Archive for October, 2009

Monster Mix

To help get you in the Halloween spirit, I’ve put together a little list of relatively recent spooky videos…

The Mumlers “Coffin Factory”

Dead Man’s Bones – “Dead Hearts”

Metric –  “Monster Hospital”

Handsome Furs – “I’m Confused”

But let’s not forget about this classic:

*And if you live in the New York area, be sure to come out to see Mount Eerie tonight at the Market Hotel. Should be a good time. Phil Elverum is simply fantastic.

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CMJ – day five

After a full day of show-going yesterday, I was almost too tired to make it out to anything last night, but since I had bought my ticket to see Sin Fang Bous and múm months ago, I decided to soldier on. After all, they’re both from Iceland. A chance like this probably doesn’t come too often. I had been warned that it might be a bit sleepy, but I figured that after a long week, sleepy might not be so bad.

Mum - 1

the members of múm offer you a colorful kaleidoscope of sound - even on rainy days

While the show was definitely dreamy and ethereal, it was far from sleepy. I was impressed by how much múm moved the crowd. Every now and then a special kind of feeling permeates the room and elevates a good show to a great show. The members of múm were incredibly talented and gracious. You could tell they were genuinely having a good time, and that feeling was contagious. They danced and flitted about stage as they made their music. Note: the use of the word ‘made’ in the place of ‘play’ is significant here. Many bands with strange sound effects like múm have a tendency to be rather disappointing live because so much of their sound is contructed ahead of time and simply played from a laptop. This did not seem to be the case with múm. They truly were making the music right there on stage with the help of a number of strange instruments and an impressive range of vocals.

In addition to playing a number of my favorite songs from 2007’s Go Go Smear the Poison Ivy ( including: “Guilty Rocks,” “Marmalade Fire,” and “Blessed Brambles”), they played a healthy selection from their recent album Sing Along to Songs You Don’t Know. The final song of their set (pre-encore) was “Sing Along,” which featured borderline cute/creep lyrics and cue cards to get the audience to sing along, too. Oh, múm, your last album may not be as strong as its predecessors, but “You are so beautiful to us, we want to lock you in our house,” too.

Here’s a video from Pitchfork TV of one of my favorite songs, “Guilty Rocks” :

So thanks, múm for helping CMJ end on a high note.

CMJ – day four

Well, I saw one of the most hyped bands of the festival – The xx. As you may recall, I’ve written about The xx before (here and even earlier here). It really is insane how much they have blown up in the last few months. When I contacted them in April to be on NPR Music’s Second Stage, they didn’t even have any press photos handy and the only one to be found on the web was pretty terrible. Now, they no longer have that problem.

(Photo by Christo Geoghegan

(Photo by Christo Geoghegan)

As expected, the room was packed for the show at the Music Hall of Williamsburg on Friday night, and overall, the crowd seemed pretty enthusiastic… but I’ve got to say, I think they have a long way to go with their live act. Don’t get me wrong. They were spot on. They were so spot on, in fact, that besides the intense vibrations given off from the bass, their show sounded just like their album. And, though I really enjoy their album and relish its simplicity and minimalism, it didn’t exactly make for a rousing or particularly memorable show. They did not really expand on their songs at all,  and they were not very dynamic in between songs either. Though they expressed their excitement at playing in NY, they hardly talked between songs. They hardly even moved while they played, leaving the audience with little to keep their interest. The ‘drummer.’ Wasn’t even playing behind a kit. He was merely using a strange drum machine that allowed him to push various pads with his fingers to make the effects.

So I was kind of torn on this show overall. Yes, it was good, but at least right now, The xx is just one of those bands you throw on the stereo on a (sexy) rainy day or when you want to brood a little; not one of those bands known for their showmanship.

CMJ – day three

Night three of CMJ went by in a blur. I somehow managed to make an appearance at no less than four music venues: Mercury Lounge, Le Poisson Rouge, Bowery Ballroom, and the Suffolk and all without an official CMJ badge! (Thanks, Bob Boilen.)  The sheer randomness of the evening was delightful. This is what a music festival should be like–flitting madly in between venues when the mood strikes, making new contacts, and running into people you haven’t seen in a while.

