Last night, an average Tuesday in Denver, I got to see a dazzlingly terrific show from Nada Surf at the Bluebird Theater, followed by a surprise open mic with Leon Bridges at the Goosetown Tavern across the street on Colfax.
Not my least favorite Tuesday.
Nada Surf is a power pop band that a lot of people squint a little when you mention the name, cock their heads and then sing a line of the song “Popular,” which folks remember from the summer of 1996. People should definitely know that Nada Surf has continued to write and create deeply wonderful music in the years since, getting a hundred times better than that (kitsch, fun) song.
[Lucky was a favorite of 2008 and still remains super high on my list of tremendous albums]
Their strengths lie in gorgeous harmonies and really intelligent songwriting, much of which plumbs the complicated depths of grown-up life, but through a power pop filter that I find super satisfying. (read my old interview with Matthew Caws here)
After a set that ran the gamut of old songs and new (we got “Blonde on Blonde” in honor of Dylan’s birthday, did a sweet two-step sway to “Inside of Love,” and man oh man that closing rendition of “See These Bones,” which just builds and builds to perfect glory) — here’s how we ended the show, all singing along together blissfully, before my phone ran out of memory (shakes fist):
Blizzard of ’77 final encore
Sweaty and fully sated from the glow of Nada Surf, my friend and I meandered across the street for some last drinks. As we nursed our glasses, a friend at the end of the bar stood up and said he was heading to Goosetown Tavern next door: “Leon Bridges is playing open mic.”
I nodded–and then did a double-take: “wait, what did you say?!”
Leon is in town to play the gorgeous historic Paramount Theater tomorrow night (it appears to be sold out), but last night as we walked in to a not-crowded bar, he was just sitting at the bar with his band waiting for their chance to go on for the regular Tuesday night open mic.
After his (on fire!) opener Solo Woods played a three-song set, Leon took the tiny stage with his saxophonist and drummer. He played one song solo acoustic, two songs with the band (“Better Man” and “Lisa Sawyer,” which he said was about his mama), and then, following the enthusiastic cheers that filled our small back room (duh), he came back up for a solo encore of a new song.
I chatted with Leon for a while, he is very affable and kind; the whole thing was low key and awesome. The musicians seemed to be enjoying it as much as we all did, just playing songs for the fun of it for the fifty or so people who happened to be in the bar.
Better Man 1
Better Man 2
Lisa Sawyer (about his mama, which I never knew)
All in all: an A+ five star Tuesday, would do again.
The first band I saw this year, marching along at 6th and San Jacinto at midnight
SXSW is the world’s best music festival if only for the sheer volume of superb choice. On any given day/night/early morning, I was staring at a ridiculously, totally stupidly embarrassing list of terrific musical choices. I was very cognizant that this spring break for grownups is one of the richest weeks of the year for me. I survived this, my “senior” (fourth) year, and came back bone-crushingly exhausted but smiling widely (and bruised without remembering precisely how I obtained my battle scars).
My stated primary objective for SXSW this year was to kick ass as a panelist, speaking during the Interactive segment on “Man vs Machine: New Music Discovery” on Tuesday morning. There was a write-up of the morning here from the Austin Statesman (the two pull quotes they used from me are hilarious and kind of sum up all of Fuel/Friends). It was a fascinating discussion that I strongly enjoyed taking part in, because ruminating on larger musical questions is one of my favorite pastimes, at any time of day (generally better with whiskey but I will take what I am offered, even if it is green room coffee).
The panel was pitched intentionally as a somewhat false dichotomy, since we all know that both the human recommendation and the technological algorithm can lead to a rad discovery — I suggested we just cage-match fight but no other panelists took me up on that at 8:45 in the morning.
My points eventually crystallized around the fact that I believe the nature of music discovery has changed: where you used to need a friend in the know to play you that punk 7″ they got in London in 1976 because humans helped to counteract musical scarcity, nowadays you need humans for almost the opposite reason – to place songs into some sort of a meaningful context, and to genuinely curate good music in a neverending flood of songs. An audience member asked the question of what the role of context is when it comes to music, and it was so useful for me to articulate this mission of what I do that I’ve added it over there on my sidebar: that I’ve been “Giving context to the torrent since 2005.” I think is a solid summation of what this site tries to be about, and why it is so fun for me, still. I want the context, the color, the personal framework around my music. Even if I then go ahead and create my own around that song as I weave it into my own musical life, I never forget the context in which it first came to me.
