Sunday, August 31, 2014

Tune Yards branch out into bold pop music collage on Nikki Nack

The opening track on Tune Yard's latest album, Nikki Nack, sees frontwoman Merril Garbus meditating on making changes, both inward and outward, and coming to grips with the difficulty of flipping that switch. It's a fitting opening for an artist who's been ever changing and evolving, and now her third album, Nikki Nack, sees the dynamic singer emerging from the cocoon all set to splatter our world with a palate of brighter colors.

Since the last album, whokill, in 2011, everything has gotten bigger, more complex, and, for the most part, better for the band. The brass and bass, which were huge driving forces on whokill, have been toned down in favor of a more complex, mulittracked electronic approach which at times borders on synthpop.

However, she hasn't ditched her emphasis on rhythm. Along with bassist Nate Brenner, the percussion and syncopation has reached new heights, and it complexity now rivals that of Thom Yorke's electro-precussive side project Atoms For Peace. But the production is also far bigger now than it has been on any of Garbus's previous offerings. The horn section that so wonderfully colored whokill are mostly absent, but in their place are a bevy of glorious electronic synths are present here. "Wait for a Minute" features cool, subtle background washes, while "Time of Dark" is backed by buzzy techno that wouldn't sound out of place on a 2000s era Nine Inch Nails record.

Garbus, as always, comes through with a big and bold personality. She brings plenty of swagger and attitude, her lyrics often bring the sense that she is a survivor, incapable of being held down. She is also the chief percussionist in the band, but this time around she's added another drummer as well.

"Water Fountain" with its playful and innocent nature, sounds like it could be a jump rope rhyme for the kids on the sidewalk.  But Garbus begins to cut loose as the track progresses, and it builds into something much more forceful and intricate. By the time the familiar melody arrives for the final chorus, it's the same but it has altogether changed. The clanging electronic production and much more complex vocal arrangements shows off Garbus's impressive ability to mix various layers together and make a song that is much more than the sum of its parts.

"Wait for a Minute" takes things in an opposite direction, showing off her mastery at slowing down and taking on more serene material, as well as confirming her status as a fantastic singer. She delivers power but also shows she knows how to reel herself in and deliver, sublime, beautiful melodies. The song shows off her stunning range, and the production is bang up as well.  "Wait for a Minute" is one of the best synthpop songs of the year, and one of the best she's ever done. It offers a dramatic contrast to her raw, jackhammer delivery on songs like "Real Life." Her ability to belt it out is impressive, but this song demonstrates that when she keeps it up too long it can become one note and lack variation, and after a while it grates on the nerves.

Meanwhile, "Stop That Man" continues to explore a lyrical theme of violence and crime in her native California, previously examined on "Gangsta" from whokill. It also sounds the most like her old material, as she declares in her ominous lower register that we'll have to be our own policeman. "Left Behind" and "Sink-o" are the most complex tracks rhythmically, but also are the most bass heavy and provide the best opportunities to shake your booty.

Nikki Nack is a strong listen from front to back, but the problems that do come up on on the album tend to result from mixing and arranging the various layers together. This is the most complex album Garbus has put together. There are more musicians, more layers, and just generally more going on here than on either of her two previous albums. Although it happens rarely, in some places things don't come together quite right. Opener "Find a New Way" kicks off with an awkward Vampire Weekend sounding opening and abrasive FIND A NEW WAY refrain. All the layers previously present in the song are reintroduced simultaneously at the end, but instead of meshing well with one another they all clash and conflict with one another.

The biggest offender, however, is "Look Around," which is super surreal but in all the wrong ways. Her dissonant ukulele combines with something in the background that sounds like a demented cuckoo clock, and is paired up with a halfhearted vocal track that doesn't mesh well with the music at all.

The entire album is abound with an African, Caribbean and world tribal influences, as well as playground chants that give the album a playful and inviting feel. It may sound like a lot to wrap your head around, and it is. But what's great is that the entire album operates off a pop sensibilities, so every song is pretty easy to get into without taking too many listens to get into, but the more time you do invest into this record the more layers you peel back that you may never have even noticed in the first place. This is what makes this one of the most refreshing and rewarding albums in recent memory. 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Crazed folk band O'Death announce new album Out of Hands We Go

O'Death first caught my attention through an album cover. The art for their 2011 album, Outside, was so well done and thoughtfully illustrated I had to take a listen, and now the band is one of my favorite finds of the last several years. The best way I can describe them is that it's basically like a crazed, fire breathing Southern Baptist preacher fronting a stark raving mad folk band. I tend to think of these guys as the redneck folk version of Gogol Bordello, in large part due to the wild live performances both bands are known for giving. They've released a couple of new cuts from their upcoming album, Out of Hands We Go, which drops Oct. 7. They're not as rambunctious as some of their older material, but certainly not as subdued as Outside. It's good to see that O'Death seem to be reinventing themselves once again.



