Archive for the 'artist/album reviews' Category



What I’m Hearing, Vol. 15

{for last month’s What I’m Hearing, click here}

July’s iPod update was an extremely diverse one, not just for the artists, but for the songs themselves. Taking a new tact, I made July an all mash-up month, checking out some of the ways in which DJs have started taking on the mix and match genre full-throttle. While Danger Mouse helped pioneer it with the Grey Album and AmpLive took it another step with his remixes of Radiohead’s In Rainbows, the mash-up culture is far past those now. But while there is much to be said for the style of Girl Talk where there are more layers than you can reasonably dissect in a listening, I find the club mash-ups utilizing 2 to 3 songs to be a most effective use of the genre. The best news? As all of these are off the grid, they’re all available for download, so follow the links to check the music out for yourself. July’s iPod update included 118 songs.

50 Cent vs. The 50s, DJ Doc Rok: Currently residing in Washington, D.C., DJ Doc Rok’s (djdocrok@gmail.com) work is among the strongest of all artists I heard this month. What’s more is that while he does have a collection of odd mash-ups and various artists, he also sets out to create complete albums of one to two artists. On this album, Rok focuses on all lyrics from 50 Cent songs and combines them with Golden Oldie hits from the R&B and Pop genres. The result? 50 Cent party songs with a touch of flair, moved out of the straight club motif that dominates so many of his songs and saturated with style and soul. Using songs like Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man,” The Four Seasons’ “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” and Booker T. and the MG’s “Green Onions,” Rok flips the 50 acapellas on their head with fantastic result. Definitely my favorite download of the month. Don’t Sleep On: “Rowdy Rowdy/It’s My Party (And I’ll Cry If I Want To),” “Like My Style/One Fine Day,” and “The Good Die Young/Little Susie.”

Best of 2007 (Mash-Up Your Bootz), Various Artists: If you’re looking for a comprehensive blog that provides a vast cross-section of the variety of mash-ups available online, check out Mash-up Your Bootz. They provide comprehensive year-end wrap-up mixes, links to other mash-up sites, and breaking news in the genre. I downloaded both their 2007 and 2008 Best of Mixes and wasn’t disappointed with either. Beck takes on Green Day, AC/DC meets 50 Cent and the Scissor Sisters, Peggy Lee and Iggy Pop collide and Peter Bjorn and John find their whistle backing both Bloc Party and Amy Winehouse. Some of the mashers on this mix include DJ Peaking, DJ Le Clown, CheekyBoy, DJ Lobsterdust, and Party Ben. Perhaps the most pleasant track is by Norwegian Recycling who put together a very simple acoustic mash-up called “How Six Songs Collide” featuring Jason Mraz, Howie Day, Five For Fighting, Angela Ammons, Boyzone, and 3 Doors Down. This one is mirrored nicely with the eerie and melancholy mash of Placebo, Kate Bush and the Pet Shop Boys called, “Love Comes Running Up That Hill Quickly.” Don’t Sleep On: “Young Folks Rehab” by DJ Topcat (Amy Winehouse’s v. Peter Bjorn and John), “Love Comes Running Up That Hill Quickly” by DJ Magnet (Pet Shop Boys v. Placebo v. Kate Bush) and “Break Through Love” by DJ Zebra (The Doors v. Led Zeppelin)

Best of 2008 (Mash-Up Your Bootz), Various Artists: The 2008 mix picks up where 2007 left off and offers an impressive array of very different artists finding their songs blended with people of opposite genres. The album kicks off with Bryan Adams going head to head with Metallica, James Brown duels The Offspring, and Rage Against the Machine gets thrown together with AC/DC, Joan Jett, Queen and Red Hot Chili Peppers. To say that these songs stretch the concept of mashable genres is an understatement. Contributors include Wax Audio, MadMixMustang, DJ Morgoth and Divide and Kreate. Best track has to come when DJ Schmolli brings the haunting guitar lilt of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” and fills it with a slowed down Billy Idol singing “White Wedding.” The result is astounding. Don’t Sleep On: “Wicked Wedding” by DJ Schmolli (Chris Isaak v. Billy Idol v. HIM) “The Low Anthem” by Bass 211 (Flo Rida v. Pitbull) and “Dance Dreams” by Divide and Kreate (Eurythmics v. Lady Gaga)

Michael Jackson: With the unfortunate and untimely death of Michael Jackson last month, I decided to go back and flesh out my Jackson music collection. Sure, I had Thriller and parts of Bad, but I was still missing a large chunk of music from the Jackson 5 days as well as the tracks he did as part of The Jacksons. In all of these outings, Michael’s voice is distinct and easy to pick out, and his energy serves to carry most of the songs. So if you’re looking for some tracks you may not have heard, Don’t Sleep On: “Too Late to Change the Time,” (Jackson 5) “State of Shock,” (The Jacksons) “Another Part of Me” (Michael Jackson)

Jay-Z vs. Led Zeppelin, DJ Doc Rok: By taking the lyrics from Jay-Z’s soundtrack to American Gangster and mashing them with various Led Zeppelin songs, Doc Rok succeeds again in creating an album that can stand on its own. Darker and more subdued than the 50 Cent album, this outing utilizes Zeppelin songs like “Immigrant,” “No Quarter,” “Tangerine,” and “Kashmir.” The result is a new way to think of Jay-Z, liberated from much of the standard hip-hop and rap tracks he’s been tied to, the guitars and gritty classic Rock from Led Zeppelin provide a new canvas which comes off fresh. Don’t Sleep On: “Success/Moby Dick,” “Party Life/I’m Gonna Leave You,” “No Hook/Tangerine”

Party Vol. 25 (Mash-Up Your Bootz), Various Artists: Where the 2007 and 2008 span every genre, what you find most on this party album are mashes primarily utilizing hip-hop, dance and rock. DJ Lobsterdust brings The Police and Coldplay together while DJ BC brings together George Harrison, L’il Kim and Notorious B.I.G. The nice part of this album is that all of it is danceable and will appeal to most anyone on the dance floor. When Gloria Gaynor and Fall Out Boy meet each other at the hands of Mighty Mike, just about anything is possible. Don’t Sleep On: “Get the Day ‘n’Night Started” by Pheugoo (Pink v. Kid Cudi), “Beautiful Journey” by DJ MashUP (Journey v. Akon) and “Lady and the Usher” by Divide and Kreate (Usher v. Ladyhawke)

What I’m Hearing, Vol. 14

{for May’s edition of What I’m Hearing, click here}

Summer months are traditionally good ones for mega pop hits to patrol the radio airwaves, washing out last year’s music and replacing it with something fresh to dance to in the warm weather. May saw some of that, with the new Eminem album, Passion Pit and the Kid Cudi mixtapes. But as June comes to an end and we look towards July, it appears that more of that trend will be upon us shortly. While June’s iPod update didn’t match May’s in quantity, it had everything it needed in terms of quality. 67 songs, over 10 artists, multiple genres. Enjoy!

Black Eyed Peas, The E.N.D.: After “Boom Boom Pow” came out, the Black Eyed Peas ran it into the ground on radio stations, talk shows, award shows and clubs. In fact, as new and futuristic as the song sounded originally, I wouldn’t hesitate to say that it has been thoroughly played out at this point, and that was before the album dropped. While the album title stands for “Energy Never Dies,” I’d actually argue that it stands for the end of the Black Eyed Peas as we know them. When they first hit the scene in 1998 with Behind the Front, the Peas were an unheard of group making fresh hip-hop. The songs walked that line with hints and traces of pop, but for the most part stayed true to form until they were joined by Fergie in 2003 for their Elephunk release. This addition drew them further away from hip-hop, and now, on The E.N.D., all traces of the group the Peas were are gone. Hip-Hop now forms one of the most minute sections of their music, with pop, dance and electronic taking center stage. But it’s almost too much. Will.i.Am’s production is amazing, but also fails to bring any sort of coherent thread to the album. He has no problem proving he can do these various genres and mimic them well, but there seems to be no ability to integrate them into an album that makes sense together. For the most part, I wasn’t a fan as the album just tries to do more than it can, but “Meet Me Halfway,” utilizing a fantastic dance beat and actually showcasing Fergie sounding like a vintage Madonna, is a bit of 80s meets 2009 fantastica. Don’t Sleep On: “Rockin’ The Beat,” “One Tribe,” and “Meet Me Halfway.”

Camp Lo, Stone and Rob Caught on Tape: Camp Lo has had a rough time of it. After their 1997 release, Uptown Saturday Night, the possibilities for Camp Lo appeared limitless. Their flow was good, the beats were steady, and the retro 70s feel of their songs put them in a niche market of hip-hop of their own. The popularity was growing on college campuses, and then, nothing. While they’ve had a few releases since, they were sporadic and failed to capture the attention of listeners. They’ve now returned on a new label with Stone and Rob Caught on Tape, and the sound they bring with them is far different from what listeners of Uptown would expect. The beats are more current and the duo takes on a bit of a harder edge in comparison to the milky flow they used to use. While the long hiatus could have killed the style, Camp Lo has come out on this one slightly changed, but not showing the kind of disconnect from previous music that Black Eyed Peas have. Don’t Sleep On: “Diamond Crookz,” “Gotcha,” and “Ticket 4 2.”

k-os, Yes!: When the album begins with “Zambony,” k-os’s intent is clear. A female voice asks, “Do you have any idea of the chaos you have caused around here? Nobody knows what you’re doing!” To which a man responds, “That’s exactly the way I like it!” And if his musical career is any example, the anonymity, chaos and ability to make whatever music he wants is exactly what he wants. There are a lot of great unknown acts out there, but I don’t think there’s a single one with the kind of track record combined with anonymity that k-os has. For those that haven’t heard, k-os is from Trinidad by way of Canada, turned to vegetarianism by age 8 and was raised by parents who are Jehovah’s Witnesses. More importantly though, he’s released 4 studio albums, all fantastic, spanning numerous genres and styles, and yet he’s still not well known. In fact, he’s not even talked about. Funk, reggae, hip-hop, rock, dance, and R&B all play roles in his music, and Yes! finds him utilizing all of these styles to full and complete advantage. Through Exit, Joyful Rebellion, Atlantis – Hymns for Disco and now Yes! k-os never sells his style short, but doesn’t hesitate to use the things he enjoys. There’s auto-tune here, but not in the over-saturated style of so many artists, merely as a nod and inclusion of a new sound. What’s more is that the album is bundled with remixes of every song by various artists, offering two very distinct musical takes on every track. If you haven’t heard k-os yet, now’s the time. Don’t Sleep On: “Zambony,” “Burning Bridges,” and “I Wish I Knew Natalie Portman.”

Mos Def, The Ecstatic: It’s easy to forget, between the television appearances, the movie roles and his hosting duties that Mos Def has more roots in the music industry than anywhere else. However, he has yet to equal the early success he had on this front since he turned more attention to his screen endeavors. The Ecstatic finds Mos back in hip-hop after a nearly 3 year hiatus following his final record under contract for Geffen Records. And the break has seemed to help. This album seems a bit more grounded in the hip-hop that brought Mos Def to the masses, and less hooked on some of the musical diversions he’s entertained himself with lately. However, the distraction of film and television is evident here. The album seeks to do so much musically that it feels as if Mos is trying to make a CD that will fit in every genre of film or theatre he’s participated in. The result is a mish-mash of sounds that detract from his greatest strength: rapper and crafter of words. On the tracks here where Mos stays focused on the genre, the results are excellent, but in too many cases, he’s trying to bite off more than he can chew, making the album sound almost like a disjointed soundtrack to a movie rather than a full length album from a hip-hop artist three years in the making. While it’s a solid outing, and certainly closer to the mark than True Magic and The New Danger, it still fails to hit on all cylinders like Black on Both Sides. While I think it’s great that Mos Def wants to explore acting and other outlets in addition to hip-hop, his music is at its strongest when he leaves the theatrics out and concentrates on the microphone. Don’t Sleep On: “Quiet Dog,” “History (feat. Talib Kweli)” and “Priority.”

Throw Me the Statue, Creaturesque: Well, I can’t talk about this one yet because it’s not out. But I will say that I’ve heard it and I’m excited to tell y’all about it as soon as I’m allowed to review it.

White Rabbits, It’s Frightening: On the second album from this New York based Indie Rock band by way of Missouri, the sounds are crisp in comparison to the rest of the Indie scene, eschewing fuzz and static for cleaner lines and thumping drums. The guitar sounds here are clear, whether being used for gentle picking in “The Salesman (Tramp Life)” or to carry melody on the Badly Drawn Boy reminiscent “They Done Wrong/We Done Wrong.” The band sounds tight here, with consistent vocals, solid bass backing and drums that drive the songs from start to finish, all nicely sprinkled with piano. For those that like Indie Rock but are a bit tired of the lo-fi, static saturated recordings that have become the norm in the genre, the White Rabbits should provide a nice change of pace. Don’t Sleep On: “Percussion Gun,” “Rudie Fails,” and “They Done Wrong/We Done Wrong.”

For a notable single this month, check out 9:15’s “Just Above My Head.” Fantastic.

Soul Majestic: Groovy Eco-Conscious Reggae

Meet Soul Majestic. Part Jamaican style reggae and part Santa Barbara surf culture, this eclectic collection of activist musicians has come together to make the music that moves them and to promote the causes that stir them.

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The band frequently plays benefit shows meant to rally support for groups promoting promoting peace, environmental education, and the compassionate use of medical marijuana. With the release of their most recent album, Better World (available on iTunes now), and the touring (in their 15-passenger Bio-diesel tour van) to follow, their mission is to raise awareness of global interconnectedness and how people’s actions impact one another and the earth. It’s refreshing to see more bands focus on the positive messages they’re spreading rather than trying to please the masses with radio hits.

What began as the collective vision of Eric Iverson, David Lyons and Brian Jarvis when they met near Santa Barbara soon grew to include Oriana Sanders, a powerful young voice from Los Angeles, and later a handful of vibrant roots musicians. They are now part of LoaTree, an eco-lifestyle collective. As treehugger points out, Soul Majestic empowers the green movement with their music. The lyrics off their new album “ask that each of us take a look at the world around us and choose to empower ourselves to turn things around.”

Want to join their growing family? Have a listen to their groovy sound (or buy some tracks) on their myspace page, check out lyrics on their bandcamp page, follow them on Twitter, or become a fan on Facebook.

It’s encouraging to see such steadfast positivity from upbeat and passionate artists, some of whom have been through very turbulent times. Vocalist Sanders battled Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which we hear more about in “I Rise”. In addition to overcoming struggle, another theme seen in the new album is the importance of family. Lead singer Eric Iverson has a son together with Sanders and several other band-mates have children as well, which they sometimes bring on tour. The Santa Barbara Independent notes that they are friends with Kim and Jack Johnson who “seem to be spearheading the bring-the-kids-on-the-tour-bus movement.”

Easy Star’s Lonely Hearts Dub Band

When you hear the word “cover” what comes to mind? Is it a wedding band singing crowd favorites to fill a dance floor? Is it bad karaoke? One of the more unique ways to cover a song is, of course, to recreate it in a different genre. Think Johnny Cash‘s gorgeous rendition of the NIN classic “Hurt”, the tongue-in-cheek folk-rock cover of “Boyz in da Hood” by Dynamite Hack, or even The Fray‘s cover of Kanye West‘s “Heartless” (or American Idol winner Kris Allen’s version for that matter.) Sometimes, the cover song ends up being better or more popular than the original. Just look at this list of greatest cover songs and you’ll probably be surprised at how many of the covers you thought were the originals!

Well, what if you take not just one song, but rather an entire album and recreate it in a different genre? That is precisely what Easy Star Records has been up to. Take a look:

As mentioned above, in 2003 the Easy Star All-Stars released Dub Side of the Moon, a reggae tribute to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. It went on to become one of the most successful reggae albums of the 21st century and spent over 5 years on Billboard’s Top Reggae Chart. As if that wasn’t enough, they then tackled Radiohead’s OK Computer, putting out RadioDread, which spent 18 months on that same chart (and apparently earned some accolades from Radiohead themselves.) Notice anything that those two classic albums have in common? They are both considered (by some) to be concept albums.

