Thursday, March 31, 2011

March 30, 2011: The Avett Brothers

The Avett Brothers
Johnny Mercer Theater (Savannah, GA)
March 30, 2011

The last time I caught the Avett Brothers in Savannah was their first time playing the town. At one point, Seth--never one to pass up an easy applause opportunity--said, "This may be our first time here, but it certainly won't be our last!" The boys made good on that promise, staging their glorious return to the Hostess City less than a year after their debut. This time, it was a part of the Savannah Music Festival--the same event that lured Wilco (a show I caught) and M. Ward (couldn't make it) a year earlier. Band of Horses plays next week, but I'll be giving that one a miss in hopes they throw their hometown a bone within the next few months.

Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows that I'm no stranger to Avetts shows. Last night was my sixth rodeo--a small number in comparison to some superfans, but by now I'm a qualified observer. I've seen only Ryan Adams and Wilco more, and Band of Horses just as many times. This is also the fifth Avett review to appear on Hearsoundswrite. I offer these numbers to give you some context, because those bands that I see regularly are naturally held to a different standard than the once-in-a-lifetime type shows (see: Tom Waits). I think a burden for any band is to keep devotees interested. A growing band--especially one that tours so steadily as the Avetts--has got to stave off any impression of stagnancy, less the fans start to experience diminishing returns (I talked about this in one of last year's Wilco reviews.) Now, Wilco could probably fill a venue with only casual fans, so it isn't a huge issue for them. If their core ever dropped off (which it won't) they'd be fine. The Avetts, I'd argue, still depend on a combination of both casual and core followers--the latter being those that would travel across a state (or states) to catch their third show in a week. So how does a band maintain that core following? How do they convince their superfans to spend time and money on a show that they've already seen?

The answer, as I posited in that Wilco review I referenced earlier, is to be cognizant of what the people want. Again, this is especially important if you tour steadily. A guy like Tom Waits, who tours twice a decade if we're lucky, can get away with playing whatever he wants. But the Avetts seem to announce a new tour every week. They still play a hundred dates a year, give or take. That's a lot of seats to fill. The Avetts and their management calculate that there is an adequate demand for this volume of shows--and I'm sure the diehards factor into that. But will it ever amount to too much supply, even for the diehards?

I'm no diehard, but I haven't passed up a chance to see the Avetts in recent years. Largely, my efforts have been validated. Last year's Savannah show was stellar. The state fair wasn't the best Avett's performance, but the show itself was a highly memorable experience. So I had no reason to believe that this year's first Avett experience would be any different.

It may seem like everything I've written thus far is a set-up for a self-piteous "THEY LET ME DOWN" rant. That isn't the case. In fact, I had a great time. Our seats at the Johnny Mercer Theater were four rows deep in the center orchestra (seven rows including the pit seating) so we were roughly 20 yards from the stage. Mercifully, there was no Jessica Lea Mayfield opening set to endure, so the boys came out after a brief introduction from a festival official, and started off strong with "Laundry Room", the stand-out track from 2009's I & Love & You. From there, we heard a combination of old and recent material, and even a couple of new songs. Concert standbys "Shame" and "Paranoia in Bb Major" are always winners. I was thrilled to hear "All My Mistakes"--my personal favorite Avetts tune. And, thankfully, they played "Talk On Indolence", which I haven't heard them do since their Charleston performance in 2009.

The setlist, however, left me nonplussed. I've made no bones about my less than ecstatic reception of I & Love & You. It's aged nicely, but I just don't get excited when they start into any of its songs with the exception of "Laundry Room". By the end of the night, they'd played 8 of the album's 13 songs. There were also two (quite nice) new songs, and they closed with a cover of "Blueridge Mountain Blues". These accounted for 11 of the night's 21 songs. [ed: I've learned that "Dream Appointed" isn't a new song, just a non-album track.] All told, there were only four songs that predated 2007's Emotionalism. This is highly uncharacteristic of a band who usually shows its love for the long-time fans by bulking up setlists with material from their formative years--back when they were but a little-known newgrass outfit from Concord, North Carolina.

In fairness, I should mention that the performance itself was, as always, a joy to watch. Scott was as hyper as I've ever seen him, and Seth was his usual self, hamming it up on mic and off. Joe Kwon and Bob Crawford are delightful in their supporting roles, seemingly content to let the brothers do their thing. The drummer still seems uninitiated, like he's just a session player hired for the night. The new stuff requires a drummer, though, and I suppose the brothers were rather stay up front than take turns manning the skins as they have in past years.

I realize the tone of this review was a bit sour, so allow me to underscore the fact that I did enjoy myself. The boys put on a fine performance. I just fear that my desire to travel for the band is waning, especially if Wednesday night's setlist is any indication of what to expect. I fully understand that the days of raucous, old-school Avett shows have passed. I know the band is outspoken and realistic about their desire for/acceptance of progress, and so, I'd imagine, is much of their core audience. For now, I doubt that the Avett Brothers will have any trouble filling auditoriums around the country. But for me--a passionate but not diehard fan--I'll just wait for them to get back to Charleston. At the pace they tour, it should be any day now...

