Category Archives: Music News

Review: “Vaudevellia!” – Kiravell

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Kiravell’s Vaudevillia! is an exercise in genre-busting and experimentation. It’s the sound of a a musical traveler who shoves all of her ideas and influences – jazz, indie rock, world music, elements of hip-hop – so much into Vaudevillia! that the record is practically At bursting at the seems with originality.

At times, Vaudevillia! reminds me of a bit of M.I.A.’s early work. Not so much in terms of sound, but in execution, attitude and a general willingness to try anything. Whereas, M.I.A. used Hip Hop and Electronica as her template while incorporating different sounds, Kiravell uses Jazz piano as a starting point.  Almost all of the songs here are based around Kiravell’s haunting piano melodies, but the song structures and sound collages are hardly traditional.  There are also hints of Anti-Folk hero Regina Spektor too.

Opener “Pache Mama” begins the set with Kiravell’s stream of consciousness spoken words over a soft piano which is given a harder edge with a hip-hop inspired beat behind it. Mid-way through the song, the tempo changes and an instrumental break-down appears showcasing Kiravell’s awesome piano skills. “Veiled Lady” is slightly uncomfortable (in a good way) due its use of strings, dense production and shifting dynamics.

Those tensions and unconventional song structures make Vaudevillia! a compelling listen. Each subsequent experience is new, bringing out various sounds and ideas that you might not have noticed previously. That’s the sign of a good record and a good artist.

On the other hand, because of that Vaudevillia! is not a particularly easy listen. This is not something you put on in the background (nor should you, come to think of it.)  It demands you to know a little bit more about music and music theory to truly “get” it. If you’re up for the challenge and are well-versed in various genres of music, then you’ll find Vaudevillia! to be a rewarding listen.

For more info on Kiravell, visit her Facebook page.

New Music: “Gasoline” – The Local Strangers

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Indie-Folk act The Local Strangers have released the latest single, “Gasoline” from their two-disc LP, Take What You Can Carry.  “Gasoline” is anchored by the  vocal harmonies over  from founding members Aubrey Zoli and Matt Hart.  The song begins with two intertwining electric guitars, each projecting a soft and melodic palette, that gives Zoli and Hart plenty of room to soar over once the drums kick in.  Things kick up during the bridge, with a brief and distorted solo, before the duo return to the chorus where they proclaim, “You already forgave me, Got a heart full of gasoline”.

Take What You Can Carry is the sophomore album by The Local Strangers, which is released in two distinct and different versions. The first version features their killer band in the studio, while the other finds the duo in a more intimate approach with just acoustic guitars and their voices.  To promote the album, The Local Strangers will be engaging in a unique string of live dates this April, showcasing the acoustic side of the album, which they have dubbed “The Living Room Tour”.  Fans who RSVP via their web-site will be given a disclosed location for each “Living Room”.

Check out “Gasoline” below:

 

 

Feature: “Songs from the Hive” – Brian Dunne

 

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When Dunne sings that he just wants “to ride easy on the slow train” with steel guitars and piano behind him, you get the feeling he’s more comfortable with the past than the present. You can probably bet he’s not referring to Amtrak in “Slow Train”.  The music found on Songs from the Hive – with shades of Heartbreaker-era Ryan Adams, The Basement Tapes, etc – evokes a version of America that doesn’t really exist anymore.  As such, Dunne’s version of Country is more authentic than anything on Country Radio at the moment.

It shouldn’t come as surprise that Dunne’s influences include Bruce Springsteen, The Band and Bob Dylan.  The quieter and more introspective side of Springsteen hangs over Songs from the Hive like a guiding light: with references to “the promised land, and dark tales over acoustic guitar.  Songs from the Hive is more Nebraska and than Born in the U.S.A.

Much of Songs from the Hive moves along at a crawling pace, leaving plenty of space to draw the listener in. There’s nothing fast or hurried about this set. This is a collection of songs that have been lived in. You can hear the bruises in Dunne’s voice especially on the somber “I Don’t Wanna Lose You.” Even the louder songs – “California (Rock Me Slow)” and “You’re Not Ready” – never really blast off but contain a down-home shuffle that fits the vibe of the rest of the album.

