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.

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…Rupa & the April Fishes

It’s the first Thursday of 2013 and I am back! I hope this is the first of a continued stream of regular essays here and not a one-off return.  In any case, we’re back to regularly-scheduled “Nobody Listens to…” posts this week, presenting San Francisco’s grassroots global outfit: Rupa & the April Fishes.

I’ve been listening to Rupa & the April Fishes since they made an appearance as a showcase artist at the 2009 Lotus World Music & Arts Festival in Bloomington, Indiana.  I regretfully didn’t catch all of Rupa’s set, but what I saw and heard was captivating, and I picked up a copy of their first full-length album that weekend.  I’ve since spun the band’s songs on college radio shows and watched the group perform on French television.  The seductive fusion of understated grooves and laid-back melodies from around the world that the band presents has left me eagerly awaiting the chance to lie back and simply listen to anything Rupa & the April Fishes care to present.

The story of Rupa & the April Fishes really begins with lead singer Rupa Marya’s childhood.  The daughter of Punjabi immigrants to the United States, Marya was raised at points in the U.S., France, and India.  By adulthood, Marya was passably fluent in four languages and studying Biochemistry and Post-War Political Theater.  As though penning and performing socially-conscious folk music influenced by the local music and languages of the diverse countries she had visited weren’t enough, since the early 2000s Marya has been a practicing physician in the San Francisco Bay Area (in her time off from touring as a musician, obviously) and has served on the faculty of the University of California-San Francisco’s medical school as a professor of Internal Medicine.  With all of these experiences in her back pocket, Marya began performing on street corners and San Francisco cable cars with cellist Ed Baskerville in the mid-2000s, and quickly rounded out a whirling band of musicians that included trumpeter Marcus Cohen, Bandoneon player Adrian Jost, drummer Aaron Kierbel, and bassist Eric Perney.  By 2008 the group had recorded and released their debut album, eXtraOrdinary rendition, and quickly began ruthlessly touring North America.  Taking their name from a French expression that is akin to the American exclamation “April Fools!”, Rupa & the April Fishes have since endured numerous lineup changes and released two more albums, 2009’s Este Mundo and 2012’s BUILD.  Currently settled with Marya and Kierbel joined by Safa Shokrai, Misha Khalikulov, and Mario Alberto Silva the band is defined by truly global acoustic arrangements and multi-disciplinary projects that bring together people of interests and talents just as diverse as the roots of the group’s songs.

Rupa & the April Fishes have cycled through so many musicians, languages, and geographically specific folk musics that to describe the band’s ‘sound’ succinctly would be nearly impossible.  At this point Marya’s breathy and expressive voice is the most defining characteristic, and the singer does an impressive job articulating her thoughts beautifully in at least five different tongues throughout the group’s discovery.  Underneath Marya’s voice is her guitar playing, which frequently takes a backseat to the whirling cloud of noise the band produces; amidst the racing accordion and horn lines of the ensemble the guitar is almost exclusively an instrument of rhythm, softly strumming or stabbing upbeat skanks in between the melodic and harmonic lines of the band.  Kierbel’s drumming is also a constant, and the percussionist has proven himself highly adaptable in turning on a dime from quick-stepping ska grooves to spacious accompaniment for French chanson charts.  Stepping in and out on tracks from each of the band’s three LPs are upright bass, numerous species of tastefully-applied accordion, trumpet, clarinet, and stringed instruments, all of which contribute to a music that could be just as at home in Bogotá as in Paris as in Bucharest.

