Posts Tagged 'pop'

What I’m Hearing, Vol. 16

{For the music I was listening to in July, click here.}

Well, once again I’m a bit tardy and we have the music I was listening to in August being posted on the first day of September. But, better late than never, and the August music, while a bit late, is pretty spectacular. The August iPod update covers 94 songs from 7 artists (yes, a lot of full album downloads this month), and stayed largely (and surprisingly) away from Hip-Hop. So, without further ado, here’s what I’m hearing lately.

As Tall As Lions, You Can’t Take it With You: Having been kicking around in various formats since 2001, ATAL has released their third album. The band, originally from New York but recording a good portion of work in Chicago, flirts with rock, Indie and folk in darker soundscapes. The sometimes low, sometimes high or falsetto voice of lead singer Dan Nigro works with lyrics often dealing with depression or anxiety over brooding tracks. Through all of these songs, a feeling of being trapped somehow persists, with snips of guitar rifts floating through deep bass lines or horns whispering in the background. But despite this, the melancholy at times reaches crescendos that speak of freedom through misery. At other points, ATAL is a runaway train of energy on a track like “In Case of Rapture,” where the drums keep a frenetic pace. Don’t Sleep On: “Sixes and Sevens,” “We’s Been Waitin,” and “Home Is Where You’re Happy”

Beats Antique, Tribal Derivations: Fusing old and new, Beats Antique uses World and specifically Eastern-inspired music while adapting it to Western downtempo, glitch and hip-hop. Indian chants, thick stand-up bass, lightly picked harps, sitars and other string instruments are thrown in the pot with tablas and hand drums, frequently to be sprinkled with drum machines and electronic effects. The result is an album with driving, lounging or club music. In some cases you can imagine the hookah smoke drifting around you as dancers move slowly to the tunes, while in others you can imagine a dark lounge. On “Derivation,” they take portion of melody from “Summertime,” and pepper it with a digeridoo and deep drums. If you’re a fan of World music, this is an album for you. Don’t Sleep On: “Derivation,” “Intertwine,” and “Discovered.”

Fruit Bats, The Ruminant Band: After working on the fringes of music, Eric D. Johnson, the frontman of the Fruit Bats, signed with Sub Pop in 2002 and have been labeled by music publications as “Zoology Rock,” “Boot-Gazer,” and “rustic pop.” The Ruminant Band is their 5th studio release and offers a sunny panoply of pastoral and easy to listen to (which is not the same as easy listening) rock tracks that feel like they could have come out of another era. Up-beat acoustic guitars back moving guitar riffs, piano dances playfully across the spectrum and Johnson’s voice, high and plaintive, is reminiscent of some of Led Zeppelin’s tracks. The tracks are on the shorter side, content to bring the listener along, get the idea across and move onto something else without brooding on one sound. An upbeat album perfect for a ride or camping trip, early mornings in the sunshine and dusty backroads. Don’t Sleep On: “Beautiful Morning Light,” “Primitive Man,” and “Singing Joy to the World.”

M.R. Shajarian, Night Silence Desert: Where Beats Antique took traditional music and mixed it with new themes, M.R. Shajarian stays strictly classic here in his World music. The tracks are light on percussion and heavy on atmosphere, with songs that feel as if they’re literally drifting away into the night of a desert. The instrumentation is skilled, an almost Middle East Béla Fleck sound permeating many of the tracks. Don’t Sleep On: “Silence of the Night (Sokout-e-Shab),” “Rain (Baroun),” and “Setar Instrumental (Torgheh)”

The Morning Benders, Talking Through Tin Cans: Berkeley natives The Morning Benders, who recently garnered “Best Of” for a local band in the yearly San Francisco round up are a pleasant mixture of rock and Indie pop without trying to be too much of either. The songs are laid back and pleasant melodically. Simple drums, guitars, a Rhodes and tambourines paint a picture of sunny California in much the same way the Beach Boys did, but with urban flare and a nod to slightly less-polished pop. Like the Shins without the depression, The Morning Benders are a group to keep an eye out for over the next few years. Don’t Sleep On: “Waiting for a War,” “Boarded Doors,” and “Wasted Time.”

Oumou Sangare, Seya: Hailing from Mali, Sangare weaves traditional African hunting songs with lyrics of social criticism attacking the position of women and marriage in the society, among others. Seya is her first album release since 2004 and it is full of sound. The rhythms and melodies of her native land meet superbly with her voice which is smooth and slightly musky. The arrangements are lively and moving, and as her voice soars over the songs, you don’t need to speak her language to hear her emotion. Don’t Sleep On: “Kounadya,” “Senkele Te Sira,” and “Wele Wele Wintou.”

