October 24: Of Montreal, Janelle Monae

There are no bad things that can be said about a show that is rich in theatrics, costume changes, tricks of lighting, giant fake television set-pieces and ends with a medley of good Michael Jackson covers. When two acts are so relentlessly active, so evocative, as Of Montreal and Janelle Monae were on Sunday night, they inject life into an audience that cannot be ignored, or perhaps more creepily, resisted. I attended this show primarily for the opportunity to witness Janelle Monae in person. I quickly hopped on that bandwagon; addicted to her bright, soulful vocals and songs that are fraught with a fantasy-sci-fi combo that is remarkably poignant as social commentary (and also exceedingly self-aware). Monae is a purveyor dance, fun music, that extends beyond its own mold of merely providing a beat to say more about the nature of love, and the way our world oppresses us at our own hand. Of Montreal is a band I have loved, specifically for Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? and 2008's Skeletal Lamping, over the last few years. I had read a lot about them and heard a great bit of anecdotal accounts of their live performance, but I had never seen the chaos myself. After seeing, Of Montreal is a sort of "bucket list band" that I'd recommend seeing live, preferably in their current prime, before dying.

The show began with Monae's face, dressed as her character the ArchAndroid, was projected above the stage. After a brief exposition, to drive the compelling story of sci-fi robo-oppression, she cried to the crowd, "There is only one rule tonight: Dance or die." And dance we did. Monae performed close to half the songs on her new album, hitting the highlights of "Cold War," "Tightrope," and "Wondaland." The show was pure energy, fueled by drama and motion. And costumes. Monae appeared initially as one of three cloaked figures. Facing away from the stage she began her first number, and in time, the hood came down to reveal her trademark pompadour, and from there her performance was lively, powerful and loaded with sharp footwork. Often, instead of back up dancers, Monae was flanked by cloaked figures or masked creatures, each group playing into the active performance art of the song. Whether painting numbers in acrylic on a blank canvas, live, throughout a soulful lament, or "gunning down" oppressive figures with her finger-guns, the show was all about activity. The fact that she wasn't the headliner was disappointing, if only because it would have meant a few more stolen moments in her presence. Also, she might've played "Oh, Maker" or "Come Alive (War of the Roses)."

After Monae, Of Montreal upped the ante on the performance art end of things. Singer Kevin Barnes appeared on stage wearing tights, a sort of skirt-apron hybrid, a frilled shirt and a vest. Truly, this is a sight to behold, even if you don't like/love their music. Again, it's the energy factor. Barnes and the whole band are working at full, break-neck speed. And that's even before a sequence of costume changes and guest appearances to the stage. Like Monae, Of Montreal had groups of characters roaming and populating the stage. Notably a pair of pigs, a man and a woman in pink bodysuits, wearing pig helmet-masks. Barnes and the woman pig share a sensual, and brilliantly vivid grind-session, at least until the man pig grows jealous, setting the stage into chaos as Barnes continues to narrate and attempts to escape the angry beast. Ultimately, the skit (if I can call it that without sounding like an asshole) is a about polyamory, among other things that may be weird or "evocative," and it is all well executed. Other highlights included aliens with fish-heads, bullet/vibrator-headed robots, and a group of asexual checkered body-suit clowns. And really, this only gives you a rough idea of the whole experience. Of Montreal is like Cirque du Soleil, as depicted in the mushroom-trip-scene in the film Knocked Up, but better.

And that doesn't even cover the musicianship, the vocals and the fact that the band makes you want to dance. Or that they closed with an encore consisting of "Thriller," "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'," and "P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)," which is possibly one of the most excellent uses of the cover-song close that I've witnessed. This was a show that was technically exceptional and irreplaceable as an experience. Should you get the chance to see either band, or both, to bear witness to their unique, united spectacle, then take it. Go, see the magical oddities and strange fantasies unfold because you're really getting 4 shows in one (Monae + theatrics + Of Montreal + circus maximum = 4 SHOWS).
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Local Natives - Gorilla Manor

This album came out back in February, but like so many great musical experiences, I didn't pick it up right away, and I didn't seek it as ardently as perhaps I should have. As a debut album from the Los Angeles-based indie band, this is about as close to perfect as possible. Gorilla Manor combines soulful touches with hints of Grizzly Bear-style vocal harmonies and perhaps hints of the earthy designs of Fleet Foxes (especially during the beginning of track 3 "Sun Hands"). What sets Local Natives apart from other bands is the big question mark, and I mean that more in a philosophical sense than a negative sense. They are a unique band that sounds divinely incredible, very nearly reaching into Beach Boys territory when it comes to vocals, but their sound feels familiar, in the way that much of indie music begins to feel familiar when a lot of it is accumulated.