Panel completed and supernap under my belt, I moved on to the MUSIC. You can read in scintillating detail about my Austin adventures below, but everyone always asks when I come back which bands blew me away this year. I’ll tell ya without skipping a beat: Alabama Shakes and Of Monsters and Men. Those two bands are going to take all good music lovers by hurricane-level-5-storm this year.
Alabama Shakes @ Hype Hotel
Alabama Shakes @ KCRW Showcase
Alabama Shakes were absolutely, completely incendiary when I saw them early in the week at the KCRW daytime showcase. At 4pm. In the CONVENTION CENTER. Even at that hour in that business-like of a setting, I was wordlessly riveted to the spectacle before me, with shivers all over and some sort of weird lump forming in my throat through my smile.
It’s rare for me to see a band with a female frontwoman who I 100% want to be when I grow up. Brittney Howard is magnificent: ravagingly fearless in her command of the stage and her malleable play of the audience. She can shred on her red guitar and makes all of the hairs on every part of you stand on end, and she yowls out lyrics like, “I wanna take you out, I wanna meet your kid / I wanna take you home, baby tell me where you live.” Man, I love those lines, and I love even more that they are sung by a woman. I mean come ON. Even though in real life she couldn’t be sweeter, their music feels like she could rip you apart with her teeth and she is not ashamed. And that rocks. By day two of the music festival, everyone was talking about them on every street corner, and for good reason. Ho-ly hell.
Of Monsters And Men @ FILTER’s Showdown at Cedar Street
Secondly, seeing Iceland’s Of Monsters And Men at the FILTER party left me beaming. Best I can describe, this band has the loping dream-like qualities of Sigur Ros, the expansive exploding joy of Typhoon, and brightly compelling vocals from one of the singers that reminds me of Bjork. How’s that for a combo? Listen to their full debut album here.
This ship will carry our bodies safe to shore…
They had a shimmering assortment of instruments, a drummer who controlled every songs with his primal percussion, and songs that just soared off that patio. It totally and completely works for this band. GO SEE THEM if you can, they are on a sizeable US tour right now. I was exhilarated by them. Also, one of the singers is kinda a girl who looks like Skrillex.
Frank Turner @ Latitude 30
Frank Turner live at Latitude 30 was so combustible that I had to go back twice in two days to hear the crowd yell along to his anthems of belief and burning. I was converted, and not just by the tattoo on his right bicep that says, “I STILL BELIEVE.” He even sang his song about Prufrock, upon my sheepishly instantaneous request when he asked what he was playing next. That man has an astounding power in what he does (even after not having slept for 36 hours), as well as an electric way of engaging his fans.
Delta Spirit was so good to see after a few years away, tightly weaving the songs from their upcoming self-titled album when I stumbled upon them at the Hype Hotel very late one night. Maybe it’s just because that party was curated by my best blogger friends (who we all know are wonderful), or because there were free drinks AND free Taco Bell (sorry, body), but I spent many hours at that Hype Hotel and saw several of my favorite shows in that warehouse.
Michael Kiwanuka @ KCRW Showcase
At the KCRW showcase on Wednesday afternoon, British singer Michael Kiwanuka radiated this warm, lapping voice that I just wanted to curl up inside of. His album seems like one I would love to put on my turntable and let play, on repeat, in its entirety on a springtime Saturday afternoon.
Man, oh man – Sharon Van Etten‘s new album Tramp is definitely one of my favorites of this year already, all excoriating elegance and lush melodies. Her performance at Stubb’s on Wednesday night was delicate and strong, fearless and smart all at once — just like the record.
Nick Waterhouse @ Hype Hotel (it’s morning but you wouldn’t know it)
The Allah-Las at Valhalla
The retro cool of Nick Waterhouse and The Allah-Las were both SO. MUCH. FUN. Musical comrades, these two were some of the most invigorating shows I saw during the week, with their squalling, dirty jams equally influenced by surf-rock and a sharper underlying punk current.
