31 July 2010

Somebody to Love: Suckers

You know how typically opening bands are pretty bad? Particularly before your favorite band comes on and you're waiting hours and hours through one horrible band after the next because nothing compares to them? Yeah, me too - until Suckers opened for The National at Spin Magazine's anniversary concert at Terminal 5 last Thursday.

The second I heard their first song I knew it was something I'd have to write about. This band (particularly after the sound difficulties of Kurt Vile) sounded not only technically good in a weird psychedelic way but really fun. Standing alone in a sea of shorter people, feeling uncomfortable and uneasy, they actually got me dancing. Before the show I had read a review of the band that called them a "Brooklyn version of The Beach Boys" or something to that effect so I was expecting something a little different than a dirty-looking-Robert Downey Jr.-in-his-drug-phase young man to come out with makeup on and a turquoise hat singing about "getting your body moving".

Everything from the set up of the band on stage (drums front and center) to the versatile looks of the band members were strange. From left to right it looked like a clean-cut, pin-thin David Bowie on guitar, a drugged out college freshman on drums, an Indian spaceman on lead vocals, and the math nerd next door on trumpet and other various instruments. These descriptions actually make it all sound a little too normal if you can imagine. I don't want to say this band is what I imagine rock 'n roll to be in the '60's but certainly in comparison to the bands I normally see in concert, they gave me a taste of something new.

Quinn Walker, lead vocalist and seemingly leader of the craziness, is fascinating. Watching him on stage was weird and stupid and just fun. I saw two cute girls in front of me giving each other faces over his strange physical antics at one point and figured this sums up the general consensus of the audience. What are we watching? I guess it's awesome. Are they faking? They didn't seem to be. Their quirks seemed authentic, particularly Walker's desire to act out every lyric of the songs as he sang. I've never seen such a thing but I guess I'm going to the wrong concerts.

As for a little background, Suckers is in fact a Brooklyn-based psychedelic-pop indie quintet that had their first EP produced by Yeasayer’s Anand Wilder and Chris Moore of TV on the Radio and Yeah Yeah Yeahs fame, which says much about the style of this band. They're wonderfully strange and although I've read bits of articles where they're predicted to be a "flavor of the week" or just a quick flash in the pan, I think there's something really interesting about their music and have little doubt that they're phenomenal musicians judging by their live performance. Walker's voice is particularly exceptional. Take a moment to check out Suckers.

15 July 2010

Top Albums of 2010 So Far

Initially I was not going to make this list but the pressure of a helpful reader lead me to believe that it would be a fun idea. Although this is not as comprehensive as I would like it to be, here are my top 10 favorite albums of 2010.

01. The National - High Violet
It is no coincidence that the best band in the world also came out with the best album of 2010 so far. While it's their most melodic, accessible album to date, it's the emotion of each song that brings this album to life and lets me find new things with each listen. This Brooklyn-based, indie rock band also managed to get their highest ranking ever on the Billboard charts with this album during one of music's slowest weeks of the year. That alone proves their power. Soaring ballads like the gorgeous "Runaway" are balanced by poppy fare like the catchy "Anyone's Ghost" but really it's the entire album as a whole that will leave you unable to listen to anything else for the rest of the year. This is the best album I have heard in the past five years, forget the past seven months. I promise you will not be able to get Matt Berninger's voice out of your head.
Best Tracks: Conversation 16, Lemonworld, Runaway, Bloodbuzz Ohio, Anyone's Ghost (in that order)

02. Jack Johnson - To the Sea
Although I was a huge fan of Johnson's 2001 debut, Brushfire Fairytales, I was never overly impressed by his follow up albums until now. To the Sea continues Johnson's appreciation for relaxed, upbeat little songs but unlike some of his other recent work, you can't as easily picture Curious George singing along with them. There is a maturity on this album that makes his music much more lush and introspective. Somehow I believe him more on this record than any before and I have fallen in love with a few of these songs. A song will start off barely audible and turn into a fun, strange story within seconds. "Only the Ocean", the closing track, is a slow, painfully beautiful ode to the ocean that even has a non-swimmer like me relating to. Although "Flake" off Brushfire remains my favorite Johnson track, To the Sea has become my favorite Jack Johnson album overall.
Best Tracks: You and Your Heart, Red Wine, Mistakes, Mythology, Only the Ocean

