Taylor’s Top 10 Albums of 2011

1. Wild Flag, Wild Flag

In a difficult era for unconceited, forthright rock, Wild Flag has seized an opportunity to act as a bantam foil to the wealth of snobbery that permeates almost every facet of modern alternative culture.  In doing so, this infant group of alternative rock and riot grrrl veterans has also created something of an archetype for those who care not to weight marketability over substance or who simply want a balance of the two. Unlike similar-sounding bands who resign themselves to aping banal classic rock n’ roll conventions (practically guaranteeing creative bankruptcy), on their debut Wild Flag ape nothing and are derivative of no one, not even of themselves. Instead, the album plays like a flexile run-through of song sketches Mary Timony and Carrie Brownstein casually brought to Janet Weiss and Rebecca Cole knowing vaguely how they’d sound, but also knowing that everyone in the room was on precisely the same page. It’s in that lack of pretension – that unassuming, spontaneous perfection found in every crevice of this album – that Wild Flag becomes the artifact of a band operating at a level akin to the Rolling Stones circa Aftermath. And that’s only fifty percent of the reason this is the best album of 2011; in the other fifty percent are ten songs raw with confidence, subtle ingenuity and infectious self-referential joy.

MP3: Wild Flag: “Short Version”

2. The First Four EPs, Off!

An odd, though accurate, measure of Black Flag’s legacy is the pedigree of talent the band kicked out during its ten year run. Nevertheless, through that atypical lens, 2011 has been something of a pinnacle for the long-defunct hardcore punk pioneers: third bassist Chuck Dukowski has recently teamed up with Oxbow front man Eugene Robinson to form a pseudo-tribute t0 his wealth of unreleased My War era material – farcically named Black Face – while original Black Flag vocalist Keith Morris has gone light years beyond mere throwback or nostalgia with supergroup Off! to the point of revising the last fifteen underground years of hardcore by galvanizing listeners with minute-bursts of demurely-produced aggressive stimulation clocking in at a total running time of eighteen minutes – just short enough to avoid fatiguing said listeners while they compulsively give ear teeth for more.

MP3: Off!: “Crawl”

3. The Weight, Caddywhompus

We’ve written enough flowery praise about Caddywhompus over the past year to fill a J. Peterman catalog, and we probably won’t stop until we can compile an entire bathroom reader devoted to this chameleonic Houston via New Orleans-based noise duo. Though their last two albums have been a combined entrada of jarring dissonance, chaotic mathcore and striking melody, with The Weight Caddywhompus suddenly no longer feel like an unpredictable helter-skelter of feedback, pedals and alloy (though Chris Rehm and Sean Hart have done nothing to abate their creative momentum); rather, using their past experimentation with noise pop as a stylistic shorthand that their audience is now well familiar with, the duo crafts their four best offerings to date – songs whose avant-garde  freakouts and abrupt tempo changes don’t confuse as much as titillate, and whose pop sensibilities feel essential where they once could have sounded like a heavy-handed counterbalance to Caddywhompus’s weird streak.

MP3: Caddywhompus: “The Others”

4. Discography, Jesuit

Knowing that the songs found on this career-spanning retrospective are over a decade old did little to blunt the inexorable thrill of being able hear the terrifying chaos and impossible execution of this collection for the first time. Though I know little about the notoriously irreverent Jesuit or their controversial, unpredictable presence in the DIY hardcore scene of the mid-1990s, Discography – composed of one set of demos, one Black Sabbath cover and two immaculate Kurt Bellou-produced EPs – is a self-explanation of how Nate Newton and Brian Benoit – who would later go on to join Converge and the Dillinger Escape Plan respectively – are one of the most rousing guitar tandems of all time.

