March 9, 2014
I never would have pegged the west coast of Mexico as being a hot destination on the psych rock trail. But such are these times; great bands pop up everywhere. This Mexican duo — from what I can gather, husband and wife, with her playing bass and guitar and doing most of the singing, and him playing drums and guitar — has a throbbing, motorik sound, heavy on the long, two-chord jams that bounce at dance-friendly tempos. Production is all thick syrup and deliciously lo-fi. Rare does a song kick off without gobs of flange and echo and chorus looped in. Keys and feedback coat everything a fuzzy, Velvets-like drone. Guitar solos amble and ring with acid-fried tones, but they don't soar and slice or show any great heroics. I really like the moodiness and commitment to the grooves on the record, which seems to be their third, though this is the first one that's seeing wide release. There's enough punk energy here to stand up to the best psych from Cali or Austin, but there's also an otherness to it (the fact they're from far-flung Mexico?) that's super refreshing. So gobble up some hongos and Bohemias and kick it.
March 6, 2014
There's something extraordinary in Morgan Delt's tea. The man's self titled album is filled with woozy pop that sounds like it was blasted forward in time from 45 years ago, but it crashed here instead of 20 years in the future where it belongs. It's busy psychedelia — very, very trippy. Each song is awash in organ, echo, and twisty melodies. The bass bobs and bops along at the front, often acting as the sole source of propulsion (this is not an album drummers are gonna flip over). It's my guess that Delt not only sings, but also plays every instrument, skillfully following all the complicated changes on a chart somewhere inside the fog of his skull. You won't be putting this on because you want something sunny to sing along to. It's too outré. But it's lovely and brilliant anyway.
February 23, 2014
My first pick of the year is a record I've listened to at least once a day since it came out two weeks ago, Marissa Nadler's July. A decade into her career, the singer-songwriter is still successfully mining that classic dichotomy of atmospheric arrangements and delicate vocals matched to hard-earned poetry about loss. She's a folk artist if you have to put a label on her, but her songs aren't ramshackle or rootsy. They're delicate icons, seemingly chiseled out of stone and perfected over dozens of fog-soaked mornings, then left like artifacts to maybe someday meet the sun. July is an A-plus "mood record." The production is lush — anchored by Nadler's voice and fingerpicked acoustic, but elevated by the psychedelic touches of producer Randall Dunn and the glistening guitars of Phil Wandscher. There's big reverb and lots of space. Close your eyes and you're inside an old gothic novel. My favorite part is how Marissa is always letting the contemporary creep into her lyrics — drunk dialing a lover, the melancholy of a hotel room, changing clothes in a truck stop gas station and being careful not to touch the floor with your bare feet. It's like going into a little world, or a peek inside a diary. Great stuff. Put it on late at night and wake up a different person.
December 29, 2013
I relaunched this website about seven months ago. I shut the old site down in March, very soon after attending SXSW for the sixth time. I usually attend as a member of the media, reporting on the tech conference and reviewing movies, occasionally interviewing a band or two. This year was no different, except that I saw a handful of great bands that I was eager to write about even if my day job at WIRED wouldn't afford a real outlet for me to spout off. So that was the spark — I wanted to get back into writing about music in a meaningful way, and with regularity. I already owned the domain, and the last version of this site — mostly a place to post my DJ mixes — had sputtered out in string of DMCA takedown notices. I also don't really read a lot of music journalism because I have a lot of problems with the tone and intent of so much of it. But I wasn't going to set out with some grand design to make things right in the world. I just didn't want to do what everyone else was doing. And in a way, it's sort of what I had been doing here all along: recommending great music to people by telling them how it's changed me as a human, and hoping it would compel them to check it out too.
So it's fitting that my pick for the best record to come out during my first year of weekly reviews is the very first one I posted about. Mikal Cronin, a singer-songwriter out of California, put out MCII, his second full-length, on Merge in the middle of the year. And while he didn't take off, he certainly blew up a little. By the end of the year, he was headlining smaller festivals and playing to crowds twice the size of the ones he was playing to in April and May. And rightly so — this is one hell of a record. Every song is a hit. It's well-produced, well-played, and well-paced from beginning to end. Most of all, the tunes are just awesome. Hummable and memorable, with a tinge of sadness mixed into the joyful pop. Plus, I love all that acoustic guitar. Sometimes, it's so far down in the mix beneath the harmonies and the crushing fuzz leads that you can barely hear it. But it's there like a glue. It's a reminder that this dude has a craft, and this is his tool, and you're getting the real thing. The real real. I can't wait to hear what's coming next.
