Archive | October 2014

Quick Hits Volume 4: Bahamas, White Laces, Benjamin Booker, Flying Lotus

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Quick Hits is a column where I share my occasionally coherent thoughts on (relatively) new releases.

Bahamas – “All the Time”

“All the Time” starts off unassuming enough. Gentle acoustic guitar picking, a steady rhythm with fluttering hi-hats, backed by coos and aahs. And, for some reason, a squelching two note bass line. It’s the last thing you’d expect here, but it takes what could have easily been a trifling breeze of a song and gives it an unusual edge. Something is clearly not right with this picture. “I’ve got all the time in the world/Don’t you want some of that?” The call and response vocals take on the demented quirkiness that modern indie rock loves to affect when stealing from R&B and hip-hop. Then the lead guitar screams in and the picture is set. At first a simple slide line stating the melody, layers are carefully poured on, precision-placed muted clucks next to frantic spirals of distortion, weaving together to form a lattice around the squelching bass grid. Bahamas’ previous album showed an artist content to bask in lilting amiability, but here we have contentedness laced with nervous energy and a foreboding but hopeful darkness. Unfortunately the rest of the album reverts to Jack Johnson-esque beach-side-front-porch pickin’ (fellow single “Stronger Than That” being the notable exception), but it’s hard to take exception when an artist can hit at least one song this far out of the park.

White Laces – “Nothing Clicks”

Richmond’s White Laces make the kind of new wave-y shoegaze I typically approach with some kind of combination of shrug, eye-roll, and a half-hearted attempt at an open minded listen. These guys are different though. Their first album was a strong debut showing a knack for making insidiously sticky hooks out of piercing guitar lines, elongated choruses, and reverb applied in heaping spoonfuls. “Nothing Clicks” is one of our first looks at their much anticipated sophomore effort, Trance, and like the first single “Skate Or Die” it’s probably the best song they’ve put out yet. The building blocks are more of the same, swirling synths are laid down as a canvas before a trebly guitar melody gets bowled over by a sure-footed drum beat barreling down as frontman Landis Wine languidly pours out reverbed vocals. Meanwhile the bass line alternates between self churning propulsion system and loping counter melody to top off the concoction. The sound is familiar, but it’s executed so well and fucked with in just the right places to sound fresh and suggest that the band is ready to take a big step forward with their next record.

Benjamin Booker – “Have You Seen My Son?”

Punk and blues have always felt like kindred spirits to me. Bare bones frameworks that allow raw expression to trump technical proficiency. In lesser hands it degrades to aggressiveness or traditionalism trumping songcraft. There’s no shortage of bands in their garages and bedrooms trying to wrangle these inspirations into something that resembles what came before, but if you haven’t put in the work to develop your voice (as in songwriting, not vocals), if you don’t have anything meaningful to say, the whole purpose is lost. Simple frameworks like these exist and are effective artistically because they offer the shortest path from idea to passionate delivery. Benjamin Booker’s debut album is breathtaking because unlike so many others making music in this vein, he has a story that he desperately needs to tell, and “Have You Seen My Son” does it in an exhilarating, frantic rush. Opened with the gale force winds of drummer Max Norton and capped off with coda that moves from noise-rock annihilation to headbanging blues-stomp, the record’s highlight is the perfect summation of everything Booker does so damn well on his debut.

Flying Lotus – “Never Catch Me”

I already wrote about this one at reasonable length for Antiquiet, but to sum up: Flying Lotus and Kendrick Lamar are unquestionably at the top of their respective fields, and this track might be one of the best things either one has done. CHECK IT OUT.

Foo Fighters Tear the Roof Off of Intimate, Crowd-Funded Gig in Richmond

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This article was written for antiquiet.com, you can read the original here.

 

“I’ve been a musician a long time, and I’ve played a lot of shows…But I’ve never played a show like this one before!”

