September 8, 2010

Short-order music


Philadelphia band Dr Dog announced today that they would be making a handful of new tracks (written since Shame, Shame) available for free download to their fans via their Facebook page over the next few weeks. The first offering, “Take Me Into Town” is an unhurried bluesy treat:

STREAM: “Take Me Into Town”

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Scott Hutchison from Scotland’s Frightened Rabbit blogged Monday about how he recorded a cool, collaborative EP of songs with folks from Twilight Sad, Idlewild, and others in a remote house in Perthshire (with “plenty of fruit wine”) and lickety-split, two songs were available now for free download (quite good ones, all broguey and anthemic). The Music Like A Vitamin supergroup is raising money for Scottish mental health, which of course you need after you submerge yourself in the marvelous misery of Frightened Rabbit for too long.

STREAM: I Forgot The Fall – Music Like A Vitamin (download two songs here)

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And then of course Tallest Man on Earth and Sufjan both dropped EPs on us from out of the blue (bam! available now!), Josh Rouse put together a free EP of live cuts and remixes from El Turista last month, and current Fuel/Friends favorite Drew Grow and the Pastors’ Wives made a name for themselves by releasing a steady stream of 7″ singles in the Portland music community over the past year, coming out in advance of their full-length, as they wrote and recorded them.

This trend I see gaining steam among indie musicians this summer is one that I love. I call it “short-order music” — not to imply a lack of quality (some of those diner omelettes whipped up in three minutes can be the best thing you eat all week) but rather a visceral, vibrant, of-the-moment transmission direct from the artists you love into your eardrums.

Arguably, we are becoming an impatient, on-demand culture whose attention span is brief and flickering. Nowhere is this more true than in the music community. One is reminded of Veruca Salt (who wants it NOW, Daddy) in our insistence to be constantly sated and titillated, and I am no different. But perhaps musicians can also harness this constant hunger to work in their favor.

In an age where the anticipation of a full album (and the inevitable leaks) can severely quell a musician’s financial gain from new music, this seems like a possible temperance. The guerrilla approach to releasing new songs via digital EP seems to encourage the immediate, bite-sized purchase of new music. At a few bucks per pop (or as Scott Hutchison blogged, “only six fucking quid!!”), it is more financially palatable for fans who are often used to getting, well, everything for free. There also is the perception of less risk – with only five songs, it’s less likely you’ll be getting that 12-minute art rock jam instrumental at the end of the disc. Unless you like 12-minute art rock jams.

While of course there will always be a place for us to fall in love with the well-crafted, cohesive, full album, I also welcome the willingness to mix things up a bit during the in-between days. Let me see what you’ve been up to since the tour ended. Surprise me with four new songs from the summer when I wake up tomorrow. Yeah?

August 14, 2010

Lollapalooza 2010 shines


Lollapalooza took over the massive lakeside green of Grant Park last weekend for its sixth year as a stationary festival in Chicago. I was unable to get myself to The Prairie State, and sent two talented writer-photographers to cover it for Fuel/Friends: Dainon and Kathleen. I ached with jealousy at their text and cell-phone pic updates all weekend long since it sounded like an incredible lineup.

Let them tell you about what rocked at this year’s Lollapalooza.


Dainon: The sunshine and subsequent sunburn was as inescapable as the flip flop abrasions, the beer tents at every turn and enough music-filled stages to satisfy the most ADHD-addled music listener, but Lollapalooza delivered on its promises. It was about as sold out as festivals come (to the tune of 80,000 happy faces, by some estimates) and every band these eyes saw actually started on time, and everyone who offered, “Hello, Lollapalooza!” into a microphone was cheered and celebrated like crazy. It may as well have been its own hometown city, true enough. That’s the kind of pride that came along with its mention.

Kathleen: Friday dawned steamy and warm, but not overbearingly hot – which was incredible, given the fact that I naturally associate summer music with blinding melanoma-inducing heat. Instead I trekked over to my very first show, which was the Washington D.C based group, These United States. I have seen this band many times before, and yet my dancing feet don’t seem to remember to get tired of them. Their thumping, surging, pedal steel laced rock and roll created an optimism for the rest of the day in the committed crowd (commitment at a festival means getting out of bed before the headliner).

These United States

I wish I’d caught their whole set, but one of the issues I have with new places is my complete lack of direction. I circumnavigated Grant Park (approximately the size of the Earth) completely before finding my entrance. I actually felt myself perk up when I got to the These United States show, and I’m pretty sure I owe my consciousness and perkiness to those gents and their predilection for expansive, raucous rock.

D: Jeff Tweedy showed up during Mavis Staples’ set on Friday (something I’d sorta banked on possibly happening, considering he’s producing her next album), playing acoustic guitar for a couple songs while she sang lines only she could get away with in that setting, ones like “Only the Lord knows and He ain’t you” and “I’m gettin’ too close to heaven to turn back now.” I think Tweedy grinned wider and more than I’ve seen him do in the three full Wilco concerts.

The Walkmen

K: The Walkmen seemed like such a throwback to me. Wearing nice slacks and ties, I almost thought they’d launch into some 1950s era doo-wop. Instead, I was met with a howl so full of conviction, I turned to the people next to me to see if anyone else was surprised. Instead, most people seemed to be expecting it, craving it. The Walkmen made a show out of rambling and reverb, out of bare-bones music that the band members seem to get lost in. I felt a mystery in their show, a depth like if they kept playing for five more hours it would end up in a place totally foreign to where it started.

