Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Smile / Contest: Mark Ronson's Version

About thirty seconds into Alright, Still, the listener realizes that Lily Allen isn't your typical heartbroken chanteuse. Instead of dwelling on heartbreak, Allen uses rejection as the basis for snarky, occasionally mean, but consistently entertaining songwriting. Although less conspicuous, the production greatly enhances the experience, delivering consistently upbeat hooks, even when the subject matter's not nearly as cheery. Mark Ronson, one of the album's producers, has gained acclaim in his own right, releasing Version an album of covers and a rotating list of singers. Allen appears on the cover of the Kaiser Chiefs' "Oh My God," which you can check out here.

Thanks to the folks at Cornerstone, I'm giving away two one copy copies of Version, just in time for trick-or-treating. To enter, tell me what song Ronson should cover next and why, either by leaving a comment or email me with the subject line "My Version." If you go for the former, be sure leave a valid email address so I can follow up. Extra points for creativity, humor and hypothetical guest singers. Contest closes one week from today on November 7th. Good luck!

MP3: Lily Allen - Smile
MySpace: Lily Allen
MySpace: Mark Ronson
Official Site: Lily Allen
Official Site: Mark Ronson

Monday, October 29, 2007

Interlude: Beautiful Burnout

Faeries, cops, gladiators and nurses alike made it out to Roseland Ballroom on Friday for Paul Van Dyk's Halloween Ball. Although the often outlandish costumes were a visual spectacle, the most impressive element was the brilliant lighting system. It began the night relatively subdued, adding a detached ambience, but eventually became a firestorm of lasers and strobes, creating incredible effects. Despite the rain pouring outside, the raving continued strong into the morning.

Jason Jollins

NYC's own Jason Jollins opened the night with minimal, regular beats, more suitable for head nodding than full blown dancing. The tranquil spotlights washed over the DJ booth, giving the audience only brief glimpses of the man behind the decks. Those that were moving did so in measured, restrained motions, often being more noticeable for their regalia than their moves. But as the night progressed, the music and audience both became livelier, the percussion smacking the crowd to a series of climaxes. The lighting, although tame compared to its later forms, became more focused and intense, flicking from one color to the next. Although a definite warm-up to the main act, Jason's set was interesting in its own right.

Jason Jollins spins at Pacha NYC on November 2nd.

MySpace: Jason Jollins
Official Site: Jason Jollins

Paul van Dyk

With the crowd chanting "Paul! Van! Dyke!" the man himself emerged shortly before midnight. Although I was initially worried that the switch had already occurred and I just hadn't picked up on it, the dramatic change that occurred made the notion seem ridiculous. Immediately, the lighting was amped to massive proportions, courtesy of Stellar Designs. Each beat boomed with authority, and the bass reverberated throughout the entire venue. While leaning against the stage-left platform (with a mob of costumed dancers on top), I could feel every note's aftermath as it vibrating into the walls. It wasn't just the massive sound system in place, but also the characteristics of trance that dictated such an epic style. For better or worse, it's a genre that embraces the massive, every moment a grand emotional gesture designed to fill the room - and ensnare the audience.

Despite the grandiose sound, Paul's samples embraced the singularity of the singer-songwriter, consistent with his recent album In Between, which features a number of guest vocalists. Aside from providing a clear hook, the practice adds a distinctly human element, which floats above the churning percussion in the mix. The crowd's first taste was through In Between's setting-appropriate "New York City," with Ashley Tomberlin's ethereal voice providing the drama. Electro-pop veteran Tracey Thorn's "Grand Canyon" followed, her "everybody loves you here" refrain buffeted by drumming. iiO's enduring hit "Rapture" was a more relaxed take, every "la" demanding the audience's attention.

Ultimately, it was a pretty unique experience. Trance fuses the egalitarian appeal of melody and percussion, and the big crowd in attendance was a testament to its widespread appeal. However, there's a clear divide between those than play instruments and those that spin records (or tweak knobs, as the case may be), and the big budget DJs are still a world away from the more austere electronic artists out there. It'd be unthinkable for the publications that we read to champion the DJs that have already risen to the top, especially when the pursuit of the next big thing is mainly what drives them. Nonetheless, that doesn't mean they don't have anything to offer.