The crowd roared back, and although he could have probably said just about anything and elicited the same response, the sentiment certainly felt true. Last night the Foo Fighters played the National, a roughly 1,500 capacity venue in downtown Richmond, VA after a fan led campaign sold $70,000 worth of tickets to a show that didn’t exist. The Foo Fighters decided to play along  and come to the city for the first time since 1998, but instead of setting up shop in the arena they could have easily sold out, they elected to give the fans something truly special, an intimate show exclusively for those crazy enough to buy tickets to imaginary shows.

The city has been understandably pumped since the show announcement two weeks ago. Local favorite Sugar Shack Donuts bought $5,000 worth of tickets and spent the past week giving them away in increasingly zany fashion (what started with a simple raffle and a YouTube cover contest soon escalated into a “donut hurling” competition, city-wide scavenger hunt, and a deluge of “depserate karaoke” videos). You couldn’t turn on the radio without hearing the local rock station talking up “Foo Fighters Week” and playing the songs back to back and again and again. And to top it off, the mayor proclaimed the day of the concert to be an official Foo Fighters Day.

So, yes, people were excited. And arriving at the venue, seeing a line down the street and around the corner, you could tell this was no ordinary show. People began showing up at noon for the 7:00 door time, holding up “DV GROL” license plates, tour shirts dating back to the 90s , and entire families decked in Foo Fighters gear. Chants of “R! V! A!” (short for Richmond, VA) and “Foo! Figh! Ters!” could be heard down the block. Once inside we squeezed together. And as one does at concerts, impatiently waited.

Local group Avers kicked off the show. Something of a supergroup of Richmond rock bands (with member of The Trillions, Hypercolor, and several others), their presence was a welcome nod to the grassroots nature of the show, spotlighting a bit of local talent. Not that Avers need any favors. The psychedelic haze that was slathered all over their excellent debut record was scraped off for their live setting, showcasing a powerful rhythm section and pounding riffs. Girls With Headaches was an especially strong highlight, dirtying up the laid back groove of the original with snarling guitar leads and a drum break that damn near bowled over the rest of the band. Guitarist / keyboardist / rock & roll jack of all trades Charlie Glenn put in an early challenge to Dave Grohl as “guy having the most fun possible on stage” while the band ripped through the track’s twists and turns to arrive at a squealing solo to top things off and elicit one hell of a cheer from a crowd that was mostly oblivious to the group moments earlier. Conversations overheard afterwards placed the set somewhere in between “pretty good” and “pretty DAMN good.”

But no matter how damn good an opener could be, we were here for the cult of Dave Grohl.

And the Foo Fighters would not disappoint. They opened with a three note riff sounding out into the dark, repeated, then the near whispered intro: “All my life I’ve been searching for something…” You’d have been hard pressed finding a single audience member not maniacally shouting back to Dave’s subdued growl. “Leaves me with the feeling that I feel the most, feel it come to life when I see your ghost…” the riff kicks in, drum fills pour down from the stage, lights flare, and suddenly, we’re in the middle of a Foo Fighters show. Dave embraced the love, finding breaks in the songs to nearly fall off the stage maniacally pounding riffs out of his guitar, extending songs into punk rock riff-fests and audience screaming matches. I’ll Stick Around, from the group’s now 20 year old debut was next, apparently thinking he could stump the crowd he yelled out “sing along if you know it!” Which of course the people did, responding to the challenge with a unison “I DON’T OWE YOU ANYTHING!”

Since I keep mentioning it, I should probably get it of the way now that there were a lot of sing-alongs. Choruses were shouted in jumping frenzies, the group in front of me took to screaming in each other’s ear and high-fived for every song they knew (hint: all of them). Grohl led us through an a capella version of My Hero that was chill inducing and Everlong did exactly what Everlong does to people regardless of the setting. Best Of You was finished off with the crowd providing the backing Oohs as the evening culminated in a frenzied barrage of drum fills and probably-shouldn’t-be-legal guitar strangling.

