Category Archives: Music

Favorite albums of 2015: The third quarter review

Alabama Shakes, Sound & Color – There’s no weak sauce, from track the first to track the last. Wish I’d caught them in Indy this summer, because they’re most definitely on my “must see” list.

Dead Weather, Dodge and Burn – Maybe the best thing Jack White’s done since the end of the White Stripes. He sounds energized, and the Dead Weather sound stronger because of it.

The Do, Shake, Shook, Shaken – It’s just a great mix of electronic pop, moody lyrics and the gorgeous voice of Olivia Merilahti.

Heartless Bastards, Restless Ones – I like a band that keeps evolving. Restless Ones is a step beyond any of their previous albums.

Houndmouth, Little Neon Limelight – These Kentucky rockers keep picking up steam. Nice to see them get broader recognition.

July Talk, July Talk – Visceral blues rock with pop touches. They put on a terrific live show.

Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly – Kendrick is the only mainstream rapper I have any interest in, because Kendrick is the only mainstream rapper with something to say.

No Joy, More Faithful – High-quality stoner rock that would be more comfortable in the mid-1990s than the mid-2010s.

Sleater-Kinney, No Cities to Love – Going to see them for the first time in December. Can’t wait.

Young Fathers, White Men Are Black Men, TooWhite Men Are Black, Too, takes hip-hop to new strange, interesting places, and might even be better than To Pimp a Butterfly.

On the bubble: Action Bronson, Mr. Wonderful; Girlpool, Before the World Was Big; Pale Honey, Pale Honey; White Reaper, White Reaper Does It Again

Honorable mentions: Ryan Adams, 1989; Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit; Girl Band, The Early Years; Elle King, Love Stuff; Miguel, Wildheart; Speedy Ortiz, Foil Deer; Torres, Sprinter; Waxahatchee, Ivy Tripp

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Taylor Swift always comes out on top

If you’ve been living under a rock for the past year or so, you probably wouldn’t know that Taylor Swift’s 1989 is the album that defies everything we know about the modern music industry in that the album actually sold and continues to sell. And, of course, since Swift is the biggest international music star since the heyday of Madonna and Michael Jackson, the Bad Blood and Shake It Off singles have been pumped relentlessly by radio.

What you might not know is singer-songwriter Ryan Adams released a 1989 cover album this week. Yup, from Welcome to New York to Clean, Adams took on Swift’s hot tracks. He tweeted frequently throughout the process, even garnering support from Swift as the recording went on.

So how was it? To me, what was interesting was that, as Adams recorded, he talked about a Morrissey-Smiths feel to what he was doing. I, on the other hand, found that Adams’ 1989 sounded much more like a Bruce Springsteen album, maybe not so much lyrically, but the music and Adams’ voice are very much early 1980’s Boss. What I found more surprising is how well it worked for the course of the entire album. Shake It Off goes from being a privileged pop star’s girl-power anthem to the battle cry of a down-on-her-luck working class woman. Out of the Woods is low-key gorgeous, and How You Get the Girl feels like it has more depth. Adams deserves credit for making this gimmick not all that gimmicky.

The one low (or possibly less-than-high) note: Bad Blood, well, it still sounds like Bad Blood. It was the lone track that I knew exactly what it was from the opening tones, and it ended up being the only track where Adams couldn’t seem to shake Swift off. It works, but it’s probably the least interesting of the 13 songs on the album.

No matter what, Swift wins. She already had a hit album and critical kudos with 1989. She’ll probably walk away with a semi load of Grammys next year. Plus, Adams has given her some cred with the indie crowd. I won’t say it’s what Nirvana did with Unplugged way back in the day – because that was pretty big for Kurt & Co. and most of Swift’s fans will never hear Adams’ album – but it could definitely change a few minds and draw new listeners to Swift that previously wouldn’t have given her the time of day.

