Monday, June 22, 2009

Upper Air

2009 is definitely the year for sophomore albums, as a ton of artists have been releasing incredible follow-ups to some not-so-incredible debuts. Acts like Bat For Lashes, YACHT, and Antony & The Johnsons have been straying far away from the common sophomore slump and producing some of their best material to date. Well, Bowerbirds are no exception, and this July they'll hop on the bandwagon with their second and vastly superior album, Upper Air.
Taking cues from other successful freak-folkers like early Animal Collective and Dirty Projectors, Bowerbirds craft an acoustic album of emotive guitar strums and heartfelt, melancholy vocals from front-duo Phil Moore and Beth Tacular. I'm currently listening to the album again after having a rather intimate session with AC's sorely underrated Campfire Songs, and I'm noticing some uncanny similarities: for one, the interplay between harsh, rapid chord-strumming and softer, glistening, arpeggiated plucks. Of course, the songs here are much more structured than the whispery, minimalistic naturalism of Campfire Songs, but the same sort of feeling is expressed through the instrumentation. Others might also notice the similarity between Moore's voice and that of Dave Longstreth, and the musical arrangements definitely resemble those on the recent DP masterpiece Bitte Orca. Despite all these comparisons, though, Bowerbirds manage to forge a sound of their own through the use of more traditional folk instruments like accordions, piano, woodblocks, and flutes. They also sometimes add in a heavy bass drum sound, of which I'm a huge fan. I can't really pick out any tracks to recommend since I would end up listening all 10, but I will say I was struck hard by the opener, "House Of Diamonds," and again by the penultimate "Crooked Lust." Even if you weren't a fan of 2007's Hymns For A Dark Horse, this album is still definitely worth your time, so give it a listen. You won't regret it.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

LP

Discovery, whose name pays due respect to Daft Punk's inspirational 2001 disc, is a collaboration between Vampire Weekend's Rostam Batmanglij and Ra Ra Riot's Wes Miles that sounds nothing like either group's music. Their first LP, entitled LP, is an experiment in electronic pop and auto-tune effects that shows the urgent necessity for the keyboardist and vocalist to develop their side project. When I first heard the album, I absolutely hated it. I thought the idea was sound, but the execution left a lot to be desired. After listening to it a few more times, though, I started to get hooked by each individual track, and now I love the album for exactly what it is: a cute, friendly, and fun romp through beeps, synths, and smoothed-over, half-human, half-machine crooning.
The first song I heard, "Osaka Loop Line," is now one of my favorite tracks, combining an abrupt, pounding bassline with a shimmering cascade of chime-like electronics. It's a perfect example of the off-kilter yet still excruciatingly catchy compositional approach found on each of the short album's 10 melodies. Another track that shows off the duo's finest is "So Insane," which takes one main chorus and turns it all over, starting out with a more danceable club tune (which incidentally borrows a line from "The Electric Slide") and slowing it down to form more of a romantic number, then repeating it all over again on the next chorus. Additionally, the increasingly featured artists Angel Deradoorian of Dirty Projectors fame and Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend both contribute to the album, though on separate tracks. Deradoorian plays an androgynous role when she sings both "I wanna be your boyfriend" and "I want a boyfriend" on the aptly-titled "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend" while Koenig's voice is later overly distorted on "Carby." As for the rest of the vocals, both Rostam and Wes take turns and both have pretty decent voices, especially when enhanced by auto-tune and vocoding technology on tracks like opener "Orange Shirt" and "Swing Tree." The two also offer an interesting take on Michael Jackson's "I Want You Back," though I vastly prefer the original. Discovery's music has a very futuristic and hip feel, and I can sense that this album is going to get incredibly popular within the next few weeks, so watch for it. It deserves most of the praise.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Guns Don't Kill People... Lazers Do

