Category Archives: Music

A World of Difference

Night Falls Over KortedalaLast night, I saw Jens Lekman perform at the Arts at the Armory complex in Somerville, just a 20 minute walk from my house. The last time I saw Lekman perform was in 2005, at a tiny club across town, PA’s Lounge. (It was also then that I interviewed him for a profile in Splendid E-Zine). In the interim, Lekman has gathered lots of acclaim for his honest, emotional, clever and at times charmingly awkward songwriting.

When I saw him in ’05 at PA’s, he was very fresh and young. He shyly clung to the microphone, eyes shut, crooning away. But at the Armory, I was stunned by how Lekman has matured as a performer in the past nearly seven years. At a sold-out venue packed with nearly 400 fans, Lekman commanded the stage with ease and comfort, dancing around, responding to the crowd and obviously enjoying the night.

It made me think about the act of creation. When you create something — a song, an essay, a painting, a website — you create a world. You can either invite people into it, or not.

Back in 2005, we got to observe the worlds of Lekman’s creation, and the audience derived some enjoyment from that. But we were not a part of them. Those worlds were his own. Last night, however, we were invited into them. We became an integral part of them.

After the show, my friend Chris remarked, “He was just completely engaged.” And that was it. Yes, the concept of engagement is one of the most overused in marketing. But now, after this concert, I feel like I have a better understanding of it than ever before. To engage someone is to invite them into the world of your creation, and to make it a shared experience. They become as much a part of it as you are, sharing in the honesty, the emotion, the cleverness and, yes, even the charming awkwardness.

Sometimes, your world needs to remain your own, and that’s okay. It could be something very personal, or you’re just trying to work something out or conduct an experiment.

But a world gains power when you bring people into it, because they make it better than you could have done on your own. They shape your creation, enhance it, amplify it.

It makes me think of one of the coolest phenomena I’ve learned about from the Occupy Wall Street movement — the people’s mic, where the crowd makes up for the lack of amplification by having an individual’s message shouted in echo by the people standing nearby. This not only enables everyone to hear the message, but actively involves the crowd in its communication.

It may have taken Lekman a few years to figure out how to let people into his world. But last night at the Armory, the power of his engagement was on full display. And his creations, his songs, buzzed with the life we fed into them.

Best Albums of 2010

Here we go, another look back at the music that made 2010 more bearable and more awesome. Admittedly, the past couple of months have been made more difficult by my laptop video card being on the fritz (and thus removing me from my iTunes lifeline), so this list is compiled with a slight handicap and without some of the extras I’ve included in years past.

Also, this year, I tethered my effort closely to the second annual Higher Ed Music Critics collaboration, where 10 higher ed web marketing professionals and music nerds came together to collectively determine the best 50 albums of the year. Here’s the rundown: 51-21926-501-25

Listed below are my own top 50 of the year. As usual, feel free to agree/disagree/debate/recommend in the comments! (For historical reference, here’s where I was mid-year.)

