Tag Archives: NPR Music

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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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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Wilco

(Editor’s note: Wow, What the Hell Just Happened Week certainly dragged on, didn’t it? The idea was to recap all the amazing music I saw between 9/21 and 9/25, openers and headliners alike, and though travels prevented me from finishing this last chapter in a timely fashion, they also gave me plenty of time to mull it over. Without further ado, here’s the final installment (complete with eyeball-friendly left justification and paragraphs!).

What the Hell Just Happened?!? Week: Day 5 — Wilco

It’s hard to write about your favorite band in the whole wide world, and I can say with conviction that Wilco has earned that distinction for me.

Despite that conviction about my favorite band, I can’t tell you what my favorite song in the world is. The same is true with albums. I think it’s because the answer changes so often. But shouldn’t it be the other way around? Songs don’t change. They can be remixed, covered, sampled and chopped up to fit into a 15-second commercial, but the original text stays the same (Can Let It Be Naked be the one exception? Can we all pretend that’s the real one?).

Bands, on the other hand, evolve. Bands venture in new musical directions, add members, find religion, go to rehab, change labels, become political, release concept albums, go back into rehab… they’re as dynamic as the people that comprise them. Such is certainly the case with Wilco, a group that’s undergone a lineup change after almost every record, the exceptions being their latest two efforts. So why is it so easy for me to say that Wilco is my favorite band? Why hasn’t that changed? Their show at Merriweather Post Pavilion on September 25 gave me the perfect opportunity to figure that out, but not for the reason I expected.

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Pokey LaFarge

MIddle of Everywhere

Note to songwriters everywhere: if you want me to lose all objectivity and immediately love a song, just mention Richmond, VA. As of August, I will have been living in Richmond for 10 years, and I’m a sucker for songs that shout it out. Justin Townes Earle’s “Ghost of Virginia“? Yes, please. Old Crow Medicine Show’s “James River Blues“? A sacred hymn. I even give an ironic “Woohoo!” every time Levon gets to the part about Richmond falling in “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” (Is that bad? I really can’t tell, at this point). The latest song to win my heart by mentioning my beloved River City is Pokey LaFarge’sShenandoah River.” I came across the tune thanks to the fine people at NPR music — and not just because they’re currently streaming his upcoming album, Middle of Everywhere. I first heard about Pokey thanks to a Tiny Desk Concert he performed with his band, the South City Three, at Bob Boilen’s desk back in April. Of all the things I liked about that performance, his personality and (please forgive me for using this word) panache stood out the most, and it’s remarkable to hear how he managed to bottle that same charisma in the studio. Though his musical style reaches back to the Dust Bowl, his showmanship is timeless. His whimsical lyrics and delivery make you forget what year it really is, along with anything that may have been worrying you. After all, the Shenandoah River doesn’t actually flow through Richmond, but as the song explains, “It doesn’t matter now, for we could float forever.” Have a listen to a live performance of “Shenandoah River” below, and click here to listen to the album version, along with the rest of Middle of Everywhere.

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Adele

Ladies’ Week: Day 2. The Artist: Adele. The Album: 21.

The first time I remember hearing Adele, she was belting out the lyrics of “Rolling in the Deep” over top of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy.” Was this the result of a crazy good celebrity sighting while at a karaoke bar in London? Um… no. But I have been to London before! It was lovely. Actually, my cover-loving friend Phill was the one who sent me this mashup made in heaven a few weeks back. Afterwards, it seemed like I saw Adele’s name everywhere (As a side note, I love when people are huge stars on the other side of the Atlantic and I had no idea. It’s like going back hundreds of years to when a friend would have had to sail for months on a clipper ship to hand deliver mp3s of cool mashups to you.), and when a contributor to NPR Music cited “Someone Like You” as one the best songs of the year so far, I knew where to turn next: YouTube. What I found was an impressive performance by a confident, yet human vocalist. It was Adele performing “Someone Like You” at the 2011 Brit Awards, and while her voice is gorgeous, and she is clearly a superstar, she isn’t an every-single-note-is-perfect, who-can-tell-if-she’s-autotuning, singing cyborg like other famous vocalists who shall remain celinedionnameless. Her voice has real soul and personality, and it makes the lyrics sound like they’re coming from the heart, not some faceless songwriter’s pen. Check out the video above for this touching performance of “Someone Like You” to see what I mean, and buy her album 21 on iTunes here. And just for fun, check out that mashup of “Rolling in the Deep” and “Crazy” below.

