Saturday, December 29, 2012

Bests of 2012

The following are some thoughts on my favorite musical moments of 2012. These are highly personalized, and include albums I liked, concerts I went to, even specific moments from the soundtracks of movies. The list is not restricted to new releases of 2012, as I tried to come up with my top ten albums from the year and realized my breadth of listening was not wide enough for the project. And there's nothing worse than compiling an end-of-year list from selections off of other people's end-of-year lists. Am I right? So here's some of my bests of the year, quick and dirty.

My Chromatics Reunion Ever listen to a song or a band and then forget about them for, like, five years? I think, ironically, that in the Spotify age of easy access to music, this type of things happens more, rather than less, often. In 2007, my roommate shared with me (on a USB drive, no less!) The Chromatics' cover of Kate Bush's "Running Up That Hill". I listened to it repeatedly for weeks, then never again for half a decade. Even while living in Chicago when the Chromatics came to town for Pitchfork, I didn't even connect the name of the band with that great song from my past, so erased were they from my memory. This week, Sam Tai helped me right this wrong. A great reunion.

"Baby", Donnie and Joe Emerson I don't remember all too many moments in my music past when I felt like my jaw actually dropped, but the first time I heard "Baby" by Donnie and Joe Emerson was definitely one of them. That voice is so oddly beautiful, and the phrasing of the vocals, not to mention the simplicity of the instrumentation, is invitingly strange and off-kilter. I should mention that I was exposed to this song during the wonderful wedding scene in Celeste and Jesse Forever.

OLYMPIXXX 2012 Me and my friends threw an Olympics-themed house party and it was the first party gig for Mighty Narrow. There was an impromptu soul-train dance line during my chopped-up "Paris". Someone did the worm. I let a drunk woman wear my headphones and then she tried to fuck with my controller. I yelled at her. My friend may have scored himself a date. In Boston. People went wild for the Whitney medley. The night ended with a cumbia dance-off and a few people getting sick. In the morning, I thought our car had been stolen. Nah. Just towed. Good party though.

The Final Saxophone Scene in The Conversation 

good kid, M.A.A.D City, Kendrick Lamar
I spent the better part of a day listening to this album, and then checked in with it again often in the weeks and months that followed. K.Dot killed it. It's my favorite album of the year. I wrote about it here.

Shut Down the Streets, A.C. Newman
Many have noted that Newman's style has shifted from explosive power-pop to folk-pop, more restrained and careful. This shift explains why I prefer his latest solo release to the New Pornographer's Together, which I found overbearing. We went to see him at the Empty Bottle. It was a decent show, but Emma and I agreed that he's a studio musician through and through. There's no matching the quality of singing and overall sound he and his band achieve on the opening "I'm Not Talking", my favorite from the album.

Performing "The World's Greatest" with our Third Grade Class
We did it for our Dia de la Madre assembly last Spring. I played guitar and accompanied over a hundred of our third-graders as they traded verses and then came together for a stirring repeat of the chorus. Anyone who's ever heard this song knows that, when paired with adorable children, its emotional power cannot be denied. Even one of my eight-year-old students got choked up during an early morning rehearsal. I had to coax her out of the room just to get on the bus for a field trip.

Production Credits
Teaching myself some (very basic) basics and putting together a few tracks based on beats and samples I cut up on Garage Band. It's rudimentary, but it excites me to consider how much more I have to learn and grow with this particular style of music. I put together the track below for a call put out on soul-sides, and realized I never showed it to anyone besides the site's creator, Oliver Wang.

Gossamer, Passion Pit
If I consider how much I like an album based on how often I listen to it when it is first released, this one might not necessarily be an obvious choice. But it was one of the best sophomore album surprises I'd ever had (my expectations were low, as I wrote here). Accounts from my brother claim that "Constant Conversations" was a highlight of their live act on tour.

A Thing Called Divine Fits, Divine Fits
We'll be listening to this one on the drive back to Chicago tomorrow morning. An awesome mix of quirky synths and driving drums and bass. Did I mention how much I love Britt Daniel's vocals?

Thursday, December 13, 2012


Tame Impala put out Lonerism this year, which my friend Corey told me about last weekend, and I see now that it is on a few critics' End of Year Lists. I haven't read anything about the album or this band as of yet, but there is one thing that is unmistakable upon first listen: the supreme Beatles influence. A Lennon-sounding vocalist, trippy lyrics, chunky bass, drums that alternate between super-straight and way too busy, and long swirling instrumental fade-outs a la "I Want You". Below are some brief connections.

I think "Apocalypse Dreams" got left on the cutting room floor during the Abbey Road sessions.

And "Mind Mischief" certainly must be a lost Magical Mystery Tour track. Listen to those drums!

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Os Gemeos

Last month, I saw an exhibit by Brazilian street artists Os Gemeos at the MCA in Boston. The works of these twin brothers are super musical, clearly influenced by the hip hop scene of NYC in the 70s. Here are some pictures I took of my favorite installation.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Soul Burst

Readers may have noticed the title of my last post implied that I would be writing a Top Ten of 2012. Perhaps that was bold. It might have to just be top ten albums I heard in 2012--not necessarily released in that year. Anyway, more on that later.

This Cal Tjader album, Soul Burst, was released in 1967. One cool thing about it is its awesome cover art. I can't tell if that thing is a flower, a spiky pendant, or a gaudy golden wall decoration that was hanging in some living room overlooking the San Francisco Bay. Tjader was king of West Coast latin jazz, something I learned a thing or two about at a Benny Velarde performance last April. The vibraphonist's work around that time was straight ahead. He created easily digestible, pop-lengthed latin songs. I like the quote from the record sleeve (oh 60s jazz record sleeves!): "If there is to be a renaissance in jazz, it's not going to be avant-avant-avant-garde; it's going to be in the direction of beauty."

And check out some of the musicians in this band. A young Chick Corea holds it down on piano. Grady Tate drums. Oliver Nelson arranges. Listen to this version of "Down by the Riverside" to understand why Nelson blows my mind every time I hear him.

