Every once in a while, I’ll be watching a drummer go to town during a rhythmically demanding section of a song, and I’ll say to myself, “That dude is an alien.” Certain drummers have that extra gear that makes it look like they’re working with more than two arms and two legs — how else could they be doing so much at once and/or making so much noise? Not so coincidentally, I described Battles’ John Stanier as “otherworldly” when I witnessed his handiwork at the 9:30 Club a few months back, and I’d be inclined to throw that same adjective at Wilco’s Glen Kotche, especially when it comes to his chaotic outbursts in “Via Chicago.”
So what the hell does this have to do with Punch Brothers?!? They don’t even have a drummer!
I’m glad you asked! Chris Thile, the group’s frontman and mandolin player, is one of the few people outside the world of stick-wielding snare-strikers that produces that same super-specific, disbelieving reaction: “That dude is an alien.” And I’m not alone — Ed Helms from The Office has had the exact same thought.
Aren’t top 10 music lists funny? They’re arbitrary, for one thing. Unless you’re quantitatively ranking performances (American Idol and X-Factor, I’m not going to call on you so please put your hands down), the order of your top 10 is usually based on gut feelings and random associations. Plus, they’re a dime a dozen — any yahoo, including this one, that listened to at least 10 albums in a calendar year can make one. Yet for some reason, people love to create them and debate them… and then debate them some more. And as annoying as it is to see people arguing about top 10 lists on the internet, therein lies their beauty. There may be no clearer testament to the fact that every human being experiences music differently, and that’s a good thing. Lists like these are a great way to discover bands that other people are crazy about that you might not even know existed. And someone’s conviction about an album you dismissed out of hand may finally convince you to give it a shot. I hope this list does one of those things for you, and if not, feel free join the ranks of these people and lash out about what’s ranked too high or how Bon Iver sucks.
[Cue Most Interesting Man in the World music] I don’t always listen to math-rocky type stuff. But when I do… I listen to Battles. Their previous album Mirrored drew me in, even though proggy math rock isn’t really my thang, and Gloss Drop picked up right where its predecessor left off. Given that they lost a key band member in between that album and this one, I was impressed right away by how the group’s sense of intensity and adventure had endured, and had maybe even grown. “Ice Cream” became one of my favorite upbeat songs of the year, and I still can’t get enough of it. Listen below, read more about Battles here, here and here, and buy here.
Trevor Powers seemed to come out of nowhere, garnering lots of attention all at once thanks to a May Pitchfork article that linked to a few self-released songs, including the wonderfully haunting “July.” But his instant notoriety was no fluke, as his debut full-length The Year of Hibernation illustrates so convincingly. Powers is just 22, but his old-soul dexterity with themes of nostalgia and the fragility of youth is remarkable, and his album leaves you with the odd sensation that he’s older than he really is. Kind of like how it’s easy to forget that the basketball players you bet on each March in your office pool are really 18-year-olds who only recently learned how to drive. Now if only they’d learn how to hit their goddamn free throws. Listen to “July” below, read more here and here, and buy here.
w h o k i l l is one of the most refreshing albums I’ve heard in a long time, absolutely bursting at the seams with creativity. Merrill Garbus is one of those rare artists who is capable of committing great leaps of the imagination to tape without drifting off into the obscure or unlistenable. Watching her loop-happy live performances online is a special treat, as her execution is flawless despite the fact that she employs so many off-kilter, rhythmically complex and densely layered elements. My favorite of these videos came in August, when she played “Gangsta” on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon with members of the Roots. I’d give you a link, but none of the embedded videos are currently working because NBC is comprised of a-holes who don’t understand the internet. Listen to the studio version of “Gangsta” below, read more here, and buy here.
Delicate Steve was the source of equal parts laughter, enjoyment and regret during the course of 2011. Laughter because of Chuck Klosterman’s hilarious fake press release; enjoyment because his album Wondervisions is a twisting, turning and totally addictive monument to the endless possibilities of melody; and regret because I wish so badly I could have seen him perform on the tour he did with Ra Ra Riot, as my mother- and father-in-law did in Harrisburg, PA at Appalachian Brewing Company. Hearing my father-in-law talk about how much he enjoyed seeing Delicate Steve helped the bitterness pass though, as it filled me with excitement for whenever I finally make it to one of his shows. Listen to his song “Butterfly” below, read more here, and buy here.
