Category Archives: Music

Exclusive Preview: DNA TEST FEST

Fan Death Incarnate

“I don’t really give a fuck about half of the shit that…Pitchfork talks about. I don’t care about the shit’s that’s on BYT(noted pornography website Brightest Young Things) and I don’t go party.”

This humble manifesto of sorts was uttered by one Sean Gray. For those familiar with the bespectacled, outspoken, suitably profane prince of College Park’s WMUC radio, Gray’s views regarding the current status of the DC music scene should come as little to no surprise. Whereas an average fan devoid of any particular ambition would relegate such feelings to Internet message boards and Zaireeka listening parties, Gray and his partner Christopher Berry decided to do something about it, to create their very own odd niche of the independent music world where one is just as likely to undergo the sonic assault of Drunkdriver as be pleased by the avant acoustics of Kurt Vile.

To Gray and Berry, the variety of the talent at their imprint, Fan Death Records is by design rather than a contradiction. Gray offered almost a guiding creed of their business: “Because the Internet is so vast, there is a lot of bands that kind of get shuffled over. They don’t really get attention paid to them. My thought was that if I group these bands together that wouldn’t normally be grouped. My hope and Chris’s hope in this is that somebody will walk away who was originally there to see…True Womahood, they end up seeing Screen Vinyl Image or…Pygymy Shrews, and they’re like ‘that was awesome I’m glad that I saw them’…All I care about is…when people leave that venue on the 24th and the 25th, they say “I’m really glad this happened.” Berry added, “We both have that attitude where…we will take a chance on a record.”

The two nearly finish each other’s sentences and one detects little to no disagreement amongst them. In fact, the story of their first meeting has a romantic tinge to it. Berry, already having ordered a record from Gray’s first venture, Hit-Dat Records, only encountered Gray in person upon joining the University of Maryland and hearing of “a cool kid with a walker” and a “Devo t-shirt.” Thus, began their fruitful partnership. They manage essentially all aspects of the business together from marketing to accounting to even packaging and shipping the Vinyl records themselves. Fan Death becomes them.

Their transformation from die hard “record collectors” to mini moguls might seem new fangled and endemic of an Internet age where tools such as Myspace and Blogs have rapidly drained control from the coffers of musical conglomerate into the hands of tech literate consumers. Yet, Berry and Gray argue that Fan Death is really nothing new at all. Berry was dismissive, saying, “Well people did it before us.” Gray simply placed Fan Death into the long lineage of independent labels: “It happened 20 years ago… in the 60s, it happened in the 70s. It’s going to continue happening. The Internet is just another tool…To me it hasn’t revolutionized really anything.”

Still, there is a vast difference between the approach of a bloated, rich major label and the lithe Fan Death. Though Fan Death wishes to release “as many records as possible,” Berry describes their more enlightened aspirations: “We aren’t just in it to make a shitload of money and chill…Everything that we put out we really care about.” Qualifying Berry’s statements, Gray states, “There’s nothing wrong with selling records. We just want to make enough money to be able to keep putting out records.I know and Chris knows that we’re going to have to have regular jobs. We’re not going to be the next Matador records.” The duo is literally invested in the success of their label as virtually each release carries with it the risk of not having “rent money.”

So what to make of two punks who are the first to both readily acknowledge that the entire idea of using their pocketbooks and passion to help guide your listening habits is “really fucking pretentious” and are still just as “aggressive” in producing and pushing their favorite LPs? The answer is simple and can be gleaned simply by attending both nights of DNA TEST FEST at the Velvet Lounge in Washington D.C. on April 24th and 25th. You might love it, hate it or want to fight Berry and Gray. All that matters is that you escape the Drunkdriver set with limbs intact and Smirinoff Ice unspilt.

-Vman

Fan Death Records

DNA TEST FEST

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Album Review (EP): Blood Bank – Bon Iver

In the indie world of today, it is all too easy to rapidly win the hearts and minds of the NPR faithful and then lose them just as quickly. Considering that For Emma, Forever Ago was actually recorded during a cabin sabbatical in 2007, doubts that Vernon —now with Mike Noyce and Sean Carey — might prove unable to expand upon his heartfelt, folk masterpiece were entirely justified. His latest EP under the band name Bon Iver, Blood Bank — though unfairly burdened with far more pressure than the four rewarding tracks contained are meant to bear – is a gorgeous, lush effort which mines Vernon’s rich past while still developing the sound and the meaning of Emma even further.