MP3: Jesuit: “Car Crash Lullaby”

5. Cloud Nothings, Cloud Nothings

While early low-budget recordings by Mineral and the Promise ring have avoided the fate of being viewed as unfinished products or creative stepping stones by actually containing those bands’ best material, Cleveland-based songwriter Dylan Baldi – though not nearly far enough along in his career to be judged in those terms – brazenly toys with the compositional balance of those same types of lo-fi textures on Cloud Nothings. This generally wouldn’t have much meaning considering how popular digital recording technology has made such a practice, but when done right it can create an experience as memorable as it is initially off-putting. And though the band’s distinct emo pop and light punk stylings stick out like a sore thumb in 2011, it’s hard to imagine an album this year with more reverence for the musical climate surrounding it than Cloud Nothings.

MP3: Cloud Nothings: “You’re Not That Good At Anything”

6. Belong – Common Era

Adopting a faddish facade of washed out, chillwave atmospherics, Common Era marks a noticeable shift in sound for Belong, whose debut October Language is still being talked about as an ambient kaleidoscope masterpiece. This sophomore release – while more accessible in that it contains drum machines, vocals and vaguely traceable song structures – is no less brilliant a piece of utilitarian art, capable of passively providing a soundtrack to a person’s every moment or thought – not as much as a demanding listening experience as it is an utterly captivating augmentation of reality.

MP3: Belong: “Different Heart”

7. Cave In – White Silence

It’s nearly impossible to gauge the merits of this album because almost nobody else in the country listened to the thing with an analytical ear. Having spent a decade equal times championed and panned by the mainstream, it’s no secret that Cave In‘s low-key release and marketing of White Silence was their purposeful design. As such, by placing such a critically overlooked record on a year end list, I seriously run the risk of coming off as either a shamelessly biased fanboy or one of the most deeply perceptive listeners of creative advancement today; but with the implausible, addictive textural dissonance that cult-status songwriter and producer Stephen Brodsky has found to envelope both the loud and soft on White Silence, I’m more than happy to be labeled the former.

MP3: Cave In – “Centered”

8. Human Eye – They Came from the Sky

This third-time-charmer from this previously scatterbrained, arguably lackluster Detroit noise band hits at the perfect time both for Human Eye and for upstart Sacred Bones Records, a label that has (so far) benefited more from quality under-the-radar releases like this than anyone may ever know. As the Joker to the Batman of labelmates The Men, Human Eye throws a kitchen sink of inanity – alien abduction balladry, illogical tempo changes, and a Jackson Pollack-esque canvas of engineered recording – at the listener that for the first time in the band’s seven-or-so year career engages like a tractor beam. They Came From The Sky is a sublime success both in spite of and because of its seemingly aimless pseudo-experimentation and wanton weirdness, bringing to mind the strange charm of Thin Lizzy’s Vagabonds of the Western World.

MP3: Human Eye: “Brain Zip (Kickin’ Back in the Electric Chair)”

9. Wye Oak – Civilian

The uncorrupted modesty with which Wye Oak dispatches the material on Civilian will probably cause this Baltimore folk rock duo much critical neglect as the year concludes. For better or worse though, singer Jenn Wasner’s deceptively assured delivery and percussionist Andy Stack’s reserved yet subtly precise accompaniment are what set Wye Oak apart from every band around them. Unafraid to shake a stereo with Sonic Youth-inspire feedback where bourgeois folk artists lend themselves to pretentious technical exhibitionism, and conservative with that earsplitting noise where others can’t resist the urge to bog themselves down in sonic masturbation, perhaps no band in 2011 came closer to perfecting alternative rock’s loud/soft dynamic than Wye Oak have on Civilian.

MP3: Wye Oak: “Civilian”

10. In The Mountain in the Cloud, Portugal. The Man

Not since the Brian Jonestown Massacre in the mid-1990s has a band managed to build its catalog as quickly or effortlessly as Portugal. The Man. However, where the aforementioned Massacre failed to truly make count its big opportunity to move from the psychedelic flophouse to the record industry big leagues, Portugal has made a rare, risky – and arguably successful – transition from indie to major with In the Mountain In the Cloud, delivering for Atlantic Records not their most stylistically out-of-the-box record to date, but certainly their most consistent. While this may not seem like much of an achievement on paper and may even lose the band some indie cred, it’s worth keeping in mind that Jawbox made the same transition to Atlantic in 1994 and offered up a similarly streamlined album that is now considered one of the best of that decade.

