Always Alright – Alabama Shakes

 

I hate to force my readers into watching an ad at the behest of Vevo, but it was the highest quality video I could grab from YouTube.

Here’s a live version of Always Alright by the ‘Bama Shakes on SNL.  I thought it should get a little press, considering that these guys are way more than just “Hold On.”  Brittany Howard’s voice (goes without say) kicks ass.  She’s a relic from a simpler time.  A powerful female presence that absolutely kills it on “Rise to the Sun.” (See below; see also “Hang Loose.”)

I swear, you can hear her vocal cords being stretched on every last damn track.  They kill it live.

 

Can we talk about killing it live?

(Pardon the quality; CBS and the Grammy folks aren’t too keen on sharing their content.)

Though the whole tribute to Bob Marley was fantastic, Bruno Mars stole the show.  “Locked Out of Heaven” is a really interesting track in its own right, what with the classic Police-esque verse (Sting was the obvious choice to sit in) that flies into a modern-pop chorus and breakdown, but Mr. Mars et al are such damn showmen.

I first started really appreciating Bruno Mars when I saw his tribute to Amy Winehouse on the VMAs a few years back.  What a breath of fresh air it was to see classic showmanship on the stage.

It makes me smile to see a 20-something trombonist dancing in unison with his guitar player.  These guys look so dedicated to the art of music, like they actually care and want to be on stage.  In recent music (and I’m talking like at least the last 30 years,) it has become status quo to get on stage and act a little holier than thou when it comes to the audience.  It’s refreshing to see a group that wants to get up and put on a show.  I know that groups like Vintage Trouble do the clap-your-hands-let-me-hear-you-say-yeah thing to an absolute T, but to see a real prominent figure in the pop scene partake is reassuring.

Justin Timberlake at the 2013 Grammy Awards

To give credit where it’s due, I know that Justin Timberlake had a similar vibe going with his big band setup – JT and the Tennessee Kids – at the Grammys, but lets just mention that Bruno Mars wasn’t on hiatus for the past six years.

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Vintage Trouble

 

Last night, I had the privilege to see The Who in Newark, at the Prudential Center.  The opener was this fantastic band, Vintage Trouble.  An edgy take on 60s pop and R&B, these guys rocked the Rock.  The group’s lead vocalist, Ty Taylor (a New Jersey native), positively oozes charisma.  Between songs, he turned the stadium into a chapel choir of call-and-response All Rights and Amens.  His stage presence is reminiscent of James Brown, peppered with impressive footwork.  His voice is equally impressive, filled with soul, and shows the tenderness of Al Green when the songs permit.

The band’s rhythm section puts the “Vintage” in Vintage Trouble.  I was happy to see how reliant they are on their bassist, Rick Barrio Dill, which would be typical of any four-piece outfit, but there’s a real classic inspiration there.  In their songs “Nancy Lee” and “You Better Believe It,” the bass rolls around the track, with walking basslines that show impressive talent, while keeping the two-guitar band far from going stale.  Dummer Richard Danielson’s opening of “Jezzebella” is almost a Four Seasons B-side, and his perky beats kept my hands clapping through their album.

The “Trouble” comes from Taylor’s sizzling attitude and guitarist Nalle Colt’s searing fretwork.  Colt gets about as close to shredding as possible without overpowering the vintage vibe of the band, and tastefully walks the line between retro and raucous.  See the above video for “Blues Hand Me Down” for a taste.

I’m always happy to see a modern band take the classics to heart.  The Black Keys and Gary Clark Jr. have company in Vintage Trouble.

Their album, The Bomb Shelter Sessions, is available on iTunes and Spotify.

Shakey Graves

Roll the Bones:

Did I mention that Hurricane Sandy hit?  It’s been a month since my last post, and lets just leave it at that.  If I don’t have inspiration to write, then I shouldn’t.  It would just water down my blog with… I should stop now.

SHAKEY GRAVES.  This guy is amazing.  Such gravel in that voice.

His album, Roll The Bones, is a fantastically textured walk through fields of sparse folk and blues.  He works with really interesting rhythms.  Listen on Bandcamp, and maybe throw the guy a few bucks.

This video came courtesy of my friend Andrew, author of Pucky The Whale.