Nada Surf acoustic at the Red Eyed Fly
Thursday night’s last-minute decision to cross the street after the Allah-Las at Valhalla to see an acoustic set from Nada Surf at the Red Eyed Fly was a superb one. It was a set-up strongly reminiscent of that gorgeous show I saw a few years back in the jewelbox of SF’s Swedish American Hall, a night I was happy to revisit. On Thursday night in Austin, this Bruce fella was playing across town at the ACL Theatre, doing things like bringing Arcade Fire and Tom Morello onstage, so I was getting text after text of those happy pictures after my badge was not selected to attend that show, but hearing the golden dulcet tones of Nada Surf was a deeply wonderful salve.
I told Matthew Caws afterwards that I hope he never stops doing what he does — their music is still as sharply incisive and lyrically poetic as ever, plus they seem to be having fun still. They played several songs from this year’s superb The Stars Are Indifferent To Astronomy, as well as a few older ones:
Seun Kuti on fire @ the African showcase
I ended Thursday night with a tasty steak street taco that I thankfully ingested for sustenance before heading into Copa to see Seun Kuti, Fela’s son, from Nigeria. With absolutely no sense of urgency (and a band of about a dozen folks and singers to soundcheck), they ended up starting their set an hour late, around 1:30am, on languid equatorial time. They blew up that place.
Pickwick at the SXSeattle party
On Friday morning I limped across town (cowboy boots, day four yo) for an explosive set from Pickwick at the SXSeattle party. Pickwick came all the way to Austin to play just a few sets in one single day, but they used it to showcase not only the formidable pipes of frontman Galen Disston, but also to show off a substantial amount of their new material. It is intricate, and darker, and not as easy to classify in a specific soul genre, which I think is a right move.
After an amazing meal at La Condesa that I can’t stop talking about (they have FLIGHTS of GUACAMOLE, people), I headed to Auditorium Shores to give an attempt at a Counting Crows show which unfortunately suffered from the stretching grass fields full of loudly-talking aged frat boys, ditching after a handful of songs for the Magnetic Fields. Stephin Merrit and Co were heartbreaking, every weird and resonant song, beautifully constructed. I felt like I shattered and spidered apart, unexpectedly, when he did a humble performance of “The Book Of Love.” It was very much like this:
I love it when you sing to me / and you can sing me anything.
Spank Rock @ that 1100 Warehouse place
Next, a life lesson: when a friend asks if you want to go see a hip hop show in a warehouse under the highway, the correct answer is always yes. I packed myself up front (with room for some questionable dancing on my part) for the Spank Rock and Hollywood Holt show, and it was a tremendous amount of fun, and a good palette cleanser from all the mopey shit which, left to my own devices, I will drown myself in.
I then paid a random couple stopped at a light with their window down $20 to drive me to Antone’s for the Cold Specks show. I hope my mother is not reading this fine example of what makes SXSW so awesome. Cold Specks was one of my most anticipated sets of the week and she did not disappoint. Her music from her debut album gorgeous gospel – slow-burning and evocative, yet vulnerable within the lyrical excavations. I definitely think Al Spx, the frontwoman, is one to continue watch in 2012 as she tours in support of her treasure of an album.
Cold Specks @ Antone’s
Saturday I decided to focus on the food one more time, and walked clear + gone to the far side of town for an inspiring culinary adventure at Hillside Farmacy, before catching my final show of SXSW: You Won’t on an outdoor stage with crawfish tails and parts littering the dirt around me. Creepy little fuckers (the crawfish, not the band).
You Won’t @ Banger’s (yes huh)
You Won’t was this young, fun band who scowled in the same timbre as Deer Tick’s John McCauley and played the drums sometimes with kitchen utensils. Their songs were classically-constructed pop perfection, singable and not at all overly sweet. As I walked out past the stage, the singer saluted me with “have a good flight!” (we’d talked before the set). Yep, they were that kind of endearing, perfect band to end my festival.
I hopped exhaustedly on my $1 Airport Flyer (BEST KEPT SECRET IN AUSTIN) and as my bus lumbered towards the airport, I sat back and smiled. I find SXSW exceedingly capable of sating me. In retrospect, to sum it all up tidily: last week I got to shake the hands of legendary rock photographer Bob Gruen, NPR’s Bob Boilen, and the singer from Seven Mary Three. I mean, that pretty much hits me on most of my important levels. I’d say all my cylinders were well-fired.
