It’s hard to believe that nearly 9 years have passed since The Decemberists released Castaways and Cutouts. The Portland band’s last two albums have taken strange turns and become increasingly theatrical and prone to prog rock, so I was a bit apprehensive to hear the new material, but I couldn’t resist at least checking them out. I was lucky enough to catch them for night two at New York’s Beacon Theatre. (See my full write-up here on Brooklyn Vegan.) What better way to experience their new material than through a live show?
The Decemberists at the Beacon Theatre (photo Mike)
Of course, I was absolutely delighted to hear songs like “California One/Youth and Beauty Brigade” (which they opened the show with), “Red Right Ankle,” “The Chimbley Sweep,” and “The Mariner’s Revenge Song.” But perhaps more surprisingly, I even found myself enjoying the handful of songs I had never heard. (They played a whopping 8/10 from their new album.)
With The King is Dead, The Decemberists seem to have exchanged the slowly unfolding and meandering prog rock featured on their recent few albums and turned back to tight songwriting in the more conventional 3-5 minute format. The new material is less frenzied and overblown than say, nearly anything on Hazards of Love. Absent are long-winded instrumental interludes and evidence of roll playing, strange characters, and period pieces. The King is Dead is far more immediate. Much of the material may have been new, but it also felt somehow familiar – like a throwback to some of the band’s earlier work. You can snag the new album on the cheap via Amazon ($7.99).
Here are a couple of new songs from Tuesday night’s show.
“Down by the Water:”
“Rox in the Box:”
Throughout the evening, the band succeeded in engaging the audience with their dramatic antics and candid banter. At one point, Meloy turned the mic on the audience and pitted the orchestra against the balcony for what turned into an impressively compliant and enthusiastic sing-a-long for the ‘la-di-da’s’ of “16 Military Wives:”
I still feel rather ambivalent about smug front man Colin Meloy (you should have heard some of that banter), but you’d be a fool to let your disdain for Meloy prevent you from checking out this band live.
Sure, Facebook can be pretty entertaining at times. (Who among us can resist looking at all 87 photos of that random kid from high school?) But I also love to make fun of Facebook and treat it with a bit of healthy disdain. My real love (my home page of the last five years) is Last.fm, the self-proclaimed “social music revolution.”
On Last.fm, you get one small profile photo, your bio is restricted to the far right column, and the “shoutbox” (akin to FB’s “wall”) is only ancillary. Instead, music is the focal point, and that’s how it should be. Instead of spying on peoples’ photos, you can discover new music, create your own concert calendar, and stream a personalized radio station.
So when Last.fm announced that they were going to actually put on a couple of concerts (one in London, and one here in New York), I was excited to learn that they were looking for new opportunities to grow and foster a community of music-lovers.
More out of curiosity than devotion to a particular band on the bill, I decided to attend Friday night’s first ever Last.fm Festival. When I got to Terminal 5, I was both dismayed to see how long the line was and excited that the event had sold-out days in advance. I wanted to turn to everyone in line and start talking (or rather, gushing and evangelizing) to them about the virtues of Last.fm.
I don’t know what exactly I was expecting. Red and white balloons, perhaps? Free t-shirts? What proceeded was more or less a regular show.
Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin began to play even earlier than their advertised start time. (Terminal 5 seems to be one of those venues with a strict curfew.) The Missouri band was charming if not a bit lacking in pizazz. They are exactly the kind of safe indie rock you might expect to be in the background of a teen drama on the WB (or I guess that’s the CW these days).
Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin (Photo Rogan)
Talented but not too groundbreaking – that was the mantra of the evening. (And also – crazy long band names.) Of course, the venue tried desperately to spice things up. Beginning with Two Door Cinema Club’s set, the lights began to take over. The strobes in particular were so bright and insistent that I found myself closing my eyes to avoid the harsh overexposure. Though they have been around for much less time than the openers, the Irish group sported a more confident and compelling sound (or was that just the guitar riffs talking?). If the rapid fist-pumping at Friday night’s show is any indication, something about the band sure seems to be grabbing the kids. They’ve managed to obtain this week’s #12 spot on Last.fm’s “hottest new music” list. My take? There may have been little variation among the songs, but I’ll concede that each one played like a well-crafted anthem unto itself.
Two Door Cinema Club (photo Andrew Keller)
Up next was the “fucking excited” Tokyo Police Club, cue the strobe lights. Again, I can’t say I was wowed by their performance, but they definitely strived to keep things interesting. To add some spice to the mix, Passion Pit’s Ian Hultquist picked up a guitar and joined in for “End of a Spark” early in the set, and about midway through, keyboardist Ghaham White stopped everything to conduct the crowd in singing “Happy Birthday” to his band mate Dave Monks. (There was even a cake.)
