On the Merits of Modern Pop (in which I deconstruct Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” in a foolhardy attempt to prove that it is good)

Once, in an interview, I asked a Beatles expert whether he listened to any modern Top 40 hits. “They’re fun, they’re great to dance to, but there’s not a lot of meat there, in my opinion,” he said, citing the “loops and repetitive patterns” as evidence of Top 40’s inferiority. “The intention of the music is to get people to dance, largely, and [these songs are] fun, but I don’t think they’re creative masterworks by any means.”

I wasn’t surprised by his answer. When you turn on the radio today, it’s easy to get the impression that most of the songs are just trying to replicate the success of last week’s hits, a self-exhausting cycle of musical carbon decay. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t examples of creative sophistication, if not necessarily originality, to be found. The Beatles were great pop innovators, and wrote with incredible compositional complexity. But repetition isn’t always a process of diminishing returns; sometimes, the simplest ideas are the most powerful.

The current fad of dance-oriented pop is, I think, epitomized in Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream.” (I can’t believe I just wrote that sentence. But it’s TRUE.) “Teenage Dream” is a candy-coated celebration of young love that tosses off lines like “We will be young forever” with unironic flare. The song starts innocuously enough: two electronic notes, a major third apart, marking a quick, steady beat. (For those of you unfamiliar with music theory, a major third is a nice, harmonious interval: in this case, “do” and “mi” on the major scale.) Then the top tone jumps down one scale step, and suddenly you have two notes, one whole step apart, ticking in unison. You don’t have to know any music theory to understand dissonance: out of context, it sounds ugly, unharmonious. Employed strategically, it creates a feeling of tension, a sense that the music needs to move, lest we be stranded forever between two mismatched notes.

And sure enough, the top tone moves back to its original place, and harmony is restored. This little riff, rocking between harmony and dissonance, loops continuously throughout “Teenage Dream.”

A sparse synth beat enters at the same time as Perry’s vocals, sung delicately in her upper range. After one verse the bass line sneaks in, quietly at first. It’s just three long, low tones, but it fills out the chords outlined in the melody and the riff, establishing the song’s primary chordal motif. And like the passing tonal dissonances that loop throughout the song, that motif is simple, yet tension-filled. It relies on two chords: the four and the five. But never once does it resolve to the one chord.

Non-musicians may be lost at this point, so let me give you some context. “One, four, five” is the rock musician’s mantra, and the basis of Western music. The one chord is the same as the song’s key—in the key of A, the one chord is A—and it is the chord that a typical progression inevitably finds its way back to. One leads to four, four leads to five, and you can’t hear a five chord without feeling, instinctively, how much it yearns to return to one. Like dissonance, chords bring movement to music. In “Teenage Dream,” that movement bounces back and forth between four and five, with the one chord implied at times in the melody but never fully expressed. (Music nerds might notice, among other things, that there is a quick six chord implied on the way from four to five.) This imbues the song with a propulsive, growing tension that circles around itself, reaching towards resolution but never truly achieving it. It’s a fiendishly simple concept, and in “Teenage Dream” it’s milked for all it’s worth.

When you think about it, it’s amazing that the song’s composers were able to build an exciting, catchy piece of music with several different melodies—verse, pre-chorus, chorus, and a kind of bridge—without ever diverging from one very simple harmonic idea. Why someone like the Beatles expert would point to this as an example of how pop music has become unsophisticated has nothing to do with what’s happening on a purely musical level.

The truth is that music is unavoidably tainted, or perhaps enriched, by experiences both cultural and personal. I can only guess that a baby boomer Beatles fan would have specific, unconscious biases towards a song like “Teenage Dream.” Maybe it reminds him too much of disco, the music that heralded the end of the breathlessly experimental ‘60s. Maybe he thinks Katy Perry is vapid and annoying. Maybe he just hates dancing.

Historically, cultural practices that are viewed with distain by the cultural elite are dismissed as simplistic and unsophisticated. The pushback comes when someone attempts to legitimize these practices by elevating them, however problematically, to high art. All manner of popular American music, from blues to hip-hop to Appalachian balladry, has been redeemed by its systematic collection and analysis by academics and cultural critics. Some may call this appropriation, others salvation. But the end result is that no one thinks that the rigid, repetitive structure of blues is unsophisticated.

