Thursday, September 29, 2011

To Remind and To Remember

*Preface: My apologies for missing last week. The concert season has started for me, requiring the occasional Thursday evening rehearsal. This makes for unusual/impossible office hours.*

I have three really fantastic roommates here in Believeland. Two of them just got married this summer and moved into our humble abode. Let's talk about crazy: Newlywed couple + 2 single post-grad school girls = recipe for disaster and epic b-list sitcom. Add some Jesus to that, and specify the people involved and you have a recipe for hilarity and grace. It is so wonderful to live here. The other swf in my house does not always share my taste in music, but J & A frequently do. Today's post is dedicated to them because they love this week's band, and although I had been aware of Sleeping At Last for several years (since junior year of college or so?), they've gone relatively unnoticed, unlistened to and unappreciated. As prone as I am to a lifestyle of hermitage and solitude (as an awkward, but important conversation with a formerly-good-friend has just addressed), it turns out that Life was meant to be lived with people and is always better (though also more difficult) with them in it. We can't all be aware of everything all the time. Sometimes we need each other to point out things that are good or beautiful in the every day. Sometimes we need to be the ones to point them out.

Sleeping At Last is actually just one man named Ryan O'Neal. The intimacy and oftentimes spacious arrangements in the music betrays the one-manness (I think I just made up that word) of the band, but I was still surprised to learn that the powerful song-writing and poetic lyrics come from just one head. Sleeping At Last hasn't always been just one man; it started as a full-sized garage band out of the greater Chicagoland area and has organically transitioned into O'Neal's solo project. You can more of the story here.

Sleeping At Last's most ambitious project to date, the "Yearbook" EP Project has just this month come to a close. O'Neal challenged himself to continuously write music for an entire year - enough to produce three new songs every month. And he was serious enough about his challenge to put his money where his mouth was - inviting listeners to subscribe to the Project and promising to deliver three complete new tunes at the dawn of each new calendar month. Though Sleeping At Last has become a solo project, O'Neal did not endeavor to complete the project all on his own - he had frequent guest collaborators from Jon Foreman (of Switchfoot - who just released their newest album this week - and Fiction Family) to Katie Herzig (who also just released a new album) to Paul Von Mertens (Wilco). Delivering even more than his promise, O'Neal collaborated with visual artist Geoff Benzing to pair gorgeous paintings as cover art for each EP. The whole project is a labor of beauty: beautiful sounds and beautiful visuals. It would be similar to me deciding to learn and record all the Barrett Grand Etudes (*Nerd alert*) while in conservatory and then ask one of my colleagues in the school of visual art or art & design to paint accompanying scenes, or one of my ballet friends to choreograph an accompanying dance in the style of each etude, or a poet friend write some lyrics for them. It was this kind of collaboration of the arts that has always intrigued me about art school and the idea of arts colonies and artist fellowships. I also think it's this kind of collaboration that, when invested in, will keep the arts alive in our culture. The arts I think will always have a way of being relevant and surviving, but I think, especially in an arts-hostile culture like the 'States. But here's the difference between Sleeping At Last's "Yearbook" project and my Barrett etude senior thesis: People want to hear his. It is high quality and aurally palatable.

O'Neal's music is piano driven with soaring vocals whose tonal quality is simultaneously deep and floaty. It is a little bit of an acquired taste - in a way not dissimilar to Radiohead. His voice is sometimes reminiscent of Rufus Wainwright in the lilting lines and chosen harmonies. The lyrics are poetic and the orchestrations are oftentimes quirky and sometimes cinematic. I liken Sleeping At Last to a forward moving, hopeful version of The Album Leaf. This is beautiful music for: rainy nights when your heart is content to beat to the rhythm of the raindrops, autumn afternoons or snowy mornings - apparently times involving something falling from the sky. Sleeping At Last might just fall into that category of elusive music that you listen to when you need to be reminded that sometimes Life really is just beautiful, even if difficult.

