Tag Archives: Chicago

Japanese music has really come of age

Like many Americans I am fascinated by Japanese culture. Of course I appreciate the deeply traditional parts of their culture — gardens, calligraphy, geishas, sushi, martial arts. But what I really love is Japanese pop culture.

Just about every generation of Americans alive today has sentimental attachment to some aspect of it. Godzilla, Gamera, ninjas, anime, Pokémon, Yu-Gi-Oh cards, the characters of Japanese video games.

And karaoke. It used to be something crazy Japanese businessmen did after work. Now it’s as American as apple pie. Most don’t even realize it’s a Japanese word. I love the way the Japanese take what they like from American culture — rock ‘n’ roll for example — and put their own special twist on it. I have some established favorites among Japanese musicians, like Ryuichi Sakamoto (of Yellow Magic Orchestra) and Cornelius (Keigo Oyamada). I’ve also picked up a few new favorites.

Since the very day I started this blog I have been planning to talk about some of my favorite Japanese musicians, but I put it off because I wanted to get it right. Then came the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami and I thought, “Oh crap, I wonder if we just just lost some of them?” With as many people as they lost — 10,000 dead and 17,000 missing last time I checked — it’s possible, although I don’t know of any musicians who didn’t make it. A couple of my recently-discovered favorites dropped out of touch for a while, but I’ve since gotten hold of them and found out they are OK.

Cellz Cellar

Mitsugu Suzuki, who performs under the name Cellz Cellar, creates some of the most moving music I’ve heard in a long time.  His styles include inspired ambient, shoegaze and electronica. Most of his music is instrumental, but he also works with singers. He is an admirer of Western music and shows incredible taste based on the  covers he chooses (Bjork’s  “Army of Me” and Radiohead’s “Nude”). I made friends with him and became a huge fan back when I was active on TheSixtyOne. He’s also the Japanese musician I was especially worried about — he lives in Kanagawa, which was hit by the tsunami, though it wasn’t as severely damaged as other cities. I was relieved when I finally got hold of him and he told me he was all right.

My favorite Cellz Cellar song so far is Epiphillum, featuring vocals from Shuichi Mizohata:

Pendulum is another beauty:

You can stream more songs from his album 444 on his MySpace page. You can also purchase digital files of his work through 7digital.com.

Chiharu MK


I discovered this young lady while digging deep in TheSixtyOne. She’s an amazing pianist who performs what I would call modern classical music. She describes herself as a sound artist/music composer/pianist and visual artist.

In addition to piano, she makes music with electronics and sound installation. She reminds me a bit of Ryuichi Sakamoto and in fact, she has had some of her music featured on his radio show in Japan. So far she has put out an EP called Piano Prizm and a full-length album called Waterproof. She used hydrophone for Waterproof, creating an underwater piano sound. I REALLY like the title track from that album.

Here she is performing music for an art exhibit about snow sculpture called “White Noise/Snow Division”

All the songs from Piano Prizm and Waterproof are available on Itunes.

You can find more about her here.


Ichiko Hashimoto – RahXephon soundtrack
I have to admit I don’t really “get” anime – maybe I didn’t try hard enough, but the anime movies I’ve seen so far sorta left me flat – so I might have overlooked this music if not for a user on Rate Your Music. Hashimoto’s songs cover a wide range of styles – acid jazz, pop, classical, trip hop, and various fusions of the above. Some of the songs have a spacey, mysterious ambience that reminds me of Erik Satie’s Gnossiennes. I can’t seem to get enough of them. One of the songs, “Yume no Tamago” is one of the most beautiful pieces of music I’ve ever heard. I found an English version, but I prefer the Japanese by far:

Clammbon 

I’ve known about these guys for several years, but I still love them. They play a kind of jazzy pop, very piano driven, most of it upbeat. They remind me of Ben Folds Five in their style. They have a ton of videos up on YouTube. I found them because I decided to look up the girl who sang on “Mars” by Towa Tei. Her name is Harada Ikuko. She has a nice voice and is a pretty good keyboard player as well. Their official website is in Japanese, and I can’t read it, but there is an English fan site, http://clammbon.metalbat.com, with a lot of information about the band — including the fact that they made it through the earthquake and tsunami OK. The site also has a page with several links showing how to buy Clammbon’s material outside Japan.