I can think of plenty of reasons to criticize or dismiss “Teenage Dream.” The fact that it was written by a team of hit-makers who receive little public recognition. (Perry receives a writing credit on the song as well.) The fact that it is the product of a struggling music industry that is increasingly unfriendly to independent artists, yet rewards a tiny minority with outsize wealth and success. The possibility that Perry may have singlehandedly set feminism back fifty years with her last album cover, in which she is splayed out suggestively on a bed of cotton candy clouds.

But unsophisticated? Uncreative? Hardly. At times, this music is downright magical.

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A Show I Went To: Lucius

It’s next to impossible to tell the two lead singers of Lucius apart. And that’s clearly their intent.

I don’t mean physically. In that respect, they are opposites: Holly Laessig the tall, long-necked ectomorph to Jess Wolfe’s compact curves. Both possess the same enigmatic beauty and the uncanny ability to sing in perfect tandem, be it in intricately-matched harmonies or unison so exact it sounds like one voice. The effect is exaggerated by their choice to perform in identical outfits. This curious twinning brings to mind the matching gingham dresses of ‘50s country singers The Davis Sisters (and their modern counterparts the Sweetback Sisters), but the singers of Lucius seem to be riffing less on country music’s gutsy leading ladies than on rock music’s egotistical frontmen. Their apparent oneness obscures not only their individual identities but also their combined one; watching them on stage, it’s hard to imagine them as anything but a single unit, their daily life a tantalizing mystery.

At Brighton Music Hall on Friday, April 20, where Lucius opened for J.D. McPherson, Wolfe and Laessig wore billowy, sleeveless tops and their hair in the same complicated updo with a big floppy brown bow. They were backed by four black-clad, bow-tied men–two guitarists, a drummer, and a saxophonist. I’d never seen (or heard) Lucius before and at first I wondered if their schtick of dressing alike was really necessary. But the visual trick nicely underscored the band’s total commitment to their musical concept.

Facing each other across keyboards arranged in an outward V, Wolfe and Laessig didn’t so much trade lead as share it at all times, a single voice splitting and merging back into itself over perky pop-tinged hooks. At any given moment, a player might drop his instrument in order to thwack at a woodblock or brandish a tambourine, and everybody sang. This communal, ad hoc attitude infused the performance with a giddy deliriousness, as though the members of Lucius were still wonderstruck at all the different ways they could make noise.

At the show I picked up a copy of Lucius’s self-titled EP, which is a neat distillation of the band’s capabilities. The doubled vocals are equally suited to sultry two-part harmonies and anthemic sing-along choruses, both of which receive their due. “Don’t Just Sit There” excels at the slow, heady build, while “Turn It Around” has both lead singers straining to be heard over clamorous percussion and a muscly sax riff. The four members of Lucius–Wolfe and Laessig, plus Dan Molad and Peter Lalish–share songwriting credit and display an aptitude for cathartic one-liners set to syncopated beats. Their most evocative writing occurs on “Go Home,” a spacious, seductive track in which Wolfe and Laessig sing plaintively, “I’m your dolly/ Stuffed with extra baggage/ Lay me down to close my eyes/ Beaded gazes lead you nowhere anyways.” They can only slather on the poetry so long, though, before falling into more comfortable habits: “Press on my heart, I will say/ I don’t need you anyway/ I don’t need you, go home.” This habitual directness is all the more affecting for being shouted at the top of two sets of lungs.

Aesthetically, Lucius is in line with the kind of lush, pop-savvy rock that dominates the indie scene nowadays. What’s so impressive, aside from the obvious novelty of the band’s two lead vocalists, is the completeness of their vision. Lucius is a small offering, but every moment is executed with exquisite detail, and in the end it is as much a testament to smart production and sophisticated arrangements as it is good songwriting. Wolfe and Laessig know exactly what they want to say, and the power of saying it together.


