Well, it’s Hopscotch week around Raleigh, and the city is abuzz in anticipation of a phenomenal line-up and exciting schedule of non-show events. From Thursday through Saturday, Downtown Raleigh will be one giant indie rock concert, bringing together legendary bands that have left their mark on the music world over the last twenty years and brand new underground artists that are cutting their teeth to make it on some level or another and, of course, outfits of every status in between. Everyone knows the names of the headliners playing the Amphitheater – Guided By Voices, Drive By Truckers, Superchunk, Flaming Lips, Dodos – and those are all groups known to put on incredible shows, so I wouldn’t expect anything less. What you might not know is how unbelievable the rest of the line-up is.
There are points in time where you have to choose between seeing the Black Lips and Lonnie Walker, BRAIDS and the Vivian Girls, Titus Andronicus and Times New Viking. In these cases, among others, there really is no wrong way to go, as you’re bound to see a phenomenal show either way. If you’re only interested in one genre, you can stick to that and not have too many conflicts to drive yourself crazy over (perhaps only three or four), but my recommended method for taking in all the great stuff would be to try and catch a little bit of every kind of sound on display. With that in mind, we will post each day what we recommend you see, as well as a couple sets we’ll be sad to have to miss. We will also be live-blogging from the festival, and over the weekend or next week host plenty of Hopscotch-related material including interviews, reviews, news, and (hopefully) even a performance or two.
Tonight, you should start off at Kings Barcade for the opening set of the weekend with Dinosaur Feathers. As the name might imply, the Feathers are a wildly chaotic indie pop band in the mold of Architecture in Helsinki perhaps, and a perfect artist to kick off the festival proper. Their first album didn’t get a ton of publicity, but probably should have, and it really gives the impression that it would lend itself to a great live show.
From there, you have to make a choice – do you go for the upstart local folk band Tender Fruit or the veteran local blues rockers Spider Bags? Personally I’d go see Tender Fruit, except that you have to consider the “where”, and I can see going from Kings to Tir Na Nog (for Tender Fruit) to Lincoln Theater for the rest of the night could be a pain in the ass, so with that in mind I’d say skip on Tender Fruit and go catch the Spider Bags over at Lincoln. Tender Fruit are great, but they’ll play around here again sometime soon. Spider Bags do not play very often, and are opening for the two bands you’ll want to see the rest of the night, the Love Language and the Black Lips.
The Love Language, as you know, are the fledgling local indie pop stars who have made quite a name for themselves in the last couple years with two strong albums, but they are still growing into themselves and it remains to be seen whether they will continue to burn brighter and brighter as they mature or become self-absorbed and fizzle out like many of the bands in their style do. For now, though, they’re great and put on a good live performance.
The show of the night is clearly the Black Lips at the Lincoln. This Atlanta, GA garage rock outfit has been putting out good album year after year, and can’t seem to stop being the most consistent artist of their genre. Their live set is not just energetic and loud, it embodies energy and volume. They’ve toned down some of the antics, but never the music. It’s a little surprising they aren’t included in the Amphitheater shows this weekend, but perhaps they don’t draw quite as large of a crowd as some of those other bands’ names do. You’ll have to miss out on Fan Modine, Lonnie Walker, and William Tyler in order to catch the Lips, but trust me: it’ll be worth it to catch one of the more raucous bands of the last 10 years live and in person, especially considering the groups that are opening for them.
Although I couldn’t quite get it posted over the weekend, as is normal, because of holiday plans, today’s podcast covers last week and this week, all jammed into one. We talk about last week’s releases, preview Hopscotch Music Festival, and discuss the news of the day in indie rock. Oh, yeah, and there’s some great tunes for you too. New Dum Dum Girls, Blitzen Trapper, Bon Iver, Nurses, Pepper Rabbit, and a number of other wonderful artists.