Remarkably, Songs from the Hive sounds neither contemporary nor old. Like the Dunne’s influences it manages to exist of out of time. When you listen to it, you wouldn’t think that these songs were recorded recently, but rather that they’ve always existed in some form and you’ve just now discovered a hidden gem.

For more info on Brian Dunne, check out his web-site and listen to “Born a Fool” below:

New Video: “Sunday Morning” (Maroon 5 Cover) – Austin Valencia

 

Singer songwriter Austin Valencia recently released his cover version of Maroon 5’s “Sunday Morning”.  Valencia’s version of the Maroon 5 song peals back the layers of the soul influenced song and turns it into an intimate performance that feels like a lazy Sunday morning while the clouds over the previous night still loom high.

The son of two Philippine Immigrants, the Detroit-raised Valencia began playing piano at 5.  His influences include John Mayer, Stevie Ray Vaugh and Jimi Hendrix.  Valencia’s first full-length Directions is available now.  For more info on Valencia, check out his web-site.

Retrospective: The Top 10 Albums of 2005

 

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I’m feeling a bit nostalgic at the moment and finding it hard to believe that 2005 was 10 years ago. Overall, 2005 was a pretty good year for music and saw quite a few artists releasing some of their best work. So here’s my Top 10 for 2005.  (In no particular order.)

“Come on Feel the Illinoise!” – Sufjan Stevens

Come on Feel the Illinoise! is a wordy, highly literate – just how many words and references can he throw in “Decatur”? – complex and musically ambitious album. It could easily fall under the weight of its own pretentiousness, but somehow it doesn’t. Managing to incorporate The Wall of Sound into a lo-fi record (particularly on the glorious “Chicago”, Stevens delivers not only the best album of his career but also one of the best of the 2000s. With a mix of folk, classical and even buzzing guitars (“The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts”) Come on Feel the Illinoise! reveals something new with each subsequent listen.

“Aha Shake Heartbreak” – Kings of Leon

Before they went mainstream (and downhill), Kings of Leon were a white-hot, dirty rock n’ roll band. Aha Shake Heartbreak shows that version of the band at its best: a strange hybrid of Allman Brothers Southern-boogie played with Stooges-style anarchy. Caleb Followill’s voice was nearly indecipherable as he belted out tales of his dick getting soft from too much drinking and threatening to take people down in a cock-fight. Every song is a classic and is an album the Kings never bettered. (Note: I’m going with the US release date in 2005, not the UK edition which was released at the end of 2004.)

“The Woods” – Sleater-Kinney

If Sleater-Kinney hadn’t decided to return with this month’s No Cities to Love, The Woods would be a hell of a way to go out. The Woods is a dark, furious beast of a record that crushes anything in its path. Janet Weiss never pounded so hard – check out her rolls on the opener “The Fox”. Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker both deserve more recognition as guitarists- their interlocking riffs and wild feedback on “What’s Mine Is Yours” is the stuff of legend. Even the slower moments are dazzling as evident on the surprisingly poppy “Modern Girl”. At the time, The Woods was more than a fitting coda to one of America’s best bands. Glad to have them back.

“Cold Roses” – Ryan Adams & The Cardinals

Ryan Adams released two great albums (this one and Jacksonville City Nights) and one underwhelming one (29) in 2005. What sets Cold Roses apart from the other two is the lack of self-importance. On Cold Roses, Adams seems relaxed and embracing his inner American Beauty.  The highlights are many: “Sweet Illusions” is breathtakingly gorgeous, “Let it Ride” makes Adam seem command of the world’s best bar band. And “Easy Plateau” might be the best Alt-Country song he ever recorded.

