Monday, November 24, 2008

The Lead: Music as Equalizer

The front page of today's New York Times contains a story from Jidda, Saudi Arabia, about an all-female band called Accolade - unprecendented in the "ultraconservative kingdom." The band's name is inspired by the above painting. (“I liked the painting because it shows a woman who is satisfied with a man,” Guitarist Dina says in the article.) While hardly a huge force of revolution in itself, the existence of such a band is encouraging and another testament to the potential of music as a force for social change.

While reading the article, I thought back on an interview I had with Ellen Allien last year, and how techno was such a powerful force in post-unification Berlin. In essence, music became the language of nationalism, and the language of liberation. Particularly on Ellen's earlier albums, one of which was entitled Berlinette, her lyrics explore such themes. She's particularly special, not only as one of few women in the male-driven DJ world, but as boss of the great label, BPitch Control.

It remains to be seen what sort of impact Accolade end up having. They're currently unsigned, according to their MySpace, but have over 37,000 plays of their first single, "Pinocchio." It reminds me of Lacuna Coil - a piano introduction that soon turns heavy, and slightly accented vocals. Nothing extraordinary, but created under pretty extraordinary circumstances.

Much-blogged Duo Floats Above the Hype

This is a review I did a few weeks back, actually for class, and while a bit late, I like this record and think it's worth posting about.

Brooklyn duo High Places has a friendship that most of us can only dream of. Mary Pearson and Rob Barber met in 2006, and moved in with each other two days later. Their beguiling, abstract pop took longer to emerge - earlier this spring, they released a shimmering collection of singles, entitled 03/07-09/07, which referred to March to September 2007, the time in which the songs were created. The album, which was released exclusively through digital music store emusic, receiving quick online praise, include a 8.4 from Pitchfork. With Pearson singing “of dinosaurs and seagulls' wings” and other whimsical phrases, High Places might be considered child-like, if not outright childish. But her voice is wrapped around surprisingly sophisticated instrumentation, courtesy of Barber, who uses a variety of synths, drum effects and reverb to create backdrops suffused with mood.

Their MySpace page cheekily labels themselves “Surf/Hardcore/Trance,” but such disparate genres aren't entirely off the mark – Barber grew up with punk music and Pearson initially studied the bassoon. Jeff Meltz, a music blogger and photographer, approvingly called High Places “indie jungle” after an early performance at the Bowery Bowery last fall, and subsequent internet reactions range from delight to admiration, albeit with no real consensus on genre. If there was one popular complaint with 03/07 – 09/07, it was that the compilation lacked cohesion – that despite the similarities music, there was no common thread to united the tracks.

Now signed to Chicago-based label Thrill Jockey, High Places' official, self-titled debut is more focused, but retains free-spirited experimenting that makes it an effortless listen. While not a great divergence from earlier work, the album cements the band's appeal. Opener “The Storm” has Pearson floating up to high notes over a playful beat, “Vision's the First...” loops her sublime vocalizing, and closer “From Stardust To Sentience” is a cinematic outro.

Although High Places is unlikely to play anything larger than cozy clubs and dive bars, along with the occasional indie-minded festival, their modesty isn't necessarily a bad thing. In a hype-crazed industry, starved for the next big thing, High Places have circumvented the backlash. Despite their ethereal music, their promise is concrete.


MP3: High Places - Head Spins
Blog: High Places


These days, it seems pretty easy to fade away. I've lost my focus here, from a combination of school, work and perhaps being a little burnt out. It's not that I write or report less - I'm trying my hand at real estate - and I listen to plenty of music, but there needs to be some changes here. I still love live music, but reviewing show after show becomes a burden when you're constantly falling behind. That's not to say I'm not going to catch up eventually, but there needs to be some variety. The more I occupy this world of music, the more I realize how much things are changing. And the more I want to be a part of it. Essentially, what I'm looking for is some sort of dialogue. The simplest thing is just linking to other people, but I'm not interested so much in aggregation as commentary.

Anyhow, watch this space - I'm going to be more active and I'm going to try to be more creative. And let me know what you think.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

CMJ 2008, Day 1

My long overdue writeup for CMJ begins on Tuesday, when brooklynvegan took over the Music Hall of Williamsburg. British singer-songwriter Emma-Lee Moss of Emmy the Great opened the night with appealing, acoustic pop, echoing the past success of Kate Nash and Lily Allen. The Sammies, the self-described "rock portion" of the show, followed her with Southern accents hollering alongside galloping drums, as frontman Frank Backgammon leapt into the air and struck poses atop his monitor. The majestic Shearwater brought a more tranquil intensity, with singer Jonathan Meiburg's quavering falsetto erupting into an occasional snarl. But drummer Thor Harris was the real star. His flowing hair and bare forearms contrasted jarringly with the rest of the band's tailored suits, but that didn't stop many cries of "I love you Thor!" and "Thor, you rock!" Good stuff.

Emmy the Great
MySpace: Emmy the Great
Official Site: Emmy the Great

The Sammies


MP3: Shearwater - Leviathan, Bound
MP3: Shearwater - Rooks
MySpace: Shearwater
Official Site: Shearwater

Friday, November 14, 2008

Interview: M83

This feature appears in Washington Square News.

