Pay Attention Now

The last few months have felt pretty bland for me musically speaking. I’ve listened to a lot and acquired several albums that, while each good in their own ways, all failed to live up to the high expectations that I placed upon them. Each was purchased on the strength of a single song that hinted at the possibility of a wider, more innovative album. And each has left me feeling unsatisfied. Nothing has moved me. Nothing has… wowed me. And unlike the teenager I used to be, these days I really want to be wowed.

But I am excited to report that I have recently found two new artists who have not only wowed me, they have literally blown me away. Both are fairly new artists–one of them literally just released his first album last week–who employ layered/altered vocals; beats that change unexpectedly and often during the course of a single song; some rather inspired drumming; electronic influences; and well… Let’s just say that these two are kinda hard to define. They genre-bend like mad and the result in each case is something truly intriguing. Despite their similarities, their sounds are worlds away, yet both fall under what is currently called indie music–whatever that means these days. And most importantly, each of them literally had me itching to visit every record store in town until I could get my grimy little hands on their albums. You have no idea how wonderful it feels for me to be this excited about a new artist after this awful dry spell. There honestly are no words. But who, you may ask, has inspired me to such a frenzy with such a long introduction? Once again, dear readers, you ask a great question. So let’s get to it.

Artist you should absolutely know about #1: Tune-Yards.

This New England project is led by the crazy-talented Merrill Garbus, who literally records and loops vocals and drum tracks on the fly during live performances!!! (Yes, she totally earns those 3 exclamation marks.) Pulling in electronica, Afro-beat, R&B, and something affectionately called “wonky pop”, Garbus and her small band of experimentalists create some really interesting soundscapes. And her voice? Holy crap! Don’t even get me started. I literally had to hunt down a live performance for you because you will not believe that this voice can come out of one little white girl otherwise. I highly encourage you to check out some of their other songs, but for now here’s an in-studio version of Gangsta from their 2011 album Whokill. (Pro tip: Stick around at the end for a short interview. Highly informative.)

Artist you should absolutely know about #2: Robert DeLong.

This guy is so new that, despite having already started to gather acclaim, he doesn’t even have his own article on Wikipedia yet, but I’m sure that will change soon. There is something really fascinating about his sound, which is created through the use of a whole host of different drums and electronic devices, not the least of which is a Wii-remote. Aside from sporting a smooth voice, some major lyrical chops, and an obvious talent at drumming, DeLong manages to fill his songs with a sense of youthfulness that is invigorating and a philosophical world view that feels ageless.  His first single, Global Concepts, is a great example of this. Listen to him wax existential as he wanders through a variety of electronic flourishes, pounding drum beats, and changing time signatures. Suitable for black light raves, massive arena shows, and maybe even a mosh pit (do people even do that anymore?), this is one not to be missed. The video pays tribute to both his talent and his creativity by showcasing his many instruments, along with an impressive use of light tubes and some frenzied dancers. Expect to hear a lot about this guy in the coming months, both from me and from the wider music industry. I predict that Robert DeLong will be a name everyone will know soon. And if you didn’t already know about him, brace yourself and hit play. You can thank me later.

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Whatever gets you through the night

Holy smokes! My life currently resembles a working case study in insanity. It feels like I am swimming upstream these days with a whole laundry list of stuff to tackle trailing behind me, which somehow never seems to get any shorter. Between taking on a load of extra responsibilities at work, prepping for 2 plane trips and 1 road trip, staring down the barrel of another birthday, valiantly (read: vainly) trying to get/keep my house clean, and desperately trying to find time to write, I am beat. And with the changing of the seasons literally happening as I type, I know that if I am not careful, I could have a really bad Fall… and don’t even get me started on the upcoming holiday season. It doesn’t even bear contemplating. *sigh*

What can I do but keep moving? For now at least, it is full steam ahead around here and in light of this I would like to present to you a little playlist. I think I’m going to call it my Holy Crap! Mix. If it has a frenetic beat and some unstoppable energy–mixed liberally with a sense of desperation–then it belongs here. Please enjoy!

Whatever Gets You Through the Night, John Lennon

(Probably the closest thing to disco he ever did, but don’t be discouraged!)

Excuse Me Mr., No Doubt

(My very favorite. Gwen Stefani will mess you up!)

I Hear Noises, Tegan and Sara

(From my favorite Canadian twins. When I am frustrated and tired, I literally can’t play this song loud enough. )

Forever Yellow Skies, The Cranberries (Live in Detroit, 1996)

(Blistering guitars and drums not withstanding, just watch lead singer Dolores O’Riordan’s blur of an arm as she plays rhythm guitar.)

Paper Romance, Groove Armada

(Rather awkward video, but amazing song.)

