Thursday, July 9, 2015

For BJ

My friend died two weeks ago.

I’d never had a friend die before. The day I found out (The day he died), I called Diana. I sobbed into the phone. She said some things to calm me down, and she also said what I needed to hear most.
“This isn’t about you.”

I went home and I did what I needed to do to get my feelings in check. I wrote this, for one. Since then I’ve grappled with whether or not to make this rumination public. BJ’s death wasn’t about me, and it isn’t about me still. It is about him, and those who survive him. I worry about trivializing a family’s suffering by posting my own unsolicited feelings on my mostly-defunct music blog. (What is the protocol here?) But BJ always seemed to care about LL; he always asked about it, was ever eager to share a new song he’d fallen in love with, and even let me feature his photography (pictured here) a few times. He was one of its first and best supporters. So I think this is ok. At least, I hope it is.
(But how can you be sure? The dead don’t talk.)

BJ fought cancer for over a year. During that time he asked that I make him a playlist, just of things I’d been listening to recently. I put it on my to-do list and put it off perpetually. He asked if we could catch up on the phone, said he appreciated my friendship and wanted to stay more regularly in touch. I got busy and never called. He finished a round of treatment, and I asked for his address so I could send him a card. I never found the perfect card and so I never sent one.

My mom was diagnosed with early stage breast cancer this winter. Within an hour of hearing the news, BJ sent me a veritable essay on chemo tricks and tips. (You didn’t even have to ask.) Months went by. I didn’t make a playlist, I didn’t call, and I didn’t mail a card.
When he died I felt a lot of things, but mostly crushing guilt.
(This isn’t about you.)

It may sound trivial. Indeed, in the grand scheme, a playlist, a phone call, and a post card don’t add up to much. But it’s the little things that matter. It’s the little things that get us through the day, that help us live with ourselves. It’s the little things that set friends apart from acquaintances, loves apart from lovers, and memories apart from the haze of the quotidian. Can I call myself a friend if I can’t or won’t make time for the little things?
(You can’t be sure. The dead don’t talk.)

I don’t believe in God. I don’t believe in a higher power, or heaven, or hell, or spirits, or the afterlife. I believe that we have the time that is given to us, and that is all. So I sit with the fact that my friend is gone—to dust—and in the time that mattered, I didn’t give him time.

Even if I am completely wrong (Often, you hope you are), and there is in fact something past death, I sincerely doubt the departed are checking the internet. (Post-mortem Facebook posts are the saddest exercise in futility.) So posting this is little recourse. But I think I owe it to him to at least pretend. Or hold out hope that maybe, just maybe, there’s something else out there…
And they have wifi.

My friend’s death isn’t about me, but through it I’ve learned some thing about me: the relationships I want to cultivate, the little things on which I want to concentrate. This is late, it’s not enough, and I am truly, deeply sorry for not giving you time when we had it.
But hey BJ, here's your playlist.

While we're here:

I know this is the opening track on the playlist, but I want to make double-sure you listen to it. I've cried at least 4 times while doing so. Also of note, the lyrics include the word "asunder," which is something you really don't see every day. (Check out Allies For Everyone on Facebook.)

Tuesday, May 12, 2015


I stumbled upon this track during one of my regular, 2am binges into the depth of Soundcloud. Its discovery only justified my insomnia.

Cape Lion are a duo hailing from Sweden, consisting of Carl-Johan Sevedag and Martin Wiklund. They classify themselves as electronic pop; I think of them as a Royksöpp + M83 hybrid. Upbeat electronic melodies are coupled with quality lyricism and vocals, with a splash of epic. But Pop. Epic Electronic Pop.

All of their their songs are well-produced and catchy, but Mainland sticks out to me the most. It kicks off quickly, with descending drums leading right into the hook. I’m particularly fond of the lyrics:

now we’ve grieved enough – time to let it go
we’ll be drifting off – time to let it go

Que sera, sera vibes all the way, the song stresses the importance of living in the now, ignoring the temptation to imagine how things should/could be within different circumstances. It’s this coupling of serious, emotional lyrics over an upbeat, catchy electronic melody that defines this group’s sound.
All this, delivered in a beautiful Scandinavian-pop package. I’m sold.

Listen to Mainland below, and check Cape Lion out on Soundcloud/Facebook/Sweden.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Montréal -40C

I’ve been sitting here for half an hour staring at the screen, telling myself I am better than writing about the weather.