This is “Chicago,” one of my favorite songs from the group:

And last but definitely not least, it has been over a month since the earthquake and tsunami, but Japan still has a lot of people who need help. Here is a list of reputable organizations you can donate to if you would like to contribute.

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Doleful Lions – beautiful ballads for the zombie apocalypse

Doleful Lions Jonathan and Robert Scott

Make fun of old horror movies all you want, but if you saw one as a child, it stuck with you didn’t it? There is a lot of emotional power in those images — just as there is in a well-written pop song. Combine the two and you really get something special. Nothing demonstrates that better than the music of Doleful Lions. I’ve been fascinated by the group for years. The title track to The Rats are Coming! The Werewolves Are Here! is a perennial secret weapon in my Halloween playlists.

Doleful Lions frontman Jonathan Scott lives in Plano, Ill., about 50 miles west of Chicago. The band started in Chicago in the mid-’90s and relocated to Chapel Hill, N.C. for several years. It  includes Jonathan on guitar and vocals and his brother Robert on bass. The brothers will give their first Doleful Lions show in two years on April 22 at the Abbey in Chicago. They just completed a new album, Let’s Break Bobby Beausoleil Out of Prison, which should be released soon — hopefully by summer. They are working on yet another album for the Jesus Warhol label and have numerous albums available on Parasol Records.

I spent several hours over the last couple of weeks visiting with Jonathan about his music, his influences and his outlook on life.

Zombies


“We are all zombies waiting to have an apocalypse,” said Jonathan, when asked about the significance of B horror references in his songs. Jonathan believes Americans are being distracted by trivialities from a creeping fascism — much like the future described in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World — and disaster is bound to be the result.

“I feel like everything is a horror show. I think that B-Movie horror is a good barometer for what is going on in the world. I think we are pretty much all programmed and I think that eventually that programming will destroy everyone. I mean people are actually entertained by Dancing With The Stars, which to me is a sign of being a zombie. Most people could care less about the government taking away your rights. They have a big screen TV so who cares? It is totally Brave New World.

“It’s by design. They want us to be all preoccupied with our jobs and our rent and paying for food they know that if we are worrying about that we won’t question them taking our freedoms. People’s lives are hard, ’cause that is what they want, so we don’t question anything. We watch Dancing with the Stars when we get off work cause we can’t be bothered with what is really going on.”

His lyrics are a way of expressing his horror at the world’s problems and dealing with his struggle with bipolar disorder. They also spring from a heartfelt love of old cinema and science fiction — and growing up with access to a damn good video store.

Musical Beginnings

MusicMissionary: “Would you mind telling me how you got into music?”
Jonathan Scott: “When I was 4 is when it started. My parents had an old Realistic stereo they never used and they had a few records and I discovered it and learned how to work it and started listening. I remember they had Abbey Road, Beatles 65, Beatles VI, some Barbra Streisand record and Creedence, but once I discovered the stereo I stopped going outside to play. At that time we were living in Memphis and Elvis was huge so I went to K-Mart and bought Elvis 45s and The Eagles, John Travolta, Shaun Cassidy – you know, the popular stuff in the mid-’70s.”

MM: “Osmonds…”
JS: “I didn’t have any Osmonds, but when I was in kindergarten Kiss was huge and I heard Kiss Alive II and the music scared me and Gene Simmons scared me, but I really loved it.”
MM: “I actually had a Donnie & Marie album. Don’t tell anyone.”
JS: “Oh, that’s okay, I don’t think you should have to be responsible for any record you owned until maybe when you reach high school. I had a lot of pretty lame shit, I had the John Travolta record and really loved it. This song called ‘Easy Evil’ – I loved that song. I read a few years ago that Jim Gordon played drums on that song.”
MM: “Only Travolta song I remember is ‘Gonna Let Her In.’”
JS: “Yeah, that was the big song from the record but I liked the B-Side. That was the A side. I don’t know I was 4. I thought it was good haha.”

