TV Diary

Friday, February 24, 2017

a) "Santa Clarita Diet"
Victor Fresco created some of my favorite short-lived sitcoms that were a little too weird for network primetime like "Better Off Ted" and "Andy Richter Saves The Universe," so I was thrilled to hear that he'd have a new show on Netflix. And "Santa Clarita Diet" is really fun and funny in large part thanks to their freedom to curse and show as much gore as they want. The contrast of the banal setting and the plot about about an undead suburban mom who eats people is an easy joke, but they execute it really well with Fresco's chatty dialogue and Drew Barrymore's weird offhanded screen presence, which has never served her better than here. There were some times when I thought the premise might kind of spin out of control, but it really just got funnier and became more about Barrymore and Timothy Olyphant making their marriage work under these circumstances, really kind of a sweet, heartwarming show at its core. There are some superficial similarities between this and that other show about an undead woman, "iZombie," and that show's creator Rob Thomas seems to feel some type of way about it, but really they're both pretty unique shows that I love for different reasons (and Ryan Hansen has guested on both, so he should squash any beef).

b) "The Breaks"
I've written a couple pieces for Complex interviewing cast members of this show and the movie that VH1 did last year as a backdoor pilot, so I've been kind of excited to see this become a series. The first episode proper didn't engage me as much as the movie, partly because it was shorter but also introduced more characters for the narrative to juggle and didn't seem to bring back some of the people I liked in the movie. But I like the way it set up the story to move forward, and the way they're continuing to thread fiction into actual rap history with stuff like the release party for Special Ed's second album. I thought it was funny that the main character kept talking down "The Mission" because that's the song from the record that I still hear in old school mixes all the time.

c) "Planet Earth II"
I grew up watching nature documentaries and I thought "Planet Earth" was basically the greatest masterpiece the genre has ever produced, so I've been pretty excited to see the same team do a new series ten years later. I already knew that the scene with the baby iguana escaping the snakes was going to be the standout of the first episode since it went viral last year when the episode aired in the U.K., but there was a lot of good stuff in there. I love David Attenborough's voice, and the way he pronounces the word "sloth" was surprising and hilarious.

d) "The Collection"
This new Amazon show is about the Paris fashion industry in the immediate aftermath of WWII. And like a lot of period pieces on TV these days, I'm impressed by the on location shooting and the costumes and everything, but I dunno how interested I am in the story or the characters to keep watching beyond the endless 2 hour pilot.

e) "Animal Nation with Anthony Anderson"
When I started seeing ads for Anthony Anderson's animal talk show, it looked so much like he was just ripping off Tracy Morgan's "Brian Fellow" sketches. It's a fun show but kind of a weird way for Anderson to spend his show biz clout from "Black-ish," though I can see it being a dry run for him to have a more traditional late night talk show at some point down the line. The fact that he had Jerry O'Connell on one of the first episodes and spent most of the time talking about Kangaroo Jack was not too encouraging, but at least they had some kangaroos on set. It's awkward that they had a laugh track, though, there's an audience right there.

f) "The History of Comedy"
Pretty good new CNN documentary series, hits a lot of the beats you'd expect about the history of standup but they've got a lot of great archival footage and new interviews to make it feel a little fresh.

g) "Legion"
I was looking forward to FX doing a show about a minor character from the X-Men universe, I don't really read the comics so I don't know much about what they're getting into here, but it just seemed like there was a lot of potential to kind of branch into that world with a TV show and do something different from the movies. I really really hated the first episode of "Legion," though, it was pretty low on plot for a pilot to begin with and then stretched out to 90 minutes with a lot of indulgent disorienting setpieces that were meant to simulate the character's mental illness, which is really a trope I dislike more and more in TV shows and movies and seems to be the primary storytelling engine of "Legion." The last couple episodes have been more tolerable, but I'm starting to suspect that I will just hate anything Noah "Fargo" Hawley does. I feel bad for Aubrey Plaza, I thought she was ready for some kind of interesting starring vehicle and instead she's in a supporting role even more one dimensional than the one she had on "Parks & Recreation."

h) "Imposters"
Between "The Chase" and "Good Behavior" and now this, it feels like there are just so many TV shows coming on these days about relationships that end when one of the people turns out to be a con artist. I think this one has more potential than the others, though, because there's a little of a comedic element, and they're doing a good job of running these parallel narratives of the con artists and their past victims who are trying to find them.

i) "Detroiters"
I feel like Comedy Central at this point is trying to develop a formula for sitcoms based on the success of "Workaholics" and "Broad City," basically single camera shows where a group of broke rascals try to get by in this crazy world. And "Detroiters" basically sticks to that formula but I don't think it really does much new or funny with it, which is unfortunate because shooting on location in Detroit at least gives it a unique feel and setting that you don't get on TV much.