MP3: Portugal. The Man – “Senseless”

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Matt’s Top 10 Albums of 2011

1. Wild Flag, Wild Flag

Not since 2010’s Stuck On Nothing, the high-octane debut from Philadelphia power-pop quintet Free Energy, has an album rung out with the unbridled urgency and tenacity of Wild Flag‘s 2011 inaugural offering.  While it is practically every kind of rad and awesome and badass, there is almost nothing overtly retro-facing about the album; an amazing – but not necessarily unbelievable – surprise considering the supergroups’ clientele once so exquisitely defined a particular moment in alternative rock and roll’s not-so-distant past.  Instead, the album is so disorientingly and effortlessly fresh it renders nostalgia obsolete… maybe forever.

MP3: Wild Flag: “Electric Band”

2. In The Mountain In The Cloud, Portugal. The Man

For their major label debut, Portugal. The Man replaces the heavy progressive rock leanings of their previous album with a headlong dive into the bouyant, glam-ed out energy that has become a hallmark of their live performances. The result is a diverse and eclectic set of songs that by themselves are tight studies in interplanetary pop, but together are triumphant movements in a consuming cosmic opus.  Portugal. The Man’s sound and sensibilities have evolved greatly since the days lead vocalist John Gourley and bassist Zachary Carouthers performed as a two-piece against drum machines and synth-loops in and around Wasilla; and the move to a major label may be the biggest signpost of their ascension yet..  But In The Mountain In The Cloud, while highly polished and concise, manages to feel as organic as anything PTM has put together, free of even a trace of anxiety or hesitation. (7/25/2011)

MP3: Portugal The Man: “Got It All (This Can’t Be Living Now)”

3. Bloom and Decay, Giant Cloud

Perhaps the most beautiful thing about Bloom And Decay, New Orleans stewards of shimmering astro-pop Giant Cloud’s semi-posthumous final album, is how instantly comfortable it feels even upon first listen, as the songs that make up this first (and last) full-length album have been integral parts of the band’s live set for over a year. But even after sitting on the shelf for almost six months, the tunes on Bloom And Decay are far from dusty. Principal singers/songwriters Ben Jones and Julie Odell’s preternatural ability to write some of the most disarmingly infectious space-pop has indefinitely extended the shelf-life of these beautifully well-worn songs and the flawless and lush production has managed to capture each composition at the ideal point in its evolution. (11/15/2011)

MP3: Giant Cloud: “Animal Inside”

4. Arabia Mountain, Black Lips

The decision to work with a bona fide A-List producer, as the Black Lips did with Mark Ronson on this their sixth studio album, could not have been an easy choice for any band, not least a group of southern pranksters as famous in some circles for their urine and vomit soaked live performances as for their hyper-modern take on proto-punk garage rock.  But owed to Ronson’s hit-making discretion or as simply a reflection of the maturity and experience a band gleans from making five previous albums across the entire spectrum of grease and glam, the slicker production on Arabia Mountain leaves huge amounts of room for the engaging and endearing personalities of the Lips to radiate through: This is easily the most shamelessly fun front-to-back listen you will find this year, due in no small part to the loud-and-clear directive by which the band’s delightfully deranged sense of humor is presented on each of these firebrand Nuggets-influenced rippers.

