Outside Lands 2013 preview – Sunday August 11th

Sunday at Outside Lands starts a bit slow, but ends with a bang. Slightly shorter than the other days of the the festival due to San Francisco’s curfew laws, Sunday’s final sets end at 9:30, so you have no reason not to go all out all day.

Kopecky Family Band (Panhandle, 1:20 to 2:00) were just featured in a New York Times article that compared them to Fleetwood Mac and described them as “a music family producing comfort songs.” Kurt Vile (Sutro, 2:30 to 3:20), known for his solo music and for being a part of the War on Drugs, always puts on a great show, as do Matt + Kim (Twin Peaks, 6:45 to 7:35).

If you’re a fan of EDM, today might be your day to commit to that style of music. There’s A-Trak (Twin Peaks, 5:10 to 6:00), up-and-comer Dillon Francis (Panhandle, 7:35 to 8:20) and finally Kaskade (Twin Peaks, 8:25 to 9:35). Young duo MS MR (Panhandle, 6:00 to 6:40) aren’t EDM by definition, but they are definitely electronic music that you can dance to, so if you have the time, absolutely check them out.

Red Hot Chili Peppers (Lands End, 7:45 to 9:35) are the night’s official headliner, and if you’ve never seen them, they’re definitely worth seeing, since you don’t really know when they’ll be on the road next. The same applies to Willie Nelson (Sutro, 6:30 to 7:40), where you can expect a layer of smoke to appear soon into the now 80-year-old icon’s performance. And then of course there’s Vampire Weekend (Lands End, 5:50 to 7:00), who will probably have one of the biggest crowds of Sunday, but will also probably put on one of the most fun shows.

The final day of a festival, much like the first, usually comes with a lot of last minute mind-changes. Maybe you haven’t seen a certain stage, so you decide to change that, or maybe you haven’t really explored all the food options so you decide to take an hour off from music to find something great to eat. Since Sunday is a bit shorter and the final day, don’t be afraid to tire yourself out running from stage to stage or splurge a bit on a tasty snack. This might be your last big adventure of the summer; make the most of it.

Biggest Conflict: Vampire Weekend vs. Willie Nelson vs. Matt and Kim vs. MS MR

Must See Set: Vampire Weekend

Outside Lands 2013 preview – Saturday August 10th

You’ve now gotten acquainted with beautiful Outside Lands grounds. You had time to study your map, realized it takes a good ten minutes to get from the Sutro Stage to Twin Peaks, and realized you only need to get to the Panhandle Stage a few minutes early to have a great view. Right when you think you’ve figured things out though, Outside Lands hits you with a bunch of big decisions to make.

Saturday night’s headliners, Nine Inch Nails and Phoenix, are probably the most overlapping in fanbase of the three night’s offerings. They play at almost identical times, with Nine Inch Nails at the main, Lands End Stage, from 8:25 to 9:55 and Phoenix across the grounds at Twin Peaks from 8:40 to 9:55. If you’re a fan of both bands, there’s really no way to win here. I might suggest flipping a coin.

Just prior to that is an equally tough decision to make – the Yeah Yeah Yeahs (Lands End, 6:40 to 7:30) or Grizzly Bear (Twin Peaks, 6:50 to 7:50) or the Head and the Heart (Sutro, 7:20 to 8:20). Here, I’d definitely recommend the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Jurassic 5 (Lands End, 5:00 to 6:00) will be a cool reunion if you’re into hip-hop, as will Young the Giant (Lands End, 3:40 to 4:30), playing a sort-of-hometown, sort-of-reunion, although it hasn’t been nearly as long since they toured last and it’s really only home for frontman Sameer Gadhia, who graduated from Stanford.

If you get to the park early enough, try to catch some of Atlas Genius’ set (Twin Peaks, 2:10 to 2:55). The Australian duo just finished a tour opening for Imagine Dragons, and are soon setting out on a headlining tour of their own, playing some of the same venues they just opened at. Even earlier are The Lone Bellow (Sutro, 1:05 to 1:45), one of my favorite surprises at SXSW this year. They are playing early enough that there shouldn’t be too much of a crowd for their set of folky, alt-country.

There is also a bunch of great local music on Saturday’s bill. Chipper indie folk from Social Studies (Twin Peaks, 12:45 to 1:25), anthemic rock from the Soft White Sixties (Lands End, 1:00 to 1:50), alternative folk-rock from Thao and the Get Down Stay Down (Sutro, 4:40 to 5:30).