A lot of times when a band like Times New Viking, known for the dirtiness, grittiness, and ear-shredding volume of their music, advances in their career and begins to clean things up, they are roundly criticized for pandering to the scene or conforming to the norm or trying to be something they are not. This is not generally unfounded criticism, as it’s usually one hundred percent true, or true enough to make it worth saying at least. This is not the case with Dancer Equired. First off, it is still very loud and loose, but in an extremely well thought-out way. The cleaning up of their sound is only in its manufacturing and not in its concept or texture. The small tweaks are only to be expected, and are surprisingly welcome in a place where I initially expected they would distract from what was already one of the greatest bands of our time. Instead, they merely show maturity and better accessibility, they allow TNV to play in the same old sandbox just with a new set of dirty old toys. Just about any track here would fit in perfectly on Rip It Off or Born Again Revisited or just about any of their other old releases. The best album in a while that you can just crank the fuck up and rock out to.
“It’s a Culture”
“Ways to Go”
“F*Ck Her Tears”
From the second you first lay the needle to this record, you know you’re in for a treat. The opening track and title track, which has become something of a staple on our podcasts, is the kind that turns your soul to mush, the kind that makes you wonder what the hell you’ve been listening to that isn’t this. From there, it only gets better. Even despite its lush appearance and clean execution, it still holds true in composition to the band’s lo fi pop beginnings. It has shades of the early years of their career, but filtered through much more lavish production and slightly more refined sensibilities, and in that way Clutching Stems manages to lend itself to the pop sounds of the day without losing the band’s uniqueness in the fold or compromising their artistic integrity. Frontman Gary Olson continues to mature as a writer and to emerge as a force to be reckoned with as a performer. Perhaps the best example of this is “Oh Cristina”, which features his forward and brilliant vocals portraying a simple but haunting tale of a love long lost. Every single song has its own individual charm, but the way it all comes together as the record progresses is what is truly endearing and gives it its classic feel and memorable nature.
“Light on the Narrow Gauge”
“Hey Jack I’m on Fire”
When it comes to post-punk and music in general, what are the two things you should look for above all else? The first would be overall artistry, the willingness to experiment and have the talent and moxie to back it up, the ability to set oneself aside in an era of cookie-cutter entertainment where everything new is merely a variant on the successful endeavors of others dressed up in some new clothes. The second quality, equally difficult to come across, is genuine and pure energy – a passion for what you are doing, intensity and vigor so powerful that it both conveys the message and moves the recipient. You would be hard pressed to find an album released this year that brings a more unique and firm blend of these two characteristics than Crystal Antlers’ sophomore album Two-Way Mirror. Yes, it largely leaves behind the insane organ that was the calling card of their debut, Tentacles, but in doing so it allows every other part to shine more vividly. Jonny Bell’s unmistakeable vocals and unsurpassed ardor gets to come to the forefront, where once it may have been overshadowed by the sometimes-chaotic arrangements of their first LP. It is still wildly experimental and vibrantly loud and a great representation of the best that garage rock has to offer.
It took more than five years for Richard Buckner to get from Meadow to his 2011 release Our Blood. For some artists this isn’t a huge gap, but for Buckner (who consistently put out a new album every 1-2 years until 2002) this seemed abnormal. Perhaps because the circumstances of its conception were indeed abnormal. In the last five years, he has worked a series of small, odd jobs, had recording machinery broken and stolen, had unfounded trouble with the law, and suffered a number of setbacks that might derail any notion of a new album from many artists. Lucky for us, he’s one persistent musician. For our wait as fans of his, we received one hell of a great album. Perhaps the most intelligently-written record of 2011, Our Blood is as lyrically sharp as it is musically beautiful. It is deep, rich, balanced, deliberate, and passionate. It’s like a river winding through the forest, tiny treasures hidden in its folds and bends, but just as enrapturing when you listen to it only on the surface. This album would be surprisingly good from just about anyone but Buckner, but from him the only surprise is that we actually have a new album. Utterly phenomenal stuff.
