Friday, December 28, 2012

My Favorite Albums of 2012

 1. Tame Impala - Lonerism - Modular Recordings

This album feels like a familiar coat that I want to put on day after day, no matter how many other people are sick of seeing it. It’s incredibly warm, and to me, I feel good in it every day. Lonerism is incredibly multicolored and the psychedelic wanderings let my brain go in five different directions at once, giving me the perfect distraction from everyday life, and an endless, luminous zone of hazy pleasure. It is always an escape, and although every song could have been simply contrived late Beatles shit, every song is its own. Plus, the lyric “whoopsie daisy/I thought I was happy” in “Why Won’t They Talk to Me” and the buzzy guitar line in “Elephant” are two perfect entities that I just want to hug forever.

2. Django Django - S/T - Because Music

A primal rush of what sounds like pure spontaneity but feels like meticulously, brainily planned artwork, this album came out of nowhere and swept me off my feet into the jungle. I don’t know why I suddenly feel like I joined a Native American tribe when I listen, but, oh, wait, it’s because the percussion is skittery and the vocals are poppy (not like popular, but actually, they pop – like the corn) and my body starts convulsing into something that probably resembles some traditional dance requires a full headdress and some kind of body paint. “Default” is hands down the most enjoyable song of the year.

3. Grizzly Bear – Shields – Warp

I’ve been saying this same stupid phrase over and over again, but I’m serious: Grizzly Bear has been making languid a good thing since 2004. And I can’t get over how they get more and more interesting with every album, seeming to get more insular but also more relatable at every turn. These are gorgeous shimmering ballads and drawn-out guitar squalls that really make you listen and think and concentrate on the music. I rarely get stuck on a song that moves at the speed of quicksand, but “The Hunt” is entirely too beautiful for me to comprehend. How do you even invent choruses that convey such raw sadness that I can strangely feel the pit in my stomach growing by the second? Ugh. It hurts so good.

4. Fiona Apple - The Idler Wheel... - Epic

I was one of those kids who found Fiona Apple disgusting. All I knew was that music video where she crawled around the floor (Did that happen? Was it a figment of my imagination? I fear youtube will reveal another truth.) and I thought she was a terrible role model. I was, like, 13. And then came Extraordinary Machine, changing my mind. I was also in college at that point, old enough to sort of understand. Now, this brilliant album. Nobody is doing what Apple is doing. Strange chimes and even weirder chord progressions, it’s uncomfortable and oddly appealing for reasons unbeknownst to me.

5. Father John Misty - Fear Fun - Sub Pop

I want someone to mash-up “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings” and Neutral Milk Hotel’s “King of Carrot Flowers Part 2 & 3” because they are the only two songs that makes this Jewish girl want to belt out “JEEEEESUS CHRIST.” Moving on, I was blasted right out of my car when I popped this album in my stereo (thanks Sub Pop!) and heard this collection of songs. It wasn’t til later I found out this was the man responsible for making me laugh at his silly jokes at the Fleet Foxes concert I saw a few years ago. From the ultimate cool simplicity of “Hollywood Forever” to the country twang of “Tee Pees 1-12,” every song is pretty much an experiment in another genre. The prose here is really thoughtful, too. Oh, and the haunting “This is Sally Hatchet.” Love you J.


6. Beach House - Bloom - Sub Pop

When will Beach House mess something up? Because I just don’t understand how it is possible to make dream pop that is just its own perfect paradise, and do it at the same time as never being boring. Isn’t that an oxymoron or something? These songs are just lush pillows filled with gummy bears and velvet coats and unicorns and the scent of double chocolate brownies. Beach House is integrating more texture and interesting beat-oriented fun into their music, and it’s hitting the pleasure spots in my brain. And Victoria Legrand is the woman I want to be when I fall asleep and become a rock star.

7. Patrick Watson - Adventures In Your Own Backyard - Domino

I’m starting to sense a trend here in my top ten, and it involves lots of bedtime music. But seriously, “Morning Sheets” is one of the more perfectly composed songs I’ve heard in my day. Like, I could listen to it probably three dozen times before actually wanting to leave my bed. PEOPLE. I’m going caps lock on you because WHY DOES NOBODY EVER LISTEN TO PATRICK WATSON WHEN I TELL YOU TO? This album is incredibly adventurous (pun intended, but not really) because it goes Spanish troubadour  (in a non-tacky way) with “Lighthouse” and then pitter-patters you straight to the actual definition of crescendo in “Blackwind,” and those are only the first two songs. This album is quietly epic. Yes, another hyperbole/oxymoron and I’m only at #7.

8. Alt-J - An Awesome Wave - Infectious Music

I credit my writing for Under the Radar for helping me discover a good amount of new music this year that I may have never listened to otherwise. But this is the best thing it led me to all year. Whoever thought of the name of that record label is genius, because yes. This is one of the truly stranger vocals of the year (Tom Petty’s nasal-ness, Marcus Mumford’s scrunchyness, an alien’s personality), and it’s loveable. So is the strange way in which these songs seem to tumble from start to end, with time signatures that mess with your head. So much of this album is hollow-feeling, but never empty. Oh, and I’m so pissed that they put a hidden track on the end of “Taro” because I would have put that song on every single mix I should have made this year. I have been pretending that I’m in elementary school because that’s when I used to wear belly shirts and lots of scarves to perform in an Indian dance group. And that groove is so freakin Indian dance it’s not funny.


