July 22nd, 2014 11:52am

Mistaken For Slag

Bernhoft “One Way Track”

My first impression upon listening to the new albums by this Norwegian R&B singer is that it’s one of the best engineered and mixed pop records I’ve heard in a while – it’s just got this wonderful presence and clarity, and this perfectly warm and fully central bass sound. The producer is Paul Butler and the engineer is Dave Granshaw, and they pull off this thing that I always love, which is making you feel very aware of musicians playing in a room while taking advantage of the imaginary space that only exists in a studio recording. The best recordings tend to feel like idealized live performances, even if it’s unlikely a lot of the instruments were even being played simultaneously. Butler and Granshaw’s work really elevates Bernhoft’s songs and vocal performances – he’s very good at what he does, but a lesser producer could easily make this feel flat and bland, especially if they’re working too hard to get this on the radio. There’s a lot more air and space in these recordings, particularly this song, and it lets you really feel the melodies in a way you just wouldn’t in a lot of contemporary music production.

Buy it from Amazon.

July 21st, 2014 11:48am

The Line Is Disappearing

Absolutely Free “Beneath the Air”

It’s pretty rare that a song can become its own genre, but that’s definitely what happened with The Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows.” It’s impossible to hear anything with that particular type of rhythm and whooshing psychedelic ambience without thinking of The Beatles’ original, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s a surprisingly open-ended and versatile aesthetic, and while a cut like this song by the Canadian group Absolutely Free is clearly built on the same blueprint, it has a very different feeling to it. Their melodies feel more naïve to me, and they fill their midrange with chiming tones and whooshing sounds, leaving a lot less ambiguity at the song’s core and giving the entire piece a more innocent and playful vibe.

Visit the Absolutely Free website.

July 16th, 2014 12:35pm

Maybe I Don’t Need To Understand

Bleachers “You’re Still A Mystery”

I interviewed Jack Antonoff from Bleachers a few months ago, and I was impressed by his candor and ambition. We talked a lot about disappointing the indie world has become, and how it’s awful when artists consistently hedge their bets, especially when it comes to projecting real emotion in their work. At that time, I’d only heard a couple songs from the Bleachers record, but it was clear enough that he wasn’t holding anything back, and was trying to make actual pop music.

A lot of the songs on Bleachers’ debut are more low key than I expected from how he was talking. For the most part, these lower-energy songs are ballads that give the album a bit of dynamic range, but in the case of “You’re Still A Mystery,” it’s more about balancing a big, passionate song with a more measured, sober delivery. It strikes me as being like late ’80s Depeche Mode trying to pull off something that feels more like Bruce Springsteen or something from a John Hughes soundtrack. This approach works for me, and definitely suits the lyrics, in which he’s trying to be rational and analytical about a wonderful, irrational emotion.

Buy it from Amazon.

July 15th, 2014 1:23pm

Coming Up For Air

The Acid “Basic Instinct”

The Acid are a great example of something that in only a few years will sound very specific to this period of time, this pocket of years in the first half of this decade. This particular song sounds a lot like the more famous Alt-J, but I think this is a bit better than anything they’ve done – they have the same desolate folk + moody electronic vibe, but the vocals are far less affected and The Acid are more willing to push the ambient elements of their music from an eerie, evocative hum to an ugly, overwhelming buzz.

Buy it from Amazon.

July 14th, 2014 12:32pm

This Procession Of Unchanging Days

Phish @ Randall’s Island 7/12/2014
AC/DC Bag / 46 Days / Yarmouth Road / Devotion to a Dream / Free / My Sweet One / Back on the Train / Halfway to the Moon / Sparkle / A Song I Heard the Ocean Sing / The Line / Run Like An Antelope // Punch You In the Eye / Carini / Ghost / Wingsuit / Rock & Roll / Harry Hood /// Tube / Joy / New Tube

Phish “Wingsuit” (7/12/2014)

I’ve known about Phish for most of my life, but had avoided their music up until just recently because I bought into the received wisdom that they weren’t very good, and the whole “jam band” thing was inherently lame. In recent years, I had at least a dim realization that what Phish does isn’t that far off from some bands I really love – Wilco, Malkmus, later Sonic Youth, Neil Young, etc – but still kept a distance, thinking “this isn’t for me.”

