Saturday, June 28, 2008

hercules and love affair by hercules and love affair

Admittedly, there's not much left to say about Brooklyn-based blogger-darling Hercules and Love Affair. Released as an overpriced import before seeing its debut on home turf (don't get me started), it's become ubiquitous among the real that it's trickled down to us, the backlash has probably begun. This is the segue to a completely non-related rant about imports vs. domestic releases, a rant that I'll spare you (yet again) other than to ask why, in a globally networked world where I can buy this, must I wait forever for my favorite foreign (or in the case of HaLA, local) band to decide how and if they want to release their work in my country?

I digress.

Let's start with the given: Hercules and Love Affair is good. I always feel a bit cheesetastic when attempting to write about electronica, but the beats and even the actually cheesy "classical synth sounds" that permeate the album make me run faster at the gym, thus leading me to assume that if I were ever to stumble my way into an actual dance club, I'd end up in the corner doing jumping jacks and push ups for the majority of the evening. Again, this is a good album. However, this may not be all mastermind Andrew Butler's doing -- which, for the record, has its own glitchy, repetitive charm.

Although blessed with surprisingly seamless musical transitions, what really stands out and are ultimately the tracks I find myself returning to are those headed by Antony and the Johnsons front man Antony Hegarty. Heartbreaking with his own band, here Antony's over-sized androgynous voice brings a dose of painful reality, a reminder that sooner or later the house lights will have to come up, delivered in a tone not unlike a less creepy Klaus Nomi1. This man's musical sincerity could sell ice to an Eskimo, or in my case, heartbreak to a girl already strapped with emotional baggage. It is his contributions that elevate Hercules and Love Affair from a straightforward tribute to a bygone white polyester-suited era to a glimpse into the life of those who inhabited it.

1. I could never get around the face's a clown thing.

mp3: "Hercules Theme" by Hercules and Love Affair

Thursday, June 26, 2008

summer palace by sunny day sets fire

There’s a certain art to finding a new favorite band. As an audiophile I suffer from the High Fidelity syndrome. In the end, nothing escapes meaning. I’ve never pulled a Bridget Jones and powered though a pint of Ben and Jerry's on a stress related binge. No, as an elevated, musically enlightened human being, I make playlists, I chronicle my life in a diary of mixed CDs. The easiest way to become my favorite band is to release a CD during a particularly tumultuous time. (Did I mention I'm a masochist? Oh noes!) Failing this, you better sound darn good while driving around with my windows rolled down, volume cranked up to eleven. I'm fairly happy at the moment so I guess the first option is out. Lucky for Sunny Day Sets Fire the rattles, hooks and hums on their new album (out now on iTunes and emusic, available everywhere July 8th) Summer Palace are particularly affecting when matched with the shrieks, squeals, and cursing of Santa Monica Boulevard.

With my fashion sense, a film noir could easily be shot in my closet. However, I like my pop infused with a breath of sunshine (which you already knew), even if under said sunshine I'm sweltering unattractively in my twelve shades of black. Summer Palace's good-time vibe fits in just north of the Flaming Lips' smooth, message-driven psychedelic rock on At War With The Mystics, but just south of Architecture in Helsinki's party time chaos on Places Like This. It's controlled, calculated insanity sprinkled with a layer of sugar. Can you control insanity? Would you want to? Oh my. My teeth hurt.

More reason to like them? They embody the sort of highbrow multicultural cute that with all of my travels I've yet to achieve. With members hailing from the UK, China, Italy, and Canada there's something, either in person or influence, for everyone. Hooky pop for the geekster hiding her easily burned pale skin, under dark layers? Check. Consummate multi-instrumentalists for those who enjoy their live music switched up Belle and Sebastian style? Yup. Playful lyrics rendered in a series of mild to heavy accents...thus assuring a breezy, multi-ethnic sex appeal? By golly I think we have an indie-rock trifecta! Squeel. Now if you pardon me, I'm going to put my iTunes on and bounce around like a sugar buzzed toddler for a bit.

(photo sunny day sets fire: David Studarus)

mp3: "Brainless" by Sunny Day Sets Fire

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

death cab for cutie @ the nokia theatre

There's an old concert-going saying: It doesn't matter if you're in a 7,000-seat venue, as long as everyone else is behind you. Truer words were never spoken. On Monday night LMS and I braved the terrifying depths of downtown Los Angeles (where it is possible to pay as much for parking as you paid for your ticket) to see Death Cab for Cutie. I'd never been to the Nokia Theatre before, and gazing outward from the pit, the ambience reminded me vaguely of the Space Mountain ride at Disneyland. Only Aerosmith wasn't playing.

