Run The Jewels, Zack de la Rocha, And The Power of Imagery


zzzzrunToday Run The Jewels released the video for “Close Your Eyes (And Count To Fuck)” – the booming masterpiece off their last record that features Rage Against The Machine’s Zach de la Rocha on a verse and the hook. I don’t want to talk too much about the video because the whole purpose of its existence is to see what kind of emotional response it elicits from you. But I will say one thing that you should keep in mind as you’re watching – think about how the most powerful thing the media does to shape our views of reality is not what they say, but what they show. You can disagree with any and everything that FoxNews or CNN or whomever says to you, but your brain can’t just eliminate the images that are thrown at you. Even if you know that what you’re being shown is a false representation of a protest, or a riot, or a movement all together; those images become ingrained in your subconscious. And thus they have a way of constructing a vision of the world within yourself that is out of your control. So when you watch this video, think about how your manipulated instincts cause triggers of reaction within you, and then think whether those reactions are what you would naturally feel with no primers from society. The battle is long, and as always, it starts from within. Thanks again to Killer Mike and El-P for being such a force of positivity in this current state of chaos.

Top 5 Post-Walkmen Songs


slide_7Ahh, the indefinite hiatus – nightmare words to fans, but freedom initiators to band members. It’s been about a year and a half since The Walkmen announced they were going on “extreme hiatus,” and it was one of several instances where I thought it seemed like a good idea. 2012’s Heaven was a solid record, but in many ways it felt like a capstone. The tonality of their music hadn’t really changed in a decade, and it seemed like they were walling themselves in to a game-plan of redundancy. So sure, take some time off, and come back in a few years renewed and recharged, and with an eager fan-base awaiting. Just hopefully they don’t come back like Modest Mouse did, only to reemerge eight years later with the exact same thing they left off with. The unexpected twist with The Walkmen though, was the prolific wave of music that kept coming from the band members once they split. Lead singer Hamilton Leithauser released Black Hours, which didn’t stray much from the songs he wrote for The Walkmen, and he has been playing gigs with guitarist Paul Maroon featuring songs off a new album they are reportedly releasing together. Bassist/organist Peter Bauer put out Liberation!, a killer record which delves into a variety of directions, some more folksy, some more inhabiting a dream of what The Walkmen would sound like if it was just his band. And organist/bassist Walter Martin released the fantastic We’re All Young Together, which is basically a kids’ album for adults. It’s a lot to keep track of, but there’s some stand-out cuts amongst them all – here’s my top five picks from the 2014 post-Walkmen era.

5) Hamilton Leithauser – “11 O’Clock Friday Night”

4) Peter Matthew Bauer – “You Are The Chapel”

3) Walter Martin – “We’re All Young Together”

2) Peter Matthew Bauer – “Philadelphia Raga”

1) Walter Martin – “Sing To Me” 

 

Photo courtesy of The Walkmen.com

Album Review: Nathan Parker Smith Large Ensemble – Not Dark Yet


zzznpsQuick – name your favorite conductor. Scratch that – name any conductor. Who ya got? Stravinsky? Stokowski? Maestro from Seinfeld? If your knowledge of the finer arts is anything like mine, then that’s about all you should come up with. In short, the role of the conductor hasn’t held much prestige in the music world for quite some time, and there aren’t too many young kids harping on their parents to buy them their first set of orchestral batons for Christmas. Nathan Parker Smith is looking to change all that, and the control he has over his 18-piece, horn-army orchestra is enough to make at least a few eager youngsters think that standing with your back to the audience is the coolest place to be on stage.

The first time you realize this album should come with a seatbelt is on “Interstellar Radiation Field” – a big, dark, dangerous tune that oozes off its embrace of the half-time, and compositionally owes more to Mr. Bungle then it does to Peter and The Wolf. There’s an undeniable massiveness to this record, and with so many horns in full assault mode, it seems to be always flirting with the cusp of chaos. It’s a sophisticated smash – a sonic portrait of the inside of The Incredible Hulk’s mind as he tries to reconcile with the genius of Bruce Banner lying inside.

The immensity of Not Dark Yet never lets up. Even on tunes that tend to have a more cinematic arc to them, like “Dark Matter” and “Solace,” you feel like you’re listening to the soundtrack of a Kubrick-directed version of Godzilla. The long ambient build of “Fog Over East” comes as a slight respite from the rampage, but you’ve only got a minute to catch your breath before you’re back on the battlefield. And those moments of breath are the one thing that this record is lacking. It’s not until the last cut, “Carrington Super Flare,” that we hear Smith utilize a glimmering contrast in dynamic structure, and the waves of flow on that song easily make it the stand-out track. But that’s not to say there’s not an essential purpose to the rest of the album – if I’m ever lucky enough to take down a skyscraper with a wrecking-ball, I want this record blaring out of 50-foot tall speakers while I do it.

