August 13, 2009

CD's Received Today

Here's some new music we got in the office today...

The Orphins- Wish You Well
Oh My Land- If God Gave Me A Cannon…
Guitar Bomb- Happy Hour at The Silverado
Geoff Byrd- X-Ray Vision
Rebecca Culhane- These Days

Big Gigantic: A Human Touch to a Tested Sound

Words by Dean Schaffer; photo by Jonathan Katzenberg

When drummer Jeremy Salken tells me that he’s only 19 years old, I almost believe him. Maybe it’s his looks or his youthful attitude, or maybe it’s the fact that I can’t see the mixed drink he’s holding in his wristbanded left hand, but, all things considered, it’s probably his music. Salken (actually 28) tours with Big Gigantic, the musical brainchild of Dominic Lalli (actually 31). Lalli himself is an accomplished saxophone player and member of Boulder’s groove machine The Motet, and his current project combines the improvisatory impulses of jazz with the essence of electronica. Formed late last year, Big Gigantic just released a new album, Fire It Up, which reaches backwards, forwards and sideways for musical inspiration and direction. The result is something new, something which, like Lalli says, “is just so many different things.”

Big Gigantic undoubtedly qualifies as “electronica,” but the name hardly does justice to Lalli’s vision or his nuanced execution. He muses, “The one thing different I wanted to do with this project is make electronic music, but make songs and make melodies, especially melodies. I really wanted to have something where you would be singing the melody later, which happens more with songs by bands, not by DJs.” On “Fire It Up,” Lalli’s natural melodic sensibilities shine through. “Got to Keep On,” “Landmark” and the rest feature driving electronic rhythms, but also catchy-as-hell synth melodies and keyboard riffs. Whereas house music falls back on thumping, repetitive bass beats, Big Gigantic returns to the age-old craft of good songwriting: juicy hooks, memorable choruses and beautiful harmony – only instead of guitars and vocals, Lalli has a laptop.

The cultural significance of this shift hasn’t escaped Lalli’s notice; when he discusses his musical vision, he muses, “Back in the day, saxophone was what the guitar is now. I’m not saying the guitar is turning into the laptop, but shit happens. You can either hate on it, deny it and get left in the dust, or you can embrace what’s new and find a creative way to use it.” This innovative, progressive attitude explains worlds about Big Gigantic’s approach, both to their music and to the enterprise as a whole – the band is giving Fire It Up away for free online at Lalli looks to the Internet as the independent artist’s boon: “The beauty of what’s going on these days is you don’t have to be on a mainstream label because everything is so Internet savvy. We just get online all day and just promote, promote, promote. You can do a lot of the work yourself.” The real money, he points out, isn’t in records but in touring; fortunately for him, that’s where Big Gigantic gets even more interesting.

Anyone who attends a Big Gigantic concert expecting to hear a typical DJ performance is in for a surprise. At the Sunset Strip’s Key Club on June 18, as at all of the group’s shows, Lalli arrives with his indispensable computer, but also with some unexpected additions: his saxophone, a keyboard and Salken. Lalli programs all of the album’s drum beats digitally, but Salken performs these beats live, adding a particularly human touch when Lalli solos over the electronic tracks on the saxophone or keyboard. More than anywhere else, this is where Big Gigantic’s jazz roots blossom into something unique. Lalli, always humble, minimizes his group’s inventiveness: “We’re sort of like a DJ a little bit, with a little bit more.”

But when the other DJs perform afterward at the Key Club, Big Gigantic’s inventiveness becomes even more apparent by contrast. Ott, from the U.K., showcases an impressively eclectic taste, mixing Western beats with Indian sitar and reggae-style steel drums (all in the first three minutes!). A sole figure perched stoically next to his laptop, Ott’s performance, a skillful blend of styles in an unbroken stream of music, somehow lacks luster – for all his dexterity, he simply is not an exciting spectacle for a concert (granted, after all, that isn’t the point of his set). The night’s headliner, Shpongle, attempts to address this problem by spicing up the show with four dancers, whose elaborate, otherworldly costumes look like a cross between DayGlo fantasies and Quetzalcoatl. But for all the pomp, Shpongle and Ott can’t match Big Gigantic’s raw intensity when Lalli blows passionately during his sax solos in “Wish I Knew” or “Fire It Up.” Big Gigantic brings the improvisational excitement of jazz and the emotional intimacy of live musicianship to their inventive beats. It’s like electronica is growing up, but, like Salken, staying young at heart.
Meredith Meyer
It’s Spooky to Be Young