By the way, this is not one of my top ten from 2012. Sorry Cal.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Top Ten of 2012

Here's one for the list: A Thing Called Divine Fits. These songs are all fuzzed out, groovy melodic pop, with that excellent rasp of Britt Daniel and the crunchy bass-and-drums minimalism that makes Spoon so good. The group is a collaboration, most notably between songwriters Daniel of Spoon and Wolf Parade's Dan Boeckner. They trade songwriting credits and singing duties, but you can probably already tell which one of the two I favor. The super-powered dancey "What Gets You Alone" and the beautiful Nick Cave throwback "Shivers" stand out on this set. (Watch for more of my top ten list throughout the month.)

Friday, November 16, 2012

National Novel Writing Month

I am participating in National Novel Writing Month. The goal is to write a 50,000 word novel in the month of November. That's an average of about 1,700 words a day, which, for me, is about two to three hours of writing.

Many people are doing this all over the world, including here in Chicago, where the average number of words completed at this point is, I estimate, around 15,000. Currently my word count is 17,733, which, as you can tell, is still far behind the goal.

I will be writing for the next six hours with the hope of catching up for some lost days. I will post periodically on the blog because I think keeping a record of my thoughts while writing for six hours straight will be amusing to others (and to me in the future).

I will also post about book-related music when it crosses my mind -- and when I need to take a break from my fictional world!


At 900 words and Creedence's greatest hits is just getting started. I'll take it.


My back hurts. This cafe put on a cover of this Nina Simone song. I can't find the version. The original is better anyway.


Tried to see how long it would take me to write one page of text. After ten minutes I am halfway done with the page, but I've also gone to the bathroom and found this pretty cool music website called Passion of the Weiss.


I wrote a page in twelve minutes, but it included the phrase "docking along the shores of friendship." What is happening to my brain! Best Coast is playing now. They good.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Election Day Blues

If you want to self-monitor your current attitudes toward the U.S. political system, just gauge your gut reaction when you hear Chuck Berry's "Back in the USA" on Election Day morning. It was hard for me not to ignore the wave of ambivalent feelings that washed over me shortly after voting when I heard Mr. Berry singing "I'm so glad I'm livin' in the USA". I grew up with my father telling me and my brother on Tuesday mornings in November to never take for granted the right to vote that living in this country grants us. Growing older, becoming aware of systems of voter disenfranchisement, not to mention a prison system that bars a caste of former inmates from the polls, I feel both tempered gratitude and resentment.

It just makes me think again: how could a black man sing this shit in 1959 and not die inside? Clearly turning on their radio and hearing Chuck Berry long for a carefree ride through the Deep South helped whites feel more at ease about segregation and racial violence. I'm not a Chuck Berry expert, so I wonder if anyone can inform me the details of this particular moment in his career. What were the factors pushing and pulling him to spout this dangerously untrue version of America?

Meanwhile, last month Lupe Fiasco released Food and Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album Pt. 1. His depiction of the real issues facing Black Americans is honest, angry, and seems to flow from somewhere deep within him. What I mean is: it doesn't seem like Lupe will ever run out of lines like this one, from "Strange Fruition":

Now I can't pledge allegiance to your flag
'Cuz I can't find no reconciliation with your past
When there was nothing equal for my people in your math
You forced us in the ghetto and then you took our dads.

If Obama wins another term, I, for one, would like him to start addressing the reality that there are a whole lot of dads out there who have been denied the right to vote for him this Election Day.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Gil Scott Heron's Johannesburg

Went to check out "Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life"-- an exhibition at the International Center of Photography. It runs through January 6. My experience definitely inspired me to learn more about that period in South Africa. Shows what can be accomplished by over 40 years of HARD WORK by THE PEOPLE: laborers, activists clergy, ordinary people of all races, classes, and genders. Shame it took so damn long.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

good kid, m.A.A.d city, and hip-hop without labels


"People don't have a problem with conscious rap; they have a problem with conscious beats. If you make some ignorant beats, you can say all the smart shit you want." -- Chris Rock, 2005

In 2005, Chris Rock's did a list of the 25 greatest hip hop albums for a big hip-hop issue of Rolling Stone. His list reads like a stand-up routine of music one-liners. Rock knows his hip hop and he knows how to poke fun at how the genre has been received and critiqued over the past two to three decades. He puts The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill at Number 23 and argues that she is able to sell a conscious message because the music is just that appealing to all audiences-- even audiences of "ignorant" music. I agree with him on that, and I think, as a joke, this little kernel of wisdom (ignorant beats!) is hilarious.

But as much as I agree with Rock as rap critic, his quip is still off the mark. Somewhere in Jeff Chang's monumental Can't Stop, Won't Stop, Chang made the point that I still think of as a lightbulb moment for me today: conscious rap is a marketing label. Just as the gangsta rap label defined for its audiences what they could expect from the musical content, conscious rap serves the same purpose. In an article about Talib Kweli for The Progressive in 2005, Chang continues the argument: "'Party' or 'gangsta rap' is marketed to mass audiences-- crucially through black and brown urban audiences first. But 'conscious rap' is seen as a rap sub-market and is often pushed first to educated, middle-class, multicultural--often white--audiences.

Of course, the problem with the mainstream/conscious distinction is the same trouble caused by any false dichotomy, and is one that I have written about previously here. It causes audiences to misrepresent and stereotype artists, often before they hear their music. A more dangerous effect -- and this is something I think flies under the radar on college campuses, for example -- is that audiences, perhaps not even realizing it, start thinking in vague terms of "black rap" and "white rap". I'm not sure what is worse: white suburban kids in the early 90s head-nodding to Eazy-E or white college kids today thinking of the rap their friends listen to as "smarter" than the rap they hear on the radio or at Kappa parties across the quad.

