A couple of months ago, I poured over an article detailing the decline of doo-wop with interest. No, I’ve never been a connoisseur of the genre, but it always brought a smile to my face when I heard one of The Ronettes or The Temptations. In fact, those dulcet girl groups and foot-tapping melodies seemed to be creeping up with increased incidence. Hearing a little doo-wop between sets at a trendy indie show is certainly not unusual.
So, in this – the very age of nostalgia – why isn’t doo-wop more popular? Are we simply too cynical to accept it? Might it still have its turn for a comeback? And how do you measure the vitality of a genre? Does it have to keep churning out new artists and producing new music for it to be “alive”?
If you’ve got answers, I’d love to hear them.
In the meantime, here’s a modest little compilation of some of the essentials. Maybe it won’t be enough to rekindle an interest in the genre or to launch a new era of doo-wop groups, but as long as these songs continue to net hundreds of thousands of plays on Youtube – a site that seems to be a far more popular source of boobs and baby animals – the genre hasn’t breathed its dying breath just yet.
2011 may technically be a thing of the past, but what’s a few more lists, right? I’ll begin the trio with my favorite shows of the year. This list is always the most fun to put together because unlike the best songs or best albums, the list of contenders is limited to the shows that I managed to catch.
There are so many factors that go into a good show: the crowd, the venue, the sound, the music, and even the stage banter and my mood. All too often, concerts leave me rather indifferent. Here are a handful of the shows that I won’t soon forget.
13. Timber Timbre + Angel Olsen – Glasslands, April 14th* Of course, we’ve already established that Angel Olsen is a delight, so seeing her open for Timber Timbre was a nice treat – especially on such a small stage! For the late night show, Glasslands underwent a dramatic transformation. Usually whimsical and cozy, for Timber Timbre’s set, the venue transformed into an eerie, lantern-bedecked cavern, which mirrored the Canadian group’s spooky blues sound perfectly.
12. Lykke Li + Grimes – Webster Hall, May 18th* Maybe it was the sheer spectacle of Lykke Li dancing and prancing on stage or her amazing charisma – whatever the case, this was a solid show (even if Li’s album, Wounded Rhymes, didn’t hold up for me). Of course it didn’t hurt that Grimes, “the sound of the future” according to one music fan I spoke to, held the opening slot. These women will challenge even the most aloof hipster to get down.
Lykke Li (Photo Chris Jobling)
11. M83 + Active Child – Music Hall of Williamsburg, November 23rd* From Anthony Gonzalez’s introductory yelp (“Carry on! Carry on!”), M83 was an unstoppable force. They exuded confidence and competence in equal measure – a rare feat these days.
10. Bon Iver + The Rosebuds – United Palace Theatre, August 9th* I don’t expect Bon Iver’s 2011 release to make the cut for best albums, but there’s no denying it – that man’s voice could cure a cripple, enough so that I was even willing to give that ridiculous saxophone solo a pass.
Justin Vernon of Bon Iver (Photo Renee)
9. Mount Eerie + Wyrd Visions – St. Cecilia’s Roman Catholic Church, June 19th* (Northside Fest)
Northside Fest brought some great artists to town in June, Mount Eerie, and this show was the highlight for me. Given the reverence lavished upon Phil Elverum by his fans (I turned into a giggling mess at the merch booth myself when I finally got my hands on The Glow, pt. 2 on vinyl), it only seemed right to watch the show from church pews. (Much love for Wyrd Visions, too!)
8. St. Vincent with Cate le Bon – Webster Hall, November 3rd* Perhaps one of the most flawless and powerful performances I saw all year – Annie Clark brings it.
St. Vincent (Photo Guus Krol)
7. Feist + Mountain Men – Church of the Intercession, October 3rd*
This show was certainly a surprise – for me and the hundred or so others in attendance. It’s not often you find yourself at a crypt in Harlem – especially with an orchestra, Leslie Feist, and the lovely women of Mountain Man. Definitely a treat.
Feist (Photo Jill Mapes)
6. Sea of Bees – Rockwood Music Hall (stage 2), October 21st(CMJ)
Good God, Jules Baeziger left me breathless with this one. In the midst of all the prefab beats, glitz, glitch, and hype that comes with CMJ, an intimate Sea of Bees set was just what I needed. I think I cried at this one. Multiple times. So good.
5. PJ Harvey – Terminal 5, April 19th* Yes, it was Terminal 5, but come on. We’re talking PJ Harvey here. I could hardly believe I was in the same room as her, let alone listening to her play from my perch in the VIP balcony. Cat Power may have been a bust last year, but PJ Harvey? Untouchable.
PJ Harvey (Photo Il Fatto Quotidiano)
4. Austra – Emo’s, March 17th (SXSW) I definitely didn’t know when I was getting into when I stepped into the Domino showcase at Emo’s last spring. With SXSW, it’s always a temptation to dart from show to show, but Austra definitely caught my eye, and I think you’ll see why…
3. Sufjan Stevens + Diamond Rings – Prospect Park, August 3rd*
Despite the fact that rain poured down on us for upwards of three hours, the mood at the park was ecstatic. Swirling neons, giant blow-up men, quick choreography, ridiculous costume changes, Kat Martino’s solo, and beach balls were just a few of the things that made this show pop. Epic in every sense of the word – and worth every drop of rain.
