The Gift Of Life Fraternal: The Best Of The Felice Brothers

  
You are living in a golden age of American music right now. It’s not easy to notice, but if you really take a look, I think you’ll see that I’m right. One of the many reasons I know this is that we have The Felice Brothers guiding us-both as a link to the past and a portent of a beautiful future. They’re still able to fly under the radar of most mainstream music listeners, but they helped kickstart this revival of Americana that’s brought us some really amazing bands (and some not so amazing, but what’re ya gonna do?).

I’ve been a fan for about 8 years now, and through every release and live show they’ve never disappointed. They’ve put on some awesome shows and even played as the backing band for the best Conor Oberst show I’ve ever seen (his record label Team Love signed the Brothers a few years ago). They’re coming back to my town in a couple weeks to help kick off festival season and I couldn’t be more excited.

In honor of their headlining slot at Remix Chicago on June 6th, I’ve put together what I think are their ten best songs:

Marie

Woman Next Door

Katie Dear

Lincoln Continental

The Mating Of The Doves

Wonderful Life

Fire At The Pageant

Penn Station

Frankie’s Gun

White Limo (with Conor Oberst)

Shilpa Ray-Last Year’s Savage

  I saw Shilpa Ray play a small show at Burlington Bar here in Chicago at the beginning of March, and it was pretty great. So I’m not surprised that Last Year’s Savage is such a fantastic record-easily one of the best I’ve heard so far this year. The follow-up to 2013’s It’s All Self-Fellatio finds the singer more powerful than ever with vocals that never cease to shock and awe.

 

Shilpa Ray at Burlington Bar

 
A lot of comparisons are made to Sharon Van Etten due to the shared harmonium element in their music, but I find that thinking way off base. Shilpa does play the harmonium, but I’d put her closer to a Stevie Nicks/Joni Mitchell hybrid, writing very intimate songs with no hint of pretentiousness.

The lyrics are strong in every track, but I think the standout is “Shilpa Ray On Broadway,” a carnival-style rock shuffle. She sings “Would you believe I’ve been mummified…I’ve got so much to say to you, but I’m not speaking. And I could believe you were lobotomized, cuz you could stand in front of me and have no feelings.” It’s a dark song (like, the blackest night you could ever imagine dark), but Shilpa’s wit and clever wordplay mix with the band to keep it effervescent.

The harmonium and vocals come to the forefront on “A Northern Soul” and it almost seems silly that the whole album isn’t just songs like this (for a second, and then you remember how good the other songs are). The lightly warped surf rock guitar in the background gives a washed out hazy feel to the atmosphere obscuring the time and place in which this music exists. Definitely one worth multiple listens.

You can check out Last Year’s Savage for yourself on Spotify or head over to the Shilpa Ray bandcamp page where you can hear even more great music. Also, while there you can purchase the 12″ vinyl.

The Vaccines-English Graffiti

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For the second time in a week I’m sitting here listening to music by artists I genuinely like and wondering if maybe I’m just stupid. A few days ago it was Brandon Flowers sophomore solo effort that was defying my belief in his talents, and now the third full-length from The Vaccines is giving me equal doubts. They are trying something different from the brilliant What Would You Expect From The Vaccines? and the kind of similar but not quite as good Come Of Age, so I at least give them credit for that.

However, the music on this latest album (streaming now on NPR and in stores May 25) just doesn’t work very well, I think the opportunity is there for some of these songs to be really good live, but on record they’re a bit lifeless. If Duran Duran and Gang Of Four had started a supergroup in the mid-80’s, and then The Black Keys became a cover band playing that supergroup’s hits, you might get something like this mess. Freddie Cowan’s guitar is in constant shimmer mode with the strings pulsating waves and echoes all over the place. It’s a forced sort of psychedelic take completely unnecessary for the songs. Then, right in the middle of “Radio Bikini” he unleashes this unexpected Jack White-style solo that provides a silver lining in an otherwise boring tune.

Everyone’s allowed to lay an egg every once in a while. The Vaccines have provided me with enough good times that I’m not ready to write them off after not liking one album. I’d definitely see them in concert again to see if these songs have a little more life instead of sounding like late-era Matchbox Twenty demos. Fingers crossed that they do.

If there is a bright side here, it’s that the album is only 34 minutes long. That means after a half hour you can go back to listening to “Post Break-Up Sex” or “Wetsuit” and forget this ever happened.

Let Curiosity Be Your Compass

Last Strip

There are very few things that bother me. As human beings go, I like to think I’m of the more laid back variety. I’m sure anyone that knows me would confirm this as fact. There are instances when I get frustrated with people, though. The biggest thing that gets me all bent out of shape is when I say something like “Oh, if you like this then you should check out xyz,” and their response is “Oh geez, they’re from before I was even born.” As if to say that anything that happened before the center of the universe (being whoever I’m talking to in this moment) came around is completely irrelevant. It happens more and more, and I’m really tired of it. If I make reference to The Beatles, the proper retort isn’t “I’m pretty sure my parents listened to them.”

