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":
New Music Releases Available Now: Promising, trippy Hip Hop/Dance newcomer Theophilus London has released his debut long-player, Timez Are Weird These Days. London — a native of Trinidad — isn’t your typical MC, as his music and this feature from The New York Times show. Spinner has a full stream of Timez here and you can get a sample of his unique style for your very own with this free download of the RAC Remix version of the track “Why Even Try,” courtesy of Mashable. Below is a wild clip for the song “Girls Girls $.”
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.
Fountain Square's popular Thursday evening "Salsa on the Square" concerts/dances — featuring top Salsa/Latin Jazz groups from across the area (and sometimes beyond), numerous dancers and even free Salsa lessons (right at the scheduled 7 p.m. start time) — are coming to an end for the summer, with two more dates left. Like all concerts on the Square, the event is free and tonight and next Thursday you can also score a free Salsa compilation EP.
"Volume 4" of the Salsa on the Square CD compilation series features five tracks by performers from this year's concerts on the Square, including locals Cla've Son, Azucar Tumbao, Son del Caribe and veteran local favorites Tropicoso, plus a cut from tonight's Salsa on the Square headliners, Bay Area ensemble Brian Andres and the Afro-Cuban Jazz Cartel.
Only 500 Salsa on the Square comps are available; half will be given out tonight and the rest next Thursday, when Tropicoso closes out the series.
Brian Andres and the Afro-Cuban Jazz Cartel will be making the most of their Cincinnati visit (though based in San Francisco since 1999, drummer/group leader Andres grew up in Cincinnati, where he first found his drumming groove). The group also performs downtown at the Blue Wisp Jazz Club, Friday and Saturday at 8:30 p.m. Admission is $10. Read more about Andres and Co. from this preview from when they were in town last year.
Here's a clip of Brian Andres and the Afro-Cuban Jazz Cartel performing "Estampa Cubana" in 2009.
Heavy Hinges is a new-ish band featuring some faces likely familiar to dedicated local music fans. Guitarist Jeremy Singer and drummer Brian Williamson have played in numerous groups over the past two decades, while singer/guitarist Dylan Speeg and bassist Andrew Laudeman were members of long-running, super-diverse Cincinnati crew Buckra. Maya Banatwala is the relative newcomer in the band, but her soul-drenched co-lead vocals in the Hinges serve as the group’s secret weapon.
Heavy Hinges debut album, Mean Old City, shows signs of some of Buckra’s trademark sonic diversity, but it’s channeled in a more focused manner. Ultimately, Heavy Hinges is a great Rock & Roll band, but its sound is touched by influences from Blues, Pop, Funk and Soul to various other forms of American Roots music. Like Alabama Shakes, Heavy Hinges manages to sound remarkably vital and “of the now” — despite the obvious vintage inspirations — thanks to the sincerity and vigor poured into each note. Mean Old City bristles with a timelessness that has less to do with the classic genres flirted with throughout and more to do with the from-the-heart songwriting and playing.
Here’s a music video for Mean Old City track “Booze May Be Your Lover, Not Your Friend”:
Speeg and Banatwala make for great co-frontpeople, crisscrossing their melodies and harmonies sometimes like X’s Exene Cervenka and John Doe and other times like June and Johnny Cash, with each singer possessing a voice quite distinct from each other, yet still sounding like they were made for each other when they come together. Meanwhile, the rest of the band are flawless and perform with a similar soulfulness; Williamson and Laudeman are a jaw-droppingly great rhythm section, while Singer’s guitar leads and solos are as attention-grabbing as the singers’ powerful vocal one-two punch.
Heavy Hinges host a free release party for the new album Saturday at 10 p.m. at Northside Tavern with DAAP Girls. Read CityBeat's profile of Heavy Hinges from early this year when the band was nominated in the "Best New Artist" category at the Cincinnati Entertainment Awards.
Paul Weller has traveled a fascinating trend-bucking career arc since his debut with The Jam during Punk’s heyday in the late ’70s. When every other band was pursuing a gobsmacked, adrenaline-soaked and barely coherent version of Rock, Weller and The Jam were turning out their highly stylized spin on The Who’s Mod period.
When The Jam’s influence turned out pale imitators, Weller moved on to Style Council, a loungey R&B/Pop outfit that inspired a whole genre of similarly subdued purveyors. Weller’s subsequent solo career has been a pastiche of Brit Folk flavored Baroque Rock flecked with bits of the sonic personae that he’s championed over the past three decades, from the brilliant Traffic/Small Faces direction of his solo debut, 1992’s Wild Wood, to the Soul reflection of 2002’s Illumination to the edgy Punk Pop buzz of 2005’s As Is Now.
It seems hard to imagine but Weller is on a hot streak at the back end of a 35-year career; 2008’s 22 Dreams was on a fair number of critics’ year-end lists and 2010’s Wake Up the Nation was nominated for Britian’s Mercury Music Prize. To his credit, Weller’s approach to a new album resembles the first rule of Italian driving — what’s behind you doesn’t matter anymore.
So it is with his latest set, the diverse and energetic Sonik Kicks. The album lurches to life with the insistent and atmospheric “Green,” a squalling, blipping gene splice of The Buzzcocks and Muse, which leads into the tropical Pop bounce of “The Attic” and Weller’s Pop/Punk homage to Kurt Weill, the noisily melodic “Kling I Klang.” Weller returns to his acoustic direction on the gentle (and gently orchestrated) “By the Waters,” which he follows with “That Dangerous Age,” a track that Peter Gabriel would be amazed to find had nothing to do with him, and the six-and-a-half minute smoky Pop/Soul workout of “Study in Blue,” which deftly blends a lot of what has come before it.
