I love analogies, I think in analogies, and there’s one in particular I’ve found to be extraordinarily useful. It has (and hasn’t, if you know what I mean) to do with sand, and the notion that the tighter you try to grip a handful of the stuff, the more the grains run through your fingers. Not the most sophisticated metaphor in the world, but it illustrates quite nicely how, in certain situations, the best results come when we set aside our instinctive need to control the external world through force.
[Waiting to continue until the urge to make an Iraq War comment passes... almost there... OK, let's move on.]
I’ve bumped into a pair of music-related reminders of the sand-containment axiom lately, and they’ve led me to the conclusion that side projects are wonderful exemplars.
Looking back, I feel pretty good about everything I put on there, but my appreciation for one of those albums has changed dramatically since the end of 2011. It’s not that I’d drop Bon Iver’s self-titled effort, if given a do-over, it’s just that its legacy has shifted. I say that because, when I see the cover of Bon Iver now, I immediately start thinking about Bonnie Raitt, John Prine and Peter Gabriel.
So this past Friday night, I spun at a super exclusive club. So exclusive that only two people were allowed in. I bet you’re dying to know which club it was, right? OK, OK, I’ll tell you, but you can’t tell ANYBODY. It was… my living room. That’s right, the two people in attendance were me and Mrs. You Hear That, who was sleeping peacefully on the couch the entire time. Sounds bumpin’, huh? Awww yeah! Because my set was so underground, I wanted to share some (11, to be exact) of the tunes we — OK, I — listened to while we — OK, I — watched college basketball. If you want to consider this a basketball playlist, go right ahead. Just know that it has nothing to do with basketball and would probably ruin even the most well-intentioned Final Four watch party. Just for fun, in spite of my sub-par photography skills (Glare? What glare?), I snapped pictures of all the records I played. What can I say? I’m a sucker for album art. Hope you enjoy!
I’m usually a huge fan of ridiculous spectacles, pop music and making judgmental comments about celebrities, so the Grammys should be right in my wheelhouse. Nevertheless, I had a really tough time enjoying what I watched last night. Something just felt… off. Reading this stomach-turning Hello Giggles post about Chris Brown just a few hours before the ceremony certainly didn’t help. Seeing this collection of “I’d let Chris Brown beat me” tweets after the show didn’t help either. Nor did the ratio of performances to on-air award presentations, which seems to grow more disproportionate each year (only 10 of the 78 awards were given out on TV). Whatever it was, I walked away more than a little disappointed. But guess what? It’s a big Internet out there, and I’ll let someone else complain about how bad the show was. Besides, a few things happened that made me very happy that I did watch. I loved Justin Vernon’s acceptance speech, for one thing. The acknowledgment of his discomfort in winning showed equal measures of courage and integrity, given his earlier comments about how meaningless these awards are and how creativity should be its own reward. Adele winning everything in sight was heartwarming, as well. I find a tremendous amount of character in her voice, which is refreshing in a pop music paradigm that, as Dave Grohl pointed out in his (rudely truncated) acceptance speech, often favors tonal perfection over personality. But the thing that I’ll remember most about this year’s Grammys was the Civil Wars performing a quickie, one-minute version of “Barton Hollow,” the song that won the award for “Best Country Duo/Group Performance.” They were great. I’d listened to this tune a number of times, and I’ve always liked it, but their natural demeanor and strong, straightforward delivery really stood out from the glut of comically over-produced and awkwardly shoehorned collaborations. Not only did Civil Wars seem like they belonged on such a grand stage, it looked like they could teach a thing or two to some of the other, more well-known and brazenly bedazzled honorees. Their minute on screen was exactly what I needed to jump on the Civil Wars bandwagon with both feet, and I can’t wait to spend more time with their 2011 release Barton Hollow, which took home the award for “Best Folk Album.” Listen to the studio version of the title track below and click here to buy the album on iTunes. I have a feeling you won’t be the only one doing so this week.
