Et Tu, Opeth?

[This started as a simple review of black/death metal titans Opeth’s “Heritage”…things got out of hand. Forgive me, but, by God, I’m sticking with it.]

My friend Eric and I see eye-to-eye on a lot of things, but ultimately it ends up revolving around metal and food. We also happen to share the same ailment with both passions in terms of portion control -that is, we really don’t have any. While catching up over burgers last fall, our conversation immediately began with what we were listening to. As usual we were on the same page with many releases, although he hadn’t gotten around to hearing the STOOPID awesome Kvelertak (which made my Top 10 of 2011) and I hadn’t listened to the newest from a band both he and I pretty much worship: Opeth. That crafty, resourceful bastard beat me to it by getting an advanced copy. After a quick scolding to why he held out on me for so long, I demanded to hear the details of how frickin’ killer it is. Homeboy paused eating, sighed and said, “It sucks.” Naaaah. This can’t be. Opeth, record after record after record, have been leveling we puny listeners. All those years, even with a multitude of line-up changes. There had to be a reason. Eric’s answer was enough. “It’s proggy.”

Ah, the “P” word, how I loathe thee. From since I was acquainted with it, any genre that starts with the word “Progressive” makes me want to punch a wall (with the exception of progressive hip-hop, which has a completely different connotation…) This upsetting news about Opeth’s new record sent me down a path wondering why I hated it so much or maybe that I never gave it a real chance. I guess it starts with Rush.

It’s middle school, I’m in band, playing trumpet. Me and few other like-minded kids were starting to gather there’s, like, actual music out there apart from Top 40 and classic rock. We trade tapes and for the most part, we like the same stuff: Pixies, Ellington, Zappa, Kate Bush, etc. Suddenly, everyone had this collective epiphony over Rush and other prog rock bands. Given these were fellow nerds I respected and liked, I knew I was supposed to dig it, but it just didn’t make sense to me. What did make sense to me was what the real outsiders were listening to: Slayer, Megadeth, Suicidal Tendencies. The stuff that the delinquents were listening to. It’s that age where we’re starting to understand we’re not quite kids anymore, there’s less sheltering and there’s some weird, sad, hard shit happening out there and to us. Metal addressed that. Rush/Asia/Yes didn’t. As much I admire people who excel at their craft/skills, prog “rockers” and my band friends seemed like they were spending too much time in their bedrooms mastering pentatonic scales and quadruple paradiddles than, you know, actually living life. Prog, in rock and in jazz (I’m getting to it), feels like there’s too much intellect and not enough heart, edge, emotion, teeth. Upon my first rudimentary drum lessons, which went miserably, my encouraging band TA crystallized trying to force too much skill. He equated it with command of vocabulary; you could probably get your point across better with grunts than a convoluted string of long words. Which is exactly why the straight-forward, riffy aggression of metal got me.

“Progressive”. It’s got a proper definition, but generally speaking, we can agree that it connotes moving forward, to something better, yea? Prog seems to do exactly the opposite. I understand the term was used in order to lump together rock bands that incorporated a variety of instruments and genres to give rock/metal an arty, high-brow quality to it. I see the “progressiveness” in that. But the actual music? It’s a bunch of dudes, who can play the shit out of their instruments, but have no idea how to build an actual cohesive piece of music (btw, this whole prog thing applies to jam bands as well -at least those guys seem like they’re having fun, would be cool to hang with and are probably getting laid on a regular basis.) “Oh, Nithya, you could argue that the same could apply to jazz…” Hell no. In the be-bop era (which, IMHO, is one of the finest, most compelling eras of music -period), Miles, Coltrane, Monk, Jarrett were certainly absolute masters of their instruments and never tied down to rigid structures. But listening to jazz is sort of like watching an amazing game of hockey or basketball. It keeps moving, it commands your attention, you have to be and want to be alert because you might miss something spectacular. While there might be one key player/leader on the team, everyone works together to win. Prog and jam bands feel like watching separate jugglers on the same stage. Wow, one dude is juggling plates. Another is juggling fire torches. And now knives. And chainsaws. Chainsaws on fire! Now baby pandas. We get it: you can juggle. Where’s the build, flow, space, suspense?

