2 for 1

It has certainly been a crazy couple of weeks for me out here in Charm City. Between car accidents (without injury, thankfully), navigating between our insurance and crazy-lady-who-ran-a-red-light-and-hit-my-car’s insurance, trying to get our car fixed, and dealing with the fatigue that inevitably sets in after the shock wears off, I’ve been hard-pressed to convince myself to write. My head felt like it was packed with cotton all last week. I could barely put together two brain cells outside of work and I finally had to just put off last week’s entry. Which is a shame because I am literally overflowing with fodder for album reviews and recommendations from all the amazing music I picked up on Record Store Day (my new favorite holiday). So to make it up to you, I’m going to treat you to a two-for-one deal. It’s a double-headliner tonight folks, so sit back and enjoy!
First up is a beauty of a London indie rock band called Bombay Bicycle Club. Their new album, A Different Kind of Fix, is a satisfying collection of songs that call to mind the vocal harmonies of Fleet Foxes and the quiet intensity of Radiohead’s In Rainbows, while presenting something instantly more radio-friendly. The over-all feel of the album is even and low-key, but not for a lack of energy–more for lack of variation. For the most part the flow is steady and constant, without major highs or lows, but there is a whole lot more going on below the surface than you might be conscious of on your first listen. Each song is rife with great bass lines that propel you through the track list and keep the fire burning bright. Jack Steadman’s vocals are velvety and understated with an occasional outburst of discord that is reminiscent of Robin Pecknold without dredging up the sense of tight-lipped dread that seems to accompany all of his songs.
Beggars is a great example of Bombay Bicycle Club’s ability to mimic Fleet Foxes’s harmonies, but with an instrumentation and a beat that manages to hit a sweet spot that the other band never quite seems to achieve. Here’s a pretty little live performance they did last August that while done well, lacks the punch of the studio version. Still it is a great showcase for their talent in an off the cuff environment (that thankfully, is not filmed by an amateur with an iPhone), so it is definitely worth a look.
My favorite song off the album is called Your Eyes, and it is everything that I love about this band: Suren de Saram’s vigorous drumming strategically building the energy of the composition, the rollicking guitar of Jamie McColl, and Steadman’s rather tremulous voice rising above it all. But it is the driving, relentless bass work of Ed Nash that really makes the song for me. I have always been a sucker for an intricate bass line and this song has one of the better ones I’ve heard in quite a while. The result is an addictive song that gets your blood flowing with every listen. Here again I found a decent live version of the song which someone was kind enough to film without shaking their phone around until my eyes watered. I’d love to see these guys live, but if you prefer to hear the version off the album then you can find it here.
The second half of this double feature is devoted to an intriguing singer-songwriter named Eleanor Friedberger. Perhaps better known for her work with her brother Matthew Friedberger and their experimental indie collaboration called Fiery Furnaces, Eleanor released her first solo album, Last Summer, in July of 2011. Throughout the album, she seems to waver up and down a spectrum with her exploratory music roots at one end and a more traditional brand of folk pop at the other. She alternately displays an amazing pop sensibility for turning out catchy, yet deep songs, and a willingness to abandon all those tried and true song-writing rules in favor of indulging in her poetical lyrics. The result is some surprisingly catchy songs that on occasion seem to have more syllables than melody. Honestly, she appears to be the nothing less than the tuneful love child of Joanie Mitchell–the queen of the quixotic lyric– and Carole King–the supreme monarch of pop-craft. But what really clinches it for me is Friedberger’s voice, which decisively asserts her spiritual connection to Carole King (I am absolutely convinced that she would do a killer cover of I Feel the Earth Move). Her mellow alto flows throughout the album, giving everything an easy-going sheen that is evident even in her darkest songs.
In honor of her musical split personality, I present to you one example from each of her styles. First up is the superbly crafted conventional folk pop ditty, I Won’t Fall Apart On You Tonight. Here’s an acoustic live version that is a bit more minimalist than the album version, but is somehow more moving in the simple presentation of a small venue performance.
To contrast the polished pop glow of that first song, I present to you Friedberger’s Roosevelt Island, where she employs an almost spoken word approach to her lyrics. Placed over top a funk-inspired instrumental track, this is a prime example of the syllables and the melody not quite matching up. But while it is miles away from her more traditional compositions, it still makes for an interesting listening experience.