In short, Not Dark Yet may be the most brazen album I’ve heard in a long time. It takes some iron balls to go this big, and I can’t think of anybody who’s come this close since Frank Zappa. If Primus ever needs horn-lines written, this is their only logical choice. Smith is making quite the declaration of his presence, and you’d be hard pressed to find any conductor, composer, or military strategist who can parallel his urge to seek and destroy.

For more info and to purchase the record, head to nathanpsmith.com

Top 3 On Stage Tributes To Bands’ Kids


zzzzzjkSometimes there’s nothing better than seeing rock-stars showing their humanity. And sometimes there’s no better showing of humanity than doing something stupid on stage just to make your kids happy. So sure, I could have thickened up this list with footage of bands bringing their children up on stage and other mundane moves that are sweet but not bold. But I wanted to compile the boldest, most embarrassing moves of all time – moves that most likely wouldn’t have occurred if it weren’t per the request of the small people that musicians have the hardest time saying no to. Let me know what you think I missed, but here’s the three moments that seem the most unforgettable to me.

3) Eddie Vedder Busts Out Frozen’s “Let It Go” With Pearl Jam – 06.20.14
If you have little kids, or have friends with little kids, or even if you have been in the close proximity of a small child within the past year, then you’ve heard “Let It Go” – the mega-hit from Disney’s “Frozen.” It’s a pretty solid show-tune, but a few hundred listens will drive anybody over the edge. But when Eddie Vedder’s five-year old daughter asked him to play it last year, he shamelessly stepped up to the plate. Smartly enough, they covered it in Italy where presumably less of the crowd was familiar with the song, but it doesn’t make those high-notes any more in tune.

2) Barney The Dinosaur Plays Bass With The Grateful Dead – 04.01.93
The Dead were always fond of pulling an April Fool’s Day gag, but at Nassau Coliseum in 1993, they pulled a gag on the crowd that was more like a birthday present for Phil Lesh’s kids. When the band opened the second set with “Iko Iko,” the purple dinosaur came out on bass, much to the delight of the children perched stage-right. Contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t actually Phil in the suit – he was playing live tucked behind his cabinets. If anybody tries to tell you differently, just ask them how he would be nailing the bass line with giant, purple fingers.

1) Stephen Malkmus Covers Taylor Swift – 01.11.15
Has a greater juxtaposition of artists ever occurred? When Portland’s Crystal Ballroom hosted an all ages MuMusicRx event in January, Malkmus and the Jicks played a set that started at three in the afternoon. At the request of his daughter, they opened up their set with Swift’s “Blank Space” – a tune that he seems familiar enough with to realize he’s probably had to listen to it in his car with his girls nearly every day this past year. Now if you’re one of the confused audiophiles over at Pitchfork that somehow thought Swift made one of the best albums of 2014, then you’ve probably spooged all over your keyboard at this video, and frankly it is pretty Jicksed out to tolerable levels. But a month after it happened, SM tweeted “Please stop watching the Jicks T Sway video unless you are under 11 years old.” Sometimes it’s hard to run from the monsters you’ve created.

Should A Random Jury Really Be Making Copyright Judgments?


Marvin_Gaye_(1973)

By now you’ve probably heard the news that the family of Marvin Gaye has successfully won their lawsuit against Robin Thicke and  Pharrell Williams - $7.4 million off the claim that “Blurred Lines” copied “Got To Give It Up.” Sure, the first time I heard “Blurred Lines,” I immediately thought it sounded exactly like the Gaye tune, but I was more annoyed by how big of a douchebag Thicke is more than anything else. So there’s obviously a ton of questions this brings up, including:

 

– Where and how do we draw the line between theft and inspiration?

– Does it matter if it’s intentional?

– Do Marvin Gaye’s kids deserve all that money?

– Will this open the door for more lawsuits of similarity?

– For instance, why hasn’t Electric Light Orchestra sued Green Day for turning “Telephone Line” into “21 Guns“?

