Archive for the ‘Listen Up’ Category

The Tallest Man on Earth: “Love Is All”

September 14, 2010

Heartache is the loneliest place. If you could translate it into a geographic location, I think it would be a lonesome, desolate, monochrome dot devoid of friends and laughter and laden with despair. Like a desert, or an arctic tundra, or a buoy in the middle of the ocean. So I imagine Sweden, with its long winters and northern latitudes, might not be far from a physical manifestation of the feeling, in which I’ve been immersed nonstop for the past five days. Parts of Scandinavia, the region to which Sweden belongs, lie to the north of the Arctic Circle and boast several natural phenomena. For example, during summer, the sun never sets some days, but the opposite occurs during winter, resulting in unending darkness for the corresponding period, which is known as Polar Night. And since my lover left me, it seems as though the curtains of night have fallen on the stage of my heart and might never lift.

The Tallest Man on Earth, however, is not the man that just stopped loving me, although that man was very tall. He is Kristian Matsson, he’s only 5’9,” and he hails from a town I’ve never heard of in the middle of Sweden. Like his previous LP, Shallow Grave, and his five-song EP, Sometimes the Blues Is Just a Passing Bird, that followed his latest album, The Wild Hunt, just five months after its release, the recordings are sparse but do not suffer for their simplicity. Just Matsson’s voice and his guitar, which features masterful and delicate finger-picking and eloquent lyrics, his folksy style understandably draws constant comparisons to Bob Dylan. I’ll try to think of my blues as just a passing bird, or as a sparrow, perhaps while I watch The Tallest Man on Earth play at The Fillmore tonight.

The Tallest Man on Earth – Love Is All

Who: The Tallest Man on Earth

What: The Wild Hunt

When: 4.12.2010

Where: Dalarna, Sweden

Why: “And now spikes will keep on falling from the heavens to the floor / The future was our skin and now we don’t dream anymore”

How: Dead Oceans

Blue Giant: “Gone for Good”

September 2, 2010

Last weekend I went camping up in Bodega Bay. Now, usually a sojourn in the hinterlands provides the rare—and necessary—opportunity for a pavement-treading city dweller like myself to see the stars since the lights that populate the metropolis and pollute the night sky don’t exist in those areas, like when I went backpacking with some friends in the Sierras and we forgot our tent and had to sleep under the stars. (Believe me when I tell you: there are worse things—but then again, it didn’t rain.) Unfortunately for my star-gazing craving, for this most recent trip we pitched our tents in a forest of redwood trees, which was majestic, delightful, and awe-inspiring, but the canopy obscured our visual passageway to the heavens. No matter. We passed enough bottles around the fire that some of us were seeing stars (of sorts) soon enough.

I’ll bet there are more stars up in Oregon. Maybe that’s why my friend Mikey is moving to Portland next week, which once again confirms my theory that all cool people migrate there. Or live there already, like this group called Blue Giant, which consists of Kevin and Anita Robinson, who formerly recorded and toured under their previous incarnation—as a duo called Viva Voce—until they decided to see what they could do with a bigger band. Their nom de plume is astronomical in origin. According to Wikipedia, “A blue giant is a massive star that has exhausted the hydrogen fuel in its core and left the main sequence.” Speaking of namesakes, this track off Blue Giant’s eponymous new record shares the same name as another one of my favorite songs of all time by The Shins. I guess “Gone for Good” is never going to express an uplifting message. But I have one: Good luck, Mikey! In the meantime, go catch Blue Giant play at Café du Nord tonight.

Blue Giant – Gone for Good (feat. Corin Tucker)

Who: Blue Giant

What: Blue Giant

When: 7.13.2010

Where:  Portland, Oregon

Why: “When our love is gone it’s gone for good / Look for it while you can if you think you should”

How: Vanguard Records

Arcade Fire: “Half Light II (No Celebration)”

August 10, 2010

Picture me sitting on my childhood bed in the house I grew up in, which is located in an unassuming little town in North Central Massachusetts and is not, as most might think, “just outside of Boston.” It’s just outside of nowhere, and it’s just begun to thunderstorm outside, which signals a welcome but probably too-brief relief, since it’s been so unbearably hot and humid that I realize, quite lucidly, that I’ve been romanticizing East Coast summers to the nth degree. (I can’t sleep at night, and it’s not so much my primordial twin bed as it is the insidious heat that sidles in between me and my intended dreams.) And as I work away the time I should be spending vacationing (ah, the unintended curse of freelancing!) until my flight leaves on Wednesday night to carry me across the continent like a stowaway in the belly of a wide-winged, extra speedy bird, the life to which I’ll be returning has been crumbling like pie crust dough with too much flour—but with more aplomb.

