Composer Stefano Guzzetti takes on an alter ego, Waves on Canvas, on the album “Into the Northsea.” Moving away from his experience with scores and soundtracks,
Guzzetti shows an admirable amount of skills, from classic piano themes to more experimental, electronic instrumentation. Just as commendable is his ability to include such varied styles on one album without it feeling jumbled or confused. Guzzetti kicks off the record with “Twenty Years,” an ambient, instrumental piano piece that transitions nicely into “Angel,” the album’s first single. With his background, it’s no surprise that Guzzetti excels at dramatic, dynamic works.
“Flowers of the Sea” and “Starfish” are much more experimental in execution. Like their titles suggest, they take influence from the ocean, from wave recordings to garbled and sonorous melodies that evoke feelings of being underwater, of being caught up in the tide. While the two songs are arguably the most radical and innovative tracks on the album, they don’t stand out from the rest in a negative or conflicting way. They add to the record as a whole, rounding out Guzzetti’s display of melodic versatility and ability.
With such proven musical prowess, it’s puzzling why Guzzetti felt the need to add guest musicians on 5 of his album’s 11 tracks. The frequent additions seem excessive, as if Guzzetti doesn’t believe his own merits are enough to carry the record. While the added vocals sometimes do elevate the tracks, like Scottish singer Louise Rutkowski’s contribution to “Angel,” they can also seem like a burden, overpowering and overshadowing Guzzetti’s musicality. On “In My Dream,” Irene Nonnis’s vocals are ironically high-pitched and quite jarring, taking attention away from the soft, ambient piano melody in the background and bringing it to the fact that the song’s main elements compete with each other, almost sounding like components of two completely different songs.
Just as the dissonance of “In My Dream” pales in comparison to the aptitude displayed in some of its fellow tracks, the repetitiveness and monotony of others comes to the same conclusion. Francoise Lacroix fails to brighten up “Voix Dans Une Voix,” her toneless declarations unfortunately adding to the track’s dullness, fading away into the instrumentation until it becomes an endless loop of unchanging, tedious noise. As Waves on Canvas, Guzzetti takes quite a few musical risks on “Into The Northsea,” but those are not the ones that get him into trouble; in fact, his most progressive pieces are some of his finest. Instead, it’s when he plays with harmony, either utilizing too much or too little, that he loses his talent, and his audience.
There’s more than one reason that Milo Greene listeners may initially believe that the five-piece band is actually just one musician. First of all, the group’s name itself, taken from the fictional manager band members Andrew Heringer, Robbie Arnett and Marlana Sheetz invented in their amateur days to boost publicity, implies one solo musician, hopefully named Milo. The misleading misnomer finds substantiation in the group’s effortless harmonies and consistently fluid melodies; its almost easier to believe that the masterfully polished self-titled album is the work of a single musician than that of five.
The album has an easiness to it that belies its number of makers. In any group, especially as the number of members rises, there are compromises, concessions that can drag down the overall quality of the final product. Fortunately, Milo Greene appears to be made up of five soul mates because their album contains none of these things. Even on the well meaning but grossly out of place “Moddison” and “Orpehus” interludes, Milo Greene goes all out, carefully choosing from their admittedly large arsenal of skills the perfectly nostalgic melody and harmonies that may allow you to question their motives for putting this song here, but never their talent.
When you learn that four out of five Milo Greene members were previously lead singers, their rich, flawless harmonies make sense. They all play their instruments skillfully and with purpose, from the tambourine on “Son My Son” that takes the song from a fairly generic folky pop track to a song you want to sing with your friends around a campfire to the muted but strong bass line of “What’s The Matter” that adds just a touch of ominousness. But, to be honest, its their complexly-arranged yet delicate-sounding four-part harmonies and the myriad of combos therein that elevate Milo Greene beyond other California surf-folk groups. On “Perfectly Aligned,” their vocals are…well…perfectly aligned, feeding into each other and enriching each other in a dreamy, minimalist round. And like any good pop group, Milo Greene’s catchy, cheerful tracks get stuck in your head for days, leaving you nodding your head and asking “What’s The Matter” to everyone in your path.
