tUnE-yArDs: w h o k i l l

A version of this review appears on kevchino.com.

Merrill Garbus, the singular voice behind tUnE-yArDs, is never in better company than with herself. On the band’s latest album, w h o k i l l, Garbus is by turns a chorus, a conversation, and about half the instruments on the record, her voice squeezed and cut and looped over itself again and again. Set to a clamorous, snare-drum-heavy beat, the songs are striking in their directness; Garbus, for all her talkativeness, never wastes a breath.

Until recently, tUnE-yArDs was a one-woman band, complete with delay pedal, ukulele, drums, and Garbus’ own elastic vocals. Add bassist Nate Brenner, a horn section, and a whole lot of editing, and you’ve got w h o k i l l, a noisily intricate record pulsing with African polyrhythms and the clatter of sticks against drumhead. Garbus’ 2009 debut, BiRd-BrAiNs, was a feat of lo-fi, DIY resourcefulness, and w h o k i l l revels in the possibilities opened up in the studio with a few fellow musicians. Garbus—whose music borrows much from her time spent in Kenya as a college student—yelps, bellows, and croons her way across a rich soundscape that owes as much to clever production as it does to African rhythms and singing styles. Like rising scaffold towers, the songs assemble themselves piece by piece, Garbus’ throaty vocalizations flitting through layers of jumpy percussion and tripping over the crackling shards of themselves, fractured and reintegrated into the vibrating sonic milieu. Despite the music’s complexity, Garbus never seems to get lost in it; even with all that detail, she still has space to play.

On w h o k i l l, Garbus draws you in but never lets you get too comfortable. She has a penchant for catchy tunes punctuated by jarring melodic movements, and for lyrics that surprise and disturb. The opening track, “My Country,” begins with the familiar strains of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” the sing-songy first lines set to an insistent, syncopated beat. The lyrics then abruptly change tack, as Garbus sings, “How come I cannot see/My future within your arms?”, and the song spirals into a thundering, disaffected anthem. Throughout the album Garbus grapples with such heavy subjects as identity, body image, violence, and oppression, but she somehow manages to do this without preaching, letting poetry and the complexity of her feelings speak for themselves. Like the title of the album, Garbus’ songs sound as though they were yanked out of the middle of a sentence, a menacing imprint all that’s left of a fully-articulated idea. The lasting impression, though, is not one of anger but of exhilaration—more than anything, Garbus knows the raw, joyous power of her own voice.

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A Show I Went To: Starry Mountain Singers

The Starry Mountain Singers are not your typical a cappella group. Instead of beat-box-heavy vocal arrangements of Top 40 hits, the eight-piece ensemble—whose members hail from states as far afield as Vermont and North Carolina—specializes in singing traditions from the United States, Bulgaria, Corsica, and Georgia. They eschew virtuosic soloing as well as any pretension of hipness, reveling in lush, complex harmonies and the power of many voices combined.

I went to see the Starry Mountain Singers last Wednesday at the Unity Church of God in Somerville, MA, where a small but enthusiastic crowd gathered in a narrow, brightly-lit hall. There was no one taking money at the door, only a little collection bucket with a sign denoting the fare. It was an appropriately wholesome gesture from a group that sang with such warmth and intimacy, and who addressed the audience in kind.

The eight singers, three women and five men, fresh-faced and casually dressed, opened with the toe-tapping gospel number “Working On A Building,” and then proceeded to blaze their way through an extensive set list that included shape-note songs, Corsican chants, Bulgarian folk songs, Georgian liturgical hymns, American country and bluegrass songs, and one original number. Though the material was anything but showy, it was nevertheless executed with exquisite precision, a multitude of voices swelling and ebbing in a series of perfectly-pitched waves. A stately Corsican chant, spreading slowly with chilly, minor-key beauty, gave way to the upright stride of an intricate shape-note song, followed by the delicate melancholy of a Bulgarian lament and rounded out in a big gospel finale, ringing through the hall with blithe, eager delight.

