The album is an endangered concept in music, with MP3s and streaming encouraging more and more people to listen to tracks “a la carte.” If people aren’t listening to a collection of songs intentionally put together by an artist in a specific order, why should the artist bother trying? It’s one of the reasons releasing EPs seems to have become more popular than issuing full-lengths.
With some exceptions, the “album as art” concept has long been dwindling amongst Hip Hop artists, many of whom have more fully embraced the hodge-podge “mixtape” format, which is perhaps more in tune with our ADD/social media-plagued culture.
So it’s beyond refreshing to hear the new release from Cincinnati MC Sleep, Branded: The Damon Winton Story, a collection of eight tracks that tells the story of a young man’s troubled upbringing. It’s not just that Sleep has compiled eight songs that kind of fit together; Branded is a fully envisioned tale that requires the listener to hear the entire album in order to get the total impact. And it’s quite an impact.
It helps that Sleep’s “concept album” is based on some excellent storytelling skills, contains some fierce rhymes (with a flow and timbre that recalls Jay-Z at his peak) and is supported by the excellent, often hauntingly atmospheric production of Dope Antelope, which brilliantly reflects the dark, chaotic, heart-breaking nature of the story. The way Sleep — half of local duo 2-Man Cypher — lays the story out is also sharply clever. In lieu of titles, each track is labeled as simply “Question,” followed by the track number. The album opens with a police officer hitting “record” to begin his interview with the main character’s social worker about “what could have led up to what transpired with him this past weekend.” To kick off each track, the social worker is asked about a different aspect of the trouble the young man had experienced and been in.
Working backwards from the incident (which isn’t revealed until “Question 8,” so the listener is left to wonder what transpired), Sleep creates evocative, harrowing slices of life, usually told from the main character’s point of view, but with other voices popping in occasionally to give an even bigger picture. The young man’s horrific surroundings are revealed gradually; the listener learns that he has self-mutilated himself, been molested, lost (or never had) faith or religion and had family involved in drugs. Sleep’s brilliance is turning the smaller stories from the big picture into vivid, cinematic tales in themselves — “If this is grown folks’ business/Then why when you conduct it, there’s a child as a witness,” he raps after it’s revealed that the main character’s mother had substance abuse issues. When the social worker tells the officer that the young man had been bullied over his clothes in school, Sleep echoes that pain with lines like, “The peer pressure to be above the status quo/It’s never ending, it’s never taking sabbaticals.”
By the last track, the listener is primed to hear just what happened to the main character, but when his fate is revealed, it’s not what most would expect, making the album that much more powerful. (In the spirit of not ruining the final act, I’ll refrain from giving away the ending.)
Sleep’s Branded shows just how much power Hip Hop still has to tell a realistic story poetically but without hyperbole. It’s an incredibly moving piece of work that stands as one of the best Hip Hop albums to come out of Greater Cincinnati in recent memory. And Sleep shows that if he ever gets tired of the Rap game (which itself would be tragic becomes the genre needs more voices like his), he’ll be able to find some kind of career as a writer, be it an author, a journalist, a filmmaker or whatever field he decides to lend his talents to.
If you’re a fan of intelligent Hip Hop or just great storytelling in general, you must download (for free or whatever you’d like to kick in) Branded immediately at sleep513.bandcamp.com.
Here is a music video for the track, "Question 2":
I’m still getting used to my new digs here at The Daily Beat as everyone rushes about, delivering their stories with right-this-minute immediacy and what not. Of course, with my continuing effort to bring you up to date on the reviews from last summer and fall that were missed for a variety of reasons, my breaking news has all the timeliness of “Bin Laden is dead!” and “I’m so happy for Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries — it’s nice to see a celebrity couple in it for the long haul.”
Luckily, the early weeks of this new year, with a couple of well-stocked exceptions, are pretty light on titles, allowing me the time and space to revisit some deserving highlights from bygone months while checking out the latest and greatest from the new calendar. Wait, there’s something coming across the teletype in the Bunker — apparently, the war is over! The Falkland Islands are free at last!
