Category Archives: Gotta Hear This Music

Treasure Island Music Festival: Saturday Evening

Brazilian Girls greet the San Francisco sunset
Brazilian Girls greet the San Francisco sunset

As a Floridian, most bands arouse the crowd by saying how surprised they are to see a lively crowd in the netherworld of suburban hell. All day at Treasure Island the bands were raving about how much they loved our city. While every band wants to sweet talk their audience, it’s easy to believe. Treasure Island has one of the best views of the skyline and I can only imagine, as a performer, what it must have been like to be standing on that stage with water all around you and San Francisco leaping up across the bay bridge. The weather was perfect when the sunset greeted the Brazilian Girls on Saturday night. They raved quite a bit about what a joy it was to come and perform at this festival. With the clouds turning yellow and gold and a warm breeze blowing through the autumn eve, I think most of us were happy to be there.

Sabina Sciubba of Brazilian Girls
Sabina Sciubba of Brazilian Girls
Look at that outfit!
Look at that outfit!
Brazilian Girls keyboardist Didi Gutman does not disappoint
Brazilian Girls keyboardist Didi Gutman does not disappoint

Even though they’re not actually Brazilian, I kept comparing the Brazilian Girls to the Brazilian act Cansei de ser Sexy. Both rely on a wordly, outrageous front woman that wears ridiculous outfits. Both have fantastic keyboardists. Both have a sense of humor and a touch of sexy. Where they differ is in their experience as musicians. Brazilian Girls have that been-around-the-block quality while CSS is still drunk on their own fame.  For this reason CSS puts on a better show—there’s a ton of energy and excitement that it’s a thrill to be a part of. But Brazilian Girls were satisfying, even if their audience was mostly drawing blanks when it came to their multi-lingual songs. I’d like to see them again when they are the main act and have an audience that truly appreciates them.

Really shitty bootleg photo of MSTRKRFT
Really shitty bootleg photo of MSTRKRFT

Once Treasure Island was fully cloaked by the dark of night, MSTRKRFT took the stage. Seeing a live DJ-set is always like ordering the mystery meat, and MSTRKRFT was no exception. Simply because someone is a good producer doesn’t mean they are any good at throwing down tracks on the fly or anticipating what the audience is feeling. I had hoped that since half of  MSTRKRFT was once in a rock band (Death From Above 1979) that they would be more committed to playing entire melodies unlike some other DJs I won’t mention *here. And they were slightly better. But I won’t say they picked the freshest dance tracks. More importantly, they did a lot of egotistical showing off of skillful song transitions that completely abandoned playing the best part of the song. A *lot of DJ’s do this and it drives me crazy. It wasn’t terrible but I would say the DJ that wasn’t even listed on the schedule was playing more songs that made me want to wiggle and jiggle than this all-star DJ.

MGMT at Treasure Island Music Festival
MGMT at Treasure Island Music Festival

MGMT was the headliner for Saturday night. MGMT started their set by announcing that this would be the last time they would be able to play these songs for a long time so they were going to play the entire album from start to finish. Holy smokes, right?! This implied that they are ready to hop into the studio to start working on new material, which is great news because we’ve all overplayed their first album and all it’s subsequent remixes till the phrase “Shock me like electric eel” leads me to **violent twitching.

It also meant that we of the mp3 generation were going to hear how the album was intended to be listened to.  Hearing the whole thing played through really did give it more of a narrative quality that was more cohesive than, say, the entire ***Green Day’s American Idiot musical.  I have often described MGMT to the uninitiated as a disco-folk band. But now that I’ve seen them I’d have to say they’re a psychedelic-disco-folk band. I caught some happy folks gazing at their shoes from time to time, including members of the band. They’re not a roof-raising show but they were skilled musicians and a good time was had by all.

The overwhelming sentiment
The overwhelming sentiment

*I lied: Bloody Beetroots, Crookers: shame shame shame

** not literally. It’s just overplayed, I’m saying.

***which was terrible. Just so you know.

Treasure Island Music Festival 2009: Sat morning

Perfect weather introduced the first and most promising act of the Treasure Island Music Festival: The Limousines. I’ve caught the end of their show once before and they were good enough that I got up early on a Saturday just to see them again. Unfortunately traffic around the Berkeley Bowl caused me to miss half their show again. Their songs are cute and funny and both the lyrics and the beat make me want to dance from even the first time hearing them. In my mind, The Limousines are the band of 2009 to get excited about.