Tokyo Police Club (photo courtesy of artist)
The concept of the co-headlining show has always struck me as a bit odd, but the two main acts of the evening handled the ambiguous concept of the encore quite well. Instead of each coming out to play an additional song or two, they joined forces for a rocking cover of The Strokes’ 2001 hit “Last Nite.”
Even if Friday night’s show won’t go down as one of my favorites, I’m still excited about what the future holds for live Last.fm-sponsored shows, and from what I understand, this was just the first of many. Maybe next time, there will even be a girl somewhere in the line-up.
When I got the offer to check out a new band, Mister Heavenly, I couldn’t resist… or more accurately, I couldn’t believe it. They didn’t even have an album out and they were signed to Sub Pop? (Heck, their Myspace page has only be in existence since December of 2010!) Then of course there were the members themselves. Nick Diamonds (Islands/Unicorns), Honus Honus (Man Man), Joe Plummer (Modest Mouse), and… Michael Cera?? Well ok. Sign me up!
Mister Heavenly, minus Michael Cera (photo courtesy of Sup Pop)
When I took my spot in the crowd, I remember thinking it odd that the two guys in front of me were each wearing red knit hats… that is until I saw Michael Cera walk on stage. The kid has been in the band for about a month, and he totally has fan boys. Of course, his character in Nick and Nora helped establish his persona as an indie kid – even if it was technically fiction.
Michael Cera plays bass – it’s true (photo Renee Barrera)
All of the literature surrounding Mister Heavenly identified their music as doom-wop, a new genre that they had proudly pioneered. And I have to say, as far as ridiculous made-up sub genres go, the idea of doom-wop was pretty appealing. (1) As a self-proclaimed pessimistic idealist, doom-wop seems like it’d be right up my alley.
Except… well I can’t say I really heard it in their music. Where were the upbeat melodies? The complimentary vocals?
One song that at least came close was the oddly-named “Diddy Eyes,” allegedly inspired by basketball player Rolando Blackman’s eyes:
With their ridiculous non sequiturs and stage banter (and, let’s be honest – their very existence), I can’t help but wonder if the whole thing is a joke. Here you have three rather successful indie artists… and Michael Cera. It almost seemed like a big brother mentor program. I mean the kid had to actually look at the neck of his bass as he powered through the songs. It kind of just seemed like a sham – albeit a light-hearted and well-intentioned one.
But hey… this doom-wop thing is a good idea. Could someone please get on that?
(1) doom-wop – n. the intersection of doo-wop and doomed love songs.
Doveman and friends – Le Poisson Rouge – January 14th
When I first witnessed the bill for Friday night’s show, I admit my stomach got away from me for a second. Sure, Doveman and Sam Amidon often play together… but Glen Hansard? Special guests? I was hooked.
Doveman in concert in January of 2010 (photo Katerina Plevkova)
“Thank you so much for coming,” Thomas Bartlett (Doveman) began. “This is the first of these concerts that I’ll be doing, and I thought it would be nice to start with just me and Sam because me and Sam have been playing music together since we were five.”
The two kicked off the show with a simple, lovely, and faintly religious little song, “All is Well.” Ringing out with repeatedly, the titular refrain seemed like a perfect starting point for the evening.
After getting temporary sidetracked, trying to remember the date, Amidon quickly interjected, “So we’ll have some songs about Jesus,” not so much as an apology but as a simple disclosure/admittance. With his voice full of yearning and his wildly candid stage presence, Amidon easily assumed the position of a well-intentioned but slightly off-kilter preacher. During one of the more religious songs of the evening, he raised his hands up in slow spirit finger fashion, as if overcome by a subdued religious fervor.
Sam Amidon's spirit fingers at a show last January (Photo Katarina Pievkova)
Like his childhood friend, Bartlett also had a kind of awkward intensity to his performance. Bartlet’s stylized method of pian playing was captivating. Even on the quieter songs, he’d hunch down far over the keys and suddenly lurch back with one hand in the air. For him, playing the piano was a form of cardio.
Amidon’s songs were ripe with tales of wayward sons and evocative language. (In Sam’s world, cheeks are red and rosy and the grass is always green, green.) After a few songs, Bartlet (aka Doveman) and Amidon were joined by a small group of musicians.