Producer Michael Goldwasser, the musical wizard behind much of the All-Star magic says “We’ve focused on re-envisioning concept albums as reggae and it’s really important that the source material works as a whole and is not just a collection of songs. So, what better to take on next than the mother of all concept albums?” He was referring to the one and only Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. If it’s been a while, here’s an interesting breakdown of the songs. And for the real fanatics among you, a little album art history.

Obviously it takes balls to cover the Beatles, let alone the album considered to be one of the most influential and greatest albums of all time. And yet, in April of 2009, the All-Star’s put out Easy Star’s Lonely Hearts Dub Band. The album features a number of reggae and dub greats including Steel Pulse, Matisyahu, Luciano, and Steel Pulse, along with the usual suspects – the usual suspects being a collection of some of the finest reggae musicians in the New York area.

EasyStarAllStars

What immediately stands out about this album, upon first listen, is how accurately they were able to preserve the vibe of each song. Though each song has been deftly crafted into a vibrant new reggae interpretation of its original, you can almost picture the Beatles nodding their heads in approval in the background because the emotion is the same.

Noteworthy tracks:

Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds – Frankie Paul’s haunting vocals and the psychedelic guitar and effects stand out, deliciously juxtaposed against the mellow dubbed out percussion and keys, giving this track a certain irresistible je ne sais quoi.

She’s Leaving Home – Singer Kirsty Rock’s mellifluous voice soars delicately above the more upbeat ska-infused high hat and brass section. The reggae style keys come and go, a couple of interesting instrumental breakdowns happen unexpectedly and overall the listener is left constantly wondering what’s next.

This album is unique to say the least. Check it out. And while you’re at it, follow the All-Stars on Twitter.

Best of the Live Acts

While fans will listen to CDs, turn on talk shows and read reviews to get to know more about their band, one of the most important facets of the music industry for any group is the live concert. Not only is it one of the largest revenue streams for artists, above the music royalties (although, if you think about it, this is about as twisted as paying 16M a year to Barry Bonds while a teacher or fire fighter makes under 100k), but it’s one of the most seminal ways for an artist to grow their reputation and fan base. Of course, what you hear on a CD that has been produced, mixed, mastered and tweaked by any number of sound professionals isn’t necessarily what the group will be able to present during a live performance, so it makes the judging criteria even tougher for listeners.

Take Hip-Hop for example. 75% of all hip-hop shows I have seen are garbage. Rather than fully rehearsing songs, artists will perform the first verse, maybe two of a song before launching into the next radio single. More often than not, the back-up singers are there because the rappers constantly forget lines and need someone to fill in the gaps for them. Furthermore, rather than put on a show that gets the crowd moving and dancing through sheer enjoyment of the music, most artists will constantly fall back on crowd gimmicks, “Put your hands in the air, wave them back and forth,” and other involvement tools of that nature, forgetting that if they rip the microphone, the audience will do what it feels, which is way more important than having them wave one finger in the air.

But Hip-Hop isn’t the only genre where live performances come up flat. Wide is the range of artists who just can’t translate themselves in a live setting in any way that resembles the studio work that they’ve patched together with the help of numerous technicians and producers. Songs come out unrehearsed, or the band is incapable of reproducing the sound. Even worse is when artists, dealing with personal excess or some sort of stage fright, get completely obliterated with substances on stage and turn into a mess by the end of their set. But who puts on the greatest live act? Is it the group that can seamlessly reproduce their album note for note, or the group that can take something stationary and make it into something much more on stage?

Take for example the Rolling Stones. They’ve been touring for around 40 years now, and I’ve seen them in concert twice. While the crowd is into it simply from a historical and pop standpoint, and I think the energy these guys give, even past their prime and middle age is solid, it doesn’t come off as anything I couldn’t hear by listening to an old recording of theirs. On the far extreme are groups like The String Cheese Incident and Phish, which jam and improv so much in their concerts that one is left to wonder if they even have a CD with tracks on it. But let’s not forget consistency. If you go see three shows by a group, a great group will give you three different shows that were all excellent. But some of the best artists happen to be inconsistent on stage. Take Del the Funky Homosapien for example. He might be one of the most talented lyricists and freestylers in rap, but all the times I’ve seen him, he’s hit or miss. Either he’s on that night and no one on the stage can come close, or he’s not and he fades into the background.

So what makes an incredible live band? In my mind, it needs to be a group that brings energy and presence to the stage. Anyone could get up and sing karaoke on a track, but can you bring that true sense of musician and celebrity to the set? Beyond energy and presence, the group needs to be well-rehearsed. A concert that ends up coming off as un-prepared as an elementary school talent show isn’t giving the fans what they paid to see. There needs to be set diversity (unless someone is doing a full album, but I’ll get to that later.) And finally, they need to be able to present their material in both studio form and a live, extended format.

And all of those things are a lot to live up to. When you consider the fact that these groups go on two month or more tours where they need to pull out all of those factors night in and night out, the type of money made touring starts to make sense. With these things in mind, here’s a list of some of my favorite groups to see live, what makes them great and what could make them better.

GZA: A member of the Wu-Tang Clan, GZA a.k.a. Genius is most known for his solo album Liquid Swords. Knowing this, GZA will, on occasion, do tours where he performs the entire album from start to finish. This is an example of an exception to the set diversity rule in that most people have come to see that entire album. When I saw GZA do this at the Independent and the sound glitched 5 seconds into the second track, he was so intent on giving the audience the full version performance that he had the DJ start over from track one. While his delivery and stage presence isn’t the greatest in this bunch of performers, his preparation and ability to go through an entire album in order is nothing short of impressive for a performer in a genre where most live acts shrink and cut their music as much as possible.

