Monday, July 27, 2009

Live Review: Lee Konitz Quartet 7.25.09

If you didn't think 60 years was a long time, perhaps a conversation with Lee Konitz would change your mind. The altoist who got a big break in 1949 playing on Miles Davis' Birth of the Cool has been pushing boundaries and exploring the limits of jazz's West Coast ever since. And on a night dedicated to deconstructing familiar tunes, Konitz' trio picked standards apart and left them that way. The renditions were loose quilts whose strings were never tied up at the edges.

It was a treat to hear drummer Paul Motian, the reigning king of colorists, hint at polyrhythms by playing their every third or fourth note rather than hammering them down listeners' throats. He didn't break into a swing -- or any consistent drumbeat -- until the last tune of the first set, and even then his rhythm was minimalist and beautifully hollowed-out. But it was pianist Dan Tepfer who stole the show, demonstrating such natural restraint that he was loath to spend more than a few measures playing chords. Tepfer largely stuck to two-handed octave lines and dissonant patterns, painting circles around Konitz' tired, restless, on-again off-again sketches.

Saturday night's performance, the last of a four-night run at New York's Birdland jazz club, was a conversation in the truest sense of the word, and the dialogue between Konitz and Tepfer held the night's most explorative subplot. The bandleader rarely lay out for more than eight bars at a time, but he didn't spend four minutes wailing away while the others comped, either. In fact, no one took a traditional, extended solo all night. In this conversation, everyone's contributions were equally important; speakers hesitated to listen to each other but interjected at will. It was a lilting, collectivist free that brought the egalitarian vision of Motian's old boss, Bill Evans, into striking new territory.

Many in the audience were completely blindsided. They were not expecting a "Stella by Starlight" so sketchily rendered that the melody was almost impossible to place, or an entire set in which any combination of piano, bass, drums, or saxophone was equally likely. Dinner conversations continued well into the first half of the set, and many of those gazing around the room were as exasperated as they were unmoved. But by the time late in the evening when Konitz announced, more than a touch idiosyncratically, that the band would do some "free play," the faces were all rapt, focused on the stage.

The conversation wasn't easy to penetrate, but as the quartet gained locomotion, listeners grasped what was between each lethargic, halting phrase and the heedful responses that tumbled into one another with an unforeseeable logic. As the final tune drew to a close, Tepfer wandered into a solo piano improvisation of high, Ethan Iversonesque three-note arpeggios and a slow, scale-bending melody in the left hand. Again and again, Tepfer showed a finesse and deference to melody that Motian might have recognized as largely reminiscent of Keith Jarrett.

Saturday night found Konitz, one of the the oldest masters of counter-bop, renegotiating post-bop's language. If this prerogative didn't seem immediately logical, the quartet's interactive mastery eventually made it so.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Live Review: Dirty Projectors 7.19.09

I have to admit, the idea of hearing the Dirty Projectors play a "rock concert" was difficult for me to imagine just a few days ago. Maybe it's that the recent Bitte Orca is a squeaky-clean bit of art-rock that's more art than rock, cut with an Exacto rather than a rusty switchblade. They're clearly listening to Nico Muhly as much as they're paying dues to the Talking Heads.

So I was skeptical of seeing these guys and girls play a JellyNYC Pool Party and not, say, a BAM theater show. Sunday's show on the Williamsburg waterfront was indeed a shorts-and-tees, sun-on-the-pavement, summer banger alright. Openers Magnolia Electric Co. pumped out Mason-Dixon rock with a heavy lean toward A.M. Wilco. The organized dodgeball matches got intense. The drinkers wandered about in their quarantine, then when the Projectors came on they ditched their beers and crossed over to the cordoned-off patch of pavement by the stage.

But from very first notes of the opening song -- a guitar-vocal duet on ballad "Two Doves" between frontman Dave Longstreth and secret-weapon Angel Deradoorian -- the Projectors, well, killed it. And killing it is not an action for artsy, precious finnickers. No sir, this show was built on intense and mathy interplays, wild and staticky bass distortion, four-part harmonies that broke out into primal screams but never devolved.

It was the Projectors' three femme fatales -- particularly the instrument-swapping Deradoorian -- who stole the show. Heaped onto one another on "Cannibal Resource," the three voices may have created one of the thickest walls of sound such a high register has ever heard. And when Amber Coffman and Haley Dekle bounced glitchy "ooh-eeh-ahhs" back and forth at manic speeds on "Remade Horizon," the pitch precision defied even autotune. Blurted-out guitar lines from Longstreth and Amber Coffman on "No Intention" also sounded almost robotic. But the Projectors deep-sixed their own flirtation with binary-code rock with grimy tones on their electrics and vocal tremolos ranging from slight to zealous. When the ladies took center stage on "Stillness Is the Move," it was Coffman's soulful vocal solo that drew the day's most fervent applause.

The Projectors began the set with three tunes from Bitte and rarely deviated from the record after that. They have a right to be partial to an album like this, one that's tight beyond belief but unfurls more uncharted territory with each new listen. It was the reaching into the back catalog, though, namely for "Rise Above" and "Knotty Pine," that turned up the most impressive results. These songs got recastings with twice the cohesion and none of the sags in energy of their recorded versions.

Watching Longstreth cavort across the stage like a maniacal, hunchbacked Jim Carrey, taking in the Battles-go-lightly mathiness of "Temecula Sunrise," hearing crisp African guitar rhythms go up agaisnt fuzz-muddled bass, I realized that it was going to feel almost like cheating to write this review, since anyone with half a wit could find a dozen interesting things to say about music played like this.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Phenomenal New Collabs: Atlas Sound/Panda Bear & Masters of Folk

Conor Oberst and M. Ward perform in 2007. Photo by Flickr user tammylo.

Today is a great day on the collaborations front. From right field, we have a fly ball we've been keeping our eye on for a long time--the much much much anticipated Monsters of Folk project (featuring buddies M. Ward, Conor Oberst, and Jim James) has finally released its first single. Then from way out in left field comes a gorgeous song by the two people who very well could be today's absolute master of ominous, murky rock music and the contemporary authority on bright pop, respectively--Bradford Cox (a.k.a. Atlas Sound, frontman of Deerhunter) and Noah Lennox (a.k.a. Panda Bear). Yes, this truly happened.