That said, I have to say that my favorite act of the night also happened to be the first one I saw–Patrick Watson. In many ways, Patrick Watson reminds me of sparser Andrew Bird–his music is beautifully orchestrated with a piano (which they literally wheeled through the audience and onto the stage), interesting percussion parts, and often a barrage of tubas, trumpets, trombones, bass, violins, guitars, bass, pianos, and guitars. His show last night, however, was more sparse.

Check out this video from NPR Music + WNYC to get an idea of Patrick Watson’s style. It’s pretty long, but the first song, “Beijing” from his recent album Wooden Arms is one of the best.

I have to admit though, Patrick Watson was not what I expected. The Mercury Lounge had the lights down low. I don’t know if it was the lighting or Watson’s demeanor, but the show was much edgier and more rock-oriented than I had thought it would be from listening to the album. If this was Andrew Bird, it was Andrew Bird with a kick.

One of the highlights of the performance was the song “Traveling Salesman.” The melody was creepily upbeat and carnivalesque, and Watson sang through a Megaphone, which distorted his voice in strangely gorgeous ways and made the vocals sound like a mesmerizing stream of propaganda. The track “Man Like You,” which I first heard in the great little French film C’est pas moi je le jure! was also fantastic. Watson’s falsetto in the song reminds me a bit of Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon.

Then, something strange happened. A man started walking through the audience carrying what appeared to be one of those lamps with multiple heads, only in addition to being a source of light, these heads were also PA systems of some kind. Basically, it was a tree of megaphones coming out of a rucksack. I almost got hit in the head with it as it made its way to the stage. For the dramatic finale to his set, Watson then strapped on the contraption and proceeded to walk off the stage to the center of the floor, and there, surrounded by CMJ-goers and accompanied by a tambourine and a drum, he sang through this contraption, which made for quite a memorable performance.

Watson - Joshua Smeltzer

Photo courtesy of Joshua Smelser

Tonday – day four – should be fairly eventful. I’ll be sure to report back when it’s all over…

CMJ – day one

So last night, I headed over to the Music Hall of Williamsburg for the Brooklyn Vegan showcase where I caught the better part of five acts. I had been most anticipating The Antlers and Fanfarlo. Especially after having listened to Fanfarlo’s debut album Reservoir extensively in a short period of time. But it was actually the middle act that I was most taken by – British singer/songwriter Laura Marling.

laura marlingI had briefly seen Marling before in a collaborative video with Jeffrey Lewis, and I remember being taken by her voice and angelic demeanor, so I was delighted to see her walk on stage. Marling’s set was simple. She didn’t drag her cello from London – just her guitar. But her voice is absolutely gorgeous and the lyrics to her songs are picturesque and intriguing. She revealed that she has been working on her new album for the past eight months, and she played a number of new songs. From what I can tell, her sophomore album will not be a disappointment. Keep your eye on this deceptively young singer.

Here is a video of the track “Ghosts.”

10Listens

So a buddy of mine named Jeff has started this music blog called 10 Listens that’s definitely worth checking out. Sick of reading reviews that sounded as if the reviewer had only hastily listened to the music, Jeff started a blog to counteract this bit of sloppy journalism. The concept is simple: listen to an album all the way through ten times, then write a review. Then, you will probably have spent 7-8 hours with the music, you’ll have had the chance to change your mind about how it makes you feel, and you’ll hopefully have a deeper knowledge of the music and lyrics.

Over the past couple of weeks, I set out to write my first contribution to the site on Reservoir, the debut album by the British orchestral-pop group Fanfarlo.

Fanfarlo - Reservoir

The first time I heard Fanfarlo, it was at a show at the Bowery Ballroom in New York on a friend’s recommendation. After witnessing an intoxicating opening set by Swedish band Wildbirds and Peacedrums, I admit I was in good spirits, so when the five members of Fanfarlo took the stage, I was taken by their excitement and candor. Unlike some bands that seem distant or aloof onstage, Fanfarlo was warm, opening, and just plain cute. In their button up shirts and high-waisted pants, the guys were well-dressed—almost to a comical extent. The keyboard player even wore a vest. And, as is often the case, the one girl in the group, Cathy Lucas, was adorable sporting her boyish haircut. The very stage itself seemed to be dressed up in a whimsical fashion. It was adorned with string lights, and flags were draped from the ceiling to create a canopy of color. It was almost too much—even for me, a closet-lover of all things cute and hopelessly twee.

