Saturday, January 30, 2010

Music: "Die Young" by Blair

Immediately after Blair released the "Pluto EP" in 2007, critics were making comparisons to influential musicians like Liz Phair and Jenny Lewis. What these writers were unfortunately overlooking is everything that sets Blair apart from her predecessors. With her full-length debut, "Die Young," Blair has developed a sound that is familiar and friendly but with the signature style that made the "Pluto EP" so successful.

"Die Young" explores a wider variety of emotions than Blair's previous work. The album opens with "Rampage" which sounds just as aggressive as it's title implies. As the string arrangement in the beginning of the song builds up, it's pretty clear that something huge is about to happen.

"My Turn" combines a steady rhythm and some subtle orchestration with really excellent vocals. Subtlety is something that Blair has mastered in her songwriting. Whether it is with clever lyrics or smart compositional decisions, she doesn't hit her listeners over the head with answers. There were times during listening to "Die Young" that I was aware of how much I was loving it, but couldn't explain why. I had to do some digging, but would it really be as much fun if it was being spoon-fed to me?

I think that's why I find Blair to be different from the musicians she is so commonly compared to. Her music is fun, but thoughtful and smart. That's not to say Liz Phair and Jenny Lewis have never written fun songs, but Blair does it in a way that’s relatable. It never gets too heavy.

Other standout tracks on the album are "Murder", "Wolfboy" (previously heard on the "Pluto EP" but making a welcomed return), and album closer, "So That's It". Although I'm singling out individual songs, I want to make it perfectly clear that the whole album is worth listening to. If you are going to get any of it (which you should), get the whole thing!

I've been waiting for this album for a while now, and it's awesome to be able to say that it delivers in every way I hoped it would. You know how when you experience something that's so incredibly conceived, polished, and structured it blows you away and makes you want to be a better writer or artist or musician or whatever it is you love to do? Blair does that.

We asked Blair a few questions about the making of "Die Young" and her future plans.

"Die Young" was written over a long period of time in different locations. How do you think this affected your writing?

Half of the songs from Die Young were written over a span of 5 years. The other half were written within one month. Initially, I was writing songs without a real goal of completing a record. Yes, my ultimate goal was to create a solid piece of work, but, I didn't necessarily think about the art of a record. My goals were a bit more short termed: write another song. I recorded and re-recorded these songs many times over the years which allowed them to evolve. After I moved from New Orleans to California, it just sort of happened upon me that I had a group of songs and a vision of how they fit together. I got excited about that and wrote the rest of the record very quickly. The mountains, the ocean, and the seclusion I felt after moving to a new place, opened up a stream of creativity that I had never felt before.

How was recording "Die Young" different from recording the "Pluto EP"?

The "Pluto EP" was recorded after a year of hopping around the south due to Hurricane Katrina. I didn't have so much of a vision of a collection of songs as I did with "Die Young", as an urge to just record whatever songs I had at that moment. Katrina pressed the fact to me that nothing is certain and so I felt an urgency to put something out there. With "Die Young", I felt no urgency. Just the urge to create something that would be a collective statement of how I see the world.

Are there any bands or musicians that have had an influence on your songwriting?

I like the fringes of pop music. Nirvana taught me what a pop song is. At some point, I fell in love with John Frusciante's guitar playing. My mom was always playing Neil Young. I bought Beck's One Foot in the Grave and couldn't stop listening to it. I was obsessed with The Strokes for a bit. Doolittle is one of my favorite records. Arular by MIA changed me. The White Stripes inspire me. How did these magic music moments influence me? I have no idea. But they must have. If I knew, or tried to figure that out, I don't think I'd like my songs.

Is there anybody you would really like to collaborate with?

I'd like to record an EP with John Frusciante.

Are there any touring plans for 2010?

The touring plans are in the making. Late spring will entail a U.S. tour.

What are you looking forward to most going into the new decade?

I'm looking forward to traveling to play my music for people. I look forward to learning more about music and to hearing music that will change my life.

