Sunday, January 26, 2014

Week 3

Fight with Tools by Flobots

Ready for something a little different?

Instead of going track by track, I'm going to review this one as a single entity. In a word: revolutionary. In every sense, this album is both musically and politically charged to the brim. 

Flobots are an alternative rock/hip hop outfit from Denver with a really refreshing sound that fans of both underground hip hop and indie alternative will (and probably have) enjoyed. The group is made up of five members who make conform to the stock rock outfit (vocals, guitar, bass, drums) with the addition of viola and on this album, trumpet. 

From the get-go, it's obvious that this group is ripe with talent. From KennO's Questlove-esque beats (played on a real kit!), to the funky bass lines via Jesse Walker, to the alt viola lines by Mackenzie Gault, to the articulate and aggressive flows of Jonny 5 and Brer Rabbit, all the members of this group contribute in every song. The sound is very organic, but never tired. It's really great to hear a hip hop outfit using real instruments without a flood of sampling and studio polish on every track. If you want specifics, check out "Same Thing," "Fight with Tools," and "The Rhythm Method (Move!)." - PS. Don't be thrown off by the odd time signatures. Yeah, they do that too.

You probably remember the taunting chorus from their single "Handlebars" that got serious radio play back in '08. Love that song. From a musical standpoint, it's basically one giant crescendo, beginning with pizz. viola and bass, then to a rim-knock-infused breakbeat, and every subsequent chorus adding either instruments, volume, or both! Now to my favorite part of the song: the lyrics.

This song is an excellent cut from the disc because it shows how intelligent and crafty the writing is from the hip hop side of things. From the opening, 'I can ride my bike with no handlebars,' the listener is primed to think of a little kid accomplishing something most of us would consider mundane at best. The following verse to me, paints a picture of said child maturing by illustrating the growing weight of his accomplishments:

I can take apart the remote control
And I can almost put it back together
I can tie a knot in a cherry stem
I can tell you about Leif Ericson
I know all the words to "De Colores"
And "I'm proud to be an American"
Me and my friend saw a platypus
Me and my friend made a comic book

Each new verse (and chorus) are presented this way, displaying the accomplishments of a single individual from youth to adulthood:

I can design an engine sixty four
Miles to a gallon of gasoline
I can make new antibiotics
I can make computers survive aquatic conditions
I know how to run a business
I can make you wanna buy a product
Movers shakers and producers
Me and my friends understand the future
I see the strings that control the systems
I can do anything with no assistance

So at first listen this may be an optimistic anthem to show the power of one; the power of a single person in today's post-modern world where hard work and intelligence make just about anything do-able. However, upon extra listenings the final lines may change the listener's perspective: 

I can do anything with no permission
I have it all under my command
Because I can guide a missile by satellite
By satellite (2x)
And I can hit a target through a telescope
Through a telescope (2x)
And I can end the planet in a holocaust
In a holocaust (5x)

So maybe instead of innocence, this track is a tale of absolute power corrupting absolutely? Scary stuff that certainly is introspective to say the least. I'll tell you that this level of lyricism can be expected on every track on this album. These guys aren't just trying to get the crowd rockin' - they want 'em thinkin' too.

To conclude, this debut from Flobots is killer up and down. The instrumental talent - excellent, lyricism - thought-provoking, and overall sound - fresh. Flobots have since released two full-length albums that are sure to please fans of their first.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Week 2

Friday Afternoon in the Universe by Medeski, Martin & Wood

Time to get funky.

If you don't know anything about this group, then you're missing out on some of the funkiest, head-bobbingest, shake-your-groove-thingest jazz fusion out there. The MMW trio has been churning out their own brand of experimental fusion since the early '90s and frankly, they've never disappointed. They've managed to keep their sound - bass, drums, keys/organ mainly - while maintaining a fresh approach whether it's through guest artist spots or concept albums. This gem from '95 is no exception.

The opening track, "The Lover" tells you everything you need to know about this group. Billy Martin lays down some cowbell-infused funk on the kit, Chris Wood will keep your bass bones quite happy, and John Medeski makes the Hammond jump, jive, AND wail. This almost six-and-a-half minute track explores several textures and feels all of which feel great, which show just how versatile these musicians are. 