j) "APB"
Last fall CBS premiered "Pure Genius," a show about a tech billionaire taking over a hospital and running it like a Silicon Valley business, and this FOX show is about a tech billionaire privatizing the Chicago police force. Both of these shows feel like they're kind of romanticizing a dangerous trend in an icky way, but at least "APB" feels a little more aware and interested in exploring the downsides of the concept, but I'm still not really into it as a show.

k) "WorldStar TV"
It's kind of sad that WorldStar got its own real TV show just after the founder died. But this is really just kind of another MTV2 filler show where comedians comment on clips from the internet, and I guess viral videos of crazy things happening are a big part of WSHH's legacy, but I feel like they could've done something better than this.

l) "Powerless"
I was really excited when I heard about this show, just the idea of a sitcom about the mortals living on the periphery of the world of D.C. comic superheroes had a lot of potential, plus Danny Pudi in the cast. And it's a really cute show, but I wish it was funnier, I'm hoping they find a groove and maybe figure out more to do with Pudi, although so far at least Alan Tudyk is really hilarious. I thought it was odd that instead of setting the show in Metropolis or Gotham, they came up with a fictional city called Charm City which is obviously not meant to be Baltimore.

m) "Superior Donuts"
I don't like to dismiss CBS sitcoms for being too traditional, because I think there's still some potential left in those old formulas. And I like the idea of an old fashioned workplace sitcom with some hall of famers like Judd Hirsch and Katey Sagal. But this show just isn't that funny, and it reminds me of "2 Broke Girls" in that they keep making cheesy jokes about, like, gentrification or sriracha to kind of keep the hoary old fashioned show feeling "current."

n) "Madiba"
I never saw the Mandela movie with Idris Elba because people really seemed to dismiss it and the filmmakers didn't seem like they approached it the right way. But I liked this BET miniseries with Laurence Fishburne, felt like they got to dig into the story a little more and not just hit the big obvious moments.

o) "The Quad"
Doing a show set at a (fictional) HBCU was a good idea for BET, although the show is a little soapy, I'm not that interested in continuing to watch it, but the marching band stuff is well done and fun to watch.

p) "Z: The Beginning of Everything"
I think my favorite thing about this show on Amazon about Zelda Fitzgerald is that the episodes are only a half hour. I've gotten so used to all this big ambitious historical shows kind of going on and on and on that it's refreshing to see a show kind of scale down and focus on an individual's life. That title is a mouthful, though, couldn't they have just called it "Z"?

q) "Riverdale"
The CW doing a sexy modern version of Archie Comics was kind of a ridiculous joke before the show even aired, but the result is at least a little more charming than I expected. The fact that the show's first few episodes focus on making a statutory rape between Archie and a teacher seem romantic and normal TV relationship to root for is pretty fucked up, though, I'm glad there's been some backlash to that.

r) "Hunted"
I thought maybe the novelty of having a reality competition show that's shot to look more or less like a scripted TV drama would be cool, and it is, but I think I'm still too allergic to reality competition shows to really get into this.

s) "SIX"
Walton Goggins as a Navy SEAL is a pretty good starting point for a show, and I respect that History Channel seems dedicated to making their scripted shows pretty realistic, but it's really kinda dry.

t) "Jeff & Some Aliens"
This is the first show to be spun off from Comedy Central's animated sketch show "TripTank," and it's not bad. But it also kinda feels like everything about this show's absurd gross out sci fi style was done a hundred times better by "Rick And Morty," which is hopefully returning soon.

u) "Voltron: Legendary Defender"
My son watched the first season of this when it debuted on Netflix last summer, but he wasn't into it enough to finish the season. He got really hooked with the new season, though, and went back and watched the rest of the first season. It's no "Trollhunters" but it's pretty fun, I like the animation style.

v) "The Path"
I felt like this show had a lot of potential last year, with this ominous atmosphere of dread hanging over it, but by the end of the first season I felt like it had just gone nowhere. So I'm sitting here watching the second season with my arms folded, waiting to be proven wrong, and so far I haven't. I'll try to stick it out to the end of the season, but so far it just feels like a generic dark violent TV drama full of people who were in better dark violent TV dramas.

w) "The Magicians"
My wife enjoyed the first season of this show so much that she spent the last year reading all three books that it's based on. So now when we watch the second season, she comments a lot on how different it is from the source material, I don't know if reading the books kinda ruined the show for her. I still like it a lot, though, I feel like they've figured out how funny the cast can be and are using that a little more this season. The season premiere's weird joke about Tim Daly and "Wings" was hilarious.

x) "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert" 
Colbert got off to kind of a slow start on CBS, but he's really come into his own lately, and his ratings have been steadily rising lately where he's finally competing with Fallon. And the contrast between Fallon ruffling Trump's hair and Colbert getting sharper and meaner with his political monologues has been really interesting. At this point I finish "The Daily Show" feeling kinda dissatisfied most nights and head over to CBS at 11:30 to see Colbert do a better job of commenting on the events of the day.

y) "The Mindy Project"
I'm glad this show is back, even if they still keep swapping supporting players in and out willy nilly in a weird way. I'm glad they brought back Adam Pally even if it was just for one episode, but the whole Nurse Ben plot feels like it'll be forgotten as soon as it's over, dude is just kind of boring and I feel like the show could be doing something better than a constant rotation of boyfriend arcs.

z) "Suits"
It's funny to see my favorite little stupid USA drama back now that Meghan Markle has suddenly become one of the most famous people in the world. It feels like the show is finally moving forward now that they've gotten Mike going to jail out of the way, but I miss Gina Torres.

