Monthly Archives: July 2010

Take Five: The Digest Returns!

We’re back! I got some feedback that people missed the Take Five digests — and I did, too — so I’ve decided to try to alternate feature posts with digest posts. Should make for better digests. Also, welcome to any new readers I picked up when my list of the best songs of 2010 (so far) got featured on the homepage. Thanks, everyone, for reading!

In the News

Amanda Palmer. Not so much a topic of news as a force of nature, really. I’m not in the AFP cult, but I’ve noticed a couple of cool things she’s been up to, and I had to share.

She wrote a really great blog post after Lady Gaga’s shows in Boston, talking about how Gaga can help convince people that being authentic — even if authentic means totally off-your-nut weird — is OK, and can even be a pathway to success.

and then i think….maybe lady gaga can be like a gateway drug to the teenagers of the world…through her they may find a voice, a liberation, a david bowie record.

most importantly, a PERMISSION. i imagine a totally isolated and confused kid in the outskirts of suburban nevada who has never seen life outside of a shopping mall seeing gaga doing her hijinks and thinking:
this is what the world needs – artists who, no matter what their personal path may be, will inspire other people to reach deeper, try harder, be more authentic.

Speaking of authenticity, Palmer recorded a short EP of Radiohead covers. Performed by her. On a magical ukelele. You can download the digital version for a minimum of $.84, but the limited-edition vinyl already sold out. In fact, she sold $15,000 of merchandise in just three minutes and 4,000 copies of the EP on the day of its release. (Too bad that came a few weeks before Bandcamp instituted revenue sharing.) The EP is actually quite good — definitely worth $.84, and probably a bit more.


Find of the Week

  • Ah, WERS, you’ve done it again. This time, it was by playing “Grindstone” by Jackie Greene, an bluesy singer-songwriter hailing from California. That led to me acquiring his new album, “Till the Light Comes,” which came out last month.
  • So, er, it’s not from this week, but a few weeks ago, I was in JP and eating lunch at City Feed when I found the July copy of Counter the Cultural Compass, a one-page music zine chock full of information about local shows. It looks like it just started up this spring. I’m not sure its distribution reaches as far north of the Charles as I am, but I hope to scrounge up future copies. Good stuff.
  • Also, my mixes from the Grinding Tapes mix project finally came in the mail. Yay! I’ve only listened to one so far, an “oldies” mix featuring Kansas, Judy Garland, Stevie Wonder, The Buggles, Peter Gabriel, The Turtle, Soft Cell, and Marvin Gaye, among others. A surefire recipe for awesome. More reviews to come.

Around the Web

  • Never thought I’d get pitched via, but there you go. That was how I found out about The Sharp Things raising money for their new album via Kickstarter. The Sharp Things produce a great brand of epic, orchestral pop, and judging by their description — “full-on on rawk songs, plaintive heartwrenchers and its signature lush stuff” — this new album should be pretty great.

New Releases

Well, it looks like Guster is coming out with a new album, “Easy Wonderful,” on Oct. 5. I’ve been a huge fan since college and have loved every one of their albums — except their last one, “Ganging Up on the Sun,” which was downright awful.  I would rather listen to howling monkeys run their nails across a chalkboard than listen to the trite, droning mess that is the single from that album, “Satellite.”

Err, yeah. So, new album! Here’s hoping it doesn’t suck. You can download the track “Bad, Bad World” from their website for the cost of an e-mail address. Good news: it shows more signs of life than “Satellite.” Bad news: Ryan Miller still sounds kind of bored. I wonder if they plan on reprising the great experiment of having Brian Rosenworcel write songs. Because on “Keep it Together,” that ruled.


SomerStreets Comes to East Somerville

After last month’s highly disappointing SomerStreets event in Ball Square, I was eagerly awaiting Sunday’s SomerStreets/FossFest event in East Somerville to see what lessons the city learned from that event. And they learned a lot.

There was no shortage of activities lining the blocked-off roadway. At Foss Park’s FossFest, there were several vendors, folks from the Open Air Circus giving stilt-walking lessons and live music. Festive flags were draped across the medians. State Police facilitated safe passage across McGrath Highway to main SomerStreets area, where many vendors and local businesses set out tables (highlights were the $5 pottery sale by Mudflat Studios, free Ethiopian food from Fasika and free Mexican food from Tapatio). Many stores had handmade signs proclaiming their support for SomerStreets. Dance exhibitions and lessons, face painting, a drum circle, party bike rides and hula hooping were all on the agenda. Families, bicyclists, even one acrobatic guy on roller skates all took to the streets. And who doesn’t love a parade?!

