, but before you get up to grab a second helping of your aunt’s deep-fried turducken listen to these words of wisdom from comedian Jon Stewart:

I celebrated Thanksgiving in an old-fashioned way. I invited everyone in my neighborhood to my house, we had an enormous feast, and then I killed them and took their land.

There’s a lesson in there somewhere (at least I think so), but even if there is not Happy Thanksgiving everyone!!

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Emily’s Toybox and “Pill”: Side effects may vary

Pill (Album cover courtesy of Emily’s Toybox)

Although it is typically the practice of music writers to cover the newest releases, there are times when older material resonates more powerfully. Simply put, nothing beats a classic. And, for every individual there are those significant touchstone records that accurately define a moment in time or the passing of a particular event.

For example, maybe you had your first kiss while slow dancing to Journey’s “Faithfully.” Or, maybe you drowned your sorrows while wailing along to the tune of R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts.” No doubt there has been a soundtrack to accompany most of your life’s memorable moments.

For me, my late teens and early-twenties will forever be associated with the band Emily’s Toybox. Although popularly labeled as a “cover act” or self-crowned as “the band that fucks your mother,” this Pennsylvania-based group’s unique spin on a variety of classic songs, as well as their delightfully inappropriate original numbers and stage act, provided a catharsis of sorts for my group of friends and I as we embarked on our first tentative steps towards adulthood.

Relationships were formed by attending live performances. Other fans were recruited to our side by a fierce process of indoctrination, more often than not involving copious amounts of alcohol, and long harangues about how one just had to “see them in person man.” New experiences were had and shared. But above all else was fun. We became disciples ingrained with the gospel of the party, and nothing else mattered as long as a good time was had by all.

By the time the group released their record “Pill” in late 2005, our loyalty was without question. When confronted by the group’s decision to part ways with their longtime bassist Leon Karpovich, we readily accepted the newcomer, Matt Kyle, the moment he burst into a comical rendition of Styx’s “Come Sail Away” sung entirely in the voice of Cartman from South Park. Still, there was also the small matter of the music itself.

Pained by their pigeonholing as a cover band, Toybox often used their self-released material to try new things or craft crowd-pleasing anthems that usually ventured on the more risqué side of poor taste. Tracks like “Fuck You,” “Phuck Filly,” and “Beat the Fuck Out of My Friends” sound vulgar, but manage to walk the fine line of being sing-able, while also simultaneously offending any sensitive person within earshot.

Photo courtesy of Emily’s Toybox

Similar to their past work, the rhythms Toybox employs on “Pill” vary from punkish to near-hardcore and even venture into R&B and mock-pop. Catchy guitar riffs drive the momentum of each number, while the bass and drums remain in tight lock-step throughout. Elsewhere, searing leads by wild-man/ guitarist Todd Sensenich occasionally grab the spotlight, but always remain musically in line with the rest of the piece.

Standing out above all else are the vocals of front man Mike Wise. He screams, he croons, he raps. He even breaks out a near-embarrassing falsetto on “Fuck You Too” that oddly plays to the song’s strengths. It’s a manic performance that is never less than engaging, and all the more surprising given the grim tone of the album’s lyrics.

The subject matter of “Pill” appears harsher than the rest of Toybox’s catalog because the anger behind the words is almost palpable. Whether writing sympathetically of a soldier friend as a “Casualty” or portraying the government as a “Meat Machine” that eats up individuals in the name of progress, Wise and company drop their class clown personas momentarily to tackle issues straight out of the headlines.

Unfortunately, what was once rousing now makes portions of the record sound dated. Even though the album is a scant five years old, its references to the conflicts going on in Iraq and Afghanistan are inextricably pinned to the moments they were written. As a historical document, such instances are acceptable practice. However, for current work the sentiments expressed may too often fall on deaf ears and numb brains. Yet, through it all the charm of such a record (and group) is not lost on me.

See Emily’s Toybox perform fan favorite “Your Girlfriend is Pretty Ugly” here:

I count Emily’s Toybox still amongst my personal favorites, and their impact on my life remains immeasurable. Though as music writers we may seldom stoop to recognize such acts, since they aren’t “hip enough” or on the “cutting edge,”  they are continually worthy of our attention. If only as remembrances of times gone by or memories long since faded to legend, bands like Emily’s Toybox are the building blocks in one’s musical education. Oh yeah, and they sort of rock too.

For more information on Emily’s Toybox and future tour dates please visit www.emilystoybx.com. Or, check the group out on Facebook at www.facebook.com/pages/Emilys-ToyBox.

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Better than you thought: 10 covers that work…no, really (part 2)

Ah, cover songs. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. When done properly, these tracks can take the best elements of a hit and mold them into a brand new creation. However, when done poorly these atrocities can rile up fan bases quicker than tour cancellations and “band hiatuses” combined.

