For Day 2 of Tryptophantastic Week, I’d like to flip Day 1 on its head. Remember how I talked about how special it is when you find a singer whose voice can double as an instrument? Well the opposite can be just as remarkable, as Moon Hooch exemplifies so resoundingly. The same fine folks who hosted my wife and I for the first night of our recent stay in New York City saw this big-apple-based trio open for former Soul Coughing singer Mike Doughty, and as our friends described their experience over some tasty desserts on Thanksgiving night, it was clear that they’d seen something singular and refreshing. They spoke of this unusual band that was comprised of two saxophones, drums, aaaaaand that’s it. So what can you do with a pair of saxes and some drums, not to mention a fantastic band name? A quick listen to Moon Hooch’s 13-track album proves that you can do a shit ton (which Urban Dictionary defines as “2000 assloads” or “The imperial equivalent to a metric buttload”) with just those 3 instruments when they’re in the right hands (or mouths, as the case may be). The first thing that jumped out as I listened was how they sounded like they were reading the imaginary sheet music to an extremely fun and energetic techno album. Songs build and release tension much like a house DJ might, taking a small sandbox, instrumentation-wise, and turning it into a crazy sandbox dance party. The second thing that stood out as I explored The Moon Hooch Album was a gradual realization that the two woodwinds were having a very animated, very fluid conversation with one another. And they’re not just chewing the cud about instrument cases and spit and stuff (I’m guessing that’s what woodwinds chat about over their tasty Thanksgiving desserts). Using voices that range from light and playful to Sam Elliott, speaking in staccato syllables, the two saxophones really engage one another, alternating between argument and agreement, putting ideas together, pulling them apart, all the while feeding off the furious energy generated by drums that are constantly shoveling more and more coals onto an ever-growing fire. I encourage you to join the — ahem [adjusts tie] — heated conversation by listening below to their song “#9,” which can be found and purchased on The Moon Hooch Album here.
I’ve had an incredible time sorting through the music I heard about from friends and family over the Thanksgiving break, and since I haven’t done a themed week in a while, I’d like to spend the next few days exploring some of the winners. Call it “Tryptophantastic Week.” The first of these winners, Yellow Ostrich, originally came to my attention courtesy of the fact that they’d been touring as one of the openers for Ra Ra Riot. Some of my Pennsylvania-based in-laws are planning on catching the tour’s rescheduled stop in Harrisburg tomorrow, so over the weekend I introduced them to the music of the other opener, the amazing Delicate Steve (“In-laws, meet Wondervisions; Wondervisions, in-laws”) and then spent some time introducing myself to Yellow Ostrich. As it turns out, it looks like YO won’t be playing in H-burg — the venue’s website says they are, the band’s site says they’re no longer with the tour. But for my folks’ sake, I sincerely hope I’m wrong, because Yellow Ostrich has something special going on that strikes me as a hallmark of seriously good musicianship. On occasion, you’ll come across a singer whose voice has an instrumental quality, where words seem to melt away and vocals fuse with the accompanying music in the same way that any single piece of a well-oiled orchestra blends in with its compatriots to create a cohesive musical expression. It’s extremely rare (Thom Yorke of Radiohead and Jónsi Birgisson of Sigur Rós are two canonized practitioners), but Yellow Ostrich exhibits that same quality, and their song “Mary” takes this idea to another level. “Mary” is a gorgeous song that starts out with carefully layered vocals that build until they they sound almost exactly like an accordion that’s expanding and contracting. I can’t tell you how much I love that real voices, which are created by breath escaping human lungs and traveling over vocal chords, are being used to mimic an instrument that, itself, mimics the production of the human voice. The resulting effect forms a conceptual loop that’s cooler than I can possibly describe, so listen for yourself below and click here to buy Yellow Ostrich’s album, The Mistress.
