Friday, September 25, 2009

Music: "Family" by Le Loup

What began as Sam Simkoff’s bedroom project on Le Loup’s debut album The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly (named after James Hampton’s classic artwork) has now grown into a full-blown band. The debut album is filled with layered vocals, banjo, and a warm type of folk electronics that is difficult to explain. The second song on the debut “Plane Like Vultures.” has a repeated lyric “Oh this world was made for ending” that still gets stuck in my head at the most random times. Other stand out songs like “Le Loup (Fear Not),” “We Are Gods! We Are Wolves!” and “To the Stars! To the Night!” all showcase Simkoff’s unique songwriting ability. While both Le Loup’s debut and the new album Family, released on September 22, are strong and original, they are also quite different. The new album, the first with the full band, uses organic instruments and one can immediately notice the fuller sound. The most noticeable change in the songs on Family is joy (as Simkoff discusses below) – something that was largely missing from the debut album.

With titles like “Morning Song,” “Golden Bell,” and “A Celebration,” it’s immediately apparent that Family is a brighter album. “Beach Town,” the song that was released early to build anticipation for the album, is not the best track, but it fits in well in the second spot with its welcoming guitars and driving percussion. While Le Loup’s debut was a bedroom made album that mostly sounds best in the dead of winter or on a cool starry night, Family is an album for the warm outdoors – one to listen to while camping or just enjoying nature. Try to catch them live if they're in your area because they put on an awe-inspiring show. Sam Simkoff was nice enough to answer some questions for our readers:

Have you seen, heard, or read anything that you would like to recommend to our readers (film, art, music, literature)?

Well sadly, I've been really underexposed to the arts in general lately. All the books I've been reading have been pretty lightweight summer fiction, all the music I've been listening to is pretty well-known and thus not something that needs recommendation since everybody's already listening to it, and the last movie I saw was Star Trek, which was, well, superb. So there you go- Star Trek! This isn't part of the list, but here's a website I've been into recently. My engineer friend got me hooked onto it, because it had a huge special on space travel. It's kind of funny, because I know very little about engineering, and I think the site (and the magazine) is geared toward that crowd. So about 92 percent of what I read there goes right over my head, but the 8 percent that I catch really blows my mind.

The new album is completely different in that it was recorded with a large group of people instead of solo - what is the songwriting process like and what has changed?

A lot has changed in terms of the songwriting process. Given that the first album was largely a solo effort, I was able to record stuff as soon as I thought it up, and I could craft stuff pretty close to how it sounded in my head. Working as a whole band is a completely different beast. Everybody has different influences and different ways of approaching music and different ideas of how to use their instruments and talents.

We figured out pretty early on that if one of us came to the table with a set-in-stone idea of how something was going to sound, we'd just end up confounded, and stuff wouldn't sound natural. So I learned personally to develop only the most basic tenets of a song - melody, chord structure, tempo - before bringing it to the band. We ended up taking a great deal of pleasure in just seeing where things would go after the basics were laid out. I think Christian would agree- the songs that he brought to the table sounded a lot different in their demo form than they eventually turned out in the finished product. But that's fine- if it weren't for that whole process, I think everything on the album would've ended up sounding the same, and maybe really similar to the first album, and we really wanted to do something new.

In terms of sound and content, what has changed from the last record?

Well, the sound is a lot different, in part for the above reasons, and in part just because we used a different recording setup. This time around, we invested a little more in basic equipment - mics, software, a flash recorder - and that allowed us to record a lot more stuff in a lot more spaces without having to worry about any lo-fi hissyness. So in a very literal way, the sound is a lot different. Beyond that, we'd kind of discarded a lot of the production techniques used in the first recording - midi sound, extensive looping of minimalist lines, layering of several different vocal lines - in favor of a more organic sort of sound. A lot more live takes, a lot less circular droning stuff. Although we did manipulate most of the tracks a lot, and sampled as much original material (field recordings, drumlines, etc.) as possible, which is kind of a throwback from the first album.

