Music > Sleigh Bells

What is it about Brooklyn bands lately? While the neighborhood and NYC at large has long been a breeding ground for popular musicians, in the last decade there was a decided surge of great music being made by a slew of bands that all happened to have come together in that storied borough. Among them my favorites are the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, MGMT, Dirty Projectors, Panda Bear, Grizzly Bear, Chairlift, and the list goes on.The most recent entrant into my roundup of Brooklyn music is the up and coming Sleigh Bells. This guy/girl duo released their first full-length album Treats last May, and I have been playing it on repeat very often since discovering them over Christmas, when the band’s name seemed very seasonally appropriate.

Starting strong with the single Tell ‘Em, prepare your ears for an assaulting, full force guitar riff and gunfire percussion backing up a paced snare drum snap and the repetitive, oddly sweet vocals of singer Alexis Krauss. Derek Miller is the guitarist and songwriter, formerly of the progressive hardcore band Poison the Well. Krauss has a background in music that started with her joining an all-girl pop group at the tender age of thirteen. In an interview with BlackBook, she talks about her early start in the music industry and how she grew to become disillusioned with the discrepancies between what she liked to listen to and what she was performing as part of the curiously unnamed girl group.

In early 2010, thanks in large part to film director Spike Jonze’s discovery of their MySpace page, the band came to the attention of M.I.A., signed to her label N.E.E.T. Recordings and were soon performing together, giving them exposure to her huge hipster audiences. In March of 2010 they played their biggest festival to date, SXSW, alongside the increasingly divisive Sri Lankan MC. Their rising cache among musicians and listeners is well deserved and legitimized greatly by gushing reviews from alternative online music press like Pitchfork.

While Tell ‘Em is definitely a highlight of Treats, I have also grown to love Rachel and Rill Rill, both of which comprise the album’s midway pièce de résistance. The first few seconds of “Rachel” is desperate breaths right into the microphone, which repeat incessantly behind a throbbing synth rip and Krauss’ gorgeously obtuse cooing about some girl named Rachel. Not all the songs have such cryptic lyrics, with the great line in “Rill Rill” (wonder what your boyfriend thinks about your braces/what about them?/I’m all about them) sung over piano and percussion that is remarkably lo-fi among the album’s other intensely loud tracks.

On top of the innovative sounds on Treats, the cover art is a delightfully creepy photograph of some 80s cheerleaders with freakishly distorted faces. Viewing it while hearing the contrast in Miller’s thrashing chords and Krauss’ soothing vocals, the hairs on the back of your spine might stand up. This is an impressive debut from yet another Brooklyn band, definitely the most exciting album of the year for me so far.

-MJC

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Sleigh Bells – Treats [N.E.E.T./Mom&Pop; 2010]

Role Model > Gwen Stefani

When she first found success in the mid 90s as the extremely photogenic lead of the ska band No Doubt, Gwen Stefani epitomized the Gen-Y southern California girl. More than just a gorgeous face for the album and magazine covers, over the course of four No Doubt albums she repeatedly proved herself as a rock/R&B singer with the vocal range, free styling ability, and outlandish stage presence to propel that group to huge success. I remember listening to Tragic Kingdom while growing up, and especially watching the legendary “Don’t Speak” video when MTV and VH1 played it seemingly every hour on the hour in the year of its release, 1996.

After the huge radio and TV success of Tragic Kingdom propelled No Doubt to the top of the pop/rock game by the close of the century, the band followed up with the less admired but lovably funky Return of Saturn in 2000. The video for its leading single “Ex-girlfriend” debuted Gwen’s new pink hair color, a look that was far more successful on Gwen then it was on her Top 40 stablemate, the too-literal Pink. Thanks to my dear friend Bobby (who is the ultimate source for all things Gwen) I later learned that the song’s lyrics “you say you’re gonna burn before you mellow / I’ll be the one to burn you” are a direct shot at her and boyfriend Gavin Rossdale’s tumultuous relationship.

