How to Mask Friends and Influence People: Reviewing My Friend’s Band

Clown-Mask-Card-8.5x8.5-FrontBefore you listen to this Jackie & the Treehorns album, before you share this review, tell me what your friend’s band sounds like.

They’re good, aren’t they? Your friend’s band? They’re always really good, not just because they’re your friends. I’ve always been a bit too fascinated with how we talk about music, why we attempt to write about music and put into words that which can’t and doesn’t need to be explained.

So the next question is how do we listen to and process our friend’s bands? What if it’s our brother, or our best friend, or just dudes we knew in college? And do we overvalue how “great” they are? Cuz let’s face it, some of your friend’s bands aren’t that great. But that’s awesome that you still talk them up.

When you hear your friend’s new demo (or soundcloud thingy or youtube “trailer” for their upcoming album), do you think about how your boy once rocked a C&C Music Factory cassingle in his car and now he’s got this super-serious Queens of the Stone Age hard rock vibe going? Our intimate knowledge of our friend’s life and known favorites and influences surely must taint our view of their music.

Wait, you can’t view music. This is how Jackie & the Treehorns trick you into using the word “taint” in their album review.

The point is, there is this indescribable difference in listening to your friend’s band versus the latest album from an actual famous rock star. For instance, I know Jack White is a minimalist rocker heavily steeped in and indebted to the blues. He’s a longtime champion of a truly “independent” business approach and has an extreme fondness for vintage, authentic recording gear and techniques. I know all of this because that is what he has presented to me on record and through interviews, etc. (And of course all of that is then remixed and regurgitated and re-imagined for me by all the people attempting to write about music.) I don’t actually know Jack White as a person, I didn’t hang out with him growing up in Detroit, I never worked with him as an upholsterer, and I’ve never been in any of his numerous bands or side projects.

But I’ve been in Jackie & the Treehorns. I was the original drummer, and also served as Jackie’s manager and confidant during such dizzying highs and lows of his career that there’s a documentary film about it. In fact, I’ve been in a few bands and side projects with my friend Steven Rubin, the guitarist, singer/songwriter, and mastermind producer behind Jackie & the Treehorns.

I know his influences. (I won’t name check them). I thought I knew his influences. Yes, I can hear some of them peaking out from behind the Clown Mask. And then there are new faces, or old faces with different masks on, and they’re singing too. I didn’t know he knew them. There are things about our friends that we don’t know.

Did you think your friend’s band would sound like this? What did you think they’d sound like? Do you feel guilty if, when your friend isn’t around, you tell people “They’re kinda like 311, but they totally don’t sound like them at all”? Are you a little ashamed that you’ve only made it out to see them ONCE, and you got there a little late, and honestly don’t even know what they sound like? You could always just mumble “sort of a Blues Traveler kinda thing” and hope the person either doesn’t get the reference or thinks it’s a good thing.

Have you ever lied to your friend? Or, more accurately, have you ever just not told the truth about how much you think they suck? Do you have a lot friends in bands? Are you reluctant to spread the good word about how great they are because the other friends you’re telling probably assume you’re only talking about your friend’s band just to let people know you’re the kinda cool person who knows people in bands?

So then what happens when your friend’s band makes a really great album? Your other friends are so tired of hearing about your friend’s band they might as well be called Cried Sheep. It’s not that they don’t care (yea, it’s cool, you know dudes in bands). It’s just that they’re probably never gonna take the 14 seconds to click the one or two links to instantly listen to the whole album for free. Seriously, read that last sentence again: they’re probably never gonna take the 14 seconds to click the one or two links to instantly listen to the whole album for free. Back in the day when no one would get off my lawn, we (the friends of yours who were in the bands) had to beg our friends (you) to purchase a hard copy compact disc of our band and then we inevitably just gave most of them away for free, in exchange for the promise or hope that you would tell all your friends about our band and then also get together with them and PLAY IT FOR THEM. Force them sit through My Friend’s Band’s CD. Thankfully, we don’t have to do that. We can do the here’s the link, go listen for free at the time and place of your choosing thing. But I will tell you this: my friend’s band’s album is really, really good. I’m not just saying that. And he didn’t email me bugging him to write something about it (full disclosure: yes he did). Fittingly, my favorite track is called “In No Condition to Explain.”

Please don’t ask me what my friend’s band sounds like. Aren’t your friend’s bands true originals with a unique style that really doesn’t sound like anyone else? It’s almost impossible to know, but even if it wasn’t my friend’s band, I’d still think this was a great album.

Do you believe me? Will you check it out? Do you mind if I wear a clown mask?

The Words We Use When We Talk About Tom Waits


There’s no reason for me to review the new Tom Waits record. It would be like handing my 4-year-old son a crayon and asking him to explain photography. I’ve grappled in this space before about the futile pursuit of “writing about music,” but Waits is one of those masters who sucks people into writing diatribes about rock artistry, junkyard poetry, and the history of American music while at the same time inspiring scores of the rest of us to just put our pens down and listen.

