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.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Live Review: M. Ward 2.26.09

There are more idols than realities in the world: that is my "evil eye" upon this world; that is also my "evil ear." Finally to pose questions with a hammer, and sometimes to hear as a reply that famous hollow sound that can only come from bloated entrails — what a delight for one who has ears even behind his ears, for me, an old psychologist and pied piper before whom just that which would remain silent must finally speak out.


Friedrich Nietzsche wrote that in 1888, and it’s never rung quite as true for me as it did on Thursday night. Only for me there’s no joy in the fall of this idol. And all I needed was one set of ears to hear him come crashing down.


I was willing to forgive M. Ward of his trespasses: his side project with Zooey Deschanel, its music as plasticky as the discs it’s sold on; his crushingly plain new solo album, so divorced from the sad, surreal world he used to inhabit and give glimpses into with breathy and breathtaking verses; that time on NPR last month when Bob Boilen asked him to play one more song “for the fans” and the singer refused without even a feint of an explanation. I was ready to write all these things off as bygones. You do that sort of thing for your idols.


But there is something serious afflicting the musician who put on one of the best shows of my life in September 2006, during his Post-War tour. Call it She & Him syndrome. Call it Norah Jones jaundice. Call it the New Pornographers pandemic. Whatever it is, he’s got it bad.


When Ward opened Thursday night’s show at Paris’s CafĂ© de la Danse with “Epistemology,” a straightforward love song from the new LP, I was excited to hear what the tune would sound like without the recorded version’s cloying strings. But as the band tumbled into the refrain, Ward’s electric guitarist reached for his synthesizer, sending shammed violins and cellos out through the speaker rack.


As the night wore on, it became clear that Ward’s band was determined to crunch and distort the nuances out of every song it touched—most disappointingly, the old gems “Chinese Translation” and “Vincent O’Brien.” Ward has never been an “indie” musician in the typical sense, so much as a folk musician with a magnificently ethereal touch. But it was that otherworldliness – in his lyrics, instrumentation, and presentation – that made his work so artful. On Thursday, there was barely any of that. Ballads were subjected to cheesy, blue-eyed soul vocal harmonies, while beloved rollickers like “Vincent O’Brien” got buried under profuse fuzz. This was a mediocre roots-rock bar band that had had a few too many beers before sound check.


Ward’s six-song acoustic interlude was the highlight of the show, with “One Hundred Million Years” and a finger-picking instrumental medley as standouts. But it is clear that twilight is fading into night over M. Ward’s dream world of fishing boats, rusty guitar strings, and deep, dark wells.

Note: the above photograph is not from Thursday's concert; it was taken at his Friday performance at Paradiso in Amsterdam. It was uploaded by Flickr user Guus Krol.