What should be obvious to anyone who has an interest in rap's history is that hip-hop has always been a mode of expression and critique of the surrounding environment. Back before rap hit the airwaves, they used it in the Bronx to bring rival gangs together for truces. Twenty or thirty years later, even when violent and misogynistic rap began (unfortunately) to rule the radio market, many of the most popular artists can push social commentary just as hard. Wu-Tang's "Tearz" -- in my Top 5 for songs with the most raw and touching portrayals of the horrors of violence -- comes directly after Method Man's vulgar and gratuitous depictions of stupid torture on Enter the 36 Chambers. Even Lil Wayne, who now seems hellbent on rapping exclusively about female genitalia, gave us all something to think about post-Katrina on "Tie My Hands" from The Carter III (2007). I have already written at length about Jay-Z and Kanye in this fashion, and Kweli held this point back in '05: "I'll play Jay-Z's 'Reasonable Doubt' for someone and they'll be surprised. I'll say, 'Well, you assumed Jay-Z is a gangsta rapper"


"If I told you I killed a n**** at sixteen
would you believe me?
Or see me to be
innocent Kendrick
you seen in the street
with a basketball
and some Now'n'Laters to eat?
... Would you say my intelligence now is great relief
and it's safe to say that our next generation maybe can sleep
with dreams of being a lawyer or doctor
instead of a boy with a chopper?"

Kendrick Lamar, "m.A.A.d city" (2012)

Kendrick Lamar's new album good kid, m.A.A.d city (Top Dawg, 2012) has already received deafening praise. It got a 9.5 on Pitchfork. Complex has dedicated this whole week to the man and the making of the album. But something that I haven't seen anyone writing about is the potential for this album to completely explode any and all genre distinctions in popular hip hop. There's substances and ignorant shit. There's crime. There's murder. There's also spiritual renewal. Yet the album is so deeply personal and evocative in its narrative that none of these subject matters manage to yield a label or category. The trials and decisions made by the protagonist take center stage. 

On the first third of the album, Lamar chooses for his material the stuff of (straight) boys in the hood. He chases girls, hotboxes in cars, and joyrides with his friends in a van he stole from his mama. The first evidence we get of an unsettling trajectory for this one day (read: life) comes, I think, in "The Art of Peer Pressure". Lamar writes about how his behavior changes when he's "with the homies". When his friends realize there's someone home in the house they are robbing, Lamar acts fast. Having learned from the subdued yet angular story-telling of Andre 3000, Lamar continues:

"I hit the back window in search of any Nintendo, DVDs, plasma screen TVs in the trunk/ We made a right, then made a left, then made a right, then made a left/ We were just circlin' life/ My mama called: "Hello what you doin?"/"Kickin' it"/ Shoulda told her I'm probably bout to catch my first offense/ With the homies."

Needless to say, Lamar and his homies escape the law, but the stage is set for the increased pressures he will face throughout the rest of his adolescence. This part of the album is remarkable for how detached the narrator is from his content. He neither brags nor laments. If the telltale sign of mainstream rap is braggadocio (and of conscious rap, preaching), Lamar frees himself from the spectrum with grace.

The tension mounts until we arrive at the title track and "Swimming Pool". Lamar's day joyriding around Compton with his friends in his mama's van veers toward its chaotic and frenzied apex, when a friend is killed in a shoot-out. What started as a narration of immature teenage boy pursuits has careened toward gunshots, then a fallen brother, and, finally, the cries of his friend over his body. This last part of the sequence was always absent in the shoot-out skits that were a dime-a-dozen in the early 90s. We never heard Biggie's voice like we do Lamar's: "Say something! Say something! Damn, those n**** killed my brother!" 

Where can a concept album go from here? Lesser, lazier artists might turn their rap toward the audience, speaking directly about the tolls of gun violence. But Lamar continues with his first-person account narration, and allows striking imagery and metaphor to replace what could have otherwise been surface-level didacticism. Who would have expected that ALL of the protagonist's crew end up meeting a woman who leads them in over a minute of somber baptismal call-and-response. How moving is it to consider the millions of boys in Compton, Chicago, and so many other centers of blight and violence, reciting this same prayer for personal salvation along with Lamar and his homies. 

good kid, m.A.A.d city ends with Lamar teaming up with Dr. Dre to deliver an ode to their city. This as well as various bonus tracks drive home the message that you don't have to be a gunslinger to rep Compton. But, just as importantly, you don't have to be a preacher to show how scary it can be to grow up there. Despite its redemptive ending, good kid, m.A.A.d city is not a moral indictment of past sins. It is polyphonic, driven by the voice of Kendrick as youthful experimenter, as scared teenager, as hesitant thug, as, finally, a young man who has learned from his past. 

A reviewer would be remiss to not include the presence of Lamar's parents on this album. They are everywhere, floating like ghosts between the tracks, but nowhere are they more potent and stirring than at the album's end. His mother speaks: "I hope you come back." His father: "Real is responsibility. Real is taking care of your motherfuckin' family. Real is God." 

So let's not call this conscious rap. Let's just call it real.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

How Could This Be?

Parking lot, 4747 S. Marshfield Ave.
Friday, October 12, 2012
6:38 am

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Letter

I heard Joe Cocker's cover of "The Letter" one foggy morning on the ride to work last month. It put in motion a host of realizations and memories that I am finally now committing to words. I hope these recollections provide some insight to the casual reader who would like to learn a little more about the subject.

First things first: even though I was a huge fan of Alex Chilton and Big Star two years ago, it wasn't until I played in a tribute show on Chilton's birthday that I found out that Chilton wrote "The Letter". He was in the Box Tops? I had no idea. I didn't even realize he was writing music, let alone producing hits, as far back as 1967. This is the original. You might know the melody from listening to oldies stations in your babysitter Mary Lou's car when she used to pick you up from 1st grade in Staten Island. Oh wait, that's me.

