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Live Review: Jeff Mangum at Wortham Center

22 Jan

When you hear Jeff Mangum’s name, it’s hard to think of him as anything other than the “reclusive” persona writers have pegged him as. The truth is, I’ve seen Mangum first hand, and he’s nothing of the sort.

Last night, Mangum brought his highly exclusive, extremely anticipated tour to Houston’s Wortham Center in Downtown, and the place was sold out. It might go down as one of the most surreal, genuinely touching concerts I’ve experienced as of yet.

The crowd, which ranged from pre-teen to retired, dressed in their best “going out” clothes. There were no torn jeans, the tights weren’t ripped, and majority of the 21+ crowd was drinking wine or a cocktail versus beer. While it sounds like a strange way to gauge things, the same people sitting around me are the same ones that show up for $2 Lone Star nights and end up swinging their gorilla-sized hands in the air during a free show put on by the same production company, Pegstar. It was pretty nice to see everyone well-behaved at a venue that usually hosts events from orchestras and opera singers. Hell, one of the chandeliers probably costs more than my car.

The show started promptly at 8 p.m. when Tall Firs politely took the stage. The duo sat near one another in the middle of the stage, sharing a Fender Super Reverb and knocking out eight songs from their self-titled debut, 2008’s Too Old To Die Young and 2012’s Out of It and Into It.

In between tracks such as “Hairdo” and “So Messed Up,” band-mates David Mies and Aaron Mullan trade out guitars to get the right sound on each song while partaking in humorous banter. But among stories of stoned kids in OKC and prostitutes in St. Louis, Mies got the last laugh when he and Mullan snubbed Pitchfork’s Aaron Leitko for ripping apart Mies’ version of “I Couldn’t Say it to Your Face” by Arthur Russell.

Tall Firs have the airy, atmospheric chops of Explosions In The Sky, with more of a knack to sound like Sonic Youth or Pavement. Vocally, the two sound like they mastered the whiskey and cigarette routine while extensively studying every album in their personal collection. When stripped down, their songs left the crowd silent and transfixed in the dark of the room.

Following a brief intermission, Mangum took the stage wearing a flannel shirt, jeans and a hat while the house lights stayed on halfway – most likely at his request. But though he looked a bit more gray and grizzly when compared to the photos taken of him playing to Occupy Wall Street protestors a year ago, Mangum still looks relatively youthful.

As he sat in his chair aside four acoustic guitars, he dived straight into “Oh Comely,” sounding just as crisp and sincere as the recorded version we’ve all heard hundreds of times. After a long applause, Mangum prodded the audience to sing along with him to “The King Of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1” and “The King Of Carrot Flowers Pts. 2 & 3,” which were played continuously.

Jeff Mangum at Wortham Center last night. Photo by Ed Abello (@sensitive_b)

Though backing instruments such as horns and accordions weren’t part of the set, Mangum’s voice left nothing to be desired. Instead, the crowd acted as an a cappella version of the track, singing back trumpet sections as the hall echoed with the intensity of the experience. And while Houston crowds are notorious for misbehaving, there were only a few that were unable to keep their composure or follow the rules. Some were seen running around the room back and fourth with friends they’d spotted, others forgot to take the flash off of their camera and could be seen by everyone going against his “no photography” rule.

Even so, Mangum took song requests with stride – either accepting them or politely explaining that he was without the proper pedal – and he even laughed at a man who shouted out “Keep Austin Weird!” after divulging that his family was from Texas. He could even be seen talking to people at the front of the house, and often asked the crowd the keep singing along with him or move forward if they felt the desire.

Throughout the hour-long set, Mangum pulled songs off both albums – On Avery Island and In An Aeroplane Over The Sea – and also found time to cover Roky Erikson’s “I Love The Living You.” Often times he stopped to use throat spray and guzzle down a bottle of water that required two hands. But aside from what looked like a minor cold, Mangum was in high spirits, often responding to a rogue “thank you!” or “I love you!”

“No, thank you,” Mangum mused as he placed his hand over his chest before diving into “Song About Sex.” “Thank you from the depths of my soul. I never expected this, I didn’t even think anyone would ever pay attention to me.”

At the end of his set, Mangum smiled and waved with sincerity as the crowd erupted in applause and gave him a standing ovation. And whether planned or not, Mangum came out one last time to finish the night with “Two Headed Boy Pt. 2.” That, of course, got another standing ovation.

And just like that, Jeff Mangum disappeared behind the curtains and the dream came to and end.