Talking about the weather has always seemed like a kind of gateway drug—the first step towards an adult life doomed to small talk and banality. With that in mind, writing about the weather feels unforgivably pedestrian. So I’ve been rehashing and revising, trying to think of a better introduction, but have ultimately come to an unfortunate conclusion: I am not better than writing about the weather.

I’m going to try to self-rationalize this now by noting that weather is currently the number one cause of emotional tumult in my life (no I don’t have a lot going on ok). I have been having intense visceral responses to it, and have even been moved to angry tears on a handful of mornings while walking to work, blasted by -5F degree winds. So if you’re still humoring me, I’d like to take a second to get my feelings out on proverbial paper and say, YOU WIN, WINTER. I HATE YOU.

I’m in Chicago and the weather has been so bad that I dread getting out of bed, even on days when I’m well-rested. On mornings when it’s below zero, and I know icy tears on my work commute are a real possibility, I need something especially enlivening to help jump-start my day. Enter: Malajube.

I discovered this band when I was in high school, boarded away in the frozen tundra of northern Michigan. They’re from Montréal so they know a thing or two about the cold. In fact, they have an entire song dedicated to it. Montreal -40C was their breakout ‘indie hit’ in 2006, a bouncing piece of indelible pop rock, off-the-wall but hardly amateur. A upbeat musing on the sometimes harsh reality of a frozen city as one’s cruel mistress, this was my go-to winter alarm clock song throughout high school. When I reintroduced it to my musical rotation in 2015, I was delighted to find that not only could I still relate, but sonically it still felt fresh. My apologies if you came here expecting new music, but sometimes it’s best to stick with what’s tried and tested. Montreal -40C is one of the few things that can get me going on a snowy morning. Try it on for size.

Oh, and you might notice that this song isn’t in English. They say music is a *universal language*, and I don’t think that holds more true than when we unite against a common enemy. In this case: Elsa.

Montréal -40C - Malajube

Friday, February 6, 2015

See Me

Have you ever had the perfect concert experience? Doors are early, the opening band is great, you can see the whole stage, your favorite beer is on tap, and the headliner plays the obscure b-side you hoped against hope they would? Ok. Now allow me to one-up you.

Are you familiar with The Wild Honey Pie? They’re a music blog/video production company based out of Brooklyn, and several times a year they organize group trips with a twist. Two months ago I was lucky enough to attend their second annual On The Mountain, a snow & music extravaganza held at a ski resort in Vermont. It took place over three days, and was attended by roughly 70 strangers, 6 bands, and TWHP production team. Think all the camaraderie of the Real World, with the activity and travel component of Road Rules. I guess it could best be described as the Read World/Road Rules Challenge of Music, minus the challenges. (Though, skiing was a real challenge for some. Hi Nick.) Over the course of the weekend, in addition to sloping, drinking, and hot tubbing, guests got to sit in on live sessions from each of the bands present. Yeah, it was as cool as it sounds.

But we’re here to talk about the perfect concert, and I’m not going to be a generalizing cheat who claims a whole weekend as her one moment. That perfect moment—singular—came the first night of the trip, when Tei Shi performed in a candelit, wood-paneled room, in front of a roaring fire. The audience sat on blankets on the floor and held votive candles. If you’re thinking “This sounds campy,” remember we were literally at adult summer winter camp. And besides, it made for beautiful ambiance. But all that setup would have been for naught had Tei Shi not been such an able performer.

Tei Shi was an act I had heard of but neglected to explore on account of broad generalizations I’ve made regarding a certain style of hyped, female-fronted mellolectro1 outfits. You know what they say about assume(ptions). The R&B-influenced instrumentation and fuzzy production does feel familiar, but her beautiful, unaffected soprano sets her apart from the pack. While many of her peers rely heavily on auto tune and vocal effects—resulting in lackluster live performances—Tei Shi shone in a stripped down environment, showcasing a vocal purity that only comes from a mature understanding of one’s instrument and respect of its limitations. Nothing in Tei Shi’s music feels forced: it’s like a warm blanket covering you on a snowy night. To be able to experience that in such a close, intimate space was truly the perfect musical package.

Check out a recording of said session below, and be sure to explore the rest of TWHP’s On The Mountain footage. There are some gems. You can get Tei Shi’s debut EP here, and keep an eye out for her in the future.

1. [Term trademarked by me, just now.]