9. Spiritualized - Sweet Heart Sweet Light - Double Six

I was going to ask the rhetorical question, “is this what drugs sound like?” Because if so, they need to be legalized. But it turns out that Jason Pierce was actually going through experimental chemotherapy while putting this album together, so I’m going to actually thank his incredible human spirit for putting together such a masterpiece under terrible conditions. If you were to tell me that I was about to love the shit out of something that might be considered modern gospel music, I might dunk my head in some water and wonder if I was dreaming. But yeah, this is kind of uncategorizable, a hazy work of art that stretches genre limits and goes balls out, all the time. “Hey Jane” is a chaotic piece of glory, but “Little Girl” makes me feel so insignificant as a human/writer that I really could die. He sings, “Sometimes I wish that I was dead/cuz only the living can feel the pain/Sometimes I wish that I could fly/you get so grounded, that life will pass you by.” It’s actually the best lyric I think I’ve heard all year. And when you put it together with what he must have actually been feeling when he wrote this album, ugh, I can’t even.


10. Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan - Domino

When gauging my favorite music, I sometimes laugh because I put it on a ranking of just how weird my Top 40-loving sister would think it is. I don’t think dear Nicole would make it past the first twenty of seconds of this album without deeming it inappropriate. This is wholly unique and so beautiful in that sense. When I saw them live, and I heard some of the harmonies in real life, I was thankful to be alive. I mean that in the most obnoxious, cliché, life-affirming sense. Plus, the title track is just the only song I want to listen to while making pancakes on a Sunday morning. Jack Johnson, you have been banished from my kitchen.

11. Poor Moon – Illusion EP – Sub Pop
12. Damien Jurado – Maraqopa – Secretly Canadian
13. Japandroids – Celebration Rock - Polyvinyl
14. Husky – Tidal Wave – Sub Pop
15. Cloud Nothings – Attack on Memory – Carpark Records
16. Frank Ocean – Channel Orange – Def Jam
17. Violens – True – Slumberland
18. The Tallest Man on Earth – There’s No Leaving Now – Dead Oceans
19. Yeasayer – Fragrant World – Secretly Canadian
20. Bowerbirds – The Clearing – Dead Oceans

Honorable Mentions

Divine Fits – A Thing Called Divine Fits - Merge
Metric - Synthetica – Metric Music International
Opossom – Electric Hawaii - Fire
The Shins – Port of Morrow – Columbia
Grimes - Visions - Arbutus
Lower Dens – Nootropics – Ribbon Music
Atlas Genius – Through the Glass EP – Warner Bros.
Bro. Stephen – Baptist Girls - Crossroads of America Records
Gomez Addams – Summer Viking – Self-released
Ty Segall – Twins – Self-released
Sharon Van Etten – Tramp - Jagjaguwar
Rufus Wainwright – Out of the Game – Decca/Polydor
Dent May – Do Things – Paw Tracks
Woods – Bend Beyond – Woodsist

Monday, December 10, 2012

Jessica Lea Mayfield & David Mayfield in Louisville

Sibling rivalry can be the fiercest of competitions, more vicious than political infighting. It’s love and hate, there’s the protective instinct, and of course, a desire to one-up that pesky brother or sister. A sibling can somehow get closer to pinpointing your strengths and weaknesses than anyone else in this world. It’s an indescribable, unparalleled connection between two human beings.

So when Jessica Lea Mayfield and David Mayfield decided to go on tour together, they thought The Sibling Rivalry Tour would be a good name. But luckily for us, these siblings are the type that gets along. Perhaps a better name would be Sibling Bonding. The two haven’t spent much time together lately – with both of them leading their own bands – so they chose the dates because it allowed them to travel together around the holiday season.

It’s not like they haven’t shared the spotlight with each other. They started performing together when they were young. In fact, it was a family affair. They traveled with their parents in the bluegrass band, One Way Rider. Jessica was only eight.

“When I was old enough to have rational thought, about six years old, I knew I wanted to play music for my whole life. I wasn’t one of those kids who was like, ‘oh I’m going to be an astronaut and a guitar player and a priest and a Mormon and a nurse,’” says Mayfield.

And music is what both have done ever since. While she admits that the lifestyle of a traveling musician is less glamorous than she initially imagined, Mayfield says she’s never taken her eyes off this path.

Fortunately, working with her brother and her husband has helped keep her comfortable during her creative process. Both have played in her band and toured with her at some point since her debut full-length in 2008. Mayfield has also enlisted the help of The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, who produced both her debut and 2011’s Tell Me, both of which express a sort of quiet turmoil.

Mayfield says she only writes about personal experiences, but she’s mostly driven to create when she’s angry or tense. And even though she’s still in the honeymoon period of her new marriage, she’s inspired to write her contemplative folk tunes in the worst moments.