Though much of the Starry Mountain Singers’ repertoire is overtly religious, the spirit that binds them is far more mundane. It is, quite simply, the joy of singing together, and the Starry Mountain Singers prove that this is an activity worth witnessing as much as it is doing. After all, there is a special vicarious pleasure to be found in hearing groups of people sing, unadorned by instruments and unfiltered by audio equipment. It’s the voice, the most human of instruments, multiplied and expanded—a giant, harmonious organism with many mouths, and one killer set of lungs.

*      *      *

The ladies of the Starry Mountain Singers. They did this one in Somerville and it kicked ass:

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Album of the week: Lake Street Dive by Lake Street Dive

Lake Street Dive knows how to make noise. Armed with only a standup bass, drums, a trumpet, the occasional guitar, and three sets of lungs, the Boston-born, Brooklyn-based indie outfit puts on an electrifying live show, a big, joyful racket that defies their sparse instrumentation.

Despite having a devoted, almost rabid, following, the group has failed to generate buzz on a national scale. Its fans obviously recognize what the rest of the country has not: Lake Street Dive is one of those rare collaborations that is greater than the sum of its few parts.

The band’s four members met as students at Boston’s New England Conservatory, so naturally their music showcases some serious chops. What’s surprising is how easily they channel this jazz-inflected precision into their particular brand of songwriting-driven, R&B-influenced indie-pop. Bassist Bridget Kearney, drummer Mike Calabrese, and trumpet player/guitarist Mike Olson all write songs with irresistible hooks and clever lyrics, leaving vocalist Rachael Price, a singer of extraordinary depth and ability, to breathe full-throated life into their lovelorn musical ruminations.

Lake Street Dive’s self-titled third album was released in 2010 on Signature Sounds and nicely captures the band’s natural, stripped-down sound. What it doesn’t quite do is deliver the in-your-face energy of their live shows; the album was recorded on a tight budget and the band’s life-sized loudness seems to have shrunk to fit the smallness of the packaging. That said, Lake Street Dive is an infinitely listenable record, full of catchy riffs, tasty grooves, and well-chosen words. There are several references to the Beatles—the first song is titled “Hello? Goodbye!”—and Lake Street Dive more than lives up to the inevitable comparison, with tightly-written pop tunes about the travails of twenty-something urban romance. Though it delves deep into well-worn pop territory, the material never falls flat, colored as it is with biting humor and a disarming openness that belies its darker undercurrents.

Equally impressive is the facility with which the group fuses so many musical influences, from classic rock to jazz to pop to soul, all with an eye towards concise, lyric-driven songwriting. From the jangling, Beatles-esque guitar intro to “Henriette,” to the sultry trumpet solo on the ballad “My Heart’s In Its Right Place,” to the Motown-inspired hook on “Miss Disregard,” Lake Street Dive deftly combines these disparate elements into a complete, compelling package, which they offer up with such skill and obvious joy it’s impossible not to get swept up, too.


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Weird Folk

In the middle of his rendition of the traditional ballad “Pretty Fair Damsel,” Sam Amidon lets out an unearthly scream. His voice vibrates gratingly on the air for a long, shocking moment. Then, grimacing in mock concentration, he takes a halting, messy jazz solo on his acoustic guitar.

The crowd shifts nervously, unsure whether to laugh. There is palpable relief when Amidon returns to the chorus, strumming major chords and singing about true love. He has the endearing habit of letting his voice crack and waver out of tune, lending unusual intimacy to old songs.

It is a Tuesday night in early April at Club Passim in Harvard Square, and so far the show is completely living up to my expectations.

I had been a Sam Amidon fan since the release of his record All Is Well on the Bedroom Community label, in 2008. All Is Well was a moody re-imagining of ten American folk songs, with familiar melodies rendered nearly unrecognizable by modern classical composer Nico Muhly’s atmospheric orchestrations. Amidon’s follow-up record, I See the Sign, released in 2010 on Bedroom Community, was in much the same vein, with slightly sparer contributions from Muhly and lush percussion from drummer Shazad Isamaily.

In the past three years I somehow never managed to make it to one of Amidon’s concerts, so I was especially looking forward to the Club Passim show. I knew, of course, that a live performance would be nothing like the recordings, with their dense, multi-layered arrangements. I had also been informed—or warned, depending on who you ask—that Amidon was “crazy.”

