Thursday, December 11, 2008

Best of 2008 Countdown, Part 6

This mornin' I'm gonna be droppin' some knowledge. The following two artists/albums fall into the underground/indie Hip-Hop genre. Meaning, you'll probably never here them on a mainstream radio station. You'll probably never hear them unless you go searching for this type of music or read into small music rags. But you know what? I can feel the underground scene rising. The ease of production and dissemination nowadays is making the creme rise to the top. Anyone with a little technology can make beats if they're willing to learn or teach themselves. No longer do you have to be in someones crew or be discovered in random fashion. Peep a couple of the best from 2008

Common Market - Tobacco Road (Mass Line)

Consisting of RA Scion and Sabzi the duo came together in the burgeoning Hip-Hop scene in the Pacific Northwest. If Sabzi sounds familiar that's because he's also half of the group Blue Scholars. RA Scion's flow sounds similar to Talib Kweli and thus may make you listen closer, or confuse the two. This album was supposed to come out last year and ran into various complications. The flow, lyrical content, and production are really superb. If there is a knock against the duo it would be that RA Scion's lyrics are dense. So dense that you'd probably have to read the liner notes to catch all their meaning. I enjoy the quality because you can listen to the album over and over and catch something new each time. Hopefully this is the album that gains them respect nationwide outside their niche of the Pacific Northwest.

"Trouble Is"

Black Milk - Tronic (Fat Beats)

Known to the IRS as Curtis Cross but the rest of the music community as Black Milk, he's back with his newest solo release. He comes from Detroit, MI and is most often compared to the late, great J Dilla. Quite young (at age 25), and tapped by many magazines to being the next great producer/MC, Black Milk has been gaining quite a following. This album is all on him. Produced and MC'd with help from some great guests including: Sean Price, Dwele, Royce Da 5’9", and Pharoahe Monch. He's most respected for some seriously hard beats that "make you need a neck brace". Again, the whole album is pretty damn great and should easily get him the major label placement he's looking for.

"Losing Out" (feat. Royce da 5'9'')

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Best of 2008 Countdown, Part 4

It's time to shake things up in this ongoing countdown I've got going. Today's grouping falls into what I've deemed the "Eclectic" category. It wouldn't be tough to pigeon-hole the following artists/albums but I think it's more interesting to have them next to each other in my own little version of Morning Becomes Eclectic (KCRW reference for those not in L.A.). Again, these are some of the best albums front to back of 2008.

Sigur R
ós - Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust (XL)

I wouldn't have known about Sigur Rós if not for a friend from high school that first insisted I listen to their album ( ) when it came out in 2002. At the time I kinda shook it off as nothing special and kinda weird. It has since become probably my favorite album in their catalog. What I consider Sigur Rós' best attribute is their stunning ability to build and shape songs to musical and emotional climaxes. They build crescendos and heighten emotion throughout the course of songs like a classical composer (building tension upon tension to have a huge resolution and release through dissonance or unresolved chords). Sigur Rós employs lead singer's (Jónsi Birgisson) falsetto voice and large arrangements to achieve the same effect. This newest album translates to mean "With a Buzz in Our Ears We Play Endlessly" and is a departure for the band in terms of songwriting and overall feel. This album has a more "traditional" feel, whatever that means. It's still Sigur Rós which means it's pretty beautiful.

"Heima" (Japan, iTunes Bonus Track)

Cut Copy - In Ghost Colours (Modular)

This album hasn't yet peaked onto any Best of 2008 lists that I've seen which is surprising and quite an oversight. It'll most likely make Pitchfork's year-end recap considering it was given an 8.8/10 which is one of the highest scores they've given out all year. It took me a while to warm up to this dancepunk/electropop/new wave/post-punk effort from Melbourne, Australia's Cut Copy but once I did I realized it's a great album that is fresh and danceable and fun to listen to. One of my favorite tracks is below which is more of the "pop" variety than the "dance" ones on most of the record.

"Unforgettable Season"

Girl Talk - Feed the Animals (Illegal Art)

Mash-ups found their niche a few years ago and probably "jumped the shark" (I know the term has probably jumped the shark as well, which is just strange to consider) when Jay-Z teamed up with Linkin Park. Pretty soon everyone thought it would be cool to see what crazy shit they could put on top of each other. Unscathed (relatively) has been Gregg Gillis a.k.a Girl Talk. His breakthrough album (an exercise in the fair usage law) was Night Ripper (2006) which sampled and spliced and mixed 150-200+ songs over the course of ~45 minutes. He created the album as one long track and then cut it into separate tracks, all the while never received permission to use any of the music. He came back this year with a brand new album in the same fashion as Night Ripper that is equal to and better than what came up with two years ago. The track below features samples from: Jay-Z, Radiohead, Mary J. Blige, The Guess Who, Aerosmith, Young Gunz, DJ Kool, Fine Young Cannibals, and even Dexys Midnight Runners ("Come On Eileen") to name a few.

"Set It Off"

Monday, December 08, 2008

Best of 2008 Countdown, Part 3

Monday. Everyone dislikes Monday, which is why I'm here to make it a little less crappy. I've finally figured out how I'll continue breaking down some of 2008's best albums which is terribly exciting (basically by genre) for me. Today's couple artists/albums I'm going to lump into a Folk/Blues category. One is becoming a standby while the other I just discovered in the last number of months.

Ray LaMontagne - Gossip in the Grain (RCA)

This album has grown on me since my first few listens. It shows a natural progression for an artist in their third album. He's an established artist that is beloved by fans and has excellent commercial and licensing appeal. Yet, he still maintains an allure because he isn't a very public figure and doesn't really do a lot of press or interviews. It's a classic case of playing hard-to-get and having it pay off. If you haven't heard this album yet it's mostly unlike his previous two. This album has a little bit of everything from blues tunes, folk, hushed ballads, and country. Listen to the bluesy number below and feel the glorious pain.

"Let It Be Me"

The Low Anthem - Oh My God, Charlie Darwin

Finally an album/group I haven't already written about in this space. There really is no good reason for this fact. And frankly it's better late than never with The Low Anthem. A trio of multi-instrumentalists from Providence, RI the band formed only a couple years ago. Their album has quite a diverse range of tunes, but each one is infectious. I would have to post half the album to really give a sense of the diversity of the album. Below is one of the harder rockers on the album.

"The Horizon Is A Beltway"

Paper Planes Everywhere

I was treated to another new movie over the weekend (aren't all the days considered "weekend" when you're unemployed?) called "Slumdog Millionaire." If it's playing in a theater near you I would definitely suggest seeing it. While it's not imperative to see in the theater, the Indian scenery will look better (and you'll be one of the few that has seen it come Oscar time). The movie utilizes a couple songs by M.I.A. and most notably "Paper Planes" which has become the anthem off her most recent album. The scene with the song is below. Along with it is the song used in back of a totally different sort of movie: "Pineapple Express" which was released this past summer. I found it interesting how a song could be utilized effectively in both a screwball comedy and a (romantic) drama while eliciting totally different responses.

Slumdog Millionaire:

Pineapple Express (trailer):

Friday, December 05, 2008

Best of 2008 Countdown, Part 2

A couple things before I jump back into the Best of 2008 Countdown:

1) I went and saw 'Twilight' yesterday afternoon and had forgotten how awkward, brooding, horny, and angst-ridden high schoolers were. But in terms of music there were a couple great songs at the tail end of the movie. When Bella is dancing at prom with Edward in the Christmas light laden gazebo Iron & Wine's "Flightless Bird, American Mouth" from The Shepherd's Dog is playing. It's a very sweet and tender song, but when you read the lyrics it's a somewhat curious choice. It would seem to have dual themes of the degradation of the American Dream as well as a person's loss of innocence. The second meaning totally makes sense as Bella has now entered a different world with Edward. The other song was "15 Step" off In Rainbows by Radiohead that lead into the end credits, which was another pleasant surprise.