As the show progressed, I kept trying to determine whom they reminded me of. A less folky version of Fleet Foxes? Or maybe Okkervil River meets Noah and the Whale with some Beirut thrown in for good measure? Needless to say, after their lively set, I left their show in a decidedly good mood, and vowed to get my hands on their upcoming album, Reservoir, to see how the sound they cultivated in the studio compared to their live performance. So, I decided to count the show as my official first listen of Reservoir. After all, it was their debut album, so presumably all the songs they played were from it.

During my initial few listens to Reservoir, I was somewhat conflicted. Is Fanfarlo simply another plaid-shirt adorned ‘it’ band like Fleet Foxes, destined to be played on repeat and then quickly played out? Was what they were doing original, or would they be more aptly named ‘Fanfar-lull’ as my former boss, Justin, called them?  He had a point. Even during the show, I found myself constantly comparing them to other folk-tinged, orchestral indie bands. And from looking at the comments following their write-ups on NPR and various other music blog sites, it seems that I am not alone in searching for comparisons. Others drop names like Arcade Fire, Sigur Rós, Sufjan Stevens, and more.

Initially, it was my impulse to defend them from the criticism of my former boss. Overall, their music is decent and comes across as too generic only when compared to the more bizarre and experimental bands that keep emerging on the scene. If you’re looking for dance-y synth parts, thick walls of reverb, or sound that is carefully constructed from an intricate barrage of effects pedals, then Fanfarlo won’t be for you. Despite the impressive number of shows they have coming up at CMJ this week, Fanfarlo seems to fit in more with the NPR crowd than with the hipster crowd. (They have already been featured on All Things Considered and touted for “melding obscure literary references with vintage instruments.”)

The lead singer, Simon Balthazar, has a pleasant enough voice—a little different, but not to an annoying extent a la Colin Meloy of The Decemberists  or John Darnielle from The Mountain Goats. Balthazar has a certain swagger to his voice that generally comes off as endearing when it doesn’t sound plain lazy like it does in “Drowning Men.”

Reservoir begins with “Ghosts,” a track that starts quietly and gradually builds as the bass line, violin melody, and vocals enter the mix. This natural crescendo makes for a strong introduction to the album even if the hand-clapping gets a bit hokey during the chorus.

The gradual build-up seems to be a mainstay of Fanfarlo. Many of the songs unfold slowly with a piano melody or softly strummed guitar part before erupting into a jovial cascade of violins, violas, and trumpets. The band even managed to slowly build the hype for Reservoir by releasing a steady stream of singles on various independent record labels over a two-year period before releasing the album in its entirety.

Both the live show and the album perk up noticeably with the buoyant, standout track “The Walls Are Coming Down.” But with its attention to the brass section, accordion, and clarinet, the song definitely sounds like a rip-off of the pseudo-Balkan-flavored band Beirut. Apparently, the Fanfarlo performance at the Bowery Ballroom even featured Jon Natchez, who has played with Beirut, which makes me think that my ears perked up to the song in the first place only because it reminded me of one of my favorite bands.

With reflection, I think my favorite song on the album is “Harold T. Wilkins or How to Wait for a Very Long Time.” You can watch a video of an acoustic version of the track here [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HTwErvgjuU8] to get a pretty good idea of both the song and the people behind the music. In the video, their intimate arrangement around the small shed-like room in many ways reveals the sound they are going for: a bit rustic and sparse on the surface but also surprisingly warm and evocative. Everything about the singer, Balthazar, is charming from his crooked teeth and Buddy Holly glasses to his understated but earnest delivery. The song is simple. Simple beat. Simple chord progressions. But this restrained charm that they have carefully cultivated is absolutely infectious.

I want to be able to come down on a certain side in my review of this album–to definitively say, ‘They suck’ or ‘Hey, they’re actually good.’ Right now, as I wrap up this review, I can’t help but be a bit taken by the catchy beat of “Luna,” as I ponder the strangely apt line, “And you will have to start taking sides.”

