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The Exited Door, On Sale

9 Mar

In honor of all the new friends I’ve made over the past six months, I’ve decided to make my first solo record, “The Exited Door,” 50% off at Bandcamp. For the rest of this week, it’s selling for $5 (though you can name your price, should you want to pay more). You can also stream the whole thing for free on the site, or even listen to it right here:

I had no label, no producer, no mixing engineer, no professional studio—only me, my best musician friends, and anyone else I could convince to pitch in. I guess the word “indie” has taken a bit of a beating lately, but I’m not sure it gets more indie than how I made this album.

If you’re curious, I wrote a detailed, seven-part series about the process of making the album which was fun to write and is worth checking out. Even though I hope to work with a producer and a professional engineering team on my next album (and don’t doubt that the album would have been “better” had I had them), it is a point of pride for me that I managed to make it at all, and I’m really glad that I took the time to document the process.

We also do this stuff live, and I’ve made a video montage of a show we did a year and a half ago. I seriously, mega need to do another big show like this one; it was way too much fun.


Huge thanks to everyone who’s bought the record so far; I hope you are enjoying it. Your support is hugely valued, so please spread the word to anyone you think might like it!

We End Up Together

31 Dec

Lots of people are doing lists of their favorite things from 2010, and I have done my share of those as well. And while I didn’t listen to enough new music to make a top-ten list, I did want to share what was probably my favorite album of the year: The New Pornographers’ Together.

This kind of music is very close to my own musical sensibilities—anyone who has listened to my stuff (and heard me sing alongside my own lovely redheaded co-singer Lindsay) can probably pretty easily tell that I’m a longtime fan of the band. Not that I chose to sing with Lindsay because she bears a superficial resemblance to Neko, I just… oh, you know what I’m saying. At any rate, Together is the Pornographers doing what they do so well: punchy, complex pop tunes with great melodies. It’s immaculately paced and listenable in the way that so many of my favorite records are—I put it on and before I know it, it’s over.

I wasn’t into their last album, Challengers; I thought it lost a lot of the drive and energy of their earlier albums. It was partly the softer, wider audio production, and partly just the songwriting. Together is a return to form—the album almost explicitly follows the template set forth in Electric Version. And like fellow DIY indies The Shins, The Pornographers have figured out how to mix their records so that each instrument has its own space (clustercuss mixes are a common problem for indie artists, myself included).

My favorite songs are all but impossible to choose. “Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk” does that “New Face of Zero and One” shuffle thing, and it does it better than ever; “Valkyrie at the Roller Disco” is gorgeous and well-arranged. The closing track, “We End Up Together,” brings the whole record together (yes, together) in a grand-finale manner that they’ve never quite pulled off before. It’s also arguably the peak of AC Newman’s three-bar-phrase approach to building tense, looping verses.

Every song goes above and beyond to really give listeners something. Part of the Pornographers’ approach involves layering, repeated sections, but the songs on this album also feature codas, finales, unexpected breakdowns, lovely bridges. Despite the erudite lyrics and verbose indieness of it all, there’s a lot of heart on display.

I didn’t listen to that many new albums this year, but I was thankful for the stuff I did listen to, as well as for everyone who took the time to make music recommendations throughout the year. I hope you’ll all keep telling me stuff I should check out in 2011.

Happy New Year everyone!

Musical Happenings

17 Aug

I’ve been working on a lot of different things, so I thought I’d take a minute to detail them here. Also, as you can see from that image, I’ve come down with a mild case of Scott Pilgrim Fever.

SF Songbird Festival Show @ The Blue Macaw

First up is a show we did a couple of weeks at at the groovy Blue Macaw in the Mission. It used to be called 12 Galaxies, and I actually haven’t been to the club since they changed names. Fortunately, the super cool Mz. Urban Therese (whom I have gotten to know as “Therese”) was putting together a bill for her Songbird Festival and asked if I’d like to participate.

We played alongside Debby Gipsman, Juliet Strong, and Jascha Hoffman, all of whom sounded great and were really cool. Debby opened with a solo acoustic set – girl has a really strong voice, sounds somewhat like Natalie Merchant, but better? And I don’t mean that in a silly way, I like Natalie Merchant’s voice, but Debby actually has a really cool quality that I dug. Juliet brought a really big, eclectic band, with accordion, cello, flute (who killed it and was a total babe to boot), cajón, upright bass and herself on keys and vocals. She sounded great, and has written some neat songs – check her stuff out! Jascha Hoffman played the closing set and gave a really charming performance with a kick-ass band – my bassist Daniel was playing with him, and his guitarist sounded great (his name is Adam Roszkiewicz, he plays with a ton of cats) and his drummer was Jason Slota, a great player from Afrodesia and John Vanderslice. Dang, that dude can freakin’ play the drums.

So yeah, our set. It was probably the most relaxed I’ve ever felt going into a show, which was so nice. All of my go-to color instrument folks (Violin, Trumpet, etc) were out of town or booked, so we went with the six-piece. Me, Dan and Lindsay on vocals, Nervo on guitar, Daniel Fabs on bass and Tim McGregor on drums. A killer group, and all friends, so we had a really laid-back vibe in general.

And we killed!  Seriously. I’ve never felt so good about a show – we could do that every night and it’d never get old. I mean, it’d get old, but it feels like it’d never get old. We went through the usual acoustic stuff – “The Darkened Street,” “No Crow, Scarecrow,” “North Kinser,” “Oh, Brother,” “If You’re Feeling Out Of It.”  Most of which are on my record, which hey, if you don’t have it, you should buy it. You know, forget iTunes even – you can actually buy it. Support independent music, man!

Just for kicks, Dan and I did our duo song “The Can Man,” which we wrote together a while back, and it was a ton of fun. We might have to start performing that one more often. And of course, at the end of the set, we played Shoshana. A hit, as always.

There was a really great crowd out, and we were so happy for everyone’s enthusiastic support. Thanks so much for coming, one and all! Thanks also to Therese and the awesome Frankie Burton, who helped run the show and took the pictures here. My next show will most likely be in September, and I’m planning on whipping out some mondo new material later in the fall, too. More on that soon.

Keyboards This Weekend with Blue Rabbit!

Next thing up is a cool one. I’ll be subbing on keyboards with the groovy chamber-pop vocal band Blue Rabbit! This is a band who, if you’ll recall, I described upon first listen as sounding like “the best episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer ever.” (Don’t worry, I elaborated. Or maybe, worry: I elaborated.)

They are awesome, and we’ve been friends since we shared a bill last year at the Rickshaw Stop. Tim, their keyboardist, wasn’t available this weekend, so they needed someone to fill in. They gave me a ring, and even though my first instinct was “Seriously? Can I learn this much keyboard music in a week?” after thinking about it, I realized “Yeah actually, I can!” So I went for it. We rehearsed last night, and the show is going to be a blast.

