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Archive for the ‘Alt-J’ Category

[DID NOT ATTEND: April 13, 2022] Alt-J / Portugal. The Man / Cherry Glazerr

I was really looking forward to this show.  It was a summer highlight.

Alt-J is one of those bands that I kind of like and kind of don’t.  Their music is weird and unsettling.  Catchy and earwormy and annoying at the same time.  But their live show is supposed to be amazing.

I’ve wanted to see Portugal. The Man for a long time.  We saw an abbreviated set of theirs at Newport Folk Festival a while ago, and it just made me want to see the whole thing.

Cherry Glazerr is an indie rock band that plays incredibly catchy fuzzy pop rock.  I’d really like to see them in a smaller setting, but this would have been my first chance to see them.

Then we books a vacation to D.C.  We were expecting to come home early this day, but our plans changed and we wound up getting home just about when the first band was supposed to go on.  I doubt I would have gone anyhow–it seems weird  to come back from vacation and go out, but I had held out hope for this show.

Alas.

But again, D.C. was a great mini-vacation and I’m really glad we went.

 

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SOUNDTRACK: alt-J-Tiny Desk Concert #614 (April 24, 2017).

Alt-J have been reduced to a trio.  And their sound has gotten even more delicate and almost pastoral.

Bob Boilen loves Alt-J, and that’s why they’ve been invited back for a second time.  He explains:

As the primary booker of the Tiny Desk Concerts, I have this self-imposed rule: No artist can come back for a second visit unless there’s something wholly different about what they’re doing. The first time alt-J played the Tiny Desk, in 2012, they came as a four-piece; electric guitar, bass, keyboards and drums. They were a pretty new band, their album had been out a few months and they were playing in clubs for a couple hundred people, not much more.

In the five years since the band visited it has found quite a few new fans. When I heard cuts from the newest album Relaxer a few months ago I flipped and tried to think of a way to bring them back. So I wrote them, saying I’d love to have them again but that it would have to be wholly, out-of-the-box different. I told them I’d hire a brass band, an African kora player if need be, a string section… They took up the challenge. They told me to find a cellist and two violinists.

I wrote to my friend Carol Anne Bosco, a cellist, who turned out to be a huge fan of the band and helped find two violinists for the performance. About four days before the performance the band sent the string parts, written by their friend Will Gardner.

On Monday morning, the English band met the American string players and they all gathered behind my desk. As they worked their way through a first pass at “Three Worn Words,” I noticed them and relieved — alt-J had actually never heard the string arrangements, this was the first time. They sounded beautiful. By noon, NPR employees and friends gathered around my desk to witness this astonishing concert from alt-J, including two new songs and two old favorites. Magic.

“3WW” is the first single and it sounds very different.  The song opens with a lengthy instrumental, and then the keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton sings lead.  It sounds quite a lot like an old English balladeer song.  Then standard lead singer Joe Newman takes over.  His unusual voice is especially recognizable but the song still stays quite mellow until the moment where the strings burst forth …but just for a bit until they sing the practically whispered, “I just want t love you in my own language.”

“In Cold Blood” sounds a bit more like their old style with a very interesting drums pattern from Thom Green: lots of fast snares and toms.  The synths feel almost Ren-Faire like.  There’s also a fun section of “la la las.”  I only wish I knew what they were singing about.

“Warm Foothills” is primarily piano and strings.  There’s a very delicate falsetto vocals (and even a whistle).  All three of these songs are new.  It’s interesting to realize that these songs won’t sound like this anywhere else or on record because they have the strings only for this show.

They then say they’re going to play something from their first album, to mutters of pleasure and when he says “taro” there’s a whoop or two and Joe jokingly goes “Yes!!”  This is a quiet guitar-base song and the strings really bring out elements of it.

alt-J are certainly a weird band but they have slowly won me over.

