It’s uncanny – from the opening notes of Nick Waterhouse’s newest album there is the distinctly unnerving sensation of both familiarity and newness; the sound of another era that growls, glows, and swings all at once while creating something fresh that was never there before. There is a brief moment of disorientation upon listening to the songs here because it often feels like they were lost in time, casually transmuting the listener into an historian to a past that never was.
Time’s All Gone channels late 1950s/early 1960s R&B, with doo-wopping female back-up vocalists, prominent brassy horns, and snapping rhythms that draw out the primal urge to dance as surely as hips love to swing. Nick’s vocals occasionally flare out with emphatic distortion as he sings, shouts, and grunts. An obvious labor of love, the SoCal-born musician masters his recordings in mono, using vintage analogue equipment. This love creates a sound that occasionally dips into a sultry room tone hiss (“Raina,” “Don’t You Forget It”), and richly saturates every song on the album.
The themes of the songs feel as authentic as the instrumentation – love (both the before and after varieties), schoolyard menace, and precautionary warnings of a misspent life punctuate music that respectively sighs, threatens, and wags a finger in perfect accompaniment. It’s difficult to find a song here that disappoints. Each piece feels solidly constructed, with careful thought given to every musical arrangement. “I Can Only Give You Everything” has an ominous tone with deep, brassy swells and ironic lyrics. Quick peppy organs and bursts of top hatting accentuate the threat of “(If) You Want Trouble” while the back-up singers soulfully intone their echoes and vowels. “Teardrop Will Follow You” features breaks as dramatic accentuation, similar to the musical breaks in “Is That Clear” where an almost call-and-response type of playfulness occurs. Faux Native American drums and supporting vocals in “Indian Love Call” evoke 1950s and 60s stereotypes of that culture smoothly, blending them into surf guitar and tambourines – a gentle induction of novelty rock songs from those eras. “Some Place” features cascading drums played by hand accompanied by Nick’s growls and howls. The introductory song, “Say I Wanna Know,” saunters with a deep, swinging rock sound and an organ that pleads while Nick wails and the back-up vocals demand. “Time’s All Gone Pt. 1” and “Time’s All Gone Pt. 2” need not have been so cruelly divided; it is intensely satisfying to hear the progression of the music from vocal-oriented to instrumentation-oriented.
This music is earnest, sincere – it is not mere imitation, or a love letter to yesterday, instead it is pure creation through the process of emulation. This might seem like parsing hairs, but there is a true difference; this is not a man of today wearing yesterday’s suit, this is yesterday’s man wearing yesterday’s suit. The result is not retro, but a slipstream of time we’re only too lucky to plunge into.
Out of the Game, Rufus Wainwright’s seventh studio album, is perhaps his most approachable collection of songs yet. Much of the album is bathed in the golden nostalgic glow of 1970s and early 80s soft rock.
Throughout the album there is the soft electric presence of the synthesizer and other mechanical distortions that ebb and flow – sometimes effectively, and sometimes a bit distractingly. “Bitter Tears” in particular is a song that sits at an electric midway point; if the synthetic instrumentation had been pushed to be a bit sharper or harder, or conversely lessened, it might feel a bit more interesting, but as it is the instruments feel as if they’re getting in the way of the melody. “Perfect Man” uses the artificiality of the synthesizer to better effect, letting the instrument act as a comfortable counterpoint that doesn’t overwhelm the song itself. It helps that the song has a very mild 70s funk intro which – while it progresses into a kind of hazy yesteryear pop rock – tames the electric current running through it somewhat.
The album is more of a grower than a shower; the songs feel primarily even upon a first quick listen – without many standout singles to cling to – with a few exceptions. “Montauk” is a song about accepting the sexual orientation of family members, in this instance two gay fathers. The song tells its story with a blend of humor and warmth that comes across as sincere and frankly touching. With fevered piano to underscore it, Wainwright’s vocals are prominent and allowed to shine – occasionally in a carnivalesque, sing-song way that wonderfully compliments the subject matter, with the synthetic instrumentation kept to a dull roar.
“Respectable Dive” is a gentle waltz, a solemn love song with a mainstream country pop influence. A romantically distorted guitar follows the vocals as Rufus tells a story about old love reunited. The melody is pretty, and can easily be envisaged as the soundtrack for the location he sings about.
“Song of You” is not a typically representative song of the album, but lets Wainwright’s vocals progress gradually and beautifully across the piece while a 1950s-esque slow dance rhythm keeps the time. Similarly “Candles” is a gradually building construct that lets his voice lead across interesting musical sidestreets, meandering into a squeezebox and snare drum that give a surprisingly military or nautical impression.
While at times difficult to feel an immediate affinity with Out of the Game, the music featured here is certainly approachable for fans and listeners who have an affectionate place in their hearts for the soft rock of the 1970s and early 1980s. The stories are lyrically well-written, the music gentle – a soothing accompaniment for the traveler within.
