Thursday, November 27, 2008

Matisyahu Revisited

Just over a year ago, I wrote about the amazing Hasidic Jew, Matisyahu, and his excellent blend of reggae, hip hop and African music. Now a guy named David has written to me and asked for a link to his blog, Matisyahu co dot UK. I do not usually participate in these link swaps but a quick look at David's blog has convinced me that it is well worth it.

He has a lot of information and material on Jewish culture that aids in understanding the phenomenon that is Matisyahu. Even more importantly, from my point of view, he has included a fancy little widget through which one can listen to Matisyahu's album, Chop Em Down. This is pure quality from beginning to end and I urge you to have a listen.

The emphasis has shifted clearly to reggae and Matisyahu brings his musical development to it in his inimitable way. The lyrics have always been excellent but there is a new and polished feel to his backing musicians that reflects their confidence and talent. The result is a depth and texture to the music that is quite striking, particularly in this genre.

Matisyahu has remained true to his roots too and every song has that profound spirituality that has always been so fascinating in his music. This is the driving force behind the quality of the music and it is wonderful to see it improving all the time.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Weezer and Noah and the Whale Came Too

I love it when carefully planned schemes go wrong. Weezer's promo on Yahoo Premieres was so calculated to boost their new song, Troublemaker, so cleverly done and a typical California rock anthem that nothing could go wrong, could it?

Well yes, it's a catchy enough tune in standard Weezer style, bound to hit the big time and a lot of fun as well. The problem is that there is a brief excerpt advertising a bunch called Noah and the Whale just before the video begins. And that excerpt is intriguing enough to make anyone want to find out more.

So I did. The song featured is 5 Years Time, an odd little ditty that appeals immediately because it is so different. The slightly plaintive and home made feeling evoked by the tune is carried through to the video and I found myself wanting to know more.

There turns out to be quite a bit more - strange little songs like the rolling Shape of My Heart, another plaintive reflection called 2 Bodies 1 Heart and the more complex Rocks and Daggers. It is this last that most obviously brings out the influence of The Postal Service and places them securely with experimental groups like The Antlers.

This genre seems to growing apace at the moment, an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with the standard stuff churned out endlessly by the media, and it is ironic that I should have found Noah and the Whale through the masters of the hit parade, Weezer. A breath of tomorrow through the sound of all our yesterdays.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Antlers

Could there be a more inauspicious name for a group than the Antlers? And yet it avoids all precedent in having nothing to do with clever wordplay, silly combinations or bad spelling. In a strange, ironic way, the name announces the unusual nature of Peter Silberman's music, his completely original approach without the aggression that often accompanies such experimentation.

On the band's website, their music is categorized as "space pop" but I cannot imagine a more misleading description. Apart from the fact that the downloadable album is entitled In the Attic of the Universe, there is very little connection with space or pop. This is much more down to earth stuff, taking us into ordinary spaces through extraordinary sounds - a vivid observation of detail akin to Vermeer's paintings.

Really, the Antlers defy description, ranging from folk ballads to soft rock to classical to just playing with sounds. Yet the whole is brought together by Silberman's genius - each song is unmistakably his, no matter how different. His voice has been given rather more credit than it deserves, perhaps, being reedy and weak at times, but that hardly matters since it fits so well with the melodic and peaceful nature of the music.

An example of how the Antlers can appeal to a wide audience is the pleasant and pop-like Two; much more experimental is Shh!, a song so true to its title that one has to smile. But most representative of their style is The Carrying Arms, an anthem of unexpected but appropriate sound.

I am attempting the impossible here, of course - one has to listen before any of this will make any sense at all. Go download and listen to the music that will influence the future. And, if you like your music live, have a look at the venues for their fall tour beginning on October 1.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

The Magic Wands

With vocals reminiscent of Roxette and elements of Concrete Blonde and Mazzy Star, The Magic Wands are a blend of the best of the 80s with an Emo/Goth overlay, a style most prominent in their song Kiss Me Dead.

The unforgettable Black Magic has a catchy and infectious beat with a refrain that you will find knocking around your brain from the moment you hear it.

Just as appealing is the story of band members Chris and Dexy's first meeting to their ultimate decision that they belonged together. After having communicated over the internet and phone, talking about music and magic and sending each other gifts full of special meaning to each, they decided to forge their talents to make a new music.

When they arrived in Nashville they began recording under the name Magic Wands, taken from one of Dexy's favorite things that Chris sent her—a magic wand.

The Magic Wands take their mixture of 80's style pop with a tinge of 90's club goth into a fresh direction. The lyrics are flowing but simple; if anything were to leave you wanting it would be this, but the pure joy of the music and the vocals overcomes this easily. You can't help but fall for the story in Teenage Love Song and find yourself listening to it again and again.

