Thursday, August 1, 2013

Vampire Weekend

Vampire Weekend

One of the most compelling draws to this year's Lollapalooza festival is the foursome known as Vampire Weekend. They've cultivated a wide appeal despite--or perhaps in light of--their elite literati pedigree. The boys started gigging around 2006 in their last undergraduate year at Columbia University, starting off at humanities societies and parties. With that kind of foundation, you'd think the emphasis would be on explorations primarily invested in lyric, to which their freshman album track "Oxford Comma" is certainly a tribute. But really, the performative experience Vampire Weekend cultivates is an affective one rather than hyper-intellectual or hyper-referential--the result seemingly bringing the hipster, the geek, and the downright adorkable all a little closer together.

Describing their sound as "Upper West Side Soweto," Ezra Koenig, Chris Baio, Rostam Batmanglij, and Chris Tomson mix well-read indie melodies with joyful, Afro-pop-inspired rhythms. Their first album, Vampire Weekend (2008), was a smash in the alternative scene and appealed to a sophisticated collegiate crowd. The rather specific age demographic (as I can't imagine folks in their 30s and 40s interested in titles like "Campus") was noted by some critics, but the Afro-pop sedimentation of the bass lines were without rebuke.

Their second album, Contra (2010), slows down the pace and is invested in blending influences rather than downright mixing, sacrificing some of the blazing guitar proficiency of the earlier album for thoughtfulness; it's worth it for tracks like "Horchata" and "I Think Ur A Contra." And this past May, the band released their third studio album, Modern Vampires of the City (2013), which quickly reached no. 1 on several charts. With many positive reviews, Vampire Weekend seems to be finding a balance between its popular and independent streaks.

To get a sense of what I mean by this doubleness in Vampire Weekend's discography, I recommend comparing these two tracks from their first and second album respectively: "A Punk" and "I Think Ur A Contra."

As I mentioned, "A Punk" belongs on your jogging mix for its bounce and speed that infects your ear. Brief and simple, its bounce and play with arpeggio as a technique makes it very satisfying when on repeat. Similarly, the vibrato alto flute lines are a strikingly different sound in light of the larger synthesized sounds of contemporary indie pop.

"I Think Ur a Contra" is slow; it shimmers, and it very gradually envelops and develops through the sweet upper range of Keonig's voice. There is a strikingly low bass line from the piano (rather than a keyboard), with other elements subtly slipping in suggesting that the speaker grows from thinking to knowing his subject is in fact, a contra(diction).

The single from their new album getting radio play right now, "Diane Young," while far more electric than I anticipated, seems to nicely split the difference. Considering the new album comes only two months before Lollapalooza, I anticipate they have big plans for their Chicago crowd.

Can't get enough? Stream this expertly recorded live concert from NPR. Or check out another act on the same label, Ra Ra Riot, which has been inching into the limelight but is extremely underrated as yet.

Prepare for Vampire Weekend's 6:30pm set on Sunday, August 4th, at the Bud Light stage by checking out their music, available from iTunes and streaming on Spotify.

--Elizabeth Tavares

The Postal Service: Live in Boston

The Postal Service

Without The Postal Service I am not sure we would have Death Cab for Cutie, and without Death Cab there certainly wouldn't have been the other. A collaboration between electronica whiz Jimmy Tamborello and DCFC frontman Ben Gibbard, The Postal Service was named for the courier service that allowed the duo to trade song ideas. While they did pepper radio stations with three trim EPs at the backend of the '00s, the group is a one-album wonder. In early 2003 they released Give Up, spawning five major radio hits and breaking independent label sales records under the auspices of Sub Pop. (Think Nirvana.)

In the last few months the duo released a deluxe remaster of Give Up as a 10th anniversary edition, more than doubling the original ten-track set list. It is unclear whether the two are putting the nail in the coffin on their collaboration, as they are making the rounds at all the large festivals touring the album--a trip that is also helpfully touting Gibbard's recent solo project Recent Lives (2012). They were one of the most anticipated acts of this year's Coachella festival, many betting that this may very well be the last chance to hear the pair perform live. Below is their full performance this past June in Boston. (It's a fan video, so the quality isn't fantastic, but his or her constancy in filming the entire concert is to be admired).