Muscle Memory Liner Notes, Part 6

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Since I released the Western Blot album in November, I've been writing a bit about the writing and recording of each song on the album, here's the latest. 

I was six years old when my parents split up. One of my earliest memories is getting in my mom's Subaru and leaving the only home I'd ever known, and moving to a different state in the middle of the school year. So, regardless of how much I love both my parents or how their marriage probably wouldn't have lasted under any circumstances, that's the kind of thing that sticks with you as a kid, you carry it around. My wife was a teenager when her parents split but I think it was rough on her too. 

So I had this chorus, "I just hope no child of ours is ever a child of divorce/ like I was, and like you were," kicking around in my head even before she and I got married or had kids, although by the time I finished "Child Of Divorce," we'd had our first son. So that was always kind of an autobiographical centerpiece that I always knew was gonna be on the album, although it was years before I actually matched that lyric to the music of this track. 

During the recording of the album, around the time this song was getting finished, I was helping my dad clean out his house in Baltimore, and we sorted through paperwork from his entire life that was in his attic, his birth certificate, taxes, everything. And amongst that were my parents' divorce papers from 1988. He had no reason to keep them and assumed I threw them out with the other inessential papers. But I took them with me to my next session at Mobtown Studios, and I sat in front of a mic and ripped up those papers over the instrumental section at the end of "Child Of Divorce." It just kind of felt like something I could do with them, just to kind of go along with the song's general function of spilling all those feelings out. 

The drum machine loop that the entire song is built on is from the same set of beats that I made at my college apartment in Parkville that the middle section of "As Friends, As Lovers, As Co-Defendants" came out of. Most of what I've done on drum machines has used pretty traditional kick/snare/cymbal sounds, but I got really into this one kit of hand drum type sounds and just came up with that rhythm and would play it for hours. It reminded me of a lot of things, I kinda took some cues from Tweet's "Oops (Oh My)" and Tricky's version of "Black Steel" and the Diwali Riddim, and then tried to come up with something unique, and wrote that bassline over it. I still kind of think that beat as a riddim, at one point I had Mat give me stems for the track in case I wanted to get people to do remixes of it. The bassline is probably a little unconsciously derived from Soul Coughing, it's kind of in the same mode as their song "Lazybones." Even the drum fill at the end of the song is a little bit of a Yuval Gabay thing in my mind. 

At the early sessions for the album in Takoma Park, Mat Leffler-Schulman and I recorded the bassline and live drums over the loop, but we never really got any further than that with the track. So when we reconvened to finish the album in Baltimore, I rerecorded the bassline and tried to make it a little deeper and fuller, and redid the drums, more or less with the same tempo but with more structure. For most of the songs on the album, I basically mapped out a song structure with the drums before I actually had lyrics for the song. So I basically just left space for there to be 4 or 8 lines of a verse, and then 4 or 8 lines of a chorus, and so on. And with "Child Of Divorce" I didn't necessarily know whether the really loud climactic part of the drums was going to be the 2nd chorus or the bridge until I actually sat down and wrote out the lyrics. 

Scott Siskind from Vinny Vegas came in and recorded the vocals for "Child Of Divorce" and then "ETC" in the same night, the only time we basically did the vocals for 2 songs in one session, and the guy is just incredible, I can't say enough good things about him. I knew he had the tone and the range I wanted for "Child Of Divorce," and that was the more delicate song that we kind of got out of the way before knocking out "ETC" more quickly. 

But one thing I didn't anticipate is that Scott tends to write songs that have this dark, gloomy undercurrent, and that was kind of how he approached singing "Child" at first, it sounded just desperately sad. So I really had to kind of walk him through the kind of determined, hopeful tone of the lyric and get the right emotional tone out of him, it was really kind of an interesting moment in producing vocals and getting a vocalist to deliver a song the way you wrote it and have it in your head. Also, I had Scott singing basically over this skeletal track of a drum machine, live drums, and a bassline, so there was no melody in the instrumental for him to sing along with, and I ended up playing the melody for him on a keyboard in the studio to kind of get it across better than it was in my vocal demo, I didn't actually add the keys on the track until a later session. 

I did the bassline for "Child Of Divorce" on the same Casio that I played a lot of the album on, but the rest of the synths on the song were played on one of Mat's keyboards, I believe it was a Korg. And one of the album's great happy accidents was that the keyboard was basically dying and malfunctioning, and he got rid of it soon after, and you can hear the weird way the notes are jumping between octaves but not falling out of tune on the day we recorded it. It ended up having this really strange beautiful effect that I think makes me sound like a better pianist than I actually am because I wasn't switching octaves that much, the notes just kept unexpectedly going lower and then higher at random intervals. 

