Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Laura Marling's dazzling guitar work and personality delights Nashville

British folk singer Laura Marling is only 23, but already has four albums to her name and is threatening to shake up the modern folk scene. She was kind enough to treat Nashville to a taste of her talents at a Nov. 11 show at Marathon Music Works. It was eminently obvious that she was well practiced on guitar, showing off dizzying picking patterns that gave her sound a unique timbre. She would stop fairly frequently to tune and retune the guitars. This would cut into the flow of the show somewhat, but she had a knack for covering it up with wonderful self deprecating humor. She commented on how each guitar has its own personality, and said the guitars she was working with had the personality of toddlers.

Her latest album, Once I Was an Eagle, opens with a stunning five song suite that all runs together, and she opened her show with this same five song run. It ended in jaw dropping fashion with "Master Hunter," an assertive and defiant tune that is unquestionably one of the best of the year. In contrast, "Alas I Cannot Swim" was delivered with a sense of cute, childlike wonder but also speaks to very adult themes that many can relate to.

Near the set's close, she preformed a cover of Townes Van Zandt's "For the Sake of the Song," which was humorously cut off by the blowing of train whistle coming down the track outside. Startled, Marling stopped right where she was and then stitched in a quick impromptu ending once she resumed. It was a cute moment which communicated that she's not some superstar or diva; at the end of the day she's probably not all that different from you or I other than the fact that she's crazy talented. It made her feel warm, and even more relatable. 

Laura Marling hand crafts every moment to make sure everything  is just right.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Knife's Shaking the Habitual is an intimidating but rewarding listen

It's hard to decide which is more en vogue in 2013 -  electronic duos releasing comeback albums, or electronic duos releasing albums somewhere around two hours in length. The Knife decided to do both. Shaking the Habitual is their first proper album in seven years, and is part the year's theme on comeback records -- fellow electronic duos Boards of Canada and Daft Punk released long awaited followups this summer. Nor are The Knife alone in putting out a double disc album of experimental electronica -- Autechre beat them to the punch with their dual album Exai in March.

What we can ascertain is that The Knife will be pushing their boundaries much farther than any of those groups, and creating art that possibly few would dare to attempt. Their crowning achievement to date, 2006's Silent Shout, struck the perfect balance of weirdness to pop accessibility, and spawned an underground sensation. Shaking the Habitual, on the other hand, veers sharply in a much more abstract and arty direction.

The Knife have not opted to merely plunge down the rabbit hole; they have grabbed hold of the vast network of tunnels, shaken it up, turned it upside down and rearranged everything about it until you barely even recognize it as a rabbit hole. There's also an underlying political influence that runs under the surface but is never specifically addressed concerning an unwillingness to accept progressive values in their native Sweden. It's a presence that informs the record, albeit mostly indirectly, but provides a noticeable edge into the music. Yet ultimately, what makes Shaking the Habitual one of the standout records of the year is that the band continues to exercise their firm grasp of fundamental music principles while presenting a view of the spectrum that few have ever managed to attain.

Although Silent Shout was extraordinarily visionary, it was still based on the general idea of pop based song structure, but Shaking the Habitual shows their ability to break away from that format to create works that are much more experimental, progressive, and free flowing. There are still some pop based formats to be found, but The Knife are no longer bound by that framing mechanism. This is the album's true triumph.

The first five songs, with one notable exception are all reasonably accessible. "Full of Fire" is easily among the most ambitious compositions in the band's catalog. It starts off with an infectious drumbeat and some bird-like scratching and screeching that makes the listener feel like they just stepped into the world's most exotic nightclub. Yet Karen Dreijer Andersson's vocals become warped and tormented as it progresses, as elements of sexuality, and warped weirdness continue to develop and persist over the track's 9+ minute run time.  "Wrap Your Arms Around Me" sounds like it could be a boss fight on a JRPG taking place in space, while "A Tooth for an Eye" and "Without You My Life Would Be Boring" are more abbreviated pieces that wouldn't sound out of place on Silent Shout.

Yet as the album progresses it gets even weirder, as unlikely as that may seem. "Networking" shows off Olof Andersson's deep sense of experimental production work, with tingling synths that play on the fears of our subconscious by backing them up with the sound of swarms of bees buzzing. There are only a couple songs here that are rather peculiar and don't warrant more than a listen or two in most cases, but still leave an indelible impact due to their unusual nature. "Old Dreams Waiting to Be Realized," is an 18+ minute piece that relies heavily on drone, yet is also filled with plenty of faraway eerie metallic clinking and clanking that creates a feeling of isolation and desolation. Sort of like Godspeed You! Black Emperor but even icier and bleaker. The other track is "Fracking Fluid Injection" which is 10 minutes of really weird scratching sound and is barely listenable. Listen at your own risk.

Shaking the Habitual is admittedly a dense and difficult listen, at least on your first few playthroughs. For many the exterior may be too intimidating to break through, but if you do you'll find an album full of great ideas, creativity, and a willingness to buck the establishment. The Andersson's think for themselves and release a record that's catchy, listenable, and free flowing. The greatest thrill of this album is that you never know where it's going to go next.

Score: 89/100

Monday, November 18, 2013

The Electric Lady Janelle Monae pumps high voltage into the Ryman

Midway through her Sunday night set at The Ryman, Janelle Monae hoisted a black and white striped stick and jabbed it in the air in the direction of two of her crew members, mock knocking them out right on stage.