Setlist and a couple of photos:

Laundry Room
Go to Sleep
And It Spread
All My Mistakes
Traveling Song
Paranoia in Bb Major
January Wedding
Slight Figure of Speech
Tear Down the House
Ballad of Love and Hate
Hard Worker
Head Full of Doubt, Road Full of Promise
Scared to Die
Talk On Indolence
I and Love and You
Kick Drum Heart

Live a Dream Appointed
Blueridge Mountain Blues

Other Johnny Mercer Theater Reviews:
The Avett Brothers

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

11 Best Builds: Conclusion

Isn't it meta that there was such a build-up to this list's finale? Here are the 11 Best in totality:'

11. My Morning Jacket - "Gideon"
10. The Felice Brothers - "The Big Surprise"
9. The Decemberists - "The Crane Wife 1 & 2"
8. Damien Rice - "The Blower's Daughter"
7. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young - "Country Girl"
6. Arcade Fire - "In the Backseat"
5. Led Zeppelin - "The Rain Song"
4. Red House Painters - "Drop"
3. Radiohead - "Weird Fishes"
2. Wilco - "Poor Places"
1. Neutral Milk Hotel - "Ghost"

So once again a Mark Kozelek project, Radiohead, Wilco, and Neutral Milk Hotel chart high. What can I say? Some bands just know how to put a fine song together. Just a reminder, the next two months will feature single-post 11 Best editions, due to the sprawling MAYhem feature that will overtake the blog for a few months. Now for this month's Wild Card:

Wilco - "Dreamer In My Dreams"

(Ed: flabbergasted that there isn't an available Tube for the studio version of this. Sorry.)

I apologize for including yet another Wilco song--I know I said one song per artist per list, but I'm going to put a moratorium on that rule for today. Besides, this Wilco is aesthetically miles away from "Poor Places" Wilco. Anyway, The album closer of the classic Being There, "Dreamer" takes the opposite route: it deconstructs. It starts off as an uptempo send-off, but before long falls into charming corrosion. Between the two false endings, the final verse that appears improvised, instrumentalists playing catch-up, and Jay Bennett's punctuational "That's it!" followed by the resounding slam of the piano fallboard, "Dreamer in My Dreams" is the unbuild.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

New developments in MAYhem

There's been a shake-up in the rankings of the second annual Indie Music MAYhem. But at the same time, the line-up has been finalized. Here are the new developments:
IN: Man Man. I mentioned their new album earlier this month. They were on the bubble until today, they secured a spot today. I'm excited about their inclusion in the contest--they have that dark horse feel about them.
IN: My Morning Jacket. Album release date is official: May 31, same day as Death Cab's new one. Unlike last year, a few of the entries have late-May street dates, but I'm assuming they'll be floating around well enough in advance.
OUT: Radiohead. It's been brought to my attention that King of Limbs is hitting the streets today, not in May, so they're a no go. Which is probably a good thing, because I already love the King of Limbs so much that it would have a huge advantage on all the others.
So the contenders are:
  • Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues
  • Okkervil River - I Am Very Far
  • Man Man - Life Fantastic
  • My Morning Jacket - Circuital
  • Felice Brothers - Celebration, Florida
  • Death Cab for Cutie - Codes and Keys
The previews will start in April. For now, feel free to read through last year's MAYhem coverage on The Deeper In page.

11 Best Builds: 1

1. Neutral Milk Hotel - "Ghost"

This one wasn't close: "Ghost" is one of the most spectacular builds you'll ever hear. Over four minutes, the song shakes and shudders like a pre-launch before it finally rockets skyward in the final verse. Impressive when you consider Jeff Mangum's vocals are virtually unwavering throughout. The instrumental arrangement deserves the credit, especially the drums. But why try to reinvent the wheel? Allow me to quote myself, from a piece I wrote on In the Aeroplane Over the Sea from a few years back:
"The album's finest moment is 'Ghost', a song that features an absolutely brilliant build, and the most attractive melody line on the album. The drums fight to remain dormant, bursting through in powerful rolls until the final verse, when they finally boil over into a steady gallop; the song codas with an instrumental flourish, repeating the melody line in a proud choir of sound."
Don't let it be said that this "build" emphatuation is a recent development...


Wrap-up tomorrow...

11 Best Builds: 6-2

6. Arcade Fire - "In the Back Seat"

First of all, how weird is it that Funeral came out 7 years ago? And that Arcade Fire is now one of the world's biggest bands? Actually, the latter question really shouldn't be a surprise to anyone who heard Funeral back when it was released. It's an album chock full of anthems. While the likes of "Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)", "Wake Up", and "Rebellion (Lies)" hog the critical spotlight, my favorite has always been "In the Backseat". Regine Chassagne takes the vocal lead on what starts as a delicate ballad, but rolls out into an explosive conclusion. Like most great Arcade Fire songs, "Backseat" owes as much to the dense arrangement as it does to any singular element. But the build is a function of that arrangement, with the string sections growing around Chassagne's high vocal wails and the drums' steady thud. A resounding closer, the song is a final peak in the Funeral mountain range.