Judging by his music, Vernon cares little about appeasing critics or fans hungrily awaiting miracles from the Wisconsin man with the body of a lumberjack and the soul of a transcendentalist poet. The songs arise naturally and openly from Vernon. “Blood Bank” begins with a gentle, building phrase on strings which quickly gives way to Vernon’s falsetto cooing and distorted, quickly strummed chords. Most notable about the song are the changes in tempo as Vernon goes from triumphant to philosophical in his story of fresh love. Stanzas about that initial rush of flirtation, “Well I met you at the blood ban/We were looking at the bags/Wondering if any of the colors/Matched any of the names we knew on the tags” play like the opening scenes of an indie movie, quirky but charming. To deliver the chorus, Vernon halts his arrangements and delivers the chorus: “And I said I know it well.” The line is simple but doused in enough emotion and yearning that it works exactly as well as the refrains in Emma.

The most experimental songs on the album are closing tracks “Babys” and “Woods.” The former is notable for being driven by a constantly repeating melodic phrase on piano rather than Vernon’s trusted steel string guitar. The lyrics, however, are vintage — spare and filled with ambiguity: “Summer comes to multiply/But I, I’m the carnival of peace.” It is a deliberate allusion to and rejection of the season largely responsible for shaping Vernon, winter. This peace is short lived, ended by the dark statement “But my woman and I, my woman and I know what we’re for.”

Though Vernon had flirted with autotune in Emma during “The Wolves (Act I and II),” he takes the device to heretofore unseen lengths. “Woods” consists layer upon layer of Vernon’s vocals, each at a different pitch and distorted to a different degree until there is a ascendant, harmonizing chorus with digitally inflected tenor and bass. Kanye West used the program to distance himself from his emotions — trusting only a robotic imitation of himself to deliver what he felt, knowing his limited, expressive rapping voice could not carry the emotions. Vernon’s motivations are far more mysterious. It is apparent he can sing and sing well, endowed with an angelic falsetto, just short of a castrati. Whatever the reasons may be, one must marvel at how Vernon casts off expectations and brings to light the beauty and the darkness he discovered in those woods.

RATING:

-Vman

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Album Review: Noble Beast – Andrew Bird

“Let’s get out of here/past the atmosphere” implores singer/songwriter/multi instrumentalist Andrew Bird in “Oh No,” the opening track of his latest effort, Noble Beast. Listening to his rich soundscapes — immaculately constructed down to the last note — Bird’s simple lyric begins to take on increasingly added significance.

Noble Beast is by no means a revolutionary, atmosphere abandoning effort. Bird strays only moderately from the standard pop structures he has gradually adopted ever since ably crossing over from the world of classical music. Yet, his instrumental acuity is such that even tunes eerily similar to his previous work yield a bounty of new discoveries.

The violin introducing “Oh No” sounds extraordinarily familiar in a way, as if sprung from the confines of some old 45 but also gorgeously original with its tone of measured romanticism. The melody, which Bird extracted from the utterance of a small child seems just right, almost as if Bird put into song everything the little boy felt when he cried “oh no.”

In fact, each of Bird’s arrangements is an adventure in and of itself as evidenced by one of Beast’s standouts, “Anonanimal.” Though seemingly titled by Flight of the Conchords, it assuredly swings through a variety of moods created by the clash and combination of Bird’s swelling violin, up tempo guitar picking and lyrical dalliances with consonance and rapidly morphing meters. Ultimately, Bird coos and his violin weeps, making one feel a great deal for whatever an “anonanimal” is.

Also featured is Bird’s recent experimentation — assisted by collaborator Martin Dosh — with unconventional percussive rhythms. “Not a Robot, But a Ghost” begins with a spare digital-inflected beat seemingly offered by Thom Yorke before the addition of a full drum kit propels the insistent rhythm to the forefront.

Similarly, Bird’s guitar playing has matured to the point that his fingerpicking even propels selected songs such as “Natural Disaster” rather than merely providing the pleasant rhythmic background. One could easily assume it was Paul McCartney who composed the guitar line, fresh off of writing “Blackbird.”

More pop revivalist than mere formalist, Bird mainly employs spaced, unconventional timbres to avoid structural monotony. Whether it’s the violin plucking, the whistling or the glockenspiel playing, Bird never quite stops refracting his melodies through various mediums. After all, “Tenuousness” is essentially the repetition of the same melodic phrase, first by guitar then eventually by violin, bass and Bird’s ethereal whistle.