2) Let me clarify some of my thoughts on how the art of constructing an ALBUM has been mostly lost. We are firmly in the digital age of music. I will probably see the end of CDs in my lifetime. Things obviously initially changed with the original Napster, and the ability to find obscure songs. Then with the advent of the iTunes store in 2003 you could download only the tracks you wanted from an album. This could have taken music in two directions; force artists to make better albums and get people to download them in their entirety, OR push for exceptional singles and try to sell as many of them as possible while disregarding how they fit into a larger whole. This is just my opinion on (probably) a complex issue. But most mainstream artists went down the road of killer singles. All of this hasn't been helped by the Death of Radio. That is a whole other topic, but I don't even listen to the radio unless I've forgotten to take my iPod into the car. While many singles have been exceptional, what are you left with after hearing the same song 100s of times? On a good album you have the luxury of exploring 40 - 60min of music not the same 3 - 5min. Thus, it is less likely you'll reach the "end". Alright, enough of that for today, how about praising a couple ladies?

She & Him - Volume 1 (Merge)

I was pretty excited about the pairing of M. Ward and Zooey Deschanel from the get-go. Possibly because I had heard Zooey sing live a couple years before this project came to light and was impressed that she was above average. This album was universally given a "this is quite good" review, and in the neighborhood of 7/10 if you had to assign a number to it. Recently, Paste Magazine named it their #1 Album of the Year. That is probably the highest praise it has received. My highest praise is that She & Him's music sounds timeless through and through.

"You Really Gotta Hold On Me" (Live @ KCRW 1/6/08)

Jenny Lewis - Acid Tongue (WBR)

I tend to write about music I love. I don't like to waste my time on artists or albums that don't catch my fancy. What does this have to do with Jenny Lewis? Well, Jenny Lewis' formal solo debut is one of my favorites from this year and another album I wrote about upon its release a few months ago. You'll also notice all the albums I've mentioned so far I've mentioned here before. Thankfully, Acid Tongue still holds up a few months later. I'm not sure if it will make more respected Best of 2008 lists, but it stands out among my personal "Chicks That Rock" category.

"Jack Killed Mom"

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Best of 2008 Countdown, Part 1

Over the course of the next few days (maybe weeks) I'm going to start briefly listing my thoughts for the Best ALBUMS of 2008. I stress the word "album" because I believe the art of making a complete album has nearly died. The number of albums that are worthy of repeat listens from front to back are increasingly few and far between. I don't expect each track to be a single, but a few gems around a mound of crap doesn't cut it for me.

Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes (Sub-Pop)

I previously wrote how excited I was after listening to this self-titled debut back in May. Since then, nothing has changed in my mind. On the other hand the band's profile has risen significantly. Glowing reviews abound for the debut album, and is already on most people's year-end lists. It's a complete album that shows range on a multitude of levels. I honestly don't know how many times I've listened to the album, but it now feels familiar like it's been around for more than a number of months.

"Quiet Houses"

Bon Iver - For Emma, Forever Ago (Jagjaguwar)

Another artist that I wrote about back in May, it's finally the right time of year to listen to Bon Iver's exceptional debut. It was written and recorded in a cabin in the winter months, and although I'm in sunny L.A. I kind of wish I could listen to this on a mellow night with a burning fire someplace (not a wildfire, of course). This will be required listening for many Fall and Winters to come.

"Wisconsin" (iTunes-only bonus track)

Monday, November 17, 2008

What To Listen To in Your Porsche

One of the things that I couldn't get over when I first moved to L.A. was the preponderance of Porsches around town. Growing up, one of my dream cars was a Porsche 911 Turbo Cabriolet. It's fast, semi-practical (22mpg Hwy), a convertible, it says "rich" without being extremely pretentious like a Bentley or Rolls Royce, and did I mention it's really fast? At home, I think I saw 3 of these on the road over the course of 8-10 years. I saw 3 within the first month I was in L.A. Here, every prick has a Porsche. Now I don't even get excited driving next to a Ferrari or Aston Martin or Rolls Royce or a Maserati.

Probably one of the best anecdotes was when I was briefly helping at an art auction a couple years ago. When I arrived, I asked one of the gallery associates sarcastically if she had had to help anyone put a piece of art into their Ferrari yet. A little later in the evening I helped carry a couple pieces of art out to a woman's car. We waited for the valet to bring the car around to the front of The Peninsula Hotel and I nearly laughed out loud when a Porsche 911 stopped in front of us. She strode toward the car, unlocked the doors, and proceeded to direct me how she wanted to go about fitting thousands of dollars worth of fine paintings into her cramped sports car.

But after you squeeze (possibly) priceless art into the $100,000+ automobile what type of music do you turn on. If it's a Rolls Royce and a Grey Poupon ad it has to be something Classical like Mozart. If it's an import tuner probably some sort of trance/techno/electronica, but I would suggest "Archangel" by Burial to go with your ground effects. If it's an Aston Martin it has to be an ode to it's British lineage (not its almost bankrupt owner Ford) like "Whole Lotta Love" by Led Zeppelin. But if it's my Porsche, and people are already looking at me, and are truly concerned about what I'm listening to, I would want to educate my fellow drivers. I would want them to hear something that they're not hearing anyplace else. I like to dig deeper, and would want to find something to separate myself from the sea of Porsches. I was tipped to a fantastic album titled Rap Music (2007) by L.A.-based duo Brother Reade and would turn on "Work Ain't For Players" with one of my favorite lyrics ("next day, peep me in a '63 V8 / doin' 100 and some change on the PCH"). Alas, I don't have a Porsche and have to reevaluate what should be put into the personal Dream Car echelon.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

That LIVE Song from "Zach and Miri Make a Porno"

Last night I finally went to see writer/director Kevin Smith's newest movie "Zach and Miri Make a Porno," which was released on October 31. I had been wanting to see it, but was a little hesitant because I had only heard "eh, it's alright" reviews. But I ended up really enjoying must know I am an easy laugh when it comes to pseudo-intellectual comedies (from Knocked Up to Spinal Tap to Caddyshack to Old School) so keep that in mind as you read the following. With that being said, the reason I bring up my over-active funnybone is actually to discusss the music in the film.

For starters, I love dissecting how a director uses various songs against the canvas of a movie or TV show. When I leave a movie without thinking, "What was that song in the one scene..." I'm usually left with a *blah* feeling about the whole experience. A well-placed tune, for me, represents a perfect storm of visual, auditory and emotional stimulation. Exceptional marriages of film and song can be amazing like, "Tiny Dancer" in Almost Famous or "Canned Heat" at the end of Napolean Dynamite. Luckily, there was one such song, ("Lift Me Up" by Live) employed expertly by Kevin Smith, during Zach and Miri.

During this particular scene, it comes time for Zach (Seth Rogen) to have sex with Miri (Elizabeth Banks) on top of a pile of coffee bean sacks (no pun intended). Now, I think that we can all agree that there are two distinct types of sex in film: 1) Rougher, devoid of emotion screwing/fucking and 2) Softer, sensual love making. I think it's fair to say that the music played during said coitus has a significant role in determining which type of sex the audience is seeing or is being conveyed off-screen. This is exactly why the use of Live's "Lift Me Up" was so perfect. Instead of seeming like Zach and Miri were simply screwing for money to pay their past-due bills in an emotionless porno, the lyrics ("I'll lift you up, we can love or cry / Hey, I'm in love, I'll take you up again / Your eyes have too many colors and I can only try") and the manner in which it goes back and forth between rock balladry and arena rock made the scene feel like two human beings actually making love.

