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Entries in Music (13)

Thursday
Sep162010

An Evening with CAKE

If you heard the word "vibraslap," and immediately thought of something used in the bedroom, then you're a freak and we should hang out.  But if you pictured a Latin percussion instrument, then you were probably at the CAKE concert last night at the Mann Center in Philadelphia. 

An Evening with CAKE provided a fairly thorough retrospective of the band's impressive catalogue, and concertgoers were treated to two sets of John McCrea's semi-spoken, quirky lyrics and Vince DiFiore's well-punctuated trumpet riffs.  And of course, plenty of vibraslap.

John McCrea of CAKEThe concert kicked off just before 8:00 p.m., as the band took the stage in front of a large silkscreen image of a whitecapped mountain, to the tune of some epic synth-rock.  The show started strong, with "Comfort Eagle," "Frank Sinatra," and "Wheels," which nicely touched on three different albums.  After the customary greetings and fibbing that Philadelphia was the first city McCrea's ever called "excellent," the energy came way down with their Willie Nelson cover "Sad Songs and Waltzes."

Thankfully, crowd favorite "Stickshifts and Safetybelts" brought the tempo back up, and I learned that the song apparently is actually about road head and the obstacles thereto.  Next the band debated the afterlife of domesticated animals with Prolonging the Magic's "Sheep Go to Heaven."  This song initiated a bothersome trend for the evening, with McCrea elongating the final chorus by dividing the crowd and pitting them against each other in a barnyard shout-off.  

McCrea must really be into the politics of power, because on two other occasions, including a new track called "Song of the Sea," he encouraged the crowd to sing louder by intimating that the other side thought they were weak, or even that they hated them.  For a concert that was supposed to be about "hanging out, having a good time," these Machiavellian demonstrations were a bit off-putting. 

I wasn't too worried about all that, however, when CAKE closed their first set with "Jolene," played with a sweet restraint appropriate for this moving song off their first album, Motorcade of Generosity.  Definitely my favorite song of the night.

After a short break, while most were still re-upping on beer, the band returned and launched into Black Sabbath's "War Pigs," which I didn't realize was on their B-Sides and Rarities album, so that was a fun surprise.  The second set seemed to go by quickly, with the band chugging through "Rock 'n' Roll Lifestyle" and "Love You Madly," which was better live that one would think. 

Before the set wound down, McCrea stopped for what I learned is a nightly occurrence at CAKE concerts - giving away a tree!  Yes, a real live sapling.  After pledging to plant the tree, upload a photo to the band's website, and take care of the tree for decades to come, a lucky gent came up on stage to claim it.  I thought this was a pretty unique tactic, and highlighted the band's environmental consciousness, also evident in the fact that their personal studio, where they now record on their own label, has been fitted to run entirely on solar power.  Looks like even rock bands from California are going green. 

After that whole process, the crowd needed a reason to explode, and they got it with a smashing rendition of "Never There."  Minutes later, the encore kicked off with "Short Skirt, Long Jacket," which had the Chuck fans in the audience happy, followed by "Mexico," and of course, closing the night with their biggest hit, "The Distance." 

Overall, CAKE put on a great show that highlighted the evolution of their unique sound over two decades and five albums.  The band sounded great; props to lead guitarist Xan McCurdy for keeping the riffs tight.  And I really want to know how McCrea gets that signature sound from his acoustic guitar, which I can only describe as "woody." 

As for stage presence, McCrea was very comfortable in his front man role, but definitely too chatty for me.  He even called out a girl in the front row for saying "Stop talking" during the encore.  I do like when bands interact with the audience, but McCrea took it a bit too far.  However, the band sounded great, it was a beautiful night, and the crowd was really into the show.  I am happy to put a notch in my concert belt for a unique and hard-working band like CAKE, and I'll be looking out for their new album on January 12. 

A few other notes:

  • Don't buy tickets for Orchestra B, Row B.  You will be behind the light and sound boards and will have to stand the whole time.  Also, don't try to walk behind those boards or the usher will bitch-slap you.
  • Shaking my head at Mann Center security, who allowed a guy to hop up on stage, walk casually over to John McCrea, and shake his hand before anybody realized what was going on.  That kind of stuff is pretty scary.
  • Big shout-out to whoever drives the Mini Cooper with the vanity plate "CAKE."

Favorite Songs: "Comfort Eagle," "Jolene"

Wish I heard: "Commissioning a Symphony in C," "I Will Survive"

Friday
May142010

The New Pornographers: Together

The New Pornographers

Together

Matador Records

May 4, 2010


"Light a candle’s end
You are a light turned low
And like the rest of us
You got those old eternity blues"

~ "Crash Years"



The art of the pop song is still alive in the realm of rock ‘n’ roll, as evidenced by Together, the latest album from multi-talented Vancouver collective The New Pornographers.  Featuring the consistently inspired songwriting of Carl Newman and Dan Bejar as well as their and Neko Case’s effusive vocal talents, Together is the power pop album you’ll be spinning all summer.