Los Angeles, CA
Engineered by Bill Racine | Recorded and mixed at Pilsen
Sound Studios in Chicago by Bill Racine
Mastered at Golden Mastering in Ventura, CA by J.J.
Golden | Produced by Bill Racine

It took two years for David Lean to finish Laurence of Arabia. He set the philosophy in motion that good things come to those who wait. With Bill Racine (Rogue Wave, Mates of State) turning the knobs, L.A.’s Meredith Meyer spent four years creating her debut LP, It’s Spooky to Be Young. The affable singer has a confident tone, true to her romantic and classy demure. It’s Spooky to be Young is a dreamy offering dotted with genuine achy balladry and urgent mid-tempo rock. The crystal-clear production allows her ebbing voice to be dark and intimate, while also boldly avant-garde. Unlike some of the wilting female singers of the 1990s, think Fiona Apple or Natalie Merchant, Meyer is emotional without the whine and sings with a modern, effortless convention. Her versatility is admirable; Meyer is comfortable with a gentle piano nocturne (“Modern City Carol”) as she is beating up a guitar (“It’s Spooky to Be Young”).

Meyer’s voice is unquestionably the utmost strength of the release. Set a notch above the instrumentation, her voice is deeper than most female singers, and sharpened by a slight rasp. Her lyrics ache from one lovelorn parable to the next. “All Those Pictures” is where Meyer really finds a home: elegant balladry is paced with splashy percussion, reserved guitars, rising tides of strings and Meyer’s sweeping voice. Nodding to the haunting Mazzy Star, Meyer’s voice glides through a smooth wash of reverb. It’s Spooky to Be Young is dedicated to its ominous title. Meyer’s songs are relentlessly detailed patterns of sound. The litany of instruments are so intricately sculpted, it’s hard not to love the songs solely for their instrumentation. It’s no surprise she’s unveiled a spot as one of the most promising new artists of the year. (self-released)
-Christopher Petro
Math the Band
Don’t Worry

Providence, RI
Recorded by Jeremy Stark at The Bridge
Sound State in Brighton, MA

Math the Band is the happiest, most enter- taining, energetic and positive band I’ve come across this year. It oozes out the nerdiness and synth-pop good times that some people crave. I’m one of those people. The first time I heard this band was at the June 22, 2009, Performer Presents show at the WonderRoot Community Center in Atlanta and the two members of the band, guitarist Kevin Stinehauser and keyboardist Justine Mainville, put on an incredibly spastic and theatrical performance – the likes of which I haven’t seen in a very long time.

The entire record, from start to finish, is full of energy and every track explodes sonically with the intensity of an atomic bomb. The 8-bit sequenced keyboard riffs, mixed cocktail of programmed and live drums, gang vocals in just the right places and thrashing punk guitars makes Don’t Worry a solid electro-punk treasure. Although the Nintendo-synthesizer sounds might throw some people off, those of us who spent hours playing video games growing up and memorizing the music will instantly fall in love with this record. The fact that every song ends with a gong is hilarious, yet fitting because of the fervor and vehemence the band exudes – basically it’s nice to know when to stop dancing. From the opening track “Hang Out/Hang Ten,” the band sets the tone of the record by shouting what everyone who listens to the record should do: “Everybody have fun tonight!”

The Mega Man-esque keyboard solo at the end of “Why Didn’t You Get a Haircut?” will make you listen to it at least four times in a row. Other standout moments on the record include the dance lesson on “The Adventures of Brian Townsend” (the passionate and “slowest” song on the record), “Tour de Friends” and the last track “It’s Gonna be Awesome,” where they borrow the chorus from R.E.M’s “It’s the End of the World and We Know It.”

