“You’re the reason why I’ll move to the city or why I’ll need to leave.”
[drops voice an octave] Hey there, blog reader. Can I ask you a question? Are those space pants you’re wearing? ‘Cause your ass is out of this world! [voice returns to normal octave] Hey hey hey, where are you going?!? Come back! I’m totally kidding! This here blog is spoken for. And besides, everyone knows those one-liners never actually work. It takes a lot more than a pickup line to start a meaningful relationship with another human being. Songs on the other hand… songs are different. One well-written lyric can bring a song together in a way that immediately endears you to the person who wrote it, a fact I had the pleasure of rediscovering when I was just a song and a half into the NPR First Listen of Sharon Van Etten’s upcoming (February 7) album, Tramp. The line that got me can be found in “Give Out,” a gorgeous song with sparse instrumentation, hand percussion and steady rhythm acoustic guitar playing, all of which make it feel like Van Etten and a few others could be playing the song right there in your living room. But as intimate as the arrangement feels, the song’s lyrics wrestle with the notion of intimacy and build up to a chorus that stopped me in my tracks — “You’re the reason why I’ll move to the city or why I’ll need to leave.” Such a potent mixture of trepidation, self-confidence, vulnerability and hope in so few words — I couldn’t believe it. It was one of those rare moments when you instantly fall in love with a lyric and know that you need to hear it again and again and again. And nothing’s better in those moments than when the artist does the repeating for you, like the two of you are on the same page about the words’ importance. Like you understand and are understood. And while that’s a whole lot to ascribe to a single song lyric, the feeling is unmistakable and impossible to forget — much like those space pants you got on, blog reader. Oh snap! Preview “Give Out” below, click here to stream Tramp over at NPR and click here to pre-order the album from iTunes.
Sharon Van Etten — “Give Out“
(Click here for Part 1 of my review of the White Laces/Arches split 7-inch. Apologies up front for not addressing the yellow cassette that came with my pre-order, but it definitely deserves its own day in the sun.)
Dreams aren’t always made of cumulus clouds and unicorns. Even the most pleasant dreams have narrative surprises, shifting contexts and bouts with anxiety — all the messy side-effects of your brain’s attempt to file away the bazillion thoughts and images it has to absorb on a daily basis. I’ve fallen for Arches song “Late Last Night” because it illustrates how beautifully dream-like a song really can be, and not just because of its relaxed tempo or reverb-heavy guitar and vocal treatments. “Late Last Night” graces the opposite side from White Laces’ “Dissolve Into Color” on the two Worthless Junk labelmates’ recently released split 7-inch record, and it provides a fascinating counterbalance to its companion track. Sure, you start out floating happily along, riding the gentle waves of sliding and bending lead guitar lines, but just when you’re lulled into a state of relaxation, the song takes a sudden turn, with increased distortion and intensity. This darker cloud lifts soon enough, but the damage is done. Your sense of security is shot and you’re left waiting for the other turbulent shoe to drop. Herein lies the song’s strength — its shifts mimic brilliantly the way dreams evolve unexpectedly, without warning and seemingly without reason. When I wrote on Friday about White Laces’ side of the record, I spent some time talking about how much I loved the song’s ending. “Late Last Night” satisfies till its very last moments, as well. If you listen closely to the nearly minute-long drone that brings the song to a close, you’ll hear the tone kick up slightly just before it drops out. This makes me so happy, in part because I can’t help but think of the climactic scene in meta-scary movie Scream, in which one of the survivors correctly predicts that the killer, who appears to be dead, actually has one more scare left in him (before Neve Campbell shoots him in the head like a boss). That subtle tonal shift is a fitting end to the fitful sleep that “Late Last Night” affords, and I highly recommend that you click play below and see where the dream takes you. If you dig, you can buy the 7-inch from Worthless Junk Records here or name your price for a digital download of “Late Last Night” here.