Set List
Oh Comely
King Of Carrot Flowers, Parts 1-3
Holland, 1945
Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone
Engine
Two Headed Boy, Part 1
I Love The Living You (Roky Erickson cover)
Song Against Sex
In The Aeroplane Over The Sea
Naomi
Ghost
Two Headed Boy, Part 2

My Favorite Releases of 2012

7 Jan

2012 has been a whirlwind year for music. It seems like everyone is releasing an album, going on tour, collaborating and then some. Perhaps it was the supposed “apocalypse.” Perhaps it was something in the water. Whatever it was, it was nearly impossible to get my list down to 10, 15 or even 20. Though I stopped at 25. I assure you I could have gone on longer.

Here are 25 lucky bands and artists that made it to the the top of my list. You can share questions, thoughts or your own list in the comment section below.

1. Menomena – Moms

For their first release as a duo, Menomena put forth one of the most emotionally honest albums of the year. Moms

touches on the effect of parental relationships and lack thereof (no pun intended). Danny Seim and Justin Harris, trade off storytelling throughout the ten-song effort. It’s dark, it’s brutally honest, and it’s a breath of fresh air for all parties involved. Be prepared to keep this in your record player for months.

2. Ben Kweller – Go Fly A Kite

After his last release, Changing Horses, it was unsure if Kweller would go pop, rock, or country. Instead, he went with all of the above. Go Fly A Kite, released on Kweller’s own label, The Noise Company, takes his best work and makes it better. Even the badass album packaging can’t hold a candle to just how great these songs are, but it is pretty cool to have a diorama record cover, complete with the chords for every song.

3. Cursive – I Am Gemini

Though Cursive is best known for their concept albums, I Am Gemini takes it to another level entirely. The story revolves around two twin brothers – one good, one evil – and carries out a story that you can’t look away from. Even better, Cursive pulled out all of the stops, bringing in Kasher’s theatrical-scoring background to really bring the story to life. This album is a must-have for any lit-nerd.

4. DZ Deathrays – Bloodstreams

Hailing from Brisbane, Australia, this dance punk band is no frills. Singer Shane Parsons will tear you in half with his gritty vocals, while drummer Simon Ridley pounds into his kit without apologies. With the clever use of pedal-work, these songs will catch you off-guard and keep you dancing for days on end.

5. Liars – WIXIW

Liars weren’t lying when they said this album was different. It’s their most atmospheric effort to date, and their experimentation paid off greatly. Somehow, it’s both soothing and driving at the same time. You won’t get bored of this album.

6. Hop Along – Get Disowned

Sometimes a band and it just clicks. This is the case for me with Hop Along (thanks to dear friend’s recommendation.) In their debut, the Philly-based trio put together an atmospheric alternative album that takes you from acoustic to rock and back. Singer Frances Quinlan’s raspy, perfectly imperfect vocals will steal your heart and keep you hanging on her every word. Do not miss out on this album or this band.

7. Wild Nothing – Nocturne

If you didn’t find yourself dancing to this album beneath dim lighting at a house party, you didn’t truly live this year. To put it best, Wild Nothing is the kind of band that would be on a John Hughes soundtrack if John Hughes were making “brat pack” movies nowadays with its equal parts of new wave, pop and synth-powered indie.

8. The Jealous Sound – A Gentle Reminder

Hopefully you’re lucky enough to know about The Jealous Sound. If not, it’s time for a formal introduction. A Gentle Reminder is so effortless, with all of their late 90’s/early 00’s indie rock charm, it’s as if the band never took a  ten-year hiatus after their debut full-length, Kill Them With Kindness. Most bands don’t have that kind of staying power, let alone enough to make a comeback. The Jealous Sound did it swinging.

9. Ceremony – Zoo

Ceremony is typically known for their more aggressive sound, but when the Bay Area-based group slowed it down, they didn’t become boring. Zoo is fast-paced without giving you whiplash. More importantly, the group pulls from a pool of influences and finds a creative way to blur lines between punk, hardcore and rockabilly without  feeling pretentious. Some claim this album is mediocre, I’ll politely decline. Not just anybody can get into my Top 10, okay?

10. Divine Fits – A Thing Called Divine Fits

Divine Fits is a super group in its own right, consisting of Britt Daniel (Spoon), Sam Brown (New Bomb Turks), and Dan Boeckner (Wolf Parade/Handsome Furs). Daniel and Boekner compliment each other so well, it doesn’t feel like a game of tug-of-war. The songs are no more like one than like the other, but their influence is obvious at every turn. The album is playful, sexy and every other adjective you imagine a good rock album should be.

11. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis – The Heist

Seattle-based rapper, Macklemore, is everything a grass-roots musician should be: talented, artistic and  driven. With viral hits such as “Thrift Shop” and “Same Love,” Macklemore brings a much-needed voice of intelligence and awareness to hip-hop. He’s as quick as Jay-Z, as catchy as Kanye and as funny Dave Chappelle.  This isn’t your best friend’s hip-hop.

12. Sleigh Bells – Reign Of Terror

I never thought I’d place Sleigh Bells in my top ten, but it was hard to pick up anything music-related and not see an ad for Reign of Terror. Needless to say, I gave in. In short, Sleigh Bells features Alexis Krauss, a bad-ass little firecracker of a singer, with Derek Miller, former guitarist for Poison The Well, on guitar. Mix it up and you get something like hip-hop infused cheerleader shred rock. No bubblegum bullshit. It’s the mixture you never knew you were missing.

13. Sara Bareilles – Once Upon Another Time (EP)

Once Upon Another Time highlights some of Bareilles’ best work to date. Her voice packs a punch as she delivers emotionally charging lyrics. Even better, Bareilles blazes down a path all her own, separate from other pop singers entirely. These five songs will take listeners from a cappella cathedral to blues, from blues to pop, and then back again.

14. Why? – Mumps, Etc.

Why? isn’t known for their modesty, but more so for their crippling honest. It’s just what works for them. On Mumps, Etc., the group’s nucleus, Yoni Wolf, delivers cleverly-written lyric full of self-awareness, the art of aging with bitterness, and where to go when you’re not really sure what you’re doing anymore. If you still can’t visualize it, take poetry, throw in equal parts of sexual frustration, indie rock, hip hop and experimentation. Throw it in a blender, and you’ve got one of the best albums from this year.

15. Fiona Apple – Idler Wheel…

When Fiona Apple’s new album dropped, fans couldn’t help but rejoice – especially following all of the issues she was having with her label. Lucky for us, they released it. Idler Wheel… brings us a vision of Apple who’s as sharp as she’s ever been, orchestrating brilliant piano compositions alongside poetic grace. Her voice is stronger than ever, the lyrics cut a little deeper, and the songs sound more mature (complete with big band and  jazz influences.)

16. Ty Segall Band – Slaughterhouse

Slaughterhouse is something between hi-fi grunge-punk and  lo-fi dance-punk. Compared to Ty Segall’s solo work, Slaughterhouse has layer and depth. Admittedly, it’s at its best when Segall’s voice isn’t completely fuzzed out. More importantly, it’s a ride through underground punk in 11 tracks. This is a definite recomendation to anyone how enjoys dancing in crowded, sweaty basements that smell of sweat and cheap beer.

17. Delta Spirit – Delta Spirit

In the four years since their debut, Delta Spirit has matured from a group of soulful, wide-eyed friends into men observing the world around them. Their third, self-titled album has proven that the band ages like a fine bottle of whiskey. Whether you’re seeking nostalgia, awareness or something else, this album will hold your attention. The album is up more than it’s down, but if you’re into songs that are as cinematic as they are rock n’ roll, this album is for you.

18. Two Gallants – The Bloom and The Blight

At times, you’d think that The Bloom and The Blight was more peaceful than previous releases. Au contraire. The quieter moments have more folk undertones, but when it gets loud, it tears into you with the force of heavy rock. Worry not, though. The sound is still very much Two Gallants.

19. Minus The Bear – Infinity Overhead

Minus The Bear has always known what their sound was. Even so, the group has transformed over the years without changing much at all.  Regardless, the group has found a way to blend previous experiments in more electronic sounds with their perfected skill in rock. Infinity Overhead might not be as sexually charged as OMNI, but it will still make you want to hop between the sheets with someone.

20. Cloud Nothings – Attack On Memory

At times, this eight-song doozie has the grunge appeal of Smashing Pumpkins. Other times, it feels like you’re listening to a clever fusion of The Vines and Real Estate. It might sound like a head-scratcher, but somehow, it works. Don’t question it. Simply put, Attack On Memory drips nostalgia, finding a way to bring some of rock’s most delicious moments back to life all at once.

21. The Mountain Goats  – Transcendental Youth

Transcendental Youth kicks off with the uplifting bang, “Army aka Spent Gladiator 1,” crying for anyone listening to “just stay alive.” This type of loving wisdom is what has kept The Mountain Goats around for so long. Darnielle’s excited strumming and modest vocals are shaped by Owen Pallett’s arrangements, making this album as full of life as Darnielle himself.

