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: