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)

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Song of the Day: "All My Friends" by LCD Soundsystem

So, the fact should be pretty clear to most people who know me that I am a very big fan of LCD Soundsystem. I am also a very big believer in the song "All My Friends." By believer what I mean is that I consider it the best song that was released in the past decade, and actually the best song released in a timeframe that is significantly larger than a decade. It's been a long time since a song was as paradoxically epic in scope while being appealingly intimate. The song begins with a piano loop, and slowly but surely bass is added, followed by drums, synth, vocals, and finally a guitar. LCD leader and DFA czar James Murphy sing-speaks a song about regret, the loss of youth, becoming mature, and still trying to remain close with those friends that have helped you along the way. And there are, of course, those little speckles of rock music name dropping, but its subtle, and not over-the-top. The song's placement in the album is pretty key as well (although it stands up insanely well on its own, too). It follows "Someone Great," whose key refrain is, "when someone great is gone." The question posed by "Someone Great" is the nearly unanswerable, "how do you deal with loss?" Murphy posits that friends are the way to cope. This isn't a song of false nostalgia, it's one of poingant regret at wrong turns taken and paths left unexplored, but finding solace in life's failures in those around you who have always been there. The lyrical realizations are mirrored in the music, as the song builds in volume and intensity for nearly eight minute until a near climax that ends with Murphy shouting, "if I could see all my friends tonight" with startling earnestness. I have heard this song called, "sex without cumming," and her point is well taken. But then again, I think that's sort of the songs goal. It's all tension without release...kind of like the way life in general is. The song's structure is a reflection of the fact that, all things considered, life is a lot of buildup and tension, without much of a chance for release. Well, maybe that's taking things a bit too far. But, unassailable is the song's power and poingancy. It's a truly amazing achievement. (Click for video...)

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Why People Have Missed the Mark on Taylor Swift and the Grammys (and Just Who Should Be Blamed)

So, here's what I think about this whole Taylor Swift at the Grammys thing:

I mean, it goes without saying that her vocals were less than stellar. I'd like to put up a video of the performance, but her record label, Big Machine Records, has taken down all copies of the performance from YouTube, citing their ownership. I found this one last video (after the jump), and it'll probably be gone soon. Sad. But only kind of.  You can't even find the performance on the CBS website. So, if you didn't see it, you missed it. Take it from me, it sucked. She was off key. Stevie Nicks could barely mask her contempt. But that wasn't the worst thing. Oh no. The worst part of Taylor Swift's trainwreck of a performance was Butch Walker. Yes, Butch Walker. That Butch Walker. The Butch Walker that wrote songs for Dashboard Confessional, American Hi-Fi, Hot Hot Heat, and SR-71. The Butch Walker that produced albums by the aforementioned Yorn, Avril Lavigne, Katy Perry, and Weezer. That Butch Walker was the featured banjo player with Taylor Swift and he didn't sink the ship, but he was the man who made the hole bigger.

Walker might be a passable banjo player, I don't know. My knowledge of banjo playing extends as far as Steve Martin's ridiculous banjo solo on Comedy Is Not Pretty. That's about it. But what I do know, is if Steve Martin (himself a Grammy recipient...for AN ALBUM OF BANJO MUSIC!) played with Swift the world would have been a better place. No, Walker's problems arose not as a result of his banjo playing, but as a result of his banjo performance. The problem with her entire band, as exemplified by Walker, was they played with too much damn conviction. Nobody cares THAT much about "You Belong With Me." I don't care how much traction amongst country fans you got with your cover of it. There is no excuse for any of the musicians to look like they care as much as these guys do. No excuse at all. So, why do they all look like they're playing at Live Aid?

In the end, Taylor Swift has about as much artistic integrity as Lady Gaga's sunglasses, which is to say, a small portion of the population care, but they don't care enough to look like they're part of the most important rock ensemble of all time. Stop pretending you care! Butch, you look stupid. Drummer, you too. Violinists, what the hell are you doing there? Academy of Recording Arts and whatever the hell your entire organization is called, why are you celebrating this song for being catchy? You can celebrate "What's My Age Again?" Since when did catchy give rise to celebration and false conviction on the part of the performer. Is it that good? No. So why are you pretending it is?

