December 5, 2015 – Entering Asylum to see Vanessa Carlton, I honestly wasn’t sure if I knew exactly what to expect. I knew the show was 21+, that my sister always brought out my inner 14 year-old belting out her music when she played “White Houses“ on road trips, and that every time I heard the opening chords for “A Thousand Miles,“ I wanted to cover my ears to prevent them from getting such a catchy riff stuck in them for weeks on end. Vanessa Carlton has always represented singer-songwriter pop for me. Sure, ear candy, but the kind that your grandma gave you in the little plastic wrappings to keep you quiet while shopping. The kind that you don’t admit that you secretly love, but always gives you that nostalgic warmth when you encounter it. Not necessarily the kind you get excited about, however. Before heading downtown that evening, my surprised roommate said to me, “Well, she certainly is talented,” which I shrugged off as I shut the door.
It has to be said that I underestimated Ms. Carlton completely. As I came in with four friends trailing behind me hoping to have this memory as a joke for later, “Carousel“ was playing. I immediately came out with, “Oh, I forgot how many songs I actually know and like by her.” Going into her next song, “Tall Tales for Spring,” I was given chills. I began to notice the room, which was the most intimate seating I’d ever seen at Asylum. Everyone was quiet, listening intently. The movement of the music was powerful and reminded me of the soundtrack to The Snowman, the late ’80s animated silent film. I surprised myself as I teared up during the breakdown.
Before “White Houses,” Carlton’s storytelling really began to shape the movement of the entire performance. Her personality was genuine and her narrative about her brother’s trauma from the song’s popularity while he was in high school made you love her even more. Hearing the violin (played by Cartlon’s longtime dreamy collaborator, Skye Steele) open this tune just set the stage for the magic to come. Carlton’s featherweight fingers began to swell into the familiar melody, willing the audience to chime in with the third instrument of the composition: the echoing whispers of the lyrics surrounding the room. What a powerful unforgettable moment.
The rest of the set surrounded the newest material by Carlton and Steele, entitled: Liberman, named for her late grandfather’s surname at birth. Before entering into this part of the performance, Carlton explained “Liberman… Lives in it’s own space… a more euphoric territory.” Carlton’s folklore of the album as she moved through it song to song were told as vivid memories that the audience could adopt as their own to set the stage for the music. Her vocals were even more rich and etherial than I remember from her recordings.
My favorite song off the album that was performed was “House of Seven Swords,” named for a tarot deck. Before the song, Carlton explained, “It really showed me how we are each a sword, with two sides to each of our blades. This song is about courage and making choices about your character.” This completely resonated with my mid-twentysomething-year-old self. It began with a cathedral music type intro with the violin bellowing it’s power as her butterfly-on-glass voice sang, “Nobody can tell us how to build our house of seven swords,” in that flutter we all know and secretly love.
This new album mixes some of the same emotionally-entrenched, painterly lyrics, with the classical sound of her piano and Steele’s violin, with a more modern twist. A touch of electronic loops, light reverb and a consistent bass drum beat at a more dimensional shape to the new material. It’s Vanessa Carlton all grown up. She’s a vivacious person, a well-rounded performer, a storyteller, and a true artist in how she thinks about every part of her work and her collaboration, not only with Steele, but with the audience as well.
I didn’t cover my ears or escaped when “A Thousand Miles” was played after the loudest cheers in the room all night ended an elaborate story about how Carlton left ballet, and wrote the song. Instead I danced and sang the whole thing, then I escaped for a moment to contemplate, while she played her “Pretend we left the stage already and came back for an encore” finale: “The Marching Horn,” dedicated to those who have lost someone close to them.
Some graffiti in the building read, “What did you do to end patriarchy today?” I left with a warm and fuzzy feeling inside. I saw the wonderful woman, Vanessa Carlton grace our beautiful city with her moving performance. And I am so grateful.
Tall Tales for Spring
Take It Easy
House of Seven Swords
Nothing Where Something Used to Be
Sinners in the Sea
A Thousand Miles
Hear the Bells
The Marching Horn
Please note: We received free admission in exchange for this review.
