MADBOY/MINK, pimping the disco

MADBOY/MINK (if you know who took this photo, let me know)
MADBOY/MINK (if you know who took this photo, let me know)

2014 was the year I gave up on synths. (I know, it surprised me, too.) Five years ago, I lived for synthpop. I put an electronic record confidently at the top of my “best of the decade” list. (I went back and listened to that record again this week, it’s still firmly in the top two.) And yet, for whatever reason, in 2014, I decided I’d had my fill (too much terrestrial “alternative” radio perhaps). It’s ironic, then, that the best record I heard in 2014 was a disco record into which synths and laptops factor heavily. And it wasn’t even close.

For my part, MADBOY/MINK were a complete accident (Indian disco swing doesn’t often find its way into my inbox). Following one of the myriad rabbit holes that dot the internet landscape while reading up on a film featuring band member Imaad Shah, which I had screened as part of a film festival I was jurying at the time (M Cream, an Indian indie certainly worth two hours of your life if you can track down a screening), I came across a Bandcamp page featuring a single five-song EP called All Ball released about six weeks earlier. All Ball is the lone official release from the band, though a YouTube search would indicate that the Mumbai duo have a number of other tricks up their sleeve.

From the moment “Alley Cats” drops it’s first disco-shrouded Old Possum reference into the music hall mix to the bassy burlesque of “Taste Your Kiss”, All Ball swings unrelentingly, a godsend to all who, like me, still consider the Verve Remixed albums to be the greatest compilation project undertaken by a single label. Inject a healthy dose of funk into tracks like “Lemonade”, “Funkenstein” (self-explanatory), and “Pimp the Disco” and you have a debut that mines the best bits from a hundred years of popular music and combines them into something new, never dated, and always filthy (pimp the disco / bring it to its knees / I like my generator with a little bit of sleaze).

MADBOY/MINK are Saba Azad and Imaad Shah. They are based in Mumbai, India. They’re EP is called All Ball. It is on Bandcamp. It is also free (which is about infinity dollars below market value).

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Cosmos – Fitness Forever and the next to last days of disco

Fitness Forever - Cosmos
Fitness Forever – Cosmos

“Disco will never be over. It will always live in our minds and hearts.” So begins Matt Keeslar’s final speech in Whit Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco. While the death of their club and the dawn of the Eighties spelled the beginning of the end for the Doomed Bourgeois In Love, disco’s fate, it seems, was far from sealed. Enter Fitness Forever with their second album for Elefant Records, Cosmos.

After their first album left frontman Carlos Valderrama empty, as he describes it, the band were left with ample room for stylistic exploration. In time it seems, the band took to mining a vast depository of ’70s music for inspiration. The result is an album that has more than one foot (let’s say one and a half feet) firmly planted in the disco era. But John Travolta, this is not. Cosmos, while a disco record in spirit, is more stylized in practice, marked as much (or more) by the metered cool of bossa nova as the licentious revelry of Studio 54.

While Cosmos is an album very much at home in the musical landscape, it’s not the sort of record to settle down in one place for very long. While numbers like “Disco Quiz” and the title track may be the most reminiscent of the last days of disco (well, I say “reminiscent,” but then, I’m not really chronologically qualified to reminisce about such things), tracks like “L’amore Annegato” play it closer to the ghost of Getz/Gilberto that haunts the whole of Cosmos. One would even be forgiven for comparing songs like “Hotel Flamingo” or “Le Intenzione Del Re” to latter-day Belle & Sebastian.

At its heart, Cosmos is driven by a loving embrace of an amalgam of influences: lush instrumental textures straight from late ’70s radio, shuffling rhythms and intricate jazz progressions, and bossa nova inflection. It’s enough to send Ted Boynton awkwardly cavorting his way across the dancefloors of Barcelona in pursuit of plain-looking girls.

At the end of that speech from The Last Days of Disco, Matt Keeslar’s character Josh declares, “Disco was too great and too much fun to be gone forever. It’s got to come back someday.” Whether that’s a part of his impassioned speech that Josh “actually believes” is irrelevant, because, if Fitness Forever’s latest is anything to go by, that day is here.

