Monday, April 26, 2010

The Finest of Indie Today

This October, I attended one of the greatest concerts I’ve ever witnessed. It was at the Moore Theater in Seattle, and it featured Grizzly Bear. It was one of those, “I saw the future of rock and roll and its name is (blank)” moments like critic Jon Landau had after a Bruce Springsteen concert nearly thirty years ago. From the moment the Brooklyn quartet kicked off its set with “Southern Point”, the opening track on their recent album, Veckatimest, I was mesmerized. Even after spending hours listening to their two most recent albums, hearing new live arrangements of the group’s unique brand of neo-psychedellia was like discovering the songs all over again. Breathtaking, exhilarating, jaw-dropping, any word that could describe the sight of the most perfect sunrise over the most majestic mountain range.

But that hour and a half of ecstasy wasn’t even all that was great about that evening. Opening for Grizzly Bear was The Morning Benders, a band from Berkeley, California whose four members look like they may still be in high school. Despite their young appearance, the group’s music is mature beyond their years, filled with three part harmonies and reverberant guitars that seem to draw on classic and modern influences such as the Beach Boys and My Morning Jacket. Having hardly heard of the group and not expecting much from an opener, this was a more than pleasant surprise to begin the evening.

This isn’t about one concert experience however; this is about a lineage that started at the top. The greatest band of our generation is Radiohead. Many may disagree with that statement; that’s fine. Just one columnist’s opinion that is very unlikely to change. Grizzly Bear opened for that royal five headed genius machine in the summer of 2008, with prodigious Radiohead lead guitarist Jonny Greenwood taking a rare turn at the mic between songs to dub Grizzly Bear as his favorite band, stunning the New Yorkers, as they themselves are heavily influenced by Radiohead. As Grizzly Bear’s fame grew, the band chose two disciples of their own to tour with them at different times: the aforementioned Morning Benders and Beach House.

Beach House consists of Baltimore duo Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally, and while I am yet to see them live (a Seattle concert in April sold out before I could purchase tickets), their recorded sound just melts away at your soul. Instead of the echoing guitars of The Morning Benders, Beach House is driven by intimate organs, synthesizers and lush vocals courtesy of the French chanteuse Legrand, whose deep alto is reminiscent of the late Nico. While The Morning Benders songs are soaked in bouncy youthful buoyancy, Beach House’ music is dense and flowing, as if the soundtrack to a dream.

Four of the best albums of the last several years are related by a common thread of having shared a concert stage. In Rainbows by Radiohead, Veckatimest by Grizzly Bear, Teen Dream by Beach House and Big Echo by The Morning Benders are all proof that rock music is as artful now as it ever has been, with no signs of slowing down. I can only wait patiently for the next descendant to be discovered.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Ch ch ch changes

This week, I decided to change my major. Instead of a Bachelor of Music in Composition, I’ve decided to do a Bachelor of Musical Arts degree. About eleven months ago, I was going through the exact opposite switch. In thirteen months, I’ll graduate. There’s a reason for this flip-flopping though.

You probably know that I’m sort of a big fan of music. Just a bit. But this fanaticism has two sides. First off, I love to create new music. Nothing gives me more pleasure than finishing something and hearing it in its final form, be it a song or a piece. And then there’s the musicological side. That’s the one that reads Wikipedia articles when I should be doing homework. Or actually pays attention in music history class when everyone else is bored out of his/her mind.

This dichotomy doesn’t seem like it should be a problem; in fact, it seems like an ideal situation. One loves the craft and the craftsmen before you. Voila! Master composer right? After declaring BMA my freshman year, I decided that I should devote myself to composing and changed at the beginning of this year to BM. Then I proceeded to do almost no composing this year and thought maybe that was a sign that I shouldn’t do this. I can’t really explain why, but composing became stressful which is the opposite of what it should be. Perhaps because it became an obligation. I thought, hey, I don’t want my senior year to be even more stressful so maybe I shouldn’t do this. Not to mention that the alternative could be very attractive.

The way the Bachelor of Musical Arts degree works is that for your senior capstone project, you do something that involves music and a cognate field, or a minor, which in my case it English writing. To me, this translates into music criticism, something I consider myself decent at, probably even better than composing. This may change, but right now, it looks like I’ll be doing an in-depth look at rock criticism and how and why it has played a role in the development of the genre. I may also be looking at different styles of writing but right now this is quite embryonic.

I still plan on making music like always. Just because I’m no longer majoring in composition doesn’t mean I won’t keep producing music. I just never really found myself gelling with the idea of being a serious composer of modern classical music. Maybe someday I will. A bachelor’s degree certainly doesn’t map out the rest of my life. But for now, I feel more passionate about criticism so that’s where I’m going here at PLU.

Here on Page 43, expect an upsurge. If I’m going to really dig into criticism, this will go up on the priority list. I plan to read a lot, listen a lot, write a lot. It’s what I want to do anyway. Now that it’s my area of study, why not go all out? I haven’t written any big huge manifestos in a while. It shall be fun.

*Chris Ferguson knew the last subheading, "Born Under Punches" by Talking Heads. Who's got the next one?

Friday, April 9, 2010


As promised, here is the next edition of my series. Seems like the early nineties was a great time for depressed singer/songwriters. I like the Olympics, even though they’re over, so I’ve decided to keep the format.


Gold Medal: Grace by Jeff Buckley

The first time I heard this album, I remember totally exhausted by the end. The sheer emotion just takes a toll but in a good way. This is not background music; this is power in sound. In the only complete album in Jeff Buckley’s lifetime, the man went all out. His remarkable range as a singer, arranger and songwriter is put on full display with all the confidence in the world. For example, “Corpus Christi Carol (For Roy)” preceded the song “Eternal Life” on the second half of the album, going from angelic to grungy in a heartbeat. Jeff Buckley’s name always comes up when I think about the most raw talent in a rock musician. Every one knows “Hallelujah” but the title track is what brings down the house for me. Desert island material.

Silver Medal: Roman Candle by Elliott Smith

Like Buckley, Elliott Smith’s music is dangerous. Listening to his music can just turn me to Jell-O so I have to be careful. If I’m not in the mood for Jello-O, no Elliott. But the second late songwriter on this list works in a totally different way than the first. While Buckley uses epic arrangements, on this, his first album, Smith hardly uses anything more than his voice and an acoustic guitar. Not to mention, half the songs are nameless! But like just about everything he touched, the songs on this album are golden. One hardly even notices the poor recording quality or the lack of variety is instrumentation. Each one is a captivating work of art. I just shake my jealous head.

Bronze Medal: Automatic For The People by REM

The most commercially successful album by the great Athenians, AFTP just has the right combination of craftsmanship and classic REM “we don’t give a shit” mentality. It’s pristinely produced, with the help of former Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones, and has a more accessible vibe than any of REM’s past work—“Man On The Moon” and “Everybody Hurts” have found themselves on more mix tapes than just about any other songs by this band, save “Losing My Religion.” Still, songs like “Ignoreland” and “Star Me Kitten” show that these boys, led by Michael Stipe, are the same horny rebels that they’ve always been.

Next up, 2002.

Also check out my recent Big Star tribute here.

*Last week's subheading was from Electric Light Orchestra's "Rockaria."