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 hypnotic, and these powerful songs are full of elegance and verve.
  4. The Love Language – Libraries – The Love Language‘s “Libraries” recalls what I fell in love with about bands like The Kissaway Trail and Wild Light: earnest, melodic, and rich tracks, which founder Stuart McLamb calls “emotional fight songs.” One of my happiest surprises of the year.
  5. John Shade – All You Love is Need – Shade, a Boston-area artist, approaches acoustic pop perfection. His songs ring true, seemingly coming from a genuine place without guile or malice.  (Bonus: You can download his album for free, or name your own price.)
  6. 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.
  7. 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 needed to know she was a gem), and Dan Bejar is at his most accessible. And A.C. Newman continues to steer his pop ship in enlightening directions.
  8. 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.”
  9. Cloud Cult – Light Chasers – One of the most unabashedly sincere and true-hearted bands in indie rock offers up another winner, facing complex issues of love and grief and longing head-on, armed only with lush melodies and dynamic songcraft.
  10. School of Seven Bells – Disconnect From Desire – A huge leap forward from their debut, which in itself was a stellar album. Captivating and transcendent.
  11. Stars – The Five Ghosts
  12. Hot Chip – One Life Stand
  13. Jenny and Johnny –  I’m Having Fun Now
  14. The Acorn – No Ghost
  15. LCD Soundsystem – This is Happening
  16. Vampire Weekend – Contra
  17. Surfer Blood – Astro Coast
  18. The Kissaway Trail – Sleep Mountain
  19. Marching Band – Pop Cycle
  20. Versus – On the Ones and Threes
  21. Weakerthans and Jim Bryson – The Falcon Lake Incident
  22. Magnetic Fields – Realism
  23. Ted Leo & the Pharmacists – The Brutalist Bricks
  24. Teenage Fanclub – Shadows
  25. Girl Talk – All Day
  26. Sleigh Bells – Treats
  27. Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros – Up From Below
  28. Local Natives – Gorilla Manor
  29. Freelance Whales – Weathervanes
  30. Freedy Johnston – Rain on the City
  31. The Arcade Fire – The Suburbs
  32. Spoon  – Transference
  33. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross – The Social Network score
  34. Laura Veirs – July Flame
  35. Pernice Brothers – Goodbye, Killer
  36. We Are Scientists – Barbara
  37. Peter Wolf – Midnight Souvenirs
  38. Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse – Dark Night of the Soul
  39. Kathryn Calder – Are You My Mother?
  40. Nada Surf – If I Had a Hi-Fi
  41. The Hold Steady – Heaven is Whenever
  42. Frightened Rabbit – The Winter of Mixed Drinks
  43. Eels – End Times
  44. Broken Bells – Broken Bells
  45. Mates of State – Crushes
  46. John Hiatt – The Open Road
  47. Kingsley Flood – Dust Windows
  48. Static of the Gods – Knowledge Machine
  49. The Morning Benders – Big Echo
  50. The Futureheads – Chaos

Take Five: The Soul-Searching Edition

New Releases

Finds of the Week

  • Jens Lekman performed some new songs at a recent live gig in Los Angeles, including his ode to Kirsten Dunst. 
  • The Cars are teasing some new songs on their Facebook page. Seems like the formula still works.
  • Fountains of Wayne, uncrowned kings of power pop, are still at it,releasing songs about New Jersey rivers and sitting on a finished album waiting for a label to come around and realize how awesome they are. FoW’s Adam Schlesinger is also playing shows in California with Mike Viola on Dec. 15 and 16. (So… jealous…)
  • Check out the absolutely perfect little love song that one blogger calls “the next ‘Anyone Else But You'” — Penny and the Quarters’ “You and Me.”
  • Wednesday, Dec. 8, was the 30 year anniversary of John Lennon’s death. On the way back from Norwood in the Zipcar, I was listening to the replay of Lennon’s last interview (which will be published in its entirely in the next issue of Rolling Stone), conducted just hours before his death in New York City. It was stirring, haunting but also inspiring. Bill Janovitz, aptly, marked the occasion with a song — a cover of “Beautiful Boy” — and some choice words:”It brings me a lot of comfort to believe in John Lennon the artist, as a demi-god, the life he presented to us as maybe part of the art, but no less real. He was showing a version of how to age and become a father to a generation. It brings me great comfort to think of John as a softening man and a nurturing father to a baby and then young boy. And it therefore brings me great pain to think of his murder and the loss of a father who can write a song such as this for his son.”

Around the Web

In the News

Second Thoughts

Things are changing around here. Again.

For a while, as you might have been able to tell, I fancied turning “Take Five” into a real column, interviewing interesting people involved in some way with music in addition to regular link/commentary digests such as this one. At the same time, my blogging at GeorgyCohen.com has really ramped up. The problem is, I only have so much time.

In addition, I missed the blogging I did here back in the day, way back in 2009 — it was more reflective, more personal. To me, that is an enticing complement to my more professional banter elsewhere.

So, what does this mean? It means I am relieving myself of the burdens of a schedule and expectations around “Take Five” and my music blogging aspirations. Right now, I only want to deal with one blog with an editorial calendar, and I want a space where I can write about a neat walk I took, my latest realizations about family and, yes, music — but when I want to, and how I want to. I think the expectations and structure I was placing around “Take Five” choked the life out of the rest of what this blog had become (and, most importantly, meant to me).

