Archive | December, 2012

A Swanky 2012: Part Two

29 Dec

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[For an Introduction to A Swanky 2012, go here.]

Part Two

 

The Bowl:  Outback Bowl – South Carolina v. Michigan 

The Pick:  South Carolina (-5.5)

The Album:  Confess by Twin Shadow

Bringing a full-fledged commitment and earnestness to the pop/rock musical styles of the 1980s, Twin Shadow delivered one of the more passionate and assured albums of the year.  Confess sounds as if the brooding, bookish introvert from down the hall has been spending all of his time listening to Top 100 rock radio mixes from 1979 – ’89, and now wants to impress that Hot Girl In The Denim Whitesnake Jacket.  That is a very good thing.

The basic, familiar elements are all there on Confess – the shiny and clear guitar chords, the chiming synthesizers that drench everything in a fluorescent haze, the yearning, balls-out, Auto-Tuned yawp of unrequited love.  This is much more than just a tired retread of an old Journey album, though.  There’s a vitality and urgency to every song, as though front man George Lewis Jr. absolutely needed to get these things down on vinyl.

There’s a lot going on here, musically, underneath the flashy veneer that screams “Retro.”  There are different sonic touches and melodies swirling and enmeshing everywhere, marking this as the work of a true music aficionado who knows his way around the creation of big, bold, and flashy hooks.

Those hooks, and the overall adeptness with creating pop songs, make Confess compulsively listenable, particularly if you’ve got the top down on a sunny day, or you’re dreaming of such a scene as the rain trickles down outside.  The songs sound tight and sleek like any well-oiled pop machine should, and various lyrical and melodic hooks will get stuck in your head long after your first hear them.  The true strength of Confess is that Lewis delivers these pop goods without losing any of his vibrant, bleeding, music-loving heart.

 

The Bowl:  Capital One Bowl – Nebraska v. Georgia

The Pick:  Georgia (-9)

The Album:  Lonerism by Tame Impala

It had been two years since Tame Impala’s last album, Innerspeaker, and for fans of that record, the wait for Lonerism was a long one.  Innerspeaker was a constant treat for the ears, with warm guitar feedback loops and vintage electronic touches flying under and around the melodic, Lennon-esque vocals of front man Kevin Parker.  The group set the bar high for themselves, and in their follow-up, they generally managed to hit the same top marks while pushing their sound into new territories as well.  While Lonerism may not have been able to best Innerspeaker, it’s worthy of standing on its own as one of the most unique and high-quality rock albums of the year.

Lonerism features the same melodic characteristics that are now familiar to listeners of Tame Impala – the fuzzed-out halo around every sound effect, the echo-y and airy vocals, the propensity to leap off into a psychedelic groove tangent when the opportunity presents itself.  The album, and the band itself, sounds like a transmission beamed here from a recording studio in 1971.  As they’ve proved before, Tame Impala doesn’t rely on their vintage sound to become a gimmicky crutch – instead it is something that is wholly unique and wholly their own.  They know what they like and they make great music with it.

Lonerism marks some different approaches for the band, particularly in that it features some more open-ended songs and sonic arrangements.  Tame Impala have proved they know how to lock into tight grooves and rock out hard with the best of them, and while there are some excellent hard-driving moments on Lonerism such as “Elephant,” there are also a lot of songs that spread out all over the musical spectrum and take their time getting to wherever they happen to be going.  Vocal effects, spare synths, guitars, and various other chimes and squiggles caterwaul around tracks like “Music To Walk Home By” with a joyous abandon, and it can be overwhelming at times.

The strength of Lonerism, and of the maturing Tame Impala in general, is that they are in control of their free-wheeling grooves at all times, no matter how out-there and exploratory they may seem to be.  Just when you think things are going to spin off into the ether, a well-timed bass and drum combo locks into a deep groove and reminds you that these guys are first and foremost a great rock band.

