(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Friday, December 31, 2010

Top albums of 2010 - Jester Jay edition

Top Albums of 2010
I rarely choose to review something I don't like. So, now, at the end of the year, I'm realizing the downside of having listened to so much music. It's difficult to pick ten albums. I have to leave off great bands, like Kaiser Cartel, Deluka, Kraddy, Tumbledown, Gigi -- see, I could easily pick a top 20.

Buckle up and let me share my absolute favorites.

Blood Red Shoes - Fire Like This
Manic energy infuses Fire Like This. Blood Red Shoes erase the lines between post punk, indie rock, and modern hard rock. Despite being a drum/guitar duo, they wallop with a full sound that doesn't disguise their musical complexity. while the songs tend to split into post punk choruses and indie rock verses, they avoid becoming formulaic by throwing in contrasting bridges that careen off in a new direction. At a surface level, their indie rock sound evokes the Arctic Monkeys, but Blood Red Shoes have a deeper bag of tools to draw upon. Standout track: Count It Out. (original review)

Alain Johannes - Spark
Alain Johannes presents us with a rich, multi course meal of an album. Spark is a loosely connected concept album that deals with his loss of life partner/collaborator Natasha Schneider. The songs shuttle from mood to mood, jumping from style to style. It's held together by the strange attractor of Johannes' loss. Layered with looped guitars, intricate parts, and polyrhythms, the album develops a flow as wild as grief, as fickle as memory. Standout track: Make Gods Jealous. (original review)

Red Sparowes - The Fear Is Excruciating, But Therein Lies The Answer
Post rock/post metal, Red Sparowes are creating a type of modern classical music. There's a strong element of psychedelia, reminiscent of Pink Floyd, but the band uses that genre as a tool for exploring and expressing some quite interesting musical themes. Movement by movement, the songs create elaborate sonic mindscapes. Introspectively moving. Standout track: In Illusions of Order. (original review)

El Boy Die - The Black Hawk Ladies & Tambourins
It was fate. I almost didn't get to this in time, but El Boy Die made it to my ears just in time. The moody experimental folk that permeates this album underlies a wild sonic journey. The songs are usually centered on a simple guitar line and straightforward vocal arrangement. But then other elements are layered in to take the songs into a deeper space: tribal chanting, musique concrète, tatters of psychedelia. Taken as a whole, and that's how the album deserves to be heard, The Black Hawk Ladies & Tambourins is a strange ritual waiting for us to witness. Standout track: Moona Luna Tears. (original review)

Glitch Mob - Drink the Sea
Drink the Sea, appropriately enough, has a tidal feel: the arrangements are full of hard hitting hooks and retreating breakdowns. The Glitch Mob's electronic sound is very visual and evocative. Unlike some of their contemporaries, they capture an organic energy that adds depth. Glitchy artifacts mesh with sensual bass and organ lines. Each song offers its own mini-story, subject to the listener's discretion. Standout track: Starve the Ego, Feed the Soul. (original review)

Earl Greyhound - Suspicious Package
Earl Greyhound offers a serious power trio line up. Like the classic trios of the past (Cream, Jimi Hendrix Experience), they are all virtuoso musicians who drive their hard rocking songs with an elegant economy. That focus doesn't mean that any of these songs are simple, though. The band mixes together Latin beats, psychedelic jams, and retro rock grinds to create a heady mix. You can hear influences from Led Zeppelin and Motorhead to the Doobie Brothers. Standout tracks: Oye Vaya and Shotgun. (original review)

Daft Punk - film score from Tron: Legacy
Daft Punk deserve full credit for creating such a strong film score. Their work for TRON: Legacy stays true to their electronic/house musical roots, yet sets up the recurring motifs and themes to accompany the story. The integration of the orchestra with electronic sounds is the key to their success. These short pieces may not fully resonate with Daft Punk's fan base, but they do mesh well with the film, creating the kind of updated sound that director Joseph Kosinski was looking for. Standout tracks: Derezzed and Adagio for Tron. (original review)

Lazerbeak - Legend Recognize Legend
Looping and layering from a beatmaster: Lazerbeak from Minneapolis' Doomtree hip hop collective. Let go of any preconceptions, because Legend Recognize Legend is more of an alt rock album without direct connection to hip hop. There is a strong electronic influence, but it's tied to a full palette of other instruments. It's tightly engineered, with some Peter Gabriel style rhythm touches. Standout track: Foothills. (original review)

Pas Chic Chic - 12"
My biggest problem with 12" is that it's a mere two or three songs (depending on how you count it. Still, that's 26 minutes of driven trippiness from Montreal's Pas Chic Chic. The opener is a krautrock groove while the closer (Premier Souffle) is an electronic tinged psychedelic journey. This latter song slowly unfolds and builds in an early Pink Floyd mode. Beautifully introspective. (original review)

