Music Favorites-April 2016

The first time I saw The Coathangers perform at Burgerama 4, they were black-clad, fierce and wild, switching vocals like telepathic triplets, yelling and shredding with seemingly reckless abandon. On Nosebleed Weekend, their fifth album, they seem tight and grown, but still throwing down belligerent rock chants and boasting everything from catchy, sawtooth guitar melodies to punk-influenced hooks.

Listen to: “Watch Your Back”, “Squeeki Tiki”, “Hiya”

Alex Turner‘s break from the Arctic Monkeys,  Miles Kane collaboration The Last Shadow Puppets is testament to his versatility in crafting a gorgeous album. Everything You’ve Come To Expect is full of haunting, seamless string backgrounds and dark, romantic vibes that simultaneously seduce and ache.

Listen to: “Aviation”, “Miracle Aligner”, “Bad Habits”

The prolific, psychedelic King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard have released their eighth album in the last four years, the “never ending” Nonagon Infinity, which connects all nine tracks with unnoticeable transitions-including the last and first track (hint: hit repeat on the album). It races forward with a heightened, sci-fi movie gallop, inspired by everything from psychedelic wah-wah,  70s prog and modern day garage rock.

Listen to: “Robot Stop”, “Big Fig Wasp”, “Invisible Face”

Bless electronic duo Pet Shop Boys‘ and their latest album Super for getting me through hours and hours of sweaty cardio with a smile on my face. Almost every song is club-ready and all are pristine and carefully crafted, drawing from synthpop, house, disco, and Latin rhythms.

Listen to: “The Pop Kids”, “Happiness”, “Undertow”

Weezer‘s newest self-titled album, popularly dubbed their “white album”, warrants a review all unto itself, if only for me to ramble and sob about how flawless it is. Beach Boys-inspired and chasing their Pinkerton sound, Rivers Cuomo and Co. gift us with joyful, nostalgic, sun-drenched deliciousness that makes 2016 feel like the nineties.

Listen to: “Wind In Our Sail”, “(Girl We Got A) Good Thing”, “King of the World”

Music Favorites-March 2016

In 1993, Jeff Buckley began recording material for Columbia, much of which he reportedly felt insecure about. A compilation of these recordings, You and I, is finally seeing the light 23 years later. It includes covers from Bob Dylan, Sly & The Family Stone, The Smiths, and Led Zeppelin, in addition to two early demos that would eventually make it to his only completed studio album Grace.  His memorable, emotional tenor and rhythmic guitar accompaniment sound crisp and huge in these bare bones recordings.

Listen to: “Everyday People”, “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying”, “Grace”, “Calling You”

Post Pop Depression is Iggy Pop at his finest, dark but brilliant, clever and compelling. Iggy’s seventeenth album features not one but two Queens of the Stone Age members, producer Josh Homme and multi-instrumentalist Dean Fertita, and the Arctic Monkey’s Matt Helders on drums. Coarse guitar riffs, playful synthesizers and truculent bass engage as much as Iggy’s weathered quips on culture and death. At many times, the overall effect reminds me so much of David Bowie.

Listen to: “Break Into Your Heart”, “Gardenia”, “American Valhalla”, “Paraguay”, “In the Lobby”

I Could Be Anything, the Violent Femmes‘ return to music, is their first album release since 2000’s Freak Magnet, but you wouldn’t know it just from listening. The band is still frisky, funny and folksy with a raucous, punk feel. There’s an argument there about how perhaps after sixteen years they might’ve matured a little and put the masturbation lyrics aside but sometimes it’s nice to have a band’s comeback feel as if no time has passed.

Listen to: “I Could Be Anything”, “Holy Ghost”, “Foothills”, “Travelling Solves Everything”

I don’t have much of an opinion on One Direction beyond “nice boys singing fairly nice songs”. And I don’t have much of an opinion on Zayn Malik leaving the boy band beyond “Is that the second most attractive one?”. But Zayn’s-sorry, ZAYN‘s-genre-exploring debut album Mind of Mine, was more than I expected: slick, sensual and strong, encapsulated in its straightforward pop single “Pillowtalk”.

