Tuesday, February 28, 2012

7 From 12

The mist of the new year is starting to clear and some of the records that will define 2012's soundscape have emerged to take over my eardrums. Here are seven that have been exciting me of late.

Breton - Blanket Rule EP I have been burning with anticipation for their first full-length since it was announced last year so this free EP came as a nice surprise to bank the flames. But this is no odds and sods collection - the four new tracks are finely-wrought and fascinating, featuring layers of gritty sonics. Among other signs of increasing mastery, singer Roman Rappak displays a new sensitivity on How Can They Tell, which evokes feelings of confusion, betrayal and sorrow over a slippery background. While you can download Blanket Rule from Soundcloud, this is a band that takes their physical product seriously so I highly recommend getting the exclusive CD from FNAC, which features an excellent bonus track called Not Gospel, which you won't find anywhere else. BIG IMPORTANT NOTE: Breton are making their NYC debut at Mercury Lounge on Wednesday, March 21. There are still a few tickets available and all it takes is $10 for the privilege of saying you were there when.

Field Music - Plumb The Brewis brothers have cooked up another collection of intricate and witty pop to follow up their magnum opus, Measure, which was my number three album of 2010. Considerably shorter than that double album and filled with often very short songs Plumb has the flavor of a suite. It's tough to imagine them not performing the 35 minutes of music in one continuous burst. It's amazing the level of detail they shoehorn into 1:53 and I have the feeling I will be discovering new nooks and crannies for a long time. I was also impressed with their cover of Leonard Cohen's Suzanne for a Mojo compilation. It seems there is even more range to these guys than I thought!

Brooklyn Rider - Seven Steps This string quartet has a well-deserved rep for a wide-ranging repertoire and excellent, passionate playing and their new album does not disappoint. It opens with the title track, a group composition(!) that explores the many ways that long lines can be combined with skittering and plucked sounds to create various moods. Christopher Tignor's threnodic Into This Unknowable Night follows almost with a sense of relief from the sturm und drang but soon becomes unsettling. The composer' samples, percussion and AM radio add texture and detail to the drawn out chords. With their expansive view of music I suppose a trip to the 19th century shouldn't come as a surprise (and they have performed Mozart brilliantly in concert), yet it is still notable that more than half the album is taken up with Beethoven's 14th String Quartet in C# Minor (Opus 131). The more you listen, however, the more it makes sense. This confounding work, published a year before Beethoven died, opens with an amorphous, miasmic movement that was part of the inspiration for the music in Scanners, the David Cronenberg 1981 creep-fest and it is full of frissons. The combination of short and long movements, shifting keys and unexpected variations has me shaking my head thoughout the work's seven movements each time I listen. Brooklyn Rider tackle the demanding piece "guided by the spirit of free play rather than the heavy weight of the auteur's pen," so in a way this is just another performance of a canonical work. But the context is unique and when you circle back to the start of the record, the quartet's commitment to communicating the perpetual freshness of great music becomes blindingly apparent.

Sleigh Bells - Reign Of Terror There may be more noise around this band than there is on their records so I'm not going to add to it at any length. Suffice it to say that if you liked their debut, you will likely find this almost equally diverting. Guitarist/producer Derek Miller and Singer Alexis Krauss give us some more of what we want (cartoonish guitars, distortion, programmed beats, breathy vocals and distortion) while pushing into some new, more emotionally reverberant areas. The key track for me is You Lost Me with its weeping glissando guitars. While the verses are pure teen noir, the chorus of "I don't want you to see me this way/But I'm ready to die" seems to reflect Miller's mother's recent battle with cancer. And as someone who has watched three people very close to me die of the disease, this certainly struck a chord with me.

Hospitality - Hospitality This debut record (besides an EP in 2009) is as warm and welcoming as the band's name, and as expertly put together as something by label-mates Spoon. The lyrics are easily relatable and Amber Papini sings then with a few different voices - pixieish, wry, confessional. It's like a night out with someone you haven't seen for a while but are so glad to have in your life again. The more you listen, the more details you notice in the arrangements. It goes down easy but there are rougher edges lurking underneath the chiming guitars. They betray their inexperience only in the slight overuse of a few tricks, like adding a beat to the bar to emphasize the words ("Don't-You-Know"), something they do on three songs. But this short and sweet album introduces a delightful new group to the world we call Indie.

Leonard Cohen - Old Ideas Look up "elegiac" in a dictionary and you won't be far from the overall mood of this collection, but there's more variety here than you might notice at first. From the sly blues of Darkness to the gospel shadings of Show Me The Place and the folk basis of everything, this is the most "Americana" record he's put out since 1984's Various Positions. The lyrics, of course, are deep, witty, and endlessly quotable. If you're new to Cohen, this is maybe not the best place to start - but start! I envy you your journey.