I happened to check Wikipedia about the band and found this interesting tidbit (veracity in question of course): “The band’s unusual sound stems from the fact that due to living in student halls, where noise had to be kept to a minimum, they were unable to use bass guitars or bass drums. Thom Sonny Green suffers from Alport syndrome, a rare genetic disease which causes hearing and kidney failure. As a result, he is about 80 percent deaf.”

[READ: March 8, 2017] “Crazy They Call Me”

I usually love everything that Zadie Smith does.  But this story didn’t do very much for me.

It is a kind of inner monologue of Billie Holiday.  I’ve always liked Holiday’s voice but I don’t know much about her life.  Like I didn’t know that Billie Holiday wasn’t her real name–which was Eleanora Fagan.  But I don’t think that that’s what made me not love the story much.

I assume this story takes place near the end of her life “you certainly don’t go out anyplace less than dressed, not these days.”  She is saying goodbye both to Elenora Fagan and even to Billie: “There is only Lady Day.”

Lady Day is mostly thinking to herself about her life. How she doesn’t really like other women, is mostly a man’s lady. (more…)

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ny2010SOUNDTRACK: ALT-J-Tiny Desk Concert #258 (December 17, 2012).

altjAlt-J is a peculiar band—lead singer Joe Newman’s voice is really unusual—and quit divisive as I understand.  But even the music is peculiar: “The band’s songs are wrapped in enigmatic textures, with swift shifts in arrangements inside every song and an oddness to the drums…that curious rhythm at the foundation of the songs reveals not a hint of cymbals.”

I can’t say I noticed that they were necessarily more spare at the Tiny Desk concert, but the blurb notes, “[Drummer] Thom Green plays mostly with a mounted tambourine and cowbell for the sorts of things a hi-hat would accomplish — that tick tick sound, with the snap of the sound coming from a small-bodied 10″ snare called a popcorn snare. The sparseness that happens in the absence of crashing cymbals leaves a lot of space in the music.”

I happen to really like the music behind this voice and I also find his voice… intriguing.  At first I wasn’t sure, but I feel like once I got sucked into the music, I enjoyed it all the more.

“Tessellate” has some great basslines and interesting keyboards.  Newman sings and plays an electric guitar in the most delicate way imaginable.  After the first song, there’s some amusement as he asks someone in the audience for the guitar (we don’t see it but there’s some chuckles about the person missing her big chance).

Newman switches to acoustic for “Something Good” (which I think of as the Matador song).  He plays this guitar a lot louder than the electric.  But once again the melody is quite unusual–very catchy and unexpected (and he can sing in quite a deep voice compared to his rather high normal singing voice.   And speaking of high voices the keyboardist does some really impressive falsetto notes in this and the first song.

Then they pass the bass over and the audience member gets “another chance.”  Bob jokes that they may ask her to play it next.  For the final song “Matilda,” the bassist switches to guitar and Newman is back on the electric.  His voice is so strange on this song.  It’s almost like he is singing internally to himself rather than externally to the room.  I love the drum rhythms that play under the song.

I didn’t realize there were no cymbals, but that does make a lot of sense as there are no “exclamations” to the rhythm, just a steady, interesting beat.  When their album came out in 2012 I wasn’t sure about them, but I think they’ve won me over.

As the Concert ends, they are very gracious.  When Bob says “Thanks for doing this,” he replies, “Thanks for having us. It’s the first time we’ve really played in an office.”  Which is a funny thing to say out loud.

[READ: January 23, 2017] “Who is Alex Trebek?”

I was looking through all of the pieces that Simon Rich has published in the New Yorker.  Most of them have been collected in his various books, but there were a couple that hadn’t.  This is one of them.

In his book Last Girlfriend on Earth, he has a short piece called “When Alex Trebek’s Ex-Wife Appeared on Jeopardy!”  This story is written in the same style–consider it a companion piece.

The focus this time is on Trebek himself.  And I really like the amusing way Rich sets it up: (more…)

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