 

The Bowl:  Fiesta Bowl – Kansas State v. Oregon

The Pick:  Kansas St. (+9)

The Album:  R.A.P. Music by Killer Mike

You’d be hard-pressed to find any other release this year, hip-hop or otherwise, that seethes with as much pent-up vitriol and passionate energy as Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music.  Producer El-P creates spare, pounding beats with menacing synth lines that perfectly match the tone of the lyrics and draw out the essential elements of Mike’s behind-the-beat flow.

For listeners only familiar with Killer Mike from his “All Day I Dream About Sex” days, it’s probably a surprise to hear the bombastic rapper getting serious throughout R.A.P. Music; there’s a refreshing sincerity to his lyrics and delivery as he tackles social and emotional issues through the record.  Mike and Co. aren’t holding anything back on this one.

Things aren’t all somber and preachy, however, as Mike finds plenty of time to toss in off-color jokes and vibrantly ridiculous imagery, much like his fellow Southern hip-hop counterparts, OutKast.  Even as the beats and spat-out lyrics are knocking you flat, R.A.P. never stop being entertaining as hell.

When R.A.P. Music hits its high points, it’s an exhilarating call-back to the days of early Public Enemy and Straight Outta Compton.  There’s an incendiary, almost subversive feeling to the record, and there wasn’t much else like it this year.

 

The Bowl:  Cotton Bowl – Texas A&M v. Oklahoma

The Pick:  Texas A&M (-3)

The Album:  Nocturne by Wild Nothing

Whether they set out to do it or not, Wild Nothing’s Nocturne sounds like a perfect distillation of every summer night you had from age 14 to 21.  Like many of those nights, it wheels between feeling wistful, blissed-out, and restless.  There’s a laid-back vibe over much of the album that evokes the haze of summer; that slow, dreamy feeling deceptively covers up the prolific and deft musicianship going on just under the surface.

Under that sleek surface, Nocturne is filled with layers of sound that are intricately pieced together, and as each track progresses, the layers often build upon each other, building momentum before cresting in powerful and well-earned climaxes.  These are expansive soundscapes largely dominated by delicate yet striking guitar chords that loop around each other and create an immersive atmosphere around bits of drums, synths, and airy vocals.

The album’s tracks flow into each other and create a hazy, seductive mood that borders on the dreamlike – it can make you feel nostalgic for a period of time or singular moment that you can’t quite place, and maybe never even experienced.  It’s a striking and poignant listening experience.  This is sunny music flecked with melancholy, both in the lyrics and in the chiming, mournful chords that fall like rain out of the speakers.

 

The Bowl:  National Championship – Alabama v. Notre Dame

The Pick:  Alabama (-9.5)

The Album:  Port of Morrow by The Shins

The Shins’ last album, Wincing The Night Away, was a strange yet fascinating record, marked by feelings of mystery and a slight menace, that saw James Mercer choosing electronic territory more so than the strummed-guitar chords of Chutes Too Narrow.  In the five years since the release of Wincing, Mercer had reshuffled the band around him, and it wasn’t clear which version of the Shins would be appearing in 2012.  Or if they would be able to sustain the quality of albums’ past.  Port of Morrow answered those questions, and showed that the Shins’ future is bright.

One of the great things about Port is that it takes all of the sonic elements from the group’s earlier records and puts them together into a confident and propulsive new sound.  There are electronic flourishes, there are quiet moments of acoustic beauty, there are eloquent, strange and esoteric little catches of lyrics and phrases, and there are surges of momentum that unmasks Mercer’s rock and roll heart.  It’s an album in which you can see how the band has grown, and it feels both refreshingly new and professionally mature.

The ultimate triumph of Port may be that it shows of Mercer’s ability to remain immediate and impactful with his musical themes.  He may not be an angst-y young songwriter anymore, but he can still combine melodies and lyrics to create moments that connect on deep emotional levels.  Port hits upon some universal, hard-to-eludicate themes of life in a way that few other artists could duplicate this year – without sacrificing any musical enjoyment in the process.

 

TwinShadow

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A Swanky 2012: Part One

21 Dec

[For an Introduction to A Swanky 2012, go here.]

