Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Chapter 2

Something happened while I was writing about Unknown Mortal Orchestra yesterday — an action and reaction that, together, confirmed some of my core beliefs about the nature of peoples’ relationship with music. As I wrote, out of nowhere, my Twitter feed swelled with posts about how Daytrotter, one of my favorite sites for music on the entire world wide interweb, had decided to start charging $2 per month for access to their outstanding library of hundreds of downloadable, in-studio recording sessions. For years, these sessions had been free, an offering that seemed almost too good to be true, given the the artist selection, frequency of new sessions posted — multiple sessions are added each day — and the exceptional user experience (not to mention the insightful write-ups and the original artist illustrations, which deserve their own wing of a museum). When you consider the natural aversion to paying for something that had previously been free, you might have expected outrage and disappointment at this announcement. Nope. This was the anti-Netflix. The response on Twitter was overwhelmingly supportive, an outpouring of appreciation for a site that has helped so many people discover and enjoy new music since 2006 (two of my favorite reactions — @captainsdead tweeting, “one less pbr a month can get you a seemingly unlimited amount of awesomeness over at @daytrotter. just signed up. you should too...” and the Counting Crows adding, “$2 per month? People, WE are stealing from THEM. If music has a future, its @daytrotter…”). As I bought my subscription, I had the same feeling of empowerment and civic responsibility that comes with supporting public radio, and as an added bonus, it gave me an opportunity to cast my vote for a future where people still want to pay for and support music, even if we’re not sure exactly what that future is going to look like. After I was done registering, just for fun, I checked to see if the band I was writing about had recorded a session in Daytrotter’s Rock Island, IL studio. Serendipity struck and, sure enough, Unknown Mortal Orchestra recorded a session on September 7 of this year. Some things are just meant to be. Click here to sign up for a Daytrotter membership and here to listen to Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s session if you’re already a member. And if you need an extra bit of convincing, preview UMO’s Daytrotter recording of “Boy Witch” below.

Unknown Mortal Orchestra — “Boy Witch

Unknown Mortal Orchestra

A short time ago, I wrote a series of posts entitled “What the Hell Just Happened Week” as a way to make sense of having seen 7 fantastic bands in the span of 5 days. I thought that was pretty crazy. I was wrong. I was oh so very wrong. 7? Try 1,000+. That’s how many bands performed at this year’s CMJ Music Marathon, which took place October 18-22. For those 5 days, more than 1,300 up-and-coming bands played showcases (sometimes putting on more than one show a day) in and around the NYC area for overstimulated throngs of music journalists, bloggers and fans, and it makes my head explode just trying to imagine being there. I’ve been to South by Southwest before (HEAR THAT?!? I’M HIP! DROPPING SXSW IN THERE LIKE IT’S NO BIG DEAL! OK, so I was there for the interactive conference), but I didn’t know much about CMJ’s Marathon until yesterday. Thankfully, my musical sherpa Bob Boilen fixed that. In this week’s episode of All Songs Considered, Bob gave a rundown of the CMJ experience with the help of music editor for The Village Voice Maura Johnston and writer and videographer for The L Magazine Sydney Brownstone. In just 49 minutes, they shared their first impressions of 12 of the participating bands, and I beg you give the episode a listen. Never has my Spotify “Chekkit” playlist (the one I use to check out new/unfamiliar bands) expanded so quickly. One of the groups that made an exceptional first impression was Unknown Mortal Orchestra, a super creative band from Portland, OR/Auckland, NZ (practically neighbors) that snags elements from all over the musical spectrum, crafting songs that range from “I must dance right this minute!” to “I need to listen to this about 27 more times to unpack all the interesting notes and changes.” The song below, called “Jello and Juggernauts,” leans more towards the second category, and I hope you’ll have a listen and grab their self-titled album on iTunes here.

