Hearing music you love instantly is an amazing feeling. Everything around you seems to fall into place, as if there’s a sense of order to the world floating just below the surface of everyday life that comes up for air briefly and without warning. I love it. Youth Lagoon gave me this feeling, and even though there are only three songs in the entire world attributed to this one-man musical project, I have to share them with you. I heard about Youth Lagoon (real name Trevor Powers, not to be confused with this Trevor Powers, who has a kickass website with a boss yellow background) from a Pitchfork post, which mentioned that he’s just 22, lives in Boise, Idaho and makes music in his bedroom. These facts are hard to believe, as his music sounds like the work of someone with years of experience arranging and performing, and his style does not seem in the least bit cloistered or juvenile. Of everything that seemed A+ about these songs on the first listen, my favorite element by far is his voice. In an age where anyone’s voice can be futzed with to sound perfect, the effects on his voice make him sound more vulnerable. When he sings “I have more dreams than you have posters of your favorite teams,” it sounds beautifully and painfully earnest, like the tiny voice inside the head of an embattled outcast who won’t give up hope for finding happiness. It’s a vocal sound that’s both unique and endearing, and I can’t wait to hear more when his debut album The Year of Hibernation comes out on September 27. In the meantime, enjoy the three tunes that are out there for our enjoyment: “July,” Cannons,” and “Montana,” the first two of which are available for download on his Bandcamp page.
I have my friends Josh and Caitlin to thank for No BS! Brass Band. They’d seen No BS! perform a number of times, and it was clear when they talked about the group that something special was going on. Seeing that type of enthusiasm in friends is always a sign of good things to come, and when I finally got to see No BS! at the Camel this past winter, I had an incredible time. Their sound is big and inviting, and in between their powerful and intricately arranged original songs, they covered “Thriller” and “Take On Me,” both of which were ridiculously fun. Every time I’ve seen them since, I’ve felt that same sense of fun, so I was bummed that I couldn’t make it to either night of the two-part Balliceaux release party for the new split 7″ record they just released with fellow Richmond band Black Girls. When I found out about this limited-pressing record, entitled No BS! Brass Band VS Black Girls, I got really excited and bought a copy off the label’s website, thinking they might run out quickly, MAYBE EVEN DURING THE RELEASE PARTY (I do the same thing with movies I’m jazzed up about — I always think they’re going to be totally crowded, so I rush through the popcorn buying process to make sure I get connecting seats). My copy came in the mail this weekend, and I’d never heard Black Girls’ music, but their song “Broadway” gave an outstanding first impression, sounding sophisticated and full — the word “jaunty” also comes to mind, but do people really use that word? — with No BS! providing backup firepower. On the other side, No BS! contributes a fantastic new version of “Ain’t Even Gonna Call Ya,” one of my favorites to see live. Check out a live version of the song below, and if you’re vinyl-inclined, order your copy of the split 7” here.
When I saw Sharon Jones a month or so ago, I learned that her band, the Dap-Kings, backed up Amy Winehouse on her album Back to Blackand the subsequent U.S. tour. As I sat down to write about seeing Jones, who was spectacular, I thought about mentioning the Dap-Kings’ history with Winehouse, but I couldn’t. Just typing her name seemed too sad. At the time, she had just cancelled a European tour, due to her ongoing substance abuse problems, and it gave me no joy to juxtapose the two singers’ careers. The same feeling struck me over the weekend, when I heard she had died, and I considered writing a post about her. Just too sad. But to avoid writing about her now, as I did a month ago, would be a mistake. I’d be defining Winehouse by her struggles and premature death, instead of celebrating her immense talent, considerable influence and award-winning music. One of the most magical things about musicians, writers, filmmakers and artists of all stripes is that as troubled as they may be in their personal lives, by creating art, they put pieces of themselves out into the world — fleeting moments when they’re at their absolute best — and after these people are gone, we can look back on what they’ve created and soak in not just the beauty of a song or painting, but the beauty that lived inside the person who created it (I know this sounds a little Harry-Potter-horcrux-y, forgive me). With this silver lining in mind, I’d like to share with you one of my favorite songs from Winehouse’s first album Frank, called “Fuck Me Pumps.” In a hilarious critique of gold-digging women, this tune showcases her incredible voice as well as her incredibly witty songwriting, which doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Did you know she wrote or co-wrote most of the songs on her two outstanding albums? I didn’t until recently. Check out “Fuck Me Pumps” below, buy Frank here, and spend some time remembering Amy Winehouse at her best.