Those who know me best are aware that I have a hopelessly damagedone-of-a-kind sense of time. I won’t go into detail, as it would take quite a while (and probably half a box of crayons) to explain exactly how time works in my brain, but suffice it to say things tend to sneak up on me. This is both good and bad. It’s good in that my life is full of surprises — “Oh wow, our vacation in the Outer Banks is next week?!? Awesome!” But it’s bad in that I don’t realize engagements overlap until it’s too late — “If we’re leaving for the Outer Banks on Saturday, that means I can’t go to the Bon Iver concert at the National…” That one stung. But I have a secret weapon that’s going to ensure that forethought somehow squirms its way into my consciousness in 2012: the calendar. OK, before you’re all, “Whoa! Hey! That’s crazy! It’ll never work!”, hear me out. The moment I find out about a concert or album release date that I don’t want to miss, I’m going to add it to a special Google Calendar (aka the YHT Pumped Up Calendar) that I’ve created for this very purpose. Plus, I’m going to make it public, so all you fine people can join in on the fun. To check it out, just click here, or click the calendar that’s sitting with the rest of the social networking links. I’ve already added a bunch of shows and releases, but the one that inspired me to get started was Lianne La Havas’Forget EP. She released a pair of EPs in 2011, one live and one in-studio, and both were fantastic, each one an invitation to fall more and more in love with her graceful voice and warm demeanor. So when she tweeted that a new EP would be coming out on February 13 (fingers crossed that date is for the North American audience as well), I didn’t want to forget. Because I do want Forget.Wait, what? Moving on… If you live across the pond, some of the songs that will be featured on the February 13 physical release are already available on iTunes. Since us ‘mericans aren’t quite as lucky, I invite you to listen below to “No Room for Doubt,” from her Lost & Found EP, and join me in getting excited for her next installment. Now if only I could add a Lianne La Havas concert to the Pumped Up Calendar as well…
Welcome to Part 2 of YHT’s Top 10 Albums of 2011, also known (as of this very moment) as the High Five! Before continuing, I highly recommend high-fiving the first person you can find, or if no one’s around, simply accept the internet high five above. Yay! OK, let’s finish 2011 off in style…
Dubstep not your cup of tea? Mine neither! But so much of what James Blake does well has nothing to do with wobbly bass or sub-bass or wobbly sub-bass. Take his minimalism, for example. A track like “Lindesfarne” builds so much tension via empty sonic space that by the time the track is in full-swing, it feels like your heart is going to explode, even though his version of “full-swing” is still relatively sparse. He’s also capable of making songs feel emotional, regardless of what’s going on lyrically. In some ways, James Blake is like the musical equivalent of the plastic bag from American Beauty — an object of creation that seems simple on the surface, but as you continue to fill it with your own emotions its meaning becomes almost overwhelming. Then, like I said, your heart explodes. Boom. Just like that. Listen to “Lindesfarne” below, read more here and here, and buy here.
I don’t know if I would have made it through this past year without Helplessness Blues. 2011 was a time of exciting change for me (this blog being one big development), and the Fleet Foxes’ latest effort resonated deeply, touching heavily on themes of transformation and self-determination. I fell in love with the album’s exhilarating title track, which manipulates momentum so brilliantly, but our affair was sidetracked abruptly when I heard “Someone You’d Admire,” a hymn-like song with lyrics that offer both an admission of personal defeat and a reaffirmation of the ongoing inner-struggles that push us to get out of bed in the morning and keep fighting. Wow. This blurb certainly got serious. Here’s a video of a monkey riding a dog! Better? Great! See what I mean about “Someone You’d Admire” below, read more here, and buy here.
3. Bon Iver — Bon IverBON IVER AT #3? I WILL NOT STAND FOR THIS! GOOD DAY SIR!
Wait for it…
Alright, now that that guy is gone we can have a rational conversation about Bon Iver, one of the most ambitious albums I’ve heard in a long time. In my mind, making this album was an act of extreme musical courage. It would have been easy for Justin Vernon to dust off the For Emma, Forever Ago recipe and make another batch of the same bittersweet-yet-delicious confections, but he went so much further with his second full-length, thickening the batter with diverse instrumentation and bold stylistic leaps. Out of the oven came songs that feel radically different, even though they bear the same yearning falsetto that so many people have grown to love since 2008. So why do I have it ranked at number #3? Um… I dunno it just kinda felt like the right place. Listen to “Holocene” below, read more here, here and here, and buy here.
