My love affair with Conor Oberst has been re-kindled. I know, how could it have ever been gone? After all, his music is far from fleeting. Oberst has always been a musician of simple chords and well-written lyrics. He creates poetry that builds archetypes of romantic drunks, politicians, lovers, friends, etc, and transcends them to a motif that resonates inside his audience. In my first listen of Upside Down Mountain, I had no feelings toward the album. I was convinced I didn’t like it. There was no long-winded opening because this was not a Bright Eyes album. There was nothing country about it because it was not a Mystic Valley album, and all the in between just felt frightening.
Conor Oberst has grown up, and for the first listens I felt I had not made the same mature transitions. His music has been a great part of my life since I was a teenager, and throughout a handful years apart, I wanted to say I had also been transformed from confusion and apathy to an emphatic adult. And I finally understood his album when I listened from end to front. Lyrically, Upside Down Mountain delves into stories of growth. Musically, the composition and delivery of his melodies turns the album into one of the most charismatic and completed albums Oberst has ever made. Though I may not have gotten to a certain level of maturity, this album reminds me of all I have traveled, the endurance it took, and the happiness and pain that occurred to lead me to the moment in which I am currently living. So, “…when you get there. You’ll know why you did…You’ll be glad you did.” (from the song Double Life)
And if his new album wasn’t enough to re-kindle my love Mr. Oberst this new duet with First Aid Kid. Fantastic!
I’ve seen singer songwriter Matt Randolph grown as a musician for almost 9 years. He has had many projects but a whole lot of consistency. Some of his best work is from his Arizona based project Bye Polar Bear. But 9 years is a lot of time not to grow as a person and experience changes. So rather than digress, a tendency in his Bye Polar Bear project had, he has transformed into Horton’s Headache. But he didn’t reinvent himself, he just merely changed the hands on the clock and proceeded forwarded. And as someone who has had the chance to experience his musical process for what feels like half my life, it is great to see a musician with sincerity and approachability in his sound and lyrics. He isn’t afraid to let you hear those raspy vocals but welcomes you to share in his affections, hardships, but most importantly victories, even the small ones. Horton’s Headache is rough cut of Randolph’s life but nonetheless reel of musical highlights.
Check out Horton’s Headache:
And if you are curious Bye Polar Bear:
After Heaven, The Walkmen went on an “infinite hiatus,” stating they had just gone their separate ways, living in different cities, and they hadn’t really been a band for a long time. I was really disappointed as Heaven was one of their best and on my list of best albums of 2012. Three members of The Walkmen will release solo albums this year including front man, Hamilton Leithauser. His solo record, Black Hours, picks up where The Walkmen’s Heaven left off, dealing with themes of heartache, happiness, and growing up, and now the hiatus makes sense. Listening to Heaven and Black Hours back-to-back, I can hear a lot of unique tendencies as a musician that linger within Hamilton Leithauser. The title track, “We Can’t Be Beat” is an example of that.
Black Hours is another wonderful display of Hamilton Leithauser’s musical talents; he is a musician who, in the last 14 years, has grown up and isn’t afraid to let us hear all the good and bad run free. His solo album is a display of a musician whose strengths stretch farther than rock music. Black Hours highlights a person who has such a passion for the good and bad of life, that though he’s rather pessimistic at times, there is a sense of levelheadedness and triumph that anyone can appreciate. Musically the album is dark in its composition but his vocals have always had that mysterious charisma to them. Finally it’s not hidden behind a lovely yet hasty rock sound or backing vocals. Instead, Leithauser delivers a backdrop filled with strings, piano, whimsical percussion and just enough guitar that it doesn’t drown out the direction Leithauser is heading in his musical career. He has been liberated from The Walkmen and it’s not a bad thing because he’s a better musician for it. He’s found his musical balance.
Key Tracks: 5am, Alexandra, St. Mary’s County, The Smallest Splinter
I will be the first to admit that the first few times I listened to the Black Keys single, “Fever” from Turn Blue I wasn’t convinced that it was the Black Keys. It sounded like them, it felt like them, but there was something in the way the bass chewed between the synth revealing a very slick guitar line that made me second guess it. That familiar sound from their early 2000s’ albums, like Magic Potion, Thickfreakness, and of course Rubber Factory, before all the Brothers and El Camino propelled them to this “acceptable” mainstream band was what threw me off. That is not to say Brothers and El Camino or even Attack & Release were not great, well-produced and executed albums (same person produced this album too), because they are undeniably timeless. But what makes the Black Keys is that garage rock blues sound that is so raw you can hear the sizzle and grit off the amp.
