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.

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…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…Emmeline

This week’s episode is staying local.  I have a hard time thinking of a more worthy artist for me to shine a spotlight on than one Emmeline Miles, Dallas-area singer-songwriter and the hippest boss I’ve ever had.  As a result, the only musician to date whose debut album features yours truly playing percussion is the subject in this week’s nobody-listens-to-this post.

NOTE: Emmeline really needs to upload more videos to youtube.  In the meantime, higher-quality versions of the songs I write about below can be found at her facebook and on her personal website (links below).

Emmeline

Emmeline is unique among the bands and artists I’ve thus far written about in that I knew the person before I’d heard her music.  I met Emmeline at a Starbucks coffee in Dallas in May of 2009.  I was interviewing for a job as a camp counselor at a School of Rock-style summer camp, and the diminutive Emmeline Miles was playing the role of camp director.  While Camp Jam was full of adventures and misadventures, it is truly the less interesting side of this story.  By the end of the camp I’d gone to see Emmeline perform and been drawn in by her piano-driven brand of pop.

Emmeline was born and raised in Dallas, Texas, but really began her career as a performer in southern California while attending Scripps College.  Since her return to the Dallas-Fort Worth “Metroplex” Emmeline has perhaps been the epitome of a local act.  Writing music, teaching lessons, recording two EPs, and gigging heavily the young singer-songwriter has made friends into fans (and vice-versa) through her wide-eyed gratitude for their continued attendance at her shows.  Also, she’s a pretty talented pianist and songwriter with a voice that makes audiences set their coffee down and wonder why they hadn’t been paying attention before.

After months of passing around homemade sampler CDs, Emmeline released her first official studio work in late 2010’s Early Morning Hours.  The seven-song EP showcases the artist’s work and range mightily: from song to song the mood and genre shift widely from dark to light and jazz to folk.  Running across all of this are Emmeline’s unmistakable voice and diction.  The artist herself frequently laments the propensity of modern pop songwriters to avoid any words that are more that two syllables, and consequently has made a concerted effort towards the contrary.  The main characters in the EP-opening “The Story” are named Miranda and Sebastian (possible Shakespearean references and three-plus syllable names).  Early Morning Hours then reaches from the broken-hearted ballad “Give a Damn” to the self-esteem boosters of “I Could be Good” and “A Hundred Years”.  At the center of it all is the fan favorite “Not That Girl”, a “dirty jazz” number with a piano ostinato that matches the tune’s lyrics in slinkiness.  Each track on Early Morning Hours has its own attitude, both musically and lyrically.  This characteristic of Emmeline’s music is really a great part of what makes her stand out, as to wedge the singer into a genre may be an exercise in futility.  Emmeline’s songs are undoubtedly pop songs, but they are also without exception much more complicated than standard fare seems to be.  Whether it’s a jazz lick in this verse or a hemiola turnaround in that chorus, the songs on Early Morning Hours are poppy tunes more closely related to Tori Amos than Miley Cyrus.

Emmeline’s follow-up to Early Morning Hours is Someone to Be, released almost exactly a year after the debut.  The album is more thematic from the start, taking up the banner of encouraging young people to overcome any obstacles in their paths.  Tracks such as “Someone to Be”, “All the Reasons Why”, and “Fly” all have a can-do feel to them, and the singer takes on the role of a close friend reminding the listener that they are special and loved.  This isn’t to say that there’s not emotional range to the new EP though, as tracks like the Blondie-influenced “Apathetic” and the ominously rolling “Bad Day” allow Emmeline to get a bit angry.  The songwriting is once again surprisingly complex, and the vocals are once again impressive, but the star of Someone to Be is Emmeline’s piano.  On “Fly” a furious piano solo takes over the end of the tune, and throughout the record the piano lines seem more at the forefront than in the songs of Early Morning Hours.  This may be a conscious move, or it may just be that this sophomore release was mixed differently.  In either case, the effect is that Someone to Be feels more in-your-face than Early Morning Hours; Emmeline’s debut wanted the listener’s attention and winked and smiled to draw him or her in, while the new release kicks down the door and demands attention.

Emmeline Live

Emmeline’s live show is also something to note.  A brilliant trick of her music is that it would fit backed by a twelve-piece big band just as well as it plays with just the singer and a Yamaha keyboard.  In her usual Dallas haunts of small bars and coffeeshops, this is the typical Emmeline live show: a keyboard, a microphone, and a tiny little brunette girl who powers both.  While this de facto acoustic setup tends to limit the venues Emmeline can fill, it also keeps an element of intimacy to her performances.  The Emmeline that has performed on stage at the Dallas House of Blues and had a standing weekly gig at Lakewood Bar & Grill until it closed is the same artist who plays sitting on the floor in her apartment.

Emmeline has a wide array of sites and pages to visit, but she is most accessible through her official website, her facebook page, and on her twitter handle @emmemusic.  Emmeline continues to play locally in the DFW area, as well as nationwide, and hosts an open mic night in Dallas at the Crown & Harp Pub on Greenville Ave.  Nobody is listening to Emmeline right now, but her arresting musical talent and her commitment to quality songwriting make her a worthwhile listen, and the artist will stop at no length to endear her fanbase to her.  At the end of the day, “pop” is a genre that shouldn’t be written off as simply bad music, and Emmeline is one of a number of artists who offer hope in that regard.

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.