Christmas Infinity Voyage

sufjan-fireworks

I’m surprised I’ve been able to restrain myself and not write more about Sufjan Stevens on this blog. This whole damn thing could be about Sufjan, ask my roommates or family, I never shut up about him! It would probably be a hybrid of Between Hipsters and God There is Sufjan Stevens, an RSS feed of his Tumblr, and Google Maps screenshots of his apartment in Brooklyn.  Kidding! I don’t know what his address is… or else I would have made a shrine to him outside of it (maybe a bust of him made out of bubblegum a la Helga Pataki).

ANYWAY, in November he released Silver & Gold, a five-disc collection of Christmas music recorded from 2007-2011. This release follows Songs for Christmas (recorded 2001-2006), so we have a full decade of Sufjan Christmases, folks! Unlike his first collection of Songs for Christmas, the latter half of the aughts got a  bit, uh, kooky for Mr. Stevens. He veered in the futuristic, chaotic direction featured in 2010’s The Age of Adz. it’s interesting to listen to his work and hear how his sound has dramatically evolved, from banjo and flute to drum machines and auto-tune (seriously).

One of my favorite discs from Silver & Gold was Christmas Infinity Voyage (2008), which shows the experimental, electronic direction he was heading in Adz.  “Do You Hear What I Hear?” exemplifies Stevens’ skills in refurbishing seemingly soul-less Musak tracks, turning the choral bore into an metallic, psychedelic 9 minutes of near-insanity.

One respite from the madness is “Christmas in the Room,” which features that beautiful/sad hybrid that Mr. Stevens has crafted so masterfully (see “Casimir Pulaski Day,” “To Be Alone with You,” “John Wayne Gacy”). The video contrasts with the acoustic sound through a set of vibrant abstract images set against darkness, keeping in line with the spirit of Christmas Infinity Voyage‘s futuristic feel.

I visited my family in Portland for Christmas, and as our tradition of the last few years, we had a Sufjan-themed Xmas, dancing around to Infinity Voyage and his just-released Chopped & Scrooged rap mixtape (yes, that exists). While playing around with lights I noticed the delightful blurring effects against the Portland skyline, and forced my family to go onto the freezing sixteenth floor balcony for a midnight celestial photo shoot. (There was champagne involved, it wasn’t THAT bad.)

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‘You must be a Christmas tree – you light up the room.’

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Swoop!

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Christmas Chaos!

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We had a good time playing around and seeing the unexpected results from the light patterns… hopefully we captured a bit of Sufjan’s seemingly unending exuberance.

If you care to listen to more of Sufjan’s ** HOLIDAY MAGIC ** (even though, uh, it’s January), it’s all available to listen to on his website for free. He released it on the public domain for your listening pleasure because he is just that kind of guy. SUFJ YOU’RE KILLIN’ ME!

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Tennis covers underrated greats: Broadcast, The Zombies

Alaina Moore & Patrick Riley of Tennis performing at Bottom of The Hill, 12/11/11

Minimalist pop band Tennis have developed a knack for crafting covers of unexpected musicians like The Zombies and Broadcast, selections eclectic enough to make a record store clerk proud.

Tennis is husband-wife duo Aliana Moore (vocals & keyboards) and Patrick Riley (guitar), collegiate philosophers who formed the band after a seven-month sailing excursion down the Eastern Atlantic Seaboard. (Can’t make this stuff up, folks!) Unsurprisingly their debut album Cape Dory featured major nautical elements, with titles like “Seafarer” and lyrics like “Take me out baby, I wanna go sail tonight” (from the title track). James Barone on drums rounds out the group, who just released their second album, Young & Old on Fat Possum. Their sophomore production features a richer sense of instrumentation, buoyed by the sharp production skills of Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys. Key tracks: My Better Self (bizarro retro-chic  music video directed by Lilliput), and first single “Origins”… I adore the ski/spy caper premise of the video:

I saw Tennis perform last December at Bottom of the Hill, shortly before the release of Young & Old. I found their stage presence to be warmly affable, and it was refreshing to see a group display genuine enthusiasm in these sarcastic, ironic times. Moore even made an oh-so-mainstream reference to Sex and The City, joking about “not being a Carrie,” even though she resembles the curly-haired, diminuitive fashion plate.  Also, just take a look at their official website (you can play Minesweeper on it, for real!) Tennis came off as resoundingly likable people who just dig hanging out on boats and playing sweet ’60’-influenced pop songs, what’s not to love?

