Sunday Listens: Reliving My Youth With Late 90's Crust Punk

This post is part of the Sunday Listens series where I post about music that's exciting/interesting to me.  Sometimes from the perspective of a voice teacher and usually on Sundays.  Get your week started right with awesome tuneage.

 Texas band Bread and Water circa '99

Texas band Bread and Water circa '99

Last week I attended the Denver premiere of the movie Bomb City.  It's based on the true story of Brian Deneke, a punk kid living/skating in Amarillo, Texas who was murdered in 1997.  He was murdered for being a punk, and so the movie featured late 90's punk prominently.

For more on what it meant to be a punk in a small town that elevated the status of jocks, and why being a punk was something that might get you killed, read the wikipedia article, and then follow that up with this brief but timely analysis from Vice News.  Definitely go see the movie (you can pre-order it on iTunes).  Failing those efforts, ask an old punk friend (everyone has one, right?) about the late 90's.  It was a thing.

I was a punk in the late 90's and watching the movie felt like a time warp in many ways.  During one of the scenes from the court trial, a punk who is testifying is wearing a Bread and Water patch.  "Wow, that's an obscure band reference," I thought.  Later my friend (and fellow old punk), Sascha reminded me that they were a Texas band and Amarillo punks would have surely been into them.

Late 90's/early 00's crust punk: liberally applying a distinct d-beat, with a notable scream, periodic slow parts with some guitar picking, multiple vocalists employing a call and response motif, mostly unintelligible lyrics, with perfectly understandable choruses that serve as a call to action against such things as the state, the system, racism, patriarchy and capitalism, meant to be danced to with ample headbanging and thrashing of limbs, fosters a strong sense of community amongst fellow show-goers and bandmembers, linked to the ongoing anti-globilization movement at the time.

That's my best attempt at a definition, but please judge for yourself.

Here's the Bread and Water album that got me hooked:

This list isn't complete without a band that was highly influential on my musical tastes and my political beliefs: Anti-Product.  This live video says it all, especially singer Taína Asili saying it all at the beginning.

The Subhumans groundbreaking album, "The Day the Country Died", was released in 1983, which predates my timeframe by a lot.  But, there wouldn't be 90's crust punk without the Subhumans.  (Who, by the way, still actively tour and release albums.)  Go ahead, dig back into the vaults and listen to the entire album, "The Day the Country Died".  It's only 35 minutes long!

So, what do think?  Has crust-core played an important role in your life?  Should it be mandatory listening for the youth of today?  Does it sound like a chainsaw in a dumpster?  Let me know in the comments below!

[Hey, music fans! Did you know that purchasing albums, from digital platforms or your local record store, help support musicians who sacrifice pretty much everything for the sake of creating life-changing sounds?  Don't stream; Collect!]

 

Sunday Listens: Jazz is the Lexicon of Now

It's no secret that I'm a lover of jazz.  But, what jazz means exactly varies person to person.  The narrative of this musical genre extends back to the beginnings of the 20th Century.   No wonder, then, that it bends definition.  

Step away Merriam and Webster.

Nonetheless, contemporary listeners are happy to describe a band or musician as jazz.  So, what the fuck does it mean?

There isn't any doubt that jazz, as in the heyday of jazz, influenced everybody today.  Billie, Duke, Ella, Coltrane and even Oscar (my kid's namesake) are just some of the notable names that we associate with the jazz sound.  And, pity any musician who doesn't name at least one of these as an influence.

7th chords.  Mmmm, mmmm, juicy harmony.  Not to mention the melodic freedom that comes with those juicy harmonies.

Even if you have no idea what the 7th is, or how we get there, or what kind of building our notes are building, you know 7th chords when you hear them.  Something sounds, "bluesey"?  Well, you just heard some dominant 7th chords and it was really juicy to your ears.  Mmmm, mmmmm.   Yummy!

Lately I've been obsessed with musicians who've obviously studied their ii-V-I progressions (holla jazz!).  Yet, so much more is going on.  

