Shane thinks Love Songs for Lonely Monsters are sweet.
Jonathan Richman was punctual. We arrived at the Orpheum Stage Door in Madison, Wisconsin, just a few minutes after the show's 8 p.m. start time, and the former Modern Lovers frontman-- the guy lots of people seem most likely to recognize if I say, "He was the singing guitar player in There's Something About Mary"-- and his longtime drummer Tommy Larkins were already well into a song about a painter, or the joy of music, or how the very ways we seek to criticize art/music/life and put it into words and lists and numbers tend to miss what makes art/music/life most wonderful in the first place.

"Wonderful"-- there's a word for Richman, rather than "powerful," though there's power there too, or "awesome," because he's trying to connect, not to impress.

The last time Mrs. Des Noise and I saw Richman, at what was then Northsix and what is now the Music Hall of Williamsburg, in Brooklyn, it was May 2005, it was ridiculously hot (Richman plays his live shows nowadays on nylon-string acoustic guitar-- legend has it he gave up electric guitars years ago because he didn't want to hurt children's ears-- and so he always asks to play without any air-conditioning on), and he was late. There's a vinyl-only single from his second-to-last album called "You Can Have a Cell Phone, That's OK, But Not Me," basically a half-sung rant over aggressively jaunty guitar and percussion, where he talks about how "when I'm on the beach, I'm on the beach/ No you can't call me there" and people asking him what he'll do if he's running late for a show, what if there aren't any pay phones anymore, and he just says he'll skip the soundcheck ("I never liked soundcheck anyway") and get there and play.

Richman said somewhere once he'll stop making music when it stops being fun, and even in his erratic timeliness (based on my highly unscientific sample of two shows) it feels like that's true.

I had this dream that the sea was calling me home.
I've seen a number of shows lately that I haven't blogged about yet in this space, mostly because I've been on a bunch of deadlines for paid writing, and I really only want to write on this blog when it's fun, like Richman. He has an enviable space carved out for him, in that he and Tommy can travel across the country, play for adoring audiences, and probably get paid $10,000 or more a gig to split between two people, but never really have to suffer the obligations that comes with trying to "make it" in a larger sense, the compromises, the poses, the gestures you make more for what they signify than for what they are (this is a big theme in Jonathan's music-- from his latest, see "My Affected Accent", or a new song he played that night, "Bohemia"). Yeah, there were a couple of drunk guys calling out for the songs from the Modern Lovers' proto-punk classic self-titled album, like "Pablo Picasso" and "Roadrunner", but Richman isn't the sort of artist who has to play hits to satisfy his fans; his songs are all engaging in relatively the same ways, so if he didn't play "Vincent Van Gogh", I could enjoy "No One Was Like Vermeer", and if he didn't play "Velvet Underground," well, he played "Keith Richards," and if he didn't do "Egyptian Reggae," well, there was the superior "I Was Dancing in a Lesbian Bar," and a bunch of (maybe one too many) foreign-language ditties. When it came time for the encore, the "Pablo Picasso" fans behind me might not have recognized "That Summer Feeling," but the rest of us were thrilled, singing along or just swaying in time.

As the space for public discourse that we all share as a culture continues to shrink, and there are fewer and fewer universally recognizable pop stars, newer pop stars have to do whatever it takes to stand out, to the extent that it sometimes feels to me like the point of their music is the copy-generating talking points, rather than actual pleasure. Richman's copy-generating talking point is pleasure, and that doesn't really make for very good copy at all. (Unless the writer of said copy is Mark Richardson, or Rob Harvilla. Follow those links, people.)