Unknown Mortal Orchestra — “Jello and Juggernauts


POP QUIZ! Where were you the last time you sang out loud? Doesn’t matter what song, doesn’t matter what volume… 3… 2… 1… PENCILS DOWN! I willing to guess a sizable percentage of you gave one of two answers — shower or car. There’s something about these two personal spaces that makes breaking out into song so tempting. And while the shower offers an excellent private sound stage with fantastic acoustics for belting out, you know, whatever, the car takes it to a whole ‘nuther level. You still have privacy, but you also have car stereo accompaniment, a volume knob for crankin’ when the spirit moves you, and a steering wheel for tapping or drumming or you know, whatever. In that sense, the car itself is like an instrument, and I have never in my entire life seen anyone “play the car” better than Leslie Feist did in her recent Black Cab Session. For some time, I’ve enjoyed how these automotive musical vignettes force artists into stripped-down versions of songs, giving a fresh perspective on the track’s basic structure and composition. Feist turns the tables on this idea, using voice, guitar, feet, the floor and even the ceiling to stage a truly fierce performance of “Undiscovered First” from her new album Metals. And as incredible as it is to watch her stomp her feet and slam the ceiling alongside her band mates, it’s just as gripping when you absorb the whole sonic landscape with your eyes closed. My immediate reaction after listening this way was that there has to be some sort of Grammy category that this session could dominate, like “Best Recording Made in a Moving Vehicle” or maybe “Best Use of Spontaneous Percussion.” While I’m busy petitioning the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, I recommend you watch the session once, listen once, and soak in the fierceness. Oh, and if you’re so inclined, listen to the album version of “Undiscovered First” below and buy Metals from iTunes here.

Feist — “Undiscovered First

The Rosebuds

Loud Planes Fly Low

If you’ve been to a fair number of concerts, you may know this feeling: You’re at a show, you’re having fun, the band is playing great, but you can’t escape the notion that you’re seeing the same performance that the Navy kids in Norfolk saw two nights earlier, which was the same show that plaid-clad Portlanders saw two weeks before that, the guests of Hotel Boulderado two months before that, and so on. Often there’s nothing deficient about these shows, but there’s still an unmistakable and indelible portability to them. If you know this feeling, then I bet you know its polar opposite: The notion that you’re seeing something that cannot be replicated, something that will inspire jealousy in the people who couldn’t make it out that night. Friday at the Camel was one of those nights for me. In fact, the Camel seems to be a magnet for these one-of-a-kind shows. One of the most memorable concerts I’ve ever seen happened there this past April, when Justin Townes Earle put on an emotionally-charged post-rehab performance that was equal parts frightening and brilliant. Though it wasn’t frightening (thankfully), Friday’s Rosebuds show was definitely brilliant, full of moments that stand out in their uniqueness, and I won’t soon forget it. Moments like…

…Landis Wine and Jay Ward of White Laces performing “Calcutta.” Wine and Ward kicked off the show with a special acoustic opening set, and I felt very lucky to be there to see it — not just because it’s fun to see talented musicians showcase their flexibility (Wine embraced the “VH1 Storytellers”-esque vibe, relaying stories about the songs they strummed, and Ward seemed perfectly at ease with a guitar in his normally bass-laden hands, even busting out a mandolin for one song) — but also because we were treated to a harmony-splashed rendition of  “Calcutta,” a track they covered for Love Me When I’m Gone: A Tribute to Ross Harman. It was a touching performance of a painfully beautiful song written by their late friend. You can listen to Harmon’s version here, and you can click here to contribute to a Kickstarter fund that’s raising money to have Harman’s music pressed to vinyl.

…Treesa Gold playing 1,243 notes in the span of 4 seconds (all numbers approximate). I liked Goldrush when I saw them at September’s RVA Music Fest, but I was standing too far away to fully appreciate some of the qualities I saw up close on Friday, like Matt Gold’s booming and brilliantly bowed double bass, Prabir Mehta’s swift guitar playing and pure frontman personality and Treesa Gold’s blindingly fast violin. I mean good lord, there were a lot of notes coming out of that violin. I’m pretty sure I looked like this for a while. The group offers songs that balance that type of complexity with fun and catchy melodies, many of which I could recognize right away from having heard them in September. I highly recommend a trip down YouTube lane to see and hear what I mean.