MP3: Black Lips: “Modern Art”

5. The Whole Love, Wilco

Far be it for me to call Wilco‘s last album, 2009’s Wilco (The Album), a disappointment; but I suppose I can understand why even ardent Wilco fans had their fair share of problems with the band’s output even as far back as Sky Blue Sky.  While still light-years ahead of the vast majority of music created in 2009 and 2007 respectfully, the last two batches of Wilco songs could somewhat justifiably be dismissed as unimaginative in a world where Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born have laid bare the sheer breadth and depth of the band’s talent and ambition.  So maybe that’s why The Whole Love – a lush, shifty offering that kicks off with one of the most mind-bending compositions Tweedy and Co. have ever put to wax in “Art of Almost”, was greeted with the most rabid enthusiasm Wilco has seen in a decade: a band that many think (and for good reason) can do no wrong reared back and did a whole lot of right.

MP3: Wilco: “Capitol City”

6. Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Unknown Mortal Orchestra

In a year when lo-fi studio alchemy seemed to be the preferred modus operandi of buzz-worthy indie bands, the style rarely fit as comfortably as it did Ruban Nielsen, the man behind the stripped down psych-funk outfit Unknown Mortal Orchestra.  Perhaps that’s because Nielsen keeps the landscape as stark as it’s ostensibly intended to be, forgoing layers of barely-there and/or frivolous atmospherics to make only enough room for the deceptively ornate and dexterous compositions found on UMO’s debut.  His songs manage to be both ethereally spacious and charmingly rapid-fire – sometimes simultaneously so – and coolly entreat listeners to loosen up and let the nimble hooks run deep.

MP3: Unknown Mortal Orchestra: “Thought Ballune”

7. Father, Son, Holy Ghost, Girls

Under the tutelage of anyone except Girls’ main songwriter Christopher Owens, the sweeping, diverse extravagance of the San Franciscan duo’s second LP could have easily and despondently flown off all the rails of good taste and prudence.  Father, Son, Holy Ghost is packed to the brim with resplendent arrangements, full-strength gospel choirs and not-so-subte homages to everyone from The Beach Boys to Looking Glass to Dick Dale; but the music’s objectively vapid magnificence is pinned down by Owens’ fragile voice and confessorily direct exposition as he combines disarming tales of opaque longing with overtly indulgent instrumentation. That bassist and producer Chet “JR” White doesn’t blink either as the songs confidently reach for a stratosphere few modern bands dare approach easily makes Father, Son, Holy Ghost not only one of the most affecting albums of the year but also the most fearless.

MP3: Girls: “My Ma”

8. Gifts EP, Sun Hotel

The triumph of Sun Hotel‘s latest offering is about more than the warm, expansive treatment the local indie rock heroes gave their newest batch of gospel-tech musical suites.  Gifts, just like the full length Coast that preceded it or the myriad free short form offerings that have come before or after, is simply one of dozens of morsels released this year by Chinquapin Records, the indomitable independent rock engine built by the members of Sun Hotel and their friends in Caddywhompus and Country Club. In the climate of prolific creation and demonstration they’ve fostered, an album as thorough and satisfying as Gifts is made all the more impressive knowing its creators wasted little time admiring their finished product before moving on to the next project.

MP3: Sun Hotel: “Alchemy”

9. Smoke Ring For My Halo, Kurt Vile

Along with his 2009 Matador debut Childish Prodigy, Smoke Ring For My Halo could more accurately be credited to Kurt Vile and The Violators, as the former War On Drugs guitarist brought in his sometimes touring band (which includes all-time War On Drugs principle Adam Granduciel) to shower the last two LPs with tastefully added strokes of dynamism and depth.  But his recent output differs from the ragged DIY recording and production featured on his early solo work not only in the number of players in the mix, but by the literal fidelity in which he is offering his wistful stream-of-consciousness tract poetry.  To the chagrin of some unrepentant lo-fi apologists, the majority of Vile’s recent sonic experimentation has focused on some arguably less adventurous tropes like enunciation and instrumental separation; but for a guy used to mumbling his witty and sly confessions through a wall of fuzz, I’d argue the immediacy of the clearer sound he has all but perfected on Smoke Ring For My Halo makes his storytelling even more earnest and intimate.

