August 7, 2006

Monday Music Roundup

Color me tickled pink.

I had such an interesting, surreal time at the Radio & Records Triple-A Summit in Boulder on Friday. I got to meet a lot of interesting record reps and label folks, came home with a huge stack of new CDs to listen to, and learned about some cool radio stations and programming in the U.S. right now.

The day was this weird combination of folks who truly KNOW and LOVE music (I had more fantastic conversations in 18 hours than I have in the last 18 weeks) right smack alongside the business side of things, this pushing of music as a commodity. I saw the side of marketing and branding and distribution and all the things that are undoubtedly necessary in today’s world to have music be heard, but also seems in a weird way (to my naive and idealistic mind) to somehow contrast the beauty and art contained in a great song. But it’s necessary, so there you go.

It also felt a bit conspicuous being a blogger alongside radio programmers. I love radio, I love a good radio station, there is fantastic variety and quality on a lot of these stations. But I felt as if I might get run out of there at any moment because a blogger is kind of the anti-radio-programmer: instead of me waiting for a radio programmer at a big station to add the artists I feel passionately about, now with the internet and mp3 blogging, I can just go right to my computer, find cool new stuff, create a playlist, and essentially be my own programmer. So I am not sure how the two fit side by side. I think that a lot of folks there may have felt the same way: there was certainly a lot of warmth and interest towards what I do, but I was very aware of the dichotomy and wondering how, in the future, the two will intertwine.

The best thing about the day was that I found enough fodder for dozens of posts about new artists. Musicians were milling about, I got to talk to several on your behalf, hear about their musical philosophy, how their records were created, their backstory and their songs. It was beyond cool.

Here are some of the best new songs that caught my ear from the event:

Balancing The World
Eliot Morris
I believe this recommendation came about from a conversation wherein I was saying something about Counting Crows. The name of this artist immediately followed, and if you like Counting Crows, please give Eliot Morris a shot (I also hear some reminiscence of Matt Nathanson here). Uplifting, intelligent pop at its best. Check him out on MySpace – his album What’s Mine Is Yours comes out August 15th on Universal and I will definitely pick it up. The new release features collaborations with Dan Wilson of Semisonic and David Lindley (Jackson Browne, Bob Dylan, James Taylor). Funny, I just noticed that he is on tour with Counting Crows. Well, good pairing I guess.

You Made It
DJ Shadow feat. Chris James
From DJ Shadow‘s upcoming release The Outsider (Sept 12, Universal), and featuring Chris Martin Chris James of Stateless, this sounds like nothing I would have ever thought I’d hear from DJ Shadow. The electronic effects are restrained; this is mostly an acoustic guitar based song over a subtle, tense beat with soaring, melodic vocals. Very nice. DJ Shadow is currently on the road, through Asia and the UK (with one rad stop at the Greek in Berkeley, opening for Massive Attack in September).

I Wish I Was A Punk Rocker (With Flowers In My Hair)
Sandi Thom
Please be aware before you listen to this that it will stick in your head and you may find yourself singing it all day long, with its clever lyrics of nostalgia and being born in the wrong era. I saw Sandi Thom perform at the luncheon on Friday and I was impressed. She’s in her early 20s, a rosy-cheeked, passionate Scottish-Irish vocalist who was quite charming. There was a definite rootsy vibe and strength to her demeanor. Her accompaniment on this tune was a guy sitting on and playing an amplified wooden box, which fascinated me. Check her out on MySpace and her album Smile . . . It Confuses People. She plays Atlanta tonight and has a handful of U.S. dates coming up. I liked her and would see her again.

Fire Island, AK
The Long Winters
Okay, so one of the best sessions for me was the Rate-A-Record deal on Friday afternoon. Moderated by my friend Bruce, ten “mystery tracks” were played for us and we had these little handheld boxes that let us rate the songs on a scale of 1-10 and then discuss them. I could do that every single day of my life and be content. Sitting around and talking about music with real people (as opposed to blogging about it) was stimulating. This was one of the toe-tapping tracks that I liked (others hated), from The Long Winters‘ third release on Barsuk Records: Putting The Days To Bed. The Long Winters are doing what I think every band should do by offering 5 full-length mp3s on their website, if you want to hear more. “Members Emeritus” of their band have included Chris Walla of Death Cab For Cutie and Ken Stringfellow of The Posies.

Timely note: Nada Surf just sent a post on MySpace saying that The Long Winters are playing a secret show tomorrow in New York City. They say, “If you are interested in attending a free Long Winters show on August 8th in NYC (and are at least 21), send an email to and we’ll send you all the details.”

To Go Home
M. Ward
Another one I liked from the Rate-A-Record session, from M. Ward‘s forthcoming album Post-War (August 22, Merge Records). Where the Eliot Morris track above is pleasant and melodic and everything fits together, this track is thrumming and thumping with borderline dischordant piano in the background – but somehow it still all works together in a very compelling way. If you’d like to check out more from M. Ward, eMusic has a good selection of stuff from him. He is also currently on tour, and SO WORTH NOTING: The 3 California dates are supported by the formidable Mike Watt.

More music from the conference to come. Stay tuned.

August 5, 2006

Scratch: “Here is a story that must be told”

The exciting thing about exploring different kinds of music beyond your own personal niche is that you sometimes find common threads in the most unexpected places. Take the fantastic 2001 documentary Scratch from writer/director Doug Pray, which traces the musical and cultural evolution of turntablism & record-scratching from its ’70s roots in New York, through the ’80s craze and early ’90s, into the state of the genre at the start of this century and beyond.

