Category Archives: Reviews

Thoughts on New Daft Punk

I’m sure my experience listening to Daft Punk’s hotly anticipated Random Access Memories for the first time a couple weeks ago mirrored the experiences of many others. The first thing you probably think is “This is quite… different.” The conversation jumps to Daft Punk in the historical momentRandom Access Memories as a reaction against laptop music, dubstep and a return to simpler times and even, yes, the playing of instruments. Particularly, RAM is steeped in the slow-grooving beats of funk and disco, music that simultaneously provided relief from a decade of turmoil and war and a soundtrack for the continuing currents of social change. It is an obvious departure from Daft Punk’s exuberant electro-heavy dance music of the past. No “Harder Better Faster Stronger” to be found.

First of all, I don’t see how Daft Punk making a 70s-tinged album is much of a surprise. It seems like there’s always a funk and disco party going on here in New York and each one is well-attended and well-enjoyed. Maybe because we have returned to that cultural moment of simultaneous fatigue and still striving for change. Regardless, the French have been returning to the 70s for a while now too: see Ed Banger’s Breakbot or Justice’s guitar-shredding prog rock album. And I say good for them! Nobody wants to see artists rehashing the same thing over and over again. It ceases to be “relevant.” It gets stale. Lookin’ at you, M.I.A.

Anyway, I found this album “different” because of its markedly different emotional quality. This album often makes me want to cry, and then dance, and then cry again. Random Access Memories is dripping with emotion, much like “Something About Us” from Discovery. With its lower BPM and moaning robots, Random Access Memories feels somber and contemplative to me, as if clearly written by people who are growing old and tired. After all, the helmeted duo are both almost 40 years old. “Instant Crush” featuring Julian Casablancas is nothing short of a punch to the gut, in which the Strokes frontman trademark melancholy over loss gets the Daft Punk treatment. Or take “Game of Love”, a bona-fide disco ballad twinkling with synthesized magic, also about heartbreak. I also love the other duet with Pharrell, “Lose Yourself to Dance.” A title like that sounds like it will be a four-to-the-floor thumper, but instead we get Pharrell sweet-talking us over slow disco licks.

It’s more mature and reflective, yes, but it’s still in love with music. Many will note that RAM contains musical references to like, everything ever. It is a love letter to everything ever in the history of dance music. Even though the centerpiece is a spoken monologue, I love listening to “Giorgio by Moroder”, in which Giorgio Moroder talks calmly about his passion for music and his start pioneering on the synthesizers, mixed in with a lovely electronic arpeggio, a complex but understated beat, a solid bass line and even some violins. This passion and love is also obvious on “Beyond”, which after an opening of strings (appropriate for a montage at a roller disco, I think) becomes a perfect marriage of robot and old-school groovin’, and with a lot of meaning too:

Dream, beyond dreams
Beyond life you will find your song
Before sound, to be found close your eyes
Then rise, higher still, endless thrill
To the land of love beyond love
Come alive and you’ll find
Forever watching you arrive

You are the night, you are the ocean
You are the light behind the cloud
You are the end and the beginning
A world where time is not allowed
There’s no such thing as competition
To find a way we lose control
Remember, love’s our only mission…
This is the journey of the soul
The perfect song is framed with silence
It speaks of places never seen
You hold your promise long forgotten,
It is the birthplace of your dreams

Music carries me through life. I wholeheartedly believe that music is a gateway to the sublime, to a world beyond anything in this absurd universe, and we are so lucky in our lives to experience this world beyond. To share it with others. I feel like Random Access Memories is that feeling, that feeling of love, of dreams, of a life filled with both joy and sadness, all wrapped in one.

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Father John Misty: Folk Rock, Laurel Canyon-Style

I only clicked on Father John Misty’s “I’m Writing a Novel” when it was featured on KCRW because I’m writing a novel and was tickled by the song name. Little did I know that Father John Misty is the alter-ego and solo project of Josh Tillman, former drummer of Fleet Foxes. His record “Fear Fun” is the product of driving down the coast actually writing a novel, living in a “spider-shack” in Laurel Canyon, taking a lot of shrooms and a general process of losing it, going off the rails, having a total breakdown. There are several references to the voices and prophecies of a monkey companion.

