Archive for January, 2010

Exclusive First Listen

So I know I’ve mentioned it before, but I just wanted to second the recommendation for NPR Music’s Exclusive First Listen Series. The series started in September of ’08 with a Dylan album and has progressed from there. The premise is simple. They stream an album in its entirety before it is officially released, and you can listen to it as much as you want for about a week until they take it down. There’s none of that 30-second clip crap to deal with. You get the whole thing. The Exclusive First Listen Series is just one more reason why NPR Music rocks. (1)

Recently the series featured the likes of Charlotte Gainsbourg, Beach House, Spoon, Laura Veirs, and more. (Of course, they have also featured more prominent artists like Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen.)

Right now, you can check out by The Courage of Others by Midlake and Tomorrow, In a Year by The Knife. Catch them this week while they last.

(1) Of course, having interned with NPR Music, you could say I’m a bit biased.


An evening with Spoon

Say what you will about Twitter. It does have its uses.

Yesterday, Brooklyn Vegan re-tweeted Spoon’s message about a ‘secret’ show at the Mercury Lounge. Now I already knew that Spoon was slated to play at Radio City Music Hall, max. capacity – approximately 6,000.  But having already seen them in a venue that was much too large, I decided to skip it, and well… let’s just say it worked out. According to the plaque on the wall at the Mercury Lounge, the max. capacity for the joint is a mere 197 people. A-Mazing.

Though I can’t say I’ve listened to more than a few songs from their newest album, Transference, I jumped at the opportunity to see them on such a small stage, and I admit I got kind of a rush knowing it was a ‘secret’ show. (1)

As I power walked down Broadway from work, I thought I wouldn’t stand a chance in getting in tonight, but somehow, the line was still quite short when I got there at 5:15. (Maybe the whole world isn’t on Twitter after all.) Waiting in line outside in the cold sucks pretty hard core, but there’s something to be said about doing it with strangers who are also invested in music. One girl gave me half of her everything bagel.

I was a bit miffed to find out that there was an opening band – Mahogany. I’m still not sure who they know or who they’re blackmailing to have gotten that spot.  The six members of Mahogany varied in enthusiasm, with the main singer being the apex of excitement. Any time he was not busy singing, his face immediately twisted into an unshakable, goofy grin. Save a couple of songs, there music was mediocre and very repetitive.

As Spoon took the stage later, I couldn’t help but think Man. They are the quintessential indie-rock band. There’s no special made-up tag like shoegaze or twee to tack on to describe them. They’re straight up indie-rock. They’re a four-piece clad mostly in black (Britt Daniel wore a leather jacket), and they have slightly stylized haircuts. The vocals are neither grating nor strictly ‘normal.’ The beat is a little off, but the music is far from being discordant. These guys are pros. They’ve been around for an astonishing 16 years, and they’re still signed to a smaller (but reputable) label: Merge Records. They aren’t a fad band. These guys are in it for life. Their music may be getting less experimental and quirky with time, but it still hasn’t really crossed over into mainstream consciousness. Even band-a-minute hipsters still seem to remember them fondly.

So maybe the show was a bit bland at some points (it didn’t help that I wasn’t very familiar with Transference), but it was definitely worth the frozen feet and nearly empty stomach. The people in the audience around me were absolutely enthralled. They danced, sang along, mingled, requested songs, and grinned sheepishly at Britt. The feeling was contagious. This is why I go to shows.

Set list:

Black Like Me
Is Love Forever?
I Saw the Light
Stay Don’t Go
Don’t You Evah
The Ghost of You Lingers
Who Makes Your Money
Nobody Gets Me But You
Don’t Make Me a Target
Mystery Zone
You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb
Written In Reverse
Someone Something
They Never Got You
I Summon You
The Beast and Dragon, Adored
Got Nuffin

Chicago at Night
Rhthm and Soul
Fitted Shirt

For some great pics from the show, hit up Brooklyn Vegan.

(1) Wasn’t this the plot of that painful teen flick Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist with Michael Cera? hmmm…

Charlotte Gainsbourg at the Bell House – January 19

After spending a decent amount of time with her sophomore album thanks to the exclusive first listen series over at NPR Music, I was pretty pumped at the prospect of seeing Charlotte Gainsbourg in concert. (1) As previously blogged, her song with Beck “Heaven Can Wait” is absolutely fantastic, and you must watch the video if you haven’t already.