Are you aware that Nada Surf has an excellent new album of covers? If I Had A Hi-Fi came out a few months ago, after being first available only on tour at their merch booth, and is now consumable by the general intelligent public. That includes you, dear reader.
I love covers because they show the diverse range of influences on a band, and it is fascinating to hear your favorite musicians interpret another’s work. Nada Surf has chosen old and new songs from folks as varied as Kate Bush, The Go-Betweens, Depeche Mode, and The Muslims (now The Soft Pack). Matthew Caws told me about this idea back in November of 2008, and I’ve been waiting with bated breath ever since.
This Spoon cover is absolutely ace. Ira Elliot of Nada Surf is one of my favorite drummers in all of rock and roll – so feisty and precise. Here, he just makes me smile. This is a great song, and sounds marvelous filtered through Nada Surf’s harmony and clatter.
There are handwritten notes from the band behind the disc tray in the CD case about each song and why they picked it. Matthew writes, “The same ‘Sylvia’ dropped us from Elektra right after we made The Proximity Effect.” Ouch.
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.
FUEL/FRIENDS FAVORITES OF 2008
Lucky Nada Surf(Barsuk) 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]
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]
For Emma Forever Ago Bon Iver (Jagjaguwar) 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]
Stay Positive The Hold Steady (Vagrant) 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]
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.
Ode To Sunshine Delta Spirit (Rounder) 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]
Dual Hawks Centro-Matic/South San Gabriel (Misra) 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.
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.
The Great Collapse Everything Absent or Distorted(self-released) 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]
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]
HONORARY TOPS (should have been on last year’s damn list): In Rainbows(physical release) Radiohead 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.
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]
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.
Caws will be playing an acoustic set, drawing from songs throughout the sixteen-year career of Nada Surf. It should be lovely. The band just released a retrospective of all five of their studio albums on vinyl. The limited 1,000 copy pressing includes their very first 7″ single and download codes for all their albums, plus a collection of rare and out-of-print bonus tracks and b-sides.
As I approached from blocks away, the crowd was spilling in the street as they waited to get in through the half-lowered garage door entrance. A converted police car flashed multimedia exhibits onto the faded warehouse wall, with music pulsing loud enough to be heard at the Convention Center. Pandemonium!
Inside the thousand-degree gallery, I did some general browsing of the political artwork covering the walls, and then the requisite gawking and people-watching (most eclectic crowd ever – mixing political pinstripes with the indie kids and watching them try to dance side-by-side). This non-Dem was admittedly a little creeped out by a few of the near-deistic portrayals of Obama in various painted settings; a friend and I were talking about how we felt like we’d entered his shrine. But overall it was a cool expression of passion and commitment by the artists who contributed, with a few ace lighthearted inclusions (Stephen Colbert! Slaying evil!).
Comedienne Sarah Silverman started things off with her hilariously deadpan ruminations on the convention and the election, and she was dipped into an enthusiastic two-armed welcome (totally almost like this) by San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom (SCU Broncos represent!). Newsom then introduced Seattle’s mayor Greg Nickels, and after many words and rousing rhetoric, the five musicians finally climbed onto the small stage. Throughout the 70-minute show each artist took turns on lead, with various duets, group singalongs and covers. It was lighthearted and felt like a rare living-room collaboration.
This Is Not A Test (live 8/2/08, Newport Folk) – Zooey Deschanel & M. Ward Zooey was completely charming, and performed this song with her guitar. Halfway through she stopped abruptly and laughed at a small mistake she made, saying it was the first time she’d ever played guitar in public since she usually rocks the piano.
Love Hurts – Gram Parsons & Emmylou Harris Johnathan Rice and Jenny Lewis sang this ’70s staple, and in a move of complete awesomeness, they dedicated it to Obama and Hillary.
Little Boxes (Malvina Reynolds cover) – Jenny Lewis & Johnathan Rice They didn’t sing this song. But they did lots of duets together, all lovey and gazing into each other’s indie-alt-country-couple eyes, and sounding good.
See These Bones (live on MOKB Sirius) – Nada Surf I loved every note and word that spilled from Matthew Caws last night (recall my fondness). I was unabashed dork fangirl, coincidentally ending up right at Matthew’s feet for the set, and I didn’t even bother to check my singalong enthusiasm. He kept eying me in bemusement as I sang “the lights of this city are more or less blinking…” with possibly more enthusiasm than he did.