Case in point:
I ran down the road, pants down to my knees
Screaming “please come help me, that Canadian shaman gave a little too much to me!”
And I’m writing a novel because it’s never been done before

I don’t know why I like songs about insanity so much. My other favorites are Harvey Danger’s Flagpole Sitta and Queen’s I’m Going Slightly Mad. Maybe because sometimes my own brain feels like a shaking pot on a stove about to overflow.

This album is steeped in that Los Angeles insanity, one of alternating cloaking darkness and blindingly bright desert sun, weird parties in the backyard, paranoia and aloofness and togetherness and chaos, all in a drug-fueled blender. [If you don’t know what I’m talking about, and hell if I know actually because I have never lived in Los Angeles, see the above video starring the wonderful Aubrey Plaza, or perhaps David Lynch’s Crazy Clown Time video.]

Folk-tinged music tends toward the forlorn and bittersweet, so it’s refreshing to hear it fun and full of humor. Tillman’s wails in that resonant Fleet Foxes fashion to the harmonies of andante acoustic guitar and piano. Yet you are reminded clearly of modern Los Angeles rather than some lonely backwoods past.

Event Review: Little Dragon at Prospect Park

little dragon prospect park
Photo Credit: Ryan Muir for NPR via allsongs

Little Dragon has got it all. A soulful female singer, whose vocals brim with feeling but are smooth, tempered and quite singable by an average Joe. Modern electro sounds with percussion that never fails to captivate (but so far removed from four-to-the-floor high BPM). Keyboards and beats mix with vocals to create a sound that is funky and seductive. Melodic and heavily layered, often perking up your ears with jarring dissonance, clearly the result of the bands’ playing together since school. Oh, and they have a quirky yet chic fashion senses!

After missing Little Dragon a couple times in the past fall (they even played at the Mulberry store near my house) I was so psyched to see them at Prospect Park Bandshell for the final free show of BRICarts’s Celebrate Brooklyn concert series. Me and thousands of other people. This year I also saw Laura Marling and Wild Flag for free shows, and this one was by far the most packed, even as I arrived fairly early.

Luckily I got chairs in the front seating area next two a group of passionate and ahem, flamboyant guys. The openers Frankie Rose and DJs Voices of Black warmed the crowd up fairly pleasantly as I noshed on some garlic fries. When the show started I was surprised at how many people were standing for this free show (and a very diverse crowd of all ages), but what can I say, Little Dragon was the most exciting of them all, hand’s down. I stood on my chair the whole time. I didn’t actually get to see a lot of the band members since I was in the back, but the show was still nothing short of AMAZING!

Yukimi Nagano was visibly having a ball up there, dancing around shaking a kind of tambourine. Adorably she squeals “Thank you!” after every song. Her vocals sound just as good or better than they do on record, more than I can say for a lot of other singers (lookin at you Grimes), and she’s so passionate. We were all singing along, especially the guy next to me who kept screaming OH MY GODDDD and I LOVE THIS SONG at the beginning of every song, as if he couldn’t believe they would actually play any songs at all. Everyone danced too, including all of us on the 2000 chairs and most of the 5000 person lawn area.

They played most of Ritual Union and a couple of their other classics. They riffed and remixed into every song, with some of them extended for climactic dance breaks, and transitioned fairly seamlessly, usually with just subtle musical hints of what song they were about to play in the intros. We were all ecstatic to hear the soulful “Ritual Union” and jumpy “Shuffle a Dream”. I got so excited when they ended with the weirdest song of that album, “Nightlight”, which begins with this bizarre solo of accidentals. I was kind of sad that I hadn’t heard my two favorite Little Dragon songs, “Crystalfilm” and “Feather” but woohoo! Encore! “Crystalfilm” is perfect encore music as it is minor and subdued, creating a soothing breather moment. Their version of “Feather” was musically daring – they started in the original key and jumped up a step for each chorus, and Yukimi didn’t flinch.

They closed off the night with “Twice”. Hearing the piano ringing throughout the park brought tears to my eyes. I have never cried at a live show, but Little Dragon, you did it!

