Tornados. Essentially tornados abound in Neko Case’s sixth album Middle Cyclones, a brilliant pop/folk/rock/etc album. Maybe one of the purest displays in Neko’s career, the album is filled with density learned from composing and touring with her side super-band The New Pornographers. These songs are demonstrating growth in Neko’s song writing ability. Neko has constructed songs with limited space, she’s giving us a Neko Case pop sonic masterpiece that takes some time to find a spot to settle into and enjoy, but the album’s main purpose is to drive the idea that we live in a stormy world that we do not even work on our own behalf to enjoy fully. We all struggle, as Neko, to find love and to define it for ourselves, but we also push away those who mean us most joy. We are stormy creatures, afraid to communicate fully in a world filled with the ability to communicate anything to anyone at any time. Middle Cyclone is the love album for the early 21st Century. The songs are richly decorated; they spin the listener into the ground and then spend equal time allowing comfortable recoil.
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I suppose I have to open with the disclaimer here. Until recently, I was an employee at the Music Resource Center, a non-profit recording studio for kids in Virginia. While there, I worked with many fledgling musicians and attempted to teach them the proverbial ropes (insofar as I knew my way around them myself, which is still a work in progress). That’s where I first met Colin Steers, the lanky self-professed dork currently featured as a contestant on the second season of Bravo’s reality TV/game show/fashion expo Make Me a Supermodel, which premiered Wednesday at 10pm.
In high school, Colin played bass in the wonderfully spastic pop quartet Body For Karate, seen here tying him to the train tracks. Up in front was Ross Bollinger, a prodigious young songwriter who spat out hectic chirps without the slightest hesitation and pumped his ukulele through a giant tie-dyed amplifier. Together, they cooked up a slew of riffs so catchy that it didn’t really matter that an electric uke was a bizarre way to go about executing them.
Even that wasn’t their most oddball tactic, though—at one awesomely disastrous performance, half the power infrastructure fizzled mid-song, taking out everything but the tie-dyed amp. Without missing a beat, Ross pulled out his Gameboy, plugged it in, and dove into a game of Tetris while the drummer jammed along with the 8-bit theme, buying us some extra time to figure out what had gone wrong. These days, he’s more inclined toward using a bright yellow $20 toy guitar for his “gigs” with the Dead River Company, a Brooklyn-based musical flash-mob that runs in and out of subway cars and parties playing quirky folk without really giving a damn whether you want to hear it, but at least now we know the weirdness quotient is stable. (You know, just in case the pictures don’t already make that clear.)
All along, B4K entertained an unhealthy fascination with robots, resulting in numerous songs ending in “-tron.” Foremost among these is “Uktron 3000 (4000),” which features some of Colin’s most spirited backup singing and some neat half-synthetic drum parts but is still driven primarily by an astonishingly addictive keyboard part. After the first couple EPs, however, scheduling problems kept the band from meeting up at the studio, so “Parry Thrust Thrust Parry” eventually turned into a bedroom recording project, much to the dismay of the staff. It’s distressingly lo-fi, but probably their most mature work in nearly every other respect.
I’m glad Colin’s appearance on national TV gives me cause to post his old band’s music here; when they were at their peak, I was just starting my career moonlighting as a music writer (also still a work in progress) and have always thought the songs deserved a broader audience than I was able to give them at the time. I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed for him while watching the show over the next couple months, but if there’s any sort of talent portion of the program a la the more straightforward beauty pageants, it’s all over.
Discovering recent music from other countries can often be a difficult, if not daunting task. There are only a handful of labels in the States that stay true to bringing quality international music to the United States, and Luaka Bop is quite possibly at the top of that list. Exploring the music of Brazil has often been a forte of theirs, and as of recent, they have brought a new face on board by the name of Márcio Local.
Local comes from the region of Realengo, a working class section on the north side of Brazil. By the time he was born in 1976, this part of Brazil was dubbed “Black Rio” which attracted thousands of young minds. Being one of the few to make it out with his immense amounts of talent, Local’s music finds its foundations in that of the Bossa Nova sound of his heritage, and the Afro-centric sound that swept Brazil in the ‘60s with Tim Maia and Jorge Ben.