Two things happened that made me decide to give Phish a real chance: My friend Bryan became a big fan and got deep into their lore, and their current PR company invited me to watch them tape a special show at David Letterman’s Ed Sullivan Theater. I will go see most any famous artist play for free, so I went for it. It was only going to be an hour – a third of the time they would normally play – so it was as low-risk as it could possibly be. I ended up enjoying that set, and having a nice time. I remember thinking two things: “No one ever tells you that Phish write some good melodies,” and “Why do Phish fans get such a bad rap when they’re such a nice balance of relaxed and enthusiastic?”

A few days later, the same PR company invited me to see one of the band’s three shows at Randall’s Island, and I took them up on it. I enjoyed the studio taping, and was curious what a real show would be like. As it turns out, it was like the taping but on a much, much larger scale. I really can’t emphasize enough how pleasant their audience is – the last time I went to Randall’s Island was for the Governors Ball festival in June, and there were so many asshole bros and miscellaneous tools in that audience that it wrecked the experience for me so much that I’m reticent to go to another festival ever again. The Phish audience, on the other hand, is as mellow and unpretentious as it gets.

The nature of a show like this is such that you don’t feel compelled to pay close attention to every moment of the set, and can really just enjoy the environment as much as the music itself. My friends and I mostly hung out at a picnic table halfway through the park, but we could’ve hung out on a hill, or gone closer, or found a spot with a lot of space further back in the park. One of the best parts of my experience was taking a walk around the back end of the park during “Harry Hood,” and just feeling far more relaxed and physically comfortable than I ever do in day to day life. (I was not high, by the way.)

I really enjoyed just existing in this space, and tapping into the music when it got especially interesting, and just kinda going with the flow once they settled into an instrumental jam. I went into both of these shows only knowing a bit of their catalog, so I could be surprised by a particularly good melody or sound – the Led Zep riffing on “Carini,” the great classic rock-ish hook on “The Line,” the Stevie Wonder-ish funk on “Tube.” The part that really got me in the moment was the first half of “Wingsuit,” which turns out to be a cut from their newest album. It’s a moody ballad anchored by a gorgeous piano part that reminds me specifically of something, but I can’t exactly place it. My instinct is that it’s a krautrock thing maybe, but I still don’t know. It’s a really lovely song, though.

I’m not deep into Phish now and doubt I will be, but I do like them and I’m glad I’ve given them a chance and that I’ve come to know a bunch of their songs. I feel dumb for buying into this conventional wisdom about them, especially since it clearly is rooted in a punk disdain for hippies that I know is total bullshit. Phish is a lot more imaginative, inclusive and open-minded than most bands, and the same is true for their audience. That is almost never true of punk rock, though.

Buy the full show from Phish’s site. Buy the studio version from Amazon.

July 10th, 2014 11:53am

The Wave Is Rushing Through You

Got A Girl “There’s A Revolution”

Dan the Automator and Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Got A Girl calls back to a lot of music from the mid-20th century, but specifically sounds like a record from the very late ’90s that we’re only just hearing now. To a large extent this is just the Automator being the Automator – his aesthetic is always going to be tied to his glory days, and it really does feel refreshing to hear something that’s very him since it seems like he’s been away a long time. This is the funny thing that happens with a lot of artists that work with pastiche and kitsch – at the time it’s new, you clearly hear the reference points and interpret the work that way, but years on, the aesthetic and mutations are what you hear more clearly because that gloss is now just as nostalgic as the sounds it was framing the first time around. So yes, “There’s A Revolution” calls back to French and Brazilian pop from the ’60s, maybe some more things too, but I mainly just hear a catchy tune that probably would’ve gone over great on KCRW back in the day.

Buy it from Amazon.