Both Esperanza Spalding and Xenia Rubinos have ties to Berklee College of Music (known for it's jazz instruction) and Hiatus Kaiyote hails upon the jazz from all the way over in Australia.  But complex chord progressions and odd time signatures are only the beginning.  Synthesizers, compelling storylines and atmospheric vocal lines define these artists equally to their training.

I have a theory about songwriters these days: they've had exposure to the great American song form - jazz - and they've had ample opportunities to study it in music lessons - as compared to strictly Classical.  And they've made it uniquely their own.

Here are some of my favorite jams of late.

Esperanza Spalding released an album earlier this year, "Emily's D+Evolution".  It's a great album.  I highly recommend you buy the whole thing.  It's very prog and very conceptual, coming from a strong jazz background.  I like this track:

Xenia Rubinos released her sophomore album a few months ago.  Out of Brooklyn, she brings a fresh take on the region's legendary hip hop.  She studied jazz singing at Berklee and her breathy, but large, range is used to accentuate a broad harmonic chord progression.  Note, the 7th chords!  I can't stop jamming the entire album - it's so stellar! - and it demonstrates the wonder of jazz song form with a great deal of 21st Century style thrown in.  The following track opens with a haunting vocal line that only a jazz singer could deliver with authenticity:

And so I must talk about Hiatus Kaiyote (pronounced "hiatus coyote") from Australia.  Jazz, most definitely, with a punk edge and a romantic sensibility.  It's awkward time signatures and strange meandering through thick chords is inviting rather than alienating.  Seriously, this has been my go-to on the bus to work.  As you can imagine, I arrive at work in a blissed out state.  Take this tune (and buy the whole damn album, please):

Love your 7th chords.  Mwah, mwah.  Juicy!  It's the language of now.

[Purchasing albums, from digital platforms or your local record store, help support musicians who sacrifice pretty much everything for the sake of creating life-changing sounds.]

This post is part of the Sunday Listens series where I post about music that's exciting/interesting to me.  Sometimes from the perspective of a voice teacher and usually on Sundays.  Get your week started right with awesome tuneage.

Sunday Listens: Rakta and In School (punks of the week!)

I'm ever grateful for my monthly subscription to Maximum RocknRoll to keep me informed of new, underground, punk music. It brings much joy to me when that easily identifiable, tidy, manila envelope appears in my PO box.  If you like punk, or you consider yourself a subversive, I highly recommend that you get this delivered-by-mail treat every month as well.

Two standouts were brought to my attention in last month's issue and I've been rattling my speakers with them since.

Ratka (pictured above) hails from Brazil and plays what you might call psychadelic rock, but it's more than that.  It's a little droney, and forgive me if I hear the inevitable influence of Brazilian jazz, bossa nova.  They know how to create a mood and sustain it.  You can kind of lose yourself in the textures and harmonies.  If you're into punk sub-categories, you'll hear a good deal of post-punk.  

Those they're Brazilian they chose a sanskrit word for their name.  It means red, blood, passion, power and strong energy.  See if you can pick up on those adjectives in their latest release:

 

You can also check out their previous releases, while supporting them via downloading, here.

In School make great NYC hard core that easily stands with the long standing scene out there.  They thrash out four brutal tunes on their latest 7" in approximately 6 and a half minutes.  Meaning, you could listen to this record four times on your way to work and then be ready to quit in storm of f-bombs and middle fingers by the time you arrived.  Sounds like a good morning, eh? 

Fast-paced, screamy, distorted hardcore is an acquired taste and to an untrained ear it can sound all the same, but In School makes some choice turns in the gnarled guitar progressions and the drums have a way of not quite lining up that works really well.  Plus, the lyrics to Cement Fucker are amazing.

Start by downloading their 7", Cement Fucker, on bandcamp (name your own price!)  Then follow it up with this live video that is of poor quality and doesn't quite capture the magic:

This post is part of the Sunday Listens series where I post about music that's exciting/interesting to me.  Sometimes from the perspective of a voice teacher and usually on Sundays.  Get your week started right with awesome tuneage.

The Sunday Listens: Prince's Prodigies

                    Prince and Sheila E.  A fruitful musical relationship!