Before the albums third and fourth tracks, which to this listener are similar in nature, we get a little taste of the groups whimsical side. "Paper Bass" is a minute-long bass improvisation with percussion and keys accompanying. As a listener this little snippet doesn't offer much to grab onto, but being an avid MMW listener, I've come to expect these little ideas that surely reference some sort of inside joke or studio jam. (Three tracks later we get another example in "Baby Clams" with what sounds like clavinet, cello, hand drums, and pandiero.)

The album's third and fourth tracks, "House Mop" and "Last Chance to Dance Trance (Perhaps)" are of the same vein: hey both sound like a MMW spin on electronic house music. "House Mop" features an aggressive pounding upbright that is backed up by repetitive keyboard riffs/chords and uptempo disco drum grooves. "Last Chance" sounds like a downtempo version of the same idea. Lots of changing textures alternative with bass, keys, and drum breaks, much like an extended house music mix one might find in a nightclub. The MMW version however is much less digital and much more organic. This is one of those that you can close your eyes and imagine nightclub-hopping through the streets of some Eastern European city with a bunch of barely-English-speaking friends you just met who promised you the time of your life!

For the album's sixth tune, we get back to the super-funky feel established in "The Lover." "We're So Happy" features Tonino Benson playing ray-gun (yes, as in, the toy gun first-grade boys play with). The track progresses through some clavinet-ified funk with some crazy harmonies to some more straight up 1970's fusion with organ, every so often with a crazy free jazz jam session in between. The eight minute track's half-time section starts just before the six minute mark and carries us home. The variety and feel changes in this tune are always fresh and keep the listener guessing for the length of two normal pop tunes.

The following song, "Shack" sounds like a foreshadowing to the group's follow-up album "Shack Man," (a hip-hop inspired joint that ditches some of the free jazz techniques and replaces 'em with early underground drum breaks). "Shack" is much more predictable in its phrase length and harmony. Don't worry, there's still plenty of room for head-bobbing though.

The next interlude, "Tea," features Chris Wood on wood Flute blowing some crazy notes over an almost church-ready organ progression while Billy Martin doodles on the non-drumhead parts of his kit. 

We're back to the funk with the album's ninth track "Chinoiserie." Chris Wood is laying down a super-syncopated funk line that sucks you in right off the bat. Martin's choice of groove is as tasteful as ever and for Medeski, the choice to use a regular piano for the first half of the track is a nice change from the organ. This tune also features the only true drum solo we hear on the album which gives Mr. Martin a chance to show of both the variety of tricks in his stick bag but also his excellent control and ability to play with time.

The next one, "Between Two Limbs" is another interlude that for me, just fills a little space. Ironically enough, the texture and flavor of this piece sounds more like a stereotypical jazz trio than anything else on the whole album.

Track 11, "Sequel" is a textbook of how changing textures can totally change the feel of a song. Martin's bass drum and hihat start us off until we're accompanied with bass hits and then later, organ. The phrases are predictable, but every single time, we get one or two things that are just a little different then the last. This one's got plenty to teach any aspiring funk musicians.

The album's title track is up next and let me tell you, you're in for a doozy. "Friday Afternoon" sounds just like what the universe would play if it were condensed down into a funky jazz trio, went to have lunch at a tiny Ethiopian restaurant, saw a B-list movie at the dollar theater, and then broke into a recording studio to play instruments the musicians had only read about in books... Ok, maybe that's a small exaggeration. The song's first four minutes are a cacophony of exotic sounds and textures that frankly sound like a schizophrenic mess. There will be no shaking of the groove thing for this one. Shortly after the four minute mark, the group gives us a little snippet of stability with a tasty groove and ethereal organ and bass that too-quickly fade into oblivion.

Last interlude: "Billy's Toolbox." I'm pretty sure Billy Martin is playing with items from a toolbox while Chris Wood plucks some random strings on the upright for this half-minute idea.

Next up, we have "Chubb Sub." This is probably my favorite on the whole album. Super-funky with lots of crunchy harmonies that give way to some sweet organ riffs that are almost sing-able. This is quintessential MMW in this listener's opinion. Sure to please the masses and the trio enthusiasts alike.