Just like it did with rock and metal, the P word found its noodle-y way into jazz too. Right around the time I found metal, I was getting way into jazz. As a trumpet player, Miles Davis was god. THE God. As with rock, his and jazz’s edge was getting dulled by the 70’s. Upon my first listen to “Bitches Brew” a pang of panic hit me: fuck. he went Prog. Miles to his death was a grade-A badass, but his later stuff basically gave birth to jazz’s version of Prog Rock otherwise known as “Jazz Fusion”. The tight, nerve-y, unpredictable and dark qualities that made be-bop so rad was forever gone (oh hey, Kenny G…)

Which brings me back to Opeth. After Eric mentioned the new record was proggy, I didn’t bother to listen to it. That one word was all it took. The band was on my mind recently since they are on tour and with a band that is everything this girl could ask for: Mastadon (them boys merit a whole other post.) Anyway, setting aside my aversion for all things Prog and remembering how amazing Opeth’s previous works were, I finally took a listen to “Heritage”…well, how about that, turns out this will be a short review:

IT BLOWS.

It’s so over-the-top proggy that I feel like I’ve somehow regained my virginity by listening to it. I should have just looked at the dumbass cover to have known. Opeth went from being this crazy awesome death/black metal band that made grand opuses with sinister, classy and mysterious record covers such like these:

to making this nonsense:

Thank you, Prog, thank you, for once again inflicting your plague on what was once an inspired and vigorous artist. You’ve made the artists I love make Sarah McLachlan look like Shaft.

Mid-week Gossip video party!

I’ve been completely gorging on Gossip’s Music for Men throughout the blog hiatus, and I’m happy to finally be writing about it. I recently started writing down three things I’m grateful for each day, and this album actually appeared on that list last week. Seriously.

Beth Ditto makes me feel a little unhinged—like the state that happens around 2am, when you’ve had a little too much to drink, you’ve been dancing for hours, and you’re drenched in sweat. You can longer tell quite where the slippery boundary is between you and the music and you think you might just die from the joy of that ambiguity.

This album is nuts. It’s everything music should be: sexy, smart, epic, dance-y, dark, joyous, anthemic, infectious. It makes me want to start a weekly dance party where I’d play Music for Men from start to finish every time, dance myself into oblivion, then call it a night.

I’m usually pretty vague in my actual discussions of albums, so I’ll try to give you some specifics to work with here. The whole album is good, but songs 2 through 5 are jaw-dropping. I’m going to let the music stand for itself and let you enjoy these epic videos. I’ll add my two cents as an intro to each.

Here’s “Heavy Cross.” Get ready for some gold and glitter! Is it just me, or is she channeling some kind of crazy disco Dolly Parton on this song? If you resist the urge to dance to this, you are stronger than me.

“8th Wonder” is my hands-down favorite song on the album. Here’s a spunky video from Germany, featuring dance moves, bad german, and a tiny mosh pit.

The video for “Love Long Distance” is full of spandex outfits, giant balloon heads, and roller skates. This song totally makes me imagine myself doing jazzy moves at the Semoran Skate Way—skating backwards, moving my shoulders, and winking slyly at the referees.

Watch how lightning bolts shoot out of Nathan Howdeshell’s guitar on this one (“Pop Goes the World”). That’s how I feel every time he hits a note on the entire album.

Gossip’s new album A Joyful Noise is due out May 22, and I was lucky enough to get two tickets to the album release show at Terminal 5. Can. not. wait. If you haven’t heard the new single “Perfect World,” listen now! It’s a perfect extension of the beauty of Music for Men, and I can’t wait to hear the whole album.

Shakes me to the core

The internet has once again confirmed for me that I live under a large, dark rock, that keeps the news of the world far far away from me. How else could it be that I had not heard of the Alabama Shakes until stumbling across their new album Boys and Girls on NPR’s First Listen. The album drops today, and you should immediately stop reading this post and go listen to it. Go ahead, go! Come back later and read the rest.

It’s hard to believe that this is the debut album of a group of 20-somethings, because it sounds like the 30-year career highlights of a Southern soul super group. It’s that good and that timeless and it’s bound to be one of the best albums of the year (if not the decade). Brittany Howard’s voice is smooth, brazen, raw, soaring, beseeching, and has already been compared to a wide range of greats, from Aretha Franklin to Janis Joplin to Billie Holiday. This lady’s blues will pull your heart out, slow dance with it, squeeze every drop of blood out of it, kick it in the stomach, and leave it by the curb. And you’ll love every minute of it.

