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

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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

Foreign Born: “Vacationing People”

February 24, 2010

After the skies parted like the Red Sea and let loose buckets of rain earlier this week, my roommates and I discovered a leak in our apartment, and then another, leading us to wonder when it might be time to start collecting pairs of animals (you think this guy would mind if we borrowed his heap o’ beast?)  and planks of lumber for the ark. While the landlord promptly sent reinforcements, the situation has yet to be remedied, and all this wetness makes me pine for sunshine (and moonshine) in distant lands. With our home being invaded, clearly it’s no time for a staycation, which is why “Vacationing People” by Foreign Born serves as the perfect antidote to the poison of potential flooding. I’d better pack my swimsuit and my sunscreen before I second-guess myself.

However, if you’re like me, an endless stream of engagements has left you with zero cash to take a trip not accessorized with a couple bands of gold—but not all nuptials end in I-wish-I-were-in-Brazil-style bitterness. In fact, during the 2003 post-collegiate summer wedding circuit, Lewis Pesacov and Matt Popieluch, who had played together at SF State University, started jamming and decided to give the whole band thing another go. A bassist (Ariel Rechtshaid), drummer (Garrett Ray), and two albums later, that particular union of souls seems like quite the providential event. Foreign Born plays the Rickshaw Stop as part of Noise Pop tonight.

Foreign Born – Vacationing People

Who: Foreign Born

What: Person to Person

When: 6.23.2009

Where: Los Angeles, California

Why: “We live a life of vacationing people / Take a long walk slowly.”

How: Secretly Canadian

Lovin’s for Fools

February 19, 2010

On Sunday I was too busy eating sandwiches atop Twin Peaks and, later, drinking whiskey to bother blogging. And no, I wasn’t trying to drown my single sorrows in the anesthetizing arms of that amber liquor—or attempt to reassert my feminine power by surrounding myself with independent, kick-ass women (although I did), only to drunk text all my ex-boyfriends and quietly sob myself to sleep (I didn’t). I was simply having a damn good time. In case you live in a cave, Sunday was Valentine’s Day, a “holiday” which cannot really be deemed as such because no one gets the day off whenever it falls, and which I maintain makes single people feel like lepers (even if they are perfectly content living on their islands of blissful sovereignty and boundless opportunity, which is, in essence, the San Francisco zeitgeist) and encourages couples to celebrate their enduring passion through contrived, bank-breaking, and generally garish notions of romance.

And though, for the aforementioned reasons, I tried to ignore it, my efforts were futile at best. Even in the sweet, shadowy, slightly malodorous safety of Thieves lingered evidence in the shape of heart-covered cupcakes. And then I realized: even if I put down my dram to pen something I could post for you all, you would read something into the music which may or may not be true, whatever I chose. And I guess, regardless of previous personal outpourings, that I don’t want, right now, to be so emotionally transparent. I thought it would be safer to wait until Wednesday, and then I didn’t find time. So here it is, Friday, February 19, and I am presenting a sad, sad song about love lost and its cynical aftermath, but on no particular day, and for no particular reason.

Sarah Siskind – Lovin’s for Fools

Who: Sarah Siskind

What: Studio . Living Room

When: 2006

Where: Nashville, Tennessee

Why: “Go on and love her, love her forever / I will not tell her you told me, too / You’ll never know, dear, how much I love you / Lovin’s for fools, lovin’s for fools.”

How: Infrasound Collective

Don’t Think Twice

February 13, 2010

It’s not every day that you are informed that the person you’ve been seeing for a few months is seeing someone else…via text message.  And despite the various substances I abused last night in order to numb the pain, the indignity of it all still stings. (Or is that my hangover? I can’t tell.) As I had already found someone else myself, I can’t say I’m entirely heartbroken…but I still think a fuck-you song would make me feel better. (As would a bottle of bourbon, if anyone is willing to contribute to my cause.) And after searching far and wide for a new favorite torch song, I’ve come to the conclusion that nothing, nothing is as cathartic as Susan Tedeschi’s amazing rendition of Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice.” Oh yeah – and no, I don’t want to be friends with you.

Susan Tedeschi – Don’t Think Twice

Wild Beasts: “All the King’s Men”

February 12, 2010

By now you’ve probably realized that a lot of the music I’m writing about these days is not necessarily brand spanking new (hello, David Bowie), but there’s so much of it these days that it’s easy to gloss over—or never even stumble across—something really worth hearing. Such is the case with Wild Beasts. Though their first full-length, Limbo, Panto, debuted in 2008, I didn’t hear about it until recently. And, of course, they date to well before that. When Hayden Thorpe and Ben Little originally formed the UK band as a duo in 2002, they went by Fauve, the French word for “wild beast.” After acquiring drummer Chris Talbot in 2004, they deferred to the English translation. Finally, bassist Tom Flemming joined the group and their sound was cemented. 

As frontman, Thorpe brandishes his breathy, vibratto-full falsetto as a weapon against falling between the cracks as an indie nonentity, but Fleming’s deeper vocals serve as a more masculine counterpoint to his high-flying stylings. These guys are more poetic—thought not overly so—than beastly when it comes to lyrics—but don’t expect poeticism to translate to sensitivity. “All the King’s Men,” for example, lists the myriad types of girls that could mother the children of a British Don Juan, and he is not trying to rack up his spawn in a romantic way. For all of you bummed about Mumford & Sons being sold out at Popscene tonight, rejoice. There are still tickets left for the Wild Beasts show at The Independent.

Wild Beasts – All the King’s Men

Who: Wild Beasts

What: Two Dancers

When: 9.8.2009

Where: Leeds, England

Why: “Girls astride me / Girls beneath me / Girls before me / Girls between me / You’re birthing machines / And let me show, my darling, what that means.”

How: Domino Records