5. Led Zeppelin - "The Rain Song"

Legend has it the song was borne out of a criticism from friend/fan/Beatle George Harrsion that Zeppelin didn't write enough ballads. Who knows if the story is true, but either way, after Houses Of the Holy came out Zep certainly had one to brag about. "The Rain Song"--which was my favorite song for a long time and is still up there--takes a simple enough lyrical approach. Emotions vis-a-vis the seasons--"the springtime of my love," "the summer of my smiles," "the coldness of my winter." The words might seem worthy of a crocheted wall-hanging, but the crescendo the song achieves is one to behold. It's a lengthy tune, but Jimmy Page's all-time riff was the perfect backbone around which John Paul Jones could build mellotron sections. And John Bonham's drum textures in the second verse stir up a triumphant bridge, where we finally hear Robert Plant unleash a few hair-raising notes. The song floats back down as nicely as it climbs, a welcome exhale after such an invigorating ride.

4. Red House Painters - "Drop"

The word that comes to mind here is "excruciating"--it's a build that takes so long to develop, it's almost undetectable. But the RHP's were never a band to rush things. Hell, their last album came out a few years after they dissolved. So anyway, it shouldn't surprise you that the band was album to craft one of the most grueling builds you'll ever hear. You wouldn't been foolish to assume that the song wouldn't build at all. But piano and drums enter gracefully, and the emotional gravity of the tune begins to strengthen. The song reaches its apex at about seven minutes, when the third chorus starts and Mark Kozelek adds a ghostly high harmony to the words "All the love..." If you aren't fighting back tears at that point, you were probably in too good a mood to be listening to the RHP's in the first place.

3. Radiohead - "Weird Fishes/Arpeggi"

Again, there were just so many Radiohead songs to choose from. But embodied the build the way that "Weird Fishes" does. Let's face it--the build is the song, and vice versa. Guitar tracks build up steam throughout, and Thom Yorke's ups the voltage on his delivery throughout. Perhaps the song's defining trait is Ed O'Brien's backing howl. The repeated Eeeh-aaahs that flare in the middle verses will bring your neckhairs to full attention. Again, this song is just one extended build, but give Radiohead credit: it would have been just easy for the band to maintain a steady pace/feel throughout. Hell, it's already a high-energy track when it kicks off. But the band chose to ratchet things up over the course of the song, resulting in a subtle build

2. Wilco - "Poor Places"

The song's arrangement is a masterwork--it's jagged and scarred, featuring tense whirrs and beeps and clicks and other instruments that jockey for attention. The noise here is clearly meant to architect a feeling of anxiety and paranoia--something supported in Tweedy's lyrics. I went into this at length in last year's analysis of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. The song's--and album's--climax is a windstorm of feedback behind the robotic recitation of the album's title. It's a melee that spills over the song's timid former half like hot lava. No other build on the list elevates quite as high as "Poor Places", nor is any one so important to its album as a whole.


Keep an eye out for this month's #1, in just under the gun...

Friday, March 25, 2011

Weekly Whathaveyou - Friday, March 25, 2011

Various and Sundry Goings On About Music:
  • The big news this week is the long-awaited announcement of a new Bon Iver LP. The second album from Justin Vernon may not closely resemble For Emma, Forever Ago (our 4th best album of 2008) based on what he told Rolling Stone. Still, it seems 4/5 times when artists say that, it's not as much of a deviation than they'd lead you to expect. For Emma was great, and so was the Blood Bank EP, so I have every reason to believe that Vernon will execute. The still untitled album drops in June.
  • My Morning Jacket still won't dish on the release date of their album. They did announce a small tour that doesn't come close to the Atlantic southeast. But again, it's a small tour, and this is a band with a superhuman ambition when it comes to touring, so I don't doubt I'll be able to catch a date or two as the band tours behind Circuital.
  • But speaking of southern-fried hardrocking sumbitches, I will finally see the Drive-By Truckers, after what seems like a hundred squandered opportunities. In fact, back in January of 2009 I wrote a "Musical Resolutions" list which included four must-see bands/artists I still needed to see. It's sort of depressing, but the DBT's will be the first of those four I can scratch off. Anyway, the Truckers play in Charleston semi-regularly, but I always seem to be out of town. Not this time. See you on April 14th!
  • There's another song out there from the new Fleet Foxes album. It's called "Battery Kinzie", check it out.
  • Now for the weekly excuses housekeeping updates: Look for the remainder of 11 Best next week. Been inundated with projects lately. Is this whole delay a piece of calculated interactive art nodding to the "builds" topic of March's Best of 11? Sure, why not.
Recent Listening:
  • John Prine - s/t
  • The Replacements - Tim
  • Ryan Adams - Demolition
  • The Tallest Man On Earth - The Wild Hunt
  • The Louvin Brothers - Tragic Songs of Life
Upcoming Releases of Import:
  • Cass McCombs - WIT'S END (April 12) 
  • TV On the Radio - Types of Light (April 12)
  • Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit - Here We Rest (April 12)
  • Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues (May 3)
  • Okkervil River - I Am Very Far (May 10)
  • Felice Brothers - Celebration, Florida (May 10)
  • Man Man - Life Fantastic
  • Death Cab for Cutie - Codes and Keys (May 31)
  • My Morning Jacket - Circuital (Spring '11)
  • Bon Iver - (no title yet) (June '11)
My Upcoming Concert Schedule:
  • The Avett Brothers (Savannah, March 30)
  • Drive-By Truckers (Charleston, April 14)
  • Iron and Wine w/Low Anthem (Savannah, April 23)
  • The Fleet Foxes (Atlanta, May 14)
A Tube For You:
As I mentioned last week I've been spinning a lot of Will Oldham's older stuff--the Palace projects from the mid 90s, before he assumed the Bonnie "Prince" Billy monicker. Such is my excuse for posting this clip from Conan. Oldham's performance is wonderfully off-kilter, with his eerie gaze, jigs, and squeaky warbles. I sense that Oldham is amping up the eccentricity to fuck with a late-night audience that's used to waxed, buffed, and polished performances of snappy lead singles. No one seems more caught off guard than Conan O'Brien--always one for wearing his reactions on his sleeve. "That was great," a mildly frightened Conan tells Will. That was great indeed.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