November 2, 2015 – The Chicago based four-piece Marrow graced the stage at a quiet One Longfellow Square (OLS) tonight, bringing quite a vivacious energy to the room. The group impressed everyone upon first strum, first hooking them in with harmonies and rhythms touching upon the quieter hits of The Beatles, Broken Social Scene’s self-titled album and early days of The White Stripes. The whole performance was dynamic, not just number to number, but down to every change in each song. The jazzy pop-rock energies entranced the audience for the entire set.
The fresh-faced foursome are touring to promote their newest album The Gold Standard. As always, the sound at OLS was on point. I was almost disappointed to come home to study flat Marrow recordings from my tiny earbud headphones, although happy to have just witnessed such a flawless act of musical performance in a suitable room for the sound. Despite playing for around 30 people, the group brought their best efforts, quirkily confident sense of humor, and natural chemistry.
My favorite song during the performance was probably “She Chose You.” Liam Cunningham’s lead on this piece put your feet and heart in a happy place, combined with Lane Beckstrom’s California-sunshine bass line and Matt Carroll’s peppy kick drum. Macie Stewart’s buttery back-up vocals sang while multi-tasking both keys and guitar on this piece were impressive. Although it’s the harmonies between all four members that really got me. Everyone played their part fervently, and most importantly brought the fun. As I watched people dancing in the audience to the tune I nostalgically and affectionately pictured this playing during a make-up, make-out scene between Seth and Summer in an episode of The O.C.
Other influences that came to mind during Marrow’s performance were Sleeter Kinney, No Doubt, Dr. Dog, Ben Folds, The Eels and Elvis Costello. Still the arrangements and subdued yet awesome stage presence were unlike any I’ve seen. The 45-minute set flew by all too quickly. Luckily for me, and for those of you who weren’t at the show (now kicking yourselves wishing you were), Cunningham closed the night with a message to the people of Portland. “I promise, I don’t know when, but we’ll be back.” Here’s hoping.
Cam Jones and Sonia Sturino’s (of The Box Tiger) newest project, Weakened Friends, rightfully opened the night with their first performance at OLS. The show was also kicking off a Northeast tour and, sadly, their last performance in Portland for the foreseeable future.
I’d love to see a pairing of Marrow with locals Coke Weed and/or Big Blood, and maybe invite Boston up-and-comers Bent Kneefor a killer night at any of the medium-sized, great-sounding rooms in Portland. Now that would be a show not to miss.
Please note: We received free admission in exchange for this review.
I first heard the music of David Gray while living in Ireland in 1999 and became an instant fan. I went on to see him perform live many times over the years in ever-larger venues to growing audiences. His career has always taken an interesting path – after recording three albums, he took a more DIY approach with White Ladder, an album he described as having been “recorded in a small house in London with the windows open and the traffic going by.” The album, which is more loop heavy than his previous guitar-centric work, brought him notoriety in the UK and Ireland with the singles “Babylon” and “Please Forgive Me.” White Ladder was re-released in the US in 2000, helping his notoriety spread beyond his initial success back home. 2014 saw the release of Gray’s 10th studio album Mutineers, produced by Lamb’s Andy Barlow. Gray kicks off his US Summer 2015 tour on June 13 at the Maine State Pier with Rachael Yamagata opening. I spoke to Gray last week about his career, creative process, and balancing life and fame.
Can you talk about how the music business has changed since your first album, A Century Ends, was released in 1993?
Well it’s unrecognizable since then, because the digital downloading revolution has swept all before it. In terms of the nuts and bolts of how it operates it’s unrecognizable. It all seems rather quaint reflecting on it, like looking at an old steam engine or something, you know. So it’s a different place, the world that we live in and the way that people listen to music, and possess music, it’s a different equation now. Obviously the way that music affects people remains the same, but all the ways that it’s enjoyed are changing, reflecting the way that we’re changing as a race due to our sort of obsession with technology.
I was living in Ireland at the time White Ladder was gaining in popularity, and back in the US for the re-release. What was it like to be in the eye of that hurricane?
