Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Throwing out the Bake Sale, going for the history books: Cool Kids concert review and interview

April 11, 2009

The Cool Kids recently played a show last weekend at the college I attend, Hendrix College, in Conway, Arkansas. The Cool Kids are one of the more recently exciting hip-hop groups to emerge recently. Some label their sound as “hipster-hop”, and others cite the heavy influences of the Golden Age of Hip Hop.  The point is, you can’t pin their sound, and they are always doing something new. The Cool Kids are a couple of really young, laid-back dudes. It took about four hours to get an interview with them, but not because of their ego or pretentiousness. It’s just their youth; like the rest of most young people, it’s tough to get down to business. The concert was presented by KHDX, and the profits of tickets went to the charity club, Campus Kitty. The Tennessee native hip-hop group Free Sol opened for them, and I missed it because of the interview.  After the interview, The Cool Kids were chill and discussed hip-hop with me. When The Cool Kids finally performed, the show was fantastic. The turn-out was small, but those who came got into the music, even though most of them didn’t know most of the songs. The Cool Kids surprised with a  beatbox rendition of “Mikey Rocks” and brought a few new songs out, which suggested that new bloods are keeping hip-hop alive. These guys were the perfect choice for the night’s entertainment.

How did you guys feel about asking to be played at a show in Conway, Arkansas, at Hendrix College?

Chuck Inglish: I didn’t know that I had a show here til’… two days ago. We were working when we got the news. If I wasn’t working I’d probably be more excited, but we were in the groove. But I’m excited now that I’m here. Everybody’s been extremely nice. It looks like it’s gonna be a nice show. About to do a brand new song that we did two days ago.

Which song?

Chuck Inglish: It’s a song off of our Gone Fishing mixtape. We’re gonna have everybody with camera phones put their camera phones up, and I want everybody to put that shit on Youtube, once we do the song.

You guys are stationed in Chicago and are on your own label. So, how is Chicago for an independent rap artist?

Chuck Inglish: The worst place ever. [Laughs]

Mikey Rocks: Yeah, this ain’t your planet right now.

Chuck Inglish: It’s against all odds. This ain’t 1999, where everything works. Like, you got to damn near be a rapping Olympian in order to get shit poppin’ nowadays, and at the same time it’s cool. But the worst part about is that anybody new that’s been coming along has been a flash in a pan, that was the whole set-up. Like, we got this song with “these guys,” you don’t even know the guys…. And the song runs, don’t know who did the song, and the next thing you know they disappear. It’s just how hip-hop’s getting treated; we’re getting treated like Bush right now. Basically anybody new that comes along has to bury the shit that someone else f*cked up for a really long time.

There seems to be a lot of guys, Hollywood Holt, Mic Terror, etc., that are part of the immortal nation movement in Chicago. Can you explain more about this?

Chuck Inglish: The Movement? Yeah, those are friends of ours. We know them beyond music.

Mikey Rocks: It’s more of just, you know, we’re just friends. It’s less about making songs together, and more about just everybody being cool.

Are there any of those guys that are going to be breaking out?

Chuck Inglish: I think Mic Terror… Mic Terror will murder shit, if it’s done right. Mic Terror’s got a song that he just put back out. He’s working with our sound engineer right now on some stuff, and he’s got some really good songs.

The album you’re working on is called When Fish Ride Bicycles. Where’d you guys come up with that name?

Chuck Inglish: We were really, really “relaxed,” and were watching “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” And, I believe it happened when Hillary was going to do a Playboy shoot for the weather girls, and Carleton wanted to go to the Playboy mansion, and he asked and Phil told him, “When fish ride bicycles.”

How is the album progressing right now?

Chuck Inglish: It’s done.

What can listeners expect?

Chuck Inglish: You’ll throw Bake Sale out. We’re brand new people. That’s just what happened.

Mikey Rocks: It’s a whole new album, it’s not a continuation.

Chuck Inglish: I can say this on this day, ‘cause it’s just realized. The Bake Sale was us being kids, and just getting shit out.

Mickey Rocks: Yeah, just playing around making songs, not really knowing how to record.

Chuck Inglish: Now that this is our life, we are taking it as serious as our life. We want to go down, we want to be in that history book, in the first couple of pages. We ain’t trying to be in the back of that book. We’re just working towards it, and I don’t believe in talking yourself up. I believe in “you shut up and you work,” and you make people recognize you for who you are for what you’ve done, not what you’ve said. Like, a lot of the shit we did before, we would never even listen to. If The Cool Kids came out right now, like two years ago, I would hate them. I can be honest with you, I’d be like “yo, those motherf*ckers are wack.” I would seriously do a “diss record” against us two years ago. But now, because we know each other way better, we’ve been roommates for the past two years, we play. When I come up with a new sound, or he comes up with a new style of rap, we are ready to go there with it. That’s basically what we did with this album. We wanted to see how far we could go, and we went there.