Amidon’s reputation comes from the fact that his performances are self-consciously eccentric, a trait that would be unbearably pretentious if it wasn’t executed with such wit. At one point during the show, Amidon launches into his version of “Pretty Saro” from All Is Well, singing exactly one half-step above the key he is playing in. In characteristic fashion, he drags the moment on too long—and then, with an embarrassed chuckle, stops mid-syllable, and moves his capo up a fret. “I was playing in the wrong key!” he explains, and the audience roars. The moment is Steve Martin-esque in its absurdity, with all the elements of a classic comedy bit—except it relies on a bizarre and rather extraordinary musical skill.

If Amidon’s unusual take on American folk music upsets the die-hard traditionalists, it is not because he aims to offend. The fiddler turned avant-garde singer/songwriter is the progeny of Vermont folksingers Peter and Mary Alice Amidon, and even a cursory listen to their son’s recordings reveals that he is not trying to undermine or reject the music on which he was raised. The material on his albums, mined from folk music’s vast archives, is rearranged with exquisite beauty and delivered without a trace of irony.

No, Amidon is not simply trying to bewilder his audience—but what he is trying to accomplish is not entirely clear, either. Are his recordings a self-conscious bid to make traditional music relevant in the modern era? Could his stage antics be a pointed attempt to subvert a long-established reverence for tradition? Or is he just a weird guy who likes folk music?

I’m probably over-analyzing it. But Amidon said something that made me believe that, at least sometimes, he over-thinks his music as much as I do.

He was introducing the last song of the evening, a cover of R. Kelly’s “Relief” (one of two non-traditional songs on I See the Sign). When he first heard it, Amidon said, he was amazed that R. Kelly—“the Bob Dylan of our times”—had apparently written a song “that has absolutely no bearing on reality whatsoever.” The lyrics in question go like this:

What a relief to know that we are one

What a relief to know that the war is over

What a relief to know that there’s an angel in the sky

What a relief to know that love is still alive.

As time passed, some of the things in the song seemed to come true, at least for a while. “That’s when I realized R. Kelly was much more clever than I originally gave him credit for—he had actually written a song with a shifting relationship to reality over the course of time.”

Amidon paused, strumming his guitar thoughtfully as the titters in the crowd died down. For a moment, it seemed like he might leave it at that—with a wry remark that, like his performances, toed the line between the profound and the absurd.

Luckily, Sam Amidon has some sympathy for his audience.

He leaned into the mic. “And sometimes it just feels nice to sing those words.”



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Where? There!

Say what you will about Glee, the hit musical dramedy on Fox—if nothing else, it’s a very accurate barometer of pop music trends. Sure, there was the obligatory Justin Bieber episode and the elaborate homage to Madonna, but the show does more than point out the obvious. Time and time again, Glee hones in on our collective nostalgia, reaching into pop music’s past and deftly plucking out the songs that resonate loudest.

Then, it meticulously reproduces these songs, auto-tunes them until the singers sound like robots, and inserts them into a highly-choreographed fantasy high school soap opera.

All this is to say that Glee should never have touched Joan JettMy Joan! Around the same time that Glee covered Joan Jett’s version of “Do You Wanna Touch me? (Oh Yeah)”, I had just gotten my hands on a copy of Joan Jett & The Blackhearts: Greatest Hits and was blissfully enmeshed in a love affair with leather-clad Joan and the goofy chorus of male backup singers that follow doggedly at her heels across two discs of guitar-smashing, gender-bending, face-melting rock n’ roll. What got me about Joan wasn’t so much her bad-girl charm or her hard-rock posturing, but her earnest, unabashed delivery. Only Joan could utter lyrics as cynical and unpoetic as those found in “Bad Reputation”—“The world’s in trouble, there’s no communication/And everyone can say what they wanna say/It never gets better anyway/So why should I care about a bad reputation anyway?”—and imbue them with such unironic joy.

Needless to say, I was shocked to discover that Glee had also laid claim to Joan, and what’s worse, had embodied her in the anemic, bleach-blond form of Gwyneth Paltrow.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. While the discovery of a new (or old) artist always feels like an intensely personal experience, it never truly is. Joan may have been new to me, but she wasn’t to the rest of the world. What’s more, a spate of recent projects had already served to remind us of her existence: 2006’s Sinner, the Blackhearts’ first studio album to be released in the U.S. since 1994; the 2010 film The Runaways, a biopic about the eponymous all-girl rock band fronted by Joan Jett and Cherie Currie; and the 2010 release of Joan Jett & The Blackhearts: Greatest Hits.