Naturally, I’ve been seeking an equally morose soundtrack to my life. Because I am not close enough to a bona fide city, it doesn’t follow that I would know what it’s like to live in the suburbs, and, as a San Francisco resident, I’m not living there now, but I’m pretty sure I suffered as much as (if not more than) the kids that technically inhabited them—and I’m suffering now. For those of you who haven’t heard the new album, don’t let me misguide you: it is, actually, full of jaunty, infectious, thigh-slapping tunes, but this one matches my melancholy mood right now, and I’ve been listening to it a lot. In the car. That I’ve been driving. To get places. Welcome back to the very outer echelons of suburbia, Sarah. (As a side note, it’s somewhat ironic since I first learned about Arcade Fire when I was living in Boston, from a cool coworker named Erik, and by the time I got around to listening to the copies of Funeral and Neon Bible that he had burned for me, their show at the Paradise—my preferred small venue in the city—had come and gone. I have yet to see them live, but in the meantime, I have this.)

Arcade Fire – Half Light II (No Celebration)

Who: Arcade Fire

What: The Suburbs

When: 8.3.2010

Where: Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Why: “Now that San Francisco’s gone / I guess I’ll just pack it in / Wanna wash away my sins / In the presence of my friends.”

How: Merge

Sallie Ford & the Sound Outside: “Not an Animal”

June 18, 2010

It seems everyone wants to move to Portland these days, myself included. Though I’ve never been, I’ve heard great things, like the fact that it boasts ubiquitous high-quality coffee (and innovations like this that go along with it), tasty microbreweries, a burgeoning food scene, and is also green, bike-friendly, and conveniently poised for outdoor adventure. (Not to mention it is home to House Spirits Distillery, which produces one of the best whiskies I’ve ever tasted.) In short, it’s like a smaller, rainier, cheaper version of San Francisco. In addition to all this, the music scene up there is solid, as evidenced, yet again, by a band I just discovered: Sallie Ford & the Sound Outside. Originally from Asheville, North Carolina, it sounds like Sallie and I are on the same wavelength when it comes to moving to that Oregon city, according to this Future Sounds interview: “I moved to Portland on a whim. I heard a lot of great things and thought it would be a great place to live, and it is.” (I did the same thing when moving from Boston to SF two and a half years ago, and it’s worked out splendidly.)

She met her current bandmates there—Ford Tennis (drums), Tyler Tornfelt (upright bass), Jeff Munger (lead guitar), who comprise the “Sound Outside” portion of the band; Sallie sings, plays rhythm guitar, and writes the songs. After playing smaller venues in the Portland area for the past couple of years, Sallie and co. recently went on tour opening for fellow North Carolinans The Avett Brothers. The band released their first EP, Not an Animal, last May, and a full-length album is in the works. Though I am partial to lower female voices (being in possession of one myself, in addition to spending my formative years suffering adolescent and teenage angst on a steady diet of Fiona Apple), I do occasionally make an exception, and this time it’s for Sallie. Among her influences, Ford lists Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, both of whom are evident enough in her vocal delivery. However, Ford goes beyond simple copycat techniques; she really takes ownership of her voice, and her music effectively blends vintage and modern persuasions. To see for yourself, Sallie Ford & the Sound Outside play with Eilen Jewell tonight at Hotel Utah.

Sallie Ford & the Sound Outside – Not An Animal

Who: Sallie Ford & the Sound Outside

What: Not an Animal EP

When: 5.2009

Where: Portland, Oregon

Why: “I’m definitely not on the prowl / I’ve just got big eyes like a baby owl.”

How: Self-released

Local Natives: “Sun Hands”

June 3, 2010

As one of many born-and-bred East Coast transplants currently calling San Francisco home, I find myself consistently comparing the two sides of the country. For one I naturally feel a rose-colored nostalgia (a term fascinatingly discussed in Milan Kundera’s lesser-known novel Ignorance); for the other, a vague yet potent fear and loathing. That, coupled with my intrinsic inability to relate to all things LA (how can a city that is always 75 and sunny really know how to brood?) made me predisposed to dislike Local Natives, even though—or perhaps because—they were so lauded by Pitchfork. First of all, the band name: Local Natives. Really?  Had they just learned the meaning of “redundant”? They could have just used it in a sentence rather than as  their moniker. Second, the record’s name, Gorilla Manor—like the physical incarnation of a beer and vomit-spattered college frat house—made me want to head for the hills (no, not the Hollywood ones), where I would be safe from roofies, funnels, bros, and Smirnoff Ice.

