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":
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.
Neon Indian is finally getting ready to release the much-anticipated follow-up to its 2009 breakthrough debut album, Psychic Chasms. The Texas Indie/Electronic band — a MidPoint Indie Summer Series "regular," playing packed shows at Fountain Square's free Friday night concerts this and last year — is dropping Era Extraña on Neon Indian mastermind Alan Palomo's (pictured) own Static Tongues imprint on Sept. 13. Want a sneak peak? Head below and click the widget to receive a link for a free download of the new album track, "Fallout."
Yesterday, successful Cincinnati Indie Pop quartet Pomegranates (playing tonight at Brooklyn's Knitting Factory) gave fans an unexpected treat — a new full-length album. The Poms’ unannounced In Your Face Thieves/Chestnut Attic was issued on iTunes and other e-retailers and on 12-inch vinyl from the band’s original label, Lujo Records. The album project began as a planned 7-inch single but snowballed into a 10-song LP. The unusual title comes from the individual names of the two “fully realized EPs” that make up the release, one per side on the vinyl version. Click above to listen to lead-off track “Softness.”
Tonight at The Drinkery on Main Street in Over-the-Rhine, excellent local Pop/Hip Hop/Rock crew Gold Shoes release its first long-player in conjunction with a free performance (the album is conveniently titled The Gold Shoes LP). The band was formed in 2009 and features MC vocals from rapper Buggs Tha Rocka (a great solo artist as well), Steven Shaefer on guitar/sax, Mike Weigand (keys), Kevin Johnson (bass), Tony Kuchma (drums/percussion) and singer/guitarist Archie Niebuhr. Gold Shoes has a magnetic, endearing sound that mixes Hip Hop and Rock with great hooks and touches of Jazz and Blues. Fun, cool stuff. You can purchase or give the album a preview spin online here.
Tonight's show starts at 9 p.m. and also features Vito Emmanuel, The Zoo Crew and DJ Sinceer.
Late last year, the band released the album's first single and video, "Trade Your Wings." More recently, they unveiled another great music video for the track "Barely Alive." Check 'em both out below.
Is it merely coincidence that I revisited Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music in the same week that the latest missive from Another Cultural Landslide wound up in that same CD drawer? Probably. Is it happenstance that ACL's new soundtrack for the imminent end of the world, Last Days Last Days, is coming out at a moment in human history where everything on the planet seems to be going to shit on a shovel? I wouldn't rush to that particular judgment, but there's a certain logic to the conclusion.
To be clear, there's no direct correlation between Reed's masterful mindfuck and ACL's post-Pop apocalyptic song quilt beyond a sense of unsettled exhilaration that accompanies both albums. That and the fact that both artists pre-supposed their respective works would be considered "difficult" listening experiences. The difference is in their messages? Reed was screaming "Fuck you," while ACL is calmly noting "We don't have to fuck you, you're fucked already."
Is Last Days Last Days a millennial Rock opera by Christians with a bruised faith or agnostics who have found God in the foxhole? Maybe both, maybe neither. The important thing to remember is that ACL wants you to do something productive with your free floating anxiety over the state of the world. At the same time, Last Days Last Days doesn't offer any definitive answers in that regard, it simply insists that you ask better questions. Kirk and Wendy, the brain trust behind ACL, adhere to a simple rule in the making of their music; no two songs alike. While that could result in a checkered and incoherent album in the wrong hands, ACL's laser focus on theme assures a consistent and satisfying whole.
The album begins with "Looking for Answers," its ostensible title cut, a pacesetting track that bristles with Talking Heads/Television verve and Pop/Funk bounce, not to mention a sprinkling of Tusk-like bombast and Zappaesque tomfoolery. It's very nearly a straight-ahead Rock anthem, except for the subversively swaying tempo that purposefully wobbles your gyroscope in order to maintain your attention and guide you to the song's ultimate message, contained in this lyric toward the end: "So if you want to get through tomorrow, you'd better stand up and get through today, we're just saying we're looking for answers, we don't want to give our future away."
From there, ACL tosses convention into their home recording Mixmaster and creates a chunky musical salsa that includes the operatic Disco of "Old" ("Giving up at age 32, I know 90-year-olds that are younger than you"), the stuttering Sesame Street-on-acid lesson plan of "Everybody's Got a Brain," the Laurie Anderson-on-Quaaludes cautionary tale of "Standing Nail," the tribal lounge Pop of "Next," which mixes romantic end-of-the-world lyrical cliches (sun don't rise, moon don't shine, rivers don't run) with real consequences ("Won't be dancing in the streets no more, close your blinds and you lock your door, just lay down and die, kiss your ass goodbye") and the Calypso-fired undead-limbo Rock of "A Meditation on the Impending Zombie Apocalypse," with its irresistible lyrical hook ("Drop the bomb and then we can dance"), and the evolutionary heartland Power Pop of "Monkey."
Is Last Days Last Days a perfect musical statement? Far from it. Kirk and Wendy are home recordists not music professionals. The Cincinnati expatriates crank out their amazingly fulsome productions in a spare bedroom in their Florida apartment, their composing and performing pursuits crowbarred into their busy schedules that include the day jobs, family lives and health issues that dog us all. Like all the best music, ACL's intention with Last Days Last Days overcomes the blemishes of its creation and appreciation of it as a whole will grow with every successive listen. On top of that, the duo have always given and will continue to give their music away; if you want to hear the fruits of their many labors, click here.
