I remember pulling my grandfather’s long-neglected guitar out from behind the couch in their living room when I was still in elementary school. It was my first interaction with a musical instrument, and what surprised me most was not sounds it made as I naïvely fumbled with such an oversized and cumbersome discovery, but the wonderful scent of French laquer and antiqued wood that wafted out when I first opened the hard case.
I still think of music in those terms—an odd mixture of the senses.
I had initially struggled to pinpoint what it was about the music by Danish singer/songwriter Agnes Obel that resonated with me in such a profound and personal way. My first taste of her music stemmed from her performance at this year’s South by Southwest music Festival in Austin. But in the weeks since I discovered her work, I’ve steadily realized that Obel’s music hinges on that sort of multi-sensory experience. It is not just sound; it is expression, interaction, and a shining example of what music can be.
Admittedly I don’t know much about contemporary artist Allison Schulnik. Furthermore, I’m not that familiar with Grizzly Bear. Yet all ignorance aside, I am a huge proponent of their collaborative work in “Forest”. In short, it is an incredibly engaging music video shot exclusively in claymation.
As both director and sculptor, Allison Schulnick draws on her ongoing character studies, which is to say the creation of highly tactile oil paintings and clay sculptures of anthropomorphic beings. What’s amazing about this work in particular is the seamlessness surrounding the stop animation – a process which is both meticulous and incredibly time-consuming. Schulnick handles the clay so well throughout the video, that it seems oddly sentient beyond that of depicting distinct personalities and carrying a narrative. Instead, her extreme sensitivity towards the material allows her to stream through various color and contours as she folds characters in on themselves, only to remold the clay into something else entirely. Often times, the concept of creation is inherently bound in a binary with destruction. However in “Forest,” there is a consistent flow of creation and re-creation that – I find – speaks to a more positivistic approach to creativity itself.
Of the many preconceptions people have about punk rock, its rare to hear someone argue that it is a genre characterized by supportive and constructive messages. To be fair, it’s somewhat of a difficult point to make, especially considering that many well-known bands (or should I say “acts’) like NOFX and Rancid bring absolutely no conceptual or metaphysical value to the listening experience. If however, you chose to dig a bit deeper, you might be surprised at what you find.
Bad Religion “Suffer” 1988
It’s somewhat ironic that the positive traditions in punk music owe a lot to an album entitled “Suffer”. Written and recorded by Bad Religion in 1988, the release revolutionized many elements of the punk rock scene. Musically, it launched several offshoots and subgenres – most notably the relentlessly fast-paced ‘skater’ punk which took root in the early 90’s. Lyrically however, “Suffer” opened the discussion to more than just socio-political criticism. On the fringe, it advocated personal responsibility and resilience in the face of foreboding.
Original members of punk rock band Pennywise c. 1989
Though “Suffer” catalyzed the subsequent changes in the message and medium of punk music, the preeminent positive influence on the genre was a man named Jason Matthew Thirsk. As a lyricist and bassist behind Pennywise, his contributions were personally uplifting on a level not quite familiar to scene at the time. Songs like “Unknown Road” dealt with the fear, but necessity of following ones dreams. Evoking a Robert Frost-esque perspective, Thirsk shares in earnest with his listener: “wondering can take it’s toll, and wondering […] can rack your skull, and wondering can send your imagination up a tree – wondering what fantasies lie just beyond the unknown road.”
Sadly, it was no real mystery that beneath these earnest, supportive messages was a deeply conflicted individual. Even sadder still – his largest contribution to the positive manifestations of young adult angst was the rousing aftermath of his suicide in July of 1996. Leaving behind friends and family, many of whom were strewn throughout the thriving punk scene in Hermosa Beach, CA, his untimely death greatly affected both the direction and immediacy of the genre.