As it turns out, my prejudiced assumption wasn’t far from the truth. The band did record the album in an Orange County house of ill repute. But, as the old adage goes, don’t judge a book by its (highly off-putting) cover. Despite a definitive tendency towards pop (and the sunny harmonies that so often accompany it), I grew to like them more and more with every listen. Finally, I found myself defending them while reading a piece on them in NPR’s Song of the Day, in which the writer alleged that “Airplanes” was about the longing for a lost romantic love, when it is, in fact, about the singer’s late grandfather. Idiots. Maybe these guys aren’t as one-dimensional as I thought. If you missed them at Bottom of the Hill last night, all is not lost: they’re playing tonight at the Rickshaw Stop. Looks like the demand outweighs the supply. Just like the ration of fake breasts to real ones in La La Land.

Local Natives – Sun Hands

Who: Local Natives

What: Gorilla Manor

When: 11.2.2009

Where: Los Angeles, California

Why: “And when I can feel with my sun hands / I promise not to lose her again”

How: Frenchkiss/Infectious

The National: “Sorrow”

May 27, 2010


It was Sasquatch 2008, my first time in Washington State and the second large music festival I had attended since Bonnaroo 2006. We were waiting for The National to take the main stage, framed by the majestic views of the Columbia River that so defines that particular amphitheater, and we had been waiting for quite some time when Rainn Wilson delivered the news: the band’s bus had broken down somewhere on the road down from Vancouver—and, in so doing, broken my spirit and stomped on my dreams. They would not be making that set, we learned with heavy hearts; instead, they would be playing a smaller stage later in the day, and therefore removed from the splendor of the Gorge. One would think, then, that the band they had selected to fill in for The National would be blessed to have the opportunity to play before such a crowd, fortune smiling upon their bearded faces, but I would disagree. Nothing was going to sate this audience save those two sets of brothers and Matt Berninger’s voice, which rolls all the suffering of the world into one erotic baritone as he sings his poignant, though sometimes nonsensical, lyrics. Not even Fleet Foxes, who admittedly put on an amazing show.

The National’s fans are as hard-core as they come, and for good reason. Since Boxer, the band’s fourth album and masterpiece that launched them into the stratosphere of indie stardom, I can’t remember a record that affected me so deeply, and for so long. So there was a lot riding on High Violet. Namely, Brooklyn’s crown of indie royalty, especially since the borough’s aesthetic has since been shaped by experimental newcomers like Grizzly Bear, Yeasayer, TV on the Radio, and Dirty Projectors. Take lyrics crooned by Magnetic Fields in an almost ecstatically in-denial Stephin Merritt (“I don’t want to get over you”) throughout the eponymous track off of 69 Love Songs, and then compare that to Berninger’s abysmally lachrymose rendition of the same in “Sorrow.” We never said it was going to be uplifting. But melancholy is what this band does best, and I would hop on their train to Depressionville in a heartbeat. Happily. And I’ll be doing exactly that tonight at the Fox.

The National – Sorrow

Who: The National

What: High Violet

When: 5.11.2010

Where: Brooklyn, NY

Why: “Don’t leave my half a heart alone / On the water / Cover me in rag and bones, sympathy / Cause I don’t wanna get over you”

How: Beggars Banquet Records

Sonny & the Sunsets: “Too Young to Burn”

May 22, 2010

As I submit my résumé to increasingly dubious baristas in this city’s many no-nonsense coffee shops and face the fact that my health care will, inevitably, run out at the end of the month, I begin to question my decision to quit my unflaggingly stable 9-5 at which I was able to do absolutely nothing on any given day and still collect a steady paycheck—especially when it seems that the plan I’d so brilliantly hatched to “get away from the computer screen” by acquiring a job at a serious coffeehouse has, thus far, resoundingly failed. And, in the meantime, copy-editing mind-blowingly boring material to pay the rent simply isn’t as glamorous as I had imagined, flexible schedule or no. Thankfully, even if life is handing me lemons as I stand at a career crossroads, San Francisco’s Sonny Smith has crafted an album so inherently sun-drenched, I can close my eyes and put it on, along with my retro bikini and oversize shades, lie back in my beach chair, and let all my troubles fade away. It’s a different decade anyway.

Originally released exclusively on vinyl, the album is like jobs at SF gourmet cafés—hard to come by. Maybe that’s because they only made 500 copies. (Don’t worry; if you’re not a vinyl purist, you can still get it digitally.) And if there’s anything this Bay Area denizen can teach me, it’s that hard work pays off. After all, he did spawn an insanely ambitious art project involving 100 records by fictional bands for each of which he 1) commissioned artists to create covers and 2) went ahead and wrote the songs, which resulted in 200 total tunes. Could his artistic accomplishment/omnipresence have contributed to the Sunsets’ invitation to the 2010 Pitchfork Music Festival? (That, or a warm critical reception of damn good debut record.) If you’re too impatient or poor to make it to Chicago this summer, Sonny & the Sunsets are playing at Thee Parkside tonight with Jacuzzi Boys, The Fresh & Only’s, and Art Museums. At $8 a head, even the un (or under) employed can afford to attend. Hey, maybe tomorrow is alright.

