Thursday, July 28, 2011

Banjos and Sunshine

I don't consider myself the trendiest person. I seem to have trend ADD; I just cannot focus enough to grasp or care about them. Sometimes I'm late to them; sometimes I'm in the thick of them; there's just no telling.

I remember hearing about this trendy band called Freelance Whales over a year ago during NPR's coverage of the South by Southwest Festival in Austin, TX. I even downloaded a SXSW sampler including a song by them, but never bothered to listen to it.
A few months ago, Starbucks actually teamed up with Freelance Whales and featured their song "Generator (First Floor)" in a commercial. It made its way onto my iPod and through the beauty of shuffle, it finally made its way to my blessed eardrums just over a month ago.

Freelance Whales is from Queens, NY and formed as all the best bands seem to do nowadays - word of mouth and Craigslist (how else?) and started by filling the subways of their home city with joyous sounds. Their music is fun and littered with bells, whistles, banjos and synthesizers - all things for which I have a weak spot. The band's debut album, Weathervanes, released in 2009 and is 13 songs of joy & fun. The sound smacks of Sufjan Stevens, Owl City, The Postal Service, Noah and the Whale, old Jimmy Eat World and even a little Arcade Fire. Although eclectic, the sound is well-balanced and beautiful.

It's hard to keep your feet or the corners of your mouth down when listening to this collective of free spirits; so if you're in a mood to wallow in your self-pity, this would not be a good choice. But if you're ready to walk down the street accompanied by an infectious hook, banjo and sunshine, these are your kids.

Standout songs: Generator (First Floor)
We Could Be Friends
Generator (Second Floor)

Photo from; you can hear a good interview with Freelance Whales from them here.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Summer Means a New 'Winter'

Some of the best things come out of difficult times of life. Bon Iver, Justin Vernon's labor of love lost is a beautiful example of this. During a self-prescribed period of isolation following a break-up and an illness, Vernon began slowly forming an aural soundscape which became For Emma, Forever Ago. Tracks from Emma and the subsequent EP Blood Bank found their way into major television shows and feature films in both the US and the UK, most notably the appearance of the single "Skinny Love" in Grey's Anatomy and Chuck.
It's hard to believe, but it's been five years since the release of that Indie chart topper. Like a Christmas gift in June, Bon Iver (whose name comes from the French "bon hiver" meaning "beautiful winter") finally released the follow-up album Bon Iverlast month. And what a gift it is! The two albums bear some differences in general emotional appeal and instrumentation, but are very obviously still siblings. While Emma came from a place of heartache and recovery, Bon seems to come from a happier place - at least according to Vernon in an interview with NPR. I notice the instrumentation changes, especially when it comes to the somewhat controversial last song "Beth/Rest." But overall the album takes me to nearly the same place Vernon's debut album takes me - a place of quietness and contentment in the midst of turmoil or unrest. Bon Iver's music is always a place I can go to find rest and solitude. Although there's a certain part of it that pushes my general acceptance of synth/electronic music, Bon Iver has managed to earn my trust with anything he does. This includes some of the synth choices on Bon Iver like those in the single "Calgary" or the already mentioned "Beth/Rest." Comments have been made, and I agree, connecting these particular tracks (especially the latter) with the rash-causing synthesizer found in 80s music. But because of the relationship I already have with the artist and his creation, I'm willing to overlook it and almost embrace it. There's a certain sincerity in it that I hear now, that I don't hear in those once-beloved classics of days past. I wonder if this will still hold true twenty years from now.
I don't have any tracks like "Skinny Love" with hooks that get stuck in my head for hours at work yet, but I am always taken with the opening piano notes of "Wash." and the few words I understand in "Holocene" - Once I knew/I was not magnificent. The iTunes bonus track release comes with a video of Vernon playing "I Can't Make You Love Me/Nick of Time" which completely changes those tunes from eye-rolling and gag-inducing to tender, true and legitimate.
I had a hard time saying if I really wanted Bon Iver to come out with another album. I loved the first one so much, and I adore the EP, but part of the draw for me was its organic existence ... that Vernon never intended to record an album, it just grew out of him - you can hear that, I think. If there wasn't another one in him, I was okay with that. I was okay with accepting For Emma as a happy accident, complete musical serendipity, perfection or near. It would save me the heartache of a sub-standard sequel that would compromise my love of the first album. I'm happy to say, however, my fears were ill-founded and music does not necessarily always follow the paths of movies. There are more sounds found on this album - saxophone being one of them - but it's still the same Bon Iver. Vernon's vocals being an important mainstay.
You know the feeling you get before you go to bed, when all you want is your blanket and your pajamas? Or when there's a gentle snow outside, but you can sit by a warm fire in front of a widow with a mug of hot chocolate and slowly watch the world transform? Bon Iver's music is the aural equivalent to that feeling. Seriously. See if that's not true for you; it certainly is for me.

Photo by Drew Kaiser