First, the Monsters of Folk release: M. Ward takes the lead on this one, titled "Say Please," and it finds him rocking harder than he has since "Requiem," from 2006's Post-War. It's nice to see that, despite the band's bearded-man-with-acoustic moniker, they're as Horse-crazy as Woods, if a bit less endearingly rough around the edges (but what did you really expect?). At its core, though, "Say Please" and its chimey guitar pulse lay bare that Ward weaned himself on the guitar by learning the chord changes to early-Beatles tunes. Monsters of Folk's eponymous is due on Sept. 22, via Shangri-La. Find the song here or download it from

"Say Please," Monsters of Folk (thanks to iguessimfloating)

The Atlas-Panda collab, "Walkabout," is a near-perfect yin-yang of Cox's dark and Lennox's light. The melody, vocal harmonies, and pop bounce are distinctly Panda's. The atmosphere evokes the snaking haze of cigarette smoke, marked by an indefinable, disconcerting dissonance--this is all Cox. This tune is an alloy, but it's pure gold. "Walkabout" will be track three on Atlas Sound's second album, Logos, due Oct. 20 on Kranky.

"Walkabout," Atlas Sound w/Panda Bear (thanks to iguessimfloating)

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Live Review: Woods and The Fresh & Onlys | Woodsist/Captured Tracks Festival 7.4.09

The Fresh & Onlys perform at Day 2 of the Woodsist/Captured Tracks Festival in Brooklyn
photo by Flickr user the future of petes


Well damn. The new music scene is just like the new news world: we won't be seeing full stories and plot lines develop so much as we'll be bombarded with fresh threads to follow -- thrust forth by bloggers 1 through 6,000 -- and band after band will be paraded around in the name of novelty. Breakout sensation Woods have been thrown into the spotlight as unexpectedly as Mark Sanford--and, equally violently, they will be wrested from it in a few months' time. Too bad, since this exciting band is still stitching up its hems--its sound, its cohesion, its live performance are just coming together. And nowhere could that have been more eminently apparent than at last weekend's magnificent Woodsist/Captured Tracks Festival.

Among the leaders of the pack at Day 2 of this Brooklyn shitgaze bonanza, Woods had a lot of trouble unearthing the ethos and intrigue of their recent LP onstage. Lots of things about this band feel deliberate: singer Jeremy Earl's straining pursuit of a Neil Young register, and the pathos he picks up along the way; the lo-fi haze that lulls the band back in time and helps give it its identity (inasmuch as plaid with snaps gives any Brooklynite his); the band name and cover art that evoke today's ever-popular neo-naturalism; the aplomb imprecision of Earl's guitar solos.

But these aren't qualities to be scoffed at, they're just the elements of a keen artistry. And they make it all the more confusing that these guys failed to bring that deliberateness to the 979 Broadway Backyard on Saturday. Earl's nouveau-Neil Young vocal style -- denizen of a rare middle ground between earnest, distant, and mystifying -- blossoms when it's couched in the willful drive of an updated Crazy Horse. The most impressive pieces of Songs of Shame feel a lot like an experimental Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, and that's a great thing.

So watching the group get lost in its own muted fuzz on Saturday was all the more disheartening given how quickly the whirlwind can expunge a promising band's flame nowadays. I only hope that this young band can begin to transpose its studio intensity to the live setting, or at the very least that the low investment of its performances doesn't seep into the lo-fi of its records and keep them from improving.

The Fresh & Onlys

The festival's Most Welcome Surprise Award goes to the Fresh & Onlys on a unanymous (one-person) ballot. This coed five-piece conjures equal shades of Times New Viking (their harmonic trio of guy, a girl, and some tin-garage distortion), Deerhunter (their cutting guitar and weaving bass over anthemic, little-as-possible drums), and the Kinks (their everything). Intrigued?

The bearded Tom Cohen turned a possessed eye toward the Saturday-evening sun, then downward to his keyboard, then back up as he sang lyrics a bit too loony to justify the long face in a tone too involved to qualify as indifferent.

Before bolting on Saturday, I headed across the craggy lawn to the merch table for a copy of the Fresh & Onlys' debut album. Not a mistake. On the record, the group's live subtleties are at once brought out and kept under a thin cover of clouds. I'm not trying to cut through them, it's too much fun studying their cottony gray.

  • To pick up the Fresh & Onlys' new record -- not an easy one to find -- click here.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

New Video from the Heavy: Something to Mull over while you 'Wait' for the New Album

So here's the deal. Everyone says the Heavy's Kelvin Swaby sounds a lot like Prince. It's the occasional falsetto, and the slithery-smooth but concomitantly crunchy backing of his band. As with any comparison, the truth is a bit more convoluted. On their debut album, Great Vengeance and Furious Fire, the then-coed brigade paid tribute to a lot more influences than just the one name-changing, bad-acting Mormon. The distant atmospherics of opener "Brukpocket's Lament" conjure an ambiguous indie film's rain-drenched climax scene; on "Dignity," the early-aughts "the" bands' calculated barbarism comes to mind, for better or worse; "Our Secret Place" is even harder-edged; "Who Needs the Sunshine" blends the vintage feel of an ancient soul b-side with the slow and nasty backbeat of a D'Angelo ballad.

But did anyone see this one coming--a track that literally channels Tom Waits? That's what we've got for the lead single off these British Spin darlings' sophomore album, The House that Dirt Built. The verb "channel" isn't to be used lightly, but come on. That neo-New Orleans beat, the honking tuba doubled with the bass line, lyrics about the devil, and -- the icing on the tribute cake -- a video at Coney Island. If by any chance he's seen the video for "Sixteen," the carny-fied folk legend is probably having himself a raspy, cigarette-stained chuckle right now.

The main problem with the Heavy's music is that even when its apparent influences are wide-ranging or even ambiguous, the stuff usually manages to sound derivative. Still, there were plenty of bright spots on Great Vengeance, and "Sixteen" itself distills a good deal of Tom Waits' otherly intrigue along the way to, well, sounding a lot like him.

The House that Dirt Built is due out Oct. 6. That means we've got a lot of time to wait, which means a lot of time to milk that pun....

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Live Review: Ezra Furman and the Harpoons 6.23.09

Calling all New Yorkers. If you are in this city and you haven't found time to hear Ezra Furman and the Harpoons perform, do yourself a favor.

The venerable indie-folkers will wrap up their residency at Piano's on Tuesday, and if they repeat their performance from yesterday night, many smiling faces will be heading for the exit at about 11:05 p.m.

The Harpoons vaulted through an hour-long set that was entirely as manic as Furman's gleeful howls. Even when he promised to play a slow song, that tune ended up being "God Is a Middle-Aged Woman," which in turn ended up being one of the loudest songs of the night, all gritty and pained – and painfully honest – but disarmingly goofy as well. While the guitar got dirtier and the drums got louder, he was gazing at the ceiling as he snarled, "Oh, God! / Won't you just say hello?" It's fair to say that when he was telling it, the sheepish and silly Furman took us places the Vatican – more to the point, your rabbi – never could.

