Tag Archives: r&b

#FridayFinds: Music Memoirs, Dollar Bin Discoveries, Lip Syncing to Styx, Saxy Tunes, and Getting it Right on the First Take

photos courtesy (clockwise L to R): consequenceofsound.net, robsheffield.com, liveandbreathing.com, nbc.com
photos courtesy (clockwise L to R): consequenceofsound.net, robsheffield.com, liveandbreathing.com, nbc.com

Friday! Weekend! And the ides of May are nigh. My goodness. How time doth move.

It’s been a good week. Lots of action and activity in all the right areas, particularly in the area of personal/professional growth in music adventure and experience. Solid stuff all around.

And here for you now are five of the things that have added that extra dash of excellent these last few days.

1. Rob Sheffield’s Book – Turn Around Bright Eyes: The Rituals of Love and Karaoke

I picked up this fun little read over Christmas and heartily enjoyed it from the get go, but it wasn’t until just last night that I was able to find the time to finish it. Ah time… thou art a flighty and fickle mistress.

For those familiar with Sheffield’s other work, this book will offer a welcome and decidedly more hopeful conclusion to his previous stories of love and loss and the music that brought him to adulthood (Talking to Girls About Duran Duranand got him through the tragic, untimely end of his first marriage (Love Is a Mix Tape).

That said, the book isn’t off limits or full of anything that would make it difficult to understand for those not familiar with those stories, and Sheffield’s musings on music, karaoke, and life in general are honest and sincere and thus effortlessly universal.

For Sheffield, music is a labor of love in and of itself. He’s self-deprecating and humble about his own shortcomings as a performance artist (how many different ways can you tell people you’re not the most on-key singer? There’s at least 20, judging by the number of times it comes up in the book) and has an unabashed admiration for anyone who puts themselves in the limelight. The karaokes lifers, the career session musicians, the up-and-coming musical prodigies and wunderkinds– the David Bowies, Neil Diamonds, and everyone in between.

But it’s not all karaoke and musical jargon either. There’s really something in here for everyone. From the awkward 20something to the purportedly less awkward 30something, and from the new husband learning the ropes to the old professional romantic– and certainly the shower singer and the closet musical mastermind– everyone can find something to identify with in this collection of vignettes.

2. Discovering the Untold Pleasures of the Dollar Used Vinyl Bin

So I may have mentioned that I recently inherited a lovely little record player. It’s amazing, and I’m still very much in that “new father with newborn babe” stage wherein I take extensive precautions to ensure proper handling of turntable, records, and all related paraphernalia that the listening experience entails. With great power come great responsibility, after all.

But of course, with great responsibility comes great temptation to stock up on whatever things you don’t have but think you might need to have the best possible experience. Record brushes and cleaning fluid, plastic covers for each individual record sleeve, and a whole new arsenal of albums to play loud and proud.

Anyone who’s considered themselves an enthusiast in anything can tell you, having a hobby is expensive. Comic books, photography, stamps even– shout out to the quiet, the proud, the esteemed few stamp collectors still among us– every endeavor comes with quite a costly price tag if you really want to get serious.

Which is why the dollar bin at your friendly, neighborhood record store is all the more dangerous. One moment you’re leafing through the sea of titles thinking nothing of it, and the next you’re on your way out the door with half your day’s pay in the friendly, neighborhood record store’s till. But at least you got that Gordon Lightfoot album you never knew you always wanted, right?

Jokes aside, there’s generally a lot of decent items among the stacks. You just have to be willing to dig. In my first two visits, I spent just under $30 on seven albums that would have, at their original list price, probably gone for $100 all told (estimate adjusted for inflation, naturally).

P.S. If you’re looking for the perfect birthday gift for that special music blogger in your life, consider getting him (or her… what do I know… June 10, people) a handful of dollar bin delights. What better way to expand one’s musical horizons. Thoughtful and fun too.

