Strings Attached
Three New Live Albums Go Orchestral on Your Ass

I’m not really a betting man.

I don’t play the lottery, I don’t go to the track, and I never put money on sporting events. Luckily, I didn’t inherit the gambling gene from my dad, who signs up for the Mega Millions every week, and has never won a thing. He also bets on the Boston Red Sox to win it all every year, and they’ve only come through for him once in his whole life. I’ve watched this behavior intently over the years, and learned not to emulate it.

No betting for me.

Oh, sure, there’s that weekly poker game with my office-mates, but that’s just fun. It’s a $10 buy-in Texas Hold-‘Em game that’s usually a lot more fun than anything else I might do with that same 10 bucks, so on the risk-reward scale, I can’t really call it gambling so much. Even so, I’ve figured out by this point which of my fellow players poses the biggest threat, and I often back out of games they’re in.

I’m just generally a cautious person. Uncertainty is my natural state. I’m also usually wrong – the last bet I made concerned Harriet Miers, whom I was sure would be confirmed as a Supreme Court justice. Call it an episode of rampant cynicism, one that cost me a whole dime. It’s funny now, but imagine how much funnier it would have been if I’d won…

Anyway, the point of all this is, I have to be pretty damn sure about something to wager anything of value on it. Either that, or exceedingly foolish. I’ll let you be the judge – I’ve just made another bet, and I want you all to be my witnesses.

Okay, you all know that I’m hooked on Lost, and if you didn’t know, now you do. The show has proven frustrating in its second year, and I am more certain than ever that the writers only have the barest of notions regarding how it all wraps up. Episodes this year have played to me like a relay race between the writers, one finishing an episode and handing it off to the next without any real connecting threads or narrative drive. It’s been, in short, disappointing and head-scratching, and I hope I’m wrong, and that the whole thing will pay off in the end, because God knows I’m not going to stop watching.

Fans of the show will know what I mean when I say that I’m like Jack, suspicious and skeptical, and without faith. And my friend Mike Ferrier, he’s Locke – he believes with all his heart that the writers know where they’re going, and that everything means something in the intricate tapestry they’re weaving. He believes all the dangling plot threads and little mysteries are part of a grand plan set forth by J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof, and that his faith will be rewarded – there will be nothing left hanging, unexplained, at the show’s conclusion.

He is clearly wrong, which is why I suggested betting on it. But rather than leave what constitutes “completely explained” up to interpretation, we picked one of those little elements. We chose something that I believe will have no logical explanation at all, and which he contends is part of the deftly woven whole. Why else, he says, would it be there, if they couldn’t explain it?

We picked the numbers.

Now, I’m not stupid. I do think there will be some explanation behind Hurley’s magical numbers, the sequence of 4-8-15-16-23-42 that brings all manner of bad luck with it, and apparently keeps the world from blowing up every 108 minutes. But sharp-eyed viewers may have noted that those numbers crop up a lot in the show – on speedometers, on clocks, and in one case, on the jerseys of a soccer team, all lined up. They’re scattered throughout the show like Easter eggs.

So here’s the bet. Mike believes there will be a reason behind the numbers appearing so frequently, often only for seconds when the camera pans by them. I think the inclusion of the numbers is a recurring gag by the writers and directors, one designed for the sole purpose of making the fanbase on the internet explode with nerdy delight, and that the appearance of them on various clocks, calendars, and (especially) soccer jerseys will never be explained at all.

By the final episode, one of us will be right, and one will be wrong.

Here’s the stipulation – the show has to conclude on its own, not be canceled. There must be a proper, planned finale. Abrams, Lindelof and his staff must have every opportunity to write their final chapter, or there’s no point to the bet. But given the ratings thus far, I don’t think that will be much of a problem.

We’ve chosen to bet the final season DVD set. Whoever wins must purchase it for the other, whenever it comes out. And the winner can then bask in the final proof of his superiority, over and over again, and perhaps even force the loser to watch it with him, and point and mock and laugh.

So here it is, in digital semi-permanence – as long as this site is up, the text of the bet will be here for all to see. And that means that as the show spirals into what I believe will be a morass of incomprehensibility, headed towards its unsatisfying and unfulfilling finale, Mike can’t weasel his way out of paying up. I kind of hope I’m wrong about this one, too, because I’d like to enjoy the next however-many years of Lost. But I don’t think I am.

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A quick shout-out before we continue.

Longtime readers of this site might know the name Shane Kinney. I met Shane while working at Face Magazine, and he’s a great guy, and an outstanding drummer. He played in a band called Broken Clown for years, and they were an incredibly heavy, slow-moving thunder machine with song titles like “No, I’m Laughing at Your Silly, Bedwetting, Vegetarian Children.” Broken Clown broke up some time ago, and Shane has continued with his comedy career since then, doing very well.