We’re playing at the Rock Make Street Festival in the mission, going on at noon. The best part about playing keyboards is that I don’t have to bring an instrument – just myself and my middling chops. So, after the set we’ll hang around at the festival and drink beer and listen to music. Come out! Say hi! Meet these people! They are like the nicest band ever!

Info on the festival is here. Do eet. Do eet.

New Songs, New Projects, DRUMS

Last but not least are the new things I’m working on. Mostly, it’s new music. A bootload of it, actually. I’ve got around eight songs in the hopper, and a few more ideas that are slowly working their way into more fully-formed tunes. It’s really, really fun stuff, and I’ve been having a blast finally adding lyrics and finishing up the form. Pretty soon, I’ll have demos out to the band and we can start actually learning this stuff!

It’s bigger, I’d say, than anything on The Exited Door. Not a huge shift in style or anything, just more fully-realized – the tunes take greater advantage of the three vocal parts, as well as the strengths of Lindsay and Dan, my two vocalists. In addition, they’re geared a bit more towards live performance – as fun as “The Bird Women of Golden Gate Park” and “Down By The Water” are, they’re not really songs that always come off amazingly live.

So, ton of new music there, as well as another cool project (or actually, series of projects) I’m working on with Khamara Pettus, the amazing actor/director/producer/force of nature with whom I’ve been working, scheming, planning over the past couple of months. We’re putting together some things to perform at the Brava Theatre, and I’ll have more on that stuff once it’s a bit more ready for the light of day. Suffice to say: it merges a lot of things about which I am quite passionate. Also, Khamara is a rock goddess.

Last, my odyssey into becoming a real-life drummer is all but complete – I’m confident now that I could hold it down in just about any bitchin’ rock band that’d have me. And I want them to have me. Do you know of a kick-ass, stripped-down, glammy rock punk freakout band, preferably with some female energy in the mix, that is in need of a tall, goofy drummer who makes up for his lack of extreme burning chops with energy and musicality? If so, A) I am surprised you know such a specific band and B) GIVE THEM MY NUMBER.

That’s All, Folks

So, that’s it for musical updates. I’ll post some demos and further thoughts on the new songs once I’ve got them in shape to share, and in the meantime, SFers come on out to the Rock Make Festival this Sunday and say hi!

Ten Songs From My Last Decade

7 Jan

Just in time for everyone to be done with decade-related lists, I thought that I’d do one myself. For me, the last decade was a period of humongous personal and artistic growth – I began in 2000 a greenie freshman at UMiami, a total jazz snob with a saxophone and not a single clue.  Over the decade, I was introduced to more amazing music than I could have possibly foreseen – during that period of time, the music I listened to affected me more than the music I studied.

This list is far from definitive; it’s not even a real “top-ten,” since I’m sure that just after posting it, I’ll remember something amazing that I left off.  These are just ten songs that had a big effect on me, that changed the way I listened to, thought about, played, and wrote music.  More than that, though, they’re ten songs I dug the most. They are listed in roughly the chronological order in which I heard them.

Maria Schneider – Hang Gliding – from Allegresse (listen)

Oh, how this piece enchanted me and my friends at Miami.  We were so into it, and with good reason – Maria came down to Miami a couple times while I was there to direct the Concert Jazz Band on her material, and not only is she one of the most lovely creatures on the face of the planet (you should see her tai-chi directing), her music is so beautiful, soaring, and dripping with incredible melody that it’s kind of this… undeniable thing. Hang Gliding is, for me, the pinnacle of Maria’s writing – the peaks and valleys are so epic, by the time its 11-minutes are over, I really feel like I’ve been taken somewhere.  When she does the piece live, she tells this story about how it’s based on the first time she went hang gliding. With that in mind, it’s easy to visualize the build-up to flight, the initial leap, drifting in the clouds, etc – it is, at its heart, music about freedom, about flying.  Allegresse can be a tough album to track down, but this piece alone makes it worth the trouble (the rest of the album is pretty great, too).  This recording’s uber-Miami connection, with Greg Gisbert (who is now a Miami trumpet professor) handing his seriously ridiculous trumpet solo over to the that really, really creative tenor playing by UM-alum Rick Margitza… that makes me like it even more.

MUSE – Micro Cuts – from Origin of Symmetry (listen)

Listening to Origin of Symmetry for the first time was like having a window opened in my brain.  And through that window, the rock flowed in. Here was a band making music I could get behind – really strong melodies and really, really ripping hooks, played by three guys… when I heard this record, it was late 2002, and you couldn’t even get the disc stateside.  We were years away from MUSE’s eventual rise to prominence (and, I would argue, fall from total musical awesomeness) in the US, and this little trio with the huge sound was the first band that made me realize that I didn’t want to just play jazz for the rest of my life.  Micro Cuts in particular, with its crazy-creepy verse and EXPLOSIVE chorus, was practically the most awesome thing I’d ever heard.  It still is.

Jeff Buckley – Grace – from Grace (listen)

In terms of where and when I first heard it, this album went hand-in-hand with Origin of Symmetry, so much so that I’m going to ignore the fact that it didn’t come out in the 2000’s.  All the tunes were amazing – I’d never heard anyone sing like Jeff, and Lilac Wine and Hallelujah were both really emotionally draining, beautiful songs.  But the thing that really sold me on Buckley was the title track from the disc, Grace.  It’s got so much going on, and it builds and builds, climaxing in a scream that is so fucking awesome that it, like, switched the part on my hair.  He holds the scream for like five minutes, and that was cool enough, but it’s at the end, when he takes it farther up before taking a breath, that I knew I was hearing something one-of-a-kind.

Joshua Redman – Enemies Within – from Passage of Time (listen)

Josh Redman was a really important guy for me, growing up – he was the first modern sax player I got into (modern meaning post-1965), and if I really had to choose the ultimate Redman tune to list here, it’d be his joyous, incredibly playful introduction to “St. Thomas” on his live record “Spirit of the Moment.”  But while his youth and energy on that recording are really great, “Enemies Within” is a much more refined bit of awesome, featuring some terrifyingly perfect playing, and the most awesome “Pent-Up House” quote I’ve ever heard. I did this on my senior recital, and while in retrospect, I can’t believe I even attempted it, I’ll never forget the tune, or all the time I spent listening to this record.

Me’shell Ndegeocello – The Way – from Peace Beyond Passion (listen)

Speaking of people I got really into in 2003, Meshell is right up there, too.  I believe this is another album that didn’t come out in the 00’s, but no matter – Peace Beyond Passion still ranks as one of my all-time favorite albums, and this tune is a big reason why.  It was the first thing of hers I heard, and in addition to having the absolute most grooving programmed drums I’ve ever heard (they groove almost as hard as Gene Lake does on the rest of the record), it features Mr. Josh Redman, again, ripping it apart with a wah-wah sax solo that is uncharacteristically weird for him, and fits the tune perfectly.  The rest of the album also features Dave Fuiczynski, whose band Screaming Headless Torsos I would’ve included had I had another couple of slots on my arbitraily-decided “top ten” list.  But instead, I’ll just mention that he is good.  Me’shell was the first of my monday’s people I wanted to be, and everything I said there about her is still true.  She is possibly the coolest, most spiritually interesting, musically compelling writer on the face of the planet.

