Stella Emmett – Admirer

cover Stella Emmett - AdmirerWhat is “Ikeacore”? No one really knows for sure. Just ask Twitter. According to Stella Kortchmar who spent the last two years working on the songs that now comprise Stella Emmett’s Admirer, it is “a sort of sound palette people could put on at parties, or listen to on a train, . . . or while shopping at IKEA”. Now, maybe I am overstepping my bounds, but I am going to contradict Kortchmar here, not because I think it isn’t any of those things, but because I think she’s selling herself short.

It is easy to read Kortchmar’s description of Admirer as “glorified background music”, but it is so much more than that. Rather than settling for the innate passivity that is the hallmark of background music, Admirer is a record that rewards deeper listening. To run with the IKEA metaphor a moment longer: far from the megalithic florescent vastness of your standard IKEA, Admirer is a more softly lit, intimate affair. For me, it is a record dripping with nostalgia.

Throughout Admirer, I, at least, get little glimpses of the past. Take the chorus effects employed on songs like “Done W U”. That’s vintage Speak For Yourself era Imogen Heap. The melodic contours of “Daydream” (video below), particularly the way the vocals leap into the suspension on the phrase “Oh God” (with no crescendo – that’s key) is reminiscent of those beautiful ballads on the first Venus Hum record. Personally, I am especially fond of the album opener “Out Of Town”. The vocal rhythms are so regular, like the swinging of a pendulum, that they are almost hypnotic. And yet, as the song continues to build, there is plenty of syncopation and rhythmic dissonance buried beneath the surface to keep the hypnotic melody from ever growing monotonous.

As human beings, we all find ourselves in the grip of nostalgia from time to time. Personally, I’ve been especially prone to it the last few years. When I listen to the wistful, almost whimsical sounds that comprise the accompaniment to “Done W U”, I can’t help but think of my old friends Swimming In Speakers. Was that the intent? Not likely, but I do think it may be the point.

Nostalgia is a powerful force. While we are often conditioned to shun nostalgia as some sort of inferior emotion, it lingers in all of us waiting to be released. Admirer is the kind of album that can unlock that door. To put it in strictly musical terms, to me, it sounds like the best bits of mid-aughts Imogen Heap combined with Gran Turismo era Cardigans and a voice reminiscent of Tracyanne Campbell (Camera Obscura). More personally, Admirer sounds like old friends and a world that still made some sense.

Stella Emmett’s Admirer is available on CD, cassette, and download beginning August 23.

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World Premier: Wu Fei’s Hello Gold Mountain at Ingram Hall

Soaked to the bone by the torrential rains that accompanied my walk to Vanderbilt’s Ingram Hall, I sank, rather damply, into my seat and began to scribble some notes on the topic of requiems in the now half disintegrated notebook that accompanied me to Chatterbird’s premier of Wu Fei‘s Hello Gold Mountain on Saturday, a piece the composer describes as “a requiem for the lost possibilities of the Jewish community in Shanghai”. Those notes I have since disregarded because too many words can, so easily, do a disservice to the truth and at this point in the experience they hang round my neck more like a millstone than a medal. And that is because Hello Gold Mountain is, at—and in—its heart, so simple.

I don’t mean simple in the sense that anyone off the street could play it. That is far from the truth. There’s an argument to be made that Hello Gold Mountain is as much a double concerto for oud and guzheng as it is a piece for chamber ensemble. Cadenza-like passages in multiple movements highlight the virtuoso touch and technique of oudist Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz and the composer herself at the guzheng. I mean “simple” in the sense that the truth behind the piece seems so basic, so fundamental, that it could be—perhaps should be—taken as a given.

For many years leading up to the Second World War, Shanghai was often one of the only ports open to Jewish refugees fleeing an increasingly troubled European continent. Those refugees, thousands of them, were all crammed into a small area in Shanghai which came to be known as the Shanghai Ghetto. The story is not familiar to many today, myself included, but it is the inspiration for Wu Fei’s most recent large-scale work. Of course, a requiem is, traditionally, a mass for the dead. The form may very from one tradition to another, sacred to secular, but the general purpose remains the same, whether dedicated to an individual, the victims of a tragedy, or humanity as a whole. But can one hold a requiem for that which never happened?