Within two years of releasing Return of Saturn, No Doubt followed up with the wildly popular Rock Steady. The production of this dance pop/reggae fusion album was assisted by the Neptunes, finding inspiration from global dancehall musical styles and giving the it a worldwide appeal. Around the same time, Gwen began to capitalize on the established success of her band in order to break off and guest star on tracks with artists like Moby and Eve, the latter of which lead to the amazing “Let Me Blow Ya Mind”:

With the success of these guest spots, it was clear that Gwen was about to graduate from No Doubt into her own solo career. In 2004, Love. Angel. Music. Baby. was released, again featuring production assistance from some of the biggest names in R&B (Neptunes, Andre 3000, Dallas Austin) but also finding inspiration from new wave acts like New Order and Depeche Mode. Spawning six singles and inspiring a new generation of devotees, L.A.M.B. also marked the start of Gwen’s career as fashion designer and her newfound obsessions with eastern culture, epitomized by the Harajuku Girls. I will forever associate the song “What You Waiting For?” with my freshman year at Northeastern, with its incessant beat and parabolic vocals inspiring countless impromptu dance parties in the dorms.

The Sweet Escape followed at the end of 2006, with the leading single “Wind it Up” sampling The Sound of Music and further proving Gwen’s willingness to take risks with her music. The album’s titular track, with its Akon guest spot and earwig “wee-oooh” backup, was the definitive song of summer 2007. Besides these summery singles, my other favorite from TSE is the recently rediscovered cold weather jam, “Early Winter”:

In the years since her last album, Gwen has been busy raising a family with Gavin and re-joining No Doubt – which she never officially left – for a nationwide tour in 2009. Proving that you can go solo and return to the roots that made you a star, Gwen and the rest of No Doubt have reportedly been in production on their sixth studio album since May. This post is just a glimpse of Gwen’s musical trajectory thus far, and I excitedly await the results of her return to No Doubt and any future solo projects.

-MJC

Music > Robyn

Considering all the pop singers to be channelled through producer Max Martin’s late 90s superstar factory (Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys, *NSYNC), Sweden’s prodigal daughter Robyn has proven to be the most capable and talented of the bunch. As opposed to the shallow talents whose success massively outweighed their abilities, Robyn has shown herself to be a genuinely skilled songwriter and performer. I can remember when her first U.S. hit “Show Me Love” was all over the airwaves back in 1997. I didn’t appreciate that track nearly as much as I do nowadays, since Robyn’s career experienced a critical and popular resurgence after the 2005 release of her self-titled EP.

Just before dropping her new sound on Sweden, Robyn wisely abandoned Jive, her first record label, after their negative reaction to her new electro beat flavor (influenced heavily by fellow Swedish act The Knife). instead establishing her own label Konichiwa Records, a surefire way to ensure her artistic freedom. It was nearly three years after the European release of Robyn that the album finally made it to North America in the spring of 2008. To stateside audiences that were familiar with Robyn’s squeaky clean pop image from the 90s, this declaration of her musical independence and new R&B electronica sound was a welcome departure from that tired confectionary pop business of the previous decade.

Although it barely registered a blip on the Billboard 100, the album proved to be a major success among the ficklest of all demographics, the gays. With a total runtime that mercifully clocks in under 35 minutes, Robyn was perfectly suited for the ADD hipster generation whose musical teeth were cut on canned synth tracks and auto tuned R&B. Highlights include “Handle Me”, a half-rapped send up of those overly cologned, self-important club owners and promoters everyone loves to hate.

“With Every Heartbeat” is another gem, starting slowly with a repetitive backdrop of strings and a tight snare and bass beat, then sprawling into a gorgeous paean to moving on from your past heartbreaks with chin firmly up in the air. This album’s rise in popularity coincided with my half-year stint in New York City, and thus conjures memories of my wide-eyed walks throughout the canyons of Manhattan, Robyn’s beats pumping through my earbuds and empowering me to pound the filthy downtown pavement.

With all that hipster acclaim to back up her burgeoning pop creativity, Robyn began 2010 with the intent of releasing three albums within a year’s time. Body Talk Part 1 debuted just in time for summer beach season, and only furthers Robyn’s ascent into the upper crust of credible electro pop musicians. The first single “Dancing on my Own” is arguably the summer’s definitive club song, with its declaration to ignore the guy you had your eyes on and just give it your all, dancing the night away for your own sake. Watch her recent performance on Letterman and try not to feel the empowerment:

Another highlight of Body Talk Part 1 is the uncharacteristically somber “Hang With Me”, which has recently gone through the Swedish electro-beat ringer and will be released on Part 2 as a fully fleshed out dance club track. If this is any indicator of the rest of the album, the release of Body Talk Part 2 should be an occasion worth celebrating. I can’t wait to hear whatever else Robyn has up her sleeve for us later this year.