When I heard Joe Cocker's interpretation, it brought me back to another memory from my school days, this time from 9th grade, when my guitar teacher Jake Ezra let me borrow Mad Dogs and Englishmen. Listening to this album when you only know Joe Cocker as the guy who covered the Beatles for The Wonder Years theme and who also did a rather wallpapery version of "You Are So Beautiful"-- well, it blows your mind. I recommend everyone listen to this fiery roller coaster of a live album.

But to get a feel of the album, just watch the video of them doing "The Letter" from that tour in 1970. And from watching this footage I had my last few revelations. Like, for example, I didn't know that Leon Russell played piano in that band. And I also didn't know that all of Joe Cocker's appendages can move in different directions and different speeds at the same time. But, most importantly, even though I had always liked the catchy hook from "The Letter", I had never heard the groove and the blues in it -- until the Englishman showed me.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Six Words for Kid Cudi

I slept on a deep listen to Kid Cudi's Man on the Moon II: The Legend of Mr. Rager after only having given it a cursory glance a year back. It's been going loud in the car stereo for the last few days, to and from work. I know I shouldn't have students and their moms turning their heads when I drive by... I was guilty of that today while blasting "Ashin' Kusher", an amazing song with a terrible name.

What has stood out to me most about Cudi on this album is his versatility. He can rap; his singing voice is unique. And what about "Erase Me"! I guess this was a single two (?) years ago. I totally missed it. I keep listening to this song, so much so that I thought back to my old "six word review" game and couldn't help but consider:

Kid Cudi: Ric Ocasek Rap Star

Seriously. I know he's giving it up to Hendrix in the video, but are the Cars not all over this track? 

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Stone Soul

Aspiring jazz musicians may know Mongo Santamaria as the pen behind "Afro Blue", perhaps the simplest and most inviting of all the standards in the songbook. Honestly, I didn't know much more than that either before I came across his Stone Soul (Columbia) while digging through some records at K Starke after work yesterday. This is kind of a cross-over album of sorts, with percussionist Santamaria assembling a soul band to reinterpret some pop songs of the day, including "Son of a Preacher Man" and "Stoned Soul Picnic" (what up Laura Nyro).

The look of this album is deceiving: the close-up of a plate of black-eyed peas, corn bread, and chicken on the cover is reminiscent of some of the cheekier Blue Note album designs from the lake 60s. But this is no jazz album. The horn players attack in an R&B style, to such an extent that some of the extended solos can be frustratingly monotonous. Clearly the highlight, then, is Santamaria's percussion teamed up with Bernard Purdie on drums (if you don't know Purdie's catalog, correct that). But it takes these guys the entire length of the album to finally let loose and show some fire on what is clearly the best track, the Temptations' "Cloud Nine". See for yourself.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

"Secret Heart" / "Face Like Summer"

It's such a treat every now and then to hear a song that you can definitively say is beautiful. When I think about the songs I've thought this way about over the years, it almost always comes back to the song's melody. Some melodic tunes are great because they are sparse (a recent one I listened to again is Dylan's early version of "Tomorrow is a Long Time"). But the ones that really stick with me are the ones that have a perfect arrangement to highlight the delivery of the song.

Two songs I heard last week that I just can't get enough of right now are Ron Sexsmith's "Secret Heart" and "Face Like Summer" by Gorky's Zygotic Mynci. (I thank Michael Bochner and my brother Evan for the tips on these.)

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Wayne Shorter Remixed

Got the chance to see Wayne Shorter and his quartet at the Detroit Jazz Festival over Labor Day. He's played with the group for over the last decade. These guys are crazy, especially Brian Blade on drums (someone who I'd wanted to see live for years).

Soon after the set, it was recommended I check out Native Dancer, an album of Shorter's from 1974 in collaboration with Milton Nascimento. I immediately fell in love with the first cut:

I immediately got the idea that I'd try to take the 5/4 vocal and sax melody and rearrange it into 4/4. I did it. Not sure to what extent I was successful. Here it is.

Then I was looking up some info for this blogpost and I saw that Earth, Wind, and Fire covered "Ponta de Areia" in 1977. Check this out!

Monday, August 27, 2012

Favorite Lead Guitarists

A friend asked me last week by text: Who is your favorite lead guitarist? I still haven't exactly given him an answer, but I was reminded today of this awesome clip of John Scofield doing "Georgia on My Mind". For me, Sco is the master of combining a traditional jazz sound with a gritty attitude that is pure blues and funk. Listen to some of those "off" notes that pop in and out of the scalar runs. I would love to be able to play like this.

Leave a comment: who's your favorite lead guitar player?

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Prod. by Tree

Photo source: 
As some readers of the blog know, I've been interested recently in making beats. I've been putting together a few tracks based on samples I've picked through on my iTunes library. I've cut up a few yelps from Ray Charles and Aretha, guitar riffs from Can, and did two tracks based on reworkings of the Emotions' "Blind Alley" and Beyonce's "Love on Top".

Putting together flips of samples made me think back to a book I skimmed through once called Making Beats: The Art of Sample-Based Hip-Hop by Joseph G. Schloss. I remember it being rather academic, almost an ethnography or oral history of various DJs and their techniques. One part that stood out to me was the idea that sampling is as musical an act as the creation of the original samples themselves. In other words, it's not just a creative form of cannibalism; it is actually music.

Of course, the idea that sampling is music is not new. This we've known for a while. But some examples given by Schloss and the artists he interviewed were fascinating in their musical detail. Early DJs working with old jazz records told of how the number of beats of a phrase they used in a loop could change the entire musical direction of the song. A piano chord progression could be entirely altered if, say, the first bar was repeated twice, the second and third bars were played once each, and the fourth bar was omitted entirely. The song might have a whole new flavor.

Oliver Wang at Soul Sides goes deep into this idea of musical creation when he writes of the various reiterations of the "Blind Alley" by the Emotions. This is definitely worth a read if you have a minute. I tried to do some musical revamping myself with my flip, which takes a major key piano phrase from the beginning of the song and starts the downbeat with a minor chord.