But outside of the many hits, the real reason people can get so excited for a Foo Fighters show is the sheer force of personality of Dave Grohl. One of the very few true rock stars left in the world, there’s not really anyone else that brings that level of enthusiasm and generates such overwhelming waves of positivity on stage. Just about every song ended in a shit-eating grin, with the audience in rapt attention whenever he decided to slow things down and talk to us for a while. Just 100 miles south of his hometown of Springfield, VA, he had the crowd say hi to his Mother sitting in the balcony. He picked out of the crowd the guy who started the crowd funding event and dedicated Up In Arms, prefacing with a tongue in cheek “You’re gonna know what it’s like to be loved by Dave Grohl, so open up your ear holes and let my love in.” Local metal institutions GWAR and Lamb Of God were given shout outs and song dedications (Cold Day In The Sun for the late Dave Brockie of the former, Weenie Beenie for the latter) while he shared his earliest memories of Richmond: Namely getting far too high and seeing GWAR.

Dave also liked to mention that they had been a band for the past 20 years, and it showed. Never content to simply play the song straight-up, the band continuously found creative ways to break into asides and trap doors. Poppy guitar hooks seamlessly transitioned into metal riffs and blast beats, giving way drum fill laden rave ups. Taylor Hawkins seemed determined to match Dave’s intensity at every opportunity, his arms a constant blur from mammoth fill to mammoth fill. Monkey Wrench was easily a highlight of the evening, turned from a taut rocker to expansive showstopper. Verses were interspersed with 70s punk rock guitar flourishes before leading into a psychedelic-ish interlude, Grohl playing a two note riff as the band behind him rises and falls in intensity, going from spacey, effects-laden solos to a straight ahead Who-esque build up.

The first set closed on Everlong, a visibly ecstatic Grohl urging us to sing our hearts out. And we did, of course. And as the song hit its climax, and we waited for that beat of rest in the song that precedes one final go-around of the chorus the band stopped completely. Silence, until the crowd roared its approval. Grohl stood motionless, a slight smile on his face, basking in the affection and the energy. For a moment, the song no longer felt like a romantic plea, but more of a summation of experiencing something fully. If a rock & roll show can provide anything meaningful, it’s that pure moment of catharsis between an audience and the music and the artist. We were asked, “if anything could ever feel this real forever,” and we responded with a resounding yes.

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Rotary Downs Talks Songwriting, The Clash, and Making People Dance in New Orleans

Rotary Downs photographed in New Orleans, LA at the Bomb Factory on Robertson.

Photo by Cord McPhail

This article was written for antiquiet.com (thus the “we introduced” and whatnot), and you can read the original here.

We introduced New Orleans’ Rotary Downs a couple of months back just before their latest record, Traces, dropped. That turned out to be a solid followup to their hugely impressive Cracked Maps & Blue Reports from 2010, their newest a collection of taut grooves, slight psychedelics and interlocking riffs. We got to speak with frontman James Marler after the release to talk about not touring, musical repetition, perceived non-sense lyrics, The Clash, and being a rock band in New Orleans.

So, new album Traces, I’m a big fan, what was it like doing that?  It seems like it took quite a while from Cracked Maps

Yeah, we would’ve been done a year earlier but we kind of had to switch our recording process about halfway through, which is how it goes sometimes. We all like it a lot, so that’s the important thing.

It seems that, to me at least, there’s a departure from Cracked Maps in the sense that the songs aren’t quite as sharp but they take on some interesting structures and layer in some great arrangements. Was that a conscious decision to try out or is it just something that came together naturally.

I feel like Traces is our most original material.

Why is that?

Well, I think it was the whole journey of making the album. The various contributions of different members of the band. We added a new member Alex Smith, who is this English guy who’s been in a couple of prominent touring bands. He plays mostly guitar, bass on Twin Cities. So that’s one difference. I feel like Traces is less poppy than the previous two albums, but someone else I spoke to said the opposite.

I agree, I wouldn’t say it’s as poppy, but definitely more original.  I find myself thinking less of who your sound reminds me of and more of just watching the riffs and grooves come together.