Did everyone have a great Thanksgiving? Get enough gravy? Watch enough football? I managed to catch chunks of all 3 of Thursday’s games, but there was one thing I was determined not to miss: Nickelback’s appearance during halftime of the Lions/Packers game in Detroit. I was fascinated by the hullabaloo leading up to their performance — I can’t remember the last time mean-spirited-ness was so widely tolerated (especially of the musican-on-musician variety). Hating on Nickelback is fun and all, but the campaign to have them replaced seemed bizarre in its fervor, and I was curious to see how they would handle the adversity. The event itself was relatively uneventful, in a way that these performances must be in a post-Nipplegate world, but two things stuck out… 1. The lead singer got a long-overduehaircut, and 2. There was a drumline. Hmmm… Now, marching bands and football go together like Forrest and Jenny, but this seemed like an odd choice, given how little the corps was utilized and how little you could actually hear it. See what you think…
Still with me? What a trouper you are. Seemed kinda off, right? Well the drumline issue jumped right back to the front of my mind when Enrique Iglesias took the stage just a few hours later during halftime of the Cowboys/Dolphins game. Why? Because Mr. Iglesias, owner of the world’s tightest hoodie, was flanked not only by rapper and co-founder of Bad Boy Records subsidiary Bad Boy Latino, Pitbull (he knows you want him), but also by a sizable group of marching drummers. Have a look…
Seriously, if you’re still reading, you get a gold star for wading through this crap with me. Speaking of crap, if you’ve ever read a glossy gossip magazine, you may already be familiar with the commonplace feature where they place pictures of two celebrities wearing a similar outfit side-by-side and ask the question (we’ll go with US Weekly’s wording here), “Who wore it best?” So what do you think? Who wore the drumline best, Nickelback or Enrique? Feel free to comment below, or just click here to get both out of your head as soon as humanly possible by watching the University of Southern California’s marching band back up Radiohead in their performance of “15 Step” at the 2009 Grammys.
One more quick thought about visiting the big apple. I’m pretty bad at the geography of New York City. It seems so overwhelming that I’ve never done a terribly good job of getting my bearings (though I did retain a tidbit this time about even streets heading east). But I realized while riding (not driving, thank god) around the city that many of the places and names that I do recognize (me sounding real white in 3… 2… 1… OK I’m just gonna say it), I recognize from hip hop lyrics. It sounds lame, but it’s true. It hit me most on Saturday when we were heading to our hotel in Long Island City, Queens, near Queensbridge, a neighborhood that instantly sounded familiar. After incorrectly guessing rappers from Queens (I’m not saying who, it’s more than a little embarrassing) I went ahead and asked the interweb, and the list of artists from just that one borough is astounding. Nas. 50 Cent. LL Cool J. Mobb Deep. Q-Tip. There are many more. Ja Rule is one of them. It’s truly amazing to think about how the genre of hip hop is so closely tied to the city of New York, and how beautifully hip hop artists provide an oral history of their hometown. Just like the relationship between soul and Detroit or jazz and New Orleans (hear that Utah??), it’s hard to imagine the place without the music that’s blossomed there. With that in mind, I’ve included one of my favorite Nas tracks below, “N.Y. State of Mind Pt. II,” which brings the big city to life, both in terms of its lyrics and its beat, which makes you feel like you’re walking down a busy street (east, if it’s an even one), with your head on a swivel, surveying the scene. Listen below and buy his 1999 album I Am… here.
I was in New York City for a wedding this past (long) weekend, and had a super fun, action packed few days — I ate at some amazing restaurants, visited a museum exhibit that included a working slide from the 4th floor to the 2nd, conducted an unscientific study on regional differences in transactional conversation (saying “Thank you!” enthusiastically to store owners and waiters to see if they return a “You’re welcome” — they usually don’t, which I know isn’t considered to be rude, but it’s still fun to try) and saw an amazing band that I didn’t even know I’d be seeing. Saturday’s wedding reception was packed with great music, thanks in large part to the fact that the couple of the hour answered “Both” to that age old question, “Band or DJ?” The DJ provided an excellent chronological progression from Motown to “Otis,” deftly managing the inverse relationship between time and mean age, but it was the band, Brooklyn-based Sister Sparrow & the Dirty Birds, that totally blew me away, playing a short set of dynamite soul songs that packed a serious punch. It can’t be easy to come into that environment and get people dancing with original music, but Sister Sparrow, fronted by Arleigh Kincheloe’s booming yet feminine voice and bolstered by a 4-man horn section (I think it was 4, but don’t hold me to that — the Brooklyn Lager was a-flowin’), did just that, playing tunes off their self-titled album alongside a few covers, and everything just worked. The horns were great, the vocals were great, the lead guitar was great, the harmonica was great — to paraphrase our good friend Thom Yorke, everything was in its right place, and I eagerly found the album on Spotify so I could preview it on the train ride back home to Richmond. Check out a full stream of their album below, and buy it on iTunes here.
Sister Sparrow & the Dirty Birds – Sister Sparrow & the Dirty Birds
Do you use Read It Later? No? You should! It’s a great way to keep track of all the content you don’t have time to check out right away. Apparently I haven’t had much time at all, because my Read It Later list has gotten crazy long. As such (and such as), I figured this would be a good opportunity to play another round of Read It Later Roulette. Let’s spin the nonexistent wheel!