Now, listening to Tree's mixtape Sunday School today has gotten me thinking more about samples-- this time, how the feel of the original music changes based on the sheer amount of it that gets sampled. I have two examples. Listen first if you'd like. I wonder if we notice the same things.

1) "Die" (Tree) / "I'd Rather Go Blind" (Etta James)

How quickly can you spot the hook? If it takes a while, that's because the main sample from the song is not Etta James' vocal line from the chorus, but simply a fragment of the "yeah yeah" backups. You do hear Etta singing that famous line pretty quick into the track, but then it gets cut up: "Baby baby ba-- / I'd rather be bli--". The fact that he gives us just a taste, not to mention the way he layers those "baby" lines on top of one other makes this a hypnotic piece of production.

2) "Amy" (Tree) /  "Tears Dry on their Own" (Amy Winehouse)

Unlike with his Etta flip, Tree starts this one with a very recognizable line from "Tears Dry on their Own". He then chops it up so that it has a lot of forward momentum on top of a super straight-eight beat. Seriously, listen to this song again. The "superman" "stupid men" line comes in around 1:12. The difference is incredible. In the case of the original, "superman" those words serve as a punchline and a transition. With the way Tree used it, they carry the whole song.

If you like what you've read here, go ahead and check out this Fader interview with Tree about his production style.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Pyramids at Lollapalooza

Got the chance to see Frank Ocean's set at Lollapalooza last weekend and was definitely impressed most of all by his variety. He came out and did two songs accompanied only by an acoustic guitar, including an excellent cover of Sade's "By Your Side". His live band kicked in for most of the middle of the set. With them, he hit "Thinkin Bout You" and "Novacane" and then some of his best stuff from Nostalgia, ultra and Channel Orange. The highlight for me was "Pyramids"; I hadn't imagined that a nine-minute track that changes tempo in the middle could have kept the crowd grooving for the whole time, but it did the trick.


Saturday, July 28, 2012


I've been dreading Passion Pit's follow-up to the stellar Manners since I saw them at the Congress Theatre in April 2010. It was that evening that I first registered feeling old at a concert. (I was 25.) As I saw the fans show up en masse, in sequins, ready to dance, I felt a pang of disequilibrium. It struck me that this style of music, a kind of electro-pop revival as I'd heard it explained, would always make me feel unhip. I didn't want to dance. I was a fan of the band's obsessive orchestration, of Michael Angelakos's taste in getting the perfect timbre for every voice and instrument. I was interested in how they would recreate that sound onstage. The group did not disappoint. It was a one-hour set, and they milked every minute of it.

But as I left the show, I couldn't help but wonder about the group of us standing erect up in the balcony, while a throbbing, shimmering crowd of perhaps what was our former selves had a supremely physical experience below. I wondered, too, about in which direction the band would move next. I had a foreboding sense that, by the time I was 27, the first shiny synth riffs of the sophomore album would turn me away, telling me this was party music for a younger set. I was sure Passion Pit would finally reveal itself as what I had always suspected: some immature fad that I had mistaken for art.

Then I heard "Constant Conversations" from Gossamer and I heard once again what I had never actually put a name to the first time: sophistication. This is inspired music that does not just have ties to synth-pop. You can hear it as soon as the beat cuts out after some intro bars to reveal that whispered "uh-huh". The "never leave" refrain is chopped up in all the right spots. The muffled hand-clap/snare doesn't appear on every expected two- and four-beat. Angelakos even put in a tinkly little piano run to bookend his delivery of "I never meant to hurt you baby" halfway through the first verse. I could go on and on.

 It's hard to avoid an over-reliance on musical labels at this point in the review, because what I really want to say is that "Constant Conversations" is a soul song. It's an R&B song, really, and it's an excellent R&B song at that. It encapsulates what you can hear on the other songs on this album. While the rest of the playlist tends toward pop, the tracks all share the same musical restraint. The band delivers excellent songs with complex production, but take care not to crowd the tracks with extraneous parts. Instead, small musical details are developed to accentuate the basic core of each composition. These songs would sound excellent on an acoustic guitar. But they sound better like this.

So I guess I had these guys wrong a few years ago. If Gossamer is better than Manners, it's because of the musical and emotional maturity that I predicted wouldn't exist. Angelakos knew better than to write a thin batch of synth songs. And I suspect the more one listens to this album, the more it will be characterized by its haunting lyrical content. Self-doubt, anxiety, and the strains of trying to preserve fledgling relationships, in the end, make this more an album for young adults than I could ever have anticipated. Angelakos recently posted on the band's website that they've had to cancel some tour dates due to concerns for his mental health. I do wish him well.


Monday, July 16, 2012

Mighty Narrow Spins Again

With the goal of getting a few more DJ gigs, Mighty Narrow has a SoundCloud page. The two tracks are original productions of mine, though I may think of putting up blends between other artists' tracks if I think they are particularly worth listening to. The track below samples CAN, the Delfonics, and Aretha Franklin.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Disk Union Journey

Disk Union is a multi-level record store in the heart of Tokyo's Shinjuku district. But don't think Tower Records (even though Tower Records seems to be quite prominent here). Each level is a cramped little room lined with bins labeled in Japanese and English. My colleagues and I managed to only find the room devoted to hard core, punk, and ska. However, my guide books says there are at least seven more rooms to find, each devoted to jazz, soul, rock, Latin, etc. With any luck, I'll follow up with another post.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

"Brain Cells"/#10Day

Fresh from her interview on 848 about the overuse of suspensions and arrests in Chicago Public Schools, Emma Chung-Ming sent me a link to Chance the Rapper's #10Day mixtape, which he recorded while on a ten-day suspension. First off, how awesome is that? I'm the kind of person who is always trying to complete music projects when I have a break from work/school, but I usually lose steam after a few hours. Chance dropped a whole album. And it's really good.

The verses on "Brain Cells" prove this is high-caliber writing and flow. Chance raps inane tongue-twisters precisely and effortlessly. His delivery is cheeky and there's a shade of nerdiness to his swagger, even when he segues from druggie vocab to gang politics. Check the DOOM-like way Chance's rhymes evolve over the course of one verse. Then watch the video for "Brain Cells".