Celebrate with new reviews, then some old reviews. Then a drink and possibly a nap.
Margot and the Nuclear So and So’s frontman Richard Edwards may be the most tenacious man in rock. In 2009, the band’s Indianapolis home base was heavily damaged by fire, they were dropped by Epic after the controversy over Animal/Not Animal and the majority of the band quit.
That would have been the end of Margot for most guys, but Edwards resurrected his outfit with bassist Tyler Watkins and multi-instrumentalist Erik Kang and, with an impressive guest list, assembled and self-released 2010’s spectacular Buzzard, a clattering bit of Indie Rock brilliance that diverged from Margot’s early Chamber Pop explorations.
Last year, Edwards and a completely reconstituted MATNSAS generated their recording budget through the Pledge Music website and began tracking their fourth album, the noisily majestic Rot Gut, Domestic.
Much like Buzzard, Rot Gut seems more shambolic and scattered than it really is; like a pointilist painting, it pays to stand back in order to appreciate the work. On Rot Gut, Edwards and MATNSAS have crafted an amazing amalgam of Wilco’s artful squall (“Disease and Tobacco Free,” “Fisher of Men”) and Ryan Adams’ buzzy indie evocation of ’70s Rock (“Books About Trains,” “Arvydas Sabonis,” “Ludlow Junk Hustle”) while simultaneously managing to reference the atmospheric Pop that marked their first two albums. After 10 tracks of that, MATNSAS finish up with an amazing one-two punch; the dissonant and fuzzed out “The Devil” is followed, logically enough, by the exquisite balladry of “Christ,” a Randy Newman-meets-Paul Westerberg piano-and-ethereal-frippery hymn (“Jesus breaks your heart every night when He doesn’t come”).
The scariest thing about Rot Gut, Domestic is that Richard Edwards and Margot and the Nuclear So and So’s might have an even better album than this minor masterpiece in them.
Detroit producers/Electro musicians Ryan Spencer and Adam Pressley formed its new project Jamaican Queens last year, following the demise of their previous band, Prussia. The pair bonded over a mutual love for Hip Hop production, something that would find itself central to Jamaican Queens winding sound. Together less than a year, the twosome's single "Kids Get Away" introduced the newcomers with a sound that blends EDM, Hip Hop sounds and rhythms and a somewhat psychedelic brand of Indie Pop.
The band calls its music "Trap Pop," a reference to the Trap style of Hip Hop that is something of a successor to the old Southern Crunk style. Still, you won't mistake Jamaican Queens' music for T.I.'s — JQ's unpredictable, fluttering style recalls MGMT's last two albums had the Electronic aspects of their music been more prominent.
Jamaican Queens' first full-length, Wormfood, is due in February and was mixed by Christopher Lazlo Koltay, a former Cincinnati musician who has been enjoying a successful engineering/production career in Detroit the past several years, working with artists like The Dirtbombs and Akron/Family. Here's the song that has garnered the band the most attention so far, "Kids Get Away."
Eclectic Cincinnati Reggae crew The Cliftones — one of the best Reggae outfits in the region — will be celebrating the release of their latest single, "Hold Steady," this Saturday with a show at Northside club Mayday. DJ Mowgli will also perform. Advanced tickets are available now for $7 here. The first 100 people through the door will receive a free download card giving access to the single.
Like the band's previously released single — "Hard Ground," released in January — The Cliftones once again have some legendary ears/mixing fingers involved with "Hold Steady." "Hard Ground" was mixed in D.C. by Jim Fox, who has worked with icons like Black Uhuru, Gregory Isaacs, Barrington Levy and Culture. For "Hold Steady," DJ Prophecy (known for work with Bassnectar and Glitch Mob) handled the mixing, while Dub legend Scientist handled mastering duties.
