Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Life, Love and A Fairytale of New York

The holiday season seems to come earlier and earlier with Christmas sales even appearing before Thanksgiving this year. Everyone has their own touchtones for these early winter months. Black Friday, in November, is the official start of holiday shopping (as if that needed an official start) and for the next 30 days people will be flooding stores in search of some kind of perfect gift. Christmas trees (and menorahs) are going up, earnestly gaudy decorations are popping up on houses and in living rooms and red clothing is becoming relevant in even the most monochromatic of wardrobes. People in warm climates dream of snow while people in cold climates allow themselves to enjoy it at least through New Year's Day. While the sounds of Christmas are in large part dominated by Bing Crosby and Salvation Army charity bells, in my life no December is complete without one song: The Pogues classic "A Fairytale of New York".

This is not a song I ever sang in school. It's not one I've ever heard from a caroler's lips. But it is the most stirring holiday song I've ever encountered. It's full of nostalgia, longing, a sense of youthful adventure and tragic heartbreak - in short, the breadth of human experience. From its drunken, squalid beginnings in a jail cell on Christmas Eve the song is transported to a past relationship, yearning for the both the sweet fervor of beginning and the rocky agony of ending. Even more powerful than the particular story being told is the idea it expresses: that love and passion don't necessarily fade even though the relationship that spawned them might be irreparably destroyed. Shane McGowan wistfully singing, "I turned my face away and dreamed about you," promises that those feelings have life beyond the moment they are experienced and the song's final, haunting verse reveals through a painful exchange of bitterness and love that while the individual moments my only reside in the past the emotions will always be real.

Musically the song is just as stirring as its lyrics, from the slow, rolling intro sparsely featuring McGowan's gravelly croon over a simple piano to his interplay with strings, winds and Kirsty MacCall's sharp, rebellious vocal. My heart races with impetuous romance whenever I hear her sing, "When you first took my hand on that cold Christmas Eve/ You promised me Broadway was waiting for me" and is wrenched when she spits, "You scumbag, you maggot/ You cheap, lousy faggot/ Happy Christmas ya arse I pray God it's our last". Though the meaning of the chorus changes with every repetition the bombastic fanfare in its rise and fall gives me goosebumps. Every. Single. Time.

This is a carol that celebrates life in all facets, the high and the low. It revels in the stunning, whirlwind beauty of love and the piercing, gut-wrenching beauty of tragedy. The song isn't clean or innocent or full of child-like wonder like most associated with this time of year. Sure, those tunes are enjoyable in their own right. I've played in newly fallen snow, listened intently for the patter of hooves on my roof, and eaten chestnuts freshly-roasted on an open fire. No matter how heartwarming those memories are, however, I could go the rest of my life without hearing "Winter Wonderland" or "Frosty the Snowman". On the other hand I'd be surprised if I make it through the rest of today - or any day this month - without listening to, and being moved by, "A Fairytale of New York".

Monday, November 22, 2010

Girl Talk's "All Day" Doesn't Stack Up to his Yesterday

A lot of words have already been written around the interwebs about what the new Girl Talk album, All Day, is. I'm going to start with a few things it's not.

It's not groundbreaking. It's not innovative. It's not astonishingly new.

In fact the more spins Gregg Gillis' recent work receives (including the two albums prior to this) the more glaring it becomes that he's just digitally recreating what a lot of great DJs have been doing for years. To say it's earth-shattering is to neglect the work done by Kool Keith (Dr. Octagon), Qbert and Shadow, and the complex mixes that Gillis has been lauded for are easily overshadowed by The Avalanches superb Since I Left You from 2000.

Granted, the novelty of Girl Talk isn't entirely based on his mixing skill. He's become famous largely for taking recognizable bits of iconic rock songs and mixing them in with hip-hop on a massive scale. Rock fans, through his work, are introduced to classic and club hip-hop through songs they've grown up knowing and loving. In this vein, though, All Day still isn't the most interesting piece in Gillis' own catalog. Feed the Animals from 2008 is far more fun and engaging using far more sound clips creating songs that sound more spry and organic. Its an album that creates the same club vibe but relies less on playing huge clips of actual hits. Some of the snippets heard on All Day are actually re-used from the previous record which furthers the impression of this album as a lesser reproduction. Even 2006's Night Ripper seems, to me, the more ambitious project as it isn't as beholden to club hits to create its beats. Biggie's "Juicy" played over Elton John's "Tiny Dancer" might be the best few seconds of work that Gillis has ever done. In light if this (lack of) progression even Gillis' early experimentations with glitch seem more intriguing.

Listening through this album for the first time is sort of like listening to the Ramones' End of the Century after already hearing and loving Rocket to Russia. The production is much cleaner and the techniques are essentially the same but the songs have lost some of their punch. Indeed, the fact that they are so similar to previous work, at some point, simply indicates an inability to grow further. Perhaps a more apt comparison would be to Green Day's Dookie. It's an album that stands on the shoulders of many previous giants and doesn't really build on the band's own work, but became a success precisely because the band's past record brought it to a critical mass of critical praise and underground awareness. It's not necessarily better than Kerplunk but it has undoubtedly cleaner production and it capitalized on Kerplunk's success to launch the trio into the popular consciousness.

This is all not to say that All Day - or End of the Century or Dookie - is a bad album. In fact, it's quite good. Gillis' transitions between clips are much smoother than past efforts and his penchant for instantly recognizable rock riffs with (mostly) club songs remains compelling. It's just a shame to see Gillis' next step after two excellent albums be a step sideways and back.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Joy Formidable at Bowery Ballroom 11-16-2010

They are not YouTube sensations. They are not darlings of the indie blogosphere. But with a gigantic, cavernous sound, a simple, honest charm and earth-shaking rhythms the three members of The Joy Formidable are everything that's good about rock music.