This past week I finally got my hands on one of my most highly-anticipated albums of the summer: Guns Don't Kill People... Lazers Do. Producers Diplo and Switch did an amazing job of keeping the album from leaking, and I had to wait until I received a pre-ordered copy for my birthday before I could hear their self-described electro reggae-dancehall hip-hop magic.
Major Lazer, whose name you'll never tire of hearing during all 13 tracks of the album, is "a Jamaican commando who lost his arm in a secret zombie war in 1984. He fights vampires and various monsters, parties hard, and has a rocket-powered skateboard." This little description from Wikipedia perfectly captures the essence of the album: it takes various things that people find cool and puts them all together into one ridiculously awesome thing. Indeed, the music is very diverse and is a product of many different influences, including marching bands, found sounds, old-school drum machines, and auto-tune. Each track is completely different, yet the album is unified under the simple goal of pushing everything to the absolute limit (which occasionally crosses over the border and into absurdity). However, it really seems like the album is aware of itself, and that's partly what makes it so good.

By now you should've all heard the first track and single, "Hold The Line," but if you only have the DJ radio edit you need to get the album version, which has an additional Kill Bill-esque intro that makes the showdown between Mr. Lexx and Santogold much more intense (and now Santogold gets the last word, which is great.) The second track, "When You Hear The Bassline," is a fiercer complement to the opener, featuring an incredible vocal performance from Ms. Thing and vocal effects similar to those used on the "Zumbi" song I posted earlier. The album makes an abrupt shift into some chillout reggae on the next track, "Can't Stop Now," which will find you singing and grooving along to the relaxing sounds of summer. Next comes the bad-ass "Lazer Theme" which is darker and much more inappropriate. "Anything Goes" comes next, opening with some awesome auto-tuned Jamaican stereotyped "yeah man"s and then developing a pulsating beat to go with Turbulence's vocal stylings. Another reggae song, "Cash Flow," follows. The halfway point, "Mary Jane," features a marching drumroll, some evil villain laughs, and some manic, high-pitched vocals declaring their love for marijuana, which "gives them wings like a canary" (this is also my favorite song on the album.) "Bruk Out" is sort of a continuation of the same dancehall beat, again featuring Ms. Thing. "What You Like" is a testament to the over-the-top explicitness of the album, and may be one of the most vulgar songs I've ever heard (which is bad for me because it keeps getting stuck in my head and I love to sing along.) "Keep It Goin' Louder" open Diplo and Switch up to a wider audience by paying homage to radio/club hip-hop (only done extremely well) but then "Pon De Floor" brings them right back to a more selective scene, featuring an energetic beat composed of wailing, siren-like screams. "Baby" is more of a skit than a song (it features Prince Zimboo comforting a crying, auto-tune baby) but when a beat gets added on toward the end of the 1-minute track it makes me wish it was much longer. Finally, the marching drums return with closer "Jump Up," which will make you want to do just what the title says. However, Guns Don't Kill People... Lazers Do is more than just a fun collection of danceable tunes (though it definitely is that.) The tracks sound even better in the context of the whole, and the album itself provides an exaggerated yet spot-on representation of the modern dance music scene. Definitely one of 2009's best releases.

Sunset Rubdown Live

Another well-respected indie rock group, Sunset Rubdown, graced the main stage of the Black Cat on Sunday night (June 14th.) My friend took me to this concert as a birthday weekend treat, and boy was it worth staying up past my bedtime.

Like on their studio albums, Sunset Rubdown's live music is loud, heavy, and intense. Backed by a set of musicians including three different drummers, two guitarists, and percussionist/vocalist Camilla Wynne Ingr, Spencer Krug belted out a set of epic proportions with his distinctive moan-voice. The stage was packed with musical instruments, including two keyboards, two drumsets, basses, guitars, xylophones, and even mouth organs. Krug asked for the lights dimmed (which is why the videos below are so dark) so the stage was only lit by small glowing orbs placed strategically near the performers. Adding to the dark ambience was the air conditioning, on full blast directly above our heads and facing the stage. Sunset Rubdown, like almost every other notable indie rock band, hails from Montreal, so my guess is they wanted climate control to make themselves feel more at home. We were lucky enough to be standing right next to some friends of the band who came along on the first part of the tour, and they shared some stories with us about Spencer: apparently, during his first tour, he sweated so much because he wasn't used to the heat that he short-circuited his keyboard. After hearing that, I was quick to notice every time he pulled out a hand towel to wipe his forehead during the show.