What I like so much about the Alabama Shakes is that they belong right up their with legendary blues singers of the 50s and 60s, but there are also weird hints in there of Prince, TV on the Radio, and Led Zeppelin. It’s an incredible fusion the most soaring, heart-rending elements of r&b, soul, rock-n-roll, and the blues, all with a beautiful southern underpinning. I’d spend time detailing some favorite tracks, but it’s one of those rare perfect records. Every damn song is worth listen after listen.

That’s all I have to say. Go and hear for yourself.

These videos give me goosebumps:

Going home without my burden…

Oh hi there good reader.  Last time we spoke, I was in my motherland, refamiliarizing myself with the music of my people.  Back in February, I meant to write a review of Leonard Cohen’s (“LC”) new album so here it is now – written as I fly from Montreal (LC’s home town) to Washington, DC (one of my hometowns). 

I have a true soft spot for Leonard Cohen.  I listened to a lot of LC when I was a teenager – which probably tells you a little (a lot) about my brooding teenage years.  Old Ideas feels like familiar warm LC.  His deep voice and songs convey a certain type of romanticism for me – a gentlemanly romanticism of doors opened for you, slow waltzes, smoky bars, flowers, broken hearts, and poetry.  And it feels lonely (but the okay kind of lonely), his lyrics are full of wanting, failure, self-deprecation, with a hopeful search for redemption.  Although LC is indeed a poet and philosopher, I find his music incredibly accessible – the language, the themes are universal.  The sounds have strings, horns, organ, some accordion, and the most lovely well-placed backing vocals.  But with LC’s music, it’s not so much about the production.  It’s about his voice and what he’s telling you.

Old Ideas opens with “Going Home,” which is really enough to bring tears to my eyes here on the plane as I did when I listened to it as I walked around the seawall in Vancouver back in February.  “Going home without my sorrow, going home sometime tomorrow, going home to where it’s better than before.  Going home without my burden, going home behind the curtain, going home without the costume that I wore.”   Mostly this song is LC’s self-critique – speaking in third person, calling himself a lazy bastard, recognizing the character he plays and the posing he may do.  The theme of going home and the search for home is probably something to which we all can relate.

“Crazy to Love You” reminds me of the LC that I listened to in my teenage years.  It sounds like the LC of the 60s – more sparse, just guitar and his vocals, singing about loving the wrong one.  I also love “Come Healing.”  Any song that starts with, “Oh gather up the brokenness, bring it to me now” immediately speaks to me.  He lets the back-up singers play a more duet-type role in this song and he also does beautifully what he does in much of his material – combines themes of the heart, the brain, and spirituality.  Even if you’re a skeptic, you feel compelled to listen to what he has to tell you.

LC only recently (in the last few years) re-emerged on the music scene.  His manager stole most of his money as LC lived in a monastery in California.  He was forced to return to touring and making music in order to make money again.  I saw him almost 20 years ago, and I remember him wearing a three-piece suit and fedora.  I remember that we were all handed red roses when we entered the theatre that night, and then we threw them on the stage at the end of the show.  I was transported.  If you have a chance to see him, I highly recommend buying a ticket and packing a handkerchief.

There aren’t a lot of videos of songs from Old Ideas, so instead I’m sharing this video of a live performance of one of my favorite LC’s songs, “So Long Marianne.” 

Carrie Brownstein, Take 3

You may be sick of hearing about my ongoing love/ambivalence relationship with Carrie Brownstein, but this week I made good on an earlier promise to see Wild Flag live, and I thought you deserved an update. After admitting my non-enthusiasm for Wild Flag’s debut album, I wondered if I might find something to love in their live show. After giving up my ticket to their October show at Union Hall, I heard nothing but gushing, glowing reviews of their performances. But when tickets went on sale to their April Webster Hall show, I got a case of the lazies and missed my chance to buy a ticket. Fear not, though, the karmic gods were watching when I benevolently distributed my tickets in October, and I was rewarded with a free ticket through my friend EP (thanks again!!).