“Welcome to Jamrock” – Damian Marley

I’ve always thought that the musical children of Bob Marley rely too much on his name and music and have never carved out a career of their own. Damian Marley, however is the exception wisely choosing to infuse hip-hop (in his case, “toasting”) into his musical heritage. The title track is a vivid portrait of Jamaica’s dark underbelly where “people are dead at random”.  The driving opening track “Confrontation” is a perfect showcase for Marley’s fast-paced vocal dexterity. The highlight is the Nas’ assisted “Road to Zion” who (naturally) gives an absolutely flawless verse.

“Silent Alarm” – Bloc Party

As far as debut albums go, Silent Alarm is a pretty good one. There’s a razor shape focus in the songwriting and delivery which is only amplified with the jagged guitars and dramatic drumming. The post-punk aggression in many of the songs makes the earnestness easier to swallow.  Make no mistake, Silent Alarm is a political album but it’s the quieter and apolitical moments like the soft “So Here We Are” that are the most memorable.

“Z” – My Morning Jacket

 Z found My Morning Jacket ditching their trademark reverb-heavy sound for a warmer vibe and deconstructing several different styles throughout. “Wordless Chorus” is psychedelic soul at its best: a showcase for Jim James’ to truly show his vocal shops during the outro. “Off the Record” is charged by a classic guitar riff, before sliding into a pseudo-reggae coda that reminiscent of both “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking?” and “Layla”. A landmark achievement for the band, Z is endlessly inventive and rewarding.

“Plans” – Death Cab For Cutie In the mid-2000’s, Death Cab For Cutie found themselves at a crossroads much like late 80’s R.E.M.  Both acts received critical acclaim for their indie albums and questions arose what a major label debut would do to their sound.  Plans unlike Document (which boasted a heavier sound for R.E.M.) isn’t a radical departure for Death Cab, but rather a summation of what they do best: weary mid-tempo ballads that mixed with a few rockers for good measure. Plans achieved a rare feat of bringing in new fans while also satisfying the old ones.

“Arular” – M.I.A.

Arular is what happens when Sandinista! meets hip-hop and eletroclash.  Arular is a radical album on all fronts and is the first indication that not only does M.I.A. not shy away from controversy, but tends to thrive on it by writing songs about terrorism and snipers in Sri Lanka. Musically, the album is a barrage of sounds from all corners of the world mashed up together brilliantly. Bonus points for also sampling The Sanford and Son theme song. Not for the faint of heart, but a riveting record all the same.

“Late Registration” – Kanye West

Late Registration is probably remembered most for “Gold Digger” which was everywhere. But Late Registration is the album where West truly solidified his status as a visionary. Deciding to move away from the Soul-sample heavy sound of The College Drop-Out, West ups the ante by incorporating string sections and chamber music throughout Late Registration. Lyrically the template for his later works start here: biting social commentary mixed with boasting and self-deprecation. Easily one of West’s best works.

 

Review: “Radio Sister” – Dave Phaeln

 

 

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Much of Dave Phaehn’s Radio Sister sounds like adult contemporary pop of the late 70’s and early ’80’s. It’s not hard to imagine that many of these songs could be included on the soundtrack for an early ‘80s New York romantic comedy. The pristine production, slightly funky grooves and jazzy saxophones evoke feelings of Manhattan during the Reagan-era. With that in mind, it’s no surprise then that many of these songs were actually recorded in the early 1980s and shelved until now.

Many of the songs found on this set are ear-worms, particularly the title track and “Better Things to Do”. The melodies aren’t immediate, but linger in your head for hours afterwards. Much of that credit can be given to the background vocalists whose refrains and wordless chants who give the sometimes stiff performances a bit of needed soul and grit. The same goes for Phaehn’s scorching harmonica solos. If his licks were played against a white-hot blues band, the results would be stunning.

The best moments on Radio Sister are the rare ones where Phaehn actually lets loose and gets back to his bluesy roots. The rollicking “Soda Fountain” makes you want to get up and dance with its short musical battle between a saxophone and Phaehn’s harmonica.