More info about Cosmos on Elefant Records

This is Independent, 2013

(c) Eric Robertson, 2013
Independents’ Day 2013, rain delay at Pearl and Broad

I’ve often written in the past about how my particular hometown of Columbus, Ohio is fiercely supportive of our local musicians (even sometimes to our detriment, if I’m being brutally honest). You may even recall a post from a few years titled something like “Columbus Loves Independent Musicians (and I’ve got the scars to prove it)” in which I covered a couple of local music festivals including Independents’ Day. I don’t believe I’ve covered Independents’ Day since that initial post, but I’ve continued to attend every year and this year saw the festival expand to three days (at least in theory, a rain delay led to the cancellation of most of Day One).

I’m not going to try to cover everything I saw at Independents’ Day this year. I saw 20 bands in twelve hours and no one wants to read about all of them. Nor do I want to write about all of them. But a few did leave their mark on me.

(c) Eric Robertson, 2013
Nervosas at Independents’ Day 2013

I think among those few, the one that most surprised me is Nervosas. It’s not that I expect anything more than a top notch performance from Nervosas every time out, especially given the veteran musicians involved in the band. I’ve been following Nervosas from the beginning. In fact, if you follow our YouTube channel, you may even remember this video I shot at Bernie’s way back in 2011 when Nervosas were Witches of Kelso, the night they bolted immediately following their set opening for Wavves to play a show with our old friends The Cell Phones. No, I expect nothing less than the best from Nervosas every time out. What gets me is that they constantly exceed my expectations. They just seem to get better every time I see them. Every set is tighter than the last one and Independents’ Day 2013 was the best I’ve seen. They have been touring around this part of the country a fair bit lately, and if they continue to improve at this rate, who knows if they’ll even be available to play this fest next September.

(c) Eric Robertson, 2013
Cliffs at Independents’ Day 2013

Speaking of improvements, as I left Nervosas, I turned the corner at Gay St. to catch what was left of Cliffs‘ set. I’ll be honest, it took me a while to come around to Cliffs. Mostly, because I’ve known the band members since they were in middle school and I don’t want to look like I’m showing favoritism, but also because I wasn’t blown away by the early demos they sent me. But I eventually caught up with the rest of Columbus about a year ago when Cliffs played an opening slot for Chicago garage punk juggernaut White Mystery. But Independents’ Day 2013 was the first chance I had to see the band play in front of an audience of any significant size. I have to hand it to them, these guys know how to have a good time with their audience. And I must commend drummer Adam Hardy for playing this show with a broken hip. I swear, I never would have known. Word from the band is, the test pressings for their first LP have come back and everything sounds great. Look for that to be out some time around November.

(c) Eric Robertson, 2013
Connections at Independents’ Day 2013

And while we’re on the subject of getting caught up with everyone else, I should say, even I am surprised that it took me as long as it did to see Connections. Granted, I actually saw Connections for the first time a few days before this show, but for all intents and purposes this week has been my first Connections experience, despite the fact that the band (featuring former members of past Columbus bands, including the late great Times New Viking) have been making waves around town for about a year. And here is why I love events like Independents’ Day. Yeah, going to shows in clubs is fun and intimate (at least when you go to the kinds of shows I do) but in a festival setting you really get a chance to see how the concert going public really reacts to them. Not everyone goes to every Connections show, but every Connections fan goes to Independents’ Day. I even paparazzied Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman at the Connections show. I guess even politicians like good solid indie rock.

(c) Eric Robertson, 2013
Lydia Loveless at Independents’ Day 2013

One final thing that’s long overdue, and those of you who remember that first Independents’ Day post from a few years ago may know where I’m going with this. Way back in 2010, I wrote about how I’d heard countless good things about Lydia Loveless, but just barely missed her Independents’ Day set. (Lydia even emailed me later to assure me that satisfaction was guaranteed.) No worries, I did finally see Lydia perform not long after that near miss, and several times since then (some of you may even remember a photo set from a couple of Record Store Days ago). But I finally made up for missing her 2010 set this year, planting myself front and center this year for a set consisting almost entirely of new material. Which has left me very excited for her pending releases.

In my mind, Lydia has long since taken her place in my mind as the best act in Columbus. And I’m only slightly saddened by the fact that her contract with Bloodshot Records takes her away from us and out on the road as often as it does. Though, I must say, I do enjoy the messages I receive from friends around the country after Lydia plays their hometown, telling me how lucky I am to live in Columbus. I didn’t always agree with that sentiment, but I’m starting to come around to that idea, too.