Social media has been stretching my phone's data limits this week with retrospectives on the prolific career of Prince.  Maybe you've noticed?  I can't help but click with endless fascination.  Yes, he was a great and uncompromising artist (the kind I like best), but I'm not gonna pretend that I was super fan just because he has passed.  

Nope, my appreciation of him came much later in my life, and by then I was more interested in getting to know other musicians' catalogs.  No offense, Prince, I swear.  We just weren't timed together well.

I was really young when he was big news.  In fact, the song I'm most familiar with is "Cream" - and only because it was hard to ignore that video on MTV - the buttless pants!  That factoid alone dates me.

However, I knew that Prince was super amazing, and I also knew that he inspired some equally amazing artists.  That became something I was more tied to.

When I first saw a video of Janelle Monae, I immediately saw a connection to Prince.  She's plays with androgyny and character onstage.  She also plays some funky guitar and is from the midwest.  She recently said it best herself though, "He stood for the weirdos."  

 

Sheila E was THE example of badass women drummers for a very long time.  Now there are many more out there, but as a teenager in the 90's I was desperate for examples of women who could rock it hard.  My mom was the one to tell me about her - that's how famous she became making music with Prince.  Here she is shredding.  You can hear the strong influence of her Latin roots, but also her ability to hold down a solid groove when need demands - and need usually does demand.

I've been following the career of Esperanza Spalding for a long time.  She comes out of the jazz tradition, but her most recent album struck me as weird in a very Prince way.  The entire album is presented as a character piece, "Emily D+Evolution".   She grooves on the electric bass while singing from her soul.  Messages of love, something Prince would approve of.

I did a google search, just to see if she was indeed acquainted with Prince and found that he had invited her to perform at BET's tribute to Prince (in 2010, I believe).  Sadly, I couldn't find any decent videos of her performing his "If I Was Your Girlfriend".  I did, however, find TLC's version and it's pretty amazing.  Oh Left Eye!  Oh Prince!  RIP!

Let's hear it for the weirdos!  What do you think?  Any Prince prodigies that should be added to the list?

Let me know in the comments below.

The Sunday Listens: Ladies of the Canyon, Joni, Joan and Judy

Joni Mitchell is one of those musicians who've been around so long you almost assume you know what they're about.  How many times have you heard "Big Yellow Taxi"?  I'm approaching several hundred if I count the times it's been playing in the grocery store while I shop.

Yet, she's also a prolific and varied artist.  Joni gets mentioned in passing by friends every so often and each time, a different album is cited as influential.  Counting only studio albums, she's written and released 19, ranging from the quintessential sound of the 1960's folk revival to visionary jazz interpretations.

It's the early Joni Mitchell that I assumed I had already heard and understood, but in reality, I used to get her confused with Joan and Judy.  Baez and Collins, that is.

All three women wrote meandering, soprano folk tunes with deep messages and lovely finger-picking techniques.  All three were a part of an artistic scene, and that's what I want to talk about today: the era that united these voices as well as the aspects that make these individual voices distinct.

Joni Mitchell bought a home in Laurel Canyon, outside of L.A., in the 60's and immediately began hosting get-togethers for her musician and artist friends.  Creativity flowed and in turn continued to inspire itself.  Sometimes referred to as the "Queen of Laurel Canyon" she hosted the likes of Crosby, Stills and Nash; The Byrds; The Mamas and the Papas; The Doors; and Judy Collins. 

Perhaps in tribute to this vibrant time, her third studio album, "Ladies of the Canyon", was released in 1970.  It includes her best known hit - the one about painting paradise and putting up a parking lot - but I like the title track especially well.  It tells the story of a young woman that fits nicely into our nostalgic ideas of the time.  It also demonstrates Joni's unique guitar style and something else she is known for - playing in strange tunings, so that her chords can't quite be pinned down.  Her young voice demonstrates light, airy high notes that seem to float above the song and exist in the periphery, yet equally command attention.  It is the sound that made her name a household one, and securely positions her in the early 1970's cannon.