Content-wise, there's a pretty obvious difference in tone. A lot of people picked out and focused on the darker, more pessimistic aspects of the last album. Not just the critical community, but like, friends and family. My grandma asked if it would kill me to write a happy song once in a while. I guess that kind of sums that up. I don't think we chose to write about more optimistic subject matter this time around as a reaction to any praise or criticism, we just felt like celebrating something. Music is such a joyful activity, especially when you get to play with people you enjoy, and when you get to play lots of live music for happy crowds. We wanted something that reflected that kind of joy. I'd like it if people could eventually see beyond the most literal aspects of the album's subject matter this time around - yeah, there are some songs very literally about family, but I wouldn't overplay it. The songs are also about places we love, moments in time, joys, anxieties, weather, the seasons, and just being young and able to do what you want for a while.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Literature: "Pigs in Heaven" by Barbara Kingsolver

“Women on their own run in Alice’s family. This dawns on her with the unkindness of a heart attack and she sits up in bed to get a closer look at her thoughts, which have collected above her in the dark.” So begins Barbara Kingsolver’s third novel, Pigs in Heaven. I’ll introduce this recommendation by saying that this book entirely satisfied my summer’s appetite for road-lit, idiosyncrasy, and arid landscapes. I approached Kingsolver cautiously, having been told to read her by so many friends. (I’ve got a bad track record of hating good books that are thrust on me at the wrong time.) But, be it luck or the undeniable charm of Kingsolver’s book, my heart was won by this novel, totally and completely. 
Known for her examination of social issues in her work, (The Bean Trees, The Poisonwood Bible, etc) in Pigs in Heaven Kingsolver tackles a range of ideas, including the oppression of the Cherokee Nation, the importance of community versus individuality, the struggles of single-motherhood, and the difficulty of straddling multiple cultures. Kingsolver introduces these subjects with grace, and never proselytizes or preaches. She explores the issues through the conflict of her characters, who all are sympathetic and all have a convincing argument to make.

Pigs follows roughly a year in the lives of several interconnected characters. Taylor Greer is a single mother living in Tucson with her adopted Cherokee daughter, Turtle. Yes, naming a character Turtle did seem a bit writerly of Kingsolver at first, but once accustomed to the world of the novel and the context of the name, it won me over. Alice Greer is Taylor’s mother, living in Kentucky. Alice has just left her husband of two years, and is contemplating her next move in life, once again independent and unburdened. Enter Annawake Fourkiller, a Cherokee attorney who catches word of Turtle’s adoption to a non-Cherokee (3 years after the fact) and sets out on the warpath, outraged that white America feels it has the authority to uproot Cherokee children from their rightful culture.

What ensues is a lot of driving, a memorable array of characters, some gorgeous prose, and a novel-length discussion of the nature of family. Kingsolver elegantly juggles the sublimely comedic with the heartbreaking, ultimately painting for us a picture of why life is so hard sometimes, but so beautiful all the time.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Music: "Eskimo Snow" by Why?

As many have speculated and as Yoni Wolf himself has said, the first noticeable feature of Why?’s newest release Eskimo Snow, out September 22, is that it marks a stark departure from the band’s previous material, specifically from Wolf’s hip-hop roots. But, while the album is clearly more sing-songy than any of the band’s previous albums, vestiges of hip-hop can still be found in songs like “The Blackest Purse”: “I wanna speak at an intimate decibel / with the precision of an infinite decimal.” Wolf writes as though he’s sitting in a confessional, pouring out his soul and admitting his demons to the unsuspecting listener. He once again manages to entrance his audience with his intimate revelations of embarrassing compulsions, feelings of inadequacy, and fears about aging and his own mortality—all elements present in Wolf’s past work. In “Into the Shadows of My Embrace,” Wolf admits, “I know saying all this in public should make me feel funny / but ya gotta yell something out you’d never tell nobody.”

Eskimo Snow is not as monumental as the band’s last release, Alopecia; but such a consistently solid album is a hard act to follow. While each song on Eskimo Snow has a climactic point—a compelling line or resounding concept—comparatively the album leaves the listener with less of a punch than Alopecia. Lyrically, the album feels a bit less profound and does not dig as deep as the tracks on Alopecia, and instrumentally it feels less heavy. Despite these elements that make Eskimo Snow more sedate and melancholy than Alopecia, the album is no less enjoyable than its predecessor. Yoni Wolf was kind enough to answer some questions for our readers:

Have you seen, heard, or read anything that you would like to recommend to our readers (film, art, music, literature)?

I recently read a Dave Eggers book called "What is the What" about this Sudanese guy who was a part of the lost boys. Pretty eye opening read. I've been listening to the record "Money Jungle", which is the trio of Ellington, Mingus, and Roach. Great record!

Eskimo Snow is a departure from your hip-hop past, what direction do you see the band moving in?

We aren't heading in any clear direction as such. But I do expect each record we make to sound different from the one before it. We are always at a new and different point in our lives and I would expect the songs to reflect that.

What’s your opinion on the current state of hip-hop?

I've been listening to the new Jayzee while I run. I don't like it as much as the last two (which I like very much), Eminem has gotten a lot worse over the last couple of records, Lil Wayne is getting lazy, M.F. DOOM is writing incredible raps but his production isn't that thrilling to me lately….I guess I'm not really up on all the brand new sensations.