In terms of synthetic production values, it is difficult to quantify the duo's influence. The album was an immediate success in both indie and mainstream circuits. It walked that fine line between the elite and popular--a line to which very few can successfully cater. I think DCFC does so to varying degrees, but Radiohead might be the epitome of walking that fine line, all the more with their new side project, Atoms for Peace.

For its part, The Postal Service provides a hinge not only for its members, but also for alternative pop in general. You can certainly hear the band's shimmering textures, instrumentation, and predisposition for vocal layers in DCFC's breakthrough, Transatlanticism (2003). Give Up also seemed to signal a period of transition out of "indie emo" acts like Blink 182 and My Bloody Valentine, making room for the likes of Spoon, Vampire Weekend, Arcade Fire, Iron & Wine, and Phoenix--many of whom are festival regulars.

I am likely overstating and oversimplifying the network of influence here, but these groups seem to be part of a movement early in the last decade where spinning and pre-fabricated samples were becoming increasingly amenable to the live venue.

Perhaps the two tracks from Give Up that best articulate the synthesis between analog and pre-fab sound production is the ubiquitous "Such Great Heights" and "The District Sleeps Alone Tonight" (at 50:55 and 00:00, respectively, in the full concert video above). The former has been sampled, covered, and remixed unendingly since its initial release. (I do believe a couple covered it for my high school's talent show one year.) Some of my favorites include versions by Feist, Iron & Wine, and particularly Ben Folds, who deploys spoons and Altoids canisters to replicate some of the effects.

Despite the gossamer production of smoothly syncopated kit work and iterative leggato guitars, the lyric themes behind both tracks are morally dark and left unresolved in the narrative lines. This is true of much of DCFC's music as it is for The Postal Service: Both seem invested in studies of contrast where songs of hope take up an emotionally plumbing musicality (see "St. Peter's Cathedral") while anthems to youth are lyrically invested in the close kinship between love and death, joy and despair. Their live performance, such as that embedded above, is a good example. Band mates work hard to get an audience clapping and singing along to their biggest hit whose topic just happens to be suicide.

I point out the juxtapositional pairings of theme and tenor not to suggest the naivete of festival-goers--a claim they are often unfairly stamped with as festivals themselves become increasingly corporatized--but rather to indicate the immense success and staying power of an act invested in challenging their listeners with unsettling yet stunning paradoxes.

Prepare for The Postal Service's 8:30pm set on Saturday, August 3rd, at the Bud Light stage by checking out their music, available from iTunes and streaming on Spotify.

--Elizabeth Tavares

Heartless Bastards: "Into Love"

Lolla starts tomorrow. To get you ready, Daijams is posting three artist reviews--one at 10am, one at noon, one at 2pm--all written by the knowledgeable, music-loving, deadline-observing Liz Tavares.

Heartless Bastards

Erika Wennerstrom is the indie scene's answer to Bonnie Raitt and Sheryl Crow. Her blues vocals front her band, Heartless Bastards, with that same timeless quality especially indicative of Raitt: It doesn't suggest a particular historical moment and obfuscates the age of the singer, certainly. It fits the mood, always.

As a female singer in the current market, I imagine it has been difficult for Wennerstrom not to trade on her gender, pouting up a sweetness as in She & Him, depending on sex appeal such as Ke$ha, or unraveling her gendered markers altogether in a way that brands acts like Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. My apologies for all of the name-dropping, but Wennerstrom--supported by Dave Colvin, Jesse Ebaugh, and Mark Nathan--doesn't seem invested in crafting anything other than a fat rock sound. And with the preponderance of "indie" and "alternative" acts, rock is a terrain left relatively untended.

Those who are invested in the development of the rock genre are, however, not to be trifled with--and the Heartless Bastards are often lumped in among them. Their first studio albums were produced by Fat Possum Records, the same label as fellow Ohioans The Black Keys, to whom they are often compared. Rolling Stone is fond of linking the band with Spoon and the White Stripes as well as some of the top rock acts of the past decade.

