Thursday, December 30, 2010

Wale - More About Nothing

I saw Wale at House of Blues back in April, but I hadn't picked up any of his albums yet. Then my cousin told me about his free mixtape up on DatPiff. It's been a good season for free stuff!

As a middle-class white kid raised in a largely middle-class white suburb, the genre (sub-genre) of "gangsta rap" was always a little inaccessible. And frankly, fake. Was Ice Cube really going to start a "bloodbath of cops dying in L.A.?" That said, as far as I know Johnny Cash never really "shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die"; putting oneself in another character has always been a part of songwriting. This kind of character shapeshifting is especially jarring in hip-hop, and I'm not sure totally why. I think partly it's because rap personas seem more carefully crafted and more pervasive from song-to-song, and partially because the almost-talking vocal line creates more of an expectation of earnestness.

All of which is a roundabout way saying that I can relate a lot more easily to Wale's More About Nothing mixtape than I can to N.W.A. It's a mixtape inspired by Seinfeld. It's actually Wale's second take on the sitcom; in 2008 he released the Mixtape About Nothing (also available on DatPiff). He sprinkles quotes from the show through the mixtape, but not just for comedic effect: he turns an Elaine Benes quote on men changing after sex into a divider between a gentle seduction and a jarring villain turn in "The Manipulation 2." Later, he delves into Tiger Woods' mind and larger themes of infidelity in "The Eyes of the Tiger." Many of the tunes deal with issues of relationships, whether doomed ones in the "The Breakup Song," new ones in "The Ambitious Girl," or post-sexual in "The Friends Strangers."

Wale may be drawing inspiration from Seinfeld for lyric and theme, but for music he's pulling from everywhere - opener "The Problem" starts with tinkling piano, "The Number Won" is peppered with dark ambient electronic sounds, "The Soup" is carried by a snaking guitar hook, "The Ambitious Girl" has an uplifting horn part. His flow is versatile, ranging from conversational in "The Cloud" to pounding and anthemic on "The Black and Gold." It's impressive stuff. Wale is a creative force musically and someone worth watching in the hip-hop world over the next few years.

Wale official site
Download from DatPiff

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Best of 2010

This is an odd year, where I listened to a ton of bluegrass / folk but many of my picks are from the hip-hop world.

Album: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy by Kanye West. Runners-Up: The ArchAndroid by Janelle Monae, So Runs the World Away by Josh Ritter

Track: "Runaway" by Kanye West. Runner Up: "The Curse" by Josh Ritter.

Best Cover: "Hit 'Em Up Style" by the Carolina Chocolate Drops (original by Blu Cantrell).

Live Act: Mandolin Masters' Workshop, Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival (featuring Ronnie McCoury, Sarah Jarosz, David Grisman, Joe Walsh, and Buddy Merriam).

Monday, December 27, 2010

Mavis Staples - You Are Not Alone

Rating: B

I was a fan of Mavis Staples' last endeavor, 2007's We'll Never Turn Back, and when I found out Jeff Tweedy (of Wilco) was producing her new album, I was intrigued. I'm a huge Wilco fan, and Tweedy is, in my opinion, perhaps the best songwriter of his generation. I enjoyed her performance at the Solid Sound festival this summer, so when her new album You Are Not Alone went on sale on Amazon for $1.99 (and it's still only $5), I picked it up.

I didn't go in with a lot of expectations, and that's good - anyone expecting Staples' soulful voice over Yankee Hotel Foxtrot-style psychedelic lyrics and instrumentation would certainly be disappointed. This album is a lot closer to We'll Never Turn Back than it is to any of Wilco's catalog. There are two Tweedy originals here - the title track is like a soul update of "Bridge Over Troubled Water," complete with gorgeous harmonies, while "Only the Lord Knows" mixes the direct, casual style Tweedy has employed on some recent Wilco efforts ("I pick up the paper / I put down the paper / Turn on the TV / I get confused") with the political ("Can't trust him / can't trust her") and religious ("Only the Lord knows / And He ain't you") themes that have pervaded Staples' career. "Only the Lord Knows" would be totally out of place on a Wilco album, and the same sentiment applies to the album's covers - "In Christ There Is No East and West," "I Belong to the Band," and "Creep Along Moses" are right out of the gospel tradition.

Mavis' claim to fame is the amount of feeling and power in her voice, and nowhere is that more on display than in the cover of John Fogerty's "Wrote a Song For Everyone." She owns the tune; it feels much more personal when she sings it than in Creedence Clearwater Revival's original. The song takes on a gravity, transforming it into a sweeping statement about the civil rights movement.