 

The Bowl:  Las Vegas Bowl – Washington v. Boise State 

The Pick:  UW (+5)

The Album:  Blunderbuss by Jack White

Considering he was the predominant musical decision-maker in The White Stripes, it wasn’t too surprising that Jack White continued the musical themes of later Stripes’ albums on his first official solo release, Blunderbuss.  As the Stripes progressed through their discography, they moved from a messy, primitive version of blues-rock to more layered and polished songs that brought in instruments like pianos and xylophones to round out the sound and take things in new directions.  Blunderbuss is an extension of that well-rounded approach to rock and roll.

On Blunderbuss, Jack still has his signature guitar wail jumping around on tracks, but he also relies heavily on touches like pianos, fiddles, and slide guitars.  The result is an album that traffics in lush country and blues sounds, with more progressive and swelling musical moments than sporadic and frenetic ones.

Not that there’s a total lack of the sneering and balls-out electric attack that White made his name on – “Sixteen Saltines” and “Freedom at 21” in particular offer up a pure rock attitude that few other releases this year could consistently rival.  On the whole, Blunderbuss lives up to its name, with its emphasis on grandiose, powerful, and vintage musical touches.  What makes it a great record is that it also maintains an immediate and contemporary feeling – the deep emotions and energy pulsing underneath the music make an impact even if you don’t happen to be listening on your vintage record player.

 

The Bowl:  Pinstripe Bowl – West Virginia v. Syracuse

The Pick:  WVU (-4)

The Album:  good kid, m.A.A.d city by Kendrick Lamar

Defining a ‘hip-hop album of the year’ is a trickier proposition than a lot of other musical genres.  The criteria that a ‘best album’ must meet depends on what side a listener comes down on a variety of different aesthetic arguments – the value of an independent release versus one from a major label, the value of lyrical content versus lyrical flow, the value of the beats’ production versus the value of the artists’ wordplay over said beats.  Different value decisions on arguments like these can greatly affect how someone perceives the overall strength or weakness of a particular hip-hop record.

Taking many of these value arguments into account, Kendrick’s good kid is the rare record that is an album of the year contender across the board.  Facing improbably high expectations as the supposed savior of West Coast hip-hop, especially after a public co-sign by the good Dr. Dre himself, Kendrick rose to the occasion by doing something many others before him had failed to do – he expanded his sound and opened his music to a wider audience without compromising the unique and singular artistic voice inside him.

Make that voices, actually.  Borrowing a page from Biggie’s book, Kendrick stretches his vocals all over good kid, delivering a wordy, mesmerizing lyrical flow in several different registers and time signatures.  The result is a breathlessly talented vocal performance, and one that backs up all the flash of the style with actual substance.  Kendrick pinwheels between entertaining tales of street life and haunting inner dialogues, pondering where he can find a compromise between an enlightened social consciousness and the hard-edged street mentality that’s glorified by his peers.

There’s not really a dull or uninspired moment on the record, with Kendrick indulging his jazz influences by taking songs in entirely unexpected yet brilliant new sonic directions.  And in the end, he manages to embrace, deconstruct, and elevate the West Coast hip-hop legacy that he was tasked to salvage.  On that front in particular, all you need to do is listen to “m.A.A.d city” – all the way through the insanely great 6-second instrumental coda that pours a 40 out in Eazy-E’s memory – and you know that the West Coast, and hip-hop as a whole, is in good hands.

 

The Bowl:  Alamo Bowl – Texas v. Oregon State

The Pick:  OSU (-2)

The Albumchannel ORANGE by Frank Ocean

Frank Ocean’s major-label debut was surrounded by a heady buzz before its release, due in large part to his public honesty about a past relationship with a man.  Once channel ORANGE dropped however, the music itself pushed everything aside as the only discussion point worth mentioning.  The album is a lush, seductive, and compulsively listenable showcase of Frank’s considerable talents.

Frank’s voice and accompanying production can sound a lot like Stevie Wonder at times, and ORANGE also sounds a lot like vintage Stevie at several points when it finds the sweet spot between getting spiritual and getting weird.  There are the earnest odes to past, current, and hopefully future lovers, and then there are esoteric excursions into whatever universal headspace Frank is concerned with at the time.