July 9th, 2014 12:25pm

What That Means To Me

Caribou “Can’t Do Without You”

Dan Snaith is very good with using negative space in his music. On his last record as Caribou back in 2010, he seemed obsessed with the way bass notes reverberate in space, and every other sound in the mix existed in a direct orbital relationship to the bass groove. This time around, he’s switched that almost completely – there’s very little sense of center to “Can’t Do Without You.” It’s built on a repeated part, but it just sort of hangs in the air, and flows around through the space. At some points, the song changes shape if just to fill an implied void that’s opened up around some imaginary curve. It’s a very different sensation from what he was doing a few years ago, but there’s still this same feeling at the core of it. It’s like an echo.

Buy it from Amazon.

July 7th, 2014 11:30am

Will I Ever Learn

Brian Eno & Karl Hyde “Time to Waste It”

The core of this song – the repeated guitar hook, the steady rhythm – is very calming. There are songs where endless repetition becomes numbing or anxiety-inducing, but this arrangement is so loose and airy that it encourages your body to loosen up, maybe even go slack. All the tension is placed in the vocals, which are pitched and warped in peculiar ways so Karl Hyde always sounds confused and somewhat anguished. He comes across like a man who has become very disappointed in himself, but not in a severe way. For the first few minutes it sounds like two distinct signals overlapping on the radio, but near the end, it feels more integrated, as if he’s just yielded to the mellow vibe of that endless riff.

Buy it from Amazon.

July 2nd, 2014 1:04pm

Hijacking Your Equilibrium

Beck @ Central Park 7/1/2014
Devil’s Haircut / Black Tambourine / Soul of a Man / One Foot in the Grave / The New Pollution / Blue Moon / Lost Cause / Country Down / Modern Guilt / Think I’m In Love / Loser / Que Onda Guero / Paper Tiger / Heart Is A Drum / Wave / Waking Light / Soldier Jane / Girl / E-Pro // Sexx Laws / Debra / Where It’s At

Beck “Sexx Laws” (Live at the Budokon, 2000)

This is the third summer in a row where I’ve seen a Beck show outdoors, which I suppose has become the new tradition in place of seeing Sonic Youth play an outdoor summer show every year in NYC. The interesting thing about Beck shows is that in making an effort to play selections from all over his eclectic catalog, the mood of his setlist is all over the place, and this particular show ranged from about as depressed and desolate as music gets – “Wave,” “Lost Cause” – to the ecstatic silliness of stuff like “Sexx Laws,” “Debra,” and “Where It’s At.” It’s a very well rounded experience, and he and his band really commit to every extreme. I suppose that if I could have my way, it would’ve been all in that Midnite Vultures/Odelay/Guero mode, but that does give short shrift to a man who’s capable of so many moods and tones. But yes, as a hardcore fan of Midnite Vultures and a person for whom “Sexx Laws” is a karaoke staple, watching him perform “Sexx Laws” and “Debra” back to back in the encore was an extremely happy experience. I was lucky enough to be in a pocket of the audience where there were many people very enthusiastic about those songs in particular, so it got to be as physical and participatory as I would’ve hoped. I wish I could do it again today.

Buy it from Amazon.

July 1st, 2014 11:46am

You Came To Me In Truth

Slow Club “Suffering You, Suffering Me”

“Suffering You, Suffering Me” initially doesn’t seem to stray too far outside of Slow Club’s established comfort zone – sure, Rebecca Taylor’s voice is a bit more overtly “soul” than usual, but it’s more or less in the same sort of slow, melancholy space as much of their first album. But once it gets going, it shifts into a full-on Motown stomper, and she really cuts loose. I’ve written about how great Taylor is as a vocalist before, but her performances on Slow Club’s new record Complete Surrender are at a whole new level of confidence, and she’s learned to write to this strength pretty effortlessly. But you know, a lot of people can do a convincing R&B voice – the thing that really puts Taylor over the top is how she sings it all with this genuine wounded vulnerability that makes it seem like she could break into tears at any moment. There’s a real sense of urgency in her voice that keeps it from being just another “northern soul” pastiche.

Buy it from Amazon.

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