After doing a bit of research, the song was a demo during the Throwing Copper (1994) recording sessions, and somehow didn't make the cut. On an album that sold 8 million copies, I can't make the argument it was sorely missed. This song works on a number of levels in the movie. The band Live are from York, PA which is only 200 miles due east of Monroeville (suburb of Pittsburgh) where the movie was shot and takes place. In addition, I have to think Kevin Smith has serious clout to get an unreleased song from 14 years ago into a movie (n.b. it somehow didn't make it onto the official soundtrack, and therefor will remain unreleased).

In summation, "Lift Me Up" was an excellent song choice for Zach and Miri's sex scene. It's a mostly unknown song by a band that is local to the location of the movie, it hits all the right lyrical and emotional buttons, and really puts a stamp on the scene to scream "THIS IS CENTRAL TO THE PLOT". It goes to show that excellent song choices in movies and TV can have a dramatic effect on the storytelling but also the emotional connection to the audience. When a great song like this is chosen you can't imagine the scene happening without it, nor could you think of a better musical selection in its place. Below is the best version of the song I was able to find. Enjoy.

"Lift Me Up"

P.S. you can now buy a Monroeville Zombies t-shirt HERE

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Comfort MUSIC

To anyone that has kept in touch with me over the last few months they probably know that I'm unemployed. Initially by choice, but now more so because the world economy doesn't know it's ass from its elbow. In these trying times I'm pretty well-rested from sleeping for 9+ hours each night, I've lost all the weight I gained from eating free $15 lunches for 10 straight months, and I'm almost done with my AFI 100 Challenge. I think most people tend to eat when they're a little depressed or seek solace, hence the term "comfort food." I even have a few of my own (McDonald's Double Cheesburgers...they're only $1 for god's sake!). Instead, I actually tend to have comfort music. Songs or albums or artists that express my mood or shake me out of a funk that I can always go to when I don't feel like digesting something new or different. You could call these Go-To Tunes or something to that same effect.

The songs range depending on my mood (of course) but recently I've they've been in the neighborhood of Wilco ("Kamera" is a fav on an album of favs), The National, Bloc Party, Radiohead, The Decemberists, or even Coldplay ("Kingdom Come -> Ring of Fire") to name a few. Sometimes only a female's voice will suffice: Neko Case, Jenny Lewis, Feist, etc. But recently I've been craving Hip-Hop. Just some tunes to blare out of the car with the windows down with pounding bass (thankfully, I live in Los Angeles = 70-80 degrees in November = windows down). The newest duo to take the mantel are The Cool Kids ("What It Is"). For me, listening to a thumping bassline rebels against my current predicament, but at the same time, soothes my anger and let's me know it isn't that serious. If you don't know The Cool Kids you've probably heard one of their songs in a commercial or maybe not. But what I do know is their Bake Sale EP is really really good. With two MCs there is a great deal of alternating verses which gives the duo flexibility and adds to the creativity. Their beats are fresh yet retro. That may seem like an oxymoron but the actual sounds they use aren't technologically advanced, but the way they layer snares, vocals, and bass makes each track sound fresh with an air of familiarity. Essentially, they manage to infuse their production with early-90's nostalgia. I even saw and met them at Coachella this past spring. Unfortunately, they were one of the first groups on in the day and had maybe a few hundred people watching them. They totally deserved a night spot in a tent. Either way, when their official debut LP drops they will be huge. Just wait.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Ra Ra Riot - The Rhumb Line

I live in a city affectionately called La-La Land. It's a fitting moniker for a number of reasons. Having been born and raised in a northern Virginia suburb of Washington, D.C. (which according to John McCain's adviser Nancy Pfotenhauer isn't "real" Virginia) I have seen and experienced things (sometimes) ridiculously out of my definition of ordinary that I'm still compelled to write many of them down. (For the record, as stupid as it was for Pfothjzsdkjbsjer to characterize Virginia as 2 different states - not counting WEST Virginia - she was merely speaking the truth. If you drive more than an 90 minutes in any southern direction from Fairfax County I promise you will see what "real" Virginia is made of....lots of horses, hicks, Cracker Barrels, etc.) For instance, everyone knows that in L.A. you are required to drive everywhere. This is mostly true. I honestly don't mind the amount (miles) I drive on a weekly basis. The aggravating part is the time spent in the car. At home, 5 miles is about a 15-20min. drive. In L.A. those same 5 miles take at least twice that much time if you're lucky. I also had to quickly learn that there is no end to "rush hour". In order to understand this, you also have to know that no one works in L.A. Meaning, there are so many out of work actors or people whose job it is to shuttle things around town there is always traffic. Certain times are heavier and the only times to get on the freeways are between 10pm and 6am. All of this free time has to be put to good use. I don't recommend texting or using your BlackBerry because you will rear-end someone (not to mention the Govenator signed legislature outlawing it beginning in 2009). I use the time to listen to new music. Depending on the commute I can almost listen to an entire album on one leg, and have a repeat listen on the way home. Most recently I've been "spinning" Ra Ra Riot's debut album The Rhumb Line on my iPod. This is somewhat of a weird coincidence because the band was formed at Syracuse University, and many of my friends out here also went there. Incidentally, they either knew people in the band, saw them play at someone's house party, or some facsimile thereof.

Ra Ra Riot (in my mind) is a thinking-man's Vampire Weekend. It's probably because some lyrical content is inspired by e.e. cummings and not ruminations on oxford commas. But it's also due to the strings of cellist Alexandra Lawn and violinist Rebecca Zeller who artfully alternate between staccato (short) and legato (long) lines depending on the mood and nature of the song. There debut album comes at a perfect time after Vampire Weekend's rapid ascent and subsequent backlash among the snotty tastemakers. The reason for the "delay" is actually a tragic one. The band's original drummer John Pike died tragically in June of 2007 after disappearing one night after a show in Providence, RI. His body was found later in nearby Buzzard's Bay. No one would have blamed the mourning bandmates for calling it quits there and then, but the resilient group issued a statement saying they would continue. Honoring their friend, many of the The Rhumb Line's songwriting credits go in their entirety or partially to Pike. The 10 tracks take up about 37 minutes. It's another one of those albums without any weaknesses and can be listened to front to back. The backstory with the band and the adversity they've managed to get through is inspiring and lends even more emotional weight to songs like "Dying is Fine" and "Ghost Under Rocks." Having listened to the band's 2007 EP as well, this debut album is much more polished and focused than that EP. With some songs crossing over from the EP to the album you can hear the effects of having time in a studio and a good producer. It's an album that makes me forget about sitting in crappy traffic for an hour trying to go (ostensibly) down the street.

"Can You Tell"

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

NEW Alan Wilkis song in Hutchinson Urban Tires Video

Thought this was good enough to share with more people. Alan Wilkis has a new song that is used in a video for urban bike tires made by Hutchinson. Granted, I know nothing about bike tires but Alan's track fits really well against this cool video. Again, Alan has produced a track that has multiple layers that have a funky feel together but work really well as a whole. After emailing him congrats, he let me know there will be a new EP of material in the coming months! Come for the cool video, but stay for the kickass track. Enjoy.

Of Montreal - Skeletal Lamping

Of Montreal is the musical baby of singer/guitarist Kevin Barnes from Athens, GA. It's hard to perfectly describe their style or even musical tastes because they often change from album to album. With that being said, if you want to know about the early history and formation of the band I suggest reading this. Of Montreal came onto my musical radar only a couple years ago when their album Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer? became a hit with the indie blogosphere and magazines. That praise was warranted, and is still a great album. The best way to describe the sound of the most recent music from the band is electro-pop-funk-psychedelia...or something.

