Friday, February 29, 2008

taken by trees @ the roxy

Seven months ago, wedged into a sun-burnt and drunken festival crowd, I saw one of the first Taken By Trees shows. Admittedly, I already had her debut CD Open Fields crammed into my suitcase, purchased on a whim while getting off the metro a few days before. Some people reminisce with photographs, my nostalgia fuels playlists. Of course I was expecting to like the show; after all, she’s that ex-Concrete girl right?

I was not expecting to be so, well, taken. Amidst the louder acts of the day -- I had just had my eardrums rattled by the wonderful Electrelane, and afterwards would be subjected to the auditory water-boarding that is TV on the Radio -- Victoria Bergman’s sweet, childlike voice stuck in my memories.

Needless to say, Taken By Trees performing in LA, especially in light of Victoria’s noted apprehension about performing live, was a major, lovely surprise. The kind of major lovely surprise that has you rolling out of bed ten minutes before tickets go on sale, despite the fact you worked until almost five a.m. the night before –- lest you be deprived a chance to see her1.

Thankfully, Thursday night's performance at the Roxy lived up to my expectations, and even more importantly, my rose-colored memories.

Tapping into her softer side -- an obvious theme for the evening -- was opener White Hinterland née Casey Dienel. Supporting her new album, Phylactery Factory, Casey indulged in a series of jazzy quasi-confessional numbers, in between which she giggled and nervously whispered "incriminating stories about where she grew up": a dazzling east coast world filled with beached whales and teens skipping school to drive around in Model-Ts wearing brown plastic derbies. Despite strange sound issues that occasionally left me feeling more like I was at a drum recital with piano accompaniment, I couldn't help but be won over. I'm a push-over, it's true. Casey, and later Victoria, both played their final songs on ukuleles, a unique choice that neatly highlighted their unusual voices. Humm...Marylin Monroe, Mia Farrow, Casey Dienel and Victoria Bergman? Could it be that my lack of small, absurd stringed instruments is what's keeping me from properly expressing my pent up emotions and/or retroactively becoming a 1950s pin-up?

Taken By Trees took the stage after a brief video of - what else - trees? Normally, this broad move toward the literal would be cause for snark. (I'm a pseudo-intellectual, and a terrible person.) Here it simply served as a guarantee of truth in advertising and, I'm not ashamed to admit, I had goose-bumps even before the introduction ended. The night continued in that straight forward vein. Victoria's music, be it Concretes or Taken By trees, is striped of artifice and continually stirs up emotions that are hard to explain, but impossible to ignore. Case in point: I dare anyone to not find personal meaning in the lyric Hours pass like centuries/When you're waiting for a change/that will take you far away/from the you you are today2.

Watching Victoria preform is almost painful in its intimacy. Here is a woman, pouring out her heart, nervously fidgeting with her necklace and water bottle, stepping away from the microphone any time she's not singing. One is left with the feeling that emoting in front of an audience is the most difficult thing she's ever been asked to do, her very presence speaking to a desperate need to do so. It's captivating, compelling, and due to the sheer empathy it evoked, I found myself with a lump in my throat.

This isn't to say the Taken By Trees project is without a lighter side. Closing the set was the newest single, "Sweet Child of Mine". Part of me winces, knowing that this is by far her most high-profile song yet. But that part of me got drowned out by the plain ol' joy of hearing of such a sweet voice belt such an absurd song with that much conviction. Also sweet was the pause before the ukulele-tinged "Sunshine Lady" encore, when Victoria's best friend Anna took the stage, delivering what amounted to a multi-lingual love letter to her friend and Los Angeles as a whole -- stopped by Victoria's return to the stage to deliver a bear-hug as only best friends can. At this point, I can only assume most of us in the audience wanted to do the same.

1. Yes, I realize this is one of those moments rare moments when I naively assumed pop culture tastes fall in line with my own.
2. See? Told you so.