To hear more of The Magic Wands and get info on concert dates and tours, see their MySpace page.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Sick of Sarah

You may not have heard of Sick of Sarah yet, but it won't be long before you do. This vibrant five-member all-female band is starting to attract attention in all the right ways - namely through innovative and fresh music that's highly listenable.

From Minneapolis, Sick Of Sarah won best emerging artist at this years Summerfest in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The band was given the award by winning over the festival crowd whose texts determined the day's winner from the Emerging Artist stage.

Sick of Sarah lists their influences as a "melting pot of a wide variety of genres" and many of them can be heard and felt in their style. The backup vocals incorporate counter melodies a la the Mamas and the Papas, they have the energy of the GoGo's and lead vocalist Abisha Uhl warbles in a style that joins the playfulness of The Bangles' Susanna Hoffs with the bite of Joan Jett.

Sick of Sarah will be releasing their debut album on August 12th through Adamant Records. The aptly titled Bittersweet is the obvious choice for their first single release, but less obvious songs caught my imagination and were what sold me on this band. Common Mistake is lyrical with a folk music kind of wisdom and Paint Like That is a love song that touches with its plaintive honesty. Breakdown will captivate the listener with an infectious beat that grabs you right from the start and carries you through to the last note.

Visit their myspace and have a listen.

They Fought The Law and The Clash Won

Covers occur naturally in the music industry. Songs that were a hit once before but can be updated and have a new spin put on them may easily find an audience and fill the empty spaces on the track list.

Some covers are banal, boring or just plain awful. But occasionally (as in the case of Pearl Jam's cover of Last Kiss) I find a cover I like better than the original.

The song I Fought The Lawwas written by Sonny Curtis of the The Crickets, but wasn't recorded until after Buddy Holly's death. The most successful version was released in 1966 by the Bobby Fuller Four.

Now I liked that version alright, it's a good song. But give it to a group like The Clash and something happens. The drums go wild, the guitars scratch and buzz and the vocals get... well, louder for one thing.

Now Green Day also recorded this song and their version isn't half bad, but it's a combination of the Bobby Fuller version and The Clash version. They try but, it's still far too civilized.

That's what I like about The Clash version, it's nowhere near being civilized. It's not just louder, it's raw. It's punk. C'mon we're talking about criminal activity here.

Anyway, the Clash studio recording used to be my favorite version, but I have discovered another that has supplanted it in my musical affections.

The live version.

Bridge Over Troubled Water

The collaboration of Simon & Garfunkel gave the world some of its most unique sounds. Because of the combined genius of Paul Simon as songwriter and the extraordinary voice of Art Garfunkel, few could match their versatility and so they often strayed from the genre of folk music as they explored the depths and directions to which their talents could take them.

I would never assume so great a task as to chronicle all of their various musical achievements and so I will discuss just one album, Bridge Over Troubled Water. The album showcases not only Paul Simon's songwriting abilities but Art Garfunkel's voice in beautiful and haunting ways. It was February 28, 1970 that Bridge Over Troubled Water hit #1 on the Billboard pop chart.

The album was originally to contain 12 tracks, but disagreement between the two principals over the last track (Garfunkel wanted a Bach chorale and Simon favored a song that was more political)left the album at 11 tracks until its re-release in 2001 with the addition of two demo tracks, Feuilles-O and a clean, simple version of the title track.

If the duo's last album together contained just two tracks Bridge Over Troubled Water and The Boxer it would merit a place in musical history and Simon his reputation as one of the most talented bards of his time.

But the album contains a few more gems. El Condor Pasa is a plaintive and haunting Peruvian song that is rendered beautifully by Art Garfunkel's clear vocal. The tribute song So Long Frank Lloyd Wright invites the listener to delve for deeper meaning. Even the bouncy Keep The Customer Satisfied and the foot-stomper Cecilia bring a smile and round out the album with a little bright humor. Song For The Asking is a lovely and simple ballad.

It's the title track that displays the best qualities of the collaboration between Simon & Garfunkel. While it's true that Paul Simon became the chief idea man and songwriter, there is no doubt that Bridge Over Troubled Water gained at least some of its haunting beauty from the vocal interpretation of Art Garfunkel, whose voice is far superior to Simon's. Listen to the difference in the original recording and a later version done live in which Paul Simon takes the verse. Simon later regretted having given the song as a solo for Garfunkel, but in my opinion it would have lost some of its delicate beauty had the song been sung by Simon or the lyric more equally shared.

The Boxer is an equally regarded song but is not covered as extensively by other artists. Lyrically the song is far superior to Bridge Over Troubled Water, it's message delivered in both poetic imagery and slice-of-life vignette. How can one not get lost in a line like: "I have squandered my resistance for a pocketful of mumbles, such are promises"? Here is a clip of the song performed with an extra verse that was cut out to make room for the instrumental in the recorded version.

The album won the Grammy for Best Album and the title track took two Grammy awards for Record of the Year and Song of the Year.