The next act we caught was Murs. He had nice beats though his rapping voice wasn’t particularly special. We got up and danced for “To Protect and Entertain,” which is a Busy P track that he has a segment in. Surprisingly, he chose to use the Crookers beat live. Can’t be blamed, as that is one sick remix. That’s maybe the second time I’ve heard a live version of a remix (not counting Smash-up Derby). I wonder if, and how quickly, that will become commonplace—and if DJs will be given proper credit for their reworkings.

Passion Pit at the Treasure Island Music Festival 2009
Passion Pit at the Treasure Island Music Festival 2009
Taking pics with video screens is fun

After that came Passion Pit. I don’t know why these guys don’t stir me more live. Their songs are all lovely and quirky and danceable. Maybe it’s because none of them have an inner-diva that craves the audience to stay riveted on their every move. Though I’ve read that their breakout album was actually a love-letter from the lead singer to his girlfriend, no insight is given as to where the songs come from. Not that I am discouraging anyone from seeing Passion Pit. The audience was enthralled, singing along like true fans. Replaying the shit bootleg I recorded there stirs joy  in my heart. And they are still top of the heap among the bands putting out albums this year.

The Streets were the second biggest surprise of the festival. I’ve always felt that some of their songs were a bit slow or too repetitive but live the Brit-rapper’s charm and wit had me hooked. The Streets is a naughty but reasonable rake. The singer that accompanies him really adds to the show and the new guitarist did the kind of intensive shredding you don’t expect to see in a rap show. Blame all the photo editing I did prior to writing this, but Wayne Vibes made a cameo in my dreams last night. Anyone could plainly see that the penis of a man who can play guitar like that would have no trouble making new friends so it was no surprise when impish Streets informed Wayne that he’d be “getting laid tonight.”

Wayne Vibes: Sure to get laid.
Wayne Vibes: Sure to get laid.

A naughty boy
A naughty boy

At one point The Streets told a girl astride someone’s shoulders that she was blocking the view of all the people behind her. The penalty would be to remove her shirt. The chiding didn’t work on this girl but I can imagine that many titties are unleashed at Streets shows. As the show neared its end The Streets continually teased the audience that he had a favor to ask of us, just one favor, and that it was coming up. He finally had everyone in the audience “go low” so that you could look out and see the thousand behind you, crouching. Audience participation like this may ultimately be little more than silliness but it is a big part of *why I go to shows in the first place. I ate it up.

This man is not lacking in awesome either
This man is not lacking in awesome either

The Streets
The Streets

*Oh! Seed for future blog!

Song Lyrics and TV on the Radio

SeeqPod – Playable Search provided the songlist for the tunes mentioned in this blog

I have a long running argument with several people that love music but ignore song lyrics. Their thinking tends to be that they listen to music for the music, any poetry is incidental. I reply that by paying no attention to lyrics they are missing out on a huge facet of the experience, like watching a ballet without any music. True, not every great song has great lyrics. But finding out that a song you already love has an interesting story woven throughout adds a new layer of excitement to it. It allows a fresh discovery. I imagine this is one reason I am able to listen to some bands without tiring of them for months—because after getting to like the melody there is another whole layer to discover.

All art is simply communication—more stylized, beautiful, and complex but communication nonetheless. If one ignores the lyrics, that is like saying that you are interested only in the pleasure the sounds produce in your ears and not the idea the artist is using that music to impart. Thus, listening to music and ignoring the lyrics is a bit like kissing without affection. Most artists don’t sit down and just string together a melody. They usually have some idea of what the song is going to be about, at least a vague concept—love, politics, revenge. Just listening to an instrumental song, this is the most you can generally get out of it, an abstract feeling. Most artists have a more specific concept: “I’m going to write about how this person made me feel when they rejected me” or “I’m going to write a song about right now, lazing about on a Sunday afternoon.” All artists set out to express something, music is just their chosen medium. If they have taken the time to put words to the song, they’re giving you a message about what that song is about. As the music rises and falls, the lyrics correspond to that swell in emotion. You can speculate as to why the music crescendos and wanders as it does but if the artist has taken the time to write you a roadmap in the form of the lyrics, why not take a look at it?

How can one listen to “Both Hands” and not be drawn into the story about the woman on the third floor that listens to she and her partner’s “swansong”? Just the line, “I am writing graffitti on your body I am drawing the story of how hard we tried,” gives so much power and meaning to the song I am incredulous to imagine that you listen to the melody and aren’t moved by it.

Or the way Buffalo Springfield plings the guitar on the lines “Paranoia strikes deep/ Into your life it will creep…” That song is indelibly linked not just to the turbulant sixties but specifically to the clashes between cops and protestors. That song never had meaning for me until I listened to the lyrics. Now I can understand why it was a rallying call for a generation. The same goes with “Subterranean Homesick Blues”.