Post-Alopecia, how has your fan base changed and are you pleased with your growing popularity and continuing positive reception?

Our concert audiences have gotten a lot bigger. That's the main thing we notice. We are very glad for that. It makes touring a lot more enjoyable when you are actually playing to some people rather than 30 dudes drinking in the back of a bar and 3 fourteen year old boys singing along up front. We are quite pleased with our audience and listeners.

Do you plan on releasing future records on Anticon?

That's the plan.

What is your songwriting process like?

Always different for each song. I haven't found a plug and chug method yet. When I do, I imagine I will be a lot more productive, but the songs will probably suffer for the lack of struggle in their inception.

We know you have the album out; are you working on anything else?

I mixed the new Themselves album with David Madson, I just finished mixing my brother Josiah's solo album, I am working on some remixes, I am working on T shirt designs, we are rehearsing for the upcoming touring, I have been doing a ton of interviews about Eskimo Snow... thats about it right now.

Review by Kat O'Hara
Interview by Kat O'Hara and Evan Weiss

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Music: On Soloing

It is hard for me to think of the solo as we know it today as being a relatively young invention in the history of music. Senior year of high school I was introduced to some of these first fledgling attempts at solos. The first recorded solo was from 1923 when King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band (which included Louis Armstrong) played "Dippermouth Blues." The song and the solo caught the country by storm, and became a an early "hit record." As Oliver's two-chorus solo draws to an end one member of the band shouts "Aww play that thing!" which became a popular shout of the mid-twenties. The first time I heard the song I labeled it as simple and boring, but what now excites me about this song and what excites me about all this music is both the intensity of these great musicians trying to invent a new skill while trying to invent a new form of music.

There are two other solos that I want to recommend. The first is George Mitchell's clarinet solo from Jelly Roll Morton's 1926 recording of "Doctor Jazz." He starts by holding one note for almost 12 bars as Morton plays his ragtime-inspired piano. Michell spends the next chorus building up energy through stop times and ends by holding the same note he began with for four bars setting up Morton's bombing voice singing "Hello Central, give me Doctor Jazz."

My favorite solo is by a young Louis Armstrong. Armstrong went through a number of changes early in his career. Beginning with his time under King Oliver's tutelage in New Orleans and Chicago and then moving to New York where he had been hired by Fletcher Henderson. In both these places Armstrong was concerned with energy, but also speed. And this won him the respect of older musicians and the admiration of younger musicians. He still was experimenting with the form of soloing when he made his famous Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings. But my favorite Armstrong period is when he begins to play fewer notes with more intensity. This is on full display on the 1936 recording of "Swing that Music." Armstrong sings for the first half, and it is hard not to fast forward this part. It is cliche, and boring; but then Armstrong picks up his trumpet and the entire sound changes. The band swings extra hard. And the energy is mind-blowing. During the entire last chorus Armstrong repeats one note -- and it's not boring.

Unfortunately, this style of soloing could not last in jazz as the art of improvisation was revolutionized first by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, then by Art Blakey, Horace Silver, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and lastly by Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy to name a few. And as the art of improvisation improved so did the theory behind the spur of the moment compositions and so did the complexity of the musicians comping the solos. Jelly Roll Morton's rag piano would be replaced by Al Haig's style of complex runs on chords that could climb up to including 8 notes (at least three of which were added on the performance and were different each time the section of the song came around). Against this background, Louis Armstrong's trumpet would be lost in the confusion. Some modern jazz musicians have tried to emulate the style of these early musicians, but not without feeling gimiky (there are a few exceptions, like Wynton Marsalis's album of Jelly Roll Morton songs, "Standard Time Vol. 6: Mr. Jelly Lord").

However, I recently discovered that for those looking for a more musically advanced solo that stays true to the simplicity and energy of the early jazz recordings there is hope in -- Rock music. My favorite of these musicians is Robbie Robertson, the guitarist for The Band. In many songs he limits himself to licks in the space between lines, but when he lets out a full solo it feels to come straight out of the tradition of Armstrong and Oliver. Check out Robertson's solos on "It Makes No Difference" or "Slippin' and Slidin'" or "King Harvest Has Surely Come." He is relatively slow, deliberate, simple -- and not boring.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Music: Neon Indian

Alan Palomo is only twenty-one years old and he is already on his third musical identity. He currently works under two names, the fun hi-fi synth-pop of VEGA and the focus of this feature, the lo-fi synth-pop of Neon Indian. Neon Indian’s debut album, Psychic Chasms (album cover below), will be released on October 13th.