But let's be honest: where the Harpoons' 2007 album, Banging Down the Doors, was a young thinking kid's folk gem, last night's concert was a lesson in the virtues of first-degree pop. Still, the band was as tight as it was carefree, and the background harmonies conjured irrepressible grins even – check that, especially – when they occasionally missed the mark. This foursome was on top of its game. Furman's thunderous acoustic guitar pulse, the top-of-the-beat intensity of drummer Adam Abrutyn, the swelling harmonica lines that Furman nailed–if you weren't listening to the lyrics of "Take off your Sunglasses," you might have thought it was the E Street Band minus the organ, playing "The Promised Land." Then again, if you were feeling a little less generous, you could also have thought it was a long-lost Tom Petty hit. The x factor rendering all these comparisons irrelevant? That was Furman's voice.

He tosses off effortlessly clever ironies and allegories of lovesickness with a whoop so filled with abandon it drowns out all those Dylan comparisons. It came as a bit of a disappointment that Furman didn't have time to kick the band offstage for a solo acoustic set ("American Highway" woulda been nice...), but I guess that's what the album is for. Last night's rock 'n' roll, little had I known, was for dancing.

Note: the photo is not from Tuesday's show. It is from his January 6, 2008 show at the Mercury Lounge in New York.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Time for the Boss to Pretend?

Bruce Springsteen reportedly put on a blowout performance at Bonnaroo yesterday, winning new converts in the heart of Tennessee. In addition to performing for almost three hours, the Boss joined Phish onstage and hung out with Okkervil River. Not surprising.

But let's be honest: did you really expect him to show up for the MGMT show? Does a guy who likes to "prove it all night" and "work all day in his daddy's garage" seem like he'd be game to "move to Paris, shoot some heroin and fuck with the stars"? Well, sure enough, it happened; check out the video above. Stranger things have happened, I guess....

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Live Review: Akron/Family and Women 5.31.09

What better way to wrap up a five-month stint of cultural immersion in Bolgona, Italy, than by escaping to a tucked-away club outside of town for a concert by two North American bands no Italians have heard of?

Akron/Family and Women put on a blistering double billing at the Locomotiv Club here this weekend. Each band threw its recent album into the fire and cooked it Pittsburgh rare, until the sound and feel from the record turned scalding but stayed super-raw, putting a totally new taste in your mouth.


Women opened up and quickly asserted that this show was as much theirs as Akron’s. Their brief self-titled debut album is a tube of tomato paste that you’ve left in the sun too long—highly condensed, and full of hazmat surprises. It’s rife with twists and turns and feels like a reference book of alternative influences. There’s the neo-naturalism of Grizzly Bear’s and Animal Collective’s old brands of freak-folk, manifested in a willingness to let an acoustic guitar and some co-oped vocals carry a piece, with the help of some trusty reverb (read: the first half of “Group Transport Hall,” featuring Women’s best melody). Women are at times industrial, at other times post-punky—as when their guitarists parlay an interface of two lightly distorted lines into a swirling cacophony à la Television. Often, the grittiness meets a sophisticated rhythmic sensibility that somehow propels the tunes ever forward, rather than halting and jerking them as Battles’ brand of math rock is wont to do.

Now imagine all this played by a band that listens to nothing but Fucked Up and My Bloody Valentine on the tour bus. At least that’s what it sounds like. Hiding from the drizzling rain beneath a tree outside the club after the set, I commented that the show was different from the record. “Yeah,” bassist Michael Wallace laughed. “Really different.” The song structures, even the instrumentation, stayed largely the same. But Women took their multidirectional vision, already steeped in lo-fi, and cranked up the volume to levels that (neighbors be grateful) can’t be reached in the basement. A friend who came with me to the show and who had hardly heard of Women before ended up calling their music “punk” and “hardcore;” meanwhile, I came away intrigued by the dejected, shoegazing quality that lead singer Patrick Flegel attached to his always distant vocals.

Check out this video of Women performing at CMJ last year via


Akron/Family, now a three-piece after the 2007 departure of original member Ryan Vanderhoof, lived up to their reputation as a live powerhouse and one that sounds just as distinct from their recorded selves as Women do. Contrary to Allmusic’s oxymoronic attempts to pigeonhole – apparently “Akron/Family are one of those exasperatingly unknowable bands” but “their music … falls squarely into the freak folk category” – Akron concerts feel like exuberant explorations of the many directions in which their songs can be taken.

If I had to give it a genre, I’d call these New Agers’ style “freak-jam.” Songs like “Everyone Is Guilty,” the opener of impressive new album Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free, swung about the spectrum of Akron’s sound. The trio jumped from a jaunty guitar groove to an intense communal chant of “Everyone is guilty” to a percussion-and-pedal section (different band members played a cowbell and a half-drunk water bottle and fiddled with a loop pedal); the tune eventually bloomed into a searing solo section.

The set closed with a simple ballad, sung in three-part harmony to the strumming of an acoustic guitar. The song’s only lyrics were, “Last year was a hard year for such a long time, / This year’s gonna be ours.” Although they did return for an encore of “Crickets,” the acoustic piece was a perfect capstone from this bearded threesome. The lyrics of their songs are effervescently positive and self-affirming, and at its best their music can feel like an unbounded spiritual release, sung in wild chants and deep, imperfect harmonies.

The photograph above is of Women's performance.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Animal Collective/Beach Boys Mash-Up

A while back, I spent some time comparing "Guys Eyes," from Animal Collective's Merriweather Post Pavillion, to the Beach Boys' "You Still Believe in Me," from Pet Sounds. It looks like somebody picked up on another similarity between "Guys Eyes" and a Beach Boys classic--this time, the link is even more inescapable. Check out this YouTube mash-up of "Guys Eyes" and "All I Wanna Do," from the largely forgotten gem, 1970's Sunflower.

Someone named Scott Karahadian seems to have had the idea, and after just one listen to the each individual tune, it's apparent why. The songs' opening lines are almost identical--and they're in the same key. Both bands go on to use characteristically lush vocals and sparse percussion; on "All I Wanna Do" the electric bass is what really keeps the pulse going, and the only consistent drumming comes from a lone snare.

The haunting similarities between Panda Bear and Brian Wilson aren't on display here, as Mike Love, Wilson's cohort turned nemesis, takes the lead vocals.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Look Both Ways #12: What Was I Thinking?

What was I thinking? If you've been wondering, I don't blame you. I've been drawing false lines around bands, tying artists together with ersatz thread, acting as if one group's music can possibly be defined as the offspring of one influential parent. In truth, each new song is no less than a singular brew culled from the reactive cauldron where every bit of music that's ever been heard resides. Even we, as human daughters and sons, are products of our surroundings, the languages we learn, the friendships we make, the sex and stock villains we see on TV, more than the genes we've been stuck with. If it were the other way around, Jakob Dylan and the Wallflowers might have really had something going for them. But alas, all we've got to hang on to is "One Headlight" and that catchy song where Adam Duritz wails his big old heart out on the background vocals.