Raise your hand if you know one of these people: You’re having a conversation with a friend/coworker/family member and you admit to not having seen/heard/read a particular movie/record/book, and your admission sets off an incredulous tizzy in your friend/coworker/family member, as if you had just confessed to murdering manatees for sport. “What?!? You haven’t seen Mrs. Doubtfire?!? WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU?!?” Those of you who are raising your hands — aren’t those tizzy throwers annoying? Amiright, you guys? [laughs nervously] OK, who am I kidding. I am, deep down, one of those over-enthused people, but I pride myself on being able to put on the poker face when people say they haven’t seen or heard a movie or song I love (Full disclosure: A few beers in, all bets are off and I likely will throw a conniption your way if you tell me you haven’t seenMrs. Doubtfire). But I don’t think this reaction is a simple display of overabundant enthusiasm — I think there’s a hint of jealousy mixed in there, as well. Take The Wire and Breaking Bad, for example. Both are incredible shows, and whenever people say they haven’t seen one or both of them, I’m envious, because I know that when they finally do pick either one up, they’ll be embarking upon a journey that brought me a tremendous amount of enjoyment. I felt very fortunate this past week when I got to be on the other side of this phenomenon, thanks to a chat with a coworker/highly trusted source for good music who was preparing for a high-noon battle with the faceless horde of e-people who also wanted tickets to Jeff Mangum’s upcoming show in Washington, D.C. He asked if I was going to try my Ticketmaster luck as well, and I had to confess to knowing ofJeff Mangum, but never actually having listened to his iconic band Neutral Milk Hotel’s indie (I think that word actually meant something in 1998) masterpiece, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, all the way through. I’d heard covers of the album’s title and opening tracks, but that was about it, aside from a quick look at his recent performance at Occupy Wall Street. My coworker (excited, but without a hint of incredulous spazzing, to his credit) shared his affinity for the record, and as soon as I could, I started my own Aeroplane journey. The expectations were so high, and so much has been said about the album, but my first run through from beginning to end was still rewarding and full of surprises. There are so many avenues, dark corners, explosive moments and mood swings that I was completely enthralled, and that sense of immersion hasn’t gone away after subsequent listens. It’s so easy to get sucked into In the Aeroplane Over the Sea — the way songs bleed into one another makes for an eerie, page-turning experience, with these juxtapositions building a dramatic tension that’s dialed up even more by a landscape of overdriven guitars, sometimes-disturbing imagery (all the probing and fingers and body parts make you think you’re reading the dream journal of an overworked surgeon) and carnival-like sonic chaos. It really is worthy of every bit of praise that’s been heaped its way over the years and OMG you have to drop everything and listen to it right this second [puts on poker face] I highly recommend you give the album a try. Start with opening cut “King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1” below, and if you like it, continue the roller coaster ride by buying the album here (you wont be alone — it was the 6th best selling vinyl record in 2008, a full decade after it’s original release).
It’s kind of a freaky thought, but what we like isn’t always up to us. Does that mean there are dark forces at work, surreptitiously assaulting our brains with all manner of suggestions? Well, of course, but that’s not really what I wanted this post to be about. I think what I’m trying to talk about is mystery. Our brains work in ways we can’t understand, and that may be a good thing. What fun would it be if we could map out every notion and its neurochemical origin? That sense of mystery is all that separates us from being squishy, walking computers, so let’s embrace it! And let’s embrace Cass McCombs! The singer-songwriter is a self-consciously enigmatic figure with a well-documented disdain for interviews, a peccadillo that has forced somemusicjournalists to actually sit down with a pen and paper and write to him by mail to get material for an article. He’s even posted a hilarious and self-deprecating faux interview to YouTube, in which he says absolutely nothing. Ironically enough, I started learning about McCombs’ steely and mysterious public persona from a phone interview he did do with Pitchfork, and my immediate reaction after reading the piece wasn’t great. I thought he came across as pretentious, even as he was describing how “a master craftsman is someone who is unpretentious.” At that point, my familiarity with his music was limited to a single listen of his new album, Humor Risk, and though I enjoyed it, his standoffish nature was enough to make me put the record down. End of story. Or is it? I can’t remember why I picked it back up a few days later, but when I made it to “Robin Egg Blue,” something had changed. Maybe the songs needed time to settle, or maybe knowing more about his personality opened a door that had been locked the first time I listened. Frankly I don’t know what switch was flipped that made me like this record so much more when I came back for a second listen, and in this case, I’m OK letting the mystery linger (though I can’t shake the sneaking suspicion that McCombs is actually a Jedi). I do know that Humor Risk is a special album, replete with a kind of brilliance that glows warmly and unobtrusively throughout all 8 songs. With this in mind, I’ve included a stream of the entire album below. If you enjoy it, you can buy Humor Risk on iTunes here.