Arches — “Late Last Night“
Last Sunday, I came home to find a very exciting and much-anticipated parcel sitting on my porch. It was a smallish cardboard box that enclosed 3 items: a Worthless Junk Records sticker, the new White Laces/Arches split 7″ and a yellow cassette with “W.L.” handwritten on one side and “AR” on the other. Because there’s a whole lot of awesome going on in this parcel, I’m splitting up my thoughts into two parts, starting with White Laces’ side of the record. Recorded at Mystic Fortress studio in Roanoke and etched into super-groovy colored vinyl, “Dissolve Into Color” is a wonderfully expressive song, and it bears one of the trademark characteristics that make White Laces so exceptional — the band’s unique ability to create sonic space, and lots of it. Doubled vocals and undulating guitars with elastic lead notes create a feeling of lateral movement that, when combined with driving, forward momentum-building drums and bass, pushes the boundaries of the song outward in all directions. Such spaciousness makes it easy to lose yourself in “Dissolve Into Color,” especially when it kicks into high gear during the instrumental buildup that comprises the final quarter of the song. Starting with just drums and two notes played back and forth on guitar, the crescendo builds and builds like a game of Jenga being played in reverse, until all the elements are in place, forming a massive-sounding structure that feels powerful and solid even as it maintains its elasticity. Another thing I love about this song is the brief epilogue that brings it to a close. After the buildup climaxes and several of the instruments drop out, the crescendo’s din temporarily remains, feeling less like an afterthought than a spirit that refuses to leave. This yearning piece of punctuation is just one of the many things “Dissolve Into Color” does well, and I encourage you to listen below, snag the record here, and check back for Part 2, in which I’ll take a look at Arches song “Late Last Night” and the mysterious yellow cassette.
White Laces — “Dissolve Into Color“
OK, Dawes. I understand that you can’t help writing beautiful and moving songs. But that’s no reason to go around making people get all misty in public places. See, I had no idea what I was getting into when, during one of my embarrassingly frequent trips to Panera, I hit play and heard the opening piano line of “A Little Bit of Everything.” All I knew was that my friend Mike liked the song and that it involved biscuits and beans — this much I gleaned from Mike casually singing a few lines. Maybe I’m alone here, but in my experience, beans haven’t often been part of emotionally charged songs (though the lyric in “We’re Gonna Make It” about having to eat beans every day offers a quality exception), so let’s just say I was caught a little off-guard. But I’m so glad it happened. Not knowing what “A Little Bit Of Everything” was about afforded me the most wonderfully pure, tear-jerking listening experience I could have hoped for. But this is not sentiment for sentiment’s sake. And I think I know a thing or two about sentiment for sentiment’s sake, having rewatched two-thirds of The Notebook last weekend. Each of the song’s three verses tells a nuanced story that hits on different emotional pressure points, as if Taylor Goldsmith imagined himself an engineer at a power plant, deftly opening and closing valves to maintain just the right level of internal pressure, ensuring that the whole thing doesn’t explode (as opposed to The Notebook, which is of course the Chernobyl of this analogy). See what I mean by checking out the acoustic performance of “A Little Bit Of Everything” above, the studio version and Dawes’ infinitely lovable anthem “When My Time Comes” below, and click here to buy Dawes’ most recent album, Nothing Is Wrong.
Dawes — “A Little Bit Of Everything“
Dawes — “When My Time Comes“
(Editor’s note: No hippies were harmed in the writing of this blog post.)
