What We’re Listening To – ISM Playlist #5 – 12/18/14



As I get my best-of-the-year lists together, I’ve got a lot of 2014 in the current rotation. Hopefully some new ones grab you. More on the way.




  1. D’Angelo – “Ain’t That Easy” – 2014
  2. The Crusaders – “Tough Talk” – 1963
  3. Traffic – “Heaven Is In Your Mind” – 1969
  4. tUnE-yArDs – “Look Around” – 2014
  5. Swale – “The Next Instead” – 2014
  6. Mac Demarco – “Goodbye Weekend” – 2014
  7. The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger – “Animals” – 2014
  8. J Mascis – “And Then” – 2014
  9. Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks – “Planetary Motion” – 2014
  10. Fugazi – “Cashout” – 2001
  11. Waylon Speed – “Tally-Ho” – 2014
  12. Thompson Twins – “Hold Me Now” – 1988
  13. Vince Guaraldi Trio – “Christmas Time Is Here” – 1965


Please Teach Your Children About Prince

zzzprinWhile in the post office the other day, I overheard a conversation that I felt obligated to butt in on. A woman around 40 was trying to explain to her niece the similarities between some design she came up with and Prince’s old symbol form the “Artist Formerly Known as Prince” days. The niece, who was around 20, had a somewhat bewildered look on her face that led her Aunt to stray off to another tangent conversation. At that point I turned to the younger girl and said: “I’m sorry, but did I just hear you say that you’ve never heard of Prince?” To which she replied she had not. Now I don’t care if you’re a Prince fan or not, but I think most everyone would agree that any human on this planet has a somewhat blurred vision of reality if they don’t even know that Prince exists. I’m sorry, but Ariana Grande is not going to inspire the next great artists to get into music. Anyway, after expressing my amazement, I let this girl know that she should really at least check out Prince. She acknowledged my sincerity, and said that she’ll pull him up on Youtube as soon as she gets home. I of course then said, “Fuck, you can’t do that because he immediately pulls down anything of his from Youtube.”

This then led me to think of how a 20-year old today would find out about Prince. Believe it or not, this girl is even too young to have seen The Chapelle Show, so she never had that introduction. Plus, it’s a rare breed of youngen today that stays home on a Saturday night to watch Saturday Night Live so she wouldn’t have seen his extended performance on the show last month, nor would she have watched a 12 minute long performance clip of his from the show. Now think about what radio stations play Prince songs – the majority of them are literally considered “oldies” stations, so again there’s no kid on the tip of the modern scene who’s going to waste her time listening to non-current music. And hell, this girl was only 5 years old when the millenium came and went, so “1999″ never had a role in her life. You think this girl scans Rolling Stone’s Top 50 Albums of the Year list and looks for gems she’s unfamiliar with? Of course not. So with Prince putting such an enormous kibosh on any of his music being accessed for free on the internet, how is a young lady like this actually supposed to be exposed to Prince? The answer is through you.

The purple one is correct in thinking that music is still shared and experienced the most by friends exposing it to other friends. What he doesn’t seem to realize is that exposure happens through the sharing of different social media forms. No kid out there is burning a CD for a friend and bringing it over to listen to on a Friday night. So while Prince is the biggest outlier in the rankings of web presence, there are still a ton of great artists out there who won’t have their music on Spotify or other free streaming platforms. Thus, as an elder statesman of quality music, it’s your obligation to make sure there aren’t such glaring gaps in the musical lexicon of today’s youth. Next time you bitch about what crap the kids are into these days, stop for a second and think about what you’re doing to expose those kids to quality music. And even a step beyond quality music, make sure you’re exposing these kids to their history. They’ve got classes to teach them about Kennedy, but not to teach them about The Talking Heads. Like it or not, the future is still in your hands regardless of how old you are. Good quality “rock” music has only been around for some 50-odd years – it’s up to you to make sure it lasts til the end of time.

