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.
Riff-tastic Cincinnati Hard Rock foursome Lift the Medium has only been a band for a year, but you wouldn’t know it listening to its accomplished debut full-length, Mastermind. The band celebrates the release of its rock-solid album with a show Saturday at MVP Bar & Grill in Silverton. The 9 p.m. show also features performances by Livid and Life After This. Admission is $10; the first 50 fans through the door score a free copy of Mastermind.
Though a relatively new band, Lift the Medium’s members have extensive experience; singer/guitarist Joey Vasselet spent time in Rootbound, a melodic band that craftily incorporated influences from several different eras of Hard Rock, while bassist Justin Kennedy, singer/drummer Jake Bartone and singer/guitarist Joe Bartone were a part of Atlantis Becoming, a group known for its exploratory, progressive approach.
The band members’ backgrounds give a good sense of Lift the Medium’s style. The songs on Mastermind are craftily structured — the winding riffs and rhythms are constantly in motion, subtly recalling the more exploratory sounds of Atlantis Becoming. But there’s no meandering — every movement is in service to the song, resulting in a more passionate and pointed melodic impact. There is also a lot of diversity throughout Mastermind, but it’s molded into a cohesive and contemporary sound the group can call its own.
Lift the Medium can at times remind you of Grunge-era superstars like Alice in Chains or Soundgarden, but flashes of the classic ’70s/’80s Hard Rock/Metal perfected by the likes Aerosmith, Ozzy Osbourne or Iron Maiden also bubble to the surface. The delicately ingrained Prog touches lightly recall groups like Tool, but Mastermind also sounds like it would be perfectly at home on Rock radio next to contemporary acts like Shinedown and Seether. The production on Mastermind is remarkably crisp and muscular, making it even more radio-ready.
It’s no easy feat to incorporate such a variety of styles without sounding like Rock tourists/time travelers, but Lift the Medium’s sharp songwriting skills and impeccable chops help bring everything together without sacrificing its own distinct personality, allowing the variance to keep things sonically interesting from start to finish, but never allowing it to overshadow the strength of the songwriting. Cincinnati’s Rock radio stations (and likeminded ones across the country) should be all over Mastermind. It’s a crowd-pleaser that works on numerous levels.
Find more info about Lift the Medium (and hear some more song samples) here.
The official MidPoint Music Festival guide, featuring preview blurbs on all 186 artists performing at this year's fest, is on the streets now to help make your MPMF.12 itinerary-planning a little easier. Yesterday, when the issue had just come out, I already had a handful of people asking me who my top picks were for the fest. Writing and/or reading and editing 186 paragraphs about 186 bands does things to your mind that I can't even explain, so I had to beg off. But I'm ready now.
Starting today, exactly two weeks before MPMF.12 kicks off in the venues of Over-the-Rhine and Downtown, we're beginning the "Daily MPMFer," a daily dose of recommendations for who to see at the festival, should you have a hole in your personal schedule. We'll post three blurbs a day — one about a bigger, more known act, one about a slightly more under-the-radar "sleeper" and one about a local band. I'll also add a song sample or music video to each to give MPMF-goers an even better sense of the artists' talents. (The blurbs were written by myself, the legendary Brian Baker and scrappy up-and-comer Deirdre Kaye, both of whom were hugely helpful compiling our beast of a guide this year.)
There are so many great performers at this year's fest, we probably won't get to all the worthy contenders, but we'll get you started (you have to do some exploring on your own). And, when in doubt, always go with the artist with "(Cincinnati, OH)" next to their name; all of our hometown MPMFers are worthy of your attention. Be sure to grab a guide (there should be plenty floating around come fest time) and start mapping out your long weekend of music.
We'll also add any MPMF updates — crucial or otherwise — in these "Daily MPMFers," to keep you abreast of the latest developments. You can also click here for our MPMF hub on citybeat.com, with feature stories, MPMF-related tweets and more.
Today's big news — three-day wristbands are selling quick and may well sell out. Be sure to grab yours immediately for the best pricing deal (limited one-day tickets will be $50 or you can pay individual cover charges which will add up quickly). Click here for more ticket info.