With all that being said, Of Montreal released their newest album Skeletal Lamping yesterday (10/21) in a litany of formats: "including conventional CD and vinyl, as well as t-shirts, button sets, wall decals, tote bags and a paper lantern, the latter formats replete with a digital download code for the album itself." This fact, is really beside the point. The newest album continues the style and feel of the previous album but with less cohesion. It was sometimes difficult to know when certain songs began and ended on the previous album. It was really meant to be listened to all the way through, but this newest album is very choppy. It's not out of the ordinary for tracks to shift multiple times in the span of a couple minutes. It makes for a headache if you're not prepared for the ride. There are a couple bright spots, but overall it's not as complete an album as its predecessor. It's really a love it or hate it album. While I fall more in the middle, I would probably not recommend it over Hissing Fauna. The album is incredibly ambitious, but tends to cross the line between ambitious and pretentious. I generally give the benefit of the doubt to the musician, but I just think Barnes missed the mark on this. On the flip side, some musicians could never begin to be this take it for what it is; an okay album from an entertaining artist.

"For Our Elegant Caste"

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Foreign Exchange - Leave It All Behind

The Foreign Exchange is the perfect name for the R&B/hip-hop duo of rapper Phonte and Dutch producer Nicolay. Their story is one made for the Internet Age. As a member of Little Brother, Phonte heard a beat by Nicolay on and contacted him to ask if he could lay a rap over it. Nicolay agreed and soon the track ("Light It Up") was a b-side to "Whatever You Say" off Little Brother's 2003 album, The Listening. An intercontinental relationship was born. They began emailing and instant messaging back and forth. Nicolay would send finished beats and Phonte would then record the vocal tracks and send back the finished track. They did this enough to complete a full-length debut title Connected (2004). I heard that album way back when, and really really enjoyed it. It's a pretty mellow R&B/hip-hop album that doesn't just sound like two guys collaborating because it would be cool. Connected had a few tracks that had great production, with equally impressive lyrical content.

Today (10/14) The Foreign Exchange release their follow-up titled Leave It All Behind. Be warned that this album has a very different feel than its predecessor. The debut album had a few R&B (singing) tracks sprinkled throughout whereas this new album really focuses on Phonte's singing. This is distincly a R&B album. With that being said, it's probably one of the best R&B albums I've heard in a long time. Much of the R&B I hear is really fake and kinda schmaltzy (excuse the Yiddish). It just sounds fake, forced, and something out of a cliche bedroom scene from a movie. Leave It All Behind is different. It has at least an undercurrent of hip-hop production which makes the tracks more interesting and distinguishable. It's a production style that mixes influences from traditional hip-hop, to some elements of break beat, and even some things that are hard to categorize. Upon my first listen to the the album I was confused and kinda upset because I was expecting the album to be more of the same and a step forward. This album is a step forward, but maybe diagonally. Meaning, in a slightly different direction but still a progression. If you know that the album is - at its core - an R&B effort you will probably really really enjoy this album. If you think this is more like Connected you are going to be a bit disappointed, but if you have the patience to listen through you'll still hear great production and Phonte sing the best way he knows how.


Sunday, October 12, 2008

Ray LaMontagne - Gossip In The Grain

The last time I wrote about Ray LaMontagne I wasn't very generous, and begged for more from the budding blues-folk star. Known as a bit of a recluse, Ray lives someplace in the depths of Maine. It is probably someplace far from the "Real World" where people don't know who he is, and everyone calls each other by their first names...if there is anyone else around at all. He began his journey into the music world after hearing a Stephen Stills song ("Tree Top Flyer") on the radio as he was getting up to go to work. He heard the song and decided to stop working in a show factory and pursue a music career. Thank goodness. The music world owes him a huge thank you note. Ray LaMontagne is an artist that doesn't come along very often. He's talented, has a unique perspective, and his sound is distinctly his own. His voice is a raspier/huskier version of Van Morrison and Tim Buckley. His music most often is compared to his genre compatriot Iron & Wine for their folk/rock/blues similarities.

Gossip In The Grain (2008) (being released 10/14/08) is as different from Till the Sun Turns Black (2006), as it was from its predecessor Trouble (2004). Each album has seen a progression for Ray, which is quite a thing to say considering his debut album was quite good. At his heart LaMontagne is a storyteller. His way of telling stories through his lyrics is unquestionably one of the things listeners are drawn to during every listen. He usually sings about loneliness and romantic longing. These topics have been "done before" but rarely have they been sung with such drama and authenticity. He expresses his emotion with a depth and realness that would make grown men cry and women sigh. The bare-bones structures and initmacy of Till the Sun Turns Black isn't totally gone, but it has been replaced with more varied tunes that show a wide range of styles. The opener "You Are The Best Thing" is a rousing Memphis soul tune, followed by "Let It Be" with its folksier lilting soul groove (a song John Mayer will probably wish he wrote), then comes the intimate tune "Sarah" with a melody played on mandolin. Within the first three songs you can already tell that this is going to be a diverse and rich album. The use of strings, acoustic and electric guitars, horns, backing vocals, harmonica, and banjo are just more examples of the diversity employed by Ray and his exceptional producer Ethan Johns. There is even a song that could have been written by the Rolling Stones with its free-form blues riffs called "Henry Nearly Killed Me (It's a Shame)." This is really the record I had wanted to hear from LaMontagne. While I did end up enjoying Till the Sun Turns Black the more and more I listened to it, I think this album is going to have a higher place on the mantle, per se. It's a really great collection of songs that will satisfy all commers.

"You Are The Best Thing"

Friday, October 10, 2008

BSS Presents: Brendan Canning - Something For All of Us...

The members of Broken Social Scene are numerous. Many of their names are now known outside of the band collective: Kevin Drew, Jason Collett, Leslie Feist, and Emily Haines. The founding members were Drew and Brendan Canning. After recording a few albums and touring with whoever was available (tour line ups) Kevin Drew wanted to record a solo album but still keep things close to BSS material. Thus began the Broken Social Scene Presents series. First in line was Kevin Drew (reviewed by me last year), and now it is Brendan Canning's turn. Being the lead vocalist for BSS, his crooning will sound familiar (if you know the band). He's usually very hushed, laid back, and can't always decipher his lyrics but he creates an extra layer to an already textured sound.

Something For All of Us... was released back at the end of July without a whole lof of fanfare, but it's a pretty solid album. I'm not sure what each of these members are trying to achieve by releasing "solo" albums. Maybe they feel more passionate about these songs that they could write without the help of the band setting. Maybe they just wanted different packaging. Maybe it's none of these things. A full-fledged BSS album has a distinctive sound, whereas these two "Presents" album do feel the same but different. On BSS studio releases there is a usually a large feeling of the collective. Whereas on these two individualized releases it feels only collaborative when they're playing together, and the songwriting came from the solo artists' vault. Brendan Canning does a sufficient job utilizing the various skills of his bandmates but doesn't really explore anything new or discover new uncharted territory. To be blunt, it's a pretty safe album. But, when you're good a safe album is better than many many things. I would have been a little interested to hear some new thoughts or experimentation, but that doesn't happen on this record. I still think seeing BSS live is the best way to go. I haven't had that luxury, but I imagine it would be quite a show. You never know who's going to show up, but it would probably be a great experience. The first single is "Hit the Wall" and is the best song on the album. Enjoy.

"Hit the Wall"

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

The Pretenders - Break Up the Concrete

The Pretenders have been around since before I was born. Now that that's out of the way, I can tell you that if you haven't at least heard of them or their mainstay lead singer Chrissie Hynde you've probably been living under a rock. For a quick low-down on their history you can read the bio at AllMusic. What you need to know is that this new album is the first studio album since 2002. It continues a trend that has seen the personnel change through the years but it's said to be only for the studio recording. The current roster for the studio is comprised of Hynde, guitarist James Walbourne, pedal steel player Eric Heywood, bassist Nick Wilkinson and session drummer Jim Keltner. The usual drummer Martin Chambers will retake his position behind the drum kit for the upcoming tour.