Hot summer nights, and even hotter summer days, almost demand to be experienced in the company of Milo Greene’s self-titled debut album. Dreamy yet bright, every single track is a winner, the five members of the band displaying the skillset and musicality of a thousand Milo Greenes.
Serj Tankian, the lead singer of System of a Down, has one of the most notable and recognizable voices in rock music today, and he puts it to good use on his third solo album, “Harakiri.” A showcase of lyrical and musical composition, the album proves once again that Tankian has the skill and ability to stand on his own.
Tankian could easily rely on his hard rock roots and produce a fine, solid album. But instead he’s constantly moving forward, grounding the experimental and unconventional music risks he takes in his consistently unique voice and solid hard rock background. On “Forget Me Knot,” Tankian gentles his approach, letting the track unfold slowly with a soft piano intro and surprisingly subdued, deep vocals.
Tankian’s voice is his strongest and most versatile instrument. No matter how radical the backing music, his invariably distinct lead vocals give the listener something familiar to hang on to as he leads them, well, pretty much wherever he wants.
While the political messages of “Harakiri” run the risk of being perceived as preachy—Tankian declares that he “[abhors] the whore who calls herself reality, reality TV” on “Reality TV” and that “without an education there is only hypocrisy” on “Uneducated Democracy”—the album instead has an overall positive, upbeat vibe, choosing to inspire and pump up its audience instead of scolding it. It’s not often that hard, progressive rock songs are considered catchy and anthemic, but Tankian doesn’t accept that convention. If you don’t walk away from the deluxe version of the record nodding your head to the bonus track “Tyrant’s Gratitude,” there may not be much hope for you.
Like any good political commentator, Tankian finds power in the controversial. He uses, possibly too often, shocking lyrics to grab the audience’s attention and create an emotional response. On “Butterfly,” Tankian asserts that “we are being sodomized by repetitions” and chants “nipples, tongues, testicles, cheeks” intermittently throughout “Reality TV.” The cheap, obvious attempts at eliciting a response undermine the creativity and depth that the rest of the album has.
With “Harakiri,” Tankian has crafted an album that, while strongly rock-based and influenced, is the type of record that you feel you’re doing a disservice to if you try to force it into a genre-shaped box. It’s vibrant, rich and undeniably Serj Tankian.
A veritable music icon in his own right, best known for his original singles “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” and “Steppin’ Out,” Joe Jackson looked to another legend for inspiration for his new album, “The Duke”: Duke Ellington. On the record, Jackson covers 15 Ellington classics over 10 tracks with the help of some superstar cameos, including jazz violinist Regina Carter and members of The Roots. With such celebrated inspiration and notable accompaniment, “The Duke” has all the makings of a powerful, unforgettable album.
Unfortunately, the record falls a bit flat. Jackson is an undeniably talented musician; his intricately upbeat piano work on “Rockin’ in Rhythm” and smooth, sultry vocals during “Mood Indigo” prove that. However, the album as a whole lacks the finesse and subtlety required to pay accurate tribute to Ellington. Instead of elevating and reinventing the songs, Jackson’s versions often come up short, reading almost as more of a parody than homage.
While Jackson’s aim to reimagine Ellington hits is commendable, the execution fails him. The big band vibes of “Rockin’ in Rhythm,” in their extravagance and overexaggeration, sound more likely to found in a cabaret or carnival than the Swing Era. The closing track, “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” featuring guest vocals from Iggy Pop, replaces the bombastic and anthemic qualities of the original with electric guitars and thin percussion lines. While the song doesn’t need to, and shouldn’t, sound the same as Ellington’s version, removing characteristics so inherent and quintessential to the lyrics and style ultimately do a disservice to the track.
The record does have its bright spots. Unfortunately for Jackson, they come mainly from his guest stars. Sharon Jones, of Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, takes the lead on “I Ain’t Got Nothing’ But The Blues / Do Nothin’ ‘Til You Hear.” Her sultry, bluesy vocals breathe life into the tracks, enhancing the underlying instrumentals in a way that the rest of the album can’t quite achieve. “The Duke” kicks off with “Isfahan,” an instrumental, piano-heavy track that implies a slower, more somber album than the one that follows, another sign that what Jackson delivers isn’t exactly what’s promised.
