Nobody Listens to…Kanaku y el Tigre

Good music doesn’t need to fit neatly into one genre to be good.  Truthfully, there is a lot of really great music being made that is hard to classify, often deliberately.  Genre helps us as listeners define what we’re listening and group it neatly with things that are similar and contrast it with things that are different.  Genre helps us to look for inspiration and try to pin down influences that shape the artistic process. Genre comforts us- that something about this song or that artist belongs within the whole of its genre.  Genre, however, does not tell us if music is good and is not at all helpful in evaluating whether something is beautiful or not.  The music of Peruvian band Kanaku y el Tigre is difficult to classify generically, but it is beautiful.  Kanaku y el Tigre simply write and perform good music.

In the Spring and Summer of 2011 I was living in Lima, Peru.  I spent six months as a student at a university in the city, and was incredibly lucky to do some traveling within the country.   I grew much better at speaking Spanish, made lifelong friends, and saw a lot of amazing things.  I did not discover a whole lot of new music.  For whatever reason I had a great deal of difficulty breaking into the music scene in Lima and went to precious few concerts.  This is especially distressing now knowing that I could have been around just as Kanaku y el Tigre saw their debut album rise to success locally and internationally.  Instead I read about the band for the first time just last year through MTV Iggy and was instantly hooked.  The band’s debut album, Caracoles, has great replay value; it’s easy to dissolve oneself into the songs to the point that another listen reveals more sublime details that went completely unnoticed before.  This is a nice magic trick for a band that describes itself as “wandering folk”.

Kanaku y el Tigre formed in 2010 around the songwriting nucleus of Nicolás Saba and Bruno Bellatín, a pair of Limeños with a taste for indie-folk strums.  Bellatín had honed his skills on an acoustic guitar while studying abroad in the United Kingdom, and Saba’s voice lent a new dimension to the acoustic tones that Bellatín was plying.  After rounding out their lineup with the additions of Noel Marambio, Marcial Rey, David Chang, Fernando Gonzalez, and Manuel Loli the band set to recording Caracoles and growing their profile throughout Latin America.  To date the band still has just one studio release, but has performed in festivals from the heart of their native Lima to Mexico City.

Scenes are painted in Kanaku y el Tigre’s music.  This is music to be played on a sunny balcony.  It’s music to be played while shuffling down city streets on a warm day.  This is music to be played as a dinner party transitions to a cozy evening with friends.  The “wandering folk” label does seem to apply, but there are definite elements of pop, jazz, and rock to be found in the songs on Caracoles.  The group almost exclusively uses acoustic instruments, but also holds a fascinating with toy instruments and “cualquier cosa que suene” – anything that makes sound.  These songs are built around soft harmonies and acoustic guitar strums, but are colored with antique pianos and ukuleles.  Harmonicas and accordions make appearances as airily brushed drums are tastefully applied.  Upright bass punctuates staccato moments, while toy glockenspiels and turning bicycle gears help build the world around Saba’s delicate storytelling.

The tracklisting on Caracoles spans a wide variety of sonic and lyrical content.  The title track and “Lucia” are plaintive folk songs about life and love in Lima.  “Bicicleta” is a midtempo indie symphony, while “Tu Verano, Mi Invierno” and “El Funeral” are bouncy and simplistic in a way that’s reminiscent of French chanson songs.  The album reaches its emotional height in “La Inminente Muerte de Martín” as swaying vocals rise over accordion and distant drumming, and an acapella falsetto line immediately precedes a kazoo solo.  This is where anticipation is bred in Kanaku y el Tigre’s songs: an arrangement is just as likely to include a brass chorale as to feature a spotlight on a kazoo or tinny bells.  As brilliantly as “La Inminente Muerte de Martín” soars, the 1-2 punch of the English-language “Exorcist Love Song” and the slinky “Pascal y Julian” take the music to a slightly darker place.  “Exorcist Love Song” still jumps and jives despite a lyrical subtext about a destructive relationship, while “Pascal and Julian” is a duet about existential dread.  These songs are at once familiar and foreign, as though the band has purposefully inserted discomforting chords and words into an otherwise playful body of work.  Maybe that is exactly the point.

As a band Kanaku y el Tigre is still highly active.  Despite a fairly low profile on social media, the enigmatic group is still touring and performing in support of Caracoles, and seem to serve as curators and activists for similar artists.  The most reliable outlet of information on the band is their facebook page, as the group doesn’t appear to have an official website.  A twitter account in the band’s name does exist, but hasn’t ever composed a single tweet.  In lieu of these traditional tracking methods, the band is best followed in video and in the steadily growing number of glowing reviews they’ve received.  In any case, nobody seems to be listening to Kanaku y el Tigre right now, but the wondrous surprises that come so effortlessly and pleasantly from the Peruvian folksters’ music assuredly earn them a place in any music lover’s rotation.

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Album Review: Among Criminals “Break” to New (and Old) Mutiny

Following the career of an independent band as closely as I’ve followed Among Criminals can give the listener an interesting look into how years of working towards any measure of success can change a musical group.  For better or worse, lineups change and sounds evolve.  Much has changed since I last wrote about Among Criminals, but on their new album, The Break, there are some welcome calls to the group’s past mixed in with intriguing new directions taken.

