Press "Enter" to skip to content

Month: September 2010

The Top Twenty Quest: The Avett Brothers

When I was in high school, almost every concert I attended was a highly anticipated, heart-fluttering event. I marked my calendars and hyped myself up for just about anyone coming anywhere near me. For example, I was pumped to see Gavin Degraw. I rest my case.

As I put a whole bunch of concerts in the rearview mirror, I realized that some shows I anticipated flopped miserably, while others I attended on the spur of the moment became landmark moments in my life.

This inability to predict who will be good live makes it now mean much more to me when a band puts on a masterful show. This deep appreciation for a truly fantastic set is precisely what motivates me to see as many Avett Brothers concerts as I can.

It’s hard to dislike the Avett Brothers in the first place. The four members are primarily armed with the non-threatening instruments of banjo, acoustic guitar, upright bass and cello. Other instruments make appearances (electric guitar/electric bass/drums/piano), but those are outliers. The band mostly makes its music on unassuming, downhome instruments.

With these sounds at their disposal, they craft pop songs that draw heavily from folk and bluegrass. This is not a particularly groundbreaking sound, except that both of the real-life Avett Brothers (Scott and Seth) have laser-guided senses of melody. Their songbook has such a high level of success that it’s almost unbelievable that they’ve written all of the songs they lay claim to. Many bands struggle to fill a two-hour set without resorting to covers and extraneous junk; The Avett Brothers struggle to cut down their piles of great songs into manageable sets. When one of the Avetts mentioned during the encore that they wished they could play all night for us, it not only seemed to ring true as a sentiment; it probably could have happened if the lights stayed on longer.

Which brings me to the particular set they played on Sunday, September 26, at Coca-Cola Convention Center in Oklahoma City.  After being accosted by Grace Potter and the Nocturnals for an hour (seriously, the two bands had nothing in common whatsoever), the Avetts jumped up on stage and kicked off with “Laundry Room.”

“Laundry Room” contains everything an Avett Brothers tune should have. The song is relatively simple, with a heartfelt vocal melody that invites group singing. The guitar and banjo interact neatly, with the upright bass contributing spine to the song. The cello layers beautiful flourishes, swooping in and out.

The song builds in complexity as it goes. The brothers harmonize on lyrics espousing romantic, but not saccharine, sentiments. A gentle call and response comes in, which translated beautifully to the live setting. Scott Avett (banjo) called, and the several hundred people in attendance responded with Seth Avett (guitar) leading the charge. It was shiver-inducing.

Suddenly, the band broke out into a bluegrass jam augmented by a foot-controlled kick drum and a high-hat (I think Scott was the percussionist, although this excellent video has Seth controlling the percussion). The audience clapped, jumped, yelled and stomped their way through it. I was delighted.

The song set the stage for the rest of the evening, with the Avetts pinballing between poignant sentiments and raucous shoutalongs. Sometimes the two occurred in the same tune, as in “The Perfect Space” and “Kickdrum Heart.” I went bonkers during the latter, because they hadn’t played it at the last show I’d seen them play. It was excellent.

They did not disappoint on either end of the spectrum. Seth Avett especially impressed, displaying a pretty fearsome scream as well a delicate singing voice while performing the fragile “In the Curve” all by his lonesome. The band made sweet harmonies and displayed incredible musicianship, as well as jumping all over the place like a punk band. In one tune, Seth was literally running in place for the entire song.

The Avett Brothers concert formula looks something like this: great songs + strong musicianship + wild stage antics + endurance + genuine appreciation for audience. They put on an absolute gem of a show Sunday, which is a feather in their cap next to the two other great shows I’ve seen them do. They are not to be missed live, period. Seriously.

Fall is a rehearsal for departure

I love fall. It’s the best season ever, just like spring and summer. I will definitely be posting a fall playlist soon, but for now I’m going to suggest that you bust out your Damien Jurado albums.

And if you don’t have any Damien Jurado albums, you should remedy that situation. While many of his albums have the feel of autumn in them, Rehearsals for Departure is the quintessential fall album for me. The songs are stark in instrumentation, but warm in tone.

Songs like “Tornado” and “Letters and Drawings” are much like trees with half their leaves left: great beasts showing the starkness of empty branches, yet still bearing the glory of colors to display to the world. The trees (and the songs) should be much denser and livelier than they actually are, but they have not passed into the total starkness of winter.

“Love the Same” and “Curbside” carry the melancholy of the season in their hands, presenting the listener with the realization that winter is coming. “Ohio” and “Rehearsals for Departure” peg the feeling of crisp air that turns ever colder with each passing day. They fade into cold, just as the season does.