3. Tonight Show Lip Sync Showdown between Jimmy Fallon and Emma Stone

Though I’m overall on the fence about The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon, the man and his staff definitely have one thing down: a fantastic assortment of musical segments. They’ve done barbershop quartet renditions of popular hip hop tunes and spot-on impersonations of everyone from Neil Young to Bruce Springsteen to Tom Petty. And pretty much every Jimmy Fallon / Justin Timberlake collaboration you can find from the show is both uproariously enjoyable and musically inclined. Excellent stuff all around.

This isn’t the first lip sync battle that he’s done either. It started with an energetic face-off against Joseph Gordon Levitt while he was still at the 12:35 Late Night spot and then continued with a moderately silly one against Paul Rudd, but this one is the best thus far, particularly in the area of visual accuracy in lip sync lyric delivery.

Honestly it’s over at the end of the first round when Ms. Stone delivers a stupendously articulated rendition of Blues Traveler’s other hit from their 1994 breakout album Four– “Hook.” I think John Popper would approve.

4. Getting Saxy with the Saxyderms

Last weekend I went out with some friends to see the spring concert of a Tufts University-based saxophone ensemble called the Saxyderms (the Tufts mascot is an elephant, they play saxophones… Saxyderms…. get it? good). I’d seen them once before while on a mid-summer’s afternoon stroll through the Boston Common, and they were fantastic. Plus it turns out that my friend Jason is not only a Tufts grad but also a member of the band himself. Surprise, surprise. The guy’s got some chops.

With all the rock, roll, and other fun sounds out there on the airwaves today, it’s always nice to remember that music doesn’t need words, a raucous, romping guitar line, or even a cowbell beat to be enjoyable (though the cowbell doesn’t hurt). And these guys and gals prove it.

The program was a lovely mix of chorale pieces, jazz hits, and even one or two pop covers. All were beautifully arranged and delivered, but my hands down favorite of the afternoon was their rendition of the Dizzy Gillespie tune “A Night in Tunisia.”

And speaking of sexy saxes and pop music, check out this little mash up of great rock songs that feature that lovely sound. I’m hard pressed to think of any recent hits that really showcase that sound, but now I’m going to keep my ears dutifully peeled for it.

5. Bring the Band to Your Living Room: Live and Breathing Sessions

These days there are a lot of ways to find out about new music on the internet. And just about every day it feels like there’s a new YouTube channel devoted to enterprising young videographers looking to capture your favorite or soon-to-be-favorite bands in a new way with crazy camera angles, exotic locations, and all matter of color and light filters.

Enter Live and Breathing. They showcase well-known and up-and-coming bands, recorded with a few cameras, yes, but done all in one take, and without too much crazy camera mishegas or ridiculous, over-wrought lighting. They put the emphasis on capturing the essence of the performance, placing the premium on the musicians and their craft, not suped up production.

I learned about a lot of cool groups from their videos like The Wood Brothers and St. Paul and the Broken Bones (listen to those guys now). It’s also how I solidified my obsession with The Lone Bellow and Lake Street Dive. Check out their stuff today, and make yourself a little country/blues/folk-rock-americana in-house concert playlist this weekend. And enjoy!

Spring Cleaning and that Fresh Feeling

do you have your ducks in a row?
are your ducks in a row? (photo courtesy coyotemercury.com)

Cleaning. It’s not just a way to help you find a quick, uninhibited pathway to the nearest exit in case of emergency. It’s a process that can inspire a renewed state of purpose, satisfaction, and accomplishment. It can be as mentally and psychologically refreshing an activity as it is a physically involved task.

It’s been a good few days of spring cleaning around here. Clearing out the mental cobwebs and making space and time to reassess, reorganize, and recommit to the people and things that are important. Like the physical upkeep of a home, it’s not so easy to get at every inch, crevice, and crag of the space at once, and somehow you tend to underestimate the amount of time you’ll need to complete the job. But eventually you make it.