The Zombies are best known as the least prominent of the ’60’s Brit Pop explosion. Don’t discount their mildly-dark baroque pop, which contains intriguing depth within its sunshine-y exterior. I first heard the Zombies on the Life Aquatic soundtrack, with the “The Way I Feel Inside,” a hypnotic whisper of a song. (Side note: Digging the soundtrack for Moonrise Kingdom, featuring chanteuse Franciose Hardy and sultry track “Le Temps de L’Amour”.) The Zombies’ 1968 album Odessey & Oracle was ranked as #80 on Rolling Stone‘s 500 Best Albums of all time, featuring some of their best work, including their well-known hit “Time of the Season.”

“Tell Her No” is a jaunty refusal of a track, here’s the 1964 original by the Zombies:

Tennis spun their own surprisingly faithful rendition of “Tell Her No”:

Broadcast was a captivating, enigmatic British band which burned brightly, but far too briefly. Trish Keenan fronted the retro-futuristic group, frequently compared to sometimes-collaborators Stereolab. Keenan’s honey-sweet vocals contrasts the almost staticky, electronic instrumentation, creating a unique sound that feels simultaneously warm and cool. “Tears in the Typing Pool” is a 2 minute song on their the 2005 album “Tender Buttons,” their final album which was titled after a 1918 poem by Gertrude Stein; it’s a hauntingly lovely song that I can’t help but play on repeat.

Broadcast’s original (I may have already posted this song on this blog but I DON’T CARE because it’s so good):

Tennis’ cover doesn’t quite capture the psychedelic crispness of the original, but adds a slight lo-fi haze, a gauzy finish.

So, thanks for the awesome covers, Tennis! Now, can you come pick me up and we can go hang out on your boat?


Whateva, whateva! I make my own Coachella!

I’ve been M.I.A. on this here blog as of late- attributed to a sense of comfortable complacency, the antithesis of any creative venture. Oh, and I have been obsessively going to shows these last few weeks, to overcompensate for my lack of Coachella attendance. It started with a rapid-fire, trigger-finger purchase to see Radiohead at HP Pavilion on April 11. The justification was easy enough- Once in a lifetime opportunity! Can’t miss Thom Yorke (and his ponytail) live in the flesh! Things spiraled quickly, to a month filled with bleary-eyed mornings and overt amounts of of “woooo!”-ing.

Ian S. Port of  SF Weekly’s music blog “All Shook Down” described “Faux-chella,” for those Bay Area residents who want to experience Coachella’s lineup without the desert pilgrimage.

Maybe you hate traveling. Maybe you’re broke. Or maybe you’re allergic to waiting in long lines under the hot sun while privileged pre-teens gyrate to David Guetta.

With this year’s double weekend format, there were even more possibilities for artists to swoop up to the Bay Area in the interim four days between festivals (April 13-15 and 20-22).

I made the trek to Coachella for the last three years, but with a full-time position, it didn’t seem like a feasible, or even desirable, possibility.When asked if I was attending the festival, I would reply with a grim, tight smile and that “I’ve had my time.”   Now is the time for cubicles and being the target audience for the Starbucks-queue, for responsibility and self-sufficiency. I had my heyday of being a cool pseudo-music journalist, now’s the time to keep my head down  and play the role of the respectable professional.

And yet… there is this niggling weirdo inside, the one that inadvertently starts humming loudly and skipping to some imaginary beat in my conservative J.Crew finery. I suspect that this is a common ailment of those creatures we call “adults,” and one of the toughest tasks is simply masking your eccentricities for eight hours of your daily waking consciousness.

The following is the month in review, my hand-crafted “Faux-chella” Roster:

Wednesday April 11: Radiohead at HP Pavilion

Although our seats were located in  the area known as Nosebleedus Maximus, Yorke & Co. performed a mesmerizing set that reached every crevasse of the massive arena, with a sold-out attendance of 19,000. In the latest issue of Rolling Stone, Yorke discusses the sheer feasibility of performing the heavily manipulated, looped songs of The King of Limbs live, and the unexpected changes that come with a performance of this magnitude.

“There is no way in hell we could have come up with what we’re doing now, live, if we hadn’t been sitting in front of turntables and samplers, piecing the record together in this method. There is no way it would have turned into this dynamic thing,” says Yorke, analyzing Limbs’ electronic composition. Radiohead appeased long-term fans and new converts with a two-encore set that featured gems like the robotic vocals of “Kid A,” aggressive guitar snarl of “The National Anthem,” and schadenfreude inducing “Karma Police”. Getting to see Yorke do his “Lotus Flower” convulsing-wiggle (clad in tight red pants) was worth the price of admission.