I have a nonscientific, shamefully new-age-y theory that goes a little something like this: Much like the concept of chakras, which some eastern religions say are subtle focal points where your body receives and transmits energy, I believe certain places act like musical nexuses, providing spiritual junctions for musicians (by the way, I had my fingers crossed that the plural of “nexus” would be “nexi,” but no such luck). Allow me to clear one thing up, though. While New York City is clearly a hub for American culture in so many respects, this is not a blog post about New York City. Yes, it was Gil Scott-Heron’s song “New York Is Killing Me” that inspired me to write about musical centers of energy, but it’s his mention of needing to “go home and slow down in Jackson, Tennessee” that got the new-age thoughts a-whirrin’. Jackson’s a relatively small town (the population came in at just over 65,000 in 2010’s census) but a number of significant musicians have roots there — Scott-Heron, Carl Perkins and Luther Ingram are a few of the most notable — and the city’s name comes up in more than a few songs. The most famous of these is probably Johnny Cash and June Carter’s rendition of “Jackson,” a tale of two lovers hoping to rekindle their relationship in an unspecified city of Jackson (though it’s hard to tell for sure which Jackson the song’s writers had in mind, Cash’s relationship with the state of Tennessee makes me think he, at the very least, had Jackson, Tennessee in mind when he covered the song). Another example, which is coincidentally even more morbid than Scott-Heron’s, is Sonny Boy Williamson’s “T.B. Blues,” which is exactly what it sounds like — a song about dying from tuberculosis — with a narrator who is asking to be buried back in his hometown of Jackson. In each case, the city is portrayed as a refuge, somewhere to go to either recharge or retreat. That’s a lot of musical history for such a small town, and it’s hard not to think that the place wields some sort of special power over its musically inclined residents. Take a listen to Gil Scott-Heron’s “New York Is Killing Me” below and decide for yourself… is Jackson a musical nexus, or should I pack up my collection of crystals and admit to myself that the pouch hanging around my neck does not actually house the spirit of Jerry Garcia? Whichever you decide, I encourage you to click here and snag Scott-Heron’s I’m New Here. No new-age beliefs required, I swear.
Gil Scott-Heron — “New York is Killing Me“
When I wrote this past weekend about Black Girls’ new album Hell Dragon, I mentioned that one of my favorite parts of seeing live music is expecting the unexpected. Even if you’ve seen a band before, you never know what you’ll find at their next show. Coincidentally, when I was finishing dinner before heading over to the Hell Dragon release party at the Camel, I was blindsided by a totally unexpected musical surprise, but it was a piece of recorded music — one that I’d heard a zillion times, for that matter — that did the blindsiding. To be painfully honest, I first heard Bettye LaVette’s “Somebody Pick Up My Pieces” by accident. I needed to listen to “Pick Up the Pieces” by Average White Band (don’t ask) and absentmindedly let Spotify play through the song title search results. Quick side note — Spotify searches make for the strangest playlists you’ll ever hear. When “Somebody Pick Up My Pieces” came on, I heard LaVette’s deep, expressive and soulful voice placed against a sweet, southern backdrop of twangy pedal steel and lazy drums, piano and bass, and I fell for the juxtaposition right away. It was a powerful moment of discovery, one I got to relive when I finally found a used copy of The Scene of the Crime, the album on which “Somebody Pick Up My Pieces” appears, at Deep Groove Records on Saturday. At dinner a few hours later, I shared news of my vinyl find with Robbie, a friend whose brain is a musical encyclopedia, and that’s when he blindsided me. “Oh yeah, The Scene of the Crime. You know her band on that album is Drive-By Truckers?” Bam. In that moment, a wormhole opened up and two treasured parts of my musical universe were suddenly and permanently connected. I couldn’t believe it, nor could I wait to give the whole album another listen, this time with the knowledge of who was providing that sweet, southern backdrop. Listen to the song below to see what I mean and click here to buy The Scene of the Crime. Who knows what surprises await when you do!