It makes me think of a conversation I had with friends following a film viewing of 1997's High Art (starring Ally Sheedy and Patricia Clarkson) about the dissemination of art, the way that we now have the technology at our disposal to stretch our talents to their limits and how that makes the "art world" or "music world" obsolete. Indie music is quickly becoming another industry within itself, one that lingers to take over the larger record industry. When it began, my concept at least, the idea was that so many great bands went ignored by radio and major labels and independence meant great music would be free to grow as it needed. But, are we running the risk that too much great music makes all music mundane? The more great bands exist, the less any of us can have the communal experience with music that is the root of its existence. Music was a gathering thing, something that required live performance and live attendance, but now we don't all experience the same bands because we rarely (though we do sometimes) cross paths with all these indie bands we know. Perhaps it's the burden of knowledge?

Or perhaps my tastes have merely changed? I've listened to a lot of dance and soul and experimental stuff lately too. But, writing this blog, these reviews, has always been a somewhat cathartic experience, but also my chance to share these songs and bands with people. Even if many of the bands I go to review (including this one) have already seen their review on Pitchfork, or other sites that people actually read with interest, I still try to lend something to the music. The audience grows when a lot of people care about the band.

With that in mind, Gorilla Manor, is one of the most beautiful albums I've ever listened to. It has strong rock sensibilities and sincere lyrics. And the range of styles from punk to folk to rock to soul are all executed excellently. Even if I hear Vampire Weekend and Ra Ra Riot and so many other bands in this music, that doesn't make it bad or unoriginal. Perhaps that's the course we're on... the issue being that art requires constant recycling, just like fashion and movies (all the reboots and remakes). No one is original, until somebody is and that is the music that blows your mind. Or maybe just blows my mind... right now, in this mode of philosophizing. Regardless, you'll cherish Local Natives, and all the ways they're like Crosby, Stills and Nash, and early Coldplay, and all sorts of other bands. The album is really very good.

Score: 9/10
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Maximum Balloon

David Andrew Sitek's first solo project Maximum Balloon is stacked to the brim with incredible guests from throughout the indie music scene. For those who don't know, Sitek daylights as a guitarist (et. various) in TV on the Radio, and has also had a hand in the production of many of the great albums of the last few years including those of his band (TVotR), all 4 albums by Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Liars and Scarlett Johansson. As for the guests: Karen O, of Yeah Yeah Yeahs appears, as do TVotR band mates Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone. The album also features Little Dragon, Theophilus London, Katrina Ford, Aku, Holly Miranda, and Ambrosia Parsley (David Byrne even makes an appearance on the memorable "Apartment Wrestling"). With all these guests, you'd think there would be potential concern that this album would become more of a compilation than a unique sounding record. Thankfully, that concern is washed away quickly. Even with a couple of songs like those featuring Sitek's band mates that sound strongly like TV on the Radio lost hits, Maximum Balloon is driven by a funky beat and strong combination of electronics, thoughtful melodies and (at times) '80s nostalgic bass lines.

Largely, the album is a sort of dance rock, indie opus for Sitek. The production and arrangements are impeccable, and the pacing is brilliant. The album never fails to bring an enjoyable tune, and only occasionally do a riff or mix sound that "too similar" way that strikes many bands. The excellent "Groove Me" opens the album and starts the funky set off with a strong first step. Katrina Ford's vocals on the '80s flavored "Young Love" are powerful and thick and syrupy, guiding an incredible track (backed by popping brass). "Absence of Light" is one of the TVotR tracks that could easily have been a missing hit, and that's nothing but a compliment. Anyone in love with/ familiar with TVotR will recognize Tunde's vocals immediately and be further driven to happiness by the grinding and powerful fuzz that coats the track. Little Dragon's contribution on "If You Return" is another case of beautiful female vocals carrying a song, not that the band is anything but stellar on the track, but Yukimi Nagano's vox are phenomenal. Kyp Malone of TVotR is another easily recognized voice for fans who appears on the fifth track "Shakedown." The song grinds out another dancing, but notably downbeat melody that vibes well as funky guitar work fills the space around Malone's vocal acrobatics.