I chose this video because this is the song to which A, one of my roommates, walked down the aisle. It's beautiful, just like her.
If you want to check out a couple other songs I like, look for "All This to Say" and "Unmade" specifically.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Serendipitous Sweethearts

Gotta' send a shout out to my friend James for this week's post. He's the one who really got me into She & Him. I had heard of them from RELEVANT magazine (their July/Aug '09 issue) and their podcast, but it was James who really made me listen to them. So, thanks James. My world ... and now your world, dear readers, is a little bit brighter.

You know Zooey Deschanel? Buddy the Elf/Will Ferrel's love interest in the new classic Christmas movie Elf? And you know that scene where she's singing "Baby, It's Cold Outside" and Buddy joins her? Well, that's really her singing! Amazing! And even more amazingly, she's recorded some non-Christmas music on actual albums so you can enjoy her dulcet tones and pick-me-up pep shamelessly, year-round. (Though I myself am not one to hang my head at playing a little Christmas music in or around July.)
Deschanel teamed up with M. Ward to form a serendipitous super-duo called She & Him whose upbeat songs with guitar, tambourine, hand-claps and old school background vocals is reminiscent of the long-gone torch singer, crooner or Carpenter days. Her voice even sounds a little like Karen Carpenter's, but a little bit more vibrant, and just as sweet as her face. The sound is not terribly complex, but chock full of positive energy and a nearly-lost art form of happiness.

You've probably heard a few of their tracks in various movie soundtracks, commercials or scoring your shopping trips to places like Target or Kohl's. Nevertheless, it's always a treat. Their sound is approachable and accessible and sure to bring a smile to your face.

This has been a tough week for me and smiling/happiness has been difficult, but I can't help myself when I listen to these tracks from She & Him. So great!

I know the video is a little dark, but I just love this song.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Ben Sol'ful'ee

We begin again with a note of celebration: I have now officially lived in Cleveland for one year! Labor day marked one year exactly that I worked my job and lived in my house of joy! Hooray! (By the way, that 'note' pun was totally unintentional. Love it? I do!)

This week's featured artist is one I have wanted to introduce you to over and over again, but the time just hasn't been quite right. And honestly, I'm not sure that the time is right now either, but I just can't wait any longer. I simply MUST tell you about him.
His name is Ben Sollee and he is actually a classically-trained, "genre-bending" cellist from Kentucky. I don't know how all of these things happen at once in one person, but I am pretty certain he's the only one of his kind. Probably because he defines his kind. I'd also like to mention he toured with Abigail Washburn and Bela Fleck as part of The Sparrow Quartet. This kid is awesome. Read his bio.

What his music sounds like: Jack Johnson, John Mayer, John Legend, Bob Marley, Ray LaMontagne, a one-man-tongue-in-cheek-Avett-upbeat-black-sheep-brothers, Sufjan Stevens, Abigail Washburn ...
He's got vibraphone, bells, violin, cello, drumset, trumpet, harp, mouth harp, fiddle, guitar, banjo ... it's ridiculous. He's ridiculous. Seriously. Seriously ridiculous.

His lyrics are not natural or smooth, sometimes the rhymes are forced (or he gives up on the rhymes completely), but they are honest, transparent, poignant and true. No poetry mostly, but very good prose. On the same album he's ask you if you're "strong enough bend" and then ask you to "bury [him] with [his] car." And as he's grown as an artist [and human] his songwriting has also matured.

Especially in this politically-charged atmosphere (I type this while Obama's speech is happening on t.v.) his song "A Few Honest Words" is a sincere charge from a generation asking politicians to speak straight about the current state of things and to make legitimate, effective decisions. Listen to it and tell me he shouldn't flash-mob all the political conventions and campaigns with it.