Out of My Head, The Black Eyed Peas

(The moment I hear that base line, I literally breathe a sign of relief. Best sonic release valve I know.)

This is a list destined to grow. If you have any suggestions for additions, please drop me a comment and let me know.

I watched, I let it burn

Music has always been a cathartic experience for me. When something is bothering me, exciting me, or depressing me, 9 times out of 10 I will reach for my headphones to deal with it. And considering the myriad of addictive choices out there that I could reach for (food, alcohol, sex, shopping, etc), I think this is a pretty healthy choice. Sometimes I roam through my music library in search of that one song that just hits the right nerve. I compulsively hit the skip button on shuffle mode, pausing only long enough for the opening bars to register before moving on, until that song that feels right right now hits my ears. As you might imagine, this is often times a frustrating and occasionally an unsuccessful way to go about things, being dependent on both the level of my agitation and the caprice of the shuffle algorithm. But other times I get lucky and the song finds me.

This is what happened to me last week when several large pieces of news (some good, some… questionable) were rather unceremoniously dropped in my lap. An agitated coughing mess with a lot of folders to label, I decided to indulge a little and listen to All Songs Considered while I worked. And right there in the middle of the podcast, a song that I had already heard once in passing without taking much notice pulled out a sledgehammer and said, “This is your song. Right. Now.” And all I could do was listen.

I’ve talked before about the art of the cheerful fuck-off song. There really is nothing quite so endearing (and sometimes profane) as a song which tells the world where to stick it in a bright and upbeat manner. The juxtaposition of a vicious dressing down with a rocking beat is one that I consistently find intriguing and amusing. These songs are extremely useful for burning through a store of nervous energy. Sometimes they even provide a sense of closure. Surprisingly, there appears to be a statute of limitations on taking someone to task and a chipper song that flips the bird at your regret of choice can really work wonders for your peace of mind.

During the last year or so I’ve been slowly compiling a list of songs like this and the latest edition has got to be I Love It by Icona Pop. Hailing from the Swedish club scene, this female electropop duo is spearheaded by DJs Aino Jawo and Caroline Hjelt, and their latest single is positively infectious. Hands down, it is one of the most energetic songs in my catalog. Featuring pulsating industrial tones and a throbbing beat sure to please even the most discerning of club crowds, Jawo and Hjelt paint the picture of someone who has reached such a height of frustration that they no longer care about the consequences. The result is impossible to listen to without rocking out and some of the lyrics will leave you chuckling.

The only problem with the song is the abrupt–and I mean abrupt–ending. There is no climax or even a winding down period. It screams along at an insane pace and then just stops. The effect is more than a little jolting and means that the song is highly sticky. You’ll find that you are still humming along hours or even days later. And if you are anything like me, you’ll spend a good chunk of a night lying in bed and staring at the ceiling while it blares in your head on repeat. Given this unfortunate side effect, do you dare to risk listening to it?

Oh, come on! Trust me, this is such a satisfying song that it is worth losing a little sleep over it. Go on and listen. You know you wanna!

I Love It by Icona Pop

No greater feeling than hope

Okay, so it’s been a little while since I last posted. Frankly, it’s been an insane couple of weeks. Between 2 weekends out-of-town in a row (first for the amazingly, unexpectedly stressful 90th birthday of my grandmother and second for a professional conference) and a lovely headache that has been with me in one form or another since Monday… well, finding the time to write has been a bit tough, not to mention finding the ability to stare at a glaring computer screen for minutes on end. But enough whining. Here I am! Have I been missed? Who can say?

As for myself, I have literally been itching to write something. That list of entry ideas in my phone just keeps getting longer. I keep latching onto one of about 4 ideas and then experiencing what amounts to long and excited inner monologues that all ultimately ran out of steam before a computer, a piece of paper, my phone, or my head could be scraped together. And tonight that list is just going to have to stay as long as it is. No my friends, instead of delivering a speech about my first concert experience, my first album, the bitter sweetness of happy music written by a future suicide case, or that promised term paper on the role Rush has played in my life, you’re going to get something completely different. You’re getting The Black Eyed Peas…

One of the lowest points in my life occurred very shortly after moving to Charm City in the fall of 2009. Having recently graduated from library school in May, I was one of (but probably not the) first in my class to find a job in my field that would pay me. The only catch was that I’d have to leave Boston and move to Maryland… on the depleted financial resources one is inevitably left with after pursuing a graduate degree… and my husband would have to quit his job… in the middle of an economic meltdown. Well, there were not jobs for me in Boston, academic advisers had always sung the praises of being willing to move out-of-state increasing your chances of employment, and my husband had no attachment to his company. So we threw out, sold, or gave away everything we possibly could, borrowed money from family, and made the smallest, cheapest move we possibly could. At first everything was great. We found an adorable apartment in a decent neighborhood. I began settling into my current job. My husband began his new job search with a sense of casual optimism. And we began to explore our surroundings. This was late summer.

