23 November 2011

Widowspeak: "Widowspeak"

I have this propensity to listen to a lot of dark, brooding music that lets me drift into deep contemplation and ruminations; it was that quality that instantly attracted me to Widowspeak. From my very first listen to the band, the combination of sultry vocals and sensually dark music had me stuck like a dullard on a wire, waiting for more. With the release of their eponymous debut album (9 August 2011), it has become more than obvious that what the band’s moniker refers to is not the “widow’s peak,” but rather the darker “widow speak.” But this is not the kind of dark music that is gloomy, and it is worlds away from the musings of post-punk; this is more akin to the kind of brooding that you slip into on sunny days that makes you feel good in a cathartic way.

What has haunted Widowspeak since I first heard of them (and probably before) is the constant comparison to Mazzy Star, asserted mainly because of Molly Hamilton’s voice similarity to Hope Sandoval’s. (I hate when vocalists are compared on the sound of their voice, as opposed to style; one you are born with and cannot do anything about, the other is choice.) Of course, a comparison to Mazzy Star is not a bad thing, but it is (in my opinion) a wrong and lazy comparison to make; the more apt comparison would be with fellow Brooklyn outfit Elysian Fields. Like Elysian Fields, whether conscious or not, there are plenty of hints of dream pop in the vocal style, while the musical arrangements (especially the guitars) flirt playfully with the vocal arrangements. Meshing up the dream pop with grunge, a pinch of late 60s, and standard indie fare, what Widowspeak has created is a luscious album of music and vocals that do not have to rely on “loudness” or volume, because the visceral and ponder-inducing qualities of the music easily outstrips most of their brethren and contemporaries.

“Widowspeak” opens with “Puritan,” which builds playfully like a classic Jesus and Mary Chain song – though worlds away from that sort of “noise,” the moment that the beat drops, the song takes off with a distinctly different speed and new urgency. Juxtaposing warm resonating and jangly guitars, the song is the perfect peephole into the pop sensibility of the band: play with variant pitches, carried by a strong steady rhythm section, with vocals that act at once as the conduit of lyrics and another layer of arranged music. The poppier “Puritan” gives way to “Harsh Realm.” This is the moment that the band starts its tread into the world of dream pop à la Elysian Fields: a breathy, but not ethereal brand of the genre. Though I have heard many ethereal bands from New York City, it seems no one does this more grounded take on dream pop better than New Yorkers, and Widowspeak is on top of their game here.

“Gun Shy” (starting with soft sounds of birds chirping) is the most cinemagraphic track on the album, which probably led the choice of making the track a single prior to the album release. However, it is not the poppiest song on the album; this would be “Fir Coat.” What makes this song a gem is how the guitar and vocal arrangements seem to be an exercise in frolicking. Their anti-pop moment comes with “Ghost Boy.” This is the darkest track (and, you’ve guessed it, my favorite track) on the album. This is brooding captured in music to perfection: from the sedate, subtle brooding to the manic insistent need to ruminate, the closing track of this album is haunting in a way that the other songs are not. Even at the points of crescendi, the song generates a harrowing feeling because of its sense of resignation.

Widowspeak is one of the posts I should have gotten up sooner! What I ultimately like the most about “Widowspeak” is simply how straightforward it is. It is not minimal, nor is laden with extraneous, unneeded overlays or studio gimmickry. Heartfelt and amazingly crafted, this is the kind of brooding music that anyone can find him/herself fixated on.

Track Listing:
1. Puritan
2. Harsh Realm
3. Nightcrawlers
4. In the Pines
5. Limbs
6. Gun Shy
7. Hard Times
8. Fir Coat
9. Half Awake
10. Ghost Boy

Keep up with Widowspeak at their MySpace, Facebook, or Twitter.

Here is a live performance of “Gun Shy” from the kexpradio YouTube Channel.

