I tried to watch last night's Video Music Awards on MTV, but it was such an awkward and confusing clusterfuck, I couldn’t take much of it, flipping through for a few moments before moving on out of embarrassment for the people on the screen. I usually like when awards shows are a little chaotic (and the VMAs are known for their often-desperate attempts to be “not your mama’s awards show”). And I actually have always enjoyed the pop-culture pageantry of awards shows in general. But on last night’s VMAs, the annoyance factor was so high, I couldn’t even watch it on a “so bad you can’t look away” level. It made me anxious and uncomfortable, like watching someone fumbling over their words and breaking down while giving a speech in public (kind of like Kanye on last night's show).
It wasn’t really even the performances that made it so unwatchable (most were pretty solid for what they were). It was all of the in-between absurdity that made it so cringe-worthy.
Speaking of performances, some Cincinnati artists did well on the big stage. Walk the Moon has become so experienced with these kinds of high-profile appearances that it wasn’t surprising the band’s umpteenth performance of “Shut Up and Dance” was flawless. Airing during the opening of the pre-show “rainbow carpet” portion, I found myself thinking (as I do whenever I hear the hit on the radio), “You know, they have other songs, including a new single?” “Shut Up” was considered a “song of the summer” contender, though it’s been on the radio for like 15 years (OK, it was released as a single in September of 2014, but still). Then the band played the new single, “Different Colors”! And MTV promptly cut them off. (Even “Shut Up” was interrupted mid-song so the pre-show hosts could introduce the program, the clumsiness of which ended up being indicative of the overall mess the VMAs turned out to be.)
The weirder Cincinnati-related appearance came during Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ performance of their new single, “Downtown.” I was not aware of the guest artists on the song (OK, I was not aware they had a new song), so I turned it on just as Hip Hop legends Melle Mel, Kool Moe Dee and Grandmaster Caz were rapping while walking down the street, thinking it was some cool old-school tribute the awards show was presenting. Then Macklemore came on and I reached for the remote, still unable to figure out what was going on. Then Eric Nally from late Cincinnati greats Foxy Shazam joined in, singing the chorus and doing some of his trademark stage moves and I officially thought I was just having a dream.
Nally did a great job and he caused a lot of buzz online, mostly of the “Who was that guy?” variety (when the single was released last week, a bunch of idiots rehashed the “Eric Nally is racist” stories from back in 2013 when Foxy Shazam released the single, “I Like It.”)
It’s weird mash-up of a song, parts of which I like, while other parts I find tremendously aggravating. Which is kind of what the VMAs were. Is this the present state of popular youth culture? Throw a bunch of unrelated stuff together, put it in a blender and then just stare at the blender, not caring or knowing what the end result is?
MTV/Viacom had something called the O Music Awards for a few years recently, honoring things like “Favorite Fuck Yeah Tumblr,” “Favorite Animated Gif,” “Best Tweet” and “Best Artist With A Cameraphone.” The O Awards ceremony seemed unscripted and filmed without any director whatsoever. It doesn’t appear the O awards are still a thing; perhaps last night’s VMAs were a sign that the network is turning its long-running awards program into the Os?
The VMAs were largely just a big WTF moment that people would talk about/complain about/make fun of online. Which is probably exactly what MTV was going for and, scarily, perhaps the shape of youth-oriented entertainment to come.
The new music video from veteran Cincinnati funkateer (and relentless road dog) Freekbass recently appeared online. The clip for “Everybody’s Feelin’ Real” — the slinky, head-boppin’ Pop/Funk title track from Freekbass’ most recent full-length release — shows a variety of scenes and special guests to the viewer through a smartphone screen (fitting, as more and more people seem to be viewing life in that manner anyway).
Though endearingly short on special effects, the clip is still wildly engaging, particularly as you play “spot the cameo.” The video features some big-name special guests from the world of music, including Mike Gordon of Phish, Ryan Stasik of Umphrey's McGee, George Porter Jr. of The Meters, Stefan Lessard of Dave Matthews Band, Bernie Worrell from P-Funk and Talking Heads, Steve Molitz from Particle, Zion Godchaux of BoomBox, Cincinnati native Alan Light (music journalist and former editor of Vibe and Spin magazines) and Bigg Robb from Zapp. Cincinnatians and baseball fans will also notice a very familiar face — the Hit King himself, Pete Rose, pops up to sing/lip sync part of a chorus.
