The Brilliance of the Blue Jean Committee

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Perhaps no comedian has a better grasp on the music world than Fred Armisen, who was a drummer for Chicago indie-punk band Trenchmouth before becoming a weird comedy star on Saturday Night Live. Since SNL, Armisen has now become the drummer and bandleader for The Late Show with Seth Meyers, as well as one-half of the brilliant Portland spoof Portlandia.

Thus there might be no better person for  a music documentary spoof, and he and the amazing Bill Hader knock it out of the park in their new Documentary Now series, a new IFC TV series that spoofs classic documentaries. The last two in the series are on the Blue Jean Committee, Hader and Armisen’s made-up Cali soft-rock that’s based loosely on the Eagles. The two-part documentary is a quality spoof of The History of the Eagles, a 2013 Showtime documentary that famously cast band members Glenn Frey and Don Henley as complete jerkoffs. Hader and Armisen, as well as show executive producer Seth Meyers, pick up on the irony of such a gentle and soft band made up of a bunch of macho alpha-males that want to kill each other. That, in addition to Armisen’s complete takedown of classic music documentary clichés, is what makes the Gentle & Soft: The Story of the Blue Jean Committee so hilarious.

Building on the macho men playing delicate music idea, the bandmembers Clark Honus (Hader) and Gene Allen (Armisen) are made into Chicago tough guys from sausage families that first tried Chicago blues, before deciding to opt for a SoCal soft-country sound. As cultural critic Chuck Klosterman says in the documentary, the Beach Boys sing about surfing and never surfed, so why can’t the Blue Jean Committee do the same with California.

In the documentary, the Blue Jean Committee has one breakthrough record in Catalina Breeze, which is really their Hotel California. Songs like “Mama, You’re a Dancer”, “Catalina Breeze”, and “Gentle & Soft” perfectly capture that corny California soft-rock sound. The documentary also includes other AM radio giants that Armisen and Hader are spoofing talking about the fake band, including Kenny Loggins of Loggins and Messina, Michael McDonald of Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers, and Daryl Hall of Hall and Oates.

Blue Jean Committee is quickly becoming a reality as well, as the two performed on Late Night with Seth Meyers, and put out Catalina Breeze on Drag City Records. While there have been plenty of spoof bands, this is the best take I’ve heard on that cheesy 70’s rock sound, so definitely check out the Documentary Now episodes  (currently on IFC.com to watch and will be coming to Netflix soon) as well as the music itself. It’s rock parody at its best.

The Brilliance of the Blue Jean Committee

Annual Music Podcast Power Rankings

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I last visited the world of music podcasts in 2013 when, admittedly, I had a much harder time coming up with five music-related podcasts worth listening to. Since Serial came out and seriously raised awareness of podcasts, there has been a tremendous increase in podcasts in general. So much like TV, there is now the problem that there are not enough hours in the day to listen to good, worthwhile podcasts. So here are the best five music podcasts that I would wholeheartedly recommend.
Continue reading “Annual Music Podcast Power Rankings”

Annual Music Podcast Power Rankings

Apple Music: The Death Knell for Downloadable Music

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Once fat and healthy, the internet in the 21st century has thrown the music industry for a loop time and time again, putting musicians and the industry that produces them in a serious identity crisis as to where the money comes from. With the invention of the iPod and eventually the iPhone, downloadable music in MP3 format became the new form, and CDs went the way of the cassette tape. Vinyl strangely came back into vogue as a counter-cultural music fan move to the digital revolution. Throughout the whole age of digital music, file sharing through Napster, then Limewire, then BitTorrent and any number of other file sharing programs made music easily accessible for free. Finally, streaming came about from outlets like Rdio, Pandora, and Spotify to make music as easily accessible, though it does require some data usage, paying the artists at least something for the music, a fraction of a penny for each listen.

