Listen Up! May New Music

Collage of album covers with "listen up" written over them

Spring is flying by, and it appears that May is giving us a sneak preview of summer as a makeup gift for all the rain we had over the last few months. The timing is just right, because we just received a batch of new releases that would make a great soundtrack for a night of grilling, hanging out on the deck, or taking a walk around the neighborhood. Place your holds now, and check out the latest at the EPL:

Les Amazones d’Afrique – Republique Amazone (Real World Records, 2017) – Les Amazones are an all-star collective of West African songstresses who have united to create music about feminism and gender equality. Each vocalist brings her own unique style to the table, creating a very satisfying mix of rock, trip-hop, dub, blues, electronic, jazz, West African pop, and traditional music. The overall effect is a very dance-floor-friendly approach to protest music.

Feist – Pleasure (Interscope Records, 2017) – This is an album that covers a lot of ground with ease: at times blues rock with very subtle country undertones and others grinding and almost punk. The pace of the album seems very laid back but deliberate; each track follows its own timeline, building to just the right level of complexity to perfectly complement the vocals. I appreciate the contradictions: gritty and lovely – soft vocals and loud riffs. There’s something about the production, imperfect with the pop and hiss of an old mix tape, that makes it feel very intimate.

Mary J. Blige – Strength of a Woman (Capitol Records, 2017) –  Mary J. Blige brings us a classic breakup album with all the anger, pain, strength, and redemption that you’d expect from such a legendary artist going through some pretty intense pain. Cameos by Kanye West, DJ Khaled, Missy Elliott, and Kaytranada only enrich an already strong offering. As in all her music, Blige shares her struggles through her art and uses the medium to pull herself through life’s trials – in Strength it appears she is, once again, emerging from the test on top.

Wale – Shine (Atlantic Urban, 2017) – a deceptively upbeat release with a summer feel, but behind each track lies a little bit of darkness. Wale seems to be emerging from a period of struggle both with other artists and with himself. The arrival of his newborn daughter seems to be a strong driving force for this change and also a reoccurring theme in his music.

Perfume Genius –No Shape (Matador, 2017) – Mike Hadreas’s latest release is an ecstatic celebration of love. Following similar LGBTQ themes from his previous albums, he delves into the facets of his relationship with musical collaborator and long-time partner, Alan Wyffels. No Shape is a collection of dreamy, dramatic recordings, full of bright highs and turbulent lows that explode with layer upon layer of sound.

Brother Ali – All the Beauty in This Whole Life (Rhymesayers Entertainment, 2017) – Veteran Minneapolis MC Brother Ali revisits an old collaborator, Atmosphere producer Ant, for an expansive new collection of beats and rhymes. All the Beauty in This Whole Life touches on familiar themes for Ali, mixing politics, religion, family, race relations, and the artist’s experiences exploring the world all backed by relatively sparse but soulful production.

Jay Som – Everybody Works (Polyvinyl Record Co., 2017) – I have to admit that Jay Som was a bit of an unknown to me. I’d purchased her unofficial debut, Turn Into, last year when her Bandcamp upload of assorted tracks was re-released by Polyvinyl, but it didn’t really register with me. When I first previewed Everybody Works I needed to do a little more research, because I felt like I’d just run into someone I should know – the album had a polished feel of a veteran rocker, full of confidence and sophistication. To my delight, I learned that this was the first ‘official’ release of 22-year-old Melina Duterte – recorded in her bedroom studio and full of the promise of lovely music yet to come. Everybody Works has kind of a soft, sleepy vibe, occasionally amplified by interludes that feel a little bit like 90s alt rock. There’s a lot of depth and variety to Jay Som’s sound, offering a little something for everyone. I’m looking forward to hearing more.

Juanes – Mis Planes Son Amarte (Universal Music Latino, 2017) – Readers of this blog may have noticed that I have a soft spot for albums that tell a story – Mis Planes is no exception. In his latest release, Juanes embarks on an audiovisual saga of love and outer space. Follow along as a Colombian astronaut searches for true love; you have the option of just listening to the CD or popping in the bonus disc to enjoy the videos that go with each track. Juanes’s sound is heavily influenced by the traditional music of his native Guasca region of Colombia but it also features layers of different sounds: a little surf rock, a little electronic music, crooner vocals to pull on your heartstrings, and even a little reggae and reggaeton. Pop this in if you’re looking for something with a very tropical, romantic feel to it.

Happy listening, and enjoy the sunshine!

D-M-U-B, Everyone’s Accusing Me!

Let’s talk about the Ramones, shall we?

