Friday, October 23, 2009

Miles and Miles to Put It Back Together

I turn 41 today. I definitely don't feel 41. I maybe feel more like I did when I was in my mid-20s. Luckily, I don't have aching parts of my body. I still don't wear glasses, or really need to, although I can tell my vision is not as sharp as it used to be. I can't read street signs 4 blocks away anymore, and while I miss that superpower, I have learned to be more patient and read the sign when I get closer.

I was driving home last night listening to a workout playlist when Judas Priest's "Heading Out to the Highway" came on over the car speakers. There are a lot of songs that are great metaphorically, and my favorite ones are probably about living life, and out of those, Bob Dylan's "Mississippi" would probably be my favorite, even though it's more about life and death.

Metal gets a bad rap for being big and dumb. And it is. That is why we like it, I think. The song before "Heading Out" was Saxon's "Denim and Leather", which has the lyrics, Did you read the music paper from the back and to the front, which also reminded me that kids that listened to metal got a bad rap as being big and dumb. But Saxon knew we read, and it wasn't just the music paper.

"Heading Out to the Highway" starts out with the kind of riff that made Judas Priest an influence over the genre. The drums and bass kick in, then Rob Halford sings:

Well I've said it before, and I'll say it again
You get nothin' for nothin', expect it when
You're back seat drivin' and your hands ain't on the wheel
It's easy to go along with the crowd
And find later on that your say ain't allowed
Oh thats the way to find what you've been missin'

This is a good lesson for all you teenagers out there. While it's nice to go out and have fun, you also need to be focused on getting your shit together so that when the time comes, you can make your move instead of wondering what the hell happened.

I can't even remember the class I was taking in college that involved writing a resume. I believe it was in my third year, and as I was trying to fill the thing with information, I sort of freaked out because other than go to classes, work shit jobs, and play in various bands, I didn't have anything that appeared credible to go on the resume. Soon thereafter, I became a resident assistant, and when I had to do an internship, I didn't opt for the easy one at the university, but took 8 months off to go work in a real factory doing real industrial safety work, which is what I do today.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not telling you not to have a good time (yeah, everyone who knows me can tell you that), but just watch for opportunities and think about what you want to do down the road.

You can hang in a left or hang in a right
The choice it is yours to do as you might
The road is open wide to place your biddin'
Now, wherever you turn, wherever you go
If you get it wrong, at least you can know
There's miles and miles to put it back together

That second verse has such a positive message. If you fuck it up, don't worry about it, you can always change and find a different way. This is an important message to remember with your relationships with people, as well. It can apply to changing carrers when you're middle age. The key here is that Halford has a healthy attitude about it; he knows if he goes the wrong way, he's still got miles and miles to put it back together, it doesn't have to happen right then and there.

Makin' a curve or takin' the strain
On the decline, or out on the wain
Oh everybody breaks down sooner or later
We'll put it to rights, well square up and mend
Back on your feet to take the next bend
You weather every storm that's comin' at cha

Yeah, you're gonna get old. But try to stay in shape and eat right. Everybody breaks down sooner or later.

So there's my message of wisdom to you on my 41st birthday. No Springsteen "Thunder Road" or mystical Dylan song. Just the leadoff tune from a 28-year old Judas Priest album. If you need me, you'll know where to find me:

So I'm heading out to the highway
I've got nothing to lose at all
Gonna do it my way
Take a chance before I fall

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Tea and Bloody Crumpets

Doors for the Emilie Autumn show were supposed to be at seven. They weren't. It was much closer to eight. My compatriots and I stood around in the autumn chill and the spitting rain shivering and talking and poking fun at the goth kids in line. There were quite a few of them (OK, that's an understatment). I was wearing a corset and black pants, and I still looked downright normal. Make of that what you will. There were actually quite a few kids in attendance, which I found highly amusing. There were parents there, standing next to their gothed out kids. I admire those parents their coolness. If I’d tried to get either of my parents to take me to a show at that age—let alone an industrial/goth show—I’d have been laughed at.

The stage was already set up when we were let inside. And the line at the merch table was a mile long. We headed for one of the bars and got drinks, then milled about with everyone else waiting for the show to start. None of us thought to try and get close to the stage at that point, so by the time I wanted to get closer, there was really no way to do so without pissing someone off.