And now we've made it to Karen O. Her work on "Communion" recalls many of the slower, but still driving tracks from last year's It's Blitz! and adds some very Sitek-unique aspects. It becomes both a haunting track and a steely, city anthem. It blends well into the album as a whole, too, even if Karen O's voice calls for indie-rock neck-craning (or is it ear-craning?). Aku comes aboard for "Tiger," a song with a chorus/chanting backing vocals that is close to my heart due to a variety of inside jokes with great friends. The song falls into refrains of "Meow, meow, meow" repeating, just quietly enough not to distract, but audibly enough to show a playful face. "The Lesson" is another, and perhaps the most, thoughtful and haunting track on the album featuring Holly Miranda on vocals. And "Apartment Wrestling," which I mentioned before is co-written by and features vocals by the immortal and incredible David Byrne. This track comes off as a true Talking Heads-style, Byrne-esque work, loaded with quick lyrics belted at high volume in a disjointed inflection. It's a treat and also a song that falls so well into the nostalgic format that it just feels like home (assuming of course home had anything to do with Talking Heads, which mine did). The closer is a droning, slow, fuzzy, tide-crashing-to-the-beach style song that lives with a minimum of instrumental adornment called "Pink Bricks." It features Ambrosia Parsley and is fueled by her voice. It closes the album on a peaceful, if solemn note. And does so beautifully.

Maximum Balloon is as much Sitek's project as that of his co-writers, but his stamp is evident and welcome on each and every song. The album blends its guests and its "star" perfectly, making it easily of the most enjoyable discs of the year. Not checking it out, I'll say, should be considered a Federal offense. Is it too late to add that to state ballots for November? It is? Okay, well, then do yourself (and your loved ones) a favor and check this out.

Score: 9.5/10
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Magic Kids - Memphis

I first became acquainted with Magic Kids back in February when they opened for Girls at the Bluebird in Denver. What I wrote then about the energy, geeky-excellence and pop-fueled throwback music applies fully and truly to their new release Memphis. The disc is a charming mishmash of '50s- and '60s-influenced pop rock, that falls into somewhat predictable, if always delightful, standard song structures. This music is by no means experimental or entirely new, but to dock Magic Kids praise for grasping their influences so well that they've created their own collection of satisfying music would be unfair. The band's use of sleigh bells, piano, harmony, horns and steady drumming leads to an album that has a certain instant appeal. Sure, in a way, this music is a lot like the earlier work of the Apples In Stereo mixed with surf-rock tendencies, but it seems that several pop artists reach great heights by peddling the wares of their predecessors (Lady Gaga, Britney, Katy Perry, et al.). What Magic Kids does well if bring child-like wonder and honesty to these songs. This is sweet, timeless music, that shows maturity sporadically in the lyrics, but never tries to push harder than necessary to serve its point. And there is something beautiful about an album that is complete, nostalgic and enjoyable running out songs that average about 2 and half minutes each. This is highly consumable, and delicious.

The opener, a poignant user of sleigh bells and violin called "Phone" starts the album on a bright note that contrasts the pseudo-sadness within the track. It's about waiting by the phone for a love to call, but the song sells itself as the picture of happiness and energy through upbeat delivery. "Candy" comes next, with beautiful female vocal backing harmonies and a touch more fuzz bringing contemporary flair to an elementary pop track. And then there's the single "Superball." It's another track about love, using the toy as a metaphor for the bouncing around and novelty in games of the heart, but despite its catchy-ness, it has a tendency toward grating. Magic Kids do a great job dialing it back after these quick openers. The next two tracks, "Hideout" and "Summer" both create the kind of rock "slow dance" songs you'd expect in the 1950s of remade a Back To The Future. Both play on the sadness and sweet, simple romance. But "Summer" ends in a solid and interesting break-down that caps the song perfectly. These are songs that feel like one part the Beatles, one part Big Star, one part early Beach Boys. "Hey Boy" is a strong call-and-response track with the perfect touch of old styling to precede the catchy, but easily discarded "Good To Be."