For the set at Brighton Music Hall, Lucius played on borrowed equipment because their van, along with most of their gear and merchandise, had recently been stolen. (I later learned that the saxophonist was there in place of some samples that had been lost–when you can’t get a machine, a man will do in a pinch.) They just launched a PledgeMusic campaign that will raise money to replace the equipment, so throw a few bucks their way, if you can.

Listen to “Don’t Just Sit There” on NPR’s All Songs Considered.


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The Ballad of Lizzy Grant

A version of this article also appears on kevchino.com


I’ll admit it, I was late to the party on this one. By the time I got around to Googling her name, Lana Del Rey’s album had already dropped, her infamous SNL performance was a fading memory, and the hype surrounding her “Video Games” video seemed like a lifetime ago. I’d like to think this made me an unprejudiced listener, but as I mentioned, I did Google her—so I was pretty well caught up in about two-and-a-half minutes.

The narrative that emerged in those minutes was deceptively simple: Lana Del Rey’s music video for her first single, “Video Games,” was released to critical acclaim, she was branded a kind of hipster princess, and she was promptly launched, like a collagen-inflated rag doll, into the mainstream. Then, after an underwhelming appearance on Saturday Night Live, her past life as the singer Lizzy Grant came to light, the curtain was pulled back, and she was revealed as a talentless phony.

Of course, by this time the story had entered a third phase, in which the narrative was deconstructed ad nauseam, by critics and fans alike. I found myself thinking the same thing that plenty of people were already saying: how could we criticize Lana Del Rey for manufacturing an image, or even for singing badly, when so many of our favorite pop stars made a business of doing just that? Everyone knows Madonna didn’t grow up with that name (or that accent for that matter). Reports that Britney Spears lip-synchs in concert hardly ruined her career. And though I would be the first to admit that Brit-Brit is a subpar singer, I would also argue that she produces some of the catchiest, most compelling pop music out there; the fact that she is not solely responsible for it is entirely beside the point. And so, too, should be Lana Del Rey’s vocal averageness, her less-than-impressive stage presence—right?

I can’t deny that Born To Die has a certain something. Producer Emile Haynie fashions a vast, glittering atmosphere lush with surging strings and slinky hip-hop beats. The music is heady and portentous, evoking the smoky menace of a mid-60s noir and sung with the blithe sensuality of a Lolita-esque seductress. Born To Die seems tailor-made to appeal to a certain demographic—twentysomethings striking a cynical pose, pining preemptively for their misspent youth. “Remember how we used to party up all night,” sings Del Rey listlessly, carelessly, on “This Is What Makes Us Girls.” “Sneakin’ out, lookin’ for a taste of real life/Drinkin’ in the small-town firelight/Pabst Blue Ribbon on ice.”

After fifteen languorous tracks, however, Del Rey’s posturing wears thin. She sounds a lot older than she looks, but her voice is flat, lethargic; the languid music calls for a much stronger vocal presence, someone on the order of Florence Welch or Fiona Apple. No doubt—Born To Die does not live up to the hype.

That said, it puzzled me that the album should elicit such vitriol from critics. Granted, it wasn’t all that impressive, but it was completely listenable and at times—dare I say it?—enjoyable. I decided it was time I watched that notorious SNL clip. How bad could it be?

It was bad.

It’s hard to explain, but something about Lana Del Rey’s performance on Saturday Night Live stirred the same irrational hatred in me that it did in everyone else. Was it her vacant expression? The awkward swaying? The stilted hand gestures? She’s no singer! She’s a fake! I thought. That’s clearly why everyone hates her so much.

I was wrong, of course. Lana Del Rey enrages us not because she isn’t exactly who she seems to be, or because she is not as talented as she was originally thought to be, but because she is so utterly transparent. The truth is, we want nothing more than to be fooled. When we watch Britney Spears, or Justin Bieber, or Taylor Swift, the fact that they were groomed and sculpted by a mighty, rich, image-making industry doesn’t matter. They all possess some indefinable quality that convinces us that they have earned the right to be on that stage.

When we look at Lana Del Rey, we realize that anybody—anybody—can have a singing career, given the right connections and a pretty enough face. How can we idolize her if we know she’s no better than the rest of us? We aren’t mad because she faked it; we’re mad but because she doesn’t fake it well enough.

