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SHE

Posted by Fionn on June 4, 2010

First of all, many thanks to the guys at the Musicorium for having me on here. For my first post, I want to recommend a really pleasant discovery I’ve made in stages over the last year. I’ve been progressively more interested in the chiptune scene on the net, and I think it’s one of the best examples of a music community with a real indie-web ethos, and a genre whose inception demonstrates the genuine creative strengths on the internet. I’ve found it to be a brilliant counterexample to the common music industry notion that without monetary incentive, there is no quality selection, and nothing of any value is produced. The genre is hyperinnovative and thriving. There are some seriously talented musicians involved in it. And most of the music is free to download, with a voluntary donation ethic for remuneration.

Many chiptune musicians are quite diverse, and their work is a rainbow of electronic genres. One such artist is She. She is a Swedish electronic outfit signed to the Japanese label Pony Canyon. There is one official member: Lain Trzaska, who is, despite the name of the band, male. Various (mostly female) vocalists have performed on his records however.

She has one excellent straightforward chiptune album, Pioneer – an exhilarating gameboy-rave album with souped up industrial beats, and atmospheric production. Some of She’s more interesting stuff incorporates a chiptune aesthetic into more mainstream sorts of electronic music. This makes for a highly varied discography which is nonetheless unmistakably the work of a single person.

A common aesthetic runs throughout she’s work. Unapologetically synthy, and heavily produced, the tracks modulate through the classic dance music chord progressions for catchy, plucky tunes, but there is so much going on! Lain manages to create intricate arrangements, where a highly rhythmic combination of instruments overwhelm the listener – more of an aural overload even than outfits like Crystal Castles.

Some of his latest releases Orion and Coloris (these are official releases from she, and are the only ones that must be purchased from iTunes, but I thoroughly recommend them) have the influence of acts like Daft Punk written all over them, but the result is more interesting. No compromise is made in terms of dancefloor appeal, or pop sensibility, but common themes of she’s music shine through: an obsession with all things Japanese and all things futuristic. The tracks also career through various forms of aural manipulation, with sourced japanese phrases and voiceovers, and random atmospheric noise. The initial impression is of turning a radio dial, and listening to broadcasts of excellent dance music from the nightclubs of neoTokyo. And I really can’t emphasize how phat some of the tunes are. There really isn’t another word for it.

I should also mention that she is a multi-instrumentalist, and includes some rather tasteful and skilled analog instruments on his tracks, from the snatches of classical piano on days, to the slap-bass funk of touch and go, to the distorted licks of guitar splashed across his work, notably on fuse. Brilliantly, though, the chips are asked to do the really impressive solo work. It’s amazing how much soul can be gotten out of a Commodore SID chip.

Enough talking. Here are some highlight tracks from perhaps the most immediately accessible records, Coloris and Orion. Do make sure to turn up your speakers, and consider buying these records, just for the higher definition audio.

Coloris

Fuse

Computer Music

autumn in space

The freely downloadable album, chiptek is a good example of this part of she’s corpus, if you want to listen to it before you need more in a similar vein. Here’s a track off that:

supersonic [HD]

Music

Finally, I will say something about the fact that many of she’s albums have quite expansive concepts behind them, with extensive artwork and even backstories to them, all of which are augmented by the snatches of speech and SFX heard during the tracks. Perhaps the most conceptual of she’s stuff, the Days album, is a collection of ambient industrial tracks, which languish as downtempo mood pieces, or which pulsate and rise out of brooding dark atmospheric noise and low synth pads to build into an orchestrated breakbeat crescendo only to vapourize before they have established, sometimes collapsing into simulated CD skipping, leaving you craving more. All this against a background of ominous science fiction themed pronouncements in English and Japanese. It’s really awesome stuff. And there’s quite a story to go along with it. So if you like your electronic music serious, and with a bit of depth, try this out. The sequel, Nights, is in progress!
Day 9
Day 5
Day 11

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Live from Movement/DEMF: Day Two

Posted by SP on May 31, 2010

Looking at the schedule for day two gave the impression of a start-to-finish hike between stages in a mad attempt to hear everything.  It didn’t quite turn out that way, but there were some really great moments.

Once again, one of those moments was the first set of the day at the main stage. This time that set was by New Zealander, Recloose. Recloose did an upbeat set of dance music that set a great tone for the rest of the day.  The impressive thing about it though, was that in addition to the usual disco, funk, and techno records that most DJs will play in that kind of set, Recloose played dance music from around the world, and from multiple cultures–African, Caribbean, Middle Eastern–all of that and more.  It was a very impressive, absolutely seamless mix that showed both how universal dance music is, and how contemporary dance music fits into that family.  It was great fun too, kind of like this:

Recloose was succeeded by DJ Pierre, who had a fantastic record selection, but couldn’t get anything going with the crowd, owing to a general lack of structure (in this case structure would mean the pattern of musical builds and releases that a DJ creates using effects, record changes, volume and so on– y’know, what DJs actually *do* with all that hardware up there) uses to so we decided to see what else was going on.