Why is this one’s album art smaller? Is it because it’s just an EP, and it’s size is being represented in correlation with its running length? Actually no. For some mysterious reason I couldn’t resize the image. Oops. Besides, if I had to represent how impactful this album has been, I would need a shit-ton more pixels. Probably more pixels than any other album on this list. The Alabama Shakes have landed on so many year-end “Best New Artist” lists with just these four soulful rock songs and some YouTube videos, making this album the pound-for-pound, hardest-hitting release of the year. I’m still recovering from being slugged by their early-December show at the Jefferson in Charlottesville, VA, and I’m beside myself with anticipation for the next time they’re anywhere near Richmond. Listen below to “You Ain’t Alone,” which is just a scary-good song in my opinion, read more here and here, and buy here.
The top spot goes to the album I played more times from start to finish than any other this year. When The Harrow & the Harvest came out, a big deal was made about how long it had been in the making — 8 years had passed since Welch’s last release — but this is no Chinese Democracy. Many of these tracks were captured on the first take, giving the album a natural, lighting-in-a-bottle feel that stands in stark contrast to their remarkable quality. I read that she and David Rawlings started a few recording projects in the years between this album and her last, but they abandoned each one because they weren’t convinced that the material up to snuff. These songs sure as hell are, and though nothing’s perfect, “Hard Times” is as close to a perfect song as I heard in 2011, offering a pure, heart-wrenching, two-by-two pairing of verse and chorus, guitar and banjo, her voice and his. Take a listen below, read more here, and buy here.
Before you go, I just wanted to say thank you so much for reading You Hear That in 2011. It means so much to me that you’re reading this here blog, and I’m beyond excited for what’s in store in the future. I hope you have a wonderful New Year’s Eve, and that your 2012 is 1000% better than the Mayans said it would be. Now let’s all go get hammered, call cabs and get home safe and sound!
Some people were blessed with the gift of foresight — “planners” I hear they’re called. I am not one of those people, which is why it’s a minor miracle that I got to see Megafaun this past Thursday. Early last week, my wife and I were a few days away from hopping on a 737 bound for Portland, OR (By “bound for Portland,” I mean bound for Houston, then Portland. I’m pretty sure Lewis and Clark took the same route.), when I did something so out of character, I’m surprised my wife didn’t accuse me of being involved in a Face/Off-style government plot — I checked to see what concerts would be happening while we were in town. It seems so simple, yet I can assure you, this was an evolutionary leap on par with the use of perspective in Renaissance painting and the special effects from Jurassic Park. The theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey should have been playing in the background as I looked online at venues’ websites and saw that Megafaun would be rocking the Doug Fir Lounge the evening after we flew in to PDX. This was very exciting news. I started learning about the North Carolina-based roots rock band over the past few months from Bon Iver’s glowing tweets about them, and I finally heard their music when it was featured on a recent episode of NPR’s All Songs Considered. I’ve had their self-titled album in heavy rotation ever since, but Thursday night’s performance was even better than I could have hoped. Amidst the backdrop of a super cool basement lounge that felt like a cross between a ski lodge and a woodsy version of Dr. Evil’s hollowed-out volcano lair, Megafaun put on a performance that made me and my wife fans for life. I’m a sucker for well-executed harmonies, and I was in the right place, as all four members of the band contributed to one sweet sounding vocal arrangement after another, culminating in their a cappella performance above of “Second Friend.” I may not have been blessed with the planner gene, but I felt truly blessed to have been at Doug Fir on Thursday night, and I’m definitely going to make a habit of checking for concerts before I head on vacation. Check out “Second Friend” above, hear the album version below, and buy their amazing self-titled album here.