Despite hailing from Ohio, the rambling pace of their tunes suggest the Great Wide West--songs that don't even attempt to hover around the industry benchmark of two to three-and-a-half minutes. I first heard them at Lollapalooza in 2009. And their second of four studio albums, All This Time (2006), was the soundtrack to the rest of that year. This year at Lollapalooza, there are no major garage, blues, or professedly rock acts, so Heartless Bastards seem to be tasked in filling a large gap mid-festival in late Saturday afternoon leading up to two experimental hip-hop/rap groups. A tall order indeed.

The Bastards most recent release is last year's Arrow (2012), which attempts to capitalize on their western prairie aesthetic. And it is lovely, if a bit over-produced--but that's the trend these days. For this album I recommend "Skin and Bone" and "Parted Ways."

However, it is 2006's All This Time to which I continually return as a touchstone of their particular sound. If you are new to the band, start with "All This Time" and then "Searching for Ghosts." In the first, the driving warm guitar lines are fat and catchy as Wennerstrom lopes through a melodic lines. Her enunciation of "I love you so much baby" is snark and barely timbered with a blues growl that she never lets get the better of her. "Searching for Ghosts," on the other hand, is plaintive and companionate, strung with close harmonies shared between band mates. The deceptively simple guitar line sucks you in and then suddenly gains a grizzled texture at the bridge. Unlike the blues-rock tradition, these songs don't take heartbreak as a theme, but are rather appeals to hearts full of wanderlust. Nevertheless, they will break your heart.

Prepare for Heartless Bastard's 6pm set on Saturday, August 3rd, at the Grove stage by checking out their music, available from iTunes and streaming on Spotify.

--Elizabeth Tavares

Monday, May 20, 2013

Brick + Mortar: "Heatstroke"

Soon after I moved to the Chicago area in 2005, I saw my first concert in the city--the ska punk Mad Caddies and the reggae rock band Pepper at the House of Blues--crushed against the front of the mosh pit with my good friend Elizabeth Tavares by my side. We were besties before that, but since that moment she's been my favorite concert buddy (outside of my mother). Liz has introduced me to some of my favorite bands (oh hey Black Keys), and this year will be our third Lollapalooza together. I've been wanting her to write for Daijams for a long time, and I am thrilled today to present Liz's debut Daijams review, in which she tackles indie duo Brick + Mortar!

Brick + Mortar

There is something about duos that is hard to describe. Perhaps it is the insularity of teamwork contained to a couple, or the kind of tight partnership that a pair necessitates. Mehldau and Metheny. Abbott and Costello. Brooks and Dunn. Duos present opportunities for technical exploration not available to soloists, but between the two of you there isn't exactly a safety net. Perhaps it is this kind of edge that explains the increase in duo acts in the electronica and house dance scene in the last two decades. Jus+ice just dropped a new live album. The Postal Service released a remaster of their greatest hits this year. France is going to implode if Daft Punk doesn't drop Random Access Memories, like, yesterday. I would like to submit to the list a duo primed for the kind of national exposure only a festival like Lollapalooza provides: Brick + Mortar.


Brick + Mortar are a predominantly tri-state deal, noted for their high-energy live shows in the region despite the small discography consisting of a trim five-track album and two three-track EPs, all released with the independent label Anchor and Hope Music. After releasing the EP Heatstroke (2011), the act was featured in a number of magazines including Vice, given the special treatment by NPR's All Songs Considered, and invited to participate in the 2012 SXSW "House of Creatives" showcase.

While often described as an "indie rock drum and bass duo," it is hard to group the refined electronic stylings of Brandon Asraf (bass, vocals) and John Tacon (drums, samples, vocals) with the grit of something similarly structured, like The Black Keys--a frequent Lollapalooza participant. I'm a bit surprised, in fact, that Brick + Mortar wasn't scheduled to play at Perry's--the stage under the trees catering to DJ, electronica, and dance acts--but I would bet that organizers imagine that the duo's jazz improvisational techniques will be able to draw a larger crowd to the two o'clock BMI stage slot relatively early on Friday, the first day of the festival.