…someone in the crowd buying the Rosebuds shots. I didn’t know this until singer Ivan Howard mentioned it during their set, but Friday was the very last stop on the Rosebuds’ lengthy American tour. With a rear view mirror full of dates all over the country, some opening for Bon Iver, the Rosebuds seemed to be having a great time, and they sounded outstanding while they were doing it. The band paints such amazing pictures with their recorded music, and I’ve really enjoyed exploring their most recent record, Loud Planes Fly Low, so it was a thrill to see those pictures come to life in such vivid color and texture. There were so many moments to love — a captivating performance of “Cover Ears,” a Camel-wide singalong during “Nice Fox,” and, in what may have been my favorite episode of the evening, a good samaritan buying the band shots (I don’t know for sure what this person bought, but I heard someone say “Goldschläger,” which has to be the most hilarious shot to buy for a band), which they graciously knocked back and chased with a minute-long, improvised, bass-fueled jam. In those moments, the concert wasn’t just a concert — it also felt like the wrap party for a successful theater production, and I’m so glad to have made the trip to the Camel to help them celebrate. Check out the album version of “Cover Ears” below and click here to grab Loud Planes Fly Low on iTunes. Or, if you’re feeling frisky, head to your local record store, where you can buy the album from an actual, living, breathing human being who will be on your side of the Great Human-Robot War of 2034.

The Rosebuds — “Cover Ears

Ryan Adams

Ashes & Fire

Soooooo… got any plans for Black Friday? Gonna do a little shopping? Maybe hit up a few sales? Charge a Walmart or two? Me too! Just kidding, I’m terrified of Black Friday. Frankly, I’m pissed off I even have to capitalize the first letters of Black Friday (but Wikipedia capitalizes them, and we all know Wikipedia’s never wrong). But there is one thing happening the day after Thanksgiving that has me ready and willing to enter the fray of the biggest shopping day of the year: Record Store Day, Black Friday edition. Record Store Day is an event that encourages music lovers to head to their local independently owned record store, have some fun and buy some physical media, including hundreds of special, often limited edition, releases from bands who believe in the cause of keeping local music stores alive. While this year’s main event already happened on April 16, you can still make it to the smaller, but no less exciting, event on November 25. I’ll stay off my soapbox, except to say it was sad to see Richmond, VA fixture Plan 9 file for bankruptcy protection, though I’m optimistic this step will help them adapt so they can continue serving the community, as they have done for 30 years. So what can YOU do to help? Go out and buy some music on Black Friday! One release I’m prepared to shamelessly fight over in public is a 7″ of Ryan Adams song “Do I Wait,” from his marvelously mellow new album Ashes & Fire. If you’re not familiar with him, Adams is known as a songwriting machine, generating new material at an astonishing clip. While that may be true, it doesn’t change the fact that Ashes & Fire is a top-notch collection of soulful and earnest country rock songs that should absolutely not be missed. Have a listen to “Do I Wait” below, and if you’d like it, click here to find a locally owned store, like Plan 9, where you can pick up a copy from a nice, potentially tattooed human being working the register, who will probably tell you “Have a nice day!” when you leave. Unless you buy something by Justin Bieber. All bets are off at that point.