Bad Books – II

There’s a type of music that I like which I haven’t been able to put a finger on. In my own mind, I call it “Intricate Rock,” but that name is silly and not quite descriptive enough. Bands like Queens of the Stone Age (and transitively Them Crooked Vultures), Modest Mouse, Manchester Orchestra, and Bad Books satisfy my craving for Intricate Rock. There are distorted guitars in this genre of music, and it would completely fall into the genre of Rock, but there is a substance there that other rock bands lack.

I swear, it’s something in the percussion. These bands have incredible drummers who can add such beautiful texture to the songs that it would spiff up any chord progression. Of course, Queens of the Stone Age had Dave Grohl on Songs for the Deaf, who provides enough texture for twelve albums, but there’s an intricacy in the music of these bands even when the bombastic choruses die out.

Last week, I sang the praises of We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, the last album by Modest Mouse, and perhaps in that full review, I’ll be able to piece together the X Factor in these bands, but until then, I’m left grasping at straws, knowing Intricate Rock only when I hear it.

II – Bad Books

Bad Books has been described as a supergroup, and it is such in the literal definition of the colloquialism: a band formed by members of other bands. In this supergroup, we have singer/songwriter Kevin Devine and singer/songwriter Andy Hull. The majority of Hull’s band, Manchester Orchestra, fills out the rest of Bad Books.

But Bad Books is a supergroup in another sense. I haven’t heard any other rock band – apart from Manchester Orchestra – make emotions like loneliness and desire sound so downright incredible. Devine’s songwriting lends layers of lyrical tact and pop vibe to Bad Books’ work that might not have been as noticeable on a Manchester Orchestra recording (noticeable in “No Reward). Devine brings Hull’s work to an area more reminiscent of I’m Like a Virgin Losing a Child than Simple Math. More “Wolves at Night” than “April Fool.” The combination of Hull and Devine is “super,” to say the least. Having two experienced songwriters at the helm seems to be working splendidly for Bad Books.

Bad Books’ eponymous first album was pretty quiet and folksy, though interesting. I have not given it many listens, but my experience with their newest album, II, is telling me I better go back and give their debut another chance if I know what’s good for myself.

Key Tracks:

Honestly, I could write about each track on this album. I can only recommend this album as a whole, for a real deal listening experience. These, however, are the tracks which have stuck with me the most.

The After Party – Opening quietly with guitar and drum backed by an ethereal synth, you can hear the loneliness hanging in the air. The riff is simple and clean, but rhythmic enough to let you know it has bite. The drums are plain, but precise and intricate, very Manchester Orchestra The first chorus has lazy guitars slithering around the framework. The synth returns in the second verse to add body.

The second next chorus ends with a deep power chord, and you know something’s not right. It’s the feeling when you are worried sick and your stomach drops out. A buildup to another chorus is topped with a single filtered guitar note, vibrating high over the rest of the track like a satellite. Finally, the track explodes into a full-force set of choruses intermixed with snippets of the verse.

Forest Whitaker – With a pop chorus like “I’ve Got Friends,” “Forest Whitaker” is the first single off II. According to Hull, this song is about two people who hate each other but are completely invested in their counterpart’s actions. It’s a sweet-and-sour black comedy; it has a sad core, but is sugar-coated to go down easier. The lyrics play out a story that, to me, sounds like two scorned lovers following each other, post-breakup, and sneering at the successes of the other party. It really is a delightful look into the distorted relationship of “frenemies.”

The harmonized guitars have a light processing that makes the song feel like an 8-bit romp through an NES love story. The song stays restrained and the drums compressed through the duration, relying on the whistle hook to keep ’em coming back for more. It works.

It Never Stops – This is my most listened-to track on the album right now. It opens serenely and sensitively, with an innocent yelp to get things cooking. The triplet-based rhythm guitar lays a textured bed for the synth later in the song. The chorus is supremely catchy, and some great work on the cymbals really puts import on the lyric, “Honey it never stops.” The lead guitar work by Robert McDowell lends great melody to the chorus, and makes it interesting enough to warrant repeat listens.

The third verse is backed by a gang vocal harmony, which is one of my favorite parts of the song. There’s an energy in a sustained vocal harmonization that a synth doesn’t possess. The song then takes us through one more raucous chorus and ends abruptly, slightly off-kilter, which perfectly suits the vibe.

Underneath, I’ve posted a live acoustic version of this song, which shows the brilliance Hull and Devine have. To take a song so complete in its studio form, and make it a wholly separate song in another style is real talent.