Shadow Shadow Shade - Shadow Shadow Shade
Shadow Shadow Shade offer a grab bag of sounds, from post rock to psychedelic to retro rock. It's hard to pin down, but the mix is consistently interesting. The thick vocal harmony mix and intriguing drum arrangements are stellar as these songs shift gears and expose yet another unexpected twist. Despite this, the album is not in the least chaotic. Stand out track: Line 'Em Up. (original review)

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

CD review - El Boy Die, The Black Hawk Ladies & Tambourins (2010)

This is the sound from the new traveling circus show
The Black Hawk Ladies and Tambourins
This is the sound of hope and dishonor
This is the sound of betrayal and bewilderment
This is ancient and new
Is anyone here? 'Cause the sound starts now
This is the Sound, the opening track of The Black Hawk Ladies & Tambourins, is a foreboding, but strong beginning. A young girl's voice stands firm against flickers of unresolved sound. It proves a harbinger of the sonic journey that follows. French experimental folk artist El Boy Die has crafted a heady experience, using a mix of mildly psychedelic soundscapes, tribal chanting, and bits of musique concrète.

The Black Hawk Ladies & Tambourins meanders through a series of stations, each part of some unknown rite. The music has a folky foundation, but the layers of subtle percussion, winding melodies, and odd washes of sound imbue each track with a different perspective and mood.

The flow of songs is hard to interrupt to pick favorite moments, but Moona Luna Tears stands out somewhat from the host of folk-based songs. It's jazzy and percussive. The melody wanders and doubles back. Along with the soft, compressed vocals, this creates a hypnotic groove that a lone string solo weaves through.

Under My Broken Tree takes a women's chorale sound and anchors it to a mournful melody. The music behind the chant continually builds until the vocals drop away allowing the music to slide into a tense repetition. The ending takes on background distorted wails of flute.

Finally, Take Me Away starts with a simple folky guitar phrase and haunted, ethereal vocals. Something about the changes and the flow evokes Pink Floyd's Welcome to the Machine. The context is completely different, but that adds depth to the track.

Still, The Black Hawk Ladies & Tambourins is better heard as a complete piece. It rewards each listen with fine background details, like a fine cognac.

Monday, December 27, 2010

CD review - DB and the Catastrophe, Don't Look Back (2010)

Green Day, Blink 182, and a host of other bands have updated punk rock to create a tightly produced, hard driving, pop friendly sound. Local Ft. Collins band DB and the Catastrophe stirs some ska horn into the pop punk mix to create their own sound. A fair chunk of Don't Look Back plays as an homage to Green Day, but the band's personality comes through. Listening to the longer list of tunes on their MySpace page, it's easier to hear the ska influence.

Don't Look Back is a four song EP recorded earlier this year. Leading off with a rallying guitar line, Assault evokes Green Day's American Idiot. The guitars crunch out the rhythm and the backing vocals fall perfectly in place. It's a good start for the EP. It creates energy and urgency right out of the gate.

Pointless continues the driving beat. This time, lead singer Dylan Busby sounds hoarser, giving the song a raw edge. That rawness continues into Broken. The bass work is particularly strong here. Ricky Brown channels John Entwistle's spirit: very melodic and meshing well with the guitar riffs. The flow from song to song builds a live show energy that's hard to capture in the studio.

The disc wraps up with Waiting, which finally features their horn based ska sound. Once again, Brown's bass playing is speedy and fundamental to the success of the song. The band is tight. This is clearly a band I need to catch live. When I do, I'll raise a fine glass Ft. Collins microbrew (Equinox, New Belgium, Odell's, etc).

Friday, December 24, 2010

CD review - Arthur, Watch the Years Crawl By (201

The many faces of Mike Herrera: pop punk band MxPx, the country tinged Tumbledown, and Arthur. Ten years ago, Arthur started as a side project to MxPx. They described their sound as "doo wop influenced" but, listening to their single EP, Loneliness is Bliss, they had added some early rock elements and more introspective lyrics to the MxPx pop punk formula. Arthur got back-burnered by MxPx's busy schedule and never delivered the full album they had started. Herrera has resurrected the band and recorded Watch the Years Crawl By.

The new Arthur is more polished, but the melodic lines and love focused lyrics follow the earlier mold. Where Loneliness is Bliss kept some rough punk edges, Watch the Years Crawl By is smoother. Much like Tumbledown and MxPx, Herrera delivers on the "snotty boys with guitars" sound I love. Songs like Cold Outside and America could be Bowling For Soup or any of a number of similar bands. They're well crafted, packed with hooks and attitude.

Arthur summons some of Robbie Fulks' early rock sound on Be Still and Out of the Blue. This latter could have easily fit on Fulks' Let's Kill Saturday Night. The arrangements are simple, but the chords avoid the blues style rock changes. Herrera's heartfelt vocal delivery sells the songs.

The simple guitar arrangement leading off To Have and To Hold sets the earnest mood for the theme of discovering love. The build into a tortured sound of separation for the bridge. There's a similar flowering build in Thought a Lot, the only song carried forward from the earlier EP.