It does seem that with each album Marya and company have pushed the envelope further with syncretic blends of global folk genres.  On eXtraOrdinary rendition (an album name Marya says came from a desire for listeners to google the term and find information about the United States’ practice of extrajudicial transfer of detainees) the listener is greeted with a chanson song based around an Argentine bass line in “Maintenant“; surprisingly danceable folk romps in both French and Spanish in “Une Americane à Paris” and “Poder“, respectively; a dreamlike Indian raga sung in Hindi in “Yaad“; and a lighthearted reflection on a dream of seafaring ease as the album closes with “Wishful Thinking“.  The group turns to more Latin flavors on the Spanish-titled Este Mundo (This World), with comparatively more numbers sung in Spanish and a few tunes in definably Latin genres; “Soledad” is a sensual cumbia featuring a guest verse by rapper Boots Riley and “La Estrella Caida” is probably most easily called a rumba.  Este Mundo still does, however, retain many of the hallmarks of chanson songwriting, as in the French-language “La Rose”, the vamp-y “Trouble“, and the album’s pensive title track.  Perhaps the most evident new flavor added to Este Mundo may be the ska and reggae influences on tracks such as “Culpa de la Luna” and “La Linea“, an idea that is carried directly into the band’s newest release, last year’s BUILD.  On the new record the band has made a conscious shift to lyrical content (primarily) in English, and this is evident in the more conventional folk-rock and reggae of standout tracks such as “Firewater”, “Inheritance”, and “Gone”.  The group still retains their global sensibilities, however, and among the standout tracks are the Brazilian-tinged “Electric Gumbo Radio” and the transcendent bilingual reggae of “Weeds” and “Cochabamba”.  At each turn, Rupa & the April Fishes unleash music that is approachable and easy to listen to, wheezing accordions and ringing percussive bells surrounding the listener in exactly the ambience the band is looking to form as a setting for their work.

As soothing and seductive as Rupa & the April Fishes’ music is, the lyrics speak to a different emotional set entirely.  Many of the songs the band performs take up the charge for the causes its members support in efforts off of the stage, from a seed exchange to promote grassroots farmers to an artist’s residency in southern Mexico that seeks to give voice to “invisible” indigenous people.  Marya herself has tied her identity as a physician into her lyrics and artistic endeavors as her songs accompany efforts to provide undocumented workers and global travelers with free or low-cost healthcare.  Rupa & the April Fishes have songs that touch on populist movements from Occupy Wall Street to the Arab Spring, and when the singer touches on feelings of love it’s more often a humanitarian care for and understanding of her fellow man or woman than a romantic desire (though those emotions can also be found in the group’s lyrics).

The powerful good that Rupa & the April Fishes have done and are continually planning as an activist arm of their musical outfit is astounding.  Partnered with nonprofit organizations and seeking prestigious grants and awards to promote their social outreach plans is a fantastic path for a band to take, and that the music that serves as a source of this outreach is both appropriate and great to listen to only makes the group more likeable and important.  Marya’s undeniable talent as a singer and songwriter and her impressive resume do a good deal to keep the listener dialed in actively with the group, and with each release the band seems to widen its scope even as they associate individual tracks with tangible humanitarian efforts in the U.S. and abroad.  The group is represented here online at their official website and on facebook, though perhaps the best way to connect with the group would be attending a live show.  No one is listening to Rupa & the April Fishes at the moment, but the organic and alluring blend of global folk genres that reflect a desire to better the world in real and measurable ways makes this group quite deserving of a listen. And maybe some seeds.

Nobody Listens to…La Rue Kétanou

This post is for the buskers.  Over the past five years I’ve spent some time on street corners and at farmers’ markets yelling and picking away at my guitar.  It’s a tough way to earn money, but maybe the most enjoyable I’ve experienced.

Pause for me to go google search good spots to busk in Fort Worth.

Pause for sadness upon learning that Fort Worth police are tough on buskers.

…and back to the actual article.  This week I’m writing about former street performers and grand purveyors of French chanson music, La Rue Kétanou.

La Rue Kétanou

I first heard La Rue Kétanou during a phase in which I had to listen to as much chanson as possible as quickly as possible.  While it’s not tough to find great bands that fit the bill of the seductive French genre that blends folk, gypsy music, pop, and maybe a bit of reggae, La Rue Kétanou stood out.  Their music is more energetic, more lively than the usually-sedate tunes that thechanson chanteuses typically churn out.  It’s still bohemian street music, but more the sort to jump and skip down the road than to stroll leisurely while holding a romantic partner’s hand.

The core of La Rue Kétanou is the trio of Parisians Mourad Musset, Olivier Leite and Florent Vintrigner, all former students of the Théâtre du fil. As street performers the three began performing in 1996, living and breathing with the streets they played on.  The band took their name, in fact, from a play on the phrase “C’est pas nous qui sommes à la rue, c’est la rue qui est à nous”, implying that they are not of the street, but the street takes its life from them (the performers).  The late 90s saw the group connecting with members of established chanson act Tryo, who invited the young La Rue Kétanou on a leg of their tour as an opener.  By 2001 La Rue Kétanou had produced their debut album, and have since released four more, and continue to tour, bringing their personal style of freewheeling street music indoors and onto the stage.