Just like cleaning the house it’s good to check in with yourself from time to time as new furniture is added and new challenges arise. And just like cleaning a house, it’s important to have a few helpful tunes to give you some extra sage words of wisdom to carry you through the process.

1. Nickel Creek – Rest of My Life

Nothing like waking up the morning after a rocking good party to the sight of trashed couches and smell of stale beer to make you reassess what your priorities are. Often times, if you haven’t swabbed the deck recently– If you haven’t had that personal check-in for a while– you might feel like this too.

First things first: get yourself a fresh glass of water, assess the situation at hand, and then start picking up the place.

“It’s one of those endings / No one claps ’cause they’re sure that there’s more.” Turns out that life doesn’t stop or take breaks. Dreams and sleep aren’t even breaks: they’re more like connectors between conscious moments– and pretty active ones at that when you consider the sorts of complex situations they conjure up. The best thing we can do is roll with the punches. The blemishes and missteps are part of the continuum, and, if we’re smart, we might even learn something from them. “The battle is over / We lost but we’ll live to call off the war.” It’s not about sweeping up every speck of dust– it’s about getting to somewhere that feels like progress.

2. Father John Misty – I’m Writing A Novel

This one’ll definitely get you going. Heck you may find yourself even whistling while you work. Equal parts “Paperback Writer ” rockabilly sensibilities and “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream”-esque mashup of images and metaphors this wild romp of a tune makes quite the statement about what’s really “normal” in this life. The world’s a spinning mess of curious, crazy creatures, and what’s normal to you might actually be ridiculous to someone else. Likewise, what’s crazy to you may be status quo for someone else. All we can do is accept the madness, be ourselves, and keep our own reality together. And keeping track of the stories that come about (read: keep a journal… maybe even a blog!) is a good way to do this. “I’ll never leave the canyon ’cause I’m surrounded on all sides / By people writing novels and living lives that look like mine.” Everybody’s got stories they’re trying to tell, but nobody can tell our own stories better than we can.

3. Leif Vollebekk – Cairo Blues

This song’s as airy and light as a breezy spring day making it a fitting companion for all manner of housekeeping. The story may focus on the careless indecision and the mounting insecurity of one unfortunate girl he left back in the sleepy midwest,  but he’s got a good head on his shoulders, preferring to look ahead to better, brighter days. She may not clean up well, but at least he can. Though he may not soon be able to completely let go– “it don’t drown out those Cairo blues for good”– he’ll ride on, kicking out the cobwebs bit by bit and making room for sunnier, more promising plans on the horizon.

And speaking of easy and breezy…

4. Earth, Wind & Fire – That’s The Way of the World

Oh yeah. Even when taking on the toughest tasks, the deepest stains, the hardest truths– turn this one on and see those troubles lessen just enough to make it manageable. How can you argue with these guys? Their musicianship and groove alone should be enough to take you to a higher place. But if that’s not enough: just remember: “Looking back we’ve touched on sorrowful days / Future pass, they disappear.” You’ll pull through. You’ll get there. “Plant your flower and you grow a pearl.”

5. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings – We Get Along

And remember- you’re not alone. Taking the more straight-forward, narrative approach, the message here is plain: we’ll make it through. We will. We all have tough days, tough months– tough years even. But we’ll make it. We’ll muddle through somehow. And if we can find a way to muddle through together– actually working together to make things better for ourselves and for others– well then we’ll all benefit. Enough great visionaries, thinkers, and doers have said it, so there must be something to it: do well for others, be good to others, work with each other– and we’ll all succeed. Sounds good to me.

#FridayFinds: Beastie Boys Flashbacks and Nuovo Neapolitan Music

photos courtesy: ourstage.com, bostoniano.info, nbc.com, legacyrecordings.com
photos courtesy: ourstage.com, bostoniano.info, nbc.com, legacyrecordings.com

The last few weeks have I’ve been terrible about putting up new stories here, and I feel terrible about it. I talk a lot about keeping positive, pressing on, and pressing through, and yet I still have trouble committing to a few hours a week to share some of my favorite music with you.