Click here to stream/purchase Everybody's Feelin' Real. It should be Freekbass’ last self-released effort for a while; earlier this year he announced that the respected indie label Ropeadope will release his next album.
Every April, the Cincinnati Zoo presents an every-Thursday concert series called “Tunes & Blooms,” which showcases some of the finest local bands in Greater Cincinnati (as well as the Zoo’s Botanical Garden in full bloom). But for this year’s series, Mother Nature had different plans, as April showers brought cancelled concerts on April 2, 9 and 16.
The free concerts have been rescheduled and begin this evening (Wednesday) with local Folk/Americana favorites Hickory Robot and The Tillers. The next rescheduled date is tomorrow (Thursday) and features another pair of Folk dynamos — Jake Speed and the Freddies and Shiny and the Spoon. The final rescheduled show takes place May 13 with the fantastic Buffalo Wabs & the Price Hill Hustle and Honey & Houston.
The music begins at 6 p.m. all three evenings and runs until 8:30 p.m. There is no admission charge to get into the zoo after 5 p.m. (there is a $9 fee is you’d like to park in the zoo’s parking lot). Click here for more info.
Tribute albums are typically divided into three categories. They’re either a) bankable artists covering high profile subjects (or, infrequently, famously known cult figures); b) cool/respected artists covering cool/respected artists; or c) some weird hybrid of the first two.
Two recently released tributes fall squarely in the second category, with Avett Brothers frontman Seth Avett and rising Americana/Rock vocalist Jessica Lea Mayfield taking a quietly beautiful stroll through a sampling of Elliott Smith's exquisite catalog on Sing Elliott Smith, and Frames frontman and solo artist in his own right Glen Hansard honoring his great hero and friend Jason Molina on It Was Triumph We Once Proposed: Songs of Jason Molina, which was available last month.
There are odd connections between the two projects. In the general point of interest sense, both are posthumous tributes. Smith died in 2003, apparently by his own hand, and Molina succumbed in 2013 after a long battle with alcoholism. And on a more personal level, by the sheerest of coincidences, I've interviewed both of the subjects of these two tributes.
Back in 2000, I spoke with Smith while he was still touring on Figure 8, which had come out earlier that year. And in 2003, I was assigned a feature on Songs: Ohia, fronted and braintrusted by Molina, who had just finished an album he titled The Magnolia Electric Co., which marked the end of Songs: Ohia and the shift to the band named after his new album. Both were fascinating and heartfelt conversations with artists who were amazingly self aware but not at all self absorbed, quietly brilliant songwriters who had an almost pathological need to extract their musical impulses from the dark well of their ultimately troubled souls.
Hansard — who came to prominence as the voice, guitarist and primary songwriter for Irish Rock band The Frames before establishing a side project (Swell Season) and solo career and hitting semi-big with the movie Once and his soundtrack, featuring the Academy Award-winning hit "Falling Slowly" — was so inspired by Molina's deeply emotional and confessional songcraft that the first fan letter he ever sent to a fellow artist was to Molina. Back in 2005, two years after I'd interviewed Molina, I had the rare opportunity to witness the pair's personal and professional bond firsthand.
At my second South by Southwest experience, I followed former The Onion music editor Stephen Thompson to see a Frames appearance at one of Austin's innumerable daytime parties. Stephen was a huge Frames fan and the band knew him well; he had done enough to help expose the band to American audiences that they thanked him in the liner notes to Burn the Maps.
When we arrived at the venue, the band members were wandering through the crowd just prior to their set and Stephen made a beeline for them. He introduced me to The Frames, but there was a dark, diminutive and somewhat familiar presence in the circle who was clearly with the band but not as a member. Glen Hansard spoke up, in his pudding thick Irish brogue, and said, "This is Jason Molina."
I shook his hand and reminded him of our phone conversation and the Rockpile feature two years previous. He greeted me warmly and we talked about what we'd seen at the festival to that point and what we hoped to see going forward. We spent a good 10 minutes in this convivial manner, right up until The Frames took the stage and were announced. After that, his unwavering focus was on the band; he watched and listened as though he was occupying the front pew in church during a sermon he knew for an absolute fact would change his life for the better. He stood in rapt attention, soaking in every word, every note and every nuance and with good reason — The Frames were a mesmerizing live force back then.