The soundscape of ORANGE is constantly shifting, and just when something like the proggy R&B of “Pyramids” starts to get too close to self-indulgent territory, a tightly wound piece of funky soul like “Lost” will get things moving forward again.  The most striking aspect of ORANGE  is arguably Frank’s gift for crafting and delivering vocal hooks, and when those hooks are put together with his voice, it’s a lethal combination.  “Thinking About You” is a perfect example of the rest of the record – it slinks into your head and doesn’t leave until you’ve heard it enough times to be convinced that Franks’ falsetto is your own.

 

The Bowl:  Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl – TCU v. Michigan State

The Pick:  TCU (-2.5)

The Album:  Fear Fun by Father John Misty

Hearing a beautifully melodic voice over a quietly strumming guitar deliver an opening lyric of “Pour me another drink / and punch me in the face / you can call me Nancy” was one of the most pleasurable listening experiences in 2012.  That piece of music and subsequent response can accurately sum up the rest of Father John Misty’s debut album, Fear Fun. 

FJM frontman Josh Tillman was introduced to the music world as the drummer of the Fleet Foxes, and he brings some of that group’s musical aesthetic choices to his new project.  There’s some of that vintage, folksy sound, the powerful yet delicate vocals, the use of choral-esqe harmonizing.  Outside of those similarities, however, the music of FJM takes a hard left from the classical, introspective, and straight-faced earnestness of Fleet Foxes.  Instead, we get a wicked sense of humor and dry, gleeful tales of overindulgent debauchery.

If you happen to catch a glimpse of an FJM live performance, you can get a pretty clear image of what Tillman’s getting at with this group.  There’s a serious band dynamic, and a clear love of the music they’re making – the soaring, almost achingly beautiful moments that FJM can hit have some real emotion coursing through them.  And then at the same time, there’s Tillman in the front, slyly smiling and unable to stop from slowly sashaying his hips to the groove as he drops one-liner after one-liner.  It’s rootsy, folkish rock music from a too-smart-for-his-own-good troubadour.  And it’s great enough to stand on its own as much more than just a big band side project.

 

The Bowl:  Chick-fil-A Bowl – Clemson v. LSU

The Pick:  LSU (-4)

The Album:  Young Hunger by Chad Valley

Chad Valley wears his musical influences loudly and proudly.  R & B and power pop from the 80s and 90s are embraced, dressed up, given beats to play with, and then left loose to dance all over Young Hunger.  The result is an album that sounds vaguely familiar, yet wholly unique at the same time.  Valley’s high-register vocals underscore the sensitive and lovelorn subjects and emotions his lyrics typically cover, and the earnest sentimentality of many tracks may turn off some of the more cynical listeners out there.

Underneath the shiny exterior, however, lay some funky grooves that hit somewhere deeper.  It’s here where Young Hunger becomes more than just a bedroom-produced homage to some music geek’s beloved genre classics.  Valley brings in some of indie music’s more promising new faces, and they help him build hook on top of hook before setting things off on inspired melodic runs.

Young Hunger will lure you in and lull you to a trance on the soft bed of Valley’s vocals and warm production.  Before you realize it, he’s locked you in, and the beats start getting a little more dynamic.  At that point, it’s only a matter of time before you’re out on the dancefloor, professing your love right along with him.

 

Part Two of A Swanky 2012 Coming Soon…

A Swanky 2012: Introduction

20 Dec

The cultural and economic factors that have created the modern ‘bowl season’ are in many ways the same ones shaping the modern music industry.  While bowl season today feels as though it’s an integral, inescapable part of the holidays in America, much like the awakening of dormant drinking problems and ironic holiday sincerity, it was actually only over the last ten years or so that the national bowl coverage got to this level.  Without the BCS and the rise of bowl sponsors, there was usually just some national focus on the big games – the Rose Bowl, the Orange Bowl, the Sugar Bowl, etc. – and then certain groups of alumni following their teams to the smaller games.

