Archive for March, 2010

Coming around to She & Him

Though I readily admit I have a bit of a crush on Zooey Deschanel, I didn’t really take to her foray into music with M. Ward in 2008. Her voice simply didn’t sound strong enough to pull off the sound she seemed to be going for. I was also never really a big M. Ward fan (his music was always a bit too dull for me), but I decided to head over to WNYC today to watch She & Him perform a few songs live in the studio. I came with an open mind, and let me just say that I was pleasantly surprised… not bowled over, but certainly not turned off either.

As the song title suggests, the video of their single “In the Sun” is summer-y and light… kind of the equivalent of a beach read. Sure, Zooey Deschanel is no Laura Marling, but we can’t all be Dostoevsky or Günter Grass either, can we?

So she’s no exactly loquacious (just take a listen to the interview from today’s episode of Soundcheck), but her singing voice was stronger than I thought it would be in a live setting. Oh yeah, and her defense of the grammatical integrity and complexity of their band name is pretty funny.

She & Him on Soundcheck

My big regret is that I didn’t get to ride on the elevator with Zooey. When I was walking out of the studio, for a second she was following me, and I thought we could maybe have a moment. It’s probably for the best though. I don’t think I could have resisted the urge to ask her if she liked the Smiths.

She & Him’s second album, Volume Two, came out last week on Merge.


Seabear and friends

Seabear + Via Tania – The Mercury Lounge – March 25

I may not have attended SXSW this year, but I think I got at least a taste of it this week since a number of the bands swung up to NY to play shows. For my third night in a row of music, I caught an early show at the Mercury Lounge with Via Tania and the delightful Icelandic outfit Seabear.

Via Tania (Photo - Joe Wigdahl)

I had never heard of Via Tania, so I didn’t really know what to expect going into the set, but I was pleasantly surprised. Though it appears that Via Tania is predominately the solo act of one Tania Bowers, for the live version, she was flanked by musicians on stage. She admitted to not having toured in a while, but you wouldn’t be able to tell from the performance tonight. It was tight, well-crafted, and seemingly effortless.

Take a listen to the song “Fields”

When I was looking for a picture of Seabear to post here, I found so many sweet ones that I’m tempted to forgo the review and just post photos, but I think I’ll have to settle for a couple of recent ones.

Seabear (Photo - Lilja Birgisdóttir)

Seabear is another one of those sweet Scandinavian bands. They may have been dressed like hipsters, but they are so humble and seem so genuinely happy to be on stage. They also project this air of innocence that I love. One girl in the band (far left in the above photo) wore something resembling a Little House on the Prairie dress – with a couple of modern twists (it didn’t go beneath her knees and she paired it with leggings). Usually a sign of toughness, the tattoos up and down lead singer Sindri Már Sigfússon’s arms (antlers, stars, a hand, and many other indecipherable things) were kind of a funny juxtaposition to his calm demeanor.

After a fight broke out right in front of the stage at Sindri’s solo show (1) during CMJ last year, he seemed surprised by our good behavior last night: You’re very quiet. That’s nice. Sometimes, I’m very quiet, too, so that’s something we both share, he carefully said through a thick Icelandic accent.

Seabear again (Photo - Lilja Birgisdóttir)

For the last song in the set, “Seashell,” there was a built-in sing-a-long. Often, sing-a-longs can flop with a crowd that is too talkative or apathetic, but the small but packed crowd at the Mercury Lounge last night humored the band.

Thank you so much, Sindri said in closing. You made us feel very welcome and because we like you so much, we’ll ask you to sing. You know how to sing, right? [Crowd starts singing as per instruction to try out the part] Well I could listen to that all night. It’s beautiful.

I mean how could you not participate after that, right? We were rewarded by smiles all around, and the spirits were high for “Seashell,” which also contained a lot of clapping parts.