The British trio finished their American tour at the Bowery Ballroom armed with an off-the-charts energy and enough fuzz and noise to blast the audience back to the early 90s. These tunes were more spry than their Seattle-launched predecessors, however, and grunge's melancholic shoe-gazing was replaced by a sense of euphoric revelry. The show wasn't so much a performance as a celebration and while the audience was pulled into the mass jubilation it was clear that nobody was having more fun than the three on stage. Matt Thomas, a mass of unkempt hair and flailing drumsticks, kept impossibly frenetic beats flying from his kit allowing pauses just long enough for listeners to catch their breath before diving into the next sonic whirlpool. The interplay between Rhydian Dafydd, playing the part of the enigmatic bass player, and the coy, sweet buzzsaw that was frontwoman Ritzy Bryan was adorable as the two long time friends played off of each other during and between songs. Dafydd's bass lines waltzed easily through the pillars of Bryan's gigantic riffs giving each enormously powerful song surprising agility.

While some bands construct songs through building tension and anticipation the Joy Formidable excel at creating successive and increasingly intense moments of release. They fashion moments of unbridled, unrestrained catharsis. They are a maelstrom of passion and intensity and, god, it is a blast getting lost in their storm.

They tore through most of the material from the band's mini-album A Balloon Called Moaning as well as new single "I Don't Want to See You Like This".

The group also unveiled the first single from next year's upcoming full-length Big Roar, the stark and haunting "Anemone".

The set ended with a nigh ten-minute rendition of "Whirring" that still seemed to end all too soon.

It would be easy to say The Joy Formidable are tailer made for anyone who spent the 90s listening to guitar heavy "alternative rock", or followers of the sharp guitars and sharper vocals of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs or Sleater-Kinney. In truth, though, the band should appeal to anyone in love with fantastic rock and roll. It's a group that grabs hold of ears and hearts and limbs forcing each into realms of purely instinctual feeling. Perhaps most amazing of all they do it with smiles plastered across their faces and a desire to share them with anyone that will listen.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Power Overwhelming?

During my high school and early college days I was a gamer. By the time I hit my gaming stride at 14 years old I'd already maimed my hands on the NES Rectangle of Pain, ruined my eyes by staring, too close and unblinking, at myriad TV screens and gotten intimidatingly good at Street Fighter 2. After a middle school spent transitioning into computer geekdom - assembling boxes from parts and getting my first taste of online multiplayer through Doom II and Duke Nukem 3D - I entered high school as a Computer Gamer. I'd taken One More Turn a million times in Civilization 2, racked up a Flawless Victory in Red Alert and co-founded one of the more skilled and successful Jedi Knight clans on the MSN Gaming Zone.

And then, in the summer of 1998 at a computer show at a nondescript Hilton Hotel, I found StarCraft.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Neon Trees Are Terrible... in Awesomeness

I want to hate Utah pop-punk outfit Neon Trees. I want to loathe this band with every ounce of taste I have. Their music is simply a conglomeration of every pop gimmick that's been popularized in rock music over the last ten years and the record lacks depth, soul and heart both musically and lyrically. There are songs on the band's debut, Habits that literally make me cringe. And yet... and yet there are moments on the record that approach pop perfection with dynamic rhythms, heroin-addictive hooks and beats so catchy they're practically pandemic.

Opener "Sins of My Youth" seems a direct musical rip from 2008's well-meaning but unrealized and annoying post-emo musical Razia's Shadow complete with forceful but non-evocative vocals trying to convey some emotion the vocal never delivers. It's a party song about regretting drugs and parties which, I suppose, is ironic but a sort of irony that is more irritating than clever. This flows into "Love and Affection" which fails to conjure anything close to either emotion with unimaginative melodies lifted from 2004 while "In the Next Room" would make Panic at the Disco wish someone really would close the Goddamn door so nobody would steal their vaudeville-meets-pop-punk shtick. With "Our War" the Forgive Durden circle is drawn to a close with a sedate, contemplative monologue preceding a mostly forgettable closer.

Despite all these issues, despite all these mediocre songs I cannot stop listening to this album. Why? Because of a four song stretch in the middle that makes for some of the best summer music of the year. "1983" is actually probably a stupid song, but as a 27 year-old my senses of the tune's flaws are obscured by nostalgia and its hooks piled upon hooks. "Girls and Boys in School" attacks with a high-hat and snare good enough to fill out the playlist at most indie-rock dance parties in 2006 while "Your Surrender" is a jumping, pounding, pogo-ing anthem of who-cares-what-because-this-chorus-is-so-fun.

None of this would be able to salvage the record, however, without "Animal" which is, I have to say, is an almost perfect pop song. It's nimble and agile, subtle pauses leading into quick, entrancing movements. It has hooks, sing-a-longs, and just enough 2001 garage-rock affect to temper the singer's over-indulgent vocal. The result is a hot, hot, hot song that if their label marketed it smartly, would be an instant mainstream hit. It's exuberance and youth bottled and rendered in 0s and 1s.

Habits spends most of its time mimicking sounds of the band's successful predecessors and in many cases the failings of the songs are more failings of the source than of Neon Trees. When the band hits on something good, however, it's fucking electric.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Real Life Hot Tub Time Machine

Before last weekend the last time I was in a cabin it was filled with several eager Cub Scouts sleeping in barracks-style bunk beds eating food prepared on either campfire or wood-burning stove. It was a far cry from the cabin-style luxury condo I've just returned from equipped with a full kitchen, three bedrooms, three bathrooms, comfortable couches, two plasma screen TVs, a pool table and a hot tub. Of all it's amenities, however, the greatest was its ability to transport me back to a simpler, easier time of my life.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

On Mermaids, Crowds and Drunk Russians

Some of the best times to be had in New York City come from unexpected places. Deviating from a pre-made plan often leads to amazing, singularly New York experiences.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Ohio Through Fresh Eyes

In 2006 I was chomping at the bit to get out of Ohio. I was on the tail end of four years in Columbus capping 23 years total in the state. Anxiety and frustration flowed through my veins like blood and alcohol and my impatient restlessness was at its peak. I'd been wanting to leave since I was 13 years old, dying to go off in search of some sense of purpose and belonging.

