What a beautiful world this is – Drakeford at Franklin Creative

Drakeford at Franklin Creative
Sorry, this is the only photo of Drakeford I managed to get that night.

I’ve listened to a lot of music in the last decade. Very rarely does any of it move me anymore. Yes, the music that’s been with me for decades, that accompanied me on my greatest adventures and carried me through my most difficult times—the songs that know me—still means the world to me. But rarely does anything new penetrate that deeply into my psyche anymore. What was my biggest fear when I first decided to study music full time 15 years ago and has ultimately proven to be one of the great tragedies of my life.

When I arrived at Franklin Creative, a new gallery space in Franklin, TN a few blocks off the beaten path but homey and comfortable, I expected to find a full house. Feeling particularly defeated and ready to call it quits after three two hours wandering in and out of galleries and three coffee breaks during the city’s monthly art crawl, I planned to drop in for a song or two by whatever band was playing and disappear again.

Instead of the packed house that had greeted me on my first visit, however, I found only the gallery owners and a few artists inside. Afraid I’d missed everything, I spent the next several minutes discussing the artwork with photographer Shelly Moore, when a voice from another room asked, “Would you like to hear the band? I’ll go get them.” There was no chance of slipping away unnoticed now.

The band was inter-continental husband and wife duo Drakeford (he from South Carolina, she from somewhere in England). It would be unfair of me to leave the description at that, however, especially in a town like Nashville where you can’t throw a rock without hitting a dozen songwriters, because even here (maybe especially here) there is something special about Drakeford.

I took a seat in the gallery and listened intently for a few songs. Yes, the playing was skillful, their voices were nice and my how that fella can cram a lot of words into a single song when he wants to. One might compare it to Ed Sheeran. I compare it to Waiting For My Rocket To Come era Jason Mraz (just listen to Drakeford’s recent single “Nashville” and tell me I’m wrong). But it was something else entirely that finally grabbed me and refused to let go.

If you knew me, and you almost certainly do not, you would know that I have long been preoccupied with the conflict between legacy and anonymity. Like so many others, I’ve spent my life haunted by the desire to be recognized. I know I am not alone in this. I think it is an inherently human thing to seek recognition, be it for good work, good looks, or Good Works. But the older I get, the more I am bothered by my unwillingness to be Nobody, by my inability to accept that there is beauty and honor in living a life that is unremarkable to all but the few who love us.

So, when they played another new song, “Beautiful World” and I heard the lines “From the ground where we buried our loved ones / Spring out willows and wildflowers. / Now new life is found. / What a beautiful world it is.” I froze and choked up a bit. I never asked if those lines meant what I heard. I could be miles off base, here, but it doesn’t matter. In that verse, I heard reflected not only my feelings in that moment, but an aesthetic I’ve been pursuing for ages. I rushed to write those lines down. If I were to forget everything else from this evening, I wanted to remember those lines.

But I haven’t forgotten them. Nor have I forgotten the feeling of hearing them for the first time, a feeling I hadn’t experienced in years and yet one which caught me multiple times that night. There’s a comfort in being known, a sense of belonging that comes from hearing our hopes and fears echoed in others. It’s a feeling we’re destined to spend our lives chasing and, when we’re fortunate, find, occasionally, in our loved ones, in a stranger—sometimes, even, in a song.

You can find Drakeford’s music in lots of places, like iTunes and Spotify. As far as I can tell, everything has been released digitally. I do, however, wish they has CDs, so my mom could listen to them too.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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).

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