A Non-R&B Fan Gives You the Rundown of the New D’Angelo Record

zzzdIf you read this blog regularly then you know that R&B is not necessarily my forte. Sure, like any genre it has a diverse catalog that is covered by its tagline, so to rule out any music just because of how it’s labeled is usually going to keep you away from some potentially fabulous music you’d love. And I love the early decades of R&B, it’s just the more modern incarnations that make my nuts feel funny. Anyway, the entire internet is freaking out right now about D’Angelo’s first new album in 14 years, which dropped today. So here’s my first instinctual listen and take of Black Messiah, devoid of any specific recording details and strictly focused on how I think this think sounds – track by track.

1) “Ain’t That Easy” – Sweet mercy, there is not a human alive that could deny this pocket. Laid back but gritty. Melodically, its brilliant and feels simple despite its inherent complexities. When it drops to the major key in the chorus, you completely forget about everything shitty happening on planet Earth.

2) “1000 Deaths” – Whoa, shit got weird quick and I fucking love it. It starts off with some intense samples of a preacher, and then the bass starts pummeling your gut with a throbbing pulse. It sounds like what I imagine Gil Scott-Heron in his prime teaming up with Thundercat would sound like.

3) “Charade” – Even with heavy lyrics outlining the current oppression of anybody non-white, the lack of a solid hook on this one makes it harder for me to stay absorbed. Yes, the instrumentation is phenomenal – but right now this track is a touch too heady for a Monday morning. So that says something about the power he’s reaching for here.

4) “Sugah Daddy” – Centered on a jazzy piano fill that’s the kind of sample Jurassic 5 would have sold their souls for 15 years ago, this one channels that Cab Calloway vibe without it being corny or pushed. Really cool horn lines punch through as D’Angelo hits his natural falsetto lines that no 40-year old man should be able to do without his balls in a vice. Cool tune.

5) “Really Love” – The string section introduction is beautiful, and then it gets augmented by some flamenco touches before entering yet another undeniably stellar pocket. Centered on a walking bass line and hand claps, you realize that nothing this year comes anywhere close to matching this record production-wise. This is a classic Stevie Wonder-esque love song all the way.

6) “Back To The Future (Part 1)” – So sparse and yet so overwhelmingly full at the same time – that’s basically the name of the game on the whole album but this one straight up owns that vibe. If this one doesn’t make you do that short-step shimmy, then it’s time you bought some new shoes. Again, as an overall composition this is simply incredible, and the kind of thing that as a musician myself I still have no idea what the first step in writing a song like this would be.

7) “Till It’s Done (TUTU)” – Nobody hits a snare these days like ?uestlove, and he has this way of playing that makes you feel like he’s your best friend. This tune almost feels like they just asked him to to lay down a fly beat and then built the rest of the song over it. Despite the lyrics being about the planet crumbling, D’Angelo’s vocal vamping makes this the warmest cut on the album so far.

8) “Prayer” – This is the kind of track you make love to while getting abducted by aliens, and as thus has a groove that wouldn’t have been out of place on Auqemini or any other classic Outkast album. This one really showcases D’s brilliancy in not over-crowding a killer pocket with too many unnecessary vocalizations. Just like his album outputs, he goes by the “less is more” philosophy.

9) “Betray My Heart” – Here’s another one that feels like a re-imagining of some lost cut off Songs In the Key Of Life. I’m not sure what instruments D’Angelo is playing himself here, but whoever’s playing guitar has that silky jazz touch that makes you feel ashamed to listen to while not wearing a fine tailored suit. Perfect punches from a Fender Rhodes mesh in the art of sonic love-making with the horn lines. Just straight-up fly.

10) “The Door” – Well, you got to be a really fly motherfucker to whistle on a track and have it sound as tough as it does here. This is the type of laid-back swagger that you picture a wholesome pimp embodying. You know, the dude who doesn’t beat his girls and is big into community action. It’d be hard to listen to this one on headphones while walking down the street and not get one of those sly hitches in your step.

11) “Back To The Future (Part II)” – I’m not sure why more R&B folks don’t use self-referential reprises. The beat is a little punchier than on Part 1, and perhaps even a hair deeper into the “everybody’s getting laid” category. I don’t know if I own shoes good enough to dance to this track in public to.

12) “Another Life” – If I added up my top ten smoothest moments in life, their cumulative smoothness would still pale in comparison to this cut. With a guitar tone that everyone seems to have forgotten about since The Delfonics last had a hit, this track essentially discredits everything that’s happened in the world of popular soul music over the past 30 years.