When I set out this January to write a column tying one new album each week to a classic progenitor, I anticipated relatively smooth sailing. But early on, I found that it could be impossible to pair up a great new musician, no matter how "retro" he was, with a single forebear. In a piece about Raphael Saadiq's The Way I See It, an R&B record that seems to be obsessed with hearkening back, I couldn't find a single past album that would do it justice. I paired The Way I See It with a Motown hits collection, allowing myself to discuss an array of Saadiq's influences from the early days of soul.

In my article on Wynton Marsalis' new album blending spoken word and instrumental jazz, I didn't bother tying him to anyone else -- I compared the new He and She to an old Marsalis record with a similar bent. In my piece on King Khan and the Shrines, I had to spend a solid third of the article detailing my struggle to tease out the most appropriate reference point.

And for all the difficulty I've had deciding which old albums to highlight, what's to say a band's musical predecessors are its most important influences? Had I chosen to write about Inside the Human Body, Ezra Furman and the Harpoons' latest LP, I might have been better served tying it back to the literature courses Furman took while majoring in English at Tufts University, or to his favorite novel. After all, it's his glowing narratives and self-excoriating lyrics more than anything else that make him such an exciting new talent.

I think Stephen McBean of the band Pink Mountaintops has it about right. McBean told Stereogum last month that the group's newest record was influenced by "weddings in Montreal, winter, Pink Floyd's 'The Final Cut,' Christmas albums, that one Exile song and that one Echo and the Bunnymen song, the Bermuda Triangle, being depressed in the sunshine, people who haven't made out yet but will in the future, The Everly Brothers, clowns in the ceilings and bedrooms where skinheads used to live."

The best I can hope for, to quote Stephin Merritt, is that my comparisons' "truth or falsity is moot" because I've turned you on to some great new artists and maybe even a classic record or two that you'd never heard.

A version of this piece first appeared as a column in the May 17 issue of the Tufts Daily.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Live Review: Bonnie 'Prince' Billy 4.29.09

It must be a chore to be loved by Will Oldham. For the very same reasons, it is spectacular to hear him sing his songs.

The Kentucky-bred musician drenches the glorified sentimentalism of country-western parlance in the corrosive waters of philosophical disquiet. His intellect and self-doubt would probably be endearing if they didn’t have that nasty habit of seeping outward, like a puddle of scalding coffee from a chipped mug. They attack all the things he dares to love, and warn him quietly: “Beware.”

Cloaked in blue-and-white striped overalls and the pseudonym Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Oldham began Wednesday night at the Estragon in Bologna, Italy, with a series of relatively traditional saloon crooners. A stirring rendition of “You Don’t Love Me,” off his latest full-length, was an early highlight; Oldham and fiddler/secret weapon Cheyenne Mize called to each other in harmonies, at once wrenching and as sweet as funnel cake at the state fair: “You don’t love me, but that’s alright / ’Cause you cling to me all through the night.”

And then, somewhere about five songs in, the aircraft that’d been hovering in the ether over Dallas-Fort Worth International renounced the landing strip and headed for the stratosphere. With natural ease but fearsome adamancy, Oldham and his four-piece band careened into a set packed with equal parts summer love and hard-rock desperation—at times, the tempo changes and snare slams sounded about like a Liars concert would if a fiddler came in tow.

The passion that keeps Oldham on the avant-garde and pushing outward bursts from his pores in concert. He appeared to have situated the microphone six inches too low specifically so that he would have to contort himself to reach it, and when he put down his guitar for a few songs it was clearer than ever that he simply couldn’t pour everything he wished to into each song. He was left squirming and kicking and wrapping his black leather shoe around the back of his other ankle as he sang. On “Love Comes to Me,” he yelped and hopped between verses.

For all this helpless hungering, he was a man in control; there was a sureness in his eyes that he must have picked up at some point in the past 16-plus years of touring. I was convinced he had a towering stature until his roughly 5’8” frame sauntered up to the bar after the show.

In a thunderous depiction of “There Is Something I Have to Say,” Oldham cried out, “I feel deserving of love / Can it be something I dispose of / Or put away in a box under the bed?” It’s true that there is “I” splattered all over his lyrics. But simply calling Oldham a solipsist is as insufficient as calling him alt-country. For him, these are points of departure; where another musician might end a song, he and his band turn up the tempo and enter into a vicious call-and-response of guitar and fiddle and pounding drums. Where another lyricist might drown, poignantly enough, in his own sorrow, Oldham blends doubt with hope, hope with a vicious distrust, and then turns it all on the rest of the world. “And love will protect you / To the edge of the wood, / And a monster will get you / And love does no good,” he cautioned the flock of Italian-speaking spectators during “Even if Love.” And they believed him.

Note: the above photograph is not from Wednesday's concert; it was uploaded to Flickr on March 24, 2007, by user elspop :: concert photography.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Look Both Ways #11: Feeling (W)iggy with a New King

King Khan and the Shrines are definitely a throwback, albeit a triumphantly forward-looking one. Where exactly they’re throwing us back to, though, is tough to say. Is it to 1974 New York City, where the Ramones’ black leather jackets blend into the damp, dark walls of CBGB as they tear through an early version of “Blitzkrieg Bop”? Is it to Abbey Road Studios in 1967, where the Zombies are bringing psychadelia to a boil with their single, “Time of the Season”? Maybe it’s to 1964, when the Rolling Stones and the Animals are recording their first Chuck Berry covers, prompting bluesman Sonny Boy Willamson II to muse, “Those English kids want to play the blues so bad, and they play the blues so bad.” Or is it to Harlem in 1962, when James Brown’s Famous Flames are tearing up the stage at the Apollo with hyperactive horns and unrelenting theatrics?

King Khan charges all the delirious mania of the psychedelic era into his soul confessor’s shout. He layers horns on top of wildly distorted guitars. He uses the ominous haze of a minor key like few musicians after Eric Burdon have been able to. In fact, the sound of Khan’s insouciant youthfulness is so tied up in the 1960s that it seems difficult to accept the overwhelming punk influence on this record.

His band teeters carelessly at the precipice of sanity, threatening to launch off with us strapped precariously to its back (kicking and screaming, yes, but laughing in spite of ourselves). And in this way it distinctly recalls four true children of the ’60s who are widely credited as the godparents of punk rock: the Stooges.

Two years ago, King Khan and the Shrines released an incredible album, What Is?!, in Europe. The LP finally got its due across the pond last week, when Vice Records released it in the United States.

The Stooges released their debut album, The Stooges, 40 years ago after frontman Iggy Pop drew inspiration from MC5 and the Doors to escape the derivative blues model of so many British Invasion bands. The Stooges fused the rhythmic and lyrical repetition of a blues stomp with the frustrated romanticism of post-adolescence and created a heavier, grimier and more lascivious music. Five years later, punk rock would emerge as a slightly whittled-down version of that sound.