The song's lyrics end at the same point where the live drums end, but then the drum machine loop just kinda goes on indefinitely, so I kind of had the option to end the song wherever I wanted. And I liked the idea of having kind of this sad little simple piano noodle at the end of the song, I kind of had The Replacements' "Here Comes A Regular" in mind. And since it was kind of a low key ending with a lot of empty space, it kind of made sense to have that sound of ripping up my parents' divorce papers over that section, and I'm kind of amazed at how Mat dropped it into the mix in a way that kind of sounds musical and like a sound effect. 

"Child Of Divorce" was one of the first Western Blot songs I released, along with "Button Masher," on the band's debut single in 2012. I thought those songs contrasted with each other well musically, and it kind of made sense to pair them as the two songs on the album that both refer directly to the experience of having a kid. And even though "Child" was the B-side of the single, there were times when it did better on streaming than "Button Masher," I feel like people responded to it a little more. We play it at every show, but it's really the quietest, most restrained song in the set, so I always put it in the middle, and I'm always toying with how to play the drums, since I don't use any prerecorded loops in the live show and kind of have to replicate the drum machine. Sometimes I play it on the toms, but lately I've kinda stripped it down to a simple hi-hat and snare rim beat. Scott has performed with us a few times, and once Andy sang the song, but as I've gotten more confident at singing and playing drums at the same time, I've gotten more into singing "Child Of Divorce." I'm so glad Scott sang it on the album, though, I feel like he really brought it to life. 

Monthly Report: February 2017 Singles

Monday, February 20, 2017

1. DJ Khaled f/ Beyonce and Jay-Z - "Shining"
There's not much I can say about music's biggest power couple other than that their musical chemistry is kind of unremarkable. Out of a dozen or two collaborations over the years, this is only maybe the 3rd or 4th that I would describe as a keeper. With that kind of batting average, hopefully that duo album that keeps being rumored can just stay in the vault and they can let out the one or two tracks that came out this good. Danja is a genius and hasn't had many prominent credits in the last few years, so it's great to see his production credit on here. And this is the first Jay verse in the past year that I've really enjoyed. Here's the 2017 singles playlist I update every month.

2. Red Sun Rising - "Amnesia"
Red Sun Rising pretentiously uses the hashtag #WeAreThread to describe their genre music on some 'no genre fits us' shit, which is hilarious because they sound even more like Alice In Chains than most of the other neo grunge bands that have crowded hard rock radio over the past 20 years. I hated their first couple hits, especially "Emotionless," but their third single is a pretty spirited little rock anthem.

3. Adele - "Water Under The Bridge"
The 4th single from 25 is probably my favorite. But the backlash to her winning all those Grammys really speaks to how poor a job Adele and her label did of capitalizing on their giant blockbuster or building goodwill outside her fanbase. They didn't release the best uptempo track until over a year after the album came out, and instead of performing it at the Grammys she just did "Hello" again way after everyone got tired of it. It was cool that she let Greg Kurstin have a televised acceptance speech, though,

4. Thomas Rhett - "Star Of The Show"
Tangled Up had a lot of hits on it despite being a wildly uneven album, but I'm surprised Thomas Rhett put out a deluxe reissue with a new single this good when he could've really used "Star of the Show" to launch a new album.

5. Bishop Briggs - "Wild Horses"
This was the first Bishop Briggs song I heard in an Acura in 2015 that made me do some detective work and suspect that she was signed to a major label before Island Records officially announced it or released anything, and now it's her follow up to the radio hit "River." Everything they've released so far has made pretty good use of her whole trap goth trip hop alt rock soul sound, hopefully the album is on the way.

6. Sevyn Streeter - "Before I Do"
I've been waiting years for Sevyn Streeter to finally release a full length album, and the appropriately titled Girl Disrupted keeps getting pushed back. This is the 4th or 5th single they've released since last summer, her voice is really good for a gentle slow jam like this.

7. Mariah Carey f/ YG - "I Don't"
At this point Mariah is treated as this fallen pop superstar that no radio format change will touch, which is a shame because she still makes perfectly good R&B, and probably deserves to at least have a nice steady run of R&B radio hits like other past prime superstars like Usher or Janet Jackson or whoever. Mariah kicked off her run of rap collaborations with ODB of all people back in the day, so the fact that she continues handpicking these grimy non-superstar rappers for guest verses makes me feel like she's really just that serious of a hip hop head.

8. Eric Church f/ Rhiannon Giddens - "Kill A Word"
"Kill A Word" was never one of my favorite songs on Mr. Misunderstood, and Blake Shelton's "She's Got A Way With Words" did the whole heavy handed 'wordplay about words' thing even more awkwardly. But I like the song's backing from the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and the single version really benefits from CCD's Rhiannon Giddens singing lead on a few lines. Plus it's cool to hear a black woman singing on country radio, since Beyonce and Fantasia and K. Michelle's country songs last year didn't get any airplay.