Owl City, Maybe I’m Dreaming/Ocean Eyes: Adam Young is the one man behind Owl City. He started making music to combat insomnia, and the tracks carry an energized dreaminess that speaks to the line between dusk and dawn. Fans of Postal Service will recognize his electric and synth symphonies, while fans of Death Cab for Cutie and Postal Service will find in Young an eerily identical voice to Ben Gibbons. Young is soothing, his melodies are light and sound pure, and his balance between sweet sentimentality and sad longing creates almost a joyous balance between joy and pain. For some, these tracks might be too syrupy, but for others, a slightly more electronic and upbeat Postal Service will be just the delivery they need. Maybe I’m Dreaming is a 2008 release and Ocean Eyes from 2009. Don’t Sleep On: “Fireflies,” (video below), “The Technicolor Phase,” and “On the Wing.”

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Tra.kz Artist Spotlight: The Dance Party (“Sasha Don’t Sleep”)

TDPressPic

Sasha Don’t Sleep” is a track off of The Dance Party’s new tour EP titled “Tiger” coming out this Spring. They’re one of DC’s mega cool indie bands and also becoming a staple in the New York rock scene. Their gigs may be spreading across America but when The Dance Party puts on a show on at home, DC doesn’t sleep. A Dance Party show is a fun & exciting night of outta control rock and roll. You heard me. Check ’em out but be prepared for the addiction.

The Dance Party is a high-energy rock group from Washington, DC. With a sound that combines Dance-Punk, 80’s New Wave, and Powerpop, The Dance Party created a buzz throughout DC and the Mid-Atlantic with their frenetic live performance and hook-laden debut album, “Friction! Friction! Friction!”

The Dance Party recently recorded 10 tracks with Andros Rodriguez at the helm (Justin Timberlake, Cobra Starship, !!!). With a host of shows booked and new songs yet to be released, the band is positioned for rock & roll domination.

The new material demonstrates the band’s strengths – undeniably catchy pop songs executed with an over-the-top delivery, guaranteed to cause the uncontrollable desire to throw caution to the wind and get radical on the dance floor.” – blurb taken from The Dance Party MySpace Music Page.

What I’m Hearing, Vol. 7

Did you miss last month’s tasty audio? Never fear, click here.

October’s iPod update is a fantastic affair featuring 79 songs. It had a few older singles that I was recently turned on to, as well as some excellent new music from various genres. As we head towards the end of the year, keep your ears on for some of the huge and blockbuster album that are sure to be coming at us as the holidays approach.

Apollo Sunshine, Shall Noise Upon: This is the 3rd offering from Apollo Sunshine, a northeast trio that has made a habit of infusing new indie and rock music with retro themes. The light melodies and easy vocals go hand in hand with melodic and uplifting musical flourishes. Steely guitar in places, harmonized singing, use of woodwinds and basic drum beats can range in style here from unapologetic roadhouse rock songs (“Brotherhood of Death”) to melancholy drifters that border on an old Western soundtrack (“Fog and Shadow.”) But regardless of the style they employ, from top to bottom Apollo Sunshine has crafted an album that feels right on all levels. Don’t Sleep On: “The Funky Chamberlain (Who Begot Who),” “Money,” and “The Mermaid Angeline” which should find its way to a Wes Anderson film at some point.

Black Milk, Tronic: Rather than repeat anything about this album here, click this link for the album review.

Devin the Dude, Landing Gear: On his 5th album, Devin the Dude takes his recognizable laid back flow and infuses his beats with a bit more pop and energy than in previous outings. Never one to take himself too seriously, though, Devin slides through these tracks with ease, his voice consistently feeling like warm tea to a sore throat. Where other rappers yell, the Dude whispers, and where others bark, he glides. The best parts of this album are where DD doesn’t stray too far from this ideal, keeping mellow beats and silky smooth vocals on tracks you can kick your feet up to. His lyrics are simple and easy to understand, and the delivery makes you feel like DD is rapping right in your living room. Don’t Sleep On: “I Can’t Make it Home,” “Highway,” and “I Need a Song.”