03. The Bird and the Bee - Interpreting the Masters Volume 1: A Tribute to Daryl Hall and John Oates
While this album came out in March, it was a recent, accidental discovery for me. I had been searching on iTunes for different versions of the Hall and Oates classic "One on One" when I noticed that The Bird and the Bee had done a cover. I had heard of the band before so I just listened to the 30 second sample and it blew my mind. A female voice singing these familiar radio mainstays was not only interesting but happily refreshing. It brought an entirely new perspective to the lyrics while their arrangements stayed very true to the original, only updating the sound slightly. After purchasing "One on One", I went on to get the best track - and probably best known - "I Can't Go For That" which far exceeded my expectations. As a big fan of Hall and Oates, I didn't anticipate appreciating a cover so much. I don't know why The Bird and the Bee thought a Hall and Oates tribute was necessary or if there will be a volume two focusing on a different band, but I am now a believer in this band's abilities.
Best Tracks: I Can't Go For That, One on One, Kiss on My List

04. Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings - I Learned the Hard Way
This may be a biased choice as Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings are one of my favorite bands, but this particular album is so smooth and funky that in it's own genre there is nothing that has come out this year that can compare. There's been a lot of talk about Sharon Jones singlehandedly leading the soul revival of the past few years and while I believe that to be true, it has to be mentioned that Jones herself is 54 years old and in fact grew up with the music that these competing twentysomething bands are trying to mimic. Sharon Jones is the real deal and this album, like her other vintage-style classics, proves it once again. Unlike many, she is contributing to the '60's soul sound, not copying it.
Best Tracks: Better Things, I Learned the Hard Way

05. The Black Keys - Brothers
This is one of the only albums in 2010 that I was actually looking forward to ahead of time. There was an anticipation lingering in the air for several months before the record was released and airplay of the single, "Tighten Up", made it that much more exciting. Somehow it's come about that I still have yet to spend a lot of time with each of these songs but there are some tracks I've listened to more than any of their previous work. The album, released on May 18, marks the band's highest selling album to date with 73,000 copies sold in its first week and received almost unanimous praise from critics.
Best Tracks: Tighten Up, Howlin' For You

06. Band of Horses - Infinite Arms
Also released May 18, Infinite Arms is Band of Horse's third studio album and released on their own record label after leaving Sub Pop. Although it received some of the best reviews of the year, I like it particularly because I don't think it strays very far from the band's other albums. The soothing rhythms and overall appeal of their specific style is still clearly intact and this record seems to serve as a continuation of 2007's Cease to Begin. In contrast to what a lot of bands seem to do on studio albums, Band of Horses is okay with staying one pace throughout and content to do what they do best - there is no experimentation or shocking bits. It's a great album for sitting in the dark.
Best Tracks: Laredo, On My Way Back Home, Blue Beard

07. Raul Midon - Synthesis
Mr. Midon has one of the best voices. It is like melted honey falling off a soft teddy bear's tongue. It astonishes me that someone like Michael Buble can attract a massive audience and yet only few know about a voice like Raul Midon. Blind from birth, it seems Midon has acquired supernatural musical powers that allow him to makes sounds with his mouth that perfectly mimic the entire family of woodwind instruments. He has successfully collaborated with living legends Stevie Wonder and Herbie Hancock and on his third studio album, Midon is at his finest both vocally and lyrically. These tracks are both surprising and familiar. They feel like coffeehouse songs you've been hearing for years with a mischievous twist.
Best Tracks: About You, These Wheels

08. Usher - Raymond v. Raymond
Definitely the most mainstream record on the list, Raymond v. Raymond, is not only undeniably catchy but rather inspired as well. Usher may be seen as a popular R&B star that dances and cheats on his girlfriends and wives but this record once again proves that he also makes long lasting pop music that falls under that guilty category despite genuine craftsmanship. With this record, Usher continues his trend of honestly confronting his own life through song while still maintaining a great high energy, rhythm-centric sensibility. As much as I don't want to, I really like this entire album.
Best Tracks: There Goes My Baby, OMG

