Category: Music

Favorite Albums 2016

Sianspheric - Writing The Future In Letters Of Fire
Sianspheric – Writing The Future In Letters Of Fire

In alphabetical order, as always…

Big Mess/Black Norse – Split EP
Black Mountain – IV
Bushman’s Revenge – Jazz, Fritt Etter Hukommelsen
The Life And Times – Doppelgängers EP
Emma Ruth Rundle – Marked For Death
Sheer Mag – III 7″
Sianspheric – Writing The Future In Letters Of Fire
White Zombie – It Came From NYC Box Set
Chelsea Wolfe – Hypnos/Flame EP
Zeal And Ardor – Devil Is Fine

And there were quite a few live shows this year that blew my mind:

Chelsea Wolfe – Bowery Ballroom, NYC
Julien Baker – Mercury Lounge, NYC
Sam Black Church/Cast Iron Hike – Brighton Music Hall, Allston, MA
Flight Of The Conchords – Forest Hills Stadium, Forest Hills, NY
The Life And Times – Mercury Lounge, NYC

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Favorite Albums 2015

Chelsea Wolfe - Abyss
Chelsea Wolfe – Abyss

2015 was another outstanding year for music. There is rarely a common thread to my year-end list, but this year I couldn’t help but notice that seven out of my ten favorite releases are from female-fronted bands or solo artists and I think that’s pretty awesome.

In alphabetical order, as always…

Alabama Shakes – Sound & Color
Julien Baker – Sprained Ankle
Leon Bridges – Coming Home
Kodiak Deathbeds – Kodiak Deathbeds
Kowloon Walled City – Grievances
Ruby The Hatchet – Valley Of The Snake
Sheer Mag – II 7″
Swervedriver – I Wasn’t Born To Lose You
Two Sheds – Assembling
Chelsea Wolfe – Abyss

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Day Twelve: Sick Day

State capital. Nashville ghost walking tour.
State capital. Nashville ghost walking tour.

Despite coming down with a cold, today was yet another great day in another great city. We arrived in Nashville just in time for lunch (have you noticed a pattern yet?) and had more awesome fried chicken at Hattie B’s. Afterwards, we headed over to see the Ryman Auditorium, the original home of the Grand Ole Opry. I’m not a fan of country music in general, but this place is a must-see.

After the Ryman, we walked over to Hatch Show Print and Third Man Records. Dinner tonight was at Fleet Street Pub in Printer’s Alley, followed by a walking ghost tour, which was a lot of fun. I will be doing more of these in the future. In addition to the the haunted history portion, walking tours are a great way to see a city at night from a different perspective and with the benefit of local expertise.

Day Eleven: Thank You Very Much

Graceland. As if you had to ask.
Graceland. As if you had to ask.

A trip to Memphis just wouldn’t be complete without visiting Graceland. I’m not the biggest Elvis fan in the world, but I appreciate what he contributed to rock and roll history. The house and the grounds are kept in immaculate condition, but the whole experience made us feel like cattle. They move an obscene number of people through that place every day and although the audio portion of the tour is interesting, I didn’t really like wearing an iPad around my neck the whole time.

Lunch today was at Blues City Cafe, another local joint recommended by another local cab driver. It was better than Central BBQ, but still not that great.

For the record: Texas BBQ > Memphis BBQ

We had to run a few errands this afternoon, so we didn’t manage to do any more sight seeing today. For dinner, we decided on a non-BBQ option and ate at a place called Babalu Tacos and Tapas in Overton Square. Our meals were much better than the name suggests — especially the guacamole made table side. We walked back to our hotel to try and offset some of the day’s caloric intake. Tomorrow, we are heading to Nashville.

Day Ten: Music, Music, Music

Gus's World Famous Fried Chicken. Memphis, TN.
Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken. Memphis, TN.

Memphis! We started the day with a factory tour at Gibson, followed by an awesome lunch at Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken. Sadly, the National Civil Rights Museum was closed today, but we did manage to squeeze in the brand new Blues Hall of Fame, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music and Sun Records, all in one day. There is so much history here!

Dinner, unfortunately, was a little disappointing. Despite asking every cab and Uber driver we met where to go for the best BBQ, Central BBQ turned out to be just okay. Maybe we’ll have better luck tomorrow.

Operation Waterfalls

Online flyer for the Swervedriver, Sianspheric and WTCHS show at This Ain't Hollywood.
Online flyer for the Swervedriver, Sianspheric and WTCHS show at This Ain’t Hollywood.

A few months ago, I was scrolling through one of my social media feeds when I stumbled across a concert announcement by one of my favorite bands, Sianspheric. Not only was the recently reunited outfit recording new material and playing live again, they were doing a handful of shows with another of my favorite bands, the also recently reunited Swervedriver. The opportunity to see both of these bands on the same stage was just too much for me to pass up.