I wrote about Dale Earnhardt Jr Jr incessantly this past year (please don’t do a search for the band’s name in the search bar to the right, my obsession is slightly embarrassing), and much of that writing was about the Detroit duo’s clever marketing and knack for PR. But when you look past their masterfully constructed image, you find sturdy electro-pop tunes that exhibit real heart and soul, as well as a clear gift for arrangement and instrumentation. It’s A Corporate World is an excellent listen from its first notes to its last, and I felt extremely lucky to have seen the album come alive in September at the Southern in Charlottesville, VA (complete with black lights and matching Tigers jackets, of course). Listen to their song “Nothing But Our Love” below, read more here, here and here, and buy here.
What do the mountains of northeastern Afghanistan and proggy math rock have in common? For starters, they’re both wild places where seemingly anything can happen. They’re also both extremely rocky (sorry, I had to). Most importantly, they share an essential quality that largely defines them: inaccessibility. Just as the Korangal Valley in Afghanistan wouldn’t be so wild if it wasn’t a remote, mountainous deathtrap for invading armies, experimental rock wouldn’t be experimental if it didn’t push the envelope of what is conventionally considered possible and palatable. Avid enthusiasts of complex, time signature-shredding music may say, “Hell yeah! That’s the best part!”, but for bands who aim to make a good living playing this type of music, it seems like a tough line to walk. How do you keep pushing the envelope without pushing people away? How???
I had the pleasure of seeing that question asked and successfully answered when Battles performed at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C. this past Sunday night. Battles is a very special band, boasting outsized doses of creativity, musicianship and precision, as well as one of the best drummers I’ve ever seen (please put seeing John Stanier in person on your musical bucket list — he’s nothing short of otherworldly), all of which help them construct songs that are unique and intellectually challenging. Think musical abstract (but not too abstract) painting. But throughout Sunday’s show, it became more and more evident that the band has a special knack for connecting with their audience, as well.
Who has two thumbs and an itchy iTunes trigger finger? This guy! Yesterday was a remarkable day for album releases, and I invite you to join me as I celebrate my music buying binge. The first album I’d like to celebrate is Gloss Drop, the new offering from Battles. And instead of giving yet another review of the album with a sample song at the bottom, I want to show you what makes this band so incredible. For this, I call to the stand their breathtaking Take Away Show. Since 2006, La Blogothèque’s Take Away Shows have been showing a grittier, more unguarded side of some of the world’s greatest musicians. These shows feature off-the-cuff performances filmed in and around Paris, sometimes walking through a busy street, sometimes looking out a lonely apartment window. This episode, which features Battles’ song “Wall Street,” breaks the mold, with the math-rockers eschewing the series’ trademark portability and informality for the ornate beauty found in the Bertrand Salon of the Hotel de Ville, Paris’ city hall and mayor’s office. The setting is a surprisingly appropriate fit, as the songs that Battles construct are every bit as intricate – and in some ways, fragile – as the chamber music you might have heard throughout the centuries if you were one of the statues that line the room’s walls. Even if math rock isn’t your cup of tea, I urge you to watch this masterfully filmed and edited video and dissect what you hear, because the band’s brilliance lies in their ability to perform live the complicated parts that other groups would be forced to sample. The video is a feast for the eyes, ears and musical mind, and I can’t think of a better way to welcome their amazing album Gloss Drop into the world. Click here to learn more about the video, and here to download the album from iTunes.
OK, so I stand corrected. My sister tells me that my bro-in-law Brian is the one who orchestrated the booking of David Vandervelde at their wedding. Credit is now where credit is due. Propers are properly assigned. But little did my big sister know that her corrective comment would give me the perfect excuse to talk about one of my favorite new songs, as it was bro-in-law Brian who told me about Battles. I fell in love with Battles by listening to their song “Atlas” over and over, letting the menacing drums and creepily cartoonish vocals slowly seep into my skin. That’s one thing I love about their debut album Mirrored – in a truly insidious way, it seems to get better each time I play it. Battles has a new album coming out called Gloss Drop, and they were kind enough to drop a single track ahead of the June 7 release to whet our appetites. It’s called “Ice Cream” and features a guest vocalist, but has at its heart the same rhythmic virtuosity that makes their music so amazing. Check it out below, and click here for the song’s frenetic, NSFWish video.