Have you ever discovered a song that you’re certain you’ve never heard before but, at the same, feels like something that you have loved as long as you can remember? 24-year-old British troubadour Michael Kiwanuka‘s debut album, Home Again, is chock full of gems like this, numbers that are best defined by the word “timeless.” His sound lies somewhere between the mellow soulfulness of Bill Withers and the plaintive, slightly melancholic sound of Nick Drake, and he turned up at Manhattan’s Highline Ballroom for a sold-out show last night, just days removed from a successful appearance at Bonnaroo.
As anyone who has ever attended a concert in the Big Apple will attest, New York City audiences can sometimes be rather standoffish and easily distracted, filled with people standing with their arms crossed and “impress me” expressions on their faces. However, from the very moment that the opening chords of “Always Waiting” played through the sound system last night, the Adele-approved Michael Kiwanuka — he opened for her on tour in the U.K. last year — held the audience’s rapt attention. His music never quite veers into a groove that one would describe as uptempo, but don’t misconstrue the lack of a high BPM for something that’s boring. His voice is the kind that envelops you in a warm embrace, and his skilled backing band often extended songs that hover between three and four minutes on wax into six to eight minute epics, replete with jazzy, jammy sonic flourishes. And to that the richness of his lyrical content, a great deal of which involves pleas directed simultaneously towards both himself and a higher power (“Lord, I need loving” on “Tell Me A Tale”, “Oh Lord, I’m getting ready to believe” on “I’m Getting Ready”), and you have yourself all the ingredients for a mesmerizing and memorable evening.
Michael Kiwanuka may indeed be a brand new artist, but if last night’s moving performance was any indication, his career has a strong chance at being as timeless as his sound.
Shortly after Charlene Kaye took the stage as the opening act of StarKid‘s performance at Roseland Ballroom on Sunday evening —the final date of their “Apocalyptour”— she addressed her audience of 3,500. “It’s the end of the world,” she told them. “And you get to experience it with us.” The crowd erupted as Kaye continued playing her 45-minute set, a loud and buoyant assortment of songs that showcased her powerful voice and magnetic stage presence. Apart from a poorly conceived request for her audience to kneel down and jump in unison (an act that seemed to cause more disgruntlement than enjoyment), she held a tight grip on the crowd. Her set ended with “Animal Love I,” an electrifying anthem (and the best song of the entire evening) that seemed fitting for a theater of people who had been told to expect end of the world.
But was it really the apocalypse? As someone who knew almost nothing about StarKid upon entering the venue that evening, I couldn’t be too sure. The thousands of screaming children, parents who weren’t sure how to deal with the noise, and stage filled with good-looking performers in complimentary costumes featuring varying levels of thigh exposure felt like some kind of terrifying trifecta that could only mean certain death.
Fortunately for the crowd (and to a lesser extent, me), the world did not end after Charlene left the stage, and the Apocalyptour continued as the remaining performers of StarKid began their show. The minimal and vaguely Incan set design was, like every other element of the show’s construction, merely a method of threading disconnected StarKid songs together. The show’s framing device featured them as archeologists who encounter an ancient god of “chaos, death and musical theater” hell-bent on destroying the world. To dissuade him, they perform selections from their repertoire, including pieces from A Very Potter Musical, Me and My Dick, and Starship. A set list that moves from songs about penises to ones about Hermione Granger is objectively weird, but the StarKids (all former students of the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theater & Dance) have an impressive grip on writing and, though lyrically all over the place, that persistent musical theater tone helped tie every dick and Potter song together. Read more…
Remember Lana Del Rey? Back in early January, she seemed poised to dominate the music headlines this year; thanks to the strength of her singles “Video Games” and “Blue Jeans,” the anticipation for her second full-length LP, Born To Die, was at a fever pitch. Then, of course, she appeared as the musical guest on Saturday Night Live, turning in a performance that ended up being so controversial and maligned that it will likely follow her for the rest of her career. In a matter of hours, she went from being the Next Big Thing to having bloodthirsty music bloggers gleefully penning her career obituary. In fact, the pendulum of hype swung at such a rapid rate that her concerned management team felt that the best course of action to save Lana’s promising career was to pull her out of the spotlight altogether here in the United States, canceling high-profile bookings at SXSW in favor of focusing on the international market. This effectively stalled the prospects for Born To Die to latch on with Stateside audiences — the album has yet to go gold — but turned out to have worked quite well worldwide, as her record has sold over 1.5 million copies to date.