MP3: Kurt Vile: “Society Is My Friend”

10. The Endless Summer, G-Eazy

It would be far too easy to call G-Eazy‘s The Endless Summer a “mixtape”: Despite a somewhat unique inclination towards 50s and 60s rock and soul, the album is effectively the work of a buzzworthy blog rapper rapping over quirky beats borrowed from the canons of blogged-about buzzbands.  But the pristine and conscientious production of The Endless Summer – in both the traditional music recording sense of the term as well as its hip hop specific beatmaking definition – fiercely eschews classification as a standard issue “mixtape”.  Nearly every track puts a fine point on this important distinction, as they showcase G-Eazy’s compositional propensity to elevate the songs on The Endless Summer beyond each’s well-picked loops. (8/29/2011)

MP3: G-Eazy: “All I Could Do”

Photoset // Voodoo Music Experience, Day 3: 10.30.2011

MyNameIsJohnMichael + The Preservation Hall Jazz Band w/ The Del McCoury Band + Dr. John and the Lower 911 + Morning 40 Federation + Odd Future + Portugal. The Man + TV On The Radio + The Meters + The Raconteurs + Fatboy Slim performing at City Park on October 30, 2011 for the Voodoo Music Experience

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Voodoo Music Experience, Day 3: 10.30.2011

By now, all music blogs and culture magazines are abuzz about Los Angeles-based rap collective Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, whose set at the Le Ritual Voodoo main stage on the final day of Voodoo was at once electrifying and unnerving. After the group showered photographers with water and unloaded a slew of vulgar profanities at them Sunday afternoon, Left Brain – one of the dozen or so members of Odd Future constantly bounding around the stage – got up close and personal with one particular woman snapping shots from the photo pit.  Even those who escaped with only injured feelings told horror stories as if they’d been party to a narrow brush with death while the rest just seemed flat out, but justifiably, offended that they were the objects of homophobic language and violent behavior.

But then again, everyone already knows that Odd Future is a pretty shocking group. They are homophobic, misogynistic and vulgar; most importantly, they are a band of young, manically creative egos composed of pure, unchecked energy who for the first time in their lives have a little bit of “fuck you” money and the swagger that it comes with, all of which they seem comfortable throwing around with abandon. But don’t think for a second that the members of Odd Future don’t comprehend the implications of their onstage actions or the contradictions of their words – that while Tyler, the Creator accuses photographers of being nothing more than freeriding hangers-on who skipped out on paying entrance to the festival, he knows that journalists have garnered Odd Future the sort of attention responsible for the success they currently enjoy and it’s unlikely that he altogether despises their numerous photo shoots for the likes of Vice Magazine and The Fader.

If anything, the members of Odd Future know exactly how to get their young rabid fan base completely fired up, which they did quickly and continuously. Within seconds of being released of the three-song photo pit rule, they were free to lurk around the area in front of the stage, give high fives to the front row of the audience and crowd surf with depraved indifference to their own safety. With circle pits spontaneously springing up throughout a massive sea of heads and the band letting side stage audience members jump from the stage into the crowd, it became apparent that this was less a hip hop concert than it was a hardcore punk show, and plenty of kids have the bruises to prove it. And while I’m sure it was shocking, unsettling, and maybe even offensive being up in the pit during this outrageous performance, everyone left with more amazing photo opportunities than bodily injuries.

Immediately after, things settled back down to Earth at the Bingo! stage – though only momentarily. When talking about Portland band Portugal. The Man, it’s very easy to articulate why they are one of America’s most talented bands on record. With a spacey glam rock vibe that benefits heavily from immaculately nuanced production, textured and complex instrumentation and some of the highest register male vocals on earth, it can’t be surprising that In The Mountain In The Cloud is a no-brain contender for album of the year.