Artist: Deuce Album: Nine Lives Label: Five Seven Music Format: Physical and download LP
I had quite a long think about whether or not to review this album. Then I had a longer think about whether to include lyrics or links to videos. The thing that bothered me was that often media outlets try a ‘blackout’ for really offensive artists in the hope of crushing their success but realistically, the Deuce/Hollywood Undead PR machine goes a long way further than not reviewing this can stop. The album is being bought (11,425 copies in its first week) and I have yet to see a ‘proper’ site discuss it. It doesn’t make it go away to avoid it and driving it into the niche echo-chambers inhabited by Hollywood Undead obsessives means you could still think this is just a harmlessly naff record liked by teenagers.
Before you proceed- this does reproduce some of the lyrics, which contain triggers for sexual assault.
In my time, I have listened to some really terrifyingly bad music. I’m a reviewer and have been for ten years so that’s to be expected but so have you- from sixth-form local bands to that Staind album enough of us bought copies of to make it platinum across the globe, to Asher Roth, to utterly unlistenable noise-barrage that actually was just utterly unlistenable, not ‘super brutal’ whatever your teenage self thought.
It tends to be the case, if you’re listening voluntarily rather than because you’ve been assigned it for the week, that the worse music is the more you find yourself accidentally caught up in a lot of vitriol about it. This is no doubt some kind of primal subconscious response to make you learn an important life lesson after you spend three weeks declaring [Your New, Terrible Favourite Band] the best thing ever and that everyone who listens to anything else is a misbegotten fool, loudly and at great length while tattooing their name on your foot and dropping out in order to follow their tour: that you are as fallible as any other human being.
This particular fervor tends to occcur at pivotal and exciting points in your life such as ‘being fifteen’ and for whatever reason, offensive music is extremely appealling. Which is all the only possible reasoning I can find for the fact that money has been spent on producing, let alone pressing and distributing this, the first album that’s ever made me feel physically ill. Read more…
The Dandy Warhols are known for their psychedelia-tinted rock pop. Catchy, effusive songs full of electronic earnestness linger in the collective musical memory of the band’s past two decades. At times it’s hard to escape an identity that a band has established over the years, and when a group evolves it can be as awkward as the growing pains of adolescence.
Frontman Courtney Taylor-Taylor claims their latest album is “stripped down, woody and extremely guitar centric.” It’s true that the guitar is largely featured, but it’s difficult to agree with the rest of this assessment. While This Machine isn’t overproduced, it’s far from being stripped down. The music is always full, even dense at times, with a lushness of distortion that’s almost hypnotic. Similarly “woody” seems inappropriate as an adjective here – upon listening one feels the presence of an urban jungle rather than the solitude of a natural forest.
With its rocky pop melody and familiar percussion, the song “Sad Vacation” feels most like The Dandy Warhols we’ve heard before. However the encroaching bass and distortion within the tune hint deliciously at the intriguing journey yet to come. “Enjoy Yourself” is a Brit punk flavored anthem of the self that sparkles with its simultaneously snarky and catchy lyrics. Similarly, the crossbreeding of their pop with several genres spawns genuinely delightful offspring. “Well They’re Gone” is particularly beautiful with its carnival-esque melody and a synthetic theramin wending its way through the percussion and slow, measured vocals – a surprising deviation that’s welcome. The song “Rest Your Head” pushes the vocals of their frontman to some wonderfully bass-heavy lows accompanied by full, rich music and background harmonies. One stand-out song is the band’s cover of “16 Tons;” with a prominent saxophone, sharply punctuated percussion, and growling vocals, this is a version that speaks to the emotional content of the song with a sexy flourish.
The following song contains some NSFW language.
Not all of the explorations on this album are completely satisfying. “I Am Free,” another ode to the self, comes off less successfully than its Brit punk sibling, with a comparatively uninteresting melody and far more naïve lyrics than its predecessor. “SETI Vs. The Wow Signal” toys with psychedelic rock without delving too deeply into the meat of it, which leaves the song feeling a bit lackluster. While “Don’t Shoot She Cried” is an interesting bit of experimentation, with an occasionally western-feeling harmonica and lightly choral vocals, it tends to swell slightly too often into the realm of dissolution.
This album is less a painful act of maturation than a graceful stretch towards something truly outstanding. The skeletal structure of the group’s pop supports these new songs, and what grows from it is at times inspired. Far from any spandrels here, the exploration into different genres and instruments feels necessary. Any awkwardness that the listener might discover lies not in the experimental portions of the album, but when The Dandy Warhols failed to integrate themselves into their experiments.
Artist: Dapayk & Padberg Album: Sweet Nothings Label: Stil Vor Talent Format: Physical and download LP
In 2004, Eva Padberg was photographed for Playboy by Ellen Von Unwerth and subsequently voted FHM’s ‘Sexiest Woman In The World.’ The next year, she released an album full of minimal, thoughtful electronica with her now-husband Niklas Worgt under the name Dapayk & Padberg, on his achingingly cool, tripartide label Mo’s Ferry Productions. Spanning three different micro-genres under sub labels Mo’s Ferry Prod. (‘rocking frickel house,’) Fenou (‘cute minimal electronica’) and Rrygular (minimal techno) it caters to the minutiae of the particularly compact, obsessive music made for feeling slightly melancholy whilst driving down an autobahn late at night. Uberkoolisch.