Thanks, we also wanted to allow a little more repetition into the music. So something like Incognito, Tent City, Anthony’s odyssey, and Country Killers, I guess about half the album, you get longer sections of building off the same groove or riff. Something we wanted to do and want to do going into the future. Because in the past it’s been “oh we need a change, and we need another change”,  which is fine, but I like repetitive music, and we thought it would be interesting to do our own version of it, even if every song ends up having a chorus anyways.

I definitely get that.  I’m a songwriter myself and I always feel like I’m pressuring myself into writing that extra chord change and extra bridge.

Yeahhh, and then you listen to music you like and think, “there’s not much changing here”. Some of the greatest songs never change at all. Like Guns of Brixton, off of London Calling, it’s just one bass line and it’s amazing.

I love that stuff too.  I was listening to Yo La Tengo the earlier today and they love doing that kind of stuff with a single bass line and guitar freakouts and textures over top.

Yeah, have you heard Here She Comes Now, by the Velvet Underground?

I’m not super familiar with it,

Actually Nirvana covered it too, it’s just one riff and it’s great.

Yeah I love that kind of stuff, and I like what you guys did with it on a track like Country Killers.  There’s a couple riffs, one Niles Rodgers type thing and another chunkier type riff and they weave in and out of the arrangement really well.

Yeah, that’s our two guitarists, the first riff is our original lead guitarist, second one the British guy. It’s fun just providing a repetitive groove for those guys and just to let them go to town with coloring and texturing over the top.

Do you think that getting more comfortable doing that is a marker of your confidence as a songwriter or getting more comfortable playing with the band?

I think it’s a number of things. Our drummer’s really good and he can play almost anything if you just kind of give him a structure, and he gets the big picture of something. So that was one thing, we wanted to play to his strengths and kind of roll with it instead of trying to force him into conventional pop structures. That was one idea behind it. And, honestly because we play in New Orleans at these clubs, that’s always the stuff that people respond to. The stuff that’s danceable. So we became interested in trying to do our own version of it, because we found the kind of funk bands were getting cheesy. It’s everywhere, but a lot of it kind of makes me cringe. But I thought it was an interesting path forward to try and do our own version.  We want to do more of that at even higher tempos in the future, it’s something we’ve been playing around with.

So you guys have more stuff coming through the pipeline?

Yeah, we have a couple things rolling right now.  That’s been fun. We have a new band member, Anthony Cuccia, so he’s more in on the ground floor this time around. He played some percussion and keyboards on this record, like on Sandwich Islands. That song was going to have a totally different sound until he came in and was like “what if we did it with this sound” and that’s the way we went.

I’d love to see a quicker turnaround than the 4 years this time around.

I know, I know. So would I.

I got into you guys like right when Cracked Maps came out.

Oh yeah, have you listened to Chained to the Chariot?

Oh yeah, I actually re-listened to it this morning.  And going back to what your drummer brings, his work on that album is great.  He has these really complex patterns and great hi-hat work, and then when you guys need that funky back-beat he can bring that as well, it adds these different layers to the song

Yeah, he’s very much a percussive drummer. Polyrhythmic I guess you could say.

Absolutely.  So going back to being a band in New Orleans, and trying to get that danceable side of it, do you think being a part of that community and scene, working alongside the broader community, does that have a big influence on your sound?

Well it’s funny. I don’t think it influences me so much, but I think it like influences our drummer  and maybe a couple other guys in the band. One thing that’s pretty blatant, is that once in a while at the Mardi Gras/Jazz Fest gigs we’ll have these really great muscians sit in with us. Guys from jazz bands, like Marco Benevento and Mike Dillon, who’s amazing. So that’s different. Our drummer is pretty good at jamming actually, and the occasions where that happens it’s him leading it actually. So there’s instances where that happens, but stylistically it doesn’t have much impact on what I want to do.