There is nothing whittled down about King Khan. He takes the Stooges’ nasty guitar pulse and throws in an organ and some blustering horns. He takes the deadpan exasperation of Iggy’s lyrics and kicks it into fifth gear, often consciously bordering on self-parody. King Khan even takes Iggy’s incendiary stage presence (he was famous for climbing into the crowd and was often smeared in his own blood by the end of concerts) and adds a go-go dancer. No, I’m serious—Bamboorella is the Shrines’ full-time go-go dancer.

There’s a cockiness about both these singers that’s engendered by a supreme sense of nothing to lose. On “Real Cool Time,” a bass-heavy three-chord jam bathed in distortion and wah wah, Iggy sings, “Can I come over tonight?/ What do you think I wanna do?/ That’s right.” The same know-it-all nonchalance imbues King Khan’s “(How Can I Keep You) Outta Harm’s Way,” which sounds like the Zombies and the Animals got their hands on some horns and somehow churned out a hard-rock tune. King Khan wails, “Spilling all your honey and lies/ Got you nothing but grief/ I can hold you, baby, in my arms,/ Give you a little relief/ Believe me, baby, and understand,/ I got you here in the palm of my hand.”

King Khan’s influences are as wide-ranging and unpredictable as his stage antics, but he leaves listeners no choice but to join him in surrendering to an intense brew of emotions—the powerlessness of youth, a need for sexual commiseration, the unstoppable urge to just forget it all and dance. It was Iggy Pop’s unflinching representation of these very torments that made him so revolutionary and keeps his music fresh today.

A version of this piece first appeared as a column in the April 27 issue of the Tufts Daily.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

New Song from Sunset Rubdown: 'Idiot Heart'

Sunset Rubdown have offered up a substantial aperitif to get us primed for their new album, Dragonslayer, due on June 23. The six-minute-long “Idiot Heart” is now available for free download. Just click here. On the idiot spectrum, it's way better than "American Idiot," not nearly as good as "Idiot Wind." But that really doesn't tell you much.

From this track’s very first moment, you know it’s Sunset Rubdown. There are those reverby electric guitar chords, distorted to the point of sounding like not just the strings but the guitar itself is made entirely of metal.

A second guitar starts spitting back, panned to the opposite side and full of a ’70s-esque, fuzzy distortion. The sound borders on Boston, which turns out to be prognostic: the entire song is pretty heavily produced for Sunset Rubdown. Some chimes join in, then a halting rhythm section and a spacey lead guitar, and we’re off.

The song reaches high, and it’s better off for it. The big problem with Random Spirit Lover, the group’s 2007 LP, was that it was full of songs that threatened to get stuck in your head but lost their adhesive as soon as they faded out. (Take “The Mending of the Gown,” for instance.) The album was also undisciplined, filled with wordy meanderings that made Sunset Rubdown too easy to write off as the back-alley open mic joint where frontman Spencer Krug went to recite the crap he’d written but wasn’t sure enough about to bring to his brightest buddies (that would be Wolf Parade). But in turning up the focus, Sunset Rubdown is also running the risk of losing its spark and sounding a touch too rehearsed.

If we’re lucky Dragonslayer will achieve the balance between grating and grabbing that the boys struck last time around on “The Courtesan Has Sung.”

For now, I’m pretty glad to have “Idiot Heart.”

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Look Both Ways #10: Squarepusher has Tomorrow’s 'Weather' Forecast

Experimental musician Squarepusher, a.k.a. Tom Jenkinson, recorded an album last year inspired by something that most people might assume to have been a psychedelic-drug-induced hallucination. Jenkinson laconically calls it “a daydream.” In this fantasy, a magical rock band played a concert involving a guitarist who could travel through time, an entire building that served as a bass amplifier, and drums that switched places with each other and received electromagnetic radiation from stars. The album that resulted, last year’s herky-jerky Just a Souvenir, is not for the faint of heart. But if you get jazzed, so to speak, by exploratory instrumental music, it’s a real gem from one of today’s best progressive musicians.

Squarepusher is performing this Friday in my temporary hometown of Bologna, Italy, so to prepare for the show I’ve been listening to Souvenir, his latest. I’m constantly reminded of its nagging similarities to innovative jazz-fusion group Weather Report’s 1976 LP, Black Market.

Weather Report was founded in the early 1970s by saxophonist Wayne Shorter and keyboardist Joe Zawinul, two preeminent expatriates of Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way sessions. The group quickly moved away from these roots, embracing a highly arranged and more composition-based sound that cuddled even closer with rock music. Weather Report even scored a hit single – almost unheard of in instrumental music – with “Birdland” in 1977.

Squarepusher, meanwhile, is a one-man band from England who started out in the 1990s as a leader in the virtuosic genre of manic dance music known as drum and bass. Squarepusher has always incorporated jazz and rock into his music, and they are especially relevant on Souvenir.

It’s a truism for me to say that the differences between the artists I compare far outweigh the similarities, but in the case of the relentlessly innovative and unpredictable Squarepusher it bears mentioning. His music is absolutely not a direct legacy of Weather Report, but the similarities are there.

For one, the fretless electric bass is central to both records. Jenkinson’s primary instrument is the bass, and his playing – ranging from surprisingly ear-catching improvisations to rhythm-bending bass lines – is his music’s most engaging element. Black Market was the first Weather Report album to feature Jaco Pastorius, arguably the most influential electric bassist of all time. But it also showcased outgoing bassist Alphonso Johnson, who should not be lost in Pastorius’ shadow. Both players provide conspicuous, energetic foundations for the complex and highly rhythmic compositions on Black Market.

“Gibraltar” is Black Market’s most similar song to the music on Souvenir. When the rhythm section busts in at 1:20, we hear a Johnson bass line that strays from root notes and downbeats, playing games with the quick and funky drum part. Shorter and Zawunil double on melodies that zoom up and shoot back down, and I find myself nodding my head so forcefully it looks like a Dr. Dre beat must be coming through my headphones. On the Souvenir song “Planet Gear,” Squarepusher layers synth chords over a jumpy bass line and a mathy drumbeat, while a climbing, atmospheric synthesizer line recalls Shorter’s solos on the lyricon (a type of saxophone synthesizer he used on Black Market).

And forget about the comparisons for a moment—Souvenir is a record worth hearing regardless of context. To listen to Squarepusher’s bass improvisations on the song “Quadrature” is to hear him turn out scores of incredibly melodic phrases – each of which could serve as hooks for their own fusion compositions – while he ventures in and out of scales. Sometimes he glides along with the fleeting chords, sometimes he collides with them. Some of the phrases are jazz arpeggios and some are classical-influenced lines that stair-step downward, adding color to the chords beneath them.