(Yes, that is a sword.)

Friday, October 26, 2007

Interlude: All Things Go

The first concert I ever attended was the Ottawa Bluesfest, only a summer ago, but it feels much, much longer. The exclamation point of the festival was the New Pornographers' jubilant set at the Black Sheep stage, which pushed me from a state of vague affection for the band towards becoming a huge fan. When I saw they would be playing with Emma Pollock and Immaculate Machine, I scrambled to get a ticket. It's rare that I'm familiar with an entire three band lineup, and there's a bit of a different mentality. Instead of reacting to music for the first time, I found myself savoring each song a bit more, and appreciating the differences between the live set and the records.

Immaculate Machine

Two thirds of Immaculate Machine - drummer Luke Kozlowski and guitarist Brooke Gallupe - said that they had drove nonstop for four days to reach us from their native Victoria, Canada. Keyboardist Katherine Calder had it easier, as she's become a full time member of the New Pornographers and was with that band, but she really shined in this other project. Beginning with "Dear Confessor" off of their recent album Fables, the band plowed through a lively set of upbeat indie pop, even the slower numbers gaining momentum and volume in live form. With all three members singing, often at the same time, the band wrung everything they could out of their compact membership. Luke would tear off his shirt, clearly getting a workout from drumming and singing at the same time. Kathryn and Brooke proved equally versatile, switching from English to French lyrics midway through "Broken Ship," and the latter even offered a few lines of closer "Jarhand." Immaculate Machine was very appealing, and I think they made a great impression despite only having a half hour or so to play.

MP3: Immaculate Machine - Broken Ship
MySpace: Immaculate Machine
Official Site: Immaculate Machine

Emma Pollock

Emma Pollock brought a far more substantial band, including a keyboardist, bassist and drummer, compared to the first time I saw her, and the sound was far more muscular as a result. Emma's voice took a couple songs to really get warmed up, but she was in peak form for the rest of the set. It was misleading that the first songs that surfaced from her album Watch The Fireworks were the stripped down "Limbs" and "Fortune," as it's very much a rock record. Emma and keyboardist Jamie Savage did play the former song in all its stripped-down beauty, but for the rest of the songs were a matter of addition rather than subtraction. On "Paper & Glue" and "Here Comes The Heartbreaker," another guy came on and played tambourine and sang backup vocals. On finale "The Optimist," Kathryn joined in and played accordion, although the song was a bit too slow to be a total climax. Although Emma is very deserving of attention, it's clear that the project is more than just a solo effort.

MP3: Emma Pollock - Adrenaline
MP3: Emma Pollock - Limbs
MySpace: Emma Pollock
Official Site: Emma Pollock

The New Pornographers

The New Pornographers made the evening one to remember. Neko Case and Dan Bejar were in attendance, along with a number of backup musicians, adding violin, accordion, cello, and trumpet, among others. The result was a dizzying collective mentality, as lead vocals were swapped between Carl Newman, Neko and Dan, and the rest of the band's contributions were equally varied. "All the Things That Go To Make Heaven and Earth" opened, giving the crowd an immediate taste of new album Challengers. As with many new releases from my favorite bands, I'm still more inclined towards older work, but the new songs were generally solid live. "Use It" was a buoyant follow-up, and I would say that Twin Cinema yielded the greatest number of "hits" over the course of the night. Dan Bejar joined the band for "Myriad Harbour," adding his distinct voice, although the chorus let Neko, Carl and Kathryn to all participate.