Those who are familiar with Puscifer are most likely fans and followers of Maynard James Keenan – frontman of Tool and A Perfect Circle. For those who aren’t, Puscifer is essentially Keenan’s solo project, which hinges on a passing whirlwind of creative musicians, fashion personalities, and even visual artists. In other words, it’s an unbridled, unfocused, and unapologetic “playground for the various voices in [Keenan's] head, […] a space with no clear or discernable goals” that capitalize on an extensive network of talented playmates.
Puscifer (image via Spin)
I imagine this lack of direction and urgency would be appealing for such a famed musician. (We all need to step back and frolic from time to time…) So what I particularly admire about Puscifer is this sort of open source experimentation – the collaborative chemistry that bubbles to the surface of every recording.
“Conditions of My Parole” album 2011
Because Puscifer is founded on informality, there is little pressure to preserve their work in a certain context. One of the biggest critiques I have concerning musical artists as a whole is that they equate a final recording with a finished product. If they don’t continue to rework or reevaluate a given song, they lose out on an entire world of opportunity to make it even better. This, of course, is where Puscifer excels.
It’s not that I’m a maudlin person, but I like my blues bluesy and my humour noir pitch black. I also appreciate candor. So in these capacities, I find myself increasingly interested in the works by the late music legend Warren Zevon.
Most of his songs were written and recorded well before I came into being. It’s probably for that reason that I enjoy his work so much. His songs discuss real, tangible aspects of life, whether it’s depression, substance addiction, or even death. On one hand, it’s somewhat pathetic that these themes are refreshing in lieu of what is currently played on the radio. I can only stand so many fabricated accounts of frivolous escapades at nameless nightclubs or pre-teen pity parties put to music before I feel jaded and out of touch. But on the other hand, Warren brings me back to life – real life, where things are difficult, complicated, and thus meaningful.
The one criticism I have for metal as a genre is that it takes itself too seriously. As a metalhead myself, I find it slightly ironic – namely because so much of the genre is rather laughable. A frenetic and guttural ode to Dionysus? It exists. Songs about fermented offal discharge? Yup. If not directly funny, I hope that it’s at least puzzlingly amusing to someone else besides me…
Arsis – “Forced To Rock” Music Video Still
Yet for some reason, metal is the only genre I can happily listen to regardless of the content and message behind the lyrics. The practical side of me can admit that much of that may stem from the inaudibility of individual words, which of course are screamed and growled rather than annunciated. But on the whole, I can discern enough to know that most metal bands get hung up on aggression. However, the four members of technical death metal band Arsis are helping to alleviate their genre from the weight of its own interests.
Despite her almost immediate success following her debut album in 2008, it was only recently that I first heard an entire album by musical artist Santi White (AKA Santigold). I say musical artist, rather than musician, because White has a hand in every aspect of her work. In addition to being a composer, she is also a gifted choreographer and spirited collaborator.
However, the best measure of her creative impulse centers on her introspective self-assessment as a collage artist. In an interview with MOCAtv, she explains, “I always call my approach to creating collage. […] I make collage music, all my ideas; my influences are pretty much collage. I take bits and pieces of everything and put them together.”
There is something beautiful about vulnerability. We often get hung up on the scarier side of chasing dreams, but the very spirit that arms you against the threat of failure makes life worth living.
I’m often reminded of this in unexpected places. Most recently, I’ve found myself inspired by three sixth-graders in Brooklyn: Malcom Brickhouse, Jarad Dawkins, and Alec Atkins who together form an up and coming metal band Unlocking The Truth.
Unlocking the Truth – Atkins, Dawkins, & Brickhouse
Maintaining a band isn’t the path of most middle schoolers, but the trio is extremely passionate about writing and performing their music. However I want to caution against viewing their work as childish enthusiasm. Above all else, Unlocking The Truth is an unbridled expression of creativity. The fact that the band member’s are young is intriguing, but ultimately incidental.
It’s gotten to the point now where I literally have to chase my friends down to get them to listen to my music. It’s not that I have bad taste, but I think the constant barrage of new and different sounds scares people away. I admit that most of my music requires a little something from the listener – whether it’s total presence or even patience at times – but it’s all worth trying out.