So, am I now a Wild Flag convert? Let’s not get carried away. I had a blast at the show, and I did like their sound much better when it was up-close, ruining my eardrums, and accompanied by the crazed screams of a NYC crowd. I also loved seeing an all-girl group tear it up, which I realized I haven’t done in many years. Watching four women making fun, loud, raucous noise together is a totally different experience than watching an all-dude band. It made me feel like I’d like to ride around on their tour bus with them and make them breakfast, which is not something that I feel for Weezer or Modest Mouse or Cursive (but I’d probably do it for Johnny Cash).

Another thing I love (and I’ve said it before) is Janet Weiss! I love her bangs and her sweatbands and the way she always has a fan blowing her hair back like she’s in a fashion magazine. She plays the drums like few drummers I’ve seen, all the while looking incredibly glamorous and singing backup on most songs.

I also wholeheartedly support Wild Flag’s decision to do all-cover encores. More bands should do this, and I hope that they don’t abandon the tradition once they have a few more albums to play from. (Promising sidenote: they played a couple of new songs that I really liked. Let’s see if they hold up when recorded). Their encore at Webster Hall included the Rolling Stones’ “Beast of Burden” and Bobby Freeman’s “Do You Want to Dance,” which got the crowd riled up and singing along. Their finale was Fugazi’s “Margin Walker,” which got a mention in Pitchfork and Stereogum, but sounds better in theory, than in practice. See for yourself:

Here’s some more live Wild Flag for your enjoyment:

(great shots of Janet Weiss and her bangs and wind machine in that one!)

And here’s “Beast of Burden:”

As more Carrie Brownstein revelations emerge, I’ll send them your way! For tomorrow’s resurrection week post, my thoughts on  the Alabama Shakes. Preview: holy shit, amazing!

Returning to the fold

Easter seems a fitting day to resurrect the blog from a month-long silence, and Johnny Cash seems the perfect topic for any Sunday morning’s ruminations. Easter Sundays take me back to Cairo, Georgia, where my dad’s family lives, and the starched-white Methodist Church Easter egg hunts that we looked forward to each year. They remind me of my grandmother, who we mercilessly harassed one year for not providing baskets full of plastic grass and chocolate bunnies, only to find the baskets later, lined up on the mantel, where we’d forgotten to look. We even wrote her a rude note that she kept for years as proof of our heathenism. And they remind me of my grandfather, a Colonel Sanders look-a-like, whose drawl and bad-boy-turned-churchgoer story remind me a lot of Johnny Cash. I imagine my grandfather as a boozer and ladies man in his early days, although I’ve only known him as a clean-joking, alcohol abstaining, Sunday school teacher through most of my life.

I feel far away from Cairo these days, and the Methodist church of my grandfather (and for that matter, the Catholic church from my mother’s side) never stuck. But listening to American Recordings, I actually found myself thinking, “Johnny Cash could make me believe in God.” At the time, I was listening to “Oh, Bury Me Not,” a cowboy-slow spoken prayer, and one of a few spiritual-leaning songs on the album. When Cash sings, “Let me be easy on the man that’s down/Let me be square and generous with all/I’m careless sometimes, Lord, when I’m in town/But never let ‘em say I’m mean or small,” I’m taken back to the simple, clean values of life in that small Southern town I remember from years ago.

I’m also reminded about what I love about Johnny Cash, and why I chose this record in the first place. If you remember from many weeks ago, after falling in love with Adele’s 21, I set out to listen to another Rick Rubin-produced record. The beauty of Johnny Cash’s music has always been its simplicity and honesty, and tapping into these qualities is what makes Rick Rubin’s albums so incredible.

My one complaint about the album is that it opens with “Delia’s Gone,” an old folk song about a murder in Savannah in the year 1900. I can’t get past the lyrics, from the murderer’s perspective, that seem to trivialize and glorify violence against women. The video starring Kate Moss, mostly shown “dead,” doesn’t do much for me either. Watch it here and judge for yourself:

For me, it started the album on a sour and questionable note, and I felt like I had to recover from that feeling going into later songs.

American Recordings is a classic Johnny Cash album—traveling songs, church songs, woman woe songs, tough guy with a heart of gold songs, old man reflecting songs. It was mostly recorded in Cash’s living room, with just him and his guitar—stripped down and solitary. And that’s the overall feeling of the album. The perfect listen for a slow Sunday morning of remembering, spring cleaning, and taking stock of your days.

