This page collects the posts from Alli Marshall’s Tumblr, NavyBlack, a blog of music writings from 2011-14. Posts are in random order and they’re intended to be viewed as literary rather than journalistic. Just because.
This is “Dodecahedron” by Beth Jeans Houghton. You may or may not have to agree that you’re of an appropriate age to watch this video because it has things not suitable for children. Namely, blurry boobs.
I was just introduced to BJH and if there is indeed love at first sight, then that’s what I have for this lady. Not only do I want to hear her sing just about anything her odd voice (how can her vocal be at once low and soaring?), but I also want to hang out with her in coffee shops nursing hangovers in giant vintage sunglasses and tatty fur coats. I want to be inside the world she creates, all soft punk, hard folk and shimmery touches of glam.
If BJH isn’t a polished sort of pretty, she’s far more interesting. Her lyrics are charmingly tarnished, her voice so limitless and darkly angelic. She’s a bad girl with a big heart, a shooting star, a disco dancefloor patron saint.
First Aid Kit
First Aid Kit took the stage swathed in blue light and gold dresses (their new album is Stay Gold). From opening song, “The Lion’s Roar” the show was a power play of stamping beats and whipping hair. The song itself is an ambling country rocker, waltzing in time to the melodrama of the vocals.
Much of the band’s set drew from vintage folk updated by synthesizers and atmospheric percussion. Johanna and Klara’s harmonies on “Stay Gold” were understated but clear, supporting each other rather than trying to outdo each other with vocal acrobatics.
While a First Aid Kit show could probably rest on washes of steel guitar and emotive slow dances like “In the Hearts of Men,” the band picked up the energy and intrigue with poppier “Blue,” the brisk, dancey “Heaven Knows,” and a cover of Jack White’s dark “Love Interruption.”
From start to finish, the entire show was polished well-rehearsed. Though the Söderberg sisters are just in their early 20s, they perform like seasoned professionals. The kind of flawless stage presence they showed on, say, the “Late Show With David Letterman,” is the same kind of gloss they brought to The Orange Peel stage. They even took a moment to profess their love for Asheville and recount their previous shows at The Peel (including an opening set for Lykke Li in 2012). So much refinement, however, leaves little room for funk — for a blown note or improvised verse. And that might come with time. Then again, the band’s at-capacity crowds and high-profile concerts (Radio City Music Hall, Lollapalooza) suggest that fans are fine with purity. First Aid Kit’s sweet Americana tribute, “Emmylou,” a stunning way to round out a concert, doesn’t need any grit.
Ruin by Vedas
This track is pretty much killing me softly. The dense crush of sound, the high sparkle and the thick beat. A good falsetto always gets me and the vocal here is achingly pure. The whole track, the whole velvety-dark pop confection of it is as narcotic as sleep and as icy-cool as new snow.
David Bazan and Passenger String Quartet at The Grey Eagle
While there have been cellos and violins (and probably even the odd viola or two) on The Grey Eagle stage before, it’s possible that they’ve never been played with quite the breathless splendor of Andrew Joslyn’s Passenger String Quartet. That group, led by violinist and arranger Joslyn, with cellist Rebecca Chung Filice, Seth May-Patterson on viola and violinist Alina To, has backed the likes of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, Suzanne Vega and DJ Spooky. On Saturday, they played with singer-songwriter David Bazan (of Pedro the Lion and Headphones) on a set of songs Bazan said will be retired* after this tour. (*This may have been in jest.)
The thing about strings is that they elevate everything, underscoring each verse with emotive elegance and promoting decent song craft to resonant poetic genius. Then again, Bazan’s songs are good to begin with — pithy, brutal, funny and human. “Deep green hills whose shoulders fade into thick grey / Tall wet grass whose flesh makes fools of grazing sheep / Whose fleecing makes a fool of me / Who shall I blame for this sweet and heavy trouble for every / stupid struggle I don’t know,” he sings on “The Fleecing.” That song’s moody opening morphed into a soft pastoral with layered textures from bowing, plucking and Bazan’s own guitar strumming.
It was Joslyn who initiated the project, arranging four of Bazan’s songs. The end result, lush and at once weighty and transcendent, comes off like a true commitment to art — seeing a project through to its final result. Because of course it would be enough for the Passenger String Quartet to be a chamber music group and for Bazan to be a singer-songwriter without ever cross-pollinating. And yet, to the boon of luckily listeners, they took that next step.
Bazan’s voice is far from that of the pitch-perfect, smooth-edged soloists who usually perform with classical ensembles. A wooly growl in his lower register and breaking on the high notes, Bazan’s vocal was perfect in its imperfection. The rough edge of his voice against the vibrant and sweeping canvas of the strings felt like a revelation — an exercise in textural and emotional juxtaposition.