Weightless (live on Leno) – Nada Surf You know those gorgeous Beach Boys harmonies at the end of this song? Picture the full gallery crowd and those other four voices on stage all swelling together behind Caws’ lead vocals. Jenny Lewis admirably played band leader, cupping her hand around her ear and waving her arms in encouragement. Nada Surf drummer Ira Elliott stood off to the right (in front of that massive Obama/Lincoln meld) and kept time with fancy claps for the whole song. You can take the drummer off the stage …
Cath (live at BBC6) – Ben Gibbard This song appeared on last night’s setlist but was substituted with “Sound of Settling,” which was great by me because we all got to “Ba baaa! Ba baaa!” heartily instead.
Military Madness (live 10-22-06, Bridge School) – Death Cab for Cutie, Gillian Welch, Neil Young The five musicians closed with this Graham Nash cover about military madness and solitary sadness. Ben Gibbard led on the piano, and despite one false ending (another chorus? should we stop? let’s do both) it was a stirring closer. This live mp3 is one I saw at the Bridge School Benefit in CA a few years ago with a slightly different lineup. ZIP: UNCONVENTIONAL ’08
Nada Surf was phenomenal Tuesday night, as I had expected. After seeing them acoustic and intimate in the fantastic jewelbox of the Swedish American Hall of San Francisco, I was sated with the gorgeous golden side of their music, but left aching to hear the full electric band treatment.
This is one ferociously good live band that I would see again and again. My companion Kristan had never heard of them but was duly and thoroughly impressed, and more than a few fist-pumping college dudes admitted to being there only because of their 1996 hit song “Popular.” But winning hearts and eardrums seems to be what this New York trio does best, and by the time we got through to “Beautiful Beat,” the room kinda felt like it was going to explode. Or maybe just me.
The always affable Matthew Caws introduced “Inside of Love” by saying that they wanted to write a soulful Smokey Robinson-type song that you could dance to, something to do a little swingin’ twostep to. He charmed the whole crowd into stepping back and forth while they played it. The raddest detail of the stage setup were the five convex mirrors set across the back of the stage reflecting us back upon ourselves. In this video you can see the undulating wave of soul & fancy footwork moving through the crowd, if you look closely:
NADA SURF – “INSIDE OF LOVE” (live in Denver 4/1/08)
Nada Surf is currently doing some shows with Martin Wenk of Calexico, who added keys, trumpets and other flourishes to their set and to their most recent album. During the encore they brought out Lisa Fendelander from Sea Wolf (the opener) to add accordion, which was sublime and wistful. This video turned out really stellar as well:
NADA SURF – “BLONDE ON BLONDE” (live in Denver 4/1/08)
And here is the full setlist of what they played (except I’m pretty sure they left out “Are You Lightning,” which is sad). But man alive — “The Blankest Year” was even more cathartic all electric and loud and yelling. A few more pics are here and a nice local review here. Oh what a night.
The good folks at Barsuk Records notified me earlier today of this fascinating new side project from Ben Gibbard from Death Cab for Cutie. As Ben says, “It shouldn’t work, but it totally works . . . and that’s part of the magic.”
Sitting in the intimate Swedish American recital hall with a few hundred strangers on a recent rainy Saturday night, Nada Surf cast a spell. Almost akin to stepping inside a little jewel box for a few hours, these three guys out of Brooklyn worked through much of the material on their wonderful new album Lucky, as well as some gems from their back catalog that soared and reverberated in this acoustic setting.
The Swedish is a community hall in San Francisco with dark carved woodwork everywhere, not your typical nightclub. The stage was dim and warm with only a reddish glow illuminating the trio; Matthew Caws on acoustic guitar and vocals, Daniel Lorca hiding behind the amp stacks on his bass (from my perspective), the impressively moustachioed and good-natured drummer Ira Elliot sitting happily on his cajon, hammering out the rhythms with his palms and fingertips.
My friend who was at the show with me wrote about the intimacy of the set in his review, how “there wasn’t a person in the room that didn’t know every little bit of the songs they played” and he’s right — the intense level of fandom in this very sold-out show was impressive. We hushed when we needed to hush and enjoy the songs, we yelled along when Caws said to (even though he warned the parents of infants in the room before he encouraged us to sing along).
