Monday, March 31, 2008

Interlude: The Kids Don't Stand A Chance

A week ago, I went relatively unprepared to the Bowery Ballroom. With endless event listings at one's fingertips these days, there's usually a mental buildup to each gig. As a result, some shows can exceed expectations, while others falter because they don't conform to what's expected. Although I knew the night's opener via CMJ, the two bands that closed were relatively unknown to me. I streamed a few songs from Sons and Daughters and enjoyed them, and with little else going on, I took the familiar 6 Train downtown.

The Brunettes

It was really nice to see the Brunettes back in town again. The New Zealand four-piece was a delight at Soundfix in October, but seeing them in a more traditional venue allowed for more of a visceral experience. The delicate strings and chimes were still present, but a muscular bassline gave the band's quirky pop songs a bit more prominence. The first half of their set contained mostly songs from Structures and Cosmetics, their most recent effort, but things got somewhat unfamiliar towards the end. As the one band I had some experience with that night, it didn't disappoint.

MP3: The Brunettes - Small Town Crew
MySpace: The Brunettes
Official Site: The Brunettes

Bodies of Water

The most striking thing about Bodies of Water was their lack of a lead singer. All four members of the band sang in equal amounts and sounded great. Their songs weren't entirely straightforward, and the choral setup made things a little hazy as far as meaning. But as a prime appreciator of melody first and lyrics second, there was a lot of upside for me here. This was definitely far removed from your run-of-the-mill indie rock, and I think we all appreciated the change in pace.

MP3: Bodies of Water - These Are the Eyes
MP3: Bodies of Water - Doves Circled the Sky
MP3: Bodies of Water - I Guess I'll Forget the Sound, I Guess, I Guess
MP3: Bodies of Water - We Are Co-Existors
MySpace: Bodies of Water
Official Site: Bodies of Water

Sons and Daughters

I've always had a soft spot for Scotland. From the lush orchestration of the Delgados to the heart-on-sleeve Camera Obscura, there's no shortage of appealing bands from the region. But Sons and Daughters don't fit the sweet, shy Scottish template. The quartet come out with instruments blazing, and singer Adele Bethel's outfit was most definitely not twee. At first, it was exhilarating, exactly what I came there for. But it didn't really last.

While Sons and Daughters have plenty of explosiveness, they really lacked variety. Granted, it could be my general inexperience with the band, but there weren't any particularly songs that really grabbed me. For all the energy on stage, they seemed stuck in one gear. I suppose I am somewhat jaded to anything that's not intimately familiar or really different from the norm these days. But you're encouraged to decide on a band for yourself; I'm just here to make that experience as convenient as possible. And I will take my own advice and give their album(s) a thorough digestion before coming to a final conclusion. As with all things in life, this isn't over yet.

MP3: Sons and Daughters - Dance Me In (Click-through)
MP3: Sons and Daughters - Johnny Cash (Click-through)
MySpace: Sons and Daughters
Official Site: Sons and Daughters

Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Worst Taste In Music

Ah, shoegaze. Back when I did my first in-person interview (which became a feature that's still one of my favorites), I brought up the oft-maligned genre. I figured Mahogany, the band in question, would take their genre in stride, and maybe offer up some good recommendations. Instead, they completely rejected the idea that the category was still around. I can't agree with that, but I recall that they listed off a few bands that, as they put it, would be shoegaze if the thing still existed. Whether or not it does (I think it does), the Radio Dept. was one of those bands, and it's taken me over a year to get to them.

It's really pretty, of course, but less in the breathless feedback vein and more in the subdued, melancholy Swedish pop way. There's gotta be a little tongue in cheek here as well, unless, I guess, "he" really does have the worst taste in music. If you like it, check out their synthy 2006 album Pet Grief, and probably their better reviewed 2003 album Lesser Matters. Major kudos to Swerve and Swirl over at WNYU for the tipping me off on this song, and for keeping the dream (pop) alive.

MP3: The Radio Dept. - The Worst Taste In Music
MySpace: The Radio Dept.
Official Site: The Radio Dept.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Interview: Caribou

This feature appears in today's Washington Square News.

Dan Snaith, the musical brainchild behind Caribou, may have a Ph.D. in mathematics, but do not mistake him for a number cruncher.

"There's no mathematics or formulae or systems," Snaith said. "It's very much aesthetics."

Hailing from Dundas, Ontario, Snaith has put out albums under his Caribou moniker since 2004 and is keeping his musical output steady with the recent release Andorra. Caribou has toured as a traditional band since 2003's Up in Flames, an album recorded under the name Manitoba.