Update: Thanks to my supremely tech-y friend Isaac, I have acquired a leaked copy of Part 2.

-MJC

Lollapalooza 2010

I returned to my original hometown of Chicago last week for the sole purpose of seeing Lady Gaga and a few other bands play at Lollapalooza. Started initially as a touring show by Jane’s Addiction singer Perry Farrell, this event has been a weekend destination festival since 2005 when it found a permanent home in Chicago’s “front lawn” of Grant Park.

My only previous festival experience was at Bonnaroo in 2006, when Radiohead was the headliner. Spending three days baking under the June sun among hundreds of thousands of tents, cars, and people on a Tennessee farm was certainly a memorable adventure, and I had the third degree sunburns to show for it. Because it was in rural Manchester TN, many Bonnaroo attendees who had traveled from across the country had no choice but to stay for the entire long weekend, including me and my convoy of eager college undergrads who had never heard of the festival until meeting all the heady kids at their first year of college. Four years later, I’m still wistful for the experience but have since developed an unabashed love for pop music and its reigning matriarch, Lady Gaga. I’ve also become wary of spending an entire weekend living out of a tent surrounded by cars, making the urban location and single day ticketing scheme of Lollapalooza music to my ears.

After arriving in Chicago and staying with my family for a night, I was excited to head into the city and meet up with my friends Megan Rose and Sarah Sweet.  Megan had only been to Chicago once before, last Christmas break during the absolute worst weather that Chicago offers. She was excited to return to the city during the summertime and I shared in her enthusiasm, especially since I hadn’t spent any warm weather time in the city since 2006. Sarah Sweet is a Chicago native, by way of prep school and college in New England. She graciously hosted us in her mom’s West Loop loft, located in a former printing press building with all the typical loft trappings: high ceilings, exposed wood beams and ductwork, and a beautiful rooftop patio with views towards the Chicago skyline.

After donning our concert outfits we headed to the festival first by foot and then CTA, Chicago’s subway system. Arriving in Grant Park around 2:30, we caught the tail end of Mavis Staples’ performance before moving onto the Semi-Precious Weapons show. This band has been opening for Lady Gaga all summer, which explains why she appeared on the stage halfway through their set and incited a frenzy in the sweaty, camera equipped crowd. The picture at left shows her right after making out with SPW lead singer and Chicago native Justin Tranter, and just before she leaped off stage and into the ecstatic throngs below. I was close enough to the stage that I managed to get a hold of her fishnet-wrapped wrist for a few seconds, which made me unashamedly giddy. The video below captures the moment quite nicely, from a few different angles:

After this Lady Gaga primer Megan and Sarah were in dire need of sustenance, so we proceeded to the beverage and food tents where they were able to get a burrito while I went to catch the second half of the Dirty Projectors show nearby. From the back of the crowd I heard Useful Chamber and Stillness is the Move, and even made it up to the front line for their encore performance. I was close enough to recognize the two ladies at right from their Bitte Orca album cover.

After Dirty Projectors were done it was mid-afternoon and time to head towards the Parkways stage where Hot Chip and Lady Gaga were performing. Arriving in the crowd midway through Hot Chip’s set, we danced around to this British electropop band’s hits like Ready for the Floor and One Life Stand as the sun went down over the city. By 8 o’clock the crowds were standing shoulder to shoulder as far as the eye could see, and people were ready for Gaga to take the stage and for the “Monster Ball” to begin.

Launching into her set with my latest favorite Dance in the Dark, Gaga then proceeded through her best known tracks off The Fame and Fame Monster, pausing inbetween for theatrical vignettes and outlandish costume changes. She related to us several times her upbringing as a freak, wearing her role as gay activist on her sleeve (literally screaming “for gay equality!” at one point), trying to endear herself to the crowd. The more I learn about her Upper West Side childhood and swift rise to stardom, the less I buy this “outsider freak” persona, for she’s definitely been a popular attention magnet for a good while now.

Throughout the concert I was standing near a braces-clad fourteen year old girl who had already seen the Monster Ball and therefore knew how the entire set would play out. Not only did she clue me in to the next song during every theatrical break, but her pure teenaged excitement was absolutely infectious. Needless to say I was dancing around like a pre-pubescent girl the whole time. As the show wound down and 10 o’clock approached, I was still waiting to hear my favorite Gaga song, Paparazzi. Sure enough, she ended her show with that sweet confectionary treat followed by the powerhouse finale of Bad Romance.

