Saturday, February 27, 2010

Live Review - 2/26/2010 Birds Make Birds at New Alliance Studios

I had seen Birds Make Birds at The Cantab Lounge, but that was a while ago and the lineup has been overhauled quite a bit. All four members are skilled musicians, and the chemistry is evident, with guitarist / singer Sandrine Mehry joking with bassist Ethan Dussault prior to the final song. The standout is drummer Jen Chouinard, who attacked the drums with blazing energy and kept things from getting too mopey.

Mopey? Well, the band lives in minor keys and Mehry's voice clings to the low registers, so things have a tendency to get a bit ... you know, the three-letter word that starts with "e" and ends with "o" and has "m" in the middle. Sometimes a nice mopey emo song really hits the spot, and Birds Make Birds got there on "Wishing It Was Tomorrow," with a chorus driven by the soaring guitars of Mehry and Greg Lyon and the catchy couplet "If I was waiting for a sign / I got it today."

At times things can get a bit formulaic - Afghan Whigs-style guitar riffs over power chords, Mehry's downer vocals, and the capable rhythm section of Chouinard and Dussault. It's a good formula, but some of the best moments were when they deviated a bit, such as the poppier "Jack." As Birds Make Birds progresses, it will be interesting to see if they really spread their wings.

Birds Make Birds Site

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Flaming Lips - Embryonic

Rating: B+

I was always a nerd growing up. My middle school and high school years were anchored by a group of friends with whom I would watch "The X-Files" on Friday nights. We played Dungeons & Dragons, Magic: The Gathering, and Hero Quest, debated endlessly about Star Wars and even nonsense like Alien Autopsy: Fact or Fiction? It's fair to say that my dorkdom level was pretty high.

Then I went off to college, and I had a suitemate who frequently played They Might Be Giants. And I realized: I fucking hate They Might Be Giants. The inanity of "The sun is a mass / Of incandescent gas" reviled me as much as any stupid, absurd lyrics that Britney Spears, The Spice Girls, Brian McKnight, or any other similar hackneyed brutal lyricist of that day. I mean, there are polysyllabic words in there, and science terms, but that doesn't mean it's smart. And even if it is smart, it doesn't take you any place; it doesn't make you feel anything. I learned then that although I enjoy dorky media in many forms, music is not one of them.

So I took the recommendation of The Flaming Lips' Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots with a grain of salt. Just look at the title. A concept album about a Japanese girl fighting off hordes of robots from outer space ("and she's gotta be strong to fight them / so she's taking lotsa vitamins")? I knew I would hate it. But I didn't - it's a great album. No one in rock is more earnest than Lips lead singer Wayne Coyne - and if anything, that's understatement, not hyperbole. He sells you on Yoshimi, on the struggle against pink robots that is in all of us, in our noble but doomed battle with our own mortality. Or something - some of the lyrics don't make any sense. But dammit, Coyne means them.

Embryonic couldn't be more different than Yoshimi. But it's undeniably a Flaming Lips album, if that makes any sense. The pop sensibilities of Yoshimi (and its predecessor, The Soft Bulletin) are completely stripped away. In its place is a swirling morass of psychedelia, and of course the trademark lips weirdness. This album is strange, very strange. There are odd keyboard and guitar sounds, theremin, and what sounds like a cell phone distorted by an electrical pulse. "Powerless" features an extended guitar solo not bound by rhythm or tone. Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs adds some over-the-phone call-and-response on "I Can Be a Frog" (animal noises) and stellar closer "Watching the Planets." The music was always odd, but without the pop anchorings it threatens to fly away.

It doesn't though, and that's the strongest suit of the album. Sure, at times the orbit threatens to float off into space, especially during dreamy tunes like "Evil," "If," and "Virgo Self-Esteem Broadcast," but there always a thumping, percussive track to punctuate your trance: "Your Bats," or "See The Leaves," or "Aquarius Sabotage." The album is 18 tracks and over an hour, but it has good pace and variety so it doesn't feel bloated. Coyne's vocals add to the variety; his high-pitched cracking warble only shows up as a counterpoint to Karen O's animal noises on "I Can Be a Frog" and to the disturbing subject matter on "Evil." He takes a darker edge on "Convinced of the Hex" and "See the Leaves," and on several tunes his voice is distorted.

A final item of note is the lyrics. Because the Lips' music is often poppy and uplifting, it's easy to miss that the words aren't always as cheery. Tunes like "Feeling Yourself Disintegrate" and "Do You Realize?" would be dark without the gorgeous pop orchestration enveloping them. Since Embryonic dials down the pop factor, the darkness shrouds the album, putting a different edge on the Lips' common theme of finding the beauty in the fragility of life. A fine example is on "See the Leaves," where Coyne sings "See the leaves / They're dying again / See the sun / It's trying again." Closer "Watching the Planets" finishes on a strong theme of existential questions: "what is the reason?" Coyne asks amid "burning the bible," "watching the planets," and "finding the answer." The key thrust of the album comes from multi-instrumentalist Stephen Drozd, who provides the musical backdrop, weirdness, and genius behind Embryonic.

Embryonic is a fascinating psychedelic journey and a worthy addition to the Flaming Lips' excellent catalog.

Buy it from Amazon:
The Flaming Lips Site

Saturday, February 20, 2010

2009 Playlist

I sent out my mix of songs I listened to in 2009 today, rather belatedly.