09. Josh Ritter - So Runs the World Away
I am certainly not the first person to say that every Josh Ritter song sounds like a sweeping epic. The cover of this album pretty much says it all: with a dimly lit ocean liner and a bridge in the distance, the photograph is a 2D representation of the mood Ritter sets with his eerily serene voice and flowing arrangements. Luckily for me, this is one of the most loved records critically of the year so I have no problem recommending it. With a glass of wine and no one home on rainy day, you'll definitely thank me. Listen to the entire album twice.
Best Tracks: Change of Time, Southern Pacifica

10. Corinne Bailey Rae - The Sea
This is Rae's first album since the untimely death of her husband Jason Rae following an accidental overdose at their home. Not surprisingly, compared with her self-titled debut album, the material on The Sea is much darker and deeper. There's a beautiful sexual undercurrent and a strange mix of love and pain that makes it a difficult yet worthwhile listen. Considering that a musician's sophomore album is usually known for being poorly received, it speaks volumes that Rae's album was not only critically praised but artistically lauded. Although it is just number 10 here, it's probably one of the album's most worth your time.
Best Tracks: Closer, I'd Do it All Again

13 July 2010

Yacht Rock!

I never realized it before but this might be one of my favorite musical genres. It seems that everything I listen to lately can be combined under this title. My lovers Hall & Oates, Christopher Cross, even Todd Rundgren to a certain extent. My latest musical crush, Michael McDonald, is probably the king of this genre though. His ridiculous voice and absurdly smooth sounds make him the ultimate cheesy go-to guy. I can't say I know much about him and I'm too caught up in listening to his voice right now to read Wikipedia or some other unreliable internet source but I get a really big grin on my face when I hear him - and he has a great beard to boot.

"What a Fool Believes" is one of my all time favorite songs. I wish I wrote it.

"I Keep Forgetting" - another classic. I always try to stop myself from being a Lite FM jukebox but I can't control myself. It is my guiltiest pleasure. It might go along with my desire for 50 year old men.  If you folks aren't actually clicking and listening to these videos you're seriously missing out.

"Tin Man" always drives me crazy as well. The sound is so different and really sounds a lot more innovative than most songs on the radio today.

My mother's old best friend would always sing this at karaoke nights when I was little. It has probably been stuck in my head for the past 18 years.

How can you deny this music? You can't.

10 July 2010

Chicago & The Doobie Brothers - July 9, 2010 PNC Bank Arts Center

I have been seriously in love with Chicago keyboardist Robert Lamm since I was 3 years old. I know he's 500 years old (66 this year to be exact) but the thrill of seeing him live has never waned. His voice and appearance are just as delectable as when he was 25 (not that I was alive but I've seen enough video to know these things). Seeing Chicago every summer has been a family tradition for over 20 years in my household and although there have been some changes that need to be mentioned, the concert still goes on and continues to sound pretty fantastic for a bunch of senior citizens.

The biggest surprise this year came in the form of musician Lou Pardini who as of last year replaced 30 year veteran of the band Bill Champlin, best known for bringing the band's biggest ever surge of soul and making the Peter Cetera/Jason Scheff executive change a little smoother. Since the band chose to open with Pardini singing "Make Me Smile" it was a little jarring to accept this new person. It seemed at first like he didn't belong. Standing behind the keyboard usually designated to Champlin, I just couldn't get used to him for at least the first 10 songs. By song 11, I loved him. Yeah, he's not the Bill Champlin who was far and away one of the most talented and loved members of the band but he brings that added jazz necessary to keep up the stamina of one of the longest running pop music bands in the world. After seeing a band 15 or so times and knowing all the tricks and medleys up their sleeves, it's kind of exciting to see someone new up there and have the wonder once again of what the song will sound like. Sadly, it's at the expense of someone who should not have left.

Beyond the Champlin controversy, a very unwelcome addition to the show was a Walter Parazaider imposter that not only jumbled the flute solo on "Colour My World" but just didn't seem to fit in. He looked confused on stage and while he appeared aesthetically like Parazaider, the founder of Chicago, it was offputting to see anyone else play the sax/flute. Luckily, the rest of the horn section was intact with James Pankow looking sharp as usual and Lee Loughnane taking the vocals on "Colour My World", a song occasionally sung by Lamm or Champlin since the death of original singer Terry Kath in the '70's.