Here's a tab of acid for your ear
You're the plastic, I'm the passion and the magic in the air
The flabbergasted avalanche of ambulances near
The labyrinth of Pan's Lab is adamantly here
No assignments, book of rhyming and I'm drawing doodles
I should rhyme "rhyme" with Ramen Noodles
Ramadan, I'm the don of the diamond jewels
Fond of finding a way to kindly tell these toddlers toodles
I'm a kamikaze and I'm kinda cuckoo
I could write a fucking book, non kamasutral
You n****s goofies, it's a conflict that is kinda crucial
Caught you on the nine in all blue yelling I'ma neutral
But I'ma let the bull pass like matadors
Versus a minotaur
Verse is a metaphor

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Heartless Bastards

I went to see the Heartless Bastards' perform as headlining act of Ribfest last week in Chicago and I really enjoyed their set. The fuzzy drone and drive of this song reminds me of what the Velvet Underground were doing on White Light/White Heat, although the VUs were "in the red" much more on that album than anything I've ever heard this band do. Anyway, I've gone back and listened to all of the Heartless Bastards albums multiple times, something I highly recommend.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

A Song For You

Driving to work Friday morning, I heard Carmen McRae singing "A Song For You" and I was mesmerized. It was 6:30, I was just turning onto Ashland from 47th, and there was a ferris wheel in the middle of the road that must have been three stories tall. Turns out one of Chicago's many street festivals was about to begin.

Just like the scene outside my car window that morning, this song is eerily beautiful. It's narrated by a famous singer who has spent a lifetime singing to audiences around the world. This time, the narrator is singing to her partner. The thing is, it's from the perspective of after the singer has died. She says, of all the songs she has ever sung, when her life is over, the one performance she'll remember is when she was singing to her lover, just the two of them alone in a room.

This song has also been done by Donnie Hathaway, Ray Charles, and Whitney Houston. It's one of those tunes that has become part of a modern jazz songbook. Needless to say, I was thrilled to find out that it was written by none other than Leon Russell in 1971. 

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Bitty McLean/David Ruffin

There are so many excellent reggae covers of soul and R&B songs from the 60s and 70s. Yesterday I heard Bitty McLean's "Walk Away from Love" on the Bad Education summer songs mixtape from 2010. I learned today that it's a cover of the David Ruffin original from 1975. It's great how often reggae covers really cut to the essence of the original song. Both of these tracks feature great vocal performances in totally different styles.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Keef Crazy in Chicago

I was about to post about this Joe Bataan reissue I picked up at Logan Hardware the other day, but now that GCI has put Chief Keef on heavy rotation and I've heard two different cars drive past my window blasting "I Don't Like" I thought it was too timely to pass up.

Chief Keef is 16, a CPS student on house arrest for allegedly pointing a gun at a cop. He released some tracks and videos online that have blown up in the past six months. He has been in the Reader, on the cover of the Red Eye, and is is all over Chicago hip hop blog Fake Shore Drive.

This is all small hat compared to the latest news: Kanye put him on a track. "I Don't Like" is a reworking of Keef's "Bang" that also features Big Sean, Pusha T, and Jadakiss. Like the rest of Keef's stuff, this track is "hard", gratuitously vulgar and kind of hard (for me) to listen to. It's also a pean to Chicago rappers like LEP and King Louis. And Chicago in general. All rappers have love for Derrick Rose because, according to Ye, "that n**** nice". (We'll miss you next season D. Rose. Get well.)

Despite all the hype, I don't see anyone anywhere saying that Chief Keef has very much talent. For good reason. Watch him below trying to piece together a verse for the remix with Nael Shehade for G.O.O.D. Music. Whatever, though, he's certainly exciting to watch and it's pretty exciting for all the South Side artists with stars in their eyes.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Beastie Boys, Live 1992

It's sad to think that the three of these guys won't ever bounce around dorkily together again. I'm gonna miss MCA.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Van Hunt

Last month I picked up Van Hunt's first album at Amoeba Records. Have to admit, it was one of those albums that didn't really do very much for me at first. Now that I've sat with it a while, I'm starting to see what makes this man's music so good. The record definitely falls under the category of retro-soul, but it sounds more "full" to me than most other retro-soul I'm used to hearing and that was popular in the 90s. As in, more complicated arrangements, more lush instrumentation, and, well, just a little weirder than I expected. Listen to that driving electric guitar on the upbeats on "Dust". It's just different. Three albums later, Van Hunt released the much weirder What Were You Hoping For? this year and it got a lot of good buzz. I have to go back and take a listen now that I have more of a foundation for his sound, but the funny thing is that what I remember most about that album was: LOUD ELECTRIC GUITARS. Dude's music clearly covers a wide spectrum. Listen to "North Hollywood" below and I'm sure you'll think of four or five superstar, multi-instrumentalist, genre-bending artists that have made their mark on his sound. I'll leave it up to you. If you visit the official site you'll see a new live album is about to be released. Looking forward to hearing it and hopefully catching him on tour!

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Mighty Narrow at the Hairpin

Last Saturday night, I had my debut DJ gig, spinning under the alias DJ Mighty Narrow. The crowd at the Hairpin Arts Center was diverse, pretty representative of Logan Square (where it's been, where it is, and ... where it's headed). The music selection was diverse as well. And even though I was called a guerito and, I think, a white boy, the word in there is that people were feeling the music. Below is a taste of some of the tunes I played. Glad I heard this one before I ever saw this video. Wow. For more context on the DJ name, click here and here. The choice was mostly wordplay, as I have no relation to Trinidad or Trinidadian music whatsoever. I like how the name can be read as either a juxtaposition between two words or as a two-word phrase with one word qualifying the other. Either way, I wonder what kind of reaction I'll get the first time I play at a party with some real calypso heads.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Locked Down

Ever since I first saw him crooning "Such a Night" with The Band and those wonderful horns behind him, I've always had an appreciation for Dr. John -- his gritty voice, his bizarre swagger, and his commitment to New Orleans music and culture.

