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Personal Soundtrack

14 Mar

The Song

 

So Good at Being in Trouble by Unknown Mortal Orchestra

So Good at Being in Trouble” is one of those songs that may very well be everywhere within a few short weeks, either due to an appearance in a national car/bank/insurance ad, a tasteful placement over some wistful closing sequence on a popular TV show, or maybe an insertion into the playlist rotation by a canny producer at your local Adult Contemporary Rock station.

It’s tailor-made to be that kind of ubiquitous song – muted, laid-back, achingly pretty, non-threatening, and catchy as hell.  Everyone from your 18-year old barista to your mom can get behind it and picture themselves as the irrepressible subject of the song; they’ll imagine how much trouble they can get into sometimes and will smile knowingly as they sing about it.

When that kind of universality happens to a song, it usually runs the appeal of the track into the ground – quickly – and it becomes easy to hate the song and maybe even the artist because they’ve come to represent things that have nothing to do with their music itself.  Commercialism, mass taste, modern popular culture, etc.

So before all that happens, before the hypothetical cultural explosion of “Trouble” ruins it for all the hip and jaded listeners out there, we should appreciate the song for the small, fragile, and well-crafted piece of music that it is.  “Trouble” comes from Unknown Mortal Orchestra, a group that almost seems to stumble across undeniable hooks, beautiful melodies, and tightly-wound beats without ever meaning to.

On the surface, UMO mostly affects a New Hippie-type of vibe; the group dives into the psychedelic part of the pool with their loosely-kept appearance and the hazy gauze they wrap around ramshackle and jangling rock songs.  They are most definitely a free-wheeling group that if pushed, will always choose the weird routes over the more conventional ones.  However, the band is also a focused bunch at times, refusing to let their music just take off in a fuzz of discordant guitar jangles.

The group has an ear for melodies and crunching chord progressions that can quickly find their way into becoming straightforward jams.  If they want to, they can write well-crafted songs that stick in your head while also striking some deeper emotional pressure points.  And one great example of this ‘want-to’ would be “Trouble.”

“Trouble” comes across like an acoustic sketch on the surface, all strums and spare backbeat.  Underneath that shaky, fragile cover, however, is some deceptively crafty songwriting.  Frontman Ruben Nielson fills in the song’s open spaces with lyrics both yearning and world-weary, and when the the melody and lyrics comes together for the chorus, it becomes like a scientifically-engineered strummy hook delivery system.

For a band that seems to pride itself on earning a ‘different’ label, this is a surprisingly affecting song that will not leave your head anytime soon.

The Activity

Ever since you parted ways with That One, life has dissolved into one big montage.  Like a full-on, flirting occasionally with out-of-body, observing-not-doing, actions-out-of-your-control sequence of scenes.  This is probably partly due to the fact that you watch too many movies and TV shows, but no matter the direct influences, that’s what things have come to.

And not just a normal, quick, motivational montage either.  No “Eye of the Tiger” shit here.  No, you’re in the full sad-sack montage.  Populated by glum walks through the drizzly mist outside; big pints of Cherry Garcia and Sinful Devil Cake Fudge serving as paperweights on your overflowing coffee table; silent yet painfully expressive tearful breakdowns that rear up after the sight of some esoteric romantic reminder on the street; misty-eyed scenes of solo sunset-gazing as people go out of their way not to sit on the public bench space next to yours; awkward call-back scenes to the earlier montage shots of those esoteric romantic reminders, in which you’ve taken your tearful breakdowns to the figurative and literal next step and are now lying prone on the sidewalks in aforementioned esoteric grief while alarmed adults hurriedly shuffle their pets, children, or selves across the street and away from eye contact; strangely anachronistic scenes in which you huddle over a tape player, fanatically starting and stopping the tape at the right moments of anthemic or rueful or just-plain angry love songs, followed by you carefully writing the names of said songs in black marker on the side of a tape cassette, furthering this scene that makes no contemporary sense; and as the montage wistfully, thankfully comes to close, we all take a big leap (probably about 9.5 days) forward in time and, rest easy everyone, you emerge one young morning after a storm, with the dew-tipped grass twinkling almost as brightly as the wide eyes above your tastefully unkempt ‘I’m Sad’ memorial beard, and the forceful look on your face tells us all we need to know: things are going to be okay, and it’s time to write a song.

