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

Media > V Magazine

Take a look at your typical magazine stand and you’ll see a barrage of overtly photoshopped and awkwardly posed celebrities, trying to assert their importance under familiar mastheads like People, Esquire, Cosmopolitan, and so on. The sorry state of print journalism in the internet era is an inevitable result of the rampant unoriginality in concept, writing and graphic layout that afflicts many storied publications. I struggle to find any discernible difference between the usual tabloid suspects like Us Weekly and Life & Style, but also between the more aspirational brands such as Gentleman’s Quarterly and Details.

Blatant similarities between these titles can be partially attributed to shared publishers and overlapping audiences, but considering the richness of variety among internet media outlets, the excuses for hackneyed content among popular magazines are rapidly vanishing. As old media titans struggle to stay relevant among younger demographics accustomed to free online content 24/7/365, it seems that we’re reaching an unmistakable tipping point in the balance of power between vaunted print institutions and their nimbler online foes.

Enter V Magazine. Launched in 1999 as a pedestrian offshoot of the uber-exclusive (and expensive) Visionaire, this large-format glossy is an unapologetic ode to the most beautiful and stylish among us, with a graphic design and photographic ethos to match. As many traditional magazines have been forced to surrender their product to an online format, struggling to find a profit in the process, V deliberately keeps its website outdated and lacking while saving the best content for the print edition. Although this business model is not unique to V, no other fashion magazine offers such a visceral print experience to compensate for their online version.

Delivered to subscribers in protective plastic (so you know it’s important!), V is not just a photographic feast of sexy people, but also a forum for informed commentary on matters of art, fashion, music, film and media in general. Every article and photo spread exudes superior quality and attention to detail, elevating the magazine from toss away fashion rag to artfully crafted quarterly that will attract readers to your bookshelf or coffee table for years to come. Although it has a host of overseas complements (Numero, i-D, Dazed & Confused, Arena Homme), New York-based V manages to hold its own ground and project a distinctly American lilt while featuring models and designers from all over the world.

-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

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]

Movie Review > MacGruber

I should start this post by saying that I do not regularly watch Saturday Night Live these days, and am well aware of the show’s hit or miss nature in terms of its hosts and writer’s ability a to craft a funny sketch.  By my estimates, there are probably only two or three episodes worth watching over a whole season, and it seems to have been that way my entire life.

So it was with a bit of trepidation that I agreed to see the latest feature film to be spun off from an SNL sketch, MacGruber. The setup on the show is simple enough: a comedic take on the ABC action-adventure television series MacGyver, in which a plaid shirted and khaki vested Will Forte is consistently thwarted in his attempts to disarm a bomb by his own ineptitude and tendency to be distracted by his harried cohorts. Each brief sketch ends with the bomb detonating and everyone in said scene falling victim to MacGruber’s stupidity.  I had only seen this sketch a couple times during the recent Betty White episode, leaving me unsure how such a conceit would pan out in a feature length cinema format.

Reader, I have not laughed this hard in a movie for a long while.  It is important to go into MacGruber knowing that it is a pure spoof of the Mission:Impossible/James Bond super sleuth, for it allows you to overlook any of the lapses in continuity or storytelling (which add to the comedic appeal anyways) and just enjoy the hilarious ride. Kristen Wiig, the current workhorse of SNL and soon-to-be breakout movie star, shines in her role as the nervous female sidekick to offset MacGruber’s sheer bravado. Wiig already has a cadre of classic SNL characters that exhibit her gut-busting vocalization and delivery skills, my favorites being Judy Grimes (the perpetually “just kidding” Weekend Update travel correspondent) and of course Virgania Horsen (purveyor of scenic hot air balloon rides). Her role in MacGruber as Vicki St. Elmo, a tragically inept singer and love interest for the titular hero, seems just another rung on her ascension into the pantheon of women comedians.

Ryan Phillippe and Val Kilmer are also around as a by-the-book military sidekick and evildoer antagonist, respectively. Plot details are unimportant as the story moves along swiftly, carried by the comedic talents of the cast, particularly Forte, who is clearly having the time of his life in bringing such a silly character to the big screen. Some of the best scenes include MacGruber’s fabled wedding day tragedy (think exploding bride) and his inevitable coitus with Vicki St. Elmo, which cuts abruptly from a sensuous, softly-lit love scene to a raunchy exposé of the protagonist’s animalistic bedroom noises.

It was disheartening for me to read many of the mainstream reviews for this movie, particularly A.O. Scott’s. After seeing the movie and then reading his critical take on the 99 minutes of deadpan hilarity, it becomes apparent that this man has not had any fun in a few decades. Hopefully with strong word of mouth, a comedic gem like MacGruber can withstand those withering reviews and stay in a theater near you for the rest of the summer.

-MJC

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MacGruber, starring Will Forte, Kristen Wiig, Ryan Phillippe, Val Kilmer, Maya Rudolph. Directed by Jorma Taccone. Runtime: 99 minutes. Released May 21, 2010.