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Sax Attack!


Saxophone. In the context of rock or pop music, it is largely presumed to be a thing of the past. When we hear “saxophone,” we think Bruce Springsteen, Kenny G, or, most damningly, “the ‘80s.” (It’s easy to blame the ‘80s for crimes of bad taste, but I beg you to remember that Dave Matthews made spectacular use of the saxophone all through the ‘90s.) These days, anytime saxophone wanders too far outside the (admittedly fluid) confines of jazz, it is at best hopelessly retro, at worst unbearably cheesy. To whit:



Truthfully, saxophone kind of belongs in that song. I can’t imagine it any other way. But it’s still hard to take seriously, and whenever someone tries, I want to grab them by the collar and shout, “What are you thinking??! DON’T YOU KNOW YOU’RE PLAYING WITH FIRE?!” This will sound like sacrilege to my fellow banjo-lovers, but Béla Fleck might be the worst. As far as I can tell, the Flecktones are just playing really complicated Weather Channel music.



But I didn’t bring this up just to rip on the saxophone (only the Flecktones). No, I am here to say that I have CHANGED MY TUNE (pun intended!). Sax is back, and I’m kind of loving it.

The recent surge of saxophone ardor is, I think, partly a symptom of the ‘80s nostalgia that lingers persistently in popular culture, despite a generation of twenty-somethings who are a little too young to remember that decade clearly. On their recent albums, both Lady Gaga (who was born in ’86) and Katy Perry (’84) invoke the soaring, unabashedly corny sax solos of yore. Gaga tapped Clarence Clemons, of the E Street Band, to perform on the lovingly-crafted, Springsteen-esque “The Edge of Glory, and Perry, in a slightly more farcical gesture, cast Kenny G as a wayward, white-suited saxophonist in the music video for “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.),” itself an affectionate send-up of ‘80s teen movies.

But it’s more than just arch, self-referential saxophone that has made a comeback. The sax seems to be a pretty popular instrument with indie-rockers these days, and two of my favorite records from last year make admirable use of the saxophone. It’s all over the tUnE-yArDs album w h o k i l l, and a force to be reckoned with. On the fierce, percussive “Gangsta,” two saxes enter in unison with a low, menacing drone, and then veer apart, honking and squawking through a series of unsettling melodic leaps towards the song’s chaotic conclusion.



Bon Iver also makes great use of saxophone on his self-titled new album, which is a bit of an ode to unusual instruments of all kinds. Banjo and pedal steel guitar feature prominently in a lush sonic landscape so deep you could almost drown in it. Unless you listen closely, you might not even notice the saxophone, a warm echo straining to be heard above the roiling undercurrent of percussion and synth. But it’s there.


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Best Of: 2011

This year, along with all the other writers at indie music blog kevchino.com, I was charged with compiling a list of my 15 favorite albums of 2011. Ordinarily I like making lists, a.k.a. arbitrarily ranking things. But it seemed unjust to pit my favorite artists against each other, especially since I love them all for different reasons. So, inspired by this New York Times list of unforgettable moments in theater, I decided to present each of my ten favorite albums from 2011 with its own unique award.

“Best Of” lists can have a wonderfully democratizing effect on the very things they aim to rank; total unknowns might rub shoulders with the likes of Beyoncé and Wilco, while folk and indie music experience an unexpected surge in popularity. I was pleased and amused at the peculiarities of my own list, which I think gives a pretty good picture of the sounds that filled my ears, my head, and my heart in 2011.



Beyoncé 4 (Columbia) “Love On Top”

This song is best known as the backdrop to Beyoncé’s dramatic baby-bump reveal at the 2011 VMAs, when she uttered those immortal words, “I want you to feel the love that is growing inside of me.” Leave it to Beyoncé to say something totally creepy and be completely sincere at the same time. But VMA antics aside, “Love On Top” is arguably the best track on what is arguably her best album to date. Each song is intricately and masterfully produced, all while placing the pop singer’s voice front and center. “Love On Top” is a perky R&B number in which Beyoncé, belting her way through a vocally virtuosic chorus and four key changes, brilliantly channels MJ in his prime.



