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Tag: class of 2012

SXSW 2012: Thursday

I’m going to attempt to make this Thursday recap of my SXSW adventure as brief as possible. Knowing me though, brief is a relative term. Let’s just see how this goes. Oh, and as a reminder, I’ll have all my photos for you sometime next week when I can properly edit them down.

My first stop of the day was over to Google/YouTube’s parking lot party. They had a stage set up on the roof of a parking garage and all the free drinks you could handle. Best Coast had an early afternoon set, and I wanted to hear some new songs off their forthcoming second album. I came, and the band delivered. Bethany, Bobb and two other guys played about 5-6 new ones, with a smattering of old “classics” in there too. There was “Boyfriend” and “When I’m With You”, but also “Why I Cry” and “How They Want Me to Be”, among others. Overall an excellent set, better than the last time I saw the band which was a couple years ago.

Sticking around and drinking more, I caught Cults next. In the about 7 months since I saw them last, they’ve grown quite a bit. I don’t mean physically, but performance-wise. The more touring they’ve been getting under their belts, the better they seem to get. Everything about their performance was spot on, even though I was standing right across from Brian Oblivion’s guitar amp and my ears were getting blasted. Madeline Follin is more confident behind the microphone as well, which is a big help. They played material off their debut album, and maybe a couple new ones, though I can’t be certain they weren’t obscure b-sides or something.

I could think of no place I’d rather be after Cults than waiting at that same stage again but this time for Frankie Rose. I really like her new album Interstellar, plus it’s been a little while since I saw her last. She was performing with the Outs back then, who were subsequently dropped. She’s now got a core backing band of about 5 other people, and they all do a solid job. But really it’s Rose’s show, and her masterful stage presence helps make the hot outdoor stage just a bit more bearable. She also played it pretty liberal with her song choices, pulling almost equally from her first album and her new one.

What’s sad about the Frankie Rose show and the two before it was how sparsely attended they were. Sure, that meant no lines, no fighting to get to the front of the stage, and more free alcohol for me, but those were 3 great bands I saw in a row that maybe 50 others were also there to witness. Nobody even approached the stage or hung out at the barricade until Frankie Rose started her set. Even then it was myself and 4 others all the way up there. I’m sure all 3 of those bands will have much better crowds for the rest of their SXSW, but for an event put on by Google you’d think more people would come. Or maybe it was too early/people were at the conference listening to Springsteen do his keynote. Whatever the reason, it was nice to see those performances without being packed like sardines into some small club. Which is where I went next.

Chairlift are playing about 3 shows a day every day during SXSW, and because I’m kind of in love with their new album Something, I promised I’d go see them at least once. They were playing at a small club for the Under the Radar party, and of course it was crowded. To the point where it became a “one in, one out” situation and I was stuck in a long line. By the time I got inside, the band had already finished half their set. The half I did catch was all stuff from their new album, so I walked away pretty happy. Caroline Polachek appeared to be having a blast too, which is super hard when you’re playing multiple shows every day. Part of me wants to see them again before SXSW ends to get the full set experience.

After trying and failing a couple times to get into the Hype Hotel (a venue put on by the Hype Machine) due to seriously long lines, I decided that standing in line for Pitchfork’s showcase at Central Presbyterian Church would be my next best option. In case you were not aware, the church holds about 450 people total, and Fiona Apple was set to open the showcase. So many people were in line just to see Fiona. Having seen her the day before (albeit at a much larger venue), I was far more interested in the 4 members of my Class of 2012 that were performing after her.

After 3 excruciating hours of standing in line, I was kindly granted access to the church, arriving at the middle of Charli XCX‘s set. She’s really only got a couple songs to her name right now, but she’s already being tipped as a future star by myself and a few others. Her debut album will be out before the end of the year, and undoubtedly all the songs she performed Thursday night will be on it. Everything sounds fantastic, she’s got great stage presence, and I’m intrigued to hear how the recorded versions of a couple songs sound. All in due time.