Jake One, White Van Music: On his first solo album, Jake One takes hip-hop by the ears and shakes it around. The beats here are varied and layered, showing fantastic production ranging from deep bass rider tracks to spaced out 90s gangsta rap cuts. Some focus on pleasant vocal samples while others rely on heavy hitting beats. The strongest point of this album is that it never falls too far into one hip-hop genre over another… Jake One uses them all to great effect. Joined by a crew of well known rappers (Busta Rhymes, Black Milk, M.O.P., Brother Ali, Little Brother, Posdnuos, MF Doom, Casual, eLZhi, Pharoahe Monch, Kardinal Offishall, Royce da 5’9″ and Keak da Sneak) Jake One makes his debut album a memorable one that should be considered as one of the best complete hip-hop albums of the year. Don’t Sleep On: “Home,” “Soil Raps,” and “Oh Really.”

Doomtree, Doomtree: Click here for my interview with Doomtree. Doomtree seeks to answer the question, “What do you get when you mix 5 very different MCs with 4 very different DJs?” And it appears from their debut album that the answer is everything. On this lengthy and diverse 21 track freshman album, this group out of Minnesota spans the genre of hip-hop, never afraid to bring in something different or new. While some tracks stick to the straight ahead style, others incorporate sounds of rock or jazz. With the various artists on the mic, you can often forget that you’re still listening to the same album. If there’s one drawback to the diversity here it’s that there is never one coherent image or sound that defines the group, although, one would think from the presentation that that’s exactly how Doomtree likes it. Be on the lookout for solo albums from this collective in the months to come. Don’t Sleep On: “Sadie Hawkins,” “Gameshow Host,” and “Kid Gloves.”

Madlib, WLIBAM – King of the Wigflip: Madlib’s influence in hip-hop over the past decade has been pronounced. Through collaborations with J Dilla, Mos Def and De La Soul among others, Madlib has created a body of work that touches just about every corner of the hip-hop genre. Never afraid to branch out with a new sound, Madlib seems to draw his best work from never settling into one role, and never fearing to tackle all aspects of the production process, from DJing to MCing. This album is the latest in the “Beat Generation Series” from Barely Breaking Even Records which has previously seen incarnations under the hands of J Dilla, Marley Marl, DJ Jazzy Jeff, will.I.am and King Britt, among others. While I honestly couldn’t get into the entirety of this album, there are a few tracks that demonstrate that whether you like everything he does or not, Madlib remains on top of his game and respected by his peers. Don’t Sleep On: “The Thang-Thang,” “Blow the Horns on ‘Em,” and Go!”

Singles: These songs didn’t get full write-ups as part of an artist or album, but they are excellent singles nonetheless. “Electric Feel” by MGMT, “Please Believe” by Longshot and “Paper Planes (DFA Remix)” by MIA.

What I’m Hearing, Vol. 5

For July’s update, click here.

So, while this post comes early September, make no mistake, this is the breakdown of the August playlists. It was a fine update, featuring 13 artists (not including Indiefeed Hip-Hop artists, thanks to Dirty Dutch, good look on the playing) from several continents and a slightly ridiculous 249 songs. That being said, a lot of the music was looking backwards, a hip-hop retrospective spurred by the stellar line-up unleashed at Rock the Bells at Shoreline. So I’m not going to break down old favorites like De La Soul, Nas and Rakim other than to say if the names sound new to you or you haven’t heard the old albums, it’s time to do some crate digging. This update did some traveling in both time and distance, but also had some brand new things from right here at home. That being said, enjoy.

Amadou Balaké, Señor Ecléctico: This 2008 re-issue of this African born singer’s earlier work is a raw and beautiful collection of 70’s recordings displaying a wide range of musical styles and explorations. The album moves along at a very pleasant pace and features an undiluted exuberance and musical and vocal harmony fusing summery world music that can at times sound too pre-packaged in today’s world releases. Lilting guitars, solid horns, funky bass and solid drumming all share the stage. Some tribal, some soul, some funk and some reggae all permeate here in equal parts to make for a fantastic mixmatch of sounds that is often enhanced by the lo-fi quality. Don’t Sleep On: “Djeli Fama,” “Mousso Be Torola,” and “Kambele Ba.”

