Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Mason Jennings @ Great American Music Hall

I've picked up a Mason Jennings album a few times before, listened and liked what I was hearing, and then for some reason dropped it before I really dug deep enough into the music to get beyond that first-impression. Same pattern with his self-titled album, Boneclouds and Use Your Voice, and I have no idea why. The most I've listened to Mason Jennings has been his Dylan covers (an incredible "Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" and a very good "Times They Are A-Changin'") from I'm Not There.

After catching his show, I certainly won't make the same mistake with his new album, Blood of Man, which I've already had a listen through. Jennings is great live, ably switching between electric guitar and full rock band mode and solo acoustic and harmonica.

"Black Wind Blowing" will almost certainly land on the next mix I make (that is, unless another Jennings song overtakes it). "Be Here Now," from Boneclouds, was another highlight - mid-tempo and catchy enough for the Jack Johnson crowd (Jennings is on Johnson's Brushfire label), but deceptively so because there's a stronger songwriting core than you'll find in that arena.

As thrilling as it is to be impressed seeing a brand new band live, I think it's even greater to be blown away by a band when I'm going in with a passing familiarity.

Mason Jennings - Be Here Now (live)

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Bon Iver & Megafaun tonight!

I'm prepping for tonight's Bon Iver and Megafaun show at the Oakland Fox Theater by listening to the bands' music, and checking out some video of recent live collaborations:

That should make for a fantastic close to the night.

I'm also excited for this show because I interviewed Sean Carey of Bon Iver for a feature story in the East Bay Express:
The hush has evolved into a roar. The solitude has found companionship. And a project that began as an intimate, homemade album has grown into a full band, touring relentlessly to breathe new life and energy into songs in front of thousands of people a night. Often muted and spare on record, Bon Iver burns with an entirely different intensity live, a gathering storm of percussion and surging guitars all held together by Justin Vernon's singing, the high and often spooky howl that stamps his music with such a tremendous feeling of isolation.

It's been a long and improbable journey for Vernon's songs, which were born of heartbreak and solitude in a backwoods Wisconsin cabin, the soundtrack to snowy introspection, healing, and rebirth. Maybe the songs themselves got cabin fever, crawling out on their own for fresh air and sunshine. Regardless, the now-concluding second chapter of Bon Iver is the story of how songs from an isolated winter became music for all seasons.

The first step from a solo Bon Iver to the band that's toured for nearly two years in support of For Emma, Forever Ago happened by chance when drummer Sean Carey's band was opening for Vernon at his first hometown show after completing the album. "He was kind of an Eau Claire legend, not that he would ever call himself that, but he was already a successful musician around here," recalled Carey. "He moved away to North Carolina for about a year, and when he moved back was when he recorded the album. But he really needed a band."

Leading up to the show, Carey listened repeatedly to the songs Vernon had just put on MySpace, learning the structure and the lyrics so he could join in on drums and vocals. "A couple of his buddies were a couple of my buddies, they were the guys who played the horns on For Emma. They just hinted to me that I should maybe talk to Justin about playing," Carey said. "When we got to the gig, I told Justin that I'd learned all of his songs. He was kind of taken aback by that, but we sang some of his songs backstage beforehand and it just clicked. I played on about half the set that night."

Vernon self-released For Emma in the summer of 2007, and as the glowing reviews began piling up, Bon Iver drew the attention of Indiana-based Jagjaguwar, the label that gave the album widespread release in February 2008. Positive reviews continued rolling in, and For Emma became one of the year's most acclaimed albums, landing on best-of lists across the United States and UK.

Carey and Vernon played as a Bon Iver duo for a short time, then Vernon added his guitar student Michael Noyce to the band. Bon Iver was one of the breakout bands from 2008's SXSW festival in Austin, with an NPR live broadcast and interview. Matthew McCaughan, a friend of Justin's from their time in the North Carolina band the Rosebuds, later joined on bass, drums, and vocals.

"Justin realized that he didn't just want to be a one-man band, or for it to be all about him, even though the record is so personal and he was very isolated," Carey said. "He realized that in the live show it needed to be a band as much as possible. One thing he really did well was to let the songs evolve and breathe and grow. He wasn't stuck with the version on the record. Even more so than us sometimes, he was wanting to bring in some changes."

Carey says "Blood Bank," from Bon Iver's follow-up EP, and "The Wolves (Act I and II)," from For Emma, are the songs that have seen the most radical change, becoming more powerful and much more energetic live. With "Wolves," the crowd becomes the choir, singing the refrain What might have been lost, over and over, with a wild and unrestrained cry that peels apart the division between audience and band.

"Justin has been really trying to include the crowd as much as possible since the very start. He used to actually hand out lyrics at some of our first shows," said Carey.

