In north central Alabama, punk rockers often know as much about football as they do mosh pits. A guy with an arm-sleeve tattoo will open the door for a woman and call her "ma'am." Self-identifying as a blue dot in a red state doesn't preclude Sunday brunch with relatives whose own cars boast confederate-flag stickers. Such differences can arise anywhere, but they can feel more pressing in the Deep South, where history is sticky, like a 90-degree rainy day, and intimate, like Grandma's questionable advice.
Here's the starting point for the story of Seun Kuti: He's the youngest son of Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti. He began playing with his father's band Egypt 80 at age 8 — and took it over upon his father's death just six years later.
Press play on any of the songs from Lee Fields' new album, Emma Jean. It'll take just a few moments for you to connect his sound to that of decades past — but in all fairness, he's lived through it. Now 63 years old, Fields has been pumping out soul, funk and Southern blues since he was a teenager.
The music of Pacifika draws you in almost immediately: The Vancouver trio's musicianship is superb, buoyed by a voice that stopped me in my tracks the first time I heard it. Pacifika's sound has been labeled as world fusion, but that label is more of a restriction than a description. The group's acoustic base and subtle electronic flourishes provided a great way to start its musical journey, but Amor Planeta raises the stakes with an electric-guitar bite that adds a crucial dimension.
Lykke Li is a pop star looking to change the pop conversation. The Swedish singer's new third album, I Never Learn, forms the final installment in a conceptual trilogy — and it's extraordinary as both a collection of songs and a tactical re-wiring of her genre's circuit board.
Many young singers are stalked by an ill-fitting, virtually unshakable descriptor, whether it's a limiting and vaguely dismissive adjective ("quirky," for example) or a limiting and vaguely dismissive noun ("songstress," to pick one that should be banished from the language and buried under 10,000 pounds of rock salt). For Nikki Lane, that descriptor seems to be "outlaw country" — a generally defensible expression, but one that can subtly imply an element of posturing, even posing.
The cover art of Dolly Parton's latest album looks like an airbrushed T-shirt design you might find in a souvenir shop at Dollywood. Both her flawless, beaming close-up and the mountainous skyline behind are her ringed in artist-rendered ribbons of mist, and the rising sun has a painterly, paradisiacal look to it. What gives her Smoky Mountain theme park its character is a combination of rural resilience, commercial sheen and aspirational sensibility.
The creators of pop music are usually able to break down the fundamentals of their craft — that search for the clever rhyme, the killer beat, the singable chorus. They are less articulate, understandably, about the other quest, the one that powers those everyday searches: the pursuit of ecstasy in sound. There's something almost paranormal about that part of the creative process, yet we know those moments, instantly, when we hear them.
Originally published on Tue April 15, 2014 3:27 pm
A lover's obsessiveness may charm at first, but it can soon turn frightening. For an artist, the relentless pursuit of one object — a sound, a memory dragged up and reshaped, a fantasy that makes the long hours of work feel intimate — feeds creativity or freezes it. Greg Dulli has been chasing the same seductive nightmare since he was 22, when his band The Afghan Whigs formed. Next year, he'll turn 50. He's spent a long time, in his mind, sitting in a darkened car in front of the same house.
Originally published on Sun March 30, 2014 5:59 pm
With a twang and a yodel, Saintseneca's new album, Dark Arc, begins on a foreboding note. "You're drenched in blood, still warm with with wear," frontman Zac Little sings before leading the band into a driving rock chorus.
Banjo, baglama, bulbul, balalaika, bowed banjo, baritone ukulele, banjo, bass, bouzouki... Saintseneca might pick up any of these instruments at any given moment, and those are just the ones that start with the letter B. The band has its origins and heart in a small Appalachian town in Ohio, as well as a passion for sounds and textures with acoustic instruments at their core. Saintseneca's members eventually settled in Columbus, and they like their acoustic music a bit punkish, with stomping feet as a heartbeat to accompany mind-altering words and music.
Every language has words and phrases that elude easy translation. In Portuguese, "saudade" (pronounced by Brazilians as "sow-DAH-djee") is one of those. Some musicians equate it with the blues; it's generally associated with melancholy and longing. In its most recent bio, the Washington, D.C., electronic duo Thievery Corporation defines it as "a longing for something or someone that is lost."
The same week that Neil Young introduced his Pono music player designed to spark a huge boost in audio fidelity, I listened for the first time to a recording of a Grateful Dead concert I attended almost 40 years ago. And I realized that passions about good-sounding music go through cycles. Today, the lo-fi medium is MP3s through earbuds.
Originally published on Mon March 17, 2014 9:33 am
Listen to All Songs Considered at SXSW - Wednesday
For most of Wednesday, our team in Austin, Texas, had their eyes on the stage at Stubb's BBQ, where we presented our SXSW showcase featuring sets by Damon Albarn, St. Vincent, Kelis, Eagulls and Perfect Pussy. But near the end of the night, we started hearing news of a terrible accident involving dozens of people outside another venue.
Originally published on Wed March 19, 2014 10:56 am
"Under the Pressure," the nine-minute song that kicks off Lost in the Dream, opens with a few seconds of hair-raising electronic ticking and closes with two and a half minutes of full-band, synchronized, undulating feedback. In between, The War on Drugs shows many of the cards in its stacked deck: chugging drums, horn stabs, guitar runs that fly off into the atmosphere, keyboards with a strong melodic gravitational field pulling weight for singer Adam Granduciel's wandering mystic tenor.