Instead, Rogue Wave opened, and were very good. I like it when opening bands are good. They played an energetic eight-song set spanning all three of their full length albums, ending with a completely epic performance of "Harmonium," the opener of last year's Asleep At Heaven's Gate. I was actually a little sad to see them leave the stage, which says something, considering how much I'd been anticipating the band that was to follow them. (A lot.)

Displaying a flair for the dramatic that I've never been able to resist, Death Cab launched into their set with "Bixby Canyon Bridge" and segued almost seamlessly into "The New Year". From there, it was a bouncy ride through their six-album discography, with emphasis on Narrow Stairs but also including back-to-back performances of "Company Calls" and "Company Calls Epilogue" from We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes and, obligatorily, the anti-L.A. anthem "Why You'd Want to Live Here". I also feel the need to point out that they played "Long Division," but not "Your New Twin Sized Bed".1

If I have any grievances, it's that the band hardly paused between songs to catch their breath, let alone amuse us with stupid banter. Stupid banter is one of the primary reasons that I go to shows (and it's not like Death Cab doesn't have a sense of humor). And maybe this is inevitable by the time you've seen a band three or four times, but nothing in the set seemed very novel or exciting...until the encore. All my petty complaints were forgotten during the encore. They played "Wait". For the uninitiated and/or non-completists and/or people who are saner than me, that's the Secret Stars cover on You Can Play These Songs With Chords, which they also played earlier in the day on KCRW's Morning Becomes Eclectic. It made my night.

1I have this theory about the new album, which is that there are people who like "Long Divison," and there are people who like "Your New Twin Sized Bed," and they do not overlap. At all. I'm a "Long Division" person; LMS is a "Twin Sized Bed" person. But we're still friends.
Note from LMS: True. But I think I might have had a conversion experience.

mp3: "Marching Bands of Manhattan (Live)" by Death Cab for Cutie
mp3: "Title and Registration (Original)" by Death Cab for Cutie
mp3: "Like I Needed" by Rogue Wave

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

a study of wolf culture in modern music

Written and reposted with kind permission of guest hipster RJW:

I write for the alt-weekly paper in St. Louis, and I was recently assigned a small blurb on the band Wolf Eyes. Wolf Eyes is a noise band from Ann Arbor, Michigan whose musical output resembles what I imagine a timber wolf attack would sound like. I found that not all wolf bands are as sonically literal as Wolf Eyes. For example, Wolf Parade doesn’t necessarily sound like a parade of wolves. They sound like an indie pop band from Montreal, because that is what they are. Spazz-rock band Aids Wolf is also from Montreal, so we can assume that at some point somebody in Quebec didn’t wear a wolf condom. Perhaps the most comprehensively named band in the Montreal wolf-rock genre is electro-rock group “We Are Wolves.” Quebec apparently can’t escape the wolf; the J Geils Band released a “Live In Montreal 1968” album with Peter Wolf on vocals. Peter Wolf hails from Worcester, Massachusettes, but Peter and The Wolf is a band from Austin, Texas. Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev composed a piece called “Peter and The Wolf” in 1936, and novelty artist “Weird Al” Yankovich released an album parodying the composition in 1988. Peter Paul and Mary never covered the piece, but they played a venue called the Wolf Trap in August of 2007.

There are five metal bands simply called Wolf, none of which hail from the United States. One of the five Wolf metal bands is a speed metal band from Japan, also home of surf rock group Guitar Wolf. Two of the five Wolf metal bands are considered to be NWOBHM, which apparently means “New Wave Of British Heavy Metal”. One of these British Wolf metal bands used to be called “Black Axe”, which is awesome. Wolves In The Throne Room is not British (they are from Olympia, Washington, home of K Records artist Wolf Colonel), but they are metal. Also not British: Polish black metal band Werewolf. Radiohead is not metal, but they are British, and they released a song called “A Wolf At The Door” in 2003. Also British and not metal: singer/songwriter Patrick Wolf. Patrick Wolf lives in London, which apparently has a history of problems with American werewolves.

Wolfmother is an ironic rock revivalist band from Australia. If Wolfmother was better, they might sound like Greensboro, North Carolina stoner rock band Tiger Bear Wolf. If you use Bear Vs. Shark as an intermediary animal band, Tiger Bear Wolf is only 2 degrees away from their Athens, GA Hello Sir Records labelmates We Versus The Shark, an indie-band-that-thinks-it’s-a-metal-band who recently released a song entitled “Keep It Wolf”. The song is a reference to their bassist’s extreme facial hair, which, if groomed properly, would be similar to that of select members of TV On The Radio, whose most popular song is “Wolf Like Me.” Hip hop artist Kayne West is an admitted fan of TV On The Radio and in his song “Good Morning (intro)” West makes a references to the Delorean time machine from “Back To The Future”, starring Michael J Fox. Fox also appeared in the film “Teen Wolf”. In addition to rapping, Kayne West is a famed hip hop producer (much like San Jose’s Peanut Butter Wolf), who got his break by making beats for Jay-Z. Jay-Z is noted as popularizing the gesture of brushing one’s shoulder off. Barack Obama once made this gesture in reference to not being threatened by Hillary Clinton, which was a point of discussion on an episode of CNN’s “The Situation Room” hosted by Wolf Blitzer.