As I drove off in that U-Haul in the mid-August heat there's no way I could have predicted how comfortable I'd feel coming back.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Notes From a Bus Terminal

The plan was to leave work early, go home, get my luggage, and take a train, a train and a bus to Laguardia. The plan was to board AirTran flight 208to Akron. The plan was to spend a night in Cleveland and drive to Cincinnati the following day for a Memorial Day weekend that was a housewarming and reunion all rolled into one.

As they say, "The best laid plans of mice and men go oft awry and leave us naught but grief and pain."

Monday, May 24, 2010

A Brooklyn Tattoo From Brooklyn Tattoo

I was perusing Facebook last Friday and noticed that a friend of mine was attending an event at Brooklyn Tattoo on Smith Street and Atlantic in Brooklyn. Curious, I clicked through and arrived at one of the more impulsive decisions I've recently made.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

How an Early Evening Turns Into a Late Night

For the better part of four years for my friends and I Wednesday has been a bar night. Not a wild, get dressed up, go out late bar night. A blow off steam after work and leave after happy hour night. Occasionally these outings have spilled into Thursday A.M. but generally we'd belly up at 5:30 and be out in time for Lost. Though we've dabbled in other bars our bar of choice has been largely consistent as has our bartender (the wonderful Ms. Heather.) Our times have not always been unpredictable but they have always been fun so when I texted the usual suspects yesterday as afternoon stretched to evening I thought I knew exactly what I was getting into.

Little did I know that I'd be left fighting a hangover for most of Thursday that even an early-morning bacon/egg/cheese croissant couldn't ward off. How did I get from light after-work drinking to trudging through a work day dehydrated, muddled and craving huge bowls of fries covered in cheese and hot sauce? The story isn't funny. It's not strange. It's not surprising. It's probably a little anti-climactic But it says a lot about that bar, this city and the people that choose to populate both.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Vinyl Exams: The National and Broken Social Scene

The National's High Violet and Broken Social Scene's Forgiveness Rock Record will likely be remembered as two of the better albums of 2010. Aside from the two dropping in the same month, these releases share several common traits. Both are lush, rich and deep. Both come from bands that have a several album history of excellent music. And both boast fantastically packaged vinyl versions to the tune of 180-gram double-LPs.

High Violet comes shrink-wrapped with a sticker annoyingly attached to the flimsy plastic. I personally can't stand keeping shrink-wrap on a record, usually opting to buy heavier plastic sleeves. Luckily it does seem that the sticker - which is mostly ad copy, but cool looking ad copy - is easily removable and transferable.

The front cover carries a grey background and is adorned with a multicolored, cursive, shadowed rendering of Pope Pious IX's quote defending the dogma of the immaculate conception:
If, therefore, any persons shall dare to think - which God forbid - otherwise than has been defined by us, let them clearly know that they stand condemned by their own judgement, that they have made shipwreck of their faith and fallen from the unity of the Church.
The band's name stands on its side as does the name of the album, inset with foil.
The back cover is a bright purple with white text. The album name once again appears in foil inset.
As this is a double-disc the packaging is actually a gate-fold with the inside spread including the liner notes and a black and white picture of the Dressler brothers, Aaron and Brian.
The sleeve of the first disc (sides 1 and 2) is bright purple on the front with the word "HIGH" written in large white letters. The back features a black and white picture of Bryan Devendorf. A small, easy to miss slip with a digital download code is inserted along with the first disc. The sleeve of disc two (sides 3 and 4) is colored bright purple like the first with the word "VIOLET" in large white lettering. On the back appears a picture of Matt Berninger and Scott Devendorf.

Those lucky enough to have struck early enough to get a numbered, limited edition copy of this album will find that their records are a deep violet and are slightly translucent (hard to see in the picture.)

The High Violet package is exact, concrete and remarkably attentive to detail. The violet/white trim color scheme permeates the entire release with the exceptions of the stylized black and white band photos.

Forgiveness Rock Records comes pre-packaged in the kind of heftier plastic liner that I prefer, which is good since the band and album names are imprinted on the plastic and not on the actual record cover. The front cover art consists of a splice of several different pictures including a crowd scene, a city-scape, a field of flowers, a boat and various kinds of sky. Bisecting the images is a wide cone of light shining upward.

The back cover features a picture of a large, paint-brushed color splotch.

The inside spread sees the album's lyrics hand-scrawled in the background with a mountain range superimposed over the top. This is more art than functional lyric sheet since each half is once again bisected by a white column with a track list and producer's credits.

The front of the disc 1 sleeve is simply the album title drawn in smudged pen and enlarged. This spare presentation could seem anti-climactic but actually conveys a very personal touch. The back of the sleeve reproduces doodles of the various band-members. The disc 2 sleeve has more doodles on the front though the back is the star. As BSS has so many members performing so many different functions within each song, the back of the second sleeve features liner notes and itemized musician credits for each individual song.

The final impression the album leaves is one of incredible creativity but also of deep intimacy. It's just as careful and purposeful as High Violet but evokes a more riotous, frenetic feeling, much like BSS' music compared to The National.

The packaging in both cases is meticulous, reflecting the ethos of each band and each group's musical style. Clearly a lot of thought and love went into these, which is fitting considering the quality of the songs contained within.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Vacation Days Remaining: 12

There's nothing like a day spent at home that was supposed to be spent at work. Waking up at a time usually reserved for meetings and hurried phone calls. Spending hours lounging in bed, long after the alarm never went off. It's easy to love these days when the sun is out, the temperatures are up and mental to-do lists consist of popping in and out of record stores and early afternoon drinking on some Brooklyn bar back patio. The idyllic neighborhood hopping - traveling between boroughs and leaving responsibility behind.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Written Over Three Very Good Days in New York

Monday through Friday my days play out much the same. My alarm clock buzzes, I jerk half-awake and I groggily strike out in the direction of the noise hoping to hit the snooze button. Eventually I drag myself out of bed, cook breakfast, take a shower and leave my apartment. On the good days the sun is shining and my landlord's cats are relaxing on the front steps, patiently waiting for me to play with them.