Neko was spectacular throughout the night, her powerful voice making most of her lead songs highlights. Kathryn wasn't quite as immediate, but she did a nice job backing up and occasionally singing lead. "Unguided" proved that the band was as adept at sprawling epics as breezy power pop, and the softer tracks were conveyed with authority. The undeniable highlight of the set was "The Bleeding Heart Show," which finished the main set. It grew from a slow burning vocal from Carl to a full-blown chorus, not merely from the band, but from the majority of the crowd as well. The encore saw the band joined by Gordan Gano of the Violent Femmes, and the band performed a cover of "I Held Her In My Arms." An unprecedented encore followed, with Neko unleashing her voice on "Letter From An Occupant." At over an hour and a half, it was one of the most impressive performances I've witnessed.

Here's the band at the 9:30 Club, recorded by NPR on March 6th, 2007.

1. Twin Cinema
2. Use It
3. July Jones
4. Jackie
5. Graceland
6. From Blown Speakers
7. The End of Medicine
8. A Testament To Youth In Verse
9. The Body Says No
10. Breaking The Law
11. A Slow Descent Into Alcoholism
12. The Bleeding Heart Show
13. Sing Me Spanish Techno

MySpace: The New Pornographers
Official Site: The New Pornographers

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Interlude: Two More Years

I first heard Stars during the fall of senior year in high school. "Ageless Beauty" was a revelation, foreshadowing a deep appreciation for Canadian indie rock and shoegazey pop songs alike. It's one of the those songs that remain just as compelling years after first hearing it, and it's reflective of the longevity and appeal of the band. I've been waiting to see them for ages, and I finally got that chance on Tuesday night. Although they played Town Hall last week, the Music Hall was a more intimate choice, and particularly nice because the band began in Williamsburg. The generally minimal venue was also suitably decorated, with flowers attached to many of the instruments and pictures placed throughout the stage.

New Buffalo

Melbourne, Australia's Sally Seltmann opened to a substantially packed floor. Her sparse instrumentals and lovely voice was a nice change of pace after being flooded with guys with guitars over the last week (not that there's anything wrong with that), but things could have been more dynamic. Sally stayed at her piano for the first few songs, but thankfully switched things up, bringing in a backup vocalist and changing over to acoustic guitar during the middle of the set. The one constant was her vocals, which was reminiscent of Camera Obscura at their more contemplative. Apparently, Sally also wrote "1234" for Feist, and that's a valid comparison as well. Unfortunately, she hasn't quite captured the lushness of either artist, although harmonizing with an iPod yielded some volume. I would have liked to see a couple more people on stage. Sally thanked the crowd "for being so quiet," but aren't we supposed to be loud as well?

MySpace: New Buffalo
Official Site: New Buffalo


From a project that began on a computer in a bedroom, Stars has truly grown into a live force. "Take Me To The Riot" began things with authority, the entire band rocking out on the anthemic chorus. But what elevates Stars to indie pop royalty is the incredible dynamic between singers Torquil Campbell and Amy Milan; I've rarely seen two singers so perfect together. Whether trading verses or harmonizing, the duo was remarkable throughout the night. Second song "Set Yourself On Fire" highlighted their dual vocals during its sweeping first half, the lyrical blur of images captured within a bouncing, electronically-tinged beat. Part two brought everything down, with Torq intoned the "twenty years of sleep" refrain amidst swirling ambience. "Elevator Love Letter" remains one of the most sublime pop songs, Amy's effortless delivery buoyed by a soaring chorus. Then things got really interesting.

Torq disappeared off-stage, his disembodied voice asking the crowd, much like during the Memphis show, "Do you want to hear a ghost story?" After an overwhelming affirmative, "The Ghost of Genova Heights" followed, with Torq appearing in a suit embedded with lights. Throughout the night, I was really impressed with how seamlessly songs off of In Our Bedroom After The War slipped in amongst older material. Perhaps it was just the spot-on delivery by the band, but the night has really given me a reason to give the album more time, instead of just staying dazzled by their back catalogue. Still, I was glad that I wasn't the only one feeling nostalgic. Heart's "Look Up" lacked strings, but Torq used a melodica to add that final high note into the mix, and he would also pick up a trumpet when needed. Set Yourself On Fire material was uniformly excellent, from the frantic verbosity of "What I'm Trying To Say" to the elegant swoon of "Your Ex-Lover Is Dead." I couldn't help but grin when Torq altered "Soft Revolution to include the line, "A tape recording of the sound of the Old World Underground" and the band would dedicate another song to "Jimmy and Emily" of Metric. And of course, "Ageless Beauty" was spectacular.