Snaith's previous projects confirmed him as a virtuoso electronic composer, featuring a style with heavy reliance on loops and samples. But his latest album embraces a more organic sound. All of the instruments were recorded live, except for a few occasional string and harp samples. The end result is far more song-oriented than his more experimental back catalogue. Snaith's singing pushes each track toward a solid pop structure, exploring the popular theme of romance as the record spins.

"I wanted the album to be a bunch of love songs," he said, "but they're not autobiographical."

Snaith has not entirely adopted a lyrical approach to penning songs. He said that while recording "Andorra," he first created the chord sequences and focused on melody before turning his attention to writing lyrics.

The critics have labeled the result as shoegaze, a genre that combines washed-out guitar fuzz with incomprehensible vocals. But Snaith does not entirely agree with the claim. He said many of the bands associated with the movement are not very melodic; he has instead christened his Caribou project as something between shoegaze and 1960s pop.

Although Snaith creates albums alone (a process he described as "hermetic"), he is joined by Ryan Smith on guitar, Andy Lloyd on bass and Brad Weber on drums when performing live. Lloyd also shares vocal duties with Snaith, creating the layered vocal effect that is endemic to Caribou's style.

Snaith is a versatile frontman, playing a variety of instruments. Since he is an accomplished percussionist, the band will often use two drum kits to replicate studio effects. In order to make the transition from the studio to the stage, the band spends a significant amount of time grooming their songs and honing their chops.

"We spend a month rehearsing before we go on tour, breaking down the songs," Snaith said.

The band now plays over a hundred shows a year, including recent stops in Moscow, Istanbul and Prague. These shows vary dramatically in size, from small club shows to "playing to 10,000 people in Portugal" during a music festival.

There is also a strong visual element to the shows, which feature video projections courtesy of Irish animation company Delicious 9.

Although the transition from bedroom producer to frontman is a drastic change, Snaith has gracefully adapted to being a more public figure. He cites his experience playing in live bands as a teenager for setting the groundwork for his comfort with his current gig. But unlike his Caribou project, Snaith's first musical experience was far from rock stardom.

"I started playing piano really early, but I didn't really enjoy it until I learned about improvisation," Snaith said.

Snaith began to focus on electronic music after a friend in the United Kingdom introduced him to Detroit techno. He cites artists hailing from cities as far as Berlin for inspiration.

More recently, Andorra has spawned a number of remixes. Snaith said he keeps tight creative control over how his material is modified, but trusts his remixers and considers them good friends. Results include British producer Four Tet's rework of "Melody Day" and Hot Chip's take on "She's The One," a track that features Junior Boys' Jeremy Greenspan on the original version. Once a fan created a remix and pressed the version onto vinyl. Snaith saw the product in Boston, and after experiencing the nervous pangs of not overseeing its production, he was content with the results.

Despite friendships and connections with other artists, Snaith feels detached from any one scene. Although many bands from his native Canada have found success under a collective umbrella, he prefers solitude. One reason could be the constant evolution of his music. Snaith dislikes classifying himself as either indie rock or electronic. He has managed to avoid the more negative side of the music industry; he disparages the idea of rapid inflated success and condemns illegal downloading.

"It's never going to be the kind of music that's going to be hyped," he said.

Snaith sees the benefits of the internet, which has facilitated access to music. Although he notes the "doom and gloom talk" of falling record sales, Snaith is more optimistic when it comes to the quality of music that's being made.

"Good ideas will always prevail," Snaith said. "People will always be interested in them."

Caribou will continue to tour throughout the summer. Since Snaith is unable to record on the road, he plans to start working on the next album in June. And if past work is any indication, there's no telling what direction his music will take.

"I kind of like starting from scratch every time I start," he said.


Caribou plays at the Bowery Ballroom tonight. Thanks to Christina and Dan for making the interview possible.

MP3: Caribou - Melody Day (Four Tet Remix)
MP3: Caribou - She's The One (Hot Chip Remix)
MySpace: Caribou
Official Site: Caribou

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Who's Afraid of Detroit?

The days are getting longer, but my time seems to burn up faster. The immediate downside is that I just don't have much time to devote here, but I'll do my best to keep things reasonably up to date. I suppose one way of doing so is these shorter blurbs. Today's pick is Claude VonStroke, a Detroit native who celebrates his hometown in all its techno influence. VonStroke is the founder of Dirtybird Records - check out their site for some great mixes - and he takes avian fandom to a new level, releasing an album entitled Beware of the Bird in 2006. Minimal beats, bass and weird vocal samples are all accounted for here, but as his mascot suggests, VonStroke has a sense of humor, too.