Brooklyn pop band White Rabbits are named after a cuddly animal that wolves generally prey on, but over half of the group used to be in The Texas Chainsaw Mass Choir, a sassy punk band whose calling card was the song “There’s No I in Werewolves”. The chorus of this song contained the phrase “You’re one of us now, a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” This may or may not have been inspired by “A Wolf In Wolf’s Clothing” by NOFX, but it most likely was not.

Sea Wolf is an indie pop band from Los Angeles that gets extra wolf points for the track “You’re A Wolf”. Los Angeles is also home to a band called The Wolf, whose schtick is covering their guitars in raw meat and eating them. This also gives them wolf points, since wolves don’t cook.

(photo gray wolf: Joel Sartore)

mp3: "Wolf Like Me" by TV on the Radio
mp3: "You're a Wolf" by Sea Wolf

Friday, June 20, 2008

martha wainwright @ the troubadour

Just assume that when you read the name Wainwright in the pages of our blog that what will follow will be a review filled with big superlative phrases and giddy declarations, all tinged with slightly less than veiled envy. This is true be it Rufus or Martha. No really, why can't I be the heir of such a robust, witty, and brutally honest family dynasty? Of course directly after Thursday night's show, I came very close to running over Loudon (a.k.a. Papa Wainwright) out on Santa Monica chances are I'm probably not in line for an invite to the next family Thanksgiving. C'est la vie.

On the tail of her killer sophomore release, Martha's ramped up her touring schedule. A good decision and not just because I perpetually manage to miss her performances. I remember very little of the last time I saw her, three years ago. Jet lagged to the point of incoherency (me, not her), much was lost in translation. This time, eyes open, internal clock intact, I can definitively say that while I like her work on CD (there are precious other artists I enjoy scream-singing to more during rush hour on the 405) performing live she kicks all manner of backside, so much so in fact, that she quickly seems to be outgrowing smaller venues like the Would-be Hipsters' beloved Troubadour.

Part of Martha's undeniable charm comes from her breezy, off the cuff, honest to a fault stage presence. From taking complements on her outrageous shoes (of which I spent part of the show calculating how to steal...despite the fact stiletto platforms would lead to a broken ankle) to complaining about how fat she was (if her performance-toned frame is fat, what does that make me?) to her musically tight songs1, everything was executed with the grace of a seasoned stage performer -- one with very little filter between her thoughts and work.

Of course what would a Wainwright concert be without the family in tow, this time in the form of Papa Wainwright, who joined Martha onstage for a call and answer duet version of his song "You Never Phone." (A subtle reminder for her to check in occasionally? Heck, when was the last time I called my own father?)

Martha's songwriting is growing increasingly stronger, but vocally she's already one of the best in the business, as proved with set closers "Dis-Quand Reviendras Tu?" and "Stormy Weather," the latter of which she thanked Rufus for allowing her to sing at the Judy Garland tribute shows, before blushing and admitting she felt a bit like a washed-up Vegas singer reliving her glory days. "Stormy Weather" raised goosebumps all over my arms, "Dis-Quand Reviendras Tu," like all things francophone, made me swoon. Martha don't get too nostalgic just yet -- you're not fat, and you're certainly not old! Judging by the night's performance there's still many more career highlights to come.

Also present was the lovely in her own right opener, LA based singer-songwriter Jesca Hoop. I feel that it's important to note that while she was once a survivalist, I have a panic attack if I go more than two hours without checking my e-mail. No one has ever accused me of being hard core. Riding high on well-earned notoriety with the KCRW set, she set the bar high early in the evening. Material from her ridiculously strong debut album Kismet is, if I might reuse the phrase, ridiculously strong live. Deceptively simple, plucked melodies serve as beds for her larger than life voice augmented with her equally strong backup singers. It's an audacious attempt at originality that pays huge, melodic dividends. Halfway through her set, giving her backup singers a well deserved rest and dancing across genres from folk to swing, Jesca enlisted the help of the tweer-than-thou Ditty Bops for a Boswell Sisters' cover. The result of this collaboration could only be described as disgustingly, disarmingly cute. You can quote me on that.

1. I was especially impressed after seeing her at Amoeba the next day where she preformed a handful of songs from her set the night before, giving each one a fresh vocal take.