Oh, that was amazing. I mean, God bless the Irish, the most wonderful crowds in the world. It was amazing, the upsweep, the arc, that I traveled on from my relative obscurity over there – it was just a few passionate, loyal fans to spur me on – to the thing that happened when it just took off. It was the most wonderful, natural, sort of organic process; it wasn’t labored by some awful record company breathing down everyone’s neck. No one did a job on the record or on me to try to make me the next whatever, it just happened. The music had heart and soul and it connected. And the groundwork we did, it was for real, you know, we went out and played everywhere, we didn’t just pop into Dublin. So it was absolutely phenomenal. And the confidence, the weight it took off my shoulders, it was like someone turned the lights on, suddenly it was all OK. You know, I’d been living in a sort of self-tortured universe of miserable failure, and suddenly it was like people loved it, and it was such a wonderful thing to be a part of, and it gave us confidence that it was going to work anywhere we went. We had a chance to do our thing so we went out there and we played everywhere.
Your music has covered Folk Rock, tinges of Electronic, and more recently, piano-based ballads. Has there been a catalyst for exploring different genres and instruments beyond your own changing tastes?
Yeah, I mean I started that with the sort of humble origins of one man and a guitar, but I’m always restless for new sonic horizons, I’m not satisfied to remain. Music still seems to me something that needs to be broken open, there’s new edge lands to be discovered, there are new sort of vistas of sound and conjunctions of ideas. The song is losing its appeal; it’s the magnetism of words and sounds that seem to be working more over me. Less is more. To have a whole narrative of a song it seems almost overblown to me now after some of the work I’ve done on this last record. I’m moving towards something else I think. It opened a lot of doors. I was in a sort of cul de sac after Draw The Line and Foundling, feeling like I’d exhausted a particular kind of sound and idea and way of making and way of writing, and this record was a striving to break out of that straitjacket and it worked. It was hard work, and the ground is hard won, but now I’m standing somewhere completely else, and everything’s flipped over and all I see are possibilities everywhere. Without wanting to sound too pretentious and getting too carried away with myself, yes, I’m seeing the dismantling of music and the song structure of the music itself to be more like journeying through rather than having to arrive at a chorus or this or that. Something’s changed in me, and the records that will come over the next years will reflect that.
Maybe related to that, can you talk about your normal process? Do you typically work on melody first, lyrics, or a combination or does it just sort of happen as it happens? Well, always traditionally it’s been a melody first – so, chords, the melody, and then the innate rhythms in that chord sequence leading me towards a melodic line for the voice, and then trying to fit words to the phrasing. So that’s always how I’ve worked with some exceptions. There have been a few songs that I’ve written with a lyric idea first, but on this record (Mutineers), because I was striving to do things differently I really pressed on with working back from words into music, and I did it on numerous occasions and it disarmed my sense of taste. I didn’t know if what I was making in terms of the melody held any water at all. I couldn’t tell if it was good or bad, I was just forming it using my musical instincts, so I was working blind and it was only much later when I played the songs to other people and they went “Oh, I loved that” that I realized that it worked. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but it gave me a lot of confidence with the early successes. “Gulls” and “Birds of the High Arctic” are examples, incredible, it was just a line in a short story that I read that turned into a sort of melody really – the wording had a music about it. So now I’m hearing this innate music in everything. Perhaps all I have to do is sort of get a bit more zen about it, I have to sort of tune into the music that’s just there. Rather than thinking you’ve got to make it up in your head like some kind of weird math, it’s just listening to what’s passing through you all the time. From a conversation on the bus to a line in the newspaper there are melodies waiting everywhere, and ideas, so this is all part of what’s changing. I’m starting to, because of the success of some of the songs on this record, I’m starting to really think about, well, if I give you a good example of the way that I’m thinking now, I’ve been taking short films of different things. I like to go out walking. When I’m out walking I take short films of things, and I’m thinking now I could cut them together and actually use that as a starting point for the music. Some of them I think look really good and there seems to be something going on in the pictures that I want to respond to. So I think I wonder what that would be like. Clearly my musical instincts are very well established, so once I start to work it’s still going to sound like what I do, but it will have started from a different place, and that’s important because it means that it doesn’t have to get to the usual destination. So I think the lack of signs on the road, or the plentiful supply of them, has a huge effect on what you’re trying to do, and I’m interested in what I don’t know. It was scary making this record, sort of working in the void sometimes, and not knowing whether anything good was going to happen and tearing my hair out at times, but now I realize it was a vital component, so sometimes you just have to do that. I’m more interested in what happens when you don’t know what you’re doing. And obviously I had a lot of help from my producer (Lamb’s Andy Barlow), who also had a huge effect on what I did. So it’s a different way of thinking that I’m cultivating. Cultivating isn’t the right word, it’s something that’s happening to me and I’m just trying to listen to the way that my musical reflexes are telling me to – I’m paying attention in a different way, that’s all that’s changing.