Together starts off with several instant classics, as chunky strings take over where keyboards may have roamed before on ground-shakers like "Moves" and "Crash Years."  Deep, staccato cello lines and Kurt Dahle's tom-toms add fist-thumping accents to an ongoing, head-bobbing rhythm of perfectly strummed acoustic guitars.  The songs boast the typically lush layers of Newman’s songwriting as well as quirky tidbits like melodic whistles. 

While these two opening tracks are referentially postmodern in their allusion to other songs – "Crash Years" borrowing a melody from George Harrison’s "You" and "Moves" being partly about Chicago’s illustrious "25 or 6 to 4" – the songs also capture both the simple pain of chasing a lover as well as the complex fear that suffuses modern man in the face of economic instability.  In fact, I take more from the latter insights than the song references, although perhaps that's because they are my own, and not gleaned from sources like Rick Moody’s heady biography of the band on Matador’s website. 

The album takes a bit of a turn with "Silver Jenny Dollar," penned by Bejar and thereby a bit more eccentric but still wonderfully catchy.  Two tracks later we get a full dose of Neko Case’s sweetness on her ballad "My Shepherd," which also features Kathryn Calder, who sometimes fills in live for Case but is now coming into her own as a full member of the band. 

There are some other talented guests on Together alongside the deep roster of New Pornographers, including Okkervil River's Will Sheff, St. Vincent's Annie Clark, Beirut's Zach Condon, and the horns of The Dap-Kings

While each member of The New Pornographers brings his or her own unique sensibility to the project, they nevertheless always come together in a way that is instantly recognizable.  They are a band unafraid to write shiny pop songs that are both playful and sincere.  The variety of instruments, beautifully layered arrangements, and perfect balance of tempo and restraint puts Together in the running for my favorite New Pornographers album. 

Wednesday
Apr142010

What Does Pink Floyd Mean Today?

When news broke this week that Roger Waters would be touring behind The Wall in Fall 2010, I was grateful that I’d get one more chance to finally see the work of Pink Floyd performed live.  For a band that was born of the 1960s and came to define the 1970s, to witness The Wall in its 30th Anniversary year would be something very special indeed.

Pink Floyd is one of those iconic bands that will influence people of every generation for a hundred years.  Every music-lover has that memory when they first embraced the band’s massive, progressive sound. 

For me, it was the summer of 1995.  I was 12 years old, hanging out in my friend’s basement, where we spent a lot of time going through his dad’s LPs.  One day, my friend pulled out that iconic black cover with the prism, and I knew my life was going to change.  The Dark Side of the Moon was my only Pink Floyd record for a few years, and it keeps a special place in the sun-soaked days of summer youth, playing continuously on my Walkman as I mowed the lawn of my house in suburban Philadelphia.  I marveled with glee as the famed Wizard of Oz sync up really did work. 

It was years before I could comprehend that this music was actually made by human beings, and not some space-age robots.  The first time I really understood the fact that this was a real band that played live was at a high school party where the film Pulse was playing in the background.  I was absorbed by the songs I had internalized and amazed by the appropriately grand stage show.  Seeing the words actually come out of the mouths of David Gilmour and Roger Waters recontextualized the power of the band.

The Wall was a great soundtrack throughout high school, with its dark totalitarian themes and lost protagonist.  Many a night ended with the guitar solo of “Comfortably Numb” in my head.  It wasn’t until college that I really took a dive into the catalogue, starting with nearest cousins Wish You Were Here and Animals.  Those four albums, released over a short six years from 1973 – 1979, would be enough to secure the band’s place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where I recently saw the permanent exhibition representing the stage show and film of The Wall

There is a before and after to those golden years of production, from the psychedelic origins of Syd Barrett and 1967’s The Piper at the Gates of Dawn to the Gilmour-led prog-rock of A Momentary Lapse of Reason (1987) and The Division Bell (1994).  There are some excellent tracks on these under appreciated latter albums.  I can remember being home on Christmas holiday, the candles in the window casting soft light into my bedroom as “On the Turning Away” or “Take It Back” pulsed into my consciousness. 

I guess that’s what I take away most from my ongoing love affair with Pink Floyd’s canon, the seasonal associations and memories of home, where I first learned to appreciate the beauty of their grand sounds and themes.  Every time I listen to a Pink Floyd album, like driving home for Thanksgiving last year, a new layer is added to those experiences, and music written 30 years ago now spans a decade and a half of my life. 

It’s inspiring to realize that people all over the world have Pink Floyd experiences similar to mine.  Music lovers from England to America and every other country have been touched by their art as well as their idealism.  The final time all four members of Pink Floyd played together was in London in 2005 for the Live 8 concert, standing up to be counted in the fight against poverty.

On this tour, Roger Waters will perform The Wall more times than it has ever been, and it is appropriate that this is the piece of rock theater that remains relevant, that will rekindle old fans and birth new ones.  The message is one that transcends the ages, as does the music.  And that may be the final word on Pink Floyd, that while their art captures specific moments in time, it is also timeless.   

What are some of your favorite Pink Floyd moments?