It was no ArtBeat, and the wide, mile-long expanse between Sullivan Station and Winter Hill is a challenging space to fill, but the community was definitely out in force, taking advantage of the closed roads and the activities on hand. Having East Somerville Main Streets as an organizing force that could better incorporate the surrounding community into the event was likely key to its success.

Somerville has reason to be optimistic about events like FossFest and SomerStreets. If there is one city that knows how to create great programming, it’s Somerville, and the growing pains from these relatively new events will surely get ironed out as the city keeps on doing what it does and the community becomes more aware and involved. And the fact that SomerStreets is non-Davis Square centric is fantastic. Davis is doing fine. Union Square is doing pretty good, too. Let’s celebrate all corners of this diverse city — there are wonderful things happening everywhere.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Glee Comes to Somerville’s Artbeat

As I eagerly look forward to the East Somerville installment of Somerstreets tomorrow, I’m looking back fondly at last weekend’s Artbeat in Somerville. After taking last year off of Artbeat, I was happy to return this year and sample the performances, art vendors and tasty treats. Even though Artbeat is reliably on the hottest day of the year, it’s always a great opportunity to get together with friends (and often run into folks unexpectedly).

One of the highlights of this year’s Artbeat was the performance by the Somerville Sunsetters, a youth singing group. They brought a dash of “Glee” to Artbeat with their performances of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'” and Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance.” Here are some video excerpts from both songs, which had the crowd (including me, as is evident on the video) grooving and singing along.

Don’t Stop Believin’:

Bad Romance:

Best Songs of 2010 (Halfway Point)

Back in early May, over at the Higher Ed Music Critics blog, I posted my top 20 songs of the year so far. Now, with it being the halfway point of 2010, I face the task of compiling the next iteration of this last. I agonized over paring it down to 20 before I realized, “Hey, it’s my blog, I can do what I want!” So, 30 songs it is. In December, it will likely be a top 50 of the year.

Unseen here is the document wherein I list the dozens of amazing songs from the year so far, trying to narrow down to this list. This is a tough, tough task. But I want to hear what your favorites are and your feedback on these selections. As always, the caveat is that this list is only a valid representation of my opinion at the moment it was committed to paper. If I compiled it right now, I’m sure it would vary to some degree.

P.S. Do you want to kick back and listen to this playlist in all its glory at your leisure? I’ve created a YouTube playlist with all of the below-linked videos. Works just like a radio station. (Well, one with a 30-song catalog, anyway.)

Without further ado (and in no specific order — that’s a December task *gulp*)…

Magnetic Fields – You Must Be Out of Your Mind – An emotional, delicate tune

Yeasayer – Ambling Alp – “Speak up for yourself, son…” Uplifting and upbeat.

Tanlines – Real Life – One of my favorite dance tracks of the year

The Hold Steady – Hurricane J – More anthemic goodness from Craig and co.

The National – Bloodbuzz Ohio – Matt Berninger at his befuddling best

Surfer Blood – Swim – This’ll wake you up, that’s for sure

Ted Leo & the Pharmacists – Bottled in Cork – A classic romp with a killer hook

Teenage Fanclub – Baby Lee – A return to form for these Scottish popsmiths

Hot Chip – I Feel Better – An alluring, classy dance track

David Byrne/Fatboy Slim feat. Steve Earle – A Perfect Hand – A perfect song, plain and simple

New Pornographers – Crash Years – Another epic single from the NewPs

Mumford & Sons – Little Lion Man – Enthralling and relentless

Alphabeat – Heatwave – Groove IS in the heart

Gorillaz – Stylo – Bobby Womack owns this song

Butch Walker – Trash Day – Another WERS discovery, and a nice throwback pop tune

LCD Soundsystem – Dance Yrself Clean – This song builds into a frenetic dance floor meltdown, oh yeah

School of Seven Bells – Windstorm – Swirly, melodic goodness

The Roots – How I Got Over – This song grooves so damn well

Freedy Johnston – Don’t Fall in Love with a Lonely Girl – A classic. The singer-songwriter at his poppy best

Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes – Home – Unabashedly heartfelt, and a fine use of whistling, at that

Stars – Fixed – O Canada! Captivating pop via Montreal

Ten Bears – Braces – They have bears in their name, what could go wrong? Also, this song just rocks hard

We Are Scientists – Rules Don’t Stop – More quality pop from these spiffy Brooklyn dudes

Peter Wolf – The Green Fields of Summer – Anything with Neko Case is a win, and Peter Wolf is a revelation here

Futureheads – Struck Dumb – More tour-de-force pop from the UK band

Club 8 – Shape Up – A fun, shimmery pop song

Local Natives – Airplane – These guys churn out some top-dollar indie rock.