I did have a question about how your process differs when you’re working on a collaboration with Andy Barlow, or if you’re doing something with Orbital….
It’s, you know, I got sent a piece of music for a TV score, and they’ve done these orchestrations, and they asked if I could write a song over the top, so all I could do was play the music and then respond and that’s all I can do is just respond with my melodic impulse to, and rhythmic impulse to whatever’s put in front of me. Whether it’s something that I’m playing, or it’s something that the drummer’s doing, or something that Orbital sends me, it’s the same thing each time. It’s just when you work with other people and strip out a lot of the standard ways that you would bolt a song together, it enables something else to happen in the empty spaces left, and collaboration can lead to something that’s much more than the sum of its parts. That’s what I experienced working with Andy on a lot of songs on this record. It’s got me kind of keen to repeat that, whether with him or with others.
So keeping on the process theme, you’ve covered songs by people like the Everly Brothers, Randy Newman, Soft Cell, Springsteen, Dylan…some have been pretty straightforward, but others have been completely new arrangements. Is there something that sort of drives you to maybe change a song? Your cover of Soft Cell’s “Say Hello Wave Goodbye” is a good example of one that feels completely different from the original….
Yeah, there are others that haven’t seen the light of day as well. It’s just responding to a melody, and thinking I could make it my own. So the Dylan song, “One Too Many Mornings,” I was singing it and then one day I wanted to sing it differently. I wanted it to go somewhere and not just have a harmonica break, so I just wrote another couple lines, and that’s the nature of folk tradition and song tradition is it let me reinterpret it and re-write it. So I’ve just been singing a song, I’m often singing a song to myself and I don’t know the words, and I don’t really know the arrangement, and so I just start making my own thing up and then that becomes my version, and then when I actually hear the song I’m like “oh, that’s an A minor, I’ve been playing a D” you know, I can get it all wrong. But then I end up with something that’s mine. So the spirit of the song remains, and a lot of the lyrics and a lot of the chords and feeling, but I hopefully bring something else to it. Some songs are just quite straightforward – you just want to sing them, they’re beautiful things, and there’s not much change involved. In other songs they can be reinterpreted quite radically, like “Say Hello or Wave Goodbye.”
I mentioned some of the artists that you’ve covered – are there maybe some other artists you can talk about that you feel have influenced you as a performer?
God yeah, I mean, well loads of people. Van Morrison, Nina Simone, Bob Dylan obviously. There’s three for starters. I saw bands like The Waterboys in 1985 on the This Is The Sea tour – I was blown away by that, so loads of people have had a massive effect.
One thing that’s always struck me is how grounded you seem compared to many other artists. How do you balance fame and family life and touring?
With difficulty, is the simple answer to that. With great difficulty. I think balance is this notion…I’m reasonably balanced today, but anything could knock me off. I’m not a one for the striking of the artistic pose. That I just find rather tedious, the whole cliché of it. But I can understand how you can be, well, I know lots of other artists, and they’re just a pain in the ass and downright impossible a lot of the time. It’s to do with their own insecurities and their own self-centered egotism. And other people would love all that shit, they interpret it as some kind of tortured, utterly vexed soul – this is why all the beautiful music comes out so beautiful, because they’re in such torture all the time. We feel their pain and they just go with it all the way and almost encourage that kind of thing. People want it to be true, they want Van Gogh to be cutting his ear off all the time. But that’s not for me – I think it’s all bullshit. I think writing songs and making music, there’s a mystical aspect to it, and there’s something mystical about music and mystical about art, and it encourages some kind of…religious reflex where people like to see some kind of spirit moving through people and they think there must be ramifications. People have got to be half deranged, and a lot of artists are, so you need a very thin skin, you need a very thin skin to be an artist – you have to be so sensitive that it hurts and you have to deal with the world by making something out of it. And then a lot of people don’t have a thick enough skin, on the other hand, to deal with the consequences of what that means: other people looking at their work, criticizing it, people seeing them on the street recognizing them. So a lot of behavioral tics are born out of the sheer discomfort and mortal agony that being alive can entail. When people are in on what you do and not giving you any privacy and staring at you. So there are all kinds of reasons why people strike a pose, but yeah, that kind of thing isn’t for me. But that’s not to say that I’m in balance, I think that would be a downright lie.
