A while back I heard “Make You Better,” the lead single off The Decemberists latest record, and thought “Well, you had a great run.” The song just left me completely cold. For the first time I actually thought about just skipping a Decemberists record all together. But, as a long-time fan, Colin Meloy’s siren song was too much and I crashed into What A Terrible World, What A Wonderful World headfirst.
It’s a good thing I did, too, because this record is just as good as The King Is Dead. It might even be better. After the huge undertaking of rock opera The Hazards Of Love, King was a nice return to a simpler kind of music. Now that the band has had some time to recuperate, they’re back to making intricately designed pop songs delivered with the perfect precision you’d expect from the music making robots we all assume them to be.
The three songs that kick off the record all feel like they could be one long tune-like “The Tain,” without a narrative. “The Singer Addresses His Audience” is both an introduction to, and a summary of, what the album is about. A band growing and changing alongside their audience is a weird thing. A lot of people don’t want the band they love to start playing different kinds of music, they just want the band to stay the same forever. Others, most of us I think, like it when musicians we like try something new.
“We know, we know, we belong to ya
We know you grew your arms around us
And the hopes we wouldn’t change
But we had to change some
You know, to belong to you”
Further down the track list is “Til The Water’s All Long Gone.” Chris Funk opens it up with a gorgeous blues riff on the acoustic guitar accompanied by a second acoustic quietly laying down a strummed rhythm line. They’re joined in short order by Meloy’s voice, then many voices all at once. It’s quite the arrangement, marrying the delta blues with the shanty songs of which Meloy has always been so fond.
I honestly wasn’t looking forward to this album until I heard it. There’s something about The Decemberists that constantly makes me think the next one is gonna be bad. I guess after over a decade of putting out records I just assume at some point the quality of music will start to decline. That doesn’t happen here, though. Maybe they were re-energized by the return of Jenny Conlee after her battle with cancer. Or maybe they really are robots, programmed to constantly churn out well-written songs that never get old.
You can pick up a copy of What A Terrible World, What A Wonderful World on The Decemberists website. You can also find it on iTunes and Amazon, as well as streaming on Spotify. The band will be in the UK and Europe through February, and kick off a US tour on March 21st in Portland that’s scheduled to go in to the summer.
I was delighted last night when I walked in to House Of Blues and saw a packed house for Chicago native K. Flay. She’s been headlining smaller venues across the country, occasionally playing before larger crowds in opening slots for acts like Icona Pop or Passion Pit. Now she’s getting some due of her own, and it is very well-deserved. WKQX brought her back to town for own of their Queued Up Artist Showcases, and they did a great job of getting the word out and building a strong lineup to make it a fun evening overall.
Flay took the stage around 9:20, with her drummer Nicholas Suhr arriving first and laying down a smooth beat to get the show going. The energy in the crowd was palpable. I was surprised to hear so many people singing along to all the words off Flay’s self-distributed record Life As A Dog. The front half of the house was a sea of people bouncing in unison as rhymes were spit and a chorus of voices could be heard on the hooks.
This was a big change from the first time I saw K. Flay at the University Of Northern Illinois. Her talent was evident, but she mainly kept her head buried in her laptop. Now she’s running around the stage, feeding off the crowd and turning their excitement into a frenzied rock and roll stage presence you don’t see in many pop/hip-hop artists.
Highlights of the night included a sing-a-long on “Thicker Than Dust” and a long pull off a bottle of Maker’s Mark during “Wishing It Was You” that would’ve knocked me out cold. I call those highlights, but really it was a fun show from start to finish. Flay was good on her own, but the addition of live drumming from Suhr takes the show to the next level.
You can pick up a copy of Life As A Dog on iTunes. I would also suggest going back and finding her old mix tapes like MASHed Potatoes or I Stopped Caring In ’96. No more shows are scheduled in the US at this time, but check out her site for updates.
For more photos from K. Flay’s set, check out our Facebook page.