I’m on earthquake watch tonight. The biggun happened on Tuesday afternoon, but I slept through both of the subsequent early-morning aftershocks. As I try to stay awake long enough for tonight’s edition, I thought I’d try something totally new — Read It Later roulette. If you don’t use Read It Later (or something like it), it’s an incredibly useful and simple tool (it’s a plugin for many browsers, my iPhone Twitter client uses it as well) that lets you add links to one central list for future perusal. It’s great for when you don’t have time to freely surf the world wide web of information by day, and great for keeping up with music news. Without further ado, let’s play! The following are links I stumbled across at some point today:
Apparently, Kate Miller-Heidke, whose song “Are You Fucking Kidding Me” still has me rotflmao-ing, once sang in an opera about Jerry Springer, which she calls “sheer brilliance” (the opera, not Springer). I think she’s brilliant, and I’m excited she’s recording an album in October! Read an interview with KMH at the Village Voice.
St. Vincent released the video for new song “Cruel,” in which she has the worst kids and husband ever. Let’s find Annie Clark a better family, because she seems like a nice lady to me. And if anyone can think of what commercial(s) the husband is from, PLEASE leave a comment. It’s bugging the hell out of me.
Kanye performed a 20-minute version of “Runaway” in Portland, and Rolling Stone posted a fan video. Just when I was ready to cry senseless self-indulgence, he brings the free-form epic to a close by pointing out that he “had the nerve to play you this song.” That is why Kayne is the best. Never ever change, Yeezy.
Lastly, music blogs asploded (and I nearly spat out my lunch) last Wednesday when James Blake cryptically announced a collabo with Bon Iver. The gorgeous tune is called “Fall Creek Boys Choir” and it just made it’s way online. I would like to place an order for an entire album of that. Kthx.
So, still no aftershocks, but I’m going to bed. I need my sleep — hurricane watch is on tap for tomorrow…
I tend to get excited about stuff. This is going to sound ridiculous, but sometimes I get so excited for an album, I can’t tell if I like it or not when I finally hear it, and Bon Iver’s eponymous sophomore album is a great example. His debut, For Emma, Forever Ago, was a critically acclaimed success story with one of the most touching origin stories in recent memory, setting the stage for a highly anticipated follow up. So when NPR posted their First Listen preview on June 9, guess who listened to the album three times, backtobacktoback? (I’ll give you a hint: it’s the same guy who spent last evening tweeting at Dale Earnhardt Jr Jr about the Detroit Pistons’ draft picks…) Right away, I could tell the album was both beautiful and complicated, but I couldn’t tell if I was enjoying the album, appreciating it or just excited to be finally hearing it. Instead of picking it apart, I tried something different. I put it down, walked away and came back a week and a half later, when the album was released. The moment I returned, I knew that I loved it. You know the few microseconds when a song first comes on, before you consciously recognize which song it is, when your brain reflexively says either “Oh, I like this!” or “Oh, I’ve heard this! It sucks!”? Every single one of the songs on Bon Iver passed the reflex test — my unconscious mind greeted each one like an old friend. If you haven’t heard the album yet, you’re in for a treat. It’s a complex web of styles, emotions and images that add up to an incredible listening experience. Check out the official video for “Calgary” above, and click here to buy the album from iTunes.
Clearly Justin Vernon reads this blog. Could he have picked a better day to release the first song from Bon Iver’s upcoming album? Yesterday I wrote about how Later… with Jools Holland opened my eyes to Vernon’s talent for transforming pain into something beautiful. To me, that performance symbolized triumph over loneliness, as if he was shouting, on behalf of broken hearts everywhere, “I’M STILL HERE!” It’s a powerful sight. So what happens next? What happens when your heartache turns into fame? What happens when you’re not just “still here” … buteverywhere, instead? For just the price of an email address, you can download “Calgary” and find out. It’s a characteristically thoughtful and touching song, and it highlights the the dichotomy between his falsetto and full voices. His falsetto is so delicate, conveying notes and lyrics as if they’re imagined, more than sung. His full voice appears late in the song, waking the listener from the dreamy tone of the first two and a half minutes. But which is the dream? The falsetto that graced most of his first album, giving him a successful career and a public identity, or the earnest voice that interrupts it? The last line of the song declares, “the demons come, they can subside.” So which is which? Download the song and see for yourself.