It’s a fresh new season and I’m ready to turn over a new leaf. And it all starts with this new segment I’m calling #FridayFinds, a space where I can share some of the excellent odds and ends I’ve discovered over the last few days that didn’t fit elsewhere in the week’s entries.

And so, without anymore overture… #FridayFinds

1. Rediscovering An Old Favorite Album

I had not been under the swoon of adolescence long when I bought the Beastie Boys’ record Hello Nasty at the local Borders Books and Music. The entire duration of the trip home from the store I must have turned the CD cover over and over in my hands, marveling at the artwork– the sight of the three MCs literally “packed like sardines in a tin” on the cover and the outer space themes and motifs that carried o’er the rest of the carefully folded, biodegradable cover. I felt much like a young father bringing a young babe home from the hospital, my heart all aflutter with feelings of excitement and pride coupled with nervousness and anxiousness as I brought it inside, up to my room, and laid it down on the bed of my Aiwa 3-CD stereo.

It wasn’t my first introduction to their stuff, having heard whiffs of their work on local rock radio, but it was definitely my first formal introduction to the larger, more complex arc of their oeuvre. And I ate it up. The sheer amount of material on the record was impressive to my formative mind that had until then not seen so many tracks on cassette or CD (21—nay, 22 tracks!). And all those samples, intros, and outros so meticulously sampled and spliced to create a masterful cacophony of cool. It was with me throughout middle school, high school, and on through college.

And then, at some point, it disappeared from my library. Never to be seen again. Even though it was still available to me on my computer, it was a crushing blow.

Then this week I happened to see it again as I was browsing the stacks at the local Newbury Comics. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular that day, but then that’s when the best things happen– when you least expect it.

And it’s still just as good as I remembered it. I’d even wager it’s gotten better with the time that’s passed since I last listened. One thing’s for sure: I definitely get a lot more of the references now. And for all their playful and gonzo antics lyrically and otherwise throughout the album there’re some particularly deep and poignant moments as well. It’s the album of a band confidently hitting their stride.

2. Making Musical Connections in Rather Unlikely Places

I’ve never thought of asking the tellers at the bank for music recommendations, but I might start doing so after a trip to my local branch the other day. I’d gone to make a deposit, not to mention take a much needed break from work with a midday stroll around the neighborhood. Over time the guys at the bank have gotten to know me, and although I really shouldn’t be surprised by this since it’s probably part of their job to be personable and friendly, considering the number of people they must see day in and day and the fact that I come by so infrequently, it’s worth mentioning that they’re really good at it. Really, really good.

For example they know that I not only play guitar but also that I play guitar every so often at a restaurant nearby. Whereas on other occasions I might have made my deposit and left, this time around I stayed and chatted with the 3 tellers behind the counter about music and culture. Which brought us to sharing stories of time spent abroad; which brought us to sharing our favorite folk music; which led us to the shores of Italy and the Neapolitan music tradition, and which led one of the tellers, Victor, to recommend this nouveau Neapolitan music band out of Boston called Newpoli. You don’t have to understand the music, Victor said, to know that the stories in the song are crafted from only the most delicate but deliberate language. When the protagonist is in love, feels betrayed, or even makes a simple observation on the transient nature of life– you know it’s the real deal.

Amazing how in just thirty minutes we were able to travel halfway around the world, and all it required was a quick walk down the street from my office. Music is powerful stuff.

3. Finding New Ways To Discover Music

It was just a simple little NPR Music Spring Survey, nothing major or earth shattering. Little did I know that one simple question would alter the way I listened to music. Forever. Or, at least, for a few weeks.