On the opposite coast, Joan Baez was becoming known as a part of the Greenwich Village scene, along with another person you may have heard of, Bob Dylan.  Joan was a skilled guitar player and had a knack for sensitive covers of her contemporaries' tunes.  She also wrote songs that tended to tell stories begging for social justice.  

Joan was bilingual, having learned Spanish from her Mexican father as a child and in 1974 she released an album of exclusively Spanish tunes, "Gracias a la Vida".  It is a diverse offering including darker, deeper songs, with light-hearted traditional songs, such as "De Colores".  True to the title, she brings much color to her rendition.  This album is one of my go-tos when I need a pick-me-up. 

It was risky to expose oneself as mixed race at the time.  She was advised by industry people that such a move could cost her fans, but she believed that being honest about her identity was itself a way of fighting for social justice.  In her original tune, "Las Madres Cansadas", she addresses the mistreatment of migrant farm workers - a song that reverberates equally in 2016..  Her voice is distinctively resonant and strong and her vibrato is unrestrained, giving the effect of deep emotional connection.  Even if you don't speak Spanish yourself, the message is made clear.

Judy Collins was raised in Denver, which makes her a bit of a hometown favorite.  In fact, she donated her childhood piano to Swallow Hill, where it sits in a place of honor in the cafe.  It feels like a celebrity connection to say that I've played it many times.  It's a great piano, by the way.

She's an appropriate finale to this blog entry, because her migration through the folk revival scenes brings the other artists together.  She first made a name for herself in Denver and Boulder, but soon moved to east coast and settled in Greenwich Village.  Her friendship with Joni, which continues to this day, brought her out to Laurel Canyon frequently.  Judy still tours extensively.  I had the opportunity to see her perform at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House in 2010.  She is a captivating performer. She has collaborated with musicians as varied as Randy Newman, Chrissy Hynde and David Grisman.  She is an extraordinarily talented pianist and guitarist, but I also think of her as a musician who has worked hard in the industry for over 50 years.  How many people can say that?

I thought it fitting to choose this song, "So Early, Early in the Spring".

Who do you like - Joni, Joan or Judy?  What are your favorite songs?  Let me know in the comments below!

 

The Sunday Listens: New Santigold

This week we're gonna talk about how brilliant Santigold is.

Ok, I'm not really gonna go on a diatribe about her artistic merit, but I will say that her newest album, 99¢, which came out 2 weeks ago, is a really fun descent into pop mutations.  Frankly, it's been my only jam for the past week.  Carribean dancehall meets 80's pop meets contemporary hip hop.  I hear everything from Siouxsie Sioux to Erykah Badu.  Intrigued?  Buy it here.

What I do want to talk about is how wonderfully Santigold uses the full range of her voice in this album.  In fact, she gives us clear examples of the spectrum of her registration.  

Let's talk registration for a moment.  Loosely, this refers to head voice and chest voice, high notes and low notes, respectively.  Oftentimes singers blend these registers, singing in neither register exclusively.  However, Santigold has sections where she fully lives in each register, letting us hear the unique colors each register has to offer.  It is this type of tonal play that makes pop music so infectious and interesting to listen to.

In her song "Chasing Shadows" she layers to separate vocal lines during the chorus.  The primary one is sung in a chest dominant register while a head voice only line is superimposed on top.  The contrast between the two registers happening simultaneously creates a dynamic sound and helps to heighten the song overall.  Then, she comes in on the second verse singing, again, in an exclusively head register.  Her voice sounds very pretty, for lack of a better adjective, and the vocal line has an opportunity to float over the bass and drums.  Check it out and let me know what you hear:

The track, "Before the Fire", opens with a darker sound than much of the rest of the album.  The lyrics hint at personal struggle, be it in romantic love or life's purpose.  To accentuate this, she sings in a full, heavy, chest voice registration.  On the chorus, with its held-out notes, it becomes almost a full belt.  This song has serious feels and it comes through because of the choice she made for vocal placement.  What do you think?

Conveying artistry and emotion as a singer is often about making smart choices in how we use our voice.  I appreciate vocalists who give us a wide range of vocal colors and textures, like Santigold.  Listening to how our favorite singers use their voice will help us to create dynamic, emotional music that reaches our audience.