Purity Ring were up next, another band without a debut album to their name and only a couple singles floating around the internet. Their marriage of hip hop beats and smooth female vocals naturally brings the duo into the sphere of Sleigh Bells by just a little bit. Like Sleigh Bells, it’s also a whole lot of fun. Purity Ring works harder to make it special too, requesting that all the lights in the venue be turned off so they could play around with multicolored orbs that glow and change colors when struck. As visually arresting as their set was, the music was just as excellent. Singles “Lofticries” and “Belispeak” couldn’t have been more on the money, to the point where most of the other songs seemed a little weaker by comparison. It was fun and danceable, but it’s a little tough to get people’s natural reaction in the middle of a seated pew church. Still, I’d like to think the standing ovation at the end of their set was a realistic response to what we’d just seen.

Next up was Grimes, who was quick to set up and get started. She didn’t want to waste any time, nor should she have. Using plenty of looping and synths, she crafted an incredible avant-pop soundscape that was wholly engaging and rather delightful. There were a couple moments where she messed a thing or two up, and that’s almost expected when you’re doing everything on your own, but it was a very forgiving crowd and she was super goofy about it. Most of what she did involved constructing songs off her latest album Visions, however there were a few experiments in there with vocal harmonies and the like that were sheer beauty. “Oblivion” and “Genesis” both got their turn as well, the latter after she was told there was time for one more song. She then refused to stop, playing another song in spite of the house lights coming up and organizers pulling their hair out. It was over after another couple minutes though, and she was treated with another standing ovation.

Much of the crowd cleared out after Grimes, only to make way for Nicolas Jaar, who was set to compose an original set based on the church setting. I expected it to be just a little boring and quiet, because the guy isn’t necessarily big on dance-worthy beats. Yet he still managed to piece together an excellent long-form piece that was introspective and beautiful while also upbeat and fun. That’s no easy feat, and he had a couple friends on hand to provide some live instrumentation along with his laptop-composed elements. I was a little angry at all the people taking flash photos during the set, because that’s long been a rude thing to do. Of course Jaar and his band were playing in near total darkness, and if you wanted a halfway decent picture flash was needed. I took no photos for the exact reason of it being too dark and I didn’t want to use the flash. Some people will do anything for a photo, and it looked like a lightning storm or paparazzi attack for at least the first 15 minutes before tapering off somewhat. The music was amazing though, transcendent would be the word I’d best use to describe it. Go see Nicolas Jaar if you have the chance. The guy’s crazy talented.

Finally, to cap off my night I wanted a little rock and roll. After being kicked to the curb at the PureVolume House because I hadn’t picked up my venue-specific badge earlier in the day/week, I dashed over to catch Cloud Nothings performing on a rooftop. It was an extremely packed space, but even on the very busy 6th Street you could hear the band’s set quite clearly. No doubt many enjoyed their music without actually seeing any of it performed. But up on the roof people were jumping and throwing their fists into the air, like any good punk show should have going for it. Oh, and head banging. Plenty of that too. From what I heard of their set, which was about the back half of it, they played almost entirely material from their latest album Attack on Memory. It’s a great record, one of my favorites of 2012 so far, so I was having a blast. I was also super tired having been on my feet all day, but it was so much fun. A great capper to my night before heading back to the hotel to rest up for Day 3 of this madness. To think we’re only halfway there!

Album Review: Lana Del Rey – Born to Die [Interscope]

Lana Del Rey is a magnet. People are drawn to her, and to her music, and everyone that hears her or knows about her has an opinion. Four or five months ago, you probably heard far kinder things being said about her compared to today, where the inevitable backlash has reared its ugly head and nearly swallowed her whole. All this before her major label debut album Born to Die even sees release. To be fair, the build up and press surrounding Del Rey has been huge – she is signed to a major label and the sky high hopes of executives are that she’ll eventually join the ranks of a Lady Gaga or a Beyonce in the realm of pop superstardom. That’s a very real possibility no matter how much crap she puts out there, so long as it sells. This is coming from the same world in which Ke$ha has a lucrative career despite being one of the more reviled pop stars in recent memory. But what is it about Del Rey that has drawn such ire from people? There’s a laundry list of things, so let’s try and break it down.