Lyrically, Bird sticks to his long held conviction that words exist to serve the melody and not the other way around. It is the sound and rhythmic quality of each syllable which seduces Bird rather than the literal meaning of the words themselves. Stanzas such as “Under the elders/the older get younger/the younger get over/over the elders/and under the elders/pretend that you’re older now” from the peak of the album, “Souverian” sound equal parts nonsensical and wonderfully poetic.

Fortunately, Bird is as witty as he is melodically perceptive. In “The Privateers,” Bird issues the most elegant rebuttal of product pitchmen in recent memory, singing “Don’t sell me anything/Your onetime offer so uncalled for…” with all the appropriate emotional inflections.

The only pseudo-fault of Beast is that it cannot compare to Bird’s much darker masterpiece, The Mysterious Production of Eggs. Granted, the musicianship is better than ever but Beast simply lacks the emotional punch of Bird singing “You’re what happens when two substances collide/ And by all accounts you really should have died” on Eggs. It is easy to point to that line alone and understand the album as a treatise on life and the various difficulties involved in its creation and conclusion. No such thesis is provided for Beast other than vague allusions to invented creatures and animals.

By now it is well established that Bird is a meticulous artisan of sound. It appears, however, that amidst all his perfectionism he has lost sight of the big picture. Even the highlight of the album,”Souverian” is left stranded without any songs kindred in spirit to support its masterful atmospheres. Still, Noble Beast is worth hearing for those small pleasures alone. We are never quite sure what it all adds up to but to quote one of Bird’s previous albums: “Oh! the Grandeur.”

RATING:

-Vman

Noble Beast is a reconciling of the tenderness and openness of The Mysterious Production of Eggs with the edginess of Armchair Apocrypha (Armchair Apocrypha and …Eggs being his previous two albums). It’s not so much of a balancing act because the darkness that preoccupied Armchair Apocrypha is mostly gone. Both in lyrical and tonal measurements, Noble Beast is a much more cheerful record.

The deluxe edition (Noble Beast and an album of instrumentals, Useless Creatures) packaging is excellent.

– R.H.

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Review: ‘Liver! Lung! FR!’ by Frightened Rabbit

Live albums can be a tired product, devoid of any real valid excuse for existence. But when you get a hold of a good one, a really good one, you cannot help but to be excited.

That’s how you should feel listening to Frightened Rabbit’s first live disc, Liver! Lung! FR! Not only is it a wonderful collection of wonderful songs but the Scottish band’s live sound is worthy enough to capture and promote as a separate entity from their studio albums.

That last statement is especially notable when you register the fact that this live album is being released in the same year as Frightened Rabbit’s critically acclaimed second album, The Midnight Organ Fight (April), and the two releases share the exact same tracklist (save for two short songs ones from Organ Fight: “Bright Pink Bookmark” and “Extrasupervery”).

Recorded in July in a Glasgow (home to a great number of exciting acts) venue, Liver! Lung! FR! expands upon Organ Fights’ already adored songs by giving extra room to lead singer Scott

Hutchinson’s voice and the band’s concentrated playing. The tracks include heart-warming and swelling choruses followed by an innumerable number of “Cheers” said by the band, in addition to the applause from the enthusiastic crowd.

The songs, of course, are the greatest part of Liver! Lung! FR! (okay, maybe the album title is the greatest part). The album is filled with FR’s (as the band is affectionately known by fans and lazy music critics) earnest songs about relationships (love, sex, heartbreak, the whole shebang).

In Organ Fight single “Fast Blood,” Scott humbly sings, “And now I tremble/because this fumble/has become biblical.” Heavy stuff.

This live album is also justified by the fact that the record keeps intact some of the between song banter. Probably not all of the banter from the show is included (nor the songs, considering they probably played material from their first album, the also great Sing the Greys), but just enough is included to give us a taste of the band’s personality, in addition to a few laughs.

When frontman Scott invites fairly well-known (in those parts) Glasgow singer-songwriter Ross Clark onstage to help them perform “Old Old Fashioned,” it seems as though Clark stumbles in picking up his instrument. A verbal exchange results in the search’s conclusion: “A mandolin from Ross’ arse!”