The odd song out is Fortissimo, which is dark and moody. The descending, bass heavy sound remind me of Alice Cooper Goes to Hell. It transcends the other songs' simpler arrangements and sentiments. This contrast proves to be the perfect balance to the rest of the album, adding some gravitas.

Watch the Years Crawl By is a nice addition to Herrera's catalog. It's a different line up, but it's not so far out from Tumbledown's style. Satisfying like a perfectly brewed Munich Helles beer: simple, but with reasonable depth.

(Arthur is available from the MxPx store.)

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Top concerts of 2010 - Jester Jay edition

My Favorite Live Shows
I saw fewer concerts in 2010, but there were still plenty of high points. There's a special kind of magic abou a live show. An artist that seems decent on CD can reveal deeper qualities on stage. It's a chance for performers to connect with us as people at the same time as they show their own transcendent connection to their music. I raise a toast to all the musicians I saw this year, even those that didn't make this short list.

Muse with Passion Pit (2 October, Pepsi Center, Denver)
Muse missed their show in April when weather blocked some of their show gear from making it her. They rescheduled for October and it was all for the best. Passion Pit opened the show. Their dance-centric pop was okay, but not a great match. That didn't matter much, since the beginning of Muse's set reset the audience's memory. The show was sheer spectacle. The stage set up featured three large elevator pillars, intense lighting, and lasers. The music was more than strong enough to equal the presentation. Muse's heavy post rock sound kept the audience engaged and energized. The combination rivaled that Pink Floyd show your dad told you about.

Red Sparowes with Caspian and Fang Island (26 April, Larimer Lounge, Denver)
Another great evening of post rock intensity. These three bands meshed together relatively well. Fang Island opened with a looser, more joyous set. Caspian built a wall of throbbing guitar sound. Their stage energy was thrashy, in contrast to their tight arrangements. The drumming provided the focus to channel the guitars and the emotion. Red Sparowes were more inwardly focused, which gave their set a a more detached feeling. The carefully layered textures and the swirling hypnotic sound built a psychedelic trance that served as the perfect ending for this concert/trip.

OK Go with Earl Greyhound and the Booze (14 April, Bluebird Theatre, Denver)
What a weird line up. The Booze provided a mod, mid-'60s vibe. Their polished set and tight arrangements were nice. They led into one of my favorite new bands, Earl Greyhound. Their hard rock, power trio sound built up the energy for the show. Kamara Thomas' bass work and singing continues to amaze me. Earl Greyhound sounds great on CD, but their live show is simply stupendous. Their bombast contrasted nicely with OK Go's tight power pop. OK Go may be one of the more recent bands built by the internet, but Damien Kulash and the band showed that their gimmicks (the treadmills, the light up guitars, etc) are in service to crafting great songs. The show and the sound were tight.

Macklemore with Binary Star, Observatory, and Jimmy Hands (12 November, Aggie Theatre, Ft. Collins)
The openers here were good. Binary Star, in particular, built up the energy. But Macklemore's triumphant return to Colorado was the main event. His stage persona was so genuine and warm that an audience couldn't help but connect with him. His joy at being on stage and getting to do what he loves came through. At the same time, his flow and insightful perspectives made the songs click just right. His producer, Ryan Lewis joined him and laid down some sweet backing tracks, too.

Bisco Inferno [Disco Biscuits and friends] (29 May, Red Rocks, Morrison)
The friends included a long list of interesting electronic artists: Pnuma Trio (from Boulder), Belgian DJs Aeroplane, Crystal Method, Glitch Mob, and German duo Booka Shade. The rhythms and jams continued from the afternoon til late in the night. All the acts were fine, but I particularly enjoyed the Pnuma Trio's jazz dance mix. Crystal Method worked the crowd and built up some great energy. Also, the Glitch Mob's set was impressive, with instrument swapping, laptop solos, and trippy soundscapes. Of course, the pinnacle was two full sets of the Disco Biscuits. The lighting, the costumed crowd, and the hypnotic jams created a neo tribal ritual. Biscuit shows generally meet this description, but the Red Rocks setting added its magic as well.

Gomez with One eskimO (8 March, Ogden Theater, Denver)
One eskimO opened the show weak on stage presence, but strong in sound. Kristian Leontiou's voice and the intriguing musical arrangements pulled their set together. Their big single, Kandi, was the high point of their show. Gomez nailed their songs with a looser, jam feel than the studio versions. The progression of songs seemed effortlessly inevitable: choreographed, yet casual. Their balance of psychedelia and pop was also perfect.

Flobots with Digable Planets and Air Dubai (10 December, Aggie Theatre, Ft. Collins)
Air Dubai, from Denver proved to be a promising opener. They featured a tight rhythm section and band backing a pair of talented rappers. Speaking of tight bands, Digable Planets was backed by an incredible set of musicians. Cee Knowledge recreated the band's original jazz hop vibe. The Flobots, though, owned the stage. Their music and stage choreography were fluid. As good as their records are, they must be seen live to truly appreciate what they have to offer.