The set consisted mostly of lengthy pieces from their new album, Dragonslayer, which happened to be excellent and just what I wanted to hear. Krug and co. opened with a pairing of an old favorite, "The Empty Threats Of Little Lord," with lead single "Idiot Heart," creating a 10-minute masterpiece that set the mood perfectly (video below, sorry for poor quality.) Guitars, drums, and piano chords crashed all around us as the band moved into "Silver Moons" and "Black Swans" before playing some better-known songs from Random Spirit Lover like "The Taming Of The Hands That Came Back To Life," "The Mending Of The Gown," and "For The Pier (And Dead Shimmering)." "You Go On Ahead (Trumpet II)" followed, then the group debuted a new song (of which I don't know the title) that sounded pretty promising. They closed with the epic "Dragon's Lair" which sounded much better live than on the album. The encore was much more low-key than the real performance, and it felt like it was just out of courtesy to their loyal fans that they played "Snake's Got A Leg" and "Us Ones In Between" from their early albums before packing up to go.

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What I liked best about the performance, aside from the incredible live versions of some of my favorite songs, were the personalities of the band members. Unlike a lot of modern indie bands, they had no pretensions. They dressed in normal clothing, were extremely polite, said "thank you" each time the audience applauded, and continuously repeated "you're so kind," as if they were amazed people actually liked listening to their music. They joked with the audience between pieces, laughed at random things drunk people shouted out, and even took the time to introduce each member of the group and thank tourmates Witchies and Elfin Saddle (who were pretty decent as well.) Even though I didn't actually speak to them or interact in any way, I felt like I knew the people behind the music much better after seeing them live.

Here's a short clip I couldn't resist taking during "The Taming Of The Hands That Came Back To Life":

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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Bill Callahan Live

On Friday night (June 12th) some friends and I went downtown, DC to see Bill Callahan (Smog) and his backing group play at the Black Cat (a night club/bar/concert venue that specializes in indie, alt, and experimental music.)

Before I describe the main act, let me just express my amusement with the opening band, Lights. The sister-like duo of gold-robed blonde females set a most interesting tone by beginning their set with some a cappella singing and harmonizing into one microphone. This was before most of the concert-goers had arrived, so they were singing to me and about 5 other people. It was rather awkward, so thankfully they quickly moved to their instruments and began to jam out. One of them, who looked remarkably like Julia Stiles, went crazy on the drumset, with arms and legs flailing about and her hair flying all over the place, all the while keeping a sheepish grin on her face. The other girl played electric guitar and they both sang, while a less-enthused man in black played bass on the side. Eventually the guitar-player knelt on the ground to get feedback from her amp, but then started writhing around rather sexually and then the act ended. It was weird.

Then Bill Callahan came on, and his group of string musicians set up their instruments (including an awesome bodiless electric cello, picture example below.) Bill's guitar was also pretty neat, as it had a wood-patterned coat of paint even though it was electric.
Anyway, on to the music. Callahan picked a very representative set of melodies, most from his four most recent albums. Like Animal Collective did at their live show, Bill adapted his back catalog to fit the sound of his newest album, Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle. He toned down the bright, upbeat melodies of Woke On A Whaleheart to fit the shadier, more mellow mood while at the same time adding lush string arrangements to his sparse guitar solo-work from the days of Knock Knock. What I can remember of the set list is as follows:

1. Jim Cain
2. Rococo Zephyr
3. Diamond Dancer
4. Sycamore
5. Say Valley Maker
6. Our Anniversary
7. Too Many Birds
8. The Wind And The Dove
9. Rock Bottom Riser

