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Kishi Bashi – Omoiyari

I can’t tell you how many times I have selected an album purely based on album art. Before the internet, I discovered new music on the radio, reading magazines and based on reputation.  Catchy cover art was also one of my ways of discovering new music. It happens less frequently in this streaming age, but it still happens. Kishi Bashi’s Omoiyari is a recent example.

I saw Omoiyari on a list of new releases on a streaming service and based on the cover art, I gave it a listen and instantly liked it. It reminded me of an acoustic version of Merriweather Pavilion by Animal Collective.

I did not know anything about Kishi Bashi until I bought the LP and read the liner notes. Evidently, he has been a solo loop based artist (as in one man band) and Omoiyari is his maiden voyage with a band (which he took to the extreme with a borderline chamber orchestra). The results of this experiment are spectacular.

Per the liner notes, Omoiyari is inspired by Bashi connecting the dots between Trump’s wall and the Japanese internment camps during World War II.  Bashi is the son of Japanese immigrants and states:

“As a minority I felt very insecure for the first time in my adult life in this country.”

Bashi wrote a set of songs exploring the emotional lives of the innocent Japanese-Americans unjustly incarcerated in internment camps. Struggling to find words to name this collection of songs, he chose a Japanese word: Omoiyari. The word roughly translates as empathy. But empathy short changes the nuance of the word. A better way of saying it is (again from the liner notes):

“…refers to the idea of creating compassion towards other people by thinking about them.”

I appreciate Bashi provided this background because I would never have picked up on this theme.  I am for the most part a music guy vs. a lyric guy.  I am more concerned with how words sound then by what they mean.

What I hear on the album (both in the music and the words) are longing and romance.  The music is beautiful.  Bashi has gorgeous melodies decorated in elaborate arrangements.  I hear Paul McCartney, Brian Wilson, and Paul Simon. Bashi’s vocals are ethereal.  If you want a brief taste of the album, try the song “Summer of “42.”  If you like that you will enjoy the rest of the album. Bashi’s record label is Joyful Noise Recording – how perfect is that?

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Black Pumas – Black Pumas

My son sent me the Black Pumas’ lead single, “Black Moon Rising” this past spring. I dug its retro soul groove. Although it was retro, it had a modern feel. The vocalist, Eric Burton has a gorgeous soul voice – in the tradition of Al Green, Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye. He is inspired by those greats without sliding into impersonation. The production reminds me of Danger Mouse – a smattering of hip hop in the groove. On the strength of “Black Moon Rising,” I picked up the album when I saw it prominently displayed at Dusty Groove.

The rest of the album holds up to the lead single. It is slow burning soul – in the quiet storm tradition. Great vocals, sophisticated arrangements (that are not too busy) and tasty guitar work.

I was curious about the band’s back story. Per their Bandcamp site:

Black Pumas is led by the creative partnership between Grammy Award-winning guitarist / producer Adrian Quesada and 27-year-old songwriter Eric Burton. Burton is a relative newcomer who arrived in Austin in 2015 after busking his way across the country from Los Angeles, while Quesada has a storied reputation for playing in bands like Grupo Fantasma and Brownout while also producing acclaimed projects like 2018’s ‘Look At My Soul: The Latin Shade Of Texas Soul.’ 

After the two connected via friends in the Austin scene, they began to collaborate on a new sound that transmutes soul into something idiosyncratically modern. Reminiscent of Ghostface Killah and Motown in equal measure…

This is high quality contemporary soul music. Highly recommended. I can’t speak to the Wu-Tang reference (although as mentioned above, there is a hip hop flavor to the arrangements), I certainly endorse the Motown reference.

A bonus is the band has a great name and a very cool album cover – yes I am a sucker for that kind of stuff.

https://open.spotify.com/album/54SlWgNocRPhlZEFTYjOfW?si=gBuoX1Q_Qa2N35OSY1LcVw

Lady Gaga – Enigma and Piano & Jazz – Las Vegas Residency

When Lady Gaga came on the scene over ten years ago, I was unimpressed. She seemed like a Madonna wannabe. Then I saw her headline Lollapalooza in the summer of 2010 on her Monster Ball tour and I realized she was something special. I classify most pop stars into two categories: musicians (Dylan, Neil Young, Joni, Wilco, etc.) and performers (Madonna, Taylor Swift, etc.) and then there are the truly special: the musicians who are also performers (Prince, Elton, McCartney, Stones, etc.). Gaga is in that special category of musician/performers. I began to take her seriously.

Then in 2014, she showed us something more: a duet album with Tony Bennett. It was good and they had magic together. The album was mutually beneficial. It introduced Bennett to a younger audience (this was not his first rodeo – he had worked with Amy Winehouse a few years earlier) and he gave Gaga legitimacy as a jazz singer.