There are a good number of musical artists in my library that need no introduction; artists like Ella Fitzgerald and Matisyahu to name a couple. Yet of these artists, I am particularly fond of indie-rock band Modest Mouse. To be honest, some of their songs are a bit cacophonous even for me, but I admire their persistent and progressive approach to writing music.
Still from the animated “King Rat” music video
I was looking up their recent news to see what the band is up to when I rediscovered one of my absolute favorite music videos. It was a while ago, but I distinctly remember seeing the animated narrative of “King Rat” for the first time. I watched it again for old time’s sake and quickly remembered how brilliant the video is.
“King Rat” video still – dedication to the late Heath Ledger
When it first came out, it received a lot of critical attention. Unfortunately much of this stemmed from the untimely death Heath Ledger – the director behind the project and friend to Modest Mouse. But judging it based on it’s own merit, the video is an incredibly evocative commentary on human industry.
Music has a phenomenal power to encapsulate a moment. A song that has been dormant in your playlist can suddenly bring back a rush of memories and sensations that would have otherwise been lost to the day to day.
Elbow (Photo by Andy Whitton)
I distinctly remember the first time I heard Elbow. I was at an informal music swap back in University when a buddy of mine shared “Grounds For Divorce”. As a fan of blues music, I was immediately struck by the combination of maudlin vocals, slow picking guitar, and an extremely percussive quality to the track. Between the resolute drums and pounding piano, the song rings like those sung by chain gang laborers in the early to mid 1900’s, yet with a rousingly modern edge.
I’m always looking for new music, but recently nothing has measured up to the staples of my childhood. I grew up in the 90’s when nu metal took off, and we as kids went along for the ride. How could we not? There was such a pervasive energy about heavy music in that period. The sounds were new – even rare – as the conventions of traditional rock were thrown to the wayside.
Incubus in the early years
There are certain albums that stand out with the benefit of memory and hindsight. I have to say though, that there truly is no comparison to Incubus’s S.C.I.E.N.C.E. It’s not just nostalgia talking; the pioneering variety of styles, structures, and instruments was well ahead of its time.
Kelly Joe Phelps has had an interesting decade as a musician. His career started with “Lead Me On” – his breakthrough debut album that hit the shelves back in 1994. His unique brand of bluesy slide guitar quickly gained critical acclaim for both its virtuosity and soul. Yet after an exhausting several years of writing, recording, and touring, Phelps hit a crossroads when he shifted away from his accomplished instrumentals to focus more on songwriting.
Kelly Joe Phelps (via songsillinois.net)
A number of his subsequent releases were either ill received or ignored, as they deviated so greatly from his established identity as a performer. Now however, having re-examined his Christian roots, Phelps has found inspiration in gospel –namely the songs recorded by Mississippi John Hurt and the Monroe brothers. In fact, his most recent release “Brother Sinner & The Whale” unabashedly channels those musical and thematic traditions – even to the point that it’s considered by many to be his first concept album.
Sometimes it just doesn’t get better than the greats. Perhaps it’s because her voice can stand the test of time, but I’ve found that Ella Fitzgerald’s distinct stylings and vocal nuances never get old. But there is also a certain spunk about her. Sure she could sing delicate and sultry love songs, yet what resonates with me is her playfulness as a vocalist. There is perhaps no better performance in my mind than her rendition of the delightfully tongue-in-cheek “Ev’rything I’ve Got” from the 1942 musical By Jupiter. Though it’s not her most famous recording, the combination between her effervescent vocals and macabre lyrics makes it a masterpiece in my mind.
Sometimes, Wednesdays are just about making it through the week. That’s where I am right now. Usually I’ll look for a new band or single to give me a boost, but on occasion I’ll dust off and rediscover and old favorite.
Image courtesy of LA Times
I first discovered Autolux in a snowboard video back in high school. It was my first experience with post-punk, quasi-ambient rock, and is one that I still remember fondly. The only trouble is that the rest of the genre falls short compared to their 2004 single “Turnstile Blues”. So on a nostalgic whim, I figured I’d share!