Sufjan Stevens (Photo Jon Uleis)
2. John Maus – 285 Kent, October 19th* (CMJ) Stepping into this show (another Domino showcase) felt like stepping back in time when music still mattered enough to make you forget everything else and embrace the moment in all its sweaty, smokey glory. Like a cult leader, Maus writhed and shook on stage with fervor as the music swept over the room of his unquestioning followers. Magic.
John Maus (Photo Stephan CK)
1. Laura Marling – Audio Visual Arts Gallery, September 28th*
A private song with Laura Marling? Hands down my favorite music moment of the year.
Picture me and Laura sitting in this room (Photo RK)
As I reported a few weeks ago, I managed to score a ticket to a special one-on-one show with Laura Marling (all right, so technically it was two-on-one, and it was just one song… but still!). You can read about my experience here on the All Songs Considered blog.
But what isn’t included in that post is the audio I took on site. As I tried to collect my own thoughts about the experience, I went around and interviewed a few people to hear what they had to say, and I thought I’d post that here.
My favorite response came from Riley Fields who went in shortly after me:
Then there was the more collected duo, Julia Ramsey and Ben Kupstas:
And finally, I sought out Jennifer Barckley who had never heard Marling’s music before:
To hear the song she performed for me, check out an earlier post.
I have an oddly ambivalent relationship with female singer-songwriters.
Of course, there are a handful that I absolutely adore: Moon Pix era Cat Power, Laura Marling, Scout Niblett, Julie Doiron, Hope Sandoval, and Sea of Bees come to mind. And there are some that I have passing flings with – the Charlotte Gainsbourgs and Lykke Lis of the world. But more times than not, I just can’t muster any excitement.
Is it my gender that leaves me largely indifferent or downright turned off when it comes to artists like Wye Oak, My Brightest Diamond, or Joanna Newsom? Does some part of me feel threatened by a pretty girl with a guitar?
Heck, I’m not even really into Sharon Van Etten, the indie rock darling of Brooklyn. Or at least, I didn’t think I was until this week when a couple of her songs popped into my head unexpectedly, prompting me to go back and give Epic another shot.
Then there are still other female artists that I simply never gave a shot. So when I saw that NPR Music was streaming the new St. Vincent album, Strange Mercy, I knew I had to give it a shot. I confess to being embarrassingly ignorant when it comes to Annie Clark’s discography. Sure, I’ve seen her collaborate with other musicians a few times, but somehow, I had never listened to either of her albums.
Strange Mercy opens with a warped organ, some Bjðrk-esque vocals, some potent guitar riffs, and a hip beat. Not what I was expecting. I confess that in my mind, Annie Clark and Miranda July had converged into one person due to their quirky personas, similar hair styles, doe eyes, and ability to steal my male friends’ hearts. But far from being an awkward, twee parody, Annie Clark delivers cool precision.
Here’s “Cruel,” the first video from the new album:
Following a surprisingly upbeat couple of songs, “Cheerleader” sees Clark dipping into a darker, more vulnerable side that more closely matches the tone of her lyrics. (I can’t help but think back to Grizzly Bear’s song by the same title – also excellent.)
Pretty in pink Annie Clark, aka St. Vincent (photo Annabel Mehran)
The album is polished in a way that will surely cause some to balk, but a gritty rawness still permeates the songs and prevents them from turning into eerie exercises in perfection. “Come cut me open,” Clark sings in “Surgeon.”
“[A]n unsparing examination of personal catharsis cloaked in some of the most sublime music of Annie Clark’s career,” boasts 4AD. A pretty piece of copy, indeed. Take a listen for yourself, and let me know if you agree.
One aspect of the music world that has always interested me is the process of choosing a band name or moniker. Sure, sometimes when you ask musicians how they arrived at their choice, you get some boring, non-committal answers. But every now and then, you may hear a humorous anecdote or even obtain a rare glimpse into a musician’s psyche.
Of course, there are the inevitable trends. The bear-, black-, sea-, beach-, and crystal- names. (I won’t bother to list them out here. We’ve seen them all before.) And the ridiculous, over-the-top names: Natalie Portman’s Sideways Ponytail, We Were Promised Jetpacks, Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin. (1)
Then there’s the ironically un-Googleable names. Women, Real Estate, !!!,YACHT, The Muslims – the list goes on. (Just try finding info on BOBBY.)
These names are so common that it becomes nearly impossible to find them online – especially when they are first starting out. No Google, I don’t want to buy a house. I want to listen to “Beach Comber.”
But even this phenomenon isn’t terribly new.
What struck me as funny last week was the band Little Girls. Google that, and you may just end up on a watch list.
— (1) This clever little program makes fun at the increasingly arbitrary process of band naming. The sad thing is the results aren’t half bad. Go here and auto-generate one for yourself! My first attempt yielded “My Sister is Canadian.” (I took piano lessons for 7 years. Can you play the guitar/banjo/or ukulele? We might be onto something…)
Oh, the Snuggie. “You want to keep warm when you’re feeling chilled, but you don’t want to raise your heating bill…” When I first saw the infomercial for this ridiculous (but ingenious) product last year, I marvelled at the cheeziness of it. But the Snuggie recently one-upped itself this year with the introduction of the Weezer line.
In a recent segment All Things Considered, Rivers Cuomo said:
Well, like Weezer, Snuggies are just this weird, cool product that everyone seems to like. They’re really popular, and you can’t really figure out why. So we figured it’s a good match.
You can check out the official Weezer Snuggie infomercial here or watch Weezer performing (and clad in the Snuggie) on Letterman below:
What’s next? Maybe some N’Sync Orange Glow? Perhaps the Mates of State Magic Bullet?
"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