Plus, with Swift taking all of her digital catalog to Apple, those who use apps such as Spotify – like yours truly – will still get to hear 1989. Just not Swift’s 1989. Sort of.

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Favorite songs of 2015: The mid-point review

Anonymous, Desaparecidos – My favorite lyric of the year: “Freedom’s not free / Neither is apathy.” Payola is one of the better political albums I’ve heard in a few years.

Better Man, Leon Bridges – Cool, smooth, classic-sounding soul music.

Can’t Keep Checking My Phone, Unknown Mortal Orchestra – This disco funk track is addictive, the chorus easily embedded into your head so you’ll be singing it to yourself the rest of the day.

Chalk Snake, No Joy – No Joy turns up the distortion and pays little mind to traditional rock songwriting expectations. Chalk Snake twists and contorts, fading away in a trail of feedback.

Cherry Bomb, Tyler, the Creator – I have yet to be convinced of his ability as a lyricist, but Tyler’s ear for production is unlike anyone anywhere near the mainstream of hip-hop and few are as daring as he is willing to be.

Dirty Harry, Grace – The dragging tempo and the wavy synth sound that appears-disappears-reappears helps make it, but what really is the cherry on top is Grace’s ability to work over the top of the minimal musical backing.

Dreams, Beck – Aah. Now I feel better. Instead of dreary Beck making numbing, down-tempo tunes that don’t compare with similar offerings such as Mutations or Sea Change, we get Beck getting his groove on. The world is right again.

Gwan, The Suffers – Sounds like it could have been a Tina Turner B-side in 1972. The tempo is relentless, and Kim Franklin’s powerful voice drives the band.

Go Head, Awreeoh – I’ve been looking forward to the film Dope. This song, from the soundtrack, only heightens the anticipation.

Handsome, The Vaccines –  Cheeky, fun pop punk. The video captures the spirit of the track.

Hate Street Dialogue, The Avener feat. Rodriguez – The song has a real bounce to it, but the lyrics are much darker than the music backing it would imply.

Holy Ghost, A$AP Rocky feat. Joe Fox – Combination prayer and cry of rage, A$AP attacks the ignorance and corruption he sees everywhere, including those foul acts committed in the name of Jesus.

How Could You Babe, Tobias Jesso Jr. – A simple, gorgeous, heartfelt piano ballad.

I’m Callin’, Tennis – Smooth and low-key, I’m Callin’ works for the party or for the comedown after the party.

Institutionalized, Kendrick Lamar feat. Bilal, Anna Wise and Snoop Dogg – Kendrick drops knowledge about income inequality.

Johnny Delusional, FFS – I’ve never been big on Franz Ferdinand, but the child of the 1980’s hiding deep down inside me loves the new wavieness of this track.

Lawman, Girl Band – I love bands that aren’t afraid to make noise. Lawman is about as good as noise gets. That big, fat, fuzzy, drony bass sound holds it down while everything else swirls around it until the sound explodes all over the place.

Milkman, Bully – This song probably has as much in common with the catalogues of Sebadoh and L7 as it does anything in the modern rock scene.

Paper Girl, July Talk – The bluesy, raw sound of July Talk comes off even better live, as do the antics of Peter Dreimanis and Leah Fay.

Pedestrian at Best, Courtney Barnett – There’s just no one quite like Ms. Barnett and her smart, goofy, melancholy, endearing, stream-of-consciousness lyrics.

Rain or Shine, Young Fathers – I’ve fallen in the love with these guys the past few years. They’re most definitely not content to follow the hip-hop crowd. Rain or Shine is just one piece of evidence supporting that claim.

Strange Hellos, Torres – There’s a PJ Harvey-ness to this track that attracts me. I love how Strange Hellos builds and how the song draws its strength from Mackenzie Scott’s growling voice.

This World is Not My Home, Robert Earl Keen – Keen’s voice is perfect for this nugget of bluegrass gospel.