(photo martha wainwright: carl lessard)
(photo jesca hoop: frank ockenfel)

mp3: "Don't Forget (live on White Sessions)" by Martha Wainwright
mp3: "G.P.T. (live on KCRW)" by Martha Wainwright

Monday, June 16, 2008

at mount zoomer by wolf parade

Albums like Wolf Parade's 2005 debut Apologies to the Queen Mary don't happen every day. I know this, because there aren't very many albums I own on which I have a five-way tie for my favorite song, or that Pitchfork gave a 9.2. Who knew that either of us even knew how to count that high? Such an album would be difficult enough to follow even if it weren't for the fact that co-frontmen Dan Boeckner and Spencer Krug also spent the interim three years dabbling in high-quality "side" projects (Boeckner with Handsome Furs, Krug most prominently with Sunset Rubdown).

So anticipation levels were high, and luckily, At Mount Zoomer (out tomorrow on Sub Pop) is far from being a catastrophic disappointment -- though it is a bit of a departure. Whereas the brilliance of Apologies lay for me in its compact density (three-and-a-half minute pop songs with lighthearted lines like god doesn't always have the best goddamn plans, does he?), Zoomer meanders and sprawls. The production is correspondingly less crisp and more fuzzy, in an effectively distorted sort of way.

Some things do remain constant. The lyrics lean heavily toward the abstract, leaving plenty of room for interpretation on most of the songs. Reoccurring themes include a preoccupation with places, beginning with the album's very first line (in my head there's a city at night...) and exemplified in the album's title, the name of the studio where it was recorded. A dissatisfaction with urbanization pervades. There are also several reflexive references to music in "California Dreamer," "Bang Your Drum," "Fine Young Cannibals," and my favorite, in "The Grey Estates" (which also voices some of that aforementioned dissatisfaction): Strike up the band as the ship goes down / and if it's loud enough, they will erase the sound / of one hundred thousand sad inventions... Heavy at times, maybe, but as indecipherable as both Krug and Boeckner's voices are capable of being, you don't have to pay attention if you don't want to.

Then there's "Kissing the Beehive," the eleven-minute closer, which basically takes everything that's good about the first eight songs and wraps it into one epic mass of over-the-top prog rock duet gloriousness, replete with captains and holy grails and a refrain of fire in the hole! which finds Krug doing what I most love to listen to him doing...singing nonsense. What more could you possibly ask for? In fact, it's really the only reason you need to go out and buy this album tomorrow. Trust me.

mp3: "California Dreamer" by Wolf Parade, from At Mount Zoomer
mp3: "Modern World" by Wolf Parade, from Apologies to the Queen Mary

Sunday, June 15, 2008

covers: part two

Part two of the covers series! This time: Songs You Didn't Know Were This Beautiful (or, Are You Sure the Record is on the Right Speed?)

I like depressing music. If it's slow and in A minor, it's probably in my regular rotation. So when people take raucous songs and slow them down, I'm all over it. "Thriller" as a ballad? "My Humps" as a dirge? Yay!

mp3: "Thriller" – originally by Michael Jackson, covered by Ben Gibbard
mp3: "Float On" – originally by Modest Mouse, covered by Ben Lee
mp3: "Cry Me a River" – originally by Justin Timberlake, covered by the New Amsterdams
mp3: "My Humps" – originally by the Black Eyed Peas (?), covered by Alanis Morrisette

Friday, June 13, 2008

fire songs by the watson twins

Los Angeles can in no way be classified as warm and fuzzy. More like cynical and lizard-like -- of course, like every good Los Angeleno, I tend to, at times, be a bit harsh on my home town. Thankfully, we have transplants like Kentucky-born Watson Twins to lend us a bit of class. While publicly visible -- after all, what good indie kid hasn't heard Jenny Lewis' solo album? -- it's only now we get a proper introduction with the sisters' label debut, Fire Songs (out June 24th).

Fire Songs proves that The Watson Twins will have a career far beyond their high profile collaborations. Both more musically (hello electric guitars!) and thematically varied than Jenny Lewis' Rabbit Fur Coat, The Watson Twins create a world that's at times wistful ("Fall," "Only You"), downtrodden ("Bar Woman Blues," "Only You") or, alternately, rooted in sweet daydream ("Just Like Heaven," "How Am I to Be"). While the sound is based far south of Silverlake, the themes are universal: loneliness, love, longing, and the ever present death.

While I'd prefer to hear the the ladies in a bit less of a over-produced setting (don't worry, I felt just dirty writing that as you did reading it), their gentile (dare I go pun crazy and say "southern?") manners and beautiful voices save Fire Songs from being just another anonymous, banking and shopping soundtrack1. Their sweetness doesn't indicate a denial of pain, but rather, when combined with their world-weary lyrics, indicates the ability to see past life's indignities. If only we could all handle our issues with the same dignity and grace2.