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Though the group has changed two-thirds of its makeup, Among Criminals’ identity is still very much tied up in the one remaining founding member’s sound preferences and songwriting.  On The Break singer-guitarist Ryan Gaughan seems to have really cut loose; though the type of blistering guitar solo we’ve come to expect from Gaughan doesn’t really arrive until late in the tracklisting, the guitar work throughout the album effortlessly slips from delay-draped staccato skanks to heavy distorted power chords.  The singer’s voice as well is extended beyond its normal dynamic range: on The Break Gaughan both croons softly and shreds his vocal chords screaming, sometimes both within the same song.  New bassist Bhauraw Avhad brings a more metallic sound to the band’s low end, and Kyle Ruggieri’s drumming is as straight-ahead rock as has ever been heard on an Among Criminals record.  The Break is really a paradox in itself in that regard, as though the group set out to make a true rock album and ended up with some of the most heavily blended work they’ve yet to churn out.

As always, subject matter is of great importance.  It’s easy to read from the album’s cover art (pictured above) and the descriptive imagery used in the songs that these are protest songs.  A number of tracks (“Cold Soldier” and “Kingsmen”, for example) continue the Among Criminals tradition of pointedly political songs, but much of the material on The Break is more allegorical.  It seems that Gaughan and co. have much to be upset about.  Mysterious lyrics point towards tragic young women and an ambiguously innocent narrator.  Throughout all of this musical tones and tempi shift dramatically.  There is no song on the album that is downtempo, or a ballad, strictly speaking.  Instead, there are two or three tracks that begin or end softer and slower in contrast to the aural assault of hard rocking that belies the remainder of the running.  Reggae rhythms (“Save Me”, among others) and danceable funky grooves (“Firefly”) are present amidst a very polished mix of general rock hallmarks.  Guitars are distorted, voices are strained, and drums and cymbals crash loudly in an inexorable rush through the stories told here.

As mentioned above, the path that an independent act may take through its career can lead to some unexpected choices or unorthodox moves.  Mixed in with new material on this album are newly recorded versions of two old favorites among the Among Criminals crowd: “Cold Soldier” from the debut full-length Kill the Myth and “Don’t Tell Us” from the group’s self-titled effort.  That these tracks fit in as seamlessly as they do is truly a testament to the cohesive nature of the group’s artistic choices and songwriting prowess.  Around these two callbacks to earlier work are such standouts as the leadoff track, “Glow in the Dark”, the sweetness of “It All Breaks”, and the swaying funk-rock “Firefly”.  “Kingsmen”, “Save Me”, and “Constant” take the tempo and emotion up a degree before dropping into almost dub-heavy reggae grooves.  The album’s closer “Secret (Father Murphy)” has a truly big, bad swagger to it.  These songs mean business, and are arresting to the listener.

As Among Criminals continues to evolve as a band in search of wider success and the ability to continue making music, The Break is assuredly a step in a new direction.  New band members and old songs come together on this album to give Among Criminals a no-frills record that is in-your-face and unapologetic.  Clean production and tight engineering hopefully give this album the greatest gift that recorded music can: songs delivered to the listener exactly as the artist imagined them.

The Break is available through CDBaby and iTunes, and Among Criminals can be followed through their website and on facebook.

Nobody Listens to…Lorde (yet)

A recent trip to Los Angeles left me with quite a few lessons to bring back to my daily life.  I learned about grocery stores. I went to Compton. I ate a lobster grilled cheese sandwich in Hollywood. But first and foremost, I learned that a sixteen-year-old from New Zealand is about to be a huge star.

The first time that I heard “Royals” on the radio while driving through the valleys east of L.A. I was taken completely off-guard and was fumbling through the lyrics of the chorus.  The second time I heard the song I desperately hoped to hear who was behind the track.  The third time I heard it, a DJ on KCRW had reworked it into a killer remix that had me dancing in the driver’s seat.  Spotify searches and a bit of internet investigation gave me all I needed to know about Lorde. I was hooked.

Lorde is the stage name of sixteen-year-old Ella Yelich O’Connor, a typical young lady from the suburbs of Auckland, New Zealand, in all respects except that she pens and records alt-pop tracks that are simultaneously airy and sharp.  O’Connor was discovered when a video of her performance at a talent show put her on Universal’s radar.  Then a preteen, O’Connor was singing Duffy songs and writing about classmates, but had already flashed a unique voice and a precocious knack for tackling weighty personal themes in her lyrics.  Four years later, Lorde has topped digital download charts in Auckland and boarded an airplane for the first time in order to embark on an international tour.  Behind the strength of her debut EP The Love Club and touting hype for a full-length album set for release this fall, the singer is taking a slight detour in her coursework towards graduating high school in the North Shore.  In interviews and through her web presence O’Connor has come across as down-to-earth (if a bit aloof) and wise beyond her years.  All of this bodes well for the explosion that seems to be bubbling beneath the surface.  Coming from a small island that seems to be a hotbed for young female vocalists (Princess Chelsea, anyone?), Lorde stands out for her startling honesty and lush harmonies.