Trustful Hands, The Do – There are three or four tracks off Shake, Shook, Shaken that I could have chosen for this list. There’s just something warm, familiar about this track that gets me every time.

Uptown Funk, Mark Ronson feat. Bruno Mars – This track would work just as well in 1975 as it does in 2015. Bruno was the perfect choice to sing Uptown Funk, and the horns are spot on.

Honorable mentions: 15 Years, Houndmouth; Awake, Snoop Dogg; Baby Britain, Seth Avett & Jessica Lee Mayfield; Bleeder, Ceremony; Blud, SOAK; Blueberry Island, Julie Ruin; Bunker Buster, Viet Cong; City Boy Blues, Action Bronson; Damn Baby, Alpine; Don’t Wanna Fight, Alabama Shakes; Feel Right, Mark Ronson feat. Mystikal; First Choice, Oddisee; Foreign Object, Mountain Goats; For You, Genevieve; Julie, 100 Watt Horse; Kokaine Karolina, Elle King; Man Up, Nikki Lane; Melt Me, Hanni El-Khatib; Only You (Live), Anderson East; Power Man, Camp Lo; Prince of Slackers, Turn to Crime; Railroad, Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn; Roll Up, The Struts; Solid Gold, Turbowolf; Son of God, Will Butler; Too Much, The Steeldrivers; Vital Signs, Gang of Youths

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Favorite albums of 2015: The mid-point review

Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit – I get caught up in what Barnett does lyrically. The laid-back, stoner vibe musically makes a soft base for harder, more serious thematic moments.

The Do, Shake, Shook, Shaken – The most I’ve loved an electronic pop album since Postal Service’s Up.

Girlpool, Before the World Was Big – This album seemed a bit too … twee at first. I kept waiting for the point where Before the World Was Big would annoy me or wear me out, and it never happened. This smart, stripped down collection has sucked me in.

Heartless Bastards, Restless Ones – Wow. I’ve been a fan for awhile, but none of the Bastards’ previous releases prepared me for this. Less straightforward and a little more diverse than the rest of their catalogue. Wind Up Bird (above) has some terrific, acid-rock guitar work.

Houndmouth, Little Neon Limelight – Kentucky’s finest polish their sound and drop an instantly lovable collection of country rock.

July Talk, July Talk – Last year’s EP was terrific. This year’s full-length is terrific-er. I think I’ve written this before, but it’s kind of like listening to Kylie Minogue and Nick Cave front the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion.

Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly – Kendrick is the only mainstream rapper I have any interest in. Part of that may be because he’s the only mainstream rapper who has something more to say than just listing off what expensive swag he owns.

No Joy, More Faithful – Grimy, fuzzy, stoner punk that would have been just as comfortable in the 1990s as it is now.

Sleater-Kinney, No Cities to Love – So, so glad to have them back.

Young Fathers, White Men Are Black Men, TooTo Pimp a Butterfly deserves all of the support it’s received, both critically and from fans. White Men Are Black, Too, takes hip-hop to new strange, interesting places, and – heresy! – might even be better than Kendrick Lamar’s latest.

Honorable mentions: Action Bronson, Mr. Wonderful; Alpine, Yuck; Girl Band, The Early Years; Elle King, Love Stuff; Mark Ronson, Uptown Special; Speedy Ortiz, Foil Deer; Snoop Doog, BUSH; Torres, Sprinter; Waxahatchee, Ivy Tripp

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06/13/15: Pixies in Indianapolis

The Pixies rock Old National in downtown Indy.

The Pixies rock Old National in downtown Indy.

I felt like I watched two concerts Saturday night. In the first, I saw a rote but solid run through of the Pixies catalogue. It wasn’t bad, but it just felt a little uninspired.

But then, late in the show, the Pixies started in on Indie Cindy and the energy changed. From that point throughout the final half hour of the show, we got to see an energized, engaged band that really blew the crowd away. I’d never seen the Pixies live before, one of those bands I’d just never managed to synchronize schedules with. That last half hour made me glad I’d made the trip.