The show was happening at This Ain’t Hollywood in Sianspheric’s hometown of Hamilton, Ontario. When I realized that the show was scheduled for Mother’s Day weekend and would put me within an hour’s flight of my own hometown, just outside of New York City, I bought a ticket for the show and began looking at flights immediately.

After a few days of research and planning, I convinced my girlfriend to join me for at least part of the long weekend. She was able to schedule a business trip to meet with some of her Canadian clients, after which we would meet up for a quick trip to Niagara Falls before I flew to New York to surprise my family and she flew back to Los Angeles.

I took a red eye on Thursday night and landed in Toronto at about 6 AM on Friday. After navigating a ridiculously long line at customs — and dealing with extra scrutiny, probably due to the fact that I had just traveled internationally with a one way plane ticket — I stumbled out of the airport and into a beautiful and unseasonably warm Canadian morning.

Allan Gardens
Allan Gardens

My girlfriend was already in Toronto and she left me a room key at the front desk of her hotel. After a short cab ride, a two hour power nap and a hot shower, I set out on foot to do some exploring. I walked south along Sherbourne St., past Allan Gardens and then west along Front St.

My first planned stop of the day was the St. Lawrence Market, which is known worldwide by culinary professionals and foodies alike, both for its size and wide variety of high quality offerings. The cavernous space is filled with two floors of vendors selling everything from fruits and vegetables to prepared foods, coffee, wine, cheese and seafood.

I walked the entire market before deciding on where to have lunch. I opted for Buster’s Sea Cove, which had the longest line in the market by far. The ordering process was fairly straight forward, but there was a huge bottleneck of people waiting for their food, with nowhere to go. There was a small seating area right next to the booth, but it was completely full and the line of people waiting to order wasn’t getting any shorter. By the time my Po’ Boy was ready, a few seats had opened up at the counter and I was able to sit down and enjoy my sandwich in relative peace. I originally wanted the crawfish, but sadly, they were sold out. The red snapper was an excellent alternative. It was lightly dressed with mayo and topped with red onions and cucumber and was absolutely fantastic.

Hockey Ephemera
Hockey Ephemera

Next on the list was the Hockey Hall of Fame, which is not the easiest place to get into. When you find what you think is the entrance, you must figure out that you actually have to walk around the corner and through a set of glass doors that leads to a courtyard. Once you’re in the courtyard, you then have to walk past a fountain, through the atrium and find the escalator that leads to the concourse below. At the bottom of the escalator, you have to make a 180 degree turn and walk to the very back end of the concourse in order to find the entrance to the museum. Clearly, the signage could be better.

If you ever find the entrance to the Hall of Fame, you will be treated to an amazing collection of assorted hockey ephemera. In addition to the hockey sticks, pucks, vintage jerseys and other gear, there is a screening room and numerous vintage hockey merchandise displays, as well as several interactive experiences. When you’ve had your fill, head up a separate escalator to the gift shop. The staff will be happy to ship your purchases to you if you are visiting from another country and don’t feel like lugging them around.

CN Tower, Toronto
The CN Tower and new condominiums near the waterfront in downtown Toronto.

After the Hall of Fame, I walked along the waterfront for a bit and then over to the CN tower for a quick photo op before making my way to the train station. The train ride from Toronto to Hamilton was only an hour and cost about $12, which was cheaper than the five minute cab ride from the train station to my hotel. I stayed at the Admiral Inn Hamilton, which is small and inexpensive, but well run and very clean.

I still had a couple of hours to kill before the concert, so I decided to head out and grab some dinner. I found a place called The Ship, a nautical themed gastropub where I had an AMAZING meatloaf burger called The Bat Out Of Hell. It’s an actual burger patty, not just a slice of meatloaf on a bun, and is topped with house made sweet ketchup glaze and crispy fried onions. They have a great selection of craft beers and a small, but thoughtfully curated bar, stocked with some hard to find bourbons, whiskeys and gins.

After dinner, I walked another mile or so from the restaurant to the venue. There was a street fair going on, so there were a ton of people milling about. It was mostly the usual nonsense: food trucks and tables filled with crap as far as the eye could see. There was also a young rock band playing on the roof of a small building, but they weren’t very good.

This Ain’t Hollywood is a fairly good size bar with surprisingly good sound and the show was everything I hoped it would be. Melodic swells, waves of distortion and surges of feedback washed over the crowd. WTCHS opened to a sparse, but appreciative audience and Sianspheric played a really great set, but I was having trouble standing up by the time they finally went on. Somehow, I managed to get my second (or maybe third) wind for Swervedriver, but by the time they finished playing I had absolutely nothing left. When I finally left the venue, I had a hard time getting a cab and didn’t get back to the hotel until around 2 or 3 AM. After a quick shower, I passed out, completely exhausted from an entirely too long, but really awesome day.