While the tracks from 7 Years in the Mystic Room (2010) are engaging, the three out of Heatstroke (2012) are what I am looking forward to. I recommend starting with "Move To The Ocean." It opens with a clatter of drums built from a simple kit that replicates out-of-studio rhythm recordings that were all the rage in the early '00s. The bass is more reverb and fuzz than actual pitch, giving you the sense that you are already pressing up to the edge of what your ears can take. Add interstitial vocal textures and then a sweetly affected vocal line to create some contrast against the crush of the rhythm section. But the cleverest piece is a sour synthesizer line that trades time with these other two elements to craft this packed brief and biting track. This kind of instrumental complexity makes the EP ideal to run on repeat. "For Yellow Walls" adds speed to the mix to put their technical chops on display. But the sweetheart of the album is the title track. While the two tracks listed above are about texture and proficiency--elements I tend to privilege in my own listening--"Heatstroke" is a brilliant piece of songwriting. The album version is great, but I strongly recommend starting with the acoustic version included here, as it nicely exposes the duo's tight harmonies and finesse with the simplest of tools.


Prepare for Brick + Mortar's 2:10pm set on Friday, August 2nd, at the BMI stage by checking out their music, available from Bandcamp and streaming on Spotify.

-- Elizabeth Tavares

Friday, May 10, 2013

Band of Horses: "The Funeral"

Confession: I watch "American Idol"... when it's on... when I'm on the elliptical at the gym and my other options are Fox News and a blowout Twins-Red Sox game.

But from what I've seen, this has been a great season. Incredible vocals, honest commentary from a talented performer (Urban) and more manufactured girl-on-girl drama than I can handle. But I like it for the same reason I plan to love the sixth installment of the "Fast and Furious" franchise: These guys have been around long enough fine-tuning their product that by now they're the absolute best at it.

F&F WILL have the greatest car-action sequences of the summer. Guarantee it. Their stunts have been getting bigger, badder, and Vin Dieselier each go-around. Yes, there's a fair bit of CGI, but the things they do with hydraulics, sheet metal and explosives are mind-boggling. We've come a long way since slammed Honda Civics sneaking between the axles of a big rig.

And AI? They've toyed with endless combinations of judges and had years of mediocre talent. How many winners have really done anything with their careers besides early winners Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood? And don't say Clay Aiken doing a cameo on that one episode of "Scrubs".

This year they have talent. Too much of it. They know it; the judges have commented since the top ten that most of the group could've won previous years. And now they have judges that recognize and genuinely encourage the talent. Sorry, Mariah, I'm not talking about you and your aimless, self-promoting diatribes. I'm talking about the pithy and often truth bomb-riddled comments from Nicki and Keith.

After top-three finalist Kree Harrison performed Rascal Flatts' "Here Comes Goodbye" on Wednesday night's show, Keith gave her a beautiful response. He thanked her for the performance.

It was such a charged series of moments. Just before the song, everyone had watched a video of Kree returning to her home in Texas and opening up about losing both her parents by the age of 12. Obviously that particular performance for her was bittersweet. And she laid it bare in the song. That's what truly talented musicians do, and Keith connected with the action in a visceral way. That was some good TV.

Music can connect us. Down to the basest part of our being. Sometimes we connect with music we never expected to. So (finally!) enter Band of Horses, a set of Charleston, SC-based alt-folk-rockers lead by appropriately for the Pacific Northwest-bearded and tattooed Ben Bridwell (hails from Seattle). Some might find Ben's voice shaky or thin at times, though his multi-layered compositions (including organ-synth!) are good for plenty of sonic swells to headbang/aggressively shoegaze to.

BOH has been around, in one form or another, since 2004, and by now has four full-length studio albums to its name, including the Grammy-nominated Infinite Arms (2010). But 2005's Everything All The Time included the breakout single "The Funeral", a slow-burning anthem that alternates between delicate electric picking and crooning, and Coldplay-esque blasts of blended sound.