Most of what I know about La Rue Kétanou comes from their 2009 release, A Contresens.  The album is really quite polished, as could be expected from the fourth studio output of a band that had been playing together for thirteen years, though the free spirit that seems to define the group is still recognizably present.  Each member of the group sings, and the standard lineup features Vintrigner on accordion and Leite and Musset on guitar.  True to their bohemian roots, however, each member is liable to trade his guitar out for another stringed instrument or any element of percussion.  The album A Contresens itself boasts instrumentation as wide as to feature upright bells, strings, and electric guitar, though none of these ever takes precedent over the acoustic forefront that La Rue Kétanou has defined itself by from the beginning.

The songs of A Contresens bounce from the lighthearted to the plaintive and back again.  The album’s opener is “Todas las Mujeres”, a French romp with a Spanish title that pulses from a cajón and loosely strummed guitars.  The reggae-tinged “Germaine” follows, and the album continues a musical world tour with chanson interpretations of cabaret, tango, and bossa nova songs (“Ton Cabaret”, “Elle est Belle”, and “Sao Paolo”, respectively).  Numbers such as “Je Peux pas te Promettre” take a turn for the dramatic, but lighthearted and playful moments such as the jawharp solo to lead off the folksy “Prenons la Vie” are never far off.  La Rue Kétanou always seem to be joking, but when more closely examined, the songs often have much to say about life as the artists see it.  The aggressive and powerful roll of “Maître Corbeau” is led by a descending accordion line and percussive rap-like lyrics that muse on life’s winners and losers (and a crow character? maybe lyrical analysis of a language I don’t speak is a bit unwarranted).  In any case, the songs that fill A Contresens are at once worldly and quintessentially French, compounding the duality of a successful band of bohemian street performers that reflect the tragic and the comic in their words and their melodies.

La Rue Kétanou

The philosophy that La Rue Kétanou puts forth is a fascinating one, albeit not the most unique: that the individual doesn’t behave one way or another because he comes “from the streets”, but rather that individual makes the streets what they are.  To this band, such is life; out in the public domain where the marginalized and the elite pass each other there is a vitality that the slinky rhythms and gang vocals encapsulate well.  And this is especially well taken from a group that has come literally from performances on street corners to accompaniment by full orchestra. Along this journey the band has released five full-length albums, and has continued to tour, though largely within French borders.  La Rue Kétanou can be found most easily online through their twitter handle and a French music-only Myspace takeoff.  For the second week in a row I’ve managed to profile a group that doesn’t have an official website per se, as following a link directed to www.larueketanou.com only takes the user to the associated act Tryo’s page.  Web problems aside, La Rue Kétanou deserves to be listened to for both their folksy fun sound and their urban-organic ethos.  Nobody is listening to La Rue Kétanou at the moment, but the accordion-and-acoustic-guitar-driven act that sprang from Paris’ streets makes for a great listen that is improved with every toe tapped and head shaken.

Long live the buskers.

Nobody Listens to…Of Monsters and Men

So I’m being a bit trendy here, but I want to go ahead and write this entry before the title is dated in about a week.  For right now, Of Monsters and Men still qualifies as a band most people I know haven’t heard of, so they’re the subject of this week’s column.

Of Monsters and Men

A Few weeks ago, I began hearing a song I didn’t recognize quite frequently on KXT, a public radio station here in Dallas-Fort Worth that plays a wide variety of music.  I wondered if I was listening to a new song by Mumford & Sons that featured a female voice, or some other such exponent of the U.K.’s recent folk revival.  After extensive research (read: going to KXT’s website and looking up playlists) I discovered that I had been listening to “Little Talks” by a hot new Icelandic band by the name of Of Monsters and Men.  I decided that they were worth some investigation.

Of Monsters and Men formed through the collaboration of singers Nana Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir and Ragnar Þórhallsson in 2010.  Within a year of its inception, Of Monsters and Men had both secured a slot in and won Iceland’s national battle of the bands, Músiktilraunir.  Around this time Seattle radio station KEXP caught wind of the group and released a video of the group performing the song “Little Talks” acoustically.  Of Monsters and Men had a foothold in the U.S.