When thinking back on Hello Gold Mountain, it is hard for me not to draw comparisons to another “Jews in exile” piece of relatively recent memory, Osvaldo Golijov’s Grammy-nominated song cycle Ayre. But what I think is most interesting about that comparison is not what they have in common, but how they differ. Hello Gold Mountain does not dip heavily (or really at all) into the klezmer tradition the way Golijov did in Ayre (and just about everything else he was writing at the time). Perhaps those are just the quirks of the individuals who wrote them, maybe it’s the difference between a Jewish composer’s approach and a Chinese composer’s approach to the topic. But I’m inclined to believe there is more at play.

Hello Gold Mountain relies heavily on two instruments, the oud (a lute-like instrument with roots in the Middle East) and the guzheng (the Chinese take on the zither family, this one with 21 strings). (By now, I’m sure you’ve realized that the oud here represents the Jewish refugees and the guzheng their eventual destination in Shanghai.) Separately, in the hands of their respective players, the two featured instruments provide their share of memorable moments. Blumenkranz’s solo passages on the oud often approach the level of poetry, with just enough rhythmic flexibility to convey the fear and trepidation of a refugee bound for the unknown. One can feel the pull of gravity (or is that destiny?) in his runs. Wu’s playing is, as always, haunting, often with the weight of generations behind it. But where she truly sets herself apart is when she pushes the guzheng to its limits, attacking the strings in an aggressive, almost violent manner.

But where Hello Gold Mountain really hits its stride is not in the solo passages, remarkable though they may be. It is when the guzheng and the oud step back and melt into one another becoming, at times, nearly indiscernible from each other when I think the true depth of the piece is revealed. It is then, when the unique and beautiful characteristics of the individual instruments join together to create something new and exciting, that we get a glimpse of the elusive “possibilities” Wu refers to in her description of the piece. But those moments, like the Jewish refugee community of Shanghai, are fleeting. And it is their impermanence that we mourn here.

At one point, midway through the performance, it became evident that one of the strings on Blumencranz’s oud had been rendered somewhat out of tune. It was then that Wu appeared to hold a trill on her guzheng for quite some time while he worked to get back in tune and then, with a nod to the conductor, they were off again. It is perhaps a cheap metaphor, one performer supporting the piece while another regains his footing before continuing on together, but I’m going to run with it anyway.

With the war over and continuing political unrest in China, the Jewish community in Shanghai began to disperse. Some relocated to the newly formed Jewish state of Israel. Others continued on to San Francisco, known in Chinese as “Old Gold Mountain” to begin a new life in America. And even though it is now a much neglected story, the Shanghai Ghetto remains an important chapter in the Jewish wartime experience and warrants wider retelling. Hello Gold Mountain is an important step in the sharing of that story.

As the final movement of Hello Gold Mountain wound to a close, the house lights came up for a communal singing of a brief melody printed in the program. As the house lights dimmed once again and Chatterbird performed the final strains themselves, the stage lights changed to a golden hue. The color of “Old Gold Mountain”, to be sure, but also the color of sunrise and of the dawn of new possibilities.

Around the World with the Yearning

ER-1223For nearly 30 years, Elefant Records out of Madrid has been refuge for musicians out of step with the present. Whether it’s Brill Building throwbacks like The School or disco holdovers like Fitness Forever, Elefant artists more often than not feel as if they’ve been plucked from a different era.

Take Me All Over the World, the latest from The Yearning, finds multi-talented songwriter and instrumentalist Joe Moore looking back into the past, finding inspiration in the age of Getz and Gilberto. The six tracks on Take Me All Over the World are well-steeped in all the hallmarks of the bossa nova era while occasionally veering off for a dalliance with French chanson.