Sunday, August 17, 2014

Metal veterans Machine Head smash Nashville like a wrecking ball

The 90s have never been considered the most fertile time for metal, but I don't agree that the decade was some sort of wasteland for the genre as many experts like to assert. Machine Head is one of the many reasons why.

Their first statement was perhaps their loudest, dropping their debut album Burn My Eyes in in 1994. Combining the frenzied edge of thrash metal with a straight ahead riffing style and an aggressive, take no prisoners attitude, the album is still considered a classic to this day.

Oakland based heavy metal act Machine Head graced Nashville's Exit/In.

It had been far too long since we'd seen the Bay Area heathens properly tear Music City apart, as frontman Rob Flynn declared it had been 19 years since the last headlining tour from Machine Head hit Nashville. The occasion? Dubbed The Killers & Kings tour, the band had booked a small number of dates in support of their latest single of the same name. It seems like more of an excuse to get back out on the road more than anything else, but anything that gets Machine Head to venue near me won't have me complaining.

The setlist pulled almost evenly from the band's seven studio albums, but focused most heavily on their 2007 effort The Blackening. Now, it isn't too often a band releases their best album 13 years into their career, but Machine Head does not concern themselves with the operations of lesser mortals. If the spitfire riffing of "Aesthetics of Hate" or the lighters held high anthem "Halo" doesn't get you going, then buddy you've come to the wrong place.

Their latest album, Unto the Locust, is no slouch either. The technical complexity of the riffing in "Locust" demonstrates heady progress the band has made over the years. The real jaw dropper moment, however, came during "Darkness Within" as the crowd took over and sang the outro all by themselves, even after the band went silent. Chills.

Rob Flynn and Phil Demmel go back to back during a scintillating solo.

Their older material shined, too. The punishing riffs of "Ten Ton Hammer" were impossible, while "Old" and "Davidian" gave us ringing reminders as to why we fell in love with this band in the first place.

I've read several blog posts from frontman Rob Flynn, and he seems like a great guy full of personality. He was a relentless motivator, constantly urging the crowd on and demanding their all. Guitarist Phil Demmel also deployed some great showmanship. He sliced through solos with the greatest of ease while making faces toward the crowd and exuding showmanship that reminds me of the guys from Iron Maiden.

The crowd, for their part, heralded the band's arrival by taking up hearty cries of Machine Fucking Head  Other than that, though, they mostly just stood at respectful attention without really getting too into it.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Kishi Bashi - Philosophize In It! Chemacilize With It!

Japanese violinist Kishi Bashi crafts indie pop music that is full of warmth, exuberance, and a misty eyed sense of wonder. Most importantly, it's just plain good fun. The focus track from his latest, Lighght, loops and winds its way through bang up violin playing along with a delightfully delectable chorus that shows off Bashi's killer falsetto. But perhaps my favorite part is when he breaks it all down near the end and throws in an acoustic guitar backing that builds to the final chorus. It doesn't sound like something that should work at all in theory, but he executes it to perfection. See for yourself:


Latin guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela's ringing rhythms rumble Ryman

There's this part during Rodrigo y Gabriela's packed to the rafters show at Ryman Auditorium where the Rodrigo is unmercifully tearing through the climactic final guitar solo from "The Soundmaker," the lead single from their latest album 9 Dead Alive. As Gabriela leaps in excitement beside him, the energy in the room builds to a fever pitch and seems almost enough to take the roof off the place. A brilliant wash of auburn light suddenly illuminates the stage at the precise moment he finishes. And they were just getting started.

Rodrigo y Gabriela dazzles the crowd with carefully crafted melody.

The twosome, consisting of Rodrigo Sanchez and Gabriella Quintero, hail from Mexico City but had to journey to Ireland before finding success with their self titled album in 2006. Their sound is heavily steeped in the great traditions of Spanish guitar style, but also borrows heavily from Rodrigo's experience as a heavy metal guitarist. For over 90 minutes, they wowed the crowed with almost purely instrumental play. Mini cameras were hooked up onto the head of their guitars so as to capture the insanity of their lightning fast finger movements and relay it to the big screen. 