The Strokes
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K: Closing the night Friday with their first show on American soil in four years, The Strokes seemed to be a last vestige of true, epic rock and roll. Julian Casablancas entered, five minutes late, wearing sunglasses and a studded leather jacket. He put his foot possessively on a front speaker and launched into the fiery guitar licks with a coolness that make the Strokes what they are. Their show was incendiary. I actually felt a fire in my belly that held in a tight little ball, expanding to a blaze whenever the poised melodies would break out into all hell, filling the night with revolutionary, explosive sound. The cheering blended right in to each song, people chanting along to Casablancas’ droning voice (myself included). It was anthemic, a show that somehow reflected and validated all the passionate air guitar that I’ve been perfecting since childhood, just for moments like this.

strokes 3

D: When The Strokes took the stage, Lady Gaga was doing her thing way over on the other end of beautiful Grant Park. While a quick two or three glances in her direction revealed that people were determined to take in her set, even if they were a mile away and stepping on tiptoes to see the big screens, The Strokes forced us to look back fondly at the early 2000s, when their promise was far greater than their outcome. It didn’t rock us as hard as it felt absolutely comfortable to hear song after familiar song. Hearing the line “I want to be forgotten, and I don’t want to be reminded” sounded boozy and smirky and blurry, as it should have. It seems they’ve gotten over the whole buzz-band notion and allowed themselves to settle into their black leather and sunglasses and skin some more. This is a good— and maybe even great—thing.



K: Skybox is a boatload of local Chicago fun. It’s like they captured the essence of what makes me dance in front of people and put it in Tim Ellis’ voice. From the very get-go of their early Saturday set, I was smiling and jumping and making a general fool of myself to their complex, rich pop songs. It definitely helped that all four of them were dancing too, bouncing around stage and beaming in the same key as their relentlessly catchy tunes.


D: Once upon a time, I only knew one song by Austin’s Harlem. That song was “Friendly Ghost” and, every time it poked its head out of my shuffling jukebox of a laptop, it pounded itself on the chest like Tarzan and stomped on a bass drum pedal, and forced dancing feet. Their 35-minute set was one of the only ones I lasted all the way through for, partly because I thought I’d see a fistfight break out before it ended (sadly, it didn’t). It was all filled up with raw, short blasts of that unfiltered, unpolished, sweaty energy stuff. I’d venture they put more power into that single show than most bands do in a career. And you can take that nugget of truth to the bank and scrawl it on an album sticker. It’s deserved high praise, too. They may not be able to keep that going and they may burn out quick as they came, but at least they burned bright on that Saturday morning.

K: Harlem does not come from Harlem, I found out. It actually surprised me, what with the gritty, dirty rock they pump out, and their lack of conventional on stage niceties. These guys didn’t bother tuning in the beginning, argued with each other at the end of every final guitar lick, and yet…they were electric. It was a strange, sort of surreal experience to hear this teetering, crazed garage rock, the kind where the drumming sounds manic and the bass thumps unapologetically underneath spontaneous-sounding riffs that take over even a wide open festival ground. They absolutely commanded my attention, and drew me in as I thrummed from song to song with them, painfully aware of how straight-edge I am in the face of real rock and roll attitude. If they had been selling leather jackets anywhere near there, I would have bought one immediately.


K: I had been waiting see Warpaint since my braggart friends returned with tales of psychedelic girl rock from SXSW this spring. I was not disappointed. Looking like kids playing dress up in Mardi Gras masks and tie dye shirts, these four women launched themselves into their set with a level of commitment that made me feel as though I was sucked into a vortex of melting, earthy music. Emily Kokal and Theresa Wayman have these liberated vocals that just wrangle audiences. What shocked me was their floating, ethereal sound was still full of sharp edges, spikes, and dips. It was anything but just a pretty face. They also skipped right over their single from their debut album Exquisite Corpse, “Billie Holiday.” You know it’s a great show when they blow by the song everyone knows and no one seems to miss it.

The National

K: I hadn’t seen The National before Lollapalooza. I hadn’t seen them, but the number of times I’ve listened to, cried to, felt to The National far outstrips almost all other bands for me. So I practically launched myself across Grant Park to be one of the first people in front of the Playstation stage. Matt Berninger already had a green bottle of white wine chilling in a big plastic bowl on the stage, and the setlist taped where my zoom lens could find it. And just like it told me, when the guys strolled out, they launched into “Runaway.” Berninger has a baritone that socks me in the windpipe with its haunted depths every time. Live it was even better. I was rooted to my spot, blown away by the shifting, glowing soundscapes they were able to use to fill the enormous Grant Park.

national wine

Berninger carried himself with the grace of someone from faraway and long ago, like he should have a maroon leather wingback chair and a roaring fire at all times. They completely flattened me with their devastating performance, both tight and yet not the same as listening to the record. It was real and tangible, and offered a jagged edge that made the dangerous, sometimes downright mean, themes of their songs come to living, breathing life. I have to say, as I pulled myself away from the emptied stage, I felt sad and satisfied at the same time – as though I could not have handled more soul stretching, but that I hungered for more, like a musical masochism. Extreme? Possibly. Don’t psychoanalyze me, I didn’t write the music.

national 2

[Dainon’s take on The National is here. It was so good he needed an entire post. And this happened to a friend of mine and his kiddo – pretty rad.]


The Antlers

K: It was raining on Sunday morning, but that didn’t stop my determination to see The Antlers perform in muddy Grant Park. So I slapped a plastic bag over my camera and secretly wished the park was connected by a network of Slip ‘N Slides. Though that wish wasn’t granted, I did get to witness the painfully beautiful Antlers set. Antlers deliver the same shiver and ache on stage that they do on their records. Their sparse presence on the massive stage lent itself well to their songs, which talk about death and loneliness and layers in life. Granted, not the usual festival fare, but it was so fitting to be standing in the silver drizzle listening to songs about real things sung with such passion. It was grounding, and a fantastic breath before diving into what would end up being a hot, humid day.