Blue Scholars: This rap duo out of Seattle performed at the same show as GZA and offered a stark contrast in what hip-hop performances can be without lowering the bar. Focusing on a diverse set list derived from their two albums, Blue Scholars brought more stage presence and energy to their set, getting the crowd involved through good music and verbatim vocals. Many rappers seem to forget this when in concert, but most fans know the words to their songs. If they don’t, or they try to change the words, the fans inevitably lose interest and focus. While GZA was flawless through the album, he lacked the same energy that the Scholars brought. This enthusiasm, combined with faithful representations of their work made them an excellent hip-hop show.

Zion I: Hands down the best performers I’ve seen in the hip-hop genre. What’s even better about this rap duo is that they’ve slowly progressed their stage presence. When I first saw them, they were a two man gig, beats and raps. However, as they’ve evolved their sound, they’ve evolved their show and now feature a live drummer, vocalist and keyboard player. They’ve been creating music for the last 10 years, and show incredible set diversity. They use material off their newest album to form the backbone of the show, while sprinkling in old favorites that keep the long-time fans happy. Their energy on set is supreme, with Zumbi rapping with every part of his body and Amp creating every imaginable sound. But more than other hip-hop acts, Zion I isn’t afraid to improvise. Both on beats and lyrics, every show has at least a portion of freestyle, and it doesn’t come out weak. While every hip-hop group I’ve seen has one or two of the characteristics of a good set, only Zion I brings them all together in a hip-hop show that feels more complete than the competition.

Béla Fleck and the Flecktones: This group is a wonder to see in concert. Between their wacky instrumentation (Banjo and Drumitar) and their incredible improv skills, no two concerts are ever the same, and every one is always amazing. But with the range of material they have, it can be hard for the new fan to get involved without knowing some of the songs. The group often does a good job of getting around this by introducing songs and making them accessible, but it can be a bit daunting. More importantly though, these four (Béla Fleck, Futureman, Vic Wooten and Jeff Coffin) are incredibly tight on their instruments, and unbelievably well rehearsed. They can feel the music as they play it, and the result is a palpable energy in the audience.

Dave Matthews Band: If there was ever a band that showed the power of concert revenue and touring in order to engage fans and enlarge a fan base, it’s this one. There’s a lot of back and forth on DMB. For starters, their live shows always pack an energetic crowd, and they always play longer set lists than most live acts (always over 2 hours.) Furthermore, there’s a great mix of songs that are played straight up as they appear on the album, and the improv songs that end up extending upwards of 20 minutes. This not only shows their ability to reproduce the album sound, but also the talent of the musicians that is sometimes constrained in studio recordings. But if there’s one drawback to this group live, it’s that the studio recordings have lost some of their luster in recent years, and the set lists are becoming slowly more filled with new material that is honestly a bit weak. The band doesn’t seem to know this though, putting new songs that sound like shadows of their former creators next to amazing catalog songs that show the band as they were in their prime. It is this drawback, the inclusion of too much new music, that remains this group’s one fault live. It should also be noted that the group tours more than almost any other, and has consistently set records for concert revenue.

Radiohead: Where the Flecktones might improv too much, and Dave Matthews Band relies on old material too little, it is my firm opinion that Radiohead does their shows just right. Old material and new material all find their home in a Radiohead set, and pieces of studio coexist with pieces of improv, demonstrating a remarkably well-rounded band. Radiohead routinely employs some of the most advanced lighting systems in their stage show, bringing both visual and aural entertainment with the price of admission. The Flecktones let their chops do the talking for them, Dave Matthews Band likes to let the Dave speak for them, but Thom Yorke and Radiohead prefer the method of pure, unadulterated energy. Every member of the band is fully engaged, and their energy comes out in their instruments. Old cuts sound re-booted and the new songs rip with electricity, and the preparation of it all oozes through the crowd. In short, when it comes to all of the factors that make a live performance, Radiohead manages to find and balance the important parts of all of them.

In the end though, every fan has a different moment of enjoyment in a live set, and a different set of standards that they hold their bands up to. Some will be happy as long as they play every radio single, while others won’t be happy unless they hear that one song from an album five years ago. Some fans don’t want to know what’s coming next, while others are bored if an improv goes on too long. One thing is certain: it’s only when musical ability, preparation, energy and presence come together on stage that a performance transcends the idea of “concert” and fully realizes the ideal of “live act.”

What I’m Hearing, Vol. 13

{for last month’s new music update, click here.}

What an amazing month for music! May’s iPod update features over 200 songs of genres from shoegazing indie pop to hard core rap. While not all the artists and albums made the cut for this version of What I’m Hearing, the best things did and I’m proud to bring them to you. Furthermore, several of these albums are available for free download and I’ve included the links to them here. New music, download links?! What more could you ask for?

Au Revoir Simone, Still Night, Still Light: When I first reviewed Au Revoir Simone’s 2007 release The Bird of Music (WIH, Vol. 9), I talked about the potential that their sweet sounds could become too sticky without the proper balance. Happily, I can say that on Still Night, Still Light ARS loses none of their charm while actually increasing their skill in finding a nice balance in the electro-indie pop-shoegazer triangle. At times sounding like a slightly more fleshed out Elysian Fields and at others like a less depressed Postal Service, this trio puts out easy tracks that range from joyous to melancholy without missing a beat. The female vocals are breezy, seeming to hang over the music, which through synths, keys and drums all working together, become stronger than on the previous album. ARS seems to have found their musical niche, nicely contrasting the sweet with the bitter, and sounding more comfortable with the balance throughout. Don’t Sleep On: “Shadows,” “Knight of Wands,” and “Another Likely Story.”

