Spotlight on Pacific Northwest Artist: Blitzen Trapper

The American northwest has become a music mecca once again, only this time it's not the power chord wallowing of grunge but the low harmony of Americana and folk-pop music that's growing out west. With a nod to the early '70s autumnal sound of groups like The Band and The Grateful Dead, several bands have emerged from the pine woods of Oregon to both critical praise and pop audience accolades.

Blitzen Trapper is among this camp, distinguishing themselves from the pack with their heel stomping Skynard-esque southern rock style while flirting with bluegrass and even baroque rock throughout their last two records. On last year's Sub Pop release, Furr, Blitzen Trapper produced their most consistent work, with standout songs "Fire + Fast Bullets" and the title track bringing listeners back for repeat listens. This year's EP, Black River Killer, is a collection of songs they've been playing live on the Furr tour, so it serves as a great traveling buddy for the full length Furr. As the title, Black River Killer, indicates, the songs here are of a darker vein both thematically and sonically, but the songwriting remains just as strong.

The Flaming Lips -- Embryonic

Embryonic is the latest release from the self-ascribed 'fearless freaks', The Flaming Lips, and the title is the most spot-on descriptor of the music here. Well, maybe if the embryo is actually a maladroit android making observations about the human race and its penchant for self-destruction, then embryonic is just about right. But the record is also a kind of re-birth for The Flaming Lips themselves, as the last few albums -- beginning with 1999's brilliant The Soft Bulletin -- were all about turning up the levels of wackiness and fun; Wayne Coyne sang gleeful pop tunes about Yoshimi the mighty protector, a spider bite that could break up the band, and the "radical fanaticals" around him.

On Embryonic, however, Coyne delivers heavily distorted lines about regret, missed opportunities, and nightmares over the course of eighteen tracks that spiral from sound scape epics to two minute ideas. Sonically, the album pulls more from Clouds Taste Metallic and Zaireeka-era FL than anything they've done in the last ten years, but that doesn't mean it's a regression either. The songs here are an uncompromising clash of all the diverse elements that make The Flaming Lips a great band, staged not on a lunar landscape but right back here on earth.

Modest Mouse Stops Gaps, Saves Music (maybe)

Ubi sunt, Modest Mouse? Where are your stark desert landscapes and your pointed laments of loneliness? Who stole away the caustic screams? What happened to Cowboy Dan? On your latest EP, No One's First and You're Next, you say? Oh, indeed.

For the Modest Mouse fan who is wondering what happened to the woolier Isaac Brock et al. of the band's earlier records, check out the 2009 eight-song EP that features tracks that were left off of their last two releases, Good News for People Who Love Bad News and We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank. Consider "Satellite Skin," whose chugging guitars and fitful Brock vocals would have landed it perfectly on the second half of The Moon & Antarctica, or "The Whale Song," an isolationist, mostly-instrumental song that eventually breaks into the near chaos you'll recognize from This is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About. Check out the video for "The Whale Song" here. For a taste of the penultimate track, do not miss the video for "King Rat", directed by the late Heath Ledger.

Derby Girl Becomes Whip It!

It's an exciting time in Michigan with all the movies being filmed here and Whip It, in theaters on Friday, October 2 is the latest flick to hit theaters. Marking Drew Barrymore's directorial debut, Whip It, is based on the teen novel Derby Girl by Shauna Cross. Derby Girl is about sixteen-year-old rebel Bliss Cavendar, who is miserable living in a small Texas town with her beauty pageant-obsessed mother so she secretly joins a roller derby team under the name "Babe Ruthless," her life gets better, although infinitely more confusing. Ellen Page of Juno fame stars as Bliss and early buzz is good!

Whip It also stars several members of the local Detroit Derby Girls and to celebrate the release we'll be hosting an evening with them to talk about Roller Derby and their experiences on set on Thursday, October 1, 7:00-8:30 at the Downtown Library.

And They're Off! Runners Prep for Chicago and Detroit Marathons

There's one month left until the gun fires to signal the start of the Chicago Marathon on October 11, and the Detroit Free Press/Flagstar Marathon on October 18. First time marathoners looking for some advice can check out the books Run Your First Marathon by Grete Waitz, or Marathon: The Ultimate Training and Racing Guide by eminent training guru, Hal Higdon. For those veteran marathoners looking for some extra racing mojo, see Spirit of the Marathon, the story of several marathon runners of varying experience -- from first timer to pro -- all of whom are filmed while training for, and competing in, the Chicago Marathon.