In this business, it is not fashionable to admit ignorance. I, however, have always been more interested in honesty than in fashion, and so I have no problem confessing when I have been wrong about an artist. In this case, I have to say that I was late to the party when it comes to the band BRAIDS. I had heard many times from friends and respected musical observers how imperative it was that I go see them, that I listen to their album, et cetera. It took them opening for Toro Y Moi, though, to motivate me enough to get off my figurative ass and investigate. Needless to say, I was more than impressed – I was awestruck. What I saw in that short opening set was the stuff of legends. The first and lasting impression was that I was witnessing the second coming of Animal Collective. They had the personality of the Grass / Sung Tongs era, the pop prowess and instrumentation of Merriweather Post Pavilion, and the flippant, don’t-care attitude of Strawberry Jam. Of course, a multitude of other influences were at play, but Animal Collective (especially pre-egocentric AC) was the most direct and noticeable of all. There may only have been 200 people there that night, but it felt like a 700-800 person dance party for those 30 or so minutes. I then was compelled to delve deeper. I found them in the smallest places (Kanine Records promo releases, most notably), caught a song here or there playing in the background at record stores, and eventually came to find them on Rhapsody in the form of Native Speaker. It is a hell of an album, both consistently brilliant and brilliantly consistent. It’s less of a dance party, even if it does house the very tunes they played live like “Plath Heart” (an instant classic), and it’s more involved with experimentalism within the indie dance / electropop sonic shell. There are plenty of danceable moments, but it’s like the difference between reading the cartoons in the newspaper and viewing an art exhibit – Native Speaker is the most mature display of blended pop and art we have seen all year, and in fact in many years.
Sarah Jarosz. The name may not be familiar to many, but if she keeps churning out great releases one after another as she has thus far you can expect that to change quickly. She and her career are both very young as compared to her peers. Follow Me Down being only her second full-length album, Jarosz is certainly still an emerging artist, but you wouldn’t know it by the maturity of her lyrics nor the experienced craftiness of her work on guitar, banjo, and just about everything she touches. With this record, she thrusts herself squarely into the debate of best country/folk/Americana artists on the scene today. Bluegrass was in need of an artist flavorful, fresh, and talented, and has found just that in Sarah Jarosz. From our initial review of Follow Me Down: “[It] is everything you could possibly hope for from Sarah Jarosz. It is intelligent, artistic, sweet, spiritual, and just overall – in every way – delightful. It reaffirms all the love we had for her first album, and puts on full display the growth of an artist that was already mature beyond her years. Jarosz remains one of the most beautiful artists in the independent music world, and in music in general. One can only hope she sticks to her roots for a long, long time, and continues to put out great work for years to come.”
“Ring Them Bells”’
“Here Nor There”
Truth be told, this album deserves to be considerably higher on this list. If any other artist had penned it, it might be the very top album of the year. But that is not the case, and the standards that we hold Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) to are much higher than “any other artist”. They were set by him three years ago when he released For Emma, Forever Ago which is and will always be a symbol of perfection in the history books of indie folk. This album is not the equal of his debut, especially as you give it time to sink in, but it is still great. It opens with two tracks (“Perth” and “Minnesota, WI”) that inspire the listener to lust; if you didn’t know the genius of Bon Iver, these are perfect introductions to his spiraling complexity and quiet ardor. Then there is “Towers”, which is speechlessly good. It’s feverish, at least as feverish as Bon Iver gets. The lyrics are, as with the rest of the album, flawless and complex and just vague enough that they can largely be applied to any number of situations. Of course, here they are most directly the words of a love song, but could he just be using romance as an allusion to something greater?
“From the faun forever gone,
In the towers of your honeycomb,
I’d a’tore all your hair out just to climb back darling.
When you’re filling out your only form,
Can you tell that it’s just ceremon’?
Now you’ve added up to what you’re from.”
As we pointed out in the full review, the only thing Bon Iver is lacking in is intimacy, something For Emma was brimming with. It is not as directly engaging to the soul, but rather to the mind. There is only one other drawback that sets it behind For Emma, and that would be the fact that it sounds a little too much like the Blood Bank EP and Volcano Choir and all his various endeavors since bursting onto the scene. You can’t hold that against him as an artist, but you can hold it against this particular record.