All this I’m talking about I experienced again today with TV on the Radio. I’ve been absorbing their sound for more than two years now and I never gave much thought to the lyrics. Electronic bands tend to be weak on songwriting anyway. But I happened upon a fantastic live acoustic version (which you can enjoy here) wherein the lyrics are more clear and I was able to appreciate them for the first time.

First I listened to “Young Liars.” The wordplay is intriguing and makes me want to listen to the song over and over to grasp how the interplay of these lyrics ties to the larger work. It starts off: “My mast ain’t so sturdy, my head is at half. I’m searching the clouds for the storm,” putting a dark sailing image in my head. This is followed by a huntress, her “bullets bearing the name of each tigress who’s left to a tooth. Save the skins for a pelt and the rest for a belt.” Later he says, “my heart’s still a marble in an empty jelly jar.” That’s a fantastic metaphor—it captures how he is feeling physically, intellectually and emotionally. He goes on to say that his nervousness will become prescience and “I’m Making maps out of your dreams.” The song ends with “Young liars, (Oh I said) Thank you for taking my hands/And burying them deep in the world’s wet womb/Where no one can heed their commands.” TV on the Radio has a sound that is dark and ominous, the music has already given us that abstraction. But more specifically the lyrics suggest the writer’s fear of the future and what he is capable of. And he does this using images (the ship in the storm, the ruthless huntress, the heart-jelly jar metaphor) that create a picture in the listener’s mind. The lyrics, though still vague, take the song from a pleasant abstraction and transform it into a dark journey. It adds such a visual layer to the song that a music video is the only way to supplement it (and videos never seem to be the artist’s vision, but the director’s, so it wouldn’t be the same at all). Reading the lyrics, how do you not visualize them? I picture the huntress on a B-52 bomber, loading a revolver, her legs crossed, a stack of rifles at her side, dressed in the 1940’s splendor of the Safari. And all this, visually, is just a metaphor for how he is feeling. You may visualize it differently, but undoubtably the image as you experience it brings something new to the song.

Now that I had discovered their lyrics, I was excited to move on to “Dry Drunk Emporer”. I was in for a surprise. I had no idea that TV on the Radio even wrote vaguely political songs but this one is clearly about our commander in chief.

The lyrics, in full:

baby boy
dieing under hot desert sun,
watch your colours run.

did you believe the lie they told you,
that christ would lead the way
and in a matter of days
hand us victory?

did you buy the bull they sold you,
that the bullets and the bombs
and all the strong arms
would bring home security?

all eyes upon
dry drunk emperor
gold cross cross jock skull and bones
mocking smile,
he’s been
standing naked for a while!
get him gone, get him gone, get him gone!!
and bring all the thieves to trial.

end their promise
end their dream
watch it turn to steam
rising to the nose of some cross legged god
gog of magog
end times sort of thing.
oh unmentionable disgrace
shield the childrens faces
as all the monied apes
display unimaginably poor taste
in a scramble for mastery.

atta’ boy get em with your gun
till mr. mega ton
tells us when we’ve won
what we’re gonna leave undone.

all eyes upon
dry drunk emperor
gold cross jock skull and bones
mocking smile,
he’s been
naked for a while.
get him gone, get him gone, get him gone!!!
and bring all his thieves to trial.

what if all the fathers and the sons
went marching with their guns
drawn on washington.
that would seal the deal,
show if it was real,
this supposed freedom.

what if all the bleeding hearts
took it on themselves
to make a brand new start.
organs pumpin on their sleeves,
paint murals on the white house
feed the leaders L.S.D
grab your fife and drum,
grab yor gold baton
and let’s meet on the lawn,
shut down this hypocrisy.

Wow. That’s a statement as bold as any rage against the machine like “Killing In the Name Of.” Here all along the phrase “Dry Drunk Emperor” was meaningless to me.  I was liking the sound of the words strung together and nothing more. But it is so concise and apt. Bush is a “dry drunk” and those two words express so much—a history of irresponsibility, weakness and mistakes, the fact that he is dry implies that he is stifled, unhappy and looking for some other outlet, like war. “Emperor” is a better choice than president (which he isn’t) or even king—as the latter is related to kingdom while an emperor leads an empire, something liberals do associate with our government. More importantly, “emperor” reminds us of “the Emperor Wears No Clothes” which he alludes to with “he’s been standing naked for a while!