Cymbals Eat Guitars with Bear in Heaven and Freelance Whales (1 April, Hi Dive, Denver)
Freelance Whales brought their shimmery, indie pop, packed with interesting instrumental arrangements. Bear in Heaven played a synth-touched, post rock sound. These guys are great musicians and their set was exciting. Cymbals Eat Guitars transcended their studio sound to land somewhere between Pavement and the Replacements. Their great dynamics were just a bonus.

Good Gravy with Jonestown Potion (22 January, Aggie Theatre, Ft. Collins)
Both of these local bands were standout. They each had the right dedication to the groove, even though they leaned towards radically different genres. Jonestown Potion's progressive jazz was mind blowing. Good Gravy continued their ongoing improvements to deliver two strong sets of jam grass. The group was more comfortable than before, without sacrificing any of their chops.

Honey Gitters with Novalectric (18 August, Aggie Theatre, Ft. Collins)
Novalectric's southern fried rock was good, if a little out of balance. The Honey Gitters expanded on their core jam grass sound to get a little wilder. This show featured more freeform jams than I've heard them explore before. These guys could easily appeal to fans of the String Cheese Incident and other favorites of the festival circuit.

There you have it. Ten wildly different shows, but all hitting the spot in a way only live music can.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

CD review - Daft Punk, TRON: Legacy film score (2010)

A great film score may not necessarily work as a standalone album. The score should mesh with the visual elements of the film and smoothly match the feel or, better yet, create the mood for a given scene. This is completely different than a collection of songs from a movie. True fans of the art will enjoy a film score album on its own merits, but more casual listeners may be put off by the large collection of short pieces that provide the themes or scene support.

For TRON: Legacy, Daft Punk have done a fine job of composing the score, but fans of the duo's electronic albums may not be satisfied with the TRON experience. Only a small handful of songs like Derezzed capture Daft Punk's frantic energy. Its strong house beat and glitched out elements would be at home on their normal releases, although it feels very short. End of Line also sets up a satisfying dance beat with strong synth lines and some interesting beep-boop electronica.

On the other hand, Daft Punk's seamless integration of their electronic aesthetic with a full orchestra is what makes TRON: Legacy a wonderful soundtrack. The fine balance of elements becomes clear in the first two tracks. Overture introduces us to some of the running thematic elements used throughout the score. The soaring horns and rich strings dominate although there are some electronic backing elements. This leads into The Grid and Jeff Bridges' voiceover. Once the words are done, we hear the electronic statement of the same theme from Overture.

From then on, the pieces usually contain both the organic orchestral sounds and the cooler electronic parts. Mechanical throbbing sets a mood, but the orchestra is generally present, too. On Recognizer, these elements fall together perfectly. The staccato strings convey tension and focus, while a bassy throb adds a taste of threat. Then the horns build the theme into something majestic.

Along with Daft Punk, much of the credit for this balance should go to Joseph Trapanese for his work on the orchestral arrangements. His delicate touch with voicing the motifs in the orchestra left room for the electronic music while still contributing strongly to hitting the right mood.

My favorite track is the warm Adagio for Tron, which starts with a reflective, sympathetic string melody. The orchestra unfolds the melodic line into warmth. Here, the electronic part is not cold or mechanical, but ethereal. The track seems to end, which leads into a second movement. The theme is revisited, but faster and more insistent. The tension releases, though, returning to the moody beginning.

TRON: Legacy is a well executed film score. There are a few moments that will stand out for Daft Punk's fans, but the subtle balance between analog and digital is the real selling point. I'll toast with a nice dry Riesling.

(View the trailer)

Friday, December 17, 2010

CD review - La Femme, Le Podium #1 (2010)

America has been the land of opportunity. Along with releasing their EP, Le Podium #1, La Femme is touring the US, hoping to grab some of our mystique to take home. SF Weekly quotes Marlon (from the band), "...when we go back to France, just having played around the U.S. will be an advantage." They've started their visit on the West coast, all the better to tap into their musical inspiration.

Surf music has had an impact all over the world from Dengue Fever's version of surf influenced Cambodian rock to Laika and the Cosmonauts Finnish take. La Femme's serve as Paris' latest entry on the scene. Their interpretation has electronic undertones. Tight beats and bass, flanged and reverbed guitar, and subtle keyboard work weave together. The mostly female vocals are all in French (naturellement). Sur La Planche shows off their dance surf sound.

After that start, Le Podium #1 drifts afield from a straight surf vibe. Télégraphe is a Blondie style new wave. Despite starting off with male vocals, the female vocal comes back. The nervous beat reminds me of Gruppo Sportivo's Mission a Paris. The band continues the new wave/post punk sound with La Femme Ressort. Here, their minimalist approach sounds the most emphatically French. The guitars take a backseat and let the keyboards drive this one.

The EP ends with the edgy electronic sounding Francoise, pushing the boundaries of "surf". Eventually, the foggy mood of the intro melts away to reveal the surf guitar melody. Even then, the synth sound dominates the arrangement.