Musically, Of Monsters and Men describe themselves as “crafters of folkie pop songs”, a designation that the group lives up to on their debut album My Head is an Animal.  I’ve not been the first two compare the group to Mumford & Sons, and the male vocals provided by Þórhallsson and the pounding kick drum that drives most of the tunes of the album easily remind the listener of the British string band that burst onto the airwaves in late 2010.  Þórhallsson’s voice itself is clear and plaintive, reminiscent of Mumford & Sons’ Marcus Mumford or Irish singer-songwriter Damien Rice.  When paired with the unique-yet-familiar vocals of Hilmarsdóttir on such songs as the album’s lead-off track “Dirty Paws” and the follow-up single “King and Lionheart”, the two singers seem to manage a tangible emotional content while never straining their voices to great dynamic or melodic heights.  It should also be noted that Of Monsters and Mens’ songs are in English, and the singers’ accents could almost pass off as British (thus the easy comparisons to British folk groups).

(Personal sidebar: While living in Peru, I met a lovely young Icelandic girl who spoke English very clearly, and with a similarly quasi-British accent. She said it was due to Icelanders’ consumption of British television.  I wonder if this is relevant.)

The resulting sound is a surprisingly soft and warm lyrical aspect to a music that swells from finger-picked acoustic guitars and softly played piano to pounding drums and soaring horns.  Tracks such as “Love Love Love” really spotlight this dynamic range, as the song is light all the way through an arrangement of guitars and accordion, but feels as if it might explode at any moment.  This is par for the course on My Head is an Animal.  Something about the way these songs are written leads the listener to an anticipation that even the most quiet and calm of musical passages can burst into a thick wall of acoustic sound.  That Of Monsters and Men have a penchant for ominous sound effects and gang vocal shouts only adds to this.  Expanding around these musical punctuation marks are clouds of guitar, keys, and percussion.  The songs onMy Head is an Animal seem to exist in a wide and open space- almost as if the music reflects how one might imagine Iceland (I’ve heard it’s not all expansive tundra, but it’s hard to shake that mental image).  A healthy reverberation placed over all of the instrumental and vocal tracks makes the album interesting to listen to spatially. My Head is an Animal sounds like a folk band playing very far away that has somehow echoed very close to the listener’s ears.

Of Monsters and Men

As I alluded to at the beginning of this piece, Of Monsters and Men appears to be on the verge of major success stateside.  After KEXP in Seattle’s profiling of the group, radio stations across the country have begun giving “Little Talks” airplay, and a beautifully-shot music video has appeared on the internet.  I recently discovered that the group will be performing as a showcase artist at Austin’s South by Southwest music festival in just over a week, and multiple dates across a North American tour are beginning to sell out.  All of this is doubly amazing given that the group hasn’t even released their debut album in the United States yetMy Head is an Animal officially becomes available in the U.S. on April third, though tracks from the release can be streamed at various points throughout the internet, and a number of high-quality live videos are on youtube.  Of Monsters and Men can be found online through their website, a tumblr(!), and on twitter with the handle @monstersandmen.  No one is really listening much to Of Monsters and Men yet, but the new depth they bring, both melodically and geographically, to the recent surge of well-written and emotive folk music makes the band worthy of all of the new exposure it seems they will be privy to over the next few weeks.  I encourage all in Austin for South by Southwest to stop by Of Monsters and Men’s showcase, and all who can’t make it to the festival to keep youtube-ing until April third.

Nobody Listens to…Hadestown

For my first installment, I’m sticking continental and electing to tell you all about what may be the best concept album I’ve ever heard.

A few weeks ago my younger brother (full disclosure: he is six years younger and infinitely cooler than I am) started telling me all about this folk opera he read about on cracked.com, and how it was a great listen.  I was initially hesitant to give “Hadestown” a shot, but I have to say that I’m glad my brother won me over.

“Hadestown” is a self-styled “folk opera” by singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell that recasts the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in a post-apocalyptic depression-era America.  Instead of dying, Eurydice leaves Orpheus for the opportunity of work in the walled mining colony of Hadestown, which is run by the corrupt businessman Hades.  Persephone, Hermes, and the Fates make appearances as well as, respectively, Hades’ speakeasy-owner of a wife, a railroad man who guides Orpheus “down South”, and…the Fates (I think).  Admittedly, I have loved myths and legends since I was a wee lad and went on to get a bachelor’s degree in a field that allows me to study folklore, but I really geek out over the story told throughout the album.  It’s not always entirely clear what’s happening track to track, but it’s easy to imagine that one tone or sound effect corresponds to an instance in the tale or another. At least that’s the way I do it (yes, because I geek out over this sort of thing).