At the set's conclusion, Molina immediately swiveled toward me and we exchanged jaw-dropped exclamations of disbelief. Within a few minutes, Hansard made his way to Molina's side and the two began critiquing the performance, Hansard pointing out the flaws and Molina categorically dismissing them. I laughingly thought to myself as I headed to the door and the next party, I'll bet their roles will be diametrically reversed when Magnolia Electric Co., the band that Songs: Ohia had morphed into, plays later this week and Hansard is the fan in the front row. It reminded me of something Molina had said regarding the fact that he was already thinking past the album he had just finished.
"I can do better," he said without hesitation. "My next one, I'm already sweating it. Since the day I walked out of the studio, I've been working on the next one. I don't feel like this one failed, but I'm still looking for the better one."
I thought about Hansard's face as it must have looked while he watched Molina's appearance in Austin, Texas, a decade ago, and imagined the sadder but equally beatific visage he must have exhibited in the studio as he was translating the five tracks that comprise It Was Triumph We Once Proposed. This brief and beautifully executed EP serves a similar purpose as Hansard's distant but never forgotten fan letter, as he pays loving tribute to his long personal friendship with Molina and to the work that first illuminated his immense talents to the world.
Hansard assembled a group of longtime Songs: Ohia/Magnolia Electric Co. collaborators/friends to record a heartbreaking quintet of Molina compositions, all Songs: Ohia tracks and all lending themselves perfectly to Hansard's passionate and sensitively wrought translation. Molina often worked at the creative intersection of Leonard Cohen and Neil Young, and Hansard taps into that shivery vibe with a true fan's boundless devotion and a true friend's immeasurable grief. On the one-two punch of the powerfully poignant "Being in Love" and the achingly beautiful "Hold On, Magnolia," Hansard illuminates the raw, wrenching wisdom of lines like, ”We are proof that the heart is a risky fuel to burn," and the prescient "You might be holding the last light I see before the dark finally gets ahold of me." And just like Molina's life and amazing musical output, Hansard's It Was Triumph We Once Proposed is both immensely satisfying and far too short.
The other contender for Most Amazing and Deserved Tribute of the Year is Seth Avett and Jessica Lea Mayfield's Sing Elliott Smith, a (relatively) spare and loving bow to one of this generation's most insightful and contemplative songwriters. After his shredding turn with Portland’s Heatmiser, Smith turned down the volume for his home-recorded solo debut, Roman Candle, which was followed by his equally nuanced eponymous sophomore album and then the jewel in his crown, 1998's Either/Or, which director Gus Van Zant cherry-picked for his soundtrack to his masterpiece Good Will Hunting. Smith scored an Academy Award nomination for his song "Miss Misery," and the success of the soundtrack and his almost uncomfortably vulnerable performance at the Oscars vaulted him into a spotlight that he never actively pursued.
By the time of our 2000 interview, Smith had managed to come to uneasy terms with the maelstrom of fame that resulted from Good Will Hunting and Either/Or's tangential success. It had required him to think about his work in pedestrian ways, to explain it in a fashion that would be understandable to people with little understanding.
But through it all, Smith remained true to his own process, trusting that, regardless of outside opinions, expectations or interests, he continued to create the kind of music he wanted to hear in the manner that he wanted to create it. And he knew that, no matter how much anyone involved in his career wanted him to pull Either/Or 2 out of his magician's hat, the only thing that would truly satisfy his artistic nature would be to create what came out of him organically, without being conjured or forced.
"I don't think it was on my mind," Smith said about making the Beatlesque Figure 8 in the wake of major-label debut XO, Either/Or and Good Will Hunting. "I was just making up songs the way I always do. I mean, it was never going to sell millions of copies, so there wasn't that kind of pressure."
That may well be why Sing Elliott Smith is so incredibly successful as a tribute. Smith's songbook is among the most revered in contemporary music and the acclaim that has been lavished on Avett and Mayfield since their debuts is both effusive and deserved. Given all that, there's little risk involved at any level of this project.