Reviewing an album without letting preconceived notions become an influence can be a challenge. Especially since I saw The Royal Concept perform their self-titled EP in its entirety just over a week ago. The dance rock quarter from Sweden knocked my socks off at the 2012 New Music Seminar’s Opening Night Party, but did that charisma and energy translate to their debut EP?
In a word…absolutely. The five-song album brings ‘80s influences—synthesizers, drum pads—into the 21st century with skilled instrument work and strong vocals. The Royal Concept comes out swinging on the opening track “Gimme Twice” with a hard-hitting bass line that has you nodding your head to the beat before the first verse even starts.
When their songs could become overly elaborate and muddled, The Royal Concept expertly know when to pull back and remind their audience that at their core, they are talented musicians. “D-D-Dance,” a summer anthem if I’ve ever heard one, focuses mainly on a cheery, bombastic chorus and truncated guitar riffs and sparse drumbeats during the verses. Middle track “Knocked Up” brings into play a number of their greatest tricks—intricate plucking, synthesized pick slides—but goes back to basics on the chorus, backing the lead singer with subtle guitar and drum work that allow the vocals to stand out.
The track order of the EP left me scratching my head a bit. Concluding the album with “In the End,” the slowest song of the set, is an interesting choice. It seems counterintuitive for a record that, until to that point, had wanted to make people dance and have fun sends its listeners off with the downtempo melancholy of a modernized ‘80s ballad, synthesized vocals and all. “In the End” isn’t a bad song. It’s surprisingly heartfelt and executed well, but especially coming off the heels of “D-D-Dance,” arguably the EP’s highest energy track, it feels anticlimactic as a closing statement after four songs of vociferous build-up.
The Royal Concept’s self-titled EP is a strong debut. Technically speaking, they show awesome musicality and understanding of their style, but put simply, they make great dance music and they seems to have a great time doing it. While The Royal Concept may not be reinventing the wheel, they’re certainly adding hydraulics to it.
Hill Kourkoutis describes the genre of Hill & the Sky Heroes’ “11:11” as “alien surf rock.” While her audience may not be clear on what that means, Kourkoutis definitely is. The album, a product of Kourkoutis’s collaborations with a stream of guest musicians, marries the musicality of ‘50s pop with quintessential science fiction sounds. The result is an upbeat, anthemic album that walks the audience through Kourkoutis’s seven-year journey of self-discovery.
Kourkoutis is undoubtedly an extremely talented musician, bringing depth and complexity to “11:11” so subtly that the audience doesn’t realize the magic she’s created until they try to produce their own and have no idea where to even start. Kourkoutis played many of the instrumental parts on the album, including guitar and piano work, but the instrument that she uses most originally and comfortably is her voice. From track to track, she transforms it. Her raspy vocals on “Love Isn’t Safe” could find a home in any sultry 1920s jazz club. On “The Better Way,” her crisp, summery voice cuts through the background instrumentation, providing a refreshing contrast to the distorted guitar and sci-fi sounds.
The musical prowess that Kourkoutis displays when manipulating her vocals makes itself less obvious in the “alien” part of “alien surf rock.” Not every track on “11:11” utilizes sci-fi sounds, which allows for a greater contrast between and spectrum of songs. It also serves to make the appearance of these effects seem even more overtly obvious and out of place. The opening track “Beam Me Up” presents the album with both a title blatantly alluding to the extraterrestrial and an introduction comprised of a spaceship taking off. In their infrequency, other similar sci-fi references—unearthly background instrumentation on “No Man’s Land” and “The Better Way,” the title of the closing track (“Starseed”)—jolts the audience back to a conscious awareness of the type of music they’re listening to. Even the use of alien sounds to convey Kourkoutis’ feelings of alienation and isolation seems too deliberately calculated.