Six blocks north to the subway. Two flights of stairs down to the train. Hoping that the G is not waiting at the platform causing me to sprint or wait an indeterminate amount of time for the next one. A little after 9am I arrive at work. I drink coffee. I open up Outlook and Excel. I mess about with figures and paperwork. I stress out about things over which I have little control. At 5pm (or 5:30, or 6 or 7) I leave.

This flat, grey day-to-day is the basis of my everyday and yet there are times (like now, on my roof, on a 65 degrees and perfect afternoon) when I get the strongest feeling that this 8-5, five days a week is nothing more than an extension of my dreams. A waking, walking sleep. In those hours it certainly feels as if a part of me remains unconscious, waiting for that first breath taken after 5 (or 5:30 or 6 or 7) outside the office's revolving doors. Then during, for example, a walk from Union Square to the East Village for a burger and a beer the best parts of me start to come alive again. Chatting with a bartender for a couple of hours about proper techniques for pouring beer and mid-90s alt-rock seems more like Real Life and Real Experience than an entire day of the-same-as-yesterday.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

In Defense of Fans of Bland

When I woke up Tuesday morning I heard a voice. At first I couldn't place it; it was a voice I hadn't heard in years. It fought with my blaring alarm clock for my attention, and when my flailing hand finally hit the snooze it came through clearly. Sitting up in my empty bedroom I heard the smooth tones or Rob Thomas in my head as he sang, "she said I don't know if I've ever been good enough..."

The lines bounced around my brain while I cooked breakfast, showered and commuted to work until, unable to hold back any longer, I spent a large part of the morning time-traveling back to high school. Matchbox 20 wasn't a band I loved, but it was a band that made a few songs that I loved. I navigated my spreadsheets and e-mails that morning to the tune of Push, 3am, and If You're Gone and marveled that ten years later I still knew a lot of the words. Not only that, I found myself still liking the songs despite not liking the band anymore and despite knowing that if they came out now I would more likely than not dismiss them. Listening to the tunes again, though, I was unable to disassociate the songs from what I felt when I first enjoyed them.

I wonder now how some of the bands that shaped my late adolescence would fare with critical, curmudgeonly, 27 year-old me had I never heard them in the first place. This Brooklynite doesn't feel the same longing for escape and frustration with his surroundings that made Less Than Jake's "History of a Boring Town" - and the rest of Hello Rockview for that matter - so essential to the Ohio-rooted 17 year-old I was. I can't say whether the angst-filled earnestness that made The Get Up Kids' Something to Write Home About so compelling in 1997 would strike the same chords now without being played on decade old strings.

How much are our feelings for the bands that we love tied to who we were when we first heard them? More importantly, does this make our taste suspect - a product of our situation and environment more than our ear? Or does it just make our relationship with music that much more beautiful and personal?

As someone who's never wanted to level judgment at someone for liking (what I think is) a terrible band I'd have to say the latter. When it comes to music feeling is king. While originality, skill and emotion can often feed into that if a crap song comes along at the right time in someone's life then that song will be playing in their heads for the rest of their life. And while blogs like this can always try to ensure people happen upon songs like "For Me This is Heaven", if it ends up being "I Want it That Way" who is anybody to really judge?

Bands can be picked apart and musicians can be critiqued, but when it comes to fans sometimes the heart wants what the heart wants. Most people will call that a "guilty pleasure" but I say that when it comes to music no pleasure should be guilty. I'll blast my stereo to Arcade Fire and Kelly Clarkson with equal pride because who cares what anybody else thinks of it? When it comes to music cool is bullshit, approval means nothing and Rob Thomas is invited to my iTunes any time I feel like it.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Third Annual Record Store Day This Saturday, April 17

In 2008, after the first record store day, I wrote a piece on the continual value of record stores with regard to music. As a meeting place, a communal resource and a stockpile of very old, very analog sensory perceptions these storefronts remain a vital part of musical culture.

Record Store Day began as a way to celebrate and revitalize the rich tradition of the music repository, the brick-and-mortar, the mom-and-pop. I've gone out and spent far too much on both previous Record Store Days and I happily anticipate a repeat this year.

I think you should, too.

Check out the Record Store Day Web site for participating locations. Several shops are hosting in-store performances by nationally known acts so check ahead to see if any can't-miss happenings are happening nearby. There will also be several RSD-exclusive released including a Bon Iver/Peter Gabriel split 7" where they cover each other's songs.

To commemorate the event Carrie Brownstein - formerly of Sleater-Kinney, currently one of the best music writers around - published a little questionnaire on her NPR blog Monitor Mix. Follow the link for her answers, read below for mine.

Q: What was the first independent record store that shaped, inspired or merely catered to your musical tastes? (If you've never set foot inside an indie record store, I urge you to head to one on Saturday and see what you've been missing!)

A: Chris' Warped Records, formerly located on Madison Ave in Lakewood, Ohio. For 20 years this was THE store in Cleveland. It traded in punk, hardcore and ska, hosted in-store shows and sold tickets to shows at local clubs. It was one of the linchpins of the Cleveland scene, but sadly is no more.

Q: What was the first album that changed your life?

A: Metallica's Ride the Lightning was the first album I loved and Blink182's Damnit was the first album to get me to love something that wasn't metal. Less Than Jake's Hello Rockview, though, was probably the first album that really hit home. The themes of dissatisfaction and anxiety over the future came around at just the right time, just when I needed them.

Q: What is one of the most prized albums or singles in your collection?