Sam Amidon, Doveman, and friends perform “Prodigal Son:”
With the likes of Doveman, Sam Amidon, Glen Hansard, and Beth Orton all announced on LPR’s site, it was hard to imagine who the ‘special’ guests might be, but I was glad to see that the adjective was not taken lightly. After Sam had played through a few of his songs, he casually announced, “We’re in a gospel mood,” which was apparently Annie Clark’s (St. Vincent) cue to make her way to the stage to fulfill her role as a “great gospel guitarist.” Crouching down on stage in the shadow, Clark joined Amidon for one more song before the spotlight officially shifted to her. As she stood up, the stage lights shone through her messy main of curly hair, creating a halo that complimented her Amidon-annointed title.
Annie Clark performing in Seattle, 2008 (photo Shawn McClung)
Annie Clark and friends perform “Some of Them Are Old” (a Brian Eno cover):
The evening proceded with a potpouri of performances. Hardly a song or two would pass before the configuration on stage would change. Beth Orton, Glen Hansard, and Dawn Landes would each have their turn. “One thing I realized is that I hate talking on stage so much that things are really going to need an emcee,” Bartlett joked.
Beth Orton, Doveman, Sam Amidon perform the beautiful “Castles:”
The evening felt special – not just because of the talented and humble group of musicians on stage, but because sitting in the audience, I almost got the feeling that we had a behind-the-scenes look at their musical process. More times than not, the featured musician had to quickly teach the chords of the song to everyone else on stage. It felt raw and intimate. In a funnier moment, Hansard turned to Bartlett at one point, saying, “none of your jazzy shit, alright?” which elicited a quick chain of laughter throughout the room.
Many of the musicians played songs that are either too new to be officially recorded or so old they were all but forgotten. During Hansard’s performance, he actually performed a song he had apparently written a few hours prior in the dressing room.
Glen’s new song (a thinly veiled ballad about his former lover, Markéta Irglová):
Glen Hansard performing in 2008 (photo Jeff Meade)
Throughout the evening, the interplay and on-stage banter among the artists were quite charming, especially between Amidon and Bartlett. Apparently, these evenings are going to be part of a series.”This whole evening was modeled on salons,” Bartlett eventually admitted. “I was really not enjoying playing shows for a little while and I realized that this was a really fun way to do it. If I just bring my friends along than I have a fun time, too.” Nice strategy.
Here’s one with Doveman and the whole gang:
Coming up at the next Burgundy Stain session: singer-songwriter and performance artist Justin Bond.
Oy vey! This should not have taken so long to put together.I apologize for the tardiness of this list. The truth is I really struggled to put it together. 2010 was consumed by rampant concert-going and reviewing to such an extent that I didn’t have much time for experiencing music in its more packaged and produced form: the album. Thus, every time I started working on compiling this list, I found myself thinking of more albums I hadn’t ever gotten around to. As a result, much of the past month was spent playing catch-up. Without further ado, here are the results.
1. The Age of Adz – Sufjan Stevens (Asthmatic Kitty)
The Age of Adz opens with the deceptively calming and methodical “Futile Devices” – almost as if nothing had changed since the gentle days of Greetings from Michigan. Of course, it isn’t long before things start to get a little… strange. In an interview with WNYC’s John Schaefer back in the fall of 2009, Sufjan talked about his new project, saying, “Well I’m not interested really in a collection of songs in an album, but what if the song itself is the album.” The Age of Adz is a fascinating, experimental adventure – far more experimental than much of the music that typically falls under that tired tag. Yes, it is bombastic and wildly ambitious. Yes, it was met by much flak when it was suddenly released – especially on the heals of the mild and beautiful EP All Delighted People. But sometimes, it’s the art that takes the most risks and is the most divisive that is most worth a look. Take it or leave it, love it or hate it. Gather ’round. This is the age of Adz. Let the flutes flutter, the guitar sound out triumphantly, and the back-up singers belt it out and dance with glee.
Sufjan Stevens, “Age of Adz” clip:
As you will no doubt notice, observant reader, there is a significant gap in my list here. What happened to albums 2-3? You may be thinking to yourself. Well for me, the year’s number one album was obvious… so obvious that the next few had me stumped. Nothing seemed to make enough of an impression to warrant a position so close to The Age of Adz, simple as that. Please don’t interpret the gap as a cop-out. Instead, it is a powerful statement about my feelings of the year in music and my love of my top album. It’s true, I didn’t think it was the most impressive year as far as the album goes, but in this gap, it’s important to note that there is also hope. Every year, I struggle with my limitations. I’m simply not able to hear and synthesize enough albums. In 2010, some of my favorite albums of the year (DM Stith’s Heavy Ghost, Silje Nes’ Ames Room, and Holy Sons’ Decline of the West) are from previous years. I like to think that perhaps I just haven’t yet discovered my other favorites of the year.