According to popular mythology, it seemed likely that might be the last seen of Eva The Model, becoming instead Eva The Extremely Hip Electronic Musician Who Is Sometimes Photographed Looking Unbearably Cool. After all, you are not meant to make deep and thoughtful electronica and be a vacuous model; as Kraftwerk themselves once posited, the model is an empty vessel of beauty. An attitude “delightfully” summarised by a Youtube commenter’s stunning deconstructive critique; “this song tells the honest truth about many women today.”
Before the viva convenes to award them a PhD in social sciences though; Eva Padberg did go back to modelling, fronting campaigns for Mercedes-Benz and even appearing as a judge on the German version of Star Search, completing her reign of crimes against the apparently credible by encouraging reality TV. She has also released, alongside her husband, two more Dapayk and Padberg albums, each more agonisingly cool than the preceding one. Read more…
You have probably heard music from Jim Noir, you just didn’t know it.
His songs linger on the peripheral vision of pop culture – caught on an advertisement, or a television episode, or even a video game. His pop is bright, lithe, and gone only too quickly beneath the regular media smear. Currently, Jim Noir is a ghost, and his work deserves a concentrated séance.
Jim Noir’s real name is Alan Roberts, a Brit who’s recorded much of his work at his parents’ home in Manchester. He makes pop, but to be clear this is a pop so smart and with such strong roots in 60s and 70s pop, psychedelia, and travelogues, that it’s impossible to brush off as mere background noise. It’s even more incredible when you realize that all of the instrumentation, vocals, and songwriting are his own.
With his album Tower of Love distortion warms the vocals on such playful songs as “I Me You I’m Your” and “A Quiet Man.” In fact play is something that comes to mind repeatedly upon listening to the album; 70s-era organs intermingle with folksong vocals, tambourines snap with funky guitar riffs, and sounds of nature build up to harmonies that draw a smile as you sing along. This is unsurprising. Recurring themes among his work include nostalgia, childhood, and approaching love – and the self – with a sense of humor. “Turbulent Weather” is a song about the difficulty of assuaging a moody partner in a precarious relationship, and recommends purchasing an umbrella to ward off the incoming thunderstorms of arguments – a remedy that only wishful thinking could provide. At the end of the song there is a moment where the music recedes to vocals and guitar, which skillfully evoke falling rain and mesmerize with a folksy lull found decades ago.
His self-titled album revisits this nostalgic blend of yesteryear and play – particularly in the song “Good Old Vinyl,” where the singer laments his broken CDs and the increasing pace of technology with a skeptical eye on its actual capability. In his world, the contemporary is firmly embedded in the world of the past, both thematically and aurally. “Happy Day Today” evokes childhood with its pure enthusiasm and fun, quick organ and vocals, which are in a higher range than Jim Noir typically sings in. Despite the references inherent within the music to childhood, it’s a song about the excitement of falling in love, and the contrast is compelling.
His latest EP Zooper Dooper features some more of these gems. “Car” offers his particularly self-effacing humor salted with 60s distortion and quick rhythms, and is an ultimately winning piece. There is even an example of one of his instrumental songs (“Kitty Cat”), which creates an evocative saturated funk reminiscent of a smoky 70s bar.
Jim Noir is a pop artist well worth discovering. Childlike but never childish, playful but never overplayed, these songs are warm moments in any kind of turbulent weather.
Artist: Bear In Heaven Album: I Love You, It’s Cool Format: Physical and download LP
Bear In Heaven are a slightly difficult proposition for a reviewer; they don’t really exist in any particularly easily descriptive genre (electro, noise, shoegaze all apply) more specific than ‘indie,’ which is a fairly redundant term for any listening purposes.
Two albums ago, it was a very different case. On Red Bloom Of The Boom the sound is definitely alternative indie- clicks and drones dominated the LP, to be expected of a band emerging in the after-hours of Jon Philpot’s job in a recording studio. Dischordancy and a tinnitus wash of noise were designed to overwhelm and submerge the listener- songs like Fraternal Noon are almost reminiscent of something like the enormous wall of chugging drone that Tim Hecker created out of Isis’ Carry and although synths are present, guitars carry the bulk of the instrumentation.
Second album Beast Rest Forth Mouth changed things a little- the drones became more directed, rhythms played a bigger part and the vocals suddenly began to soar. Post-Vampire Weekend appropriated beats mingled with chugging thrum and the sound evolved to an almost aggressive thump in places, more kinetic now that it had got out of the studio and onto the stage, perhaps. You Do You in particular had elements of Ian Brown-style psychedelia and a swaying quality enormously appealing to any indie disco worth its salt.