9. 2 Chainz f/ Gucci Mane and Quavo - "Good Drank"
Migos were hilariously offended when 2 Chainz had a great line pointing out that Three 6 Mafia did the triplet flow before them, so I'm glad they all patched things up and went on to work together pretty often. I'm kind of impressed that Mike Dean can still do such an elegantly simple southern banger like this, I thought maybe he could only do those frilly overstuffed G.O.O.D. Music tracks now.

10. Zayn and Taylor Swift - "I Don't Wanna Live Forever"
Pretty much everything about this song made me want to hate it before I even heard it. Zayn and Taylor Swift uniting for their respective unconvincing R&B reboots to promote a Fifty Shades sequel and, presumably, to annoy Harry Styles in the process? Blech. But I like the melody and Zayn's whispery falsetto, it's really grown on me. I hope Jack Antonoff doesn't just spend the rest of his career as a Swift sidekick, though, I'd like another Bleachers album.

Worst Single of the Month: Alessia Cara "Scars To Your Beautiful"
I love everything Pop & Oak do so I don't wanna hate on something that's been such a big hit for them, but this track has really become more annoying to me as it's become ubiquitous on pop radio.
Cara uses "beautiful" as a noun (instead of, y'know, "beauty") so that it rhymes with "beautiful" (used properly as an adjective the second time), it's just some hideous songwriting.

Friday, February 17, 2017

About a year ago, I interviewed cast and crew members of the VH1 original movie The Breaks for Complex. And since that movie was successful as a backdoor pilot for a series, the first season of The Breaks is debuting this Monday, and I did a new Complex piece, speaking to a few cast members about hip hop in the '90s.  

Movie Diary

Thursday, February 16, 2017

a) The Lego Batman Movie
I was kinda underwhelmed by The Lego Movie after all the praise for it. But my son and I laughed so hard at the trailer for this when we went to a movie a few months ago that we were counting down the days, and went to see it on opening day since his school was closed. We both enjoyed the hell out of it, although I laughed at a lot of the pretty specific Batman references and he just appreciated the general silliness of it.

b) Ghostbusters
It's weird to watch this movie after all the weird ridiculous polarized reactions to its existence. It's not a referendum on the right of women to reboot a beloved comedy franchise, it's just a fucking movie, and it's neither great nor terrible, although I suspect it's a lot better than a 3rd movie from the original cast would've been. Kate McKinnon was definitely, as I expected, the funniest part of the cast, but I thought where this really fell apart was when the action sequences ramped up but they didn't balance that stuff with the comedy as easily as the original movies did.

c) Now You See Me 2
Now You See Me was a frustrating movie that I thought kind of squandered a pretty impressive cast and a fun premise on a lazy, borderline nonsensical script. So I didn't have any real expectations for the sequel, and thought it at least held together a little better. Lizzy Caplan stepping into the cast in Isla Fisher's absence worked out pretty well, she has a couple hilarious scenes.

d) The Angry Birds Movie
My son has watched this movie a lot, it's pretty silly but it's grown on me. It's no Lego Batman Movie, though.

e) Pride And Prejudice And Zombies
The fact that this was an actual hit book somebody 'wrote' that spawned a whole cottage industry of horror versions of literary classics is kind of ridiculous and depressing. But as a movie, it's a perfectly fine mindless popcorn flick. I took a Jane Austen course in college, so I'm very familiar with the original novel and the BBC adaptation, so it was fun to see some of the scenes thrown into the zombie story, but it felt like after a while they just abandoned the comedy of those contrasts and turned it into a straight up zombie movie and it got kinda boring.

f) Love The Coopers
Exactly a decade after The Family Stone, Diane Keaton once again starred in a Christmas movie as the matriarch of a squabbling dysfunctional family. And The Family Stone is not exactly a classic, but I have a soft spot for it, and this pales in comparison.

g) The Lobster
I'd heard a lot of very different opinions about this movie, but I was intrigued, and my wife was really interested to see it. But the first hour was such a total letdown that she ended up going to bed before it was over, and I can't really blame her. I kind of respected The Lobster's dedication to its own unusual tone and premise, but it felt like it fell way short of being as funny or as thought provoking as it wanted to be.

h) The Visit
I enjoy enough M. Night Shyamalan movies that I kind of root for him still, but this was pretty worthless, maybe the most unremarkably mediocre movie in his career of dramatic successes and failures. The worst part is that it probably would've played completely different with better actors playing the grandparents, but the performances just weren't right at all, almost clashed with the tone the direction seemed to be going for. And the ending was just stupid.

i) Fantastic Four
I'm kind of fascinated by how they keep trying to make this franchise happen and keep making a bigger and bigger waste of talent and money. Even the ones from 10 years ago were way better than this, and they were nothing special. It was fun to see Reg E. Cathey, though, I always enjoy seeing a not particularly famous middle aged character actor get a chance to shine in a comic book movie.