I still remember the feeling of euphoria I felt after my first “Take Five” post. I hadn’t written about music in a long while, and starting this feature was a way of recommitting to music writing. And it rejuvenated me. So, maybe it’s dangerous to ease up on the structure that “Take Five” imposes during a time in my life when I have been somewhat removed from music, thanks to the balky laptop monitor. But I’m also at a point where I need to pick and choose the structures in my life, in order to keep things manageable. So don’t worry, music writing won’t disappear. But like all things, this is a work in progress, so expect to see some changes. Hopefully all for the better.

Take Five: Rock Shop #9 – Design Shop

On Nov. 22, the ninth installment of Rock Shop took place at the Middle East Downstairs. This time, the focus was design – web design, graphic design, style, you name it. Design is not one of my strong suits, so I was interested to hear from a designer’s perspective what a client – in this case, a band, though the feedback was broadly applicable – should keep in mind when thinking about their visual branding.

The panelists — many of whom said they got into design by taking on such responsibilities for their own bands back in the day — included:

Aaron Belyea (Alphabet Arm)
Gary Hedrick (ElefhantWorks)
Liz Linder (Liz Linder Photography)
Marc Beaupre (Beagle Printing)
Marcus Ohanesian (Perfect Evolution)

As always, Rock Shop organizer Steve Theo of Pirate! moderated the discussion, which covered the following points:

Preparation: Ohanesian emphasized that the top thing they would advice a client to do to prepare for hiring a designer is to think about the project, not just how much it’s going to cost (that can be affected by variables ranging from content management to complex Flash programming). As Linder put it, doing it right the first time will get you where you’re going much more quickly — a good design is an investment in your future, so value the process. Ideally, said Ohanesian, the client brainstorms first, then calls a designer and brainstorms with the designer. Belyea echoed this, urging clients to do their homework and come up with a concept to share with the designer. It’s on the designers to balance their expertise with the clients’ desires.

Research: Hedrick likes to get in the client’s head, sometimes by pretend he’s in a band with them, just hanging out. He said he learns more from the first 10 or 15 minutes with a client by talking about completely unrelated topics. Belyea said he often asks bands who they would ideally tour with, to get a sense of where they want to push themselves.

Linder, the photographer on the panel, recommended that clients bring in reference images of things they like, as well as things they hate. The process should ideally arrive at the unique message that the client wants to communicate about itself. And if you don’t know what you want? “Try,” said Linder. “It’s all research.”

With bands, music is important. That is the main way they communicate who they are to the world. So, for designers, it is critical to become acquainted with their clients’ music. Belyea said, “We won’t work on a record until we hear the music.” “Music is key,” added Linder. “It’s why we’re all here.” Immersing in the music is part of building the relationship with the client, and achieving the goal of making the client look good.

Efficiency: They urged clients to look at the designer’s time as  a commodity not to be wasted — clearly communicate up front to the designer what you want and like and why you want and like it, rather than waste hours of time in back-and-forths over e-mail. In addition, Liz suggested that one person in the band should manage and own the design process, since not everyone in the band will agree on visual matters. As Hedrick put it, there are two types of bands: democracies and dictatorships. It is most helpful if the band can work as an organism, in order to get things done smoothly.

Branding: “Your band is your brand,” said Linder. An album is a mini-brand within a brand. With design, she added, you are trying to package brand awareness, since people are used to experiencing things at the brand level. The best clients are the ones who get that. Hedrick brought up a few examples from different points on the brand spectrum: Fishbone and Metallica, with their highly recognizable logos; Jane’s Addicition, which has a new brand with each new release; and Fugazi, which champions the anti-brand. Part of branding is a communicating a “feel” that lets people know that this is your band.

Bands, said Linder, should put as much attention into their visual branding as they put into their music, since you need to make an impact to stand out from the crowd. Linder said that if you have money to spend, spare the “cranes and elephants” in your music video and invest in a solid logo instead. “The masses are asses,” said Beaupre, all the more reason is craft distinctive brand awareness. One interesting example that came up a couple time is how powerful visual branding can bind otherwise temporal, ethereal media. When someone snaps a cameraphone pic of a great opening band, if they look at that pic later and see the band name on the drum kit, they can follow up and download songs, look for the band’s next live date, etc.