“11:11” is a musical narrative of Kourkoutis’s journey to self-discovery. Her words are strong, her music confident. And they should be, for Kourkoutis reveals herself as a greatly talented musician and vocalist. But for as comfortable as Kourkoutis has become with herself, finding that same effortlessness with “alien surf rock” proves to be a bit more elusive.
I didn’t think I’d be able to make any of the daytime NMS events, but if there’s one thing I know about music, it’s that schedules are more like suggestions than commands. Luckily I arrived at Webster Hall a little early and they were running a little late and I got to catch the last half of “Presented by Pandora: The Artist Movement.” Jason Flom, President of Lava Records, moderated the panel, which consisted of Wyclef Jean, Andrew W.K., Garland Jeffreys, NMS Opening Night Party performer Hoodie Allen, Le Tigre’s JD Samson, original drummer of the Ramones Tommy Ramone and Public Enemy’s Chuck D. The discussion was targeted more toward giving advice to young and emerging artists—which I very much am not—but it also talked a lot about changes in the music industry that have altered how artists get discovered and ‘make it big’—which I very much am interested in.
During the Q & A portion, the panelists were asked about how independent artists can best get in contact with major labels and convince record executives to invest them. Andrew W.K. turned the question around, saying that in the age of social media and digital music, it’s no longer the artists who need the labels; it’s the labels who need the artists. As current players in the music industry, each of the panelists had interesting, relevant insights into how much the landscape of the industry has changed in the past ten years and how independent artists can use emerging technologies, like social media, to their advantage.
While the star-studded panel was both informative and awe-inducing, NMS’s focus has always been more on up-and-coming talent, so they followed it up with the announcement of the “Artist on the Verge” winner. If you remember (if you don’t, I’m telling you now), on Monday I went to the “Artist on the Verge” showcase to watch performances by the three finalists: Maren Morris, Black Cobain and Ninjasonik. I assumed the award ceremony would have been a pretty big deal, considering that one of the main missions of the New Music Seminar is giving independent artists a platform to gain exposure. I was sorely mistaken. And disappointed.
Tom Silverman presented the coveted mirrored award to…Maren Morris! She rocked it out at Santos Party House and has an awesome voice that I hope to hear all over the radio soon. The ceremony consisted of Silverman handing Morris the award, lots of posing for pictures and not much else. No triumphant performance, no grateful speech. I can’t even remember if Morris spoke at all. It was an oddly anticlimactic end to the “Artist on the Verge” campaign. There was, however, one exciting moment: Silverman officially announced June 9-12, 2013 as the dates for next year’s New Music Seminar. Mark your calendars!
Months ago, I bought tickets to see Destroyer perform last night at a club in Greenwich Village. At that time, I’d had no idea that I would be covering NMS and the concert would fall during the festival. Doors for the Destroyer concert (which was amazing) didn’t even open until 10pm, so I decided to hit some bars in the area that were hosting NMS New York Music Festival shows.
First stop: The Bitter End, a New York music institution. I arrived just in time to catch singer-songwriter Mikey Wax, one of the NMS “Artist on the Verge” Top 100. Despite only having about seven people in the audience, Wax put on a passionate and endearing performance. He played the show sitting at a piano with his guitar on his lap, alternating between the two way more effortlessly than I can play one instrument at a time. His set was short, only about five songs, but he packed a lot into his time, including a stunning cover of “Across the Universe.” Wax impressed me as a multi-instrumentalist, moving easily and instinctively between the guitar and piano, but I actually enjoyed him best, and felt his voice was most powerful, when he cut the background music and sang a capella.
Next up was Otan Vargas, an alternative metal singer-songwriter who took the stage with just his acoustic guitar. Vargas has a deep, strong voice that filled the room. His lower register was beautiful if a bit monotonous, working together with his melancholy lyrics to create an emotional, relatable sound. With no gimmicks or theatrics to detract attention from his performance, Vargas needed both his vocals and his guitar work to be on point. That they were. His voice transitioned from booming to gentle, from melodically low to surprisingly high, with ease. For as much as I enjoyed Vargas’ set, I felt uncomfortable watching him. His stage presence was lacking; it was clear that he felt nervous, so I felt nervous for him. Whenever he talked to audience, trying to engage with them, it sounded like he was apologizing, which he actually did more than once. He apologized for forgetting the name of one of his songs, for needing to tune his guitar lower, for his Pink Floyd impression (which I thought was pretty good). When he was performing, Vargas’ voice was strong and confident, but he lost that when stepping out of his musical persona and just being himself.