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Rave On Buddy Holly

Father’s Day got me thinking about how certain music sticks out in my memory as being omnipresent throughout my childhood. My dad loved early rock & roll, and even in the darkest depths of my angsty, Jnco-wearing, Nirvana-obsessed, “NO MOM I don’t CARE if my hair’s in my eyes and I can’t see anything” middle school days, I never lost the appreciation my dad instilled in me for a few canonical artists. Among the most sacred of these was Buddy Holly, and little did I know when I wrote last week about “The Day the Music Died” that NPR was just days away from throwing us a First Listen of the new, star-studded tribute album, Rave On Buddy Holly. The list of contributors is impressive, with legends like Paul McCartney, Lou Reed, and Patti Smith among them, but what makes the track list even more remarkable is the quality of the music that Holly released in just a three-year recording career. “True Love Ways” … “That’ll Be the Day” … “Peggy Sue” … “Everyday” … “Oh Boy!” … so many of his songs have become part of the fabric of American culture, and it’s easy to see his influence all across the musical spectrum. Buddy Holly is also proof that the truest songs sound simple, as if they occurred naturally and were picked off the vine at just the right moment, and it’s a treat to hear so many accomplished musicians offer their interpretations. You can sample some of the songs from Rave On Buddy Holly below, and you can hear the rest at NPR’s First Listen up until the record is released on June 28.

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Sleigh Bells

I knew I loved Sleigh Bells instantly. Not knowing much about the band, I clicked on the NPR First Listen of their debut album Treats, and the first few moments of the opening track “Tell Em” produced such an immediate and adrenaline-heavy reaction, that I’m surprised seeing them live turned out to be more thought provoking than visceral. The group is a duo, comprised of Derek Miller, a guitarist with a heavy metal pedigree, and Alexis Krauss, a former teen pop singer. Together they make gripping, danceable, sample-driven music that’s the closest thing I can imagine to a musical 5-Hour Energy. But the fact that guitar and vocals were the only live instrumentation (with a backing track providing the rest) during their show at the National this past Friday gave me a lot to think about … What happens when you make inventive music that you can’t stage? Do you hire a random backing band to learn the other parts? How do you capitalize on what you’ve created, other than licensing and record sales? I’m still not sure what the answers are, but I do know that I enjoyed the show, I love the album, and I want one of these so bad I can’t put it into words. Check out their performance of “Crown on the Ground” above and see what you think.

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Dale Earnhardt Jr Jr

It’s NASCAR weekend in Richmond, and that’s got me thinking about Dale Earnhardt Jr Jr. I heard their (fantastic) name at SXSW, but didn’t check out their music until I heard them on Wednesdays Become Eclectic, a weekly feature where the folks at NPR’s Morning Becomes Eclectic showcase up-and-coming artists. I had to hear more, so picked up their Horse Power EP. It’s a powerful example of something I absolutely love: electronic music with a soul. These songs are built on a foundation of drum machines and sampling, but the lyrics and their delivery are charged with emotion, and what results is a beautiful type of art that is simultaneously old and new, organic and synthetic. As if to drive this home, the band even includes a creative, yet faithful, cover of the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows.” Check out their song “Vocal Chords” below, and if you dig it, head to their website to download a free song called “Morning Thought” from their upcoming full-length debut.

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Pokey LaFarge

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.

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tUnE-YaRdS

w h o k i l l

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.

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