A: In February of 2003 I bought my first issue of Punk Planet magazine - mostly because of the name - and the cover story was a three part interview with the members Jawbreaker. I'd never heard the band before but based on reading the article, and the description of the band's influence, I was very interested in giving them a listen. One month later I was visiting New York for the first time and my sister took me to Generation Records in Greenwich Village where I found, among other things, 24 Hour Revenge Therapy. It instantly became one of my favorite albums and remains so to this day.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

More Like Bore-Square

This is not a knock on everyone I know who uses this service. I encourage them to continue if they are so compelled.

But I fucking hate Foursquare.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Press Play on Hey Marseilles - To Travels and Trunks

While festivals like Lollapalooza, Bonaroo and Coachella get a lot of hype year after year for their huge line-ups of headlining talent it's the weeklong events of CMJ and SXSW that routinely capture my imagination. While the big, sprawling weekend extravaganzas offer the opportunity to see scores of huge names on one bill the small-club marathons in New York and Austin allow extremely talented, criminally overlooked acts to make a leap to the national stage. CMJ 2007 yielded one such gem in the form of a solo act armed with an acoustic guitar and a set of cracked, heartbreaking pipes. This intriguing find was none other than Bon Iver, who of course went on to explode in the indie world, even capturing the attention of Peter Gabriel.

I haven't been similarly blown away by anything at these two festivals in the two and a half years since, until SXSW 2010 yielded the Seattle folk orchestrations of Hey Marseilles. The band's full-length To Travels and Trunks - written in 2008 to be re-released this June - blew me away from the first listen of the first track.

The arrangements on the album are amazing, navigating the space between simple folk rhythms and sophisticated orchestral flourishes. Constant, steady guitar riffs press steadily onward as various strings and horns flit in and out of their path. As a violin fades, a trumpet takes its place in a series of crescendos filled out by booming percussion. It's an album of grand constructions that nevertheless gets all the little things right.

The record is a chronicle of wanderlust; an ode to exploration and braving uncharted experiences. To the tune of hand claps and light, ambitious strings the irrepressible "Rio" reads like an instruction manual on how to jump headfirst into possible disaster for the mere chance at unforgettable adventure. The band sings, "I will go where the days left to breathe are not gone; are still long. I am traveling on." For those taking the leap the marching drumbeats and triumphant guitars of "Hold the Morning" promise, "We will sing to the thunder. Clap as the earth shakes."

Inherent in any hunger for newness, of course, is a restlessness with the status quo. The soft guitar picking of "Cannonballs" lays down a soft launching pad to explore this stir-crazy anxiety. "These days are not fast. Times will not last, so they say, but I'm having trouble believing." The message repeats in the waltz-like rise and fall of "From a Terrace" which calls out, "Routine is rapidly pounding her post, can't you stay in the moment that needs you the most?"

There is no fear of consequence on this record; rather an idea that failure and loss are but steps on the way to something greater. "You Will Do for Now" states in a voice full of realized mistakes and insecurity that no matter how bad today is there is always tomorrow and, "Regret won't keep the sun from the sea."

Throughout the record Hey Marseilles strives to show off the stunning elegance of intrepid risk-taking, whether it be the heady thrill of success or the poignant melancholy of failure. This is no more apparent than in album stand-out "Calabasas". In past years both the Arcade Fire and LCD Soundsystem have used a technique that involved repeating musical phrases but adding to them with each repetition. Each time through instruments and layers of complexity piled on resulting in an incredibly multi-textured and evocative sound. "Rebellion (Lies)" uses this affect to create a grand sense of drama and exuberance while "All My Friends" channels a tremendous sense of isolated longing. "Calabasas" uses this to draw scenes of gentle, stunning beauty.

It begins with a recurring guitar riff supporting simple lines like, "Take what you need from the words I leave from the windowsill in blue concrete." Soon enough a gentle violin comes in bowing a gentle melody and the pair are quickly joined by a booming bass drum. Backing vocals, keyboards, a cello and an accordion all in turn slide in to fill out the sound underneath a lead vocal delivering the same few lines over and over again. Elements slowly fade out and fade back in creating a gentle ebb and flow that builds into a minute and a half long strikingly graceful instrumental interlude. The intensity picks up to crashing cymbals and the vocals cut back in leading a grandiose crescendo to a moving, intense climax and a coda that finishes back with the simple guitar that opened the piece. It's an arresting, picturesque love song that conjures more meaning with five lines than a lot of bands do in an entire album.

The song is a grand gesture, an exclamation point in the middle of the record and an early entrant for song of the year.

With To Travels and Trunks Hey Marseilles have crafted an earnest, absolutely gorgeous album that displays not only skilled songwriting but also heartfelt lyricism. While the vocals sometimes skew too tender they are generally compelling and when paired with the record's fantastic musicianship result in some of the most moving pieces of music in recent memory. The album is a must-listen, and for any lucky enough to be in the tour path the band is a must-see.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Happy Belated to Me

In my adult life I have generally not bothered to celebrate my birthday. I've only thrown parties twice, never tell anyone in advance and in recent years have taken to removing my birth date from all of my social networks when it approaches. When I turned 23 I left town.

This year, however, I decided to throw a little something together. That little something ended up growing into a four-day extravaganza that spanned three boroughs and highlighted some of the truly great things that make living in New York meaningful.

Monday, April 5, 2010

New Legislation Would Be a Few More Nails in Radio's Coffin

NPR recently reported that President Obama supports legislation that would charge AM and FM radio stations royalties to labels and artists, presumably in place of terrestrial radio paying ASCAP fees.

On the surface this seems like a pretty innocuous move - supported by struggling artists like Tony Bennett, Cheryl Crow and "Money is a drug and MCs are on it" - but really it looks to me like just another way the majors are trying to exert control over the musical marketplace and squeeze the last few cents out of their business model before it shrivels up and dies. The royalty rate hikes in 2007 nearly crippled Internet radio and this system would do the same to terrestrial indie stations.