This show? It was worth the wait. I don’t know what I was expecting, but this was more than just a concert. The four Bloody Crumpets (Captain Maggot, Naughty Veronica, Aprella and the Blessed Contessa) made their entrance to “Best Safety Lies in Fear” which is a mostly instrumental track. Emilie made her entrance singing “4 O’clock”. It was a fabulous start to a fabulous show. And let me reiterate to make myself perfectly clear: this was more than just a concert. These women don’t just stand around singing to the crowd (who all sang back for the most part, myself included). They put on a show. The theatricality and the talent of these women is astounding.

Following the intro came “Opheliac,” to resounding cheers. Emilie ended up playing the majority of her album, but that wasn’t all she did. Maggot left the stage shortly into the show and reappeared on the balcony. To the left of the stage hung a big hoop, and Maggot deftly climbed over the balcony and dropped into the hoop, where she twirled and flipped for the duration of the song, finally dropping into the crowd at the end. She is crazy and awesome. During “Shalott” (which is definitely based on the Tennyson, in case you were wondering), Emilie took a break to chat with the crowd. Normally I think something like that would bug me—get on with the song!—but it worked well here.

Emilie and the other three girls took a break during Dominant, an instrumental, and Veronica, who is also a burlesque dancer, did a fan dance. To the vast disappointment of everyone, but especially the douche who would not stop screaming the WHOLE NIGHT (and not in a fun way, but in a drunk and douchey way), she didn’t lose any of her clothes.

Oh, speaking of that guy. We all remarked at one point or another during the night how badly we wanted to do grievous bodily harm to him. I can understand being appreciative of an artist—I did my fair share of screaming too. I can even understand being appreciative of the female forms on stage—Emilie and all the crumpets are extremely beautiful and they perform in elaborate corsetry and not a whole lot else, and they look damn good doing it. But this guy was ridiculous. He was the biggest annoyance of the night. He was practically the only annoyance of the night (the other being that my feet were killing me by about halfway through the show). Seriously, folks, please show your appreciation, but don’t be that drunken asshole that inspires anger in your fellow concert-goers.

I loved the interaction with the crowd that Emilie and the girls all worked for. They did a good job of it. Veronica played the Rat Game, in which she announces that she’s never kissed a girl in Baltimore, then pulled a member of the crowd up on stage and kissed her. It’s really cool that all the girls have their own talents. Maggot does her thing with the hoops, and Veronica has her dance. The Blessed Contessa, as it turns out, does some awesome Cirque de Soleil-style thing with a sheet. I wish I knew what it was called, but it involves twisting herself in a sheet and obvious acrobatic skill.

She’s also a fire-eater. During “Dead is the New Alive”, she performed that feat, and then lit up the fire hoop for Maggots to do her thing with. It was stunning. I was floored by the talent these girls possess, and I loved how involved the show was.

The thing about EA? Her voice? Her awesome (in the original sense of the word) voice? That huge voice comes out of this tiny creature. And it’s deliciously unedited. What you hear on her album is what you get, folks. She’s not one of those studio created artists—she really does sing like that. It’s sweet and scary and powerful and amazing. She really does play the harpsichord as well as the violin.

My favorite part of the night, which which I’d been looking forward to for weeks, was when Emilie got out her violin and played for us. I’m pretty sure words can’t even express how amazing she is with her instrument. Not only that, but it was abundantly clear throughout both of her violin pieces that *this* is what she really loves to do—and I’m pretty sure if asked she would consider the violin an extension of herself instead of a mere instrument. She is, first and foremost, an amazingly talented violinist. I was in awe.

Possibly the only disappointment I felt all night was that she didn’t play my favorite song from Opheliac, “Swallow”. It wasn’t really much of a disappointment however, considering the show I witnessed. They closed the show with a fucking awesome cover of Bohemian Rhapsody. Emilie played the guitar parts on her violin. Did I mention that she shreds on that thing?

Emilie Autumn’s Opheliac Deluxe Edition is due on October 27. Meanwhile, check out her website and show some love.

(Oh, and if you’re interested, the playlist below is as close an approximation of her set list as I could manage, for your listening enjoyment.)

This article is cross-posted on Lizzie's blog (where it appears in a longer and far more fangirly version).

Monday, October 19, 2009

Music News: Re-re-re-remix

Indie darlings Passion Pit and Chairlift met backstage at Bonnaroo this summer, developed a friendship and have since created remixes of each other's songs. Chairlift remixed Passion Pit's "To Kingdom Come" and Passion Pit remixed Chairlift's "Bruises," which you've probably heard in commercials for Apple. Click here for the full Rolling Stone article, which also includes free links to download the remixes.

Kings of Leon are releasing a live concert DVD titled Live at the O2 London, England on November 10th. The footage was filmed on June 30th, 2009 and contains 22 songs from all four of their albums. KOL is also working on an Only By the Night remix album. They will be collaborating with Justin Timberlake, Pharrell Williams, Mark Ronson, Lykki Li and Linkin Park to take the album from rockin' to Funkytown. I'm interested to see how this turns out, because it sounds scary to me.

This news is probably more heartbreaking to Europeans than Americans, but Norwegian pop band a-ha is hanging up their hats and retiring. Formed in 1982 the group found worldwide fame with their hit "Take On Me," also one of my favorite 80's songs. They retire with nine albums to their name, and lead singer Morten Harket still looking hot. Their final concert will be in Oslo on December 4th, which is fittingly my birthday. Who wants to buy me that as my gift?

announced on their website that Justin Vernon will be taking a break from live performances, "...for the foreseeable future." His last performance before this break was in Milwaukee, WI. Click here to stream it. It looks like there won't be any live performances featuring Volcano Choir, his collaboration with Collections of Colonies of Bees, whom he just put out an album with last month. At least not anytime soon. While we await his return, you can listen to his collaboration with St. Vincent titled "Roslyn" for the movie New Moon here.

And here's a sign that this world just might be alright after all. Creed tickets were selling for 75 cents on Ticketmaster's website for their Birmingham, Alabama show last week. I have nothing else to say about this other than, HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAAAAA!!!!


Thursday, October 15, 2009

Singing Without Lyrics, or At Least That's What it Sounds Like

I often feel like I don't listen enough to the words. When I take in a song, I absorb its melodies, its textures, and its structure. It's just what my ears/brain naturally do. This is probably the reason I ended up help creating and hosting an instrumental radio show for 4+ years on the local college station in town. At the age of 20 when I had discovered modern instrumental post-rock, ambient, neo-classical, and bedroom electronic music, I didn't understand why any of it wasn't as popular as the trendy indie rock bands of the time, who I also appreciated, but trust me, not because I thought they were all brilliant poets. Some of them were, for sure, and those ones I loved even more, but I was often too busy investing my time in the instrumentation and orchestration of the songs I loved, not the lyrical content thereof. Having grown as a music lover in this particular way, I have recently delved into a certain type of song that I hope satisfies those who enjoy (need?) vocals in their music, but can take a second to appreciate the atmospheres and pure ecstasy of patterned sounds. Here are my ten favorite songs (right now) that feature vocals, but no discernible (to my ears, anyway) lyrics. Enjoy.

First we start with the song that inspired this post, which I listened to today when I suddenly had an urge to hear something a little crazy, a little serene, but something neither calmly instrumental nor aggravatingly poppy. "Goth Star" by Pictureplane was the answer to my strange desire. I don't know anything about this artist, but I happened to grab the track earlier this year and while I merely mildly enjoyed it at first, now I could keep listening to it on repeat for the rest of the night without complaint. The vocals cut in and out like a jittery trance song, but it's all looped too blissfully steadily for it too come off as annoying or forced. Likewise, "Sugarette" by Bibio is a piece that's fragmented in its hip hop beats and bleeps, but also manages to waft breezily through the headphones, never sitting still, but also never inducing a headache. Chipmunk pitch-shifted vocals teeter in the background and pulse forward on the beat intermittently, but what he's saying, no one knows, and the song's all the better because of it.

The gorgeous electronic chaos of tracks like these dips its toes into shoegaze with "Nights in Kiev" by Port-Royal, where cut-up glitch is covered up with a sheen of washed-out antarctic synths. Heavily reverbed whispers lilt in and out throughout, but the stars of the show are the careening plasticine melodies that don't duel so much as frolic. It sounds sad, but the notes soar and climax with such hope and longing that it feels revitalizing to hear. In "Clear Skies Above the Coastline Cathedral" by Manual, another epic dream-pop track, the voices are even more subtle (but somehow covering both lows, mids, and highs of the song), just peeking slightly out over the grand canyon electro beat and contemplative guitar swells. And as those acoustic/electric guitars sprinkle into each other more and more as the song progresses, with every riff becoming more and more It's so exhausting and uplifting to listen to, I feel like I need to pause for a minute before I do anything after the song ends. Good thing it's over eight minutes long, otherwise it would just feel like a tease. On the other end of the shoegaze spectrum is "Ashes Maths" by A Sunny Day in Glasgow, in which the vocals are incredibly overpowering, but so heavily processed and elliptical that you can't tell which end's up or how the hell these loops were even created. It's magnanimous and ominous, but just as gut-wrenchingly beautiful as anything else on the list.

Ululations from the larynx are also quite prevalent on "Leyendecker" by Battles, which starts stepping even further into rock territory, but also remains firmly in the electronic camp as well, with its precise keyboard tinkling and angular drum patterns. I suppose the same pitch-shifting that Bibio used in the aforementioned song is going on here, but it sounds less forest animal and more dungeon gremlin, which makes this track sound creepy (it is), but it's also downright fierce and pristine, making it indelibly delicious. Similarly, "The Devil Bends" by The Dead Sea gets a little mean, but this time moving things more in the gritty and ramshackle direction. The reversed and affected lyrics make almost every word save "devil" unrecognizable, and it completely makes the song in this instance. Most of these tracks get their strength from their layered instrumental complexities, but The Dead Sea instead deliver a prodigiously straightforward guitar and drums track with wispy and wandering vocals sprayed atop to sculpt a soundscape that is uniquely frustrated in two distinct ways. And the combination is what makes it so satisfying.

Things start getting even more minimal and ghostly with "Glory Gongs" by Forest Swords, which sounds to me, by all accounts, like a blues song. Sure the only evidences of this are its wilting guitar licks and quietly aching lumbering percussion, but what else do you need? How about two somber but pleading vocal riffs that sound like they're recorded and played back on warped vinyl through a phonograph, and repeated whenever there's an open space for hurt to be heard. And of course what would hurting be without a little bit of screaming? "Sweet Love For Planet Earth" by Fuck Buttons proves the UK duo to be the masters of melding together dense mosaics of fuzz and brightness, muddy noise and effervescent minutae, throaty scuzz and lullaby ambience. If that sounds effed up beyond comprehension to you, that's because it is. The story and/or mental process behind how they came up with this aesthetic is either terrifying and/or unexplainable, and thus, we shan't hypothesize here. Just listen to believe it. Yells from the belly and the bowels of hell are also used with finesse and aplomb in our final track for the playlist, "Aves" by Gifts From Enola. Like the penultimate, this one takes its sweet time to get to the meat of it all, but it's well worth it. It's a prime example of post-rock done right: just enough pretentiousness to make it ethereally cryptic and epic, but enough accessibly rocking sequences to make it alternate between wondering you with its elegance and gutting you like a fish. And when those bellowing snarls rise up from under the raucousness and the WTF tapping guitar and insane drum rolls come pouring throuhg, it's like you've won an aural lottery, my friends.

And it just keeps getting better if you keep exploring more artists that specialize in this kind of unique song, such as Holy Fuck, WZT Hearts, Julianna Barwick, and Irepress. Surely there's others out there too, and I wanna know about 'em! Share, please!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Terra Infirma

Juliette Lewis: Terra Incognita
[The End Records]

Here's a question for you: if I spent pretty much the entire length of this album pondering just how crazypants Juliette Lewis must be, does that make me crazypants too? Or does it just make me a special kind of masochistic? Of course, if I wasn't already nuts, I'm pretty sure suffering through this aural abomination sent me straight off the edge. God, it was awful. Awful.


Let me get the good bit out of the way first. It'll be short and sweet. Juliette's backing band? Those guys? They're good. I don't know if she just grabbed a bunch of session guys or actually formed a band, but they can play. The music itself was lovely and crisp, lots of heavy guitars and drums. Nice beats, well played, no problem there. There were numerous instances throughout my extended suffering where I wished that I could just erase her voice entirely, subbing in something not as grating. Or even better, just do without any singer and listen only to the backing track. I can't complain about the musicians that form her band at all.

Now. Juliette herself? Good God, y'all. It got to the point where I really wanted to hammer screwdrivers into my ears just to make the pain stop. I had to stop for listening for a bit to go do something else, and when I came back and a new song started, I exclaimed, “Oh good God there’s more?!” True story.

I very nearly just turned off the CD after track three and wrote this based entirely on the first three tracks. However, I told myself that I was the one who'd gotten me into this mess, so I owed it to... someone... to listen to the whole album. Give it a fair shot, I told myself. It might get better. Maybe it's just this one song.

Well, no. It wasn't just that one song. After about the seventh track, I stopped telling myself that, too.

I hate Juliette Lewis's voice. And I don't really like her music any better. She does this wail-rasp-whine thing that made me angrier with each passing song. And then she switched to this almost singing thing that was less raspy and more breathy, but put me in mind of her trying really hard to sound sweet and kinda lilting. Yet she failed. She failed a lot. Not only that, but the weird sorta-kinda hippieish Southerny thing that she was doing music-wise just didn’t fit with me. It felt like she was trying to be Janice Joplin. And honestly, I’ve never liked her music either. I can see Juliette doing a hippie thing with her music, despite her penchant for spandex when performing. She has that sort of vibe.

I tried; I really did try to give the album a fair shot. I thought about why I hated it so much as I was listening to it. It was hard to fight through my hatred though.

I thought a lot about whether or not this constitutes a vanity project on her part. And normally I’d say yes, of course it does. But for her, I don’t think it is. I think she really takes herself and her music way too seriously, and really feels like she’s making some sort of art. After all, this isn’t her first project. I wish I could just write it off as

I’m sure there are plenty of folks out there who would really enjoy this album. I am not one of them. It didn’t feel new or interesting or at all innovative. Beyond hating her voice, it just wasn’t an entertaining album. Nothing to see here, move along, folks.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Fly, Fly, Fly.

Mae: (m)orning
[Cell Records]

Well. Look who didn't do his research.

I've been a fan of Mae (short for Multi-sensory aesthetic experience) for quite a while now. After their last release (2007's Singularity), however, I lost track of them. Despite a few standout songs, Singularity just wasn't quite as good as their previous record, The Everglow, and for two years I didn't think much about the band until an e-mail from Amazon arrived in my inbox informing me about their latest release, (m)orning. Naturally, I assumed it was just a new album. I bought it, and have been listening to it in preparation for a review. But, to be honest, I didn't actually seek any information on it until I sat down to write this piece. It seems as though I've fallen behind, because this record has quite a story.

It would seem that not long after the release of Singularity, two of Mae's five members parted with the band. In 2008, the remaining band members split with Capitol Records. Left with no label and a feeling of creative freedom that they'd heretofore not felt, Mae began a complete overhaul of their career; not necessarily their musical style, but their goals, aspirations and philosophy. The idea was thus: throughout 2009, Mae would be dedicating their musical efforts to three charities; they would release one song per month on their website, available as a digital download for a minimum donation of one dollar. They would also compile these songs--along with a few others--into three separate EPs, for sale at their shows and representing three phases of the project ((m)orning, (a)fternoon and (e)vening) and three different charities. All profits from the sales of the EPs would be donated to their respective charities. According to their site, since January 1st, they have raised over $55,000 for Habitat For Humanity and DonorsChoose.

After digesting all this, I feel like my tone for this review should be a little different. Admittedly, I had to listen to (m)orning a few times to really get a feel for it, but I do like it (bear with me, I will elaborate). And I'll also admit that much of this--the high-mindedness, the adherence to the (mae) acronym, the scratch-and-sniff CD sleeves they sold at their shows--might come off, to those previously unfamiliar with Mae, as pretentious. Bono-ish, even. But I find it difficult to doubt the earnestness of something like this:

"Our promise to you is to commit all of the profits from digital downloads to fund humanitarian projects that Mae and you will be a part of all year long. Like a fire that spreads without boundaries, we can ignite a change in this world if we work together. As we tie our voices, our resources, our minds, and most importantly our actions together, we will see the world change for the better over the course of this year and beyond. Take this music and this mission and run with it."

This isn't just lip-service; Mae is actually doing this, and they're doing it without any press, promotion or fanfare. To say that they're doing it for any other reason than that they truly believe in it is, I think, hopelessly cynical.

All of that said: the CD/DVD version of (m)orning that was released in September is not a charity release, but the motivation behind its composition and recording remains the same. And as a record in its own right, it's damn good; certainly nothing if not interesting. Absent Rob Sweitzer's keyboards, which were an integral part of Mae's previous sound, the band's remaining members have moved--musically--in a more "progressive" direction. While The Everglow was a concept album, and definitely progressive in that aspect, its individual songs were mostly standard verse-chorus-verse rock tunes. With (m)orning, however, we're presented with some longer and more intricate songs, meandering in structure and tempo changes, and an overall sense of musical freedom and daring. I think that Mae tried to be a little more daring on Singularity, which was mostly a let-down. It appears that when they describe finding themselves with "no limitations," and of being "continually inspired with creativity," they're (again) not just spewing platitudes; the daring of (m)orning is--while a little tougher to get a grasp on--infinitely more satisfying.

Now, don't take me wrong, here: by "a little tougher to get a grasp on," I don't mean that (m)orning is inaccessible, discordant or non-melodic; far from it. I simply mean that--as I said earlier--it took me a few listens to really get a feel for the record. The elements that characterize Mae's style are all here, but they're put together in an altogether different way. While the keyboards may be sparse, there are a number of flutes and winds that really do make the album feel like, well, the morning. Mae's managed to thicken their guitar sounds--in the writing, in the effects and production, and by adding in some acoustics and twelve-strings--which mostly fill the void left by the lack of the piano. The jazzy instrumental opening track fades and gives way to the quiet opening of "The Fisherman (We All Need Love)," which begins with one of the more endearing guitar progressions I've heard from this band. In addition, this first section of the nearly nine-minute song presents a spectacular bassline once the rhythm section kicks in; it follows the chord progression while playing with octaves and adding quick riffs that give a beautiful life to this early part of (m)orning. This little piece of the song only lasts for just over a minute before the song veers into another movement, but these sixty-two-odd seconds do a superb job of grabbing one's attention. "The Fisherman" thrills through its nine minutes and numerous musical movements before closing with Dave Elkins'--displaying a newfound vocal power and confidence--sustained blast of "we all need love" over a dual-octave power chord riff.

Though only five of (m)orning's eight tracks have lyrics, each of these five songs is well-developed enough to make the whole of the record feel worthwhile. "The House That Fire Built," in addition to being the call-to-arms of Mae's new philosophy, alternates effectively between driving and marching beats and remains compelling through its seven minutes. "Boomerang" sports some truly interesting guitar composition and performance, a nice horn section during its instrumental section, and an excellent middle-eight; it also flows seamlessly into "Two Birds," a very pretty acoustic guitar-and-flute interlude song. Each of the record's songs is distinct, but they share enough in style and execution that they create a satisfying whole.

Even if Mae's aims with (m)orning weren't so lofty, it would be well worth your time; it stands up on its own impressively. As they are, though, I hope those of you that enjoy their music will consider supporting their cause. A number of songs from the upcoming (a)fternoon and (e)vening albums are currently available as songs-of-the-month on Mae's website, and they're all well worth the modest donation being asked for their download. To see a relatively unknown act emerge from professional turmoil with such selfless dedication and purpose--and to do so with some of the best music of their career--is both inspiring and noteworthy. Even if one didn't care to donate to Mae's cause, the commercial release of (m)orning is far from the worst you could do with $6.99. Whatever their motives are in its creation, I'm looking forward to the rest of this "day."

Thursday, October 8, 2009

You've Gotta Work It

I was lucky enough Tuesday night to be treated to a rather impromptu (for me, anyway) mini-concert as well as a thank you song from two different artists, one of whom I was already a fan of, and the other I think I’m about to become a fan of.

See, I follow Amanda Fucking Palmer on Twitter (@amandapalmer). Why? Well, because I find her interesting, and I like her music. Also, I like her eyebrows. I saw through the power of Twitter that she was plugging a live-on-the-interwebs encore concert by Matthew Ebel (@matthewebel). Intrigued by both the concept and the fact that AFP was plugging it, I moseyed on over to ustream to check it out.

Turns out the concerts are a regular occurrence. Matt performs live on his ustream channel every Tuesday night at 6 EDT. He’s got the prerequisite website, but in addition he runs a subscription service for his fans, giving them access to extra concerts at a base price; if you choose a higher level you get subscription-only tracks and other goodies. So he gets up there with his computer and his keyboard and jams out on the interwebs. He’s even got robot back-up singers. There’s a chat room next to the video screen, and he follows along—one of the regulars mentioned last night that it sometimes throws him off when he’s performing. The regulars let folks know what song is playing; they also answer questions and join in the fun. It’s a really organic sort of scene: just a bunch of folks watching someone whose music they enjoy and chatting with each other.

Also, he sings about the world ending. And about a girl who is killed by a train.

I dig what AFP’s been doing of late to support herself. She released her first solo album about a year ago, and she’s been doing all kinds of stuff to promote herself and attract fans and support herself. She strikes me as pretty ridiculously market-savvy as well as aware of what her fans want of her. She hasn’t relied on her record company to promote her; from what I understand, they didn’t do much of it anyway. So she’s gotta find a way to pay her bills.

She’s used Twitter to her great advantage in this—proving the power of the internet and that of connecting with one’s fans. There have been several, as she calls them, ninja gigs around the country. She’s in whatever town for whatever reason, and she tells her fans via Twitter that she’ll be performing here at this time, for donations, and folks come out and hang out with her and watch an acoustic set. She released her book, Who Killed Amanda Palmer, full of pictures of herself dead, and with words by Neil Gaiman. She’s done at least one webcast auction where she put stuff up for sale from her tours over the years.

In a world where it seems like more and more artists go the recluse route—who can blame them with the way the media treats the famous these days?—it’s really cool to feel like an artist is trying to get closer to their fans.I don’t know a whole helluva lot about the state of the music industry except what I’ve heard from the disillusioned and disenfranchised within it—the indie artists who are just trying to get their music out there, make fans, and pay their rent. But it sounds like the internet, while it’s made stealing music ridiculously easy, also makes it possible for musicians to make new fans, and reach those fans, and helps them support themselves. They just need to learn how to use it without giving too much of themselves to their fans (because, lets face it: people be crazy).

And who can blame someone for promoting themselves in new and interesting ways, especially considering the state of the economy? You hear about some of the bigger artists out there, like NIN and Radiohead offering up albums for whatever fans want to pay for them, which is neat and all, but what about the little guys? NIN and Radiohead have already made their names. They can afford to self-produce and –release their records at this point. Smaller acts might have a harder time getting themselves out there if they don’t have a record label behind them. But folks like AFP and Matthew Ebel are proving that it’s at least possible to start reaching an audience using the internet and some smarts. And I think fans appreciate that. I know I do. I love learning about new music, and I really appreciate when the artists make it possible for me to check them out before I go out and buy stuff. I’m more than happy to go out and buy an album or a show ticket if I find a band I like--this is especially true if I can buy that album or ticket directly from the artist, so I know the money is going to them and not some corporation.

At the end of Matt’s encore, AFP (who had been chatting in the wee chat room) said she wanted to sing him a song as a thank you. So she tweeted her own ustream channel and everyone trooped over there to see her. She was just chilling in her house with a beer, in her kimono, about to be late for a 9pm dinner.

Upon request, she played “Ampersand”. The piano was out of tune, and she was basically in her pajamas. It was awesome. She kept asking if the broadcast was working.

At the end of the song, because it was after nine, her phone rang. So she picked it up and apologized for being late, explaining that she’d done an accidental webcast and arranging to meet her friends posthaste for their meal.

After that, the phone rang again. It was her boyfriend. Yanno, Neil Gaiman? Which was super cute. (I might’ve squeed a little.) Her whole demeanor changed when she picked up the phone—he was telling her that, yes, it worked and she did indeed manage to webcast the song. It was really interesting to eavesdrop on her end of those two conversations. Not that either was an intimate conversation—she was just chatting with a friend and telling her man that she loved him. If I were to be really cynical about it, I would say that it was perfectly set up to make her seem more human and down to earth. But really, I don’t think it was staged, and it did do very well to demonstrate that, really, she’s just a chick doing what she loves and trying to make a living at that. And I can appreciate it.

Did anyone else happen to catch either webcast? Have any thoughts on the sort of things that smaller acts and independent artists are doing these days to make a living doing what they love?

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Super Duper

Monsters of Folk, Monsters of Folk (Shangri-La Music/Rough Trade)

Few things instill a greater mix of anticipation and trepidation in music fans than a supergroup. We hype them to a god-like status long before they’ve written a note together and then find ourselves shocked when the gods we’ve lauded are really men struggling to merge their inflated artistic egos. We are the arbiters of our own misfortune, and the supergroup is the catalyst for our collective disillusionment.

Thus, a healthier way to view Monsters of Folk, from the act that combines the prowess of indie rock icons Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis(of Bright Eyes), Jim James (of My Morning Jacket) and M. Ward, is not as a supergroup’s album but rather as a mixtape.

The mix starts off with two of the best songs to come out of the indie scene so far this year. The heartfelt “Dear God (sincerely M.O.F.)” finds the singers each getting their chance to address the creator of the universe. Each, James, Ward, and Oberst respectively, beautifully showcases his vocal and lyrical styles in the context of a swirling, melodic strain that connects to the deepest emotional center of the listener. The effect is absolutely thrilling.

Next, the mood shifts to upbeat roots-rock, ala The Traveling Wilburys, with “Say Please,” wherein the singers again harmonize and trade back and forth lead vocal duties, not to mention some thrilling guitar work. The resulting song is endlessly catchy, and the energy of the group is infectious.

These two collaborative tracks are a perfect example of hooking the listener early, of jumping out the gate with a start so great that it makes you want to keep listening all day long.

From here, the concept of a mixtape becomes more applicable while the quality of the songs becomes unfortunately more debatable. While the first two tracks give every member of the band ample opportunity to be heard, the rest focus mostly on one person at a time, with the others providing simple backup. In these songs, personal preference will be the key to the listener’s enjoyment. Each artist clearly brought several songs apiece to the table for this project, and how you feel about the music will probably be based on how you feel about each songwriter's other work.

Jim James, for example, is very prominent on “The Right Place” and “Losin Yo Head,” each of which bear the mark of My Morning Jacket’s early albums with their down-home alt-country vibe. He is also alone for most of “Magic Marker,” a soft campfire jam.

For Oberst fans, Monsters of Folk contains gems akin to his recent solo work. “Temazcal” is poetic and meditative, while “Ahead of the Curve” is large and rocking. His lyrics continue to impress. “Pain was hunting me down, but I gave him the slip/I left the city through a tunnel and I headed for the sticks/With oregano oil and a morphine drip/Pain was hunting me down, but I gave him the slip” he sings on “Man Named Truth,” painting the perfect image of the troubled vagabond he has evoked for years.

It’s the songs by M. Ward that may give listeners the most trouble. Ward’s voice is like a humid summer’s day; it’s thick and warm and beautiful, but it can easily put you to sleep. It doesn’t help that most of the tracks he’s written for this group creep through the speakers at a snail’s pace and a mouse’s breadth. “Slow Down Jo” is haunting and sweet, but so slow that an impatient listener will feel as though they’re swimming through molasses.

Still, a lot of fun can be had by picking out the intermittent backup vocals and moments of creative juxtaposition, when one member or another inserts himself into a song at the most unexpected of moments. James’ signature falsetto graces several songs so softly you might not notice until the tenth listen that he’s been there all along, hovering above the rest of the music.

And it’s in these moments that Monsters of Folk are at their absolute collaborative best, three of the most distinctive voices in independent music coming together for the purpose of making brilliant sounds rather than to inflate their heads. Integrity and fun over marketing and egotism? If only we could be so lucky with every would-be supergroup.
-Christian H.
(This post previously appeared in the Minnesota State University Reporter)

Monday, October 5, 2009

Music News: From treadmills to Purple Rain

OK Go shot to fame after their clever treadmill video for "Here It Goes Again" in 2006, but had been around for much longer prior to that. With about seven EPs under their belt and two full-length albums they are set to release their third album titled Of the Blue Colour of the Sky. The band is departing from their alt-rock sound and using influences from Prince's Purple Rain for the new album. Their new single "Shooting the Moon" has also been announced as a track on the New Moon soundtrack. Other artists included on the soundtrack include Thom Yorke, Grizzly Bear and Death Cab For Cutie. As much as this movie franchise stinks, you have to admit they've got some pretty good musical tastes.

I don’t think anyone is going to be surprised to hear that the Lady Gaga/Kanye West ironically titled “Fame Kills” tour has been cancelled already. There’s no official word on why it was cancelled but low ticket sales and backlash against West’s diva behavior are speculated reasons. Everyone has their own opinions about these two trainwrecks but I can admit that I really like both of them, musically speaking. That can’t go without saying that I think they’re both run-of-the-mill assholes.

Add this to the 847598347-billion projects Thom Yorke has going on right now. Yorke debuted a new group featuring Red Hot Chili Peppers’ bassist Flea, Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich, Beck drummer Joey Waronker and percussionist Mauro Refosco. They performed two shows on October 4th and 5th at Los Angeles’ Orpheum Theater. They performed music from Yorke’s solo album The Eraser, which Yorke has been performing strictly solo. With the addition of the band, he hopes to bring it more to life.


On to the Monday Playlist...

Sean: I mentioned House of Heroes briefly in my middle-eights piece, but I feel that their awesomeness bears repeating. I've been listening to The End Is Not the End consistently since last winter, and I still never seem to get sick of it. It's nearly flawless, and also a good example of how spirituality can play a role in music without taking over. This is the album's killer opener, "If."

Chris: "You Were Right About Me" by Talk Less, Say More is proof that sometimes downloading a band's music based on their name alone is not a bad thing. A digital copy of the London group's album It's About Time is available for free via Records on Ribs, and it's well worth the mere 2-3 minute wait it takes for it to arrive on your desktop, if only for the aforementioned opening track. It's warm yet murky electronic pop music that dollops on a healthy dose of sadness and a glimpse of hope. As it ebbs and flows in epic fashion, it's hard to not wish the rest of the album was as great as its kickoff track, but nevertheless, just by offering up their music for free and having one outstanding cut on their album, I look forward to keeping tabs on TLSM in the future.

Enjoy. -Sean