Since the Mercury Lounge had another show following Seabear’s set, there wasn’t much time for a formal encore, but we got at least one song anyway. We have time for an encore, but we’re not going to leave the stage. With that, they launched into “I Sing I Swim,” from their debut album, Ghost that Carried Us Away.

Their latest album, We Built a Fire, came out a couple of weeks ago on Morr Music.

Sindri actually announced every song, so I hobbled together an approximate setlist:

Lion Face Boy
Cat Piano
Singing Arc
Fire Dies Down
I’ll Build You a Fire
Wooden Teeth
Cold Summer
Wolf Boy

I Sing I Swim

(1) Sindri’s excellent solo project is Sin Fang Bous. Highly recommended.

SXSW wrap

To try to get a grasp on what SXSW was like this year, I asked a few attendees how they felt about the week.

Matt Solomon – drummer for the Brooklyn band Darlings

Over the past year, The Darlings have been written up in a number of eye-catching publications, including L Magazine and The New York Times.

There were more bands at SXSW this year than ever before. What did you think? Was it too much to take in? Did the quality suffer due to the quantity?

SXSW is absolutely overwhelming–both as a musician playing multiple shows and as a show-goer. But in a good way, I think. It was my first
trip down to Austin and I had no real expectations. I was thinking, maybe sorta like CMJ but bigger, and in Texas. But they are nothing alike.

At SXSW there are literally thousands of bands playing everyday, mostly within walking distance from one another. It’s madness. If you’re trying to see a bunch of bands, you have to have realistic expectations. To see a really big show (like I dunno, the Hole reunion or the big blog showcases) you need to plan your whole day around it. Because you will wait in line for a long time. I didn’t want to do that (or see Hole) so I mostly stuck to smaller bands and venues. I also spent a lot of time just walking around, stopping into random bars if it sounded cool from the street. Most of the bands playing come to NYC often enough, if they’re not FROM here, but it’s still cool to see them play for free in a room much smaller than they’d normally play. That being said, I saw Broken Social Scene by accident. That definitely wouldn’t happen at CMJ or anywhere else. But to answer one of your questions simply: there were a million good bands and a million bad bands. That will always be the case. Because of the overwhelming scale, you just have to make a slightly greater effort to seek out the shows worth seeing.

How was your experience as a musician?

Playing SXSW was an interesting experience. My band played four shows, three of which were pretty demoralizing. We played at a bar, an auto-repair shop, a tattoo parlor and a thrift store. For some of the smaller shows there simply wasn’t a big enough crowd to fill the venues, and that’s to be expected. The buzz bands get the crowds, and the remaining 97% have to rely on free beer to entice the passersby. My band is not really riding a wave of indie-hype (our album got a good review from The New York Times and Spin, but nothing from Pitchfork–the real paper of record for the indie set), and most of our shows didn’t have free beer. So there you go.

What were your favorite shows/bands? Were they new to you or ones you already knew you liked?

Thee Oh Sees/Woods/The Fresh and Onlys/others @ the Impose Magazine showcase at the Longbranch Inn on Thursday
Thee Oh Sees/JEFF the Brotherhood/YellowFever/lots of others @ the Panache showcase at the Mohawk on Saturday

I’d already seen all of these bands except for the Fresh and Onlys

and of the shows we played: Darlings/JEFF the Brotherhood/Turbo Fruits/Grooms/Sisters/Tony Castles/The Beets @ the Famous Class/Impose showcase at the Longbranch Inn on Wednesday

Dominick Mastrangelo – photographer for Brooklyn Vegan and Stereogum

On Saturday alone, Dominick saw 18 artists perform. Here’s what he had to say about the festival:

What were some of your favorite shows/bands? (Feel free to list both new and ones you already knew).

The biggest surprise for me was Fitz & The Tantrums. I had heard their name once and stumbled upon them at the KCRW Showcase which was running way behind (I was actually there for Miike Snow.)

I saw The Antlers twice in less than 24 hours. Which makes it four times in less than six weeks. Their live show is something else.