But the highlight displays the glory of fall and not its shame. “Saturday” revels in the glory of the season turning, seeing the leaves slowly fall and blanket the ground in a series of tiny events that lead to the great revelation that is fall. The season unfolds itself bit by bit, and so does “Saturday.”

Rehearsals for Departure is a stately old album, just as fall is a stately old season. It is not a season for rashness, nor is it an album prone to excitement. But it is a perfect soundtrack for the season. Check it out.

Cause you're a cutie and I need you in my Death Cab

Since Drake, Chiddy Bang and even Jason DeRulo (okay, not really a rapper, but hear me out) have been rhyming over indie music backing tracks, I’ve been a lot more interested in rap. While I don’t seek it out (yet), I do enjoy it when it falls in my lap. And that’s exactly what Pep Rally by Hoodie Allen did.

Awesome name aside (I love hoodies), this white boy can rap. He spits fast, and he can hold complicated rhythms and rhyme schemes together for several lines. His lyrics are quirky, fun and winning the “who can drop the most pop culture references in one album?” contest. His voice is smooth enough that you can tell what he’s saying, but not so flaccid that there’s no bite. His flow by itself is pretty impressive.

But that’s not all you get with Pep Rally. Allen’s producer, RJ Ferguson, knows indie music really well, and elevates Allen’s game substantially. When a dude’s rapping over Marina and the Diamonds, Cold War Kids, Black Keys, Death Cab for Cutie and Two Door Cinema Club (among others!), it’s pretty hard to completely dislike any track, even if the rap isn’t your favorite.

Ferguson’s beats actually work with the chosen tracks/samples to make new pieces of art (as opposed to Childish Gambino’s “turn down the track and turn up my vox” approach), and it’s incredibly impressive. My favorite instances of this are “You Are Not a Robot” and “So Much Closer,” which use “I Am Not a Robot” by Marina and the Diamonds and “Transatlanticism” by Death Cab for Cutie, respectively. “You Are Not a Robot” screws with Marina’s voice and turns her into Hoodie’s personal hook singer. You will have that stuck in your head, trust me.

But “So Much Closer” is the best track here, as Ferguson and Allen transform the glacially-paced anthem into a pep rally-worthy anthem without making it feel like sacrilege. The song also namechecks Death Cab (see title) and Hype Machine, which made me smile. That’s totally where I heard the album first. Things just got meta.

If you’re into the whole indie-rock + rap = yesyesyes fad that’s been going on, Hoodie Allen’s Pep Rally is for you. I like the whole album more than Chiddy Bang’s The Swelly Express (my previous standard for this genre), although Allen has not yet produced any song as solid gold as Chiddy’s “The Opposite of Adults.” This is more of RJ Ferguson’s coming out party than Hoodie Allen’s, as I’m far more impressed with his half of the work than Allen’s. But I suppose that’s because I’m still getting in to this whole rap thing.

In mixtape fashion, you can get the whole eleven-song album for free right here. Go! Go get it. Go, Go, Go get it.

The Top Twenty Quest: The Tallest Man on Earth

Of the twenty bands in my quest, the newest addition is The Tallest Man on Earth. A masterful cover of Paul Simon’s “Graceland” on Hype Machine first introduced me to Kristian Matsson’s finger-picked folk guitar a little over four months ago.  My Last.FM says that I’ve listened to it 158 times since that first introduction, so it’s safe to say that it hooked me.

Matsson’s cover of “Graceland” enamors me because it improves upon a classic. The Tallest Man on Earth remains true to the original song structure but varies dramatically in arrangement and delivery, resulting in a more cohesive tune.

The original “Graceland” is a remarkably conflicted tune. Simon puts forth optimism in the jaunty arrangements while inserting world-weary lyrics. He tries to have it both ways, and for that reason I’ve always thought that song was particularly annoying.

Matsson’s version redeems the song by syncing up the two contrasting moods. Stripping the tune to its bare minimums (1 voice, 1 guitar) draws the lyrics to the forefront, placing the burden of meaning on the wildly conflicted words. “I’m going to Graceland” transforms from a statement of fact (in Simon’s version) to a last hope (in Matsson’s).

Matsson’s deft guitar work grants an immediacy to the songwriting that the more languid pace of the original “Graceland” could not provide. His ragged, unrestrained voice heightens the sense of urgency originated by the guitar. These two elements sync up with the quiet resignedness inherent in the original lyrics and turn the song into one of overt desperation.

This tension (melodic, rhythmic, and lyrical) culminates in Matsson braying out the titular phrase as the dramatic hinge point of the song that Simon intended it to be.  “I’m going to Graceland” doesn’t fit with “She comes back to tell me she’s gone” or “Everybody sees you’re blown apart,” and that’s the point. It’s all the narrator’s got left. It sounds like Kristian Matsson’s life is hanging on the place of “Graceland,” and it subsequently feels like the listener’s is too.