Is happiness a bad thing for music? Everyone knows the cliché of the prodigious musician who just isn’t as good after getting clean, and that some of rock & roll’s most venerated talents died young as a result of a mix of drugs and depression. So does that mean that successful, veteran rockers should pack up their Telecasters and bust out the shuffleboard? That seemed to be the sentiment when Death Cab for Cutie recently released Codes and Keys, a record that many people dismissed for not being melancholy enough. But I don’t buy it. Maybe it’s because I tend to get emotionally attached after following someone’s career, but I like when musicians seem happy, and that’s one of the reasons I’m digging Wilco’s cover of the Nick Lowe song, “I Love My Label.” Some context: Wilco just founded their own record label, dBpm Records, which is notable in part because Wilco’s dispute with Reprise Records over the label’s refusal to release the band’s breakthrough album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, made them poster children for sticking to one’s creative guns in the face of corporate pressure. That was 2001, and ten years later, it’s wonderful to hear the band relish their success as they begin this new chapter of their career with dBpm’s first release, a 7” single of new song “I Might,” with the delightfully ironic “I Love My Label” B-side. My copy came in the mail on Saturday, and I fell for both songs right away. “I Might” sounds like a band having fun — fun fuzzy bass, fun driving snare, fun everything; and “I Love My Label” is the cherry on top of an exciting moment in the band’s career. Founding dBpm Records means that no one can tell Wilco their music isn’t good enough to be released (except Jeff Tweedy). Check out both songs below, and if you’re a vinyl person, click here to buy the 7” single.
So… you’re awesome. Everyone loves you. Pitchfork loves you. Peter Gabriel is covering the song you wrote that mentions… Peter Gabriel. Now what? For artists that score a hit with their debut album, the follow-up record must be daunting. The need to balance fans’ expectations, financial success (that gold-plated robot panini press isn’t going to pay for itself) and creative ambition makes this sophomore album a particularly interesting moment in the life cycle of a band, and Vampire Weekend nailed it. Their second album Contra is one of my favorites in recent memory — a work of both savvy continuation and bold departure. I’d heard “Horchata” on the Interweb, but the first time I listened to Contra all the way through, my friend Tex brought it to my house on his iPod. No Dropbox folders, no MediaFire links, he actually came over and played the album. I checked into it, and it looks like the last time someone did that was early on in the Bronze Age (3300-1200 BCE). The experience was memorable, not just because of the way I first heard the album, but because the songs take the band’s African-influenced chamber pop to a whole new level, and I got to hear their music evolve over the course of those 36 minutes. Keyboardist and songwriter Rostam Batmanglij’s electro-soul side project Discovery seems to have been a dry run for this album, as sequencing and sampling jump to the forefront. I could talk all day about Contra (and probably will end up writing 17 more posts about it), but I’ll stop here so you can check out “Diplomat’s Son,” a fine example of Rostam’s influence on the band. Listen below and grab the album here.
Over the weekend, I was thinking about how rewarding it is to follow musicians (and not just on Twitter … although that can be rewarding too, especially if you want to hear the lead singer of Weezer say things like, “Any other guys out there uncomfortable eating whole bananas?”). Watching talented people move through the life cycle of a career in music is fascinating, and I thought it would be fun this week to take a look at a few artists who are in different stages of this cycle, starting with a singer who is just embarking on what looks to be a very promising career. I stopped by the Black Cab Sessions website recently and came across London-based vocalist Lianne La Havas. With her guitar in hand and a charming smile on her face, she gracefully glides through a catchy song about dating an older man. The site doesn’t list the song’s name, and a search for key words came up dry (if anyone knows what it is, I’m dying to know! [UPDATE: The song is called “Age.” It was right in front of my face the whole time.]), but the ambivalent lyrics flow seamlessly, like an intimate conversation with a trusted friend, and Lianne’s impressive vocal control and effortless vibrato serve the song perfectly. I love the feeling of discovery that comes with hearing someone who seems to be fairly new, but who is so clearly bound for success. It’s like taking a different route to work or finding out you actually do like scallops (I thought I didn’t like the consistency) — the world feels new, if only for a short time. Immediately after watching, I went digging around YouTube, SoundCloud and iTunes for more, scarcity acting as both an obstacle and a thrill, finding a few videos on her website and an outstanding cover of the Everything Everything song “Final Form.” Check it out below, and her Black Cab Session above, and I dare you not to fall in love with her. Go on, try.
Note to songwriters everywhere: if you want me to lose all objectivity and immediately love a song, just mention Richmond, VA. As of August, I will have been living in Richmond for 10 years, and I’m a sucker for songs that shout it out. Justin Townes Earle’s “Ghost of Virginia“? Yes, please. Old Crow Medicine Show’s “James River Blues“? A sacred hymn. I even give an ironic “Woohoo!” every time Levon gets to the part about Richmond falling in “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” (Is that bad? I really can’t tell, at this point). The latest song to win my heart by mentioning my beloved River City is Pokey LaFarge’s “Shenandoah River.” I came across the tune thanks to the fine people at NPR music — and not just because they’re currently streaming his upcoming album, Middle of Everywhere. I first heard about Pokey thanks to a Tiny Desk Concert he performed with his band, the South City Three, at Bob Boilen’s desk back in April. Of all the things I liked about that performance, his personality and (please forgive me for using this word) panache stood out the most, and it’s remarkable to hear how he managed to bottle that same charisma in the studio. Though his musical style reaches back to the Dust Bowl, his showmanship is timeless. His whimsical lyrics and delivery make you forget what year it really is, along with anything that may have been worrying you. After all, the Shenandoah River doesn’t actually flow through Richmond, but as the song explains, “It doesn’t matter now, for we could float forever.” Have a listen to a live performance of “Shenandoah River” below, and click here to listen to the album version, along with the rest of Middle of Everywhere.