Chubb Rock and Wordsmith, A Crack in the Bridge: While hip-hop and rap seems to be on a definitive futuristic trend with the likes of Black Eyed Peas, Kanye West and Kid Cudi surfing the radio waves, this duo out of the East Coast seeks to bring hip-hop back to more standard roots. Relying on tried and true production and lyrics that are more about having a good time than sporting bling, Chubb Rock and Wordsmith have crafted a mixtape prelude to their June release Bridging the Gap that strips away the pretension of hip-hop in favor of sounding good and having fun. Chubb and Wordsmith have a nice contrast to their voices and delivery, an important part of a hip-hop duo. With a deep voice and an almost trudge-like delivery, Chubb Rock sounds patient on the microphone, willing to move with a beat easily. On the other hand, Wordsmith’s voice is higher and his delivery quicker, allowing him to change the feel and tempo of a song simply by rapping. I’ve been listening to Bridging the Gap for about a month now, but you’ll have to come back in June for that review. For now, A Crack in the Bridge provides a sampler of the type of music you can look forward to. Download it by clicking on the album name above. Don’t Sleep On: “Back In,” “Top of the World,” and “The New Street Kings”

Cunninlynguists, Strange Journey, Vol. 1: Cunninlynguists have to be one of the hardest working and simultaneously one of the most under-appreciated hip-hop groups today. Hailing from various parts of the state, the trio of Natti, and producers Kno and Deacon the Villain have released 6 albums since 2001, only actually having them released through a distribution company in 2003. But that hasn’t changed their approach which relies on interesting and introspective lyrics, excellent production and a splash of a grim feeling that it’s not ever going to happen for them mixed with a sense of humor that seems like it doesn’t matter if it does. On the first of two Strange Journey albums, the group looks at life on the road and the state of the music scene among other topics. The retro hooks combined with the modern beats provide the three with a solid foundation for their words, which whether talking about music, women or rapping far outshine anything available on the radio today. Whether you like loops or lyrics, this CD is a hit. Don’t Sleep On: “Don’t Leave (When Winter Comes)” featuring Slug of Atmosphere, “Spark My Soul,” and “Lynguistics,” a live version of one of their most well known songs.

Del the Funky Homosapien, Stimulus Package: The good news? Del’s got a new full-length album out, and it’s free (click on the album name above for the download link.) The bad news? For fans accustomed to the cohesive whole of Future Development (production help from Opio and A-Plus), the visionary approach on Deltron 3030 (produced by Dan the Automator) or the stellar lyrics that grace his work with Hieroglyphics, Stimulus Package is going to fall short. And the problem is that this kind of collapse is completely avoidable for Del. When at his strongest, Del’s intensity on the mic and ability to craft ridiculously great lyrics make him one of the best rappers on wax. However, all too often (this album and The 11th Hour as examples) Del isn’t content to just be on the microphone and opts to pursue the full musical production on the album as well. This is a mistake. It’s not to say that Del’s production is bad, but it is stagnant. There’s nothing much new in the beats here. For the most part, the tracks feel like repackaged West Coast beats from the ‘90s. Now if that were the case and the rapping remained vintage Del, the beats wouldn’t make a difference. But instead, the focus on production seems to detract from his focus on his rapping, and Del comes off sounding almost generic as a result. One need only look to his best work to see that he’s at the top of his rapping game when the lyrics and flow are his focus. His rapping on last year’s N.A.S.A. album outpaces anything contained here, and my hope is to see him collaborate with other producers on future work, because when he’s at his best lyrically, he’s virtually untouchable. Don’t Sleep On: “Hardcore Punks Can’t Take It,” “And They Thought That Was Hell,” and “Get It Right Now!”

Eminem, Relapse: I’ve read a lot of press both positive and negative on this album. Fortunately for my review, I had been listening to Relapse for about a week before it came out, so I was able to form my own judgments without extra media input. There’s no question that this album isn’t Eminem’s best work, which could be construed as a letdown following a four year hiatus that saw him become entangled in drugs and struggling through a lengthy rehab process during which he OD’d and almost died. But there are tracks here that showcase Eminem at his lyrical best. What’s important to consider on this album is that Eminem has found his own perspective stuck between the Slim Shady and Ken Kaniff characters. At times, he’s clearly being silly because he thinks there’s nothing else he can do. But the ridiculousness on this album in such tracks as “3 AM” and “My Mom,” actually serve to attempt to draw attention away from the other tracks. On “Medicine Ball” and “Undergound,” Eminem is back to his full bark, maniacally working his way through outrageous tongue twisters at breakneck pace. And on “Déjà Vu,” Eminem produces one of the most poignant and introspective songs of his career in dealing with his overdose. With a second album slated for release sometime in the next few months, it will be interesting to see which side of Eminem gets more exposure. One can only hope it’s the real Eminem, the one from the freestyle battles, ferocious intensity and introspective lyrics. It is this Eminem, stripped away from the silly accents, high-pitched lyrics and juvenile ideas that produces the best work, and there are certainly glimpses of that on Relapse for anyone ready to look past the radio singles. Don’t Sleep On: “Déjà Vu,” “Underground,” and “Old Time’s Sake” featuring Dr. Dre.