I missed the opening band, Dinosaur Feathers, but two separate people said I “didn’t miss much,” so no biggie. Then came Charlotte. She was clearly nervous… to the extent that she kind of resembled a wind-up doll or a marionette animated by some external force. She’d stand there, unassuming, in the spotlight, open her mouth a bit, and then not sing right away.  Despite her hesitance, she was clearly trying and the audience was more than forgiving. Over and over, they yelled things like, “You’re beautiful, Charlotte! I love you!” or “You’re amazing. I love your hair” to which she’d  smile demurely or no her head. With time, that deer-in-the-headlights look mellowed a bit, and her act got tighter. In particular, her performance for the last couple of songs (“Operation” and “Trick Pony”) was energetic and more confident.

I have to say – based on what I had heard on her album, I was mildly disappointed. She was not the powerful, seductive, and alluring chanteuse I was expecting. No, she was certainly no François Hardy or Lykke Li. As I walked away from the Bell House, I tried to gage other peoples’ reactions. Here, I’m afraid was another example of people coming to the show largely based on who she is and not the music she makes. (2) I admit that was part of the reason I went. I was expecting a show, an act to get fully sucked into. But people seemed more alive mingling and head bobbing along to the music in between sets than they did to Charlotte Gainsbourg save for a few notable songs. On the way out, one girl said, “Well it may be genetic, but she still does have a little bit of the magic. I’ll still pay to watch her.”

In a recent phone interview with the New York Times, Gainsbourg states the following:

“Just because my father was such a genius with his songwriting, his lyrics, his music — that doesn’t mean I have any gift. I don’t believe in that. I have my own path. But the comparisons are constant. And the comparisons are heavy to wear.”

Indeed. No one said it would be easy.

For a limited time, you can steam the entirety of IRM via NPR Music. Be sure to take advantage of this while you can. Despite my take on her show last night, I still found myself buying a copy of her upcoming album on the way out. After all… it was produced by Beck.

(1) Luckily, I was not scarred by her ball-busting performance in Lars von Trier’s Antichrist since I have not yet seen it.

(2) Charlotte, of course, is the daughter of the famous French pop star Serge Gainsbourg.

This is fantastic

My favorite online music database,, recently introduced some new special features for subscribers. One of them creates a beautiful chart of the music you were listening to over the past year. Unfortunately, it’s a PDF, but it’s worth checking out.

Rachel’s Music

Cozy up to Real Estate

Despite the difficulty posed by trying to google a band name as ambiguous as “Real Estate,” things have already started to pick up for this young group. In addition to being labeled “best new music” by Pitchfork in November, they were recently featured on both WNYC and NPR, and they’ve been playing at increasingly larger venues – including a packed Brooklyn Bowl on January 5th.

Front man Martin Courtney, bassist Alex Bleeker, and guitarist Matthew Mondanile have been playing music together since high school (drummer Etienne Pierre Duguay came later to round out the four-piece). Given the group’s shared history, their lovely nostaligia-laced sound makes a lot of sense.

Take a listen to “Beach Comber”

When writing album reviews or band blurbs, it is all too tempting to begin the piece with a cliche, joke, or pun, and things are no different with Real Estate. I’m very tempted to call attention to the group’s origins of the suburbs of New Jersey. After all,  their debut album has song titles like “Beach Comber,” “Suburban Dogs,” “Atlantic City,” “Suburban Beverage,” and “Lets Rock the Beach.”  But there is definitely more to this group than their not-so-hip origins.

Real Estate playing at the beach Photo: Colin O'Neill

What follows is a Q & A session with Real Estate singer Martin Courtney. I think it sheds some light on the band’s motivation and inspiration.

Sonic Smörgåsbord: You’ve been involved with a number of musical projects over the years. Now things are heating up. Do you think you’ve found the right mix with Real Estate?
Martin Courtney: Real Estate is in a lot of ways a collaborative project, that’s part of the nature of the band, but it’s also an outlet for the songs that I write.  Alex has another band that I play in called Alex Bleeker and the Freaks, where he writes all of the songs, Matt has a solo project called Ducktails, and Etienne is involved in a few bands in Brooklyn.  However, I think we are all focusing on Real Estate in terms of putting the most time into it because it seems to have caught on and we all feel like we can play a creative role in it.

SS: Why choose to focus on that locale so much for your album?

MC: It wasn’t really a choice to focus on NJ.  It’s just where I’m from, so it ends up coming out in the music and lyrics.

