Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Review: Naïm Amor - Dansons

Naïm Amor's signature French-and-English mix of jazz, pop and rock shifts toward the tropical on his latest album, a 12-song set that conjures a long afternoon of breezy tranquility. Dansons is a relaxed record, with nimble guitar work, unhurried beats and flourishes of strings, piano, accordion and oboe.

Amor sings in French about half the time, with several songs in English and a couple of songs on which the vocals amount to nonverbal humming or oooohs. It's that mix of languages and styles that gives Dansons its transcendent, day-dream quality.

Amor lined up a skilled and agile band that treads lightly: Matt Mitchell on nylon-string guitar, Arthur Vint on drums and Thøger Lund on upright bass. Guests musicians include Howe Gelb on Wurlitzer, Marco Rosano on accordion, Christian Ravaglioli on oboe, Emilie Marchand on vocals and John Convertino on drums. Dansons was recorded with Jim Waters at Waterworks.

The record is strong throughout, but peaks in the middle, with a standout trio that whisks away the mind: the perky "On Se Tient," the swaying and dreamy "The Other Step" and the Brazilian-inspired "Son Grand Sourire."

A chameleon of a musician who's active in myriad projects, Amor is intriguing when he takes the reins as a songwriter. With a shade of mystery, Dansons captures the sort of contentment that comes when the day's concerns have been bottled up and set aside.

Published March 24, 2011 in the Tucson Weekly.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Review: Sharon Van Etten - Epic

Heartbreak can make prisoners of songwriters, trapping them in a whirlpool of doubt and misery. And whatever good intentions or poetic talent that existed at a song's inception can get swept away as the hard edges of truth are worn down by self-pity.

Rarely can a songwriter tackle heartbreak with the sort of commanding embrace that marks Sharon Van Etten's second album. Epic is full of songs that turn pain into power, never shying from truths or wandering into cliché.

Part of Van Etten's strength is that she plays a folk rock informed more by 1980s and 1990s punk and DIY bands than 1960s and 1970s singer-songwriters. But aside from her bracing, honest lyrics, most remarkable is how versatile Epic is musically, without ever seeming scattered.

Van Etten floats between genres—gentle folk, Liz Phair-type rock, alt-country ballad, dream pop—and holds it all together with her commanding voice, sounding like a bruised soul still brimming with confidence.

Epic begins with "A Crime," the type of acoustic confessional song that made up Van Etten's debut, Because I Was in Love. Then comes the pulsating rocker "Peace Signs," and "Save Yourself," guided by the soft sway of a pedal-steel guitar, and it's clear that Van Etten presents Epic as a sonic journey.

The album peaks with its final song, "Love More," an organ-based slow-builder that lays bare emotion right in your face.

Published March 17, 2011 in the Tucson Weekly.

Buckeye Knoll

Tucson gets plenty of bands coming through town right before and after SXSW, and unfortunatley most of them play to half-empty rooms since the shows happen to be on Sundays and Mondays during the UA's spring break. But that's no excuse for the music fans in town not to head out and catch some brand new bands.

After Monday's Papercuts show, I headed over to Sky Bar for a couple of Bay Area bands. I missed the set from Wave Array, but Buckeye Knoll hit my sweet spot, a sort of Exile-era Stones mixed with alt-country and the sort of high-and-lonesome vocals that always get to me.

A quick look at some of the Bay Area press the band has been getting confirms exactly what I saw:
"Streblow is the real deal, blessed with an expressive voice and solid guitar skills. But, in the end, what makes the album unforgettable are the song lyrics"
--San Francisco Chronicle

"If Kerouac’s On the Road had a score, People and Place would be a strong frontrunner. For any fans of folk, indie, country, or just a heartfelt album filled with nostalgia and hope, Buckeye Knoll is the right band to listen to"
--Unsigned Find

"Its latest release, People and Place, contains gentle, pretty pop rock songs with a twangy edge and rootsy tendencies (think Crosby Stills and Nash)."
--East Bay Express

The band has a brand new EP out on tour, and they're offering it up for free. So take a listen and a download:

Monday, March 14, 2011

Papercuts tonight!

I'm headed out in a bit to Solar Culture to catch Sub Pop's Papercuts, whose new record Fading Parade has been wearing out my iPod the last couple weeks. Dream pop is probably the best description, so any fans of Beach House, etc. would do well to give it a listen.

I interviewed the band's frontman Jason Quever a couple weeks ago for the Tucson Weekly:

For the new album, Papercuts moves out of the bedroom and into the studio

San Francisco's Jason Quever got his start recording dreamy, lush pop music at home.

But seeking to expand on his band Papercuts' mellow and hazy sound, Quever left his home studio behind, working instead with noted producer Thom Monahan (Pernice Brothers, Devendra Banhart) at The Hangar in Sacramento, Calif.

"I was surprised at how easy it was. It was a huge relief," Quever said. "I'd gotten used to doing everything out of necessity from starting out as a bedroom artist. Once I realized I didn't have to do everything, and I wasn't the best man for each job, I realized it was coming out better."

