Friday, April 11, 2008

She & Him - Volume 1

Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward are the working entities of She & Him. An Actress and a musician join forces to create a debut record that is full of tunes that consist of both originals and covers in the form of '60's pop mixed with a darling Country twang. On the first spin the covers melded right into the originals and I had to listen to the lyrics and stop and think, "wait a second, this is a cover." The interesting thing about covering well-known tunes is there is not much middle ground. The end product is either pretty awful, or manages to hold up to the original. Thankfully, Zooey sings every song as if it's her own. I should probably back up just a moment before jumping into the album. Zooey met M. Ward on the set of a movie for which he was doing the soundtrack. They found common musical interests and began recording together. Industry folks knew that Zooey could sing, but was never thought to be terribly serious about it. And her musical guide M. Ward has become more widely known with his association with Zooey. I've been hooked on his music for a few years now. His lyricism and musicianship are first class, and he clearly brings a lot to the songs on their debut album.

Volume I consists of both original songs and a few cover songs. If there is a "problem" with the album it's there's not enough of M. Ward singing. He has a great voice and creates wonderful textures when they do sing together, but you're left wanting more duets. After all, it's billed as "She & Him", not "She & and smidgen of Him." Hopefully this is rectified in their live performances because if you went to a show and just saw Zooey singing and M. Ward playing guitar you'd probably feel a bit short-changed. Overall, the album is pretty wonderful. On the first listen I kinda had to make sure it was coming out of my iPod and not a record player because it has such a vintage feel. This album could have been recorded and released in 1973 and would have fit in and been right at home. It has a dusty quality that made me want to play it out of "old" speakers to enhance the feel of the old-timey fidelity. Nothing on this album feels forced or fake or pretentious. Zooey seems to have just gone in over the course of a few weeks and recorded some songs with a great friend and song writer in M. Ward. The final creation will probably add validity to her claim to be called Actress/Musician Zooey Deschanel. As for M. Ward, you can clearly hear his influence on the album, but hopefully on Volume II he puts more of his voice next to Zooey instead of just his guitar. The track below is one of the covers that is superb and Zooey really makes her own. UPDATE: NYT Article (4/16)

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Taylor Swift

In no way would I label myself as a "country music fan" or aficionado, but I've listened to a fair amount in the comfort of my studio headphones with the bedroom door closed. It's not that I'm ashamed of the music, but it does come with a certain stigma. Then again, so does pretty much every type of music. The reason I've never been very taken by Country music is kind of the same reason I'm not taken by R&B or Reggae; it all pretty much sounds the same, there's nothing that really sticks out. I take pride in being able to hear something random and tell you who or what band it is, but with the aforementioned genres they meld together. If you listen to a whole album you feel like you've been listening to the same song for 50 minutes. So, for me to make the effort to listen to a the newest Nashville star took a little bit of time and steady convincing (eventually being swayed by a profile in Entertainment Weekly). Taylor Swift is probably one of the youngest huge popular music stars in the U.S. Being only 18 has made all of her success that much more incredible. She initially began singing from a very young age and writing songs when she was in her early teens. As she became more and more interested in singing, her parents took her down from her hometown of Wyomissing, PA to Nashville, TN for performances where she gave out demo tapes to every receptionist on Music Row. To make a short story shorter, she was signed by independent label Big Machine Records after the owner (Scott Borchetta) saw her perform at the famed Bluebird Café. Her first single, "Tim McGraw" was released in the summer of 2006 ahead of her debut album that came out in October of that year.

Taylor Swift is somewhat remarkable considering the singer only 16 when it was recorded. Not to mention the fact she wrote or co-wrote every song on the album. The subject matter she deals with is as old as time, but the maturity mixed with teenage naïveté is a blessing in disguise. You may think, "this little girl is so young and has no idea what heartbreak is" but then you listen to the songs and she convinces you that, in fact, maybe she does know. Her voice is both precocious and mature beyond her years. You can hear the girlishness but also the passion in her delivery that suggests she's only going to get better. If she's only going up from here the bar has officially been raised, since she is leaps and bounds beyond any other upstarts that may come along. As for the album as a whole, it definitely has standout moments, and others that are quite alright. Saying that she is just taking off is pretty naïve, but she's already a star having opened for the likes of Tim McGraw and Faith Hill on their joint tour, George Strait, Brad Paisley, and Rascal Flatts. She has been nominated for AMAs, Grammys, and CMAs in the past 2 years. Her follow-up is due out later this year. And overall, the record was enjoyable and I can finally see what all the hype is about.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