“I’ve noticed that I’ve been writing about things like anger and sex and all other different aspects of my marriage that aren’t the good ones. Because when I’m having good experiences I’m going to go have fun. If I’m having bad experiences, I’m going to slam the door and do my own thing and be creative. It’s hard to be creative, at least for me, when I’m in a good mood. Because I’m just like, ‘Ok! Let’s go get ice cream and go see a movie.’ I almost need a little bit of turmoil.”

Mayfield plans to self-produce for the first time on her third release. She’s working with her brother and husband at home in Kent, Ohio on some of the new material. While it’s been nice to leave the grind of constant touring behind to work on new ideas, Mayfield is ready to get back on the road.

 “You can only appreciate watching Netflix naked so much. If it’s just one day a week, it’s alright, but if it’s every night, it’s like, ‘aw man.’ I need to get back out there.”

(I wrote this for LEO Weekly. You can see this show Tuesday, December 11th at Zanzabar. See ya there.)

Monday, November 5, 2012

Sandpaper Dolls Only Need Voices

I wrote this for LEO Weekly. Their album release show is tomorrow night at Meat!

Lugging heavy equipment from venue to venue, many bands only dream of leaving all of that hassle behind. Suki Anderson, Amber Estes, and Rebecca Dennison never had to worry about that. Ever since they formed Sandpaper Dolls, instruments were just memories they left in the past.

After playing in several different bands, the trio decided to form their own powerhouse. And this time, their vocal chords alone were enough.

Rather than carrying on like a chipper barbershop quartet, they’ve found their niche in more haunting harmonies. That doesn’t mean they’re leaving behind the fundamentals they learned in previous bands. Each song – although a cappella – has percussive elements, a bassline, and a melody.

That percussion is reflected in various shapes and forms on their forthcoming debut studio album, Swallow Them Whole. “Colors” uses breathing techniques to establish a subtle beat, and a tongue clicks pepper “Cast Your Love” with a certain jazz.

“No matter what culture you’re in, everyone connects with the human voice. And they also connect with percussion in a lot of ways,” explains Dennison.

“Tesla Bossa” showcases some of the innovative ways they’ve been able to transform their voices into multi-dimensional instruments. Between chorus and verse, what sounds like a rousing horn solo overtakes the shuffle.

“We’re good at doing unusual things,” says Anderson, “But not to the point it’s a gimmick. You can push the envelope without pushing things too far.”

That applies to some new ideas they’ve added to their bag of tricks. One that took practice was learning how to sing while breathing in. They tried it because every breath is crucial in music so intimate that a pin drop would be jarring.

Estes laughs when recalling the first time she tried it. “I’m like, okay. I have to hit a note while I’m inhaling.”

Capturing those tiny moments on tape is another challenge. The trio spent three years recording Swallow Them Whole, catching the natural reverb of a church, the creepy vibes in a studio above a funeral home in West Louisville, and some classy moments inside a cave on Lexington Road.

“It was rough,” Anderson jokes, “There was an old mattress in the corner. It was like mud everywhere. It was just this slippery mud fest. It was really fun. It was like being in a hobbit hole almost. Actually a hobbit hole probably would have been nicer.”

To keep dry in the dripping cave, they all held umbrellas over them the entire time. And that was the easy part. Producer Kevin Ratterman (also known for helping My Morning Jacket record Circuital) carried a gigantic tape machine into the cave and covered it and all the cords with plastic.

All that legwork was worth it. The warmth and clarity of the recording is enough to make you feel like you’re standing a foot away from Anderson, Estes and Dennison. The occasional echo gives the three-part harmonies an otherworldy, timeless quality.

Their album release show aims to match that closeness. Sandpaper Dolls will take the stage at Meat, surrounded by candles and as many people as can fit inside the small bar. The night is bittersweet, though. After five years together, this landmark night also marks the Dennison’s departure from the band.

She’s leaving after what she calls a dry creative season and a need to refresh. The parting is amicable, and Estes and Anderson are already rehearsing with a new member.

So just as these three walked into one another’s lives, leaving the clutter of instruments behind, they continue their journey. They’re walking away from a longtime partnership, but headed toward a bright future.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

mr. Gnome @ Zazoo's Tonight

I wrote this up for the LEO. Check out the show tonight!

Cleveland-based bands aren’t really known for their national recognition. After all, when Pere Ubu is one of the “Rock ‘n’ Roll Capital of the World’s” biggest claims to fame, it’s hard for natives like myself to brag about the local scene. But mr. Gnome is the kind of powerhouse duo that’s working hard to dispel the rumors that Cleveland is just a sad city with a hopeless football team. Nicole Barille and Sam Meister play the kind of experimental, art rock that alternates between creepy psychedelia and murky pop. They don’t stop at music. Their 2011 release, Madness in Miniature, follows the same concept as their graphic novel and a soon-to-be-released live-action music video. mr. Gnome kicks off its fall tour right here Louisville.

Zazoo’s Bar & Grill

102 Bauer Avenue • 384-8478
$5; 8 p.m.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

School of Seven Bells Rings to Life

Not every Ghostory is the same

Some bands are defined by their image. Some by the scratchy vocals, or the signature wall of sound. Others are known for simple melodies, the kind that stick around in the brain for hours on end. School of Seven Bells is more abstract. The number of musicians in the band is fluid. They’ll tour with four, then three, then five. Right now, they’re at four, but that could all change with a moment’s notice.