MP3: Claude VonStroke - Deep Throat
MP3: Claude VonStroke - Who's Afraid of Detroit?
MySpace: Claude VonStroke
Official Site: Dirtybird Records

Monday, March 24, 2008

On/Off: Switches' Lay Down The Law

This review appears in Wireless Bollinger.

Switches are essentially temporary house guests. They arrive with gusto, plonking down their gear with an audible thud. For a bit, they’re a welcome distraction, spouting easy cadence that causes the host to nod along. Eventually, they wear out their welcome, entering a tiresome romantic phase where they dwell unnecessarily on past relationships, with just a tad too much sentimentalism. Thankfully, they redeem themselves somewhat in the final act, exiting with enthusiasm, promising to return as soon as possible – with another album.

The British quartet doesn’t stand out from the chronically over-brimming indie rock scene, but they aren’t a bad concoction of the upsides that make the genre so ubiquitous. Angular guitars, crunchy beats and decent singing from Matty Bishop are all fine, but there are only so many iterations on this theme. The first few tracks kick proceedings off nicely, but the middle of the album doesn’t quite sustain the momentum.

The band can be credited with mixing it up at the halfway mark of the album, but the results are just that: mixed. ‘"The Need to be Needed" forgoes the trusty rocker for the band’s attempt at mid-tempo balladry, but Bishop’s croon (and airy backup chorus) feels jarringly out of place. Follow-up track "Message for Yuz" returns to the band’s usual style, although there are moments that sound very much like an Arctic Monkeys homage.

And such a comparison, while perhaps geographically convenient, begs a question: when was the last time everyone got all excited over an Anglo indie rock album? Arctic Monkeys’ debut, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, was probably the last, most memorable case of wild, coast-hopping success of an underdog (Radiohead have graduated past such a distinction). More recent British exports have been more in the vein of the female singer who’s either troubled, snarky or both.

It should be noted that Lay Down The Law was originally released in the U.K. almost a year ago under a different name, making any attempt to pinpoint a trend somewhat anachronistic. But even if it doesn’t seem tied to a particularly scene, there isn’t that much that hasn’t been played or heard before. Switches lack the idiosyncrasies that have benefited some of their peers, so there isn’t that much of a hook to this album.

Still, for a four minute stretch towards the end, they do offer a glimpse of potential. "Killer Karma," sits at track 10 of 11 but really should conclude the album. It has a rousing chorus, with beefy guitar riffs and borderline sing-along vocals that occasionally give way to handclaps. Alas, the somewhat abrasive "Testify" cuts in at the end, and the final impression is moderate at best.


MP3: Switches - Drama Queen
MP3: Switches - Killer Karma
MySpace: Switches
Official Site: Switches

Friday, March 21, 2008

Interlude: Devotion

Sorry, folks. It's spring break this week, but I can't really blame lethargy as much of an excuse for the lack of activity around these parts. Anyhow, let's rewind a couple weeks - or better yet, six months. I saw Ra Ra Riot open way back at the beginning of the school year, a concert that's notable as the first time I finally wore earplugs. I remember being impressed with the band's energy, despite not knowing much about them. A half-year later and they've sold out the Bowery Ballroom, on the strength on their self-titled EP. Thanks so much to Brendan for making the night possible. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to catch opener Sam Rosen, so the night started off for me with...

Bear Hands

I usually don't focus on lyrics, but it was admirable to hear Bear Hands incorporate politics into their songwriting. "Vietnam" was an obvious but effective reference, giving the band's already militant indie rock throb a bit more meaning. An endorsement of Barack Obama and a reference to bassist Val Loper's former life as a college student gave the set even more personality. But in the end, it was about the music, which was solid. Singer Dylan Rau had a rough delivery, but it meshed well with the guitar slashes.

MySpace: Bear Hands

Ra Ra Riot

It began quietly enough, with singer Wesley Miles drifting onstage alone. He dedicated the first song to the band's late drummer John Pike, and was soon joined by current drummer Cameron Wisch. After that poignant trubute, the entire band came on, and it was pretty much incredible from there onwards. The band's studio output doesn't do their live show justice at all. Foremost, there's the visuals - five members in constant motion, a hurricane of guitars and strings. Miles' vocals were romantic without being saccharine, combining strongly with the band's orchestral flourishes. The relentless pace was irresistible, each song blooming until the whole audience seemed involved.