Gabe Dixon Band – Expiration Date – from On A Rolling Ball (listen)

This one, fewer of you are probably familiar with.  So I’m gonna put in a link to buy the song on iTunes.  Comprised of dudes who were a few years ahead of me at Miami, GDB doesn’t exist anymore – Gabe, Winston and Jano are still playing together and making some great music, but the band has most assuredly moved past “Experimental Jazz-Pop” and into “Really, Really Solid Songwriting That Will Pay Bills.” It’s all still great stuff, but doesn’t have the jazz-geek rhythmic virtuosity that made me love them so much while they were still down in UM. This tune, off of the full band’s major-label debut, will always be my favorite. From the beat-displacing intro to Jano’s constant drum hits on 4, through the incredibly epic chorus (listen to the drumming!  He plays like three notes per bar!), and the crazy-pants outro… it’s just an utterly unique song, with a melody that’ll get stuck in your head.  For real, give it a spin.

Rufus Wainwright – Oh, What A World – from Want One (listen)

This tune is on here instead of the four or five other real Wainwright standouts because it was the first thing of his I’d ever heard, and it just blew me away.  I’ll never forget where I was when I first heard it, too – sitting at my desk at the law firm where I worked for a year after moving to SF. I’d gotten the record based on some review I’d read, and put it on my iPod, and as I filed envelopes, listened to it.  And a few minutes later, I was just cracking up, kinda unable to believe what I was hearing… the people in my work area must’ve though I was a complete freak.  But I was loving it so much – the unrestrained grandiosity, the shameless pompousness, the huge orchestra, the hilarious lyrics… to this day, this tune gets at what I love most about Rufus.  He doesn’t take anything too seriously, and as a result, is able to write huge, strutting songs about little things.

The Shins – Pink Bullets from Chutes Too Narrow (listen)

I got Chutes Too Narrow a good three or four months before Garden State came out, so I’m totally that guy who got into The Shins before they were cool.  For approximately five seconds, I couldn’t get into the record, and then I heard “Saint Simon” for the first time, and realized what they were all about.  So why did I chose “Pink Bullets,” instead?  Hang on a sec, I’m getting there.  The music was really great stuff, and I enjoyed it, but was having a hard time understanding James Mercer half the time. So, I turned to the lyrics on their website, and that was when the true magnificence of The Shins, and Mercer’s writing, became clear to me.  I bet that some people make fun of his twisting, poetic language.  Those people are wrong. James Mercer might be one of my favorite lyricists ever, and “Pink Bullets,” a song that imagines two lovers as kites flying and twisting together in the air, is probably my favorite of the bunch. Haunting, and beautiful.  I also love the part towards the end of the video when the cow starts to sing.

Arcade Fire – Wake Up – from Funeral (listen)

The first time I listened to Funeral, I listened to it wrong. I was running, listening on my iPod, and I heard the first few songs, but somewhere in there my headphone plug came a little undone.  So, everything became this crazy mess of sound effects and half-deconstructed beats.  I thought that Arcade Fire had lapsed into electronica or something, and I was being all hilariously critical, thinking, like, “Hmm, interesting choice to deconstruct the beat here… not sure if I love it, though…”  It wasn’t until the end of my run, when I wiggled the plug and suddenly was hearing “Lies” in full stereo that I realized what’d happened.  So, I gave it another listen, and, as was the case for so many other folks, it was when “Wake Up” came on that I realized what a truly special band Arcade Fire was.  Enough ink has been spilled on this song that I don’t have much to add – it’s one of the few times that I’ve felt in-step with the hipper music fans out there.  The song is so orgiastic in its climaxes, so cathartic that even though I don’t totally love when they change the beat up in the last minute or so, nothing could detract from those first three minutes. To have one’s own work held as a high-water mark for all future efforts seems a bit unfair, but I’m not sure the band will ever match this song.

Sufjan Stevens – Come On! Feel the Illinoise!, Pt. I: The World’s Columbian Exposition / Pt. II: Carl Sandburg Visits Me In a Dream – from Illinoise (listen)

I had a similar experience listening to Sufjan Stevens as I did when listening to Arcade Fire – well, except my iPod worked the whole time. I was on a run, enjoyed the first two songs just fine, and then Come On! came on, and I couldn’t believe it.  First off, they were grooving really weirdly and interestingly – playing in 5 was only part of it.. James McAllister’s drumming is so interesting; he leaves a lot of space, and it lets all the wild orchestration of the tune really come out. Chicago totally won my heart, too, and was sort of the “Wake Up” of Sufjan’s album, but this was the tune that I heard and I said… I can do this.  I can totally make an album like this.  And that was a pretty big moment for me.

There are a ton of other songs that should go on this list – a hundred musicians and artists, including pretty much anything anyone I went to school with has recorded, should all be featured.  Alas, I don’t have time to do the top-50 or so that I really would love to share.

Something I’ve noticed is that I don’t listen to as much new music as I used to, that I don’t have the time and energy to dismantle the workings of the new bands out there.  I think that, above anything else, my new decade’s resolution is to seek out new music again, and hope to find ten songs this decade that’ll inspire me as much as the ten on this list did.

It’s a lot to live up to, but I kinda think the songs are already out there, half-sketched little melodies in the head of some composer or songwriter, waiting to be written, waiting to be heard.

Regarding Adam Lambert’s New Album

23 Nov

American Idol Runner-Up Adam Lambert’s new album, For Your Entertainment, drops today. Actually, it already dropped, so it is now sitting there looking at us, post-drop. Considering how much I had to say about him during the last season of the show, I thought I’d write a bit about it.

Short version: I really liked it. No, seriously! Some of the songs are pretty fun, some are kinda lame, but a handful are fucking outstanding (My recommended tunes are listed at the end of this post). It also has, as you can see, the most hilariously uncool/totally awesome album cover I’ve seen in a while.

I first listened to the record last week (it’s been up for a while streaming on Lambert’s MySpace page), after being steered there by the whole Out Magazine-centric “Adam’s PR people are homophobic jerks” debate, which has been discussed online past the point at which I have anything new to add (though I certainly tried, with limited success, over at Low Resolution – thanks, Joe, for dealing with my long-ass comments). And that was before his AMA performance last night (short reaction: I thought the whole thing was an overcooked clusterfuck, and the singing was all over the place), and along with whatever scandalous (or, “scandalous”) thing he does next…it’s easy to forget that the dude has an actual album out, too.

For Your Entertainment is the first Idol-related album I’ve ever listened to all the way through, and though I’d heard about all of the great writers and producers who contributed, I still wasn’t sure what to expect going in.  I’ve never really been able to listen to an album that came from Idol – whatever magic it was that made the contestant stand out during the show is usually scrubbed clean in the production process, and we wind up with a bunch of generic-sounding pop songs that could have been sung by anyone.

