Archive for the 'Trend watch' Category

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.”


Bring on the kids

Accordions, chick keyboard players, and ironic-mustached men move over. Incorporating children’s choirs into the mix seem to be the thing to do now. The Decemberists (listen), Karen O. (listen) and Dead Man’s Bones are just a few of the bands that exhibit this trend.

And as far as I’m concerned, kids singing along to ‘adult’ music seems to be such a better idea than adults singing songs meant for kids a la Kidz Bop or something of that nature. (I am still scarred by Kathie Lee Gifford’s painful rendition of a song on a Winnie the Pooh soundtrack my brother used to listen to as a toddler.)

In particular, I’ve been listening a lot to the Dead Man’s Bones album lately, which features the Silverlake Conservatory of Music Children’s Choir on many of the songs. Now, I realize these children’s choirs may seem gimmicky, annoying, or just plain out weird for some, but unlike Karen O’s Where the Wild Things Are Soundtrack (which I discussed recently here), the Dead Man’s Bones album manages to avoid falling into the trap of being overly whimsical, and the adult vocals are nowhere near as jarring as Karen O’s shrill singing. Instead, we are left with a delightfully ghoulish and creative group of songs highlighting heartbreak and the day-to-day concerns of the dead and the dying.

I was just lucky enough to witness Dead Man’s Bones live at Le Poisson Rouge in New York, and let’s just say it was an interesting show. They didn’t book a normal opening act such as a band that compliments their music style. Nope, that would be too obvious; too routine. Instead, the band allegedly put the word out that they were looking to showcase local talent, so when I arrived, I witnessed quite a few strange acts that included, juggling with swords, time traveling, ghoulish behavior, strange contortion, and exotic dancing.

Dead Man's Bones posing with a Children's Choir

Dead Man's Bones posing with a Children's Choir

For the show itself, the beautiful people of Dead Man’s Bones (which features Zach Shields and actor Ryan Gosling) were joined on stage by no less than seventeen kids from St. Peter’s church choir in Philadelphia. Each wore a white robe with a hood and had his or her face painted to make them look like skeletons. In the low light and black light… let’s just say, the effect was creepy… but in a delightful way. The kids were adorable and their vocal contribution was quite compelling.

One of the high points came near the end of the show when a young girl of maybe 12 or 13 stepped forward to enact her own death as a drum beat simulated a gun shot. Gosling and Shields then held up a white sheet in front of her as images of her memories and ‘afterlife’ were projected onto it. Then, the sheet dropped down and the girl came back to life to sing a cover of Nancy Sinatra’s “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” as the crowd went wild with applause.

Sure, the show wasn’t perfect. It seems like Gosling and Shields are still working on how to translate their music into a live, theatrical setting, but even though the band’s live sound wasn’t quite on par with the album version of their songs just yet, both the children’s choir and Ryan Gosling himself, sure helped make it a memorable evening. Gosling looked so excited and proud during the show as he paced the stage and directed the choir. It was pretty adorable–even the part where I got pelted in the neck by a Snickers thrown by a twelve-year-old in the choir who was violently reverse trick-or-treating. So worth it.

**See my original assessment of Dead Man’s Bones here.

Scintillating sensory sensation or aural nightmare?

Solid song writing and musicianship may still be sure fire ways to get your band noticed (or so I’d like to think), but more and more it seems as if another approach is coming to a head. It’s a strange aesthetic really. In the past, only the most skilled bands tended to garner wide exposure, but now that we are in the midst of the golden age of things like YouTube and Myspace, it’s easier than ever to put your music out there–for better… or for worse, and unfortunately the latter is often the case.

Terrible videos often become the most-watched clips on YouTube, and irony has saturated the culture. It’s actually becoming cool to appreciate things that either the general public despises or doesn’t appreciate. It’s a badge of honor to listen to music that your parents or neighbors would find grating or just plain weird.