Jason Scheff, a man who I used to consider the lead singer of Chicago (mostly because he was the Cetera replacement), was also pretty off last night. I love him wholeheartedy but I wouldn't be surprised if he was an alcoholic. His frantic movements and fragmented singing was driving me crazy throughout the entire concert. It almost sounded like a parody of Peter Cetera. This is all rather unfortunate too since in recent years I have grown particularly fond of his versions of the Chicago songs I used to only like with Cetera. While at 48, he is one of the younger members of the band, his voice seems to be falling flatter than the ones pushing 70. Of course Scheff has been singing these songs since he was 23 years old and without much variation in Chicago's repitoire, despite them having over 30 studio albums, I can see why he'd be bored.

Keith Howland and Tris Imboden, both impressive musicians and later members of the band, were flawless and their solos were some of the best parts of the evening. Not to be outdone was the true leader of the band, Mr. Lamm, who spoke to the crowd at one point as if he was a professor, directing them to websites and explaining the band's recent involvement with breast cancer research. While it may have been a little cheesy, I actually enjoyed the bits of conversation between songs. I think of the band members as imaginary family at this point so it's interesting to see glimpses into their personalities. When I was a kid I remember being a little miffed that we would see them live so many times all over the state and yet we'd never stay after the show to meet them. My aunt and cousin had Chicago pen pals and were fevered members of the official fan club yet never a handshake? I didn't understand.

The ultimate highlight for me was Robert Lamm strapping on his acoustic guitar and coming center stage as he's been doing for decades to sing my all time favorite song "Beginnings". In a fitted pink t-shirt, dark denim, and white shoes, Lamm with his tan and fluffy hair doesn't look a day over 50 and he can still pull off the sexy, mysterious vibe the song needs. He's old enough to be my grandfather but I'd gladly date him in a second (see: inside cover photo on "Hot Streets"). I was then left waiting until the encore for "Does Anybody Really Know What Time it is" but naturally, well worth the wait. They brought The Doobie Brothers on stage for a back and forth song swap thing and with probably 25 of the best live musicians on stage, the songs sounded unbelievable. The Doobie Brothers' hit "Listen to the Music" probably stole the show more than any other but inevitably the concert ended with Chicago's "25 or 6 to 4", a Lamm penned, Scheff sung finale classic.

Flaws aside, I loved the show and secretly hated everyone who refused to stand up when Chicago came on stage. It is sacrilege to me to sit at a rock concert. You pay for the seat but you stand to show respect and dance. If you feel embarrassed, that's what the alcohol is for. Unfortunately, I even saw one woman scold a group of younger folks for standing up against the rail in front of her - on the lawn! Later, when two older ladies started dancing in front of me blocking my entire view of the stage, I couldn't help but fall in love with them. Dance! Dance your troubles away! That's what a concert is for, it's supposed to be the exact opposite of death - and most likely why the members of Chicago manage to look younger than me. I need their moisturizer.

Favorite Moments: "Beginnings", "Call on Me", Lamm busting out the keytar for "Does Anybody Really Know What Time it is?"

This is some great footage I found online of recent Chicago concerts. None from this concert but it nevertheless gives the vibe I'm talking about:

All photographs located on Chicago's official fan club website

One Track Mind

If you just happen to be glancing through this blog for the first time you might begin to wonder why I always write about The National. You might even think that you should stop reading because this person is crazy and only talks about one band when the blog itself pretends to be about music as a whole. For these reasons, I'd like to explain why I write so much about one band.

It's very difficult for me to be critical. I started this blog because I wanted to have some writing tucked away somewhere in case one day I apply to Rolling Stone and they ask me how often I write. I wanted to be able to tell them that I write nearly everyday - and here's the proof! Initially I thought it would be fantastic to literally be a music critic and review albums, concerts, etc. Lately, I realize that I am not equipped to do that (actually I think I am much more than others but emotionally I'm not good at it). The only things that really makes me passionate enough to sit down and write entire articles or posts are those songs or artists that I absolutely love. I'm rather young - or at least still a novice - so I'm trying to get over the gushing phase of writing about an artist I admantly admire but I do all my research before I brace a topic and go from there. To be honest, I'm probably not the greatest music writer in the universe because I never think objectively. I'm biased and a gigantic, loving fan of what I write about. I'm much better at writing about other things but that's also why music writing is so much more fun - it's the challenge added to the passion that equals the only thing I ever really feel like writing about (or talking about for that matter).