Listen to:”Pillowtalk”

 

Music Favorites-February 2016

February had me giddy over Sunflower Bean, which, apart from taking the top slot on my Baby Names list, is one of the greatest things I’ve discovered in a Rolling Stone blurb. Their first full-length album, Human Ceremony, is a transcendental ride through swirling, psychedelic guitar melodies, creepy, ethereal vocals and shrouds of dark reverb.

Listen to: “Come On”, “Easier Said”, “Creation Myth”, “Wall Watcher”, “I Was Home”

Picking favorite songs from Ra Ra Riot‘s newest album Need Your Light is like trying to pick the sweetest grapes from a whole bunch; each one is blessed with sunny, infectious hooks, fancy schmancy string accents and (perhaps the influence of Rostam Batmanglij in production), Vampire Weekend vibes.

Listen to:  “Absolutely”, “Need Your Light”, “Call Me Out”, “Instant Breakup”

The blues greats will never stop inspiring new music, from the White Stripes to the Black Keys. For a more down-home alternative look to The Record Company, whose rugged debut album Give It Back To You relies more on acoustic guitars, searing harmonica and Chris Vos‘ tortured, husky vocals.

Listen to: “Don’t Let Me Get Lonely”, “Hard Day Coming Down”, Feels So Good”, “This Cooked City”

Past events have not made me the biggest Macklemore & Ryan Lewis fan, but This Unruly Mess I’ve Made has changed my mind a little bit. America’s “positive” rapper goes hard on this album, coming to grips with fame, slamming everything from vulture media to medication, and showing a chilling, humble awareness of his own white privilege and cultural appropriation.

Listen to: “Dance Off”, “Let’s Eat”, Downtown”, “White Privilege II”

Music Favorites-January 2016


Three words: Brendon. Urie’s. Voice. Panic! At the Disco has slowly petered out since the early 2000s (remember “I Write Sins Not Tragedies”?? Lol) but its last man standing is more than enough. Urie is a show unto himself, tackling Death of a Bachelor pretty much all on his own and creating a glitzy (occasionally gaudy), in-exhaustive album that doesn’t take pause until its finale: piano ballad “Impossible Year”.

Listen to: “Death of a Bachelor”, “Crazy =Genius”, “Golden Days”

I love T Rex. I love Ty Segall. Ty Rex, Ty Segall’s collection of T Rex covers is absolute candy for my ears. Segall nails every possible aspect: the sexy sneer of the bluesier tracks, the fierce, wild abandon of classic “20th Century Boy”. Segall might as well become a Marc Bolan impersonator after this fuzzed out perfection of a cover album.

Listen to: “Fist Heart Mighty Dawn Dart”, “20th Century Boy”, “The Slider”

David Bowie’s dead and I’m nearly a month too late in providing any sort of tribute, but I will say, boy am I glad he stuck around for one last album. During the latter half of his career, Bowie toggled between mainstream-friendly tunes and his more experimental endeavors, Blackstar being the latter. If you’re into this kind of stuff, tune in for prophetic death lyrics and deliciously off-kilter drumming.

Listen to: “Blackstar”, “Girl Loves Me”, “Lazarus”

In another case of “when your fave is problematic”, Megadeth simultaneously delight and disgust with Dystopia. The thrash legends are back on track after 2013’s poorly received Super Collider, but some of the lyrics are perhaps better left unsaid. “Post American World” has one of the gnarliest riffs on the album but garners unease upon realizing Mustaine’s guttural voice is demanding, “Why cower to all those who oppose the American world?”

Listen to: “Post American World”, “Poisonous Shadows”, “Conquer or Die”

Music Favorites-November & December 2015

These (typically) monthly Music Favorites posts are coming to you as a) a way of adding structure to my life now that I’m no longer hedged in by the semester clockwork of school and b) a quick and easy way to discuss the music I enjoyed without getting my lazy ass to struggle through writing an actual album review (if it wasn’t obvious by me posting reviews weeks after the album’s release date, I’m notoriously bad at it).

So here’s some shit I liked in November and December.