Take Five with Doug

This week, as we wind down for the holidays, I’d like to share some love for one of my favorite shows, Nickelodeon’s early ’90s classic “Doug.” While “The Adventures of Pete & Pete” (deservedly) gets a lot of attention for being the Nickelodeon show with the awesome soundtrack and house band, “Doug” has some pretty great music, as well — plus, they had The Beets, one of the coolest fictional bands ever.

Bangin’ on a Trashcan (a Doug original)

Killer Tofu (the Beets’ classic)

I Need More Allowance

Shout Your Lungs Out

Doug’s Secret Song (written for you-know-who)

And as a bonus: Yo Doug!

Take Five: The Drive-By Edition

After spending half of October in hotel rooms in Ohio and Nevada, I’m still adjusting to having both feet back on the ground. Of course, having both feet back on the ground doesn’t mean that they are still; they are doing a lot of running around. That said, come Friday, we will always pause to Take Five.

Around the Web

Killing Radio Stars

I’ve got a few neat videos to share with you. First, my friend Tim asked folks to blog about videos they love and why. (Here’s my response: the Fully Sick Rapper.) My friend Andy responded to the challenge with a really creative offering: The Battle of the Album Covers.

On Wednesday night, I saw one of my favorite bands, Girlyman, live at Club Passim. They invited the group Coyote Grace up on stage to perform “Young James Dean,” a powerful song about identity and acceptance which Ty Greenstein says was inspired in part by the book “The Last Time I Wore a Dress“. With all of the attention being paid to the bullying of gay teens lately, I thought I would link to the video that Margaret Cho created for this song.

Lastly: The rent is too damn high!

IN THE NEWS

RIYL…

Since I’ve been so out of the loop, I haven’t had a chance to consume (or even purchase, really) any new music. So the last new album I really got into is a bit old. My apologies. But it’s really good! The Love Language‘s “Libraries” recalls what I fell in love with about bands like The Kissaway Trail and Wild Light: earnest, melodic, and rich tracks, which founder Stuart McLamb calls “emotional fight songs.” And, of course, they’re on Merge.

Check out this video from the making of “Libraries”:

And here is a live performance of “Nocturne” on KEXP:

Second Thoughts

Photo by Chris Devers

On Oct. 26, Billy Ruane – a legendary patron of the Boston music scene – passed away at the age of 52. Much, much, much has been said about Ruane (here’s a great tribute by the Phoenix, and a selection of remembrances from local musicians). But all agree that he was an unstoppable force,  omnipresent (and sometimes, too present) in Boston’s music culture for nearly 20 years. My friends Sam and Brad shared some heartfelt remembrances of their own.

Next Wednesday, there will be an epic concert for Ruane’s birthday, drawing the likes of Buffalo Tom’s Bill Janovitz, Chris Brokaw, Mary Lou Lord, Tanya Donelly and others to the Middle East (and, in a unique joint arrangement, TT the Bear’s). It will surely sell out, and it will surely be memorable.

I think a lot of my friends perceive me as someone who is locked into the Boston music scene, but I don’t entertain any such delusions. In truth, I had never heard of Billy Ruane before he died. But while I did not know Billy while he was living, I have gotten to know him posthumously through the memories of those who sold him tables’ worth merch, took (or avoided) his phone calls, endured his sloppy kisses and got caught up in his whirlwind of devotion. Even in death, Ruane’s tradition of enhancing the lives of those around him continues.

Take Five: True Confessions About Phil Collins

When I was little, I had a strange affinity for the music video to Phil Collins’ “Do You Remember?”

Perhaps it was because it was a story of young love, and at that age I could identify with the affection between the paper boy and the neighbor girl. And, of course, I’m a giant, ballad-loving sap to begin with. Either way, that is the earliest date to which I can trace back my abnormal attraction to the work of Phil Collins.