4. Go – Jónsi (XL)
Thanks to my early love for Sigur Rós, I have long been captivated by Jón Þór Birgisson’s heavenly voice. But with many of his band members taking a musical hiatus to have kids, Birgisson had a little extra time on his hands and Jónsi was born. From the moment I saw the strange but gorgeous video for “Go Do,” I eagerly awaited more. Go is positively radiant – a celestial kaleidoscope of sound. One of my biggest regrets of the year was missing him in concert. Apparently, it was a sight to behold. (Luckily, you can at least listen to his show at the 9:30 Club, thanks to the folks at NPR Music.)
Jónsi, “Go Do” clip:
5. Halcyon Digest – Deerhunter (4AD)
I was tempted to throw Atlas Sound’s Bedroom Databank on the list, but though the impromptu collection contains an intimate collection of hushed and deeply confessional lo-fi songs, Halcyon Digest is clearly the more cohesive and consistent release. Bradford Cox’s songs may often be grim, but somehow, Halcyon Digest seems – dare I say it? – upbeat… even when the lyrics cover things like perpetual darkness and abandonment. Halycon, indeed.
Deerhunter, “Don’t Cry” clip:
6. High Violet – The National (4AD)
Yes, sometimes Matt Berninger whines on this album. Yes, it may have taken me longer than it should have to get into it. But despite these caveats, High Violet remains one of the most impressive outputs of the year. The instrumentation is full-bodied and complex and the lyrics are brimming with highly evocative one-liners. (I was carried to Ohio in a swarm of bees sounds almost mythological, and a game of nuns versus priests sounds both comical and terrifying.) Absent of any obvious stand-out tracks, High Violet is also truly an album to be digested in its entirety.
The National, “Anyone’s Ghost” clip:
7. Cloak and Cipher – Land of Talk (Saddle Creek)
At casual listen, Lizzie Powell has the kind of smooth, innocuous vocals characteristic of an artist found on the adult easy-listening channel, but don’t let that fool you. From seeing Land of Talk perform twice this past year, I know the woman to be a powerful force, and her lyrics are some of the most powerful I’ve heard all year.
Land of Talk, “Color Me Badd” clip:
8. I Speak Because I Can – Laura Marling (Astralwerks)
Interestingly, this album was not initially on my list. Besides “Hope in the Air,” there just weren’t any tracks as good as “Ghosts,” “My Manic and I,” or “Crawled Out of the Sea.” But then I got to thinking… Alas I Cannot Swim is perhaps one of my favorite albums in the last five years. So what if I Speak Because I Can didn’t top it. The truth of the matter is that any Laura Marling album is going to be better than average. Everything from the title of this album to the tone reveals a more confident and mature Marling. Maybe there aren’t (m)any tracks I would listen to on repeat as I did with her previous material, but it remains a solid album. I eagerly await what comes next.
Laura Marling, “Hope in the Air” clip:
9. All Alone In An Empty House – Lost in the Trees (Anti)
When I first saw Lost in the Trees open for Efterklang in the spring of 2008, my friend and I were so impressed and moved by the haunting melodies that we each bought an album – a rarity for us spoiled college radio kids. For front man Ari Picker, making and playing music is a deeply moving and cathartic experience. At a recent show at the Mercury Lounge, he said, “I started listening to classical music in 2005. It was an interesting experience. I started getting a feeling like I was in church or something. It was a mind-opening experience.” Like the band’s older catalog, All Alone in an Empty House is delightfully gothic and brimming with intensity.
Lost in the Trees, “All Alone in an Empty” clip:
10. Love Remains – How To Dress Well (Lefse)
Reminiscent a bit of Bon Iver, How To Dress Well is a hazy, melodic collection of songs that seem to be made for the cold, dark days of winter. Love Remains is a complex and intriguing synthesis of bedroom music, 90s R & B, and fuzzed out, heavily distorted electronica – all accompanied by Tom Krell’s piercing falsetto. The songs flow from one to the next with ease and create a haunting and hazy tableau of sound.
