From the moment Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Cedric Bixler-Zavala left At the Drive-In to form The Mars Volta over a decade ago, the duo and their co-conspirators have made a conscious effort to challenge even their staunchest fans and completely confound their easily befuddled critics.
Finding their general direction somewhere in the floating nexus of Neo Prog, Metal, Math Rock, Fusion, Psychedelia, Electronica, Space Rock and Latin American music, The Mars Volta has applied their dizzyingly complex genre formula to straightforward album structures, song cycles and full blown concept albums with a constant eye towards disrupting music’s status quo, whatever that happens to be at any given moment.
The Mars Volta’s sixth full length, Noctourniquet, comes after a somewhat fractious period in the band’s history. Rodriguez-Lopez reportedly finished the music three years ago and argued with Bixler-Zavala about the time he was taking on lyrics and vocals; Rodriguez-Lopez eventually concentrated on his solo work as an alternative.
Noctourniquet finds The Mars Volta pursuing a sound they’ve characterized as Future Punk, a simplified (for them, anyway) version of their standard musical calculus. “Empty Vessels Make the Loudest Sound” is nearly a gorgeous Pop ballad with Pearl Jam’s heart and Metallica’s verve, while the album’s first single, “The Malkin Jewel” (listen below), has the reeling barroom swagger of Nick Cave covering Kurt Weill. Like 2009’s Octahedron, Noctourniquet offers moments of relative reflection (“Lapochka,” “Trinkets Pale of Moon”), serious intent (“In Absentia”), head spinning polyrhythms (“Molochwalker”) and blistering intensity (“Zed and Two Naughts”).
If Nocturniquet represents any kind of compromise for the Mars Volta, it has clearly been accomplished on their own singular terms.
For the past 40 years, Bonnie Raitt has made a success out of nearly everything she’s attempted. The red-haired daughter of a Broadway icon, Raitt was an unlikely champion of honest-to-Robert-Johnson Blues, but her incendiary guitar skills and unquenchable passion for the form won the respect of some of the genre’s legends; B.B. King famously cited Raitt as the greatest slide player ever.
When commercial recognition was slow to come, Raitt plugged away in spite of it, releasing a string of really good albums in the ’70s and ’80s (and to be honest, a few head-scratchers as well) and forging ahead when others might have thrown in the towel. She had opened herself to the possibilities offered by infusing her Blues translation with a hint of Pop with 1977’s Sweet Forgiveness, but the formula truly came to fruition on 1989’s Grammy-winning, platinum-selling Nick of Time, setting a course for the top of the charts over the next decade.
Although Raitt’s hot streak cooled slightly on both sides of the new millennium, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000 and released a pair of excellent albums, 2002’s Silver Lining and 2005’s Souls Alike, one of the most raw, real and reflective albums in her catalog. It came at a tumultuous time for Raitt; she lost her mother in 2004 and her father the following year, leading her to largely retreat from music in order to process her grief. After further losing her brother and her best friend, Raitt returned to music with a vengeance; she did a massive tour with Taj Mahal in 2009 and she did sessions with artist/producer Joe Henry and on her own, resulting in Slipstream, one of the strongest albums in her canon and an amazing return to form.
Raitt signals that return with the one-two punch of opener “Used to Rule the World,” a slinky Jazz/Funk workout that simmers like a Dr. John gumbo, and her stellar Reggae spin on the late Gerry Rafferty’s “All Down the Line,” yet another prime example of Raitt’s incomparable ability to inhabit other songwriters’ material and make it her own (she claims just one co-writing credit on Slipstream, the funky choogle of “Down to You,” written with Randall Bramblett and George Marinelli). That ability is on full display here; Raitt’s down-and-dirty Blues take on Bob Dylan’s “Million Miles” is a marvel of interpretation, as is her atmospheric reading of “You Can’t Fail Me Now,” composed by Henry and Loudon Wainwright III. Raitt’s mastery of heartbreak songs continues with “Not Cause I Wanted To,” the flip side of her soul-wrenching take on “I Can’t Make You Love Me (penned by former Bengal Mike Reid).