Like many others, I too was drawn towards Ellie Goulding after hearing her ethereal vocals on “Lights”, which climbed slowly but surely up the US charts. That was back in 2010 and after having mixed feelings about her previous work, I’m happy to say that my love for her is back. Delirium is just a good time, full of-here I go again with this phrase-infectious beats, huge hooks and non-stop energy. Keep killin’ it, Elle.

Listen to: “Keep On Dancin'”, “Around You”, “Codes”, “We Can’t Move To This”,

It’s common knowledge that Frank Zappa was a genius, so it’s no surprise that his spawn should have inherited some of that magic. This was my first time hearing son Dweezil (nice name), although apparently he’s  been active since 2006. To use a trite idiom, the apple doesn’t far from the tree; Via Zammata borrows a few tricks from daddy, but that doesn’t take away from his son’s own talent.

Listen to: “Rat Race”, “Dragon Master”, “Just the Way She Is”, “Hummin'”, “Malkovich”

After a few years of being the butt of every joke, Justin Bieber has about 80% redeemed himself (I still won’t forgive him for pissing in that janitor’s bucket). Purpose is reflective and vulnerable as an apology album should be. But, and here lies the surprise, it’s actually kinda good. People are starting to actually refer themselves as  Beliebers unironically, making comback 2015 a success.

Listen to: “Sorry”, “Love Yourself”, “Life Is Worth Living”,

I wouldn’t be dancing at 3am if it weren’t for Cee Lo Green and his latest Heart Blanche. The majority of it is funky and fabulous with just the right amount of cheesy thrown in. Then again, there’s that awkward thing where he allegedly slipped ecstasy into a woman’s drink, followed by some pretty atrocious tweets (“People who have really been raped REMEMBER!!!”), all of which he just brought up again. See: when your fave is problematic.

Listen to: “Est. 1908s”, “Mother May I”, “Music To My Soul”, “Race Against Time”,

Grimes-Art Angels

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There’s a book I read, a long time ago, called Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli. In it he describes his protagonist like this:“She was elusive…We did not know what to make of her. In our minds we tried to pin her to a cork board like a butterfly, but the pin merely went through and away she flew.”

Stargirl may have been a manic-pixie-dream-girl archetype designed to fulfill the creative void of an Arizona boy’s heart, but Claire Boucher, aka Grimes, is very, very, real.

Art Angels was my first peek into her music, and although I’ve heard that it leans more pop than her previous albums, it doesn’t take long to realize that a) it’d be wildly offensive to dismiss this as a simplification of sound and b) there’s little use in trying to assign a single genre this artist.

Grimes’ latest effort thrives on an inexhaustible supply of frenzied, frenetic beats, otherworldly vocals and a sonic bombast that sounds like the digital, fantasy world that Claire Boucher must have crawled out from.

She growls, whispers and shrieks through the appropriately named “SCREAM”, sarcastically cheers on thrasher “Kill V. Maim” and casually throws out an ironically sunny hook on “California”.

But although it’s easy to distractedly bop your head to something like the aforementioned “California” or the bouncy “Belly of the Beat”, there’s a feeling that everything is still making some sort of statement, whether it’s about the way the media has thrown her image about like a rag doll or her thinly-veiled disgust with men.

Perhaps what left me the most impressed was the knowledge that the entire album was produced and engineered by Boucher herself using Ableton Live, a departure from her entirely Garage Band-produced Visions. This independence could be risky for some, but for her, it’s the only way to get things done the way she wants them-her decisions need to be entirely hers.

Like Susan Caraway’s alias Stargirl, Grimes is not someone you can just pin on a canvas. As a musical artist, she deals in mixed-media projects; bringing together select sounds, cutting them out and then gluing them meticulously into her sonic collage. Every moment is unique and yet seemingly part of a mosaic, just like herself.

If anything, I’d say that’s my favorite thing about my aural rendezvous with Claire Boucher-the funny way her ears take in everything except bullshit.

Ryan Adams-1989

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Taylor Swift’s 1989 was the execution of a coup. The album’s sharp turn, coupled with Swift’s social media constancy and well-crafted public relations ploys, lifted her into her throne as current queen of the pop world.