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21 November 2011

SebastiAn: "Total"

In an age of visual superficiality, where else should we start with SebastiAn’s debut album, “Total” (30 May 2011 in the Europe; 7 June 2011 in the USA), than with the cover? Seemingly, it is a black and white cover of two men kissing themselves; however, it is the image of Sebastian Akchoté (the man behind the moniker SebastiAn) kissing himself. Photographed by Jean-Baptiste Mondino (known for directing videos for the likes of Björk, David Bowie, and Madonna), the image on the cover, on the level of the psyche, captures the relationship of the “person” to the “artist.” Like all great love affairs, which are the merging of two individuals, art is created with the merging of two distinct ingredients: the consciousness (the person behind the artist) and the ego (the insistent drive to create something from nothing). It is when this coupling is immaculate that “art” (in the classic, non-pejorative sense) is created. Akchoté self-kissing image is of the man embracing with the artist, the conscious logic with the subconscious drive to create. The culmination, aptly, is “Total” – an electronic wonderland of riveting sounds, extensive melodies, and the unpredictable.

Let me be a stereotypical American: it would take a French man with balls to produce this kind of cover! And this French man not only has the balls, but also the chops to truly push the French electro-house tradition one notch higher. Sebastian Akchoté has all of the basics down when it comes to house, but there is more than dance floor antics going on here. While flirting with 80s beats, 90s musical tropes, and current indie urgency, Akchoté has created a musical soundscape where house, electronic body music, intelligent dance music, French electronica, and Euro disco all collude to create an amazing experience. What I really like about “Total” is Akchoté’s ability to keep the listener on his/her toes, unable to predict when and where there will be a shift and how it will shift, yet the album is never disarming. From beginning to end, the listener is sonically induced into the experience.

“Total” opens with “Hudson River”; it is near piano driven indie, under one-minute track that sublimely draws you into the collection, right into “Love In Motion,” which features Mayer Hawthorne. Closer to downtempo than electro-house, the distinction between the two opening tracks couldn’t be starker: from indie urgency to dance floor funk, “Total” is a plethora of musical styles and genres. Furthermore, I am usually put off by small interludes, which often time are nothing more than an artist annoyingly killing a few seconds on an album. This is not the case with “Total,” which is laced with quite a few interludes (“Though Games,” “Water Games,” “Cartoon,” Mean Games,” “Night,” and “Bird Games”). These (mini-)tracks are as riveting and captivating as the longer tracks and act brilliantly to segue between tracks. The best way to think about them is to consider this album the set list for an hour on a dance floor; these interludes are the transition from one style of house to the next, with fluidic ease.

If you are accustomed to house music that comes in radio format, not only have you been deceived about what house is really about, “Total” is going to be a total eye opener. It is always ideal to remember that this is music meant to be listened to on a dance floor, not over speakers in your house or car. “Total” is gritty, grinding, and sensually dark and euphoric and meant to be danced to. And with this album you get an experience that takes you all over the map. For instance, “Dogg,” in its orgiastic and aggressive arrangements, brings a rock mentality and sound to house music, while “Arabest” has the same underpinnings of 80s R&B pop music. “Motor” uses the sound of an accelerating engine, at times without a beat, to create a gritty moment on the dance floor, while “Fried” collides EBM, funk, and French electronica brilliantly. My obsession on the album is the track “Kindercut.” This track is perfect house frolic, as it oscillates through sounds and variant degrees of layered music (with a disco-esque guitar loop).

Of course, I should have taken the time to post this one weeks ago! But I still remember my first listen to this album. I am always on the look out for good house music, which radio has adulterated to the point of being painfully unlistenable, but Sebastian Akchoté, a.k.a. SebastiAn, really gave me repose from the unfortunate world of radio house mediocrity. He has created an electro-house tour de force with “Total” that is thoroughly infectiously addictive and one of the “must haves” of 2011.

Track Listing:
1. Hudson River
2. Love in Motion, featuring Mayer Hawthorne
3. Tough Games
4. Embody
5. Ross Ross Ross
6. Fried
7. Kindercut
8. Water Games
9. Total
10. Jack Wire, instrumental version
11. C.T.F.O., featuring M.I.A.
12. Cartoon
13. Arabest
14. Prime
15. Mean Games
16, Tetra
17. Motor
18. Night
19. Yes
20. Bird Game
21. Doggg
22. Frustra
23. Organia, Bonus Track

Keep up with SebastiAn at his MySpace and Facebook.