 

Getting Cultured

The only photo with more than one discernible band member

There’s not a whole lot of indiepop in Columbus, Ohio. Sure, Super Desserts had the local twee market cornered for a couple of years, but with banjo player Tyler Evans now a New Yorker, it could be a while yet before we hear from them again. Now, maybe I’ve just been going to the wrong gigs, but I can’t recall hearing anything around here with solid connections to C86. But one would think a city this size with monthly club nights dedicated to The Smiths and to 60s garage/soul could sustain its share of indiepop acts. We do, however, get the occasional brush with Madchester’s progeny when they roll through town on tour, as Bay Area shoegazers Young Prisms did in March. And it was in this guise, just this past weekend, that I caught a brief glimpse of a local scene I didn’t even know existed.

On tour was 28 Degrees Taurus, a seasoned pop-oriented shoegaze act from Boston making their first Columbus appearance in five years. Their performance was slick and high energy and they sure make a heck of a lot of noise for three people (I love to see a guitarist unleash on his instrument the way Jinsen Liu does). But the surprise of the night came in the form of local quintet, Love Culture.

You know how it is. There are bands who long to break out of the small rooms and into stadiums. And if you’ve ever seen one of these bands play (as I did not long ago) you know how difficult it can be to watch. (And, no, I won’t tell you who they were, mostly because I can’t remember their name.) Conversely, there are those bands who make those small rooms feel like stadiums. Love Culture are one of those bands—and that’s not just the fog machine and lasers talking. They may not be the most shining example of textbook shoegaze (while their sound owes a lot to My Bloody Valentine, there are also healthy doses of Smashing Pumpkins, Radiohead, and other mid-90s icons in there), but Love Culture have that swirling epic haziness down, all the way to the extensive pedal boards and androgynous lead vocals.

Yes, while the fog machine and laser light show may be a bit eccentric, but they are all part of the ethos of Love Culture. To hear the opening strains of a song like “Karolyne”, for instance, emerge from a set of laser-lit silhouettes, especially at a distance of a mere seven or eight feet, lends an already strong track an otherworldly eeriness that makes a lasting impression. So, maybe Love Culture aren’t the second coming of Talulah Gosh that I’ve been hoping for, I’m still glad to know—latecomer though I may be—that there is strong shoegaze in Columbus.

Love Culture’s recent Aquamarine EP can be had for free from Bandcamp, where you’ll also find their earlier EP. You can also find them on Facebook and probably other places, too. Love Culture’s next Columbus show is May 26 at Rumba.

Introducing Possimiste and some free music from Jherek Bischoff

Sometimes, it can be difficult to trace an artist’s origins. Sure, there’s always the old fallback that all music is descended from Pavement, but, in certain cases, it isn’t clear whether an artist has emerged from a vacuum or is the result of a synthesis of myriad influences. And then there’s Possimiste who, by all accounts, may as well be a girl with bat wings who lives in the forest (which is, in fact, exactly what her bio claims she is).

What we can say about the nineteen-year-old Estonian (who has, thus far, seen fit to keep the details of her story a secret) is that she has one hell of an adventurous, if not altogether revolutionary, artistic vision. Materializing out of the same sort of nebulous origin pools characteristic of so many great Estonian musicians (e.g. Arvo Pärt; Erkki-Sven Tüür), Possimiste creates what are ostensibly ethereal pop songs that flutter just beyond the realm of identifiability. Seemingly equal parts Ólöf Arnalds, Islaja, and Emilie Simon (circa La March de l’empereur or Végétal), her music also evokes abrupt and appropriate mood changes worthy of Pärt’s Te Deum or the best of T.S. Eliot.

But it is in her music videos where Possimiste’s vision really shines. Ranging from dark and brooding to delicately whimsical, they are works of exquisite beauty. The most recent video single “Clockworkbird” (below) or the earlier film “Behind the Seas” could just as easily be live-action editorials assembled from the pages of Lula Magazine as music videos. So, while I may as yet know next to nothing about the woman behind the music, I can say for certain that I haven’t been this excited about a new artist since the first time I heard Emilie Simon five years ago. My gut tells me Possimiste has a lot to offer us and I, for one, cannot wait to see where she goes from here.