Don’t Worry is really poppy and super-nerdy, but that’s not a bad thing. It’s complete and fun to listen to. What Atom and His Package started, Math the Band has expanded upon and has definitely upped the ante. This New England duo is sure to garnish more attention and respect with their constant touring and this solid release. (Slanty Shanty)
-Albert Opraseuth

August 12, 2009

CD's Received Today

Here's the music we got in the office today...

Shonen Knife-Super Group
Eric Bettencourt-the giraffe attack collection
The Fresh & Onlys- Grey-Eyed Girl
Grooms- Rejoicer
Rev. Odell Tucker-The Darnell Woodies
Marian Call

Anchorage, AK
Recorded at Pacific Studios in Tacoma, WA, by Tony Thomas and by Ryan Brownell at
The Garden Recording Studio in Anchorage, AK | Mixed and mastered by Tony Thomas

Marian Call’s debut album Vanilla is warm, quirky, and fun from beginning to end. “Your Fault,” the “Volvo Song,” “Vanilla” and “Rx: Stop What You’re Doing” stand out as highlights, and are full of many lines that will bring smiles to listener’s faces.

She calls herself a square, a geek and a lexiholic, and in addition to bars and coffee shops, has been playing house concerts and science fiction conventions. She writes songs about Firefly (yes, the Joss Whedon television program). “Dark Dark Eyes” is for River Tam.

Call reminds me of two other “library nerd” songwriters: Nellie McKay and Casey Dienel. Others compare her to Joni Mitchell and if you like her you should also look up the Homer songwriter Sarah C. Hanson.

Inspired studio performances abound on this gem of a disc. My favorite guest appearance is David Salge on clarinet on “Vanilla.” There are other contributions as well. David Pew adds accordion and banjo and his brother Paul delivers sparse piano. These collaborators never distract from what should be front and center, though, Marian’s genuine, humorous lyrics and her soulful and friendly voice. (self-released)
-Isaac Paris
Jon Hopkins

London, UK
Produced by Jon Hopkins

Innovative 28-year-old composer Jon Hopkins seamlessly blends disparate styles culled from various chapters in his early and ongoing musical career. The West London-based pianist and self-taught studio musician has already worked with a number of other artists, ranging from Herbie Hancock to Coldplay (who he toured with in 2008). Now, five years after the release of his last album, Hopkins returns his focus to his own idiosyncratic explorations with Insides.

On this probing third offering, Hopkins lets unsettling rumbles of bass, thoughtful piano and quirky rhythmic loops bleed into one another from track to track. Opener “The Wider Sun” features layers of violin wafting atop a hovering ambient synth. Pregnant with anticipation, this violin falls away, leaving serene chords to float onto the next track. On “Vessel,” a piano and small noises – scratching and spilling sounds, wind whipping across a windowpane – tickle a distilled background that gives way to unexpectedly grimy bass and drums. Continuing to work with an element of surprise, in namesake track “Insides,” Hopkins passes through a whirring ambient space of plinky, horror movie synths, lonely wind chimes and snippets of female whispers against a bass so low it almost breaks apart. A stark contrast to the emphatically slowed-down beats and classical foundation of the previous songs, “Wire” bounds energetically forward on a driving pulse and then simmers out with a small pop that jumpstarts the breakbeat of the otherwise free-floating “Colour Eye.” The album’s single, “Light Through the Veins,” is a nine-minute masterpiece of simple melody and pretty, oscillating synths. The composition gathers momentum as Hopkins builds layer upon layer, blooming into a rich space that transforms into something more serene by the conclusion. Harkening his childhood music school roots, Hopkins wraps up the album with a tastefully understated piano in “Autumn Hill.” (Domino)
-Lulu McAllister

August 11, 2009

tUnE-YaRdS: Setting New DIY Standards

Words by Amanda Nyren; Photo by Marilis Cardinal

While some label execs desperately troll the muck of MySpace for the next big thing, and traditional audiophiles refuse to embrace digital formats, others are adapting, and even thriving. Merrill Garbus, a former puppeteer who once swore she’d never become a musician, is probably the last person you’d expect to find among the thriving.