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

I saw a great film, A Single Man by Tom Ford. I thought it was beautiful.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Music: James Carter

Yesterday, I had the great pleasure of speaking with the jazz saxophonist, James Carter. Carter came onto the jazz scene in the early 90s and it was instantly clear that he was to be a major figure. While what attracts many people to his music is the intrigue of a single man who can play so many types of saxophones and clarinets, what has people coming back to his music time and time again is the incredible power that he generates. Listening to James Carter is like being attacked with sound, its completely oppressive. He is also an incredible ballad player who can literally move you to tears.

Carter’s last album was Present Tense released in 2008. Mainly in the quintet format, this album presents the variety in Carter’s oeuvre, from fast paced blues, to slow ballads, a salute to the free jazz musician Eric Dolphy, and a bossa nova song. He also recently participated on Gold Sounds, an album with an all-star line up of Cyrus Chestnut, Reginald Veal and Ali Jackson that is a tribute to the music of Pavement. In 2000 Carter did an album saluting Django Reinhardt called Chasing the Gypsy which made it onto several top 10 lists of the past decade. Also of note is the 2003 album Gardenias for Lady Day.

We appreciated the time James Carter spent with us and we are excited to bring you the transcript of our conversation.

A lot of people know you for the large variety of saxophones that you play, how did you start to get into learning all these saxophones?

[Laughs] Well, I started playing back in 1980 and I trace my involvement with music and particularly with the saxophone as a sort of revelation because it happened in certain spurts. I’m from a musical family, and I’m the youngest of five and as a result I always had musical instruments and people that played them around the house; whether it be siblings or cousins or what not. But they were mostly into top 40 R & B, tunes of the day in the 70s and stuff when I was growing up. Jazz didn’t really come in until a little later, it was always around the house but it didn’t hit me until a time when my Mom was around doing chores and she’d have a jazz station on that is now not operating, it was wjzz back in Detroit. So she’d be doing the chores and various people would come on, mostly the vocalists and mostly the usual suspects: Billie, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Carmen McRae, and what not. Just to see her in a happy mood, I kinda gravitated towards that and thought that’s good merriment. The vocalists were one thing, but it always seemed like there was this horn, this sound that would come in between, either during the vocal chorus or right after. It always got to me, it was always the qualities that these horns had and I came to find out that this was the saxophone, so I was attracted to its sound first. Then I was able to see pictures of it not through the jeweled cd boxes, but on the actual album covers, which gave you the full up and close personal look of the cat holding the horn. And most of the time it would be the old Selmer Saxophones and I was really like “Wow! That is bad!” so I was attracted from this point by the physical attribute. I was hooked from those two things. And as fate would have it, sometime later my oldest brother played in a group called By Nature’s Divide and the saxophonist came to be a boarder with us. So now, all of a sudden there were saxophones in my house. So, after the saxophone chooses me it further seals the deal by putting one in the house with us so it was a done deal after that.

Could you talk about your last album, Present Tense? Who is the band on it and what’s it all about?

Present Tense was more or less to get back into the loop of things; I hadn’t recorded in a bit. I’ve always been a fan of eclectic mixes. There are certain pieces that I felt in need of a bit of a longer reading that didn’t have one at the time and at least be brought to light like “Dodo’s Bounce,” and then a few originals on there too. It was a nice eclectic mix. At the same time, I wanted to make a brief yet meaningful statement on the compositions. The people that were involved on the recording were Dwight Adams on trumpet, D.D. Jackson, James Genus on bass, Victor Lewis on drums, Rodney Jones on guitar, Eli Fountain. During that time it was about getting back into ecclectical statements by dealing with various pieces from the Diaspora. I also had just started playing a particular brand of horn called P. Mauriat out of Taiwan. If you go and look at the artwork on the inner sleeve, it’s the first time I’m really showing allegiance to this one company, because over the years I’ve played and endorsed various instruments but never really took it to print as I have with P. Mauriat.