The Duke Spirit - Neptune

The only reason you would think The Duke Spirit is from the planet Neptune is due to the fact their music is out of this world. Ok, sorry for that. But in reality I'm not far off in saying The Duke Spirit may take off into stardom. The first chapter of the British band starts when lead singer Liela Moss was attending art school for photography and became friends with guitarist Luke Ford who was studying painting at the same school. The two began writing music together and soon after ditched school to move to London. Once there, Liela and Luke recruited fellow friend Toby Butler to be the bassist, and a new roommate Dan Higgins became the second guitarist. Olly Betts joined the lineup and then the band was complete. Their first EP Darling, You're Mean (2003) was released in the UK by the City Rockers label. The band's second EP of that year Roll, Spirit, Roll (2003) was met with critical acclaim by the likes of NME. As the band was still recording and touring with the intention of releasing their debut in 2004 their label City Rockers folded early in 2004 leaving the band without a musical home. After signing with Loog their debut Cuts Across The Land (2005) was finally released. But tumultuous times still lay ahead for the band as they toured the US supporting Ted Leo after signing a U.S. distribution deal with Startime International. During 2006 tour they played to a raucous crowd at Coachella, but had huge bumps when Toby broke his arm in Vegas and their gear was stolen in Portland. Needless to say, things were a bit rocky. Just as momentum would start swinging their way they were derailed. But thankfully, the train has been righted and is charging full-steam ahead.

The Duke Spirit return with their long-awaited follow up Neptune (2008) released on their new U.S. label Shangri-La Music. First of all, Liela Moss has one of the most powerful, bluesy, seductive, and entrancing voices in modern rock music today. There are few that come close to the exuberance she puts through on every track. The closest would probably be Karen O, minus the crazed yelling and hysterics. The music produced is in the mold of My Bloody Valentine, The Pixies, and Sonic Youth. Those bands are pretty illustrious company, but they're really not that far away from getting to that level. Their polished grunge sound that is infused with the blues even hearkens back to - dare I say - The Rolling Stones. While this was a long awaited follow-up I'm sure fans will be satisfied with the finished product. Neptune has 11 proper songs and short lead-in diddy at the beginning. Overall, this is an album that you can listen to all the way through and be begging for more by the end. With most albums there are a few standout tracks, including "The Step and the Walk," "This Ship Was Built to Last," "My Sunken Treasure," and "Lassoo." All the songs are pretty tight, coming in between 2.5 and 4.5 minutes each. I've been lucky enough to see them live in a compact setting and I was blown away. The sheer energy Liela projects to the audience is a true gift. Some performers know how to please an audience and really put on a show. This talent can't really be learned, but Ms. Moss is blessed to have been born with that natural talent. And while I kind of dismissed The Duke Spirit upon first spin (I think just a little more vocal harmony would go a long way for some songs), I'm now firmly in hanging onto their bandwagon rooting for them to hit the big time.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Cadence Weapon - Afterparty Babies

Rollie Pemberton, born in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada is only 22 years old and he goes by the stage name of Cadence Weapon. With many great young musicians, he creates music that sounds well beyond his formidable years. Having grown up in Canada one might think there would be few opportunities to listen to hip-hop, or be influenced by others. In fact, his father Teddy Pemberton is credited with bringing/introducing Edmonton to hip-hop and rap. The elder Pemberton grew up in Brooklyn, NY and created a radio show devoted to the genre in 1980. While his love for hip-hop grew through his teenage years, Rollie's mom wanted him to get an education and he enrolled at college in Virginia to pursue journalism. By the time he was 19 he was established as a stingy music critic most notably for Stylus Mag (R.I.P.) and Pitchfork Media (fired after editor-in-chief called his reviews too vague). Being out of school and out of writing gigs he immersed himself in lyrics and his own beats to finally create his own music. He posted writings and tracks to his blog and gained notice from labels such as Def Jam, that eventually had him produce tracks for Lady Sovereign. After his critically acclaimed debut Breaking Keyfabe (2005) he is back with the follow-up.

Afterparty Babies (2008) ventures into new territory for Cadence Weapon. Whereas his debut album was heavily influenced by UK grime and garage rap, this newest effort has much more techno and house music conventions. The former had deep heavy beats and Babies sees more electronic and synths for the basis of beats and hooks. But what it comes down to is Cadence Weapon's lyrics. He's the embodiment of what hipster hip-hop fans love. He's hip without trying too hard to be hip. He's smart but doesn't come off as pretentious. He's knows a good beat has massive and widespread appeal. And he's witty enough to have biting pop culture references that you may miss on the first spin. You can listen to this album over and over and find new wrinkles and meanings with each listen, and that is where Cadence Weapon really grabs hold of the neurotic indie audience; more bang for your buck (although it's probably been illegally downloaded, so...yeah).