Thursday, April 30, 2009

Little-known fact: I'm a naturalist

Ornithology time: Male bowerbirds are totally unfashionable, and have to carry flowers around and build really swank nests (and fill them with all sorts of quirky crap) in order to make up for their lack of colorful plumage -- and, of course, make lady bowerbirds notice them.

I'd love to be able to follow up that tidbit with a line about how the Raleigh band The Bowerbirds are actually totally hip and sexy and don't need the help, but unfortunately I missed their show at Mercury Lounge this week (Merc Lounge and sold-out shows being two fast-forming motifs of this blog), so I'm just going to have to wing it. (They are pretty comely, though, judging by their Take-Away Shows [motif #3].)

Oh yeah, and they make music and stuff, too. The band's a guy-and-girl duo, but they occasionally call in a little outside help (a drummer, for instance), and their sound is richer and more varied than most small-scale folk operations. They also have an accordion, which can't hurt. Anyway, check out "In Our Talons," which really has me hooked; it's incantatory, spooky, and pretty much everything I'm looking for in a good old American melody. Take that, Swedes.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Jeff Taylor opens up

He made a splash at Rockwood Music Hall last night, but who is Jeff Taylor? After seeing him play live, I have a few stabs:

  • the male Bjork
  • a possessed Bobby McFerrin
  • the petri-dish lovechild of Jeff Buckley and Mr. Bungle
  • an angrier Nico Muhly
  • Ben Folds after severe head trauma
  • the Victor Wooten of a cappella
  • this guy

All comparisons meant to shed light on some element of his performance, yet none quite hit the mark. Like any good musician, Taylor completely owns his own sound, and while he's up on stage he may as well be the only musician on earth. Maybe this has something to do with his bravura compositions, which swing stylistically between folk ballads, free jazz, beat poetry, and death metal -- often within the very same song. Simply put, he's got his bases pretty well covered.

Which is not to say he's got it all figured out. Taylor's songs are like encapsulated therapy sessions, and his lyrics have a splayed-open, tormented honesty that will rivet any attentive listener. While he's singing, Taylor also stares at his mic like he wants to bite the thing right off its stand and swallow it whole. Maybe he should just go ahead and do it -- we'd be able to hear his insides better that way.

If you want to hop into the tornado, Taylor's got an upcoming show at Mercury Lounge that'll involve a bigger band than the sizzling bass-and-drum duo that backed him up last night. He'd better bust out his melodica, though. (I know you've got one, Jeff -- I've seen pictures.)

Monday, April 27, 2009

It's just a phase ... or is it?

This blog's not ten posts old, and it already appears to have Scandinavian tendencies. Maybe it's genetic? Because it certainly didn't come from my side of the family; our ancestors would never be caught dead east of the Rhineland.

The latest temptress is Olof Arnalds. She's a fairly prominent folk musician in Iceland, yet her sound doesn't tow the same line as other Nordic musicians who've seduced this wayward blog in the past. Firstly, Arnalds sings in Icelandic. Secondly, there's a delicateness, almost a fragility, to her singing and feathery instrumentation that feels more like a soundtrack for an eighteenth-century Japanese tea ceremony than ... I don't know, than a fjord or hot-spring sauna or whatever they have over there.

You think you've got your finger on these folks, and then bam -- they mutate on you. Anyway, Arnalds has just finished a second album, which was produced by one of the folks from Sigur Ros. This fact alone may have more to say about her music than any of my stereotypic inanities.

Oh yeah, and she was hand-picked by Bjork and the Dirty Projectors to open for their collaborative performance at Housing Works in early May. Why aren't I writing about that, you ask? Well, I didn't get a ticket, so you can just shut up.

My super's legs

I've got a new piece up on Slices of Life, and if you've ever thought about moving into my building (or anywhere in Southside Williamsburg, really), you may want to read it first -- either as a caveat, or a tip on dealing with layabout superintendents, or both.

What? You're happy with your recession-priced one-bedroom? It's in BoCoCa? Well ... carry on, then.

Helmet hair is the new black

I know I'm almost two weeks behind the ball, but after seeing an Edward Gorey lookalike cycling the wrong way across Third Ave. while helmetless and cradling a Starbucks cup, I had to say something -- not about him specifically, but about a recent Times Style section piece that seems to support him and his kind. In it, a run-of-the-mill city cyclist offers the following gem:

"I never ride with a helmet either, even when people are telling me I’m an idiot. Riding a bike should be normal, and you shouldn’t have to wear a funny Styrofoam hat."

This from a guy who's been in an accident. There's not much to say to it, other than (1.) you're an idiot, and (2.) Styrofoam hats aren't funny. Mine's a multi-sport, and makes me look like an in-line skater with hydrocephalus. It doesn't get much cooler than that.

I'm glad to see that the fashion plights of cyclists are getting some attention, but the Times turned a blind eye to some of the logistics of city riding. Sure, you might look cool in that tweed Ralph Lauren blazer, but how cool are you actually going to be when it's ninety degrees in the shade and you're stuck behind an idling city bus?