Alejandra Dehaza and Benjamin Curtis are the band’s core songwriting duo. But their three-album catalog has stretched from the ethereal, wispy musings of Alpinisms to the pulsing heat of songs like “Low Time” off Ghostory, which came out earlier this year. The discography spans from shoegaze to supersynthy, and across the length of just one album, you’re transported to countless places.

As Curtis explains, they’ve never really been a traditional rock and roll band. The one thing that brings continuity to School of Seven Bells is Dehaza’s emotional sensibility, her approach of taking simple subjects like love and longing and transforming them into passionate experiences.

Their songwriting process is unique. Dehaza comes up with the lyrics, and Curtis responds by molding the music around them. His creations prompt her to alter the words, and they bounce back and forth like that until a song is complete.

“The catalyst can be a line that Alley writes, or a sound that I make, or a melody, or anything. And the song just sort of explodes from that,” says Curtis. It’s different every time.

Ghostory is written from the perspective of a character named Lafaye. Sometimes Lafaye is sometimes a culprit, other times she’s the victim. It’s not Dehaza’s first time writing as a character; their other albums are littered with songs from different voices. She’s explained “My Cabal” as a story about an alpinist and a poet, both crippled by their impulses. Writing as characters, Dehaza can explore her own honest emotions.

Though the music can stretch into dreamy, wraithlike territory, Curtis insists it isn’t the kind of live show played behind laptops and machines. It comes to life, an immersive burst of emotions. And, he emphasizes, it’s loud.

“I like to be transported when I go see shows. I like to feel like I’ve never been in that realm before. I like to feel like I’m completely 100 percent absorbed in the music. And there’s a million ways to do that. In our shows I feel like that onstage, and I hope that that’s communicated into the crowd.”

Dehaza and Curtis are getting to the point where they can’t fit all the songs they want to play into their hour and a half set. Even while they’re touring, new songs are coming out of the woodwork. So quickly, in fact, that they’re halfway through writing the next album.

“We can’t stop making music,” says Curits, “It’s a good situation to be in.”

To share some of the wealth, they’re bringing a 4-song mini album with them on the road that fans can only get at the shows. The new material is their most direct and immersive yet, and for good reason.

“There’s an intensity to Alley’s writing, and some of the subject matter is really heavy. I think the idea this time was that we wanted your brain to be fully absorbed in the story and the words and where the vocals are.”

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Grizzly Bear - Shields

Grizzly Bear has been making languid a good thing since 2004. And though its latest effort is anything but a droning soundtrack for those unwilling to leave the couch, a certain slow, deliberate beauty still permeates through this collection. The band’s signature guitar flutter and piano twinkling is accentuated with jazzy interludes on “What’s Wrong” and full-out psychedelic pop glory on “A Simple Answer.” While the music here is remarkably gorgeous, it’s also insular and heady – not the kind of record that calls for group listening. Bubbling in all directions, sometimes tricky to follow, Shields makes a case that these four Brooklynites might just have more creative folds in their brains than the average human. Several songs here are upbeat, but Grizzly Bear hearkens back to their debut with the unhurried pace of “The Hunt,” a remarkable case that the tortoise really is the winner.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Django Django - Django Django

--> Life was getting boring. All sandwiches started tasting the same. All dance music started to sound like David Guetta. The drive to work was monotonous, one traffic light after the next changing to red in unison. Then came Django Django, a four-piece band from London by way of Edinburgh. They took all that boring, shook it up and down like a bag of sonic confetti and poured it into our ears. “Default,” one of the singles, is a beautiful mess of seemingly clashing parts; ping-pong basslines, effortless harmonies, synthesizer swirlies and beats so infectious it hurts. The rest of the album is just as puzzling and addictive. From the Arabian nights synthesizers of “Skies Over Cairo” to the ready-for-the-rodeo guitar twirls of “WOR” to the power pop mastery of “Hail Bop,” Django Django is bringing back life in Technicolor.

Friday, August 3, 2012

The Lighthouse and the Whaler - This Is An Adventure

Violin and glockenspiel color This Is An Adventure with storybook soundscapes that swell and rise without laying on the sap. An expansive album streaked with orchestral beauty and unbridled passion, the subject matters stretch from death to lifelong journeys, keeping our attention with spritely chimes and sing-a-long whoa-oh-ohhs.

Forecastle Festival X - Day 3

Coming off a few shows in Europe, Cincinnati's Walk the Moon started the day off with an incredible energy that threatened to swallow the crowd full. Covered in their signature face paint, the band danced and stomped through a quick set of vibrant synthy pop songs. Popular songs included "Anna Sun" and "Tightrope," but they took us back a couple decades for "Lisa Baby," a disco-infused number with bouncy bass and a rocking motion.

No stage chatter was going to slow down Cloud Nothings. The Cleveland natives were on a rampage to play hard and fast, no interruptions allowed. Dylan Baldi seems like a quiet guy who just happens to front an insanely loud rock band. Most of the songs in the set came from 2012's Attack on Memory. "Fall In" sounded great live, a rush of melodic garage rock that urges the body to jerk back and forth. Bass player, TJ Duke, added crucial rhythm to a very feedback-heavy set.

