Category Archives: Music features

Tinariwen feature

For a band of nomads – a literal band of nomads – to make a musical impact on Western ears is an unusual achievement. Maybe such a group constitutes a curious aside on your favorite world music show, or garner a tiny blog mention as the preferred obscure listening habit of your favorite indie musician, but to be signed to the same label as Tom Waits and Nick Cave? To embark on a tour that takes them to rock clubs across the U.S.? That’s not just unusual, that’s nearly unprecedented.

But that’s exactly what’s happened with Tinariwen, a group born in the sands of Northern Africa that has exploded beyond the typical constraints of world music festivals and into a legitimate underground rock & roll phenomenon. One could argue that this newfound attention is due to the fact that Tinariwen’s compelling back story – they’re a loose collective of Malian musicians who were forced into Libyan refugee camps while their country was at war in the late ’70s – has helped them garner this newfound attention, but a story only goes so far.

The group’s raw, blues-flecked and dirty guitar sounds instantly resonate with Western audiences raised on rock. The guitarists’ circular, trance-like melodies are as insistent as they are inviting, as foreign as they are familiar. When threaded through the Tuareg rhythms and vocals that define the music of these Saharan nomads, the combination is deeply affecting and resonant, and not a little bit punk rock. Unlike other world musicians who have evolved over time to accommodate the ears of those in Europe and America, Tinariwen has remained true to their original sound, if not their ad-hoc roots.

“We always do what we want. In the ’80s, we were not a professional band, we were a collective of musicians who used to perform together for some traditional events,” explains lead guitarist Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, who helped found the group while a refugee in Libya. “There was no planning, no touring. We were recording tapes in some radios and people shared our music with tapes. [But] from the beginning of 2000, we became more professional; we hired a manager, an agent and so on. The music didn’t really change, though. We just needed to adapt it for a record.”

That newfound professionalism yielded results quickly, and in 2001, Tinariwen headlined the Festival in the Desert in Mali, which began that year as a celebration of traditional Tuareg culture, but would quickly grow into a massive annual event thanks to their popularity. (The 2003 edition featured Robert Plant and was documented in the excellentFestival in the Desert film.) This popularity soon spread to European audiences and, over the years, the group has gone on to play festivals like Coachella, All Tomorrow’s Parties, Glastonbury and others. For a group playing semi-traditional music in a language that few Westerners speak, this is a major feat, but it’s also been frustrating for Alhabib and the rest of Tinariwen, since so much of their music is message-based, touching on both broad issues of freedom and more overtly political themes.

“We try to offer translation in the CD’s booklet [and on] our website for people interested,” Alhabib says. “But I think that first, this is our special camel groove and this trance feeling that people love; they can enter in the meanings later.”

Those meanings, though, are still deeply important to Tinariwen, especially in these days of the Arab Spring.

“We are really happy about what [has] happened in the Arabic countries these days,” Alhabib says. “Libya is a more complex situation as [deceased Libyan dictator Moammar] Gadhafi had some relationship with Eastern governments and West African politics. A lot of people died also, and a lot of our people needed to leave Libya and have no lands to leave.” But, he adds, “Freedom is always what we were looking for as nomadic people.”

First appeared Nov. 3, 2011 in Orlando Weekly.

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Gaby Moreno feature

Odds are pretty good that you’ve heard a song by Gaby Moreno before. The L.A.-based singer-songwriter’s work received early attention from Nic Harcourt, NPR and the New York Times, and in 2006 she won the John Lennon Songwriting Contest. But that’s not why you’ve heard her.

You’ve heard her because she wrote the theme song to NBC’s Parks and Recreation. That song – 30 seconds of jaunty, life-affirming, earworm perfection – sounds nothing like any of Moreno’s other songs, which, for one thing, have words.

“I’m not even singing in it,” laughs Moreno about theParks and Rec theme song. “I don’t think people know who I am because of it. The credits at the end roll by so quickly that nobody probably even sees my name. I think if people know who I am, they know me for my music, and then they find out that I wrote that … and they’re surprised.”

Moreno is probably surprised herself. Although she’d had some experience with her music appearing on television previously – two songs from her first album, “Greenhorne Man” and “Little Sorrow,” found their way onto shows likeKourtney & Khloe Take Miami and Ghost Whisperer – those were actually songs that reflected her musical style. ForParks and Rec, that was not the case at all.

“I got an email that went out to a bunch of different people that this show was looking for a theme song. I had a description of the show … so I got my guitar and came up with a little ditty, but it was too folky. So I brought it over to my friend Vincent Jones, and we made it sound like an orchestral arrangement. We figured it was a total long shot, but then we got the call. The show was, I think, two weeks away from premiering. It was pretty surreal.”

Having moved to L.A. from Guatemala City when she was 20 (“I had my eyes set on doing something more international, and I was singing in English, so the obvious choice was to head to L.A.,” she says), Moreno has managed to be both self-sufficient and blessed with good fortune.