Introduced early on in life to 80s new wave, I find myself simultaneously biased and judgmental about the era. However, I was easily and completely won over with the album's highlight, the Watson's Cure cover "Just Like Heaven." Note: This is not blanket praise. Years ago, 311 covered "Love Song," a fact which still leaves cold shivers down my spine. But Leigh and Chandra know better than to attempt to emulate Robert Smith's makeup-caked wail. Instead their slow, gentle, harmonica-drenched take at the song plays like the perfect counterpoint to the original material's stark treatment of reality, treating the listener to a delicious mid-summer, sun-drenched day dream oasis.

1. Although promotional materials indicate you may be hearing it on certain airlines this summer...given my nature to tense up while flying I'll take all the musical comfort I can get.
2. Take note, man who flipped me off on the freeway.

(photo watson twins: Pamela Littky)

mp3: "How Am I To Be" by The Watson Twins
mp3: "Darlin' Song" by The Watson Twins (originally on the Southern Manners EP)

Thursday, June 12, 2008

more mini-reviews

ako did it...why can't I? I'll try not to injure myself upholding the high standard she set with the first set of mini-reviews.

Stuff I dig...

verbs by au

A few years ago, I lived in a building where every Saturday my downstairs neighbour would throw a small, genteel, yet vocal party, capping off around two a.m. with a Grease singalong. Despite my best efforts, I never did manage to catch him in the hall, and to this day I have no clue what he looks like. However, I'd like to believe he was Au lead man Luke Wyland, practicing for what would later become Verbs (out now on emusic). Warm, sweet, and perfect ambient working music, you don't have to go to the party to have a good time.

mp3: "rr vs. d" by Au

jesus walk with me
by club 8

Club 8 makes me feel gooey. Blame the Labrador effect. So, needless to say, anything - even a bread crumb of an EP - is more than welcome. Hi. Nice to meet you, I've officially outed myself as a twee-junky. Jesus Walk With Me is a sweet, albeit brief exploration of what is, quite possibly, Club 8's most beautiful and heart wrenching work to date. In addition to the titular track and two equally note-worthy b-sides are two remixes. The Sound of Arrows' effort proves there's a right and a wrong way to remix a track...thankfully opting for the former. Their re-envisioning transforms the originally spartan track into a gorgeous detuned mediation. And the Swedish indie pop cycle of addiction continues....

mp3: "
Jesus Walk With Me (Sound of Arrows Remix)" by Club 8

verve Remixed 4 by various artists

This is amazing. I'll even go so far as to say this album is "made of awesome." I must be going soft in my old age, giving up my previously staunch objection to remixes. Of course, growing up I was the first chair clarinet in our county's youth jazz band -- so the die was cast from an early age for me to fall for this kind of remix project. Rather than flaunt their electronic prowess, the remixers (including my cat's favorite Psapp) incorporate their visions seamlessly into the preexisting material. Thus a few of my favorite crooners - Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sarah Vaughan - come off not as digital ghosts, but rather as larger than life...just like they do in my cabret-addled mind.

mp3: "Cry Me A River" by Dinah Washington

when you are engulfed in flames by
david sedaris

David Sedaris is not a rock star. Well, at least not musically. But after waiting for this book since the beginning of the year with a fervor usually reserved for those with the last name of Lekman or Stevens, its June 3rd release was nothing short of an event, musical or otherwise. Despite my initial euphoria, punctuated with intermittent dizzying bouts of anticipation, I have to admit a certain amount of disappointment with the whole affair. Oh I may waffle, cling to my ideals and my beliefs in social mores with a twenty-something's wet soap bar grasp on life, but I do have one long standing unshakable belief -- I don't do parasites or bodily functions. Despite all the changes brought into my life thoughout the years, I've never been one to cock my head, rearrange my beret at a jaunty angle and declare, "Hey, why don't we lance that boil!" Especially while eating lunch. But along with the occasional icky lows, as always well-rendered in Sedaris' trademark grace in self-deprecation, there are certain, redeemable highs. Readers who persevere(or turn directly to the end) will be well rewarded for coming along on with the final, "Santaland Diaries"-worthy essay, "Smoking Room," where Sedaris decides to quit smoking by -- what else? -- going to Japan.

mp3: "Santaland Diaries" by David Sedaris

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

a thousand shark's teeth by my brightest diamond

I’m just going to throw this one out there: Sufjan Stevens is a gateway drug. It’s true. Mothers, you may think it’s cute watching your child pour though the liner notes of kitschily-named albums paying homage to various Midwestern states...but it’s a slippery slope from the appreciation of a glockenspiel and oboe duet to an all out Asthmatic Kitty addiction.

