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Archive for December, 2010

The Year’s Best

Its pretty obvious that my musical interests–or affections– lie in bands and artists that have been around, or were creating at a time other than 2010. I have no elitist predilection in that regard though; I just like the older stuff more. However, there have certainly been some solid albums this time around. And, although this is pretty much just a music blogger’s responsibility come December 15th (or so), I still am happy to share the albums that I thought were the year’s finest.  For the most part, they’re well known, and their popularity is well-deserved: these albums were big because they were good, and not the other way around.

5. Black Dub – Black Dub

To contradict myself right off the bat, I’ll start with the semi-obscure. Daniel Lanois’ newest solo/side project is fascinating. He’s got a young female vocalist with pipes from hell in Trixie Whitley. She sounds more like Joss Stone than Susan Tedeschi, but her obvious natural (not educated) talents put her somewhere in the middle, and also makes her the album’s highlight. With help from a restrained but rhythmically stimulating Brian Blade on drums, Lanois grabs from a variety of musical styles and cultures; mixing Jamaican rhythms with Memphis Soul, Appalachian folk with french gospel. Black Dub‘s variety is constant, and although this overt genre melding has certainly been done before, it’s Lanois’ first crack at it, and that says something.

4. Beach House – Teen Dream

What a pleasure; I get more out of this album than their previous two combined. Flush with synthy mechanics and emotive imagery, the Baltimore duo casts wonderful sonic layering throughout. Alex Scally and Victoria LeGrand are masters of the lull, even the upbeat parts of this album create that title appropriate dream-running feeling, where you really aren’t going anywhere at all. And that’s not a knock on Beach House, with Teen Dream they’ve captured a specific–albeit predictable– sonic identity. I hear a lot of purples and yellows, but not a lot of browns. That means their musical ideals are distinct, but separate; pretty, but cautious. And, this may be the newest sounding album on this list, although LeGrand sure owes a lot to Stevie Nicks.

3. The Black Keys – Brothers

For an album with so much pop–and instrumental variety– I don’t know how much longer we’re going to be able to refer to these guys as a blues-rock duo. This is a long way from 2001’s The Big Come Up, but certainly not unexpected, The Key’s evolution has been pin-pointed rather precisely by their well-paced releases. Magic Potion marked a distinct improvement in songwriting and song variety, while Attack and Release marked one in experimentation and sonic variety. Brothers has a lot of sounds from its two predecessors, but also carries a new found interest in soul and pop hooks. The duo works these newly appointed characteristics into a lot of the album’s gems. The result is The Key’s most accessible album yet. And although its a tad long, it has enough flowing consistency and fervor to keep you interested for the long haul.

2. Arcade Fire – Suburbs

In which Win grounds his thematic intensity, Regine still sings the best song, and everyone else thunders and rolls their way through 16 tracks that makes the whole world remember why we missed Arcade Fire so much. The Suburbs has a remarkable ebb and flow about it, the songs weave, they bob, but more importantly, they compliment one another. I have a lot trouble explaining why I enjoy this album in such a succinct way; mainly because the album is anything but that– succinct. It is a dramatic but realistic reflection on the trials and tribulations of a suburban adolescence, and how they only become trials and tribs once you reflect on them–its a hopeful realization that the act of looking back is both revealing and enlightening. The Montreal ensemble takes their time proving this exceptionally candid theme, but their concept-heavy existence has never made us expect anything else. The Suburbs‘ concept certainly beats confused politics, and is a close second to death, but the album also has a sonic maturity and variance that is akin, but superior, to that of its predecessors: Neon Bible and Funeral. And that makes The Suburbs a natural extension of the talents and abilities of Win Butler and crew.