Lorde’s music is characterized by songwriting that is decidedly vocal-centric.  Feist and Cocorosie might be fair comparisons, though a more apt one might be to imagine Bon Iver as a teenage girl trying to record a hip-hop album.  Sparse drum machine loops and synthesizer hooks and pads make up the bulk of Lorde’s instrumental arrangements, though the singer’s voice is multi-tracked and recorded as percussion and accompaniment to virtually every tune’s lyrical content.  With a musical base for her songs serving like a blank canvas, O’Connor is free to style her lead vocals in a quasi-rap croon over self-harmonizing that swells and soars behind.  The singer’s range is truly impressive, rising from a husky dip to a sugary high.  The lyrics of Lorde’s songs focus on being real: O’Connor draws from personal experiences and anecdotes of eschewing pop culture consumption and endless partying for a simple life surrounded by people she loves.  O’Connor sings of finding secret teenage haunts and sudden success as a performer, and couches it all in the swagger of an introvert faking self-confidence until she makes it.  These are endearing songs, but hit on more complex ideas in the sway of the music that surrounds them: the listener immediately relates to O’Connor’s lyrics while wondering if the young singer is even from this planet.

The can’t-miss standout among Lorde’s catalog thus far is “Royals”.  The artist’s first single is everything described above about Lorde- the song tackles rap music’s obsession with money and luxury while touting O’Connor’s friends as above it all while absolutely gorgeous harmonies build a hook in unexpected musical architecture.  The rest of The Love Club continues Lorde’s idiosyncratic take on harmonic pop: “Million Dollar Bills” is a jumpy club banger whose blaring synth blasts are actually O’Connor’s voice, and “Biting Down” is a darkly dramatic call-and-response vamp to close the EP out.  The title track details the singer’s lost time partying with a circle of friends she ultimately grew uncomfortable with.  The lead-off tune, entitled “Bravado” seems linked to the new single “Tennis Court“, with both numbers chronicling O’Connor’s venture into the music industry and her attempts to reconcile that with her still-normal day-to-day in the suburbs.  Also to be found floating in the ether of the internet are a Lana Del Ray-style tribute to solidarity among teenage rebels (“Swingin’ Party“) and an acoustic cover of British singer Pixie Lott’s “Mama Do“, to date the most distilled example of Lorde’s voice.  Each song is enjoyable on a superficial level that belies thought-provoking lyrics while projecting the tunefulness that makes drivers beat their steering wheels and writers tap their pencils.

Sixteen-year-old Ella Yelich O’Connor seems poised to wedge her earworm single and layered harmonies into worldwide music consciousness.  In between house parties and homework, Lorde is a young woman with a fantastic voice and an incredible talent for writing who simply writes and performs songs that are interesting to listen to.  In her quest to remain authentic and genuine the singer is game but honest.  Whether posting new tracks to her soundcloud or proclaiming her love for Prince and Lou Reed in interviews, Lorde unveils a new surprise at every turn- it seems that the teen’s mystery grows as she becomes more famous.  And maybe that is the point.  Lorde can be followed on twitter and facebook, and operates a highly minimalist official page.  Nobody is listening to Lorde yet, but sweeping vocal harmonies and spunky white girl raps about being the queen bee will soon draw listeners in, and honest songs sung by a unique vocalist promise to retain those listeners’ attention.

Nobody Listens to…Die Antwoord

There are some people in this world who just don’t ‘get’ hip-hop.  These people think that rap music is generally scary, offensive, or just inaccessible.  While I would not count myself as such and hope that people of this ilk eventually come around, sometimes hip-hop is scary and offensive and inaccessible.  The upside is that this isn’t always a bad experience, as evidenced by the game-changed extra-strength weirdness that is Die Antwoord.

WARNING: MOST OF THE MUSIC IN THIS POST FEATURES DISTURBING OR OFFENSIVE CONTENT. OR IS JUST REALLY, REALLY STRANGE.

It was a cool, but sunny Indiana day when I walked into the house where my friends Adam and Joe were living.  Joe had just discovered a really wild South African rap group and was all about it.  It was driving Adam insane.  The polarizing nature of Die Antwoord’s music isn’t really all that surprising; the group’s offensively aggressive style is unquestionably abrasive and learning more about the group seems to incite either admiration or rage, but never anything in between.

To gain an understanding of what exactly is going on with the loud and vulgar brand of rave-rap that Die Antwoord deals in an explanation of the South African zef subculture is necessary.  Zef refers to a certain anti-posh attitude, or perhaps more accurately to reveling in the dirty glory of Johannesburg slum life.  Die Antwoord’s vocalists Ninja and Yo-Landi Vi$$er take this trashy-but-extravagant ideal to great lengths, and the band is really as much of a performance art piece as a genuine expression of its members’ roots.  Die Antwoord bristles at being questioned if their presentation of graphic lyrics, prison tattoos, and grungy bleach-blonde mullets is real, but the deeper point is actually that nothing is real.  Ninja himself has expressed the idea that the general public needs something as outlandish as Die Antwoord to wake up from complacently consuming establishment pop culture.  In this sense the hip-hop outfit is just what its name portends: die antwoord is Afrikaans for “the answer”.

