Nelly Kate

Ish Ish

On Tuesday, I praised 2011’s wave of remix EPs for two main reasons,  the first being that these companion albums provide a fresh perspective on familiar songs, which, for me, raises the value of the original compositions. But then again, I’m a sucker for intertextuality. The second reason I like these remix albums is that they put the artist in driver’s seat of something that is typically out of their hands — secondary consumption. Whether you’re dealing with remixes, live covers, or illegal downloads, songs take on a life of their own once they’ve been released, and their writers rarely benefit. Remix EPs provide a way for musicians to have some agency in a distribution paradigm that’s stacked against them. Lemons, meet lemonade. There’s another phenomenon happening right now that has that same lemonade-y feel to it, as Staunton-based musician Nelly Kate can attest: Kickstarter. Kickstarter is a service that lets you solicit funds online so you can turn your creative vision — be that a documentary, music recording, or modular and expandable crop production unit (I did not make, and could not have made, that last one up) — into a reality. After all, in the age of the interweb, why should anyone with a great idea sit around waiting for a big company to swoop in and save the day? As the not-so-great Bill O’Reilly once said, “Fuck it! We’ll do it live!” A few days ago, I found the Kickstarter page for Nelly Kate’s album Ish Ish as a result of an RVA Magazine article, and I quickly fell in love with her story. In the video on her page, Kate describes so eloquently her inspiration and goals for her album, which she recorded via reel-to-reel and will have pressed to vinyl to complete the analog process. As she mentions in the video “It takes a true sense of commitment to press a record onto vinyl,” and that’s the beauty of her project, and why it’s so perfect for Kickstarter — Kate’s passion shines through, making it impossible not to root for her. Listen below to the beautifully written and layered song from Ish Ish that she’s provided to whet our appetites, “Blue Badges,” and if you enjoy it, please head to her Kickstarter and contribute. Even though it appears that she’s reached her goal, you can still contribute at different levels and receive various gifts in return, from a digital download of the album, to a vinyl copy, to a limited edition 50-page book that features Kate’s line drawings, lyrics and inside secrets, complete with an autographed and a personal message.

Nelly Kate — “Blue Badges

Death Cab for Cutie

Keys and Codes Remix EP

You guys! ZOMG! Did you hear the news about Ben and Zooey? OK, OK, so it’s not exactly news anymore that Death Cab for Cutie frontman and 500 Days of Summer starlet Zooey Deschanel filed for divorce after their own 500 days (give or take) of marriage. According to my sources… A. That news broke in early November; B. It’s now the middle of December; and C. I’m a terrible celebrity gossip blogger. Regardless, it’s always sad when two seemingly nice people split up (apparently not too sad to use the whole incident for a blog post setup), leaving them to wonder what could have been, and what could have been done differently. Though there are seldom second chances in marriage, fortunately for Mr. Gibbard, there are second chances in music, as his band’s Keys and Codes Remix EP exemplifies so enjoyably. All the way back in October, when Ben and Zooey were still hitched and Death Cab for Cutie’s most recent full-length Codes and Keys was but a six-month-old bundle of joy, the group started releasing one remixed track every Monday, each featuring a different guest producer, leading up to the November 22 release of a 7-track remix album. From the beginning, I was a fan. I liked the marketing — the slow rollout built suspense, letting you hear one piece of the (CHEESY ALBUM CONCEPT METAPHOR ALERT) puzzle [groan] at a time. I liked the results — the tracks vary wildly but each one offers a fresh view on the source material. But more than anything else, I like this concept. Given how difficult it is these days to profit from record sales, I love that artists are taking control of the secondary consumption market by releasing their own remix albums. Radiohead did the same this year with TKOL RMX 1234567, the follow-up to King of Limbs, as did Dale Earnhardt Jr Jr with It’s A Corporate World’s companion Horse Power EP. Some might say that these groups should leave well enough alone and let their albums stand for themselves, and it’s true that not every single one of these remixed tracks has been a winner for me, but so many of them are winners, and I can’t help but enjoy having the opportunity to look at all of these songs in a different light, like I’m hearing them again for the first time. Listen to the Keys and Codes Remix EP for yourself to decide where you stand on the matter, and if you like what you hear, head over to iTunes to make it official.

Death Cab for Cutie — Keys and Codes Remix EP

Alabama Shakes

Alabama Shakes EP

Alabama Shakes, Part 1
(Editor’s note: I’m so excited about last night’s Alabama Shakes show that I’m splitting my reaction up into two parts, one offering a macro view of the experience, and one that gives a little more detail. Hope you enjoy!)