Their first track, “Weight of Love” clocks in just under 7 minutes and it reminded me why I fell in love with the duo. The track starts off with a simplistic guitar chord and some feedback. As the song grows with an echo pitch, and Auerbach plays his signature wave of guitar solos, clouded by the reverb and just enough vocals that are so smoky and sexy, they linger, you get the sense that the Black Keys have channeled what started the duo off —true blues garage/basement rock. “Weight of Love” is a beautiful musical ride and the rest of the album collectively links with sharp guitar riffs and rhythm. Unfortunately, it doesn’t hold up through all the tracks. However, Turn Blue, though not a perfect album, is still the Black Keys at their best. Weak tracks like “In Our Prime” and “10 lovers” are not the strongest because it lacks instrumental layers. Nonetheless, the Black Keys brought back the spirit of garage rock that started them off and yet they keep evolving their texture and composition that is accessible but not mass-produced garbage. Black Keys True Blue is unique and true bluesy grit rock.
I didn’t know Kishi Bashi existed until two weeks ago after one of my bosses introduced me to their music. I feel I’ve been missing out the last three years. With my first listen of Kishi Bashi’s sophomore album Lighght I wasn’t convinced, but after my second, third, and fourth, I was hooked. Front man Kaoru Ishibashi is a classically trained violinist. I usually stray away from bands that have “trained” musicians because I tend to find them too over-the-top and they often linger on an ostentatious vibe that you can hear in every note. Kishi Bashi is a genuine band that, for all intents and purposes, is easily a one-man show. Kaoru Ishibashi is phenomenal and it’s not just how he uses his violin to drive his pop beats from A to Z and back around to a new melody, a new chapter in his musical story. But it’s also in how his voice lifts you with such grace and enchantment.
Friday, I saw Kishi Bashi at The Mohawk on Red River. The bands’ performance is on another level; he uses a loop pedal board and records all his vocals live. For me, that is a true artist; one who doesn’t need to pre-record funky sounds that are hard to imagine as one’s voice but it is. Just like their record, Kishi Bashi are skillful in their live performances and they are already masters of their craft – synth pop rock. Each song tells a story, the musicianship is apparent as all the in-betweens are filled with sublime violin solos and driven by the quirky synth beats, which highlight Kaoru Ishibashi multitalented vocal abilities. What amazes me about Kishi Bashi’s live performance is that the album doesn’t quite do Kaoru Ishibashi composition justice. His live show reveals his musical process and right before your ears, the music transforms you and instantly you feel nothing less than a sense of joy, excitement, and awe. Kishi Bashi emits music larger than this four-member group but that’s all due to Kaoru Ishibashi extreme talents.
Kishi Bashi covered Paul Mccartney and The Whigs “Live and Let Die,” which was a nice touch. CLIP BELOW:
Key Songs: The Ballad of Mr. Steak, Hahaha Pt. 2, and Carry on Phenomenon, Philosophize In it!
It’s been awhile. Sorry! But, I’ll have more posts next week after my much needed vacation. What to look forward to:
New Music Review
Sexy Song Cover of the year
Record LP Reviews (GOODIES)
Thanks for reading!
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Lately there seems to be a shortage in good new folk music releases. Post-SXSW I went to see Albert Hammond Jr. at Stubb’s BBQ and was surprised by the opening band, Streets of Laredo. They hail from New Zealand but are based in Brooklyn. Streets of Laredo are led by the Gibson brothers, but as a 7 piece group have a strong sense of family and solidarity; in the folk genre those aspects are important. Folk music in the historical sense is music you can sing along with, thump your foot, or maybe just close your eyes and mouth the words even if you don’t know them. At least that’s how I define it. Folk bands are built on tradition and if a band can create that intimate feel on stage and drive that force organically when performing live, you have a wonderful folk band like Streets of Laredo.
They currently have two EPs, Volume I and II available for free download at their website. Vocals are lead by the younger of the two Gibson brothers but there is strong chemistry between the brothers. Streets of Lardeo are vocally driven group, laced with the older Gibson’s harmonica, deeper vocal tone, and drum thumps that are a thinly layered among the band’s composition. Streets of Laredo strength derive from how well each member compliments each other whether by instrument or backing vocals. Their sound is earnest and lyrical themes builds off motifs constructed around relationships to oneself, each other, environment, and change. The only female in the group, provides a distinctive musical texture to the bands’ already vibrant palate. The band doesn’t flood the listener with one too many instruments, instead they construct a soundscape not too heavy on the horns or clumsy on musical arrangement that you often see with emerging folk groups. Volume I has the same depth as Volume II, with great songs like “Laredo” “Girlfriend” and “Need A Little Help” their songs are all over the emotional musical spectrum, but like most of their tracks, when I listen to their music, their harmonies keep floating not just on the surface but inside the part of my heart that still dreaming and searching for a link to translate the fleeting thoughts that trouble my mind. Streets of Lardeo is exactly what this generation of modern folk lovers need.