When I got to the question about where I usually go to find out about new music, I noted that I was familiar with every source it mentioned. With one exception: Stitcher. It’s an online, made-for-mobile emporium of radio shows and podcasts that lets you make playlists of thoses shows. No sooner had I started exploring than I fell in love. In addition to the shows I knew I loved– All Songs Considered, Alt. Latino, and WBEZ’s Sound Opinions, i found some awesome new ones too from their impressive library including the New York Times Popcast, KQED’s Noise Pop Podcast, and non-music centered gems like WTF with Marc Maron and Go Fork Yourself With Andrew Zimmern. If you’ve been on the fence about downloading podcasts before like I was, this is definitely a great way to get familiar with the medium in a way that keeps things organized and leaves your iTunes uncluttered.

And check out Marc Maron’s recent interview with Jason Isbell. It paints a colorful version of modern southern rock history.

4. Centering Idea of the Week: Keep Your Promises

Never have I been more appreciative of Elvis impersonators. Well, I suppose not all of them, just this guy, a high school teacher in Oklahoma by the name of Frank Cooper. He’s as charismatic a teacher as ever I’ve seen, and he does a really, really good Elvis impression, not from time to time, but for every day of Elvis’s birthday month. To do this you’d have to be wildly courageous, and he’d have to decide a long time ago that if he was going to do this, he was going to have to commit to it. And he does.

And his motto: Keep Your Promises. It’s a wonderful window into how he’s able to carry out this philosophy. If you say you’re going to do something- do it. Make it so. Make it happen. Deliver. And I think being humble is part of that too. Because you’re going to have your share of troubles. You’re going to make mistakes, get of track, even loose sight of the goal from time to time. But carry on and follow through.

5. Song of the Week: Bill Withers – Lovely Day

I’ve had it with this cold weather. I want weather that, like this song, makes me want to do nothing more than take a leisurely walk in a vibrant, green garden or lay around all day in the sun like a contented little puppy. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again- this song’ll keep you feeling fresh and clean all week long, which isn’t to say it’s any substitute for a good ol’ fashioned shower. Practice good hygiene y’all.

And have a great weekend!

New Music Tuesday: Lake Street Dive – Bad Self Portraits

lake street dive - bad self portraits

Seven weeks into the new year and already I’ve started compiling my Top 5 Albums of 2014 starting with these lovely folks and their excellent, brand new album Bad Self Portraits. Call it premature if you will, but then again this was the same band that made me totally reconsider my top concert picks of 2013 only moments before the end of the year, so it’s probably worth proactively saving them a spot this time around.

These guys are something special and you don’t have to look at their upcoming tour of sold out shows to know it.

The album is their second full-length record and is, at its simplest, a testament to what this band does so well: blending the sounds of 60’s Motown and early 70’s rock and roll with modern arrangements and sensibilities.

Suffice it to say this album is a treat. It’s a house party wrapped up and neatly delivered in a 40-minute package that’s vibrant and playful but won’t leave a mess, eat up all your food, or require you to power wash the premises when it’s over.

Producer Sam Kassirer’s contributions are nothing if not complimentary to the group’s talents, wonderfully extending the depth of every moment, both sunny and somber (of which there are a few– life’s not all fun and games, after all). On the track “Better Than,” for example, the steady dose electric piano and added light reverb on Rachel Price’s voice beautifully illustrate the isolation and sorrow felt by the song’s protagonist. On the flipside, the combination of layered horns and just a touch of extra electric distortion gives the driving, bluesy anthem “You Go Down Smooth” the juice it needs to take it soaring straight out of the stratosphere.

Most of the time, however, it’s not about studio enhanced wizardry or soundboard tricks– it’s about letting the band do what it does best: kicking the jams and having a good time. Nowhere is this more apparent than it is on the track “Seventeen,” in which the rich vocal work of Rachel Price, the explosive bass lines of Bridget Kearney, the cool guitar riffs of Mike Olson, and the deft percussive stylings of Mike Calabrese all share center stage. Add to that solid foundation some honeyed vocal harmonies, a clever application of syncopated hand claps, and even a breezy little vocal solo by drummer Calabrese, and you’ve got one serious groove machine that deserves every bit of its burgeoning following. Playful and flirtatious– that’s this band to a T.