Big Deal: review of “lights out”
Big Deal is a sort of hipper, edgier version of The Weepies. Two voices, one male and one female, him: soft, her: plaintive, set over gentle, twilit music. But it’s not the cloyingly sweet stuff that this setup would suggest. “All I wanna do is talk, but seeing you fucks me up,” they sing over and over on “Talk.”
Big Deal is KC Underwood and Alice Costelloe from the U.K. They’re ridiculously pretty, him darkly brooding and her cooly gazing out from behind thick eyeliner and platinum locks. If their band was a moody indie film, you’d root for them to make out. If their band was high school, you’d want to smoke cloves with them behind the cafeteria. And their songs have elements of all of that — of ruined beauty, misspent youth, the brokenness of love, the deliciousness of wanting and not quite having. Late nights, sneaking out, stolen liquor, breaking into pools for midnight swims, smoke on leather, first kisses, secrets. All of this, as dreamed by adults who have managed to maintain their heart-on-sleeve teen selves, intact, within their penchant for hazily lilting lyrics.
Big Deal’s most recent release, lights out is a dozen tracks of rare magic. Sonically sparse (fuzzy guitars, reverb) and emotionally rich, the songs effortlessly nurture a hopeless romanticism from early tracks (“Cool Like Kurt,” which is surely a reference to the late, great Cobain) to final cut “Pi,” an especially starry, supine piece adrift on spacey textures and dreamscapes.
And yet, for all that is soft and slow, lights out hints at the rocker hearts of its creators. These songs possess grunge and grit and teeth. Surely Underwood and Costelloe could knock over a speaker cabinet and trash a hotel room. They have that look. Which makes them just that much more likable.
(It’s like I had a crystal ball)
Check out Alabama Shakes now, while their shows are still $10 and you can still get close to the stage.
Parts gospel, blues, soul and rock, the Athens, Ala.-based band is a quartet of young musicians with old souls. Brittany Howard, Heath Fogg, Zac Cockrell and Steve Johnson are virtual unknowns but they play with an intensity and urgency that suggests they know a thing or two about heartbreak, hard luck and those dark hours before dawn. “Bless my heart, bless my soul, didn’t think I’d make it too 22 years old. There must be someone up above sayin’ come on Brittany, come on up. You got to hold on,” Howard sings on “Hold On.”
Live show review: Alabama Shakes
I recently heard someone (actually, it was singer-songwriter Jeff Zentner) describe Florence Welch (of Florence and the Machine) as “singing like her clothes are on fire. In a good way.” That crossed my mind while I was watching Alabama Shakes perform “Hold On” at The Orange Peel. Front woman Brittany Howard sings with something akin to abandon, but abandonment only in the sense that she’s relinquished all else and given herself completely to the song. As if her life depended on it. As if she was pleading her case before the firing squad. As if this was the last song the world would ever hear.
It’s almost scary to watch someone perform that way. You wonder if she’ll ruin her voice, or if she’ll get too caught up in the heartache and hard living of which she sings and ruin herself. You think, she could step back a bit. She’d still be fantastic with half the effort, half the fiery apparel, and no one listening would think anything less of her. Then you think, now that you know Howard can do this, you kind of want to see what will happen if she pushes just a little farther, nudges her voice even closer to that jagged edge.
There’s a certain tried-and-true methodology at work here. Nothing that Alabama Shakes is doing is reinventing the wheel. They’re taking cues from MoTown and soul, from the great ‘60s acts born of the South when times were harder and the blues was a way of life instead of a fashion statement. The heart-beat thump of kick drum and the faded Levi’s shades of Hammond B3 are accessories to a sound, placing each song within the context of an era as well as an emotion. But, all of that aside, what Alabama Shakes does has this feeling of rightness. You don’t have to work to like them. You don’t have to suss out the groove or the appropriate response. You’re dancing before you realize it. You’re trying to sing along to a song that Howard introduces as “a new one,” but still you feel like you know it because it comes off as so lovingly dog eared and ingrained. It feels like second-nature, this music that recalls the history (for better or worse) of a south not altogether lost to progress and the march of time. And it plumbs the emotional landscape that we all share (for better or worse), from lost loves and bitter regrets to the electric fuzz of boozy nights and the negotiations with god required to get out of bed each morning.
Boom and hush, bark and bite, bloom and blight: Why Two Gallants pretty much rule
The Bloom and the Blight, the new album (just out this week) by San Francisco duo Two Gallants has (right from the outset, from the first kick and bark and feedback screech of lead track, “Halcyon Days”) these things that I love right now:
• raw vocals (Adam Stevens)
• furious percussion (Tyson Vogel)
• a sense of barely-contained chaos (both)
I also love a drum and guitar duo though, unlike many drum and guitar duos around right now, Two Gallants isn’t based on the blues model of that set up. This is rock. It has punk teeth, but it’s too shimmery, too prone to melodic breaks (“My Love Won’t wait”) and near-psychedelic asides to be blues. It’s indie, for sure, but it’s also sort of post indie-rock. It’s shaking off the mantle.