Die Antwoord is the current project for the aforementioned Ninja, the erstwhile Watkin Tudor Jones.  Jones has previously helmed the similarly self-aware satirical rap groups MaxNormal.TV and The Constructus Corporation.  While MaxNormal.TV and The Constructus Corporation aimed to take the music industry and mainstream capitalism to task while also producing high-concept multimedia projects, Die Antwoord took a dive into the Zef underside of South African society.  The fascination with art (particularly the work of photographer Roger Ballen) and societal issues has remained, but Die Antwoord presents itself in a much dirtier package than the clean-cut suit-and-tie rapping of Max Normal and the Constructus Corporation.  Not only are there no suits to be seen, it’s fairly uncommon for anyone associated with Die Antwoord to even be wearing a shirt.

Die Antwoord’s core is composed of real-life couple Ninja (Jones) and Yo-landi Vi$$er (a.k.a. Anri du Toit), who trade off hyper-energetic rap vocals and dance moves over the souped-up beats made by their “producer” DJ Hi-Tek, who is associated with the group because he has a “PC Computer” that can make next-level beats.  The group burst onto the Cape Town Zef scene with 2008’s $O$, and following the release of some enlightening music videos on youtube signed a contract with Interscope Records.  Disputes about potentially offensive content and subject matter, however, strained relations between the rappers and the record label, and Die Antwoord split from Interscope to release further material on their own.  The group’s second full-length album, Ten$ion, was released in 2012 on Zef Side Records and picks up almost precisely where $O$ had left off.

The next-level beats that Ninja uses to describe DJ Hi-Tek’s tracks are varied in their influences and their outcomes:  A Die Antwoord song may creep slinkily along to a light piano loop and a minimalist drum click or slam the listener’s ears with syncopated tribal grooves and hard-edged synthesizer stabs.  As accompaniment to the snarling attitude of Ninja and the pint-size anger of Yo-Landi, the beats set up an aural atmosphere that matches the apocalyptically dirty things happening in the songs’ lyrics.  Ninja and Yo-landi’s lyrics aren’t always easily discerned, as English is woven in with Afrikaans, zef slang, and on at least one occasion the Prawn language from Neill Blomkamp’s 2009 film District 9.  While the lyrics that do come through are typically unprintably explicit, they also carry important messages; aside from painting a caricature of a sexually aggressive and potentially violent pair of lunatics, Die Antwoord has tackled societal issues from income inequality to ritual circumcision.  The songs of $O$ and Ten$ion are really statements validating the existence of anyone living at South African society’s margins; if the context is grimy and unsettling, it’s equally a statement about the perception of these people and a glamorization of that which is inherently un-glamorous.

Die Antwoord’s music is enjoyable (this may not be the best word here…) alone, but a full appreciation of what is going on isn’t really possible without the visual dimension that the band provides through its music videos and live performance.  It is fair to mention that some of the more evocative moments haven’t been brought to life this way, such as the transition from the impending-doom durge “Doos Dronk” to $O$‘s sublime title track and straight to the triumphant South-African-acapella-meets-dubstep of “Never Le Nkemise 1“, but the group’s performance-art roots lend themselves well to a visual medium.  These videos often make the videos seem more important, as the clip for “Enter the Ninja” introduces the act as the ugly-but-true reflection of South African culture and stars the Cape Town electronic artist and progeria sufferer Leon Botha.  Both the music and the video for “Fok Julle Naaiers“, meanwhile, give zef culture a bad-boy swagger: the track is menacing, and the video features heavily-tattooed and fearsome-looking men glaring in monochrome darkness.  Both “Baby’s on Fire” and “Fatty Boom Boom” are satirical and play up Yo-landi’s role as a female MC that is equal parts sexy and terrifying, her wild makeup and horror-movie contact lenses keeping the viewer from looking away even as the images get ever more off-putting otherwise.  The video for the song “Evil Boy” likely takes the award for both most meaningful and most provocative: monsters, phallic representations, revealing costumes, and a young Xhosa rapper named Wanga all swirl around in the dark underground as the group takes a stand against forcing young men to be ritually circumcised.  Die Antwoord has also taken their carnival of insanity as high as the Late Show with David Letterman, which is important at the very least for the mental image of the mainstream American audience being subjected to the hyperactive wickedness of  “I Fink U Freeky“.  So they have that going for them as well.

The fact that Die Antwoord’s music and the imagery that they choose to represent themselves with probably makes a lot of people squirm is undoubtedly intentional.  For that matter, controversy is essentially one of the group’s stated goals.  The conflict with Interscope that led to the end of their short-lived tenure as major-label artists stemmed from disagreement over some of the ickier points of that album’s subject matter.  In the short few years that Die Antwoord has been performing they have angered both gay rights groups (unintentionally- there are a lot of misconceptions about “Evil Boy”) and Lady Gaga (intentionally and unapologetically), and the shock value approach that the group has chosen to employ in getting their message out is working beautifully.  To paraphrase Yo-landi Vi$$er, the group made its music their own way, and the fact that they’ve been able to garner a cult fanbase without compromising their own vision of artistic integrity is a blessing.  Die Antwoord can be followed through their official website at dieantwoord.com, as well as through facebook and twitter.  Nobody is listening to Die Antwoord, and though the group is often a bit horrifying and not at all something that’s appropriate for polite company, the group has a unique vision for their band on the record and in real life.  The music Die Antwoord makes mirrors their personas: creepy and loud, but strikingly informative and unflinchingly honest.

