Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Ain't Misbehavin': Newport Folk Fest Part I

Our photographer is a bit more traveled than we are; she tells us of the wonders of the Beale Street Music Festival: rain, mud, general ruckus. By which we mean copious booze (and various smokables), drunks, total craziness... in short, one heck of a wild party. But we wouldn't know. We've never been.
Friday was a rainy day, mud and grumpy weather. People kept wearing these:
Another beautiful day! Copyright Lauren Burke
but didn't wear their crazy-masks. Or Victorian makeup or viking helmets or things like that, just there was no (or very little) craziness. No drunks shouting "Free Bird." They were quite sober, we assure you.

Saturday we were chillin', catching Justin Townes Earle, chillin' next to a Bostonite who'd been to the festival for at least ten years (maybe more, memory gets foggy). We didn't get him at all - we mean, at all - but we, photographer and I, caught up on past festivals, current festival, construction in Boston (bleh!), things, we tell you, just things in general. It was something Kerouac might have shined upon. Could that kind of thing happen at a Beale Street? Could you just sit down with someone you've never met and shoot the sh-err, crap, have a good time set to music?

Sunday, before the Wheeler Bros. took stage, we watched a couple of 20-something guys play with a baby, maybe two at the most. Whatever was in her hands - a pair of sunglasses, a bead bracelet - she kept smiling to the two guys and gave it to them. They took it well and didn't ebay the items, giving them back to her mother, who gave them back to the baby, who gave them back to the guys (who couldn't help but crack up at all this), and all you have to do is step outside and ask yourself: who'd bring a baby to a music festival? And what kind of festivals are good for that? Newport is first and foremost a local festival - just ignore the fact that we get Calexico and Feist and My Morning Jacket, other national acts - and consider that for a second. Part of the lineup has always been local - Newport Homegrown, John McCauley, the Low Anthem - but moreso than that, the NFF is a neighborhood festival. "Hi Neighbor," one might say, "have a folk fest!"
(That's the Narragansette Beer slogan, for those not in the know.)

And the NFF is more than local, too, it's a neighborhood festival; it's neighbor-to-neighbor interaction, whether you've been going for ten years or you're a newcomer. Whether you're on stage, in front of the stage, or behind it. It's where you can tell one of the guitarists from Nicki Bluhm's set what a kick-arse job he did (and no, it wasn't us, we were too slow to catch him!) while he passes by the local crafts tents. It's a different kind of festival, it's where you can chat up the Lone Bellow and rattle off in your head a quick approximation of their one-night drive from Atlanta to Newport (which is just crazy, even in relation to touring); where you can find a musician busking a few dozen feet from the stage, after his set (this time he only drew four people or so); where there's a collective sigh of relief during the final act, when musicians and stage crew alike congratulate each other on another successful weekend. It's not savage and crazy, fun without restraint, and we're not going to say it's the only way, or even the best way to take in live music. But we will say it's the most communal, it's not the typical "us and them" of music creators vs. music consumers. We will say that it's our favorite way to take it in, to be part of the experience and not a hindrance to it. We will say we like our part in it, as a tiny little music blog that covers these two-and-a-half days of the year.

And we will say this: our thanks to the people who perform, publicize, and put it together. You know the first two, so here's a quick reminder of production and volunteers:
Techs, specs and mus-eck on Sunday. Copyright Me
And of course, thanks to the festival-goers, who are quite groovy to chill by during Justin Townes Earle, even if he is completely above our head. Hopefully you'll enjoy our coverage. Speaking of which, join us later this week to get all the highlights of the Fest! Later gators,

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Dessa Flows on Sophisticated Parts of Speech

Dessa - Parts of Speech
Doomtree Records
-out now
4 / 5

We don't often cover rap, but we'll make an exception for this intelligent Minnesotan. Citing Greek mythology on her previous release, Castor, The Twin, Dessa makes full use of her Philosophy major in her music, paying special attention to lyricism and individual words. What she has on her third full-length, then, is more than just an intellectual discourse: there are real beats, real songs, and real grooves. Dessa shuns the crass "b**ches and hoes" rap for meaningful stories about ordinary people, if you couldn't tell by our description, and more power that it works so well.

"Fighting Fish" and "Warsaw" set her rap voice full tilt. "Fish" song burns right through, the hardest rapping of the album, and juxtaposing the verses with a sung chorus works brilliantly: no vocal fatigue, a nice release to the deep beats. "Warsaw" is as close as the album gets to looping anything, and even this mixes it up pretty well. We're going to mention that, even though we're calling this a rap album, and that Dessa is a rapper, it's probably more accurate to call this one "hybrid rap," should that exist; many of the vocals are sung, and there is actual instrumentation instead of beat machines. "It's Only Me" is further evidence of that, beautiful evidence at the very least, with strings and acoustic bass supporting her vocals. While the sense of music here still values rap and rhythm highly, certainly we're not going to fault her for a philosophical point (one that Dessa would likely win); this album takes the high points of each genre, and makes them flow effortlessly.

It's new. It's smart. It's rap that anti-rap listeners will appreciate. We like the sense of style here, the confidence, and the lack of stuffiness. It works, and it works well. Recommended.

Give it a listen on bandcamp.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Artwork for Keeper of Dreams Unveiled

So we've got a non-music announcement first: we're unveiling the cover art of The Keeper of Dreams: A Dozen Stories and Poems, beautifully done by RISD grad Matthew Vidalis (link to site right here). We don't have a release date for it yet, but it will likely be sometime in Nov.-Dec. Pretty sweet-looking, no?

Let's put up some links to stories, too: "The Madness of the Gods," penultimate draft, we should say; and "The Sentence," which is not for the faint of heart. The collection is a mix of flash-fiction, poetry, and, of course, short stories of various lengths. We'll keep you updated on it over the next few weeks.