Sonny & the Sunsets – Too Young to Burn

Who: Sonny & the Sunsets

What: Tomorrow Is Alright

When: 11.3.2009

Where: San Francisco, CA

Why: “Every tear rolling down is a lesson learned / Are you too old to turn? / Are you too young to burn?”

How: Soft Abuse

Smith Westerns: “Girl in Love”

April 8, 2010

hot, cloudless day in San Francisco + playing hooky + bathing suits + semi-secluded beach + beautiful boy = this song

Who: Smith Westerns

What: Smith Westerns

When: 7.7.2009

Where: Chicago, Illinois

Why: “I can tell by the stars in your eyes that you’re a girl / in / love.”

How: Horizontal Action

Surfer Blood: “Floating Vibes”

April 1, 2010

When my dear friend and co-music connoisseur Amy wrote to me, defeated, that she would be accompanying her boyfriend down to sweaty Tampa come June rather than returning to the dry, majestic mountains of the West as her heart so ardently desired, I suggested she put her killer writing and photography skills to work by starting a blog about mullets. When that didn’t seem to help assuage her fears of foraying into a hot, culture-less void full of Tex-Mex, retirement communities, and requisite bingo nights, I thought about telling her about how much fun I had when I went to Florida in the fifth grade. At age 10 I couldn’t have been more thrilled to see the palm trees swaying in the stifling breeze, snorkel in salty bathwater in the middle of August (which was stingray season), and entertain my budding career as a marine biologist at SeaWorld (even though my little sister got picked to pet the dolphins as I sat there in the audience and cried). And then I thought again.

Instead, I made it my mission to pass along any and all musical morsels I discovered coming from the Sunshine State. First, the Harvest of Hope Fest in St. Augustine, which boasts not only a great lineup but also benefits migrant farm workers across the country. Then, suddenly, Surfer Blood. Be forewarned: this West Palm Beach-based band of five is a contradiction in terms. They don’t surf, nor did they catch the trend train to Transylvania. (No matter. Their new name sure sounds better than Jabroni Sandwich.) Their songs are full of strong hooks, but not the fishing kind. And, for all the beach scenes its upbeat feel and oceanic imagery invokes, Astro Coast tends toward lyrics better suited to a therapy session than a volleyball game. (I’d be sad if I lived in Florida, too.) If you didn’t nab tickets to their sold-out show at Bottom of the Hill tomorrow night, you have another chance to see them—for free—at Amoeba on Haight at 6 pm tonight.

Surfer Blood – Floating Vibes

Who: Surfer Blood

What: Astro Coast

When: 1.19.2010

Where: West Palm Beach, Florida

Why: “If you’re moving out to the West, then you’d better learn how to surf.”

How: Kanine Records

Midlake: “Acts of Man”

March 5, 2010

Seduced as I was by The Trials of Van Occupanther, in all of its ethereal, autumnal, Nick Drake-era glory, I waited in my human cocoon for the follow-up. On February 2 the new record, The Courage of Others, unleashed Midlake’s patented brand of folk rock unto the masses, but with a slight shift—rewinding a decade when it comes to sonic inspiration—and now the lyrics come lined with a political agenda: a call to eco-conscious arms. Even earthier than before, the album ebbs and flows like tides, or waxes and wanes like the phases of the moon, and hypnotizes with chant-like harmonies and delicate instrumentation. With an atmosphere both baroque-infused and enchanted, this record could serve as the ideal soundtrack to a soul-searching walk through the woods, wherein you would not be surprised to encounter a Minotaur prancing along the forest floor.

This is the stuff that legends are made of—and, despite the obvious influences, this is not a derivative band; in fact, they’ve forged new ground. NPR, who is streaming the entire record before its release, accurately states that “the music of Midlake has set a tone heard on records from Bon Iver, Blitzen Trapper, and Fleet Foxes, among others.” That it’s a sound that’s truly their own has never been more apparent: flutes cohabitate with electric guitars on “Small Mountain,” and the result is, for lack of a better word, effective. Midlake has jettisoned all of today’s trends to produce a sound that both exists outside of time and is utterly timely, like a slightly melancholy wood nymph’s beautifully crafted response to the Republicans’ claim that climate change is a myth. Here’s to mythical-sounding music that’s grounded in hard reality and takes a stand. Midlake plays the Great American Music Hall tonight.

Midlake – Acts of Man

Who: Midlake

What: The Courage of Others

When: 2.2.2010

Where: Denton, Texas

Why: “If all that grows starts to fade, starts to falter / Oh, let me inside, let me inside, not to wait / Great are the sounds of all that live / And all that man can hold.”

How: Bella Union