The album goes out on a 48-second Thai flute solo by Carl Green that sounds like it's been recorded outside even though I'm sure the bird sounds are pre-recorded. Makes sense as the track is called "Khob Khun Krub" which we're told is Thai for 'Thank you.'

All in all this should be a staple in any MMW fan's CD collection as it shows of the versatility, instrumental prowess, and sense of humor that the group is known for. Check it out for yourself!

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Week 1

Lift Your Spirit by Aloe Blacc

If you want to start your new year off with a fresh dose of 'get-up-and-get-at-em,' then look no further.

This disc from SoCal's Aloe Blacc was released late last year outside of the US, after the chart-topping success of his co-written single "Wake Me Up" (which is often contributed solely to Sweden's DJ Avicii). If you've ever heard anything else Aloe has done, then you're already privy to his throwback soul sound. Think Marvin Gaye meets John Legend. Rarely does he dazzle with Gospel-inspired runs or Timberlake-esque falsetto, but his voice just has something that draws you in. It's very organic and honest. 

It begins with a less electronic version of Wake Me Up. We get the acoustic guitar that the radio has made us love, but the tempo is a touch slower and the instrumentation is much more intimate. I totally dig it. The honest lyrics regarding a carefree yet hopeful look forward reminds the listener to relax and to live in the moment. Simple and humble.

The next track "The Man," has been featured on a commercial for Dre's Beats Headphones lately (blech), so you may have heard this one before too. It's a song that exudes self-confidence, honesty, and responsibility. Once again, an uplifting track that reels you in with its background choirs and fresh beat. Another aspect of this song I like is that it's a direct contrast to the one preceding it. Even though both contribute to a 'lifting of spirit,' they approach opposite sides of the coin - something that was obviously premeditated, and appreciated.

The third track "Soldier in the City" reminds me of Stevie's "Livin' in the City" in content, and Marvin Gaye in sound. Not a huge fan of this track's overall sound, but it's not of any less quality.

Next we get "Love is the Answer." Immediately I'm reminded of Marvin. We get a funky bass line, plenty of horn hits, and lots of layered in vocals. The overall song is a little too funky for my taste but it's still well-done and will make you bob your head. In staying with the album title, this track is a call to show more love in the world. How can you not be down with that?

The next track "Here Today" is one of my favorites. If "Wake Me Up" was the first checkpoint for this album, this is the second. It's an inspirational song about living in the moment and making the best out of your opportunities. Just like most of the songs on this disc, this one is simple in both texture and lyrics. No verses ripe with metaphors or poetry here. Just Aloe telling it like it is. 

With the sixth and eighth tracks, we get the '90s R&B side to Aloe's sound. These are the two are are aimed at that special someone. Track six, "Wanna Be With You" is more upbeat and sure to be covered all over YouTube when it gets some play time in the US. It just feels good and is fun with which to sing along. Track eight, Red Velvet seat is the sexy one. It's got the same sparse instrumentation with sexy bass and half time groove that we got with Brian McKnight's "Back at One" back in '99.

The title track from Blacc's album is definitely the third checkpoint. Funky beat, funky guitar, and funky sangin'. The gospel backgrounds make this one easy to listen to. It's a song that reminds us to be thankful for those in our lives who've been there for us and to forget (or forgive) those that haven't.

The ninth track "Can You Do This" has the same neo-surfer rock sound that we've heard on the radio lately thanks to Cee-Lo and Bruno Mars. Upbeat, simple, and short. Definitely more of a dance number, but what soul album is complete without one?

The penultimate song (yeah I said it) is the only one that I don't really get. "Ticking Bomb" is foreboding, introspective, and just about as contrary to lifting your spirit as you can get. You can probably guess what the title means - the world is ripe for a gruesome end and it's not far off. I won't pretend to be a songwriter, but this one must have been included for a reason. Maybe Aloe just wants us to remember that even though we need to live in the moment, we can't do so irresponsibly. You do only live once, and even though it's best to live with a rather optimistic attitude, we still need to be aware that our time is limited.