Not quite a year ago I featured Andrew Choi’s St. Lenox project and their EP Five Songs In The Style Of Fritz Chrysler. Since then he’s got the band back together to record a full-length that comes out Tuesday January 20th. 10 Songs About Memory And Hope is already finding an audience, getting featured on NPR’s Songs We Love and some supportive tweets from John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats. I enjoyed their EP quite a bit, and I’m happy to say that the new album finds the group pushing full steam ahead.
Choi and I, assumedly, are around the same age. On 10 Songs he takes a look back at the mid-90’s, a time when he was an award-winning violinist and I was in High School listening to The Gin Blossoms (a band he shouts out in the song “To Be Young Again,” to my great delight). While we had very different circumstances growing up, the time he sings about here was formative for us both, so there’s a lot here to which I can relate. Most of it is universal, though, so don’t think you’re missing out if you worked through the 90’s or are pretty sure your parents weren’t even born then.
St. Lenox toes a fine line through the whole endeavour, mixing loops and beats with standard instruments and a storytelling style reminiscent of a young Billy Joel. It’s experimental pop with sound both familiar and impossible to place. I could rattle off ten names that I’m reminded of while listening (Sting, Cee-Lo, David Gray, Lionel Richie, etc.), While Choi’s voice lends to much of the comparisons, the contrast comes in the music-an almost jazzy vibe comes through on tracks like “Just Friends,” with repetitive drum fills and bass holding together an eclectic mix of the bleeps, the sweeps, and the creeps.
The album succeeds best when they keep the tempo up, which is most of the time. The one track I find a little out of place is “The Greyhound Bus Song.” It’s just a bit too slow to maintain the energy of the eight songs that come before it. Unfortunate, because up to this point I could find really no fault in the album.
Most of the time I would say you need to listen to a whole record to know whether or not you really like it, but I feel like thirty seconds in to “I Still Dream Of The 90’s” you will probably have your answer.
I dig it. A lot. And I hope for a lot of people St. Lenox will be their first great musical discovery of 2015. Check out the band’s Facebook page for details on where to pick up a copy of 10 Songs About Memory And Hope tomorrow.
We got a Thanksgiving treat from Frank Ocean in the form of a new song called “Memrise.” Now he’s back with a cover of The Isley Brothers 1976 classic “At Your Best (You Are Love).” It could be a way to honor Aaliyah’s birthday yesterday, as the song featured on her debut record as well. Ocean’s version is ridiculously gorgeous. Quiet and clean, with just a soft piano and his amazing vocals preaching his love to the positive motivating force within his life.
Great song. And now the anticipation of Ocean’s third album will be running even higher, if you can believe that. It’s already been two and a half years since channel ORANGE dropped, and that’s a lifetime in the music industry. I’m hoping he puts out a new full-length, or at least an EP, before summer hits.
I can remember quite vividly sitting in my car and listening to the radio when something magical happened. I was tuned in to KURE-Iowa State University’s college station, when a dizzying disco jam made its way into my ears. I was elated by the sounds hitting me from the front and back-the 2003 Hyundai Sonata GLS had a more than adequate stock stereo system, and I was putting it to the test as I continued raising the volume higher and higher. It was late at night, so there wasn’t a DJ running the show, and robo-DJ never gave the name of the artist after a tune. I had to wait til I got home to Google what I just heard. Turns out it was “Your Cover’s Blown” by Belle And Sebastian. And that was the last time Stuart Murdoch and company really surprised me.
I was a fan of If You’re Feeling Sinister and Dear Catastrophe Waitress already, but “Your Cover’s Blown” made me think these Glaswegians were going to turn a corner and become one of THE bands of the decade (up there with The Strokes, The White Stripes, and all the other “The” groups). Instead they followed up the single with The Life Pursuit-a fine record in my opinion, but one that never comes close to the euphoria of that magical song that appears on their Books EP.
Then we got Belle And Sebastian Write About Love, a good record to listen to when you don’t need to pay attention to it. Gimmick guests Norah Jones and actress Carey Mulligan just made matters worse, and I started to wonder if I would even care if one of my favorite groups had another record in them. Back in September they released “The Party Line,” and all of a sudden I was optimistic again.
Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance has been streaming for the past week, so by now you’ve probably heard it at least once. I’ve given it a few spins, and I have to say it’s a pretty uneven album. I like it, and there are a couple of songs that I think are really quite good even held up against some of their best work. But it does feel very uneven. Enough so that I wonder if Murdoch wasn’t still focused on his directorial debut God Help The Girl while the band was in Atlanta recording the record. Some of the blame could also lay at the feet of producer Ben H. Allen. This is the first B&S record produced by Allen, and maybe they were making some compromises along the way to keep things civil.
Take, for example, “Enter Sylvia Plath.” It’s got this great new wave-y dance beat that mixes LCD Soundsystem and A Flock Of Seagulls. On its own, it’s great. But then it’s followed by a melancholy ballad called “The Everlasting Muse.” A track that would fit better on a Sade album (well, until a couple minutes in when it turns into an old-style step dancing song and then tries its hand at adding a “Losing My Religion” mando). The stark contrast of the two songs completely ruins the flow of the album.
It’s not all doom and gloom, of course. If you’re a fan of Murdoch’s voice it’s on full display here. On “Today (This Army’s For Peace),” he puts on a dreamy air, his dulcet tones caressing your ears and fills your headspace with a warm, cozy feeling.
There are other bright spots here as well, but nothing that makes me shake with excitement. Essentially, B&S have figured out their formula (about a decade ago) and their happy to keep making the same music. I can’t argue with that. I mean, The National have been doing the same thing and they just keep gaining popularity. If you’re a fan of this group, you’re gonna listen to this album and more than likely buy it. Definitely not one I would recommend starting with if you’re just getting into the band.
When Adam Schatz isn’t playing a million different instruments recording and on the road with the band Man Man, he’s fronting his own project called Landlady. Over the summer they put out a new record called Upright Behavior you may have missed. It’s filled with a lot of the same absurdity and distinctive sound that’s made many a music lover fall in love with Man Man, but Schatz puts his own spin on things. Take, for example, this video for Landlady’s song “Under The Yard.”
If you dig that, head over to the group’s Bandcamp page and take a listen to their album. You can purchase the music directly from them, either on compact disc ($12), vinyl ($16), or digital ($10). They currently have a few dates set, including a show here in Chicago at Lincoln Hall on Friday, January 16th for the Tomorrow Never Knows Festival (opening for Hamilton Leithauser).
I’ve seen a lot of the movies nominated for Golden Globes this year, but not all. My general rule is to see everything before the Academy Awards. With most Awards-baiting movies playing in limited release until after the holiday season, it’s tough to get to everything before the Globes. I’ll try my best to predict the winners (note: I never get these right). My choice for winner of each award will be in bold.
Best Motion Picture – Drama
The Imitation Game
The Theory of Everything
Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy
The Grand Budapest Hotel WINNER
Into the Woods
Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama
Steve Carell for Foxcatcher
Benedict Cumberbatch for The Imitation Game
Jake Gyllenhaal for Nightcrawler
Eddie Redmayne for The Theory of Everything WINNER
David Oyelowo for Selma
Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama
Jennifer Aniston for Cake
Julianne Moore for Still AliceWINNER
Rosamund Pike for Gone Girl
Reese Witherspoon for Wild
Felicity Jones for The Theory of Everything
Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy
Michael Keaton for Birdman WINNER
Ralph Fiennes for The Grand Budapest Hotel
Christoph Waltz for Big Eyes
Bill Murray for St. Vincent