11 Best Builds: 11-7

11. My Morning Jacket - "Gideon"

One of many standout tracks from Z, "Gideon" is anchored by a frantic guitar line that serves as the steady thread throughout. But as far as steadily building the track's bombast, I give much of the credit to Patrick Hallahan's drumwork. He's attacking every drum and cymbal in reach by the time the song reaches its cathartic peak, marked by Jim James unleashing one his best primal screams on record ("Come oooooon!"). The song is like an approaching airliner, starting as a distant hum and escalating to a full-on roar.

10. The Felice Brothers - "The Big Surprise"

Part of the Felice Brothers' charm is their ramshackle simplicity. Their songs have a barnhouse jam feel, like they all just knocked off work and sauntered over to their instruments. But "The Big Surprise" was, well, just that...a song with some true structural mapping, foresight, and an unorthodox yet superb climax--when they hit that violin note it's like the bow stabs you in the gut. All this a refreshing indicator of what the Felices are capable of; let's hope we hear more of that sort of thing on Celebration, Florida.

9. The Decemberists - "The Crane Wife 1 & 2"

Focusing on the first part of the two-song suite, the "Crane Wife 1" is a pure example of how you can craft a nice build simply by adding a few new instruments each verse/chorus. But the momentum is also boosted by the lyrics, as the song's build owes as much to Colin Meloy's gripping lyrics as it does to the instrumental layering.

8. Damien Rice - "The Blowers Daughter"

First of all, screw you. I like this song even if it costs me a man card to admit it. What starts off as an quaint little ballad blooms into a heartsqueezing rise before, as if crossing some heavenly threshold, it switches keys and Lisa Hannigan takes the reins. Sure, O might be a break-up album for female college sophomores, but I have a soft spot for any song with such an affecting crescendo. Not to mention he uses the word "blower" in stony defiance of innuendo.

7. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young - "Country Girl"

Long my favorite Neil Young-penned track, "Country Girl" features one of the less traceable builds on the list, only because it's already pretty dense from the outset. It features three similar yet distinct verses, each a bit more tumultuous than its predecessor, but the coda is what makes it. The song finally finds that root major it flirted with for the first four minutes, and the song concludes with a memorable vocal line over that deep, trembling guitar notes. Again, this song is more of a slow burner than most of the builds on the list, but it utilizes the approach just as great an effect.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Weekly Whathaveyou - Friday, March 18, 2011