“Dry Drunk Emperor” is more than a pretty song, it is a call to action. Like the Buffalo Springfield song, the lyrics mark it to this moment in history that so many of us feel connected to. Prior to knowing the words, I enjoyed the song but did not identify with it. Now that the lyrics have provided a key to understanding what TV on the Radio sought to express I feel a personal connection to the song and thus the band itself. This is so much more meaningful. It can only add to my experience of the music. And to all those music-lovers that like the pretty songs, and they like to sing along, but they don’t know what it means—well I say you’re only hearing half the music.

A Closer Look At: Of Montreal — the Sunlandic Twins

Unlike your average one-download wonders, Sunlandic Twins is a well-produced album with nifty tie-ins that shift the album smoothly from one track to the next. This is an album to listen to from beginning to end, preferably in the space right before dreams start. While some of the songs feel like transition pieces to the better numbers, most of them have an interesting progression and climax. Their sweet sounding harmonious voices are just harsh enough to be rock n’ roll when necessary. Sunlandic Twins is heavy on light keyboards, giving the work that happy sound reminiscent of the best the eighties had to offer.

The album kicks off with “Requiem for OMM2,” which sounds like a leftover from the British Invasion. “I Was A Landscape In Your Dream” is what a brain massage might feel like while “Wraith Pinned to the Mist and Other Games” is bouncy and bass-y. “Forecast Fascist Future” continues the fantasy with a well-constructed song that is somewhere between Dr. Seuss and Sci-Fi. The lyrics to this track are telling of the band’s narrative style:

The language of the frost lobs dead balloons over ruins today/
In view of wan wordless crowds that chase waifs to spires with fiery plumes./

There’s enough poetry hear to keep the listening interesting beyond the first two or three rotations.

The real gems on the Sunlandic Twins are “So Begins Our Alabee, ” and “The Party’s Crashing Us.” The latter is one for singing and dancing. If these indie-rockers had a club anthem, this would be it. A double-clap beat gives way to an electronic swell. It also features some of the most memorable lyrics I’ve heard in a long time:

Oh well, we made love/ like a pair of black wizards/
you freed me from the past/ you fucked the suburbs out of me./

“So Begins Our Alabee,” has a heavier sound. Like most of the tracks, the bass guitar and keyboard drives the song. This track is so furiously good that hearing it makes my heart beat a little faster.

Give this album a listen. Though the lyrics are at times inexplicable, the riffs are not. I could use your help interpreting their mad genius.

Stop the Genrefication!

I have a long-standing debate with my sweetie (one of thousands) about the word, “indie rock.” We all know bands that are clearly indie rock, I’m not even going to bother to list them. The question is, does it refer to a genre, or does it refer to the way the music is produced? If it is a genre, then bands like the Killers and Interpol, both on major labels, are indie. If it simply separates small-label stars from the bigguns’, then bands like the White Stripes, or before that R.E.M. or even before that, Lou Reed, are former Indie rockers, though musically dissimilar. Really, I’m not so sure what the electropop sounds of I Am the World Trade Center have in common with the rough vocals of Modest Mouse, other than independent label status.
Before you answer, let me take you back ten years, to 1996. Blockbuster Music (this is where you shopped in the suburbs if you were 16, because your mom didn’t know about Sound Exchange) has a new section of music called, “Alternative.” For about ten minutes I was excited about this exciting new genre that included all of the cool new bands: Nirvana, Bush, Radiohead, the Eels, Cake, Poe, Bjork.
Wait– Bjork?
Yes, Bjork.
That’s when it became clear that the only difference between “Alternative,” and “rock,” was that it was the music that appealed to people in my age group (make that, market segment). The actual musical styles had little in common. Perhaps there is nothing sinister in this. Blockbuster wanted my shopping experience to be as convenient as possible.
But it is a little bit like naming art movements, “Modernism,” or “Contemporary,” suggesting all that they have in common is that this is what people like right now. Well, (as I would have said at sixteen) duh. Is that the best description you can give?
I understand that many want to identify themselves as “indie-rockers.” That is the best music out there and anyone who listens to anything else is inferior (What? That is exactly what the indie-rocker is thinking). And an indie-rocker listens to what? Indie-rock music, of course.
But the way I see it, this can only go two ways:
1. Indie-rock is a genre consisting of any music that is on the verge of breaking big circa turn of the millineum (like “alternative” before it, which means jack shit now).
2. A band on an independent label is fantastic and mind-blowing until they get a record contract at which point they are not indie-cool anymore and they are sell-out snot-munchers.
Both of these are to be avoided! Please! I love indie-rock music! But let us not genrify.