Friday April 13: Youth Lagoon and Porcelain Raft at The Independent

 22-year-old Idahoan whiz Trevor Powers (aka Youth Lagoon) brought dream-rock at its twinkly haziest. Although the songs on his debut album The Year of Hibernation follow an easily recognizable pattern, that of reverb-heavy delicate vocals which give way to chest-pounding bass and eardrum-aching drum machine beats (referred to as “Dropping the Bass” in the evil twin dubstep version), it’s an effective musical technique. The smallest details shone in the live performance, like the delicate high plinks in “Daydream” (above) and the slight crack in his voice while waxing nostalgia about being 17.   He brought a delightfully strange stage presence, chomping on a banana onstage and feeding it to his guitarist.

Monday April 16: The Black Angels and The Horrors at Bimbo’s

I came for The Horrors and left a Black Angels convert. The Austin-based band’s dark psychedelics were undeniably mesmerizing, a band whose album doesn’t hold a candle to the overall aesthetics and impact of their live performance. The Horrors’ tight performance felt like an under-water, goth prom… in a good way!

Thursday April 19: Wild Beasts at The Independent

My second British band of the week- Wild Beasts blew me away, possibly my favorite concert of the whole month. That undulating falsetto and dramatic vocal range, my god!  Goosebump-inducing, groovin’ jams with just the right touch of theatrics. Best of the night was 2009’s “All The King’s Men,” listen above.

Friday April 20: School of Seven Bells at the Rickshaw Stop

A definite flop. A peculiar mesh of an unfriendly crowd that seemed like they came because they heard one of the band’s songs on Gossip Girl. Strange attempt at a flirtatious dynamic between SSB’s singer and guitarist that seemed contrived and uncomfortable. Left early to go listen to Bright Eyes’ Digital Ash In A Digital Urn in my apartment.

Tuesday April 24: Tune-Yards and St. Vincent at the Fox Theater

Merrill rockin' the uke at The Fox

A joyous homecoming for Tune-Yards’ Merrill Garbus, who opened for St. Vincent at the gorgeous Fox Theater in downtown Oakland. Garbus mentioned that she last performed in the East Bay at tiny Mama Buzz Cafe, showcasing her rapid ascent since the release of 2011’s whokill. With her signature live vocal looping technique, Garbus performed breakout tracks like “Gangsta” and “Bizness” with an infectious exuberance. For her final song, Garbus brought on stage the kids from her new video “My Country,” who rocked it HARD. The kids are part of the San Francisco Rock Project, a nonprofit music education program. Tune-yards has an ongoing Kickstarter project to benefit the arts program… check it out!

Whew! I think I have satiated my obsessive musical tendencies… for now!


Creators Project SF eliminates the boundaries of art, music, technology

Disclaimer: I feel that I am playing INTO THE SYSTEM by even writing this post… the whole #creators phenom is a fantastic product placement marketing scheme for Intel and Vice, aligning their brands with a particularly desirable demographic (presumably affluent, tech-savvy urbanities). Nothing is really free, and by participating in an event like this (and by broadcasting your participation via Twitter, blogs, etc), you are providing advertising gold.

But you know what? They did a damn good job. If they decide to spend big bucks on an event that fosters creativity, innovation, imagination… there are worse values to promote. I appreciated the level of intellectual curiosity present at the Creators Project, the sense of elevated discourse, the   understanding of the immediate, integrated nature of technology in our lives. Rather than separating “new media” as its own unique entity outside of everyday life, the event featured an acutely realistic  perspective on the nature of human interaction in 2012.

James Murphy (LCD Soundsystem/ DFA Records), the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s, and Squarepusher were the headliners in the solid line-up, also featuring Shabazz Palaces, the Antlers, the Hundred in the Hands, and Zola Jesus.

Nancy Whang, Patrick Mahoney, and James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem

In 2011 the Creators Project toured to New York, Beijing, London, Paris, Lyon, Sao Paulo and Seoul, and this weekend’s SF exhibit was the first full-blown West Coast festival. The Creator’s Project made its first splash at Coachella 2011 during Arcade Fire’s headlining Saturday set, with director Chris Milk’s interactive piece, “Summer Into Dusk”. I found Arcade Fire’s set undoubtedly one of the highlights of Coachella, an emotive experience that exemplified the collective euphoria that festivals strive to achieve. Take a look at this behind-the-scenes documentary about the preparation of “Summer Into Dusk” on Chris Milk’s site, really fascinating.