Welcome to part two of our countdown for covers that are actually better than you thought they would be. While in most cases the original versions are seen as definitive, the songs on this list seek to open the discussion on which version listeners might prefer if given the chance. Enjoy!

“Hurt”

First released on Nine Inch Nails 1994 album “The Downward Spiral,” Trent Reznor’s sobering ballad about heroin addiction was never released as a commercial single. However, in 2002 country icon Johnny Cash found critical success by lending his years of experience to the song’s powerful message. Though Reznor admits he originally thought the idea of a remake was, “a bit gimmicky.” He has since changed his tune, and admits “that song isn’t mine anymore.”   

See Nine Inch Nails original here:

See Johnny Cash make the song his own here:

“Last Kiss”

Some songs age like a fine wine. And a rarer few receive the privilege of being covered multiple times to varying degrees of success. Such is the case of songwriter Wayne Cochran’s 1961 work “Last Kiss.” While not a hit during its initial release, J. Frank Wilson and the Cavalier’s would take the track to the top 10 in 1964. Then thirty-five years later, Pearl Jam lead singer Eddie Vedder stumbled upon a copy of the song at a garage sale and encouraged his band to record their own version as a charity single. The song would again reach the upper echelons of the Billboard charts, but more importantly would also help raise almost 10 million dollars for the Kosovo relief fund. Not bad for a tune that what was originally intended as a “tragedy song” novelty.

Hear Wayne Cochran’s non-hit here:        

Hear J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers’ 1964 version here:

See Pearl Jam’s 1999 rendition live here:

“Wonderwall”

Though never able to match the level of success they had in England, the Brit poppers of Oasis broke through to American audiences with the third single off their second album “What’s the Story (Morning Glory).” Even years later, “Wonderwall” maintains an enduring level of popularity, and is one of the most covered songs in recent history. However, perhaps its most notable rendition is by alt-country singer/ songwriter Ryan Adams. Even the track’s original writer, Noel Gallagher, has taken to performing the song in Adams’ style, and the tune has been used by numerous television shows to heighten the melancholy of certain scenes.

See Oasis’ Britpop classic here:     

Hear Ryan Adams’ melancholy remake here:

“Ms. Jackson”

Covering a song by hip-hop icons Outkast seems like a Herculean task for an alternative rock group. Andre 300 and Big Boi push so many boundaries that any track in their catalogue is bound to be seen as uniquely them. However, Australian garage rockers the Vines pull it off by keeping things simple. Musically, this means trimming the song down to just its chorus and bridge and ditching extra instruments for a steady acoustic strum. While not as frenzied or psychedelic as some their other efforts, live versions of the tune still provide a slow burn for audience members taking it easy between rave ups.

See Outkast’s video here:

See the Vines cover live here:

 “Billie Jean”

As one of the singles from the smash album “Thriller,” Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” was a chart-topping hit that redefined the dance/ pop genre in the ‘80s. Then in 2007, former Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell recorded the track for his solo album “Carry On.” Though radically different than the original (including the removal of the definitive bass line), Cornell’s version was praised by critics for its “bluesier, more pained and impassioned feel.” The Los Angeles Times even called the rendition a “grim, spooky take,” and concluded that “Jackson’s mega hit [survived] the stunt translation.”

See Michael Jackson’s classic here:

See Chris Cornell’s version here:

Did your favorite make the list? If not, list it in the comment section. One can never have enough covers. Who knows? We just might have to compile a part 3. Stay tuned…

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Better than you thought: 10 covers that work…no, really (part 1)

Photo courtesy of thehitman-cthemusic.blogspot.com

We have all been there. While listening to the radio, we hear the first strains of a familiar melody and think to ourselves “I know this song.” Then, as the minutes slowly pass we start to question the validity of our claim.

The music sounds close, but something is amiss. Either the chords aren’t quite right, the beat is topsy-turvy, or hey, wasn’t the singer of the band originally a guy? Suddenly, it hits us. We’ve been listening to a cover, or an alternate version of a track we know and love.

Before anger and frustration set in, we give the song one last chance. Okay, this new group didn’t screw everything up. At least the lyrics are the same. The new take on the chorus is pretty clever. And wait, we actually…gulp…are starting to like this version. It really is better than we first thought, and one day may even find its way into our listening rotation.

The following list is made up of covers (in no particular order) that, despite their unorthodox origin or seemingly impossible execution, still work as decent songs in their own right. Let the nitpicking begin. But before you start slinging mud, give a listen. You just might find a new favorite in the mix.

“Bad Romance”

Originally the lead single from pop trend-setter Lady Gaga’s third EP, “The Fame Monster,” this track received a gothic overhaul by 30 Seconds to Mars on BBC Radio 1’s Live Lounge. While Gaga’s version traded mostly in ‘80s hooks and beats, Jared Leto and company heightened the song’s doom and gloom with moody piano chords and surprisingly soulful singing.