So overall… yeah, this is one of the most ridiculously fly records made since I have no clue when. It makes you realize that any praise you’ve given to Frank Ocean or any other modern soul-cat was all relative to the absence of D’Angelo. Quite simply, he has no current peers that are anywhere near being on his level. Every single Best-Of list that came out in the past month is a joke since it doesn’t include Black Messiah, and that being said – who makes their year’s best list in November anyway – (other than everybody and except for I Shit Music). You can stream the whole record right now at Spotify.

Flora Purim is a Brazilian Goddess – The Best Latin Jazz Track You’ve Never Heard

Flora PurimWhile listening to Nick Gefroh’s killer Descarga Latin Jazz radio show on Portland’s awesome KMHD last week, he played a track that not only had a familiar voice but also made me giggle uncontrollably while listening to it. Turns out it was an old Duke Pearson track – Pearson was a fantastic pianist who actually played with Donald Byrd before Herbie Hancock was in his band, and he was also a key producer over at Blue Note Records in its earlier days. The voice was that of Flora Purim, whom I recognized as she was the voice on those floating Return To Forever tracks with Chick Corea back in the day. Purim has a pretty incredible list of career highlights including work with Carlos Santana, Dizzy Gillespie, and Mickey Hart, but her voice really thrives when it’s in the traditional Brazilian-jazz motif.

So right now Portland is one of these stretches where we don’t see the sun for a couple months, and it’s a Wednesday in the midst of a long work week, so this newfound track is just what I need to get me through the morning. It’s called “Upa Neguinho” and apparently it only appeared on a Blue Note compilation LP called Back Down To The Tropics. Thanks to whatever new program Youtube is using, it automatically appeared on their site a month ago and currently has 0 (yes, zero) views. I assure you, you only need to listen to the first 10 seconds and hear Purim’s ridiculously hype vocal chorus to know that you should be completely in love with her and this track. Give it a spin, and let’s try to crank that playlist up to the double digits.

Photo credit: Brian McMillen - Paul Masson Jazz Festival, Saratoga CA 1981- brianmcmillen@hotmail.com

J Mascis’ Tied To A Star and The Power Of Noise-Warriors Gone Soft

zzzzmasAs I’m compiling the good ole’ Top 50 Albums of the Year list, I do what I do every year which is to revisit the majority of the records I’ve listened to throughout the year and see which ones still resonate with me in any way. Well today was my, “Oh fuck this J Mascis album is such a friggin’ soul-ripper” revelation day. I’ll chalk it up to the record coming out a few weeks from my wedding – so it was a time when the rest of reality seemed non-existent for a while. Tied To A Star came out in August and is the Dinosaur Jr. frontman’s second solo album since 2011′s Several Shades of Why – a total soul-crusher in its’ own regard. And while this new record features some electric guitar that was absent on the first one, they’re both basically just stripped down Mascis to the core. Now I’ve loved Dinosaur Jr. for a long time; not only for their sound but for what I see as their straight-up necessary existence for our current reality and universe to exist as they are today. So what’s amazing to me is the fact that Mascis can do the opposite of everything that he tangentially represents, and I can somehow love that as equally if not even at times more so than what he does with the band.

There’s a certain aura that manifests when the loudest artists in the world start whispering, and I’m a total sucker for it. I think it has something to do with the fact that you’re able to witness the primordial core of these wizards of electricity. You see that for all the tools that they potentially utilize to harness their inner voice, that voice itself is the root of the power. The element foundation – the rawness – is something that I am inherently drawn to adore. It’s the same with someone like Neil Young – I love the sound of his buzzsaw, but it’s the acoustic tracks that get the most spins over the years. Maybe it’s growing up listening to Neil in so many fashions that gave me the affinity for seeing behind the curtain, so to speak. In some ways, it’s only the artists that I can see all multiple angles of that become my true beloveds over the years. I may have never gotten into a band like The Breeders if it weren’t for those one or two really quiet songs on each album. To me, having such an enormous gap in dynamic structure just gives you such a better understanding of the heavier, more standard parts of a band’s repertoire. I like Black Sabbath, but what’s my favorite song of theirs? “Changes” – and yes, I’m aware that that’s probably one of the pussiest answers any rock fan could give. It’s just that sometimes stepping back and taking a breath is one of my favorite things to do.

