Sunday, October 23, 2011

Memphis rapper Cities Aviv delivers hip hop for the soul

Gavin Mays has always tried to do something different.

Mays, better known as Cities Aviv, once kicked it as the vocalist in a hardcore band. Ever since the Memphis native got involved in hip hop, he's been busy dodging comparisons to Three Six Mafia, regularly drawing comparisons to RZA, and rewriting the entire handbook on Memphis rap.

Digital Lows, his debut album, does so many things right. Mays shows great insight with his lyrics and a great sense of passion with his voice, but the beats are the show stealer. You're going to be exposed to such vivid imagery that you'll swear you're playing stickball in the crowded city streets.

The beats are heavily steeped in 70s style soul and funk. It creates a lush tapestry on which Mays constructs his rhymes; there is a wide range of emotions being conveyed. There's a sense of passion and authenticity in his voice as well as a sense of urgency, as if there's this one key concept that he has absolutely got to get through to you.

He is also a master at infusing his personality into his writing. He'll gladly tell you about his favorite rapper, Big Pun, and how much better he is than Tupac. And he won't hesitate to give you a glimpse of reality on the Memphis streets.

"For the future, how can I get excited? At 25 and black, I'm supposed indicted," he declares on "Black Box," which brings a heavy dose of soul both in the beats and in the voice of Memphis's own Fille Catatonique.

Other favorites:
  • "Die Young" switches up the formula a bit with a clanging metallic electroncia beat, while "Tounge Kisser" is a brief interlude which blends electronica and hip hop.
  • "Meet Me On Montrose (For Ex-Lovers Only): the beat is set to the tune of Oh Lori by the Alessi Brothers, and also samples said song. Mays recalls the carefree jubilee as he reminisces on a former love from his youth.  
  • Also flawless is "Doom x Gloom," is a brisk track that dredges up some very dark and ominous emotions. Imagery of drug use and hallucinations create some unsettling sensations. Mays asks: "Was she real or apparition? I don't know, cause when she talked I never did listen."
  • "Fuckeverybodyhere:" great track for when you just want to say fuck everything. Really enjoy the aggression in this track. And it's capped off by the soulful sample of Steely Dan's "Midnight Cruiser."
  • Capping off the album is "Float On," which is essentially a cover of a cover. Mays raps over Blackbird Blackbird's electronic cover of the Modest Mouse tune, though the lyrics are all his. It brings about a mellow, wistful, and dreamy close to the album.
Digital Lows really resonates with me because I love the diversity that Cities Aviv was able to bring on each and every track, while also presenting a flow that is heady and inspired. Great beats, great lyrics and great delivery; what more could you ask for?

Score: 92/100

    Tuesday, October 11, 2011

    Eww! Yuck sludges up the Mercy Lounge

    Yuck pummels the Mercy Lounge with their grimy lo-fi assault.

    Say what you will about big time concerts featuring major fanfare and well known artists, but sometimes you can't beat seeing a little indie band kick it. As I made my way to the Mercy Lounge last Wednesday, the scene couldn't have been more perfect.

    The weather was warm outside but you couldn't help but notice the slightest touch of autumn in the air. The Mercy Lounge is one of those small intimate venues where everyone gets a shot at getting up close to the performers. Sort of like The End but much nicer.

    It's one of those places where you can enjoy the taste of $3 Miller High Lifes while chatting with the chick at the merch stand who seems a little too buzzed for her own good. And you never know who you'll meet at these shows. The show started almost an hour late, so I shot the shit with this one guy about 90s alt-rock, Indiana, and upcoming concerts we wanted to see. All the while, he was doing his darnedest to convince me that this guy at the bar was the lead singer from the Black Keys.

    Daniel Blumberg does his best Dinosaur Jr. impression.
    And don't forget the ladies. Not everybody loves an indie girl, but I find it's hard to beat the sight of these chicks in their berets wearing black stockings and denim skirt clutching the neck of a Black and Tan bottle.

    The band in question? Yuck, who have garnered critical acclaim for their take on 90s alternative rock, and for capturing the zeal of bright eyed youthful exuberance. Their set was marked with aggressive fuzzy guitar and loud feedback between songs.