Black Kids, Partie Traumatic: If you haven’t heard of this group yet, you’ve missed this summer’s indie media darling. This Florida spun band featuring a brother and sister revels in the punk pop and retro synth movement with solid walls of guitar and a mixture of male and female leads. While they originated right here, they recorded and broke out across the pond and opened for another artist we dig over here, Cut Copy. While some of their pop tricks fit perfectly in songs that go great on repeat, others stretch to points of annoyance including a chant straight out of Wizard of Oz. All in all though, the album brings the mesh together and produces several dance and bursting with excitement tracks that have trouble staying contained in the speaker. Don’t Sleep On: “Hit the Heartbrakes,” “Hurricane Jane,” and the vibrant and danceable “I’m Not Gonna Teach Your Boyfriend How to Dance With You (The Twelves Remix).”

Buika, Niña de Fuego: The raspy voice of this Latin Jazz chantreuse takes on 13 tracks of various tempo and emotion, all to incredible results. Soft spoken bass parts, muted drums, delicate guitars and understated piano provide beautiful backdrops over which Buika’s voice soars, painting a variety of musically engaging pieces. Even though I can’t understand a word she’s saying, and therefore probably lose much of the poetry offered on this album, the range from smoky romantic tunes to unrestrained and energetic tracks aid a variety of places and moods. Don’t Sleep On: “Culpa Mia,” “Arboles de Agua,” and “Mentirosa.”

Cao Fang: While I only went for some singles from this Chinese pixie popster that made the leap into US consciousness on the back of a GE commercial, many people will go in for the full albums, of which she has two. Sharing our friend Scott’s enjoyment of the Melodica, Fang brings an airy and light voice to pleasant and soothing melodies. Don’t Sleep On: “Scarecrow in the City,” “Icy is a Gentlewoman,” and “Orange Juice.”

Hanggai, Introducing Hanggai: I first heard about this group reviving parts of Mongolian folk music and mixing it with rock and pop influences from Pitchfork. But while I got to read about them in July, for some reason iTunes didn’t have them for me until August….they were worth the wait. The use of throat singers, lute player and fiddle (horse-hair mind you!) creates an album that is at times a bit unaccessible for some, but at others an extremely enjoyable ride. Don’t Sleep On: “My Banjo and I,” “Flowers,” and the next big bar “Drinking Song.”

Murs and 9th Wonder, Sweet Lord: Little Brother alum and star in his own right 9th Wonder uses his signature soulful and retro hip-hop beats to collaborate once more with Murs of Living Legends. What’s more intriguing about this one is the tie to other Internet freebie releases from Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails, what was termed a gift to their fans. The album rips, Murs spitting incessantly over beats that never fail to engage. But don’t take my word for it. Go download it for free!

When Vampire Strikes

Vampire WeekendConsidering the next band pretty much got its start in the blogosphere, I’m a little late to the party on this one. But I don’t think tardiness has ever stopped me from enjoying myself. And besides…good music can always use publicity. “Blog Bands” as they’re known, groups that achieve status and reputation through the postings and writings of people who have heard them, are steadily on the rise. Even for the groups that get out to tour, have word of mouth and sign a deal, cyberspace writings, tags and search engine results are becoming more and more important to up and coming ensembles. Our friend Scott Reitherman and his group Throw Me the Statue provides a good example of how a few well placed authors and blog articles can help influence the rise of a smaller local group. I’ll also mention that the rise of this next group, in addition to their styles of music, breadth of their album, resemblance to some excellent groups of the past and ability to mix these things together make them perfect fodder for this blog. In 2007, Vampire Weekend started making some noise with a single or two. Coming out of New York (having all met at Columbia), this foursome (Ezra Koenig – guitar/vocals, Rostam Batmanglij – keyboard, Chris Tomson – drums, and Chris Baio – bass guitar) eventually signed a record contract and on January 29th put out their debut eponymous album. And I’m going to tell y’all something…it’s hot.

Most readers here will know my long standing opinion of pop and radio music. So when I say that this group’s 11 track, 34 minute pop inflected album is an achievement, some might think I’m joking. But this group becomes the next in a long line of musicians who have been able to take completely different musical styles and weave them into a cohesive tapestry that can absorb a listener. They also have a knack for emulating the 80s wave of Paul Simon‘s Graceland album, some of the Talking Heads‘ tracks and Peter Gabriel in bringing seemingly incongruous world music into the mix and making it downright fun to listen to, regardless of musical preferences. The album is so diverse in its sound, yet tied to the simpler and shorter blueprints of pop music that I can imagine any listener finding moments of happiness in all the songs, even if the style of one is more enjoyable to them than others. Furthermore, the simple yet poetic lyrics are easy to listen to, sing along with and understand. The group dubs themselves as artists of numerous genres that they’ve mixed and matched, including “Upper West Side Soweto.”