How To Dress Well, “Can’t See My Own Face” clip:
11. Made in the Harbor – Mountain Man (Partisan)
For the first few times I saw the name Mountain Man floating around, I was quick to dismiss the band. Haven’t I heard this before? I thought to myself. But this isn’t Man Man, Young Man, Black Mountain, or the Pink Mountaintops. There isn’t even a man on the album. Instead, three lovely ladies team up to create Appalachian folk-inspired ditties, full of three-part harmonies, sparse instrumentation, and a lot of heart, and the result is captivating.
Mountain Man, “Animal Tracks” clip:
12. The Calcination of Scout Niblett – Scout Niblett (Drag City)
Simultaneously abrasive and demure – Scout Niblett is an enigmatic figure and a compelling songwriter. Her music is marked by furious highs and delicate lows, and she navigates between the two like a restless, overenthusiastic child choosing between new toys on Christmas. Fitting for its heavy sound, The Calcination of Scout Niblett dropped back in January, and as the colder days set in once again, I find myself listening to it with increased frequency and fervor.
Scout Niblett, “The Calcination of Scout Niblett” clip:
13. Magic Central – Breathe Owl Breathe (Hometapes)
I had this album for a couple of months before I finally got around to listening to it. Big mistake. I adored the group’s earlier material for its warmth and down-to-earth simplicity like a little kid loves his blanket. Now, with Magic Central, the sound is more expansive, but the content remains charming familiar. In his characteristic rich and relaxed tenor, front man Micah Middaugh sings of everything from the benign, everyday (an errant mustache) to bigger, heavier topics (like how to forget a former love). As the story goes, the Michigan-based group retreated to a cabin in the woods cabin to soak up the sun and play some music. The formula may be a bit hackneyed now, but the end result is no lessworthy.
Breathe Owl Breathe, “Dragon” clip:
14. Write About Love – Belle & Sebastian (Matador)
After some five years of waiting, I anxiously awaited the release of Write About Love. I spent a lot of time with Belle & Sebastian over the years. A lot. After such a long hiatus, would they be able to retain the glow of previous releases like The Boy with the Arab Strap, If You’re Feeling Sinister, or Fold Your Hands, Child You Walk Like a Peasant? Sure, Write About Love may not glisten, but it certainly still has its moments.
Belle & Sebastian, “Come On Sister” clip:
15. I See the Sign – Sam Amidon (Bedroom Community)
Sam Amidon may seem like something of an odd choice for the list. After all, the man doesn’t even write his own songs… well not exactly. Instead, he adopts and adapts old folk and gospel songs (and even the occasional cover) and makes them his own. Amidon’s fast finger-plucking skills and rich, well-weathered voice combine delightfully in I See the Sign. Though the lyrics may not be his own, each song readily evokes a story. Everything from stubborn damsels to matricide, and a wayward son populate the album.
Sam Amidon, “You Better Mind” clip:
Honorable Mentions go to:
Allo Darlin’ – s/t (Fortuna POP) The sunny, upbeat stylings of this Australian pop group are likely to get stuck in your head for hours on end.
Allo Darlin’, “Dreaming” clip:
Broken Bells – s/t (Columbia) ‘Super’ precedes ‘group’ for a reason. Take exhibit A, Broken Bells – the work of James Mercer (The Shins) and Brian Burton (Danger Mouse).
Broken Bells, “Vaporize” clip:
Efterklang – Magic Chairs (4 AD) Efterklang is a great live act, and I like the first few songs of Magic Chairs, but for whatever reason, I never seem to get beyond the first 3 or 4 tracks before giving up.
Efterklang, “Alike” clip:
Phantogram – Eyelid Movies (Barsuk) Mesmerizing and quixotic songs couple well with Sarah Barthel’s equally intoxicating vocals.
Phantogram, “When I’m Small” clip:
Perfume Genius – Learning (Matador) In all honesty, I have yet to obtain Learning in its entirety, but I’m digging what I have heard of Mike Hadreas’ docile, heartfelt songs.
Perfume Genius, “Learning” clip:
Glaringly and intentionally absent:
Arcade Fire – The Suburbs (Merge) When Funeral came out in 2004, I remember thinking that it was a big moment in indie music history, but for whatever reason, I have still never been able to get into this band. I’m sorry.
Beach House – Teen Dream (Sub Pop) I loved Devotion as much as the next guy, but despite my fierce desire to get behind this album, I simply can’t handle how raspy Victoria Legrand’s voice has become.
Mumford & Sons – Sigh No More (Glass Note) In my book, Fanfarlo, Noah and the Whale, and Laura Marling all deserve more praise than their British folk contemporaries, Mumford & Sons. For what it is, the presentation is just too gruff for me, and the intensity seems artificially heightened.
"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