As the night winded down, the band became more introspective. Torq thanked the crowd regularly, and mentioned their Williamsburg roots, talking about their apartment on Driggs Avenue. Amy recalled her beginnings with the band, moving into aforementioned apartment and finding her bedroom draped in pink, to which Torq replied, "Girls like pink." Torq was less sentimental on the follow-up, clarifying that being a band equaled being two alcoholics in matching shirts, to the amusement of the crowd. The epic title track from the new album closed out the main set, but the band returned with "The Night Starts Here" and much my surprise, the downright ancient track "On Peak Hill," which appears on their first album Nightsongs. "Calender Girl" finished one of the greatest shows I have ever been to.

Here's Stars' third appearance on KCRW, recorded on March 23rd, 2005. Enjoy!

1. Intro
2. Ageless Beauty
3. Reunion
4. Your Ex-Lover Is Dead
5. One More Night
6. Interview
7. Soft Revolution
8. Calender Girl
9. Outro

Entire Set: MediaFire
MySpace: Stars
Official Site: Stars

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Interview: Stars

This feature appears in the Washington Square News Arts blog.

Stars’ fifth album, In Our Bedroom After The War, was released digitally four days after it was mastered. Bypassing the typical publicity campaign, Stars made the album available on their label Arts & Crafts’ website, but with a catch: it did not have copy protection.

“We didn’t have the time to be precious about the release and try to watermark it or ask people to climb a mountaintop with a Sherpa, so finally they can put on a pair of headphones,” says bassist Evan Cranley.

It has been a long journey for the group that was formed by singer Torquil Campbell and keyboardist Chris Seligman, who heavily relied on sequencing and programming to create their first album, Nightsongs. When necessary, the band hired a drummer or guitarist to help enhance their sound. The permanent additions of singer Amy Milan, drummer Pat McGee and Cranley have made the band a five-piece. However, the lineup was not fully acknowledged until the recording of the new album, which took place in Warehouse Studios in Vancouver. With a bigger budget, the band had a much diverse set of options.

“With the previous records, we’ve enjoyed the limitations of the tools we’ve been able to have,” says Cranley. “But this time, we had everything we wanted at our disposal.”

With the new release, the band scaled back on the orchestral elements, including violins and horns, which had been the foundation for the band’s previous release, Set Yourself On Fire, as part of an effort to make themselves louder.

“I wanted to do a lot more recording off of the floor,” says Cranley. “We’ve always snapped things through a grid on a computer. Believe it or not, this is probably the most rock and roll the band has ever gotten. We wanted to make more of a raw record.”

Guitars help to make the biggest difference in their new sound, as on the ebullient single “Take Me To The Riot.” While the style may be different, the creative process is the same, and Cranely, McGee and Seligman began the writing process, as always, with their instruments, to which Campbell and Milan later added lyrics.

“For all our records, the three of us have scored the songs and arrangements and demoed literally before the guys came in,” says Cranley.

This creative process may be startling to those who were introduced to the group by way of Milan’s solo project, Campbell’s other band Memphis or Toronto’s Broken Social Scene, of which all three are members. Despite the group’s side projects, Cranley is convinced that the members will not be distracted from their project, noting that the core trio is continuously creating new material.

Having built a following based on their tunes, Stars has also developed a strong fan base by touring.

“We started our career off tinkering around the studio, and then the last four years we’ve been very much more of a live project,” says Cranley. “For years I was trying to convince people that we were interesting, and now I think we’ve found our audience.”

Following the album’s recent physical release this September, the band sold out their entire European tour, a particularly gratifying feat after “seven or eight” previous visits to the continent without the same results.