Various and Sundry Goings On About Music:
  • Ryan Adams is touring Europe. It's the first tour of any kind he's embarked upon since 2009, back when I caught one of his final performances with the Cardinals. This Euro tour will be solo acoustic, featuring songs old and new. Speaking to the new songs, apparently Ryan's been recording with Glyn Johns, famed producer and father of Ethan Johns, who produced four of Ryan's albums (Heartbreaker, Gold, 29, and Pneumonia--technically a Whiskeytown album, but at that point the band was more of a collective behind Ryan and Caitlin Cary. It more closely resembles a Ryan solo disc than anything Whiskeytown did.) Anyway, I sure hope the European tour goes well and some US dates stem out of it. And I hope Ryan's next album is a return to form, for which he's long overdue.
  •  I recently acquired a bunch of Palace music--which includes albums under the name Palace Brothers, Palace Songs, and Palace Music. It's all Will Oldham, under names he used before assuming the Bonnie "Prince" Billy moniker. Really enjoying all of it so far, especially the unpolished, barebones stuff like 1994's Days In the Wake. If ever there was music of an eccentric folkie in a remote mountain cabin, this is it.
  • The new Strokes album Angles is out there, and it's none too shabby! The garage rock of This Is It only appears in small doses, but it's still got that snappy appeal of a Strokes album. I'm a huge fan of lead single "Under Cover of Darkness".
  • Just a few Housekeeping things: As mentioned work is killing me this month so it's going to be slow going round here. Will have Best of 11 up next week, as promised by the below post. The next two months, Best of 11 will be compressed to one post in order to make time/room for Indie Music MAYhem 2.0.
Recent Listening:
  • Weezer - Pinkerton
  • The Strokes - Angles
  • Bright Eyes - Fevers and Mirrors
  • Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band - Darkness at the Edge of Town
  • Various early Will Oldham releases
Upcoming Releases of Import:
  • Strokes - Angles (March 22)
  • Cass McCombs - WIT'S END (April 12) 
  • TV On the Radio - Types of Light (April 12)
  • Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit - Here We Rest (April 12)
  • Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues (May 3)
  • Okkervil River - I Am Very Far (May 10)
  • Felice Brothers - Celebration, Florida (May 10)
  • Man Man - Life Fantastic
  • Death Cab for Cutie - Codes and Keys (May 31)
  • My Morning Jacket - Circuital (Spring '11)
My Upcoming Concert Schedule:
  • The Avett Brothers (Savannah, March 30)
  • Iron and Wine w/Low Anthem (Savannah, April 23)
  • The Fleet Foxes (Atlanta, May 14)
A Tube For You:
Yesterday was St. Patrick's Day, so here's some Irishmen singing an ode to the fringedwellers (of sorts). It's the Pogues and their music video for "Dirty Old Town".

Thursday, March 17, 2011

11 Best Builds: Introduction

After last month's theme related to the month itself, I thought it'd be a good idea to try for that every time. Unfortunately, March proved difficult. 11 Best songs about potatoes? 11 Best songs with the word "Green" in the title? I was spreading myself a bit thin, so I decided the hell with it and just picked a topic. So without further ado...

The build: It's one of the most identifiable and, if used correctly, fail-safe tactics in songcraft. A song with a good build can snatch you by the scruff and take you along with it. In a bad mood? A good build can lift you out of the muck. Laboring through the third mile of a 5K? A build can bump your pace or spur you to the finish line.

Musically speaking, the term most closely related to what I'm talking about iis "crescendo"--which means "to get gradually louder." This isn't an uncommon term, of course, and any Michael Jackson fan knows it from "Smooth Criminal." "Canon" is another relevant term--although this refers specifically to repetition of a particular melody, and usually the repetition overlaps with the melody that precedes it (think "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" and, of course, Pachabel's "Canon in D".)

I find that the subtler the build, the more rewarding the effect. I'll underscore this ad nauseam when we get to the list. When compiling my pool of contenders, the list of worthy tracks totaled just south of 50, believe it or not. I've whittled it down to the strongest 11, but let's talk about some of the honorable mentions. First, those who have a track that appear on the final list:

The most represented artist in my list was, surprise, Wilco. Any of the seven Wilco songs I listed could have found their way on the list. This is why I limit one entry per artist. Tweedy and crew--especially Jay Bennett--are/were masters of subtlety and arrangement (a trait that matured with the band). Through its build, "Misunderstood" transitions from self-deprecating sarcasm to unironic rage. It was the hardest to leave off, and as I write this I'm fighting not to switch it out with the song that I did include. Other notables Wilco builds include "Hotel Arizona", "Via Chicago", "I am trying to break your heart", and "Handshake Drugs".

Radiohead always has something to offer (they've appeared on both 11 Best lists so far.) Subtlety has been their modus operandi for the past decade or more, so it's no surprise that you'll find plenty of slow-blooming crescendos in their catalog: "Sit Down/Stand Up" was also in consideration last month, and I was even closer to using it this time. Everyone knows "Fake Plastic Trees" and "Exit Music (For a Film)", but don't overlook the song that Thom Yorke considers to be the band's best: "Pyramid Song" from Amnesiac.

The Felice Brothers are no frills folkies, but they still use the songbuilding techniques at their disposal. "Goddamn You, Jim", a dirge from their self-titled album, is barely audible for most of its three and a half minutes. But, like a gathering of thunderheads, it expands into an ominous coda.

The Decemberists' "I Was Meant for the Stage" is, lyrically, about what you'd expect from a guy like Colin Meloy, who specializes in storysong melodrama. The build here is standard--layering a few instruments with each verse until it's an all-out Salvation Army symphony.

A few artists made multiple appearances in my initial list without finding a spot in the 11 Best. The Drive-By Truckers ("I Know Your Daddy Hates Me", "The Three Great Alabama Icons"); Pearl Jam ("Elderly Woman...", "Rearviewmirror"); and Whiskeytown ("Lo-Fi Tennessee Mountain Angel", "Pawnshop Ain't No Place For a Wedding Ring", "Inn Town", "Easy Hearts").