(photo Taken By Trees: Helena Blomqvist)
(photo White Hinterland: Tod Seelie)

mp3: "Tell Me (live)" by Taken By Trees
mp3: "Julia (live)" by Taken By Trees
mp3: "On The Radio (live)" by The Concretes
mp3: "Art Deco House (live)" by White Hinterland

heretic pride by the mountain goats

The Mountain Goats, in their many and sundry forms, have recorded and released more music than I ever would have thought humanly possible. From John Darnielle's earliest lo-fi albums, recorded on a boom box with just him, his guitar and his urging voice, to his more recent, lusher works produced by John Vanderslice, everything he's done has been captivating, beautiful, heart-wrenching, intriguing, and/or hilarious.

With the release of Heretic Pride, there are bound to be those who lament the loss of the lo-fi, DIY scratchiness that was the Mountain Goats' endearing trademark for so long –- the new album is the richest yet, what with the string arrangements and the crisp sounds of high-hats and harmonies that are actually harmonic, rather than endearingly off key. But Darnielle is still singing about his own self-destruction, doomed relationships, the impending demise of everyone and everything, heavy metal, and biographies of people you've never heard of, backed by simple yet arresting melodies, and packed with quirky turns of phrase sung with an urgent voice that defies you to ignore him. Which is why we fell in love with him in the first place. And besides, Sarah and Rachel are back (though bass duties are still being fulfilled by the lovely and talented Peter Hughes), and who can complain about that?

Darnielle is a storyteller, and many of his stories are based on fact; I find myself spending a couple of hours on Wikipedia every time I get my hands on a Mountain Goats album1. I'm a big enough geek to find this educational process a big draw to the music. I wouldn't want to take the fact-finding process away from anyone, but I can tell you that there are a lot of interesting monsters in Heretic Pride, none of which are in "How to Embrace a Swamp Creature".

The Mountain Goats are touring, and you should see them. Tickets won't cost a lot, and he might sing Swedish pop songs from the early 90s!2

mp3: "How to Embrace a Swamp Creature" by the Mountain Goats, from Heretic Pride
mp3: "Golden Boy" by the Mountain Goats, from Ghana

1. I've managed to gather something around 25 albums and EPs – I told you he's prolific.
2. Mr. Darnielle doesn't usually look this much like Jimmy Eat World's Jim Adkins. But I sincerely hope that he dances like this for us next week at the Troub, even though it would probably make the universe collapse under the weight of his awesomeness.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

phylactery factory by white hinterland

There’s a moment in the film Juno, when titular character Juno MacGuff bends down, grabs a flower, and reflects, “I never realize how much I like being home unless I've been somewhere really different for awhile.” That world-weary optimism perfectly sums up White Hinterland’s newest offering, Phylactery Factory.

The newest project from singer songwriter Casey Dienel, Phylactery Factory (out 3/4/2008) is quite possibly the travelogue of a journey every twenty-something longs to take part in1. We’re reminded amidst our travels that, “They’ll give you the Hometown Hooray/when you come home baby.” The question remains unanswered, come home from what? From the myriad stories explored in jazzy slurs over Vince Guaraldi-style piano, the answer could be, home from almost anything.

In a conversation with Daytrotter, Casey admitted, "I don't write a lot of songs specifically about me." One can assume that the specifics don’t read straight from Casey’s diary; after all, most people in their early twenties haven’t been intimately acquainted with war and peace. But as any practiced day-dreamer or literary figure will tell you, desire and world exploration are universal themes. So much in fact, it’s hard to believe the ideological base of this album hasn’t been gestating in raggedy three-ringed notebooks since high school2.

In all, Phylactery Factory is a beautiful, comforting, winter-tinged album - or alternately, an album for someone who can only long for a physical winter. White Hinterland is the storyteller for the person who has only started to see it all, and in a brief pause stops to consider it, before springtime whisks her out into the world – and on to her next great adventure.

1. Perhaps I speak for myself here?
2. Surely I can’t be the only one slowly starting to make peace with an over-wrought treasure trove of emo poetry?

mp3: "Dreaming Of Plum Trees" by White Hinterland

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

wool by nick jaina

Faced with an extensive upcoming tour, and no funds, troubadour Nick Jaina took to the streets, busking to make the needed money. He succeeded, and will soon be preforming in a town near you. I love this story of blind optimism. Or, more correctly, I love blind optimism that pays off. I continue to believe that Johnny Depp may one day return my phone calls, yet this time, my optimism has come to naught.