And in complete contrast to the slick production found on the rest of the album, Radio Sister ends with a stripped down medley of Lead Belly songs and the front-porch blues of “Stranger Blues” . It’s just Phaehn’s voice and some hand claps, but he does his best to conjure up the ghost of the delta, and damn does he come close. Equally impressive is the front porch blues of “Stranger Blues” where Phaehn really shows off his harmonica skills. You don’t even have to close your eyes too tightly before you can see a keg of moonshine at his feet.

There’s a lot to like on Radio Sister but too often it seems stuck in the 1980s. When Phaehn removes himself from that era and dives back to a a more transcendent time is where Radio Sister truly shines. Those tracks are worth sticking around for.

For more info on Dave Phaeln, check out his web-site.

Review: “Big Apple Blues” – Tomás Doncker Band

 

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For their second release together, Tomas Duncker and Pulitzer-Prize wining poet Yusef Komunyakaa take cues from the Blues, but refuse to be found by it. Doncker describes his sound as “Global Soul” which he describes in part on his record label True Groove as, “the sound of our collective consciousness…it is not genre specific but genre inclusive.”  This inclusiveness drives Big Apple Blues. It’s rooted in the Blues with its guitar chords and harmonica breaks. The band’s horn section sounds they came right out of Bourbon Street as they blare loudly behind Doncker’s voice. “Little Blue Room” is a hard, blues-funk hybrid while “Ground Zero” contains a distorted disco-style guitar line complete with a David Gilmour-esque solo.

Big Apple Blues is a hard-hitting record that resonates on many levels. The genre-bending only add to its appeal. Every single musical element fits together seamlessly: not an easy feat. It’s frustrating to listen to because Doncker makes it seem so effortless.

Many of the lyrics – written by Duncker and Komunyakaa – seem to focus on New York City and its inhabitants, both past and present. “There’s no hero at Ground Zero/Only human beings doing human things,” Doncker almost shouts. In a dream, he imagines “the towers rose up from smoke and ash.” The deep-fried soul of “Harlem Hell Fighters” tells the tale of World War I soldiers from Harlem who were “fighting Jim Crow over here to fight a war over there.”  Komunyakaa appears for a spoken word bit giving details about “the brothers fighting over-seas.”

Any fan of the Blues or Soul music would be a fool to turn away from Big Apple Blues. It’s a rare kind of record: one that moves the body, soul and mind.

 

For more info on the Tomás Doncker Band, check out True Groove’s web-site.

Weezer’s “Back to the Shack”: Send It Back, Please

 

If “Back to the Shack” is any indication, count me out for checking out Weezer’s new album Everything Will Be Alright in the End.  Some fans will argue that they haven’t put out anything good since Pinkerton but I tend to think that Make Believe was their latest album worth listening to.  “Beverly Hills” alone makes the album a worthy contribution to Weezer’s catalogue.

Weezer has always been known for being clever, but on “Back to the Shack” Rivers Cuomo seems to be trying too hard.  It seems as he’s adrift in his songwriting and knows that fans haven’t dug Ratitude or Hurley so he purposely throws in some self references to try and grab the old fans attention.  When Cuomo sings that he wants to “go back to the strat with the lighting strap” you have to wonder if he’s traveling down the road of nostalgia for himself or his fans.

Weezer aren’t the first or last band to try to reclaim their old glory by looking to their past glories for inspiration.  Voodoo Lounge and A Bigger Bang tried to capture the feeling of Exile on Main St. to mixed results. R.E.M. went back to their basic guitar sound after the shitpile that was Around the Sun.  Perhaps Cuomo thinks that if he’s purposely throws it out there, that it won’t be seen as a parody but instead ironic.

And he might have been able to get away with it, if the music were better.  For the first time ever on a Weezer song, the band sounds tired.  The main riff that drives the song sounds clunky at best. The whole thing sounds unconvincing. At least Ratitude and Hurley had some energy, spark and adventure.  On “Back to the Shack”, Weezer sound like they’ve turned into their own worst tribute band: a tribute band that thought it could write a Weezer original.

The Michael Jackson Hologram: Slave to Rhythm Indeed

 

At last night’s Billboard Music Awards, Michael Jackson “performed” his newest single “Slave to the Rhythm”.  Now, I don’t know about you but I can’t sense that anybody was really hungry for a performance by a holographic Michael Jackson.