What is Sierra’s Saxophone Concerto and how did you get involved with that project?

Roberto Sierra had come to quite a few performances of mine through the years and it came to a head in November of 2001. I was playing with Kathleen Battle in Baltimore and my manager brought him backstage, they were mutual associates. So she made the formal introduction, and he was like “I really like what you’re doing and I’d like to write a concerto for you.” I kinda reluctantly said “okay, you certain about that?” Something along that line had happened the year before but I wasn’t able to take advantage of it because I already had enough on my plate touring the Layin’ in the Cut and the Chasin’ the Gypsy albums simultaneously so I wasn’t able to do it, but it was a Dutch composer who had the same ambitions but he already had his music scored and I wasn’t able to do it. With Roberto’s piece, I was in it from scratch. The following month, in December, we met at a mid-town studio and he showed me some sketches of various musical ideas he had and I played some of them so he could hear me and we started developing on the ideas that we were to go on. Every other month after that I was getting a new movement from him until I had the whole thing in about June or July and got it ready for it’s world premiere in October of 2002. It has been kind of a staple ever since then. I’m still learning how to play it.

You had an album a few years ago that was a tribute to Pavement, and I was wondering how you brought their music to jazz and why you choose to do this album?

The Brown Brothers got in touch with us on that. They out the band together from their favorite jazz musicians and they presented us with the idea doing the music of Pavement and they wanted to see what we could come up with. I had previously known of Pavement through Beavis and Butthead, because they do their video montages between episodes and “Country Air” was on one of them. So I kinda knew about them from that standpoint. I looked at one of the cds they gave us as source material and I heard the “Country Air” thing and I was like, “Okay, I know where I’m at now.” And we just went from there. It certainly helped that we were able to all get together in Jimi Hendrix’s studio, I think that the studio itself had creativity in the air and that really brought it home.

What’s next for you? Are you planning another album, or are you about to go on tour?

I’m planning on finishing this album with the Sierra Concerto, and there’s another piece that goes along with it that my cousin [the violinist] Regina [Carter] and I are double soloists on with a string quartet that is called “Caribbean Rhapsody.” The remainder of the album will probably be some solo pieces. And I’m looking on going out on a couple of tours, my own and I’m going to tour Dee Dee [Bridgewater]’s album on Billie Holliday, Eleanor Fagan which is looking at being released this year.

Lastly, do you have any recommendations for our readers?

I just really recommend keeping your ears open and anything that feels or sounds good to you and sound it to the rafters, let other people in on that feeling and let it continue to spread. We need all the good vibes and positive feelings that we can muster. Wherever it comes from, don’t let the catalyst be.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Music: The Levon Helm Band @ Terminal 5, 1/7/10

“Haven’t seen you since Woodstock!”

That was what a man next to us shouted as Levon Helm bounded onto the stage, beamed at the audience, and took up his place behind the drumset. There was an air of celebration and reconnection all through Terminal 5 on January 7th, as sentiments similar to the man next to us were yelled in Levon’s direction while he and his band launched into opener “The Shape I’m In.” It was a fitting opener to an exhilarating show that proved that after throat surgery last August, Levon is in fantastic shape.

The Levon Helm Band, made up of eleven talented (and in some cases legendary) session and solo musicians, performed a tight set of Americana classics and songs off the group’s Grammy nominated Electric Dirt. The energy flowed from the band to the audience, which created a feeling of community that lasted throughout the two hour set.

Most of the night Levon relied on his capable band to handle lead vocal duties as evidenced on the gorgeous, nearly a capella version of the Grateful Dead's “Attics of My Life.” The three-part harmony between de facto front man Larry Campbell, Teresa Williams, and Amy Helm was a welcome tribute to the era in which Helm got his start. Tributes like these were numerous throughout the night. Helm’s band performed tunes from The Band's catalog including “Chest Fever” and a haunting performance of “Long Black Veil” that brought the audience back to The Band’s heyday.

