Before its arrival in July Dirty Projectors’ new album, “Swing Lo Magellan,” seemed poised to reap critical praise, though perhaps not as much as “Bitte Orca” its 2009 predecessor. In the fickle world of online music journalism, Dirty Projectors are already starting to look old hat, and their recent foray into classic rock songwriting isn’t winning them much new buzz. As the year wraps “Swing Lo Magellan” is landing high on best album lists, but never higher than say, number ten, and it’s a shame since it’s far and away the best album of 2012.
In their decade-long existence Dirty Projectors have served up some wacky concept albums. They wrote an opera about Don Henley and reimagined Black Flag’s “Damaged” (1981) from memory. They’ve had good ideas, but ideas don’t necessarily make for good songs. High-concept records are often lauded for being greater than the sum of their parts, and though it’s tempting to say that about “Swing Lo Magellan,” it would be a disservice to the songs, which are wonderful in and of themselves. Swing Lo’s concept is songwriting, but it’s an anti-concept of sorts, because aren’t all great albums about songwriting?
Bandleader-cum-guru Dave Longstreth seems willing to try anything in pursuit of a song. “Just From Chevron” begins with a game of rhythmic patty cake. The skittering funk of “About to Die” recalls Prince’s “1999.” The title track could fit in any box set of seminal American folk tunes. Despite his eagerness to wear genre hats, Longstreth’s songs are his own. “Maybe That Was It,” with its slinky, patchouli guitar riffs, couldn’t have been made by anyone else.
What’s most staggering about “Swing Lo Magellan” is the great leap in lyrical sophistication. Longstreth’s long admitted to shrugging his duties as lyricist, and in 2009, he sunk to uncharted lows by allowing the line, “And what hits the spot, yeah, like Gatorade?” into “Temecula Sunrise.” But now his agenda has changed, and what a difference it makes. In the impossibly tender, “Impregnable Question,” Longstreth sings, “What is mine is yours, in happiness and in strife. You’re my love, and I want you in my life.” His direct, poignant lyrics practically make “Irresponsible Tune,” and when he sings nonsense on “Unto Caesar,” bandmate Amber Coffman calls him out for it: “Uh, that doesn’t make any sense, what you just said.”
As usual, Longstreth’s surrounded himself with a band of outstanding players. For the single, “Gun Has No Trigger,” they demonstrate the power of restraint. Bassist Nat Baldwin and drummer Brian McOmber create the unwavering groove upon which Dave and the girls–Coffman and Haley Dekle–sing. Background harmonies rise to meet Longstreth’s increasing urgency.
Production-wise, “Swing Lo Magellan” sounds classic. No one’s hiding behind lo-fi static or forgiving reverb, and each individual part is rendered with clarity and warmth. It’s reminiscent of Sunset Sound’s best recordings, and of Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours”(1977). To top it off, Dirty Projectors were recently nominated for a Grammy (Best Recording Package). Whether or not you care about the Grammys is your prerogative, but if anything, I’d say the nomination proves the lengths Longstreth went to to deliver a complete album.
I’ve been crusading on behalf of “Swing Lo Magellan” for six months, and I suspect this plea — and it is a plea: I beg you to listen! — is the culmination of my crusade. After today, I’ll pipe down. Because thousands of new records are on the way, and one of them will replace “Swing Lo Magellan” on the turntable. But for now it’s still fresh, still exciting – the best album released in 2012, no contest, not even close.
Photo by Kekeli Sumah
“All roads lead to Chicago!” was Kid Koala’s exclamation to the audience at the Double Door on December 1, 2012, during final stop of the Canadian DJ’s North American Vinyl Vaudeville Tour. This year the turntablist is taking his love for vinyl, the art of turntablism and of course puppets, across the pond to delight European audiences with the “Vinyl Vaudeville Tour 2.0.”