Slipstream plays like a greatest hits albums of brand new songs, as Raitt reels off sterling examples of everything she does best, from slinky guitar leads and searing slide runs to heartfelt balladry and intuitive arrangements. Rolling Stone placed Raitt on their lists of 100 Greatest Guitarists and 100 Greatest Singers; Slipstream is the only supporting evidence required for that decision.
Over the summer, a video turned up on YouTube of Canadian chanteuse LIGHTS doing an acoustic cover of U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” for Britain’s Secret TV. While her bubbly personality was evident, she did look tired and her voice was not at its usual strength. Fans wondered if the rigors of touring were taking their toll.
But there were no such concerns Wednesday (Nov. 14) night when LIGHTS played at the 20th Century Theatre in Oakley. Winding down her Siberia tour, the Toronto native sounded absolutely amazing.
Two things are sometimes forgotten in the electronic swirl of LIGHTS’s music — she can sing and she can write. Vocally she was at the top of her game Wednesday. Parts that were sung in a more wispy tone on her two albums were belted out with force, topped with high notes that hadn’t come out in the studio versions.
And, oh yes, the writing. Proving she has both vocal and songwriting skills, LIGHTS excused her band mid-show to deliver a piano-and-voice-only version of “Saviour.” Showing it’s not all done with machines (as she did on her 2010 acoustic EP), LIGHTS delivered a tune that, like her others, can stand apart from the technological wizardry. In between scaling her vocal range, she invited the audience to sing along, which they did enthusiastically (the track was an Alternative radio hit in 2009).
LIGHTS has always toured with a band, pulling a page out the the Thompson Twins’ playbook from back in the day. Chief Twin Tom Bailey always reasoned that it was just more visually pleasing to see musicians on stage and not just three band members bopping around to sequencers and backing tapes. Sonically it helps, too, of course, as the players can improvise and add new dimensions and dynamics to familiar songs. Indeed, one of LIGHTS’s keyboardists even broke out a guitar for one song, playing the keyboard lines on that instead of his synth.
The Arkells from Hamilton, Ontario, opened the show with their brand of Canadian Alt Rock. Lead singer Max Kerman told the crowd that his hometown was the best Hamilton in the world, not the Ohio city just up I-75. The crowd got the joke, which sort of surprised and bemused Kerman.
“I was expecting some boos for that,” he said before the band launched into “Pulling Punches.” The Arkells provided a nice counterpoint to the main act’s fine, occasionally dub-steppy Synth Pop and the group seemed to have several fans of their own in attendance.
LIGHTS returns to Canada at the end of this run of shows, where she will spend the holidays with her new husband, Blesshefall frontman Beau Bokan. The Arkells will support their countrymen The Tragically Hip throughout the winter.
When I interviewed Cincinnati's Those Guys earlier this year, I saw an endless amount of drive and potential coming from a group of kids who loved making Hip Hop music. What I didn’t see was an identity. Their song “You Ain’t Know” had shown that they had the talent to become something more and the video that accompanied the track garnered the group a lot of internet attention. But the question still remained — could they find the same success without mimicking themselves or blowing up another vehicle in their next video shoot?
For Good Reason answers this question with a resounding "Yes!" In only eight tracks, coming in under a half-hour, Those Guys transformed themselves from just a local group of rappers to a legitimate Hip Hop duo on the brink of something greater.
The track “Madness is the Method” not only exhibits Jova’s ever growing ability as a producer, transitioning from a very minimalistic style beat (reminiscent of a Chuck Inglish production) to a Hip Hop club-banger by the end of the song, but also shows a new side of J-Al. He doesn’t come in until the last minute of the song, but in that short period of time he exhibits a hunger and fire (almost angry, but in a good way) that he has never shown before. It’s almost as if he sees every verse as being his last chance to “make it” and if he keeps that up, that time will come sooner than he thinks.
But don’t think for a second that because Jova has been working extensively on his producer game that he has let his lyrical practice fall by the wayside. On “The Crisis,” he spills his guts for two straight minutes in what is one of the most open and honest songs I’ve heard, not just from the Cincinnati Hip Hop scene, but from any Rap group in general. It’s a painful, truthful, tear-jerking lyrical confession over a beautiful piano that leaves the listener feeling inspired and connected.