Hardcore Punk

MM: “So what about playing music. When did that start?”
JS: “I got into hardcore when I was in high school and really wanted to play in a band ’cause my friends had started playing music. I didn’t play an instrument, but I could sing okay, so my first year of junior college at College Of DuPage I put an ad up looking for a band that plays in the style of Husker Du/Bad Religion or the Descendents and this guy Jason called me and we eventually started a band. We were really bad.”
MM: “What year would that have been, about?”
JS: “This was in 1990. There were a bunch of bands in suburban Chicago doing similar stuff and we eventually got in contact with a lot of people in bands.”
MM: “Did y’all make songs or do covers?”
JS: “We did all originals but we did do a Mudhoney song and a Minor Threat song. It was fun though.”

Cinco de Gatos

Jonathan Scott in his post-hardcore days with Cinco de Gatos

MM: “So anyway… You left off doing hardcore and singing but not playing. When did you start doing that? You play guitar, right? Anything else?”

JS: “Yeah well, when that first band broke up, I moved to Chicago and my roommate [Dan Panic] played drums for Screeching Weasel and Jason – the guy that was in my first band — lived like a block away, so we decided to start playing, even though I had only been playing guitar for like a month. We were called Cinco de Gatos and I had to learn to play pretty fast, but we spent most of that summer rehearsing and played our first show in January of 1995. At the time, we had this dude named Ryan who had played drums in this band called Gauge playing second guitar. We did our first show and we were so bad Ryan and Dan quit that night.”

MM: “You say you moved to Chicago. Where were you before that with your first band?”
JS: “In the suburbs. We were based in the Downers Grove area.”

JS: “There was a suburban hardcore scene out there. Tony Victory lived down the street in Downers and had shows at his house all the time and now he is Victory Records haha.”

MM: “What kind of music were you guys making?”
JS: “It was really influenced by Fugazi and the stuff on Dischord Records. Also the bands on Lookout and stuff like Jawbreaker. There were a lot of bands like that at the time.”

From post-hardcore to indie pop

MM: “When did you start to develop your current sound? I’m hearing Beatles, Beach Boys, some shoegaze maybe… Very different from the kind of music you’re describing.”
JS: “Well, at the time when I was playing in Cinco I was getting into stuff like Big Star, Teenage Fanclub, obviously the Beatles, the Byrds and then the UK stuff like My Bloody Valentine, Ride. I was way into Elvis Costello too, but by the end of that band I had completely lost interest in playing post-hardcore or emo or whatever you want to call it and I wanted to play stuff like what I was listening to. Plus Bee Thousand by Guided By Voices came out in ’94 and I got that and I said ‘Screw this band I am in.’ So I bought a 4-Track in 1995 and wrote a bunch of pop songs.”

MM: “Normal pop songs? As in, not about Satan or werewolves or sci fi?”
JS: “Oh no, these songs were love songs. You know, guitar pop stuff, and with Casio keyboards — real twee stuff. I played it for Jason in Cinco de Gatos and he hated it. So I knew I was onto something.

“I have to tell you this story: When my first album Motel Swim came out, DL’s played Chicago. I was living in Chapel Hill at this time, and I played the album for my childhood friend Kevin Smith. Kevin had come up with me and been into hardcore and stuff, and I played him Motel Swim and he said ‘Dude this is the most uncool record I have ever heard.’ I felt like I had accomplished something ’cause that is what I was going for. Haha.”

MM: “So, what was it about pop songs and being uncool that was cool to you?”

JS: “Well, I had been playing in punk rock bands or hardcore, emo whatever you want to call it. Power pop is uncool at least in my circles and I really wanted Doleful Lions to be completely different from the Chicago emo shit that was going on at the time. I felt no connection to that stuff at all.”

MM: “What was it about emo that you hated? Too whiny?”
JS: “No, I just didn’t really feel an emotional connection to it — which is weird considering it is called emo — it always seemed contrived to me. I didn’t feel that music at all, but I felt stuff like Beach Boys and Flamin’ Groovies. I mean I remember where I was the first time I heard ‘Shake Some Action’ but I can’t say the same about the first time I heard Fugazi.”

Horror Movies

MM: “The main thing that has fascinated me about your stuff has been the pairing of lush pop and B horror imagery. Can you explain why you like that combination and why you like B horror movies?”

JS: “I grew up loving B movies so much. My brother and I used to watch all that stuff all the time. There is a song on the new album called ‘Julie’s Video’ which is kinda a tribute to this video store my brother and I used to go to, it is what I know so I figured I would write about stuff I know, which is Lucio Fulci movies.”