The blending of the two principals' voices was the only unknown and that particular question mark is definitely straightened into a boldface exclamation point with Avett and Mayfield's brilliant opening duet on Either/Or's "Between the Bars." Avett's stylistic path from Punk provocateur to rootsy Americana troubadour to genre melding alchemist is a pretty fair match to Smith's own journey, and Mayfield's weary optimism lines up well with Smith's gloomy hopefulness. Together, Avett and Mayfield are the perfect translators for Smith's hushed (and not so hushed) odes to the anguish and bittersweet joy of love and modern life and they coalesce almost effortlessly on brilliant lines like, "Nothing's gonna drag me down/To a death that's not worth cheating."
It's moments like that one from "Baby Britain" that make Sing Elliott Smith resonate so clearly from start to finish. It's particularly poignant when Mayfield takes the lead on "A Fond Farewell" — from the album Smith was working on at the time of his death, released posthumously as From a Basement on the Hill — and she sings words that seem so startlingly prescient coming so close to Smith's sad end; "A little less than a happy heart/A little less than a suicide/The only thing that you really tried/This is not my life, it's just a fond farewell to a friend/It's not what I'm like, it's just a fond farewell to a friend/Who couldn't get things right."
Avett and Mayfield offer a broad core sample of Smith's amazing catalog (only 1995's self-titled sophomore album isn't represented), and the pair's affinity for and love of their subject's work is evident in every trembling note and emotional lyric. At almost 37 minutes, Sing Elliott Smith is a full album but it feels impossibly short and is over well before the listener is ready for it to be done. If ever there was a release that warranted the often-dreaded subtitle of Volume 2, it would be Sing Elliott Smith.
It seems only proper that the final words in this piece should be reserved for the subjects of these two tributes. First, an interesting comment from Jason Molina about his songwriting process led to a philosophical statement about his musical belief system.
"I almost write the music at the same time I'm trying to think of who could best put this onto tape, and that goes right down to the engineer," he noted. "Maybe it's a cowardly way to work because I don't take all of the burden onto myself, but ego should never be part of the music."
And finally, Elliott Smith addressed the media's tendency to label him as "melancholy," which morphed into an explanation of the simple reality that labels have tried to manipulate and contradict throughout their long and checkered histories.
"As soon as someone calls you a songwriter, you automatically get the melancholy tag," Smith admitted. “Also, 'Why aren't you playing dance music?' and 'Why are your songs so sad?' They're just clichés. If it wasn't those, it would be different ones. You can't always expect people to relate. There are all kinds of people, and some people understand each other and some people don't. NSYNC sells nine million records, so there's nine million people that can relate, and I'm not one of them. So even if you sell millions and millions of albums, there's always going to be somebody who doesn't get it. If you want to be creative and do what you do, it's going to be kind of idiosyncratic."
Long live the idiosyncratic artist, and the memories of those who left us way before their creative dreams were fulfilled.
For some musicians, their 9-to-5 is little more than a means to an end. Pizza and guitar strings don’t pay for themselves, after all. Others take pride in their work, both on stage and in the “real world,” but view them as two parts of a whole.
But for Jess Lamb, her twin identities as a musician and teacher are deeply intertwined. She works hard in both professional avenues and has put a large amount of effort into maintaining them, even during her post-American Idol influx of activities. It’s a balancing act with some unexpected complications that she is still learning to walk gracefully. But for Lamb, there is no other choice.
“I think that the public has seen me as a teacher and I don’t want my name to be tainted by this other persona, this other career, this other life. So I don’t want to be slosh drunk. I don’t want to be like Jim Morrison in my experimenting with life. But at the same time there’s a whole other vibe with playing in venues, playing in bars and it is very different from the teacher thing,” Lamb explains.
Before Idol, Lamb’s work as a musician and an ESL teacher were more easily separated. Nowadays, with the added exposure that Idol has brought to her and her late-night performances around town, she has had to go to greater lengths to protect the sanctity of both. A shot of Jameson may not be thrown back with the same careless abandon as a few months prior and photo ops are utterly devoid of the counter-cultural staples of, say, a middle finger or devil horns. This isn’t to say that Lamb was or is a reckless partier at night and a quiet bookworm during the day.
Rather, what happens at night can bleed into the daylight hours and her work in one aspect of life can’t compromise the other. She has to take into account who her new audience members may be and how they learned of Lamb. Being a teacher requires maintaining professionalism at all times. When a teacher is shown on national television, keeping that even-headed mentality all day and all night becomes even more important.