Radio stations that play anything other than Top 40, classic rock or country tend to be locally owned businesses that aren't exactly raking in the cash. New fees on top of operating expenses and the tightening ad budgets of this economy will force most of these stations to run in the red or go under. Sure Crow and the Black Eyed Peas love this move. Their music gets played on Clear Channel stations all over the country, and with these kinds of laws Clear Channel will be one of the few companies able to pay the increased royalties.

But what kind of landscape does this leave us with? The same six songs on every channel played on loop every hour?

Artists deserve to get paid for their work. This is a fact. But moves like this are akin to artists poisoning the well that they drink from. How many small bands thrive on airplay? How often are record sales driven by a first listen on the radio or on a Web site? When up-and-coming bands would kill for the kind of listenership a medium-sized radio station - even in 2010 - commands, how does it make sense to claim that the radio stations are the only ones benefiting?

Musicians and radio stations - both online and terrestrial - should have a symbiotic relationship. When one thrives, both thrive. By increasing royalty fees on what is in essence radio stations advertising their product, the major labels - who not even ten years ago were found guilty of paying stations in exchange for increased radio airplay - are killing an essential source of musical distribution.

Is this the brave new world the online frontier promised young musicians? Not too long ago writers were tripping over themselves to declare the playing field level since now any artist with a guitar and a Myspace account could be discovered and make it big. Now OKGo, a band made famous by YouTube, isn't even allowed to embed their own music videos on their own Web site.

Make no mistake. The major labels would prefer it if customers bought music based on nothing but traditional advertising campaigns and album art. No advanced listens, no peer reviews, no refunds, no returns.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

I Didn't Really Sound Like That, Did I?

Every year I sadomasochistically go back and review my old Livejournal entries from roughly 2001-2004. Generally it's pretty jarring to see such drastic swings between elation and depression, such poor writing (including things that I HATE these days like WRITING IN ALL CAPS and shortening yr words 4 no reason) and such comical taste in music.

Reflecting on the recurring themes, however - freaking out about love, freaking out about the future, freaking out about a lack of self-confidence - I realized that while my expression and perspective on these things may have changed my concern about them really hasn't. I still worry, on and off, about each of those things and while I'm less likely to spout off like a whiny five year-old about them I'm just as likely to spend far too much time thinking about them. Behind the horrific teenage poetry lies a person that is not far removed from myself.

I've grown past a lot of the frustration and angst surrounding the failings of my personality but, in large part, I have not actually grown past the failings themselves.

While those past entries are certainly embarrassing to the point that I hope nobody ever reads them again they're a pretty useful tool for self-examination. Looking back at 19-21 year old me I see that his fears are my fears and his hopes are my hopes. His dependence on his friends for identity is mine as well and I have to say we're both lucky to have such good friends to depend on. Some of the comments left for past-me were fairly prophetic - including my eventual move to New York.

While I'll never be using the rudimentary show reviews as clips they present a picture of where I was and how far I've come, both in taste and in writing.

I don't miss most of the days described in those entries, but I can't fault the passion that kid felt for something, anything to change. As cringe-inducing as some of the entries were, some others brought an aw-shucks smile to my face.

My last real day in Davis and Marge's goodbye comment. The first OSU snow day in 30 years. The Warped Tour where Mike first ran into Kate (and later Gewl). My 21st birthday. Kathleen and Edith asking me to run for office in PSA. The night Myk and Ryan first met. Mitch and Tasha's wedding.

All the sweet moments where a lost kid seemed to be found, however fleeting. Cheers to those, and more like them to come.

Current mood: pensive
Current music: the sound of silence

Shhh, Don't Tell Anyone

I've lived in New York for three and a half years now, two of those years spent in the still heavily Italian Williamsburg. Over the past ~38 months I've had plenty of opportunities to fall in love with the thin New York slice of pizza and believe me I've fallen hard. From the overflowing behemoth slices at Anna Maria's to a simple, clean cheese slice from Stromboli's I have no shortage of wonderful pizzerias to frequent.

Thus, it's to my unending shame that I admit: I eat a lot of Papa John's pizza. In the corner of my kitchen stands a tower of boxes from that bastion of Midwestern chain pizza and if it weren't for my penchant for recycling that tower would be four times as tall. In Ohio I ate Papa John's now and again and always thought it was a pleasant pie, though hardly my favorite. In New York it's still hardly my favorite but there's no pizza that I've eaten - here, in one of the best pizza cities in the country - more than good old PJ's.

It all started when Papa John's took a dominant place in my hang-over food rotation. Meatball subs gave way to General Tso's Chicken gave way to pepperoni pizza. The crust and cheese aren't bland but are generally inoffensive and the sauce and pepperoni add nice savory flavor the compliments the large amount of that hangover panacea: grease.

Eventually, though, the Papa followed me from hung-over haze to stone-cold sobriety. Perhaps it was the online ordering system allowing me to put an order on credit without talking to a real person. Perhaps it was the slew of cheap coupon deals Papa John's continually pumps out. Perhaps they put crack in the sauce. Whatever the reason, whatever the method John snuck his pizza into my psyche with no signs of letting go.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

YouTube Tuesday: PS22

This New York Public School has become an Internet sensation. There really is nothing like a children's chorus rendition of a pop song to tug at the heartstrings and the way these kids throw themselves into these songs with such earnestness is quite moving.

I first heard their sweet tones in their cover of Phoenix's Lisztomania which provides a more sweeping and grand take than the high energy original. The looks on the kids' faces as they sing is transformative. Watching their slick moves during Lady Gaga's Just Dance never fails to bring a smile to my face and watching this grainy rendition of Aretha Franklin's Respect always drops my jaw.

Picking a favorite of them all isn't easy, but in the end it comes down to two:

Part of the popularity of these videos is probably due to the novelty of watching children sing these radio songs. But on top of that these young performers add a sense of wonder and innocence to everything they sing. There's an inspired and inspiring purity in these arrangements that's infinitely compelling.