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RiverRoots 2015 festival delivers, again

The Gibson harp guitar. I had the privilige of seeing someone play one of these bad boys at River Roots.

The Gibson harp guitar. I had the privilege of seeing someone play one of these bad boys at River Roots.

* This is my third RiverRoots Festival. Despite the near constant rain Saturday through the early evening hours, me and mine enjoyed the experience again. Saw a lot of good performances from the likes of The Wood Brothers, The Duhks, Haunted Wind Chimes, The Tillers, SHEL, Scythian, Michael Kelsey and Michael Cleveland and the Flamekeeper (more on those last two in a second). And, of course, I enjoyed more than my fair share of Indiana craft beer.

* Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper could have played another set as far as I’m concerned. Seamless, tight bluegrass is going to draw me in every time. Cleveland closed the show by himself, playing a quick fiddle solo. His bow work was flawless, and the song sounded pristine. I’ll be looking to see them again. And since they’re Hoosiers, I’m hoping they’ll be easy to find.

* Imagine Pink Floyd fronted by Ben Folds covering Prince. Kind of sounds like a disaster, right? But when it’s Michael Kelsey on vocals and guitar and his cellist, Tom (never caught the last name; he also played one of the harp guitars shown above), it’s freakin’ magic. Kelsey did all kinds of tricks and nimble fretwork, putting on a guitar clinic, but never got lost in the showiness, making it enjoyable for the audience while integrating his manic skills fully with whatever song he was playing. His cover of When the Doves Cry was both surprising – in that it was really damn good – and bold – that’s not a song you want to do poorly or assholes like me will call you on it. Like I said, this is my third visit to RiverRoots. This is the first time I’ve seen A) a crowd that big both in and around the smaller River Stage tent, and B) actually watched people leave to go grab their friends and drag them back to the tent to bear witness to an electrifying performance. Next time around, we need to see Mr. Kelsey on the big stage, please.

* My lone criticism … the RiverRoots website takes a humorous tone about the weather, noting that it’s always sunny and dry but it never hurts to be prepared for rain. And yet festival organizers somehow doesn’t think this preparation applies to the main stage. This is the second time in three years the main stage has had to stop because there’s nothing covering the performers in case of rain. This year, I was looking forward most to seeing folk singer Willie Watson, who was supposed to play on the main stage. When the rain came, the main stage was shut down, and Watson was moved to the second stage … which I found out about an hour after he finished. I never heard any announcement from the RiverRoots organizers – whether over the PA or via Twitter, which I monitored – instead being informed second-hand from someone else who had also missed Watson. However, if you just put up an awning or something, this interruption and confusion doesn’t have to happen. As my friend John noted, there’s probably 50 good old boys in the crowd who had the equipment with them to rig something up in half an hour and keep the show going. Hell, I’m not a good old boy or very handy, but I had a green plastic tarp with me that we could have added to the front of the stage to keep the music flowing. Time to take your own advice, RiverRoots: Hope for sun, and be ready for the rain.

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The Avett Brothers: 04/17/15 at Elliott Music Hall

Thou shalt not doubt the Avett Brothers. And yet I did.

This was the fifth time my wife and I had seen the Avetts live. Last time we saw them, summer of 2014 at the Lawn at White River State Park in Indianapolis, was the first time I wasn’t absolutely blown away by them. It was the first time we’d seen them with a full band, and it didn’t seem as if they were as tight as usual. Plus, one of my favorite things about these guys is when it’s just Seth, Scott and “the third Avett brother,” bassist Bob Crawford. The trio did some stuff by itself, but the new, full band was clearly the focus of the performance. Also, the crowd was easily 500 people or more larger than the previous two times we’d seen them at the same venue. The place was elbow-to-elbow, and, in an odd turn, a lot of people were there with very young children. The energy we were accustomed to was sucked out of the venue, added to that an element of claustrophobia. It wasn’t as much fun as out previous Avett experiences, and I was left with doubts.

