Tag Archives: Music

Neutral Milk Hotel

In the Aeroplane Over the Sea

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 seen Mrs. 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 of Jeff 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).

Neutral Milk Hotel — “King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1

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Cass McCombs

Humor Risk

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 some music journalists 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.

Cass McCombs — Humor Risk

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Carl Broemel

All Birds Say

Sometimes you have to take an unpopular stance, though it’s nice when you have a good friend standing unpopularly with you. My buddy Coyle and I are both staunch supporters of the most divisive song in the entirety of the My Morning Jacket catalog. That’s right, Coyle and I are proud members of team “Highly Suspicious.” I’m pretty sure we both like it for the same reason, too — the hilarious, over-the-top serious way Carl Broemel, co-lead guitarist and backup singer to Jim James, delivers the song’s title lyrics. Watch the band performing the song on Austin City Limits to see what I mean…

How can you not love that? It falls in some strange netherworld between parody and badassery, and ever since the first time I saw a video of “Highly Suspicious” being staged, I’ve watched Broemel with an added sense of enjoyment. That’s why I was so elated when the wonderful people at Daytrotter recently posted a session that finds Broemel performing 4 of his own songs that I had no idea existed, all of which can be found on an album he released last year called All Birds Say. I dove into the record as soon as I could, and it didn’t take long to learn that Broemel is as gifted at writing solo material as he is at the guitar-thrashing, falsetto-floating duties he executes so expertly as a member of My Morning Jacket. All Birds Say is a mellow record to be sure, but there’s a great deal going on in these largely down-tempo songs worth noting, including a fascinating relationship between theme and substance. Many of the songs deal with the idea of spare time, surely a commodity when you’re part of an overwhelmingly successful band, with titles like “Sunday Drivers” and “Retired,” and lyrics like “I was waiting for the moment to be perfectly clear, when the world would stop and let me catch up,” and “save an hour for yourself.” Images like these appear throughout, and pair perfectly with the choice of tempo and mood. Too perfectly, in fact. That’s what’s most interesting about All Birds Say — it’s a leisurely sounding record about trying to find time for leisure, which, as any busy person can attest, is hard work. After doing some research, I wasn’t surprised to find that he recorded the album one song at a time, whenever he had an opportunity, over the course of 4 or 5 years, so it’s no wonder he’s focused on those elusive spare moments. Even his guitar work reflects this odd coupling of efficiency and relaxation. “Questions” features a walkdown that sounds so breezy on the surface it could have followed a drunk down the street in an old Disney cartoon, but it includes just about every single in-between note that particular scale can hold. So loose, yet so tight at the same time. And these extra, in-between notes are everywhere on All Birds Say. I’m enjoying the album so much I can’t decide which song to recommend, so I’m including performance videos of three of my favorites — “Questions,” “Carried Away,” and “Heaven Knows,” where he pushes the leisure theme even further by playing the song on an autoharp in the middle of a round of golf. Check out these three great songs below, his Daytrotter session here (you’re a member already, right?), and buy All Birds Say here.

Carl Broemel — “Questions

Carl Broemel — “Carried Away

Carl Broemel — “Heaven Knows

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Firehorse

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

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Mungo Jerry/The Who

In the Summertime

Oh daylight savings time, you double-edged sword, you. On one hand, you generously give us an extra hour of sleep each fall (which I promptly throw away by staying up extra late on Saturday night, but still…). On the other hand, “falling back” means it’s already dark when we leave work, which raises just about everyone’s ire, even those of us without Seasonal Affective Disorder, the most insensitively named psychological disorder since Wanton Unfortunate Sissiness Syndrome, which, as we all know, took the crown from Neurologically Unstable Tempestuousness Sickness. But you know what, daylight savings time? YOU’RE NOT THE BOSS OF ME! It just so happens that the day before you so rudely made it feel like winter overnight, I unwittingly armed myself with two powerful weapons that, as I listen to them on this dreadfully depressing Monday, make your assault on happiness and a gradual transition away from summer seem, well, wussy (my apologies to those with W.U.S.S.). You see on Saturday, I went 45 diving at Plan 9 and came to the surface holding, among other things, Mungo Jerry’s “In the Summertime” and the Who’s “Summertime Blues.” While both were recorded by English rock groups in the 1970’s, the mood of these songs couldn’t be more divergent. “In the Summertime” is a carefree original tune with lyrics about having fun, fishing, drinking and driving, and, um… not buying poor women dinner before you try to have sex with them. Conversely, “Summertime Blues” is a canonical, angst-ridden anthem that chronicles a teenager’s frustration with being too young and poor to make his own decisions. Looking closer, even the songs’ writers are opposites. “Summertime Blues” was originally written by rockabilly artist Eddie Cochran, who died in a road accident when he was just 21. Mungo Jerry, however, is still active, thanks to intrepid frontman/mutton chops connoisseur Ray (don’t call me Jerry) Dorset, who has led the band for an astonishing 41 years. But as different as these songs are, they both chase away the seasonal gloom by conjuring some really special memories of fall’s younger, more popular sibling. “In the Summertime” calls to mind all the fun I had performing the song with bandmates 4eva Doug and Brett when I had just graduated college, and “Summertime Blues” takes me back to car rides spent listening to early rock with my 50’s-crazed dad, back when I was way too young to understand that he was dutifully laying the groundwork for an appreciation for the genre’s founding fathers. With these two songs filling up the living room, it doesn’t matter if the clocks have been set back to the correct hour, or even which month is showing on the calendar, because it sounds like summertime, and that’s close enough. Listen to both tunes below and join me in telling daylight savings time to stick it where the sun does shine.

