Tuning into the 2018 Grammys…

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…this past weekend was as usual an interesting if altogether deeply flawed experience. Flawed because, as many people more intelligent than I have already noted, the Grammys as an institution is out-of-touch from both a musical as well as cultural standpoint. The program as a whole would likely need to be gutted starting now if it were to get anywhere close to an actual representation of real artistry again.

So, on one hand its very upsetting to see the likes of Bruno Mars beat out the kind of statement album put out by Kendrick Lamar with DAMN. (twice!). Don’t get me wrong, I love Bruno. He’s likely the closest thing we’ll get to Michael Jackson’s skillset again in this lifetime. But his 24K Magic is once again indicative of the safe radio earworm award winners that are more preservatives than legitimate product. AKA, exactly what the Grammys really wants.

The same applies for Ed Sheeran’s win in a category that included both the vastly better Lady Gaga and Kesha. Seeing Kesha’s very public battle to separate from alleged abuser Dr. Luke culminating in the exultation of freedom on her single “Prayer” should have been enough to earn her that award ten times over.

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But until there’s a major shakeup in the system, these controversies will happen as regularly as the ceremony lets music lovers down. When you can ignore artists covering important systemic issues while those same issues are currently at a boiling point in the world… you miss the point every. Single. Time. So I would advise the young and hungry artists to worry less about a show that wants to devote itself to cheerleading, and continue blazing the trails they’re making in the world through their art.

And in the meantime may those dinosaurs die off along with their outdated ideals.

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To double back to Lamar though, the Compton rapper continues to leave me impressed. His vocals still take some getting used to for me, but his performances are aggressively challenging, his technical skills almost sound too fast at times they’re so effortlessly good, and the fascinating concept behind DAMN. is worth researching if you’re a lover of musical backstory. Its a record of many, many layers.

Plus, Lamar’s opening performance at the Grammys (featuring Dave Chappelle) really reminded me again of how vital this genre has become.

Hip hop is acting as one of the most important, socially conscious forms of music and art we have in our modern world today. Its a message I can’t stress highly enough when engaging in musical conversation with people. Its a genre that should be getting its due. On a list of mostly wrong things the Grammys did the other night, leading with Kendrick Lamar was one they got right.

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And I don’t claim to have extensive knowledge on the subject. The fact is I don’t, but the hip hop and rap artists I hear today inspire me to want to just sit down, listen, and learn. They are speaking to a power so fierce that requires nothing more than sharp words to tear down the likes of racists, bullies, corrupt lawmen, inequality, and societal injustice.

Its like poetry in motion with the grace of mental killing power. And in a world gone chaotic, these are so many of the voices that are more critical than ever to listen to. And we need to listen.

Sit down. Be humble. 

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Dear Apollo ready for launch with debut release

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(Before you read this review, I would highly suggest reading (or rather listening) to my prior piece before this one on the Ithaca, NY-based band Dear Apollo via my radio segment The Arts Beat. If you haven’t already of course. I feel like it really adds another great layer to this story.)

But anyway, onto the EP. Having recently met both Ben Robinson and AJ Dicembre (the core members of Dear Apollo) for the purpose of conducting the aforementioned Arts Beat interview, I feel like I possess an added level of context for this album review that I don’t normally get to receive. And that really gives it an interesting spin.

For one thing, hearing firsthand how the pair recorded this debut album in separate locations and in many stages via the computer program Dropbox doesn’t ruin or take away from the evident chemistry contained on the EP. In fact, it makes it more impressive listening to Dicembre and Robinson reach through the traditionally disassociated membrane of technology with something that makes every effort to connect with its audience.

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Exploring the thought of that borderline between futuristic feats and the fragile nature of humanity makes opening track “Parachute” a perfect way to set the scene of the EP. Pulsing with synthesizers like the gentle wave of a heartbeat, the song makes the Dear Apollo name feel literal as the emotional turmoil of the lyrics seems to play out over the shiny blue Earth spinning far down below.