The National, of course, is the personification of everything I just said. They are the ultimate band that is so perfect it's almost as if the particles of everything I love in my brain came together and created them specifically for me to listen to. When I'm at work and put on a Youtube video of one of their recent performances, I get so riled up I immediately run over here and write a rambling, bumbling essay about how incredible they are and how I can't stop listening to Matt Berninger's voice. I work alone in a very large building so the companionship I get from music and video while at work is even more important. With The National, I never have to be critical or insensitive to someone's art - I always know I'll love it and I want anyone reading or passing by my blog to be a part of the greatness. To be honest as well, I like championing other people's artistic endeavors much more than my own. I'm able to write here, what I love doing more than anything, and yet also have the comfort of knowing it's the music people are coming to find, it's not my writing specifically, so the pressure is slightly off me.

ANYWAY, this was all brought on from this video:

Watching it just now brought memories of Radio City Music Hall to the front of my mind and this song particularly was a highlight for me that night. It's my favorite off High Violet and so incredibly different and emotionally charged that I have yet to get even a little tired of it. Every time I listen I expect the eerie feeling to finally wear off and it never does - the sign of a great song.

After watching that video I thought to myself, why do I suddenly feel like writing now when I had planned to write a Todd Rundgren post that I haven't had the energy to finish? Why do I always have to write about the same thing? It was driving me crazy so I figured I'd just get it out of my system and write about my feelings instead of trying to sound professional.

Thanks for reading.

08 July 2010

Vintage Somebody to Love: Daryl Hall & John Oates

I am on a crazy Hall and Oates kick lately. I'm not completely sure of my obsession's origin but it's been growing for years.

Late last month it reached its peak when I took a trip to the Princeton Record Exchange and bought the album Private Eyes for $1 on vinyl. I'll be honest and tell you that I don't listen to my record collection as much as I should (especially for the amount of money I spend) but I put this one on immediately. Yes, this newfound interest in listening to them constantly was fueled by hearing them at The National's concert twice but it's more than that. I've been lucky enough to see them a few times in concert opening for Chicago and consider "I Can't Go For That (No Can Do)" one of the sexiest songs ever recorded.

In recent months, it also seems like they're popping up everywhere. From the independent film 500 Days of Summer that featured "You Make My Dreams" prominently in advertising to the band's guest appearance on the finale of this season's American Idol. If you go by Wikipedia's definition of Hall and Oates you may know them from their "six #1 hits on the Billboard Hot 100: "Rich Girl", "Kiss on My List", "Private Eyes", "I Can't Go for That (No Can Do)", "Maneater", and "Out of Touch", as well as many other songs which charted in the Top 40." Well, that's a mouthful that you don't typically hear about a band. Last year marked the duo's 40th year together and they're currently on tour in the U.S.

At the risk of being the millionth person to critique their sound, I'd say they're much more soulful than poppy while still managing to make some of the greatest hooks in pop music history. Amazingly, they have also managed to stay relevant over the past four decades to the point that references to their music can be found regularly in television shows and magazines. Yet in my opinion they're similar to Chicago in the sense that they never receive the full respect that they deserve. They have 'lite radio' hits that we all know if we hear them but never delve further into the catalog to hear the deeper cuts and that's a shame. Unlike a lot of other bands, they have little filler on their full albums. Listening to Private Eyes, I was immediately drawn to the song "Mano A Mano" that has such a weird chorus I found myself humming it for days after (maybe too many days actually). This could have easily been another hit! If I were a musician I'd re-record and take it as my own.

Hall and Oates' music in three words: sexy, cheesy, lovable.

Music Maven's Top 10 Hall and Oates Songs (subject to change if I listen to more albums):

01. I Can't Go For That (No Can Do)
02. Out of Touch
03. One on One
04. She's Gone
05. Kiss on My List
06. Mano A Mano
07. Rich Girl
08. You Make My Dreams
09. Private Eyes
10. Sara Smile

So check them out!

p.s. John Oates is the one with the dark afro.