Of course, some of the bands that I would classify as falling into this strange, hipster aesthetic I actually find myself enjoying at least on some level. MGMT comes to mind. The first time I saw them play (they opened for an Of Montreal show I attended sometime in the fall of 2005), I thought they were absolutely terrible. Entertaining? Sure I’ll give them that. It was kind of like a car wreck – you just couldn’t look away. Here were two white guys, not even playing instruments, but instead singing over shoddily produced, pre-recorded music. Occasionally, they would pull down an instrument suspended from the ceiling and pretend to play it, but that seemed to be as close as they came to actually playing. Fast forward to the release of Oracular Spectacular, and I admit I was hooked, but all the while, a little voice in my head kept saying are you sure you want to be listening to this? Are you sure this isn’t actually terrible?

Last night at the Cake Shop, was a perfect example of this strange phenomenon. The two bands in question are The Lovely Eggs and Schwervon!. When I first hear Schwervon! toward the beginning of the year, I was taken in particular by the track “Low Blow,” but I knew instantaneously, that this band would not be for everyone – not at all. Schwervon! is Nan and Matt:  a couple based out of NYC who just sort of accidentally fell into playing music together and have been jamming now for about a decade. Their music is technically basic, straight-forward, and simple… but there’s something endearing about it… something that tips it over to enjoyable instead of grating. (1)

See? Endearing. (photo courtesy of Lippe)

Schwervon: See? Endearing. (photo courtesy of Lippe)

Though I came specifically to see Schwervon!, the band that proceeded them also illustrated this conflict. British band The Lovely Eggs is like Schwervon! in many ways. They also are made up of a guy and a gal (David and Holly) and fall squarely into the DIY music scene. At times, Holly sings sweetly and demurely, but like Nan, she has been known to switch to a more aggressive style without any warning. (2)

The Lovely Eggs (photo courtesy of Darren Andrews)

The Lovely Eggs (photo courtesy of Darren Andrews)

But can we really take someone wearing a cowboy hat who sings about intentionally falling off a bike or eating cheese seriously? And what about the impromptu breakdancing? The shrieking? It’s hard to say, really. Yes, ok they have their charm. I found myself smiling when they played “Have You Ever Heard a Digital Accordion?” But the whole time I stood in the audience, I couldn’t help but feel as if I were a tightrope walker, teetering dangerously on the line. If I fell to my right, I’d declare their ‘music’ an ear sore, but if I fell to my left, well then they weren’t so bad after all.

Take a listen for yourself and let me know what you think.

(1) I found it interesting and fitting that Jeffrey Lewis, the king of the anti-folk movement, was wearing a Schwervon! t-shirt when I last saw him play at the beginning of the summer. Of course, the anti-folk movement is another source of this terrible/wonderful tension.

(2) Holly reminds me of a less mesmerizing version of Scout Niblett.

Are we in a post-indie age?

Freak-folk, anti-folk, drone, twee, space rock, dream pop—gone are the days of all-encompassing genre categories like rock, country, jazz, or rap. Classifying music today has become almost like a game… or a very precise science. Sure, part of this micro-categorization is probably a result of DIY things like myspace pages and band blogs that make it much easier for artists to carefully cultivate a very specific image and sound, but there is something more at play here.

For music connoisseurs (or ‘music snobs’), yielding an extensive indie vocabulary and carefully classifying artists seem to have become a source of pride. In some circles, it’s as if classifying a band bolsters indie street cred and even self-worth. Standing outside of the Cake Shop, I once heard someone say, “What?! You dont know what shoegaze is?!!(1)

Oddly enough, though I write about music nearly every day, I find that the more I immerse myself in the scene, the harder it becomes to answer the simple question, “So what kind of music do you listen to?”  Each time I am faced with that deceptively straightforward question, I find myself going through a number of quick mental exercises. It’s kind of like when someone asks you how you are, and you grapple with saying “Oh, fine” or actually disclosing minute details about your day in twitter-feed-esque full disclosure. Should I give them the short answer: “I tend to stick to indie-rock” or delve into the nitty gritty and hope my response is neither overly pretentious nor dry and uninformed?