You Won’t Skeptic Goodbye (Self-released) “Who Knew”

On “Who Knew,” lead singer and songwriter Josh Arnoudse perfects the art of setting melancholy lyrics to cheerful melodies. He and multi-instrumentalist Raky Sastri released their debut, Skeptic Goodbye, under the moniker You Won’t, combining pop-minded songwriting with do-it-yourself production; they’re one of the best indie acts to come out of Boston in recent years.



Lake Street Dive Live at the Lizard Lounge (Self-released)

I was actually at the show where they filmed this, and I have to say, the recorded version is almost better—all those pesky drunks (myself included) are a lot quieter on the video, for one thing. I’ve already waxed poetic a number of times about Lake Street Dive; back in September, I wrote: “This is a band with the heart of a poet, a soul full of soul, and a very big vocabulary… They can write a hook worthy of Michael Jackson’s hiccupping falsetto, the Beatles’ Liverpudlian-tinged harmonies, and Stevie Wonder’s silky wail.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.



The Decemberists The King Is Dead (Capitol) “Rox in the Box”

For those of you who aren’t extreme folk nerds, it will come as a (not-so-interesting) surprise to learn that the fiddle melody in “Rox in the Box” was pilfered from the vast archives of traditional British folk music. In many ways, though, The King Is Dead owes more to American music than any of the Decemberists’ previous records. It’s more notable, perhaps, for its restraint; lead singer and songwriter Colin Meloy refrains from the epic sweep that characterized The Crane Wife and The Hazards of Love, delivering instead ten simple, elegant songs.



tUnE-yArDs w h o k i l l (4AD)

I don’t think there is a single “best albums of 2011” list that doesn’t include w h o k i l l. It has all my favorite things: sweet basslines, badass polyrhythms, ukulele, a saxophone section, and non-pretentious socio-political awareness. Merrill Garbus, the mind behind tUnE-yArDs, is this year’s indie darling, and has managed the improbable feat of getting piped through the speakers at Urban Outfitters without losing her indie cred.



Joy Kills Sorrow This Unknown Science (Signature Sounds)

Joy Kills Sorrow takes all the best parts of bluegrass—expert musicianship, powerful vocals, and a dark, pulsing energy—and plays some of the sweetest pop tunes you’ve ever heard. Acoustic music has taken a fascinating turn in recent years, with innovators like Béla Fleck and the Punch Brothers using bluegrass as a jumping-off point to explore genres as diverse as classical and jazz. Joy Kills Sorrow is by far my favorite band to emerge from the melting pot of acoustic Americana, writing modern, accessible music while remaining a string band at heart.



The Dodos No Color (Frenchkiss)

The Dodos give tUnE-yArDs’ Merrill Garbus a run for her money on No Color, which has too many time changes to count. This relentlessly percussive album starts out with a bang and never lets up.



Kelly Clarkson Stronger (RCA, 19) “What Doesn’t Kill You (Stronger)”

It’s a bit of a mischaracterization to call “What Doesn’t Kill You (Stronger)” the best pop anthem on Kelly Clarkson’s Stronger, since the album is chock full of quintessential pop anthems, each more anthemic and quintessential than the last. I have to give Clarkson the award for cathartic scorned-woman songs, and I have to hand it to her producers—Stronger is a pretty near-perfect pop album. Every song is catchy without seeming cliché, and Clarkson’s voice, flawless as always, has gained a maturity that imbues even her most frivolous numbers with gravitas.



The Sweetback Sisters Looking for a Fight (Signature Sounds) “Looking for a Fight”

The Sweetback Sisters recorded their second album, Looking for a Fight, straight to tape on a vintage RCA ribbon microphone, which imbues the record with a singularly old-school sound and makes it even harder to tell which songs are covers and which are originals. The Sisters might be the countriest band to ever come out of Brooklyn, and judging from the title track, you wouldn’t want to mess with them, either.



Wilco The Whole Love (dBpm)

Die-hard Wilco fans will find little to complain about in The Whole Love, which sounds like a mellow Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. It’s always nice when some things stay the same.



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Pop Music Over-Analysis: Country Songs

It seems fitting that my first blogpost in three-and-a-half months should have a shocking confession. I’d hate to let my nonexistent readership down, so here it is:

I love country music.