The album kicks off with “Mansard Roof,” an up tempo song leaning towards the indie rock spectrum of things. On first listen, one finds a graceful, short and moving song. On repeated listening, the less noticeable instrumentation becomes more prominent and provides a hint of just what’s in store on the rest of the album: a group of intelligent and accomplished musicians bringing numerous genre sensibilities to all of their songs. On “Oxford Comma,” a simple and out front drum beat backs an almost 50s sounding simple organ-like melody with a simple lead vocal track that ascends to moments of joyous falsetto. The guitar solo is simple and happy, never becoming too enamored with itself or too complex to enjoy. On “A-Punk,” the group takes on punk sounds reminiscent of the Ramones and Sex Pistols, yet again infuses it with a more manageable and less abrasive pop flavor. The end result is a mash-up that I’ve decided to call island punk.

“Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” brings out numerous styles. At the beginning, you can hear the South African/Congol rhythms that conjure memories of Graceland. The lightly spaced and simple lyrics keep the sound light before exploding into a chorus where lead singer Ezra Koenig elevates his voice into a simultaneously exuberant and pleading rasp. “M79” moves into a peppy keyboard and string style that would fit perfectly on a Wes Anderson soundtrack. This style is backed with lyrics that oscillate between Simon and Garfunkel in the verses to Talking Heads in the chorus. Throughout, the strings and keyboards play melody and scale style, accentuating and reinforcing the infectious tune. Finally, the bridge brings to mind New Order‘s “Bizarre Love Triangle” further deepening the pool of influences this band pulls from. Now, I know what you have to be thinking at this point…there’s no way this group sounds like all of these things, and this author is just looking for an excuse to name drop. I assure you this is not the case. Somehow Vampire Weekend has managed to take all of these various influences and fuse them together in a style uniquely their own.

“Campus” continues to vary the feel of the album while returning to the indie core that connects the majority of their tracks. The staccato lead up to the frenetic chorus is an instantly attainable indie pop that also brings to mind a Killers tune on Xanax. “Bryn” comes out with a moving and again South African influenced guitar before settling into a verse structure with simple poetry influences backed by an easy bass line and drum rim shots. The poetry falls into place as Koenig sings, ” Lights by the ocean/A westerly motion that moves California to sea/Eyes like a seagull/No Kansas-born beetle could ever come close to that free.”

“One” is the one track on the album that falls a bit flat for me. While it’s sure to have its admirers, the song illustrates the lone time on the album that the heights Koenig attempts to reach just don’t quite work. The simple bass and video game like beeps and blips bring the song back from that, but the repetition of the chorus keeps this song a bit stagnant. “I Stand Corrected” shows a more somber side to the group. While the tempo kicks in with drums after about 30 seconds, the tone of the song and Koenig’s lyrics seem sadly apologetic. The strings in the background help keep this more subdued aura intact despite the driving beat. “Walcott” starts out with a frenzied wall of sound approach before settling into a verse segment that beautifully integrates more strings, this time in a style and structure hinting at the Beatles‘ “Eleanor Rigby.” Its force and motivation to “get out of Cape Cod tonight” bring to mind a fleeting and almost pleading joy at the release captured in the unstoppable train of the last 40 seconds. This ends abruptly leading into the album’s finale, “The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance,” which again captures strings and a well orchestrated band underneath lyrics accentuated with an ABCB rhyme scheme. The trilling instrumental segment at the end of the song provides a lush and fitting fadeout to this incredibly diverse album.

This record and group, while only in their infancy stage in terms of release and recognition, do an amazing job at showing that pop music doesn’t need to be denigrated and reduced to the meaningless lyrics and heartlessly packaged cookie cutter sounds that pervade the radio air waves. It demonstrates that when done correctly, the mixing of pop sense, short and simple songs, poetry as lyrics and diverse genre study can produce an album that will capture listeners regardless of their primary genre affiliation, and remain incredibly listenable throughout…perfect pop. Catchy without being syrupy, intelligent without being pedantic, Vampire Weekend has managed to take what they know and like about music and filter it into a refreshing sound that, while carrying influences from artists and styles past, remains indelibly their own.

Don’t Idolize

Millions of Americans tune in weekly to American Idol. Millions will tonight for its premier. I’m still trying to figure out why.