The math, for those of you who are keeping score: Nick Jaina’s musical ability > my attempts to catch Sweeney Todd’s eye.

Nick Jaina's new album Wool, available on Hush Records clearly deserves higher praise than this. Soft, piano driven melodies dominate the disk, creating an anachronistic atmosphere - one where it seems possible to have apple seed stuck in my teeth/from which grew a beautiful tree. A world where, depending on the kindness of strangers, a person could actually come out ahead.

Songs cloaked in tactile imagery and woven with subtle musical mosaics, Nick leaves no stone, musical or literary, unturned. In short, this is gentle melancholic music for dreamers. Fans of Rufus Wainwright's musicality and Sufjan Stevens' storytelling beware: Wool may be difficult to turn off.

mp3: "Maryanne" by Nick Jaina

Sunday, February 24, 2008

in moonlit sound by we know, plato!

We Know, Plato! (complete with exclamation point) have a soft, piano-driven sound that reminds me of someone in that 60s Tin Pan Alley sort of tradition, but they make it their own, just different enough that I can never quite put my finger on who it is specifically they sound like. This Virginia-based band has recently released their debut EP, appropriately titled In Moonlit Sound. It's a collection of six songs full of strings and minor chords and melancholy that would probably be the perfect soundtrack for driving around in the snow on a quiet New England night. There's Beach Boysian harmonies and tender lyrics sung by sweet-voiced boys. "Enemy Spies" is the only place on the EP where they seem to really work for their exclamation point, rockin' the joint with a Who-inspired rhythm section, which is the perfect way to win this would-be hipster's heart. They also get brownie points for managing to work the word "palindrome" into the lyrics of "Hollow Bird", although I'm not sure there's any actual palindromes involved....

mp3: "Hollow Bird" by We Know, Plato!

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

moonbeams by throw me the statue

Last November, Throw Me the Statue surfed into my consciousness on the heels of Jens Lekman...which admittedly is one of the easiest ways to catch my attention. However, unlike many opening bands that briefly strike my fancy, they stuck around.

Throw Me the Statue’s debut Moonbeams won’t cure cancer (this honor is more likely to be reserved by Robert Smith produced material) but it will put a spring in your step. This is the album your little brother’s garage band wishes it could make –- hooky three-chord anthems about girls and loss, sung over Commodore 64 beats. What is that we're always being reminded of? Oh yeah. Hipsters don't dance. Beware the turning tides...

Best at their poppiest, TMTS's slower songs don’t always pack the same punch. This is a shame because one such number, the titular "Moonbeams," contains some of the album’s most thoughtful moments. Lead man Scott Reitherman recounts the story of a character visiting his dead father and learning from his personal history. On a slower album this song would hit a nerve, leaving me (predictably) a bit vaclemt. Here, the thoughtful aside just confuses. The music reminds you that life’s a day in the sun -- then the lyrics kick in and your dad dies? Oh sweetie....

Overall, Moonbeams holds up to the promises made by its first two singles, "About To Walk," and "Lolita." TMTS is a jangely, bouncy, handcrafted and neurosis-tinged musical outing. Honestly, who needs much more than that? In any other part of the world, this would be where I'd say something about how, despite it being February, they've managed to sneak in a bit of an early summer. But yeah...I live in LA. So to Scott and the rest of the gang at Baskerville Hill Records, I'll just whisper a thank you, sure to be lost in the breeze of my open car windows and stereo cranked up to eleven.

mp3: "About To Walk" by Throw Me The Statue

Sunday, February 17, 2008

about a son

In the interest of full disclosure: I am not a Nirvana fan. I sing along when presented with their songs –- as a person under the age of thirty, it is my duty to do so -- but I don’t own a copy of Nevermind. My music development went from Bob Dylan, to Robert Smith, to mid-career Beck and onward. Somehow I missed the early nineties. Sorry, I was seven when Bleach was released.