 

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Hot Routes: Super Hot Edition

1 Feb

The Super Bowl

By this point, virtually all of the possible Super Bowl story lines have been developed, examined, and mirthlessly driven into the ground by the army of media correspondents assigned to the game.  So we’ll keep the game analysis short and get right to the more important, and likely more enjoyable, part of Super Bowl week at Dan Swanky’s – the music.

 

 

Baltimore Ravens vs. San Francisco 49ers

The Pick:  Ravens (+3.5)

On paper, the 49ers look like the better team, and they look like they could be capable of winning this game by at least a touchdown.  The problem for San Francisco is that this postseason for the Ravens has been all about factors that aren’t easily reflected on paper.  Baltimore has bought in completely to every motivational opportunity thrown their way – the retirement of emotional leader Ray Lewis, rampant doubts about the reliability of Joe Flacco, internal upheaval amongst the coaching staff, oddsmakers making them huge underdogs over the last two games – and they now seem scarily calm in the run-up before the Big Game.  Nothing can faze them, and I feel much more confident backing their experience than I do a rookie QB and a team filled with first-time Super Bowl competitors.

The Album:  Regions of Light and Sound of God by Jim James

This year’s Super Bowl is going down in New Orleans, and for somewhat understandable reasons, I’ve always associated the Big Easy with rocker/soul man/weirdo savant/life guru Jim James.  The most obvious reasons for the connection between the two have been elucidated by James himself – he’s publicly professed a love for the deep musical legacies of New Orleans, and elements of the city’s particular flavors of jazz, funk, and soul can be heard both in My Morning Jacket (James’ main band) and his solo outings.

Beyond that, there’s also a sense of eerie and utterly compelling mysticism hovering within my impression of both the city and the musician.  James’ music has the ability to conjure up images of spooky, humid and swampy lands where strangely wondrous things are happening in the shadows; those descriptors could certainly underlie a heavily romanticized version of New Orleans that may or may not still exist.

James new solo album, Regions of Light and Sound of God, is an excellent introduction to his unique and atmospheric blend of the aforementioned jazz, funk, and soul touches.  Whereas My Morning Jacket often derives a lot of its power from James’ virtuosic electric guitar lines, Regions finds focal points with swelling strings, strutting bass lines, and smoky brass notes.  The latter comes primarily in the form of a saxophone that appears several times throughout the record, and which sounds steeped in the kind of spooky, New Orleans mysticism mentioned previously.  A Voodoo Sax, if you will.

Jim James and his musical leanings are filled with seemingly contradictory themes, and Regions reflects that.  As a white, shaggy-haired frontman of a rock band, James wouldn’t be expected to be taking musical cues from the likes of Curtis Mayfield and Al Green.  But there he is all over Regions, finding the sweet spots between delicate hymns of praise and funky sexual grooves that those soul legends pioneered.  James knows how to mix a worshipful respect of the divine with a deep-felt need to get down, and he does it with a comfortableness few other artists today have.

There is a darkness in the heart of rock and roll, and many of the great artists over time have been able to ride the dark edge of the music that has its roots all the way back in the swampy, Crossroads-bred blues of Robert Johnson.  Sometimes, it seems, an artist needs to dance with the devil a little bit to get some true feeling in their work.  Jim James seems to know this better than anyone, and his music reaches another level because of it.  In the slow-burning opener “State of the Art,” he sings ‘I know you need the dark / Just as much as the Sun’;  it’s a point that’s driven home through the howls and spectral falsettos he unleashes throughout the album from that point on.

At the conclusion of the record, it is due to the strength and assuredness of James’ artistic vision that the listener has a clear-eyed idea of what the artist is really about at this point in time.  As can be seen with the album title, James is an openly spiritual person – he’s not aligned with a dogmatic religion like Christianity, but he has a deep sense and respect for the divine and for how it relates to everyday life.  This laid-back spiritualism is most definitely not a new thing in the music world, but the great thing about James and his music is that he cuts his sensitive positivity with an understanding and appreciation for the dark and haunted parts of the world.  He believes and celebrates in the beauty of the world around him, and he doesn’t discriminate between the peaceful and the occasionally dangerous.

Hot Routes: Conference Edition

18 Jan

NFL Playoffs: Conference Week

Even though there’s only two games this week, we didn’t want to go light on the musical offerings.  So instead of hot tracks, you get two hot albums to go with your playoff picks.  Hot cuts from today and yesterday.