This is a decen album, but all in all, predecessor We'll Never Turn Back touches on more profound emotional chords than You Are Not Alone. Tweedy doesn't really bring any of the weirdness or experimentation on display in Wilco. That's OK; the formula wasn't broken, and the cuts are mostly strong here, but it still feels like a bit of a missed opportunity.

Mavis Staples official site

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Punch Brothers - Antifogmatic

Rating: B-

There are a few people in music that I feel like I have to keep an eye on. It's not that I'm a huge fan of all their stuff, or that it touches a special chord with me, but of course I often am and it often does. It's just that there are a handful of artists who are so talented, inventive, and challenging that every new piece of work has the potential to change music. It's not just their great music that keeps me following Radiohead and Kanye West and Outkast and Wilco; it's the potential to create something entirely new. Chris Thile is in that category. If you're not familiar with his body of work, Thile's a former mandolin child prodigy who has gone on to produce solo work, star as a member of Nickel Creek, and collaborate with Mike Marshall, among others. Punch Brothers is his latest endeavor, a collaboration with, among others, ex-Stringduster Chris Eldridge and recent Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo winner Noam Pikelny.

It's an All-Star cast, and they're not just blazing and creative pickers; they're willing to push the boundaries of what is possible in string / roots music and music in general. In "p-bingo" shows in the past couple years, the band has played everything from original material to classical music and Radiohead, done string-band style. The music doesn't adhere to groundrules set up by traditional bluegrass - songs are multi-part suites, instruments drop in-and-out, the tight traditional rhythms are twisted into melodic experiments. It's unique.

The problem with music like that of Antifogmatic, the second record by the quintet is, when it doesn't grab me, I don't know whether it's because I'm deficient or whether, for all its inventiveness and skill, the music is just not that engaging. The orchestration of some tracks into multi-part suites can be breathtaking (as in the gorgeous "Missy," where a cutting Gabe Witcher fiddle break is followed by a bridge punctuated with Thile's percussive mandolin), but oftentimes they just meander, like in opener "You Are," which starts out strong but deteriorates into sleepy background music. It's hard for the melodies to stick in this arrangement. It's no surprise that the album's most fun, punchiest, catchiest number is also the most straightforward - bluegrass stomp "Rye Whiskey."

So, maybe it's just me, or maybe, for all its uniqueness, Antifogmatic is a bit dull. There are standout tracks, and it may be that repeated listens will reward me with brilliance I didn't see on first blush. That's the thing about musical geniuses. You have to keep following them, and you can't count them out.

Punch Brothers official site

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Live Review - 12/14/2010 John McGann's Bluegrass Mashup and The Dixie Butterhounds at Cantab

The Dixie Butterhounds: banjo player Jon Gersh described The Dixie Butterhounds' music at one point (and I'm paraphrasing) as "not too different from what you'd hear on a Friday or Saturday night in northern Georgia in the 1920's or 1930's." They mined traditional music (such as "Sugar Hill") and pre-bluegrass folk music stars (such as Uncle Dave Macon and The Carter Family) for their old-time set. The group is strong vocally, with everyone but the bassist taking a turn. Particularly good were subtle harmonies between fiddler Mark Wholley and rhythm guitarist Kathy Fletcher, very tastefully done. Nothing too groundbreaking here, but the mix of sounds - double fiddles by Wholley and George Touchstone, and Gersh's clawhammer banjo - was appealing.

John McGann's Bluegrass Mashup: I was prepared for McGann's excellence - though I hadn't heard him previously, his reputation as one of the best mandolin players in the Boston area precedes him - but the excellence of his accompaniment was a welcome surprise. McGann was joined by Deadly Gentlemen fiddler Mike Barnett, Della Mae bassist Amanda Kowalski, and the uber-talented Courtney Hartman. Kowalski brought the energy, consistently making eye contact with her band mates, swaying her whole body as she played, and keeping the bass line popping, even as the band played swingier numbers. Barnett and Hartman are just effortless players, playing fast, interesting, tasteful solos like they were just sitting on a chair. Hartman also sang and did a fine job; she's definitely a talent to watch. And McGann was terrific as expected, playing traditional fast bluegrass solos, bluesy riffs, woody chops, and putting the whole thing together I'll be interested to see if this foursome plays again, and also follow along with the other projects this group might have in store.