It was a night of melancholic catharsis snugly interlaced with their gorgeous melodies and harmonies. The arrangements of their new material in the acoustic setting really shone, and when they kicked into those chiming, golden opening notes of “Blonde on Blonde” during the encore? Forget about it. I was in love.
Before the show, my friend Brian and I got to sit down with lead singer Matthews Caws and discuss a bit about the new album’s old roots, the artistic inspiration, and how hip-hop informed the new disc in surprising ways. Caws was a delight to talk to — someone who feels the music like I do, which always seems like kismet to discover.
FUEL/FRIENDS INTERVIEW: MATTHEW CAWS OF NADA SURF by Brian London & Heather Browne
FUEL/FRIENDS:Congratulations on the new album, it’s really a great record. You guys recorded it all in Seattle right?
MATTHEW CAWS: Yeah, actually this is the first time we had someone to record, mix and produce it. On other records we’ve had a producer and an engineer, so this time just having one guy was really great.
We’ve been asked a lot the classic questions â€˜What direction did you guys have in mind’ with this album and â€˜what makes this record different than the last record’ etc., and . . . we actually had no direction in mind besides wanting John Goodmanson [Rogue Wave, Pavement, Death Cab, Soundgarden, Harvey Danger] to do it. And that is kind of its own direction because we knew it would sound . . . rich. He mixed “What is Your Secret” and “Do It Again” on the last record which are my two favorite mixes so he was kind of an obvious choice. And I don’t know if this album’s process was any different, besides possibly being more focused. At least we tried to be more focused!
So The Weight Is A Gift was recorded in Seattle and San Francisco, Lucky solely in Seattle — do you guys write in the studio, or back at your homes and rehearsal space in New York and then take it to the West Coast?
Most of the writing is done in my apartment and then I bring it in. I finish a lot of songs in the studio. I find that I can never write in the practice space. I’ve found that I need to have total peace and be at home, or have total pressure and be in the studio with the clock ticking.
With the producer looming over you to finish lines.
Yeah, but actually John was the first one I could actually have there because he was so accepting and calm that I could be working on a verse and just ask him to work on something else for a bit while I got it ready to show him, which is something I had never done with anyone before. We would go through and he would say “yeah yeah, that line’s cool, that line’s bad,” and I found it really valuable to have someone you trust that much.
You described John’s work as always sounding â€˜rich’, and to me a really good example on the new album would be “I Like What You Say,” because the song now really does sound â€˜richer’ than the one previously released on the John Tucker Must Die soundtrack.
Oh I’m glad! Some people seem to like the original better, but I’m not so sure I’d agree. I would agree with you though, and credit John for being so good at that. “Beautiful Beat” is also a good example — when we were listening back he would say â€˜You know, that’s a really tall mix’, and I feel like the songs really have some space to them.
It’s interesting to find one person to see the record through the whole process. Has the band ever tried to produce a record all by yourselves, and really maintain your vision over the entire process?
Well, Let Go was kinda me. Because the engineer wasn’t really producing and a friend of ours Fred Maher was supposed to produce but we didn’t have a lot of money, and he was really broke and wound up getting a job auto tuning the bass on the Korn record at the time. And we would always see him totally despondent on the couch because it would be like trying to tune a motorboat, you know [makes a motorboat noise].
I heard a great rock n’ roll ethics story that you paid for the recording of Let Go with 1′s and 5 dollar bills.
Yeah, it was all t-shirt money. It looked like a lot when all stacked up, but it really wasn’t that much money.
. . . And I remember reading a clip in the back of Rolling Stone that said Let Go was “the indie Pet Sounds”, so thank God for the t-shirt fund, right?
Wow, I never heard that. Really? That’s really nice of them.
So tell us a little about the songwriting process on Lucky.
These days I have a very chaotic songwriting process. I hesitate to even call it a process. It’s a mostly dubious adventure, because I write lots of little pieces of songs and not whole ones so there are lots and lots of tapes littered about that I haven’t listened back to in years. And so for this record I decided I was going to go through each and every one and do my homework to find what was on them.
What came out of that process? Any stuff that made the record?