Subsequently, the remix album took a more direct approach and dragged listeners straight onto the dancefloor; the studio remix of You Do You, in comparison, removes any last vestigial umbilical link to the noise attack of parts of their first LP
Two years later, I Love You, It’s Cool had become a hotly-anticipated release, probably not least because of the dancefloor-friendly remixes and Philpot’s not-at-all unpleasant, downbeat vocal. Either to reassure early fans that they hadn’t abandoned ambience or to drum up hype (or a convenient combination of the two) the band initially streamed the album in full on their website, slowed down 400,000% to a total play length of 294 hours. The stream is no longer active but this video shows a lot of the process and then a burst of the noise wash after about 3:30 -possibly deliberately timed, as the canonical average length of a pop song.
The slowed-down, washy ambience is beautiful but it’s a trick that’s proved effective with transforming even pop hate figure Justin Bieber into a swooning, ambient swirl. Similarly, the most beautiful, complex constructions plunge towards formulaic happy hardcore when pitch-shifted 150%; it’s a lovely stunt but a lovely stunt doesn’t tell you a great deal about the original work.
The slowing down was a screen; a record two years in the making speaks of obsession, if not nervousness and releasing it into the world with high expectations facing a band is daunting. What better modesty panel than turning it into a drone? That keening, stretched noise will forever be associated with the album as much as the contents itself, a pre-emptive remix to guard against what anyone else could say about the “actual” release.
The lead single release reveals a lot of why…
There’s no doubt that Love You, It’s Cool is a beautiful record; it swoons and dips and shimmers with rhythmic mirages. It’s got tunes and propulsion and on bassier tracks like Cool Light it’s full of a romantic dancefloor sensibility that suggests the band took their remix album very much to heart.
There’s no doubting that this is a very different record to Red Bloom Of The Boom, though; while that’s no bad thing, where that immersively challenged listeners, this paints what ultimately boils down to a pastiche. The pounding beneath clouds of synth is reminiscent of some British bands like Doves and despite a veneer of distortion there’s only a few steps to take to push this record firmly into eighties revivalism.
In particular the romantic swooning of Sinful Nature is, in places, so close a reference to The Smiths’ How Soon Is Now in places that Morrisey’s lawyer must be due a call.
Add to this the sudden revelation that Jon Philpot vocally resembles Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys to a degree I hadn’t previously realised (no bad thing but a distracting observation in a record wearing its influences so proudly) and I Love You, It’s Cool starts to break more into constituent parts than the overcoat of static can hold together.
A fan of indie mysticism might try to posit that the title of the album itself announces its intent to reference; a super-fan work of love to things you find cool, certainly the Morissey/Sinful Nature correlation might suggest a knowing nod but even if that didn’t feel rather like grasping for cleverness then the actuality of the end product would remain.
I Love You… is a lovely record. I’m sure it will get played plenty this summer and soundtrack thousands of happy memories but its actual-speed version is indistinct, almost generic in a way that the ultra-slowed stream fails to mask and which doesn’t feel like genius from a band who’ve previously been so interesting.
Country punk. Gothabilly. Southern Gothic. Americana. While no one seems to agree on a label for the music that Slim Cessna’s Auto Club makes, there is a general consensus of themes. Clearly this is a kind of country music that transcends the standard heartbroken twangs and bitter betrayals that abound on the radio. This music is something darker; it’s the country hidden beyond the well-traveled farms and ranches, yet ultimately resonating with the frenzied arrythmic lubdub of the American heartland.
With their 2011 release Unentitled, Slim Cessna’s Auto Club has once again spoken to “the good people” – as they’ve dubbed their faithful but small group of followers. The album is a solid construction, with music ranging from approachable country and western-tinged rock (“No Doubt About It”) to songs that feel like waltzes crossed with solemn religious processions (“United Brethren”), all with a thread of some anxious Southern discomfort for good measure. Slim’s vocals possess a rich but harrowing higher pitch that he uses to counterpoint co-frontman Munly’s dark, funereal bass entreaties, creating juxtapositions in such songs as “The Unballed Ballad of the New Folksinger” and “Hallelujah Anyway” that compel attention without demanding it.
“A Smashing Indictment of Character” is one of a few songs on the album that clearly stand out. Clapping, a gospel choir, and a tent revival-style organ build in pitch and fervor only to later successfully slacken to evocative slide guitar and vocals reminiscent of 50s slow dance rock. Like the music, the lyrics are catchy without kitsch, and infuse the entire song with a sense of triumph.
“Three Bloodhounds, Two Shepherds, One Fila Brasileiro” evokes some of SCAC’s previous works, returning to a theme of grisly country justice. Like the titular hounds the rhythm is relentless, pursuing the listener long after the song has ended with its steady pulse and gothic banjo. There is even music to bury by. The fevered whispers of Read more…
One of the criticisms most frequently leveled at r’n'b and hip hop from outside is that it’s full of faceless, bikini-clad women. While it would be hard to look at some of the worst of early 00′s misogynist-revival rap without noticing you see more girls’ assets than eyes, it’s an unfair and pretty baseless accusation if the critic looked even slightly beyond whatever 50 Cent video they’ve last seen. It’s the equivalent of insisting that, having reviewed the output of Metallica, you’ve decided there are no women in metal. Female singers and rappers have been creating involving narratives from the earliest jazz and blues greats through to someone like Trina’s tales of stripping and splitting from the last decade.