How do you guys feel about the state of mainstream hip-hop right now?

Mikey Rocks: It’s f*cked up.

Chuck Inglish: It is what it is. It is what people wanted it to be.

Mikey Rocks: I see how it happened though. It started out when we had a couple of select people that were a little bit smarter than people who were currently in power of hip-hop, and they took advantage of them. They thought “we could make some bread off of this shit.” They didn’t care about the state of the art form, they didn’t care about quality of the music, or the effect it would have on the kids.

Chuck Inglish: When shit gets bought out, that’s when it’s over. A lot of thing lose it’s mystique when you sell your shit for a price.

Mikey Rocks: Yeah, turn it into a Walmart or Target. Pick your sound, pick your clothes, and go up there… and that’s it.

Chuck Inglish: Rappers shouldn’t have stylists. You can quote that. They came in setting shit. The drug dealers were dressing like the rappers were. Now, the rappers are dressing like the drug dealers. It’s like the tables have turned. That’s what happened, it became a supermarket. You find someone who can halfway rap, if you have enough money, you can get a whole bunch of hot-ass beats and a bunch of expensive producers. People hear that’s who did their album, so it must be good, and then it ain’t good. If you do that 15 times for 10 years straight, people are going to be like “all right, I get it, I’m sick of you crying wolf all the time.”

Do think the mainstream is going to stay like this for a while?

Mikey Rocks: Nah, because the money is not coming in as much as it used to, and you’re going to start seeing it crumble. You are going to start seeing those people who were in power, are going to start backing up and think, “whoa, I’m not making cash no more, I’m done with this shit.” Eventually, it’ll break down into what it once was. Because as soon as that money starts leaving, you’re going to see who really enjoys this, who’s really trying to rap here. You’re going to see a lot of people going back to work, and going back to shooting hoops and shit, trying to get it some other way.

Chuck Inglish: You can live off of it, but at certain times, even I think how can you possibly get really rich off this?

Mikey Rocks: You can definitely live off it, but the millions and all of that crazy shit that was happening, that’s about to be x’d. …That’s really not going to make money any more.

Chuck Enlgish: That comes with work.

Mikey Rocks: Technology’s too advanced for people to be getting screwed over anymore. They ain’t gonna have that “people trying to steal your shit, and charge some money for some wack-ass single that you made.” The money level of hip-hop is not the same as it was a couple years ago. It’s a different world, now that everybody’s kind of tightening their belts. Those that really give a f*ck about trying to be the next Bill Gates of rapping, those people are starting to get a little bit more frugal. But people who are still going to decide to do this regardless, are going to do it anyway.

Are there any particular artists that you’d want to be able to work with at some point?

Chuck Inglish: For me, yeah, cause I write songs, and I like making music for other people. As far as The Cool Kids go, I don’t know. I feel that every time we work, we’re working with someone. Because he always knows something I don’t, or I’ll come up on something he doesn’t know. He started making beats now, so things are getting a little interesting. On our mix tape we have a collaboration with a girl name Jada. I didn’t know here prior to yesterday. She was just there, and she heard the beat and starts kicking a rap over it, and we were like “yo, you should go rap that.” So, that’s what a collaboration is, it’s not like “let’s force something because it’ll chart.” You can’t work out with people you can’t hang out with.

Do you guys plan to be doing this for a while?

Chuck Inglish: Yeah, I ain’t got no other plan. I’m not gonna be the rapper that retires. I’m going to do this ‘til I can’t speak.

Mikey Rocks: Yeah, I’m setting up shop for a while.

Chuck Inglish: The shit I rap about is everyday regular man stuff. Where me, you, some kids you grew up with, and some kids I grew up with can be in a room and all laugh about the same shit, because it’s the same stuff that all of us go through. As we get older, the people that like us now… Just like, how Guns and Roses can do a concert, and the crowd’s all old and some are little, it’s just you take your fans with you. You get older, they get older too. That’s what people’s problem is, they get older and they want to get the young kids, but the young kids always want to know about the older stuff first, so just stick to your guns. Young kids now f*ck with Ghostface; he’s not done anything different. He still kicks the same ill-ass shit he’s done since day one. He didn’t do a song with Mariah Carey cause she’s popular.