The harmonies are more immediate and touching live, stripped of the studio’s hug (and this is not a claim against the record. The record is great and the harmonies on it are great, too.).

Songs like “Old Old Fashioned” take on an exciting and revitalized feeling when played live. The track goes from a “let-me-tell-you” type song to an anthem begging for the revival of the good things we seem to have left behind with our ever-consuming electronics biting at our feet: “I turn off the TV/It’s killing us/We never speak.”

And seeing them live is a whole other experience. Drummer Grant Hutchinson (brother of Scott) pounds on his kit with the intensity of a crazed industrial percussionist. You might even stop and wonder if that grimace on his face is healthy.

His drumming shines in the live sound too. Much like his performance and facial expressions in-person, his agile pounding propels the strong and, well, intense beats that come your way through the stereo.

Another valid excuse to have a live album: capturing something unique to the show. Along with the Ross Clark contribution, we’re treated to the beautiful voice of James Graham on the straightforward “Keep Yourself Warm” (sample lyric: “It takes more than f**king someone you don’t know to keep yourself warm”).

Graham is the lead singer of another Scottish band: the great Twilight Sad, who happen to be some FR’s best friends.

Graham’s emotive howl is a staple of the Twilight Sad’s songs, but taking on “Keep Yourself Warm,” he takes his voice to a falsetto fans have never heard before (perhaps we will hear more? The band goes into the studio to record their second album this January).

To repeat a common and well-informed sentiment: FR!

– R.H.

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Review: ‘Who Killed Harry Houdini?’ by I’m From Barcelona

Who Killed Harry Houdini? Mammoth-size rock band I’m From Barcelona try to answer that question on their second album (named after that particular question). Or, rather, they don’t. They just thought it would be a good title.

In any event, the question is irrelevant. I’m From Barcelona delivers another enjoyable record, even though it is considerably less happy and joy-filled than their first.

I’m From Barcelona broke out on the scene with its 2006 twee-pop debut, Let Me Introduce My Friends. And friends they have. Singer/songwriter Emanuel Lundgren leads the group, which had 29 members play on the band’s debut, a self-released EP made all in the name of fun. And none of the members of the Swedish group are from Barcelona (far as we know).

Let Me Introduce My Friends is a record that can simply and easily be described as a delight. After all, it is a (quality) twee record. Who Killed Harry Houdini? is also an enjoyable record but…the twee is gone.

Unlike its predecessor, Houdini has no songs about treehouses or chicken pox or oversleeping. Possibly, for just this reason (the lack of happy), Houdini is not as good a record as Friends. But to be fair, it is a good album that stands on its own.

Starting off a bit spookily, album opener “Andy” evokes Halloween imagery. These images are not a result of the lyrics but of the atmosphere of the song.

The song asks the Andy in question to join the already huge band: “Andy, you really want to go there?/They’re messing up your hair…/We could need someone like you in our band/Andy/No audition and you don’t have to pretend.” These lyrics display the classic silliness of I’m From Barcelona (so long as you translate “They’re messing up your hair” as a silly line in a serious-sounding song).

The happy that fans of I’m From Barcelona were so enamored with from the first album still exists in Houdini; it is just not as abundant.

“Paper Planes” sounds joyous with a cavalcade of voices singing (albeit about being surrounded by strangers). The song does not promise to take your money but rather dissects the art of “throwing paper planes to clear [one’s] head.” Sounds like therapy we could all use.

The somber side of the album shines on “Gunhild,” featuring vocals from French singer and actress Stéphanie Sokolinski, known in the music world as SoKo. A sweetly melancholy song, “Gunhild” is the first track in I’m From Barcelona’s catalog to really spotlight the sincerity in Lundgren’s kind voice. SoKo’s backing-into-lead vocals are a nice addition and play well alongside Lundgren’s vocals.

“Mingus” is an obvious album highlight with its bouncy use of the glockenspiel (a favorite instrument of the band).

On “Houdini,” there’s more darkness. Or at least, it sounds that way. To the undistinguishing ear, we hear “You’re like a demon!” when really, it is “You’re like Houdini!” Or maybe it is all a trick, and we cannot distinguish the truth any which way.

While the album is darker than I’m From Barcelona’s first, this does not detract from the record a great deal.

I’m From Barcelona is still sweet. But there is no need to brush your teeth.

– R.H.

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Review: ‘Ferndorf’ by Hauschka

Ferndorf, the title of Hauschka’s new album, translates to “distant village.” That might just be where you end up after listening to the pleasantly soft, ambient album.