As a music lover, I found it be a fascinating look at a world that I didn’t know much about, but one that traces common elements of the creation of music, the passion behind a new sound, the fury to create something fresh. It is a vastly entertaining 84 minutes that flies by to a consistently thumping background of interesting beats, with appearances by many of the major players in this scene from its inception to today (DJ Shadow, Cut Chemist, Mix Master Mike, Z-Trip and more). Filmed mostly in hallowed haunts of the hip-hop scene in New York and San Francisco, I also was tickled to see several places I know from California – from freeways and suburbs to Amoeba Records and The Fillmore. Visually, the variety of filming locations were interesting and authentic.

Throughout the film, the most-mentioned “revelation moment” in the interviews was the 1983 Grammy-nominated hit “Rockit” by Herbie Hancock. This was the first time that the sound of the scratch had made it into a song that was a commercial hit, and many were electrified in listening to that scratch for the first time. Mix Master Mike (of the Beastie Boys and solo DJ) recalls a sentiment oft-repeated throughout the film: “What is that zig-a-zig sound? I knew I wanted to do THAT.” Scratch captures some of the early passion and the fire that spread when this music was first created and played, and I related to the feelings of urgency in hearing a new sound.

Self-confessed record junkie/NY ad exec/DJ Steve Stein (aka Steinski) says he remembers thinking when he first heard these sounds: “There is nothing in this music that I don’t want to hear. This is music that I’ve been waiting all my life to hear . . . and I didn’t know it.” That’s a quote that could just as easily be applied to the birth of the rock ‘n’ roll sound, but here the same sentiment is cropping up 20-30 years later in the birth of turntablism and hip hop culture.

One thing that resonated with me was the assertion that scratching together records is just another way of making music: a turntable instead of a drum kit, different samples and breaks instead of guitar riffs and bridges. I had never thought of that before, and it is a fascinating concept. In the film DJ Swift explains, “The turntable is a musical instrument as long as you could see it being a musical instrument. You’re dealin’ with notes, you’re dealin’ with measures, you’re dealin’ with timing, you’re dealin’ with rhythm — It’s just, you know, different tools but the outcome is the same: music.”

I also recognized some of the same fiercely independent spirit in the production of this new sound, one that could just as easily be applied to garage rock bands of my youth. Producer Billy Jam from Hip Hop Slam Records said of the early days, “If you’re doing something and no one even gives a fuck about what you’re doing, and you’re just doing it in your bedroom for yourself, it’s like how you really feel, it’s like a painter goin’ crazy — That’s what happened and that’s why they would come up with this. It wasn’t like ‘Will this work at the club Saturday night.’ It was ‘Well, what sounds good to me and these people in the room with me?’”

My favorite segment of this documentary (that I completely related to & loved & appreciated) was entitled “digging.” The filmmakers followed DJ Shadow, Z-Trip and others as they go on the hunt through hundreds and hundreds of stacks of old vinyl, looking for that perfect beat, that hook, that break to insert into their mix to make it truly unique. DJ Shadow takes us to his favorite record store in Davis, California that has a basement filled to the rafters with old, forgotten pressings. He says, “This is just — it’s my little nirvana.”

After years of trolling the regular stacks and hearing references to “let me go check the basement” from the owners, Shadow finally got the guts to ask to see the basement himself, and has been coming back several times a month ever since. He says, “It’s an incredible archive of music culture. I couldn’t believe that there was still something like this, a cache this large. And it’s largely untouched.” Musical archaeology, baby.

This film also talked about the element of fun & surprise in scratching. Each artist wants to find something awesome that they can use, dropped into the middle of a mix, to just blow their audience out of the water. There was a passionate and enthusiastic story in the film, about the early days of seeing this music performed in a live setting. Zulu Nation grandfather/musician/cryptic dude Afrika Bambaataa apparently has a reknowned ability to uncover the perfect deep cuts to add to a mix: One night at a club in NYC, he handed the DJ a record and told him to play cut 2 – “The Clapping Song” by Shirley Ellis. “And everyone went crazy,” the story says. The perfect sound at the perfect time.

Since I was a wee child in 1983, I had never heard the backstory behind the famed Lessons, which were produced in ’83-’85 by Double Dee & Steinski — the first records made entirely from other records. Their innovative purpose was to be fodder for the turntables, a collection of sounds to scratch into others. Watch for the entertaining segment (and mindblowing to Steinski himself, who says “it was never intended to be done live!”) where DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist recreate the Lessons in a live setting.

Look, just this month the kids have all gone a bit nuts over the supremely enjoyable, ADD-inflicting sounds of the mile-a-minute mashups of Girl Talk, showing the debt that modern music owes to these guys who pioneered a fresh sound — even though their parents said “For God’s sake, be careful with that turntable needle. And don’t scratch up our records!”

Rockit – Herbie Hancock

The Clapping Song – Shirley Ellis

Lesson One (The Payoff Mix) – Double Dee and Steinski

Lesson Two (The James Brown Mix) – Double Dee and Steinski

Lesson Three (The History of Hip Hop) – Double Dee and Steinski

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Bio Pic Name: Heather Browne
Location: Colorado, originally by way of California
Giving context to the torrent since 2005.

"I love the relationship that anyone has with music: because there's something in us that is beyond the reach of words, something that eludes and defies our best attempts to spit it out. It's the best part of us, probably, the richest and strangest part..."
—Nick Hornby, Songbook
"Music has always been a matter of energy to me, a question of Fuel. Sentimental people call it Inspiration, but what they really mean is Fuel."
—Hunter S. Thompson

Mp3s are for sampling purposes, kinda like when they give you the cheese cube at Costco, knowing that you'll often go home with having bought the whole 7 lb. spiced Brie log. They are left up for a limited time. If you LIKE the music, go and support these artists, buy their schwag, go to their concerts, purchase their CDs/records and tell all your friends. Rock on.

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