1. The Knux - Cappuccino
2. Phoenix - 1901
3. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - Red Right Hand
4. Rhymefest featuring Michael Jackson - No Sunshine
5. Deer Tick - Easy
6. The Clap - Che Guevara T-Shirt Wearer
7. Tom Waits - Way Down In the Hole
8. Blitzen Trapper - Black River Killer
9. The Dead Weather - Will There Be Enough Water? (live)
10. Guy Clark - Desperados Waiting For a Train
11. The Decemberists - The Hazards of Love 4 (The Drowned)
12. Fleet Foxes - Ragged Wood
13. The Gaslight Anthem - Great Expectations
14. Lupe Fiasco - Hip-Hop Saved My Life
15. Leonard Cohen - Anthem

Best finds: Rhymefest was a free download album online. The Clap I got (ha ha) after seeing an anti-Communist video from libertarian rag Reason. And I loved The Dead Weather's performance of "Water" at ACL so much that I had to track it down live (ultimately ripping it from a Youtube video).

Songs that I really listened to in '08 but I was too lazy to send out an '08 CD: Leonard Cohen, Fleet Foxes, the Knux.

Songs that had to be on there without question: Lupe Fiasco, Gaslight Anthem, Deer Tick.

Last cuts: "Love Lockdown" by Kanye West and "Bull Black Nova" by Wilco.

All in all: A mix of hip-hop, murder ballads, and inspiration. Hopefully folks like it!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Jay Farrar and Ben Gibbard - One Fast Move Or I'm Gone

Rating: C+

Holy shit, it's another Jay Farrar album! When I was in college and first discovering Uncle Tupelo / Son Volt, this would have been a cause for celebration. In a lot of ways, Jay Farrar's voice - both his literal singing voice and also the way in which he interpreted Americana music - opened the door for me to worlds of new music. I listened the hell out of my Uncle Tupelo albums and Farrar's Son Volt's Trace. I even learned the chords to several songs, strumming my acoustic guitar and impersonating Farrar's gravelly warble.

Fast forward 10 years. Every couple years, whether under the guise of Son Volt or as a solo album, Farrar pumps out another album of his particular brand of emo Americana. At a time, it really resonated with me, but now it seems stale, and a little fake. There's a great quote in Greg Kot's Learning How to Die, the biography of Wilco, from Nick Sakes: "We could occasionally imitate Jay's singing and insert our own words: 'It gets real hot working down at my mom's bookstore.'" He has a great voice, but he is something of a poseur.

That's not to say I still don't respect the man or his talents. Trace, March 16-20, 1992, and Anodyne are still three of my favorite albums. But One Fast Move is not those albums. Farrar's singing is the worst of his career, frequently degrading into whining, particularly on the regrettable closer "San Francisco." One Fast Move also suffers from a lack of synergy; the album feels like Gibbard and Farrar are trading tracks, not collaborating. They have two of the best, most distinctive singing voices of their generation, but there are only a few moments on harmony on the whole album.

The Gibbard tracks are stronger: opener "California Zephyr" is probably the strongest front-to-back track on the album, and his voice sounds terrific on the choruses to "Williamine" and the title track. His restrained emoting fits in well with the lyrics and the country-tinged piano, guitar, and other backing instruments (such as pedal steel). Still, the strong moments are too rare.

I've never read Jack Kerouac's Big Sur, nor have I seen the movie for which this is the soundtrack. Evaluating it in a vacuum as an album, I found it disappointing.

Buy it from Amazon:
One Fast Move Or I'm Gone Music From Kerouac's Big Sur
One Fast Move Soundtrack Site
Jay Farrar's Site

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Sarah Jarosz - Song Up In Her Head

Rating: B+

I saw her live a couple months ago at Johnny D's with The Infamous Stringdusters, and when her album Song Up In Her Head went on sale for just $1.99 on Amazon, I had to pick it up. As expected, it featured Jarosz' gifted singing, songwriting, and playing of various instruments. While her solo show was strictly solo, Jarosz accompanying herself on guitar or clawhammer banjo, here she's got a whole team of guest musicians to flesh out the sound: Mike Marshall, Chris Eldridge, Aoife O'Donovan, Tim O'Brien, Ben Sollee, and more. It doesn't sound over-produced, nor does it just seem a show-case for the guest to throw in breaks; it sounds like Jarosz' record throughout, not a Frankenstein's monster of various guest appearances.

And what does a Jarosz record sound like? She gets categorized as bluegrass, but the two covers on here betray further influences. "Shankill Butchers", a Decemberists track, is just as creepy here as when it appeared on 2006's The Crane Wife. "Come On Up To The House," a Tom Waits tune, is maybe the best vocal performance on the record - it sounds like a traditional black Southern Baptist spiritual. Another emotional high point is original Broussard's Lament, based on Hurricane Katrina. The tragic chorus ("They told us Thursday they would come / They told us Friday they would come") is underscored by her powerful voice. At times, however, her vocals are over-the-top and could use a bit more restraint.

Another highlight is the title track, keyed by a really tight mandolin riff and some clever lyrics (the title comes from the line "This bird flies higher with a song up in her head"). Jarosz has a nice feel for songwriting and the album is eclectic, using traditional acoustical instrumentation in both conventional and in more progressive ways. The most direct influence seems to be Nickel Creek, and it's easy to see a line between Sara Watkins and Jarosz.

I've almost managed to get through the whole review with using the word "precocious," but it has to be said: Jarosz is just 18. This album would be a strong debut if she were twice that age. She's got compelling talent and a real feel for traditional music; the future of acoustic music is in good hands.

Buy it from Amazon:
Song Up In Her Head
Sarah Jarosz' Web Site