However, it’s much more difficult to convey – even to someone familiar with the band’s catalog – how unbelievably hard this band rocks in a live setting. A Portugal concert is more than just the normal larger-sound-live phenomenon with more aggressive drums and louder-sung vocals, but rather there are megatons more personality emanating from every member of the band. After humbly opening things up with a relatively restrained “So American”, it wasn’t long before drummer Jason Seachrist began laying on the crash and the rest of the band followed suit in letting the more berserk side of Portugal. The Man hang out.

On such intimate quarters as Bingo! it can be hard to picture a five piece band having enough room to head bang, leap around unhindered or strike a rock star pose, but Portugal certainly used every inch of that stage. With keyboardist Ryan Neighbors practically pushing his rig over has he relentlessly pounded the ivory and bassist Zachary Carothers jauntily jumping around as he showed off a patented punk rock technique, lead singer John Gourley tore through ridiculous guitar solos and perfectly found his upper register. It was almost too much at one point to realize that – through spacey distortion, heavy bass, thumping keys and numerous cymbals – they were absolutely nailing a cover of “Helter Skelter” by the Beatles.

With daylight still looming over the Le Plur Red Bulletin stage, arguably the most impressive DJ of the weekend managed be such without the benefit of a light show, a hype man or any other elaborate electronica set dressings. Alain Macklovitch – better known as A-Trak, the youngest ever DMC World Champion, Kanye West’s influential touring DJ, half of disco house duo Duck Sauce and younger brother of Chromeo frontman Dave 1 – certainly had the credentials to topple headliners like Major Lazer and Fatboy Slim, but it was still hugely enthralling to witness such an extraordinary performance.

Though I’d be lying if I said the technical aspects of scratching and spinning aren’t generally lost on me, there was no mistaking the fact that literally everything A-Trak did on stage was live and in real time, no matter how simple or difficult the maneuver. And though he opened to an unfortunately sparse audience, he quickly hemmed in the scattered crowd of bros and ravers with a string of cuts familiar to the area (a couple of reggaeton riffs, some cut-up snare drums, the occasional dubstep drop, Adele) before unloading a barrage of highly technical, ultra-futuristic electrofunk (his obvious onstage bread and butter).

It’s probably the case that some people didn’t know what they were seeing or how it differed from anything else they’d seen on the Le Plur stage that weekend. But by the sound of the frenzied crowd at the end of A-Trak’s set, it was apparent that by not cutting any live corners he was the weekend’s torchbearer of the art of scratching in electronica, blowing minds as he jumped between turntables like a human metronome through dissected Jay-Z verses and Grace-era Rapture hooks. Authenticity of this sort makes the pay off that much more satisfying when A-Trak decides to give the crowd a jaw-dropping demonstration of how he crushes the competition in a DJ championship.

additional reporting by Matt Rosenthal, who was right there when the Odd Future shit went down

Preview // Voodoo Music Experience, Day 3: 10.30.2011

There’s undoubtedly too much happening on any given day of Voodoo to talk about everything. Nevertheless, we figured it couldn’t hurt to tell you what performances we’re excited about. Here’s a few thoughts on a national and a local act that we are looking forward to on Sunday.

Portugal. The Man: Le Carnival Bingo! Parlor, 4:45PM

Since forming out of the ashes of Alaska’s nascent early-2000s screamo scene, Portland-by-way-of-Wasilla space rockers Portugal. The Man have long enjoyed the enviable distinction as a true critical darling (as well as the devoted, cult-like fanbase with which such a distinction usually coincides), the product of a steady diet of prolific studio production and relentless touring. The band has expanded the very definition of modern psychedelia, dropping a masterwork of intergalactic prog rock on an almost annual basis and developing a battle-tested virtuostic live show that has become the stuff of indie-rock legend.  But with their latest magnum opus, July’s In The Mountain In The Cloud, Portugal. The Man is finally enjoying their long-overdue breakout as true champions of alternative rock:  Released in the midst of a Sherman-like march through the summer festival circuit – complete with showstopping sets at Bonnaroo, Hangout and Lollapalooza – the album quickly scaled the college radio charts and has remained there for the better part of the last three months.