Here is his video for “Embody” from the officialEDREC YouTube Channel.

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19 November 2011

Kobayashi: "Everything to Everyone"

I wrote this review sometime back, but had not sat down to edit and post … as I read through what I had written, listening to Kobayashi’s “Everything to Everyone” (17 June 2011) again, I was struck by something that I had not originally written: when you listen to all four songs in one sitting (as any collection of music deservers to be listened to!), there is a sense of cacophony, in a good way. We are all victims to making comparisons between what we know and what we are trying to understand / appreciate at the moment; what really got me about the “Everything to Everyone” EP is that the references I used to come to terms with what I was listening to were broad, that to really put your finger on exactly what you are listening to may be a bit difficult – which, again, is always a good thing. This independent act does not replicate any of the current clichés or trends, nor are they purists in the sense following only one genre of music – this is kind of music that indie artists should be making, and they capture the meaning of a quote by Boy George (yes, Boy George): “Art should never kiss the arse of conventionality.”

Kobayashi’s “Everything to Everyone” is a four-track EP, that easily finds itself traveling through various musical terrains; I would assume that many people would be content with labeling the collection as “alternative rock” or “indie rock,” but I think those labels fall short. For instance, “alternative rock” only comfortably refers to college-radio-style bands that have a propensity for 70s guitar rifts; while “indie rock” has been degenerated as term to single out rock bands that are content with sounding like one another and praying for a spot at Reading or Rock am Ring – not that a spot there would not be desirable. Kobayashi, as opposed to many bands out there, are seemingly mixing and mismatching musical references that others either never conceived or haven’t figured out how to pull off.

The first track, “Playing With Fire,” opens with the expected: “I’m gonna get burnt; I shouldn’t do this.” But quickly a bit of profundity: “There’s something wrong with me, but what if we weren’t the slaves of insecurity?” And that’s the universal truth we seem to ignore: we are not always playing with fire as much as we are coming up against our own insecurities. Laced with power chords, and shifting from steady to erratic drumming, the music during the verses are the power-laced parts of the arrangements, while the chorus gives way to big, 70s-esque grandiosity. It is both odd and welcomed to hear a song that shifts away from power chords during the choruses! The second track, “Public Persona,” with a sleek bassline and sprinklings of British 60s and 70s rock, has lyrics that can give any post-punk (revivalist) artist a run for the money: “Open up, open up, ‘cause I don’t recognize this face; it’s like we’re stuck, we’re always stuck, because we’re standing in the same place.” And later, “Always happy, always sad, I’m every thought you ever had.” The entire sense of fractured thought in lyrics (like the original stream of consciousness of post-punk) is brilliantly captured. The following track is “Becoming The Same.” As you listen to the music, you are originally confronted by a sound that is very reminiscent of the funkier 90s grunge bands, but then the chorus sneaks up on you – the most brilliant subtle shift I have heard all year! With the inclusion of a key arrangement for ambience and a piano for dramatics, the music (whether intentionally or not) flirts with the early industrial sound, with lyrics that work in perfect tandem with the music: “We’re all becoming the same in everything but our name, and in degrees of our pain, we make the likeliest gain.”

The EP closes with “On The Precipice,” and by far my favorite track! Most bands are not brave enough to make social commentary, and most that do are trite and cliché and condescending. But when we consider the world we live in, especially in terms of the world debt crisis and inequitable distribution of wealth, we have been here before, countless of times throughout history, most notably the 1930s. So when we consider what the world has become, Kobayashi is justified in singing, “We are on the precipice of something truly massive; it happens just like this when we are blind and passive. History does not play out on canvas, moving, vast; it creeps and sneaks, no doubt ‘til tomorrow is the past.” This is the stuff that anthems are made of, which is mirrored by the musical arrangements: this is definitely the most “angst” driven song on the EP (and longest –just short of six minutes). What really intrigues me about the music is how all of the arrangements play off of one another while not aiming at the same visceral effect. From the aggressiveness of the guitars to the laid back (nearing funk) bassline to the wistful keys, it is the brilliantly, ever shifting drums (that would make Queen proud) that pulls all of the arrangements together into a unified song.