Hanne Hukkelberg, Blood From A Stone: Hailing from Kongsberg, Norway, Hukkelberg continues the trend of obscure Scandinavian singer-songwriters finding a home in the musical lexicon of the States. In contrast to her Swedish counterpart Lykke Li, Hukkelberg’s sounds are less playful and much more subdued, serious and sparse. With light percussion and haunting melodies, Hukkelberg lets her voice drape over the tracks like a singer in a smoke filled jazz club. Her lyrics are emotionally gripping and in combination with the music make the listener feel as if they’re being personally addressed. Don’t Sleep On: “Seventeen,” “Bandy Riddles,” and “Blood From a Stone.”

Kid Cudi, Dat Kid From Cleveland: Normally, I’m not a fan of mixtapes. Seemingly half-thrown together beats, freestyle lyrics that typically fall short of par, and the main question: what does this have to do with anything? For the most part, you can count on one or two excellent tracks and some filler on these outings. This is why I was pleasantly taken aback with Dat Kid From Cleveland. I had heard of Kid Cudi through the usual street/radio buzz, and so when a friend sent me this mixtape, to say I was skeptical would be an understatement. But here, on well-crafted and nicely sampled beats ranging from Dr. Dre to De La Soul to trance music, Cudi brings a sense of energy to his flow. The result is a collection of tracks that could easily be a full album release with a little polish. And the best part? It’s free. Also good to know is that Cudi is talking about a collaboration with Evolving Music favorite Ratatat. Stay tuned. Don’t Sleep On: “Rollin'” featuring Jackie Chain, “’09 Freestyle,” and “She Came Along” featuring Sharam.

Meanderthals, Desire Lines: In the case of the Meanderthals, the album name of Desire Lines could easily have been the band name as well. While the tone of this disc is certainly relaxed, the group has a little more focus in their musical direction than one might think from their name. This is a collection of tracks featuring a wide array of instrumentation from acoustic guitars to steel drums to drum machines and hand claps. The result is a mash-up that I can only think to term “Lounge-Tropic,” a meeting place of sounds that could easily be found in a smoky backroom of a cocktail lounge or drifting calmly across the beach on an island resort. While only 7 tracks, Desire Lines provides a set perfect for the lazy days of summer. The music is light and airy, and despite the variety of sounds, never feels overly dense or impenetrable. Grab your favorite boat drink, find your most peaceful place in the sun and enjoy. Don’t Sleep On: “Andromeda (Prelude to the Future),” “1-800-288-Slam” and “Bugges Room.”

Passion Pit, Manners: Taking generously from dance, pop and electronica, Passion Pit has emerged from Massachusetts and released a very solid product that can play in the great outdoors of summer or the confines of a dance club. New Rave, 80s power pop and electro-synth all find a home here to give lead singer Michael Angelakos delicious mosaics to howl over. Up-beat drums, crunchy bass lines and frolicking sheets of synthesizers all join forces to create simple and energetic songs that carry vocal and chorus parts that feel like they’re going to break free at any moment from their Earthly anchor and find the stars. While I wouldn’t listen to this album on repeat simply because the pop motif might wear thin, as a tempo change or a dance song in the right context, any song on this album can bring a sense of joy to the listener. More importantly, with sporadic listening, the songs reveal a few new tricks each time through. Don’t Sleep On: “Little Secrets,” “Make Light,” and “The Reeling.”

Rhymefest, Man in the Mirror: More surprising than one hip-hop mixtape in a monthly music update? Two. But here, Rhymefest has succeeded in creating a collection of songs that overflow with positive vibes and solid rapping. The premise here, as indicated by the album title, is a salute to Michael Jackson, as various songs from his history are sped up, slowed down or otherwise mashed to provide the backdrop for the rap. This is a must listen for any Michael Jackson fan, if only to see how the old classics sound freshened up with hip-hop, and a necessary mixtape for any hip-hop aficionado for the creative use of something else to form a breathing set of tracks. Mark Ronson provides the production. Don’t Sleep On: “Man in the Mirror,” “Foolin’ Around,” and “Coolie High” featuring Camp Lo.

What I’m Hearing, Vol. 12

For the new music recommended in March, click here.

Hard to believe it, but this is the 1 year anniversary of the “What I’m Hearing” posts. Last April, I embarked on a mission to bring quality music, both mainstream and not, to readers looking to expand their musical vocabulary beyond the monosyllabic songs pumped ad nauseum from radio towers across the nation. As has been the trend, this month is no exception to the rule as I found a good number of fantastic new artists. As always, all of these artists can be found on iTunes for purchase. This month’s iPod update consisted of 63 songs spanning hip-hop, DIY and electronic. Enjoy!

Brother Ali, The Truth is Here: Originally introduced to the underground hip-hop scene by Slug of Atmosphere, Brother Ali has worked with producer Ant and had his albums released by hip-hop stalwart Rhymesayers. A converted Muslim and Caucasian albino, Ali frequently faced questions of his race early on due to voice, delivery and moniker. On The Truth is Here, his fourth studio album, Ali uses alternatively jazzy and bumping Ant produced beats to explore issues of race, social and economic divides and his adjustments to life in light of his growing success. While 9 full length tracks, this album is billed as an EP preceeding a full album release to come this fall. One thing is certain, the disc doesn’t listen like an EP. Thoughtful, introspective and lyrically deft lyrics keep the listener entertained while Ant’s production of top-notch songs outshines the cookie-cutter beats saturating mainstream hip-hop. Ali’s style varies from aggressive spitting on tracks like “Philistine David ” to laid back delivery on the album’s opener, “Real As Can Be.” Beyond all of this, Ali’s scope encompasses a variety of questions with universal significance. When he asks, “Can you tell me, what language do you laugh in?/The human reaction of smiles and cries/what language are the tears when they’re falling from your eyes?” it is not a question intended to divide in the style of Babel, but rather to point out the similarities we share as humans. An intelligent, varied and musical foray into hip-hop. Don’t Sleep On: “As Real As Can Be,” “The Believers” (feat. Slug) and “Good Lord.”