Mostly artists show different sides or possibilities of a song with a cover; rare is the artist that improves a song with a cover. Johnny Cash via Rick Rubin did it consistently, but he’s about the only one I’d found until Matsson’s “Graceland.”

With a cover like that, there’s no way to not seek out his original tunes. I did, and instantly fell in love. All the drama and emotional power of “Graceland” was packed into his own compositions.  I told my best friend about The Tallest Man on Earth, and he was equally as enthralled. When I found out The Tallest Man was swinging through Dallas, I called up my friend and we set up the trip.

After getting held up just enough to miss opener S. Carey (so saddened by this), I dropped in right before Matsson’s set on Friday, September 17 at the House of Blues’ Cambridge Room. I had low expectations; I wanted Matsson to be a great live show, but I know that it’s often hard for people to translate recorded performances into live power.

From the opening notes to the last fading melody, he proved that he was up to the task. His voice sounds even more urgent live, and his ability to nail even the most complex of guitar lines while singing sent chills up my spine. Whether playing old favorites like “The Gardner” or brand-spanking-new tunes like “The Dreamer” and a revamped “Like the Wheel,” he commanded the audience with excellent musicianship and confident stage presence.

The amount of fans in Dallas who knew the words to his songs visibly surprised him; he was taken aback (literally, he stepped backwards in shock) during “I Won’t Be Found” by the vocal fan response, but generally grew into the understanding that Dallas collectively has his back. He even dropped his vocals out of a few lines in “King of Spain” and let the audience sing them to him. His visible appreciation corresponded with his audible appreciation, as he thanked the audience multiple times for coming.

The raw power and emotive force that drive “Graceland” drove many of his other tunes, including a particularly powerful “Where Do My Bluebird Fly?” and a rousing “The Wild Hunt.” This, paired with his confident showmanship and easy swagger, made the evening delightful. Even though he didn’t play the cover that got me hooked on his nimble songs, the show was not disappointing in any other way.

A Tallest Man on Earth show is thoroughly recommended for the casual or hardcore fan. I can with glee and fond memories cross this one off the list of the Top Twenty Quest.

The top twenty quest

I blew up my computer a few weeks ago, resulting in the lack of posts. I apologize for the deathly pallor that seemed to settle over Independent Clauses. It’s been a pretty crazy few weeks. I get my new computer Friday, and we should be rolling again.

I love and hate live shows. Transcendent, life-affirming and soul-expanding are all phrases I have lavished on excellent sets; soul-crushing, abrasive and interminable are all words with which I have belittled terrible performances. A thoroughly average act skews more to the interminable side, which means the room for error is large.

Making matters even more sketchy is this all-too-common occurrence: that band with lovely recordings which smushes my expectations into the dirt with a reprehensible live show. One band that shall remain nameless suckerpunched me twice: the first set I saw was so awful that I incorrectly passed it off as “an off night” and felt optimistic going in to the second set a year later, which ended up being exponentially worse. I don’t listen to that band any more.

And yet, through all of this potential for letdown, I keep anticipating live shows (I’m resisting a comparison to love and relationships). That anticipation has translated into a new and ongoing project: I’m going on a quest to see all top twenty of my most-listened-to bands (according to my Last.FM).  Here’s the list, complete with current statuses. Bold indicates I have plans to see them before the end of the year.

1. The Mountain Goats (1,063 plays) – Seen twice, once in Norman and once in Dallas
2. Sufjan Stevens (1,010 plays)
3. Novi Split (597 plays)
4. Coldplay (490 plays) – Seen once: Ford Center, Oklahoma City.
5. Damien Jurado (487 plays) – Seen once: Opolis, Norman.
6. Joe Pug – Seen once: The Conservatory, Oklahoma City.
7. Low Anthem – Seen once: Rose State Auditorium, Midwest City.
8. Elijah Wyman
9. Death Cab for Cutie – Seen once: Cain’s Ballroom, Tulsa.
10. Relient K – Seen 4-6 times, various Tulsa and Oklahoma City locations.
11. Josh Caress
12. Owl City – Seen once: McCasland Fieldhouse, University of Oklahoma, Norman.
13. Josh Ritter
14. Rocky Votolato
15. Switchfoot – Seen once: Cain’s Ballroom, Tulsa.
16. Bleach – Seen 3 times: various Tulsa locations. RIP
17. Mumford and Sons
18. The Avett Brothers – Seen twice: Austin City Limits 2009; Rose State Auditorium, Midwest City.
19. The Tallest Man on Earth
20. Before Braille – RIP

And to get myself back into writing about music, I’ll be writing about each of the bands, in order.