Thursday, January 14, 2010

Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson, "Summer of Fear"

Published 10/27/2009
WERU Online

Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson, the Brooklyn based singer-songwriter, popped up in my life around March of last year, ruminating around the fleeting winter months. With his obnoxiously long name, shortened sweetly to MBAR, I fell in love with his freshman, selftitled album. In hearing his first single, “Buriedfed,” I thought, “Wow, this could plausibly be a new favorite of mine,” and in my world, an iPod filled with 20,000 songs, that can be a monumental statement. His voice is memorable. Both soft and loud, MBAR halfwhispers behind a little folk guitar riff at one point, then hollers behind some loud unidentifiable banging. I love its hollowness; you could imagine this artist in a basement playing around with recording equipment. When I found out that MBAR had put out a second album, I was ecstatic, then curious when I found out he’d been signed to Omaha’s Saddle Creek Records. But when I heard the finished product, I was utterly disappointed

Now, I love Saddle Creek and nearly anything Bright Eyes, Monsters of Folk and Mystic Valley band frontman Conor Oberst can creatively conjure up as he did with Saddle Creek in 1993. However, with the switch to this album, the all over sound and feel of MBAR has completely shifted. He doesn’t sound as sleepy or as unhappy to get out of bed. His voice has been cleaned up and polished. Yes, on his first album the production sounded a bit sloppy, but I loved it.

The band’s instrumentation has now geared up to a more popular, diversified and cooperative sound. In the cut “Always an Anchor,” the guitar parts inspire more hopping around than feet dragging. Some songs sound a bit like 70s rock ballads equipped with keyboard chorus, as in “The Sound.” The keyboard says hello some more in “Hard Row,” where MBAR’s grunting “ I love” tries to offset the prettiness a bit, along with some strange noises and a shaker for a bit of spice.

Saddle Creek bands seem to have remarkable talents for slide guitar. The general structure in this album consists of a different build up. Many of the songs in his first album started off strong on slide guitar, building higher and higher, only to subside for the next track. That was perhaps the main mystique of his first album, a sense of falling apart that reflected the mood of each piece.

If general music connoisseurs wonder in which genre this album belongs, I have no idea how to satisfy them. Pop-folk? Pop-rock? Something about this music avoids categorization, which may make it more interesting. With each listen, however, I hear more and more classic rock. In this sense, this album bridges the gap between two generations -- those still tapping their toes to Lynard Skynard , and those thirsting for some alternative modern rock. A horn section introduced in “The 100th of March” doesn’t necessarily make it fuller, but more dissonant, which is okay. In “Gold and Grey” the percussion and lead guitar parts in conjunction with one another create a kind of rock that isn’t New York, but more a sweet non-home Alabama. Introduced, too, are some incredibly high soprano female harmonies in “Summer of Fear, Pt. 1.” (something I would have never expected from listening to their first album). The rambling country voices that introduce “More Than a Mess” are a bit jarring. Overall though, there is a more polished and less hollow, standing-in-a-room while singing-and-playing quality to each track (thanks most likely to Pro Tools).

What is MBAR trying to say, exactly? Literally and figuratively, it beats me. Though I find his voice to be one of my favorites, his diction leaves me unaware of what to hum when I sing in the car. One can tell, though, it is not a happy-go-lucky record. The downer title “Losing 4 Winners” consists of words you can pick out – “dreams you had, pain, words, fuck.” Inevitably, with an album title like Summer of Fear, I’m just guessing at the emotion. The backdrop the music lays then seems out of place and trite. Out of that context, though, this album is okay. I can imagine almost anyone cleaning a kitchen to it. We all know how everyone loves that.

Suggested – Summer of Fear Pt 2, Boat

Shad's "The Old Prince"

Published: 9/21/09
With WERU Online.

As fresh as Shad's “The Old Prince” is, in actuality, it's not that fresh. The Canadian rapper's sophomore album was released in mid-2007. Following his major success and Juno award win, Old Prince was rereleased on Black Box record label. In the first listen, Shad and his low key sound stands out on strong hindlegs from the MTV pop-rappers or scandalized superstars whose faces are unavoidable in today's media. The sound of opening and closing cash registers are far from Shad's flow. At the core of his sound is an attitude he defines himself in “I Don't Like To”: “'Cause I rap like it's my hobby/ Not a jobby-job, all sloppy and off-key”. In this hobby is artistic intention, rather than money symbols in green that read on the faces of contemporary rap stars, that sport Bentleys and in-ground pools. In a sea of auto-tuned madness Shad is a refreshing revisit to a more mature rap, a decades old throwback.

The concept of the album itself moves in many directions. One could view the beginning track as a preface to the tale of this album, a lack of youth, about The Old Prince himself whose problem is that he was “an old prince”, in a world where princes are supposed to grow up to be profound, adult kings. It could be the rapper's own, “Quest for Glory”, with his complete denial of a popular rap scene. It is a fight against society. However, most striking is Shad's ability to contain a chunk of current subject matter, even into a record recorded nearly three years ago. Among the presented is the controversy behind music downloading and musical artist rights (i.e., Metallica's 2000 upset with Napsters Peer-2-Peer file sharing of their work) in “I Don't Like To”, racism (a topic more and more important in a country with a black president) in “Brother (Watching)” and even an environmentalism (referenced smoke stacks)in “Now a Daze”. He builds his modern distinction by hollering out and dismissing the abject apathy of his generation. He truly places himself as a youth conscious in the beginning monologue of “What We All Want” or a deviant of the “conformist day” as stated in “Get Up”.