THE LADY REAPPEARS
A Hero’s Welcome for a Maine Original
On March 13, 2015, a sold out crowd at Port City Music Hall eagerly anticipated the arrival of one of the state’s proud musical products. No, not Lenny Breau (RIP, by the way), but rather a compact dynamo of an individual that goes by the name of Lady Lamb (née Lady Lamb the Beekeeper, née née Aly Spaltro).
This would be my first experience seeing an artist in a live setting that has done the unthinkable: made it out of the state of Maine and come back, not with tail between their legs, but firmly established with many outposts throughout the country as well as parts of others. There was certainly a different feeling in the air, a feeling that this would not just be a routine concert, but a celebration, a homecoming.
The first act of the night was Henry Jamison, a musician who had spent some time in the Portland area as the leader of The Milkman’s Union, but now resides in Vermont. Jamison had command of his voice – a mellow, yet haunting sound that felt very much at home nestled in reverb.
The occasional appearance of an upright bass, especially when bowed, added to the melancholy of the sound, but also added a roundness and directness that the solo acoustic songs did not, or weren’t meant to, have in the first place.
If Henry Jamison’s set left all at the show in a contemplative state of mind, it was quickly whisked away by the eclectic sounds of Brooklyn’s Cuddle Magic. I know it’s an overused word, but how can a band not be eclectic when they have a vibraphone, clarinet, trumpet, and double bass at their disposal? I’m still trying to make sense of Cuddle Magic, which may be missing the point. They seem to pride themselves on their ability to be musical chameleons. No two songs were ever alike, but there were common elements that held them together, namely their tight vocal harmonies, stomping beats, and emphasis on returning melodic motifs.
Cuddle Magic is a band that leans heavily in synthesizing sounds, and I strongly detected elements of hip hop, jazz, folk, and a splash of ELO for good measure (And yes, I desperately wanted to namedrop ELO in this review). For some reason I even heard Evanescence and Tower of Power also, but I had a fever that night and I’m pretty sure I saw a kangaroo in a business suit as well (or was it Jonathan Lethem?).
As strong and distinct as the first two acts were, it was clear who the audience came to see. The moment Lady Lamb took the stage, a buzz in the crowd began. It was an appreciation for someone who was one of their own and had come back to give thanks.
The set began with a burst of energy that didn’t let up. I was initially reminded of PJ Harvey as Lady Lamb and her homegrown band (Derek Gierhan on drums, TJ Metcalfe on bass) ripped through some heavy tracks featured on her newest album (After released on Mom + Pop Music), but the band still had a feel that was all their own. Within the hard driving songs that oscillated between muddy, Neil Young power chords and Eastern-tinged grooves, Spaltro’s voice was always front and center: a blend of self-possession and vulnerability.
In the middle of the set, Lady Lamb settled into a more intimate grouping of songs, many of which premiered during Spaltro’s earlier years in Portland. The energy ramped up once more as the band returned to full rock mode for the remainder of their time on stage.
Without a doubt this was a special show for the artist. She went out of her way several times to express her gratitude to those who have always supported her and her love for a state that runs deep enough to be branded on her left arm. There was even a point where she gave a shoutout to her cousin in the audience whose shirt she was wearing.
If only every show could be this celebratory.
Please note: We received free admission in exchange for this review.
Do Robots Roll on Electric Ecstasy? (Or: How a Luddite Opened His Ears and Eyes)
A friend and I discussed what makes a truly worthwhile live musical experience. So many times we have been to shows where you were watching what amounted to animatronic musicians projecting pre-recorded music. It would have been easier to just stay home and listen to the records (and the drinks would have been much cheaper, too. Ever tried Schaefer’s?).