Because Levon lost his voice on his previous tour, the venue’s announcer warned the audience that although the recovery process had been slow, Levon looked great and was ready to sing. The anticipation to hear Helm’s own voice grew during the first half of the set as the audience watched him pound the drums and play the mandolin. Every member of the audience was watching the side of the stage to see exactly when the stagehand would finally move Levon’s microphone in front of him. When he belted out the first few notes of “Tennessee Jed” in harmony with Campbell, the entirety of Terminal 5 erupted. Despite the announcer’s initial warning, Helm was in fantastic voice. There are notes of experience in it that could only come with decades of touring, but in no way did it bear any signs of damage or wear.

The special guest for the evening was Donald Fagen, one-half of jazz-rock group Steely Dan. While it was initially jarring to see someone commonly associated with studio perfectionism share the stage with an Americana legend, the two came together beautifully when the Levon Helm Band played Steely Dan original “Black Friday.” Fagen also took lead vocals on a number of songs throughout the night to wonderful effect.

Opener Okkervil River also proved to fit the night perfectly. The indie rock band played a short set of their more well-known and energetic songs and paid tribute to their Americana influence about halfway through with a song off The Basement Tapes. Frontman Will Sheff was in fine form, alternating between cracked yells and croons, trying to get as close to every member of his band as possible. Multi-instrumentalist Lauren Gurgiolo also provided many high points throughout the band’s set, playing mandolin, pedal steel, electric guitar and banjo with aplomb and a genuine sense of excitement. The vocal harmonies could’ve been higher in the mix, but the band’s energy made up for any issues with sound.

The crowd was a diverse mix of Okkervil River fans, young Levon Helm fans who may have believed up until that night that they were born too late to see Helm sing, and older, long-time Helm fans who seemed to be brought back in time with every note. If the people immediately surrounding us on the floor were any indication, both bands gained new fans that night, as people both familiar and unfamiliar watched them with appreciation and awe. The shared joy and mutual appreciation for the performances of the night proved what a powerful influence Helm has continued to have on Americana music.

The word that came to mind over and over the entire night was Joy. Helm danced, constantly blew kisses at the audience, and beamed from ear to ear all night long. Sheff screamed every note of Okkervil River’s closer “Unless It’s Kicks” with increasing jubilation, commanding everyone from the floor up to the third tier to clap and raise their hands higher and higher in anticipation of Levon’s performance. Every audience member surrounding us murmured or shouted at least one joyous “oh my god!” at some point in the evening.

The most joyous moments for us came at the end of the night. Being able to hear Levon Helm sing closer “The Weight” was something we never thought we would be able to claim. That Levon sounded just as good on it as he did during The Last Waltz made it even more special. Encore “I Shall Be Released,” led by Fagen and sung at top volume by both band and audience, was just as powerful. As the song slowed down and voices petered out, Fagen let out a chuckle that was indicative of the night. Before Levon and the band left the stage a second time, Campbell invited everyone in the crowd to come up to Woodstock and see Levon again. Levon blew kisses, waved, and beckoned to the crowd to reiterate Campbell’s point. There was little doubt that many of those in Terminal 5 would return to Woodstock to take them up on that offer.

By Ryan Batie and Nora Bergin

Monday, January 11, 2010

Music: "Contra" by Vampire Weekend

Vampire Weekend was recommended to me shortly before their self-titled debut was released in 2008. For whatever reason, I felt the need to openly join the hate parade that came with the band’s early success while secretly loving everything about them. I began to question my motives and soon realized that I had no reason to be critical of the fact that they dress like Fred from Scooby Doo. They were doing exactly what good music is supposed to do: make me happy. Two years later, Contra picks up right where the band left off, and in many ways, is even better than the debut.

The word Contra implies conflict as well as multiple cultural references such as the classis video game of the same title. It’s fitting in that there seems to be a theme of conflict through the album. Whether it’s a conflict between groups of people (“Run”) or between two individuals (“I Think Ur a Contra”), there is definitely a sense that all is not well despite the bouncing electronic beats and orchestration.