Event Review: Delightfully Weird Phedre in New York

Phedre at Mercury Lounge

Oh Phèdre, how I love thee! Toronto’s arty macabre pop explosion descended on tiny Mercury Lounge last Saturday with everything I was hoping for, and more! Phèdre, consisting of producer Airick Woodhead and vocalists April Aliermo and Daniel Lee, burst onto the dark stage with smears of black makeup on their faces, Daniel dressed in head to toe black. Also on the stage was a figure draped entirely in gold cloth, who sat perched on the stage for a few songs without even moving–he later turned out to be their MC who performed in “Cold Sunday.” In addition, they brought three backup dancers, dressed in black and gold with glittered faces and carrying gold fans. Same dancers as in this video. Every show is better with backup dancers, and this gave their show an overall gothic, sexy and yet still delightfully weird effect – like a low-budget Lady Gaga, and I mean that in the best possible way! The three dancers–including one who I think might have been a dude in drag?—zigzagged around the stage, usually in unison, sometimes in mess, sometimes feeding each other grapes, sometimes opening and closing paper umbrellas. Sensual, but also capable of that whole marionette-ish style.

Vocalists Aliermo and Lee had so much energy, meanwhile; though not backup dancers, they also roamed around the small stage, often with arms around each other as if screaming a drunken anthem. “Can I get some more of that delayed reverb?” Aliermo calls to turn up the mic. The result was a just a ton of fun. After jumping around most of their LP, the show ended with a raucous chorus of “In Decay”, in which everyone was invited on stage.

It was Phèdre’s first time in New York City, and it seemed like Mercury Lounge, such an intimate place with the stage barely three feet off the ground, was half filled with the band’s family and friends who had come to see their big debut. This only made it more adorably fun. Maybe they’re too strange and eclectic for broad consumption but I hope they get really popular and we see a lot more of Phèdre.

Phedre 1
Phedre Daniel Lee
Phedre 2

Event Review: Elite Gymnastics at Music Hall of Williamsburg

Elite Gymnastics
Photo Credit: @kristinakelly

Elite Gymnastics was literally the weirdest show I have ever seen in my life. At the small Music Hall of Williamsburg, the stage looked eerily cluttered because they had strewn the stage with bunches of flowers and shrubbery, including two vases at the front full of fresh-cut long-stems. When the duo finally came out, they were in the most bizarre and scary stage outfits I’ve ever seen: Josh Clancy in tight black pants, black boots and a big flowy white tunic, as if he had just stepped off the set of The Princess Bride. James Brooks in boxers and a hospital gown. A hospital gown! With his long dirty blond hair in his face, he looked like an escaped mental patient.

Brooks first came out with an electric guitar, on which he had scrawled with a Sharpie. I was very confused by the guitar and commented, “This should be interesting.” When is there ever a guitar in Elite Gymnastics? Well that was just a red herring. The two laptop DJs did not DJ on their laptops or even pretend to DJ on their laptops. Rather they made no apologies about hitting play on their pre-fab set. Then Clancy spent the whole time banging two drums with enormous mallets, taiko-style, in a way that I can only describe as angry. Like, teenager-throwing-a-temper-tantrum angry. Brooks, meanwhile, sang in his trademark anemic moan and did not play the guitar, though he did throw it on the floor and jump on it for sonic effect a few times.

I had high hopes for the video which they had made specially for their set, which was to play via projector. The first song “Is it on me?” featured karaoke lyrics on an ocean background. But about 80% of the way through the song the sound and visual suddenly stopped and it was awkward. [This has only happened one other time to me, out of 35+ shows I’ve attended. The other time was at the Knitting Factory, also in Williamsburg. Brooklyn, you suck.] After it was determined that the video would not work, they decided to do the entire show in the darkness with a strobe (ridic!). Then, the boys of Elite Gymnastics spent the rest of the show looking insane and irate, as if they were pouting about the broken video. Clancy pounded his drums like a madman. Brooks put flowers in his hair, abused his guitar-just short of smashing it, threw down cymbals so hard it nearly hit us in the front row and climbed on top of some amps with his head bowed a la The Ring. I spent a good 10 minutes of their short set terrified that James Brooks was going to fall directly on top of me and crush me to death.

They interacted with the crowd a little bit, but only like a weird autistic person might interact with the crowd: they gave out flowers. At one point Clancy came down to the floor to hand out flowers, matching his princely outfit, running around in a loop. They barely addressed us verbally. They played all of their few, amazing songs, much to the delight of the many happy Internet fans who easily filled the small venue, half terrified half enthralled, screaming for K-POP. I realized perhaps Elite Gymnastics is maybe not the ideal live show. Their percussion is just a bit too complicated and their overall sound so understated, it’s hard to dance to. And it’s strange to sing along to such muffled, sad lyrics delivered in a shoegaze style. That’s always the challenge of playing laptop music live, especially if that music isn’t euphoric. Sometimes the best thing is to pump up the theatrics.