Jackson was always bigger than life. His performances were part star power and spectacle. He could get away with the most outlandish performances, but he could command attention in a way that no one has ever since. Even at his worst, there was still something about a performing Jackson that made you want to root for him.  At his personal life became the stuff of tabloid legend, it impossible to ignore his presence on the stage.

One thing that was always apparent was his love for the music. Those feet and hands didn’t move that way because he wanted the money. There was sheer joy in the way he moved around on stage. It was probably that joy that led to his death while he was in rehearsal for his comeback. He wanted to prove to the world that he still had it.

But this hologram seemed to be farce. It’s totally taking advantage of an audience that still misses Jackson.  The “performance” was everything people expected of Jackson, but in a life-less form. Though the Tupac hologram at 2012’s Coachella was just as contrived, at least that had the element of surprise.  The hologram Michael Jackson was nothing more than PR stunts for both the record labels and Billboard.  It may not have felt this way if the “performance” was say, a song like “Billie Jean” or “Thriller”.  But no, instead what we got was “Slave to the Rhythm” off of the recently released Xscape – which also seems in and of itself like a cash-grab.

A real MJ performance would have wowed the audience simply by him being there.  But the audience got blown away because it looks and acts like Jackson – a far cry from the real thing. Instead of paving the wave, a hologram Jackson reduces what we loved about him down to a product.  Jackson’s legacy certainly deserves better.

 

 

The Genius and Contradiction of Pete Townshend

 

(Today is Pete Townshend’s 69th birthday.)

As a teenager, The Who was my favorite band. Their explosive combination with introspective lyrics fit the bill for a confused teenager trying to make his way through the world. At their best, they were an intellectual band that played with fury. They could expand your mind and capture your all frustrations with an un-matched aggression.

As the leader of The Who, Pete Townshend quickly became one of my heroes. But to be a fan of Pete Townshend you have to accept certain things about him. For every brilliant move he’s made, there’s always been a frustrating one around the corner.  His failed rock-opera Lifehouse was designed in part to bring The Who’s audience and the band together in some sort of rock and roll nirvana.  But at the same time, he could just easily curse out the same audience for not living up to his own expectations.  (One such tirade is captured on The Who’s 4-disc boxed set 30 Years of Maximum R&B.)  He’s also an extremely spiritual guy, who succumbed to both alcohol and drug addiction.

Unlike Bob Dylan (who is very guarded in his brilliant memoir Chronicles Vol. 1) and Keith Richards (who is very nonchalant about his addictions in Life), Townshend lays out his contradictions in Who I Am.  He’s very candid about the abuse that happened while he stayed with his grandmother as a kid and the addictions that nearly took his life in the early 80s.  But then he’ll come off as completely arrogant when talking about Lifehouse (even though it’s a failure) because he’s convinced that the audience was too stupid to understand it.

It would be easy to think of Townshend as a class-A jerk. He can certainly be that. When I first started to like The Who and discovered more about him, I became disappointed that he wasn’t quite who I thought he was. Sometimes I was pissed at him for dismissing his audience’s intelligence in interviews. Other times I hated him for being too ambitious. At first, I despised Quadrophenia because it wasn’t as simple as some of The Who’s early singles. I wanted the angst without the pretentiousness that filled most of Quadrophenia.  

What I didn’t realize at the time was that Townshend was exposing my own contradictions through the music of The Who. I wanted The Who (and him) to exist within a certain context that existed within my own mind.  I began to see many of the contradictions in my own life as result. I could be smart and intelligent, but also had a huge lazy streak that kept me from achieving certain things that I wanted.

When I read Who I Am, I gained a new appreciation for Townshend. He’s never been some guy who has rested on his laurels. But unlike some other rock and roll artists where it can be hard to sympathize with them, I did with Townshend.  But not because he’s had tremendous lows.  Being completely open, his memoir made him all the more human and relatable. Even after all that he’s achieved; he’s just trying to figure it out just like the rest of us.