Volunteers are still needed for both Chicago and Detroit marathons in such exciting positions as Course Marshal, Crowd Control, and Split Timer, so there's still time to sign up to participate in these inspiring events.

Teen Stuff: The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky

The novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, may have been published in 1999, but it doesn't look like it's lost much of its controversy or readership over the last 10 years. A CNN article published late last month reported a battle over book banning in West Bend, WI, in which this Stephen Chbosky novel is cited as one of those that a group of patrons wants moved from the public library's youth section and labeled offensive.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is structured as a series of letters written by fictional high school sophomore, Charlie, to an unstated confidant in the early 1990s. In the letters that cover one year of his life, Charlie discusses the difficulty he has making and maintaining friends, dealing with emotional instability, and trying to make the right decisions despite pressure to do otherwise. Of course, within those larger themes are incidents -- not atypical of many teens -- that have drawn ire from some readers, hence the controversy. The AADL owns copies of the novel, though you'll have to jump on the hold list due to its resurgence in popularity.

The Dirty Projectors -- Bitte Orca

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The terms 'accessible' and 'listener-friendly' don't exactly sit at the same lunch table as The Dirty Projectors. The band's manic tendencies to change rhythm mid-song, or pile melodies like clothes in a hamper, or noodle away on a riff into next week make them something of the Gujarati cuisine of indie rock -- strange to many, but obsessed over by a vocal few. Is Bitte Orca, The Dirty Projectors' latest release, going to make them arena rock stars of the Coldplay caliber? Hardly. Though Dave Longstreth manages to hold onto a unified idea for more than 4 bars on the record, the lo-fi sounds and disjointed structures of the songs are certain to turn many off after the first three tracks. But for those who want to hear music teetering on the edge of the esoteric without falling into the John Cage realm, check out Bitte Orca.

Phoenix -- Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix

The first time I threw on the much-buzzed new Phoenix album with the bombastic title, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, I lost control of both legs. They started dancing and wouldn't stop. I looked ridiculous. After only making it through "1901," the second track on the album, I had to turn it off to avoid further embarrassment. The next day, I was ready. Blinds closed, stereo cranked, I made it through the whole thing. The French indie rock band has been making records for the last 10 years, with each a step forward in both complexity and songcraft, though this year's dance-pop, hook ready release marks the first time they've put together a complete set of tunes that exemplify the group's wit, confidence, and exuberance. Jump on the hold list for this record, and get ready to put Phoenix on heavy rotation.

Conor Oberst -- Outer South

You love him or hate him, find his emotive lyrics and inimitable wailing endearing or nauseating, but no doubt you know when you've heard a Conor Oberst, a.k.a. Bright Eyes, song. His latest record, Outer South, once again features the Mystic Valley Band, and continues down the alt-country vein of his eponymous previous album. This time around, Oberst takes a page out of the Weezer playbook by not only including six songs penned by backing bandmates, but giving up the vocal reins and letting the songwriters sing the songs they wrote. All signs point to Oberst attempting to erase his image as a tortured, self-absorbed wunderkind, as he plans on recording only one more album under the Bright Eyes moniker, becoming more of a lead singer than a singer/songwriter. But for those fans looking for a latter day "The Calendar Hung Itself," don't miss "I Got the Reason # 2" off Outer South.

New Wave/Post-Punk Redux

Good news for those still arguing over whether New Order is a better band than their previous incarnation, Joy Division, or if David Byrne of Talking Heads ever did go corporate: the new wave/post-punk sound is alive and well in this millennium. As evidenced by the popularity of Franz Ferdinand's latest record, Tonight, and The Killers continuing to sell out arena shows and summer festivals, the synth-driven, lo-fi tones of many bands from the late '70s/early '80s are proving to be increasingly influential on the direction of rock music in the coming decade.

So does this mean it's safe to blast some XTC and Gang of Four at your next party without fearing everyone will laugh at you and leave? Guess that depends on your audience, but chances are if your iPod shuffles to "Blue Monday" after playing Passion Pit's "The Reeling," few will notice that the former came out in 1983, and the latter in 2009. Now, whether you want to look like you're post-punk in 1982 at said party, that decision is entirely up to you.

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