No Sides – Here’s the pop sensibility that Devine lends to the record. The double backbeat during the verse makes this track sound like some B-side from a discarded British Invasion band. Like many of the other tracks on the album, synthesizers, guitar melodies, and vocal harmonies are used to great effect during the chorus.

I particularly enjoy this track, because (like “No Reward,”) it gives a chance to hear the band in a little less-serious light. The song is deceptive like that, though. During the bridge, there is enough change and texture that you can’t catch it all on the first listen through, even though you might think you’ve got it all figured out. After multiple listens, I’m still picking apart the vocal and instruments on this track.

Petite Mort – A solemn baroque ditty, “Petite Mort” is another look into mortality, a black comedy along the lines of “Forest Whitaker,” but almost Shakespearean in tone. The verse is fantastically textured, instrumentally, partly thanks to the tone of the guitars, but also the bassline, which you can tell wants to walk right off the map. The guitars in this track, plucked arpeggios backing the verse and single note harmonies after the chorus, are sparse and hauntingly simple. A sweet and simple track, it leaves you feeling solemn and thoughtful.

Afterthoughts:

I would like to note that the tender songs on this album (“Pytor,” and “42,” namely) are tremendously beautiful, lyrically and instrumentally. They have stayed out of my Key Tracks because I think it is the personality of these songs to stay as deep cuts, and not have a spotlight shone upon them. These songs become the quiet gems on the album, thought provoking and with substance, and provide a fantastic way to cleanse your aural palate between the harder rocking tracks on the album.

All in all, II is a fantastic album. Every track on it is worth a listen, and repeats at that. I’ve been listening to the album for over a week now, and I’m still finding emotion in the smallest crevices. I greatly recommend a listen.

Lake Street Dive

What’s with these bands with street names?  Is that the secret to soul?  First I find Ann St. Soul, now I find Lake Street Dive.  These bands have heaps of talent and style.  I love it.

First impressions: What is this? I’m so used to the “I Want You Back” bassline being a bouncing, rollicking exercise in pure joy.  This chilled-out rendition was not what I expected, but, wow, is it amazing.  The song turns from a pop classic to a deep cut from a dive bar at the end of the night.  The lyrics take on new meaning.  No longer does the song conjure thoughts of a teen testing the waters of puppy love, but real yearning and desire.

The harmonies in the chorus are beautiful, and add a maturity that the original song never had.  It goes without say that the lead vocal is spot-on, a soulful alto (? I know next to nothing about the technicalities of the female voice, but that sure isn’t soprano).  The bassist’s work is most likely my favorite part of this rendition, however.  She manages to bend and slide tones with such precise intonation that you hear all the notes of the original bassline, but it is infinitely smoother, especially off a double bass.

I can heartily recommend a listen to the rest of their EP, Fun Machine.  They have equally lovely interpretations of four other songs, with an original track in the mix as well.  What’s exciting is their website says they just got in the studio to record a new album.

This is the other YouTube video I’ve been poring over, simply because of the sheer talent it contains.  I’m not going to act like I know much about Eric Krasno & Chapter 2, but holy hell can these guys get down.

The bassist’s name is Chris Loftlin, and he has just become a personal idol of mine.  I’ve got to get out to the Iridium one of these days.

Jerry Garcia in the Produce Section

So yesterday I’m going grocery shopping, and they’ve got the Dead playing “Casey Jones” on the radio.

And I found myself wondering, as I have many times before, “Do you think when Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter wrote the song, they had any idea that it would become background music for people comparing the virtues of Shredded Wheat against the granulated joy of Frosted Flakes?”

I can only imagine the answer is no.  If you walk into a major grocery store like A&P, Stop ‘n Shop, Giant, what-have-you, odds are you will hear classic rock being pumped through the aisles.  Don Henley and  Joe Walsh will back your trip down the dairy aisle with “Hotel California.” Led Zeppelin‘s “The Lemon Song” loses its sexy double meaning while wandering through racks of citrus fruits.

You might even say, “Hell, David Byrne sang about perishable goods in ‘Life During Wartime.’ ”  Fair enough, but I don’t think that he’d want the bread aisle to be your primary venue for Fear of Music.

Classic rock is probably the genre most susceptible to this sort of passive acceptance.  A major local grocery store has a wide range of employees and customers, from all backgrounds.  Classic rock is known well enough to the older clientele and employees that it keeps them calm and the dementia at bay.  It has enough edge to keep the 15 year-old grocery baggers and Red Bull tweakers thinking that they’re pretty dark.