Her first album was praised by Harcourt and played on his influential “Morning Becomes Eclectic” radio show, and her performances, which range from intimate acoustic-on-a-stool shows to full-band rock concerts, have earned her plaudits from national media outlets.

However, instead of taking the traditional path from the coffeehouse to a record label, Moreno has released both of her albums on her own. While this meant that her debut, 2008’s Still the Unknown, was a stripped-down affair, it also meant that she was able to explore and expand her sound on her latest disc, this year’s Illustrated Songs.

“The first record, I did it basically in a living room,” Moreno says. “I didn’t have a lot of money and was basically just getting together with friends to jam. It’s very organic and very raw. But for the second record, I was able to go into a studio and make a bigger production out of it. I could have horns, I could have strings … I just wanted the recording to be bigger.”

First appeared October 6, 2011 in Orlando Weekly.

Leslie (Charleston, SC band) feature

Swamp boogie

South Carolina rockers Leslie look beyond the South

You’ve heard it before: A bunch of longhaired boys from the low country of South Carolina take off into the swamps to write some rock & roll songs. But this is 2011, and the members of Leslie aren’t from Beaufort or McClellanville, but from that shining, historic jewel of genteel propriety: Charleston, a city that’s home to far more shenanigan-seeking frat-boys and trust-funders than it is to shit-kicking good ol’ boys. It’s the sort of place where Jack Johnson and pink oxford shirts reign supreme, and it’s one of the last places in the South where classic-rock cowbells 
and non-ironic lyrics about “laying my burden down” would seem to be welcomed with anything beyond polite dismissal.

“I think we sometimes definitely find it hard to fit into the local scene,” says Leslie guitarist-vocalist Sadler Vaden. “I know that we are respected in the Charleston scene for what we do. We try to help everyone out as much as possible. It’s not a huge ‘rock’ town, in that there aren’t a ton of rock & roll bands around, but that doesn’t take away from how much talent is there. But we try to not just base everything we do on our popularity in Charleston. It’s where we live and we’ll always love it, but we have our sights set on the rest of the country and, hopefully, internationally.”

The fact that Leslie has its sights set beyond the Holy City is a testament to the trio’s effectiveness on stage; this isn’t a band content to merely work the boards in local taverns for friendly applause and free beer. To the contrary, Leslie is a band that works hard to push their take on accessible classic rock & roll in front of new audiences as often as possible. Here in Orlando, for example, the band has quickly evolved from an unknown opener playing to bartenders, soundboard operators and the occasional music critic to a headliner capable of getting stoic hipsters and inveterate rock fans shaking their asses side by side.

That level of effort and growth is apparent on the trio’s latest album, Lord, Have Mercy. Taking the somewhat unusual step of heading out to a “solar-powered swamp house in the Echaw Swamp” just outside of the Francis Marion National Forest, Leslie went for a semi-literal twist on the concept of woodshedding.

“That was more of us getting together and hanging out,” Vaden says. “No pressure … write some words down, play some guitar. It helped us really focus and kind of get away from the life of being home. It was very peaceful.”

Despite that environment, the musical mindset that Leslie emerged with from the swamp was anything but quiet. After committing the songs to two-inch tape at Ardent Studios in Memphis, the band emerged with an album that channels the strength of its live set, but with a more polished and expansive approach. And even though the band has just wrapped their debut album, their eyes are already on their next recordings. And, of course, getting out on the road.

“We’ve already started writing for our next record and we’re very excited,” Vaden says. “Lord, Have Mercy has a certain sound and direction, and I feel that it was something that we needed to get off our chest. The newer stuff is a little more grungy.

“We just love everything about rock music and we want to be able to entertain our audience to the fullest [on] every album and every night.”

First appeared June 30, 2011 in Orlando Weekly.

Inside Hard Rock Cafe’s Memorabilia Warehouse

Antiques Roadshow

Inside Hard Rock’s hidden closet

As 1970s yearbooks from private California schools go, this one doesn’t seem that unusual. The students look kind of privileged and kind of stoned; the teachers look like they’re totally cool with the events of the late ’60s. The students aren’t broken down by age, but listed in alphabetical order. The cast of characters is uniformly white … at least until you get to the “J” page, where four black faces stand out: Marlon, Tito, Jermaine and 
Michael Jackson.

It’s a jarring moment. It’s strange enough seeing the world’s biggest pop star in a relatively ordinary context – there are other immortalized schoolboy moments in the book, including one of Michael hanging out in science class in that goofy J5 hat and flares – but it’s downright disorienting when it finally clicks: I’m holding Michael Jackson’s yearbook.

This isn’t an M.J. convention or a memorabilia auction or the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. It’s a modest-sized warehouse room nestled in the back of a completely nondescript building in a MetroWest office park. And this yearbook is just one of the thousands of remarkable items that are stashed here.

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Prince’s Dirty Mind, 30 years later

Throughout many artists’ careers, there are watershed albums in which the musician undertakes a stylistic shift that was both unexpected and revelatory.