I am, however, utterly fascinated with the cult surrounding Kurt Cobain. As someone who's passive-aggressively researched his life while simultaneously dodging all but Nirvana’s most radio friendly singles, the new documentary About a Son fascinated me to no end.

Chances are this documentary won't recruit new devotees. But the novelty of hearing the story of Kurt Cobain’s rise and fall straight from the horse’s mouth adds an undeniably intimate dimension to his iconic, overly romanticized journey -- one that even the casual fan will find fascinating. This is not the story of a band; the music is only mentioned in passing as background information, all the better to frame its creator. One thing that struck me time and time again is how truly normal he was: an idyllic childhood, marred by the rising trend of divorce, a love of art and music, hatred for gym class; this could just as easily be my story. Being an non-fan I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting. Is it possible drink the Kool-Aid by proxy?

Anyone watching this documentary will undoubtedly know that Kurt Cobain’s story is ultimately a tragedy. The knowledge of his untimely end adds an even sadder glow to many of the more painfully aspects of his life: his certainty that he would never take the easy way out of being a father, his insistence that his dabbling in drugs was okay –- since he used it for pain control and got out before it ruined him like the other junkies he knew. At one point Courtney’s voice chimes in, reminding him to make a bottle for the baby. These sporadic touches of normalcy offset a perverse truth: he could have just as easily retreated into quasi-normalcy.

Film composed of audiotapes, the story plays out over footage from Kurt’s hometowns and favorite haunts. However, the problem with a running stream of images is that the human brain tries to bring too much order and meaning. While some reflected the narrative –- Kurt explaining going to work with his father over shots of a lumberyard, images of people on the street while he pondered the universal nature of his upbringing -- these I get. Others felt more like a pretentious attempt to fill space. What meaning are we supposed to extract from images of a janitorial closet while Kurt talks about meeting Dave (Grohl)? Is this a message to the "true" fans? Am I missing something? Direct shots of the singer's face are saved for the end –- after captions explain his death. At this point, straight forward images of the man we've been exploring for the last 90 minutes almost feel like an afterthought. What’s the point of seeing Kurt Cobain’s face when we’ve been given the closest equivalent of a look into his soul?

Friday, February 15, 2008

the breakups and i make this sound @ the echo

Dear Breakups,

No really, why is your pop powerless? I mean, I’ve been listening to your lovely new EP while jogging…am I doing it wrong? Help us sleep at night, let us in on the secrets of your musical classification system. We promise to do our best to spread the news of the "powerless pop", thus doing our part for the betterment of society at large. The world is been suffering a dangerous dearth information on this topic. We patiently await the inevitable manifesto.

Love, LMS & The Would-Be Hipsters.

Linguistic conundrums aside, Wednesday night's joint EP release party, featuring the perky "powerless pop" of The Breakups and the soring (pop) soundscapes of I Make This Sound -- if I may pull out my big fancy blogger descriptions -- totally rocked.

The first of the two headliners, The Breakups, clearly decided to kick off the Valentine's day festivities a few hours early. Band taking the heart decked stage clad in heart adorned formal wear, the whole performance was clearly set-up to be a love fest in the making -- aspiration which, judging by the enthusiastically cheering crowd, wasn't too much to hope for. Overall, the set was tight, self-assured, and a blast-- in short, an unsigned band likely to become every blogger's dream.

After the Breakups' shiny set, I Make This Sound played, an event which was even more fun than their undeniably infectious EP would suggest1. While their sweeping pop made me feel like I was in my own epic film, the sheer number of happy people on stage made me feel like I was at a quasi-retro dance party2. If the dark-tinged pop and frolicking percussion session wasn't enough, I Make This Sound invited several members from the Breakups on stage to sing with them for several songs3. Again with the overly eloquent descriptions: I found this band mash-up totally cool.

So now that the EPs have been pushed from the bands' respective nests into the world, what's next for The Breakups and I Make This Sound? Judging by the polished performances that not only met, but exceed all promises made by their recorded materials...anything they want.