Lana Del Rey’s real name is Lizzy Grant. She had a privileged upbringing in New York that eventually resulted in a trip to boarding school and a stint at Fordham University. She dropped out of school to pursue a music career, and built a relatively respectable reputation as a Nancy Sinatra-esque, classically inspired crooner. Doors were opened for her, but not exactly the right ones or the ones she was looking for. As such, she invented her own persona and drastically changed her look to go along with it. Gone was the plain Jane Lizzy Grant, and in her place was the glamorous, full-lipped Lana Del Rey. Under the new name and style she quickly flourished, and though her 2010 debut A.K.A. Lizzy Grant went largely unnoticed, last summer she released the single song “Video Games” and the internet grabbed hold of it with a fierce intensity. It was a matter of months before Interscope Records came calling on the wings of yet another new and excellent song, “Blue Jeans”. It seemed that Grant was getting everything she wanted via the transition into Lana Del Rey. But was it too much success, too soon?

Early Del Rey detractors started by citing her fake persona. She couldn’t make it with her real name and real style, so she had to invent a character instead? How disingenuous of her! Not only that, but her character of Lana Del Rey is this pretty, platinum blonde with pinup style that appears to sell her sex. Listen to the lyrics of “Video Games” and “Blue Jeans” as well and you’ll notice she’s singing about needing a big, strong man to keep her safe and warm, and how she’ll stick with him and essentially live to serve him while he goes off and plays video games. She’s playing up antiquated notions of women, that they’re supposed to slave in the kitchen all day, stay home with the kids, and generally accept whatever their husbands want. It’s a far cry from today’s women, fiercely independent and proving they’re equal with men on every level, even as the pay scales still don’t entirely reflect that. So yes, the controversy surrounding Del Rey is understandable. Many have undoubtedly been rooting for her to fail, and their wish is swiftly being Grant-ed. A few weeks ago she turned in a disastrous performance on Saturday Night Live, one that sent the internet abuzz yet again, this time with far more jeers than cheers. As NBC News anchor Brian Williams said, it was foolish of the show to put Del Rey on when her album hadn’t been released and her only notable accomplishments were having two songs popular with the online community. Very few people have gotten so far by doing so little. We’ve finally reached the apex though, the moment that will truly make or break Lana Del Rey – the release of her much-anticipated album Born to Die.

From start to finish, Born to Die feels like a statement. It seeks, as a whole, to try and be the official definition of what and who Lana Del Rey is. The two tracks that made her a rising star, “Video Games” and “Blue Jeans” both show up early on in the record, and right next to one another. They are but the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the grandiosity and melodrama in place here, yet they also provide ample evidence that perhaps she doesn’t have much going for her otherwise. The opening title track signals its arrival with a rush of orchestration and sweeping majesty, quickly paired with a very basic electronic beat that holds steady for the duration. From the very start Del Rey is in a sad emotional state, wandering the streets in her heels, hoping that when she arrives at her man’s house he’ll open the gate and let her in. That theme of neediness and essentially pleading for acceptance extends through much of the album and is also a mirror to real life, in which the pop singer tries everything she can to ingratiate herself to a less than adoring public. Things change in a remarkably interesting way on “Off to the Races”, wherein Del Rey seems to want some street cred. She tells of how her “old man” is an evil gangster, involved in everything from drugs and maybe even murder, but she doesn’t care about that because he holds her hand and loves her with every beat of his “cocaine heart”. He sips Cristal while she swims around topless in the pool for his enjoyment. But she also says that she’s crazy and demands money and gold so she can go to the races and spend money all over town. The coup de gras in all this comes in a few lines in the chorus in which she says, “I need you to come here and save me/I’m your little scarlet starlet singing in the garden/kiss me on my open mouth”. Sure, it’s bad enough just to read it, but the WAY she sings it, in the most innocent, high-pitched baby voice a la Betty Boop, feels like an affront to women everywhere. Yet thinking about it from a different perspective, perhaps it’s just the opposite. A ruthless and tough girlfriend of a gangster one minute and an innocent young girl in need of saving the next, it appears she’s playing the latter role with her man to obtain money and access. Again, we’re dealing with parallels to real life.