 

Audio-Visual Part 2: East Cameron Folkcore at Austin’s Scottish Rite Theater

Given that my review of East Cameron Folkcore’s brand new album For Sale has had a few days to soak in, I’ll now indulge in the pleasure of detailing my experience at their resplendent album release show last week.  I finished classes with my students on the afternoon of February 8th and took a quick drive down I-35 to catch East Cameron Folkcore presenting their new work at the historic Scottish Rite Theater.

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Situated snugly between the two bustling Austin epicenters of 6th street and the University of Texas’ campus, the Scottish Rite theater is an interesting relic.  As my Austinite friend Patricia and I walked up the steps to the front door of the venue only the group of concertgoers standing in line might arouse suspicion that something as raucous as a folk-punk show would bellow out from inside that hall.  Southbound freeway traffic had kept me from catching all of the first band’s set, but from the open doorway no sound was heard.  It didn’t feel appropriate to raise my voice above a whisper.  This was not to be the case all night.

Past the framed portraits of high-ranking Freemasons and a merchandise table manned by a woman I would later discover is the mother of East Cameron Folkcore’s harmonica player we walked into a room that looked and sounded absolutely gorgeous.  The night’s first act, Mockingbird Loyals, had already taken the stage.  Having never heard the group before, I would describe the group as a starkly terrifying string band.  This seemed an appropriately Central-Texan sound: gruff and grim vocals roasting over twangy guitars and the truly menacing sound of a heartily amplified cello.  As we listened to the opening band, guessing which members of the plaid-and-suspenders crowd milling around us were to be featured in the headliner’s sprawling lineup.  Evidence would prove to support more than a few of our hypotheses.

After Mockingbird Loyals’ set, the audience was treated to a video presentation projected onto the curtain that hung over the stage.  Film clips and talking head documentary segments about mental health and government corruption were cut and spliced and juxtaposed as Possessed by Paul James set up.  A folklorist friend of mine had turned me on to Possessed by Paul James’ music before, and I knew him to be something of a wilder version of The Tallest Man on Earth.  The artist who was born Konrad Wert and has led an even more fascinating life than I knew at the time presented a great counterpoint to East Cameron Folkcore: while both deal in a captivating and sometimes uncomfortably raw brand of folk music, Possessed by Paul James is a one-man band (that refers to himself/itself as “we” without exception) and East Cameron Folkcore took the stage that night with fifteen musicians.  Possessed by Paul James performs with “their” whole body, strumming a guitar or bowing a fiddle while yelling out as though actually possessed by some bittersweetly joyful spirit that can only express itself by seizing Wert’s body and tearing into rollicking folk tunes about life, love, and meal worms.

After Possessed by Paul James the room returned to it’s normal state.  House lights went up, but only to be brought back down as another video installation grabbed the audience by its shoulders and shook it.  More scenes were lifted from post-apocalyptic thrillers and images of social unrest gave way to stock footage of atom bomb tests.  Segments jumped from Timothy McVeigh heartland terrorism to global eco-terrorism.  The crescendo of civilian anger on the projection hit its fever pitch with video of Mario Savio speaking on the steps of Sproul Hall in Berkeley, which is coincidentally the opening audio of East Cameron Folkcore’s new album.  The curtain flew up, a carnival barker’s voice introduced the band, and the 6/8 fury of “Robin Hoods Rise” began.

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In a tiered staging setup, East Cameron were swaying and screaming in a forest. Beautiful tree settings flanked the stage (I was unable to catch a photo, so below is included the only shot I was able to track down…apologies to the band for lifting a picture from their facebook profile!), and scattered across the room were televisions broadcasting an ominous “For Sale” message over empty transmission snow.  The band itself was stacked three rows deep (as shown in an artist’s rendering on the stage to the left) in front of a carefully painted backdrop that could’ve depicted a scene from The Time Machine or Planet of the Apes; palm trees and verdant green surrounded a Romanesque ruin.  It was immediately clear that this venue was a serendipitous match for the show that was to take place, as a video demonstration, specially-choreographed lighting, the whimsical set pieces, and the band itself all fit the room splendidly. Throughout the show the band’s lead-by-committee approach was well-served, as Jesse Moore or Allen Dennard could step forward to scream through a verse before backing off for Blue Mongeon’s harmonica wail.

Mongeon’s harmonica was one aspect of the show that stood out from its recorded form immediately.  The sound qualities of the hall at the Scottish Rite Theater served such a dense musical lineup well, and pieces of the arrangement were actually better heard live than on the record.  Having said that, there is some merit to the literal wall of sound that East Cameron Folkcore produces.  While a guitar or a harmonica might pull a solo here and there and horn lines and that same menacing cello add a different timbre to the mix, that overdriven hurricane of folk music reaches the listener all at once to great effect.  Especially when paired with the high frequency with which lead vocals become gang vocals, the band’s musical solidarity matches the ethos espoused in their lyrics.