Behind his modern matters of rhyme is an earnest voice. The rhythm of his voice is natural,smooth, and non-abrasive. The album really doesn't quite pick up until perhaps the fourth track, which ironically utilizes a sort of trite version of sampling throughout. You can't hear these beats in a club per say, but perhaps on a sickly warm or painstakingly cold car drive. The tempo isn't exactly danceable, yet warrants a head nod or sway.

Full force into a juxtaposed mess, “Old Prince Still Lives Home” was ironically one of Shad's bigger singles. The video of “Old Prince” even won Polaris Music Prize. The track falls almost exactly in the middle, becoming an interesting calamity, however, it channels the “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” a bit too much. Shad reflects his talent as an actor (or at least a voice actor) in his ability to distort his voice and tonality to one of a goofy, early 90s Will Smith. After a relatively low key, serious repertoire of songs preceding, this is all a bit jarring. Hilariously, in character with the “Old Prince” persona, the song's beat completely cuts out, because, as Shad explains to the Whoever, “he couldn't afford to keep it going”. He's certainly got it covered though, as he choreographs a chorus of handclaps, some smile-worthy hooting and hollering of a group of dudes. My personal opinion changed halfway through, then faded a bit back to the original, when the strange contrast into the next track occurred. From zany,laziness of the Old Prince begins a beautiful, two-minute piano interlude.

From piano into the next very distinct track comes, “I Heard Your Voice Like An Angel”. Here lies some experimental instrumentation: haunting reverbed guitar work,that utters the sounds like a sad wash of cool water in tremolo, with just as haunting lyrics as, “lately, I'm been seeing why you hate me”. His sincerity from the beginning here begins to shine back through, in a gleam, to fade back with the sound of an acoustic guitar.

Still, the transitions between individual songs are awkward at times from slow to fast, from absurdist to rhythmic. In fact the beginning of one track, “Compromise” left me asking, “did he just sample the beginning of 'The Phantom of the Opera?” However, within a song, the vibe is a consistent entity, for example, like the funky brass forefront of the aforementioned “Compromise.”

Essentially, Shad is a poet. A peace monger. Someone willing to take some sort of stand. The poetry is guiding light through the quirks of the album. In listening, we are reminded of the language of rap music, its ultimate purpose to provide a message not always heard. Here words are concise and precious, as they create a story of this Old Prince, but the beat certainly helps. Cue the bittersweet string fade out.

Start with Tracks - Get Up, I Heard Your Voice Like An Angel, What We All Want
See also – Common, K-Os, K'Naan

Nurses "Apple's Acre"

Published 8/17/2009,
written for WERU Online.

Nurses released their sophomore album, “Apple’s Acre” on August 4th, the beginning of a month regrettably well on its way out. In regards to music and weather, the wet season came in like a waterlogged lion, in order to inevitably spring out like a sunshiny lamb. Intentional or not, a looming autumnal mantra thrives from the start within Nurses new album, the follow up to 2007’s “Hangin’ Nothin’ But Our Hands”, as the album opens with the track “Technicolor”, which resounds with a moodiness that is free. This mood emotes the emptiness of cooler weather, summer going and crisper breezes coming. You can find autumn even in the literal, the thought of apples. Though I was a Nurses virgin till what has seemed like a very protracted week, they seem relatively small scale. The Portland scene has certainly taken notice, as “Man at Arms” has been featured on KEXP Song of the Day podcast.
The lyrical power, listen after listen, extends beyond bands of a similar sound including MGMT and Animal Collective. Where other groups tend to express often visual, literal statements as lyrics, Nurses’ words possess interpretability. Hand in hand, in this collection of song, lies perhaps the most remarkable of Nurses stylistic approach to folk, an emotional honesty. “Apple’s Acre” could, beyond doubt, be listened to in the most solemn or joyful of moods. The sadness lies in the honesty and emptiness. “I’m callin’ all my friends today/ask them what they think/I hope they all still care about me,” from “Mile after Mile”, is blatant, hitting heart strings with its falsetto soprano. It all lacks the formulaic doom and gloom of other bands and raises mood with the psychedelic sound.
Nurses find a comfortable placement in psychedelic and freak folk genre, comparable to the aforementioned danceable sounds of Animal Collective. As beat often binds any track, the changing drumming approach, including a slowing or a picking up, adds an alluring element. The transitions are smooth and intrigue a listener as far as to ask, “Why did that happen? How will it end up?” However, they are not solely dependent on drum machines or drum kit.
The numerous voices that blend into one Nurses are hard to pinpoint. There exists an inevitable throatiness, one that avoids an overtly irritating sound, is slightly similar to that of Cold War Kids’ Nathan Willett, with a more pop, less rock influence. The use of band members Aaron Chapman and John Bowers is rarely dissonant, assimilating and feeding off one another’s vocal tonalities, sometimes with increased grittiness, sometimes with a dripping, loose quality, both of which featured in the cut, “Bright Ideas.” The actual sound of the recording, from Dead Oceans, is not like the empty acoustics of a theater, a room, a cabin, but nearly underwater wasteland.
In all, the music is a striking and true feeling of your feet firmly rooted, but your arms puffed up with helium, moving with little conscious control: grounded but unconscious, like a balloon man in a used car lot. It warrants both the Woodstock era, arm flailing dance and the careful, conscious head nod. One complaint, we were given only 35 minutes of this round of Nurses. Unlike most psychedelic folk music that dabbles in the fluorescent rainbow spectrum of colors and sounds, Nurses stays rooted in the colors of fall, the red, the yellow, the orange.

Recent decision.

To blog my writing assignments as they come. Maybe photos or something about how life is, in moderation, enjoyable.