Ultimately, one has to give major credit to the crowd. New York is often a tough sell, and even headliners can struggle to keep an audience engaged. But the enthusiasm wasn't forced; there weren't semi-rhetorical questions of, "How are you guys doing?" It was evident that we were immersed in the music. The only routine part of the show was the obligatory encore, but even that formality was overcome. When the band left the stage for the second time, the crowd stayed latched, chanting "Ra-Ra-Riot!" until they came back. Having run out of songs, they repeated a song following an informal vote, and we were treated again.

I suppose my point is, shows like this arrive only once in a long while. There are times when standing there for a few hours can seem like a job - I'd imagine that's particularly true when you're on stage. But sometimes the experience is so much more. Despite the doom and gloom that pervades this industry, I feel assured that live music will never be replaced. Nights like this just reaffirm that feeling.

MP3: Ra Ra Riot - Dying Is Fine
MP3: Ra Ra Riot - Each Year
MySpace: Ra Ra Riot
Official Site: Ra Ra Riot

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Interlude: March of the Camels

I'm in a bit of a hole right now, but it's not the worst one to be in. It's been a very active past week of shows - I've got seven sets to write up. Things will get a bit muddled as far as chronology, but this batch was on Tuesday night. I hadn't planned to attend, but my wonderful friend Maria was kind enough to offer me a spot, and with relatively little homework to do, I went for it. I hadn't heard much of either band, although a couple weeks ago we got stuck outside of White Rabbits' set at BAM Café. I guess you could say I was meant to hear them eventually.

White Rabbits

Much like their four-legged namesake, White Rabbits was a springy, excitable sort. The sextet plays an uptempo indie rock that's easy to like, and I really enjoyed myself. The group's setup differentiates them, at least visually, from their many peers. They have a singer on piano, as well as a guitarist that sings, so there's no real lead singer. The band also features two drummers, including one who will switch to tambourine occasionally. I feel foolish for missing out on "The Plot" for so long, but I definitely was singing along to the "Whoa-oh-oh-oh" part. A bunch of people were clearly there just to see the opener, which I can understand. White Rabbits didn't totally steal the show, but they were definitely an opening exclamation point. Fort Nightly, their debut album, is also very good.

MP3: White Rabbits - The Plot
MP3: White Rabbits - While We Go Dancing
MySpace: White Rabbits
Official Site: White Rabbits

The Walkmen

If White Rabbits was a democracy of sorts, the Walkmen were a monarchy. That's not to discredit the rest of the band, but singer Hamilton Leithauser was the focus of my attention. Although the set started with a few slow songs, Leithauser quickly demonstrated his skill of leaning back and letting loose on the vocals. Although he slowed down a little when he had to strap a guitar, his vocals shifted from yelps to a throaty baritone with authority. It wasn't loaded with hooks, but I was impressed with the energy.

The band had a brass section on stage for a few songs, as well as continuing the piano tradition, but the songs were mostly guitar-driven. There's nothing wrong with that - most bands are - but there wasn't too much that really jumped out at me. One exception was "The Rat," which I heard years and years ago when I still listened to the radio. For four awesome minutes, between Leithauser's impassioned shouts and the guitar flameout, I really "got it." Unfortunately, that was the only truly memorable moment of their set, but I'm still glad went.

MP3: The Walkmen - The Rat
MySpace: The Walkmen
Official Site: The Walkmen

Friday, March 07, 2008

Exit Planet Dust: The Gutter Twins' Saturnalia

This review appears in Washington Square News.

The Gutter Twins is Greg Dulli (The Afghan Whigs, The Twilight Singers) and Mark Lanegan (Screaming Trees, Queens of the Stone Age). These indie-rock legends have worked together throughout their careers, making Saturnalia a natural collaboration. It has its share of grim moments, with its two frontmen trading dour vocals throughout the record. But moments of fragile beauty emerge from the disc's whiskey-drenched haze.

A somewhat religious fervor marks opener "The Stations," with its references to God and wordless exaltations. But the Twins contains this energy for the first few songs by keeping them at a mid-tempo pace, waiting until "Idle Hands" to unleash a full blast. A muscular guitar riff and abrasive chanting mark that song as the template for what most would assume "Saturnalia" would sound like. But Lanegan and Dulli are too smart to stick to such an obvious format.

The majority of Saturnalia is characterized by restraint. Electronic beats leisurely carry the later songs, while ones without the wails resemble acoustic ballads. The vocals are impassioned, but never go over the top. Both men have perfected the howl, and they use it with discretion. Saturnalia is not missing Dulli and Lanegan's trademark darkness, but it remains shockingly accessible.


The Gutter Twins play at Webster Hall on March 19th. Great Northern is opening.