Just as impressive though, is how varied a repertoire they're able to create with only two acoustic guitars. Cuts like "Fram" and "The Russian Messenger" from 9 Dead Alive are a little more dialed back and atmospheric, gently pulling the listener in with a swirling confection of strings. "Hanuman," on the other hand, hits you in the face like a hand grenade and never lets up. Its breathless spontaneity and in your face nature is highly indicative of the style of traveling street performers, which Gabreila explained they once were.

And what street performers they must have been! As this tune unfolded  it was easy to envision the palm trees, majestic fountains, and palatial resort hotels rising in the distance.  But of course, we couldn't escape without a little heavy metal influence, provided with a cover of Metallica's breathtaking "Orion." They may have lacked the electric amplifiers, but their performance gave you no less of a desire to pump your fist into the air.

Although Rodrigo sizzled with his lead work, Gabriela's rhythm playing was nothing short of nuts. She eschewed a pick in favor of a four finger picking style that looks like something you would see a bass player do. But when you consider she does it with six strings instead of four it's even more insane. She'll also drum a beat on the side of her guitar or over the sound hole and incorporate that into the rhythm parts she plays on guitar. It's one of the most unique styles of playing the instrument I've ever seen, and seems nearly impossible to replicate perfectly.

Coloruful backdrops added a Southwestern flair to the group's set.

Also great was a segment midway through the set where the duo performed a series of cover songs, mostly just pulling a short snippet out of each song. Rodgrio began playing Stone Temple Pilots' "Plush" on guitar, then motioned for the stage hand to bring out a microphone for what Gabriella termed as his karaoke set. He quickly ran through "Breaking the Girl" from The Red Hot Chili Peppers and "Symphony of Destruction" from Megadeth -- which sadly no one seemed to recognize -- before finally ending up with Radiohead's "Creep," which drew massive ovation from the audience. His voice was fine, but afterward did acknowledge that he doesn't sing much. "Don't go upload it to Youtube," he joked.

They had a lot to live up to, as opening act Milow absolutely killed it. The Belgian acoustic guitar duo delivered gorgeous vocal harmonies, while lead man Jonathan Vandenbroeck showed off great presence and a wonderful sense of humor. Near the end he did a song that he wrote as an advance apology to his guitarist for when he becomes famous and forgets all about him. He also made a few cracks about Belgium's soccer win over the U.S. in the World Cup, but after what they did for their final song I think we can forgive him.

For their set closer, they wanted to take advantage of the Ryman acoustics and perform a little closer to the crowd, so they stepped out from behind their mics and edged right up to the front of the stage. The crowd went silent as a pin drop as their unamplified voices and acoustic guitar sliced through the stillness of the Ryman air. It was one of the most beautiful moments I have witnessed in that building. 

Friday, July 25, 2014

Bombastic Outkast reunion graces Louisville's Forecastle festival



After hitting virtually every festival in existence this year, Oukast's omission from this year's Bonnaroo lineup was a big buzkill. But I would not be denied my chance to see them. Having first heard Ms. Jackson in 8th grade, and having grown up with their Speakerboxx/Love Below era hits, it was fantastic seeing them onstage together once again.

They had a gigantic mesh cube on stage with screens you could see through, so you could see them when they were inside of it and they could also project images onto the screens. They opened the show by projecting the American flag from the Stankonia cover onto the cube screens.

They kicked off with a couple of tunes from that album, getting the crowd properly gelled up with "B.O.B" and "Gasoline Dreams," a pair of ferocious cuts that show off their hip hop prowess while simultaneously working the crowd into a frenzy. From there they began working through a catalog of their early hits, knocking out material from ATLiens and Aquemeni era. Although arguably less known than their later hits, these earlier tunes boast hooks every bit as potent, and its a testament that stacking songs this strong this early into their set helped them avoid the early set lull that many live acts struggle with.

The duo interacted well with one another and seemed like good showmen. Andre had on his white wig and a black jumpsuit that read Obviously Oblivious, along with a price tag hanging off of his suit with a dollar sign on it.

They moved swiftly through a set of greatest hits. Little time was spent delving into their back catalog, but it's a testament to them that they can fill a full set with pretty much nothing but killer hit cuts.

Midway through they did a couple of solo sets to allow them to deliver material from Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, a double album which consisted of individual solo discs from both members of the duo. Andre's was much heavier on visual elements. At times his screens looked the command module for the Starship Enterprise. At the end, there was a visual of a woman's legs, with the mesh cube positioned strategically to block out the view directly between her legs, and her panties could be seen gliding off and fluttering down her leg. "Who invented panties anyway?" Andre intoned. "I think they were meant to be taken off."



The best moment was when he invited a gaggle of female fans from the crowd onto stage during "Hey Ya!" One of them gave him a hug and told him this was the best moment of her life. "I disagree," Andre declared. "This is the beginning of the best moment of your life!"