Fading Parade, Papercuts' fourth album—and first for Sub Pop—is still comfortably in the realm of dream pop, but Quever's bigger ambitions give it a more intricate and atmospheric sound. Quever is following Fading Parade's March 1 release with a month-long United States tour, with a March 14 stop at Solar Culture.

"Thom Monahan is a great mixer, a great engineer, and he's had so much experience. At first, I was nervous; some things that he wanted to do, I wasn't planning on," Quever said. "But I was able to try out different things without feeling spread too thin. I think that brought some clarity to it and more focus on performance."

Handing over most of the technical responsibilities to Monahan freed up Quever to concentrate on the music.

"I would try to focus more on singing and playing guitar and the overall arrangement and not necessarily which mic to choose and which preamp to use and where exactly to place the mics for recording drums," Quever said. "I let Thom do a lot of things."

Quever also let go of some musical responsibilities, recording with a full band rather than playing nearly everything himself, as he'd done on past Papercuts records.

"It feels like it's evolved into something slightly different. It more revolves around playing songs with four or five people," he said. "I feel good, and I can see the results of the collaboration more than before. We're always trying different things, within the confines of what feels comfortable and natural. I feel like we've stretched out, and I hope to do more in the future."

Joining Quever in the studio were David Enos (keyboard and autoharp), Graham Hill (drums) and Frankie Koeller (bass). Also in this touring version of Papercuts is guitarist and keyboardist Steve Strohmeier, who has played in Beach House.

"A lot of the growth has been up to other people, but it's always going to be my thing. If it's more of a full collaborative band thing, I'd change the name," Quever said.

Touring with essentially the same band that recorded the album makes the live performances more faithful to the songs.

"We're able to do the record correctly," he said. "All the harmonies and the little parts will be there. I don't feel like there's any compromise this time around."

Fading Parade marks two other changes for Quever as well. First, the songs were written and played live before the band took to the studio: "I was able to take them for a test run, which is also uncommon for me." Second, the songs themselves are more direct and more personal than Quever has written in the past.

"It's a romantic record, in a way I've never done before. It's basically just thinking about things that have come and gone. It's got love songs, or distant and foggy memories of love songs," he said.

A past tour mate of Papercuts, Beach House draws perhaps the easiest comparison to Papercuts, but likeminded San Francisco Bay area bands like Vetiver are also apt comparisons.

Album opener "Do You Really Wanna Know" recalls another of the great bedroom pop artists, East River Pipe. "Wait Till I'm Dead" has the sort of jangly shoegaze of Belle and Sebastian, while "Chills" is a slightly mellowed-out take on the 1960s pop of groups like the Zombies.

"I've never used the term 'bedroom' too much, but in retrospect, it does make sense in reference to how I ended up recording everything myself," he said. "But it's a vague term, one of those things that's always changing."

Papercuts' relationship with Sub Pop enabled a lot of the growth for the band, Quever said, thanks to the resources to record with Monahan and tour support.

"I've tried to be happy no matter what the situation was, so long as I could continue making records," he said. "But they found us, and I've always been a huge fan of Sub Pop, so it was ideal. It is fun to see how a larger operation works."

Papercuts - Do What You Will

Cumberland's Crumblin'

My good friend Andrew Shemin - a poet, comedian and all-around Bob Dylan enthusiast during our days raging at The 505 - is a filmmaker now living in Paris. Somewhere along the way he befriended the Von Bondies and when the band's singer Jason Stollsteimer branched out with a new project, Andrew was asked to direct a video.

Now The Hounds Below are headed to Austin for SXSW, and they're taking along Andrew's video for the band's first single, Cumberland's Crumblin'. The SXSW preview hits the nail on the head in describing The Hounds Below as a cross between Arcade Fire and Roy Orbison.

Check it out:

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Old Bisbee Records hits Sky Bar

Since I had a bit of a hand in putting this show together, I'd be remiss if I didn't write about the Old Bisbee Records showcase this Friday at Sky Bar. It's billed as the "Jewels of the Southwest" show and each band shines with a different sort of light. And while the lineup is plenty impressive, the Old Bisbee folks are even promising surprise guests throughout the night...

Rowdy folksters The Dusty Buskers will host the night, busking all around the club to open and in between bands. It's the sort of informal performance style that the band (originally formed as a duo of Fiddlin' Phoenix and Dusty Squirrelfisher) has nailed from the start. And aside from playing hosts to some other Old Bisbee cohorts, the Buskers will be honing things for their next show, a CD release gig on St. Patrick's Day at Plush.

Up next is The Silver Thread Trio, the heavenly folk vocal group that stole the show performing with Calexico at the Rialto Theatre after the All Souls Procession. But my personal favorite moment with the Silver Thread Trio came not at that show, but when they sang at the public memorial service for Gabe Zimmerman. They did a hauntingly beautiful cover of Iron & Wine's "Dead Man's Will," and nothing else could have fit that moment better.

