Saturday, July 24, 2010

Why Flying Lotus' New Album Is the Most Important Jazz Record in Years

Twenty-seven years ago jazz legend Herbie Hancock released his synthesizer/turntable single "Rockit." The song was a moderate hit single and a big winner at the 1984 MTV Video Music Awards. It was also the last time a single by a jazz artist made an appearance on the Billboard Hot 100, Norah Jones notwithstanding. It also seemed to mark the last step forward for a genre that had spent the previous thirty years speeding through a growth spurt that included the be-bop of Charlie Parker, the hard bop of Clifford Brown, the modal cool of Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman's free jazz, and the Miles Davis-spearheaded fusion. Ever since the wave of fusion that appeared to take over jazz starting in the late 1960s, a song like "Rockit" seemed like an inevitability as organs and pianos gave way to synthesizers. The addition of the turntable scratch was a revolutionary step forward for jazz that introduced it as an instrument and wove the strands of electronic and jazz music together even tighter.

Then a funny thing happened. Nothing. There was very little follow-up to Hancock´s new take on fusion. Electronic music continued to grow, mature and change while jazz did very little growing, maturing or changing in any meaningful way. Artists from both genres continued to pull inspiration from one another to make hybrid genres like acid jazz and trip-hop, but very few fruits were born from these half-hearted liaisons. The few who took tentative steps forward found themselves widely imitated and potentially revolutionary music was quickly bastardized into dinner music for yuppies.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Song of the Day: "Cortez the Killer" by Bradford Cox, Randy Randall, and Jim Jarmusch

Yes, this post will contain a pun about the film "Stranger Than Paradise." Man, this pairing is stranger than paradise. There it is. Got it out of the way fast.

But, let's not kid ourselves. This is a very strange trio. Deerhunter frontman Bradford Cox, No Age guitarist Randy Randall, and indie film auteur Jim Jarmusch? Only one festival could have brought together such an unlikely conglomerate (ATP New York). And only one video site would have had the foresight to capture it ( So, this meeting of minds in a hotel room exists. And we are all the richer for it.

Jarmusch and Cox share vocal duties for the Neil Young standard, with Cox doing triple duties with acoustic guitar and harmonica and Randall making very liberal use of his effects pedals. Randall is what makes this recording such a special confluence. Gone are the big guitar solos of Young's version. Obviously, the drums are gone as well, and with those two elements the drive is taken away as well. So, something else needs to fill the void in order to hold attention for the song's nine plus minute long running time. Randall fills that void, but with ethereal effects that lend an overall sense of mystery that befits the song, which tells about mythical Spanish Coquistador Cortez (what a killer). Jarmusch's vocals are surprisingly strong and Cox is solid as usual. This is what a good cover should be; recognizable, but allows for the opportuity for those involved to put their own spin on the song. All three definitely add their own musical personalities to the song and the results find those personalities surprisingly (and impressively) compatable. (video! click for it!)

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

New LCD Soundsystem!

Woah, woah woah! Good news people! LCD Soundsystem's new album, This Is Happening, is currently up and streaming on their website. Go and listen!

The first track has been floating around in bootleg form and the great James Murphy made the wise decision to just give it to people. I was thinking about posting the mp3s up here, but this is even better. Sound quality rocks it now. The album is killing me. It's so good. So good. Go listen. And listen to it loud.

This Is Happening drops May 18th. That date cannot come soon enough. Also, I made it through this entire post without a bad "This Is Happening" pun. Count your lucky stars.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Song of the Day: "Muscle n' Flow" by Menomena

This is the last time I'm doing this for a while. Not posting on the blog, but doing this: posting an old song by a band who has a new album that is coming out soon. Last time. Promise.

But, I read this while sitting at my desk. Menomena. New album. July 27th. It sounds like the summer months are going to be seeing some pretty solid releases. New LCD Soundsystem; new Wolf Parade; new M.I.A.; new stuff from The Hold Steady; new Band of Horses; and now we find out about some new Menomena coming our way. Consider me even more hyped for summer than usual.

I saw Menomena, at this point, almost two years ago (God, I'm so old) at Middlebury where they were playing WRMC's Sepomena spring concert. They shared a stage with The Ruby Suns and...I'm going to be honest here I don't remember much of the concert. I was paying more attention to the crush I had on a girl who was there...she was drunk and having a good time, I was neither...I was in the back coolly know how these things go. But, one thing I do remember is them playing this song. I mean how could I not.

As the opening track from the Portland, OR trio's third long player Friend and Foe, "Muscle n' Flow" sets a pretty high standard that the rest of the album strives for, but it never quite reaches (which isn't to say the album is bad, because it isn't). It starts off with Danny Seim's  jagged drumming before Justin Harris' voice comes in (accompanied by Brent Knopf's bouncy bass) with a song about getting up in the morning and moving forward with your life, no matter what. The lyrics themselves are actually pretty uplifting, all things considered. Overcoming adversity is one of those lyrical tropes that I'm always surprised to see turn up in music these days, and what's so great about this song is that, while it is musically incongruent and intentionally disharmonious, the vocal melody is quite catchy and almost sing-songy, which adds up to an interesting song that also gets stuck in your head.