But the most important question in my book is: How can we be putting decisions of copyright infringement due to sonic similarities into the hands of old judges and random juries? I talk a lot about the subjective nature of music – how there’s not necessarily a strict, objective structure for any piece of music – we all hear things in our own way. So with the degree of subjectivity casting a wide blanket of uncertainty over things already, how are we supposed to supplement that judgement with the opinion of folks who most likely have little to no knowledge of chord structure, key, tonality, rhythm, and the whole cascade of other other factors that are used in composing a song? It’s be like asking me to judge a dog-show. I have no fucking clue what makes one shih tzu better than the other – that should be left up to the panel of experts who have wasted their lives judging the perfection of dog breeds. And thus, any legitimate court decision over song copying should be delegated to folks who have wasted their lives judging the quality of music. I’m not necessarily volunteering for that position. Well, scratch that – if they wanted to hire me for that gig, I’d take it. But regardless, what I’m saying is that it is completely absurd for there to be not one person involved in the actual music industry taking part in these kinds of judgments. I hope that Pharrell makes an appeal on this case just so we can bring this issue into the conversation, and make the higher-ups realize that just being a judge doesn’t make you qualified to judge music, or any other form of art for that matter. It’d be like putting Adriano Celentano in charge of judging American grammar. Watch the video below…

Album Review: Kung-Fu – Tsar Bomba


zzzzkungfuCan a band be too tight? I asked myself that on several occasions while listening to Tsar Bomba, the sophomore release from Connecticut jazz-funk allstars, Kung Fu. And if I hadn’t already been familiar with the band in a live context, then it’s quite possible I would have said yes – Kung Fu are too tight. But personal opinion will vary depending on what you’re looking for in a “funk” album. If prog-rock precision is your bag, then Tsar Bomba will absolutely level you to the floor – these are some of the most talented players in the game, and if this was solely a battle of chops, then they would dominate all comers. But if you’re looking for a little more grit in your groove, then this record can sometimes feel too polished. It’s constantly inspiring, but rarely frightening; and quite frankly, I like to be scared.

Now just to be clear, I’m judging this record by an entirely different standard then most albums I review. Guitarist Tim Palmieri is quite possibly the greatest secret of the jam-rock world – blessed with a speed and proficiency that would make Yngwie Malmsteen nerds wet themselves. Drummer Adrian Tramontano is equally stupefying in the “why hasn’t this guy been on the cover of Modern Drummer yet” kind of way. So it’s slightly discouraging that, despite some monstrous playing, the first couple songs stay nestled in the summer-festival comfort zone. Things finally get weird on “Rattlesnake,” an odd-timed attack-piece that resonates of Umprhey’s McGee as much as it does of Frank Zappa. The title-track builds off of this creative momentum, forging another assault-like groove that finally reveals the ferocity dwelling beneath. It could be even bigger though, with some more bass in the mix – these songs deserve to be felt in your ass, but are centered on cerebral groundings.

Things do descend towards the glutes when the double-time kicks in. “Scrabb” harnesses the power of the booty, anchored by a monstrous bass-line from Chris DeAngelis. Later, we hear a soul-oozing bass solo on “Belatone” that not only showcases his ridiculous touch, but also breaks things up in a way that would have been beneficial earlier on in the album. Smartly, the band includes a live cut to close the record, and it instantly sounds like an entirely different band. Be it the natural echo of the room, the lack of time restraint, or Todd Stoops’ tendency to take far more brilliant risks on the keys in a live setting, “The Hammer” is a better showcase of this band than anything that happens in the hour before its arrival. Kung-Fu needs to find a way to transmit that sense of danger from the live setting to the studio, and it’s the key thing missing on an album that is otherwise dripping with perfection. These cats are absolute beasts, but I feel like they’re caging themselves in on Tsar Bomba. I’m not saying they need to put their bassist in a diaper, but I’d be stoked to hear them bring their powers deeper to the dark side next time ‘round.

Can Björk Be Too Björk?


zzzzbjNext week Björk releases her new album, Vulnicura – her first since 2011’s Biophilia.  A few singles have already dropped, accompanied by breathtaking videos. Well, most people would call them breathtaking; unless you’re concerned that they’re too Björk-y. And before that sounds too ridiculous of a statement to make, take heed in the fact that I’ve heard it uttered in one fashion or another from a few different folks. Essentially, their criticism isn’t that the new stuff doesn’t sound great, but that it sounds too familiar. Which is inherently an odd reaction to have, since if there’s any definitive sound of the Icelandic princess, it’s that her ethereal, orchestrated, sonic-acrobatics can stray into limitless directions. But I get it – it only takes two seconds of listening to know exactly who the artist behind these tracks are. But would you want it differently? Would any of us really be stoked if Björk was trying to put out Miley-esque bangers? Of course not. And there’s literally nobody out there that has ever succeeded in making music that sounds marginally like this, so the answer is no – Björk can not be too Björk.