The band stretched "Wasted Days" from a nine-minute song into a 20-minute assault. Speed-of-sound riffs slowed down and stretched out into druggy interludes that gave the band a break from the heavy shredding. It was hard to distinguish whether some of it was part of the song, or just ambient musings. It may have lost a little traction with the crowd, but Cloud Nothings pushed into the next song without a problem. Anyone with a tolerance for walls of sound kept up just fine.

Deer Tick was next to take the same stage. Starting with my personal favorite, "Art Isn't Real (City of Sin)," off their debut record, we were in for a varied set full of country, folk, and rock 'n' roll. Every member of the band started the show with a pink cowboy hat. "We're full grown men, but we act like kids," John McCauley howls in the country swinger, "The Bump," a pretty apt description of their behavior. He's known for getting naked and lighting dollar bills on fire inside his mouth in the middle of shows, but he must have been in the mood to behave at Forecastle.

"Main Street" and "Miss K." added nicely to the set. The band alternates singers, so when the drummer took the mic, McCauley jabbed, "He can do more than drum. He's also really good at Scrabble." The whole attitude of the show was easygoing like that. It was a welcoming atmosphere for fans and new listeners alike, the perfect kind of band to see outdoors on a hot day.

Fruit Bats seem to be the perfect example of easy living. Such Fruit Bats songs as "When U Love Somebody" have the carefree feeling of a night under the stars with that special someone. It's hard to not just drift off during the set, taken away by the acoustic musings to that favorite daydream. Eric Johnson's distinctive vocals cut through intricate pop songs with just the right amount of reverb to take the edge away.

Budding singer-songwriter Cheyenne Marie Mize was given an unfortunate slot competing with Neko Case, so not nearly enough people got to hear her powerful set. "Wishing Well," a favorite, is an a cappella swampy folk song with tribal-like percussion. Her voice is incredible, a soulful, smoky tone that truly shines. Some of her songs tiptoed into a murky area, but as soon as she found her edge, her crowd was drawn to her.

And then it was a waiting game for Wilco, a band that I had seen live, but never in the festival setting. While Forecastle reached so many peaks throughout the weekend, this was the real treasure. "Poor Places" opened the set, one of the five songs that they played from their classic record, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. It was a slow start, warming up for the feedback-drenched "Art of Almost," where Nels Cline displayed his first insane guitar breakdown of many. "Impossible Germany" was mind-blowingly euphoric; a revelation that maybe the right guitar solo can change the world. (Maybe I'm being hyperbolic? But let me be. It's Wilco.)

More songs off last year's The Whole Love included "I Might" and "Born Alone." "At Least That's What You Said" started as a tiny acoustic number, but erupted into monster riffs and a sound so huge it could knock you down. Wilco grooved on it for what seemed like forever, in the best possible way.
The keyboards twinkled so gently on "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" that it seemed to allude to the delicacy of the song's subject. Like many of the band's best songs, it ends in a mess of feedback and twisted emotions. "Heavy Metal Drummer" transitioned fluidly into "I'm the Man Who Loves You," in the same order as the album.

While Wilco walked away without an encore, at least we can chalk it up to them ending with an enthusiastic "A Shot in the Arm." The Summerteeth song was the ultimate closer; I was actually in such a state of happiness that I was jumping up and down like a fool. I know the song is almost certainly about heroin, but I couldn't help but think that Wilco was really all I needed to keep living.
And living we did this weekend. Forecastle 2012 actually brought me back to life, woke something inside of me that's been desperately missing. Waterfront Park has since been cleaned, the stages removed, but the memories... those stay there. The figurative ship has sailed, but if we're lucky, it will dock again in the same place, at the same time next year. And we can only hope that it lives up to this 10th anniversary, a landmark for both the festival and the city of Louisville.

Forecastle Festival X - Day Two

A little rain couldn't spoil a festival literally named for people who live on a ship. Well, it was actually a lot of rainenough to push back the start time for the second day by an hour and a half or so. Luckily, the rain let up quickly enough that each band just cut a couple songs from the set list, and nobody had to go home without taking the stage.

Wye Oak was the first stop of the day. Something about Jenn Wasner's voice has always reminded me of The Cranberries. It's got this really melancholy hurt to it, which came off as cripplingly depressing in a live setting. So much so that I found myself clenching my jaw without even noticing. But, as stated earlier, I find joy and an excuse to bounce my knees at even the most somber of sets, and this was no exception. The musicianship between Wasner and keyboardist/percussionist Andy Stack was impeccable. Stack plays the drums with one hand, the cymbals with his feet, and uses his other hand to play the keyboard. It's impressive.

The Baltimore duo (Have you noticed how many male/female duos played Forecastle this year? We're at three so far.) stepped out of their gloom pop to play a new song called "Spiral." Stack broke out a bass guitar, Wasner cranked up the reverb on her guitar, and they added a disco beat to the mix. It's probably what it would sound like if an Old Navy commercial was taken over by evil robots. Wye Oak closed the set with a rousing, feedback-drenched version of "Civilian," the title track on their latest album. It was as close as this band gets to a sing-a-long, with a more melodic chorus and chugging percussion. Surprisingly to me, this set was the one stuck in my head at the end of the festival.