The Ike Reilly Assassination
ike reilly

K: The Ike Reilly Assassination is a band I first heard about through this same blog, and I was so excited to go see the Chicago group tear my socks off and incite me to jump up and down. And sonically, they did just that. Unafraid to be loud, and delighting in having the whole audience sing along to “Valentine’s Day in Juarez,” I felt like the stage was filled with my crazy uncles at Thanksgiving dinner. Not the annoying crazy ones that pinch you, but the fun ones that you know might be a little drug addled from younger days with unforgettable stories that they just might tell you if you keep the brandy coming. The Ike Reilly Assassination put so much energy into their rollicking show, I would be surprised if they could walk afterward. It was the kind of performance where drum sticks crack and guitar strings snap, crackle, pop, and everyone’s smiling about all the fun coming out of it.

Mumford and Sons

mumford 3

mumford 2

K: I’ve wanted to see Mumford and Sons ever since their release of Sigh No More last year. I’ve yearned to see them. While I was waiting, along with the rest of the people in attendance at Lollapalooza it seemed, I was already getting a little giddy thinking of their joyful harmonies and liberated banjo rolls. A moment after Marcus Mumford (and people who are not, technically, his sons) took the stage, they swept me away immediately with the title track off the aforementioned album.

mumford 4

Their music builds, it swells, and it takes me along until it all crashes into runaway melodies that seem composed of innocent wildness. Even better was watching their faces, because they mirrored ours. They had a shining newness on stage that showed no hint of the pretension that could come along with such success. Their sound filled me up from the inside instead of sweeping around me; it held me and moved me, and yes, I did get tears in my eyes. There is such a fearlessness in Mumford and Sons. When they perform it is intimate and real and consuming. It left me breathless.

Frightened Rabbit
frightened rabbit 2

frightened rabbit

K: Frightened Rabbit is an eviscerating experience. Hailing from the gray moors of Scotland, Scott Hutchison’s lonely wail can transform into a heartwrenching, cracking scream in a single turn of phrase. Standing amidst a huge crowd of people who knew the words to all their songs, just as I did, was comforting but strange. For such cry-into-your-whiskey music, it seemed I had a lot of comrades who related. I loved when Hutchison would abandon words all together and throw in extra howls and punctuated with guttural “oh”s, like the cracks went too deep to express with simple human language. And yet, people danced. That’s the amazing thing about Frightened Rabbit for me, they revel in the muck of life. They yell and scream about the things that go the deepest, and do so in a way that makes you throw out your limbs and give yourself to the simple act of moving. Not forward, not backward, just moving so you know you’re not a bag of sand.

Arcade Fire
arcade fire

arcade fire 2

K: Closing the festival, Arcade Fire was a massive conglomeration of complete mayhem on stage – people switching instruments, lights flashing, sensory overload. And yet it all coalesces into a technicolor sort of sonic boom. I was amid the tens of thousands of people yelling along to the lines as we were all pulled into the strange video projected on the high stage. They were passion personified, their energy never flagging, their voices always threatening to bust at the seams and spill out into chaos. It felt like being part of a rock opera, especially when they moved to songs from their newest release The Suburbs. It was a whirling two hours of exhausting their musical library, satisfying people who came for old and new.

arcade fire 3

Everyone in Arcade Fire is a star, which completely surprised me. No one seemed to outshine the other, which made it a white hot spectacle that required a lot of time to let it sink in. I couldn’t help but get a buzz off everyone listening; from right up front to the street people gathered and singing, the music not losing any of its power with distance. There could not have been a better closer. Arcade Fire has never been one of my favorite recorded bands, but after experiencing them in the heavy Chicago night air, I don’t think I can forget the way I felt a part of that celebration onstage and off, a culmination of musical experience and community – with a light show.

arcade fire 4

Dainon: Maybe what I’ll most remember of Lollapalooza this year will be showing up an hour before The National started, while MGMT sang softly at my back. But that’s only the beginning.

When Matt Berninger came out and sang what amount to sad, twisted love songs, holding no emotion back, when he rushed forward to the spot I was and I reached out and touched him on the hand and microphone and looked into what amounted to being very sad, dark eyes, that was the unexpected middle.

As for the end? It came with dragonflies overhead and Arcade Fire singing “No Cars Go” as my legs very nearly buckled and I sat on an offered chair instead of a mound of cool grass. That long moment, the one that lasted for a number of hours, I like that I will never be able to unforget it. What’s more, it’s a movie that comes with a soundtrack, an impossibly, gorgeous summertime one.

Thanks, Chicago. Thanks, Perry. I’m not sure I’ve got it in me to do another one of these, but, as a first and last time, it was a success all over the place.

PS – Best overheard quote during the very crowded xx set: “Whoa! This is like the real version of Facebook! Hey, are you my friend?!”


Grizzly Bear
grizzly bear

The Black Keys
black keys

The Big Pink
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A big, pink fan at The Big Pink

the xx
the xx

See you in 2011?

[all of Kathleen’s pictures from all three days can be seen here]

August 6, 2010

New Frightened Rabbit: “Son C”


Selkirk, Scotland’s resident gutwrenchers Frightened Rabbit sent a new song out to their mailing list today, complete with an image of the lyrics and a strangely disembodied drawing (which would fit well with Tuesday’s post).

Frontman Scott Hutchison attempts to explain “a bit about the song”:

As is often the case, death rears its head. Most days, I think briefly about the way in which I may die, and what will be left behind aside from a collection of fat, muscle, bones and apparently a fair bit of carbon and water. Death is really what defines life – without it the whole endeavour would feel a bit mundane and pointless. Procrastination would be extended to years, even decades – what would be the point of doing anything if you knew you would live forever? So death is what keeps me going, even more so than effervescent tablets…

Son C – Frightened Rabbit

Frightened Rabbit is playing Lollapalooza this weekend (where I have a staff of talented writers reviewing the show for us), and they have a host of shows coming our way, including a lengthy fall tour through the States. Frightened Rabbit puts on an incredible, cathartic show and you should go.