Hospitality (Brooklyn, NY)
Driven by the singular Pop song stylings of Amber Papini, Hospitality first caught attention with a lo-fi, untitled EP, which garnered a rare glowing review from Pitchfork. The band signed with legendary Indie Rock label Merge and released its self-titled full-length debut for the label earlier this year. At its core, Hospitality’s music has some of the primal vibe of early ’90s K Records releases, but the sophisticated arrangements wrapped around Papini’s compellingly unique voice give the album a depth those artists were rarely capable of.
You'll Dig It If You Dig: Ivy, Tennis, Barbara Manning, Tiger Trap. (Mike Breen)
Hospitality performs at 8 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 27, on the Grammer's/Dewey's Pizza stage. Check out the band's emotionally-heavy new video for the track "Eighth Avenue."
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.
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.
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.
Just like his famously troubled father, Justin Townes Earle has often generated as much press for his substance-fueled escapades as his musical prowess. Thankfully, that genetic predeliction has been tempered with a similarly potent gift for songcraft and creative evolution, two elements that have distinguished Earle’s catalog to date, particularly his last album, the sacred-meets-secular traditional modernism of 2010’s Harlem River Blues.
With his fifth and latest album, Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now, Earle once again expands his musical parameters and explores the wide range of music that has defined Memphis, from lushly arranged horn-and-sweat Soul (the rousing Dr. Johnesque boogie Blues of “Baby’s Got a Bad Idea”) to spartan singer/songwriter folk (the dry Country balladeering of “Won’t Be the Last Time”) to varying combinations of it all (the sorry-baby sway of the title track). On the album’s mournful opener, “Am I That Lonely Tonight,” Earle seems to address his acorn-oak issues with touches of Van Morrison and Jeff Tweedy (“Hear my father on the radio, singing, ‘Take me home again’/300 miles from the Carolina coast, I’m skin and bones again/Sometimes I wish that I could get away, sometimes I wish that he’d just call/Am I that lonely tonight, I don’t know”).
There is an air of immediacy on Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now, a direct result of the whirlwind four-day, all-live/no-overdub sessions that produced the album, but that recording frenzy is perfectly counterbalanced by Earle’s laconic delivery, even on the album’s most energetic songs.
Nothing’s Gonna Change is yet another dusty jewel in Justin Towne Earle’s beautiful and slightly askew crown.
Friday Evening, Apr 27: MerleFest Festival Grounds
After lunch, I was ready for something a little more upbeat, so I headed back to the Americana stage to check out The Lost Bayou Ramblers. I caught these guys last year at the same stage, and they brought the place down. I suppose most Cajun and Zydeco is infectious — that constant backbeat and sing-songy lilt of the melodies, but done well, it can be a bit mind blowing.
The Lost Bayou Ramblers hail from Lafayette, La. and their Zydeco is the real deal. Not quite as hard hitting as The Bluerunners, they still bring an enormous drum sound to an already rhythm-heavy beat. Fiddle, accordion, electric guitar, double bass, acoustic guitar and drums — the fiddle, accordion and electric guitar feed a triple-stack tone attack to every melody. It's like Lynyrd Skynyrd ca. 1975 without the volume, hair or rednecks. It's really something to behold and listen to. The fiddler sings and works the crowd in both French and English, the bass player holds his big acoustic bass like he's ready to swing it over his head, while the electric guitar player stands at the front of the stage arena rock style and the acoustic player runs back and forth behind everyone. These guys are regulars at the Blue Moon Saloon in Lafayette and I suspect a trip to catch them in such intimate surroundings would be life changing. Check YouTube for some of their videos.
I left the Americana stage a bit exhausted and headed over to see what was going on in the Traditional Tent and found Phil and Gaye Johnson in the middle of their set. Long time radio host of various roots music programs, Phil and Gaye do tight harmonies and Roots-based acoustic music. Easy to listen to, they move from original to traditional and without a little bit of knowledge of traditional music, it would be easy to confuse what's original and what's not. Phil's a fantastic acoustic and dobro guitar player moving easily between slide, flatpicking, various forms of fingerpicking and sometimes both. The music is not something I generally sit and listen to, but like everything you see at MerleFest, the playing is top notch and professionally presented.