Biggest Conflict: Everything after 6:30. Yeah Yeah Yeahs vs. Grizzly Bear vs. The Head and the Heart, Nine Inch Nails vs. Phoenix, etc…

Must See Set: Yeah Yeah Yeahs

Outside Lands 2013 preview – Friday August 9th

With less overlapping sets than Lollapalooza and less heat and dirt than Bonarroo, Outside Lands is quickly rising to the top of the list of premiere summer music festivals. It’s set in the meadows of San Francisco’s stunning Golden Gate Park, where the temperature’s rarely top 80 degrees and there’s always a good spot to watch a set from. Outside Lands has also gained fame for it’s top-notch food, beer and wine offerings, which include selections from dozens of northern California’s top eateries, breweries and vineyards.

Friday at Outside Lands has typically been noticeably less crowded than Saturday and Sunday, but this year might change that. This year’s festival sold out weeks in advance of all tickets, and features some of it’s biggest draws on opening day.

Top on the festival’s bill this year is Paul McCartney, who will play for nearly three hours to close out Friday (Lands End, 7:10 to 9:55). Expect massive attendance at McCartney’s set, since his only headlining competition will be EDM superstar Pretty Lights (Twin Peaks, 8:40 to 9:50). Pretty Lights, known for his glitchy hip-hop style beats and phenomenal visual shows, but even the best in the EDM game could never put up a solid fight against an former Beatle.

Earlier in the day, Friday offers a lot of good garage rock, as well as some smooth and soulful offerings. The Men (Panhandle, 3:05 to 3:45) and Wavves (Panhandle, 6:15 to 6:55) should both have some solid mosh pits going at their quick sets. D’Angelo (Sutro, 6:05 to 7:05) has been one of this festival season’s most hyped artists, and earlier in the day, Jessie Ware (Sutro, 3:25 to 4:15) will put on a great show with her emotional, Florence + The Machine-esque vocals.

Most people have sporadic first days at festivals, with lots of getting lost and unexpected changes in plans. My best advice for Friday is to do just that. If there’s a specific set you’re dying to see, go ahead and camp out at that stage early, but for the most part, let Friday be your day to wander around a bit, find ChocoLands (vendors selling cookies, cupcakes and chocolates hidden in the forest), and maybe catch some sets by bands you’ve never heard before. Your festival is only getting started.

Biggest Conflict: The National vs. Zedd.

Must See Set: Paul McCartney, part of it, at least.

The Wilderness of Manitoba – Island of Echoes album review

There is a rare mix of childhood and maturity when the Wilderness of Manitoba sing. Their voices are sweet, soft and innocent like a child’s but the laying, harmonizing and detail they put in each song is something that could come only with experience. The band sounds like what you would expect a band called the Wilderness of Manitoba to sound like – breezy, outdoorsy and natural, singing about love and the outdoors and their love for the outdoors. It’s beautiful.

Island of Echoes is the bands newest release. It sounds like the soundtrack to a picnic in October. The songs are poetically crafted by Will Whitwam, the band’s lead vocalist, who’s name even sounds like that of a poet. More upbeat and powerful than some of their earlier music, Island of Echoes is a perfect example of where the genre of folk is going.

“Morning Sun,” the second song on the 13 song album comes after a brief, and relatively underwhelming, instrumental opening track. Perfectly harmonized, it is vaguely reminiscent of fellow Canadians Arcade Fire, it has a steady drum kick and could almost be called a rock song. “Echoes,” which comes next, makes me want to cry. It pairs drums with plucked strings in the most delicate of ways. “Golden Thyme” is slower and more dream-like with harps and woodwinds, but what would you expect from a song called “Golden Thyme.”

Near the end comes “Glory Days,” a kick-drum driven track about reuniting with someone you love and just being happy about it. If you knew the Wilderness of Manitoba before, this album can be your “Glory Days,” you reuniting with someone you knew before and falling in love all over again.

Just because the Wilderness of Manitoba picked up the pace on their new album, they certainly did not forget how to make a classic, melodic folk song. There are hints of folk in each cut because at heart, the Wilderness of Manitoba is truly a folk band. Their new album didn’t steer away from folk – it just steered it in a new, possibly better, direction.

Hundred Waters – Hundred Waters LP album review

When it comes to bizarre opener/headliner combinations, Hundred Waters and Skrillex are near the top. Hundred Waters are an electronic-folk hybrid from Gainesville, Florida who make soft, almost glistening songs with synths, guitars and an occasional trumpet. Skrillex, well I think you know what he sounds like. Maybe the idea was to have the two acts balance each other out. Or maybe, Skrillex just has good taste in music.

On Sept. 25, the five-piece released Hundred Waters, a reworking of songs from their debut album. “Sonnet,” the first track, takes a Percy Shelley sonnet and pairs it with digitally-altered woodwinds and soft guitars. It shows the combination of classic, folk music and electronic techniques that the album as a whole features. It is what makes Hundred Waters an electronic-folk album, not just one or the other.

“. . . _ _ _ . . . ,” possibly one of the greatest named songs of all time, is a mix of 70’s synths, woodsy beats and something that sounds like pots being hit together. Although it is underwhelming at the start, the song shifts midway through, bursting with flavor and soul. The second half, spacey and ethereal, would probably would be better off on its own.

On their own, the songs on Hundred Waters are underwhelming. Some are, in a way, too fragile. Music needs passion and power to hit you, and a few tracks – “Visitor,” for example – are just a gentle tap on the shoulder. But, when put together, those taps begin to hurt, in only the best way. Hundred Waters should have a warning sticker on the front; “Must be listened to from start to finish.”

The same way that Skrillex leaves you feeling touched and shaken after a long listening session, you feel something after listening to Hundred Waters. It’s a bit of exhaustion, a bit of confusion, and a bit happiness. It’s a good feeling. You should try it.

Mumford and Sons – Babel album review

Mumford and Son’s Babel was one of the most anticipated albums of the year, so naturally, it didn’t live up to expectations. How could it have? We wanted a ten, so even a seven or an eight would be a disappointment. And, the album is a seven or eight and because of that we’re all disappointed but once you get over the fact that Sigh No More was an impeccable debut and realize that an eight really isn’t that bad, you realize that Babel is anything but disappointing.

The word “ferocious” usually wouldn’t be used to describe a group of men with banjos and vests, but it works surprisingly well here. In “Babel,” the album’s opening track, Marcus Mumford voice is a passionate roar. “I cry Babel, Babel look at me now,” he chants as the four sons that aren’t really his sons have what could only be described as a folk rock jam fest behind him.

In “I Will Wait,” Babel’s lead single, Marcus takes on a calmer, more romanticized voice. While there is still passion in his voice, he sounds like emotional and less raw. The track has a punch – something that we didn’t see as much of in Sigh No More – but maintains the classic, humble Mumford and Sons sound.

“Hopeless Wanderer” starts out almost like a ballad before bursting into a fist pumping folkfest of clawhammer banjos and scratchy lyrics. Babel closes with “Below My Feet,” the fullest song on the album. Complex instrumentation and choir like vocals bring the epic and passionate work to a happy close.

It’s clear that Mumford and Sons knew that the pressure was on. They stuck to what they do best and did it well, we just wanted more. It doesn’t mean that they are a bad band or that they were a one-album wonder. It just means that now, the stakes will be even higher for their next release.

Band of Horses – Mirage Rock album review

Band of Horses are a very organic band. There is a sense of carelessness in their songs – not craziness or wildness but a feeling of nonconformity and freedom. It seems as if Band of Horses are making music purely for themselves without a buyer in mind, and that’s great. But sometimes, that lack of intention can turn into a lack of direction. Mirage Rock lacks direction. Band of Horses sounds lost.

What probably led to this confusion was the downward slide that the band seems to be going through. Their first two albums, Everything All the Time and Cease to Begin were critically acclaimed. Their third, Infinite Arms, not so much. So where should they have gone from there? Go back to the trademark sound of the first two albums? Try something new altogether? Or, do what they did, which was oddly attempt to do both.

Mirage Rock starts off different. “Knock Knock,” the album’s opening track and first single is beachier and grungier than the average Band of Horses song. Instead of being perfectly soft and smooth, there are moments of harsh drums and grinding vocals.

But then, the usual sound comes in. Once again, let me reiterate that I love that sound, but even the best bands need to have some variety. The album is hazy and folky, but lacks the passion and soul necessary to keep it afloat. Think back to about half way into Cease to Begin’s “Is There A Ghost” when the entire song just explodes into fireworks and Ben Bridwell belts out, “When I lived alone / Is there a ghost in my house?” That’s what Mirage Rock needs. Explosions. Fire. Soul.

“Slow Cruel Hands of Time” is the typical Band of Horses song. It’s gorgeous but not memorable. “How To Live” has potential, with a pulsing drum beat but never reaches a pinnacle. Throughout, it seems almost as if Band of Horses is lost.

For Band of Horses fans, Mirage Rock will suffice. Regardless of how lackluster the lyrics or overall sound of a song is, simply hearing Bridwell’s voice will make you smile. But for those less familiar, skip this one.

The Raveonettes – Observator album review

The best song on the Raveonette’s Observator is the very last. That song, “Till the End,” is the only one on the album that has a solid sound all of it’s own. The songs before have a clear style and succeed at what they are doing, but “Till the End” soars. “Till the End” takes the dark and gloomy sounds the album has been playing on and helps them grow. It should be the single.

That out of the way, there are eight other songs on Observator that should be addressed too. The album opens with “Young and Cold,” which sounds more like a Best Coast or Girls song than something by the Raveonette’s. That isn’t to say it’s a bad song; just not what you might be hoping for on a Raveonette’s album. “Curse the Night,” track three has an xx-esque rhythm and haunting vocals. There is a cool contrast between the dark sound of the song and the simple and almost childish rhyming. Another highlight is  “She Own’s the Street” is a cheery break from an otherwise shadowy album. It could be a bit more lyrically developed (18 of the first 32 lines are about how “she is dancing in the street”) but as a whole is a nice break near the end of an otherwise wholly dark work.

It’s hard to put a pin on exactly what cases Observator to fall short as an album. It is more a matter of not doing anything incredible than doing something bad and because of that, I’d still suggest you give it a listen. Just be aware that you might have to wait “Till the End” to hear anything spectacular.

The Vaccines – Come of Age album review

“Come of age” is defined as reaching a certain point that marks a transition to maturity. So, when a band chooses to call an album Come of Age, it puts quite a bit of pressure on them. They have to grow. They have to progress. They have to mature. The Vaccine’s do all of that.

The Vaccine’s new album Come of Age is defined by stomping guitars, strong vocals and a clear progression from their first album, What Did You Expect from the Vaccines. The first album was a good debut, but came off as hyperactive and chaotic. There were bursts of brilliance, but as a whole it was a bit sloppy. Come of Age is deeper and more thought out. The four-piece from London use the album to show off their skills in a way that blows What Did You Expect out of the water. Whether or not those skills were there a year ago when the first album came out or were newly found with their coming of age is unclear.

“Teenage Icon,” the album’s third track is a perfect example of the new sound the Vaccine’s present inCome of Age. Whooping and big, it opens with a twangy guitar and drum beat before frontman Justin Young belts out his trademark bluesy and colorful vocals. The song is repetitive, but the repeats are enjoyable. It’s a happy song.

“Ghost Town” is one of the album’s few low points. It lacks the rhythm and purpose of the other songs and sounds off balance and awkward. The lyrics are shaky and ineffective, as is the relatively annoying guitar rhythm behind it. The album picks back up again though with “Aftershave Ocean,” a mellower track in which Young takes on a higher pitched falsetto.

“Weirdo” is mellow too, but in a different way. As ironic as it is, weird is actually a pretty good word to use to describe the song compared to the rest. That said, it’s a good weird with a Radiohead meets Ariel Pink sound that is just the right amount of bizarre. It’s the kind of song a band needs confidence to put out. Just one more example of the Vaccine’s newfound maturity.

In the chorus of “No Hope,” the albums opening track and one of the best, Young sings “There’s no hope / And it’s hard to come of age.” It may be hard, but the Vaccine’s do it beautifully.

Bells – Our Forest, Our Empire album review

Don’t get me wrong, there is bliss in background music. Sometimes, you just want to sit back and think but you don’t want to do it in silence. But even the best background music can get dull at times (that’s why you leave it to the background) and unfortunately, Bells fall in to that dull category.

When I listen to an album, I look for growth and progression. Where does the album start and where does it finish? I want the album to take me on a voyage; a quest through a world of guitars and lyrics. Bells’ Our Forest, Our Empire didn’t take me on said quest.

The album begins with “Fall,” a lyricless composition stars a distorted, echoing guitar and not much else. The rhythm is nice, but not for three minutes. “Always Invisible,” which comes next, is similar. No words, just quaint and quiet instrumentals. Both “Fall” and “Always Invisible” lack any real build or climb. When the ends of the two songs come, it’s okay. “Daisy” is a bit better, with a catchier beat and distorted vocals, both of which add some depth. Even with the additions, though, it still lacks pizazz.

Going into Our Forest, Our Empire, I was really excited. Experimental, instrumental rock with two guys that used to be in metal bands (frontman Jon Hershey was in August Burns Red and Sean Hennessey used to be in This or the Apocalypse). But for some reason, the album fizzles. Maybe it’s just too much of an interesting idea. Maybe it just didn’t work right this time, and the next Bells album will be spectacular. Either way though, this one just doesn’t work.

If you were to describe Our Forest, Our Empire, it would sound relaxing. Soothing songs without loud drums or screeching vocals. You would expect the album to be a nice break from some of the overproduced noise that we hear every day. But there’s a fine line between being relaxing and putting you to sleep, and unfortunately, Bells seems to be better at the latter.