That’s interesting.  Whenever I’ve written about you guys the thing that’s stood out is that, yeah it’s an indie rock band, but at the same time there’s this forceful back beat and great rhythm section.  You almost want to chalk it up to being in the scene with so many rhythm oriented bands.  It’s probably not fair to reduce it to that, but it’s the impression I’ve always had.

Yeah, well the crowds, we found when we play live it is the kind of songs that get people going. And as we said earlier, since we like playing out a lot, why not do our own take on that kind of stuff. Something with a danceable groove and pretty fast bpm, I guess. So, we do head more and more in that direction. In the earlier days I would just write the skeleton of the song on an acoustic guitar and plot it out. But we’re less inclined to do that now, and more inclined to build things from bass and drums. Which is fun, it’s different.

Absolutely, that’s definitely manifested itself in the growth from album to album.

I think so. Our band is so different from when it started, it’s not at all the same. It shouldn’t even be the same name, but we just never changed it.

Do you think there was a turning point in there, or was it gradual?

Well, me and Chris Columnbo, the guitar player, we’ve been playing together for 12 years, then when Zach the drummer and Jason the bass player jumped in 10 years ago, that’s when things changed a lot.

So was that for a specific album?

Well Chris and I made two albums. One is pretty cool in a ramshackle way, the other is just terrible, I can’t stand it. And then we made an EP that’s pretty cool. And after the EP Zach and Jason joined. It’s funny, I never wanted to play out, I just wanted to make one album. That was the whole goal of Rotary Downs. We recorded the first album in this great club called The Mermaid Lounge, and that was a much as I wanted to do with it.  But it just took it’s own twists and turns. We just kept working on new material and getting amped up on that. So you start talking about new material.

That’s one thing I wanted to talk about, it seems like you have the approach of, let’s just go out and make an album when you want to.  I’ve noticed you guys don’t really tour or play outside of New Orleans very much

Not much. Really, the pattern has been, we put out an album, trip to the West Coast, trip to the East coast. We always fly, then borrow gear. But we’ve never toured for mor than a week.

Why is that?

People just have other stuff going on. I’m more inclined to try and make new music and get your material together. I’d rather do that then spending all our time touring and playing the same setlist over and over again. So I’ve done it, but it’s just not the part of being in a band that I’m passionate about. Some bands love that lifestyle, always in a new town the next day. It’s a blast, but if I have to choose how to spend four energy, I’d rather create new material.

So is there, it seems like for most bands the non-stop touring cycle is kind of an economic reality.  Is that something you guys avoid with your other projects?

It is like that, but it’s harder and harder for bands to make money touring. And then, if they do, they don’t have time to write music. Alex was previously in a band that played the exact same set in the same order for two years of touring. And I thought to myself I would never want to do that.

As a fan, I think you can pick up on that sometimes.  It seems like the least (excuse the cliché) rock & roll way to do it. You wanna see someone go up there and give it their all and have fun with it.  You never want to see them going through the motions.

Yeah, I agree. I think there’s something to be said for….I went up to Coachella 10 years ago, and all these great bands that I like, Flaming Lips, The Cure, Pixies, Radiohead, and most of them had so much of their music pre-sequenced. It’s like they weren’t going to risk sucking at all. And it’s something I liked so much, rock bands that were up for having shitty shows. I thought that was cool. Whether it was the Stones or the Replacements, they could be so good or so bad, and there’s something great about that, not having a safety net. I understand why bands do it, for instance at Coachella it’s this huge opportunity and massive crowd, you can’t have anything go wrong.  Honestly, the best band I saw there was The Rapture.

Haven’t heard about them in a long time.

I know, but they were just going for it. And, not taking the safe route, I guess.

Compared to the other bands they probably had a lot more to prove too though.

Exactly. But I know what you mean, it’s always fun to see a little spontaneity. Those were always our funnest shows. When it’s like 2 in the morning and everyone’s nice and loose and you’re just kind of pulling things out of a hat. We were just talking about that the other night. The song Country Killers on the album, for a couple years it was just this jam we would pull it in the middle of the night, just to see where it would go.  And see if we could wind it down convincingly.