    There is an interesting dynamic to Yuck's sound. Crunchy rockers like "Georgia" capture the raw fist pumping excitement of Dinosaur Jr. while songs like "Suicide Policeman" and "Shook Down" see them prove positively proficient at channeling a band like Pavement.

    Throughout the 12 song set, Yuck covered most of the album highlights as well as throwing a few surprises at us. "Milkshake," from their recently released 7" Milkshake/Shook Down single. We also got a look at a new song, "Soothe Me," which spotlights vocalist/guitarist Daniel Blumberg's pained cries in the main hook.

    "Get Away," with its melodic guitar leads, is an obvious highlight. As was "Georgia," which is usually a spotlight for bassist Mariko Doi. I found it disappointing she didn't sing lead like on the album, with Blumberg tackling lead vocals while Doi was relegated to a bystander doing only backup vocals in the chorus. Guitarist Max Bloom stepped in to handle the shouty parts in the final chorus. They sound well together, but I really liked the arrangement on the album also. 

    It all led up to set closer "Rubber," which smacks heavily of Sonic Youth. I wasn't a major fan of this song on the record, but I can't help but be absorbed by how the band rocks out like no tomorrow.

    Mariko Doi delivers with her voice and her four strings.
    The Stone Roses-ish "Sunday" was the only obvious hit missing from the setlist, and not surprisingly a small contingent of fans kept calling for that song throughout the night.

    Finally, Bloom responded, "Sunday? It's fucking Wednesday." Blumberg dryly remarked to him that he gets a 7/10 for stage banter.

    With all said, Yuck presents a unique quandary as to what it is that makes them so critically acclaimed. The musicianship, other than maybe lead guitarist Max Bloom, is nothing extraordinary and Yuck wasn't all that energetic on stage. I had to wonder if this is a case of a band getting noticed just out of mimicking their influences very closely.

    Then I thought: nah, the songwriting itself is just too damn good.

    Sunday, October 9, 2011

    Opeth's Heritage puts focus on thinking man's gothic folk

    Whenever your favorite band opts for a major change of direction, the results usually aren't pretty..

    I've seen it happen countless times; bands that I was adored morphed into something totally unrecognizable. They lose touch with what made them great, usually for reasons no more noble than a simple cash grab.

    They always have their defenders: those who claim they're naturally evolving or changing, and that the old school fans need to get over it. But who are we kidding? It's not coincidence that this supposed "evolution" is always toward a vastly more commercial direction.

    But every once in a blue moon, a band elects to make a considerable shift in sound or philosophy and it actually works. Such is the case with Opeth's latest record, Heritage. Leading up the release, apprehensions were culled over the revelation that Heritage would eschew death metal vocals, which had been a key element in the band's music heretofore.

    But that's not that only major change taking place in this most recent observation of Opeth; most of the fundamental metal elements are gone as well. Rather, Heritage is much more of a gothic folk record. The unbridled elements of 70s prog and folk that Opeth has mixed in with its metal on previous records takes center stage here.

    Metal purists will be disappointed, but anyone who was able to appreciate both halves of Opeth's dual pronged attack should be pleased with the results.

    When I first heard the lead single, "The Devil's Orchard," I was unimpressed. My main misgivings were over how thin the guitars sounded, and after repeated listens I still hold this as a legitimate complaint. But I'm more interested in the way they have been able to make something fresh and new while still infusing it with their signature sound.

    Other highlights include "I Feel the Dark," which opens with a slinky acoustic riff and sticks to folk territory for the most part. But there is a great heavy section that will leave you in awe. In ancient folklore, "Nepenthe" was mythical drink that had the power to cause you to forget your hardships. Hearing the ethereal guitar work that opens said track might have a similar effect on the listener, but if it doesn't then Martin Mendez's jazzy bass groove should do the trick.

    Then you have "Slither," a rollicking rocker dedicated to the memory of Ronnie James Dio, which Akerdeldt says is custom designed to sound like a Rainbow song. It sounds nothing like Opeth has ever done, but the sound suits them so well I wouldn't blame them if they penned a few more tracks like this in the future.

    "Famine" has a breakdown with sludgy guitar and a demented flute solo which sounds like a deranged combination between Black Sabbath and Jethro Tull. "The Lines in My Hand" is a short 3 1/2 minute burst of groovy bass, and energetic guitar leads packaged in between a pair of longer epics. "Haxprocess" strikes an ominous mood, while closer "Marrow of the Earth" is essentially an extended suite of a track like "For Absent Friends" or "Patterns in the Ivy."