Break Up the Concrete is out today (10/7) via Shangri-La Music and clocks in at 36.5 minutes with 11 songs ranging from 2:14 to 4:48 in length. Top to bottom it's a solid album. It's groovy with crunchy guitars, some great percussion rhythms, and of course Hynde's signature voice. She's truly a rock 'n roll woman whose music can stand up against the men, and crush many of them. There are straight out rockers, slower ballads, and a few songs in between. This release is special not only because Hynde doesn't go into the studio all that often, but this is only the 2nd album to bear The Pretenders name in the past 10 years. Clearly, Hynde is standing firmly behind this music and wanted to put the ultimate stamp of approval on the album. For having been singing for 20+ years it's amazing that Hynde's voice still sounds fresh, dynamic, and full of verve. Musically speaking, this album is a return to form for Hynde and The Pretenders name. Not that they were gone and forgotten, but this is a rebirth. It's not as rough and hard-rock tinged as early efforts. The hard rock swagger has been substituted with a rockabilly bounce and country-rock sensibility (on the ballads). Overall, this Pretenders album feels like that old sweatshirt I have in the back of my closet that hasn't been worn in a while (because I live in SoCal): it's familiar, comfortable, and makes me wonder how I could have gone so long without it.

"Break Up the Concrete"

Love's A Mystery (LIVE on The Today Show)

Monday, October 06, 2008

Daniel Martin Moore - Stray Age

You've probably never heard of Daniel Martin Moore. That's okay. Neither had I up until a couple weeks ago. I stumbled upon him while perusing Sub Pop Records website just to see what might be new and exciting. If you're somehow not familiar with Sub Pop, firstly: FOR SHAME. Secondly, it is the definition of an indie label and became famous by signing bands such as Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Mudhoney in the late 1980's. Their current stable of artists is like a who's who of bands that I enjoy tremendously: Band of Horses, The Go! Team, Postal Service, The Shins, Iron & Wine, Fleet Foxes, and Wolf Parade. Basically, they have great taste that generally matches my own. Anywho, back to Daniel Martin Moore. Originally from Cold Spring, Kentucky he sent an unsolicited demo to Sub Pop back in beginning of 2007 knowing that there was only the slimmest of chances it would ever be heard. Lucky for him, Sub Pop took down their "no solicitation" sign for a scant moment and liked what they heard enough to track him down. Although, tracking him down sounds like it was a chore, as he was working at a friend's B&B in Costa Rica. The idea that he received a record deal from an unsolicited submission is ridiculous, as that happens pretty much never ever. And for your information his debut Stray Age was recorded in L.A. during three different spells, the first two of which in October and December of 2007, and finally a third in February of 2008. Joe Chiccarelli (The Shins, U2, The White Stripes) took on co-production, recording and mixing duties. Justin Meldal-Johnsen (Beck, Tori Amos) played upright bass. Jesca Hoop lent her voice on a couple tracks. And Petra Haden (Bill Frisell, Beck) adds violin for a couple cuts too.

Stray Age is being released by Sub Pop tomorrow October 7th. By now you're probably wondering what it sounds like. Good question. I like your curiosity. Personally, I think he's a mixture of various characteristics from Jack Johnson, M. Ward, Mason Jennings and Nick Drake. He is oh so very laid back and calm that he makes Jack Johnson look uptight. What he shares is a talent for infusing emotion into his lyrics. He's genuinely telling you a story or conveying an emotion. The music really comes through his voice. But at the same time he's not forcing you to feel one way or another. He's putting the music out there for you to have a unique response to it. His voice has a soft and lilting swing to it that sounds natural and unforced, as if the words were meant to be sung that way without any thought. Thankfully, his music isn't melancholy and downtrodden, DMM is looking forward and has a refreshing air of optimism. It's hard to see him becoming a huge sensation, but once people find out about him he'll probably have a solid fanbase. I could see his songs being licensed for TV and film easily, and leaving people scratching their heads as to what that song was playing in the background. It's a nice collection of songs for a debut, and a great story that just goes to show anything is possible when you've gotten nothing to lose except the price of postage.

"It's You"

The Break and Repair Method - Milk the Bee

The Break and Repair Method isn't a totally new band, it's actually a side project of Matchbox Twenty's guitarist Paul Doucette. While on a break from his usual band, Paul Doucette rounded up a few musicians including Tracy Bonham, Moon Zappa (Doucette's wife) and Matchbox Twenty's Matt Beck to record material he'd been working on personally. After a couple record deals fell through, he ended up with a fully developed album that is much better than anything someone would produce just looking for a way to pass time between tours.

Milk the Bee actually kind of sounds like the follow-up to The Fray's debut How to Save A Life. While this may be a stigma or a knock in some circles, I mean that they sound similar. Both have great pounding pianos and a knack for melody. It's playful, and different than anything Matchbox Twenty has ever put out. Doucette doesn't have an amazing voice, but he works with what he has and makes up for what he doesn't with catchy melodies that ask to be sung along to. In fact, many of the songs are really really catchy. He manages to do pay homage to the Beatles, Randy Newman, and Jeff Tweedy. If you're wondering about the title of the album, it's in reference to the difficulty of making the album as well as working without a record deal at the outset. I wasn't expecting the album to be stunning or life-changing, but it has been a delightful surprise to hear that creativity doesn't die when you're playing rhythm guitar for years and years in a successful pop band.

"You Won't Be Able To Be Sad"

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Kings of Leon - Only by the Night

Pretty much the only good thing that I took out of SNL last weekend (9/20) was a couple performances by the band Kings of Leon. I had kinda heard of them but never really made any effort to check them out for one reason or another. This was probably the case because I never had any friends that said, "Ethan you HAVE to listen to the new Kings of Leon album." Maybe they didn't have reason to promote them. Or maybe you think I have bad friends. I dunno. Either way, the two songs they performed in between some awful sketches (with the surprisingly disappointing James Franco) got me interested in them. Kudos to their booking agent! The quick bio/background on the band is they're 3 brothers and a first cousin from Tennessee, and they've released four albums since 2003. Their road to success was somewhat backwards since they became more popular in Europe and the UK when they toured in support of U2 and The Strokes. Their 2007 release Because of the Times reached #1 on the UK charts upon its debut and made them stars in the process. Having not heard much of their back catalog it's hard to know how much their sound has evolved over the course of the last number of years. However, I've basically inferred that they've gone from the "garage to the arena," meaning their last album had a bit of U2-style epic rock songs and melodies. The newest release certainly hammers home that style and feeling.

Only by the Night is actually a pretty good album on the whole. I say this because many rock albums have such a low percentage of interesting (GOOD) songs. Having ditched some experimentation and garage techniques to broaden their audience may have alienated their base, but it will most likely bring in more fans than they'll lose. The tracks on the album are actually set up much like a lineup in baseball: the first track is pretty solid and starts off well, the second is a bit better and gets you more into the album, and then the Kings of Leon give their rendition of Murder's Row. The 3, 4, 5 tracks are really the meat of the album. It's hit after hit after hit. In fact, on SNL they played "Sex on Fire" (track 3) then "Use Somebody" (track 4). After those three hits the album has normal ups and downs with a couple hits sprinkled in, but nothing like the first half of the album. Usually, if the song/melody is lacking Caleb Followill's voice keeps your interest. He definitely has one of those great lead singing voices that is even better when performing live as evidenced by the gig on SNL. It's so emotionally evocative that he could be singing nonsense and give it meaning. Not to take anything away from his brothers and cousin, on the contrary their playing is solid. The lead guitar is echo-y and ringing, the bass is very active and solid, and the drumming holds everything down the way it should. Overall, I was pleasantly surprised when I checked out this newest effort from Kings of Leon. They will be more present on my radar for shows and new releases here on out. Enjoy the lead single below.