Photo by Kekeli Sumah
Listeners who may have found it difficult to engage with the vinyl manipulation of Kid Koala’s earlier releases will find that 12 Bit Blues (2012) plays to the beat of a different drum. Kid Koala’s hand is still very much present in the mix, but instead of pulling records back and forth, he is also cutting and pasting samples with a retro and warmly distorted SP-1200 — the sampler that famously brought hip-hop to its 1980s golden age. He performed with this the SP-1200, modded with wireless receivers, during his show at the Double Door.
12 Bit Blues sounds most different from previous Kid Koala albums when he strips away much of his trademark humor in order to let the emotions of the vocal samples shine through. This is felt most powerfully on the song “6 bit Blues.” The grainy voices croak desperately, “I lost everything I ever had / sometimes I feel so lonely, sometimes I could cry / sometimes I feel so lonely, I need my baby by my side,” through the veils of hiss and analog distortion. Kid Koala does not let the singer’s plea come through clearly; rather he chops it up, breaking up the slur into disturbingly disjointed stutters and spurts. These cries are emphatically repeated and pitch-shifted, shuffling to what feels like a broken beat pattern or a mis-timed loop. Periodic breaks are ushered in and out with a chorus of rolling drum sounds and risers, while the song’s memorable bridge descends into a sorrowful sonic stupor stereotypically reminiscent of the constantly inebriated, deeply depressed blues singer.
Photo by Kekli Sumah
Kid Koala and many of his contempory DJs seem to be after a more active role music creation and performance beyond being reduced to a glorified jukebox. Tools such as turntables, CD-players and MIDI controllers become instruments in the hands of the virtuoso DJ, who displays immense command and understanding. Although computer-deejaying is becoming more and more a dominant means in the performative playback of recorded music, vinyl discs and turntables will forever hold a soft spot in the hearts of every wannabe audio/technophile.
Image Courtesy of Pitch Perfect PR
For the Discerning Electro Music Fan
There are few pleasures closer to touching the divine than losing oneself in a sea of dancers. The sensation has to be the closest most of us will ever reach to dissolving the ego and disappearing into pure sensory pleasure. I know that sounds like an incredible overstatement, but it was a feeling I couldn’t shake after Norwegian DJ Lindstrøm’s performance at Smart Bar last October.
Lindstrøm was touring behind his album, “Smalhans,” released in November and one of our candidates for album of the year. His set at Smart Bar was liberally sprinkled with tracks from the new record, and based on the blissed-out trance he invoked in the crowd, the new songs are well-received by his fans. DJ performances can fall into two categories, often the DJ disappears behind a laptop and gives the sense that they pressed play, and not much else. Lindstrøm did the opposite, his shaggy, bobbing head was an active part of the performance. He was clearly vibing with the enthusiastic dancers throughout the space and brought the songs to climactic peaks again and again.
Lindstrøm’s music fits in a narrow but satisfying niche of electronic music. His beats and melodies are complex and long-form. It is easy to imagine his music accompanying the soundtrack to nature documentary as the camera soars over ice-packed peaks. He doesn’t quite have the intellectual rigorousness of groups like Pantha du Prince or The Knife, who are compelling but not always fun to dance to. That said, he also avoids the saccharine commonality of international electronic music stars like Tiesto or Swedish House Mafia, whose beats are fun but can leave listeners with aesthetic indigestion when over-consumed. Perhaps the best comparison is with another Scandinavian group, Royksopp, who also balance the between aural stimulation and gratification.
Photo by Lin Stensrud courtesy of Pitch Perfect PR
Lindstrøm provides the best of both worlds. His melodies are complex but always inviting. They soothe and beckon without ever sounding cheesy. Meanwhile his beats are vigorous and original. He avoids the repetitive banality of so much electronic music by keeping the listener guessing. On songs like “Eg-ged-osis” rhythm and melody are inextricably intertwined and play a fascinating game of ascending stakes. At Smart Bar, Lindstrøm also performed the opening track from “Smallhans,” “Ra-ako-st.” The heavy synth melodies reflect the trend of electronic artists re-appropriating 80s music (see: Soundtrack for Drive). Lindstrøm takes the seemingly simple structure and adds complicated rhythmic structures and accentuating melodies that build toward a satisfying conclusion.