More than any other song, "Wolves" has stayed consistent from one performance to the next, with a raw energy and power that draw the crowd's emotional response. "That's a song where I really get to unleash and do anything I want," said Carey. "When you have thousands of people singing and you have the rest of the guys in the band really propelling the music, you can lose your mind and just go ape on the drums."

After a summer that saw the band play fifteen festivals in the United States and Europe, Bon Iver is wrapping up the For Emma touring with a short run of West Coast theaters, with Vernon's former bandmates Megafaun opening, before playing the Austin City Limits festival and one final show in Milwaukee. (Expect collaboration between Bon Iver and Megafaun, Carey says.)

"Everything's happened so quickly that it's been hard in some ways going from performing in really small venues to really big festivals. But it's also happened so fast we haven't had much time to think about it. Festivals are sometimes a lot of fun and sometimes kind of a pain. They're a lot of rush, rush, rush," Carey said. "When you have your own show in a venue you chose and a more intimate crowd, you have time to set up and get to know the room and we're really looking forward to having some time in the halls and playing some really great theaters."

Bon Iver will take its first real break after this stretch of shows. "Justin has had so many great offers to play wherever and keep playing and keep touring on this record. It's hard to turn those down and say, 'I need a break,' but he really does," Carey said. "This is definitely the end of round one."

The next chapter will be a new record, which the band hopes to release by the end of 2010, Carey said. Vernon has already started writing songs, and once again, it's more of a solitary process. "It's definitely going to be centered around Justin. He's already started to record some songs that might be used," Carey said. "It won't have the same crazy cabin story as the last one, but it's going to be centered around him. He's going to have us play here and there on it, but it's not group songwriting at all."

The pattern works, Carey said, and Vernon's bandmates have no interest in changing it. They'll simply take up the new batch of songs, look for the spaces and the hollows, and let the live evolution of Bon Iver's next chapter start anew.

Bon Iver - Skinny Love
Bon Iver - Live NPR Broadcast (42 minutes, 38 mb)
Megafaun - The Fade

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart

Friday night I went out to see The Pains of Being Pure at Heart at San Franisco's Great American Music Hall, a glorious venue that I'll hopefully return to a couple times while I'm visiting here.

I dived into their self-titled album (released in February) starting a few weeks back. The band's name had floated by me in a haze of blog buzz, and good or bad, I probably let it pass because it sounded a little too precious. But I'm glad I went back to check them out, for the finely tuned swirl of fuzzy guitars and bright melodies, sweetened by boy-girl harmonies throughout.

There's a lot of new wave, some revved-up Jesus & Mary Chain buzz and hint of the Smiths' all packed into this great bedroom indie-pop album. And it sure translates well live. You Tucson folks would do well to check them out Tuesday at Congress.

Here's the feature I wrote about the band for the Tucson Weekly:
For Kip Berman, it was a pair of Saucony sneakers that signaled The Pains of Being Pure at Heart had come full-circle.

In a surreal role reversal, Berman found himself on the receiving end of attention from the marketing agency he quit to pursue his band full-time. Just months before, he had spent parts of his working days seeking out hot indie bands and sending them free shoes to boost Saucony's hip quotient.

When the band's self-titled debut LP was released in February, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart had the attention of tastemakers from The New York Times to Pitchfork and Stereogum, but Berman says it was hardly an overnight turn.

The band's sugary indie-pop was refined slowly—and blessedly out of the spotlight, Berman says—over two years of tiny shows, almost exclusively for friends in a Lower East Side club that's hardly a blip on New York's music scene.

"We were all friends here in New York long before we started playing music. We'd hang out a lot and go to shows together, and playing music came about as a natural extension of that," Berman says.

The band formed in March 2007, specifically to play at vocalist/keyboardist Peggy Wang's birthday party, racing through five songs in 10 minutes with Berman on guitar and friend Alex Naidus on bass.

"It wasn't like going to 'new band night' at the bar on Sunday night," Berman says. "It was all of our friends, and it was a really fun show, whether we were any good or not."

The members had all been in bands before, but as Berman puts it, no one "had ever played outside of the zip code we were living in." The band's early days were sans drummer, helpful for practices in Wang's office after business hours, but rhythmically limited to the few beats Berman knew how to program into a drum machine. It wasn't until Kurt Feldman joined on drums that Berman felt the band hit its stride.

"When we'd play a show, we knew everyone who was there," Berman says, describing the 80 or so people who'd catch the band at the Cake Shop. "It would always surprise us when somebody we didn't know would show up."

"It was low-stress, because you knew people were there because they liked you, and if you played a bad show, they wouldn't tell you that you sucked. A lot of bands now aren't so fortunate to have a long period of time to figure out what they're doing. They get immediate exposure before they're ready to handle it. We're lucky no one really cared about us for a couple years. It allowed us to get better performing and see what worked. It's a blessing that not everything we did had people watching. It's like practicing dancing in your bedroom and going out later."

