By now, the origin story of Bon Iver’s wildly successful’ debut album, For Emma, Forever Ago, has become indie rock legend. In the winter of 2006, the band’s founder, Justin Vernon, retreated to a remote cabin in Wisconsin to recover from illness and heartbreak, and ended up writing a number of bittersweet songs that captured the attention of critics, blogs, listeners and, of course, Kanye West. I enjoyed the album when I first heard it, but it was his performance on Later… with Jools Holland that made me realize what makes Bon Iver so special. Later… with Jools Holland (or just Later… for short) is an awesome show on BBC that features four or five bands each week, the artists arranged in a big circle, with audience members sitting in between the bands. For the two years immediately after college, I had access to Later… on demand and would filter through back episodes, checking out the diverse collection of performances. Bon Iver’s stopped me in my tracks. It’s a solo performance of “Skinny Love,” just Justin and a steel body guitar, and in four stirring minutes, he conjures the profound loneliness of that Wisconsin winter and transforms it into something greater, more universal, beautiful and, in an inspiring way, confident. I get the chills every time I see it. I hope you’ll check it out and see what I mean, and keep an eye out for his self-titled follow up album, which will be released on June 21.
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.
Yesterday I wrote about Daytrotter Sessions, one of my favorite resources for new music, and I linked to Jason Isbell’s outstanding episode. There’s another Daytrotter artist who is near and dear to my heart, thanks in large part to my sister’s wedding. She got hitched in the summer of 2008 at Architectural Artifacts, an eclectic antique salvage shop that fills a spacious former factory building in Chicago. My sister did much of the planning herself, and I’m not sure how she managed to book him, but David Vandervelde performed. He was awesome, and I haven’t stopped listening since. He’s recorded two Daytrotter Sessions, one on Christmas Eve of 2006 and the other in February of 2009. They’re both fantastic in totally different ways. The first is a full-band celebration, electrified and unleashed, and the second is more intimate, with Vandervelde playing acoustic guitar, accompanied only by bass and a backing percussion track. In both cases, his voice shines above all else, gracefully rising and balancing, as if weightless. Check out “Jacket” from The Moonstation House Band album below, and click here and here for his Daytrotter Sessions.
These days, people expect to try before they buy. Particularly with music. It seems reasonable to want to hear a song or two before you head to iTunes to shell out $10 for a band’s album, and there are a zillion clandestine ways to access free music. Today, I’d like to share one of my favorite legitimate ways to get free (and guilt free) new music: The Daytrotter Sessions. Every single day, a nationally touring band that’s passing through the Midwest stops by the Horseshack Studio in Rock Island, Illinois to spend a couple hours recording live versions of their songs. Some of my favorite bands have made this stop, including Vampire Weekend, Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes and many more. In each case, what results is a 4-song live set that’s easy to download straight into your iTunes library, complete with custom album art, done by an in-house illustrator. It’s almost too good to be true, and it’s where I looked when a bandmate recommended that I check out Jason Isbell. He’s a former member of the Drive By Truckers, and I’ve grown to love this Daytrotter session. Isbell is from Alabama, and his story-based southern rock songs sound worn, as if years of touring as a musician have polished his songwriting until perfectly seamless. Check out his song “Streetlights” below, or better yet, download the Daytrotter session.
I knew I loved Sleigh Bells instantly. Not knowing much about the band, I clicked on the NPR First Listen of their debut album Treats, and the first few moments of the opening track “Tell Em” produced such an immediate and adrenaline-heavy reaction, that I’m surprised seeing them live turned out to be more thought provoking than visceral. The group is a duo, comprised of Derek Miller, a guitarist with a heavy metal pedigree, and Alexis Krauss, a former teen pop singer. Together they make gripping, danceable, sample-driven music that’s the closest thing I can imagine to a musical 5-Hour Energy. But the fact that guitar and vocals were the only live instrumentation (with a backing track providing the rest) during their show at the National this past Friday gave me a lot to think about … What happens when you make inventive music that you can’t stage? Do you hire a random backing band to learn the other parts? How do you capitalize on what you’ve created, other than licensing and record sales? I’m still not sure what the answers are, but I do know that I enjoyed the show, I love the album, and I want one of these so bad I can’t put it into words. Check out their performance of “Crown on the Ground” above and see what you think.
