If you happened to catch the musical away message I put up on Saturday morning, you already know I spent the long weekend on Chincoteague Island, which is located at the very top of Virginia’s Eastern Shore. It offers a beautiful strip of coastline, notable for its status as a National Wildlife Refuge, the wild horses that roam its dunes, and the freedom to drive your Ford F150 up and down the beach in search of the perfect fishing spot.
Having taken a few of these pickup-truckin’ trips over the sands of Chincoteague, I can report that it’s an incredible way to enjoy a day at the beach. There’s seclusion, stunning views of the ocean and bay at the same time, tasty fish waiting to gobble up the bait you throw at them… what more could you want? But this kind of freedom comes with prerequisites, and my F150-owning friend Keith mentioned two of them on our way onto the beach this past Saturday — a shovel and rope. I didn’t know this until he said something, but apparently, they’re required by law if you plan to take your 4WD vehicle on the sand, in case you forget to deflate your tires to the recommended 20 psi and end up getting stuck.
So imagine my creepedoutedness upon discovering a band yesterday, on my first full day back from the beach, called Shovels & Rope. An awesome band. A country-rocking duo of drum- and guitar-trading South Carolinians. A pair I would have been excited about regardless of what they were called. It’s super weird, and while coincidence doesn’t itself imbue meaning, this lucky bit of timing afforded instant insight into what the band’s name represents — call it a serendipitous symbolic shortcut.
Ladies and gentlemen of central Virginia, start your engines. Race weekend in Richmond is upon us, and it’s got me all nostalgic about how, almost exactly one year ago, I rang in the spring NASCAR race at Richmond International Raceway with my very first post about Detroit duo Dale Earnhardt Jr Jr. Imagine my joy, having found a group that combined my love of soulful electro-pop and brightly-colored sports merch, just a short time before their revered namesake was coming to town for my favorite weekend of the year (keeping in mind of course that the weekend of the fall race is also my favorite weekend of the year). NASCAR in Richmond is a tradition that’s grown near and dear to my heart over the past half-decade, just as Dale Jr Jr has done over the course of the last 12 months.
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…
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.
Being a floor tom ain’t easy. You labor in the corner of the drum set, the last stop on solos and fills (if the guy with the sticks even gets to you). You watch as song after song is written about your bigger, bassier brother, the kick drum. Always the bridesmaid, never the bride. Well the times they are a-changin’, thanks to a phenomenon that was on display at September 23rd’s Foster the People show at the National in Richmond, VA. I’m talking about the lead singer floor tom solo. Please tell me you’ve seen this… there’s an extra stand-alone floor tom set up within reach of the frontman, and as the song reaches a crescendo, he or she grabs a set of drum sticks and starts pounding away. Mark Foster of Foster the People did just that at the National during “Helena Beat” (start at the 3-minute mark), and the gents of Dale Earnhardt Jr Jr did the same just two days before at the Southern in Charlottesville. It never fails to get people going, and it’s symbolic of a larger theme that united both shows — how to put on a satisfying live show when your studio music relies heavily on sampling. The lead singer tom solo is fascinating to me, in part because it strikes me as a form of vicarious audience participation. Few people at any given concert can play a full set of drums, but just about everyone, if given the opportunity and some sticks, could wail away on a floor tom. I think that’s where the excitement comes from — people can picture themselves on stage, taking all their energy and aggression out that drum, just as Mark Foster was. Maybe I’m wrong, but either way, it works… and so did Foster the People. They put on one of the highest-energy shows I’ve seen, running around the stage, earning every single clap, whistle and shriek (yes, shriekers were out in full force). I walked away from the National with a great deal of respect for a band that had a meteoric rise to fame, but can back up their notoriety with a hard-working, substantive live show. To see what I mean, check out the video I found of the night’s very last song “Pumped Up Kicks” above (studio version below). Be sure to stick around for the floor tom action at the 4:15 minute mark! If you dig it, buy their album here.