Part of the reason it took so long for the band to reach this point is because of their independent outlook. Their decision to release the album early wasn’t so much a marketing ploy as it was a step towards artistic empowerment, and Cranley sees the current industry as a business where the musician should be the one in charge.

“If you put the power in the artist’s hands, I think the industry will benefit from it more,” he says. “A lot of people are scared by it, but it just means you have to work a little harder and be more creative with how you do things.”

Now in the midst of a seven week tour, Stars show no signs of slowing down.

“We just want to keep playing, keep making records and keep being experimental about how we release things,” he says. “I think the band is at a really positive place now. I’m excited about the future.”


Stars play at the Music Hall of Williamsburg tonight!

MP3: Stars - Ageless Beauty
MP3: Stars - Your Ex-Lover Is Dead
MySpace: Stars
Official Site: Stars

Interlude: Bad Religion

I won't protest too much if you labeled me a glutton. To be fair, I purchased tickets for this week's shows before I knew how involved I'd be with CMJ, and it'd just be rude not to go, right? So, I made my way uptown and then a few avenues west to Terminal 5 for Justice, the new big venue on 56th Street. I can't say I'm very fond of the place, simply because bigger means less intimate, although that's hardly a factor in an event of the raving nature. The two balconies are impressive, and I spied some lucky people who had grabbed stools, but it wouldn't be my ideal vantage point. At least the entire place isn't seated, although there were times over the course of the night that I wished it was.

The Midnight Juggernauts

Melbourne, Australia's Midnight Juggernauts fit nicely with Justice despite their geographical distance. They play music equally indebted to house music and rock 'n roll, as evidenced by the bass-drums-synths setup. Daniel Stricker aka Thunderfist pounded the kit as Vincent and Andy Juggernaut made their way on-stage, and it was full speed ahead from there on. The band knew how to make the crowd dance, and it's rare that the audience is so pumped during an opener. Keyboardist Vincent's vocals had enough zip to fit in with the tempo, but perhaps their greatest success was when he switched instruments with Andy, who then used a vocoder distortion to great effect. As Vincent mentioned, it was their last show in the North American tour, but the band didn't show any signs of fatigue.

MP3: Midnight Juggernauts - Into The Galaxy
MySpace: Midnight Juggernauts
Official Site: Midnight Juggernauts


Frankly, I was disappointed. Being crammed into a deliriously active crowd was more uncomfortable than invigorating, and I couldn't help but wonder if hype is justified. Now, the experience has done nothing to shake my faith (ha) in the audio goodness that is "D.A.N.C.E." and (especially) "We Are Your Friends," but I'm having real misgivings about hearing them live. For one thing, the set wasn't at all based on the supreme hookiness of those two singles, but rather on the abrasive, somewhat guttural sound reminiscent of their debut, "Waters of Nazareth." It's a matter of taste, but I can't imagine the group having such wild success over the last few months had they just stuck to that formula.

While is more indicative of their live sound, I guess I just expected more. There just wasn't a whole lot of creativity, at least compared to the few other sets I've been to. "D.A.N.C.E." was cashed in surprisingly early, and again, it lacked a lot of punch when just the vocal was used. Still, it was better than the middle of their set, which just didn't do much for me. I caught bits of the chopped up vocal on "DVNO" and Uffie's mediocre rap on "The Party," but there was nothing particularly compelling there. I am pleased to report that "We Are Your Friends" was as awesome as all those YouTube clips suggest, and hearing the entire crowd yell it out was, dare I say, borderline religious. Mashing it with "Waters of Nazareth" was curious, but fair enough. The encore rehashed "The Party" with some percussion bits, and that was it. One song, amazing as it is, does not a good set make, I'm afraid.

MP3: Justice vs Simian - We Are Your Friends (Radio Slave & Spencer Parker Re-edit)
MP3: Justice - D.A.N.C.E. (Les Rythmes Digitales Remix)
MySpace: Justice

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