And what happens when your chain-lock scuffs that expensive cravat? The only lock pictured in the accompanying photos was gold:

Because that's how normal people ride.

Friday, April 24, 2009

The Tallest Man on Earth: not all that tall

This is a twofer, folks: a budding musician and an established yet experimental video series, crammed into one post. I'm sort of frightened-- in a good way.

I always thought that Blogotheque, the French producers of the "Take-Away Shows" video series, restricted themselves to filming impromptu concerts on the streets of Paris. But I just ended up back on the site (which is reliably impressive, both in its premise and its execution), and saw that Dylanesque Swedish musician The Tallest Man on Earth had just filmed a segment in a Greenwich Village music shop. Color me corrected.

I think the cameraman forgot to take his Ritalin, but you get the gist of the music and of the Take-Away series. For some reason this track reminds me of Johnny Cash's last recordings. You really get a taste of The Tallest Man's insistent, almost angry undertones from this one take; he's got all the gravelly gusto of a man five times his age. (Which probably means that he can afford to shave that mustache.)

Also, I wonder what The Whitest Boy Alive thinks of another Scandinavian band borrowing the "[superlative] + [male noun] + [existential adjective]" band-name formula. And does this mean there's no room left for The Fattest Dude Ever? I hear he's already got half an album recorded.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Bach was a badass

I've just finished my second read of Eric Siblin's book The Cello Suites, which Anansi just released in Canada, and which Grove is publishing in Winter 2010. It's a pretty amazing piece of music history; organized along the same lines as the Suites themselves, the book traces J.S. Bach's composition of the piece, its subsequent marginalization, and its rediscovery and popularization by the virtuoso cellist Pable Casals in the twentieth century. Here's the Canadian cover, which Grove may use a version of for its edition:

There's some great stuff in here about the experience of falling in love with a piece of music. The author was a Canadian pop critic before he decided that he'd heard enough Auto-Tune for one lifetime, and set out to learn as much as he could about a more refined genre.

Besides beautiful descriptions of music, there are also some great historical tidbits. My favorite: Siblin's recounting of an episode from Bach's youth, in which the young composer pulls a dagger on a fellow musician after calling him either a "nanny-goat basoonist" or a "bassoonist breaking wind after eating a green onion," depending on whose translation you believe.

Stuffy, Bach was not.

The Swedish invasion, reinforced

Is it just me, or are Gothenburg and Stockholm suddenly rivaling Brooklyn and Seattle in terms of notable musical output? The Nords are cranking out quality indie acts like Ikea dishes out meatballs: along with big names like Jens Lekman and Peter Bjorn and John, they've given us some lesser-known groups like El Perro del Mar and Anna Ternheim, all of which pose a serious threat to American musical hegemony.

These latter bands are the foot soldiers of the Swedish invasion, washing up unassumingly on American shores and creeping towards our cultural centers. Red-blooded Americans, take note. If we don't up the ante soon, in a few years we'll all be naming our kids "Sven" and subsisting on fermented herring. Fermented herring. I mean, I'm one of those weirdos who likes herring, but come on.

So it's with a mixture of timorousness and temerity that I call attention to the latest shock troops in the Swedish war of aggression: Don't Be a Stranger. I wanted to write something about them for broader consumption, but unfortunately I got snowed under with other work, so a humble warning here will have to suffice. For purposes of identification, witness Exhibit A:

If these musicians crop up in your area, call the National Guard. Don't Be a Stranger evoke Aimee Mann circa "Red Vines"; their melodies are earnest and unadorned, but they undercut their sweetness with a sultry, penetrating melancholia that makes me want to waste my days drinking black coffee and photographing water towers along the New York City skyline. Plus, their MySpace page is full of cute English misspellings, and they encourage fans to liberate themselves by putting the band's logo on their pants. Roll out the Surströmming, people -- we're doomed.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Pixies: redux

When I heard that the Pixies are gearing up to release a collected-works box-set, it seemed like a merchandising ploy, and a somewhat craven one at that. Then I saw some of the new artwork that's going into it:

Vaughan Oliver, the designer behind all the original Pixies' album art, is providing the graphics for this, too. Should be kind of awesome... although at $175 a pop, chances are most fans will never see one.

Starting things off right . . . with a lobster knife fight

I'm feeling sluggish and uninspired, so to kick things off with this whole blogging endeavor, I'm bringing in a couple of outside guests: two knife-fighting lobsters.

Instant blog-fodder. I think I know what happened here: the lobster on the left was insecure about the imposing size of Right Lobster's claws, so he said something mildly disparaging. Right Lobster retorted with a crude crustacean invective (unintelligible to human ears, but it's on par with the C-word, both in terms of its hurtfulness and its anatomical reference point). Things escalated from there.

Whoever gave the lobsters knives probably wasn't thinking too far ahead, but it's not too big of a deal -- they're both going in the pot anyway.