A stop by Wick-it the Instigator's stage was next. The mixologist took over the turntables to mash up everything from M.I.A.'s "Bad Girls" to '80s pop songs. He played a few different songs off The Brothers of Chico Dusty, which mixes The Black Keys and Big Boi. My favorite is "Black Bug," which combines "Tighten Up" with "Shutterbugg." Anyone who was seeing Girl Talk that night was probably warming up at this show.

For a guy with such a storied past, Justin Townes Earle comes off as a gentleman in his live show. Throughout his set of songs such as "One More Night in Brooklyn," he chatted with the crowd about everything from bad landlords to heartbreak. His tone was so easygoing, it's as if he was having a conversation with an old friend. At one point he dedicated a song to his mother. But he proceeded to make a snide remark about how she wasn't very good at her job, but she had to be when his dad, musician Steve Earle, wasn't around. Many of his songs reference his relationship with his absent father, and it was equally sad and interesting to get an inside glimpse at Earle's struggles.

The quality of the musicianship amongst Earle's bandmates was impeccable, further accentuating the raw edges of his imperfect growl. Full and round, the whole set shone with country twinge and rock 'n' roll heart. Earle finished the show with a cover of The Replacements' "Can't Hardly Wait" and the whole crowd got a taste of his happier moments.

The only thing that could have made the Real Estate show better was a stage surrounded by a huge swimming pool, where all the sweaty music lovers could wade while they bask in the sunshine that is their music. Gooey sound waves emanated from the New Jersey band from the first song, the instrumental "Kinder Blumen." The colors of their guitarsseafoam green, banana yellowrepresented their sound, a pastel, sweet trip to the beach. The breeziness of these summery pop songs goes on for days, loopy and reverb-soaked and full of nothing objectionable and everything that gives you warm feelings.

Nobody in the band ever really looks excited. They gazed into the crowd blankly, and it looked like they had no idea how their music could be putting their audience in a trance. At times, songs such as "Easy" and "It's Real," off 2011's Days are jangly. With nondescript vocal melodies, this music can come off like The Beach Boys for the mumblecore generation. Adding to the coastal vibe, the crowd tossed around bright orange beach balls toward the end of the set. "All the Same" closed the show with guitar riffs that snaked around in circles, a shimmering jam that left listeners in a blissed out state.

Washed Out could aspire for the same state of mind, but the synths just seemed to fall short in a live setting. While the crowd danced to songs like "Amor Fati" and "Eyes Be Closed," some of the material felt a little too soft and sloppy to really be immersive on such a hot day with so many competing acts.

My Morning Jacket is a special kind of legend in Louisville. Though not all of them live here anymore, they claim the city as its hometown. And they are rewarded for it, looked upon as rock gods, the sort of legend that you only regard with the utmost respect. They sold out their last show at the Louisville Palace, and streamed the whole thing live for anyone in the world who didn't get tickets. And, lucky for you, you can catch their entire Forecastle performance on YouTube if this review doesn't sufficiently take you back in time to one of the most epic Saturday nights known to the commonwealth of Kentucky.

Things kicked off to a great start when Preservation Hall Jazz Band joined MMJ onstage for "Holdin On to Black Metal," the most vibrant song on Circuital. All the extra horns only made the band's huge sound richer. Covers of Elton John's "Rocket Man" and The Band's "Makes No Difference" added to the set, but MMJ outdid itself when it took on Wham!'s "Careless Whisper" in the encore. "George Michael gets a lot of shit," proclaimed frontman Jim James. "But he's a fucking genius."

Such classic MMJ hits as "Wordless Chorus" and "Mahgeetah" littered the set, but what impressed me was their ability to incorporate "Touch Me I'm Going to Scream, Pt. 2," an oddball musing off Evil Urges. It's the record that made me fall for MMJ, the 2008 breakthrough where they decided they could do whatever in the world they wanted with their music, and they could not be pigeonholed. They could do Prince falsettos and trippy electronic synth music, and the world would still love them. It's this sort of non-contrived, balls out, unafraid, genuine joy for music that makes them such an important band of the past decade.

Andrew Bird added violin to closer "Gideon," but the band came back for more, playing the first two tracks off Circuital, "Careless Whisper," and a rousing version of "One Big Holiday." It's the jam that goes on forever and ever, stretching so loud and so long it's a wonder that anyone in the band has the energy to close out the night with it. But they always do, and that's what keeps MMJ's fierce fan base coming back for more every time.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Forecastle Festival X -- Day One

Here's a little something I wrote for Under the Radar:

There's something about being able to walk through the familiar streets of a town you live in, the final destination a music festival. Parking in the same lot you do each day for work, walking toward the Ohio River, but knowing the familiar Waterfront Park will be transformed, decked out in a music lover's heavenly village. Five stages, a bourbon lounge (this is Kentucky, after all), and a slew of really ridiculous fish floats on sticks that a strange army of festival volunteers carries around throughout the day.