My wife and I got snowed in during our first Valentine's Day together and watched horror movies and ordered Chinese food, so that's been our ritual every V Day for the past decade and a half (well, this year she made Pad Thai). This year we looked at the OnDemand menu and decided this movie sounded interesting, and we ended up pretty happy with the choice. It's basically a 'found footage' movie in the Blair Witch mold, nothing amazing but executed pretty well with a little bit of a twist on the formula. I'm surprised I never heard of it, it went straight to DVD/VOD, really probably deserved a run in theaters. 

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Woodfir, a trio I play drums in with Tim and Reda of Blood Horses, released an EP last year and made our unofficial live debut at a private party. But we're finally playing our first proper public show later this month, at Rhizome in Washington, D.C. on February 19 with More AM Than FM and Sheila. I'm really excited about the set we've been working on and getting out there in front of people this year.

(photo by Jen Roth)

Monthly Report: January 2017 Albums

Friday, February 03, 2017

1. Priests  - Nothing Feels Natural
A couple weeks ago, I worked with news crews in D.C. covering both the inauguration and the Women's March, taking the Metro around town during two of the most surreal and emotional days of my life. At the end of inauguration day, I went over to the Black Cat, which was holding an event called 'No Thanks,' and I was hoping to see Ted Leo, but I had to get on the last Metro train back to Maryland before he took the stage. But I did see some great bands like Priests and Pure Disgust that are carrying the torch for this long tradition of Washington punk bands who've been emboldened by their physical proximity to the federal government to speak out since the Reagan administration. And Priests played a great quick set of songs from their debut full-length album, which came out a week later. Priests are kind of already hitting that point where their sound keeps getting wider and more omnivorous, with guests like cellist Janel Leppin and saxophonist Mark Cisneros, both of whom joined them onstage at the Black Cat. It's a really passionate, outspoken album, but I feel like its overall emotional tenor is more about compassion than anger, there's a tenderness to Priests' idea of political punk. Buy Nothing Feels Natural today, Bandcamp is donating its share of all sales today to the ACLU.

2. Jefe - The World Is Yours EP
Shy Glizzy is on a roll from maybe his best project to date, Young Jefe 2, just six months ago, and has decided to just change his name to just Jefe. I feel like that's a less distinctive name, and I'm pretty skeptical about rapper name changes in general as per my Complex piece last year. But Jefe has already done something that few rappers do to cement a name change and actually release a project under the new name, so if he wants to be Jefe, I'm alright with that, "Give It Up" is great. Here's the 2017 albums playlist I'll be updating with every new record I listen to throughout the year.

3. Kehlani - SweetSexySavage
It's almost hilariously on-the-nose for someone like Kehlani to basically take an old TLC album and put the word 'savage' in it, since so much of the wave she represents is about just taking old '80s and '90s R&B samples and throwing trap drums on them. And this album checks off all the boxes with multiple Aaliyah samples and a New Edition interpolation. But Pop & Oak turn samples of old R&B into new R&B better than anyone these days, and they hold down the bulk of the album, so it works. And I like how sugary and bright Kehlani's melodies are, I feel like it gets lost in the shuffle how much her and Tinashe put kind of a surprising bubblegum sheen on an aesthetic that ends up really murky and drab in the hands of guys like Bryson Tiller. And "Advice" is really standing out so far as my favorite song.

4. Migos - Culture
I've never been that enthusiastic about Migos, relative to their contemporaries in Atlanta trap rap. But I respect that they're having a moment right now, more popular than ever 3-4 years after they were declared a flash in the pan, much like the moment Future enjoyed a while back. I'm more partial to Takeoff than Offset, who kinda dominates this record more in the wake of "Bad & Boujee," and Quavo already seems to be saving his best stuff for features, so this isn't even necessarily what an ideal Migos album would sound like to me. But I think it's stronger than most of their mixtapes that I've heard, "T-Shirt" and "Slippery" feel like the immediate standouts to me. I was disappointed that 2 Chainz turned in his first weak guest verse in years, though.

5. Prodigy - Hegelian Dialectic (The Book Of Revelation)
The classic Mobb Deep chemistry felt like it was dead on their last group album, but Prodigy's solo records continue to kind of pull him out into his own little universe in a really refreshing way. Some of the beats on this album are so strange and jazzy and unlike what he's rapped on before, but it works and kind of puts the focus on the words, and it just feels like he's getting a lot off of his chest. I mean, Prodigy kind of birthed hip hop's Illuminati fascination, and one of the best songs, "Mafuckin U$A," opens with him saying "everything not Illuminati, everything not a evil plot...everything is not connected, some things are but you buggin'" and then talking about taking real concrete political action. The day after the inauguration, he put it on Spotify as a single under the title "Make America Great Again: Mafuckin U$A."

6. David Bowie - No Plan EP
Though  felt like a pretty complete self contained work, it was intriguing to know that David Bowie had written more songs in his final year of life that didn't make the album, some of which were for the stage musical Lazarus. So I'm glad that some of that music resurfaced on the anniversary of Bowie's death on this EP, which contains "Lazarus" and 3 previously unreleased songs. I think "When I Met You" is my favorite of the new ones.