You’ve been warned.

My Brightest Diamond's (nee Shara Worden) sophomore album, A Thousand Sharks Teeth (out June 17th), is the latest weapon in the Asthmatic Kitty war on radio friendly apathy. Although it's more Clear Channel's loss than hers1 -- this album is absolutely beautiful. Again, Shara clearly asserts herself as one of the best voices in the music industry: an edgier, less American Idol-friendly chanteuse you can still bring home to your mother. Gothic in the traditional sense, behind her classically trained voice there's the spires and arches of a million cathedrals.

Instrumentally, the songs on A Thousand Shark's Teeth are more layered and haunting than her 2006 debut, Bring Me the Work Horse. Rather than the straight forward orchestral pop of her debut, this collection is more ambitious and experimental. The scope has been significantly widened, and for the most part successfully so. Songs like "Like a Sieve" are more atmosphere than song, as Shara's voice floating above a delicate percussion track. In the French-influenced track "Black & Costaud," her voice becomes another instrument, as the distant bilingual muttering and wailing is occasionally overwhelmed with sinister Danny Elfman-like scoring, an effect that is equal parts enticing and chilling.

In the midst of such overwhelming musicality, it's difficult, almost overwhelming, to pick out lyrics. When discernible, they cover a spectrum previously explored in Bring Me The Work Horse. The world is a dark and terrifying place yes lovers leave violently and suddenly ("To Pluto's Moon"), but there are touches of magical realism, tickling like a thousand shark's teeth ("Good By Forever"). However mundane or surreal the topic, Shara has proven she's got the staying power to explore similar themes for many albums to come. Hey, it seems to be working for Sufjan.

Live, My Brightest Diamond (Shara and friends) are not to be missed. Watch out for them on tour now and throughout the summer.

1. I majored in film...not finance.

(photo my brightest diamond: Julien Bourgeois)

mp3: "Inside a Boy" by My Brightest Diamond

Thursday, June 5, 2008

i know you're married but i've got feelings too by martha wainwright

Sometimes it’s tough being a little sister. It’s a delicate balance, one where you find yourself thankful that certain doors have already been kicked open, yet terrified in wondering if you stand even the slightest chance of exceeding your genes and performing a truly original act. Having a brother who is made of awesome helps. It’s true. Even so, there's things you've gotta figure out for yourself.

With her sophomore album I Know You’re Married But I’ve Got Feelings Too (June 10th), it's clear that Martha Wainwright is starting to figure out those small complexities of life as a little sister, emphatically proving once again that she's more than a product of good musical genes (even if those genes, in the form of the infamous Wainwright gams, are prominently displayed front and center on the cover).

Musically, Martha's easily the most accessible of the Wainwright clan, her talent for simple yet catchy choruses never stronger than the "G.P.T."-reminiscent “You Cheated on Me” and subtle hooks on "In the Middle of the Night." This is radio friendly (in a good way!) Leonard Cohen folk-pop. If they played Martha on stations other than my beloved KCRW, I might actually be forced to dust my increasingly antiquated speakers. Yes, that is a challenge. For you dear Martha, I'll gladly buy a new pack of Swifter Dusters.

While instrumentally ready for radio, I Know You're Married But I've Got Feelings Too far exceeds the linguistic range of a traditional pop album, easily containing a picaresque novel worth of narratives and stories. As fans of the ear catching, eyebrow raising confessional track "B.M.F.A." will tell you, the only thing bigger than Martha's opera-ready howl is her capability for emotional intensity. I Know You're Married But I've Got Feelings Too is nothing if not truth in musical advertising. Lovers float in and out like ghosts, bringing with them a plethora of romantic insecurities, as cheekily referenced in the album title. However, it isn't all heartbreak, as in the album's emotional centerpiece, "Niger River", Martha contemplates the depth of her love for her backing musician and husband Brad Albertta. It's a touching tribute to love personified.

Ironically, the only line that doesn't ring true is in the song "I Wish I Were", where Martha asks there sincerity in anything I say/do I know what anything means? After the somewhat obscure lyrics of her otherwise catchy self-titled debut, it's nice to hear Martha tackling emotionally complex issues, un-marred from obscure metaphors. Martha may not know exactly what anything means, but her painful honesty has left the door open for the listener to create her own meaning. I Know You're Married But I've Got Feelings Too is a triumph in both emotional specificity and accessibility.