Math & Physics Club – Love or Loneliness – Lucksmiths-style pop

Two Door Cinema Club  – Something Good Can Work – A fun, catchy song with a vaguely island-y feel

Dan Black – Symphonies – A nice, mellow groove with orchestral flair

The Year in Music, So Far: Best Albums of 2010

With July half over, it’s time to look back over what has already been an incredible year in terms of new releases. I foresee a hard task ahead for myself in December…

David Byrne and Fatboy Slim   – Here Lies Love

I was drawn to this album by the amazing and diverse list of contributors (Florence Welch, Steve Earle, Cyndi Lauper, Kate Pierson, Sharon Jones and Allison Moorer, to name a few) and was held rapt by the stories they told about the life of Imelda Marcos and the disco-infused beats and melodies that swirled around them. A fascinating project and an incredible collection of music, this is currently my favorite album of the year.

Yeasayer – Odd Blood

I liked their debut, but this album really catapulted Yeasayer onto a new level. A delightful blizzard of beeps and blips swirls around a strong crop of songs. And I won’t lie and say that “Ambling Alp” didn’t guide me through a few personally frustrating moments: “Now, the world can be an unfair place at times / But your lows will have their complement of highs … You must stick up for yourself, son / Never mind what anybody else done.”

Mumford & Sons – Sigh No More

From the moment I first heard the driving tour de force that is “Little Lion Man” on WERS, I was sold. The edgy amalgam of Americana-meets-UK folk rock is a galloping, emotional headrush. Their songs pulse with life and urgency and won’t be denied. This album feels essential, in part because the members of the band play and sing as if their lives depended on it.

The National – High Violet

Is it boring to say that The National have created yet another masterpiece, and that there is little one can offer in the way of critique for their fifth full-length album? Matt Berninger continues to confound and mesmerize, and he and his bandmates continue to expertly weave their layers of lush and compelling songcraft. No, something this captivating can’t be boring.

New Pornographers – Together

This album took a while to grow on me, as I wrote about previously, since I was blinded by my love for “Challengers.” But, like I said, this may be the fullest realization of the band to date. Neko Case really steps out and shines (not that we didn’t already know she was a gem), Dan Bejar is at his most accessible and A.C. Newman continues to steer his pop ship in enlightening directions.

Stars – The Five Ghosts

I first heard this album performed live in its entirety at a concert, so I may be biased, but this is a strong addition to the Stars discography. “We Don’t Want Your Body” is a fun, dance-y track, and I find that there is a lot on this record to groove to. At the same time, appropriate to the title, there are some more grief-stricken moments, as well. That range, of course, is par for the course with Stars.

Hot Chip – One Life Stand

LCD Soundsystem – This is Happening (tie)

I’m glad I have another few months to chew on this one for the proper year-end roundup. Both of these albums are dance parties in a box, with solid stand-out tracks like Hot Chip’s “I Feel Better” and LCD Soundsystem’s “Dance Yrself Clean.” I have a feeling Hot Chip will win out in the end, but right now, I’m too busy dancing to pick one or the other.

Surfer Blood – Astro Coast

This is a bit fuzzier than I normally go for, but the riffs are tight, the melodies are catchy and as summer winds on, I find myself turning to this album more and more. Must be something about the easy shimmer and faint throwback vibe these guys convey. Roll your windows down for this one.

The Kissaway Trail – Sleep Mountain

One of my favorite albums last year was Wild Light’s “Adult Nights,” and I categorize this band in a similar vein. This is just a fun, varied listen, swooping from broad, epic brushstrokes to muted pockets of falsetto from one moment to the next. Echoes of Grandaddy and the Arcade Fire pop up throughout this lush work. It’s an engrossing listen.

Tracey Thorn – Love and its Opposite

My friend Tim was raving about this album by the lead woman from Everything But the Girl, so I had to check it out. After listening through once streaming online, I had to buy it at the next available opportunity. Her voice is captivating, and these powerful songs are full of elegance and verve. This is a dark horse entry into the top 10 of 2010 so far.