7. Cardi B - GBMV2
There's a whole world out there now of social media celebrities who've been able to parlay Instagram or Vine or Twitter fame to TV or music gigs, and by and large these are a bunch of annoying, photogenic opportunists. But Cardi B seems to just show herself to be smarter and more talented with every new medium she hops to. She's not an amazing rapper and some of her music is pretty generic and derivative, but her voice and persona were already pretty well honed, and she's got a good flow, the more money they put into her production, the higher her ceiling gets.

8. Mozzy - Fake Famous
Mozzy is definitely doing a slightly more serious and lyrically focused version of the Cali rap he's descended from, but this record does remind me a bit of recent E-40 albums in how the beats are endless variations on that very particular aesthetic and there's this army of extremely varied guests that only gets annoying when G-Eazy shows up. "The People Plan" is a great opener.

9. Joan Of Arc - He's Got The Whole This Land Is Your Land In His Hands
Joan Of Arc has been making deliberately annoying, mannered and self-consciously provocative records since well before that became a viable indie rock career path or got used to dismissing it as 'trolling.' But Tim Kinsella also tends to do some pretty interesting, unusual things with rock instrumentation that I never hear anyone else touch, and Live In Chicago 1999 still holds up as a pretty great record, so I occasionally check back in with Joan Of Arc. And this is the best record I've heard from them in a while, even if the lyrics start promisingly with the words "Let's begin with the premise that you are kidding, but then what?" and then kind of descend into some fairly obnoxious ideas.

10. Halestorm - ReAniMate 3.0: The CoVeRs EP
The brilliant Nashville producer Jay Joyce elevated Halestorm to something above their usual effective 'generic hard rock band' schtick on their last album, Into The Wild Life. But their third EP of covers returns them to their occasional high powered bar band side gig, it's fun to hear them do Metallica or Soundgarden with a female singer or rock up Sophie B. Hawkins and Twenty One Pilots.

Worst Album of the Month: PnB Rock - GTTM: Goin Thru The Motions
Rappers usually squeak out a major label debut many months, if not years, after achieving national fame, so I gotta applaud Atlantic for moving on PnB Rock's album and getting it into stores within weeks of "Selfish" hitting the Hot 100. But I have to wonder if PnB Rock realizes that "going through the motions" is generally not considered to be a good thing, because the title is unfortunately pretty appropriate. It just feels like this guy has incorporated the whole last decade of melodic AutoTune rap without really putting his own stamp on it or writing any great songs yet. I don't hate the record, "Playa No More" sounds like a hit, but it's incredibly anonymous and impersonal for a debut album.

Muscle Memory Liner Notes, Part 5

Thursday, February 02, 2017

This Friday, Bandcamp is donating all of their share of proceeds from purchases on the site that day to the ACLU. I think that's really great and want to do my small part to support that, so my share of any Bandcamp sales for my album for this whole month will also go to the ACLU. 

Track 5: The Power Let Me Down

"The Power Let Me Down" opens side 2 of Muscle Memory, or at least it will if I ever press the album on vinyl. I always thought that albums from the vinyl era tended to be more digestible, and paced more satisfyingly, because artists were forced to get the record in around 40 minutes or less and divide the tracklists into two ostensibly equal halves that each have a beginning and an end. So this kinda became the big loud track that abruptly kicks off the second half of the album.

I've always been obsessed with mondegreens, misheard phrases in songs that your brain kind of creates meanings for. It's something that just happens constantly as you listen to music, whether or not you try to learn the right lyrics or look them up. And I think there's something to be said for using it as a songwriting exercise. My favorite story about that is that Desmond Child wrote the Billy Myers song "Kiss the Rain" after he misheard Bush's "Glycerine" and decided he liked what he heard better than the real lyric. 

So the title of "The Power Let Me Down" came from me listening to Diddy and Keyshia Cole's 2007 hit "Last Night," because the way Sean Combs mumbled the words "I tried to call, but my pride wouldn't let me dial" made me hear something completely different. And I think that phrase stuck with me in part because of the Merle Haggard song "The Bottle Let Me Down" as well. From there, the words "the power let me down" just led me into this weird dreamlike narrative about half-remembered incidents of power outages, cautiously driving through intersections while traffic lights are out, and the eerie quiet of being at home with the all the electricity off. 

There were some summers that I lived in Baltimore where there were just these huge blackouts on the hottest nights of the year. So the first line of the song, "This is one of those cities that sleeps," is really the only lyric on the album that's about Baltimore, it was this line I had for years that I just slipped into the intro of the song before the first verse starts. I kind of got the idea of how that line functions in the song from the opening lyric of "Mule On The Plane" by Beauty Pill, the way it's kind of intoned over the instrumental intro. 