Doubts effectively shattered and discarded. The Avetts I saw at Purdue University were tight, having fun, belting it out for the cheap seats. The new band members are now much more effectively part of the show. When Scott, Bob and cellist Joe Kwon jammed, it was more classical trio than bluegrass stomp. Violinist Tania Elizabeth soloed and sang, a standout performance on the night. The full band allowed the Avetts to take on some blues and more straight-ahead rock, something absent from previous outings. And the original three spent more time alone on stage, including a soul-stirring rendition of one of my favorite hymns, Alone in the Garden. Had they ended the show with their cover of the Grateful Dead’s The Race Is On, it would have been the perfect Avett performance.

But if I can’t have it all, that was more than good enough. Can’t wait to see the Avetts again, where ever my wife and I may find them.

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Fave songs of 2015, the first quarter review

15 Years, Houndmouth – It isn’t hard to imagine a bar full of folks stomping their feet and singing along to this country-tinged rocker.

Baby Britain, Seth Avett and Jessica Leah Mayfield – Avett and Mayfield sound sublime together, and this boozy lament (“Dead soldiers lined up on the table”) is one of my favorite Elliott Smith songs. Match made in heaven.

The Blacker the Berry, Kendrick Lamar – Kendrick doesn’t shy from America’s racism and speaks truth to power.

Bunker Buster, Viet Cong – These guys make good noise. If you like this one, check out their 11+ minute opus, Death.

City Boy Blues, Action Bronson – The more I listen to Bronson’s latest album, Mr. Wonderful, the more I like it. This little burst of neo-blues in the midst of Bronson’s top-shelf hip-hop collection is just one example of why.

Cross the Way, Moon Duo – Fuzzy, trippy stoner rock, somewhere between Jesus and Mary Chain and The Raveonettes.

Hate Street Dialogue, Avener feat. Rodriguez – An infectious groove with dark lyrics resulting in a unique sound.

Hey Darling, Sleater-Kinney – Compact and complex, the signature traits of any great Sleater-Kinney track.

How Could You Babe, Tobias Jesso Jr. – A soulful, plaintive piano ballad that Billy Joel would be proud of.

Pedestrian at Best, Courtney Barnett – Not having seen Courtney Barnett live is an oversight I need to correct, ASAP.

Penny Licks, Lady Lamb – A nifty shot at the sexists out there. The power of both the song and the singer increase as Penny Licks develops.

Pistol (A. Cunanan, Miami, FL., 1996), Modest Mouse – Weird Modest Mouse tends to be great Modest Mouse. This is no exception.

Trustful Hands, The Do – These “sentimental animals” craft a groovy, electro-pop gem with a bridge that seems like it could have been lifted from Tears for Fears’ Everybody Wants to Rule the World.

Uptown Funk feat. Bruno Mars and Feel Right feat. Mystikal, Mark Ronson – The power of Uptown Funk is simply undeniable. Feel Right feels like something that could have come off of a classic James Brown album.

Witness, Will Butler – Butler’s sense of humor mixed with the piano-driven power pop he’s peddling results in a pretty sweet tune. I’m not sure Butler should give up his day job with Arcade Fire yet, but his solo debut is worth checking out.