His new album Locked Down is one of those quintessential redefining albums by artists who are decades into their careers. What tends to be true about those albums is that these artists who killed it in the 60s and 70s finally quit the schlocky gloss of their 80s and 90s "adult contemporary" output and turn one of two corners. They either get back to some degree of musical roots and produce a killer of a record that sounds just like their old stuff. Or they can draw upon a young producer and mesh their songwriting with a current sound.

Dr. John kind of goes both ways with Locked Down. For all the talk of this being a return to the music of his Gris-Gris era, that's not entirely true. The record doesn't sound much like his early Cajun psychadelia. That stuff was great because it was loose and hazy, but still soulful. This new record is burning, its horns and drums locked in to precision. My favorite example is the nu-Afrobeat groove of "Ice Age". It'll take a few listens for me to start paying attention to what the Nite Tripper's actually saying on that cut and most of the others. But for now I'm happy just taking in these sweet, dark, and fiery grooves.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012


I've been going hard getting my hands on lotsa salsa, cumbia, and bachata mixes in preparation for an upcoming DJ set to benefit the Logan Square Neighborhood Association. I'll have to save posting some of those mixes for another week. For tonight, THEESatisfaction's first single off awE naturalE. They're out of Seattle and they're on Sub Pop. Might bump this at the gig next week!

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Cut n' Mix

I've been reading Dick Hebdige's Cut n' Mix: Culture, Identity, and Caribbean Music this week. It's a very readable work, at the intersection of popular music writing and scholarly theory. For those who want to trace the historical evolution of reggae but don't have time nor wherewithal to tackle nearly 600 pages of Lloyd Bradley's This is Reggae Music (I've never read it, though I hear it's of the highest quality), Hebdige's book is a great place to start. Though I still haven't read the book's final chapter, "Club Mix: Breaking for the Border", I thought it would be a good idea to do a mid-read recap of five things I learned from Cut n' Mix.

1. Just before calypso became popular in Trinidad in the 40s and 50s, band members would compete during Carnival by engaging in stick-fighting. After white authorities feared riots and cracked down on the ritual, stick-fighting morphed into musical competitions between the bands themselves. Traditional stick-fighting continues today and is a fun celebration of the island's history.

2. Hebdige traces the evolution of Jamaican popular music, generally, as: Rastafarian drum music, ska, rocksteady, reggae, dub. As the music changed, the bass became increasingly pronounced. Hebdige describes the music as becoming more "sticky". I like that phrase. Never thought of reggae that way before.

3. Jamaican music, from ska and beyond, was influenced in part by American r&b. Jamaican musicians first heard the sounds of Fats Domino and Louis Jordan when black American soldiers were stationed there during World Word II. In fact, the first music that "sound system" DJs used at street parties came not from Jamaican artists, but from imported American singles. The early ska recordings in the 1950s and the growth of the Jamaican music industry came from the competition among these DJs. They needed to innovate their playlists.

4. To make Bob Marley's Catch a Fire more palatable to American listeners, Chris Blackwell turned down the bass, upped Marley's vocals in the mix, and added more electric guitar solos.

5. British Two Tone music of the late 70s was partially an anti-racist response to segregation and inequality in England. I knew the Specials and other groups of that era were interracial, but I had no idea how important (and controversial) this was until reading Hebdige's second chapter, "Dub Version: Rise and Fall of Two Tone". The music was simultaneously a reaffirmation of the African and West Indies influence on British music and culture and a "fuck you" to Margaret Thatcher social policy. Black and white checkerboard... quite significant!

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Benny Velarde at San Francisco Jazz Festival

Benny Velarde is a well-known timbalero who has been part of the Latin music scene in the Bay Area since the 1950s. Most famously, he was part of Cal Tjader's quintet. He has continued to lead small bands and orchestras for the past 50 years.

I went to see Velarde (or, just "Benny!" as audience members called him) last night at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in downtown San Francisco. The group featured excellent musicianship and dynamic interplay among the percussionists. One things I noticed about the timbales, which are still pretty new to me, is how a small change in the rhythms and patterns can dramatically change the momentum of the overall group sound. An emphatic drum hit on the "one" can signal the transition between soloists; changing the clave rhythm from cowbell to cymbal can propel the whole ensemble forward with a new sense of urgency.

Velarde himself is a joy to watch. He is in his ninth decade, a survivor of cancer, and yet, unlike other big names known for still doing their thing (B.B. King comes to mind), he can maintain his inspired playing for over two hours. Afterward, he had enough gusto to accept his SF Jazz Lifetime Achievement Award with three separate mini-speeches, detailing his boyhood in Panama and the history of his career as a Bay Area legend. Go Benny!

Below is a recording of his biggest hit, "Baila Mi Guaguanco". Check out the early Cal Tjader Quintet recordings for more of his sound.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Bay Area Dispatch

I just spent an hour at Amoeba Music in San Francisco.

I bought a few soul compilations, including Luv & Haight's "V/A Super Cool California Soul" and Zealous Records' "Soul Sides (Volume One)" - tunes handpicked by none other than Oliver Wang at

Reading O-Dub's introduction to the liner notes has helped kickstart a new commitment to this audioblog. Wang writes: "When I originally began in the winter of 2004, it was mostly as an excuse to go through my personal record library and pull out music I enjoyed or was discovering. Despite over 10 years spent as a music journalist, scholar and DJ, I found that audioblogging pushed me to engage music in a more direct way; my posts are inspired by trying to understand - for myself - what moves me about certain songs and what catches my ear."

I thought to myself, That's why I started We Check Records... way back in the Summer of 2010. For the next little while, readers can expect at least one weekly post filed by each Wednesday.