There were two more bands on the line-up, but I made the executive decision (for variety’s sake) to head down the street to Village Lantern and check out their show. I managed to make it in time to see The Shrimps, an indie rock duo from New York. I only caught the last approximately four minutes of their set, so I’ll just give a 20-second review that should not at all be considered an official proclamation: The vocals were a bit hollow, but The Shrimps rocked harder on two acoustic guitars than most people can with a fill band behind them. I hope everyone learned a lot from this fully-informed, introspective review. Also, one of them was wearing an ascot.
My last 2012 NMS performance was Dead Flamenco, a blues-rock duo playing the guitar and drums. They had a pretty good set, opening with the rockabilly track “Thank God Mama Never Taught me how to Swallow Pills” and really killing it instrumentally. This may have been a product of the fact that Village Lantern is part live music venue and part sports bar, but their vocals were often drowned out by people yelling at the basketball game and sometimes even just talking. The lead singer’s voice was strong and raspy if a bit flat, and he could be really powerful. But often, he just didn’t use his vocals as well as he could have. The softness of his voice made the have to tone down their instruments while he sang, which was unfortunate because they were stronger drum and guitar players, in my opinion, than vocalists.
The New Music Seminar was an amazing time and such a cool opportunity to see so many emerging artists and established music industry pros at the same time. The best part is that there’s still one night for you to experience the NMS New York Music Festival. Do it.
Welcome back to my recap of the 2012 New Music Seminar! Unfortunately, today I couldn’t make it to any of the daytime discussions or workshops (Boo office job!), but I was able to hit one great NMS New York Music Festival show. I trekked down to Santos Party House on the Lower East Side for the “Artist on the Verge” Finals, a showcase of three artists that NMS considers to be on the cusp of breaking into the national music market. One of the three artists will be crowned the winner and win over $150,000 in marketing and promotion. At the Opening Night Party, they played clips of the finalists, and I knew I had to see them live.
I had assumed the event would be packed, as “Artist on the Verge” is one of NMS’ biggest campaigns, but there were probably only about 100 people there. Not too shabby by any means, but also not bursting at the seams. The show got off to a late start waiting for 300 people to magically show up (they didn’t). I actually liked the venue being a bit emptier; it was easier to move around the stage and it made the artists work a little harder to amp up the crowd (they did).
First up was Maren Morris, a fiery singer-songwriter from Arlington, Texas. Morris has a classic bluesy, country voice that she strengthens not with banjoes and twangy guitar riffs, but with harder, indie rock instrumentation. It’s a refreshing mix that matches well with her vibrant personality. Morris may be only 22, but her stage presence is well established, engaging easily with the audience through what I found to be effortlessly ingenious song introductions like, “I wrote this about a douchebag. Maybe some of you can relate” and “This song is basically about being lied to, so I hope you guys like it.” Bubbly and bright Morris opened the showcase flawlessly, spiking my anticipation for the coming acts.
Now, there is a reason that I write for the Rock side of MVRemix and not the Urban side—I would be terrible at it. It’s not that I don’t like hip-hop and rap; it’s that I don’t really know enough about the histories of these genres and where they’re coming from to be able to accurately and intelligently review music based in these styles. Until now!
Black Cobain took the stage next with his band Black Alley. The rapper, best known for touring and collaborating with Wale, put on what I consider the most dynamic performance of the night, due in large part to his and Black Alley’s impressive musicality. They channeled soulful R&B with keyboard solos, what I believe were conga drums and Cobain’s sultry back up singer, Kacey, but also kept it simple with a hard-hitting, fast-paced a capella rap break. The best part is that they can do both—and probably everything in between—really well. Cobain is a natural performer; his raps never waiver, but he also knows how to draw in a crowd. From leading the audience in a chant of Drake’s “Hell yeah, fuckin’ right” to showcasing Kacey’s sultry vocals on a chorus of “Sweet Dreams,” Black Cobain didn’t just put on a performance. He put on a show. Cobain rapped his part from Wale’s “4 AM,” telling the audience, “Don’t compare me to rappers, I’m tryin’ to be like the Beatles.” I certainly think he’s on his way.
As the final “Artist on the Verge” act of the night, Ninjasonik didn’t disappoint. I’d heard the name before, heard good things, but if you asked me before last night what genre of music I thought they played, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you. I’m still not sure I’d be able to tell you. The duo, comprised of Jah-Jah and Telli, didn’t stop moving or rapping for their entire set, dancing on stage, dancing in the audience. This is going to sound like a dating profile, but what I loved most about them was their sense of humor. It wasn’t overly cheesy or trying to be overly quirky, but I could tell that they really love music and performing. You know the band that begins their set with a song that incorporates both the opening melody from “The Lion King” and lasers and ends it by rapping over Matt & Kim’s “Daylight” isn’t taking themselves too seriously, but has the musical chops to be able to make all of these disparate components come together. Products of the skater scene, Telli and Jah-Jah often juxtapose their tongue-in-cheek lyrics—their rally cry of “Tight pants!” comes to mind—with hard, punk rock beats. The two work together well, feeding off each other’s energy, weaving together fast and slow flows and bringing their audience on a crazy roller coaster with them.
Inexplicably, there was one more act after the three “Artist on the Verge” finalists performed. Local indie rock band The Dig closed the night with a fairly subdued set, though that may have been a product of their delayed start time. Either way, it was an…odd ending to the night. The Dig have a cool sound. Their lead guitarist and bassist trade off vocals and their high-pitched harmonies are on point, but with a more laid-back vibe, they just couldn’t keep up the energy of the previous performances. And I’ll be honest…I left halfway through their set.
All of the artists in this show were awesome and ridiculously talented, and I can’t imagine any of them not making it big. Considering I only went to one NMS event yesterday, I think I picked a pretty good one.
The New Music Seminar is back! The largest music conference in the world in the ‘80s and ‘90s, NMS took a bit of a hiatus but has returned this year better than ever. The seminar, taking place June 17-19, consists of discussions, Q & As and workshops during the day, and then transitions into the NMS New York Music Festival at night, where over 150 artists will be performing in venues throughout the Lower East Side and Williamsburg from June 18-20. Oh yeah, and I’ll be there too!
If I had been brave enough to go to summer camp when I was younger—which I never was because I was a very needy child—I imagine it would have very closely resembled the first day of NMS. All of the day’s events took place in the shockingly enormous Webster Hall, so from moving from room to room for the next event to the “introduce yourself to the person sitting next to you” icebreaker during Tom Silverman’s Welcome, the day was very camp-esque.
My day started at the “Songwriters-in-the-Round” discussion sponsored by the Songwriters Hall of Fame. The caliber of the four songwriters on stage was incredible, a bit ironic considering they were squished onto the compact stage at the Studio at Webster Hall. Absurdly accomplished songwriters Desmond Child, Jodi Marr, Claude Kelly and Eric Bazilian chatted about what inspired them to start writing; dropped names like Allanah Myles, Diane Warren and Carole King; and performed some of their best-known pieces.
Child kicked off the show with a slow, piano version of “a song [he] wrote with a couple of band guys from New Jersey,” known to the rest of us as “Living on a Prayer” by Bon Jovi. The theme of the showcase seemed to be interpreting some notoriously cheesy pop songs—Marr gave an incredibly soulful performance of Mika’s “Grace Kelly” and Kelly did Bruno Mars’ “Grenade” more than justice—into heartfelt, deep tracks. After “Grace Kelly,” Child remarked, “This is the first time I’m really listening to the lyrics. They’re good!”
With so many awesome songwriters on one stage, it was inevitable that there would be a number of memorable moments, from Child revealing that he came up with the title “Kiss the Rain” because he thought that was what the Bush song “Glycerin” was named to Bazilian’s awesome solo during his performance of “All You Zombies,” but undoubtedly the best moment of the session was the last one. Bazilian and Marr sang his hit “One of Us,” which evolved into an audience-wide sing-along to close the show. Who would have guessed that I know that entire song by heart?
After, I headed outside to call my dad and wish him a “Happy Father’s Day!” (If you forgot, it’s not too late! Do it now!) and then caravanned into the Grand Ballroom. NMS Executive Directors Tom Silverman and Dave Lory gave their official welcome, relaying the NMS’s goal to make New York the music capital of the world and Mayor Bloomberg’s proclamation that June 17-20, 2012 are officially New Music Seminar days.
While the Welcome was actually very inspiring, the session following it was a bit of a let down. During “Producer’s Movement: Producing Music for a Connected Society,” Def Jam Records President Joie Manda moderated a discussion between producers Just Blaze, Luke Ebbin, Benny Blanco and David Kahne. The panel was…awkward. All four producers had really interesting things to say concerning future producing technologies, wanting to make records that sound good and focusing on creating albums not singles. Blaze said what everyone’s thinking: “If you’re not good, you’re not good. All the machines in the world won’t change that.” Kahne walked us through his five stages of producing a record: Inspiration, Despair, Search for the guilty, Punishment of the innocent, and Awards to everyone not involved.
For the most part, the discussion was much more stilted and uncomfortable than the previous one. While Manda is an accomplished and knowledgeable music businessman, he seemed out of his element as moderator, asking prewritten questions instead of building on what was already being discussed. It was a fun event, but the energy during lagged a bit.
One more break to grab a drink—and dinner!—and then back to the Grand Ballroom for the Opening Night Party. Most of the music festivals I’ve been to in the past have been rock and folk-based, which is why I assumed that’s what NMS’s opening lineup would be. I could not have been more wrong. NMS is all about reinstating New York as the world’s music capital, so it was only fitting to end the night with a showcase of the most absurd and varied styles of modern music.
First up was the Fiery Sensations, a ridiculously talented group of performance artists. I use the term “artists” because I’m not sure what other word encompasses opera singers, fire twirlers and gymnasts. The theatrics were jaw dropping, at first because they were so unexpected, but then for their inherent skill. The fire breathing and acrobatics progressed to a soundtrack of heavy metal instrumentation and a very statuesque opera singer. The set, full of leather, neon and flames, culminated in a topless woman pulling a snake out of a box and then disappearing into the audience with it. And then touching me with it!
I was surprised by the Fiery Sensations. I was absolutely stunned by Alek Sandar and Yozmit. Yozmit appeared first, decked out in a very Marie Antoinette-style ball gown and two male dancers. Yozmit’s set was more performance art than concert, in a way that fits exactly with NMS’s objectives. From her iPad crotch display to her new single “Sound of New Pussy” to her opening her dress and revealing skimpier and skimpier outfits—and Alek Sandar!—Yozmit was incredible to watch. DJ Alek Sandar kept to the background during Yozmit’s set, but moved to the forefront to perform his own single, “Creature in Me.” Creatures, indeed. Alek Sandar, even after Yozmit’s crazy performance, held his own during his electronic, industrial set. He invited friends on stage, many of them awesomely outfitted drag queens, and had his own dancers, one of which hung a fire extinguisher from two piercings in his chest. Alek Sandar and Yozmit put on one of the weirdest and most electrifying performances I’ve ever seen.
If you were wondering the last person I would expect to see on the stage after Alex Sandar, it would be Diane Birch. But she completely held her own, filling the ballroom with her folksy rock and strong vocals. Unfortunately, I felt like the instruments were often louder than Birch and drowned her voice out, instead of showcasing it.
Evan Shinners took the stage next in a pair of boldly striped pants. A Juilliard graduate, the keyboard player puts a unique, modern twist on classic Bach recordings. I can appreciate his talent and his style, but it wasn’t my favorite performance of the night. Shinners didn’t interact with the crowd much, his only vocals were calls for “Grand Applause!” and “Grander Applause!” and there were no breaks between songs, if there were more than one.
The Pierces were probably the most conventional of the night’s performers, a folk-rock group fronted by the Pierce sisters. When they were introduced as the new tour mates of Coldplay, I was impressed. And then they started harmonizing, and I got it. Their voices are extremely strong together, making their psychedelic rock a bit ominous with its intensity in a way that I’ve never seen before.
Arguably 75% of the audience was there to see Hoodie Allen, and though I’d never had any interest in his music before, I can say that without a doubt he killed it. He came on stage wearing a polo jersey, jean cutoffs, tube socks and hi-tops, and he rocked out. He didn’t stop moving, he engaged and fed off the crowd and he really looked like he had a blast on stage. His style of mashing up well-known pop songs with his own rapping lends itself well to creating a house party atmosphere in even the grandest of ballrooms. It seemed only fitting for almost the entire crowd to bum rush the stage at the end of his set and dance and sing along to the last song.
For everyone that left after Hoodie Allen’s set: that’s the worst decision you’ve made in a long time. Closing the night was The Royal Concept, a four-piece rock band out of Sweden that had my favorite set of the night. Much of the room had cleared out by the time they got on stage, but they played like it was packed to the rafters. I was a little skeptical when they first came out and the lead singer sang through a microphone so auto-tuned he sounded like a robotic chipmunk, but that microphone was only used for special occasions. They soon moved into dance rock, getting the crowd to their feet with the strongest bass line I’ve ever heard in my life. Even at 11:30 at night, I really believe that this band didn’t want to be anywhere else, doing anything else except blowing the roof off of Webster Hall for 50 people. I’m a sucker for any band that gives their all into their performances, and for The Royal Concept, their energy and spirit was literally being pulled out of them the entire set. From the bassist hitting one single note on the drum pad—oh yeah, they had a drummer and a drum pad—to the lead singer lowering his microphone so he could play guitar on his knees while singing, The Royal Concept put on an uninhibited, dynamic performance that was the perfect end to this night.
If you’re wondering what kind of journey Rudd is planning to take you on, the opening song “Lioness Eye” pretty much lays it all on the line. The track begins with a rhythmic, almost electronic, didgeridoo bass line and what sounds like animal screeches, anything from birds squawking to hyenas howling. Six minutes later, it has transitioned seamlessly into a softer, more tribal folk song. Rudd mirrors the same versatility on the rest of the album, often moving so fluidly between genres and techniques that the transformations go unnoticed until he’s in the thick of them.
Rudd’s musical strengths lie in his abilities in indie rock. Though “Spirit Bird” can loosely be categorized as such, it’s absurd how inadequate of a description it is. “Comfortable in my Skin” and “Bow Down,” aided by the sounds of a banjo and hand claps, are the folksiest tracks on the record, giving off a country vibe. “Full Circle” hits a harder rock sound while “Follow the Sun” is Rudd as a minimalist with a simple harmonica melody.
In certain places, Rudd seems to lose focus. While most of the record finds its roots in Rudd’s expert guitar and didgeridoo talents, the second to last track, “3 Roads,” has an unexpectedly ambient, drum-heavy sound that doesn’t wholly make sense with the course the rest of the album has taken. Comparably, “Prosper” consists purely of a speech recording in the foreground and the sounds of chanting and maracas in the background. While similar vocals and percussion instruments appear in other tracks, on “Prosper,” they have no foundation in sounds or concepts that would tangibly link them to the rest of the album. Tracks like “3 Roads” are still executed beautifully, but seem out of place when so much of the rest of the album can be traced back to folk and indie rock.
While Rudd himself moves seamlessly between the different genres and styles utilized on “Spirit Bird,” the album as a whole doesn’t fare as well. Rudd constantly surprises his audience, pushing his musicality and vocal and instrumental abilities beyond the expected. When Rudd is so good at so many things, it’s hard to fault him for wanting to show off all of them. I would too.