Three days from New York City

If you are anything like me, then it has probably been a lot longer than you’d like to contemplate since you’ve had a real vacation. Not the fake kind of vacation where you visit family, go to a conference, or squeeze in a little sight-seeing after a job interview. No, I mean a real vacation–when you take time off school or work, travel to a city you’ve never been to before, and go exploring. Well kids, I’m long over-due and I’m really excited to be able to say that this problem is about to be addressed. In case the entry title slipped past you, I’m going to New York City! I’ve actually never been there, my only experiences with the Big Apple being several drive-thrus (read: slowly losing my mind in stop-and-go traffic) when going back and forth between Boston and Charm City and a lay-over at JFK with a huge plaster cast on my leg (long story). Sadly, this time is still not quite ideal in that I’ll only be there for a little under 48 hours and for most of that time my poor husband will be working. But he’s made his peace with it and I’ve been busy making plans for a solo exploration of Manhattan.

I’ve decided to take a page from Anthony Bourdain and treat this like a real layover. On the advice of several people, I’m going to avoid most of the usual tourist stops. My goals are few and flexible, which I hope makes them doable:

1. Go to the New York Public Library and see the original toys owned by the original Christopher Robin of A.A. Milne fame (to make the little 5-year-old me immensely happy)

2. Get a real New York City bagel for breakfast

3. Visit Strawberry Fields in Central Park (my very first real Beatles pilgrimage! Somebody pinch me!)

4. Visit my buddy from grad school (she’s been trying to get me up here for about 2 years now. How can I refuse?)

Everything else I do will be incidental, unplanned, and hopefully delightful. I do hope that my husband will be able to pal around with me in the evenings, but I’m not holding my breath. Honestly, I’m just thrilled to be getting away from my normal life for a little while. I’m sure I’ll be exhausted when I get back, but it will be well worth it.

So now in honor of my maiden voyage to the Empire City (and for your entertainment, of course), here are my top three picks for songs about New York City. Enjoy!

First up is the impeccable Joni Mitchell and her 1969 classic, Chelsea Morning. Hailing from her second album, Clouds, this song showcases that amazing lyrical magic that Mitchell is known for and which helped to cement her reputation early on as a hit-making songwriter. Originally covered by Judy Collins in 1967–for whom it charted higher, I might add–I find that I much prefer Mitchell’s version. The combination of her simple orchestration and complicated lyrical rhythm make for a pleasant listen every time.

Next on my list is the often energetic and always eclectic Vampire Weekend with 2008’s (holy crap! Is it really that old already?) A-Punk. Their strangely obscure and at times unintelligible lyrics do in fact have something to do with New York City. And I’d like to think that the hyperactivity of this frenetic song reflects something of the city’s bustle. Either way, the video is creative and will make you smile.

And last–but certainly not least–is a little Canadian indie rock girl band called Cub that chances are you may not have ever heard of. But if you’re a nerd like me, you’re probably familiar with They Might Be Giant’s cover of their song, New York City (I know! I was as shocked to discover this as you. This is why I am not allowed to call myself a hipster). Cub was a short-lived trio from Vancouver who favored a soft brand of pop-like punk that some critics apparently dubbed “cuddlecore”. Personally, I think the name is both fitting and adorable. But what do I know? Oh well, Cub broke up in 1997, but first they made an equally cutesy video for this song in 1995. It is ’90s-tastic. Enjoy!

Wish me safe journey! I’ll try to post some pics next week.