Thursday, April 12, 2012

My Treefort Top 10

It's been about two weeks since Treefort (funny, it feels longer than that, somehow).  I've spent a good deal of time re-listening to the music of the different groups I saw.  Upon repeated plays, some bands/musicians stood out from among the 33 acts that I caught.  That's where this list comes from.  I was gonna go all in on the Nick Hornby/High Fidelity nerd bit and do a Top 5, but that proved far too constricting.  Similarly, I decided to exclude Boise groups because their inclusion would muscle out some worthy non-locals.  I might devote a post to my favorite local groups later.

Anyway, for your reading and musical enjoyment, here are my ten favorite Treefort groups.

10)  Tartufi

Whether it's Youth Lagoon or amelodic screamo metal, a certain regressive strain seems to run through a lot of recent indie music.  The music of these various groups evokes an inchoate, almost childlike state that overpowers whatever meaning their lyrics may have (if any at all).  You could possibly reach back and find the roots of this in Whitman's barbaric yawp or the English Romantics' idealization of emotion and childhood.  If you wanna get socio-cultural with it, maybe it's the product of people like me who were Reagan-era (or Bush Sr.-era) babies and are wrestling with some memory of that mirage of "Morning In America" (yearning for it, decrying it or doing some mixture of both).

In any case, Tartufi would seem to fall squarely within this trend.  What makes them distinctive for me is how they bring together the opposite ends of the spectrum.  While the New Age atmospherics and filtered, androgynous vocals call to mind singer/guitarist Lynne Angel's namesake, the brute force of their rhythms and riffs honors the Black Sabbath that they played before their Treefort set.  In the end, they hit me in much the same way that pre-Document R.E.M. does: their music is so effective, it suggests rational meanings that may or may not be there.  It's good stuff, though personally, I've always preferred post-Document R.E.M. (i.e. music that kicks ass and takes names).

9)  Pickwick

In a way, Pickwick reminds me of a group that I really liked, the Darkness: they tweak the nose of their chosen musical tradition, but they emulate that tradition so well that they could play it totally straight if they wanted to.  While the Darkness favored 70's/80's hard rock and hair metal, Pickwick taps the much richer vein of 60's/70's R&B and soul.  Singer Galen Disston's ironic-yet-ecstatic soulfulness is the stuff that Mick Jagger's dreams are made of, and the musicianship suggests a cooler, more streamlined Swampers.  Their lyrics about grisly murders and channeling the dead both draw upon soul music's blues and gospel roots and slap them in the face.  I found all of this irresistible for the first dozen or so listens to their EP Myths.  After that, though, it started to feel a little cold and mean.  Maybe they could do like their man Lou Reed (or the Darkness, for that matter) and mix a little heart in with their brains.  If they could pull off a "Sweet Jane," a "Rock and Roll" or a "Coney Island Baby" (and the energy and good humor of their live show suggest that they could), I could go all the way with this group.

8)  Tennis

Tennis' oldies-music sources run a bit more vanilla-flavored than Pickwick's do--I hear some folk-rock, some British Invasion pop, some Beach Boys, some Phil Spector.  Sometimes, the sweetness of their sound and the occasional awkward phrase and rhyme on their album Young and Old get on my nerves.  Something always sets me straight, though--the way the music can shift suddenly and suggest the Pixies or Sonic Youth, for instance, or the big stick that seems to lurk behind the softness of Alaina Moore's singing.  As for those awkward phrases and rhymes, they lend a journal-poetry intimacy to the lyrics' intimations of dysfunctional relationships and of young women learning to stand up and speak out.

7)  K Flay

It doesn't seem right, in a way, to place K Flay so low on this list.  As I wrote in my post for Treefort Day 2, her socially conscious raps satisfy the part of me that loves the Clash and Public Enemy, and that's a VERY big part of me.  Maybe it's that, after a few plays of her EP's K. Flay and Eyes Shut, the detailed despair and anxiety of her lyrics, the fearsomeness of her flow and rhymes and the harsh catchiness of her hooks and samples strike me as less Clash and more Gang of Four (i.e. powerful and incisive but sorta low on warmth and charity).  Don't get me wrong, I love Gang of Four.  Not as much as I love the Clash, though.

6)  Koko and the Sweetmeats

Husband Garett van der Crimp plays loud guitar and sings, wife Laura van der Crimp plays primal drums.  Yeah, I know what you're thinking--like the White Stripes.  And yeah, Koko and the Sweetmeats do kinda sound like them. They're lighter on their feet than the White Stripes tend to be, though, and more sophisticated lyrically.  My favorite song of theirs, "My Brain Came From a Factory" (off their most recent release, Sacrifice) lays bare industrialized society and its discontents with a rough-hewn eloquence worthy of the Minutemen:

My brain came from a factory
Along with the rest of my anatomy
Built to last some seventy odd years
Built to live and die in fear

Thanks to the lyrics and touches like the gutbucket sax that spices up "Factory" and a good chunk of their other songs, Koko and the Sweetmeats feel less like pure formalists and more like the real postmodern folk blues.  "Are we moving forward?/ Are we breaking ground?" they ask in another song.  Yeah, I'd say that they are.

5)  Cheyenne Marie Mize

Cheyenne Marie Mize's blues/jazz/country-infused songs pull off a neat trick: they're arty, catchy and commonplace all at the same time.  Lucinda Williams, one of my favorite artists, does something similar in some of her more recent work (Essence, West).  While Mize's plainspoken lyrics aren't quite as sharp as Williams' plainspoken lyrics can be, they connect anyway thanks to her clear, strong vocal delivery, which retains plenty of guile and bite even on her slow songs.  Rock and Roll animal that I am, though, what really get me going are Mize's fast songs: the all-percussion "Wishing Well," the strutting rocker "Keep It," the gospel-piano rave-up "Going Under" (all of which, incidentally, are on her download/vinyl-only EP, We Don't Need)  Taken as a whole, she shows more promise that almost any other act that I saw at Treefort.