Martha Wainwright is touring this summer...and should be considered part of any indie-pop fan's required listening.

mp3: "Tower of Song (live on KCRW)" by Martha Wainwright (Leonard Cohen cover)
mp3: "So Many Friends (live on Routes Montreal)" by Martha Wainwright

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

last stop: crappy town by reggie & the full effect

Reggie & the Full Effect. We begin with a primer. Reggie is James Dewees, who started out as a classically trained pianist in Missouri, and somehow ended up as the drummer for metal band Coalesce, keyboardist for emo bands (of varying levels of emoness) the Get Up Kids, New Found Glory, and My Chemical Romance, and somewhere in there, became a favorite performer of at least two of the Would-be Hipsters in the form of Reggie & the Full Effect.

Up through 2005's Songs Not To Get Married To, RATFE was Dewees in the guise of three of his alter egos who straddle the line between satire and sincerity: Fluxuation, a Euro-pop/synth/electronica/dance outfit who, during 2006's tour, was represented by Dewees and his touring bassist dressed up as mimes miming to one part of R. Kelly's epic "Trapped in the Closet"; Reggie & the Full Effect, a fairly standard if exceptionally melodic keyboard-based screamo act; and Common Denominator, a "Finnish Dark Metal" band fronted by Klaus, who is of course played by Dewees with an occasionally Germanish accent, wearing tiny leather shorts and covered in blood while screaming about helping verbs and invading dwarves who fail at basketball. Sometimes there's a fellow named Paco, who is Reggie in a bad wig and a worse mustache. He may or not be dead, and he's a killer breakdancer. Yeah.

I feel I should point out that I don't care for Euro-pop, screamo, or any metal heavier than Led Zeppelin. But I have been anxiously awaiting an album from Reggie since I saw him at the bar in Spaceland at the White Whale gig in 2006 and we found out he was in town recording1. But then there was the rehab, and the new wife, and the record being rejected by Vagrant for not being Reggie enough. And I got nervous.

And yes, Last Stop: Crappy Town, out June 17, is a bit of a departure. It's less funny, it's less schizophrenic, and it's a lot louder. There are no dwarves, there's no line dancing or sampling of anyone's parents, and there's no drunk people rambling into portable cassette recorders. It was produced by Sean Beavan, who's partly responsible for sharing Slayer and Marilyn Manson with the world, and the bassist is one of the creepy masked dudes from Slipknot. It is, apparently, a concept album about the New York transit system, and all of the tracks are named after subway lines and streets. ("R", for example, is track 10, and sounds like it could have been an outtake from My Chemical Romance's last album. But in a good way2. "Smith & 9th", track 2, seems to borrow a lot from the Get Up Kids' "Is There a Way Out". Which is also good.)

But as scary as all that sounds to someone like me, whose most-played songs on iTunes are the Decemberists and Death Cab for Cutie, Last Stop is a really good album. It's sort of like all three of Reggie's alter egos have had a baby – it's loud and screamy stuff backed by awesome synthesizers and a bit of pop sensibility, with occasional doses of hand claps and silliness to lighten the mood when the heavy bass and screaming about death starts to get you down, like in the opener "G," where Dewees confesses that his voice is kinda shot because I smoke a lot and used to do a lot of...hugs! The album does end with a surprisingly haunting piece about religion, fear, synthesized string sections, and the metaphoric dichotomy of angels and demons, which makes the listener (or me, at least) realize that maybe it's okay for hilarious, awesome musicians to mature a little bit, and not write songs about F.O.O.D. and Happy Chickens anymore, as long as the music they do make continues to be this good. Just please, James, promise us that you've not retired the leather shorts.

1. The fact that he was hanging out with fellow ex-Get Up Kid Rob Pope also thrilled me, but alas, Last Stop seems to be the first Reggie album without the gloriously talented Pope brothers filling out the rhythm section.
2. That noise you've just heard? That was the sound of m.a.b.'s hipster cred leaping off the roof of the Troubadour.

mp3: "What the Hell is Contempt" by Reggie & the Full Effect, from Songs Not to Get Married To
mp3: "Congratulations Smack and Katy" by Reggie & the Full Effect, from Under the Tray

efficiency in blogging

Can you believe the year is almost halfway over? I can't. Especially when I consider that too many albums have already been released for me to even consider keeping up with, let alone reviewing in a semi-coherent manner. Here are a few that have heretofore slipped through the cracks due to my perennial laziness.

in ghost colours by cut copy

Electronic music isn't usually my thing. I also don't dance. Ever. And I'm still trying to outgrow an intrinsic fear of the '80s that was instilled in me at an early age by my mother's hair. Sometimes overwhelming recommendations from friends can take you to places it wouldn't ordinarily occur to you to go, though, and this is exactly why you should have friends (besides the fact that you also need people to eat pie with). I was pleasantly surprised to find enough organic material here to keep the whole thing feeling grounded.

mp3: "Feel the Love" by Cut Copy

visiter by the dodos

The Dodos, a duo grounded almost-exclusively in drums and acoustic guitar, should be a complete 180-degree turn from Cut Copy, but the truth is that Visiter reminds me more of Random Spirit Lover, last year's underrated1 effort by Sunset Rubdown, than of any other folk album I've heard recently. Mostly, I think, because they manage to make an awful lot of noise for two people, and also because of the lengthy, gloriously obtuse, but ultimately still melodic nature of some of the songs (for the epitome of this, see "Joe's Waltz"). Was that enough adjectives for you for one sentence? I'll stop now. This album is very good and you should go buy it.