Hat's off to the PS22 chorus and to their amazing choir leader for tapping something magical in these kids and for sharing it with all of us.

Check out the chorus' YouTube channel for more videos.

Monday, March 22, 2010

With Congratulations MGMT Makes Strides in Distribution of Music, If Not in Music Itself

These days whenever an album leaks it's usually amid concerns of an impending lawsuit from the RIAA or a DMCA take-down notice. The modern (major label) music industry hasn't been all that accepting of new media in recent years, evidenced by EMI curtailing the distribution of music videos online or the label's repeated litigation against Dangermouse. It comes as a pleasant surprise, then, that when MGMT - signed to Columbia/Sony - found out the new album leaked the band decided to stream the entire thing.

The statement on the Web site reads:
Hey everybody, the album leaked, and we wanted you to be able to hear it from us. We wanted to offer it as a free download but that didn't make sense to anyone but us.

While it may not be surprising that a young band "gets" internet distribution of music, this represents quite a step forward at the very least. The phrase "that didn't make sense to anyone but us" implies that the band actually took this idea to its label and that the label agreed, at least to the idea of the free stream. For a major to agree to free streaming of an album before the official release date is a very promising baby step towards a realization of how promising online channels can be.

Radiohead and NIN had to release their albums on their own to experiment with online marketing and though indie labels have been testing these waters for years the majors haven't shown very many signs of budging. With EMI, one of the slowest to adapt to the new digital marketplace, mortgaging its back catalog its about time the other labels looked to harness the internet's potential instead of trying to close Pandora's Box.

The album itself is mostly unremarkable. Most of the tracks are mid-tempo and aimless, without any real energy or drive. The majority of the album plays like really good background music that sounds nice but doesn't have much behind its pleasant, shiny exterior. The two exceptions are fourth track - and album standout - "Flash Delirium" and the record's finishing title track. The former begins with quite a hip electronic intro before kicking into the dance-friendly hard beats that made the band famous. The song has the heartfelt exuberance that made "Kids" one of the best songs of 2007. "Congratulations" backs off from the aloof affect that possesses much of the rest of the record. The warm acoustic guitar is soft and inviting and the spare arrangements of the track provide a touching end to an album that otherwise keeps the listener at arms length.

Though the end product may not have been stellar, Congratulations represents a brighter future for the music industry. If the Big Four (soon to be Big Three?) can build on this they might just survive this new millennium after all.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

On the Way Home This Car Hears My Confessions

Since moving to New York I've found a lot of favorite things about the city. Free museum nights, free summer concerts, 4am bars and a pervading sense that a person is only as old as they let themselves feel. Near the top of the list is the erratic, nerve-wracking, frustrating, convenient and indispensable New York public transportation system.

For $2.25 I can travel from Coney Island to the Bronx Zoo; from the Hudson River to the Atlantic Ocean. On any given Friday night I can see one of the best modern art collections in the world at MoMA in Manhattan, catch an outdoor show at the Prospect Park bandshell in Park Slope, crawl into one of my favorite dive bars in Williamsburg, and be in bed without having to worry about traffic, falling asleep at the wheel or a DUI. I don't have to be alert during my morning commute and can begin to veg-out during my evening commute. Hydroplaning, warming an engine, defrosting and scraping a windshield and black ice are issues my past self had to deal with but that my current self can blithely ignore.

For all of the construction, delays and hours spent waiting for infrequent late-night trains the subway is undoubtedly my lifeline to New York City without which I'd probably spend most non-work hours holed up in my apartment playing video games and drinking whiskey (which isn't to say I don't sometimes do that anyway.)

As a child of the midwest, however, that grew up with wide streets allowing cars to drive at or over the speed limit (except in Lynndale!) in a city sprawled out enough to warrant a long drive just to get to a friend's house I can't deny there is a certain experience that only private transportation can confer.

I look back through rose-colored glasses and remember a certain serenity in my morning and evening commutes. The individualism that existed on even the most packed freeways as people traveled en masse, but were still encapsulated in their own little four- and two-doored worlds. I remember driving through a sleeping city surrendering its roads to me and my compatriots coming back from late-night jobs, shows and poker games. I remember the freeway between cities at midday, the sun hitting fields for miles around with only road ahead and behind. I remember road trips to Indiana, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin with friends packing into cars packing into caravans four or five deep with only one of us in the whole group really knowing the way.

Above all else I remember the music.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Vampire Weekend Tops Billboard and I Say... Meh

Apparently Vampire Weekend's sophomore effort, Contra, has charted at the top of the Billboard 200. When I first heard this news I tried to muster some indignation but really, I can't bring myself to care. I've been aware of VW for almost three years and have been indifferently shrugging my shoulders about the group for two of them.

My issue with Vampire Weekend was never that I disliked the band. It was that so many people thought they were the next great thing, and I couldn't get together enough feeling to care either way. They make some nice, fun little pop tunes, sure. There's a place for that. But I thought most if not all of the hype surrounding them was incredibly overblown.

Clearly my dire prognostications from March 2008 did not come to pass, and VW has survived the blogosphere's comical backlash and spared themselves the fate of Clap Your Hands and Say Yeah. While that's good for them, that doesn't really change my opinion. They still make nice little forgettable pop tunes that are easy to listen to - which is good for them since the Flaming Lips have made quite a career of that - but I still don't see the big deal.

I can't really say my opinions tend to follow the charts, though. Looking at the best-selling albums of the year in the U.S. I own a grand total of one from the past 20 years.

I suppose it's good for "indie-rock" (a term that was only descriptive for a few years last decade) that an independent release has hit the top of the Billboard charts. It's a sign of the times that you don't necessarily need the marketing arm of a major to chart. You just need a thousand over-eager bloggers jumping too quickly to anoint the next king of the hill. Easy, right?