January 13, 2010

here is a bedroom that you’ve never been in


Frightened Rabbit‘s 2008 album Midnight Organ Fight remains one of the most beautifully gut-wrenching albums I know of, and I fell for it hard that year. In his thick Scottish brogue, Scott Hutchison unflinchingly details the brutal end of a relationship with a scalpel and some lemon juice to pour in the wounds. It’s intelligent therapy, and it’s gorgeous catharsis.

But one thing we learn as the months go on is that nothing stays that dark forever, and eventually we begin to heal from the rawness. This first single from their forthcoming Winter of Mixed Drinks (due in March from Fat Cat) shows me the next chapter in this story. I know that love and loss are not unique to any of us, but this song feels presciently for me — the fierce uncertainty to this song, the defiant healing, the slight bleeding around the edges that I can still see between all the lyrics.

Nothing Like You – Frightened Rabbit

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This is a story and you are not in it
fought the pages torn out
here is a bedroom that you’ve never been in
here is your shovel, there’s the ground

Look two lovers covered in covers
I can put us to bed tonight
I am bruised, but she is dressing the wounds
night nursing a broken man

She was not the cure for cancer
and all my questions still ask for answers
there is nothing like someone new
and this girl she was nothing like you

Up awake and I’m post-apparition
I find I’ve come in a dream again
all the pain almost as painful as ever but
something in me was not the same

At night you’re in dreams of submission
I could claw back my heart and soul
as the size of this tumor diminishes
so we fill that black hole

She was not the cure for cancer
and all my questions still ask for answers
there is nothing like someone new
and this girl she was nothing like you

September 10, 2009

Monolith is this weekend!


The third annual Monolith Festival takes over the dramatically scenic crags of Red Rocks this weekend, with more music than you can shake a stick at or, say, run up and down a gazillion stairs for. You wouldn’t think it possible, but the organizers manage to fit five separate stages within the historic park, taking full advantage of the gorgeous views of Denver in the distance and the rosy rocks all around.

For the last two years, Monolith has packed in a sizable number of good artists, both well-known and fledgling newbies. This year is no different, with dozens of folks I want to see at what still feels like a boutique festival, in a very good way. You can get thisclose to the bands and get from stage to stage fairly easily (while toning your glutes — did I mention the stairs?). I plan to make the very most of my weekend this weekend — tickets are still available, and I think you should come too.

This year, Fuel/Friends contributor-pal Dainon is coming to the fest with me, to help cover all the goodness that is rarin’ to occur. We’ve each picked a handful of bands we are putting down as “can’t miss” on our Gigbot schedules. Who would you add? And why aren’t you coming? Oh, you are? Okay, good.


cymbalsHB: Simply from the band name Cymbals Eat Guitars, this Staten Island band had me at hello, before I even experienced their massively sweeping, shimmering music that alternates between chaotic lo-fi punk and the most enormous moments of Explosions In The Sky. There’s a lot of buzz behind this group after only a self-released album (it grew wings when Pitchfork named it Best New Music]. It’s like Chocolate Eats Guacamole, or Using Your Turn Signal Eats Long Hot Showers. I mean, if good eats good, you end up with something even more amazing, methinks. Let’s go see.

And The Hazy Sea – Cymbals Eat Guitars
[Saturday 5:40pm, stage]

KRS481_CDF142_outDM: There’s a reason why I saw Thao with The Get Down Stay Down three times in a row, three concerts in a row, three days in a row earlier this year (something I refer to as my own personal Three Thao Tour) … and it has to do with the honesty that accompanies a Thao Nguyen performance. She loses herself in her craft every single time she plays: the eyes shut and the guitar is wielded like a battle axe. Now that she’s got a new album on the horizon, with lots more shiny new songs to show off, this is an unequivocal no-brainer.

Bag of Hammers – Thao Nguyen
[Saturday 2:30pm, main stage]

frightenedrabbit-02-bigHB: I apparently like having my insides pulled out of me in devastating fashion. This makes me a good candidate for sorority girl in a slasher film or, since we’re actually talking in metaphors here, attending a Frightened Rabbit show. Fronted by a pair of literate brothers from Selkirk, Scotland, Frightened Rabbit released one of my favorite albums in 2007 and puts on a powerfully visceral, poundingly jangly, truly honest show. I will not miss this one.

The Modern Leper – Frightened Rabbit
[Saturday 3:30pm, main stage]

cotton-jonesDM: I hesitate to say I want to see Cotton Jones, only because it doesn’t seem like they’ve a rabid following, not that I can tell. I’d kinda sorta like to keep it that way, too. Liked ‘em when they were Page France but, with the organ in the mix, listening to their album is akin to filling my mouth with candy jawbreakers and not wanting to share. If you decide to show, just try and keep it down, yeah?

Blood Red Sentimental Blues – Cotton Jones
[Saturday 7:00pm, stage]

ok-goHB: Yes, OK Go does that genius dance in their backyard. Four years ago when that video came out, we didn’t have the luxury that we do now of sitting at a bar with friends watching it on an iPhone, as I did a couple of weeks ago. And guess what? It’s still marvelous. And I’ve always truly dug the sexy, driving pop sound of their music and its roots in semiotic intelligentsia (frontman Damian Kulash majored in it, and loves to create word images and twist a lyric so it rolls off the tongue just right). Dancing or no, this will be a really fun set to see.

You’re So Damn Hot – OK Go
[Saturday 4:45pm, main stage]

chromeo-coverDM: It seems like Fancy Footwork has been around forever now, right? Do you know Chromeo? Do you know they could prolly work you into a dancier, sweatier mess than Girl Talk? Did you know they lucked themselves straight into a time machine, picked up some sounds from both Hall and Oates in 1978 and polished them off for the rest of us to benefit from? Well, if you didn’t … you do now.

