There are a near infinite number of ways to stumble across new music. Thinking about my favorite artists often makes me think about the first time I heard them. I caught Ani DiFranco’s “Little Plastic Castle” on the radio on a Saturday morning, driving home from the laundromat. The first time I really listened to The Who, I caught a ride home from my summer job with a kid who had Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy in his cassette player. I’d never heard of Medeski, Martin and Wood before I saw them open up for Morphine at Cleveland’s venerable Agora. No doubt you, dear reader, have as many little anecdotes for your own favorite acts.
Today’s twin bill album review, at first blush, might seem wildly inappropriate. We’ve jammed a sensitive, acoustic singer-songwriter in with a collection of garage rock covers. But, for us, Alela Diane and the Condo Fucks epitomize two of the classic ways to find new music: going to rock shows and hanging out with cool kids. Alela Diane opened for Blitzen Trapper in Detroit last weekend. We caught her and were hypnotized by her talent. Condo Fucks, the erstwhile incarnation of Yo La Tengo, are the cool kids, showing us why it’s important to pay attention to Small Faces and Richard Hell. Alela Diane is the hand of fate, guiding music lovers to rock shows; Condo Fucks are the tape deck, cranking out badass tunes that you should have heard before, but were too busy listening to ELO to notice.
Our first exposure to Diane’s music, as mentioned above, was the live show. As such, the impressions many of the songs made at the show carried over as we listened to the album for the first time. Happily, there’s no drop-off from the live stuff; the songs were powerful in person and that translates on record. Alela Diane’s songs are little nuggets of folk perfection; her vocals are both emotive and rangy, shifting from a smooth calming tone to a high warble as the content demands. The instrumentation is lushly acoustic, with a diverse drum sound and broad spectrum of stringed instruments, including, among other things, occasional banjo and mandolin and a prominently featured (and well-used) violin.
There are several standouts on the album. “White as Diamonds” is a showcase for both Diane’s voice and that violin we mentioned above. This song has an intensely homey feel; it could have been recorded in an Oregonian log cabin’s great room in front of a roaring fire, with snow visible through a hand-blown glass window and a hunting dog sleeping on a homespun rug. The harmonies behind Diane’s voice are pitch perfect and the drumming is more up-front than the folk tag might suggest (we’re not saying that it’s Topper Headon back there, but it’s not just sissified brush strokes on a cymbal either).
Another clear highlight is the duet with Michael Hurley, “Age Old Blue.” This was another point where the live act informed our ears; Diane’s father is a member of the touring band and I assumed that it was her father singing on this song before I read the liner notes. It’s, essentially, a song about family, beginning with Diane’s crystalline voice intoning, “The sea beneath the cliff is the blue in my mother’s eyes that came from the blue in her mother’s eyes, thrown on down the line by our family who worked the fields on borrowed land above the ocean.” This is when Hurley dives in, his grizzled voice contrasting perfectly with Dianes’s. It’s an almost uncomfortably personal song, and it’s right in your ear; where some of the other songs have that living room sound, this one sounds like you’re standing in a closet with the band. It’s a can’t miss song.
The album spreads out a bit as well; “The Ocean” (which killed live) hinges on a distinctly native American drum sound with a tweedly mandolin in the front. “The Alder Tree” brings back that mandolin but almost moves in a march tempo, with what sounds to be a wood block in the chorus. These tracks show that Alela Diane has more than one gear. There’s not an electronic re-mix on the album, but it’s not a fifty minutes of monotony either. Alela Diane comes with a fervent recommendation from us. If you’re going to see Blitzen Trapper on their remaining dates, show up early and catch a treat. We’ll bet that you’re walking out of the show with a copy of To Be Still tucked under your arm.
Buy Alela Diane at insound!
“White as Diamonds” – Alela Diane
I feel a bit guilty for outing Condo Fucks as Yo La Tengo. (In fact, I’m worried that Matador is going to send over a team of indie rock ninjas to take out Citizen Dick’s servers and erase all record of both me and this review. Matador, if you’re reading, I thought it would be cool because Brooklyn Vegan spilled the beans first; if you’re sending an elite strike team anywhere, it should be to them.) My ethical concerns to the side, this album’s pedigree doesn’t have any bearing on my love for it; its dirty garage feel is cool as hell and works independently from any feeling you might have about the alt-gods that recorded it. I’m in no position to assess the motives of Yo La Tengo, but I think the nom de guerre here might be to play up that notion of garage geniuses toiling in obscurity; it’s nice to imagine three dudes you don’t know banging out Beach Boys b-sides in one of their mom’s basements. Condo Fucks are those guys.
Yo La Tengo’s encyclopedic repertoire of cover songs, highlighted on their annual visits to WFMU and on Murdering the Classics, is legendary and this collection of covers does not disappoint. They have a fantastic ear for picking songs that are both neglected by the masses and brilliant. Be honest. If I say “The Troggs,” you think “Wild Thing,” not “With a Girl Like You,” which is the song Condo Fucks cover. I’d not heard the original, but the cover had me scrambling to the internet to find the original. The background “bah-bah-bah”s, poking out beneath a layer of fuzz are strangely beautiful and the song’s theme of young love is touching. My modern ears prefer the Condo Fucks’ version, but the importance of the track to modern music is, I think, what the album is trying to emphasize. How many great (or mediocre) bands have emulated this sound? How many of them credited The Troggs?
It’s this older brother quality of the album that is a large part of its appeal. Condo Fucks are dragging the milk crate of records down to the rec room and cranking tunes, helping folks to discover great music. Further, they’re offering a weird kind of time line of amazing songs and ideas. Richard Hell and the Voidoids’ “The Kid With the Replaceable Head” follows that Troggs cut and it’s impossible not to hear the similarities. It might be hard to draw that line if you’re not an honest-to-god rock journalist, but this album gives the average listener that insight. (I don’t have a degree from Northwestern and I was able to connect the dots, so there you go.) Even without this second layer of meaning, the songs rock. If you ignored the fact that these were covers, you’d still be grooving on the gritty solo in “Dog Meat” and nodding your head to the stoned surf rock of “Shut Down.” Granted, it makes it that much more fun to know that those are Flamin’ Groovies and Beach Boys songs, respectively, but Condo Fucks pump enough energy and authenticity into the album that it almost doesn’t matter.
There are eight seconds on this record that epitimoze why it’s so easy to love. The band launches into the killer riff that starts Clifford T. Ward’s “So Easy Baby,” before someone says, “let’s try that one more time.” Tape keeps rolling, the band stops and starts right back up, crushing the rest of the song. This is a record in the most traditional sense, a document of people making music, warts and all. It’s 33 minutes of stomping fun and I’d wager that it was recorded in less than a week. There are no fancy over-dubs here. Given that, it still sounds great, in the way that a dirty mutt with a flea bitten hide and chewed ears is cute.
We’ve got a track below and underneath that, the Small Faces’ original version. Listen in whatever order you want, but know that when this album drops on March 10, you’ll be crawling the internet looking for the originals of all these tracks. Buy this album and reserve an afternoon.
“What’cha Gonna Do About It” – Condo Fucks