Hans-Peter Lindstrøm’s success story is something of legend in the electronic music world. As a relatively unknown producer he created his own label in 2002, Feedelity, and released a handful of EPs and 12’’ singles. Over the years he gained increasing international acclaim and became well-known on the club circuit. His music has garnered a loyal following among the indie hipster-set, his performance at the Pitchfork Music Festival in 2009 drew a large crowd.
Graciously, Lindstrøm avoids the wanna-be glitch and layered bass orchestrations that ruined dubstep and continue to bleed into all other forms of popular music. On “Smalhans” the emphasis is on melodic complexity and steady rhythmic builds. The bass is one of the many tools utilized and it is matched with other components, instead of dominating it.
Lindstrøm closed his set with the track “De Javu” from his other 2012 release, “Six Cups of Rebel”. When you combine two great albums and an uplifting live performance, Lindstrom had the best 2012 of any DJ. While it’s impossible to relive a live performance, putting on my noise-cancelling headphones and playing “Smalhans” just a little too loud is almost just as good.
The Souljazz Orchestra
Afrobeat—a musical fusion of jazz, highlife, Yoruba music and infectious percussive drumming is undeniably seeing a recent rise in popularity. The genre developed across the continent of Africa in the 1970s, especially in Nigeria, the birthplace of legendary multi-instrumentalist and bandleader Fela Anikulapo Kuti. Kuti is credited as being the primary progenitor of the genre and even coined the term “afrobeat” himself, after a tour in the U.S. with his group Nigeria ’70 (later known as Africa ‘70).
The influence this movement has had on the West is evident in the critically acclaimed musical Fela!, local group the Chicago Afrobeat Project, as well as the Zongo Junction and the Souljazz Orchestra—who performed together at the Empty Bottle on Friday, December 7th to a comfortably packed crowd. For those who haven’t visited this venue, a Yelp reviewer successfully summed up my first impression, “one of the GREAT dirty rock clubs of Chicago…shabby exterior, friendly bartenders…love.”
The Zongo Junction opened the show and came out strong with 11 members, including an impressive brass section and two percussion instrumentalists. The group hails from Brooklyn, New York and have thrived in their own local Afrobeat scene. Tracks from their debut album Thieves! (2012) got the crowd moving pretty quickly since most of the audience seemingly came to dance in the first place.
The Souljazz Orchestra, a Canadian based group with international roots, took over after a short DJ interlude and leveled the scene with “a percussive explosion of Soul, Jazz, Afro, Latin and Caribbean rhythms, driven by majestic horn-drenched melodies, all backed by an arsenal of overheated primitive keyboards.” Touring on their latest album Solidarity (2012) released by Strut Records, they encouraged a dancing frenzy with songs such as “Bibinay,” “Conquering Lion” and “Ya Basta.” Another real treat was their rendition of the classic “Because of Money” by the 3rd Generation Band, a 1970s Afrobeat group from Ghana. As a Ghanaian, it was a pleasure to see these talented musicians paying homage to my home country.
As if their powerful set wasn’t enough, they encored with the Zongo Junction, sharing the stage together— all 17 members of both bands combined for an exhilarating Afrobeat extravaganza! With such a forceful performance, it is safe to say that the Afrobeat movement is blessed with new torchbearers to continue its “fiery interpretation,” pulling from the intentions of the past whilst blending it with strong locally sourced musical innovations.
Part of the job of being a musical artist is appearing on stage every night, writing your own biography, appearing in videos and hundreds of press photos while endlessly explaining your technique, personal history, and extrapolating the meaning of your work for a ravenous audience. The following musicians have chosen to remove themselves from the spotlight that a career in popular music so often means.