I know, I know. The TV line-up is thin right now. Unless you’re watching the stellar 5th season of The Wire, indulging your senses in the L Word or devouring the new and improved American Gladiators, life on TV during the writers’ strike is hard. And while Fox may want you to believe it, buy into it, and worship them for it, American Idol is not the solution to your problems. They thought we’d forget that we aren’t getting 24. For years now, Fox has taken the show from over the pond and fed it to you with a sense of smug satisfaction. I mean, think about it…millions of Americans audition, meaning that the job of casting is never difficult (unless you consider that three people actually have to sit there and listen to millions of Americans who think they can sing), it doesn’t take any writers, so that cost and hassle is eliminated, and millions of Americans not only tune in, but actually call and text in to vote. People…they’re laughing all the way to the bank! And now, with the writer’s strike, they’re anticipating running up the viewer count because there is nothing else on. I give you fair warning here, gentle readers…if you really like Idol, or you’re not interested in a prolonged rant against it, this isn’t the post for you. For all the rest of you…read on!

There are numerous reasons not to waste your time on this show. Of course, enjoying wasting your time isn’t one of these reasons. But the reasons, when it comes down to it, need to be split up and addressed differently to both music lovers and people who don’t really care about music. First we’ll tackle the people who don’t really care about music…

You don’t like music or really care about it. You view Idol as pure entertainment, something to throw on the tv while you eat your dinner. In the beginning stages of the show, you like watching horrendously bad people who think they can sing. There’s a certain sort of sick fascination here, like watching a train wreck or taking pictures of a car accident as you drive by. I can almost understand this part…it can be humorous, entertaining to watch people as incredibly bad as the beginning contestants. But as humorous as it can be, what does it say about your taste that this is a good way to spend your time and viewing hours? Is laughing at other people’s misfortune that fun?

Then, you get into the regular show and listen to Simon, Paula and Randy talk about these people as if they’re actual artists. However, the entertainment value here is again derived from watching the contestants get beat up on. What the judges actually say doesn’t have any bearing, because the viewing population is the one who votes on the winners, so why even have judges to begin with? I will point out here that you can basically watch this sort of thing in any local karaoke bar. I recommend here American Gladiators, any National Geographic program, and movie watching as great alternatives to the “entertainment” value of American Idol. You can also spend 45 minutes reading a book and use the 15 minutes of commercial time in a TV hour to go for a walk. Of course, in the end, if Idol is that entertaining to you, you’ll still watch it, but my point here is to get you to sit there for a minute, think about it carefully, and really determine if you’re gaining anything, even real entertainment that couldn’t better be found elsewhere, out of this pursuit.

Then you have the people that enjoy or claim to enjoy music. This is a much easier group to attack. The entertainment goers have some excuses, as in the end what counts as entertainment is a matter of taste, and if you like it, you’re entitled to it. But in my mind, any self-respecting fan of music should have serious problems with this show as American Idol, for all its posturing as a musical show, is virtually devoid of any sort of actual musical quality or content, aside from the few guest appearances throughout the year by actual musicians. The program is supposed to crown the next pop music star, giving label execs a bankable star to sell albums because they have already won over the viewers who vote, so who wouldn’t buy the album?

Well, when you look at the fact that American Idol basically tests to see if you’re able to give a strong karaoke performance on national television, why should you expect any sort of actual musical talent from these people, let alone a decent album? People come on the show that have never made it as musicians, never made it in a band, and haven’t had any luck making it as a singer. These people aren’t just the most absolutely talented singers who happen to have really bad luck getting signed. There’s a reason they haven’t made it! They make the show based on their ability to carry a tune solo, and then progress based on their performances of other artists’ songs. Sure, as a singer you make each song your own, but not in any way that isn’t identical to what happens in millions of karaoke bars the world over. They don’t write their own songs, they don’t make their own music, and they need only the capability to captivate an audience of millions of “average Americans” (and we all know how smart they are from their election choice in 2004) for five minutes at a time. Finally, when the Idol is crowned, someone else usually writes the songs for the album, and the album sales usually flop due to either a) the fact that the Idol watchers have short attention spans and have moved on to other Pop Top 40 hits between the finale and the record release or b) the album exposes them for what they truly are: a glorified winner of a nationally televised karaoke/popularity contest. There are of course exceptions to the rule here, but the last Idol winner, Taylor Hicks, failed to break 1,000,000 album sales and lost his contract. Where were the millions of fans that voted for him when it came time to buy his album on the record contract they helped him get? Even a former Idol contestant (and loser to Hicks), Chris Daughtry, thinks the process is silly. “It’s funny at first, but come on,” he said. “They spend three weeks on people that can’t sing, and that’s what they’re banking it on. (They should) find some people that you can really invest in.”