  • To watch and/or download some high-quality videos of interviews with and performances by Squarepusher, click here and choose the "03. Watch" tab.
A version of this piece first appeared as a column in the April 13 issue of the Tufts Daily.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Look Both Ways #9: Wynton Marsalis and the Stories of Music

Much of what luminary trumpeter Wynton Marsalis does, including his work as musical director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, is aimed at keeping jazz music relevant. And last month, Marsalis came out with one of his most impossible-to-ignore new projects: a concept album composed of quick poetry readings and accompanying musical pieces performed by his jazz quintet. Gimmicky? Sure. Fun? Absolutely.

When I listen to the album, He and She, I’m often haunted by the mental image of Marsalis sitting in his Midtown Manhattan office, clad in a Brooks Brothers smoking jacket. He claps his hands and exclaims, “I know something they’ll all like—I’ll do a poetry album about puppy love, and I’ll play jazz tunes that go along with the poems!” Of course, this is unfair, and Marsalis deserves credit for pushing into new territory and coming away with something as refreshingly original and utterly enjoyable as He and She. That said, the pleasant music just isn’t as energetic or engaging as Marsalis’ best work.

To find a more timeless record that uses both spoken word and jazz to illustrate the emotions of romance, we have to go back in history but we don’t have to abandon Wynton. Seventeen years ago, he made a remarkable album, Blue Interlude, whose centerpiece is a 37-minute-long suite called “Blue Interlude (The Bittersweet Saga of Sugar Cane and Sweetie Pie).”

In this piece, the Wynton Marsalis Septet uses instrumental music to narrate the dynamic relationship of two mythic lovers. But it’s not without the help of spoken word: in a monologue that precedes the suite, Marsalis introduces Sugar Cane and Sweetie Pie, interspersing the occasional piano line to help acquaint us with the characters. “Well now this is Sugar Cane,” he says, banging out two high, harsh chords on the keys. “As you can tell, he’s a very dissonant, high-strung sort of fellow, perhaps trapped in the gruffness of his own presentation.”

The suite itself comes off without a hitch, and its sheer force is owed to the players, who comprise one of Marsalis’ most exciting ensembles. The musicians handle with remarkable virtuosity the piece’s many time changes and blurry blend of strict arrangement, communal improvisation and big band-style horn harmonies that back a single player’s solo. There are happy times and sad times here, attraction and anger, confusion and confidence.

Where Blue Interlude gives its top-notch musicians ample time to stretch out with expressive solos, He and She concentrates more on discipline and structured arrangements. Occasionally, it can feel like it blurs the line between classical and jazz (both genres in which Marsalis is an expert) as much as it blends poetry and music. Long-form solos are scarce, and while the tonal tales of an endearing four-track suite on firsts (“First Crush,” “First Slow Dance,” “First Kiss” and “First Time”) surely get their point across, most jazz freaks would probably agree that Marsalis succeeds more comfortably when he is less concerned with realist representation and more inclined to let the old tricks of bebop work their magic.

For instance, the 12-minute-long “The Razor Rim” hits a stride thanks to unbridled solos from Marsalis and tenor saxophonist Walter Blanding. Pianist Dan Nimmer does his best McCoy Tyner over the tune’s mid-tempo, hard-bop feel, pounding out planar harmonies and thundering fifths in the low register.

Marsalis probably won’t become the Lincoln Center’s poet laureate, but the verses he uses to set up the music on He and She are whimsical and charming. The first poem runs, “What caused country blues men to claim / A man and a woman is a dangerous game? / Well every school boy knows one plus one equals two / And boys know less than girls do.” It’s followed by “School Boy,” a tune that lives up to its name by returning to an earlier time, striding along while Marsalis channels King Oliver. Nimmer polishes off a lively chordal solo à la Erroll Garner, and all told, the tune conjures the sneakiness of a class clown and the nostalgic joy of everyone’s first-grade memories.

A version of this piece first appeared as a column in the April 6 issue of the Tufts Daily.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Look Both Ways #8: A Dancing Deacon Worshipping at the Church O'Riley

It’s hard to explain how Dan Deacon became the poster child of today’s electronic music avant-garde. But at some point between his graduation from the conservatory at SUNY Purchase and now, the quirky singer/songwriter/sampler/celebrator found himself perched at the fore of a coterie that includes Panda Bear, Girl Talk and the Black Dice.

Deacon just released an exciting new album, Bromst. It lays bare the staggering importance of electro pioneer Terry Riley, and his legendary 1967 LP A Rainbow in Curved Air. On paper, it might seem ironic to tie Riley, widely hailed as the father of minimalism, to Deacon’s summit-seeking, bigger-is-better sound. Where Riley built on his loop-laden foundations with disciplined improvisation, for instance, Deacon opts for noise rock-era fuzz. But just listen to how Riley begins A Rainbow in Curved Air’s 19-minute title track: he repeats a simple synthesizer line, then lays other similar patterns on top to create a spinning vapor of inorganic beauty (think of the intro to Animal Collective’s new single “My Girls,” but a whole lot headier). On Bromst’s opener, the five-and-a-half-minute “Build Voice,” Deacon repeats a quick clip of his vocals – cut up and smothered in effects to the point of sounding like smooth-churning machinery – and slowly adds other vocal tracks and instrumental sounds. The strong eighth-note pulse never dissipates, and it leaves a familiar Riley-esque aura.

Riley, like Deacon, earned a degree in composition, then gained renown in the early 1960s for his eclectic menagerie of compositions, concerts and recordings; they ranged from improvised harmonium performances that lasted all night to trailblazing albums consisting of early tape loops and found sounds. Deacon’s early releases similarly comprised sound collages and instrumentals that were either computer-generated or lifted from live performances.

Deacon performs his shows from a table in the crowd rather than onstage, and he puts a large emphasis on communal participation. He often asks audience members to sing a capella, join him in chants, or dance in giant formations. It’s a bit wilder and more animalistic than Riley’s famous “In C,” a minimalist composition from the ’60s that consists of 53 simple melodies to be played on virtually any instrument and at any tempo. But the similarities are unmistakable.

Riley drew heavily on a wide range of influences, from John Coltrane to John Cage to the Hindustani classical singer Pandit Pran Nath. Deacon tips his hand to reveal one of his other influences on the magnificent “Snookered:” it sounds like it was recorded deep within Brian Eno’s other green world, with Deacon intoning over sparsely ambient instrumentals, “Been ’round this road so many times / Feel like its skin is part of mine.”

On “Wet Wings,” Deacon starts with one haunting female vocal line and lays it over itself, along with a number of other patterns sung by the same woman. The entire concoction builds to a blurry, cacophonous howl that sounds beautiful through good headphones and frighteningly bad through shoddy ones. There are almost no other sounds on this song, just countless tracks of that woman singing. At its peak, the effect is as riveting and enveloping as that of “Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band,” the atmospheric second track on A Rainbow in Curved Air.