Since 2009, in particular, there’s been a sudden rise in concept albums by female artists, from Electrik Red’s How To Be A Lady Vol. 1 to Janelle Monae’s ArchAndroid and Nicki Minaj’s Roman Reloaded. When Diddy (whose Press Play album is heavily reliant on spectacular, confessional duets with women including the staggering “Last Night”) announced that he was making the several-times-delayed concept work Last Train To Paris with new group Dirty Money, aka Dawn Richard and Kalenna (pronounced Kal-een-a) Harper, a former Danity Kane alum and songwriter respectively, I was confident something alchemical was in the works.
Last Train is still the album I get out to play most frequently, a year and a half after it came out and a lot of that enduring appeal is the Dirty Money girls. It’s definitely not a Read more…
Mark Kozelek is the immensely talented lead singer and writer for Sun Kil Moon, and before that, the Red House Painters, one of the leading bands of the sadcore movement in the 90s. When Kozelek tours, he tours alone, just his nylon string guitar and mournful, weary voice. His large fan base in Europe often leaves Kozelek on the road for many months. Mark Kozelek: On Tour is an attempt to showcase these tours, and to capture how this bare music arrangement has become the focus of Sun Kil Moon’s newest album Admiral Fell Promises.
Unfortunately the film, despite a promising teaser, is a meandering hodgepodge of a film, better as background than main viewing. The beginning ten minutes play out like a poignant music video, the kind that I’d always wished the Red House Painters or Sun Kil Moon had been able to make. The album tracks “Ålesund” and “Half Moon Bay” play under somber footage of Mark Kozelek leaving his home of San Francisco in what seems like the dead early morning, taking off on a plane, and journeying into the clouds. The emotion the imagery and music elicits here is magnificently powerful. Is this what I picture when I hear a Mark Kozelek song? It is. The empty landscape on the way to the airport, the blistering lights from the wings of the airplane, the darkened clouds sitting under the black sky, all more powerful than I could’ve imagined. Alas, the beginning ten minutes are the strongest.
After that, the film splits apart: part concert film and part minimalist tour diary of Kozelek’s European and American tours in 2010 and 2011. Unfortunately, the editing and camerawork in both the concerts and travel footage is lacking, leaving all but the music to be desired. The transition between the album tracks and the concert footage is almost jarring. The first live track in Sweden begins with some uninspiring dialog between Kozelek and the sound engineers during the sound check. The badly lit one-camera shoot is supported by shots of the crowd timelapsing into their seats, Kozelek sitting in his dressing room, and unrelated shots of traveling the freeway. After the song ends, a sudden slideshow of travel photos pops up, changing without fail on every guitar strum. Kozelek then talks a little while in his hotel room about touring with the Red House Painters and his childhood. This lack of focus continues on.
With a more skillful editor, the various content could work together to tell a story. Unfortunately, the editing is where Joshua Stoddard seems to display his amateur filmmaking credentials. Instead of keeping on Kozelek preparing and leaving his dressing room during live track “Void,” Stoddard cuts back and forth with stock Final Cut Pro dissolves every thirty seconds. What’s worse is that it took me a few viewings to understand the dressing room footage has anything to do with the concert. There’s no establishing shot or narrative. The shots seem random and disembodied. Most of the footage, while beautiful in the case of the landscapes, is clearly used to take up space while Kozelek sings. The dissolves between every shot especially become aggravating.
Editing aside, there is some lovely footage here. Stoddard makes the excellent choice to keep all footage crushingly monochromatic. As Kozelek exits his start hotel room, his black silhouette and guitar case reminds us of that other legendary music figure. Driving in the rain looks especially dramatic.
We also get to peer into Kozelek’s mind through little vignettes and interview snippets. There are some moments where he seems deliriously tired, cackling and wheezing hysterically as he struggles to get through a story about being bugged by his manager. Kozelek has been criticized in the past for what Tiny Mix Tapes has called his “good-natured(?) ribbing” of the audience, a characterization I found endlessly amusing. His on-stage manner seems to vary from bitterly amused to cagily hostile. A couple proposed at a concert I went to in London. Kozelek’s setup for the proposal was something like, “I’m not really good at this, so… I think, I think someone wants to do something. Is there someone…? Is there someone in the audience that…?” Hey, at least he was honest.
One of the best things about the film is that it answers the question of why he seems so out of it at his concerts, and why a line in the song “Tonight in Bilbao” reads “Walked in a room, soaked up its fumes / Surveyed the faces I am lying to.” There is a telling scene where Kozelek stands in front of a coffee machine trying to get hot water from it. After a full minute, he flags down a clerk, and they tell him, “No water.” He tosses his cup into the trash and presses on, bags under his eyes.