Filastine, Dirty Bomb: Formerly a member of ¡Tchkung! out of Seattle, Grey Filastine, upon the break-up of the group, has gone on to explore global sounds in experimental electronica. On his February release, Dirty Bomb, Filastine mashes glitch, hip-hop and industrial with sounds from Asia, Europe and the Middle East, including cameos from overseas musicians. The textures are dense and layered, sheets of sound that have no one city of origin, making this album a true global citizen. Hand drums, zithers and traditional chants find themselves side by side with throbbing bass lines and electric blips, all finding their places here in the hands of a producer adept at finding harmony between cross-cultural sounds. While some of the tracks can become repetitive, the majority are well fleshed out and driving. In “Singularities,” the beat is built up, deconstructed and then slammed back down in grimy fashion, an example of excellent production that runs throughout the album. Don’t Sleep On: “Singularities,” “Strategy of Tension,” and “Bitrate Sneers.”

Harmonic 313, When Machines Exceed Human Intelligence: Under the pseudonym Harmonic 313, producer Mark Pritchard has released an album of spacey and electronic music. Interesting about the tracks here is that they range greatly from straight ahead ambient electronica to tracks that sound like J Dilla beats blended with Kraftwerk’s Trans-Atlantic Express on acid. Using sonic pulses, computer blips and beeps and thick bass, Pritchard crafts an album that sounds almost entirely machine created, as if a hard drive rather than a human is behind the composition. Even vocals go hardwired on “Word Problems,” where a children’s spelling computer game serves as the spoken medium. Don’t Sleep On: “Call to Arms,” “Falling Away” (feat. Steve Spacek) and “Köln”

Peter Björn and John, Living Thing: Following a two year hiatus after 2005’s Writer’s Block, punctuated only by a digital only release limited to 5,000 US copies in 2006 (Seaside Rock), PB&J have returned with the March release of their 5th full length album. It has been a busy 4 years for the group as they climbed the ladder of musical notoriety through the ubiquitous hit “Young Folks.” They’ve gone on to be featured on hip-hop mixtapes and make all sorts of late night talk show rounds. While there are no comparable tracks on this album, it nonetheless provides more of the same feel. Tracks range from optimistic up-tempo to slow and melancholy utilizing various levels of production quality. The positive is that the success of “Young Folks” hasn’t spawned an album of copycats. These are original and show the trio expanding their sound, bringing in slightly more electronic drum programming at points. The album’s clear winner, “Nothing to Worry About,” is an about-face from “Young Folks,” female vocalist replaced with a chorus of distorted children at full volume and a funky bass line complimented by drums echoing off the inside walls of the song. A solid outing without going stale. Don’t Sleep On: “Nothing to Worry About,” “Just the Past,” and “It Don’t Move Me.”

Röyksopp, Junior: Big since their debut album in 2001, the fittingly titled Junior is only the 3rd release from Röyksopp in 8 years. And, given the shift in style between Melody A.M. and The Understanding, what happened next was of a great deal of interest. Turns out, the duo has managed to find a middle ground between the two, with various tracks exemplifying the more mellow and sugary aspects of Melody (“Happy Up Here”) and the more polished and electro-heavy Understanding (“Röyksopp Forever.”) The album retains the precision and vision of the duo’s work, bringing in female vocalists, chill melodies at times and electric tweaks that made “Eple” so popular. Don’t Sleep On: “Happy Up Here,” “Vision One,” and “Silver Cruiser.”

The tUnE-YaRds, Bird Brains: DIY. A term that, in an age of bloggers, home studios, and rising costs in all sectors has come to be a badge of honor and distinction. But there’s DIY music, and then there’s the unreal, experimental and phenomenal Bird Brains from The Tune-Yards (capitalization varies depending on site), aka Merrill Garbus. If what I’ve heard is true, Garbus crafted this entire album using small recorders and computer programs available through shareware. The result is a gritty, honest and surprising album that takes lo-fi to a new level. With a distinct and quirky voice, Garbus backs herself with drums and percussion sounds like something being slammed against a hard surface, ukulele and an entire arsenal of found sounds like kids playing in a park, birds chirping outside a window and conversations with a child. At times, the recording equipment’s range is tested as you can hear it clip, but this only adds to the allure of the tracks. Take Björk, mix her with Seu Jorge’s acoustic live recordings for The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and then juice the entire blend with a sense of creativity large enough to view the world around it as an instrument and you have the Tune-Yards. Nothing is out of bounds here. Spoons on glasses, discussions of blueberries, and steps on wooden stairs are just some of the interesting sounds turned music. One can only hope that follow up efforts will be equally beautiful in their range and direction. Don’t Sleep On: “For You,” “News,” and “Little Tiger.”

So that’s it for April. Chubb Rock and Wordsmith, new Del the Funky Homosapien and a ton of other new music is coming in May, so stay tuned, and keep your listening intelligent.


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