For nearly three decades, I thought my mom was a fan of the ALCS-swept New York Yankees. She grew up in New Jersey, her brother is a Yankee fan, her parents are Yankee fans… I guess I just assumed. And there wasn’t exactly a shortage of opportunities for her true colors to show — I played little league for like 10 years, went to god knows how many Norfolk Tides games, and watched a ton of baseball at home during and after family dinners. So imagine my surprise when the following exchange took place over the phone earlier this season…
Mom: “Ugh. I hate the Yankees.”
Her: “I’m a Mets fan!”
Turns out, when she was a kid, she rooted for the Mets to stick it to the rest of her family. Pretty awesome, if you ask me. She also called a career audible when I was in high school and became an Episcopalian priest after 31 years of teaching American History. She’s just full of surprises.
I hate it when famous people I like don’t get along.
The subject of music feuds came up a few hours before my friend Coyle and I saw Radiohead in Washington D.C. And before you ask, no, the music feud I’m talking about isn’t the one about us buying the same M. Ward shirt, though I am wearing it as I type this — hear that Coyle?!? No, the subject came up because our pre-show listening regimen leaned heavily on Arctic Monkeys, to whom Coyle’s been listening quite a bit recently. As we talked about Suck It and See, Arctic Monkeys’ most recent album, it dawned on me that I hadn’t given the band a fair chance over the years, and I’m pretty sure it’s because of something Thom Yorke said a little while back. Of AM and their rapid rise to fame, Yorke was quoted in 2006 as saying:
“The fact that poor Arctic Monkeys are getting so much attention is purely based on the fact that the mainstream music business is such a bunch of fucking retards as far as I’m concerned.”
Looking back at this incident with the benefits of hindsight and Google, it seems totally unfair (and dumb) for me to have let a single utterance, especially a flippant one that was mainly directed at the mainstream music industry, steer me away from a group I’d been starting to enjoy. But a half decade of tepid listening, a heavy Radiohead bias and the fact that AM drummer Matt Helders had fired back a shot about Radiohead being boring all worked together to warp my memory, and I found myself saying to Coyle something like, “I haven’t listened to them much. I think they said something not so nice about Radiohead at one point.” It’s embarrassing to admit it, but I seem to have passively chosen a side in a disagreement that took place 6 years ago between two people I’ve never met, which means that I’m just now finding out how great Suck It and See is. Crazy, right?
Well, the crazy train keeps on rolling, with a stop two days later at the Jefferson Theater in Charlottesville, where I was set to see tUnE-yArDs for the first time.
Consider for a moment the nature of applause. Giving someone “a hand.” Fairly straightforward, right? You applaud someone or something to show approval, with vigor acting as a measure of enthusiasm (excepting of course the legendary slow clap, which dramatically inverts the vigor dynamic and belongs in the nonverbal communication hall of fame, in this humble Rhetoric and Communications minor’s opinion). Cultures all around the world do it. You can golf clap, fast clap, clap seriously, clap sarcastically, clap enthusiastically, clap dispassionately, clap at completely inappropriate times… the variations are many; but one thing unites all of these types of applause: they’re externally directed. A tool for communicating outwardly. Which is why there’s something just a little bit weird about theater audiences clapping after movies (it’s not like the director can hear it), and why there’s something more than a little bit awesome about Mariachi El Bronx’s set opening up for tUnE-yArDs at the Jefferson Theater in Charlottesville on June 5. I’ll never forget how Mariachi El Bronx rescued me from a pit of despair… with my own applause.