(It’s worth noting that Clay Aiken’s album “Measure of a Man” might be the ultra-creepy, bizarre exception.  I never really listened to it, but this years-old TWoP “recap” of the album is so flipping awesome that I can’t not link to it.  It takes a couple pages to get to the album – seriously, read it, and be very afraid.)

Justin'll probably loan this outfit to Adam at some point.

For about the first twenty seconds of FYE‘s opening track, a Justin Hawkins-penned stomper called “Music Again,” I kinda thought the same thing would be true of Lambert’s record.  And then, suddenly, in true Darkness-style, Adam’s voice jumped an octave and a half and the chorus kicked in, and I was like, hmm, okay, damn. I can get with this.

“You make me want to listen to music again” is a kick-ass sentiment, and the tune also contains hilariously Hawkins-y lyrical turns of phrase like, “I want your body, mind, soul, etc.” and a stretch of “Raison D’etre,” into an entire lyrical event.  Keeping in mind that this is a song by the guy who wrote “Friday Night,” aka “The song where they sing about badminton,” one realizes that “Music Again” sounds like a Darkness B-side, complete with a signature Justin Hawkins guitar solo halfway through.  I loved the Darkness, so that’s a good thing, as far as I’m concerned.

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16 Frames From Hanne Hukkelberg

1 Sep




Hanne4 Continue reading

Giving New Music A Rest

3 Aug

57348bI’ve made an interesting discovery over the past few weeks. In what is most certainly a sign of my advancing age and maturity (HA), I’ve found that at the moment, I can’t really deal with listening to new music. Whenever I put on a record by some indie band or NY bassist, I find myself listening very carefully, pondering the creative choices made by the band, wondering what their tour schedule looks like, trying to figure out the new instruments, or the new sounds, or the production techniques, or… it’s just so exhausting. I hadn’t really realized what was happening until, on a whim, I started listening to some old Cure albums, and they just did it for me. Like, so hard.

It was “Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me,” perhaps not the most celebrated of the Cure ouvre, but still a great record, and when the kind of lackadaisical drum mix, the wash-y guitar, the build to Robert Smith’s howlerific vocal entrance… it slowly dawned on me, listening to this felt so, so great. You know when, in the mid-morning, you pull your arms back and take a stretch, and out of nowhere it turns into this epic, full-body experience and all of your muscles are singing and it’s so awesome that you almost pass out? It was like that.

I found myself looking forward to the next time I could sit with my iPod and listen – no current bands up in my face (or, the ears on my face) trying to show me why they’re great, or why they’re so authentic, or trying to wow me with their backstory, or make me dance. No more singer/songwriters no one has ever heard of with amazing voices singing songs with great/terrible/cliched/creative lyrics. No more irony, no more tortured album concepts. Just music, music that already exists, is no longer current; music that has retired, or better, maybe …gone pro.

I am, of course, aware that I’m projecting – this has nothing to do with the music itself and everything to do with where my head is at. All the same, the effect that it has, that calming, stretching effect, is so great, I can’t deny it.

muswell-hillbilliesThough I’ve never really been able to articulate it, it’s a feeling that listening to old jazz has always given me, and the minute I started looking, I realized I was finding it all over the place. After “Kiss Me,” I moved on to “Paris” and through “Disintegration” (naturally), but then on to other artists… suddenly, I have found myself obsessed with The Kinks. “Muswell Hillbillies,” “Aurthur,” “Village Green,” the sounds on these records, the intimacy with which they were recorded, the relaxed flow… *stretches* aaaah!

And it’s not even as though these records were created in some halcyon time when music was music and labels respected that (and men men and children above average, etc.). It turns out that “Muswell Hillbillies” was the first record that The Kinks did for RCA, so there was all this pressure on them to do a big single – they had just had “Lola” become a huge hit, and rather than deliver a safe pop album that would be a trans-Atlantic reinvention for them, they put together “Hillbillies,” a collection of working-class tunes steeped in American blues and country music, sung with warped British/American southern accents, winking lyrics played with appalling earnestness. It was a bit of a gamble, and for whatever reason, it worked.

So, it’s not so much that the albums, in their own respective times, were any more relaxed, or had any less of the “Check Our Shit Out” vibe that I’ve been finding so exhausting while listening to current music. It’s more that those qualities have been washed away by time, and when I listen to them now, I don’t need to think about the band, the group, in any context beyond the historical.

Though I know my glasses are more than a bit rose-tinted, there’s something about the way I imagine these musicians, in their shag-covered studios with their “vintage” gear, smoking lucky strikes and talking on the telephone… almost more like they’re literary characters than musicians. It’s a phenomenon peculiar to our view of historical figures, a sort of depersonalization that happens when lore replaces experience and stories replace memories… I would think it is one of the greatest challenges a history teacher ever faces, making historical figures seem real, bringing their humanity, the actualness of their past realities home to students. It’s why we visit that prairie town in grade school, where the people dress up and act like settlers, and we chop wood and sit in the one-room schoolhouse. It’s why John Adams, it’s why historical fiction.

Dexter Gordon - ou Man In ParisJust as I know that Dexter Gordon and Stan Getz were real people who made their albums in an effort to express themselves creatively, part of me can’t “see” their realities, decades-removed as they are from my own existence. And as it turns out, the same holds true with older rock bands – even when some of the members are still alive, the music takes on a different quality, more like a scrapbook, heightening some aspects of the music beyond its original qualities. I actually think that this phenomenon is a big part of why, as we re-listen to Michael Jackson’s albums in the wake of his death, the songs sound different – clearer, truer – than they have in years. The change is neither good nor bad, it just is – the time is past, the distance has been inserted, and the music is now a part of history, fundamentally untouchable.

Admittedly, this is a pretty half-baked articulation of my thinking – I’m sort of working it out as I go along. Hazards of blogging, I guess. All I know is that, for the time being, I’m going to be digging deeper and deeper into my music library and seeking out older records, albums that comfortably exist in their place in history, requiring nothing more of me than my time and my attention. Letting me stretch out and relax.

The Kinks - Aurthur Record

Albums, Rediscovered (Pt. 2)

9 Jul

buried-treasureLooking at my listening habits over the past few years, it is clear that while sailing the Seas of Music, somewhere along the way I came up against the Great White Shark of Limited Storage Space. Fortunately, I just got a bigger boat. About a week ago I bought a shiny new 32GB iPhone 3GS.  It is indeed as awesome as they say – the faster speeds, the 3G network, the video capability… all of these things are really great upgrades from my previous first-gen phone. However, the biggest, most welcome change of all is the massively increased storage space.

I’ve never had an iPod with this much space, and I’ve crammed it with, like, every album I’ve listened to in the last ten years. Amazing. Anyway, I thought I’d put together a list of the albums I’ve been re-listening to – it’s in two parts, Part One is A-L, Part Two is M-Z.

