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.