So I was lucky enough to catch Youth Lagoon on Saturday, March 24, at Rock and Roll Hotel in Washington, D.C., along with my friend Travis (you might remember him as the pioneer of the Gaga Challenge) and our music-loving wifeys. The following Friday, our better halves proved that the “better” is short for “better judgement,” as both of our spouses decided to rest up in Richmond in preparation for the Monument 10K, while Travis and I espoused certain sleep deprivation and inflated race times by driving west to Charlottesville with my buddy Josh to catch Reptar at the Southern. Both shows were great, and there was something especially cool about seeing one up in Travis’ neck of the woods and one closer to Richmond inside of a week (OK, so Charlottesville isn’t exactly my neck of the woods, but ever since the Jefferson started stealing a sizable percentage of the good central VA shows, it’s starting to feel that way… but I digress). I thought a fun way to report back on this mini concert series would be for Travis and me to do some yearbook-style superlatives, so let’s dive right in…
Are you ready to play a kickass game of connect the dots? Since today’s edition largely takes place in the south, we’ll call it, affectionately of course, co-redneck-t the dots. I really think you’re going to like what we find, so let’s get started with the fine gents of Raleigh, North Carolina-based American Aquarium, who, on Friday at the Jefferson Theater in Charlottesville, Virginia, country-rocked their way through an amazing set opening for Jason Isbell, who hails from northern Alabama, just like former Drive-By Truckers bandmate Patterson Hood, whose father, David Hood, was the bass player for the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section (also known as “the Swampers” — ya know, “They’ve been known to pick a song or two”), the legendary band that recorded with some of music’s most recognizable names, like Aretha Franklin, the Rolling Stones, Paul Simon, John Prine and many, many more, all of whom, in order to record with the Swampers, had to to make pilgrimages to one of two studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, which is where American Aquarium just finished recording their new album, which was produced and recorded with the help of Jason Isbell, with additional contributions from the lovely Amanda Shires, Isbell’s girlfriend, who appeared on stage with both Isbell and American Aquarium last Friday night at the Jefferson Theater. Whew. Crazy, eh? And that run-on sentence doesn’t begin to cover how entertaining American Aquarium’s set was (a real-life love-at-first-listen experience) or the remarkable impact that Muscle Shoals has had on popular music. A few weeks back, I wrote about the idea of musical centers of energy, and Muscle Shoals most assuredly qualifies. Though the town’s population is just 13,000 or so, the area still has a tremendous amount of musical history. So many canonical musicians have been drawn to Muscle Shoals, and it’s wild to think about how the Swampers insisted on recording on their own turf. And Grammy wins for albums like the Black Keys’ Brothers go to show that the town maintains that gravitational pull to this day. Judging by the songs I heard at the Jefferson Theater, American Aquarium’s upcoming album is sure to be a hit as well, so to whet your appetite, I’m posting “Reidsville,” a song from their 2010 album Small Town Hymnsthat tells the story of a southern town with a very different legacy than that of Muscle Shoals. Listen below and snag the album on iTunes here.
Your favorite band is playing in town, but the show is completely sold out. Fortunately, a local radio station is giving away a pair of tickets. You time your phone call just right. You dial the number… busy signal. Shit! You hurriedly dial again… Holy crap, it’s ringing… “Congratulations! You’re our ninth caller and you’re going to see [insert favorite band name here]!”
Before last week, I had never won tickets to anything. Like, ever. And even though the scenario I described above may be a little old-fashioned, winning tickets remains one of those those cliched musical experiences (like meeting an idol or catching a projectile guitar pick at the end of an encore) that everyone should have at least once, despite the fact that the interweb has dramatically changed the way ticket giveaways are conducted.
I have Charlottesville’s Starr Hill Brewery and [gulp] Facebook to thank for my very first clichéd, fist-pumping, ticket-winning moment. Last Wednesday, Starr Hill posted a video to Facebook of a mystery substance being pumped into a huge mixing tank alongside the promise that “If you can guess what style of beer it’s going to be, you could WIN A PAIR OF TICKETS to see Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit at The Jefferson Theater this Friday night!” Finally — an opportunity to combine my [cracks knuckles confidently] formidable familiarity with beer and my love of concert-going in a way that doesn’t involve fighting through a crowd to pee halfway through a headliner’s set! Alright! Two guesses later — “Wheat beer” was wrong; “Belgian IPA” was right — I earned two spots at Friday’s Isbell show, which proved to be nothing short of amazing.
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!