I have been scratching my head about what the band could have been referencing with “Kobayashi” – amongst the endless possibilities, what came to my mind was a haiku by Kobayashi Issa: “Blossoms at night / and the faces of the people / moved by music.” No matter what you want to say about “Everything to Everyone,” Kobayashi has written and produced music that is stirring and moving, if you are willing to scratch the surface. This is not music that follows the trend, nor is this music that was randomly put together – this is musically dissimilar and disarming compared to what else is out there, full of universal truths and commentary that we scarcely admit to ourselves, let alone enunciate. This is definitely an EP you should take a very close listen to.

Track Listing:
1. Playing With Fire
2. Public Persona
3. Becoming The Same
4. On the Precipice

Keep up with Kobayashi at their homepage, MySpace, and Facebook. Head over to their Bandcamp site where you can preview and download the “Everything To Everyone” EP.

Here is the video for Public Persona from the Kobayashirock YouTube Channel.

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14 November 2011

Videos, Kevin Pearce's Debut, and a Few Words

2011 has been, personally, a rough year; my apologies for having been away for two weeks – my thanks to those who have been patient and the good wishes and prayers for my family during a crisis. But I have been writing (quite a bit) and I will start that arduous process of editing and posting very shortly (though the actual posts may come via a collaborator).

A few months back I reviewed Kevin Pearce’s “Pocket Handkerchief Lane” (link). The album is now officially released (as of 7 November 2011), and you can preview the album and purchase at iTunes (here are the links for the iTunes stores in the UK and USA).

Among the artists featured in this post, there are some familiar names. I was excited to post new singles by Brett Anderson (“Crash About to Happen”) and Mirrors (“Dust”). The Italian indie band Daisy Chain is also featured; I reviewed their album “A Story Has No Beginning or End” back in June (link) and there is something about this posted track (“The End of the Affair”) that really gets me. Of course it is always great to post some new names, like The Rifles, and hopefully introduce you to something you may have not heard before.

I opted against posting the Madonna leak (“Give Me Your Love”) and Sunday Girl’s cover of “Love U More.” First, I stand by my previous commitment: I only post music from official sources. Therefore, I am not going to indulge in the Madonna leak (to a certain set of friends, stop e-mailing me the request!). Second, so many musicians have covered “Love U More,” originally by Sunscreem, so many times in the past decade, that I am wondering why the hell? There are so many songs from the 1990s to be covered and saved from obscurity, that to chose a song because it has the marks of a “hit” is too cliché for me. On that note, to the same group of friends, sorry once again … no luck today, ha?

Enjoy the videos!

Brett Anderson’s “Crash About to Happen” from the BrettAndersonVideo YouTube Channel.

Mirror’s “Dust” from the m1rrors YouTube Channel.

Daisy Chains’
“The End of the Affair” from the DaisyChainsBand YouTube Channel.

Dog Is Dead’s “Hands Down” from the dogisdeadband YouTube Channel.

Friendly Fires’ “Hurting” from the FriendlyFiresVEVO YouTube Channel.

Friends’ “I’m His Girl” from the friendszone YouTube Channel.

The Pinker Tones’ “Sampleame” [“Sample Me”] from the Nacionalrecords YouTube Channel.

The Rifles’
“Tangled Up” from the NettwerkMusic YouTube Channel.

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02 November 2011

Duran Duran Live

Through a rare October snowstorm, three friends and I crept towards Atlantic City, NJ to see Duran Duran live … and one of those friends, whom we shall call The Candyman (where do we get these nicknames from?), is one of those people I turn to often when it comes to questions about music. Furthermore, he is one of the people that I have the utmost respect for as a person, so it is no surprise that I have been trying to get him to write here on SlowdiveMusic Blog. So I would like to formally introduce The Candyman and share his debut review, Duran Duran Live.