Through writing the blurbs about the artists featured on NPR Music series  Second Stage, I consider myself to be fairly on top of the musical adjective and genre game—at least when it comes to my personal favorite musical niche, but when I stumbled across the tag “post-indie transcendentalist punk” on the myspace page of the band Hungry, Hungry Ghost, (2)  I admit even I was a bit baffled. I mean I got the punk part, and I studied Emerson and Thoreau in college. but post-indie?!  Post-rock or post-punk, ok. I’m familiar with these terms, but this new one sent me reeling.

Sensing an interesting and potentially satirical explanation, I contacted Alex Haager of Hungry, Hungry Ghost to ask him about the unfolding of this mysterious new genre, and I was intrigued by his response.

Haager writes:

“I coined the genre term ‘post-indie transcendentalist punk’ more or less as a statement about the uselessness of genre-labeling in general. I mean, I’ve deemed myself an ‘indie kid’ since the 7th grade or whatever, but it wasn’t until moving to New York that I saw how out of hand it was getting.  H&M and major label buyouts ruined the world for proper indie kids.  It was only later on that I realised the whole thing was silly. I am who I should be and that’s all I can be.  That’s what post-indie means to me.”

The interesting thing about this post-indie movement, is that it seems to be more about a state of mind that a particular sound. Urban Dictionary, the online, unofficial authority on emerging terms and trends, cites someone who is post-indie as openly admitting to listening to Coldplay even though the band is “too mainstream” for the typical indie kid’s taste (and reputation). In the most basic terms UD defines post indie as “liking bands, regardless of how popular they are.”

Though Haager contends he devised the extended genre, “post-indie transcendentalist punk,” “mostly just for kicks,” his tongue in cheek tag raises some good questions: has the need to classify and tag artists gotten out of hand? Is the mere act of creating a new genre necessary or is it as ridiculous and pretentious as the indie movement mindset it is trying to transcend? Will people start donning the Coldplay or John Mayer t-shirts they once hid in the bottom of the closet for fear of being considered too mainstream? Discuss.

(1) The Cake Shop, of course is known for having their ‘Twee as F*ck’ showcases and dance parties once a month.
(2) Go here to learn more about Haager’s band–Hungry, Hungry Ghost. They happen to be playing a show this Friday (08/21/09) at Spike Hill in Williamsburg, so be sure to hit that up if you can.

Please note: the bulk of this post was lifted from a blog entry I wrote back in April, but I feel as if it is an increasingly relevant question in this – the end of the hipster golden age.  (More on the death of the hipster soon.)

Summer Jams

It’s amazing how much the weather and the season can dictate the music scene. The winter is known for conjuring up more intimate, moody, pensive, and tempered artists, which makes sense. More time is spent indoors in solitude, there is less action, and you’d have to be crazy to lounge on the beach or hang out for more than a minute or two on top of a roof. Artists like Bon Iver and one of my all-time favorites, The Microphones, spring to mind for the colder months.

But then of course, there’s the summer. Lately with this belated influx of warm, summery weather, I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes a good summer song. Let’s see… last year, you could hardly go anywhere without hearing MGMT’s track “Kids.”

While the video for this is actually downright creepy, it follows a sure-fire formula for a good summer jam: catchy synth riff, slightly-to-moderately indecipherable words, upbeat tempo, and slightly annoying but undeniably catchy. (1) You can stream the song for free without the creepy (Labyrinth-esque) video here.

One song that I sort of adopted as my own anthem last summer was a track by French Horn Rebellion called “Up All Night.” The video even highlighted Williamsburg, the hipster Mecca of the Western world.

With its danceable beat and quirky characters, it’s a wonder to me that this song never really caught on. (2)

Fast forward to this year. I admit it’s a bit harder to discern thus far what the break out songs will be. At the beginning of the summer, I was sure it would be “Lisztomania” by Phoenix. Though it isn’t an official video sponsored by the band, some fans drafted up an amazing homage to Breakfast Club that takes place on a Brooklyn rooftop after someone else put the song to actual scenes from the movie. Beautiful. Stream the song here.