In addition, you have merely to surf Billboard’s Top 100 or scan the radio airwaves for 5-10 minutes to realize that what the “average American”/radio listener/American Idol watcher knows about music is pretty much nothing. Saccharine singers like John Mayer and Jack Johnson, talentless “rappers” like Soulja Boy (all the people that came to this post from the Soulja Boy tag are now ready to throw me under a bus) and musically bereft bands like Nickelback saturate the entire popular music scene. Sure, there are different musical tastes, and I don’t deny anyone the right to their opinion, but when did the aggregate musical taste of the masses get so bad that a song telling you to “superman dat ho” could spend 26 weeks on the Top 100? Is anyone out there listening anymore? Meanwhile, amazing groups and artists like k-os, Throw Me the Statue, Immortal Technique and Jean Grae make music for years without getting noticed by the masses.

If you’re a “music fan” that’s spending time watching Idol, I suggest to you a visit to a listening station to find an unknown artist, a trip out to see a live performance somewhere, or simply an exploration into the collections of Hall of Famers that you aren’t familiar with. There is so much great music out there that you haven’t heard, I promise.

My Mom loves Idol…she’s of the entertainment crowd that enjoys watching Simon plaster contestants. Whenever I get caught up on my anti-American Idol rant, her constant argument revolves around the millions of people that tune in and call or text in a vote. “30 million people tune in,” she tells me, “they all like it.” I leave you here with the words of a wise person…”what’s right isn’t always popular and what’s popular isn’t always right.” But in the world of pop music and a show like American Idol, it should really be, “what’s popular isn’t always good.”

Putting Emerald City on the Map

Blue ScholarsThere’s garbage floating around out there. It’s in the bottled water, and people keep drinking it. Every once in a while, I understand a sip, but the massive thirst for this garbage water is becoming unbearable. Of course, it’s easy to become addicted to a certain type of water when you really don’t know any better, or perhaps don’t want any better. And when all the brands of water taste the same, what does it matter what bottle you drink from? And why wouldn’t you buy it?

Well, the bottled water companies here are the record labels and radio stations, obsessed with putting out a consistent product that keeps the masses drinking. In the process, musicians and artists are funneled into a series of water bottles, the shapes and sizes of which can vary, but the general taste of which remains the same. So, left with not much other choice, you keep flipping on the radio and drinking Pop. I don’t blame you…like I said, I take a sip sometimes too, it’s what we’ve been raised on, like fluoridated water, but it’s easy to forget that you can bypass the bottled water and get to the source sometimes.

Let’s be honest people, when a show like American Idol draws 30 million viewers a week in order to crown the next great radio star from a host of characters that couldn’t even launch the idea of a musical career without a free-for-all reality program catering to the masses, we have a problem as a music listening population. I’ve got an idea…let’s let everyone in the world, regardless of talent or skill, compete by singing copies of Pop radio songs, and the person who is the least offensive and most popular to the people that watch this show and listen to Pop 100 on the radio can launch a recording career, make more bad pop songs and sell records.

When I put it that way, doesn’t it insult your musical intelligence? Doesn’t it offend you that 90% of the music you hear out there all sounds the same and is mass market pumped to you through the iTunes collective? If it doesn’t, you can stop reading here and go back to sleep…MixMatch is about changing the way music is made and the way it sounds, not sitting idly by and buying the new “Single of the Day.” I’ve heard people say that they watch the show, but wouldn’t buy the album. This is like saying you don’t support the steps taken by our government to secure cheap oil while complaining about how much it costs to fill up your 2 miles to the gallon SUV. You might not be directly responsible for the problem, but you’re contributing to the means that lead to the end. We’re still overseas and you’ll still be hearing that artist on the radio for the next two months. So who shows more intelligence? The viewers that promote this kind of annual activity by spending their time and money on it, or the media moguls who have realized that no matter how many times you repackage the same thing, the majority of Americans raised on the radio are going to buy and buy and buy. And yet every season, new contestants arrive, millions tune in, and record companies make massive amounts of money funneling us a “new ” version of radio music we’ve heard 50,000 times in the past 10 years. But I digress…the point was Emerald City.

