I started writing YHT shortly after attending SXSW in 2011. Ironically, I wasn’t there for the music. I was part of a group of coworkers who attended the event’s Interactive wing, which wrapped up just as the music festival was getting ready to start in earnest. Boy, was walking through the Austin–Bergstrom International Airport on our last day painful. While we were sauntering toward our departure gate, people holding guitar cases were walking in the other direction, bringing the “two ships passing” metaphor to life in an exceedingly unwelcome way. I wanted to be on their boat! I even tried taking mental snapshots of their faces, thinking (either optimistically or naively) that they’d soon be famous as a result of their SXSW performance(s), and I wanted to be able to say “I saw [him/her/them] at the airport at SXSW!”
I’m whining, but the truth is that the Interactive conference was incredible.
I try not to play fast and loose with the word I’m about to use, but I feel it’s warranted here… the sound of Michael Kiwanuka’s guitar in the video above is perfect.
His voice is silky and wonderful, his dynamics are divine, but the way his acoustic guitar sounds may as well be a template for luthiers, sound engineers and guitarists the world over. It’s the unbroken shell you pocket to memorialize a day at the beach. It’s the drive to work that doesn’t involve a single yellow or red light. It’s Goldilocks‘ third bowl of porridge.
I can’t decide whether it’s fitting or disrespectfully ironic that I’m making this claim about a cover of a song by Jimi Hendrix. On one hand, it makes total sense that the greatest guitar player of all time — the deity that lesser guitar deities worship themselves — would write music that brings out the best in his instrument. But Hendrix is where he is in the holy order because of his electric guitar work. Aside from footage in his eponymous documentary and the beautiful cover art that graces its soundtrack, I never really think about Hendrix holding an acoustic guitar.
With all due respect, I think much of the credit for the perfection seen and heard above should be divvied up between three parties:
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.
A friend at work recently hipped me to an acronym that I’ve been looking forward to using, and since I’m still saying things like “hipped me to,” I’m definitely in the market for some new expressions. I’m talking about “FOMO” — the fear of missing out. I’m about 99.974% sure that I’m way late in hearing this for the first time (clearly I’ve been missing out), but I find it really interesting, especially because the context in which I heard it used seemed to suggest it was a trait possessed by certain people, rather than a condition everyone experiences from time to time. As in, maybe you’re the type of person who wrings your hands about the fun stuff your friends are engaged in while you’re not around, and maybe you’re not. It got me thinking about how that emotion manifests itself in me. Am I a sufferer? Well, middle-school me sure as hell was. If I had a nickel for every time I experienced Friday-night FOMO in those three years, and if I’d taken those nickels and bought Apple stock… sheeeeeeeeeeiiiiiit… me and Warren Buffet would be playing Gulfstream jet rugby like they did with Kias on Top Gear.
These days, it’s almost always live music that revs up my fear of missing out. Not being able to go to the vast majority of the shows I put on my concert calendar sucks, and hands are definitely wrung when I get the reminders this calendar sends to my phone. DING! HERE’S SOMETHING AWESOME GOING ON WITHOUT YOU! Asshole calendar.
As bad as those reminders are (you probably saw this next bit coming a mile away), no time is more flush with FOMO than the six days of SXSW.
Does everyone here have a Soundcloud account? If not, might I humbly suggest that you sign up?
Not only is the service great for bloggers who want to embed songs in blog posts like this one, with a visually appealing, waveform-revealing player that’s strangely fun to watch, Soundcloud lets users follow bands, so you can find out the moment they upload new tracks. You have your own personal dashboard with the latest “incoming” tracks, and that’s how I found out that… wait for it…
Isn’t the success that’s couched in abject failure the sweetest? Allow me to provide an illustration.
A week ago, I headed to Strange Matter for the sold out Real Estate show. Moments after I walked in the door, I caught a glimpse of a magic marker-scrawled schedule that was sitting on the desk of the ticket-taking station. The whole shindig was exactly 1 hour behind the advertised start. The Diamond Center at 9. Twerps at 10. Real Estate at 11. Normally, I don’t put too much stock in concerts starting on time, but I had to be up at an ungodly hour Friday morning and was beset by an uncharacteristic and unwelcome wave of prudence. Gross. But the Diamond Center put on such a fantastic display in the first opening slot that I completely forgot about my accursed curfew for a while, and I left Strange Matter with the unmistakable feeling that I’d gotten my money’s worth — and then some — even though I didn’t experience a single note of the headlining set.
Let me start by saying that if you haven’t watched/heard Bruce Springsteen’s keynote speech from SXSW, you absolutely, positively must watch/hear it. Go on, I’ll wait. Done yet? Great! Wasn’t that amazing?!? Using Elvis performing on the Ed Sullivan show as a jumping-off point, the Boss gives a fascinating music history lesson, walking us through his development as a musician, how popular music has evolved over the past 50 or so years, and the fractured yet hopeful nature of today’s musical landscape. And while I could spend all day writing about takeaways from his speech (and probably will at some point), I wanted to share with you one thing he said that rang so true that me and Chris Tucker did this when he said it. After commenting about how heartfelt musical expression can’t be confined by genre or instrumentation, Springsteen let loose the following thesis, set off in its own paragraph for dramatic effect…
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.
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.