However, that does lead to the question of whether any artist can be too much of themselves, which I will quickly answer with a resounding yes. Case in point: the new Modest Mouse. It’s been eight years since Isaac Brock has put out an album, and we’ve listened to statements for years about him struggling to make it just right. Thus, it came as some surprise to me when the first single dropped and it sounded just like every other Modest Mouse song I’ve ever heard. And yes, they do have a signature sound, albeit one that many other indie-rock artists have taken on their own in recent years. So what makes Brock different from Björk is that other artists have filled in the Modest Mouse gaps since they’ve been gone – there’s no need for more of that sound. It’s the same reason Radiohead knew they would never make another The Bends after Coldplay came into existence – too much redundancy. I think many of us would have been really excited to hear something fresh from Modest Mouse, not the same staggering half-beat with half-shouted lyrics over the top. It’s just too Modest Mouse-y.

And obviously the toughest part for any artist is knowing when they’ve gone too far into becoming a caricature of themselves. This is something we have seen Phish struggle with since returning six years ago. They want to make fresh, innovative music that pushes themselves forward. However, a huge swath of their fan-base just wants to hear more of the same old cow-funk. How do they maintain their identity without being too Phishy? Some would argue that recent songs have succeeded in altering the formula just slightly enough so that the echoes of themselves are there, yet they’re ricocheting off of brand new corners. But some would argue it’s just too much of the same. I suppose in the end it’s always up to the individual listener, even though I tend to stray into the camp of thought that there is always at least a margin of objective truth in the quality of any music. Decide for yourself with Björk – watch the new videos for “Lionsong” and “Family” below.

Concert Review and Pics: Tweedy @ The Crystal Ballroom – Portland, OR – 03.14.15


Tweedy06Four years into my Portland existence, I still get flummoxed by the unique crowd reactions here in the Pacific Northwest. On Saturday, I was initially taken back at the saint-like status the majority of the crowd held for The Minus 5’s Scott McCaughey, but the real head scratcher came when an Uncle Tupelo song from 1991 garnered the greatest reception of the evening. However, the devotion to songs Jeff Tweedy wrote before his son was even born didn’t necessarily translate to an equal appreciation of songs he wrote when his son joined the band. And thus, a majority of the crowd still seemed rather unfamiliar with the material off of last year’s Sukierae. That’s too bad, because despite the sleepier aspect of the music in a live setting, a few of the tunes deserve to be right up there in the pantheon of great Tweedy-penned hits.

Tweedy09In my opinion, “Nobody Dies Anymore” and “High as Hello” are both catchier than anything off of the last two Wilco albums, and sounded great in fully fleshed-out band mode. Yes, there is actually a full band in the touring incarnation of Tweedy, not just dueling Tweedys on stage as many expected walking in. Ironically, “Low Key,” introduced by Jeff as the “smash single,” felt like the most forced tune of the evening, which made it feel all the more like a relief when the rest of the band left the stage at its’ end. Now don’t get me wrong, the show was great up to that point, but I think you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in the crowd that wasn’t more excited to just hear the man alone with his guitar.

Kicking off with “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart,” Tweedy let the crowd take the first chorus and suddenly the whole atmosphere changed. Perhaps in a knowing response to the viral tirade he gave this crowd the last time he was alone in Portland, a sacred silence Tweedy03overtook the sold-out audience. I’ve never heard that room be as hushed before, and it elevated the profundity of the moment to near holy-status. I was up front, and I honestly heard somebody drop a quarter in the back balcony during “Via Chicago” – literal pin-drop levels. “Jesus Inc.” and “Hummingbird” both were held in the same shiver-inducing grasp, and even the more upbeat “I’m A Wheel” seemed to instill a reverence you wouldn’t normally expect from it. He closed the solo portion of the show with an immediately granted request of Uncle Tupelo’s “Gun” and, like I said before, middle-aged PDX crowds flip their shit when you play their favorite alt-rock hits from the early 90’s.

Tweedy10It was both rad and somewhat touching when Spencer joined his dad back on stage for “Heavy Metal Drummer.” The subsequent array of fart jokes that came after would have been incredibly embarrassing to any kid who doesn’t have Jeff Tweedy as a father, but here it gave us all a brief insight into how cool it must be to be on the road with a pseudo-rockstar pops. The encore section was like a summertime daydream: John Lennon’s “God” – “I just believe in me… Spencer and me” – Neil Young’s “Losing End,” and a show closing “California Stars” that made me think how happy I would be if every band on the planet closed their gigs with it. Americana at its finest. View the setlist here.

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 All pictures by Adam Beardsley King – all rights reserved.