When I was younger and getting my bearings as far as my musical taste, the internet couldn’t help me. Not yet, anyway (once Napster came around it helped me plenty). There was a lot of guesswork going on as I picked up cassettes to play in my Pontiac Sunbird. Sometimes people would hand me things, like a friend gave me Nine Inch Nails Pretty Hate Machine which I assumed I would hate. I popped it in and, lo and behold, I really enjoyed it. A lot of my time was spent at places like KMart or Wal-Mart, digging through bins and searching for anything that seemed interesting. I had just been introduced to the blues, so I dug into a ton of that. Those records led me to checking out some jazz records and so on. I didn’t like everything I bought, but I was always happy to hear something new.

I have a lot of fond memories driving around crooning with Frank Sinatra, bobbing my head to Charlie Parker, even trying out some classical tracks that I recorded to a blank cassette off of CD’s from the local library. It was great to be able to check out all these different things and build some kind of musical knowledge without taking music theory in school. I feel like we’ve lost some of that curiosity with the immediate access we have now. You never have to wonder about an artist or band because if someone mentions them you can just pull up Spotify and take a quick listen. That’s why Maroon 5 can completely rip off Michael Jackson and most people don’t notice. Or Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars can make a “new” song out of 20 other songs all mashed together.

You’re not going to like it all-in fact you may hate 99% of everything you listen to for all I know. The point is, you need to listen to everything to rule it out. The dumbest thing I ever hear  people say is “I like everything except country and classical.” I know you’re dumb because I used to say the same thing. And maybe you really do hate country, or at least “radio country,’ which, let me tell you, is a far cry from the real country music. Modern country is just a pop/hip-hop ripoff with steel guitar and a little twang. Listen to old recordings by Jimmy Rodgers or The Carter Family and tell me it’s not a completely different genre of music.

I know you’re busy and you don’t have time to just sit around and listen to music all day. Wait, no. You DO have the time. It’s literally right there on your phone that you’re probably reading this on right now! You can just click play below right now and open up a whole new world. Maybe you’ll find a new favorite song. Maybe you’ll hear something and think “You know, I bet this is where that band I really like got that guitar riff.” Or maybe you’ll just loathe everything here, in which case, GREAT! Mark it off your list and find something else. Just try. More than half of my time listening to music is spent giving attention to things I end up not liking, but I can’t talk about intelligently unless I give it a chance. That’s all I’m asking for.

I’ve mixed in some new stuff with the old to give you some ideas about what you’re missing out on by only listening to the best bands according to Buzzfeed or Uproxx or whatever is cool right now.

For those of you without Spotify or in a country other than the US, here is the playlist I made:

Like Someone In Love-Frank Sinatra

Everytime We Say Goodbye-John Coltrane

That’s All I Need-Magic Sam

Body And Soul-Thelonious Monk

St. James Infirmary-James Booker

Hell Hound On My Trail-Robert Johnson

Summer Cramps-Gingerlys

Moving To Brussels-Bhi Bhiman

Summertime-Charlie Parker

Girl Crazy:Suite-George Gershwin

Paid In Full-Erik B. and Rakim

Doo Wa Ditty (Blow That Thing)-Zapp

Planet Rock-Afrika Bambaataa

Will The Circle Be Unbroken-The Carter Family

Violin Concerto in A Minor-Itzhak Perlman

Space Age Love Song-A Flock Of Seagulls

Obsession-Animotion

Your Cheatin’ Heart-Hank Williams

Lawyers, Guns And Money-Warren Zevon

I Will Take You There-Harry Nilsson

I Forgot To Be Your Lover-William Bell

Miles From Nowhere-Cat Stevens

In The Jailhouse Now-Jimmy Rodgers

She Was The One That Got Away-Gloom Balloon

How Blue Can You Get?-B.B. King

White Lines-Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five

Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat-Bob Dylan

Ballade De Melody Nelson-Serge Gainsbourg

Clarinet Concerto in A-Mozart

I am a Hologram-Mister Heavenly

On a personal note…with Molehill’s Trevor Jones

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On A personal Note…. “Machines” by Biffy Clyro – written by Trevor Jones of Molehill
 
The first song I heard by Biffy Clyro was “Many of Horror” live from T in the Park 2010.  I was intrigued because it is such a beautiful pop song but was being sung by these shirtless Scottish gents who looked like they should be playing music that is much more abrasive. For the next few months, I listened to their last three studio albums (Opposites, Only Revolutions, and Puzzle) obsessively.  Simon Neil’s voice is not polished or trained but is saturated in heart and honesty.  I’ve always been attracted to music that is honest. I don’t care what genre it is or who is performing the music, I just want it to be honest.  
 
Biffy Clyro’s song “Machines” is direct.  The song doesn’t make you think about the lyrics and interpret them.  They’re there for you to accept or to ignore.  There’s a beauty to submitting to something.  A piece of art, an idea, a person.  Letting your guard down and being vulnerable is something that a person doesn’t experience enough and it’s special when you can find a vehicle that allows you open up even if it’s only to yourself.  I listened to “Machines” a lot during the hangover of a broken relationship and used the song to dig deeper and deeper into a dark place to confront uncomfortable truths.  
 