There is plenty of heart and head in the pure music and sonic ephemera on Last Days Last Days, but like Harry Nilsson's Oblio, the instant you perceive ACL has a point, as in the heart-rending hymnal of "Not Enough Bullets," it seemingly dissipates in a crash of guitar chords, a chorus of quacking ducks or an army of brain-starved zombies. Last Days Last Days is the sound of outsider music being made from the inside, of Art Pop being crafted with a keen sense of both art and Pop. Kirk and Wendy have collaborated on nearly a dozen albums and EPs under the banner of Another Cultural Landslide, but we can only hope that Last Days Last Days doesn't fulfill the prophecy of its title.
Listen to the album below and click on the player for a free download of it.
Cincinnati native Tom Berninger’s film that follows his older brother Matt’s band, The National, on tour, Mistaken for Strangers, is finally opening in Cincinnati this weekend, after making the film fest rounds and racking up mounds of positive press (it currently has an impressive 92 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes).
The movie — which follows The National’s members (all Cincy natives) on their tour behind 2010’s High Violet album, but is really more about Tom and Matt’s relationship — makes its Cincinnati premiere this Friday at the Esquire Theatre in Clifton at 7:30 p.m.
The Friday screening will be followed by a Q&A via Skype with the Berninger brothers. Following Monday’s 7:30 p.m. screening, there will be an in-person Q&A hosted by Jim Blase of Shake It Records and featuring Tom, Matt and The National’s drummer, Bryan Devendorf.
Here's the trailer for Mistaken for Strangers:
An EP can serve several purposes — a stopgap release between full-length releases; fresh merch to offer at shows; a teaser for more material down the road; or an exploratory release to test the waters for a response to a new band or an existing band's new direction (among others).
In any event, whatever a band's reason might be for offering up a small dose of their material for reduced consumption, the inviolable rule of the EP is simple — always leave the listener wanting more. If you elicit even a modicum of boredom or disinterest in a spare handful of tracks, you're not likely to entice listeners to take a chance on a full-length or get them out to a show, which is, as stated, sort of the point.
Luckily, no such lapse is even remotely evident on Real Far East, Saturn Batteries' second EP in just over a year. Since the Cincinnati bands formation in 2010, guitarist/vocalist/lyricist Brad Gibson — who's put in bass time with the likes of Charlie Hustle, Young Heirlooms and Walk the Moon — has presented his brainchild as a trio, quartet and quintet along the way, all in the service of Beatlesque Pop filtered through the New Wave aesthetic of the Police and XTC and adrenalized with a heart needle full of the Pixies' jittery satellite Rock.
On last year's Ever Been in Love? Gibson and the Batteries du jour hewed a little closer to the John Lennon/Frank Black strands of their DNA, but Real Far East finds the freshly minted foursome (Gibson, guitarist Brad Rutledge, drummer Justin Sheldon, bassist Archie Niebuhr) drifting more toward the Paul McCartney/Andy Partridge end of their gene pool. And while the Batteries soften the edges ever so subtly and polish their surface to a slightly more reflective shine on Real Far East, these refinements don't diminish the band's energetic charm in the least.
One of the reasons for that is the Batteries have never forsaken one direction for another, preferring to incorporate differing elements into their foundational sound in an effective display of their diversity. The soulful "It's Not About the Money" and propulsive "Overtime" are both Pop gems that swing and swagger in a groove that isn't far removed from the benchmarks established by Walk the Moon in their march toward global domination. "You Really Live Twice" features previous members Rob Barnes and Rich Shivener, naturally hearkening back to the moody energy of Ever Been in Love? "Every Last Time" updates '60s/'70s AM Pop to the 21st century, while "Cherry Times" is a solid hybrid of the sweet and dissonant Pop that has characterized everything that Saturn Batteries has done well to this point in their history.
Real Far East shows that Saturn Batteries can have fun within their core Pop/Rock sound and clearly points the way toward a bright future for the quartet going forward.
Saturn Batteries celebrates the release of Real Far East tonight (Friday) at The Drinkery in Over-the-Rhine (click here for details). Below is the EP track “Every Last Time”; click the player or here to sample/download the entire release.
The release of the self-titled debut album from Cincinnati trio Tweens is just about a month away now. The music site Stereogum recently premiered the trio’s first music video for new album single, “Be Mean,” a great introduction to the band’s classic-Pop-meets-classic-Punk style (or “Trash Pop,” as they like to call it).
The buzz around Tweens, which scored the “New Artist of the Year” award at the 2014 Cincinnati Entertainment Awards, continues to grow across the nation, with more and more music press and online outlets heaping praise on the both the band's recordings and live shows. That buzz should be almost deafening when Tweens’ debut LP is finally released on April 8 through Frenchkiss Records. The band’s usually packed tour schedule is about to get extra-busy with the new release just on the horizon, beginning with a head-spinning six performances during next week’s South By Southwest music fest/conference in Texas.
Click here to read CityBeat's most recent interview with Tweens.
Former experimental Jazz artist Matt Baumann has totally shifted gears and is now performing as banjo-playing Americana artist WolfCryer. Tonight at MOTR Pub in Over-the-Rhine, Baumann (as WolfCryer) celebrates the release of his debut, self-titled EP by performing the recording live in its entirety starting at 10 p.m. From the sounds of the EP, WolfCryer is going to be a very welcome addition to Greater Cincinnati's eclectic, thriving Roots/Americana scene.
Baumann’s music partner Eric Barnett (a.k.a. whiskeyheart) then takes over the stage after the live EP presentation, followed by popular local Indie Folk group Evans Collective. Wolfcryer comes back to close out the night at around 12:30 a.m. To listen to and then purchase the EP online, visit nobleoakrecords.bandcamp.com. Here's a little sample to whet your appetite.
Click here to read an interview with Baumann from CityBeat's Brian Baker in 2008, when he was crafting adventurous music with a saxophone.