In a live setting, Portugal. The Man has a nearly unlimited bag of tricks and effortlessly shows off the wide-ranging chops their diverse and experimental catalog requires: Lead singer John Gourley stretches his voice to the top of his uncannily high register without even breaking a sweat, bassist Zack Carothers leads the fearless rhythm section through the funky, extended jams that intermittently swirl up during each set and keyboardist Ryan Neighbors creates a wall of stylized synth that sounds like it’s the work of a dozen men.

MP3: Portugal. The Man: “Got It All (This Can’t Be Living Now)”

Mannie Fresh: Le Plur Red Bulletin, 2:30PM

Of every DJ taking the stage this weekend at Voodoo, Mannie Fresh has to be the unanimous hometown hero. A hip hop beat guru and formerly half of local bounce rap duo Big Tymers, Fresh has continued to call New Orleans his home since he left Cash Money Records in 2005 on less than amicable terms, now spending most of his time seeking out undiscovered talent and providing production work for some of the country’s most sought-after rappers from Young Jeezy to T.I. to Gucci Mane.

What has always set Mannie Fresh apart not just from his Cash Money counterparts but from every other artist from rap’s Bling Era – aside from the fact that, having been lead songwriter, producer and recording engineer on nearly every song released by Cash Money between the years 1993 and 2005, he’s probably the most hardworking person in the business – is the endearing degree of levity he can bring to a track as well has his ability to temper any overwrought big talk with an almost absurdist comedic timing, whether with his trademark spoken word introductions and interludes, his outrageous descriptions of car interiors, his constant touts of perfect Steve Harvey lining, or his purported ban on anyone with more than 12 tattoos (Lil’ Wayne) appearing on The Mind of Mannie Fresh.

In a live setting these days, Mannie is known to jump relentlessly back and forth between microphone and turntables, rapping his own classics and spinning a slew of other choice breaks – ranging from head-splitting dubstep to transcendent big beat to surprisingly sugary dance pop.

MP3: Mannie Fresh: “Day In The Life”

Thoughts on Voodoo And The Current And Future State Of Music

That the 2011 Voodoo Music Experience dispatched the second Le Ritual Stage to expand the electro-focused Le Plur area and add an additional DJ venue should come as no surprise to anyone who made it out to City Park last Halloween or attended literally any other weekend music festival in the last 12-18 months.  Last year’s return of the electronic tent was greeted by the most remarkably determined and enthusiastic fans I’d ever observed at a multi-day event, as the thousands-deep crowd of dub-step, techno and house fans consistently on hand each afternoon as the gates opened swelled ten-fold by sundown. At this summer’s Hangout Music Festival in Gulf Shores, Alabama, the mass of humanity that repeatedly piled into the Boom Boom Tent was so suffocating that fire marshals were brought in when patrons made one final push for position as Girl Talk began his set.  In recent years, Bonnaroo has liberated DJs from their once exclusive role as late night/early morning entertainers, and every event from Lollapalooza to Wakarusa is making more and more room for electronic music. It is not “the music of the future” as I had naively posited on a number of occasions since Voodoo 2010; it is overwhelmingly and unequivocally the music of today.

Swapping out a featured main stage for more DJ real estate was a justifiable, if not inevitable, decision on the part of Voodoo organizers.  But the absence of  a second huge home for nationally renown instrument-playing acts has had both a trickle-down and a trickle-up effect on the festival as a whole: not only is this year’s assortment of rising indie-rockers less robust than in years past, but the change has also forced more of those who did make the cut onto the smaller stages that normally host homegrown standouts for the majority of each day.  The WWOZ stage supplements Rebirth Brass Band and Bonerama with Ozomatli, the reunited original Meters, and GIVERS; Preservation Hall has not only Lynn Drury, MyNameIsJohnMichael and Glen David Andrews, but Members of Morphine and Jeremy Lyons; and the Bingo! Parlor gets Portugal. The Man, X, Fitz and the Tantrums, Fishbone and Cheap Trick in addition to Le Carnival institutions Happy Talk and greatest band in the universe Rotary Downs.