The first factor that led to today’s bowl season was the incorporation of all kinds of special interest money into the mix, in the forms of sponsorships and broadcast contracts.  With the expansion of networks like ESPN, the amount of coverage time put on college football exploded, and if you put it in front of people, they’re going to watch it.  Sponsors took notice, and started looking for ways to get their names in front of all these new audiences.  Sponsoring the bowl games were a great place to start, and when the existing games were all taken, it was easy to just create new ones.  Hence, we have games like the Meineke Car Care 5-Hour Energy Panic Attack Sun Bowl, which have rounded out the bowl schedule from just a couple of games to an entire ‘season’.

The music industry today has been affected by the same factors of increased coverage and increased special interests.  The biggest factor by far has been the increased ‘coverage’ – with streaming services everywhere, artists can now get their music to listeners quite quickly and easily, instead of needing the big labels’ support.  This ease of access on both ends of the supply and demand equation has led to more music being available to more people.  The more music, the more diverse the selection – just because an artist doesn’t meet the ‘wide appeal’ qualifications of major radio play, it doesn’t mean they won’t catch on with a small blog somewhere and cultivate enough of a following to continue making music.  There’s an unprecedented amount of music available right now to the average listener, and the range of different styles amongst that music is huge.

This new Age of Supply and Coverage is a great time to be a huge college football or music fan.  The expanded bowl season may get a little overdone with some of the smaller bowls, but on the most part, this year’s slate of games offers a ton of interesting matchups that you wouldn’t get during the regular season.  On the music side of things, this year saw a strong – sometimes classic- and diverse slate of releases from artists that embraced and expanded basic definitions of genre and industry standards.  There’s something for everyone out there, and being fans of both college football and music, we wanted to celebrate the greatness.  Continuing our Hot Routes format, we present the Swanky Musical Bowl Season – a recap of our Top Ten albums of the year, and some insight on a few of the top bowls of the season.  Get some headphones and a pencil.

Hot Routes: Week Sixteen

15 Dec

Editor’s Note:  This is the Swanky roundup of our top picks and songs of the week, running every week of the 2012 Year of Football.  For a primer, check out the Introduction.

Week Sixteen

This will be the final regular-season Hot Routes for 2012.  The routes were mostly crisp and on-time this year, and hopefully we were able to keep feet tapping and tickets winning.  Things were a little rough in the first couple weeks of the season, but the ship was righted, and if you followed along (and if gambling was legal) there would be money in your pockets.  Things will close with a bang next week, with a Swanky Bowl Preview + Hottest 2012 Albums extravaganza, so get ready.  This week, we’ll help you prep for your holiday party by tossing out some Swanky-approved Xmas jams.

 

Tampa Bay (6-7) at New Orleans (5-8)

The pick: Tampa Bay (+3.5)

The track:  Christmas Eve/Sarajevo by Trans-Siberian Orchestra

Based on their name, music, and seemingly deep affection for Christmas, I always imagine the Trans-Siberian Orchestra as a group of heavily-bearded Russians whose eyes are wild with vodka and the patriotic fervor of a pre-fall Soviet Union.  I’m assuming these guys honed their skills in the wild tundras of Siberia while concurrently nurturing a deep-felt love for Father Christmas and whatever ancient rituals that part of the world partakes in around this time of year.  Then, one fateful day, a traveling musician stumbled into the Orchestra’s hut/cave, and introduced the gentlemen to the wonders of the electric guitar.  The musical fires were lit, and we have the charged-up wonders of “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo” to power our holidays.

 

Green Bay (9-4) at Chicago (8-5)

The pick:  Green Bay (-2.5)

The track:  Wonderful Christmastime by The Shins

The Bears seem like they peaked early on in the year, and this week isn’t doing them any favors.  The Packers under Rodgers always play the Bears tough, and Jay Cutler’s got a neck injury now to add to the long list of injury gifts his O-line has given him this year.  The Packers should be giving at least a field goal.