SS: Do you think you’ll stay in Jersey or jump on the bandwagon and move to Brooklyn?
MC: As of right now, Alex and Matt are living in the suburbs where we’re from, I’m living in Jersey City, and Etienne is living in Brooklyn at the market hotel.  Personally, I don’t think I’ll be moving to Brooklyn any time soon.  We have lots of friends there, but it’s just more expensive and I like where I am a lot.  It’s just as convenient to Manhattan, not very far to BK at all, cheaper, and I still get to rep NJ.  It’s not like we’re making a choice to not move to NYC though, I’d love to if I had the money, but I’m perfectly happy in NJ.  I think way more young people would be moving to Jersey City instead of Brooklyn if not for the stigma that Jersey carries for whatever reason.

SS: Do your lyrics come from personal experience? Did you spend a lot of time at the beach growing up?
MC: Most of the lyrics come from personal experience, but not all.  Definitely spent no more time at the beach than anyone else growing up.  The beach stuff was just an aesthetic choice that we made at the time those songs were being written (summer of 2008).

SS: Beach-inspired music seems to be big this year (Wavves, Beach Fossils, Beach House, The Drums, The Darlings, etc.). Why do you think that is?

MC: Not really sure.  Seems like maybe it was a coincidence.  We are definitely looking to separate ourselves from that pack.  I’d rather not have the band be associated with one specific season or locale.

SS: To me, your music seems to express both a sense of carefreeness and a sense of longing for something else. Would you say that is an accurate assessment? Is this a nostalgic album? Your EP was titled ‘Reality.’ How do you balance nostalgia and reality?

MC: Many of the songs on the record have a nostalgic feel to them because they were written at kind of a nostalgic time.  Summer after college, moving home, seeing old friends, seeing your old town in a new way, not knowing what to do next (that’s the reality part).
We actually called the EP reality because we thought it sounded funny (Real Estate – Reality) and because our van is named Reality.

SS: What has it been like to collaborate with people you’ve known so long?
MC: It’s great, we’re all really familiar with each other’s musical styles in a kind of subtle way.  It’s easy for us to jam together and come up with things that we wouldn’t be able to separately.  It’s fun to get to travel and create music with your oldest and best friends.

SS: Do you have any favorite stories from adolescence?
MC: Matt, Bleeker and I used to be in a band together called Hey There Sexy.  We sounded like shitty interpol, but we started playing together about a month before we heard interpol.  Then one day Matt bought the interpol EP at rocks in your head (RIP) and we listened to it and were bummed because we knew they were going to take our highly innovative sound and blow up with it.
They may be hard to Google (and typing in “Real Estate New Jersey” certainly doesn’t help matters), but this four-piece is definitely worth checking out.

Quirky little ray of sunlight

I finally got around to listening to BiRd-BrAiNs, the debut album by one-woman-band tUnE-yArDs that came out in November. Ok I guess I should qualify this… I’ve actually only listened to the first three songs so far because I’ve become so enchanted by the second song on the album, “Sunlight.”

Take a listen:

I especially love the beat in this song.

Merrill Garbus, the mastermind behind tUnE-yArDs, definitely takes a DIY approach to her music. Her album was recorded on a digital voice recorder and assembled using shareware mixing software. It is hectic, weird, challenging, and certainly not for everyone, but I’ve got to say… I think she’ll put on quite an interesting show at The Bell House in Brooklyn in February.

Strange collaborations

In November, a track from the new John Mayer album, Battle Studios,  featured none other than little-miss-everywhere Taylor Swift. This combination struck me as a bit odd, but then I found out that apparently, Mayer joined Swift onstage at a show back in May at the Staples Center in LA to sing “Your Body is a Wonderland.” Kind of creepy… considering Mayer was 31 at the time to Swift’s 19.

And I thought Mayer was trying to shed his good boy image with that sleeve…


Then apparently Of Montreal is slated to collaborate with Janelle Monae and Solange Knowles (1). Let’s have bizarre celebrations.

the amazingly hip Janelle Monae

Solange Knowles

Of Montreal

hmmm… 2010, you are already shaping up to be a weird one. It kind of reminds me of all that collaborative work last year with The Hazards of Love… except that a project with The Decemberists, My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Worden and Lavendar Diamond’s Becky Stark suddenly seems to be predictable and safe.

(1) Yes, the little sister of Beyoncé. To make matters more… uh… interesting, Beyoncé told the Guardian: “My sister [Solange] has put me on to bands like of Montreal. I would love to do something like that on my next album.”

"He considered music a liberating force: it liberated him from loneliness, introversion, the dust of the library; it opened the door of his body and allowed his soul to step out into the world to make friends."

- Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being