At first blush this may seem like a purely negative development  (and the loss of any number of exciting rock acts iced out due to the remixed format is certainly worthy of lament)  but of the many memories from last year’s event I’ve been able to hang onto, two particular performances stand out in my mind – and both suggest the prospect of larger bands on smaller stages is not necessarily a bad thing.  On Saturday, I took in The Whigs‘ wild-fire but confoundingly unsatisfying set from the enormous (and now-departed) Le Ritual Sony Stage a few hours before seeing The Eagles Of Death Metal nearly burn the Bingo! Tent to the ground.  Where the Whigs’ rollicking three-man garage punk seemed to get lost among towering scaffolds and an expansive lawn, The Eagles of Death Metal – at nearly eye level with the nicely packed audience – exploded through what was most certainly a festival highlight for those who witnessed it.

When a band doesn’t require the amenities a main stage provides – room for elaborate light rigs and stage setups, anchor points for zip-lines or wire systems – I’d prefer to see them in as intimate a setting as possible, one in which their sound and presence is more likely to overwhelm the surroundings than the other way around.  So many big names on such small stages may be a cause from concern for some potential concert-goes, but I’m primed and hopeful for some intense and magical moments.

MP3: Portugal. The Man: “Head Is A Flame (Cool With It)”

Portugal. The Man: In The Mountain In The Cloud

Atlantic Records, 2011

After breaking into the national collective musical consciousness with 2009’s epic masterpiece The Satanic Satanist, Portugal. The Man‘s 2010’s follow-up, American Ghetto, seemed – dare I say – polite.  It was soulful and groovy and, above all, remarkably consistent given the band’s recording prolificness, but it felt restrained and disjointed in the wake of the explosive psychedelic tour de force from another universe that was The Satanic Satanist.

For their major label debut, Portugal. The Man replaces the heavy progressive rock leanings of their previous album with a headlong dive into the bouyant, glam-ed out energy that has become a hallmark of their live performances.  And while fluid improvisational jams are also part of a PTM show, producer John Hill (the man behind Shakira and Santigold’s success and an unexpected ally to these Alaska-by-way-of-Portland art-rockers) refuses to embark on the nearly-always-unsuccessful mission to capture the bliss of extended extemporaneous exploration in the confines of a recording studio.

The result is a diverse and eclectic set of songs that by themselves are tight studies in interplanetary pop, but together – as mixed down by the same Andy Wallace who engineered Nirvana’s Nevermind as well as Phish’s The Story Of The Ghost – are triumphant movements in a consuming cosmic opus.  The warm, ringing bass lines and ethereal howling on “Floating (Time Isn’t Working on My Side)” begin a non-stop progression of expansive sonic atmospherics and soaring vocal harmonies that swell together and rise to the one of many apexes on “Everything You See (Kids Count Hallelujahs)”, a song that displays almost every distorted, layered, acoustic/electric trick Portugal. The Man has honed to near-perfection in their 7 plus years of musical experimentation.

And whether its a coincidence or an intentionally autobiographical passage, the chorus of standout “Head Is Like A Flame (Cool With It)”  seems to perfectly encapsulate the mantra behind the band’s development:  “We all get strange / and we know it / and we’re cool with it / And we all get a little bit older / in this day and age / but we deal with it.”  Portugal. The Man’s sound and sensibilities have evolved greatly since the days lead vocalist John Gourley and bassist Zachary Carouthers performed as a two-piece against drum machines and synth-loops in and around Wasilla; and the move to a major label may be the biggest signpost of their ascension yet..  But In The Mountain In The Cloud, while highly polished and concise, manages to feel as organic as anything PTM has put together, free of even a trace of anxiety or hesitation.

In The Mountain In The Cloud on Insound