Chris Bay's Posts
|The host of Gold Soundz, which airs every Friday evening on KDHX. I'm an ardent supporter of independent and local music.|
‘Just writing and writing and doing what comes naturally’ A pre-LouFest interview with Josh Carter of Phantogram
In a crowded indie landscape full of electronic pop, it’s unlikely that most bands will ever cut through the noise, and even less likely that they’ll be exceptionally good. Young Phantogram has already defied both odds.
Only one full-length album and three EPs into their career, the duo of Josh Carter and Sarah Barthel — with the touring addition of Tim Oakley — has stirred up a bucketful of attention for blending darkly addictive tunes that heavily reference dream pop, hip-hop production and shoegaze.
The band released two EPs in 2009, but heads began to turn en masse with the releases of its debut full-length, “Eyelid Movies,” in early 2010 and its third EP, “Nightlife,” in late 2011. Both garnered enthusiastic responses from fans — for hooky electronic melodies — and critics — for melding a diversity of sounds into something wholly original.
I recently spoke to Josh Carter — the band’s songwriter, guitarist and secondary vocalist — on the phone about the origins of Phantogram’s sound, how to deal with expectations and the band’s first, err, second St. Louis appearance, this Saturday at LouFest.
Chris Bay: What’s your favorite boy-girl duo, past or present?
Josh Carter: Sonny and Cher. Captain and Tennille. Just kidding. Let’s see, I like Beach House a lot. They’re a good band. We just did a show with Sleigh Bells a couple of weeks ago. Those guys are really nice, too.
When “Eyelid Movies” dropped, the thing that I was most impressed by was that it had a very well-formed, original character to it, which is unusual for a band’s first full-length these days. A lot of music sounds derivative when it first comes out of the box. How did that feel from your perspective?
It happened very naturally. Phantogram was basically the product of my solo work. When I was about 18 I started writing songs a lot and played the drums and guitar and synths, and I would write these little ditties. And then a friend of mine who was really into hip hop got me into some more obscure underground hip hop, like Quasimoto and Madlib and stuff like that.
I grew up with an older brother who is really into good indie rock like Sonic Youth and shoegaze music, like Ride and Slowdive and My Bloody Valentine. And I also grew up on the Beatles. So basically, it wasn’t really sought out too much, it was just me blending my favorite elements of music together to create something that’s natural.
I met up with Sarah — we’ve been longtime friends — and I was singing a lot of these songs in my falsetto and I thought it’d be really cool to have a girl sing them. Sarah has a really great voice and she’s really good on piano, so I asked her if she wanted to collaborate and we started Phantogram.
You just leapt ahead of me quite a bit from where I wanted to go with that comment, but this is as good of a time as any to go there. You write a lot of the lyrics, if not all…
Yeah, I write all of the lyrics.
…So what’s it like to have somebody else sing your songs, especially when a lot of them seem to be very personal?
I think it’s because we’re such close friends. I’ll often write lyrics with Sarah present and kind of run them by her. So I think she can really connect emotionally to what I’m writing about even though she’s not writing the lyrics. She definitely has a big emotional connection to them.
You do this because you feel like it makes the music work better with a female vocalist?
Yeah. I sing on some of our songs, but we sort of pick and choose who sings on what songs. But we both have very different sounding voices; there’s very high contrast.
When we first started the band we wanted to do more of a Thurston Moore / Kim Gordon type deal where we both sing, where there’s not a lead singer. But Sarah has more or less taken the lead, obviously because she has a stronger voice than I and she’s a great entertainer as well, and I don’t mind that because I just like to make music. I’m lucky that I have such a great partner to do it with.
Festival review: Justin Townes Earle, Dr. Dog, My Morning Jacket, Neko Case, Wilco (and more) light up Forecastle Festival, July 14-15
The Louisville-based Forecastle Festival celebrated its 10th anniversary this year with a three-day event featuring some of the best and most popular acts in rock, pop, funk and electronic music.
The event began on Friday, but obligations at home prevented our group — myself and two friends — from arriving earlier than Saturday. Surely some good sets were missed; the Head and the Heart, JEFF the Brotherhood, Trixie Whitley and Abigail Washburn all performed Friday evening.
Saturday, July 14
2:20 p.m. Reaching Louisville in the rain provides a falsely ominous mood. While the rain would delay the scheduled 3 p.m. start by two hours, every act would play a full set and the rest of the weekend would remain dry.