Their theatrics were so deadpan that they really sort of disturbed me. The whole thing was like a pagan ritual, with flowers piled and strewn, tribal drums, raising guitars and mallets over their head, ominously. It could have climaxed in bloodshed of a virgin and I would not have been surprised. Still, I smiled the whole time and felt giddy hearing my favorites “Omamori” and “Here in Heaven.” After the show I saw James Brooks greeting people, dressed like a perfectly normal person with a huge grin on his face.

Elite Gymnastics

P.S. The headlining act, Lemonade played their disappointing album with energy and passion. Danced my ass off!

Turn of the Year Music Drought is Over, Carry On

There hasn’t been a lot of new music out recently. November brought some huge releases but the end of last year mainly filled with Best of 2011 lists and January… well who does anything in January? January is S.A.D. time for you, me and the artists, so the best we got was some singles, videos and remixes.

BUT NOW! It’s February and it’s time to stop dragging our feet.

Yesterday Air‘s Le Voyage dans La Lune landed on earth so listen in on some fresh recordings of the French duo’s journey through space. This time around the album has got a bit more guitar and percussion than in past efforts, bringing you from powerful liftoff to Zen weightlessness.

Some great streams this week. Early contender for best album list of 2012 is Phèdre’s self-titled debut LP, an “avant-pop” symphony of whimsy. A lot of Phèdre, besides containing sprinklings of Greek mythology, sounds like what you might hear from stumbling in on a really awesome DJ with really awesome A.D.D. Favorites are the frenetic “Cold Sunday”, which blends MC rambling, delightful dissonance, and slow churning electro bass, and “In Decay”, which on the surface sounds like “Oh What a Night” or “Come on Eileen” but if you listen more closely, tells the story of murderous lovers and dead bodies in need of organs, all with a poppy skip in its step.

Tennis is streaming Young & Old, which wouldn’t sound out of place at a high school dance in a gym in the early 60s. I love the single “Origins” and Alaina Moore’s sweet voice, but found their schtick a little tiring and lacking the youthful misery of Cults.

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Event Review: Buraka Som Sistema at Bowery Ballroom was the best $20 I’ve spent this year

I have been to my fair share of dance-y events. Some of them create a packed-in, sweaty rave-like atmosphere (Justice, M.I.A.), others resemble suburban house parties (Girl Talk, Chromeo). None of them have been as delightfully rowdy and raw as being in the front for Buraka Som Sistema at Bowery Ballroom.

Buraka brings a unique blend of Angolan Kuduro and Euro dance spearheaded by Portuguese DJ J-WOW (not to be confused with Jenni Farley), and I was happy to catch them here in the U.S. at Bowery Ballroom, just a few blocks from my apartment. I wondered, what the hell kind of people would come to this show, considering few people I know have heard of something so obscure? Fun people, I assumed. Who else would want to dance to kuduro on a Wednesday night in January? And yes, everyone who showed up—including a healthy heaping of gays, some dudes who I think might have been Portuguese guidos, skinny possibly teenage raver girls and an Angolan guy who danced with an Angolan flag the whole time—was there to GET DOWN.

The show was bursting with non-stop energy, driven by MCs/vocalists Conductor, Riot, Kalaf and the oh-so-sexy Blaya. I don’t think J-WOW even stopped the beats to say Hello, New York. Most of Buraka’s new album Komba (2011) was played and of course classic hits such as “Aqui para Voces”, “Kalemba (Wegue Wegue)” and “Sound of Kuduro”. At one point the lanky and bespectacled Kalaf came out with a bottle of Stoli which he poured into many ecstatic girls’ mouths, and later he fired a water gun into the sweaty crowd. I found myself screaming in Portuguese while jumping up and down, an experience I will not likely have again.

Part of the encore: “Rhythm is a Dancer.”

I don’t have photos because I forgot my real camera and things were a little too jostle-y in there, but you gotta listen to one of their new singles, “We Stay Up All Night (feat. Roses Gabor)”.