March 2015: No Trip to SXSW

Shamir — On the Regular  I got hipped to Shamir through coverage of this year's South by Southwest. There's so much I love about this song, not least of which is its sheer sonic joy. There's a short movie (or maybe TV show) in my mind in which the 18-year old Shamir is my "little brother," as in Big Brother, Big Sisters. In the movie, we encounter a series of trials and adventures, and in the end it's Shamir who ends up being my mentor, teaching me how to be confident with myself, no matter how different I am. I love his ability to convincingly convey standard hip-hop bravado without making any concessions to the stereotypical machismo that usually comes with it. Looking forward to hearing more.  

Ava Luna — Billz & Alabama Shakes — Gimme All Your Love I would argue that these two songs (and these two bands) are essentially attacking the same puzzle, but with radically different tools. How does a rock band tackle R&B/Soul in 2015? Ava Luna, a wildly far-out and unpredictable group from Brooklyn, feel like they've arrived at the R&B/Soul subway stop after passing through some serious punk/post-punk territory. No matter how soulful they get (and I think it's plenty soulful), there's always an edge to it. They're not making any concessions to the pop polish machinery, and are likely to keep paying rent in the indie rock part of town. Like Ava Luna, Alabama Shakes also makes use of drastic dynamic shifts, starting their song with a hammer. But, unlike Ava Luna, that hammer feels like the novel tool in their kit, and it's clear that the founding principle of their enterprise is honoring and updating a 50-year old sound. They're not Katy Perry, but lyrically and sonically they're much more likely to be hitting a radio station near you. I love both, and love the idea of a co-headlining show. Dreams. 

José González — Every Age Holy bejebus I've been hooked on this album. This song in particular just knocks me out. I was thinking recently about how difficult it is to write a song about grand themes or big ideas without it coming out like watered-down aphoristic drivel. Or maybe that's just me, because I feel like González nails it. The home-studio production provides the song with just the right amount of intimacy. Man. Realized two days ago that I've slept on his upcoming shows at Lincoln Hall here in Chicago, and could just kick myself. I am happy to see, though, that plenty of other people are into this great music.

Daughn Gibson — Shatter You Through Just super groovy, slick retro soundz. It's got a serious synth-pop vibe, but the live rhythm section gives it an appealing texture. Back in 2013, I scolded Gibson for his performance at Pitchfork, which featured an invisible bass player. With the great bass playing here, I hope he finds it in his heart (budget?) to take a real bass player out on the road the next time around. 

Petite Noir — Shadows More 80's-invoking danceable mopery, this time from South Africa, whose musical scene seems to know no boundaries. 

GZA — Pencil Month three of my Wu-Tang study, and I'm a serious GZA convert. Previously, I don't think I could have picked his voice out of a lineup, but after returning to Liquid Swords I realized that it is the source of a lot of the sounds I have in my brain as quintessential RZA (who also makes a serious impression lyrical here). As I wrote about in last months blurb on the Ghostface/Badbadnotgood collaboration, I'm loving the purity of a song that eschews choruses and any other distractions in favor of pure music + rap. And this groove. Yes!

Little Simz — Time Capsule Another annoyingly talented youngster (born 1994) who made a big impression at this year's SXSW. Taking the British rap project to the next level by breaking all kinds of rules. 

The English Beat — Rotating Heads In the car recently I revisited the Halt and Catch Fire playlists I wrote about in the Bush Tetras song "Too Many Creeps" in last July's playlist. Making it further down the "Cameron Howe" list, which is full of great early 80's punk and new wave, I was slapped in the face by this uber-familiar sound. Am I a philistine for never knowing that this song I've heard probably 100s of times is an English Beat song? I hope not. Kind of mind-bending to hear the original version, though, with lyrics and sans chase scene. Now I just want to watch Ferris Bueller again. And again. 

Stromae — Papaoutai Who the hell is Stromae? Before this month, I could not have answered that question. Judging by the nearly billion Youtube views of his videos, millions of people around the world could, though. The Belgian polymath made a big splash at SXSW, assisted in cunning fashion by these posters, which were reportedly pasted all over town. Some of the music is a little slick and clubby for my taste, but the videos are great, and this song provides a clear explanation for his cross-cultural appeal. The intergenerational dancing in the video below is so GD exciting and moving. Love the soukous guitar work, too. 

Fool's Gold — Surprise Hotel This song sprouted up recently as the background music during some NPR show, and I had an "Oh yeah! I love this band!" moment in my brain, that, unfortunately was not accompanied by any useful information, like the band's name. I spent about 20 minutes trying to access that part of my personal brain before turning to the collective one. But how do you search for this? I dredged up the little I knew about them, that they sing in Hebrew and are from L.A. I tried "Israeli afrobeat band". No luck. Many other configurations. No luck. Then, the Google magic words - "Israeli African band guitar Los Angeles." Bam. Not terribly original, but incredibly fun. And, again, love that soukous guitar work. 

Norman Blake — Savannah Rag One of America's great unsung heroes, country/bluegrass road warrior Norman Blake was recently on Fresh Air to promote his latest album. There's so so so much great stuff of his that's not available on Spotify, including one of my favorites Original Underground Music from the Mysterious SouthMy dad told me a great story he heard years ago about Blake arriving at a folk festival in a conservative southern state and being told that, per the festival's ban on drugs or alcohol, all the musicians would have their instrument cases searched. True to iconoclastic form, Blake explained that if even one case was searched his whole band would turn around and leave the festival, assuring the security folks that the festival organizers would definitely still have to pay them every penny agreed upon in their contract. No instruments were searched. The interview is great, and his music bursts with history and heart. You may not know his name, but if you are even remotely interested in country/old-timey/American music you've heard his playing. Now 77-years old, I think it's about time he was given some kind of honor for breathing real life into genuine American culture for 60 years. 

Elvis Perkins — The Passage of the Black Gene After accidentally hearing him at Lollapalooza way back in 2006, I was passionately hooked on Perkins' Elvis Perkins In Dearland for at least a year, probably two. This new album is like a great and seductive mystery that you unravel little by little, full of appealingly simple melodies, tangled lyrics, and an deeply textured sonic palimpsest. There are many times on the album where it almost seems like someone has left three radios tuned to different stations on in the same room, and they magically get in sync with each other. Honestly, I haven't spent nearly enough time with it to be very thoughtful, and after trying and trying to find the best, most representative song, basically had to pick at random. I think he's kind of a mad genius. Can't wait to get to the bottom of this one. 

Jimmy Whispers — I Love You A great Chicago weirdo, making everyone else conform to his vision. Several years ago I started seeing his graffiti in my neighborhood, full of sharks and needles and the phrase "summer in pain." I'm sure there were plenty of other people who took it in stride as more half-baked hipster art. Maybe it is. But there's a whole sonic element to it, that adds a lot of weight. The second coming of Daniel Johnston? Could be. I just love the simplicity and emotional directness. Sometimes that's all that needs to be said.