Big Boi's solo spot was more grounded, but no less impressive. He invited Sleepy Brown out onto stage for "The Way You Move," a tune that packs some serious groove, but also proved he could bust some serious amps on the speaker shredder "Ghetto Musik."

They had neat ways of introducing songs. "Let me ask you guys a question. Do you guys know Jesse Jackson? Wanda Jackson?" Then they paused before slyly asking, "What about Ms. Jackson?" before busting into their indomitable breakout single. If they hadn't blown up by the time they launched that single way back in 2001, they certainly did after it hit.

But the night wasn't complete without a run through the group's old school hits. "Crumblin 'Erb" and "Player's Ball" showed off a vastly different and much more grounded sound than later Outkast, drawing heavily from a dirty Southern gangsta rap style, while still featuring heavy helpings of soul.

Though the tour may have started off rocky with that opening Coachella date, Big Boi and Andre have now hit their stride, and are playing magnificently off one another. Only they know what's in store at the conclusion of this tour, but it would be a shame for the group to dissipate right as they're getting their groove back.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Beck plays every style of music imaginable during night two at Ryman


The first night of Beck's two night stand at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium was championed by the subdued, acoustic guitar based folk of his standout 2002 album Sea Change and his most recent work, Morning Phase, released in February. For night two, he had something altogether different in mind.

The bright flashing lights and buzzsaw guitar riffs of set opener "Devil's Haircut" loudly blared to any of last night's holdovers that they weren't in Kansas anymore. Beck's indelible swagger and sing along delivery instantly made a deep impact upon everyone in the room, as he sidled up beside bandmembers and cut a rug all over the stage.

Beck got the ball rolling right off the bat and didn't let up, pummeling the room with crowd pleasing cuts early and often. He broke out the delectable deep cut "The New Pollution" from his defining 1996 album Odelay, tantalizingly merged "I Think I'm In Love" into Donna Summer's disco banger "I Feel Love," and also spun out the smooth, seductive alt/hip hop of "Black Tambourine." It was more than enough to keep all of our tambourines shaking.

He did pepper in a mellower mood periodically throughout the set. The mournful, contemplative mood of "Lost Cause" proved to be the sole Sea Change cut of the evening, while eerie electronics and deep cello swirled through the rafters during "Wave." Beck explained that he had begun work on Morning Phase in Nashville with the idea that he wanted to make a country based record before ultimately finishing up elsewhere. But he played a string of songs that developed from those Nashville sessions, including "Heart is a Drum," "Say Goodbye," and "Waking Light," all of which provided vast aesthetic differences from his early set material but were every bit as sing alongable.

It wasn't just Beck lighting it up; even his band brought raw intensity.

Yet in a testament to the eclecticism of Beck, it wasn't long before the swelling emotional ocean of "Waking Light" gave way to the Gameboy bleeps and bloops that heralded "Girl," one of the singer's most prominent chart smashes after from "Loser." And speaking of "Loser," he got it out of the way early but holy balls did it turn the building upside down. He complemented it with other fun, quirky hip hop cuts "Que Onda Guero" and "Hell Yes."

After closing the main set with the caffeine high of hard rocker E-Pro, Beck's bandmates began mock bumping into each other and eventually collapsed into a gigantic heap on the floor, prompting Beck to roll out yellow police crime scene tape across the front of the stage. Then he put all his chips down for the encore.

After exploring the underbelly of freak funk with the darkly futuristic "Get Real Paid," he broke out two other cuts from Midnite Vultures for his encore. The dramatic bang of "Sexx Laws" led into the inevitable and indomitable strains "Debra," a falsetto soul love song to a girl working at a department store. He illustrated some of the song's scenes in spoken word, sweet talking Debra and then inviting her to take a ride in his Hyundai.

Beck tries to hide all evidence of his crimes.

He could have called it a night right there, but Beck would not be vanquished without a fight. After briefly vanishing, he returned and broke into "Where It's At," before transitioning into the old gospel country stomper "One Foot in the Grave," complete with Beck going nuts on harmonica. He then segued that into a rendition of The Rolling Stone's "Miss You" before finishing it out with the final chorus of "Where It's At."

Those bigger on Beck's mellow side no doubt would have enjoyed the first night more, but speaking as someone who doesn't consider Morning Phase to be the man's best work, the setlist couldn't have been better. Save for the off kilter mellowness of Mutations, virtually every conceivable side of Beck was on display. And personally speaking, three Midnite Vultures cuts was nothing short of astounding. Apologies to those who consider his many deviations mere distractions, but this set represents the Beck you have got to see.