A few other honorable mentions:

Andrew Bird - "Scythian Empires"
Avett Brothers - "Laundry Room"
Bon Iver - "The Wolves (Act I and II)"
Girls - "Hellhole Ratrace"
Iron & Wine - "The Trapeze Swinger"
M. Ward - "Requiem"
The Pogues - "And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda"
Sigur Ros - "Untitled 1"
Yo La Tengo - "More Stars Than There Are In Heaven"

There were more, but I'll cut it off there in the interest of keeping it manageable. I don't want to overwhelm this post with links, so you're on your own for checking those songs out. Here's a link to Youtube though.

The 11 will roll out next week...

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Man Man has has a a new new album album. (Mayhem Mayhem?)

I've only ever mentioned Man Man once on this blog, back in 2009. But they're pretty damned good and I listen to Rabbit Habbits semi-regularly. They've been off my radar lately, but only yesterday I read that they have a new disc on the way. It's called Life Fantastic and I'm excited about it for two reasons:
  1. Mike Mogis produced it. Mogis is on my shortlist of favorite producers, and I hold dear many of the albums he's been involved with. Plus he's an pretty bad-ass musician (see Bright Eyes review just below this post for more.)
  2. The album drops on May 10, which means it's a possible MAYhem contestant. I'll probably limit it to six, like last year, but if My Morning Jacket decides to drop Circuital before or after May, Man Man will get the nod.
But it could be a good sign if Man Man isn't on the official list. Last year, the two best albums in May (according to you and me, respectively) weren't in the running: Black Keys won the fan vote by a mile, and Phosphorescent's Here's to Taking It Easy was favorite by the month's end.

Monday, March 7, 2011

March 5, 2011: Bright Eyes

Bright Eyes
Thomas Wolfe Auditorium (Asheville, NC)
March 5, 2011

Is it telling that in the weeks leading up to the Bright Eyes show, I grew a tad sheepish when people asked me what show I was going to see? I love Bright Eyes, but I realize they carry a stigma. The layperson considers them an emo band, and you really can't blame them. Conor Oberst was the posterchild (and I do mean child) for preening wusspunk, an icon to legions of skunk-striped teenaged anguish-baskets doomed to wander suburbia because of their lamesauce parents. But Conor Oberst is a far better songwriter than any emo kid deserves, and thankfully he's at least stylistically distanced himself from that subculture. I'd place them in any number of genres before emo, but he's still got the look and voice of an angsty teen, and until that changes it's just too easy to call Bright Eyes an emo band.

My introduction to Bright Eyes was I'm Wide Awake and It's Morning, purchased not long after its release in 2005 (I wrote about back in August.) It was a record that defined my age of musical discovery, and my college years in general. Since then, I've acquired most of Bright Eyes' records, as well as Oberst's solo material. But it's taken me this long to catch the group live, and not for a lack of opportunities. They played Charleston sometime while I was in college, and a couple of years ago Oberst played Hilton Head (for some reason) with the Mystic Valley Band. I especially regret missing the latter show, since I enjoyed most of his solo output and I'm sure he worked in some Bright Eyes material as well.

When the Asheville show was announced some months ago, I was bound and determined to scratch Bright Eyes off my need-to-see list. After all, Conor Oberst says Bright Eyes is kaput after this record and ensuing tour. Plus, it's always a treat to visit Asheville, a cultural oasis nestled in the Appalachians. The town was dreary but welcoming as always, bristling with activity and dreadlocks for miles. We met up with a buddy for a pre-show beer and a bite. Cursive was the opener, a band I've never listened to and regrettably still haven't, since we found our seats minutes after the opening set concluded.

The Thomas Wolfe is a venue I know well, and it has a stellar track record for me. I saw Ryan Adams and the Cardinals there in 2005 and Wilco there a year later (I was able to meet Adams and Tweedy those nights, respectively.) It's a mid-sized seated venue, similar to the North Charleston Performing Arts Center. The kind of place where your upper-tier indie acts play, leading snobs to gripe that seated venues are lame. I've never minded a seated venue myself, if for nothing else than guaranteeing your spot and having a place to drape your sweater.

Our friend bought a high-balcony ticket at the box office, yet he was unimpeded in his efforts to join us in row H of the left-side orchestra. Dense with vestiges of his emo fanbase, the audience as a whole was fired up. When the houselights dimmed, you couldn't hear a shotgun blast from ten yards away. The eerie monologue that kicks off The People's Key played for a minute before the band (sans Conor) took the stage; Conor waited for his bandmates to man their positions before he entered on his own. It was the first example of his somewhat surprising stage behavior. I assumed he'd be the shrinking violet hiding behind his stringy locks, raging if the song called for it, but maintaining the role of reluctant messiah who cares about little more than getting his point across. Instead, Conor was a ham. He thrived on the attention, reaching down to grasp outstretched hands of his front row disciples (especially after the final song, when he dutifully walked the length of the stagefront, squeezing every hand, even bending down to hug a few fans.) This wasn't off-putting, mind you, just unexpected.

