Friday, October 01, 2010

"Good As Ever" / 
Works Progress Administration

What's in a name?   Well, here's a case study.  Of course I knew there was a band out there in the 90s called Toad the Wet Sprocket, but something about that name made me assume it was a punk metal thrash band.  They were young, they were from California, they were totally outside my frames of reference, back in those days between MTV and Sirius when I didn't have any decent channel for finding new music.  Even though I'm sure I heard some of their big songs -- like All I Want or Fall Down -- I never connected song to band, and remained blissfully ignorant that this was actually a band I would have liked, and liked a lot.

Same thing with Nickel Creek.  Nickel Creek, Nickleback -- who knew which was which?  And because every Nickleback song I ever heard was obnoxiously loud and boring, I would never have paid attention to Nickel Creek, until a friend's daughter started dating mandolinist Chris Thile.  I finally hauled myself to one of their shows and fell in love with their indie bluegrass sound.  Unfortunately, that was on their "farewell for now" tour, so goodbye Nickel Creek. (Okay, okay, they're just on a break. Or so they say.)

I'd have missed Works Progress Administration, too, if they hadn't included a cover of the Kinks' "I Go To Sleep". Thankfully the Kinks network does not allow any covers to go unnoticed, and so I hunted down this track.  I discovered to my delight that Works Progress Administration is a bizarre sort of supergroup, combining (get this line-up) fiddler Sara Watkins and her brother, guitarist Sean Watkins, from Nickel Creek; Lyle Lovett's fiddler Luke Bulla; Tom Petty's keyboardist Benmont Tench; Elvis Costello's drummer Pete Thomas; Elvis's AND Hohn Hiatt's bassist Davey Faragher; and the incredible Greg Leisz, who's played various stringed instruments for everybody from Smashing Pumpkins to Sheryl Crow. And the presiding spirit of all this seems to be Toad the Wet Sprocket's leader, Glen Phillips. Who knew?

It's just an insanely good album, by the way, with track after track featuring each of these amazing artists. It really does feel like a community effort, a collaboration among music-loving musicians who dig each other's work and are happy to share the spotlight.  (How refreshing!)  Nevertheless, my big question after listening to this album was:  Who is this Glen Phillips?

This particular WPA track has been teasing my brain for weeks now.  I've got it on a couple of workout mixes on my iPod, and this stupid tiny iPod Shuffle that I've got doesn't display artist info -- so when that wheeze of fiddles starts up, I'm momentarily thrown.  Is this a country artist?   Everybody in this project is clearly getting their twang on, though you could hardly help it, with all those fiddles around.

But then as soon as Glen Phillips starts singing those unrhymed, meandering verses, I'm thrown back into indie mode. (Maybe it's the juxtaposition of words like "fontanelle" and "bassinet" and "razor blades" that does it.)  "I feel too much and I'm sick of feeling" -- yup, that's perfect 21st-century sentiment. Yet that gently ticking tempo, the good-humored fiddles, and Phillips' ironic phrasing keeps the whole thing from going all dark and emo-punk.  By the time he gets to that last verse -- "Maybe it's a kind of genius / Finding fault in everything / If I had a palace in utopia / I'd obsess on the cracks beneath the sink" -- we're clued into his comic persona, the hapless mopey loser.

For something this laidback and unassuming, it actually turns out to be a major earworm.  I still can't figure out where the hooks are, though -- those ever so slightly discordant fiddle riffs? The moody key change at the end of the chorus? Maybe it's just the way Phillips pronounces "fontanelle." He knows the audience is going to giggle there.

I guess it's no surprise that a song by the Kinks would show up on this album -- the smart cool kids gets the Kinks, even the ones in sunny California. (Especially the ones in sunny California, maybe -- there's a reason why The 88 are Ray Davies' new pet band.)  These guys get character, they get irony, and they've got the musical chops to back it up, enough chops to attract veterans like Benmont Tench and Greg Leisz. They deserve a better name than Works Progress Administration, for all its sincere Depression-era resonance.  But hey, knowing how fluid the indie scene is these days, they'll probably change it next month anyway.  I just hope I'll find it in time!


The Modesto Kid said...

Funny -- I had never heard of Nickel Creek until a day or two ago when a friend passed along a link to a video of theirs on YouTube... I thought "Huh, is this something to do with Nickelback?" and passed it over. Guess I should go back and take a listen!

NickS said...

"It really does feel like a community effort, a collaboration among music-loving musicians who dig each other's work and are happy to share the spotlight."

That line made me think that I should plug this mix that I posted on my site a while back. It's a folky/bluegrass mix, with an emphasis on people that blatantly really enjoy playing music. It's a little bit outside of your standard taste but if you have time or get bored at some point I recommend listing to some of it I say, as a thoroughly biased judge, that it's very good and much of it is very catchy.

On a pop note, there's something about the singing that makes me curious if you've every listened to Zumpano. You might really like them.

As for that song, the line of your that most helps me appreciate it is, "[I]t actually turns out to be a major earworm. I still can't figure out where the hooks are, though -- those ever so slightly discordant fiddle riffs?" My first listen I was surprised that the musicianship didn't impress me more, but listening to it a second time I see what you mean that it's just catchy in a way that's hard to pin down and that fact makes me think more highly of the playing.

wendy said...

That does it, I'm just going to quit my job and listen to all of the songs you've written about that I've never heard of before.

Holly A Hughes said...

Funny that Nickel Creek should be on extended hiatus, and yet they still seem to be picking up new fans all the time.

That's an intriguing mix, Nick -- I'll have to listen to it further. Wendy, I'd be happy to join you quitting work just to listen to music! (and by the way, you're always introducing ME to new/old stuff!). There's just so much out there, I feel like I'm only getting the tip of the iceberg....

NickS said...

That's an intriguing mix, Nick -- I'll have to listen to it further.

If you do I'll be very curious what you make of it. I'm tempted to point out a bunch of individual tracks that I think you would like, but I should just finish blogging them on my site so, instead, let me make one more comment about the mix as a whole.

I say, in the linked post that, compared to my usual tastes, my focus was more on the music than the words. I should also say that the performances are remarkably emotionally communicative.

There is very little that is cliche, rote, lazy, or "The Song That Goes Like This." In almost every performance there's a feeling that each line has weight and attention paid to it (and, in some of the instrumental tracks it feels like the performer is making decisions with every single note that they play). Looking at the track listing I can say that, for many of them, from an album full of good songs I've selected the track that is most live sounding a present.

As I said, I put it together to honor the experience of listening to people playing a living room and somebody saying, "here's a really cool song that I've been working on."

Anyway, not to oversell it, but if you do listen to it again I'll be curiousness what catches your attention, stands out, or gets stuck in your head (as I said, I picked the first track to be as catchy as possible to pull people in).

wwolfe said...

If you've never heard it, Toad the Wet Sprocket's version of "Rock and Roll All Nite," included on the Kiss tribute album "Kiss My Ass" (what else?), is the best thing I've heard by them. They do it in waltz time, with mainly acoustic instrumentation, and manage to find an undercurrent of sadness I never knew was there. It adds a lot to the song, and gives an interesting new layer to the original, as well.

sscottmandu said...

I saw Chris Thile's recent project Punch Brothers at the Ottawa Bluesfest. Awesome and quirky. Now that's worth coming to Canada for! Two weeks of glorious mostly outdoor festival. Last summer featured your home (state) boy John Hiatt on a bill with the Levon Helm Band while Rush wailed away on a distant stage. Also every year a great mix of indie acts and classic bands and despite the name, not at all a Blues festival anymore.