Considering all the time that Lamb has spent on her music after her Idol run, some may wonder why she doesn’t put the teaching on hold for the time being. Between the Idol recaps she does regularly for Fox 19 since leaving the show, the myriad interviews, the residencies at Japps in Over-the-Rhine and Jags in West Chester (as well as other shows), the studio work and all the other opportunities that have arisen, finding time for teaching is pretty much impossible at this point. In fact, Lamb has cut down her teaching work to roughly four hours a week, doing basic lesson planning and similar activities. But she still carves out time for her teaching for a very important purpose.
“I don’t do it for the money, it’s not sustaining me. I do it for my spirit. It’s for something that feels important, I don’t know that what I’m doing all the time feels important,” Lamb says.
She views being a teacher and an entertainer as two professions with two different contributions to society. Music and teaching both give something back to the community at large, but she feels that teaching impacts the public on a much larger scale. While singing in a smoky bar reaches a small amount of people, teaching has a much larger reach.
Ultimately, Lamb is a musician and teacher in equal measure. At this point, the music is taking more of her time, but she is determined to not let it take all of it.
“I don’t want to cancel out one or the other with a teacher persona that’s too square or a Rock star persona that’s too crazy and unstable,” Lamb says.
For Lamb, finding a mix of her two professions and passions is an ever-present struggle. When Idol rocketed her music to the forefront, she has had to constantly work to balance it out with activities that are equally as fulfilling. It hasn’t been an easy process by any means but one that she sees as absolutely necessary.
Just don’t be offended if she turns down a shot of whiskey next time you run into her in the Main St. district.
Nick Grever is checking in periodically with Cincinnati-based American Idol contest Jess Lamb about her post-Idol life. Check out previous "Beyond Idol Chatter" posts here. Visit jesslamb.com for music, show dates and more.
Former Cincinnati-based (now Austin, Texas headquartered) band Heartless Bastards have announced the release of its fifth album, Restless Ones, on the Partisan Records imprint on June 16. It’s the band’s first new full-length since 2012’s acclaimed Arrow, the group’s debut for Partisan. (The band took local group Wussy on tour after Arrow's release.)
The Bastards, who recently opened some arena concert dates for Rock music legend Bob Seger, also announced a string of tour dates beginning in June that will bring them back to Cincinnati for a two-night stand at Woodward Theater. The band plays the newly remodeled/reopened Over-the-Rhine venue June 25-26 with opener Craig Finn (frontman for The Hold Steady).
A limited number of tickets for the Woodward shows are available starting today at noon through a special songkick.com presale. Click here for details.
Yesterday, Cincinnati Alt Pop foursome Walk the Moon continued its promotional blitz behind its sophomore major label album, Talking is Hard,
with a performance on Ellen DeGeneres' popular daytime talk/variety
show. After being introduced by DeGeneres as a "great Rock & Roll
band from Cincinnati, Ohio," the group played its single "Shut Up and
Dance" and singer Nicholas Petricca ran into the crowd to rock out with
Coincidentally, another Cincinnati-born band, The Afghan Whigs, appeared on national television the night before, performing "The Lottery" from their latest album on late night's Jimmy Kimmel Live. Watch it here and a web-exclusive performance of "I Am Fire," with a dash of Fleetwod Mac's "Tusk," here. WtM also played Kimmel late last year when the new album was released.
Walk the Moon will play a hometown show at Bogart's on
April 1 (like many shows on the band's current tour, it has already sold
out), then returns this summer to play the Bunbury Music Festival in
early June (tickets available here).
On Tuesday, March 17, Cincinnati duo Bad Veins will see its latest album, The Mess Remade, released nationally. The 13-track effort isn't an entirely "new" album, but a re-recorded/remastered version of Bad Veins' sophomore full-length, The Mess We've Made, which came out in 2012 on the Modern Outsider label. The record — which features new cover art, as well — comes after some big changes in lead Vein Benjamin Davis' band — the departure of original drummer Sebastien Schultz (who now plays with local Indie Pop group Multimagic), the addition of new drummer Jake Bonta and a new label home, the third nationally-distributed label in Bad Veins' lifespan (its self-titled debut was released on Dangerbird Records).