This was by far the most polite, mild-mannered free music event I have ever been to. Patient cueing for drinks, clean, well-stocked bathrooms, indoor heat-lamps… what is this! It seemed to  be a fusion of the soft-spoken, negative-space art world with the unabashed psychedelia of Outside Lands, with just a touch of Burning Man whimsy thrown in. By making the Creators Project a free event (with pre-registration RSVP required), it minimized the classism that accompanies most major festivals ($400 Coachella ticket, I’m lookin’ at you).

Now, onto the exhibits! Stand-out piece by far was “Origin,” aka THE CUBE (shown above). This 40 foot by 40 foot aluminum structure entranced festival-goers long into the night… best viewed while laying down inside of the structure, providing full sensory immersion.

Loved “Meditation” by Minha Yang… feel the power!

“Strata #4” by Quayola was a soothing, engaging, fascinating integration of “old-world” and computer-based art.

Still attempting to process “Life on Mars (Revisited)” by David Bowie, Mick Rock, and Barney Clay. Another exhibit viewed while laying down on pillows, highly recommend! (Photo by MTV, as they did not allow photography inside of the exhibit).

The Antlers were one of my favorite sets– dreamy,  atmospheric soundscapes. And that falsetto, whew, spine-tingling! Playing “French Exit” from 2011’s Burst Apart on repeat.
Chris Milk returned with “The Treasury of Sanctuary” — a massive interactive instillation with definite Black Swan vibes.
All in all, a really cool experience, check it out this weekend at Fort Mason if you have the opportunity! Exhibits open to the public until 9 pm Sunday night.

Architecture In Helsinki got their electro-groove on at The Fillmore

Aussie quintet Architecture in Helsinki performed a neon-bright, eclectic set on Thursday November 3rd at the legendary Fillmore in San Francisco. Touring in support of their fourth full-length release, Moment Bends, the playful indie rockers performed music from their latest ’80′s-inflected, electro-pop record as well as throwback tunes which reflected their twee roots.  AIH has streamlined from a troupe of eight members down to five, and their performance showcased a sharper pop sensibility than previous outings (I last caught the band at the diminuitive Wonder Ballroom in Portland in ’07, a tiny venue that could barely contain AIH’s messy onstage cacophony).

Cameron Bird rockin' the '80s pompadour

AIH’s members were enthusiastic to return to San Francisco, with lead singer Cameron Bird exclaiming, “We’re so f–king happy to be here!” before launching into cowbell-centric jam “Hold Music.” The group “squatted in an abandoned house in the Mission” in 2004 and played two tracks they wrote during their stay in the Bay (“It’s 5!”, “Rendezvous:Portrero Hill”) which were released on 2005′s In Case We Die. Bird switched off vocal duties with Kellie Sutherland, who provided her sweetly whimsical whisper on songs like “Wishbone”.

The performance gave off an ’80′s synth-pop, Lite-Brite vibe on upbeat songs like recent single “Escapee” and classic jam “Do The Whirlwind.” The concert dragged in a few slow moments, but AIH finished strong with a fizzy, sweat-drenched encore featuring “Contact High” and tribal-inflected hit “Heart It Races.”  Dr. Dog does a mean cover of “Heart It Races” that rivals the original, give it a listen if you haven’t already!

Below is the just-released video for their latest single, “W.O.W.”, featuring lead singer Cameron Bird beating depression by cavorting joyfully with a new dolphin friend. Fun fact: the anamatronic dolphin in the video is the same one featured in Flipper!

Click here to see more photos from the show (including one that I snapped with lead singer Bird)!


Interpretive dance makes a splash in art-rock vids

I’ve noticed an unabashedly weird trend in music lately: an onslaught of interpretive dance in virally-successful videos. Interpretive dance, much like “new-age” (which I discussed in a previous post), seems an unlikely candidate to return to mainstream popularity, simply by the virtue of how BIZARRE it is. We continually hear that our pop-culture sphere is characterized by unattainable, photoshop perfect visions of the human body, so the rise of un-self-conscious movement through using one’s body as a palate for artistic expression seems most unexpected.

Thom Yorke’s frequently-spoofed dance for Lotus Flower from King of Limbs is one of the most prominent examples of the popularity of this kooky trend… the video has over 11 million views, sheesh! It is necessary to note that Radiohead’s exceptionally-devoted legion of fans would rabidly consume any  new release from the deity of Thom Yorke, but it’s still interesting to consider how Yorke’s weird moves may have impacted our cultural consciousness.