Country music, as a general category, gets a bad rap from a lot of people for a lot of different reasons—too twangy, too whiny, too unsophisticated—complaints that drive die-hard country fans crazy. “What about Hank Williams?” we ask, spittle flying. “Loretta Lynn? George Jones? DOLLY PARTON?? She has her own theme park!”

But I’m not here to defend the good name of so many Grammy winners and Country Music Hall of Famers. They don’t need my help. No, I’m writing to defend the oft-maligned sub-category of current, popular country music, the stuff that’s celebrated in all its non-ironic glory every year at the CMAs, that gave birth to the Dixie Chicks and now lays claim to Taylor Swift. The genre of music where songs with titles like “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” regularly top the country charts, and which many country music devotees reject outright.

Now, I’m not about to argue that country music in its current incarnation has a whole lot in common with the pedal steel-pickin’, acoustic guitar-strumming music of yore. (Although, I do believe that, despite its vast differences, it still qualifies as country music—but that’s for another blog.) Aesthetically speaking, major-label country is much more similar to its equally slick, slightly bassier brethren on the Top Forty stations—which is why I think, when assessing musical merit, it’s far more relevant to compare the two. As a genuine fan of pop of all kinds, I can’t help but notice that mainstream country music has way better songwriting than mainstream pop. Consider the lyrics to “You and Tequila,” by Deana Carter and Matraca Berg, and popularized by Kenny Chesney:

            You and tequila make me crazy

            Run like poison in my blood

            One more night could kill me, baby

            One is one too many, one more is never enough

It might be cheesy, and a tad obvious, but let me tell you—that’s a solid metaphor! Meanwhile, songs with lyrics like “Grab somebody sexy, tell ‘em, hey!” and “It feels like tonight, tonight,” are topping the pop charts.

The only current Top Forty song that explores a metaphor with anything like Carter and Berg’s commitment is “Stereo Heart,” performed by Gym Class Heroes, featuring Adam Levine. (“My heart’s a stereo/It beats for you, so listen close,” etc.) For me, “Stereo Heart” pales in comparison to “You and Tequila,” not least because it has some of the most vanilla rapping you’ve ever heard. More than that, “Stereo Heart,” with its thundering bassline and relentless good mood, lacks the soul—nay, the heart!—of Chesney’s mid-tempo lament. “You and Tequila” conveys a far more complex, and therefore troubling, idea. And we all know that, for better or for worse, sad songs are more fun to listen to than happy songs.

I think that’s all I can muster for serious country music analysis. Here are some videos for your enjoyment (The Kenny Chesney video is at once absurd and boring. But the song is pretty):

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Of Lake Street Dive and Nachos

We’ve all heard it said, at some time or another, about a great bar, or a vintage clothing store, or a hole-in-the-wall diner that serves the best nachos in town: “this city’s best-kept secret.” You might think it’s a good thing in the case of the bar, because you like quiet bars, or the nacho restaurant, if you believe the quality of nachos is inversely proportional to the number of people who eat them. But I’ve come to believe that most of the time, secrets are bad, and people should stop keeping them.

Especially in the case of Lake Street Dive, Boston’s—and now New York’s—most stupidly-kept secret.

I say this not to gripe but to urge you to listen to, to get to know, to learn to love, Lake Street Dive. This is a band with the heart of a poet, a soul full of soul, and a very big vocabulary. They sing songs with lines like “Feels good to be over you/But it felt good to be under you/So maybe it’s just you that feels good.” They have a trumpet and a double bass. They can write a hook worthy of Michael Jackson’s hiccupping falsetto, the Beatles’ Liverpudlian-tinged harmonies, and Stevie Wonder’s silky wail. They are sexy and a little bit nerdy. They make me want to dance—and I don’t dance.