1. Vampire Weekend – Contra

This time out, the ivy league quartet is a little tighter, a little smarter, and a little more experimental. We hear slower, longer songs about more than hot-for-teacher crushes and obscure grammatical instructions. Ezra Koenig’s lyrics still read like an English major’s, but now he’s tackling issues with a little more depth. And although their blatant musical appropriations can be heard sometimes as a ripoff rather than homage, its nothing new in Rock and Roll, and now after two years worth of touring, this unit has the musicality to back it up. Koenig and Batmanglij have always had chops, but on Contra, Chris Tomson and Chris Baio give VW a backbone, a buoyant rhythmic fortress underpinning the stylish wordplay and swirling arrangements that are already expected from their leading front men. Culturally speaking, VW’s previous tales of wealth and privilege garnered a fair amount of naysayers. Contra, however, not only speaks out to those on the privileged end, but also the heartbroken, oppressed, and, for lack of a better term, musically familiar. And Vampire Weekend doesn’t care if the naysayers don’t fall into any of those categories; because rationality, in this case, certainly outweighs doubt. 

Honorable Mention: The Morning Benders – Big Echo.

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Edward Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeros brought their ensemble folk rock outfit to the Congress Theater Saturday night, headlining the now three-year-old Chicago Bluegrass and Blues Festival. Although the festival usually tends to host headliners who represent a more straightforward style of Bluegrass or Blues, The Zeros’ Americana intentions were certainly appropriate. Their sound, which is characterized by an epic, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink mentality, is filled out by a brigade of keyboards, accordions, guitars (acoustic and electric), two drummers, and two singers. This barrage of sound may seem audacious—or even a bit unnecessary—but the manner in which the instruments are played (accordingly, reserved, tastefully) ensures that The Zeros are all capable and aware of their roles, and that their chemistry is rarely sacrificed for any spotlight show-stealing.

After releasing their debut album Up From Below in July of 2009, The Zeros have toured relentlessly, gaining popularity and honing their skills. They’ve hit festivals, late night TV shows, and several different countries playing the same 13 songs from this debut. As a result, they know the tunes inside and out, and are probably a little bored of them. However, Saturday night’s show bared no sign of boredom, but rather an energetic and amiable band seemingly humble and pleased that these few thousand people were there to view a show that the majority of them have probably seen before.

The Zeros have played Chicago three times in the last year (twice at Lincoln Hall, once for Lollapalooza), each time to a sold out—or in the latter’s case, dense—crowd. Perhaps acknowledging this, perhaps just evolving, The Zeros’ routine set list seemed inspired by a jammier and more unrestricted aesthetic. Their carefree dynamic was accentuated keenly by a handful of newly appointed interludes. These instrumental breaks, which were rife with improvisation and conversational chatter by The Zero’s lead man Alex Ebert (or Mr. Sharpe, although he won’t admit it), were refreshing and lent a modicum of on-stage/off-stage acknowledgement that was lacking in their earlier Chicago shows.

Ebert’s surprisingly-sober stage demeanor was something of a spectacle by itself. His long brown hair, unkempt beard, and long white tunic emphasized his band’s dynamic (you know, the carefree one). And, his shamelessly un-philosophical discourse regarding love and friendship conjured the notion that his Christ-like appearance isn’t much of a coincidence. Sharpe’s (and Ebert’s) purpose is to guide his listeners, to teach them about how to overcome a life filled with regret and despair—a life to which Ebert is no stranger. Songs like “Home” and “Janglin’” oozed with the positivity required to send these types of messages. Their anthemic and memorable melodies encouraged heavy crowd participation and roaring celebration. The chorus of “Home” has an undeniable catchiness that has allowed the song to reach an incredible amount of fame in the last year, and on Saturday, the theatre-wide sing-along portion signified that type of concert-going unity that so many shows only scratch the surface of.

“Home”

“Black Water” and “Kisses over Babylon,” however, struggled to send that same message. The former’s messy rhythmic patterns and reverb-drowned vocals don’t translate well to the stage. But, guessing by the amount of times The Zeros have performed “Black Water” in the last year, its possible that they have realized its on-stage ineptitude and let it slide anyway. “Kisses over Babylon”’s epic cattle driving beat seemed a bit worn out from the start. And the song’s all-Spanish dialogue seemed more like a vocal exercise than an expression of raw, carefree emotion.