The screen-shots at the top of this post are from “Bizness,” the first single from Tune-Yards’ 2011 release whokill. Merill Garbus has been bringin’ the WEIRD since her group’s inception, check out her super-low budget first video “Real Live Flesh” from Bird-Brains. The visually striking video for “Bizness,” directed by Mimi Cave, makes a link between the un-self-conscious nature of childhood with adult artistry through some seriously silly faces. Check it out:

Sufjan Stevens’s video for “Too Much,” the second single from his 2010 release Age of Adz, shows experimental dance with a surreal, space-age, mechanized feel. Stevens’ tour for Adz featured slightly clumsy, enthusiastic dance moves courtesy of Stevens and his backup singers who encouraged the audience to dance along (especially during the 25-minute-epic “Impossible Soul”). See the slightly-awkward, visually engaging  just-released trailer of “musical cosmonaut Sufjan Stevens and his Astral Masters of Song and Dance” from Asthmatic Kitty. Here is “Too Much,” directed by Deborah Johnson (which was projected on a huge screen during his performance of the song, fyi.)

Similar to “Bizness,” Stevens’ video is characterized by jump shots, a flurried pace and a neon, rainbow-bright aesthetic. These vids have seen considerable viral success, and I wonder if the fast pace, unavoidably bright color-scheme has something to do with it.In our quick-clicking, short-attention internet culture, are jumpy shots and bright colors the only way to lure viewers in and keep them engaged?

And our final example comes from the NSFW-ish video for Battles’ 2011 single “Ice Cream” from their upcoming album Gloss Drop.  Directed by Canada, this video gives off that seedy American Apparel vibe with plenty of shots of girls licking various objects (pinecones! ow), pretty foolproof strategy in guaranteeing viral success. The video features an interpretive dance breakdown from 1:30-2:05.

Whattya think? Do you dig interpretive dance in music vids or is it a little too out-there for your taste?

My vote: the weirder, the better!


The return of new-age?

On July 3 The LA Times published “A New Age for New Age?”, a piece written by Andy Beta that discusses the revival of the “much-disparaged” genre of new-age music through young artists like Animal Collective, Teengirl Fantasy, and Gang Gang Dance.

New-age carries a mockery-worthy connotation as cheese-tastic adult contemporary music, which brings to mind smelly yoga mats and talk centering around healing crystals and ‘chakras.’ But this genre is seeing a revival through artists such as Animal Collective, who featured pan flutist Gheorghe Zamfir on “Graze,” a track from Fall Be Kind, their 2009 follow-up EP to breakthrough Merriweather Post Pavilion. Fall Be Kind gained the most press at its time of release for featuring the first-ever licensed Grateful Dead sample (of “Unchained Melody” on “What would I Want? Sky”). AC linked their thoroughly modern sound of looped layers with new-age through the inclusion of  instruments generally used by centaurs.

[Disclaimer: I write this post while wearing an aqua Grateful Dead skull tee, having recently burnt the last of my favorite Nag Champa incense. I hold a soft spot in my heart for patchouli-drenched drum circles and tie-dyed apparel resembling rainbow vomit… I blame this affinity on my upbringing in Eugene, Oregon. So, I may not be the most unbiased of all sources on all this hippie shizz.]

Beta of the LA Times describes new-age as a “balm in the age of digital overload.”

 ” ‘New Age’ is a thoroughly discredited term,” said Douglas Mcgowan, who reissues rare New Age albums through his Yoga Records imprint. “Part of why I like the term is because of how much it bothers people. I think it’s more fun to enjoy something that is frowned upon. There’s a rebelliousness to embracing something that has been discarded and deemed worthless by the culture at large.”

Contemplative, meditative music has seen an upswing in terms of live festivals, most notably through the popularity of 4-day yoga/music fest Wanderlust, which takes place at Squaw Valley in Lake Tahoe. (Shameless plug: check out my coverage of Wanderlust 2010 here, featuring an interview with founder Jeff Krasno.) This year’s music lineup definitely has new-agey feel (Jai Uttal,  The Wailers), a departure from last year’s whomp-heavy, electronic lineup (Bassnectar).

Music videos featuring out-there visuals are also makin’ a comeback, featuring fractal patterns and fluorescent imagery straight outta an iTunes visualizer circa 2003. Teengirl Fantasy’s song “Cheaters” was directed by Greek new-age legend Iasos, lookie here to see it in HD.

Check out Gang Gang Dance’s video for “Mindkilla” from Eye Contact, released last May on 4AD records. Jellyfish-looking celestial orbs, wowee.