Back in 1984, when Duran Duran was at the pinnacle of their pop status--when “Seven and the Ragged Tiger” topped the charts and “The Reflex” circulated heavily on radio stations and MTV -- ad nauseam, I might add -- I was a tacit fan, happily scooping up every album and 12-inch single the band had to offer. I watched and listened on the sidelines, but staunchly refused to see these boys in concert. I was determined to avoid the hordes of shrieking teenage girls that were the band’s primary fan base.

Fast forward to October 29, 2011, when I was in the audience as Duran Duran wrapped up their current North American tour, promoting their latest CD, “All You Need Is Now” at the Borgata Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The band opened with a beautiful ballad, “Before the Rain” -- from their new CD. This and other new songs sends a clear message: these Brits are neither retreads from a bygone era nor mutations of what they once were. Instead, Duran Duran is at the forefront of the revivalist movement, which is thankfully spreading across Europe like wildfire. After a few missteps in their 30-plus year career, Duran Duran have gone back to their roots with ”All You Need Is Now,” yet they remain fresh and relevant. In addition, the Fab Four, long considered a “boy band,” have a proven staying-power because their musical talents continue to mature and grow over the years. That being said, there is also no denying that Duran Duran also has a plethora of songs and chart-toppers from their discography, and they continued the concert by reminding us of that with the club hit that put them on the New Wave map: ”Planet Earth.” It was here that I was entrancingly whisked back to the early-80’s -- and, dare I say, transformed into a shrieking teenage girl, exactly of the ilk I escaped back in the day!

This was, in fact, my second Duran Duran outing: I saw them three years ago during their Red Carpet Massacre Tour and was quickly sold on them as a live act. This concert, not unlike the last, was a comfortable blend of greatest hits and cuts from their current CD. At 17 songs, it was also leaner than other dates of this tour, which boasted 19 or 20 songs in their set lists. At the Borgata, Ana Matronic of The Scissor Sisters and producer Mark Ronson were “special guests,” performing alongside lead singer Simon LeBon during “Safe” and “Leave a Light On ,” respectively -- for me, this was an unnecessary frill, but it may explain the trimming of songs. I would have preferred hearing ”Girls on Film,” “Union of the Snake” or ”Skin Trade” -- sadly omitted from this tour altogether -- to the guest players.

LeBon, who celebrated his 53rd birthday while on this tour, radiates a great charm and instantaneously connects with his audience. He offered minor bon mots throughout and joined the crowd on the floor for audience participation on two counts -- once to introduce ”The Reflex” and another to have a young lady introduce him. She was a brash woman, and so loud she was incomprehensible. (I made out the word “hot,” and LeBon was quite pleased with her blaring intro.)

The band retains three other original band members: bass guitarist John Taylor, drummer Roger Taylor, and on the keyboards, Nick Rhodes. The funky female percussionist with a tight, bright orange ponytail that bops to the beat, Dominic Brown on guitar and a soulful backup singer are pluses -- but these boys don’t need any enhancements or accoutrements -- they are in fine form musically. The concert was a pristine, slick production that consisted of graphics and lighting, none of which was distracting or excessive. The focus was the band performing, and they created an exciting energy. And despite a false start and a bit of cracking during ”Come Undone,” LeBon’s voice was as flawless as it was the first time he sang ”Wild Boys” and ”Rio,” which were the encore songs at this performance. I was more than fulfilled by this concert and can be counted in for their next tour.

Had I known back in ‘84 what I know now -- that Duran Duran puts on an enlivened stage show -- I would have seen them in concert back then over and over again and tolerated the screeching girls. Or better yet, I would have just joined in with them -- it’s more fun that way!

Set List:
1. Before the Rain
2. Planet Earth
3. A View to a Kill
4. All You Need Is Now
5. Leave a Light On
6. Come Undone
7. Reflex
8. Tiger Tiger
9. Is There Something?
10. Girl Panic
11. Ordinary World
12. Safe
13. Notorious
14. Hungry Like the Wolf
15. Sunrise

16. Wild Boys
17. Rio

Keep up with Duran Duran at their hompeage, MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter.
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