Turns out there wasn’t all that much going on.  A lot of the midday acts seemed to suffer from the same lack of structure that DJ Pierre’s set did, but I don’t blame him or them entirely for this.  Partly I think the squishy nature of a lot of the sets was due to the fact that they weren’t getting much feedback from the crowd.  It was unbelievably hot, and Chene Park is all concrete, making it even hotter.  Making matters worse, the festival organizers prohibit the bringing in of anything to eat or drink, including water, the general idea being to gouge festival goers who have already paid a lot of money just to get inside the gate.  When it’s hot like it was on Sunday that seems almost criminal.  Heat exhaustion is a real problem, and having to spend 3$ for a bottle of water (god forbid you want a beer) makes hydration over the course of 8-10 hours an expensive proposition. Of course you can always leave, and go to the little cooler in the trunk of your car and drink free water (like we did), but that adds to the substantial fatigue of the day.  Even if you did have the money and didn’t mind parting with it, finding shade was a principal concern of the day.

The point of all this is that the crowds really didn’t start giving the DJs much feedback on the dance floor until the sun started go down, and I think that hurt the momentum of the midday sets a little bit.

One act it didn’t hurt was the Martinez Brothers, who absolutely rocked the Beatport stage.  (This stage is also in one of the two best shaded areas in the park, so there was a huge crowd of people here–more people + less heat = more dancing = better performance?) Anyway, they were great. Here’s a sample:

The three acts we’d planned on hitting that day were Anthony “Shake” Shakir, Larry Heard, and Inner City.  Of these, we really only got to enjoy Larry Heard.  Of course “Shake”‘s a genius, and one of Detroit’s best known electronic music figures, but he was playing at that underground stage I mentioned in the Day One post and his sound was too loud.  Add heat, billowing clouds of cigarette (and funny cigarette) smoke, fatigue and a slightly crazy mood building on the pit of the dance floor and you can see why we didn’t hang out too much there.  So it was back to the main stage for Larry Heard.

He was awesome–even better than these links would suggest, and the crowd was with him but it had been a very long day. Being exhausted from the heat we did not make it to Inner City, but called it a day instead.  Probably we’ll take it a little slower for Day Three, and plan a little better for the energy-sapping effects of the heat.

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Phantogram

Posted by SP on April 18, 2010

Synth-pop is big now, which kind of makes people as old as I am, who lived the through the age of Depeche Mode, New Order and Erasure as it happened  kind of laugh a little.  If you were gay or in college or hung out in dance clubs a lot it was epic stuff, but it was always a subculture thing.  The real innovators of the period were never known outside of a handful of listeners and the sound in general only registered with people when it trickled into more mainstream pop acts, which again, is kind of like what’s happening now.

At this point I’m just gonna spare you anymore of the obligatory Rolling Stone (or throughly derivative Pitchfork) bullshit about influences or history and just tell you that I love Phantogram.  While it is synth-driven, the sound of Phantogram to me really centers on Sarah Barthel’s voice hanging in a lot of empty space that the music sort of creates in the negative.  Josh Carter’s guitar is masculine but understated, weaving in and out through the space in a way that  complements Barthel’s vocals perfectly.  The darkness of the lyrics gives the whole thing an edge of tragedy that’s hard to resist.  It’s haunting and sexy and just cool.

Yeah, I know they said this about synth-pop in the 80s too. The early stuff has a sense of novelty about it though that makes it campy in a way that diminishes its staying power.  This time around, with electronic music having come into its own, it’s possible to make this music in an environment that takes it seriously. Without taking anything away from the greats of 20 years ago, I think that makes it a little bit smarter and a little bit better.  That’s just what I think though.  You can judge for yourself. Here are two of my favorites from their most recent album, the first from a very cool session at KEXP in Seattle that gives a rare glimpse at how this kind of music is made live.

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Keep Putting Soul Up

Posted by SP on March 5, 2010

Spring is in the air…kind of…anyway it’s time to start emerging from the cocoon of seasonal affective disorder.  For that the doctor orders soul music.

First up is Raphael Saadiq’s The Way I See It–one of those few records that actually lives up to its hype.  Those with a little gray in their hair like me might remember him from 80s/90s pop group Tony! Toni! Toné!  Since then he’s been a producing force behind the neo-soul movement that’s better known these days by the records of Joss Stone and John Legend.  Basically, the guy is everywhere, so I’ll cut his story short.  Google him and be amazed at how consistently he’s produced good records for artists who actually have chops.

The Way I See ItThe Way I See It is a solid effort in the classic Motown tradition.  None of the songs are that deep (except for Big Easy, about the anxiety of a man for his missing girlfriend), and that’s a good thing.  In the fantastic documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown, about the now deservedly famous Funk Brothers, the backing band for virtually every recognizable Motown song, Ben Harper is interviewed about the effect the music had on him as a child.  He notes the essential positivity and hopefulness that the music has within its upbeat rhythms and arrangements as its biggest influence, and I’m inclined to agree.  Too much message kills this music (unless you are Curtis Mayfield or Marvin Gaye).  So I give Saadiq props for keeping it thematically simple while surrounding himself with a crew of first rate musicians whose performances are so tight and in the pocket that they could easily be mistaken for the Funk Brothers themselves.  It’s beautifully recorded too.  It just sounds great.  Put this record on, dance, and give the dregs of winter the middle finger.