Ryan Adams — “Do I Wait

Ra Ra Riot

The Orchard

Last Tuesday, I wrote about Rostam Batmanglij’s musical midas touch, which turns every composition he touches to gold. Well in the eight days between then and now (Can we call eight days a Beatles week? Kinda like a baker’s dozen? Anyone?), I found out that he’s connected to an album that I was already enjoying immensely, The Orchard by Ra Ra Riot. Though Batmanglij’s participation in the record is limited to “Do You Remember,” a song that he mixed and maybe even co-wrote (I found conflicting information about whether he helped write the song or not), the whole album shares the ornate production and willingness to experiment with instrumentation and mood that have drawn me to Batmanglij’s collaborations in the past. In truth, my first listen of the album was somewhat flukey, as I started playing it while haphazardly testing out MOG’s streaming music service for an article I wrote for the Phonograph, a great UK-based music blog. Even though I moved on to try out other streaming services and websites, I kept the MOG window open so I could keep listening to The Orchard. I just couldn’t turn it off. Maybe it was frontman Wes Miles’ voice, which climbs so gracefully and feels like an estranged best friend, thanks to the fact that I went through a truly obsessive period of listening to the record he did with Batmanglij under the name Discovery. Or maybe it was the string arrangements, which add depth and shape on more than one level, thickening the mix sonically while counterbalancing the gravity of the lyrics, some of which deal with topics as weighty as a former bandmate’s death. For me, that’s Ra Ra Riot’s strength – being light and heavy at the same time, so you’re left with a feeling of pleasant (or as good friend of the blog Trang put it, “pla pla pleasant”) depth. It’s a quality that inspires repeated listening, making them the musical opposite of a movie like There Will Be Blood — an amazing film that I liked very much but never want to sit down and watch again. Ever. Please don’t make me. I will keep listening to The Orchard, and I hope you’ll check out “Do You Remember” below. If you dig it, click here to snag the album from iTunes.

Ra Ra Riot — “Do You Remember

Lianne La Havas

In the good old days, before it was taken over by Groupon and Living Social, people used to use email for all sorts of things… checking in with friends (“Hey asshole, you still owe $50 for fantasy football.”), coordinating bachelorette parties (“I don’t want to do anything too crazy you guys, maybe just some wine tasting or a spa day and then I guess we can go out for a little later that night but NOTHING TOO CRAZY YOU GUYS FOR REAL”), even staying in touch with family (“Mom I need $50 for fantasy football can you send a check thanks love you bye”). Email also used to be one of my favorite ways to follow bands. I’ve always enjoyed Guster’s updates and studio journals, penned by drummer-who-could-very-well-be-a-writer Brian Rosenworcel (not to be confused with singer-who-wrote-a-really-cool-children’s-novel Colin Meloy of the Decemberists), but I haven’t kept up with email lists as much lately — especially since so many seem like they’re coming directly from record companies, sporting rich HTML and graphics, and don’t come close to fostering a one-on-one connection with the artist. I’m happy to say that Lianne La Havas has snapped me out of my complacency. The first few messages to her list have been refreshing in their lighthearted humor and sense of intimacy. In addition to updates about shows and releases, she imparts weekly advice, like “Eat more soup. You stay fuller for longer,” and “Remember never to swallow the snot” — both excellent tips. In her most recent email, she included a link to her hypnotic Take-Away Show, which everyone should stop what they’re doing and watch immediately, and she also reminded us that she’d be appearing on Later… with Jools Holland. Her companions on Later…’s circular sound stage last night included Bon Iver and Feist, altogether a perfect storm of “Shit… does Verizon get BBC2?” The answer is no. Or I couldn’t find it. In any case, I waited patiently for video of the proceedings to show up online, and La Havas gave a performance of her song “Age” that was well worth the wait. Standing at the convergence of two spotlights, alone on the massive Later… stage, she brought to life the song’s sophisticated marriage of vulnerability and assertiveness, finger picking an electric guitar and singing in a voice that was sultry one moment and forceful the next. All throughout, her smile and apparent warmth echoed the personality I found in her electronic correspondence, filling the studio and leaving me all the more excited to receive her next update. Check out her Later… performance of “Age” above and the version from her Live in L.A. EP below, which you can snag for the meager price of an email address (rest assured, this is one email list you won’t bemoan joining).