 

 

AFC Conference:  Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots

The Pick:  Ravens (+9)

The Album:  Foe by Man Without Country

Man Without Country’s album Foe came out a couple of years ago, so they’re not exactly a brand-new discovery.  They are, however, building up some momentum as 2013 begins, and may very well start to follow the same gradual-then-explosive path of cultural ascension that M83 took in 2011-12.  The reference to M83 is not a casual one – MWC’s music shares a lot of sonic similarities with the French artist, and they were also an opening act on several legs of the M83 headlining tour last year.  With Foe, MWC also made one connection to M83 very clear – both groups are capable of making stirring records that find beautiful noise amongst the collisions between pop, rock, and electronic music.

Much of Foe is drenched in synthesizers, and there’s a heady electronic pulse beating throughout the album.  Many songs feature rhythms and hard-edged beats that any dancehall producer would be lucky to have, and it’s clear that MWC understands how to rock a fucking party.  That’s not the only thing they’re able to do, though, and it’s not the most striking thing about Foe.

Underneath all the shiny effects and lazerbeam synths, MWC have the immediate and dynamic sound of a well-honed rock band.  This allows them potential access to the grand-scale soundscapes that powerful bands can hit – the kind of soaring, heady, climactic moments in which the artists create, fill, and destroy entire arenas within your speakers.  In other words, they have the potential to get on some next-level shit.

On Foe, they manage to grab hold of that potential at points, and the results are excellent.  The album closes with “Inflammable Heart” and if that song is any indication of where MWC is going next, they’re going to be the ones headlining world tours sooner rather than later.  It demands to be seen live, preferably coupled with other expansive high points featured on tracks like “Puppets” and “King Complex.”

Foe is not a perfect record, and there are times when the limitations of a young band show through.  There is a lot of room to grow.  But the ceiling is incredibly high, and MWC appears ready to climb.

 

 

 

NFC Divisional: San Francisco 49ers at Atlanta Falcons

The Pick:  Falcons (+5)

The Album:  Tical by Method Man

Method Man was one of the most visible members of Wu-Tang from the group’s beginning; even within a hip-hop collective stacked with head-spinning singular talents like Ghostface, Raekwon and Ol’ Dirty Bastard, the laid-back, deceptively simple flow of Meth compelled an irresistible interest whenever it appeared against another RZA backdrop.  The Clan knew this as much as anyone – Meth was given one of only two solo tracks on 36 Chambers, and that gesture was underlined by naming the track simply “Method Man.”

It’s not a coincidence that “Method Man” is one of the most enjoyable tracks on that classic album, and that Tical, Meth’s solo debut, is one of the best records to come out of that heady early-Wu period.

There are some clear reasons why Method Man was a critical and fan favorite as soon as the Wu landed.  First, Method Man’s delivery and lyrics seemed uniquely suitable for the grimy and multi-layered production aesthetic of group mastermind the RZA.  The Wu beats were dirty in the best possible sense – the bass hits weren’t clean or shoved to the forefront, but they got down and hit a primal level that few other hip-hop artists could touch.  RZA’s sound had a deceptive, made-in-the-basement feel to it; the lack of polish on the production belied the multi-layered craftsmanship working swiftly just below the surface.

Meth’s flow shared these production qualities and thus ran rampant all over the beats RZA gave him – his raspy voice and delivery put words to the dark, weird, hard, and always entertaining feel of the music, and his just-relaxed-enough lyrical tempo hid a brilliantly deft lyricist who shifted signatures to his whim and crafted undeniable hooks wherever he pleased.

It was often easy to hear the wicked glee in Meth’s lyrics, as though every time he stepped into the booth he was in the midst of one big, enjoyable house party.  On all of Meth’s early collaborations with RZA, most notably Tical, it sounds as if the fun in the vocals booth was infectious – RZA couldn’t help but match the energy with some of the tightest and most darkly enjoyable productions he’s ever laid down.  When two visionary artists can get on the same level like that, classics are made.

 

Hot Routes: Divisional Edition

11 Jan

 

NFL Playoffs: Divisional Week

Well, the accuracy rate of the Swanky Bowl Game picks from the end of 2012 were downright embarrassing.  Things were looking good throughout the regular season, but the combination of Rumpleminz and White Elephant parties proved to be too distracting for your Swanky correspondents.  Crucial research was overlooked, important intangible factors were ignored, and by the time everything was said and done, our credibility had disappeared along with Notre Dame’s self-respect.