Collaboration Week: Day 5. The Collaborators: Gregg Gillis and Hundreds of Artists. The Album: All Day.
Girl Talk can hardly be called “collaborative,” given that it’s just one guy, Gregg Gillis, working alone, compiling samples from hundreds of songs he’s not licensed to sample. However, I couldn’t resist including him here, because in mashing together artists from all ends of the musical spectrum, Gillis acts as a musical cross pollinator, buzzing from genre to genre, decade to decade, answering questions no one knew to ask, like “What would a Ludacris/Black Sabbath collabo sound like?” The first time I heard Girl Talk, he was combining two songs I did know, Biggie’s “Juicy” and Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer,” but a big part of the enjoyment of his music happens unexpectedly, when you hear a song he sampled and realize, “Hey I’ve heard this before …” It’s a light bulb moment of both discovery and familiarity, because even though you may have never heard the whole song before, you already love a piece of it. His latest effort is called All Day, and you can download it for free here. And check out the video above for a few snippets of his recent show in Richmond at the National.
Collaboration Week: Day 4. The Collaborators: Nicki Minaj and Everyone. HER Album: Pink Friday. (Editor’s Note: NSFW lyrics run rampant in these links.)
Give it up for the Queen of the Collabo! Guest appearances are the glue that holds the world of hip hop together. Artists appearing on one another’s tracks is a form of currency, both figuratively and literally, which makes Nicki Minaj one of the richest gals around. Kanye West, Drake, Trey Songz, Urshr, Ludacris, Britney Spears … she’s collaborated with nearly every big name the top 40 has to offer, often stealing the show with her distinctive, raunchy and schizophrenic delivery. The fascinating thing about Nicki is that her debut album was received well, but not really well, as if people fell in love with her only in small doses. I think Pink Friday captures her personality perfectly … cutesy one minute, fierce the next, and always captivating. Check out her album, and in honor of Collaboration Week, check out my favorite Nicki guest verse, on “Bottom’s Up” by Trey Songz.
Some collaborations are like one night stands, crazy in the light of day, leaving you wondering, “Did that really happen?” Others are like long, drawn out affairs, where you’re tempted to tell those involved to “Get a room!” But in some instances, lightning strikes, something special results, and a world of possibilities seems to appear. In 2003, Ben Gibbard of Death Cab For Cutie and Jimmy Tamborello, also known as Dntel, worked together from different sides of the country to create Give Up, an album that went on to sell over a million copies, appear in a million commercials, and change my perception of sampling in pop music. Ever since, rumors have swirled about a follow up album, only to be squashed, time and again. I can’t help but think that the Postal Service would be one of my favorite bands, if only they were a band. However, in this case, it’s clearly better to have loved and lost than the alternative. Check out the Postal Service performing “Nothing Better” on Morning Becomes Eclectic in May of 2003.
When you have a trusted point of reference, unfamiliar music seems a lot less daunting. I’m a big fan of Vampire Weekend, partly because they wear their African influences on their collective sleeve, and have made an unfamiliar musical tradition seem approachable. Frontman Ezra Koenig took this idea one step further by collaborating with the Very Best on their full-length debut, Warm Heart of Africa. Koenig’s appearance on the title track gave me a place to start listening, and I was handsomely rewarded for taking the chance. The album is brilliant, pairing Malawian singer Esau Mwamwaya’s hypnotic voice with clever European electro-pop production to build a wonderfully diverse collection of songs, some perfect for a crowded dance club, others for an afternoon on the beach. Click below to try out Warm Heart of Africa’s title track, which sounds great, no matter where you enjoy it.
It’s a collaboration celebration! Sometimes they work, sometimes they’re strange, but collaborations are almost always entertaining, and can be a great way to find music you were destined to love. My first introduction to Mavis Staples was the result of another collaboration – the Staples Singers performing with The Band in The Last Waltz – but I hadn’t sought out her solo music until Jeff Tweedy came into the picture. The Wilco frontman produced her latest album, You Are Not Alone, and even wrote two of the songs. It’s outstanding from start to finish, full of tenderness, soul, joy and a heaping helping of Jesus. Who knows if I would have given the album a chance without Mr. Tweedy’s involvement, but I’m deeply thankful these two got together. Check out title track “You Are Not Alone” below, and brace yourself for a heartwarming listening experience.