Niagara Falls
Niagara Falls

The next morning, my girlfriend picked me up in Hamilton and we drove to Niagara Falls, which was only about 45 minutes away. Neither of us had ever been there before and we were really excited to see the falls, as well as to take in some of the kitschy tourist traps that fill the surrounding area. We stayed at the Niagara Falls Hilton on the Canadian side and our room had an unobstructed view of Horseshoe Falls. After a quick lunch at Pranzo Italian Grill, we walked down to Hornblower Niagara Cruises for a 30 minute tour. Maid of the Mist used to operate on both sides of the river, but now only operates out of New York. From what I could tell, the experiences are nearly identical (read: FUN!) and you should definitely go on a cruise if you visit Niagara Falls. It’s the best way to see the falls up close and personal.

After getting soaked and listening to people scream for a half hour, we walked back up past the falls, stopping often to take photographs and gawk. It really is amazing to see and hear all of that water roaring over the edge of the cliff and pounding the rocks below. It’s even more awe-inspiring if you are visiting from a drought-ravaged area such as southern California.

Niagara SkyWheel
Niagara SkyWheel

Once we exhausted ourselves walking around, we trudged back up the hill to the hotel to shower and change for dinner. The dining options in Niagara Falls were not very exciting. We decided to head over to Doc Magilligan’s. I had a burger, which was decent, but not quite what I was hoping for. My girlfriend was equally unimpressed with her meal. Entertainment for the evening consisted of a haunted house, some arcade games and a nighttime viewing of the illuminated falls, followed by a not quite long enough, but very deep sleep.

The next morning, I was up before dawn and on my way to Buffalo Niagara International Airport in New York, which was only about a 45 minute cab ride from the hotel. A couple of hours later, my sister picked me up at Newark and we went back to her place and waited for my parents and aunt to arrive. As hard as I tried to keep my visit a secret, my mother suspected that something was up. Even though it wasn’t a total surprise, everyone was thrilled to see me. There may have even been a few tears.

Mother’s Day was extremely mellow compared to the rest of the weekend. It was really nice to just sit down and relax and spend some quality time with my family, whom I hadn’t seen since Christmas. Unfortunately, it was a very short visit and the next day, it was right back to the airport and then home to Los Angeles.

Over the course of four days, I visited four airports, three cities, two different countries and logged almost 6,000 miles. It was certainly a whirlwind, but it was also one of the best trips I’ve ever taken.

Winner Versus Loser

Frank movie poster
Frank

I am not a fan of awards shows. I have always felt that they are little more than popularity contests and more about album or ticket sales than artistic merit. Far too many talented people and creative endeavors are overlooked because of the presiding committees’ politics, limited palettes or simple lack of awareness.

2014 happened to be an amazing year for both music and film and although I did not watch the Grammy Awards, I find myself slightly curious about the Oscars for once. I couldn’t care less about the show itself, but quite few of my personal favorites have been nominated this year and it’s great to see some very atypical films being recognized.

Generally, I don’t do a year end list of my favorite films because I am always so far behind on recent theatrical releases. This year is no different in that regard, but I would like to share the most notable ones I have seen so far, keeping in mind that this list will need to be added to over the next few weeks and months.

Finding Vivian Maier

I wrote a separate post about this documentary earlier this year. You should read my post and then you should see this film.

Frank

I was on the fence about wanting to see Frank. I honestly had no idea what to make of the trailer, but after hearing good things from numerous people, I decided to give it a shot and I’m glad I did. What seemed like to totally ridiculous concept turned out to be a really wonderful film. It somehow manages to make fun of eccentric musicians while simultaneously celebrating their creativity. What I didn’t expect, was the honest portrait of anxiety, depression and mental illness that is slowly revealed as the story develops.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

I have always been intrigued by Wes Anderson’s films. They are always visually stunning and although they can be hit or miss story-wise, The Grand Budapest Hotel is definitely a hit and my favorite Wes Anderson film to date.

Nightcrawler

A desperate man with questionable ethics, trying to break into local TV news in Los Angeles. It sounds straight forward enough, but I could not believe how far this character was willing to go to get the story or the shot. Jake Gyllenhaal is FANTASTIC in this film and Rene Russo is awesome as well. Nightcrawler does not paint a very flattering portrait of the TV news business or the people it employs and there are more than a few scenes that will make your skin crawl. The camera does not flinch and I guarantee you will need to take a shower after watching this one. Brutal.