The addition of fuller electronic elements in the songs on Contra is probably the biggest difference between this album and the debut. They add more variety and avoid some of the predictability caused by the first album’s heavy use of strings. As great as the orchestration was on Vampire Weekend, Contra will translate better in a live performance because it doesn’t rely on a string quartet as much.

One of the standout tracks is "White Sky." It has one of the best ooh ahh choruses ever and a vibrant beat to back it up. “California English” has a rushed energy to it that is revived with an auto-tuned break. The previously mentioned “Run” is empowering and a great introduction to the second half of the album. “Cousins” shows up surprisingly late in the album considering it’s the first single. It has jagged guitar work similar to “A-Punk” from the debut with the addition of frantic sing-along yelps. Definitely an interesting choice for a first single, but a great track nonetheless. Other songs worth noting are “Diplomat’s Son” and “I Think Ur a Contra” which close out the experience.

As much as some people probably wanted to see Vampire Weekend fail at being able to match the quality of their debut, they are going to have to either wait or give up. Contra is proof that these guys are worth paying attention to and it more than justifies the hype. 2009 had an early contender for album of the year with Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion. Contra could very likely do the same in 2010. When you see the year end lists, just remember I called it!

Friday, January 8, 2010

Music: "Heartland" by Owen Pallett

Even if you’ve never heard the name Owen Pallett, you have definitely heard his work. Pallett, who until Heartland released his solo material under the moniker Final Fantasy, has composed string arrangements for Arcade Fire, Grizzly Bear, Beirut, The Last Shadow Puppets, The Rumble Strips, The Mountain Goats, and even the Pet Shop Boys and Mika.

His Final Fantasy material has always differed from his collaborations in that it more often sounded like it was done with a string quartet as opposed to a full orchestra. That was the case until Heartland, which he recorded with the Czech Symphony. Heartland is a concept album in which Pallett says, “The songs themselves form a narrative concerning a farmer named Lewis and the fictional world of Spectrum. The songs are one-sided dialogues with Lewis, a young, ultra-violent farmer, speaking to his creator.” “Midnight Directives” starts the album with a brass section, a sweeping orchestra, and pizzicato strings that pluck faster than fingers can possibly pluck. Immediately, we know we’re in for something bigger.

“Keep the Dog Quiet” sounds more like Pallett’s old material where he has a loop that he builds upon throughout the song – it’s nothing new, but the practice sounds fuller than ever before. “Lewis Takes Action” starts with a beat swiped from “Be My Baby” by The Ronettes; with lyrics like, “I’ve got a thirst for liquid gold,” it takes several listens to start understanding the dialogue, but it’s worth it.

“The Great Elewhere” opens with a synthesizer that takes the place of where Pallett would usually have a violin. The song features Dan Deacon-like drumming to support the orchestra, synth, and vocals; yes, there is a lot going on here. The song builds until it finishes in a cinematic flourish of strings and piano creating one of the most beautiful moments in anything Pallett has worked on.

Another highlight includes the sensual bass in the second half of “Oh Heartland, Up Yours!” which comes as a nice surprise. “Lewis Takes Off His Shirt” features synthetic bird chirps, a wall of strings, and Pallett’s voice, which is as strong as ever. Towards the end of the song he repeats, “I’m never gonna give it to you” and you think, “Lewis means it!”

The album closes with “What Do You Think Will Happen Now?” which is the most stripped down track, making it a powerful closer. In the end, you realize how much work Pallett has put into this album - his first since 2006. Heartland takes more than one listen to understand, but when it makes sense, you’ll be thankful you put in the time. The album comes out on Tuesday, January 12. Below Pallett discusses the making of Heartland and more.

How and why does Heartland sound different from your previous work?

With Heartland I wanted to make a record that sounded mechanical and breathless. A steam-powered symphony orchestra.

You compose strings arrangements for so many different types of artists - what do you get out of doing those?