Wow. What the hell just happened?!? Let’s see… Seven bands. Five days. Three venues. Two states. One blown mind. My head actually exploded, and it’s going to take a full week to put it back together, so I hope you’ll grab a glue stick and join me as I collect the pieces. I already shared my experience from Wednesday’s headlining Dale Earnhardt Jr Jr set, but I haven’t yet mentioned their dynamite opening act, Kyle Andrews. The past five days have been an embarrassment of opening act riches, and I know I’ve said it once, but I’ll keep saying it until the Statue of Liberty is buried in sand and the apes won’t let us use the interweb anymore — heading to concerts early is one of the best ways to discover new music. Fortunately, my wife and I were way early to Wednesday’s show, and we were ready when Mr. Andrews hit the stage with his artful marriage of efficient pop songcraft and upbeat synth. Andrews’ latest album, Robot Learn Love, sets out to explore the relationship people have with the machines that we use on a daily basis, and I enjoyed the results, both in the car on the way to the Southern and in person once we were there. We were even treated to a guest appearance by Dale Jr Jr on Andrews’ “Heart U 4 Ever” — fitting, given that the Detroit duo recently remixed the song. Check out the original and the remix below, buy Robot Learn Love here, and check back for another trip to the awesome opening act buffet!
“Have you seen ‘em live?” is a question that’s getting more and more difficult to answer. On one level, it’s a basic yes or no question about whether you’ve dragged your physical being out to a music venue to see a band perform. Why complicate something so simple? Well, because chances are, if you want to find out what a band’s live performance is like, you can do so right this very second by going to YouTube. Of course YouTube isn’t the same as being there yourself, with the lights a-flashin’, bass a-thumpin’ and that tall guy inevitably swooping in to stand in your line of sight, but the interweb does make it possible to see and hear how the potential energy of studio tracks are transformed into kinetic energy onstage. This transformation is particularly intriguing for bands that use samples in the studio, as Dale Earnhardt Jr Jr does. That’s why I was so excited when I saw this video of “Nothing But Our Love” from their recent set at the Austin City Limits festival. The song bursts out of its studio seams with a spectacular final sequence, adding aggressive dashes of spice to a dish that previously thrived on its sweetness. With this clip in the back of my mind, I gleefully dragged my physical being to the Southern in Charlottesville, VA last night to get the full, lights-bass-tall-guy, Jr Jr experience. It was an incredible show of talent, showmanship, jackets (my enjoyment of their costumes and marketing knows no bounds) and production savvy. It’s no surprise that these two are involved in the remix community — onstage and off they make one smart musical decision after another, carefully managing instrumentation, samples and harmonies to maximize the impact of each song. We were treated to a booming version of “We Almost Lost Detroit,” an extremely catchy new tune and, as I’d hoped, the evolutionary ending to “Nothing But Our Love.” Did already having seen this ending on YouTube spoil the moment? Not even a little. It was glorious. Check out the ACL performance above, the studio version below, and buy their album It’s A Corporate World here.
Important Two Day Coverage, Part II … The Artist: Pretty & Nice.
Last night, I got to see Pretty & Nice at the Southern, a cool venue that’s nestled in a pleasantly dank basement, just steps off Charlottesville’s downtown mall. With some in the crowd sitting campfire-style at co-frontman Holden’s request, the band tore through a magnificently manic-yet-precise performance. Familiar songs like “Tora Tora Tora” and “Piranha” sounded sharp, and we got to hear a number of new ones (see above for “Yonkers”), all oozing the same mastery of melody, pace, dissonance and dynamics that made me such a fan of their last full-length, Get Young. After the set, co-frontman Jeremy shared that they’ve tracked these new tunes, and plan to mix at John Vanderslice’s new B studio, Minitel, eying a late summer or fall release. I’m super excited to hear the result.
Important Life Lesson: Go early to concerts! I wrote yesterday about how I first saw Justin Townes Earle when he opened for Old Crow Medicine Show. So I went to see JTE at the Southern in Charlottesville … you see where this is going … and that’s how I discovered Joe Pug! HIS opening set was so compelling, I walked directly to the merch table and bought both his full-length albums, Messenger and Nation of Heat. Both are full of thoughtful, personal folk songs that contain some of the sharpest songwriting you’ll find anywhere, with vivid lyrics that stay with you long after the album has finished. I’m sad to say I just missed him headline at the Southern, but I have my fingers crossed that he’ll come to Richmond soon.