After the show ended and the massive crowds filtered out of the park and into the loop, overtaking Michigan Avenue by sheer numbers, we were exhausted, thirsty, and riding a Gaga high. She may be overexposed and exhaustively radio played, but you can’t say that she doesn’t know how to belt inescapably catchy pop tunes and put on a fun show for tens of thousands of people. The whole day was a string of memorable moments, from the Gaga wrist touch to seeing Dirty Projectors to dancing among throngs of screaming monsters. Well worth the price of admission.

-MJC


Music > Free Energy

Last night we drove nearly seventy miles west to Athens, GA in order to see the up-and-coming band Free Energy perform. My affection for this Philadelphia quintet stems mainly from the circumstances by which I discovered them.  Back in May, while wandering around the many boutiques on the Lower East Side of NYC with my friend Catlin, there were a stack of cassette tapes near the door of one store. Especially because they said “FREE ENERGY” on them I just assumed them to be up for grabs, so quickly swiped one and dropped it into my bag. About a week later Megan, Kevin, Andy and I are all driving to Boston’s Nantasket Beach on a delightfully hot day. With an open mind and the beach in our sights, I popped the Free Energy tape into Megan’s car cassette player and hoped for some appropriately sunny music. It took about thirty seconds of hearing the self-titled track, complete with backup cowbells and tambourines, to become an immediate fan.

Scott (lead guitar), Geoff (drums), Evan (bass), Paul (lead vocals)

As we spread the word on Free Energy, a lot of our friends were almost immediately won over by the familiar pop rock riffs, comparing them to bands like Weezer and Cake, while certain music publications have likened their musical stylings to 1970s arena rock acts like Cheap Trick and Thin Lizzy.  Whoever you hear in their songs, their resemblance to these established forebears gives them an immediate familiarity upon the all-important first listen.

Before departing Boston for Atlanta, we named our going away party for the band and blasted their tape multiple times throughout the night, steadily gaining more acolytes with each additional spin. With their stomp-along drum beats, back-and forth choruses, and big power riffs, Free Energy is infectious at any summertime party.

Last night was the performance we had been waiting for since our discovery back in May, with Free Energy opening for Mates of State at the 40 Watt Club in Athens. I was psyched enough to make a custom tee with some Prismacolor markers and a lavender Uniqlo t-shirt.

Like a bunch of teenagers headed to their first rock concert, we rushed down the highway fearing that we’d be late for the performance when doors opened promptly at 8pm. After getting through the line, we were dismayed to find that not only did we arrive way before the band took the stage, but we had to endure over ninety minutes of subpar stand up comedy before the music began.

The venue and crowd were small enough that I knew this was going to be an intimate concert. Finally the five members of Free Energy took their positions on stage and started their set, but not before frontman Paul Sprangers pointed my way and declared “homemade Free Energy shirt, nice!”.  Three beers and immediate attention from a band’s lead singer made me downright giddy for the show, an excitement that sustained me through the six or so performances of the band’s most recognizable songs from their album Stuck on Nothing.

My favorites are the self-titled opening track with its chorus (“this is all we got tonight/we are young and still alive/and now the time is on our side”) and the relatively somber “All I Know” with its simple but heartfelt chorus (“And I can’t let go, that’s all I know”) repeated over a succinct drumbeat and sprawling guitar riffs.

Megan, frontman Paul Sprangers, and me

We were lucky to meet the band’s frontmen Paul Spranger and Scott Wells at the t-shirt booth, where I doubled my Free Energy t-shirt collection by purchasing an official one. They were both really nice and appreciative of our support, considering that Megan and I were dancing like their biggest fans during the whole set.

I’d never had so much access to an even marginally successful band, so I relished the opportunity to ask all sorts of questions about touring with another band, groupies, and traveling the country. I learned that even though major press like Rolling Stone and Spin call them a Philadelphia band, they’re truly from Minnesota, and are thus endeared to me even more because of their midwest roots. After the conversation had reached a tangible awkwardness we parted ways with Paul and Scott, wishing them good luck on the rest of their tour and offering some concluding accolades on their music. The whole experience was certainly worth the late night drive home from Athens to Atlanta. So if you’re looking for a new band to love this summer, check out Free Energy!

-MJC

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Free Energy – Stuck On Nothing [Astralwerks / DFA; 2010]