I highly recommend giving all of them a listen – I’d put in links, but Google will tell you how to get a copy, should you want to, and they’re all on iTunes, as well.


15777129_leviathanwf3Mastodon – “Leviathan”

Man, as much as I dig “Crack the Skye,” I gotta say, I think that this one is still my favorite.  For some reason, I like prog bands most when they’re out to prove something, and this record feels like these guys were out to prove, basically, that they rocked fucking harder than anything ever.  They may have the most appropriate band name of all time.

Team_Boo-Mates_of_State_480Mates of State – “Team Boo”

Dudes, it has taken me a loooong time to come around to the Mates.  I got them on a fervent recommendation, I know tons of people who worship them, and from minute one, it was clear that they were a really skilled, interesting band.  But the music, for a long time, was too tense, too much of a high-wire act – I was all too aware that there were only two of them, at how impressive what they were pulling off was…  Anyway, now that I’m returning to this album, I’m much more comfortable while listening, and think I’m going to pick up their new one.

B0000296PM.09.LZZZZZZZMichael Brecker – “Time is of the Essence”

I always get the feeling that this is an overlooked Brecker album – it’s not as freak-outy as his stuff with Randy, not as genre-defining as Tales from the Hudson, and not as instrumentally diverse as, like, Wide Angles or American Dreams.  But I love this album – in particular the tunes on which Bill Stewart plays.  Rennaissance Man is just the funkiest, man.  Awesome.

6-1222485219Mr. Bungle – “California”

I had some friends a while back who lived in Eau Claire, Wisconsin (I met them at Shell Lake Jazz Camp), and one year I spent New Year’s Eve with them.  It was so, so much fun – and one of my main memories is of driving from the Twin Cities (where I was staying) back to Eau Claire with them, listening to Mr. Bungle’s self-titled debut album.  It is some weird shit – Mike Patton really went off, and it was all a bit scatalogical for my tastes.  However, I picked up a copy, and then later their second record, “California,” and I’m glad I did.  The songs are waaay more focused, and there’s some truly incredible shit going on.  “Aris Moriendi” and “Retrovertigo” in particular are just amazing tracks.

Electric_Version-The_New_Pornographers_480The New Pornographers – “Electric Version”

For a long time, I was obsessed with “Twin Cinema,” and it wasn’t until I had the storage space that I went back to this album and realized that I honestly might like it even more.  It’s more aggressive than Cinema, though lacking in the sort of next-level writing that AC Neuman was doing on the later album, and while it doesn’t have a “Sing Me Spanish Techno” or a “Use It,” I gotta say that for whatever reason, I like the flow of the material better on this record.  Plus, it’s wicked fun to drum to.

bluestruthOliver Nelson – “The Blues And The Abstract Truth”

Classics are classics for a reason.  I hadn’t listened to this record for a while, but coming back to it is like coming back home.  I was obsessed with this disc in high school, and haven’t forgotten a note of it – Freddie sounds so sick, it’s ridiculous, and I have a new-found appreciation for Oliver’s strange, melodic solos.  He was a genius of the highest order, and I want to play more of his music.

HardGrooveRoy Hargrove – “Hardgroove”

One of the most fun records I have, I hadn’t listened to this in YEARS before the advent of the new iPhone.  But man, I kinda can’t believe it – I mean, a jazz/hip-hop jam hosted by Roy, featuring Erikah, Q-Tip, MeShell, ?uestlove, Common, D’Angelo, and a ton of the best young funk players in Houston?  Even with the kinda lame name “The RH Factor,” holy crap, that’s a lineup.  Wicked fun from beginning to end, this record lives up to its title.

ryanhell1Ryan Adams – “Love is Hell”

I originally bought this in two parts (as it was originally released) – and part one was my first Ryan Adams record.  When I got it, the dude at Virgin Records said, “You should really get Gold, it’s way better than this.”  Well, Dude At Virgin Record Store, while I really do like Gold, I’m not so sure you’re right.  Especially once part two came out, and the whole album came together – there’s some pretty amazing shit on here.  “Thank You, Louise,” “I See Monsters,” “My Blue Manhattan,” and of course the famous cover or “Wonderwall.”  It’s a strong album, and one of my favorites of his.  Strange, but beautiful.

screaming1995Screaming Headless Torsos – “Screaming Headless Torsos”

One of the most balls-to-the-wall shredding albums I own.  More shredding, in its way, than say, Vital Tech Tones or anything that the G3 has done. Dave Fiuczynski is a complete madman – there’s nothing like his slipping, sliding, screeching fretless guitar.. it’s, like… okay.  You know in Gremlins 2, when the one gremlin becomes a bolt of lightening?  Dave’s playing is pretty much exactly like that. “Smile and a Wave,” man.  Hell yeah. Also, I just checked and I spelled Fiuczynski right on my first try.  Booyah! Also, I’m pretty sure that JoJo Mayer is playing drums on this album, and holy crap.  Later stuff with Gene Lake is also amazing, but I can’t get over JoJo’s playing on this record, “Word to Herb” in particular.  Chops, man.  What’s also pretty outstanding is that the album cover features an actual headless torso that is screaming.

album-marvins-marvelous-mechanical-museumTally Hall – “Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanical Museum”

Had it not been for “The OC,” I never would have heard of this (awesome) album.  Let me explain.  In an episode of the show, Tally Hall, a previously (and currently) unknown band from Michigan, did an A Capella version of a Killers song. In his recap, Jacob at TWoP mentioned that they were one of his favorite bands at the moment.  Intrigued, I checked them out, and really enjoyed what I heard (the song “Good Day”), so I got their album.  And really dug it!  A bunch of talented dudes who got together at college and had as much fun as possible making an album, it’s far from the most mature expression of musicl vision I’ve ever heard, but it’s totally fun, legitimately funny, and has some really great writing.  I’m not sure what these guys are up to at the moment, but they certainly made one really good album.  “Banana Man,” indeed.

They Might Be Giants – “Every Album They Ever Made”

I think I’ve been over this.

8491-pawn-shoppe-heartThe Von Bondies – “Pawn Shoppe Heart”

Another band that made one amazing album and then kinda fell off the face of the earth (well, after getting punched in the face).  The Dans saw these guys at The Independent a little while ago and said that they still sounded great, though they’d changed quite a bit of their lineup.  This album was, I believe, a bit of a shocker to anyone who knew the band – I guess that they kinda didn’t play that well for a while, then got in the shed, worked their shit out, and put out this record.  Well, whatever – “Pawn Shoppe Heart” fucking kills. Jason Stollsteimer just belts that shit out, and the combination of him yelping over the Blondie-esque female vocals works every time. It’s a drag that he’ll go down in history as “The Dude Who Got His Ass Kicked By Jack White That One Time,” because he’s a totally great player, writer, and singer.  I guess my writing that just now didn’t help things.