Bisbee's Dylan Charles (backed by his band The Border Crossers) plays at 11. Charles is sort of a chameleon of a musician, hot-shit mandolin player on one end and a mystical singer-songwriter on the other, taking whatever he wants from folk, country, soul and rock and blending it into something all-together unique to the desert hills of Southern Arizona. Charles will be debuting his new song "The Lavender Pit," a tongue-in-cheek suggestion for re-purposing the huge open-pit copper mine in Bisbee. Starting tomorrow, the song will be available as a free download at www.dylancharles.com, a preview for Charles' in-progress second album.

Headlining the night will be the groovy Kate Becker & The Zodiacs, who play somewhere in between jazzy blues and rainstorm funk. The swirling, psychedelic rainbow cover art of last year's The Soft Revolution tells you all you need to know:

Sell music itunes


Monday, March 07, 2011

Jackson Browne headlining Thursday benefit

The long nightmare in Tucson that was Jan. 8 is still a shock. It's a shock to me personally as a community member, but also as someone who shared a connection with several of the weekends.

There is no end to people seeking to make a positive response or make something positive out of such senseless violence, and the benefit show this Thursday - with Jackson Browne and Alice Cooper among many, many others - is a tremendous example.

The musicians playing in support of the Fund for Civility, Respect, and Understanding have the entirety of my respect for their efforts and I know that inside that show on Thursday evening I'll find moments of healing and intense emotions, just as I felt inside McKale Center listening to President Obama speak.

Below is the story I wrote about the benefit for the Tucson Weekly:

Jackson Browne, Alice Cooper and other music all-stars join forces to promote civility and respect

Jackson Browne has lent his voice to Tucson in the past, using music to heal and inspire.

The Sanctuary Movement drew Browne to Tucson in 1985. In 1998, he performed a benefit concert for the Center for Biological Diversity.

Now Browne is returning to Tucson for another benefit, this time in support of the Fund for Civility, Respect, and Understanding, started by Ron Barber, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' district director, who was wounded in the Jan. 8 shootings. (For more on Barber, see Page 21.)

"I think this is an opportunity for us all to take part in something that expresses our desire to live in peace and live in harmony and in a safe and productive environment," Browne said. "I want the same thing that everybody else wants, which is to live in an environment in which it's possible to discuss and to disagree without feeling that you're going to be targeted."

Joining Browne in the all-star lineup are Alice Cooper, David Crosby and Graham Nash, Sam Moore, Nils Lofgren, Keb' Mo', Jennifer Warnes, Jerry Riopelle, Dar Williams, Ozomatli and Calexico. Speakers are scheduled to include Barber; Giffords' husband, Mark Kelly; Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce president Lea Marquez Peterson; and Mayor Bob Walkup.

Browne said the benefit came together quickly and spontaneously, with promoter Danny Zelisko at the reins and musicians contacting one another to help create a positive response to the shooting, which killed six and injured 13.

"It's a tragic, shocking thing that's happened, and there needs to be a response by the community and the people who live in Tucson, but by everybody else, too. People are faced with the same kinds of problems in their own communities," he said.

"Tucson is unique. It's the desert; it's so close to the border; it's got its unique biodiversity," Browne said. "What it has in common with every American town is that people want to live in peace. They want to know they can go to the supermarket and not get shot by somebody who never should have gotten a gun."

Pairing the liberal Browne with the conservative Cooper is a statement about unity even in the face of political differences.

"It touches on the political, but also on what is humane. Politicians from both sides should agree that it's possible to debate and discuss political issues without the vitriol, which is so damaging to the atmosphere and the attitudes of people," Browne said.

Browne points to the Bill Clinton era as the point at which the idea of loyal opposition began to erode. The blustery, obsessive vitriol of that era has only grown louder since the election of Barack Obama.

"People are willing to see the ship go down if it's not headed in the direction they want it to (go in). It's a form of piracy, really," he said. "I'm not even sure I would say the problem lies with the politicians. It's the punditry, the people who make a living stirring up drama."

The Fund for Civility, Respect, and Understanding will not only support the victims and families affected by the shooting; it will also promote civility and respect in public discourse, schools and the community, and work in support of mental-health treatment.

"I think it's a good idea to set these programs in motion to remind us that what's great about this country is we have the right to dissent, the right to disagree and the right to say what we think," Browne said.

Browne said that while he'd like to see common-sense improvements in the nation's gun laws, the idea of the benefit and the fund go beyond such specifics.

"There's an epidemic of violent crime in the United States, having to deal with the ease with which the mentally ill and criminals can get guns," Browne said. "That, of course, becomes a political issue. But it's really an issue of: How do we want to live, and what has become of our attitudes and our belief in our most closely held American ideals, the right to dissent and the right to talk out our differences?"

Ultimately, the concert is just a first step in a larger mission.

"I think it's a good idea to have an event to rally people's spirits. I'm looking forward to it with a great deal of hope for the possibility of creating something good," Browne said.

Published March 3, 2011 in the Tucson Weekly.

Jackson Browne - These Days (live 1976)