“Don’t know much about history
Don’t know much biology
Don’t know much about a science book
Don’t know much about the french I took
But I do know that I love you”
— Sam Cooke

Over the course of 28 years, I’ve become an expert at certain things. Choosing which tunnel to use when traveling from Richmond to Norfolk is one. Choosing non-mealy apples at the grocery store is another. And I don’t mean to toot my own horn, but I consider myself the Michael Jordan of choosing the wrong checkout lane at Costco. Soul music, however, is not one of my (apologies to John Hodgman) areas of expertise. Soul is such an influential, historically rich and culturally significant force that I’ve always approached it with a sense of cautious reverence. And while I’m somewhat familiar with greats like Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke and Mavis Staples, it’s always seemed like a broader understanding of the genre’s history and icons is just too steep a hill to climb, and that I’m destined to remain on the outside looking in. Lately though, a number of bands that have caught my attention are making it more and more difficult to stay on the soul music sidelines. Last night, I had the pleasure of seeing one of these bands in person, a group called Alabama Shakes. I’d been hearing this 5-piece outfit’s name everywhere, often lumped in with the present wave of so-called soul revivalists, so I came to the Jefferson Theater in Charlottesville, VA prepared to find out firsthand where they stood within this movement. But as they worked their way through a powerful, confident and wildly entertaining set, it became clear that they weren’t reviving anything. What I saw felt like an authentic act of creation, not one of imitation or recreation. It felt like something totally new. Maybe I’m inclined to think this way because I lack the baseline of knowledge to make proper comparisons, but to say that frontwoman-extraoridnairre Brittany Howard has pipes like Aretha, or a 5th gear like Janis Joplin, or moo-oo-oo-OO-OO-ooves like Jagger (sorry, I really tried to stop myself from typing that) would, as accurate and complimentary as those comparisons might be, situate Alabama Shakes in the past, which is not where they belong. Sure, you can call them neo-soul, or something like that, but it really doesn’t matter, because you don’t need to be a soul savant, or an expert in musical taxonomy, to enjoy Alabama Shakes. And the proof was standing all around me last night. The crowd was as diverse as I’ve seen — black, white, young, old, hip, unhip — and while that could be a side effect of being relatively new and not having been pigeonholed yet, I’d like to think it’s because there’s so much to enjoy in their music that almost everyone can connect with it. See what I mean by listening below to “Hold On,” the first track off their eponymous EP, which you can snag here.

Alabama Shakes — “Hold On

He’s My Brother, She’s My Sister

He's My Brother, She's My Sister EP

Tryptophantastic Week: Day 3 — He’s My Brother, She’s My Sister
(Click here for Day 1 — Yellow Ostrich and here for Day 2 — Moon Hooch)

Preconceptions are very fickle, so fickle that they may very well be public enemy #1 when it comes to finding and exploring new music. Plus, they don’t always make sense. Take He’s My Brother, She’s My Sister, for example. One of the most dedicated music fans (and most recently minted twitterers) I know told me about this L.A. based outfit last weekend, and I can’t help but laugh at the random association that popped to mind immediately after hearing their name. Remember when Jack and Meg White were passing themselves off as siblings for a while? And then people figured out that they were not siblings, and had in fact been married at one point? Remember that? Two things. 1. This is not normal behavior. 2. The indelible strangeness of this ruse (yes, I’m excited that I get to use the word “ruse,” though I do feel like I’m typing in the voice of a soap opera actor) has made it so the White Stripes are the first thing I think of when confronted with a brother-sister musical group. It’s ironic and stupid. Fortunately, it doesn’t matter how distracted I may be by two people pretending to be blood relatives, the He’s My Brother, She’s My Sister EP is fantastic and engrossing and preconception-proof. Rob and Rachel Kolar are the namesake bro and sis, and the group’s 7-track EP is so jam packed with surprises — unexpected instrumentation, subtle touches that add texture and personality, stylistic swings — that it’s as impervious to prejudgement as it is enjoyable and re-listenable. And a Kill-Bill-Vol.-2-trumpet-infused cover of “Moonage Daydream” doesn’t hurt, either. Did you know David Bowie’s real name is David Jones? Just sayin’. While “Tales That I Tell” and “How’m I Gonna Get Back Home” are both highly recommendable, upbeat tunes, I can’t resist sharing with you “The House That Isn’t Mine,” which embodies the EP’s sneaky, varied brilliance so perfectly. Listen below and buy the He’s My Brother, She’s My Sister EP on iTunes here.

He’s My Brother, She’s My Sister — “The House That Isn’t Mine

The Phonograph

If anyone’s interested in Girl Talk and/or Tumblr, I invite you to have a look at this article I wrote for The Phonograph. If you’re not already a Phonograph fan, I highly suggest you check it out for some really interesting stories about everything from Silvio Berlusconi’s album of love songs to the EMI merger to Pete Townshend’s John Peel lecture. Enjoy!

Moon Hooch

Moon Hooch

Tryptophantastic Week: Day 2 — Moon Hooch
(click here for Day 1 — Yellow Ostrich)

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.

Moon Hooch — “#9

Yellow Ostrich

The Mistress

Tryptophantastic Week: Day 1 — Yellow Ostrich

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.

Yellow Ostrich — “Mary

Who wore it best?

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-overdue haircut, 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.


I Am...

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.

Nas — “N.Y. State of Mind Pt. II

Sister Sparrow & the Dirty Birds

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