Mungo Jerry — “In the Summertime

The Who — “Summertime Blues” (Eddie Cochran cover)

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Youth Lagoon

Empire Records has to be one of the most underrated music movies. For one thing, its advocacy for locally owned record stores seems more relevant now than ever, even though the nature of their enemy has changed dramatically. Little did we know that Warren, the shoplifter, would evolve and become the real villain. Another great thing about Empire Records is that it’s chock full of well-encapsulated truths about rock music, from the disappointment one can feel upon finally meeting/trying to have sex with a teen idol, to the difficulty that rock stars have maintaining their credibility as they age, to the fact music can act as a filter for our raw emotions, rendering us better equipped to deal with the pressures of day-to-day life. But of all the musical truisms that Empire Records illustrates, my favorite has to be Lucas’ band name advice to Mark: “Always play with their minds.” It seems like an overly philosophical piece of dialogue when Lucas delivers it, but he’s not wrong — cognitive dissonance is crucial to rock music. Taking cues from blues (the blue note gives you a musical itch that only the root note can scratch) and jazz (crazy shit happening everywhere), the most interesting and important rock musicians have always been the ones that challenge us, both in terms of the songs they write and the image they project. One artist currently has different parts of my brain pitted against one another in a ridiculously enjoyable fit of cognitive dissonance, and that artist is Youth Lagoon. On one hand, you have Trevor Powers’ age (just 22) and his vocal style (as vulnerable-sounding as it gets). On the other hand, you have the quality of his debut album, The Year of Hibernation (wonderfully layered and sophisticated), the wisdom of his lyrics (well beyond his years), and the overall feeling of nostalgia he projects (manifested poignantly in the sepia-toned video for his song “Montana”). It just doesn’t add up… and I love it. Pitchfork recently took this set of contradictions one step further in their new series Tunnelvision, which invites innovative directors from all over the web to shoot unique performance videos. I had gotten so accustomed to the yearning, sentimental, and therefore removed texture of Powers’ reverb-soaked vocals on “July” that director Charles Bergquist’s decision to use tightly framed shots was startling at first, like a conceptual version of the dolly zoom shot in Jaws, in which the camera advances on Chief Brody’s face while zooming out at the same time (or maybe it’s the opposite — it’s really hard to tell). It’s an intentionally disorienting experience, but oddly pleasing at the same time. I’m not sure if this is exactly what Bergquist had in mind, but I found his video, and Powers’ performance, to be wildly enjoyable and engaging, and I hope you’ll check it out above, listen to the album version below, buy The Year of Hibernation here, and have some fun confusing the crap out of your brain.

Youth Lagoon — “July

 

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Mudhoney/George Clinton

Jason Isbell is one of my favorite musicians to follow on Twitter, in part because he has a fantastic philosophy about musical guilty pleasures. He summed this doctrine up perfectly on October 1 of this year, in a tweet that read, “There should be no guilty pleasures. Feel guilty about not enjoying things. Enjoy everything you can.” Those 102 characters made me so happy (as did some similar comments he made in an interview with Hear Ya), because they encapsulated my long held conviction that music is entirely what you make of it — you can dwell all you want on a band’s faults or a record’s weaknesses, but it’s way more fun to celebrate the aspects of that band or record that bring you joy. One reason this is true is that music, in many ways, is a personal experience. Sure, concerts can double as social events, and making music is extremely interactive, but the way we react to the songs we hear through our headphones is as personal as it gets. Sounds travel down our uniquely shaped ear canals, hit our one-of-a-kind ear drums and make their way up to our beautifully peculiar brains, and no two reactions are ever the same, so why apply a collective construct like shame to such a wonderfully solipsistic phenomenon? This idea jumped to the front of my mind when I was flipping through singles at Plan 9 and found a 7-inch single that was released to promote PCU, my favorite “Oh man, I can’t wait to get to college, it’s gonna be so awesome!” movies of my adolescence. My inner 14-year-old was beyond thrilled. I have such fond memories of, and strong mental associations with, the two featured tracks — Mudhoney’s cover of Elvis Costello’s “Pump It Up” and George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic’s recording of “Stomp” — that I honestly couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It was as if I had stumbled across the glowing contents of the Pulp Fiction briefcase in that record bin (And it was just $3!). For a moment, I felt silly for my enthusiasm, but just as quickly, I realized I had found a glowing (literally — the vinyl is red!) testament to the fact that value is in the eye, or ear, of the listener, and that even though a record may only fetch a few bucks on ebay, it can still feel like a totally priceless artifact. If you’re as crazy about PCU as I am, you can bid on your own copy of the single here, and listen below to “Pump It Up” and “Stomp.” And don’t forget, no classes before 11, and beer is your best friend, so drink a lot of it. Now, can you blow me where the pampers is?

Mudhoney — “Pump It Up” (Elvis Costello cover)

George Clinton – “Stomp

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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

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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

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Feist

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

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