The filmmaking leaves much to be desired. The endless shots of timelapsed freeway travel smack of amateurism — why not just choose the best moments instead of speeding through all of it? However, Mark Kozelek: On Tour is a wonderful showcase of Kozelek’s talent and a rare glimpse into his lonely-seeming tour life. With more recent Sun Kil Moon songs dealing heavily with the themes of European and American travel, seeing this film will be essential to Kozelek fans. For the rest, you could watch the film too, but I would suggest keeping your eyes only half open.
A disco ball hangs over the audience at The Satellite in LA.
At my 17th birthday dinner at a place that played live music, the host sat me and my family behind a wall. We couldn’t see the band; we could barely hear the muffled tones and applause. I was not 18, and in Northern Virginia, this made it difficult to see any interesting music live. I could visit stadiums, arenas and concert halls, and I did. There, the bands were NFL football teams, licensed jerseys and “Number One” hands sold on the sidelines. But I wanted to see bands that were like a gang of teenagers — their big, inevitable dreams sheathed like pocket knives, roaming and ruling the streets just cause they weren’t old enough to drive yet.
There were plenty of venues to fulfill that need in Boston where I went to college: Avalon near Fenway Park, The Paradise Rock Club nearly on campus. I remember in 2004 one enchanting night at The Middle East in Cambridge listening to a band called The Helms. I was deep in the dark and purple-lit basement, its exposed pipes draping down from the encroaching ceiling. The Helms was a tight-knit trio: a guy, his girlfriend, and his brother, named after the girlfriend‘s family name. What bellowed out of the instruments was anything but quaint, though.
I remember a smile sliding over my friend’s face as he turned to me and said, “This is really good!” It was, and it was like nothing I’d heard before. An endlessly monotonous and searing guitar riff that looped over and over, the repetition gently making it a soothing lullaby, albeit decibel levels and distortion that guaranteed pain. I could get into this, I thought. I could really get into this. It had the added magic of something that I was not quite at the level of, like a book I liked with words or concepts I wouldn’t understand until I got older, until I worked on it. It was a sound I could aspire to. It was a sound that allowed me to think, this is it. This is the future of music.
Of course, have you heard of The Helms? It did not end up being the future of music.
Part of the allure of going to see indie rock bands before they’re huge is the potential of them getting huge — or perhaps the potential of the music itself. This pleasure isn’t there with an established band; it may be fun, but it’s just fun in itself. The band has reached a bar. The music has matured and merged with mainstream culture. There’s nothing being applied to it.
In our everyday lives, I’d say most of the time we are seeing an unestablished band. We are listening to new music, and we tend to think ahead of that music. We lose our jobs one day and the future is void of hope or opportunity. We have a long, smiling conversation with someone attractive while the sun is shining and the future is all fulfillment and promise. Sign a lease, and the drive home is an adrenaline rush. Part of the problem with putting these feelings on the future is that most of the time, our bands just don’t make it. Bad music usually makes the money, and the good might not ever catch on. Part of Buddhist practice is being mindful of the present moment, to not be worrying or thinking about the past or the future since these things cannot be altered or predicted. Buddhism is the practice of simply being where you are. And I think this is just the best way to listen to live indie music — the way least likely to cause embarrassment down the line. You’re out of the hype machine; you’re just there for the sound.
I saw a band last week at The Satellite that was so good, I had that same feeling: “This is the future of music.” When I had that flash of déjà vu and remembered The Helms, wondered where they went, thought about how young I must’ve been and how I felt so old now in comparison, I told myself to shut up. I closed my eyes and tried to just listen. I was enjoying the music. Now I was thinking.
“Over there I don’t feel totally Conogolese, and here, I don’t particularly feel Belgian,” says Baloji, a Congolese/Belgian musician who recently released his second album, Kinshasha Succursale. The story of Africa’s Congo is a long and troubled one, outlined in terrifying honesty by Adam Hochschild in King Leopold’s Ghost (yes, that’s suggested reading). In short, the Congo was colonized by Belgium under King Leopold, devastated both numerically and psychologically by the effects of that occupation, and is still suffering from those effects today.
It is this struggle for identity and place that defines Baloji, whose music is some parts soukous, some parts traditional East, West, and South African rhythm and melody, and some parts young urban defiance, which is much the same in Kinshasha as it is in Queens (Baloji often sings in Swahili, a forbidden language under the current president). One of his most popular tracks, “Independence Cha-Cha” is a modern take on the tune written in the 1960s after the election of Patrice Lumumba as the first President of the newly independent Congo. Lumumba was soon assassinated, leading to the seemingly never-ending downward spiral of the Mobuto years.
And below is Baloji’s version, breathing new life into the Congolese standard once heard ringing through the streets of Kinshasa and beyond. Baloji’s blending of styles both African and Western is not particularly new – Cuban rhythms are completely borrowed from West Africa and can now be found all over American pop music, for example. However, the feeling in Baloji’s music is new; that when listening to him I feel like he’s without a home and trying to find it. I misunderstood a lyric once to say “the type of homeless only God could know” (they actually said “onus”), but I prefer the former in this case. Baloji is homeless but comfortable in his musical wandering, bouncing back and forth across the timeline of the Congo’s past.