The entire album is solid, but the true gem is the first track, “Dear Kanye.” This song is a culmination of all the hard work the group has put in over the last year. The production has a smooth, almost Electronic Hip Hop feel to it and ends with more samples than a trip to IKEA.
The verses provided by both Jova and J-Al are smart yet still captivate the listener. More importantly, neither rapper outshines the other on this track. In every great tag-team there always seemed to be one person that carried the group (i.e. Shawn Michaels to Marty Jannetty, Bret Hart to Jim Neidhart), but Jova and J-Al have seemed to find that Road Warrior mentality, one working off another. (All nerdy wrestling references aside, they really mesh perfectly on this cut.)
The hook is where they’ve taken their work to another level. It's obvious this song is an ode to Kanye West (duh), but they found that perfect medium of being influenced by him while not jacking his style or flow. It’s as if making a song about someone who has influenced and inspired them as artists has helped them find their own identity in the process.
As I stated before, “You Ain’t Know” was a great creative jumping off point for the career of Those Guys. While other artists would have become complacent and tried to recreate that moment over and over, For Good Reason is an artistic step forward into the long career that lies ahead for the group.
Since the dawn of Electronic music in the ’60s, one of the consistent difficulties with the genre has been that the idea of a composition or an entire record is often more interesting than the execution of the idea.
It would seem that Sigur Ros is at least tangentially aware of that circumstance because the Icelandic quartet seems to have found the proper balance of conceptual cool, ephemeral frippery and solid musicianship over the past decade and a half. This is the band, after all, that invented its own language on its debut album, 1997’s Von, and initially left all of the songs on 2002’s ( ) untitled.
That is conceptualism on a grand scale, but Sigur Ros has typically been more than equal to the task of making a soundtrack every bit as fascinating as the airy framework that underpins it.
After a brief flirtation with a slightly more tangible Pop song structure on 2008’s Meo suo i erum vio spilum endalaust, Sigur Ros returns with Valtari, which sees the band bringing strings and electronics back to their rightful place in its sonic forefront. While Valtari revisits the chilly ambient atmospherics of Sigur Ros’ early work, the band folds in dashes of Meo suo’s Pop ethic and ethereal operatics courtesy of a beautifully utilized girl’s choir.
The album’s first single, “Ekki Mukk,” takes Brian Eno’s aggressively Ambient stance while “Rembihnutur” soars with an expansive crystalline magnificence that could pass for Radiohead or U2 in an experimental moment while “Dauoalogn” swells like a contemporary hymn rising to the arched ceiling of a grand Electronic church.
If Meo suo i erum vio spilum endalaust was Sigur Ros’ Saturday night dance party, Valtari is their Sunday morning confessional.
(The following Sigur Ros video is NSFW due to nudity, including shots of Shia's LaBeouf.)
Over the past dozen years, Beth Ditto and Gossip have finetuned their lo-fi Indie Rock presentation into a wild pastiche of fist-pumping Punk, funky Soul/Pop and Indie Dance Rock, with a stage component that blends campy theater of the absurd with thrift store chic. Ditto and guitarist Nathan Howdeshell have never forgotten their Arkansas roots but have masterfully absorbed the musical zeitgeist of their Northwest environment and assimilated it into their broad range of oddly complementary influences, particularly on their 2006 breakthrough Standing in the Way of Control and their 2009 hit Music for Men.
On A Joyful Noise, Gossip’s fifth and finest album, the band and producers Mark Ronson and Brian Higgins have crafted a set that blends a soaring Gospel vibe with a slamming Indie Rock foundation and accessorizes it with bristling Dance Punk and washes of Electronic atmosphere.
The opening salvo of “Melody Emergency” finds Ditto warbling with Kate Bush’s intensity and Lene Lovich’s chirp while Howdeshell cranks out glammy chords worthy of Marc Bolan and drummer Hannah Blilie nails down the perfect groove. The trio immediately veers into should-be-a-mega-club-hit Dance Pop territory with the dramatic and anthemic “Perfect World,” a track that Madonna would embrace but could never pull off, and the funky Electropop novelty of “Get a Job.”
With typical bravado and style and an impressively evolving maturity, Gossip push the aptly titled A Joyful Noise in a dozen different directions while maintaining a firm grip on their own malleable sonic identity.