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.

CMW Recap Day 2 – El Mocambo/Rancho Relaxo

Day two of Canadian Music Week and I’ve been glittered within an inch of my life by the Top Less Gay Love Tekno Party who, I am told by a man who caught a glimpse of my media wristband at another showcase earlier today, are Canada’s next top band. The folks at Rancho Relaxo likewise seem to share his enthusiasm. It’s the most energetic crowd I’ve seen all night despite the fact that it is 2:30 A.M. and Toronto has been awash with rain and freezing temperatures since I arrived 36 hours ago. In the end, I too was powerless to resist their wonky sex pop and fought my way to the front to experience my first Top Less Gay Love Tekno Party close up and personal with the rest of the glitterati.

[Download: Top Less Gay Love Tekno Party – ‘My Five’ mp3]

TLGLTP were a brilliant way to close my first full day at CMW, so much fun, in fact, that I left the show so full of energy that I opted to forgo a cab and walk 20 minutes back to my room through the steady winter rain. Day two began with the first of three days of Live Near Bellwoods living room sessions at the Toronto Institute for the Enjoyment of Music: a series of performances that proved to be so incredible, I’ll wait and dedicate a full week to them soon.

So, instead, fast forward a few hours and a few blocks to El Mocambo where a nice lady found my passport before I even realized I’d lost it and Familia (Maple Ridge, BC)—who bring so much soul to their hook-laden indie rock, it really ought to come with a warning label—played a blistering set with the tightest rhythms and powerful vocals I heard all night. It’s difficult to photograph a band like Familia, if I’m honest: far too easy to lose sight of things like focus and shutter speed with all that uncontrollable dancing and hip-shaking going on. So if my photos from this particular gig are a little blurry, I’m sorry. I couldn’t help myself. You’re just going to have to entice them down here to the States and out to Britain for a bit of a tour. Trust me, it’ll be worth it.

And, if you can, get them to bring Some Community (São Paulo, Brazil) along with them. As I learned Thursday night, the combination of Familia’s soul pop and Some Community’s art pop makes for one undeniably sexy lineup. I’ve talked about Some Community here before, but suffice it to say that they are even more fun live than I had hoped they’d be leaving a small but enthusiastic audience completely shattered by the end of their high-octane set. I don’t know why someone hasn’t signed them yet. All this band really need is a little exposure north of the Equator (an iPad advert, perhaps) and this band could do quite well for themselves here. And I’ll be honest with you, I’ve definitely got a crush on guitarist/bassist/occasional melodica-ist Gabriela Gonzalez.

[Download: Some Community – ‘Random Words’ mp3]

From El Mocambo, it was on to Rancho Relaxo to meet up with members of Yunioshi and Spaceships Are Cool for a bit of Icelandic sex on a Kaoss Pad in the form of Bloodgroup (Reykjavik, Iceland). Now, I don’t know if you can recall the last time you saw two nonironic keytars on the same stage, but I reckon it was sometime around 1987 (and I can’t even promise I was privy to it then as I was only 3 years old). But it’s a phenomenon I’ve witnessed firsthand and I can tell you, Bloodgroup play those keytars like the electro-rockstars they are and everyone within earshot lapped it up excitedly. And by the time the band had worked their way up to their Facebook hit ‘My Arms’ (from Dry Land) it was clear the capacity crowd was ready and willing to take it in all night long. But seriously, when the beats and nerdgasms flow in torrents from the stage like that, can you really blame them? I mean, I’ve never really given much thought to becoming a groupie, but for Bloodgroup, I might reconsider. Anyone feel like joining me in Reykjavik for Iceland Airwaves in October?

You already know how the rest of the evening went. (Hint: it’s up there at the beginning. See that neat time-displacement thing that I did?) At the end of a day like this, the only question really left to ask is, how is it even possible that anything could match this? The answer is ‘Friday’.

New Song: Those Dancing Days – ‘I’ll Be Yours’

Those Dancing DaysI was supposed to be taking some time off, you know, working on that opera I have due next month and about a hundred other projects. But then this happens. And who am I to deny my favourite band to ever leave a note for me in a country where I do not live?