As the one-woman show better known as tUnE-YaRdS, Garbus recently released her debut album, BiRd-BrAiNs, an eclectic patchwork quilt of vocals, ukulele, field recordings and beats created from kitchen utensils. The homespun labor of love was produced over two and a half years, between Martha’s Vineyard and Montreal, using only a Sony digital recorder and a laptop with free Audacity software. It was released in July 2008 and distributed on recycled cassette tapes along tUnE-YaRdS’ tour with Thao and as a pay-what-you-want download online. In early 2009, Marriage Records (Dirty Projectors, Thanksgiving, YACHT) picked it up and pressed it to vinyl, making Garbus a poster girl for nontraditional, free media music-making.

It’s a surprising feat, since for years Garbus refused to consider herself as a musician. Raised by folk musician parents in a preppy Connecticut town, Garbus spent her childhood in vocal lessons, listening to the family record collection and recording mixtapes from the radio. Nonetheless, she decided at an early age that she would never make music her trade. After studying theatre at Smith College, she went on to work as a puppeteer at Sandglass Theater and Bread & Puppet in Vermont. Ultimately, her time spent in puppetry forced her to recognize her true calling. “I was writing the ‘Fat Kid Opera’ [a puppet show] when I realized that what I really loved about puppetry was the songwriting aspect,” she says.

Merrill quit puppetry then and there. She devoted herself to writing music with a second-hand ukulele she received as a birthday present from her mother. “Becoming a musician was intimidating. But the ukulele made it less threatening. Unlike the guitar, which is this big overwhelming thing with six strings, the ukulele isn’t really taken seriously as an instrument,” she explains.

Making the transition into musicianship as unintimidating as possible was crucial for Garbus, who, when beginning the album in 2006, was deeply depressed. “The whole process of becoming a musician was terrifying,” she says. “I didn’t want to let that stop me. Too often, people don’t do things purely because of fear.”

With this in mind, Garbus committed herself to a modest DIY method of production. “My basic trick was to record a sample of a noise, upload it to the computer, listen to it over and over and pick out a sound that could be a rhythm,” she says. In this manner, a sound byte of the Martha’s Vineyard ferry was manipulated with an increase and decrease in volume to create a beat. The clank of a spoon on a bottle became a high-hat. “While finishing the album in Montreal, I became a total basket case. I’d set myself a deadline by organizing a release party and just wound up running around the kitchen banging on things to get it done. “

As a result of its unsophisticated production, BiRd-BrAiNs exudes an unbridled, childlike energy. Most of the field recordings were taken on Martha’s Vineyard while Garbus worked as a nanny – hence, the sounds of children’s voices. This, combined with lyrics like “tweedle deedle dee” and “eeny meeny miny” and the cheery ukulele strumming, conjures the image of a sunwashed island straight out of Pippi in the South Seas or Peter Pan, where Garbus regales a tribe of rambunctious kids with her singing. Indeed, without knowing anything about Garbus, one could very easily mistake her voice for that of a mystic island woman. On songs like “Hatari” (inspired by African pygmy yodeling) and “Jamaican” it oozes soul, birdsong and raw sugar over random, frantic, junkyard beats that just barely point to M.I.A.

Garbus will be the first to acknowledge that BiRd-BrAiNs’ unsophisticated production also makes it an easy target for critics. “A lot of people dismiss this kind of recording,” she says. The album’s compressed format and consequently distorted sound may turn off audiophiles, but what it says about the potential of digital production and distribution should excite anyone with a vested interest in the future of music.

While her experience performing with backup bands and as part of experimental a capella trio Sister Suvi has been deeply rewarding, she finds taking the stage alone with just her ukulele and a series of loops incredibly freeing. “It’s important to me that I can create everything by myself, as a sort of political statement,” she says.