Aside from a pre-taped performance on American Idol back in March and a rumored fling with Axl Rose, it’s been pretty much radio silence from Team LDR here in the U.S. for the last few months. Last week, she performed a three-night residency at the El Rey Theater in Los Angeles, but tonight at Manhattan’s Irving Plaza, she made her first live appearance in the city since a low-key, one-song performance on the Late Show With David Letterman in early February. She had every right to be nervous performing for the sold-out crowd, especially considering that it was her first full show in town since her Bowery Ballroom performance in December, a show that was plagued with technical issues and one that she confessed to us that she wished “had gone a little differently.” However, the vibe in the room this evening — her first of three shows here over the next few days — was palpably different from the outset, as eager fans were anxious to show their support for Lana and convince her that her career had now entered the “Backlash To The Backlash” stage on New York Magazine‘s Undulating Curve of Shifting Expectations. As she strode out on a stage filled with lush greenery, she was bathed in a warm round of applause and cheers, which prompted her to gleefully stick her tongue out before launching into “Blue Jeans.” Read more…
It’s very easy to view reunion shows through cynical eyes, particularly those of bands who came of age in the Nineties. Ever since the Pixies got back together at Coachella 2004 and became millionaires many times thanks to extended tours catering to their aging Generation X fanbase, virtually every band of consequence from the Buzz Bin era has reunited, most of them with visions of dollar signs dancing through their heads. However, that most certainly was not the case last night in Williamsburg when one of the the alternative rock era’s most criminally underrated punky power pop outfits, that dog., played their first East Coast gig since 1997. The band dissolved after a difficult tour in support of their 1997 album Retreat From The Sun (a stone classic, if we do say so ourselves), but got back together for a handful of shows on their native West Coast last summer. They didn’t do it to inflate their respective bank accounts, but rather as a means to blow the dust off their revered three album catalog and play their material for an adoring audience, a good chunk of whom never had the fortune to see them pre-breakup.
that dog. doesn’t get much credit from the music critic community for being a particularly influential band, but looking back on their work with the benefit of hindsight, their three LPs — 1993’s That Dog, 1995’s Totally Crushed Out and 1997’s Retreat From The Sun — showcase some of the tightest hooks and catchiest riffs of that era. The soaring, three part harmonies of lead singer/guitarist Anna Waronker, violinist Petra Haden and bassist Rachel Haden were the perfect way to accentuate the band’s female-centric lyrical content, most of which centered around boys (finding them, dealing with them, losing them). Because the band shared a label (Geffen) with some of the most influential alternative acts of that era —Nirvana, Beck, Hole, Weezer, and Counting Crows, to name but a few— it’s easy to understand why they never quite got the spotlight pointed their way, but you wouldn’t know that judging by the level of devotion the fans at the Music Hall of Williamsburg showed the group last night. Read more…
Rebecca Ferguson might not be England’s answer to Aretha Franklin, but she’s just about their version of Fantasia Barrino. Pregnant at seventeen and then again two years later, the now twenty-five-year-old Ferguson first made waves across the pond as the runner-up of the 2010 season of the UK edition of The X-Factor, and hasn’t slowed down since. Tuesday night marked the occasion of the soulful chanteuse’s first-ever New York performance, ahead of the May 29th stateside release of her debut album, Heaven.
And what a performance it was. Looking glam in a modish and scalloped black-and-white sleeveless dress, Ferguson sang five songs off Heaven, in addition to a sizzling cover of Drake and Rihanna‘s “Take Care” (see video below) that brought some Miami heat to the proceedings. Her opening number was the anthemic original “Glitter & Gold,” followed by “Shoulder to Shoulder,” “Take Care,” “Teach Me To Be Loved,” “Nothing’s Real But Love,” and finally “Run Free,” a standout on the album that was equally exuberant in a live setting.