Those same longtime readers may recall a band named 6gig, another Maine conglomerate led by a guy named Walt Craven. I didn’t get to know Walt very well during my time there, but I became a fan of his voice, guitar playing and songwriting. 6gig didn’t last long after the untimely death of their drummer, Dave Rankin – who, incidentally, was one of the nicest guys I met in Portland.

Proof that you can’t keep good musicians down – Kinney and Craven have joined forces, this time with a couple of guys from a Boston band called Chaos Twin, to form Lost on Liftoff. Their four-song EP just came out, and it’s great melodic rock. Craven’s influence is obvious, but the other guys really make themselves known here, too – this is not 6gig redux, it’s brighter and more energetic. This record is all about the songs, and they’re catchy and concise.

You can get the CD at CDBaby (for only four bucks!) here. You can listen to the whole thing, too, and if you come away from it without thinking, “This band should be huge,” I’ll be surprised. Good show, guys.

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Is there anything in rock more controversial than the string section?

The uneasy relationship between the rock band and the orchestra goes back to the beginning of popular music. Rock ‘n’ roll, in the 1950s, stripped pop down to its basic elements – a 4/4 beat, some repeated chords, guitars, bass and drums. Before Bill Haley, though, the charts were dominated by show tunes and crooners, backed by orchestras.

Since that schism, just about every important band has tried to bring the two together again, however fleetingly. The Beatles used orchestras extensively, and the Rolling Stones followed suit here and there. In the ‘70s, orchestral arrangements were considered the height of pomposity, reserved for the likes of Yes and the Moody Blues – you won’t hear the Sex Pistols using strings. (But then, you won’t hear the Sex Pistols playing their instruments well, either…)

Punk was the breakaway, the we-mean-it-this-time split point between the guitars and the violins. It’s become the accepted notion since then, in some circles, that using strings means you have Sold Out, and you are now Unbearably Pretentious. These are the same people who believe that if your record sounds like you spent more than three days and $50 on it, it is Not Cool Enough. But I digress. The point is that orchestras are usually associated with prog and/or adult contemporary music, and stepping into such territory is looked on with suspicion.

But hell, everybody seems to be doing it. I’ve always liked string sections – they provide different colors than the usual guitar-buzz gray, and they present an altogether different challenge for the songwriter. Sure, your tune sounds good when four people are banging it out, but how about trying it with 80? Does it still hold up?

Ben Folds is a guy who uses strings all the time, to great effect. Some will point to the arrangements on his later records as proof that he’s over the hill, musically speaking, but even the first Ben Folds Five album contained “Boxing,” a show tune with a string quartet. Folds has a new DVD that contains a concert with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra, and his songs are a perfect fit. Guys like Folds and Rufus Wainwright are making the orchestra cool again.

Which might be why we’ve seen a virtual explosion of new projects with strings attached. First up is the Eels, the collective name for Mark Everett and whoever he brings on stage with him. For Everett, working with strings is definitely not a stretch – some of his best songs have violins and violas on their studio versions. But after last year’s massive Blinking Lights and Other Revelations double album put him firmly in the ambitious-as-hell category, Everett figured he’d drive the point home by touring with a string quartet.

The results can be heard on Eels With Strings: Live at Town Hall, or seen on its accompanying DVD, and it’s just as cozy as you’d expect. For all its sweep, Blinking Lights is a collection of very small, intimate songs, and the arrangements on Live at Town Hall stick to that intimacy. Often it’s just Everett and the quartet, although Chet crashes in on drums once or twice, and the focus is on his ragged, perfectly imperfect voice.

You’d think that the Blinking Lights material would suit the setting best, but you’d be wrong. Eels classics like “My Beloved Monster” and “It’s a Motherfucker” shine here, and Everett even finds a way to incorporate the free-jazz breakdown that always happens during live reads of “Flyswatter.” His choice of covers is interesting, too – Bob Dylan’s “Girl From the North Country” is great here, and Everett breathes new life into the Left Banke’s 1966 hit “Pretty Ballerina.”

The standard Eels limitations are in evidence, too, however. Everett’s songs are nice, but mostly pretty basic, and he chose several sound-alikes for this show. And then there’s his voice, a definite acquired taste. This is not the album from which to acquire it, though – he sounds hoarse and throaty, especially on “Bus Stop Boxer,” and there’s nothing for him to hide behind. You either like his vocals (which I do, for some reason) or you don’t.

Overall, Live at Town Hall is a successful experiment, one that has the air of something special from the first notes. Everett ends with some of Blinking Lights’ most contented material, choosing to bow out with the same finale he gave the album, “Things the Grandchildren Should Know.” On the album, it sounded like a coda, an afterthought, but here, it’s the summation – Everett’s in a good place right now, and it’s likely that his ability to arrange and execute projects like this has added to his joy. Here’s a guy who deserves to be happy, and I’m glad it’s happening for him.