Reflecting a heart-on-the-sleeve audacity that matches the band, the flashy name comes from the title of a short story written by a friend in Portland, Ore., where Berman went to Reed College and played in several admittedly small-time bands.

"We had the band name even before we had songs," Berman says. "I remember going and creating the MySpace profile, and we didn't have any songs. We all felt really excited by the name. It's something to rally around and live up to.

"If you're going to call yourself 'The Pains of Being Pure at Heart,' you can't be half-assed about it. You have to write songs that live up to the name."

The basic chords and lyrics come from Berman, but he compares the songwriting process to "building a Frankenstein monster."

"I supply the skeleton, and everyone else comes in with brains and flesh to make it a whole entity," he says.

"It's strange to think that a lot of the songs we wrote and played at our first band practice are on this record, and three years later, those are the songs that exist in the world," he continues. "Once our tour ends, toward winter, we'll start working on the songs for the next album. I have these other songs written, and I'm dying to learn them with the band, but we've been touring so much. It's exciting having the whole process start again."

The debut album—and follow-up EP Higher Than the Stars, being released the same day the band headlines at Club Congress—cradle a starry-eyed romance in fuzzy guitars, driving beats and boy-girl harmonies. Imagine the Jesus and Mary Chain revved up, or the Smiths brightened and updated as 2000s bedroom indie pop.

"We think, at the core, the songs are pop songs, with verses and choruses, and hopefully they're catchy, and people can sing along and dance," Berman says. "Playing music like this is so much fun on a nightly basis, watching people react in a visceral way. On a very simple level, it's fun for us to play it."

The band also shoots for a visual and aesthetic bull's-eye, citing Belle and Sebastian and the Smiths as bands instantly recognizable from their cover art.

"Something about their album art made me want to live in their world. It was so evocative," he says.

The visual calling card for The Pains of Being Pure at Heart happened by chance when the band was cruising Flickr and stumbled onto a collection of portraits from a high school girl—in Tucson. Kendra Rutledge's photos conveyed a romantic sense of friendship the band loves, Berman says. (See Nine Questions for more information.)

"The images presented that feeling, you and your best friend, young and together against the world," Berman says. "The (cover) photo relates to the feelings in the songs."

Having used Rutledge's photos for album covers, buttons and other art, the band plugged Tucson into its first full U.S. tour

"We're just really psyched," Berman says. "It's going to be nice to meet the two girls who are on our album cover."

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart - Higher Than The Stars
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart - Come Saturday

Friday, September 18, 2009

Farrar to helm Mermaid Ave. 3

Well this is just a fascinating nugget of information: Son Volt's Jay Farrar has been picked by Nora Guthrie to write and record original music for another batch of unreleased Woody Guthrie lyrics.

And Farrar has reached out to Anders Parker (the Varnaline front man who recorded a previous album of folk covers with Farrar under the name Gob Iron), Jim James of My Morning Jacket and Will Johnson of Centro-matic, according to the Austin Chronicle.

The Wilco & Billy Bragg Mermaid Avenue albums are still favorites of mine, for their versatility, excellence of the lyrics and the loose and joyous vibe that surrounds the projects. Plus, I've long said that "Remember the Mountain Bed" is the greatest song ever written.

So what will Farrar find in the Guthrie archives? And perhaps more importantly, what will he do with the lyrics? Though he's been known to experiment, that hasn't always led to the best results. While I like every Son Volt and solo Farrar album, there's really no denying that his post-Uncle Tupelo output peaked with Trace.

It's the collaborations that sound most exciting to me. Farrar and Parker work great together, and Johnson and James bring that versatility that was the hallmark of the first two Mermaid Avenue records. I'm sure other collaborators will find their way into the project, like Natalie Merchant did for her understated and excellent female vocals on the first round of Mermaid recordings. And while a Wilco collaboration is probably out of the question, what if Farrar brought Bragg back into the fold for a song?

Perhaps most exciting is the way Johnson describes how the lyrics jumped at him:
"Jay sent me a priority mail package full of the lyrics, and I opened it at 4:30 in the afternoon," Johnson told the Austin Chronicle. "Within 17 minutes, I had already documented this one called 'Chorine My Sheba Queen' to the recording machine. That speaks far more about the song than anything I did. The lyrics struck me in a way that the music sounded automatic. It made such sense to my soul and my spirit. It's got an empty and regretful tone but in a very beautiful way. I just latched onto it."