The One I Love

This is a very unusual story that starts off with the basic premise of a couple in therapy going away for the weekend at the recommendation of their marriage counselor, but there is a very unexpected twist pretty early on. Other than mentioning the fact that the extremely awesome Elisabeth Moss is in this film, I can’t really say much else without giving it all away, so you’re just going to have to trust me.

The Skeleton Twins

The trailer made The Skeleton Twins look like a comedy, but there are some extremely heavy themes looming here. Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader do an impressive balancing act between awkward humor and really uncomfortable, life-changing scenarios.

Whiplash

As impressed as I was with the acting and intensity of this film (J.K. Simmons is the man), I was also blown away by the musicianship that is on display here, including that of lead actor Miles Teller. The way this film was shot and edited made it very clear that Miles did most, if not all of his own drumming and that is no small feat. Even if you are not a musician or a jazz fan, this is a must-see. Whiplash is an exhausting ride, but damn is it worth it.

My Favorite Albums Of 2014

Sianspheric - TheOwl 7" cover
Sianspheric – The Owl 7″

2014 was another eclectic year for me. None of these records sound remotely alike and that makes it hard to pick a favorite. To further complicate things, this list is split evenly between newer artists and established favorites of mine. Benjamin Booker and No Flowers came out of nowhere with their debuts and really knocked my socks off, but I was also very excited to hear Sianspheric’s first release in almost eight years and it did not disappoint.

These are listed in alphabetical order, as always. Most of these releases are available to stream via Spotify. For the others, try Bandcamp.

Amen Dunes – Love
Baptists – Bloodmines
Benjamin Booker – Benjamin Booker
The Life And Times – Lost Bees
No Flowers – EP One/EP Two
Emma Ruth Rundle – Some Heavy Ocean
Sianspheric – The Owl 7″
Torres – Torres (a 2013 release, but new to me, so whatever)
Tune-Yards – Nikki Nack
Two Sheds – Advance CD-R (new album out in 2015)
Wormwood – Wormwood
Young Widows – Easy Pain

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The Life And Times

The Life And Times - Lost Bees

As someone who alternately despises and appreciates the need to use labels when discussing music, I always have a hard time when I talk to people about The Life And Times. My enthusiasm is hard to miss, but accurately describing what they sound like can be a bit difficult.

A good friend of mine turned me on to them a few years ago. There was something instantly familiar about them and yet, they didn’t really sound like anyone else I could think of. There were hints of many different sub genres of alternative rock that would give you points of reference, but none of them are all-encompassing and the lush complexity of The Life And Times’ music deserves more of your attention than two or three quick buzzwords will allow.

They recently blew through town while touring in support of their new album, Lost Bees. The record was not going to be available for purchase before the LA date and I read online that they were planning on playing the new album from start to finish, which I thought was odd considering that most people would not have heard it in advance.

Thankfully, Lost Bees was already streaming on Spotify and I was able to give it a spin beforehand. Unsurprisingly, it stands up extremely well to all of their other releases. In fact, the only thing as consistently strong as their recorded output is their live shows. All three members are phenomenal musicians and despite some technical difficulties with one particular piece of gear, they gave a(n) (inter)stellar performance, as always.

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Tune-Yards

Merrill Garbus of Tune-Yards
Merrill Garbus of Tune-Yards

Last night, I was in the crowd for the sold out Tune-Yards show at the Fonda Theater in Los Angeles. My expectations were extremely high, as I have been obsessed with Tune-Yards since I first heard W H O K I L L in 2011. The combination of syncopated drum loops, ukelele, bass and saxophone, all layered with Merrill Garbus’ impressive vocals, was like nothing I had heard before. I watched every YouTube video and read every article I could find and anxiously awaited any word about new material or tour dates. I picked up a copy of Nikki Nack the day it was released and I bought a ticket for the Fonda Theater show the moment they went on sale.

It was worth the wait. Tune-Yards played an amazing set and the audience was excited and appreciative. Between songs, Merrill pointed out how much everyone in the audience — and on stage — was smiling. She then asked if everyone would sing happy birthday to her father, Bill. He was not at the show, but she held up her phone and just about every single one of the 1200 people in the room were more than happy to oblige.

Although I was a little sad there weren’t any saxophone players on this tour, the musicians Merrill chose for this outing more than made up for it. The additional female vocals, percussion and dancing make perfect sense if you understand where Merrill’s inspiration for Nikki Nack comes from.

After reading this article, I appreciate the new record and last night’s performance even more than I did when I left the venue. When an artist plays from the heart and personalizes their influences while coming up with something totally unique and unexpected — that is when I am most in awe. That kind of creativity will always stand out from the derivative and mass produced sounds that clog up the mainstream.