Few American bands have made a bigger impact than this group of leather-clad mutants. As early as 1974 their proto-punk cum beach-pop refrains filled the hippest clubs of New York City, poised to influence the next wave of bands. In a way, their music was a return to early rock & roll, simple and short three-chord songs, but with a bit of a buzzsaw edge grafted on for the kids.

RockNRollHighSchoolI don’t know exactly when I first heard the Ramones, but I do know that seeing the movie Rock ‘n’ Roll High School instantly made them one of my favorite groups. They came across as a bad-boy version of the Monkees, riding around in a red 1959 Cadillac with the license plate GABBA-GABBA-HEY. Unlike your typical lead singer, Joey Ramone was a tall, skinny, shall we say less-than-comely example of a man. Leather jackets, long hair, no attempt to be pretty teen idols, low-slung guitars, blisteringly short songs… In short, they created the punk sensibility.

 

Pinhead lyrics

GreatestHitsAs one can see, it doesn’t take much in the way of lyrics to create a Ramones song. Pinhead, from the 1977 album Leave Home, clocks in at 2:42, but the excerpt above contains all of its lyrics except for one sentence. The first line comes from the 1932 movie Freaks, where it’s a phrase used by the sideshow performers. This perhaps is a nutshell view of the Ramones’ appeal to teen me: catchy songs about unusual or disturbing topics. You can find this song at Everett Public Library on a CD that’s an outstanding introduction to the Ramones, Greatest Hits: Hey Ho Let’s Go.

 

Sedated lyrics

RoadToRuinI Wanna Be Sedated, off of 1978’s Road to Ruin, is another strange little pop gem. Apparently focused on an anxiety attack or some other mental issue, beach pop once again melds with a hard and dark edge to create an unholy mixture of proto-punk. I can picture Joey now, unflattering haircut, ugly glasses, ripped jeans, all somehow adding up to charisma and charm. Prepare yourself for 2:29 of leather-clad heaven.

 

Lobotomy
RocketToRussiaThe song that might have forever endeared the Ramones to me is Teenage Lobotomy, featuring the rhyme, “Now I guess I’ll have to tell ‘em, that I got no cerebellum.” And the opening chant of, “Lobotomy! Lobotomy!”? You simply don’t find this kinda lyric in your typical punk rock song. From Rocket to Russia, which was released in 1977, Teenage Lobotomy is one of the Ramones’ most popular songs, and this amuses me highly.

Their long-range influence can be seen in punk bands from the 90s that imitated the Ramones’ sound, and in some cases covered entire Ramones’ albums. Check out the band Screeching Weasel on Physical Fatness: Fat Music Volume III and early Green Day on their 1992 release Kerplunk!.

The Ramones broke up in 1996 after 22 years of practically non-stop touring. In a relatively short time Joey (2001), Dee Dee (2002) and Johnny (2004) died, leaving a gaping hole in the rock and roll world. But fear not! Their music lives on, and you can even see a female Ramones tribute band, The Dee Dees, playing at clubs in Seattle. In the meantime, settle back in a comfy chair, grab a slice of pizza and crank up Teenage Lobotomy. In the immortal words of Johnny Ramone in Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, “Things sure have changed since we got kicked out of high school.”

Listen Up! April Music New Arrivals

Here’s my quick take on what’s new and exciting in the EPL’s music collection. Place your holds now!

Julie Byrne – Not Even Happiness (Midheaven/Revolver USA) –sometimes life can be a little hectic; you need the ability to sit back and enjoy simplicity. Singer/songwriter Julie Byrne seems to have crafted this album understanding that need for balance. Not Even Happiness provides a very atmospheric mix of instrumentals, warm vocals, and even some well-placed silent breaks, to create just the right tone to showcase her dreamy, poetic lyrics.

Vagabon – Infinite Worlds (Father/Daughter Records) – harmonious, folky indie rock with a lot of slow builds and powerful breaks. This deceptively simple backing leaves singer Lætitia Tamko with full possession of your attention to deliver her thought-provoking vocals. Taking into account her immigrant origins (she came to the US as a teen from Cameroon) Tamko’s work feels very urgent as she tackles concepts of belonging, community, relationships, and the search for common ground.

Depeche Mode – Spirit (Columbia) – I feel like this album comes under the heading of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it (sorry, grammar!).’ Depeche Mode have developed a signature sound over their long career and at this point in the game there isn’t much need to deviate. In Spirit they tackle many of the key issues we face today as a global community with their own unique style. For long-term fans and new, there’s not much here that will disappoint. This album feels familiar and comfortable more than new and exciting, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever – The French Press (Ivy League Records/Sub Pop Records) – light, upbeat, driving, and full of variety. With essentially three lead singers/guitarists a band like this has endless options. While RBCF may sound a bit like a seasoned act with vaguely 80s roots, this is only their second album since bursting on the scene in Melbourne in 2015.