MM: “Why B horror and not ‘art’ horror?”

JS: “Because I relate to stuff like Gates Of Hell and Dawn of The Dead more than some art house movie. I think it is probably because I am a suburban kid who had access to a really good video store.”

MM: “It seems like you have a thing about zigging when others are zagging if you know what i mean. Finding uncool things and making them cool…”
JS: “Yes, there is a song on the Rats Are Coming The Werewolves Are Here called ‘The Contrarian,’ which is about myself haha.”

MM: “The B horror movie thing is a perfect example.”
JS: “Yeah, taking horrible movies and putting them in a literary context… I mean The Rats Are Coming! The Werewolves Are Here! is a horrible movie! Almost unwatchable. But Andy Milligan’s movies are charming and I would much rather watch that than Inception or something.”

MM: “How did you get into that stuff and what made you want to make songs about it?”
JS: “Well, I have been into horror movies since I was a kid and never really grew out of it, and bands like the Misfits and the Cramps have done that sort of thing before, but not really a guitar pop band at least not at that time really.”

MM: “That’s what I found so striking about your music. Pretty sounding music, but the titles and lyrics are like Night of the Living Dead. I love juxtapositions like that.”
JS: “Yeah, I do too. The new record is even more pronounced with that type of thing. The lyrics on the new record are pretty hateful and violent.”

Let’s Break Bobby Beausoleil Out Of Prison

The forthcoming Doleful Lions album has a rather controversial title, though not everyone will get the reference. (I had to look him up myself.) Indie musicians have a hard enough time getting attention that a bit of controversy probably won’t hurt, and it might help.

Beausoleil is doing hard time for the 1969 murder of music teacher and associate Gary Hinman. Beausoleil said he was trying to collect money from Hinman, who was said to owe money to Charles Manson (yes, THAT Charles Manson) for selling a bad batch of mescaline that had in turn been sold to some rather pissed off bikers.

Beausoleil was also a musician and aspiring actor who appeared in some B horror movies and wrote the soundtrack for a movie called Lucifer Rising that he would’ve starred in if he hadn’t gone to prison. Beausoleil wasn’t involved in the Manson Family’s “Helter Skelter” murders, but his affiliation with the Family has most likely kept him from getting paroled.
Jonathan doesn’t condone what Beausoleil did and thinks he deserves to pay for his crime. But he also thinks it unfair that the man’s cultural contributions are forgotten and that he seems to be paying for murders he didn’t commit.

“I think Bobby Beausoleil should pay for his crime, which was murder, but he should not be lumped in with the Manson family ’cause he was never a part of it. Vincent Bugliosi said that Bobby was a part of the Manson family but he wasn’t. He is what I would consider a genius musician and he deserves a fair parole hearing.”

The album title has already garnered a bit of attention.
“Actually I got a message from Bobby Beausoleil the other day about the record from his wife,” Jonathan said. “She was really appreciative. I wanted to let her know we are not planning on breaking him out of prison. We just wanted to acknowledge the musical influence he has had on us. And she told him about it. I guess he got a kick out of it.”

Let’s Break Bobby Beausoleil is going to be a very dark album, as you might gather from the video of the title track, which contains scenes from the Kenneth Anger film, Lucifer Rising.

MM: “Tell me about your new album. You said it’s very dark.”

JS: “Yeah it is. I kinda gave up on everything last year. My girlfriend who I lived with I caught cheating on me. She was having an affair and I basically stopped caring about stuff. So the album is really dark and hateful.”

The song “Funeral Skies For Burst Patriot” is a good example of that darkness. Jonathan explained that the lyrics are about a fictitious assassination of right wing pundit Glen Beck. It is also inspired by Peter Gabriel’s “A Family Snapshot,” a song that tells a story from an assassin’s viewpoint.

“Like I said this is a pretty dark record,” he said. “I actually was a little hesitant to put the song on the album after the AZ congresswoman got shot.”

It’s a beautiful song, despite the subject matter:

Mental health issues

Jonathan said he has bipolar disorder. He describes himself as “crazy,” but he is functioning — earning money, paying the rent, making music. He isn’t taking medication right now and says smoking weed “does the trick” without the side effects prescribed drugs gave him.

MM: “Maybe the album [Let’s Break Bobby Beausoleil Out of Prison] is a kind of exorcism.”