Every song on the album is in the first person and has a "me" or "I" and usually a "you," and "Power" has that semi autobiographical element to it. But I also think of it as one of the two songs, along with "As Friends, As Lovers, As Co-Defendants," that is more of a weird narrative fiction experiment. And somewhat unintentionally, another thing those songs have in common is that the lyrics kind of tell the story backwards, the first verse of "Power" takes place chronologically after the second verse, in my mind. 

"Power" is one of the three songs on the album where most of the instruments were recorded way back in the early sessions at Mat Leffler-Schulman's home studio in Takoma Park. I tended to go into sessions with Mat with a game plan and demos I wanted to re-record, just because the studio time was finite and you really want to make the most of it. But "Power" was really the one track that came together pretty spontaneously in the studio. We'd finished all the stuff I'd planned to record that day and still had a couple more hours on the clock, so I started messing around on the drums and brainstorming, and got that fast, tightly wound rhythm, and just recorded it as it is on the track, rising and falling in intensity with a vague idea of where a verse and a chorus would go.

The main 3 note riff was a simple little thing I'd had from a demo maybe a year earlier, but on the demo the rhythm was much slower and had kind of a shuffling reggae swing to it. But after I laid down that beat, I went back to that riff, and just laid down a bassline and then doubled up the riff and put that screaming portamento 'lead' line over the top of everything to get it really ridiculous and loud. After putting a lot of effort into having distinct different keyboard parts for each section of each song, "Power" was the track where I just went ahead and vamped on one riff for the whole song, differentiating the verse and chorus with some good old fashioned loud/soft dynamics, and a little countermelody on the chorus. Years later at Mobtown Studios we added the tambourine track and the vocals, but otherwise pretty much the whole track was thrown together in one afternoon in Takoma Park, the fastest gestation of any of these songs.

Of the four people who I invited to sing lead on the album, Andy Shankman is the only who's also become a member of Western Blot and plays bass in the band (guitar for the first few shows and then he switched to bass). We'd traveled in some of the same Baltimore music media circles and met a few times, and he invited me to see his band Jumpcuts. And I remember being impressed by that first Jumpcuts show I saw, where he played synth and sang, and kinda kept him in mind as someone who could help me with my own weird synthesizer-driven rock project. Ironically, though, that was only one of a handful of Jumpcuts shows where Andy played keyboards, otherwise he plays guitar in that band, which I found out later.

I pretty much did all of the selecting and contacting singers for the record myself, but Mat had played this track for a band he was working with at one point and got some interest from their singer. But after Mat tried to play matchmaker, I sent over an early set of lyrics for the song, and they kinda went cold on the whole thing, which was just as well because I liked their voice but wasn't sure if it fit the song, and I didn't really like the lyrics I had. So I scrapped those words and started over from scratch with the mondegreen that inspired the whole "The Power Let Me Down" title.

I kind of took some inspiration from the Morphine song "Thursday" to kind of vamp on this one riff for the whole song with talky verses and then blasting the riff on the chorus. But I really sounded bad on the demo and knew I needed someone else to sing that song, and I knew from Jumpcuts that Andy could kind of fit the ominous nocturnal vibe of the song. It was Mat's idea to have Andy double his vocals with a "whisper track" and I was skeptical about the idea, but it really made the verses work. Andy and I went back and forth about delivering the chorus two different ways, and I ultimately decided to have him sing the first chorus one way and sing the second chorus the other way, and I really like how that contrast turned out.

During the time that we were making the album and Western Blot had released a single and started playing shows, Mat had started doing some things with the studio that were sponsored by Flying Dog, a brewery based out in Frederick, Maryland. And when they asked him to put together a compilation of Baltimore bands, he had me help oversee the whole thing, and we asked a bunch of people we like to contribute songs from their latest releases, and got a few previously unreleased tracks, including "The Power Let Me Down." 

There was a release party at the Ottobar for Baltimore, Vol. 1, and Western Blot wasn't initially going to play, but one of the booked bands had to pull out, so we got a spot on the bill, and it was really one of our best shows to date, probably the biggest crowd we've played to. Andy told me "I always wanted to be on a compilation" that night, which I thought was kind of funny, but it's true, as a musician you always see these compilations full of bands and it's a weird little thing you kinda wanna be a part of. It was gratifying for me to play the Ottobar because the only other time I'd gotten a chance to play there, almost a decade earlier with a previous band, I had planned a trip to visit my brother, so I told the band they could just do the gig without me if they found another drummer. They did, and I always regretted it, because we broke up before we had another chance to play the Ottobar. 

Speaking of those kinds of situations, I once booked a Western Blot show at the Golden West which we then realized Andy couldn't do because it was on Passover. So John and I decided to try and do the show without him, doing some songs as a duo and some with Tim Yungwirth of Your Solar sitting in on bass. So I sang more than usual at that show, and it was the only time I sang "The Power Let Me Down" live, which is really difficult given how fast the drums are on that song. It's otherwise a lot of fun to play live, though, it is, along with "ETC" and "Time And A Half," a song that we've used to open sets and close sets and have played in the middle of the show, and it seems to work in any context.