 

Denver (10-3) at Baltimore (9-4)

The pick:  Denver (-3)

The track:  Hey Guys! It’s Christmastime! by Sufjan Stevens

Another prolific producer of Christmas music is Sufjan Stevens.  The talented singer, musician, composer, etc. dropped a FIVE DISC holiday release this year, and the all-encompassing weirdness and earnestness of the project is an awesome thing to behold.  There are covers of holiday standards, done every which way imaginable, and then there are Xmas originals with names like “Christmas Unicorn.”  “Hey Guys!” is a tightly produced, stirring alternative carol from this mad holiday genius.  It’s ready to soundtrack the climactic scene of Wes Anderson’s future holiday movie.

 

Detroit (4-9) at Arizona (4-9)

The pick:  Detroit (-6.5)

The track:  White Christmas by The Drifters

The Cards clearly aren’t going to lose by 58 points every week.  But after several days of watching last game’s embarrassments on tape, and then having to see John Skelton’s Damaged Psyche still at quarterback, the team’s motivations coming into the last games of the season are highly questionable at best.  The only reason this line isn’t higher against a still-dangerous Lions team is that it’s at home.  That will just make the boos louder.

 

Seattle (8-5) at Buffalo (5-8)

The pick:  Seattle (-5)

The track:  Christmas In Harlem by Kanye West

 

New York (8-5) at Atlanta (11-2)

The pick:  New York (+1.5)

The track:  Xmas Time Is Here Again by My Morning Jacket

 

Last Week’s Record:  6-0

Overall Record:  45-31

Hot Routes: Week Fifteen

8 Dec

Editor’s Note:  This is the Swanky roundup of our top picks and songs of the week, running every week of the 2012 Year of Football.  For a primer, check out the Introduction.

Week Fifteen

The college football regular season is officially concluded, so Hot Routes will be strictly professional for the next couple of weekends.  Watch out for the official Swanky Bowl Preview, dropping soon and ready to take care of all your Holiday football and music needs.

 

Atlanta (11-1) at Carolina (3-9)

The pick: Carolina (+3.5)

The track:  Neighborhood Watch by Memory Tapes

On the new release Grace/Confusion, Davye Hawke continues the dreamy power-pop aesthetic of earlier Memory Tapes songs while also adding some heftier and edgier beats.  The ethereal vocals are still there, often matched by yearning instrumentals, but things don’t often stay lightweight for long.  Songs like “Neighborhood Watch” begin quietly, almost meditatively, before things heat up with grinding guitars, dirty synth breakdowns, and pounding rhythms.

 

San Diego (4-8) at Pittsburgh (7-5)

The pick:  Pittsburgh (-8)

The track:  There There by Radiohead

The Chargers have had an awful season so far, and with the firing of the coach and the GM pretty much a foregone conclusion at this point, things are probably going to get uglier.  Pittsburgh will have Big Ben back, and will be fired up to get a win and help their playoff positioning.  There won’t be much resistance from an opposing team wondering how to quit on things without seeming too obvious about it.

 

Miami (5-7) at San Francisco (8-3)

The pick:  Miami (+11)

The track:  Sway by The Rolling Stones

Keith Richards’ autobiography, Life, is written in such a conversational way, and filled with such vivid anecdotes, that you can almost feel like you were right there with him, pushing the debauchery to the limit and pushing rock and roll to a whole different level.  Hearing him talk about honing his craft and writing classic songs, you realize how easy it is to take the Stones’ music and legacy for granted.  Their famous work is still omnipresent in today’s culture, and when you’re hearing “Satisfaction” on classic rock radio for the umpteenth time, you don’t usually pay attention to how singular and searingly effective the guitar work is.  Underneath all the urban legends and towering image, Keith Richards is an amazing guitar player who lays down the blues as well as anyone, living or dead.

 

New Orleans at New York Giants

The pick:  New York (-4.5)

The track:  Nancy From Now On (Live) by Father John Misty

 

Tennessee (4-8) at Indianapolis (8-4)

The pick:  Indianapolis (-5.5)

The track:  Watch The Show by M. Ward

 

Houston (11-1) at New England (9-3)

The pick:  Houston (+3.5)

The track:  Hey Guys! It’s Christmas Time!

 

 

Last Week’s Record:  6-0

Overall Record:  45-31