They’ve also, incidentally, just released Lake Street Dive Live at the Lizard Lounge, a live album and concert film (filmed and produced by my buddy Greg Liszt). It’s fifty-two minutes and thirty-four seconds of the most exquisite unpopular pop music you’ve ever heard. Lake Street Dive has two previously-released studio albums, and both suffered from a lack of adequate funding and the inevitable problem of not-living-up-to-the-live-shows. Now, finally, there’s Live at the Lizard Lounge, which not only captures the raw energy of a Lake Street Dive concert, but sounds phenomenal. Bridget Kearney’s bass comes through full and sonorous, Mike Olson’s trumpet purrs like it’s alive, Mike Calabrese sounds like the ten drummers he always does, and Rachael Price’s voice, powerful and close, will make you wonder why Adele is getting all the attention.

So check out the trailer, and then do yourself a favor and download the real thing. (For $9.99 you get the mp3s for your iTunes and videos for your computer and your iPhone.) Trust me, it goes down real smooth.

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Who Knew

A version of this review appears on kevchino.com.

You Won’t: Skeptic Goodbye

In a city like Boston, where aspiring singer/songwriters are a dime a dozen, it’s hard to stand out. For every Joan Baez or John Mayer, there must be thousands who never make it past the open mic circuit, and as many truly talented artists who never make it to the big time. Have you heard of Lake Street Dive? How about Margaret Glaspy? Joy Kills Sorrow?

Well you should. But it’s a sad truth that many of my favorite musicians, no matter how many move to New York—a city even more saturated than Boston with starving artists, and yet offering the promise of success—will labor in relative anonymity forever.

It’s worth looking, though. Because the deeper you sift through the striving, brimming pool of aspiring talent, the more likely you’ll be to stumble upon a true gem: a lovingly assembled record by a band that no one’s ever heard of, but that nevertheless distinguishes itself amidst all the crooning and guitar-strumming and confessing. Skeptic Goodbye, the first release for Boston-area duo You Won’t, is just such an album.

You Won’t do their share of crooning and guitar-strumming, to be sure. The group’s frontman, Josh Arnoudse, is a singer/songwriter in the most traditional sense, and his songs are the focal point of Skeptic Goodbye. Arnoudse writes with a knitted brow and a wry smile, and sings with nasal, Dylan-esque conviction. He and producer Raky Sastri follow in a grand tradition of do-it-yourselfers, crediting themselves on a litany of real and invented instruments, from guitars and drums to stolen road signs and clapping hands—an element of whimsy that runs counter to Arnoudse’s sharp-witted melancholy.

The do-it-yourself aesthetic, a sound now cultivated in studios as often as in basements, is no mere shtick for You Won’t, and unlike so many home-grown projects that fall prey to preciousness or self-indulgence, Skeptic Goodbye displays a clear, well-executed vision. Arnoudse and Sastri resist the urge to ramble, creating succinct, detailed arrangements around hummable melodies. Sastri, aided by a multitude of unconventional drumming surfaces, provides a backdrop of rich, rattling percussion behind Arnoudse’s keening vocals and layers of jangling guitar. At times, the songs reach epic, rock n’ roll proportions, thrumming with bass and distortion; at others, a gentler touch reigns, and Sastri and Arnoudse reach for mandolin and accordion instead. Perhaps most importantly, they know when to lay back. The standout track “Television” is an exercise in restraint, with piano, vocals, handclaps, and the merest touch of bass drum built slowly and deliberately towards a spare, powerful conclusion.

Skeptic Goodbye might seem like a modest achievement, but for a first release by an unknown artist, it shows startling maturity. Arnoudse and Sastri may be green, but they obviously have what it takes. With any luck, You Won’t will be around a long time, blithely ignoring the pessimism implicit in their name, and making lovely, meticulous records with as much ingenuity and eloquence as ever.

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En Garde!


(A version of this review appears on kevchino.com.)

Buke and Gass: Riposte

When you pop the new album from Buke and Gass into your CD player—or, more likely, upload it onto your iTunes—don’t be afraid to crank it.

The members of Buke and Gass certainly aren’t. The Brooklyn duo’s first full-length effort, Riposte, is best turned up a little too loud. Riposte is as relentless as it is eccentric, a booming, anthemic album with anger on its face and whimsy in its heart.