Near the end of “Wet Wings,” everything peters out all of a sudden and only one track is left. The woman’s lone voice sings with a startling confidence, “The hour of death is near.” That line cuts to the core of the so-called “absurdist” worldview, equal parts nihilism and Dada, that is behind Deacon’s raucous music. He explained it during a 2007 interview with Art In The Age of Mechanical Reproduction: “Absurdism is mainly defined … as a philosophy that the universe ultimately has no meaning, and it will be ending in some sort of demise, so why not just go balls-out all the time?”

A version of this piece first appeared as a column in the March 30 issue of the Tufts Daily.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

New Black Joe Lewis Video: "Sugarfoot"

Black Joe Lewis gives his band, the Honeybears, a palatial introduction with his first music video, for the tune "Sugarfoot." The throwback feel and black-and-white film aren't the only clues that Lewis is after a prominent spot in the retro-soul scene. He's chosen to publicize "Gunpowder" and "Sugarfoot," the two most James Brown-indebted tracks from the group's new album, Tell 'Em What Your Name Is! The consciously classy video smacks of Motown Records' clean-cut image more than Brown's unhinged, passionate soul. It makes for a good mix, though, and Lewis continues to impress on his debut good-will campaign. If his tour stops in your town, try to catch it--all sources seem to agree that it's not to be missed.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Look Both Ways #7: In the Apollo’s Shadow, a Godson of Soul

My cousin Tom used to lecture a more impressionable me on the folly of interpreting Bob Dylan songs. Dylan lived his songs; he was in them. They weren’t just great poems or pieces of music, they were his blood coming through the speakers. Jimi Hendrix’s version of “All Along the Watchtower” was garbage, Guns N’ Roses’ take on “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” treason. If all professional musicians’ renditions were blasphemous, I asked, why was Tom always playing Dylan tunes on the acoustic guitar? “I’m not covering them,” he answered. “I’m channeling.”

Of course this made me laugh. But after a listen to Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears’ debut record, I understand what channeling means. Lewis is new on the soul scene, but his incorrigible howl, throaty growl, wordless and punctuated gasps on off beats, selective precision mixed with screams that abandon pitch—it all reeks of the Godfather of Soul, James Brown.

On the Honeybears’ new
Tell ’Em What Your Name Is!, released last week, the influence of James Brown’s incredible 1963 album Live at the Apollo shines bright. It’s important to bear in mind that while it would be an undue compliment to claim that Lewis can match Apollo’s genius or ebullience, it would also be selling the new album short to suggest that it’s a derivative work with nothing new to offer. Lewis explores ground that Brown never broached on Apollo, particularly on the tunes “I’m Broke,” with its electric piano and hip-hop groove, and “Master Sold my Baby,” whose music recalls Southern blues musicians who moved to Chicago in the ’40s and pawned their old acoustic guitars for Telecasters. Still, the cowlick of James Brown’s silhouette looms huge whenever Lewis opens his mouth, whenever he plucks out a riff on his electric guitar, whenever his thick horn section hits a break.

Apollo, a young Brown presented his sound, already famous from its tamer incarnations on the "Ed Sullivan Show" and in studio recordings, as the gamely, untethered dynamo it was during concerts. Brown’s vocals are squirming with energy, even on ballads like “Try Me,” and his horn section’s harmonies waver from lilting to wailing. The rhythm corps, meanwhile, seems to get ahead of itself so giddily that each of the first four tunes, a quick two minutes each, doesn’t come to an end so much as vault off the stage and into the Harlem night.

Lewis deftly approximates that nascent-funk-meets-soul sound, but it’s disappointing how obvious it is that he’s doing this as a 21st-century musical historian, not a vintage innovator. For instance, the guitar on
Apollo is packed with personality, laden with the grime and crunch of a lightly overdriven tube amp. On Tell ’Em, Lewis’ guitar suffers from a distinctly digital-age distortion. A filthy cloud of virtual sound soot, clicked and dragged onto these tracks with a mouse and keyboard, hovers between his instrument and the final product.

And then there’s the typical neo-soul problem of “sound” over song. Luminaries Sharon Jones and Raphael Saadiq are today’s masters at replicating the sonic formulas of old Motown and soul records. What they often miss out on are the timeless melodies and irresistible hooks that provided the real backbone of black pop music in the ’60s. Lewis has failed to write any song as infectious as “I Don’t Mind” or “I’ll Go Crazy,” highlights of Brown’s
Apollo. Still, Tell ’Em holds its own on today’s scene and appears to be the debut of a formidable new band that’s worth keeping an ear on.

A version of this piece first appeared as a column in the March 23 issue of the Tufts Daily.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Look Both Ways #6: Antony Trudges Across the Nile

“Out of my stereo came his startling, other-worldly voice, the sound of someone enraptured—or maybe possessed. He seemed to embody his dire ballad, rather than to merely perform it."

When music writer Barry Alfonso wrote that, he was recalling his first listen to Appalacian folk legend John Jacob Niles. But it would have been just as appropriate if written about Antony Hegarty, the transcendental singer of Antony and the Johnsons.

In 1959, Tradition Records put out An Evening with John Jacob Niles, a collection of folk songs performed, inhabited, stretched to their frightening limits by the so-called Dean of American Balladeers. It was Niles’ second record on the label. Fifty years later, Antony and the Johnsons have just released their second album on the Secretly Canadian imprint, the stunning and stirring The Crying Light.

If you’re concerned with concretes like era and instrumentation, you’ll find little tying these two albums together. But after one listen to both singers, with their unnerving tremolos and haunting high notes, the bond is undeniable.

Niles was a dulcimer-toting Kentucky-bred folk musician, albeit a notably worldly one. Antony, meanwhile, is a British bandleader with an expert group of musicians who provide a bright, floating landscape for his elegiac vocals. Still, the two artists’ ultimate effects are similar.

Those eager to parse and parcel have done their best to fit Antony’s music into categories, often calling it baroque pop or folk. It’s neither, of course, but the roots of such brandings are apparent. The Johnsons, full of violins and cellos and woodwinds and finger-plucked acoustic guitar, sound nothing like a rock band and everything like a mini pit orchestra backing some arty off-Broadway musical. The baroque tag grows out of this. The folk categorization comes from the music’s soft, acoustic bent and the fact that it all revolves around Antony’s storytelling (to use such a term liberally). After all, it is more common in today’s alt-pop world for lyrics to play second fiddle to the music’s overall aesthetic; most reviewers, unfortunately, give only cursory attention to the words when discussing new music. Antony and the Johnsons make this an impossibility.