The last song is a great way to come back from "Ticking Bomb". "Eyes of a Child" opens with, 'let your spirit fly high, let your spirit be free' is a direct contrast to the somber picture painted only moments earlier. It's got the influences of Marvin and Otis throughout. Very laid back with some tasty trumpet and strings lines. Absolutely enveloping. This one stays true to the album's theme and reminds the listener to once again, appreciate what life has to offer.

Overall this is a great album from an artist who's just getting his foot in the door. I can listen to it top to bottom without feeling the need to skip any tracks (very rare for me). If you're a fan of classic soul - Marvin, Otis, Aretha, Sam - then this album will have plenty to offer you. It's blend of well-produced tracks that strike a fine balance between new age studio polish and old-school charm pair perfectly with Blacc's new school look with throwback songwriting and honest vocal stylings. Look to pick this one up when it hits stores in the U.S.

A Few Things You Should Know About Me

Just to give you a little background about me and how I've come to know music...

I don't come from a musical background or musical family. Neither of my parents are musically inclined and no one from my extended family sings or plays anything outside of singing hymns in church and occasionally whistling along to the radio. Speaking of the radio, I didn't grow up listening to it like most kids. It just wasn't on at our house. I never had a cassette player or a Walkman. Didn't get a shelf system until I was a senior in high school.

I couldn't tell you who any of the artists on the radio were until late in my 7th grade school year. If the radio was ever playing, it was purely background music while we drove from one place to the next. 

In 7th grade, several of my friends were into some of the artists getting radio play and after a while I started to feel left out. I asked one of my buddies who I should check out and he mentioned one of his then favorite groups, Creed. Short story even shorter, the first album I ever bought was Human Clay. Soon thereafter I asked my father who some of the bands he enjoyed were and within the year I could tell you any artist or song that got airplay on the local classic rock station. 

So that's how it started.

I should mention that I met that friend in band the year before where by sheer happenstance, I joined up and by the peach fuzz of my upper lip, ended up playing drums instead of flute. 

Since then I've played numerous collegiate and professional ensembles, played a half-time show at the 2009 BCS National Championship, earned a Bachelor's in Music Education, and I'm almost done with my Master's in the same field. Oh, and I've accumulated just under 22,000 songs according to my iTunes library.

The Gist

So I like to read self-help stuff. So what. 

Well, the 'what' is that these days, I see more and more suggestions for you to have an e-presence, that is, a website or blog or profile on the internet. So here's mine. 

I listen to a ton of music so I knew my e-presence would probably be something related to my infatuation. At the end of 2013 I had a great conversation with a friend who has excellent taste in music and our conversation turned to popular music. For the record, I think 90% of the music on the Billboard charts is crap. It's like chicken fingers: cheap, easy to make, and for the most part everyone likes 'em. Until you have a good steak. Like a really good one. Then you realize just how plain and forgettable the chicken fingers you usually eat are. 

Our conversation was about how some of hip hop's recent releases are basically one or two singles surrounded by a bunch of filler tracks, without substance or content. I mentioned that part of the problem is that most artists aren't interested in making a total record anymore. It's much faster and more lucrative to produce a single every few weeks and then release them on a disc with a bunch of superficial crap to make the album full-length. She agreed, adding that a lot of today's 'rappers' are only rappers in the since that they speak in rhyme over a beat, not really endeavoring to contribute to their culture or art form. 

This conversation got me thinking. Which for the record (ha, get it?) I do a lot. With how easy it is to make a record (all you really need is a MacBook, a decent mic, and Garageband), there has to be plenty of artists out there who are making records. Like real records. Like make you wanna sit down with a nice pair of cans and just listen, top to bottom. Not hear the music while you do the dishes or finish a homework assignment, but just sit and enjoy every single lyric, solo, and nuance the album offers.

So that's what I'm doing. I'll pick an album for every week of 2014 and listen to it all the way through. I'll do my research, don't worry. I'll pick old stuff, new stuff, mainstream, and undiscovered gems from wherever I can and after multiple listens, I'll tell you guys what I think. 

Obviously my impressions will be subjective. That's what an impression is - something that the album impresses upon me. My impressions presumably, will be different than yours. That's a good thing. In any case, I know I'll enjoy it and hopefully you'll get something out of it too.