Best Records of 2013
Mikal Cronin, MCII
Ty Segall, Sleeper
Devendra Banhart, Mala
Virgil Shaw and the Killer Views, New Mid City
Wooden Shjips, Back to Land
Caetano Veloso, Abraçaço
Cass McCombs, Big Wheel and Others
The Lions, This Generation
December 15, 2013
One of the best books I read this year was I’m Your Man, the biography of Leonard Cohen by one of the best music writers going, Sylvie Simmons. The richest parts of the book happen when it slows down to retell key events, something the author can only do when there’s a tidy document to reference. The Isle of Wight festival set from 1970, luckily, was well-documented. Because of this, it’s one of the best parts of the book, and of course it’s also the best live album in Leonard’s stack (he has five or six to choose from). The music is excellent. Leonard is really high — Simmons talks about Mandrax and LSD, among other things, being consumed at all times on the tour — and he speaks and sings slowly for most of the performance. But this was at 2:00 in the morning, following Jimi Hendrix if you can imagine such a thing, in front of a crowd of over half a million people. It was a magical moment filled with levity and exhaustion and revery. The glory of it all really comes across in the footage; the illicit clip I’ve embedded above is also available as a commercial Blu-ray which you should check out. The double LP sounds even better. I’ve got this one on vinyl, and when I read that chapter in the book a few months ago, I took it down off the shelf. It’s been in constant rotation ever since. The needle drops, the house fills with poetry and that thin guitar and those singing ladies and pretty soon you’re signing along too.
December 1, 2013
The man known as White Fence normally works the lo-fi playbook. Prolifically, actually, and with great success. His records, some made with a few collaborators, have a thin, barely held together aesthetic, all pop and mist and very little gloss. But live, when he plays with a full band, everything gets huge. The group captured here, playing at Amnesia on Valencia street in SF, comes through like a herd of wild animals running across the stage and through the audience. The songs aren't just sonically heavier, but more emotionally substantial, more catchy. There are some raging moments that stretch for five or six minutes before exploding into feedback and cooling off. Everyone takes a deep breath for a few seconds, then the fireworks start all over again. And so it goes, an hour-long recitation of bedroom songs played in the big church. This is a great live album.
November 24, 2013
How refreshing that Wooden Shjips have pointed their collective bow toward uncharted waters. The SF band (now based all over — California, Colorado, Oregon) has been chugging away at the throbbing, trance-flavored psych rock for years, and they've drilled that mine to the point where they definitely have "a sound." But that level of instant recognition can threaten one's virility. What good is the talent if it ceases to surprise? Here, on Back to Land, the band delivers what smells and tastes definitively like "Wooden Shjips music," but it's got a new confidence. Some washes of harder-edged electronic stuff, some happier moments and some darker moments. Miles of guitar solos, of course, and motorik bass and drums. But the mix is heavier and more varied from tune to tune. You'll hear them pushing the edges out, loosening the ties. The result is a record that's more sonically rich than anything that's come before — really digging all the acoustic guitar, for one thing — and also more accessible. It's not like the Wooden Shjips were ever threatening to become a parody of themselves, but they were sticking a little too close to their guns. There's no worse way to go out than with a dulled point, fading to gray. Here they are, back on top, in glorious technicolor. Drink it up. Also, bonus points for the bitchin' packaging. A gatefold wrapped in every manner of pop-art psychedelia and colorful kitsch (mushrooms and peace signs and lightning bolts and third eyes) that slots into a white sleeve punctuated with small die-cut circles that let the pops of pop-art color poke through at random. Like Zeppelin III but more whimsical. And blue-green vinyl at the creamy center!