Before “Humble Pie” began the forest that surrounded the musicians ascended into the heavens, widening the clearing in front of those painted ruins to include the audience that had crowded around the reserved seating area to line the walls of the theater.  Whether this was by design or not, it had the effect of drawing the crowd in more to the songs, and by the time house lights were brought up during the “take me home” refrain of “Salinger’s Dead” the audience appeared to be on the same page as the musicians they had come to see.  East Cameron Folkcore is impressive and moving when their music gets darker and louder and faster, but it is these slower driving moments that hold the most emotional resonance.  During that chorus of “Salinger’s Dead” and earlier on at the coda of “Humble Pie”, East Cameron Folkcore had become the music that plays in a dramatic movie when our hero is being beaten up and all other sound has cut out.  Moore, along with every other member of the group who found him or herself in range of a microphone, wanted to go home “to sustain”, but it felt very much that they already were.

The concert presented other cinematic moments as well.  The album’s third track, “Chasing the Devil”, began much like The Wizard of Oz with Blue Mongeon in the role of a towering male Dorothy.  The song begins with a sparser arrangement as Mongeon plucks a guitar, but the black-and-white calm of Kansas is ripped asunder by a tornado in the form of the dissonant grind of guitar, horn, and backing vocals whips like a dusty gale-force wind.  The mid-album, and therefore mid-set, track “Don’t Choke” made full use of a trio of backup singers and some clever lighting to accompany the bearded and beanie-clad Dennard with doo-wop “oohs” and tongue-in-cheek hand motions.  Throughout the show East Cameron Folkcore’s regular lineup was supplemented by two of the three backing vocalists, an organist, and a baritone saxophone, all of which bridged the gap between what must always be a punishingly heavy live show and the surprisingly touching EP from which the setlist had been pulled.

This photo is property of East Cameron Folkcore

The crowd had already been stirred by the time Blake Bernstein’s trombone took a dive-bomb at the beginning of “$allie Mae”, but the song that follows became an instant singalong in a pretty impressive release of anger from all in attendance.  As the band simmered with its own not-so-quiet rage a video projection of letters and testimonials of the heartache Sallie had wrought was broadcast behind the group.  As Aaron Perez’ drumming shifted down into halftime, the crowd was all but compelled to sing along and rock back and forth.  It didn’t hurt that this is exactly what the dozen or so musicians on stage were already doing.  As the cymbals rang out and distortion became a sustained aspect of life in that music hall the last three tracks of For Sale became one in the live performance.  “$allie Mae” led into the suddenly haunting “Enemy of the Times”, with glaring red lights hanging above the music and partially obscuring video of Mario Savio and Martin Luther King delivering speeches that could occasionally be heard behind the punctuation of harmonized wailing and cracking snare drum hits.  Instead of maintaining this state of emotional and musical suspense, the band then deftly brought the show back down by dropping out the arrangement save the organ (just as in the recording) to transition into the more acoustic album closer.  Looking back on the show I’m not sure whether the band took a bow on stage, but holding hands as if raising pint glasses to the night wouldn’t have felt out of place during the catchy “we’re all going to hell” of “Director’s Cut”.  One final explosion of sound cut just before the last line and the curtain dropped immediately; just as the audience had been transfixed by Mario Savio’s impassioned speech before the music began we were unable to move or look away from a projection of Bill Hicks’ stand up until the words “The End” appeared.  This show had been billed as a production and had exceeded even the greatest expectations for such a wide-ranging and technically challenging show.

After the show I was able to talk with a few members of the band about the music, the group’s history, and some craft techniques to wind up on Waterloo Records’ bestsellers list.  After wandering back from the smoky patio, I found myself in one of the wooden theater seats in the main music hall.  The room had been all but abandoned after the music ended, and with a better view of the stage I could see televisions stacked in every corner of the gallery.  I could tell by this point that the crumbling building painted on the backdrop behind the instruments couldn’t be the Texas State Capitol building flashed forward through an aeon of disuse, but a part of me fancied that idea; that tonight I had watched a community of friends and family and musicians stand in front of a symbol of a politicized life they didn’t agree in, and they had left that place empty and caving in around its unsound supports.

If you’re reading this on or before February 15th, 2013, go check out East Cameron Folkcore as they pull off a similar show in Austin the evening of the 15th at the Mohawk.  I won’t be in attendance, but the show promises to be every bit as transcendent as it was a week ago.  For my part, I should return to regularly-scheduled “Nobody Listens to This” next Thursday.  Until that point nobody may be listening to East Cameron Folkcore, but anyone who attends their shows has seen something really authentic happen on stage. That’s enough satisfaction for me.

Audio-Visual Part 1: East Cameron Folkcore’s ‘For Sale’

Every once in a while music brings people together and provides for really exciting creative forces to flow.  I only endorse such a cheesy sentiment because I witness that matchmaker power music has over people all the time.  I’ve dived into the cliché barrel on this occasion because the past few months have brought me some exciting feedback from the important people I mention on this page, and this weekend I took  my rock journalism act on the road to shed some light on Austin, Texas’ East Cameron Folkcore.

This specific story begins back in October when I profiled another Austin-based outfit, Bankrupt and the Borrowers, here on this site.  I inadvertently misnamed a member of the band and was duly corrected, but in those exchanges I established correspondence with a few people close to both that band and East Cameron Folkcore.  I was informed that the group would soon be releasing a new album of material and that a release party would be held in Austin in early 2013.  I was to be invited as press.

