August 3, 2014
The calendar year may as well just end right here in the middle of the summer, because I don't know if I'm going to hear a better record in 2014 than the debut EP from Once & Future Band. If you know me, you're probably tired of me talking endlessly about the quality of the O&F's live show. And that's OK, I get it. I've been, uh, effervescent about these guys' on-stage musicianship. But if you can't see them live (they don't really tour), now you can just drop this vinyl onto the platter and let the notes do all the talking. This group of middle-aged SF Bay Area vets lays out a particularly ripe brand of '70s-inspired prog rock. It's a little schlocky and a little winking, full of Moog leads and tempo gymnastics. But at its center, the music is dead-serious and heavy as fuck. The playing is tight and deep. The production is rich and lysergic. Best of all, the lyrics display real sentiment and weight. There's grim poetry here; the boredom of stale relationships, existential angst, loneliness. And everything -- the songs, the sounds, the production -- is exquisitely crafted. That's admirable, since most bands working in this genre would be satisfied to just throw some jams onto tape, layer in some echoey vocals about space travel, and leave it at that. But O&F go for the brain. They just take the long way there, passing through the gut and heart along the way.
May 26, 2014
Many an artist, in an attempt to unlock some secret, next-level creative passageway, has sealed himself into a bedroom studio with a bunch of instruments and a multi-track recorder. He turns down the lights, ingests some mythical fruit or vegetable, puts on his hooded druid cape, hits record, and proceeds to get freaky. Usually the outcome is shit. I've heard a ton of these tapes, and almost all of them flirt with "psychedelia" as described by pop culture, not the real deal, the collision between the great beyond and the vastness of the inner void. Too many bedroom psych records sound claustrophobic, like there's no sunshine getting in through the curtains. But there are few artists who can really do wonders with the formula. Doug Tuttle is one. His debut solo album is exquisitely mixed and recorded. The writing is full of life. Well-penned ideas and introspective lyrics that don't go wacky for the sake of being outré. The sounds are deep. Droning organs, bouncing bass lines, fluttering tape effects, bright guitars, polished vocals and percussion that's perfectly lazy. Just before things get too pastoral, along comes an expertly played acid-fried guitar solo. There are hooks (hooks!) and there are grooves. Not to mention gobs of headphone-candy moments. Get it! Side note: Doug's label, Trouble in Mind, has been absolutely killing it lately. On the same day it released this beauty, it also put out Morgan Delt's debut LP, a very like-minded plate of seafood. Other recent releases to check out: The Limiñanas gauzy cafe-rock and Greg Ashley's experimental beat poetry jams, "Another Generation of Slaves."
April 3, 2014
Some artists choose to explore new directions as they grow. Some find a particular sound and stick to it for a few cycles. Welcome back, Mac. We're still here, glad to see you are too.
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!