Similar terms apply for following song “Won’t Stay, Won’t Go”, which has a David Byrne and Brian Eno sense of chorus in the higher tempo sections before settling into more gradual areas of moody guitar strums and blooping background textures. The wide-ranging influences of Robinson and Dicembre get a chance to play on third track “Your Way”, as vibes initially resembling The National get a folk-bearing twist of The Avett Brothers with the presence of banjo that seems to float up out of the mists. Its arguably the moment the record pauses most to get reflectively introspective, calling to mind Elliott Smith titles like Figure 8 where Smith’s confessional murmurs were met with more fully-fleshed arrangements.

Closing with the infectious bop of pop-rocker “Indestructible” gives the EP’s finish just the hook it needs to bring the listener back to the start, which comes quickly with an overall runtime of just over 10 minutes. Not exactly a lengthy amount of time for either an audition or making a first impression, but Dear Apollo proves themselves worthy of the challenge on this versatile, impactful debut.

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For more on the band, check them out at dearapollo.com. 

 

 

Making Introductions: Dear Apollo

I had a lot of fun with this one.

Dear Apollo is an Ithaca, NY-based band led by good friends Anthony Dicembre and Ben Robinson. As part of my radio segment The Arts Beat, I had the recent opportunity to interview both Dicembre and Robinson in studio and talk more about their self-titled EP (which you can hear above; a full version will come out here eventually). We talk about a lot of great material including how the pair made their album entirely over Dropbox, which is one of the coolest musical creation stories I’ve heard in a while.

I’ll say this much, when it comes to interviews I’ve had with musicians in local music both here and around the Northeast I have had a lot of wonderful experiences. Not only from the standpoint of having met/worked with a lot of genuinely friendly people, but also because there are just such great stories to tell.

And Robinson and Dicembre have a good one. Go give it a listen, and if you want to know more check out the band at http://www.dearapollo.com.

And so we reach, the final number…

Of 2017!

It ended up getting here a bit later than I intended, but below you’ll find my final installment of the Top Five Albums of 2017!

This time Lee and I were joined by another one of our radio crew Michayla Savitt, who added an excellent selection to wrap up this year’s coverage!

My notes…

Julien Baker’s Turn Out The Lights hit my musical landscape like a gradually evocative wave this year. While initially in the midst of a pack of strong releases, Baker broke out further and further based on one simple fact: Lights may be a slow burn of a listen, but once it takes off it is flooring.

Baker isn’t just an artist whose brush is especially skilled at painting in the darker palettes either. Rather, she’s a highly underrated markswoman of a lyricist who hits profound lines in a way that requires listen after listen. If for nothing else but to truly absorb the beauty in what sometimes feels like ultimate despair.

Lights certainly isn’t a record containing the high level thrash of Queens of the Stone Ages’ latest or the righteous rock of Jason Isbell’s The Nashville Sound. It is slower and MUCH heavier (more of the morning after than the main event), but its brutally honest to the bones and Baker isn’t afraid to let her vocals fly out in pursuit of a catharsis to the pain of emotions expressed in songs like “Appointments”, “Shadowboxing”, and “Hurt Less”.

One of music’s great gifts is the ability to make us feel, especially through the rare talents that show up to turn that little bit of skilled craftsmanship they’ve figured out into a shivering, slightly indescribable chill running down your spine. Thats when you know you’ve found something more… something extra you need to slow down for because otherwise you might miss the next best thing.

Welcome Julian Baker. I’m more than proud to close by 2017 on you.

Thinking of a “Peaceful Dream” to end 2017 without a “Walk Into a Storm”…

As 2017 winds down to its final few hours, I feel like its the perfect time to continue posting more of the end of the year album countdown segments I participated in with Lee Rayburn over on the radio side of my creative work at WHCU. For this first one I chose to bring Mavis Staples’ latest, while Lee did the same with Jason Isbell. More below…

My notes…

If All I Was Was Black continues the run of dark horse brilliance between soul legend Mavis Staples and Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy, who once again trade musical statements as natural and as free flow as conversation. Whether its Tweedy’s folk guitar mechanics adding warmth to the earthy gospel of “Peaceful Dream”, Staples beautifully empathetic delivery on the contemporary charge of the title track, or the two doing what feels like an overdue vocal duet on the sweet friendship of “Ain’t No Doubt About It”, the pair’s chemistry remains at a strength usually only held by decades long collaborators.