Encore:
1. Let Me See The Colts
2. Eid Ma Clack Shaw
3. Coldhearted Old Times

The choice of the beautiful opener, "Jim Cain," the heart-wrenching closer, "Rock Bottom Riser," and the three more well-known encore tracks showed good taste and, while I am not usually a fan of encores, I was glad he returned. I should also mention that the sound mixing was impeccable: each instrument could be heard vividly, including Bill's signature baritone vocals. The sharpness of the sound quality led to an appropriate focus on the lyrics and string arrangements, both of which are for what Bill Callahan is best known. He mostly sang with his eyes closed, but during the instrumental portions he made direct (and sort of creepy) eye contact with those of us who were standing closest to the stage, and there were times when we could feel the sadness evoked by the song just by the look of the lines on his face. And let's not forget about his dancing, which was quirky and somewhat awkward, but mostly endearing: he would kick out his back leg and hold it, then sort of rock back and forth every once in awhile, but never in any sort of rhythm. All in all, it was a great concert, and for some reason it felt oddly appropriate that the last few hours of my teenage years (I turned 20 during the encore at midnight) were spent listening to a man who understands the weight of living.

I couldn't help but take a few videos, even though it was forbidden by the venue. The first is my favorite excerpt from "Too Many Birds":

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The next is a full video of the most downbeat song, "Rock Bottom Riser":

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And finally, the most I could record of single "Eid Ma Clack Shaw" before my camera ran out on me (my apologies for the sound quality, my camera gets worse and worse as it fills up):

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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Dragonslayer

I must've been in a bad mood when I first heard Sunset Rubdown's new album, Dragonslayer (released June 23rd), because I immediately dismissed it as boring and self-indulgent. I even went as far as to think that frontman Spencer Krug was all washed up and had run out of creative juices, as the latest releases from Swan Lake and Wolf Parade (his other projects) left a lot to be desired. After giving Dragonslayer another few listens, however, I've done a complete 180: it's possible that this is the Rubdown's best release yet.
There is only one word that can properly describe the feeling of the album, and that word is epic. Taking cues from the prog-rock masters of the 70's, Krug and co. craft eight ballads of heavy percussion, powerful piano chords, and screaming steel guitars, forming a sound that is overwhelming to the ears, but in the best way possible. The songs are filled with all of the Sunset Rubdown essentials: manic musical arrangements, dramatic key and signature changes, and the moaning vocals we've all come to know and love from one of the most prolific song-writers of our time. The lyrics are also startlingly good, as each masterpiece tells its own story while still taking part in the overarching theme of the album. An exciting new twist on the old style is the increased interplay between Krug and female vocalist Camilla Wynne Ingr, meanwhile the rest of the band tackles more instruments than ever including woodwinds, organs, and synths. I would make track recommendations, but the first seven tracks are so phenomenal that it would be impossible for me to choose (though the "Idiot Heart" single is pretty tasty.) The 11-minute title track and album closer, "Dragon's Lair", though it serves as an ample representation of the album's adventurous style, is actually somewhat of a disappointment and is almost like a failed attempt at recreating Wolf Parade's "Kissing The Beehive." That's OK, though, because the rest of the album more than makes up for any inadequacies. Perhaps the reason Enemy Mine and At Mount Zoomer fell sort of flat was because Krug was devoting all his time to writing and recording this beauty? Check it out, I highly recommend it.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Greg's Mash-Up Guide, Pt. 1

Lately I've been listening to a whole lot of mash-ups, as they're fun to listen to while driving and I have an hour-long commute to my summer job. My unquenchable thirst for new music has driven me toward finding a lot of different mash-up artists on the internet, and so I'd like to share some of the ones I've found with all of my devoted followers.

First off, let me say that, at least in my view, there are two different kinds of mash-up. One is more album-focused and creates a lengthy mix of an enormous amount of small samples, trying to include as many popular hooks as possible (perfect for dance parties.) Another finds two songs that mesh well together and then, well, meshes them together. This second category encompasses both mash-ups of individual songs and mash-ups based around an entire album. This post focuses on the first type and a later post will more fully explore the second.