Special Two-Part Coverage of the Most Hipster Thing I’ll Do All Summer Part 2: There Will Be Merch
I’ve been writing this blog for three and a half months now, and (sigh) it’s time. It’s time I shared with you that… here goes… I have a merch addiction. A raging one. Show me a merch table, and I’ll show you all the cash I have in my wallet. My triggers include concerts, NASCAR races, baseball games, basketball games, political campaigns, SXSW was a t-shirt collecting shit show… it’s bad, OK? So when I walked into Saturday’s Animal Collective concert at Merriweather Post Pavilion, my love for merch and my vinyl habit teamed up, and things got a little out of hand. I snagged a t-shirt, a copy of Animal Collective’s Fall Be Kind EP on vinyl, a 7″ single of Panda Bear’s “Last Night at the Jetty,” and a lime green Merriweather Post Pavilion bag (What? Sometimes a guy needs to tote some stuff around for a few hours). Did I feel a little guilty? Sure. Did that stop me from tweeting about it once I saw that the venue’s giant screens were set to scroll through posts related to the night’s concert? Nope! I informed the entire Merriweather Post Pavilion lawn that I was “All merched up,” and gleefully watched the post scroll by a handful of times. The other tweets were far more entertaining, though. Post after post of hipsters making fun of other hipsters. It was a sight to behold — through thick-rimmed glasses, of course. While I can’t condone my merch-first-ask-questions-later approach to money management, I can wholeheartedly endorse the music I picked up. Panda Bear’s single is fantastic (as is the rest of the album) and Fall Be Kind is one of the best EPs I’ve ever heard. Check out “What Would I Want? Sky,” which is historic, in that it features the first licensed sample of a Grateful Dead song, and grab the album here.
Special Two-Part Coverage of the Most Hipster Thing I’ll Do All Summer Part 1: Expectations and Ogres
Hipsters love irony. Defying expectations is central to this most sub- of sub-cultures, so it’s no surprise (or is it?) that before I even made it to Animal Collective’s show at Merriweather Post Pavilion, I was already immersed in a complicated web of dashed preconception. Let’s do some untangling. The members of Animal Collective all have roots in the Baltimore area, yet they’d never played at Merriweather Post Pavilion, even though it’s the venue that inspired the name of the band’s most recent (and most successful) album, an album that, according to an interview with band member Dave Portner, we wouldn’t be hearing much of, since Portner foretold that they’d be playing twelve songs, 70% of which would be new (not a round number), the newness of the songs being old news, since it’s fairly well known that Animal Collective prefers testing new and evolving material on the road over the traditional practice of playing mainly tunes from previous albums. Whew. And I thought ogres had layers. All of this knowing so much and so little at the same time had me over-the-moon excited about the concert, and all hipster jokes aside, it was an incredible experience. There I was at a concert where the whole audience is participating in an exercise of shared discovery. Since most of the songs are works in progress, not even the most stalkery, show-taping, YouTube-searching superfan knows for sure what will happen. It brings to mind that moment you see in Victorian period pieces, when the foppish audience either dispassionately claps or roars in approval after the premiere of a composer’s latest symphony. I felt sublimely lucky to be there, watching one of the greatest bands in the world make beautiful music that’s creative in every sense of the word. Check out one of the songs the band did play off Merriweather Post Pavilion, called “Brother Sport,” and download the album here.
During one of my previous themed weeks, I wrote about how collaborations are a great way to discover new artists. This is all well and good, but I can be pretty dense sometimes, and Gillian Welch is a shining example. I had so many chances to jump on her bandwagon. My first opportunity came with the film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, a movie I watched maybe 1,253 times. Not only was she associate producer for the sensational Grammy-winning soundtrack, singing on two of the songs, SHE ACTUALLY APPEARED IN THE MOVIE. Sigh. Another chance passed me by when she recently contributed backing vocals to seven of the ten songs on the Decemberists’ The King is Dead. Somewhere in between she played drums on Old Crow Medicine Show’s debut record, recorded with Bright Eyes, Ryan Adams, I mean c’mon, how oblivious am I? In truth, the fact that these projects didn’t make me run out and buy Gillian Welch albums illustrates her gift as a collaborator. In each case, her talents enhanced songs without overpowering them, even though she’s talented enough to outshine many of these artists. I’m finally learning this because my friend Giselle recommended that I give Welch’s new offering, The Harrow and the Harvest, a shot. After several listens, I’ve found that it’s a truly engaging folk album, full of tender moments and bittersweet beauty. My favorite so far is “Hard Times” — a song that is so bitter and sweet at the same time, you almost think the conflicting emotions are going to tear the song apart. Take a listen below, buy The Harrow and the Harvest here, and learn from my obliviousness, so you don’t have to spend one more day without Gillian Welch in your life.