Though despite this Tweedy’s impact remains strictly as the crafty man-in-the-shadows, while Staples is allowed to shine with every bit of the wisdom, poise, and tenacity she’s held in her lengthy career. And in the state of a world today that has drifted further and further into complete upheaval, having a voice like Staples’ preach for love, tolerance and equality is one of the more comforting moments 2017 could actually provide.

We’re lucky for that.

Moving on to #2, where we compare my choice of The Lone Bellow, while Lee brought Big Thief to the conversation…

My thoughts…

Walk Into a Storm finds The Lone Bellow continuing to build off the momentum of prior release Then Came The Morning, which saw the band work with The National’s Aaron Dessner on a bigger sound that didn’t quite abandon their folks roots (see: Mumford & Sons) so much as expand them into new territories.

Now with Nashville producer extraordinaire Dave Cobb at the helm, third album Storm didn’t try to go even bigger and risk ruining the essence of whats in the band’s wheelhouse (again, see Mumford & Sons). Instead, its content with punching in the best of the band’s new material which crackles with bristling energy (“Deeper in the Water”, “Feather”), brakes appropriately for the introspective moments (“May You Be Well”, “Long Way To Go”), and shows that Storm is another essential listening moment on The Lone Bellow’s musical journey.

Whether its StormMorning, or the band’s self-titled debut, to truly understand them best requires reading each chapter carefully. They won’t make you regret it.

Keep an eye for #1 on the list in just a few days! 

It’s (almost) the end of the year as we know it…

And I feel fine!

Well not really, but when it comes to thinking about the music of 2017 it certainly helps a lot! Once again from my realm on the radio at WHCU, Lee Rayburn and I continue to investigate and compare notes on our top 5 favorite albums of the year.

For this mini-episode Lee and I examine our #4 choices on the year, which was his selection of Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings with Soul of a Woman, and mine with Queens of the Stone Age and Villains. Listen below:

My album comments…

Having been a more recent fan of Queens since coming onboard during the Like Clockwork era, perhaps that made 2017’s Villains a more palatable experience for me than most. With tight production from Mark Ronson and the band’s willingness to openly excavate what they openly referred to as a more “dance-based” sound, songs like the punk headbanger’s ball of “Head Like a Haunted House”, the Zeppelin-y smash of “The Evil Has Landed”, and the gristle-blues stomp of “Domesticated Animals” ring with a clear and decided sense of purpose.

Purists may continue to ruffle their feathers and not be satisfied with this one, but Villains really hit the spot for me this year and made for a great rock record. It didn’t possess any need for grand ambition, rather, it let the best parts of its catchy melodies and snake-like hooks do the talking, and Queens did the rest.

The controversy towards the end of the year involving Josh Homme kicking a photographer definitely took some of the wind out of the sails of my praise and knocked this ranking down a bit, but I still recommend giving Villains a spin to find out for yourself.

Its the final countdown…

…. for 2017! Apologies for the shameless reference to the band Europe, but with the calendar winding its way quickly towards 2018 now it is once again time to bring you my end of the year album list.

And for this year it might just be the most special yet! The selections are only the top five this year instead of ten, but the tradeoff is worth it given that this time I was able to do it on the radio.

Thanks to morning show host Lee Rayburn on my station WHCU we have planned five installments whereby I count down my top albums of the year, while he counts his down as well. To date, this may be one of the best segments I’ve ever had the pleasure of being able to do on the radio, and I hope all of you out there enjoy these as much as I do.

For the #5 slot on the list, we lead off with Buffalo NY’s own Julie Byrne and her latest LP Not Even Happiness, and The War on Drugs with A Deeper Understanding. For more, listen below….

My extended comments on the record…

Like a hollow voice emerging from a lost and restless wilderness, Julie Byrne’s “Not Even Happiness” is a subtle rap of lightning to the senses. It awakens from a gently sliding dream in “Follow My Voice”, trembles with an elegant folk purity that would make Fleet Foxes frontman Robin Pecknold jealous on “Natural Blue”, and lifts off to the heavens on the wings of church-like synths and gently traced strings for the finisher on “I Live Now as a Singer”.