I think this is actually pretty exemplary of why Swift's music is as disposable as it is. It's fluffy, tactless, and  juvenile, but get's away with it because it pretends really enthusiastically. The enthusiasm masks the  infantilism of the lyrics, heavy handedness of the music and unoriginality of the pretense that is Taylor Swift. Do I think she's perky and cute and catchy? Sure. Do I think she should be paraded about as some sort of child prodigy that is the embodiment of originality, musicality, and all that good and right with the American Dream? Hardly. I'll take piano ingĂ©nues Alicia Keys and Fiona Apple over this piece of manufactured Nashville mediocrity.  (music after the jump)

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Song of the Day: "Good Vibrations" by The Beach Boys

So, I'm thinking about starting this new thing. It might make me write here more often, hopefully everyday. Just going to toss a song I like or have been listening to a lot up with a bit of discussion what makes said song so great, or why I've been listening to it a lot, even if it isn't so great. Hey, sometimes we all listen to songs that aren't so great. Even me. 

So, recently I've become fascinated by The Beach Boys' album that only kind of was, their follow-up to Pet Sounds, Smile. The legend has it that Brian Wilson had a nervous breakdown trying to make an album to top The Beatles' Revolver. Well, that's sort of true and sort of misleading. It is true that Wilson did care very deeply about topping Revolver and creating an album that could stand alongside it as a great album, but he was also in the throws of some heavy heavy psychadelic drug use and innerband turmoil. The truth was, a lot of the band members didn't particularly care for the music they were making on Smile. But the song now in question, while intended to appear in some form on Smile, was actually released as a stand along single in 1966.

The creation of "Good Vibrations" is a crazy story. Brian Wilson recorded 26 different takes of the song, which took up a reported 90 hours of magnetic tape, at four different studios. These different takes had wildly different instrumental parts. Wilson then, over the course of a few months, took the different takes and created layer upon layer of instrumental and vocal parts, using bits and pieces of each take from each instrument. It took nearly 9 months to finally complete and cost as much as 50,000 dollars. It was worth every penny.

It's such a strange song. It went to number one in the U.S. as well as the U.K., but it doesn't really sound like you'd expect a number one single to sound. The organ that begins the song is eerie, and this is underscored by the theremin that runs underneath the chorus. It is a chorus, by the way, that sounds like a train that's about to run off it's tracks. The cellos and guitars are chugging and sound as if they're about to spin out of control. It is a testament to all the players involved, but especially the rhythem section, they they were able to keep the whole thing under control as the time signature and tempos change several different times throughout the song. It is a masterful song that really captures how extraordinarily talented Wilson was, and also what a pity it was that he was never able to fully complete Smile in 1967 like he would have hoped. Who knows what kind of impact it could have had on the world of pop and rock music had it seen the late of day around the same time as Sgt. Peppers. Our conception of the Beach Boys would have been very different, that's for sure.  After the jump is a link to the "Good Vibrations" single/EP that is available at MySpace music. I'd definitely reccomend listening to the alternate versions of the song as well as the single. You really get a good idea of where the song came from and how it was made.  Great stuff.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Best Albums of the Decade: Part 2 (25-1)

Okay, here comes the last half of that list. Get ready, it's coming after the jump...

Best Albums of the Decade: Part 1 (50-26)

I like making lists. I find list making shallow, but I'm okay with that. It's faster. It saves time. Making a list like Fifty Best Albums of the Decade is a pretty impossible task, and I think I shot myself in the foot right at the beginning by laying claim to the albums I'm about to toss at you as the 'best' as opposed to 'favorite' or something like that. I'm no professional, I didn't hear everything that was released in the past ten years. So that 'best' designation should be taken with a grain of salt. But, that being said, I'll stand by this list, so there's that.

I should probably say something about my methodology, but I'm not going to. All I'm going to say is this: over the course of the past ten years this sort of list making has become incredibly ubiquitous. So, needless to say, I saw this list coming from a mile away and prepared myself accordingly. What that really means is I've been thinking about this for a while. So, don't think I did what would make the most sense, which is to get really drunk and just vomit this list onto the internet. That way its over really quickly and you don't think about what you list and how it's ordered, which would hypothetically mean that the list is a more honest representation of your musical intuitions. Like I said, I didn't do that. In any case, here is the list along with a few thoughts on each album.

Okay, so let's try a re-boot...

Let's not kid ourselves. This whole end of the decade festivities thing was a debacle. Once a day? Who were we kidding? So, I'm ending it right here because it is forcing me to not write about other things, even though I really want to. So, it ends at number forty-something. I'm going to post the Best Albums of the Decade lists that I've come up with right now so they're here then we're starting off the year fresh.

I mean, a move to the big, scary city should be enough to re-boot this crazy inactive blog, right? Especially if I'm going to be, you know, riding on subways a lot and stuff. Tons of music to talk about and tons to listen to. Let's get started, yeah?