See the Lady Gaga version here:

See 30 Seconds to Mars take here:

“Faith”

First entering the public consciousness as the top-selling single of 1988, George Michael’s “Faith” was given a foul-mouthed update in 1997 on Limp Bizkit’s debut album “Three Dollar Bill, Yall$.” While not quite matching the success of the original, the track did answer an important musical question. Namely, when you think Wham, who is the logical choice to cover one of their solo members’ hits? If you said Fred Durst, congratulations. You’ve just won a sailor hat made of purple felt.

See George Michael’s version here:

See Limp Bizkit’s version here:

“Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)”

For MTV fans in the ‘80s, few images were more jarring then the Eurythmics’ Annie Lennox strutting across the screen in man’s suit, complete with cane and close-cropped orange hair. While Lennox’s gender-bending look turned more than a few heads back in the day, the queen of synth-pop had nothing on provocateur extraordinaire Marilyn Manson. The gloom-rocker’s slow-burning take of the original hit would not only turn up the level of menace, but also would give Manson his first taste of worldwide notoriety. Sexual harassment and Satan worshipping would soon follow.

See the Eurythmics’ original here:

See Marilyn Manson’s version here:

“Beth”

A sincere ballad from rock giants KISS? Yes, it’s true. In 1976, Gene Simmons and company unleashed their highest-charting single ever with this sweet ode to a loved one from the road. More surprising still, the song hit the charts again in 2010 with a version sung by the cast of Fox’s hit show “Glee.” While there was a bit less make-up and hair present in the remake, the sentiments remained the same. Although, I’m pretty sure rooting for the school bully and head cheerleader to stay together is not exactly what Peter Criss had in mind while writing the original.

See KISS go unplugged here:

See the boys from Glee sing here:

“I Will Survive”

From disco anthem to snarky rock kiss-off, “I Will Survive” is a radio staple across multiple genres. While written from the perspective of a narrator getting over a breakup, the song has also been used to fuel empowerment and inspiration for anyone who’s down on their luck. Interesting sidenote: Cake’s cover is original singer Gloria Gaynor’s least favorite version. Why? The use of profanity. Oh well, if only there was some music for John McCrea and company to play to get over the bad news…

See Gloria Gaynor’s soul-power original here:

See Cake’s version here:

Check back to see what other tracks made the list in part 2 of our countdown. Coming soon!

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Meet the Jims: Binghamton’s brand of young, loud and snotty

Live in the Basement (Cover courtesy of The Jims)

First forming under the grey skies of Binghamton, N.Y. in 2007, the Jims may very well be the great apathetic hope of the city’s underground music scene.

With witty song titles like, “Don’t Catch Cancer,” “Danny Bonadouchebag” and “I Just Wanna Fuck You,” the group appears to be just your average young, loud and snotty punk band. However, upon closer inspection repeat listens reveal that this is a group that knows its music history, or at the very least, their own twisted version of it.

While eschewing popular musical styles like emo or phony metal posturing, the most clearly identifiable influence on the band is punk rock forefathers the Ramones. Much like the venerable legends of CBGB’s, many of the Jims songs come in at barely over a minute and are filled with the kind of simple melodies that would not be out of place on an old AM radio hit. They even share the Bowery legend’s little seen soft side with songs detailing subjects like high school crushes, and “The Girls at R-bee’s.”

Elsewhere, political incorrectness reigns supreme. Taboo issues like rape, drug abuse, and death threats are all given turns through the Jims skewed world view and come out sounding like vintage hardcore jams from the early ‘80s. Still, the band never strays far from their pop leanings as evidenced by the almost hummable “Pedestrian,” and “Fell in Love with You.”

Do it for the Kids (Cover courtesy of the Jims)

As a live act, the Jims are reminiscent of little kids who have ingested far too much sugar. They are all high energy, pausing only long enough to count to four and start the next number or ask the audience for more cough syrup. All three members take turns flailing about, seemingly out of control, but seldom missing a note. And even if they flub a chord or two, their enthusiasm often rides roughshod over the mistake, quickly rendering it a moot point.

Unfortunately, the one aspect of their act that the Jims do not share with their heroes is perhaps the most telling. While the Ramones were an industrious band that toured ceaselessly and recorded frequently, the Jims appear to have very little career ambition. Their gigs are infrequent, sparsely attended, and what few recordings they have are more a plea for extra cash than true artistic statements. Yet, even amidst their best efforts to hide it, glimmers of true talent continually bleed through the band’s lackadaisical appearance.

See the video for “Rhianna Got Punched in the Face” here:

Perhaps they are a symbol of the times – true cynics for the cyber age, thrashing about on stage because they can’t find anything better to do. We should all be so lucky.

For more information on the Jims and future tour dates please visit www.thejims.net, or follow the group on Facebook and Twitter at www.facebook.com/wearethejims and www.twitter.com/wearethejims.

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