Apparently, Joan Jett has been manufacturing her comeback for a while now. If the proof of her success must come in the form of a shiny, over-produced musical number on a TV show about a quintessentially American high school populated entirely by lip-synching teenagers—so be it.

…And now, for your viewing pleasure: the music video for “Do You Wanna Touch Me (Oh Yeah)” by Joan Jett & the Blackhearts, the Glee version, and the video of the original version, by Gary Glitter, former glam-rocker and convicted sex offender!

Here are a few things that make the Joan Jett video better than the others:

1. close-up of flexing pectoral muscles

2. sledgehammering a bass drum (a creative variation on the ubiquitous smashing-of-the-guitar)

3. Joan Jett

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Time Changes

It’s been more than a week since daylight savings but I’m still feeling the drag of that lost hour. Is it really the first day of spring? The minute we’re launched, gratefully, out of stagnant winter, time speeds up. Dismal February gives way to gentle April with barely a breath to acknowledge March.

At the moment, though, winter is making a defiant, snowy last stand. I’m barricaded in my room listening to the best evidence I have that the last month really happened—“Going Under” by the Dodos, off their new record No Color, which came out March 15. The song is a strange, boisterous anthem, jolting through fitful rhythms like winter tripping towards spring. It begins in an off-kilter 6/8 and then, with a subtle shift in time and tone, slips into a joyful 4/4, Meric Long’s voice suffused in a chorus of ethereal harmonies. A soft thump of the bass drum marks the final switch to 3/4, and without a backward glance the song explodes into a howling, percussive crescendo and then a soft, wordless conclusion.

Throughout No Color The Dodos display a rare reliance on rhythm to lend power and depth to their nimble melodies. They’re not the first, though. More than anything, “Going Under” reminds me of “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” by the Beatles. Remember that languorous, waltzy first verse, and those three, glorious hits that signal the beginning of the chorus in 4? “Lucy in the skyyyy with diamonds!” crows John, joyfully, inexplicably. Who knows what it means—I was always just happy to sing along.


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Don’t despair!

For the past few weeks I’ve been… plotting. So stay tuned for more Boston-area-music-fun-stuff soon!

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on my mind

I turned on the radio this morning—as the snow fell gently, ominously outside—and caught a lovely set by Sara and Sean Watkins at the end of “A Prairie Home Companion.” I was never a big fan of Nickel Creek, the pop-bluegrass trio fronted by mandolin prodigy Chris Thile that made them famous; among other things, there was something a little too precious about Sara Watkins’ high, delicate voice in that context. But today, it emerged from my radio with a silvery, beguiling sweetness.

I had the unexpected good fortune to see Watkins perform live a few weeks ago at the Lizard Lounge in Cambridge, that magical musical cave tucked away in the bowels of Cambridge Common. Singer/songwriter Kristin Andreassen was opening for The Sweetback Sisters (souped-up honky-tonk from Brooklyn), and Watkins, in town on tour with The Decemberists (ever heard of them?), was a surprise guest in Andreassen’s set. There, in the dark hush of that close underground room, she sang this exquisite little number—and for a moment, waltzed us right out of dreary winter:

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lake street dive in the countryside

Another fantastic video from talented — and scenic! — indie-pop sensation Lake Street Dive. The latest installment in a vast catalog of covers of This Magic Moment by The Drifters. Complete with frolicking children and … all of Colorado in the background.

Check them at out at Club Passim on March 5!

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Not that she needs need my help, but I’m posting a little plug for Adele here, whose new album, 21, is stunning. (It was released yesterday in the U.S.) No point in reviewing it; there’s a nice little piece on NPR’s First Listen, which as of this moment still offers the whole album streaming for free. The Tiny Desk Concert is worth checking out, too.

I can’t argue with the critics that say, vocal prowess notwithstanding, she still has a long way to go as a lyricist. But that’s kind of like saying Bob Dylan wasn’t a great singer — it’s sort of beside the point.

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