When a music playing site catches the eye of the law, you know it has to be good.
Turntable.fm is constructed for those who love the sound of their own iTunes libraries and can’t bear listening to Pandora or their perfectly made Grooveshark playlist one more time without others listening as well. In it, users are represented by little Katamari Damacy-inspired avatars and take turns playing songs for one another in user-created “rooms” (with titles ranging from the cringe-inducing “Indie While You Work” to simply, “Jazz“). You can create a playlist much like Grooveshark and pine for a spot on the virtual turntables, but you can also just sit back and listen to what the DJs come up with, voting a song up or down.
It’s gained some attention within the past week or so, some good, some bad. The bad: Pitchfork has reported that because of the ability to upload songs from your personal library, it’s run afoul of some international (and by international I probably mean German) music licensing laws. Thankfully though, because of certain restrictions, such as the requirement that a room must have more than one person in it before playing entire songs, Turntable is protected under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act in the U.S.
The good attention: because Turntable requires you to sign in via Facebook or Twitter, you can easily hop into rooms of people you may follow. So when @diplo tweeted that he was spinning in a room at Turntable.fm, the site nearly crashed with the number of people who joined for the first time to listen in.
One of the nice parts of Turntable is the social aspect. I logged onto Turntable and saw that someone from Rollo & Grady, an LA-based online music publication company and blog, had a room going. Soon, probably through the same fashion, the guy that runs the eclectic LA music blog Aquarium Drunkard joined in. So there I was with two music people I really respected and not many else. I’d read their writing, I’d downloaded mp3s. I threw on my first two songs or so, and they liked them. How did I know? Well first off, when a user votes up a song, their avatar begins bobbing its head to the tune. There’s nothing like noticing a sea of bobbing heads after putting on a song and getting your ego boost for the day without having to say a word. Another reason I knew: chat functionality. “This is hot,” one modestly said, probably without thinking and while doing laundry, and I nearly swooned. “These tastemakers had never heard these songs before and they liked them?” I excitedly thought, somehow using the phrase “tastemaker” in my head.
So, in another way, Turntable.fm is a better social networking tool than other online music communities like Last.fm. The music is intrinsically connected to the social interactions, and the social interactions are easy and casual. It’s easy to reconnect with people you enjoyed, as well. Become their fan and you can see if they’re hanging out in a room on the homepage. It’s possible that Turntable will eventually incorporate ads or become a pay-to-play service, so I’d advise to get it while it’s hot and still in beta. Hopefully I’ll see you on there and we can both say, off-handedly, “This is hot.”
It’s good to be young, but let’s not kid ourselves It’s better to pass on through those years and come out the other side. -You Were Cool
The El Rey Theater on Wilshire Blvd. in L.A. was the kind of large, ornate venue that you’d expect chamber music to be coursing through. The walls seemed red and lush — could’ve been velvet if I were to get close enough to see properly. Chandeliers hung above the crowd, lit a deep shade of pink by unassuming spotlights hiding in the wings. It didn’t feel like a place where John Darnielle (or JD as he calls himself) of The Mountain Goats would be having the crowd sing “I hope we all die” just a few hours later.
If you are a Mountain Goats fan, you’ll instantly recognize these lyrics. If you’re a neophyte, you might mistake the lyrics “I hope we die” as overly morose, emo even. You may see a screaming throng of people yelling “Hail Satan” at the stage, and want to turn and run. But instead, these songs are some of the band’s most unthreatening, joyous, and uniting.
Before Southwood Plantation Road, Darnielle began talking about drunks, and a few people in the audience yelled “Woo!” Without skipping a beat (impossible for the clever, chatty, and naturally funny frontman), JD said, “Yes, some people say ‘Woo. They’re drunks.’ No. Not ‘Woo!’ Actual drunks: not woo-worthy. Actual drunks: more like ‘Ooo,’” and he mock-cowered in revulsion. He continued with the poise and tone of a stand-up comic joking about airplane food, not a disabling addiction. “They’re dangerous and they look kind of yellow around the eyes! It’s not really a romantic life they’re leading.” Then, right before the music took over, lifting everybody off the ground, he conceded: “Yet somebody needs to document it and jump around about it.” Some of the best Mountain Goats songs come from places of intense bitterness and pain. Which is exactly why those same songs are some of the happiest sounding, the most rousing, like the beat of drums heading into battle, or even better, a rowdy wake after a death. Armor for the soul.
Let’s back up.