Other high-ranking releases: Magnetic Fields, “Realism”; Ted Leo & Pharmacists, “The Brutalist Bricks”; Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes, “Up From Below”; Local Native, “Gorilla Manor”; Laura Veirs, “July Flame”

Disappointments: Bird and the Bee, “Interpreting the Masters, vol. 1”; Broken Bells, “Broken Bells”; Rogue Wave, “Permalight”; Midlake, “The Courage of Others”; The Hold Steady, “Heaven is Whenever”

Surprises so far: Peter Wolf, “Midnight Souvenirs”; John Hiatt, “The Open Road”; Magic Man, “Real Life Color”

What am I missing? I am sure I missed a few of your favorites.

Come back next week to see my favorite songs of the year so far!

They Will Survive

So, there’s this video:

It’s a Holocaust survivor, his daughter and grandchildren dancing to Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” at sites such as the Dachau, Auschwitz and Terezin concentration camps. Some people have commented that this is in poor taste, it’s offensive, it’s unwatchable, etc. Others have said it represents spiritual triumph.

As someone who  in 1996 spent a week in Poland touring these very sites, and attended Jewish day schools where our substitute teachers, more often than not, were Holocaust survivors, let me say two things:

  • One of our stops on the March of the Living was the tiny shtetl of Tikocin, once a thriving Jewish village, now a nearly deserted outpost in the middle of the Polish woods. We, a horde of teenage Jews, entered the cavernous synagogue that once sheltered the prayerful yearnings of the devout, now left to hold little but its own emptiness. There, in the echoing hall, we began singing the old Hebrew folk song “Kol Ha’Olam Kulo,” the lyrics of which translate to:

    The entire world is a narrow bridge
    but the main thing is not to fear.

    The short song was repeated, eventually tapering to just the last line, building in intensity each time around. We began dancing in a circle, shouting the words for what seemed like hours but was surely just minutes. The expansive hall echoed with our song and footsteps. Several dozen voices sounded like hundreds. Perhaps it was the most sound — the most life — to have filled those walls in decades.

    When I watch this video, I think of that moment and how even for us, so far removed from the horrors and realities of what took place back then, it was redemptive and empowering. So I have seen the ability of song to reclaim and transform a place. And it doesn’t matter where the song originated. What matters is what it becomes.

  • Plus, everything else aside, Holocaust survivors have earned the right to dance wherever they damn well please.

Take Five with We Are Scientists

Keith Murray (right) and I made several connections the other night. We discussed our shared affection for Le’s Vietnamese restaurant (particularly the fresh summer rolls), our miserable upbringings in South Florida (he called my home county of Palm Beach “the epicenter of senility,” much to my delight) and the success his band, We Are Scientists, has enjoyed in England (appealing to my half-British heritage).

The one connection we couldn’t make was via telephone.

Murray, in a van returning to New York City after visiting friends in Kingston, N.Y., kept losing his cell phone signal to the cruel whims of the Catskills. Soon enough, though, Murray and bandmates Chris Cain and ex-Razorlight drummer Andy Burrows will be far removed from the Borscht Belt and their adopted home of Brooklyn, embarking on a world tour that makes a stop at the Middle East Downstairs on Tuesday, July 13.

The band is touring in support of their fourth studio album, “Barbara,” which is rife with the tight melodies, firecracker pop and crisp harmonies that are the band’s hallmark.

The tour will eventually take We Are Scientists across the pond to their adopted homeland of the United Kingdom, where their popularity is what Murray calls “a good several orders of magnitude greater” than it is in the States. Despite not being big football fans, they even penned a World Cup anthem for the English team, “Goal! England,” that they released for free download.

It was there where, last fall, they were able to indulge their comedic side by filming a series of TV shorts for MTV UK entitled “Steve Wants His Money.” For cut-ups like Murray and Cain, being funny is second nature. But their first priority is always the music.

Perhaps this week, “Take Five” refers to the fact that it took about five dropped calls before we were actually able to have a proper conversation. But upon his return to the reception-rich environs of the five boroughs, Murray and I renewed our connection.

You grew up in South Florida – so did I. What was that like for you? I hated it.

I was definitely fairly miserable. There was a pathetic music scene going on in Miami and Fort Lauderdale when I was in high school. It was also really hard to find all ages shows. I was more than happy to get the hell out of South Florida. My entire family still lives there. Now, when I visit, I understand why they choose to live there. I couldn’t bring myself to move back.