Apple’s entrance into the streaming service world, Apple Music, marks the beginning of the end for downloadable music. Apple, who owns the world’s largest music download store in iTunes, has stopped caring about iTunes and instead has thrown all their eggs in the Apple Music basket. The day Apple Music launched, it became extremely difficult to even find iTunes, or a price on an individual album. Instead, everything became focused on getting you to try the streaming service.

With the ability to listen offline, Apple Music completely blurs the lines between your purchased downloads and music you find in streaming. When you are under “My Music” on your iPhone or iPad, all your selected music, whether downloaded or just streamed, looks the same. Thus, Apple is playing a role in changing people’s understanding of your music. It’s no longer what you own, but it’s what you listen to.  All music is available to snatch up and be listened to in the instance of a quick search.

With Beats 1 Radio, Apple also offers an alternate to Satellite (Sirus XM) and Terrestrial (AM/FM) Radio, for people that prefer someone else to curate their listening for them. Already, Beats 1 is off to a great start, with mixtapes/radio hours from tons of influential artists, including Dr. Dre, Elton John, and St. Vincent. Apple is making sure there is a curated option for every music fan under the sun.

St. Vincent is one of many new DJs for Beats 1 Radio
St. Vincent is one of many new DJs for Beats 1 Radio

Some bugs remain, that will keep Apple Music from becoming a complete no-brainer. For example, there is no easy way, beyond a syncing workaround, to get your music that’s not on Apple Music (say a local artist or an album that hasn’t released is not yet on iTunes) on your device. You can essentially turn Apple Music off, get it added, and then turn it back on, but this is a time-consuming affair. There are plenty of other little kinks Apple still has to work out, but I’m guessing a few software updates later, Apple music will be pretty much all you want it to be.

My prediction is by the end of 2016, streaming and vinyl will be the two largest sources of revenue for consuming music. Yes, those are on completely opposite sides of the spectrum, but vinyl still scratches the itch of audiophiles who love the tangible aspect of a record and listening intentionally an album at a time. Streaming speaks to our sense of wanting everything now, on-the-go, and for the lowest price possible, only $9.99 a month. It will be interesting how artists survive this new form, but it could be more exposure for artists, and getting some money (if just pennies) from people who may have been downloaded their records illegally through file-sharing before, is a small step up. The music industry continues to be in the wilderness.

Apple Music: The Death Knell for Downloadable Music

Songs of Summer ’15 Walk-Off

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Every year, a song defines the summer: it’s at every wedding, every beach party, and every festival you attend. You simply can’t escape it, but usually its such a perfect song you don’t mind hearing it again and again. Pharrell owned the last two summers, with last year’s giddy-gospel “Happy”, and in 2013, singing the hook on Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” and producing Robin Thicke’s rapey yet infectious “Blurred Lines”. In 2012, it was the sneaky great “Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepsen, and in 2011, it was LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem”, which is still inescapable at weddings everywhere.

With Zoolander 2 coming our way at the end of the year, how else could we settle the 2015 Song of Summer than a walk-off? Here we go, with the five leading candidates for song of summer.

Fetty Wap – “Trap Queen”

Dance Move: Bounce, bounce, bounce. Trap music is the flavor of the day, and on “Trap Queen”, Fetty Wap captures what people love about the ramped-up rap form in a catchy little package.

Drawback: Being the flavor of the day has its setbacks. I’m not sure we’ll be coming back to “Trap Queen” years from now, but I could be wrong.

Tame Impala – “Let It Happen”

Dance Move: Do the time warp. The psychedelic elecro-pop ride of “Let It Happen” warps space and time for the good of the dancefloor, throwing you through new sound portals left and right.

Drawback: Run time. At 8 minutes, “Let It Happen” is a little long in the tooth for most summer dance parties.

Major Lazer and DJ Snake featuring MØ – “Lean On”

Dance Move: The globe trot. “Lean On” combines two of today’s biggest hit makers, Diplo of dancehall project Major Lazer and DJ Snake, with the ear worm vocals of young Danish pop star MØ to make a global dance hit.