It is not simply the instrumentation which draws such an easy comparison to the classic bossa nova recordings of the early 1960s. It was an era when easy lyricism and reasonable melodies were considered assets (decades before we decided that singers who looked like they were in extreme pain were superior musicians). Maddie Dobie’s vocals perfectly recall the star turns of Astrud Gilberto whose landmark recordings, you may recall, sound more like a wistful sigh than a pop star with something to prove.

Music-making is a universal human impulse, singing as natural as speech. There is no sin in intricacy or complexity. Neither is there any shame in effortlessness. All too often, we forget that. The Yearning have not, eschewing the laborious shouting often mistaken for singing in favor of approachable melodies that actually allow the lyrics to do the talking. For those of us hoping against hope for a return to an age before “more notes more loudly” became the dominant philosophy of Pop Vocalism, The Yearning may be exactly what we’ve been—well—yearning for.

Take Me All Over The World is available CD, Digital, and 10″ vinyl from Elefant Records.

The Indie Handbook is joining Patreon

As I said (or at least implied) a few days ago, I have decided to make a serious effort to revive and revitalize The Indie Handbook — an endeavor which, I know from experience, requires at least 10 hours a week to maintain. It’s time I am happy to invest because I enjoy it, but also because I believe the world deserves accessible, literate, historically-minded music journalism. But a lot has changed in the years since I last posted regularly here. For one thing, there’s finally a mechanism for independent writers like me to be paid for their work without the use of annoying, obnoxious pop-up ads or overpriced T-shirts. That’s why I have decided to join Patreon.

Don’t worry, everything on this website will remain free and I will continue to post the same kind of content I did before as well as a few other new kinds of features I am considering. Instead, Patreon supporters will be given access to some additional, “behind the curtain” style content. Since Patreon is a way for readers to directly support content creators like me, I figured it was only fair to directly ask readers what sort of rewards and price points they think sound appealing and reasonable. So, here are a few ideas I’ve had. Feel free to suggest others. In fact PLEASE suggest them.

Peak Into My Mailbox ($1/month) – I get a lot of news and album press releases in my inbox every week that I never cover because there simply isn’t time. I’ll give you a weekly rundown of what’s in my inbox. Maybe something will catch your eye, even if it didn’t catch mine.

Musical Missives ($3-4/month) – So, I’ve given you the list of what else is out there. Here, I’ll provide brief (tweet length) reviews of all of them. This can reach as many as 10-15 releases a week. Now maybe you see why this business gets overwhelming at times.

Bargain Bin Buying Guide ($7/month) – Everyone knows I love the dollar bins. At least once a month (but probably twice) you’ll get a bonus article about a great but often overlooked record that can usually be had for a dollar or two.

A Window On My Record Collection ($10/month) – An occasional (probably monthly) video post taking a look at one of my favorites from my personal collection. Not unlike the “bargain bin” posts but a little more pricey, a little more unusual, and I might even try to look pretty for it.

Monthly Q&A ($15/month) – Sure, we can talk about music, but I know a lot of other stuff, too. Old movies. Soccer. Ok, well, I know those two things, so we can talk about them if you want to. A lot of people do these. I don’t know why people pay $15 to talk to a stranger, but if you guys want to, I’m here for you.

Crate Diggin‘ ($30/month) – Are you coming to Nashville? Let’s go record shopping together. We’ll meet up at one of my favorite local record stores and dig for a while. Maybe you’ll find something you think I absolutely need to hear. Maybe I’ll find something I think you’ll love. You never know.

Crate Diggin’ On Demand ($100/month for a minimum of 6 months) – Like the other one, but I’ll come to you (in the continental US, that is). Travel costs money, though. Hence the high price tag and minimum commitment. Again, I’m not sure why you’d pay $600 to go shopping with me, but hey, some people are like that.

I’d love to do a one-time contribution thing (around $30) where I would buy a record for you that I’ll think you’ll love and send it to you. I’m not sure if that is a violation of Patreon’s “no giving away other people’s work without their permission” rule. I should really look into that.