MP3: The Gutter Twins - The Stations
MP3: The Gutter Twins - Idle Hands
MySpace: The Gutter Twins
Official Site: The Gutter Twins

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Interlude: Apartment Story

I hadn't been to our own Kimmel Center for a show for quite some time, but last Thursday provided an opportunity that I couldn't pass up. A week after two sold out shows at BAM, the National were somehow playing here. Despite having a midterm the next day, I immediately marched to the ticket office, to find out that they weren't on sale yet. A couple tries later, I secured a pair, something I failed to do in the last...five instances they were in town. As usual, the night offered a couple fresh listens by way of openers, but it was definitely a show that belonged to the headliners.

Two typos. For shame.

Maps & Atlases

Chicago's Maps & Atlases dealt in mutated pop songs. The five-piece filled the room with quirky guitarwork, curious percussion and breezy vocals. While there were hooks, they weren't built from melodic so much as energy. Some of the more histrionic bits reminded me of Danielson, but one man's incredulity is another's enjoyment. While they didn't win me over completely, there's some interesting stuff going on here.

MySpace: Maps & Atlases
Official Site: Maps & Atlases


Phosphorescent is essentially Matthew Houck's project. The Brooklyn-by-way-of-Georgia songwriter was joined by a couple more guitars, keyboards and drums. He began the set in curiously backward fashion, wailing, "Turn off the light/'Cause this party's over." A couple unsettling screams accompanied this part, and I have to admit the prospects of me enjoying the band looked slim. However, the band soon settled in, and Houck sang a folksy ballad that was far more approachable. The twangier moments were offset by vaguely post-rock segments, making the whole set somewhat schizophrenic. Unfortunately, as is the case with these sorts of shows, the crowd chattered during the quieter moments, lessening their impact. In that regard, it was somewhat nice to see the massive, feedback-drenched bits drown everyone out.

MP3: Phosphorescent - Wolves (Live on the East River Shore)
MySpace: Phosphorescent

The National

At this point in Boxer's touring cycle, the live performance has become a bit of a formality. There isn't too much that seems spontaneous. Instead, we have a band that's made the most of measured expectation, meticulously crafting a sound that's become intimately familiar. So it wasn't entirely accurate when singer Matt Berninger crooned, "We expected something/Something better than before" on opener "Start A War" - the crowd got exactly what it expected. Shortly after those lines, Berninger asked for the lights to be dimmed. While an inconvenience as far as photos went, the dim stage provided the perfect incubator for the band's slow burners.

Along with the usual horn section, the band brought along an ensemble of strings, lending an orchestral elegance to certain songs. And despite the sparsity of many of their creations, the band almost always injected a sustained wall of sound for each outro, giving the place good reason to freak out. As always, explosive Allligator entries "Abel" and "Mr. November" saw Berninger cast off his drab baritone for a lacerating yell that elicited many cheers - and I'm pretty sure I wasn't the only one screaming along. Still, it was a night of introspection, rather than anthems. The beauty of this band is their little sounds, whether it's a guitar line or a murmured verse, and even in the rawer live setting, they are stunning.

I guess there isn't too much left to say. By now, most people have formed their own opinion on the National, but if you haven't given them a chance, I can't stress how highly I recommend them. While differing a decent amount from much of my usual fare (girls singing soprano, synth squelches and the like), no other band has captured my adoration for such a long period of time. I suppose they won't be written about on here for quite sometime - I'm not really sure if I'm making it to that massive R.E.M. date - I'm sure I'll be playing Boxer for as long as I'm listening to music.

Here's the National at last year's Austin City Limits, recorded on September 16th, 2007. Enjoy!

1. Mistaken For Strangers
2. Secret Meeting
3. Brainy
4. Baby, We'll Be Fine
5. Slow Show
6. Squalor Victoria
7. All The Wine
8. Racing Like A Pro
9. Apartment Story
10. Abel
11. Fake Empire
12. About Today
13. Mr. November

Entire Set: Mediafire
MySpace: The National
Official Site: The National

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Lazy Sunday Post

I made it to a couple excellent shows to close out February, but at this point in the night (morning?), I'm afraid those will have to wait. Still, to make your visit worthwhile, here are some tracks I've been listening to of late. Sorry for the lack of description here, but I suppose sometimes the music speaks (or beats) for itself. Enjoy.

MP3: Cornelius - Drop
MP3: Kate Simko - Strumm
MP3: Larry Heard Presents Mr. White - The Sun Can't Compare
MP3: MGMT - Time To Pretend
MP3: Morcheeba - Enjoy The Ride (ft. Judy Tzuke)
MP3: New Young Pony Club - The Bomb
MP3: Spiritualized - Broken Heart
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