So that’s why I love quiet Mascis. It’s a an oddly parallel reaction to how I’ve come to feel about Thurston Moore over the past few years. I’ve always loved Sonic Youth, but I think his solo-acoustic record from 2011, Demolished Thoughts, is probably my front-to-back favorite thing he’s ever done. To hear his delicate picking on an acoustic, knowing of the F-16 noises he’s capable of producing, gives you this sense of alternative depth as to who this human being is that makes these sounds that make you feel the way you do. If everything was just what was on the surface, then Kiss’ “Beth” would be the deepest song any of us would ever hear.

Check out Mascis doing NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts of all things, but make sure you listen to “And Then” below – my favorite track off of this year’s Tied To A Star.

“Damn, That’s A Nice Beard” and Other Classics Off The Beard Album By The Beards

zzzbeardsNow before you think that a concept so novelty as writing songs about nothing but beards may run thin quickly, keep in mind that 2014′s The Beard Album is the band’s fourth full length release. Of course the bulk of their following is from the local cult-like obsession of their native Australians, but still – that’s 48 friggin’ songs about beards. But the craziest shit of all is that this new record is actually pretty good. Part of the real catch is that the band is so absorbed into the absurdity of the whole notion that they’re able to transcend the raw concept and create some quality music. Think They Might Be Giants if they  just decided to ride a run-trick pony as far into the setting sun as they possibly could.

Things start out incredibly powerful with the epic build of “The Beards Are Back” – the orchestrated string section is simply elegant if that helps you paint a better picture of what’s happening here. There’s really something for everybody though – from the Mumford-esque “Damn, That’s A Nice Beard” to the Night Ranger vibe of “There’s A Bearded Man In Me.” There’s the seemingly necessary Queen-esque “All The Bearded Ladies,” and the Kool & The Gang groove of “Touch Me In The Beard.” Things go deep when they enter the Morphine feel of “I Have A Beard And It Looks Really Good” and go even deeper on the Dio echoing vibe of “Hey You, Grow A Beard.”

Hey listen, sometimes on a Monday morning you just really need to contemplate what some humans on this planet are doing with their existence. You know, it really helps you understand your place in the world when you can say, “Well OK, these guys have been professionally making beard puns for a solid decade, so would I be happier surviving by those means rather than in the fashion I currently am?” It’s a beard band. It’s a real thing. And apparently they’re doing pretty alright for themselves. Check it out – you can stream the whole album HERE.

TV On The Radio To Headline Boise’s Treefort Fest in 2015

Treefort Logo Orange (Small_Web)The greatest festival in the middle of nowhere made its’ first artist announcement this morning and it’s a pretty big one. Sure, Fargo would be more of an apt middle of nowhere, but still… this is Idaho. It’s not like anybody will just randomly be in that neck of the woods for non-Idahoan things in March. But that’s the big draw of Boise’s Treefort Festival – it’s a destination fest. And coming from Portland, it’s a rather cool road trip as you go over the mountains and through the desert and back into the mountains and then suddenly pop up in a bustling trove of progressiveness nestled in the heart of crystal country. This year the festy takes place March 25th through the 29th and you can find more details HERE.

So the big announcement is that TV On The Radio will be headlining one night. Seeing one of the greatest live bands on the planet anywhere is a pretty good deal, but seeing them on an outside stage in the middle of downtown Boise after barhopping through 20 different bands beforehand will be a true experience. I just had one of those mild heart palpitations thinking about it. The rest of this first announcement is rather meh-ish. I’m sure a lot of those mountain folk will be stoked for Trampled By Turtles and Hurray For The Riff Raff, but neither of them really trip my fancy. The rest of the PAcific Northwest Indie acts on the bill I have yet to become familiar with. There’s also a couple young Portland bands on the bill though, and it always amazes me when an out of state festival is the first time I hear about local PDX bands. That can either be chalked up to the massive number of bands that reside here, or to the fact that any united local music scene here is still rather disjointed. But either way, here they are:

The Ghost Ease - 
The Ghost Ease is an all-female three-piece that kind of sound like a collaboration between Bjork and Built To Spill. Guitarist Jem Marie has an atmosphere all her own though, and despite an apparent affinity for not fully tuning her guitar, she plays it like it’s an additional limb – full of raw beauty and sounding like she’s ready to kick the ass of any dude who calls this a ‘chick band’. Non coincidentally – here’s “Raw.”