By January, the situation (both within our apartment and without) had changed dramatically. After taxes and health insurance for the both of us, my pay check was ill-suited for tackling the mountain of debt we’d racked up the last few years. My husband was still searching for a job, but had grown increasingly despondent. Like most people tend to do when facing the prospect of long-term unemployment, he stopped sleeping at night, began sinking into video games, and did not like being asked how his day went. I experienced the biggest bout of self-doubt it has ever been my misfortune to subject myself to and I stopped answering my phone because they only wanted one thing and I had to pay my heating bill first. We were feeling really low. The dreary winter weather wasn’t helping anyone either.

Now we were lucky. Really lucky. We had the amazing luxuries of a steady, if inadequate, paycheck and our wonderful families who went above and beyond helping us get by. During the first part of the economic downturn, a lot of people couldn’t even count on that much. I’m not painting such a bleak picture about my own situation to belittle the harsher reality of other people. But in my own limited experience, this was as bad as it has ever gotten. Thankfully, it wasn’t long before we hit bottom and things started to change.

It was some time around early February when my husband started finding job listings for jobs he was actually qualified for and felt happy about doing. He applied and started to get interviews that looked really promising. And a hotel in D.C. started actively courting him for his event a/v expertise. He started doing free-lance work with them. It stopped feeling like we were suffocating and we got a little extra money in our bank account. It truly felt like we were on the verge of something good happening.

One night around this time my husband decided to buy The Black Eyed Peas new album, The E.N.D. and he popped it into the car stereo. We’d left the darkly pessimistic city to go exploring out in the gentrified parts of the county. It was getting late and the temperature was falling. There hadn’t been any snow for a while, so the landscape was dead, gray, and dismal. But for the first time in months, we were both in a good mood. There was a sense of optimism we’d been greatly lacking and I could feel it bubbling just below the surface as we drove back towards the city. We talked about the future and smiled at each other. We made jokes and laughed and for the first time in a long time I didn’t worry so much.

And then this song came on:

Not being much of a fan before this album, and having had my head in the sand for the last few months, I’d never really heard this song before. I’d certainly never seen the crazy video they made for it. I remember sitting in the car and gazing out of the window. And this thrilling and powerful feeling of hope seemed to fill me. It was so intense, I think I may have cried. I feel silly to admit it, but reliving the memory right now is making me cry. Don’t tease me about it though…

Long story short, that sense of hope turned out to be right. A week or two later, my husband got his pick of three job offers and everything changed.

I’m still not a huge fan of The Black Eyed Peas. Their earlier work doesn’t really attract me and their latest album, The Beginning, is honestly underwhelming. But The E.N.D. has become one of my all-time favorites. Some of this is admittedly on the strength of my memories associated with the song I Gotta Feeling. But it is truly a worth wild album that is tightly crafted and possibly one of the last albums we will hear that was created expressly to play in order in one sitting–something that is becoming very rare in this iTunes world. And no matter how I may feel about their other work, if you ask me what I think of The Black Eyed Peas, the first words out of my mouth will be, “Oh, I love them!”

Geek Music

Lately I’ve been thinking about the nexus between music and geeks. Geek culture has become so pervasive the last several years that it was inevitable that the two would meet at some point. One of the best examples of music meets geek is 8-bit video game music. Here in Charm City we have the band Rare Candy. Taking their name from an item in the Pokemon video games, these four grown men rock out with some amazing electronic arrangements of old school games like Legend of Zelda, Final Fantasy, and Castlevania. One member even dresses up as Ash from Pokemon. I’ve seen them twice and they put on a great show. Here’s one of my favorites from them.

Another great 8-bit band is Anamanaguchi. Known as a “chiptune” punk band, they hail from New York and use a hacked NES and Game Boy as synthesizers to play their original scores. I found these guys through Chris Hardwick’s Nerdist podcast and have since created a Pandora station for them. They are definitely worth checking out if you have a soft spot for video games from the 1980s.

But the pinnacle of geek music in my opinion is Daft Punk’s musical score for Tron: Legacy. It’s a beautiful soundtrack that ranges from sweeping symphonic soundscapes to the more traditional house music that Daft Punk is known for. Whether you liked the movie or not (and I know opinions are varied on this), the soundtrack is a must listen. Here is the song “End of Line”.

And to take it up a notch, there is Tron: Legacy Reconfigured. An entire album of remixes from the soundtrack by such famous techno artists as the Crystal Method, Moby, and Paul Oakenfold. It is the absolute height of geek and an amazing techno album. I honestly haven’t been able to stop listening to it this whole week.  Here’s the remixed version of “End of Line”.

What music do you geek out on?