Yeah, that’s right. Those Dancing Days are giving away another track from their upcoming album, Daydreams & Nightmares. The new song, ‘I’ll Be Yours’, is more in line with the melodic pop of their debut while at the same time markedly more mature, both musically and lyrically. But I’ll have to stop myself there (after all, I’ve got to save some metaphors for the actual album review…). Why don’t you listen for yourself instead?

Those Dancing Days – I’ll Be Yours by Radar Maker

With each new TDD track I hear, it becomes more apparent that these ladies, young though they may be, are growing increasingly comfortable with the niche they’ve been carving out for themselves, all the while exceeding all expectations and setting new standards along the way. That’s certainly one way to drum up interest in the new album: one I look forward to with greater anticipation each day.

Daydreams & Nightmares is released 7 March on Wichita Recordings. Also head over the band’s website to check out their upcoming European tour dates (and cross your fingers in the hope that they play some shows here in the States in the not-too-distant future).

Merry Christmas from The Shoe (and also from me)

The Shoe

I got you something. Well—I wanted to get you something. I was recently given some demos of dubious legality that I thought I might pass along to you all, but serendipity and my fear of the RIAA finally got the better of me. And besides, I’ve got something even better for you. More specifically, Jena Malone has something better for you.

A few of you may remember this post from about 20 months ago (that’s about 12,000 years in Internet Time) in which I confessed to one of my several celebrity crushes and passive-aggressively suggested that Jena Malone and Lem Jay Ignacio (a.k.a. The Shoe) record a Christmas song that I could one day include in an Indie Handbook Christmas compilation. Well, I may not have a full compilation album to give you, but I do have a new track from The Shoe called ‘Mary’s Xmas’.

It’s been a while since I’ve featured something quite like this, but it’s a cool track that bears repeated listening, especially if you dig some of the more off-kilter stuff like The Babblers, Slapp Happy, or The Fibonaccis. You can download ‘Mary’s Xmas’ below.

While we’re at it, you might like to know that The Shoe should have their EP on iTunes some time in January coupled with a few shows in the vicinity of L.A. And, even more exciting, there’s a new album due in March as well as even more tour dates. Hopefully, I’ll have more information for you as details become available, but you should probably keep an eye on their website anyway.

Download – The Shoe, ‘Mary’s Xmas’ mp3

Corey Dargel – Someone Will Take Care of Me

Every year or two, I am overcome with an urge to get organised. It’s not an obsessive thing, by any means, and it doesn’t extend to every facet of my life. Tax documents, pay stubs and things of that ilk remain right where I left them—under the dresser, under the bed, on the bed—until I need them. But my books and CDs—the important things—are cleared from their shelves (and from under the bed and from grocery bags) and stacked in neat piles to be rearranged according to a system that only the great bibliophiles could claim to comprehend.

The process smacks of pragmatism, but it is an exercise in futility, really. Within weeks, they will migrate by the dozen, to resume their rightful place in the world: the passenger seat of my car (should the need arise to reference Jung’s Synchronicity whilst stuck in rush hour traffic, you know how it is…). The only thing of any practical use to come out of the experience is the opportunity reevaluate my collection—to note the gaps and count just how many more copies of The Waste Land I have accumulated (14). But what struck this last time round was an unsettling number of volumes dedicated to psychological disorders, suicide, depression—and self-mutilation.

And now, with Someone Will Take Care of Me (New Amsterdam), Corey Dargel has added his musical contribution to my library. The two disc collection features two of Corey’s music-theater, pseudo-song cycles, Thirteen Near-Death Experiences, and Removable Parts, exploring some of the darker recesses of the human experience. In what plays out like a Freudian hybrid of Pierrot Lunaire and the Postal Service, Thirteen Near-Death Experiences (brilliantly executed by Corey, the International Contemporary Ensemble, and David T. Little) takes an unflinching look at the illnesses, both physical and a psychological, that plague the less fortunate among us.

Perhaps more difficult to come to terms with, however, is Removable Parts, ten songs about voluntary amputation. Thankfully, it is state of mind entirely foreign to the vast majority of us. But like me with library of self-mutilation, Corey throws himself into his research until he can, in some way, relate to the subject at hand. The subject matter paired with stripped down instrumentation (relative to Thirteen Near-Death Experiences), first-person lyrics delivered in a straight-forward, unadorned manner, make for a pleasantly unsettling listening experience.

