Happy 2014! Here’s a grab-bag of music, new and old, that I’ve been jamming to lately:
Lake Street Dive
I’ve loved these guys ever since stumbling onto their viral “I Want You Back” and “Faith” videos, and they absolutely have the talent and the original material to back up the growing buzz. My wife and I attended their December concert at the Bell House in Brooklyn, and — with all respect to all the other musical acts we’ve seen in the last year, including the great Elton John and Sara Bareilles — this show blew them away. No light shows or pyrotechnics or mega-decibel speakers; just a sweating SRO crowd, and a three-piece band steeped in jazz and soul and Motown and dripping with talent, and Rachael Price’s glorious golden pipes. Here’s an in-studio performance of one of my favorites — but if you like this in the slightest, you owe it to yourself to see them live onstage, where they burn even brighter:
Smart music that’s very reminiscent of the fiercely intelligent wordplay and spiky melodies of Ani DiFranco. I’m a fan of “Fighting Fish,” which is, to my knowledge, the only rap song that features Zeno’s arrow paradox in the chorus (though, since Dessa is apparently a philosophy major, I probably shouldn’t be surprised). And I love “Skeleton Key,” which, among other things, seems to be a tough-but-melancholy meditation on code-switching and the ability to fit in everywhere (and therefore nowhere):
Over the Rhine
Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist have said that their sad, sweet, and utterly lovely music is “Christ-haunted,” but as an atheist I don’t really care; Over the Rhine’s songs are full of poetry, of regret and longing and hope, of the small sorrows and graces of everyday living that Springsteen mines so well. Their double album Ohio, in particular, has been on repeat in my stereo, and gives off a Cowboy Junkies Trinity Session feel, which is no bad thing at all. You can listen to this album (and others) in its entirety on their website, where you can check out the lyrics as well. Try “Ohio,” “Long Lost Brother,” and “Bothered,” though you really can’t go wrong with any.
Yes, The Sing-Off, the NBC reality show that pits a cappella groups against each other for a chance to win a recording contract and $100,000. Thing is, the competing groups are really, really good. And, surprisingly, so are the judges: Ben Folds, Shawn Stockman of Boyz II Men, Sara Bareilles (last season) and Jewel (this recent season) make smart, constructive comments that are actually useful in helping the contestants hone their craft. The groups also open each show with joint performances and engage in musical “battles” that feel more like collaborations than vicious contests, and the feeling of genuine community and camaraderie between contestants is a real joy to see.
Here’s everyone, kicking off the show with a mashup of songs by the band fun.:
And there are so many other excellent performances to check out. See high school group Vocal Rush blowing the roof off with Delta Rae’s “Bottom of the River,” country group Home Free doing justice to Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” (and having hilarious fun with Filipino boy band The Filharmonic in a sing-off battle featuring the theme from Caddyshack), a multigroup performance of Florence and the Machine’s “Shake It Out,” and much more. (As of this writing, the entire fourth season can be viewed for free on Hulu.)
This five-voice group has only gotten better and better since winning the third season of The Sing-Off. You’ve probably seen the viral video of their visually and musically stunning Daft Punk medley, but here it is again, because it’s awesome:
And check out their chops on their live version of Calvin Harris/Ellie Goulding’s “I Need Your Love.” Even better, their original songs — like the club-ready “Natural Disaster” and the quietly devastating “Run to You” — stand up to any of their much-celebrated covers. I’ve always maintained that the only way modern a cappella groups can break out of their “cover band with a gimmick” niche (as enjoyable as it may be) is to shine as original artists performing original material; Pentatonix seems to be well on its way.
Vocal Rush’s take on Delta Rae (see above) turned me on, belatedly, to this band — whose passionate folk-slash-rock-slash-Americana sound can go dark and twisted, as on “Bottom of the River,” or soaring and hopeful, as on “Morning Comes” — and I’ve been enjoying the sibling harmonies of Ian, Eric, and Brittany Holljes (plus Elizabeth Hopkins) ever since. Here’s Brittany leaving scorch marks on the stage with “Fire”:
Also worth hearing: their smoldering take on Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain.”
A bit out of left field for me, but a feature on WNYC turned me on to Henry Butler and his astonishing piano playing:
Check out his take on Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” as well.
And finally (for now):
The songs from Disney’s Frozen
If you haven’t seen the film, see it. If you love Disney, see it. If you don’t love Disney’s schmaltzy boy-gets-girl, true-love’s-kiss stories, definitely see it, because it is Not That, and it unexpectedly and delightfully passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors.
And the songs are all just so, so good. Veteran Broadway composers Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez skillfully balance cleverness with heart, and Frozen’s musical numbers are real gems: “Do You Want to Build a Snowman” starts cute and then breaks your heart in under three minutes, and “Love is an Open Door” has vocalists Kristen Bell and Santino Fontana doing a fun rapid-fire exchange of lines. But the powerhouse song, of course, is the hugely moving “Let It Go,” which Idina Menzel knocks out of the park:
And the year’s just getting started! If this is a taste of the music 2014 has in store for me, bring it on.