Yeah, a few lines here and there. A few melodies–
[gets excited, interrupts] –By any chance was one resurrected bit the “Behind every desire, is another one / Waiting to be liberated, when the first one’s sated” (from Weightless)? That song shifts so much, that whole segment feels like it might have dropped in wonderfully from somewhere else.
That is actually the oldest thing on the record! You’re totally right. I remembered that line, but I could never find the melody. I knew it was somewhere on one of those cassettes, but the problem with all those tapes is most of it’s awful snippets of me in the middle of the day thinking I’ve got something when I really don’t.
Are there any other places on the new record where older material resurfaced?
Yeah, just things like . . . in See These Bones where it goes [sings] “Do you remember when the light was low? do you remember when it fell?” That melody was maybe five years old, just lying around.
That must be exciting and gratifying to find a home for an idea that had been percolating for so long, and have it fit so perfectly.
Totally. I guess the biggest change in the band for at least these last two records is that I am much more open to that kind of juxtaposition. Daniel [Lorca, bass] and I used to try that more on the first record because he used to write more so we would smush parts of songs we both had and make one whole song and it work which was always exciting to us. But I had never really been in the habit of seeking that out, until these last two records. On “Do It Again” the end section has this really different type of melody which was a separate section added on.
It actually was because I was listening to so much hip-hop at the time, stuff like Nas. What I feel like I really got from that was how in a rap song every verse can be completely different — different point of view, different narrator, different feeling and sometimes obviously different people/voices — mainly how the atmosphere would change. I really like people like Nas who focus on storytelling.
It’s funny that you say hip-hop was an influence on this album, especially hip-hop that has different voices on each verse, because I noticed in John’s credits that he’s also worked with the Wu Tang Clan.
Oh yeah, that’s right! [laughs] But don’t forget he also worked with Hanson.
An all-around guy, then.
Very much so. I think that [the hip-hop storytelling element] freed me up for songs on this record like “Are You Lightning?” That song was recorded for the last record, but the whole end section that starts “I see you in my sheets, I see you in my sleep” — that whole bit was new. The song had been done for five years, words and melody, and the end was just going to be this three-minute fade out.
But since the song was asking the question â€˜Are you the person I want to be with’ and not really knowing who that person is and getting to the point of being tired of looking, that by the time we were making this record I was in a very serious relationship so I felt like I had the answer, meaning that there was still stuff to sing about.
It’s interesting because if “Are You Lightning” had gone on the last record without the outro, it would have been a very nice sequel to “Inside of Love.”
Right, exactly. And the fact that it was a whole different melody for the new part was really something that excited me then and now. It was funny because a song would be unfinished, or actually they would be done, but wouldn’t feel that they were good enough. “The Fox” and “See These Bones” were both recorded for The Weight Is A Gift, but weren’t right at the time. And I would add melodies, which might have frustrated some, because there were no words and I was adding these things that were making the song feel completely different. But luckily open minds prevailed and we were accepting of the new parts.
One lyric from Lightning – “Just look at the size of you” is so unique and interesting, do you have anything to say about that or would you just like to leave it as it is? . . . Is it about the way one person can eclipse everything else?
Yes exactly — the amount of room one person can take up in your brain. I’ve always thought about describing lyrics and how it can be defensive, but it would be silly for me to hide behind such a simple metaphor.
On the last album, “Your Legs Grow” has such beautiful, yet elusive lyric, and I’ve always wanted to ask, what made you write that song and what does that song mean to you?
What I meant was . . . contemplate if you’re in a relationship and it’s ending. One spends so much of one’s time thinking that would kill you, or that you would just be lost. It could be whatever, a break up, disasterâ€¦.I haven’t been through a lot of family death and I know it’s coming to everyone. So if something happens that you feel you won’t be able to get through, it can be sometimes comforting to remind yourself that you do get through it. Like if you were out to sea and drowning, or you walked out to sea and it became too deep, I think the way our minds work is that our legs grow to the bottom of the ocean, and then we walk out. It’s really just a song about the ability to recover.
It’s kind of magic realism because obviously our legs aren’t going to grow, but we do become strong in ways that would seem impossible at other times.
Yeah, I think sometimes –to use your phrase– that “magic realism” is exactly what people want and need from music, with all the stuff that people are supposed to handle in this world. Just to take a concept like that, and place it inside a metaphor, and deliver it in a song – that really seems to be a consistent thread through your band’s body of work.