I’ve brought the blog back from the tomb without much notice to others, so as the week continues, I’ll keep posting about what I’ve been listening to during March and these early days of April, to give the other contributors a chance to get a post together and add to the conversation. If all goes well, we’ll be fully back in business soon. Stay tuned!

When Mick met Bobby

When I found out, albeit a few years late, that Mick Hucknall – one of my favorite vocalists and the leader of the uber-fabulous Simply Red – made a cover album of Bobby “Blue” Bland songs, you could hear me squee with delight. I was so excited to hear the blue-eyed soul king’s take on the bluesy icon’s sound.

Though Bland’s signature style of gospel-inspired blues ruled the charts in the ‘50s and ‘60s, Hucknall’s interpretations on the album Tribute to Bobby repeatedly take you to the ‘70s. Hucknall’s Ain’t that Lovin You is set over the kind of funk groove that makes you look over your shoulder and expect to see John Shaft.

Hucknall’s take on Poverty almost sounds like it could have come from the soundtrack of The Wiz. (It really does remind me of Brand New Day).

But there are places where Hucknall’s rough, edgy vocals soar, like on “Stormy Monday Blues,” which makes you feel like your in a smoky juke joint listening to him wail over a bluesy jam band. When he croons, “You know I’ve cried, Lord have mercy on me,” you believe his pleas.

On I’ll Take Care of You, Hucknall plays call-and-repeat with a weeping blues guitar, and the effect is outstanding.  But he seems most at home in the soft, sweet “Chains of Love,” in which his Simply Red roots are apparent and he plays the role of crooner incomparably.

My favorite track, though, is the opening one. How is it possible to take a Bobby “Blue” Bland classic Further On Up the Road and treat it like you’re the only person who ever owned it? Mick finds a way. Awesomeness.

You Are My Phantom Limb

Lonely Twin by the Hospital Ships wasn’t really an album I’d been meaning to listen to. They came out of Lawrence, Kansas with an earlier album, Oh, Ramona, in 2008, but I’d never actually heard of the band before I stumbled across them listening to old recordings from NPR’s Tiny Music Desk.

That said, I’m glad I found them.

During the Tiny Music Desk concert I first heard, the band played a stripped-down acoustic set.  On the album, the tracks are treated to a fairly thick layer of processing, but in both cases the band’s best attribute is the same: lead singer Jordan Geiger’s high, reedy voice. After a week (Ok, two weeks. I didn’t get a chance to post last Monday.) of listening to the album on repeat, there are only a few songs that really stand out, but Geiger’s voice gives “Lonely Twin” a measure of distinctiveness that the band’s songwriting doesn’t quite deliver.

That’s not to say there aren’t a few top notch tracks: Phantom Limb was one of the songs from the album they performed at NPR, and with good reason. Both on Lonely Twin and at the NPR performance, it comes across as a solidly constructed piece of work that matches Geiger’s voice with nicely understated lyrics and a refrain that’s melancholy and catchy at the same time. [NB: This is yet a third recording of the song.]

Likewise, Galaxies hits manages to bounce along while still feeling delicate and sad. It’s a tad strange but by no means unpleasant, and reminded me more than a little of the Flaming Lips (another band I could see making a chorus of the line “like your body when you’re dead!”)

The album isn’t perfect. I could have used a little less distorted guitar at the crescendos of a few tracks, but that won’t keep me from listening to the Hospital Ships in the future. Whether or not they stick with their current studio techniques, it’s a band worth keeping an eye on.

For next week I found another one of those albums I’ve always been aware of but never actually listened to: Duran Duran’s Rio. I’m pretty excited.

Catalan Crush Part 1: John Talabot

Its been a long night of partying. Now you watch the sky in awe as it brightens over the gothic spires of the city or the orange cliffs of the mediterranean. Your body is exhausted but your mind is elated. John Talabot makes music for this moment. It pulses with a life of its own but your heartbeat is inside it too.

John Talabot is a barcelona-based producer and DJ,  His “Balearic “ sound is synonymous with the “chill out” genre pioneered on the magical island of Ibiza. Do with it what you will as it demands nothing from you. Dance or don’t dance, close your eyes, talk with friends, lie in the sand, but don’t even TRY to be still. Be it only a finger or a toe, this music will inevitably move some part of your body.