Is there anything else you guys think would be good? I’m definitely open to suggestions here.

A New (old) Direction

“Most rock journalism is people who can’t write interviewing people who can’t talk for people who can’t read.”

That’s what Frank Zappa told the Toronto Star in 1977. I’m not going to go so far as to say that Zappa’s assessment of music journalism is 100% accurate – sure, there are journalists (yes, even bloggers) who write beautifully, I’ve certainly interviewed a few musicians who are both brilliant and articulate, and I’ve interacted with enough of my readers online and in person to know that they’re certainly not idiots either – but still, after a several years in and around this business, I have to say, there’s a grain of truth in what Zappa said. Maybe a few grains…

Most of us, I think, come to this business out of a place of relative purity. We love music and we want to share it. But there are certain pitfalls that go hand-in-hand with an industry where everyone knows that a few kind words from one person or another can result in a few extra dollars in another’s pocket. A constant diet of flattery and free stuff is enough to feed any ego, and when it begins to fill your inbox, it’s hard not to develop a taste for it.

When it began, The Indie Handbook, was as much a reaction against Before-It-Was-Cool-ism as it was a pursuit of anything new and exciting. Our initial concept for this project, in fact, was born out of satire. Think about it. The very idea of an Indie Handbook—a how-to guide to being independent—is utterly ridiculous.

I know I say these things now at the risk of alienating some of our longtime readers. But I don’t want any of you to feel as if you’ve been duped. You haven’t been. The content here has remained pure even if my motives for posting some of it haven’t always been. I can say with complete confidence that I have never shared a band on The Indie Handbook that I did not genuinely like and, if you asked her, I imagine Kristin would echo that. I think the same can be said for Kate, and Dan, and Kathy, and Melissa, and any other guest poster whom I’ve forgotten at the moment.

Over the years, we put a lot of time and effort into the posts that appeared here. I would much rather spend several hours editing a single paragraph until the rhythm and pacing of each sentence is exactly the way I want it (something I’ve done dozens of times) than copy and paste a press release (yes, it happens—it happens a lot). But your value in this business is predicated on getting there first, not getting there elegantly. No one cares what you say or how you say it as long as you say it before anyone else. And that’s never been for me. I’m more likely to give you 800 words on a two-song single than three sentences and an mp3. I suppose, in that sense, The Indie Handbook is more a product of the 18th century than our present one and, in a way, it is.

Not everyone knows this, but Kristin and I met in college where we were both music history majors. And in the years The Indie Handbook has been languishing since it was a “several posts a week” blog, that is what I have missed the most. Rock and roll is an oral tradition. Jazz, country, pop, the blues, they are too. They are not codified. They are passed down from one generation to the next. More of us in the music media need to think of ourselves as historians first. We need to put less emphasis on wielding our power and opinions like a cudgel and focus more on the stories we are recording and sharing. Forty years from now, no one is going to care how you or I felt about a mediocre record riding the chillwave boom of 2009, but they might want to know about the time Will Oldham and Angel Olsen turned up in Columbus at midnight, unannounced, to cover an obscure Kevin Coyne record under an assumed name.

Every day, we are making history. It’s usually boring, but it’s history. And that’s where I want to shift my focus. I will still have opinions and I will share them. New music will come along that I love, I will share that too. But, from now on, I am a historian first.

Daggers MacKenzie: Knife Juggler, Outlaw

2015-04-01 01.47.04It’s been several years now since we broke the news to you that LA indie pop duo The Hard To Get had disbanded (at least, I think we broke it—I can’t remember now—but just in case we didn’t, I hate to be the one to break it to you, but The Hard To Get broke up about five years ago). It was not long after that guitarist and vocalist Melissa Kaplan conceived a new project—something ironically far removed from itinerant lifestyle of the aspiring underground pop star. And thus was born Daggers MacKenzie, the story of a traveling knife juggler turned Wild West outlaw.