Buke and Gass take their name from the two improvised instruments that bandmates Arone Dyer and Aron Sanchez strum whilst singing and manipulating various pedals and percussion pieces with their feet. Dyer, whose reedy vocals form the centerpiece of the album, plays a modified baritone ukelele, called a buke, while Sanchez hammers away on a gass (rhymes with “base”), a guitar-bass hybrid of his own creation. This DIY aesthetic is most apparent in the duo’s live performances, oft-lauded for the sheer volume and complexity made possible by the two musicians’ unorthodox setup. If it weren’t for their reputation—or their name, for that matter—you’d hardly guess the group’s made-from-scratch origins from Riposte. The album is crisp and unwavering, its jagged edges wielded with restraint, its many instrumental and percussive layers compiled with an eye towards power and precision. The only evidence of the idiosyncrasies at Riposte’s core can be heard in occasional snippets of conversation and musical noodling taken from the band’s recording sessions, a subtle nod to their peculiar process.

Like many of their contemporaries—the Dodos and tUnE-yArDs come to mind—Buke and Gass are enamored with polyrhythms, reveling in the jarring pulse of mismatched beats. They’re made of harder stuff, though, than many of their fellow avant-folkies, an indebtedness to post-punk evident in the music’s uncompromising demeanor and the undercurrent of menace that runs throughout. Dyer writes with dark, paranoid imagery, delivering manic lyrics in a nimble voice capable of jumping from shout to whisper in an instant. The group eschews traditional song structure, unafraid of odd time signatures, abrupt changes in tempo, or long forms. At their best, they reveal a knack for writing hooks that pull at your gut.

Riposte hits its peak somewhere around track 7, when it becomes apparent that Buke & Gass have only one speed. Dyer and Sanchez’s unrelenting energy can wear thin; Dyer’s lyrics, too, can be opaque and hard to grasp. Riposte is nevertheless a remarkable effort, one that grabs you by the collar and demands a second listen. And a third, and a fourth. So go on—turn it up.


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It Feels Good to Feel Bad

(A version of this review appears on kevchino.com.)

Timber Timbre: Creep On Creepin’ On

In a musical landscape throbbing with the nostalgic pulse of synthesizer and other lovingly reappropriated pieces of pop—think Lady Gaga’s homage to Madonna on “Born This Way,” or Adele’s debt to 1960s soul—Canadian trio Timber Timbre stand out for their twisted take on the mainstream’s ardor for all things retro. On their new album Creep On Creepin’ On, the group playfully evokes the blithe strains of doo-wop and early rock n’ roll, but they do so with the gleeful morbidity of a slasher film, eager to watch the good vibes turn sour. It’s pop music taken to a ghoulish extreme, made expressly to get under your skin.

Creep On opens with the heavy backbeat and bluesy bass line of “Bad Ritual,” an eerie ode to romantic dysfunction. Singer Taylor Kirk sounds like he was recorded at the bottom of a well, his voice awash in a shuddering reverb reminiscent of early Elvis recordings. There are echoes of the King, too, in Kirk’s delivery, although his sneering baritone is weighted by a certain moroseness. It’s not surprising, considering his gloomy surroundings. The slinky groove at the top of “Bad Ritual” doesn’t stand alone for long, sinking quickly into a thick sonic murk marked by the deep thump of the bass drum and, occasionally, the creak of an opening door. There is a certain filmic sweep to these lush orchestrations, which swell and retreat throughout Creep On, as though the album were the score to a movie that follows Kirk as he wanders through an empty house, bumping up against things in the dark.

You can only stretch a shtick so far, and the members of Timber Timbre seem to know it. Creep On is a mere ten tracks long, three of which are instrumental. A penchant for goofy puns, demonstrated in the band’s name and the album’s title, reveals the group’s apparent wish to inject a little levity into their music, which features an almost comical use of stock horror movie sounds—a high-pitched whine like the howling wind, the heavy chiming of funeral bells. Kirk is a smart songwriter who describes heartbreak with chillingly sinister imagery, his love songs populated by monsters and touched by the phantasmagorical. But the band seems bored by his moody meditations, lapsing too often into spasms of orchestral madness which do little to illuminate Kirk’s words. In the end, Creep On Creepin’ On is like a dark, beautiful dream, rife with a sense of import but fading quickly upon waking.


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