Le Podium #1 is available on BandCamp. Listen and think of smoky late afternoon at the cafe, while the drizzle coats the streets.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

CD review - Kaiser Cartel, Secret Transit (2010)

Courtney Kaiser and Benjamin Cartel have created a bubble of retro magic for their songs to thrive in. On Secret Transit, Kaiser Cartel arranged their guitar and drums into deceptively simple gems. This studio album is more layered than they had in their live performance, but it retains the focus of beautiful harmonies and raw, yet beautiful instrumental arrangements.

Kaiser Cartel's vocal sound refers back to groups like the Mamas and the Papas, but the overall sound is much closer to The Trinity Session era Cowboy Junkies. It comes down to that ethereal, expressive female voice, drifting through a thick, misty reverberation, accompanied by down tempo instrumental simplicity. Kaiser has a bit of Margo Timmons' soothing sound and Karen Carpenter's raw emotion. Cartel's harmonies are perfectly supportive. Despite being relatively clean and smooth, the music is primitive: it's truthful, with no grandstanding. That's how they evoke that '60s aesthetic, as well as a bit of the Velvet Underground and the Pretenders.

That's easiest to hear on Carroll Street Station or Worn Out Nervous Condition (John Mellancamp). Both songs are basically plain, but filled with nice touches of backup vocal parts and tiny breaks. Taking it even further, Wherever You Go like the Cowboy Junkies' cover of the the Velvet Underground's Sweet Jane.

One of my favorite songs is the wistful Stella. It feels like a late summer night, sitting up alone. It's touching and sweetly reassuring at the same time. Even though there's no steel work, I can't help but think of Sleep Walk. The arrangement gets fuller by the end. Again, the vocals sound like the Mamas and the Papas, but the music is purer.

Secret Transit has some snappier tunes, too. Ready To Go takes their familiar formula and kicks up the tempo. At this tempo, you can hear a power pop influence. Track by track, though, the whole album is a warm, enveloping cocoon. Warm up a hot buttered rum and settle in.

Monday, December 13, 2010

CD review - Red Sparowes, The Fear Is Excruciating, But Therein Lies The Answer (2010)

Modern classical music has two main branches. One arises from experimental music. Artists like John Cage, Steve Reich, and Brian Eno have each tried to find new forms of self expression that question how music should work. On the other hand, most of the accessible modern classical music is the form of movie film scores. John Williams epitomizes this, where his work builds on standard classical ideas of leitmotif and orchestral arrangement.

Modern post rock music could be considered a third branch. Red Sparowes, Porcupine Tree, and Mogwai all make music that more fully develop their musical ideas. Their albums involve longer pieces with repeating motifs. They avoid simplistic verse/chorus arrangements, preferring to transition between richer melodic sections.

The Fear is Excruciating, But Therein Lies the Answer is the Red Sparowes' latest foray into post rock, verging into post metal. It delivers a modern classical experience. The pieces have a melodic depth. Without quite becoming an old school concept album, Red Sparowes forges a musical relationship between the songs that makes a cohesive whole. To some extent, they owe a serious debt to Pink Floyd, but they're not just a derivative band, rehashing jammy psychedelia. They use some similar techniques to create evocative soundscapes that create an emotional response.

In Illusions of Order, the pensive bass line that starts the song accumulates bright reflections of guitar and a glassy sheen of keyboards. It builds into something like Pink Floyd's Careful With That Axe, Eugene: a lulling repetition with a complex variations. The song hits crescendos, but avoids any shocking moment like the one in Careful. Instead a reflective vamp releases the tension that built during the first section. This second movement also falls to a stately processional sound. The effect is one of a deepening rut of routine, the possibility of escape, and then transcendence.

Sinister moments are scattered through The Fear Is Excruciating..., but there are thoughtful respites as well. Enjoy the fear and know the answer is there, too. But what to drink? Hmm. Take a bottle of Old Peculiar and a bottle of Arrogant Bastard. Have someone randomly pick one and fill your glass. Which one did you get?

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Concert review - Flobots with Digable Planets, Air Dubai

10 December 2010 (Aggie Theatre, Ft. Collins CO)
All the pretty lights of the season -- well, this time they were the fire trucks responding to a minor fire nearby. But we were safe and feeling festive as we lined into the Aggie. The Flobots always pull a good crowd and this time they had the legendary Digable Planets as one of their openers. This was exciting; back in the day, the Digable Planets took hip hop into a new space with a cool jazz sound. Denver act, Air Dubai rounded out the bill, with a healthy contingent of their fans.

Air Dubai
Denver band, Air Dubai, is on the way up. They scored Westword's award for best local hip hop band this year and they're getting all kinds of critical attention. While there are plenty of good hip hop groups relying on a DJ for the backing music, Air Dubai's full instrumental line up added serious musical depth. Trumpet player Wesley Watkins often threw in a ska touch, accenting the groove with stabs and the occasional blare. The keys (Michael Ray) would join in to thicken the sound. Guitarist Lawrence Grivich had a wide range of tones, from laid back fills to a raspy octaver driven lead.