Or, you might just stay right in your place; only accompanied by the careful tunes of Hauschka. Ferndorf is very good as ambient music after all, not a sweeping epic to transport you but rather a guide to your self.

Best known as a pianist who likes to play with electronic instruments, composer Volker Bertelmann (recording as Hauschka) adds a string duo into the mix for most of the songs on Ferndorf. And it works.

Ferndorf is the German composer’s fourth full-length as Hauschka and the strings truly are a big deal. It is hard not to get hypnotized by the piano but the string accompaniment becomes not just accompaniment but a major player, transfixing ears right alongside the piano.

Bertelmann has become known for his use of the prepared piano, an instrument which he dedicated an entire album to (2005’s appropriately titled The Prepared Piano). His use of this instrument emphasizes his categorization as an experimental, avant-garde artist. A prepared piano is simply a piano but with assorted objects stuck inside and affixed to the piano’s strings; the modifications to the classic instrument create another world of sounds.

Ferndorf is also notable for its album-as-one-piece mentality. The record works on a whole, as no songs dare stray from the vocals-less, experimental chamber pop aesthetic Bertelmann marks as Ferndorf’s.

The album also flows beautifully. Only a few songs on the record do not transition seamlessly with one another (and this only due to a break in music, not poor juxtaposition).

While a plus with this album, some might consider the seamlessness a drawback. Because of Ferndorf’s fluidity there are no stand-out tracks. All the songs are quality ones but none of them will be making the year-end best songs list. That’s because this is an album.

It’s not a collection you can categorize in the “buy one song from iTunes, discard the rest” trash bin. Ferndorf is a piece meant to be consumed as a whole.

Not that you cannot enjoy the songs individually, for you certainly can. You just won’t be walking away with a brilliant pop hook stuck in your head.

All the songs on the 12-track disc are given German titles, save for the opening and closing songs.

“Blue Bicycle” starts the album off with a classy piano refrain that swells into evolution as the strings come into introduce Ferndorf as one you will not mind playing again and again (perhaps in the background, but nonetheless).

“Weeks of Rain” closes the set on a mildly somber note. The reflective piano of the song would not be classified as twee by anyone with their emotions in order. The song simply ends somewhat abruptly without any finishing grandiose flourishes. You might not even notice the album is over.

But when you do notice, you press repeat.

– R.H.

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Review: ‘The Ruiner’ by Made Out Of Babies

Surprising. Unexpected.

I did not know what to expect from this album. Album cover? Made Out Of Babies? Metal that’s “not metal”?

Well, turns out, it’s pretty darn good. Or at least, so far, it’s more accessible than expected. Good!

The first track, “Cooker,” definitely starts the album off on a good note. Or rather, some good pushed-to-its-limits guitar. “Cooker” is the most original track, musically, on the album. If Made Out Of Babies can be defined by “Cooker,” they’ve done well.

Going through the album, vocalist Julie Christmas both worries and captivates us. She does quite a good job at her screams and the other noises required for being the best metal singer you can be. Christmas takes a sinister drive at the wheel of her vocals. Christmas works expertly with the music of Made Out Of Babies (what a name, right?). Vocals at the front, or the stuff mixed in the background, it all works out well.

The fault shouldn’t entirely rest on Christmas, but possibly because of the female vocals, The Ruiner begins to sound somewhat bland; derivative in the same way as other female-fronted “metal” projects. Least names be mentioned, let’s just say that’s not good. But Christmas is fine, just the haunted memories the music + her voice bring out are bad. In all likelihood, we need more confident female vocalists like Christmas doing right on hard rocking music.

As previously discussed, the music of Made Out Of Babies is most out-there/experimental on “Cooker.” Elsewhere, the band crafts well-made metal, trying to escape the restrictiveness such a label can have on a band. Traditional metal chugs are coupled with the crystal-clear guitar work sometimes found in the modern metal landscape (see: “The Major”). The drums are often the most distinctive part of The Ruiner. Drummer Matthew Egan pounds when needed and drops the sticks on a remote drum when it sounds good. Complaints are hard to make.

The Ruiner reaches a nice plateau of easily-accessible metal with enough uniqueness and originality to justify its existence. It’s not pop-metal, nor [anything close to] art-metal, but…there certainly are a few good pop songs on the record.

– R.H.

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