Sometimes a band will mask (pun) the fact that they’re phoning it in musically by distracting the audience with dazzling pyro and slumping bodies hidden away in jumpsuits (Kiss obviously being the most successful practitioners in that field).
But what makes a truly worthwhile musical experience, if we are trying following the “record-to-live” criteria, is how a band can capture the feel of what makes them unique on the record while still providing fresh insights into their talent that can only be experienced when occupying the same space. Going to see Odesza at Port City gave me this type of experience.
I must confess that I know next to nothing about electronic music/electro-pop. My knowledge starts and ends with Brian Eno (does he count? Illuminate me, hepcats). But I was really impressed with Odeszas’s 2014 record In Return. What was interesting about the album was their ability to mix groove, ambience, and melody, their blending of the anxious and the ethereal together in a way that worked most successfully by taking the album as a whole.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I went to see them. I don’t know what the hell DJ’s do on stage, and I probably never will. I assumed they would hit a couple of buttons on their mixers and let the album play in its entirety while they sat in chairs and read the funny pages. Meanwhile scores of fans rolling on ecstasy would begin grooving with their eyes closed, their heads filled with kitty cats, puppy dogs, and rhombi (I had this alllll figured out).
Though I’m pretty sure I’m correct about the drug taking and the geometric projections, I was wrong about Odesza’s live presence. They came out swinging and rarely let up for the duration of the show. This was not the beautifully brooding sounds of In Return I was hearing, but rather a much more aggressive sound, in tune with the energy of the venue, and it was hard for anyone to stay still. (I, being an old person, was sitting down the whole show. But I assure you my left knee was dancing up a storm.)
There were still traces of the melodic element that featured so prevalently on the album (the prevalence on In Return was due to the use of several guest vocalists, none of whom could corporally be at the show). But the aggressiveness was provided by a much more pronounced emphasis on groove, especially from the bass that had been cranked up well past polite levels. It was definitely worth the money (Note: I got free tickets) to see the Seattle duo live and experience their ferocious side, as opposed to my more contemplative experience with In Return.
Has this helped me have a better appreciation for electronic music? Yes. Will I continue to follow the career of Odesza? Yes. Will I be allowed to write another review? I don’t know.
Lady Lamb is the moniker of Brunswick-raised Aly Spaltro, who, despite a move to Brooklyn several years ago, remains a hero of the Portland music scene. Her deep connection with Maine is apparent from the tattoo of the state’s outline that she bears on her upper arm.
As a teenager she played her guitars and banjos after shifts at a local video store and began distributing her home-recorded and hand-packaged albums in Bull Moose stores around Maine. She also performed in the Tower of Song series on Congress Street that were held during First Friday art walks by Portland-based label Eternal Otter Records, who put out her albums Sunday Shoes and Samples for Handsome Animals (2008).
In recent years, she has garnered national and international acclaim for her albums Ripely Pine (2013) and the latest After (2015), being featured in and reviewed by several magazines, websites, and radio stations including Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, NPR, and Buzzfeed. She has toured in the US, Canada, and Europe with acts like Kaki King, Neko Case, and Beirut. Last year, she performed in Ireland’s largest annual musical festival, Electric Picnic, alongside acts such as David Byrne, St. Vincent, and Hozier.
She recently signed with Mom+Pop Music, who is distributing her latest album, After. The album was reviewed by Rolling Stone who described it as “a collection of surrealist folk rock that grounds the dream-like imagery of her past work in the hard specifics of concrete events.”
Seattle electronic music duo Odesza will be play Port City Music Hall on Saturday, March 7th, doors open at 8pm. Odesza, which features Harrison Mills and Clayton Knight, is touring in support of In Return (released on Counter Records) their second full-length album. With a mix of ambient tracks with strong percussive emphasis as well as tracks with surprisingly memorable melodic hooks, In Return is an album that rewards the listener ready to absorb it as a whole. There are shades of Majid Jordan, MIA, 90’s hip hop, and Japanese and Indian music that can be heard throughout the record, creating a diverse record that is held together by the duo’s unique use of layered synths.