East Cameron Folkcore released their first recorded work in 2011, and the band has swelled into a collective in an amusingly symmetrical fashion to the dynamic profile many of their songs take.  Blending folk, punk, and blues (with dashes of grunge, doo-wop, and carefully-orchestrated noise), the group sounds as though a large folk band just kept turning the volume knobs up until they were screaming over everything.  This works incredibly well, and honestly beggars questions about how lines aren’t more frequently drawn between folksy protest songs and hard-nosed punk; it seems that the two genres have historically been mutually appreciative and share goals, but it’s rare to hear such a simple fusion performed.

With the brand new full-length For Sale released this past week, the listener has the treat of partaking of just such a fusion.  The album begins with an anti-establishment rail against “the machine” and seems a perfectly timely continuation of Occupy Wall Street ideals.  East Cameron Folkcore have seemingly taken their protest songs to the rally itself for this record and proceeded to crank their amps up to be heard over unionists and countless thousands drowning in government-subscribed debt.  For Sale‘s album cover is brandished with a sign inviting buyers to make an offer on the Texas State Capitol, and the not-so-subtle exhaustion with government apparatuses is clear from the get-go.

Bankrupt and the Borrowers seemed to perfectly the embody of the struggling independent rocker, and East Cameron Folkcore singer-guitarists Jesse Moore and Blue Mongeon (formerly of Bankrupt and the Borrowers) have carried that sentiment into their new project with the added benefit of solidarity.  In a band whose lineup can stretch into double digits a voice or a stringed instrument can easily be lost, but the subject matter that the group covers on For Sale lends itself to letting a group of likeminded fellows air their grievances simultaneously.  With four lead singers stepping to and fro over the shifting many-headed monster of instrumentalists, East Cameron Folkcore have improved upon the solitary protest singer strumming his acoustic guitar by inviting all of the other protesters on stage as well.

The tracks on For Sale are an interesting listen, especially given their musical variety.  “Enemy of the Times” is a punk-rock tune through-and-through, while “Robin Hoods Rise” and “Humble Pie” would be equally straight-ahead punk anger if not for 6/8 swaying in the case of the former and a slow descent into a New Orleans stomp to bring the latter to a climax.  The Moore-led “Salinger is Dead” is as close to the platonic ideal of folk-punk as is possible, with arpeggiated guitar riffs and downcast lyrics giving way to a shout-along chorus with gang vocals and mandolin strumming.  The diversity of the band’s members and the committee approach they’ve taken to lead vocal duty give some unexpected turns; “Chasing the Devil” gives Mongeon a chance to take the volume and tempo down (only to bring both up again) in order to give thanks that his friends are on the same tough road, “Don’t Choke” gives screamer Allen Dennard a chance to echo Man Man’s scruffy take on doo-wop songs, and “Director’s Cut” is singer/trombonist Blake Bernstein’s folksy ballad with a helplessly catchy refrain that “we’re all going to hell.”  Rounding out the record are the menacing rocker “Worst Enemy“; the wistful tune for the oppressed and forgotten in “Ophelia“; and “$allie Mae“, (ostensibly) a song about a break-up with a cruel mistress.

East Cameron Folkcore’s For Sale works well because enough of its political subversion is cloaked in mixed metaphors and literary references that listening to the crashing drums, long-drawn cello, and wailing troop of weary Austinites doesn’t immediately betray the subject matter.  Having said that, the depth and scope of the band’s anger and frustration is evident before a close examination of the lyrics is necessary, and the music works in tandem with words spoken and yelled to give the whole affair the feel of something brewing just underneath the surface of our current society.  For Sale seems to exist at an important juncture in American life at which the impoverished and desperate have decided that they’ve had enough and are saying something about how they’ve been treated.  In East Cameron Folkcore’s case the rally cries aren’t only shouted, they are crooned and plucked and strummed and bowed.  Living as we all are in a political-economic climate that is as tenuous as a drum stick in the hand of a heavy-hitting punk drummer, East Cameron Folkcore’s For Sale marries the joy of solidarity with the righteous anger of the downtrodden to produce an auditory demonstration that marches straight up to that machine reference in the opening soundbite and lies across the tracks demanding to be heard.

Part II, in which I recount the veritable production that was For Sale‘s release party Friday night, is coming soon. For Sale is currently available via East Cameron Folkcore’s website as a pay-what-you-want download with proceeds benefitting any of 13 different charities or nonprofit organizations.

Nobody Listens to…Garifuna Music

EDITOR’S NOTE: I’ve made a breakthrough-I’ve discovered that I can put footnotes on this blog.  Additionally, watch this space over the next few weeks for some very exciting and different things I’ll be bringing to the table.  Build the suspense…

I do have a proclivity towards music that’s soothing and seductive on this blog.  I admit that it’s relatively rare for me to profile music that’s abrasive or disturbing (don’t worry, I promise I’ll hit some of these in the coming weeks), and I am happy to say that this week’s installment is no different.  Garifuna music is comprised of several genres, virtually all of which beg the listener to close his or her eyes and sway to the grooves.  This is me writing about music with my eyes closed.