To make up for any hard-feelings, and in an attempt to maybe get back some of that fickle street cred, we decided to heat the Routes back up and ride it through the rest of the NFL postseason.  There’s more than enough great music out there to last through February.

 

AFC Divisional:  Baltimore Ravens at Denver Broncos

The Pick:  Ravens (+10)

The Song:  Hold On When You Get Love and Let Go When You Give It by Stars

Stars use synthesizers and other electronic effects to flesh out their live-band dynamic, and what often results are earnest, propulsive songs that strike universal chords of life and love.  “Hold On When You Get Love” lets its intentions be known from the get-go by laying down a simple kick-drum stomp familiar to other anthemic slow-burners – it’s inevitable that things are going to gain momentum from there, and they’re probably going to crest in full-throated sing-a-longs.

As the momentum picks up, the vocals make sure that listeners have a stake by setting up evocative and instantly relatable scenes of getting too drunk, leaving parties at the right times, showing up bastards everywhere, and putting all of your love out there for someone else.  By the time synthesizers and guitars are combining to rattle every visible edge of the song, the listener is right there with the band, running at breakneck speed and proclaiming their love to the empty nighttime streets.

 

NFC Divisional: Green Bay Packers at San Francisco 49ers

The Pick:  Packers (+3)

The Song:  Minor Cause by Emancipator

Emancipator has a lot in common with Bonobo – they both use instrumental touches more common to jazz and classical music to create hypnotic, mysterious, and moody songs that hit deep, undeniable stretches of groove bliss where movement is almost impossible to resist.  When these artists get going, and they pretty much always do, it is hard to tear yourself away.  They find the common ground between jazz and electronic music, and they dance all over it.

“Minor Cause” is the latest track from Emancipator, and it offers much of the same sounds we’ve come to expect from the artist.  Mournful violin strings float over a nodding beat accented by pounding piano keys, and a swirling, mystical world of sound is summoned up out of nowhere.  Can’t ask for much more.

 

NFC Divisional: Seattle Seahawks at Atlanta Falcons

The Pick:  Seahawks (+2.5)

The Song:  Clair De Lune by Flight Facilities

As a lifelong Seattle sports fan, there’s no way I’m going to pick against the Seahawks as they continue this playoff run.  But with this game against the Falcons, I like the Hawks’ chances even after putting the hometown bias aside.  Atlanta’s biggest weapons on offense is their pair of stud wide receivers, and Seattle has been excellent against the pass all season behind their towering and athletic corners.  On the other side of the ball, the combination of Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch has been overpowering lately, and there hasn’t been much from the Falcons D to inspire much confidence that they’ll be able to shut those two down.

Not all of the good feelings behind this Seahawks team is confined to on-paper matchups.  There’s a confident and playful edge to this team that makes them incredibly fun to root for.  From Pete Carroll on down, you can see the enjoyment that the entire team finds in playing with each other, and you can see how hard they are competing on every play of every game.  It’s hard to watch a team like this for very long without getting sucked into their energy and competitive fire; after a recent trip back to Seattle, I can safely say that the city hasn’t been this fired up about a sports team since the glory days of Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp ran into the heyday of Ken Griffey, Jr.  So no matter what happens this week, the future is bright for the Seachickens.

 

AFC Divisional: Houston Texans at New England Patriots

The Pick:  Patriots (-9.5)

The Song:  Say That by Toro Y Moi

Toro Y Moi is getting set to release his new album Anything In Return on January 22, and based on the sound of some initial track releases, it’s going to be an exciting next step for the artist.  Over his last couple of releases as Toro, Chaz Bundick has put out some deeply laid-back funk that doesn’t hesitate to explore any sonic tangents that may present themselves.  The result has been some very solid records that succeed in creating a very pleasant listening experience, but ones that were not without down-key moments in which the musical meandering felt more self-indulgent than purposeful.  That looks to be changing with Anything.

With tracks like “Say That,” it appears that Toro Y Moi are beginning to beef up their sound – adding an edge to the synth hits, and making the low end hit a little bit harder, amongst other things – while also bringing a focus and relative structure to the songs.  These tracks are strong when standing alone by themselves, and they have the feel of an artist becoming more confident and self-assured as he matures with his craft.  The album has the potential to break Toro to a whole new audience, and that’s a great thing to see.