I think the interesting thing is I probably would have made a stronger argument for one side or the other had I just listened to this album a few times and then written the review. With something as subjective as a record review, it’s typically pretty easy to find evidence to support either camp, and it’s always fun to tear something apart… but listening to Reservoir ten times has kind of left me more ambivalent in the end—which is not what I was expecting. We’ve had a strange relationship, Reservoir and I. During the course of my listens, I’ve actually struggled to get myself to devote the time to the band when there are so many other CDs I want to be listening to, but the interesting thing is that once I actually put Reservoir on, I typically enjoy it. There’s a hopeful kind of cadence to the album that nicely combats the increasingly cold and rainy days of fall, but the surprising somber quality of the lyrics keeps the album from being too saccharine. (Surprisingly, broken machines, dashed dreams, oppressive walls, rusty nails, bombs, poison, and lies are all covered in the songs.)

Despite the foray into darker topics, however, Reservoir would definitely have been one of those albums my high school self would have thrown on in the car stereo to appease my mother. They’ve got it all: male/female vocals, the Swedish hookup (Balthazar hails from Sweden), plaid shirts, infectious smiles, swaggering vocals, dreamy pop arrangements, lovely string accompaniments, and on and on. They are pleasant, endearing, and safe. With their wave of melodicas, trumpets, mandolins, and a glockenspiel they’re obviously throwing in as many hooks and whistles as they could—and from witnessing their live show, it’s clear that they have fun doing it. But ultimately, I think they are doomed to fall off the radar and join the long list of indie has-beens when the next line of musical darlings comes around… in oh, a couple of months.

It’s that time again…

If you live in NY, take a deep breath now and try to relax because the next week is going to be a blur of music, college radio kids, free booze, and private parties.

CMJ logo

Yep. It’s CMJ: the annual music and film festival in NY that celebrates college radio. From Tuesday to Sunday, there will be hundreds of concerts, and well, it can get a bit overwhelming.

Drink Up Buttercup at the Cake Shop in '08 (Photo Nicholas Roberts)

Drink Up Buttercup at the Cake Shop in '08 (Photo Nicholas Roberts)

That’s why I’ve scoured the extensive CMJ line-up and put together a little guide for you. (The shows with the asterisks are the ones I’m seriously thinking about seeing…)

TUESDAY – 10/20

*Music Hall of Williamsburg – Laura Marling (9:30), The Antlers (10:15),   Fanfarlo (11:00)*

Le Poisson Rouge – Atlas Sound (10:00), Broadcast (11:00)

WEDNESDAY – 10/21

*The Charleston – Hermit Thrushes (8:00)*

The Mercury Lounge – The xx (9:00)

The Bell House – The Love Language (10:00)

Santos Party House – Real Estate (10:00), Cymbals Eat Guitars (10:15)

Music Hall of Williamsburg – Atlas Sound (10:00)

Bowery Ballroom – Fanfarlo (11:00)

THURSDAY – 10/22

*Mercury Lounge – Patrick Watson (8:00)*

Brooklyn Bowl – YACHT (8:00)

The Rose – Binary Marketing Show (8:00)

Union Pool – Timber Timbre (9:00)

The Delancey – The Antlers (10:00)

The Bell House – Robbers on High Street (11:00)

FRIDAY – 10/23

*Living Room – Hungry Hungry Ghost (9:00), The Love Language (10:00), Lost in the Trees (11:00), The Ugly Suit (12:00), La Strada (1:00)*

Music Hall of Williamsburg – The xx (10:40)

SATURDAY – 10/24

*Le Poisson Rouge – Sin Fang Bous (8:00), Mum (9:00)*

The Bell House – The Postmarks (9:00), Au Revoir Simone (11:00)

Bowery Ballroom – Violens (10:00), Sharon van Etten (11:00)

Of course… many of the best bands are playing at the same time, so you’re still going to have to do your homework.

Before you get crackin’ let me leave you with one last tip: You may want to either avoid the big artists or plan ahead if you know you want to see them. Things could get messy otherwise. And, you’d really be surprised. Sometimes, it’s the bands you haven’t heard of that become your favorite acts.