Cause I’ve started falling apart, I’m not savoring life
I’ve forgotten how good it could feel to be alive

Take the pieces and build them skywards
 
The hook simultaneously drags you down to the depths of self pity and leaves you believing that you will move forward – even if you want to stay down in the depths just a bit longer.  
 
“Machines” appears on Biffy Clyro’s 2007 album Puzzle.  “This is an acoustic song we recorded on the last day in the studio. I wanted the album to end on a positive vibe. No matter what you go through there’s always hope. You can make yourself happy.”  -Simon Neil
 
Listen to “Machines” by Biffy Clyro on – Spotify | YouTube | iTunes
Listen to Molehill on Spotify | YouTube | iTunes

Gloom Balloon at Fizz 5/13/2015

  
When it comes to concerts, there are shows you want to see  and shows you NEED to see. Gloom Balloon, for me, is a necessity. They’ve only played Chicago a couple of times, and I think missing those shows would be a regret I would carry to the grave. Last night’s set at Fizz was a reminder that pyrotechnics and a million dollar sound system are not what makes a concert great-it’s the music and the personal connection you have with it.

Most of the audience knew Patrick Tape Fleming and Chris Ford before arriving for the show, so instead of being in a bar with a bunch of strangers it’s like hanging out with a family that doesn’t resent one another. It’s a fun arena to stay in for a while, and a Gloom Balloon performance needs that kind of warmth and understanding to be the best it can be. Audience participation is a must, and if you don’t give it a chance then you’ll miss out on something special.

The Songs That Couldn’t Swim is currently holding down the number 2 spot on my favorite albums of 2015, and there’s a real opportunity for Gloom Balloon to take the number 1 concert of the year as well. They exude the kind of energy and love that people half their age would have a hard time processing let alone repeating. From the first note following Bob Nastanovich’s (Pavement/Silver Jews) video intro the Gloom-y duo are going 100 miles per hour and never even think about the brakes.

  
The stage became a meaningless piece of wood as both men ran around the open space, singing or blowing a trumpet in the faces of concertgoers while images were projected to a screen along with each song. Wires were everywhere on the floor, but they did a good job of keeping them out of the way so no one tripped. Even if someone had, it would’ve been met with laughter I’m sure. 

This is the greatest show on Earth, and I’m at once happy that it belongs to a small group of friends and “fans,” and sad that a bigger audience has yet to jump on board. Gloom Balloon is the kind of music that can bring such joy through exorcising all the pressure and pain we bring on ourselves. You generally feel a whole lot better about life in general when you leave.

You can pick up The Songs That Couldn’t Swim and Fix The Sunshine/You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Disaster from Maximum Ames Records.

Brandon Flowers-The Desired Effect

  
Have you ever wanted something so badly you would stop at nothing to get? Some holy grail that haunts your heart and mind, driving you to obsess over it until you can hold it in your hands? Brandon Flowers knows that feeling well, because he desperately wants to be our Springsteen. I say “our” Springsteen in a wide sense that encompasses anyone under 40. After suffering through the painful solo debut Flamingo, Flowers is at it again with The Desired Effect. He’s stripped out most of the country/western vibes of the first record and filled it with some Vampire Weekend-style beats (thanks to producer Ariel Reichstaid), which one listen can tell you is definitely not an improvement.

Flowers is one of the guys about whom I feel worst speaking negatively. I truly do love The Killers and don’t really care who knows it. Sam’s Town is a masterpiece of pop/rock, and I listen to it pretty often. Even the songs I don’t really care for, like “Bones,” are better than most. And he’s a great frontman for that kind of band. His voice emanates from the airwaves into your mind with ease, like he’s a long-lost friend waxing nostalgic about the good ol’ days (or as he’d put it, I’m sure, the GLORY DAYS). 

He seems to think of himself as more of a lounge singer, stuck in those Las Vegas clubs he knew in his youth. In actuality he’s an arena rocking crooner-closer to Steve Perry than Springsteen. And there’s nothing wrong with that at all. The Desired Effect is filled with tunes that probably could be pretty good in the right hands. Instead it’s a low key, auto-tuned garbage heap. Even Kongos is like “Hey dude, how many times are you gonna repeat the same formula?”

Fortunately this 10-track waste of everyone’s time is over fairly quick, and ends with what I think is its best track, “The Way It’s Always Been.” Somehow Flowers manages to pull off a kind of Dylan/Springsteen impression here with a timbre reminiscent of the songs on the master’s great 1975 album Desire. The simplicity discredits some of the earlier tracks reliance on drum machines and synths, making me wish the whole record had just been songs like this.

The album is officially out next week, but it’s streaming now for your listening pleasure (or not). Brandon is hitting Chicago at The Riviera Theatre on September 11th as part of his North American tour which begins July 24th. You can find all dates on The Killers website.

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