Who will win the World Cup final this weekend?

[Murray confesses not knowing who is in the final. Upon being told, he is incredulous.]

Netherlands and Spain?! I’m getting all my World Cup news from you right now. I’ll say the Netherlands, because it seems like they probably will lose and I like to root for the underdog. As I say that, I have no idea what I’m talking about.

It was pretty painful to watch Germany really trounce England. We were at the Glastonbury festival and backstage, all of the TVs are normally dedicated to broadcasting whatever was on your stage, but they had all been tuned into the World Cup. It was a lot of pretty invested English fans watching their team get truly traumatized by Germany, who outplayed them handily.

How do you like playing in Boston?

We always have a really, really good time in Boston. Boston had a learning curve for We Are Scientists in the way that places like Glasgow and Manchester did where earlier on those were our worst shows. Our small shows in Boston always did really, really poorly. We did the Middle East Upstairs one time and it was pretty empty. We just broke the seal on Boston one day. We played the Paradise and were kind of like, “Ugh, nobody’s gonna come,” and it sold out really quickly. Every show we’ve played in Boston since then has been really awesome.

Our last Middle East show was with our new drummer Andy who was in a massive band in England that played Wembley Arena. The first show we ever played with him was at the Middle East Downstairs, and after the show he declared that his fave show he’d ever played. I’ll say our shows in Boston are pretty good. The crowd definitely is behaviorally very enthusiastic. New York is infamous for being sort of cold. Boston kinda gets into it.

The title of your album “With Love and Squalor” references a short story by J.D. Salinger. Was there a reaction in the band when he died?

Chris and I are both massive, massive J.D. Salinger fans. It’s hard to feel like much has really changed in my day to day now that J.D. Salinger is gone; he essentially disappeared decades ago. There was an outspoken group who was very excited about the chance that his family will betray his wishes and release whatever it is he’s been doing all these years. My reaction is definitely the opposite. I don’t want to know. I like the fact that he has this limited canon that is perfect. That shouldn’t be sullied with whatever he was privately up to in his little writing bunker for decades, which is sort of how I feel about David Foster Wallace. The fact that his unfinished novel is going to be cobbled together by his editors and released makes me feel very unsettled and not very excited about whatever it is they’re going to release that he wasn’t happy enough to release when he died.

If decades from now, when you pass on, they unearth a trove of secret, unfinished We Are Scientists compositions, would you want someone to release them?

That is the most horrifying prospect I’ve ever been asked to imagine. I feel like right now I should go home and destroy all my hard drives. We are heavy quality control maniacs. Even putting up things like B sides we aren’t really psyched about makes us sad. But I’ve also learned I’m a terrible judge of how people will react to our own songs. I was having a conversation today where someone brought up a song on the new record and said it was their favorite song, and my response was that it was me who was arguing another song should replace it on the record. I got outvoted and a lot of people like that tune. Turns out I don’t know anything about how to value our own songs.

You and Chris are known for being pretty funny guys. How does that influence your lives as musicians?

Comedy is both amazingly enjoyable and an incredibly difficult art to master. I would definitely, any day of my life, vastly prefer to watch a terrible a band than I would a terrible comedian. Bad comedy is the worst thing there is.

I think our deal as a band is that we’re still pretty excitable. It is fun for us to play shows and I think we do get overcome with glee at the fact that people actually show up. I feel like there is an aspect of our band that is based on our actual personalities as individuals, ideally not as much as it is about the music. But I think a thing we bring to our show is a promise that there will be this character-based entertainment as well. We’ve definitely played several shows where if we’ve been on tour for a while and are sick or hungover or in a bad mood and don’t really talk very much — which still probably means talking more than most bands do — people will come up and complain about the fact that we were quiet and not funny that day.

What’s the funniest thing you’ve watched on YouTube lately?

It’s sort of is unfair because it’s actually a TV show. We’re really, really obsessed with a TV show called Garth Marenghi Darkplace. It’s a British comedy show from 2004,and  it’s pretty much the best TV show ever made. Anytime I’m near a computer, I force people to watch people to watch bits of Garth Marenghi Darkplace.

Our drummer today sent me that YouTube video of that guy freaking out about the double rainbow. That one I saw today.

Garth Marenghi Darkplace makes me laugh more, though.