Then "Skateland" comes and brings out all the dramatic, theatrical touches, loaded with piano and strings, and a nearing disco beat, and then grinding electric guitar and synthesizer. This may be the most challenging, and experimental album on the record with its art-clumsy changes, but the frame remains largely the same by the end. "Sailin'" is a jazzy track, punctuated with piano and a sweet story of getting away by getting out to the ocean. It's about escape, and that's really the core of the album. Escape through enjoyment, and nothing seems quite so free as the music that started rock and roll, the music prior to the mass-jading of society. The album closes on "Little Red Radio" and "Cry With Me Baby": two strong tracks that put a cap on the nostalgia with the proper fuzz and bravado (the former) and the call-back to tradition with horns and quick, unadorned electric guitar riffs (the latter).

This is an album that is by no means perfect, but it is fun. And when you consider the effort involved in emulating bygone themes and styles, rather than trying to shatter molds, this is an album that is nothing but a success. At its worst, it's worth a some casual internet listening and at its best, it demands ownership and replay. This is a sort of sonic photograph of youthful goodness that's worth capturing.

Score: 7.5/10
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September 29: Band of Horses

Back again at the Fillmore, a venue that often feels too big for its britches, and charges way too much for beer. But this is the curse of enjoying bands in that transition phase, going from playing to a gaggle of silent foot-tappers to a horde of singers-along. And the Fillmore is actually great for this type of show. It was exceptional, last spring, for the Decemberists, and it was perfect for Band of Horses, who in the last 5 years have cracked into the cold hearts of the indie culture and left an ineffable impression. They have the audience, to make use of the Fillmore's giant-high-school-prom setting, and they also have a pair of great albums loaded with memorable material... and a new album. I can sell myself on the new stuff, but the opportunity to see BoH before they reach what I'll call "The Coldplay Curve," where a band focuses on being big more than being excellent,was impossible to pass up.

Opening for BoH was Darker My Love, and then Admiral Radley (a band, it turns out, composed from members of Grandaddy and Earlimart). Both were easy picks to join the tour as they oscillated between folk, country and rock, with a touch of psychedelia and rockabilly, in each of the two opening sets. I found Darker My Love to be a little more repetitive and less hook-centered in their songs, but they still put on an entertaining show, given their slot as "band that the audience hears as they shuffle in and fight for good standing spots and/or get beers." Admiral Radley was stronger, likely due to pedigree and the fact that combining Grandaddy and Earlimart has to be a recipe for success. It was largely the same genre music, just less familiar, but knitted with strong hooks and catchy choruses. And all this is great, these openers warm you to the music you'll hear, but never transcends the big band, which is great for BoH, but was a little stale feeling at times. In a show like this, with two openers, one should, nay MUST be a different style altogether, or at least as far away as the audience can be expected to like. Loose affiliations mean we're more likely to hear something we don't expect, and I kind of expected everything I got from the openers. Not that I disliked it, but I expected it.

BoH came out and did everything I hoped they would. First, they didn't play too much of the new album. And I'm sure it's not that bad, but it just isn't as lively or honest, instead feeling like a churned out series of contract-satisfying schmaltz. Second, they played "Is There A Ghost," "Ode To LRC," and "Monsters," which once fulfilled made me a happy camper for whatever they played next. Third, they were tight, on key, energetic and fun. The projector that was used by the openers for their sets, burned out or broke during the second intermission, and BoH had to go on without their light show, which they did admirably. It was one of few shows at the Fillmore that I have felt to be intimate, despite the venue's size, because BoH just seemed to be having fun... Also, they took requests for the encore, which is a classy and all-too-rare show experience. The show closed on one of those super-jam moments where everyone from the night's bands got up and played. It was a decent cover of Neil Young song that they battled through. So, after seeing them, finally, I'd recommend grabbing BoH while they're "small." There won't be too many shows where they take requests down the line.
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