The Mess Remade is being released on the Dynamite Music imprint, a new company founded by Marco Liuzzo and Mitch Davis (son of music biz legend Clive Davis). The label is partnered with Caroline, which is part of Capitol Records and Universal Music Distribution. Bad Veins are the company's second announced signees, following Pop singer Ryan Cabrera.
The Mess Remade includes two new tracks, "I Shut My Heart Down" and a cover of The Muppets' classic "Rainbow Connection" (Davis performed the song solo to open the 2013 Cincinnati Entertainment Awards ceremony). The early release of "Rainbow Connection" in January and last month's puppet-filled music video release (premiered at The AV Club) caught some buzz online. The album also features a shorter "radio edit" of the leadoff track "Kindness," as well as the original 5-minutes-plus version.
Here is a video clip for the new "Kindness":
And here's the "Rainbow Connection" clip:
Noisetrade.com has a four-track sampler of Remade available here if you can't wait a week.
Find more about Bad Veins here.
Jess Lamb’s initial performance for the judges on American Idol’s bus tour was undeniably a show stopper. It wrapped up the episode and introduced America to one of Cincinnati’s brightest talents, while also moving her on to the Hollywood round after impressing the judges. Her second televised appearance, a group rendition of Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass,” was considered one of the stronger performances of the Idol Groups round.
That is why it shocked many viewers when she was quietly cut from the show after the performance.
Allegations quickly followed blaming Lamb’s cut on comments that Jennifer Lopez had made regarding the age of some of the contestants, due to Lamb being one of the older performers in the competition (she is only 29). If there’s anything that Lamb would like to set straight it is this: Don’t believe everything you hear. And this is far from the end of the road for her.
“Honestly, I got nothing but really awesome comments from [Lopez]. No bad comments, nothing,” Lamb explains.
Lamb is still unsure as to exactly why she didn’t move on to the next round — American Idol never provided her with a reason — but she does not believe that it was Lopez’s comments or her age that caused the cut. Lamb frequently questioned the editing of the episode and the presentation of Lopez’s comments while discussing the episode and the ensuing fallout.
While the cut was undeniably a blow to Lamb, it is one she is quickly recovering from. In fact, when the episode aired, she wasn’t even able to watch because she was working on one of her myriad new projects at the time.
“I’m busier since Idol than I ever have been. I’m working with Bootsy [Collins], writing with his backup singer, talking with his wife about a project she wants me to work on, preparing for [record label] showcases,” Lamb says.
While Idol’s promised record contract is now out of reach, that hasn’t slowed down Lamb’s work towards her goal of signing with a label and releasing a full-length album. In fact, Idol gave her the exposure that she needed to land on the radar of several big names within the Pop music community. “Grammy-award winner” is descriptor not often connected to people working with local music acts, but it applies in this instance. (Lamb can’t divulge too much information about certain facets of her industry interactions, so vague hints will have to do for now.)
Details are still being discussed and Lamb is still under Idol’s contractual obligations restricting her from signing with any labels before the show is over and a set period of time has passed since its finale. But Lamb is making the best of the time between now and May.
“I’m just trying to do what I’m legally able to do,” Lamb says.
While American Idol continues its search for the next American pop star, Lamb is determined to grow her career using many of the tools that she’s been using for years. She’s constantly attempting to break into new markets, make music with new people and perform for new audiences. The only difference is that she now has a national TV show appearance to help with promotion and publicity. The details of her release from American Idol may be shrouded in a bit of controversy, but ultimately what will endure are her fans’ memories of her performances. It is those memories that will be reignited once American Idol runs its course and Lamb is able to finally take the steps she’s been feverishly working towards putting in place.
And with several months till Idol’s run completes, Lamb has plenty of time to make some very big plans.
Local Rock crew Electric Citizen (winners of a 2015 Cincinnati Entertainment Award in the “Hard Rock/Metal” category) just unleashed a new music video for its delicious slab of trippy heaviness, “Light Years Beyond.” The clip, which features some cool throwback visual stylings and was directed by David Brodsky, premiered on Vice’s music site, Noisey, today.
The track is off of the band’s great album Sateen, which came out last year on RidingEasy Records. Click here for more on Electric Citizen. And read CityBeat’s interview with the band from last year here.