A forecastle is the part of a ship where the crew lives. The three-day festival in Louisville, Kentucky has a nautical feel, which feels appropriate because you can look beyond the two main stages into the river. A Joe's Crab Shack restaurant abuts the Boom Stage. The other stages are named accordingly: Mast, Red Bull Ocean, Starboard, and Port. Louisville's not exactly an exotic townit's one steeped in steamboat historybut the idea for this dream-like theme for a festival is one that brings out the best of it.

This is Forecastle X. It's 11 years after the first Forecastle Festival played out in a tiny park at the end of my street. This year's festival was expected to bring 35,000 people to town. Considering it shared a weekend with Pitchfork Music Festival and Cincinnati's Bunbury Music Festival, the crowds were large, unstoppable, and the friendliest of any festival I've ever experienced.


Friday evening began with The Head and the Heart. The six-piece band was returning to town for their second time in a few months, and the crowd was fiercely loyal. The band did a lot less chatting this time, focusing on wooing their audience with songs from their self-titled debut. "Down in the Valley" and "Rivers and Roads" both began meagerly, growing into enormous, cathartic ballads.

Josiah Johnson and Jonathan Russell are the main songwriters in the band, and both alternate on vocals. The two could not be more different; Johnson rocked cut-off jean shorts and a T-shirt, while Russell was looking snazzy in a button-up and tie. But this feeling that each band member comes from such a different walk of lifeyet work together to make some of the most beautiful folk-pop songsis refreshing. With harmonies floating atop the rich sound of Charity Rose Thielen's violin and the generous sprinkling of keyboard, it's easy to feel completely swept away. Ben Sollee joining the band onstage with his cello elevating The Head and the Heart to an even more lush, orchestral sound. Many of their songs have a sense of traveling, the pains and joys of moving around the country, and the crowd sailed that journey during their set without leaving Waterfront Park.

Bradford Cox of Atlas Sound commanded a crowd at one of the side stages that evening. The setup was relatively simple; from what I could see it was Cox, a harmonica, an acoustic guitar, and some effects pedals on the small stage backed with long rectangular video screens covered with desert scenes. Many of the songs were tamer than those he plays with Deerhunter, and the show was much less immersive than those I've seen him play with a full band.

 I was skeptical to see Beach House in an outdoor festival setting, on the huge stage next to the Joe's Crab Shack. The last time I caught them live was at a sold out show at Cleveland's Beachland Ballroom, a supreme indoor venue with the very best acoustics. What makes the duo (a three-piece live) so impressive is this heavy, dream-like atmosphere that surrounds the listeners in a haze. It's usually accentuated with a dark room and glowing, disco ball-like lighting effects. They blew my expectations to pieces, though, rocking just as hard in the light of day, the only thing altering the perception a thick wall of smoke machine haze.

While the Baltimore band littered the set with handfuls of gems from the Bloom, the most recent album, they also found time for favorites from the three previous full lengths. You could feel the tribal pulse of percussion in "Norway," which felt incredibly sedate and all encompassing.

"We don't do any cheesy crowd involvement stuff," explained guitarist Alex Scally. "But we'll do our best to take you somewhere." And travel we did, to a hypnotic state of bliss, the sort of strange other world to which dream pop alone can transport you. Vocalist Victoria Legrand played the organ with absolutely no facial expression. You realized she was indeed awake every now and then when her and Scally doubled in half, playing in unison with percussionist Daniel Franz while bobbing their heads like rag dolls, as if the power of the music was too much to handle standing up.

Before playing "Zebra," the opener on 2010's Teen Dream, Legrand explained that the next song they would play made people happyeven babies. They followed it with "Myth," the first track on Bloom, where every note floated into the next seamlessly. As the sun set behind them, the smoke swirled in front of them, and the percussion exploded into a thousand fireworks, I thought Forecastle had reached its peak.

 But we were long from discovering the X on our treasure maps. After all, Sleigh Bells had just begun. "Have a heart," sang Alexis Krauss repeatedly in "Rill, Rill," one of the highlights of set. But really, what this show made me think of was soul. Not in the sense of R&B. As in, if you didn't feel Derek Miller and Krauss' beats enough to shake your body mercilessly, you might not have a soul. The guitar shredding and viciously gritty beats might as well have stretched to the next city. Krauss flopped like a dying fish (in the best possible way, I swear), head-banging all through "A/B Machines." The scorching heat of the jagged, raw beats was almost too much to handle. But if you like your crowds wild, your guitar riffs earth-shattering, and your sound system crunchy, this was a whole new kind of heaven.

JEFF the Brotherhood rocked out through a scathing set of burning rockers. The two brothers made a lot of sound between a drum set and guitar, and the set only got better as it went on. A mix of garage rock, with the reverby psychedelia turned up slightly, this was the place to be to escape the synthy dance music that they were sandwiched between.

Here's the part where I talk about my newfound addiction to electronic dance music. I like a little Skrillex as much as the next dudebro (although David Guetta still can't get through to mesorry!). I'd never listened to Bassnectar before. Let's face it. I just don't feel like listening to such bass-heavy music out of my tinny JBL speaker is going to do it any justice. I was absolutely right.