22. Maps & Atlases – Beware and Be Grateful

On their second full-length, it seems settled that Maps & Atlases have progressed traded in their multiple time signatures for harmonized vocals. And the truth is, they’re better for it. They’re staying relevant for their talent, not simply their ability to pull tricks out of their sleeve. The songs are more aware, more well rounded and, often times, more sincere.

23. New York City Queens – Burn Out Like Roman Candles

This Houston-based group worked tirelessly to write, record and produce their sophomore album. It’s composed tracks are both breezy and electrifying. This is the kind of rock that oozes promise of a bright, full future.

24. Tame Impala – Lonerism

Labeled as “neo-psychadelic,” Lonerism is the perfect soundtrack to smoke to. Once you get past the initial Beatles-inspired sounds and visualize something other than bell-bottoms or a laser show, you’ll find cleverly created pop melodies veiled in fuzz. The drums on Lonerism have a refreshingly clear compared to other modern-psych bands, and the guitar almost comes secondary to the bass groove and shimmering keyboards.

25. P.O.S – We Don’t Even Live Here

In his fourth effort, rock-hop artist POS takes his music to a new level. With beats that act as a cinematic backbone, his lyrics pack a one-two punch harder than ever before. The bass drum will make your heart race as artists such as Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) and Astronautalis are featured on tracks that tackle social issues across the board.

Review: Best Coast – The Only Place

9 Jul

When Best Coast released their debut album, Crazy For You, Bethany Coesentino was hailed as a woman to keep your eye on. Now, she seems to be molded after a sort of one hit wonder more than this generation’s leading lady.

With the May release of their sophomore album, The Only Place, Coesentino & Co. seemed dead set on reminding us all that they’re from California. As if that were ever in jeopardy of being forgotten.

In a nutshell, The Only Place is merely a grown-up, less colorful, polished version of Crazy For You.

Starting with the album art, The Only Place (seen above) definitely carries on the tradition of animals, maps and California being used to really give the listener a vibe of the band before they even hear the album. The same tactics were used with Crazy For You, and it’s starting to seem like Coesentino has a one-track mind when it comes to her, er, art.

When Best Coast announced that The Only Place was in the process of being recorded, everyone wondered what the group was going to sound like. After all, drummer Ali Koehler announced she was no longer with the band right before Coesentino revealed that she would like to embrace her country side on the new tracks, with inspiration coming from the likes of Loretta Lynn. Then it was announced that famed composer and producer, Jon Brion, would be behind the wheel of the project.

But even with Brion’s help, Best Coast proved nothing on The Only Place, other than the fact that they might want to consider renaming themselves “One Trick Pony.”

You see, the problem with this album is not that the songs aren’t good – most of them are pretty catchy. The problem is that they sound so much like the tracks off of Crazy For You, they’re actually hard to listen to.

The album opens with the title track, which sounds like something the Governor of California commissioned Best Coast to write for a commercial campaign to attract tourists. While the sentiments are understood (California is a wonderful, magical place), it’s hard to want to dive head-first into the album. First impressions really are hard to shake.

The following track, “Why I Cry,” sounds like melodies and chord progressions were copy and pasted from Crazy’s “Happy” and “Goodbye.” This same pattern follows with tracks like “Do You Love Me Like You Used To” and “Let’s Go Home.” Really, you can’t listen to any track on the album without being immediately reminded of one from Crazy.

Coesentino told to Pitchfork that The Only Place is “more about self-discovery and figuring out who she is.”

Crazy for You was written in a very insecure, weird, 22-year old phase in my life,” she said. “I’m 25 now, and things in my life are much, much different than they were then. This record is really personal.”

Unfortunately, it’s hard to hear this album and not wonder what Brion, Coesentino and guitarist Bobb Bruno were listening to when they put the finishing touches on the album. Even the lyrical content of the songs haven’t evolved past that first album any more than the songwriting has. And while there’s nothing wrong with a brutally honest or even vulnerable track, building a career off of songs that read like a boy crazy teen’s diary isn’t something to aspire for.

But all hope isn’t lost. When push comes to shove, Best Coast still has talent behind the name. Albeit misplaced, they truly are talented. Hopefully we can chalk this off another sophomore slump, and the duo really does some growing for their next release to make up for lost time. If not, well, there’s always their first album.

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