 Fin is his first full-length album. His successful EP Families was released in 2011 amongst a string of collaborations and remixes (xx, Glasser, Delorean). Talabot draws inspiration from a variety of cultures namely Middle Eastern, Indian, Latin and Motown. Mother-nature is a key contributor, as well.  By adding a proper amount of watery distortion, indie-pop vocals and a masterful drop, the tracks build deeper and richer with each layer, pulling you into a hypnotizing adventure. His style is not quite house, not quite pop but it’s easily one of the best things I’ve heard this year.

The sequencing and sound choices are so organic that I am suspect of some new-fangled Fibernacci formula for music production. I discovered  Earth Sounds on Youtube a few days before I discovered John Talabot. Its a natural phenomenan of the Earth making a symphonic chanting or humming, similar to that of Gregorian monks. As in my previous experience with all things Balearic synchronicity is a typical side-effect….so naturally the albums first track “Depak Ine” would begin with an “Earth Sounds” sample.  This track quickly builds its way from a night jungle into a serious groove and teeters, as most tracks do,  somewhere between the beach bonfire and the nightclub.

“Destiny” is a collaboration with Pional and will surely be the albums first single. It grabs your attention with its sultry rhythm and lyrical grounding: “You! Come on get over here”. I’m melting through this entire song.  “So Will Be Now” is a deep groove carried by a Temptations sample (“running away with me..”) “Journeys” features Delorean’s Ekhi on vocals and it’s yet another gorgeous track with a distinguished indie-pop vibe.

I will be looking forward to hearing “When the Past was Present” demolish the dance-floor this year. It begins 80‘s Freestyle then enters into soulful house. The vocals drone out “my heart is too big” over and over and I can feel things moving around inside my chest. Sound distortions give it just right amount of grit, but its the kind of hopeful jam that reminds you why you fell in love with electronic music in the first place. Quiero que este momento para siempre.

Fin journeys into some darkness while always remaining warm and cozy. It gives us a big hug and tells us: “sometimes things are scary but its always going to be ok”  and we feel the love. We feel the elements and the depth of the human experience. This is your soundtrack for moments of fascination and peace. Tranquilo. Balearic. Its all here.

* Next time I continue my Balearic endeavor with Deloreans Subiza 

Hospitality

Well, MXP has done it again.  He recommended Hospitality’s self-titled debut album and I liked it.  He’s 2 for 2.

I think the word that comes to mind when I think of this album is “lovely”.  Per Wikipedia, “Hospitality is an American Indie pop trio from Brooklyn, New York, formed in 2007 and consisting of Amber Papini (vocals, guitar), Brian Betancourt (bass) and Nathan Michel (percussion). The band is currently signed to Merge Records and released their first full-length album on January 31, 2012.”   Papini has a lovely voice that sounded reminiscent of Petula Clark or some other 60s British singer.  That these guys are from Brooklyn seems pretty run of the mill but I would have sworn they were British.  The British accent that Papini sings with should seem annoyingly pretentious a la Madonna, but I just find it charming.  Part of it is probably my current “Downton Abbey” obsession.  Part of it is also the sweet songs.  There’s “Liberal Arts”, a song than any liberal arts major can identify with, “So you found the lock/ But not the key that college brings/ And all the trouble of your B.A. in English literature/ Instead of law, or something more practical”.  Then there’s the dreamy “Sleepover”: “Lock the door, I’ll take your coat/ Let’s pretend that it’s summer,” she sings.  There are a lot of doors and keys and locks on this album.  Lots of comings and goings.  In “Betty Wang” she shouts, “If you leave New York/ I don’t care, I don’t care!” teased by electric guitars, trotting drums, twinkling keyboards.  And then there’s their single, “Friends of Friends” that has a Strokes-esque opening and then swings into story of friendship. After she sighs, “When I call / You don’t pick up any more,” she tries to pick herself up and dust herself off “friends that are new friends and friends that are old friends”.  The album sounds young and exploring and fun and groovy.  Yes, groovy—that’s another word for this album!  This album isn’t breaking new ground or changing the world.  But like I said, it’s sweet and lovely and groovy.  And a totally pleasure to listen to.

Next week, I’m going to give Sharon Van Etten’s Tramp a shot.
Sharon Van Etten, Tramp