Yeah Great Fine -
OK Portland, I’ve got a pretty big gripe to pick with you for nobody once mentioning this band to me. I’m down with any band that labels themselves as party math-rock and lists their key influences as The Beach Boys and Ratatat. It’s always a good sign when I’m aggressively banging my head while at the same time thinking what a bitch it must have been to have worked out the rhythm section for a song. Check out “Bright Light” and I promise you’ll be as instantly won-over as I was.

Album Review – Swale – The Next Instead

zzzzzswaleThere’s a right and a wrong way to be an aging rock kid. The wrong way is to think that your teenage angst somehow parallels your mid-life crisis and to scream shitty punk songs like you’re driving a hot pink Maserati. The right way is to channel your lifetime of experiences into well-crafted songs that transcend any genre boundaries and relay the wonders of human experience to your fellow man. Vermont’s Swale overwhelming favor the latter route. There’s a degree of tangible warmth on The Next Instead that can most likely only be born from the interplay of married musicians that have no apparent disdain for one another. The husband/wife combo isn’t always a recipe for success, but Eric Olsen and Amanda Gustafson make it work in a way that makes you wonder how other bands survive without that level of intimacy.

Opening cut, “Everyone Likes To,” is a rocking tromp through our common bonds, and the friendliest use of swears since The Moldy Peaches – the big difference being that Swale actually know how to play their instruments. Everyone in the band is a great player, but more importantly they all have preeminent ears for dynamics. The biggest songs on this record are the gentlest ones, and the rockers are the most pop-friendly. And oh yeah, they’re downright geniuses when it comes to the lyric department. Gustafson is able to put a full novel’s worth of imagery into the simple opening line of “Beaten Down” – “I thought I was beaten down, then you beat me down.” Then Olsen does the same thing on the following track, “You Are Not the Photograph” – “We take apart a lifetime/Disregard the bad times/Erase them all/We take apart a lifetime/Catalog the good times/Decorate the walls.” The two also have great voices: Gustafson sounds like Aimee Mann if she wasn’t the biggest drag at a house party, and Olsen has that delicate quiver like your best friend telling you about the time a girl broke his heart in high-school. The softness he brings to “Before the Night” redefines the term ‘somber’ as something I want to take as a daily vitamin.

The simplest way to categorize all these tunes is as pop-rock, but more in the vein of diverse expansion that The New Pornographers owned in the early 2000’s. And coincidentally, if you still haven’t listened to this year’s New Pornos record then don’t bother – The Next Instead is a better album in 50 different ways. “Popular Crowd” sounds like it could be the theme song to a modern-day version of The Wonder Years. “Edible #2” has the kind of staggered drum-beat that makes the tallest guy in the room stand on his toes. The closing title track sound like… well it just sounds like Swale – eerie, beautiful, peaceful, enchanting, and the kind of music you can see yourself returning to for a lifetime. You can pick up The Next Instead over here at Swalesong.

Does It Matter If You Write Your Own Music?

Duke Ellington Writing on Music ScoresLast night while engaged in a conversation with Eric Hickey, guitarist for the amazing Portland funk/jazz band Joytribethe topic of shitty pop music came up. Hickey was quick to point out that whenever anybody tries to dis Taylor Swift, the rebuttal is always “but she writes her own songs.” Eric’s great question was that of when did this become admirable? In other words, so fucking what? Has the lack of artists who write their own music become so commonplace that the simple act of doing so is enough to intrinsically raise the level of quality attributed to their music? Well, it’s kind of a yes and no answer.