Both the bass and drums were phenomenal. They drove the groove, but never settled for a the mundane. It's hard to keep the phrasing interesting without dominating the sound, but both these guys (Taylor Tait and Nick Spreigl) had a perfect touch. Musically, the band drifted around a danceable R&B center, with orbits out into alt rock and funk.

All this talk about the instruments shouldn't distract from the vocals. Julian Thomas and Jon Shockness shared the duties, trading off adeptly. Their flow was full of great counter parts weaving together. Shockness had a fine rapping style, but his soulful R&B crooning was his secret weapon. Thomas' lyrical delivery was smooth and he had some fine moments of syncopated phrasing that kicked up the energy.

There were plenty of good songs, but the hard rocking, fast rapping Lasers was my favorite song. The octave guitar added something between a house style sub bass and a glitchy scratching. The speedy lyrical flow drove the crowd crazy. "Tell the bartender I don't need more chasers, tell the DJ that I need more lasers.

Digable Planets
Digable Planets have had their ups and downs since their start in 1993. 1994's Blowout Comb is still one of my favorite hip hop albums. The band has broken up a time or two since then, but the core of the band is back together, backed by the incredible trio of the Cosmic Funk Orchestra. They hit a lot of the old material, played some of Cee Knowledge's stuff, and previewed some new songs. Through all this, the sound was fresh and hopping. Jazz hop at its finest.

Special guests Camp Lo started out the set, with some tight trade offs. The worked the crowd with a strong beat and smooth flow. Then Cee Knowledge (Doodlebug),
Lady Madarocka, and Reality (percussionist/vocalist for CFO) took the stage. Some of the audience was too young to be familiar with the band, but they quickly caught the groove. Early in the set, they played an uptempo version of It's Good To Be Here from Reachin' (A New Refutation of Time and Space). This showed off how they used the live band to take their older songs into a new space. Cee and Lady Madarocka worked the stage, tossing off their lines casually. Reality stayed more to the side with his bongos, but still stepped into center stage once in a while.

The Cosmic Funk Orchestra were mind-blowingly good. They played like a Lamborghini cruising down the highway: casual, smooth, and well engineered, but clearly capable of tearing off at will. Every one of these cats backed the songs with subtlety, adding just the right level of virtuoso playing. From the slightly dragged hangtime before the drum beat kicked in the funk to the chordal bass work on Escapism to the jazzy, outside guitar riffs ornamenting the edges -- the band showed that Digable Planets could step way beyond sampling.

The apex was the classic Rebirth of the Slick (Cool Like Dat). Wesley Watkins from Air Dubai returned to the stage to add muted horn riffs over the walking bass and loosely flowing drums. Beyond the original lyrics, the three freestyled a bit before letting the band jam them home. This set was a treat.

Every time I see the Flobots, I'm blown away by how professional and tight they are. Their stage presence is well choreographed, they effortlessly engage the audience, and their playing is impeccable. Last night was no exception; if anything, they're even better now.

Once again, each player brought their own unique energy to the party, from the progressive sound of Mackenzie Gault's electric viola to Jesse Walker's tightly wound energy on bass. Guitarist Andy Guerrero shaped the grooves and stepped up to exhort the crowd. Kenny O bounced between light touches on the jazzy sections to full on bombast when it was needed. Settled atop this, Jonny 5 and Brer Rabbit had a balanced chemistry as MCs. Jonny radiated honesty and Brer Rabbit streamed a love and compassion that buoyed their progressive lyrical message.

Music is all about cooperation and contrast. The ebb and flow create the magic. The Flobots exhibit another flavor of this. Their tightly blocked stage movements and laser focused arrangements contrast with their comfortably loose vibe, genuine personality, and jam flavored music. This is the sorcery that makes them such an amazing band. They must practice intensely and nail it all down, because there's never a misstep. And yet the flow of their show is so relaxed and each moment feels natural, relaxed, and organic.

The Flobots played several songs from Survival Story including over the top versions of Defend Atlantis and Cracks in the Surface. Cee Knowledge joined them to freestyle over a jazzier, older song, The Moon. Older favorite Handlebars was emotionally intense as usual, when Jonny 5 took it from innocence to annihilation.

The audience was dancing crazy, between Brer Rabbit coming out to dance Flodown with us to a crowd getting up on stage for Infatuation (I was one of them). The Flobots also tossed in a couple of cover surprises: Mama Said Knock You Out during No W and an encore of Europe's Final Countdown. Rap and rock, relaxed and wired, Black and Tan - a balance of contrasts can create something special.

More photos on my Flickr.

Thanks to Cee Knowledge for factual corrections and great flow.

Friday, December 10, 2010

News - Notable singles

A new feature from Jester Jay Music: periodic reviews of interesting singles I've come across. Enjoy and let me know what you think in the comments.

Asobi Seksu - Trails.mp3 (Fluorescence, due out 2/2011)
Yuki Chikudate, who sings and plays keys, infuses Trails with a joyous, ethereal sound that harks back to Debbie Harry's early work with Blondie. The thick pounding chords ground the song, with a subtle off-the-hook, distorted guitar fill hiding along the edges. It's post punk and experimental, but still shows some of the dream pop elements that Asobi Seksu is known for.