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Take Care Of You

I'm listening to this song on repeat while doing my best to find some kind of background on the producers.  Apparently, it’s a duo comprised of Mazego and Vitesse, two Parisian fellows with a few remixes to their respective names.  Combine them and you get Saje, the moniker under which this song was released.  The Saje Soundcloud dates back 6 months, while Mazego the solo artist seems to have been on the Facebook game since 2011. Despite this short timeline, the sounds these two are churning out are far from novice. With two songs to Saje’s credit, they’ve already been able to create a unique, recognizable sound in a musical climate of copycat-regurgitation.
To try and describe their music is to study the constant redefinition and meshing of electronic music genres.  Deep-Electro-Trap-Chill-Dream-Step, if I may.  Take Care of You is a hybrid of Tom Misch’s guitar-centric beats, with Odesza’s lingering synths and massive drops.  Saje is now 2/2 with an uncredited male vocalist, whom I can assume is either one of the two, or simply an unnamed, golden vocal vessel.  Regardless of genre definitions or background story, these guys are damn good.  It’s refreshing to see two relative newcomers coming out with completely original material, while providing surprising well-written and appropriately themed vocals.  I’m sold, and methinks you will be as well.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Wicked Waters

High—maybe number one—on my list of “new artists you should know” is Benjamin Booker. Baby, he’s a firework. A force of nature. Fantastic.

The Florida native purveys a mishmash of blues, soul, and garage rock with sprinkles of punk on top. His sound harkens to a point in musical history when rhythm & blues connoted heavy kicks and jazzy guitar licks, before it morphed into the watered-down, vocal-run driven R&B we hear on the radio today. But while his influences are firmly rooted in the past, his delivery is wholly 21st-century. Booker’s inflection reminds me of a harder-rocking Connor Oberst: angry and angsty, spitting across story lines about starting families and skipping town. Like Oberst, his voice can hardly be called beautiful, and many of his lyrics are spoken on-key rather than truly sung. But like Oberst, the garbled timbre of his voice allows him to effortlessly translate raw emotion into song. When he really wants to drive a point home, he wails—as though he’s moments away from bursting into angry tears. It’s grating; it’s glorious.

The roughness of Booker’s voice and overall sound is what makes him such a delight. This isn’t one of those “revivalist” records meticulously crafted in a Nashville studio….looking at you Auerbach. It’s the kind that could have been hurriedly taped in the back of a car for a next-day release. (Indeed, Booker recently told Aquarium Drunkard that he cut his latest cover on an iPhone in a hotel bathroom.) Take the rollicking Wicked Waters as a shining example. A plugging organ crafts a vintage feel, but the frantic, relentless rhythm guitars lend the song a tightness that’s decidedly more rock n’ roll than blues ditty. It’s raw and urgent, and that urgency is what makes Booker’s music indispensable. So when he howls “I am what I am, I’ll make it on this run,” I’m quite inclined to believe him.

Booker is currently on a world tour, fresh off a string of dates opening for Jack White. I skipped his set when he opened for White in Chicago. I’m the worst. Don’t be me. Don’t be the worst. Catch Booker when he comes to a city near you, before he blows up and starts playing mainstages at every music festival from here to Australia. Listen to Wicked Waters below and BUY or stream his debut self-titled album NOW.

Wicked Waters - Benjamin Booker

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Human Sadness

One of my most-hated music ticks is when people insist that a song/album “gets better with repeat listenings.” 99% of the time it just means the song is objectively terrible. That said, I'm going to take my foot out of my mouth and tell you that this song genuinely begs more than one listen, if only in order to fully wrap your head around its sonic surfeit.

At 11 minutes long, Julian Casablancas & The Voidz' aspirational Human Sadness certainly reads like an exercise in rock excess. But if you can learn to anticipate the jolting, distorted scream at 2:40, you might just grow to love it (seriously though that thing made me jump out of my skin no less than three times). It won't click for most people at first. It's too weird, too meandering, too "wait this is The Strokes' Casablancas?" But sit with it for a couple days and come back to me—I promise the payoff is worth it.

The thing is, Human Sadness is just a couple steps away from genius. And I mean genius. Not really good or the song of the year, but transcendent. The caveat, however, is that it’s not quite there. (Though honestly had Ariel Pink released this, Pitchfork probably would have hailed it an art-rock triumph.) It wanders, dropping a theme before its had a chance to fully establish itself. It undermines absolutely riveting progressions with distracting, Nintendo-esque bleeps. But through the haze of noise-for-noise's-sake are prolonged moments of brilliance: rays of a discernible melody peeking out through clouds of distortion. It's a track that wants you to love it for what's inside and not what's on the surface. Which, in this Max Martin era of music, is quite a rare bird.

Listen to the track below once, then come back to it in half an hour and listen to it again. Just trust me.