In the moments before Rita Ora took the stage at S.O.B.’s in the SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan last night, there was a palpable buzz in the air. The packed-to-capacity club had just patiently waited through a middling set from former OFWGKTA member Casey Veggies, and people were buzzing with anticipatory glee for a few reasons. Of course, people were excited to see the artist that is being described as “the new Rihanna” make her New York City debut, but we heard more than a few people in our immediate vicinity wonder aloud whether or not her mentor, one Mr. Sean “Jay-Z” Carter, would be making an appearance at the tiny club where artists like Kanye West, John Legend and Erykah Badu caught some of their first big breaks. Well, spoiler alert, Hova did not make an appearance, but by the end of Rita Ora’s 35 minute(ish) set, no one seemed to care.
Ora bounded onto the stage just a few minutes after 10 p.m. wearing an orange knit hat, a blue jacket, a white midriff-revealing crop top and black tights. Her outfit was colorful and playful, much like Ora’s personality, with a dash of Stefani-esque sexiness thrown in (that is to say, she’s an undeniable beauty that projects a certain wholesomeness). She led off with a song that we had not heard before, but one that contained the line “It’s the kind of beat that will make your face melt.” Normally, we associate the concept of facemelting to metal riffs, but in this particular case, her description of the roaring synths was entirely appropriate. Considering this was her first showcase in NYC, we expected to see a hint of nervousness from her when she first hit the stage, but that never came to fruition. Instead, she commanded the stage like a veteran rock star, prowling from side to side, even occasionally indulging in a bit of headbanging.
Have you ever seen a concert that’s been put on by a single person? No, by that we don’t mean a “solo artist,” someone who’s got a bassist, a drummer, and a roadie or two to get their guitars tuned for them in between songs while they preen behind the mic. We mean someone who, quite literally, stands up on stage all by their lonesome, setting up their instruments and pedals, then performing with nary another individual on stage, then tearing it all down at the end of a set. It’s an incredibly vulnerable position to be in, both as a performer and as an audience member, and a stark and intimate way to take in a performance.
We mention all this because we caught Teeth & Tongue‘s set at Piano’s in New York’s Lower East Side last night, one in which she performed all the duties mentioned above, PLUS playing the keyboard, drum machine and the guitar. Teeth & Tongue is the musical project of 31-year-old Jess Cornelius, who hails from Melbourne, Australia and is currently wrapping up her current North American tour. We caught a few minutes of her set at the 2012 SXSW Music Festival a few weeks back, which was intriguing enough to get us to brave the crisp chill in the air last night to see her showcase her talents.
Teeth & Tongue has a beguiling, sultry sound, one that to this listener lies somewhere between Cat Power and Bat For Lashes. She’s got a real knack for setting the scene in her songwriting, and has a novelist’s gift for conveying the kind of minute details in her lyrics that really put the listener in her head space. Take her confessional breakup song “Unfamiliar Skirts”, for example, a song that’s ostensibly about a couple that’s on one of those ill-fated “breaks.” It contains emotionally raw lyrics like “They all have long eyelashes that drink compliments like dew” and “You can seek forgiveness in their muscles and their thighs,” phrases that read like poetry and take on a heartbreaking quality when paired with her expressive voice and feedback-laden guitar accents. Check out what we mean in this video for the song, her first single off Tambourine (now available on Spotify), her second full-length album.
Fiona Apple got a warm welcome back to her native city last night at the Music Hall of Williamsburg. Born in New York City in the fall of 1977, her last live show here dated back to December 2005, so fans —most of whom, we’re assuming, probably didn’t see her performances at SXSW last week— were exploding with emotion as the lights dimmed. She came onstage to deafening cheers, her hair in a simple ponytail, wearing a bright green camisole cinched with a silver-y belt that hung stylishly in a bow at her side. She declared that she had two things to say:
1) She missed her dog Janet, so her friend had made her a cardboard cutout of her canine pal that she could bring with her on stage.