Here's the exclusive stream of "Hold Steady":
Tonight's allegedly the "busiest bar night of the year," so if you like to hang out at places that are really packed, this is your jam. If you like to hear live music when you go out, you're also in luck, as a lot of the top acts seek out lucrative Wednesday-before-Turkey-Day gigs because of the aforementioned packed-ness.
If you want that live music to be (primarily) original, here are a few recommendations.
• Troy, Ohio-spawned Miss May I (whose singer, Levi Benton, recently moved to Cincinnati) is headlining the Alternative Press tour, which conveniently brings the increasingly popular "Metalcore" band back to their homeland just in time for Thanksgiving. The band's most recent release, At Heart (on Rise Records), came out this summer and was greeted with the best reviews of MMI's career and a No. 32 debut on the Billboard Top 200 chart.
The thrashy, melodic MMI headlines tonight at Bogart's in Corryville on a bill that also features The Ghost Inside, Like Moths to Flames, The Amity Affliction and Glass Cloud. Doors open at 6 p.m. and tickets to the all-ages show are $20.
Read CityBeat's interview with Benton here then check out Miss May I's most recent music video, for At Heart track "Day By Day."
• Vintage Rock & Roll stylist Chris Isaak makes his way to downtown Cincinnati tonight for an 8 p.m. show at the Taft Theatre. Tickets range from $29.50-$59.50. Isaak's going to have to play the show then hop on a plane quickly — he's slated to perform in the annual Macy's Thanksgiving Parade in New York City. (Click here to read CityBeat's full preview of the show.)
Isaak recently issued a live DVD based on his 2011 double-disc release Beyond the Sun (his first for the Vanguard label). The album was a collection of cover songs originally recorded by artists on Memphis' seminal Sun Records (from Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis to Carl Perkins and, of course, Elvis), a fitting tribute given Isaak's similar approach and sound. The new Chris Isaak Live! Beyond the Sun DVD is a concert flick featuring several songs from the Sun album, as well as some of his big hits. Expect to hear a similar set list tonight. Here's an Isaak original from the DVD, "Live It Up."
• The songcraft experts and flawless musicians of veteran Cincy Pop/Rock band The Newbees host an album release party tonight at Newport's Southgate House Revival. The release show was originally intended to be the second show at the new club (brought to you by the owners/operators of the old, beloved Southgate House across from Newport on the Levee) but a late code inspection held the grand opening up for a week. The Newbs are celebrating their LP Modern Vintage, a patchwork of musical styles and mercilessly catchy songs. Click here for a full review of the album.
The Newbees are joined tonight by The Turkeys, Chaselounge, Honey & Houston, Les Whorenettes, Shiny Old Soul, See You in the Funnies, Sundae Drives and Dave Hawkins. Tickets are $12 at the door (or $14 for those ages 18-20). Showtime is 9 p.m. Here's the Beatles-esque new album track "Up All Night":
• There are also plenty of other local original groups performing tonight. Among the highlights: Reggae/Rock crew The Ohms and soulful, rocking power trio Tattered Roots (which is celebrating its one-year anniversary) join together at Stanley's Pub in Columbia Tusculum. … Rootsy rockers Alone at 3 a.m. are playing a freebie at The Comet in Northside with Jacob Tippey and Matt Wood. … Electronic improvisers Skeetones hold down the party at The Mad Frog in Corryville, joined by guests The B.E.A.T. and Bassface. … Two former members of The Greenhornes — Brian Olive and Eric Stein — perform a free show at Northside Tavern with their current bands, The Brian Olive Band and Stein's Grotesque Brooms. … Rocket-fueled Indie/Blues/Roots/Rock trio The Sundresses headline tonight's free offering at MOTR Pub in Over-the-Rhine, joined by Detroit foursome Jeecy and the Jungle. … And two of the city's best modern rockers — Ohio Knife and State Song — perform a free show at Mayday in Northside (see poster above).