Prodigy - HNIC Part 3 Speaking of endlessly quotable, how's this from Look In My Life MSTR: "The fire in my heart could burn up the planet/The plans in my head are putting me on a hammock/In the Canary Islands, with my canary diamonds"? This free mixtape is neither a career defining masterpiece like the first in the series nor a solid placeholder like the second, but more of a sketchpad, although one with a few thrilling moments and no real weak spots. One of the high points for me is simply titled ex and features an energized P spitting flames over the sparsest of beats. Download it for free and get the rush for yourself. Keep in mind that this is just the warm up for the official H.N.I.C. 3 release, which is imminent.



Monday, February 13, 2012

Requiem For A Popcast

In my younger days I was fond of quoting the maxim (invented by myself): "All newspapers are lies but the New York Times has the lies you need to know." While I don't feel quite the same way, perhaps that's why I continued to listen to the New York Times Music Popcast, their "weekly guide to new music," even though it was frequently unintentionally hilarious.


Now, without fanfare, and with almost as much notice, the Gray Lady has summarily cancelled production of most of their podcasts, citing financial reasons.

So here's a brief obituary of the Popcast - why I won't miss it and why I will. A little bit. When I first started listening, it was introduced by Tom Kuntz, then the Pop Music Editor. While he had a boyish enthusiasm for the idea of the podcast, he seemed to lack all feeling for music. Every time he spoke I would wonder why he was the Pop Music Editor and when he said the name Beyonce, which was distressingly often, it sounded like he was reading a phonetic translation from Swahili. Fortunately, he was only there to set up the episode before passing it on to one or another of the NYT's Pop Music critics - mainly Jon Pareles, Ben Ratliff, Nate Chinen, and Jon Caramanica. Although Kuntz soon moved on, the format basically stayed unchanged until the podcast's demise.

Now these are all intelligent guys, who have risen to the top of their profession, and who often write good articles and publish acclaimed books. Unfortunately, none of them have an especially dynamic vocal presence. Also, as the weeks went by, it became quickly clear that the content, based partially on their taste, I assume, and partially on editorial concerns (the Paper Of Record and all that), was not so much a guide to "new music," but a guide to new recordings, which is not quite the same thing.

What this meant in practice was long conversations over-analyzing music which is already highly publicized, top-selling, and, that will, I believe, prove fairly disposable - Beyonce, again, Rick Ross, Brad Paisley, Adele, L'il Wayne, etc. After a while, I had to wonder who the audience was for this. For pop culture semioticians the discourse was not deep enough and for the people who actually purchase those types of records or mp3's, it was likely far too involved. There is also the unseemly vision of grown men getting home from work and firing up the computer to play the latest from Taylor Swift. For their own enjoyment.

So why did I keep listening? Besides those "lies you need to know" there were the occasional flashes of brilliance, as when Jon Pareles introduced me to Calle 13's spectacular Residante O Visitante. While their subsequent albums have not struck the same chord with me, this was in nearly constant play in 2007 and will go down as one of the best of that year - not to mention that decade. Also, cultural critic Larry Rohter often showed up to investigate music from around the world or from older niches of America. He combined good reporting with a fan's enthusiasm to very satisfying effect. He ought to have his own podcast. Ben Ratliff occasionally had the space to display his jazz and metal chops, critically speaking, which are well known from his books.

As for Jon Caramanica, his self-satisfied belief that the most commercial stuff is on the cutting edge is one of the main reasons I won't miss the Popcast. When I like stupid stuff, I don't make great claims for it. Some things can't - or shouldn't - be explained. About the only time I've agreed with him since he joined the Times was his recent takedown of The Black Keys, Foster The People, etc., which was long overdue.

So no need to shed a tear for the Popcast. There are plenty of other podcasts to help you find new music, which I will explore in the future.




Tuesday, February 07, 2012

2011: The Year In Live, Part 2

The final post on the year just passed. With 2012 over 1/12th over, it's time to get cracking on what's going on this year!

Besides the concerts I saw with Hannah (see Part 1), I was lucky enough to finally see Fleet Foxes, The Walkmen and Mastodon in 2011 - wow!

Going To Church - Ever since my wife and I saw an extraordinary Bob Dylan concert (yes, they do happen) at the United Palace Theatre in 2009, we have wanted to return to this storied venue. As we didn't get to see Fleet Foxes when they were touring behind their first album, there was no hesitation getting the tickets when they played there in May. We were sat far back, which is my wife's preference, and after enduring the lamentable Cave Singers, we were bathed in the warm harmonies and expansive sound-world of the Seattle band. The new songs sounded great, but perhaps even more remarkable was the passion and freshness of Robin Pecknold's engagement with songs he has sung hundreds of times around the world. It was a stunning show.