1989 pushed aside timid romanticism for a fresh, grown up confidence, her latest tracks featuring sleek, glossy production and arena-ready hooks.

So what an intriguing jolt it was when prolific yet low-key alternative rocker Ryan Adams announced he would be covering Swift’s U.S.’s best-selling album of 2014 in its entirety. While it’s definitely not the first or even the tenth time Adams has decided to try his hand at someone else’s songs, “1989” had to be one of his more interesting choices.

The outcome, as it turns out, is rather hit-or-miss. Adam’s story-telling singing voice sometimes channels a weak Lou Reed drawl, sometimes a Bruce Springsteen-esque snarl, dubious qualities when contrasted against “1989”’s originally glamorous 80s sound.

Some of the more heartfelt songs do benefit from the tender, barely-there vocals, allowing them the melancholy fragility that was often lost in the pop veneer. “Blank Space”, its polished crispness replaced by a fuzzy mumbling,  becomes addictively sad. Some of Adams’ renditions may leave listeners curious as to how “Welcome to New York” or “Wildest Dreams” would have sounded had Swift stuck to her tear-droppy acoustic guitar.

Adams goes in an opposite-and successful-direction when he turns up the volume with “Style”, bringing out the funky riff hiding in its background with some snarling guitar.

But as expected, some songs, like the hyper comeback anthem “Shake It Off”, become miserably dull and awkward under his direction. There’s some songs which were not meant to be slowed down and mumbled; Adams’ voice stumbles along like an old man that can’t keep up. Similarly, the focused fury of “Bad Blood” gets watered down into submission.

It’s always nice to see artists being enthusiastic about their fellow musician’s output, and it’s certainly something that shouldn’t be discouraged; it gives new perspectives to songs we hear on the radio fifty thousand times and, if anything, it’s a fun experiment.

It may be too much to ask that every song be as good or better than the original; if even a couple of them gain new life, it should be considered a success.

Taken from that perspective, Adams can count himself a lucky winner.

Little Mix-Get Weird

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You don’t get many girl groups nowadays.

The very phrase arouses suspicion of tightly controlled, cookie cutter pop singers. Yet British foursome Little Mix has taken on the challenge and come out alive-better yet, people actually like them.

Their creation was less than organic: formed out of necessity during the 2011 cycle of British singing show The X Factor, they managed to achieve a sweet-sounding cohesion and became the first group to win the competition. But their career didn’t end after their winning single cover “Cannonball”.

Their debut album “DNA” found its way to the highest U.S. chart position ever reached by a British girl group, allowing them to break a record set by one of their major influences, the one and only Spice Girls.

It’s not hard to see why they became the sweethearts of both sides of the Atlantic. Their voices and personalities are equally as big, their live performances energetic and their music videos endearingly sappy. It’s hard to tell if this careful versatility is constructed or not, but it works. They’re flexible enough to please most audiences yet sassy enough to keep them from being branded vapid pop stars, even as their third album “Get Weird” does see them moving from a more hip-hop oriented past to a poppy future.

Bouncy basslines and danceable beats are still present, like on funky, 80s jam “Weird People” and the snappy, not-really-apologetic “OMG”, but they’re countered by more standard girly tunes like the flirty fun of opener “Black Magic”. “Love Me Like You” takes the standard way back, paying tribute to their girl group roots by sounding uncannily similar to The Ronettes (complete with sha la la harmonies).

Their attempts at censorship are graceful and cute; skipping an obvious vulgar slang word in sassy kiss-off “Hair” just makes the song more appealing. Their sweetness only heightens the naughty bits, the perfect example being nifty acronym “A.D.I.D.A.S”, of which the first five letters stand for ‘All day I dream about’-we’ll let you figure out the last shushed word (psssst: it’s ‘sex’).

The girls’ vocal virtuosity is liberated on love ballads like “Secret Love Song”, which features Jason Derulo and burns with a forbidden intensity and “I Love You”, in which the line “I just wanna scream out till my voice breaks’ is sung-without ever breaking, of course. Rounding off the album is a flawless a capella in which the queen quartet fill the room with their famous lush harmonies, vocal acrobatics and just a hint of snapping.