Fancy Footwork – Chromeo
[Sunday 8:45pm, Southern Comfort stage, also DJing the VIP/Opening party Friday night]

born-on-flag-day-deer-tickHB: Nothing about a band called Deer Tick can be mistaken for enchanted twee pop, or, as their MySpace page says, they are “0% indie rock. Believe it, butt-head.” There’s a good helping of rustic twang here, but not that this is a whistlin’ Dixie mullet-hunting way to spend an hour of your Sunday at Monolith. Think the old-time radio sounds of M. Ward (also on the bill this weekend) meets the rowdiest of The Felice Brothers but with a piercingly ragged, whiskey-soaked howl, and you’ll be on the right track.

Smith Hill – Deer Tick
[Sunday 7:00pm, stage]

edward-sharpe-the-magnetic-zeros-from-below-2009DM: Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros are the new freak-folky Devendra Banharts of the festival. If their Dave Letterman network television debut taught us anything, it’s that all we need is love. And beards. And an absolute bare minimum of four tambourines.

40 Day Dream – Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeroes
[Saturday 3:00pm, Southern Comfort stage]


[my pic up top from last year’s fest, poster by]

June 17, 2009

Swim until you can’t see land

The voices of certain musicians will always reach back into the muddy outlines of my memory, grab particular sentiments tightly around the throat and pull them swiftly into this three minutes, here and right now, heaving and in bloody color. Scott Hutchison from Frightened Rabbit soundtracked a sharp, raw portion of my life last year with unrelenting insight and wow — even tonight when I listen to his voice on this new song, it’s like taking the scalpel and turpentine to everything all over again.

Scotland’s Frightened Rabbit write songs that are wrenchingly honest and completely earnest. And yeah — pretty darn disconsolate. But there’s always intelligence and incisiveness in the lyrics, and a pulsating thrum of gorgeous energy in the music — and all of that bleeds through whether in the studio or on the stage in front of you.

They absolutely remain one of my favorite discoveries these last few years, despite what they do to me. A recurring theme in the things I love, I suppose.

Swim Until You Can’t See Land – Frightened Rabbit

[Video first spotted here; Frightened Rabbit plays Colorado’s Monolith Festival this year. I still really love this interview.]

December 12, 2008

Fuel/Friends favorites of 2008

Another year packed with music has come and gone. Music is a language I can’t create myself but it does me good to know that every hour someone out there is humming a snippet of a melody, returning to their seat at the bar with a head full of lyrics that just occurred to them, or tapping out a drumbeat on their leg in the car. People everywhere are trying to get it right, to get the music out just so they can be. I am glad that they do.

2008 was full of fantastic (and varied) music from all corners of the world for me. I sometimes feel overwhelmed with the quantity of music and the subjectivity that swirls around the ones that make it vs. the ones that no one ever hears. I wish I’d had more hours to listen to (and properly digest) more songs this year. As it is, these are ten albums (plus two EPs plus one carryover from last year) that affected me on a gut level in the past twelve months. These are the ones I listened to over and over, that knocked the wind out of me and made me glad I have ears.

These aren’t “the best.” These are just my favorites.


Nada Surf
I’ve been surprised by the intensity with which I’ve listened to this album in 2008. I guess it’s tapping into the introspective moments of my year as it pertains to “grown-up life,” which Caws sings is like “eating speed or flying a plane — it’s too bright.” The album cover hints perfectly at the feel of the music; the moment where it’s still warm from the sun but the gorgeous pinpricks of light are starting to shine through. I talked today about the cascades of glory on this album, a blazing meteor from this band that’s been around so long. I saw Matthew Caws perform solo last night and he said, “We feel blessed to have a second story,” (post-mid-Nineties buzz band). “It’s the story we always wanted anyways.” I’ve listened to this album a hundred times this year and it still affects me deeply, makes it okay to be fragile — and to be on a vector up.
[original review, interview]

Beautiful Beat – Nada Surf

Midnight Organ Fight
Frightened Rabbit
(Fat Cat)
Coming from Scotland with their hearts held out for the offering, these two brothers plus two bandmates have crafted an album that is not for the fainthearted, but excellent for the honest. Over gorgeous melodies and with a thick and wrenching Scottish brogue, Frightened Rabbit guttingly dissect the moments of bravery and moments of weakness that go with a relationship ending. Peter Katis (The National) produced this lilting, rocking piece of perfection — unflinching in its intimacy.
[original review, interview]

Backwards Walk – Frightened Rabbit

For Emma Forever Ago
Bon Iver
I didn’t know when I started 2008 just how much I would need this album. Justin Vernon recorded this achingly vulnerable album in the Wisconsin woods in the dead of cold winter as he recovered from a breakup. The name he adopted means “good winter” in French, and I think the name fits the music as well as that ice-encrusted window on the cover. In winter, things move a little slower, but with more crisply defined edges, and the first time I heard this something was scraped loose inside of me. His music is wrapped in a thin skin but a current thrums powerfully under the surface. This is an album that I am unable to shake.
[watch: still one of the most perfect things I’ve seen this year]

Skinny Love – Bon Iver

Stay Positive
The Hold Steady
I think the thing that gets me with the Hold Steady, this year or any past year when they’ve released an album, is that they are unabashed in their belief in rock and roll. Craig Finn is a modern day prophet who flails and explodes with the force of the catharsis of these fantastic sounding songs that they must get out. The lyrics trace some of the most intelligent, evocative stories you’ll hear with characters I feel I know by now (they might as well be breathing). This is an immense album, with the pounding piano that crashes across the songs and the brass instruments slicing through. Gorgeously grand and subversively hopeful.
[original review]

Constructive Summer – The Hold Steady

The ’59 Sound
The Gaslight Anthem
(Side One Dummy)
If the Hold Steady filter their love for Springsteen through a lens of kids raised on punk and The Replacements, Jersey’s Gaslight Anthem play with an urgency and passion of a pre-Born to Run Bruce, young and hungry. Lead singer Brian Fallon grew up in a home four blocks from E Street, and this band is crafting songs that hold up as well when howled out ragged as they do stripped down to their bare acoustic bones. There’s a wisdom and sometimes a resignation beyond their years.