Joaquin Phoenix for Inherent Vice
Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy
Amy Adams for Big Eyes WINNER
Emily Blunt for Into the Woods
Julianne Moore for Maps to the Stars
Helen Mirren for The Hundred-Foot Journey
Quvenzhané Wallis for Annie
Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture
Mark Ruffalo for Foxcatcher
Ethan Hawke for Boyhood
J.K. Simmons for Whiplash WINNER
Robert Duvall for The Judge
Edward Norton for Birdman
Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture
Patricia Arquette for Boyhood WINNER
Keira Knightley for The Imitation Game
Emma Stone for Birdman
Meryl Streep for Into the Woods Jessica Chastain for A Most Violent Year
Best Director – Motion Picture
Alejandro González Iñárritu for Birdman
Richard Linklater for Boyhood WINNER
Ava DuVernay for Selma
David Fincher for Gone Girl
Wes Anderson for The Grand Budapest Hotel
Best Screenplay – Motion Picture
Boyhood: Richard Linklater
Birdman: Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Armando Bo WINNER
Gone Girl: Gillian Flynn
The Imitation Game: Graham Moore, Andrew Hodges
The Grand Budapest Hotel: Wes Anderson, Hugo Guinness
Best Original Song – Motion Picture
Big Eyes: Lana Del Rey(Big Eyes)
Selma: John Legend, Common(Glory) WINNER
Noah: Patti Smith, Lenny Kaye(Mercy Is)
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1: Lorde(Yellow Flicker Beat)
Best Original Score – Motion Picture
The Imitation Game: Alexandre Desplat
The Theory of Everything: Jóhann Jóhannsson WINNER
Gone Girl: Trent Reznor
Birdman: Antonio Sanchez
Interstellar: Hans Zimmer
Best Animated Film
The Book of Life
Big Hero 6
How to Train Your Dragon 2 WINNER
The Lego Movie
Best Foreign Language Film
Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem
Best Television Series – Drama
“The Good Wife”
“House of Cards”
“Game of Thrones”
“The Affair” WINNER
Best Television Series – Musical or Comedy
“Orange Is the New Black”
“Jane the Virgin”
Best Mini-Series or Motion Picture Made for Television
The Normal Heart
Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Series – Drama
Kevin Spacey for “House of Cards” WINNER
Liev Schreiber for “Ray Donovan”
James Spader for “The Blacklist”
Dominic West for “The Affair”
Clive Owen for “The Knick”
Best Performance by an Actress in a Television Series – Drama
Robin Wright for “House of Cards”
Julianna Margulies for “The Good Wife”
Viola Davis for “How to Get Away with Murder”
Claire Danes for “Homeland”
Ruth Wilson for “The Affair” WINNER
Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Series – Musical or Comedy
Don Cheadle for “House of Lies”
Ricky Gervais for “Derek”
Jeffrey Tambor for “Transparent” WINNER
William H. Macy for “Shameless”
Louis C.K. for “Louie”
Best Performance by an Actress in a Television Series – Musical or Comedy
Lena Dunham for “Girls”
Edie Falco for “Nurse Jackie”
Julia Louis-Dreyfus for “Veep”
Taylor Schilling for “Orange Is the New Black”
Gina Rodriguez for “Jane the Virgin” WINNER
Best Performance by an Actor in a Mini-Series or a Motion Picture Made for Television
Martin Freeman for “Fargo”
Billy Bob Thornton for “Fargo” WINNER
Matthew McConaughey for “True Detective”
Woody Harrelson for “True Detective”
Mark Ruffalo for The Normal Heart
Best Performance by an Actress in a Mini-Series or a Motion Picture Made for Television
Jessica Lange for “American Horror Story”
Maggie Gyllenhaal for “The Honourable Woman” WINNER
Frances McDormand for “Olive Kitteridge”
Frances O’Connor for “The Missing”
Allison Tolman for “Fargo”
Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Series, Mini-Series or Motion Picture Made for Television
Jon Voight for “Ray Donovan”
Alan Cumming for “The Good Wife”
Bill Murray for “Olive Kitteridge”
Colin Hanks for “Fargo”
Matt Bomer for The Normal Heart WINNER
Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in a Series, Mini-Series or Motion Picture Made for Television
Allison Janney for “Mom”
Uzo Aduba for “Orange Is the New Black”
Kathy Bates for “American Horror Story”
Michelle Monaghan for “True Detective”
Joanne Froggatt for “Downton Abbey” WINNER