Hurry for the Riff Raff – The Navigator (ATO Records)– Alynda Lee Segarra has cultivated a very laid back folk rock sound, which she makes captivating with her smoky raw vocals. In an interesting twist, this is a concept album broken into two parts: alter-ego street kid Navita struggles with oppressive city life and decides to visit a witch to seek release. In act 2 she wakes under the witch’s spell, far in the future, and must learn to live in a very new world where everything she knew has disappeared.

Spoon – Hot Thoughts (Matador) – While this album still has a solid footing in the indie rock style that has driven Spoon for over 20 years, there is a fair amount of synth dabbling that leans the overall feel towards the realm of poppy electronic music. At times the album feels a little scattered, possibly the side-product of the band exploring new sounds and expanding their range.

The Kernal – Light Country (Single Lock Records) – kind of what it says on the tin: light country. It’s a little country, a little classic rock, maybe a bit of folk and gospel. Admittedly, I’ve never been a big fan of current country music, but this album showcases the aspects of the genre that have always appealed to me: the shared rural Southern musical roots that underlie so much of America’s current musical landscape.

Tinariwen – Elwan (Anti-) – bluesy with a West African flair. All language barriers aside, it’s hard to miss the deep and moody beauty of the vocals. Lots of groove, but all very understated – the simplicity is its strength. Each layer of sound or lyric seems perfectly, carefully placed to add to the progression of the track.

Newish Arrivals You May Have Missed!:

Various – Everett Sounds Volume 1  (Live in Everett) – this much-needed compilation was brought to you by Live in Everett. Check out a sampling of the local flavor that has been contributing to a very vibrant and growing Everett music scene. These albums have been checked out steadily since we got them in-house, so you’ll need to place a hold to snag a copy.

Number Girl – School Girl Distortional Addict (Toshiba EMI Lmtd.) – A solid garage band/punk rock release in Japanese – what’s not to love? Fans of the Pixies and Stooges might want to give this a listen.

Skanking To The Oldies

Specials

Memory and music travel hand in hand, popping up in strange places, creating feelings associated with a certain time period, song or band. One of the musical high points in my life came in 1979 with the arrival of punk, new wave and ska in my neighborhood. Bands like Devo, the B-52s and Talking Heads are now forever associated with the passion and joy generated during this explosion of musical creativity.

The three-headed monster of punk, new wave and ska (and there were many other exploding heads as well) came at me from many directions. Punk was simple, loud and fast, often political and associated with outlandish fashions. New wave was a bit broader in spectrum but often boiled down to synth-based poppy dance music, often with a quirk, and Flock of Seagulls hair (eyeliner optional). Ska was the least prolific of the three in the US, developing a small fan base of pork-pie-hat-with-black-and-white-houndstooth-clad enthusiasts. This music originated in Jamaica in the late 50s as reggae’s peppier cousin, re-exploding in the late 70s faster than ever (thanks to punk) with a strong emphasis on off-beats. Bands involved in this ska rebirth included The Specials, The English Beat, Madness and The Selecter.

ska fashion

Tastes change over time and 40 years later I no longer enjoy some of the music that made 17-year-old me twist and contort like an enraged emu (some called it dancing). However, certain bands still hit 54-year-old me as hard as they did those many years ago. The Specials are one of those bands. In fact, if I was forced to choose my favorite song ever, it might well be A Message to You Rudy off of The Specials self-titled first album. With the first few notes of the introduction I’m transported to the summer of 1979, a “new wave” dance party and an enchanting time of musical discovery. It’s still one of my go-to songs in gloomy times.

Musically, The Specials features the Caribbean influences characteristic of early ska (especially in the drums and walking bass lines) mixed with fast tempos, percussive guitar, cheesy keyboard, and a general miasma of happiness (even in the face of serious lyrics). Unemployment, poverty and racial tension affected many Brits in the seventies, and youth used music, particularly punk and ska, as a means of illuminating and combating these issues. The Specials were known for their stand against racism, and they actively tried to racially integrate their listeners. Their song lyrics reflected racial and other divisions.

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While racism is a topic in many of the album’s songs, clashes between other contentious groups are also addressed.

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For those who don’t speak British, teds, or teddy boys, are associated with rockabilly, natty dreads partake of reggae, mods listen to rock rooted in the early 60s, skinheads are militant punk rockers and the National Front is a far-right political movement. Tensions between groups simmered just below a boil. But, ideally, they could all come together in the world created by The Specials.