Bettye LaVette — “Somebody Pick Up My Pieces“
WHEN I SAY LOUISVILLE, YOU SAY… electro-folk-pop? Damn right, electro-folk-pop. What did you think I was gonna say? “Bats?” (Thank god Wikipedia is back so I could find the name of Louisville’s AAA baseball team. By the way, SOPA and PIPA suck.) Whistle Peak does indeed hail from the bluegrass state (actually Kentucky is a commonwealth, just like my good Ol’ Dominion, but we’re cool. Massachusetts and Pennsylvania won’t say anything either), but they set their sights on a style much less traditional than bluegrass when they made Half Asleep Upon Echo Falls, their sophomore album, which is slated for a Valentine’s Day release. Before we go any further, I do know that their state… [AHEM] commonwealth is nicknamed after an actual type of grass, not the string-pickin’ genre, but give me a break here. I haven’t yet written about many bands from Kentucky — My Morning Jacket being one notable exception — and I’m really excited about Whistle Peak, a group that offers an exceptional balance of sounding different and cohesive at the same time. Half Asleep is one of those rare invitations to step into a different world, one that feels like it has its own unique landscape, climate and culture. The instrumentation and execution are distinctive (the prominence of the ukulele certainly stands out), and while the percussion sounds vary from track to track along with a diverse set of texture-massaging samples, these elements never feel detached or unrelated. Half Asleep is so pleasing to enjoy from start to finish in part because it offers variety within a specific imaginary space, giving the listener a comprehensive tour of this uncanny world. And to my ears, it sounds like Half Asleep‘s slightly off-kilter universe is weighed down by an ever so slightly inflated gravitational pull, as if its inhabitants enjoy all the joys and excitement that us Earth humans do, just on a slightly muted basis. Or maybe this alternate race of humanoids simply evolved to be shorter and squatter than we did. Either way, the filtered vocals and descending melodies have a weight that, even in the album’s most freewheeling moments, keeps the mood grounded. And I love it. If that extra gravity keeps me on this strange and distant planet a little while longer, that’s A-OK with me. Preview “Wings Won’t Behave” below to see what I mean and pre-order Half Asleep Upon Echo Falls here.
Whistle Peak — “Wings Won’t Behave“
So Google and Wikipedia called me this morning and were all like, “Today’s protest will be nothing without You Hear That! You gotta join in!” And I was all like, “Alright guys, I got your back. Let’s do this.” OK, all kidding aside, it’s scary to think what SOPA and PIPA could mean for blogs like this one, especially because of the effect they could have on my precious, precious SoundCloud, so I hope you’ll check out the video above to learn more about these pieces of legislation and what you can do, if’n you’re so inclined, to stop them. If you’d like to read more, click here to go to Consequence of Sound’s very nicely written editorial about the whole to-do.
Someone once said that talking about music is like dancing about architecture. Or they may have said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture — the first page of a Google search was inconclusive on the matter, and this page creeped me out so I stopped* researching it. Either way, as I understand the saying (which is sometimes attributed to Elvis Costello), it suggests that analyzing music with language is pointless, just a marriage of two unrelated and abstract concepts. Well, I happen to be of the opinion that mixing abstract concepts is super fun, and I was reminded of how fun it can be with five awesome words — “alien Motown in the snow.” That’s how a friend (the same person who recommended Jesca Hoop) described the title track off Swedish electronic band Little Dragon’s 2011 album Ritual Union. Who could resist a description like that? As I was putting my earphones in, I remembered that I’d heard the song a few times, and I mentally played back the section where the vocals first come in, but as soon as I hit play, all I heard was 100% alien Motown in the snow. “Ritual Union” is now impossible to forget. The description is just so apt, and the song so enjoyable when keeping it in mind, that I’m not even going to ascribe my own adjectives to it. Just hit play below to see (well, ya know… hear) for yourself. If you want to hear some more of that good ol’ fashioned a.M.i.t.s., just click here and buy Ritual Union on iTunes.
Little Dragon — “Ritual Union”
*Though I did find this, which seems to come pretty damn close to bringing the “dancing about architecture” part of the saying to life.
I love live music. There’s the feeling of community, the sensory overload, the expectation of the unexpected… And one of the greatest gifts a band can give is a recording that captures those feelings, so you can take the live experience with you throughout your day. On the way to work. Walking down the street. Raking leaves. Raking more leaves. If you have a pair of headphones, all of these moments are just crowded, sweaty dance parties in disguise, and Black Girls’ new album Hell Dragon is a 9-song invitation to say “Fuck it!” and make those dance parties a reality.