I know I’m not supposed to be this way. I’m supposed to eschew Collins-led Genesis in favor of Gabriel-led Genesis (which I do appreciate). I’m supposed to forsake Phil because of his latter-day Disney schlock (which I do renounce) and dismiss the rest of his catalog as soft rock garbage. But when confronted with true talent, enduring songs and a stellar collection of music videos, there’s little I can do to resist. All I can do is sing along (and since some Collins hits have recently entered my list of karaoke standards, that is exactly what I do).

Phil Collins was the sleeping giant of the 1980s. While other artists may have been flashier or more chart-topping, Collins and his cunning pop sensibility — whether solo or fronting Genesis — modestly amassed a slew of hits that over time became standards. He helped define the 80s power ballad with songs like “One More Night,” “Groovy Kind of Love,” “Hold on my Heart” and “In Too Deep.” He got us snapping our fingers with “Sussudio,” “Don’t Lose my Number” and “Invisible Touch,” thinking with “Another Day in Paradise,” “No Son of Mine” and “Land of Confusion,” chuckling with “I Can’t Dance” and “Jesus He Knows Me.” Sure, there are songs that don’t do much for me, like “Two Hearts,” “Easy Lover” and “You Can’t Hurry Love,” but given the number of winners, that’s a small percentage. I’m convinced that everyone must have at least one Phil Collins song that they like.

Phil Collins, of course, enjoyed the height of his popularity during the glory days of the music video, and he embraced the medium wholeheartedly, never taking himself too seriously and often amping up the narrative or entertainment factor. From the epic and warped puppet video for “Land of Confusion” and the international-themed clip for “Take Me Home” to the dog’s eye view in “Something Happened on the Way to Heaven” and the dream sequence of “I Wish It Would Rain Down,” Collins and Genesis always went all in when it came to videos.

So, why this post? While I have always had an abiding enjoyment of his catalog, my Collins karaoke fervor has given me reason to revisit it and truly appreciate the quality and depth of what he accomplished. Thus, I am becoming an evangelist. I want to rescue Phil Collins from the slag heap and get him the respect he deserves for his accomplishments. To that end, I’d like to post some of my favorite Collins songs and videos, sharing why I like them so much and giving you a chance to revisit them as well. And I’d love to hear your favorites in the comments.

Take Me Home

(Solo) Earnest and heartfelt, but less wispy than a ballad, with an awesome globetrotting video. Noteworthy: this song plays over the intercom at the departure gates in Las Vegas’ airport. In the same vein…

Follow You Follow Me

(Genesis) The delightful wash of keyboards that envelops this song, one of Genesis’ first mainstream hits (1978!), really make it stand out.

Something Happened on the Way to Heaven

(Solo) Lately, this is one of my favorite songs to perform in karaoke — I performed it once on a lark and it stuck. The video is so odd — no one seems to care that this dog is wandering around their set, peeing and crapping and eating their food. The show must go on, I suppose.

Land of Confusion

(Genesis) This video is still awesome, still bizarre– though sadly, the song is still ringing true in some respects. Either way, this video was an amazing application of the form,  using puppets from the UK show “Spitting Image.” It’s a shame it had to go up against “Sledgehammer” in the 1987 VMAs. But, come on, “Sledgehammer.”

Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now)

(Solo) Ah, yes, my go-to karaoke ballad. You know, some of the best and most defining songs of the ’80s came from the soundtracks of utterly unmemorable movies. Here is a case in point.

I Wish It Would Rain Down

(Solo) In this vignette, Collins portrays a rehearsal pianist who gets his chance at playing lead in the big show, and while singing his song he dreams of stardom. Also, this video features Jeffrey Tambor as the neurotic director. Oh, right, the song — classic Collins balladry, with Eric Clapton shredding on the guitar and a chorus of “oooohs” raining down behind Collins’ voice.

Jesus He Knows Me

(Genesis) I will admit that, while I like this song, I’m adding this one purely for the video. It’s sharp, snappy and highly entertaining. It comes off of 1991’s “We Can’t Dance,” the band’s last major album, which also spawned the great tracks “No Son Of Mine” and the infamous “I Can’t Dance.” After this album, both Genesis and Collins began to enter the twilight of their careers, but they sure as hell went out with a bang.

Want more? You can buy Phil Collins’ greatest hits or Genesis’ greatest hits (affiliate links).