The album is not all sonic assault. Like the title suggests, there’s bloom as much as blight. “Broken Eyes” is a folky rocker (with harmonica) and “Decay” a moody, pretty exploration through dream-pop soundscapes. Here, Stevens and Vogel layer vocals in an echo chamber, all effects and pressing dark.
“Winter’s Youth” starts sparse and stripped-down — kind of Fleet Foxes, only roughed up — but can’t hang with the aching prettiness and erupts into a nasty, distorted snarl of guitars before surfacing again. Just mallets on drums and resonant vocal, boom and hush.
Two Gallants gets dynamics, and they get emotions, but without being too precious about either. “Willie” ambles as much as it rocks, a rootsy number based in folk but tattered around its edges and smudged into this darker, reverb-blurred iteration. The heavy, writhing, thrashing “Cradle Pyre” fades as the opening notes of “Sunday Souvenirs” come up. That final track is a sober, grey dawn after a night of excess. There are hints of Zeppelin, but the decadence is torn away leaving just the elegant skeleton. Strummed guitar, warm piano notes, a melody that’ll stick with you.
For 10 tracks, Two Gallants crash and howl through songs that feel thoroughly wrung out, punished at points and cajoled at others, but always fresh. This is a collection of songs that sparkles. The Bloom and the Blight has all the makings of a discovery, of a thing only just realized.
Extracirricular activities: Josh Phillips Folk Festival releases “Get Outside”
Even if you’re not into jam or roots music or reggae beats or the occasional dash of jamtronica, it’s hard not to like Josh Phillips. His music is just so groove-centric and catchy and dancey and so undeniably likable. So, let’s begin with the premise that Get Outside, the long-awaited and just-released sophomore effort from Josh Phillips Folk Festival is a keeper from the outset, and then we’ll try to figure out why it works so well.
First, there’s Phillips’ songwriting: Nothing crazy, but his subject matter — from romantic attraction, to loneliness, to what-does-it-all-mean esotericism — is approached from a fresh perspective. And then there’s Phillips’ singing style — parts dusky and drowsy, parts soulful and raspy, his voice is equally ragged and sweet. Like his writing, his singing is simultaneously comfortable and surprising. The comfy part is so much so that it’s hard not to sing along with him. He’s got that “everyone join in” air.
Secondly, there’s Phillips’ use of collaborators. Outside is an amalgamation of genres, styles and instrumentation. Horns? Check. Fiddle? Check. Vintage organ? Got that, too. Even Beasley (a musically-inclined K-9) is credited with barking on the spooky, slinky, Dr. John-esque “Giving it all to you.”
That song is a great canvas for the brassy work of the Asheville Horns (Greg Hollowell, Derrick Johnson and Ben Hovey) and the capricious bordello/juke joint piano playing of Sean Donnelly.
Opening track “Angelina” is an Appalachian approximation, a country death song filtered through Phillips’ funk/soul filter. Here, Nicky Sanders (Steep Canyon Rangers) lends a searing fiddle part while a cymbal shimmers with the hiss of a rattle snake and the dark thump and snarl of the song is flush with banjo, guitars and foot stomps.
The title track (which falls, unconventionally, at the end of the 10-song album) is, perhaps, Phillips at his best. There’s a luminosity to the song, a sleepy hush paired with wide-eyed wonder. “And I think I’ll just get outside and find a spot and lay down, wherever it looks inviting, and listen to the water flow,” sings Phillips in the Zen-among-the-chaos chorus. It’s a song about being human in the big world, about the golden in the mundane, about being in the moment — something we’d all do well to remember. The genius of the song, deceptive in its simplicity and ease, is that it actually forces the listener to be in the moment while listening. This track alone warrants signing by the Jack Johnson-founded Brushfire Records.
Other standouts on this buffed-to-a-shine collection include the sultry, cha-cha tempoed “Welcome Back” with Justin Ray (Michael Buble, stephaniesid) on trumpet, Jay Sanders (Donna The Buffalo, E.Normus Trio) on bass, River Guerguerian (Free Planet Radio) on percussion and Eric Sarafin on keys; and the bluesy “Mercy,” all fiery guitars and Roosevelt Collier (Lee Boys) lending a wailing lap steel part.
Phillips’ band is vocalist Debrissa McKinney, bassist Elijah Cramer, drummer Nik Hope, guitarist Casey Cramer and Ryan Burns on organ, clavinet and piano. Outside is available here as a name your price download.
I’m listening to this advance of Toro y Moi’s single, “So Many Details,” and it’s giving me this crazy, jittery, over-caffeinated feeling. Which is probably apt (considering the name of the song) and its twitchy-fuzzy staggering beat. This is butterflies-in-the-stomach kind of pulse underscoring Chazwick Bundick’s shimmery-cool vocal style. This is somewhat of a departure for Bundick (for whom much of career has been a departure from his first bedroom-conceived chillwave tracks). This is neo-soul filtered through a glitchy, nerdy, mechanized filter.