20070811094518!Apple_VenusXTC – “Apple Venus Volume 1″

This album takes me back to college, though I bought it way back in high school.  When I was in High School, I was not cool enough to be listening to XTC on my own – I only got the album because I heard “Green Man” on the radio and thought it was awesome, then I heard “I’d Like That” on the same station (92.3, coming through!), and though “Hmm.  This band sounds pretty cool!”  I dug the album well enough, but it wasn’t until years later, when I had a chance to really listen, that I got just how amazing these guys really are.  I have plenty more of their records these days, but this one remains my favorite – I can’t believe I hadn’t listened to it in so long.

My Favorite They Might Be Giants Lyrics

6 Jul

In addition to being able to carry more music with me in general, a side-effect of having increased portable music-player storage space is that I can finally take my entire They Might Be Giants collection everywhere I go.  No more weighing various albums, going with older volumes just because they’re classic, cherry-picking songs from records… I finally have the entirety of my music collection’s giant-y goodness with me at all times.

I’ve had a really good time re-visiting their entire catalog, remembering what makes this band so special for me.  Their music is so free, so unpretentiously groovy, but even more than that, their lyrics? Are amazing.

I thought I’d compile a list of my favorites from among John and John’s many amazing lines and refrains.

Without further ado:

Murfins and Burglars Top 15 They Might Be Giants Lyrics

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Albums, Rediscovered (Pt. 1)

2 Jul

buried_treasure copyLooking at my listening habits over the past few years, it is clear that while sailing the Seas of Music, somewhere along the way I came up against the Great White Shark of Limited Storage Space. Fortunately, I just got a bigger boat. About a week ago I bought a shiny new 32GB iPhone 3GS.  It is indeed as awesome as they say – the faster speeds, the 3G network, the video capability… all of these things are really great upgrades from my previous first-gen phone. However, the biggest, most welcome change of all is the massively increased storage space.

I’ve never had an iPod with this much space, and I’ve crammed it with, like, every album I’ve listened to in the last ten years. Amazing. Anyway, I thought I’d put together a list of the albums I’ve been re-listening to – it’s in two parts, Part One is A-L, Part Two is M-Z.

I highly recommend giving all of them a listen – I’d put in links, but Google will tell you how to get a copy, should you want to, and they’re all on iTunes, as well.


5084-the-forgotten-armAimee Mann – “The Forgotten Arm”

This is such a great album – the melodies, the story it tells, Mann’s ridiculous ability to write a bridge… great stuff.  Also, it features Julian Coryell, one of the first people I wanted to be ever.

az_5287_Colors_Avishai CohenAvishai Cohen – “Colors”

One of my favorite Avishai albums, Colors has just about everything I love about his records.  It also reminds me how much my bud Austin’s writing reminds me of Avishai. Which is a really, really good thing. The title track is really something special, and I love the cover art, too.

mehldau.brad.0093624811428Brad Mehldau – “Largo”

This one never made it off of my smaller iPhone, but I hadn’t given it a listen in a while.  It’s a significant departure for Mehldau from his usual trio stuff, but I love this album.  Who knew the guy was so great at vibes?

The_Cardigans-First_Band_On_The_Moon-FrontalThe Cardigans – “First Band On The Moon”

Holy balls, I think I’m prepared to dub this one of the best pop albums of the past twenty years.  I’m not kidding – give it a listen and tell me I’m wrong.  I saw these guys live, and thought it wasn’t even in the same league as their studio stuff, which was disappointing.  Maybe they’re doomed to be another band forever chasing the glory of their one perfect album.

60896Clifford Brown – “Study in Brown”

Max Roach, man.  It’s a blast to listen to Clifford’s insane playing, particularly after spending a lot of time with Dave Douglas and Wallice Roney, but… Max Roach!  Such a killer, so fast, inventive, melodic… truly one of the greats, maybe the greatest.  The more I practice the drums, the more I enjoy to listen to him.

deathcab_transDeath Cab for Cutie – “Transatlanticism.”

I was really, really into this album about four years ago or so, and re-listening to it, I remember why.  It’s Emo without being High School, and beautiful without being cloying.  The dudes really know how to build a song, and break traditional song form in groovy ways.  Plus, the title track makes me want to do drugs with Claire Fisher and sing along in her bedroom.

Diana+Krall+-+All+for+You+-+[Front]Diana Krall – “All For You: A Dedication to Nat King Cole”

This was the first Krall album I got, and I got it way back before she became synonymous with “jazz for middle-aged white women.”  And man, it really is a shame that she took such a left turn for chanteuse-ville, because the woman can play the piano.  This trio, with Russell Malone on guitar and Paul Keller on bass, swings harder than anything she’s done since.

erykah-badu-baduizmErykah Badu – “Baduizm”

I read a story somewhere (google says: in the New Yorker) about how Erykah showed up in NY and just set the place on fire, that all the other vocalists couldn’t compete with her light, dulcet swing and regal stage presence.  Damn, I can just imagine. She is so freaking cool, sounds so damn good, and has such a killing band… wow.  Probably my favorite vocalist of the new generation.  So glad I rediscovered this record.

album-extraordinary-machineFiona Apple – “Extraordinary Machine”

There was a lot of hullabaloo surrounding the release of this record, since the original Jon Brion-produced version was shelved by the label in favor of something with more radio-readiness.  I dunno, man, I have both versions, and I honestly prefer the one the label released… with Abe Laboriel and ?uestlove on drums, the shit grooves like crazy, and tunes like “Tymps” and “Window” are pretty bitchin’ as a result.

zappa-frank-996-lFrank Zappa – “The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life”

Of all of the Zappa records I own, this one is probably my favorite, and it was actually the first one I got really into.  I was maybe a junior in college, and had had the disc for a long time, before I gave it another go, and was blown away – live shows with a full horn section and Chad Wackerman tearing shit up on the drums.  The final run of “Florentine Pogen” into “Andy” into “Inca Roads” is one of the sickest groupings of recordings I’ve ever heard.

3927-make-up-the-breakdownHot Hot Heat – “Make Up The Breakdown”

Another band that made a nearly perfect record and then couldn’t recreate it – these guys seemed really, really cocky on their follow-up record “Elevator,” but the record just didn’t have anything close to the magic of “Make Up.”  On re-listen, it’s clear why – Dante DeCaro’s guitar parts on “Make Up” are just waaay more creative, experimental, and fun to listen to than on “Elevator.”  I don’t think it was his call, either – he left the band shortly afterwards. Drag.

James_Brown-Live_at_the_Apollo_(album_cover)James Brown – “Live At The Apollo”

Dude.  Could anyone, ever, sing like James?  Will anyone ever sing like him again?  No, I don’t think so.  It’s wild to imagine being at this show, as the ladies go absolutely crazy for him, and the band brings the fucking thunder down.  Wow.  His version of “Try Me” is just ridiculous.