Most people I know enjoy listening to the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s… but no one really knows how to describe them. So far, I’ve heard people pitch the band as “aggressively” indie, garage rock revival, post grunge – any my personal favorite – electric art punk. But at the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter what type of band they are, just that they write compelling music. So here is your opportunity to figure it out for yourself:
Image courtesy of Greg Giannukos (El Ojo Photography)
I first saw Patricia Lynn perform last summer at the fifth annual Dia De Los Toadies festival in New Braunfels, TX. Her voice was striking – obviously leaving a lasting impression on me. Little did I know however, that just as I was getting excited to discover a new band, the group was in the midst of breaking up. When they threw in the towel a couple months later, it was a major disappointment.
Image courtesy of Greg Giannukos (El Ojo Photography)
But it soon surfaced that Lynn had begun working on her next project with best friend and fellow songwriter Dwight Baker. In an intersection of timing and empathy, the duo fell into a phenomenally cohesive working relationship that allowed both artists to reevaluate what they hoped to achieve through writing music. So in a confident march forward, The Wind and The Wave was born.
The six members of budding neo-soul band Pickwick have found themselves in a drastic change of scenery from their basement in Seattle to the stage at SXSW. It’s a pretty phenomenal transition considering that they only released their debut LP Can’t Talk Medicine earlier this month. But then again, their success makes sense.
Pickwick – image via thoughtontracks.com
Having listened to the album in it’s entirety, I was amazed to learn that it was recorded and self-produced in their living room. There is a lot to be said for that kind of initiative, but I also enjoy the idea that their songs were recorded where they were written. As for the tracks themselves, they range from soulful lows to energetic highs. Regardless, each one is a straight up pleasure to listen to. It’s almost a step back in time to an era when music was raw, unhindered, and most of all emotive.
Take a moment to check out “Halls of Columbia” – the opening track off of their new album. It’s a great introduction to what Pickwick is all about.
It’s also worth mentioning that Pickwick is currently gearing up to tour the US starting in April. Be sure to check their site for upcoming dates and locations. You won’t want to miss them live!
Modesty isn’t something I often encounter in rap. Neither is gratitude or open-mindedness. In fact, I’d say that a disappointing majority of hip-hop deals with trite and predictable base human impulses. Where are the ideas; the commentaries; the conversation?
Shad (image courtesy of portalsmusic.com)
Apparently they have been percolating all along, just north of the 49th parallel where Canadian rapper Shad has built a career off of eloquence and honesty. Not being one to posture for social status, Shad is interested rather in communication. His lyrics are both reflective and contemplative, all while remaining open to different points of view surrounding a given issue. This is outlined specifically in “Listen,” wherein Shad emphasizes the importance of understanding what is said, regardless of personal agenda.
It was surreal to accept a pair of backstage passes to see Matisyahu from a friend of mine, especially as they were given to me only a couple hours before the performance. Plans were changed and I went off to see a performer I knew absolutely nothing about. Truth be told, I had never heard of a ‘Modest Yahoo’ and was curious to see who on earth would choose that as a band name.
All ignorance aside, I’m grateful that my first experience seeing the reggae/alternative rock band was part of a benefit thrown for Aishel House – a local Houston organization that assists patients and their families who come to our Medical Center from all over the world to undergo difficult and lengthy treatments. As a bit of backstory, Aishel House first opened as a center to host and chauffer Jewish patients to and from their appointments. Now, the organization hosts people of all backgrounds, faiths, and demographics who are hard pressed to afford staying in Houston for therapy. In other words, it’s a wonderful organization.
Back in 2008, Margot & The Nuclear So & So’s released their second studio album. Yet having just signed with a new record label, there was some disagreement about the layout and track listings on their sophomore effort. Of the 19 total songs to pull from, both the band and the label chose twelve – the problem was that only five tracks overlapped.