The casting for “Hadestown” is pretty impressive as well. Mitchell takes on the role of Eurydice, and lends it her brand of half-innocent-half-repentant pleading to a great deal of the female lead’s songs and verses.  The songwriter’s voice contrasts well with the incomparable Ani DiFranco (seriously, how did she get onto this project?) by sonically making Persephone sound a bit older and wiser, knowingly seeing the events of the myth play out from behind the bar in her speakeasy.  Folk singer Greg Brown gives Hades a strikingly deep voice that rumbles every time he delivers a line, and though I don’t feel that the writing for the titular town’s ruler is as strong as for most of the other characters, Brown’s delivery keeps the listener engaged.  Ben Knox Miller of The Low Anthem plays Hermes with a raggedy blues yell that I wish I could imitate, and the Haden Triplets (Tanya, Petra, and Rachel) harmonize as the three fates.

But the role of Orpheus is one I’d like to spotlight here. The vocalist who takes on the lead male role in “Hadestown” is Justin Vernon….otherwise known as the lead singer behind buzzword and recent Grammy nominee Bon Iver.  “Hadestown” is at this point about a year and a half old in its recorded form (a few live, almost hootenanny-style stage shows preceded the album), and as such may predate most listeners’ relationships with Bon Iver.  The love that Vernon has lately been getting, however, is one reason I’m surprised that no one I’ve spoken to but my super-hip brother has heard “Hadestown”.  While I wouldn’t even presume to say that Vernon’s voice is sweet enough to charm rocks, his style fits impeccably in this particular opus’ Orpheus role, and the overdubbed harmony technique that Vernon uses in his Bon Iver recordings is utilized here to give Orpheus an otherwordly quality…it’s as though Orpheus’ musical genius gives him the ability to sing with multiple voices at the same time.

Being a concept album or “folk opera”, “Hadestown“‘s lyrics tell the story through lyrics, which are frequently clever and topical while (mostly) remaining broad enough that almost every track is listenable on its own.  Some of the songs function simply as exposition or backstory to the plot, and the vast majority of the numbers refer to Orpheus, but most of these pieces could easily stand alone.  Whether this is because of the self-contained nature of the song (as in “Way Down Hadestown” and “Epic” parts 1 and 2, for example) or because the lyrics use metaphors or broader themes (as in “Wedding Song” and “If it’s True”) varies across the album.  Some of the details of the story are explained only implicitly or through research outside of the album, though the characters are all clear in their roles, and much is made of the Greek Underworld’s transformation into a mining town, with a giant wall replacing the river Styx.  With references worked in to both the original myth and more modern conventions about the hero’s journey and the archetypal roles the characters in “Hadestown” fill, the text of the album really makes everything work.

This isn’t to say that the lyrics are all that matter.  Anaïs Mitchell’s collaboration with musician Michael Chorney to add the musical backdrop to “Hadestown” really makes the opus stand out, as the pieces are all interesting to listen to, and three instrumental tracks spotlight the extent to which the songwriters used musical soundscapes as the place-setting for the scenes portrayed by the words that are sung above them.  Each song has its own groove, and impressive solos are sprinkled throughout (the piano in “When the Chips Are Down” and the Accordion in “His Kiss, The Riot” are personal favorites of mine); but everything lays over a dense musical blend of guitars, stringed instruments, percussion, brass, and sound effects. Though there are few instances where an instrument forwards the plot in place of a vocalist, I feel there are “yes!” moments to the music throughout.

All of these factors add up to a highly interesting piece that I’ve found myself playing to much more frequently than I would’ve guessed before, or even after, my first listen.  “Hadestown” is best enjoyed through a stereo in a dark room or on a night-time drive; any situation in which the album dominates the listener’s sensory maximizes its potential to really lay everything out.  There’s so much going on in each number that really listening to -as opposed to hearing- the album makes it infinitely better. 

Nobody is listening to Anaïs Mitchell’s “Hadestown” right now, but I think the all-star cast it sports and the epic blend of Greek mythology and well-written indie-folk earn it at least a few more fans. So I pass it on to you all.