New Music, Good Music

28 May

I’ve found that as a composer, my creative cycle goes sort of like this: writewritewritewaitwaitrestwritewriterestlistenwritewriterestrestlistenlistenlistenlisten.  Rinse and repeat.  I’m sort of at that very end part – my album is complete, and I’m working on getting that music onstage and out there, so I’m sort of letting the batteries recharge before tackling any new material.  And I’ve found that this time is the perfect time to listen to new music – so that’s what I’ve been doing.  Here are some of the albums I’ve been listening to (and loving) lately:

1) Andrew Bird – “Noble Beast”

andrew_bird-noble_beast-special_edition1I’m going to go out on a limb and say that this is Bird’s most assured record to date (or, at least that I’ve heard). The songwriting is as focused as anything I’ve heard from him, his vocals freaking soar, and the little sounds that he gets, particularly on tracks like “Masterswarm” and “Nomenclature” are just awesome.  Little crinkley drum sounds, grooves built out of looped and manipulated clicks and clacks, all in service of creating an intimate groove that he can wrap his spectacular violin playing around.  It’s the latest step in his evolution as an artist, and just an amazing listen.  I’m going to go and get his entire back catalog, too – there’s some pretty great, eclectic stuff in there, and it seems to inform his current work in a really cool way.

2) Darren Johnston – “The Edge of the Forest”

Darren Johnston The Edge of the ForestI’ve known of Darren (and, more recently, actually known Darren) for a while now – he’s certainly a major presence on the SF jazz scene. I hadn’t really had a chance to hear him play until recently, when I caught his group Nice Guy Trio (Darren plays trumpet and leads the band, joined by Rob Reich on accordion and my buddy Daniel Fabricant on bass) at the Red Poppy Art House.  And DUDE.  Darren is a heavy player.  His phrasing is an absolute blast – rolling lines sequencing into one another, phrases as long as you please.  I got to take a listen to the rough tracks from the upcoming Nice Guys record, and it’s super good stuff – really melodic, with great playing.  Darren half-jokingly described it as his “populist effort,” and now that I’ve listened to his solo album, “The Edge of the Forest,” I can see what he’s talking about.  The material on “Forest,” while still accessable, is basically free-jazz – chord-less music anchored by some absolutely outstanding bass playing by Devin Hoff and Smith Dobson on drums. Sheldon Brown and Ben Goldberg contribute some ridiculous bass and Bb clarinet playing, respectively, and Rob guests on Accordion, as well.  The freedom of this playing on this record, the way the band splits into “mini-bands,” freely improvising off of one another… it’s so much fun to listen to.  One minute, Darren is going off with Devin and Smith (drums), the next Sheldon and Ben are playing a ripping unaccompanied clarinet duet through a chord progression of their own invention.  It’s really, really cool stuff. Darren tells me it’s going to get reviewed in Downbeat in August, which is exciting, because let’s face it – they’re going to like it.  You should get a copy.

3) Hanne Hukkelberg – “Little Things”

Hanne+Hukkelberg+-+Little+ThingsIn my “Things that aren’t lame” post from a few days ago, I shared a video from this  Norwegian singer/multi-instrumentalist, and I gotta go the next step and talk a little about her album.  I actually have her first two, both “Little Things” and “RYKESTRASSE 68,” though so far I’ve had more of a chance to listen to the former than the latter. “Little Things” is a wonderful, special record, shiny, both warm and cold… it’s a brilliant listen. Hanne plays a ton of cool instruments, including keyboards, water sound effects, mouth effects, toy controllers, while her drummer, Erland Dahlen, plays all kinds of cool percussion tricks, including “eggs,” which probably means he was clicking two eggs into the mic.  On all of her records, electric tuners are barred from the studio, so all of her music is in tune with itself, and with her ears. God, do I love that idea. Hanne’s voice is enchanting, miked close and deep through the tubes, and the whole album just flies around the stylistic stratosphere, never content to rest in a single place for more than a little while.  There’s some really outstanding reed playing, too, and the way she arranges saxophones and bass clarinet on tracks like “Displaced” makes me really want to do something similar in the future.  I can’t recommend checking out her music enough.

4) Realistic Orchestra – “Symphonies from Down The Block”

2267301385-1Adam Theis’s Realistic Orchestra is pretty awesome; I believe we’ve been over that before.  Despite the title, this particular album isn’t the Hip-Hop symphony he performed at the Palace of Fine Arts back a little while ago (though I believe that a recording of that music is on the way).  What “Symphonies from Down The Block” is, however, is a really great big band record. A ton of slamming players (many of the same guys and gals from the expanded band that played the symphony) lay down some really cool stuff over the course of the disc, with some really fun guest appearances peppered throughout. I majorly dig “Fugata,” the accordion freak-out featuring Colin Hogan, as well as the sax feature “Dune Flume,” (great sax arranging!) and the live take of “Search.”  “Symphonies” is also a great way to familiarize yourself with the band before the recording of Adam’s full symphony is released.

5) Franz Ferdinand - “Tonight”

franz-tonightYou guys, this record is so much fun.  I’ll go ahead and say that Franz’s eponymous debut was one of the best rock records of the 2000’s, as close as a band can get to pitch-perfect from start to finish.  It was so much fun, so hook-y, and had such a great winking sense of humor.  And I think it’s safe to say that their second record, while pretty good, just didn’t quite match it.  But I’ve been having so much fun listening to “Tonight,” the band’s third release – made even more enjoyable by getting to see the awesome show they put on last month at the Fox..  It brings back so much of what made the band appealing, and shows signs of musical growth, as well.  My favorite tracks are the shuffle tune “Bite Hard” (hilarious lyrics), the totally badass synth part on “Can’t Stop Feeling,” and “What She Came For,” which features one of the most groovy introductions since “Stayin’ Alive.”  Put that tune on and walk down the street – I dare you not to strut in time to the music.  Also, it features “Lucid Dreams,” which is a real evolution for the group, and ends with one of the coolest instrumental breakdowns I’ve heard in a while.  I’ll leave you with the video for the super-rad “No You Girls.”  Bam:

There ya have it – lots of good new stuff.  And that’s not even mentioning other records that I still need to get and listen to, including the new one from The Decemberists, Queen’s “Night At The Opera,” and Mastodon’s new one.  And there’s always so much more that I don’t even know about!

Pete and J! Pete and J!

30 Apr

l_23fce7a7466c450182c4f40950cdcff9Last night Lindsay and I hit the Red Devil Lounge and caught the PowerPop band Pete and J, straight outta Brooklyn.  My buddy Sarab Singh plays drums in the group (he went to music school at UMiami along with me and Lindsay), and Or, The Whale co-headlined with them at the Independent about six months ago.  I’d heard they were great, but hadn’t seen them.  As it turns out, yep – they’re great!

The duo behind the eponymous group are Pete Harper, who plays keyboard and guitar, and Jason Flynn, who plays a mean lead guitar (and uses my new favorite axe, the Gibson 335, or maybe 337). Pete also looks like a funky Art Garfunkel (I’m sure he gets that all the time).  Well, he at least looks like Jemaine Clement playing Art Garfunkel on FotC… The duo is joined by Sarab on drums, and a bass player, whose name is not listed on their site, but who was a great player with a really good voice.