JS: “Well I am bipolar and it is a lot about me not dealing with being bipolar. I stopped taking my medicine last year. I got tired of being so asleep so with this record this is me totally nuts.”

MM: “Do you want me to edit that part?”

JS: “No, I want people to know how I am. Don’t edit it at all.”

MM: “OK. Totally your call. I know some people are private about that.”

JS: “I am not. I want people to know I am bipolar and I am doing okay.”

Jonathan has uploaded numerous Doleful Lions videos on YouTube. You should also check out the Doleful Lions’ Facebook and MySpace pages. And you’ll want to hear the Doleful Lions back catalog. Jonathan will start releasing those albums soon on Bandcamp. Check the Doleful Lions Facebook page for updates.

UPDATE: The deal with Parasol is off. The new album will come out in digital format on the Jesus Warhol label and Jonathan is shopping the album around to other labels for a CD release. Find out more about the planned release and the blowup that nixed the Parasol deal.

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Daniel Knox’s strange, beautiful songs could be future American standards

Daniel Knox in the shadows next to a carousel. Captures something about his music I think.... (John Atwood photo)

The first time I heard Daniel Knox’s “Ghostsong” I was stunned. It was like nothing I had ever heard, but at the same time it sounded so classic, full of beauty, sadness and mean-spirited humor.

I streamed it over the Internet for a few days, growing more and more addicted and finally I couldn’t take it any more. I went to his website and ordered his whole discography.

That’s something I rarely do — I’m not made out of money. But I could tell right away that I had to get my hands on this man’s music and keep it close, on the off chance it could turn out to be a dream, or something the Internet washed onto my shore that it might sweep away again.

There was more where “Ghostsong” came from. Much more. I now think of Knox as an American treasure, right up there with Tom Waits.

Knox taught himself to play the piano by regularly sneaking into the Hilton Tower’s Grand Ballroom; he took a job as a projectionist at the historic Music Box Theater just so he could play its massive pipe organ. He accompanied director David Lynch in that theater for the 2007 Chicago premiere of Inland Empire.

Much of the time he sings in a deep, masculine voice. Then he breaks into a beautiful, sweet falsetto. His songs range from heartbreaking ballads (often with wicked twists), to brash, New Orleans-influenced pieces that put me in mind of Dr. John.

His songs don’t really sound like anything else. And yet i get the distinct feeling they might’ve been around forever — American standards.

Here’s a taste of what Daniel Knox can do:



I currently have the albums Disaster, Evryman for Himself (technically not released yet, but I was able to get hold of it – send DK a message and he will probably hook you up) and two E.P.s: A Poison Tree and Window Music (Instrumentals 2001-2007).

At this point I have a hard time deciding which I like better, Disaster or Evryman. Disaster is a bit more minimalistic, with those lovely dark ballads, often just Knox and a piano or organ. Those songs really get to me — “What Have They Done to You Now” and “Be Afraid” being particular favorites.

Evryman has some of those — “Ghostsong” being a huge standout — but it also features more New Orleans style songs, with bandmates Paul Parts (bass), Jason Toth (drums), Ralph Carney (horns) and Chris Hefner (auxiliary instruments). “I Make Enemies” and “Debt Collector” are excellent as is “Armageddonsong.” I got to love those too. They might be the ones with the biggest hit potential after all.

The E.P. A Poison Tree is also definitely worth having for the two very different treatments of John Donne’s famous poem.

It’s not all about the music either. Knox’s lyrics have a big impact — sad and misanthropic, resigned and fatalistic, wry and witty, vulnerable to warm feelings — which are seen as a distraction and an imposition…

They might not work for everyone, but I find them brilliant and moving.

Just check out some of the lines:

From “Armageddonsong”: “Armageddon’s comin’ soon. The sun will crash into the moon, but we will still have breakfast…”

From “Lovescene”: “Groping for more than I can hold, sulking like a 12-year-old, and suddenly I find myself dancing. Oh how I hate dancing…”

From “Ghostsong”: “If you die tomorrow or a hundred years from now, there won’t be an article or a furrowed brow. Yours is like the spirit of a breeze that blows through town. No one remembers unless it knocks something down…”

Truly brilliant. I think this guy is going places. If I have anything to do with he will. I haven’t been so excited about a newly discovered artist in a long time. He’s already made it to the top of my own musical Olympus.