Tom Waits, and attempting to pinpoint or even describe whatever “Tom Waits Music” might be, is a bit like that old quote about defining the legal threshold of pornography: “I know it when I see it.” And we all know Waits when we hear him. One of the better descriptions was when Elton John called Waits “the Jackson Pollock of song.” And I also agree with one reviewer’s assessment of Waits as “more of a mad mechanic than a painter to me: a man collecting rusty old wrecks of vintage American music and getting them to clatter-bang back to life — untaxed, uninsured and possibly with a corpse left rotting in the boot.”

As for my only stab at a description of Waits and his music. I think of him as the musical equivalent to the possibly crazy eccentric guy in the song “What’s He Building In There?” from 1999’s Mule Variations. All these years he’s been clanging around that house, banging on pianos and knocking over bottles while I’ve been busy listening to everyone else’s records but also wondering about that Tom Waits guy. What’s he building in there?

I’m not qualified to really break down Tom Waits and provide some semblance of an attempt at a professional critique, in the sense that I’ve only ever heard a few of his records. I’ve always known and respected Tom Waits, he was someone who I’ve always wanted to like. And somewhere I still have the cassette copy of swordfishtrombones that a friend made for me years ago. But beyond that I don’t own any of his records, I can’t honestly say that I’m at all familiar with his whole body of work but I certainly know what he sounds like.

That’s why, instead of “reviewing” his great new album, Bad As Me, and in the process banging out a mini-Wiki regurgitation of his career, I thought I’d throw a bunch of other proper reviews into a word cloud and see if all those Waitsian adjectives and imagery would come bursting out. You know, like “boozy” or “growl” and variations of carnival barkers and closing-time balladry. Possibly some smoke. I mean, those are the words we use when we talk about Tom Waits because his inimitable vocal stylings bring to life such a litany of real characters’ characters.

Interestingly enough, the word cloud (consisting of more than 10,000 words taken from recently published reviews) is a bit short on the old weird American saloon imagery I’d expected. But it turned out pretty cool. Words like new and Bad were prominent as every review of course mentioned that Bad As Me was the new record [we threw out the word “Waits”].

Pretty neat to look through the cloud, a bit like combing through one of Waits albums, where little vignettes are splattered across the page and phrases reveal themselves depending on how you look at them.

Prominent guests like Keith Richards and Waits’ wife/collaborator Kathleen Brennan show up. Funny that “Richards” appears near the words “time” and “years” and “guitars” (and Kathleen is near “love”). The word “great” is surrounded by “percussion,” “horns,” “writing,” “rock,” and “voice.” You see “record,” then “business” and “hell.” There’s “soldiers” next to “lost,” while “Chicago,” “blues,” and “sounds” anchor the middle.

After all these years of me wishing I was “into Tom Waits” for some reason, always wondering what he was building, but never taking the time to listen… he emerges with this fantastic new record that, to my novice ears, sounds like a great sampling of all the things he does best.

The Whole Wilco: Tweedy Finds a Fix for the Fits

Just as their home base of Chicago sits between LA and New York, Wilco occupies a vast middle ground, having been dubbed with the seemingly opposite labels of “alt-country pioneers” and “the American Radiohead.” Somehow they both fit, as evidenced on their fine new LP The Whole Love. And all that ground between those two labels is the area that Wilco has been working in the decade since their consensus “best album,” 2001’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

Fans and detractors alike are tough on this band as far as expectations. Their albums are all “good” so we take them for granted (not unlike The Roots if you want a strange-but-fitting comparison). When they’re not great, we accuse them of phoning it in, but when they get too ambitious, we say they’re trying too hard. They can’t win. We find them either too boring or too weird.

“Found a fix for the fits/
Listen to this/
It’s buried under the hiss… and it glows”

Jeff Tweedy’s personal fits with addiction and depression are known and don’t need to be re-examined here. But on top of those, and even in his recent sober/happy days, he’s still battled fits of trying to live up to or match the masterful Yankee Hotel Foxtrot album without remaking it. Wilco has tried everything: the experimental, the poppy, the rootsy, the Dad rock; usually all within one album. Yet somehow there were enough near misses that most of us resigned ourselves to the idea that Wilco would never make another truly great album again, but they’d continuing making good ones and that was okay.

Until now. The Whole Love sounds to me a lot like Summerteeth, the underrated gem of a record that serves as the bridge between their two “best” albums, Being There and YHF, both chronologically and sonically. Just something about the way several of the tracks literally bounce along. The songwriting, and the performance and sound of it, it just feels effortless, though I admit that I have no idea what that means and it’s a ridiculous way to describe an album.

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