Byrne has developed a lot in just a few years, amping up the strengths of her guitar work, sweeping vocals, and beautifully human songwriting with new elements of sound and exploration. Faint passes of instrumentation like harp and flute add even further interest to an increasingly nuanced tapestry on “Happiness”, and just listening to those shifts in tone makes the record a new reward with every journey through.

“Life is short as a breath half-taken”, Byrne sings here, and she makes sure that every moment put out on this record is another well-spent within the art of song.

Tomorrow, we introduce #4!

Video Exclusive: unwrapping Kohli Calhoun’s “Zebedee”

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Over the last several years that I’ve spent writing about music, I can easily say that I’ve had good fortune come my way with the artists that I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know and work alongside.

But this collaboration is something entirely new. What I have for you today has never before seen on OTBEOTB. In fact, it hasn’t been seen at all because this post is introducing the exclusive music video premiere for Brooklyn-area artist Kohli Calhoun and her song “Zebedee”.

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If you’ve read some of my prior content here you’ll certainly already know who Calhoun is, but if you don’t here’s a quick synopsis. As I said before, Calhoun is based out of Brooklyn, and after an tumultuous beginning to her musical career she “rose from the ashes” so to speak in order to create her first full length LP Take Me Away. The record came out earlier this year, and has already received favorable press from the likes of the Huffington Post as well as Calhoun’s recent selection as a Featured Artist on the website Noisetrade.

But that’s not why ya called. Today I want to discuss the aforementioned “Zebedee”, a melodic haunt of a track from Calhoun’s Take Me Away that seems like an apt choice for the music video treatment. And that expectation is well-placed as the video explores the song’s themes of love, loss, betrayal, and sadness through the eyes of a beautifully illustrated world of animation that gracefully illuminates the differences. I could easily speculate about the meaning behind many of the small details of note in this video, but that I leave to you as a fellow member of the audience to interpret for yourselves.

Suffice it to say, the visuals on this video are a stunningly creative complement between Calhoun and her collaborators to one of the strongest tracks on Take Me Away. Its work like this that makes the world of music videos a relevant place again, and we’re truly the better with the level of depth this visual context can provide.

So on that note, let me step aside and have you enjoy the music video for “Zebedee”, brought to you exclusively by On The Back Edge of the Beat.

A reflection on some of these recent days…

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I don’t often wax on the current event side of the fence when it comes to the material I write online. My day job requires me to write news anyway, so usually when I come here looking to discuss something about music the news and political topics of the day are the farthest things from my mind.

But in wake of a suggestion I received recently to talk about the mass shooting in Las Vegas as it relates to music, I can’t help but finally weigh in and wonder why its taken me this long. I mean the first guess is obvious, given that any mass incident of death, heartache and pain is impossible to comprehend as an observer, let alone to try and put it into words. To this point, I’m still not sure if any words I say will even be right.

But despite that, I also can’t pass up the opportunity because in addition to this tragedy taking place at a music festival, it coincided with the sudden passing of rock icon Tom Petty. Now those are vastly different losses that I am by no means trying to equate, but each have hit me together in a way that’s ultimately too hard not to speak up about.

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Unfortunately though, I have to start by returning to the most difficult fact of all in this story. Namely, that another shooting has taken place at a venue for live music. I’m not sure when it started that concerts became one of the latest targets for these atrocities, but it hits especially close to home because of how significant a role concerts have played in the shaping of my life.

I mean as many a diehard music fan will tell you, the live show is the musical equivalent of Mass on Sundays. For those who’ve never felt it, just picture your greatest joy and exhilaration gathered in one place, magnified by knowing that feeling is being shared by hundreds to thousands of people all around you.  In every theatre, festival and concert hall. Those who are there to relive nostalgia perhaps, eulogize that hard breakup they had that *insert band name’s song here* got them through, or just to come hit the high that comes in on the first guitar note or vocal line.

That’s one of music’s many great qualities as a unifier. I have heard it said that in our world today you have to “always keep your head on a swivel” just in case someone decides to create an atrocity. But going to see live music is the universal, gender-neutral, bilingual, bipartisan, multi-racial opposite of this so-called “mantra”, and it deserves to stay that way.