Tuesday
Apr062010

Blues Go Modern on Jason Ager’s Debut Lunchdate

Lunchdate available on iTunesOn his debut album Lunchdate, Jason Ager brings new weight to both sides of the term blues-rock.  With soulful songs about love and loss, arranged with upbeat instrumentation and allusive lyrics, Ager taps into a rich and varied American musical heritage. 

Lunchdate is full of songs that evoke the influences of blues artists like Muddy Waters as well as rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Chuck Berry, the latter’s name inspiring a song title on the record.  Ager fleshes out the traditional blues progressions with innovative time changes and layers of vocal harmonies that offer a full, rich sound. 

The album starts off boldly, with Ager singing plaintive a capella to his absent muse, “Jocelyn.”  Four lines in though – Bam! – the music kicks in at high tempo and Ager’s voice is now given a compelling chorus effect as razor-sharp guitar lines guide him through the rest of the song.  Ager has cultivated a highly syncopated style of singing that accentuates his self-taught guitar style, especially present on “Sing-Along Jawn.”

Personal anecdotes provide the subject matter for Ager’s lyrics, and he packs them in, mixing plenty of romantic self-deprecation with poetic similes and a bevy of pop-culture references that provide a roadmap of his musical influences.  It is this blend of personal and cultural that makes the album so accessible. 

Full-out rockers like title track “Lunchdate” offer a glimpse of the blistering live show Jason Ager and The C.O.P.O. perform in clubs like Philadelphia’s World Café Live, singing to every girl in the audience that he’s “got you up on my mind.”  Long-time musical partner Austin O’Connor lays down inventive bass lines that push the tempo, and drummer Sheri Gallagher tightens the arrangement with her snare and hi-hat work.

Ager is also an active solo performer, bringing his acoustic act to stages such as the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.  On “Strawberry Wine,” a song that would sound right at home in a Nashville honky-tonk, Ager explores the textures of harmonizing with his own voice which effect transports the listener to a back porch on a summer day. 

Recorded at Hatfield, PA’s Tritonix Recording, Lunchdate is an album that bridges many genres of American music, from R&B of the ’60s to the hip-hop of Biggie Smalls.  On “Rock Star,” Ager surfs on waves of organ music and “Na na na” choruses as he sings of his early days in the business, but then breaks down the final minute of the song into a rap that spits pure truth about coming to terms with illusions of grandeur. 


The combination of such distinct musical styles elevates Lunchdate to a place that resonates with contemporary audiences who appreciate hybrid artists in possession of a reverence for music history.  Ager succeeds in producing music that achieves a type of earnest pastiche infused with deeply personal themes.  Lunchdate is an album you will listen to again and again, gleaning new pleasure from every spin. 

Lunchdate on Itunes and CD Baby.

Jason Ager on MySpace, Facebook, and Last.fm.  

Wednesday
Mar312010

Gorillaz Concept Surges on Plastic Beach

Today, The Creation of Adam welcomes guest blogger Paul Tsikitas, who writes about music at In the Wake of Poseidon.

 

When Snoop Dogg first welcomed me to the world of Plastic Beach, I was unaware of what a strange and wonderful world I was getting myself into. Gorillaz is usually synonymous with fantastic collaborations and excruciatingly catchy tunes, yet at first glance, Plastic Beach seems like too many collaborations, musically very different from their 2001 self-titled debut and 2005’s Demon Days. The album doesn’t pick up with its catchiest tunes until five tracks deep, when the album’s first single, the ultra groovy and funky "Stylo" kicks in. This sounds like I’m knocking it, but quite the contrary. Although this won’t be many listeners' go-to Gorillaz album, especially when you are looking to party, this is easily the Gorillaz' finest album as an art form.

Plastic Beach is a concept album that is all about environmental disaster and the artifice of our world culture. It's a sprawling record with loads of tracks varying in sound and style. While this sound is more complex and much more synthetic, it perfectly mirrors the themes of an artificial utopia. This isn't to say there aren’t any organic sounds to be found. A song like "White Flag" brings in an Eastern string section juxtaposed with some excellent rhymes care of British rappers Bashy and Kano and a flourishing back beat.

The sounds are constantly shifting and bringing different moods and feeling onto the shores of Plastic Beach. There are slower, poppier ballads like the Grandaddyesque "On Melancholy Hill" or the fabulous slow space ballad "Empire Ants", both of which are excellent moments of clarity on the album. Then there are the catchier numbers like the infectious and skewering "Superfast Jellyfish" or the frenetic Mos Def jam "Sweepstakes." These songs have layer after layer of compounding sound. It's a lot to take in, as the sound is far more complex than some of the more simplistic moments in the Gorillaz catalog.

If there is anything evident here, it's that Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett have evolved the Gorillaz into something beyond a fictitious cartoon group of primates pounding out dance floor-ready tunes. This time around, they are making a social statement as well as taking Gorillaz into new direction. The frenzy of guest stars from Lou Reed to Bobby Womack proves that Gorillaz is a collective genius. Albarn and gang have a great pulse on high quality pop music with an introspective touch. Plastic Beach is sure to be one of the more memorable records of the year and one of the best to kick off a new decade.