He was also rather chatty, another element of his stage persona I wasn't anticipating. His oft-pretentious song introductions I could have done without ("This next song is shaped like a rainbow," he breathed before "Arc of Time (Time Code)",) but overall he was personable. He thanked Cursive several times, and thanked the audience even more. Especially entertaining was his introduction of the band members, wherein he spent close to a minute lavishing hyperbolic praise on each player before reaching the templated conclusion of " the flesh, [band member]. Goddamn!"

The band, by the way, was excellent. It was a treat to watch Mike Mogis, the only non-vocal Monster of Folk who more than makes up for his silence by pretty much slaying any instrument he touches. He split time between guitar, pedal steel, and mandolin (his mando playing on "We Are Nowhere And It's Now" was total ear-candy.) Nate Walcott, the other steady member, was just as proficient on keys and trumpet. The other members' names I won't remember, but I just have one question: where do these bands find rail-thin indie chicks? Is there a state-funded recruiting program or something? Is it written into the doctrine of indie rock that, at some point, you must have a waifish hottie multi-instrumentalist with straight-fringe bangs in tow? It's uncanny! Anyway, Bright Eyes had one. Unfortunately, her vocals were swallowed in the mix, so that element was missed on songs like "Nothing Gets Crossed Out" where that breathy, angelic vocal part is so effective.

The setlist was satisfying, although I was surprised by a couple of things. First, he only played one tune off Cassadega ("Hot Knives"). If you'd asked me before the gig, I would have told you the one sure bet was hearing "Four Winds", but it never happened. They did do a tune from the Four Winds EP, "Cartoon Blues". Secondly, there's a decent amount of unexplored Bright Eyes catalog that I've neglected. My count was 7 out of 25 songs I couldn't identify on the spot. Research confirms that they liberally called on both b-sides and older LPs (Lifted is as far back as I go, although I'm delving into Fevers and Mirrors as we speak.) As expected, we heard a great deal of the new album, which I'm slowly warming to. From Lifted and Wide Awake we heard three and four songs respectively, and these shined the brightest in my opinion (I do note my own bias towards these records.)

It'd be hard not to award Song of the Night honors to "Lua", the lolling ballad from Wide Awake with which Conor closed the main set. His performance was just as delicate as the album version, and only Nate Walcott remained onstage to add some trumpet and keys. "Bowl of Oranges" was one I was happy to hear, although it's impossible to replicate that perfect mix and arrangement from the record. The song didn't suffer, but it's much better on Lifted. I've heard the same said about "Let Down" by Radiohead--live performances just can't do the song justice. "Road to Joy" was as explosive as you'd expect, and it probably should have been the set-closer. However, the band closed with "One for You, One for Me"--finale of The People's Key. I really like it as a closer for the album, but it doesn't have that resounding punctuational quality of "Road to Joy." We heard a few off Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, all of which went over well. It was interesting, actually, just how much of a response those songs received. To me it's always existed in the shadow of its fraternal twin Wide Awake, but in different circles (re: those of us who didn't discover Bright Eyes through folkier channels) the scenario may be reversed.

When we exited the venue, it was cold, windy, and raining. We sought refuge in some downtown bar and stayed for a nightcap or two. Then it was back to the hotel where we crashed hard. The weather didn't clear overnight, so we fled Asheville under gray skies and steady rainfall. Thankfully, the weather was about the only imperfect element of the trip. When you travel to see a band, your greatest concern is that the artist won't validate your efforts. Remember, your cost of attendance is inflated when traveling--gas, accommodation, and meals end up dwarfing the ticket price. So when the show is a bust, you find yourself feeling a bit duped or even insulted. (I've twice traveled to Atlanta to see underwhelming Ryan Adams shows.) But thankfully, Bright Eyes put on a performance that was worth the eight hour round trip. I hope Conor Oberst's claims of retiring Bright Eyes are fleeting. A plausible translation is dormancy as opposed to outright extinction--who knows if he'll feel like reprising the group in a decade or more*. But if not, I'm glad to have this show under my belt.

*He'll probably still look like he's 12.

Setlist and a few crappy pics:

Jejune Stars
Take It Easy (Love Nothing)
Hot Knives
An Attempt to Tip the Scales
Padraic My Prince
We Are Nowhere and It's Now
Arc of Time (Time Code)
Falling Out of Love at This Volume
The People's Key
Approximate Sunlight
Haile Selassie
Trees Get Wheeled Away
Something Vague
Nothing Gets Crossed Out
Beginner's Mind
Cartoon Blues
Old Soul Song (For The New World Order)
The Calendar Hung Itself

Gold Mine Gutted
Lover I Don't Have to Love
Bowl of Oranges
Road to Joy
One for You, One for Me

Friday, March 4, 2011

MMJ brings good tidings to round out your week

It was just three damned days ago that I posted about the Felice Brothers pushing their new album back to May, thus making them contenders for MAYhem. In that post, I wrote:
"Still waiting for a sixth entrant--who wants in this rodeo? Looking at you My Morning Jacket."
And wouldn't you know it, yesterday the news broke that a new MMJ record (entitled Circuital) is now imminent. No release date as of yet; all they've said is spring 2011. My theory is this: April seems too soon and I feel like June is more of a summer month (despite being 2/3 spring.) Hopefully we'll know soon enough, but MMJ would enter as a heavyweight into what's already looking like a stout competition.