5 p.m. Walking into Louisville’s Waterfront Park, the typical festival trappings are laid out before us: food vendors, beer stands, a water station and plenty of portable restrooms. This section of Waterfront Park, situated on the edge of downtown Louisville along the Ohio River, is flanked on the east and west by bridges, and is bisected by an elevated section if I-64, which would provide welcome shade and surprisingly little noise despite being an unsightly constant reminder of the festival’s urban setting.
North of the divide lay two large stages (Mast and Boom), while south side is home to two smaller stages (Port and Starboard), an assortment of local vendors and an activity area for kids, among other diversions. And I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t mention the Red Bull Ocean Stage, situated below the highway at the eastern edge of the grounds, which hosted various hip hop, electronic and DJ sets. This will, however, be it’s final mention.
5:06 p.m. Justin Townes Earle kicks off the day at the Boom Stage with “Harlem River Blues,” backed by a full band. He apologizes for starting late, as if anyone cares about 6 minutes when they’ve spent the past 2 hours huddled in hotel rooms and restaurants waiting for the rain to abate. Every one of his songs is a story, and while JTE awkwardly stumbles over the cynical introductions — “This one’s about an ex-girlfriend. She was the worst girlfriend ever. She wanted a song written about her, but I bet she didn’t bargain on it going like this” — the songs themselves are pleasant aperitifs for the rest of the fest.
6:15 p.m. The Ravenna Colt — fronted by former My Morning Jacket guitarist Johnny Quaid — is plagued by a poor sound mix at the Port Stage. I had hoped their set would serve as an access point to their music, which I’ve spent spare but hopeful time with, but the songs sound like they’re being piped through the waters of the Ohio.
6:38 p.m. Dr. Dog kicks into a set of poppy folk-funk at the Mast Stage. The Philadelphia-based group, whose members look like dive bar regulars from the cool side of town, hits its stride with the first note. The girls sway, the boys head-bob and within minutes the smoke of herbal supplements fills the air. Dr. Dog’s tunes bounce with a primitive appeal, but are often deceptively complex. “Lonesome,” for instance, splices a shout-along chorus with kinks and corners that add depth without distracting. Covering Architecture in Helsinki’s “Heart It Races,” the band manages to turn the jagged freak-pop melody of the original into a lonely slacker’s anthem.
7:29 p.m. After a trip to the press tent to fill up on water, I headed back to the Boom Stage, passing by two dudes shotgunning two 16-ounce PBRs each. Impressive. But what was going on on-stage was far more impressive. Galactic — the New Orleans jam funk veterans — were joined by Living Colour frontman Corey Glover. While the mildly oppressive sun was sinking, the giddy, pliable crowd had all eyes glued on Glover as he stalked the front of the stage, grabbing the sky above him and singing like the band behind him was his own.
8:15 p.m. My Morning Jacket, Saturday’s headliner, had promised a long, surprise-filled show. So in hope of not bonking halfway through their set, my friends and I depart from the festival to have dinner at a nearby pizza joint. Cheap beer, food, air conditioning and time off your feet are rare and sacred at events like this.
‘”This Land is Your Land” should be sung next to the national anthem at baseball games’ A pre-Twangfest interview with Kasey Anderson
Kasey Anderson‘s a wiry guy in both stature and intellect, a quick wit with an old soul. He’s also one hell of a songwriter.
The Seattle-based musician has performed solo and with his band, the Honkies, for the better part of the last decade, releasing three studio albums and a live set. He’s drawn well-deserved comparisons to Steve Earle, Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan, but for Anderson those names are kindred spirits more than they are molds to follow. His songs carry the indelible mark of a writer that’s seen, felt and ruminated on everything he’s ever put to paper. They’re truths pulled from a young life honestly lived, and if you let them, they’ll point you toward some of your own, as-of-yet-unseen truths.
I chatted with Anderson recently via phone, just after he wrapped a practice session with the Honkies. Topics ranged from his friendship with Counting Crows lead singer Adam Duritz to his prolific usage of Twitter to the legacy of Woody Guthrie.
Kasey Anderson and the Honkies performed at the Twangfest SXSW day parties in 2011, but their set at Twangfest on June 8, with Ha Ha Tonka and Langhorne Slim, will be the band’s first St. Louis appearance to date.
Chris Bay: Something that’s been mentioned quite a bit lately regarding your band has been the Counting Crows situation. They covered your song “Like Teenage Gravity” for their new covers record, “Underwater Sunshine (Or What We Did On Our Summer Vacation),” and they’re also going to take you and your band out on tour this summer. Can you talk a little bit about that relationship?
Kasey Anderson: I’m not sure exactly how Adam [Duritz] came across my songs. He and I started interacting, oddly enough, via Twitter a couple of years ago. I think that someone just turned him on to my record. I was in L.A. off and on for a while last year and he hit me up, saying that they were making a covers record and they were covering one of my songs. I happened to be in town while they were doing that so I swung by the studio and listened to them. And we’ve just stayed in touch and become really good friends since then. The last time I talked to them, they were getting ready to set up their tour for the summer and he asked if we’d come along. And of course that’s an easy question to answer.
That’s very cool. So the relationship started because of his admiration of your music.
Yeah. Someone must’ve just turned him on to my record, and he evidently liked it quite a bit. He also saw us play at SXSW, I guess that same year that we did the Twangfest party, not this year, but the year before. He saw the band play and he saw me play a solo show. In the liner notes for the Counting Crows record he cites that as the moment that he really became a fan.
You’re an avid Twitter user, and most of your tweets are extremely funny.
The incendiary punkish alt-rock trio Screaming Females may contain only one female member — lead singer and guitarist Marissa Paternoster — but the band’s name is not inaccurate; Paternoster herself contains multitudes.
There are moments on the band’s fifth record, “Ugly,” when her voice, singular and bleeding, and broken-glass guitar so dominate the compositions that bass and drums — provided by Michael Abbate and Jarrett Dougherty, respectively — almost become superfluous. For some folks, Paternoster’s razor-blade voice is likely all-or-nothing in its appeal. It squeals and twists in tandem with her overdriven guitar in a way that is abrasive yet seductive.
Witness “Crow’s Nest,” the sharpest demonstration of Paternoster’s skill on “Ugly.” It begins with crescendoing bass, which rises from noisy-neighbor level to floor-rattling in 20 seconds. When the rest of the trio kicks in, at full volume and attitude, you’d be forgiven for not even noticing what the bass and drums are doing. Paternoster’s vox-plus-guitar combo rides on top, and the pair together is intoxicating. Subtract either element from the equation and the song becomes either a grating, overly-emotive tome or a reupholstering of so many of J. Mascis’ guitar lines. But together, they burn.
Screaming Females is the most accomplished and notable act to come out of the New Brunswick, N.J. basement scene. Their record label, Don Giovanni, has been successfully carrying that scene’s flag far beyond northwest Jersey for some time now. For all of the stereotypes that the modifiers DIY and “basement scene” conjure, Screaming Females do a hell of a lot to make you forget that you’re supposed to be young, poor and carefree/less in order to enjoy these songs.
On “Help Me” Paternoster sings: “You make it look easy to be strong / you lift my crutch and guide me home.” While that’s definitely rock ‘n’ roll, it doesn’t exactly exude the self-sufficient, kiss-off attitude normally associated with DIY punk. This song and others — “It All Means Nothing,” “Rotten Apple” and the aforementioned “Crow’s Nest,” in particular — meld straight punk noise with squalling hooks that, together with the band’s fourth instrument, Paternoster’s voice, become undeniable swells of energy that cut beyond the lines of genre and stereotype.
But unless you’re sweating and thrashing about in a basement of your own volition, it’s hard to listen to guitars cranked to 10 for an hour. Screaming Females can pound and thrash as hard as anyone, but the band also knows when to downshift. The bridge on “Leave It All Up To Me,” about two thirds into the record, tears down the wall of noise, providing relief in the form of a sassy, slinky groove. The melody is completely deconstructed, only to be built back up to wrecking ball heft. Further contrast is provided by the album’s closer, “It’s Nice.” On this acoustic number, Paternoster’s knack for cutting to the quick extends well beyond punk. With deftly fingerpicked guitar, complimented by cello and violin, that voice that is most often bold and brash demonstrates subtle and trembling emotion.
“Ugly” is not without its flaws — Paternoster’s voice can become a caricature when not not used purposefully, and Abbate and Dougherty’s playing can seem uninspired — but there are enough moments of fiery punk transcendence to account for all of those sins and more.
“Gish” and “Siamese Dream” Deluxe Reissues
Smashing Pumpkins‘ debut record “Gish” was released in May of 1991, just over 20 years ago. Their second record, “Siamese Dream,” came a touch over two years later in July of 1993.
By the time “Siamese Dream” dropped, the Pumpkins had been thrown (or more arguably, jumped) headlong into the alternative rock maelstrom that put loud, ragged, deviant thrashing at the forefront of the commercial music industry. The monstrosity of that world would leave them battered and artistically and commercially dulled, but what remains of those early years still resonates.
Remastered editions of “Gish” and “Siamese Dream” were released separately in November 2011, and are each accompanied by a full disc of non-album material. Much of this extra material has seen prominent release before. Though many have been remixed for this release, a large number of these cuts were B-sides or appeared on the compilation “Pisces Iscariot,” released in 1994. Also present in each reissue is a DVD of a live performance from the period and extended notes from Billy Corgan on the original album material. (Notes on the non-album tracks would have been nice as well, and likely more valuable to the listener.)
While not much in these collections is fully new, the bundling of this material from the band’s early period — which is both wide and deep in scope — gives a comprehensive representation of their work and identity that until now has been harder to glimpse.
Perhaps the most iconic Smashing Pumpkins album is their third, “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness,” which captures the sprawling, cinematic vision of singer, guitarist and creative principal Billy Corgan better than anything else they produced. The music on that record is well-polished and presented with every care to control what the listener hears and, in the case of the accompanying videos and artwork, sees. By design, very little reality exists on the fantastical “Mellon Collie.” The story of the band’s artistic maturation is obscured.
That story is wrapped up in their first two albums, which portray a naive group of talented individuals that managed to create some of the most ambitious and impactful music of their generation in spite of infighting and immense pressure (both external and self-imposed). They haven’t been lionized to the extent that many of their peers have (cf. Nirvana, Sonic Youth, Pearl Jam). But the band’s best contributions, primarily present in these collections, argue for elevated status in spite of the disfigured image the band would eventually acquire.
Pretty Little Empire is a force in the St. Louis music scene. The affable quartet’s sophomore release “Reasons and Rooms” was one of the best locally-produced records of 2010, and their inspired, rock-solid live sets have only been getting better over time, with no bound in sight.
The band is currently hard at work on LP number three, with recording taking place at Cherokee Street’s Native Sound studio. While we wait to hear what they’re cooking up, perched at the edge of the seat, they have been kind enough to temper our thirst by releasing a video for their non-album cut “All I Know.” The song has been a staple of their live shows and was released in 2011 on the “STL LOUD Vol. 2″ compilation.
This burning, mysterious track is a keeper, and it gets proper visual treatment thanks to a few of the band’s talented friends. I recommend that you experience it with headphones on, video set to full screen.
There’s a fair amount of context to the new Guided by Voices record, “Let’s Go Eat the Factory,” so let’s recap.
Frontman Robert Pollard pulled the plug on Guided by Voices in 2004, ending a 21-year run that included dozens of releases and a staggering number of bandmates come and gone. In 2010 he reunited the band’s “classic lineup” for a one-off gig in Las Vegas. This was the same group of musicians that made up GBV from 1992 to 1996 when the band produced it’s best and most influential records: “Propeller,” “Bee Thousand,” “Alien Lanes” and “Under the Bushes Under the Stars.”
That single show led to a basketful of gigs throughout 2011, including a lengthy tour and spots at the top end of major festival bills. While a reunion of the classic lineup had once seemed incredibly unlikely, another recording from that troupe had always seemed an even longer shot. Alas, that is what we have here.
“Let’s Go Eat the Factory” is not a classic GBV record, though it is certainly a fine collection of music. Hallmarks of the band’s early standout releases are present, to be sure. The first eight tracks (“Laundry and Lasers” through “Who Invented the Sun”) could have been lifted from the middle of any of those records. They carry the same subversive, addictive hooks and fast-paced, shape-shifting melodies.
“Doughnut for a Snowman” and “Spiderfighter” form the nexus of this first third of the record. The former begins seemingly mid-song with the last few words of a verse and a bleating recorder solo, and then proceeds to wash a whimsical childhood portrait across a cozy acoustic arrangement. The brilliantly bipolar “Spiderfighter” gracefully transitions from a grating burner that’s all kerosene and fireworks to a heart-stopping piano ballad, the record’s finest moment.