He's an emancipated punk and he can dance.
Another singer-songwriter I've seen recently is Iron and Wine, who played People's here in Des Moines on Thursday night. Actually, Iron and Wine isn't so much a singer-songwriter project anymore as a full band, with I think 11 people onstage when they came through town. Sam Beam and his accompanists still played a bunch of songs new and old that I adore, from oldie "Lion's Mane" to the new album's gorgeous opener "Walking Far From Home," by way of relatively obscure favorites like "Woman King" (from a 2005 EP), but they're all band songs now. On record, Iron and Wine has expanded far beyond the solo acoustic recordings that made the group's name, and in more interesting ways than you sometimes expect from a songwriter whose strengths are lyrics and melodies; I remember comparing new one Kiss Each Other Clean with the latest album from the Mountain Goats, and though I like both just about as much and maybe play the Mountain Goats album more often, it felt like there were stranger sounds happening on the Iron and Wine album, for which I gave Beam kudos. In concert, whatever cool textures I was hearing on the record sometimes devolved into extended jams, as you might expect from the size of the band; I was brought back to my one and only Dave Matthews Band concert, in Phoenix in 1998. The old songs sounded different, too, and any hopes our bearded friend would come back out by himself for the encore were quickly quashed. We stepped out into the pouring rain a little wistful for what was gone, but satisfied with a strong performance of generally very strong songs, and happy that Iron and Wine continues to grow and attract larger audiences even if its direction and mine have been gradually diverging. (I interviewed Beam in May 2004.)

You might be getting me drunk, but this conversation sucks.
Not all the performances I've seen in my recent blog silence have been in the mature stages of their careers. On Monday night, at the highly esteemed recommendation of T.J. Wood, we went to see Lydia Loveless, a fiery singer from Columbus, Ohio, whose name is going to become a lot more familiar in the coming months and years. Her room-dominating country voice will probably start to make her sick of comparisons to Neko Case, who like Loveless issued her sophomore album on Bloodshot, which is set to release Indestructible Machine on Sept. 13. But there's also a punk-fueled aggression to Loveless that's way beyond her years, with plenty of piss and vinegar and cussin' and drinkin' and hard-eyed observations about the fucked-up ways of men, so I guess in a way it's not even so much punk as it is a continuation of the even older country traditions of Loretta Lynn and that kind of bruising, uncomfortable truth-telling. You get the feeling she doesn't put up well with bullshit. Her first album, The Only Man, has fiddles and other production, but the solo show is just Loveless on vocals and a guitar and a tall, long-haired upright bass player, which puts the focus where it belongs: on that voice (man, that voice!) and all that personality. When Loveless took the stage, she quoted Dwight Yoakam quoting Chet Atkins to the effect that no matter how many people are in the audience, you have to play like it's Madison Square Garden, though I'm guessing that wasn't the venue she actually said (I don't take notes for these blog posts, usually, sorry). There's a song called "Steve Earle," there's a song about how "Jesus Was a Wino," and in a bold move in a tradition embodied by Patsy Cline, there's a song called "Crazy." Watching this one felt like watching a rising star. (Check out a 2010 podcast from Loveless here.)

Athens, Ohio's Wheels on Fire
Plenty of other highlights in recent weeks: Wheels on Fire, Derek Lambert and the Prairie Fires (local folk-rockers and friends who recently recorded their debut album at Vaudeville Mews with the Poison Control Center's Patrick Tape Fleming), the Poison Control Center's record release show for Stranger Ballet (their best album yet, as I've written at great length around here), Love Songs for Lonely Monsters, Bunnygrunt, Mantis Pincers (the local supergroup with the Can-like 13-minute song-- it was supposed to be a short-lived, one-off type of project, but they've already recorded an album with Ames' own Phil Young), PCC's Pat Fleming solo at a transgender benefit at House of Bricks, and probably plenty of others I've forgotten. Don't forget, either, that Des Moines' first live-band karaoke band, Party Party, is playing every Thursday at People's and every Sunday at Hessen Haus ($5 liters of fine German beer). I will post another list of concert dates next-- lots coming up!

PCC release party
St. Louis, Missouri's Bunnygrunt
Mantis Pincers
Patrick Tape Fleming

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