But does it, though? (Full disclosure: I’m a really big fan of classic rock, but as I write this, I feel like I’m going to end up questioning it’s validity as the opiate of the masses.)

Lets break down that demographic of A&P that I mentioned before (Red Bull tweakers v. octogenarians).

Some young grocery-getters, those wearing skinny jeans and their hair all akimbo, will dismiss the classic rock on the store’s radio right away.  “It’s old and bad.” Okay, so let’s dismiss them.  Drag a horse to water, can’t make it drink.

Those young kids wearing Swan Song t-shirts, those are the ones we’re talking about.  Young fans of classic rock tend to hold the musicians to a legendary status.

Fair enough.

In an effort to seem wise beyond their years, these young classic rock fans may go as far as saying that classic rock is the “only” music worth listening to. (Reminds me of the YouTube comments you see reading: I’m 13 years old and I only listen to Nirvana!)

These kids, myself included, have reputed the rock musicians of the ’60s and ’70s to the extent of them morphing into tall tales. Partially thanks to “first-hand” accounts such as Hammer of the Gods and the like,  Hendrix, Page, Townshend, Allman, Clapton, Richards, and their peers all have a legendary status, for both the music they wrote, filled with speed and emotion, and the lives they led, filled with drugs and partying.  (Those are just the biggest guitarists! Once you get to Bonzo and Moonie, the stories get downright insane.)

It’s funny though.  When you talk to folks who grew up during the release of albums now considered “Classic Rock,” they obviously have deferring opinions than those born after those releases. They grew up with those albums and developed their own opinions, born in that era and brought to the present.  They don’t necessarily view their thoughts on Exile on Main St. through the same  rose-colored lenses a modern preteen guitarist would.

The people who grew up with this music have emotion attached to the songs.  They may have listened to an album during a rough time in their life.  They might have left Joni Mitchell‘s Blue on their turntable for months after a bad breakup.  They may have entered the realm of promiscuity with Rumours fueling the fire.  Hell, maybe they livedParadise by the Dashboard Light.” Either way, these songs became a snapshot of a specific time in their lives. Therefore, these songs come with baggage.

The Swan Song listeners I described before treat these songs as gospel, whereas the generation that lived through those songs did just that; they lived through it.  They heard it happen sequentially.  They went through the British Invasion and Beatlemania , then heard Led Zeppelin for the first time, then heard David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust, then heard Genesis, then heard Talking Heads.  They matured as each release came to be.  They had opinions about the Beatles before Sgt. Pepper’s, listened to the album, and adjusted that opinion accordingly.  The Swan Song listener was born into a world with a huge back catalog of classic rock, and he can cherry pick only the choicest nuggets, which leads to a sort of best-of knowledge (and opinion) of the classic bands.

My parents hate Don McLean‘s “American Pie.”  I shouted down from my high horse, “You’re crazy! It’s a song about love and life! It’s a gift Don shared with us! We should be so lucky!”

My parents remember it as the eight-and-a-half minute long cheezfest that hogged the airwaves ad nauseum through the early 70’s (and again early 90’s).  I guess if, 40 years from now, my kids told me the 1800-Kars-4-Kids jingle is a masterpiece, I’d have a chip on my shoulder too.

The rest of the clientele at the A&P could be too old to find classic rock palatable.  I once told an older relative of mine that I was going to see Springsteen in concert, and he thrust his hands out and muttered, “eh that’s too loud for me.”  They have common ground with those skinny jeans kids.

So is it the best music for satisfying a large swath of the grocery-buying public? Yeah I guess, but not in the way you might think.  Some of the older folks may honestly enjoy it, but some might hate it. “Casey Jones” may conjure up memories of driving around the lake with the top down, or the favorite song of your asshole ex-boyfriend from 1972.

The younger kids, like the older folks, are a split demographic.  Some dismiss it because of its age, and some like it for that little rush of smugness when they know a song three times older than they are.

Playing classic rock in a grocery store is like a one-size-fits-all hat; you can go to sleep at night knowing that you made lots of people a little happy rather than totally satisfying a niche market.

But did Paul and John write Paperback Writer so that you could feel cozy while deciding between Triple Decker Oreos and Double-Stuf Oreos?  Probably not.