A frustration I have a lot of the time with life in general is that it’s hard to hold on and remember how magical it can feel. And that’s kind of what the album title is about. Because it’s not necessarily that I feel lucky, it’s that I want to remember that I am. I wish I could turn that on at will because we get so caught up in whatever particular stories are happening with work, love, family, work, or whatever that just being alive and healthy on a planet that might be going down the tubes is totally fascinating. Still we can get caught in the cobwebs of everyday problems and forget how amazing and incredible life is.
The album cover seems very appropriate for the feel of the record, just the weight one can sense when lying down and looking at the sky, yet to still feel lucky and blessed to look around you.
Don’t people say that water at night is the perfect visual representation of the subconscious? And that’s why people are so drawn to it, just staring at it? With the cover I was also thinking about how trees and sky and stars are such extraordinary thingsâ€¦and they’re free. On another corny level, how lucky we are just to have them.
There is a great story about Yoko Ono before she was successful, she was broke and living in Greenwich Village and to make money she put up a poster that said â€˜meet me at 5am tomorrow, bring a towel and five dollars, and you will see the most amazing show on Earth. If you don’t agree, there’s a money back guarantee.’ So some people met her, and she brought them up to the roof of her tenement building and they all sat down on their towels and watched the sun come up.
And you know what? Nobody asked for their money back.
Like the thoughts I’m prone to mull over when I sit underneath the deepening hood of twilight, watching the stars come out, there’s an introspective thread in the new Nada Surf album that illuminates the conflicting desires most of us feel in adult life. On “Weightless,” frontman Matthew Caws sings to all of us who have ever felt too inexperienced to be in control of these big decisions and important duties:
“grown-up life is like eating speed or flying a plane it’s too bright, it’s too bright . . . “
And then the same song breaks into a pause, a reverie, and over a muted piano melody Caws muses quietly:
“behind every desire is another one waiting to be liberated when the first one’s sated“
Such is life through the lens of Nada Surf’s stunningly fantastic fifth album, Lucky, which comes out February 5th on Barsuk Records. Folks, this is poised to be my favorite record of the year at the rate that I’ve been listening to on my iPod, in the car, on repeat til the CD gets hot. Rare is the album that’s this sonically pleasing with equal depth and nuance in the lyrics.
The sixteen years that Matthew Caws, Ira Elliot, and Daniel Lorca have been making music together show in the confident elegance of this multi-hued album. It’s full of earnest flourishes that pay homage to sublime sounds of the past, from the cascade of harmonies at the end of “Weightless” that feel like super-relaxed Beach Boys in a hammock, to the ‘oooo oooo oooo’s in “Are You Lightning?” that remind me of waiting on a friend. I’m addicted to the way this album sounds, with the shimmering landslides of melody, the driving rhythms, the bright chime of the guitars.
Nada Surf, like the rest of us, are growing up. The opening song, “See These Bones,” wrestles a bit with that mortality (“what you are now, we were once / but just like we are, you’ll be dust“), and finds Caws singing this simple line that only really hit me after several listens:
“too tired to eat too hungry to sleep“
Simple, right? Throwaway? . . . No. The ache and the weariness in his voice when he sings these lines gets me. He’s talking about being unable to fulfill needs and desires, each one competing with the other for primacy, and what a draining place that is to find yourself in.
But in addition to their observations about this thing called adult life, there’s also a pervasive and uplifting theme throughout on the love of music and its ability to shine a light. My absolute favorite song on this album is “Beautiful Beat,” whose chorus has these soaring lines:
“beautiful beat get me out of this mess beautiful beat lift me up from distress . . . I believe our love can save me have to believe that it can“
It’s that faith in the redeeming power in music that I find so heartening, and why I am thrilled about this album. It’s a must-buy for you in 2008 (pre-order it here). I’ll be seeing Nada Surf in San Francisco next weekend and bringing you guys an interview. I’ve heard amazing things about the power of their live show, and next Saturday will be an acoustic set that should really let those harmonies show brilliantly.
Nada Surf is now streaming the entire album on their MySpace, so go listen. Start with “Beautiful Beat,” then go back to the first and listen all the way through to the flawless, gorgeous final notes of “The Film Did Not Go ‘Round.” Walk away feeling sated that albums like this still exist.
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
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