Antony’s poetry would be beautiful with or without his emotive vibrato (one that’s so aggressive it often borders on melisma). Some of the songs on “The Crying Light” have a puzzling, shrouded quality that can liberate and empower the listener. On “Kiss my Name,” for instance, Antony weeps, “And my tears have turned to snow / I’m only a child / Born upon a grave / Dancing through the stations / Calling out my name.” In other instances, his songs’ understatement and brevity render them all the more revealing. On the title track, Antony sings, “Inside myself / The secret grows / My own shelter / Agony goes / Crying light, the crying light / I was born to adore you.”

Niles was never opaque, but the folk songs he interprets and the way he presents them can be as eerie and obsessively fatalist as Antony’s work. For instance, “The Black Dress” is a tale of a “forlorn” and “forsaken” young bride that Niles, with the force of his voice, puts into a frightening, nocturnal fantasy world. And the wistfulness of his “The Turtle Dove” feels like a clear predecessor to Antony’s songs of lacking. But Antony goes further—he does not simply sing about past tragedies or loss in the traditional sense; his forborne malaise seems to reach into the future, it feels as if it could continue forever.

A compelling and especially poignant side of Niles comes out when he sings his most famous original songs, such as “Go ‘Way from my Window” (yes, that’s what Dylan was referring to) and “I Wonder as I Wander.” Unfortunately, you will have to look deeper into his largely inaccessible catalog to find these—the easiest way to find them is on another Tradition Records LP, “I Wonder as I Wander” (1958).

But on all his records, Niles indicates the breadth of his influences, and this is another quality he shares with Antony. Unlike so many of his contemporaries, Niles is clearly as indebted to country blues singers like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie McTell and Bukka White, who went far beyond singing, making their mouths into interpretive instruments, natural sound-making machines. Antony and his band, meanwhile, take quite a few pages out of the book of soul. It's obvious in some of their most gratifying harmonic structures and turnarounds. Whatever their influences, Antony and Niles haunt and transcend, entirely differently but with a similar potency.

A version of this piece first appeared as a column in the March 9 issue of the Tufts Daily.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Heading South by Southwest? Don’t Miss Dawes

Now that M. Ward has taken a big old chunk out of my heart, I have to admit it’d be pretty nice to have a new folk squeeze to fill the void. And just like that, serendipity be damned, out of nowhere pops Dawes. They’re a young quartet from California, as susceptible as any to being tossed nonchalantly into that strange pseudo-category people call Americana. (Just make sure you don’t mistake them for fellow Golden State group Simon Dawes.)


Think Fleet Foxes, except if they listened to a little more Wilco and a lot more of the Band. (Okay, so they probably listen to buttloads of both, but you get the idea.) Dawes might not be topping any major best-of lists in the near future, but they do have harmonies to match their Seattleite brethren, with a low tenor swimming around down there and adding an compelling element.


And while Dawes do love ’em some acoustic guitars, don’t miss out on the electric propulsion on “When my Time Comes” (it's available on the group's MySpace page).


If you’re in Austin next week for South by Southwest, check these guys out; they’ll be performing at the Red Eyed Bar at 3:30 p.m. on March 18, and at the Habana Bar Backyard at 9 p.m. on March 20.


Hey, they might be warming me up to this Americana label. I mean, watch the video for the beautiful “Love Is all I Am,” above, and just try to tell me it doesn’t leave your tongue smacking of sweet apple pie.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Look Both Ways #5: Musical Magellans

In April of last year, Zach Condon posted a mystifying message on the Web site of his intercultural music project, Beirut. He cancelled the group’s tour and said he was in need of a creative shift: “It’s come time to change some things, reinvent some others, and come back at some point with a fresh perspective and batch of songs,” he wrote. “I promise we’ll be back, in some form.” Now Beirut has returned—and indeed some things have changed.


Condon hollowed out a niche for himself in 2006 as the only 20-year-old “indie rocker” making records that sounded like a French chansonnier crooning over a Balkan gypsy ensemble. Two albums, three EPs and at least one musical crisis later, Beirut is back with the gripping March of the Zapotec EP.


Rather than forging an ethnic aesthetic using hired hands in a New Mexico studio – or bedroom – as per usual, Condon decided to embed himself for Zapotec. He traveled to southern Mexico last year to play with the Jimenez Band, a 19-piece Oaxacan brass outfit. The results are exciting and, of course, surprising.


Listening to these six tracks and thinking about how they were made, I couldn’t prevent Paul Simon’s Graceland from springing to mind. Like Condon, Simon had long held a penchant for drawing on various foreign styles. He’d never been nearly as ambitious as he was in making his mid-’80s comeback record, though. Simon ventured into an apartheid-riven South Africa to record what would become his magnum opus.


Drawing on local musicians as well as some Americans, Simon crafted a sound that’s as timeless as it is unclassifiable. The album shakes and shuffles with African pop’s snare-drum rhythms, it shimmers with the jangle of lead guitars, and it shrieks with the urgent background vocals of the Gaza Sisters (who sing in their native Tsonga on the chorus to the unbearably danceable “I Know What I Know”). At the same time, it is clearly Simon’s record: this is still his silky, reassuring voice; his songwriting; his brainchild.


The same goes for Zapotec: it is more Condon’s brand of popular music than Mexican folk. He wrote the songs, and the lush horn arrangements, while distinctly Latin American, are not as far divorced from his neo-Balkan orchestrations as one might expect. It does feel more organic than Graceland, which was influenced and recorded by South African musicians but is essentially an ’80s-pop record. This is largely because Beirut was never an indie-rock band so much as a cultural-music experiment.


Then there’s Condon’s voice. Its thickness and operatic flair recall Charles Aznavour, the so-called French Frank Sinatra, and this feels appropriate on top of European gypsy music, all mournful accordion and French horn. But when the instrumentals remind us of Mariachi, it’s more of a stretch. That’s okay—Condon is not trying to sound like any old band leader here, he’s trying to sound like an experimental young New Mexican in Mexico. And at that he succeeds with ease.


Lyrically, both Condon and Simon largely stick to their guns on this album. The former pieces together dramatized verses, often with incomplete sentences, and makes up for their inconsistent quality with a presentation that is both emotive and theatrical to the point of rendering some of the words indistinguishable. Simon, on the other hand, has never been better at slicing into human weakness and need, with both his soft-voiced presentation and his understated poetry.


“She comes back to tell me she’s gone,” he sings on the title track. “As if I didn’t know that, as if I didn’t know my own bed / As if I’d never noticed the way she brushed her hair back from her forehead.”


Condon might not be the lyricist Simon is, but his new Zapotec has its own, potent list of virtues. The record is on sale in a double-disc package with Holland EP by Realpeople, Condon’s electro-pop side project.

  • Click here to see the video for Zapotec's best song, "La Llorona." As Simon does on a number of Graceland tracks, Condon reaches into the culture of his host country for inspiration on this track; the story of La Llorona is a popular Latin American legend centered on a woman whose ghost roams the night looking for her lost children.

A version of this piece first appeared as a column in the March 2 issue of theTufts Daily.