Remember the Andre Agassi “Image is everything” commercials? You heard about the whole wig thing, right? Isn’t it wild that he would do a commercial about image being essential when, any moment, a poorly placed opposing serve could have dislodged the image he’d marketed so lucratively? It’s either the most or least ironic thing that’s ever happened, but either way it’s definitely sad. Sadder is the fact that he lost the French Open final that year because he was concerned that his locks would come loose. He said of that match, “During the warming-up training before play I prayed. Not for victory, but that my hairpiece would not fall off.” It takes a big man to admit this kinda thing, especially when he totally got away with it, and it teaches a powerful lesson: Fake stuff is distracting. When you’re thinking about what people are thinking about you it’s difficult to reach the state of mindlessness in which athletes (POORLY VEILED PREMISE ALERT) and musicians really thrive. Authenticity, on the other hand, offers freedom. It’s an invitation to dive deeper. Authenticity is the red pill from The Matrix. And that’s exactly what the Alabama Shakes were dispensing this past Tuesday at the Jefferson Theater in Charlottesville, VA (Note to the VA law enforcement community: At no point did an Alabama Shakes band member actually dispense pharmaceutical drugs or smuggle audience members into a post-apocalyptic computer world). After a fantastic set from Richmond’s Black Girls, the Shakes took the stage for the very first time in the Old Dominion, or “Virginny” as frontwoman Brittany Howard put it, and set about showing us the genuine joy that can be found in live performance when you let go, lose yourself (apologies to Mr. Mathers) and pour out your heart and soul — with an emphasis on the “soul.” I wrote yesterday about how the Alabama Shakes shouldn’t be called “soul revivalists” because it feels more like they’re creating than recreating, but you could hear the genre’s influence throughout their show. You could also hear healthy doses of rockabilly, blues, R&B and a ton of rock n roll. In truth, more than anything else, it really did feel like a rock show, with Howard’s emotional energy leading the way. Howard’s voice was packed full of expression and soulfulness, but there’s a whole other gear there (soul overdrive?) that she used to soar over blasting choruses full of ringing cymbals and electric guitars being strummed mercilessly. Along with Howard’s voice, I was particularly struck by the relationship between these two guitars, a bright-sounding hollow body Epiphone plucked by the co-lead guitarist and backup singer and a cool-sounding SG piloted by Howard herself. The tones of the two instruments couldn’t have been more complementary, and the same was true for the players, who traded rhythm and lead roles — the Epiphone providing driving riffs and lead flourishes and Howard’s SG adding rhythmic punctuation before tearing through frenzied solos that channeled the same emotion her voice conveyed so powerfully all night long. To see that kind of passion on display as she’s singing about wearing your heart out on your sleeve in a song like “You Ain’t Alone” represents a perfect marriage of message and messenger, and that authenticity made it easy for me to lose myself in the Alabama Shakes on Tuesday night. If you have the chance to see them, do not pass go, do not collect $200, just GO. Until then, you can check out the video above of “You Ain’t Alone,” listen to the studio version below, and pick up their EP here.
Alabama Shakes, Part 1 (Editor’s note: I’m so excited about last night’s Alabama Shakes show that I’m splitting my reaction up into two parts, one offering a macro view of the experience, and one that gives a little more detail. Hope you enjoy!)
“Don’t know much about history
Don’t know much biology
Don’t know much about a science book
Don’t know much about the french I took
But I do know that I love you”
– Sam Cooke
Over the course of 28 years, I’ve become an expert at certain things. Choosing which tunnel to use when traveling from Richmond to Norfolk is one. Choosing non-mealy apples at the grocery store is another. And I don’t mean to toot my own horn, but I consider myself the Michael Jordan of choosing the wrong checkout lane at Costco. Soul music, however, is not one of my (apologies to John Hodgman) areas of expertise. Soul is such an influential, historically rich and culturally significant force that I’ve always approached it with a sense of cautious reverence. And while I’m somewhat familiar with greats like Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke and Mavis Staples, it’s always seemed like a broader understanding of the genre’s history and icons is just too steep a hill to climb, and that I’m destined to remain on the outside looking in. Lately though, a number of bands that have caught my attention are making it more and more difficult to stay on the soul music sidelines. Last night, I had the pleasure of seeing one of these bands in person, a group called Alabama Shakes. I’d been hearing this 5-piece outfit’s name everywhere, often lumped in with the present wave of so-called soul revivalists, so I came to the Jefferson Theater in Charlottesville, VA prepared to find out firsthand where they stood within this movement. But as they worked their way through a powerful, confident and wildly entertaining set, it became clear that they weren’t reviving anything. What I saw felt like an authentic act of creation, not one of imitation or recreation. It felt like something totally new. Maybe I’m inclined to think this way because I lack the baseline of knowledge to make proper comparisons, but to say that frontwoman-extraoridnairre Brittany Howard has pipes like Aretha, or a 5th gear like Janis Joplin, or moo-oo-oo-OO-OO-ooves like Jagger (sorry, I really tried to stop myself from typing that) would, as accurate and complimentary as those comparisons might be, situate Alabama Shakes in the past, which is not where they belong. Sure, you can call them neo-soul, or something like that, but it really doesn’t matter, because you don’t need to be a soul savant, or an expert in musical taxonomy, to enjoy Alabama Shakes. And the proof was standing all around me last night. The crowd was as diverse as I’ve seen — black, white, young, old, hip, unhip — and while that could be a side effect of being relatively new and not having been pigeonholed yet, I’d like to think it’s because there’s so much to enjoy in their music that almost everyone can connect with it. See what I mean by listening below to “Hold On,” the first track off their eponymous EP, which you can snag here.