At the end of the day, this band of fun-loving, talented musicians is first and foremost a band of friends: a group of individuals who met nearly a decade ago at the New England Conservatory in Boston and nearly immediately started working and playing together. Over the years their sound has changed (they originally formed as an alt-country/jazz band— who knew?), but their love of each other has not. It’s this love and friendship that shines through on every track of their album and in every performance and every show.

Whether charming audiences nationwide with a totally awwwshucks adorable interview on their network television debut, dressing up and paying homage to the 2-guy/2-gal bands that came before on Halloween, or just sharing their goofy moments with their fans in the in between time, this is one band who’s talents, chemistry, and energy will keep giving for years to come. I’d bet on it.

Lake Street Dive – Bad Self Portraits
Signature Sounds Recordings, 2014
Grade: A+
Listen Now: “Stop Your Crying”, “You Go Down Smooth”, “Bobby Tanqueray”, “What About Me”

Monday Mixtape: ‘Tis the Season for Ballads and Slowjams

love - it's right in front of you
it’s right in front of you.

Valentine’s Day may have come and gone, but love is always in the air. At the very least it smells better than the old snow and rock salt combination that’s been so prolific these last few days and weeks. Just like with any other special occasion  Valentine’s Day shouldn’t be the only time to celebrate love and appreciation for someone else. It’s something to be acted upon often and appreciated always.

When words fail, as they conveniently seem to do when you’re saddling up close with that special someone, music has a remarkable way of filling in the gaps and saying it all for you. It doesn’t really require a lot of breath to say the “right” thing anyhow. A few lines will do it.

With this in mind, here are a few songs to help you carry that Valentine’s Day flavor throughout the week and feed into the moments that come after, each song’s individual merits described… in 5 lines or less.

1. Bill Withers – Lovely Day

Timeless, thy name is surely Bill Withers. This breezy ballad has the power to transform even the most mundane task into the most euphoric and blissful experience of one’s waking hours. Trust me. You will never look at shoveling the driveway or cleaning the bathroom the same way after giving this song permanent residency on your daily chores playlist. Go forth in good spirits.

2. John Splithoff – Love Affair

And after the working day’s done… a helpful, healthy little attitude adjustment. Something to use while you’re fluffing the pillows, lighting the candles, creating the after-hours ambience, and setting the mood for an intimate little evening (while maintaining some pep in your step). Have some fun, go all out, and put it all on the tab of this up-and-coming music maker’s debonaire baritone. You’ll be glad you did.

3. Tedeschi Trucks Band – That Did It

No denying it: TTB does a phenomenal job with their cover of the sultry 60s blues/soul classic, selling it on every possible level, from horns to high hats, guitar licks and tantalizing vocal tricks. This one goes out as much to the single people as it does to those non-single people… and perhaps even more so. It shivers and shakes, beckons– but never begs– you to get good and close so you can know it’s every last breath. It clocks in at just under 8 minutes, which might be just enough for some. But don’t be surprised if you find yourself wanting more.

4. Al Green – I’m Still In Love With You

Ain’t nothing like the real thing, and Mr. Green is the genuine article when it comes to the genre of soulful love songs and slowjams. This one hits all the quintessential bases (not to mention high notes): an airy, heavenly high tenor and falsetto accompanied by a faithful, complimentary cacophony of horns, backing female vocals, and groovin’, happ’nin’ beat. This puts the delicious strawberry jam topper on your three-day weekend toast of wholesome wheat goodness. Play on, Mr. Green, play on.

5. Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings – Slow Down Love

Days get hectic, people get crazy. Put this one on and do as the lady says. Slow it down, keep it cool, count your blessings, and reconnect with what really matters: making time for intimate moments with the ones you love. The rest of the world can wait. Get yourself back in the moment you’re in right now.

Now doesn’t that feel good? Doesn’t that feel right?

photo by Robert Egger