And Now For Something Completely Different

April 10, 2009

What if David Bowie was from Australia instead of London, England? Maybe his glam, flashy (and let’s face it – awesome) style would be a little more acoustic and folk-focused. But I’d be willing to bet that he would have the same low and strong, yet quavering, voice, and he’d still have an undeniable streak of originality and rebellion. Also – his name might be Tom Bolton.

Australian Tom Bolton’s album When I Cross the River is awesome. Besides the fact that he really does sound like an alternate-reality version of Bowie, Bolton’s folk-rock tunes are highly original – I don’t think I’ve heard anything like them. The album opens with its title track, which couples acoustic guitar with keyboards and accordion. (The accordion pops up again later, too.) The effect is whimsical, and it’s just odd enough to be delightful instead of strange. You can catch Bolton’s accent from the beginning, too, which also gives “When I Cross the River” an air of complete uniqueness.

The acoustic in “Three Hearts” stands out because instead of sounding pretty and poetry-reading-coffeehouse-worthy, it comes across as gritty, grungy, and rockin’. The contrast is really neat, especially with Bolton belting out the chorus with his no-fuss, dead-on, Australian-accented vocals.

The ballad “Silver” matches electric lap-slide guitar with synth and violin, creating a spacey, mysterious, echoey atmosphere. It doesn’t sound out of place, though, because there is still an element of gritty folk amid the psychedelia. The extremely diverse “Whose Army” is one of the best of the album. There’s bluesy electric guitar, a backup singer providing rhythmic breathing (really! and it sounds cool!), snappy female harmonies, a head-bobbing steady tempo, and a hint of the Talking Heads in the eerie hooks before the chorus.

“Hey You, Yeah You” is hard to explain, but I’ll try. It has bits of spoken word throughout, and the narrative lyrics make it almost sound like a kid’s song at times. It’s also funny, and you’ll sing along to the “hey you, yeah, you, I’m talking to you!” after the first listen. The song is assuredly weird, but accessible at the same time, which might make it even weirder. The simplistic, sweet, country-tinged ballad “All I Can Do” is a good choice to follow “Hey You, Yeah You.”

Later on in When I Cross the River, Bolton uses the melody of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” in his song “Little Star.” He plays it with only acoustic guitar and a few backup singers, which is the sparsest instrumentation on the album, but the song doesn’t need anything else. It doesn’t even need more than its minimal lyrics: “little star, help me shine.”

Overall, Tom Bolton’s When I Cross the River is really enjoyable, and would be good for anyone who’s bored with their music collection and wants something totally new and different. I’ve never reviewed anything from Australia, or from anyone above the age of 35, but I’m really glad that I did. Check out Tom Bolton on his myspace and website.

We Sing the Body Electric Misses a Few Notes

April 6, 2009

I was a bit let down by the Lonely Forest’s We Sing the Body Electric – I expected great things from the first hard-hitting notes of “Two Pink Pills.” While the The Lonely Forest is capable of some intricate musicality and occasionally setting a mood that is uniquely theirs,  the album suffers from two things: sameness from song to song and a very annoying voice.

Though I don’t like to admit it, I can barely stand the voice of the lead singer, who sounds like Kermit the Frog. I would hate it if someone said I sounded like Kermit the Frog, but I found it really hard to enjoy the music past the first few songs when I felt like I was being sung to by a Muppet. While this closed-off throat sound and self-deprecating style is still fashionable for up-and-coming bands, it’s going to sound really dated ten years from now.

But for some positive things: The Lonely Forest is usually capable of coming up with some unique moods that might suffice for someone looking for something out of the way. Most songs are not too varied, but there is a moment of what I would almost call “sheer brilliance.”

The highlight of the album for me is “Tomato Soup,” an original piano-based song that is deceptively simple. I like this simplicity; it shows the band’s softer side, and here the band finds a sound that really works. “Tomato Soup” is almost ballad-like, and I like this song much better than their straight-ahead pop/rock songs, which seem to try too hard to be like Death Cab for Cutie.

Another ballad-like song, “Julia,” is also pretty good. Overall, the band is stronger on their down tempo tracks that happen to feature piano.

I didn’t really enjoy the Lonely Forest’s We Sing the Body Electric. It does have its moments, but consistently, the songs are just pale imitations of bands that are better them. Combined with a grating voice and songs that seem to sound the same from one to the next, it was hard to listen to at times. I would reccommend the magnificent “Tomato Soup” and “Julia,” but I would pass on the album.