Lianne La Havas — “Age

Doug Paisley

Constant Companion

I’ve been good about merch lately. No shirts, no commemorative tote bags (What? It’s a joke. I’ve never gotten one of tho… OK FINE, but just that once), just a few records here and there. My most recent merch purchase, or merchase if you’re into that kinda thing, happened more “there” than “here,” in that it was made when I was in Portland, OR at the Doug Fir Lounge on October 6, just as Megafaun was getting ready to take the stage. Doug Paisley had just performed an arresting opening set, one that rendered an entire basement lounge of drinking twenty-somethings silent and holding their breath. With a left-handed guitar, his voice barely above a whisper, and the audience hanging on his every word, Paisley delicately navigated through a series of soulful and tender country songs about heartache, redemption, and love. At one point I closed my eyes and it seemed like Paisley’s words, delivered almost apologetically, were more like thoughts that had accidentally escaped from someone’s head (Maybe Sam Elliot’s. Paisley’s got some seriously gruff gravitas chops, or graffichops, if you’re into that kinda thing). It was stunning. Check out “City Lights” to see what I mean.

Doug Paisley — “City Lights

The trance was broken only by eager applause between songs and a single admonishing “SHHHHHHHH” during one of his later tunes, when a few people standing near the back were talking too loud and someone in the crowd stepped up to set them straight (To the guy/gal who did the shushing, you’re my hero). As soon as his set was finished, I picked up a vinyl copy of his newest album, Constant Companion, the symbolism of which name being impossible to overlook [just made the connection almost two weeks later], as I had to carry the record by hand back to the hotel, then to the Portland airport, then all the way back to Richmond, VA. In case you were wondering, records don’t count against your two carry-on quota and fit nicely next to the puke bag in that sub-tray-table magazine pouch. Thankfully, my copy of Constant Companion passed the travel test with flying colors and found its way to my record player, where it’ll be spending a great deal of time. As I listen in my living room, I can hear the same intensity that froze the air of the Doug Fir Lounge on October 6, plus we’re treated to some goosebumps-inducing guest spots by fellow Canadians Leslie Feist and legendary organist for The Band, Garth Hudson. Speaking of guest spots, Megafaun summoned Paisley to the stage at the end of their set for a full-band version of his song “What I Saw.” Check out that performance and the album version below, “City” Lights” above, and grab Constant Companion here.

Doug Paisley (with Megafaun) — “What I Saw

Doug Paisley — “What I Saw

Black Keys

Us music fans are a fickle bunch, aren’t we? We love having gigs and gigs of tunes, but we’re not so fond of paying for them. Even though 10-buck-a-month streaming music services like Spotify are on the rise and are a step in the right direction, nothing fattens up a royalty check like consumers actually buying an album, be that a CD, record or download from an online store like iTunes. Well some bands aren’t taking the fight lying down. As record sales decline, we’re seeing some wildly creative promotions associated with album releases, and I salute the bands behind them. Take Wilco for example, who entered everyone who preordered their new album, The Whole Love, into a weekly giveaway contest, where one of the prizes was a Wilco-themed fixed-gear bicycle (insert your own “I’m a Wheel” joke here). Or take the Flaming Lips, who recently released music on a USB drive that was buried inside a 7-pound gummy skull (honestly, this is among the tamest of Wayne Coyne’s recent experiments with packaging). Or St. Vincent, who turned the release of the first single from her new album, Strange Mercy, into an interactive event, inviting fans to tweet the hashtag “#strangemercy” and posting the song to her website once enough people did. Well I have a new favorite in the world of viral marketing: The Black Keys. The purveyors of one of last year’s best albums in Brothers have just announced their new album, El Camino, and they’ve enlisted  the help of Bob Odenkirk of Mr. Show with Bob and David and Breaking Bad fame in promoting it. In the video above, Odenkirk plays a used car salesman who is trying to sell a crappy van identical to the one that, despite its not actually being an El Camino, graces the upcoming album’s cover, but he can’t seem to get a decent take of the commercial he’s shooting. It’s a great clip, especially if you’re familiar with the actor’s body of work, or if you’re super depressed because Breaking Bad just ended and you need something, ANYTHING that’ll chase away the withdrawal symptoms for a spell. Ya know, whichever. Check it out above, listen to “Psychotic Girl” from their previous album below, buy Brothers here and start getting excited for December 6, when El Camino rolls into a record store near you.

The Black Keys — “Psychotic Girl