Besides being rid of this depressing winter weather, there's another great reason for local music fans to be excited about the coming spring. One of the more celebrated and acclaimed bands in and outside of Cincinnati, Wussy, will release its new album, Attica, on May 6. The recording will be the band’s fifth full-length of all new material and is once again being issued on the local label Shake It Records.
Below is a “rough mix” of the Attica track “To the Lightning.”
Shake It has also announced that Wussy — which scored both Artist of the Year and Album of the Year (for Strawberry) honors at the 2013 Cincinnati Entertainment Awards — will have its excellent 2007 album Left for Dead re-issued on “baby blue” vinyl in honor of 2014’s international Record Store Day (April 19).
Click here for Wussy’s comprehensive website for more info and to sample music from throughout the band’s entire career.
MusicNOW, the popular new music festival founded by Cincinnatian Bryce Dessner of internationally acclaimed Indie Rock band The National, will celebrate its 10th anniversary this year when the fest returns March 11-15 at Music Hall, Memorial Hall and first-time venue Woodward Theatre.
On March 10, the Over-the-Rhine fest will be celebrated with the digital release of a compilation album featuring musical highlights from MusicNOW’s first nine years. MusicNOW- 10 Years will feature previously unreleased performances by Dirty Projectors, Sufjan Stevens, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Grizzly Bear, My Brightest Diamond and others.
The album’s “Trials, Troubles, Tribulations” by Sounds of the South, a project featuring Vernon, Sharon Van Etten, Megafaun, Matthew E. White and Fight the Big Bull, was recently released as a preview.
“The first track ‘Trials, Troubles, Tribulations’ gets at the spirit of the compilation and the event. It is an American bluegrass gospel song written by Estil C. Ball. Here it is performed by Sounds of the South, a project featuring Justin Vernon (Bon Iver, Volcano Choir), Sharon Van Etten, Megafaun, Matthew E. White, and Fight the Big Bull. The project, organized by Megafaun, initially appeared at Duke Performances in North Carolina and MusicNOW in Cincinnati, Ohio, and subsequently traveled to Sydney Festival in Australia.”
In the press release for the album, Dessner says, ““Many of my most significant memories as a musician have taken place in Cincinnati during the MusicNOW Festival over the last 10 years. When we started, we were driven to create an intimate music festival that was as much a creative refuge for the artists as it is for the audience to partake in intimate and rare performances. We have celebrated works in progress and new commissions, new collaborations and detailed music of all kinds regardless of genre or popularity."
This year’s MusicNOW festival features appearances by Stevens, Nico Muhly, So Percussion, Timo Andres, concert:nova with Jeff Zeigler, Cloud Nothings, Will Butler and more. The National will also perform at the festival on March 13 at Music Hall with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Click here for full details and ticket info.
Sounds of the South "Trials, Troubles, Tribulations"
Robin Pecknold "Silver Dagger"
Sufjan Stevens "The Owl & The Tanager"
eighth blackbird "Omie Wise"
My Brightest Diamond "I Have Never Loved Someone"
Dirty Projectors "Emblem Of The World"
Tinariwen "Imidiwan Ma Tenam"
Tim Hecker "Chimeras (Live) 2011"
Colin Stetson "Nobu Take"
Owen Pallett "E Is For Estranged"
Erik Friedlander "Airstream Envy"
Bonnie 'Prince' Billy "Love Comes to Me"
Grizzly Bear "While You Wait For The Others"
The Books with Clogs "Classy Penguin"
Andrew Bird "Section 8 City"
Justin Vernon "Love More"
• At this weekend's Whispering Beard Folk Festival in Southeast Indiana, masterful Cold Spring, Ky., Americana group The Kentucky Struts debuted their great new music video for the ominous, creeping and soulful tune, "Country Road," from their The Year of the Horse album. The band made the video with Keith Neltner and Brian Steege, who worked on the documentary Charlie Louvin: Still Rattlin' the Devil's Cage. (Read more about the Struts recent album from CityBeat here.)