They weren't the only ones Ms. Monae knocked flat by evening's end.

On a night when lightning cracked and rain poured down in torrents, it came down to Monae to thunder across the Ryman stage and dazzle what was undoubtedly one of the most vocal crowds this building has seen in a long time.

Janelle Monae's spirited performance lit up the auditorium.

The secret to Monae's success is her innovation. Most artists, at only two albums in, are still perfecting and tinkering with their ideas on stagecraft. There's little doubt Monae will keep evolving as well, but as this point in her career The Electric Lady tour is boasting some impressive visuals and outside the box thinking. The set began with a guy in a white lab suit guy announcing that Monae was an android who was a patient at their institution, and explained that sometimes they let her out to free roam. They wheeled her onstage strapped to a dolly wearing a straightjacket, Hannibal Lecter style.

Once unbottled, Monae was a firecracker. She's a very expressive performer, employing dramatic facial expressions as well as plenty of high powered dancing and shuffling around. Opening number "Givin' Em What They Love" gave Monae an early crack at showing off the dynamic power of her pipes, as her voice gloriously pierced through the Ryman's airspace whenever she hit a high note. Later, she punctuated an energetic performance of "The Electric Lady," by leaping into the air at the end of the final verse.

The only thing that could have made the set better was if it was more tightly constructed. Each song is full of so much energy, then after a good portion of the songs the lights would go out for two or three minutes while they would presumably tinker with some piece of equipment or Monae would run for a costume change. It would be better if they could keep it freer flowing.

Monae shows off her dexterity while her guitarist busts a move.

Yet as it turned out, the main set was not even proper preparation for what was coming. The big jaw dropper came during an extended mix of "War of the Roses," which lasted upward of 20 minutes. After finishing the main part of the song, the bassline kept going while Monae broke out her zaniest antics of the evening. She moonwalked, broke out some more dance moves, led the audience in a call and response sing along, Cab Calloway style, initiated a contest to see who in the crowd had the best black and white colored outfit, and even tried to sneak away from the lab suits by hopping offstage and traversing through the crowd for a bit.

She tied it up neatly by closing with "What an Experience," an emotional gospel tinged piece, in which she selected a winner in her costume contest from out of the crowd and invited her to come up onstage, along with a small girl from the audience. Monae packed a killer setlist, an electric sense of showmanship, and threw a few curveballs out there to give a bold and breathless performance. Her sense of innovation is leading her to do it ways that may take even seasoned concertgoers by surprise.
Related post:

Janelle Monae - The Electric Lady album review 

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Sleigh Bells live act rattle concert venues down to their foundations

Let's admit something. Sleigh Bells' latest album, Bitter Rivals, is easily their least successful to date. In comparison with their first two records, the reviews were worse, the buzz was negligible, and it seemed most listeners have already forgotten about it.  Seeing that Sleigh Bells stock is at a low ebb, it naturally cast a shadow of doubt as to just what could be expected from their latest tour. It was a fair question going in, but if there are any doubters left after their demolition of Nashville's Marathon Music Works Friday night, be ashamed of yourselves. The studio albums (outside of Treats) may bear their fair share of dank tracks, but the Brooklyn noise/hardcore/pop duo have been regarded as a killer live act since their inception, and nothing about that appears to be changing anytime soon.

Alexis Krauss's infectious intensity spread through the crowd like a disease.

Intensity and badassery are two buzzwords that get thrown around a bit when discussing Sleigh Bells live shows, but let's expound on that. Guitarist Derek Miller spent time in a hardcore band, and being that he's the chief influence on the band's sound you can expect a hammering assault of guitar riffery along with an level of energy comparable to, if not on par with, a hardcore show. The other half of the equation, singer Alexis Krauss, has pedigree as the frontwoman of a girlpop group, and as such she knows how to play to a crowd.

Guitarist Derek Miller lays a smackdown.
She kicks, yells, jumps, screams, drops to her knees, lifts the mic stand, and does generally whatever to get the crowd into a frothing frenzy. She even hit the stage in style, donning a dazzling tiger print robe for the first couple of songs. On initial blush, Joan Jett and Brody Dalle of The Distillers seem apt comparisons in terms of their charm and magnetism, but whereas they championed rough, motor oil style vocal deliveries, Krauss has a voice that is much smoother and cleaner.

The setlist showed off the best material from Bitter Rivals, but also made sure to show proper respect for Treats, their 2010 debut and still their most successful album to date."Riot Rhythm" and "Infinity Guitars" were ultimate headbanging moshing anthems covered by plenty of fuzz, while the heavy, plodding rhythms of "Born to Lose" represented a somewhat slower paced approach for the band -- at least by their standards. The new material continues in the same hard hitting vein they've always been known for.

"Sing Like a Wire," "Minnie," and "Bitter Rivals" felt perfectly natural being played alongside their older material. The biggest deviation took place on "Young Legends," which comes across as their take on a Disney pop song, and is covered in Krauss's distinctive fingerprints. She ended the night by diving over the railing and crowd surfing during the final song, "A/B Machines." Sleigh Bells hit like a bottle rocket, and never let up for the duration of their set. They played just long enough to cover the essential tunes in their catalog, yet short enough to leave the crowd screaming for more.
Related posts:

Sleigh Bells - Bitter Rivals album review
Sleigh Bells - Reign of Terror album review