Because some of the most authentic and creative sources are so forgettable, we have to keep spreading the word and reminding ourselves that there are other drinking options out there. One of the premier out of bottle drinking experiences now and for the last 15 years has been the consistently overlooked, under-appreciated and sparsely marketed underground hip-hop scene. Sure, CDs and mp3s still float around, and there’s some consistent word of mouth when an underground artist rises to the surface, but all too often, incredible DJs and MCs stay underground, sometimes leaving us with less than we deserve.  For instance, one of the artists right now that exemplifies the fight against the mainstream record label, the need to speak honestly about the state of politics, the media and the record industry is Immortal Technique.  And yet, because labels are trying to tone down his message, he stays off them, and remains underground.

And you deserve the underground of Seattle. Yes. I said Seattle. The City of Rain isn’t just for Starbucks (scary stuff people) addicts, Seahawk fans, or long-haired flannel wearing musicians with the urge to turn their brains into a Jackson Pollack painting anymore. The indie (not grunge, indie) scene is pulsing with new musicians interested in turning the surroundings into a musical tapestry of depression AND hope. I thought a band like Throw Me the Statue showcased Seattle music at its best. Hip-Hop? You can find that in the Bay Area, LA, various havens on the East Coast. But not Seattle, not since Sir Mix-A-Lot or outside of the Lifesavas anyway. Or so I thought. Always exposed to new things through the IndieFeed Hip-Hop collective, I was recently turned onto Blue Scholars, an underground twosome from the Northwest with two albums for you to sink your ears into.

As with most prolific and worthwhile underground artists, the personal stories of the artists play an enormous role in the music they make, and the Blue Scholars, a play on blue collar, let their history and surroundings saturate every beat and line of their two cds, the 2004 release Blue Scholars and this year’s Bayani. They’re the answer to that question you have long contemplated but maybe never thought to ask…What do you get when you mix a Filipino rapper and an “Iranian American jazz-trained pianist” turned DJ? The result is a large spectrum of beats ranging from melancholy drifters to jazzy car cruisers, and lyrics examining the social, economic, and political systems in existence here in the United States. But when not tackling the socioeconomic divide, they still have the time and the skill to put together laid back summer day tracks that you can imagine coming out of stereos in the streets or from passing car windows.

What’s interesting in discovering these two albums at the same time, produced three years apart, is noting some of the similarities while also being able to see how far the group has come in their personal and musical mission. On Blue Scholars, the group sounds like your fundamental backpack crew. The delivery of the lyrics is laid back and easy to follow without sacrificing complexity of subject matter or rhyme scheme. Even on the songs with less of a message to send carry a sense of urgency to be heard. The beats are of a lower production value, giving it the basement studio sound, but still contain musical hooks and phrases that you can’t stop listening to. In short, it’s your typical stellar yet underfunded debut album from an underground hip-hop group. The subject matter tackles their origins as a group, their personal connections to the working class and life for a Seattle transplant.

Bayani, on the other hand, shows what three years can do to the growth and development of a musical sound. They come out sounding more secure, more focused and more intent on being heard. If Blue Scholars is a whisper from the basement, Bayani is a shout from the rooftops. Some of the more typical hip-hop beats of the first album are abandoned here for more complicated beats incorporating jazz and world sounds. The beats by Sabzi here are of a much higher quality, creating a more perfect tapestry for Geographic’s tightened and more lyrically calculated flow. You see glimpses of what he’s capable of as a lyricist on the first album, but the second album shows off just how talented he is in mixing potent wordplay, social observations and governmental condemnations into complicated phrases that roll off his tongue.

Bayani also refuses to let its political message be ignored. While Blue Scholars carries some references to the war and bits and pieces speaking against our current government (which really hasn’t changed much since the album’s release), Bayani is infused with an anti-war, anti-establishment message that makes some sort of appearance in every song, most notably “Back Home” which tackles the need to bring American troops back from Iraq and “50 Thousand Strong” which looks at the riots and subsequent police action at the WTO meetings in 1999. At the same time, they don’t forget the need for tracks that you can sit back to, which they fill with “Ordinary Guys” and the homage song to their hometown, “North By Northwest.”

So if you’re looking for some solid underground hip-hop from an unusual geographic location, look no further. It’s only fitting that an MC named Geographic could help make the traditional locations of genres irrelevant. Remember, when we change the way music is produced and recorded, we can change how it is distributed, where it comes from, how it becomes profitable, and who takes home that profit. So put the water bottles down good friends, go find that fresh water and take a sip…if it’s slightly strange at first, don’t be alarmed, give it time…we’ve been drinking garbage for so long.


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