1. That's right it's been upgraded to "infectious." After waking up for the past three days with"One, Two, Three!" happily lodged in my brain, I felt it needed to be said.
2. I'm usually the girl with her arms self-consciously crossed around her - but I promise you I'm all Elaine Benes on the inside.
3. There's peanut butter in my chocolate! There's chocolate in my peanut butter!

(photo credit: David Studarus)
(Make-up: Kelly Kuhn)

mp3: "After The Fact" by the Breakups
mp3: "Macaroni Art, For You" by I Make This Sound

Thursday, February 14, 2008

valentine's day, counter post

Esteemed blog-mate LMS' post is all well and good, but the truth is that you only need one song.

mp3: "The Love War" by the Dismemberment Plan

valentine's day

Valentine’s Day. Singles’ Awareness Day. Thursday. Whatever you call it, it’s upon us. What better excuse to pop in an eclectic, admittedly downtrodden mix, go for the mani-pedi double hitter, eat copious amounts of chocolate, and watch Annie Hall for the hundredth time?

And with that, dear reader1, the mystery in our relationship is officially gone.


1. And apparently, judging by word choice, said mystery has been replaced with sheer pretension.

mp3: "Power Of Love (Céline Dion)" by Final Fantasy
mp3: "My Funny Valentine (live)" by Rufus Wainwright
mp3: "Kathy In Her Bedroom (demo)" by The Bedroom Walls
mp3: "I'm Leaving You Because I Don't Love You (remix)" by Jens Lekman
mp3: "Don't Forget (Live on the White Sessions)" by Martha Wainwright
mp3: "Valentine's Day " by Hello Saferide
mp3: "This One Goes Out To The One I Love (live)" by Sufjan Stevens
mp3: "I Will Follow You Into The Dark (Death Cab For Cutie) " by Amanda Palmer
mp3: "Such Great Heights (Postal Service)" by Ben Gibbard

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

daddy's little girl

Today marks the third anniversary of my father's passing. And since he was the person who taught me to love music, I thought it might be appropriate to post some songs. They are not hip. At all. Which is why they are awesome.

My earliest childhood memories involve my father at the piano playing Joplin (Scott, not Janis; she came later) and me dancing like only a three-year-old can. When I was a teenager, it was all about the classic rock – us discussing how thoroughly Stephen Stills beats Neil Young's guitar-playing butt in their duel of a song "Bluebird"; "American Pie" sing-a-longs every Friday night when friends and family would come over for pizza; him wailing, "The more I think about it, old Billy was right / Let's kill all the lawyers, kill 'em tonight" along with Don Henley with so much venom no one would believe he'd never been involved in a lawsuit; telling stories of dropping acid on the way to a Tubes concert in the 70s and having it kick in on the 405 halfway to the venue; watching a slew of age-inappropriate movies like Tommy and Woodstock and Harold & Maude.

Needless to say, mine was not a normal childhood. And to think, you haven't even heard about my father's spaghetti ice cream or the Shaving Cream Conundrum yet....

mp3: "Maple Leaf Rag" by Scott Joplin (performed by Bryan Wright)
mp3: "Bluebird" by Buffalo Springfield
mp3: "American Pie (live)" by Don McLean
mp3: "Get Over It (live)" by the Eagles
mp3: "What Do You Want from Life (live)" by the Tubes
mp3: "Eyesight to the Blind (live)" by the Who from Tommy
mp3: "You've Got a Friend (live)" by Carole King

Monday, February 11, 2008

staring at yourself by i make this sound

After spending the day at one of Los Angeles’ fine film studios, it occurred to me – not for the first time – how hard it is to differentiate where the studios end and the smog-covered reality of Hollywood begins. Then again, reality is overrated. Reality involves over-due credit card payments, and rent, and unreturned phone calls. I’m more concerned with interesting diversions.

Thankfully, fellow Los Angelinos I Make This Sound have unveiled their new daydream soundtrack, the aptly named EP, Staring at Myself1. Escapists at heart, on their newest offering, the ambitious seven-piece dances around myriad genres, all connected by an emotional and lyrical theme. The result is essentially a band-made mix tape – one that I chose to believe was made solely for my benefit2.