Because of a set length that reached almost 100 minutes, The Zeros were also able to play three new songs. These unnamed tunes fell very much in the cheerfully grand style of Up From Below’s highlights and even featured a song sung entirely by Ebert’s usual back up singer (and former squeeze), Jade Castrinos. Her buoyant smile and star gazing eyes emulated an optimism that summed up perfectly her and her bandmates’ persona. The Zeros’ jovial chemistry in these songs—and for most of their set—ensured the show’s quality, but also helped cap off a night that proved the benefits of a year’s worth of touring.

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John and Me

I woke up today with unexpected  gratitude for a lot of things– life, family, friends. I think the gracefully patient pace at which my mind was moving made me realize this rare sense of thankfulness. All too often it takes an unfortunate event for me– and a lot of my generation–to be thankful for the everyday blessings that hide behind their mundane disguises, and today is no exception.

30 years ago tonight, the world lost one of these incredibly fortunate blessings. John Winston-Ono Lennon was shot and killed in the lobby of his New York apartment building by a man who claimed to be one of the former Beatles’ biggest fans. Whether it was an act of betrayal, regret, or sheer stupidity, the psychology of this event is, to this day, as perplexing as the event itself. Why would someone set out to end a man who touched the hearts and lives of so many people? What would push someone to those limits?

Lennon’s vast musical and cultural impact is known far and wide. But that impact, although large, is made up entirely of personal experiences: the first time a now 59 year old mother saw him smile and croon so brightly on the Ed Sullivan show in 1964, or how a now 62 year old father began his professional career as a photographer by snapping shots of John and his fellow Beatles on that same show. Or how those same parents decided to raise their children on the music and culture of John and his Fellows.

Its an almost tear jerking reflection to think about the affect–and effect– that John has had on my life. I’m pursuing a life completely dominated by music, and I’ve surrounded myself with a lot people that feel the same way. And, the near innate love I have for this art form would be nowhere without the nurture and guidance I received from parents that knew (or discovered) that babies and Beatles are a perfect fit.

So when I think of the infamous night at the end of 1980, I rarely shed tears of anger and sorrow. Rather, I dwell on the happiness and direction John’s music has given me, and how every year his unfortunate passing makes me thankful for my everyday blessings–life, family, friends.

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It’s hard to imagine what pop music would be like without Ray Charles. Before Elvis, before The Beatles, Charles was crafting accessible tunes accentuated by danceable rhythms and harmonic flair. His background in classical music, along with an extremely deep connection with American roots music—primarily gospel and blues—contributed to Charles’ unique and indirect approach to pop music. As a result, Charles’ crossover style enabled him to reach a vast array of audiences, and come to popularity in a relatively short amount of time.

Throughout his four-plus decades as a musical icon, Charles’ enviable musicality seemed almost effortlessly connected with his unabashed range of emotion. His on-stage demeanor epitomized that of a confident and carefree musician, and the relative ease of which his music can be listened to reflects that attitude; and at times, passes it on to the listener. Some are inspired by his music, others just empowered, but either way, one can never doubt the affect he has upon his audience.

Charles’ raw emotion, which can be heard on his first pre-1950s singles all the way through his posthumous 2000s releases, was articulated by a healthy marriage of tasteful piano playing and stylish vocal dynamics. His voice, with its distinguishable mix of melodic slurs and grunts, is somewhat of an icon by itself. Singers ranging from British invasion wiz kid Steve Winwood to southern soul-stress Bonnie Raitt can be heard imitating these slurs and grunts. And, although many others have tried this type of influential homage, Charles’ unique vocal ability is surely unmatched in American (and British) popular music. His talents strictly as a pianist enabled him to venture in the world of Jazz. It was within this arena that he was able to reach profound emotional depths through phrasing and syncopation that at times reached farther than that of his voice—perhaps expressing feelings that he could not articulate in any other way. Together, these talents (which he arguably had mastered by the time he was 20) highlighted Charles’ passionate approach to making music that connected to his—and his listeners’—soul.