The band has come a long way from the sparse shows of ye olden days. On new album All Eternals Deck, Darnielle’s taut vocals and acoustic guitar are accompanied by sweeping Arabesque strings in one song and a Gregorian acapella backup in the next. This lushness has translated nicely to their live performances. The trio, Darnielle (@mountain_goats) on vocals and acoustic guitar, Jon Wurster (@jon_wurster) of Superchunk on drums and Peter Hughes on bass, have expanded to included a keyboardist who fills in nicely for the lack of say, a 12 piece orchestra during Age of Kings. The keys add a lot of depth the show — crafting a spooky bed for the rest of the band or sprinkling a jazzy riff into an established song. Even with the lush backgrounds, Darnielle has always kept his songs spartan, rightly highlighting his vocal performance than instrumental talent. One of the highlights of the show for me was at the end of Family Happiness, where Darnielle sang defiantly, “You can arm me to the teeth. You can’t make me go to war,” then strolled over to the keyboard where he bashed the keys angrily, beautifully, thrusting the song into a deep instrumental jam. He’ll play the keyboard, he’s saying, but he’ll never do it to sound pretty.
Though JD provided an anecdotal intro to nearly every song, he wasn’t very talkative, and he admitted as such. “What’s that Robert Frost line about how when you go back home, they have to take you in?” When I saw him in DC, he had just gotten over a bout of illness, and was feeling extra energetic and thankful for his fans. Back in LA, JD seemed to have a quiet gratitude to be back home, and since many of the songs he played sprang from his experiences growing up in Southern California, they had a special resonance. But I can see why he felt quieter than usual (relaxed and conversational for anyone else). His introduction to Birth of Serpents went “This song is about a young fellow who goes up to Portland, Oregon and gets really into speed. He looks shockingly like me.” JD is more or less a survivor of growing up in Southern California, overcoming drug addiction and domestic violence, and the new album reflects this sense of fateful triumph. The band opened with the steady but haunting Liza Forever Minnelli. “Gentle shadows spilling down the hills up at Mulholland and Ledgwood,” JD sang, fully aware of where we all were.
There were plenty of surprises. No Children started with a long jazzy build up with JD performing a Cohen-like fictional story about watching The Price Is Right with a spouse, and how they both wished the contestants would die a cartoon-gruesome death. Someone yelled This Magic Moment during a cacophony of other requests, and alas, it happened. JD played “You Were Cool” solo, a kind of hard hitting anthem that fits in with the It Gets Better movement, but is not without its share of humor (The lyrics begin, “This is a song with the same four chords I use most of the time,” referring to his tendency toward A, D, C and G). Before California Song, which came during the double (double!) encore. He talked about how he usually said that this was a song about where he’s from, but that seems kind of superfluous here. “Although you treat me badly, I love you madly. You really got a hold on me,” he sang, unclear whether he was talking to the girl in the song, or the place we were in. Then he left the stage, and the band weirdly transitioned into a jazz rendition of Black Water by the Doobie Brothers.
For awhile, I was standing on a little raised staircase near the front. I had a great view of the stage, but also a good view of the crowd. At the DC show, my sister and I joked that the audience was made up of a lot of little John Darnielles (nerdy lookin guys with black-framed glasses), and the same was true here. I was having trouble enjoying myself. I kept noticing the tall guy next to me looking back and forth at the people around him instead of the stage, the drunk girls that talked all through the concert, the girl that before the concert talked about how she loved his voice because even if he didn’t hit the note correctly, she could just really hear the emotion in it so perfectly and yada yada.
At some point, I lowered myself into the crowd. I was looking up at the band, could no longer see everyone around me. Instead, was a part of everything around me. When the band played The Best Ever Death Metal Band Out of Denton, an ode to a couple of teenagers who really worked hard on their music but were told their opinions didn’t matter, I had no problem throwing my fist up at the end and yelling “Hail Satan” with the rest of them. I of course wasn’t worshipping Satan. But I was worshipping being a part of something, surviving, and coming out the other end celebrating with those who survived the same.
I was late to the must-attend show in Chicago of 2011…and I’m better for it. James Blake went on stage around 10:00, I arrived close to 10:10, and before opening the heavy doors to the concert hall floor, I heard no indication that there was anyone inside. If I had arrived on time, I would have seen James Blake and his two bandmates emerge onto the dark stage from the even darker depths of the space, heard the likely thunderous applause, and then seen what happened next (probably a very similar scene to what I walked in on 10 minutes later). The venue, having sold out within minutes of tickets going on sale 4 months ago, was packed to the brim. The balcony railing had arms and feet hanging over its edges, the only break in the second floor (or ceiling) created by the unbroken sea of heads was the skinny tattooed arm topped by a platter of drinks wading through the crowd. Quite the raucous setting, no? No. Instead the crowd was silent, dead silent. No pinging of beer bottles, clearing of throats, chewing of ice. Just complete silence for Blake to manipulate. And that’s what I walked in on. For those that have listened to the record, which you should if you haven’t, this concert made me realize what makes it so special: it is full of patience. It can’t be rushed, and Blake and every member of that crowd were fully aware of that when they stepped into that hall. James Blake went on to put on a delicate, powerful when it needed to be, but more often than not almost uncomfortably honest, set of less than 45 minutes. Feeling some tightness in my jaw the next morning, I’m fairly certain that my mouth was agape for that entire time.
Here is a clip from the show, James Blake at Lincoln Hall in Chicago on May 15th, 2011: