It’s NASCAR weekend in Richmond, and that’s got me thinking about Dale Earnhardt Jr Jr. I heard their (fantastic) name at SXSW, but didn’t check out their music until I heard them on Wednesdays Become Eclectic, a weekly feature where the folks at NPR’s Morning Becomes Eclectic showcase up-and-coming artists. I had to hear more, so picked up their Horse Power EP. It’s a powerful example of something I absolutely love: electronic music with a soul. These songs are built on a foundation of drum machines and sampling, but the lyrics and their delivery are charged with emotion, and what results is a beautiful type of art that is simultaneously old and new, organic and synthetic. As if to drive this home, the band even includes a creative, yet faithful, cover of the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows.” Check out their song “Vocal Chords” below, and if you dig it, head to their website to download a free song called “Morning Thought” from their upcoming full-length debut.
This might be the coolest picture ever taken. I came across this album cover while flipping through records at Plan 9. My first thought: “Whatever these dudes are selling, $10 is a bargain!” What they’re selling is The Indestructible Beat of Soweto – a snapshot of the diverse urban pop music scene of early 1980’s Johannesburg. This record is totally infectious. Modern influences like jazz and blues combine with a number of African styles, and the result is a 45-minute head-bobbing, day-brightening, spontaneous-dance-inducing party, with a Ladysmith Black Mambazo cherry on top. Should I have expected anything less from an album with such a great cover? The “Unity” visor? Amazing. The red fedora? Home run. The pointing? On point. Take a listen.
I’ve been rooting for Ben Kweller for 14 years. In 1997, my dad showed me a New Yorker article featuring Radish, a band Kweller fronted as a teenager. He was just 15 then. Radish’s success didn’t last, but I never forgot the picture from that article. Nor did I forget the feeling, as a 13-year-old learning to play guitar, that my own rock stardom could be right around the corner. I kept checking in on Kweller, enjoying solo albums Sha Sha and On My Way, but was blown away when I saw him perform at the National on November 12, 2008. It was a new Ben Kweller, reborn as an alt-country act, getting ready to release the aptly titled Changing Horses. It was spectacular. “Fight” and “Sawdust Man” became instant favorites that night, and I was filled with satisfaction seeing a musician I’d been rooting for sound so great.
Last night, I got to see Pretty & Nice at the Southern, a cool venue that’s nestled in a pleasantly dank basement, just steps off Charlottesville’s downtown mall. With some in the crowd sitting campfire-style at co-frontman Holden’s request, the band tore through a magnificently manic-yet-precise performance. Familiar songs like “Tora Tora Tora” and “Piranha” sounded sharp, and we got to hear a number of new ones (see above for “Yonkers”), all oozing the same mastery of melody, pace, dissonance and dynamics that made me such a fan of their last full-length, Get Young. After the set, co-frontman Jeremy shared that they’ve tracked these new tunes, and plan to mix at John Vanderslice’s new B studio, Minitel, eying a late summer or fall release. I’m super excited to hear the result.
Important Two-Day Coverage, Part I … The Artist: Pretty & Nice.
My friend Kevin is a crazy good drummer. He’s also crazy good at Wii tennis. I’m convinced these are related. I met Kevin in college, and have enjoyed bearing witness to his ass-kicking musical abilities ever since. A few years ago, he started playing with a band called Pretty & Nice. They’re a Boston-based group that makes fast-paced, catchy songs, gracefully combining technical intricacy and casual enjoyability. They recently released a limited-edition 7″ called Fantastic Artifact (get yours while they last!). I highly encourage you to listen to “Yonkers” below and find out what makes P&N so exceptional. More tomorrow …
I started the week off by pimping one NPR Music service … why not kick off the weekend the same way? Bob Boilen, the host of All Songs Considered (and my personal hero), also hosts a series of in-office performances called Tiny Desk Concerts. The bands actually play at Bob’s Desk. Neat idea. Even neater bands. They recently featured the amazing Pokey LaFarge and his band The South City Three. Pokey hails from St. Louis, and carries an old-timey swagger as he deftly performs a lively brand of blues and swing music your grandparents might recognize from their childhood. To my ears, the style has aged well, and I’d like to think we’ll hear more. I know I will … because I couldn’t stop myself from hitting up ebay for a vintage parlor guitar like the one he plays in the video.
In high school, we all trusted my friend J Clyde to let us know which rap music was good. He never steered us wrong, and has gone on to be successful as a DJ and producer of nasty beats. So when I heard about a collective of teenage indie rappers/artists/producers/godknowswhatelse called Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, it seemed appropriate to consult J Clyde. He offered a favorable review, and urged me to check out the video for “Yonkers” by the group’s oldest member, Tyler, The Creator. A few minutes later, I was horrified … and totally hooked. The video and song are disturbing yet strikingly artful, which typifies OFWGKTA’s music. If you dig it, check out EARL, a free album by group member Earl Sweatshirt, who may presently be marooned in a center for at-risk kids in Samoa.
Frankie and Johnnie (sometimes called Frankie and Albert) is a good ol’ fashioned traditional song about killing your sweetheart for cheating on you. All the greats have covered it. Johnny Cash, Sam Cooke, Elvis … Lindsay Lohan. But it was Jack Johnson’s version that led me to Taj Mahal. Jack mentioned he styled his version after Taj Mahal’s, and it was the first I’d heard of the legendary, influential blues musician. That’s the amazing thing about covers – they form an endless chain, leading from one band to the next, cluing you into who influences who and who to check out next. My father-in-law recently clued me into The Real Thing, a high energy live album Taj Mahal recorded with a sizable backing band in 1971. It’s some of the most uplifting blues you’ll ever hear, with ENOUGH TUBA TO KILL A HIPPO!
As you grow up, shit just keeps changing. You get into college, get a job, get a different job, get married, etc., all of which can mean moving halfway across the country. The good news is, with certain friends, you can share the experience of finding and listening to new music, and suddenly it’s like they’re sitting in the room with you, even if they’re a thousand miles away. My friend and bandmate 4eva Doug (who I have to thank for my Wilco obsession) went to law school and moved away, but has not stopped telling me when he comes across a band or artist he thinks I should check out, as he did with Curren$y. I’ve recently been getting into his major label debut Pilot Talk, which is made up of quality hip hop with clever lyrics, awesome guest appearances and laid back beats. Can’t wait to check out Pilot Talk II.
Waiting for the release date of an album sucks. Downloading a leaked version sucks more. Makes one feel icky. You know what doesn’t suck? NPR’s First Listen. Each week, the fine people at NPR music work with artists to offer these full-album streaming previews, sometimes several weeks before the release date. It’s also a great way to find new music, since you get a complete picture of an artist without a hint of moral ickyness. I first heard about tUnE-YaRdS on All Songs Considered, and since her new album w h o k i l l is coming out tomorrow, I took advantage of the First Listen preview. It’s wildly enjoyable, full of every musical style you can imagine. With one set of vocal chords, Merrill Garbus produces a dozen different voices, but the album still has the feeling of a cohesive, complete and totally listenable piece of art.