Download both EPs here: http://www.streets-of-laredo.com/
My quest to complete the El Paso Rock series has not been an easy one. Hurricane Sandy ruined a lot of Norton Records inventory in 2012 and it has been difficult to find many volumes of the series. Luckily, I obtained Volume 6, Black Out and Volume 9, Sand Surfin’. It truly is an amazing series that features rarities that Norton Records was able to obtain. My favorite artist in the series is Bobby Fuller, who was raised and began his rock ‘n roll career in El Paso, Texas. He never reached commercial success but if not for his death at the age of 23, Fuller could have competed with the best of the ‘60s music like the Beach Boys. His music derives from rapid improvisation on guitar and vocals that reverberate with every riff played. Then there are albums in the El Paso Rock series that are purely instrumental rock tracks with little or no vocals. The beauty of surf rock was the use of vibrato and the position of the humbuckers to create whimsical, light-grit sound. This compilation series is a distinctive and it is a must-have of border town music.
Bobby Fuller - I Fought the Law
Norton Records - Hurrican Sandy Damage
It only took two years, but I finally found the German-made bootleg of Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange. After setting back the date of the record release, Def Jam decided not to follow through with the vinyl printing. It’s a shame because it was one of my top albums of 2012 and deserved to be owned on vinyl. Channel Orange drove Ocean to major commercial success with little effort. It is a sharp album that burns with desire, whether that is about love, religion,money, drugs, sex, pain, or happiness. The sounds Ocean experiments with help thrust his lurid imagery into what is ultimately an album that is raw in all facets. As for the bootleg, buy it if you find it, because who knows when and if they will ever press an official version; and of course the sound quality on the bootleg is pretty good. But make sure it is one of the 750 “limited edition” black pressed records from Germany, because the not-so-cleverly pressed orange-colored record will leave you disappointed. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not one to go seeking bootlegs but the album is incredible and with many people looking for any illegal version of the album, that should indicate to Ocean and his team that the album in record form is in high demand.
The Red Bull Sound Select at The Belmont on Friday, March 14th was the highlight of my SXSW experience. I caught three acts, Sleigh Bells, Tink, and Tapioca and the Flea. It was absolutely the best show I have been to in the 3½ years that I have lived in Austin and that includes a few ACL festivals. I only caught part of Tapioca and the Flea, but I was impressed. They are a band that combines funky-sounding synths with dulcet bass lines, which is an agreeable combination with their vibrant guitar riffs. Tink was absolutely delightful; she has this flirtatious vibe that transcends her vocals as she raps and often sings. Her songs are honest, yet, quite fun. Best of all, though, she has a bit of auto-tune in her beats and the synth touches all the right places.
Sleigh Bells unquestionably dominated the stage in what felt like an endless set, which during SXSW is almost unheard of because it’s all about bands cramming in 20-minute sets all over town to get noticed. Maybe Sleigh Bells isn’t a band that most people would say needs to be playing SXSW but I am so glad they did because they are an underrated group with a lot of talent. Alexis Krauss came on stage like a woman with one mission and that was to jam out as if the group had nothing to lose. Krauss bounced around like she had gulped her share of Red Bull before hitting the stage, but I assure you, that brilliance on the dance floor is all natural. Krauss’s stage presence is a force you do not want to mess with; mute the music and she will still pulsate through your ears and fingertips. She is riveting with her jumping, spinning, and at one point she had Tink join her and those two made the crowd lose their marbles.
It would not be Sleigh Bells without her band mate and guitarist Derek Edwards. The arrangement of their harmonics and hooks is aggressive, clunky and very edgy. Their noisy riffs sound almost manic and the synths help deliver simplistic lyrics with attitude. Contrast that with Krauss’s energy and aura and BAM, the Brooklyn duo is unstoppable. Sleigh Bells is noise rock pop but with elements of hip-hop that have dominated their tracks since their debut release, Treats. Sleigh Bells is a band you cannot take in sitting or standing but, rather, in the air, catching your balance from the waves of sound that linger long after their set is done. Sleigh Bells is great music with great albums that, after their performance, are no longer standing in the shadows.
As for the rest of SXSW, it was fantastic and I managed to capture a few shots. And although this year unfortunately seemed saturated with “big names,” it was nice to catch bands that are ready to break out.