Brian Eno called his watershed ambient album “Music For Airports.” By that logic, M83’s fifth album, “Saturdays = Youth,” is music for high schools.

From the album cover’s “Breakfast Club” teenager doppelgangers to its ’80s synth-pop sound, “Saturdays” is a celebration of being young. But M83’s leader Anthony Gonzalez isn’t from America, the land of angst-ridden teen movies. Instead, Gonzalez resides in Antibes in southern France, where American culture has bridged the Atlantic most prominently on the silver screen.

“I’m a big fan of movies,” Gonzalez said. “Cinema is a big influence for me and also soundtracks.”

Fittingly, the album includes vocals from Morgan Kibby, the lead singer in Los Angeles-based band The Romanovs, who has also appeared on soundtracks for M. Night Shyamalan’s “Lady in the Water” and “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.”

“Saturdays” was produced by Ken Thomas, who has worked with Sigur Rós and dream-pop primogenitors Cocteau Twins, and Ewan Pearson, who has remixed countless artists and produced Tracey Thorn, The Rapture and Ladytron. A live guitarist and drummer complete M83’s touring quartet, but Gonzalez is as much a producer as a member of a band.

Prior to “Saturdays,” he released “Digital Shades Vol. 1,” an ambient release indebted to Eno but created with a program that wasn’t available in 1979: Pro Tools.

“For the ‘Digital Shades’ project, I can do pretty much everything alone,” Gonzalez said. “I’m free to do anything that I want to do.”

He says that he worked alone as M83’s primary composer even during its early existence, when Nicolas Fromageau was still a member of the band. The two formed M83 in 2001 after meeting — where else? — in high school. But Fromageau left after the group’s second album, “Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts.”

Despite an affinity for electronic music and a common home country, don’t mistake Gonzalez for the bottom-heavy crunch of Paris’ Ed Banger Records, home of Justice.

“I love their music, but I think my music is really different from them. I never met those guys,” Gonzalez said. In what was perhaps a telling sign, Gonzalez moved to Paris but quickly came back to his native Antibes.

M83 is signed to Mute Records, but despite the financial woes of parent company EMI, Gonzalez’s stance on illegal downloading is laissez-faire.

“I don’t mind. I’m downloading music off the internet as well,” he said. “It’s not a problem, as long as people love my music.”

The generosity seems to have paid off. The band is currently on their second American tour in support of “Saturdays,” playing Webster Hall tonight with School of Seven Bells. Gonzalez says that the stateside audience even surpasses his home turf.

“The crowd in America is a bit more attentive to the music, and I think they’re more passionate,” Gonzalez said.

Then again, there are a lot of movie buffs here.


MP3: M83 - Kim & Jessie
MP3: M83 - Teen Angst
MySpace: M83
Official Site: M83

Sunday, November 09, 2008

CMJ: In This Year's Fest, Esoteric Acts Ruled

From Washington Square News' CMJ Roundup.

Last Friday I found myself in a strange part of town for a CMJ show: Chelsea. I was there in hopes of seeing the Irish singer Roisin Murphy, a European import who sings like Kylie Minogue. She was playing at Mansion, on 28th Street and 11th Avenue, and my hopes of getting in were fading as I came across a staggering mass of people.

“Hey, is this the line for Roisin Murphy?” I asked no one in particular.

A woman scoffed, “Uh, yeah. Who else would it be for?”

I navigated past the line but on the other side of the entrance were only a handful of press and industry people. They were letting in CMJ Music Marathon badge holders, but only those who were 21. My underage self was straight out of luck.

CMJ doesn’t change the rules of New York City’s concerts so much as it magnifies attention. Spanning last Tuesday to Saturday, it featured over a thousand bands playing in dozens of venues, some clumped in the Lower East Side and Williamsburg, others scattered in obscure locations, like Mansion.

For music fanatics, the week is part-marathon, part-juggling act. You can either camp out at one place all night, as I did on Wednesday night at the Bowery Ballroom, or sprint from one venue to another, trying to catch a variety of acts.

For more casual music fans, this year’s CMJ was a head-scratcher, devoid of big names, with only Broken Social Scene and Coheed and Cambria registering more than a blip of mainstream recognition — definitely less buzz than last year’s marquee performers, Spoon, Justice and M.I.A.

This year, it was a week of esoteric thrills, including some New York debuts. On Thursday, London’s Lucky Soul played its first stateside show. I also witnessed the U.S. debut of Chilean DJ Luciano (check out the “Fabric 41” mix), who played a mellow set at Irving Plaza.

School of Seven Bells played a mesmerizing set at Le Poisson Rouge in the last hours of CMJ, where it meshed shoe-gaze blasts and heavenly vocals. Ghostly International labelmate Matthew Dear closed out the night, strutting around with a mic stand when he wasn’t manipulating his laptop.

Sure, these two artists, and many of the other performers, play in New York all the time. But when it comes to seizing exposure, CMJ is special.


Full coverage coming!
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