In a sense, listening to Someone Will Take Care of Me, has been somewhat akin to the experience of reading The Bell Jar for the first time. It highlights the delicate balance between health and illness and how close we are at any given moment to stumbling (or leaping) across the fine line separates the mundane from my “psych shelf”. And this album, like all things of true beauty, teeters on the brink of madness.

Download “Fingers” from Someone Will Take Care of Me, part of Removable Parts.

Look, mp3s! Legal ones!

I have mentioned Super Desserts before (way back when no one was reading this blog), but several months ago, I promised them a full review of their album. Barefoot in the Disenchanted Forest really isn’t like any album you’ve seen/heard before. Then again, super Desserts aren’t like any band you’ve ever seen/heard before. For instance, when was the last time you paid $5 for 21 songs with titles like “Under the Guise of Darkness, Clara’s Hands Look Like Ninja Fighting Stars (We Won’t Talk About Her Nose)” on a CD with a 26 page photocopied collage booklet packaged in a 7-inch vinyl record sleeve? For that matter, how many bands have you seen that use glockenspiel, ukulele, banjo, and sitar along with strings simultaneously, all the while reveling in the melodic capabilities of the bass clarinet? Are you starting to get the picture?

“Ghost Song” mp3

“Fran’s Song” mp3

Clearly, I cannot address every song, so we’ll just stick with a few of the highlights. “Four Seasons” (yes, each track has an alternate, simpler title) is a great opener, if only because, within 20 seconds, you have a clear sense of how intricate Super Desserts’ instrumental textures really are. (It is, however, a great song in its own right.) The track opens with ukulele, shaker, and glockenspiel for a few measures before adding banjo, harpsichord, and bass clarinet and, finally, choral, sing-along-style vocals. (And that’s the thing about this band, every song is like listening to a group of friends gathered in a pub or someone’s living room or round a campfire with whatever instruments they have on hand, singing and playing for the love of music. And that is just what every Super Desserts show is like. It’s the kind of genuineness that Fleet Foxes might have been capable of were they not from the self-obsessed Pacific Northwest.)

Eight tracks in is the clever two-minute gem, “Ghost Song” (written by Justin Riley). Who could not love a song with lyrics like “And if you are ever feeling lonely / Have a little séance and I’ll talk to you,” or “Maybe I can join a band of angels. / I may not have a body, but I’ve still got soul”. Late in the album falls “Jump Out of the Way”, one of Eve’s. The second half of this song is particularly stellar as the whole band joins the fray in a manner similar to the second half of Nickel Creek’s “Helena”, but in a somewhat stripped down (in volume only) sense. There are several other great tracks worth mentioning, like “Funeral” (“I once made out with my cousin from Cleveland / I thought she was beautiful / When my sister caught us (Oh no! Oh no!) / We were so embarrassed.”) or “Peckin’” (based on a poem by Shel Silverstein and a melody by some local fifth graders) which returns as an instrumental in a blues rock jam at the end of the Southern gospel revival style “Hammock”.

I want close out this review with one last song, my favorite, “Fran’s Song”. Despite an altogether uninteresting title (even the longer version is somewhat ordinary: “Clara is Sitting on a Sofa Next to Her Half-Brother and is Having a Completely Normal Conversation with Him”), it is the standout for me. This is as close as Super Desserts get to a normal song and the only time piano/glockenspiel-ist Fran Litterski (who also wrote it) takes center-stage. And I think it’s that ordinariness that most resonates with me. Her voice is sweet and pleasant to listen to, which further elucidates some of the prettiest, purest lyrics on this record (“I find it beautiful when I see older people holding hands. / I see that and I want it so bad, / but I know that there’s a life to live right here before that comes / I just want to know that it is something that I’ll have.”) Even a “hardened critic” like myself feels that way sometimes (read: constantly) and cannot help but melt upon hearing them here. (I had better stop listening to this song soon, or my nascent crush on Ms. Litterski is just going to get worse, and we all know how badly those things work out for me.)

Anyway, I’ve talked a lot and you’re probably bored, but I like Super Desserts. A lot. So, check out the MySpace and the website and the mp3s (above and below) and the Facebook and our Facebook and I’ll leave you alone now.

“Ghost Song” mp3

“Fran’s Song” mp3