It's a nice balance, psychologically, to work on my own for months at a time, and then turn round and be at the service of my friends. It sounds granola, but nothing makes me happier than the success of my fellow musicians, and it is my pleasure to do what I can to assist them.

Do you have any dream projects that you'd love to do string arrangements for?

I don't want to stop doing pop arrangement, but I would love to get involved in some more experimental music.

What was it like working with the Czech Symphony for the album?

Harrowing. I spent ten days before the session finishing and refining the Heartland arrangements, barely sleeping and never leaving my hotel room in Prague. By the time the session date rolled around, I hadn't slept in several days and looked a mess. Happily, the orchestra was extremely professional, and the players were fantastic, so the actual session went brilliantly, considering I was shivering in the control room with my head in my hands.

What is your songwriting process like?

I don't write on a daily basis, which, I've learned, is kind of weird. I took a week in Lisbon after a tour to write the lyrics for Heartland, long before I started on the songs. Most of the songs were written in a single month in Toronto. I demoed everything with my violin and piano, and then went from there.

What else are you working on and what else do you have coming up?

I've been working on other people's records a bit, touring, working on a new live show, and writing lyrics for album number four. Right now I'm doing a film score in NYC.

Lewis Takes Off His Shirt (Live):

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Music: The Shangri-Las

In 9th grade I set my hair on fire. “Your head’s smoking!” yelled Katherine O’Bryan. She had an enormous mouth and I could see her uvula as she delivered the dire news. Immediately, I began to regret having taken Erin’s advice—side swept bangs were a terrible idea. But turning the Bunsen burner on high was a worse idea. An assortment of honors science students patted down the flames and later, I rode the light rail home. My bangs were charred and I smelled like the seniors who smoked Parliaments on the front lawn—but without the rebellious allure. High school was everything but rebellious; I swam on the varsity team, participated in a National History Day competition, took the fattest boy from my Jewish middle school to prom and then graduated. I spent a lot of high school wishing I was one of the cigarette smoking kids. They wore torn jeans and said things like “I don’t know what to do anymore. Except maybe die.” And they meant it. But the truth was, I wasn’t like those kids at all, I only smelled like them.

Even now, three years out of high school, I still get the same starry eyes thinking of the teenage vigilante, defying their parents and championing young love. This is what drew me to The Shangri-Las. The quartet, comprised of two sets of sisters (Mary Weiss, Betty Weiss and identical twins Marge and Mary Ann Ganser), were the bad-girls of the 1960’s pop scene. While, similar in sound to The Ronettes and The Shirelles, The Shangri-Las’ songs contain controversial content that would rival today’s soap operas. The band’s famous single, “Leader of the Pack,” is the story of a sensitive delinquent who fatally crashes his motorcycle after his girlfriend's parents force them apart. “Leader of the Pack,” like many of the group’s other songs, features a dramatic, spoken verse. The spoken verse contains a theatrical element that helps construct the perfect teenage melodrama; one that captures how important things feel at an age when little is truly important. So when Mary Weiss describes her last interaction with the motorcycle misfit--“He sort of smiled and kissed me goodbye/The tears were beginning to show/As he drove away on that rainy night/I begged him to go slow/But whether he heard, I'll never know”--each girl sitting on the light rail home, for two minutes and fifty-two seconds, can live in an alternate reality on the “wrong side of the tracks.”

Many modern-day miscreants have been influenced by The Shangri-Las’ bad girl rep. Most notable is Blondie’s cover of the song “Out in the Streets” and most recent is the Black Lips’ 2007 album Good Bad Not Evil whose title references a spoken line in the song “Give Him a Great Big Kiss” describing a teenage boy. Whether it’s Debbie Harry or my fourteen -year-old self, everyone needs a little leather-jacket-wearing, real-close-dancing, Shangri-Las rebellion. So, go ahead, pick up a greatest hits album, drive back to your high school and smoke a cigarette on the front lawn.