For me this music is happily nostalgic, but it’s also intoxicating, dance-inducing and highly listenable. Check this one out. Toe tapping is required, skanking is optional.

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Skanking

Love Rock Revolution

Love Rock

Generally I assert that all change is bad. However, change within art forms is an exception to this iron-clad rule. The most fascinating moments in the music world happen when techniques change, when new ideas are introduced. In popular music one of those moments occurred in the late 70s when mainstream rock/pop became so bloated and corporate-driven that the unwashed masses started a grassroots movement that became known as punk.

The heart of the punk rock movement was not found in a particular sound or lyric but in an idea: Anyone can make music! Thus, the do-it-yourself revolution came about. Punk bands exploded in the UK, to a lesser extent in the US, and other DIY subgenres such as no wave also reared up their ugly heads. Love Rock Revolution: K Records and the Rise of Independent Music by Mark Baumgarten is a charming book that looks at one branch of the anyones who made and continue to make music in the spirit of the punk revolution.

Led by leather-jacketed anarchists, teens ignited London in a burst of figurative flames. Meanwhile, in a small fishing village on the coast of Washington state… Well, actually in the capital city of Olympia, a different kind of musical revolution began, one that many of us are not so familiar with. ‘Round about 1982 Calvin Johnson began releasing cassettes on his label, K Records, out of Olympia. As a teenager, Calvin was transformed by punk rock, but as a music maker his tastes went in a slightly different direction.

When Johnson put together his band Beat Happening in 1982, none of the members were experienced musicians. This typifies the punk/DIY mindset. But the music that they created, while simple and non-technical, had little in common with punk sonically. Lo-fi recording techniques, the band’s lack of instrumental skills, Johnson’s deep voice – all these factors contributed to a new sound which has been called lo-fi, twee pop and indie pop. Often described as childlike or sweet, Beat Happening’s music is a bit of a love-it-or-hate-it kind of a deal.

As time passed, Johnson recorded other bands, began selling vinyl, distributed for yet other bands, and slowly increased the traffic of K Records. Meanwhile, through national and international connections, he also significantly contributed to the development of independent music, an influence that continues to be strong 35 years later.

To name but a few of the accomplishments that came out of K Records:

  • The inclusion of women in rock music: The riot grrrl movement, which later became associated with the Kill Rock Stars label, originated at K Records. Concerts put on by the label were inclusive of female performers.
  • All-age performances all of the time: Johnson would not perform in venues unless they were open to all ages, and he continued this philosophy when booking concert events for K bands.
  • Artists receive 50% of profits made from record sales: This was an unheard of split when the label started, but Johnson considered it imperative. Also, business is done on a handshake rather than with a written contract.

Love Rock Revolution is highly entertaining and informative, an enjoyable read on one aspect of the PNW music scene. If you’re looking for other related materials, try The Punk Singer, a documentary about Kathleen Hanna and the riot grrrl movement, or The Strangest Tribe: How a Group of Seattle Rock Bands Invented Grunge. And be sure to check out our selection of Local CDs. Enjoy!

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Listen Up! Spring New Music Arrivals

It’s been a little while since I’ve been able to highlight some of our new music, so let’s quickly get you all up to speed. Some of these releases are from the last part of 2016, but I wanted to make sure our readers didn’t miss out! Place your holds now:

The XX – I See You – an energizing blend of RnB and rock that brings a lot of emotion to the table. Each track is packed with layers of sound that build as the album progresses. The XX really doesn’t leave the listener wanting for much on this album.

Childish Gambino – Awaken my Love – gritty funk that’s infectious. At times this album runs the risk of feeling like a nostalgic throwback, but the strength of the lyrics and vocals carry it though. At times a slow burn, and at others a furious, grinding work of dystopian sci-fi soul, Awaken my Love  covers a lot of ground.

Bob Moses – Days Gone By – a low key fusion of rock and dance music that hints at blues roots and dark smoky back room dance floors. This debut album is a deviation from the duo’s live act, which tends to have more of a DJ set feel, and develops each track as a stand-alone statement.

Tycho –Epoch – very laid back down tempo electronic music. Totally instrumental with no vocals, but a very bright vibe. I could see this being a great album to practice yoga to (it picks up the pace now and then, so maybe Vinyasa!), or get your read on.

Lera Lynn – Resistor – dark, melancholy, and mysterious. Down tempo rock with haunting vocals. This title may be a little bit older, but it’s a welcome addition to our collections.

Ty Segall – Ty Segall – this album is a powerhouse mix of Segall’s many musical interests. You can feel the solid garage-punk roots that underpin his stylistic wanderings, that can range from acoustic to glam rock, to metal in a matter of minutes.

Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears – Backlash – a solid mix of garage rock, soul, blues, funk with a heavy horn section and screaming hot vocals.

Crystal Fairy – Crystal Fairy – rising to the challenge of making a supergroup gel, Melvins members Buzz Osbourne and Dale Crover team up with Teri Gender Bender of Le Butcherettes and her colleague Omar Rodríguez-López of Mars Volta and At the Drive In fame. Combining established musicians with such strong, established personal styles is often a very difficult feat, but Crystal Fairy strikes a balance that lets each player amplify the best that the others have to offer.  The result: a gritty, anxious, driving playlist that has a lot on offer.

Kehlani – SweetSexySavage – this album feels like a declaration of triumph. It’s clear from the unflinching lyrics that RnB singer Kehlani Parrish went through a great many struggles before arriving at this new artistic high. Kehlani pays obvious homage to musical heroines, such as TLC, but she manages to do so in a way that remains distinctly her own style. Strong vocal talent coupled with tight production makes this an infectious listen.

Ibibio Sound Machine – Uyai – part dance music part world, it’s hard to remain unmoved by the eclectic rhythms of this album. The overall sound is a captivating mix of Nigerian brass, techno, African jazz, rock, and so much more. Uyai, meaning “beauty” in Ibibio, is very much a feminist album, tackling topics of women’s liberation and the schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram in 2014, many of whom are still missing. Listeners can journey through a musical landscape that is often frenetic, sometimes remarkably tranquil, but always beautifully harmonious.

Vancouver, the Canadian One

There is a saying: Nothing good ever comes out of Canada.

I might be paraphrasing.

Irregardless, other than currency that can easily be altered to look like Mr. Spock and curling, nothing good ever comes out of Canada.

Except poutine. And Canadian bands like the New Pornographers.

Hailing from Vancouver B.C., the New Pornographers fall somewhere in the power pop/indie pop continuum. From the release of their first album, Mass Romantic (2000), to the present, the band has garnered respect and accolades: Mass Romantic was chosen the 24th best indie album ever by Blender magazine, Electric Version (their second album) was voted the 79th best album of the decade by Rolling Stone magazine and Brill Bruisers (2014) charted at #13 in the U.S. Yet I’m guessing that many of us have never heard of this successful band. As a proper introduction, let us look at their fifth album, Together, from 2010.

NPTogetherSugar-sweet pop, tight harmonies and a happy mood dominate the songs on Together. A distinct ELO influence is heard in the vocal harmonies as well as in the use of strings and classical-oriented interludes. Many songs are driven by guitars, but keyboards also play a significant role. Unlike typical pop music, Together’s songs unfold in a variety of complex ways, often with introductions that starkly contrast the bodies of the songs. Unusual time signatures and accents combine with frequent texture changes to create intriguing musical palettes. In short, Together could easily become one of my favorite albums.

Perhaps what I like best about this album is that songs do not go where expected. Or start where expected. Take for example Your Hands (Together). At the start of this song the music starts and stops frequently until finally the drums enter playing triplets, which creates a strange rhythmic juxtaposition. Later, instrumental breaks which in most songs would be filled with solos are here filled with space – making them seem like anti-solos. Throughout the song textures change often, for example drums coming in and out rather than playing continuously. Overall, this song is a pleasant surprise that keeps the listener guessing.

Together is one of those unexpected gems that one finds every now and again. If you like catchy music that’s a bit on the different side, give this one a spin.

White Lung is another noteworthy Vancouver band. When they started out in 2006, the group played primarily punk and hardcore. Recently their music has evolved to a slightly more poppish sensibility. Deep Fantasy (2014), however, fits squarely into the hardcore category.

WLDeepIf I had to pick a single word to describe Deep Fantasy, it would be dense. Vocals, guitar and drums are astonishingly busy, the band’s sound palette tends to be bright and distorted, tempos are fast, songs are very short. As we say in the recording biz, they saturate the tape. Lyrics deal with heavy life issues: addiction, dysmorphia, rape culture. Coupled with the aggressive music, these lyrics are quite compelling.

The first song, Drown with the Monster, is an excellent introduction to this impenetrable wall of sound. The listener is immediately hit with urban assault guitar and rapid-fire drums. These are quickly joined by harpy-inflected (in a good way) vocals. Though there are relatively peaceful moments, the song is a 2:04 blitzkrieg of the senses. With its abrupt ending, one cannot help but feel relief. And then to cue it up again.

So yes, Regina, good things do come out of Canada on occasion. The Vancouver music scene is filled with impressive performers who make albums that can be found at EPL. As always, check them out.