And then there’s Dirty Mind.

Released in October of 1980 – 30 years ago this month – it was the third album by Prince, and his first that demanded attention. On his previous albums, Prince flirted with fluffy post-disco funk (1978’s For You) and an accessible, if insubstantial blending of soul ballads and pop-rock structures (1979’s Prince). Neither album made much of an impact; his debut was all but ignored, while the follow-up got polite notices and spawned a hit in the form of “I Wanna Be Your Lover.”

A hindsight-is-20/20 listen to Prince, reveals some clues about what Prince’s future work would lean toward – the lesbians-are-cool lyrics and guitar histrionics of “Bambi,” the soaring, multi-part harmonies of “It’s Gonna Be Lonely,” the relentless funk of “Sexy Dancer” – but at the time, there was absolutely no way to guess that the shirtless naif on the cover of Prince would reemerge a year later in his underwear with a clutch of songs that absolutely nobody expected from a 22-year-old kid from Minneapolis.

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DWARR: Animals CD review feature

 

(4 out of 5)

Back in the ‘80s, they clogged the racks of nearly every record store: private press metal albums by local yokels attempting to cash in on whatever the current trend in heavy music was. There were bands that looked like Metallica and bands that looked like Stryper; there were Yngwie-biters and mock Maidens. They were, for the most part, completely unremarkable, especially the further one got from New York/L.A./London.

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Beach House feature

Like most people, Alex Scally and Victoria Legrand of Baltimore dream-pop duo Beach House needed a vacation. And like many of those people, they found their way to the visitor-friendly confines of Orlando. Unlike the vast majority of people, though, the two members of Beach House ended up at Will’s Pub to catch a Jesus and Mary Chain tribute show.

“We were writing, just hanging out,” says Legrand about why she and Scally were in Central Florida. “We were trying to take a break from our lives for a little bit, and a friend of ours’ family has a house there, so we stayed there. It was a cheap vacation.”

They were pointed toward Will’s through a fortuitous encounter with Travis Reed of the group Bananafish, who were on the bill that night.

“We had met randomly on the street before that, so we came to see the show,” says Legrand. “We had a good night.”

That January visit came just a couple of weeks before Beach House’s third full-length album, Teen Dream, was released on Sub Pop. It may be somewhat odd to think that a band would be looking to simultaneously “take a break” and write new music just days before the release of what was shaping up to be their breakout album. But despite the breathlessly gauzy sounds Scally and Legrand create as a duo, their music requires and receives an intense amount of focus and consideration.

“It’s a process. It’s organic. Trial and error,” says Legrand about Beach House’s creation process. “As you’re writing, you get three or four songs, and then you realize the sort of direction they’re taking. You start to know about the world and the intensity of the music that you’re making. As you’re writing, things become apparent; shapes become apparent, progressions become apparent, the world becomes apparent. It’s like anything you build or grow in life: You can feel the beginning, you can feel the middle and you can feel the end. Birth, life, death.”

That kind of forethought is apparent on Teen Dream. Beach House’s first two albums (a 2006 self-titled disc and 2008’s Devotion) were sublimely crafted and remarkably cohesive albums that, although toiling in a style that emphasizes slow-burn moods and gentle, ethereal progressions, were nonetheless wrapped around a tightly packed emotional core. With their latest disc, however, the band’s swooning, organic approach to instrumentation and arrangement takes on a more direct and front-facing demeanor, providing a more tangible link between Scally’s tranquil vocal style and dense clouds of piano, vintage keyboards, percussion and harmonies.

“It wasn’t intentional to be more direct. It’s not like we decided to be in anyone’s faces or anything,” says Legrand. “I think that happened more because of things we did in the recording, the place where we recorded and how we recorded certain things. It was all technical things, and they made things feel more physical. But it wasn’t just how we recorded it; there are certain rhythms, certain dynamics, certain shapes and sounds … all those things make it feel like it’s more direct.

“I think the intensity of the emotions [is] something that’s always been in Beach House, and there’s always been a depth, but maybe on the previous records you couldn’t feel it as much. When you’ve got a little more money to spend on the studio or whatever, it’s going to alter the way certain things sound.”

Having that bit of financial freedom was a boon to Beach House’s production process, giving the duo more than twice the amount of time in the studio this time around than on their previous album. Amazingly, none of the warm and fragile heart of Beach House’s music was tempered by this extended recording session.

“Alex and I have always been in complete control, and we’ve never gone into the studio without a very clear idea about how we want things to sound,” says Legrand. “Every song on the record was demoed and arranged and set in place before we went in to record. We don’t leave questions to be answered in the studio, but we do discover certain things.

“Still, I think too much time in the studio can destroy a record, but too little time can affect you having your vision fully realized. Of course, there are still things that we wish we could have done differently, but I think that’s great. Being satisfied is a terrible thing.”

First appeared Oct. 7, 2010 in Orlando Weekly.