Angst in a pretty wrapper

April 3, 2009

Singer/songwriter Meghan Tonjes has a great voice – it has a rich, smoky quality at times, but also has impressive range. Her voice is clearly the best part of her debut CD, Be in Want. Tonjes is also a very solid acoustic guitar player who introduces new elements with each song. However, I can’t help but feel bummed out when I listen to Be in Want.

It’s the lyrics! The words in a song rarely bother me – I’ve been known to say (exaggeratedly, of course) that I listen to music for the music, and read books for the words. But, on Be in Want, the sparse instrumentation (it’s usually just Tonjes on acoustic guitar, but there’s piano in a few songs) puts the lyrics in the spotlight. Tonjes’ clear and attention-grabbing singing voice also emphasizes the words – all of them. You can’t miss a single bitter jab. It feels like most of the songs on the album are very personal, and each is directed to a different person who made Tonjes angry or sad. (I could be way off here, but it’s just the vibe I get.) Because of this, Be in Want is a little exhausting to listen to.

I sincerely think that Meghan Tonjes is a talented musician, but I also really want her to cheer up.

This Fair City decided to throw a viola into the power-pop blender

April 1, 2009

What happens when pop-rock in the heritage of Sunny Day Real Estate collides with an oft-haunting viola? Portland-based This Fair City is one place to begin looking for an answer. The edge of their sound falters between hard and soft, as a large part of their sound plays off contrasting elements: clean guitar obligattos versus thickly distorted power chords; lower-register sneers versus long-drawn falsetto; electric instruments versus a stray chamber orchestra voice. That is not to say that those pairs are irreconcilable, and thus the question becomes, “Can This Fair City pull that off?” At times, yes, they do. Although at other times, potential overshadows execution.

The opening track, “what comes our way,” opens with a dark, legato viola line from Brandi “Charlotte” Grahek, followed by tight, melodic interaction between two guitars–a la Emery–to add texture. Jason Charles Franklin’s vocals choose a surprising moment in which to quietly enter, giving a first taste of the intriguing interplay between viola and vocals that inhabits the rest of the album. One wonders exactly who the primary melodic voice is. Such contrasts in timbre between the traditional rock instruments and the viola weaves the entire album together. The effect rewards attentive listening, as the conflict and ambiguity between voices enhances the listening experience.

The most impressive element of the opening track is its density: for better or worse, each instrument is heavily involved in the piece. Franklin’s scream (he averages about one per song) near the end of the piece sounds slightly too forced and, at worst, dishonest, as can some of his lyrics. Franklin’s upper register, to which he easily ascends, resounds with varieties of emotional texture. His falsetto, of which he is in superb control, is incredibly impressive and moving. The piece finishes with a net gain in energy. What comes the listener’s way in the opening track is an honest preview of the general “sound” of This Fair City.

The next track–“tonight we’re running back”–follows right on the heels of its precedent, but brings us starkly (and effectively) down into a mellow mood. Here, This Fair City exhibits its penchant for creating moments of complex texture, interweaving multiple guitar lines (played by Franklin and Travis Schultz), viola obligattos, and vocal harmonies while the rhythm section provides a dependable point of reference. (See also the bridge and last ninety seconds of “thank you mr. king,” the rhythm section on “always,” and the layering of instruments that begins “associated press.”)

Stephen Burnett plays a richly solid bass guitar throughout the album. He avoids the common problems of rock bassists and excels at playing primarily rhythmic bass lines without being overbearing and, what is more, without sacrificing tonality and expression. His rhythmic partner, drummer Robin Marshall, exhibits consistency. Yet at times that consistency and reliability bleeds into repetition and an over-reliance on particular patterns and fills. However, Marshall’s playing is nothing short of tasteful on “associated press” and what I consider to be their best composition, the closing track, “in transit.”

Their last presentation to the listener exceeds the rest. “in transit” departs from the standard verse/chorus structure and the composition shows that, although This Fair City can hammer out measures in distorted and energetic unison, the band has an awareness of the power of nuance. A pluralism of voices slides deftly in and out of perception. The members draw a wide variety of tones and moods from their instruments, challenging the straightforwardness of previous tracks. The mood of the piece is at once impenetrable and self-evident. It moves fluently within its subdued nature. The title is apt; the song feels transitive. In fact, “in transit” is a fitting metonymy for This Fair City: it goes places, but is fittingly cyclical…and the viola gets the final word. –Max Thorn

Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of instrumental music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.

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