John Frusciante — “Your Pussy’s Glued to a Building on Fire” Niandra Lades and Usually Just a T-Shirt (1994)
Ex-Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante joined the band in 1988 as a teenage fan replacing original guitarist Hillel Slovak who died of a heroin overdose. Frusciante recorded Mother’s Milk (1989) and Blood Sugar Sex Magik (1991) with the band before quitting — disillusioned and disappointed by the new-found success and rock star status of his band. He’s described the Chili Peppers success as going “too high, too far, too soon. Everything seemed to be happening at once and I just couldn’t cope with it.”
Before leaving the band Frusciante became withdrawn on tour, sabotaging their shows with erratic guitar playing, fighting with singer Anthony Kiedis, getting deeply into marijuana and heroin, and recording Niandra Lades. The mistake-laden acoustic guitar stabbing, searing backwards solos, and meandering vocals of “Your Pussy’s Glued to a Building on Fire” capture the guitarist’s strange and beautiful tendencies hidden within the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ hardcore party funk of the early 1990s.
Out of the band, Frusciante became a heroin addict living in squalor in the Hollywood hills. Injections left his arms permanently scarred and abscessed, and an oral infection lead to a full set of dental implants. In 1997 he admitted himself to rehab, got clean, and was asked to rejoin the band. Back in the Red Hot Chili Peppers Frusciante contributed to some of their most successful material with Californication (1999), By the Way (2002), and Stadium Arcadium (2006) before leaving the band again in 2009.
Nick Drake — “Things Behind the Sun” Pink Moon (1971)
Nick Drake was an English folk musician who recorded three studio albums before his death in 1974. In their time, Drake’s fragile and introspective folk albums Five Leaves Left (1968), Bryter Layer (1970) and Pink Moon(1972) were commercial flops with mixed critical reception. However, since the 1980s Drake’s music has experienced posthumous popularity and influence. Drake suffered crippling depression during his lifetime which caused him to withdraw from his career and friends, spending his final years in rural England at his parents’ home. It was at his their home in Tanworth-in-Arden that he died of an antidepressant overdose.
Drake resisted live performances and the handful of appearances he did make were brief sets in which he did not acknowledge his audience. Folk musician Ralph McTell, who shared the bill at Drake’s last performance remembers, “Nick was monosyllabic. At that particular gig he was very shy. He did the first set and something awful must have happened. He was doing his song ‘Fruit Tree’ and walked off halfway through it. Just left the stage.” Island Records didn’t ask Drake for a third album partly due to his unwillingness to promote the mostly unnoticed Bryter Layer with live performances or interviews.
In his final interview, Drake avoided eye contact with his Sounds Magazine interviewer and discussed his distaste for concerts. Pink Moon, recorded by an unaccompanied Drake in 1971, is a sparse and haunting 28 minute album that was recorded in two consecutive midnight sessions. His deeply personal music is defined by his near-whispering performances of observational and symbolic lyrics over his deliberate and intricate playing of experimentally tuned acoustic guitars.
Bilinda Butcher of My Bloody Valentine — “Loomer” Loveless (1991)
Bilinda Butcher’s vocals on Loveless (1991) convey unintelligible sweetness, a distinctively sleepy sighing style. Her obscured lyrics were sometimes guesses at what songwriter Kevin Shields sang to her, translated from his demos. For LovelessButcher recorded her vocals late at night, hidden behind curtains in the studio. Her singing style and Kevin Shield’s swooning distorted guitar sound composes the band’s trademark sound.
Butcher avoided speaking in interviews at the height of the band’s fame because, “It just happened that way. Kevin was saying really good things and I didn’t want to say something wrong.” In a rare interview during the band’s hiatus Butcher described her upbringing as an anachronistic outsider dressing in 1920s clothing and listening to records on a portable turntable in the forest, “I never watched the news or read the papers; it was like I lived in another era.” Following the release of Loveless, the band dissolved into a silent hiatus and reunited in 2008 for a tour. During the interim years Butcher has taken up Taekwondo and flamenco guitar playing. Her only public contribution to music has been vocals on two Collapsed Lung songs in 1996 and a Dinosaur Jr. song in 1997. According to Shields, the follow up to their titanic and unparalleled shoegaze masterpiece is going to be released online before the end of 2012.