Lizzy Grant is playing the role of Lana Del Rey. She must know the stereotypes she’s portraying and is either comfortable with lowering herself to obtain success, or is doing it to be ironic. In a perfect world it’d be the latter, but at the moment it appears to be the former, or at most a little from column A and column B. If she gave a little wink or even a smirk now and then, it’d be easier to say she was faking it to get people talking about gender issues and to work that much harder to change how success is obtained. Instead, everything about her, from her videos to her interviews to her live performances and the songs on Born to Die, smacks of overwrought sincerity. Yet it’s difficult to think a person would purposely sell their entire gender short just to earn money and popularity. Maybe Lizzy Grant really does have more in common with Lana Del Rey than one would reasonably think. Maybe she’s not a good person in the least. Or maybe she simply needs an outlet through which she can channel a life and emotional state built upon sadness, allowing the character to live and work through the situations she herself has trouble dealing with. What we’re searching for is clarity. Something to help us truly understand how Lana Del Rey came to be, and where she might go in the future. The record doesn’t provide any answers, or at least appears not to. What you get instead are a mixture of heavy ballads and tracks that take closer cues from hip hop and R&B, each one like the layer of an onion peeling back to try and explain or re-explain this persona Lizzy Grant has created.

After a moderately strong first 5 tracks, which include the aforementioned singles and most likely future singles “Diet Mountain Dew” and “Off to the Races”, Born to Die slowly descends into bland and boring ballads that are overlong and similarly styled to what came before them. They reiterate many of the same lyrical points as well, only with less emotion and less compelling melodies. The second half of the record is a chore to listen to in many ways, and the 3 bonus tracks on the deluxe edition only make it worse. Somehow 60 minutes with this thing feels nearly twice as long. Perhaps it’s the lack of briskly paced, faster tempo pop songs that are the main source of the drag. In an alternate universe somewhere there’s a 10 track, 35 minute version of Born to Die that is nearly perfect. The reality is we don’t need songs like “Dark Paradise” or “Million Dollar Man” as they feel more like padding than legitimate attempts to write smart or engaging songs. That’s a talent we know Del Rey has, because in spite of all the bitching, “Video Games” still completely devastates with every listen. It’s the high watermark she will continue to try and return to for the rest of her career, however long it may last. And though almost all of Born to Die doesn’t live up to the stratospheric expectations that were established for it by months of hype, you have to admire the risks it takes to even make a record like this. For a major label release of course there’s a couple of blatantly commercial elements to it, but between the dominance of 50’s-style melodramatic ballads and the brazen commitment to a purely fictional character, it’s got more of a story to tell and is more sonically adventurous than a whole lot of other big name artists. At least Lizzy Grant is trying something unorthodox, whether it’s for the right reasons or the wrong ones. Will it all work out for her in the end, or will she end up like one of her lesser songs – sad, pathetic and antiquated? That’s for you and your wallet to decide.

Lana Del Rey – Born To Die

Lana Del Rey – Blue Jeans

Lana Del Rey – Video Games

Preorder Born to Die from Amazon

Class of 2012: 10 Artists to Watch This Year

Welcome to 2012! I hope you all had a great New Year’s. For my Chinese readers, we’ll celebrate next month. I’m very pleased to kick off this fresh new year in a similar fashion to how we ended 2011: with a list. Typically I leave all the listmaking for December and Listmas, but in this particular case I wanted to set a few objectives for 2012 and stick by them. That is to say, I want to step out on a proverbial limb and predict what will be hot this upcoming year. So I have created what I’m calling the Class of 2012: 10 Artists to Watch This Year. These are artists that, if you haven’t heard of them yet, hopefully you’ll know much more about them by the end of the year. I’m expecting big things from all these artists, though to be clear “big” can be defined a few different ways in this case. A couple of them will sign minor league record deals and make a small splash on the indie circuit, going from completely unknown to only relatively unknown. Others will become enraptured in the hype cycle and achieve much critical acclaim and potentially indie stardom. And even a few might just break out huge, turning into the next music superstars. The grand hope is that all these artists will obtain some serious forward momentum and reach your radar screens sooner rather than later. My plan is to provide periodic updates on all 10 of these artists, keeping a close eye on where they’re at and what they’re doing, in addition to the site’s more typical cycle of album reviews and mp3 giveaways. Stick with me as we learn more about the Class of 2012 so we can say we discovered them together. Let’s start with some introductions, so click past the jump to learn more about these wonderful ladies and gentlemen and hear some music by each one of them as well.

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