Great Expectations – The Gaslight Anthem

Ode To Sunshine
Delta Spirit
Delta Spirit was formed in San Diego when lead singer Matt Vasquez was busking loudly by the train tracks and he met with Brandon Young at two in the morning. The honesty and sloppiness that bleeds through at 2am is captured well on this authentic album with a vintage feel. It basks in the warmth of the surf guitars, the singalongs and handclaps and banging on trashcan lids, the tinkly last-call piano over glasses clattering.
[original review]

Trashcan – Delta Spirit

Dual Hawks
Centro-Matic/South San Gabriel
The cinematic desert beauty and chugging fuzz-rock found side-by-side on this dual album swooped in late in the year to win me over. I saw an acoustic video of Will Johnson, who helms both bands, performing “I, The Kite,” from an album I’d passed over too quickly the first time around. Both bands are Will’s and explore different dimensions of his music — Centro-matic electric like the heat in the air even as the Texas August sun has just begun to rise, whereas the more muted, spacious South San Gabriel has tones of evening and fireflies. This album was written and recorded fast and pure in a handful of days in the studio, and has a feeling of distilled essentials.

Counting The Scars – Centro-Matic

Oh! Mighty Engine
Neil Halstead
(Brushfire Records)
Taking six long years from his last solo release Sleeping On Roads, influential British musician Neil Halstead (Slowdive) comes quietly back with a humble album of acoustic folk melodies that rewards the listener for their patience. This is a slow grower for me, and I find that more hues in the songs are revealed to me the longer I sit with it — a task I am eminently willing to take on. Halstead sings about trying to get the colors right, and with these unassuming tunes I think he does.

Paint A Face – Neil Halstead

The Great Collapse
Everything Absent or Distorted
This Denver collective does things full tilt. They play with seemingly all the instruments they can find, in order to squeeze the earnest beauty out of every melody and every rhythm. They fearlessly meld incisive lyrics with a resilient hope, like on “Aquariums”: “We are aquariums — left outside, but we hold life and a bright light in our glass walls.” With eight official members (and up to 15 on stage) EAOD is a joy to watch, and that joy transmits onto this smart album of sweeping scope. Amidst banjos and casio keyboards, trumpets and pots and pans, this band is ready for a larger stage. Literally.
[original review]

A form to accommodate the mess – Everything Absent or Distorted

Little Joy
Little Joy
(Rough Trade)
It’s as simple as this: Little Joy just makes me happy. Their thirty-minute debut album is short and occasionally rough, it’s kitschy and danceable with Brazilian influences. I like the quiet Technicolor flicker of songs like the Portuguese “Evaporar” as much as the jerky fun of “How To Hang A Warhol,” and all the shades in between. Binki Shapiro’s vocal contributions on this album are especially charming, as she croons out of my stereo like an old-time Victrola.
[original review]

No One’s Better Sake – Little Joy

HONORARY TOPS (should have been on last year’s damn list):

In Rainbows (physical release)

Because I was overwhelmed and ignorant at the end of 2007, and didn’t give this my undivided attention until someone sat me down in a darkened room and made me really, really listen to it.

And come on Heather. Come on.

Last Flowers To The Hospital (bonus track) – Radiohead


Second Gleam EP
The Avett Brothers
(Ramseur Records)
Scaling back from their potently explosive live show of punk bluegrass, the Avetts showed again this year that they can also craft devastatingly simple ballads relying solely on acoustic guitar, strings, and their pure voices that blend and compete as only brothers can. [original review]

Murder In The City – The Avett Brothers

The Confiscation EP, A Musical Novella
Samantha Crain
(Ramseur Records)
Also from the excellent Ramseur label, 22-year-old Oklahoman Samantha Crain has Choctaw Indian roots and a dusky earnestness to her alto voice. The five songs here tell a cohesive story (a musical novella indeed) with shimmering, unvarnished truth.
[original review]

In Smithereens, The Search For Affinity – Samantha Crain

LISTEN: Once again this year, I’ll be appearing on NPR’s World Cafe with David Dye on January 1st to talk about stuff from this list! We have a lot of fun. You should listen (online, or via your local station that carries the show), and tell your mom to listen too. I know mine will be.

[top image credit tim!]

November 4, 2008

Monday Music Roundup, Tuesday edition

On this rather historic U.S. election day, I can almost feel the crackle of excitement in the air around town. I am pleased with this. I am excited for people getting involved and for the sense of personal commitment and ability to make a difference. As the wise Italian hip-hop sage Jovanotti once said in his song “Dal Basso” with Michael Franti: “tutto nasce dal basso (e poi va su)” — all change is birthed from the bottom (and then rises up). Let’s go out and do it.

The music of the week for me includes:

Black Rice

As demonstrated at their scuzzy-loud, pop-layered, feedback-drenched show last night in Denver, there aren’t actually any women in this Canadian band. They are, however, engaged in a fierce battle for “Worst Band Name To Google, Ever.” Currently Air and Bread hold the title, but Cake and Spoon are close behind. Nice try, Women. Their self-titled debut album (out now on Flemish Eye) was recorded by labelmate Chad VanGaalen, and possesses a delightfully unclassifiable combo of ’50s reverb, Warhol’s art experimentation, and ’90s spaceyness. The night seemed abuzz with folks wondering who this band was.

Steal Away
Murder by Death
It is not possible to hear this song and deny that the spirit of the Man In Black is back walking among us in fresh new incarnations. The moniker Murder By Death sounds vaguely emo, but actually they take their name from the 1976 Neil Simon/Robert Moore movie. This four-piece from Indiana turns an inventive and melancholic ear to their craft to create a uniquely brooding blend of creatively dark Americana. Red Of Tooth And Claw is their fourth album, their first on Vagrant Records, and the excellent Eric caused me to take a closer look at them when he wrote that it’s “full of fatally-doomed antebellum romance and directly descended from the Southern gothic tradition.” Yes.