"Sex on Fire"

Cold War Kids - Loyalty to Loyalty

I’ve been writing about the Cold War Kids for 2+ years now. I’m not obsessed, but I definitely like their swagger and brand of music. Their debut Robbers and Cowards was an exceptional debut that was highly regarded among the blogosphere (what a stupid word) and print media. The influences and similarities between them and Spoon, The White Stripes and the Walkmen are readily apparent. The low-fi sound is one that suits them quite nicely. It gives their sound a grittiness that is all too often faked to cover up other inadequacies. On the contrary, I enjoy Cold War Kids for having a sound that is unique while sounding familiar. Aside: I have to address this blogging tendency that has annoyed me for a while. I’ve mentioned how there is so much pressure on a band for a stellar sophomore release and much of the pressure comes the imediacy of the blogs. This point was made perfectly by Paste Magazine: “Music blogs are like bad boyfriends. They take a heretofore unknown band, make them feel special with much frothing keyboard clickity-clack, turn them into rock stars, then suddenly lose their number when the next well-coiffed strumpet in skinny jeans strolls by. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Tapes ’n Tapes are probably still, right now, sitting in their living rooms decked out in mascara-smeared prom dresses waiting for Pitchfork to pick them up, wondering why their respective follow-up albums were greeted with such a resounding chorus of crickets.” With all this said, Cold War Kids are back (as if they ever left) with their follow-up album.

Loyalty to Loyalty is a respectable follow-up that is more nuanced and interesting than its predecessor except it lacks the high percentage of potent 180-proof shots/songs such as “Hang Me Up To Dry.” In other words, Loyalty to Loyalty may be better as a whole, but Robbers and Cowards proved to have more singles. This usually means there are more high and low points, but on the newest album it’s just more even throughout. The high points are still really great, but the misses don’t fall as flat. With this being said, I still need a few more listens to see how the album really holds together. The debut was full of so much energy and raw energy that was infectious. Now that I know what to expect, and what they’re capable of are my standards too high? Would it have been possible for my expectations to have been exceeded? I don’t know. It’s just great to have more new tunes from the Cold War Kids.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Jenny Lewis - Acid Tongue

Jenny Lewis is probably one of my favorite lead female singers. But, her prodigious talent goes far beyond just her dynamic voice. She has shown a propensity for writing excellent songs with infectious melodies. I would group her in the upper tiers of her group/brand with the likes of Feist, Emily Haines, Eleni Mandell, and Cat Power. Lewis' background is actually pretty interesting. She's a former child actress having appeared in commercials, tv shows, and a dozen or so movies after being born in Las Vegas and raised in Southern California. After she finished acting in 2001 she started a band named Rilo Kiley with Blake Sennett, Pierre de Reeder, and Jason Boesel. The sound of the band has really taken cues from Lewis' interests in country acts like Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Patsy Kline, and Lucinda Williams. Starting out with a country twang, the group is now more associated with more of an "downbeat indie rock" sound. Rilo Kiley put out three albums between 2001 and 2004, but it wasn't until 2006 that Lewis ventured out with solo material on Rabbit Fur Coat which was aided by the Watson Twins. Rabbit Fur Coat was a departure from Rilo Kiley and was a coming out party of sorts for Lewis. It demonstrated a musical range and that really put her on musical radars (as if Rilo Kiley opening for Coldplay during their 2005 U.S. tour wasn't enough). Personally, I really enjoyed Rabbit Fur Coat even if some of the songs were knockouts and others seemed a bit rushed.

Going into Acid Tongue I was a bit skeptical since she would be without her stellar backing vocalists the Watson twins. I didn't know how she would do having to support an entire album (ostensibly) by herself. Well, after numerous listens I was horribly mistaken. This album is excellent from front to back. There are collaborations and assistance from the likes of Elvis Costello, M. Ward, Zooey Deschanel, and Chris Robinson. They chip in with backing vocals, a duet (Costello on "Carpetbaggers"), and accompaniment. The resulting album is full of energy, excitement, verve, and genuine emotion. There are ballads. There are country rockers. There is even an epic three song interlude described by Lewis as an "ode to Barbara Streisand and the devil." What more could you ask for in a 9 minute song? Another factor in making this album such a success is that much of it was recorded live. Not live in front of an audience, but live in studio with everyone playing at the same time versus having each part tracked and pieced together digitally. There's a lot of pressure to play well when you're doing that type of recording, but it adds to the excitement and emotion that can't be faked. Believe it or not, the whole album was recorded over a 3 week period and spans 11 tracks clocking in around 47.5 minutes. This album will surely be talked of on Best of 2008 lists in a matter of months. Not only is it a departure from Rilo Kiley, but it's leeps and bounds more mature than her previous solo effort. Jenny Lewis may eventually decide to ditch Rilo Kiley and focus on solo material because she has clearly proved that she can stand out on her own.

"Cartpetbaggers (w/Elvis Costello)"

Monday, September 22, 2008

Horton The Irrelevant & August The Creep - Strange Passengers

One of the difficulties with reviewing an album of an artist that is considered "underground" is the lack of background information available. So, when I tell you that I know very little about Horton the Irrelevant and August the Creep it means I spent a good chunk of time trying to find details about their biography only to come up with scraps. I was tipped off to the duo by my Midwest Hip Hop Guru...yes, I have a hip hop guru. As their label describes them, "They are a decidedly underground group, yet refuse to ignore the influence of a wide-range of Hip Hop perspectives and musical genres." Andy Kaufman a.k.a. August The Creep (the producer) is originally from Connecticut, but met his MC counterpart while in college in Arizona. Horton (G.M. Karter) is from the hip hop wasteland of Madison, Wisconsin and moved to Arizona from college (maybe) where he met Kaufman. Again from their label: "August's travels led him to his native Connecticut, Boston and finally New Orleans. While continuing to make music, mostly focusing on the production aspect, August was displaced from his adopted home by Hurricane Katrina. Disenchanted and disheartened, August was among the minority that returned to New Orleans after the disaster. Known for his dark and layered production, a return to the ravaged city added to his perspective as an individual and musician." Now you know just about as much as I do, on to the music.

Strange Passengers has been out for a number of months (I think since January 2008) and probably will continue to fly under the radar just because that is the nature of this type of release and artist. Overall, the album has it's ups and downs with Horton coursing through 19 tracks in 49ish minutes with various degrees of wit and lyrical dexterity. The production of August is pretty solid overall, considering this was most likely produced in a bedroom or makeshift studio. The tracks I enjoyed most are the ones that are more soul and funk inspired with samples and interesting beats. This is not your commercial hip hop which tends to be kind of cookie cutter with recycled beats and predictable rhythms. This is quite the opposite. The album has both "concept" songs as well as more commercially viable material (read: could be danced to/played on the radio). I would only recommend this album to folks really looking to explore underground hip hop in a form that isn't so far "out there" such as myself. Many times, there is underground hip hop that tries to have too much of a message, or the production is just so spotty that it's hard to appreciate the ideas. Under-funded and under-produced hip hop takes a lot of patience. It takes a disciplined set of ears to hear what could be a great track from an artist or producer that really has no money for studio bells and whistles. In this same vein, I would go into this album with a very open mind. It probably won't blow you away, but if you take the time you'll definitely find at least a few tracks that your head will bob to back and forth.