The album runs at just around thirty minutes, which at first glance seems a little short, but in this case only means that there is no filler. “Deadbeat Summer” is the first full song on the album and it lets you know exactly what you’re in for – thirty minutes of summery synths, liquid filters, and heavy beats. Songs like “Terminally Chill” and “6669 (I Don’t Know If You Know)” reinforce that Psychic Chasms is not an album that should be listened to on computer speakers, like any album really, because the bottom-end should be heard. Alan Palomo was nice enough to answer some questions over the phone:

Have you seen, heard, or read anything that you would like to recommend to our readers (film, art, music, literature)?

For starters I would say probably one of the best books I’ve read in quite some time is The Transparency of Evil by Jean Baudrillard. It’s a collection of essays on post-modernism and the fluctuation and the conglomeration of economics, sexuality, and aesthetics and how it’s integrated into everything. I think it’s really weird that I read a kind of book that’s more social criticism, but it’s always kind of impractical. It’s like these idealized perspectives, but it’s the first thing I’ve read in a long time that just feels like spot on. It’s completely transparent.

In terms of film, I actually got a chance to see Kicking and Screaming - the Noah Baumbach movie from the 90s that was amazing. It’s quite impressive that this guy wrote it so shortly after college when he was still in his mid 20s. I’m excited to go see that Coen brothers movie A Serious Man – it looks pretty awesome.

Recently I heard The xx and I know that they are getting quite a bit of attention. They’re probably the best recent band I’ve heard. There’s something to be said about their style – it seems like there’s a lot of reservation with what they do. It’s very concise and all of the arrangements are really pared down and minimal. You know it’s strange because they’re so young – all the members are about twenty years old and to have that kind of awareness of reservation in the execution of your music, there’s something to be said about that.

What is your songwriting process like?

I have different approaches for various projects. For VEGA, I usually go into it with a very finite set of influences and a very particular style of song in mind and it’s just a question of “can I execute it?” or “do I know enough about the medium to replicate something that would be evocative of these influences?” But in Neon Indian, there are no guidelines whatsoever – I generally start with a drum beat or something or a very simplistic sample and sort of begin building from there and it’s all about spontaneous ideas and finishing a song in no more than two days. I’ve learned recently that working under those timelines kind of opens up a lot of doors.

Are you working on a VEGA album in the near future?

Absolutely, I’ve already kind of started work and we’re in the process of signing to Fool’s Gold at the moment, so we’ve just been working from that angle. I think that we definitely have that in mind and I think come January, we’ll probably take two months aside from touring to sort of sit down and figure out what the full concept is going to be and how I’m going to execute it and right now I’m in the process of familiarizing myself with a producer. Yeah, there will definitely be one and I’m really quite excited to start working on it. I’m kind of a workaholic when it comes to planning releases. I like doing that a lot more than touring, but touring definitely has its charms as well.

You just played your first Neon Indian show, how did it go?

Yeah, I think it went quite well. We definitely exceeded our expectations. Everyone was kind of new to the material and writing it is one thing, but being able to reinterpret it live and have it be true to the original sound is a completely different ballgame. So yeah, we were all really happy with how it went.

What’s the origin of the name Neon Indian?

I actually can’t take credit for the name given that it was actually originally a band name that Alicia [Scardetta, the artist who has created the visual component for Neon Indian] had come up with back in high school and it was kind of a mock band. You know, sort of just like Neon Indian was this band that didn’t exist. It wasn’t until years later that I started writing songs that were kind of evocative of that name and I actually just asked her “Hey, remember that myspace account that’s been sitting for four years? I can do something with it."

Friday, September 4, 2009

Music: The Very Best

The Very Best is comprised of the British electronic production duo Radioclit and the Malawian singer Esau Mwamawaya. The group met because the furniture store Mwamawaya ran was close to Radioclit’s studio – a lucky coincidence for everyone. The Very Best gained recognition in 2008 when they released a mixtape that reworked Architecture In Helsinki, Ruby Suns, M.I.A., Vampire Weekend, and even Michael Jackson. The amazing mixtape, which you can still download for free on their myspace, gave them a large fan base before they released a proper album. Pitchfork gave the mixtape their Best New Music stamp, which was followed by a closing set at the Pitchfork Music Festival on a stage opposite The Flaming Lips in July.

Their debut album Warm Heart of Africa, which is now available on iTunes and will be released physically on October 6th, is the perfect soundtrack to the last days of summer. Warm African melodies over danceable electronic beats – is there really any way to beat that? The album’s title track features Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend whose vocals blend well with Mwamawaya’s and make for the standout track of the album. M.I.A. is featured on “Rain Dance”, a track that sounds like M.I.A. if she spent a summer in Malawi. Yes, the songs are sung mostly in Chichewa, but there is no way to feel a sense of jubilation while listening to tracks “Yalira” and “Mfumu”. Really, the whole album is uplifting – something that is becoming increasingly rare.