The fact that a woman with minimal experience could put together a financially successful album from scratch, and embark on tour with merely loops behind her, quite clearly reflects a paradigm shift: the empowerment of the artist and the diminishing relevance of record label politics and policies in the digital age.

For Garbus, creating on her own was as much a matter of necessity as of principle. “I couldn’t afford to pay anyone and I didn’t have time to explain what I was trying to do,” she explains.
What If All the Rebels Died?

San Francisco, CA
Recorded in Sacramento, CA, by Jeepster | Produced and engineered by Matt McCordand Jeepster | Mastered by John Loring

It’s a provocative question, no doubt, but really not the one Jeepster seems to be asking. Instead, the San Francisco space rockers pose this: what’s going down on the moon’s dark side some 35 years later?

Now What If? isn’t in the league of past Floydian classics, but it does tap the same well of faceless paranoia that fancies many a pasty British chap, from Roger Waters to Thom Yorke – really, any of your typical moody geniuses with a guitar and something to complain about.

Add a healthy dose of Manchester rave culture and presto: unsettling earphone music crafted with a deft ear across the pond and a twinkling eye on the dance floor. Leadoff track “A Day in the Dark” tells all, both in title and in Jonah Wells’ beautifully stoned croon wafting across hypnotic organ lines. If you heard this in Tony Wilson’s Hacienda circa 1989, you’d think to yourself, “Geeze, sounds like The Stone Roses,” partly because it sounds a little like The Stone Roses and partly because everybody sounds like The Stone Roses when you’re popping E. “You Can’t Stop” is the soundtrack to fighting a bout of insomnia. When you find yourself feverishly folding clothes at 4 a.m., jagged pings of staccato guitar and strutting distorted bass feed a nagging hunch that, no, sleep will never come. Same goes for the haunting rocker “Fiction Fiction.” It too thrives on intangible anxiety except, this time, with a prescription for panic: “I need your friction / don’t need your fiction.” Translation: shut up and dance.

Melodic shoegazer “Sweet 1:23” and the Pixies-nicking “Ex Oh” throw alt-rock curveballs, yet lines like, “Saturn gave up the rings / she’s moving on to better things” keep with great-gig-in-the-sky theme. Dark side of the moon? Turns out, it hasn’t changed much – loaded with weird noises, slinky grooves and a bag of munchies. (Distile Records)
-Robbie Hilson
Jason Andre
The Phoenix and the Fish

Wilmington, NC
Recorded and mixed by Jason Andre

Crossroads are key for any serious musician, both musically and internally, and bridging musical ideas and meaningful lyrics is a crossroad unto itself. Jason Andre’s The Phoenix and the Fish is a multi-car pile up of music styles, instrumentation, sound effects, pure emotional honesty and the singer’s testimony to the power of religion in a person’s life. Andre finds himself here fervently on the album, showing an immense amount of growth from his first EP, Winter Dreams.

Andre slams a lot into 12 songs, from didgeridoo and banjo playing on “Quemao,” to handclaps and guitar playing at breakneck speed on “Down the River,” in which he sings “I’m going down the river / I’m going to find my one true love.” “Raised” punches as much as it praises, and Andre’s sinewy and guttural tones soar throughout along with djembe playing by Cheick Sissoko. “Broken Down” has a climbing guitar pattern much like Soundgarden’s “Seasons” and “The Meeting” utilizes hand-driven percussion with monotone layered vocals. “Defender” is an all-out drum assault, with four minutes of frenzied percussion. “Eloi” seems to capture passion perfectly as he states: “Idleness, apathy, are my hell here on earth.” Andre is a surfer, so there’s a strong correlation here between water and life. In addition, religion blankets the whole with lyrics strong on faith and hope. Imagine a far more tribal Jack Johnson, digging deeper into greater musical textures with doses of optimism and spiritual salutations. The record is filled with imagery drawn from ocean bodies and physical metaphors: seas rolling and unfurling, eyes pulled back. What’s fresh and surprising is that The Phoenix and the Fish doesn’t readily show its colors. It takes several spins to discover all its layers and without doubt, lends itself to a wide variety of listeners. (self-released)
-Brian Tucker