"The Why"

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Murs & 9th Wonder - Sweet Lord

Murs has been a minor blip on my Hip-Hop-dar for a little while. I should probably know him better considering he's from L.A. and I live in L.A. His given name is Nick Carter, from Mid-City and in case you were wondering what Murs stands for it's Making Underground Raw Shit. He's been putting out records for almost ten years now and until recently was signed to the great indie hip-hop label Definitive Jux (Aesop Rock, El-P, RJD2). His major label (Warner Bros.) debut will be dropping September 30th titled Murs fo President. To get fans excited for that release he wanted to give something to his fans to thank them for their support. That gift was the third collaboration between Murs and producer 9th Wonder. Available for free download with payment optional the album came without much fanfare or preperation.

Sweet Lord is nothing if it's not an opportunity for Murs to demonstrate his biting wit, sarcasm, and braggadocio. These 10 tracks clock in under 40 minutes which is less designed as an actual release as it is a prelude for what's to come. It's supposed to get people excited, and show them Murs is worth plunking down $15 for the "actual" album coming the end of this month. One of the things that I enjoy most about this album is the way it seems like MC and producer work seemlessly together. It never seems like one is carrying the other. In other words, the lyrical skill matches and meshes with the production. I point this out because many many hip-hop albums are produced by a number of different people and they lack any sort of theme or cohesion. I know this is partly a product of paying the good producers more to create hits and paying less for some filler tracks but it's like a band switching instrumentalists every few tracks on a rock album. Each player has a different style and sound to their guitar or bass or whatever. It just wouldn't make sense. The bottom line is that 9th Wonder works very well with Murs. It will certainly be interesting to see who he teamed up with for his major label debut (read: a lot more cash to throw at A-list producers). Either way, the fact that this album was free and unexpected add to its stock in my account. It does sound rushed in parts, but considering it came out of nowhere that isn't terribly surprising either. Murs' lyrical content focuses on what he knows and his everyman mentality keeps his self-confidence grounded in reality. The cocky proclamations are all hyperbole but thankfully they don't sound forced. I urge you to download Sweet Lord and listen for yourself, and at least consider picking up the new album when it drops in a couple weeks. A little taste:


Friday, September 12, 2008

The Streets - Everything Is Borrowed

This just in! Mike Skinner is back! The Streets penultimate album is unlike most anything he's ever produced. For those of you unaware, or confused by the previous statements, let me rewind a bit. I just listened to Everything Is Borrowed by The Streets which is being released in the U.K. on September 15. The Streets is the alias of British MC Mike Skinner. With three previous albums in the books, this fourth one is a new chapter in a five record arc for the artist. Until recently, I was blissfully unaware that Skinner intended to hang up the mic after the fifth album. More details can be found in this BBC News article. Basically, Skinner goes on to say he signed a five record deal, and always thought that each album would be an installment in a five-disc box set, per se. Either way, his last album The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living was generally considered to be a misstep. It was his shortest effort at ~37 minutes, and even Skinner remarked it was a "guilt-ridden indulgence." Thankfully, The Streets are back with a new album with a totally different vibe, lyrical content, and overall feel that is refreshingly different.

Everything Is Borrowed is just short of 39 minutes with 11 tracks ranging from 2:46 to 5:16 in length. Immediately, you know something is different just from the album artwork. The past two albums have featured Skinner standing in a bus shelter and leaning against a car. This is the first album since his debut that has gone without him on the cover. As I was saying, the album has a different feel. The actual beats/production are quite upbeat which stand in contrast to much of the lyrical content that is rather melancholy, somber, and reflective. For example, in "On The Edge Of A Cliff" Skinner rhymes about standing ready to jump over the edge, until an old man tells an anecdote about how he was once there himself and someone said to him, "For billions of years since the outset of time / Every singles on of your ancestors survived / Every single person on your mom and dad's side / successfully looked after and passed onto you life / What are the chances of that, like?" Needless to say it's a pretty weighty issue (thoughts of suicide) to be tackling, which is juxtaposed with horns and a backing chorus. The effect is bringing a sense of hope and positive reflection to a scary situation. Another favorite lyric is the chorus for "Heaven For The Weather" which is: "I want to go to Heaven for the weather / but Hell for the company. / I want to go to Heaven for the weather / but Hell seems like fun to me." All the lyrics on the new album are devoid of a topic Skinner usually loves to play with: pop culture/technology. Basically, Skinner forced himself to stop talking about cell phones and texting. After a couple spins of the album it's pretty solid. There are only a couple tracks that I'm kinda indifferent about. But the overall jazzy feeling is interesting with guitars, horns, chorus, and funky bass lines against the produced drums and beats. "The Strongest Person I Know" has the same feeling as the previous hit "Dry Your Eyes" but without the killer chorus. The song I've chosen isn't the strongest track, but it's one that hasn't been floating around for a while either. The first single is going to be "Everything Is Borrowed," and "The Escapist" (my fav track) was available online a while ago. Enjoy.

"The Way Of The Dodo"

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Asher Roth - The GreenHouse Effect, Vol. 1


Looks like Hip-Hop Week was derailed. I'm terribly sorry about the delay. Hopefully, I'll be back to regular posting in the coming days. Thankfully, with the help of a couple sources the music to be reviewed is still pretty fresh. The first example is one I'm really excited about. Asher Roth is not a household name...yet, but he will be soon enough. In the words of Asher Paul Roth's homepage here's what you need to know: "To answer your questions, yes I'm skinny, yes I rapped 150 bars to Jay-Z in his office on the spot, yes I have porn on my computer, yes Scooter Braun found me rapping in my dorm room and signed me off of myspace, yes I throw keg parties every Sunday, and yes Steve Rifkind (Wu-tang, Akon, David Banner, Big Pun, Loud Records, SRC, etc. etc.) calls me the 'best lyricist he has heard in the last 10 years.'" So, there you go. White, skinny, Jewish rapper from Pennsylvania. It all makes sense now, right? Probably not. You may be thinking this is just the next commercial white rapper to cash in on the coattails of Eminem. While their voices are similar, Roth's voice is less gruff and his flow is more laid back and less in your face. Another huge difference is the lyrical content. Eminem caused huge amounts of controversy for his slurs against gays and awful things he'd say about his ex-wife. Roth (thankfully) doesn't have that pent up rage, most likely because he's from the suburbs of Philly and not the rough streets of Detroit. Roth likes to focus on pop culture, boobs/hot girls/sex, and weed. How can anyone get upset with those hobbies?

I'm not typically a fan of the hip-hop mixtape fad mainly because there is almost always a DJ shouting over the song every 10 seconds so you can't actually listen to the song. I understand the appeal of a mixtape though. A rapper gets to rhyme over the hottest beats that are out right then and there. It's fresh, it creates hype for a forthcoming release, and it's a great marketing tool. Also, there are usually a ton of tracks that are essentially half-baked thoughts/ideas and it's not thought of as a real album so there's not a ton of cohesion between the tracks. Thankfully, Asher Roth's The GreenHouse Effect, Vol. 1 kind of breaks this mold. Yes there are a lot of tracks, yes some tracks have the DJ announcing on top of the track so you can't hear the track. But after listening to the mixtape multiple times, I'd say I'm hooked. The mixtape starts off well enough but really gets better as the tracks flip over. One of the best things about a mixtape is hearing an "obscure" beat and a totally different approach to rhyming on top of it. For example, Clipse had a hit with "Mr. Me Too". Asher takes that beat and almost makes it his own. Overall, this mixtape is one of the best I've listened to. All the hype surrounding Asher Roth is the real deal. God willing he'll have some really great producers making hot beats for his debut release because his skills deserve to be showcased in the best possible way. I'm sure he could still make a mediocre beat work with his flow. Until the album drops, peep this ("MOM" WARNING - EXPLICIT CONTENT):

