Saturday, November 23, 2013

PUNCTUATION: !!!, "The Step"

!!!: "The Step"

When it comes to punctuation in music, it doesn't get any more, uh, punctuated, than the band known as !!! (or, as they have come to be known by those speaking the name, since exclamation points are quite difficult to pronounce on their own: Chk Chk Chk). And in my estimation, they chose a pretty appropriate punctuation mark, since their music is usually quite emphatic. There isn't the uncertainty that would warrant ???, the to-be-continued feeling of ..., or the ambivalent wildcard-ness of ***.

In the music of !!!, the emphasis is on the edgy, post-punk funk, influenced by the music of early Talking Heads, Gang of Four, and Can, with vocals that bring to mind some of the more subdued singing of Mick Jones in Big Audio Dynamite. The song I'm featuring here today, "The Step," is from their 2001 debut album, !!! (their latest album, from earlier this year, is the cleverly titled Thr!!!er). It features a funky guitar and percussion line that could have been lifted direct from Talking Heads' incredible 1980 album, Remain in Light. But it doesn't feel like outright thievery -- more like paying tribute to their predecessors. And arriving on the scene as the first song on their first album, one might say that it was a very "punctual" -- not just "punctuational" -- tribute.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Punctuation: Songs: Ohia

Songs:Ohia: John Henry Split My Heart

I could have saved writing about Jason Molina, who died in March, for our annual In Memoriam theme, but I figure I can write about someone else, since both of Molina’s best known bands, Songs:Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co. fit the Punctuation theme.

If you are a regular reader of Star Maker Machine (and thanks!), you probably have a few bands or musicians that you just love. You know all about them, their history, discography and quirks. And I suspect that you have some artists that you like, but never really got around to getting to know in the same way. That’s the way I was about Jason Molina—almost every time I heard one of his songs, I liked it, but for whatever reason (maybe because I’m an adult now? Or because there’s so much good to watch on TV?), I never spent much time learning about him and his music.

Then, in March, he died, at the age of 39, of “alcohol abuse-related organ failure.” Yuck. Another sad loss to substance abuse. I found myself surprisingly unhappy about this, and realized that maybe I liked his music more than I thought.

Born in Ohio, Molina graduated from Oberlin College and shortly thereafter started Songs:Ohia, a solo project with a revolving cast of side musicians. The name was derived both from his home state and a Hawaiian tree. Molina mixed Americana and classic rock sounds with metal and indie influences to create his personal sound, which seems to have an underlying melancholy that, in retrospect, makes a good deal of sense.

I have a little bit of a John Henry obsession—I have about 45 songs on my iPod that reference the steel driving man—and this version is one of the best modern reimaginings of the American legend (along with, of course, the Drive-By Truckers’ version). It is an epic song, reminiscent of Neil Young’s, “Cowgirl in the Sand,” in its refusal to hurry to a conclusion and its great guitar lines.

“John Henry Split My Heart” appears on an album titled Magnolia Electric Co. and sources differ as to whether this was the last Songs:Ohia album, or the first Magnolia Electric Co. album. But it really doesn’t matter. It is a great song, by an underappreciated artist who died too young. And either way, it fits the theme.