 

 

Personal Soundtrack

9 Jan

The Song

 

Nuthin’ To Do by Common

In 2013’s world, Common is a suave, well-built character actor with a velvety voice who occasionally lays down above-average rap verses on the side.  That’s a bit of a departure from the Common of nearly twenty (holy shit) years ago, who climbed to the top of the underground hip-hop scene behind hungry, sensitive, and brash verses that found the sweet spots on top of and within iconic beats from the legendary Chicago producer No I.D.

Common’s early records are head-spinning combinations of a warm, laid-back and funky production aesthetic paired with wordy, breathless, and at times frenetic lyrical verses.  The apex of this period is Resurrection, and within the underground hip-hop world at the time of its release, Resurrection was monumental – the match between Common and No I.D.’s vintage productions was a match made in hip-hop Head heaven.

What makes Resurrection so noteworthy, apart from Common’s performance, which is compelling, is the career-defining production from No I.D., who produced nearly all of the record.  For No I.D., Resurrection represents not only the producer’s best body of work, but also a clear example of the producer’s musical signature, and of the aesthetic contributions he made to hip-hop that continues to influence the genre today.

No I.D. is often referred to as the godfather of Chicago hip-hop, and he has long been a mentor and partner with Kanye West.  One listen to Resurrection, and you know exactly where Kanye got the inspiration for many of the production touches he used to propel his stardom and influence the global music scene.

The production of Resurrection sounds almost timeless, forever encapsulated in a fuzzy cloud of old jazz and soul samples, dusty drum hits, and undeniable grooves bubbling from the low end.  Everything comes off sounding like a fresh vinyl record even if the tracks are streaming through a computer.  It’s a warm sound that still manages to hit hard and get heads nodding.

“Nuthin’ To Do” is a standout track on Resurrection, presenting a strong example of the album’s best qualities.  The old-school sample of choice on this track is a smoky saxophone, sounding out and glancing off into the ether while the bass line keeps things tight with the drums and the record scratches at just the right times. This is the sound that Kanye rode to superstardom, and it’s still influencing him today – and the work of every other hip-hop artist out there aspiring to be the next Kanye.

No I.D. was doing it way before everyone else, and he was doing it the best on Resurrection.

The Activity

The mournful bleat of Miles’ horn trickles out through an unknown and unseen window, crawling over brownstone bricks and finding your ear just as you set your head back and close your eyes against the Day.  Right now the Day is earning the mental capitalization you’re giving it with the aggressive heat and humidity it’s tossing around like a statement of purpose and power.  The temperature has hovered just above 100 degrees for several hours, and with the sun sitting firmly in the highest part of the sky, things show no sign of abating anytime soon.  You half-crawled over to this front stoop solely because of the light shade its steps offered; the vinyl explorations of jazz icons is the least of your concerns as the sweat cools momentarily on your forehead.

As you collect your breath and allow your body temperature to retreat from dangerously high levels, the sluggish aura of the city begins to lull you into a hazy state unique to days like these.  Before you know it, the brassy blows from Miles and Co. have taken over every other sound around you and now brush against your face lightly with the force of a light breeze.  Every blast from a sax sets you off even further from reality, a fact that you don’t begin to appreciate until you next open your eyes.

Your first indication that things are not entirely normal comes with the young couple walking hand-in-hand across the street from you.  His denim overall and snap-back combo could probably be overlooked as a forward-thinking fashion throwback, but the distinct patterns of her dashiki and bold beats of her boxy boombox are noteworthy.  The thing she’s holding is enormous, and as you look around your side of the street, is not alone.  There are shiny metallic boom boxes everywhere – in open windows, on front stoops, cradled under arms of every passersby.  And with another blink, you realize that they’re all playing the same music.

Upon the recognition of the deep musical grooves now completely surrounding you, you also start to notice that each sonic beat is accompanied by the appearance of vibrant stripes and squiggles of color on the urban landscape.  These bits of color squirm around, diverging from and bumping into each other with patterns that are completely in sync with the music of the moment.  You haven’t seen anything like this since the glory days of Tribe and Common Sense, and it’s not a bad way to spend the day.

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

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