4)  The Soft White Sixties

I half-thought for a while about moving these guys down to the Honorable Mention category below because I already knew about them before Treefort.  In the end, though, I said screw that--they're two for two on the live shows I've seen, and their recorded music effectively captures their high energy and good-times vibe.  The Soft White Sixties may not break a lot of new ground on the MC5 psychedelic hard rock/soul template, but hey, who says you gotta reinvent the wheel every time out?  The tough, hooky songs on their self-titled EP honor their influences rather than just imitate them, which is accomplishment enough.  It's worth noting too that, unlike the MC5, they can actually pull off a slow, soulful ballad.

3)  Janka Nabay

If I based this list solely on live performances, Janka Nabay would be #1.  No other set that I saw at Treefort matched Nabay's for excitement, joyfulness and warmth (the Soft White Sixties came in second).  While I'm a little disappointed that a lot of the stuff that he sang live isn't on the CD that I bought at his show (it's all stuff he recorded before moving to the U.S.), it should hold me over just fine until Nabay and his Brooklyn-based band release their new album in June.

After reading a little about Janka Nabay and his history, I'm even more amazed and grateful that he actually played at Neurolux, the modest hipster bar that I frequent.  In his homeland of Sierra Leone, this man single-handedly led a revival of bubu, the country's indigenous music.  He played sold-out stadium concerts there, and his recordings blasted out everywhere from big cities to tiny villages.  The decade-long civil war in Sierra Leone forced Nabay to flee to America, where he had to start over at the very bottom.  Eventually, he managed to build some connections and got together with the musicians who play with him now.

"I will play this music to my last breath," Nabay said in a 2010 Village Voice article.  That passion and dedication come through loud and clear in both his live show and his recordings even though I don't know what he's saying most of the time.  The rapid polyrhythms, the elements of jazz and hip-hop and the spirited call-and-response vocals of his Treefort set bespoke celebration, outreach and community (they retain a good amount of their power on his most recent EP, An Letah, which you can hear on Spotify or download cheaply at Amazon).  I'm also encouraged by the English-language song "Good Governance" from his Sierra Leone recordings, in which Nabay speaks out in favor of human rights, democracy, the rule of law and women's education.

2)  Lost Lander

Man shall not live by the Clash alone.  I like to have some softer, mellower stuff around when the right mood strikes me.  Unless it's something like Miles Davis' In a Silent Way or Sketches of Spain, though, that part of my music collection typically falls into my guilty pleasure section (Donovan's Greatest Hits?  Really?).

Some elements of Lost Lander's music--the cute little celtic/oriental-sounding riff on one song, the bogus British accent that leader Matt Sheehy affects here and there--would seem to mark their album DRRT for that very section.  However, if their live performance hadn't clued me in already, listening closely would've made me realize that this group isn't as soft and mellow as they may seem.  In fact, they manage to satisfy both the part of me that likes Donovan and the part of me that loves the Clash.

For starters, there's Matt Sheehy's singing.  Although that fake accent makes me wince a little, I don't hear much of the self-involved swoon that afflicts so many moony, folky types.  He doesn't sound like he wants you to feel his mood; he sounds like he wants you to PAY ATTENTION.  Likewise, the album's production doesn't wrap the voices and instruments in gauze but polishes them to a fine shine.  The opener "Cold Feet," for example, compliments Sheehy's lyrics about turning the world off for a while with some blaring synthesizer and some punch-you-in-the-ear-and-sternum drums.  Finally, Sheehy's suggestive, imagistic lyrics are more akin to R.E.M.'s "The One I Love" or Lucinda Williams' "Car Wheels On a Gravel Road" than they are to "There Is a Mountain."  Thanks to these strengthening agents, the songs' lovely melodies feel restorative rather than narcotic, their cute touches funny and rousing rather than simpering.  Here's hoping that Lost Lander can maintain their edge, because DRRT has earned a spot in my Grade-A section right next to Nick Drake's Bryter Layter.

1)  Snake Rattle Rattle Snake

Some voices just do it for you.  For some people, it may be David Bowie's.  For others, it may be Christina Aguilera's.  For me, it's Al Green's.  And Aretha Franklin's.  And John Doe's.  And, now that I've listened several times to Snake Rattle Rattle Snake's Sineater, Hayley Helmerick's.

This doesn't mean that Helmerick sounds like any of the people I just named.  Her contained, low-pitched singing places her more in the company of Nico, Kim Gordon and Shirley Manson.  Unlike those three, though, I don't really hear much ice-queen in Helmerick's delivery.  It's more like she wants to tell you a secret, but you need to come closer to hear it.  She might open her heart to you, or she might knife you in the stomach.

Helmerick's lyrics match her singing.  Lines and images stick in your mind, suggest explanations and stories that seem tantalizingly close yet never fully reveal themselves.  The words are made flesh by Snake Rattle Rattle Snake's music, which manages to be at once ominous and entrancing.  To my ears, SRRS's songs are like Bauhaus without the archness or Joy Division without the suicidal despair.  Not only will I take them over groups like Interpol and She Wants Revenge (a group that I actually like quite a bit, incidentally), I might even take them over Siouxsie and the Banshees.

Honorable Mention

The Shivas
Wild Ones
Dude York
Mr. Gnome
Dinosaur Feathers
Hot Bodies in Motion
Buffalo Death Beam

You can find information about all of these groups and hear their music on Facebook, Spotify and their various websites.  I highly recommend doing so.

No comments:

Post a Comment