You can find links to free downloads of much of Possimiste’s music on her website.

And then there’s this, a little preview and free mp3 from Jherek Bischoff’s (Parenthetical Girls, The Dead Science) upcoming debut Composed. The first single, “Young & Lovely”, features Bischoff’s long-time partner in pop Zac Pennington (Parenthetical Girls) and French chanteuse SoKo. A limited run of 7”s (500 in the US and 500 in the UK) will be released on Record Store Day next week (April 21) with B-side “Eyes” featuring the one and only David Byrne. We’ll cover the LP in greater detail as the late May/early June release dates (UK/US, respectively) approach. For now, you can refer to my review of the live performance as part of the Ecstatic Music Festival at Merkin Concert Hall back in February. And don’t forget to grab the free download of “Young & Lovely” from bandcamp or the embedded player below.

Shara Worden with yMusic at MusicNOW

Shara Worden and yMusic

For those of you who like a bit of snarkiness in your gig reviews, I’m sorry, but you’re likely to be disappointed by this one. I’ve been lost in thought over this particular set for nearly two months now. I couldn’t even speak about it for a week after, and even then, I was barely coherent.

 

For someone who hasn’t released an album of her own in three years, Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond) has been remarkably busy, performing all over the world with everyone from Clogs to the Decemberists, and making guest appearances on just about every album released in the last 18 months (Penelope, anyone?). Somehow, in there, she even managed to spend an hour talking to me, which is a remarkable feat for anyone. Then there’s the matter of the album’s-worth of material she’s written in that time, which is what concerns us here.

When a friend with connections to MusicNOW told me in March that I had to get down to Cincinnati for the festival, if only to hear Shara’s new stuff, I didn’t exactly put up much of a fight. I’ve been hearing second hand accounts of it for a while and everyone seemed to be in agreement that it was really something, but, in retrospect, nothing they could have told me could ever have prepared me for the real thing. Because something has happened here – something big – but I just can’t quite put my finger on it.

Maybe it’s her teaming up with yMusic. I’ve been witness to a number of incredible performances in the last few months and, more often than not, yMusic (or members thereof) have been involved. Whether they’re backing Owen Pallett or playing their own rep, there is just something revelatory about the way they play – a sort of purposefulness that is all too rare. (It’s worth noting here that Shara Worden and yMusic violinist Rob Moose have recently collaborated on a multimedia/poetry album, Letters to Distant Cities, for New Amsterdam Records, which I have reviewed for another publication.)

That could be it. Yes, I know that we all love the way My Brightest Diamond can turn it up and blow the roof off a club, but this was different. Here was power derived through intricacy – a fabric so finely woven it’s hardly noticeable until it’s swept your feet out from under you and carried you away. On only one occasion, I managed momentarily to tear my gaze from the stage and scan the room. And in that moment, I witnessed something I have never seen before: an entire audience transfixed – jaws scraping the floor and people pulling at their hair in rapt amazement – hundreds awash in power and intimacy, under a blanket of music and dance, punctuated by squeals of a baby in the back at the sound of his mother onstage.

So maybe it was he who threw that switch, because in those final moments – a lullaby – the great sweeping wind that left bodies slumped in their chairs under the sheer power of it all came to rest a gentle breeze that stole our breath and drew tears from more than one witness. (Even now, it’s difficult to think back on it without becoming choked up.)

I’ve spent a great deal of time on this blog talking about reconciling pop and classical music. I discussed it with Shara a couple of years ago, and have done with several other artists since then (some of which I haven’t even published here yet). But I’m starting to think that maybe reconciliation isn’t what we’re looking for here. “Reconciliation” still seems to imply, at least to some extent, pandering to what one (or both) side(s) think of the other. But what we really want – I think – is a complete dismantling of all previously-formed opinions. And I’m pretty sure that’s what I’ve just seen. And the fact that this same material can be performed at Lincoln Center one month and in front of a theaterful of Midwestern indie rock kids the next speaks volumes about the music – and that both audiences can find it equally ravishing and devastating gives me a little hope for humanity.