Below is the first track of this California Soul comp I bought. Gow Dow featured Dr. James Benson, Ph.D. and members of the Black Student Union at Claremont College. This track was released on their self-titled album in 1972.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Notorious B.I.G.

Shot dead, 15 years ago today. Still one of the best, most consistent flows ever.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

We Take Care of Our Own: Another Political Football

Remember when candidate Reagan used Springsteen's "Born in the USA" as the theme of his 1984 Presidential campaign? Obviously he hadn't listened closely to the narrator, who had been coerced to fight in an unjust war and then abandoned by the deintustrialized economy of his hometown upon his return.

Mayor Rahm Emmanuel here in Chicago got to request one song on WXRT last night as part of the radio station's annual "Chicago Day". He chose "We Take Care of Our Own", the new Springsteen single, which I blogged about a few weeks ago in my account of the Grammys. The song is ironic, with Bruce reminding us of rural poverty and images of the Superdome during Katrina. "From one boss to another," he said. What a fool! Here's the guy who just shut down over 15 public schools and multiple mental health clinics in the city. Like Reagan, I guess our Mayor wasn't listening too closely.

I want to ask Rahm the same thing Bruce is asking all of us in that song. "What happened to the promise?" The promise of watching out for the most vulnerable among us here in Chicago and across the country.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Live Blogging the Grammys

10:06 CT. This Nikki Minaj performance features the best (and practically only) rapping of the night. I just wish there were a lot more of it.

9:55 CT. Lil Wayne looks like a total dweeb dancing around in his pajama pants next to Chris Brown and David Guetta. Dave Grohl in his stupid Slayer t-shirt takes one look at Deadmau5's awesome LED mouse helmet and immediately recants previous statement denouncing computer music.

9:39 CT. The most exciting thing about this guy and his Grammy Foundation was that cut-away shot to Elvis Costello. Looking good Elvis!

9:34 CT. Justin Vernon. The only white guy under 40 to wear a suit to the Grammys.

9:30 CT. Cool, Glenn Campbell. No "Witchita Lineman"? That's my favorite!

8:52 CT. Adele and Paul Epworth do awkward high-five/hug thing after winning award for Best Song. Excellent!

8:43 CT. I know everyone goes on about how Taylor Swift is actually a songwriting prodigy, etc etc. But it turns out she is really just an average songwriter who sticks out because most singers of her material do not write their own songs. And if this song is supposed to be rootsy, why does the backup band look like a Broadway company?

8:16 CT. I disagree with Dave Grohl's naive computer/soul dichotomy. Did he really just say that it's more important what's in your heart than what can be perfected inside a computer? That's just another way of saying "rock and roll is better than hip hop" and it's what led Morrissey to start singing "Hang the DJ". People are smarter than that.

8:11 CT. I think Rihanna is much more interesting as an artist than Coldplay. If that was Coldplay backing her up on "We Found Love" then I have to give them some credit. They delivered. Obviously she did as well. A great performer.

7:52 CT. This performance really highlights the Foo Fighters as champions of shitty 90s guitar rock.

7:43 CT. What the fuck. The award for Best Rap Performance just went to a slow song with no chorus and no one in the audience (except Nikki) even blinked. Jay and Ye, this must be some kind of precedent. Where you at!

7:38 CT. I've been saving up my mental blogging energies for live blogging the 54th Grammys. When I started watching just a few minutes ago, it occurred to me that I don't remember EVER watching the Grammys before. I'm impressed with what I see so far.

Bruce and the E Street Band played the new single, "We Take Care of Our Own". Political song, in the typical manner of Bruce. Sounds like a nondescript flag-waiver until you listen to some of the in-between lyrics. After all, with regard to the title, it's not an accident that it takes him til the bridge to ask "What happened to the promise?"

And, Bruno Mars? That was real good. I didn't know that Bruno Mars could do that Raphael Saadiq style. The Elvis doo was a little over the top but the James Brown dance break was genuinely impressive.

The only thing surprising about the Best Pop Solo Performance award was the introduction: Alicia Keys and Bonnie Raitt doing Etta's "A Sunday Kind of Love". These are two very different artists finding some nice shared territory. We all knew the award was going to Adele anyway.

I didn't know Chris Brown was this good at doing flips! Still, Breezy, you gotta do more than gymnastics to prove to me you are not a totally detestable human being.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Freedom Fighter for MLK Day

It's almost too perfect for MLK Day: Raheem DeVaugn's Freedom Fighter. "Bulletproof (f/t Ludacris)" was a surprising minor hit last year. DeVaughn has since incorporated Occupy Wall Street into his Marvin Gaye/What's Going On pastiche. Not bad for days like these. Lasting power though? Uncertain.

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Sunday, January 8, 2012

Pete Rock, Roy Ayers, J Dilla

The story behind the Black Star track "Little Brother," produced by Dilla, who secretly used a batch of Pete Rock's beats to experiment with production. He took a Roy Ayers track, found 32 fragments of sound (most of which lasted less than 1 second), and blended them together to create an 8-bar loop. He did this for a few hours in the middle of the night while ?uestlove was asleep on his couch.

On the topic of Pete Rock, "The Joy" from Watch the Throne is maybe my favorite production on any track from 2011. So many interwoven sounds, sirens, grunts, not to mention one of my favorite Curtis Mayfield songs coming in and out of that soundscape. But it still remains mellow and easy. Love it.

Friday, January 6, 2012

New Black Star

Black Star is back, appearing on Fallon with the Roots this week to promote the new mixtape Aretha, which is slated to drop this spring. "You Already Knew" is real nice. Man, Talib Kweli always sounds better when he's working with Mos Def. And Mos Def just continuously sounds awesome. By the way, Mos Def is Yasiin Bey now. And from the new song, we can expect that the new Black Star sound probably hasn't changed that much, which is a good thing. Last thing I'd want to hear is them trying to force the production to make it sound more "relevant" to what is hip right now. They sound excellent with the Roots here and I can't wait to find out what other Aretha samples they use on the tape. Enjoy!