1Not to ruin my own attempt at subtlety or anything, but you have seen this, right? So awesome.

mp3: "Red and Purple" by the Dodos

re-arrange us by mates of state

I've never liked cotton candy, but I do have an unfortunate weakness for Smarties. The next time I self-righteously scorn the solid-sugar genre of confections, remind me of my hypocrisy. Meanwhile, Mates of State's new album might very well be my sweet-tooth album of choice for 2008. I don't say this to imply that the music is lacking in substance or is less satisfying because of it; that would be to undermine the value of happiness as a valid emotion. Or at least, in this case, happiness tinged with maybe just a little wistfulness and angst, carefully veiled by bouncy keyboard lines and vocal harmonies. Completely addicting.

mp3: "My Only Offer" by Mates of State

all we could do was sing by port o'brien

Shock at the revelation that there are people in the world who still do things like fish for a living would be amusing in a stereotypical city-dweller -- maybe less so for someone like me, who actually appeared on a local news station as a fourth-grader on a field trip in the greater Seattle area that had something to do with salmon eggs. Nonetheless, it's the clash of this archaeic way of life (manifested in the songs' lo-fi, folky echoes) with modern societal demands that makes this album compelling. It's a thematic committment that may need some stretching on future efforts, but for now, it is to be enjoyed.

mp3: "Stuck on a Boat" by Port O'Brien

Sunday, June 1, 2008

beirut @ the wiltern

While standing in line outside the Wiltern in Korea Town Friday night, waiting to see Beirut, I was expecting a lot of beautiful noise with lots of lovely instruments and a gorgeous voice. What I was not expecting was the wonderful almost-controlled chaos on stage, with eight people milling around, trading instruments and laughing as if they were giving a show in their living room. A really, really big living room.

But first there were openers. The Devon Williams Band, who reminded me of Jeffery Lewis & the Jitters in an acousticy-punk sort of way, were pleasant and fantastic at bantering (and had a girly bassist, which is always a good thing). Then there were the Brunettes, with a new lineup since we last saw them, were just as adorable and amazing as last time – luckily they still do the Y.M.C.A.-inspired dance moves to "Brunettes Against Bubblegum Youth", as well as the "name game" to introduce everyone on stage (like the wonderful Eddie Eddie bo-beddie, banana fanna fo-feddie, fi-fi-fo-feddie, Eddie) and even a dance contest, with an EP as a prize for a dancing fool in the pit. With a clarinet, a trumpet and a trombone to fill out their sound, they were an oddly appropriate open for horn-driven Beirut.

I'll admit it, I like Beirut, I have their albums, but I'd never really paid them that much attention after the "Dude, have you heard 'Elephant Gun'? It's amazing!" phase wore off. Going into their show, I basically just knew that they make great Parisian gypsy music. But after seeing them live, I've gained a whole new appreciation for the musicality involved in making this music: on stage there were more horns than I could ever dream of naming, a clarinet, two basses (!), a violin, a piano accordion, two mandolins, a keyboard, a classical guitar, a drum kit, and at least three ukuleles. And it seemed everybody could play everything on the stage. There are layers of instruments in these songs that I'd never even noticed – when the bassist started playing a bass line straight from "House of the Rising Sun" while surrounded by ukuleles and violins and French horns, I nearly fell over. Or, I would have, if I hadn't been leaning against the stage, my chin in my hands, staring dreamily up at the glorious band of modern-day gypsies.

And then, of course, we have Zach Condon. It's slightly absurd to imagine that big, deep voice coming from the baby-faced Mr. Condon, until you see it live. Standing on the edge of the stage in the middle of the long line of his fellow music-makers, casually holding his horn on his left shoulder and loosely conducting the musical madness with his right hand with the hint of a slightly smug smile, suddenly everything makes sense. Not just the glorious music, or his incredibly resonant voice, but just about everything. Including the fact that I really need a ukulele.

(photo Beirut: Danelle Manthey)

mp3: "Nantes (live)" by Beirut
mp3: "Scenic World (live)" by Beirut