Going To Brooklyn - My wife doesn't much like going to concerts, but when Fleet Foxes announced more shows at the Williamsburg Waterfront in September, with our old favorites The Walkmen opening, she had no qualms about making the trek. And, boy, was it worth it. I have been a devoted fan of The Walkmen since their first album and my wife came on board with You & Me in 2008 but we had never seen them in the flesh. I knew singer Hamilton Leithauser was a suave dresser, but we were both unprepared for his fantastic command of the stage. His charisma is white hot and his commitment to the songs is total - and he manages to be charming at the same time. The band completely delivered, their minimal yet epic sound filling the stage and small gestures sounding huge as the sun set at our backs. 

As great as the first Fleet Foxes concert was, it was eclipsed by their Brooklyn performance. The new songs were road-tested now and sounded more of a piece with their earlier works. Also, as I was standing fairly close to the stage, I was able to pay more attention to how they produced their sounds and it was a masterclass. Certainly, you can play a Fleet Foxes song with a beat-up acoustic and it would sound good, but since they are steeped in 50 years of production techniques, they enhance their compositions with brilliant musical touches. The first thing I noticed before they even came on stage was the Hofner bass (made famous by Paul McCartney) on the left of the stage and the upright bass on the right. This told me that they took their bottom end seriously, which became even more apparent when they took a leaf out of Owen Bradley's book and used both together. Combined with J.Tillman's melodic drums, it enveloped the crowd in a rich low end that amplified the emotional impact of the tunes. The whole show was full of instrument-switching, instrument-doubling, and virtuoso flourishes. Robin was as charming and witty as Leithauser had been earlier in the night and made everyone feel included. We walked back to our car with an afterglow that seemed to last for weeks.

Going It Alone - The opportunity to see Mastodon at Terminal 5 in November was not one to be taken lightly - but who to go with? A quick visit to their Facebook page and I quickly learned that two old friends of mine were also fans. Cool! I messaged the first one and although he wanted to see the "saviors of heavy metal" he had to decline as he was in a windowless room in Costa Rica doing top-secret programming for an internet company I can't mention. One down. The other guy showed interest but was so lame about replying to my message that the concert sold out, which drove me to StubHub where I scored one ticket at slightly over face value. Yes, I was going to be facing the monstrous Mastodon on my own. 

Up close & personal
with Red Fang
Only Red Fang was listed on the ticket as the opening band so I was a little dismayed to learn that Dillinger Escape Plan was on the bill as well. Life is a little too short for two opening acts, but I knew they had been around a while and figured this was my chance to check them out. Before the place was half full, the hairy dudes of Red Fang took the stage and - whaddya know - laid it down in fine style. With guitars down tuned so far the strings should have been slack, they played rifftastic punk/grunge/metal songs with distinct melodies and a distinctive style of almost Brucknerian repetition. Along with much of the audience I was more than pleasantly surprised. After over 30 years of concert going, I have found the odds that an unknown opening act is going to be even good to be almost non-existent. When their set ended, I was charged up but a little concerned that the floor would not be the place to be for Mastodon, due to the higher volume of the headlining act. I headed upstairs and took my place along the wall of the mezzanine - and am I glad I did. 

I don't want to go into details, but Dillinger Escape Plan were one of the worst musical acts I have ever experienced. And it is an act. The roadies knew exactly when the lead guitar jackass was going to climb the amps and there were strategically placed apple crates (helpfully painted fluorescent green) for guys to jump up on. The whole thing was so canned - ugh. And the music, while precise, was dumbed down Helmet and I didn't much like them either. Next!

Mastodon - the aftermath
Finally, Mastodon, in all their glory. If you're not familiar (and you should change that - soon), this is the preeminent hard rock band in America today. Melody, weight, conceptual depth, emotional engagement - it's all there. A culmination, in fact, of many genres and micro-genres of heavy music from the past two or three decades. Yes, there are bands that are more abrasive, more bizarre, more obscure - but when it comes to the sheer love of music, Mastodon wins out. And live, it was no different. Just to watch how guitarists Brent Hinds and Bill Kelliher assemble those jaggedly beautiful riffs was a pleasure. And the rhythm section of Troy Sanders and Brann Dailor swung like a mother. It was a great set ending with the perfect singalong of Creature Lives - see for yourself.

What did you see on stage last year? Here's to more great shows in 2012!