November 17, 2013
Juana is from Argentina. I usually drop this bit of information whenever I’m recommending her music, and it’s polarizing. The person either warms up and wants to hear her, or they politely turn their nose. If they grow cold, it’s probably due to bad memories of Putumayo CDs in college, or the too-safe stuff they play on the NPR world music hour. Maybe they don’t speak Spanish and they just like music they can sing along to. But even the people who are into the idea are often greeted by something completely unexpected. Juana — while admittedly the NPR darling of late — makes truly transcendent music. Her sound is exotic, but not as some flavor of cumbia or tango or tropicalia. Yeah, she sings in Spanish, but the exoticism comes from somewhere else, from a corner of the subconscious. This stuff is beautifully bizarre. Largely electronic at the base, then embellished with acoustic guitar, gongs and mallet percussion, electric bass, more keyboards, and her breathy, supple voice on top, it’s a psychedelic stew of discovery. If you’re familiar with the records Juana’s been pumping out for the last ten years, Wed 21 shows her changing gears a bit. It’s her first record in five years, and she’s obviously spent her downtime refining her approach. There’s less acoustic guitar on this record, and she spends less time fiddling with her loop pedals. But the beats are riper. The layers are thicker, not in number but in content. Overall, it’s a darker and heavier listen than the gentle stuff that defined the early part of her career. Also, every song has a pulse. It’s dance music. Maybe more braindance for some, but everybody’s got something up there that needs shaking.
November 3, 2013
Hey. Do you like guitars? Yeah? What about guitar solos? When you hear some primo shredding, do you sense the instruments are talking to each other, telling a story as all the notes weave together? Do you like freaky-alien tightness? Are you down with raging instrumental jams? Like, 15 or 20 minute workouts of wordless riffage that take up entire sides of double-slab vinyl records? Do you like gatefold artwork drawn by Alan Forbes showing a bunch of three-eyed elephants marching out of a space cave and across a stone bridge to greet a giant, intergalactic cyclops owl deity? Are you into invigorating fruits and vegetables? Does the smell of your own neurons sizzling remind you of home cookin'? Earthless, man.
October 27, 2013
My first encounter with Lou Reed wasn't the Velvets, or any of his '70s stuff. It was New York, which came out in 1989 when I was 14. I was at the mall, in the Sam Goody, and had just started the part of my education that involved wandering away from the Pink Floyd and Rush and Led Zeppelin cards in the bins. Going on adventures, I suppose. I saw New York on an end cap, and seeing the cover photo on the tiny little cassette insert is what sold me. The eyeless stare. The power stance. The black shirt with the sleeves cut off, arms crossed. And he's over here, too, in a black trenchcoat smoking a cigarette! What a total badass! Something about the grittiness of that cover told me that I shouldn't pop it into the player while my mom was driving me home. There was something very adult going on. It was as dark and alluring as a poster for an R-rated movie. Would you want to watch an R-rated movie with your mom, especially one where you didn't know what the content was? I opened the tape case to look over the lyrics in the car, but I waited until I got home to the safety of my headphones. And boy, is it a headphones record. The notes on the card have this line: "I'm on the left and the other guitarist, Mike Rathke is on the right." I was just getting into guitar at the time and learning the basics by playing along to my favorite tapes, so this was valuable intel. I could study one guitarist, then the other. Study I did, and I had worn that tape out by the time I got to college. Oddly, as hot as the guitars were, it was the poetry that was the true hook. New York is Lou in full bile mode, at the very end of the Reagan era. I wasn't really aware of politics at 14 — my upbringing in Orange County, California was pretty much the epitome of sheltered — but I knew enough people were pissed off at the status quo that maybe I should learn why. So how confusing was this bit, right in the middle of "Dirty Boulevard": "Give me your hungry, your tired, your poor, I'll piss on 'em / That's what the Statue of Bigotry says / Your poor huddled masses, let's club 'em to death / And get it over with and just dump 'em on the boulevard." Where did all the negativity come from? Was he speaking as himself, or was he speaking in defense of the poor huddled masses? More importantly, where is this Dirty Boulevard? How I do see it for myself? I learned the rules pretty quick: Read the newspapers. Watch the nightly news. Travel. Stop trusting the government. Value art. See firsthand how others live. And keep listening to Lou Reed records.