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People deserve a way to escape the world for a few hours, whether thats at a concert or in some other distraction. Whatever country they live in, and no matter how much money they have in the bank. I work in a newsroom five days a week, and with the amount of sadness the world can show you in just that short amount of time…. distractions are necessary just for mental health.

I have to bring Tom Petty back into the conversation at this point. For one thing because he was and shall always be an everyman figure of rock and roll, and we need those figures now more than ever in this increasingly divisive world. I know that in my case, my heart will hurt for a long time knowing his figure isn’t in the same world where I grew up on Wildflowers and Full Moon Fever during trips in the car.

But the other reason is simple: to slightly twist one of Petty’s most famous song lyrics, we can’t back down. And while that might sound a bit like stereotypical cheese for a situation like this, what it really means to me is that we can’t be made to alter our lives in exchange for more fear. No one ever made history or great memory from behind the couch waiting for the knocking at the door to go away.

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So to everyone out there, both music fan and otherwise, stay strong. Don’t let a thing in this world stop you from seeing any of the great concert halls and gathering places and areas where humanity can still figure out how to connect with itself regardless of creed or color.

Those are the places of love, and as granola as that may sound to the most cynical in our midst, in a world where divisive hate has had some of its biggest growth in years we need to hold on to all the love and camaraderie we have.

You belong somewhere you feel free. 

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In appreciation of music’s true “Screaming Eagle”

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There’s something to be said for listening to a true musician in the house of blues and soul trade their wares with the ferocity of a fire and brimstone preacher.

You see, to me blues music is different from a lot of genres in the way that it relies on feeling. Not that it just simply possesses feeling, as I’m sure you could say for many songs in just about any genre you can wrap your head around. No, I’m talking more about how blues music could sell off and sacrifice every conceivable piece of itself, yet would still have all the tools it needs in just one vocal take to relay to the listener the pain involved in enduring each of those sacrifices. Mainly because the humanity contained in those vocals goes beyond just knowing how to sing on-key or turn a pretty phrase of poetry.

That would be too perfect, coated in too much varnish and veneer. Life is rarely ever all that pretty, and all the best in blues and soul made it to that pinnacle because they each had the vision and the ability to express their emotion as a pure, scratched-raw animal of a thing living in their music. Whether the person you were referencing was as smooth as Otis Redding or rough as Robert Johnson. They didn’t make it because of large figure recording contracts, reality show wins or one good single that had the fortune of enough people hitting the iTunes “download” tab.

Instead, they bled to earn their place at that microphone.

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And that’s where Charles Bradley comes in. His late-in-life musical opportunity didn’t emerge until his early 60’s with 2011’s No Time For Dreaming, and only lasted for a trajectory of three records before his untimely death from cancer last month. Still, Bradley made every mile he had count by pouring the true anguish and joy of his own life into every artistic step he walked here. It takes talent for many musicians to even be considered believable wringing out the same emotion from songs they might sing hundreds to thousands of times on stage. Bradley always seemed to charge right through believable and into open wound though with his trademark electric shriek that helped earn him the nickname “The Screaming Eagle of Soul”.

Bradley’s work is the type of music that doesn’t require an analytical microscope or a Pitchfork review. Rather, think of it as every feeling of emotion you can’t quite phrase lingering in the ether of your mind that words won’t ever quite be able to describe, yet we can all relate to. A good example in that vein is Bradley’s song “Victim of Love”, a song strung together by ramshackle acoustic guitar and wandering backing vocals that lay low and loose as the staging area for Bradley’s earth-scorching lament to love gone and flickered away.

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But regardless of the setting or production choices, Charles Bradley really did possess a set of talents that few others could say they had all in one place. He could croon like a Sam Cooke, hammer in gravelly rasps like Muddy Waters, and emote like James Brown in a way that recalls Bradley’s run as Black Velvet, an impersonator of the Godfather of Soul.

I’ve still only just begun my journey into the run of Charles Bradley, but if you have the time or the attention I would urge you the reader to do the same. Not only because Bradley is a fine example of it never being too late in life to pursue your dreams, but also because he took that chance and didn’t waste a second of it in telling his story. And we could all learn a lesson from that.

So lets keep that story alive and breathing through the power of the music Charles Bradley has left us.