Drawback: Repetition. For as much as the song’s repetitive nature makes it instantly catchy, it also makes it get a little old.

Jamie xx – “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)”

Dance Move: The gold digger. Channeling the old soul sample magic that Kanye West mastered in the middle of his career, British master-producer Jamie xx makes an instant party hit that speaks to modern music tastes (with the rap stylings of Young Thug and Popcaan) with the strength of a timeless sample from the Persuasions “Good Times”.

Drawback: A face. Anytime there isn’t a main hook singer or artist for a song, it makes it a little harder for the song to catch fire, and Jamie xx is no forward-facing superstar; just an extremely wily producer and DJ.

The Weeknd – “Can’t Feel My Face”

Dance Move: The moonwalk. Anytime you can channel the King of Pop, you do it. Canada’s Abel Tesfaye, better known as the Weeknd, has always sounded like Michael Jackson stuck in an echo chamber, but “Can’t Feel My Face” finally finds him with the hit worthy of his talent.

Drawback: Is it too much like MJ? Nah.

———————–

Your walk-off winner:

I’ll let summer movie superstar Tom Cruise do the honors:

The Weeknd it is!

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Songs of Summer ’15 Walk-Off

U2 Vs. Thom Yorke: The Surprise Album Shakedown

U2 vs. Thom Yorke: The Surprise Album Shakedown

The last month has brought two high-profile surprise albums in U2’s Songs of Innocence and Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke’s second solo album, Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes. As we all know, there can only be one surprise album champion, so I thought I would go through five rounds of criteria (announcement, distribution, price, reach, and ultimately, the music) to decide who won the September Surprise Shakedown. Two men enter the ring, only one can leave.

Round #1: Announcement

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U2: The Irish lads of U2 have long aimed to be the biggest band in the world (and at times have been), so unsurprisingly they used the most anticipated media event of the fall in Apple’s Summit introducing the iPhone 6 and iWatch, to announce their album. They even came out onstage, performed a couple of the new songs, and had an awkward exchange with Apple CEO Tim Cook. During the presentation, they revealed the album would instantly be in your iTunes upon the announcement, even if it didn’t set up that nicely. It was a big announcement, but a bit botched.

Thom Yorke: On a slow-news Friday, Thom Yorke announced in letter co-authored with long-time Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich that he was experimenting with a new form that would bypass the normal gates of distribution and was experimenting with a way that put the power in the creators’ hands. This was much more low-key, but much more intimate towards fans.

Winner: Thom Yorke

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Round #2: Distribution

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U2: Using the biggest online music store to distribute a free album certainly sounds like a good idea on the surface, but Apple and U2 couldn’t have botched it worse. U2 would have been looked upon honorably if Apple would have just left Songs of Innocence in the iTunes store to be searched for and downloaded. Instead, Apple persisted the music onto every iTunes library and cloud connected Apple device, causing the album to feel more spam than a nice gift on the house.

Thom Yorke: Quite opposite of iTunes, Yorke used BitTorrent, a program notorious for illegally shared and pirated music, for his form of distribution. This definitely has to help his indie cred with such a subversive approach.

Winner: Thom Yorke

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Round #3: Price

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U2: It’s hard to argue with free, but it does seem to take away from the charitable aspect of it when you realize Apple reportedly paid U2 $100 million for the rights to distribute it for free. Regardless of what the band was paid though, free is a clear advantage to the listener.

Thom Yorke: Yorke sold Tomororow’s Modern Boxes for a very reasonable $6, on again a download software notorious for free and illegal music. This is an interesting and no doubt surprising approach.

