Tuesday, June 30, 2009


What if Diplo produced The Postal Service album?

What if Lil Jon and Weezer got locked in a studio together?

What if Daft Punk produced an album for an albino Kid Cudi using only samples from Akon songs?

These are the questions the side project Discovery seems created to answer. A collaboration between Rostam Batmanglij of Vampire Weekend and Wes Miles of Ra Ra Riot, Discovery is without a doubt one of the more bizarre things you'll be hearing in 2009. It's indie rock created solely with a Top 40 sound palette, the familiar bass boom and handclaps of da club paired with a skinny white dude singing in autotune about taking the subway in Osaka and missing his girlfriend. It's really hard to overstate the WTF factor the first time you listen to this. I kept waiting for Usher to start moaning or Timbo to start scatting just to ground myself in some kind of reality.

Irony abounds obviously, and nowhere more than in the album title itself - "LP", since the 5-6 good songs on here actually would've made a pretty coherent and convincing EP. Instead, the following shitty ideas inexplicably made the cut:

- A bubblegum pop song with vocals from Angel Deradoorian (of the Dirty Projectors) called "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend". Not only does that chorus sound annoying before you even hear it, it doesn't even make sense

- A cover of the Ra Ra Riot song "Can You Tell"...because if there's one thing Ra Ra Riot is missing, it's autotune

- Most unforgivably, there's a cover of the Jackson 5's "I Want You Back" that you'll be a better person for never hearing. The recent tragedy aside, this just sounds awful - like a Wesley Willis remix produced on a lazy afternoon with a few Casios and a mission to kill the soul of the listener. I couldn't do a worse MJ tribute if I tried, and I'm pretty sure you couldn't either

So yeah, it's indulgent in ways side projects normally are, but there is some great to offset the god-awful. "Osaka Loop Line" is a deceptively complex song, the tempo bouncing up and down before racing towards a shimmering climax. And "So Insane" has this singular "Grizzly Bear feat. Ratatat" sound that I want a whole other album of. Sure, this is no threat to Passion Pit for indietronic hit of the summer, but as playlist material it might just win you over.


Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Dirty Projectors

There seems (to me) to be a theme to this summer's big releases. Phoenix, Grizzly Bear, Animal Collective - what has set these bands apart has been fastidious production, a convergence of sonic elements, and beautiful, dreamy vocals. Dirty Projectors is no different. With claps and drum kicks running into Zeppelin-esque raw guitar, the intensely simplified instrumentation forces the ear to wandering and lofty vocals on the first track. That sets the tone for the album - the time signatures and pacing jump radically and quickly within and between songs, but the voices carry you through. To say it's all about vocals though is a red herring, because while the most obvious and intense elements are the voices, the music is so unbelievably good, all of sudden you realize that you've been serenaded, seduced into the complexities of the album and the music and its flow takes over your interest. Instrumentation gets looser and edgier, occasionally overpowering, but mostly just sublimely simple and good (I wish I had a better word than "good," but sometimes, that's the highest praise): there are elements of punk, reggae, (parts of it remind me a lot of Ted Leo), rock and some more winsome uses of pop and folk.

This album is a thorough composition - no doubt that Dave Longstreth took a great deal from collaborations with David Byrne and Bjork - yet despite the intricacy and crafted nature of the music, it moves freely and manages to avoid feeling heavy or overwrought (taking as much from Byrne as Bjork in that regard). There are moments when you feel like you slipped into a completely different album (Pink Floyd meets Joanna Newsom say, then on to Modest Mouse having its way with the Cocteau Twins), as it goes from male to female vocals, from keyboards and Fenders, to acoustic plucking and violins - but the progression is seamless. There are moments when you have no idea why these things sound so good, because by all logic such strange components, dissonant ideas and odd pacing ought to be disastrous. But they aren't - there are moments of true beauty and true rock. It's utterly mind boggling that this album is so fine, so perfect and so tailored, yet so completely and effortlessly enjoyable, you can just float with it. I'm gonna go ahead and say, this wins for me...everyone else can pack up and go home.



Kind of a weird thought, but I have to admit: music will probably never mean more to me than it did when I was 16. Remember what it was like when "1979" came on the radio back then? I remember thinking that Billy Corgan knew me - that he really knew the places I knew, if only in the abstract. There was this sense that there was this entire burgeoning genre - "emo" - that was created solely to sooth suburban white kids who drank in parking lots and made out in movie theaters and hated their parents. It was hundreds of dudes with distortion pedals trying to coax meaning out of the pretty meaningless incubation that high school was, and in their self-obsession and melodramatics we were able to justify and glorify ourselves.

Whether it was 9/11 or Bush or whatever, I don't know, but the intervening decade or so has made that inward-looking Emo of the 90's feel somehow decadent in its self-absorption. Perhaps then, it is a sign of our recovering collective psyche that an "emo" band like Japandroids can succeed in 2009. With Dinosaur Jr. and the aforementioned Pumpkins as the most obvious references, these two dudes from Vancouver have melded the so-hot-right-now noise punk of No Age, Waaves, etc. with the earnest hooks of a Saves The Day, Foo Fighters, or anyone else who was on the Warped Tour in 1998. Yes, it's ridiculously simple music - power chords and lyrics about french kissing French girls are about the entirety of "Wet Hair", for example - but isn't it comforting to find that music like this still works on you? And that, to echo Pitchfork, maybe life isn't as complicated as we tend to make it?


Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Arthur Russell

This is Arthur Russell, the classically trained cellist, composer, songwriter and musician who made literally thousands of tracks (most unfinished) before he died prematurely in 1992 of AIDS at age 40. He worked tirelessly until his death, and almost equally as hard at remaining anonymous...so much so that few have heard of him. His music is across the board from soft, contemplative tracks with haunting vocals and oddball sounds, to danceable disco funk, for which his work is probably best known. This is a man who took as much from Philip Glass and David Byrne (who played on his debut) as from Fleetwood Mac and ABBA. If you were to listen to this without knowing a thing about it, you would be sure to imagine some bearded hipster in his Brooklyn basement with a backing band of merry pranksters. It's completely contemporary and completely fresh.

Thus, in the wake of records from Grizzly Bear, Phoenix, Animal Collective etc., Russell's albums will sound like something of a Rosetta Stone. If you're a DJ, then they are chock full of beats, sounds, and rhythms that you will be itching to put on a track (disco house has become de rigeur at DC's loft parties...). If you're a fan, the intensely danceable, funk heavy disco is completely enjoyable without being cliched or derivative. He took the essence of disco, distilled it, and made it anew into something far more sophisticated and substantial. The tracks are layered, the hooks are catchy without being sickly sweet, the musicianship is obvious, the progression through musical eras and ideas is effortless - it goes from Diana Ross to some serious psychedelia and beyond. The lyricism is subdued, but nuanced, and his voice has that Nick Drake quality of always sounding slightly muffled. The implications for modern bands are readily apparent - you can hear him all over today's acts. To say he was ahead of his time is frankly putting it modestly. He found little commercial success as he tended more to pursue ideas, sounds and concepts rather than finished works. He moved quickly, bringing the listener along with him, but tracks could easily go on for 20 minutes...not exactly radio friendly.

Russell has enjoyed something of a renaissance within the last decade (helped most recently by Chris Taylor of Grizzly Bear), and his music certainly merits a re-looking. Here are 3 albums, but there are surely more tracks than you might imagine.

Calling Out of Context

The World of Arthur Russell

The World of Echo

Mighty Mos

Mos Def's solo debut album "Black on Both Sides" is about 10 years old now, and the farther away he gets from it, the less of a blessing and more of a curse it appears to be. What followed was an admirable though terrible attempt at raprock ("New Danger") and a big label stillborn ("True Magic") which was probably as close to an outright disaster as a guy like Mos Def can get.

This sad history makes the awesomeness of "The Ecstatic" a bit unexpected, as it seemed that Mos would never get out of the long shadow he cast a decade ago. The more I think about it, though, the more it becomes clear that he really needed a failure like "True Magic" to free him from the expectations of what a Mos Def album should sound like, because "The Ecstatic" is like nothing you've heard from him before. The beats, produced mainly by Madlib and his cousin Oh No, are bizarre Indian-soul mashups, less whole songs than vignettes, and Mos is likewise loose and uninhibited. The shift into free association madness suits him well, as Mos Def has never been as much a rapper as a vocal performer, able to sing, speak, and shout as the mood demands. And though some will no doubt reject the weirdness and Stones Throwification, still wishing for the long gone Rawkus days, to me it just feels good to use "brave" and "Mos Def" in the same sentence again.

Monday, June 8, 2009


Wale (pronounced Wall-Eh) is a name that's been around DC for a while, but he's starting to emerge on a bigger scale. I have to love this video if only for all the little DC isms. Anyway, he was just profiled in GQ to great praise and he's been featured on a few tracks with the likes of Lil Wayne and the Roots. Worth checking out...


Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Summer Soul

Something about warm weather - as soon as it hits, I just cannot get enough of those 60s/70s soul, R&B singers. So mellow, so smooth. Give me some Otis Redding, Sam Cooke and Jamie Lidell when the sun is shining and the day is set.

Anyway, just thought I would share a few tunes. First, a track from one of my favorite known unknowns, the late great Donny Hathaway (wait till it gets to minute 3 - you will be willing to sell your firstborn to have this man sing to you). I'm throwing his live album up here for your pleasure. And a song from Jamie Lidell melting hearts and knees. I'm linking his first album, Multiply, because if you haven't heard it, you are missing out on one of the best voices around. He did this album by himself, performed it solo like a wacked out mad scientist, and it is a record I keep coming back to (particularly when the sun is out). He put out a second album a year back or so which certainly holds its own, but Multiply is one that is sure to be in my arsenal for years.


Donny Hathaway - Live

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Keepin the Beat Going Strong

The list of songs that make lanky white people like myself want to dance is admittedly and thankfully short. Virtually every song on the Beatles' debut LP, Please Please Me, falls into this category. The Beatles are endlessly covered, oft-imitated, repeatedly name-checked and almost always deified by rock and rollers. Just as I defend Across the Universe on the grounds that Lennon/McCartney is like Rodgers/Hammerstein, I usually defend those imitating the Beatles if I feel they're doing so genuinely.

Such is the case with the Rhodes and their debut album, Modern Sounds from Northern Towns. The Rhodes are four barely-20 youngsters from upstate NY with an ear for backup vocals and a desire to flatter their icons and twist their influences. All the band members sing and all play their instruments with a technical proficiency rare for their age. The album doesn't do justice to the band's live show, which is a solid 40-60 bpm faster per song for good reason and to great success. Nevertheless, their studio album is fun, bouncy, and above all else, pretty gosh darn impressive.

Snap it up before their manager goes gay for the lead singer, the quiet one finds acid, the drummer refuses to sign autographs and the bass player marries a chick with one leg.