The story is, of course, told through Kaplan’s songwriting seamlessly blending influences ranging from indie pop and alt-country to cabaret with lyrics that are as witty and clever as anything she did with The Hard To Get. And as was the case with her old band, Kaplan’s greatest strength still lies in her sense of melody. Whether it’s the alt-country lead single “All Aboard”, the seduction ballad “I Feel Good”, or the climactic belter “The Love Reprimand”, strong melodies are the thread that ties the whole set—the whole show—together. The result is a show I would compare to French circus cabaret act Amélie-les-crayons, but which Kaplan describes—more accurately, I imagine—as a “lesbian circus Hedwig”.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. What does a one-woman lesbian circus indie pop-rock opera look like? We’ve all asked ourselves that question at some point, haven’t we? Well, I have seen it. Corsets, cowboy boots, and yes, actual knife juggling all play a role in what adds up to a compelling and often genuinely funny drama about love, crime, and sexual awakening. But none of it would be possible without Kaplan’s knack for narrative songwriting.

Of course, word of the completion of this project after several years of writing and even formal circus training would be good news on it’s own. But recently, Daggers MacKenzie was officially accepted for a two-week run at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this summer with another performance scheduled for the United Solo Festival in NYC in the fall. Full details regarding all festival dates are still forthcoming. As I understand it, an Indiegogo page will be set up to help fund the Edinburgh run, though it stands to reason that the proceeds from the sale of the soundtrack will also go toward the presumably hefty cost of taking the show to Scotland. And that soundtrack is already available through Bandcamp. It can also be purchased through the Daggers MacKenzie Facebook page.

Lesley Gore, a personal reflection from a simple fan

Part Time Pop Star
Lesley Gore (1946-2015)

Like so many kids who were raised on oldies radio, I couldn’t tell you how long I’ve known the music of Lesley Gore. To say “all my life”, while it’s almost certainly an exaggeration, is about as accurate as I can be. My earliest memory of Lesley Gore does not even involve the lady herself, but a performance of “It’s My Party” on this episode of the sadly neglected monument of 1980s children’s television, Kids Incorporated. But even that memory would never have registered had the song not already been a part of my life. I have no recollection of the first time I heard “It’s My Party”, though I can say with as much certainty as one can with early childhood pop culture memories that I knew every word of that song before I could even identify any music actually written during my lifetime. For me, Lesley Gore was never some obscure chronological colloquialism of my parents’ generation. She was a fact—a universal constant—like the speed of light or The Beatles.

No doubt you know her work. A dynamic performer with songwriting chops of her own, her biggest hits have been a part of the musical vernacular for half a century. In the coming days, much will be said about Lesley Gore, her influence over the world of music, and in the world at large. Many will rhapsodize about her proto-feminist anthem “You Don’t Own Me”. Some will lament the label-induced pigeon-holing of Lesley Gore (a lifelong lesbian) as a lovesick, boy crazy teeny bopper. And justifiably so.

But I am not here to justify Lesley Gore. As a straight male born more than two decades after her first hit, Lesley Gore never did anything for me socially. Yes, I do get goosebumps when I listen to “You Don’t Own Me”, not for any altruistic reason, but because it is a brilliant performance of a great song. Growing up in a pre-internet world where everyone I knew was obsessed with Hanson and Smashing Pumpkins, a familiarity with pop star two generations out of fashion (and a girl singer at that!) resulted in a social life that was anything but sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows. At that age, there is no justification for timelessness. These days, there is no need for one.

A few years ago, I sat in an all night diner with Chicago math metal power trio The Cell Phones after a show in Columbus. As it was October, the conversation inevitably turned to their plans for a Halloween gig: a Lesley Gore cover set they had titled Gore. Of course she occupies a great deal of shelf space in my record collection, but I have never known anyone else for whom that was true. So I asked. “We’re huge fans” they said.

Lesley Gore died of lung cancer on Monday, February 16, 2015. She was 68.