The most well-known of today's mash-up artists is, of course, Girl Talk. Though I do enjoy listening to his albums, something about Gregg Gillis' music always frustrates me. He always finds the perfect blend with which to draw me in, but then usually fails to capitalize on the moment and unleash the true potential of each mashed pairing of songs. His all-encompassing mix of radio hits, indie favorites, and vulgar rap does have a nice balance, though, and the artistic statement of his music is so powerful that it inspired many other mash-up mixes using the same material. Though the whole thing tries to recreate the incredible "Bittersweet Symphony" and "Tiny Dancer" moments from 2006's Night Ripper, his best and more recent effort, Feed The Animals, set the standard for the rest of what's on this list.

E-603's 2008 release, Something For Everyone (follow-up to be released any day now,) has just what the title says. He takes most of what Girl Talk uses on Feed The Animals and re-works it in his own way, pairing up different tracks but mostly trying to capture the same effect that Girl Talk strives toward. It's not too original, but it is just as exciting to hear as Gillis' work.

Easter Egg also uses similar samples on his first and only mash-up album, Jackin' For Beats. He, however, provides an interesting twist on the formula by adding more dance, house, and techno such as Basement Jaxx and Justice (which incidentally make for my favorite moments on the album.) Though I enjoy the diversity in his samples, some of his mashes aren't of as high quality as the others and are somewhat of a let-down.

My favorite mix-type mash-up album (and the one you should all download immediately) is Fuck Bitches. Get Euros. by Super Mash Bros. Maybe I'm partial to the use of DCFC and Modest Mouse samples, as those artists defined most of my high school experience, but I feel like SMB achieve the perfect mix by letting each individual track run its own course. Instead of immediately shifting to another clip from a completely different song, each element gradually emerges to take center stage, then retreats to the back at the exactly appropriate moment, letting another pop melody shine. Even though the album follows the same general formula of vulgar rap over innocent indie tunes, the team does more than just mash the songs together: they instead carefully manipulate each simultaneous track by altering the speed, reversing, or chopping it up to make it fit beautifully with the other. The prime examples of this are the two tracks that close the album, "D.G.A.F.L.Y.F." (based on "Soulja Boy" and the DDR hit "Sandstorm") and "Testarossas For Everyone!" (based on "Flirt" and "Lip Gloss" and set over "Better Off Alone,") which may be two of the most inspired mash-ups I've ever heard.

Another awesome thing about mash-ups: they're completely FREE! You can download each from its respective site with the links I've provided.

Hello Mom!

While cruising the streets of Miami, my friends and I stumbled across a remarkable little track by Modeselektor being broadcast from UM's equivalent to our BSR. The song, "Silikon," completely dissects and rearranges the hip hop vocal performance of guest Sasha Pereira, and the result was so interesting that I had to get at the whole album.It turns out that the rest of Hello Mom!, Modeselektor's 2005 debut, is just as intriguing as the track we first heard. Though it starts out with some weaker, more typical techno dance grooves, the album takes a turn toward the more bombastic with a creative splurge at around track seven. Sampling anything from human breathing to baah-ing sheep, Modeselektor manages to produce some incredible beats with impeccable technical ability. "Earth (UPS Edit)" is a perfect example of such a beat. Other tracks, like the synth-washed "In Loving Memory" and the breathbeat of "My Anthem," show a more mellow end of the range of emotions on the album and are just as beautiful to the ears. "Hasir" throws some arabic influences into the mix, "I Love You" adds some shimmering Studio-esque tropicalia, and "Dancing Box" does the same to French rapper TTC that "Silikon" does to Sasha, creating breakbeats from his fragmented speech. All show off the diversity and originality in Modeselektor's music and vouch for the necessity of this album in any techno junkie's collection.