In the early days of rock and pop, it was actually quite rare for an artist and composer to be one and the same. Elvis is the obvious big example – the King of Rock and Roll never actually composed any of his own music. But that was the business back then; if everybody has their specific natural talent, then it’s unnatural to presume that the greatest songwriter is also going to be the greatest singer or guitar player. And that’s why you had things like the country music hit factory down in Nashville, or any of the Motown studios. And in terms of the song itself, this scenario makes sense – if you get the best parts together, then you should end up with the best product. And of course, this isn’t just the case with pop or country. Some of The Grateful Dead’s most beloved songs were covers, and even Bob Dylan admitted that the Dead played his songs better than he. And even on Jerry Garcia’s originals, he was singing Robert Hunter’s words. But think for a second about why people went to so many Dead shows – it was because of the moments in-between songs when the jams stretched out and you were able to see Jerry and the band as the original artists that they were. Folks went to those shows to be able to be exposed to the artist in his most primal form.

Thus, there is something inherently admirable about the all in one artist. Particularly it’s the fact that you’re absorbing this human’s output unfiltered and unassisted. The purity of the artist as a product entirely unto themselves is the main draw. And so there’s always been a different level of respect for those kind of people – watch the Sonic Highways Nashville edition and see just how much of an outlier Dolly Parton was in her business for writing her own stuff. However, Dolly consistently was writing classic songs. Some of Taylor Swift’s songs are utter garbage. Thus, the fact that someone writes their own music shouldn’t be used as an argument for why you should respect their output of crap. Hell, I wipe my own ass but that doesn’t mean my poop is thus better than somebody who lets a bidet shoot water up their asshole. So in the end, it really all comes down to the quality of the music itself. If a song sounds great but wasn’t actually composed by the artist performing it, then who cares? It’s a fabulous piece of sonic art that exists in the universe. And if a song is great as performed by the actual composer, then all the better and more impressive. However, this does nothing to lessen the quality of the non-composing artist. So you can try to defend Miss Swift all you want, but until she writes something that people will still be listening to 5-10 years down the road, the fact that she is the author is a moot point.

And seriously, in the pantheon of great pop music this track doesn’t even crack the top 1000.

Photo courtesy of the estate of Duke Ellington.

Chancius – Hidden Alt-Pop Gem Of The Year

zzzchMusic comes at me from so many different directions that sometimes I lose my bearings. And if a piece of music is really good, I usually have the instinctual feeling that I’ve heard it somewhere before. Such is the case in both instances with Chancius. In September, the New York subway veteran released Bando, a somewhat convoluted amalgamation of different alt-pop touchstones set upon a story line of twisted sci-fi romance. For the most part, it’s a little too all over the place for my taste. I applaud any artist who single-handedly tries to write an alt/pop, sci-fi/opera concept album, but sometimes when you’re trying to go that big it helps to have some additional insight into your compositions beyond what lies in the depths of your own mind. It’s hard to tell how much input he let the other players in the band give to the actual melodic and lyrical composition of these songs. But that being said, the guy does have some pretty good ideas bouncing around up there. However, nothing on the album comes nearly as close to the obscure radio potential of “A Piece of You Wherever I Go.”

While going through the stacks of emails sent to me regularly by the promotional crew known as The Planetary Group, I gave the track a quick music-journalist perusal. In other words, I listened to seven different 5-second clips of the song. But, as is possible in this method of quick consumption, this tune grabbed me and sounded familiar. Enough so that I instantly presumed it must be one of those hip new tracks on the local alt-radio station. But no, that wasn’t it – this one grabbed me just because it’s friggin’ killer and we were having one of those distorted time-line moments of adoration and familiarity. Built upon a rumbling drum fill, the catchy verse is only topped by the even catchier chorus. Chancius has one of those voices that people usually call a Flaming Lips influence, which basically means he has a shitty voice but he owns it enough to make it sound endearing. Frankly, it doesn’t sound as good on the more delicate tracks on the album but it’s ideal for this single. But so goes the process of song creation. Presumably, this tune wouldn’t exist as it is if it weren’t for the development of the rest of the album’s songs around it, so there is a degree of necessity in the album itself.  And I wouldn’t call that situation that of a one-hit wonder, so much as I would call it a self-influenced moment of fruition. Either way, the song deserves way more attention than the apparent nothingness it’s currently garnering, and that easily makes it my top hidden alt-pop gem of the year – if that means anything to you.