It’s easy to want to hate them for being so gosh darn darling but they’ll win you over eventually-somehow Little Mix have mastered that secret recipe of sugar, spice, and everything nice.

The Magnificent Beach Goth Monster

IMG_3762What exactly is the mysterious oxymoron of Beach Goth?

Is it a music genre? Is it one of those infernal hipster trends? Is it the Growler’s signature sound, a marriage between sunny guitar melodies and a dark, brooding mentality? Is it the annual music festival which the Growlers have organized at the Observatory for the past four years?

Turns out, it’s all of those things, and a little bit more:it’s just a small fraction of a music community that keeps gaining strength in Orange County.

FullSizeRender (1)Last weekend teenagers and twenty-somethings in Doc Martens and chokers gathered beneath a searing sun and garlands of drug inspired sculptures strung across the Observatory parking lot, ready for a day of music.

Curious concert goers roamed the grounds, checking out the booths, which featured local businesses such as thrift store Dee Lux and label Burger Records, and showed off some awkward pelvis thrusts at the scheduled Rocky Horror Picture Show showings in the Constellation Room.

When they weren’t complaining about the price of food ($6 for a slice of pepperoni pizza, $3 for a bottled water) and overflowing bathrooms, they were milling their way anxiously between the festival’s three stages like swarms of hungry ants lured by the sweet sound of music.

And what a lot of options they had to headbang and dance to, from screaming banshees The Coathangers to 70s legends Parliament Funkadelic to a Selena impersonator.

Aracely Fernandez, first-time Beach Goth attendee and aspiring music event host, noted the eclectic lineup, finding that they “…mostly had rock music, but they also had Spanish, reggae, and hip-hop too.”

Rock fans gathered early to see the Growlers close off on the main Beach Goth stage on both nights and had to sit through artists like Grimes (who debuted new songs in her set) and Die Antwoord (who did, well, Die Antwoord things). Although they might not have been their typical cup of tea, they gave them their due respect.

A kid in a spray-painted Cramps vest noted rappers Ninja and Yolandi with admiration: “They’re not my kind of music,” he admitted. “But they put on a really sick performance. They really got the crowd going.”

An openness to different music is what manages to make this motley crew of music fans into a cohesive movement-and it keeps the music fresh.

Fernandez, who’s begun hosting music events at Santa Ana venue The Beatnik Bandito Emporium, says that, “The OC has a thriving music subculture because more and more people are starting to realize that there are music events and shows everywhere in the OC almost every day and that exposes them to other genes of music too. Small unsigned bands, groups, or musicians in the OC are unique because they try to come up with new ways to stand out from a typical band in which it also exposes people to different musical styles.”

FullSizeRender Smaller, underground bands are less likely to commit to established genres, and because they tend to have a small, devoted audience, they can get away with experimentation. The melding of genres results in some interesting combinations of sounds; some ingredients that are commonly used are folk, punk, rockabilly, 60s girl group, metal and grunge.

This is what made fans at Beach Goth equally excited for rockabilly singer Wanda Jackson as they were to see Juicy J. It may also have given them the patience to sit through Julian Casablancas’ new experimental, vocoder-laden set more out of respect for the Strokes frontman than out of fervid interest.FullSizeRender (5)

Followers of the OC’s underground music scene keep their ear wide open to all these different types of sounds, especially sharing an appreciation for past musical styles and using them as a heavy influence in making music and cultivating aesthetic.

Attendees at Beach Goth flounced around in a hodge podge of by-gone and resuscitated styles: 90s crop tops, chokers, and grungy Docs; 60s-inspired floral blouses and go-go dresses; blunt bangs and signature red pout of a 50s pinup girl; piercings and studded denim vests a la 70s punk.

FullSizeRender (2)Because of its proximity to Halloween, and perhaps just to match the ghoulish delight of the theme, many also came dressed in costume, as did some of the performers. The Growlers took the stage Saturday night in skeleton suits while punk band No Parents came dressed as another band entirely:heavy metal band Slipknot.

This kind of silliness, coupled with an eagerness for these artists to stage dive and interact with the crowd, ties the underground artist and their fans further together.

