Staff Picks: Music
It was the Library & Information Sciences that set me on the path to becoming a massive fan of the progressive metal band Mastodon. While I was getting my graduate degree, I did an audiovisual purchasing project that involved selecting and budgeting for materials that would be desirable to add to a library’s collection based on such factors as expected demographical popularity, cultural significance, and critical acclaim. This involved a lot of research and reading of reviews for recent movies and music, and one of the items that kept popping up on my radar was an album called Crack the Skye by the aforementioned sludge rockers. Feedback for the release was phenomenal, and it was carrying an impressively high average score at critical aggregator site Metacritic. So when I saw the CD at Target for ten bucks, I snapped it up, figuring my metal-loving ears would investigate the buzz for themselves.
And love it I did. Skye is a concept album with seven songs, a couple of which run over ten minutes, and its story has something to do with astral projection, wormholes, Tsarist Russia, and a paraplegic who ends up in the body of Rasputin—exactly the kind of bizarrely ridiculous plot that makes prog rock so wonderfully enjoyable. I was hooked from the very first opening track, “Oblivion,” through the last note of the last song called “The Last Baron.” I had heard one or two songs of Mastodon’s before—I think an older single called “Colony of Birchmen” was on Rock Band—but from what I could tell, Skye represented a leap forward in maturity, accessibility, and ambition. The songwriting was intricate, the guitar work masterful, and each song was a uniquely memorable piece of the overall puzzle.
Mastodon followed up Skye with last year’s The Hunter, an album that I listed as one of the best albums of 2011 right here on KPL’s website. I’ve been listening to it consistently since it came out, and the more time I spend with it, the more I’m convinced it’s one of the best metal albums in a decade. The sound is more stripped down than on previous releases and the songwriting is more nuanced. There’s not a moment of filler on the album, as each track has a distinct ferocity, powerful lyrics, and a rich hook. My wife and I had the pleasure of seeing Mastodon perform at the Intersection in Grand Rapids this past Saturday night where they played all but one track off the album. They blew the roof off the place and I was a happy, happy headbanger.
So if you’re a metal fan (or like your alternative rock on the heavy side), check out The Hunter and Crack the Skye. I’m starting to work my way through their older material now—and loving every minute of it!
I just love the sedate, retro vibe of the soundtrack to the oddball film Beginners; the Mike Mills directed roman a clef about his relationship with his widowed father. Old blues and jazz from the 1920’s (Jelly Roll Morton, Bessie Smith, Hoagy Carmichael, and Josephine Baker) are prominently featured as well as a French horn driven suite by J.S. Bach. Interfiled between the throwback gems are several touching, original scores by Dave Palmer and Roger Niell. The back and forth tone of the film, from light hearted to melancholic, are sensibly reflected in this quirky collection. Oh, and by the way, check out the movie. It appears on our Best of 2011 list.
Beginners [sound recording] : the original motion picture soundtrack
My first exposure to the music of the Fruit Bats was from watching the movie Our Idiot Brother. Lead singer Eric D. Johnson’s fresh rendition of the hammy Tie A Yellow Ribbon Around the Ole Oak Tree led me to their record Tripper. Textured folk rock melded to catchy, Beatlesesque melodies (see: The Shins) is what the Bats bring to the table. There’s nothing particularly pioneering about Tripper, nothing that will blow your mind, but sometimes you’re not always going to be in the mood for creative complexity and artistic innovation. Sometimes you just want a catchy jam to get stuck in your head. For other groups who aren’t necessarily re-inventing the musical wheel but who continue to make smart, appealing records worthy of your I-Pod, see: The War on Drugs, Real Estate, Dr. Dog, Vetiver, and Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks. Here's one of the best tracks from Tripper and a stylistic nod to 1980's videos.
The sound of San Francisco band Girls is one both familiar and refreshingly new. It’s one of those records that harkens back to older influences (Pink Floyd, Elvis Costello, Spiritualized, British Invasion era Pop) while retaining a bright and contemporary energy that comes through these well written songs. There are plenty of beautiful ballads full of melodic tunefulness sutured together with a variety of instrumentation (flutes, acoustic guitar, keyboards, back up singers), not to mention the occasional, soaring guitar solo. But there are also a few up-tempo, catchy pop songs to contrast with the more contemplative numbers. This record will definitely be on my best of the year list.
Father, son, holy ghost
I love to make music mixes for my friends. When I can get the response, “Wow I never would have listened to that song if it wasn’t on the mix you made me,” I feel like I have done my part to push good music out into the world. My seven year old daughter considers a good mix one in which you can roll down the windows and turn up the volume. Below is a playlist that consists of what I feel are the best tracks of the first six months of 2011. Mix it up and roll down your windows.
1. Weekend by Smith Westerns (Dye It Blonde)
2. Take Me Over by Cut Copy (Zonoscope)
3. Rolling In The Deep by Adele (21)
4. Sad Song by The Cars (Move Like This)
5. Discoverer by R.E.M. (Collapse Into Now)
6. Me, Me, Me by Middle Brother (Middle Brother)
7. Make Some Noise by The Beastie Boys (Hot Sauce Committee Part Two)
8. Dig A Little Deeper by Peter Bjorn and John (Gimme Some)
9. Don’t Carry It All by The Decemberists (The King Is Dead)
10. Barton Hollow by The Civil Wars (Barton Hollow)
11. Sim Sala Bim by Fleet Foxes (Helplessness Blues)
12. Shadow of Love by Sloan (The Double Cross)
13. Helena Beat by Foster the People (Foster the People)
14. If I Wanted Someone by Dawes (Nothing Is Wrong)
15. Future Starts Now by The Kills (Blood Pressures)
16. Till I Get There by Lupe Fiasco (Lasers)
17. Damn These Vampires by The Mountain Goats (All Eternals Deck)
Stripping away all of the electric guitar distortion and big rock sound that has defined the majority of his substantial body of creative work, J. Masic’s new solo album Several Shades of Why showcases the immense talent that is cloaked within one of rock musics ultimate slacker personas. I’ve always considered Mascis (best known as lead singer of the mighty alt rock band Dinosaur Jr.) stylistically to be a sort of Neil Young of Generation X. And like Young’s singing, you either enjoy J.’s twangy rasp or it grates on your nerves after a matter of seconds. I happen to be in the first camp, so I was pleased to hear his vocals front and center on this his first solo effort. Mainly acoustic guitar driven and stripped to a bare minimum of added instruments, Several Shades of Why is beautiful in its simplicity and allows the quality of the songs and the talent of the performers to really shine.
Several Shades of Why