Blitzen Trapper
Currently on tour with Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus and his Jicks, Portland’s Blitzen Trapper comes through Denver later this week in support of their rad Sub Pop debut Furr. The title track is one of the loveliest songs to add to my playlist in recent months, and one creative friend wrote that it “makes me well up like I am watching that movie about sled dogs by disney,” a description that amused me greatly. This previously unreleased tune from BT carries on a bit of that wild playfulness, and can be found on the soundtrack to the movie adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s Choke, which also includes the 2004 Ben Kweller song “The Rules,” and a Doors cover by Nicole Atkins & The Sea.

The Sun Smells Too Loud
The sweeping cinematic grandeur of Scottish band Mogwai will take the willing off onto mental escapades, much like what Sigur Ros does for me. The last I heard from Mogwai they were weaving their atmospherically gorgeous contribution to the Zidane documentary, but the newest free Matador Records sampler highlights this cut off their sixth album The Hawk Is Howling. It is dizzying like a bright sun, elegant in the build and cascade.

Good Arms vs. Bad Arms (live)
Frightened Rabbit

As I’ll probably sum up in some sort of end-of-the-year retrospective, Scotland’s Frightened Rabbit put on one of my top 5 shows this year. Some might shy from the guttingly brutal lyrics in their introspective-but-ferocious songs chronicling the death of a relationship, but I’ll jump in. I’ll do the catharsis, and they do it so well. Frightened Rabbit have a new live album out now on FatCat UK called Liver! Lung! FR!, which is an unconventional but fitting title for a band that eviscerates me like this. This version of Good Arms vs Bad Arms is slower, sadder and somehow more beautiful than the album version. It sounds almost like a eulogy, and in a way I guess it is.

September 19, 2008

it’s got lots to do with magnets and the pull of the moon

One of my favorite bands discovered in 2008, the eloquent and eviscerating Frightened Rabbit from Scotland have finally recorded a Daytrotter session for your musical consumption. Check out four songs: “My Backwards Walk” and “Poke” from Midnight Organ Fight (substituting the Scottish way of saying head – heeed!- on the latter tune for the bad four letter word that starts with a c), plus “Be Less Rude” and this one from 2006′s Sing The Greys:

Square 9 (live on Daytrotter) – Frightened Rabbit

Of the song, frontman Scott tells Daytrotter: “I was heavily into Doves at this time, and still am. This was some attempt to ape their sound and rhythmic pounding. I was also interested in using that Blue Monday kick drum on an indie rock track. The song itself is based on the common theme of wanting to start again with someone. Throwing out what’s happened before and remembering why you were together in the first place.” I interviewed Scott back in June and I have continued to listen to the current record at least once a week since then.

Get the other three downloads and words here. Frightened Rabbit is currently on tour with Death Cab For Cutie and Spinto Band.

June 19, 2008

Using all the colors :: Frightened Rabbit interview

In the short time I’ve been listening to Scotland’s Frightened Rabbit, something in their music has hit me hard. Their latest album Midnight Organ Fight has been more or less on constant repeat and haven’t even come close to getting tired of it. You can read all about it here.

Scott Hutchison formed the band with his brother Grant (who is an insanely ferocious and passionate drummer) in 2004. I was curious to learn more about the person largely behind these gorgeous songs, so Scott and I sat in a Denver parking lot in the deepening twilight this past weekend and talked a bit more about the emotional core of the record, the songwriting, and the production that Peter Katis (The National) brought to it.

They are Frightened Rabbit, they are on tour in the US, and yes, they are happy to meet you.


On Midnight Organ Fight you sing about working on erasing someone but lacking the proper tools. It seems that many of your songs on the record are a sort of catharsis, or a tool for working through a difficult situation, but at the same time, a constant reminder of some pretty rough times. Is that ever a difficult dichotomy?

Well, during that part of my life, that relationship and that situation was a really major part that wasn’t going to go away anyways, so I didn’t really see the songwriting as therapy or anything like that. It was just the most important thing that was going on at that point in time, and the only thing I really cared enough about to write about.

And now, each time I sing the songs I definitely think about that time just naturally, like imagery pops into my head, but the whole thing’s not hard anymore. Performing them every night definitely takes some of the edges off of it, but you still have to transpose whatever energy or emotion you’re feeling that day into those songs when you perform them. When the record was recorded it was still pretty fresh. It’s not really anymore. I’m really concentrating on different things when I’m doing it live, like playing it well, and getting energy into it.

I know as a writer that there is some sense of fulfillment when you can string together words that perfectly pierce the gut of what you are trying to express. All of the lyrics on the new album are extremely rich, but do you have any personal, small favorites?

Yeah, I really like the whole of the song “Poke.” I feel like something definitely happened with that one whereby I was able to exactly compartmentalize one particular time in my life – something about it, I don’t really know exactly what. I summed something up perfectly in that song, I really like the line about tying a navy knot, just how two people can be interlaced like rope:

“You should look through some old photos
I adored you in every one of those
If someone took a picture of us now they’d need to be told
That we had ever clung and tied a navy knot with arms at night
. . . I’d say she was his sister but she doesn’t have his nose”

And then I also like the line about “I might never catch a mouse and present it in my mouth / To make you feel you’re with someone who deserves to be with you.” There is a sense of compressing three years of worry on my part into that one line. Those words kind of appeared from nowhere.

But I don’t usually write in the moment or at the time of feeling, I usually write after the fact so that I can them almost fictionalize events and distance myself from them slightly. I’ve always thought that there’s one thing to be personal in a song, but then you’re really a fine line away from being selfish if you’re not externalizing it so other people be invited into your songs. I hopefully try and write so that there’s enough vagueness so that the emotion is specific, but the personal is not specifically mine anymore. People can attach their own emotions onto my songs, and I can let the songs go.