I love it when bands throw that kind of stuff in there.  It’s not something I really saw until I moved to a city with a strong local scene. With most of the bigger bands, they seem afraid to do that stuff.  But you get the small, local bands, told they have to play ‘till 2 AM so they have to start trying stuff, so when it works it’s great.

Oh I agree.  And when it doesn’t work, it’s worth a shot.

I agree, at least you got to go along for the ride.  Alright, so I wanted to ask about the lyrical side of it too.  I’ve been a big fan of how you work with your words.  There’s a great way of weaving disparate images and bits of dialogue that creates this surreal picture that builds to a larger theme.

I’m glad you get that, because some people think their cryptic or nonsense or something.  And I don’ tlike to correct people about it, but I don’t think it’s really that hard to get [laughs].  I’ve always liked stuff like that, like early R.E.M. and Captain Beefheart, Velvet Underground.

It makes the songs pretty quotable too.  There’s the line in one song where you sing “one said, ‘can I have more cheese and crackers’”, you can’t always follow what’s happening, but the way the dialogue slips into the lyrics is like there’s a movie happening with dialogue.

That’s supposed to be two generals looking over a war map and ordering more snacks.

I saw on your Facebook you’ve been doing explanations of your songs for Traces

Yeah, our PR company promoting the album asked for descriptions.  And initially I was pretty reluctant, but I figured what the hell, this is what they’re about.

I get the reticence of not wanting to spell it out, but on a track like Country Killers, it can sound like just a bunch of images happening, but when you hear the story behind it, it really takes shape.

Yeah, I try to get them to a point where I feel 100% about them. It’s definitely not random, but simultaneously, if I havce a line that sounds too direct or heavy handed, I’ll actually change it.

I struggle with that too. Is this too direct, will it sound like a pity party? How can I morph it into something interesting.

I also think about how the words sound, and how that matches with what the music is doing, I’ll think about, what is this the soundtrack of, if this was a movie. And push it in that direction.

It’s an interesting approach. I definitely get the feel of how the words sound in your lyrics.  I think it’s Incognito where you list start listing countries, and it just flows really well.

Yeah, I started in the last couple years I rediscovered the Clash big time. I guess as a kid I just never realized how brilliant the lyrics are. And they’re a good example of lyrics that feel like snippets of conversation, and they seem like they make them up on the spot, but if you really look into them they’re really smart and clever. I think asong like Incognito was very influenced by the Clash.

Any other writers or artist/albums you guys looked to for this album?

Let’s see. I guess maybe a bit David Bowie. Flowers in Bloom comes from 60’s fuzz and garage fuzz. Godzilla AKA, that started with a loop I did at home, that to me sounded like Panda Bear.  You’d never know it listening to the track, but just the way the main riffs bounce off each other, I was listening to Person Pitch a lot and, it’s like 9 degrees away from that but that’s how it started.  You just never know, when your influenced by something and the band takes it another way.

That’s something that I think comes through pretty well, thanks to that repetive structure, everyone gets to add their separate influences.

Yeah, there’s a lot of different tastes in the band too. And we try to stay out of each others way. In the past we would maybe over clutter things, cause there’s so many interlocking parts, this gives us a little more space.

So by staying out of each others way do you mean just letting someone else have their bit without any kind of fight against it.

Yeah, without any kind of other riff, or if anything make it so subtle

Do you guys have fights trying to bring those different tatstes together.

Not really, especially with Traces everyone was really patient. I think extraordinarily so. But we all want the songs to sound great, so no one’s going to take a stance just because. But if someone throws out a riff to start a jam, there’s always that moment where it’s a clusterfuck, everyone playing at once, and it’s kind of hellish.  I think every band does that really. You kind of have to tell people to settle down and strip it down.

Alright well, I’ve got to head out, great talking to you.

Yeah, it’s been good talking to you.