Standard Fare from England were great and definitely one of my favorite bands right now.

The Middle East I was excited to see and I caught them twice in less than 24 hours, too. Their live show is phenomenal.

Sharon Van Etten was heartachingly beautiful. Best Coast were excellent. The Black Keys blew me away and Broken Bells were surprisingly tight for only being a full band for a couple of months.

Fanfarlo, Band Of Horses, Miss Li, You Say Party! We Say Die! were all highlights as well.

So many more I’m forgetting right now.

Given the sheer number of bands at SXSW this year (more than ever before), did you think it was too much to take in? Did the quality suffer due to the quantity or is more always better?

It was definitely way too much to take in. That was the meme among my photog and writer friends down there. I kept saying that I wish I could clone myself. I did the next best thing and saw 18 bands on the last day.

Everyone I saw were excellent musicians. Sometimes the music didn’t grab me or the performances were unimpressive but I don’t think it was for lack of musicianship. There were a lot of talented people down there.

How were things for you as a photographer? Do you think it affected your perception of the week?

I was surprised at how easy it was to get in to shows and move around. People were accommodating if you squeezed in to try and get a shot (I always try and be as nice as possible when winding my way to the front.) It’s not like that at CMJ.

As a photographer you never enjoy it as much as you would if you were just hanging out watching the show, drink in hand. That said, I made sure I tried to take at least a couple songs to just watch the show and not make a picture. It’s hard though. It was my first SXSW but I knew from covering CMJ kind of how it would be. It was fun to be there and be a part of documenting it all. Or as much as my uncloned self could get to.

*Be sure to check out Brooklyn Vegan for photos and a taste of the madness.

Robin Hilton – NPR Music producer, host of Second Stage

Robin is actually paid to be an expert on music. Here’s his take on this year’s SXSW:

What were some of your favorite shows/bands?

The Bewitched Hands On The Top Of Our Heads, Sharon Van Etten, Malachai (duo from Bristol England), Villagers, mini mansions, Admiral Radley, Sleigh Bells, Smith Westerns, Broken Bells, Spoon, Local Natives.

Given the sheer number of bands at SXSW this year (more than ever before), did you think it was too much to take in? Did the quality suffer due to the quantity or is more always better?

It’s always too much to take in. But SXSW isn’t about an evening’s worth or afternoon’s worth of entertainment; it’s about discovery. It’s amazing and wonderful to be able to bounce from venue to venue, all day and all night, and find something new at every stop.

How were things for you as a radio guy/producer (as opposed to say as a regular attendee)?

Well… being a producer got me a badge which got me into more shows more easily, so I suppose I could see more in a shorter period of time. Can’t really think of anything special about my job… just that I had to take notes and be ready to talk about everything at 3 in the morning. SXSW is for music lovers so I guess that’s all I had to be.

Thanks to all those who participated in the survey. I’ll be checking out the recommended bands in the next couple of days, and I suggest that you do, too!

God save the Clientele

The Clientele + Field Music + The Mad Scene – Bowery Ballroom – March 23

After hearing the track “No Place Called Home” by the opening band, The Mad Scene, I decided to head over to the Bowery Ballroom early to check them out. After all, I’m a sucker for male/female vocals as I’ve mentioned countless times. Let’s just say I was in for a bit of a disappointment. Not only were most of the songs sung by a guy, they were also surprisingly generic. Tracking down info on The Mad Scene has proved difficult. It seems that a number of bands go by the same name, including an early 90s group from New Zealand, which I don’t think is who played last night.

The Mad Scene that I saw was made up of 7-8 people on stage, depending on whether they were joined by Gary of the Ladybug Transistor on trumpet. With the exception of Gary and perhaps one other member – Josh, the band looked considerably older than the majority of the groups I see, which kind of made me expect them to be better than they were. The highlight of their set was definitely when the female bass player took over the microphone to play a song about Shamu. Her voice led more levity to the music, and the whimsical lyrics gonna catch a whale and ride a tiger were pretty delightful (at least if you could manage to not think about the recent tragedy surrounding orcas).