Uncle Tupelo - Do Re Mi (Woody Guthrie cover)

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Review: J. Tillman - Year in the Kingdom

My review of the new album from J. Tillman, who's also a member of the Fleet Foxes, is now online at the Tucson Weekly:

With an unadorned and gallant style, J. Tillman makes dark and quiet folk music, laced with proverbial silver streaks and highlighted edges that give his songs surprising contrast and depth.

Relatively unknown outside his role as drummer/harmony vocalist with the Fleet Foxes, J. Tillman is a prolific singer-songwriter in his own right; Year in the Kingdom is his sixth album since 2005.

The album is made of simple, spare acoustic arrangements, with piano, hammered dulcimer, banjo, strings and percussion rounding out his strummed guitar. While it's no surprise that Tillman is an accomplished and satisfying singer, his melodies fall into a similar, arching pattern, resembling one another, song by song.

Lyrically, Tillman leans heavily toward vaguely Christian imagery—kingdom, garden, valley, crosswinds, darkness and light—but it feels scattered and disconnected. He doesn't give the impression that he's explicitly dealing with any personal religious beliefs, leaving many of his lyrics as an indistinct jumble, ungrounded and ultimately often falling short of his ambitions.

Tillman is at his best with darker lyrical themes, and with "There Is No Good in Me," he reaches for a wretched, vile despair. "I possess a taste for blood / I have numbered mankind's days," he sings, perhaps from the perspective of some ancient demon, reincarnate in the modern world.

Whatever his faults, Tillman's clear talent in arranging acoustic instruments to draw richness from simplicity and his strong voice make Year in the Kingdom pleasing, perfect for a quiet room and watching the twilight fade to darkness.

J. Tillman - Steel on Steel
J. Tillman - James Blues

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

New Mix: The Doc & David Interlude Choir

Get ready music fans - I just wrapped up my latest mix, "The Doc & David Interlude Choir"

Download it here.

1. Fourkiller Flats - Mindful
2. Avett Brothers - Paranoia in Bb Major
3. Justin Townes Earle - Can't Hardly Wait
4. Modest Mouse - Guilty Cocker Spaniels
5. M. Ward - To Go Home
6. Rainer Maria - Mystery and Misery
7. Caleb Christopher - Dope Was The Punk
8. All Autonomy - West Reign
9. Social Distortion - Don't Drag Me Down
10. Riverboat Gamblers - Don't Bury Me... I'm Still Not Dead
11. The Modlins - Monday Morning
12. Stew - North Bronx French Marie
13. Vic Chesnutt - Doubting Woman
14. Townes Van Zandt - Tecumseh Valley
15. Guy Clark - Dublin Blues
16. Bob Dylan - I Feel A Change Comin' On
17. The Gourds - Nuevo Laredo
18. Magnolia Electric Co. - Whip-poor-will
19. Blind Pilot - 3 Rounds and a Sound

I've always been attached to the idea of making new mixes in regular intervals because each one can stand for a particular period of time, for me essentially representing the highlights of six months of music listening. And I go back to my mixes quite a lot.

The Doc & David Interlude follows Sunburst Melodies, Vagabondish, The Arid Madlands, Howling Moon, and a great many others.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Review: Yo La Tengo - Popular Songs

They're headed to the Marquee Theatre in Tempe next month, and I have a review of their latest album in this week's Tucson Weekly. Ladies & Gents, Yo La Tengo's Popular Songs:

Yo La Tengo's latest album neatly falls into two halves: the tightly woven first nine songs, and the three endlessly mesmerizing jams that stretch across the album's final 37 minutes.

Those indulgent, mostly instrumental epics could form a mini-album of their own—but rather than seeming tacked on, they're pure headphone escapism, and some of the most beautiful, cogent music the band has made.

"More Stars Than There Are in Heaven" is nine minutes of dreamy shoegaze; "The Fireside" is 11 minutes of an unhurried, hypnotically twisting acoustic guitar; and album closer "And the Glitter Is Gone" is 16 minutes of noisy, buzzing guitar freak-out.

Elsewhere, Popular Songs proves the band's talent and flexibility, leaping from fuzzy guitar attacks to throwback sunshine pop to languid, spooky trance, mixing strings and keyboards into their classic guitar-bass-drums combo.

"Nothing to Hide" is a sweet, fuzzy and catchy sequel to the trio's 1997 near-hit "Sugarcube," while "If It's True" finds Yo La Tengo cozying up in between Motown and 1960s boy-girl pop, and "Periodically Double or Triple" takes its funky bassline and flighty organ from 1970s soul.

Opener "Here to Fall" begins with an echoing, discordant guitar and has Ira Kaplan singing about what it means to fall in love and face together all of life's happy endings and failed dreams, hope and dread, worry and readiness.

Popular Songs showcases Yo La Tengo as a self-assured and versatile band, still able to pack a worried disorientation into the catchiest of pop songs.

Yo La Tengo - Periodically Triple or Double