Winner: U2

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Round #4: Reach

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U2: Through its spammy approach, U2 did reach over half a billion iTunes customers, which is truly mind-blowing. And even though all we are hearing about is the kids who are trying to do whatever they can to remove the stale-old Dad rock from their iPhones, there were clearly tons of people for whom Songs of Innocence was their first experience with U2, they loved it, and wanted more. In fact, 26 of U2 albums (including various greatest hits collections) made the iTunes top #100, which is unprecedented that they owned more than a quarter of the top 100.

Thom Yorke: The biggest downfall of Yorke’s approach is how BitTorrent isn’t owned by half a billion people like iTunes, although there is still close to 150 million users. The average layperson probably doesn’t know what BitTorrent is, but that’s not really who Yorke is targeting his music towards. I would guess that the majority of Yorke’s fans know and use BitTorrent often, so I think he is reaching exactly who he wants to.

Winner: U2

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The Main Event: The Music

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U2: When it comes down to it, you have to believe Apple didn’t listen to Songs of Innocence before offering U2 $100 million because it’s about as mediocre as U2 has been in quite some time. It’s the sound of U2 recycled through modern rock music and then mimicked by U2. Basically U2 replicating U2 Wannabes.  On my favorite podcast of the moment, the hilarious U Talkin’ U2 to Me, Scott Aukerman and Adam Scott actually gushed over the new album for two hours, which shocked me since it was the first truly positive thing I have heard about the album. Regardless of what Scott and Scott think though, beyond Lykke Li’s guest spot on “Troubles”, this is an instantly forgettable album.

Thom Yorke: This is the most definitive winner, as Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes is miles better than Songs of Innocence. It’s tender, dense, and mesmerizing from start to finish. While it falls slightly short of The Eraser (which I love), it instantly deserves to be in end of year consideration.

Winner: Thom Yorke

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Surprise Shakedown Winner: Thom Yorke

Celebration dance.
Celebration dance.

 

U2 Vs. Thom Yorke: The Surprise Album Shakedown

Lamenting a Fallen Artist and Other Thoughts on Robert Randolph: Part 2

rob randolphEditor’s Note:  Check out Part 1 of Austin’s piece here

Between 2004 and 2010 I got to see Robert Randolph gain a lot of notoriety and success.  I got to see him steal the show on the Grammy’s.  Unclassified (2003) and Colorblind (2006) were really solid records for an artist known mostly for his live performances.  But, slowly, starting in maybe 2007 or so, I was subjected to seeing Randolph lose a little bit of flavor just about every time.  I don’t think I was seeing too many shows, maybe twice per year or three tops.  The playing time went from two and a half to three hours to about an hour and a half.  The setlist flatlined at mostly the biggest hits off of his two most popular albums.  And the lineup behind Randolph never seemed to be the same.
Continue reading “Lamenting a Fallen Artist and Other Thoughts on Robert Randolph: Part 2”

Lamenting a Fallen Artist and Other Thoughts on Robert Randolph: Part 2

Lamenting a Fallen Artist and Other Thoughts on Robert Randolph: Part 1

Robert Randolph

Nope, Robert Randolph isn’t dead.  He also didn’t retire or do some horrible thing essentially ending his career.  It’s just been a really long time since Randolph did anything to catch my attention, and believe me, I would really like Robert Randolph to catch my attention again.  So, why am I writing about him right now, you ask?  Randolph has been brought to my consciousness twice in the past several weeks pretty randomly.

First, Wes wrote his Public Service announcement piece on heckles, reminding me of the time I effectively heckled Robert Randolph into a top notch performance (more on that later).  The second was looking at the schedule for the Roots n’ Blues festival, and seeing Randolph lined up against Rosanne Cash, and deciding in my head there is no question I will see Cash if I make it to the festival.  So, Robert Randolph is on my mind.  Hit the jump for a brief history of my love affair, the fall, and how I single-handedly took a RR concert from a 3 to a 10.
Continue reading “Lamenting a Fallen Artist and Other Thoughts on Robert Randolph: Part 1”

Lamenting a Fallen Artist and Other Thoughts on Robert Randolph: Part 1