The Dixie Butterhounds official site
John McGann official site

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Live Review - 12/7/2010 Jake Armerding Band and Lost Mountain at Cantab

James Delnero and Lost Mountain: this group consisted of rhythm guitarist Delnero, mandolinist Mark Leveille, and banjo picker Chris Boucher, plus a bass player who was a last-minute addition. I couldn't tell; it was pretty seamless. A lot of that was due to the tightness between Delnero, Leveille, and Boucher, who sang three-part harmonies on nearly every song. Delnero primarily sang lead but Leveille and Boucher had a couple turns each. Though the group asked for requests, they only got one: "Man of Constant Sorrow," which they did a nice job on. Mostly they played traditional songs: "Worried Man Blues," "Shake My Mother's Hand For Me," "Blue Ridge Cabin Home." They did play a couple originals. All in all, it was a solid performance. Usually the opening band at the Cantab is more old-timey, so it was fun to get a double shot of bluegrass.

Old Train and the Refugees / Jake Armerding Band: the calendar lists them as the Jake Armerding Band, but Geoff Bartley (who runs Bluegrass Tuesdays at the 'Tab) introduced them as Old Train and the Refugees, which the band picked up. I thought it was just a running joke, but they never gave another name and an Internet search does find that band name. It doesn't matter, it's the same guys: Jake Armerding, playing mostly fiddle, his dad Taylor "Old Train" Armerding on mandolin, and bassist / wonderful moustachioed man Zach Hickman (last seen rocking The Festy with Josh Ritter). Joining them was guitarist and terrific singer Mark Erelli, and Charlie Rose, primarily on the banjo.

As much as I enjoyed the opening act, it wasn't long into the main course that I was struck by what a difference in energy there was. Part of it was the energy; any band featuring Zach Hickman on bass is going to be a lot of fun. Part was the stage presence; the quintet was all nattily attired, with Erelli sporting a cowboy hat and suit, Hickman his usually moustache, and everyone with a sport coat or suit jacket. Part was the banter, as Taylor Armerding mocked a recent U.S. Weekly headline, "Jake and Taylor in love!" Part was the technical wizardry; Rose was stellar with up-the-neck banjo solos, Hickman performed at least three bass solos, and Jake Armerding played three instruments. And part was the songs.

The song selection deserves its own paragraph. All five members sang, from Hickman taking the Roy Orbison part on The Traveling Wilbury's "Handle With Care" (and Erelli doing a spot-on Tom Petty) to Taylor Armerding singing high lonesome on an original gospel number, "City On a Hill." No stone was left unturned: Rose sang Carl Perkins' "Baby Why You Been Gone So Long," Erelli reached into the 70's with Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen tunes, and Jake Armerding played a humorous original tune about TSA regulations and closed things out with Paul Simon's "Graceland." It was a celebration of American music through the lens of bluegrass, and it was as awesome as all that implies.

James Delnero and Lost Mountain official site
Jake Armerding official site

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Girl Talk - All Day

Rating: B+

It's been a great month-plus for free and cheap downloads, and now Gregg Gillis, a.k.a. Girl Talk, has thrown his hat in the ring. I covered a Girl Talk set at Austin City Limits over a year ago, but I hadn't picked up any of his albums until now. Enter the free album, All Day.

If you haven't heard Girl Talk, it's not like anything else out there. Gillis samples tunes from all over the musical spectrum, pairing odd combinations of beats, words, and bass lines and someone making all these twenty-second cuts flow together. He'll layer Ludacris' "Move Bitch (Get Out the Way)" over Black Sabbath's "War Pigs" (this is actually how the album opens), Wiz Khalifa rapping over Keith Richards' guitar, or Birdman's "Money to Blow" over The Arcade Fire's "Wake Up." If you listen to the album straight through, as the download site suggests, you'll see that there's a continuous flow even between songs; the end result is a party dance track that goes on for over an hour.

My favorite thing about All Day is how it indulges one's guilty musical pleasures. Sure, there's U2 and Radiohead and the Ramones and Springsteen, plus indie favorites Phoenix and MGMT, but there's also "oh man I forgot about that guy" rappers Skee-Lo and Citizen King, modern "I won't admit I like this but it gets stuck in my head all day" pop from Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, and Black Eyed Peas, or angsty alternate throwbacks like The Toadies' "Do You Want To Die?"

There's a note on the site that says "All Day is intended to be listened to as a whole," and it's true that the tracks blend seamlessly together, but it's hard to say it's an album in the sense of there being a cohesive story or message. It's pretty clear there isn't; this is just a celebration of pop music as a form. Repeated listens do reward, as you catch new snippets of songs or clever mixes, but it doesn't hit many emotional chords. The end of the album is an exception, as synthesized claps and hip-hop voices play over John Lennon's "Imagine." It's a bit trite, making explicit the implied link between musical and human togetherness, but dammit, it works. So does All Day.

Download for free at