Gorillaz Return With a Macabre Blast from the Past

It shouldn't be news anymore that the Gorillaz are finally returning with a new album, one Plastic Beach. The first single, "Stylo", moves like a Tim Burton review of the last 30 years of music. A recurring disco riff plays underneath a dark 80s synth-pop beat. Shit gets real at 3:17 when none other than Mos Def drops some lines hard.

The album is due out on March 8th and the full tracklist follows:

01 "Orchestral Intro" (featuring Sinfonia ViVA)
02 "Welcome To The World Of The Plastic Beach" (feat. Snoop Dogg & Hypnotic Brass Ensemble)
03 "White Flag" (feat. Kano, Bashy & The National Orchestra For Arabic Music)
04 "Rhinestone Eyes"
05 "Stylo" (feat. Bobby Womack & Mos Def)
06 "Superfast Jellyfish" (feat. Gruff Rhys & De La Soul)
07 "Empire Ants" (feat. Little Dragon)
08 "Glitter Freeze" (feat. Mark E Smith)
09 "Some Kind Of Nature" (feat. Lou Reed)
10 "On Melancholy Hill"
11 "Broken"
12 "Sweepstakes" (feat. Mos Def & Hypnotic Brass Ensemble)
13 "Plastic Beach" (feat. Mick Jones & Paul Simonon)
14 "To Binge" (feat. Little Dragon)
15 "Cloud Of Unknowing" (feat. Bobby Womack and Sinfonia ViVA)
16 "Pirate Jet"

Flotation Walls: If You Haven't Heard Them, You Haven't Heard Anything Yet

I have seen a lot of live music. I've ventured to sprawling outdoor festivals and tiny basement home shows. Huge arenas, smoky bars and places with enough exposed wiring to warrant serious concerns about fire safety. This usually involves wading through waves of mediocrity in the hope that, while sifting through grains of underwhelming talent and skewed vision, at least one bright gem will emerge.

For most music fans this search for the Good Show, at one time or another during our lives, becomes an obsession. We stalk our favorite bands hoping to hear our favorite songs given new dynamic life; the audiophiles that bothered to show up before the headliner standing in expectant judgment of the openers. We spend evenings at small clubs daring unknowns to impress us, to give us a reason to have another beer or stay past our friends' set.

Signs of a Bad Show usually make themselves known early and often with unready groups showing little direction and little sense of their own aesthetic. Whether tentatively tip-toeing through their songs or wildly flailing about without a clue how the different parts of their music should interact - a syndrome that occurs in more than a few headliners of national tours - these sour notes make the eventual discovery of a Good Show all the sweeter.

On January 16th at the Bushwick Music Studios the brilliantly anarchic Eskalators played a very good show. They didn't play with precision, but with an earnest exuberance that was at once invigorating, infectious and insanely addictive. The band was the spirit of ska blended with the irrepressible euphoria of Tilly and the Wall and the unpretentious fervor of Matt and Kim. Their 15 players dolled up in homemade costumes freewheeled through the set with one thing keeping them from being the far and away best band of the night: they happened to play with a group that was a force of nature.

Flotation Walls took the stage in a room of people that had never heard them play a note but before the end of their first song they had the entire audience eagerly hanging on their every chord progression. The Walls were displaying their acoustic arrangement on this tour and their simple set up of acoustic guitar, vibraphone, violin, stand-up base and floor tom still managed to create gigantic, dramatically shifting soundscapes. Before the end of their first song, "Sperm and Egg", every eye was turned to them and every ear was tuned to them. As the show progressed rapt listeners stomped along, memorized and sang back choruses, and joined the band as they ended the set - to the foreboding "Worms" - in a collective, cacophonous chant.

In that tiny club for those 45 minutes the four Walls were not only the center of attention, but the center of a community that they created, that was born of the expression of their art and that lived in each singalong and each raucous cheer.

Their sound, both live and recorded, is robust, deep and, for lack of a better word, complete. The bass and drums lay out a solid foundation and a huge, cavernous architecture which is filled in by myriad disparate yet complementary melodies played on any mix of guitar, violin, vibraphone and accordion. And while the instrumentations are truly wonderful they aren't even the best part; the group's vocal harmonies are the element that no other band even approaches in quality.

It's quite amazing how four (sometimes five) people on the road can simulate the 25+ people that played on their debut, Nature, but the live arrangements are equally compelling, exhibiting a dichotomy between pinpoint precision and unbridled release. It's this dual nature (ha) that truly sets the band apart, making them equally intellectually and emotionally compelling. Every booming percussive melody is met by a dynamic, fleetfooted response; every showcase of technical mastery is offset by a furious, dissonant crash. Moments of soft, contemplative beauty turn instantly into menacing, eviscerating, and sometimes even celebratory eruptions of sound.

In their last year of touring Flotation Walls have refined their vision, as evidenced by their fantastic Flophouse Session in Boston. Their unified voice is commanding and clear; completely defined and fully realized. Rest assured that any search for the fabled Great Show will begin and end any place the Walls are playing and anyone even close to the band's tour path would do well to plant themselves firmly on the route.

Music as an industry and as an organism revolves around a lot of different people. Artists, certainly, but also promoters, club owners, critics (and would-be critics), and myriad others. Before we did anything else, however, we started out as fans. And it's bands like Flotation Walls that made us fans in the first place.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

YouTube Tuesdays: Naj Me Tender

Clicking around YouTube, it's become apparent to me that it's a "thing" on YouTube for cute girls to cover Lady Gaga's "Poker Face" on ukulele. While I'll occasionally take a dim view on Internet memes I'm glad this one turned up because it led me to YouTube's NajMeTender.

The Singaporean singer has been a YouTube user for about a year and a half recording covers (and a couple of originals) on ukulele and melodica, and singing her own harmonies. Her sound editing is actually quite good and the songs come out (mostly) seamless with the occasional lapse in lipsynching - that is, lipsynching to herself during little dance interludes. Her voice is lilting in the range of Ingrid Michaelson with most of her videos possessing an endearing, adorable quirkiness.

How can anyone not like a cute Asian girl covering The Cure: