Author: Molly Raben

Music on trial

With the end of 2012 fast approaching, I thought it appropriate to compile a shortlist of my favorite albums released in the past year. I could not include all of the wonderfully memorable music I heard throughout the past 12 months; however, the following five records are the albums you can’t live without.

Love this Giant, David Byrne and St. Vincent

This album was created through the collaboration of two very prolific musicians who each have very individual voices. Their project, however, is a fine representation of both Byrne and Annie Clark, with its clear undercurrent of classic Byrne along with the fresh sound of St. Vincent. A 12-piece brass band accompanies them throughout the work, acting as the driving and uniting force between the two. To get a taste of this release, check out the single “Who,” an irresistibly catchy duet that makes heavy use of the baritone saxophone.

Django Django, Django Django

Scottish band Django Django released its debut, self-titled album this past summer to a strong reception here in the United States. Its songs are constructed with an unexpected blend of acoustic guitars and chirping electronics – a combination that creates a very dynamic album. Django Django’s former single, “Default,” features chanted lyrics and a percussive guitar line, producing a vivacity that is carried throughout the album.

Love at the Bottom of the Sea, the Magnetic Fields

This work is exactly what you would come to expect from The Magnetic Fields, had you listened to any of their previous albums. Invented characters present humorous, imaginary anecdotes set to the group’s characteristically whimsical music, drawing on styles ranging from bubblegum pop to house. For a sampling of the band’s hilarious lyrics and catchy hooks, check out “Andrew in Drag,” sung by frontman Stephen Merritt, confessing his love for the only girl he’s ever loved, Andrew in drag.

151a, Kishi Bashi

Making his solo debut this year, Kishi Bashi wildly impressed NPR’s All Songs Considered hosts Bob Boilen and Robin Hilton with 151a. A renowned violinist and touring member of Athens, Georgia band Of Montreal, Kishi Bashi’s release features lush soundscapes of strings, bouncy electronics and bright voices. His single “Bright Whites” became a staple of summer 2012 with its upbeat tone and shining texture. For a more seasonally-oriented taste of his music, check out the NPR Music webpage for his recently-released Christmas song written for a Florida friend, “It’s Christmas, But it’s Not White Here in Our Town.”

Sushi, James Ferraro

Experimental artist James Ferraro very recently released his third and arguably most accessible album. The works on it are playful – featuring electronic instruments, often silly, cartoonish, and curious noises. These sounds are certainly not unfamiliar to Ferraro as his previous album featured songs constructed out of Skype alerts and cell phone tones. At times, the album may be a bit of an aural overload; however, if you invest the time it deserves, it will become a more enjoyable experience for you. I recommend listening to “Jet Skis & Sushi,” the warmest song on the album.

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Music on trial

Has the cold weather been getting you down? Do you often find yourself in a funk following a jaunt in the frigid climate of the Hill? Please do not worry – much can be done to warm your spirit. Always remember to bundle up when going outside and take solace in the music culture surrounding you.

This Saturday, following Christmas Fest, check out Minneapolis-based, self-described “dream pop” duo Strange Names at 10:30 p.m. in the Pause. They have quickly been gaining popularity and have been featured many times on 89.3 The Current. If you have listened to this radio station anytime in the past few months, you have likely heard their most recent hit single, “Potential Wife.” A super-catchy song with a fine blend of bouncy electronic beats and live instruments, their performance of this tune will surely bring you back to earth after a heavenly two hours spent in Skoglund that evening. If you would like to further prepare yourself for their show this coming weekend, I recommend checking out their website and listening to their recently-released album available for online streaming. Besides their single, a highlight of the work for me is the track “Luxury Child,” with its traces of early pop influence: an incessant rhythm guitar line, tight vocal harmonies and driving backbeat. This feel-good song will surely get you pumped up for the performance on Saturday night.

If an evening performance is not enough to satiate you, tune in online to 93.1 KSTO radio at 11 a.m. Saturday to hear an in-studio performance by local alternative-folk band Hope Country, led by the rich talents of frontman Brent Johnson. Johnson was born and raised on a farm in rural Wisconsin, and his music provides clear evidence of that fact. The warm sound of his quasi-country tunes make one feel right at his or her Midwestern home. Furthermore, this event will showcase the recently-renovated KSTO studio and its awesome equipment. You will not want to miss out.

If you cannot tune in or attend either event, I have compiled a list of songs to curl up to during the coming cold months. I asked a number of friends what they listen to when the weather turns cold and have received numerous responses: Bon Iver’s self-titled album on “those cozy days when I am also sad,” almost anything by folk singer James Taylor, “River” by Joni Mitchell – a melancholy song perfect for gray winter days – and finally, a poem written by my dear friend Anna:

when the weather is cold/my feelings are roilin

i put on some elliott smith and start the tea kettle boilin

but when i really wanna feel warm, i put on orishas

machete control and the black-eyed peas

music coming from south the equator ‘sa pleasa

i listen to it under the blankets while i sip on the teas

I certainly hope you can find warmth in these recommendations through all of the cold days and nights of this season!

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Music on Trial

Have you heard the sound of 500 voices singing Christmas music as it resonates through the halls of Christiansen Hall of Music? How about the spirited renditions of Christmas hymns spilling out of the orchestra room every Monday, Wednesday and Friday? If you have missed out on these aural treats, then you surely have heard the ground shake as the 500 musicians make their way up to Stav Hall following Christmas Festival rehearsals.

Yes, the holiday season is now upon us, and renowned folk musician Sufjan Stevens has reminded us of that fact with his very recent release of Silver & Gold, a compilation of songs for the Christmas season. Some of you may look back fondly on 2006 – the year he released his previous holiday album, Songs for Christmas. If you are in that boat, then you are in luck. Sufjan’s new album has much the same character of his former compilation and takes even more liberty in his interpretations of classic Christmas tunes.

Stevens impressively creates a cohesive flow among popular tunes, hymns, medieval carols and original compositions. Among the highlights of the album is his rendition of the “Coventry Carol.” This piece was first performed in a 16th century mystery play based on the Gospel of Matthew and depicts the “Massacre of the Innocents,” the night in which King Herod ordered that all male infants in Bethlehem be killed. The carol is a mother’s lament, often performed by children’s choirs and recorder ensembles. Sufjan Stevens, however, sets the piece for a chorus of female voices and strings. The song opens with plucked strings playing the haunting melody in canon, which is then taken up by the women. They are later joined by the eerie and melancholy timbre of a singing saw. It is this choice that makes Sufjan’s rendition so effective: Clearly, the song is far removed from the 1500s but can still evoke an emotional response in its listeners.

It was a fine choice of the artist to incorporate little-known ancient music in his compilation, but in order to make it appealing, it must be balanced by recognizable tunes. Sufjan delivers: Various beloved hymns pop up on the album, one of the most innovative takes being of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” The piece begins with a rag-tag choir of mixed voices, young and old, singing the Christmas classic. Gradually, the musician adds his characteristic spinning electronics and backbeat, turning the reliable old favorite into a fresh and off-kilter, wild piece of music.

On the topic of wild music, one cover on the album sets itself apart from the rest. “Alphabet” is a cover of Prince’s 1988 hit “Alphabet St.” Far from the original upbeat version, Sufjan’s rendering is digitized and funky and gives the listener the impression of being inside a Pacman machine with its 8-bit, antiphonal sounds and retro synthesizer lines. Although the song may in no way be relevant to the holiday season, it is an intriguing choice to throw it into the mix.

This Sufjan Stevens Christmas album would not be a Sufjan Stevens Christmas album without his own works. His whimsical character shines through on tracks such as “Ding-a-ling-a-ring-a-ling” – a lo-fi song about the birth of Jesus Christ featuring a children’s chorus and crashing, often violent, percussion. Memorable lyrics from this song include: “Jesus is the king-a-ling-a-ling-a-ling.”

Sufjan tops off his album with its final 13 minute-long track, an original piece entitled “Christmas Unicorn.” This song is exactly as its title makes it seem. Stevens identifies himself as a Christmas Unicorn over accompaniment typical of his minimalist style – strings, cute wind lines and electronics. There really could be no better way for him to end the journey across time that is Silver & Gold.

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Music on trial

Although election season has now passed, I have struggled to pull myself away from its soundtrack. In the few days prior to Nov. 6, I could not help but bump “Don’t Stop” by Fleetwood Mac on high volume. I realize this is not 1992; however, its place in campaign history has solidified its place in many of our hearts. “Don’t Stop” is an uplifting and energizing song reminding listeners to keep moving forward – a poignant message central to Bill Clinton’s 1992 election campaign and one with which he has been associated over the past 20 years.

They may seem a small part of the big event, but campaign songs have been important tools in presidential elections since the mid-19th century. “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too,” written for William Henry Harrison and John Tyler in 1840, is one of the most well-known of these early songs performed in promotion of a presidential ticket. The lyrics were written by Alexander Coffmann Ross and set to the tune of a popular minstrel song at the time, “Little Pigs.” The song remains memorable because of its catchy alliteration and use of Harrison’s nickname, earned at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811, and also because it firmly established song as a powerful device used to spread word about candidates.

In the 20th century, those running for office began associating themselves with popular recorded music and strayed from personalized songs. For example, FDR used the popular hit “Happy Days Are Here to Stay” in his 1932 campaign.

Not all songs used in campaigns have retained a positive association. Ross Perot became infamous for choosing to play Patsy Cline’s 1961 recording of “Crazy” while entering his rallies. A country western ballad about heartbreak, it is no wonder Perot received much attention for his choice of campaign song and its title.

Furthermore, several incidents have occurred in which musicians have asked certain candidates to cease using their songs to promote their campaigns. Tom Petty asked George W. Bush to refrain from playing his song “I Won’t Back Down” at events during the 2000 election season. Petty then reportedly performed the song live at Al Gore’s house after receiving news of his loss.

In 2008, vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin attempted to fire up her crowds at events with the Heart song “Barracuda.” She later faced the band’s outrage at her actions as they did not support her campaign. Similarly, Tom Petty, once again, had to draw his music out of the grasp of a candidate he did not support. Michele Bachmann kicked off her campaign for the presidential bid with his song, “American Girl.” Apparently, Bachmann was not the “Girl” Petty had imagined while writing the 1977 tune.

The campaign song tradition continued through this season, with President Obama singing an excerpt of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” at an appearance at the Apollo Theatre in January. This song stuck with him throughout the following months, but following his reelection Tuesday evening, he was appropriately met with cheers and Stevie Wonder’s high-energy funk hit, “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” at Chicago’s McCormick Place Convention Center.

Although campaign songs may no longer be as useful as they were in the mid-19th century, they do remain a staple in the election season and serve as celebratory and energizing tools for candidates. What better way to come together in support of presidential candidates than to sing and dance?

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Music on trial

For many, the stress of midterms has subsided, and with finals in the distant – or rather, the soon-approaching – future, November is the perfect month in which to attend many live music events.

This Saturday, for example, I will be attending a Dan Deacon concert at the Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis. For those of you who might not be familiar with electronic composer Dan Deacon, you should check out his latest release, America, or his recent cover of Carly Rae Jepson’s “Call Me Maybe” – titled “Call Me Maybe Acapella 147 Times Exponentially Layered.” It is exactly as the name describes it: the summertime hit layered on top of itself creating a very dissonant and industrial sound out of its origin. Dan Deacon has become known for creating a communal experience at his concerts, often asking for audience participation in his own performance. Rumor has it he once inspired his entire crowd to play London Bridge at a show in Austin, Texas.

Other concerts this weekend include: Laurie Anderson at the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis, Nov. 2, 3, and 4 good luck finding tickets for this one!, as well as Madonna at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul on both Saturday and Sunday. Tickets for her performances are very pricey, but if you are a fan, it may be well worth hearing her on tour in promotion of her latest release, MDNA. However, you should be aware: the 54-year-old pop singer stirred up controversy during her recent New Orleans appearance by telling her audience, “I don’t care who you vote for as long as it’s Obama.” Her remark was met with many boos and a few cheers. Should you attend either of her performances this coming weekend, be prepared for potential headline-inspiring actions from the artist.

If you cannot make it to Madonna’s concerts and are still hoping to hear a performer of yesteryear within the next week, I recommend attending Bob Dylan and Mark Knopfler’s show at the Xcel Energy Center next Wednesday, Nov. 7. I was lucky enough to hear the legend himself play in Milwaukee a few years ago, and although most of his classic tunes “Hey Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” “All Along the Watchtower,” etc. have been transformed by his now-limited vocal range, it was still quite an experience.

On Friday, Nov. 9, as many of you may know, St. Olaf will play host to Trampled by Turtles, hailing from Duluth, Minn. This bluegrass group gained much acclaim for its 2011 album Palamino and are continuing to do so with its most recent release, Stars and Satellites. The band has appeared at many national festivals, including Coachella, Lollapalooza and the Newport Folk Festival. It may be difficult to snag tickets for this show, but if you can, have a wonderful time hearing this somewhat local band live.

Last, I’d like to draw attention to an event at The Cedar on Nov. 13. Alternative/pop ensemble and one of my favorite bands, The Magnetic Fields, will be performing there in promotion of their spring 2012 album release, Love at the Bottom of the Sea. Their music is a combination of very funny and strange lyrics mostly about love, the moon and dancing, catchy pop melodies and whimsical instrumentations.

Although I have hardly covered the spectrum of concerts taking place in the area this month, I hope I have, at the very least, inspired you to keep your eyes peeled for events that might be of interest to you. Happy November!

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