100 Days, 100 NightsNext up is the latest effort from Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings.  If Saadiq and his crew are carrying the Motown torch, Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings are carrying the flame for the Memphis sound.  While Saadiq is the consummate musical professional, Sharon Jones maybe has the better story.  For most of her life she did not sing professionally at all, and was working as a prison guard at Riker’s Island when she got her break at the age of 40 as a backing vocalist for Lee Fields.  There’s something of that toughness lingering in the sound of her vocals.  Sharon Jones sounds like she could probably kick your ass.  It’s a perfect voice for the slightly rougher style of soul music that she and the Dap Kings play, ranging from classic pissed-off girl of a cheatin’ man to wise older sister to dedicated lover. Think Etta James with just a little more roughness in the voice.

As good as she is, though, the Dap Kings are easily her match.  These guys are on fire on every track–classic big band Memphis soul with lots of horns and the same distinctive guitar sound that you hear on old Otis Reading and Sam and Dave tracks.  It’s not as polished or produced as Saadiq’s sound, but that’s for a good reason.  The Dap Kings are period people, and use as much of the instrumentation and recording technology of the late 60s and 70s as they can get away with.  That’s good though.  Their records sound real in a way that few do anymore. You also get a sense of how good these guys are live.  Though I’ve not had the pleasure myself I’ve never heard anyone who has say that they did not absolutely burn the stage down.  Makes sense.

The Dap Kings have their own record label: DapTone Records.  The motto is “Keep Putting Soul Up”.   Sounds about right to me.  Happy Spring everybody.

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Three Great Contemporary Jazz Artists

Posted by SP on January 12, 2010

I was going to write “there are few forms of music that I love more than jazz” but screw it.  There aren’t ANY forms of music that I love more than jazz.  Unfortunately, really good, innovative, and musically sound jazz is hard to find.  Most releases stateside are either anemic descendants of 70’s fusion (think Weather Channel music) or staid attempts at traditionalism by otherwise really competent players who might swing like hell live, but won’t sell records on a major label if they dare push the envelope to jazz snobs in North America.

That’s why I’m dedicating this entry to three American jazz artists that I think are breaking that mold and doing really creative, electrifying work that deserves to be heard: Christian Scott, Jason Moran, and Sean Jones.

First New Orleans native Christian Scott.

I got introduced to his music through the recommendation of a friend that I check out 2007’s Anthem, Scott’s melancholic, thoughtful, and altogether moving reflection on Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.  I was immediately arrested by Scott’s whispery tone, which is truly unique (allegedly the product of his own exploration and guidance from legendary mentor Clark Terry).  Anthem is dark and moody, but it fits its subject matter perfectly and stands out, at least to me, as an expressive benchmark.  Below is a video of Scott performing live at the Newport Jazz Festival in 2008.

Jason Moran has been a favorite of mine for years.  His 2003 record The Bandwagon: Live at the Village Vanguard got my attention with his versatility, feel, and remarkable sense of song.  It was also just cool as hell.  Who can argue with a jazz cover of Planet Rock by Afrika Bambaataa? I mean, come on.  His later work, however, far outshines anything on that record.  His latest release Artist in Residence is absolutely arresting in its beauty and structure.  Far from being just an exceptional piano player, Moran has developed the compositional vocabulary to show just how much he understands this music without losing sight of his own message and sensibility.  It is a shame he isn’t better known outside jazz.  The song in this video, from Artist in Residence, is called “He Puts on His Coat and Leaves”.  The video doesn’t do it justice.  If you can, listen to the original.  It’s an entire novel in less than five minutes.

“He Puts on His Coat and Leaves” (live)

Finally there’s Sean Jones, another trumpeter, but from Ohio.  Sean Jones’ reputation used to be strongest in the Detroit-Pittsburgh corridor.  (Jones teaches Jazz at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh) but a turn with the much valorized Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra the last five years has changed that, and Jones is finally coming into some very well-deserved publicity.  Jones’s playing is nothing short of beautiful.  He plays with a clarity and phrasing that are slightly reminiscent of Terence Blanchard (at least to me) but where Blanchard’s playing is austere, Jones radiates warmth and light.  He’s the perfect yang to Scott’s yin.  Plus, as the videos below attest, the guy can swing like there’s no tomorrow.  Jones’ latest release, 2009’s The Search Within, is nothing short of a revelation.  As a composer, Jones already has a fresh and unmistakable signature sound that I think will one day put him in the same league with other great trumpeter/composers like Freddie Hubbard and Donald Byrd.   The Search Within will knock you out.

Sean Jones, Kenny Blake, Howie Alexander, live in Pittsburgh doing a blazing rendition of Herbie Hancock’s classic “Watermelon Man” parts I & II

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