The whole thing begins to culminate (I think it's clear by now I really like songs that build to some sort of grand conclusion or high water mark at some point in the song) around the two and a half minute mark, when an organ cuts through the angular guitar and irregular drumming and the lyrics take on a surprising religious tone that suggests the song could have an alternative Christian bent to it. But just as soon as these themes are raised, they're discarded, a rejection of strength through religion and Christianity in favor of a self-built strength and firm foot in the realm of the atheistic. Then the song goes right back from whence it came, keeping the organ and adding a baritone saxophone. It kills.  Hard. This is why I'm so stoked for a new album. With Menomena, each album has been better than the last, so here's hoping the trend continues. (Music is after the JUMP!)

Monday, April 05, 2010

Song of the Day: "This Heart's On Fire" by Wolf Parade

So, this is a bit of news that got me pretty amped over the weekend. Montreal's Wolf Parade is dropping a new album in late June/early July via SubPop. Pitchfork has this interview up with guitarist/co-bandleader Dan Boeckner about the new album that's definitely worth a read. I'm a pretty big fan of the Parade, so needless to say I'm stoked. To my knowledge nothing has made the rounds online, but this is still worth celebrating by remembering the bands past highs (and let's be honest, there have been pretty much nothing but highs). So, I thought that it would be a good idea to give a listen to the closing track of their 2005 debut Apologies to the Queen Mary, the song "This Heart's On Fire."

The song is one of Boeckner's contributions to the album and is about the death of his mother, and dedicated to his at the time girlfriend (and current wife/ Handsome Furs member) for her support during that time. It's a killer closer to an insanely impressive debut album. It begins with co-leader Spencer Krug's synth laying down a slightly off putting melody before it is joined by Boeckner's chugging guitar. From there they add layers of synth, guitars, and other electronics to the mix, along with Arlen Thompson's drums (which, at this point, might be better known for their work on Arcade Fire's track "Wake Up"). It all adds up to a beautifully life affirming cocophany with Boeckner yelling the slightly ambiguous "This Heart's On Fire," over it all. I think that particular sentiment can be taken as either joyous, or hopelessly depressing. I mean, is a heart on fire a good thing? I don't know for sure, but I'm choosing to think it is. Or, maybe it's both at the same time. Actually, that makes the whole damn thing even better, because really, when are emotions only one thing at one time? (music and video post-jump)

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Song of the Day: "The Weekenders" by The Hold Steady

So, The Hold Steady are going to drop their fifth album album on May 4th courtesy of Vagrant Records. The album, titled Heaven is Whenever, has been hemorrhaging songs for the past week or so. For my money, all sound pretty good, and I'm really stoked for this album to hit the shelves. But the best of the lot is this one: "The Weekenders."

The Hold Steady frontman, Craig Finn, has been making the rounds talking about how the new album will be a bit more intricate and less anthemic then the past few albums. More Almost Killed Me than Stay Positive. I guess Finn's definition of less anthemic is different from everyone else's because these are as anthemic as they've ever been. And in the greatest way possible.

Everything in this song is big, from the hook to guitar solo to the drums. It all sounds enormous. It's still a bit too early to tell how much longer these dudes can keep tossing these guitar-rock gems our way before they stray into the not so great Springsteen territory, but I'll take this while I can get it. Lyrically we find Finn mining that same nostalgic for the good ole' days with drinking and girls and guitars turned up to eleven territory. To me this is sounding like the "How a Resurrection Really Feels," the last track on the bands masterful Separation Sunday. It isn't quite a ballad, but isn't really all that up-tempo either. It's a mid-tempo fist-pumper that really showcases what The Hold Steady does best. (Music is post-jump)

Friday, April 02, 2010

Song of the Day: "April in Paris" by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong

So, it's April. I'm not in Paris, I'm in New York. But, I can imagine what it would look like in Paris today. I've been in Paris during April, and believe you me, it's nothing to blow your nose at. Nosireebob. Dampened streets. Trees that are just about to bloom line the sidewalks. Plus, a culinary culture that loves butter (not necessarily just in April, but you know, a perk).

So, it being April and all, I figured now would be an okay time to celebrate the jazz standard that celebrates April in the City of Light.

The song was written in 1932 for the Broadway musical Walk a Little Faster (it is, as far as I can tell, the only thing that has survived from that particular musical) with music by Vernon Duke and lyrics by Yip Harburg (whose other lyrical contributions to first half of the 20th Century pop music include "Over the Rainbow" and "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?"). It's gorgeous melody, which can be played up-tempo (see the Count Basie version) or as a ballad (which is it's most common rendition) with really great lyrics, too. I mean, Harburg is no Johnny Mercer, but he's no slouch either.

So, there are no shortages of versions of this song. It's been performed by artists as diverse as Count Basie, Thelonious Monk, Doris Day, and Alex Chilton. The Basie version is the most famous and ended up in the Grammy Hall of Fame in Los Angeles (a kind of big deal, you know depending on how you feel about the Grammys). For my money, though, Basie's interpretation is a bit austentatious and isn't played as delicately as the best versions of the song do. I have to admit, I'm a huge fan of the Ella Fitzgerald/Louis Armstrong interpretation on their album of duets called, "Ella and Louis." It's a pretty good album of standards with an impressive backing band that features Oscar Peterson on piano, Herb Ellis on guitar, Ray Brown on bass, and Buddy Rich behind the kit. Ella is in fine form, Satch is's raspy warble fits the song surprisingly well, and his trumpet solo is tastefull restrained. A gorgeously charming recording. (The tune is after the jump)