Standing in the front row of a Bassnectar show is an out-of-body, otherworldly experience. I can't breathe just thinking about it. The rumble of the bass was so overpowering, so incredibly moving that every organ shuddered and something was screaming inside of me, "this cannot be healthy!" And maybe because it felt so wrong, it was also one of the most powerfully thrilling feelings I've ever had. I am a self-proclaimed concert dancer (i.e. I'm one of those people who can't help but bobbing my knees even when I'm listening to some bummer acoustic guitar show where everyone surrounding me is at the peak of their too-cool-to-smile hipsterdom) and this was next-level for me. Not only could my knees not stay still, but I felt my whole body swaying unwillingly.

I wish I could describe the music itself a little better. I mean, how do you talk about dance music with no pattern? It continues to change and evolve with a similar tempo, and every now and then you get a huge bass drop that makes you want to die of happiness. And it just goes on like that for hours, until you're exhausted and you have no idea why your body didn't shut down hours ago. Bassnectar is Lorin Ashton, a California native with really long hair. He bounces around a bit, but mostly hides behind a huge video screen, where you see his head peaking on top. The real show is the crowd, thousands of people who waited for hours for a good spot where the bass goes straight to your head and your heart. Hands in the air, glowsticks everywhere, everyone just looked so happy.

The day was almost over, but not before a little Sleeper Agent action. The Bowling Green, Kentucky band has recently emerged from the college town, graduating to some radio play and media attention. They held their own on a stage across the park from Bassnectar, bouncing around with a brand of rock that's spiked with youthful rebellion. The traction they're gaining is sure to grow if they keep putting out music like their 2011 debut, Celebrasion.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Conveyor - Tonight at Zanzabar

No, they’re not just your average psych-rock band from Brooklyn. Ok, so they are that. But they also use synthesizers that sound like old-school video games, and when they’re not jamming on druggy interludes, their shiny pop choruses are pretty bouncy. It’s like John Vanderslice on depressants or Aqueduct after therapy. This summer’s tour is all about playing off their newly released debut, Conveyor. The album opener, “Woolgatherer” teeters between weirdo ambience and summer driving soundtrack, with odd tribal calls that overlap beachy calypso twinkling. If this is what summer in the city feels like, we’re in for a treat. Let’s not forget to mention, they’re sharing the stage with Louisville’s favorite power poppers, The Deloreans. It should be a night filled with all the best kinds of sticky guitar licks and synthesizer loving. 

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Tallest Man on Earth - There's No Leaving Now

Kristian Matsson may not really be the Tallest Man on Earth. But he may be close to the man catching the most hearts. His songcraft on his third full-length is intricate and undoubtedly heart wrenching. It’s impossible to ignore the roughness to his vocals, which comes off as a desperate attempt to convey emotion through one three-minute acoustic gem after another. But it’s desperate in a good way – as if he’s frustrated with all those songwriters hiding behind sappy metaphors. The Swedish native’s gorgeous fingerpicking swims underneath his growled poetry quickly and fluidly. On the title track, he stretches out his fingers on the piano for a quiet punch to the gut. If Matsson’s declaration in “Wind and Walls” is true – that “this is not the future, but I sense it’s right up there” – hearts will be aching for what’s to come.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Japandroids - Celebration Rock

I wrote the following for LEO Weekly.

“Young Hearts Spark Fire,” the burning anthem that catapulted David Prowse and Brian King into the hearts of thousands, maybe millions, of young punks on debut album Post-Nothing has been reincarnated. The relentless drum fills, scorching guitar, and shout-along choruses fill “The House That Heaven Built” with an unspeakable passion that offers listeners just one more reason to feel alive. The guys behind Japandroids aren’t subtle – they literally begin and end the album with the sound of fireworks. And the music in between is the breed that makes the heart pound with the same excitement a young kid feels running through the yard with a sparkler. Reckless abandon fills all eight songs on Celebration Rock, Japandroids’ second full-length excuse to melt the world under the power of their amplifiers. Hold on to your seat, they’re on fire. 

Thursday, May 17, 2012


The last time I listened to Japandroids full time is when I was working part time and interning for free. The world was hostile, I couldn’t find my way out of my post-college slump, and I needed music to scream along to. I would run circles around the cul-de-sac where I grew up, where I was living, miserably with my parents. Stuck in what seemed like an endless cycle of unsuccess, I was young and I was mad. Japandroids made me long for the endless college nights of reckless behavior and unpredictable friendships. Instead, I was stuck in suburbia.

I still love Post-Nothing, but I don’t listen to it on a typical day. I found a new job and a new home, and for the most part, I found happiness. I don’t long for a different life anymore. So the purpose, the crutch that I used Japandroids for has been filled.

Celebration Rock doesn’t hold a significance for me like their debut album did. It’s not that I don’t love it. After all, these are still the sort of raging rock and roll songs that move the body and spirit. But I find myself longing instead for folksy, sunny songs that I can blast while I’m basking in sunshine in my backyard. It’s been a difficult process reviewing this new record because it doesn’t touch me like the last one did. Not for lack of quality, but because I’ve changed. The line between panning an album because you “don’t feel it” and because it’s a shitty album is stark. So how do I stay true to myself and also true to the band?