"Morning Do"

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Lil Wayne - The Carter III

What better place to start the inaugural Hip-Hop Week than with the album that owns the best opening week total of any album of 2008. Yes, you read that correctly. No other album has sold as many albums in its opening week than Lil Wayne's The Carter III. In it's first week it sold 1,005,545 units. To give you a better understanding of how ridiculous a number that is, the last album to sell more than 1 million units in its first week was 50 Cent's The Massacre in 2005! Not Coldplay, not even KanYe sold a million in their recent opening weeks. Since the album came out June 10, 2008 it has gone double-platinum (over 2 Million units sold). I know some people may say, "Ethan, that album is old news dude. It came out Months ago. Way to be on top of things." Well, firstly, thanks for the snarkiness and the vote of confidence. Also, whatever. This album still deserves to be talked about and recognized. If you don't really know about Lil Wayne you most likely heard about his arrest on his tour bus with a lot, a lot of drugs on board ("a lot" = 105 grams of marijuana (3.7 ounces), almost 29 grams of cocaine (1.02 ounces), 41 grams of Ecstasy (1.4 ounces)) and $22,000 dollars in cash. Sounds like the makings of a crazy weekend. The run-down: His given name is Dwayne Michael Carter, he's 25 years old, and he's from New Orleans, LA. Basically, he gained notoriety through he association with Cash Money Records and his appearance on various mixtapes. He really took off with his release of Tha Carter (2004) and it's two follow-ups.

One of the best things about The Carter III is the fact that it has something for everyone. That being said, the album as a whole isn't so incredible that its sales numbers make a ton of sense to me. But, it's probably the fact that Lil Wayne is appealing to a greater cross-section or larger audience than say Kanye West's enlightened-collegiate-white-collar brand of hip hop. To each their own though. There isn't an overarching concept on this album like Kanye's college-themed triology. But there are all types of hits. There is a hit for the ladies ("Comfortable"), hit for the clubs ("Got Money"), hit for the gangstas ("A Milli"), a hit with a concept ("Dr. Carter"), hit for radio ("Lollipop"), and even a hit for everyone ("Mr. Carter"). At first listen, it's like listening to a mix cd where all the songs are by the same artist. Not necessarily a Greatest Hits album, but similar in the fact that every track is liked by someone somewhere. So, as a whole you can't think there is a message or general theme to all the songs because there just isn't. In terms of Lil Wayne's flow (flow, n., - the general technique, and fluidity of an MC while rapping) it's all over the map. If you haven't listened to him, or a lot of rap before, the general idea is rhyming and attempting to say creative things in a rhyme scheme in accordance with the beat / rhythm of the song. Lil Wayne can do this when he wants to, but many times he's off the beat, behind it or just doesn't care that it exists. There are some really well-produced tracks on this album where his rapping doesn't have any cohesion with the beat. My personal feeling is that it's interesting, but on the other hand it feels like a waste on some level. It's also a bit jarring to your ear because you're expecting to hear the rhymed words dropped in certain places, and then they don't. His lyrical content is kind of the "norm" consisting of politics, girls, sex, drugs, and cars. All of which can grow tired usually, but he finds creative phrases and new angles to take. Especially on the track "Mrs. Officer," he talks about being pulled over by a hot female cop and how she takes advantage of him and how he had only considered cops to be bad or getting in the way of his life. He also chooses to speak about his hometown of New Orleans, LA and how it's still being neglected. Overall, there aren't any real "throw away" tracks, but like most hip-hop albums there are definite stand-outs, and this album just happens to have a larger percentage in its favor.

"Mr. Carter" (interesting tid-bit about this track realyed by a friend-in-the-know: when I first listened I thought to myself that it had to have been produced by someone of Kanye's ilk since the "sample" was so perfectly fit to the idea of the track. Turns out it's not a sample at all. It was made by recording someone singing the hook, speeding up the track, and adding a dash of technical wizardry to make it sound vintage....pretty cool)

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Welcome to Hip Hop Week

I'd like to start by thanking the people that could make this special week come to fruition. Without their semi-constant antagonizing I probably would have put this off for a little while longer. As it is, I've actually been wanting to do this for a number of months. The reasons it hasn't happened till now is a mix between personal circumstances, procrastination, and just a difficulty in finding at least five albums I'm excited to talk about and review. Those two dudes know who they are, so I'm not going to acknowledge them by name for fear of increased fame, notoriety, or incrimination or drive-by.

During Hip-Hop Week, Vol. 1 I plan to review a few albums that have been bumping my car speakers to their tipping point, explore some general ideas on the state of the genre, along with some thoughts on what I perceive makes hip-hop worth listening to then and now. I know that my loyal familial readership probably won't "get" a lot of what I'll be speaking about, or will have preconceived notions of the genre as a whole. That's okay. We're trying to expand the palette of listening. Take a dip in unfamiliar water. Give some added culture to the daily routine. You don't have to like it, you don't have to agree with it, you don't even have to read / listen if you don't want to. You could even consider these next few days as a sabbatical from reading my blog, (but please come back!) but I would ask that you give it a shot. You may learn something, or heaven forbid hear something new that you actually enjoy.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Okkervil River - The Stand Ins

Take a good look at these (semi)merged album covers. Notice something? Well, you should. When oriented correctly they line up nicely to form a pretty cool double-album. Now you may ask, "Didn't the album on top come out around this time last year?" Why yes, yes it did. Okkervil River put out one of the best albums I heard last year called The Stage Names. At the time I had no clue that it was actually the first disc of a planned double album. If I had known this fact I would have been even more excited to get its companion titled The Stand Ins. As it was I was thrilled to get a listen a full month before its retail release. Few bands even consider the concept of a double album these days. Just the thought of 20 - 28 tracks of original material is probably a headache to most bands. After all, there's a reason why most albums are a certain length. It usually takes a set amount of time to get all a band's musical ideas onto one disc. Recent failures in double discdom include such missteps as Stadium Arcadium by Red Hot Chili Peppers. Come to think of it, what was the last double album that was truly worth both discs? Smashing Pumpkins' Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness? That's the only one I can think of off the top of my head, and that came out in 1995! The reason they (double albums) don't often work is actually the freedom that comes with so many tracks and so much time to fill. The operative word being "fill." There is way too much free-wheeling with 20+ tracks at a band's disposal. Having constraints of 12-14 tracks makes the band winnow ideas and attempt to throw away the mediocre tracks. On bad double albums (which is most of them) bands throw in multiple filler songs to go along with the gems, leaving the compilation full of ups and downs. Most often the effort gets dragged down by those lowlights and leaves fans saying, "this would have been a great single album without these 8-10 mediocre/bad/b-side/demo-quality tracks." So, where does this leave Okkervil River? Glad you asked.

Thankfully, this final half to to their double album was well worth the wait. Lead singer-songwriter is the one who could pull this off. His deliberate lyrics and songwriting lends itself to the idea of a double album. He was able to see the whole picture and make sure it was executed in a near-perfect manner. I'm sure he even thought about the cover art being linked/matchable. It shows the cohesive thought that is necessary to pulling off such an endeavor. Judging the albums back-to-back is fair and actually work quite well together. They sound like they were conceived as a unit with maybe a little respit in between to recharge the batteries. One its own The Stand Ins is quite a good album. It's less edgier than it's older brother, but harmonically sound through and through. Another idea worth noting is the fact both albums have legs of their own. Like a perfect pair of twins; they're perfectly fun together, but individually they have their own great personalities and you can enjoy them both ways. So, people that are worried that this follow-up (more like continuation) is a bunch of glorified b-sides can rest easy because it's not.

"Singer Songwriter"