2) Even though she wouldn’t hear anyone chatting away during the show, she suspected other folks in the crowd wouldn’t appreciate any loud talkers.
(On the second point, there would be little to worry about. The crowd hung on her every lyric last night. Talkers? No. But there were plenty of participants, as the set would veer into a full-fledged sing-along at several moments during the hour-long show.)
With that business taken care of, she smiled and said, “Just be nice, be good, and I will give you everything I can possibly give you.” The band then launched into “Fast As You Can” as Fiona started twitching away behind the microphone.
The set featured a total of 12 songs, eight of which were from her past albums — though she performed only the title track from Extraordinary Machine, which elicited some of the loudest hoots and hollers when she arrived at the chorus and sang, “I’ll make the most of it, I’m an extraordinary machine.”
Train‘s long-awaited follow-up to 2009’s Save Me San Francisco album will be coming out in less than a month. As a means of road testing their new material, and as a way to play live in significantly more intimate venues than this arena band is used to, the guys made their way down to the 2012 SXSW Music Festival last week for a handful of dates. We caught up with the three guys from Train —from left to right, Jimmy Stafford (guitar), Scott Underwood (drums) and Patrick Monahan (lead vocals)— down in Austin and asked them to tell us a bit about their new record, California 37 (which is due out on April 17, 2012).
“California 37 is a road that brought us to one another,” Pat Monahan explained. “This record is more of an expression than it is a ‘Can we come back?’ [kind of thing]. The songs and the stories are just better. They’re more refined. It’s a dance record, but it’s also singer-songwriter at the same time.” After hearing the propulsive and upbeat first single “Drive By”, we’re excited to see how the rest of the album incorporates the dance-y elements that Monahan referred to in our chat with him.
Now, this is where things got a bit awkward in our interview. You see, we’ve always thought that Train‘s gargantuan 2010 hit, “Hey Soul Sister,” is one of the most subversive songs to get mass airplay since “Summer of ’69.” A few years back, Bryan Adams admitted to a shocked Maggie Rodriguez on CBS’s The Early Show that his song was about a sexual position, NOT a year, so we thought we’d try to get Train to do the same thing about “Hey Soul Sister.” Our theory has always been that the song is about a particularly memorable blowjob, our evidence being the line in the song that goes “Your lipstick stains on the front lobe of my left side brains / I knew I wouldn’t forget you / And so I went and let you blow my mind.” So, is it? See how the band responded in our video below! Read more…
Some bands make music that simply sounds better while you’re listening to it outside, with a breeze in the air and a beer in your hand. California natives Best Coast definitely fall into this category, with their fuzzy, stoner-friendly riffs and the mellow, sweetly expressive voice of lead singer Bethany Cosentino. The band broke through with their 2010 Crazy For You LP, which scored an 8.4 and a coveted “Best New Music” notation from the tastemaker site Pitchfork, and just played a handful of gigs at the 2012 SXSW Music Festival in support of their new LP, The Only Place (the release date of which is still TBD).
“The record was written in a place of being homesick,” the 25 year-old Cosentino explained to us over the weekend. “‘The Only Place’ is supposed to mean my bedroom, my home, Los Angeles, California. It’s the place where I feel the most comfortable and confident. I wanted to make a record that reflected that this place is my safe place, and all these songs that are written about more darker, kind of lonely feelings, those all go away as I get back to this only place.”
Well, it’s pretty clear that while Cosentino feels most comfortable in California, she’s been widely accepted the world over. Her 2011 video for “Our Deal”, which was directed by Drew Barrymore and stars Chloe Moretz, picked up a 2012 Woodie Award for Best Video while down in Austin, an award she accepted from the luminous DJ Pauly D. If you’re not yet familiar with the group (or even if you are!), we’ve got some video of Best Coast performing “Our Deal” live from last week’s SPIN party at Stubb’s for you below.