After getting plenty of mixed-media attention in commercials and TV shows, "The Funeral" became a pretty well-known piece of BOH repertoire. Which generally makes me not want to like it. But dammit that is one lovely track. It's catchy and melodic, and bittersweetly profound to boot. (Sample lyric: "At every occasion, I'll be ready for the funeral.")

It just bridges that gap between brains through the airspace. It connects. It embeds. It runs through. It rocks. It ends. Enjoy the full set and wait for it, or skip ahead to 34:30 to catch it immediately. These guys play Lolla on Friday. Enjoy, and take comfort in the fact Ms Carey isn't coming back to AI*.

*Love you, MC, truly, but maybe focus a little more time on being a mom at this point.


Thursday, April 25, 2013

Imagine Dragons: "Radioactive"

We love bands with a little mystery, right? We love to get to know bands, but still be left wanting for the whole truth -- just to keep things interesting. Fortunately for the fairly straight forward Las Vegas-based indie rockers Imagine Dragons, they retain a little mystery.

Apparently, their name is an anagram. THAT ONLY THEY KNOW FOR WHAT. How mysterious is that? We love.

I puzzled for whole minutes and could only come up with A RANDOM SIEGING. Maybe I’ll try a few more before emailing the band my attempts at cracking the code.

But other than that, I’m going to once again trot out the “not entirely remarkable” moniker. Don’t get me wrong, these guys are solid. Their Killers- and Strokes-esque brand of supercharged pop-alt-rock with heavily layered guitar riffs and smashing drums is catchy, captivating, and highly replayable.

And in this video’s live setting, they haul out a massive drum -- look out, Boiler band! -- so they have that going for them.

Their rise to fame seems unsettlingly quick: The first two members, Dan Reynolds and Wayne Sermon, only met in 2008. A few years, additional band members, and EPs later, they inked a deal with veritable record label Interscope in fall 2011.

OK, so maybe that is a bit remarkable. And certainly the great speed with which their discography and music videos gained widespread popularity is commendable; either they have a kickass manager or the media and public believe they’re just that good.

I’m going with a combination of both. Decide for yourselves when you see them bang that drum on Friday of Lolla. Maybe they’ll even give out a clue to their anagram.

(P.S. Here's a bonus video of violinist Lindsey Stirling and haht vocal rock group Pentatonix doing a cover of "Radioactive.")

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

HAIM: "Falling"

Welcome back the magnificent Rachel Aguiar, music lover and writer extraordinaire, as she profiles LA sister trio HAIM.

Este, Danielle, and Alana Haim

What’s the first thing you think of when you hear "family band"? The Brady Bunch? Donny and Marie? Hanson? The Jonas Brothers? An innate cheesiness? HAIM, a trio of sisters from Los Angeles, has no trouble moving past this stigma. And as it turns out, harmonizing is that much easier when you’re related (just listen to the a cappella start to the song “Better Off”).

Slightly reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac, HAIM (rhymes with time) does an excellent job capturing a kind of west coast breeziness in each of their songs. I first discovered the band in the middle of the winter in Chicago, yet every time I listened to their music, in my mind I was driving down the coast of California in a convertible with the top down.

Despite forming the group more than five years ago, HAIM has only recently found mainstream success, especially after their EP debut at SXSW in 2012. Every single they release garners more attention than the last. Their latest single, “Falling,” definitely continues along this path, complete with funky bass lines, hand clapping, and soaring vocal hooks.

Recently, HAIM also collaborated on Kid Cudi’s new album, Indicud, creating one of the most critically acclaimed songs on the album, “Red Eye.” It was great to see how well HAIM’s bubbly and upbeat sound complemented Kid Cudi’s rawness. Here’s hoping to see more HAIM collaborations in the future.

So what should you expect from HAIM at Lollapalooza? You can expect a perfect show for lounging in a grassy field on a sunny day. That thought alone is what’s getting me through this rainy April. See you there!

-- Rachel Aguiar