MusicNOW part 1

So, here we are, it’s June and festival season is in high gear. I’ve been to three and I’ve already got my sights set on Airwaves, trying to work out just how I can swing a week in Reykjavik come mid-October. One of my UK counterparts recently told me about a dream she’d had in which I had scored media passes to The Great Escape and was texting her updates as her jealously and disappointment mounted. This was pure fantasy, of course. (I only do that sort of thing to people who have treated me horribly in the past and I bear no such ill will towards her.) Moreover, and more importantly, come the weekend of The Great Escape, I was thousands of miles away at another, much smaller festival, in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Now, I call MusicNOW a “small” festival. And in terms of seating capacity and the shear number of bands slated to perform, it is. But one look at the lineup curated this (and every) year by Bryce Dessner of The National, it’s a wonder that MusicNOW—this year including The National, Owen Pallett, Sharon Van Etten, Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond), Justin Vernon (Bon Iver), and Megafaun among others—isn’t at the top of everyone’s list. My only regret being that I could only attend the opening night of the festival, but, in the immortal words of Frankie Valli: oh, what a night!

It looks straightforward enough on the surface. Three bands on the bill: Sounds of the South, Shara Worden, and yMusic. (I’m going to take them out of order, if it’s alright with you.) But it’s not so simple as that.

MusicNOW bills itself as a “festival of contemporary music” and is, in every sense, the embodiment of that ideal (opening night featured, almost exclusively, unrecorded music). It’s a festival about more than a string of bands taking the stage to play the hits. From the moment that yMusic took the stage, it was clear (as I’ve heard from so many people) that MusicNOW is a special festival. I first met yMusic (well, half of them, anyway) at String Theory Festival in Minneapolis in April. Now being a New York native, I had never seen them before, though I’d long heard tell of their impeccable performances. And it’s all true.

My first impression of yMusic was one of complete astonishment—like the shock of recovering the memory of something I never knew I’d forgotten. And with every subsequent performance (four in the last two months), I’ve come away thinking the same thing: that this is why I ever studied music in the first place. And MusicNOW was no different. From the opening moments of Judd Greenstein’s Clearing, Dawn, Dance (which you can download here) through the premiere of a new work by Richard Reed Parry (Arcade Fire) and their set with Shara Worden it is, as always, abundantly clear that yMusic are one of the brightest lights in whatever the hell we’ve decided to call the current state of music.

Now, a word about the Parry premiere: one of the main focal points of each MusicNOW festival is the commissioning of a new piece of music. Past contributors have included Tyondai Braxton (Battles) and Annie Clark (St. Vincent). This year, the honor fell to Richard Reed Parry (or, as he was introduced by Bryce Dessner, “my friend from a band that no one has ever heard of who recently won a Grammy”.) For the piece, half of yMusic, seated at the piano with stethoscopes bound tightly to them, played to the tempo of their respective heartbeats while their three counterparts played in what might be called “the traditional manner”. The resulting pseudo-aleatory—always out of step, never out of phase—produces a beautiful haunting effect and will likely serve as a useful metaphor about stylistic diversity in future posts. It’s musica humana in its truest form.

And while yMusic may have played, quite literally, to their hearts’ content, the evening’s headliner, Sounds of the South took their organic cues from another source entirely. The performance, commissioned by Duke Performances finds its origins in the field recordings of Alan Lomax, appropriately enough, from the collection entitled Sound of the South. Through a series of new arrangements, reinterpretations, and reimaginings, the members of Megafaun and Fight the Big Bull breathe new life into Lomax’s legendary field recordings at once removing them from their native context to a whole new setting (the concert hall) and redefining the sound of concert music. All while enlisting the help of some very special friends along the way.

If you had told me two months ago that I would spend an evening listening to Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) and Sharon Van Etten singing blues backed by full New Orleans style jazz band, I would have—well, you probably wouldn’t have told me that, so this is a useless metaphor, but the point is, I did. And it was incredible. With intricate (and occasionally cerebral) jam sessions the rule for the night and a constantly rotating cast of singers to keep things interesting, Sounds of the South also highlights the transcendent nature of the source material (and folk music in general) – more than just songs, they are a launching point for a flurry of ideas and ingenuity. And as midnight approached 90 minutes into the performance, the only conceivable downside was that it would eventually have to end.