“Let’s Go Eat the Factory” has moments like these throughout, but it still finds Pollard veering into the ditch on occasion. Oddball cuts like “The Big Hat and Toy Show,” “Go Rolling Home” and “My Eurpoa” are cul-de-sacs, unavoidable and undesirable detours. Similar pieces on the aforementioned GBV records worked because beneath the discordant sludge they held something at least intriguing enough to encourage another listen, which often led to another, and then another. And at worst, they rarely killed the momentum as they do here.
The most noteworthy tracks on “Let’s Go Eat the Factory” are those penned by Pollard’s songwriting foil, Tobin Sprout, the guitarist whose departure from the group in 1996 signaled the end of the classic era. Mostly saccharine and soothing, Sprout’s compositions are the egg and breadcrumbs in the meatloaf, keeping it all together. In addition to “Spiderfighter,” he also offers up the stellar “Who Invented the Sun” and “Waves,” a mildly disorienting spiral of sunburned guitars that is easily the album’s best cut.
Guided by Voices records are very much bric-a-brac. On “Let’s Go Eat the Factory” these trinkets are sometimes brilliant, occasionally forgettable, but most often enjoyable. The record can’t stand next to “Alien Lanes” or “Bee Thousand,” but it’s a nice addition to the band’s discography nonetheless.
Like many other things in life that I still haven’t figured out, finding a methodology for creating year-end lists is something that I struggle with.
Should I choose the most consistent albums? The most innovative? Or simply the records that I enjoyed the most. Some combination of these factors (and others) is probably the way to go, but the choices and sacrifices never cease to puzzle me.
Exactly how I ended up with list, I’m not quite sure. But I’m happy with it. Each of these albums is fantastic and extremely solid front to back. And most importantly, each has kicked me in the gut again and again over the course of the year. They remind me why I love music so much, and why I love sharing it.
In alphabetical order, these are my 11 in ’11.
Apex Manor – “The Year of Magical Drinking” (Merge)
Sunny, melodic, guitar-driven pop rock with arrangements that are pretty much perfect. This is the rare kind of record that my 15-year old self would have loved but which my adult self wouldn’t be embarrassed to have liked at that age. Whenever I put this on in the car I end up banging on the roof and screaming every line. In the words of frontman Ross Fluornoy, maybe “I’ve got teenage blood running through my veins.”
Essential tracks: “I Know These Waters Well” and “Teenage Blood”
Centro-matic – “Candidate Waltz” (Undertow)
I have loved Centro-matic for years, but over the past decade their records had become predictable (though still mostly solid). This record changed that. While still sounding immediately like the Centro-matic we’ve always known, these songs are more clean, economical and carefully arranged than anything they’ve ever done. It takes chutzpah to make so bold a move after 16 years, but it has clearly paid off. Centro-matic sounds as vibrant as twenty-somethings again, without losing the maturity they’ve gained over that span.
Essential tracks: “Only In My Double Mind” and “Estimate x 3″
Crooked Fingers – “Breaks in the Armor” (Merge)
Crooked Fingers’ Eric Bachmann is easily one of the best songwriters around, but his records have not always been even and cohesive. This record is both of those. The approach here is dramatically minimal compared to previous Crooked Fingers records, but that allows the focus to be on the delicacy of his words and melodies rather than on a rush of horns and strings. The songs often begin with dark and disoriented (as in “Bad Blood” and “Your Apocalypse”) but resolve themselves quickly in a rush of warmth.
I interviewed Eric Bachmann for KDHX in November.
Essential tracks: “The Counterfeiter” and “Heavy Hours”
Ha Ha Tonka – “Death of a Decade” (Bloodshot)
The southern Missouri band has a lot of characteristics that are attractive. They combine a hard-working Midwestern earnestness with smart and progressive themes. But their first two albums failed to fully represent the energy and immediacy that they display on stage. “Death of a Decade” finds the band doing this well for the first time. It’s a huge leap forward for the band, and is immensely enjoyable.
Essential tracks: “Usual Suspects” and “The Humorist”
Mount Moriah – (Self-titled) (Holidays for Quince)
I have recommended the debut album from North Carolina’s Mount Moriah to folks more than any other release this year. It’s a gorgeous record. The songs are carried by Heather McEntire’s luminous voice, which pulls and lifts the stark country folk melodies in beautiful ways. This is a simple record, and its secrets tend to become evident only after repeated listens. Lines and melodic twists initially seem plain, only to later reveal themselves as rich and beautiful later on.
Essential tracks: “Lament” and “The Reckoning”