    The first half of the album is easily more accessible, with tracks like "The Devil's Orchard," "I Feel the Dark," and "Slither," which are instantly recognizable classics. The second half is slightly more difficult, but reward repeated listens.  Heritage may not be up there with gold standards like Blackwater Park or Deliverance, but it is still a solid entry into Opeth's catalog, and provides a vibe that only they can pull off.

    Score: 87/100

    Monday, October 3, 2011

    Tune Yards deliver grooving rhythms to the Exit/In

    You've got to get a load of this setup.

    Merrill Garbus, the mind behind Tune Yards, came to Exit/In Friday night and put on one of the best shows Nashville will see this year. But to understand the appeal of her widely heralded live show, you first need to wrap your head around her equipment setup.

    Directly in front of Garbus is a board with enough switches and effect pedals to put the Trans-Siberian Orchestra to shame. It's resting on top of a rug with highways on it -- the type you'd see in a small child's room.

    So loud you can practically hear her through your monitor

    Surrounding her microphone stands are a pair of floor toms, a pair of snare drums, a Korg synthesizer, and a hi-hat with a tambourine on top. Oh, and also her signature ukelele, with black masking tape covering the sound hole under the strings. She never leaves home without it.

    After stepping onstage and taking a moment to survey the scene, Garbus cuts loose into a wild session of vocal improvisation characterized by African-themed chants, whoops, and hollers. It's the opening strains of "Hatarai." The crowd doesn't quite know what it's in for yet. There's a rumble here. And then a rattle there. What has she got up her sleeve?

    On the record, "Hatarai" features several vocal tracks layered and looped on top of one another. To replicate that live, she activates a switch which plays the backup vocal parts to play through the speakers, while Merrill herself sings lead. It's a technique that allows her to create much more sound than one person could reasonably expect to generate.

    The most iconic stringed instrument not named Lucille.

    The lush, dense arrangements of "Hatari" soon give way to "Do You Want to Live?," a song with an excellent call and response section designed to get the audience's mojo flowing.

    Garbus's larger than life personality is written all over her latest record, w h o k i l l, but in a live setting there are many details in the music that are hard to appreciate strictly from hearing the record. Listen to a song like "Gangsta" on the album and you might think to yourself, "Wow, this song has an awesome bassline." Hear it live and you realize the song literally couldn't exist without the bassline.

    Simiarly, the extended saxophone solo at the end of "Bizness" provides the perfect soundtrack for some AAA grade booty shaking. Another great live song is "Powa" which is relatively reigned in, at least by Tune Yards standards. The hard, driving chords cut through the gentle acoustic melody to remind you there's a raw emotional nerve being struck here. And when she cuts loose at the end of the song, it's really something else.

    And of course, seeing her break out the synthesizer for "My Country" was also a unique treat.

    But if you're going to talk about Merrill's many instruments, you can't leave out the ukelele. Not many people would think of the ukelele as an aggressive instrument, but the way Garbus plays it she may as well be Jimmy Page. The piercing blare that buzzes from her Fender amp nicely accents the acoustic picking typically heard throughout each song.

    Merrill Garbus implores you to groove to the beat.

    The set moved by at a brisk pace, lasting just over an hour. She presented herself to the crowd well, occasionally making brief chit chat and opening up about sometimes feeling self conscious over having videos of her performances uploaded to Youtube.

    But make no mistake: Merrill was in command this night. By the end, nearly the entire crowd was grooving and getting down to the sound of the bass, sax, and the pounding rhythm of the drums. Tune Yards have established themselves as a legitimate creative force, and one of the top acts to visit Nashville in recent memory.

    (Oh! I almost forgot Pat Jordache, the opener. The man who once shared a band with Merrill Garbus brought his own band to the stage and gave an admirable performance. Not unlike Tune Yards, they were heavily rhythm based, with a pair of percussionists, and Pat Jordache himself donning the bass guitar. The sound was light breezy indie rock, with frantic tremolo strumming, pretty melodic picking, and the deep soulful voice of Jordache himself. Bravo, I say!)