Film director, former art student, eagle scout and transcendental meditation advocate David Lynch is best known for his distinctive breed of American surrealist moviemaking. When a work of art is described as “Lynchian” it is likely nightmarish, melodramatic, dreamy and disturbing. Among his recurring characteristic tropes (red curtains, factories, multi-character female roles) is the use of the chanteuse. Music and sound design, whether a 1950s-style pop tune or a distorted wave of harsh noise, are critical to his work, but there’s always special attention given to the singer on the stage.
“In Heaven” — Lady in the Radiator, Eraserhead (1977)
Lynch’s 1977 debut is an experimental body horror film set in a nightmare dystopia. Jack Nance plays Henry Spencer, a father-to-be whose child turns out to be a wailing reptilian atrocity that drives its mother to insanity, leaving Henry alone with the offspring. Henry experiences visions of a character credited as the “Lady in the Radiator” alone on a stage stomping on spermatozoid creatures that resemble his child, and later singing “In Heaven.” The song, set to spooky, distant carnival organ, is a musical break from the omnipresent dark ambient noise of the film.
“In Dreams” — Ben, Blue Velvet (1986)
In Blue Velvet, Jeffrey Beaumont (played by Kyle MacLachlan), is a well-meaning college student who returns to the town of Lumberton to help his family after his father suffers a stroke in the film’s opening sequence. While at home, Beaumont gets involved in a criminal investigation that leads to a dark and unseen world of drugs, sadomasochism, kidnapping and murder. At the heart of all the evil is Dennis Hopper as the unpredictable and ultra-violent Frank Booth. Booth and his motley crew bring Jeffrey to local weirdo Ben’s house where Ben (Dean Stockwell) sings Roy Orbison’s classic “In Dreams” to the roomful of spellbound psychopaths.
“Blue Velvet / Blue Star” — Dorothy Vallens, Blue Velvet (1986)
In Blue Velvet the object of Frank Booth’s deviant, fetishized sexual desire and also Jeffrey Beaumont’s confused adoration is Dorothy Vallens, played by Isabella Rosselini. Vallens performs as the Blue Lady at a nightclub in Lumberton where she sings “Blue Velvet,” and “Blue Star.” The pianist in her backing band is Angelo Badalamenti, Rosselini’s singing coach and a musical collaborator of Lynch’s in his first project with the director.
“Falling” — Julee Cruise, Twin Peaks (1990)
In the mid-to-late 1980s dream pop reached its pinnacle, a now oft replicated era of detached musical sleepiness, indecipherable cooing and guitars layered into cumulus clouds. Lynch didn’t miss the opportunity to include the style in his cult-television series “Twin Peaks.” (In a similar show of musical awareness Lynch cast Marilyn Manson and used music by Smashing Pumpkins in “Lost Highway” (1997). “Twin Peaks” features recurring musical motifs by composer Angelo Badalamenti, predominantly “Love Theme for Twin Peaks,” an instrumental version of “Falling.” Cruise appears in “Twin Peaks” as the singer for the house band at the show’s biker bar, the Roadhouse.
“Llorando” — Rebekah Del Rio, Mulholland Drive (2001)
Rebekah Del Rio’s Spanish version of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” is a stunning performance which brings the song to a sparse place more tragic than Orbison’s original. Lynch met Del Rio and was so moved by a secret recording he had taken of her performance of “Crying” that he wrote a part into Mulholland Drive for her. Del Rio’s powerful reverb-laden a cappella is bookended by moments of the director’s trademark strangeness within the psychological thriller. Del Rio, who sat beside Lynch at the premiere admitted, “I was so intrigued and frankly quite confused for even I, who was in the film, wasn’t exactly sure what the story was about.”