Can a blog post be both long overdue and perfectly timed? You bet your stars and stripes it can!
All Songs Considered
For a long time, all I knew of Phosphorescent was “Cocaine Lights.” I’m not sure how I came across it, but I think I know why I latched onto it — it’s one of the best coming-down songs I can remember hearing. I’m a sucker for these. They’re music’s way of helping us survey the wreckage after a storm, or wade through the emotional spillage that results from a fight, or decide whether the pizza that nobody was thoughtful enough to put in the fridge is still edible the next morning. These songs are dried up, distilled, naked, and honest, hurting and soothing in one languid motion.
If I’m being honest, I need only have heard the first line of “Cocaine Lights” to place the song in this sacred category. Matthew Houck pours oceans into those 7 words — “In the darkness/After the cocaine lights” — with a craggy voice that sounds like poetry when it climbs down the scale. In fact, the tonal topography of the phrase tells a story by itself, peaking quickly and then stumbling down rocky terrain. The rest of the lyrics might as well be a bonus, given that just 33 seconds into the song, I’m already where I need to be. Sober and rattled, regretful and removed. This may even be the reason I hadn’t sought out more of Houck’s music — those first 7 words gave me more emotion to chew on than most artists can serve up in 7 albums. But I’m happy to say that Houck’s new effort, Muchacho, has awoken the sleeping Phosphorescent fan inside me.
On June 16, this post about music ownership in the digital age, penned by an NPR Music intern, landed on the All Songs Considered blog with an echoing electronic thud. Emily White’s post spawned a whole mess of reactions, ranging from the self-righteous to the self-deprecating, and after a week of surprisingly reasoned Internet debate (I didn’t see anyone compare anyone else to Hitler, so that’s good!), it seems to be dying down a bit. So what’s left? Have any decisions been made? Have we figured out how artists are going make money from their music? Sadly, the answers to those last two questions are probably “No” and “No.” But I’m a little more hopeful about that first question. The optimist in me wants to believe there is something very real and very productive left behind by the frenzy that White’s piece whipped up — a lingering residue of awareness. Awareness and maybe a little well-intentioned guilt.
We live in a cynical world. A world full of misinformation, self interest, greed and deception, one that’s trained us to question everything we see, hear, smell, taste and feel. For crying out loud, we can’t even walk our friends and family to the gate at the airport anymore, which makes this heartwarming moment heartbreakingly impossible. I love that scene. This is the best we can do now. Sigh. Plus, all this skepticism means that when you encounter real sincerity, whether it’s in another person, or a gesture, or a piece of art, it can be downright alarming. But you know what? It’s also unmistakable. It jumps out at you. I recently encountered a song that jumped out at me thanks to its inherent sweetness and sincerity, and I’ve been playing it a few times in a row whenever I need a reminder that the world isn’t as hard-hearted as it may seem sometimes. I’m talking about “If You Don’t Want To Be Alone” by Firehorse, one of the bands I learned about from All Songs Considered’s fantastic CMJ recap episode. “If You Don’t Want To Be Alone” is written from the perspective of a person who’s yearning for a loved one to return home, and it paints a picture of unconditional devotion and steadfast companionship that makes every cynical notion in my body melt away, with lines like “You can come back whenever you’d like” and “If you need rest, I’ll stay right by your side.” And the lyrics aren’t the only touching part of the song — the arrangement reinforces this narrative beautifully. Singer Leah Siegel’s voice is set against a backdrop of sparse instrumentation, reverb-soaked and distorted guitars and fading echoes of indeterminate origin, making her words seem like an earnest oasis of humanity in a vast and frightening sonic darkness. That image of a small light shining brightly in the dark was so moving during one particular cluster of repeated listens that I tweeted at her so I could say thank you for improving my afternoon, and that her album And So They Ran Faster… was exactly what I needed to hear at that particular moment. Sure enough, she sent back a short note of thanks that exhibited the same genuineness that drew me to her music in the first place. Much like her song, it was the kind of exchange that makes the rest of the world feel a little less cynical, which counts for a lot in my book. Give a listen to “If You Don’t Want To Be Alone” below, buy the album here, and click here to learn about the charitable organization for which the song was originally written, the Topsy Foundation.
Firehorse — “If You Don’t Want To Be Alone“
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“
Some people were blessed with the gift of foresight — “planners” I hear they’re called. I am not one of those people, which is why it’s a minor miracle that I got to see Megafaun this past Thursday. Early last week, my wife and I were a few days away from hopping on a 737 bound for Portland, OR (By “bound for Portland,” I mean bound for Houston, then Portland. I’m pretty sure Lewis and Clark took the same route.), when I did something so out of character, I’m surprised my wife didn’t accuse me of being involved in a Face/Off-style government plot — I checked to see what concerts would be happening while we were in town. It seems so simple, yet I can assure you, this was an evolutionary leap on par with the use of perspective in Renaissance painting and the special effects from Jurassic Park. The theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey should have been playing in the background as I looked online at venues’ websites and saw that Megafaun would be rocking the Doug Fir Lounge the evening after we flew in to PDX. This was very exciting news. I started learning about the North Carolina-based roots rock band over the past few months from Bon Iver’s glowing tweets about them, and I finally heard their music when it was featured on a recent episode of NPR’s All Songs Considered. I’ve had their self-titled album in heavy rotation ever since, but Thursday night’s performance was even better than I could have hoped. Amidst the backdrop of a super cool basement lounge that felt like a cross between a ski lodge and a woodsy version of Dr. Evil’s hollowed-out volcano lair, Megafaun put on a performance that made me and my wife fans for life. I’m a sucker for well-executed harmonies, and I was in the right place, as all four members of the band contributed to one sweet sounding vocal arrangement after another, culminating in their a cappella performance above of “Second Friend.” I may not have been blessed with the planner gene, but I felt truly blessed to have been at Doug Fir on Thursday night, and I’m definitely going to make a habit of checking for concerts before I head on vacation. Check out “Second Friend” above, hear the album version below, and buy their amazing self-titled album here.
Megafaun — “Second Friend“
Important Vinyl Update … The Artist: The Beatles. The Album: The Beatles (The White Album). The Store: Plan 9. The Price: $9.
My big sister Cary is the coolest person I know. From an early age, she had awesome taste in music, and was always willing to help me see the light. But of all the recommendations she’s given me over the years, I’m thankful for one above all others: the Beatles. Her Beatles obsession began in middle school, and while mine wouldn’t kick in until much later, she passed on an appreciation for their songs as sacred texts, along with a few of the Beatles posters that once covered her bedroom wall-to-wall. My vinyl collection also didn’t start until long after hers, and it was actually a story I heard on All Songs Considered while driving home for Thanksgiving that made me so eager to seek out my own copy of the White Album.
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.
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.