Trails is a taste of the Brooklyn quartet's upcoming album, Fluorescence, which is due out in February. The band also has a North American tour planned (info at TourTracker).

Download Trails here.

Creep - Days (12" disc and digital download with remixes in 1/2011)
Creep is an appropriate name for the producers on this cool taste of electronica. An ominous sounding groove sets the foundation. There are plenty of little breakdown sections, with cobwebs of quavery guitar drifting through. Romy Madley-Croft (The xx's) lends her low key, plaintive voice to Days, providing a perfect complement to the music.

Creep is the duo of Lauren Flax and Lauren Dillard, producers and DJs. Listen to Days on SoundCloud.

Jonquil - Fighting Smiles (One Hundred Suns EP)
"Paul Simon's take on The Smiths" is how Jonquil describe their sound. Maybe. Certainly, there is a touch of the Smiths, but Jonquil is far cheerier than Morrissey and company ever were. Fighting Smiles shows off their precise vocals and the muted jangle of their music. The drum work is unique, hitting an interesting balance between an organic acoustic tone and a busy digital style structure to the busy parts. The melody is catchy with good lyrical flow.

Jonquil's One Hundred Suns EP was released last month.

Jonquil - Fighting Smiles: on RCRD LBL

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

CD review - White Denim, Last Day of Summer (2010)

White Denim has released Last Day of Summer as a free gift for fans (donations cheerfully accepted, though). The album casually tosses out a collection of songs that front man James Petralli describes as a summer retreat from recording their third full length album. With a dozen songs running just under 40 minutes, it's both short and jam packed. Don't let Petralli's understated attitude fool you; this is a cool album that plenty of bands would be happy to make.

Their last album, Fits, set up an interesting dichotomy, where the first half had a speedy, acid rock feel and the second half leaned more to a soul groove. That mix characterized a band that didn't want to be boxed in. Last Day of Summer continues the attitude by veering away in a new direction. There's a kind of poppy soul feel to this album that reflects the mellower side of Fits, but the soul is muted. The songs manage to be retro pop and still have a modern indie feel. Fits' harder edged, experimental half has shifted over into a jam band jazz feel.

I'd Have It Just The Way We Were and Home Together both have a bright poppy feel, while Shy Billy and Our Get feature intricate looped guitar layering in their indie sound. White Denim keeps up an improvisational feel, with looser leads and some great bass complexity. The songs have the trappings of pop as implemented by a more experimental band. That implementation slips fluidly between a straight jazz feel and an experienced jam band mutation. Fortunately, they avoid the noodly self-indulgence that traps too many jam bands.

When they fully surrender to the instrument jazz side, White Denim accomplishes their goal of pushing boundaries. While the poppy start of the album set one kind of mood, that changes with the thoughtful descending line of Incaviglia. It's jazzy with a slight classical guitar feel. This shifts into more of a jam band groove. The song is active and upbeat. It leads perfectly into Light Light Light, which shares a different flavor of jazz. The progressive bass movement is a bit like Modest Mouse. The sax and flute lines are a bit outside, swirling to set up a light psychedelic feel, but still asserting the jazz element. At 4:20, it's the longest song on Last Day of Summer. The musical moment is one to savor.

White Denim glance towards their harder driving music a couple of times, with Tony Fatti and Champ. In both cases, it's the drum work that conjures up the intensity. Champ is the stronger of the two, with a power pop feel that slips back into looped guitar lines for the bridge. Coming back out of that section is one of the high points.

The surprise is that White Denim pulls off the "guess what we'll sound like next" game without seeming pretentious. They're complicated artists and I'm sure that next album will turn the tables yet again. I'll pair this up with a dry traditional mead, perhaps made with mesquite honey.

Monday, December 6, 2010

CD review - Lazerbeak, Legend Recognize Legend (2010)

Aaron Mader, AKA Lazerbeak, has produced beats for a number of artists as part of Minneapolis' Doomtree hip hop collective. Most recently, he collaborated with Mike Mictlan. As Lazerbeak, his efforts have been rooted in a hip hop sound. Legend Recognize Legend breaks that pattern by reaching back to his work with the indie rock band, the Plastic Constellations. Legend shares stylistic touches with the Plastic Constellations' songs, but the sound is more electronic and layered. It's a carefully constructed album; Lazerbeak has put a lot of effort into production and engineering. The differences are clearly tied to what he's learned from building loops and beats. Now, he's working on larger scoped arrangements and harnessing those techniques to create a more complex sound that's still full of life.

Legend leads off with an electronic sound in Land's End. The staccato drive and Lazerbeak's hoarse, understated singing create a repetitive, hypnotic flow. The choppy tension and string work create a progressive rock feel, but with less guitar focus. The song defies expectation with a looped, electro pop breakdown. Pleasant surprises like this fill the album.