Additionally, this could mean more touring for the ever-nomadic MMJ--wouldn't mind catching them again!

Weekly Whathaveyou - Friday, March 4, 2011

Various and Sundry Goings On About Music:
  • I already knew Local Natives' Gorilla Manor was a pretty special album, but this morning I uncovered a new utility for it. I set out for an early morning jog today, and a whim I started the album on my iPod. I soon discovered that its track order immaculately paces an early morning run. HSW 2nd Best Track of 2010 "Shape Shifter" soundtracked the final stretch, and I found myself in a full sprint during the chorus. 
  • Great to see a local record store get a shoutout on a major media outlet. Papa Jazz Records (local to Columbia, anyway) got just that when Chaz Bundick of Toro y Moi mentioned the 5 Points locale as one of his favorite record stores. I remember first setting foot into Papa Jazz back in 2002, during my junior year in high school. I was on a school-related trip to Columbia for some such thing, and a buddy and I skipped whatever the event was to go record shopping. Of course back then my only concern was what Led Zeppelin related item I could find. Meanwhile, my buddy dutifully searched the racks for all sorts of obscure stuff I now wish I'd asked him about.
  • I don't know much of anything about James Blake, but I like the cut of his jib. Blake told Spin "remixing is like musical prostitution. I think it's really cynical and vacuous; I'm batting offers away like flies. It never used to be like that. Ray Charles didn't need five remixes. The song speaks for itself." I can sign on to this; few things excite me less than a remix album. Now I'll have to check out James Blake. Rest assured I have no intentions of remixing him.
  • I heard Lucinda Williams' new album, Blessed, and it's not bad. Nothing revolutionary, but serviceable background music for work, cooking, that kind of thing. I'm glad to see that, between Little Honey and Blessed, she's managed to rebound from 2007's West, which still stands as one of the worst albums I've heard by a reputable artist.
  • Site stuff: Been slow this week and will be next week as well due to work stuff, but look for March's 11 Best to roll out...sometime in March. 
Recent Listening:
  • Local Natives - Gorilla Manor
  • Lucinda Williams - Blessed
  • Conor Oberst - s/t
  • Spoon - Kill the Moonlight
  • Josh Ritter - So Runs the World Away
Upcoming Releases of Import:
  • Strokes - Angles (March 22)
  • Cass McCombs - WIT'S END (April 12) 
  • TV On the Radio - Types of Light (April 12)
  • Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit - Here We Rest (April 12)
  • Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues (May 3)
  • Okkervil River - I Am Very Far (May 10)
  • Felice Brothers - Celebration, Florida (May 10)
  • Death Cab for Cutie - Codes and Keys (May 31)
My Upcoming Concert Schedule:
  • Bright Eyes (Asheville, March 5)
  • The Avett Brothers (Savannah, March 30)
  • Iron and Wine w/Low Anthem (Savannah, April 23)
  • The Fleet Foxes (Atlanta, May 14)
A Tube For You:
I'll be seeing Bright Eyes for my first time tomorrow, so in honor, here's the gang performing the fantastic "Four Winds" from Cassadega:

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

A new MAYhem contender has emerged...

It was kind of a blow to the looming prospects of MAYhem last week when TV On the Radio selfishly decided to schedule their album for an April release. But thankfully, their spot has been occupied by a new contender with the thirst for glory. Although they're not new, per se. Early reports had the Felice Brothers releasing their new LP in March. But today, the band's new label Fat Possum Records announced the bands record will be released on May 10.

The bad news? More time to wait for new Felice Brothers.

The good news? MAYhem.

I like that our contenders come from different corners of the musical world: The Felices represent Americana, the Fleet Foxes carry the indie-folk banner, Radiohead is motherfucking Radiohead, and so on. Still waiting for a sixth entrant--who wants in this rodeo? Looking at you My Morning Jacket. #wishfulthinking

Anyway, the label's description of Celebration, Florida is intriguing and, I'll admit, a tad worrisome:
" exhilarating amalgamation of frightening horn sections, unexpected 808s, ambient synth lines, schoolyard taunts, booming, primitive drum beats, heavy bass lines, piano, violin, accordion, ringing guitars, rave beats, and sinister acid jazz that captivates and mystifies."
I'm an outspoken fan in a band progressing, but the above seems like a far reach for a band that's scarcely recorded a sound that couldn't have been recorded in 1950. I will say that some of the new stuff they played when I saw them back in November--some of it digitally affected--sounded promising.

Whatever it sounds like, my expectations are high. I was crazy about their last LP, Yonder Is the Clock, so hopefully the new one will build on that momentum. Here's the tracklist:
Fire at the Pageant
Container Ship
Honda Civic
Oliver Stone
Back in the Dancehalls
Cus's Catskill Gym
Best I Ever Had
River Jordan
(From the November show, I specifically remember "Fire at the Pageant", "Ponzi", and "Back in the Dancehalls", but I'm sure they played a few others.)