I slipped out of the tent and as I walked past the picking area, I could here the strains of Peter Rowan and the Free Mexican Airforce moving though the air. Like a lot of kids brought up in the 1970s, Peter was my first real introduction to Bluegrass music though the Old and In The Way LP. My dad had a few Bill Monroe LPs, but my mom wouldn't let him play that "hillbilly" music while she was around, which was pretty much all the time.
I wasn't planning on heading back to the Watson Stage, but I was intrigued. As I got closer, Peter was doing an slow acoustic version of "Panama Red." Frankly, I thought he was mailing it in, but I was still pretty far from the stage, so I kept moving in. By the time I got close enough to the stage to take pictures, which is basically standing in the front in everyone's way, he easy doing a song called "The Raven" and it was mesmerizing. It's probably Bluegrass heresy, but off all the Bluegrass I've heard over the last 35 years, his is the tenor I associate with "that sound" and, man, he's still got it. It rises and floats and breaks in all the right places.
I took some pictures and grabbed a seat near the back of the reserved section where the sound would be optimal. His band was outstanding. Peter on acoustic joined by a electric guitar player playing shimmering notes, a lap steel player doing pedal licks and swells, acoustic bass and drums. The lap steel player was especially amazing. Every swell and fill felt like a feather in my heart. They launched into a 20 minute version of the Rowan classic "Land of the Navajo" and by the time he started doing the falsetto calls, I was awash in transcendent tears. Peter Rowan has still got it all and I'm a big baby.
Next up I headed up to the Heritage Tent to converse with another of my favorite MerleFest craft exhibitors, bowl maker Larry Kearson of Marion, NC. And not just bowls, but dough bowls. As a boy growing up in NJ, we always had a wooden bowl mounted up on the wall. Occasionally my dad would take it down to kneed some bread dough in. I never thought much about it till I started making bread in earnest in my 20's. Then I wanted it. Desperately. It was a large bowl, about 18"-by-12" and had been hand carved from a piece of black walnut from the family farm in Tennessee. I finally claimed it 10 years ago or so and now it's a regular kitchen tool in our kitchen. Larry hand carves dough bowls from single pieces of wood. Some small and decorative other huge and highly desirable. The Zeke Bowl is one such bough bowl. About two feet long and 18-inches across, it was carved from a single piece of maple from Larry's neighbor's tree. His neighbor's dog, Zeke, laid by the downed tree for days and then growled and whined the day the tree was cut up — Zeke's Bowl. It's a beauty. Dough bowls shouldn't be stained or varnished, and Larry's aren't. You need a dough bowl carved the old way, hit Larry up.
From the Heritage Tent I headed over to the Dance Tent to check out Asheville's contribution to Hot Club-style Jazz — Viper's Dream. I guess I'm spoiled by Cincinnati's Faux Frenchman, Viper's Dream didn't quite cut it. Yes, you got to be one hell of a musician to pull off Django tunes, but the sound was shrill and I wasn't digging the fiddle player. Paul Patterson of the Faux Frenchmen is without doubt a Cincinnati treasure.
I quickly jumped to the Traditional stage to see Wayne Henderson. With him was a fiddle, frailing banjo and acoustic bass players. Wayne has done three tours with the "Masters of the Six String Guitar" as well as received a National Heritage Award for his instrument building prowess. Wayne is one hell of a fingerpicker, easily one of the best living and funny as hell to boot. Very humble and unassuming. The quartet ran through some Carter Family songs, traditional mountain ballads and fiddle tunes, each played with great dexterity and devotion. What a thrill.
Following dinner, I headed up to the Hillside Stage for a set from Donna The Buffalo. A MerleFest favorite, this band has seemingly been on the road for twenty years. I'm a bit baffled how I've never seen them before. Another one of those alternativecountryrootsrockamericana band with some serious jam band leanings, Donna the Buffalo has been a perennial favorite on the tour and festival circuit. They have a loyal following among MerleFest attendees and the tie dye and swirling dancers were out in force tonight. They played a crowd pleasing set, leaving their fans wanting more. Not much more then you can ask for then that.