If you’re anywhere close to as impressed as I am, check out his website and buy some of his albums. Then find him on Facebook. He just might go on tour one of these days and you’ll want to be ready in case he comes to your town.

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The brief glory days of AM rock radio

If you’re younger than I am or if you didn’t grow up in America, you might not know what I mean by AM rock radio, so I’ll try to explain.

The transition of music and music listeners from radio to the Internet reminds me a lot of something I’ve seen before: the late ’70s/early ’80s trend away from playing music on AM radio. If you listen to music on the radio at all, you are probably doing it on the FM band. Nowadays, AM is reserved mostly for news and talk radio. It wasn’t always that way.

AM was where you heard all the top hits of the day for many many years. That was still true when I was a young adolescent in the mid-70s, just getting a taste for rock ‘n’ roll. The sound was a bit trebly and not in stereo, but that was normal. No one thought anything of it. FM radio existed at that point, but there were very few FM stations, at least in my neck of the woods, in the Texas Hill Country. Usually there was one classical station (if you were lucky) and one station that played elevator music (pretty much guaranteed, if there was only one, that would be it). And there was a problem called FM drift. You had to keep retuning the dial every few minutes, cuz the signal would drift to the left or right and it would be off the station.

There was a brief golden age, between about ’75 and ’79, when the music on AM radio was especially good. I’m talking about rock and pop stations, but the country music stations were pretty good at that time also. It basically ended when disco began to take over and you heard nothing else for a few years till everybody got fed up and people started smashing their records and wearing “Disco Sucks” T-shirts.

There were some basic rules to AM rock radio. For one thing, it couldn’t rock too hard. For another, it had to be clean. Sex and drug references had to be well-disguised in metaphor. It was for the kids, but Mom and Dad were going to be listening, so no shenanigans. Strangely enough, those vague restrictions led to some pretty good songcraft.

Here are some of the songs you might typically hear on one of those stations during that time:

Gerry Rafferty – Baker Street

Elton John – Daniel, Tiny Dancer, Someone Saved My Life Tonight

Little River Band – Reminiscing

Billy Joel – Honesty, Only the Good Die Young

ELO – Strange Magic, Evil Woman, Telephone Line

Firefall – You Are the Woman, Just Remember I Love You

Todd Rundgren – Hello It’s Me

Linda Ronstadt – Allison, You’re No Good

Seals & Crofts – Summer Breeze, Diamond Girl

The Who – Mama’s Got a Squeezebox

Chicago – Color My World, 25 or 6 to 4, Saturday in the Park

James Taylor – Shower the People, Up on a Roof, Smiling Face

The weird thing is, I didn’t realize how good it was at the time, only in hindsight. (All I thought back then was, couldn’t we rock a little harder?) There was some dreck on the airwaves to be sure, but any hour of a popular AM station playlist from ’76 would blow the crap they play today right out of the water. Maybe somebody else can come up with other examples.

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Tin Tin Can hits Southern Gothic sweet spot

Tin Tin Can, a young band out of Chicago makes songs that are dark and haunted, yet beautiful. The lead singer’s voice reminds me a bit of Pall Jenkins of the Black Heart Procession. Some of their songs remind me a bit of BHP and Jenkins’ other band Three Mile Pilot. Others have  just enough of a twang that they remind me of country-folk-rock band Deer Tick. I wasn’t able to find out from their bio and I haven’t asked (yet), but they have to have some connection to the south. They’ve captured that Southern Gothic spirit so well, they must know what they’re talking about. Their song titles kind of  give you an idea of what I’m talking about: “The Devil and the Mockingbird,” “Arkansas,” “Celebration of the Damned,” “Dead Uncle Jones”…

The band is busy recording a new album and is giving away two EPs via download (with a way to donate if you would like to support them). I’ve downloaded them both and there’s not a bad song on them.

Here’s one of my favorites:

And another one, set to clips from a documentary about Pentecostal churches:

If you like what you hear and I don’t see how you couldn’t, download the EPs here: http://tintincan.com/Tin_Tin_Can/Free_Eps.html and show them a little PayPal love if you can.

You can also visit their MySpace page and check out their blog: http://www.tintincan.com/Tin_Tin_Can/Blog/Blog.html

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