Anyhow, really, check ‘em out – their recordings sound pretty dang great (particularly their new EP), and their live show is even better… it sounds as though the last two years of touring have been really good for their tightness as a band, and what I saw backs that up.  Their set was drag-free,  totally loaded with really catchy, melodic pop tunes played superbly and with a wonderful sense of humor.  The group’s overall sound called to mind a lot of my favorite groups – in particular, their strong, high vocal harmonies (ornamented by J’s growly belt) evoked the more rocking tunes of the late, great SF Superpop group Jellyfish (whose album, Spilt Milk, you really should own).

What’s more, PnJ’s writing never lapses into lazy repetition, something that I strive for (always striving, not always achieving) in my own writing, and really admire in others’ work.  Also importantly, their live sound was really good – very full and not too loud.  Part of this owed to the band’s clear understanding their own levels and tones, but it was also greatly helped by their well-layered musical arrangements.  On each song, the guitar was here, the synth line over here, the bassline heeere behind the desk, the drums down there by the fridge, the vocals up over theeerre, and the backup vocals placed just… up… here, on this little shelf.  If that makes sense.

Sarab’s drumming was, of course, totally slamming – that certainly seems to be the particular wont of most of the amazing drummers I went to school with.  It was really groovy, and particularly impressive considering that he was using a borrowed kit with the floor tom mounted up on the rack.  I, (and the rest of the crowd), liked when he played tambourine, too – way to give the people what they want!

Great band.  They tour often, so check out their myspace page and go support them the next time they’re out!  And who knows – one of these times, you just may see my band on a bill with them. And wouldn’t that be fun?

Carmen Staaf’s Album “Reflection”

15 Apr

carmenstaafSometimes I think it’s just nuts how many amazing musicians I know. For real – it’s nuts. At any given moment in time, there are at least four or five albums that require my attention, released by various players I went to school with or have played alongside in SF. They’re all off the beaten path, ranging in genre from modern jazz to Baltic improvisation to dream-pop to hard rock. And to a one, they are all really, really good.

So, I decided that I’d take the opportunity to write a bit about some of them, to try to put into words just what I like about each album so much. My intention is not to post criticism or reviews, just to share a bit about some of my friends and the music they make.


I’ve been meaning to write about pianist Carmen Staaf’s new album, “Reflection,” for quite some time. I know Carmen through my friend Dana Sandler, a vocalist who went to UMiami with me. Dana and Carmen met in Boston while we were all still in Undergrad and formed a fast friendship – after that, Dana spent a good amount of time on campus talking her up. We heard a lot about this new, amazing piano player, and by the time we actually heard her play, we had pretty high expectations.

And damn, girl did not disappoint. Carmen came down to Miami to play on Dana’s senior recital, and she blew everyone away. She took a very different approach to the instrument than anyone at UM – I remember being really used to the big dogs on campus at the time, the amazing Joe Davidian and Phil Strange, and hearing Carmen play was a cool change. She had a marvelous fluidity on the instrument, and even then (about seven years ago now), her voice as an improviser was really assured. Really, I’m in no way qualified to talk about how “good” Carmen is or was, but I know that if I had had to go from Miami to another top jazz school and play on my friend’s recital, I’d been majorly feeling the pressure. Carmen, at least judging by how I remember her playing, didn’t let our jazz-nazi ears and attentions phase her in the slightest.

Okay, so, enough with the ancient history. On to the album. It is good. Really, really good. You should buy it. Reflection is brimming with incredible musicianship, clarity of artistic vision and intent, and an incredible level of compositional ambition that is, amazingly, actually realized in the songs’ performances. It is an album both intimate and grand, and its programmatic concept is put together really well.

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Austin McMahon’s Album “Many Muses”

28 Mar

austinmcmahonSometimes I think it’s just nuts how many amazing musicians I know.  For real – it’s nuts.  At any given moment in time, there are at least four or five albums that require my attention, released by various players I went to school with or have played alongside in SF.  They’re all off the beaten path, ranging in genre from modern jazz to Baltic improvisation to dream-pop to hard rock. And to a one, they are all really, really good.

So, I decided that I’d take the opportunity to write a bit about some of them, to try to put into words just what I like about each album so much. My intention is not to post criticism or reviews, just to share a bit about some of my friends and the music they make.


The first one I’ll tackle is a new album by drummer Austin McMahon. His debut solo record, it’s titled “Many Muses,” and holy balls, it is great.  Austin and I were in the same year at UMiami; well, I should say we started the same year. Austin was one of those overachieving types who showed up flush with AP credits and got his undergrad and his master’s in 5 years.  During that time, he became probably the most sought-after drummer at school, and it wasn’t because he had amazingly burning chops (he did), or because he could juggle his sticks while wailing on the double-bass pedal (I have not seen him do this, but I’m sure he can); it was because he was so musical in his playing, so deft and supportive with his choices, that he made anyone he was playing with sound better.  I’ve never heard a drummer so in tune with the bigger picture, so aware of the contours of the band around him – and neither had anyone else.

So, yeah. Austin is a freaking awesome drummer. His playing is on display on several other of my friends’ albums as well, each of which deserves (and will have) its own post on this blog. He plays beautifully on Kenji Shinagawa’s album “Perhaps, Drawing Again,” on Landon Knoblock’s record “The Heartbeat, The Breath,” and he plays his ass off on Carmen Staaf’s new disc “Reflection” (Carmen also plays piano and accordion on “Muses”).

But here’s the thing about “Many Muses” – while there is plenty of great drumming on this album, at its heart, this record is all about Austin’s compositions. More so than just about any record I’ve heard recently, this disc is a collection of melodies, tied together by an uncluttered and uncompromising vision and performed with an unbelievable level of dexterity and clarity.  These songs are really, really fucking good, with precisely-structured layers and wonderful, logical melodies.  I have heard Austin’s compositions before, and have always thought of him as a really musical dude, but this album has blown my reckoning of the man to a new level.

Take the opening track, “Vidrio.”  Does it get any cooler than this?  It’s got this awesome, lurching melody, and it just develops, develops, develops.  Or hell, listen to the ballad “Strife,” for an undiluted melody, played, appropriately, by Austin himself on the melodica, along with clarinet and arco bass.  Want to hear the drums take the melody on themselves?  Check out “I.O.U.”

It’s also cool that Carmen is playing on this record, since “Many Muses” feels a bit similar to her most recent record; it’s got clarinet, Austin on drums, intricately composed tunes, and has a number of shorter “interlude” pieces that make listening to the album much more of an experience than listening to any one track. Going along with the argument I made a few months ago, it stands to reason that as long as artists are making albums with this much consideration put towards the flow and experience of the record as a whole, the album as a musical form is not going anywhere.

This is an album I really like, made by someone I’m super-proud to know.  Do yourself a favor and buy this disc – it is an absolutely amazing work, loaded with beautiful melodies and outstanding, delicate musicianship.


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