Given the amazing breadth of Weller’s creative palette, perhaps his consistent versatility shouldn’t be such a surprise, but the incredible range and vitality of Sonik Kicks has the snap and spirit of an artist in the middle of his career, not nearing its 40th anniversary.
After launching last year locally at the MidPoint Music Festival and nationally at New York’s CMJ conference, the intuitive and comprehensive music industry e-book Musicians’ Desk Reference has relaunched with a new format. Created in Cincinnati by longtime local musician and promoter Brian Penick (also the founder of The Counter Rhythm Group, which has helped numerous local acts garner national attention and work), MDR is moving from its original, one-time-purchase approach to a monthly (or annual) subscription plan.
For those who may have been cautious about its upfront cost, Musicians’ Desk Reference, which is customizable to the user’s needs (no matter where they are in their career) and features information, templates and advice relating to everything from touring, promoting and recording to radio and press campaigns and well beyond, is now available to test-drive for free. The no-cost 30-day trial doesn’t even require a credit card; click here to get started.
Artists serious about pursuing a career in music will likely become more interested in MDR as they dive in and look at all it has to offer. After the 30-day trial, MDR can be accessed for $10 a month or $100 for the year.
Visit musiciansdeskreference.com for complete info.
If you are a betting man or woman and the bet is “What Cincinnati band will be next to break out into the national spotlight?” putting your money on Indie Pop/Rock trio PUBLIC would be one of the safer wagers you could make. The three gifted young musicians craft some incredibly catchy music that would be right at home on any AltRock radio station’s playlist, as evidenced especially on a brand new track the group just unveiled, the danceable, hook-laden “Make You Mine.”
The new track is a part of series of new songs planned for a forthcoming release that will be rolled out over the next few weeks. The band (which released its debut EP Red in 2012 and has since performed at big-time tests like South By Southwest and CMJ) will stream a new track every week though its Bandcamp page leading up to its first local show in a while, on May 2 at Rohs Street Cafe’s Sanctuary in Clifton Heights.
PUBLIC will be joined by The Yugos and Harbour for the all-ages show, which is the trio’s first official headlining gig ever (so if you attend and they blow up, as industry buzz suggests they just might, you can tell your grandkids you were there). Tickets are available now here.
For more info on PUBLIC, visit the group’s Facebook page here. And check out CityBeat's interview with PUBLIC from 2013 (when the group was nominated for New Artist of the Year at the Cincinnati Entertainment Awards) here.
When Maps & Atlases dropped Perch Patchwork, their 2010 debut full-length and first album for Barsuk Records, the Chicago-based quartet was just beginning to explore the intersection of their adoration of Post-Punk Math heroes like Don Caballero and their father-tilted love of ’70s Prog avatars like Jethro Tull and Mahavishnu Orchestra. M&A’s introductory EPs — 2006’s Tree, Swallows, Houses and 2008’s You and Me and the Mountain — found the band pursuing a more Folk-tinged flavor, but Perch Patchwork was an expansive yet subtle attempt to utilize the totality of the band’s creative building blocks. That exploration paid huge dividends as critics and fans alike were drawn to M&A’s lo-fi sonic constructions and hi-fi orchestral ambitions.
Maps & Atlases’ sophomore full length, Beware and Be Grateful, expands and refines the musical trail blazed on Perch Patchwork. In the album’s formative stages, the band employed a collection of secondhand battery-powered keyboards to blueprint their textural arrangements and, although the keyboard sounds were largely excised for the final recording, they were vitally important in forcing M&A to rethink their creative process.
As a result, Beware and Be Grateful doesn’t stray impossibly far from Perch Patchwork but it definitely advances the band’s flag a little further up the hill, exhibiting a forceful Math Pop sound that shimmers and shakes with an exuberant authority. The album’s opening track, “Old & Gray,” begins like Talking Heads tributing Paul Simon’s Graceland and finishes like Brian Eno producing Spoon. Similarly unexpected juxtapositions crash and meld into one another throughout the duration of Beware and Be Grateful.
Tribal choral melodies float above while the band skips and skates around a soundtrack that is equal measures of quirky Indie Rock (“Vampires”) and blippy Electro Pop (“Silver Self”). There are still plenty of remnants of the band’s organic approach to song construction but there are also many more examples of Maps & Atlases pushing themselves to think well beyond the natural box they fashioned on their earlier releases, blending their influences and experiences and evolving in fascinating new directions.
(Maps & Atlases perform July 15 at the inaugural Bunbury Music Festival along Cincinnati's riverfront.)
Local faves Buffalo Killers are gearing up for the May 13 release of Heavy Reverie, the trio’s first record for Warner Music Group subsidiary Sun Pedal Recordings. Today the band revealed the new album track “Poisonberry Tide,” a delicious slice of Pop Rock that is reminiscent of Guided By Voices and Superdrag and is one of the catchiest songs the band has ever released.
The label still has a few limited edition “bundles” of the new album available for pre-order. The bundle includes Heavy Reverie on CD and vinyl, as well as a digital download that includes the unreleased song “Don’t Cry to Me.” The package also includes a vinyl test pressing (with hand-drawn artwork by the band members), a T-shirt and a poster. Click here for more info.
Buffalo Killers will do some regional dates in April (including a Cincinnati album release show April 12 at MOTR Pub) before heading out on a wider tour in May and June. Dates so far include a performance at Pioneertown, California’s Freaks for the Festival II. At the fest, the band will perform right before the solo project of Chris Robinson of The Black Crowes (Chris Robinson Brotherhood); Robinson has been a longtime, vocal supporter of the trio.