Small bands tend to play small venues, allowing most fans a chance to get up close and personal with the band that’s playing or even get up on stage with them, if they’re really gutsy. It decreases the gap between the two, both physically and mentally.

A large portion of the audience aspires to be a musician and watching your favorite band-say,
party-punk band Fidlar-get by on, like, five chords and some relatable lyrics makes it seem less like a dream and more of a possibility.

The meeting of the struggling artist with their new fame sometimes takes form in amusing ways: surf-punk band The Frights were in the midst of a song about struggling to get laid when a girl threw her lacy pink bra at the surprised bassist.

FullSizeRender (4)Of course, as with all good shows, there’s some bad mixed in as well. Those who don’t subscribe to the peaceful community values of the culture (or just had too many drinks too early) coupled with uncomfortably packed crowds made some trouble hard to avoid.

In addition to a couple groping incidents (which were promptly called out on), there were many times when the crowds just got way too tight or way too rough. This resulted in many sweaty, claustrophobic people needing to be fished out by the playful yet watchful security stationed about the perimeter.

It did not escape the notice of those on stage. Die Antwoord’s Ninja took a moment to appreciate the security’s efforts and a member of Marc deMarco shared a friendly PSA: “If the person next to you doesn’t like being pushed, don’t push ‘em. Have fun but be courteous.”

IMG_3759 This community spirit remains even when the festival is over and all that’s left is a dark parking lot littered with spilled beer and lost iPhones.It’s just the tip of the iceberg of the music boom that has taken hold of Orange County. To see the rest of it, one need only look in small places.

“The music scene is poppin in OC,” agrees Nathan Ortiz, third-time attendee of Beach Goth and a rabid music fan. “Downtown Santa Ana is where most of the music and shows are at. We have Burger Records in Fullerton and we have the Observatory in Santa Ana where it all goes down.”

While these small bands may seem like small potatoes at the moment, just give them some time. It’s the passion and DIY approach of the scene which is propelling them forward. As the Growler’s music festival gets bigger and bigger every year, it becomes more and more apparent just how large the tribe is.

Demi Lovato-Confident

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On Demi Lovato’s debut solo album “Don’t Forget”, the first line of the first song of the album was “I am confident”. Seven years, a stint in rehab, and a nude Vanity Fair photoshoot later, she revisits the same mentality from an entirely new perspective on her fifth album “Confident”.

Although Lovato channeled a young love for metal into some of her early work, she has steadily moved towards R&B and pop. This comes from a musically curious perspective and not a sellout option, but it takes some focus off her unique style. On this album, songs like “Old Ways” and “For You”, despite (or because of) the heavy assault of studio effects, are largely unoriginal.

The two singles, however, were a good choice: radio-ready but still interesting. “Confident” lives up to its name with its blaring intro and easy, snappy chorus. Although the breathy, sexy bi-curious anthem “Cool for the Summer” trivializes lesbianism in the same way Katy Perry does, it’s still infinitely more enjoyable than “I Kissed A Girl”.

But it’s ballads where Lovato shines the brightest. With less studio magic, she carries her own, as she’s always done. Despite the album title, she sounds amazing when she’s vulnerable or heartbroken; on “Wildfire” she begs an unidentified lover: “Play me like your first guitar/Where every single note’s too hard”. Most minimal are “Stone Cold” and “Father”, the simplest and most emotionally charged tracks.

“Father” is a deeply intimate and hesitantly grateful reflection on her (recently-deceased) father’s departure from her life after a divorce split her parents when she was young. Torn by emotion, she sings “You did your best but did you?/Sometimes I think I hate you/I’m sorry dad for feeling this/I can’t believe I’m saying it.”

“Stone Cold” is a gut-wrenching unrequited love song which rivals Adele for the top spot in a crying-into-your-pillow playlist. Weary yet powerful, Lovato’s voice belts through meek, quivering verses and a bluesey powerhouse chorus.

Although a little erratic in terms of mood, “Confident” highlights Lovato’s songwriting and vocal power, qualities which once distinguished her from other ex-Disney stars foraying into music and which she’s now learning to use to their full potential.