If you're gonna' lead my country
If you're gonna' say it's free
Gonna' need a little honesty//
Just a few honest words
It shouldn't be that hard
Just a few honest words
Is all I need//
I don't need no handshake
Or firm look in the eye
Don't tell me what you think I ought to hear ....

I wonder what would happen if someone like Passion Pit did a remix of it actually ... hmmm.
*Edit: After a little bit of research, I found someone actually did remix the song with quotes from Obama's campaign. But I won't give you links, because I don't think they're that good. Passion Pit could do a better job.*

There is an ease and simplicity in his music which would seem to be influenced by his Kentucky roots and an earnestness and frankness in many of his lyrics betraying an East Coast/artistic influence. And he manages the natural conflict of the two cultures and lifestyles so smoothly, probably because they are legitimately, peaceably dwelling within him.

Evenings when you feel generally content, a good Saturday morning cleaning, or a Sunday morning spent sitting is probably when you want most to listen to this music. Take him camping with you. Buy all his albums. Every time I pull him up on my iPod again, I regret not having bought all of his albums at once.

This video is long, as it's the entire NPR Tiny Desk concert, but this is maybe my favorite Tiny Desk they've ever done. The perfect environment/space for it.

P.S. No one comment about the hair ...

Image credit: I don't know, I swiped it from this website.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Dark, Cynical and Impossibly Honest

Most exciting things first: I found out Monday that I have been added to the music review team at Relevant Magazine! Hooray! Celebrate with me! As the oboe and I have been fighting a lot recently, I am hoping this ends up being the first step in a new direction.

Okay, let's get down to business (to defeat the Huns).

Remember last week how we talked about the Muppets and their sweet reminder in a world of cynicism, sarcasm and meanness? Well, this week we're diving straight into that cynical, sarcastic mean and rocking world of Elizabeth and the Catapult. I was first introduced to Elizabeth and the Catapult by Relevant, actually, so this fitting. I heard the song "Race You," fell in love with its youthful spirit and energy and decided I needed to buy the album. I won't say I regret purchasing the 2009 album, but that happy tune is certainly the anomaly. The rest of the album is dark and riddled with tongue-and-cheek observations on life. The title track "Taller Children" is actually an idea that continues to strike a deep chord with me, as it talks about the similarities between being a child and being an adult - that we never actually seem to grow up, only taller - but it doesn't take a light-hearted grace-filled approach to this idea. Nevertheless, I like the song and the idea ... I just try to put my own optimistic spin on it. "Momma's Boy" and "Perfectly Perfect" (from the bonus track edition of the album) are uptempo, fun standouts, in spite of their lyrics. "Momma's Boy" laments the plight of many older, single and (perhaps) slightly bitter women saying "if you want a girl to be your mother, go find another one." And "Perfectly Perfect" is a carnival ride through the paradoxes existent in our own lives with its opening line of "I'm just so perfectly perfect, except when I'm not."
The album also has its share of sweet and beautifully arranged songs. "Gold Ink" is one such with wistful lyrics "I have just begun to work my magic, but it seems as though it's lost at sea" and "Just in Time" is a sincere love song whose sound is slow and swimming, creating the feeling of being suspended in a moment of reflection.
"Hit the Wall" is a powerful Adele-esque number. And in general the whole album has a similar feel to Adele - strong and soulful. Although dark, Elizabeth and the Catapult is authentic and completely honest. She/it/they are a great addition to a music library that already contains Adele, A Fine Frenzy, Feist, Florence and the Machine or other strong female singers. The lyrics are strong poetry and the accompanying music is solid and multi-genred. But don't start with Elizabeth. She's a second or third step, rather than a first.

This video is a live performance of one of my most stand-out songs on the album, "Everybody Knows." It is soul and blues at their best. On the album, there's stomping; in the performance it's a kick-drum. The opening is stark with just the beat and the vocals: a perfect compliment to the stark lyrics. "Everybody knows that the war is over. Everybody knows that the good guys lost." It's heavy & effective.