My knowledge of Garifuna music comes in two waves.  I first heard Garifuna songwriter Andy Palacio’s brilliant 2007 album Wátina when my good friend and brilliant Ethnomusicologist (now teaching at Rollins University in Orlando) Eric Bindler referred me for a listen.  I actually came across the music and culture of the Garifuna people again in my last semester as an undergraduate Ethnomusicology student while co-authoring an edited volume about Shamanistic practices.  I contributed a section on spirit possession ceremonies and music’s role therein among Garifuna people, and in the process uncovered even more beautiful songs.  I will borrow occasionally from that prior work throughout this piece.

The Garifuna[1] people today largely live in a number of communities along the Caribbean coast of Central America in Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras.  The people who today identify as Garifuna share a language and culture, and trace their ancestry to West African slaves who escaped a shipwreck on the Caribbean Island of St. Vincent and intermarried with Carib and Arawak Amerindians living on the Island.  After struggles with French, British, and Spanish colonial powers, the Garifuna resettled along the coast of Central America in a number of largely homogenous villages, the largest being the city of Dangriga, Belize, the founding of which is celebrated nationally in Belize as “Garifuna Settlement Day”.  While the vast majority of Garifuna live in their original settlements in Belize, Honduras, and Guatemala, sizable expatriate diaspora communities have formed in the American cities of New York and Los Angeles.   Most Garifuna are practicing Roman Catholics (there are small Rastafarian and Muslim minorities), but Garifuna additionally adhere to a traditional shamanic belief system dating back to their early years on St. Vincent.

Specifically the music of the Garifuna is typified by large rattles and drums that reflect the generations-old blend of African and Amerindian ancestry, and the beats of these percussion instruments traditionally play a role in communication between the physical and spiritual worlds. In the present day, Garifuna music is typically represented by a genre called punta and its blend with Latin American rock and pop.  Punta is an interesting genre in itself, and a number of artists have of late moved towards a sort of traditional version of the music, as preservation of a minority immersed in communities across the Caribbean coast of Latin America has become a necessary focus.  Hand in hand with UNESCO’s declaring Garifuna music important intangible heritage in 2001, production of “vintage” Garifuna music has given the world several fantastic albums of a music that is recognizably Latin while marking itself as unique.

These albums that have been produced almost feel like amalgamations of Latin American folk music.  Releases such as Andy Palacio’s Wátina, his friend Aurelio Martinez’ 2005 debut Garifuna Soul, and The Garifuna Women’s Project seem to independently parse a clave rhythm here and a soloistic vocal melody there to bridge Cuban son and Brazilian bossa nova through music that actually predates both.  The Garifuna language is beautiful, and the creole-ized pieces of Spanish, Carib, and African languages that have found a home in that lexicon flow wondrously over the slowly strummed guitars and thick grooves of the songs.  That almost no one speaks Garifuna only adds to the appeal; while Palacio in particular has penned fantastic lyrics about social problems and cultural preservation, a great many listeners will know only that the voices sound important and plaintive.  In a way, to hear such a rare language recorded and crystallized for eternity is a huge victory for a relatively small cultural group, and knowing this gives the vocals a bittersweet quality that the listener is probably reading into too much.  The joy and longing of a people increasingly connected only by history, music, and a somewhat commercialized spirituality translates seamlessly to make a style of music that is great for simply listening to.

It is truly a happy surprise to witness the emotional and musical range of the new “traditional” Garifuna recordings.  Palacio’s album takes the listener from the slowly persistent chugging of “Baba” and “Ayó Da” to the upbeat and highly syncopated “Lidan Aban“.  The title track is a paradox of midtempo call-and-response and staccato start-and-stop drumming.  Aurelio Martinez takes a darker turn with many of his songs, rushing from a near-whisper to a yell over moodily plucked acoustic guitar and Garifuna drumming.  To move in a completely different direction, the Umalali release titled The Garifuna Women’s Project takes older Garifuna women accustomed to performing a capella and provides the same spacious guitar-and-percussion accompaniment to great effect.  Time and time again the music pulls the listener to a scene on a Belizean beach, punctuating songs with an electric guitar solo or a chorus backed with smooth saxophones.

Andy Palacio worked the angle of cultural preservation of Garifuna culture and language through their music to great effect, but sadly did not live to see its benefits.  Less than a year after the release of Wátina, Palacio passed away from health complications after suffering a stroke and heart attack.  The singer was forty-seven years old.  Since Palacio’s death, the mantle of Garifuna cultural ambassador has largely been taken up by Aurelio Martinez, who has released an album of Garifuna-inspired music as recently as 2011, and of late has also gotten involved in the politics of his native Honduras.  The small size of the Garifuna diaspora makes tracking the musical movement as a whole difficult, but the songs are still present and still yearn for the close-knit communities Garifuna were known for by European colonial powers.  No one is listening to Garifuna music right now, but the unique path these people have taken through history has produced songs that are perfectly indicative of where they’ve come from.


[1] The Garifuna are sometimes referred to as “Garinagu”, as in a classical text by Oliver Greene.  In the years since Greene’s paper was published the Garifuna have shifted away from the Garinagu moniker as they feel it was a colonial designation forced upon them by the British.  As such, I will refer to the people as Garifuna in this work.