Tag Archives: NPR Music

Brooklyn Rider

Seven Steps

Last week turned out to be a cover song celebration, with one post about a monster collection of repurposed Bob Dylan tunes and another about Punch Brothers’ out-of-this-world takes on Radiohead. And while I didn’t really set out to double down on the covers, I couldn’t be happier that theme emerged, because it got me thinking differently about Brooklyn Rider, a string quartet that has just released a new recording entitled Seven Steps.

Before going any further, I am obligated by the International Code of Music Blogging Ethics to point out that classical music is usually “not my cup of tea.” But it’s not “not my cup of tea” in the same way that, say, olives are “not my cup of tea.” Olives I hate with a passion. The word “tapenade” is an iron-clad deal-breaker when scanning the menu at fancy restaurants. Classical music, on the other hand, is something that I have a great deal of interest in learning about, but I have a long way to go, both in terms of appreciation and understanding.

So how did Brooklyn Rider manage to make connection with their 2011 effort, Brooklyn Rider Plays Philip Glass? I think Glass’ minimalist style deserves some of the credit. As with any learning endeavor, repetition is helpful, and the repetitive structures in Glass’ music engage without feeling overwhelming, despite the fact that a great deal of complexity is hidden within those patterns. But I think the lion’s share of the credit belongs to the group’s 4 musicians, who themselves are refreshingly relatable.

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Le voyage dans la lune

Who here likes scary movies? OK, people who raised your hands — have you ever thought about why? I like ’em too, so I’m not trying to get all judgy on you. I’m just wondering if we like them for the same reason. OK, I’ll go first. I think my favorite part of watching scary movies is the catharsis. You get all wrapped up in a terrifying scenario for a few hours, all the while knowing that, with the push of a button (or a stroll down the isle, if you actually went to a movie theater — people still do that, right?), it can all disappear. But in order to get a quality cathartic experience going, you need to be scared. You need to be challenged. You need to have your buttons pressed. I didn’t expect any such button pressing when I pressed play on NPR’s First Listen of French electronic duo Air’s new album, Le Voyage Dans La Lune, but I certainly found it. The album was commissioned as a soundtrack to the newly restored, color version of Georges Méliès’s 1902 silent masterpiece of the same name — a groundbreaking film that’s famous for being the very first science fiction flick. As hokey as the images seem today, its innovative narrative and techniques proved that film could be a playground for our collective imagination, and Air’s soundtrack taps into that sense of imagination beautifully. And whether they meant it to or not, it totally taps into my ever-expanding fear of flight. You know that stereotypical movie scene in which the astronauts are all strapped in,  just moments from taking off, and there’s always a distant, vaguely international-sounding voice counting down the seconds until the launch? This scene always terrifies me. Can you imagine that? Like, actually being in the cockpit of a shuttle, just chatting with your colleagues before HURTLING AWAY FROM THE PLANET AT A BAZILLION MILES AN HOUR? What do you talk about? Tell you what I’d be talking about — getting the hell out of there. I feel panicky just typing about it. Well “Seven Stars,” which features Victoria Legrand of Beach House, captures this scene perfectly, right down to the pounding heartbeat that follows the conclusion of the countdown. “Cosmic Trip” does the same trick, with the added personal irony of the announcement from a disembodied female voice that, “All of you will be back home safely, so join us with no fear on our fantastic trip to the moon.” No fear? Very funny, disembodied voice. A real ROTFLMAO-er. But that’s the great thing about movies and music that tap into our fears. I get to freak myself out by imagining what it’s like to take off into space, all with the luxury of staying at my beloved sea level. Preview these two tracks below, buy the album here and click here to watch Méliès’s Le Voyage Dans La Lune on YouTube.

Air — “Seven Stars” (feat. Victoria Legrand)

Air — “Cosmic Trip

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Sharon Van Etten


“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

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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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(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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