Johan Karlberg, half of Radioclit and one third of The Very Best, answered a few questions for our readers.

Have you seen, heard, or read anything that you would like to recommend to our readers (film, art, music, literature)?

I just read Bruce Lipton's The New Biology again. It’s a very relevant book to say the least. I also always keep an eye on Deepak Chopra's twittering, it’s nice to get little Rumi quotes etc during the day.

What is your songwriting process like?

Usually we'll be shut in the studio as much as possible and work on instrumental tracks, then Esau comes in and picks what he likes, and then we develop that into a song. Sometimes Esau brings an idea in and we build around that but it usually starts with composing music.

What do you have coming up?

AN ALBUM IN A FEW WEEKS! haha... we’ve done a The Very Best track with Crookers for the Crookers album... we’ve got more touring obviously over the next year. We can’t wait to start workin in the studio again too. We’re off to Malawi for a festival show and a video shoot in October too...

As for Radioclit, we’re workin on a million things... new Kano album, Sky Ferreira album, Marina Vello album... new dance tracks... more artists...

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Film: Taking Woodstock

I wasn’t there, but Taking Woodstock reminds me that quite a few people, half a million unique perspectives, witnessed that legendary weekend in 1969. And this seems to be the aim of director Ang Lee’s most recent release, though not by representing the endless characters that were there, but by clinging religiously to the perspective of one, finding the universe in protagonist Eliot Tiber's grain of sand. What results from this technique is a movie that often feels soft-spoken, where a historic moment is also the everyday moment, both momentous and meaningless, iconic and fleeting.

Taking Woodstock, an adaptation of Tiber’s memoir of the same name follows his efforts to make the famous festival happen. Eliot is a law school graduate who has turned his back on his urban lifestyle of twenty-something self discovery, lovers, liars and low income housing in the mythic New York City of the 60’s to save his seemingly helpless parents and their dead-end motel in the sleepy, out-dated town of White Lake in the New York Catskills. In a move that seems at once like an ingenious seizing of a rare opportunity and a complete stroke of dumb luck, Eliot makes a call and becomes the historical lynchpin that gives a final destination (his neighbors’ cow pastures) to the festival that was kicked out of the original, geographic Woodstock. The savvy, smooth talking, half-hippie, half-venture capitalists that make up the merry band of concert organizers descend upon White Lake (in a helicopter, no less), and the rest, as they say, is history.

What follows is exactly what you’d expect, and maybe a little of what you wouldn’t: small town bickering, black suit maneuvering, renovation, one-way transportation and lots and lots of people, waving peace signs, saying ‘far out,’ tripping on Acid, taking their clothes off and generally living up to the expectations of Woodstock (and the decade) that all of us who weren’t there seem to hold in some psychadelic scrapbook of the cultural subconscious. Amidst all the free-wheeling free love, is all the while Eliot, ensuring a nest-egg for his parents, playing peace-maker (only so well) with the neighbors and finally indulging in all the love, sex and music Woodstock seemed to embody to all those concert-goers. No matter the massive crowd, it is his story throughout. We never see Janis Joplin or Jimmy Hendrix, and when characters aren’t interacting with Eliot, they seem to drop off the face of the Woodstock universe. At times like these, one certainly feels like parts of the story are missing, and the viewer wonders what everyone else is doing. But in this limitation and struggle of curiousity, Lee seems to remind the viewer of how experience works. No matter how crucial the moment may be deemed later, in the continuous present, one only has their own perspective from which to see, and often that’s a limited one. This only becomes truly frustrating (and ineffective) when it seems parts of Eliot’s own story have been omitted. At one point in the film, he wakes up next to a man we have seen him flirting with and kissing in the bar, but Lee has neglected to portray any of the night before, when we may assume they entered the bed.

Taking Woodstock is certainly a different kind of cinematic experience, especially as it deals with a moment in time that is generally recognized as big, historic, consequential. The movie one might expect about Woodstock would build toward and celebrate a central climax: a musical performance, a romance or a conflict that threatens the whole festival.Taking Woodstock does have these elements, scattered throughout the film, but Lee does not stress one with more drama than the other, rather he gives each moment that passes an exact, conservative attention, creating a film that may be more like life as we live it than movies as we watch them, a story that gives a sense of the ordinary everyday, to the far out extraordinary of the retroactively decided historic.