That must be kinda difficult to balance, because the emotion all by itself means less without any details or context.

Yeah. Of course, people close to me are well aware of lines meaning really specific things, which is fine, but I think the metaphors used are still idiosyncratic enough that not everyone feels those things as intensely as I personally would. I mean, I think anyone can even take most of the songs on that record and just enjoy them as rock songs, it depends what frame of mind they’re in.

But I definitely do try and get as much out of each line of lyric as I possibly can. I don’t like throwaway lines in other people’s music. I tried to make the whole record and each line matter. That helps with what we were talking about before, to make the live delivery of each line as if it really matters.

My first introduction to your music was actually a YouTube video where you covered a bit of Fake Empire before My Backwards Walk. The National are a bit formidable to cover, not many bands have attempted that that I’m aware. What is your relationship with their music other than sharing a producer?

I came to that song before we worked with Peter and got to know the record and loved it. I’d heard The National in a bar in Glasgow, and that song definitely came at the same time as when I was writing and finalizing some of our songs on the record. When I first heard “Fake Empire” –on MySpace cheesily enough– I don’t know, there’s something about it where I just visualized myself inside of that song during that time in my life.

The National have a way with lyrics; there’s a line with them so often that really hits you so directly, and there’s wit which I really appreciate as well. I’ve never met the band, although I’d love to, so I cover that song 100% from a fan perspective.

I love Peter Katis’ work with The National, and you’ve said that with Peter you knew there was a certain way the record was always going to sound. Can you tell me more about that? How did that working relationship come about?

I got mostly what I’d expected from working with Peter, I just really appreciate the atmospheric quality he brings to all his records. Up to that point our demos and our first EP had sounded very closed, not really big. I really wanted to achieve a grander scale with this record. There was a completeness to the whole album and to the writing process, and I didn’t want the power of that completeness to be brought down by the music not being sonically powerful enough.

So Peter brought a muscle, I would say, to the record. He approaches things in production from a more scientific perspective than I do, which is good. He has his tricks that he uses on all his records, but he was really clear about the fact that he wanted to make our record unlike most of the other records he’s produced, which are quite dark. We got to the point at the end of mixing where he felt that this should really not be a dark record, actually. Hopefully we kept the power and the muscle without turning into Interpol. I mean, I think there’s black imagery, but also a hopeful aspect to the songs.

I can definitely appreciate the grandness on this record — I mean, there’s a place for the intimacy of bedroom demos, but the atmosphere and the beautiful sonic feel of the album kinda lends itself to expanding into new emotional areas through that as well.

Yeah, see the beautiful thing about Boxer is that there is so much breathing space for people to jump into the record. You can visualize yourself in the record and in the room . . . they definitely have a great way of describing rooms as well. The whole record has so much space, you can absorb yourself in it.

One of the nicest things that Peter brought to our record, actually, was that pulling back sometimes and taking things out. In my demos I tend to be all about filling the whole thing in. When I was younger, my mom tells me that I would always want to color in the whole piece of paper, rather than just drawing a person and a house and leaving it at that. I would want to color in all the white space to the very edges. I think that’s something that’s still there in me, I like to use all my colors. But Peter was very good at trying to make space so that there wasn’t that overload.

Is there a certain song you can point to on the record where you feel he did that really well?

There’s one called “I Feel Better” that I think I could have really taken over the top, going for more of a Phil Spector feel. But with what Peter did with that song, I feel like he made a difference in it. It’s completely different from the demo.

How has the response been in this leg of the tour?

It’s been consistently good. I mean we knew people were enjoying the record and it was doing quite well, but you’re never really sure what to expect until you get in each city and meet people and get their reactions about the songs. It’s been really nice. People are excited to talk to us as well, which is kind of weird for us, they want to meet us and talk to us about how they came to the record and why they like it. People are really forthcoming and very honest, and so many people apologize for being weird about it and taking it to heart but hey, they’re in good company with us. Really a big part of coming over here has been meeting the people that have connected with the record.

Do you feel like it’s been a long journey for the band to get to this point?

It’s been a really nice, steady growth. There’s not been a point with this band since its inception where I’ve felt that we’re moving backwards at any point. That’s the whole motto of the band, as soon as we feel that we’re traveling backwards perhaps it’ll be time to shake things up. But as for now, we’re moving forward and I don’t have any other ambitions aside from that.

In terms of our records, I really don’t feel you should be producing your best work on your first record either, or even on your second for that matter. I would say that I am in fact prouder of our second record, as a fan of albums – that’s definitely an album and not just a collection of songs. That first album was really written over a period of time when songwriting and playing music was more of a hobby to me so it’s more disparate. But this one is more a representation of me as a person, so I enjoy giving that to people more.


And giving to people from the depths of their gut is definitely what this band does superbly well. Later that night they blazed brilliantly through almost every song from Midnight Organ Fight, as well as several older ones from Sings The Greys (the chanting fraternal harmonies of “music now!” felt like a rebel yell). I think I felt walls shake at the Hi-Dive from the emotion reverberating through the near-capacity crowd. I doubt that I will see a better show this year.

Here’s the video I shot of the Fake Empire/My Backwards Walk. Their agitated intensity seeps out of every part, and watch Grant on the drums. The way he can barely contain himself as the song winds to the place where he comes in mirrors the way I felt in watching this song come to life:

Frightened Rabbit is playing tonight at Holocene in Portland, and on Saturday all you San Franciscans should absolutely head out to see them at The Independent. More tour dates follow in the coming weeks; I strongly recommend going home with the albums, a handmade t-shirt (like I did — thanks Steve!), and a renewed faith in the power of good songs and live music.

[My other pics from the show are here, and my creative friend Kate took some artsy shots which can be found on her Flickr]

UPDATE: I greatly enjoyed reading Daytrotter’s piece with Scott, where he tells 5 things that inspired him in the past week.

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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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