Who are some dynamic singers that inspire you?  Let me know in the comments.

The Sunday Listens: Students' recommendations

I'm taking a cue from students this week.  My students teach me as much about music, arguably more, than I teach them.

This week was the Swallow Hill graduation, where all of the group classes culminated with a performance for each other.  I had several classes perform.  The songs spanned Joni Mitchell, The Beatles and Frank Sinatra.  I must say they all performed fabulously.

One of my students performed with a class I was not teaching - a fingerstyle guitar class with fellow instructor Jeff Rady.  Her class performed "Colorado Girl" by Townes Van Zandt.  I'd never heard it before, but it was just breathtakingly beautiful. The original version ain't too bad either.

Down a similar steel-stringed acoustic vein, my student Shannon has been persistently telling me to get in touch with the style of Western Swing, specifically Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys.  When I mentioned it to Dustin - who has never before this moment displayed any knowledge of country and western - he was like, "Oh yeah, Bob Wills, he's the best."  Apparently you can't grow up in the Texas Panhandle and not know about Bob Wills.  So much for me, I grew up in Kansas!

I'll share two tracks.  The first one is instrumental, although you'll hear a lot of hootin' and hollerin' going on in the background.  The YouTube video comes with a thorough introduction to Mr. Wills:

One of the best Bob Wills western swing pieces you probably never heard. A notable and quotable music historian said that Western Swing was nothing more complicated than White men playing jazz on guitars and fiddles. While Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys may not have been the first Western Swing Band (That honor probably belongs to Pappy Lee O’Daniel and His Light Crust Doughboys) Wills was the hottest, most prolific, and most innovative of the bands with a vision and a stage presence that would make the sound wildly popular. Listen to Too Busy and you will hear some of the most joyous and upbeat swing jazz ever arranged. Wills made Western Swing impossible to nail down as he played waltzes, reels, blues, pop, ~all the most unlikely hybrids While the sound originated with groups from Houston to Beaumont, up East Texas to Tulsa, and back to Ft. Worth, it was known as hot string band music in Texas and Oklahoma and was not tagged as Western Swing until the 1940s as is became popular in California.
Wills had been a member of that first Swing Band, Pappy Lee O’Daniels Doughboys, but left around 1932 for station WACO in Waco taking vocalist Tommy Duncan and Wills’ brother, banjo player Johnnie Wills. In Waco, Leon McAuliffe, steel guitar, pianist Al Stricklin and drummer Smokey Dacus were added, the nucleus of the best band Wills ever managed. Pappy Lee, still seeking revenge for the loss of Duncan said he would put commercials for his flour on WACO if they would fire Wills. WACO went for the money and Wills went to Tulsa where he played at Cain’s Dance Academy, a place where men would be taught to dance for, as the song says, 10 cents a dance, and where you could also be treated to some bootleg hooch while spending time with the young ladies. Cain’s evolved into Cains Ballroom as Wills packed the hall full every night he was booked there. The Wills sound would soon be broadcast over clear channel powerhouse KVOO, (Voice Of Oklahoma) in Tulsa. Pappy Lee showed up once again seeking more revenge on Wills. He promised KVOO he would pay a lucrative sum to the station to advertise his flour if they would fire Wills. KVOO, fired Pappy Lee instead and an 8 year association with Bob Wills & KVOO began which made the station famous for it could be heard from the Rockies to the Canadian border and the East Coast to the Gulf Coast.
Too Busy was recorded September 1936 in Chicago on the Okeh and Vocalion labels 03537A, the flip side of “No Matter How She Done It”, 03537B.
— YouTube user preservationhall01, https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCEhyCeNjTHkc255oUtfNEpA

This little ditty is charming my cowgirl boots right onto the dance floor.  A couple of listens will have you singing along.  It also includes a pedal steel solo that Jeff Rady would probably be proud of.  Shannon, I hope I chose well!

If your curiosity has been piqued and you'd like some more exposure to folk music of all styles, western swing yourself over to Swallow Hill.  New classes start tomorrow.  I've got a number of classes and workshops to choose from myself.

Y'all take care now!