The Young: New Kids On The Matador Block


zzzyoungMatador Records has been one of my favorite labels for decades. Pavement, Yo La Tengo, Kurt Vile, The Jicks, Guided By Voices, The New Pornographers - literally some of my all time favorite bands. They’ve had a few brief stints with some major label cohorts, but for the most part have maintained their independence and subsequent respect from audiophiles world-wide. That means they’re far more into quality over quantity, and have kept their artist roster rather low and sonically stacked, rather than having an abundance of “meh.” So whenever Matador adds a new band to the roster, you know there has to be something special about them – as is the case with The Young.

Now to be honest, I’m not sure how long these fellas have been on the label, or even fully around as a band for that matter. They’re one of those groups who go for the less-is-more ethos in the online publicity game. But they popped up on my radar last year with their sophomore LP, Chrome Cactus. I ranked it at #29 on my Top 50 Albums of 2014 list and described it at that time as having a “grit that’s reminiscent of Mission of Burma, if not a little fuzzier, and they sound like dudes who skipped over all the slow songs on their Pavement records.” Some non-articulate folks may simply tag the band as “stoner-rock,” but I don’t usually associate tight pockets and good melodies with that genre. In some ways, The Young are like the musical antithesis of a Monet painting – in that they get clearer and more vibrant the close you get to them. Imagine a loud band practicing in your neighbor’s garage that, from your living room, sounds like a stack of metal trash cans getting thrown against the walls. But when you go next door to complain, and get close enough to hear the details, that garbage-band has vanished and in their place is a fine-tuned unit of soul-dripping guitar-rock.

Listening to Chrome Cactus is like attending the church of the holy fuzz pedal – the tonality never really changes up for 40 minutes, and it’s fucking beautiful in that way. This record absorbs you, and doesn’t ever give you a chance for your brain to wander towards any daily obligations. It’s the kind of album that when partnered with a repeat button and a bag of weed, you’re apt to let the whole weekend slip by. This is Friday afternoon beers on the front porch music, and it’s not trying to be anything else. It’s fucking rock and roll people – good ole, unpretentious, electric, shit-kicking rock and roll. Hopefully these Austin cats get some more tour dates on the books soon, because right now Switzerland is all I see. Keep track of ‘em on their site, and check out “Cry Of Tin” below.

Album Review: Viet Cong – Viet Cong


zzzzviteCalgary’s Viet Cong recently had a gig cancelled at Ohio’s Oberlin College due to their “deeply offensive” name, which is ironic for two reasons. The first being the fact that in a time when bands like Cerebral Ballzy and Black Pussy are rocking the national tour circuit, naming yourself after a guerrilla army that’s been defunct for four decades seems rather tame. The second being that a cancelled gig is exactly the kind of notoriety this band was looking for when they took on this moniker, and you’ve just fully fallen for their game. Regardless, the band is embracing a darker side of post-punk that many of their sonic peers are shying away from these days, and deserve our full attention anyway.

“Newspaper Spoons” opens their self-titled debut with a distorted drum charge that sounds like the advance call to an Orc army, or at least the gothic soundtrack to some sort of ritualistic sacrifice. It’s a quick move to turn away the timid, but those willing to push through are rewarded greatly for their courage. As it gradually melts into an organ-synth loop, you get the blissful pinch of having no clue where they’re going next. And at times, it seems like the band is surprised at where they end up as well. The six-minute centerpiece, “March Of Progress,” starts out with overlapping loops of distortion that don’t vary much from the sounds everybody makes when they take 12 bong-hits and play with the new synthesizer that just came in the mail. But once they add on their 60s-British-psychedelia-era vocals, the tune morphs into a cascading dance-floor party. There’s a magical, perhaps-unintentional linearity to it; almost like the band said, “Wait, what were we doing? Oh well, how about this?”

After spiraling through 20 minutes of transcendental mop-nodding, that in a general sense sounds like Television if they were addicted to DMT, “Continental Shift” seemingly pops up out of nowhere. It’s the first time we hear the band placing an emphasis on melody and chord changes, and the result sounds like a dream-drift collaboration of David Bowie and Sonic Youth in both of their primes. Either that, or like Echo and The Bunnymen performing at a black mass. The eleven minute closer, “Death,” takes things a step further into the soundscape darkness, churning and frothing through every post-punk touchstone you can fathom, and providing the perfect sonic chaos to make your wife look at you like an elephant is crawling out of your nose. This ain’t no lazy Sunday music. The band’s biggest problem is trying to cram too much into a seven-song LP, and they’ll benefit greatly next time ’round by going down a more direct route – be it further into the swirling haze, or ascending to the focused light. I’m on board either way.