When it was announced last year the Gaga was going to do a Las Vegas residency (and this was before A Star Is Born) my wife immediately scored tickets through Gaga’s fan club. This was a must-see show. If there ever was a pop star made for Vegas, it is Lady Gaga. But the bonus was she was also going to do a handful of jazz shows to spice things up.

We got tickets to the “regular” Gaga show (titled Enigma) and the Piano & Jazz show. We recently made the trip to Sin City to see the shows. The Enigma show was great, but the Piano & Jazz was transcendent.

The Enigma show was classic Gaga playing her hits. It had the costumes, the dancers, the pep talks, the histrionics, that is, it was a spectacle. Like the Joanne Tour in 2017, the highlight for me was when she just got real with just piano and voice.

When we showed up the next night for the Piano & Jazz show there was a noticeably different vibe – an older and more serious audience. The stage was like a swing era bandstand. This was going to be about the music and not the show.

When Gaga appeared she was dressed elegantly, yet over the top – she is Gaga and has standards to maintain. She proceeded to belt out the great America songbook with grace and charm with her orchestra. After a few songs, she went to the piano and reimagined her mega-hit “Poker Face” with just piano and voice – complete with a narrative on the background of the song. Then it was time for a costume change and we were entertained with a video monologue where Gaga gushed about her love for jazz. She repeated this pattern four times with a few surprises.

Surprise number one was in the second set when she invited a friend on stage: Tony Bennett! You know that expression “the crowd went wild?” Well, the audience went something north of wild – it was full tilt crazy. They sang a couple of perfectly selected songs together: “The Lady Is A Tramp” and “Cheek to Cheek.”

The next set’s surprise was a brilliant big band jazz arrangement of her hit “Paparazzi.”

The final set opened with “La Vie En Rose” from A Star Is Born. Gaga introduced us to her featured soloist, trumpeter Brian Newman singing his signature song “Just A Gigolo.” Newman was brilliant all night.

The encore was a magnificent and ambitious arrangement of “Fly Me To The Moon” and of course “New York, New York” from the quintessential New Yorker.

I judge a concert as great if I get goosebumps. The Piano & Jazz show gave me goosebumps from beginning to end. I am guessing I have seen about 500 concerts over my 60 years and the Piano & Jazz show is one of the top five shows I have ever witnessed.

The full setlist is available here.

The National – I Am Easy to Find

On paper I should be a huge The National fan. An algorithm would say so, however, their work has never resonated with me. I did not hate it – worse it bored me. A few weeks ago my son tipped me off to one of The National’s new teaser singles: “Light Years.” I liked it enough to listen to the new album when it dropped. I am no expert on The National, but it seems like a new sound for them – not boring, but exquisitely weird. This is a great album and I think I could now become a fan of The National.

The album is accompanied by a 24-minute short film directed by Mike Mills, starring Alicia Vikander. Vikander is also featured on the album cover. The film is below:

From what I have read, the album and the Mills’ film inspired each other, but “don’t necessarily need one another.” Mills describes the releases as “playfully hostile siblings that love to steal from each other.” Having listened to the album a few times now and having watched the film I would agree these are independent pieces of art that can be enjoyed on their own. But they certainly complement each other.

What I really like about the album is the elaborate arrangements and the use of several female vocalists. Again, I don’t have much history with the band so I don’t know if this is out of character or not, but from what I reading it sounds like a new direction:

Like the film, the album proudly marks new terrain for The National.  Its overflowing with a variety of voice – from guest vocalists like Sharon Van Etten and This Is The Kit’s Kate Stables to interstitial pieces performed by the Brooklyn Youth Chorus – and the arrangements are vast and orchestral.  

New energy and ideas are confirmed in this excellent article in the NY Times.

The music is atmospheric and dreamy.  The album is gorgeously engineered – it is sonically stunning.

I always assumed that The National were Americana. But, if this album is representative, they are not.  Labeling a band with a genre is usually unfair and rarely accurate. Instead I will note some influences I hear: 

  • Leonard Cohen – not just because of vocalist Matt Berninger’s baritone, but also due to the literary nature of the lyrics and the ambition of the arrangements
  • Wilco – they don’t sound anything like Wilco, but this album has the artiness of an album like Yankee Foxtrot Hotel
  • Bon Iver – imagine if Bon Iver substituted Auto-Tune with an arsenal of organic vocalists
  • Peter Gabriel – if you like Gabriel and Kate Bush’s “Don’t Give Up” you pretty much have the template for I Am Easy to Find

I like this album enough that I bought the LP and am seriously considering seeing the band when they come through my town later this summer. I will be exploring The National’s catalog now.

My favorite quote about the album and film projects comes from I Am Easy to Find‘s filmmaker Mike Mills:

“I don’t know what we’re making – it might be Lemonade for depressed white people.” 

Parting shots regarding the vinyl version:

  • The packaging for the indie record store version is gorgeous
  • It sounds different – in a good way – it is warmer 
  • A well pressed album – it is nice and quiet

 

 

Maren Morris – Girl

Maren Morris is considered country. Why is an artist considered country? Is it because the music was recorded in Nashville? Is it because of the instrumentation? Is it because of the twang in the singer’s voice? Is it the lyrics? Is it their career arc? Is it attitude?  Well it doesn’t matter, Maren Morris is a quality songwriter and performer. Her first album was country-ish and this, her second album, is barely country, but again it doesn’t matter to me – this is great pop music and I like it.

Morris’ music starts with a country foundation and adds pop rock flourishes you might find on a U2 or Coldplay album, Timbaland’s R&B textures and a rock elements like Stevie Nicks’ pout. Despite this odd mixture, the result is perfect. Morris’ generation grew up on eclectic playlists so juxtapositions are normal. They are not slaves to a genre. The results are not schizoid, but a brilliant fusion.

The more I listen to this album the more country it sounds. Despite Morris’ pop production and looking like a teenager, this is adult music (she is 29 so this should not be a surprise). There are fourteen songs here – even more impressive is that there is no filler material. There are some hit songs here, but every song is good – there is not a stinker on the album.

My only criticism of the album is the cover art.  The cover art undermines the quality and maturity of the material – it suggests teenage pop queen vs the mature artist Morris is.  Don’t judge this book by its cover – give Girl a listen.

PS: Target has a cool pale blue limited edition:

Maggie Rogers – Heard It in a Past Life

Earlier this year when this album was released, my daughter recommended it to me.  The first few listens didn’t hook me and then it clicked, I got it.  Maggie Rogers fuses a folkie singer-songwriter groove with EDM in a totally natural way. It sounds familiar and unique at the same time. Her backstory is remarkable, per Vogue:

Maggie Rogers had not written music for nearly three years when, in a cascade of creativity this past March (2016) it took her fifteen minutes to produce a song called “Alaska.” Four days later, Rogers, then a senior at NYU, played the track—which combines the confessional lyricism of folk music with a trotting electronic rhythm—in a master class hosted by Pharrell Williams. “Wow. I have zero, zero, zero notes for that,” Williams said afterward, almost teary-eyed. “It’s singular. . . . And that is such a special quality.” The video went viral.

It is pure pop with an underlying authenticity – ultimately it has a hippie vibeSomehow, it works without being contrived or sounding precious. Pretty amazing stuff.

I have seen Rogers perform on various TV shows and her Coachella 2019 live stream. Turns out, she delivers live too with a charming quirky presence and intensity.  She is blowing up on the pop scene and you should believe the hype.  

 

Vampire Weekend – Father of the Bride

It has been six years since Vampire Weekend last released an album – a millennium in pop years. I wasn’t sure what to expect given the lapse of time and the loss of sonic architect Rostam Batmanglij. I did not listen to the teaser singles. If I had, I would not have been concerned. Lead single “Harmony Hall” is an outstanding pop song and represents everything that is great about Vampire Weekend.

The new album is terrific: poppy, quirky and as ambitious as ever. It is not out of character with its three predecessors.  All of which have Paul Simon Graceland influences.  Like those three albums, Graceland is merely an influence on Father of the Bride and not a tribute – this is a highly original band. Vampire Weekend is fearless about its arrangements and edits.

First, a word of warning: listen to this album through a good rig. I listened to this album a few times on a factory car stereo and on average headphones/iPhone and it was fine. But when I listened via my big boy stereo, the album blossomed.

I hear so many many musical flavors:

  • Jerry Garcia’s marimba like guitar
  • Stevie Wonder’s funky yet quirky arrangements
  • Brian Wilson & Beach Boys elaborate yet accessible orchestrations
  • Prince’s divinely weird funk
  • Kanye’s, My Dark Twisted Fantasy era insanity
  • George Harrison sophisticated pop
  • The jangly and lighter side of Van Morrison
  • And of course Paul Simon’s afro-pop fusion

All these influence are blended together resulting in a totally fresh take on the Vampire Weekend sound. This may be their quirkiest and best record.

As usual, there are lots of guitars used in unconventional ways. Ezra Koenig duets with Hiam’s Danielle Hiam on a few cuts and the result is a twisted take on classic country boy/girl duets. All and all, Father of the Bride is an excellent addition to the Vampire Weekend canon.

Coda: I have been listening via Tidal HiFi and I picked up the vinyl edition and it sounds great! Nice clean pressing and master.