But the thing that sets Local apart from his peers was his admiration for the modern sound and the implementation of it into his music. Luaka Bop released a series of 3-inch CDs last year, Local’s being the one that stood out the most, full of vigor and ambition. His sound consisted of all the traditional Brazilian instruments, but you could also find the use of studio effects, turntables, and countless experimentation with the sonic landscape. The time is now for the Brazilians to capitalize on the resurgence of their sound in the United States with groups like Os Mutantes, Caetano Veloso, and Gilberto Gil—and Local is taking full advantage of this.
Otis Redding, Al Green, Isaac Hayes, the Isley Brothers, the O’Jays, the more contemporary Maxwell and Eric Benet, or even Michael Jackson—the black one, not the white one, you know, the little Black boy from the Gary ghetto. Or, imagine President Barack Obama as Bill Withers, alone on a broad stage, or leading a carefully orchestrated band, slapping a guitar, crooning about “Grandma’s hands”. This kind of leadership rarely leads to crusades. Can you see Keith Sweat begging on bended knees, his falsetto prostrating himself, drowned in his willingness to show his vulnerability and therefore his strength?
By sharing his iPod playlists, by breaking it down on Ellen the way he did, grooving but holding back to match the host and let her shine, all makes clear to those sensitized, that he is the (first) blues president. If Bill Clinton, with his jazz sax on late night talk shows was the jazz president, then Clinton was Kenny G or Herb Alpert—awesome, but something wholly different than the blues. So What, one might ask? The difference is that Miles Davis, John Coltrane, even Duke Ellington and especially Louis Armstrong, all had the blues. They refused defeat that taints the souls of the assimilated into believing the hype. They perceived a world ridden with conflict and injustice, filthy with the greed, anger and stupidity of riot, war and hunger. Yet, they were fierce enough to look and create beauty.
Can’t you imagine one or both of the Obamas in the shower singing “People don’t let money / Don’t let money change you—almighty dollar” into a loufah in the shower? Or Barack with foam on face and razor in had in front of the bathroom mirror shouting along with Nina: “They keep on sayin’ ‘Too SLOW!’ But that’s just the trouble, too slow!” Or Barack doing the shackles-on-my-feet dance, sliding back and forth across the floor, bending his arms next to his waist, snapping his fingers, raising his shoulders with his lips puckered out, “I don’t care about your past, I just our love to last!” With the way the first couple kisses and embraces, you know that Barry White and Luther Vandross are not far away in spirit.
The blues, describes Cornel West, is “a philosophical disposition towards the world… a tragic comic hope, a way of looking unflinchingly at despair and still enduring!” I cannot speak for masses of whites. However, without fail, African-Americans I have spoken to see Obama’s swagger when he walks into the room. That brother is as smooth as Guinness stout under the sweet Southern delta sun. Smooth, we add, is wholly different from slick. George Bush was as slick as Elvis Presley’s imitative lyrics and beats. Naturally, Elvis has left the building.
Recently, new age music got a major dose of street cred courtesy of an unlikely source. Though it wasn’t televised or even publicized all that much, legendary jazz drummer Jack DeJohnette snagged the 2009 Grammy for—get this—best new age album.
You may remember DeJohnette as the man holding down the beat for several little known musicians like Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, and some guy called Miles Davis. Over the years, DeJohnette has tackled and mastered nearly every type of jazz and pop form, from free jazz and fusion to rock and R&B. Now, we can add new age to that list.
I must admit that new age music has never been at the top of my list. Embarrassingly for a music critic, I’ve always viewed it the way people look at abstract art: It’s pretty, but what’s so special about something my four-year-old nephew could do. If music were a collection of animals, new age would surely be the snail. Slow and methodical, it seems to rarely change its pace and direction. If jazz is the epitome of spontaneous, exciting, and emotional music, new age always seemed like the opposite—stagnant, boring, and devoid of genuine feeling. A not-so-scientific look at the past Grammy winners for best new age album reveals names like Paul Winter, Enya, and the Clannad. Accomplished musicians in their own right, but not exactly the artists that speak for a generation. Jack DeJohnette is another story.