The EP is comprised of 5 songs. Fans of While Whale will recognize – and no doubt appreciate – the narrative structure of I Make This Sound’s epic adventure song “The King and Queen.” Pop-philes will appreciate the bouncy guy/girl harmonies of “One, Two, Three!” Even Nebraska-based band Tilly and the Wall are vaguely recalled in the sonically crowded “I Could Never Know.” And for the jaded Silverlake “actual” hipster set? Well don’t worry...nothing gets too happy. Even the most chipper of us have to drive down dirty Hollywood Blvd. sooner or later, and amidst its epic ambitions this album has a fair dose of that gritty reality stirred in. In short – it’s a mixed bag, one that may take you a listen or two to “get,” but one well worth the listen.

So the big question is: What are you doing Febuary 13th? Kick Valentines off early, and join the cool kids (, Would-Be Hipsters) at the Echo for the Staring At Yourself release party.

1. There’s a Yoda quote hiding in here somewhere, I think.
2. Attached to this album, it’s not simply driving down the 405, it’s sailing my pirate ship towards a new future. I many need help....

mp3: "One, Two, Three!" by I Make This Sound

Monday, February 4, 2008

this american life: now with moving pictures! OR... why ira glass is a rock star.

Ira Glass is easily my favorite non-musical celebrity1. Maybe it's the geek chic glasses…or the fact he's the ringmaster for the world's best reason to get up before noon on a Saturday – This American Life2. Despite being turned down for an internship (what, me bitter?) my love for this show is such it would take interpretive dance to truly express it. Don't tempt me.

Not being blessed with cable, the DVD release of This American Life, Season One was a major event – albeit one fraught with concern. My Saturday mornings consist of rolling out of bed at 9:55, making a cup of tea, pulling a beanbag chair up to the radio – where I proceed to sit and stare at its dust coated top for the next hour. Can you – short of dusting – improve on this ritual?

The genius of This American Life on DVD is they didn't try to improve on the ritual. Rather than try to stage their brilliant stories against - quelle horreur - reenactments, they chose a visual pallet as varied as their sources, allowing images to speak just as much as straight forward interviews and documentary footage.

Plus, from my years of film school I can definitively say, and I do believe this is the technical term, it looks "really really pretty."

One of the most interesting aspects of This American Life is how I often find myself caring about subjects and people I've never really considered. At first viewing, the season's opening story about a rancher and his relationship with his cloned cow (Chance 2) seemed almost comical. Until I started considering the deeper implications. How many times have I tried to bend a situation into something I felt more comfortable, more familiar with? How many times have I, quite simply, refused to move on, lest I be forced to give up on something? When viewed though the lens of larger themes, the rancher and his bull actually made me tear up.

If I had to choose one source of dissatisfaction, it would be the strange season ending, which amounted to little more than screaming at an all night hot dog stand in Chicago. The hypothesis that this restaurant was somehow different than the ones that use rude waiters as a gimmick, seemed at best, pedestrian. As anyone who's worked in the service industry can tell you, even authorized snarkiness has some basis in truth, even if it's over something less obvious than skin color. The only difference between the faux-rude waiter, the screaming mother of two at the hot dog stand, and the wordless waiter at your local family restaurant is the former two aren't being paid to hide their distaste. The story never investigates this side of the story, and the promised, well-thought-out peephole into Chicago's two self-segregated populations never materialized. If time or situation didn't allow for an in-depth investigation, then why broach the subject at all? Here's hoping it's really a narrative bridge to season two.

If you love This American Life as much as I do3, be sure to head over to their website and tell them you'll support their plan to stream a sneak preview of season two into theaters. Join me! I'll be the girl with the Ira Glass is a Rock Star tee-shirt, and the large bucket of pop corn. Don't worry. I'll share.

1. This could be a lie - as Ira has famously burst into song on several occasions. See Mp3s.
2. Tough call.
3. Read: you express your love though interpretive dance, but only in the privacy of your own home.

mp3: "I'm Wishing" by Ira Glass
mp3: "California" by Ira Glass and Mates Of State