The cake might have gone to “Golden Phone” by Micachu, but alas, their album, Jewellry, came out at the beginning of April – a touch too soon.

Passion Pit’s “Sleepyhead,” too, may have missed the boat due to timing. Though it was on their recently released LP, Manners, it also came out on their EP, Chunk of Change, which came out almost an entire year ago now. Unfortunately, some songs come out in the wrong seasons and never seem to live up to their full potential.

Just yesterday, in fact, I stumbled across another possible contender. I picked up an EP from a band I hadn’t heard of from San Francisco called simply The Drums. The name of their EP is even “Summertime!” for crying out loud. The track is “Let’s Go Surfing.”  It’s got whistling; lyrics about the beach; dreamy and energetic vocals; a hyperactive, repetitive, and intoxicating guitar riffs; an excerpt from that rhyme you used to say when you were a kid, and it’s short.

Of course, it would be a grave oversight not to at least mention Michael Jackson.  Sure, “Billie Jean,” “Thriller,” and “Don’t Stop Til’ You Get Enough” are by no means new (and they may not have received much play at all if MJ hadn’t died), but for over a month now, I don’t think I’ve gotten through a single day without hearing at least a bit of an MJ or Jackson 5 song.

Finally, there has been a lot of buzz about Yacht, but we’ll see if anything comes of that.

So is there a formula to the quintessential summer jam? What have you been listening to on repeat lately?

(1) The video for “Kids” has over 18 million views on youtube. That’s EIGHTEEN million.

(2) Then of course, there was Rihanna’s song “Umbrella.” You know you’ve got a sure-fire summer jam when even the most indie-centric, ex-college radio student cannot go anywhere without hearing this song. Sheer torture.

What I learned from the treacherously twee movie (500) Days of Summer

Alright, so it’s a bit embarrassing (even for me) to admit that I went to see (500) Days of Summer this afternoon, but I just couldn’t help myself. I am intrigued by the two leads (Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the soundtrack seemed good, it has a touch of surrealism and whimsy to it, a boy who desperately wants to believe in love, a rendezvous in IKEA, and more. I mean, it’s just plain ridiculous.

With Regina Spektor, The Black Lips, Feist, The Doves, The Smiths, and more to the soundtrack, it seems like this could easily be the next big Garden State / Juno soundtrack phenomena. (It even has a track by Simon and Garfunkel in it, geeze.) It’s interesting how a good soundtrack has become so important these days. (1) While it would be easy to chastise the movie for so-closely following the formula of an ‘indie’ movie secretly catered to the masses like the two predecessors I named, its similarity to Garden State in one scene in particular made me realize an interesting trend in music. While Garden State had a headphoned Natalie Portman listening to the then cutting-edge band, The Shins, in (500) Days of Summer, it was not an obscure, up-and-coming band, but one that formed in 1982. Yes, of course I’m talking about The Smiths and the scene on the elevator.

Still from <i>(500) Days of Summer</i>

Still from (500) Days of Summer

An interesting thing has happened. Where it was once cool to be the first one on the block to discover new bands, it’s now hip to listen to the old stuff. Joy Division, My Bloody Valentine, The Cure – the list goes on. (J G-L’s character is even wearing a Joy Division shirt in the scene where the two are browsing records at the shop.) Of course, this trend toward the vintage is nothing new. (2) It spans across more spheres than music. Everything from clothing to bicycles are better old. Take a listen the next time you go to see a show. I’d be willing to bet that in addition to the standard space fillers, the sound guy or DJ spins some doo-wop, a little Motown, and some 80s British post-punk. I first noticed this trend sometime last year, but for some reason it took the elevator scene in (500) Days of Summer to make me realize the significance of the trend and express it in words.

As for me, I’ve recently been taken by 60s French pop after a friend of mine sat me down and made me watch a few choice videos on youtube… but more on 60s French pop later.

(1) Though I don’t advocate watching shows on the CW (formerly, the WB), I will admit that they have at least picked up on the importance of music.
(2) Note also: the resurgence of vinyl and record players… and typewriters on a semi-related note.

"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