Throughout the course of Legend Recognize Legend, Lazerbeak hits a rich variety of sounds -- the anthemic quality of Let It Go, the moody prog rock of Bound, the Lion King flavored world beat of Wild Life, the Peter Gabriel polyrythm crossed with post punk sound of Salt and Sea -- each song offers something new and intriguing.

It's hard to pick a favorite track, but the nostalgic descending lines of Foothills stands out. He establishes the mood with a guitar and some organ, before bringing in an thickly reverbed drum loop backing the vocals. The lyrics resonate and Lazerbeak's breathy delivery
sounds both longing and hopeful. The steel guitar tones near the end sweeten the sound, but never slip into cloying sentimentality.

Lazerbeak has bridged his two musical worlds on Legend Recognize Legend. As a balance point, it's a place of transition and possibility. I'll raise a glass of Jameson Special Reserve Irish whiskey and bravely step forward.

Friday, December 3, 2010

CD review - Pas Chic Chic, 12" (2010)

Sometimes, I'm a psychedelic junkie. My habit is so well established that I've lost some of my sensitivity to classic head music like early Pink Floyd or Tangerine Dream. The Valleys Stoner recently gave me a taste, but didn't really send me far enough into inner space, but Canadian band Pas Chic Chic's latest EP, 12", hit me hard.

Pas Chic Chic is the latest permutation of musicians from a rich Montreal music scene, including members from Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Set Fire to Flames, and Fly Pan Am. I've enjoyed Godspeed You! Black Emperor before, but Pas Chic Chic has a different feel, less progressive and moody.

12" is only a couple of songs, but it's still a good 26 minutes of fun. The first track, Allez Vous Faire Influencer is old school Krautrock, in the vein of NEU! or Can with touches of Brian Eno. About halfway through, there's a section reminiscent of Gary Numan's In Cars. The steady beat and electronic sound move the song forward as the melody wraps on itself. It's repetitive like a mantra, but the sound shifts and builds.

The second song is actually a two and a half minute ambient interlude and then a longer piece, Premier Souffle. This was what I needed. A low electronic drone note builds and modulates. After plenty of time to appreciate that, a retro organ sound comes in. There are hazy tatters of almost-feedback at the edges of this sonic soundscape. It grows into something a bit like Pink Floyd's Saucerful of Secrets, somewhere between Let There Be More Light and Set the Controls For the Heart of the Sun. There's still an underlying electronic flavor to the groove that keeps it surprising. Like any good trip music, the song evolves over time offering new facets at every turn.

12" motivated me to hunt down Pas Chic Chic's earlier work, specifically their 2007 album Au Contraire. This had some psychedelic moments, some pretty songs, as well as some experimental noise. It was well worth purchasing for my collection, but it doesn't quite have the grandeur of 12".

I'm looking forward to what Pas Chic Chic comes up with next. Sip a Belgian Quadrupel (from Koningshoeven), drop the lights, and put on the headphones.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

CD review - Gigi, Mesgana Ethiopia (2010)

There's something magical about African music. Sure, each country has its own styles. But, regardless of the country, classic African artists like Fela Kuti, King Sunny Ade, and Ali Farka Touré create music that can hypnotize. It's easy to get pulled into the polyrhythm and call and response. At some level, many African musical cultures have an ecstatic feel, where the players and the listeners all immerse themselves into the songs. This is music that demands movement and rewards focus.

Gigi Shibabaw, a singer transplanted from Ethiopia to San Francisco, follows in this rich tradition. She got her break in 2001, when Bill Laswell produced her album Gigi. Backed by a pack of famous jazz players, she stood out based on her strong, warm voice. Now married to Laswell, Gigi continues to produce beautiful and wonderful music. Her latest, Mesgana Ethiopia, features Laswell's latest Material lineup. This is a live recording of a show in Austria from last year. The sound is great and the set reflected a nice potpourri of styles.

Baty eases into a dreamy, ambient beginning, sounding a bit like Carlos Santana's jazzier work. There's a call and response feel between Gigi's phrasing and the solos. The overtly African feel doesn't kick in until Mesgana Ethiopia's second song, Gudfela. This has a perfect in-the-moment feel that recalls Fela Kuti. Gigi's voice is compelling, with a storytelling cadence. The jazzy African style is tight: repeated guitar figures, complex syncopation from the drums and percussion, and washes of horns. The band has some great energy here. The jazzy horn work at the end is perfect.

Throughout the rest of the set, Gigi's voice is complemented by African pop mixed with jazz or R&B. The main exception to this is the traditional Ethiopian sound of Tizita and Zerafewa, which ditches most of the band to focus on a vocal duet, backed by simple percussion and a quavering fiddle-like instrument. This is a case where I really wish I understood the lyrics. This leads into the sweet Ethiopia that expresses a loving homesickness.

Gigi's silky voice, fond respect for her roots, and great backup musicians make Mesgana Ethiopia a wonderful CD. I'll skip continents, though, to pair this up and offer some chai from India to complement the exotic feel.

Drop by Amazon to hear selections and buy this great album.