Charles had lost both his neglectful father and loving brother by the time he was five years old, and by 15 he had gone blind and lost his young mother. No stranger to suffering, he channeled his undeniable struggles toward the fruitful goal of studying music. He developed his talents in his time spent at the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind. It was there that he received most of his classical piano training. His affinity for roots music came from his near-innate obsession with radio and his early childhood spent in the cotton fields, where gospel hymns and spirituals were some of the only true survival methods. Charles also developed his showmanship at the school, and became somewhat of a celebrity around the campus, playing in different events and gatherings. Flaunting his prodigious talent was no chore, but rather a release from the painful realities that burdened his every day life from such a young age.

By the time he was 17, Charles had been showcasing his talents around the southeastern United States for nearly two years. He had made musical friendships with many musicians within his own R&B genre, along with Jazz and country musicians. He decided that in order to branch out and gain national exposure he’d have to move as far from Florida as he could, and ended up in Seattle. Throughout the next decade, Charles rose to (and transcended) R&B prominence with singles like “I’ve Got a Woman,” “Mess Around,” and “It Should Have Been Me.” These hits, although primarily marketed towards the R&B crowd, were flush with musical direction. Charles integrated his gospel and blues influences on the tune “I’ve Got a Woman,” and did so with tasteful subtlety that denied obvious allegiance to either genre. Charles’ stylistic fusion was complimented by his jazz inclined rhythm section and their rock solid backing. In this first decade, Charles’ unmistakable sound led him to an inadvertent creation of a new genre: Soul music. He didn’t initially set out to create this genre, but his bold union of emotional coherence and vast musicality made it almost impossible to classify his music along with any of his R&B contemporaries.

Soul music—musically and culturally—didn’t differ much from the post-war R&B that came before it; it was made by and for a primarily black audience and had a generally danceable groove that was accessible to most anyone who tuned in. However, much like its creator, Soul reveled in subtly. Every harmonic tinge and syncopated beat distributed throughout Charles’ hits gave way to a more sophisticated—and musically varied—version of this evolving R&B. Later, dashes of choral and orchestral accompaniment would also become a mainstay in Charles’ (and soul) tunes, but it was his initial blend of music that he loved with music that he loved to play that gave birth to Soul.

As a musician, Charles’ innovation is irrefutable, but strictly as a songwriter, his monetary motivation was fierce and unprecedented. In 1959, he signed a deal with ABC Records that would grant him full ownership of his master recordings, as well as a very high and lucrative royalty rate. By this time, Charles had fully realized his talent and its leverage. He made it abundantly clear that he would only record for ABC under those circumstances. And, although the obvious response is to agree with the notion that he had the right to own the music he created, Charles’ publishing intentions were also a heavy determinant in his reasoning for the deal. Charles was notoriously cheap when it came to paying his touring band, and his love for money often outweighed the relationships—both personal and business—throughout his life. Owning his masters meant he could do whatever he wanted with his recordings, and for a man of his popularity and stature, that meant a lot.

This deal proved to be exceptionally beneficial to Charles when he began his foray into country music in 1962. After a decade of immense popularity within the soul and R&B crowds, the last thing a record executive would implore on an artist would be to make an album strictly of country covers. However, Charles heard soul in country, and country in soul, and because he could, created an album that brought the genres’ primitive connections into the public light. The album, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, was a crossover success, and nothing that Charles wasn’t used to.

Much like his 1960s scholars The Beatles, Charles found success in the acceptance of music, not musical genres. His relentless open mindedness and inability to musically discriminate created Soul music, and provided guidelines for Rock and Pop’s evolution. Without Ray Charles, The Beatles would probably still have existed and been immensely popular; but without Ray Charles, there’s a chance that “Please Please Me” could have been recorded in 1969.

Ray Charles died on June 10th, 2004, leaving 12 children and 9 mistresses behind. But what he also left was a musical and cultural world forever indebted to his genius; a genius that was above all else, truly American.

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