Up next were the British group Field Music. They may have only had four members (yes, they added a member recently), but their music seemed much more complex than that of The Mad Scene. Oh boy! They knew what time changes were! Their songs contained major tonal shifts and intriguing intros! And yes, more than one person sang at a time.

Field Music (before they were four people)

Field Music played a mix of old and new songs, but they started with the old before getting into a few from their recently released album, Field Music (Measure).  Brothers Peter and David took a bit of a hiatus following their 2007 release, and I’m glad to see them back in the game.

In typical form, they played a number of songs from their older albums and almost apologized for playing new songs. They opened with “Since K Got Over Me,” the opening track from their 2005 album Strange Geometry.

The Clientele (need to take more press photos!)

Coming off the last night of a 15 million night tour (according to Alasdair), the group was a bit disoriented. After playing a song or two, Alasdair casually said, I actually have no idea what day it is, but thank you for coming out.

Before launching into “I Wonder Who We Are,” the following exchange took place:

Alasdair: This is from our new album…
Random guy: which is awesome!
Alasdair: It’s ok I know none of you have it.

The Clientele then preceded to nail the song. Admittedly, the lyrics are not very substantive (especially during the chorus), but the song is undeniably catchy and upbeat and even got the crowd dancing.

Despite the fact that The Clientele were as self-deprecating as ever, they put on a great show and finished the night off strong with a three-song encore that concluded with “Reflections After Jane.”

Surrender to summers

I’m so used to hearing Sigur Rós vocalist Jónsi Birgisson sing in Icelandic that I didn’t even initially realize that this song is actually in English.

Take a listen to Jónsi’s new single “Go Do” from the upcoming album Go. The video is a bit weird, but there’s no denying that it is pretty.

SXSW winding down

A couple of weeks ago, I was looking at my concert calendar and was surprised to see this entire week and weekend nearly blank – then I realized that everyone would be in Austin. Yep, SXSW has been happening the last few days, and once again, I find myself thousands of miles away from the action.

If you, like me find yourself a little bit out of the loop, here are some fun sources for everything SXSW:

NPR Music – For photos, short video clips of bands, streaming music, and increasingly loopy late-night podcasts from the music team to re-cap the action.

Paste Magazine – For lengthier articles and YouTube videos.

Brooklyn Vegan – For posts, pretty pictures, and interviews.

Coming soon… a look at some of the buzz-worthy bands and more.

An overdue review

Standard Fare – Death By Audio – March 15 
Three-piece Sheffield band Standard Fare just played their first American show about a week ago at the Cake Shop. It’s strange to think that they came so far to play at venues like Cake Shop (1) and Death by Audio, but their sound fits these small DIY spaces well, and I suppose we were just stops on the way to SXSW in Austin anyway. 

Standard Fare

 Standard Fare exudes a humble kind of confidence. They play what may be classified as  garage rock, but with quite a bit of heart and a dash of twee and punk for good measure. The set-up is simple: just a guitar, a bass, and a drum kit, but their music is fresh and spirited. Take a listen to my current favorite song, “Philadelphia.”
The majority of the vocal responsibility falls on Emma Kupa, but Danny How occasionally joins in. The band’s lyrics cover the usual topics: love, heartbreak, growing up, and the lyrics are confessional and raw – to the extent that I felt like I was in a mumblecore movie where problems can be solved by gut-wrenching honesty… and a little bit of dancing.

 It’s rare that a show with no more than 30 people command an encore, but that’s just what happened on Sunday night. Ok. Enough of the clapping! they exclaimed before breaking into “Wow,” the final song on The Noyelle Beat, which just dropped on Tuesday. 

 hmm… this could really lead somewhere, Standard Fare.   

(1) Check out some sweet photos of the Standard Fare show at the Cake Shop on March 11th. 

"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