It also seems to be happening for Collective Soul, one of the biggest bands of the ‘90s, although few would likely remember them as such. They managed the neat trick of scoring hit after hit while being essentially faceless, and after a while, all of their stuff just blended together, the product of one big glossy factory.

But a funny thing happened on the way out of Atlantic Records. Collective Soul have found their experimental side, and thanks to a new label (El Music Group), they’ve been exercising it. 2004’s Youth, their first album since leaving the majors, was more glammy and shone a bit brighter than most of its predecessors, and last year’s From the Ground Up reinvented some of their songs in an acoustic setting. And now they’ve taken on the orchestral live album with Home.

You can use strings a number of different ways, of course – in small doses, like a quartet setting, they add texture and intimacy, but in large numbers, strings are most often arranged for maximum power. Metallica’s S&M project proved to many skeptics that an 80-piece orchestra is a heavy, heavy thing, and that’s the effect Ed Roland and company have gone for here. Home was recorded with the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra and the full band, and the new arrangements dart around and fill out the originals, rather than recasting them.

The best things here are the faster ones, like “Precious Declaration,” the strings doubling that killer opening riff, or “Better Now.” Slower songs like “The World I Know,” sweet as they are, already had string arrangements in their studio renditions, for the most part, and these new ones add nothing. I like that they break for “Pretty Donna,” an instrumental from their first album, here given the full orchestral treatment. I don’t like that they felt compelled to include “Shine,” their ubiquitous first hit, and still the worst song Ed Roland has ever written.

The problem with Home is the same one that has plagued Collective Soul from the beginning – their anonymity. After a while, all these songs start to sound the same, like they were spit out of a machine, and the string arrangements, while helpful, don’t relieve the tedium as much as they could. Collective Soul is a workmanlike band, one that doesn’t sit well next to majesty and grandeur, and their songs are just a little too simple for this setting. Only the diehards will love this, and while it would be incorrect to call this a failure, it won’t change anyone’s mind about the band. Orchestra or not, they sound the same.

Which can’t be said for Elvis Costello, the final of our contestants this week. 20 years ago, if you tried to convince Costello fans that one day he would release an album of orchestral jazz with the Metropole Orkest, a 50-piece concert band, they’d have thrown vinyl copies of Get Happy at you. That was when the chamber-pop of Imperial Bedroom was considered a one-off, not a first step toward a second career.

But the angry young man has become quite the composer and arranger in his later years, spinning off of The Juliet Letters (with the Brodsky Quartet, and due for a double-disc reissue later this month) and into collaborations with Burt Bacharach and the London Symphony Orchestra. He’s appeared on Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz program, and composed a full-length ballet, Il Sogno, released in 2004. Through all that, he’s kept his guitar-rock combo, the Impostors, and continued on two parallel lines.

My Flame Burns Blue, that aforementioned live record, blurs those lines a bit. The Metropole Orkest is a string section and a jazz combo in one, and Costello uses them to tackle not just his more recent ballads, but some of his more famous pop tunes. And they do it brilliantly. My Flame Burns Blue (and don’t think the similarity to My Aim is True, the title of Costello’s 1977 debut, is accidental) serves as a nifty late-career summary, and as a damn fine hour of listening time in its own right.

It opens with “Hora Decubitus,” an old Charles Mingus tune to which Costello has added lyrics. It’s an amazing start, part jazz groove, part pop song, and it leads into “Favourite Hour,” the closing track from 1994’s Brutal Youth, and then into a cover of Dave Bartholomew’s “That’s How You Got Killed Before.” Three songs, three styles, all played beautifully by the Orkest. Costello’s voice is in fine form, spitting venom one second and spinning velvet the next.

For Costello fans, the sweetest moments on this record are the bottom-up reinventions of classics like “Clubland” and “Watching the Detectives.” The latter is aptly described in the liner notes as “in the style of a 1950s television theme.” Also surprising is the Orkest’s read of “Episode of Blonde,” one of the most ragged, Dylan-esque songs on 2002’s When I Was Cruel. Costello still shout-sings it like the Impostors are playing behind him, but the strings and horns give it an entirely new flavor.

And yeah, maybe in this case the strings are a sign of middle age, but to my ears, My Flame Burns Blue rocks more than anything the Eels or Collective Soul have ever done. Costello has learned to make the orchestra work for him, rather than with him, and he doesn’t treat it like a novelty. For the past 10 years or so, he’s fully immersed himself in this style, which allows him to bridge the gap between his chosen genres so nimbly. Like anything else, you only get out what you put in, and Costello has made the effort here to embrace the orchestra, not just utilize it. That makes all the difference.

Next week, hopefully that damn Beth Orton album, and a few other things. Remember to check out Lost on Liftoff.

See you in line Tuesday morning.