Honorable mention: All is Forgiven, Alekesam; Allie, Belle & Sebastian; Better Man, Leon Bridges; Bitch I’m Madonna, Madonna feat. Nicki Minaj; Don’t Wanna Fight, Alabama Shakes; For You, Genevieve; Go Out, Blur; Going Though Walls, The Do; Institutionalized, Kendrick Lamar feat. Bilal, Anna Wise and Snoop Dogg; Kelly, I’m Not a Creep, Young Guv; Mantra, Earl Sweatshirt; Melt Me, Hanni El Khatib; Miss Catalina 1992, Buxton; Natural Pearl, Murder By Death; Never Bury the Hatchet, Sons of Texas; No GMO, THEEsatisfaction; Only in America, Action Bronson feat. Party Supplies; Ray Gun, Ghostface Killah feat. DOOM; Rock & Roll is Cold, Matthew E. White; Son of God, Will Butler; These Things I’ve Come To Know, James McMurtry; This World Is Not My Home, Robert Earl Keen; Under a Rock, Waxahatchee

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It really is the ‘Best’

Bobo, Clara and Hedvig turn to punk rock to express their dissatisfaction with life in 1980s Sweden.

Bobo, Klara and Hedvig turn to punk rock to express their dissatisfaction with life in 1980s Sweden.

I saw We Are the Best! on a number of year-end 2014 lists, but always with qualifiers, the idea that “I like it” but “it’s not an awards film” permeating the chatter.

That’s a pretty good way to describe my experience with We Are the Best!. I loved the film. I thought often of Stand By Me. It’s that sort of coming of age film that many can identify with, raw, heartbreaking, funny and sometimes uncomfortable to watch, but always honest. I couldn’t imagine it as an Academy Award winner – it’s not a prestige pic – but that’s never been a problem for me.

Bobo and Klara, androgynous best friends fed up with their shallow classmates and crazy family situations, start a punk band. Neither can play an instrument, but that doesn’t stop them from writing their first song, Hate the Sport!, inspired by their loathing of their P.E. teacher. Eventually, Hedvig, a Christian girl who is a gifted classical guitar player, is sucked in to the band, and teaches Bobo and Clara a little bit about music. The rest is rock and roll history.

I found it worked for me on three fronts. First, We Are the Best! is just about being a tween/teen appalled at how ridiculous your family is. There are some great moments, particularly with Klara’s family, that really will inspire that “oh my God my family is such a fucking embarrassment” feeling that we’ve all known at one time or another. Second, I’ve played in a few bands and hung with some, and the randomness, lack of direction and tension that this trio go through rang true to me. Everyone has an agenda, and sometimes getting those agendas to mesh is messy. Finally, the boy-girl relationship trouble that almost divides the friends is heartbreaking and, for those of us who are bit past our teen years, entirely predictable.

I didn’t initially watch We Are the Best! with my 13-year-old daughter, because I didn’t know much about it and wanted to make sure it was appropriate. Now, I’m looking forward to showing it to her. Maybe she’ll start and punk band a write a song about how embarrassing her dad is. I can’t wait.

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03/25/14: Delta Spirit at The Vogue

I’ve been attending concerts since I was old enough to drive a car, and something happened at the Delta Spirit’s show at The Vogue in Indianapolis that I’d never seen before.

The final song involved crowd participation, clapping on the beat and singing “woo hoo” or some sort of simple call-response. The Delta Spirit ended the song and walked off, but the “whoo hoos” kept going, and the hand-clapping evolved into foot stomping, a thundering sound that filled the room. And it just kept going. The Delta Spirit crew, revved up by the crowd and on only the second date of their tour, returned in under two minutes and – rather than launch into the first song of their encore – went straight into a reprise of the song the crowd just wouldn’t let go of.

It was a terrific moment that capped one helluva rock show. Throughout the set, the Delta Spirit’s energy ruled all, and the crowd responded. I kept thinking of other great rock shows I’d seen, and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers kept coming to mind, both because the Delta Spirit play straight forward rock and roll and the way lead singer Matthew Vasquez played to those in attendance. The friend I attended with kept mentioning Kings of Leon, and I could see that, too. Delta Spirit may not have been playing to the kind of crowds those bands routinely perform before, but DS played like there were thousands watching.

I went in only knowing a little bit about the band. At the end, there was one thing I knew about the Delta Spirit for certain: I will be seeing them again live.

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