Music announcement: there's still one day of the Newport Folk Festival available! Get your tics for Friday, and get out of work early - Elizabeth Mitchell starts at 1:00 in the Family Tent, other music starts at 2:25. Feist, John McCauley (ie Deer Tick), and The Low Anthem's local revue all hit our spotlight, and even though you can't hit tics to the truly amazing Saturday and Sunday shows, at least this will tide you over a bit. Hope to see you this coming weekend!

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Fluffer's Debut a Bit Too Fuzzy

Fluffer - "Skopsi"
-out now
3 / 5

Bloomington, IN psychedelic rock trio Fluffer make a supreme effort here on their debut full-length. They've got their songs down, set up the drum set, and get rolling right into the thick of rock; they pound through almost a dozen, but despite their energy, we have trouble finding them compelling. They've written them well enough (see the rumbling, tumbling "Relic"), and they're spot-on with their instruments, but the songs here largely don't click with us. Compulsion is that element that takes a shrieking weird vocal and turns it into AC/DC classics, and we think that's the weakest point here: these vocals just don't elevate the instrumental part of the music, which is how these songs are written. Compare to Led Zeppelin or Guns and Roses, where Page-slash-Slash are equal parts in the songcrafting. Rock can rely on the vocals, but not somewhat limp ones.

Back to the song construction: "Relic" and "Southpaw" are rather epic, actually, when you break down the elements. They travel a long way from their initial theme, and in more capable hands, they could be absolutely brilliant. But the songs lack clear hooks, or at least memorable ones, leaving the pressure on the aforementioned vocals. So is it really bad? No, not really. The elements are there, almost all of them, but they haven't gelled quite. There are moments - the brief solos, like in "The Foundry" - where things come together, but we think the trio suffers perhaps 20% from playing for themselves, not for their audience. There is a roughness to it that we suspect some of our audience may enjoy, something of a "I'm going to play this and you're going to listen" to it, and for that, it's not too bad; but will you listen to this more than a dozen times? Even that? Likely not.

So they may not be the next Jim James, and we're not really crazy about it. We will say it is pretty good for a free album, though, and here's to hoping the next one knocks us off our feet.

Come download it on their bandcamp for free!

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Har Mar a Superstar on Fifth Full-Length

Har Mar Superstar - "Bye Bye 17"
Cult Records
-out now
4 / 5

Don't be put off by the unappetizing white dude on the cover: Sean Tillman, aka the Superstar, aka guy who looks like he lives in his mother's basement, has an uncanny sense of retro-funk-soul in his soul. He'd fit somewhere between Charles Bradley and Sharon Jones on the retro-soul label Daptone - due to alphabetical sorting - and would do it with style, playfulness, sheer joy. Bye Bye 17, which clocks in just under 30 minutes, is quick but oh-so-good, is funky, down-to-earth, is indeed a white male Sharon Jones, does indeed channel Motown and groove with the best of them.

What's our favorite tune, you ask? It must be "Prisoner," a pure funk-blast of almost disco-stomping beats that strips us of the misconception that white men can't soul with the best of them. "Prisoner" is Tillman at his finest, but to say that is all he has to offer is disingenuous: the opener, "Lady You Shot Me," must be the single best powerhouse soundtrack for our imaginary movie about Lee Morgan, and add to that the infectious pop-infused, effortless "Restless Leg." There is much to recommend this album, not the least of which is the sheer variety of sound Har Mar's displayed here, in addition to the fun, sub-Sharon Jones (yet still quite powerful) vocals. These songs twist around a bit more, too, often whipping us around 180 degrees at the chorus - check out "We Don't Sleep" for what we're talking about. It's great, it's blissful fun, it's well-performed and doesn't take itself overly serious. It's what music is all about, except that it's a bit short... sigh...

We highly recommend you pick up this album. It's a great one for the speakers or the car, and we trust you'll enjoy Har Mar Superstar even if you think classic soul is all about crooning for love; fun, a lot of variety, and just a blast.

We've got links to "Lady You Shot Me," and more "Har Mar" on Soundcloud.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Rhye Crafts a Beautiful "Woman"

Rhye - "Woman"
Universal Republic
-out now
4 / 5

It takes an international duo - Canadian Mike Milosh and Danish Robin Hannibal - to make a great, understated symphonic pop album. Woman is all of these things and more: svelt, chic, gliding with controlled, velvety falsettos, minimalistic strings and piano. It is a brilliant debut from the now-L.A.'ers, with each song a lament of love, a sexy, adult take on subdued, smoldering passion. It's Rhye's understatement that sells these tracks, that makes them mature and relatable, each a masterful understanding of love; as opposed to crooning, over-the-top power-pop junk. These are the kind of songs that are good for more than a fad's lifetime.

If we were to describe how "Open" opens the album, you'd think it'd be ostentatious: horns (trumpets, trombones), strings, harp fading into finger-clicks. It's not (check out track below). What Rhye has done is toned everything down, given space for everything that they want in the track, and reduced it yet again. It's love for the thinkers, for the idle dreamers who sit and wonder. By the time they get to the upbeat, 80s hook of "3 Days," you haven't noticed they're taken it up a notch. It's subtle work they've done here, and while it's hard to point out two tracks that rise above the rest, we're going to say "Open" and the day-dreamy "One of those Summer Days" marks high upon our list. We're being modest in giving it only 4 of 5.

Woman is everything a love album should be: quiet, introspective, powerful. Rhye shows true restraint, yet with enough room for appropriate embellishment, and the end result is an album (we hate to use the word) utterly unique. The opposite of Marvin Gaye and yet just as seductive; highly recommended.